Unguilded, page 7
Suddenly there was a loud crack, and Zayeera brayed and bucked. Mika shouted, and the cart surged forward. Kara’s arms stretched out, and she stumbled and broke into a run—desperately trying to stay on her feet as she was pulled, faster and faster, down the mountain road.
The burro’s ears flattened against its head. Then the cart butted up against its rump. With a squeal, Zayeera stretched her neck and ran, staying in front of it.
Frantic, Kara pulled on the rope, trying to slow the careening cart and keep it from overrunning Zayeera. The burro bumped into Ranit. He teetered on the edge, before slowly, horrifyingly slowly, tumbling into the gorge, his scream fading as he dropped from her view. Then she was past him, and Kara couldn’t spare another thought for the Mason.
Zayeera turned sharply, and Kara pulled with all her strength. For one terrible moment the left wheel of the wagon hung over air, then it jerked back and landed on solid ground.
Looking past the burro’s head, Kara saw another sharp curve in the road. Anticipating it, she pulled hard to the right, keeping the wagon on the road. Down and down they went, turn after turn, until she thought her arms would be pulled from her shoulders. Her wrists ached and were slick around the ropes. Blood or sweat, she didn’t care, couldn’t care, as long as they stayed on the road, as long as they didn’t tumble over the edge like Ranit. She ignored the pain in her shoulders, in her wrists, in her chest as she tried to gasp in enough air to keep running, always running, burro and woman, running to stay alive. Barely, they stayed on the road—stayed in control just enough to navigate the next sharp turn, the next narrowing of the path.
Kara was so intent on remaining on her feet that it took a few moments for her to realize that the sound of her footfalls had changed and that they were, thankfully, finally, slowing.
The cart stopped.
Heaving, Kara leaned against the wagon and stared at her hands. Her wrists were raw where the rope had cut into them, and her legs felt limp and heavy. Thank Gyda she’d been wearing her father’s old trousers—she never would have managed the turns in a skirt. Hands shaking, she looked up from the cart.
They were on an impossibly narrow bridge. The wooden planks underfoot felt solid enough, until she realized that they were held up by ropes that stretched off into the distance. Zayeera snorted and tossed her head, then rubbed one cheek against the rope handrail.
“No,” she called softly to the burro, her voice trembling with fear and exhaustion. Could the burro’s movements tip them? Could they have survived the race down the mountain only to plunge into the gorge anyway? She studied Zayeera, who stood calmly between the traces of the cart.
Kara took a deep breath. This was Broken Burro Bridge. She and Mika had planned to cross it. It was safe. Mika had been over this bridge many times. Zayeera had been over it many times.
Carefully she twisted to look behind her. They were more than a third of the way across, and there was no way to turn around. The only choice was to go forward.
“Zayeera,” she called. “Keep going.” Even if Mika and Gilson were able to catch up, they wouldn’t be able to help. No one could squeeze past the cart.
A strong gust of wind shook the bridge, and Kara shivered, remembering Gilson’s warning about not being on the bridge too late in the day. She had no idea how far behind Gilson and Mika were. Would they even be willing to brave the wind-blown bridge to save her?
“Come on, Zayeera,” she crooned. “Time to move.” She leaned over the cart.
She would not die here. Not after escaping Mage Guild, not after finally seeing a way to make a life of her own.
She shoved the cart forward. The burro brayed, but didn’t move.
“Come on, burro,” Kara yelled. “Move!” She shoved again, and this time the burro took a few steps forward. Kara lowered her shoulder to the wood of the cart, and braced her feet against the planks of the bridge, and pushed with all her might. The cart skidded forward, and she almost sprawled. The burro took a step, then another. Kara grabbed the wood of the cart and pulled herself to her feet, leaving smears of blood on the once-white tarp.
“Good Zayeera, good burro.”
Two long ears flicked towards her as the burro plodded slowly forward.
“We’re halfway across, good work,” she said.
They were going slightly uphill, heading to the far end of the bridge. A gust of wind buffeted her, and she felt the burro pause.
“Keep going. That’s a girl.”
The cart inched forward in the late afternoon sun, and the wind howled through the gorge below them. Kara kept her eyes forward, staring past the flattened ears of the burro to the solid ground she could see ahead. She didn’t want to see how far the drop was—didn’t want to think about falling or about Ranit slipping over the edge and being alive, broken and bleeding, somewhere below. She simply concentrated on that patch of solid ground ahead of them—taking one step after another toward it.
Then they were there. The wheels bumped when they left the bridge, and then Kara’s feet were on dirt and windswept rock.
Weak with relief, she collapsed against the back of the cart. She’d stay here until Gilson and Mika arrived. The other two couldn’t cross the bridge until the wind died down but she could wait—all night if she had to.
Unfortunately the burro had other plans—Zayeera started down the road.
“Stop!” Kara yelled and pulled on the ropes until her wrists flared with pain. The burro ignored her and continued to plod down the gently sloped road. All Kara could do was trudge along behind the wagon.
ARABELLA PACED HER salon. It had been a few days since she and Valerio had returned to Mage Guild Island, and she had not seen him. She was worried that he had—not forgotten her, no—but had decided she was of no use to him. She’d sent a note this morning, inviting him to dine with her, and had spent the remainder of the day fruitlessly waiting to hear from him. She’d had her Server clear the ruined supper an hour ago.
She hated waiting for others, hated being dependent on someone else for her well-being. She settled into the plush chair she used for reading and took a deep, steadying breath. If her plan succeeded, then Valerio Valerian would be the last man she had to appease in this way.
For now, she had to wait, she had no choice. And she must appear calm and unconcerned when he did contact her. And he would, eventually.
“Annya,” she called to her Server. “Prepare my bath.” Yes, calm and unconcerned, that was how she had to play Valerio Valendi.
He’d agreed to align with her—mentor her, father her child, teach her the skills—both political and magical—she was lacking. In return she would be his—she would do as he asked, whatever he asked. He hadn’t said it—he hadn’t had to—but she knew she was agreeing to kill for him, if that’s what he required.
And she would do it. She would do anything to keep herself out of the workrooms. She’d been sent there when she first arrived on Mage Guild Island, before she’d managed to secure an Apprenticeship. The council had wondered if she was too old to learn, if she would ever be able to use her magic to cast spells.
She’d spent two horrifying days amongst the drudges, her power being drained away while she sat in a stupor. After the second day, she’d approached a minor Mage and struck a bargain. She would do anything he asked of her—including sharing his bed—if he took her on as his Apprentice.
In the bathroom she slipped out of her gown and into the deep tub, relishing the warmth that enveloped her. Annya had added a drop of vanilla to the water, and Arabella breathed in the scent and closed her eyes searching for the calmness she needed to endure the wait for Valerio.
Startled, Arabella opened her eyes to find Valerio Valendi perched on the edge of her tub. Forcing herself to stay still, she smiled up at him. “I apologize for not greeting you formally.”
His eyes drifted from her face to her submerged body, and he smiled. “No apology necessary.” He reached a hand out, dip
“You are welcome to join me,” Arabella said. “Or if you prefer me dry, you can hand me a towel.”
“Unfortunately,” Valerio sighed. “I do not have enough time to enjoy the benefits of our agreement tonight. I came to tell you that Primus Rorik has agreed to formally nominate you to a seat on the council tomorrow. I still need to secure two other council members to champion your nomination, which is why I cannot stay.”
“Tomorrow,” Arabella repeated. “What must I do?”
“Speak up for yourself and convince the council that you are both ready and needed,” Valerio said. “You will be accepted, but do not disappoint me.”
“I won’t,” Arabella assured him, sitting up in the bath.
“See that you don’t.” Valerio’s gaze lingered on her breasts before he stood. “Perhaps I’ll make an effort and return when my business is completed.”
“Yes,” Arabella replied breathlessly. “I would show you my gratitude.”
Arabella sat in her bath until the water turned cold. Mage Guild Council! She hadn’t dared to hope for so much so fast. She reached for a towel and stood, letting the now cool water sluice off her. Mage Guild Council! She clenched her fists as goosebumps dimpled her arms.
She wrapped herself in a robe and padded to her bedchamber. Would Valerio return to her tonight? A child—their child—was less important now that she would be on the council. She would have her own power. Valerio would use that as well—she was certain that it served his purposes more than hers—but being a member of council granted her security beyond Valerio’s patronage.
The position was for life—only death or promotion to a higher office opened up a seat. Idly, she wondered who had died—or more probably, who had been killed—in order to make room for her.
She didn’t care, not really, and it would be better if she didn’t know who she was replacing when her name was announced. There would be speculation about why she was chosen, and she needed to be genuinely unaware. Would they use magic on her? She could not discount it.
She draped her robe across the end of the bed and slid between the bed linens. As she drifted off to sleep, she thought about the arguments she would make to convince them that she was a good choice. It had been a long time since a woman had sat on the council, and even longer since someone not born in Rillidi had. She smiled. Being from that Gyda-cursed villa might actually help her. And then she would forget she had ever set foot there.
EXHAUSTED, KARA ONLY noticed the lengthening shadows when it was too dark to see the path. She raised her eyes from her feet. Above, the peaks of the mountains were still bathed in sun, glowing pink at the end of the day. At eye level, trees bordered the road allowing no room for them to step off the edge of the mountain in the dark. Although at this point she was so bone-weary that she wasn’t sure she even cared.
She didn’t know how the burro kept going, why it kept going, but it had managed to get them down the mountain and across the bridge alive. It had been about five hours since they’d left the bridge, and Zayeera seemed to be heading somewhere.
Kara jerked alert when the cart took a sharp turn and headed down a steep hill. For a moment she was again on that headlong rush down the mountain, trying to control the cart. Then she realized that Zayeera had taken them off the main road.
This track was much narrower, and the pine trees brushed against the sides of the cart as they travelled through the dark. Eventually the road flattened out, and a cool breeze ruffled Kara’s hair. She smelled the damp earth and lush grass before she heard the rush of water.
The burro didn’t head to the river. Instead, it stopped in the middle of a clearing and brayed.
Kara’s legs ached at the sudden inactivity, and she rested her head against the wood of the cart as Zayeera continued to bray, over and over again.
She heard a muffled voice, off to her left, and then a door slammed. The sudden glare of a lamp made her eyes water.
“What in Gyda’s name is going on?” The voice was male and clearly wary. “Mika, is that you? I recognize that degenerate burro you’re so fond of. I wasn’t expecting you until next week.”
The lamp moved towards them.
“Mika?” the voice was more uncertain now. “Where are you? Gyda, what happened to Zayeera? She looks done in.”
“Help,” Kara croaked. The word, scarcely a whisper, barely made it past her cracked lips. “Water.”
The light nearly blinded Kara, and she blinked, trying to see past the light to the man who held it.
“Gyda, what happened? Who tied you to the wagon like that?”
Kara felt hands on the rope that bound her raw wrists. She sucked in her breath as the ropes were peeled away. Free, finally, she slumped to the ground. She felt a dribble of cold water against her lips. She licked her lips and opened her mouth to let the refreshing liquid run into her parched mouth.
“Not too fast there,” the voice soothed. “Slow and steady. You want to keep it down.”
“Zayeera,” she said. “Make sure she’s looked after.”
“I will, don’t worry.”
A cool cloth was placed on her forehead, and she sighed. “Good,” she mumbled. “Gyda-cursed burro saved my life.”
The last thing she heard before she collapsed was a low rumble of laughter.
KARA AWOKE IN agony. She sucked in a breath and lifted her wrists off her chest. When the pain finally subsided to an aching throb, she opened her eyes.
The bed she lay in was in a small room with walls of rough-hewn wood. The sun streamed in through a high, square window and pooled on the closed door across from her. Muffled sounds of movement came from beyond the door.
The bed coverings were faded blue cotton, threadbare in places, but the tight weave felt soft against the skin of her arms. Her wrists were wrapped in clean, white bindings.
A small table was wedged between the bed and the wall—a clear glass of water perched on it. She eased herself up, leaned against the wall, and carefully gripped the glass between both hands. She remembered the admonishment of last night and sipped slowly, taking a break in between each sip to savour the clear water. Finished, she gently placed the glass back on the table and closed her eyes.
“You’re awake,” a voice said.
Kara’s eyes flew open. A man stood in the open doorway. In mid-life, with a little extra flesh on him, his head almost reached the top of the door frame. Short salt-and-pepper hair capped his head, and his gray beard was neatly trimmed.
“Yes,” Kara said. “Thank you.” She looked around the room. “For everything.”
“I’m Allon,” he said. He crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against the door frame. “And you are?”
“All right.” Allon took one step into the room. “Kara. What happened to Mika, and why were you tied to his wagon?”
His eyes narrowed, and Kara swallowed. He had saved her, given her water and tended to her wounds, but at the moment he did not look like a friend. At least not hers.
Kara took a deep breath. She had no idea what had happened to Mika, no idea if she would ever see the traveler again. But Mika’s friend Allon had helped her.
“I met Mika a few days ago.” She paused and looked down at her hands with her bandaged wrists and scarred finger. Less than a week from home and her hands would never be the same. She met his gaze. “I’d just run away from my guild, and I wasn’t prepared for the road. Mika helped me.”
“Why?” Allon asked sharply. “What do you have to trade? Mika wouldn’t take a risk like that unless he felt it was worth it.”
“He would help me get to Rillidi, and I would give him some simple healing remedies.”
“Healing remedies,” Allon repeated. He uncrossed his arms and took a step into the room. “A few remedies wouldn’t be enough for M
“I also offered to teach him to read and write,” Kara said.
Allon’s shoulders sagged, and he seemed to deflate. “Mika couldn’t walk away from that trade, no matter how dangerous.” He eyed her, his eyes half-closed. “Mage Guild.” It was an accusation.
“Yes,” Kara agreed.
“They found you,” Allon said. He raked a hand through his hair. “How long ago? Mika won’t be able to keep secrets from Mage Guild, but we might have time to get away.”
“No,” Kara said and shook her head. “No, it wasn’t Mage Guild. It was the Masons. Yesterday, just before we got to the bridge.”
“Thank Gyda,” Allon said. He exhaled one long breath and closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he nodded. “I might be able to get Mika back. Just yesterday?”
“Yes. There were two Masons.” Kara looked out the window.
The sun shone brightly, and she could see the top of a willow tree swaying in a gentle breeze. It was only yesterday. The day had been so tortuously long it seemed like it happened days ago.
“There’s only one now, though.” She turned back to Allon. “One Mason tied me behind the cart, and he took Zayeera’s lead in front. The other Mason, the little one, he walked behind with Mika. Halfway to the bridge there was a noise—a rock falling into the gorge, maybe—and Zayeera bolted. She bumped into the Mason. He . . .” She paused and shuddered. She could still see him, arms flailing as he lost his balance. “He went over the edge.”
“Let’s hope he died quick,” Allon said, a grim look on his face.
Kara nodded before she continued. “The cart just kept going. Zayeera mostly kept it on the road, but when it started to swing out over the edge, I was able to pull it back.” She laid one arm over her eyes, trying to forget those heart-stopping moments when she didn’t think she’d be able to keep them from tumbling into the gorge. “We were part way across the bridge before we stopped.”
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