The dark-skinned man, Crovax, stared up at the night sky and the rising moons above the foothills. His fists clenched and unclenched as he paced in front of Starke's small, tattered tent. "Why? Why is she there?"
Starke shrugged. "I don't know. Why are you here?"
Crovax looked at him blankly
"You surely see that the letter was a trick," Starke stated flatly. This was easier to say sincerely because it was the truth, but it wasn't nearly as satisfying as the lies. Nonetheless, Starke could already tell that he had once again succeeded in serving both sides simultaneously. "You were lured away from your home and from protecting your family. I don't doubt that your presence here with me serves Volrath's ends admirably."
Again, Crovax made no response. Starke sighed.
"The longer you're away, the greater the risk to your family. Volrath's forces are probably devastating your home right now." Starke could barely conceal his pleasure—Crovax's own fall from grace was ensured by the nobleman's selfish pursuit of the angel Selenia. "Your family may be dying even as we speak. You should go home, right away."
This seemed to draw Crovax from his stupor. 'I wasn't thinking. I left them alone just so I could find Selenia. I am cursed," he whispered.
"It takes some getting used to," Starke agreed, but even as he spoke, Crovax turned and stumbled off into the darkness. Starke didn't try to stop him; the nobleman needed to return home to see the destruction he had brought down upon his kin. It was the best way to prompt his fall.
All right then; until we meet again, Starke thought, satisfied with the results of his plotting. He stared out of the tent toward the ridge where the Weatherlight waited. Crovax had confirmed for Starke that the one he sought, Gerrard, was no longer aboard. Captain Sisay, however—who would serve Starke's purposes just as well—was still around. Dismissing his distaste for Volrath, Starke made his decision. It's time I sought allies.
And then came Maraxus, Volrath's mercenary and the deal that Starke had been forced to make to save his own skin. They had taken Sisay—and Starke had helped them. By taking Sisay prisoner, Starke argued to his would-be executioners, they might lure their real enemy, Gerrard, out into the open. And surely, Starke had thought, such a plot would merit his daughter's freedom.
In the end, though, it had made no difference. Volrath and Maraxus still refused to free him from servitude and still refused to free his daughter. He had gained nothing by betraying Sisay, and now he was on the run again, praying every moment that Sisay's allies wouldn't learn of his involvement in her capture and that he might find a new ally before Maraxus could catch him again. He knew where he wanted to be when Gerrard finally appeared and caught up with him.
He found Crovax three nights later.
As Starke approached Crovax's camp, he noticed that the nobleman's eyes were bloodshot and his head bobbed with weariness.
Starke fell at his feet in the darkness. "Hide me," he gasped.
"What?" Crovax seemed dazed, as if he couldn't understand the language. "What?"
"I helped you. I risked everything by revealing Volrath's plans to you." Starke pulled himself to his knees. He chose his next words carefully so as not to reveal to Crovax that he had deliberately placed a sigil in Sisay's kidnapping letter to bring Gerrard to Crovax's estate. "Now he intends to kill me for sending you back to protect your family. You have to hide me from the warlord he has sent to murder me."
Crovax slowly sat down in front of Starke. "I cannot hide you in my home."
"There are servants of Volrath in the swamps around my estate." Crovax closed his eyes for a moment, swaying back and forth as if in a trance. Just as Starke was convinced he had fallen asleep, Crovax's eyes opened again. "I have a friend, Alaric, who will hide you. He lives close enough that you can make it on your own."
"I won't make it much further," Starke said. "I'm tired of running,"
"Run a little longer," Crovax suggested.
All around Starke, Maraxus's forces tore down Alaric's elegant mansion in the canyons, looting the chambers of exotic art and precious metals, There was no reason to do so, really. Starke knew it was Maraxus's rage, not avarice, that drove the destruction—rage at being evaded, rage at having to find Starke again.
Maraxus had followed his trail to Crovax and, finally, to here, and he would make Alaric pay for the inconvenience. Starke's captor shoved him from behind, sending him stumbling into the mansion's foyer, where more ogres looted and prepared to burn the house. Maraxus stood just outside the front door, his mask pulled far enough from his face so that he could scratch beneath it, his eyes squinting into the fading sun. As Starke was brought forward, the warlord carefully adjusted his mask back into place.
"Your friend who hides you is dead," Maraxus said simply.
"He wasn't my friend," Starke answered. Maraxus shrugged. "You should not have run,"
Starke said nothing, and Maraxus clearly took his silence as mourning, for the warlord laughed as he drew his sword. He used the point to tear the top button from Starke's vest.
"Volrath is not through with you," he said.
"I never doubted that." Starke quivered slightly as he watched two ogres, their claws and teeth bloodied, stagger down the manor's magnificent staircase, dragging thick leather bags behind them. The bags thumped and banged down the stairs, leaving a wet red trail in their wake.
"Take him to the camp," Maraxus ordered. "Volrath might still want him alive."
As he preceded his captor out into the ruined courtyard of Alaric's gutted home, Starke wondered who or what might save him from Evincar Volrath, Maraxus of Keld, or the sawtooth ogres who all waited for his blood.
"You should carry him, Tahngarth," Gerrard said.
"If we're attacked by hounds again, I drop him," the minotaur answered as he sheathed his sword and hefted Starke over his shoulder. "Otherwise, his weakness kills us all when I cannot fight."
"You have my permission to drop him," Gerrard said. As they continued to walk, he looked up at the dark sky, thankful that the day's heat was gone, and then glanced at the nobleman. "Crovax, I need you to scout ahead. They must be around here somewhere."
Crovax hissed in frustration. "You assume Maraxus's troops didn't find the ship and overrun it."
"Yes. I assume that. They're ogres; they don't fly." Gerrard stopped against the canyon wall, wiped his hand across his damp forehead, and sat down. "This is as good a place as any to stop."
The minotaur Tahngarth slowly lowered Starke to the ground, then sat down beside him, sweat dripping from his great snout. Starke's eyes fluttered open, and he watched as Crovax slipped off into the night to scout ahead, as he had done the previous two evenings since the trio had rescued Starke from Maraxus of Keld's camp. Despite the rescue, Starke knew he could no longer count on anyone but himself to get him out of the ever-tightening noose Volrath had placed around his neck.
"Maraxus has a secret," he whispered through cracked lips. He watched Gerrard lean in closer, gratified that he could still play the game, despite his weariness, despite his fear. "A secret that might kill him."
"Their bones will belong to whoever brings them down!" he bellowed, pointing his blade at the four men who, seconds before, had been sleeping in a boulder's shadow. The ogres howled at the promise.
Starke, who had almost convinced himself that he might never have to face Maraxus or Volrath again, began to moan as Gerrard, Tahngarth, and Crovax scrambled to their feet and drew their weapons, their backs to the canyon wall. There was nowhere to go.
Gerrard assessed his enemies, counting their numbers and wondering how they might get out of this.
"Give me the traitor," Maraxus demanded of Gerrard as his forces drew closer. The ogres spread out in a ragged line to block escape, maces at the ready, and Maraxus moved ahead of them until he was nearly in striking range. "Give him to me and live."
Gerrard glanced at Starke and shrugged indifferently. "No."
Maraxus paused. "Then you will die, and I will take him."
"If he's that important to you," Gerrard said, "one of us will be sure to kill him before we go down."
"I'll do it,"Tahngarth said.
Starke began to consider what offer he could make to Maraxus that might save him, but nothing worthwhile came to mind.
Further out on the canyon floor, a shadow passed, and Starke shuddered, imagining that it was death, come at last to find him.
"I don't want to die," he whispered.
Tahngarth laughed lightly. "It's the best hiding place there is. Be glad you know how to get there."
Maraxus gestured, and the ogres surged forward, their teeth bared, their weapons raised high. They shouted one another down in their eagerness to be the first into the fray, the first to draw blood. Gerrard licked his lips and assumed an attack stance; Tahngarth and Crovax followed suit. Starke drew his dagger, contemplating the advantage of tossing it aside in a gesture of surrender.
And then the Weatherlight fell from above, dropping amidst the ogres, scattering them like leaves on the breeze. As the ship moved the length of the canyon, ogres hacked at its hull with maces and claws, their aggression focused on the ship instead of the battle at hand. They cried out in surprise as the steady press of the Weatherlight flung them crashing against the canyon walls. Sand whirled in a makeshift storm, and when it settled, only the warlord Maraxus remained from his original squad. His cloak had been torn from his shoulders and he appeared to be dizzy but otherwise he seemed unharmed, only furious. His ogres—those who had not fled the canyon in terror—lay dead all around him.
"Tahngarth," Gerrard said, never turning his eyes from the warlord, "when the ship comes back, I want you, Crovax, and Starke to get aboard."
The minotaur harumphed. "We still have this fight."
"No—I have this fight. If Starke's telling the truth, the warlord will be weaker when all of you are gone!'
"If. You put too much faith in that word."
Maraxus found his footing again and hefted his great sword with one hand. As he closed, Tahngarth and Crovax separated from Gerrard, backing up until they were out of the canyon's shadows and in the open. The Weatherlight crew pulled sails and hovered the ship in, dropping rope ladders over the side.
Maraxus watched the minotaur and the nobleman as they pulled themselves to the ship above, his eyes wide and angry within his face mask. "You will still die," he growled, turning back to Gerrard.
"I've heard that before." Gerrard raised his sword's point until it was aimed directly at Maraxus's broad chest. "Starke told me all about your secret—that you draw your strength from whatever's around you, whoever's near. Look around. You're alone."
"There is still you." Maraxus swung a vicious but inelegant blow at Gerrard's head, a decapitating strike if not for its sloppiness. Gerrard backpedaled, sword in parry position, and waited for Maraxus to close again. When he did, Gerrard stabbed at his belly. The warlord deflected the blow but the tip touched high and cut him just the same. Blood running down his chest, Maraxus batted his enemy's thinner blade aside, slashing twice across Gerrard's middle. The first blow nicked Gerrard's chest; the second neatly sliced open his shirt sleeve and cut a great gash across his upper arm. Sidestepping Maraxus's next swing, Gerrard landed a clean cut across the warlord's sword arm. Maraxus hesitated, surprised, and the strength seemed to go out of his body. He sagged as if worn from a long march.
"Surrender," Gerrard said, his breath coming in ragged gasps. "There isn't any need to—"
Maraxus suddenly lurched forward, his eyes wide, and his mask twitched as his facial muscles clenched. The warlord began to quake. His sword slipped clumsily from his fingers, and he groped over his shoulders with both hands, searching blindly for the dagger buried at the base of his neck. He drew one hand back, cocking his head to examine the thick pool of blood in his palm and then half turned to stare at Starke, who crouched behind him in the red sand.
"Not through with you," Maraxus muttered slowly. His voice was small and muffled by his face mask.
"Yes, you are," Starke said.
And Maraxus fell.
"Yes, I did," Starke said. He felt lightheaded with the thrill of the kill—the risk that Maraxus would expose Starke's betrayal of Sisay had been too great to risk letting the warlord live. So Starke had stayed behind when Tahngarth and Crovax had gone, hiding behind a boulder, waiting for the moment to free himself from Maraxus by murdering him. The act had simply felt good. "He had to die. My loyalty is to you."
Gerrard laughed harshly as he held his wounded arm. "You have a strange way of showing it."
"I can lead you to Rath," Starke answered. "I can help you find Sisay. And you know that all I want in return is my daughter's freedom."
The Weatherlight appeared above the canyon wall, and the two men rose to watch it approach.
"Who's to say you didn't simply hand Sisay over to Volrath to get your daughter back?" Gerrard asked, looking pointedly at Starke.
"I say." Starke met Gerrard's stare. "What kind of fool would betray someone and then ally himself with that person's friends? Just whose side do you think I'm on anyway?"
1 have no idea," Gerrard said. "Your own, I guess."
Starke sighed as if insulted, amused, and tired all at once. The last scheme was in place. "I'm on your side."
Gerrard looked up as the Weatherlight drew closer. "I have no reason at all to trust you, Starke. But I need you to get us to Rath. So if you help us, we'll help you—but we'll know where you are and what you're doing every moment. I'll know."
Starke nodded as if in complete agreement.