DargonZine 32, Issue 1

King’s Key Part 1

Naia 28, 1019 - Naia 29, 1019


This entry is part 1 of 1 in the series King's Key

     As Ashe Leavenfell eased his aching body from the saddle, he wondered that a dead man could make him travel so far. His life was rarely what he expected. He’d grown up thinking he was to be the next baron of Leavenfell, only to learn that his brother Roderick was actually the heir. He was really happier not being baron, though it was his ass, and not Roderick’s, that had been in the saddle and headed for Dargon for the last five days.

     It was his own fault for coming back to Leavenfell. Roderick had offered to pay him to stay away, and he’d done that for a while, but he’d missed his home and come back, offering to work for his pay. Roderick did seem to enjoy sending him on missions to keep him away from Leavenfell Barony. After his last tasking from his brother, he’d thought to head to Dargon, but ended up back at Leavenfell Keep to tend to a wound that had festered. His current mission was more distant than dangerous, though, and it did send him in the right direction. An idiot vassal of Roderick, one Lord Terthil, had apparently gotten himself killed in some questionable dealings in Dargon. Roderick had sent Ashe to identify the body, which was being kept in the ice caves below the city. At least he would be able to stay to enjoy the Melrin festival, which was supposed to be much more fun in the ducal capital. Ashe thought that it wouldn’t be hard to top a sennight of apple-themed activities in Leavenfell.

     Ashe had hoped to reach Dargon that evening, but night was already falling and he was still leagues away from the city. He’d never taken the North Coast Road before and had underestimated how much it curved in and out as it followed the coastline. He was happy he had spotted a roadside inn. It would be nice not to spend another night camped under a tree with only his horse for company. The inn was a ramshackle two-story building that squatted by the side of the road. It bore the unlikely name of “The Golden Princess.” In Ashe’s experience, these small country inns were usually named after animals, typically engaged in some unlikely act. He’d never actually encountered a donkey playing a drum or the like, except in the imaginations of innkeepers.

     He stretched, then walked his horse the remaining distance to the stables, unstrapping his sword from the saddlebow along the way. A boy came out to greet him. Ashe noticed the boy’s belt — a mix of bright colors woven together — but little else. It was getting dark and he was eager to get inside by the fire before the evening chill grew any deeper. He passed his horse’s reins to the boy and headed for the door, where he heard the sounds of voices and the occasional laugh.

     Inside, the fire in the hearth did not disappoint. Ashe’s gaze swept from that merry blaze, past the obligatory heavyset man behind the bar wiping out a mug, to the inn’s other patrons. These three men had gone suddenly silent at his entry, and were staring at him. One eyed the scabbarded sword in Ashe’s hand, and moved his own hand to rest on the pommel of his weapon. Ashe did his best not to return the stare, but it was difficult; he had never seen men dressed so strangely.

     Ashe had heard of the Doravin — very few who lived in the duchy of Dargon had not — but he’d never seen any before. Rumors swirled about this strange race from far Duurom, who had arrived in the city of Dargon in great round ships of stone, and were now working for the duke rebuilding the causeway across the Coldwell River, which had been destroyed the previous year. It was said they were not much loved by the people of Dargon; they were taking jobs and land from the locals, and they were very odd and insular. All the rumors agreed they were master stoneworkers; whether that mastery came from skill or magecraft was often debated.

     The Doravin garb confirmed the mastery, if not the source. Each man was best described as wearing a curtain that hung from a circular contraption mounted on his shoulders. The curtains were composed of carved and painted stone disks of varying sizes, bound together by a ligature of fibers. Their arms were similarly wrapped with smaller disks. Each wore a leather cap that covered his ears. Emerging from this cap was a mask that crossed at the bridge of the nose, leaving only eyes and forehead exposed. This served to intensify the stares Ashe was receiving. He quickly jerked his gaze away and found a small table close to the fire.

     As Ashe moved away, their conversation resumed, but too low for him to catch more than a few random words. He sat at his table and stole an occasional glance at the three men. They appeared to have difficulty sitting in their odd garments, and seemed ready to slide off their chairs at any moment. When they pulled back their masks to drink, Ashe saw that two of the men had thick beards. The other had a well-groomed moustache.

     His surreptitious study of the Doravin was interrupted by the bartender’s bulk heaving into view. The man placed a mug of ale with a head of thick foam in front of Ashe. “They’s odd ones, hey?” he asked in a soft voice.

     Ashe nodded. “I’ve heard about them, of course, but this is the first I’ve seen of them. I’ve been trying to figure out how they move around in those stone clothes.”

     “Well, don’t let ’em catch you staring. That ‘un on the right’s got one big bastard of a sword, and I heard tell four of ’em took on a barful in Dargon and walked away from it.” The barkeep’s eyebrows shot up at this.

     Ashe had heard this rumor as well. In Leavenfell, the story ended with a squad of Town Guards trying to break up the fight and being mowed down by some kind of circular bladed weapons wielded by the four Doravin. Then they were apparently pardoned by the duke, who needed them to finish the causeway. Ashe believed this story only up to four Doravin walking into a bar, and the weapons held by these three were straight, not circular.

     When Ashe failed to express amazement at this story, the barkeep asked, “Will you be wanting a room? Them three Doragen got my last rentin’ rooms, but I can kick the boy out of his for the night and put him in the stable.”

     “That will do. And I’d like to see about some dinner.”

     “The princess will see to your dinner.” The barkeep said with a small grin.

     “The princess?”

     The grin widened, and the eyebrows shot up again. “Straight! Didn’t ya see the sign? Or can’t ya read?”

     “I can read well enough. I just wasn’t expecting an actual princess, any more than I expected to see a pig playing the pipes the last time I stayed in Dargon. Who is she, your daughter?”

     The grin widened a bit more, and the man’s eyebrows threatened to walk off the top of his head. “You might say she’s my daughter, after a fashion. I took her in. I was a sailor, see. Saw many a far off place in my time.  We was docked in Athilkar, ever heard tell of it? No? I’m not surprised. It’s like the far side of the world. Even the stars is different there. Well, I’m off duty wandering the docks, looking for something to eat that isn’t lizard on a stick or rat on a stick, when this young girl comes out of nowhere, bein’ chased by a fella with a knife. So, I introduce him to my strong right arm and lay him flat.”

     Here he paused to slap his bicep, and didn’t continue until Ashe nodded admiringly. “Then she starts jabbering at me in the local language, which I didn’t know no words of, but I can tell she’s grateful that I laid out that fella, but still scared for her life. I told the bos’n what I’d done, and he agreed we could hide her on board until we got things sorted. The cap’n comes back from some kinda meeting with the local harbormaster and next thing I know we’s gettin’ ready to get underway. Near as I can figger it, he bribed the wrong person or didn’t bribe the right one. Anyway, not long after, there’s a bunch of soldiers at the gangplank, not lettin’ no one get off.

     “The bos’n, he figgers, and I think he was right, that there’s no way we’re gonna get a local girl off the boat and past them guards, not without us stirrin’ up no more trouble’n there already was. So we sit tight and wait until the last sailor’s back on board, and head for deep water. Well, it’s not till we’re well and away afore the bos’n tells the cap’n about our surprise passenger. Well, the cap’n, he gets madder’n a shark with a sore tooth, an’ tells me she can go in the drink, or I can be responsible for her — an’ if she causes any trouble, we can both go in the drink. Well, needless to say, she’s here and I’m here, so she din’t cause no trouble.

     “I never did get to speak her language, but the navigator spoke a little of it. He talked to her a bit and told me she was royalty! Said she was a princess, third in line for the throne, and that her own father had sent someone to kill her. So there was no goin’ back to her country. So I took her in as my own. Never did learn to say her name right, neither. Not to her satisfaction, anyway. So, I just took to callin’ her ‘Princess’, and even named this place after her.”

     “That’s … some story,” Ashe said.

     “Oh, aye, and every word of it’s true, or I’m a minnow! Well, I talked your ear off enough there, um …”

     Ashe was so distracted that he almost blurted out his real name, but managed to turn “Ashe Le –” into “Aslen.” He held out an arm as he mumbled, “er, of Callen,” then winced at the unfortunate rhyme.  The two men clasped wrists, Ashe’s lower arm disappearing in the barkeep’s meaty fist, which his own fingers barely made it halfway around.

     “You can call me Lar, Aslen of Callen. Where are you bound?”

     “Dargon. I’m a courier.”

     “Oh, aye.” Lar nodded his approval. “Well, I guess it’s time for the olbligatories, Aslen of Callen. A room, a meal, and stabling your horse, that comes to, er, two Rounds.”

     “Two Rounds?” Ashe had the money, but he knew if he didn’t object someone might assume he had much more than that. Also, the price was ridiculous. “That should cost no more than four Bits.”

     Lar grinned again, but it was less happy storyteller and more hungry shark. “I should remind you, my young courier, that this is the only room you’ll find between here and Dargon, and robbers rove the road at night. Fifteen Bits.”

     “It’s the stable boy’s room, and there’s at least one robber on this road that doesn’t rove at night. Eight Bits.”

     This comment brought some chuckles from the Doravin, who were apparently listening to the negotiation with interest.

     Lar glanced over his shoulder at the three men, then spoke in a softer voice. “I charged them more’n that, an’ I don’t want no trouble. I’ll tell you what — I’ll throw in breakfast, and we’ll make it twelve Bits.”

     Ashe glanced at the Doravin, and then looked back up at Lar and grinned. “You mean you were going to charge me extra for breakfast? Were you a pirate, Lar? I guess I have little choice. Twelve Bits it is.” He reached into his coin pouch, and counted out six Bits into a stack on the table, making each one clink. Ensuring Lar’s bulk was blocking the view from the other table, he then picked up the stack and continued counting to twelve, counting each coin a second time. When Lar looked at him in puzzlement, Ashe glanced at the Doravin and met Lar’s eyes again. “Very little choice,” he said with emphasis on each word.

     The puzzled expression faded from Lar’s face and he glared at Ashe, but then grinned and scooped the coins off the table, being careful to keep his body between the table and the Doravin. “You’re a clever lad, and that was well played. I’ll tell the boy to clear out his room, an’ Princess will get you some food in a mene or two.”

     Lar lumbered off into a back room behind the bar, leaving Ashe to grin to himself over his small victory. His grin faded as soon as the door to the kitchen opened. Even with her long black hair in sweat-dampened disarray and straining to handle a heavy tray of food, the woman who emerged from the kitchen was breathtakingly beautiful. From Lar’s story, Ashe had been expecting a girl no older than the stable boy, but he realized he’d never asked the man how long ago his tale had taken place. However old she’d been at the time Lar rescued her, the princess had grown into a lovely young woman. Her skin, which glistened with perspiration, was a rich shade of bronze, and Ashe suddenly realized where the other part of the inn’s name had come from.

     The Doravin seemed pleased by her arrival, too, and not just because she’d brought them food. They hooted at her and winked. One tried to pat his lap to offer her a place to sit, but this made the stones plates in his robe clatter together and he almost slipped out of his chair, bringing guffaws from the other two. The princess took this moment of distraction to set their tray down on the table, and still almost had her backside grabbed by one of the men. This she dodged with an easy grace, stepping out of reach of the grasping hands if not the catcalls.

     Ashe realized he was gripping the table, and looked down to see that his knuckles had turned white. His heart was racing, and he could feel his palms and the soles of his feet damp with sweat. He took a deep breath to calm himself, and glanced up to see that the princess was still standing over him. Her face was even more beautiful up close, with high well-formed cheekbones and glittering dark eyes. Her serene expression was in sharp contrast with Ashe’s own rage at what he’d just witnessed.

     “I doubt they would have the honor to accept, but say the word and I’ll challenge those men each to single combat for the disrespect they just displayed to you,” Ashe said. His cheeks reddened as he realized how awkward, stilted, and plain stupid a thing that was to say, but he looked in her dark eyes and waited for her response.

     “Rows port or fist two,” was not what he was expecting her to say, but that’s what she said, or something like it.

     Ashe blinked, uncertain how to respond. “I — ah –” he stammered, then took another breath. “Your highness, I’m offering you my sword to defend your honor against –“

     She repeated the phrase, only more slowly, as if she thought he might be soft in the head.

     “I — what –?” Ashe began.

     A soft voice spoke behind him. “Roast pork,” said the voice, “or fish stew?”

     Ashe turned to see the stable boy, holding a straw pillow and a rough woolen blanket. Dark eyes glared at Ashe from under a mop of thick black curls. The boy’s skin was swarthy for the region, dark enough for him to be a bastard from the Beinison invasion, but he seemed a bit too old for that. His clothes were drab homespun except for the belt, which Ashe had noticed when he arrived. This garment was a mix of bright colors, wrapped several times about the boy’s waist and knotted in front.

     When Ashe only gaped at him, the boy continued, his voice pitched low. “We get fools like them in here all the time, just not always dressed so oddly. They’re usually harmless, and even if they’re not — well, you’ve seen the size of Lar, straight? So, go ahead and give her your order.”

     Ashe turned back to the princess, who was looking down at him expectantly. “Fish stew, please,” he said. She nodded and turned to go to the kitchen. “Your highness,” added Ashe to her retreating back.

     The boy snorted softly and stalked off toward the front door with his burden. Ashe realized the boy was carrying his own bedding to the stable for the night.

     Ashe sat sipping his ale and staring at the fire, trying to put thoughts of drunken Doravin, a rude stable boy, and an unspeakably beautiful woman — who didn’t understand a word he said — from his mind. He’d succeeded only in vacating the stable boy when Lar emerged, with a keg propped on one massive shoulder, and some bedding tucked under an equally massive arm. He set the former down behind the bar with a grunt, and proceeded to a small door under the stairs with the bedding. He wedged his frame through the little opening, and presumably made the bed.

     When he emerged, he came to Ashe’s table and grinned. “There, you’re all set for the night. I don’t think the boy has lice, but if he does, they’re no extra charge.”

     “Wonderful,” Ashe said, and raised his mug in a mock toast.

     A moment later, the princess emerged from the kitchen, bearing a steaming bowl. Ashe clenched his teeth for another round of catcalls from the Doravin, but with Lar in the room, they seemed inclined to do no more than leer. Ashe met her eyes and thanked her as she set down his meal, and for the barest moment, she smiled at him. He tried to think of something to say and realized it was pointless. Then he was left to gaze at her retreating back as she returned to the kitchen.

     The fish stew was surprisingly good; the fish was light and flaky, and the root vegetables were cooked just to the point of being tender.  Ashe dug in, realizing how hungry his trip had made him. He watched the kitchen door hoping he could give some sign of his enjoyment:  raising his spoon in a salute, rubbing his stomach, or smacking his lips — any gesture that might help him circumvent the language barrier. However, the princess never emerged to witness his happy pantomime.

     Much to his surprise, the Doravin all pushed away from the table, and made their awkward, clack-clacking way up the stairs to what were, presumably, larger rooms than the closet beneath the stairs where Ashe would spend the night. Ashe had expected the three to be in their cups well into the night, but perhaps the princess’ absence or the looming presence of Lar had dampened their mood. In either case, Ashe was pleased, since the door to his little closet did not look particularly thick.

     After finishing his meal and his ale, Ashe made a quick visit to the privy outside in the back and looked into the stables to make sure his horse had been tended to. The animal seemed quite content, and had apparently been brushed. Ashe looked around for the stable boy to thank him, but didn’t see the lad anywhere. He made a mental note to give the boy a Bit or two in the morning, and went back inside.

     His “room” was even smaller than he thought, with only enough space to stand straight where the door opened. The fire from the common room was his only source of light. He bumped his head twice on the underside of the stairs while trying to get to the cot so he could sit and remove his boots. These he set on the floor along with his sword in its scabbard. Once he was ready for bed, he pulled the door closed and felt around for a latch. He could find none. He reopened the door to confirm his suspicions, but saw a well-worn groove in the wood near the handle. Fumbling around near the door, he found a broomstick that could be inserted as a makeshift bar. Content that he would at least be awakened by the entry of anyone planning to rob him, he retired for the evening, pleased he was able to avoid a third bump as he felt his way to the bed.

***

     Ashe awoke in total darkness, unsure of where he was. He could hear the sounds of men grunting, as if in a struggle, and the scuff of booted feet upon a wooden floor. The sound of a crash, as if a ceramic pot had been shattered, caused Ashe to sit up quickly. The resultant bump on the skull reminded him of his location. He bit back a cry of pain and rolled over, clutching one hand to his new bump and groping for his sword with the other. He found the blade, and rose, feeling his way through the darkness to the door. Through it, he could hear muffled shouts, cries of pain, and the sound of meaty blows being struck. Ashe slid the broomstick free and kicked the door, ready to charge into the room and do battle.

     Instead of the door flying open, a stabbing pain shot up Ashe’s leg, and he flew back into the far wall. He pushed off the wall and struck the door again. It was barred or blocked from the other side. He struck it with his fist, hoping to smash a hole in it, and discovered it was not quite as thin as he’d thought earlier.

     A bellow of rage or pain in Lar’s gravel voice sounded outside the door. Ashe considered his sword but knew he would blunt it hacking through the wood, or perhaps break it using it to pry the door, so he fumbled for his boots and pulled them on. Then he braced himself and started kicking. The door turned out to be much more solid than he’d thought the night before. After several strong kicks, Ashe paused to catch his breath. The sounds of fighting had ceased, and Ashe heard muffled voices.

     “Look who woke up.”

     “Don’t worry, he’s not going anywhere.”

     “Want me to go in there and kill him?”

     “Nah. He’ll be stuck in there for a while. That table’s heavy. He’d have better luck trying to force his way out through the steps.”

     “Ha. Well, good. It’s damned hard to fight in this stuff anyway. Look what the big fella did to my shoulder plate.”

     Ashe heard a scream — the princess! — then Lar’s voice, still gravelly but weak, called out, “Put her down, you whoresons!”

     Ashe renewed his kicks with fury, driving his booted heel into the door with the full weight of his body. Between kicks, he heard the princess’ screams growing more distant and Lar’s cries of rage became weaker. Both had lapsed to silence, and Ashe lay panting on the floor with no sign of movement in the door for all his efforts.

     As the heaving of his chest slowed, Ashe remembered the words of one of the Doravin, about forcing his way through the steps. He picked himself up off the floor and clambered over to the cot. He lay on it, braced his feet against the bottom of a step and pushed with all the remaining strength in his legs. It gave a little. He pushed harder, and was rewarded with the screech of nails being pulled from wood, and a bit of firelight to illuminate his efforts. A hard kick sent the step rattling down the stairs. Ashe rose carefully and sized up the opening. It was too narrow even for him to squeeze out, and it would be death to be stuck wriggling out if any of the Doravin had remained behind. He slipped further down on his cot, braced, and pushed on the next step. This one gave almost immediately, but so did the cot! Ashe crashed to the floor in a pile of wood and straw. He rose quickly to his knees and shoved the step the rest of the way out. The riser that had been between the two steps was still in his way, but he made quick work of it with a leg from his former cot.

     No one had attempted to thwart his efforts to escape or skewer him in place as he was knocking the steps loose. Still, Ashe knew there would be a vulnerable moment as he climbed out of the hole in the steps. He tossed pieces of the cot frame out at several angles, hoping to off balance any attackers, or at least elicit a cry of pain. None came, so Ashe grasped the edge of the step below the hole and pulled himself up.

     The common room was a shambles. Debris from the stairs lay all around him. A heavy wooden table was on its side, blocking the door under the stairs. Another table was overturned, and many chairs were toppled or broken. The only person in the room was Lar, and he lay propped against the front of his bar. Ashe could hear his whistling breath, panting in pain.

     As Ashe approached, the big man tried to rise, arms flailing. “Back for more, you farking whoresons? Come on then!”

     “Easy, Lar, it’s me. Lie still.”

     “Oh, aye. ‘Tis you, Aslen. Them three Doragen attacked me. Took Princess. Will you help me get her back?”

     Ashe squatted beside Lar and looked him over. He bore cuts on his arms and his legs, all minor, but he was clutching a wound in his stomach and blood was oozing past his fingers. More blood pooled around him on the floor. “I don’t think you’re going anywhere, Lar.”

     “Oh, this? ‘Tis nothing. I’ve had worse wounds when a fish bit me.”

     “That must have been some fish.”

     “Oh, aye. Help me up, lad.”

     “That’s a lot of blood, Lar.”

     “I’m a lot of man. Still, you’re right. I’d just slow you down. Will you go after her, Aslen of Callen?”

     Ashe thought of the tales his father had read to him as a child. Heroes always rescued princesses, but those tales were never so bloody and grim as this. He worried that he’d be avenging Princess rather than rescuing her. There was a chance he could at least save Lar.

     “They really didn’t fight so well in those stone robes, and I hurt one of ’em pretty bad afore they stuck me. Please save my Princess. My life don’t mean nothing without her.”

     Ashe’s jaw clenched in rage at what the three Doravin had done. He rose. “I’ll find them, Lar.”

     “That’s a good lad. And you’ll bring Princess back to me?”

     “Oh,” murmured Ashe, “aye.”

     As he strode to the door, something crunched underfoot. He paused to pick it up and found a flat piece of stone, jagged along most of its edge, except for a small curved section. One face of it was carved and painted. Ashe slipped it into his pocket and left the inn.

     He trotted to the stables, being careful not to trip over anything in the dark. He found his horse inside, and began pulling on the saddle with practiced ease. There was no sign of the stable boy.

     “Boy!” he called, hoping the child wasn’t slain as well.

     “What?” a voice, thick with sleep, called from the loft.

     “See to your master. He’s injured!” Ashe swung into the saddle.

     “Wait!” called the boy, but Ashe was riding away. After circling the inn to ensure the Doravin and their captive weren’t nearby, he rode north as fast as he dared. The glow of a half-moon lit the night, but there were still roots and ruts his horse might trip over. He’d traveled south down this coastal road to reach the inn. The ocean was to the west, across a short distance of rough scrub, but steep cliffs barred passage there. To the east was dense forest, where the Doravin would find passage difficult, especially with a burden or a walking prisoner. Ashe had chosen north because he’d come this way to the Golden Princess, and knew that past a bend in the road the forest would no longer block his view, and a great arc would be exposed where the road followed the coast of a small inlet, curving east and then west again.

     After a few menes, he reached the curve and scanned the road, grateful for the clear night and the presence of Nochturon in the western sky. The moon’s light exposed the entire curve of the road to view. No stone-robed men skulked along that path with a prisoner.

     “South, then,” muttered Ashe. This would be more difficult. He did not know the road to the south, and Nochturon was sinking slowly in the western sky. He thought he would still have enough light to overtake the Doravin, but he did not know if the forest would thin, or when the cliff would drop toward the ocean and allow passage on a waiting boat. He pushed his horse as hard as he dared, and ducked down in the saddle to avoid any low-hanging branches.

     After what must have been at least a bell, Ashe knew he should have overtaken the group, but he pressed on until Nochturon lay close to the horizon. Then he reined in his horse and cursed. The Doravin had not taken the road, either north or south. He considered for a moment his assumption that they had remained on foot, and not had horses waiting, but they’d barely been able to sit a chair in those stone outfits, let alone a saddle. And Ashe would have seen fresh hoof prints or droppings, even in the moonlight. So it was the forest or the cliffs they had taken. 

     For pragmatic reasons, Ashe chose the forest. If the Doravin had somehow managed to clamber down the cliffs with the princess, they would doubtless have had a boat waiting and be well and gone by the time Ashe found their passage down. Ashe took the road back toward the inn, cursing the waning moonlight as it caused him to ride slower than he had to the south. After an agonizing wait, he neared the inn and veered off the road to his right, following the edge of the forest and searching for signs of passage in the dim starlight.

     As hard as he stared, he could find no sign of passage; no footprint or disturbed undergrowth showed where the Doravin had entered the trees. Uncertain whether it was the lack of light or the lack of passage, he continued to ride the edge of the forest, holding his horse to a walk due to the uncertain footing. Another bell or more elapsed as he made his slow search, finally coming up beside the Golden Princess and passing it.

     A few menes later, his search was interrupted by a small object bouncing off his skull. Ashe gave a short, surprised cry of pain and clapped a hand to his head. He looked up, at first thinking an acorn had dropped from a tree above him, but he wasn’t beneath a tree and whatever it was had hurt more than a falling acorn. He scanned the nearby undergrowth for the source. The next missile struck him in the forehead.

     Ashe slapped his hand there, biting back another cry of pain. “Straight, who’s doing that? It will go ill for you if I have to find you.”

     A voice responded from the trees. “Truly? That’s if you do find me. I thought you nobles were all good at tracking from your hunts, but maybe you’re just good at following dogs. Do you know how to use that sword?” 

     “Hit me with another rock and find out.” Ashe scanned the trees for his assailant.

     “Rocks? If they were rocks, you’d already be out of the saddle.”

     A figure dropped from a tree branch, not ten paces from Ashe. Without that movement, he never would have noticed someone in that tree. The figure was small. In the darkness, Ashe could make out a mop of curly hair: the stable boy! “Why aren’t you tending to your master?”

     “Lar said he’d asked you to go after those men. Judging from all of the riding back and forth and peering into trees, you agreed. You could have saved a lot of time if you’d talked to me in the stable instead of barking orders. But, well, nobles.”

     “What do you mean? How could I have saved time?”

     “Because I know where they went. Two of them I could handle, especially if they are still wearing those robes, but I’m not sure I could defeat three.”

     “This is no time for joking, boy,” Ashe said, letting a trace of iron creep into his tone. “Tell me where they went.”

     “Who’s joking? And now you’re barking orders again. Can you use that sword, or is it just for show?” The boy’s arm whipped back and then forward, and Ashe felt a soft thump as an object struck his chest. The missile popped up and spun in the air for a moment before falling to the ground; it was an acorn.

     “I have some skill with a blade.”

     “Some skill? Let me put in more bluntly, your lordship. Have you ever killed a man?”

     Ashe seethed. He wanted to jump down from his horse, grab this boy, and shake him. He thought the boy might make the safety of the tree before Ashe reached him, or just put out Ashe’s eye with the next acorn, though, so he stayed in the saddle. “I’ve killed men, and worse. Now tell me, where have those Doravin gone with the princess?”

     “Doravin?” the boy snorted. “I’ll tell you if you take me with you.”

     “I’ll not bring a boy with me into battle, even one so good with an acorn. You’ll only slow me and put yourself in danger. You need to tend to Lar.”

     “Lar’s dead,” the boy replied, without a touch of sadness in his voice, “and without me, you’ll never be able to follow them.”

     “Show me the trail; I’ll find them.”

     “Really? Your horse is standing on their tracks.”

     Ashe swung down from the saddle and peered closely at the ground. In the dim starlight he could make out the tracks of booted feet, but only because he knew where to look.

     “The trail is right in front of you.”

     “Don’t try my patience any further, boy. I’ve no time for –“

     Ashe fell silent as the boy stepped back into the trees, through an opening in the thick foliage that he would have sworn was not present a moment ago. The boy emerged a moment later. “By all means, your lordship, give chase. I’ll wait for you here, but you’re wasting time.”

     Ashe, climbed back into the saddle kicked his horse into a walk, and rode through the now obvious opening in the trees. “You’re the one who’s wasted time, boy. We’ve lost precious menes with your nattering.”

     “And bells with your riding up and down the coast!” the boy called at his back.

     Ashe’s cheeks flushed, and he kicked his horse into a slow canter. Now that he was past the opening, the trail was obvious, even with just the dim starlight leaking through the canopy of trees. He went as fast as he could without risking being unhorsed by a low tree limb, or worse, having his horse take a bad step on the uneven trail. He rode for several menes, and came up short; the trail had ended. He wheeled his horse, but could find no opening. He dismounted and walked the edge of the trail where it ended. There was nothing. He swung back into the saddle and rode as quickly as he could back to the entrance. The boy was no longer in sight.

     Ashe felt a soft thump on the top of his head — another acorn, perhaps tossed rather than hurled — and a voice above him said, “Are you ready to take me with you?”

     “Stop playing games, boy. Tell me where they’ve gone.”

     “Just where I sent you.”

     “The trail ended. Your master is dead, the princess is in danger, and you are wasting time.”

     “Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean the trail isn’t there. Or are you forgetting you couldn’t see that until I pointed it out to you.” He punctuated “that” with another acorn, thrown into the brush near the trailhead. “We’ll keep wasting time until you agree to take me with you. Now, will you take me, or shall we bicker until sunrise?”

     Ashe sighed. There was no choice. “Very well. But at the first –“

     He was interrupted as a figure dropped into the saddle behind him. “Straight. The frail little boy will run and hide when we find the big, mean ‘Doravin.'”

     Ashe bit back a response, and sent his horse trotting down the trail again. The end was in sight when the boy said, “Stop. Look to the left.”

     Ashe looked, and saw nothing but a thick wall of tree limbs and undergrowth; then he realized there was a gap that cut through on a diagonal. He must have missed it in the dim light. Ashe turned his horse and they slipped through the opening.

     They rode in silence for several menes before a nagging thought prompted Ashe to speak. “Boy, you’ve had mockery in your tone every time you said ‘Doravin’. Why is that?”

     “My name is Tanner. I’ll thank you to stop calling me ‘boy’, your lordship.”

     “That’s another — no, wait.” Ashe wanted to know how the boy was so certain of his nobility, but the other topic was more important. “Answer the question about the Doravin first … Tanner.”

     “Let me ask you this … Lord Aslen. Have you been to Dargon since the Doravin arrived, or have you just heard stories?”

     “Just the tales that spread to … where I’ve been staying.” How much did this boy know about him?

     “Straight. Then you might not have known that the Doravin don’t carouse in bars, or ever remove their masks in public, even to eat and drink. And you might not have known their love for circles extends to the soles of their boots: two round disks, which those fellows apparently found too hard to walk in. But I’d think even someone from as far north as you would realize the Doravin wouldn’t talk among themselves in *Barnurian*.”

     Ashe felt his face redden again. He was glad it was dark and with the boy riding behind him. Tanner was right, of course; that should have been obvious. “So, those men weren’t Doravin. Why dress that way?”

     “To spread hate.” Tanner’s tone was bitter. “That’s what they do, those men.”

     “This was planned. They didn’t just take the princess –“

     Tanner snorted again. “‘Princess’. Her name is Kulnika.” He said it almost in her accent, which made it sound like “k-yool-nih-ka” with the accent on the last syllable. “Lar just called her Princess because she hated the way he said her name: ‘Kull-nee-kar.’ That sounds like a very unfortunate word in her language.”

     “You speak her language?”

     “No, but I spent several years as a sailor, and I learned a few things, including smatterings of language useful for trading, or getting yourself out of trouble. I speak a little Bichanese; so does she. So we could talk, after a fashion.”

     “Several years? How old were you when you started?”

     “Old enough to prove my value, so I didn’t get tossed overboard or sold as a slave when they caught me as a stowaway.”

     “It sounds like you’ve lived an interesting life for one so young. Why should I believe you?”

     “What you believe has no bearing on the events of my life.” Tanner’s voice was cold.

     “I beg your pardon, young Tanner. I meant no offense. Did you sail with Lar? Did he adopt you like he did Kulnika?” Ashe tried to pronounce her name as Tanner had.

     “No. I didn’t know Lar until a month ago, but it was a fellow sailor who helped me get that job working for him.”

     “I see. Tanner, you said these men took the prin — took Kulnika to spread hate. What did you mean?”

     “No, Lord Aslen, you said that. I said they dressed as Doravin to spread hate, and that’s just what will happen when word got out that the evil Doravin were out kidnapping young women. And it won’t help matters that the Doravin are now looking for three of their own who’ve gone missing, and are surely lying dead somewhere. But that wasn’t the main purpose of these men. They wanted Kulnika specifically. I think the garb was as much to hide their identities as cause trouble for the Doravin. They must have thought someone was watching them.”

     “That’s … complicated.” Ashe began to wonder if this entire trip through the forest was part of a made up tale by this boy. He did seem to know the trail, though, so Ashe kept riding while he sought to learn more. “Who are these men, then?”

     “Here’s where you toss me off your horse for making up stories,” Tanner said.

     Ashe reined his horse and looked back at this boy, who seemed to know Ashe’s thoughts. “What do you mean? Have you led me astray? Speak, boy!”

     “Stop calling me ‘boy’,” Tanner said, without a trace of fear in his voice. “I’m older than I look. These men are part of a group called The Bloody Hand of Sageeza. Now, I know you’ve never heard of them, or think they are just tales, but –“

     “I know they’re real,” Ashe interrupted.

     “What?”

     Ashe was pleased to be able to surprise Tanner with information for a change. “I’ve never met them, but I had a friend who told me of them — a friend I have no reason to distrust. I thought they were destroyed in 1013, though. Something called the Battle of Erridos Hwill?”

     “Eariaddas Hwl, but how do you know that? Who is this friend?”

     “His name is Nestor, of the Rhydd Pobl. He’s … wait, that belt with all the colors. You’re Rhydd Pobl, too, aren’t you?”

    “I am. Have we established that you aren’t going to throw me off your horse? Can we keep riding?”

     “Straight, sorry.” Ashe kicked his heels in to get his horse moving.

    “The Bloody Hand was weakened, but not destroyed at Eariaddas Hwl. They went deeper into hiding, but they still sow hate and destruction, and particularly seek to harm my people at every turn. These men we seek were right to be careful. Someone was watching them — the same person who learned about their secret attack at Eariaddas Hwl: me.”

     “In 1013? But you would have been –“

     “Older than you might think,” Tanner snapped. “I knew they were after something at the Golden Princess. The messages I intercepted spoke of a key — some object that would unlock a powerful artifact the Bloody Hand could use to hunt down my people. That’s why I went there to work for Lar, to see what they were after. I was there for a full month before they arrived, wondering if I had read the messages wrong, and maybe I did after all. I didn’t think it was a person. I didn’t expect them to take Kulnika.”

     Tanner’s voice choked up at the mention of her name. Ashe fought the urge to give the boy a hug to comfort him, both because it would be awkward to do on a horse and because he was fairly certain Tanner would punch him.

     They rode in silence for a while after that. The monotonous plodding of his horse’s hooves began to lull Ashe, but this was balanced by the emergence of aches and pains from his earlier escape efforts. His right heel, in particular, had begun to throb. He vowed never again to try to kick open a door with his bare foot.

     After a time, the trail seemed to end. Ashe was about to ask Tanner how to find the next path, when the boy said, “What’s that?” and slipped down from the saddle. He immediately cried out in pain.

     Ashe whirled, looking for danger. “What is it? Are we under attack?”

     “No,” Tanner said through gritted teeth. He was bent over, massaging his hamstrings. “I forgot how much I hate riding horses. Now, what is that?” He straightened and walked, a bit gingerly, toward a mound underneath a tree. “Ah, it’s about time.”

     Ashe dismounted and joined him. “What have you found?”

     In answer, Tanner bent and picked up something from the mound. Ashe heard the scrape of stone on stone, and saw that Tanner was holding up a large disk, from which depended other disks. “The Doravin armor,” Ashe said.

     “Straight,” said the boy as he set it down. Then he began walking about, his head swiveling. Ashe heard him sniffing the air.

     “Are you tracking them by scent? Are you next going to tell me you’re part wolf?”

     “I was taught to use all my senses, unlike you Rooted Folk.”

     “Rooted …?” Ashe began. “Oh, right. Nestor mentioned that. Say, that’s something of an insult, isn’t it?”

     “Among the Rhydd Pobl it would be. If I were to tell someone of my ban — if I still had a ban — that they lived in a castle, they would be very insulted. For you, though, it just is. You’re a noble; you live in a castle. See?”

     “I’m still not sure how to take that. And why do you keep calling me a noble? I’m a courier.”

     “Straight,” the boy murmured, sounding unconvinced. He crouched low to the ground, with a small hiss of pain. “Look, there was a campfire here. Not fresh, so probably from the night before they came to the inn. They must have left their clothing here and returned for it on their way to … wherever. The good news is what I don’t smell.”

     “And what’s that?”

     “Scat.”

     “Scat? Ah, no horses waiting for them.”

     “Straight. And that means we can camp here for a bit and wait for daylight.”

     “Wait?” asked Ashe. “We need to keep after them. They might harm her!”

     Tanner shook his head. “They need her for some reason. I think she’ll be safe. We’re both exhausted and hungry. And I need better light to be sure of which path they took.”

     “Which path?” Ashe dismounted and looked around at the dead end.

     “There are three, not counting the one we took to get here.” He pointed in three distinct locations, but Ashe could see nothing but thick undergrowth in the dim starlight.

     “Look, how do you know these paths so well? At first, I thought it was because you grew up at the inn and had spent years exploring the local forest, but if you’ve just been here a month …”

     “These are the Rhydd Pobl roads. It’s how we move about out of sight of you Rooted Folk.”

     “Then why do these men from the Bloody Hand seem to know them so well?”

     “That’s actually how the Battle of Eariaddas Hwl came to be. Some weak-minded old fool couldn’t remember the turns, so he made a map, then *lost* the map. The Bloody Hand ended up with it. It was only a stroke of luck — really a mistake by one of their people in Dargon, a man named Tyrus Vage — that my sister and I learned of the attack. She went back to warn my people, while I stayed in Dargon to spy on Vage. I was actually working for him, running errands, when someone betrayed me to him. That’s when I became a stowaway, and a sailor. When my ship put into Dargon last month, I heard he had fled the city after his business was ruined. I intercepted some Bloody Hand messages, and learned about their plans at the Golden Princess.”

     “Wait. This Tyrus Vage learned you’d been spying on them, and the Bloody Hand didn’t change the way they exchanged messages?”

     “Vage thought I was long gone, and I was. Would you tell the Bloody Hand you’d let a gypsy boy steal all their secrets? Now, what sort of food do you have in these saddlebags? I’m starving.”

    Ashe reached in and fished around. “Not much, just these biscuits. I was planning to be in Dargon by midday, and counting on Lar for breakfast.” He tossed a biscuit to Tanner.

     The boy looked at it skeptically, then took a small bite. “Ugh. Hard tack. I gave that stuff up when I left the ship. See if you can get a fire going. I’ll see what I can scare up.”

     “A fire? Won’t that alert the men from the Bloody Hand?”

     “They aren’t expecting to be followed. Just stick to dry wood and keep it small. No leaves, and no green wood, and it won’t make too much smoke.”

     Tanner disappeared into the undergrowth, and Ashe began gathering sticks.

     He had a small fire going when the boy returned. In one hand, he clutched two rabbits. In the other, he held his brightly colored belt. “Do you know how to skin?”

     When Ashe nodded, Tanner tossed him a rabbit.

     Ashe pulled a small knife from his saddlebags. “How did you catch these? Barehanded?”

     In response, Tanner set down the other rabbit and took a loose grip on his belt with that hand. The end dangled down about a foot, and Ashe noted that it was rounded at the end and that Tanner’s other hand still held several loops of belt. The boy whipped his wrist and the loose end blurred past Ashe and struck a tree, sending a small shower of bark. Tanner pulled his belt back in, wrapped it several times around his waist, and began skinning his rabbit.

     Both rabbits were skinned and cooked before either spoke again. “Do you know Nestor?” Ashe asked. “It seems like you have a lot in common.”

     “I know of him,” Tanner said between bites. “He visits. There are tales told around the bans. Sorry, wagons. How do you mean, a lot in common?”

     “Well, you both seem to travel apart from your people more than with them.”

     “And that makes us the same, to you? He travels, well, how he travels, and I’ve spent the last two years on a ship. Nestor and I do both spend a lot of time with you Rooted Folk, it’s true. But I spent my entire childhood with the Rhydd Pobl, while he was raised by some mystical being, to hear him tell it.”

    “Your *entire* childhood?”

    “Seriously, oh Rooted Lording, after all of this you still think me simply a boy?”

    “There’s nothing simple about you, Tanner. And what do you mean ‘lordling’?”

     “Still playing the simple courier?”

     “What do you mean?”

     “You’re nobility.”

     “Why are you so sure of that?”

     “Your accent. You nobles all have a little bit of Magnus creep in every once in a while. Especially when you’re annoyed.”

     “That is ridiculous!”

     “There it is!” Tanner grinned. “‘Ridiculous’,” he mimicked, exaggerating Ashe’s pronunciation. It did sound like a Magnus accent. “Even as far up as Leavenfell, you nobles want to sound like you’re ready for a visit from the king at any moment. And don’t tell me you’re not from Leavenfell. I just spent four bells clinging to your back. You smell like apples.”

     Ashe sat in silence for a moment, chewing on a piece of meat, then came to a decision. “You’re right. I’m Ashe Leavenfell, younger brother to the baron. It’s safer to travel alone if people don’t know you’re related to a baron and might be worth some money. That’s hard to let go.”

     “Pleased to meet you, then, Ashe.” Tanner extended his arm and the two clasped wrists. “Among the Rhydd Pobl, my name is Taneris, but even they call me ‘Tanner’ for short. Since we’re sharing secrets, I’ll tell you mine. This will be my twenty-fifth summer.”

     Ashe gaped. “But that’s …”

     “‘Impossible’ is the word you’re going for, I think. Apparently not, though. I just stopped growing around my twelfth year, and I was short for a twelve-year-old. I’ve been like this,” he looked down at himself, “ever since. Let’s not get into a long discussion about it. Eat your rabbit and get some sleep.” He glanced up at the sky. “It’s about four more bells until dawn. I’ll wake you in two.”

     Ashe finished his last bit of rabbit and propped his back against a tree. “I don’t think I’ll …”

***

     The next thing he knew, Tanner was shaking him awake. “Straight, Ashe. It’s my turn for a quick nap.”

Ashe shook his foggy head and slapped himself a few times, then stood and stretched. Tanner, apparently convinced that Ashe wouldn’t doze off again, curled up under the tree. “Wake me when you start to see daylight,” the boy said.

     Ashe fought to stay awake. The cold air helped. Tanner had let the fire die out while Ashe slept. Ashe began to pace the perimeter of their camp to keep moving. As he worked his way around the circle, he looked in each location where Tanner had indicated the path continued. At first he saw nothing, but each time after he stared for a while, the opening became clear. Once he found one it was easy to spot again. Ashe wondered if this was magic, some Rhydd Pobl trickery, or just his sleep-deprived brain. Regardless the cause, it kept him alert, and helped keep his thoughts from what the Bloody Hand might be doing to Kulnika until the sky above began to brighten.

     Tanner woke quickly and began to scan the area for tracks, muttering about how many times the same set of booted feet had circled the clearing. Ashe saddled his horse and mounted, giving Tanner a hand up once the boy had settled on a path. Ashe wondered why he still thought of Tanner as a child, but decided it was just too hard to wrap his mind around the idea that the Rhydd Pobl was older than him.

     They rode in silence for a time. The trail wound up and down the wooded hills, sometimes in long meandering switchbacks. Each time they encountered one, Ashe wanted to take his horse straight up or down the hill to save time, but knew that would risk a broken leg for the horse or alerting their quarry to pursuit. So he bit back his impatience and stayed on the trail. He didn’t even balk whenever Tanner would call for a halt and slip down to inspect the tracks, though each time this happened he would be practically writhing in the saddle, eager to get moving.

     The sun was visible through the treetops and more than halfway up the sky when they came to the remains of a camp. Tanner slipped to the ground and began inspecting the site. He cautioned Ashe not to go “stomping around” until he was done. Ashe dismounted, stretched, and found a tree to relieve himself, then waited near his horse in frustration. He wasn’t used to taking orders from, well, anyone except his father. He took orders from his brother, it was true, but he was hardly used to it. Now a gypsy child was bossing him about. Not a child, he reminded himself, and he knew better than to use the term “gypsy.” Besides, Tanner was right. He’d come close to ruining the tracks walking circles around their camp.

     After a few menes, Tanner returned. “I’d say this was their camp. The fire is fresh, and I found places where four bodies lay. There are rope marks on a tree near one — probably where they tied Kulnika for the night. It looks like the fire was large, so they aren’t fearing pursuit.”

     “We could have caught up with them last night, then.”

     “Perhaps, though I’d think we would both have been asleep in the saddle by then. We’ll catch them today.”

     Ashe gave him an arm up, and then continued, making all the speed they could, pressing Ashe’s horse to a canter for some stretches of open trail. Any time they were about to round a bend or crest a hill, though, Tanner insisted on slowing to a walk, and sometimes dismounted and crept ahead, occasionally clambering into a tree to get a better view.

     The fifth time the boy did this, his strategy paid off. He waved wildly to Ashe and slipped down like a squirrel. “They are not far ahead! I just saw them crest the next hill.”

     “Let’s ride then! I’m tired of all this skulking and waiting.”

     “I think we’ll need to skulk a bit more, Ashe. They would be certain to hear us coming, and I’m pretty sure I saw at least one bow.”

     Ashe opened his mouth to object, but he knew Tanner was right again. His horse was no war mount and he wore no armor. Any charge against even a half-skilled bowman was doomed to failure. Instead, he dismounted and they walked along the trail, trying to keep a faster pace than the men from the Bloody Hand. Tanner continued to creep ahead at each crest and turn, sometimes motioning for Ashe to come up beside him. They were drawing slowly closer to their quarry, and could now make out more details. Two, in fact, had bows, and all three were armed. Kulnika was with them, hands tied in front of her, being led along by a rope. She appeared to be unharmed. At one point, the man leading her jerked on the rope and she stumbled forward. Ashe rose up in rage, only to be held back by Tanner’s tight grip on his arm. Ashe seethed, eager for night, so he could fall among these men with bared steel.

     They lay there for a time, until their quarry was out of view, and then resumed their slow pursuit. As they climbed the next ridge, they heard the sound of flowing water, and voices that seemed very close. Tanner dropped into a crouch and waved a hand behind him. Ashe froze and tugged his horse’s reins down to stop the beast as well. They waited for several moments, but the voices grew no louder. The tone was conversational, but echoes distorted the words. Tanner held a palm up to Ashe and crept forward to the crest of the ridge. A few heartbeats later, he motioned for Ashe to join him.

     The ridge was the arm of a much larger hill; water flowed down the far side of the hill, nearing the path and cascading down small rocky waterfalls. The little stream wound its way to a small mountain lake. The men they pursued were on the far side of this tarn. The deep, still water was reflecting their voices and making them sound closer than they were. Ashe’s heart sank when he saw the number of people in the camp.

     The three men had been joined by two others: an older man, bent and grizzled, and younger one, arrogant and cocksure, with the upright stance of a trained swordsman. The oldster seemed to be in charge, gesturing to direct the actions of the others.  

     “Ol’s balls,” he muttered. “Five instead of three, and I don’t like the look of that swordsman.”

     “Agreed,” said Tanner. “Would that it were a month from now, and I’d have allies of my own on these roads, but the Rhydd Pobl aren’t usually this far north by now.”

     “So, what do we do?” asked Ashe. “If only we’d pressed on through the night we might have come upon them when we weren’t so outnumbered!”

     “The past is past, Ashe. You’re dwelling upon the dichonwy gorffenwl, the ‘could have been.’ There is no purpose or value in that.”

     Ashe blinked, wondering at such wisdom from a child, then reminded himself — again! — that Tanner was a few years his senior.

     “What we do,” Tanner continued, “is watch, until it gets a little darker. Then I creep down closer and see what I can learn. Maybe they plan to split up again in the morning, or maybe I can get close enough to Kulnika to cut her bonds and slip away. Or they’ll set a single man on watch, and I can slit his throat. You stay up here and be ready to ride, whatever the case.”

     Ashe nodded, and settled in to wait for full dark. The time seemed to crawl. Ashe knew he’d spent more time lying in wait during a hunt with his father, this seemed different, perhaps because he was watching the sky darken rather than staying alert for the slightest sight or sound of the quarry. Or perhaps there was more at stake.

     In either case, he found himself reviewing the plan over and over in his mind. The fact that it was a simple plan didn’t help with the passage of time. One element continued to nag at him. He wanted to slip down into the camp with Tanner, but this plan made more sense, except for one thing. Finally, he gave voice to his concerns.

     “Tanner, how will this work if you make it back with Kulnika?”

     “As I said, be ready to ride.”

     “But my horse can’t hold more than two. If you make it back with Kulnika the two of you should ride.” He felt a lump form in his throat as he said this.

    “And you’ll do what? Die bravely holding off five men while we escape, like some bold knight in a story? You and Kulnika ride off. They’ll never find me in the trees.”

     “But –“

     “I’ll make this easier for you. I don’t know how to steer that thing!” He pointed toward the horse. “And I’m too small to, even if I knew how. We’re a long way from my running back here with Kulnika, anyway. Now — what’s that?” He was looking past Ashe’s shoulder, down into the enemy camp.

     Ashe looked. Moving about the camp were glowing balls of light, like bits of flame escaped from the blaze that now burned in the middle of the camp. The lights bobbed lazily around the camp, without apparent direction. There were at least a few dozen — it was hard to count because they kept crossing paths, and their images were reflected in the surface of the tarn when they flew over the water.

     “Fireflies?” asked Ashe. “They can’t be …”

     “I’ve never seen any that large, and their glow is too steady.”

     “What now?”

     “Nothing changes,” said Tanner. “I’ll see what I can see. I think it’s dark enough now.”

     He slipped over the ridge and down the trail. Ashe watched, but soon lost Tanner in the darkness. He watched the camp for some sign of disturbance, or a signal from Tanner. There was nothing for what seemed like half a bell, then he heard the call of an animal; it was the distinct and terrifying cry of an enraged shivaree! Behind Ashe, his horse whickered nervously, and he rose to calm it. The shivaree cried out again, this time with a screech of agony and fear that was repeated twice more.

     Reins in hand, and stroking his horse’s flank to calm him, Ashe looked back over the ridge. The agonized wail sounded again. It was coming from the left of the camp. Ashe saw several of the lights there, no longer bobbing lazily but flying fast in the same direction. The shivaree wailed again, and two of those lights faded. Across the camp, the rest of the lights were moving toward the embattled shivaree. The creature’s cries of pain grew weaker as more of the balls of fire reached it and were snuffed out. Then the animal fell silent. As it did, the remaining lights began to drift lazily back to the camp. The shivaree’s death was punctuated by a few rough laughs from the men in the camp.

     His heart racing, Ashe turned his attention back to the camp, looking for any sign of Tanner. He puzzled over what he had just witnessed. Did the Bloody Hand have some sort of weird animal ally? Was this magic? Ashe was no stranger to magic. He’d traveled weird paths with Nestor, and felt the power of Kite the Elder as that man commanded Ashe and others to lower their weapons. Armed men Ashe could deal with; he’d even faced worse — strange creatures with stony hides that lurked beneath the ground — with the aid of the Elder. Against magic, he knew no recourse, other than perhaps to kill the mage before he could cast a spell. Kite had almost been slain by one of the underground creatures, but escaped by transforming it into some harmless thing.

     As the menes stretched by, the silence, in the absence of the shivaree’s death cries, seemed unnatural. Ashe wondered if Tanner had been caught, and was even now having his secrets extracted by magic. Ashe dared not move. He wouldn’t flee without Tanner and he couldn’t go charging, or sneaking, into the camp without risk of exposing Tanner if the boy wasn’t a captive. So he waited and watched the now menacing glow of the lights in their aimless dance around the camp.

     Then a scream shattered the silence! It was human, high pitched — like a woman, or a boy. Ashe scanned the area before him for signs of movement. He immediately saw two of the burning lights moving fast along the trail near the edge of the tarn. Across the camp, the other lights ceased their slow dance and began heading quickly in the same direction. Another cry sounded, this time with rage rather than pain. Before one of the lights snuffed out, Ashe was able to make out the shape of a boy, sprinting along the trail, back toward him. Several more lights following this figure, closing fast. Many more were moving across the tarn, converging on that point. Their reflections in the water seemed to double their number.

     There was no way Tanner could outrun the swarm of lights racing across the lake to cut him off. Ashe rose, unsure what he could do except to die beside his friend or flee. How could he fight balls of light with a sword? In desperation, he reached down and picked up a fist-sized rock. He pulled back and hurled it with all of his power toward the lake. The height of the ridge lent distance to his throw, and the rock hit the water with a loud splash.

     At the sound, the lights above the lake began to converge on that spot, spinning around it in angry circles. Tanner meanwhile had gained the base of the ridge, and began climbing the trail. The slope slowed him, but not his flying pursuers. The lights closest to the boy reached him; the disappearance of each was punctuated by a small, angry cry of pain.

     Then Tanner was cresting the ridge and shouting, “Ride! Ride!”

     Ashe hurled himself into the saddle and hauled Tanner up behind him. The boy landed with a yelp of pain and wrapped his arms around Ashe’s ribs. Ashe dug in his heels and the horse charged down the path, following the steep slope of the ridge. Ashe pushed his mount as hard as he dared to, fearing at any moment that the horse would tumble and crush them both beneath his huge bulk. But the beast was steady, and soon they came to a flatter section of trail. After a short stretch, Tanner called, “Hold! They aren’t following.”

     Ashe reined in his horse and Tanner slipped down, crying out in pain again.

     “What were those things?” asked Ashe.

     “Bees! Who ever heard of flaming farking bees?!”

     “I think they have a mage with them,” Ashe said. “The old man, maybe.”

     “Oh, they have a mage! But it’s the young man, the swordsman. I know the old man, I think. Though I don’t know why he’s so old.”

     “Who is it?”

     “Tyrus Vage,” the boy said. His voice was bitter. “He didn’t look near so old two years ago. Maybe the loss of his fortune aged him. But that doesn’t explain the limp.”

     “Maybe he was injured,” offered Ashe as he dismounted.

     “No, what I mean is he used to have a limp. I gave it to him six years ago. He still had it two years ago when I saw him last. Now it’s gone.”

     “Are you sure it’s him, then?”

     “I’d know that voice anywhere, and that tone of command, as if he expects his every whim to be obeyed.” Tanner turned to look back up the ridge, checking for pursuit. By the faint moonlight that now shone through the trees, Ashe could see that his face was distorted by two large bumps, one on the cheek and another above his eye. They looked both swollen and blistered.

     “That looks painful,” said Ashe, with a gesture toward Tanner’s face.

     The boy touched the bumps. “They hurt like mad when they stung me. It’s bad enough being stung by bees, but bees that are on fire? The worst is the one that’s — well, that I sat on while we were riding.”

     “You were lucky. Did you see what happened to the shivaree?”

     “Straight, that’s how I managed to slip into their camp.”

     “You saw what happened to the shivaree and *then* went into the camp?”

     “Of course. Everyone was distracted, especially the bees.”

     “Tanner, I’m not sure if you’re the bravest person I’ve met, or the maddest.”

     “Or the most foolish,” Tanner added. “I didn’t really think about how to get out. I’m used to not being noticed because I’m small, but that doesn’t seem to matter to bees. And it wasn’t luck, was it? Didn’t you make the splash that distracted the rest of the swarm?”

     “It was the only thing I could think of to do. Did you see any sign of Kulnika?”

     Tanner nodded. “I did. She doesn’t seem to be hurt. They have her tied to a tree, but just by one ankle, with a little freedom to move about. I tried to get close enough to cut her loose, or at least get her attention, but one of the men stayed in the camp to watch her. So, I could only lurk there and listen as the rest of them came back.”

     “That’s some good news, then, that they haven’t hurt her,” said Ashe. “What else did you learn in the camp?”

     “Well you know about the mage, and Tyrus Vage, already. The other three seem to be in Vage’s service. They actually did obey his every whim. The mage — his name is Kernan — did not. He and Vage argued some about what they are after. It’s something called The Demon’s Eye, which will let the wielder see things at any distance. This is what they need Kulnika for, though it wasn’t clear why.”

     “So, we can probably assume she’s safe until they find this Demon’s Eye,” Ashe said. “More good news.”

     Tanner nodded. “It gets better. Vage wants the Eye to help hunt down my people, which is obviously not good. He’s paying Kernan to help find it, but Kernan wants to use the Eye to find even greater treasures, and offered to forgo his payment if Vage would let him use it for a sennight. Vage agreed, but only if Kernan would swear a blood oath to serve him. Kernan refused, so they are at an impasse, stuck with their original deal.”

     “Straight. That’s something we might be able to exploit,” said Ashe. “Did you learn where they are going?”

     “I did. They’re headed toward the Darst Range, to a village I know: Higeldeen.”

     “Higeldeen? Why not tell me they’re off to Kisil-Doon to see the gods while you’re at it? Higeldeen is for children’s tales.”

     Tanner just stared at him for a long moment. “Just because you can’t see a place from your great stone castle, Lord Leavenfell, doesn’t mean it’s not there.” He gestured back down the path. “We just saw flaming … farking … bees.”

     Ashe considered this. “Well, you’re right, but you’re telling me it’s an actual village, up in the Darst Range?”

     “How far do you and yours go into the Darst Range, Ashe? Did you ever consider that someone might want to live in a place where they wouldn’t have to deal with taxes, troop levies, and petty politics of what lands belong to which lord who serves which duke this month? They’re going to Higeldeen, and from there someplace deeper in the Darst Range. If there were some way we could get ahead of them, we might ask for help — but no, they aren’t much more likely to help us than anyone else. Still, if we could get ahead of them, we could do something. Maybe drop rocks on their heads from above?”

     “I’m still wondering about how to deal with the bees,” said Ashe.

     “Well, there is some good news there. Kernan was only able to use the bees because there was a hive near their camp; he said something about ‘tuning’ the bees to the fire — I’m not sure what that meant. So, unless we attack them near another hive, while they have another big fire going, I think we’re safe from the flaming bees. Still, he’s a mage. How do you fight a mage?”

     “You kill him quickly,” said Ashe. “Or you get another mage.”

     “Helpful,” muttered Tanner. “I don’t see getting in close enough for a sure chance to kill him quickly. I don’t know any mages. Do you? Maybe if we could get ahead of them and set some traps to –“

     “Two, actually,” interrupted Ashe.

     “Hm? Two what?”

     “Two mages.”

     Tanner’s eyebrows went up as he stared at Ashe. “You’re serious.”

     “I am. One is Kite Talador, an Elder, but he’s far up in Leavenfell, along the coast. If Nestor were here, we could get there quickly. I don’t suppose you have any way …?”

     “Of what? Summoning Nestor through some magical Rhydd Pobl connection? We’re not all mystical fortune tellers, you know. Even most of the ones who claim to be aren’t. Nestor goes where he goes.”

     “That’s unfortunate. I’m sure Kite could handle this Kernan, and he actually owes me a favor.”

     “And the other? Is he from Magnus? Did you meet him at a party in the royal palace?”

     “I — look, there’s no need to take that tone.”

     “You’re not being very much help. And, well, flaming farking bees. I think I deserve to be a little testy.”

     “Hm. Sorry. Well, the other one is in Dargon, but he may take some convincing. He’s … er, retired.”

     “A retired mage?”

     “So he says. I think we can make it back to the North Coast Road before dawn, and then it’s just a half day to –“

     Tanner held up a hand. “No need. Remember where we camped? The south branch leads to Dargon, and from there I can take us on a more direct trail to Higeldeen, so we can make up some time. But first, you’re going to help me get these stingers out.”

     “Straight,” said Ashe. “Those must hurt. Er, even the one …”

     “Especially that one!”

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