Dusk had lengthened into night as we made our way back to the camp. My guards kept their grips on my arms, simply lifting me over trouble spots. I was miserable, my thoughts a jumble of worry for my daughter, my situation, and a roil of political rammifications. Was I to be ransomed? A prisoner of war? I shuddered, thinking of the prison built to hold magic users within Elenia. I had never visited Nimion, but they likely had their own place to deal with magic.
The gag tasted awful, a mix of dirt and leather lingering on the linen. With the piece in my mouth spread over my tongue, I couldn’t escape the taste, only swallow as the need arose. I watched as we neared the tents, seeing how many of the soldiers took note of our arrival. Thinking of Zander, still missing, I looked around slowly. To my left, I saw a dusty soldier being lectured by a very angry man, and recognized my first guard. His eyes met mine as we walked past, and anger as well as shame danced across his features for a moment, before he looked away. White canvas blocked my view of him, and my honor guard pushed me forward after Braxton, who walked with purpose ahead.
The center of the soldier tents was divided between two larger tents. A circular tent on the right must be Braxton’s personal tent. And next to it was a large rectangular tent, with the side lacing open to allow entry into the well-lit interior. The tent was easily 30 feet long, and as we ducked inside, I could see it was at least half again as wide. The center, between the two upright poles which held the tent’s roof support up, was taken up by benches, arranged in a circle on woven rugs. At the edges of the tent were chests and tables, with no seeming order to their arrangement.
Braxton had crossed to the left, stripping his leather gloves as he went. My guards stopped in the center of the tent, and I had a moment to examine the tent’s decoration. The whole of the room was lit with oil lamps, in iron brackets on the main poles, flickering in the soft wind from the open door. The chests were all of a similar quality and scattered around the edges of the tent. The tables were simple slats of wood with four legs, easy to pack in and out, also spread evenly, and some were covered with different items, leather or boxes, scroll cases, ink and parchment. The rug was utilitarian, brown, and had clearly seen a campaign or two, judging from the darker spots in the center. It puzzled me, until I thought of why Braxton was here. If he was a forward movement for the Nimion declaration of war, where were the other soldiers? Where were the other lords with their tents and strategies?
Braxton had stripped his helm and guantlets, laying them on the table he stood before. Bending, he retrieved something from the chest beneath the table, before turning back to me. Something about his look made me uneasy, though it was a useless sentiment. My arms were still bound behind my back, my gag still doing it’s job. I was essentially at this man’s mercy, and I hated it.
“It is fortunate we found you. I have much I want to discuss with you, but of course, we can’t speak as you currently are.” Braxton gestured at me, and I sighed. “And I won’t insult you with an offer of an oath or your word. We both know such things pale compared to our oaths to our Kingdoms. I am glad I brought this with me.” He gestured to a dark wooden box in his hands, polished till it gleamed in the light. As he opened it, my heart went cold, and fell to the pit of my stomach. Within the thin box lay two half circles of silver metal, with small petals of gold metal flecked with black all pointing towards the center of the circle. One side was joined, while the other was open, and the half circles each contained a black stone. Panic shot up my body, and I began to struggle against my bonds. Braxton laughed softly. “You recognize it? I wasn’t sure you would have anything quite like it in Elenia. Well, best to be done quickly.”
And suddenly there were extra hands holding me still as Braxton advanced with his necklace. I bucked, twisted, and kicked, yelling the entire time. I felt bound to trees, so little did my struggles help, as the soldiers merely lifted me off the ground. Someone grabbed my legs and a hand gathered my hair as terrified, I watched Braxton advance. The necklace was a null, a way to cancel out a caster’s ability to draw on magic. I had never seen one up close, but knew of them in principle. I wouldn’t be able to cast magic, or use my spells.
His hands bore the half metal circles forward, and he began chanting, priming the magic to lock into place. For a moment, my vision went green, as I tried uselessly to draw on the forest. There was a sharp pain all around my neck, and blackness descended as I heard the null click into place.
I walked in the shade of a gray landscape. Dust coated the road, and the trees stood with no leaves, the pale light dissolving all shadows. The sky was overcast with thin shapeless gray, and no life showed across the hazy expanse. I was standing atop a rise, overlooking a barren valley of skeletal trees and dust clouds, my hair swept back by sharp, cold wind. As far as I looked, gray, dead land looked back, lacking the warm green energy of life I normally felt from the forest. I wept, and the dust swallowed my tears greedily, where I knelt alone in the corpse of the wood.
I awoke lying on my back, furs beneath my fingers. As my eyes slowly opened, my entire body felt weighed down with the dust of the dream land. My ears echoed with the sound of the wind as I turned to look about the tent I lay in. Bright yellow sunlight streamed through the door, and a woman sat next to the flap, her body aimed towards my sleeping place as she watched something outside the door. She was in plain clothes, pants and a tunic, but something about her screamed soldier to my fuzzy mind. I blinked at her, and she turned her head, catching my eyes.
“Oy. You’re awake.” She moved from the door to my side, her hands brushing hair out of my eyes as I stared at her. “Can you speak?” I opened my dust-parched mouth, and no sound came out. Frustrated, I tried again.
“Water?” The woman nodded, her brown eyes serious as she poured from a pitcher near my feet. I struggled to sit up, managing to turn on my side. My arm shook as I pushed myself up, and the soldier watched me appraisingly. I was angry as I gasped for breath after sitting up. Patient, the soldier waited, and handed me the cup. It felt like a weighted rock instead of a glass in my hand, and slowly I lifted it and drank. The water was divine, cool and refreshing as it wet my parched throat. Handing it back to the woman, I tried to organize my thoughts.
“How long have I been asleep?” I asked her, as she refilled the cup. Handing it back to me, she rose, standing above me.
“Since dark last night. It’s mid-afternoon now.” Moving to the door, she spoke to someone softly just outside the tent flap. Sipping my drink, I gingerly thought back on the dream. A barren forest, skeleton trees, no people to be seen. Did it have meaning beyond the dream, or was it an effect of the null?
Carefully, I set the empty cup on the ground, and reached to my neck. The null was cold to my touch, a heavy weight on my collarbone. My fingers began to tingle as I traced the path of the petals, where they seemed to bite into my skin, held fast by the magic of the necklace. I realized the soldier was watching me, and self-consciously dropped my hand to my lap. My finger tips continued tingling, even as I rubbed them down my leg.
We sat in silence for several minutes, no conversation blooming between us. I fought the urge to lay back down, knowing I would return to sleep if I did. It was hard to tell how I felt, but the steady weakness could only be a part of the null. I turned my thought inward, and could feel a downward pull, like the edge of sleep, right before the tumble from conscious thought into dream world.
“…awake? She looks asleep sitting up to me.” Lord Braxton’s voice echoed through the fog, and I fought to lift sand bags with my eyelids. The soldier was by the door, and Braxton, dressed in a knee length blue tunic, dark pants reaching the top of his soft leather boots, was kneeling in front of me. Startled, I blinked at him. Scowling, he held a hand out over my chest, magic glowing along his fingers. “I didn’t anticipate the null would affect you this strongly. It makes no sense. Previous wearers have only reported a wall between them and their magic. This lethargy is completely unprecedented.”
“Nature magic is different from arcane.” My speech was slurred and I scowled. Now I was weak and helpless, my two least favorite things.
“Yes, yes, I know. Nature magic is ever present in living things, and directly connected with the natural world. Arcane magic is studied and learned. Anyone can learn arcane magic, with time and practice. Nature casters, however, must have that innate connection to the green energy of nature.” Impatient, Braxton began pacing the tent. “The null severs a persons ties to magic, working as a natural barrier between those energies and the caster.”
“Except a nature caster is pulling that energy from within. If the barrier is a wall, then it is built within me, where my magic comes from.” I spoke as quickly as I could, barreling on with volume if not speed. “Your magic is drawn in like a breath, a way to bring magic into your body and use it. You can store it, in gems or foci, or you can choose to hold it a short time. In contrast, my magic comes from within my body, connected through the sympathetic ties of life to more magic, which I can draw on for a price. For me, it is as if I can exhale magic.” For a moment, tears threatened to fall, and angrily I swallowed them down. I had more to say on the matter of magic. “A null, when used on a nature caster, is a constant torment, as it fights against the very magic of life. Surely, your own people advised you against this…”
“We have no one to advise us in nature magics, as we have no users powerful enough or sane enough to speak with.” Braxton sighed, and settled himself on the ground across from me. He looked as tired as I felt for a moment, a swirl of emotions in his blue eyes. I was feeling more awake, after my impassioned speech, as if the effects of the necklace were lessened by my activity. “Honestly, we aren’t sure what happened to our nature casters. We had a small community in the North, and no one has heard from them in several months. The King sent scouts to find a report, but the scout’s didn’t return. He is convinced it is the precursor to an attack, and so has put forth decrees to protect his citizenry. I had hoped to speak to you of these matters, as we head North.”
“North? Why are you taking me North? Isn’t the King on his estates to the west?” My knowledge of Nimion geography might be flawed, but at least I knew where the royal seat should be. North held very few settled lands, mostly grazing and lumber with a scattering of Noble houses, overseeing common farms. Elenia was cut off by steep, inhospitable mountains, between the borders.
“North is where the trouble started, and the war. If your knowledge of nature can help us decipher where the trouble came from, we might save your countrymen a great deal of trouble. The official declaration of war should reach your King in 12 days time, if my news on the matter is correct. That gives us precious little time to find answers.” Braxton met my eyes, his own serious.
“You want my help?” Suddenly cold, I stared at him blankly for a moment before a thought dawned like sunlight in my dust addled brain. “You came looking for me! That’s why you are here, unsupported and mucking about in Elenia’s northern woods. But how would you even know I was near? How could you possibly have an idea where we…” dumbfounded, I halted, staring at him. He had planned this all along, planned the null even, for me. For a moment, I wasn’t sure if anger, alarm, panic, or hysteria were going to win.
“We needed a nature caster, someone knowledgeable, and we had no one. I knew you, by reputation as well as our time together in Elenia’s courts. I didn’t know you were here, I knew there was a group of nature folk up here, but not that you were here. I had hoped to find someone, and to save us the time of having to debate it, I brought the null. I don’t care if I have to drag the King of Nimion to the North to face the facts, I will find answers. This war will affect my lands first, here so close to the border.” Braxton smiled wearily, and rose. One of his guards leaned in the door, and Braxton held up his hand, motioning the man outside the tent. “My soldiers will pack camp at first light. We leave for the North tomorrow. I hope you are more recovered by then, as we will need your expertise.”
“You didn’t even try to ask first.” My soft words stopped Braxton as he was leaving. “You planned to use force on whatever poor sop you found, without a thought to asking for help. Why didn’t you just ask me?” My tears from earlier were threatening again, though I had no mind to stop them. Braxton hesitated, then ducked out of the tent without answering. Weary, I lay back down on the furs, my tears hot on my cheeks, and let the blackness take me.