My arms ache from holding the metal pole into the pit of fire. I look around at the others each at their own pit of fire around the small area beneath the cliff. None of them seem to be having trouble. We were taught how to do this, to make these new weapons, but I must not have been paying as much attention as I should have, because mine is falling apart, bits of burning metal crumbling onto the stone at my feet.
“Turn it!” Dagnem yells, running over to me. I do, or try to. “Lift it higher in the flames and turn it!” I try, but it's heavy and it just seems to collapse faster. “Just don’t let the handle drop away!” But just then it does, and the whole thing is ruined.
“Can’t you do anything right?” he scolds. I try to defend myself, but he ignores it. “You’re going to burn the whole place down.”
I know he’s right, but the way he’s scolding me pisses me off, so I say “I’m not the one who did that.” Because Dagnem’s wife has a little magic, but she didn’t know it at first, and burnt down the last place we stayed.
He starts to scream at me, so I turn and walk away and start to walk up the trail into the cliffs. I know better, it’s dangerous, but I really, really need to get away. The trail is steep and rocky, and with each step I take a tiny rockslide falls on me, pouring dust in my face and pebbles in my shoes. Though at first I’d been walking fast, to burn off my anger and get as far away as I could as quickly as possible, the terrain slowed me to a crawl.
Finally I sit and rest for a little. I’m far enough up to have a good view, but it’s suddenly lost on me as I see two figures coming up the cliff. I assume it’s Dagnem and one of the others, to bring me back down, but as they come a little closer I realize it’s Thone and Adark. Thone is two years younger than me, and I’ve known him since childhood; we’re friends, and I’m not really surprised to see him. Adark is a year older than me, and I don’t know him as well as I’d like. He’s a good fighter and respected by everyone in our company, and I’m, well, not. I’m rather embarrassed for him to see me running away from the camp, soaked in sweat and dust, and my humiliation is compounded when I realize they were probably sent to bring me back.
But once they reach me, Thone smiles and says, “We got permission for all three of us to go on up ahead and scout the cave at the top.”
“What cave?” I ask.
Adark replies, “There’s rumored to be a cave up there, and a portal in it that the enemy is coming through.”
“And so he wants the three of us to go up there and confront them on our own?” And now I sound like a coward as well.
“Better for only three of us to be killed than everyone,” Adark says, but he smiles comfortingly and adds, “But he doesn’t actually believe it. And they mean to catch up soon.”
“Do you believe it?”
He shrugs. “If it isn’t, I get a nice walk in better company than the people below; if it is we should be able to find out without being seen and sneak back down to raise the alarm.”
I hope I’m not blushing at being called better company than the people below—considering what they’re like, that really doesn’t mean much. The trail grows steeper as we continue up the cliff. By the time we’re near the top, I’m too exhausted to even climb over a few largish rocks blocking the steep path. To my surprise, Adark and Thone are equally worn out, though they didn’t get the chance to rest as I had. I push the largest rock over and it rolls down the edge of the cliff. Thone casts a spell to hold the rest of the disintegrating stone in place; it barely works, but we do manage to get over it, and we’re at the top of the path.
The rest of the walk to the cave is easy, a wide path curving gently around the side of the mountain. We’re almost at the cave when we see them—two large men in the uniform of the Stetenthian army. Adark steps forward to challenge them. I want to do something, to fight them or speak to them or run back down the mountain, but my legs are frozen in place. It doesn’t matter. As soon as they see us, they turn and run back the way they came. Adark grabs my arm and the three of us give chase. We enter the cave just in time to see the two men disappear through a shimmery surface on the wall of the cave—the portal.
I’ve never seen anything like it before. I approach it to take a closer look, but Adark puts a hand on my arm. “Those were just scouts. The rest of their army could come through any moment,” he says gravely.
“What should we do?” Thone addresses the question generally, but he’s really asking Adark, who’s even better at planning our strategy than he is at fighting.
“We’ll go back and warn everyone, and then decide what to do,” he responds.
“Should one of us wait here?” I ask. “So we’ll have a warning if the whole army does start pouring out of the portal?”
Thone nods. “I could do it,” he volunteers, though he seems decidedly unhappy with the prospect.
“No, I should do it, I’m the most dispensable,” I argue. “It’s not like I’m any use anywhere else.”
“Don’t say that,” Adark tells me. “You’re one of the best with magic; and to have any hope of winning this war we’ll need to make more use of it.” Anyway, all three of us will go. If the army comes through, anyone who stays wouldn’t live long enough to give warning.”
By the time we get to the top of the cliff, the rest of the company is just reaching the top of the trail. “You might not want to come any further,” I warn, and we explain about the truth of the rumor.
Dagnem shakes his head. “We’ve made arrangements; we need to get to the top of the mountain.” So we take the path going in the opposite direction of the cave. It’s not a difficult path, but it does grow so narrow we have to walk single file. Thone and Adark have moved up to the front of the group, but I somehow (of course) got caught at the very end. It doesn’t take long to reach the peak of the mountain. We stand there for a bit, wondering what we are waiting for, until suddenly a boat, propelled by magic, floats through the air to hover a few feet above us. Dagnem, who is closest to it, takes hold of a short metal ladder hanging from the edge and climbs into the boat. He’s just made it into the boat when the ladder and the railing it is attached to break halfway off the boat. They speak in worried voices, but I can’t hear what they’re saying, and then Adark spells the ladder back into place. It is very broken, and I can see that he’s having to concentrate intensely. People slowly, too slowly, climb on.
About half of them are on the boat when I first see Stetenthian warriors making their way up the path. I yell for them to hurry, and they do, and soon everyone is on board but me and Adark. “Go!” I tell him. “I’ll hold the spell.”
He shakes his head. “I can’t abandon you; I won’t.”
“Don’t be stupid!” The Stetenthians are nearly upon us. “You have to much information to be captured. You might want to help me but you swore an oath to protect our country!”
He knows I’m right, but I can see he doesn’t like it. I cast the spell, and he reluctantly makes his way up the ladder. It’s a difficult spell, not one I could do while climbing the ladder, or that anyone could do from on the boat, so I know I’m doomed.
A tear rolls down my face as the ladder and railing crash to the ground. I don’t regret what I’ve done, but I don’t want to be captured and tortured or killed.
And then a handle is in front of my face, the handle of the weapon I couldn’t manage to forge. I grab it, but I know that if I wasn’t even strong enough to hold it up into the fire, I won’t be able to pull myself into the boat.
But I have a greater desperation now, and I do manage to hang on as I’m pulled up onto the deck. It was Adark who had pulled me up, and I saw that the weapon had been sharpened and he’d been holding onto the blade; his hands were bleeding.
“Your hands,” I say stupidly.
“They’ll heal. You saved my life.”
Someone hands him a rag and he tries clumsily to bandage his hands. I take it and do it for him. “You saved mine.” I think about how agonizing it must have been to pull me up by the sharp edge of a blade, and then, without thinking, I kiss him. He kisses me back, and I’m glad to have survived.