I Will Stand Alone: Part Eight
Jazan was grateful that Seji had brought a whetstone along with him – Jazan's sword was sharp, but he wanted it to be in perfect condition, so he sharpened it as the others laid the groundwork for their plan.
It was all based on one simple fact – that the Werhond was always in control of his situation. If he could be thrown off, surprised – then Jazan could implement the piece of the plan that he hadn't told to anyone else.
What they did know was simple enough. Masazi and Pashki were going to use warding spells to keep most of the Werhond's band at the foot of the hill – Asyir and Seji would be ready to deal with anyone who broke through, or fight if it all went wrong.
Jazan, with both sword and magic, had to be prepared to fight the Werhond.
He'd kept the scarf over his face, veiling it neatly from view. While Jazan had no illusions he could beat the Werhond, he thought that he could give him a good fight for a while.
Meanwhile, the Werhond would recognize from his swordsmanship that he'd been trained in the Qasalan palace – but he'd have no idea who Jazan was. He'd never expect to see the Qasalan prince, widely known to be his father's errand-boy, fighting on the side of renegades. He'd be afire with curiosity, wanting to know who Jazan was. And if he decided to cut the scarf from Jazan's face...
Jazan was certain he would – he hoped for it.
Kiri asked, "Are you sure?"
Jazan looked over his shoulder – she was clearly anxious. He told her, "Of course not. But we can't outrun them and we can't fight them, so this is our best chance of success."
She asked, "But what are you going to do once he realizes you're the prince of Qasala?"
Jazan told her, "I'm going to keep that to myself – it'll have the most effect that way. Get out of sight. If worst comes to worst and they think they've caught everyone, you may get a chance to get out of here with Nightsteed."
She left, but as she did, she said, "As soon as we get to Sakhmet, I'm asking for sword lessons. I'm sick of having to get out of the way!"
Jazan hoped she would. She had a fighter's heart – she'd be impressive with a blade once she learned how to use one.
And that was when the Werhond and his band came over the hills.
They were mostly dressed in dull colors – the scarred regalia of serious warriors. But the tall shadow Lupe who led them was garbed all in black, with a hood and cloak that masked his features. The only bright thing about him was the shining scimitar in his hand. Jazan stood and took his own sword in hand, stretching one last time.
The shields flickered into dim life around the base of the hill. The Werhond stopped and called, "You know, my friends, you won't be able to keep it up all day. We've got a long trek back to Qasala, so you might as well drop the pretty shields and save your energy for walking."
Jazan walked down the hill, keeping his pace measured and slow. It was a little overly dramatic, perhaps, but he wanted to project enough casual confidence to make the Werhond feel a little uneasy, and that would take something completely unlike anything he'd seen before. He called, "Werhond! I have a deal to make with you!" His voice echoed clear down to the rabble below – he always muttered when he was meeting strangers in the palace whom he had no reason to trust, so the Lupe wouldn't recognize his voice.
The Werhond leaned on his sword. "And that would be what, my friend?"
Jazan drew his sword, hoping his voice wouldn't tremble as he said, "Duel me. One on one. Winner takes all."
It looked like they'd all been right about the Werhond's competitive nature – his eyes lit up, even as his voice remained casual. "Why would I agree?"
Jazan shrugged. "The winner has an extra feather in their cap. The loser doesn't have to deal with King Razul."
Apparently, no more formalities were required – the shield dropped right in front of the Werhond, and, as his band shouted encouragement, he charged.
Jazan met the blade, and forcibly pushed back the thought that he'd never actually fought a real opponent with real stakes before. But it wasn't that much different – he'd always tried to put everything he could into his practicing, and he had to do that here. He met one strike, then another – there was a rhythm to it, and Jazan fell into that rhythm comfortably enough that he was able to fit in a few strikes of his own.
The Werhond panted, "Who are you, anyway?"
Jazan didn't say a word. He didn't have to be particularly observant to see the curiosity eating at the Werhond – since that sapped some of his attention, they were closer to equal than they would have been otherwise.
The blades met once, twice, thrice – Jazan knew he didn't want to draw this out much longer. He might have to resort to magic, even though he hadn't wanted to play that particular card so soon.
And then the blade flickered up quicker than a striking Cobrall, and slashed the scarf from Jazan's face.
The sword gave him a shallow scratch along his cheek – Jazan didn't notice. He was more occupied with the look of fear in the Werhond's eyes as he took several steps back. "Prince Jazan? Your Highness?"
The rabble at the base of the hill ceased to look particularly intimidating – they were too busy being confused, and some were outwardly frightened. Jazan knew that they could practically see the shadow of his father behind him, and while he normally hated that, he knew that it would save lives today. "Yes."
The Lupe held his hands up. "You tell your father I'm doing exactly what he told me to do! I'm hunting down Lord Asyir, Lady Masazi, and anyone else with them, and I'll bring them back to Qasala as soon as I've stopped the mage from turning me into a Scamander."
Jazan shook his head. "No. You won't be. I've had more than enough of my father arresting good men."
The Werhond still looked rattled, but he drew his sabre again. "Prince or no prince, I've got a job to do. Stand aside, boy!"
And then Jazan let his next spell go – a veil that hid the Werhond's surroundings from him. All he'd be able to see was the patch of sand at his feet and the sky directly above his head, reflecting on and on to make a surreal landscape. The mercenary turned around, confused, and Jazan could tell that his fighters were losing heart rapidly. Jazan asked, "Do you want to fight me? Do you?"
The Werhond charged blindly toward his voice – Jazan moved out of the way. Then the Lupe said, "What do you expect me to do? Your Fyora-blasted father hexed me! If I try to hit the road, he'll drag me back!"
Jazan told him, "I can break the spell on all of you. I can set you free, if you promise to head for the south. Mentu, Khamtef – there are dozens of warlords who would pay handsomely for your services."
The Werhond chuckled a little. "You've got me trussed like a Grackle-Stuffed Turkey, and you want to set me free. Why should I believe you?"
And Jazan let the illusion-spell go. "Because I'm not my father, and I'm not going to be."
It was no issue to feel the spells that tied the band of mercenaries to King Razul. And Jazan was no stranger to trying to subtly unravel his father's handiwork. The expenditure of power, after everything else he'd done, left his knees shaky, but he severed all the ties.
The Werhond blinked at him. "I can feel magic, too, as well as my finding. You just did it, didn't you? You actually did it."
Jazan nodded, and then, on an impulse, he extended his hand. The Werhond responded with a near-crushing handshake. "Don't need to tell me twice, Your Highness. I'm certain my fighters are of a mind with me – we're going to head south so fast that you couldn't even catch our dust trail." Then he turned. "Keep moving! We're brushing the sand of this Fyora-forsaken place from our feet! Southward away!"
And he ran back to his place at the head of the mercenary band, while the fighters who followed him set up a cheer.
Seji said in amazement, "You just... talked to him. And he left."
Asyir added, voice trembling slightly, "How did you know he would go? He had us!"
Jazan said, "Razul's fond of using magical tethers on his mercenaries so he can find them if they go back on their bargains. I doubted he'd have forgone them for this mission, and I know they never inspire loyalty. Proud men like him don't like being bullied."
And then Kiri slammed into him with a gigantic hug. "You saved us! You did it, Jazan, you did it!"
He said, "Well, we're not to Sakhmet yet."
Masazi shook her head. "Don't talk like that, Jazan. You know we're free as the birds. Razul won't be able to send pursuit after us that could reach us fast enough." She hugged him too, and Asyir and Seji both shook his hand, and Jazan didn't even attempt to keep himself from beaming. He'd done it. Five more people were safe from his father's tyranny, and he'd brought it about.
Then Pashki cried, "It's not fair!"
They all turned to look at the little Usul. She repeated, "It's not fair! We all get to get out of that mess, and Jazan's stuck bowing and scraping to a stupid king who's not fit to scrub his sandals!"
Jazan knew he wasn't the only one who winced – they were too used to never letting thoughts like that be said out loud. Kiri asked, ears drooping a little, "Jazan, are you sure you can't come with us?"
He nodded. "I'm sure. I do the Qasalan people far more good where I am now than as a prince in exile."
Seji laid a hand on his shoulder. "What are you going to do?"
Jazan said softly, "What I've always done. Try to stand between Razul and the people he would hurt. Nightsteed will help me when he can, and when he can't, I will stand alone."
Masazi said, "You poor boy."
But Asyir corrected her, "He's no boy, Masazi. He's proven himself to be a strong young man."
Jazan smiled a little at Asyir, not quite sure what to do the conflicting warmth and loneliness in his heart. "Thank you."
Pashki complained, "But all that doesn't change anything! Razul's still getting away with it!"
So the world will know what Razul has done. The idea that Jazan had had before the rescue the previous evening leapt into focus, clear and bright. "Faerieland!"
Everyone else looked at him, confused. Jazan elaborated, "Ask the Sakhmeti mages to transport you to Faerieland. Get an audience with Queen Fyora. Tell her that Razul's seeking immortality. Tell her that I'm trying to stop him, and anything she could do would be welcomed."
Kiri's tail had been dragging in the sand, but at the mention of Faerieland, she brightened up. "I'd love to see Faerieland!"
Asyir nodded. "We'll do it, Jazan."
Nightsteed urged, "We ought to be going. Razul will be expecting us back soon. Nuria bless you all."
Jazan looked at Asyir, Seji, Masazi, Kiri, and Pashki. "Good luck."
Seji nodded. "Same to you, and more of it."
There was nothing more to be said, and the more they drew it out, the more the aching feeling in Jazan's heart would intensify, so he turned and walked away, and Nightsteed followed. After a few minutes of silence, he asked, "Is this what happens when you have friends – you have to keep leaving them?"
Nightsteed said, "Sometimes. But the benefits tend to outweigh the pain, I've been told."
Jazan sighed. "I think I'll miss them." He knew he'd miss them, actually, but he didn't want to sound too childish."
Nightsteed nodded. "Me, too." He said, "Talking to the faeries was a good idea. But what will you do if they decide to sit on their pretty little cloud and leave Razul to his own devices?"
Jazan said, "What I've always done. I'll stand against Razul – and when I need to, I will stand alone."
Nightsteed said, "You know, if we survive, you'll make a great king one day."
And the glow of pride intensified, radiating within him. That pride in what he'd done that day, and the warmth he'd felt in the company of people he'd liked, helped offset the pain of knowing that he had to go back to Qasala and slip back into a life and into a mask that would only feel smaller and more cramping than ever.
But that was still a few hours away. And now, whenever the mask became unbearable, he could set another rescue, another foiled plot, against all of the bowing and the scraping and the lies. He had something else with which to reassure himself when Razul seemed too strong and canny to be beaten. Because under the noonday sun, even Razul's dark shadow seemed wavering and weak – beatable.
And in that moment, Jazan felt certain that it could be done, and he allowed that hope to well up in him until he laughed. He laughed and laughed, and Nightsteed joined him, and the sheer joy of it echoed around the dunes and up into the sky, the sound of a freedom as glorious as it was fleeting.