tHE STORM SAGA V 2.1

Discussion in 'Original Works' started by AjaxTorbin, Mar 12, 2007.

  1. AjaxTorbin

    AjaxTorbin New Member

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    THE STORM SAGA V 2.1 aka much better version

    Though no one can go back and make a brand new start, anyone can start from now and make a brand new ending.
    Anonymous
    What lies behind us and what lies before us are tiny matters compared to what lies within us.
    Ralph Waldo Emerson



    PROLOGUE


    Two days ago
    The tree tops of the great green forest made no movement other than the
    wind, just as it should be. An observer would never guess that a there any movement in the forest, calming as it was for the long cold sleep of winter. No they would never guess that there was a creature moving at tremendous speed, leaping, dodging, swaying through the top branches faster that the swallows flight, nay disturbing a single twig, the only sign of his passing was the wake of air as he passed through. Faster even the quickest of his kinfolk, the rasarine, or wood elf, in the common tongue. He was named for this speed, even in his forgotten younger days he ran instead of walked, so Runner he was called. Reaching a break in the trees, pausing not for even a moment, he jumped the span, easily ten times his four foot height, six inch ears swiveling back tight against his head against the cold. Rolling with the bowing branch as not to break it he came to the trunk, darting a quick glance up it, he began to climb up, and up, for this was a great leviathan of the forest, a tree only found in the great deep places of the world, had it been in a normal forest it would have stood twice as tall as the tallest oak. Yet this was a sapling compared to the trees in the deep forest or the great oak, Ki’mura. Reaching the top he paused, there in the lightning split trunk was his camp, easily fitting in the small hollow, so huge were these trees there was enough room for even a couple of humans to lay down comfortably. Taking a longing look around he began to gather his meager things: a hand made knife, a length of tanned hide, several leather thongs, a few bits of dried venison and most importantly, his bow and four small throwing axes, held in a belt sling, which he fastened around his waist. He rolled the remainder into a deer hide that he’d been using as a bedroll, tying one of the leather thongs to the ends he slung the bundle over his shoulder and synched it tight to his back so it would not swing as he ran. The bow though, he held, inspecting its length once again, smiling he then slung that over his shoulder. Looking around one last time, and seeing no sign of his stay, he spoke for the first time in a month, “Lallareith mei sillion. Na’rull, et du corraln.” Or in the common tongue, [Farewell my friend. Thank-you for the protection.]
    Jumping up the side of the open top of the trunk he stood there, at the top of the forest, and breathed the cool fall air. Opening his eyes he looked to the north; home and warmth and friends awaited him there. Still smiling he started his journey.


    Four days ago
    Runner smiled to himself it had taken him two days to get here but he had arrived, cold, tired, hungry, and wet he was but this was his time, his day Today would shape the rest of his life. Life that was finally going well. A bow he now had, shaped by his own hand, but he did not bring it here, to the deep forest, in fact, he had brung nothing with him, indeed, he wore only a bu’cjan, in the traditional way, over a pair of tight shorts, open across the front, and held by a wide belt.
    The deep forest, he thought. He was not one to waste time, so he began his
    labor. First, he gathered stones, and clearing a circle from the leaves spread over the forest floor, he set them around the edge. Finding and collecting the proper branches, one from each tree in the area, stopping only to say a quick thanks to the spirits of each tree, he set the wood in the stone circle. Now was the hard part. Leaving his cleared circle he want deeper into the wood and searched. It took several hours to find it, but there, nestled in the cleft between two of the boulders that were strewn about the whole wood, was a scroll vine. He knelt in front of it and placed a hand on the base, giving a firm tug, it came free. He then began the long tedious process of removing the vine from its surroundings. It looked to an easy task but the rubbery tendrils were far more frail then they seemed. And every few inches there was a sticky pad that clung to whatever surface it touched. The process took several more hours but in the end he had the whole thing wrapped around his left arm, from his hand to his shoulder, even wrapped several times around his chest. Then with this sticky armor in place he went further into the forest. Here the sun was dim, filtered by the layers of branches reaching out from trees so wide one could not see around them. And here, growing under the drooping arms of a great pine he found what he sought, the iouxus plant. It was the leaves he wanted, he took two, being careful not to disturb the rest of the plant. He stuck the two leaves to a small bit of the scroll vine and made his way back to the circle.
    Kneeling in front of the circle he found two stones of the appropriate type and using dried leaves as tinder began to strike them together. In a few minutes he had a fire slowly spreading across the wood in the circle. After waiting until the flames were steady he made himself comfortable at its edge then pulling off the iouxus leaves with a bit of scroll vine still attached, holding this with one hand he found another rock, this one about size of his hand with a flat side, he set the rock near the flames, flat side up, he took a smallish branch and drug some embers out from the fire, piling them around the stone, being careful not to let flame touch it. He sat like that for a few minutes, staring into the smoldering embers as the sun set behind him, deepening the shadows of this already shadowed land.
    When the sun was trying vain to cast a few more rays of light over the land
    he held out his hand, still holding the vine/leaf mixture, and dropped it on the flat surface of the now hot stone. It began to smolder almost instantly, sending up thick clouds of billowing smoke, which he leaned into, breathing deeply.
    He was falling, no, he was flying. He saw the whole of Raydawn forest below, the great oak, Ki’mura, in the middle of Silverfall village; to the east, the guardian mountains; the west, Hasmuta plateau, the Silver Falls themselves cascading down the side flowing into the Silver river that bisected the forest. But the image was fleeting, and it retreated under him, falling away, now he saw the world, its vastness surprised him, there were to many things, too many places to count or recognize. Here he floated, until he could feel that his body was not his, looking down he saw
    that he was a whirl-wind, a vortex of wind and dust. Now looking back at the lands spread below him, he saw other winds, other storms. Out over the great endless ocean twin typhoons moved with cautious haste, the water swelling and moving beneath them. On the land, a tornado, wide and powerful, moving slowly, containing itself, wanders from mountain to mountain, down a range in the north. On a wide spit of land, near a large inland sea, a tempest , young and unrestrained, spread itself onto the world. But, here, what was this? What at first he thought to be a body of water, was not, it was hurricane, older than all other storms, moving so slowly it cold barely be seen to be moving. What more, the very land could not stop this storm, it went where it pleased. Looking about he saw other, lesser storms throughout the land, from dust devils to what were barely strong winds, but each had an effect on the currants that turned the world. He looked at this sight for he knew not how long, time had no meaning here. But as he saw what there was to see, he felt a wind above him and, looking up, he gasped, above the world a massive storm was gathering, but this unlike the rest was dark, evil, growing and gathering its strength. Dark wicked bolts of lightning shot from cloud to cloud, some, he saw now, struck the land, leaving in their wake maelstroms of destruction that tore at the very foundations of the land, the glorious feeling he’d had was replaced with fear, and he looked towards . . .

    And Runner woke, the fire having long since smoldered into embers.
    Something from the back of his mind called out, there was something he’d seen in that last second of the vision that terrified him, but he cold not recall. But the thought was shot from his mind as the first light of dawn cut through the forest canopy and warmed his face. I am of the storm? He thought. It was strange. A watchers spirit guardian was usually some sort of animal totem, not a, a thing. The raisarine had rune totems for all the creatures and many for things, usually related to magic. But there was more than one for storm. But he clearly remembered he was a whirl-wind, the least of the storms, but in the rune markings it was the basis for the other storm signs, every thing else was built upon it, so to speak. He now knew what he must do. He began to remove the scroll vine from his arm, an easier task now, thanks to his sweaty skin. When he had it coiled on his lap he broke a small length off. Taking a small stone he began to pinch small bits off the sides, sap oozing out the wounds. He set the length on te still hot rock from last night, the sap hissing and popping at the heat. After a moment he removed the vine from the stone a took more bits off, setting it again on the stone. He repeated this several more times until he was satisfied with the shape and then left it on the warm stone. Taking up the unused length of scroll vine he paused a moment, here was the real test; scroll vine was grown by spell weavers for many things and he had used it, or its byproducts often. But this time was different, the vine had a unique property, when heated sufficiently, it would grow, not straight but in curls, weaves, rapping itself around whatever it touched. But if you got it hotter still, when it wrapped itself it would leave dark blueish markings on the skin, permanent markings. Each elf who wanted to become a watcher of the wood, the rangers and scouts of the raisarine, had to apply the scroll markings, called Ooram, or ‘spirit wards’ , to his left arm. Each was unique, the vine would wander over the skin joining where it touched, and weaving a random pattern. There was no rule as to the length, but a longer one was considered lucky to its bearer. Steeling his resolve he began to stir the embers, getting them hotter, and hotter until, steeling his
    resolve, grabbing the coiled stack, he thrust his vine wrapped left hand into
    the red hot embers, the pain threatened to overwhelm him, but he pulled his had back out of the intense heat and watched, holding back a yell, as the vine quickly spread over his arm, coiling up, he let out a small gasp as it did not stop at the elbow, as most did, no, it went higher not stopping at the shoulder either, it went up toward his face, he thought for a moment it would touch his eye, but it only left a small spiral behind it before moving for his left ear wrapping around its full six inch length, by now though it had cooled enough so it did not hurt much, but it held enough heat to leave faint blue markings there. Moving his arm he knocked loose the blackened crust left there by the vine and looked at the design for the first time. It started with solid blue, almost black, completely covering his left thumb, there went into the weaving designs it was known for all along his arm, but at his elbow it merged into two thick tendrils which wrapped their way up his upper arm, only sending small spiraling offshoots at a few points,. At his shoulder they broke up, sending a cris-cross pattern, like a thatched weave, covering the whole, all the way to the shoulder blade. It was but a small tendril that had worked its way up his face and though he could not see it, he could feel the heat where it left its mark. Ignoring the aching tender skin, he reached for the carved bit that had been smoldering on the stone, seeing that it was the proper shape, he pressed it hard to his cheek, just under his eye and just before his ear, pulling it quickly away he rotated it a hundred eighty degrees and pressed it again, just under the first, so they formed what looked like two interlocking talons, the sign for vortex and storm in the rune alphabet of his people. Falling back, his work done, he let the pain overcome him and knew no more for a time.


    Fifteen days ago
    Runner was beginning to worry, he had been unable to find the branch that would become his bow. He had caught and killed a small Mauler, a beast with a thin yet tough hide, he now wore the armor he had made from its skin, but that had been nearly a week ago. Of course he found lengths that would work, but this was to be his bow, his companion on the trails as he went about his duties as a watcher of te wood. And he had to fined the branch. But the sun was falling toward the horizon and the light was growing too dim to search by. But as he turned, there it
    was. It was an old tree, a Tilltharan Narune, or ‘wizards ash’, it had a great darkened scar from a fire down its length. And right next to the mark there was a branch, it was burned and blackened at the base, from the same long ago fire that left the scar. Approaching the base of the massive, at least, fifty paces around, he set a hand on the trunk. I come to you, spirit of this tree, grant me a boon. Allow me take of you a branch. So that I may live, so that I may protect that which I love and so I may guard this wood from all that would threaten it. He stood there all night, but in the morning, he had his limb, and for the first time was at peace in this dark wood. And at the end of seven days labor, he had his bow.


    Twenty-eight days ago
    His betrothed, Raishidda, her father and half of Silverfall village showed up to see him off, much to the consternation of Sighter Tierrughn, his mentor in the watchers. Today he set off to see if he could join the ranks of the Watchers, guardians of Raydawn forest. He had only some simple clothes, and his weapons of choice, four small axes, no more was allowed, and the axes were bound with a spell that would inhibit their use until he was done with what he had to do, until he was adorned and armed as a Watcher. Each of the well-wishers clasped his hand to theirs except
    Rai, she kissed him on the cheek, to the good natured jeering of the others, and the feigned disinterest of her father. Taking her hands in his, he said in their flowing tongue, [I will see you with the next moon]. She replied, smiling that sparkling dawn bringing smile of hers, [I will be here]. He stepped back, looking at his friends for a moment, then turned and left, without another word.



    Five years ago
    [where have you gone? Where is the one called Runner? The one who was my friend?] she paused, looking at Edileon Ra’orn son of Kar’haust and Il’Sillin, then went on after she saw that she held his attention, [That spark, the wry humor under the timidness? All I see is an empty shell devoid of aspiration, just going through the motions of life] with that, the one called Raishidda stormed off.
    She’d had enough of this moping about feeling sorry for himself, it had been four months since runner had woken from the sleep of the lost soul, other races sometimes called it a ‘coma’. And that made only four months of life that Runner could remember. For the same attack that claimed the lives of fifty rasarine, including his entire family, had also claimed his memory. Including the fact that he was to be married to her. Every time she looked at his face, an unbearable sadness threatened to overwhelm her. But the elders decided that information should be held from him. A marriage was an important thing to a rasarine, especially one such as theirs was to be, one of love, that chance meeting of hearts, not the arranged marriages commonly made to join clans, or propagate the species. It was supposed to be the union of their two souls, but Runners’ had been on what they believed to be a journey outside the body, and he might have changed. So they, and she, waited, to see if any part of the old Runner would return. But she was never one to wait.

    Runner recoiled from the verbal chastising he just been given as she stormed off. He was angry, so he did what he always did when he felt that way, since he was a boy, though he did not remember, he ran. Deep into
    the wood and there upon the banks of a quiet stream he thought. Sitting there on the bank he considered the past four months, and saw that other than his attitude, they had been good. And that’s all it takes, he suddenly realized, choice, how do I choose to live, will I live in a past that I can not change? Or will I move on, will I make new memories, better memories? Looking up he saw that the sun was setting, and made his choice, with this day’s end, so does my past, He thought. I will honor its memory by building a good future. And as the last ray of light sparked the darkening sky, he got up to go live life, and not just live.


    Four years ago
    He sat by her in on the hill over looking the valley, the whole of Raydawn spread out before them, and working up the courage to broach the subject that was the reason he’d dragged her way out here. [Rai, I went to speak to your father today, and he,] he paused, looking into her deep azure eyes, the prefect counter to her red hair, not the red that was seen often in the dwarves, but bright and deep like a rose in the sun, and as she leaned closer to him it seemed to shimmer and fade into orange and then back again. She was named for that strange shining hair, Raishidda meant in the old tongue, dawning child. [he told me of our past.] he finished, breaking the gaze.
    [And what did you say?] she asked, looking back in his brown eyes.
    Looking back in those deep eyes, he said, [I told him that I have had the good fortune to fall in love with you twice]
    [Welcome back, my Sleep Runner] she said as they both began to weep tears of joy.


    One day ago
    Runner had spotted a taller than average tree and on impulse climbed it to get the view. He had several days to get back before the next moon so he planned to take his time and enjoy the last days of fall. This is

    almost as good as our hill, he thought looking to the north and home. To bad Rai’s not-, but he never finished the thought, what a first he’d thought to be a cloud, was, he saw as he looked closer, smoke? But why- then it hit him. No. No. Not again. He dropped from the tree in one great leap, slowing his fall by catching his bundle on a branch which then lowered him to the ground. Hitting the dirt hard, he rolled up, already running. His bundle forgotten behind him.
    He ran, faster than he ever had, he ran until he could no more, but kept going, Long into the night, lungs threatening to burst.


    Two hours ago
    he reached the edge of the village and collapsed in a wheezing, heaving pile, still trying to crawl towards the smoldering village. He made a few feet before finding the first body. He could not tear his eyes from the grisly sight but it gave him new strength, and he stood. Forcing his gaze to the town below, he saw orcs and men and goblins, rummaging through his home. Looking back down at the body he saw an arrow sticking out of the mortal wound. Taking his bow off his back, he pulled the arrow from his kinsman, and nocking it, he took aim at the closest orc.
    It flew true. It never even knew it was dead. taking a step forward he pulled another arrow from an elf and killed another. And again. And again. And another. He did not know how long he did that, time meant nothing, but next he knew he was in the village and they were charging him. Dropping the bow he drew an ax, and threw it. Imbedding it hilt deep in the head of a human. Then they were upon him.
    Moments later he stood, still gasping for breath, near a blood soaked banner, their banner, the blood of his enemies soaking him he stood and stared at it, grey and red with three slash marks in the center, one curved, one ragged and one straight. Looking past the banner he saw a looming shape, a half burnt, but still standing tree. The spellweavers tree, he thought, it yet stands. Focusing everything he had left on this kernel of hope he moved towards the huge willow tree. There he found signs, the tracks of many elves, escaping out the back, into the forest.


    One hour ago
    He had found them. And he knelt weeping, in the middle of the ring of bodies. She is not here, she is not here, he thought over and over again. Where, where would she go? He looked around for tracks, and stopped, head snapping up, The hill, our hill. He ran.
    Reaching the top he stopped, a font of hope rising, a shadowy figure sat there. Rai Rai , he called. The figure turned, and it was It was her He reached out a hand for hers, and it passed through it. He looked down at his hand in shock,
    What? He fell to his knees and tried to grab her shoulders, but lost balance and fell as he once again passed through her.
    He rolled a few feet and hit something soft, looking at it he cried out in surprise, Rai? He put a hand on the body, two arrows sticking out from the chest. It was her. He looked back at the ghostly figure on the hill. She was there too. He stared, ears folding back in disbelief , [No, no.] he tried to touch her face, making no contact once again. He sat there, hand shaking in the cool air. As the ghost of Raishidda stared back.
    Pulling his hand away he stood turning to face the village once again. No, he swore firmly. Looking into the village he saw the great oak, Ki’mura, the heart of the forest where the spirit of Raydawn lived, and knew what he must do. Walking with steady determination he went there.

    Now
    The wizard’s men had done exactly what they’d promised, the spells they put on the raiders had given them the edge that they’d needed. The elves were the undisputed masters of the bow, but their short stature meant that their bows were shorter and that meant less range. So the elves of the wood used trickery and ambushes to get in range. None in the entirety of known history had ever defeated them while they were in their woods, till now. With the help of the spell casters and special troops their employer had given them. And now the loot was theirs, minus the rock from that huge tree that was the wizard’s desire and payment. And he could keep the rock for all they were concerned the real prize was the store of weave metal that was in the main village. And the scouts, the same one’s that delivered the wizard’s trophy to his agent, reported that the advance force had already taken it, easily. It was mostly women and elders this far into the wood and they’d already killed everything in the outlying towns so the entire force was marching to what they’d heard called ‘silverfall village’. The column, some two thousand men orcs and goblins, marched down the middle of a natural clearing on a hill just above the town and just when they’d reached the center a cry went up from the front ranks. What leaders that were to be found in this ragtag bunch went to the fore of the line, there they saw what had started the cry, one of the wizard’s magic banners hung snapped, in the center of a line of corpses. One of the commanders recognized the wounds on bodies as made by one of the elves broad bladed fighting axes. Immediately a call for skirmishers went up any they searched the place. One thing though bothered the commanders, why were there no elf bodies? Not a single elf body could be seen. But the scouts reported that there had been a fight with spell casters in middle of the village. And it looked as if someone had dragged bodies from other places too. It was as the stood and wondered what had done such a thing that they got their first warning. It was the death screams of the skirmishers they’d sent out. Next it was the archers, in the rear of the line that yelled, then were suddenly quiet. Then it rose from the ground, pulling itself from the dirt like a tree uprooting itself. Its shape was that of a man but it was more than twice the height and composed of thick branches and vines with a thick layer of bark-like skin. It raised an arm thick as man’s chest but gnarled and twisted, ending in four claws, it struck the line of troops like a wave, washing everything out of its way. Anything that was unlucky enough to have survived was quickly clawed in half, or snapped like a twig. The remaining archers shot it, arrows pelted at it like steel rain, the ones that stuck doing no perceivable damage, it roared at the shooters, launching an arm out toward them, the ground beneath their feet erupting in showers of roots that impaled them from beneath. By now the marauders were to afraid to fight in any sort of organize way. They retreated, trying to escape this monster in their midst, but it was to fast, too powerful. Their retreat turned into a rout, but how do you run from wrath? Some tried to fight it, but what use is steel to harm rage. A few had guns, but how do you shoot fury? The few mages left cast spells at it, but what use is magic against destruction given form?
    Right before it cut them down, some would plead for mercy, but vengeance knows not mercy. But the ones that pleaded, right before it mowed them down, saw a pair of sorrowful brown eyes, staring at them with intense hate, and they knew that none would survive this night.

    At the crest of a hill over looking the village an intangible figure stood, once bright hair now a shadowy grey like the rest of her, unmoving in the wind. She stood and watched the slaughter. And she wept.
     
    Last edited: Mar 12, 2007
  2. AjaxTorbin

    AjaxTorbin New Member

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    CHAPTER ONE

    The tower stood leering over the river, a dark edifice climbing up from the green forest below. It was made from a unique stone known as blood obsidian after the light red streaks running through it like veins.
    This tower, Greagonath, stood for over three millennia, passing through many masters, wars of men, and the very encroachment of time. Many attempts to break its walls had been made, all have failed. With the one exception of the south wall, fifth story balcony, where some unknown force had ripped the structure from the side, leaving a gaping hole and lines of fractures spreading for a great length from the center, not a divot, chink or blemish could be found. The power needed would have been great indeed to do such damage; there had been many attempts to recreate the destruction but none have left even a scratch. So why did Gregory Waintree, the currant master of the tower feel that the pure frustration now emanating from him could sunder the tower from within?
    Striding quickly along a wide ornate corridor that was almost too garish and wide to have that name he called to the armored figure walking several paces back on his left.
    “You’re sure she’s not dueling with your men?”
    “Yes, sir, I checked the fields, barracks and stables myself. She’s not with my men. I even checked with those new men the duke sent, she is not on the grounds or the lower floors.”
    Waintree sighed but did not slow his hurried pace barely pausing as he threw open the great doors at the end of the hall startling the occupants, mostly students studying over tomes; not an odd thing as this was the main library. Some of the younger ones looked up and stared as the headmaster of the school strode to the center of the room followed by a fully armed Knight of the kings guard. Ignoring the curious stares he gruffly asked over his shoulder, “So which one was it captain?”
    “There sir.” was the reply as the knight stepped forward and pointed off to the left at several wide doors placed unobtrusively between two of the massive shelves. “In one of the private study rooms.” was the unneeded finish.
    “Show me.” He tartly responded.
    “Yes, sir.” letting his arm fall the captain approached the door on the far right, opening it with soft clunk.
    Entering the room right behind him, Waintree saw first two guards, dressed in the same blueish armor as the captain; which signified them as Kings guard, but instead of gold braid and edging theirs was edged in the crimson denoting a simple trooper. If simple could be used to describe the best equipped and trained unit in the whole Tanton army.
    The troopers stepped aside exposing a view of the room, elegant furnishings, low shelves and tasteful artwork hanging from the walls.
    A large window, panes hanging open, afforded an expansive view of the surrounding countryside and sitting at a table set against the window, was what appeared to be a young girl, no, woman, still young but definitely not a girl anymore. Waintree sighed again, mentally this time, Eileen would always be his little goddaughter, but he could no longer deny that she was a woman, young, strong and hotheaded. Favors her father, this one does.
    When King Michael, his dear departed friend, married Lady Rebecca, none had foreseen what a chore any offspring would be. It should have been obvious, brash king with a certain charisma that made men want to follow, marries intelligent, iron willed and devious woman, was it any surprise they imparted those qualities to their offspring?
    Mentally sighing again, I suppose those are good qualities in a queen but for a young princess it has been the cause of many ailments and chest pains. He moved to the studying ‘girl’ and waved his hand through the illusion. Damn it, he thought, here is a girl with no magical talent at all, no mind for the tedious memorizing that is the art of wizardry, no innate magic power, and yet somehow she got a hold of a illusion spell accurate enough to allow its ‘hair’ to blow in the wind. He didn’t think she got it from one of the other students.
    Magic was volatile, an item made by one person wouldn’t necessarily work for someone else. There were many factors, but an item first had to be strong enough to withstand the powerful forces being channeled into it, then the caster had to have the proper focus and be able to imbue far more essence than normally used to cast the spell. And none had ever heard of a sorcerer able to imbue, they were themselves ‘magic items’ and their energies were far to unrestrained to focus properly.
    Searching the chair he found a small copper coin stuck to the bottom, actual copper, he noted feeling the coin slide through his fingers. This far from Tanton itself, the ‘real’ coins were far more common than the paper scrip issued from royally authorized banks. Copper, the proper material for illusions, so she has learned something. She was the worst student he’d ever had, at least when it came to the actual study of magic, she was exceptional with the other subjects they taught here.
    This was a magic school, but what use was a mage who could cast a fireball but didn’t know where, or when, to cast such a thing. So Waintree had taken a more expansive approach to the teaching of spell casting, they taught mathematics, history, science, the social graces and tactics. That last to the consternation of some who worried that he was building a private army. It was just basic battlefield tactics but it was enough to get some citizens to become outraged that there was a private ‘war-mage school’ only a weeks march from Tanton. Those accursed rabble-rousers didn’t seem to realize it would be suicide to march a troop of wizards against Tanton, the army with real battlecasters and real swords backed by real cannon would tear any such force apart. Magic was still feared by the common man but that was changing, several generations ago a wizard had to be authorized by the state to even practice his craft. Sorcerers had it much worse, they were nearly slaves to the kingdom. Tanton had been a major exception to that rule and so always tended to have a large magus population but they were still watched with a wary eye by the other residents. That was why out here away from any main centers of population he had thought to be left alone to teach, but that very seclusion which attracted him in the first place now worked against him, ‘what was he doing here away from prying eyes?’ was the common fear.
    So imagine his surprise when he was asked to teach the heir to the Tanton throne, the daughter of one of his closest friends, his goddaughter, whom the regent, Arch Duke Kellon Donovan, had banned from visiting him. He still saw her on his yearly business trip to the city, but the Dukes distrust of magic had limited anything else. The princess had gleefully disobeyed that order and any others he gave, as often she could and had eventually made him wash his hands of the whole thing, to Waintree’s delight. However, when she showed up on his door step with the entire Kings Own regiment and letter ordering him to teach her the social arts and to, “teach her to behave like a woman of her station.” it wasn’t till she’d arrived that he had finally seen the reason, it was an excuse to park a regiment on his grounds, the princesses ‘guard’. But it was there the Duke had made his mistake, the Kings Own, and in particular the Blue Helms, the unit that actually provided the bodyguard for her highness, was particularly loyal to the Tanton family line. Granted, the Tanton name had been lost thanks to Markus the third’s lack of a son, but the princess was a direct bloodline to Markus’s eldest daughter, Beatrice Tanton Donovan, Queen of Tanton. But the name itself was secondary to loyalty of the Kings Own and they took their orders from the throne and not the Marshal of the Army or the city council or for example, say, a reagent to the throne. Which meant her highness had a hundred highly trained, well equipped knights at her call, right outside the tower. Waintree smiled at what would happen if the Duke tried to order them to do anything untoward to the princess. And not only that, he had also under estimated Waintree’s own connection to the guard. But he dismissed the thought, Kellon was power hungry but not stupid, the populace liked the royal line and were protective of the heirs, for the Tanton line had history of siding with them and not the lords of the realm and if the princess disappeared there would be a angry populace and not mention the army and council asking questions.
    Getting back to the business at hand, he palmed the coin deactivating the image cast onto it, and leaned out the window, for that was the only way out besides the door and the guards would have caught that. And yes, there it was, a length of rope tied to a gargoyle. Looking down he saw that she didn’t climb the rope the whole twenty seven stories, there was just enough to reach the balcony two floors down. From there she could just change her clothes and walk out with staff as they were going about their chores.
    “Captain,” he started when he’d pulled himself back in, “when did she come up here?”
    “According to trooper Greigshiff here,” he replied nodding at the named trooper, “ she came here right after the midday meal.” he went on,
    “Smart that, it’s the day off, and she knew no one would miss her till dinner was called.”
    “I’m sorry, magus,” intoned trooper Greigshiff, “we checked in on her through out the afternoon, but she’d asked not to be disturbed so we would just look in on her.” he pointed to the other trooper, “And Illkes and me here thought she was studying for that history essay due in the morn’.”
    “No trooper, you have no need of apologizing, you had know way of knowing, and it was her habit to leave papers till the last hour.” He continued, “Youthful high spirits and the traditional Tanton disdain for rules is to blame here. I know of more than one Tanton who would escape their confines on such a fine autumn day.” He turned toward the captain who was now standing with his head out the window gazing down, “Captain, go ahead have your men do one more sweep of the grounds and send a patrol to the village downstream, but don’t be too obvious about it, that major Rineholt was asking some rather pointed questions earlier and I’d rather avoid a confrontation.”
    Pulling himself back in he barked out orders, “Illkes, Greigshiff, go tell Sargent Roulk to organize it. If any one asks its practice in case we get visiting dignitaries. An assassin sweep. ” The two saluted, chorused their yessirs, and smartly marched from the chamber.
    After they left, Waintree spoke again to the captain, “What do you think Argyle?”
    “I think she went to see him, Gregory. He was here and now she’s not. And we need to find them before anything happens.”
    “Oh, come now Argyle, you of all people should know he’s more than capable of protecting her, and not to mention her own capabilities.”
    “Don’t come on now me, Greg, it was only luck that we got out of the scrapes we got in when we were with him, we should have been injured, or worse, a thousand times over.”
    Humph. “Do you think her father would have been half the man he was with out those misadventures? Do you think we would be half the men we are? Yes we were young reckless and foolish but the mistakes of youth become the wisdom of age. What more can we teach her? The only thing I have left to show her is magic , and she has not the temperance for it. What more I heard she’s been beating you fairly regularly in the dueling ring.”
    “But she’s still so young. And-”
    “Young? Michael was barely seventeen, and we no more than sixteen when we first met him. Four years her junior, three for Michael. No my friend, it is time to for her to learn in the most important school of all, the great wide world.”
    “You always were too smart by half Gregory.” It was the captains turn to sigh now. “Its not that I worry for her safety, he can see to that, its just that with all that’s going on and those new men the Duke sent, something doesn’t add up; no that’s not it, its just there’s something going on and I can’t spot it. You know how I don’t like unknowns.”
    I know what you mean, I don’t like this ‘Royal Guard’ unit he sent us anymore than you but they haven’t done any thing but mill about and there’s only fifty of them, less than half your regiment. Still, I would like to keep this from them. Is Mika still available?”
    “Sargent Dieter? Yea, she’s still part of ‘A’ group. Wait, nooo, not tha-” Captain Argyle stopped again as Waintree interrupted.
    “Yes Captain, ‘that’. I assume she’s hasn’t suddenly physically changed?”
    “No, still short, testy and a ringer, especially with your ‘enhancements’, but I don’t know how long we can keep it up with those reds around.” He answered using the Kings Own term for the Royal Guard, so named for their crimson armor.
    “It should suffice for now. Have her get ready though, it never hurts to have a cover story in place. What was it he used to say? ‘Better a story in place and not needed than needed and not in place.’ I suppose it’s hoping too much that nothing else will happen to feed this fire?”
    “Of course something will, the young ‘oft time these things to occur at the worst possible times.”
    “That they do my friend, that they do. I just hope we can withstand this one.”


    * * *


    Some leagues away the object of their detriment was making great time toward the village of Southford. Having long since shed her maid’s frock disguise and retrieved her hidden cache she was now clothed in a much more practical pair of jodhpurs, heavy blouse, and great coat. Her long dark blond hair was contained under a scarf and she wore a thick muffler around her neck. All in all she was quite pleased with herself at the escape, the only problem now was to make the village by sundown. It normally wouldn’t be a problem, as it was only three leagues from Greagonath but she had opted for a safer if more time consuming route. She had circled around and was now approaching the village from the opposite side. Finding the road hadn’t been the hard part was that it was edging on fall, the cold north winds had begun to blow and an early cold snap had come in on its fore and she knew if she got caught out after sunset she would have a much harder time finding the village. She had begun to worry as the sun dropped below the horizon, but they had been dismissed when she spotted the first town lights a few moments ago and it was with a renewed spring in her step that she made her way through the empty windblown streets down to the tavern near the wharf, the Fishes Head. And there a long two story building with a carved fish head hanging over the door stood, dark against the murky river water behind it.
    He’d been waiting an hour, the dark hooded figure in a corner of the Fishes Head. The other patrons would dart wary glances toward him out of the corners of their eyes but it was not for his looks they stared, indeed, not even the barmaid that served his, now only half drunk, ale saw his face. And it wasn’t that either, taverns like this were used to cloaked characters hiding in their corners, no, it was the sword he’d had on his back when he’d entered that piqued their curiosity. Now slung over the back of his chair, within easy reach, it was at least three feet long, its actual length was hard to judge because of the sheath that covered half of it, but with length all similarity with a normal sword ended. Instead of a plain blade it had a long triangular blade that started out needle sharp but rapidly grew to about six inches wide at the point where lines from the three tips met. At the point where the smallest and medium sides met there was a hilt that went out at a forty degree angle to main point of the blade. Opposite that was the point of the short and long sides which formed a ‘y’ shape with the hilt. It’s shape had more in common with a pistol, if one knew about such exotic weapons, than a proper sword.
    The hooded man normally would have gotten just the stares but the local toughs were prowling for a fight and knowing better than to start one with their neighbors, saw him as the perfect opportunity. And after enhancing their mood with some beers began to heckle the hooded man. Again he might have left well enough alone if it were left at that. A few calls saying that his sword wasn’t fit for a man, and then questioning that very same manhood were ignored, and so were the challenges to fight. But when Voran, the default leader of the little group, leaned down into the strangers face and stated, spittle flying out from a mostly toothless mouth, a thick brougish accent making him all the harder to understand, “You keep ignoring us and I’ll ‘ave to teach you lesson in hoomility, little man.”
    Looking up the hooded man replied as the left side of his mouth curled upward in a vicious smirk, “I’m sorry, but I have a tendency to ignore the prattling of drunken deviants with delusions of grandeur. Now leave me be before you do something you’ll regret in the morning.”
    “Now you look-” no one ever heard where to look because as he spoke Voran started to grab the strangers cloak. His hands never made it. In one smooth motion the hooded man unsheathed his sword and spun off his chair and the next thing anyone knew the tough at Voran’s left had the point of the sword touching the base of his neck and the shorter point was set on Vorans neck. As this new arrangement was sinking in to their alcohol clouded minds the tough to Vorans right some how got the foolish notion in his head to draw a dagger, but the motion was barely in its infancy when there was a quick flash and this one had a short dagger poking at his rib cage. Looking down he saw the left arm of the stranger twisting the dagger against his shirt. Dropping his own weapon he looked back up at the stranger who’s hood must have fallen during the movement. He could see now that the stranger had a slightly narrow, grim set face, cheek bones visible just under his steel blue eyes. A scar ran down from his left temple to his cheek, bronze skin turning pale near the old wound. But it was the strangers’ ears that drew his attention, and the attention of everyone else in the tavern for that matter, they were pointed. They slowly tapered up from beneath the line of his black hair ending in fine points that swept upwards about three inches later.
    “Well, you were right about my blade not being fit for a man. You incompetent fools wouldn’t know how to handle a Dar’sha.” He paused, looking in the eye of each man and holding his stance for at least a minute before going on, “ So, my somewhat inebriated friends, what happens next is placed in your hands, we can stand like this all night; and I assure you I can do just that, you can make your excuses and retire for the night or your three friends approaching from the rear can continue to draw their weapons and I can kill you three and end up presenting the same question to a new audience.” at that last the three under blade point looked over the elf’s shoulder and sure enough the other three members of their group were approaching from behind him, having used the stairs to go up one side of the tavern, walk the hallway on the second floor where the rooms were and down the opposite stairs beside the bar, right behind the elf.
    Having heard them stop in surprise when he mentioned them, the elf addressed his ‘stealthy’ would be attackers, “I quite assure you, your friends will be dead, or at least seriously injured before you had even cleared your sheathes.” It held like this for almost another minute, the three under blade, the three would be ambushers and every patron in the bar hanging on what the elf would do next. It well likely could have held like that all night, tension thick enough to cut, but at that moment the action (or lack there of) was interrupted by the door to the tavern flying open, caught by the cold wind it slammed against the wall with a shuddering bang; sizing up the newcomer they saw a young woman, she was medium height, medium build, rather plain actually. More importantly though everyone inside was distracted for that split second, everyone that is, except the elf and the three toughs behind him. None saw what happened next for it took place in the split second they all looked toward the door but when they looked back the elf was back in the same stance with his blades at the throats of his would be assailants, however the other three had some how dropped their blades on the floor and were now sporting cuts across the knuckles of their hands and they were staring at them as if they were trying to figure out what happened.
    “Well, as much as I would like to stand here all night, I do actually have better things to do.” Sheathing his weapons in the same smooth motion he drew them he threw the scabbard over his shoulder, fastening it to some unseen catch under his cloak, his other hand withdrawing a small well worn tri-cornered hat from the other side of the cloak. Setting it atop his head and patting it in place he spoke up again, “I’m sorry, but I’ll have to forgo recommending this establishment to my friends. The atmosphere is adequate, but the hospitality is lacking.” Turning toward the bar he flipped a gold coin at it, the man there caught it with a practiced ease. Ignoring the continued stares from the occupants he stepped around the befuddled Voran, and toward the door. Approaching the now vacated aperture he stepped through. By now Voran’s fear had turned into rage, the blinding type. Charging madly at the elf he never saw the foot that leaped out from the newcomer, whom everyone had forgotten, and like the first drop of rain, others fell behind him.
    Looking down through the doorway the elf spoke sardonically, “You really must learn to watch your step.” Turning toward the woman he asked, “Shall we be off?”
    Stepping around the pile of cursing toughs she nodded and closed the door behind them.



    “Come on Eileen, get it out of your system.” Were the first words out of the elf’s mouth as he and his companion retreated from the tavern towards the docks.
    The princess responded in a bitting tone, “Half the Kings Own are combing the countryside looking for us and you go pull a stunt like that.
    Sometimes I wonder about you Kaj.”
    A hurt look on his face the one now identified as Kaj responded, “You doubt me, me ? How about you, oh great escaping highness, I said to meet before sundown, not after.” Tone becoming more serous he went on, turning a corner of the street and walking up to a wood pile, “By the by, what did take so long?”
    “I had some trouble with the coin. It, well, it wouldn’t work. At first. Took me two hours to get it set right.”
    “You, my dear princess, are the most nonmagicaly inclined person I’ve known in a long wile. But, cant be helped. I assume you’re tired, cold, wet and hungry. Yes?” That last said as he was removing the top logs off the pile, and began reaching down the back of the pile with both arms.
    “Yes I am. And its not my fault. The illusion wouldn’t focus properly.”
    “ ‘wouldn’t focus’ , you say? I could have given that coin to a child and it would have been easy for him. All you had to do was picture in your mind the image you wanted it to make. You do still know what you look like, yes?” he said craning his head to look at her. “Ah, here we are.” Pulling two backpacks from the pile he presented one to her. “Everything for the vagabond on the go.”
    “Are they in here?” she said reaching in the bag.
    “Of course.”
    Smiling she pulled out a package wrapped in oilskins a little under two feet in length. Untiing the package she withdrew two swords. And if the elf’s sword was barley deserving of the name, these were even less so. The pair were identical, a single long blade bent around near to the shape of an ‘L’. If the wielder grasped them, closed fist perpendicular to her arm, the blade, if properly sized, would start several inches past the end of the elbow, curving slowly along the forearm. Here the blade turned and was now horizontal with the fist, so the user had the effect of one long blade that curved from elbow to thumb, thereby protecting the outside edge of the arm. However, they were not a purely defensive weapon, so the fist part of the blade ended, opposite the thumb, in a pare of wicked spikes, so when a skilled wielder slashed downward the spikes would act as a dagger held in a stabbing motion. The user could punch using the fist part of the blade and an elbow jab would also end badly for the one on the receiving end, for the blade ended there in a sharp point also. The final method of attack one would move their grip down to where the elbow tip is and use the weapon in hacking motions like one would a hatchet. They were wielded similar to the human weapons known as, ‘tonfa’, but with more style, befitting their elven origin.
    Moving the weapons through a few moves with the grace of practiced ease, she replaced them in the oilskins and set them in the bag. Rummaging through the bag she found a sheath containing a dagger, ordinary except for a green jewel set in the pommel and fastened it to her belt, saying, “Well, you seemed to have thought of everything. Where to?”
    “Up the docks. A restaurant called the Gadfish. I have reservations.”
    “Are you sure we have time for that Kaj?”
    “It’s been two weeks since my last real meal, I’m cold and hungry. No way to start a journey, that. Nope. A bit of mutton and then we’ll be on our way.”
    “Kaj, are you sure, the guards will have sent-” but he had already started for the restaurant. “Rrrrrrr. KAJ ” she called after him.
    “Can’t talk. Too hungry.” he yelled over his shoulder.
    Picking up the backpack and slinging it over her shoulder she took off after him grumbling all the wile.



    * * *


    Knight Captain Argyle Jackson knocked upon the huge oaken door that led to the school masters office and when he heard the echoing ‘enter’, did so. Seeing no one else in the room but his old friend sitting behind a great oaken desk, he walked immediately up to it and sat in a chair set to the front. Normally he would have avoided sitting in a chair while wearing the heavy armor that was the uniform of the Kings Own but Gregory Waintree enjoyed what he called, “Well made comforts.” And the iron reenforced oak chair could most likely handle the weight of his entire regiment let alone one fatigued knight.
    Looking up Waintree asked in a concerned tone, “All right there Argyle? Want a drink?”
    And after nodding the affirmative Waintree tapped off the ink on the quill he was using and set it down. Leaning down and reaching into some unseen alcove behind the desk he brought out a tray with four crystal tumblers and a half full brandy snifter. Pouring the amber liquid into two glasses he proffered one to the captain. Raising his glass the magus offered a simple toast, “Absent friends.”
    After a second round the captains tongue felt loose enough to speak.
    “When I find her I’m going to chain her to a post in a locked vault surrounded by fifty guards. And , and that damnedable elf, I’ll, I’ll-”
    Interrupting his friends rant Waintree said, “Was there some problem?”
    “No. It went well. I put Sargent Dieter in her highness’s riding clothes, and sent her into the woods. Then I led a ‘inspection party’ around the grounds. And there we ‘found’ the princess who had somehow escaped her guards wile out riding.”
    “Do you think Major Rineholt will believe that?”
    “Of course not. He maybe a pompous ass appointed by an even greater ass of a Duke, but he’s no pushover. He’ll know it for what it is. And that’s what I’m counting on.”
    “What do you mean?”
    “Our friend the red Major will see the rouse for what it is. But if he looks into the matter he would most likely find that she’s been missing for some time. I will of course vehemently deny such. If he chooses to look further into the matter he will find, with great effort, that she’d been missing since the midday meal and I’ve been running around covering it up all afternoon. With a little luck he’ll see a rambunctious woman and her dedicated protectors madly trying to save face.”
    “Well I’m pleased to see you’ve added subterfuge to your capabilities.
    It seems a good plan.” Leaning far back into his overstuffed chair Waintree suddenly felt all of his fifty-six years. Removing the pince-nez, some times called ‘earless spectacles’, from the bridge of his nose he tossed them on the blotter in front of him; his thick robes, the vestment of his rank as a mage, seemed to settle as he reclined. They were the robes of an acolyte, useful, comfortable, and quite plain compared to the expensive robes the guild mages often wore. He had started as a guild mage in the city of Ganny, south on the Roulk River from Tanton but when his mentor in the order had been killed in a botched robbery attempt he’d hit the road on the trail of the killers. One thing led to another and he had ended up in a Tanton military stockade. After a few weeks in there a man named Michael and his elf companion who responded to the name Kaj ended up in the cell next to his. Well long story short, they escaped, somehow getting a young trooper named Argyle accused of helping them, and the four of them were off on the road to adventure. Waintree smiled faintly at the memories of winding roads, close calls and living for the cresting of the next hill. It was on those very journeys that they met a house maid named Rebecca Norgeild, or what they thought was a house maid, they quickly discovered that this ‘maid’ in their midst was a jewel thief. And one year later, one errand of vengeance by a young wizard, one plot involving a thief, one clearing of a young soldier’s name, the discovery that one of their number was the heir to the Tanton throne, and the recovery of an elven artifact, the five friends parted ways. Or three of them did. Michael and Rebecca were married as King and Queen of Tanton. Argyle entered training for the knighthood. Waintree himself had found a vast library of magical tomes, and after studying them founded this school.
    Kaj, though, disappeared. Oh, he did show up at the wedding and at the opening of my school, and of course at Argyles Knighting ceremony, he thought. But whenever he saw him at those functions he seemed, withdrawn, distant. Sad almost. No, that’s not it, he was, despondent. It was out of character for the elf, in the past he’d always been the life of the party. It was many years before Waintree figured out why; he was an Elsarine, known as the high elf in human tongues; and he could live for a millennium. Kaj was an adventurer, always ready for the next one and while his friends matured, settled down and aged, he was still young, still ready for one more journey. None of them had seen him for years until Rebecca died from pregnancy complications, her son stillborn. After giving his regards to Michael and the young princess Eileen, he’d left. Barely two years later when Michael was struck down in a pirate attack Waintree had seen him again, not at the funeral, but off in the distance standing on a small hillock. And that was the last he’d seen of him, till, out of the blue he’d showed up on the schools doorstep last week and given him a letter, telling him not open it till ‘something’ happened.
    Suddenly reminded he fetched the letter, and after holding it a moment, held it out to captain Jackson and said, “Read this, Argyle, and tell me what you think.”
    A questioning look on his face Argyle leaned forward and took the sheaf, turning it to catch the candle light and in its soft light he saw a familiar flowing hand writing; reading aloud, “ ‘My dear friends, I know it has been a long while since we last met and I do hope you forgive me for partaking your food and departing, but there is much to do and little time in which do it. I am writing this with several matters in mind; first, and I am sure Captain Jackson is very near the end of his wits, I apologize for that also, but as you have no doubt figured, I am involved in the escape of, shall we say, a friend’s daughter. Please except my sincere apologies for any undue stress this may have caused, but I quite assure you it was very necessary. You will of course understand if I decline to get into details, but with a little luck the matter will clear up quickly and we can all have a drink and a good laugh. But I believe this may just be wishful thinking on my part. Be on guard, snakes are in your nest. The red viper is dangerous when confused or misguided. Also, I ask, I the name of friends long gone, that you leave us be. A subtle approach is needed here, so I have had to amend the old tactic of ‘charge first, ask questions later’. An error here could have disastrous consequences. And there is more I ask, I have learned from, a certain young woman, that you have in the past hidden her absences, and I request that you do so again. It could give us the extra leeway to act that is so important in matters such as these and I fear that the game would begin before the board is set if pieces were missing.
    There is another matter also, one I am almost hesitant to bring up.
    I have recently returned from the north and there are, stirrings, nothing evan as substantial as rumors, but I feel something is coming. What this is I know not, but watch all ways, not just the ground at your feet.
    I am sorry that I can not help you more but the young are once again required to earn their rights from the old. As a great philosopher once said, ‘The pieces are set, but the game has changed.’
    Yours truly, Tybalt Illiancaj Andorana’.” Argyle slowly refolded the letter and set on the desk.
    “So, what do you say Argyle?”
    Composing his thoughts and going over the words again in his mind he responded, “I somehow can’t believe he’s changed that much, on the other hand, he never joked about matters such as these.” Leaning back in the chair he mulled the matter over, surveying the office as he did so. It was well appointed without being ostentatious and as his eyes scanned the room they fell on a portrait, group portrait really, and he was struck by the urge to examine it more closely. Getting up he walked over to the short table set in front of a window, it held all manner of memorabilia from Gregory’s past and in the center the portrait that held his attention. It was of the five of them from years ago and therein the middle, a smiling elf, thrust blade slung over his back, left arm slug over a leather clad future king, the other over a nervous man in the uniform of a Tanton army trooper. Leaning against Michael’s legs, elbow on one knee was his future bride, Rebecca, and next to her, also kneeling, was studious man in a dark blue robe, a large tome slung under his right arm, the left holding what looked like a small ball of lightning.
    Argyle realized suddenly that he was holding the painting; setting it down gently he looked out the window. On another sudden impulse he reached over the table and opened the glass panes, cool night air brushing his short blond hair over his eyes. Looking out he saw that the winds had blown the clouds away and the stars, like shining jewels, twinkled down over the shadowed land.
    Shaking his reverie and setting his jaw, he turned to face Waintree, who had joined him near the window, “Kaj has ever been loyal and a good, if absent, friend. I think we should listen to his advice. It pains me to say it, but we should stay out of this one, as much as it will let us.”
    “Then I’m glad we agree on this, it would have been difficult without you.” Waintree said, speaking for the first time in minutes.
    “What do think we should do?”
    “Well, captain, we have to let the Blue Helms in on it, if they don’t already know.”
    “What about the rest of the Kings Own?”
    “Ignorance is bliss in this case, what they don’t know they cant be hanged for. No, just the helms, and ‘A’ group, we have their Sargent impersonating a princess of the realm. Have both squads move into the tower, I’ll arrange rooms.”
    “Agreed. Though I’m not worried about my men, even if they suspect, they are loyal and know when to keep their mouths shut. No. It’s the reds, I worry about. I’ve been doing some digging and this Major Rineholt was appointed directly by the Duke. A spy if there ever was.
    He’s already tried to command my troops, so far they’ve just ignored him.”
    Argyle let loose a scoffing chuckle and went on, “He’s complained to me about the ‘lax discipline’ among my troops, HA , I saw his men march at parade yesterday, the most ragged lines I’ve ever seen. And I don’t think they even know how to clean their armor. And now, that I’ve brung the subject up, have you seen their charter, the so called Royal Guard?” he pulled a copy of said charter out of his armor as he spoke.
    “No, I haven’t. Something wrong with it?” he held a hand out for the document as Argyle offered it and began to read.
    After giving Waintree a moment to study the captain pressed on,
    “Not actually, it’s in order. But the way its worded, its very,” he paused searching for a word, “vague, but in a specific way. Which is what bothers me. It’s probably nothing The Duke just wanted his own army ‘cause he has no authority over the Kings Own. So he’s sated him self with this, not allowing the normal promotions to go through and disallowing us to recruit from the regular army. ”
    After finishing Waintree folded the document back up and set it down on the desk. “No. I do not think so. This ‘Royal Guard’ has rubbed me the wrong way since they first arrived.” He pointed to the letter, still on the desk, “And when I learned Kaj suspected something that further raised my doubts. And after reading that,” he paused, pointing to the charter, “I know something is wrong.”
    “I think he believes the Major or the guard, or both, have some sort of ulterior motive or secret orders, probably what he meant by, ‘The red viper is dangerous when confused or misguided.’ , you think so?”
    “Both, I would say. But the guard do not worry me, it’s the Major I now have problems with. According to that,” once again he pointed the charter, “He commands the guard and all regular Tanton army units in the region. That’s an almost direct connection between the council and the army, a connection that is barely legal at best, if not a outright violation of the Laws of Separate Powers.” Said he, referring to one of the main parts of the Tanton Compact, the constitution of their city. “I think, also, that we should start preparing for what ever this other thing is he warns us about.” as he spoke he tapped the corresponding section of text on the letter, “As you said before, he dislikes spreading rumors and this unknown thing is,” he paused searching for the proper word, “disturbing, to me.”
    “Yes, struck me as that also. But I can’t fight a enemy that might not even be there. I am but a simple knight in the service of the crown, all this shadow fighting and rumor warfare is foreign to me, I would rather ride down our enemies on an open field. But for now I suppose I’ll have to adapt.” a broad smile coming over his broad face he went on, “So what do you mean by this legal connection?”
    “I assume you are familiar with the Tanton Compact?”
    The compact was the main legal document from which all laws of Tanton came, it defined the areas of authority for each division of government, chiefly the Crown and the Council. The Tantonnian government was ruled by two separate and distinct offices; the Council was a gathering of selected leaders chosen from the separate sectors of the city; the High Magus of the mages guild, master of the Mages Quarter; the Head Foreman of the Craftsmen’s Quarter; the Magistrate of the Artisans Quarter; the Guild master of the of the Merchants Guild, oft referred to as the Tradesmaster; and though he had no quarter to command, the Marshal of Guard, the commander of the city watch. The Marshal was an odd position, he was chosen by the guard captains who where themselves chosen by the councilors; so in effect their subordinates chose their equal. Each of these have near total control over his sector and a equal say on the council. In turn the council had final say over all taxes, in-city trade, law keeping and law making. The Crown comprised of the King, or Queen, at the head with various Dukes, Barons, Marquis, Counts (some time called Earls), and Viscounts under the royal family. There weren’t many and most lived outside the city itself on large plots of land bequeathed to them from the founder of Tanton, Edward Tanton the first. It was they who were law in the hundred leagues around the Idreasa peninsula, Where the city was.
    Waintree was in fact himself a Viscount, at least in name, the only land he held was the Blood Tower and some surrounding grounds, but the title was real enough, a gift from Michael. And though the late king could have not forseen exactly how useful the title would be; as a peer of the realm Waintree had final say over what went on in his ‘lands’, so say, an army, for example, had to have permission to march through, or be stationed there. Only three things could override this authority, a direct command from the king, the signatures from three councillors or the safety of a member of the royal house. Hence the reason that sending the princess had been such a master stroke, there were no restrictions on the size of a royal escort. But it would have been an obvious ruse had he not sent the Kings Own and they would have gone anyway, their first standing order was to ensure the royal line, this order was in the units charter and in the oath each trooper took upon entry, right after the part about protecting the lives of the royal family, with theirs, if need be.
    It was something of grey area though, unless an order directly opposed their oath, they were ,technically, part of the military and subject to normal orders. In the past this had never been a problem, the king was supreme commander of the armies of Tanton anyway, but with no ruler on the throne it was a little more blurry as to who had control of the military. Technically the regent assembly and its head, Arch Duke Kellon Donovan, held the power of the throne until the heir reached majority at the age of twenty- one but the command of the Kings Own given to the royal family not the throne, the wording was very clear on this. So in essence the family Tanton, or since the name was lost, Donovan, had command of the Kings Own.
    But, he thought, getting back on track, a militant force controlled by the council, he thought dourly. They’d been trying for years to achieve such a thing the council had always been put out that they had no say in the defense of Tanton, that was the kings realm. Yes, they had the city watch, but it was constitutionally limited in size and strength. And on the other side the armies had no authority in the city except in the towers that ringed it. So what it came down to was this: the Crown kept the city safe from outside threat and the Council kept the city prosperous. And it worked, for more than twenty generations the city stood, from the beginning of the old kingdom until its fall, it has withstood orc, goblins and at least one army of undead, Tanton, the grey city, stood yet. And one piece of parchment could change that, the formation of one new unit could upset the balance of government. Because in the charter of this new, so called, Royal Guard, was their purpose, “-to ensure an unbroken government it is the mission of this force to protect the royal family and the high council of Tanton from all harm, wether it be alien or indigenous.”
    Getting back to the captains question he spoke, “It’s just the way its worded, first the crown is the nominal head of this force but it also states that the crown is to provide, ‘-properly proportioned units to the councilors to aid in their defense. As such, these attached units, as to better defend their charge, will be under the command of the councilor through their house guard or, if none is available, the local watch commander,’ and it doesn’t end there Argyle, ‘-to assist in the proper functioning and clarity of command the local commander of these units may call upon any militant power if he deems it necessary.’ . Normally such an order wold be blatantly illegal but it is presented as an order from the ‘crown’, the regent assembly in this case, and therefore the Duke. This document gives a militant force under the command of a councilor the authority to command the army of Tanton ”
    Captain Jackson responded with a slightly confused look on his face,
    “I understand that it’s shady at best, and I disagree with it, but if the duly appointed regent of the throne commands it, why has it disturbed you so?”
    “Sorry, my friend, but these, these, hooligans have done something that the City Council has coveted after for nearly five hundred years.” Looking at the captains face Waintree saw that he was still confounded as to his meaning. Attempting to clarify he went on, “What do you know of history Argyle? Specifically the Old Kingdom of Ragnarok and the Alliance that came after?” After the captain slowly shook his head he continued, “Without getting into a lecture suffice to say they both lasted about a thousand years; first the Kingdom it started out a golden age, forged from the various human tribes by Hektor the Great, it was ruled by his decedents for almost five centuries by his heirs and an elite noble class, similar to our lords or the realm, except each was responsible for the defense of his own realm. There is even indication that the various lords would fight among themselves.”
    “That’s pure lawlessness ” Argyle exclaimed.
    “No, not exactly, each lord was THE law in his land, even the smallest of which were many times the size of Tanton’s holdings. You must remember, this was a chaotic time, a clear authority was paramount to keeping order.” Now Waintree had shifted into full headmaster mode, there would be no stopping the flow of information now, “Also recall that the land was untamed and wild, if you think a few orc raids from across the Dorn sea is a hard year, spend a day in the past A time when every manor of creature, from goblins to dragons roamed freely about the land. You and I my friend are the product of a calm age when the monsters and things that go bump in the night stay far to the north and the south, a time when the only ‘goblins’ we see are their stunted cousins, the Gnomes.
    Argyle interjected, “The gnomes are related to goblins?”
    “Well, related to them in the same way the wood elves are related to the high elves and the dwarves are related to us, once possibly having a common ancestor but millennia of separation has made each their own race. But I digress, the old kingdom fell not because of outside threat, or rather not purely from outside threats, no, it fell from the internal fighting its peers. We don’t know much of that time, it’s not called the hundred years war for its great records, but the historians do know that it was a minor tiff between two lords, coupled with the death of the currant High King and an abnormally large and active orc hoard, all within the span of a year. In the confusion old hatreds, old feuds, the old tribal wars, thought long forgot, were rekindled. For example, you and I, in that time we would be blood enemies. Your blond hair, stern features and slightly squared jaw line clearly define you as of the Teution peoples and me, I have the long face, low and clearly defined cheekbones and rather slender build of Galuian tribes, our ‘people’ fought over the same farming lands for generations, even though there was enough for both parties.”
    “All this is very interesting, but what has it to do with us?” interjected Argyle testily.
    “Everything Look, when Edward Tanton founded the city he had already done the impossible, united the tribes, under one banner Before during the old kingdom and the alliance, they were united under a banner, but they did not intermingle, each tribe stayed in their own lands. But when Edward came recruiting for his mercenary army he recruited from all tribes, and when they settled they began to mingle, crossing the bloodlines, until what we have now in Tanton, and the surrounding lands is a hodgepodge of the so called ‘races’. You my friend are proof of this, your features might be Teution, but your name marks you as Angleas
    Its because Edward Tanton was no fool, if he settled near his troops’ home lands the old feuds would just be rekindled, so he built a city far to the north of any tribal lands basically forcing them to intermarry if they wanted to stay. They stayed and became united by blood, strong ties indeed.”
    “But I still don’t see what this has to do with the current situation.”
    Thinking back as to what he just said, Waintree realized that he had digressed from the point, “I’m sorry, I’ve gone off on a philosophical tangent. Look, the point is Edward Tanton knew, as well as the Duke, that humans have a tendency, nay, need, to find others of like mind, to be in a group. And in ancient times, and still in some lands distant, that unifying factor was race. Edward overcame that on a relatively small scale, his decedent Nolan, though, realized that there would always be that need for confrontation, so he organized the council after the burning of Tanton by the Kaslan invaders, his deal got him the resources needed to rebuild the city, at the cost of a vastly reduced Crowns authority. But, the Crown retained the responsibility of protecting the city. And the Tanton Compact is very clear on this, the Crown has full authority over the armies. The councillors are barred from even having a private force larger than a few house guards. This deal Nolan made, yes it blunted the Crown, but it assured the future of Tanton as a free city. Now in the present, the Councillors and their pet projects are the new factions, a divide along political lines instead of race. And the two things most likely to lead to blood shed, politics and religion, thanks to the freedom of worship cause Nolan put in the Compact religion is taken away as cause to fight.”
    Waintree smiled warily at that, “Well, we make cause to fight about it. But there hasn’t been open war.” Waintree saw the captain smile at his tone of voice, Argyle was a worshiper of Rayon, the great god of the heavens, the embodiment of all things good and he was a, well, he believed that it was a waste of time devoting several hours out of a week to some far off deity. Better to pay homage to the spirits and elementals like the elves. At least they saw their ‘gods’. Well, no, he thought, Argyle pays homage as he was taught by his father and his before him and so on and so forth, its more habit than a powerful faith. But that hadn’t stopped them from arguing the matter several times, very loudly actually. “ But getting back to the point, would you trust any councilor with, say, a company of troops and a squad of gun mages?”
    “No, they would probably use them as a private police force. And there’s no telling where that would end up.”
    “Exactly, which is why the power of militant force has been kept out of the hands of the council. There have already been problems with the differing city watches, which is why the master watchmen is the equal of the councilors, and they’re only armed with pikes and batons, not the equal of any unit of army. Also the military is the prime factor in dealing with outside powers, if each councilor had his own army there would in effect be five foreign policies, a mixed set of them most likely.”
    “Alright I see your point, but it would all be a moot point if there were a Queen on the throne, one command and it’s all over.”
    “As always you’re most blunt, that is true, which is why whatever the duke is going to do he has to do it before her highness reaches majority, in,” he paused considering the matter, “one year, two months, and five days; the princess will be twenty-one and able to claim her throne from the regent assembly.”
    In a frustrated tone the captain added, “All the more reason this little trip she decided to take is timed badly.”
    “No, I think not.” he responded, cutting him off. “Kaj may have just given the Duke a gremlin in his plans, the princess while not magicly adept, is most astute in matters of the law, mostly toward the angle of breaking them granted, but I do believe she has inherited her mothers, shall we say, affinity for ‘excitement’. I at first thought she was taking after her father, great future ruler mingling with the people, but now, no, that one has far more of her mother in her than we first thought.”
    “Well, that just makes it worse, you know how Kaj and Rebecca used to conspire together before Michael straightened her out.”
    A burst of laughter came from him before he could restrain himself and through it he responded jovially, “You my dear captain, are the most loyal friend, honorable knight, the best battlefield tactician I’ve ever known, but the workings of human relationships still escape you. ‘Michael straightened her out’ indeed ” Waintree looked up at his friend then and seeing the confusion on his face couldn’t hold back another round of laughing. Choking back the mirth he went on, “I’m sorry Argyle, please trust me on this, but it is suffice to say that right now Eileen with Kaj is the best way to find out what the duke is up to.”
    “Your advice has always been true in the past, and I see no reason not to heed your words now, but it still goes against my grain to just let them slip out.”
    “I know, captain, I know. But you are the commander of the Kings Own, a healthy dose of suspicion is a good quality in a bodyguard. But come, let us not dwell on what we can not effect, we will make our own plans to deal with this coming threat.”


    * * *

    While the Gadfish was not the best restaurant she’d ever been in, it was probably the best that Southford, being only a way-stop to other places, had to offer. The room, upon entering, was large and dimly lit with candles, there were quite a few patrons for this late hour but they were of a better variety than the louts at the tavern, change makers, bookkeepers and the like. They settled into a corner table, half concealed in an alcove. As this was a restaurant, there was no bar, but there was a door leading into the attached inn and she could hear, from the boisterous singing that there was a bar somewhere on the premises. Kaj had sat, slug his sword and cloak behind his chair, ordered his mutton with few words and was now eating it slowly, seeming to savor each bite. Eileen had, after some argument, ordered some simple stew, having had enough of the ‘real’ food as Kaj called it during her stay at the tower. He paused in his methodical mastication of the mostly gone roasted sheep to spear a few scalloped potatoes and popped them into his mouth looking up at her as he did so.
    “Take your hood down, stay awhile.” He said between bites.
    “And be seen with you in front of all these people? Are you mad?”
    Setting down the fork and short knife he’d pulled from some hidden pocket as he’d started eating, he responded with a hurt look, “I am wounded, lady, by such revulsion to my presence. Am I that hideous?”
    “No, you know that’s not what I meant. Captain Jackson ‘ll be looking for a human traveling with an elf and the more people see us the greater chance of finding us he’ll have.” She returned somewhat peevishly.
    Wiping his mouth with the napkin provided by the waiter shot back in that same patronizing tone he’d used earlier, “I assure you my dear, that if Argyle really wished to find us he’d have done so by now. He may be blockheaded but he is no slouch when it comes to his duty.” continuing in a softer tone, “No, it is not Sir Argyle nor Magus Waintree that worry me. No not all.” He paused, seemingly distracted for a moment, he suddenly reached into one of those unseen pockets pulling out a small vial, no bigger than her little finger and set it on the table sliding it over to her. “If it continues to worry you so, than take this.”
    Picking up the vial she sloshed the greenish liquid that it contained.
    “What is it?”
    “Drink it and find out, but I will say that it will make us harder to track through observation.” he retrieved his fork and nabbed another potato. Beginning to chew under a grin.
    She sat staring at the bright green liquid apprehensive to drink any thing that Kaj would be grinning like that about. Oh-well, she thought, I’ve gone this far. Removing the stopper she swallowed the concoction, gaging as it washed down her throat, its retched flavor seeming to choke the air from her lungs. But, she suddenly realized, I really can’t breath She sat gasping, hands gripping the edge of the table until her breath returned. It was then that she noticed, that Kaj was staring intently at her.
    “Hmm. So that’s what it meant by, ‘of appropriate physical age’.”
    “Wh-wh-what?” she asked. There was something odd about her voice, and she was having trouble forming the words. Her whole body was tingling, like a cold breeze had washed over her. She looked at her hands, they were, smaller, but it was when she looked down, she saw a bit of her

    hair and even in the dim light she could see it was no longer blond. She held it up towards the candle light in the middle of the table, yup, it was clearly, as absurd as it seemed, her hair was now, blue. And not dark black with a blue sheen, nope, or the light pale blue-white that was common among nauphtsarine, the sea elves, but bright, gleaming, electric, blue. That wasn’t all, now that she wasn’t strangling, she noted that she was siting lower in her chair and her boots no longer were snug, neither were her riding pants. Taking a deep breath she noted something else; she had never been what one would call ‘well endowed’, not even close, but she did have a bosom and the vest she normally wore under all her other clothes was no longer comfortably snug, quite the opposite, it was loose.
    Looking back at Kaj, who had pulled out a small bit of parchment and was trying to decipher it in the shadowy illumination, she glowered, trying to decide weather or not to kill him, or just never speak to him again, but before a consensus could be reached with her warring internal self, he spoke.
    “Ahhhhh. That’s it.” Gesturing with the parchment towards her, he clarified, going on in his native tongue of Sylvan, “[It says here, ‘add one hair or a nail clipping of what you want the subject to become and shake.’ well I read that. But it goes on, ‘please note that the subject will change to the actual physical age, not the appropriate physical age of the creature changing into.’ That’s what that meant.]”
    Responding in the same tongue, he had taught it to her a long time ago, she slowly spoke, an icy edge to her words, “[What, did you do to me? ]” It was actually something of a squeaky tone that came out and she put her hand to her throat in surprise.
    “[Relax, its just a transfiguration. It’ll ware off in a month or two and you’ll be back to your normal sunny, human, self. Although, there have been known to be side effects.]”
    “[What kind of side effects?]” She spat out
    “[Nothing to get worried about, just a permanent change of a feature, nose, lips and the like. Like a part not changing back all the way.]” He looked back at her face, “[Although, I do think I’ll have to think up another cover story, being a ‘couple’ would be inappropriate with you looking such as you are.]”
    “[What do you mean, ‘such as I am’?]”
    Wiping the knife he’d been using to cut the mutton on the table cloth he flipped it in his hand and offered her the handle. She accepted and holding
    the polished surface up so she could see her face she lowered her hood. And there in the reflection, was, not her. Well, it was, but it was her from several years ago, as if she’d lost some age. With some modifications. There was the blue hair, creeping out from the scarf holding it in place just above the ears, the pointed, ears, just like Kaj’s. Setting the knife down, she brushed a, still blue, strand of hair out of her face and spoke, “[What did you do to me?]”

    “[As I said, it was a light transmutation potion. Nothing too powerful, but still rare. It only changes a biped to a biped, an intelligent race into an intelligent race,
    and so forth. And as you yourself said, they’ll be looking for an elf and a human, so I placed a strand of my hair in the phial; now we are two elves].”
    She pointed out the obvious alterative, “[You could have taken it. I’m sure you, with your oh-so-great skills could have gotten a human hair.]”
    Kaj responded mater-of-factly, “]Of course I could have gotten a follicle. As to the other, it should be obvious, I would make a very bad human, I don’t know the first thing about ‘mucking about’, or digging ditches or whatever it is you people do.]”
    Eileen knew where this would go, she knew better than to get in a verbal sparing match with him so she changed the subject, “[Anyway,]” she squeaked out, voice sounding evan more odd with the strange flowing syllables of the elvish tongue, “[What happened to me?]” She held up a now oversized coat arm.
    Leaning back in his seat he tapped his chin thoughtfully, with the fork still in his hand, “]You’re nearly twenty years of age, almost full grown for a human, however, you are now an elsarine, and for a high elf, that, physically, is the same as,]” he stopped, left eye scrunching in thought, “[-about thirteen years of age.]” he added, “[For a human equivalent.]”
    Looking at him apprehensively she asked, “[I’m a thirteen year old elf?]”
    “[No, you’re a twenty year old elf, we just age differently than a human. The elf of equivalent age would appear as you do now, smaller, less, um, well built, and more immature, physically at least. Actually, now that I think of it, you look like I would, if I were younger, and female.]”
    Looking back at the blade, she did see it, a slight change in the nose, and the brow line, she could almost be his daughter. But there was one more thing that bothered her, “[O.K. Fine. What about the hair though? Blue? What is that?]”
    “[Other than an unexpected bonus? Hair.]” Seeing her eyes narrow, he went on, “[Oh settle down. I know you’ve not seen many elves, but blue hair is somewhat like red is with your people, uncommon and exotic. But as I said, this is good, people will take notice, and they’ll see two elves.]” he paused, “[Father and daughter.]”
    “[What ?]”
    “[Well. I was going to say we were betrothed, if someone asked, but I would dislike being called a cradle robber. It could very well give a wrong impression of elves everywhere. Well, maybe not the rasarine, they all look like children, even the adults. But those ears are far, far to short to pass as a wood elf’s.]”
    Looking at him with an intense gaze, she sat there tying to remember that making a sene ran counter to their purpose. He seems far to amused for this to be an ‘accident’. But, no, she countered to her self, this Kaj I’m
    talking about, either intensely serious, or not at all. She looked up into his eyes and there was, something else, something behind the smile an edge of, concern, perhaps? No, something else. But their gaze held for only a moment, then he looked down at his demolished plate and spoke in the common tongue, giving her a
    wink, “Well my daughter, we seem to be finished with our meal. Shall we be off?” he added action to word and rose from his seat, taking his thin leather jacket off the back of his chair, small bits of steel armor riveted to the shoulders jingling as he did so. Rolling his cloak into a messy ball he stuffed it in his travel pack and slung his sword into its normal position over his shoulder in easy reach for his right hand. Eileen followed suit and got up, more of a hop, off the chair, her clothing shifting uncomfortably, and stood, feeling out this new form. Shifting shakily around towards the door she shot a hand out and steadied herself on the table.
    “[Relax.]” Kaj quietly said from the corner of his mouth, speaking again in sylvan, “[Move steadily with no sudden movements. Don’t force it, feel it].”
    Her response was cut off before it began by the arrival of their waiter. Who, upon seeing her face seemed startled for a moment.
    “Ah, hinnera,” Kaj stated, using the elven word for waiter and embellishing his soft flowing accent, “The meal was, good, you say, yes?
    These coins will pay for?” He pulled a small stack of silver coins from a pouch on his belt and set them on the table.
    Eileen seeing what he meant by the act, “I’m sorry, my father doesn’t speak your tongue well.” she stated in unbroken, unaccented common.
    Kaj spoke in sylvan again, smiling at the waiter“[Ask him for directions to Tanton.]”
    “My father wishes to know if we can reach Tanton if we fallow the river.”
    The waiter spoke up tearing his eyes away from the stack of coins on the table, it was probably far more than the entire establishment, the restaurant, the inn, and the bar made in an entire week, “Ah, no. this is the Millitin river, it flows into the Roulk.’ He forcibly tore his gaze from the sliver on the table, “Ah, what I mean is, well, you can get to Tanton on this river if you go all the way to the Roulk and head up stream to the Dorn sea, but its many leagues out of the way. Most travelers head down stream to Outpost and go overland from there.”
    “[alright, ‘daughter’, enough fun time to go.]” And in common, “Think-yrou. Is how you say, yes?”
    “Thank-You.” she clarified and then to the waiter, “Keep the change. Good evening.” nodding her head she started for door, a little wobbly, but in a straight line nonetheless, pulling up her hood as she neared the door.
    Kaj, stopping only to pick up her pack, followed in her out the door and the road beyond. Leaving a slightly bewildered, though happy, waiter behind.

    ***

    Out in the cool night air the princess walked along the docks, taking measure of her new form. She was a little shorter, an inch maybe, but it was when she looked off into the distance, though, that she noted a major difference, she could make out details across the river. Which normally would have been impossible in the darkness. Stopping she stared across the darkened water, lanterns hanging on the prows of barges tied to wharves shining like little bobbing stars. She could see a cabin on the other side, odd because it was unlit, and at least eighty paces from the waters edge but even at this range she could make out that it was made of logs, still covered with moss blanketed bark. And as she stared, she began to make out details, a small knot of wood, a lean to on one corner, a single
    window pained with crudely made glass. As she stood there Kaj padded softly up behind her, holding out the backpack he’d given her earlier.
    Taking it and slinging it over her shoulder, she said, “Kaj, that cabin, do you see it?”
    Looking where she was staring he responded, “Lets see, rough hewn log, window in center of wall, shed on one end; crude, but warm, appropriate for the region; what of it?”
    “ ‘What of it?’, I can see it ” But even as she spoke, she figured it out, she was an elf now, with all that implied, improved hearing, great stamina, fast reflexes (not that she didn’t have good reflexes already, it just came naturally to elves, she’d had to train for hers), and, of course, the eyes of an elf. Maybe this isn’t so bad after all. ,I can make out color too It was a blurry half light color, but color nonetheless.
    Waving a hand in front of her face, Kaj interrupted her musing, “Care to share what you find so fascinating? Hmm?”
    “No, sorry, it’s nothing.” she turned and walked further down the docks.
    Kaj looked quizzically after her, at first her then the cabin then back again, until realization dawned on his face. “Ah.” he said aloud, running to catch with her giving her a sidelong glance as he did so, left side of his mouth twitching into a knowing smirk as he did so.
    “What?” She asked somewhat testily.
    “Nothing, absolutely nothing.”
    They walked in silence for some minutes, coming to the edge of the small town before Kaj spoke up, pointing toward a barge that was lit at both ends, it was loaded lightly, tarpaulins covering a double line of cargo down te middle. . “This looks promising.” A figure could be seen moving around on deck and smoke was billowing out the small cabin, more a hut really, built on the aft end. He called to the figure on deck, “Ahoy May a couple of travelers board?”
    The figure stopped and Eileen sized him up, human, older, weathered and worn face under a sailors rain hat, he wore the corresponding rain coat, clasped at the waist with a cracked leather belt.
    “Do as ye’ wish stranger, but watch ye step, is slick ‘cause the rains earlier.” He gave them a sizing look as they boarded, seeming unsurprised
    at a couple of elsarine this far from any elven land. Looking at Kaj, he asked, “What can an old bargeman do fer ye, master elf?”
    “I am called Kaj, this is,” he paused for an imperceptible moment, “Allieon,
    my daughter. We were wondering if we could have passage on this vessel.”
    “I’m sorry master elf but-” he was interrupted by a small bag of coins flying at his face, he caught the bag easily and pocketed it somewhere on his person. “-you’ve caught me at th’ right time, just casting off I was.” he went on as if he’d meant to say that in the first place. “Me partners done gone and jumped ship, so you can stay in the
    fore shack, on the prow up ther.” he pointed with his chin through the line of cargo at the small shack on he front of the craft. “Ye can call me Greeley. Welcome to barge twelve of the Asfeldt company out o’ Tanton. Watch your step.” He turned and started making ready to cast off.
    They walked carefully in-between the , as she could see now, bins of grain, towards the proffered shack. Kaj opened the door for her and she entered; it was a shack, but there was room for two and would keep the chill out. She set her pack down near the door and sat on the bunk, if one cold call a wooden pallet a bunk, opposite the door and watched Kaj enter and close the door. He turned and looked the place over, a few empty wine bottles but otherwise clean. Setting his sword and pack down he turned and faced her saying, “Well, this is as good a place as any.” Her attention shot to his face, it wasn’t the words, but the way he’d said them, cold, lacking in all tone and feeling. Looking in his face she saw naught a trace of the spry, light-hearted elf she’d come to know over the years. In its place was a mask, it would have been less terrifying if there were some sign of emotion, but nothing, no anger, no joy, just a blank face made all the more terrifying because of the jet black pistol he held pointed unshakenly toward her. “Do not speak, unless I say.” said that cold voice.
    “Kaj-“ she started, but stopped when he cocked the hammer back, the clicking sound it made thudding in her ear. Looking down the hexagonal barrel she noted runes down each side of the jet black sidearm. It was an obsidian pistol, small, accurate, deadly and most importantly, quiet. Which is why it was informally known as the assassin pistol.
    “You will not move. You will answer my questions exactly, no more, no less. Nod once if you understand.”
    She slowly nodded not breaking contact with those cold steel eyes.
    “Good. State your full name.”
    “Rebecca Eileen Henrietta Andrea Beatrice Isabelle Lynette Tanton Donovan. Royal house of Tanton.” she added.
    He did not raise his voice at all, if it was cool before it was now ice. “You, will
    not talk anymore than what I ask.” he raised the gun
    slightly, but did not fire. But looking into those icy blue eyes she had to fight the urge to recoil. Instead she nodded again.
    “Good.” his voice returning once again to the emotionless monotone. “Once
    again, State your full name.”
    “Rebecca Eileen Henrietta Andrea Beatrice Isabella Lynette Tanton Donovan.” she said cooly, not breaking his gaze. What was this? What was Kaj doing? She thought. If that is Kaj.
    “Good, now state your fathers full name.”
    What? What sick game is this ? That’s not Kaj. Is it? Holding back the tears that wanted to come with the memory of her father, she set her jaw and stated, “Michael Edward Kristoffer Tanton Donovan.” I’ll kill this, this, monster. But she cold not see how, there were but a few steps between them, not enough for her to leap at him at least, and if she even tried draw the dagger on her belt she’d be dead before her hand cleared the sheath.
    “Good. Now recite the alchemical tables, in order.”
    What ? She thought again. I couldn’t recite them properly when headmaster Waintree set the book in front of me Alright, you. I’ll play along until I can figure a way out of here. It was little more than a few slats on a frame that was mounted on the front of this barge, but it was well built with what looked to be water treated oak, old but still sturdy, she didn’t think she could break through the thin walls, she reserved the plan for a last ditch effort. She began to recite the tables, starting with the least, bronze and ending with adamantine, the greatest. Every pause she made she tensed herself to try and spring through the wall behind her, but no shot came not even a tightening of the trigger finger.
    “Good.” he said again when she’d finished. What? She thought once more. She knew she got most of those wrong, she’d never been able to state the whole list accurately. He went on, interrupting her confusion,
    “Now tell me,” he paused, eyes staring as if into her very soul, “Of when we first met.”
    Now she was throughly confused. She wanted to ask what was going on, but she’d seen what a loaded firearm could do, especially at this range. So she thought back to that day.
    The king was dead but to a little girl it just meant daddy was gone. Hundreds of people lined the streets, nay, thousands, he was a popular king, who enjoyed the love of his people and did not betray that trust. So when he was killed in battle defending their home land, there was not a dry eye for a hundred leagues. Even the normally stoic captain of the Kings Own, who had clasped the hand of his mortally wounded king or more importantly, his friend, shed tears as the funeral procession walked slowly from the Citadel, through the city, out into the fields that surrounded the city. And there, in the middle of farm land, was the stone, ringed in dogwood trees, where Nolan the great fell defending the city, his last command to hold this line had not been broken by any king or commander in the half- century since. No enemy passed the Hold-Stone. And like his fathers before, and their
    fathers before them, King Michael the second was buried, with no tomb, no box. Just his mortal remains, plainly clothed, so that he may return the earth from whence life came. Eileen had until that point held back her tears, they said to be strong for the people, a princess doesn’t cry, especially one that’s almost seven summers of age, uncle Kellon had said, but she could no longer hold it, so she ran, escaping her guards before they could respond, she sped into the woods, not stopping until reaching a small stream, where, she knelt by the edge trying not to cry. It was then she heard the sound of twigs crunching under foot, looking up she saw a funny looking man with pointed ears, wearing well tailored clothes, and a jacket, black with blood red edging. He took off the jacket and setting it down, knelt beside her, taking her hand in his. Looking into her eyes he said, “The princess has been strong for her people; now the girl must weep for her father.” As she looked into those deep sorrowful, misty eyes, all that she’d been holding in came rushing out, and there they knelt, dogwood petals blowing in the breeze, weeping in each others arms.
    Bringing herself back to the present, Eileen shook her head, clearing the tears that threatened to come. Met the gaze of her ‘friend’ and spoke, “I don’t care about your sick little game anymore. You had better hope you kill me with that shot because if you don’t I’ll tear you apart with my bare hands. I don’t know who you are, but I will make you suffer for whatever you did to my friend.” She defiantly stood, not caring what happened to her. And standing there, waiting for the shot, she saw him smile, not a grin, a wide, relaxing smile. And to her surprise he raised the pistol and disengaged the hammer. He sat on the deck then, an expression of relief coming across his face. Recovering herself she started towards him and he surprised her again, he tossed the pistol at her. She caught it easily,
    pointing it at him, to confused to speak, so he did, “I’m sorry, but there was no other way to be sure.”
    “Sure of what?” She asked still pointing the pistol at him.
    “That you were really you.” He held up a hand stopping her interjection, “I’ll explain. It’ll take a wile, so make yourself comfortable.”
    That’s was the old carefree Kaj alright, she thought. You wouldn’t think some one was holding a gun by his tone of voice. But she remained standing nonetheless.
    “ Or stand, as you wish. But as I was saying, I’ve been in the far north, trying to, answer a few questions I’ll say for now, and having found all I was going to find, I started back south. I decide to take the safer, if longer path into Zale’s Redoubt, and the dwarf road under the mountain. And when I reached Zale’s I met with an old friend, a dwarf by the name of Radjitck, and he told me some interesting news, Tanton had applied tariffs to all dwarven cargos, an odd thing, for the free port of Tanton to do. So curiosity piqued I went back on the trail to Tanton. A most uninteresting journey to be sure, most of it taking place in the dwarven
    underground. Anyway, I reached Tanton where I set to work, contacting old sources, and generally digging for information. What I found disturbed me to no end. First, there was a tariff on ALL trade in an out of Tanton, and not the old
    docking fees to support the harbor, nope, there were inspection teams going through each ships manifest, and charging a percentage of the estimated value of the cargo. And get this too, you know all those transhipment where houses down near the docks?” He paused fo an affirmative nod, “Well, a hole bunch of them had been declared, what was it? Ah yes, ‘contrary to the health of the city,’ by an
    edict of the council and that’s not the end, the council turned right around and reopened the very same storehouses and began operating them themselves Blatantly illegal. But there was no word from the regent assembly. Not a even whisper. And other things, I was having trouble in the city, why? Because I’m an elf Seems there were some ‘incidents’ with elves in the city, and therefor the council, in its infinite wisdom, slapped restrictions on us And not just us, every nonhuman in the city Not allowed out after dark? What kind of law is that? But I digress, I was able to trace back all this to one event, your fathers cousin, the Duke, becoming the master of the merchants guild. And therefor the lord of the merchants quarter. With the regent assembly already in his pocket, he
    now holds more power than any one man was ever meant to under the auspices of the Tanton Compact. The power of the crown, and the council.”
    She stared at him in disbelieve. The pistol laying forgotten beside her on the bunk. Starting to speak, he cut her off.
    “Oh, no highness, there’s more. Having attained his power the Duke has found it hard to actually act, the army is loyal to the crown, and more importantly the law. And so are the people. Those of Tanton have grown fond of freedom, and are loath to give it up. What more, they love the Tanton line, the glory, the honor, of those that came before you. The memory of your father is still strong in their
    hearts, and so are you, I might add. Well, the Duke has found a way around the army, this so called ‘Royal Guard’ is any thing but. They follow the orders of the
    council, ergo, the Duke. But, there is only one way around the other problem he has. He has to, ‘remove’ you. With you gone, he is the heir to the throne as the closest living Tanton.”
    She thought on what he said for a moment, and spoke, “Alright, lets say that’s all true, what does it have to do with what you did a moment ago ” Her ire showing through with that last question, she forced herself to calm down.
    “While I was in the city, I contacted, or tried to, the Illion wood embassy,” He said referring to the elsarine enclave in Tanton. “So I tracked down their, well, not mincing words, the elsarine spy in Tanton. In conversation with him, I learned that right before the enclave left, he had gotten a copy of a secret dispatch that had rotated among the heads of the
    army, watch and council that they were to watch for ‘elvish tricks, in particular, doppelgangers. A term I had not herd in, well, a long time.”
    “What, is this, doppler thing?”
    “Doppelganger, it is a person, who by whatever means, can change their
    form. And not just that, the best don’t just change their form, they can take memories from their target if they touch. Not all memories, just the surface ones, the resent ones. And they have trouble with accessing sometimes, so a mantra or chant that the target knew they would have trouble reproducing. And so they would with an older memory, especially one with emotional connection.”
    She assimilated that without saying a word, then nodded. “So you were, testing me.”
    “Yes, and I’m sorry. But, a long, very long ago, there was a war, not a war of these new-fangled cannon, not of swords, or bows, or even rocks, no, this war was fought with words, and lies, and secrets. It was called the shadow war, and I learned a great deal about trust then.” and about doppelgangers, or as my people called them, Hinra La’shune.”
    “Face dancers.” she translated aloud. He nodded.
    “I did not think they, or their methods, had survived the, purging, but I couldn’t take the chance. Not now, not with so much at stake.” He smiled, “The
    potion was part of the test actually, a shifter would react very badly to it. But there have been ways to overcome this, so I went ahead with the test.”
    She smiled warily at that last, “At least you’re thorough.” Pausing she noted that it had been a long day, information brought to her attention by the weariness creeping over her. “I need to sleep on this, I need to think on this and I’m too tired to do that right now right now. If you have any
    more tests, they can wait till morning.” Getting up she retrieved her pack and threw it on the bunk, “I got the bed, have a nice floor.”

    Kaj watched her lay down, rolling but once when the but of the pistol jammed in her back, she started to throw it to him, then paused, “Kaj,” she called, “What’s your full name?”
    “Tybalt Hallieun Illiancaj Andorana.” he responded with out pause, emphasizing the syllables in an odd sing-song accent.
    “Ok” , she responded dreamily rolling back over. “Just checking.”

    He sat there, for a long time, watching her breathe, then got up, pulling his cloak from his bag set it over her. Whispering softly, “Rest, princess, for on the morrow your journey truly begins.” then following her example he sat, and slept in the dreamless sleep of his kind.
     
  3. AjaxTorbin

    AjaxTorbin New Member

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    CHAPTER TWO


    Dwarves had a tendency to be known as ‘rude’ one such reason was they way they moved about, not stopping in the straightest path they could achieve; it was told to young dwarves that stopped as they moved about, ‘locomotion is way to get to the next job, so what are you doing stopping here?’ It came from the dwarven attitude, they were no-nonsense, get the
    job done in the most expedient way possible. If something was in your was you moved it, using whatever force necessary, to get it out of the way.
    This straight-forward attitude with penchant for building things had made them known to all, rightly, as the best engineers and architects around. They could get the job done quickly and efficiently. Under cost (dwarven construction teams charged a LOT you know), and ahead of schedule too. So why couldn’t one find his way through a simple city? One that me kinfolk helped build. Thought Kaeol son of Harral of clan Wedgewielder as he walked, some would say stormed, through the city of Tanton. He’d been given what some humans called ‘the runaround’, and that was not the way to get on the good side of a dwarf. And getting on the bad side of one, well, let’s just say dwarven blood oaths were passed down, generation, to generation. And long generations they were too. The average dwarf could expect, at least, two centuries, three if he lived well and ate all his greens. That would put Kaeol, at fifty, relatively young for a dwarf .
    And I’ll do me duty if I have ‘t stay here all me days He swore silently to the heavens. If I have ‘t break every stone, sunder every object, and sink ‘evry ship, in this gods, he mumbled a quick apology to Thor, his totem deity, forsaken, thrice cursed, water logged, human infested, city ‘t do it He paused, he’d said that last aloud, he looked around, bah, let ‘em stare. It’ll show ‘em what real manhood looks like. Choosing a direction at random he strode purposefully, wherever that way went.


    Oh no, thought Sargent of the watch, Citadel Keep, Rufus Matson, as a very familiar, short, redheaded, well groomed bearded, dwarf stalked towards the gate that was his charge. Sighing internally, he prepared himself for the aural assault that was forthcoming.
    “SARGENT Where is the Prime Minster ” the dwarf approached the guard, and as impossible as it seems, the Sargent being several feet
    taller than him, glowered down at him, or that was the effect it had anyway.
    “I don’t know as I’m not privy to his schedule.” He responded automatically.
    “Then find me someone who is ” Bellowed back the dwarf.
    “Kaeol, even if I could, you know they wont let you see them.” he replied somewhat sympathetically, “Now I’m going to have to ask you to clear the gate. We don’t want a repeat of last time, do we?”
    “Nah, yer, right.” He said in a somewhat more calm manor. “Thanks for yer help in that matter, by th’ way.”
    “No problem. Anyone who punches a ‘red is a friend in my book. Assholes had it coming anyway. That one you threw over the wall is still recovering.” Rufus smiled at that memory, not every day you see an entire squad, five fully armed troopers, of ‘Royal Guard’ taken down by one man, or rather, one dwarf. Very spectacularly too. So much so, the troopers had been too embarrassed to tell the healers who had done it. They made up some story about an entire tavern full of orcish sailors or something. But that, and a discreet exit provided by the Sargent, had gotten the feisty dwarf off the hook with narry a mark on his hide nor name. And it left one Rufus Matson with a healthy respect for dwarves, and this one in particular. “So what ya’ going to do?” he asked the dwarf.
    “I dinn’a no.” he looked thoughtful for a moment, if a beard and thick eyebrows scrunching together could be called a ‘thoughtful’ look. Seeming to make up his mind Kaeol continued, “Cann’a do noting more to-day. Where’s the nearest bar?”
    “The nearest?” he repeated, slightly confused, “That would be the ‘Morning Grotto’, but its awfully expensive. Its where the dignitaries drink on the off days.” he added, “Nothing under ten bank marks in there.” he said now referring to paper scrip used instead of actual coins here in the city. Each was worth about one-half piece of copper, give or take.
    “Humph” snorted the dwarf, “Paper trash. Y’ think they’ll take these?” he held out a rather large bag that jingled, as he held it. “Me clan master gave me a small stipend, fer’ me stay here.”
    “Let me see.” he said reaching for the bag. He untied it and nearly dropped it in surprise. It was full, not of silver pieces as he’d first thought, and not gold either, no, this bag, a rather plain one at that, held more than a Captain of Guard made in a year. Hell, more than a general made. Well, maybe not that, but this one small, two inch by half, piece of mithrill he pulled from the bag could buy his whole regiment a round of the most expensive elvish wine and have change left over to get a ride home. For the whole regiment. Putting the bar back in the bag and closing the tie, he handed it back over.
    “No, I don’t think they can take those.” ha said mechanically, “Not that they wouldn’t if they could. I suggest you get them changed first, to Marks, or smaller coin if you prefer. There’s a bank, just,” he paused, pointing an unsteady finger, “down that way.” he finished.
    “Me thanks.” said Kaeol not seeming to notice. He turned and started for where the finger pointed, but paused a few steps away, “I never did thank ye’ proper for yer help. Why donn’a ye join me when yer done here?.” still recovering, the Sargent was unable to speak, but he nodded his assent.
    With that, Kaeol , son of Harral turned and went about his business.


    ***

    It took them three days to work their way to the city of Outpost, flowing along the river, and by the time they reached there the last bit of summer warmth was gone, harried off by the fog and rain that preceded winter. They had taken the time to discuss their mission, starting with exactly what it would be. ‘Allieon’ took the time to get used to her new form by practicing with her twin spin blades, the movements used to wield them like a deadly dance. She loved these blades, they were rare and had been a gift from Kaj, a gift that the Duke had been very much against. As much as he’d been against any thing that was ‘unprincess like’, ergo, anything other than batting her eyes and gossiping with the other fluffed up dolls that passed for daughters among the nobles. So of course she had thrown herself into that which she loved to do, swordplay, ride in the woods, listen to stories from the guards, and any number of things that would embarrass her ‘uncle’. She did have to admit though, at first is was just being contrary, but then when she found that she was good at it, that she excelled at the so called, at least by Duke Kellon, ‘manly arts’. And with Kaj showing up once and a while they’d gotten away with it to. Until in-between the visits that somehow Kaj always managed to keep secret. And it went on tike this until she got into a fight, not a light tiff, no, a classic knockdown, drag out bar fight, exactly like she’d been told they happened. Someone pinched her bottom, she slapped him, he tried to hit her, she ducked making him hit the guy next to her, and one thing led to another, and suddenly she was getting arrested. And well, next thing she knew she was literally locked away. It was a fine prison, the King’s Home was, but when locked in one tends to go mad. And then, while she was planing an escape to end all escapes, quite suddenly, she, the entire Kings Own, and one small trunk of things were being shipped off to Waintree’s school. Don’t get her wrong, she was delighted to see her godfather, it had been years, but it was just trading one prison for another. True, this one had no locks, but stuck out in the middle of nowhere? With a bunch of eggheads? Worse then death.
    Although as she had been floating there on river, she’d realized that while she had been stuck there, it had become more of a home than the royal accommodations, informally known as the King’s Home. There she’d been hounded by the social necessities, she had to dress right, act right, use the right fork to eat her salad, but that by itself wasn’t so bad, it the hundred people actively reminding her of it. She couldn’t be a princess ALL the time, that was something Kaj had shown her a long time ago. Yet some people, mostly the type who enjoyed the trappings of nobility, felt it their duty to meld her into some doll that was to adorn the throne some day. And that was why she couldn’t stay mad at Kaj, yes he some times used her title but it was always in some half mocking manor, he saw her as a person first, and future ruler second, if at all.
    So it was with a happy disposition that they had entered the city of Outpost, so named not because it was the city farthest from Tanton and still allied (and it was) but because it had started out as the primary camp, of the final Kaslan invasion that Nolan the great destroyed. This camp had held special meaning to them, it was the farthest inland they’d ever broached and they had moved their supply caravans here, everything, including their noncombatants, healers, builders, husbands, wives; because they’d intended to stay and had bet every thing on it. It had been a good bet, at the time they settled Tanton and all those that apposed them had been in flames, when Nolan chased their forces back here, they’d thought to be killed and made ready a final stand. But at the final hour, Nolan sent riders with terms: he would allow them stay, even let them keep their goods and arms, if they to the last one vowed never to ride against Tanton again, and to enter a term of service: them and their children, to the third generation, or one hundred and fifty years, whichever came first; to serve Tanton. They agreed. The fighters entered military service, and the rest entered what amounted to indentured servitude. They found that their new ‘employer’ was hard, but fair, and they grew to love the Tantonians as blood brothers. The mercenaries they provided earned the money that was used, ironically enough, to rebuild Tanton, their craftsmen then used the resources bought by that coin to rebuild the city that they’d burnt in the first place. And now several centuries later, they supplied Tanton with a much needed southern force, the Hussak Vure, quite literally ‘south watch’ in their guttural old tongue, the third largest unit in the Tanton Army, the first being of course the Tantoniean First, and the second being the Tower Guards who actually kept the gates of Tanton.
    It had been quite an experience entering Outpost for the first time, she had bypassed it the first time through, she’d known the Kaslans had retained their own customs and blood lines, but it was still a shock to see men that were so, so, shaggy. Black hair was the norm, ruddy brown was next but both had a scraggly beard to go with them. And they were large, not tall, average human height, but they were thick and wide, like human sized dwarves. That’s not all either, vests over well made shirt, were the standard for clothing, most with elaborate designs woven into them, and plain leather pants completed their ensemble. It was the same for the women, although a skirt sometimes replaced the pants and for a few of their elders, a thick bell shaped coat that looked as if were made from one piece of animal hide.
    So when Kaj had requested clothes ‘on the quick’, the tailor and his wife had set to work, taking measurements and rabbling on about how it was such an honor to serve them, they’d never made clothes for ‘Paplaszove’ before, using their word for ‘high elf’. And that was why when they tried to join a caravan heading north she wore a light blue cotton shirt, ‘the better to accent you hair’ the tailors wife had said in thick accent, a pair of what they’d said were travel pants, laced up on the front and reenforced in all the right places, quite comfortable actually. This was topped off by a knee length coat and a wide embroidered scarf which was long enough to tie around her head, over her now braided blue hair, and leave enough to wrap comfortably around her neck. And to finish the ensemble, a simple wrap, which she threw about herself as a waist length cape over the back mounted scabbards which held her blades.
    It was so clothed that she sat on the back of the wagon that Kaj had payed the driver of, out of his almost depleted purse, to ride them to the caravan starting just at the edge of town. He had gone to the head of the caravan to size it up but she stayed here, toward the rear of the line so to watch the scouts and outriders plan their, hopefully unneeded, defense of the procession. This was a rather large caravan so there were about twenty guards that she’d seen, fifteen outriders, all human, one human scout on horseback, who seemed to be an old hand with this particular convoy, and the ones she was interested in, four rasarine rangers.
    Identifiable by their short stature, they were barely four and a half feet high, and the large ears that were highly mobile, they would twitch and swivel around, it was odd seeing them talk, ears pointed at one, then another speaker. They were gathered in a circle around a map set on the back of another wagon and seemed to be discussing how they would scout the roads ahead. All she knew of the wood elves came either snippets from Kaj or the histories she’d read at Waintree’s school, she had read that rasarine were short and described as ‘child like’ but the writers had focus had been on their stature and long ears, but it was their eyes that were fascinating. They were large and, using her own enhanced vision, she’d seen that two had shades of deep brown, not brown like a human, but deep pools of shining brown, the next, she had soft grey, not the striking steel blue/grey of Kaj’s and hers now, but soft like the winter fog, and the last, his stayed hidden behind a deep cowl. Must be uncomfortable keeping his ears back like that. She thought.
    The one doing all the pointing, ears twitching around as he spoke, talking in the fast punctuated dialect of sylvan that was their native tongue, seemed to be their leader, his face held several scars under a full head of neck length hair that seemed to have a will of its own, spiking out at odd angles. His companion, for she detected the familiarity of friendship between the two with brown hair, was of similar height and build and had the same slightly pale skin. The female was a little more well built, a little taller, a little more muscular, deigned to wear the winter cloak the other two wore, and instead had an oversize coat, much like Kaj preferred. And the light metal armor she caught flashes of told her that this elf was not from the wild like the others, they wore the traditional leather armor, so she must be from Illion Woods, where a large portion of elves, of all types, lived. Well maybe not large, but it was the only such community that chose to trade with others on a regular basis, so they were the only experience of elves many people had. The forth wood elf though, she could not get a good look at, he did not even speak but once, and then to low for her to hear, pointing to a spot on the map and the others nodding their heads in agreement. But even the pointing hand was covered by a leather glove, and his hood was too deep to see into from this angle. But as she watched, the elf stopped, no longer paying attention to what the others were saying and looked up, right at her. She still couldn’t see his face, it was covered by a stiff dark green scarf, made of the same heavy material as his full length cloak, but his eyes showed through, in a small gap under his hood, over his scarf, and well, she was disappointed, they were plain brown, not even shining. But the contact was broken and he once again looked to his fellows. She was sitting there trying to decide whether or not to just introduce herself when a familiar jovial tone came from toward the front of the wagon, “-And, then, he says ‘are you sure it was a cow?’” Kaj finished and someone laughed, a kind of joyous booming, enjoying what ever story he’d just heard. “Ah, here we are.” said Kaj coming around the wagon as she turned to look. Walking beside him was a thick black haired bear of a man, he was Kaslan from the build, and huge specimen to be sure, he towered a full head over the just under six foot Kaj, and was rather well groomed compared to his kin, but that’s not what first got her attention, it was the hat, one of the thick fur hats common here, but this one was, big, and black. It looked to be made of bear hide and it added at least foot and half to his already great height. Under the hat was a thick beaked nose set prominently betwixt pair of bright twinkling brown eyes, eyes that now stared at her.
    “Vell, meester, Kaj,” he had the voice, and an accent to go with that face, deep and booming. She could imagine he could be well heard over the din of battle if he chose, but now he was speaking only in a dull roar.
    “ you said you had a fair daughter, but you ver wrong. She is beautiful. To say less is insult.” he held out a thick, hardened, yet somehow soft hand out for hers. “Ef I may.” he asked. And she allowed it to kissed, face reddening. No matter how many time someone did that she still felt embarrassed. “But vhere iz this other capable fighter you said you had?”
    “Ah, you misunderstand, Vasiliy, my daughter and the fighter are one and the same. Allieon, show him.”
    Smiling, she hopped down off the wagon, removing her cloak as she did. Drawing both blades from the small of her back, she dropped into one of the fighting crouches that Captain Jackson had taught her, left arm up to defend, right held back for the attack. The great bear, now defined as ‘Vasiliy’ moved back a step, a little surprised at her sudden movement.
    “Ah, so the cat has fangs. But my neice can hold a blade.”
    “I’ll tell you what, any of your fighters against her.” he pulled out the dagger he’d used against the toughs back in the bar, “I put this up as a wager.” he said as he handed the hilt to the big man.
    “Vhat? This kitchen knife?” but as he took the dagger from him he drew it, eyes widening, “Heavy. This is not steel.” He ran his fingers along the flat of the blade and muttered under his breath, “Iz this . . . ?” He looked up quizzically at Kaj who nodded.
    “Yes, adamantine. The finest. That ‘kitchen knife’ as you say can be driven through solid rock and not break or even bend.”
    Still inspecting the blade Vasiliy asked, “The whole thing, not just blade?”
    “My friend, the blade you hold is pure adamantine with a full tang. The cross guards are part of the blade, they were forged with it. The handle is rasarine metal weave, steel and mithrill, wrapped around red oak. The base is the same length of adamantine as the blade. It is perfectly balanced, its edge will never dull, and nothing but an act of a god could break its length. Also, if you look at the blade, you will note that several runes have been carved into it; the rune of fate, the rune of silence, and the rune of ownership. Those runes were set into it as it was cooling from the fires of one the finest Dwarven forges by a Thaumaturge of the highest degree. One who founded his own school as a matter of fact.”
    Looking up at him suspiciously, “Vhat would you have put up for such an artifact?”
    “A ride in one of your coaches, and our choice of your, ‘special’ cargo.”
    “Ah. Vat is this? You go form wanting to ‘tag along’ with my convoy to buying a ride.” he looked closer at Kaj’s face, “Now I now vhere I heard that name before. Illiancaj, Is it not?” After getting the affirmative nod he went on, “My grandfather still speaks of you. Do you bring trouble this time too?”
    He laughed, “No, this time I’m going to the trouble, Rather than towing it along”
    “Vell, as long as it does not bother me or mine you can keep your secrets.” Sheathing the blade he handed it back to him.
    “Look, Vasiliy, either way you win, we pay for the right to travel with you if we loose and you get a very nice dagger to add to your collection. Or we win and take up some room in covered wagon and take a couple of trinkets off your hands.”
    He seemed to mull this over, “Very well, we bet Your blade, to my hospitality and wares. But, only if your ‘daughter’ agrees.” he looked towards her
    ‘Allieon’ who had by now set her weapons to the side, thought it over, she didn’t know what these ‘special’ wares were, but what was an adventure without a fight? Beside it had been days since she last sparred with some one other than Kaj, whom she had never been able to beat. “Sure. I’ll do it. Any rules?” she said as she hefted her blades.
    Letting out one of those booming laughs Vasiliy responded, “This one has fire Settle, now settle, there is hour more till the last of the cargo is loaded and arrives, and ve don’t leave till after it is here. So settle, you will be fetched vhen it is time. And your friend here can tell you the rules.” he looked at her then back to Kaj, “Now I have vork to do unless you wish to lose something else to me, dosvidanja.” Without waiting for a response he turned and walled back towards the front of the line.
    “Well, that went rather well. With a little luck and your skill, we’ll have a comfortable ride and some useful equipment.”
    Sheathing her weapons she tuned to Kaj, “So what exactly was that about? What equipment?”
    “That was the master of this caravan, Vasiliy Topolov, and the Topolov family is not known for trading the standard fare, at least not among the right people they aren’t. And I of course, am right people.”
    “So then what is all this for?” she said pointing to all the carts and wagons milling about in a barely controlled chaotic line.
    “Cover. Once a year the Topolovs’ gather all the items they’ve been gathering and make for the coast, by way of Tanton and the coast road that starts there. It’s the always the last large caravan to go before the snows, so everyone who needs to go some where does it now, or has to wait for the spring thaws or try to go it alone in the million acres of still wild bandit and beast infested forest between here and the Dorn coast.” Kaj paused, left eye narrowing thoughtfully, “Although, its not nearly as bad as it used to be, a few hundred bandits are nothing to the few million orcs and goblins that used to roam the wood. And don’t even get me started on the dragons.”
    “So why are we going this way then?” she asked somewhat incredulously.

    “Because the river route, while still about the same amount of time, is about to freeze over, and there is but one way to go on a river, to easy to watch, there are a thousand trails in the forest and Vasiliy’s scouts know them all.” He jerked a head in the direction of the rasarine that she’d been watching earlier, “He spares no expense, the best scouts and fighters that could be found, including our cousins there.” Looking closer at this group a consternation came over his face, “Odd.” he said, leaning closer to her, “Rasarine wear as little clothing as possible, they like to feel the air on their skin, so they wear as little as needed, but that one,” he pointed to the one she’d been looking at earlier with the heavy cloak and scarf, “seems to have almost every inch of skin covered.” shaking his head he turned beck towards her, “Strange. Anyway we have a fight to prepare for.”


    Just under an hour later the last of Vasiliy’s cargo had arrived, so her surprise, there were only two more carts, and what carts they were to. Each had a wheels twice her height, and was pulled not by horses as the others were, she had heard of the beasts pulling the carts, but they were too large to use in a city so had never seen yiddim before. They were huge to say the least, four times the height of any horse and fifty times the mass, the simple ‘carts’ the two of them pulled were more like large rooms, the rears of them she saw hinged down, and inside the fully enclosed carts was enough room for two of the horse drawn carts to roll inside. The beasts themselves were covered in a thick shaggy coat of brown hair that dropped down to their wide unhoofed feet. They had wide faces with massive eyes that rolled constantly about with their heads they swept the ground in front of them. She couldn’t imagine how one would train such huge creatures. And Kaj had answered her question to that effect with, “A high fence, and lots of food. It’s a good thing they live so long or it wouldn’t be worth it to train one up and then have it die a few years later.” He also said that these two had been in the family for three generations.
    But all thoughts of yiddim were driven from her mind as she saw the ring that had been hastily set up by applying white paint in a circle in the hard packed earth that served as roads here. And standing to one side, was the widest man she’d ever seen, if Vasiliy was a bear then this man was a grizzly.
    Kaj put a hand on her shoulder, “You can drop out any time, they will not see it as shame to refuse to fight another’s battle. And neither will I.”
    Looking at him she saw his unasked question, are you ready? Looking back at the grizzly man she sized him up, only slightly taller than Kaj but at least twice his girth and not an ounce looked to be fat. He had removed his vest and boots and was standing near the ring with several supporters, including Vasiliy and several of the Outriders she’d seen earlier. He seemed to be one of their number. This would be like nothing she had done before, yes she had sparred with guards, and even that one tavern fight, but with the guards they’d been carful not to hurt her, and they used only practice swords. And at the bar, they were drunk and only used to bare hand brawls. But this, real blades, with a man who could cleave her in two with only a slight mistake. To say she was not afraid would make her a liar, Kaj had told her that in ever fight there was a time of fear, it was what you did with that fear that made one brave. He’s big, so he’s most likely slow, in so thinking she remembered another thing kaj told her, Never assume. She was interrupted by the sudden stop of Kaj, his hand still on her shoulder, she’d been so focused on the man in the ring she didn’t notice that a large crowd had gathered around the ring, most on the side of the large man.
    Kaj had stopped a few feet from the edge and was now looking at her, “You are still sure? I know you can take him, but I am not you.” She nodded her head and he went on, “Very well, the duel is simple, first to land three cuts on the torso wins. Now, they will not be real cuts, a neutral party will apply a special substance to your blades, it will dull the edge so there will no actual drawing of blood, but if you land a strike it will leave a red smear. You must land three of these on his,” he paused, looking at her opponent, “-rather massive, mid-section. There is one other way to win though, but don’t hope on it, a ring out, if you force your opponent out of the ring you win.”
    Nodding that she understood, she unsheathed her blades and handing them to him, she started to remove her cape, followed by her vest and then, after a slight pause and some cat calls which were quickly silenced by a glare from Vasiliy, her shirt; she started to remove the scarf to, but stopped and just tied it off so it fell from the back of her head just behind her long blue braided hair. She now wore only a tight vest across her upper chest, a pair of pants and a set of tightly laced shoes. As this was going on more people came to watch and place bets, bets that seem to favor her opponent, many of the caravan drivers were interested, and so her surprise, people filtering down from town, even the tailor and his wife she saw exchange moneys with a man who was taking wagers. But all this quieted as a wizened man with one of those strange bell shaped coats stepped into the middle of the ring. Putting his hands up he quieted the murmuring crowd, and in a voice marked with age said,
    “I am Piotr Anzolave, for those who do not know I am the Arbiter for this side of town, I have been asked to judge this contest of skill. Will the combatants step to the center please.” seeing that her opponent had slung his broadsword over his shoulder she took her weapons and walked to the center. The Arbiter went on after they’d reached the center turning to the grizzly man, “Ivan, you agree to fight this one?” he nodded at the affirmative head shake and turned to her, “You are, Allieon?” she nodded, “You agree to fight this one?” She nodded again. “Give me your weapons.” she presented them to him and from under his coat he withdrew a small phial pouring its contents down the length of one of her blades saving half for the other one. Taking the blades back she ran a finger down the edge, not a prick. It was soft and spongy, and left a red smear on her finger, just like Kaj had said. He turned and applied the same coating to Ivan’s blade and after he’d finished, “You both know the rules. What happens in this ring stays in this ring.” He stepped back and looking both of them in the eye said, “Fight honorably.” turning and exiting the ring he positioned himself nearby taking up an observant stance, and waited.
    This ‘Ivan’ set himself into an easy low guard position, and seemed to size her up. This one is no fool, she thought as she did the same, taking a step back she set both her blades in outward and slightly down slope as if to make the lower half of an ‘X’, giving a slight nod as she did, giving a traditional duelists salute. Ah, she thought again, He gives the proper response; after a slight pause as if surprised, he had swung up his sword so the flat of his blade faced outward and held the hilt with both hands, right one under the left. This is no simple farmer, he has received fencing training. But there was no more time for staring, as if at some agreed upon unseen sign they both charged, he swept a large arc starting form the left, as if to mow her down, and she dodged backward feeling the air as his blade passed in front of her. No slouch this, she barely had time to think as he switched momentum, bringing the blade around and back from a slightly higher angle. She threw up a blocking left arm and angled her arm so his blade slid along her forearm, catching it in the small spikes that protruded from the backside under her fist, pulling his momentarily pinched blade toward her she stabbed upward with her right arm , as if meaning to slash across his chest, but he saw the movement barely in time
    and was able to pull his blade back enough to catch hers, but now both her blades were against his, and grinning wickedly, she pulled downward with all her weight, and she felt his sword start to rotate rom his grasp but he caught his grip so she merely managed to force his tip down into the soft dirt. But for one split second, he was on the retreat, he was defensive, and as Kaj had taught her, she used all the weapons at her disposal; she kicked the pommel of his sword. The sword went up twirling over their heads, and she spun backwards twisting her blades so as she spun around to his left side both of them slashed across his abdomen leaving twin red streaks. And as he scrambled away she revised her estimate of him, No, knows the proper etiquette, but is not a duelist. He is young despite his size, my age, perhaps younger. Eyes flashing she dropped back into a defensive stance to await the next attack.


    From outside the circle Kaj watched as Ivan picked up his sword and the combatants faced each other again. He’ll not be making that mistake again. He thought, and he proved him right by attacking again with more deliberation and less force. And now we’ll see what has come of you these last eighteen months since I saw you last. He paused looking around the circle, only slightly surprised at the crowd that had gathered, but he was more interested in Eileen’s, or rather Allieon’s responses to the fight. She is to eager, she’s become to arrogant, and she responded so softly to the news I brung. His tests had satisfied him of her identity, and she had gotten over the testiness because of them, but it had been a long few days on the river. But is was the fact that she was responding so calmly to the news that someone is taking over her throne. Ah, Rebecca, Michael, what kind of offspring have you saddled the world with? But his reflecting was interrupted when as he watched Ivan landed a swipe with his broadsword and the crowd cheering for him roared. ‘Allieon’, even though he could see the wind was knocked out of her, rolled with the blow and kept going, rolling several times tucking her blades in close so as to not cut herself, she came up several strides away from her last position, ready for the onslaught coming up behind her. What is she doing? Dammit, he thought at her, quit trying to out smart him and get him The betting all around him was reaching new heights, five to one? He snorted, if I only had some spare change. His spending habits had grown exponentially since he’d picked her up, he usually got by without dropping coin everywhere, but he’d wanted someone to take note of them, and the best way to do that was to spend a lot. No matter how much changes, money always attracts a lot of attention. And when anyone asks they’ll hear of a couple elves making a big scene and dropping a lot of coin. Looking at her fend off Ivan’s blows it looked as if she was having a hard time, yet with his keen sight he saw no sign of exertion. I am missing something, thought he. If I assume its not her, although he did not discount overconfidence; he sized up this Ivan, young, partially trained, Ivan suddenly countered a particularly swift assault from Allieon, knows that strength isn’t everything, he amended, then saw the young man launch a powerful series of sweeping strikes, and added, but is not afraid to use it. And then Kaj figured it out, he wants to be a solder. A Hussak Vure. He and his friends are using this caravan as training. He figured as he spotted a particular group young humans who cheered very loudly for him. Ah, as someting suddenly occurred to him, You sneaky little under handed... but he let the thought trail off as he watched the end of the fight.


    I, she dodged a swing, hope, and another, that, again, this is worth it , and charged forward spinning around in the dance like movements needed to wield her blades. They were now evenly scored, two and two, and she was beginning to tire and he was still going. To many months of fine food, Eileen, better end this before I give out under these blows And so when he next struck, she did not block, she fell. To those observing it looked as if she collapsed under the fury of the blow but it had the desired effect on Ivan, he paused, surprised as his target suddenly wasn’t there. It
    was all she’d needed, and it was over as quickly as it began. She lay there on the ground arm outstretched and her blade extended all the way to his abdomen where a large smear of red could be seen. He looked down in surprise at her and then, stepping back, and, laughed. It took a few seconds for the crowd to figure out what had happened the stop had been so sudden. Ivan though had stopped laughing and approached her, “Eet seems you have beetin me.” he said in the thickest accent she’d heard yet. “It vill be good to have your skill vit us, Leettle blue.” He saluted and she returned the gesture. “I vill go now, I see you later.”she heard the soft rustle of fabrics behind her ad turned to see Kaj standing there.
    “Trying to make friends are we?. ”
    “I’m fine. It was under control.”
    “You have training and aptitude, yes, but do not think for a moment that you controlled that situation. If that were a battle field you would be dead now. You have nowhere near the experience needed to toy with someone like that, you got away with it only because he is also inexperienced. You were as two wolf cubs, dangerous to each other and their prey, but not to another predator.” he glared at her a moment, to let the words sink in, then went on, “you must prove you can win before you can try to choose the circumstances of that victory.” Holding out the rest of her clothes he went on, “ Well, here you are, but I would wash in the river first, that red stain turns sticky after a time.” he presented an arm and she let him take her blades, “I do suggest haste though, this caravan actually intends to move sometime soon.” looking up toward the river, shielding his face from the sun with his tri-corner hat, he went on, “Someone seems to have taken an interest in us.”
    There the hooded elf stood among his kin near the waters edge, they were engaged in conversation with one of the human Outriders, their commander from his look. And after a moment they moved on, but the hooded one lingered a second looking in their direction, and after a moment, followed his kin.
    “There is something I don’t like about that one. I get the feeling of being watched every time he’s around, we should keep half an eye on him.”
    “Wow. I’ve never known you to be so judgmental about someone so fast.” She responded somewhat amused at his consternation.
    Still looking at the retreating elf he clarified, “I don’t like what I don’t know or what doesn’t make sense. And that rasarine, just; just doesn’t fit.” He finished.
    She looked at him grinning, “Well I’ll be at the river if you have a break-through with that paranoid streak.”
    “Hey ” he returned in a jovial tone, the chastising seemingly forgot, “We elves call it ‘caution’. Paranoia is for the lesser races.” he sniffed and turned, making a scatting motion with his fingers, “Go, clean thyself, I deign to look upon such filth that covers you.”
    Smiling and a bit chagrined, she went down to the waters edge and washed herself in the cold water.

    ***

    The Right Honorable Sir Captain Argyle Jackson was actually having a good day. At not a single point did the ‘princess’ try to get away, or argue with him, or any of the hundred other things that would annoy him. Add that to the fact that he’d been able to, unless he was some sort of master liar and thespian, pull the wool throughly over one Major Rineholt’s eyes.
    Because of his quiet demeanor and strict enforcement of the law orders others tended to think he was dense. And admittedly, he had little social experience but, what was it he’d once heard? Oh yes, ‘mouth is closed, eyes open.’ he might not get the undertone, but keen ears and a good memory had served him well in the past. All that and tendency to dwarf-like abruptness, most people didn’t think him capable of subterfuge, and I’d have it no other way, he thought to himself as he went to meet the riders he’d sent to Southford
    “Lieutenant,” he called to the officer in charge of the small group. He motioned him over to a corner of the stable where they’d be left alone. “Report.”
    Removing his helmet he looked around conspiratorially, and spoke softly, “We did as you asked and made discreet inquiries in town. We were ably to pin down two different sets of incidents, both involving elves, one at a tavern where they said an elf beat up the local toughs. And at an inn, where one man said there were two elves there, a male with a scar on his left cheek and a young girl with bright blue hair. The waiter at the inn was most helpful, even told me what they’d ordered.”
    Argyle sighed. I don’t know what he did to her, but that has to be them. But aloud he said softly, “Good, Lieutenant, now you were gone when I told the others, but the princess has had to go back to Tanton. And she didn’t want certain parties to know. So were using Sargent Dieter as a ringer.”
    The Lieutenant smiled big at that news, “I bet Mika is enjoying that.”
    “Right, like a cat enjoys water.” returned Argyle, Mika Dieter was known for her, shall we say, rough edges, and pretending to be a princess rubbed her the wrong way. “I’ll tell you the rest later, but for now, Ludger,” he paused, giving him a meaningful look, “ you are the Lieutenant in command of the Blue Helms and more importantly my friend, I need to know that you can let our charge go into the hands of another. I need to know if you can not do your duty when you have to.”
    Looking back at his captains eyes he tried to see his meaning, but nothing was forthcoming from his features, but he responded ardently
    anyway, “I like you swore an oath to obey the crown first before all others. And if that order is to ignore the rest of our oath, then, though I am uncomfortable with it, I will obey.” he looked again to his captains eye, “But to assuage my own fears, will she be safe?”
    He’d been asking that same question for the last few days now, “I don’t know. But I fear it will be safer wherever she is now than here.” Lugders eyes narrowed questioningly, “After I sent you back to Southford the Major’s new brigade showed up. There are now more than five hundred men here, not including us.” he said referring to the Kings Own.
    “What? ” Ludger exclaimed.
    “I’ve sent riders to command demanding an explanation, but I think you and I know what that is already.” Ludger silently shook his head in agreement and looked in the eyes of his captain and spoke softly.
    “What ever comes, I will stand by your side. And so will the rest of the Kings Own. We know where we stand, even if we always don’t always understand why.”
    Placing a hand on his friends shoulder Argyle smiled thinly, “I am glad for such friends in times like these.” after a pause he squeezed his shoulder and removed his hand, “Thank you my friend. I want you to take your Blue Helms and remove as much of the supplies as you can without getting caught. Check with the headmaster he may have some you can have. Take them into the woods to a safe place, preferably one hard to find unless you already know of it. Also, I want you to have the men get their parade armor ready.” he paused, Ludgers looked confused at the reference to the thin leather armor that was kept shined for parades and state dinners where their breast plate would be cumbersome. He went on, clarifying, “While you’re doing that have someone you trust get the battle plate ready, keep them in the crates, but free of the packing materiels. I wish we could move them into the tower, but the major is sure to notice them missing.”
    “I see, you want them ready to put on at a moments notice.”
    “Yes. Now we only have seven sets left so choose five of your most trusted men and tell them they are ready. Let them know if something happens not to wait for an order, they’ll go straight to the armory, don them, and defend it.”
    “What about the other two?”
    “I think we can get away with moving those two, so I’ll handle it.” his mind had moved to full tactical gear now, there was no stopping him.
    “Survey the grounds, find the best escape routes, the best hiding spots, the best defensive locations. I want you and the other ‘helms to know the surrounding lands like your mothers face. I want you to be ready for
    anything.”
    “Anything else?”
    “Of course. First...” And there, deep in the shadowy corner of a stable they planned the future.


    ***

    The caravan had far more people than Eileen had expected, right before they’d left whole families had joined, there were at least a hundred in the column now, wagons of all shapes and sizes. There were simple pony carts, ox carts, the standard horse drawn wagon and, of course, the yiddim, strategically placed at the fore and aft of the line. The outriders, whos numbers had swelled another ten, for a total of twenty-five, rotated around, ever alert. The rasarine had vanished into the wood, stalking silently ahead as only the wood elf could. A few hours after they’d started Vasiliy came to their rather well appointed coach and took them to one of the yiddim carts. Inside it was well made, a double row of benches went down either side where well armed grim faced fighters sat, Ivan was among them and he smiled warmly at her as she passed. Vasiliy spoke, leading them to the front of the space stopping in front of a well built man with a large well greased handle bar moustache, “Thees is my brother, Zavid, Ivan’s father. He guards vhat truly funds this convoy.” The mustachioed man nodded his head “Zzdrastvetyeh, leetle blue. I hav
    heerd much aboot you.”
    Smiling, she said, “It was just luck, your son nearly had me.”
    “Ba, eet iz old Kazlan proverb, ‘luck iz taking advantage of opportunities made.’ Dees iz luck.”
    Well, now I know where Ivan gets the thick accent. But she said instead, “Well who am I to argue with Kaslan proverb.” smiling all the wider.
    “Ha , thees one knows visdom ven she hears it You are blessed father indeed ” Zavid finished, turning toward Kaj.
    “Yes, thank you.” Kaj broke in grinning, “If you’ll excuse us, we have to collect our winnings.”
    And they had, she rubbed her forearm were it was now sheathed in a well lacquered leather bracer scribed with elven signs of warding, its companion and matching greaves adorned their appropriate places on her body. The translation of their name was ‘wanderers friends’ , they kept one cool in heat, warm in cold and going with insufficient food. Her blades also now sported magical runes for speed, accuracy and sureness of strike. And there had been that other one, that Kaj had said she’d like. At first hesitant, because the runes could not be removed after affixing, she had in the end pressed the stamps to her blades, the plunger sliding along the tube and mixing the two alchemical substances which heated the raised rune of alchemical silver on the end, burning it into the steel of her blade. At first she hadn’t noticed a difference, but then she threw the blade into one of the many trees that lined the road at Kaj’s insistence, and in the afternoon sun it seemed to be still cloaked in shadow, wavering as if made from glass and not steel but when she retrieved it, it looked normal to her eyes.
    They’d moved their things from the coach in to the head cart at Vasiliy’s insistence, and now, for the last day and a half they’d ridden in the rapidly cooling fall air. Vasiliy had taken them to the top of the cargo cart where there was space for passengers, benches and a hard wood canopy set into the roof, where the family Topolov and friends rode in relative warmth. There Kaj had found Vasiliy’s uncle fiddling with the wooden board for a game of strategy, and after asking how he was able to play on the rolling and bouncing cart (there were little pegs on each piece which fit snugly into holes on the checkered board) challenged him to a mach. With Kaj so occupied she had grown restless, everyone with whom she could have an interesting conversation had duties outside, so she had grabbed the leather harness which held her blades, and gone out, not even bothering to tell Kaj, already absorbed in another game. For several hours she walked near the cart, the guards seeming a little apprehensive until Ivan started a conversation with her, relating humorous anecdotes about family members. She learned some of what happened last time Kaj was here, seems one of his companions had offended, disgraced them in some way them somehow, getting them involved in some trouble, but then acquitted themselves in the end.









    As they traveled she had also taken to watching the others in the caravan, mostly the rasarine Rangers, they had stayed close the lead yiddim always walking in a formation, ears moving about like insect feelers always alert for something. Sometimes they burst forward, staing out of sight, somewhere off in the woods, no doubt scouting some unseen danger. When they were within sight they laughed and joked in their tongue like all this was a great adventure for them. She had been able to follow some of their conversation, the wood elf speech was not far from sylvan and she understood that well enough. But it was the dark one that interested her, he did not take part in their talking and he rarely let his hood down, and even then it was only pulled back a little to aid in eating. There was one other odd thing she noticed whenever he did say something it was quiet and she could never hear, but judging from their responses, they would agree with whatever he said. It was strange, she’d never seen someone be part of a group and yet still be an outsider to them. They obviously respected his voice, the others seemed disappointed when he didn’t elaborate on whatever it was he said and yet he walked a little apart from them, not anything noticeable but he was always slightly out of formation, as if he didn’t quite belong.
    But now the Rasarine were out of sight and surveyed th caravan, still surprised at how much the procession had grown, there were now some number of families walking with them, their possessions stuffed in carts and wagons. There was one group of young men who stared at her, seeming to have nothing more than the backpacks they wore. She walked slowly, letting the caravaners pass her, getting more stares from other young men, looks of curiosity from the women, and at one point a little girl, clasping the hand of a woman walking next to a heavily loaded wagon, asked loudly, ‘what’s wrong with her ears mommy?’.
    Smiling she had gone over to the girl, “These ears are normal for an elf.”
    “I’m sorry mistress, she’s never seen an elf before.” Her mother said apologetically, “We don’t see many of your kind this far past Tanton.”
    “Please, I am called Allieon.” she held out a hand toward the woman.
    Taking it gingerly the woman shook it, “I’m Ingrid, this is Elsa my daughter, and my son Dimitri, there driving the wagon.”
    “It is a pleasure to meet you all.” she responded looking at each as they were introduced. “Are you going to Tanton or parts beyond?” she inquired.
    “Tanton. My husband is-was a sergeant here with the Hussak Vure. But he has received his officers billet and was assigned back home.”
    “You are not from here?”
    “No, I am from Tanton originally, but I have spent most of my life in Outpost. My husband was born here though.”
    She nodded but her reply was cut off by the girl, Elsa, who was still gazing intently at her, “Can you do magic? My daddy says elves do lot’s of magic.”
    “No. I’m sorry, not all of us can do magic.” she laughingly responded. “My talents run more towards the martial arts.”
    “Oh. Are you a solder like my daddy?” she asked.
    After responding in the negative Ingrid inquired, “Do you have business in Tanton?”
    “Yes, one of my fathers partners is attempting a,” she said after a pause, “a takeover, and we’re going to set things right.”
    They chatted like this for some time until she noticed that Dimitri had lit a lantern and set it on the seat next to him. Looking up she saw the half moon, shining through clouds that had blown in from somewhere. She hadn’t seen Ingrid throw a shawl over herself, but she had at some point, and she could see her breath now in the cold.
    “It seems the last burst of summer has spent itself.” she commented. “It has grown dark and my companion will wonder where I am. I hope you. . .” but her voice trailed off as there was a flurry of movement at the head of the column. She couldn’t see what exactly, even with her enhanced vision, there were to many carts and people in the way, but there was moment and the whole caravan had slowed. “I’m sorry, but something is happening at the head. I must go, I hope your journey goes well.” she finished, nodding to them and starting toward the front.
    When she arrived she saw Vasiliy and the scout she’d seen earlier, who was now standing and holding the reins of his horse, talking with their guttural language, in a small clearing off the side of the trail, Ivan and the other fighters were gathered around listening intently to the conversation.
    Coming up behind Ivan she asked what was going on.
    He spoke in the common tongue, “Oh, leetle blue, ” he pointed to the dismounted man, “Gregor says one of elf rangers found set of strange tracks on trail. They vent to find vhat it vas, and until they do ve have no one on the flanks scouting.”
    “Odd.” she said. “They don’t know what it is?”
    “Nayet, he says your leetle cousins seemed jittery.”
    She looked at the rider, who was pointing off the trail towards the east, what could get wood elves jittery? She looked back at the front of the line, where the yiddim cart was still plodding its way north. Its probably nothing, but all the same, I think I’ll find Kaj. “Thank’s Ivan, will you tell me if they find out what it was?”
    “Of course. You shall be first I tell.”
    Reaching the cart she climbed the ladder at the front near the driver, to the top where Kaj was still staring intently at his game, one he seemed to be having difficulty with, and called to him, “Kaj”, she went on in sylvan,
    [The scouts found some odd tracks up the road.]
    “Well these are the woods, lots of beasts out there.” he replied in the common tongue, still staring at the pieces on the board. “Wait,” he said starting suddenly and turning towards her, [Which scouts found them?]
    [The rasarine did. They are searching for the creature that made them now.]
    [And they don’t know what it is?] He turned to his opponent, “Sorry Boris, but you would have had me in a couple turns anyway.” he knocked over his King piece, the sign for conceding, “A rematch some time?” After receiving an affirmative nod, he turned to her as he headed for the ladder, [Strange for rasarine to not know a track.] After climbing down he looked around in the pale moonlight as he slowly walk along with the cart, “Where are the guards for this coach?”
    “I think they’re deployed around the edges of the caravan.” she responded.
    He looked at her, a fierce edge suddenly coming to his eyes,[I have talked to you about tactics before, to do what ,and go where your talents allow; I am going into the woods, and right now I need you to stay here, not because you do not have the ability, you are untested and I can not spare the attention I would need to give you. Stay here, keep watch, keep alert.]
    She nodded, a little alarmed at his sudden change in demeanor, but she did not follow when he went to the front of the caravan.

    ***
    Walking along the trail Kaj could see the outriders in the woods off to the sides, twenty humans doing the job that four elves were hired for. ‘Stealthy human’, there’s a contradiction if ever there was.
    He had left his hat and pack back at the cart so he tied a bandana around his head, releasing the catch on his back sheath as he finished knotting it in place, though not actually drawing his sword. He fastened his long leather ‘trench coat’, as the humans called it, at the waist with a belt and paused, considering a moment. Shrugging his shoulders as he made up his mind, he reached under his now closed coat and removed the belt that held his dagger and wrapped it around the newly acquired bracer on his left arm; twitching his arm the blade clicked from it’s matching metal sheath, swinging it easily around in his hand he held it moment then swung it back around into the sheath snapping it back in with his middle finger.
    And thus equipped he moved quickly up the trail, stepping softly and silently as only an elf could, not even the breeze telling his passing. He moved like this for a few minutes before reaching a long break in the wood, a small field which the road cut through, a hundred horse lengths wide, it narrowed into a point the east and widened down the west to at least twice its with. On the east side, there was a hill sloping gently upwards until, some ways from the path, it cut sharply up at least twice the length of a man, and looked to even out, forming a small plateau. The west became a small slough, but now it had become a full fledged swamp, pools of mud and clumps of grass visible to him even under the clouded moon. The road itself seemed to be on the only even, firm ground nearby, it then sloped gently down to the east, away from the hill. What really got his attention though, were the tracks in the soft earth, they milled about in the middle of the road and then went back up the hill. Studying the tracks closer, he set his hand in one, it was hoofed, single on the rear, split in three on the front, his hand was less than half the size of the rear one. And they were deep, his outstretched finger sunk up to his palm; the ground was soft but whatever had made these tracks was large and heavy. They came from the west, milled about on the road, pacing some of its length, at one point it seeming to walk on it’s hind legs only, then went back to the west. Looking south, back the way he came, the caravan was still out of sight, so he turned and started up the hill, cresting the small rise he saw a ring of stones set into the ground, there was once a tower or pavilion here, probably one of the old Ragnarok Kingdom watchtowers, he thought to himself. Walking the edge of the ruins he found the tracks again, still heading west, on the other side where the tree line started again. plunging in, all senses looking for the slightest thing out of place he walked for some time until the moon, peeking through a gap in the overcast, showed that he had reached a dry stream. Walking up and down the far bank he could not find where they picked up, there was one clearly in the mud near a sand bar, then nothing. Looking up and down the stream bed and considering witch way to go he suddenly felt, something. He dropped into a crouch, ready to draw, his head flashed to the bank, north of where the tracks started and saw nothing. He stared intently, but saw nothing out of place. Something is amiss, there was something he could not place, some small voice at the back of his mind which quietly spoke of danger. It wasn’t the normal ‘danger sense’, it was like an itch that he could not scratch, like something watching him from the shadow. He scanned every rock, tree, and shadow for any shape that was out of place and found nothing. Warier than ever he started north, I think you’re starting to finally loose it. I’ll start talking to my self next, he thought ironically, a twitch at the left side of his mouth threatening to turn into a grin. But he successfully kept his features blank as he wandered further north up the stream bed; it was right at a gentle curve in it that he saw it, a shadow that was out of place as the moon flashed through a quick gap, nothing more than a slight extension that shouldn’t be there, but it was enough for his practiced eyes. He stopped and spoke, not speaking, barely breathing the words out.
    “Ho, cousin, what news does the wind bring and the tree show?”
    A voice called back with the same silent tone, “The wind does blow, and the trees sing.” There was pause and a pair of large brown eyes
    appeared from nowhere, “Step off the bed, and try not to make so much racket this time.”
    He did as asked, not speaking until right next to the owner of that voice, “May I ask what keeps you up at this hour? On such a dismal night?”
    The rasarine, crouched in-between the roots of a tree, swivelled his ears into a sweptback ‘defensive’ position and gave him a sizing glace, “Dismal? I ask what brings a ‘fair-folk’ out from his hearth? Slumming in the mud with his kin? Throwing our greetings around as if they were some ‘ahoy’ of the humans?”
    “Why, cousin, such vehemence? That is the proper great for two rangers in the wood?”
    He looked of at him, eyes set narrow, “Who are you to call yourself ranger? Do you dabble in the natural ‘arts’ like a human? Go back to your comfortable city and leave the woods to those capable of managing them.”
    “As much as I enjoy this banter, there is something in the woods, so” he broke into unaccented Zill’sylvan, the rasarine tongue, “Hala’valansh et’torine intin kethsoun.”
    The smaller elf looked somewhat surprised, most so-called ‘high’ elves thought the variation of sylvan spoken by the wood elves beneath their ‘true’ form of the speech. He looked closer at this one, shorter than a normal elsarine, and stockier, he looked more like a nauphtsarine, the ‘grey elf’, or sometimes ‘sea elf’. But this one’s ears clearly defined him as an elsarine, they were short, almost human, with sharp tips that were nearly flat against his head. A scar on his left temple and deeply tanned, well worn skin showed him to be no stranger to the road either. [I apologize, friend.] he said in his tongue, then, “As you said, strangers often do bring surprises, I should taste the berries before rejecting them as sour.”
    “No apology is needed cousin. I know my kind are so oft’ lodged in our towers and libraries we forget there is a world full of people outside; and that attitude shows.”
    “We have names you know, cousin.” said a voice from beside him.
    Looking slightly to his left, he saw the female ranger drop down from her perch in the tree, raising an eyebrow in surprise he shot back, “If I had been human I would be jumping out of my skin right now. It is not often I am flanked so easily and quietly.” She smiled, accepting the praise with slight nod, and he finished, “Also, if I knew your names I would use
    them. I thought ‘cousin’ better than a human ‘hey you’ or ‘you guys’.” he said that last with one of the charming smiles others claimed he had.
    “I am Aneela, you may call me Icefall, the watchful one at your feet is Caelus,” the rasarine he’d talked to first, laying in the roots, held a hand up when indicated, “and the one coming up behind you is his brother,
    Taelus, more often known as Dropper.”
    “I am Illiancaj, called Kaj by those who know me.” he looked around, “Were there not four of you?”
    Caelus spoke before Icefall could respond, “Chaser is up ahead on the stream bed, he hopes to drive whatever creature made those tracks to us.”
    “Why did you not all go?” he asked.
    “Chaser is faster than all of us, he can run ahead of the beast much quicker, letting us stage this ambush. An ambush that you are interrupting, I might add.”
    “I apologize, I thought I could possibly help, but I am not near the woodsman of the caliber needed here.” he said looking at the, deceptively, childish faces of the rasarine, the bows they all held were definitely not toys. Not in their hands at least. All three of them were wood elf Rangers, indicated by the construction of their bows and the tattoos on their left hands. The worst Ranger would put any other archer to shame, even the master archers of the elsarine legions, the rasarine just didn’t compete or brag about their prowess, so the high elves who did were often hailed as the best archers. “I will watch from back around the bend. I can. . . ” but he cut himself off when all three of them suddenly dropped, ears twisting forward, alert and listening. Dropping also, he looked toward and past the bend in the stream, seeing nothing. He knew better than to speak, their hearing was much better than his, not long did he wait though, Icefall had slid up the edge of bank and now all four of them were laying there.
    [That sounds like Chaser,] she said, breaking into her native language, [but why is he moving so loudly?] she was right next to him, and he could only just hear the words, so soft was her tone.
    Dropper slid noiselessly closer on his left, [He is moving pretty fast, even for him.]
    On the other side of Icefall, to his right, Caelus pulled his bow up, and taking his free hand, pulled the string out, releasing it with a soft twang, he repeated this twice more.
    [Good, he sent two in response, it is coming. Ready yourselves]
    They seemed to melt away into the night, one second they were there, the next, gone, and Kaj was alone on a slightly muddy stream edge.
    Relax, he thought to himself, let the experts handle this. He had
    seen rasarine in battle before, and they were the masters of ambush
    warfare. Where an elsarine army would out-maneuver and out-last an opposing force, the wood elves had not the strength, nor stamina for such tactics, no, they would spring a ambush on a much larger force, sometimes ambushes that led to ambushes, and pity to the fools that dared challenge the elves of the wood, a hail of arrows, fired faster and more accurately than any other could, swarmed out of the sky from nowhere, if that wasn’t enough, the ground and trees would attack next, guided by their mages, what they called ‘spell dancers’ or ‘spell weavers’, and if for some reason you still lived, the blade dancers would charge while the Rangers fell back to launch another storm of arrows. All this was guided by a general, called the Seer, who had centuries of training and experience to draw off of.
    So knowing all this, Kaj settled down to watch the show, fully intending not to interfere in whatever his diminutive cousins did. He was not surprised when the cloaked one, Chaser they’d called him, came to the bend of the stream, he was however, surprised when he drew not the bow on his back, but a pare of small axes from his belt. Weapons in hand he turned and readied himself as if to charge whatever it was that followed him. And he did not have long to wait, it was, not running, more like loping along after it’s prey, and now that he could see it, he knew what it was. Or what it used to be. It had been changed, with some infernal magic most likely, from a min’tarue; Minotaur, as the humans called it. It was frothing and mad, it smelled prey but could not catch it. It was humanoid, like a gorilla was, loping forward on all fours, the tri-split hooves on it’s fore legs closed together to form a whole ones. That explains the strange tracks, where a min’tarue has three fingered hands this has little hooves on the ends. Whatever it is, its unnatural and obviously has the Minotaur bad temper. Probably some wizards pet tha-. Wait, he interrupted himself, the only reason to purposely enhance a Minotaur is for some warlike reason. Kaj looked closer at the beast, a normal Minotaur had thick skin, hard to cut, was fast, had a really bad temper and, for some reason, a taste for human flesh, combine all that with a cunning and intelligence not normally found in such a strong beast, you got a really bad day if you met one. And if this one was magicly ‘enhanced’, it could be very interesting out here tonight, perhaps too interesting for five elves to handle. Well, we can’t just let it roam around the woods, there are other caravans, smaller ones that might not be able to take that thing.
    But he had no time to share his information, as arrows shot from the
    trees followed immediately by Chaser’s charge, both attacks did nothing. Another flight of arrows was in the air, targeting the creatures face, but even the one that stuck in a fold of skin did nothing. Chaser tried again, cutting again across the beast’s front leg, drawing some blood but still doing nothing but angering it further. Both Kaj, even though he expected it, and the creature were surprised at the speed of the attack, all four rasarine had attacked twice in as many seconds. But he knew the moment would not last, so he charged, drawing his sword as he did,
    “Run We can not take it alone Go back to the caravan ” he cried as he slashed across the beast’s rear flank, “Cut cross country, the trees will slow it down ” but even as he spoke, he saw the rasarine had taken flight. So taking his own advise he plunged headlong into the dark wood.


    It had been at least an hour since Kaj had gone off in the woods and Eileen was becoming perturbed. She was not mad at Kaj, not exactly, he was a centuries old elf and she was barely twenty summers, he was the more experienced woodsman and while she had noticed a increase in stamina with her ‘change’ she would probably would slow him down. And dammit, she swore, I hate being sidelined. And Kaj had known it. His words had blunted the feeling, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t still there.
    They had slowed the yiddim cart and the other wagons in the line had grouped closer, so they’d had to slow down so they wouldn’t hit. That and the darkness and cold, meant they were making very slow time. The remaining scout now stayed close to the convoy leading it by a tree length, a rather small tree at that, the other human outriders instead of circling the line now stayed close so they could respond quickly to anything that attacked, but with no scouts they would not have any warning. She supposed it was a fair trade-off, considering. The fighters on foot were spaced throughout the column, ten at the middle, five at the rear, and ten at the front. Ivan had replaced the spotters on top of the yiddim with fresh ones and taken command of the front squad himself. And she went back here, by the family wagons in the middle of the convoy trying to keep alert, and not thinking about how warm the yiddim she’d been riding cart was, and it’s benches, how long they were, just right for laying down. And how that stew she’d passed up earlier was looking better and better right now. She sighed, oh, who are we kidding, it’ll turn out to be a moose or
    something, and we’ll all have a laugh and go to bed. All this for a throne
    she wasn’t even sure she wanted. Who are we to stand in the way of history, even Kaj said there didn’t seem to be an outcry against the duke. It was just a lucky accident of birth that made her so important anyway. Yea she could spin the sharp end of a stick into someone with great accuracy, but other than that she was useless. Dammit , she swore again, I didn’t ask for all this who am I to deserve all this But she was interrupted by a shout from the front of the column. She could see the trees were thinning, probably some small glade or clearing ahead. But someone was shouting in the Kaslan tongue and pointing up in the air where a single spot of light was arcing downward, an arrow set aflame shot from somewhere in the woods to the north-east, shining like a beacon under the cloudy half light. But the small flame was put out quicky before it reached the ground by the chill wind and fog but for a moment she saw it’s thick black smoke against the struggling moon. One of the Common speaking foot soldiers said loudly to his companions,
    “That’s one of the signal flares we gave the wood elves ” There were a few moments of anxious waiting, most of the wagons slowed further, sleepy eyed children and suddenly alert parents poked their heads out of the wagon covers, but then there was single low horn sound, and the soldiers milling around ran toward the front. She stood there trying in vain to see what was happening up there, but it was too far and too dark to see even with her enhanced eyes. The families began to murmur among themselves, dammit , she thought once again, I’m getting worse than a salior, but she shouted,
    “Put the wagons around the edge of the road Pull them closer to each other ” She occupied herself directing the traffic until, quite suddenly there was no more, the yiddim cart that took up the rear pulled up, the driver calling out for it to stop and slid to a halt. She called to the yiddim driver, “Where are the soldiers that were at the rear?”
    “Didn’t you see them? They vent by a few minutes ago, running to the front.”
    Eileen looked around in dawning shock, suddenly realizing she was the only fighter at the rear of the caravan; this can’t be good.
     
  4. AjaxTorbin

    AjaxTorbin New Member

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    -------please note this is a second draft, unchecked but expanded from its orrganal form-----
    i know you useuly dont, but please leave your veiws on this thread

    p.s. and the italacs didn't transfer, and i dont want to weed through and corect it
     
    Last edited: Mar 14, 2007