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"Fate dictates all."
The words echoed in Jansson's mind. Perhaps they were meant to bring him peace, to console him at a time of no consolation. He repeated his father's words over and over, even as the horse beneath him tore through the Davan countryside, war trolls in pursuit. Tears blurred his vision, and he was thankful he was not the one guiding the horse.
He could feel the arms of his bodyguard, Ghel, around him, but they had lost strength. Dozens of arrows had fallen on the duo as they sped away from Mayfaire Castle, and, even though considered still a child at thirteen, Jansson wasn't so naive as to think none had met their mark. Ghel's muscular body had been an effective barrier, keeping the missiles from hitting Jansson. Guilt ate at Jansson's soul, but he could do nothing to help. His father's last orders had been firm--"Take the prince to Lidgerwood. Let nothing stop you."--and Ghel would not disobey, not even in the face of his own death.
And so they rode; through the night, finally outdistancing the troll warriors. With the coming of morning, the great stallion finally stumbled and went down. Several arrows protruded from its flank, and blood stained the hindquarters. Ghel pulled Jansson away from the animal, his own breathing ragged and forced. Jansson stared at the dying horse, his heart torn with grief. Gently, he stroked the beast's neck as it breathed its last.
"Sleep well, brave one," Jansson whispered, then turned to Ghel.
The guard had propped himself against a large boulder. In his hands was an arrow, its tip bloodied. Jansson steeled his resolve and scooted toward the man.
"I am sorry, Your Highness," Ghelmumbled, his eyes closing.
"Ghel?" Jansson whispered. He shook the man gently. "Ghel?"
Ghel forced his eyes open. "Your Highness, you must go on. You must continue to Lidgerwood. The elves ... will protect you." He coughed, and blood trickled from his mouth. He reached up and grasped Jansson's arm. "The trolls ... they may follow ... you must go ... on." His body seized with a spasm and he groaned, then closed his eyes once more, his hand falling away from Jansson.
Jansson stared in shock, then backed away. He had never seen death up close. His life as the crown prince had afforded him copious amounts of protection, had shielded him from life's cruelties. His gaze danced furtively about his surroundings. The wind rustled through the trees; some small animal chattered loudly. Jansson's gaze went back to Ghel. After a moment, he crawled forward to take Ghel's sword and dagger. He strapped both to his own waist and rose, then abruptly sank to his knees, unable to stop his tears. Ghel had been his last lifeline, his last hope. He swallowed hard, closing his eyes, seeing again the attack on the castle. He'd left his father there, the only family he had. His hand went to the pouch hidden beneath his tunic. It held his father's ring, the symbol of his power. King Brann had given it to Jansson, with the instructions to keep it safe, keep it close. Jansson had had no time to ponder on why it had been given, and now he did not make the time.
His gaze went again to the dead horse, and back to Ghel. He had not the strength or the time for a proper burial. He brushed his wet cheeks on the sleeve of his cloak, and rose. It was no easy task for a boy as slight as he was to drag Ghel's lifeless body to the horse's side. He draped Ghel's cloak over him, closed his eyes in a modest prayer to the Triad Gods, and turned away.
Both mountain ranges in the land of Glede were rock-crested, their lower flanks heavily forested with cone trees. In the few small clearings grew brown scrub and other bushes, not yet in spring leaf. Patches of snow still remained, scattered about on the brown earth. Jansson had been in these woods only a few times, to hunt. Then, he had a well-stocked entourage with him. What did he know of foraging?
Mindful of Ghel's words that the trolls might track him, he stayed off the trail, but always kept it in sight. A part of him, where hope lingered, still wanted to believe the elfin soldiers would ride to his rescue, but as the day wore on and evening approached, reality took hold and he knew that help would not be forthcoming.
Handfuls of snow had slaked his thirst, but his stomach rumbled hungrily. He looked for a clearing. Perhaps there he could find some of the hackleberries Ghel had once told him about. They were the only ones likely to have survived the winter, solely because the bushes were so spiny the creatures of the forest preferred other forage. Finally, he found what he sought. He eased one hand among the long barbs and collected a handful of the withered fruits. They smelled like rotten grapes and tasted not much better, but they eased the gnawing in his stomach. He wandered amongst the bushes, searching out the least shrunken berries.
When he looked up, he realized he had lost sight of the trail. The moon had not yet cleared the mountaintops, and night was falling fast and dark. Trying to stem his increasing panic, he fought his way through tangles of brush, scrambled across fallen trees, and stumbled over clumps of newly-emerging ferns. He slipped, fell, rose and pushed on, but could not find the trail.
Finally, overcome with exhaustion, he sagged to the ground, leg muscles quivering with the unaccustomed exertion. His arms and face were scratched from his frantic flight, and the berries churned in a stomach too long with fear and without food.
Turning his head, he retched, heaving again and again, until there was nothing left. Spent, he lay damp with sweat, his cheek pressed against a cushion of cone tree needles. The chill night air swept across him and left him shivering, feeling more dead than alive.
Fatigue clawed at his mind and, although he tried to rise and go on, he could not. He pulled his cloak tight and curled up against a fallen tree. From the darkness came the whispery sounds of stealthy movements. Perhaps it was the elves, finally arriving. But he saw nothing, no one. Too exhausted, too ill, too filled with despair, he closed his eyes and fell into the uneasy darkness of tortured sleep.
The fierce whisper out of the alley's darkness stopped Treyas in mid-stride. His heartbeat quickened; he glanced up and down the familiar street, deserted at this late hour, and peered into the shadows of the hewed-stone wharf buildings.
"Who's there?" he called.
The elf's only response was the rasp of labored breathing. He drew the thin-bladed dagger at his belt, even though he had sensed urgency rather than hostility in the voice.
"Acer? Is that you?" he called softly. He swayed just slightly and reached out to steady himself on the nearest building. The brew he'd consumed just an hour earlier was beginning to sour in his gut. "Acer?" he hissed, calling the name of one of his drinking companions. He'd only just met the man, volunteering to help him unload his wagon. The man had reciprocated with several tankards of brew at the local pub. At just past fourteen years of age, Treyas had felt very grown up and manly sitting in the pub slurping the bitter ale. Now, he simply felt sick and stupid. He was reminded of stories he'd heard of such men befriending, then robbing and killing, a new acquaintance.
He nearly yelped aloud when a cloaked and hooded figure suddenly emerged from the darkness, a dwarf by the short stature and blocky build. He reached out, clamped one strong hand around Treyas' arm, and dragged him into the alley.
Treyas raised the dagger in panic, but the dwarf easily knocked it from his grasp, and pinned him to the stone wall. Treyas struggled to free himself, but dwarves were known for their strength. This one was no different, and he cuffed Treyas soundly alongside the head. The action sent Treyas' head spinning, and he sagged in the dwarf's grip.
"Cease!" the dwarf commanded, his voice rattling in his throat. "I've no time." He drew a breath, then wheezed out the rest of his words. "Take this to Aelfdene Valley, to Lidgerwood. No time. Run, boy!" He pressed what felt like a large coin into Treyas' palm, then thrust himself away and staggered into the darkness.
Heart pounding, Treyas ran. He darted down the alley, slid around the corner of the building, and made a dash for the docks, and safety. After a few moments, he forced himself to slow. Gods! What's the matter with me? he chastised himself. That dwarf didn't even threaten me and here I am, running like a frightened elfling.
He stopped and looked back toward the alleyway where he had dropped the dagger. Perhaps he should go back for it. No, he was already late. And besides, he had no wish to meet up with the dwarf again. He opened his fingers and squinted at the object the dwarf had given to him. It was a medallion of some sort, but he couldn't see it clearly in the cloud-filtered light of a full moon. He considered throwing it away, but curiosity stayed his hand. At the very least, he should look at it in better light before ridding himself of it. He slipped the object into the pocket of his coarsecloth tunic and hurried on.
The town clock chimed the hour and Treyas grimaced. He was late, very late. He sent a fervent prayer to the Triad Gods that Quinlin would have gone to bed long before now. He could only imagine the lecture he would get arriving back to the boat past midnight and smelling of ale.
Still, it was so rare that he ever got the chance to go anywhere alone, he had relished in it. And now he would have hell to pay once he returned to Quinlin's boat. He caught at his breath as he rounded a corner and was hit full in the face with a searing blast of cold wind. It brought the smell of gutted fish, the salty tang of the sea and occasional traces of wood smoke from some distant fireplace. The weather in Ashali was not nearly so mild as that of his home province, Bailiwycke. Four days ago, he and Quinlin had left Bailiwycke with a hold full of vegetables wintered over on the coastal plains. By now, Quinlin would have loaded the last of their return cargo of silica-ore, and was no doubt waiting to cast off while the night wind was still freshening.
The thought sent Treyas into a half jog down the piers, and moments later he stepped aboard the boat that was the pride of his good friend, Quinlin Thomarius, an elf twelve years his senior. Usually nothing more than a sturdy fishnetter, once a year the boat was pressed into service to haul other cargo, its true mission to secure supplies Elek needed for his use as township Healer.
With a sigh of relief, Treyas entered the cabin. Quinlin was seated at the round pine table, head at rest on his arms, a cup of tea at his elbow. The elf looked up, green eyes flashing in the light of the ship's lantern suspended from an overhead beam. For an instant, Treyas saw relief there, before anger surfaced. Quinlin rose to his feet, towering over Treyas.
"Two hours, Treyas," he seethed, his voice rising with each word. "It should not have taken more than two hours to get those things for Elek. It's past midnight. What in Tor's hell have you been doing?"
Treyas winced, and looked with longing at the bunks built against one wall. He wanted nothing more than to crawl under his blankets and escape in sleep from Quinlin's anger. And from his ever growing nausea. At this moment, however, he was fixed in place, skewered against the cabin wall by Quinlin's angry words.
"I bent over backward to convince Elek to let you come on this trip without him," the tall elf raged. "You'd think you'd at least have the courtesy to abide by my rules. You were to go straight to town, get what I ordered, and return straight here!" His gaze flicked over Treyas, as his square jaw tightened. "Just look at you. You're a mess. What the hell happened? Where have you been?"
Treyas eased his pack from his shoulders, and self-consciously smoothed his wrinkled tunic. It felt a bit damp, and his hand touched the leather sheath hanging empty at his side. He wished now he'd gone back for the dagger--it belonged to Quinlin.
"I was ... I got lost," he stammered.
"Lost in a township you don't know, in a country you don't know!" Quinlin fumed. "This is not Bailiwycke. This is a port town! I know this place, its peoples. They know me. They don't know you. Not everyone here is accepting of elves. And you're smaller than most. Do you realize what a vulnerable target you made?" He paced several quick steps between the galley and the bunks and whirled again on Treyas, flinging up his hands. "Do you have any idea what Elek is going to say about this? I was supposed to be in charge of you, Treyas. I cannot for the life of me understand why I let you go out alone. I must have been mad! Damn!" He slammed one fist down on the table, sloshing the contents of the mug of tea.
Treyas had edged his way toward his bunk, not sure what to say. All of this talk of 'target', being 'vulnerable', and 'smaller than most' pounded at his head. "I got the things for Elek. They're in my pack. I'll just take this off," he said, untying the dagger sheath, "and then I'll help you--"
His words were cut off by Quinlin's gasp. The older elf reached out and drew Treyas into the circle of lamplight. "Blood! Gods, Trey! Are you hurt?" All signs of anger were immediately gone, snuffed out by worry.
Treyas looked down at the bright red stain. "No ... I ... no," he stammered. "He ... the dwarf ... he must have..."
"What dwarf? Where?" Quinlin demanded. "Why was he bleeding? What happened?"
Treyas fished in his pocket and drew out the object the dwarf had given him. The lamplight caught at silver, and Treyas saw now that it was indeed a medallion--with a distinctive pattern of three cutout whorls in a counterclockwise direction. A hole had been drilled through one of them to allow the object to be strung on a cord or chain.
"I don't know. I didn't know he was bleeding. He gave me this." He handed the medallion to the elf. "He told me to take that to Aelfdene Valley. To Lidgerwood. But why? What is it?"
Quinlin paused, examining the medallion. Finally, he sighed. "We'd better get this to Elek. If anyone would know something about it, he would." He turned, went to the map drawer and locked the medallion inside, then looked toward Treyas. "I wasn't supposed to let you out of my sight. If Elek finds out I let you go after supplies by yourself ... Gods!" He rubbed at his face. "What was I thinking, letting you go off alone?"
Treyas frowned, his gaze on the locked drawer. He had no answer for the elf. Quinlin sighed, picked up his wool-knit cap and pulled it snug over his shoulder-length brown hair.
"I'm going to cast off. I'll feel better once we're away from this township and into our own waters." At the doorway, he turned. "Get rid of those stained clothes, clean yourself up and get to bed. There's no telling what dread disease you came into contact with during your little adventure. With a fair wind, we'll make Ravenscroft in three days. We'll know by then if you're coming down with something."
Treyas grimaced. "I only had a couple little meat pies and one mug of..." He broke off at Quinlin's scathing look. "I was careful."
"Careful!" Quinlin muttered. "Treyas, you and the word 'careful' are seldom mentioned in the same breath. And if you think for a moment that I believe in that one mug of ale story, you're sadly mistaken! You smell like a brewery, and you're swaying worse than the boat." He opened the door and paused, glancing back over his shoulder. "You might want to think on how Elek is going to feel about a fourteen year old drinking." The door fell shut behind him.
Treyas sighed and looked again at the drawer where the medallion lay. He rubbed his hands against his tunic, felt the dampness of the dwarf's blood, and recoiled from it. Revulsion seized him. He tore off the stained garment, flung it under the bunks, and went to the tiny galley to wash his hands. Quinlin was right. He already felt ill.