Carrying a passenger was a new experience for Cathal, made doubly tense by the urgency of their errand and triply so because it was Sophia astride his back. He climbed above the clouds as smoothly as he could, and as quickly, since hesitation wouldn’t be useful. When he leveled out and felt Sophia’s weight still securely in place, with her breathing steady next to him, relief ran through him like strong drink.
Navigating by the stars, he flew slowly toward the south and Valerius’s lands, avoiding when he could any winds that would make him rise or fall too steeply or angle too sharply. It was not the most exciting bit of flying he’d ever done, but he wasn’t eager for it to end. Having Sophia close, even when he wasn’t in human shape, with the stars arcing overhead and the whole wide sky spread out before him… He could have stayed for far longer.
In time, reluctantly and more gently than he’d ascended, he dove back under the clouds to look for landmarks. He noted the small flecks of light from manors and stayed as far away as he could. Cottages were only lumps in the darkness, far harder to avoid, but they mattered less. Any peasant could claim to have seen a dragon, but it would take far longer for the story to reach anyone who knew its significance, and by that time, God willing, they’d be gone and Valerius dead.
For a while he could hear owls and bats, the few among his fellow creatures of the air who went abroad at night. Like most animals, they stayed well away from him, but he knew their cries as part of a familiar chorus.
As they approached Valerius’s lands, that chorus faded. They didn’t travel in silence as they’d done above the clouds, but the night birds’ calls were few, and many sounded weaker. Odd: he’d have expected more bats and owls near the sorcerer’s domain. Most said they were creatures of the devil.
Granted, most said that about dragons too.
Near the same time, the air changed. Cathal didn’t think anyone human would have noticed the faint staleness to it, or the slight suggestion of rot, but both were there, and got stronger the closer he flew. The colors of the land below him were muted too, even for early spring, and about them there was a hint of grayish-red, like a wound gone bad.
The land is poisoned, Lady Bellecote had said.
No wonder the birds sounded unhealthy; no wonder the crops never did very well. Even the edge of Valerius’s domain was wrong, though wrong in a way few humans could have pinpointed or even spoken about. Cathal didn’t think he needed to view the place through magical sight. For certes, he desired no such thing.
With everything in him, he wished to turn back. The thought of setting foot on the corrupted land was repugnant, and the idea of sending Sophia alone into it was worse. He felt his lips pull back into a snarl, exposing his teeth as if he could threaten Valerius from this distance—or rip his throat out—and he knew both impulses to be futile.
Only one course of action stood a chance of helping.
Near the border was a small stand of trees, far enough from any cottages that Cathal doubted anyone would come here until high summer, if that. He circled slowly down to a landing, wincing at the first contact with the earth.
It didn’t hurt, precisely. But it felt more yielding and more clinging than snowmelt or rain would explain, and he thought of how Sophia had described the earth in her dreams.
He could have no doubts about whose land they’d found.
Holding still, he felt Sophia extracting herself from the harness, then watched as she slid to the ground. Their surroundings didn’t seem to disgust her. She smiled brilliantly up at him. “That was wonderful. Amazing. I-I would write a book, would anyone believe me, and did it not expose you and yours too greatly. I… Well, I thank you.”
On the last, she ducked her head, her dark lashes long against her cheeks, and then began to undo the harness until Cathal shook his head at her.
“Oh? Very well,” she said and stepped back.
He changed. The world became bigger and higher; as always, it took a moment or two before he felt as though he moved right. He was standing in the middle of the harness, within a loop quite large enough for his body. Sophia comprehended, and laughed quietly.
“I believe I can get it back on when I return,” she said. “I hope, at least.”
“It won’t matter so much then. We’ll likely not have to hide on our way out, so I’ll not need to go so high so fast.”
“Oh,” Sophia said, and smiled again, equally brilliantly. “It’s almost a disappointment, truly. But then, if it’s in the day, it might be just as interesting to see the world from on high—and I suppose I shouldn’t be anticipating anything just yet,” she added, the smile dying.
Cathal wished he had the words to bring her smile back, or that it would be just to do so. All he could do was nod. “Seven days?”
“I should think that time enough, or as much time as we can afford. It’s not a large place.” They’d planned all this at the castle. Now they confirmed it, as much because a plan was reassuring as to keep the details fresh in their minds. “Should I need to stay longer, I’ll do my best to come back here and give you that message. And if I’m not back in seven days, you will go back to the castle.”
It was not a request, nor even a recommendation. “You’ve been speaking with Douglas.”
“He told me nothing I couldn’t have reasoned out for myself. If I… If the worst happens,” she said, and smoothed her hands over her skirt, “you’ll need to get word back, and it’ll do no good to have you come in breathing fire from above, most likely. If you go back then, you and your family can perhaps send men in, or come yourselves, or…or try the sorts of magic you know.”
There was no gap in her reasoning, no hole that Cathal could find to justify any argument. He would’ve given years of his life for one, but there was nobody to take him up on that offer, and so he could only nod. Where Sophia was going, he’d be more hindrance than help. Again he had to wait, and hope, and know himself to be useless.
Just so, it came to him, how the women in the camps must have felt before battles. His mother too, mayhap. Real war had been more distant in Cathal’s youth; his mother had been a sorceress who could aid her husband from a distance; and even in age, Artair was harder to kill than the rocks around them, but there were always threats.
If they endured, so could he. It was no new thing, sending one’s—
Before Cathal’s mind could supply the word and shock him further, Sophia spoke again. “I believe I’m well supplied enough for the journey. If you think you’ll need food, waiting, I can leave some.”
Cathal shook his head. “I’ll hunt. Should I get desperate, I’ll take a sheep and leave the coin for it later. And I’ve gone a fair few days without food before.”
“If you’re in danger,” she said, “if we were wrong and he can track your presence even here, if you have to leave, you should. Leave me a sign if you can, but if I return and you’re not here, I’ll wait a night, then try to make my way back to your lands.”
Sophia waved a hand, not understanding why the distinction was important. In truth, Cathal wasn’t sure why he’d felt the need to make it just then, but it had been irresistible. “I’m only human, and there’s nothing exceptional about me. And I have coin and skills. I’ll be all right.”
“Don’t,” he said. It was almost a growl, but she didn’t flinch.
“Very well. I have as good a chance as anyone of being all right. Better than many people would have. It…” He saw the whites of her wide eyes, the swell of her breasts as she gulped air, and the swift motion with which she pushed back a stray lock of hair, as if she could tuck away fear as quickly and completely. “It shall suffice, yes?”
“It must,” said Cathal.
He wanted to tell her again that she didn’t need to do this. She could turn away from the path before her and the blighted place to which it led. She’d done enough. But that would be insulting, he knew, and besides, it was no longer the truth. The journey into Valerius’s domain was the best hope that any of them had. Sophia was the best person to make it now.
And so there was nothing more he could do.
“We will come for you,” he said. “If you’re captured. I’ll pluck Agnes out of her tower if I need to and get her to weave spells for us, or I’ll drag my father home from his treaties. Or I’ll manage what’s needed myself. I can, given time.”
Unexpectedly, she smiled again, and in her smile was an echo of those hours flying beneath the stars, with only the two of them and no need for words. Even Cathal didn’t see her move when she stepped forward. She flowed toward him, reached up, and cupped the side of his face in one hand. “I would never doubt it,” Sophia said.
“You’re wrong,” he said thickly, and clasped her shoulders in his hands. She looked up at him, startled, about to argue the point. “Not about rescue. Earlier.”
“Everything about you is exceptional,” he said, and kissed her before she could reply.
Rather, she didn’t reply in words. Her response was as desperate as his embrace. Sophia didn’t melt into his arms so much as throw hers around him, grasping him with the urgent strength he remembered from the flight, now colored and transformed by sensuality. As her mouth opened before his, her hands roamed his back, short nails almost scoring his skin even through his clothing.
He kissed her as if by sheer force he could make them both forget what waited, as though with his lips and tongue and his hands on her breasts he could himself cast a spell to banish Valerius to whatever hell would claim him in the end. He drank Sophia’s little gasps of desire like the strongest wine and wanted nothing more than to hear those sounds, to feel her fingers twined in his hair, to think of nothing else, to think nothing at all.