Aardvard Factotum gazed across his desk at his visitor. He was the leading merchant of knowledge in Dargon and apparently did quite well at his trade. His office was opulent. His expression, however, was oblivious of the riches surrounding him, being intent solely on sizing up his visitor. Cahill felt appraised.
Cahill was Sir Ongis’ clerk. He was visiting Dargon because Sir Ongis had come for the Melrin festivities and brought him along. Originally, Sir Ongis had hoped to present to the Duke during the festival that faerie princess he’d briefly possessed. He’d even made the mistake of sending the Duke a message he’d meant to be private. The message had promised him a gift that he would find truly unique and a surprise for the rest of the court. That plan was dashed when the faerie whatsit had escaped from Sir Ongis’ dungeon.
So Sir Ongis had come hoping he’d only have to explain why he thought a two-headed trout, which had regretably died and rotted quickly, was so unique and wonderful that it had merited boastful advance notice. What he failed to appreciate was that no private message to the Duke remains that way. Behind his back, he and his unpresented gift were the subject of much speculation. And Cahill hoped to profit from his lord’s no-longer-desired notoriety.
As for Aardvard, he was well aware of the speculative ignorance surrounding Cahill’s master. When he became aware (less than a mene after Sir Ongis’ entourage entered the city) that Cahill had information on the matter that he could be persuaded to share, Aardvard went so far in making himself available to the servant as to provide him with mount and discreet escort from Ongis’ lodgings to Factotum’s own humble dwelling.
And now here was Cahill in Aardvard’s office, having spoken to no-one else first. It was going to be a wonderful festival this year, Aardvard just knew it.
“So,” Aardvard said, wondering how ignorant this servant might be of the value his knowledge held for some in Dargon, “what can I do for you?”
Cahill glanced around the office and then looked back at the merchant. “You could set me up quite comfortably for the rest of my life,” he suggested.
“I could,” Aardvard acknowledged. The way he liked to appear to be living, it was hard to argue with the assessment. “Why would I want to?”
“You collect information, don’t you?”
“Aye, but it’s such a perishable commodity, you know.” Aardvard Factotum sighed. “You pass along some tidbit of knowledge to me. So then I have it and maybe I pass along some tidbit of coinage to you. But the exchange is hardly fair, hardly fair at all. And why not? Because, my friend, while you’ve given that information to me, you’ve still got it also. But the coinage I give to you is forever sundered from my grasp.”
“Ah, but the information I have to share –”
“Yes, I know. It has the court buzzing. Your master sent along a warning to his duke that his present this year would be remembered for decades. Well, sir, if that isn’t an advertisement to start the idle tongues chattering, I don’t know what is.”
“So everyone wants to know what Sir Ongis’ present will be?” Cahill asked cautiously.
“I take a professional interest only, you understand,” Aardvard explained quickly. “There are people I know who would be very grateful to be informed — before the actual occasion — what the great event will be. They like to appear powerful by appearing knowledgeable.”
“So what would you be willing to reward me with in exchange for this information?” Cahill asked.
“Shall we say …” Aardvard paused. The servant seemed eager, too eager. The information could be extracted for cheap, that seemed clear. But Aardvard suspected that his source still knew something about the upcoming transaction that he didn’t know. He hated that. “… five Mint?” He placed the coins on the desk.
“Fine,” Cahill barked. Violating all the customs of bargaining, he swept the coins off the desk into his own hand without even a token argument. “My lord will be giving the Duke a fish story.”
“A what!?” Aardvard shouted.
“A *dead* fish story,” Cahill clarified quietly.
“Your master will be presenting the duke — his liege’s liege — with a dead fish? And he had the — the temerity to proclaim that that would be a present the court would remember for years?”
“Of course not,” Cahill said calmly. “A dead fish would stink. My Lord Ongis will merely present my Lord the Duke with a tragic accounting of how that marvel of nature, the two-headed brook trout got away. It’s almost a passable tale, full of pathos and gnashing teeth. He’s been coached by old Bernard –”
“Never mind the damned gnashing teeth! Has your master lost his mind?”
“No,” Cahill admitted. “But he has lost the original present.”
Cahill grinned at Aardvard. Aardvard grinned back. So what if the story cost an extra five Mint, it promised to be an excellent festival.
“And what was that original present?” Aardvard purred. Cahill smiled and tapped the desk. Aardvard laid out some more coins on the surface. Cahill shook his head and tapped the table again. Aardvard frowned. “That’s as much as a gold Sovereign,” he grumbled at the coins already on the table.
“At a generous trading house, perhaps,” Cahill said, “assuming any such exist. Come now, Factotum,” he urged. “This is no piece of information that will be generally revealed in just a few days. Lord Ongis won’t be telling anybody about the one that really got away when he gives the Duke his fish tale. This knowledge will be yours to control exclusively for as long as you like — provided you make it worth my while to keep your confidence.”
“Hmm … This had better be worth my while — and my gold,” Aardvard muttered sourly, adding two Cues to the heap on the desk. He was actually still a Mark or two shy of his budget so the sour expression was mostly good acting. He still hated parting with the coins, though.
Cahill moved the coins to his end of the desk. “Sir Ongis got himself a faerie princess,” he said.
“Oh?” The syllable was colored by twinges of doubt that Aardvard’s money was well-spent.
“His men found her in the forest. She was crawling up through a hole in the floor of a shallow cave. They brought her to him –”
“Did you see her?” Aardvard asked impatiently.
“Yes.” Cahill grinned at the merchant of tales. “Oh, she was real, all right, and no taller than from your fingers to your elbow. She was a pretty little one too, with her face all set in grimness. And grime. She shouted over and over in her weak little voice that she wanted to go home –”
“What, under a mushroom somewhere?”
“No. She said that her parents were a couple of Ongis’ peasants. She said her name was Mouse when Ongis wanted to call her something faerie — Melissa, I think.”
“But she said her name was Mouse?”
“Right on. Can’t say her parents didn’t have a sense of humor.” Cahill relaxed in his chair. “And she wanted to go back to their hovel instead of staying at the keep. Well, she was a little brat — no question about the ‘little’ — and only ten summers old, you see.”
“How do you know that? Did you talk to her?”
“Me? No.” Cahill grimaced. “Ongis’ little faerie was too delicate to be bothered by the servants. He did all the bothering himself. No. I just paid me a little visit to the Stevene house and had a look at their Naming records.”
“You can read, then.”
“Of course I can read. I’m Ongis’ clerk, aren’t I? Why do you think he brought me along for the Melrin? It surely isn’t to be his dancing partner. Anyway, if there’s one thing that idiot Henri could do, it was write neatly. I found it easily, noted quite clearly: ‘Born the 4th day of Yule, Mouse, daughter of Sophie and Gregor of Kervale.’ Ongis’ little faerie is ten summers old.”
“And where is the little peasant now?” Aardvard leaned forward, betraying some of the eagerness he felt.
Cahill glanced at his pile of coins. “Not sure that I recall the answer to that one,” he admitted. “After all, if I knew that, old Ongis would be wanting to know too.”
“So she’s missing?”
Cahill stared in a silent and rapt contemplation at his money. Aardvard contributed a few more Mint to the display. Cahill sighed deeply. Aardvard growled and slammed down one more Cue on his desk. He was very close to budget. He was also certain that he knew from whom he could recoup this investment.
“Yes,” Cahill said, biting on the Cue thoughtfully. It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, chewing on gold. He savored it. “The poor girl’s missing. Ongis took steps to try to find her — you can’t fault him for making an effort.”
“What did he do?”
“He interviewed Gregor and Sophie, of course. They’re the two that were supposed to be the girl’s parents and if a girl’s parents don’t know where she is, it’s pretty often bad for the girl. When they didn’t tell Ongis quickly enough where she was, he killed them.”
“It doesn’t sound like he’s very skilled at extracting information from people,” Aardvard observed regretfully.
“Not what you’d call velvet treatment,” Cahill agreed. “Still, there are other ways of finding these things out.”
“Which you know.”
Cahill smiled and nodded. “I met a traveller –” he began.
“The traveller have a name?” Aardvard interrupted.
“Darcy of Magnus is what he said, though I have no way of knowing whether he used that name often or never. He said –”
“Do you know where he was going?”
“North — Dargon, I suppose. I’m not sure he told me –”
“And where was he coming from?”
“Well, the south, of course.”
“Well, I saw him at the Feathered Pig. He staggered in, breathing heavily like he’d been running –”
“Running?” Aardvard stopped the story. “A traveller running? Had he misplaced his baggage, lost his horse?”
“I didn’t say he *had* been running, just that he was panting like he’d been. Anyway, I introduced myself and explained that as Sir Ongis’ man, I took an interest in anything untoward. So he told me that he’d encountered something untoward on the Dargon road –”
“Between Sir Ongis’ keep and Dargon?”
“No. Beyond Sir Ongis’ keep from Dargon. He was walking along –”
“His horse was walking and he was riding, all right?”
“Fine with me.” Aardvard poured himself some wine. After Cahill pointedly twirled a goblet that was near him, Aardvard poured some into that goblet also.
“So Darcy was riding the road and dusk was falling,” Cahill continued. “But he saw her.”
“Your faerie princess?” Aardvard asked.
“Right. And she was walking toward him –”
“No, damn it. Away from Ongis’ keep *and* from Dargon.”
“Well, seeing a little person like that gave him quite a fright –”
“Why?” Cahill repeated.
“Why would a tiny little girl no taller than my forearm frighten an experienced traveller like this Dracy is supposed to be?”
“Well, he hadn’t seen her like before, had he?”
“So he turned and ran back up the road to the inn?”
“Of course not. She noticed him, melted into the forest, and he came on to the Pig — which was where he’d been intending to come anyway.”
“All panicked and breathing heavily and it’s your opinion, based on this story, that the princess is heading south.”
“Correct. And that ought to be worth something, I’d think.” Cahill tapped his stack of coins.
Aardvard shook his head. “I don’t willingly pay for fiction,” he said.
“Are you –?”
“And now I have to decide whether what I already paid for is the same sort of fabrication. I don’t know and now I may have to waste time getting corroboration of your story. I’m very disappointed with you, Cahill. Very disappointed indeed. Get out.”
“And even if the princess is real,” Aardvard said, dismissing his protest, “why were you so emphatic about her direction of flight when you couldn’t even remember the name of your putative source — Darcy or Dracy or whatever? You’re not very good at this game, so you’d best take what you’re given and clear off.”
Glowering, Cahill departed. On Aardvard’s spiteful orders, he was obliged to walk back to Sir Ongis’ rooms.
Mouse lay on a branch, smiled up at the sun and thanked her god that she had found the perfect tree.
Her perfect tree had a hollow fairly high up that she could just barely squeeze into. Since she could just barely squeeze in, the place was unattractive to anyone or anything much bigger than her — so this was good. The hollow had just been vacated by its most recent prior occupant — at least, she hadn’t had to argue with anyone about her right to move in. How the dwelling became vacant she didn’t ask.
Her perfect tree was fairly close to a little river, so she had convenient fresh water. It was also in the forest on the edge of a village named Riverside. The inhabitants valued their stream too. Mouse liked having the people and the village nearby, though she hadn’t introduced herself to any of them. She missed her family and was tempted to try to make new friends. But she had no idea whether Sir Ongis’ reach extended this far and Sir Ongis aside, she didn’t know whether she might make the mistake of introducing herself to someone too much like him.
But she had her perfect tree, her perfect old olt tree with its many large leaves to hide within, and every afternoon in fair weather, Master Pfevver, the nearest the village offered to a sage, gathered the young under the tree and taught them about life, the great wide world as he understood it, history, and so on.
So, of course, the perfect tree offered Mouse a perfect branch upon which to audit the lectures.
(And other conversations, such as the one she was half-listening to now. The trunk of the old olt tree was a frequent site for people of Riverside to gather together and talk. Sometimes, the conversations were animated and sometimes they were just lazy exchanges of slight insights.)
The only thing wrong with her perfect tree, Mouse knew, was that it probably wouldn’t be warm enough to get her through winter. At home, she had spent the winter months shuttling between the fireplace and sunny spots on the lee side of things. And a fireplace simply wasn’t practical in a tree. At the moment, she was considering the possibility of finding perfect rafters atop one of the houses in the village or giving this area up and continuing the long arduous journey to wondrous Dargon. But she was so loath to leave her perfect tree until she had to. And besides, it wasn’t even midsummer yet.
“… really great,” Tonuil Greno was saying, down by the trunk. He and a boy named Kraen Barbar were talking about Kraen’s father. “It must’ve been fun, having him tell you all those stories.”
“Yeah,” Kraen agreed. “I miss him and Mom both.”
“Why’d you leave them?”
“I couldn’t stand Mom’s baked yams!” There was a yell and a scuffle, the sounds of wrestling and then a pause.
“No, really –” Tonuil began.
“Really, it was the sweet potatoes,” Kraen told him.
“Kraen, nobody runs away from home over sweet potatoes.”
“Well, the beans were sometimes a little undercooked, too.”
“Come on, Kraen, why’d you leave?”
There was a sigh and another pause. “Dad had a brother named Tirian,” Kraen said at last. “Younger brother and a little crazy. When Mom and Dad were getting married, at the wedding feast, Tirian was there drinking the wine and celebrating and dancing and everything. But at one point, just as the headman of the town had gathered everyone’s attention so he could formally congratulate Mom and Dad, Tirian stood up with another full goblet of wine and started prophesying.”
“What’d he say?”
“He said there’d be a lot of headaches the next day!”
“Kraen!” There was another round of wrestling, ending finally with Kraen’s pinning Tonuil.
“What did your uncle prophesy?” Tonuil asked again.
“He said,” Kraen replied slowly, “that Mom’s first child would be a boy who would grow up to be a brave and famous hero, going on many perilous adventures.”
“Uh huh. And then, I was born. And Mom and Dad celebrated that. And again there was wine and dancing and the headman getting everyone’s attention in order to congratulate Mom formally. And Uncle Tirian did it again.”
“So you’re going to be a brave and famous hero?”
“That’s what Uncle Tirian said — twice.”
“Wow. When’re you going to start — and can I come with you?”
“I don’t know. I mean, I’m not really sure how to go about it. And I haven’t noticed any dragons flying around that needed slaying.”
“Nope, me neither.”
“And, besides. I don’t think I want to start off with a dragon. Maybe work my way up to one.”
“So what’re you going to start with, an earthworm? That’ll be real heroic: Brave Sir Kraen, Slayer of Fishbait!”
“I’ll fishbait you –!”
There was another interlude of wrestling. Mouse sighed, feeling homesick suddenly. They were just like Cedric and Con, including the wrestling. But she knew the home she longed for no longer existed. Her parents were dead and her brothers likely had no time for wrestling.
“Give!” Tonuil gasped. Almost immediately after, he asked “Did you leave home on an adventure?”
“Sort of. See, everyone at home knew what Uncle Tirian had said, so they all kept watching me to see what fantastic things I’d do. Always I was expected to be best — and heroic.”
“Not neat. Heroes are supposed to behave themselves — always. Dawn to dusk and all through the night. Every day. And any time I was less than excellent, they were disappointed. ‘Kraen, I’m very disappointed in you.’ I kept hearing that til I’d cringe simply in anticipation. Yuck! It was awful.”
“Yeah, I guess — so what was the adventure, the one you left home on?”
“I decided to find a place where people would be less disappointed in me.”
“Huh? What kind of adventure is that?”
“The one that brought me here. Look Tonuil, do me a favor and don’t tell people here about Uncle Tirian’s prophecy. Mom and Dad never talked about it and I kind of understand now what they were doing. After I’ve had some adventures and become a famous hero — well, then you can tell people you knew about it way back when. But right now, it’s kind of silly. So keep it a secret, all right?”
“All right — but I get to come along when you get started.”
“Well, I don’t know. Adventures can be pretty dangerous.”
“Oh come on! How dangerous can it be killing a bunch of earthworms?”
There was a growl and a shriek and the two ran off, repeated cries of “Fishbait!” trailing back after them.
“… If that’s all, then,” the Collector said, “I will take my leave.”
“That is not all,” Lord Edward Coranabo corrected him. “And you will take your leave when I give it to you.”
Keeping his expression unchanged, Wolf sighed inwardly. The list of desired trinkets this Baron had already given him to look for was disappointing, to say the least. At least half of it was of legends, another quarter was of known frauds, and the remainder was a miscellany of insignificance and sketchy descriptions. After all, what was he to make of a request for “the Rat of Saint Michel-on-the-Hill, stuffed”? If he managed to turn up anything at all on that list and sell it to this customer, he would consider himself lucky.
The Baron eventually composed himself and explained.
“I want you to look for a faerie princess,” he said.
The Collector arched an eyebrow.
“I have been advised,” the Baron continued, “by an extremely reliable source that Sir Ongis — he is in Barony Connall — recently came into possession of a faerie princess.”
“A faerie princess?” Doubt coated the Collector’s question.
“She may be genuine or she may simply be a midget peasant,” the Baron said. “In fact, I care not which. She is said to be only as tall as my forearm. If she proves no less human than you or me (except for her size) then I expect I’ll give her to Danza to play with. But if she’s genuine …. ”
“My Lord,” Wolf said, “you said that a Sir Ongis possessed this — this creature –”
“I did,” Lord Edward agreed. “He did. But he lost her again soon after. She’s missing and I want you to find her.”
“But being in the Barony Connall, isn’t she Lord Fionn’s?”
“Perhaps she would be — if he knew of her. But right now, the only significant people who know of her are Sir Ongis, myself and you — and my reliable source, of course.”
“I should like to know who this reliable source is,” the Collector remarked.
Lord Edward frowned, but could see no reason to withold the information. “Aardvard Factotum,” he said.
The Collector’s eyebrow rose again. The likelihood of the information’s being true had just increased from insignificant to high. More interesting, though, was the fact that Lord Edward had to have paid — and paid significantly — to get information from that source. Aardvard never divulged anything — not even the first name of the Duke of Dargon — gratis. Wolf wondered what it might be about a faerie princess that would interest Lord Edward especially.
“Well,” the Collector said, completely persuaded, “methinks it will be worth the trip.”
“You’ll be discreet in Connall,” Lord Edward warned.
“My passing will be as unnoticeable as a soft, gentle breeze,” the Collector assured him. “How long ago did Sir Ongis lose her?”
“It’s getting close to two months now.”
“That’s a pretty cold trail.”
“You’re good at cold trails. Besides, her legs are awfully short and she’d be worried about being noticed on the roads. I doubt she’d've gone far.”
“Hmmmm. Any guesses which way she might’ve gone?”
“Aardvard guessed that she’d make for Dargon, but made it clear to me that he was only guessing.”
“Well, a guess from Aardvard is better than any diviner’s quivering rod, I say. Anything else, my Lord?”
“No. That’s all,” Lord Edward dismissed the Collector with his usual civility. “Get out.”
Again, Mouse lay on the branch, smiled up at the sun and thanked her god for another lovely day and for her perfect tree.
But it was time for Pfevver, and on as glorious a day as today, there would surely be a gathering. Mouse got up from her sunning branch and made her way down, wondering what the subject of the day would be for the sage’s disquisition.
She reached the auditing branch and settled in, listening to people beginning to arrive. She dared not peer over the side too much since if she could see, she could be seen and one never knew where a briefly bored listener might be looking. But she liked to hear the voices. They were comforting voices –
(That was Rupi. He was always first and usually loudest.)
– They reminded Mouse of Sophie and Gregor and her brothers. Rupi reminded her of Dorian. Mat and Winz she thought of as more like Con. It wasn’t so much the tones of voice that reminded Mouse of home, it was the things they chose to talk about and the way they spoke. These, the villagers under the old olt tree, unlike that Sir Ongis and his lot, were real and worried about real things like weeds instead of silly ideas like melisandes.
And they worried about each other, like the way Sophie worried about Gregor and Gregor worried about Sophie — or maybe even better.
Mouse broke her reverie to pay attention to the arrivals on the ground below. This was at least as interesting to her as Pfevver’s actual lecture. For example, Lerin and Daelia were arriving together again — only not really. Mouse gazed through the leaves at the pair, who had paused together at a distance from the tree before coming into the gathering separately. At least once, they had both “happened” to stay at the tree after the session broke up, so Mouse knew that Lerin and Daelia had parents who disliked one another as much as was possible in a small, close community. The fondness Lerin and Daelia had for each other was therefore a secret — a poorly kept secret, perhaps, but they did observe the routines clandestine. Ignorant though she might be of almost everything about Lerin Potterson and Daelia Greno, Mouse thought their love very sweet and decided that she liked them very much.
Last, came old Pfevver himself. It was more dramatic that way. He was accompanied by Tonuil Greno and by the sage’s assistant, Kraen Barbar.
Kraen followed Pfevver into the gathered circle bearing with great care, and a little ostentation, Pfevver’s book. A sage couldn’t be a sage without at least one book and that was what Pfevver had — one book. It was a large book. (If you’re going to have only one, you might as well make it a big one.) Pfevver frequently accepted — or created — the opportunity to consult his book and to read to the gathering a vaguely relevent passage or two from that tome. Mouse loved to listen to Pfevver read because — and this was the truly marvelous trick — whenever he read a passage on the same subject, the words came out exactly the same way. Mouse thought it very impressive.
As always, Rupi bellowed the meeting to order and Pfevver commenced another explication. All might yet be right with the world. Mouse listened and was edified.
This day, Mouse made sure that she was up very early and her ablutions completed promptly. This day was special. This day, unless the plans she’d listened to the two making had gone awry, Lerin Potterson and Daelia Greno were going to meet before dawn at the old olt tree and then leave Riverside together, fleeing to a new life in Dargon. Mouse wasn’t thinking about going with them; she was still putting off the decision about how to survive the coming winter and besides, they knew absolutely nothing about her — not even about her mere existence. For her to try to go with them would likely disrupt irreparably their plans. No. She only wanted to see them off because the drama of their departure was taking place right under her perfect tree. So she went down to her auditing branch and watched in the predawn stilldark for the lovers.
Lerin appeared first. There was gloom and then, suddenly, there was a man leading a well-behaved horse. He led the horse into the gathering circle, walking all the way up to the trunk of the tree as if checking to make sure it was the tree and not a magically transformed Daelia. Having satisfied himself that the wood only appeared magical, he stood irresolutely in the cool gray and then, unable to remain still, began to pace. His horse, much more at peace with the situation, remained still, absorbed in equine contemplation.
Before Lerin could damage any grass irreparably, Daelia finally joined him. She was actually only a short while later, but Lerin had managed to make the wait appear to be several bells long. The pair embraced and then, showing the firmness of their resolution to depart, broke the embrace again. Lerin helped Daelia up onto his horse and then the horse and lovers went off on the Dargon Road. Mouse sighed as she watched them out of sight, which happened soon enough, wishing them well in the great city.
Such a future, however, became very unlikely. Far too soon, the sound of several voices and the light of several lanterns came toward the old olt tree from the houses of Riverside. Mouse, concerned for Lerin and Daelia, watched and listened to the approaching group.
The villagers came to the trunk of the tree. The one in the lead knelt and examined briefly the grass. Then he turned to the trio who were on horseback.
“Yes, Theris,” he said to Daelia’s father. “The horse stopped here for a bit. Then it looks like they went off toward –” He started to point the way.
This was bad, Mouse thought. This was terrible. Lerin and Daelia had gotten almost no distance at all. Daelia’s father would catch up with them easily and they would never get to Dargon, would never get to be happy. Not unless Mouse did something about it. And there was not really time to deliberate. Mouse acted.
“They went that way!” Mouse shouted. She jumped to her feet on her tree branch and pointed in the other direction. “I saw them. They went that way!”
Theris looked up at her. The whole group of some half-dozen, their jaws slack, stared up at her.
“Who are you?” Theris demanded. “*What* are you?” he added as an afterthought.
“I’m — uh –” Mouse looked down at all those eyes. They’d been *supposed* to thank her and go hurrying off in that wrong direction. It was very annoying when people failed to do what they were supposed to. It forced you to think very quickly of creative answers to tricky questions. “You can call me Melisande,” Mouse decided.
“I see,” Theris said. “And, Melisande, could you please tell me *what* you are?”
“Hurry!” Mouse suggested, pointing again the wrong way. “They’re getting away.”
“Of course,” Theris answered, glancing at his own tracker. The latter shook his head and pointed in the correct direction. “But if they *are* going that way, I think Morain will catch up with them soon enough.”
“Morain?” Mouse repeated. “Lerin’s father?”
“Of course,” Theris replied. “I may be risking the loss of a daughter in this escapade, but he’s looking at losing his son. Naturally, we’re working together to cover the two roads out of our village. Melisande, just how much do you know about this business?”
“Uh, they want to get married,” Mouse said.
“I’m glad to hear it,” Theris said dryly. “I should be more upset if they’d run off together and *didn’t* want to get married. Anything else I should know?”
“Um, you’re not going to stop them are you?”
“Only from leaving the village this morning this secretly. Morain and I need to talk to them, you see, before they do something as wild as running away to Dargon –”
“Running away to Dargon is wild?” Mouse asked.
“It –” Theris frowned. “Melisande,” he asked, “what *are* you? No, let me get my house in order and then perhaps I can come back to converse with forest spirits. Come on, men: The Dargon Road.”
Theris clicked to his horse and guided it away after the runaways. Mouse, puzzled about what he’d said (as opposed to what Lerin and Daelia had said about him) stood on the tree branch, hands on her hips, staring at the pursuit party as it disappeared into the fog. After the sound and sight were both enveloped in the mist, she looked down again. Tonuil, Daelia’s younger brother and the assistant sage’s disciple, was still gazing up at her.
“Oh,” Mouse said. “Hi.”
Tonuil said nothing. Unnerved and upset about the unraveled romance, Mouse ran away into the upper branches of the tree.
“You’re sure you saw her here?” Kraen Barbar whispered to Tonuil. Tonuil nodded.
It was more than a fortnight after the Great Elope. Much of Riverside was occupied with preparing for a wedding that had almost slipped out of town. But for those who still had a spare moment to gossip even with all of that going on, the matter of the tree spirit Melisande, with whom Theris had briefly — and perhaps impertinently — spoken, was the next most popular topic of conversation.
The subject was fast drying up, though. Since Theris’ conversation with the creature, which was witnessed by the five men who were with him and was therefore undoubtable, no certain encounter had occurred. Pathys the Cobbler had claimed to have met her one evening by the well and said that she tried to tempt him into falling down the shaft. But his word was unsupported, and had been found to be unreliable before. Several of the boys had climbed up the tree, looking for Melisande’s palace — or any kind of dwelling — but they found naught but the usual birds’ and squirrels’ nests. And after young Enris fell out of the tree and injured his shoulder badly, such expeditions were discouraged. Pfevver decided to move his class to a less haunted location, though.
But Tonuil had come to Kraen and quietly told him that he’d seen the faerie again. And he’d been at the tree when Theris was there, so he knew what she looked like. His second sighting was on the bank of the Curlane early one morning — so early that the sun had scarcely cleared the hills and the light was still pink and mist-shrouded. Tonuil had been sent to check the nets. (Daelia had decided that pickled fry should be fed to the guests at her wedding. It takes all kinds of brides to make a world …) Anyway, Tonuil had been down to the river in the dawn silence and he saw Melisande there. She was crouched down right at the edge of the water, having a drink and a splash of the water on her face. Tonuil froze. He stared. He didn’t move again until she’d finished and disappeared again into the mist and rushes.
And then he’d told Kraen — but only Kraen.
Now the two of them were back at the same location, trying not to disturb the same dawn stillness as they waited for the faerie to reappear. Silently, Tonuil pointed out the precise spot on the bank where he’d seen her before.
Kraen sighed — softly. This was it, he hoped. This was the sort of thing his uncle must’ve had in mind when he had that vision — that sending, that whatever — at Kraen’s parents’ wedding feast. When Uncle Tirian had rolled his eyes into his skull and declared that the first child of Bran and Nurnia Barbar would perform great deeds that would make the minstrels weep, it had certainly made for a memorable dinner. And it had created a burden that Kraen had been forced to carry since birth. But here, finding a faerie named Melisande — not that he was sure what he should do about her — might prove to be a good semi-glorious deed. A warm-up exploit, Kraen imagined.
Now all he needed was for this Melisande to show up and — and he still wasn’t sure what. Capturing her didn’t sound quite right — unless she was the sort of faerie who granted wishes in return for letting her go. That didn’t seem likely, considering how Tonuil said she’d acted with Theris. She seemed a little bit too mixed up and easily confused to be allowed to grant wishes — but you never knew with those faeries. Now, if Kraen had a wish right now, what would he ask for first? An enchanted sword, probably, so he could get on with some seriously glorious deeds, like –
Tonuil tugged his arm and pointed. At the place where Melisande was supposed to come, the calm surface of the slow river was broken with ripples. “She’s gone swimming,” he whispered. At that moment, a tiny head broke the water’s surface again. A small hand joined it and pushed the faerie’s hair out of her eyes.
“Do faeries do that?” Tonuil whispered. “Go swimming?”
Kraen shrugged slightly — only as much as was necessary to communicate his belief that the question was entirely irrelevent. His gaze — his attention — was fixed on the magical sight before him. The pink, horizontal light and the long low shadows; the wisps of mist hanging here and there over the river and its banks; the stillness and the swimmer — who was returning to shore.
“Are we going to do anything?” Tonuil whispered again. “Net her or –”
“Shh!” Kraen ordered. He watched the faerie wade ashore and start to climb up the bank to where her gossamer clothing presumably lay — though Tonuil had never mentioned anything about her clothing being particularly fey. Indeed, the descriptions from Theris’ men had been of a homespun dress and chemise — though small, of course.
“What was she wearing yes –?” Kraen started to ask, but broke off with a bark of surprised, proprietary anger. Some man broke out of the rushes immediately in front of Melisande and grabbed her. Her scream was just barely audible as he straightened up, still holding her.
“Hey!” Kraen jumped up from his own hiding place. “What’re you doing?” he demanded. Tonuil immediately popped up next to him. But the man holding the faerie scarcely glanced at the two boys before disappearing again through the rushes. The boys chased after him, splashing across the stream and crashing through the rushes and finding that the man had had a horse and was already riding off.
Quickly, Kraen and Tonuil raced back to the village. Kraen strapped on his best — his only — sword.
“I’m going after them,” he told Tonuil. “I’ll need to borrow a horse.”
“We’ll need two,” Tonuil replied.
Kraen sighed. “Just one,” he insisted.
“I’m coming too.”
“I need you to tell Pfevver where I’ve gone for me. And explain about the borrowed horse. And –”
“We could wake Lerin for that,” Tonuil told him.
“There’s a lot of people we could wake for that,” Kraen agreed. “Look, Tonuil, this could be dangerous. That man who abducted Melisande — he’s probably desperate. I don’t think I’ll be able to get her back without a fight –”
“So you need me along to help.”
“No. There’s only one of him. It wouldn’t be heroic.”
“And you’ve got to be heroic, don’t you?”
“I told you –”
“Yeah, all right,” Tonuil conceded. “Let’s get you a horse. And you tell me all about it first when you get back.”
So Kraen, Slayer of Fishbait, rode out from Riverside in solitary pursuit of the foul abductor of the fair faerie Melisande. His most loyal friend Tonuil Greno remained behind to explain courteously to Willem Chandler where his second-best horse had disappeared to. Many days the Slayer of Fishbait was obliged to continue his pursuit. Many were the small incidents and minor obstacles Kraen Barbar encountered during this journey, but they were scarcely unusual enough to be noted by any bard spinning a tale of manageable length. And, though his quarry traveled quickly and purposefully, Kraen’s failure to overtake him was mostly due to the fact that his tracking skills were rudimentary at best. He guessed wrong at several crossroads and then had to double back after asking people if they’d seen the miscreant and receiving several negative answers. Finally, though, Kraen caught up with Melisande’s abductor.
Wolf, the Collector, was fairly pleased with his trip, all things considered. It had been fairly successful in terms of trinkets acquired and very satisfactory in terms of injuries avoided. And most surprising of all had been the last item: The faerie princess actually existed and he had succeeded in acquiring her. She hadn’t been happy about being taken, but he’d been firm and had refused to take any nonsense from her. Now, she lay in the rucksack he was carrying at his hip. Her small form secured against his side warmed his heart with thoughts of the treasure he would be able to extract from that Lord Edward in exchange for her. He had only to stop at his favorite hiding place outside Dargon to pick up the other, previously acquired curios. Then, after one more short day’s ride, he would be in the city and his fortune would be made.
Perfunctorily, he tied his horse to the convenient tree outside the ruined chapel. Some lord with a fondness for gods and hunting had erected the building, along with a lodge a long time ago. Now, the lord was long gone and only a few foundations of the lodge lingered. The chapel, suffering perhaps from more divine favor than the lord or lodge did, was relatively more intact. Much of the roof was gone, as were any windows, of course. And portions of the walls were now lacking. But much remained, enough for an interior still to be clearly defined. And the interior still boasted a white, stone altar, though the altar was the only furnishing remaining. And the altar covered a secret compartment which was still quite secure against the elements.
Wolf stepped through a gap in the chapel walls and walked to the altar. Reaching down behind the white table, he found and released the catch. The altar pivoted away from the secret chamber below. With pleasure, Wolf contemplated the fruits of his season of scavenging: With the right words (unfortunately unknown), for example, that greenish stole might render its wearer unseen, like the infamous thief Pelleas. And here was a chalice said to be used by the legendary wizard K’am to brew his many exquisite potions. There was an amber oak branch “acquired” from that forest cult to the west. Whether or not it contained any power in its golden leaves, it was a beautiful piece of art. And that necklace of glittering stones had once adorned Queen Earnfled — or so an old man had claimed. Of course, Queen Earnfled was supposed to have once adorned the legendary Fretheod Empire, which made the story’s truth all the more unlikely –
“Varlet!” a young voice broke his pleasant reverie. “Come out of there, you scoundrel!”
“Who’s there?” Wolf called out. Quickly, he took off the rucksack containing the faerie and dropped it into the chamber.
“It is I, Kraen Barbar,” the voice outside the chapel replied. “You have taken a faerie princess captive and I intend to free her.”
“Oh?” Wolf pushed the altar back in place and secured the latch.
“Come out of there! I’ll not be killing you on holy ground.”
“That’s nice of you,” Wolf replied, walking to the chapel entrance that he customarily used. “What makes you think you’ll be killing me anywhere?”
“Will you release the princess otherwise?” the boy asked.
Wolf looked — and laughed. It *was* a boy. It was the boy who’d seen him scooping up the princess at the river when he’d taken her coming ashore from a swim. Now, he was standing beside two horses, Wolf’s and presumably his own. His stance attempted to project casual confidence, but he brandished the drawn sword with an awkward inexperience. The picture might have been cute except that the sword looked sharp.
“No, I think not,” Wolf answered the boy’s question. “At least, not to you. I doubt you could meet my price.”
“I’m not offering you money,” the boy said bravely. “Instead, I’ll give you justice. Release Melisande now, else my justice will be sharp.” He waved the sword meaningfully.
“I quake,” Wolf said dryly. “I tremble. Verily do I fear thee.” He drew his own sword. “Now go away.”
The boy sighed. “I didn’t expect you to give her up without a fight. Come out then.”
“Boy, I don’t think you understand me,” Wolf said. “I don’t hand that little bitch over to anyone except in exchange for a lot of money. This is serious. This is about my livelihood. If you force me to use my sword against you, I will use it to kill you. Is that what you want?”
“If you will not surrender the princess otherwise,” the boy said grimly.
Wolf sighed, and shrugged. He’d dealt often enough before with fools who refused to part with treasures they valued overmuch. His sword had taken more than a few lives. He was used to it. He walked out of the chapel toward the boy and, with an economy of preparation, attacked him.
First blood proved easy to draw. Despite the lad’s brave words, he hadn’t truly realized that he would be fighting for his own life as well as Wolf’s. After a few casual passes, Wolf clarified the situation for him.
And the boy’s comprehension was naked. He yowled as Wolf’s sword bit into the young flesh on his arm. He jumped back, eyes wide.
“Had enough?” Wolf asked, implicitly offering him an out that would leave him his life.
For an answer, the boy almost leapt forward in an absurd, frenzied attack that would no doubt have been quickly suicidal. But then he stopped, quivering. His eyes narrowed and he merely shook his head very slightly. Matching Wolf’s own economy of action, he closed again. They resumed and Wolf now found him a much more interesting opponent. The injury made him a little more cautious, more considered. But he wasn’t tentative. He was concentrated. He was challenging.
But Wolf didn’t want challenging. Wolf was a professional, who fought for other purposes than the pleasure of striving with a stupid sword. Wolf ground his teeth and set himself to getting this witless exercise over and done with.
“You fight well, boy,” he panted, stepping back for a moment. “Have you a name?”
“I am Kraen Barbar.”
“Really?” Wolf’s eyes flashed. Here was something he could probably use to bring this ridiculous waste of time to a quick conclusion.
“And who are you?” the boy asked.
“You can call me Wolf,” the Collector allowed. “Do you know a Tirian Barbar?”
“Yes,” Kraen said. “My uncle. Left home years ago,” he added around swordstrokes.
“Your uncle?” Wolf said. “I met him. Some years back. Good fighter.” He paused, exchanging another flurry of thrusts and parries with the boy, and letting Kraen Barbar start to wonder what in particular the older man might know about his missing uncle.
“I killed him two years ago.”
Quickly, Wolf feinted and thrust. The sword broke through the boy’s chest and into his heart. Kraen’s eyes widened. Even after the long struggle and blood, the boy was surprised to find that he’d lost.
“But I was going –” Kraen gasped before sagging forward and falling.
Wolf released the sword, forgetting about it and the dying boy. The Collector was preoccupied with other vexing matters. Most vexing was the fact that Kraen had ignored Wolf’s feint. The boy had apparently ignored everything. He’d stood stock still at Wolf’s last remark and Wolf, with his own devious footwork, had impaled himself on the boy’s motionless sword. The sword was still in Wolf’s gut; the boy had let go when he fell. And it hurt. It hurt horribly. Wolf staggered toward his horse. In his pack he had some bandages and a few medicines — dried herbs, nothing more. But they might be better than nothing.
“This,” he wondered to himself, “this was *winning* a battle?”
He looked at his bleeding gut, looked at his miserable collection of rotten herbs, and decided that he needed to look for help. He dragged himself up onto his horse, realized that the animal was still tied to the tree, tried to lean forward to untie it, and fell off. Dazed, he stared up from the ground as he continued to bleed. His horse whinnied in panic. He tried to crawl to his feet again and found himself staring at a pair of eyes.
It was a wolf. A real one.
Tonuil took responsibility for the failure of Willem’s second-best horse ever to return. It took him several years, but eventually he did reimburse the chandler. Baron Edward scarcely noticed the failure of the Collector ever to report back about the faerie princess. Baron Edward had a lot of other things to think about. And beneath the altar in the ruined chapel outside Dargon, Mouse, the faerie princess Melisande, slept under the magical glow of an amber oak branch.