by Laura Campbell, aka Shadow of Light Dragon
"Gertan! Meyin! Get yer worthless carcasses out here!"
Meyin leaped to her feet from the bunk, slammed on an iron helmet and tossed a halberd to Gertan while seizing her own. "What by the Virtues is going on...?"
The two hurried out and stood at attention. Graesh, the Guardmaster at Blackthorn's Castle, marched up to them. Her red hair was tied back from her piercing, dark eyes - eyes that were swiftly looking them over.
"This is a special assignment," Graesh barked. "Some of our people just caught some trespassers sneaking around the corridors. The scumbags are chained up in the execution room right now. Ye two," she glared at each of them in turn, "are heading down there right now to assist Lord Blackthorn in the matter."
Gertan hastily swallowed a "Why us?" as Meyin discreetly stood on his left foot.
Graesh dangled a large ring of keys in front of Gertan's face. "Take 'em and get moving!"
Gertan grabbed the keys then he and Meyin hurried to the stairs leading down to the dungeons.
"We better not botch this one up," Gertan muttered to his companion. "It's dangerous enough that we don't support Blackthorn's Laws of 'Virtue' yet we're in service to him..."
Meyin interrupted him with, "I wonder who the prisoners are. Who has the guts to come all the way out here?"
"Maybe they were trying to recover the Crown..."
They reached the room that served for executions and interrogation, as well as being the 'antechamber' for the jail cells. Gertan took his stand to the left and Meyin to the right. On the other side of the room, manacled to the far wall, they could see two people. Gertan's eyes widened as he recognised the captive on the left. He threw a startled glance at Meyin, who returned it with the same measure of surprise and disbelief. Both knew who she was yet they composed their faces. If Blackthorn saw them...
But this has to be a mistake, Gertan thought. Not even Lord Blackthorn would dare go up against the Avatar! She’s the champion of the world, for Virtues’ sake!
The Avatar was a relatively young-looking woman, despite all the stories that she'd been around since the time of the evil wizard Mondain, her first adversary, defeated by her some several hundred years ago. She had forest green eyes and almost waist-length brown hair, and she was manacled wrist and ankle to the stone wall facing the pendulum-blade rack. There was a dark bruise on her left cheekbone, but she still managed to glare darkly at Lord Blackthorn when he used his magic to materialise beside her without warning. On the other side of Blackthorn, one of the Avatar's companions was likewise chained.
The torches had thrown the room into an eerie atmosphere. The firelight was dark - if that was possible - and the greasy smoke hung heavy in the warm air.
Blackthorn turned to face the Avatar and gave her an artfully startled smile. "Ah, Elora! 'Tis indeed an honour to meet you at last!" He looked over at Gertan and shouted, "GUARD! Release this good lady at once!"
Gertan stifled a sigh of relief and hurried forward to obey, keys in hand. He knew it had been a mistake! A few feet from his goal, then Blackthorn raised a hand.
Gertan halted, confused but keeping his face blank. He was close enough to see that the distrust had faded no more from the Avatar's green eyes than had the bruise from her face.
Blackthorn smiled again, his dark eyes on the Avatar. "Since I myself seek Avatarhood, as once did you, perhaps you could aid me in my quest by answering a question."
She said nothing. Still, anyone could see the clenched jaw, the bleak warning in her lightless eyes.
"What is the mantra of the Mystic Shrine of Honesty?" Blackthorn asked.
Her brows lowered to a frown. She must know, Gertan thought. She must know that he plans to destroy the Shrines with those mantras, those words of power. Don't tell her, milady...for the sake of Britannia and the True King...
"No, my Lord," she said softly. "I do not believe your claim, and I will not tell you."
Blackthorn's smile immediately became a snarling frown. "Make not the mistake of laughing at me, simple one!" He gestured to Gertan, who was moving to obey the silent order before he knew what he was doing.
Passing Blackthorn, he unchained the Avatar's friend - a small, nimble, deadly looking man with short dark hair and blue eyes - and led him to the pendulum-blade rack. The man didn't resist as he was tied hand and foot beneath the large, swinging blade of steel. Gertan marvelled that this man had such trust in his leader.
"Thy name?" he asked softly.
"Toshi," the man replied in a voice that shook only a little.
Gertan left him, whispered the name to Blackthorn as he passed his Lord, then stood at attention near the Avatar as he had before.
On the other side of the room, Meyin overturned a large hourglass.
They had done this before. They knew what was expected of them.
Blackthorn once again looked at the Avatar. "I will ask you until the sand has fallen and then will Toshi die. Now tell me. What is the mantra of Honesty?"
The Avatar's face had drained of colour. She was leaned as far forward as her chains would allow, hands curled into fists and eyes on the hypnotically swinging blade. Then her gaze lowered to meet the eyes of Toshi, who lay facing her.
Blackthorn, not looking at Toshi, didn't notice the slight shaking of the man's head. But he took the Avatar's silence as refusal. "Resistance is futile!" he shouted. "You must yield the truth unto me! Tell me, what is the mantra of Honesty?"
Don't tell him, Gertan thought, willing his mind-voice to be heard. He'll destroy the Shrine if you tell him what it is!
The Avatar was still staring at Toshi, her face white in the harsh light of the torches and iron braziers. She didn't even see the last trickle of sand leave the top of the hourglass.
"My patience with you has worn away!" Blackthorn moved to stand directly in the Avatar's line of sight, blocking off sight of her friend. "SPEAK UNTO ME THE MANTRA, NOW!"
Gertan's hand clenched around the haft of his halberd, sweat beading on his face from more than the stifling heat. He saw the Avatar lift her face to meet Blackthorn's gaze, saw the look in her eyes. In that instant, he knew she'd never remain silent and watch a friend die.
"Ahm." She spoke the mantra firmly, not letting Blackthorn think for a minute that he had defeated her. Not the Avatar.
And perhaps that was her mistake.
Blackthorn stepped back from her and gave her a calm nod, once again the civilised lord. Gertan momentarily closed his eyes. Rumour held that Blackthorn could sense truth - or lies, rather - because he was served by - or served, depending on whom one believed - the Shadowlord of Falsehood. "I thank you, my friend!" he exclaimed, smiling once again. But the smile never reached his eyes. "As a token of my esteem for your honesty-"
The Avatar frowned at the 'joke'.
" - I will grant your friend a merciful death."
Her eyes widened in disbelief, flicked over meet Toshi's terrified look even as words of denial started to form on her lips.
Blackthorn pointed and a strange darkness surrounded Toshi immediately. There was a scream that cut off abruptly, then the darkness swirled and vanished in an instant. The rack beneath the blade was empty.
Gertan, shocked and not wanting the Dark Lord to see it, quickly unchained the Avatar, unlocked the door to her cell and shoved her into the arms of her remaining companions. Before leaving, he met the eyes of the cell's other prisoner, a warrior called Gorn, to make sure that he was watching Gertan's next action.
Gorn nodded slightly in acknowledgment as Gertan kept one key, then slid the rest of the ring into the cell's brazier.
Stepping out, Gertan locked the door. Then he, Meyin, and Blackthorn walked from the room.
A short distance away and the Dark Lord muttered, as if to himself, "That seemed a bit easy to me...perhaps the rumour of a way to restore destroyed Shrines was accurate. I wonder if she knows..."
Silently, the two guards escorted Blackthorn to his throne-room, then returned to the barracks. Gertan put the key back with a bunch of others, just before Graesh appeared.
She looked at him, then Meyin, her expression indecipherable. "Never tell," was all she said.
The two went back to their room and found a few fellow guards getting ready for the change of the guard. One of them was Eddath.
"What were you two doing?" he asked, knowing that neither had duty for a few more hours and wondering why they were under arms already.
Meyin exchanged a glance with Gertan, then looked at Eddath. "Nothing