Chapter 3 of a book I'm working on. I would appreciate feedback. Also, I may or may not post more later.
The young red priest settled himself and his chestnut stallion into a wooded clearing as dusk approached. He gathered a few fallen twigs and pinecones from nearby and arranged them in a little pile in the center of his clearing. Kneeling by the pile, he took a flint rock from a pocket of his robe and a dagger from his belt and struck the two together. The resulting spark caught in the wood and he fanned it into a small fire.
Tarn stood and proceeded to tend to his horse by the light of his little campfire. He removed the saddle and saddlebags and brushed the horse’s coat. Then he took an apple from the saddlebag and fed it to the horse. As the creature munched happily, Tarn stroked its neck and marveled at how much distance he and the horse had covered in only a couple of days. He figured that he should catch up to Althea and her elf friend very soon, seeing as how he was on horseback and they were walking. Samaryu had certainly blessed him by providing him such a fine animal. But Tarn knew the speed at which the animal had carried him was not normal. Even such a strong horse as his should only have been able to cover at least half the distance they had. Tarn whispered a prayer of thanks to Samaryu as his steed finished its apple and nudged the priest’s shoulder, seeking another apple from the young man.
“Sorry, boy,” Tarn told the beast as he gave its neck a final stroke and pat. “That’s all I can spare for now. I wasn’t able to afford much in the way of supplies after getting you.” The horse whickered softly and turned its attention to the grass at its feet.
As Tarn left his horse to graze, he walked out into the woods immediately surrounding his little campsite. He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small bag of blue cloth. He untied the bag and walked around the perimeter of his camp, sprinkling a fine white powder from the bag and muttering an incantation as he went. When he was finished, he tied the bag closed and returned it to the pocket, then stepped back into his camp. Once he was inside the clearing, the powder circle he had made around his camp glowed with a pale blue light. Tarn nodded with satisfaction.
“That should keep out any predators,” he told his horse, for lack of other company. “That includes whoever or whatever I’ve sensed trailing me. But I still don’t know how someone could have managed to follow me, considering how fast we’ve been going, boy.”
The horse just whinnied softly and continued grazing.
Tarn sighed. “I guess you’re right. No sense in worrying about the unknown. And I suppose it could just be my imagination.”
So deciding, Tarn knelt by the saddlebags and took out a piece of hardtack, some jerky, and his water skin, then settled down by the campfire to eat his meager meal. But imagination or not, he still could not shake the feeling that he was being followed – and watched.
High in the treetops only a scant few yards away from Tarn’s campsite, a large black bird sat watching the young priest. It watched him set up his camp. It watched him place his warding circle along the camp’s perimeter. It watched him eat his small dinner. It watched him settle down and drift off into sleep.
The raven was still there when Tarn awoke an hour before dawn. It watched him eat another meager meal of hardtack and jerky to break his fast. It watched him break camp, drowning and burying his campfire and saddling his horse. It watched him walk to his warding circle and break it by scuffing the powder with his booted foot. It watched him return to his horse, mount, and ride off back to the road.
A minute after Tarn left, the raven took flight, quietly following the young priest.
* * *
Sunrise painted pink and purple glows on the cotton-puff clouds in the pale blue sky over the sleeping little town. As the morning light slowly brightened, a dozen men on horseback rode at full gallop into the town from the west. Eleven of the men wore black armor and had swords dangling from their waists. The armored man in the lead had shoulder-length salt-and-pepper hair peeking out from under a helmet that had a long tail of white hair seeming to sprout from its top. A salt-and-pepper beard graced the bottom of his craggy face - a face with a scar down his left cheek. Beside him rode the twelfth man. This man wore no armor and carried no weapon. Instead, he wore a long priest’s robe of dark green and had the hood up, covering his head and face.
The thunder of the horses’s hoofs on the dirt road awakened some of the townsfolk. Drowsy faces of men, women, and children appeared in the windows of small wooden houses to see what was going on. Tired eyes widened at the sight of black armored soldiers on horseback riding hurriedly down the street, and the faces quickly disappeared from the windows.
The soldiers paid no mind to the spying townspeople. They just continued their breakneck run down the dirt road. About midway into the town, the lead soldier reined his horse to a stop in front of a two-story weathered wooden building that, though it was not falling apart yet, had certainly seen better days. Over the door of this structure hung a simple wooden sign proclaiming the place to be an inn. The other riders brought their horses to a stop behind their leader.
The lead soldier motioned to the man in green, who nodded in reply. The two men dismounted and walked up to the door. The soldier knocked loud and hard, shaking the door in its frame and barely leaving time for a response before banging again.
“All right, all right,” a feeble masculine voice called from inside the building. “I’m coming. There’s no need to break the door down.” A minute later, the door opened to reveal to the soldier and green priest an old man in a nightcap and nightshirt. When the old man saw who was at his door, and the soldiers on the road behind them, his instinct was to slam closed the door and run and hide. But he forced himself to stand there and smile at the two men on his doorstep. “What can I do for you?” he asked as politely as he could make himself.
“Information,” said the big armored man gruffly in a deep, rumbling voice.
The old man nodded once. “I’ll do what I can. What do you need information about?”
The green priest, his face still hidden by the hood of his robe, held out a thin, black-gloved hand, palm up and whispered something. A small, translucent image of a pretty, young redheaded swordswoman in black leather armor appeared. “What do you know about her?” he asked in a thin, raspy voice that sent a chill down the innkeeper’s spine and made him think of snakes. The old man decided that he would not be the least bit surprised to hear the priest hiss every time he spoke a word with an “s” in it.
The innkeeper recognized the woman that the snaky man asked about, and he determined not to tell him and the soldier anything about her. He did not like them, did not trust them. Not like he did the young red priest who had asked about her a couple of days earlier. He had sensed the innate goodness of the young priest, as well as noticed the medallion of the dragon god, Samaryu, the Protector. The two men he faced now, however, fairly reeked of foulness. He had no idea why these two men were after her, but he was not about to help them find that nice, innocent young girl, even if it killed him – which, from the looks of his two visitors, was a fate he thought highly likely. But it was a price he was willing to pay. She had risked her life to save his town, so he thought it was the least he could do to repay her.
Bracing himself for the retribution he was certain would come, the old man opened his mouth to tell his two visitors that he knew nothing at all about the woman. What came out of his mouth, though, surprised and horrified him.
“That’s Miss Althea, the renowned monster hunter,” he heard his voice say in total contradiction to what he had planned to say. That snaky priest must have enspelled me to tell the truth, he thought. I mustn’t say anymore. He willed himself to remain silent, but to no avail. His voice kept right on telling everything he knew about Althea to the two men standing on his doorstep. “She and her partner freed us from some goblins a little over a week ago.”
“Partner?” said the soldier with a slightly disconcerted look in his dark eyes. “We weren’t told about any partner. Who is this?”
“A young elf man with white-blonde hair.”
The soldier’s eyes widened, the confused look replaced with wonder. “An elf?” It couldn’t be him, he thought, a finger of his gloved hand subconsciously tracing the scar down his left cheek. Could it? “Did he have a name?”
“She called him Loren, I believe.”
It has to be him. But I must be certain. Subconsciously, his finger rubbed the scar harder as he asked, “Did he happen to have a white wolf with him?”
The innkeeper nodded. “A big one with pale blue eyes like I’ve never seen before that seemed to glow with a surprising intelligence.”
I knew it. The soldier’s hand dropped from his face to his side and he clenched his fists tightly. “Lorenathalus,” he said, spitting the name like a curse. “Finally, our paths cross again. And once again I find you opposing me. But now I shall at last have a chance to punish you as you deserve, you traitor.” He turned his attention back to the old man. “When they left, did they happen to say where they were going?”
“I heard her mention Maarkess to her partner.”
The soldier nodded and, without another word, he and the green priest turned from the old man and walked back to their horses and the waiting soldiers.
The old man dropped to his knees as his visitors walked away from him. “I’m sorry,” he said softly as tears welled in his eyes. “I’m so sorry, Miss Althea, Loren. I didn’t want to tell them. I really didn’t. Please, forgive me.”
The soldier and priest mounted their horses. The soldier turned to face the others. “Our quarry heads for Maarkess,” he said with a loud, commanding voice. “She already has over a week’s head start. We must ride quickly. The priest and I will ride on ahead. I want the rest of you to raze the town. Leave no witnesses, no evidence we were here. Then catch us up. Lieutenant Alder, you’re in charge.”
The soldiers saluted. “Yes, General Kinski!” they called out proudly in one voice.
* * *
The large assembly room was dark and empty save for the dozen men in grey robes with the hoods pulled up over their heads. They stood in two rows of six men, one row facing the other, making an aisle. Each one held a lit torch in their hands. At the head of the aisle stood one lone man in a grey robe with the hood up. Instead of a torch, he held a dagger in one hand and a folded sheet of parchment in the other. He stared straight ahead at a young man who appeared to be about twenty years of age, with white-blonde hair tucked behind pointed ears. This young man did not wear a robe, only a forest-green cloak over a white cotton shirt and brown breeches. The young man took a deep breath and walked down the aisle. He stopped before the lone man and knelt.
“Lorenathalus,” the grey-robed man said in a deep and solemn voice, “tonight you come before us to end your apprenticeship in the Royal Assassins Guild. It has taken many years, but you have finally proven your loyalty to us and to the king, and we find you worthy to now perform solo missions. Lorenathalus, if you swear to remain loyal to us and to King Heinrich, and to follow all orders unquestioningly, hold out your left palm.”
The young elf did so, and the blade of the dagger that the robed man held flashed across the elf’s palm, leaving a small, bloody X in its wake. Lorenathalus didn’t flinch.
“Now, young assassin,” intoned the robed man, “stand and take your orders.”
Lorenathalus stood and, with his right hand, took the parchment the robed man held out to him. He noticed the king’s seal – an upright and roaring bear facing a crouching lion – stamped in the sealing wax. He did not open his orders right away, not wanting to seem overly eager. He just bowed to the robed man and walked back down the aisle, his left hand throbbing in pain and dripping blood.
Once outside the assembly hall, back on the inner-city streets of Rahtzberg, the capital of the Rahtz Kingdom, Lorenathalus gave one short, shrill whistle. Then he walked on down the street, towards the castle at the center of the city. A bright, full moon lit the night. After walking a few blocks, the elf paused and looked around, checking to make sure he was not being followed, then ducked into a nearby alley. He knelt down against the wall, trying to hide in the shadows. His hand had been dripping blood, so even if he had not been followed right then, anyone could easily follow his blood trail later. He set the parchment down on the cobblestone pavement and reached into a pocket of his cloak for the strip of cloth he had prepared for the occasion, knowing what the initiation ceremony entailed. He bandaged his wounded hand with the strip of cloth then retrieved his orders.
He was just about to break the wax seal when a large white wolf entered the alley and walked up to him. The animal sat down in front of the elf and stared at him expectantly with bright pale blue eyes.
“You’re just in time, Anju,” Lorenathalus told the wolf softly, giving the beast a small smile. “I’m just opening my orders now.”
He broke the seal and unfolded the parchment. Only a couple of lines had been written, with King Heinrich’s signature scrawled at the end. Lorenathalus read the lines. Disbelieving what he read, he read them again. And again. Finally, he accepted the fact that his eyes were not deceiving him. He crumpled the parchment in his hand, and a growl that sounded like it should have come from the wolf escaped the elf’s throat.
“A child?” he said disgustedly. “He wants me to kill...a child?” He shook his head. “It’s one thing to order me to kill a man, but to order the death of an innocent young child? Just to secure his claim on the throne? No. I’ve had it. I’ve played this game long enough. It’s time for us to go, Anju.” A glint showed in his slanted, almond-shaped chocolate brown eyes. “But first, we have to say farewell to a couple of people.”
Lorenathalus found himself crouched in the shadows of a building across from the castle, next to an alley, looking at the guarded castle gate a half-mile away. Anju crouched beside him. The elf could not remember exactly how he had gotten there. Nor could he remember stopping by his little loft to retrieve his belt of daggers, short sword, and bow and arrows – but he knew he had to have done so, for he wore them now. Even though he could not recall these things, his position had a feeling of familiarity, for he had pictured this scene in his mind many times over the years as he planned his revenge. He had put up with the humans training and using him as an assassin, all the while pretending to be a good, loyal lackey so he could learn the skills he would need when his time for vengeance finally came. Only he had not planned on doing it this night. And he certainly had not planned on doing it during a full moon. But the orders he had received had been the last straw, pushing him to act now instead of in a few years as he had planned.
But with all the planning he had done over the years, learning assassin skills from his unsuspecting teachers, there was one plan he had not formed – how to actually get into the castle. So there he sat in the shadows, staring at the guarded castle gate half a mile away and wondering how he was going to get in.
The sound of drunken laughter echoed down the street behind him. He carefully turned to look and saw a couple of castle guardsmen staggering down the street towards him, oblivious to his presence. A sly smile crossed the elf’s lips and he glanced at Anju. “Quick and quiet, okay?” he whispered to the white wolf. “We don’t want to draw attention.” The wolf’s tail wagged in reply as the animal stood up. “Good,” Lorenathalus said softly as he slowly stood up also.
The two quickly ducked into the alley next to them and waited for the guardsmen to come by. As soon as they passed by the mouth of the alley, Lorenathalus and Anju slipped out and up behind the two. The elf hated doing this out in the open under a full moon, but he had no choice. He was just glad there were no street lamps around and that the guards at the castle gate did not have his keen elvin sight.
Quick and quiet, he had told Anju, and that was how it played out. Lorenathalus grabbed one guardsman by the head and, giving a quick, sharp twist, snapped the guard’s neck. At the same time, Anju pounced on the other guard, knocking him to the ground, clamped his jaws around the man’s neck, and shook his head back and forth very hard and briskly, snapping that guard’s neck. Neither guard ever knew what hit them or had time to utter one noise.
Just as quickly as they had dispatched the guards, they drew the bodies into the alley. There, Lorenathalus slipped off his cloak, dagger belt, and bow and arrows and slipped a couple of daggers into the tops of his boots. Then he put on the uniform of the guardsman he had killed, as the other had some blood on it that might arouse suspicion. Then he ordered Anju to stay there and guard his stuff, explaining that he’d just draw too much attention if he went with him. Anju promptly sat, but the look in his eyes said he was not too happy with the arrangement. Promising to be back soon, Lorenathalus left the alley, strolling nonchalantly down the street, toward the castle. He affected a drunken swagger and had his hair tucked up under the uniform’s helmet. The helmet hid the points of his ears, but there was really no way to hide his distinctively slanted eyebrows and almond-shaped eyes. So he kept his head down and trusted to luck.
The elf’s trust seemed to have been well placed – for a while, at least. The guards at the gate did not challenge him. Thinking him one of their own, they only laughed and joked him for getting so drunk as they opened the large oaken doors for him to stagger through. Once he was in, they closed the gate behind him.
For the benefit of the guards patrolling the castle walls and grounds, Lorenathalus kept up his drunken swagger as he crossed the wide courtyard and made his way up to the doors of the castle itself. Assuming that he was reporting for duty, the guards smiled and chuckled but opened the mahogany doors to let him in, giving him a remonstration to sober up quickly. Lorenathalus nodded and mumbled something about doing just that as he entered the castle. The doors closed behind him.
It was about now that luck decided to betray the elf’s trust. Not hearing anyone immediately nearby, Lorenathalus stood up straight and looked around. He found himself in the antechamber – a large, torch lit room decorated with colorful tapestries and burgundy drapes. A huge gold and crystal chandelier hung overhead. A long hallway in front of him led further into the castle. To the right were a couple of closed mahogany doors. To his left, a carpeted staircase led up to the royal private rooms and bedrooms. The elf drew the dagger from the top of his right boot and, moving with a natural stealth and speed enhanced by his assassin training, ran up the stairs. As he neared the top, he found that the hallway dead-ended straight ahead, but branched off to the right. Along that hallway were the royal bedrooms and private rooms. With his destination close at hand, Lorenathalus became overly excited and unusually sloppy. Imagining what would happen when he arrived, he did not pay attention to his surroundings, and so he did not notice the sound of footsteps heading his direction from the hallway. Still running as he left the stairs and made his right turn into the hallway, Lorenathalus collided with trouble. Instinctively, he looked to see who or what he had bumped into, and saw that it was a big man in black armor. The man had a black beard and a craggy face that was all too familiar to the elf. Lorenathalus frowned. The man also looked at who had bumped into him, and instantly recognized the face. He frowned as well.
“Kinski,” Lorenathalus said with no attempt to hide his displeasure.
“Lorenathalus,” the man said flatly. “What are you doing here? Aren’t you supposed to be on a mission?”
“I am on a mission.”
Kinski glanced at the dagger in the elf’s right hand. “I see. So you are. Is it a sanctioned mission?”
“Not by King Heinrich and the Guild.”
Kinski nodded in understanding. “ A personal mission, then.”
“Right. I’m not taking orders from the king and Guild any more. I’ve decided to quit and leave town. I was going to say farewell to the king first, then was going to tell you good-bye. But I suppose I can start with you first, since you’re already here.”
Kinski sighed. “It appears they were right after all when they told me I was a fool to leave you alive. But I really thought it would have worked out, since you were so young when we brought you here and began training you.”
Lorenathalus gave him a wry smile and raised his dagger before him in a ready position. “That’s the problem with trying to make a pet of a wild creature, Kinski,” he said. “There’s always the possibility that it might turn on you at any time.”
Kinski drew his sword from the sheath on his left hip. “You’re one to talk, Lorenathalus,” he snapped, “what with that wolf following you around all the time like a puppy.”
Lorenathalus gritted his teeth and scowled. “Anju is not a pet! He’s a friend!”
The elf slashed out with his dagger so quickly that Kinski did not have time to raise his sword to block. He barely had time to dodge. He twisted his head out of the way of the swift blade, but not far enough. The edge of the dagger caught his left cheek, leaving a slash from the corner of his eye to just above his chin. Kinski’s left hand reflexively raised to cover the wound and he narrowed his eyes at the elf smirking at him.
“Guards!” Kinski yelled, calling for backup, knowing he was no match for the elf’s speed by himself. “Intruder!” He raised his sword, intending to keep the elf occupied until the guards came.
Lorenathalus grimaced, his plan fallen all to pieces. He could take Kinski, but not before the guards arrived. He had to escape so he could try again later. But how? He quickly glanced around and spotted a large stained-glass window halfway down the hall. It’ll have to do, he thought. At least I’m not that far up. It’s only on the second floor.
“I swear,” he told Kinski, “one day I’ll make you pay. Both of you.” Then he slashed the dagger at the big man again.
Kinski blocked with his sword, catching the dagger near the hilt, and tried to push Lorenathalus back toward the stairs. The elf pushed back in return and kicked out hard with his right leg, hitting Kinski in the stomach with his foot. The big man gasped and stumbled backward. Lorenathalus dropped his dagger and took the opportunity to sprint past Kinski to the window.
A quick glance around revealed no way of opening the window, save for one – a large vase sitting on a stone pedestal nearby. Time was running out - he could hear voices and footsteps clambering up the stairs. Lorenathalus grabbed the vase and threw it at the window, shattering the glass, and jumped out the window just as the guards cleared the stairs and came into the hallway, Kinski in the lead. Shattered glass rained down around the elf in a rainbow of colors as he fell through the air and landed in a crouch in the courtyard below.
Kinski stared down from the broken window and watched the elf run away.
* * *
Dawn was just breaking when Loren awoke, finding himself stretched out on the ground atop his cloak. At first, he could not remember where he was. Then he saw the redheaded woman asleep on the other side of the dead campfire, and he smiled as it all came back to him. A quick glance around showed that Anju was gone, probably off hunting up some breakfast.
Loren sat up and quietly regarded the sleeping woman. As he watched her, he slowly rubbed the cross-shaped scar in the palm of his left hand, his dream still fresh in his mind. He could not figure out why he had dreamed about that unpleasant part of his past again, and so soon since the last time. Part of him felt it might be an ill omen, though. But an omen of what, he had no idea. He considered asking Althea, but that would mean revealing that part of his past he had so far managed to keep secret from her. The part he did not want to tell her. The part, he realized, that he was afraid to tell her. That was why he balked and changed the subject whenever she tried to get him to talk about his past. He was afraid to tell her. Afraid that, once she found out about him, she would send him away – and he did not want that. He did not want to lose her. She was his best friend. His only friend. Well, except for Anju, of course, but you cannot have a truly meaningful personal relationship with a wolf - not the kind of relationship that really mattered. But Althea was also more than a friend. She was also the closest thing he had to family now. Being with her, he felt like he belonged, like he was...home. It was a feeling he had not had in a very long time, and one that he knew he would not have if he returned to the elves. He had grown up with humans, and he would feel like an outsider among his own people if he went back to them. And that was only if they would even let him come back in the first place. Althea was all he had now, and he would do anything he had to in order to protect her – even if he had to protect her from himself and his past.
“It’s a little early for deep thoughts, isn’t it?”
The sudden, mocking voice startled Loren from his ruminations. He blinked and focused his attention on Althea, who he saw was now sitting up and stretching. “Oh, you’re awake?” he asked.
She gave him a wry smile. “And good morning to you, too, Loren,” she said sarcastically.
He smirked. “Sorry. Good morning, Althea.”
“Sorry I didn’t wake you earlier. I must have dozed off.”
“It’s all right. You probably needed the rest.” He paused. “It feels kind of funny, doesn’t it? Me waking up before you.”
She chuckled. “Yeah, it does a little.” Anju entered the camp then, licking his chops, and sat down beside Loren, who automatically reached out to pet the white wolf. Althea paid it no mind. “So tell me, Mister Early Bird, what were you thinking so deeply about?”
The elf shrugged. “Oh, it was nothing.”
Althea scowled. “Don’t lie to me, Loren,” she snapped. “I’ve never seen such a look of intense determination on your face before. You were definitely thinking about something serious and important.”
“When have you ever known me to have really serious thoughts?” he retorted. “If you really must know, I was thinking about how I’m going to do whatever I can to make your dream about the inn or tavern or whatever come true – even if I have to be used as a promotional tool.”
He’s lying, Althea thought. He’s balking again. He must have been thinking about something in his past again. I wish he would open up and tell me sometime. It’s obvious he had a traumatic experience in his past, but he can’t keep it bottled up forever or he’ll eventually snap. But she did not press the issue. Instead, she pretended to buy his lie. She gave him a pleased smile - it was a nice lie, after all. What she did not realize was that it was partly true . “Thanks, Loren. That’s really sweet of you to say.”
“Uh...yes...well,” Loren stammered, finding himself suddenly feeling flustered and at a loss for words for some reason. And was it his imagination, or did he feel his face grow slightly warm? He hoped he had not blushed. Quickly, he pulled himself together. “What do you say to a quick bite of breakfast, then hitting the road?”
Althea gave him a cryptic smile that he could not fathom. He hoped it did not mean that he actually had blushed and that she had seen it. “Sounds great,” was all she said.