User:Holyknight3000/thekey chapter6

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The Key is a fan fiction piece by Tamrend, originally posted in the Fan Fiction Forum. The fiction series has been going since February 2004, and still see the occasional update with more chapters or parts of chapters. You can find more information on The Key article.


Chapter 6: Dalmers Ferry[edit | edit source]

Kelsia's idea of a city had always been that of a place very much like her own village, only larger. This was something else altogether. Dalmers Ferry spanned both banks of a great, wide river flowing east to west over the plain. Beyond the sprawling gathering of buildings near the riverbank, farming plots made a patchwork of the surrounding countryside for miles around. And the closer they came, the more immense the city seemed to grow.

For the first time since their flight from the village, they began to see travelers on the road, moving toward or away from the city by horse and cart. Kelsia smiled at seeing a group of children playing tag near the roadside. Though she had given up on such games only a few years before, it seemed like much, much longer.

To the left, a road drew in, converging on the city. Across the river, another road snaked eastward, a tiny ribbon in the distance. One last road went due north.

"I think that one goes to Kurast," Shael said, pointing to the road running southwest. Compared to the road they traveled, the traffic there was nearly constant. Kelsia could not even guess where the other two would lead. No one she had ever known had gone far in either direction. The Far East was a mystery shrouded in a hundred tales, all too fantastic to believe. She knew nothing of the North except that it was cold, and that it was said the mountains there touched the sky.

Up ahead and a fair pace from the edge of town, a line of wagons had formed in the road. Men were scrambling around and over the cart at the head of the line. As they drew closer, they saw that the men wore helmets and chain mail. One of them, an officer by the way he ordered the others around, wore a green cloak with the standard of a hawk in flight embroidered on it. The soldiers presently finished their inspection of the wagon and waved the driver through. The officer looked to the next traveler with a bored expression.

Kelsia gave Shael a sidelong look. "My father never spoke of anything like this in Dalmers Ferry. What do you think?"

Shael frowned as the soldiers searched between and underneath the barrels sitting inside the cart that had just pulled forward. "They're obviously looking for something. Maybe someone."

"We have to get inside the city," Kelsia said firmly. Her words did little to ease the dread that had tightened into a lump she couldn't quite manage to swallow.

When their time came, two soldiers stepped forward and took hold of the reins of their horses. Another man glanced at each of them in turn and shook his head. "It's just a couple of girls," he called to the officer. He waved at the pair who held the reins to move back. "Let them pass." Kelsia urged Copper forward up the empty roadway. It took all of her resolve not to look back to see if they were being watched or followed. It was a relief to hear the sounds of the next traveler being scrutinized.

The noise in front of them steadily increased the closer they came to the edge of the city. A few merchants had set up carts on the roadside out in front of city entrance and called out their wares as the pair of them passed by. It was difficult not to stare at the variety and oddity of goods available, from the huge, flattened green spheres that a trader proclaimed as squashes to a collection of intricate wooden dolls with joints and strings. A vendor demonstrated the latter by making one dance on the strings hanging down from the end of a pair of sticks.

They passed through a wide stone archway that marked the entrance into the city proper. The roadway changed from dirt to brick as they crossed the threshold. Kelsia felt as though she had been plunged into another world. A constant babble of voices assailed her from all directions. Conversation, argument, and laughter all merged into a nearly incoherent buzz. More distressing still was the smell, a vile blend of food, human bodies, excrement and rot. Mercifully, she soon became used to it and was only aware of it as a vaguely repugnant undercurrent.

As they made slow progress through the marketplace, Kelsia glanced over from time to time to be sure Shael was still with her. They had to stop for long moments to wait for an opening to go forward. Soon, though, they realized that people would move aside if they simply pressed on through and began to make better speed.

Gradually the crowd thinned, the street vendors dropped behind and the street narrowed. The clopping of the horses' hooves echoed down the alleyways to either side, making it sound as though a host of riders flanked them. Some of the buildings towered two or even three stories high. Glancing upward at these gave Kelsia a nervous, disquieting feeling. She feared that they might topple over onto her at any moment. They passed by a few smaller inns, but none of the pictures on the door signs depicted a shepherd.

The ground sloped gradually downward as they traveled. Abruptly, they emerged into sunlight. The sky opened up above them and the river before them. The street ended at a kind of wooden platform extending out over the water. Boats bobbed gently in the current, floating next to the same wood structures upstream and down from them. A brick road paralleled the waterfront, intersecting roads leading back in among the buildings at even intervals.

"We're never going to find the inn like this," Kelsia said. "It could take hours--days even--to search all the streets."

Shael nodded her agreement and looked around. Sighting a passerby, she trotted Cloud over and leaned down to ask directions. The man nodded and said a few words, then pointed across the water. Shael thanked him and returned. Kelsia did not need to ask to know what it meant. "We need to cross the river."

They began to search the waterfront for a ferry. Out on the river, a single-masted sailing vessel coasted upstream, pacing them. As it approached a dock, the sails were quickly furled. A pair of crewman leapt to the pier and secured the boat with rope to the decking. Almost at once, four soldiers started down the wooden pier toward the ship. Sharp orders were issued to the men, who lined up on the deck. Three of the soldiers searched the ship while the fourth looked the men over carefully.

"I don't think that's normal," Shael remarked as they watched the spectacle unfold.

"Don't stare," Kelsia warned. The soldier inspecting the crew had caught their looks and was peering back at them. They feigned disinterest as they rode by the end of the pier, though Kelsia could feel his gaze on her back like an itch she wanted to scratch. When they were well past, Kelsia risked a glance back and saw that the soldier was no longer watching them.

They soon came to a ferryboat and dismounted to walk the horses on the less sure footing of the dock planking. At the boat side, they had to pass another checkpoint before being allowed onboard. The soldiers barely looked at them, waving them on almost at once.

The ferryman put up his hand to stop them. "That'll be, eh--" he glanced at the two of them and their horses. "Three silver pennies for you and your beasts." Kelsia counted out the coins and handed them over, trying not to think of what such a small fortune could have bought her back home.

Copper balked at the unstable footing as they stepped onboard. Kelsia tugged his reins, careful not to upset him, drawing him forward in small steps until his rear hooves stood upon the wide, flat top of the ferry. Cloud gave Shael far less trouble, following Shael's lead carefully but without fear. Since his encounter with the werewolf, Copper had been skittish and ill-tempered, though his behavior had been improving steadily as the day went on.

A few more passengers came aboard after them, the ferryman scanning the shore for any more potential customers before hauling in the gangplank and untying the moorings. He pushed off from the dock and picked up a pole that must have been six times his own height. Another man, much younger, took up station at the front of the boat with a similar pole. They moved out deeper into the river channel, the current taking them with a mild lurch. They drifted downstream as they crossed, coming to a smooth rest at a pier on the opposite shore.

Yet again, a soldier was there to observe them disembarking. Before getting off, though, Kelsia asked the ferryman for directions to the Shepherd's Hearth. "Four streets over, that way," he said, pointing. "Go on up 'til you see the tailor's shop. Then go right and you'll find it soon enough."

Even with directions, they missed the turn and had to backtrack. Kelsia spotted what she guessed to be the right inn. A sign of a shepherd's crook hung above the door. "This is it," she said, feeling both relief and anxiety at having reached their destination at last. They tied their horses to the railing post at the front before entering.

The common room of the Shepherd's Hearth was crowded, nearly every seat at the tables and bar filled. Almost half of the customers appeared to be soldiers. Kelsia peered around in the haze of the smoke-filled room. She spotted the innkeeper, a rail-thin old woman dozing at the end of the bar, a small locked box sitting next to her. Kelsia and Shael waded carefully through the maze of tables, chairs, and people. The innkeeper was asleep sitting up, her head ****ed over at an angle. Over the din of laughing and conversation, they could clearly hear the woman's snores. Kelsia exchanged an amused glance with her friend, and tapped the edge of the bar loudly to wake her.

One of the woman's eyes snapped open and darted back and forth between the two of them. The other eye opened slowly, as though less eager to be pulled from sleep. "You want rooms, yes?" she said, then grimaced as she got a look at the humble cut of their clothing.

Kelsia had to raise her voice to be heard over the other noise. "No, we're looking for someone. Seith. Does he have a room here?"

"Seith. Seith," the woman muttered to herself. She ran a finger down the page of the book in front of her. "No Seith staying here, girls."

Kelsia looked down at the book. The letters were so much nonsense to her. "Are you sure?" she asked, her spirits falling. "He was supposed to be here. This is the Shepherd's Hearth, isn't it?"

"That it is. I'm sorry, but if he's here, he isn't renting a room."

"Maybe he just isn't here yet," Shael whispered to Kelsia.

Kelsia addressed the innkeeper again. "We'll take a room, then, and stable for our horses."

The price was less than she feared, but still seemed outrageous by her own sensibilities. They made a quick circuit of the room, hoping that Seith might yet materialize. When nothing came of it, they began to think about more practical matters. "It's been four days now since we had a hot meal," Kelsia said, her mouth watering as a steaming bowl of stew and warm, fresh-baked bread were set on the table next to where they stood.

They found seats in a corner away from the thickest part of the pipe smoke. Kelsia leaned the staff against her side and covered it discreetly with her cloak. The server brought them their food and cups of hot tea sweetened with honey. They set into it immediately. Kelsia was coming to the bottom of her second bowl when Shael leaned close and whispered to her. "There's a man over there watching us."

Kelsia swept her gaze across the room, but no one seemed to be looking their way.

Shael looked into her stew as she spoke. "The tall one, black hair, a chunk missing from his nose."

Kelsia saw the one she described, leaning against a wall and sipping from a mug that could have been a small jug. He was a soldier like the others, wearing a scarred breastplate. He turned and looked right at her. Kelsia dropped her gaze, her appetite suddenly gone. "I think we're in trouble," she said.

"Maybe we should go to our room?" Shael offered.

Kelsia shook her head almost imperceptibly. "He'll just follow us. The back door is close. Let's see if he comes after us. If we need to, we can make a run for it and lose him in the streets."

They took a few more token bites of the meal and then stood up from their chairs. Kelsia left several coppers on the table for the server and they moved together along the edge of the room towards the door. When Kelsia glanced back, the soldier wasn't even looking in their direction.

They emerged into a small courtyard near the stable. It seemed, at first glance, that there was no way out, but then they saw that there was an alley that led back toward the front of the inn. Relieved, Kelsia chided herself for worrying. There had to be a way for the workers at the inn to get the horses from the street into the stable.

The sun's last rays glinted off the tops of the buildings in a blaze of crimson. "Let's get the horses and find another inn," Kelsia said as they hurried along the narrow passage. It was right at the end, when their next step was about to carry them to freedom that a hand shot out from around the corner and grabbed the scruff of Kelsia's tunic. She was borne backwards as the man stepped into view, the very same stranger that had stared at them inside the inn. Shael had only an instant to cry out in alarm. She tried to dart around him and into the street, but he thrust out a leg and swept her feet from under her. She went down hard, unable to stop her face from striking the cobbles. The stranger grabbed her ankle with his free hand and gave her a rough tug, dragging her back away from the street.

Kelsia opened her mouth to scream, but as soon as the sound began to emerge, he lifted her and threw her back against the wall so forcefully that the wind was knocked from her. His nails dug in painfully as he squeezed her cheeks. "Don't," he hissed in her face. His breath reeked of ale.

From the corner of her eye, Kelsia could see that Shael had been released for the moment and had risen to her knees. She shook her head, recovering from the stun of her fall. Blood trickled down from a gash on her forehead. Her gaze fell on Kelsia and she immediately snatched the bow from her shoulder and reached for an arrow.

The man's sword was out of its sheath in an eye blink, leaving her mouth uncovered but still holding her pinned with the other hand. The sword swung around and for one heart-stopping moment, Kelsia knew that Shael was going to die. But instead of sinking into flesh the blade struck Shael's bow and sent it flying from her hands to clatter against the opposite wall. In the next instant, Kelsia felt the tip of the sword pressed against her ribs. His other hand released her tunic but instantly clamped down on her neck. She couldn't breathe. Spittle flew from his mouth as he spoke in a furious whisper. "Don't move, and don't scream, or I'll run you through."

The staff was trapped behind her back, still clutched in her hand. Her knuckles stung where they had been crushed against the rough-edged bricks that made up the wall. She gripped the staff tighter and tried to focus her thoughts, to catch hold of the voice that had given her the magic last night.

The man turned his head to look at Shael. "Who sent you? Did someone pay you?"

Shael spoke haltingly. "I...I don't understand--"

"Don't play games with me, girl," the man said in even tones. His grip tightened on Kelsia's throat. Spots of red began to dance at the edges of her vision. "You're a bit young to be spies. Just tell me the truth and no one gets hurt. Lie to me and you'll be dead before the body of your friend here hits the street."

Shael stood silent for what seemed like minutes. Kelsia fidgeted, the need for breath becoming more urgent than her fear of the sword pointed at her heart. "She can tell you," Shael said finally, "I'm just her friend."

The fingers abruptly loosened from Kelsia's neck. Her head throbbed as blood began to flow once more. She took a deep, painful breath through her bruised neck. Before she could do more, the man snatched the bow from her shoulder and took hold of the back of her collar. He motioned with his sword for Shael to follow. "Stay in front of me, both of you. Don't think of trying to run."

Shael cast a glance at her bow. "Leave it!" he barked. Kelsia used the opportunity to tuck the staff under her arm, hidden beneath the cloak.

He paced them as they walked, Kelsia wheezing and Shael dabbing at the cut on her head with the edge of her cloak. The man hadn't said anything about the staff and Kelsia did her best to hide it from him. What he had said didn't make any sense, so she had to assume that it was the staff he was after. She tried to think of a way out of their predicament, but as long as he held that sword up to her, her options were few.

Shael started to whisper something, but was cut off by the man's order, "Stop here." They stood before a door at the back of the inn. He pounded a fist against it. A few moments later, there was the sound of a latch being pulled and a tiny flap opened in the middle of the door. Through the opening, a pair of eyes peered out, crow's feet showing around their edges.

"It's me," the man said. "I need to borrow the wine cellar. No questions."

The peephole clicked closed and the main door opened from the inside. "You first," he said to Shael, tilting his head towards the door. Kelsia followed in her wake, pressed forward by the prick of a sword point at the small of her back. She caught a glimpse of an old man partially hidden behind the door, staring down at nothing. Across the room was a closed door that must lead into the kitchen. The room was furnished with a writing desk and a few personal items. She took this in at a glance, and then lost her balance as she was thrust into a darkened stairwell. Shael, just a step ahead of her, steadied her before she fell. They descended the stairs single-file, and their captor's footfalls stopped at the top.

Shael took Kelsia's hand as they reached the bottom of the steps and tugged her back from the thin shaft of light coming from the doorway. The man stood at the top of the stairs, talking in a low voice to someone on the outside. Kelsia's eyes slowly began to adjust to the darkness, but there was little to see in the cellar but a dirt floor and barrels stacked along the far wall.

"Do you think he means to kill us?" Shael asked in a whisper.

"No," Kelsia said, her whisper made still hoarser by her injured neck. "He could have killed us already. He must want the staff."

Shael shook her head slowly. "I don't think so."

A creak from the stairs cut off further conversation. Kelsia put the staff behind her back as the man entered and pulled the door closed behind him. He carried a lamp that cast the tiny room in a palid orange. Never taking his eyes from them, he hung the lamp on a hook next to the stairs. He sat on the bottom step and put his sword across his knees. His hand, though, still rested on the hilt. "Better find a seat," he said. "We could be here a while."

Kelsia's stomach fluttered somewhere near the middle of her throat as she took a step toward him. She swallowed and spoke in a voice that sounded surprisingly steady to her own ears. "Tell us who you are. And why did you attack us?"

He gave her an ugly sneer. "You're on dangerous ground, girl. A more cautious man would have slit your throats and been done with it. Now, I need to know who gave you that name, the one you gave the innkeep. Did someone tell you to bandy it about and hand you some silver?"

Kelsia considered her options. Their only chance to live lay in telling him the truth. She could hand over the staff and pretend this had all been a big mistake. He would take it anyway, once they were dead. Or would he? Shael might be right, that the staff did not concern him at all. She had to take a gamble. "I guess you're going to have to kill us," she said. "We'll die before we'll betray Seith."

His eyes narrowed. He stood up and walked toward her, sword held ready to strike. Kelsia held her ground, though her knees felt like water and her head spun giddily. Slowly, the man rotated the sword, slipped the point into his sheath and slid it home with a muffled clack. "You're brave, I'll grant you that, though you could use a bit more sense. I'll make you a deal, girl. I'll answer one of your questions if you answer one of mine."

Kelsia nodded at once. "Fine. Do you know who Seith is and where he can be found?"

He snorted. "That's two questions, girl. Well, so be it. Yes, and yes. Now you need to tell me why you are looking for him."

Kelsia brought out the staff for him to see. "I have to give him this."

He took a step closer and she again resisted the impulse to move back. She had to raise her eyes to continue looking at him, as he loomed more than a foot taller than her. The tip of his nose was a jagged mess of scars, with the outer part of one nostril cut away. A thin line, shiny like a slug trail, slid across and down his cheek. He gave the staff hardly a glance. "Your friend stays here," he said. He snatched her arm in one of his huge, callused hands, "You'll come with me."

"Don't, Kelsy," Shael said, coming forward to grab her opposite shoulder. "You don't know what this brute might do to you."

"I think it's alright," Kelsia said, prying Shael's hand away from her arm. "Wait here for me. I'll try not to be gone long." She tried to sound nonchalant, as though she were stepping out for a walk.

He kept hold of her arm as they went up the narrow steps, twisting it around behind her back, though not painfully. She opened the door and found the study empty. Shael's bow, though, had been retrieved from the alley and sat propped neatly in a corner next to her own bow. A gash sliced through the snakeskin covering, but it was otherwise undamaged. After a moment's reflection, she guessed that the old man must have brought it back.

Her captor kept a firm grip on her arm as he turned and locked the door to the wine cellar. Kelsia watched to see where he put the key, but it just seemed to disappear from his hand, no doubt slipped into a pocket somewhere on his person.

Finally, he released his grip on her arm. She pressed against the place tenderly with her other hand. There would be bruises by morning. "Stay close and be quiet," he ordered.

Without Shael to back her, it was harder to maintain her courage. Her voice trembled when she spoke. "Are you taking me to see Seith?"

He shoved a grubby finger in her face. "Don't ask stupid questions and don’t mention that name again until I tell you it’s safe. Let's go."

To her surprise, he didn't go out the back way, but took her through the inn's common room toward the front door. No one gave them a second glance as they passed. She thought of running or calling for help but dismissed it. Fear of his sword was only part of it. For better or worse, right now this stranger was her only chance to find Seith. She had to go along with him.

They wound through the streets seemingly without purpose or reason. After only a few turns, Kelsia was hopelessly lost. After they rounded one corner of a deserted street, he caught her sleeve to stop her and put his finger to his lips. He pressed his back against the wall next to the corner, hand resting on his sword, and craned his neck slowly to peer down the street. He stood completely motionless, so quiet that Kelsia found herself mimicking him, not even daring to breathe.

"Alright," he said at last, drawing back from the corner. "I don't think we've been followed. Your name is Kelsy, then?"

"Kelsia," she corrected him.

He frowned. "A country name. I'm Marius. Listen, Kelsia. I need to know I can trust you."

It was the strangest thing he had said yet. He had already threatened her life more than once. Now he was asking for her trust? "First tell me why you attacked us."

"You'll know soon enough," he said. "The name you used is very dangerous. Let me just say that if the wrong people had heard what you said in that common room, you might be dead right now, but more likely just wishing you were. I took a risk in leaving your friend at the inn, but it would be too conspicuous to bring both of you." He dug a piece of cloth out of a pocket and threw it to her. "Wrap this around your head to cover your eyes."

Kelsia did as she was told, tying the two ends together at the back of her head. It was thick wool and made the sides of her head itch. Her view was completely dark except for a sliver of moonlight that crept in at the bottom of the blindfold. She flinched as Marius pulled at the fabric, adjusting it until the last of the light was gone and only a faint glow marked the bottom edge of the cloth.

Marius grabbed her wrist and pulled her along. This time, their walk was surprisingly short. She counted three turns and then they began to climb a flight of stairs. He said, "Stop here," and she heard the sound of a door being opened. She was pulled inside and the door was closed behind her. "You can take that off now."

Kelsia pulled the blindfold up from her eyes. The room was dim. Only a few small candles burned here and there and dark, heavy curtains covered the windows. It was very neat, very clean, with little to show that anyone lived there. A voice echoed from an adjoining room. "Marius, there you are. I was beginning to grow worried..." Coming through the door, he stopped when he saw Kelsia. He was young, a man grown but only just barely. Kelsia had never seen hair like his, a rich, deep red. He was taller than most and had broad shoulders. His pale skin reminded her of the sorcerer who had given her the staff.

He gave a questioning look to Marius, then his gaze snapped back to her. His eyes opened wide. "It cannot be," he breathed. He closed the distance between them in a few quick strides. His hand stretched toward the staff and Kelsia snatched it back from him, her grip tightening nearly to the point of pain.

"This is Seith," Marius said, breaking up what was about to become an awkward scene. "Seith, this girl is called Kelsia. She showed up at the Shepherd's Hearth today asking for you."

Seith shook his head slowly. "No, that doesn't make sense. Garron might send someone to find me, but he would never entrust the staff to another. How did you get this, Kelsia?"

She told him her story quickly and without embellishment, choking quickly past the part about their flight from the burning village. Seith took her back to her meeting with the sorcerer, asking her details about his appearance, manner, and speech. Many of them she couldn't answer, but what she could was apparently enough to bring him to some conclusion. He closed his eyes and bowed his head. Kelsia could hear his ragged breathing. "Is something wrong?"

"Forgive me," he said, his voice unsteady. "The man you saw killed by the werewolf was my master. His name was Garron."

She waited while Seith struggled to master his emotion. Marius patted his shoulder and left the room without saying a word. She kept thinking of Shael, locked up in the wine cellar. Finally, though, he seemed to relax, calm settling over his features. "May I see the staff?"

Her teeth clamped hard together, as though her whole body strained to keep its grip. At first, her hand would not obey her command to release, but slowly, she did. Seith peered at her with a quizzical expression. She got her hand opened completely so that the staff was only leaning against her fingertips. It was a great effort to keep it that way. "Take it," she hissed through her teeth.

He picked it gingerly from her fingers. His hand might as well have been closing around her leg. They were strong hands, but soft. They were the hands of someone who had never worked a field from sunrise to sundown. She flinched once as the staff passed beyond her grasp. She felt the urge to follow as he moved toward a candle to examine it more closely. "Incredible," he exclaimed. "This is it. There's no question."

Kelsia gave in to her urge and walked up behind him. She felt better at once. "What is it?" she asked.

"The Source Key," he said, as if that explained everything. He turned it in the light and peered at it from an angle. "Ah!" He squinted and traced a finger along a length of the shaft. The touch raised goose bumps on Kelsia's arms. "There's a script here."

Kelsia looked, but could see nothing but the smooth, metallic surface and twin grooves twisting down its length. She imitated Seith's slanting look and suddenly she saw it, a string of blocky letters running down half the length of the staff. Seith was muttering to himself, sounding out words that were obviously unfamiliar to him. "What does it say?" Kelsia asked. She started to reach, to snatch it away from him, but stopped herself in time. "What is the staff for?"

"Oh, I'm sorry," he said, blinking. "I'm not sure what it says, to tell the truth. I suppose you deserve an explanation about the staff, though. You risked so much to bring it here. How much do you know about magic?"

Kelsia shook her head. "I don't."

Seith frowned at that and peered around the room. "Here," he said, proffering the staff. "Can you hold it just a moment?" Kelsia took it from him gladly.

He picked up a washbasin and a pitcher and placed them on a table. "Imagine that this water is magic," he said, pointing to the pitcher. "Now, let's pretend that this bowl is a wizard. A wizard is able to create a pull, to—well--tilt magic towards him, like this." He tilted the pitcher so that some of the water spilled into the basin. "The more skilled he is, the more a sorcerer can pull on magic and use it to his own will."

He righted the pitcher again. "Do you understand so far?" He waited for Kelsia's nod and then continued. "Now, imagine if there were a way for a sorcerer to get to the water in the pitcher without having to have it poured through the spigot. What if there were a way to access the magic all at once?" He picked up the pitcher and placed it inside the partially filled washbasin. "That is what we think the Source Key does."

Seith picked up the dripping pitcher and set it back on the table. "Of course, that is all just theory. No one knows if it really even works at all. It has been hidden for over two thousand years, the fact of its very existence has faded to myth except for the accounts of a very few texts."

"Maybe that's how I was able to use magic," she said.

Seith gave her a sharp look. "No, that's not possible."

"I hadn't told you that part of the story yet. When the werewolf attacked us, I fell from my horse. It was right on top of me, then a voice told me words to say, and--"

"You don't understand," Seith cut in. "Women can't use magic. They never could."

Kelsia's brow furrowed. "But I'm certain of it. You can ask Shael what she saw."

"I'm afraid I won't get the chance. I'll have little time left as it is. I'll have Marius release you and your friend if you promise not to mention us to any of the soldiers you see on your way out of town."

"I promise," she agreed.

Marius approached from behind him and offered Kelsia a drink. "I hope you can forgive me for the..." he cleared his throat, "the rough treatment."

"I understand why you did it," she said graciously. Marius nodded, but Seith was looking at her strangely. "What's wrong?" she asked.

He gestured with his fingers. "Let me have the staff and Marius will take you back to the inn."

How had she forgotten the staff? "Here," she said, but when she tried to hand it to him, nothing happened.

Seith stepped toward her, but she stepped back at the same time.

"Give it to me," he said, irritation creeping into his tone.

She tried again to hand it to him, straining to complete the motion. Her face grew heated from the exertion. It was like trying to move an impossible weight. Panting, she relaxed from the effort. After all the strange things that had occurred with the staff, this was the first time she had felt completely helpless and it truly frightened her. "I don't think I can," she said. "It won't let me."

"It?" Seith asked with a raised brow.

"Loric, the druid, told me that this staff had a will of its own. He said that I needed to be careful not to let it control me."

Seith looked thoughtful. "I admit, my knowledge of the Key is limited. There might be something to what you say, but the staff must be kept out of the wrong hands. If you cannot give it over willingly, I'm afraid I'll have to take it."

"I'd like nothing more," Kelsia assured him.

Marius started forward and this time, the decision to back away was all hers. However her perceptions of him had changed, he was still intimidating. "Don't worry," he said, "I won't hurt you." She stood still except for a flinch when she felt him grip the staff. He pulled, but her hands would not let go. He strained and Kelsia dug in her heels. She began to slide across the floor as he pulled on it.

"That's enough," Seith said. Marius released his hold and backed away. Seith closed his eyes and put his palms together in front of him. He spoke a few words and suddenly it felt as though the air around her had grown thick and began to press in on her. It tightened until the pressure became so intense she thought that surely it would crush her. Abruptly, it released.

Seith looked shaken. He drew the back of an arm across his forehead where his hair was damp from sweat. "There is some kind of enchantment between you and the Key, something very strong. I could try to break it, but I don't dare."

"Why?" Kelsia asked in a strangled voice. "Just try it, please."

"If I did, it might kill you. Or it might just kill me. I've never seen magic like this before."

"What is to become of me?" she asked.

Seith stared at the staff in her hands. Kelsia’s hands tightened on it against her will. "You'll have to come with us,” he said at last. “The staff must go east. The Horadrim can provide the kind of protection that it needs. Perhaps one of them can unravel this spell that was cast over you."

Kelsia's head was spinning. "Have to sit down," she said, stumbling forward. Seith rushed to steady her and help her into a chair. She suddenly felt so very far from home. Things were not supposed to happen this way. She wished she had never gone out hiking with Shael that day. She wished none of it had happened.

She looked down at the staff, the Source Key. There were still so many unanswered questions. She was being borne along like a leaf caught in a current. What choice did she have but to press on? "We'll have to bring Shael, I think," she said. "She won't let you leave her behind."

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