Several of my personal guards pour through the door, scouting out the rooms that make up my personal quarters before barricading the doors that lead out of the sitting room and positioning themselves by the windows and main door.
The fear doesn’t even register to begin with. All I can do is sit totally still, paralyzed. I have no idea what’s going on. My rooms have always been so sacred. No one enters without my express permission. It felt wrong to even have Aeron in here, let alone my whole guard. Right on the heels of this thought, is the realization that it must be serious. I glance across at Aeron, who is now kneeling on the floor, his hand outstretched to me.
“Our Lady Annalisa, please get down,” Daeryl- one of my usual door guards- requests, quietly. It doesn’t even register in my mind’s shocked state that he wants me to move. He’s stood by the window, looking out over the gardens nervously. His gaze flickers to me when he realises I haven’t complied. “Lady Annalisa – Get down.” I begin to realise that action is required of me but before I can tell my limbs to move, Aeron has pulled me down beside him, his body shielding me slightly. How can he think of keeping the charade up when we could be in danger?
Several moments pass and nothing happens. I’m beginning to hope it’s a false alarm. My heart rate begins to slow. I consider wriggling out from my cramped position, slightly under both Aeron and the bench. Then there’s a bang and glass and shouting. Daeryl cries out and suddenly he hits the floor beside us. There’s blood on his face and an arrow protrudes from his chest. His breathing stutters and stops. Oh, Dear Watchers. Aeron leaps to his feet and the rush of cold air startles me out of my huddle on the floor. He’s already pulling me backwards, away from the window.
A man appears over the window ledge and there’s a whistle of air right beside my ear. Another of my chamber guards has put an arrow in his chest. The man falls forward, which even in this state I can tell is wrong. He should have fallen back out of the window at the angle he was leaning. He lies totally still on my cream rug, his blood soaking into the pale fabric.
Nifi, another of my guards, draws his sword and makes a circuit of the room, checking the barricaded doors for noise and peeking around the blown out window frame. I begin to realise that there’s a huge commotion out in the gardens. Screams, shouts and cries that send chills down my spine come echoing through the window. I feel slightly sick and dizzy as I realise that both dignitaries and my relatives are dying out there at the hands of our unknown foes. Nifi looks grim as he turns away from the gash in my wall.
I start to move away from the far wall before Aeron tugs at my sleeve. I follow his gaze and see that the dead man is twitching. He isn’t twitching in a way that looks like he’s dying either. Before long, he’s pulling himself across the floor by his finger tips, his head still hanging limply and dragging on the floor. There’s a terrible moment when the sickening shuffling sound is all I can hear, the horrible background noise just isn’t registering any more. Then arrows whistle past over and over again. He jerks with every arrow that buries itself inside him but all the time he keeps moving along the floor. He’s between us and the door. I want to look at Aeron but I just can’t look away.
I’m backed right up against the wall, side by side with Aeron. The dead intruder is within kicking distance when he stops pulling himself along and his arms drag themselves back down by his sides. I realise there’s silence in the gardens now. That scares me even more.
The dead man’s hand comes up suddenly. I flatten myself to the wall in response. He’s holding something. We may not be able to stop him with arrows but I’m sure he could still kill us with a knife. However, in his outstretched hand he holds a scroll. He freezes there for a few moments before his hand fades from grey-pink to the colour of stone and begins to crumble. Although I’m careful not to look too closely, I can see that his face is undergoing the same change. His body seems to be disappearing from within his tunic and leggings. Soon, all that is left of him is a dusty outline and clothes.
I haven’t moved since his hand came up. I take a shuddering breath and glance up at Aeron. His mouth is turned down slightly at the corners and his brow has furrowed in concentration.
“Should I...?” I don’t know quite what I’m asking of him. I have no idea what to do.
“I don’t know,” His voice is filled with confusion and he seems almost apologetic for it.
“What was he?” Despite the Power I have, my studies on the subject were always based on magic that would aid my people, such as climate control or diplomatic advantage. People being altered by magic featured about as highly on the list of priorities as weapons did. The North Lands are a totally peaceful nation- we don’t even had an army. Maybe I ought to turn that well known phrase into the past tense. This seems to be a pretty open act of hostility on someone’s behalf. I realise the guards are still standing around, looking agitated. I dismiss them to help their fellows with whatever has happened outside before Aeron can reply, leaving us alone. Only when the door closes behind them does Aeron reply.
“Compulsion spell,” Aeron mutters, only half talking to me. At my only partially understanding face, he continues. “The caster puts a spell on the person they want to carry out a task- in this case the task appears to be bringing you this scroll. If the person willingly and successfully does as the spell wants them to, then the person feels no effects of the spell other than increased motivation. If they defy the caster, though, they begin to be compelled to carry out the task, all the time in terrible pain. It forces them to comply.”
“But why did he disintegrate?” I feel my brow furrow as well. What is it they say about married couples becoming more alike? I would have smiled to myself under other circumstances.
“He had to finish his task,” Aeron says, simply. “When he died with his task unfinished, the spell consumed energy from his body to fuel him until the task’s completion. Had he had to go further than he held energy for, the spell would draw it from the surroundings.”
“Why have I never heard of these spells? They seem useful, despite their potentially destructive nature,” to rulers and people in positions such as my own, they would be an invaluable tool to anyone without scruples concerning free-will or a respect for life.
“They’re obscure magic, now,” Aeron says in a way that betrays his confusion at who could have used such magic. “Very few people know of them as their utility was disregarded centuries ago due to the potential destruction they could wreak. Whole kingdoms could be eaten up to feed a spell for an especially large task.”
I make a sound of understanding and withdraw into my own thoughts for a moment. Should I open the scroll? This man’s life was consumed by the delivery of this message. I feel I owe it to him but this feeling of obligation isn’t so strong as to overshadow my concern for my own life.
“I should consult The Watchers before I do anything,” I tell Aeron, quietly. I start towards the door before he stops me with a hand placed on my forearm.
“No,” he says firmly. “I think it’s safe to presume that the events of today are acts of war. The fewer people we include in crucial deliberations, the better. The Watchers have no knowledge of Power or politics. Their contribution is purely spiritual. What use can they be?”
“The Watchers have been the wise spiritual leaders of this nation for centuries. You have been my husband for no more than an hour or so,” I retort. The implications of these time scales are perfectly clear.
“They’re no more than pompous old men who wish to exercise what little power they have as often as possible, regardless of the consequences,” Aeron replies. His tone isn’t confrontational though, merely matter of fact.
I just stare at him, exasperated. He’s right about the magic thing though. I can’t afford to upset Aeron; he’s my source of knowledge on this matter. I nod once- a short, jerky movement that in no way feels like an agreement. It has to be though. The Watchers may be trusted advisors but they are the less helpful option right now and I have to do what is right for my nation. I try to remember that as I take a deep breath and turn to Aeron once more.
“So, do I open it?” We have to make a decision. No matter what has happened in the gardens- and the thought still brings bile into my throat- guards will be looking to secure my position pretty soon.
“Yes, but not here,” he says and I want to hit him at his impracticality. Where, then? The whole of Alnora Palace has been turned upside down and he wants it to be somewhere other than the one place we can be alone?
“Well, where then?” I ask him, hardly keeping the irritation out of my voice. I catch myself though. I am the Guide of the North Lands. I have years of practice at hiding and controlling my emotions. Why am I letting this man get under my skin? I mentally shake myself. It has to be an effect of all of the fear.
To my surprise, he grins. “Come on, Annie,” he says as he starts to pull me out of the door and through the maze of corridors.