Chapter 11 of my new book
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The young elf boy stood staring up at the castle looming before him. A slight breeze blew a few strands of white-blonde hair into his face and he reflexively brushed them back behind a pointed ear as he gazed at the architectural marvel. He had never seen such a large building before, since no such structures existed in the forest he had lived in. Made of rose-tinted marble, the castle gleamed in the afternoon light. The spires of the corner towers pierced the blue sky like fangs, and the open entry gate he stood before, with its doors open and portculis raised, seemed like a hungry mouth just waiting for him to go inside. A shiver ran down his spine at the thought and he reached out to the white wolf cub sitting beside him, placing his hand on its head for strength and comfort.
“Let's go,” said a gruff male voice impatiently from beside the boy. “The king doesn't like to be kept waiting, Lorenathalus.”
The boy looked up at the tall, dark-haired and bearded man standing next to him. He frowned slightly at him but gave him a nod of acknowledgment. “Yes, General Kinski,” he said grudgingly.
Kinski led the boy and wolf through the gate, the guards saluting Kinski as they passed before closing the doors behind them. The three made their way across the expansive courtyard to the main doors of the castle. The guards on either side of the oaken double doors saluted Kinski and opened the doors for them.
The trio crossed the threshold into the wide antechamber. Lorenathalus stared in awe around the brightly lit room, taking in all the colorful tapestries, burgundy drapes, and the large, crystal chandelier. There was a hallway directly ahead of them.. To his right were a couple of closed rooms, and to his left a carpeted set of stairs led to the second floor. Kinski grabbed his arm and pulled him along down the hallway. The wolf growled at the rough handling of the boy, but Kinski ignored it. The wolf trotted along behind them with a snarl on its lips that showed the tips of him white fangs.
The hallway ended at a large atrium, but the boy had no time to take a good look at it, as Kinski took him directly to a set of guarded double doors to the right. The guards saluted Kinski and opened the doors. The general led his charges into the throne room.
Lorenathalus gazed around him as he followed Kinski across the red carpeted floor to a dais at the far end of the room, where King Heinrich and his wife, Gertrude, sat on their gilded thrones. The spacious room was lit by three more crystal chandeliers, and more burgundy drapes covered the walls. Two rows of six stone pedestals each formed an aisle from the doors to the dais, and it was down this aisle that Kinski led the boy and wolf. Atop the pedestals were stone busts of King Heinrich’s predecessors.
When they reached the dais, Kinski bowed to the king and queen, but Lorenathalus just stood staring up at them. The white wolf sitting stoically beside him, his pale blue eyes locked on the king and queen and the pair of guards standing behind each monarch. On the wall behind them was a red tapestry with the king's seal of an upright bear facing a crouching lion embroidered in gold on it.
King Heinrich was a middle-aged man with shoulder-length brown hair. He wore a white silk shirt and burgundy leggings and doublet. A gold crown with emerald and rubys sat upon his brow. Gertrude, his queen, had long black hair and wore a dark green velvet dress and a silver tiara with diamonds and emeralds, and single large ruby in the center.
Seeing that the young elf boy remained standing, Kinski frowned and reached out to him, forcing him into a bow. Then they both stood up straight.
“My lord,” said Kinski, “I present to you Lorenathalus, the young elf we brought back from Farron Forest. It is my intention to apprentice him to the Assassin's Guild, if you approve.”
King Heinrich studied Lorenathalus for a few moments, then gave a slight nod. “I believe he would make an excellent assassin. You may apprentice him to the Guild, General.” Heinrich shifted his gaze to the wolf. “But tell me, why is that...thing...here?”
Lorenathalus stiffened at the condescending tone in Heinrich’s voice, but held his tongue.
“It's the boy's pet,” Kinskin replied. “He wouldn't go anywhere without it, and it would threaten us if we tried to separate them. So we thought it prudent to keep them together.”
“Anju is not a pet!” Lorenathalus finally spoke out, indignant at Kinski's description of the wolf. “He's my friend!”
Heinrich frowned at the outburst and Kinski turned to the boy, mouth open to scold him and hand raised to strike, but Gertrude spoke up. “Be at ease, General,” she said in a calm yet commanding voice. “He is but a boy and also new to our ways, and so he does not know any better. He will become accustomed to us in time.” She turned to Lorenathalus and smiled warmly at him. “Forgive the general for misspeaking, young elf. He is not familiar with your people and your relationship with nature. Perhaps you could explain to him about it sometime.”
Lorenathalus stared at her for a moment, surprised at the kindness and understanding she showed him. “Yes, Ma'am,” he said at last, and bowed to her without any prompting.
Kinski heaved a small sigh then turned back to King Heinrich. “By your leave, then, Majesty, I will escort Lorenathalus to the Guild and get him settled into his new home.”
Heinrich nodded and gave him a small, dismissive wave of his hand. Kinski turned and led Lorenathalus and Anju away from the throne room.
Loren's chocolate brown eyes snapped open. He looked around, still half asleep, and wondered where he was. The dream - or rather, memory - had been so strong and vivid, he somewhat expected to find himself back in his old room in the Guild barracks. By the dim light of early daybreak coming in through the window, he saw he was in his scantily furnished bedroom in Althea's tavern, and he sighed with relief. He was so very glad to see he was not back in Rahtzberg.
The elf sat up in bed, clad only in his brown pants, and found Anju asleep beside the bed. He smiled and leaned over to pet his furry friend. As he did, a knock sounded at his door.
“Loren?” Althea's voice called through the door. “Time to get up. Dani will be here soon and we need to start getting ready to open shop.”
“All right, Althea,” Loren called back as Anju yawned and stood up. “I'll be down in a couple of minutes.”
As Althea walked away, Loren got up and retrieved his white cotton shirt from the bureau. As he put it on and tied his hair back with a leather thong, he wondered why he had had that dream. It had been a long time since he had thought about his past, and now he had dreamt about it for the third time in just a few days. He felt there had to be some reason for him to be having those dreams, some meaning to them. Were they an omen? Or something else?
He sat back down on the bed and started putting his boots on. He got one on, and was about to put on the other when an image from the dream he had just had flashed across his mind – an image of Queen Gertrude and the tiara she wore.
The boot fell from his hand. “It can't be,” he said in disbelief.
He sat for a few moments, thinking. The tiara in his dream had matched Tarn's description of one of the ritual items they were after. But was it really the item they sought, or one that just happened to look similar to it? Or maybe he had just subconsciously added the tiara into his dream? He could not be certain just how accurate his dream was. But he had a feeling it was the real thing.
He also wondered if he should mention the dream to the others, since he was not absolutely sure about it. Maybe he should wait until he could be more certain of the tiara's presence in the Rahtz Kingdom? He also had to consider the fact that if he told them about the dream, then he would also have to tell them about his past, something he had managed to avoid talking about for years so far. Was he ready to reveal it yet?
Loren heaved a long sigh, unsure of what to do about the dream, then grabbed his boot off the floor and quickly slipped it on and stood up. There was one thing he was absolutely certain of: Althea would be very upset with him if he was late.
When Loren and Anju reached the pub proper, they found Tarn and Raven already seated at a table, but Althea was missing. Loren assumed she was in the kitchen, fixing breakfast. He and Anju joined the priest and mage at the table, but before Loren could sit down, a tentative knock sounded at the front door. Loren motioned for Anju to stay then went to answer the door.
Standing at the door was a young girl who appeared to be about sixteen years of age. Her auburn hair was done up in a bun and she had dressed sensibly in a simple white cotton shirt and brown muslin skirt. Having never seen an elf before, her blue eyes widened in awe at the sight of Loren. She quickly shook off her amazement and smiled at him. “Good morning,” she said cheerfully. “You must be Loren. Father mentioned you. I'm Dani. I'm going to be helping you out here, Father said.”
Loren returned her smile. “Good morning, Dani. We've been expecting you. Come in.” He stood aside, letting her enter the tavern, then escorted her over to the table where Tarn and Raven sat. “This is Dani,” he said. “She's going to help with the tavern. Dani, meet our friends Tarn, a priest of Samaryu, and Raven, a mage. And the wolf is Anju, my companion since I was a boy.”
Anju went over to Dani and sniffed at her for a few moments, then sat down in front of her, his tail whipping back and forth and a big, silly grin on his face. Loren laughed. “It looks like Anju likes you, Dani.”
She smiled and patted Anju on the head. “I've always had a way with animals. Maybe he could tell that about me.”
“Either that or you have some food hidden on you somewhere,” said a teasing voice from near the bar. Loren and the others turned to look.
Althea had just entered from the kitchen with a tray of fruit, cheese, bread, and a pitcher of water in her hands. Her long red hair was loose for a change, and instead of her usual travelling clothes of white shirt, leather vest, and breeches, she wore a simple green dress that offset her hair and accentuated her jade-green eyes as well as her curves. She still wore her boots, though.
Loren stared at her with his mouth slightly open, speechless for a moment. He had never seen her like that before and found himself hoping to see it more often. Althea gave him a small, wry smile, and Loren shook off his stupor. Finding his voice at last, he said, “Let me guess, Althea. That dress was what was in that package yesterday.”
“Correct. And I'm glad you like it, Loren,” she said with a wink.
Loren felt his face flush slightly. “Um, yes, well...” he stammered, suddenly at a loss for words again, and Tarn and Raven could not help smirking at his embarrassment. Raven was also a little impressed by Althea and her mischievous teasing of the hapless elf. The swordswoman had seemed like such a serious person, Raven had not thought Althea possessed such a playful side.
Taking pity on the flustered Loren, Dani grabbed him by the arm and settled him down into a vacant chair. Then she went over to Althea and took the tray from her hands. “Thank you, Dani,” Althea said as the girl turned and made her way back to the table.
As Dani placed the food on the table then went to get mugs from the bar, Althea walked over and sat down in the remaining empty chair. By then, Loren had finally managed to compose himself. “So, what prompted you to get the dress?” he asked as Dani passed around the mugs.
“Did you expect me to run the tavern in my leather armor? Just what sort of image would that create for this place, do you think?” She paused a few moments, during which time Dani brought a chair over and joined them at the table. “Besides,” continued Althea, “my clothing needs to be cleaned and mended, and I needed something to wear in the meantime.”
“I see. So it wasn't just for my benefit.”
Althea detected a hint of disappointment in his voice, and she cast him a questioning look. She opened her mouth to respond, but before she could say anything, a voice calling for Raven sounded in the room.
Dani looked around, confused as to where the voice was coming from and wondering if it might be the ghost that was rumored to haunt the pub. But noticing that the others at the table looked expectantly at the black-haired mage, she did the same.
“Sorry,” Raven said, apologizing for the interruption. Thenshe reached into a pocket of her black robes and brought out a small, round mirror. She said an arcane word, and Dani gasped as light suddenly glowed from the mirror. “What is it, Wren?” Raven said to the mirror as she set it down in the middle of the table so they all could see.
Dani gaped as the image of a young brown-haired girl not much older than herself appeared in the mirror. Behind her were some trees, making Dani think the girl was in a forest or some woods somewhere.
“I'm not interrupting anything, am I?” the girl asked.
“Just breakfast,” Raven replied. Her eyes narrowed as she took a good look at her student and noticed her haggard, tired appearance. “Are you alright, Wren?” she asked in concern.
“I'm fine. I've just been flying all night. I just now landed to take a rest and eat a little, then I'll get back in the air. But first, I wanted to report back to you.”
“Flying all night?” Tarn repeated with a hint of worry. “Why? Did something happen? You didn't get caught, did you?”
“No, Tarn. I didn't get caught. But I did want to put as much distance between me and the temple, in case they noticed later that I'd been there. And I'm trying to get back to you all as quickly as possible. If I fly as long as I can as a falcon, I can be in Maarkess in a day or two.”
“But why the rush?” Loren asked. “You did find the book, didn't you? Couldn't you just tell us what it says?”
Wren shook her head. “If I could read it, I would, Loren. But I can't. It's written in a language I'm not familiar with. I'm bringing it to Tarn so he can look at it. He might be able to read it.”
“I understand,” Tarn said. “I'll be ready when you get here. Thank you for letting me know, and for getting the book.”
“There's something else you need to know, Tarn. Usiah knows you're helping Althea, and he's not happy about it. He seems to think you're a traitor and is sending someone after you. Someone named Lenaeus, I think.”
Everyone stared at her in shock, and Tarn's jaw dropped. “Wh...what?” he stammered in confusion. “How...How did he...?”
Wren quickly explained what she had seen and heard in the hidden room. Then she added, “A couple of things I don't understand. What did he mean when he said you put them in jeopardy? And if he's able to see what you're doing, why didn't he know you had sent me to get the book?”
“Good questions,” responded Tarn. “I wish I knew the answers.”
“Well, he's obviously able to keep watch over you somehow, Tarn,” Althea said. “Considering some of the things Wren saw in the room, perhaps he was able to cast a spell on something in order to spy on you and then gave it to you? Is such a thing possible, Raven?”
Raven nodded. “An item for spying, able record sight and sound to be recalled later by Usiah, is certainly possible to create with magic. The subject being watched would alos have to keep the item on his or her person to be fully effective. What items did Usiah give you, Tarn? And have you not carried any of them on you since deciding to help Althea?”
Tarn thought a moment “Usiah gave me this medallion of Samaryu, just as he does to all the priests. I wear it all the time. Other than that, only the dagger was given to me, just before I left on my mission. Come to think of it, I haven't carried it on me since my first night here. I've left it in my bedroom, not seeing a need to carry it while I'm here.”
“That must be it. He enchanted the dagger so he could spy on you, and since you haven't carried it since you started staying here, he doesn't know you sent Wren after the book.”
“Makes sense. Do you think you could undo the spell, Raven? Since I'm being targeted now, I'd like to be able to use it if I need to, without worrying about being spied upon. Especially if Lenaeus is being sent after me. I know him. He's one of the best fighters at the temple and was also trained to be sent after Aerith's chosen avatar. Usiah chose to send me, though.”
“I think can help. I'll take a look at it later.”
“Thanks.” Tarn turned his attention back to Wren. “Is there anything else you need to tell us, Wren?”
The girl in the mirror shook her head. “No. That's all. But if I think of anything else, or if something happens before I get there, I'll contact you.”
Tarn nodded. “Very well. Eat and get some rest, then, Wren. And thanks again for your help.”
She nodded and said an acrcane word. Her image faded from the mirror, followed by the glow. Raven sighed and returned the mirror to her pocket. “So, what do we do now?” she asked, sounding somewhat dejected. “We don't seem to have made much headway, and now Tarn is in trouble, too.”
“Don't be so pessimistic,” Althea said. “We may not have accomplished much, but Wren is bringing us a book that might help, and she managed to warn us about Usiah. That's more than we had before. As for what we do now, I would have thought that was obvious: while we wait for Wren, we have a tavern to run. I didn't come here to this city and buy this place for nothing, after all. Now, let's eat, then get busy and get ready for lunch.”
They ate quickly. Then chairs scraped across the wood floor as Althea, Loren, Tarn, and Raven pushed their seats back and left to prepare for business. Dani remained seated, though, overwhelmed by all she had just been witness to and not really understanding what was going on. Her new employers and their friends appeared to be involved in something dangerous, but she had no idea what. She liked them, and wanted to help them if she could, so she tried to think if there was any way for her to do so.
“Dani, come on!” called Althea's voice from the kitchen door, snapping the young girl out of her ruminations and making her jump slightly in her seat. “I need your help in the kitchen!”
“Right! Coming, Miss Althea!” Dani called back .
She hurriedly gathered the dishes from the table and headed to the kitchen.
* * *
Wren woke a couple of hours before midday. She stretched out in the hollow between two large tree roots, where she had curled up to rest, then sat up. After only about four hours of sleep, she felt refreshed but not entirely rested. She reached into the small bag at her waist and brought out a handful of jerky and dried fruit. She ate quickly then took a small flask of water bag and drank a few swallows. It was hardly what she would consider a great breakfast, but it was enough to stave off hunger and give her some much needed energy.
Once Wren returned the flask to the bag, she stood up and chanted a quick spell. The resulting brief flash of light startled a squirrel rummaging in some nearby underbrush and sent it scrurrying up the nearest tree to chitter in alarm. When the light faded, Wren's human form had been replaced by a falcon.
The bird stretched its wings, flapped them a couple of times, then launched itself into the air.
Leaving the small forest clearing where she had stopped to rest, Wren flew south, following a well-traveled dirt road toward Maarkess. She stayed high up in the sky to avoid detection, in case she had been followed from the temple, although she had not noticed anyone following her.
She flew until late afternoon, then found a small clearing to take a brief rest in and eat a quick meal of more jerky and dried fruit washed down with a few swallows of water. Then she resumed her falcon form and took to the air again.
As dusk approached, she spotted something on the road a ways ahead of her. From her position, it looked like a bunch of ants on the road, but she knew it had to be a group of people, and they seemed to be moving rather quickly, most likely on horseback. Curious, she headed towards them while slowly drawing closer to the ground to get a better look.
As she got closer, she could see it was indeed a group of about a dozen men on horseback, riding single-file and at a brisk gallop. Wren flew a little ways ahead of them and alighted in a tree near the road so she could get a better look at them. As they drew near, she made note that they were soldiers dressed in armor, and their faces held looks of intense determination. She also picked up from them a sense that they were more than ready to fight at a moment's notice.
Wren focused her attention on the lead rider, whom she assumed to be the leader of the group. He had dark hair sprinkled with spots of grey sticking out from a helmet with a long tail of white hair seemingly sprouting from the top of it. A neatly trimmed salt-and-pepper beard covered his craggy face, except for where a scar ran down his left cheek, from the corner of his eye to just above his chin. Unlike his fellow soldiers, though, this man had a look in his dark eyes that spoke of eager anticipation mixed with bloodlust. She did not like the look one bit, and felt very sorry for whomever the man's target was.
Then Wren took notice of the second rider. Instead of armor, he wore a dark green priest's robe with its cowl up to cover his head and face. Even with her sharp falcon eyes, she could not see his face clearly, though she got the impression that it was not human. The rider grasped the horse's reins tightly with gloved hands, as if he was not comfortable riding the beast.
Wren had a bad feeling about the group and their presence on the road to Maarkess. So, as soon as they had gone a little ways passed her location, she flew after them, determined to find out more about them and their purpose.
Wren followed the group of soldiers until just after nightfall, when the lead soldier, the one with the scar on his face, called a halt and sent a couple of his subordinates to find a place to camp. Wren settled in a nearby tree to watch. The two soldiers returned a few minutes later and led the group into the forest. Wren followed them to a clearing not far from the road. She perched in a tree near the edge of the clearing, where she could watch them unobserved – all night, if need be.
The group tended to their horses before fixing a couple of small campfires, then split up between them for a quick meal. Afterwards, some of the soldiers left the fires to lean up against trees to sleep. Others remained by the fires for a little while, sharing stories and flasks of what Wren assumed was liquor of some sort, before also retiring for the night.
The green-robed person, after tending to his horse, forsook a fireside meal and instead sat down beneath a tree at the very edge of the camp. Wren watched him for a while, but all he did was just sit. He kept the cowl of his robe up, so Wren could not tell if he slept, or just watched the camp.
The scarred soldier watched over his men for a while, then assigned a few of them to keep watch over the camp at intervals during the night. Then he also retired to a tree to rest. Wren could hardly believe her luck when he chose the tree right next to hers.
The young mage watched the camp for a couple of hours, then felt herself growing drowsy. With nothing interesting happening in the camp, she thought it was probably safe enough for her to take a quick nap. She was just about to tuck her head under a wing when the man with the scar stirred and began to mumble in his sleep. Curious, Wren watched him.
“At last,” he mumbled, his hand unconsciously reaching up to touch his scar. “You won't escape me again, Lorenathalus. I will finally punish you, you filthy traitor.”
The man drifted back into sound sleep. Wren stared at him, confused by what she had just heard. He obviously held a deep, personal grudge against someone. Someone he considered a traitor. That was understandable enough. But the name he had said, Lorenathalus, had not sounded like a human name. Perhaps it was elvish, she mused. But why would this man being calling an elf a traitor? That made no sense to her.
Then a thought crossed her sleepy mind. She knew an elf. One who went by the name Loren. Could that be a shorted form of Lorenathalus? She was fairly certain it was. Which would mean...
Wren was not too sure what all it would mean, except that it probably was not good. But what she did know was that it meant Loren was in trouble. She rather liked Loren, based on what little she had seen and heard of him through the mirror, and she had to warn him and the others.
As quietly as she could, she flew from the clearing and back to the road, heading for Maarkess as quickly as she could.
In her hurry to leave, she did not notice the green-robed figure watch her leave.
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