TALON was eyed with suspicion when he entered the inn, as he had expected to be. In a village as small and insular as this one, strangers were no doubt rare and, unfortunately, more often than not brought trouble. Talon certainly looked like he might: he was dirty, ragged, and well armed. He might look like a brigand, but he felt more like a beggar, save for the sheathed blade at his side. He drew strength and a small measure of dignity from both the Sword and the concealed armband on his bicep, from what they represented. But he was hungry and filthy and worn to the bone, so near to complete exhaustion it frightened him. Whyever had he come here?
He should have gone south as soon as he left the Gelthor Pass; he should have headed down the Southern Road toward Athanark as he had originally intended. There were disturbing rumors of trouble coming from there. But instead, he had found himself drawn north by that inexplicable portion of his Power that seemed to sense evil, that sometimes even detected danger before it happened. He had expected to discover the trouble he was seeking lay in Fenemal, the last City of Man in the north, but he was compelled to travel beyond that city, farther north still, almost to the mountains. It was there he had stumbled across the half-overgrown path leading from the Southern Road to this tiny village deep in the middle of these endless woods.
Talon had not slept for more than a handful of hours since before reaching Fenemal, and had not slept in a real bed for longer than he cared to remember. Nor had he bathed in anything better than an icy stream, and that had been many days ago, and he had traveled far since. The thought of a mug of mead and a hot meal, a warm bath, and a soft bed was tempting almost beyond enduring. Talon clutched his nearly empty purse and fingered the two coins it contained through the thin fabric eagerly, but his eyes remained on those in the room. He would, as ever, proceed cautiously.
The inn seemed full for this time of night, especially for so small a village, but those who were there drank deeply and without joy, and their conversation was tense and muted. Perhaps his instincts had not led him astray after all. There indeed appeared to be something amiss here.
Talon chose a back table where he could eye both the door and the room, near enough to the fire for warmth and the light he so desperately craved, but where it wouldn’t dazzle his vision should he need to step out into the night again quickly. He slipped the strap of his slim bedroll from his shoulder and laid it in the empty chair beside him, his gaze continuing to wander about the room as he sat.
It was then he saw what stood beside the entrance: three pitchforks, two axes, and a few stout walking sticks were leaning against the wall, the closest thing these men might have to weapons. He was too tired. He should have noticed them long before he had entered the room so deeply. He cursed himself for his carelessness. But the forest that surrounded the village was disconcerting; there was a wrongness to it that had kept him awake and on edge all of last night, though ever since Fenemal, dark visions had haunted his dreams. Still, lack of sleep was no excuse. He never should have missed seeing the weapons.
The innkeeper approached Talon cautiously. He was not so fat as some, but cleaner than most for a village this size. Perhaps there might be a bath to be had here after all. Talon tensed, waiting for the suggestion that he remove his weapon, but it did not come.
“You’re lucky you didn’t continue onward tonight, stranger. In truth, it’s past dusk and a wonder you made it here at all. What can I get for you?” The innkeeper was remarkably friendly. Looking as he did, Talon had not thought to be given such a warm welcome, if a somewhat ominous one. Hopefully, he could find a single night’s peace here before confronting whatever evil threatened this place.
“Mead and dinner, a bath, and a room for the night,” Talon said wearily, stripping off his gloves now that it was safe to do so, now that it did not appear he would need to use the Sword, at least not in the immediate future.
He saw the innkeeper eyeing his hands in surprise. Talon knew without looking why he stared. His hands were astonishingly clean, soft skinned, and pale; they did not match the rough, tanned, weathered appearance of the rest of him at all. He silently cursed himself for the lapse in judgment. He should have left his gloves on. He knew better than to do anything to draw attention to himself. But by Idare, he had not wanted to eat his supper wearing those cursed gloves!
“I’d not begrudge a hungry man a bowl of soup and some bread and watered wine to go with it, even if he didn’t have the coin to pay for it, and I can offer you a spot by the fire,” the innkeeper said carefully. The Man’s eyes were upon his face again, obviously assessing his appearance and doubting his ability to pay but not wanting to risk angering such a rough-looking and possibly desperate man who carried a sword and must know at least the basics of how to use it. Talon was also well aware the innkeeper could have instead called to any of the knot of burly Men sitting about and tried to have him disarmed or tossed out on his ear. They would never have succeeded, of course, were he not to allow it, but he would have left with as minimal resistance as possible. He’d not risk harming innocents. But instead, the innkeeper had shown him remarkable compassion.
Smiling tiredly, Talon did his best to look nonthreatening. “You are very kind, Innkeeper. Far kinder than I had any right to expect or than most would be, seeing me as I appear. But despite how I look, I am not a beggar and do not need your charity. Please, save it for the next man who comes to you who might be worse off than I am. Nor do I want you to fear that I might be trouble to you and yours. I am neither a killer nor a thief. I am merely an honest traveler who has fallen on hard times, nothing more.” The lie came easily to him, as all the many thousands before it had. Like all believable lies, it had a kernel of truth in it. If only the Man before him knew who he truly was!
Talon reached into his lean purse, pulled two worn silver pieces from it, and held them out to the innkeeper. Hard times, indeed. The coffers of the Kingdom of Amontir had been reduced long ago to what little he and his few surviving kinsmen carried in their meager purses, to what few coins lay in their secret Caches, most of which were now dismayingly empty. They’d have starved to death long ago were it not for the aid of the wizard Arcanus, the Dwarves, and the Elves.
Forcing such dark thoughts down, lest they overwhelm him, Talon continued, “I prefer mead to the wine and something more substantial than soup, and I desperately need a private room with a lock and a hot bath. I assume this will be enough?”
The innkeeper smiled at him in genuine warmth, the wariness gone, though the tension Talon had seen in him and everyone else here remained. He took a single silver from Talon’s palm. “You keep the rest, stranger. This will cover all I can provide. Our kitchen is not nearly as well stocked as it should be,” he said, the smile leaving his face and a frown replacing it. Obviously forcing better cheer, he added, “But you’ll not go hungry, no sir! And I’ll begin heating the water right now for your bath. I’ll show you to your room after your dinner.” He headed off toward what was apparently the kitchen.
Talon continued to surreptitiously watch the others in the room, resisting the urge to instead lean back his head and close his eyes.
When his food and drink came, he sipped appreciatively from the tankard of mead, bitter though the brew was, and then, watching the innkeeper’s face, he casually asked, “Are there bandits in your woods?” There seemed to be enough able-bodied Men in the room that such should not be a problem, unless it was an organized force, but it was obvious something was wrong here.
“There are things worse than men that hunt in our woods,” the innkeeper said, before turning and walking away quickly.
Talon heard the fear in his voice. Men were often suspicious that speaking of evil brought it down upon them. He was loath to press for more information. He was weary and did not want to have to battle this night.
He tasted the fare cautiously. The stew was well spiced, although oddly of potato and carrot and greens with no meat. But it was hot. The bread was coarse but fresh enough. The mead was passable, if somewhat bitter for his taste. Sighing in the closest he’d come to contentment in far too long, Talon leaned farther back in his chair, allowing himself to relax just a little.
The deceptive air of calm was suddenly rent by a scream from outside and then a loud wailing. There was the screech and thud of chairs as Men scrambled to their feet and grabbed for the weapons by the door. Talon had already crossed the room, tugging on his gloves as he ran, and was out the door before many of those nearest to it had reached it, heading out into the night toward the sounds of the commotion.
A man was holding a hysterical woman, who was straining against him toward the forest. “My baby, my boy!” she cried.
Talon stood before them, his gloved hand on Kathalanar’s hilt. “Tell me, who or what has taken your child? What do I hunt?”
“You can’t,” the Man said, his voice hoarse, without hope. “He’s gone. It’s the wolven. They took my son.”
“Show me,” Talon commanded.
The Man pointed to a house closer to the forest edge than most, his hand shaking violently in his grief. “We thought we’d be safe in the house. But they came through his window, into his room. I heard him cry out. I wasn’t fast enough.” He fell to his knees sobbing, pulling his wife down with him.
Talon ran to the house as others went to the grieving parents. He looked into the child’s room from the back window, the one facing the woods. There was blood on the pallet on the floor. Another innocent taken!
There was enough moonlight that the tracks were easy to spot. Talon studied the spoor by the window intently. The Man was right. There were four of them, definitely wolven, the large, savage distant cousins to the hunting dogs of Men. This would be a relatively easy hunt, compared to what he usually faced?only beasts.
Still, he must be cautious. He was far too close to exhaustion, and he could not afford to make a mistake because of it. Carelessness can kill even the most seasoned warrior. He heard his father’s voice in his memory, speaking the warning to him as clearly as if it were a moment ago instead of decades past. For all he looked to be a man in his late twenties, save for his world-weary eyes, Talon was a scant two years short of nine decades of age. The Amontir did not age as other Men.
Talon slipped into the woods, moving as soundlessly as a pumar, continually scanning the ground and the forest around him. He followed the trail as long as he could. It was not easy tracking the wolven through the forest by moonlight. There was more blood, too much. But still he pressed on.
The forest became denser and the treetops blocked the moonlight. He lost the trail. Cursing softly, he carefully backtracked to where he’d last seen the tracks. He would not bring the child back alive, but he would bring him back. He would not return without him.
As he climbed into the higher branches of a strong oak, Talon wished for the bedroll he’d left back at the inn. Sleep was a long time coming, and when it came, his dreams were again dark, as full of blood and death as the long, violent history of his people.
He wakened long before dawn, his heart thundering loudly in his ears, visions of the horrors from his nightmares still vivid. He looked frantically for the faint light of the moon, when it was the burning blaze of the sun he needed, but it was near pitch black now. Clouds were obscuring the moon almost completely. He was a fool for not having returned to the village while there had still been enough light to see by! He fought the urge to draw upon the feeble light of the Sword. A fire would be enough; he must light a fire!
Talon nearly fell from the tree in his eagerness to reach the ground and chided himself for his stupidity, again hearing his father’s warm voice in his memory gently reprimanding him for his carelessness. Memory of his father’s voice, of his love, helped to calm him.
He began looking for dead wood, twigs, and especially pinecones, anything that might light easily and burn brightly until he could see to collect more fuel. Jumping at every unexplained snap and pop in the woods around him as he worked, he expected at any moment to feel the cold hands of the Enemy’s Revenants, the walking dead, grab him and drag him into the darkness to their master. Again, he fought his need for the Sword’s Power.
“No, He is not here, they are not here. You are safe. It is only wolven, animals, not monsters that you hunt this time. They are no danger to you, not while you are alert, while Kathalanar is at your side, not unless you let panic overwhelm you. There is no danger, not here, not yet, only fear,” he chastised himself as he gathered together a small armful of wood and a few precious pinecones and laid them in front of the tree. Placing his back to the solid safety of the trunk, he took out his flint and steel and set about lighting the fire.
Once the fire was burning steadily, he forced himself to leave it, to venture more deeply into the darkness outside the friendly, warm glow of the blaze, to gather the wood he needed to keep the fire going until morning, to keep him sane. He could not fall to the King’s Madness, not here, so far from the sole surviving kinsman who might help him. “It is not the Madness come to claim you. It is only lack of sleep this time,” he said aloud, praying it was true. But it had been six years since he had last fallen to the Madness, and six years before that when he had first fallen to it, and neither Farad nor Lunahr were here to save him this time.
Gone! Farad was gone! Talon fought his panic and despair over the unknown fate of his eldest cousin. The bond that had linked them to one another for twelve years had shattered a sennight ago, without warning. Farad would never have broken the bond, knowing how desperately his cousin relied upon it. Talon knew he must have been killed.
Dead! Farad was dead! He fought down renewed panic at the thought. He had teetered upon the brink of Madness at the sudden loss of his cousin’s light, until his bond to Lunahr had flared twice as bright to compensate for the loss. But the comfort of Lunahr’s bond was not enough. Lunahr was so far away. He needed to see his young cousin, to embrace him, to feel him warm and alive before him.
Talon dared not draw upon the strength of the bond now, in these woods that exuded such evil. He feared the darkness of this place, but far more he feared that he might lead the Enemy to the one man he loved most in all the world now that Farad was gone. Even the Elves of Riviera might not be able to keep Lunahr safe if the Enemy learned they were the ones who had been sheltering him for the past six years. A single year remained until Lunahr turned twenty-five, until he came-of-age, until he could return to them, an adult, at the height of his Power. Idare, it felt like six lifetimes had passed instead of six years! Alone; he was so unbearably alone. It had been two years since he had even seen another of his kinsmen. There were so few of them now. Too few.
Talon forced his dark thoughts down and continued to gather all the dead wood he could find. He returned to the fire with the armload of wood, his arms shaking with his desperation to sit before the blaze, praying to Idare that what he had gathered would be enough to last until dawn. Then he laid some of the thicker branches on the flames, crossed his legs, laid his arms at his sides with his palms up, and began breathing slowly and deeply.
Once he had found a measure of calm, he began the familiar chanting Arcanus had taught him so long ago. Slowly, gradually, he found a temporary refuge in the flames. In the absence of the sun, fire was the one thing that had always comforted his people. He prayed that this time it would be enough.
AT THE break of dawn, Talon was up and moving again after carefully smothering the last embers of his fire. He found himself turning toward the sun, wishing for the brightness and heat of midday, when the sun was at its zenith, at the apex of its power. He forced his eyes back down to the ground and found the wolven tracks again.
He followed them for a long time. The wolven had taken their kill deep into the forest. He found where they’d eaten. There were some scraps of cloth, some shattered bits of bone, a few strands of hair. Another child dead, but at least there would be no body. Idare, what horrors they faced that it would be a mercy to know there was no body! But his parents would need to see something in order to accept the boy’s death, in order to grieve.
He took off his tattered cloak and gathered what little remained carefully, wrapping it gently. Then he looked at where the tracks led deeper into the woods. He would hunt later. Now he had a sadder duty to perform. He headed back to the village.
He met the first of the villagers deeper into the forest than he thought they would have found their way. There must be someone among them with some skill in tracking, but they had lost the trail and were looking around hopelessly. The Men eyed him warily, pitchforks and axes raised, as he emerged from the sheltering trees. “I was in your village last night. I’ve come to return the boy’s remains to his parents, so they may bury their son.”
“It’s him. The one I told you about,” a Man said. Talon recognized the father’s voice before his face. He looked like he’d aged a decade or more in the single night. Talon handed the cloak carefully to him, and the Man trembled as he took it. It was a somber procession that returned to the village.
“What, back so soon?” Talon heard a woman ask, and then the wailing began.
Talon headed for the inn. The innkeeper was there and seemed stunned to see him. “It’s a miracle you’re not dead as well. Poor little Billy! He was only six. Those monsters came three weeks agone. Five of the men have been lost hunting those vile things. We can never find them, but they find us easily enough. We’ve set traps for them, but they go around them. The deer and rabbits are gone, and even the birds and squirrels have either fled or been eaten. It’s once they ran out of even that game that they came here, to the village. Our pigs, the goats, the chickens, even the dogs were all dragged off into the woods and devoured. We are their prey now.”
No wonder there had been no meat in the stew! Still, these villagers should surely have been equal to the task of hunting ordinary wolven. Perhaps Incuban’s dark hand was present here after all. Maybe the wolven were the evil he had been seeking.
The innkeeper handed Talon his bedroll and his silver piece. “You did your best. I’ll not take your coin, for what you did for William and Amanda, but you’ll still get your meal, bath, and room.”
Talon took the bedroll but closed his gloved hand about the innkeeper’s hand so he would keep the coin. “I’ll need an axe and a rope. I only came back so the boy’s parents could bury their son’s remains and start to mourn. Now I go to hunt the wolven that have been plaguing you. You will lose no more of your children, or your men. I have killed such creatures before. I will come back to you once the beasts are gone, so that you can know you are safe. Meanwhile, no one goes out alone, even in daylight. No one goes out at night at all. Shutter your windows and bar your doors. Even then, no one sleeps in a room that faces the woods. Go out in groups ringed with armed guards and gather all the dry wood you can find. Rim the village in fires each night till daybreak until I return. Post armed sentries to watch the woods at all times,” Talon said in a voice that was firm and commanding, one used to instant obedience without question.
As he turned to go, the stunned innkeeper said, “Please, my name is Goras. Who are you? What is your name?”
“I am a Captain of the Watch. I am called Talon,” he said, and then he was gone, vanishing into the woods like a wraith as the Man gaped after him in astonishment at his revelation.
ARAS crouched down beside the unfamiliar plant, studying it with quiet interest instead of his usual excitement and joy at such a find. He only idly wondered what secrets the plant held, what medicinal uses the leaves, stem, and roots might have.
He rose with a small sigh and resolutely continued walking, soundlessly crossing the carpet of fallen leaves, moving with the silent grace all Elves possessed. He was on a journey of discovery, but plants were not his objective, although the one he left behind was not one of the hundreds of plants he had studied before, in the Wood surrounding Nalea. This plant did not grow there.
This was not his forest, the one he knew so well, though it bordered his own. He had traveled west along the Sarashen River the short distance to the Tahir River, along that river to the banks of the Methris and then into the woods, still not knowing where he was headed, not caring. Aras had been traveling for a full fortnight and was nearly out of food now, despite all that he had foraged on his journey to supplement the supplies he had brought with him.
If his beloved mentor, the healer Jarnath, were here, he would be able to tell Aras all he might ever want to know about the plant he had just examined. Jarnath would share his knowledge eagerly, answering Aras’s myriad questions with his customary gentle patience. But Jarnath was not here. He had not known to come. Aras had not told him he was leaving. Aras almost cried out at the wave of guilt and loneliness he felt from his leave-taking, at the memories of his parting which haunted him.
ARAS had left his father and his home in anger after nearly five decades of secrecy and planning, fear and frustration, all of it culminating in the final humiliation of his coming-of-age ceremony. He had received exemplary marks from all his instructors. Never had they seen a single candidate excel in every single aspect of training. His skill in tactics, strategy, and in all the myriad forms of martial arts, both armed and unarmed, were unsurpassed by anyone they had ever trained. Aras had graduated first amongst all his peers, to the accolades of all but the one whom he most wanted to impress.
His father had not attended the ceremony. It was inconceivable that his father, the High-King, the ruler of the Seven Kingdoms as well as the leader of their combined military forces, both the King’s Guard and the Guard, not preside. In three millennia of tradition, such a thing had never happened before. It was not only an insult to Aras, but to every other graduating candidate of their military training program. This time Lord of the Guard Ahrnad was the one to preside over the coming-of-age ceremony, in the High-King’s stead. Though by tradition his title was Lord of the Guard, Ahrnad was an Aerta, one of the King’s Guard, not one of the Guard, second in command to the High-King. Thankfully, he was also not truly a Lord and therefore was not bonded to one of the Trees of the Lords’ Grove. Ahrnad was a cold and often cruel bigoted man, not one whom Aras would wish to see blessed with the long life the grace of the Trees accorded.
Once the ceremony had ended, three quarters of the other graduates had begun celebrating their adulthood in the traditional manner: they began pairing off immediately and slipping into the woods to enjoy the fruits of their labor, now that they were finally of an age that such sexual liaisons were permitted, disregarding their promises to those who awaited them at home. The remaining graduates, ones who had chosen to honor the pledges they had made five years earlier to the suitors that awaited them in their home Kingdoms, restricted their celebrations to drinking and singing and dancing.
Most of those who graduated would become Reservists. They would return home to whichever of the three River or four Wood Kingdoms they had come from and continue on with their lives until such time as they might be needed. Thankfully, in the three thousand years they had been relegated to these lands, such a call had never gone out. Some few who were dedicated or self-sacrificing or prideful or belligerent enough stayed in Nalea to join the King’s Guard or Guard, or the Army or Navy, as they were sometimes still called.
Aras had no eager suitors awaiting him in Nalea or elsewhere. He did not come from the Seven Kingdoms as the others did. Nalea, the military base that housed both the King’s Guard and Guard, was his home. He had been born there and grown up there and finally reached maturity there, in utter isolation from his peers, save for the last five years of his life. He had endured the terror of his childhood alone. He had survived the machinations of both his parents on his own, save for what little aid and comfort Jarnath and some few others had dared to provide. And now he was truly alone, more alone than he had ever been.
Aras had been shaking with hurt and anger as he left the revelry of his classmates all around him, deftly evading Jarnath. He had ignored his Tree Aranas’s calls to him across their bond. He did not want the Healer to console him, nor his Tree. He wanted only to confront his father, to force him to acknowledge him as an adult, as his heir. He should have known better.
Their meeting, as with all meetings with his father, turned into a battle. But this time Aras had not backed down, he had not attempted to appease, he had used neither tact nor diplomacy: he had screamed back. His father’s final words to him had cut him deeper than any blade ever could.
“Go! Leave! You think completing your training changes anything? A soldier who will not kill is worthless! You are nothing! You have always been nothing! You are useless to me! You belong to that traitorous bitch who bore you, whose face you wear! You belong to that treacherous swine Jarnath who ruined you! You are her son, you are his, you are not mine. Do you hear me? You are not my son!” His father had turned to the King’s Guard surrounding them in the audience chamber and had roared an order to them. “Get him out of my sight!” Then, stiff-backed, he had turned and walked away from his only son without another word.
The soldiers had escorted Aras from the audience chamber wordlessly, their faces expressionless. Aras had fought to force his own mask in place as he had stumbled from the audience chamber, but he knew his face betrayed him. He was all but gasping at the pain of his father’s complete and utter denial of him; he had almost fallen beneath the assault of his father’s thoughts and feelings as they nearly overwhelmed him, until he slammed a shield into place against them. But amidst the frustration and loathing, the anger and the hatred coming from his father in punishing waves, there had been more: there had been fear.
Surely his father could not be afraid of him? Surely he could not have finally realized who and what Aras actually was? No, his father did not suspect. He had heard his father’s thoughts with brutal clarity. His father truly thought his son was weak, spineless, worthless, a sniveling coward, an embarrassment to him. Never once had he felt more, not since Aras was fourteen, when Aras had lost what little love his father might have had for him.
Aras had retrieved his twin swords, his dagger, and his bow and quiver. Even he—especially he—was never allowed before his father armed. He tripped up the marble steps with unaccustomed clumsiness and headed for his rooms. He could not stay here in the Palace, or even in Nalea. He could not endure the pain of his father’s continued rejection.
With shocking clarity, he realized he would do as his father had commanded. He would leave. He already wore his weapons. What else should he bring?
His eyes fell upon the small pack of field rations from his last test mission, a fortnight ago. The lightweight, compact raeta would yet last for months without spoiling. There was still enough for a sennight’s journey there. He would forage and eat the raeta only as needed.
Snatching up the pack, he scanned the room, his eyes lighting on his elaborately carved alabaster bureau. He strode over to it and deactivated the imbedded, warded gem, which was hidden by a complex masking spell, with a wave of his hand and a muttered word of Power. Then he opened the secret compartment in the back of the bottom drawer. The purse of coin from the Lands of Men was there, and his single remaining inert gem-battery, the jewel Men called Elfstone. Aras took both and then hesitated. There was one other item remaining: the small, unopened package, which, to his surprise, had been stealthily given to him by Commander Narenius only a few nights ago, with instructions that it not be opened until after his graduation.
Aras had tested it, of course, despite the fact that it had been given to him by someone he trusted, because of the fact that it had been. But there was no trap, no wards, no poison, nor explosives, nor other hidden danger—at least, none that his Power could detect.
He opened the package now, without curiosity or enthusiasm, more from a sense of duty and respect for the one who had delivered it to him in secret, no doubt endangering himself by doing so, than any desire to see what it might contain. There was a note inside, sealed in silver wax stamped with the image of a swan. He recognized its significance immediately: the seal of the Royal House of Riviera. His heart quickened with interest. He broke the wax seal and read the brief note, his eyes bright with unshed tears before he had finished it.
Dearest Aras, son-of-my-heart, as you cannot now ever be more,
When I had this designed and forged for you, it was one of a matched pair; it was to have been a wedding gift. Would that I could still give it to you as such! Instead I must gift this to you as a coming-of-age present. May you never need to use it.
I wish I could say all that is in my heart. I wish so much more!
Stay well Aras. Take care of yourself. Be safe. Would that I had the Power to ward you.
With all our love and hopes for your safety,
King Laranela of Riviera
Aras knew that Laranela had not dared write more; even by saying so little, by mentioning even in passing the broken betrothal to his daughter Elanara, he had said too much. Laranela had risked arrest and execution for treason for what he had implied by his wishes of safety for Aras. He had not wasted ink in writing wishes for Aras’s happiness. It was fortunate that the gift had been safely delivered, that he had effectively hidden it and his father had not dis