Corambis sat in a chair behind his large green table. Carved into the table was the Wheel of Life. Nine constellations divided the wheel. Eight of them, Knight, Oak, Harp, Ship, Maiden, Torch, Fox, and Falcon divided the wheel into eight divisions, while the ninth constellation, Mistweaver, took up the very center. Symbols inscribed on the outer edge of the wheel subdivided the constellations. These symbols were Air, Scepter, Fire, Sword, Earth, Shield, Water, and Crown.
He had cast many readings on the table. Judging by the crowd outside that he had to push through upon his arrival, today would be no different. He called to Thuna, his attendant, to let the first one in. There were two rooms in the building: one for his castings and another for Thuna. Thuna’s room was much smaller and was used as a foyer for the customers to pay or wait temporarily. There was no answer from Thuna that she had heard Corambis, but she brought in a young man before he could call out again.
“I would like to know if my wife has been with any other men,” the man said at once.
“Sit, and we shall see,” Corambis told him. Once the man was seated, Corambis pulled ten wooden discs out of a bag. Nine discs were blue while one was red. “Under what sign were you born?”
“The Oak,” the man answered. Corambis nodded, and placed the red disc on the area of the Oak and placed the other nine in a pile on Mistweaver. “Pick up the discs, hold them in your hands, think of your question, and then drop them on the table. You may say a prayer before throwing them if you wish.”
The man scooped up the discs, gave a silent prayer, and dropped them on the table. The discs bounced but once before settling on the table. Corambis studied the discs, and then asked, “Do you have children?”
“No. I am newly married.”
“You have no children?” Corambis asked again, studying the young man’s face, trying to read any lies. He didn’t care about the fact that the man was newly married and unsure of his wife’s fidelity. He was interested in the casting and its meaning.
“Do you have younger brothers or sisters?”
“No, I am the youngest. I have two older brothers and one older sister.”
“Do you work with the earth?”
“I am apprenticed to a merchant that ships things out at the docks. I am on a boat more oft than not.”
“I am sorry,” Corambis told the man. “I can find no answer here to your question.”
“How can that be? You –”
“It can *be*, because sometimes Fate chooses not to answer a question,” Corambis said, interrupting him. “Now go. I will read for you another day, but today there is no answer here for you.”
The man silently got up and left. Corambis was thankful that he did not protest as he saw the anger on the man’s face. Studying the discs one more time, Corambis shook his head. Things like this occur every once in a while. He hoped that it would not be like this the whole day. He called to Thuna to send in the next one.
An older woman came in and wanted to know if her husband would be all right. He was sick and bedridden. She worried about him. Corambis told her to cast the discs. She picked them up, muttered a prayer, and dropped them. They bounced and settled onto the table.
Corambis knew that the answer given was not for the woman, because the discs were in almost the same place as before. He extended his apologies to the woman and quickly ushered her out. Thuna watched as Corambis softly pushed the woman out the door before closing it.
“Thuna,” he said, turning to her, “Close the shop. I will take no more customers today.” Moving back into his room, he picked up the discs in both hands and dropped them to the table. While they did bounce more than once, their ending positions were very close to the previous two readings. “Thuna!” he yelled. “Run and get Dyann. Quickly! There are things happening, and I need his help.” Corambis could hear Thuna get up from her chair. She started to bolt the door shut to keep other potential customers out when someone started banging on the door.
“Open the door!” a voice yelled from outside.
“I’ve closed the shop *and* gotten Dyann,” Thuna said, smiling. She had recognized the voice on the other side of the door. She walked to the curtain that separated the two rooms and moved it aside so that she could see Corambis. “Do you want me to let him in?”
“Yes, you impish thing you, let him in!” Thuna let the curtain drop as she turned to open the door for Dyann.
“Corambis,” Dyann yelled as he walked through the door, ignoring Thuna. “I’ve had the strangest dream!”
“The castings I’ve done today have all been alike,” Corambis told him, not listening to Dyann’s mention of a dream.
“Yes, yes, but this dream was truly strange. There was this field of green wheat and — the same?”
“Very nearly the same,” Corambis replied. “Come, cast the discs. I am anxious to see what comes of your tossing them.”
“How many readings did you do that were the same?” Dyann asked as he stepped over to the green table.
“Two readings for customers, and I threw them once,” Corambis said as Dyann picked up the discs.
“All the same?” Dyann asked as he dropped the discs onto the table. They bounced and landed in nearly the same place as the previous castings.
“The same as what you’ve just thrown,” Corambis told him. “What would you make of that?”
“Body,” Dyann said, pointing, “is on Earth. Future Adversary is on the Fox. A very cunning adversary, I would say about that. Body on Earth … I don’t know about that part, though. Course of Action is on the Ship. Movement is needed soon, I’d guess. Spirit is on the Air. The Heart is on the Maiden.”
“Children,” Corambis interrupted. “Heart on the Maiden is children.”
“Future Ally is on Mistweaver,” Dyann continued. “The red disc is on the Oak. We’re Oaks. I’d say that we have a very powerful adversary and our allies are either unknown to us or non-existent, but definitely out of our hands. The Body on Earth with the Spirit on Air tells me that someone will die. With the Course of Action on the Ship, it will be soon. And all this involves children.”
“I believe,” Corambis said, slowly, “that it is the children who are going to die. And soon. But I think the Ship is there for us, too. I think we must act soon, but to do what, I don’t know. Save the children, maybe. Our allies are unknown because we have no control over that. Either they will be there or they won’t depending on their own actions.”
“Children!” Dyann yelled, suddenly.
“My dream. I dreamt of a house near a field of green wheat. Near this house were several large men digging a grave. After the grave was done, they picked up these stone statues and threw them in the grave. These stone statues were of men, but the statues themselves were only seven or so hands high. Those statues had to be children. A smaller version of a man!”
“You think your dream and my castings are connected?”
“What do we do about it?” Corambis asked.
“We find the house and save the children.”
“A house with green wheat?”
“It was a dream. Dreams aren’t always the same as reality. It’s probably a field of new, fresh wheat that’s still green.”
“It’s Naia. Wheat hasn’t even started to grow yet,” Corambis argued. “What else do you remember about your dream?”
“That’s it,” Dyann answered. “What I told you is all that I remember.”
“Not a very good start, is it?” Corambis sighed as he leaned back in his chair.
“You know,” Dyann said, “we’ve been all over the outside of Dargon in our searches for herbs and such.”
“And we should know the farmers’ fields fairly well by now. But I can’t remember where the fields of wheat grow.”
“Oh! I see. You still think your dream really meant a field of wheat. If you hadn’t dreamt of wheat, you wouldn’t have known what kind of field it was. Spring fields all look alike. Hmmm …”
“I remember a field of some kind of grass southeast of here,” Dyann said.
“It was a field of grass all right,” Corambis retorted. “Just a field of grass. That was the field the farmer wasn’t planting on last year. Remember?”
“Right. I remember it now. He asked us to pick up the rocks while we were out searching for herbs and plants in his field,” Dyann chuckled. “It’s no wonder he wasn’t planting in it with all those rocks. I wasn’t about to pick them up for him.”
“We did find some rare mushrooms, even if they were almost dead,” Corambis said.
“That was all we found. Even on our way back when we searched the pine grove, we didn’t find a single mushroom there. And we always found mushrooms in the pine grove.”
“That’s it!” Corambis shouted. “You’ve just found your field!”
“What? What are you yelling about?”
“Your green field of wheat! The field next to the pine grove was a large hayfield, wasn’t it? Not exactly wheat, but close enough. And the pine grove is green year round.”
“Come on then,” Dyann said, heading out the door. “If your castings are right, we don’t have much time!” Corambis grabbed his cloak as he followed Dyann out the door.
“Where are you two going now?” Thuna asked as the two older men rushed past her. The closing of the door was her only answer. “From what I overheard, a trip to Jerid’s office is in order,” she muttered to herself. “Those two are most certainly going to get themselves into trouble. Children in danger, hmmph. More like they’re the ones going to be in danger.”
“We should get some of the guard,” Corambis told Dyann.
“Bah, if we run across a patrol, we will stop and get them. But do you really want to waste the time hunting one down?”
“No, I suppose not,” sighed Corambis. “Not if time matters.”
“Besides,” Dyann continued, “what is there that two of Dargon’s most powerful mages can’t handle?”
“Don’t joke about that,” Corambis warned. “We both know the difference between common opinion and truth. Our reputations are going to get us in trouble one of these days.”
“Maybe,” Dyann said.
“I see the causeway,” Corambis said, changing the subject.
The two turned south just before the causeway onto River Road. Just south of that intersection stood one of Dargon’s main gates. The two walked through the open gate. “I thought the pine grove was close to the gate?” Dyann said.
“You say that all the time,” Corambis replied. “It’s about a league away from the gate.”
“It always seems closer on the way back.”
“Everything always seems a shorter distance on the way back,” Corambis explained. “It is the way of the world. Getting to one’s destination is ever rough, hard, and strewn with obstacles. It is unfamiliar and takes longer to get there. Once there, the way back seems easier and quicker, but of course it’s easier. You’ve just gone over it and all the obstacles.
You know it better now than you did before.”
“We’ve walked this road to and from many times,” Dyann countered. “Why does it always seem to take longer to get there?”
“I was speaking metaphorically,” Corambis replied.
“You were speaking something all right. Rambling metaphorically more likely, though.” The banter continued as they walked down the road.
“Look, there’s the pine grove,” Corambis said. “There is only one house next to it.”
“Yes,” Dyann said. “Last summer that house was empty, too. What do you wager that it’s still empty now?”
“Your money,” Corambis laughed.
“Quiet!” Dyann ordered. “Did you hear that?”
“No, what was it?”
“Listen.” Both stopped on the road and stood quietly listening. They could hear several birds nearby and the muffled sound of the river Coldwell. Just as Corambis started to speak, they heard a scream.
“Sounds like a child or a woman,” Corambis said.
“Child,” Dyann replied. “Or my dream and your casting is wrong. Come on.” Dyann picked up the pace and headed for the house. When they got closer, they could hear a child yelling and screaming and crying. The sounds seemed to be coming from behind the house near the pine grove. Both men hurried around the house.
When they got to the back of the house, they saw three large men carrying off two children. One of the boys was screaming and crying while the other boy was quiet.
“Stop!” Dyann yelled as he ran toward them. Corambis was right behind him as he watched one of the men plunge a knife into the quiet boy, causing the boy to scream. The other boy stopped kicking and yelling and fell silent.
“I said stop!” Dyann yelled louder when the other boy started screaming again. “In the name of Duke Clifton Dargon, I said stop!” Dyann was surprised to see that the three men stopped and stared at him. Then, suddenly, they turned and ran into the pine grove, leaving the two boys behind.
“What did you do, Dyann?” Corambis asked as they reached the boys.
“Nothing but yell,” Dyann replied. Corambis knelt by the fallen boy and examined him. The sound of horses could be heard behind them.
“He’s alive. Can’t tell how deep the wound is, but he still draws a strong breath.” Corambis said.
“The militia,” Dyann said. “That’s why those men ran. The militia is coming.”
“Eh?” Corambis muttered as he stole a glance behind him. Sure enough, four men on horses were drawing close. Behind them, he could see more guards running on foot.
“It doesn’t look good,” Dyann said, looking down on the boy who was stabbed.
“Dyann!” Corambis yelled. “Quiet! We’ll save him!”
“Matthew?” the standing boy whispered.
“What’s that?” Dyann asked. “Is his name Matthew or is that your name?”
“It’s his name,” Ben answered as he knelt next to Matthew. “Is he going to be okay? He’s my best friend.” Ben looked up, teary eyed, at the two old sages.
“I can’t tell how far the blade went into his body, but his breathing is strong,” Corambis answered, holding back his own tears. “Still, we have to stop the blood flow. But we’ll make sure he lives.”
“You can’t die, Matthew,” Ben said. He reached out gently to feel Matthew’s stomach. Blood was still trickling out. “You can’t die,” Ben repeated. He placed both hands over the knife wound and stared at them. His hands began to glow. Corambis and Dyann just watched. Ben’s hands glowed a little brighter as he held them on Matthew’s stomach. Matthew moaned, but the flow of blood stopped.
“What’s going on here?” Jerid said from behind them as he pulled his mount to a stop. “Thuna shows up at my office telling me you two are going to get killed and that there are children in danger.”
Corambis and Dyann blocked Jerid’s view so that he couldn’t see either of the boys fully. Getting off his horse, Jerid walked over to them. “Who’s on the ground, father?” As he stepped between Corambis and his father, he saw who it was and quickly knelt to examine Matthew. “What happened? Ben, are you all right? This is a knife wound, although it’s not very deep. We’ll still need to get him to a healer. Who did this?”
“Three men. They ran off into the pine grove,” Corambis answered. “Did you see that?”
“Yes,” Dyann said. “He’s a bit young and the wound didn’t heal all the way, but he’s got the talent for a fine healer.”
“See what?” Jerid asked. “The men running away? I saw them. Koren took some of my men into the pine grove after them. You didn’t see them ride past you?”
“Ben just healed that boy,” Corambis told him.
“How did you do that?” Dyann asked Ben.
“It was a gift from a friend,” Ben replied.
“Matthew’s going to live by the looks of things,” Jerid said, interrupting them. “Can you two get him to a healer? That wound still needs to be attended to. I’m going to see about those three men that ran.”
“Sharin and Tara,” Ben whispered.
“What’s that?” Jerid asked.
“Sharin and Tara are in the house. In the cellar.”
“Come on!” Dyann yelled as he turned toward the house.
“Father!” Jerid hissed. Dyann stopped and turned to his son. “The boy needs a healer,” Jerid stated. “You and Corambis are the closest we have to that right now. I’ll search the house.” Not waiting for a reply, Jerid ran to the house.
He cautiously opened the door and listened for sounds inside.
“Lieutenant?” a guard called his name from behind him. Jerid ignored him and stepped inside the house. The guard followed. Both men moved slowly through the room as they listened and looked for possible attackers.
“The cellar,” Jerid whispered as he turned the corner and saw a door and a set of steps. “The girls are in the cellar.” The guard moved ahead into another room while Jerid looked up the stairs. Seeing and hearing nothing, he turned back to the door and opened it. A set of stairs wound down into the cellar.
“Tara? Sharin?” he called down into the darkness. He heard muffled sounds, but it was too dark to tell what was down there.
“I don’t see anyone here,” the guard told Jerid as he returned from the other room. “The front door is wide open. Whoever was here is gone now.”
“Find a lamp,” Jerid ordered.
“There’s one in the room we first entered,” the guard replied. A moment later, he returned with a lit lamp.
Moving down the stairs, the light flickered ahead of them and slowly lit the cellar. Jerid saw both girls when he reached the bottom of the steps. They were bound, gagged and dirty. The whole place smelled like rotten food.
“Are you alright?” the guard asked as he started to untie them.
“Yes,” Tara answered once the gag was gone.
“I will be,” Sharin replied, “Once you get me out of here.” She started to stand but her legs gave out and she collapsed on the ground. “Maybe not. My legs won’t hold me.” Jerid and the guard carried her upstairs and outside to fresh air. Tara followed close behind.
Duke Clifton Dargon sat in his large, regal chair in his large audience chamber in his keep. He listened to each of the people in front of him as they told their story. Lieutenant Jerid Taishent related what he knew about the whole incident first. Captain Adrunian Koren was next, followed by Corambis, Dyann, Tara, Sharin, and finally Matthew and Ben.
Jerid explained that the house had been empty when he had searched it, except for the two girls in the cellar. They had been dirty and bruised, but otherwise fine. Koren told how he and the guards had rode down the fleeing men and captured them. They had given up without much of a fight. Corambis and Dyann kept interrupting each other in relating what they knew, but they told of how they had come to the house and what they had seen when they reached it. Sharin told Dargon that although they had treated her coursely, they had valued her talents more than anything else. Tara spoke of what she knew and how the events in the house had transpired after her failed attempt at a rescue. Matthew and Ben took the longest in their views on what happened. Matthew was still wearing bandages, but he was healing quickly.
As Dargon listened, he realized he should have let the boys speak first, but protocol insisted that the officers of the guard go first. It was a long and involved story and he knew parts of it already. His friend Lansing Bartol was standing to his right listening as well.
“Am I to understand that the kidnapper is still free?” Dargon asked when all were finished relating their parts.
“Yes sire,” Jerid replied. “He was not in the house when I searched it.
He must have fled when we were outside tending to Matthew.”
“And that he was not a noble?”
“Yes sire,” Koren said. “We are certain of that fact.”
“From the men you captured?”
“They told us everything they knew,” Jerid said.
“Did you torture those facts out of them?”
“No sire,” Jerid replied. “Once they were brought back to the gaol, they told us everything they knew freely and of their own will.”
“He is a thief and a murderer, milord, but not a noble,” Koren said. “He robbed a passing caravan, killing all and taking on the identity of one of the murdered traders. From there, he used that identity and told everyone he was a noble from Magnus.”
“The men you captured told you that and you believe them?”
“They did tell us that, and we are checking on the truth of what they said,” Jerid replied. “We sent riders to Shireton, Heahun, and Kenna to see if they recognized the trader’s name. The story could be true.”
“I want to be informed of what you find as soon as you hear anything,” Dargon ordered. “It will be one less burden if it was a noble. If it wasn’t … That’s a situation I’d rather avoid confronting, especially now that we need all the nobles’ support for rebuilding the town and duchy. The war has overtaxed us all. If this thief and murderer isn’t found, I don’t want anyone to know that he wasn’t a noble.”
“Milord?” Jerid asked.
“Do you understand, Captain Koren?” Duke Dargon asked.
“No milord,” he answered.
“Yes, milord,” Lansing answered.
“Tell them what you think,” Dargon said.
“If the thief was *not* a noble and word gets out, then every thief, murderer, and bandit with some intelligence will attempt to do the same thing. Whether they succeed or not would not matter. It could become a very large problem and the duchy would be in more turmoil.”
“Do you understand now?” Dargon asked. Koren and Jerid nodded. “Good.
“You need to find this thief and make sure that he does not tell anyone what he did. Do you understand that, also?” He leaned forward and stared at the two men. “He is not to tell *anyone*,” he emphasized.
“Yes, milord,” Jerid replied.
“No one,” Koren added.
“You two are to be commended on what you have done so far. But see that you do finish this affair.” Dargon leaned back into his chair and turned towards Corambis and Dyann. “It seems that you two are to be commended also. Your timely intervention saved at least one of the boys’ lives, maybe both. However,” Dargon’s eyes narrowed, “if you put yourself in danger again without alerting my guard, I’ll have you thrown into gaol. Is *that* understood.”
“It is, milord,” Corambis replied.
“Yes, milord,” Dyann said.
“Tara,” Dargon addressed the young girl, “you are also included. You’re lucky to be alive. I will *not* have people going off on their own and endangering the lives of others. You *will* alert the guard if there is a next time. I pray there won’t be, but if there is …”
“Yes, milord,” Tara said a bit weakly.
“Sharin,” Dargon began, “I understand that most of your sculptures were returned unharmed. I also am told that you are a very good sculptor. When you get settled back in and find time, I would like to commission a sculpture or two from you. I can’t compensate you for your losses for what happened in my town without raising some suspicions somewhere. This is my way of doing that without arousing those suspicions.”
“Thank you, milord,” Sharin replied. “I would be happy to sculpt something for you.”
“And you two,” Dargon addressed Ben and Matthew. “Will our paths always cross?” Dargon watched the confusion in the boy’s eyes. “You don’t remember me, do you?”
“No, milord,” Ben said. Matthew looked hard at Dargon and then walked forward to stand in front of him.
“Yes,” Matthew replied. “I do remember you now. We ran into your guards. I recognized him,” Matthew turned his head toward Lansing Bartol, “but not you. You’ve changed. I remember a light in your eyes and your smiles when we ran into you and your guards. You’re … different … The light’s gone and you haven’t smiled since we’ve been here. And your arm is gone.”
“Yes, child,” Dargon sighed. “I have changed. The war changed us all. I, too, remember the first time we met. It seems like a lifetime ago. I wish that only my arm had changed, but …”
Ben walked up to Dargon and threw his arms around him in a tight hug. “Rachel says,” Ben said, “that nothing changes that can’t be turned to a good light. She says someone called Cephas told her that. So you see, the light in your eyes can come back.”
“The innocence of children saves us all,” Lansing Bartol laughed. Dargon’s eyes grew wide and then he smiled.
“If only the children were the rulers of the kingdoms,” Dargon chuckled.
“Come now, off my lap. Should anyone come in, I would have to throw them in the gaol to stop the rumors that I’ve a soft heart.”
“You wouldn’t do that would you?” Ben asked as he stepped back.
“No,” Dargon laughed. “No, I wouldn’t.” Dargon turned his attention to Ben. “I’ve been told that you might have a healer’s touch. I’ve arranged for an apprenticeship with Elizabeth here at the keep.” Turning to Matthew he said, “And there’s an apprenticeship in the militia open for you.”
Sitting back in his chair, Dargon relaxed a bit. “You’ve brought some small light back into my life, both of you. I am thankful for that. Should you ever wish to visit me, you have an open invitation to do so. I’ll see to it that my staff knows that.”
“Thank you,” Matthew replied.
“How about tomorrow?” Ben asked. Lansing laughed.
“You did say it was open,” Lansing said.
“Not tomorrow,” Dargon said. “I have a wife and a daughter that I need to spend time with. It has been far too long since I did so. In fact, today is a better day to do that. Lansing, you can fill in for me for the rest of the day.”
“Milord?” Lansing asked, his voice squeeking just a bit higher than normal.
“It’s time you started being more than just captain of the militia. I think the meetings with the local merchants are a good place to start,” Dargon chuckled.
“I think I liked the other you better,” Lansing replied. “Local merchants, indeed. You always hated those meetings.”
“You’ll come to like them, I’m sure of it,” Dargon said, a smile on his lips and a twinkle in his eye.