Number Three was getting jumpy. They had been back in Amberwine almost three weeks. The galloper had arrived five days ago with the manacles and the go-head. But things weren’t going as planned. It seemed as if the whole country was being mobilized for war. There had been some late night trips to Jasper, with Cassandra teleporting Bolinor there. The couple had arrived two day later, and then the Second Army Group had marched the next day. That had been ten days ago. The official story was they had been invited to Jasper for war games. So as a result Cassandra hadn’t been alone. Now they were off to the GoldenCity. One of the men had told Number Three the Third Army Group was gathering and moving to the fort pass and camping. They seemed to be waiting. For what no one could find out. But whatever was happening made the chances of completing their mission slimmer and slimmer.
Cassandra sat in the study watching the two people from the church; one a Cardinal, the other a High Cardinal. The lower man, while still very high in his own right, was still junior to the woman who looked really angry. Cassandra recognized Katalina, the girl from the slave ship that had been infected with lycanthrope. It had taken one of the older spell casters a few weeks to come up with a cure, but from the look of things now, the time was going to be well spent. Cassandra wished De Nera was here, but from what she had heard; their season still had a few days to go. Some of the couples had emerged from the Sanctuary and were back to their old lives. Sara was going to take the two churchgoers and Bolinor to the hunting cabin. Nathan wouldn’t leave Justine till the mistake could get sorted out. Katalina admitted that the GoldenCity had problems, and that was why the Cardinal’s protection hadn’t worked as well as it should have. So, now both were going back. And what was more, the two of them would stay, and see that no further problems came up.
Bolinor and Cassandra were holding each other. They had been married now eight months, and she had been talking to Sara about her pregnancy. Cassandra was seriously thinking that maybe the time was right for her and Bolinor to have a baby. She was suddenly all aflutter, and flushed beet red that went from her chest to her face, thinking of being pregnant. She turned to look at something in the room hoping Bolinor hadn’t noticed her sudden excitement. She was worried that the mistreatment from Hayden might have hurt her inside. She hadn’t actually talked to Bolinor yet; she would bring it up tonight when he got back.
She was so warm and soft to hold, and her kisses promised so much more that Bolinor began to feel like skipping the rest of the day. He actually thought about giving this trip a miss and taking Cassandra for a ride up to the lake. He actually told her what desires he had running rampant through his mind.
He nibbled on her neck and Cassandra raised her chin so he could reach better; she playfully swatted him. “If you don’t stop that, Nathan will be really mad when you don’t show up.”
Bolinor grinned mischievously. “They wouldn’t miss us for a while.”
Cassandra kissed him passionately, feeling him pull her to him. She seriously thought of taking him up on the offer, especially when he reached his hand up, rubbing her stomach and inching higher, his fingers making her breathing quicken. Any further thoughts on the matter were shattered when Sara breezed though the door.
“Oops, sorry,” she said, blushing in embarrassment.
Cassandra pulled herself together. “No…” she had to cough to clear her throat, “No problem. We were just deciding on what to have for dinner.”
Bolinor sighed dreamily, “Yes, dinner.”
Cassandra swatted him again.
Cassandra was changing into her riding clothes when she moved to the mirror. She dropped her leather boots still in her hand. She turned sideways in the mirror and poked out her stomach as far as she could. Then she pulled her tunic up and tried again. Then she saw a cushion on the bed and dropping her tunic she grabbed the pillow and pushed it up her shirt holding the bottom so it didn’t fallout. Now she did look pregnant. Cassandra felt herself go all gooey again. She was actually tired from all the teleporting around she had done. It would be nice to have a ride in the trees, calm down a bit and wait for Bolinor.
She thought of how he had touched her earlier, then, shook her head. “Oh, come on girl, you’re a grown woman, not a love-struck teenager.”
She picked up her boots; well, part of that was right anyway, she wasn’t a teenager.
Cassandra clattered over the cobblestones and out the main gate, her mare trotting along gently. She turned and headed for the trapper’s trail. The men watching, after waiting their chance for days, almost missed her. They were cooking up their noon meal when she went cantering past. Two of the men just stared at her in a dumbfounded show of incomprehension. The others pushed them into moving, ran to where their saddled horses waited, and quickly tightening their cinches, they thundered off. They had scouted various cutoffs they could use and now headed for one.
Cassandra’s swiftly moving mount quickly ate up the miles, but she didn’t push hard enough to tire the mare. Cassandra let her hair fall free; she loved the feel of the wind through her hair. Now almost an hour later, she reached the lake. Again she remembered the day, weeks ago when Bolinor had come looking for her. She thought of the time under the tree and playing in the lake. She dismounted to let Millie graze a bit while she threw rocks into the water. The ripple that expanded then faded to nothing fascinated her. Cassandra toyed with the idea of going for a swim, but knew Bolinor and the others wouldn’t be that long today. So she reluctantly gave the idea a miss and walked to the mare. And resetting the bit and tightening the cinch, Cassandra remounted and turned for home. The mare had just climbed the hill overlooking the lake when a number of armed men stepped from the tree around her. They looked dirty, unshaved and from the smell none had bathed in a while. They didn’t seem surprised to see her. Cassandra didn’t waste time talking, she quickly started a spell.
The men who surrounded the mage were overconfident. Cassandra knew danger when she saw it. They expected a timid girl to do the ‘who are you?’ routine. Instead she attacked. The fireball that shot from her fingers didn’t have time to grow to the deadly proportions it could get to. It hit the trees and exploded with a KABOOM! The trees blew apart raining wood and fiery bits on the stunned assembly. Three men literally disintegrated in the fireball, and the vicious scything, jagged trunk-size splinters decapitated another. Another two lay groaning on the ground, one of them, his uniform still smoldering.
The smoke hadn’t even cleared yet, as Cassandra cruelly dug her heels into the mare. Millie jumped forward with a whinny of protest, and leapt the dead men. She was off and running. Unfortunately for Cassandra, Number Three posted one man down the trail to watch for intruders. He stood on a rock, hearing the explosion and now was watching the black smoke drift over the blackened burning area. He could see Cassandra, body low along the withers of the racing mare, her hair blowing in the wind, charging right towards him. The woman was focusing on the trail and didn’t see the lookout. The man ran and leapt as the horse drew level with the rock. Cassandra was pulled from the saddle by the man’s forward motion. She screamed in surprise and then both fell heavily to the ground. The man landed awkwardly, Cassandra landed hard and was winded. She groggily came to her hands and knees, and shook her head to clear the blackness that hovered close by. The man lay on his back, breathing harshly. She staggered to her feet with the help of the very rock that was her undoing, and lurched by him staggering down the trail. The man reached out and grabbed her ankle. Still disoriented by the fall, she easily tripped. The man turned over and crawled for her. Cassandra rolled to her back and kicked violently. The man’s head snapped back and even over his grunt she heard his neck snap. He fell forward on her legs effectively trapping her. She could see more men running down the trail as she fell backwards, while the darkness took her.
* * * *
Number Three was stunned by the turn of events. Never in all their weeks of watching her did they get any idea of what Cassandra could do. Now, he had four men left. The two others were injured, hurt so badly, he had them silenced just to shut up their screams. They didn’t have the manpower left, or the resources to care for them. Effectively, they were deep in enemy territory and severely short of men. He had no illusions about what Bolinor would do when he found his wife missing. Three couldn’t help but wonder if Goth knew that Bolinor and Cassandra were married. He looked at the unconscious woman. She lay over the horse, tied into the saddle. Her arms stretching over her head were now manacled. Leaves and dirt coated her lovely hair, which fell forward hiding her face. She had a rapidly swelling bump on the side of her head from the fall, and Number Three thought she might have a broken rib caused by one of his men’s brutal kicks, as she lay unconscious. Now her head bobbed with the horse’s movements. He was concerned that they had been unable to catch the woman’s horse after Raynad, had dragged her from the mount. The more he thought of it the more he was convinced that they were going to be lucky to get out of here alive.
* * * *
Cassandra was overdue by hours. Bolinor rapidly went from concerned to angry and now was working on livid. The mare had returned without Cassandra, and at first everyone thought she might have fallen, and the horse had run off. The Commander sent a number of men searching for her. He himself had taken the old trapper’s trail. It didn’t take long for them to find where Cassandra’s fireball badly destroyed a good portion of the forest. Andrith soon found the concealed bodies of the men who died in the blast. Bolinor sat thinking quickly. Cassandra had been kidnapped, but by whom. In his short time as a landowner or mercenary commander he had made a number of enemies. Somehow the abductors had found some way to neutralize her magical abilities. The two men rode hard and reached Castle Amberwine near dark. Bolinor quickly sent patrols looking for his wife. Pathfinders were sent to all the border forts and way stations. Now he had to wait; this wasn’t something he did easily.
Sara walked down the corridor. She had just returned to the Castle from the hunting cabin. Nathan had returned as well, now that Justine was out of imminent danger. The first thing they had heard was that Cassandra had been kidnapped. She stopped seeing the group of men waiting in the corridor. From their attitude they had been here a long time.
Andrith shook his head.
“How is he taking it?” Sara asked grim with concern.
The half elf looked at the woman. “Why do you think were out here?”
Her heart went out to him. “I’ll talk to him.”
Sara didn’t even try knocking. She opened the door and slipped in. The room was dark. As she moved forward she bumped into an overturned chair. Then she soon found books scattered on the floor.
“Commander, can you light a lamp? I don’t want to risk falling and hurting the baby,” she whispered softly.
She could hear the sound of rustling, and soon a lamp flared. He sat against the wall by the window. She looked around his study. He had pretty well destroyed it. She picked her way over the broken shelves and carefully sat by the stricken man. He looked terrible. His gaunt face needed a shave and his blue eyes were hollow and red rimmed. His head rested on one clenched fist propped on his raised knee.
“I couldn’t find her. I couldn’t save my wife. I have people looking everywhere and I still can’t save her. I promised Cassie that after what Hayden did, I wouldn’t let anything happen to her,” he whispered hoarsely.
Sara put her hand on his arm, and leaned her head on his shoulder. “Bolinor, she knows that. Cassandra would know that you would do everything in your power to bring her home.”
“Can you try?”
Sara nodded. “They will have covered their trail pretty carefully. I might not be able to even find her, even with my magic.”
Bolinor looked at her, his voice cold, “What could do that?”
Sara shrugged. “It could be many things. It had to be handy and portable. The kidnappers would have been watching her a while. The only thing I know that would be that ready at hand, and nullifies a mage talent and hide her is, Cold Iron.”
Bolinor’s head jerked up. “What is that?”
Sara looked confused. “Cold Iron?”
Bolinor scrambled on his hands and knees over the floor to find Vinch’s report on Cr’Mere. “It says here, that Cr’Mere has outlawed magic. If a person is caught they are held for trial. They use manacles of Cold Iron to nullify any escape attempt, a special iron that is only found in the mountains near the capital.” Bolinor stood. “Thank you, Sara. Can you gather all the Pathfinders and Hunters we have? I’m getting cleaned up, and then I have to see a man about his sister. Oh, and Sara? Could you find someone to fix my study for me?”
Bolinor stood staring out the window into the night over the castle walls. If that wretched brother of hers had anything to do with this, Bolinor clenched his fists in sudden anger, he would bloody well tear out his throat and spit down his windpipe.
* * * *
A very subdued group sat around the sheltered campfire. Cassandra moaned and pushed herself halfway upright, leaning on her extended arms, her leaf-strewn hair hanging, hiding her face. She held her side and sat up right, another moan escaping her clenched lips. She swept her hair back from her face where it belonged and wearily leaned back against a tree. Cassandra continued to pick leaves and branches from her hair as she watched the huddled group. The manacle’s chain clanked as she moved. They looked really dispirited. Three men ignored her, and one glared with hatred.
“You are the one who kicked me?” her voice was low but menacing.
He lunged to his feet. “You would do well to keep a civil tongue in your trap.”
“Why? Are you going to put the boot in when I’m down, again?”
“How did you know…?” He caught himself and clamped his mouth shut.
“Its simple, I wasn’t hurt here,” she rubbed her side high on her ribs, “when I fell. It must have been one of my gallant kidnappers. You all, do realize what Bolinor will do to you when he finds me?”
The angry man stormed to her and Cassandra stiffened as he started ranting, crumbs and spittle flew from his full mouth, a half eaten hunk of bread in his hand. “You filthy slut. You are the cause of all this,” he raged.
“That’s right; I dragged you all, hundreds of miles from your home just so you could beat the shit out of me. Just so my husband who has nothing to do, can hunt you all down, and extract his own brand of justice,” Cassandra flared, taunting him.
Clint glared at her and knelt. He ogled her lush full-bodied figure. He grabbed her hair and jerked back. Cassandra’s head thudded against the tree, and he got real close. She gagged at his foul breath. For a split second she could feel his hands on her tunic, and panic threatened to break her resolve. She had thought they wanted her alive and unharmed, but he was going to rape her. Suddenly, she screamed in pain as the dirty bearded man grabbed her injured ribs.
“Clint, leave her!”
He reluctantly moved away. Cassandra fought down the sickening feeling and forcibly swallowed the rising bile.
The woman watched the other three men. One looked uneasy; one fearful. Even though she had almost miscalculated she found the information she wanted. She stared into Clint’s red-rimmed hollow black eyes. Cassandra smiled slightly. The man charged back towards her, his boot swinging. Clint never connected. Number Three had walked to the confrontation and when Clint attacked her again, he knocked him sprawling. Cassandra looked at their leader; he was shorter than she was, but a whole lot more solid. His shaggy black hair was shoulder length. His face was covered in a few weeks growth. The black leather armor covered a black woolen shirt and trousers. She quietly started. These were The Emperor’s Dark Riders, his secret police. Suddenly things got a whole lot worse. Three stopped by her and knelt. He as least looked to have some reasonable intelligence.
He held out a bowl of stew, a hunk of bread and a mug of ale. “Thanks to you we have more than enough rations.”
Cassandra accepted the food as best as she could. “I’m going to need a bit of privacy shortly.”
He nodded. “Will you give me your word that you won’t try and escape?”
“You would accept my word?” she was amazed.
Three nodded. “This is a bad situation and frankly if I had my way, I would let you go, and then we could high-tail it out of here. But I have been given a job to do. If you co-operate things will be smoother.”
She looked at the man for a second and answered slowly, “I will in part, there will be times that I will need to have relative privacy, you can put me on a long rope if needed, but for that brief time I will give you my word. Other than those specified times, no deal.”
He nodded satisfied. “If you want, I will get you water, a cloth and medicine for your injuries.”
“I would be grateful.”
Three stood and turned to leave then stopped, he asked, “Did you find out the information you wanted?”
Cassandra nodded. “I did, thank you for asking.” She had found her weak link.
Three walked to the fire shaking his head. The girl had spirit, even injured and scared she still had the courage to do what she thought she had to.
Three looked at Clint, who sat staring moodily into the fire, “Clint, I know you’re angry about your brother Dave, but that girl is not to be touched. She is dangerous, and if given a chance she will kill you.”
Clint stared at the retreating figure of Three and then looked at the girl. She sat eating her bread and stew, never once taking her eyes from him.