The day after he registered his daughter’s birth, Bathar began conducting the inspections of the shield himself. Every morning, about an hour before dawn, he rode out through the villages that surrounded the castle, past the fields of farmland, through the forest, finally to the old woman’s hut, to give her whatever he’d brought that morning. Then, riding his horse at the outer edge of the realm, he inspected the dome-shaped shield protecting them from the chaos without.
For seven months, that precaution proved unnecessary. The shield looked as it always had—a cloudy blue structure as solid as steel; it glowed brightly during the day and dimly at night. He could circumnavigate it in about an hour, making sure he detected none of the signs of deterioration that Ryon, the king’s chief advisor and the last remaining mage in the realm, had taught him to look for. He saw nothing unusual, day after day of Alia’s young life.
But, all of a sudden, that was no longer true. He’d ridden past a section on the northeast side, his glance dancing across the blue shield, when his mind registered something, and he pulled tight on the reins.
He dismounted and walked back, eyes fixed on the ground for now, willing what he’d seen—thought he’d seen—to be a trick of his mind.
Then he forced himself to look up.
A crack had begun to form on the shield. Like the shell of an egg that had been gently tapped, that still needed to be pulled apart.
Bathar stepped back. No one liked being this close to the shield; except for the tiny hut the exiled old woman had built for herself, the land at the edge of their realm was wild and uninhabited. The work of clearing out a perimeter around the shield, to ensure that no tree, shrub or weed obstructed the view of the guards charged with inspecting it, was reserved for the vilest criminals, and those hardened men and women would often have to be punished severely before they would carry out their task. Even the members of the royal guard—the best soldiers in the realm, his own command, whose duty it was to inspect the shield daily—had been visibly relieved when he’d announced he would henceforth conduct those inspections himself.
The shield had never bothered Bathar, though—just the opposite. As a young man, he’d volunteered to carry out the inspections. The shield kept them safe—why worry about anything beyond it? He felt comforted when he could see the cloudy blue steel and know that it continued to hold back the chaos.
But a cracking shield?
He took another step back, blinking furiously.
As he stared at the zigzag crack, starting at the bottom and reaching a few feet up the shield, all of the fears that kept others from traveling past the forest flooded into his mind. He imagined the crack growing, growing, bursting open with a wave of screeching monsters—hungry, frenzied creatures that had been deprived of human flesh for hundreds of generations. In his mind he saw a mass of fanged, upright bulls rush through the breach, their heavy footfalls shaking the ground, the shield collapsing around them in great chunks. The dark army rolled through him as if he weren’t there, continued onto the realm he’d sworn to defend, killing the old woman, the farmers and the villagers, then those who lived within the castle walls. Cyna and Alia.
In his fear, he’d forgotten—no, never that. For a moment he’d neglected to think what this meant for her…not the imagined army of his childhood nightmares, but the very real crack in the shield. By the oldest rules of the realm, as soon as a fissure was detected—the very morning—the youngest child would be brought to the site of the breach and sacrificed. That was the cost of the spell that would restore the shield. No child had yet been born since Alia.
He whistled for his horse, who came trotting over dutifully, blissfully unaware, even lifting her head and neighing in the direction of the crack, as if in disdain of the danger it hinted at.
The break in the shield hadn’t expanded—not that Bathar had seen, anyway.
He grabbed the reins and swung himself on top of the horse, then urged her up the hill, back toward the castle. He had no definite plan as of yet, except that he didn’t want any of his guard to know what he’d discovered until he was ready to tell them. And the king? Would he lie to the man he’d sworn to defend with his own life?
Yes—his life. Not Alia’s; he’d never sworn that oath.
In his frantic race back, he almost rode through the old woman when she appeared in the middle of the worn path of trampled grass. She stood hunched over, her wispy hair like thin plumes of gray smoke in the dim early morning light, her short body covered in a patchwork of old clothes. He pulled up just in time to avoid trampling her over. She’d never moved.
He bit back the curse of frustration rising to his lips, then began to guide his horse around her.
“Wait,” she said. Her voice, as usual, sounded like someone trying to speak while being choked.
Bathar ignored her, as he always did. Seventy years earlier, when the shield had last cracked, when the old woman was still young, and King Nebed newly installed on his throne, she had refused to perform the spell and sacrifice to seal the breach, insistent that no danger lay beyond. Her apprentice Ryon, a child himself at the time, had stepped forward and completed the ritual. The woman had been exiled to the shield as punishment, and a penalty of death placed on anyone who spoke to her.
In his childhood, Bathar’s parents had told him stories of the Banished One, as a warning of what would happen to him if he didn’t do as he was told. He’d always felt sorry for her, especially since she’d transgressed only because her mind had become sick. As a child, when he was beaten for his own small transgressions, he’d often wished that she would come to his aid. She had been the greatest mage the realm had seen for many generations, before her mind had turned against reality. Some rumors, then and now, whispered that the old woman retained her powers.
When he’d spotted her hut one morning while riding out of the forest, he’d resolved to do her a kindness in honor of his childhood sorrow at her plight—bring her something to eat, a few apples he’d gotten from the market the day before, or freshly baked bread he’d picked up that morning. He’d initially left them at the door of her hut, but in the last few months she’d been outside, waiting. Often she didn’t even thank him with words, just bowed to him, her wrinkled face spreading into a faltering smile.
But she’d never before left her hut and come out as far as the makeshift road into the forest. Why on this morning, of all days?
He paused for a moment, to look her over and make sure she wasn’t injured. It was hard to tell, with her. As soon as he’d met her, Bathar had understood why she’d never answered his childhood prayers for help. Would a woman with incredible powers choose to live a life of isolation and poverty in a wooden hut? Besides, she could barely speak in complete, calm sentences—should he believe she could cast spells? She seemed no worse than usual, though. He cleared his throat and indicated with a toss of his head that she should move out of the way.
“Bathar, please,” she said.
He swallowed—he hadn’t realized she knew his name.
“The shield doesn’t protect us,” she said. “No, no! It imprisons us. Is the king dying? Speak to Dara. There is no danger! You see? It wasn’t cast to keep out chaos. No, no! In the time of the First King, yes? It was cast over us…”
Bathar stopped listening. Some days the old woman thanked him for his little morning gift with her crumbling smile, and he left quickly. Other days, awful days, she tried to make him stay by pretending to whisper dark secrets. But he didn’t have time for tall tales of mythical kings on a regular day, let alone this one.
He nudged his horse past her as she continued to speak in her rushed, barely coherent way, as if the jumbled thoughts in her addled mind were all rushing out of her mouth at the same time and tripping over one another.
On the ride back, he pummeled the question of what could be done, furiously attacking it from every angle. But he was no further ahead by the time he rode through the castle’s gatehouse. He handed his horse to the groom at the stables, grunting in response to the young man’s friendly greeting. Normally he went straight into the keep after the morning inspections, but—this decision was clear at least—Cyna needed to be warned. He walked quickly across the central courtyard to their cottage, keeping his head low.
When he pushed open the wooden door, his wife said immediately, “You saw something?” She sat by the fire, nursing Alia.
He closed the door before nodding.
“How much time?” Cyna seemed to grip Alia tighter, as if she expected him to leap to her and rip their child out of her arms.
“I don’t know,” he said. “The crack wasn’t there yesterday.”
“They can’t have her,” she said.
They looked down at the sleeping, feeding baby, the little face poking out of the blanket, the tiny fingers wrapped around Cyna’s breast, the dimples in her knuckles.
“What are we going to do?” Cyna said, raising her own hand to brush back a wisp of hair from Alia’s forehead.
Bathar didn’t respond. Decisions had always come easily to him before. As a young royal guard, he’d had faith in the shield, which had protected them all his life. In the same way, he’d had faith in King Nebed, who had ruled over the realm since before Bathar was born. So when the king had executed a popular mayor who had criticized the royal family for their so-called acts of oppression, sparking a rebellion that swept up half the royal guard, Bathar had led the charge to subdue it. He’d never hesitated, never stopped to think whether the mayor was right or wrong—he’d sworn to defend king and realm, and he’d responded accordingly.
But now, for the first time in his life, he had no clarity of thought. This was a problem without solution.
Cyna’s gray eyes studied his face. “We run away,” she said.
“The realm is a big place.” They both knew it wasn’t. His guard could search it in two days. “We hide, we keep moving.”
He shook his head.
“Your old woman can help,” she said. “Maybe she still has her powers. It wouldn’t take much to hide us, would it?”
He’d never told Cyna that the old woman had spoken to him, or that on those occasions she’d seemed desperate to convince him that no danger existed beyond the shield, to infect him with her own madness. How could they trust their lives to her? “Suppose she can hide us,” he said. “What happens when the shield falls?”
“We fight the monsters,” she said immediately. “And if we die, we die fighting.”
He shook his head again.
Cyna looked back at their child. “Then you have no other choice. It’s time to…settle accounts.”
Bathar stared at her, but she refused to meet his eyes. He’d saved King Nebed’s life during the siege of the castle, so by law the king owed Bathar a life debt. But Bathar had been fulfilling a sworn oath. How could a debt accrue from someone carrying out their duty?
“Settle them how, Cyna? By sacrificing another child, even though our laws say it must be the youngest? All right—whom should the king slay instead?”
Tears began to form in her eyes, but she fought to hold them back.
“I’m sorry,” he said, dropping to his knees. “I can’t bear the thought of losing Alia.” He wiped his wife’s eyes gently. “But I also can’t allow the shield to fall. I’m—”
A loud rat-tat-tat knock sounded at the door.
Cyna’s glance dropped to the dagger he wore strapped to his thigh. He nodded, and she removed it, held it against her own thigh opposite the door.
Hand on the hilt of his sword, Bathar approached their entrance. He opened the door slowly.
One of his own soldiers stood outside, her gaze on the ground, kicking her boot into the dirt while she waited. She looked up as the door creaked open and said, “Are you alright, Sir?”
Bathar nodded curtly.
“The king would like to see you.”
“Ryon didn’t say. He bade me fetch you, and told me I’d find you at home. I thought maybe…”
“Everyone’s fine,” Bathar said. “I’ll be there in a moment.”
He closed the door, then walked back to his wife and child and kissed each one on the forehead.
“Give me time to find a solution,” he said, withdrawing his sword. “But if anyone else comes through that door…”
He left the rest of the thought unspoken, then exchanged the sword for his dagger, and left without allowing himself a look back.
At the door to the keep, he heard from the guards that the king had taken a turn for the worse the previous night. King Nebed hadn’t been able to make it to the throne room to conduct the day’s business. Bathar rushed to the king’s bedchamber, where the guards admitted him immediately.
Inside the curtains were drawn and the room dark, dimly lit by several candles. The king lay in bed under heavy covers, the princess Dara sitting on the large chair on the other side. Ryon had been pacing the floor but stopped when he saw Bathar.
“He’s here, your majesty,” he said.
“Bathar,” the king said, the breath wheezing out of him. “Come close.”
Bathar looked to Princess Dara for a sign of hope. She shook her head.
He kneeled beside the bed. “At your command, Majesty.”
The king’s eyes fluttered open. Even in the candlelight, his skin looked ashen, drained of blood and strength. His breath came in quick, shallow bursts. “This isn’t easy for you, my son. But the realm must be protected at any cost. Dara will rule it well.”
“Yes, your Majesty.” For the moment, faced with this sight of infirmity from a man who for all of his life had been the symbol of power, he forgot about the shield. “But may your days be long still.”
The king had closed his lips, but they came open again. A small smile played on the bloodless mouth. “You can see my days are finished.” His words escaped in faint whispers interspersed with long pauses where he seemed to be gathering his strength. “But I die knowing that the sacrifice you make will preserve the kingdom for my daughter.”
Bathar stood and faced the mage. “You know?”
Ryon had been listening from the end of the bed. “We know.”
“I saw the crack in the shield.”
“But—if you’re able to…what’s the point of the inspections?”
“I could only see because you saw, Bathar.”
A spying spell? Bathar hadn’t thought that kind of power possible.
Without conscious thought, propelled by rage at this invasion of his mind, Bathar collapsed the distance between them. He towered over the shorter man, bent with age. Ryon’s upturned gaze never left Bathar’s. The cross scar, the intersecting diagonal slices like trenches dug into his face, always seemed deeper and redder when Ryon was struggling to restrain himself; Bathar had never seen them more pronounced.
Dara had risen from her seat and walked over, perhaps eager to diffuse the tension between the powerful mage and the chief royal guard.
She only put her hand on Bathar’s shoulder, though.
Her presence—and the realization that knowledge of the shield’s failure was no longer his own secret…and the corollary that Bathar had run out of time to plan an alternative that would save Alia’s life—deflated his rising anger.
“Your Highness,” he said, turning to face her. “I’m sorry I didn’t—”
“I have no interest in dwelling on that,” Dara said. “But we must move forward—and quickly.”
Slaughter my daughter quickly, you mean. But what else was there to do? And what did she—or the dying king—or Ryon—care about Alia? She meant the world to him and to Cyna, but to them she was a child like any other in the realm. Except that this child had been marked out for an early, unnatural death. Her blood to him was precious, but to them it was simply currency, a price to be paid. To them the realm was the world, not one tiny creature.
So what else was there to do?
An answer appeared in his mind. Blood—or death? or suffering?—was required for the spell, but Cyna was right: it didn’t have to be his daughter’s.
As he’d been wading through those thoughts, the door had come open and two soldiers had stepped inside—not of his royal guard, strangely, but of the ranks who helped keep the peace in the realm. Bathar registered their presence without processing it. Dara and Ryon regarded him warily.
“Bathar,” the king said.
Something about the old man’s voice—even beyond how faded it sounded, as if the shadow of death had started to creep into it already—sent a cold shiver through Bathar’s body.
He approached and bent down again.
“No one expects you to witness the sacrifice,” the king said. “I have arranged quarters for you and Cyna in the keep. You can return to your cottage tonight.”
Feeling that his body was a spring that had been compressed beyond endurance, Bathar willed it to keep still. He looked up at Ryon and Dara. On their candlelit, wary faces he saw all the confirmation he needed. He’d been called here as a pretense, to get him out of the way so that soldiers could be sent to his home to take Cyna and Alia captive.
He looked over his shoulder at the brutish soldiers. Likely two others stood outside the door, replacing his own guard, and more at the end of the hallway.
He had the dagger he wore strapped to his thigh, but he’d given Cyna his sword and hadn’t thought to replace it before coming to see the king. With just that small weapon, could he fight his way past two?—four?—six soldiers on his own? Not to mention a mage who had the power, so it seemed, to invade his mind without his permission or even his awareness.
And even if he were successful somehow?
Despite his advanced age, Ryon had not yet chosen an apprentice, as he was supposed to do, as the old woman had done with him when she was yet very young. If Bathar killed Ryon now, and the old woman refused or was unable to make the sacrifice and cast the spell to seal the shield, then no one else could do it. Bathar would have sentenced everyone in the realm to a gruesome death.
Well—more realistically, the moment he reached for his dagger he’d be struck dead by Ryon, who continued to stare at him without blinking, who was perhaps even now reading his thoughts. And he’d have lost any chance of saving Alia. He would be dead, Alia would be sacrificed, and Cyna—what would happen to Cyna?
He filled his lungs with a deep breath and held it for a moment, then let it out and forced himself to nod. “I understand, Highness.”
A dark, heavy, oppressive spirit seemed to leave the room at his words. He felt that even the soldiers by the door relaxed their stances.
“The shield must not fall,” he continued, “and spilled blood is required to restore it. Your Highness, I offer my life in place of my daughter’s.”
The king opened his eyes. Some of the old man’s strength seemed to come back into his voice. “Do you think you’re the first father in our history who’s offered to trade places with their child?”
“The law is clear,” Ryon said.
“If blood must be—”
“The law is not arbitrary. It must be the child born closest to the time the shield begins to fall.”
“Why?” That question had never mattered before. It had been sufficient for Bathar to know that there was a mechanism to restore the shield should it begin to fail in his lifetime, and he hadn’t stopped to give the details a second thought—until it was his own child at stake. They’d happily brought Alia to Ryon to register her, as required by law, on the first day after her birth. They’d seen it as a fun tradition, until it was done and they’d walked out into the courtyard that morning. Then he’d realized that the certificate of registration Ryon had signed for Alia could become her death sentence. Bathar had resolved to carry out the inspections of the shield himself. He vowed to begin doing so the very next day and to not stop…well, he hadn’t allowed the thought to be explicit even in his own mind, let alone when speaking to Cyna about his plan…to not stop until the registry showed a new baby in the realm. But now that his worst fears had been realized—the reasonable fear that the shield might crack, and the secret fear that it would happen before another child was born—the question seemed so important that he wondered he’d never asked it before. That no one had asked those questions: why did the spell of restoration need a sacrifice at all? Why did it have to be the youngest child?
He stood and approached the mage. “Please, help me understand.”
Ryon lowered his voice so the others couldn’t hear. “That banished creature you see every morning—yes, I know about that too. She wanted to understand. She wanted to see beyond the shield. When her powers proved unequal to the task, she was willing to sacrifice the realm to satisfy her curiosity.”
For a moment Bathar couldn’t find his voice to defend himself. Then he whispered back, “I haven’t broken his commandment. I’ve never said a single word to her. She’s just a crazed, lonely, old woman.”
And yet…in his youth, before he’d understood that the shield could be restored whenever it began to fail, he’d had nightmares in which he stood alone facing a cracking shield. The crack spread upward, like a tent being opened from the inside. The previous stillness shattered as the air filled with the sounds of netherworld creatures.
Where had those images come from? Cobbled together from stories told to scare him as a child.
More questions rushed into his thoughts, as if the first question—why did his daughter have to be sacrificed, when he was prepared to give up his own life?—had unlocked a secret door in his mind. The door had been holding back doubts and misgivings that it seemed had always been there, unseen.
The last time the shield had begun to crack, almost three-quarters of a century before, Ryon had restored it, as had the mage before him, and the one before. For how many generations?
Because since the days when the shield had been erected by powerful magic, it had never fallen—always restored in time, or the realm itself would have been destroyed. How long ago had that been? Even the number of generations was lost to time. In all of their recorded history—even in the legendary stories of the First King—the shield surrounded the realm as always.
What if the old woman had glimpsed a truth, mad as she was? What if the monsters beyond had died out in all of those generations; the chaos subdued in time? What if his ancestors had shut themselves in to survive a tempest, but the storm had passed—and they had no way of knowing?
“Was it wrong for the Banished to wonder what lay beyond the shield?” he said.
“Chaos,” Ryon responded immediately.
“Chaos once—but chaos now?”
Not good enough, Bathar thought, but didn’t say. Not if it meant his child’s life. He sensed more than saw the soldiers move closer to him.
He returned to the bed and knelt beside the prone king again, but spoke in normal tones rather than the reverential whisper he’d been using. “Highness—how do we know the danger persists? Let me report on what lies beyond. If I don’t return within a set time, Ryon will be ready to seal the shield.”
“And what comes through during your set time, Bathar?” the king said.
“My guard is ready to defend the realm.” He’d promised Cyna he would think of something, and now he had. It would give them a chance. “At the first sign of trouble, you can—”
“No,” Princess Dara said.
He turned to her sharply. “But—”
She raised an eyebrow.
“Highness?” he said to Nebed in frustrated desperation, then immediately recognized the mistake he’d made in appealing to the dying king over Dara.
“You are too valuable to the realm, Bathar,” she said.
“She has spoken, Bathar,” the king said. “Do not test our patience further.”
Frustration and desperation had pushed him into insulting the princess, and now a new wellspring of those feelings propelled him even further. “You are still the monarch,” he said, standing and looking down at the king. “And you will grant me this request.”
“I demand repayment.”
The dark spirit that had departed only minutes before returned with renewed vigor, filling the air and making it heavy. The sudden invasion of that spirit also stole whatever response the king had been preparing to make. He shut his mouth, but his yellowed eyes filled with disgust.
After he’d saved his life, the king had demanded that Bathar ask him anything—up to half the realm’s riches, he’d said. Bathar had refused reward for doing his duty. Now he understood why the king had been so adamant: he’d wanted the debt paid, at a price he’d set himself. The king had relented only reluctantly—perhaps, if it were true that Ryon could invade minds, after consulting with his advisor. Ryon might have reassured him that Bathar would never call in the debt.
Well, Ryon had been wrong. The thought comforted Bathar.
“My life is almost at an end,” the king said, “and isn’t worth what it once was. You, however, Bathar, are valuable. You will defend my daughter when she ascends to the throne, if she’ll still have you. And you will help defend the realm at the shield’s breach until we restore it.”
Bathar didn’t understand—the king seemed to be saying yes and no at the same time. He waited for the slow words to emerge.
“If you can convince her to accept, I will allow your wife to go through the breach. If she refuses, however, the debt is repaid.”
The thin lips twisted into a sneer as the king watched the changes that must have been visible on Bathar’s face. He didn’t believe the stated reason—no one man was so valuable to the defense of the realm. No, this was the king’s cruelty asserting itself—the cruelty that had sparked the rebellion that Bathar himself had helped quell. Even as he lay dying, Nebed had found a way to lash out at him.
“You’re both young,” the king said, interrupting his thoughts. “You can have another child.”
How had he served such a mind of cold calculations? But he knew: it was easy to justify the king’s severity as necessary when the decisions didn’t directly affect him, easier to support the throne he’d sworn allegiance to than question the morality of its actions.
Bathar sighed deeply, then stood. “Can I see my family?” he said.
The two soldiers stepped forward at a sign from the king, and he gave the order. Bathar left without looking back. Two more soldiers stood outside the door as he’d guessed, and two more at either end of the hall. He was led across the staircase to the east wing of the castle, then down more hallways until they reached another door, similarly guarded by a pair of soldiers. They stepped aside to allow Bathar to enter.
Inside, Cyna paced the large room, while Alia slept curled up in the middle of the bed. Cyna turned a ferocious look on him when he opened the door, which resolved into joy. But the hopeful smile started decaying almost immediately.
“What happened?” she said as he said to her, “Are you all right?” Her right arm had been bandaged, and a pool of blood had leaked through to stain the white wrapping.
They sat on the edge of the bed and spoke in hushed tones out of a habit of not wanting to wake Alia. Cyna told him about fighting the soldiers who had come to their home, and how she’d eventually had to surrender to them. Bathar told her about his suspicion that the chaos beyond the shield might have resolved into order through the intervening generations, and how he had used his life debt to—
Cyna grabbed his leg. “You asked him to let you through the shield?”
She stared at him. He knew from the way her jaw clenched that she was imagining him dying a thousand ugly deaths.
“He won’t let me go through, Cyna. He said he would allow you to. He’s hoping that you won’t.”
She looked back at the tiny figure sleeping soundly in the large bed. “You were willing,” she said softly.
“Willing, but terrified. We can figure out another way.”
The door came open and Ryon strode in.
“Well?” he said, as they stood to face him. “Will she go?”
Bathar looked at Cyna.
“Yes,” she said.
“Fine,” Ryon said, then tossed a disdainful sneer at Bathar. “The king has allowed this concession as payment in full for a debt no subject should hold over his sovereign.”
“I’d like some time to—” Bathar began.
“The crack has started to spread. We ride out immediately.” He faced Cyna. “My assistants are already carrying out the stone of sacrifice. We’ll overtake them, and you’ll have until they reach the shield to leave our realm…if you can go through with it…and return…if you do return.”
“How do you know it’s started to spread?” But in asking the question, Bathar realized the most probable explanation—Ryon had not cast a spell that could invade the mind of an unwilling subject: he’d commissioned a spy to follow Bathar on his inspections. That spy had opened his mind to Ryon and allowed him to see the crack that morning; and he saw it now, spreading.
Ryon’s disdainful sneer turned into an amused smile, and then a puff of air escaped his mouth, as if that were the only response Bathar deserved. Cyna had gone around the bed and picked up Alia, cradling her to keep from waking her.
“She rides with me,” Ryon said, extending his arms.
Cyna and Bathar exchanged glances.
“That creature will save our kingdom,” Ryon said. “No harm will come to her before we reach the shield, believe me.”
After another moment of hesitation, Cyna placed Alia in Ryon’s arms.
In the central courtyard a retinue of twenty-four regular soldiers waited on twenty-four horses. Attendants brought the princess and Ryon their own steeds.
“My guard can best defend against whatever comes through the shield,” Bathar said, looking up at Ryon.
The old man shook his head. “They are needed here. We cannot delay—here come your horses, and swords for you and Cyna, in case a sword can even help her on the other side. You take the front.”
They rode in silence. A line of a dozen soldiers separated Bathar and Cyna from their daughter; Ryon rode beside Princess Dara, and the remaining soldiers drew up the rear. After twenty minutes, they overtook the caravan transporting the sacrificial altar, a pair of mules pulling the wagon on which the concave table had been placed. It looked like an oversized creche with ornate golden legs.
Bathar resisted the temptation to stare at it as they rode past.
When they arrived within sight of the shield, Bathar drew in his breath. The zigzag crack had opened up at the bottom where it met the earth, so that a hole the size of a coin had appeared between their world and whatever lay beyond.
By the time he and Cyna had ridden down the grassy hill to stand a few feet from the shield, the hole had grown even more, now large enough to admit a small mouse. And yet—nothing came through. Or did it? He found it uncomfortable to keep his eyes fixed on that hole. As if a blinding power were seeping through already, burning the eyes of any who dared gaze upon it.
If simply looking at the light coming through could cause pain, what would happen to Cyna when she stepped into that world?
He turned his horse to face his wife, whose gaze was fixed on the shield. “Cyna—” he began, but she shook her head slightly.
A crowd started gathering on the hill, villagers and farmers tempted by the royal procession to follow and see what the commotion was about.
Perhaps righteously—or perhaps desperately seeking a distraction—Bathar felt anger rising up toward them. Would he allow their presence to turn his daughter’s sacrifice into a performance? Did Cyna have to go through the shield with gawkers watching her every step? And what if her courage failed her?
He brought his horse around and approached Princess Dara, standing with Ryon at the foot of the hill, waiting for the caravan. The soldiers closed in against him.
The princess called out to let him through.
“I beg permission to disperse the crowd,” he said to her. “I don’t want spectators.”
She shrugged, then nodded.
He turned and galloped his horse up the hill toward the largest part of the crowd, then suddenly pulled up on the reins. Covered in a patchwork of frayed and faded clothes, bent over, trying to hide behind others—his glance picked her out. The old woman.
He dismounted and followed her as she tried to disappear among the others.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he whispered, grabbing her and pulling her away from the pocket of people.
The hunched over head covered in a tattered shawl looked up at him as her smaller legs tried to keep up. “You…speak to me?”
He looked around to make sure no one was watching. “I’m sorry I never did before. You say there’s no danger beyond the shield. Do you have any evidence?”
“Evidence?” She laughed, an ugly, croaking sound. “Destroyed! All destroyed!”
Bathar hissed to keep quieter. “What was destroyed?”
“Old—very old—forbidden texts. Buried, you see? I discovered them—I recovered them! Gone now…destroyed—guess by whom?—but I have them in my head.” She tapped a finger against her skull. She spoke quickly now, eagerly, as if a bottle had been unstopped and all the words began spilling out like wine. “We did not cast the shield. Six other kingdoms cast it over us. To protect themselves from us, you understand? We caused great suffering in those days, and our cruel king vowed to never rest until he ruled all of the realms. So their greatest mages united to imprison us in the shield. It would fall once the king died and was replaced by a new monarch—as long as that one renounced cruelty.” She began to cackle. “It didn’t have the intended effect! When he saw his mages were powerless to destroy the shield, the king buried the truth. He insisted that the shield protected his realm, destroyed all of our previous records, and began to call himself the ‘First King’!” She cackled again.
“Be quiet!” Bathar barked, keeping her moving. “How certain are you that those things are true?”
“My life.” She spoke quietly now, deflated again. “I gave up my life.”
Did he believe her? He wanted to, more than anything.
“Then sacrificing the youngest child is not required to seal the shield?” he said.
“No, and neither is the so-called spell. Any cruel act under the authority of the new ruler would suffice. You see? Our laws are arbitrary.”
Bathar continued to stare at her. Her mind didn’t seem as addled as he’d once thought. “You said you discovered old texts?”
“Protected scrolls. Buried in jars, secretly in the time of the First King, in the deepest part of the forest behind the castle. I sensed their magic—not a mage in a dozen could’ve found them. But I could. I did! Not a mage in a hundred could’ve opened the jars, you understand?”
Bathar nodded for her to go on. She seemed like a child desperately seeking approval.
“My mistake—I brought the truth to Nebed, prince of the realm then, because I believed he would be more reasonable than his mad father. Nebed destroyed the scrolls.”
“Fear!” she yelled. “Generations of it, deep in our blood. He said the scrolls were a hoax by someone—he implied me!—who wanted to see the realm destroyed. Instead he had the scrolls destroyed, forbade me or anyone from speaking of them again. It didn’t matter at first, but soon the mad king died and Nebed ascended to the throne, and the shield began to crack…and I begged for permission to allow us a glimpse—to prove the truth—”
“He refused, and he exiled you.”
The old woman shook her head, smiled impishly. “He tried to have me killed. The scoundrel Ryon wasn’t born with that double scar! I exiled myself, to watch over the shield. I’ve been waiting for this day ever since.”
Bathar stopped looking around furtively and focused all of his attention on the old woman. He held her face in his hands, to stare into her eyes. “Then there is no danger beyond the shield? You’re sure?”
She leaned her face against the warmth of his skin. He suddenly remembered that she hadn’t felt human touch for seven decades. “No more than inside the shield,” she said, her voice now soft and calm. “Less.”
“Then why does it hurt to look at it?”
The gummy, toothless mouth opened in a smile. She looked past him at the shield. “I wanted to live long enough for a glimpse of that world.” She stared at it for a while as he continued to study her face, still trying to decide if she was crazy or telling the truth, and if he could risk Cyna’s life on his assessment. “It hurts your eyes, young man,” she said, “because the light is brighter there. We have grown accustomed to darkness.”
A murmur from those around him made him look over his shoulder, back down at the shield. The hole had grown significantly; if a mouse could’ve squeezed through before, now something the size of a large cat would have been able to dart into their world.
He told the old woman to stay hidden in the crowd, then whistled for his horse. Bathar rode down to Ryon; the soldiers seemed to accept now that he didn’t intend harm and allowed him to approach.
Alia began to cry for him, and reflexively Bathar reached out for her, but Ryon shook his head.
“Why does nothing come through the hole?” Bathar said. “If chaos reigns beyond, why isn’t it spilling into our world already?”
The satisfaction on Ryon’s face made him realize how desperate he must have sounded. “You do not have to sacrifice your wife to the darkness.”
“I just want to understand.”
A horn sounded, announcing the arrival of the caravan and ordering the crowds to make way for it. As Bathar watched, the mules crested the hill.
“Once the stone is set up,” Ryon said, “the ritual will be completed.”
“No,” Bathar said. “The king—”
Dara spoke up. “We can’t risk the realm.” She motioned toward the hole, which had grown even more, but still not enough to admit Cyna. “It is in the hands of the gods.”
Bathar’s horse turned one way and then the other, working out Bathar’s own nervous energy. None of his royal guard had been allowed to accompany them, although his guard could best hold back whatever chaos spilled out. And to do what? Protect the dying king? No, Ryon and Dara had never intended to allow Cyna to leave.
Sensing trouble, the soldiers closed in around Ryon and the princess.
He took a deep breath and guided his horse back toward Cyna, who stood staring at the growing crack in the shield.
“They won’t wait,” he said. “Once the stone is in place, they’re going to sacrifice Alia.”
Cyna looked up at him. Something had changed in her. She’d been staring resolutely at the hole, the painful bright light Ryon called darkness, and in her unblinking eyes he saw none of the things he expected—no trepidation, no fear, no anxiety. Only resolution. Not a muscle moved on her face as she looked at him—looked through him, he felt.
Now that the caravan had arrived, the soldiers dismounted their horses and, with Princess Dara and Ryon at their center, began moving closer to the crack in the shield, to prepare for the sacrifice.
Cyna watched them pass by silently, then she leapt onto her horse and rode out toward the foothill, yelling: “By leave of our king, ruler of this realm, I have been granted permission to cross that threshold!”
Bathar followed, and soon he understood what she was doing. The crowd had begun to approach to hear the message Cyna was shouting as she rode back and forth. A panicked murmur went through them. They’d come out of curiosity, which had turned to fear as they saw the crack in the shield, but the soldiers had reassured them. Now they were waiting to see a once in a lifetime event, the sealing of the shield. But one of their own people choosing to cross over wasn’t a lifetime event—it had never happened in the history of their realm. The anxious, pressing people slowed the descent of the caravan, so that the horn had to be blown repeatedly.
“Can’t you see with your own eyes?” Cyna now yelled. “There is no danger!” She repeated the words like a mantra. Then, finally turning her horse around, she called out: “Come and see!”
The crowd was thrown into confusion. Some people—more than Bathar would have imagined—began to pull away from the others, to follow Cyna, approach the breach, see for themselves. Another group seemed to be chasing the first to pull them back. The better part of the crowd retreated a little further up the hill, perhaps afraid the approach of their fellows would finally cause whatever was waiting on the other side to come pouring through. Bathar looked for the old woman, found her being jostled by the waves of people as she tried to push forward. He rode toward her, then dismounted and helped her onto his horse, where she’d be safe from being trampled to death.
“She’s going through the shield?” the old woman said, excitedly, reverentially.
The caravan was almost down the hill.
He swung himself back onto the horse, grabbing the reins around the old woman to keep her steady, and galloped forward, cutting through the smaller crowd.
A line of a dozen soldiers stood in front of the breach, masking it. But they faced inwards, their backs to the shield. Just in front of them the remaining guards formed a circle around Ryon, still holding Alia protectively, and Princess Dara.
Cyna was on her feet and trying to press through, but two soldiers had stepped forward to hold her back.
Bathar rode up beside her horse and handed the reins to the old woman as he dismounted. The smaller crowd was filling in the space behind them. The caravan’s horn sounded again, more angrily; it was almost on top of them.
He approached the soldiers, two more stepping forward to meet him.
Behind him, more than thirty or forty of the villagers and farmers had gathered. They were young, strong, brave—but wary. They tried to look past the soldiers at the breach, as big as a large dog now, and murmured among themselves. He felt that curiosity and excitement had brought them this far—with two dozen armed men and women still between them and the shield—but that they were on the verge of retreating to join the others on the hill.
But if Cyna—and he!—proved that no danger existed? Would they follow?
In a loud voice, he yelled: “You will honor our king and his wishes! You will allow us to cross to the other side!”
Ryon turned his head to Dara and whispered in her ear. The princess touched the shoulder of the soldier in front of her, who moved out of the way. She stepped forward and said, just as loudly, “You dare speak of honor, you who have broken my father’s law?” Her glance jumped to the bundle of rags gathered on his saddle, and a spasm of displeasure seized her features. Then, in a lower voice: “Your debt is repaid; you will not be killed for this disobedience, though you will live like her as a banished one.”
“Highness—don’t you want to know what lies beyond?”
Her glance now jumped to Cyna. “What will a mother not say to save her child? There is nothing beyond the shield but chaos. She would save one child and bring ruin to our kingdom.”
The horn sounded right behind them, and Bathar turned desperately to see the smaller crowd parting to admit the mules carrying the stone table.
He grabbed Cyna by the arm and led her back to their horses. “They won’t believe you even if you go,” he said. “They’ll say it’s a trick, a lie. You were corrupted by the darkness. It won’t matter.”
She looked over her shoulder. “Then we fight.”
We’re outnumbered, he thought but didn’t say. They’ll kill us.
The heavy stone altar with its large curving legs had been placed on the ground. Ryon set Alia down in the middle of that cold, dead table. Over the neighing of the anxious horses and the rumbling nervousness of the crowd, Bathar could hear his daughter’s unhappy cries.
Ryon lifted up a long golden dagger, then his voice bellowed out, deeper and stronger than Bathar had ever heard it, speaking the words of incantation, at the end of which he’d plunge the knife into the tiny body.
One moment Bathar had been despairing, certain they’d run out of options. The next, he knew only that his daughter wanted to be picked up, and that nothing more than a circle of soldiers and the possibility of death stood in his way.
He unsheathed his sword. Without a word, Cyna did the same.
They fought desperately, Bathar keeping one ear on Ryon’s voice, unsure how long the incantation would last. Finally, they were almost at the stone table, and with a cry from deep within his belly, Bathar descended on the next soldier, the only one—for the moment—standing between him and Ryon. The soldier fell backward, his head cracking against one of the golden legs.
Ryon stopped speaking and his cold stare dropped to meet Bathar’s. With one arm Bathar leveled his sword at him, while he reached out for Alia with the other, his gaze never leaving Ryon’s.
The old mage smiled, then flicked his head to one side. As if obeying a wordless command, the sword flew out of Bathar’s hand.
Before he could register what had happened, Bathar saw Ryon plunge the dagger through the air. Bathar leapt forward—or tried to—to stop or deflect or absorb the thrust. But his body didn’t react. Ryon had immobilized him and now he would stand, helpless, and watch his daughter be killed.
Except, the dagger had stopped just above her bundled, wriggling, crying body, the sharp golden weapon shaking in Ryon’s hands as if caught between two unseen but powerful and opposing forces.
Bathar felt the tightness in his body release. He stumbled forward and snatched his daughter from the table, held her close to his body. Then he allowed himself to look around.
Four panicked soldiers surrounded Princess Dara protectively, leading her back toward the shield—even toward the breach. The rest of her contingent was engaged in battle—because it wasn’t only Cyna who fought them. Had those farmers and villagers joined the fight, he wondered, because they finally accepted that no danger lay beyond? Or, as he suspected most likely, because they saw this as an opportunity to defy, maybe even punish, the daughter of a cruel and oppressive king?
Out of the corner of his eye he became aware of a hunched-over pile of rags, a single arm sticking out from the sleeve, the fingers of its shaking hand outstretched. He turned his head as the old woman collapsed, then Bathar heard a loud clang as the dagger stabbed the stone table with all of Ryon’s previously restrained force.
In the next moment, a mournful, drawn-out sound filled the skies, an amplified call from the magically enhanced longhorn set on the roof of the castle keep. The king had died.
Bathar leapt forward and grabbed the knife from the ground where it had tumbled, expecting a struggle with Ryon—but he couldn’t see the mage anywhere. He spun on his heels and ran to help the old woman to her feet.
She pushed his hand away weakly. “Go,” she said, her voice faint. “Go through the shield.”
He moved his arm around hers and grabbed her, helped her to her feet. She felt as insubstantial as a bale of hay. “Come with us.”
“Do you see?” she said, looking past him, her wrinkled face radiant. “I told you.”
He followed her gaze. The hole had grown, as large as the giant door to the throne room, and seemed to be expanding even as he watched. Beyond it lay another world, a bright world, an expanse of green grass and large trees. Something was invading through the breach in the shield indeed, but it was light; like casting aside a thick curtain in a dark room. The world beyond was almost too bright to look at.
“Please come with us,” he said.
Her hand dropped to touch the side of Alia’s face, who giggled in response. She looked back at Bathar and—almost reluctantly—allowed herself to nod, relief making her face relax into a toothless smile. She’d been ostracized for so long, he understood, that even this small display of kindness seemed to touch her deeply.
Bathar whistled for his horse. But before the animal could reach them, he felt someone tugging at Alia, trying to rip her out of his arm. He turned quickly but no one was near him except the old woman.
“Go,” she said, and seemed to gather up her remaining energy. The relief on her face had been replaced by exhaustion. But she raised her arm, and immediately Bathar felt the force release its grip on his daughter.
“Go,” she said again, straining to speak. “I’ll follow.”
Bathar climbed atop the horse, holding Alia close.
The old woman’s arm was shaking, but he couldn’t see Ryon—not near the stone table on golden legs; not near the hole in the shield, where Cyna and her small upstart army of villagers and farmers had chased the princess and her remaining guards; and not on the hill, where the rest of the crowd watched and waited to see what would happen.
He galloped his horse forward, toward the fighting. “Stop!” he cried. “The shield is falling!”
Like an incantation of his own, the words seemed to wake them up to that reality, especially the princess—queen, now—and her soldiers, who had been so focused on defending themselves that they’d retreated toward the breach.
With a loud command from their queen, the soldiers took a step back, toward the shield. Cyna issued her own command and her fighters fell back too. Bathar led his horse in between the two forces.
“My queen,” he said. “Look and see—there is nothing to fear. Lead your people!”
The queen pushed aside one of her soldiers and stepped forward. She looked past Bathar and addressed Cyna’s small army: “Troops to outnumber you ten to one will be here shortly. They will crush you without mercy unless you lay down your arms.”
“The shield will fall, Highness,” Bathar said.
“As for you,” she said, as if he hadn’t spoken, “surrender now and I promise you and your wife a painless execution.”
“Please—you can lead us to the other side.”
From the set expression on her face, though, he knew she never would; because underneath that forced expression, he detected terror. What could convince her that the image beyond the breach wasn’t an illusion? Would she believe even if someone crossed over and returned?
She looked past him again, and a smile stretched out her thin lips. The reinforcements had arrived—he knew it even as he turned his head to see the line of horses crest the hill.
Bathar looked at Cyna, then to the others. “There is nothing to fear!” he yelled.
The queen’s soldiers had closed in around her and began to move her away from the shield. Bathar reached down for Cyna, pulled her onto the back of his horse, then galloped ahead and through the large, arch-like breach.
Squinting at the unnatural brightness, he took a deep breath; the air felt as fresh as any morning he’d ever experienced.
He turned his horse and waited to see if anyone else would cross. But already a few were coming through—slowly, hesitantly, then turning and calling and waving to others to follow.
“I have to help the old woman,” Bathar said to his wife.
Cyna nodded, dismounted, eagerly accepted Alia from him.
“Be careful,” she said. Then her expression softened and she put her free hand on his knee. “Bathar,” she said, with a new voice, “we’re outside the shield.”
Bringing up an arm to protect his eyes, he allowed himself a look around at the verdant field stretching out endlessly before him, forests of tall, majestic trees to each side. Another blue shield surrounded them, rising up from the horizon, a giant and distant sky, like the reality on which their pale imitation had been based.
He looked back at his wife and returned her beaming smile.
Through the breach in the shield, which had grown as large as the castle gatehouse, he saw that the queen had retreated to the foothill, her tiny regiment reunited with the reinforcements. Incredibly, they were organizing themselves into defensive lines. Queen Dara still expected monstrous hordes to come pouring through.
A small group of soldiers, led by Ryon, were marching toward him. One of them carried the old woman over his shoulder like a bag of flour.
For a brief moment, Bathar’s confused gaze met Ryon’s. Ryon lifted an arm and the golden dagger, which Bathar had shoved into his tunic, began to shake.
“No!” he yelled, and tried to grab it. The blade sliced across his palm as it flew through the air, then the hilt landed in Ryon’s waiting hand.
Now Bathar understood: they weren’t marching toward the breach, but to the stone table. They were bringing the woman there to sacrifice her; despite what was written in the law, Ryon had convinced the queen that the death of the old woman would suffice to seal the breach.
Desperately, Bathar tried to nudge his horse forward, but his arms and legs didn’t respond. He’d been immobilized again. To watch the old woman die and do nothing?
It’s not Ryon holding you back.
The voice inside his head reminded him of the old woman’s, but full of strength and vigor.
He ignored it and willed his body to respond.
Ryon does not have the power to speak directly into anyone’s mind. I will release you if you promise to stay where you are.
They dropped her on top of the stone table. Ryon stood over her, the golden dagger lifted high, his mouth moving with the words of incantation.
I can help you! Bathar screamed at her in his mind, then realized what he was saying. If you have this kind of power, can’t you stop them?
To what end? My mind is strong, but my body is spent. I prayed to live long enough to see beyond the shield. I never imagined that I’d see any of our people cross to the other side. Or that I’d be able to send a piece of myself with you. Now, enough about that. Isn’t this something? Ryon, petulant child that he was, claimed he didn’t believe a word of what I said about the shield or our laws. But you see? Some part of him believes.
You don’t have to— Bathar began, but the thought died out as Ryon brought down his arm, plunging the dagger into the old woman. A blink, and then Bathar saw nothing but cloudy blue steel.
Bathar dropped from his horse, then fell to his knees, staring at the shield.
After a few moments, he felt a hand on his back. Cyna, holding their baby.
“Look,” she said, laughing.
Alia seemed to be playing a game, lifting her mother’s necklace and letting it drop—except that her hands never moved, only her eyes.
“She said that a piece of her would come with us.” Bathar ran his fingers against the side of the tiny, soft face. “Hello, little mage. Maybe one day you can help us show the truth to everyone trapped inside.”
In response Alia giggled, her brown eyes shining.
Bathar kissed her forehead, then hugged them both tightly. After a while, he said, “We’re falling behind.”
Riding together on Bathar’s horse, they followed the small crowd of freed people to discover the world that lay beyond.