Seventy-one

"Am I dreaming?"

"Excuse me, sir?" The boy's young enough to be my son, I thought. He even looks like him.

I opened my hand, and saw the stone come alive in the flickering light of the torches. Friend or foe, I told it. Blessing or bane. One of these days we're going to have a nice long talk, you and I.

I pocketed the stone, careful not to disturb Jared whose head was still resting in my lap. I looked up. "Could you help me with him, please?"

The young man took a step back, raising his hands protectively in front of him and then dropping them again. "I I'm sorry."

"It's alright." I wondered what was wrong with him. "Could you at least give me something to put under his head?"

He removed his jacket and folded it into a rough square. "Here you are, sir." He seemed to take great care to not let my fingers touch his, but I decided not to notice.

"Thanks." I slipped out from under Jared's unconscious body and, cradling his head and shoulders in one arm, slipped the make-shift pillow under his head. "There. That's better."

When I tried to get up I lost my balance and almost fell, and he took my arm to support me.

"Thanks," I said.

He gasped, and I looked at him. "What's wrong?"

"Nothing sir," he replied, examining his hands, "everything is fine." He straightened and gave me a brief smile. "Let me take you to your room."

I looked at the others. "We can't leave them like this."

"Don't worry, sir. He won't be back tonight."

He?

"What are you talking about?"

"About him." He looked me straight in the eyes. "You've seen what he's like."

I had. "Where you watching?"

"Yes. If he wants me he'll find me anyway, wherever I hide." He looked down. "Don't make me touch them," he said. "Please don't make me. They'll wake up and then they'll go to him, they all do. At first we didn't know, and we tried to stop them. Several good men died that day, and even more others were drawn in." He swallowed. "They don't want to know. They just tell me to lock myself in my room until he's gone, and that everything will be alright." He shook his head. "They just don't see what's happening."

I had a feeling what he would be saying next, and I didn't want to hear it.

"He's building an army out there," he said. "One day he's going to come marching through the gate with his host of monsters behind him, and that will be the end of everything."

I straightened my back and looked around, rubbing my face. I need a shave, I caught myself thinking. The sun's rising, the birds are waking up, and a nice shave would be just the thing. For a moment I just stood there, exhaustion washing over my like a black, poisonous wave.

"When will they wake up?"

"Not before noon," he said. "But they'll be gone by tonight."

He looked at me. "You want to see where they go, don't you?"

"Yes," I said. I did. I supposed I had to.

"I can help."

"Really?"

"You look like you could use some sleep. I've got a place where we can hide out until they wake up, and when they do we'll follow them. I'll keep an eye on them so you can get some rest."

Black spots were dancing in front of my eyes, and I feared that if I staid on my feet much longer I was going to collapse on the spot. We, he said, but I decided to ignore that for the moment.

I looked around the courtyard again. None of the three unconscious men had moved, and none of the servants seemed to be paying either them or us any attention. Pretend nothing's wrong, I thought. Ignore the problem and, who knows, it might go away.

"There were four soldiers," I told the boy. "What happened to the others?"

"The King took them with him when he left." He looked down. "I'm sorry."

"It's alright." Though it was getting lighter I could hardly see anymore. "I guess you'd better take me to that hiding-place of yours."

He took my arm as we began to cross the courtyard. "Let me go with you, sir."

"Why?"

I could feel his fingers tense, and he looked away. I waited for his reply, but none came.

"We'll talk about it later," I said. The Veiled Lady had told me that I'd find friends in unexpected places. I had a feeling I would be needing each and every one of them.



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