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I told you it wouldn’t take so long this time! And look, just for you: a longer chapter clip! 🙂 Enjoy!

Bound to the Flame

Chapter V

Part I

                The silence was ominous, thunderous. Rowan rode ahead of her, eyes straight forward, dark and brooding. The air seemed oppressive, heavy.

“Rowan?” Margery asked, after a long silence, in a small voice. “Are you angry at me for being determined to come with you?” Instantly, she saw the boy’s lean back straighten, as if he had suddenly become aware of her presence.

“No,” he said. “No, I’m not angry. Anger would be entirely unproductive. I was irritated that you wished to come, though there was no good reason for you to do so, except for the bonds of friendship, and so many reasons why you should not come along. If you—if both of us—are not cautious, we could cause what is generally euphemistically termed a ‘diplomatic incident.’ Still…” Rowan paused. “I am grateful for your aid, and company.” He smiled, somewhat cautious, a little shy, at her, sealing the pact. Margery smiled in return, relieved.

“But my going with you should be taken as a sign of our goodwill toward your kingdom,” she said, pursuing the conversation.

“It all depends on how our parents take it,” Rowan replied. “They might see it that way—they might see it as an impropriety.” Margery was silent. It was clear that Rowan was in the habit of thinking things through far more thoroughly than she was in the habit of doing. Rowan continued pensively, though not to Margery; he was thinking out loud, she realized. “Julian was taken, not me. That makes precious little sense. Why? My position was unpredictable and they could not find me anywhere? Troubling. The intimate familiarity with our plans and schedule that this theory suggests hints at a traitor. Why even be in the Ertraian camp at all? Were they trying to start a war with us? Was it meant to provoke… or was it… was it a threat? More frightening still, was it a warning? Or is it merely a ploy, to distract us from the real threat?”

“If it’s the last one,” Margery ventured, “then we may have made a mistake, rushing off like this.”

“My mother will not view it that way,” Rowan asserted. “Julian is her son by bond if not by blood, and besides, we never leave our own unaided in Ertraia. We take care of our own clans.” Margery nodded.

“That’s what my mother always says, too,” she said. “I guess we have more in common than some people would like us to believe. But… you know… it always made me feel a little strange. What about people who you don’t know—who you’ve never even met in your life before—who are your kin as well? What if you had to choose between a family member you didn’t know, and a friend who you’d known your whole life but wasn’t of the same blood? What then?” Rowan shook his head, slowly.

“I don’t know,” he said gravely. “The heart is a fickle servant. It can lead you truly, or it can lead you astray. You would have to weigh both options carefully and then choose—not that it would make the choice any the easier.” He sighed. “I feel a little strange, too, when I meet someone whom I’m apparently related to but have never seen in my life before. It’s a queer, hollow sort of feeling. For much of my life, I’ve been kept in seclusion, to keep me safe. I don’t know how many people outside the ones I knew in the castle. Even the castle itself was very remote… I grew up in a stronghold in the mountains, far from the palace in the capital city of the nation.” Rowan took a deep breath, fidgeting with the collar of his cloak. “In fact, other than someone who visited when I was still very young, I think you’re the first person I’ve known who was close to my own age.” Suddenly falling silent, Rowan stilled.

“What is it?” Margery asked.

“I’m not sure.” Rowan replied quietly. He lifted his staff from where it had been lying across his knees and slid it into one of the saddlebags. He stood up slightly in the stirrups, looking carefully about him at the clearing they stood in. The black horse moved uncertainly. “Quiet, Obsidian. Steady,” Rowan murmured, casting about in search of something. He slowly slid from the horse. As he dismounted, he passed the reins to Margery, scanning the ground carefully. He limped awkwardly across the clearing, searching the grass, the standing plants, the tall flowers, the bushes, the trunks of the trees. He gave a soft, slow, satisfied sigh at last, then lay down on the ground, full length, with one ear pressed to the forest floor. “It’s as I thought,” he said, rising slowly and painfully, though not without a satisfied, justified expression. “They passed this way, sure enough. The birds and the beasts are still discussing it, in their own language, and the trees still shudder in fear and pain. I can not hear any murmur of their feet, no matter how distant, but the other signs do not lie. We’re on the right track; this is no false trail.” With Margery holding Obsidian’s head for him, Rowan mounted, then they set off once more.

They rode in silence for a while, then Rowan said, “We—or rather I—won’t be able to use magic on this quest, from now on, for safety’s sake. We don’t want the men we are pursuing to catch us as well, or notice us passing through. Indeed, I hope that our presence will go undetected. Magic is far too visible and obvious, and its active use can be sensed from miles away.” Margery grinned, guiding her mount gently around a broken stump that protruded from the ground in the center of her path.

“So we’ll be doing things the old-fashioned way, then.” she said.

“Your way.” Rowan smiled, amused. “Right.” They lapsed back into grim silence.

“What will we do when we catch up to your brother’s kidnappers?” Margery asked, after a pause. Rowan glanced momentarily up at the lowering sky overhead, jarred out of his own private thoughts.

“I don’t know,” he said solemnly, stubbornly. Margery looked at him, hoping that he was joking, and was jarred out of her complacency by his stern expression.

“You don’t have a plan?” she squeaked, then bet her tongue. Rowan gave her a candid glance.

“It sometimes helps if you don’t plan too far ahead,” he said. “At the moment there are at least two hundred possible scenarios, of which about sixty or so seem a little more likely than the others. There are thirteen which seem very likely, but I can’t tell until we’re there. I have some idea of what I’d do in any given event, but I am not sure yet which event will come to pass.”

“You’re keeping all those possible contingency plans in your head? How can you ever keep them straight?” Margery said in awe. Rowan barely glanced at her.

“I have a good memory,” he said, his voice flat. It was impossible to tell if he was joking or not. Margery frowned.

“There’s something I’ve been meaning to ask you, Rowan. What is it like, being able to use magic? Rowan paused, silent, for a while, before answering.

“In a sense, you know already,” he said. Margery stared at him, puzzled. Rowan sighed. “Everyone is interconnected. That’s the main feeling, one of unity. It’s not just like feeling at one with nature—it’s also feeling nature, together with the world around you, being able to feel other living creatures—every living creature tends to draw in loose magic. Every person has some magical potential, but not everyone is aware of it, or has the patience to develop it. It takes dedication, patience and willpower. The weak-willed don’t last long in magic lessons, ever. It tends to unearth hidden flaws and cause tension along latent fault lines, and a master who could be so callous as to ignore his student’s distress and allow him or her to continue in the practices that were troubling him or her would be a pretty poor master indeed. On the other hand, Margery… you happen to have a slight magical aptitude yourself. I don’t know if you could ever be a Wielder, but you probably have an innate ability to sense and diffuse and even evade magic, on a very instinctive level.” Margery stared blankly at him. Rowan sighed. “It’s complicated,” he explained. “Very much so. I thought you should know,” he said defensively. “It’s how you got past the border wards—on a subconscious level, you felt the wards and bent them around you, willing yourself through. It’s very clever, come to think of it. Those wards are designed not to break under any circumstances, but they can be temporarily lifted in places to allow people in and out—and apparently, they can also be bent around a person in order to slip past them undetected. We thought our greatest danger was when we lifted the wards—but now, it seems that the greatest danger is that those wards are permeable, if one moves gently enough… Perhaps that is how the spy got into Ertraia?” Rowan paused. “I wish we had some way of getting a message back to my mother, but since we can’t use magic without the risk of detection, I can think of no practicable way.”

“So, familiars are just legend as well?” Margery said.

“Precisely. It is possible to magically bond with an animal, but it should not be done, and rarely does it make sense to spend so much time with one creature as the word ‘familiar’ would suggest.” Rowan took a deep breath.

“There may be no traitor in Ertraia, after all,” Margery said, anticipating him—or rather, stumbling along in his wake, catching his drift only with some difficulty and almost inordinate pride.

“Indeed, but I’m afraid that we can’t dismiss the possibility so lightly, unpleasant as it may be.” Rowan fell silent, pensively, and Margery did not break the silence. She sat in mingled wonder, awe, amazement, and fear. She could not help but feel somewhat overawed. Rowan’s mind seemed to work on a very different plane from hers, a more complex and sophisticated one; it was humbling to admit it, but true nonetheless. He was very intelligent and had made good use of his studies, which embarrassed and shamed her by comparison. She could not help but feel inferior next to him. Then again, the way he had trained his mind was very different from the way hers had been trained. Margery sighed inwardly. Single-minded, focused, ordered; that was Rowan. Scatterbrained; that was her.

“That’s almost insulting,” Rowan commented. Margery blushed. She swallowed, furious with herself. Had she been thinking aloud?

“No,” Rowan replied, “but it’s pretty obvious what you were thinking. Your train of thought is very clear. I have a bad habit of addressing people’s thoughts rather than their words, and some people find it… disconcerting.”

“You can read my mind?”

“No, but it’s hardly my fault if you don’t keep your thoughts to yourself, isn’t it?” Rowan retorted. Almost against her own will, Margery giggled. Rowan stared. “You are a very strange person,” he said. Margery nearly fell off of Celad, she was laughing so hard.

“I’m not strange!” she protested. “You’ve just never met a girl your own age before, haven’t you?” Rowan shrugged. Margery grinned. “I knew it!” she proclaimed.

“So, basically, you’re saying that all teenaged girls are strange?” Rowan asked, confused. Margery burst out laughing again.

“No!” she exclaimed. “I’m just saying that we must seem strange to someone like you, at first. Oh, and that not everyone is as sensible and logical as you—thank goodness,” she added as an afterthought, for good measure. Rowan promptly relegated it to the intricacies of an outside world he would never quite understand and dismissed it from his mind. He paused, and Obsidian stirred beneath him, stamping one hoof in impatience. Rowan reached down and patted the destrier’s neck, reassuringly. Obsidian pawed the ground, scratching a furrow in the damp forest loam, but stood still. Rowan glanced around, as if to ensure that they were headed in the correct direction, then nodded and urged Obsidian forward.

“I wonder if my father and mother are all right, where they are, if they’re still in council, what they are doing, if they even know yet that Julian has been kidnapped. It seems as if we’ve been continuing on like this forever.” he said thoughtfully. “I hope they’re not looking for me, that they didn’t waste their time in sending out search parties.” Margery snorted.

“I know my parents won’t,” she said. “They’re used to me vanishing for odd intervals, even for days at a time, sometimes. They generally don’t worry about me—they know I’m off adventuring and will be back, perfectly well and in good spirits sooner or later, with lots of new yarns to spin.” Rowan listened, his face hard to read, though not unpleasant, or undisposed to listen, and certainly not disapproving or antagonistic.

“It sounds like a pleasant arrangement,” he said, neutrally. Margery hesitated.

“I mean, it’s pretty obvious you’ve never been away from your family before,” she said, cocking her head on one side. Rowan shook his head.

“No, I actually have. Before I was injured, I used to ride far and wide, exploring, in between my studies. Mother was comfortable with it, as long as I told her before I left and came back to her straightaway after I had traveled to my heart’s content. I used to ride out with Father and the Rangers, or the Knights; I knew Ertraia like the back of my hand. It is true that I have lived in seclusion for much of my life, but I was never confined to the castle. Just because I have never been outside Ertraia before doesn’t mean I have had no experience with adventures. However, Margery, this is not an adventure. This is deadly serious. It’s a rescue attempt. My brother’s life may be at stake. There is no room here for error, or foolish heroics, on either of our parts.” He gave her a long, even look. Margery nodded, seriously.

“I understand. I’ve read enough about history and military operations to know that much.” she scoffed. Rowan grinned.

“Indeed. I’ve never really understood why such a vein of knowledge could be frowned on as part of a princess’ studies, or for that matter, why it should be frowned on for a prince to work in a garden, or to know how to mend his own clothes, if need be. I couldn’t quite follow why it sent the housekeeper into hysterics when I cleaned my own room. I like my room the way it is. She had a different idea of cleanliness entirely.” Rowan snorted. “She never could make up her mind where things should go. I swear they wound up in different places every time, and certainly never where I wanted them.” Margery giggled.

“I think all housekeepers everywhere must be related, somehow,” she joked. “They all seem to tidy up in a way that only leads to a bigger muddle!”

“Perhaps it’s their way of ensuring they stay in work?” Rowan mused, dryly. Margery burst out laughing.

“That has to be it. Either that, or none of them has any sense.” she laughed. Rowan laughed softly, a pleasant sound that did not seem at all out of place among the woods.

“I wouldn’t be surprised,” he said, then noticed that Margery was staring at him. “What is it? What’s wrong?”

“Nothing. It’s just that, well, I think that has to be the first time I’ve heard you laugh… I mean really laugh.” Rowan frowned.

“I must have laughed before, at some point,” he said. Margery shook her head.

“No, I don’t think you did,” she replied. Rowan was silent for a while.

“Am I really that serious?” he asked at last. Margery sighed.

“I think you are,” she said. “That, and you have a very wry way of delivering your humor.”

Sorry, this feels a bit like a filler chapter. But it’s kind of necessary. You’ll find out why sooner or later. ;-P

Thanks for reading, and God Bless!