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I hope all my readers have been enjoying the story so far! If there’s any error, or something that might help, or an idea that you think should make it into this tale, please tell me! Bear in mind, all suggestions may not be acted on, but I’ll try my best. 😉

Bound to the Flame

Chapter I

Part III

                The sky had been clear when he had set out. There had been no warning prickle in his wrists to tell him that the weather would turn foul, no warning that the sky would cloud over.

                The sky was kind enough to wait until he was well into the forested mountain fastnesses to turn dull and cloudy. After that, it had been not long before it had begun to rain, a soaking, lifeless, lightless downpour. It was not one of the storms that Rowan would be gladly out in; it was not a laughing downpour of brilliant life, but a sickening, cold one. There was something dark impinging on the edges of his awareness, something that made him wary. He began to make his way back toward the castle.

                The downpour continued. Rowan wrung out his sodden cloak as well as he could without taking it off and continued to ride on, even harder. There was a sudden flash and a simultaneous crack of thunder; the horse shied. “Quiet!” Rowan whispered. “Be calm.” The horse paid no attention and bolted. Rowan pulled back on the reins, but the maddened creature was beyond paying attention to him. It leaped away madly, screaming in terror.

                Suddenly, Rowan found himself crying out with the horse. A streak of something beyond darkness, horror beyond what the eye could grasp, something blacker than midnight, more fearsome than a living nightmare, unreal and yet horribly there, terribly present, dead and yet undead, caught in somewhere between the past and future, a horror that was trapped and tormented for all eternity that had somehow escaped the void, stalked the shadows beyond vision. The horse shied and bucked as it galloped, in a blind panic; Rowan held tight with desperate strength. He knew they could not outrun the Thing, but he had little choice but to cling on and keep his seat. A deeper threat had entered the storm. Rowan’s sixth sense screamed a hot lance through his mind; a second creature had joined the first. Now, a third, a fourth… The horse reared, throwing him; the beast lost its footing and crashed down on top of him. Rowan screamed in agony. The nightmares closed in for the kill, their negative energy redolent of lust, the thirst for blood. Instinctively and almost without conscious cognizance, Rowan lashed out. A wave of whiteness—his own power—shot outward, obliterating the shadows; the horse’s dead weight somehow lifted off his leg; everything within a thirty-foot radius was flung outward, a bastion against the forces of evil. Then, there was a deep, deep stillness, and a pervasive soft light.

 

                For a long time, his mind wandered aimlessly along forbidden pathways that no other living person had ever trodden before, or ever would again. It took what felt like ages to come to himself again; he felt strange, giddy, weightless. He couldn’t feel any pain. The whiteness surrounding his field of vision narrowed and contracted, drawing away from his eyes, rolling away to reveal the deep, still green of a forest glen. The whiteness drew itself away into a single, beckoning point. Rowan moved instinctively toward it, but fell back again with a hoarse scream of agony. The white flame remained, hovering in a single spot, calling to him. It flickered and danced, fixed around one point, but it did not go out. Its center was mesmerizing, blinding. He thought that he could see a shape in that center, like a slender girl holding a candle, the soul of the Holy Innocent that had returned to guide the faithful.

                The will o’ the wisps lead the unwary astray, his mother’s voice echoed in his mind. But they lead those who are willing to fight for what they believe in to their true fate.

                Gritting his teeth together, Rowan forced himself to roll over. He dragged himself toward the will o’ the wisp, focusing only on the tiny maiden’s beautiful, sweet face. He lost track of time as somehow, he managed to crawl for some distance; it went on for what seemed like only minutes, but could have been hours.

                The last wisp suddenly vanished, as he was just an inch or two away from it, and Rowan collapsed on the loamy forest floor. Flesh and blood could do no more; he was completely and utterly spent. But as he fell, he looked sharply up.

                There were torches alight in the woods beyond him.

Rowan sighed as he came out of his reverie and went back to watching his adoptive brothers, Fortaine and Julian, as they practiced with bows and arrows. He sat in a chair, an embroidered rug covering his lap, watching as the two knights shot at the butts. Fortaine carefully aimed one arrow, then let fly. It landed in the green circle, the third from the center. He sighed. “I have not the gift for this sort of game,” he said ruefully. Almost without looking, Julian fired off an arrow. It struck the bull’s eye. The younger of the two knights laughed exultantly.

“Ha!” he said. “Outscore that if you can, brother mine.”

“That was a lucky shot!” Rowan shouted from the sidelines. Julian turned slowly toward the young man, grinning mischievously.

“You’re just jealous,” he teased. Rowan smiled back blandly.

“No, I’m not.” Julian shrugged.

“Have it your way, then.” He tossed a bow to his younger brother, who pulled himself to his feet and limped to his brothers’ side. “An archery competition,” Julian suggested. “One on one, until one of us misses the red circle.” Rowan grinned eagerly, bright teeth flashing in the morning sun.

“Agreed.”

“May the best man win,” Julian grinned.

“Are you including me in that definition, or boasting about your own skills, Julian?” Rowan asked jokingly, not expecting an answer, as he nocked the first arrow to the string and aimed it. He drew in a slow breath, then released it and the arrow at the same time. It thunked satisfactorily into the target, well within the red, just a fraction to the left of the bull’s eye.

“You’re still pulling a tad to the left, little brother,” Julian called over from his target as he loosed his own first shot. It, too, landed within the red. Taking turns, the knight and the prince fired arrow after arrow. Neither one had missed the center circle yet. Fortaine coughed, discreetly.

“If you two can put aside your little sibling rivalry for a while,” he said, “then we’d better declare a tie and head inside. It’s almost time for tea.”

“Aw, Fortaine,” Julian said in a convincing (mock) whine, “unresolved contests only feed the rivalry!”

“As do completed ones,” Fortaine rumbled. He sighed. “Very well. Cary on with your little bit of folly. Just remember, we don’t have all day!” Rowan smiled mischievously.

“I propose a tie-breaker,” he said. “I say that we move back another thirty paces and then carry on.” Julian stared.

“Are you sure that you’ll be able to continue, at that range?” he asked, disbelievingly. Rowan nodded. Julian signaled to the attendants, who began to remove the arrows from the targets, as they moved slowly back, to allow Rowan to stay with them. “All right, then,” Julian said, sounding unsure.

The men-at-arms who were on duty to help them train finished with their task and ran back, returning the arrows to their owners. Rowan took a deep breath, and nodded. “At will.”

Up until now, the brothers had been taking turns; now, they fired as quickly as might be. It soon became evident who was quicker to fire; Rowan was able to get off seven shots to Julian’s five. Fortaine suddenly shouted out. “A miss!” he cried. “Julian.” Rowan squinted downfield at the target.

“No,” he said, “it’s on the edge of the circle, but not off it. Again!” They continued their archery until Julian cried out in disgust.

“I missed the red,” he growled. Rowan lowered the bow, letting the string slack off.

“Oh… I’m sorry,” he murmured. Julian smiled, ruefully.

“You’re just the better archer,” he said.

“Only because… I’ve had so much more practice.” Rowan said sadly, edging over onto his good leg. Fortaine looked at him in concern.

“Rowan? Are you all right?” The boy bit his lip.

“I overdid it,” he said. Fortaine swept him up off the ground.

“You should be resting,” he chided. Rowan sighed. “You keep on over-reaching your limits,” Fortaine continued. “Pushing the boundaries. Rowan, I know you’re a restless spirit, but you need to learn patience. We don’t want you to have another breakdown.” A helpless, angry tear trickled down over Rowan’s cheek.

“I hate my life!” he burst out, then closed his mouth firmly against the rest of the angry words. Fortaine could feel the shame and contained fury rolling off his younger brother, and sighed.

“I know, Rowan. I know.”

Princess Margaret Dun Fayr of Arethwyne rose early that morning. Slipping out before anyone else was up, she went down to the stable and readied her horse Celad’s saddle. She grinned as she thought mischievously of her mother’s face when the Queen discovered that she had gone. Marena and her daughter had formed a standing agreement; Margery would inform her of any posthumous antics and include her in at least half of her adventures.

Margery rode for the borders, joyfully, enjoying the feeling of speed; then, a thought struck her. The quiver at her side was nearly empty; Marena insisted that, if she was to continue in her pursuit of martial disciplines, she would have to maintain and upkeep her own equipment herself. Margery rode along the trails, found one target, loosened the arrows from it, moved on, removing the arrows from other targets; the knot in a tree; a popinjay… When she had finished, she found that her quiver was full. She took off for the borders again, reveling in her freedom.

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