I stared at the piece of paper Rowan had shoved at me a few moments before. The lines and groupings of squiggles on it drifted past my eyes, evading meaning.
“What?” I asked, confused as to why he wanted me to look at it.
“Read it,” he ordered, looking as if it was obvious.
My heart sank as I finally realized his intentions for giving it to me. “I can’t,” I said with finality, hoping that it would be the end of the issue. I would not be ashamed.
“Why not?” Rowan inquired with genuine surprise. My heart lifted. So he wasn’t trying to embarrass me with my lack of schooling.
“I can’t read,” I replied coldly, hoping to avoid any jibes at my lack of education.
“Oh,” he looked taken aback, “They didn’t teach you how in the Slavery?”
“Of course not!” I snapped, “Slaves aren’t given an education!”
“You’re right. They aren’t,” Rowan agreed, “But you’re not a slave anymore; therefore, you should learn. But, you can read the map… how did you know where we were this morning?”
I shrugged. “There were slaves who had become slaves later in their lives in my squadron. They had learned how to read and when we managed to steal a map from the Slavers they taught us the signs for the cities and towns. That’s how I knew, plus, the Trace gives me all the information on the map automatically, including where we are.”
He nodded, “That’s sort of like how we learned. But, back to you, I need you to know what this says so you can relay it back to Rory. Ask her if she wrote it. I’ll read it to you and you transfer it to Rory. Set up a connection with me and then with Rory.” He called Carla and Reynold to take our reins.
I nodded and cleared my mind, first concentrating on Rowan and then on Rory. Slowly my awareness of our surroundings faded until all I could sense was Rory and Rowan. < Are we all in the link? > I asked.
< Yes, > came answers from the two of them. Rory’s thought was caustic and angry.
< What’s wrong?! > Rory asked snappishly. I probed lightly into her mind and got the impression that her irritation stemmed from being interrupted doing something important. Sensing my intrusion, Rory blocked out all of her thoughts except the ones she wanted to share with the two of us.
< I’m not really sure, > I replied with a twinge of annoyance, < I think Rowan wanted to talk to you. >
Rowan interrupted my annoyed speech. < So? > he said.
< So what? > Rory replied. She was impatient. < I don’t know why you want to talk to me – and clearly Luke doesn’t either – therefore you are the only one who knows the reason for this unplanned conference. And make it snappy - I’m busy right now. >
< You sent a put a letter in your file in the Scriptorium telling how we escaped. >
< Oh, you found that did you, > her reply was bright, but I could hear the strain beneath it.
< Rory, do I need to read it to you to help you remember? > Rowan asked seriously.
< No, > her voice was soft, < I remember what it says. >
< Why? > The question was a plea for more information, a question asking why she had never told him, never consulted him about it.
< Rowan, please, > she entreated, < It was days after Jake had been banished and the Trustees forced me to abdicate. I was confused and upset and I wanted… revenge. I wanted to show them how powerful I was, what I knew. >
< But it could have put us all in danger if they’d caught you! >
She laughed bitterly. < Oh yes. First Cathy, and now you. Rowan, I never claimed to be perfect. Never. I’ve made more than my fair share of mistakes and so have you. You can’t say anything to make me regret what I’ve done any more than I already do. >
Her words were like a slap and I felt Rowan recoil from the fold. Struggling I managed to keep him from slipping out of the conversation. < Where are you? > I asked abruptly, trying to change the uncomfortable subject we were focussed on.
< Somewhere safe, > was the somewhat frosty response, < You should know. >
< Sorry. Let me rephrase. Who are you with? > I reworded the question hastily, < I know you’re not in Jake’s camp anymore and that you’re in the company of people sympathetic to our cause but I don’t know who… and I’m curious. >
< Of course, > her thought was twisted, sneered, accusing. < You’re just checking up on me like everyone else. >
< No, > I made my thought soft, sincere, trying to convey my concern for her safety, < I know you can take care of yourself; I just want to make sure you’re okay. > And that the people you are with are trustworthy, I added silently.
Her next thought was tentative and careful. < I’m with the Nymphs. > I didn’t understand. The name had a ring of power and authority but I didn’t understand why.
< Nymphs? > I appealed, asking for more information. I pressed Rowan silently for information as well but all I felt from him was confusion.
< One of the High Races. >
< Nymphs?! > Rowan’s thought cuts through the conversation, < Rory, they’re real? >
A pause. < Yes. But you mustn’t tell anyone else. I’ll tell you more when you reach me. > She paused uncomfortably and changed the subject. It was obvious she didn’t want to talk about what had happened to her < What are you doing? You were heading toward me until a couple days ago but then you veered off course. You’re still headed in the same general direction, just not straight toward me… >
I understood her confusion. We had been headed directly toward her as it had been our intention to meet her as soon as possible – at least until Bridget had been kidnapped. Rowan quickly explained what had detained us and that we were now heading to rescue Bridget before our rendezvous with Rory.
< Bridget? > Rory’s shocked reaction came thinly, starting to fade. I wanted to roll my eyes at her. She’d ditched everyone, managed to get herself captured by an old enemy and been denounced as a traitor by the Trustees and yet she was still giving orders to everyone like nothing had happened. < Keep tracking her and keep me updated. I’m coming to help you. Don’t worry I’ll be fine… >
As she left the link between us, I permitted the power I had been using to keep Rowan in the conversation to drain, cancelling it out. Finally seeing out of my own eyes again I glanced at our surroundings. We were miles from where we had been before. Jesse was in the lead with Cathy. David took up the rear with Francesca riding just ahead of him. Carla and Reynold each held the bridle of either Rowan’s or my horse. Then I stared at Rowan. He was shaking his head as if trying to get rid of a fly. He stopped and gave me a meaningful glance.
“Ray,” he said, “Luke and I are going to scout for a bit.” Getting his silent message, I quickly retrieved my reins from Ray.
Ray and Carla looked at us puzzled. “But… wha’ happened?” Ray asked, “Did ya manage to get a hold o’ Rory?” Rowan nodded.
“She’s safe” Rowan said, “That’s all that matters. I… just have to talk to Luke alone and really we should have scouts out to make sure we aren’t ambushed.”
“Ok,” he said, “But don’t be too long…” Rowan nodded again and retrieved his reins from a reluctant Carla. Together the two of us took off at a gallop away from the others, putting enough distance between us and the rest of the group so that we wouldn’t be overheard.
“Mind-Speaking always makes my head buzz and this time it made my head spin,” Rowan said, answering my questioning looks when we’d travelled out of the earshot. “I can’t believe she found the Water Nymphs.”
“What exactly are they?” I asked uncertainly. This wasn’t familiar ground for me and while Rowan seemed to have heard about them, he seemed shocked as well.
“Did the older slaves ever tell tales of the High Races?” Rowan asked. I nodded. “So did we. We always fantasized about how the world would be a different place if they actually existed outside of the legends…” I nodded again, understanding the appeal of the balance portrayed within the myths.
“So the Nymphs are…” I trailed off uncertainly as Rowan cut in.
“Beings of Water, like Rory told you,” Rowan replied. I nodded again.
“I understand,” I said, “So Rory is trying to tell us the legends are true… Nymphs, and Afrit and Elves exist…” My voice lowered in awe as I contemplated the implications of this knowledge. Rowan nodded and suddenly we were both speechless as we contemplated what Rory had told us.
We travelled on in silence for a few minutes. Then a thought occurred to me. I glanced at Rowan to see if he was in a decent mood before voicing it. “Why haven’t I ever heard about these High Races?”
He just grunted. “Because the Magicians wanted to keep their existence a secret – myths and legends that no one believes anymore.”
I felt a tap on my mind. Bridget! I had totally forgotten about her! < What’s wrong? > I asked her.
< We’re going into Bedlam’s Woods now, > her voice was calm but I could hear the anxiety in it. < You say you’re about a day’s travel from there right? >
< More like half a day’s travel if we push it, > I replied.
< Good, we’re stopping for the night. They want to be well rested before venturing into the forest tomorrow. They’re looking for Rory… although they’re referring to her as Melissa because that’s the alias Rory was using in the Medici’s house . The one thing I haven’t been able to figure out is whether Francesca sent them or not – they won’t say… Tonight would be a good time to attempt a rescue because the trees provide cover. > With that her consciousness slid from mine leaving me with more questions than she could have answered.
“Well?” Rowan prompted. He knew from my posture that I’d been contacted by someone - and since we’d only just talked to Rory he automatically assumed that it was Bridget. “What did Bridget want?”
“She says we should strike tonight because they’re camping just inside Bedlam’s Woods. She says that the trees will provide cover and that they won’t be expecting a raid,” I replied swiftly. “But if we do that we should get a move on. We’ll want to be in position by nightfall.” I paused for a moment and then relayed the information Bridget had given me about who her captors were looking for as well.
Rowan bit his lip as he contemplated Bridget’s news. “Francesca has to know or at least suspect we’re following the same group of men she sent out after Rory. I assume she’s going to use the opportunity to escape… and maybe that’s for the best right now if we’re headed to the Nymph’s Realm right after that.” I nodded, thinking that we would probably not get the warmest welcome if we showed up on the Nymph’s doorstep with a known Magician in tow.
“So we exchange prisoners and both go free,” I said, “I can’t imagine Francesca would follow us after everything that’s happened to her on this trip.”
Rowan nodded. “You’re right and so is she.” Together we turned our horses and re-joined the group. Rowan explained our plan and we raced off toward Bedlam’s Woods.ns 188.8.131.52da2