A ten foot grey stone wall came into view, appearing suddenly in the green of the forest, after the bend in the road. The gate to the courtyard was open and Rien and Kera were able to simply ride in. They did not go unnoticed, however. A lone guard looked up from his restless pacing and after straightening his tabard, quickly approached.
“Is this the Connall residence?” Rien asked as the man strode up to him.
“Yes, it is, sir,” said the man politely. “May I help you?”
“High Mage Marcellon Equiville should be expecting me,” Rien said.
The guard seemed to be taken aback for a moment. “Your name?”
“Rien Keegan. I was sent by Dyann Taishent.”
“If you’ll wait, sir, I’ll go see if the High Mage is available,” the guard responded and turned smartly and headed towards the main house. Another guard appeared to replace him in the courtyard before he made it inside.
“Well rehearsed,” Rien commented to Kera as they dismounted. They remained standing next to each other, holding onto the horse’s reins and looking over the noble’s estate.
The stone wall went on for a good fifty yards, forcing the road outside to turn deeper into the forest, while inside a large courtyard with trees and green, well cared for shrubbery led up to a two story stone house. Other than the single man at the gate, there were no other guards or servants visible.
The first guard reappeared at the house’s front door with a young, dark haired woman who could not be much older than Kera. They were speaking quickly to each other as they walked over to Rien and his edgy apprentice.
“Good morning,” the woman said, inclining her head politely. “I am Myrande Shipbrook, the senechal of Connall Keep. I understand that you are here to see the High Mage.”
“We were told he would be expecting us,” Rien answered. “I am Rien Keegan and this is my apprentice, Kera.”
“Please follow me,” Myrande said, smiling. “Marcellon will see you in the Baron’s study. Sergeant, please see to their horses.”
Leaving their mounts, Rien and Kera followed Myrande into the house where they were taken down a corridor and asked to wait for the wizard in a large room. It was the Baron’s study, filled with books and decorated with weapons on the walls. By the window stood a large desk, with a disorganized stack of papers on top. An ink well and a nearly new quill stood beside the untidy stack of pages and a large padded chair sat behind the desk, turned to face out the window behind the desk. Four other comfortable looking chairs were scattered about the room.
“High Mage Marcellon will be with you in just a few minutes,” said the senechal, walking to the door. “Please, make yourselves comfortable. I will send for refreshments.” And she stepped out, closing the door behind her.
Rien walked over to the bookshelf to take a look at the titles. Most dealt with war and weaponry, but there were quite a few on tactics, law, and a couple of histories as well.
“Rien, I’m sick of these wizards and witches,” Kera said, prowling the room.
He turned around. “We seem to be lacking alternatives. What troubles you more? The disease or the people who can cure it?”
Kera sighed and sat down. “They both bother me, but look at how much more trouble looking for a cure caused…”
“Are you saying you’d rather have the disease take its course?”
“Damn it, Rien! This is all my fault!”
“Is it?” Rien asked. “How could it be?”
Kera burst into tears. “I led you down that alley! I stabbed you…”
Rien embraced her. “You did not lead me. I followed…and you wounded me in self defense. That dog could have been anywhere, as could I…” He stroked her hair back. “We got into the trouble looking for a cure. We have to look for it together. It’s not something magical that will find us on its own. I don’t want you feeling guilty or thinking that it’s all your fault, because it’s not.”
Kera didn’t reply, merely buried her head in Rien’s shoulder and shook.
Marcellon and Myrande stood outside the study door, patiently waiting for the sounds inside to stop.
“How could I go in there right now?” Marcellon asked no one in particular. “Can you imagine what they are going through?”
“I don’t even know why they came here,” Myrande answered.
“What?” Marcellon snapped around.
“I said I don’t know why they are here in the first place,” Myrande said again.
“Come along,” Marcellon said, leading Myrande down the corridor, away from the door. “The two mages who came to see me yesterday sent them over. This couple was attacked by a dog diseased with lycanthropy…or perhaps a man diseased with it.”
“You mean like werewolves?” Myrande asked, eyes wide.
“My Lady Myrande,” Marcellon smiled kindly. “Werewolves are only a myth. This is a real disease that, over the course of time, makes severe alterations on the diseased body. I have a book on the subject. I may have brought it with me from Magnus…”
“Are they dangerous?” Myrande asked. “Maybe I should have a guard posted.”
“Unless they bite someone they are not dangerous,” said Marcellon, the seriousness of his tone belaying the lightness of his words. “I doubt that there will be any problems.”
When the door opened and Marcellon walked in, Rien and Kera stood with their arms around each other by the window. “I am sorry to intrude,” he said, not expecting to walk in on something like this. The pair separated. “I am Marcellon Equiville.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” Rien answered. “It was not proper on our part.”
“It’s quite all right,” the wizard replied, smiling. “I understand your situation.”
Once again Rien introduced himself and Kera and Marcellon invited them to sit down, after taking a seat behind the desk. “I will be more than happy to see what I can do for you,” he went on after everyone had seated themselves. “I am not very familiar with the disease, but I am a doctor and from what I understand, you have never approached a physician.”
“No, sir, we have not,” Rien said, “but it was your reputation as a wizard that made the final choice for us.”
Marcellon smiled good naturedly. “It is a much stronger reputation, I agree, but I intend to be a doctor. Magic does not solve all the world’s problems.”
“Before you agree to help us,” Rien said, “I’d like to discuss the matter of the fee.”
“I will not charge you any money,” Marcellon said. “I have more than I know what to do with as it is. I simply request that you, at some future time, perform a task for me that I will require to be done.”
“I’ve taken that path before–” Rien began warily, but was interrupted by Marcellon.
“I can guarantee that it will in no way compromise your morals.”
Rien paused to think. “You do realize that we need two cures?”
“And that I am Ljosalfar?”
“Yes,” the wizard said again. “The price I named accounted for all that.”
Rien looked at Kera, expecting approval or at least some sort of comment but she said nothing. Realizing that it was to be his decision entirely, he turned after a long pause and nodded to Marcellon. “I accept.”
“Good,” Marcellon said. “Myrande will give you rooms here as I will need you around while I do my work. We can begin right after lunch.”
Rien walked into the room Marcellon converted into a small laboratory. Kera sat on a chair, holding a cloth compress against her arm. Next to her stood Myrande and Marcellon. The wizard was cleaning the side of a small glass tube filled with blood.
“This is good,” the wizard said, handing the vial to Myrande. The senechal took the glass over to another table as he turned to Rien. “Have a seat,” he said. “You’re next.” He returned his attention to Kera, as Rien pulled up a chair, and removing the cloth on Kera’s arm, cast a quick spell. “Go wash the blood off. It will be fine.”
Kera got up, looking suspiciously at her arm and went over to a basin of water and began washing the blood off.
“Now, you,” Marcellon walked over to Rien. “Elves are naturally nocturnal, is that correct?”
“Yes.” Rien’s expression darkened at the use of the slang term for Ljosalfar.
“Then you haven’t noticed any changes in your vision?” continued Marcellon, oblivious to the change in expression.
“Any other changes?” Marcellon asked.
“I’m afraid not,” Rien said.
“Nothing to be afraid about,” Marcellon answered, selecting a sharp instrument off of the array on the table. “It could be a sign that your organism is putting up a good fight or that you are immune. We’ll see.” He looked at Rien’s arm and frowned. “Someone had drawn blood before and not too many months ago,” he said, indicating the lattice of thin scars below the inside of his elbow.
“Yes,” Rien said with distaste. “I expect that you will be more sparing with my blood than the other was.” He smiled crookedly to take the sting out of his words.
By this time Myrande finished with the task that she had been occupied with and came back, holding a clean, empty vial which Marcellon took from her. “I wish I could tell you this won’t hurt,” said Marcellon, “but purposely desecrating flesh almost always tends to be painful. Are you ready?”
Rien nodded and Marcellon made a small incision in his forearm. Blood slowly dripped into the waiting vial.
“There,” the wizard said after a short while and removed the container, moving quickly over to the table where Myrande had taken the first vial.
Myrande quickly took his place and instructed Rien on how to hold the cloth compress to stop the bleeding until Marcellon could heal the wound, then went over to the wizard to help with the collected sample.
Kera came over to Rien and sat down in a chair next to his. “I was hoping you’d be squeamish,” she sighed and he playfully swatted her.
“You’re hoping for the wrong things,” was his quick retort.
Marcellon came back. “Let me see your arm,” he told Kera.
She stretched it out, palm up to display that there was no trace of the incision, not even a scar.
“Good,” Marcellon approved his own work and turned to Rien. “Let me see yours.”
Rien stretched his arm out, removing the compress. The bleeding had stopped, but a bloodied cut remained.
Marcellon examined it and cast his healing spell again. He looked over the arm again and then said, “this is the first time I’ve cast anything on a member of your species. It’s good to know that magic is a universal doctor.”
“You had doubts about the spell working?” Rien asked.
“Small ones,” Marcellon admitted, “but it appears as if nature makes us all of the same dough. Go ahead and wash up.”
After cleaning his arm, Rien came over to the table where the others stood. In the middle was a deep dish with ice chips and water in which stood the two vials of blood. Around the dish stood other vials and jars and medical instruments, neatly arranged by category and size. Myrande was quietly preparing a solution while Marcellon chatted with Kera. He turned as Rien approached.
“What now?” Rien asked.
“Now I study the blood,” Marcellon answered. “Actually I will only study Kera’s for now, as I am vastly more familiar with human physiology. You’re free for the rest of the day. I will see you two at dinner.” And the mage turned away and, picking up an empty vial, moved purposefully towards the other end of the table.
Kera pulled at her new tunic, trying to settle the stiff fabric around her shoulders to her satisfaction. It was a deep shade of red, decorated on the hem and collar with gold thread, and quite becoming on her. Kera couldn’t stand it. Dressing up to have dinner wasn’t her idea of a good time, no matter who the hosts were. The fact that they were nobility just made the situation worse. Frowning into the polished brass mirror, she tugged again at her collar.
She turned at a knock on the door.
“Are you ready?” Rien asked through the door.
“Yeah. Come on in.”
Rien stepped into the room and looked Kera over. She was a contrast to him, with his dark blue and silver trimmed tunic and blond hair. He nodded approvingly.
“You look nice,” he complimented.
“I don’t like this,” declared Kera, pulling at the front of her tunic to emphasize her point.
Rien shrugged. “You don’t wear travel clothes when you dine with the Baron.” He looked narrowly at her. “Be glad I’m not having you wear a skirt.” Kera shuddered at the thought and Rien smiled faintly. “Now, if you’re ready to go?”
Kera sighed, nodded, and followed Rien out into the hall. They had been given rooms in Connall Keep proper, along the outside wall so that their windows over-looked the main courtyard and gave a wonderful view of the forest over the wall. Despite the simplicity of the furnishings, Kera found herself a little in awe of the place.
They turned into the main hallway and walked down the main staircase. At the foot of the steps, Rien paused, trying to remember the directions he had been given to get to the dining hall. After a moment he moved off to the right. A short walk brought them to the doors that led to the smaller of the Keep’s two meeting halls. Two guards, in the livery of House Connall pulled the doors open as they approached.
“You look nice, too,” said Kera suddenly.
“What?” Rien turned his attention from studying the tapestry decked hall to his apprentice.
“I said `you look nice, too’,” repeated Kera. Her eyes darted nervously to the table in the middle of the room where four people sat talking. The hall was lit with many candles and a large fire was lit in the hearth behind the table and the added illumination made their shadows dance eerily. Kera grinned weakly up at Rien who smiled reassuringly.
“Welcome to Connall Keep,” declared a tall dark haired man from the head of the table. He rose and bowed slightly. “I am Baron Luthias Connall. This is my Senechal, Myrande,” he indicated a dark haired woman seated to his left.
“We met earlier today,” said Rien, inclining his head in the woman’s direction. “A pleasure to see you again, Lady.”
Myrande smiled at him and Luthias continued his introductions. “Ittosai Michaya, my Castellan,” a black haired man with narrow brown eyes to his right, “and I believe that you already know Marcellon.” The red robed wizard smiled and inclined his head from his place at the foot of the table.
Rien bowed politely and Kera quickly, if a little awkwardly followed his example.
“I am Rien Keegan, and this is my apprentice, Kera.”
Kera bowed again as the senechal smiled at her.
“Have a seat,” said Luthias, gesturing to the empty chairs, “and we’ll start dinner.”
Rien gestured for Kera to sit next to Myrande while he seated himself next to Ittosai.
After they had settled themselves, servants brought out the first course of dinner, a hearty soup.
“You are here, I understand,” said Luthias, after everyone had had a chance to begin their meal, “seeking the cure to a disease that you have.”
“Yes,” confirmed Rien. “We managed to contract an illness that is rather difficult to cure and were directed here by a mage who thought that Lord Marcellon might be able to help us.”
“I’m certain that I can help you,” said Marcellon. “Besides, you present me with a rare opportunity. I’ve never had a chance to study an elf before.” He smiled, taking some of the clinicalness out of the statement.
“You mean that elves aren’t a myth?” said Luthias vaguely surprised. “I’ve heard the stories but…”
“Not the last time I checked,” smiled Rien. Kera concentrated on her soup, hiding a smile.
“Pardon,” said Ittosai in a strangely accented voice. “But I am unfamiliar with the term. What is an `elf’?”
“A pointy eared human,” said Kera. Rien shot her an icy glare from across the table.
“Except for culture, there are few other differences between ljosalfar,” he emphasized the name, “and humans. Your social structure is much more rigid than ours is,” said Rien to Ittosai reluctantly. He disliked casually discussing his heritage. “My apprentice is correct, however. Our ears are somewhat pointed.” He did not offer to show them and no one asked.
“Where do you come from?” Kera asked Ittosai suddenly. Everyone’s attention shifted abruptly back to her and she suddenly wished that she had kept her mouth shut, but she pressed on. “You don’t look quite like anyone I’ve ever seen in Dargon before. Sir.” She didn’t feel it was polite to mention his accent.
Ittosai smiled, his dark eyes sparkling.
“You are correct. I am not from here,” he said. “I am from Bichu, it is an island in the ocean of Valenfaer.”
Kera’s eyes widened a little as the rumors she had heard about a Bichuese invasion gained a bit more credibility because of his presence. A servant appeared at her elbow, distracting her from further questions.
The soup dishes were removed and replaced with the main course, a roasted fowl with vegetables that was finer than anything Kera had ever tasted. Finer, even, than what Liriss was accustomed to having. The thought of Liriss almost ruined her appetite, so Kera concentrated on the conversation to get the thought of the crime lord and his assassin out of her mind.
“What sort of business are you in, Rien?” Myrande was inquiring.
“I am an adventurer, Lady,” replied Rien. Kera looked sharply at him as he continued. “I am still young. I want to see the world before I settle down to a trade.”
“Ah, the restlessness of youth,” said Marcellon with a sigh. Again Kera’s attention was distracted. Youth indeed! The mage looked no older than a thirty year old man and Kera knew that Rien, who looked younger than Marcellon, was at least fifty, if not older. “There is much to see in the world,” continued the wizard, “and so little time to see it in.”
`You’re telling me,’ thought Kera ruefully, thinking about the disease coursing through her veins. Time was short and if the old man couldn’t cure them…Kera’s musings were interrupted by Myrande asking her: “And how did you meet Rien, Kera?”
“By accident, my Lady,” returned Kera promptly, and, taking her cue from Rien, did some hasty adjusting of the facts. “He saved my life in an alley and I offered to…keep him company after that. It does get kind of lonely adventuring alone. He’s teaching me sword-craft so I don’t end up in that sort of situation again.”
“You’re a swordsman?” Luthias asked Rien eagerly, laying down a bone from dinner.
“Yes, Lord,” said Rien carefully. “I have some skill with the weapon. Every adventurer should, don’t you agree?”
“Of course,” supported Luthias immediately. “It’s a skill every man should have.” Ittosai nodded in agreement. “Would you be interested in a sparring match tomorrow?”
“No, Luthias,” said Marcellon, as Rien cast about for a suitable reply. “I don’t want you beating on my patients. I need him in one piece tomorrow.”
“There is no honor in taking on an opponent who is not at his best,” said Ittosai quietly.
“Perhaps some other time, Lord Luthias,” Rien said, graciously inclining his head.
“Yes, some other time,” sighed Luthias.
Myrande also sighed and the sound almost seemed to say `men!’.
“Lady Myrande,” said Rien, looking over at the woman. “You are the senechal of this house. Are you a doctor as well?”
“I am simply helping Marcellon,” replied Myrande with a smile. “And I have some experience with mixing potions.” An unreadable glance was exchanged between her and Luthias.
Rien nodded and concentrated on finishing his meal.
Again servants appeared to clear away the plates and dessert was served. There was little discussion during this last course and what was said was limited to sincere compliments to the cook’s skills. Kera was surprised to learn that the the dessert confection was an imitation of a Bichuese delicacy.
As the last dished were cleared away, Marcellon turned to Rien.
“I would appreciate it, Rien, if you and your apprentice,” he smiled over at Kera, “would stay around the keep for the next few days. I may need you for tests at odd hours.”
“That won’t be a problem, Lord Marcellon,” said Rien. “I will need to go back to the inn, however, to pick up the rest of our belongings if we are going to be staying here.”
“There’s no problem with that. Now, if you will all excuse me,” he pushed his chair back. “I’m going to retire to my laboratory to begin my research.”
Everyone rose, paid their respects to each other, and went their separate ways. Kera followed Rien out of the hall.
“Why didn’t you agree to fight Lord Luthias after we’re cured?” she asked as they climbed the stairs to Rien’s room.
“Other than not being positive about being cured?” said Rien. “It’s considered bad form to beat your host in a fight.”
“Are you so sure that you’d win, then?”
“I am not sure, but I have many more years of experience than he,” said Rien, opening the door and pulling his cloak off of the chair he had tossed it on. “The odds are in my favor to win.”
“Just how old are you?” asked Kera curiously as Rien swirled the cloak around his shoulders.
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” said Rien. Kera glared at him. “I am going for a walk. I will be back later this evening. You stay out of trouble, understand?”
“Of course I’ll stay out of trouble,” Kera replied, offended. “Where are you going?”
“For a walk. I will be back soon.”
“Where? We’re in the middle of a forest!”
And Rien walked back into the hall and down the corridor with Kera trailing after him, muttering unkind phrases at his back.
The following morning Rien went directly north from the Connall Keep, wanting to enter Dargon from a point where he would not be particularly noticeable. After over two hours of travel through the forest he reached the ocean, about ten leagues west of the city. He turned east, the horse slowly trudging through loose sand which began a few feet past the edge of the forest, creating a few yards of beach before being swallowed by the sea.
The horse slowed its pace on the new terrain and Rien relaxed, enjoying the ride and the crisp ocean air. To one side, as far as the eye could see, a broad leaf forest slowly turned into evergreens and on the other side the ocean ran off into the distance, somewhere meeting with the horizon and becoming one with the sky.
After another hour of gentle riding, the forest thined out, giving way to cultivated fields and harder, open ground. Rien guided the horse off the sand and nudged it into a trot, towards the line of buildings visible a league or so ahead. By the time he reached town, the red disk of the sun was hanging low over the ocean. Rien dismounted, leading his horse up to the pier, deciding to walk the rest of the way, both so he could watch the sunset and give darkness a chance to cover the city.
Daily life on the docks was coming to a stand still and the transition to the night-life was beginning. Loading conducted on the few ships currently in port had been halted long before sunset and now crews were lighting lanterns to illuminate the decks before they retired to the ale-houses for the night.
Rien paused at the pier that Kera showed him a few days before. A ship was now docked at it and a lone guard patrolled on deck. Leaving his horse, Rien came closer to examine the vessel. It wasn’t a small craft. A good sixty feet long, but nothing to compare to the one hundred foot giant about a league back. Rien circled forward to read the ship’s name, out of curiosity. Large red letters spelled out _Ocean_Lady_ across the bow. Nothing unusual about that, despite what he knew about the owner of the ship. He was about to turn back when he heard a commotion from beneath the pier, followed by a splash. Noting that the guard was now on the far side of the ship, Rien went down the stairs beneath the pier.
Two men with swords stood with their backs to him, facing an unarmed young woman. From their stances it wasn’t difficult to deduce that they meant nothing good for her. Rien was about to rush them, when he noticed a third man getting up in front of him. The other two were backing the girl into deeper water. Not giving the situation a second thought, Rien kicked the man getting up and, drawing his sword, advanced after the other two.
One of the men turned to the sound of his companion falling back into the water and decided to change the subject of his attack. His swing was parried by Rien and the man’s companion became aware of the new opponent as the sound of their swords clashing echoed underneath the pier. The girl, now waist deep in the water and no longer facing an armed opponent, stopped backing into the ocean.
Rien parried two more swings, before trying to disarm one of his opponents. The swords met with a loud clank, locking together for a moment. In the dim light the soldier observed Rien’s eyes change color and involuntarily took half a step back. Rien took the opportunity to groin him and shove him into the water. So much for chivalry.
Ducking the swing of the other man, who was finally able to get close enough to engage him, Rien made a half turn and swung back, catching his opponent on the arm. The man’s sword went flying into the water with a dull splash, next to the girl. She hesitated, wondering whether or not to pick it up, then deciding against it, ran out of the water past the two fighting men.
Rien’s opponent produced a stiletto to continue his fight, but it was knocked from his grasp with a quick slash from Rien’s blade. With another swing Rien finished the man and turned back to the one who was again raising himself from the water. A quick, deadly thrust caught him in the chest and the man submerged one more time.
Rien waited patiently, knee deep in the rising water. Neither of the men rose again. The first one, the one Rien kicked, was lying face down in the water, not far from the shore line. Rien resheathed his blade, ready to leave, when another man appeared on the stairs. He was wearing chain mail and carried his sword in hand. Rien recognized him as the guard from the _Ocean_Lady_.
The guard looked around, spotting Rien and the body in shallow water. “You! Who are you?”
Rien backed up to one of the rocks sticking out of the water and climbed up. The guard entered the water, sword at the ready and Rien stood up.
“I asked you a question!” the guard barked.
Rien remained silent, attempting to lure the guard deeper into the water. In spite of chain mail not being excellent armor, it was a lot more than what Rien had to depend on and some compensation was needed. As soon as the guard waded into hip deep water, the padding under his armor started absorbing water. Rien jumped one stone back, out of the guard’s reach and drew his sword again.
Seeing that his armor was weighing him down, the guard was about to retreat, but Rien’s drawing of his sword was an open challenge he could not turn his back on. He proceeded further into the water after Rien, taking a swing when he was close enough.
Rien parried and swung at the guard’s torso, changing his attack at the last moment. The guard tried to parry the attack, but the feint caught him off guard and Rien’s sword impacted at the base of his neck, cutting half way through the chain and flesh. The guard dropped his sword and spasmodically grabbed at Rien, missing his target and sinking into the water. Rien stayed perched on the rock. It was dark now and only the splashing of the waves disturbed the night. Four people killed to save a girl from…what?
Rien tried to reconstruct the scene in which he entered. Back on the pier he had heard a commotion and a splash. The girl had probably attempted to escape and in the process of doing so, knocked one of the men to the ground. By the time Rien made it down, the two other men had the girl cornered. It all made sense, except for who the girl was. Her amber eyes reminded him of someone he once met, but he could not place the person or the event. And why was she here? Perhaps Kera would be able to identify the girl and her conflict with Liriss, but that would have to be solved at a later time.
With two leaps Rien made it to the first of the stone pillars and jumped off into the water to return to the pier. The only thing that could happen here now would be for someone to find the bodies and Rien did not want to wait around for that. He returned to the pier only to find that someone had appropriated his horse. He wasn’t too concerned about the loss of the animal itself, but the loss of transportation annoyed him greatly. It upset Rien enough to want to rough up the first person in sight, but luckily no one was around and by the time Rien finally saw a person wandering the streets, he was sufficiently cooled off.
It took him three times longer than it should have to get to the inn, but he finally arrived, with his temper more or less intact. At the inn, as he made his way to the stairs, the inn keeper came up to him. “Sir, a woman stopped by yesterday evening asking about you. She didn’t want to leave a message, but I thought I’d mention it to you anyway.”
“A woman?” Rien asked, wondering who in the world it could be. He knew few people in Dargon and to his recollection, an old woman wasn’t one of his acquaintances.
“An elderly lady, on the plump side, with grey hair,” the man answered.
“She didn’t say what she wanted?”
“No, sir. Just asked if you were in and then left.”
“Thank you for letting me know,” Rien said. He dug into his purse and produced a few coins. “See if you can find me a good horse by tomorrow morning. I am willing to pay for promptness and inconvenience.”
Promising he’d try, the inn keeper returned to his place behind the bar and Rien went up to his room. He took out the key and put it in the lock. He met resistance when he tried to turn it. He applied a little more pressure but neither the key nor the door budged.
Removing the key, Rien examined it and the lock. For the first time in a week there was a problem with the door. He reinserted the key and forced it about in the lock before turning it. The locking mechanism clicked and he pushed the door open.
The first thing that caught Rien’s eye when he lit a candle was a crescent, sloppily drawn in red on the opposite wall. He glanced around the room, but nothing else appeared out of order. Rien approached the wall to get a closer look at the design. The symbol seemed to be painted in blood. He went back to the corridor, to call in the maid who had been lighting candles while he was fumbling with the lock, but she was no longer there. Rien looked both ways in the corridor, then turned back to the room. To his surprise, the wall was clean. Closing the door, Rien approached the wall again and examined it closely. There was no trace of anything ever having been spilled or written there.
Rien sat down on the bed, wondering exactly what he saw…or as it stood, what he thought he saw. Footsteps behind him alerted Rien that he was not alone and he looked quickly over his shoulder, but the room was empty. Somewhat shaken by the apparent failure of his senses, Rien blew out the candle and sat down in the middle of the bed, trying to free his mind from all that seemed to be cluttering it, but found he was unable to concentrate.
Rien opened his eyes. The candle was still burning, but by the time he made it over to the table, the room was once again dark. He sat on the edge of the bed, wondering what could have caused this madness. Madness…was lycanthropy finally taking its toll? Rien looked at his hands. They were covered with short grey fur. “No…” He dropped back onto the bed, ignoring the phantoms around him and forced his mind to go blank. The world descended into darkness.
It was nearly midnight when Myrande made her final rounds of Connall Keep. Luthias had long since retired, but Myrande felt it was her duty to see that everything was settled for the night before she sought her bed.
Ordinarily there was nothing that needed her attention at this late hour, so when she entered the minor dining hall seeing a small figure seated on a bench in front of the banked fire was a surprise. As she advanced further into the room, the figure resolved itself into the young woman who was guesting in the Keep with the man who had sought Marcellon.
Myrande moved around the dining table, her soft leather shoes making almost no sound against the well worn stone floor. She sat on the edge of the bench, on the side opposite of Kera, before the girl realized that Myrande was there.
Kera’s reaction to what seemed to be the sudden appearance of a stranger was to make a grab for her dagger. It took her a second to realize that Myrande was not a threat. Silently she berated herself. Myrande should not have been able to sneak up on her like that. Being with Rien so much must be causing her to lose her edge.
“I’m sorry, my Lady,” she mumbled, releasing the dagger. “I didn’t realize that it was you.”
“It’s all right,” said Myrande softly. She paused for a moment then said, “it’s late. I would have expected you to be asleep by now.”
Kera shrugged noncommittally, staring into the dying fire. “I’m not really tired,” she said.
Myrande waited patiently.
“He’s not back yet,” said Kera abruptly, turning to face Connall’s senechal. “It’s almost midnight. He should have been back by now and I’m afraid that something’s happened to him.”
Kera nodded. Fear lurked in the back of her dark grey eyes. Fear that Liriss, or one of his men, or the assassin had gotten him. Fear that the disease had taken an unexpected turn in him. Fear that he might simply have left her.
Myrande slid further down the bench to sit next to her.
“You’re very worried about him, aren’t you,” she said gently. Kera nodded again. “Have you known him long?”
“Not very long,” replied Kera. “But…he’s different. Different from all of the other men that I know.” Myrande smiled knowingly and allowed her to keep talking. “He’s the only person who’s ever treated me like a human being and I never really gave him much reason to. I haven’t known him for very long, but I think he’s pretty special and yes, I am worried.” Her gaze challenged Myrande to laugh or refute anything that she had said.
Instead of ridiculing her, the dark haired woman nodded in understanding and smiled.
“I do understand. I feel pretty much the same way about…someone, too.” she said softly.
“What if something happened to him,” cried Kera, sudden tears coursing down her cheeks. “He could be dead in some alley for all I know or the disease could have…” she choked on expressing the last thought.
Myrande wrapped her arms around Kera’s shoulders and let her cry herself out. They talked a little, after that, about love and life and death, then Myrande led Kera back up to her assigned room, reassuring her that if Rien wasn’t back by morning, a search party would be sent out.
She retired to her own room, hoping that he would make it back by the next day. There were enough problems right now, without adding yet another one to the list.