Ludger and Dieter arrived at the same time, both men with their breakfasts. The servant returned with the other food. “Ludger, please check this food for poison,” Lilavati said. Manas looked at her with some surprise. “After what we have realized? I do not trust more than a few now.”
Ludger held his hands over the food. A light mist settled over what sat in front of them. Manas’ cider glowed as did Lilavati’s slab of ham. “Those are both full of poison, Great Lady,” he said.
The servant frowned. “They came from the hands of one of the cook’s servants. She said she’d taken great care with them,” he said.
“Which one?” Dieter asked.
“Saskia,” the servant said.
“I have no servant with that name that I recall,” Manas said. He looked at Dieter. “You have a better idea of who I have in my employ, however. Is that name familiar to you?”
Dieter shook his head. “I’ve never heard it before in all the years I’ve been in your service, and I’ve spoken with each and every person who lives in the servants’ quarters.”
“Saskia,” Lilavati murmured. The men looked at her. Magda pulled on her braids as she looked from face to face. “Does that name not mean ‘knife’ or ‘blade’ in your tongue?”
Captain Dittmar, who’d just walked up, grabbed hold of the servant. “What did this woman look like?” he demanded.
“Small, like Margareta, with red hair and green eyes,” the servant said. “She has freckles all over her face too, and was wearing a dark gray homespun dress.”
The captain spun on his heels and ran back towards the camp with two of his men in tow. “He won’t find her,” Magda said.
“Why not?” Dieter asked.
“She turned into smoke,” Magda said. “The black man took her away just like he put her here before everyone woke up.”
Manas swore. “Magda, why don’t you start with what you know? Then we’ll go on with our conversation.” He glanced over his shoulder at the servant. “You’re dismissed.”
The man looked miserable as he slunk off. “It was not his fault, sikha. If the creature who impersonated a servant was brought here by dark magic, then it would mean nothing to her creator to use another spell to cloud the mind of those who saw her,” Lilavati said. She glanced at Ludger. “I understand that kind of magic, though uncommon, is possible.”
Ludger nodded, careful not to draw too much attention to himself. “I’ve heard that myself, Great Lady, though I’ve not got the talent to dabble in it myself.”
“Magda, tell us what the blue eyed lady has said,” Manas said.
Magda played with the amulet around her neck. “She says that you have to go to the Halls of the Damned. The black man knows you’re going, and he knows if you go through you’ll learn things he doesn’t want you to learn. So he’s been trying to stop you ever since he learned you were taking a black skinned bride.”
“Is the black man dark like me?” Lilavati asked.
“She doesn’t say so, but I think he is,” Magda said. “Or he knows your land at least, because he knows about some of the magic from your home.” For being only five years old, Lilavati was impressed with just how intelligent Magda was and how she seemed to know exactly what not to say. She wondered if the girl’s mother was guiding her somehow. “He’s the one who sent the silent assassin with the poisoned cloud to your home. When it failed, he sent the poison rain. After that, he kept trying more and more direct methods. The evil preester wasn’t part of his plans and he got really angry when she started getting involved too.”
“So Theda wasn’t part of his plans?” Ludger asked.
Magda shook her head. “He doesn’t know what she was after,” she said. “Neither does the blue eyed lady. All she knows is that the evil preester didn’t get what she wanted.” She frowned. “The blue eyed lady says that the black man won’t ever confront you directly while you’re traveling. He wants you home. She doesn’t know why.” Magda shrugged. “That’s all she’s told me.”
“So at least we know who’s been trying to stop us from getting there,” Manas said. “Now I want to know who’s had a hand in pushing us on the path to reach them.”
“Great Lord?” Ludger asked.
“My katali and I realized something this morning as we talked,” Manas said. “Magda only confirmed what we already guessed – that there was a dark sorcerer trying to hinder our path. We feel there is something of the Light, or at least of the Grey, that’s attempting to make certain we reach there.”
“Who or what is it, though?” Dieter asked.
“That is what we do not know,” Lilavati said. She frowned. “Sikha, what do you mean ‘of the Grey?'”
“With the Twelve, and among most of those in all the Northlands who use both divine and secular magic, there are three parts,” Manas said. “Light, Grey, and Dark. With the Twelve, there are four of each. That way there’s always a balance among them. The Grey walk the line between both Light and Dark, drawing power from both sides, but not being truly a part of either.”
“It’s the same for the Grey preesters and sorcerers,” Ludger said. “I include anyone, man or woman, who uses anything other than divine magic in that, Great Lady, that follows the path of the Grey.” He paused. “I myself am one of the Grey.”
“There is so much I do not know of this land, and yet I am expected to become one of the ruling elite,” Lilavati said, rubbing her temples.
“It’s your lack of knowledge that will actually help you here,” Dieter said. “Great Lord, you said you wanted to change things. The Great Lady will definitely give you that ability.”
“Yes she will,” Manas said. “Assuming we both survive the Halls of the Damned. Assuming we make it there in the first place.”
“He won’t try to stop you anymore,” Magda said, looking off into the distance. “The blue eyed lady says he’s changing his place of attack. He will go after Phiri Hu, when you’re back there. She doesn’t know when or how though.”
“The fact that we know he’s going to leave us alone is somewhat comforting,” Manas said.
“Visions aren’t always true, Great Lord,” Ludger said.
“We will be on our guard, Ludger,” Manas said. He avoided the poisoned cider and worked on the rest of his breakfast, passing part of his ham to Lilavati. She in turn shared her cider with him. “How much longer to the Halls?”
Ludger pulled out his map and consulted it. “If we leave here in two days, which I would prefer as it will give me time to finish building back up my energy, we’ll reach it in three days.”
to be continued…