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“Faster, Jamie, faster! I can hear them at the main door.”
“I’m going as fast as I can, Ramo. This blasted lead has turned to steel.”
The distant dull thump of the battering ram against the great bronze portal thudded through the deep stone in counterpoint to the steel-on-steel ping of Jamie’s hammer against the chisel as it peeled metal from the seam.
“You think they got away?” asked Ramo.
Not pausing in his task, Jamie replied, “We can only hope.”
Behind the two, a lad—a court page—wept but said naught as he held one of the two lanterns on high.
Ramo held the other lantern for Jamie to see the lead-sealed joint. “Lor! Lor! I can no believe it, the Queen bein’ dead and the King hisself not long to live, him with the arrow lodged in his gut.”
“He might”—Ping!—“already”—Ping!—“be gone,” said Jamie, while far above the ram crashed against the door.
With a clatter, Jamie dropped his hammer and chisel. “There! I think we got it! Help me with this.”
Ramo set the lantern down and, grunting, he and Jamie shoved against the heavy granite cover.
The page behind stepped forward and held his own lantern aloft for them to see by.
And with stone grinding against stone, the lid gave way, and they pivoted it aside.
“There he is,” said Ramo.
Jamie reached in and lifted the bundle out. He turned and gave it to the youth. “Now, fly, lad, fly, else all is lost.”
Lantern in hand, bundle in arm, the youngster darted away and up the twisting stairs.
“Back to work,” said Jamie, and he and Ramo shoved the heavy stone lid into place. Then Jamie retrieved his hammer, while Ramo took up a mallet of his own.
Even as they began their task, the boy raced up the stony flight, his breath coming in gasps. Zigging this way and zagging that, among the many confusing turns and levels he sped, the bundle faintly clattering as he ran. At last the boy burst onto the main floor of the castle and dashed toward the throne room. Behind him servants slammed the doors shut.
And still the great ram—Boom! . . . Boom!—smashed against the main bronze portal, demanding entry.
As the page scurried into the Chamber of State and passed among the few survivors of the King’s guard, he broke out in tears anew, for the slain Queen lay upon a mass of wood set for a great pyre, and the King, sword yet in hand, sagged against the bier on which rested the oiled timber. The monarch was pierced through by an arrow up to its feathers, the long shaft entering just below his rib cage and angling down to thrust out from his back. Streaming blood steadily flowed along the outjutting length to fall from the wicked steel point.
Boom!—the bronze door juddered and mortar dust fell.
“Quickly,” whispered the King, gesturing upward toward the Queen in her deathly repose.
The lad set his lantern to the floor and scrambled up and gently lay the bundle in the arms of the slain Lady, and then he jumped back down.
“My lord, I don’t think I can—” began the boy, but the King interrupted him and said, “I will do it. Light the torch.”
Boom! . . . Boom!
The page took up the stave from the pedestal and set the oil-wrap-cloth ablaze, and then handed the fiery brand to the sovereign.
“Now run, boy, run!” commanded the King.
But the lad fell to his knees in grief.
Boom! . . .
. . . And a block of lintel stone crashed down.
The King hobbled about the bier, thrusting the flame into the pyre.
The blaze hungrily leapt upward, the tinder-dry, resinous wood eagerly clutching the fire unto itself.
Boom! One of the mighty hinges gave way.
Shouts of victory sounded.
Boom! The other hinge gave way, and . . .
. . . with a thunderous Blang! the door fell inward and onto the stone of the throne chamber.
Arrows flew, and the first to die was the boy.
Next were slain the remnants of the King’s guard.
The King raised his gore-slathered sword to meet the onrushing foe, but before they reached him the King fell dead, as the through-piercing arrow took its final toll.
Yawling bloodthirsty cries, the Garian soldiers hurtled within and raced throughout the castle, and none of the servants survived.
Moments later, the new High King of Mithgar strode into the fiery chamber, where the dethroned King lay dead and his slain Queen and her bundle burned.
While far down in the catacombs within the tall spire of Caer Pendwyr, Jamie and Ramo tapped the lead back in place to seal the sarcophagus once more.
And even farther below in the night, a small boat put out to sea, its own cargo precious beyond compare.
[insert map 3]
Ocean and Seas
The High King’s realm is bordered by water on three sides: to the south lie the warm, indigo waters of the deep blue Avagon Sea. From the Islands of Stone in the northeast to the tangle of the Isle of Kistan in the southwest it spans. Rich farming and grazing lands lie upon the Avagon’s northern coast, and wealthy but desert lands upon its southern shores.
This wide sea debouches through the rover-infested, perilous Straits of Kistan, beyond which lies the vast Weston Ocean. The Weston itself is hazardous, too, but not because of pirates. The ocean has a measure of rovers as well as storms, but they are not the primary danger; rather the immensity of this vastness requires navigators of considerable skill, and so most of the commerce hugs the shores.
The High King’s realm is bordered on the west not only by this great water, but also by the storm-driven Northern Sea, whose cold and violent black waters are perilous enough to discourage all but the most daring or desperate.
The Boreal Sea lies on the north of the High King’s lands, and its waters are frigid beyond imagining. It is from these waters that the Fjordlanders come in their Dragonships to raid and plunder their enemies of old. But among the principal dangers of the Boreal are the Great Maelstrom there at the end of the Gronfang Mountains and the Krakens living therein, as well as the Dragons who roost above this deadly vortex.
These four waters that embrace the High King’s domain on three sides are perilous . . . but each for a different reason. Yet the High King has his residence along the shores of one. . . .
. . . And in that residence . . .
High above, on the tall stone spire atop which sat Caer Pendwyr, the new High King and his Garian soldiers celebrated the demise of the old. At the behest of their sire, the revelers cut off the former King’s head and mounted it on a pike outjutting from the battlements, so that it looked down at its arrow-pierced headless corpse dangling by grume-slathered ropes just above the gate, with its elbows splayed outward as of a broken scarecrow waiting for the dawn when the ravens would come for their due.
And in the high-vaulted Chamber of State the victorious soldiers cavorted about the smoldering remains of the funeral pyre containing the ashes of Queen and child. The new High King himself lolled upon the seized throne and drank bloodred wine and smiled at the antics of his men. He was filled with glorious power and exultant satisfaction, for he was certain the former King’s misbegotten bloodline had been extinguished entirely, thus avenging an old and festering injustice at last.
But far below and as silent as a midnight shadow, the small craft with its precious cargo glided southeasterly out upon the starlit waters of the deep blue Avagon Sea, the ocean now gone ebon in the moonless night, but for the glitter from above. With her dark sails set to make the most of the breeze, southeasterly she fled, and at the hands of her master she deftly slipped past the Albaner carrack on patrol.
The ship sailed a sea-league or so before turning west-southwesterly, and in the spangled night a whispering zephyr filled her silken sails to gently carry her across the calm waters. And she was another seven sea leagues along this course ere the waning moon, naught but a thin crescent, rose in the east.
Soon the sun would follow.
As the silvery glimmer of dawn light delicately painted the oncoming morning skies, the boat was some eight leagues away, well beyond the lax attention of carousing Albaner lookouts abaft. And even were they to spot her, most likely it was naught but a small fishing craft out for the early catch.
Vanidar Silverleaf at the tiller gazed at the last visible gleamings above and bade the stars farewell, even though, as it is with all Elves, he knew where they stood no matter the mark of day or season. Given his immortal breed, Silverleaf appeared to be no more than a lean-limbed youth, though his actual age could have been one millennium or ten or more. He had golden hair cropped at the shoulder and tied back with a simple leather headband, as was the fashion among many of Elvenkind. Under his dark cloak he was clad in grey-green and wore a golden belt that held a long-knife. His feet were shod in soft leather and he stood perhaps five foot nine or ten. At his side lay a silver-handled horn-limbed bow and a quiver of arrows fletched green. And as he sat in the dawning, he made a small change to the tiller, and adjusted the sheets to make the most of the quickening wind, now blowing out from the land of Pellar to strike the starboard beam.
As the day drew upon the world and the sun illuminated the clear waters of the sea, “I deem it safe now to come above,” he called.
From the tiny cabin below a female answered, a tremor in her gentle voice. “Soon, Lord Vanidar. I am feeding Reyer, now.”
Silverleaf nodded to himself, and, tying the tiller, he took up a lantern and replaced the glass with a bracket, then he lit the flame beneath. He set a small copper teapot upon the tiny improvised stove and added fresh water. Soon he infused the steaming liquid with a few generous pinches of tea and set it aside to steep.
Up and out from the small quarters below, a slender, young, dark-haired woman clad in men’s garments emerged. Her face was drawn and gaunt—from fear and grief and lack of sleep—and her dark blue eyes were shot with red from weeping.
Saying naught a word, Silverleaf handed her a cup of the warm tisane.
Gratefully, she took it, clutching it in both hands. After a sip, she said, “They’re both sleeping: Reyer and my own Alric.”
“We are going to have to give Reyer a different name, Lady Gretta.”
The Jordian woman looked into Silverleaf’s pale grey gaze. “My Lord Vanidar, why would we—? Oh. I see.”
“Just so, my lady,” said Silverleaf.
“Where are we taking him, Lord Vanidar?”
“By order of the High King, to Kell.”
“The westernmost isle of Gelen? The one not on any map?”
“Aye. It seems shipmasters and their navigators are reluctant to put it on any map, for it was a time hidden by a remote ring of mist, though once on the isle, no mist wafted in the distance upon the sea, either near or far. Whether it be Mage- or god-made, one might think that strange, neh? And fearing to displease Magekind or mayhap Garlon, god of the sea, ocean pilots and captains did not record its position, and they still hew to that tradition, even though only natural mists now and then hide the isle. Aye, even to this day no map marks its place, yet all sailors of any worth ken where the island lies, so its location is not a great secret, yet once it was and to some still is. Regardless, strange or not, superstitions be damned, ’tis to Kell we go.”
“Then we should call him something that fits the Kellian tongue.”
Silverleaf nodded. “We should.”
“I don’t know any Kellian names,” said Gretta.
Silverleaf burst out in laughter. “Neither do I.”
They stopped twice in small seaside villages along the way to pick up supplies and fresh water and to gain respite from the small craft, but always they sailed onward, heading for Arbalin Isle. Altogether a fortnight passed ere in a driving rain they rode the braw breeze and a flowing dusk tide into safe harbor to take anchorage at Port Arbalin.
Sheltering the pair of two-year-olds from the downpour, Silverleaf led Gretta to a modest inn—the Gull—and that night they slept soundly for the first time in days. The next morn, Silverleaf went to the harbormaster and arranged for passage to Kell. “With warship escorts through the Straits of Kistan, mind you, to ward off the Rovers lurking there.”
Upon his return to the Gull, bearing needed provender and goods he tapped upon Lady Gretta’s door. As they unloaded the wares, he said, “I stopped at the Red Slipper and had a drink with an old friend, and I now have a Kellian name for Reyer.”
“What is it?” asked Gretta, stowing the commodities while keeping an eye upon the two wee lads—Reyer fair-haired, Alric dark-. Both children, free at last from tight ship’s quarters, happily toddled about the chamber to now and again stop and examine something, all the while babbling away in a language they both seemed to understand.
“Rígán. We will call him Rígán, a fitting name.”
“Has it a meaning?”
“Aye. Little King.”
“Won’t that be telling?”
Silverleaf shook his head. “Aravan says many a Kellian lad is named Rígán.”
Three months later, as he had been instructed by the now dead High King, Silverleaf bearing Rígán, and Gretta holding Alric, rode from a small seaside village on the western shores of Kell and to a cattle-and-pig farm carved out of the forest in the green-clad rolling hills beyond. They met with a widower named Conal—forty or so—who had been a captain in the King’s Guard some ten years past.
When Silverleaf rode away the next day—with Gretta’s mount on a lead following after—he left Gretta and Rígán and Alric behind in the loyal care of a soldier, a farmer, a drover, a King’s man.
Moreover, that the forest surround also harbored Dylvana was of no small import in the plan.