Sunday, May 18, 2008

As I sing these opening bars

Protect me now from Darkness

Keep me safe from Shadows

From the Dangers of Black Magic…

--- Invocation of Roilann’s Fall


[From the notebook of Seriah Meciza]

I suppose anyone who studies the works of the Rugans eventually turns to the Dark Arts. I am no different than anyone else, but for one fact... I have retained my sanity. I know perfectly well, as I sit here writing these words, what I have done. I have done great evil in trading all the light inside myself for Eternal Life. So I am writing this last entry before the dark falls and I’ll seal myself into the only place where I’ll be safe.

To stay here would be to destroy everything that I lived for as a child. It burns my eyes to look at the light even now and my students... They are better off without me. How many of them see the powers of the Dark in my eyes when they speak to me? So tonight I’ll give in to the voices that have haunted me since my turning and I’ll be gone... Gone from the light... Not to join the forces of Darkness, though I am one of them now, but to hide myself away. I’ll take with me only this, my notebook, and one more thing, my last link to the light. It tried to save me, but failed... the black diamond of Acura. I’ll hide them away with me... and perhaps, someday, some fair-minded person will be able to draw me away from this poison I have made myself. Farewell.

Old Tales have no beginnings or endings,

Only journeys

-- Rhiathon Proverb

Chapter One

Kyraen tripped over the uneven path up to the mountainside cottage of the great Sorcerer Balin. Her narrow shoulders were stooped under a heavy burden of wood that she had bartered from the woodsman with Cook’s latest batch of breads. She swore as the bundle jostled and almost tipped her over.

The wind had a raw bite to it this night. Kyraen’s hands were already chapped and bleeding. She stumbled again and had to fight for footing as a gust of wind bent her nearly double with its icy fingers.

“Cursed be Balin and his reclusive ways,” she said bitterly, hitching the pack higher on her back and taking another precarious step. If she fell now, she and her pack would roll all the way back to the village.

As she came upon the cottage, not a cottage really, but a large household, she sighed with relief, coming under the sheltering eaves. She could stand almost straight without the driving chill of the wind. Kyraen dropped her pack, sending dry tinder flying all over the place.

“Clumsy girl!” Cook screamed, even over the wind. She had seen it all from window-seat where she sat peeling potatoes for the evening meal. “Now, you clean that all up, every bit of it. Stack it neatly this time, while you are at it. Last week the wood got all soaked from being stacked improperly.”

“Adkin got the wood last week,” Kyraen shouted back over the wind. “He’s the one that is supposed to do it, but B... Master wanted him for something today.”

“None of your lip, girl,” Cook hollered. “You get that wood stacked and get in here, after you get me some more water from the well. I need a hand with the Master’s supper.” Her voice softened a touch. “While you do that you can have some of yesterday’s bread. The Master only likes his fresh.”

“Yes’m,” Kyraen said in a meek voice. She was almost faint with hunger. Cook had dragged her out of bed before light to get down to the village. It felt like a rodent was lying in her belly, trying to gnaw its way out of her. It was probably hungry too, the poor thing.

She started stacking the wood close to the door so that Cook wouldn’t have to move her huge frame more than necessary. The wind seemed inclined to change direction, now that it had lost its victim. By the time the last stick was piled neatly Kyraen was shivering violently. She dared to peep at the dark sky. Icy clouds hung low over the cottage, threatening a real storm at any moment.

Kyraen rushed towards the well. Storms on the mountain were dangerous. At times it could go from daylight to blackness darker than midnight in just seconds. A person or beast caught out on a night like this one was promising to be did not have a chance at survival.

The top layer of water in the well was frozen and Kyraen had to drop the bucket several times against the thick layer before the ice cracked enough for her to be able to fill the bucket and draw it up. She poured out what was not frozen on the way out of the well into the kitchen basin and hurried as much as she could towards the house.

Icy-cold water sloshed against her skirts, making her teeth chatter both louder and faster. She yanked at the kitchen door with her free hand and stumbled into the firelight with a gasp of relief and pain. She set the basin on the table, her skirts dripping all over Cook’s clean floor.

Cook turned around, ready to scold, but one look at the girl’s face seemed to make her change her mind. If a face of granite could soften, hers did. She pushed Kyraen towards a stool by the fire and magically appeared with a slab of almost new bread with what actually looked like a dab of jam on it. Kyraen’s eyes widened and she ate it as hastily as her numb hands and half-frozen face would allow her, for fear that the Cook would realize her mistake and take it back.

Kyraen’s fingers and cheeks began to ache as they slowly regained their warmth. She rubbed her hands together after the last bite of bread was gone, and held them as close to the fire as she could without scorching them.

“Here.” Cook shoved an armload of potatoes towards Kyraen. “Peel these and let me in on all of the news from the village. That will warm you up.”

Kyraen started peeling energetically. “There weren’t much to hear,” she said. “Gerayt wasn’t much for talking, he never is.”

Cook’s hand twitched with her wooden spoon and Kyraen opened her mouth quickly, to ward off a possible blow. Cook rarely missed.

“However, I did hear tell that there is been a lot of outside folks passing through lately. Dertly said that there is been talk of strange creatures lurking around at night. Kier saw something as big as a tree that had leathery wings in his stable yard. He says it scattered all of his sheep and it took him three days to get them all rounded up again, they were so scattered.”

Cook’s face took on the blank expression that showed she was deeply interested. It had been many years since she had risked dragging her impressive bulk down the mountain-side to the village. The occasional news through Kyraen or Adkin, Master Balin’s apprentice, was the only contact she had with the outside world.

Kyraen smiled to herself. “Dertly says that what Kier saw was a lesser dragon. He said that the Syraki are waking up the dark things.”

“Enough of such nonsense,” said a sharp voice from above them on the stairwell. “Girl, when Cook is through with you please come up and see me.” The door closed behind Balin with a sharp click.

Cook moved her massive shoulders restlessly. “You git up there, girl, like he says. I’ll finish the potatoes. It does not do to keep a man waiting, let alone a wizard. Now, don’t sit there staring like a dummy, get onto your feet. They cannot be frozen, not with you sitting so close to the fire.”

Kyraen jumped to her feet, sending potatoes rolling across the floor. She bent to pick one up, but Cook rapped her smartly with her spoon. “I said git. I’ll get the potatoes. Clumsy brat.”

Kyraen fled up the stairs out of the kitchen. She pulled her shawl around her with a shiver. After the warmth of the kitchen the rest of the house seemed fairly frigid. The wind outside was moaning and the windows of the old house creaked and rattled against it. She wished belatedly that she had caught up a light to take with her. Balin seemed to have the eyes of a cat. He never let them light the lamps around the house.

“Oh, this place gives me the creeps,” Kyraen muttered under her breath. “Who knows what lives here with the rest of us not knowing? I wouldn’t be surprised to see a ghost.”

Only one room was lit up, and that was at the top of the grand staircase. Kyraen went up swiftly. Though she dreaded facing her master, she dreaded facing his anger if she dawdled much more.

Balin’s study was a musty room, lit only by a roaring fire in the fireplace and a candle on his desk. Dusty tomes lined the walls. More books, Kyraen was sure, than a single man, even a wizard, could ever read in a lifetime. Books and manuscripts lay scattered across the floor, in more languages than had been spoken in Sundala since the ancient times.

Balin himself was leaning over the single candle that wavered on his desk. He was bent over a manuscript, following a dry, gnarled finger as it traced the letters on the page, while his other hand stroked his beard meditatively. He did not seem to realize that Kyraen was there, or that a window was open, letting a blast of cold air in.

Kyraen crossed the floor carefully, wincing as her heel came down on an old manuscript, leaving a definite print. She closed the window firmly and latched it.

Balin looked up. “Ah... Kyraen. Did I send for you?”

“Yes, you did, sir.” Kyraen said. “A moment ago, in the kitchen.”

“A simple ‘yes’ would have been adequate,” Balin said, his tone mild, his watery gray eyes vague.

Kyraen shifted her weight restlessly. Was this going to be one of the times that her Master forgot that she was there at all, and drifted in and out of reality? She suppressed a sigh.

“Ah, yes!” Balin leapt to his feet with a suddenness that made Kyraen jump considerably. “I wanted to ask you a few questions. Now, don’t be nervous girl. Have a seat.” He waved at a chair that was resting on three legs and a stack of, undoubtedly, valuable books. Kyraen obediently went over to the chair, moved several manuscripts to the growing pile on the floor, and had a seat.

“How long have you lived here with me, Kyraen?” Balin asked, his back to her as he shuffled among his papers.

“About six years now, sir,” Kyraen said worriedly. “I have been doing all my chores and all... I am not expensive to keep...”

Balin waved her to silence with a frail, shaking hand. “Hush, child. I did not say that I was going to sell you, did I?”

Kyraen sank back in relief until she realized that he was expecting an answer. “N. . . no, sir.”

“How old are you, then?”

“I don’t rightly know, sir,” Kyraen said timidly. “I was found as an orphan by my first master when I was a babe. He said I must have been three at the time. With that figuring I am... seventeen, sir.”

“Seventeen, eh?” Balin’s watery eyes crinkled at the corners. “A short, but admirable, time. Well, Kyraen, I am a hundred and seventeen, more or less. I must say that one begins to lose count after several years.”

Kyraen stared. She had known that her master was old, but this old? She had heard that wizards lived longer than the normal folk of the village. Auntie Hazra was fifty-six and she was the oldest person in the village, held in high esteem for her age and infirmity.

Balin’s wrinkled hand rubbed thoughtfully at his beard. “I have seen a lot of changes in my life, Kyraen, girl. I have seen many kingdoms fall and many wise men fall with them. I have seen many fools rise to take their place, and I have seen a darkness crawling through this land.” Balin turned back to face the fire. “I am old before my time. I don’t to expect to live much longer among you. No, it won’t be long before I go back to Sundala’s depths. I feel a responsibility towards this household and what will become of it after I leave you. What options would you have, girl?”

It was a moment before Kyraen realized that he was asking her. “I... I guess that I would be sold again, sir.”

“Exactly.” Balin turned, pointing a shaking forefinger at her. “And this I must prevent above all else, if only to honor the memory of an old friend.” Balin’s eyes seemed to dim with memory.

Kyraen blinked and leaned forward, puzzled at the old man’s words. Why should her fate concern him at all? Why should he worry about her future? She was just a slave, after all.

Balin shook his head, his gray eyes snapping back into the present. “If I were to grant you one request, what would it be?”

Kyraen leaned forward to try to see if he was teasing her, but his voice was devoid of emotion and his face was still turned away from her, so she could not see the expression in his eyes. “I suppose,” she said timidly. “That I would like to be free.”

“Yes, yes,” Balin turned around, smiling. “I thought as much. Kyraen, you are a very practical girl with a very puzzling destiny.” His voice dropped to almost a whisper. “A very puzzling thing chance is. At times she reminds me of someone…” His voice faded away.


Balin waved his hand at her. “No, no, it is just the ramblings of an old man. Pay me no mind.” He took a step towards his desk and took up his quill. He wrote something quickly and neatly on his page and finished it with a flourish. He picked up the paper by the edges and breathed on it for a moment before handing it to Kyraen. “You can read, I believe?”

“Yes, sir,” Kyraen said, surprised that he knew. It was very unusual for a slave to be literate. She took the paper gently, afraid that her rough hands would stain the page. She looked up, her eyes full of puzzlement. “S--sir... This is my freedom that you are handing me!”

Balin nodded. “It is only fair and just. You have served me, and others like myself, for your whole lifetime. I now wish to turn the remainder of your life back to yourself, at least as much as any of us have dominion over our own lives. I desire that you should stay here, at least until opportunity knocks on the door, but it is your choice.”

“My... choice?” Kyraen tasted the word. “Oh, sir, has there ever been such a thing?” Without thinking she flew up to him and kissed him on his dry, leathery, cheek.

Balin looked stunned. “Why, I never thought you would do such a thing. I always thought that you were afraid of me.”

“I am,” Kyraen said brashly, “But I’ll not be any more. You have given me my life!”

Something akin to a smiled touched Balin’s lips. “Now shoo, girl. I’ll not have my household in disorder. I expect you to continue as you have until you leave. However, unlike before, you will be paid a wage in addition to your keep.”

Kyraen bobbed a curtsey. “That is more than fair!” She dashed from the room and straight into Adkin. She surprised him into nearly dropping the tray he was bringing up from the kitchen by kissing him soundly.

“What is gotten to you? Has the Master gone and knocked out your block, then?” He blushed and stammered.

“I am free, Adkin, free, just like you and Cook. Oh, I am free! I am free!”

“The girl’s gone clean mad,” Adkin said with wonder.

“No, it’s true. Look!” Kyraen handed Adkin the paper. His lips moved as he read it over and than he stared at her astonishment in astonishment. “Well, how’s that? Maybe it’s the Master that has gone crazy, and not you!”

“Boy, enough lolly-gagging. I would like my supper now,” Balin called from the study.

“Coming, sir!” Adkin called back respectfully. He shook his head at Kyraen. “I don’t know what it is that you’ve done, girl, but you’ve sure done something right!”


“I’m coming!” Adkin trotted to the study door, still shaking his head.

Kyraen flew down the stairs and grinned at Cook, who was scowling as always at the black pot on the fire. Cook looked astonished, then put her hands on her ample hips. “What is this that has you dancing around like a Lady? Did the Master give you your freedom, then, that you are all lighted up like that?”

“He did, Cook, he did!” Kyraen crowed. “Oh, I could kiss him!” Her hands flew to her face. “Oh, by the Moon, I did kiss him! Oh, I must be mad!”

“You kissed that old monster?” For once Cook was astonished. “Oh, wouldn’t I have loved to see his face!” She seemed to remember herself. “I suppose that, now you are a free-woman you’ll be to proud to peel the potatoes?”

Kyraen tasted the word ‘free-woman’. She looked up, astonished. “Oh, no, no, no. I am going to work for my keep and better than ever, to thank Master Balin.” She flew to her seat by the fire and attacked the pile of potatoes with energy never before seen in that kitchen. “I cannot ever expect to repay him for what he paid for me, but I can repay him with the little things, can I not?”

“Well,” Cook said with something akin to approval. “I never would have thought you had it in you, you always seemed like such a sharp little critter, but that is mighty good...” The Cook’s sentiments were drowned out by a howl of the wind that sent shivers up and down the backs of the two inhabitants of the kitchen.

Kyraen dropped her paring knife to clap her hands over her ears.

“That sounds just like a wolf,” Cook muttered. “I don’t like it. This storm is not natural. I hate to think of all them wicked creatures out there...”

Kyraen screamed in surprise as a heavy hand banged on the wooden door until it seemed it would fall in under the strain. Cook even looked white. “Well, get it girl,” she said, briskly, when she recovered. “Open the door and see who it is.”
It is easier to open a door

Than it is to close it again

-- Petrin the Mapmaker

Chapter Two

The kitchen had never seemed so long. Kyraen crossed it numbly. She grasped the door handle and pulled the heavy door open. It took all of her strength to hold it against the raging storm outside. A blast of frigid air and snow swept into the house with the angry snarl of the wind. A large, fur-cloaked figure stumbled into the room past her. Kyraen slammed the door shut behind the figure and locked it securely to keep out the menace of the wind.

The cloaked figure threw back his hood and looked around. Kyraen froze and stared.

She had never seen such a man in her life. He was tall-- tall enough to seem to take up the whole room. He looked almost like a wolf, lanky and gray, with silvery shoulder-length hair, and tawny golden eyes that were slanted in the corners. His face was narrow, with high cheekbones and a thin, straight, arrogant nose. He looked around the room with an almost feral look in his eyes, as one moves who is not used to being indoors.

He turned around slowly, taking in everything around him. He paused for a moment when he saw Kyraen, noticing, she was sure, every soiled inch of her dress and shawl. She could not read from his expression what he thought of her.

“I would like to speak to the master of this house,” He said in a voice that made Kyraen think of water running lightly over stones. She remembered herself enough to stop gaping.

“Yes, sir. If you’ll follow me, sir.” She climbed the stairs quickly. The stranger’s long legs kept up with her quick strides without effort. Had she not been able to see him she would never have believed that he was there. He moved as silently as a shadow. She could not even hear him breathe. She wondered, with a shudder, if he needed to breathe at all. He gave her a sideways look with his golden eyes that seemed to read the thoughts from her mind. She blushed and looked away.

Adkin was coming out of the study with the remains from the Master’s dinner. Kyraen’s eyes met his. The Master had hardly touched a morsel. Adkin then seemed to see, for the first time, the stranger at Kyraen’s elbow. With an expression on his face that Kyraen had never seen before, he bowed lowly. “My lord,” He said, surprising Kyraen yet again.

The stranger smiled, his eyes crinkling up in the corners like any man’s. “Adkin.”

Adkin bowed again. He shot Kyraen a quick look. “Kyraen will take you in to see Master Balin,” He said in the voice that Kyraen hardly even recognized. The stranger nodded and Kyraen found herself tapping on the study door.

“Enter,” Balin called, after a moment.

Kyraen swung the door open. “A visitor to see you, sir.”

Balin looked up. His face went blank when he saw who was with Kyraen. She could not tell whether he was happy or frightened. Then his face relaxed into a smile of genuine friendship. “Ghandril,” he said. “It has been too long.”

“Yes,” the stranger said. “Much too long. I no longer go by that name, you must know. Here in the village they call me Shadow Walker, but those that know me well call me Vulfzen.”

“’Wolf friend’,” Balin said. “How fitting.”

Kyraen turned to leave, reaching for the large double doors.

“No, wait,” Balin said hastily. “Kyraen, I wish that you would stay. Perhaps what we speak of will be of interest to you.”

Vulfzen turned towards Balin silently and just looked at him for a moment. He seemed somehow satisfied, for he strode over to the fireplace and leaned against it, his long legs, clad in gray fur, stretched out before him.

“The storm rides before me,” he said at last. “I had hoped to reach the shelter of this house before it broke. The shadows within it speak in dark languages that are best forgotten.”

Kyraen huddled down, as close as she could get to the fire without drawing the attention of either man.

Balin nodded thoughtfully, his hand stroking his beard as he always did when in deep thought. “I had expected you somewhat earlier, but, my dear friend, it seems that you never appear when expected.”

Vulfzen’s teeth flashed in a feral smile.

“You never appear without cause,” Balin continued. “I expect that your presence in this room is for the same reasons that the village has been full of haunts and dark things for this past fortnight.”

Vulfzen sighed heavily, as a man with a heavy burden on his shoulders. “There are rumors that the men of the Syraki have awakened the dark sleepers from their rest. I fear that the evil stretches further back than that. Dark times are ahead of us, my friend, very dark times indeed.” His tawny eyes went dark as if he were considering something, or seeing something very far distant.

“I had hoped,” Vulfzen said at last. “That you would have, by now, discovered the resting place of the Black Acura. It is our only hope to ban this darkness from the land.”

Balin sighed and paced up and down the room, oblivious to the whirlwinds he was causing among his papers. “Ideas,” he said. “Only ideas. No, Vulfzen, I do not know where the black diamond of Acura is, but I have an idea of where it might be, what little use such knowledge is to us in such a time as this.”

Vulfzen leaned his head back against the mantle so that he was profiled in fire. “Ideas are all that we have, and we must act upon even these faint suspicions. We are in a race against time, Balin. We are in a race against time and dark and evil. Greater evil than this world has ever known at anytime.”

Balin looked pale. “You do not know of what you are speaking.”

Vulfzen’s tawny eyes flashed, but his face remained calm. “No, my friend. I know too well of what it is that we face. I have seen it face to face in the Fierglass of my people. The Dark is very strong—stronger than it has ever before been in all of Sundala.”

“We are lost,” Balin whispered. “We are doomed.”

“I have not given up hope,” Vulfzen said. “Not yet, though many have. Some may say that the Black Acura is only a legend. If it is so, I’ll put my faith in a legend. I believe that it will be our answer.” He leaned forward intensely. “This is our last hope, Balin. Yet, that in itself lightens my heart. For even a last hope is a hope. This world could not survive without hope.”

“Hope.” Kyraen had never heard Balin’s voice so full of despair, though he was speaking low, as if to himself alone. “It’s such a flimsy thing to place the care of a world on.” He shook his head, as if to clear it of such despondency.

“You see why it is so desperate that I know the details of even this faint idea of yours,” Vulfzen said. “Our time is drawing ever closer.”

“I’ll do what I can,” Balin said wearily. “I’ll give you what supplies and little knowledge I have of such things, and I’ll give you, I think, a companion. Kyraen?”

Kyraen’s voice came out in a frightened squeak. “Yes, sir?”

“I would like for you to make your journey with this man, when he leaves. It is, perhaps, at an earlier hour than we had planned, but then, no man can say when opportunity will knock. You will be able to see the open road and he will protect you as far as you wish to travel.”

“Th--this is what you wish of me, Master Balin?” Kyraen asked, her heart racing with excitement despite the fear that lingered in her heart at the words the men had spoken. She would finally get to see the world!

“Yes, you silly girl, this is what I wish. I could not choose a better companion for you, and I believe you may be some service to us after all.”

“I’ll do my best to afford such trust,” Kyraen said honestly. Vulfzen gave her a quick startled look at her words, then glanced towards Balin. Balin did not return the look. He was gazing steadily at Kyraen.

“I’ll go, sir,” She said softly. “I’ll go and do as you have asked. I owe that much to you.”

“You foolish girl,” Balin said. “When will you realize that you owe me no debts? Now go. My companion and I have much to discuss this night.”

Kyraen nodded and went through the doors, feeling as if she were bursting from a cage. She was going to see the world! She was free to be her own person!

“Is this wise, Balin?” She heard Vulfzen’s soft voice murmur through the heavy wooden doors. “The dangers that she will have to face...”

Balin’s voice murmured something too low for Kyraen to hear, then grew louder. “As I spoke to her, I speak to you. She will be of some use to you on this journey. Do not underrate the child, Vulfzen, my friend.”

“I have long trusted your advice,” Vulfzen answered. “If this is what you desire of me then it must be for some good.”

What good can I be to such a man? Kyraen wondered. Perhaps her Master was growing old. After all, she was just a slave-girl by nature, and had never known anything else. Perhaps, she thought, I’ll be able to gather enough wood to make a fire at night. Perhaps I’ll need to cook for him. She doubted that he would need her skills as a pot scrubber.

Adkin appeared out of the darkness. His face was mournful. “You will be leaving us. I know that you will.”

Kyraen turned and smiled at him. “Would you have me stay, then? Would you have me spend my whole life here serving the Master? No, I think not, but I think that I may return some day.”

Adkin sighed. “I envy you, Kyra. I wish that I were leaving with such a companion as this. You must have a great destiny.”

“I am simply a slave-girl,” Kyraen answered sadly. “I have dreamt otherwise many times, but I have come to grips with reality. Even though I am free now, thanks to the kind generosity of our master, I have never known anything but slavery. No, Adkin, it’s you that has the great destiny. I am sure that you will find it, somehow, some way. Serve the Master well, Adkin. He is kind to us in his own way.”

Adkin took her by the shoulders. “Come back to me, Kyraen Aduli. Come back someday. Promise me that you will return.”

Kyraen drew back, startled by the intense expression on his face, almost prince-like in nobility. “I’ll see you again,” she said at last. “Though the Mountains and the Moon stand between us.”

“That is a powerful vow,” a soft voice said behind them. “I pray that you have not used it in vain.”

Kyraen hid her surprise and dismay by curtseying to Vulfzen. “Yes, my lord.”

“Rest,” he said. “We will leave with the rising of the sun. The storm has ceased its howlings and we have much to do in a very short time. Your master and I have much to discuss this night before we part.” He looked kindly down at her before sweeping up the next flight of stairs.

“He gives good advice,” Adkin said, in a subdued tone compared to his words only moments before. “Remember. Remember what you have promised.”

“I’ll remember, apprentice-boy,” Kyraen said with a laugh. “I must go.” She turned and fled towards her room. She paused for a moment, looking back. “You will send me off in the morning?”

Adkin just nodded, but it was enough for her. She darted into the shelter of her room and looked around. She had accumulated little in her six years at the Cottage. Her pack would be light. She would carry with her only her best and warmest clothing and the little talisman that was her only link to a life that had sunk beyond her memory, a time when she must have had parents. A time before she had been found, wailing and cross in a patch of snow outside of an old inn door.
Winter Sunshine warms the Soul

-- Rhiathon Proverb

Chapter Three

The morning dawned cold, but the air was clear and only the faintest breeze teased the boughs of the trees that had, only the night before, been threatened by the dangerous winds. Only the faintest trace of ice in the air spoke of the storm that had raged the night before.

Kyraen was bundled up to the nose in her old cloak; still warm despite its many poorly repaired rips and tatters. She held in her hand only one small pack, containing food and water. Cook had scrounged up what should amount to three days’ eating for the two travelers. Despite her brisk manner she seemed almost sad to see Kyraen leaving.

“You make us all proud, you hear?” She said gruffly, as she handed Kyraen the bundle. “You stay out of trouble and make something of yourself.”

Kyraen found herself suddenly unable to speak. She was almost tempted to hug Cook, but the expression on the woman’s face was formidable and she did not dare.

Even Master Balin had turned out to see them go. He looked older than ever, shivering in the light breeze, clutching his cloak around him with a feeble hand. His head was bared and his beard trailed down, almost touching the ground. He freed one hand from his cloak to take Kyraen’s in a surprisingly strong, if shaking, grip. “May the Moon guide you.”

“And may the Sun be blind to your passing,” Kyraen said automatically. Vulfzen turned in a reflex to gaze upon her steadily with his golden eyes. He looked faintly puzzled, an air that was soon replaced with impatience for action.

Balin smiled to himself. “That is an ancient saying, child. May it prove true to you.”

Adkin put his hand on Kyraen’s shoulder. “Remember us, Kyra. Remember us and return to us. I’ll be waiting for you.”

“I’ll remember.” Kyraen vowed, feeling that, somehow, her words were inadequate, but unable to find the ones that would suit.

“We must away,” Vulfzen cried. “The sun is climbing over the mountains and we have far to travel. Let us say our last good byes.”

Kyraen clasped Adkin’s hand. “Good bye.” She slung her pack over her shoulder and moved resolutely forward, pausing in front of Vulfzen. She held her head high, a high color of excitement flooding her face. “Let us go, then,” she said. “If you are so impatient to be in action.”

Vulfzen inclined his head, laughter touching his tawny eyes. “As the lady wishes.” He slung his own pack over his back and started forward in long strides. Kyraen followed. She could feel Adkin’s gaze upon her back, but she refused to look back. Her eyes stayed resolutely forward.

They were nearing the village before Vulfzen again acknowledged her existence. “We will meet our other comrades here, at the Inn. It is important that you not reveal what you learn or know of my companions and me to even the most harmless creature here. These are dark times. Enemies lurk in even the brightest corners.”

Kyraen nodded mutely.

“You are, I have drawn from Balin, known well in this village. Perhaps it would be better for us if it appeared that I have bought your services from your Master.”

Kyraen nodded. “It would certainly quiet down the questions. Don’t worry about me, sir. I know how and when to hold my tongue. I may seem ignorant to you, but I do have a thought or two running through my head.”

Vulfzen looked slightly amused. “Indeed. I would not have taken you as my comrade had I thought otherwise.”

The villagers stared openly at Vulfzen as he strode towards the Inn, which rested on the westernmost point of the village. Few had ever seen such a tall, strange man. He was clearly an outsider, with his fur-lined clothing, and his high, narrow face. Kyraen took care to walk behind him, as a slave was to walk behind her master. She bowed her head and slumped her shoulders, walking with the reluctant half-lazy shuffle that free men never acquire.

At the Inn, Vulfzen stood in the doorway for a moment, as if seeking for a familiar face. When he was satisfied he stepped forward briskly, so that Kyraen had to half-gallop a stride to keep up with him. A few of the Inn’s patrons gave them curious glances, but few eyes lingered. As always the Inn was filled with a variety of peoples from the neighboring villages, though with fewer people than would be present at a later hour.

Three people drew Kyraen’s eye immediately. They were as unlike the villagers as Vulfzen. They seemed out of place among the shopkeepers and the herdsmen, who were warming themselves around the fire in the great mantle. The three sat huddled together near the fire, but not mingling with the villagers.

Two were men, one tall, slender, and dark-haired, with sharp silver eyes and Elvin features. The other was obviously human with red hair and a beard. There was something about him that made Kyraen eye him carefully, something powerful and intimidating about the way he sprawled across the bench, as if he could be coiled into action as swiftly as a serpent and just as deadly.

The third person was a woman, fair-skinned and lovely, with Elvin features, and a thick braid of blue-black hair. She was dressed all in black, suited out like a warrior with a knife stuck in her boot, a sword by her side, and a quiver full of arrows resting on the bench beside her. Her silver eyes studied Kyraen with a sparkle of interest and good humor.

“My companions,” Vulfzen introduced. “Chiara, Elvin princess of the Winter Elves in the North.” The woman inclined her head, her silver eyes studying Kyraen carefully.

“Her brother Chieron,” Vulfzen continued, nodding towards the dark haired elf, “Prince and eldest son of the Emperor of the Winter Elves, Cheistar Adraesta.”

The man with the red hair gave Kyraen a sardonic smile, raising a hand to halt Vulfzen’s voice. “Allow me to introduce myself, my friend,” he said in a low voice that somehow sent shivers up and down Kyraen’s back. He noted her reaction and the smile widened. “My name is Kerysk Valuud.” He rose to his feet and offered her his seat, as a man would to a great lady.

Kyraen glanced at Vulfzen, who nodded, before taking the offered seat. Kerysk pulled up another bench and sprawled across it, perfectly at ease.

“I had not realized,” Chiara said in a strong voice that seemed in no way at odds with her outfitting, though musical in nature, “that we were expecting another companion on this journey of ours.”

Vulfzen eyed her good-naturedly. “Often times good companions are not the ones we look for. My good friend, Balin, suggested that she come with us. Ah,” His golden eyes sparkled. “It seems I have introduced my companions, but I have failed to introduce our new member. May I present Kyraen Aduli.”

“That is an unusual name,” Kerysk said, his green eyes showing an interest that was not displayed on his face.

“Yes,” Chieron agreed, “especially among humans.” He glanced towards Vulfzen, silver eyes unreadable. “If Balin recommended her, then it may be safe to presume that she is trustworthy?”

“I should think so,” Vulfzen said blandly. “She served him for six years or so.”

Chiara’s silver eyes snapped back to Kyraen. She leaned across the table. “Are you a slave, then?”

“Not anymore,” Kyraen said strongly. “Master Balin gave me my freedom.” She looked at Vulfzen. “But I intend to do all I can to help,” she said quickly. “I’ll do what needs to be done. I am a hard worker.” After all, she thought, as far as I know I am here to haul firewood and cook meals for them.

“I am sure you are,” Chiara said. “However, Kyraen, you are, as you said, no longer a slave. I believe you will find that we are all equal in this enterprise.”

Kerysk snorted, but did not say anything when Chiara sent him a warning glance.

Vulfzen gestured for one of the barmaids. “Two bowls of porridge,” he ordered when she came up. “And a mug of ale for me.” The girl eyed Kyraen curiously, recognizing her as Balin’s slave, but hurried away to fetch the order.

“Oh, dear,” Kyraen said. “No one is going to believe that I am your slave. You are all being much too respectful. You should have me fetching the orders, or sending me to eat into the kitchen or something.”

Vulfzen seemed to think about it for a moment, then shook his head. “No, we are just going to have to risk it. There is too much to discuss. It would be foolish as well as dangerous to leave you unprepared for what lies ahead. Hopefully it won’t cause too much of a fuss.”

The girl returned with the porridge and a mug of cold ale. She smiled at the men, her eyes lingering on Kerysk for just a moment, and whisked away.

“Ever notice,” Kerysk drawled lazily, “that no matter where you go the barmaids are all the same?”

Kyraen picked at her porridge. She was much too nervous and excited to eat. On top of that, every time she looked up Kerysk was staring at her with those intense, mysterious, green eyes. Any appetite she may have had at that point disappeared into a knot of nerves.

There was little talking as the companions ate. Once they were finished, however, Chieron pulled a rolled up map out of his belt. “Now,” he said, his voice a male counterpart to his sister’s. “The question is: where do we head next? Unless you found out something important from Balin.”

“Balin has an idea,” Vulfzen said, “But no more than that.”

“Well, then,” Chiara said, flicking back her dark braid and leaning over the map. “An idea will have to do. We have nothing else to go on. Where will this idea take us?”

“Immediately to Sordeski,” Vulfzen said. “More specifically the library. From there, perhaps, the School of Stars.”

Kerysk whistled, sitting up straight for the first time since Kyraen had seen him. “That is a long road.”

Vulfzen nodded. “A very long road. Hopefully it will not be all for nothing.”

Chieron bent over the map, his slender fingers tracing a path from the village in the mountains to the city of Sordeski. “It will take no more than a week to reach the city,” he said. “If all goes well we should be there in a few days.”

“That is a mighty big if,” Chiara pointed out. “Especially in this day and age.”

Vulfzen rubbed his fingers together and leaned back against the wall. “We’ll need to make haste. Time is short and growing shorter with each hour.” He shut his golden eyes with an almost weary gesture, then they snapped open again. “Where’s Trebble?”

The Elvin brother and sister sighed with one breath, looking at each other.

Kerysk smiled lazily at their reaction. “ He’s up in the rooms, most likely eating a table leg or two. We had a spot of trouble with him last night, so I thought it wise not to bring him down this morning.”

Chiara snorted. “A little trouble? Is that what it was?” She rolled her eyes as she folded her arms across her chest and leaned back.

Kerysk shrugged. “Trebble ran across a cat last night…”

“…and ate it,” Chiara interjected.

“I was getting there,” Kerysk said, shrugging a shoulder. “Anyway. It seems that this cat belonged to the local magistrate.”

Kyraen was getting very lost in this conversation, but she thought she was getting an idea of what was going on. “Something ate Mouser?”

The companions eyed each other.

“Well,” said a voice that sounded like a young child’s, “I don’t think that is very nice. No, not nice at all. I would say ‘someone’, not ‘something’. I am a someone, after all.”

Kyraen looked down and felt her eyes growing round. In front of her was the strangest looking creature she had ever seen in her life. It was short: at its tallest it would probably not even reach her waist. Its round, furry head had two large eyes, and a large mouth displaying equally impressive teeth. The large head was low set on a round, furry, body, with two thin, twig-like arms with tiny hands coming out of the heavy fur. It had two enormous feet on short, stumpy legs. Thick, soft, brown fur covered its entire body.

“What?” She heard herself breathlessly say.

“I’m Trebble,” the thing said, offering her a three-fingered hand. “I don’t know why anyone didn’t introduce me. After all, I am one of the companions too. I guess someone forgot. The door was locked, so I just ate the lock and came down. Good thing I did, too.” It made a growling sound. “The lock was not very tasty.”

“Trebble is an imp,” Vulfzen offered in explanation.

“A little monster,” Chiara added under her breath.

Kyraen took the imp’s extended hand, unsure of the proper way to address such a creature. “I am honored,” she said. “I am Kyraen. You may call me Kyra if you like.”

“Oh, I do,” the imp said in his childish voice that seemed totally at odds with its appearance. “Kyraen is a very pretty name, but Kyra is even nicer than that. You may call me Trebble. Everyone does. Are you going to eat your porridge? I’m awfully hungry.”

Chiara groaned. “Trebble, you’re always hungry.”

Kerysk snorted. “Of course he’s always hungry. He’s an imp. It’s what they are.”

To Kyraen’s surprise the imp curled into a ball and bounced himself up onto the bench. He proceeded to eat the porridge, wooden bowl and all. When he was done with that he ate Vulfzen’s bowl and started in on the stoneware mug, slopping the last of the ale across the table.

Chieron lifted the map out of danger, tucking it back into his belt. “We should be on our way,” he said worriedly.

Vulfzen agreed and rose to his full height. “I’ll tell the innkeeper to have our horses readied. I’ll settle with him while the rest of you gather your belongings.”

He turned his golden eyes directly to Kerysk. “I hold you responsible for keeping the imp out of trouble.” He started away, then turned. “Kyraen, you can help Chiara gather her things together. We will meet in front of the inn in a half hour.”

Kyraen had to hurry to keep up with Chiara. The Elvin woman moved quickly and elastically, like a great wild cat. Her slanted silver eyes smiled at Kyraen as she opened the door to her room and ushered her in. “There is not much to be packed. I travel lightly, but I could use some help sorting some of this stuff.”

‘This stuff’ referred to a neat pile of different weapons. Some of them Kyraen did not even recognize, but they all looked sharp and deadly. Luckily for her Chiara steered her clear of those and set her to wrapping several daggers together for her pack.

The Elvin woman paused for a moment in her own efforts. “I don’t suppose you carry a knife?”

Kyraen shook her head. “No. Slaves are not supposed to be armed. I’ve never used a knife, anyway, except for in the kitchen, of course. I wouldn’t know what to do with it.”

“Don’t worry about that,” Chiara said. “I’ll teach you. It’s fairly safe to say that you are going to need a weapon in the near future.” She took the bundle Kyraen was holding and sorted through it quickly. She pulled out a long knife in a sheath and eyed it carefully. She tossed it to Kyraen. “That should do the trick, at least for now.”

She laughed at the way Kyraen was holding it awkwardly away from her.

“Don’t worry. It won’t attack you on its own-- not this one, at least. I’ll start showing you how to handle it when we break for the night. Pretty soon you should be a fairly good hand with a knife. It takes years to become an expert, of course.”

Kyraen threaded the sheath onto her belt. The knife felt awkward and heavy there. It would take some getting used to.

“All set,” Chiara said cheerfully a few minutes later. “Shoulder that pack there and we’ll go down.”

Kyraen obediently slung the pack over her shoulder and followed Chiara’s slim form out of the room and down the stairs into the front room of the inn. Kerysk was across the room talking to the Inn Keeper, a firm hand on one of Trebble’s arms. The imp was licking his lips and reaching for a bowl sitting on the top of a table near-by. Chiara sighed, then laughed as she saw Kyraen’s expression. “He pretty much will eat anything. Don’t worry about him, though. He’s pretty harmless—unless you’re a cat.” She laughed again.

Kerysk and Trebble were the last ones out of the inn. Vulfzen was already outside with the horses. There were four riding horses, two proud blacks, a huge gray stallion, and a fiery chestnut who was tossing his head. There was also a packhorse, grouchily digging in the snow with a forefoot, looking for something to eat. Kyraen looked at them doubtfully. Riding was not a skill that slaves were generally expected to acquire.

Chiara took the bridle of a slim black mare and tied her bundle to the back of the saddle. “Just give that pack to Vulfzen to put on the packhorse,” she told Kyraen. The girl nodded and walked over to where the tall man was neatly organizing the bundles on the horse’s back.

“You’ll be riding with me,” he said, taking the bundle. “I am guessing that you don’t have much experience with horses?”

Kyraen shook her head. “No, sir.”

“Well, you don’t have to worry on Ghalaad.” He gestured towards the big silver stallion. “He takes care of his riders.” He gave Kyraen a boost onto the horse’s back before vaulting lightly into the saddle himself. “If you feel yourself falling grab on,” he instructed.

Kyraen nodded, personally doubting if she would have the guts to do that. She would almost rather fall. There was something rather forbidding about Vulfzen, though she could not put a name on it and he had been very kind to her up to this point.

Kerysk and Trebble were riding double on the fiery chestnut gelding, who pranced nervously and tossed his head as if he were eager to be off. The imp was giggling and chattering away, perfectly at ease. Kyraen breathed a sigh of relief, glad that she was riding Ghalaad. The stallion was standing quietly beneath them, eyeing the other horse’s antics with an air of superior dignity.

Chieron’s gelding was a perfect match for his sister’s-- black as night, with a white crescent moon under one eye. The two Elvish horses were dainty and light, their eyes glowing with power and a promise of speed.

As one the companions turned their horses to the east. The journey had begun.

Kyraen could scarcely contain her excitement. They were actually on their way at last. She almost wished she could go on her own two legs, just so they could move away from the village, away from all the boring familiar places, that much faster. She glanced back at the houses vanishing behind them and smiled. Never in her wildest dreams had she imagined this reality. She was actually leaving!

One does not ask an imp to guard his supper

-- Petrin the Mapmaker, The Annals of Sundala

Chapter Four

The companions paused, just as the sun was starting to sink behind the mountains, to break for camp. A cold wind was blowing down from the mountains, silent, yet furious. Kyraen pulled her cloak around her more firmly as she slid out of Ghalaad‘s saddle. A day on horseback had her aching in places she had not even known existed. She was not sure if she could even walk.

Vulfzen had his feral head thrown back, almost as if he were trying to catch a scent on the wind. “There is another storm coming,” he said. “We had best make camp under shelter. It could get rough tonight.”

Trebble rolled and bounced across the clearing. “There is rock,” he said. “Maybe a cave somewhere. Even a ledge?”

Vulfzen nodded. “Even a ledge would help.” He and the imp disappeared into the growing shadows.

“They’ll find shelter,” Chiara’s voice startled Kyraen. “Trebble has an uncanny knack with rock. All imps do, really.” She looked up at the sky and shivered with a comfortable grin. “This almost reminds me of home. I miss the mountains when I am down in the flat lands, you know. Right now, though, I wouldn’t mind a little sunshine.”

Kyraen nodded in agreement. She was too cold to do anything more. The wind was picking up and had a definite icy feel to it.

Vulfzen came back, wading through the snow. “Trebble found a nice overhang for us,” he announced. “There is even enough shelter for the horses. I left him behind to clear it out just a little.” He caught hold of Ghalaad’s bridle and led the stallion forward. Kyraen followed with the packhorse in tow.

The overhang that the imp found was not far from where the companions had halted, but black night was fully upon them by the time they reached it. Kyraen almost ran into the stone before she realized that the wind was no longer pulling at her like a thousand clutching hands.

She breathed in a sigh of exhausted relief.

The companions fed the horses, from one of the packhorse’s bundles, and removed their saddles and the packs while Kerysk found some dry tinder that had been sheltered by the overhang and managed to get a pretty good blaze going.

Kyraen stumbled towards the fire gratefully. She was cold and hungry and the crackling heat from the dancing flames seemed to melt even the marrow in her bones. She yawned sleepily, looking around for Trebble.

The imp was in the back of the cave muttering to himself and stuffing handfuls of what looked like rocks into his mouth. Kyraen stared.

Chiara sat beside her with a sigh and smiled, holding her hands in front of the fire. “You’ve never seen an imp before, have you? They can eat, and do, believe me, just about everything. In fact,” Her grin widened. “I don’t think I have ever seen anything that an imp won’t eat.”

“But, stone?” Kyraen said incredulously.

“That is their favorite food.” Chiara caught Kyraen’s expression and laughed. “No, I’m serious. It is. They like nothing better than a good rock to munch on. You should see the caverns that they’ve cleared out deep inside the mountains, just from generations of imps eating their hearts out.”

Chieron sat down next to his sister and offered them both some dried strips of meat. Kyraen gnawed at her piece gratefully. Kerysk was leaning again the wall of the overhang, seemingly asleep. There was no sign of Vulfzen.

“I wouldn’t worry about him,” Chieron said, looking up from his maps to see Kyraen’s worried expression. “He’s scouting around while he still can. If it snows tonight we may be stuck here for several days.”

The wind howled like a wolf and Kyraen jumped nervously, edging closer to the fire.

“Why don’t you try to get some sleep?” Chiara suggested with a yawn. “Tomorrow could be a very long day.”

Kyraen nodded and curled up next to the fire, letting her eyes close on their own accord. Just when she was on the edge of sleep she thought she heard Vulfzen’s voice.

“It’s snowing and the pass is blocked. We’ll have to find a way around it tomorrow.”

Someone gently covered Kyraen with a blanket.

“Do you think she knows why she’s here?” Chiara’s voice was soft.

“No. I don’t think Balin knows for sure why she’s here. There is something though…”

“You feel it too, then.”

“Yes, I feel it too.”

Kyraen dreamily tried to ask what they meant, but the fire crackled and the next thing she knew it was morning.

Everyone but Trebble was already stirring. The imp was curled up next to Kyraen, snoring peacefully, his tiny hands holding onto her arm. She moved away carefully so as not to disturb him.

“Don’t worry,” Kerysk said, looking up from rummaging through one of the packs. “Treb sleeps like the dead. Nothing short of a rockslide will wake him until he’s good and ready.” He grinned at Kyraen and tossed her an apple and a roll of the bread that Cook had put in her sack. “He likes you, though. Otherwise he wouldn’t have slept next to you.”

“I like him too,” Kyraen said honestly. “I have never met anything… rather, anyone quite like him before, but he’s harmless, really, is he not?”

Kerysk nodded. “I met the little guy in Thessilia three years ago now. He was in trouble for eating someone’s lap dog at the time and they had him locked up in one of their dungeons. I whisked him away and we have been traveling together ever since. He comes in handy sometimes, as you saw last night.”

“He also can be more trouble than he’s worth,” Chiara put in with a laugh as she came into the overhang. There was snow on her cloak and she shivered as she brushed it off. “The snow came down in sword and dagger-lengths last night,” she said. “The pass is totally closed off, so Vulfzen has spent most of the morning looking for an alternative route.”

“If we were all imps we would go right through the mountain,” Kerysk pointed out around a mouthful of bread.

“Well, we are not, and we cannot,” Chiara said. “Vulfzen seems to think that, if we can cut through to the river, we had be able to get to the flatlands in just a couple days.”

Chieron came in out of the snow. “Vulfzen sent me to get you. We had best be off as soon as we can get the horses packed. We have to take advantage of the ice on the river before it melts. It looks to be the only way out.”

Kerysk jumped to his feet and gave Trebble a shove with the toe of his boot. The imp sighed and rolled over, but kept snoring. The red-bearded man shrugged. “We’ll tote him if we have to. Come on, Kyraen, give me a hand with the horses.”

Kyraen was not sure how to fasten the saddles properly, but Kerysk showed her on one of the Elvin horses and she was able to saddle Ghalaad herself. She was just tying down the last bundle on his saddle when Kerysk came to inspect her work. He nodded with approval. “Very good job. You are certainly a quick learner.”

Kyraen grinned at his praise. He grinned back, his green eyes dancing. He handed her Ghalaad’s reins. “Lead him out to Vulfzen. We had best be off.”

Kyraen nodded. As she stepped out of the overhang the wind hit her like a frozen dagger. She bent her head, pulling her cloak around her with one hand. Vulfzen was a tall dark figure in the whiteness of the snow. He took Ghalaad’s reins from Kyraen with a nod of thanks.

“We have no choice but to take a path that will be too steep to ride the horses,” he called to the companions over the wind. “We’ll have to move quickly, before the ice shifts.”

Kyraen grabbed hold of one of Ghalaad’s stirrups as Vulfzen led the stallion forward. She kept her head down, out of the wind, and tried to watch her footing. The slope was precarious, with icy stones lying hidden under a layer of fresh snow.

Ghalaad stumbled. Kyraen’s foot slipped on a stone at the same moment and she almost went down. A firm hand grabbed the back of her cloak and set her back on her feet. She looked back to see Chieron behind her. He nodded once in acknowledgement of her silent thanks, then disappeared again into the whirling snow.

Vulfzen halted the group just before they reached the frozen riverbed. The companions huddled together against the wind. The horses had their heads down, their breath steaming in the frosty air. “I am not sure how thick the ice is,” Vulfzen shouted over the wind. “Tread carefully and stay close to the horses. They should know where it’s safe to step. We have to move quickly, before the ice sheets shift. Stay close together.”

He turned and stepped out onto the ice, with Ghalaad in tow. Kyraen held her breath for a moment, afraid that the ice was going to crack, but it stayed solid. She carefully stepped onto it and her foot slipped, almost sending her face-first onto the slick surface.

“Easy,” came Kerysk’s voice over the wind, as he reached out a hand to steady her. Kyraen nodded her thanks and stepped forward more carefully. If she shuffled her feet, she found after a few sword-lengths, she was less likely to slip on the ice. She shuffled forward cautiously, holding onto Ghalaad’s stirrup with both hands.

The companions shuffled on as quickly as they dared. A couple times they were forced to freeze and wait as the ice creaked ominously beneath their feet, threatening to part and plunge them into the frozen depths. Kyraen held her breath, shaking, for the moment until they dared to step forward again.

Vulfzen called out a warning over the wind. “The ice is thinner here. Be careful where you step!”

Kyraen followed slowly and carefully. She recoiled like a spring when there was a loud snapping sound in front of her, then a splash as a large body fell through the ice into the freezing water. She heard Kerysk curse. “Come on, Redwind. Get up! Come on!”

She could just make out the bulk that was the big chestnut gelding struggling in the frigid water. The ice all around the hole he had fallen into was cracking and the whole plate creaked ominously.

“Get him over to the edge of the river,” Vulfzen was shouting. Kerysk yanked on the reins and the gelding broke through more ice, making his way to the shore. Kyraen held her breath as he moved steadily forward, then slipped.

A childish wail filled the air. Without thinking Kyraen jumped forward, knowing instantly what had happened. “Trebble!”

Before she knew exactly what she was doing she was in icy cold water over her head. She gasped as the air was knocked out of her and swallowed a mouthful of bitterly cold water. Her teeth immediately started chattering and shaking violently.

She peered through the falling snow to see a small thrashing form not far from her. She stroked forward quickly and grabbed at the shape. Trebble was still wailing, the sound only cutting off as he swallowed a mouthful of icy water.

Kyraen heard shouts behind them. She looked ahead and her heart froze with panic. She and Trebble were being swept towards the edge of a large ice plate by the current. If she didn’t do something, and quickly, they would both be pulled under the ice.

With all her strength she tucked Trebble into one arm while she grabbed onto the edge of the ice plate with her other arm, as the current pushed them into reach. The force of the impact knocked all of the breath out of her and the ice burned on her wet skin, cutting it like a sharp iron blade. Her shoulder jerked and was filled with fire. She clung on stubbornly, her feet kicking and her fingers digging into the ice, trying to gain purchase. She could feel herself slipping, being pulled under the sheet of ice by the current, and cursed. Where were the others? She watched helplessly as her fingers began to lose purchase.

Just as her fingers completely lost their grip she felt strong arms grabbing hold of her shoulders and dragging her up onto the ice. The wind sliced through her soaked skirts and cloak as she looked up into Kerysk’s worried face. Her teeth chattered as she looked down at Trebble. The imp looked miserable. He had curled into a soaked ball, muttering to himself. Already the water was freezing onto his wet fur and Kyraen’s clothes. The wind made Kyraen feel even colder than she had in the water.

“We have to get you out of this wind,” Vulfzen called, over the howling of the storm. “Kerysk, get them up on the bank. We’ll see if we can find a spot sheltered enough for a fire.” He paused, looking back over his shoulder. “That was very brave, Kyraen Aduli. Very dangerous, but very brave.” He vanished into the snow.

Kerysk picked Trebble up, out of Kyraen’s arms, and held the frozen imp against his chest, wrapping his cloak around them both. “This way,” he said to Kyraen. He gave her a boost up a ledge to solid ground. Kyraen looked around blindly. Her teeth were chattering uncontrollably and her brain was starting to get a strange foggy feeling.

Kerysk looked at her and cursed. “You are frozen clean through.”

They stumbled through the undergrowth. They could hear the horses and their companions coming up behind them. Kerysk found a spot where an ancient dead tree had sheltered a small area from much of the snow. He pulled off several of the driest lower branches and muttered over them, clutching a dark crystal that hung on a cord around his neck. For a moment Kyraen stepped back as the dark of his eyes swallowed up the green completely.

The pile of branches burst into crackling flame. Kerysk set Trebble in front of it, his eyes dazed, as if he had a bad headache.

Chiara came into the clearing and took Kyraen by the shoulders. “You have to get out of those wet things. I don’t suppose you have a change of clothes?”

Kyraen shook her head slowly. The few clothes and belongings she had carried in her small pack were now somewhere in the depths of the raging river. Her teeth were still chattering and she felt like she wouldn’t ever be able move again. Even shaking her head took more effort than it should have.

Chiara dug into a pack and pulled out an extra black tunic and leggings. “You’ll have to wear some of my clothes, for now. You’ll have to if you want to survive the night, anyway. Here, I’ll shield you with my cloak. Get out of those wet things.”

Shaking so hard that her fingers wouldn’t obey her, Kyraen pulled off her soaked clothing. She pulled on Chiara’s tunic and leggings, rolling up the sleeves, which were too long. Chiara gave her a blanket from one of the packs and pushed her towards the fire.

“Sit as close to it as you can stand,” she commanded, rubbing at Kyraen’s hands to bring the warmth back into them.

Chieron was heating up some water over the fire. Vulfzen came up with a pouch of something from his pack and added a handful of it to the water. A sweet smell filled the clearing. Kerysk looked up from where he was rubbing Trebble dry with a cloak. The imp looked livelier already. He was looking around and chattering, his tiny hands making gestures. Each of the companions sat back and breathed in the sweet smell of whatever it was that Vulfzen had added to the water.

Kyraen set her teeth as her hands and feet started to thaw, painfully. Chiara saw her expression and nodded. “The pain is good,” The Elvin woman said gently. “It means that you are not frozen all the way through, after all. Believe me, that is a good thing.” She smiled kindly and reassuringly.

Kyraen managed a weak smile in return. She accepted a mug of the hot, sweet-smelling, liquid from the fire with a grateful, if shaking, hand. One sip of the stuff sent heat flowing through her limbs. She sighed as her teeth stopped chattering. She took another sip, the delicious heat spreading to her fingers and toes. “What is this?” She asked.

Vulfzen smiled his feral smile. “It comes from a plant called sunbluusan. The mountain people use it for frost bite.”

Chieron looked at Trebble, then back at Kyraen. “We might as well camp here for the night,” he said. “They are not going to be ready to travel further today. If we are lucky the sunbluusan will keep them from illness. It would be too much to ask to have them press forward now.”

Kyraen opened her mouth to protest. She did not want to be responsible for slowing the company down, not when Vulfzen had said that there was so little time.

Chiara hushed her before she could say a word. “My brother is right. Don’t worry about it. We’ll be able to make up for lost time once the snow stops. Time is not so tight that we would risk you and Trebble for half a day’s walking.”

Vulfzen nodded his agreement, his face unsmiling. “I am going to scout ahead. This as good of a place to make camp as any.” His eyes turned towards Kyraen and the imp. “Perhaps, if I am lucky, I’ll be able to bring back some fresh meat.”

Before anyone could say anything he had vanished into the shadows and was gone.
The Races of Sundala are these:

Man the walker,

Elf, dreamer and fighter,

Ilisji the sea-dwellers,

Hagri, who fly,

Sidh the wisest,

Imp, ever hungry,

Karduul, the tree-dwellers,

Dragon, the fire-eater

-- Balin, A History Of Sundala

Chapter Five

Chiara pulled her throwing knives out of her pack and started teaching Kyraen how to hold and balance them, while they awaited Vulfzen’s return. Chieron and Kerysk joined them, setting up a target on a tree across the clearing from the fire, and having Trebble stand in as judge.

“Why don’t you try a throw at the target?” Chiara suggested after Kyraen had practiced throwing at a soft bit of ground not far from her.

Kyraen looked at the tree doubtfully. “I don’t know,” she said.

“No one makes it on the first try,” Chieron said. “There is no shame in missing.”

Kerysk nodded, though with a strange smile on his face that seemed to say to her that he expected her to fail. Kyraen felt herself grow hot and she balanced the borrowed knife in her hand as Chiara had taught her. Imitating the Elvin woman’s elastic movements she flicked her wrist forward and released the blade, sending it flying across the clearing.

The knife missed the target, but hit the tree and sunk in to the hilt. Kerysk whistled as he went across the clearing to examine it. “Remind me never to make you mad,” he said as he yanked it out of the wood and returned it to her.

Chiara and Chieron were staring at her with puzzled looks on their faces. They looked at each other and shook their heads in some silent agreement.

“Very good,” Chiara said in a steady voice. “Next time try bending your wrist just a little, like this.” She showed her the angle. “You should be able to hit the target after a little more practice.”

Kyraen declined to try again. Despite the sunbluusan she was still feeling shaky and tired from her swim in the river. Trebble climbed into her lap like an overgrown kitten and told her all sorts of wild stories in his little boy voice. His tiny hands kept moving, patting her still-damp hair and waving in the firelight as if he could weave the flames together. After a little while his eyes grew heavy and he started to snore. Kyraen grinned, her hands buried in the imp’s thick warm fur.

“He certainly likes you,” Kerysk said. The knife-throwing game had gotten too advanced for even him and now he was watching Chiara and Chieron throwing Winter Elf patterns as only their kind could. He offered Kyraen a stick of dried venison and she took it gratefully.

“Don’t get me wrong,” Kerysk continued. “Trebble likes just about everyone, that’s why he gets into trouble all of the time, but he really likes you.” He grinned and leaned back, his hands tucked behind his head. The black crystal hanging around his neck seemed to swallow up the firelight from where it lay on his chest, rising and falling with his breath.

In repose his face was creased with lines of weariness and strain that Kyraen had not noticed before. There was a faint tracing of scars along the right side of his face and neck, as if someone had been drawing something with the point of a dagger across there. She realized that there was much more to the red-bearded man than she had even begun to guess.

Vulfzen burst into the clearing with no warning. He carried two limp rabbits in one hand. His golden eyes were glowing with a wild light and he was panting with his mouth open, like a wolf. Kerysk was on his feet in an instant, the lines of strain vanishing as he took the rabbits from their leader’s hand and started skinning them.

“What did you find?” Chiara asked, retrieving her knives from the target tree and cleaning them. “Do you know where we are?”

Vulfzen nodded. “We are not far from a valley that will bring us out into the flat lands not far from where we originally had planned. The storm is starting to blow over. We should have clear going tomorrow.”

Trebble woke in time to offer to eat the rabbit skins and bones. Chiara retrieved the skins, but the imp proceeded to eat the bones and entrails while the rest of the rabbit stewed over the fire. Kyraen offered to help, but Kerysk shook his head. “It’s all taken care of,” he pointed out. “I am used to cooking over a fire and have learned to be efficient. All I ask is that you don’t let Trebble eat your bowl. We only have a limited number of them.”

Kyraen reached out to ladle out some of the stew for Chiara. Kerysk grabbed her wrist and turned her arm over before she could recoil from him. The underside of her arm was traced with fine blood-streaked lines from where the ice had cut her in the river. Kyraen hadn’t even noticed the pain in all of the excitement.

“Vulfzen should have something to put on those,” Kerysk said forcefully.

Kyraen pulled back her arm. “I…I don’t want to bother him. I am fine. They don’t even hurt, really.”

Vulfzen came up behind them. “What is this?” He bent over her arm. “Some of those could scar if you are not careful. I might have an ointment in my pack that will help with that.”

Kyraen looked down. “They’re fine, really. I don’t mind them. I don’t want to be a bother.”

“A bother?” Kerysk laughed. “You just risked your Moon-blessed neck to save Trebble and you are worrying about being a bother?”

“Let her be,” Vulfzen said in a low voice. He turned to Kyraen. “We are in your debt for saving the imp. Looking after your arm is the least we can do in return.”

Kyraen threw her arms into the air. “I don’t understand you people! I cost you a day’s traveling and you treat me like some sort of royalty. I am not royalty, in case you haven’t noticed. I am a slave. I have been a slave as long as I can remember. Now you are making a fuss over me doing something anyone with half a mind would do. You must be all Sun-crazed! I am just fine. I don’t need any looking after. I never have and I never will.” She turned away from them and stormed across the clearing where Trebble was staring at her with wide eyes.

“Kyra’s mad?” He asked, patting her hair as she sat down next to him.

“Yes,” Kyraen sighed. “Kyra’s mad, but don’t you worry. I’m not mad at you.” She scratched the fur between his eyes and he made a purring sound of pleasure and snuggled against her.

Kerysk came across the fire with a bowlful of stew and a piece of flatbread. “Truce?” He said cautiously.

Kyraen nodded. “Truce. I’m sorry. My temper’s never been very good. I just don’t like people making a fuss over me. I am not used to it and I don’t think I like it much.”

Kerysk made a face. “You and me both.” He nodded his head towards the twins. “That is part of the reason why they are here. Did you know that they are royalty? Well, they offered to come with Vulfzen to get away from that whole scene.”

“I like fusses,” Trebble announced, trying to stick his fingers into her stew bowl.

Kyraen laughed. “I believe it.” She broke off half of her bread and gave it to the imp to demolish. He immediately stuck it whole into his mouth and grinned toothily at her with his mouth full.

Kerysk made a face. “Don’t give him that. I have saved something for him that we cannot eat, but he would love. Trebble does not mind mold.”

“I like it,” the imp said with another grin. “Kerysk, I am hungry.”

“I know, I know,” Kerysk sighed as he got to his feet, but his green eyes were sparkling. “Come along and I’ll show you what we have. I might even have a nice old rock.”

“Really?” Trebble offered Kerysk a hand, who took it with a serious expression on his face. They walked past Kyraen on their way to the packs.

Kyraen scraped the last of her helping of rabbit stew out of the bottom of the bowl and leaned her face into her hands. The flickering of the firelight made her drowsy and her eyelids grew heavy. Out of habit she fingered the talisman she wore around her neck.

She was in a dark room or a cave, lined with more books than Kyraen had ever seen at one time. There was no one in the room, though there was a fire burning in the grate. Kyraen found herself crossing the room in a few strides towards something that sat in the middle of the table, covered by a cloth. She reached out without thinking about it and pulled the cloth off. She gasped as she looked down on a black diamond. It was the size of her two hands put together and gleamed from its depths with an almost living pulsing light. Without thinking she leaned forward and looked deep into it. Two clear blue eyes stared up at her out of the depths. With a startled cry she drew back.

She found herself staring deep into the fire, with her companions staring at her. She stammered with embarrassment. “I…it… I must have fallen asleep or something. I had a dream… I was startled, that is all.”

To her consternation her words only made her companions look at each other with expressions that she did not understand. Chiara came past the fire to put a hand on her shoulder. “What happened?”

“I… I was just staring into the fire and dozed off,” Kyraen said.

“Do you remember the dream?” There was a note in Chiara’s voice that made Kyraen look up at her sharply. The elf’s face was bare of expression.

“I guess so. I was in a room with a lot of books. I uncovered something on the table and it was a black stone about this big,” She held up her two hands. She described the rest of her dream. “When I saw the eyes I jumped, and I guess I screamed. That is when I woke up.”

Chiara was not looking at Kyraen anymore. She looked across the fire at Vulfzen, who was blank faced, save for the glow of his golden eyes flickering in the firelight. Chieron was staring off into space and Kerysk clutched the crystal around his neck with a white face. Only Trebble seemed oblivious.

Chiara shook her head and seemed to come back to herself. “If you have any other dreams like that please tell me,” she said in a low voice.

Why? Kyraen wondered, but she just nodded her head. Everyone went back to what they were doing as if nothing had happened. The only sign that something was different was the look that Kerysk gave her as he retrieved her bowl and spoon. She could not read it, but his green eyes were deep, thoughtful, and intense. She shivered without knowing why.

Ride the dragon, not the egg

The view is better

-- Proverb from the Dragon Isles

Chapter Six

The company started off early the next morning. The snow, as Vulfzen had predicted, had stopped over night, and the sun was actually shining down on the snow, making it glow with a purity that was at odds with the way it had torn at them only the day before. The top layer of snow was frozen into a thin, solid, sheet and the travelers’ feet broke through the crust with every step. The horses seemed to enjoy it and pranced eagerly, arching their necks and tossing their proud, sleek, heads.

Kyraen was having fun herself. The crisp air was exhilarating and the leggings she had borrowed from Chiara allowed her more freedom than she was used to in her heavy skirts. Another draught of Vulfzen’s sunbluusan had chased the cold out of her veins. She felt as young and playful as the village children back in the mountains.

She and Trebble charged ahead of the others, her wading through the snow and the imp rolling and bounding through it, shrieking and giggling until the hills around them echoed with a hollow, muffled, laugh in return. Kyraen laughed back at her companions. They all looked back at her with astonished expressions, almost severe. She grinned at them and rolled up a snowball, whizzing it past Kerysk’s head.

He stood still, shocked, for a moment. With a howl he jumped forward with a handful of snow, jabbing it down the back of her cloak. She shrieked and ran from him, reaching down a hand to grab a defensive clump of snow and ice. With Trebble bouncing along side she slid down the slope of the hill they were on, into a small clearing, then froze, swallowing hard.

A large wildcat was up on its haunches, pawing at the struggling form of a raven in its claws. The cat caught sight of Kyraen and snarled, an evil light in its eyes. Its face twisted into a dangerous warning cry. It dropped the raven and started towards the girl, its shoulder blades swinging underneath its heavy winter coat. The cat’s fangs glittered like the sharp edges of ice crystals.

“Get out of here, Treb,” Kyraen said between her teeth, pulling out her borrowed knife. The imp bounced away obediently, up the slope at an impressive speed. The cat bunched up, watching him, and gathered its muscles together to start after him, but Kyraen jumped and waved her knife at it. The cat blinked at the flash of steel, but it moved into a bound towards her, letting out another terrifying cry. Almost blind with rage and fear Kyraen threw the knife she was holding at it with all of her strength.

The cat fell in midair and yowled, biting at the knife, which was deeply embedded into its flank. As the knife fell Kyraen could see blood on its tip. The cat hissed and spat at the girl before turning tail and disappearing into the woods. Shaking, Kyraen retrieved the knife from where it had fallen. Cleaning it with the edge of her cloak, she continued down the slope to see if the raven was still alive.

The obsidian-feathered bird was lying where it had fallen, with a glassy look in its eyes. It was breathing hard and fluttered one wing pathetically. The other wing was bent beneath it at an awkward angle. There was no blood, which Kyraen took as a good sign. Carefully, she wrapped her hand with the edge of her cloak and gently lifted the raven up into her arms. It was already starting to breathe more evenly and cocked its head towards her in a curiously intelligent look. He did not struggle when she wrapped him up securely in her cloak.

“What do you have there?’ Kerysk asked, sliding down the slope with Trebble bouncing behind him.

“A raven,” Kyraen said, holding it up. “I think he might have a broken wing.”

Kerysk frowned. “He might not live after being a wildcat’s idea of dinner, you know.

“Well, I am going to take care of him,” Kyraen said. “I am sure Vulfzen will show me how to take care of his wing.”

The Trebble was bouncing as high as he could. “I want to see! Show me! Show me!” With a sigh Kerysk lifted up the imp who looked at the bird with wide eyes. “Mmm. Let me eat him, Kyra. He looks yummy. Trebble likes feathers.”

Kyraen lifted the bird out of the reach of the imp’s grasping little hands. “No, Trebble. You cannot eat him. You are going to help me take care of him. Got it? Friend, not food. Understand?”

“Sure,” said the imp happily. “Trebble does not eat friends.”

Kerysk laughed. “Why didn’t I think of that before? Maybe he wouldn’t get in so much trouble for eating pets if he thought of all of them were ‘friends’.” He sighed. “You are determined to take care of the bird?”

Kyraen nodded stubbornly.

“Alright, then,” Kerysk said. “I’ll help you take care of him. Let us get him up to Vulfzen.” He cracked a grin. “Good job with the cat, by the way. Couldn’t have done better myself.”

Kyraen smiled at the compliment. “I was scared out of my wits.”

“Of course you were. People who say they are never afraid are either lying or just plain stupid.” Kerysk waved at their companions who were waiting for them at the top of the slope. Vulfzen waved back, telling them that they would be coming down to meet them.

Chiara was the first to reach them, leading Blackmoon, her mare. “It seems Kyraen stumbled onto a short cut to the plains,” she said, waving the end of her reins. “They are on the other side of these trees.” Her eyes widened when she saw the raven in Kyraen’s hands.

“That’s right,” Kerysk drawled. “I forgot. The Northland Elves believe that ravens are sacred birds, don’t they?”

“In a manner of speaking,” Chiara said. “The ancient ones called them Speakers for the Moon. Ravens live for a very long time, so they have seen many things of great import in their lives. Many of them even know how to speak.”

“Birds talking?” Kyraen said in surprise, looking up to see if the Elvin-woman was teasing her.

Chiara nodded, seriously. “We should get this guy to Vulfzen. He’s probably in a lot of pain.” She waved for the tall man to come more quickly.

“The wing is just badly bruised, not broken,” Vulfzen announced when he had examined the bird. “He should be fine in a few days.”

“Thank you,” croaked a voice that, after looking around, they realized came from the bird. He cocked his head at them. “Name Karaouk. Girl?”

“Kyraen,” Kyraen said dazedly. She had not taken Chiara completely seriously when she said that some ravens could talk.

“Kyraen good name, better girl. Karaouk stays with Kyraen,” The bird announced in its croaking voice.

“Looks like you’ve been adopted,” Vulfzen said, his face unreadable. “There are worse things than being adopted by a raven. Ravens are special birds. Karaouk may end up helping us. I am not a future reader, but I feel that it is not by accident that you saved him.”

“I don’t think I believe in destiny,” Kyraen said cautiously, looking down at the raven and not at Vulfzen. “Not really. I don’t think people can know the future. I don’t believe that someone can be chosen before they are born to do something special like saving the world. I think people make their own decitions and take their own paths. It just wouldn’t make sense for one person to have a special destiny.”

Vulfzen smiled. “Not many do. You may learn that you are right, or you may learn in time that there is a such thing as destiny after all.”

Kyraen shrugged and cradled Karaouk in her arms as the companions struck off on the trail again. She was not fool enough to believe that she knew everything about life and living. After all, she was only a slave-girl and had seen much less of the world than any of her companions. Perhaps Vulfzen was right, but Kyraen could not find any comfort in a life designed by destiny. If destiny existed, then why was there so much chaos and inequality?

They reached the plains just as Chiara had predicted and paused only to eat some dried fruit and meat before striking off for the city. There were hardly any trees in sight, and the river vanished into a sea of grass in the distance, like a silver thread in a seamstress’ shop. The grass was gold and silver and green, bending and swaying in the wind, rippling and glittering in the golden sunlight. Kyraen had never seen anything like it, in her short life. She could not remember a time she had not lived in the mountains, where long stretches of rich grass like this could only be imagined. She drew in a deep breath of the air, which somehow seemed as sweet and green as the plains themselves.

Trebble seemed to like bouncing around in the grass. The companions could trace his movements by the wild swaying and rustling of the tops of the grasses around them. There was a sudden squawk and a burst of feathers as he came across a fieldhen on her nest. In a few minutes he came rolling back towards his companions, feathers stuck to his fur and a happy smile displaying all of his teeth.

He bounded by Kyraen’s side as they got the horses ready to start off again. He was fascinated by Karaouk and would have carried him around the camp if Kyraen had not rescued the poor raven from his good-hearted overabundance of friendship.

Karaouk actually seemed to be equally fascinated by the imp. The two of them chattered to each other, Trebble in his little-boy voice and Karaouk in his husky rasp. Trebble outlined all of his adventures in a serious voice until Kerysk grabbed him to set him on the front of Redwind’s saddle. Even then he kept turning around to stare and wave wildly with both tiny hands at his new ‘friend’.

“We are going to take advantage of the flatlands and move swiftly,” Vulfzen warned as he gave Kyraen a boost into Ghalaad’s saddle. “Just relax and hold on.”

Kyraen wondered briefly at the seemingly contradictory commands.

As Vulfzen had forewarned, the group moved off at a steady ground-eating trot. Kyraen clung to the leather of Ghalaad’s saddle with her fingernails as she tried to find some way to balance. The dark gray stallion’s strides were smooth and even, but she still found herself jostling from side to side. She winced as her shoulder awkwardly struck Vulfzen’s back, but the tall man did not even turn to look at her. Karaouk seemed unbothered by the roughness of the ride. Instead he seemed perfectly content to just lie still within the crook of Kyraen’s arms and watch the waving tips of grass rush by.

After what seemed like miles, Kyraen found that if she leaned back she could find some sort of rhythm, allowing her to move freely with the horse without having to cling on with both hands. With the ride more comfortable she had more time to look about at the wide expanse that was surrounding her. She had never seen a sky so blue or so wide. As Ghalaad cantered on she could imagine that she was flying through the sky, unlimited by earthly bonds. No wonder Karaouk seemed so content. She had never felt more free.

The miles rolled away steadily. There was little conversation among the companions, other than an occasional squeal from Trebble and the curious remarks from Karaouk, who was still tucked into Kyraen’s cloak where he was nestled like a rabbit in a burrow.

The plains lay before them in an endless sea of grasses that parted before them like a golden curtain. The blades reached high into the sky, in places even sword-lengths above the heads of the companions. It was as if they had entered a forest of nothing but slender green and gold shoots. The sharp, sweet, scent of the crushed stalks tickled Kyraen’s nose. Once or twice she though she saw something dashing across the path in front of them, only to have it vanish again into the tall grass.

By the time the sun was setting they had reached a small silver stream, which lay hidden, and peaceful to one side of the nearly invisible trail cut through the grass they had been following. The ground was marshy and the air was full of the call of wild fowl.

“We’ll set up camp here,” Vulfzen announced, bringing Ghalaad to a halt. The stallion tossed his head, sending bits of foam flying from his bit.

Kyraen gratefully slid out of the saddle and gingerly tried out her legs. Looking up she was gratified to see that she was not the only one that looked a bit stiff. Even Chiara, despite her natural grace, was stretching and moving about awkwardly. The Elvin woman caught her eye and grinned.

“How about giving me a hand with the horses?” Kerysk suggested, leading Redwind and the pack horse past Kyraen. “Since you were such a big help this morning.”

Kyraen nodded, unwrapping Karaouk and putting the raven on her shoulder to free her hands. He gleefully cocked his head and flapped his uninjured wing as she unsaddled Ghalaad and started rubbing the stallion down with a stiff brush. The raven seemed particularly interested in the metal buckles of the saddle and seemed unable to keep from pecking at them when the sunlight flashed off of the bright metal .

“Pretty,” he croaked, hopping down Kyraen’s arm to get a better look. Kyraen paused to look at the sun shining on the metal and had to agree that it would probably be appealing to a bird.

“Come on,” she said, tilting her head at him to climb back up to her shoulder. “We have to help Kerysk with the pack horse.”

Karaouk happily jumped up her arm and was quite content to comment on every little move that she and Kerysk made as they picketed the horses and turned them loose to tear at the long, green, grass that grew by the edge of the stream.

“There,” Kerysk said with satisfaction, surveying their work. “That is taken care of. Care to see if you can find anything fresh growing around here for the evening meal? I am going to get the fire started.”

Kyraen glanced at him sideways, remembering how he had started the fire just the day before and the expression that had been on his face afterwards. If he saw her face he made no sign, but passively started gathering kindling. She collected Trebble and went towards the river looking for greens or anything else that might be edible.

Chiara and Chieron were leaning back on a grass knoll with fishing twine wrapped around their wrists. Chiara grinned at Kyraen before leaning back with a sleepy yawn and settling back. Chieron was cleaning his sword, a beautiful blade that glittered and shone in the sunlight like a thing possessed. There was a far away look in his eyes. Kyraen thought he looked almost wistful. He caught her eye and smiled slowly. Karaouk croaked his approval of the sword, the shiniest thing he had seen all day.

It was Trebble who found the wild onions and potatoes growing by the riverside in one of the shallow marshes. Apparently imps had a taste for them as well as rocks and other inedibles. Kyraen had to wade in and gather as much as she could before he devoured them all. When she had gathered all she thought they would need she left him in the marsh, still shoveling armfuls into his ever-hungry mouth. Kyraen thought, with a smile, that it was a good thing that imps had small hands, otherwise nothing would have been safe from their appetites.

“Perfect,” Kerysk said, when she presented her armful of cooking-pot treasures to him. “Meat stew is fine for everyday traveling, but for a real stew…” He smiled and shook his head.

“We, too, have gifts for your fire,” Chiara called, coming up with a string of rainbow-scaled fish. “Add these to the greens and we’ll have a real feast tonight.”

Chieron added his own string of fish to his sisters and smiled quietly, moving off towards where the horses were picketed. Kyraen looked around but she saw no sign of Vulfzen. She turned around just in time to remove Trebble’s over-eager fingers from the strings of fish before they disappeared. The imp’s fur was muddy and matted from the marshes, but, apparently, the barrelfuls of onions and potatoes he had just devoured had not even so much as taken the edge off of his appetite.

Kyraen and Chiara settled down to gut the fish, giving the undesirable parts to the imp. Somehow the Elvin-woman was able to stay fairly neat while doing the messy job, something Kyraen could not quite master. Of course, there had not been many fish coming into Master Balin’s mountain home. She gutted her share of the fish, but ended up with gore up to her elbows and a nasty fishy smell she was afraid would linger around her for weeks. She looked down at her gory hands and wrinkled her nose in disgust.

“There is a small pool not far from here,” Chiara said, leaning back and closing her eyes when the job was through. “The water should be warm enough and still enough for you to bathe if you care to.” She half-opened an eye to grin mischievously at Kyraen. “That is, if you can keep out of the current this time.”

Ignoring the jab, Kyraen gave the Elvin woman a grateful smile and headed off in the direction she had been pointed. Trebble bounced along at her side, once and a while leaping high enough even to clear the overgrown grass. Kyraen laughed at his antics. The quieter water lay with scarcely a ripple, though deep enough that Kyraen would be able to stand in up to her neck. With a sigh of contentment Kyraen gently placed Karaouk on the bank and pulled off her borrowed clothing. After hesitating for a moment, reluctant to dress herself in damp clothes, and even more reluctant to remain dressed in dirty, fish-smelling, robes, she quickly rinsed the clothing clean in the water and set them out to dry in the fading sunlight.

She stepped into the water, shivering a little, though the water was much warmer than her unintended bathing up in the mountains by leaps and bounds. With a sigh she paddled into the deeper water and ducked under to rinse the day’s journey out of her thick hair.

Trebble showed no inclination to join her. Somehow his fur had dried into its usual soft, brown, untidiness. He stayed on the shore, patting Karaouk and half-humming, half-singing something in a rumbling language that Kyraen guessed to be his native tongue. The sound was soothing and she floated in relaxation, just listening and letting the tiny currents of the river pull gently at her.

She looked up without realizing why and started before she could help herself. A tawny wolf stood near the riverside, panting with a wolfish grin on its face, its narrow sides heaving in and out with each breath, as if it had run a long distance. Its tawny eyes met hers unflinchingly as it bent its head to lap at the water. Kyraen held her breath as it finished drinking and stared steadily at her. With a bound it twisted away back into the tall grass.

It was growing dark before she made her way back to the fireside. Her clothes were still moist and her hair hung down her back and around her shoulders in damp tendrils. Her companions were already eating their dinner. The scents of cooked fish and potatoes filled the air and made her mouth water in anticipation. She accepted one of the precious wooden bowls from Kerysk and filled it, offering tidbits to Trebble and Karaouk from time to time.

“I saw a wolf while I was bathing,” She said, her mouth full. Realizing her bad manners she swallowed quickly. “I was not aware that there were any wolves left in the plains here.”

Chiara and Chieron exchanged a glance with Kerysk. Vulfzen did not look up from the fire, his long still form almost seeming to be just another shadow among the other shadows of the night.

Chiara made a shrugging motion with her shoulders. “Oh, I am not surprised. Wolves can cover quite a lot of territory, you know. I would keep my eyes out, if I were you. There have been a lot of strange and wild animals about recently. I am not meaning to put a damper on you, just make sure you always have your knife.”

Kyraen nodded obediently, offering Karaouk a sliver of fish. The raven took it delicately and swallowed it in three gulps. She looked up to find Vulfzen’s eyes on her. For a moment she met his tawny, golden gaze, then she looked away with a shiver, not knowing exactly why.

“Get some sleep,” He said through the darkness. “All of you. We will rise early and travel all day tomorrow without stopping. With the Moon’s blessing we should be able to reach the outskirts of the city by the coming of the next dawn. The time is upon us to move swiftly and certainly. Rest now while you still may.” He stood, towering above them in his full height, and whisked away into the shadows.

With a yawn Kyraen settled down next to the fire, the imp curled up against her stomach and the raven curled up in the crook of her arm. In her dreams she saw the wolf drinking by the stream again. As she watched, in her dream, she saw the wolf rise up on its hindquarters and change, until she was looking into the long, tawny, face of a man. Before she could cry out the man turned and was a wolf again disappearing silently into the shadows.

Black-winged Raven, fly my way

Lead me by the Moon’s fair light

Lost am I, but not afraid

Under your wings, Millovinia’s night

-- Winter Elf Song of the Raven

Chapter Seven

Kyraen awoke stiff and sore with someone gently shaking her shoulder. It was still dark and she could just make out the line of Chiara’s face in the eerie shadows of early morning. The Elvin woman did not say a word, but she handed Kyraen a wafer of bread and crossed the camping area to wake the others.

Once Kyraen had helped ready the horses they were off, at an even faster pace than the day before. The sun was warmer down on the planes than it had hereto been. It beat down on the back of Kyraen’s neck and gave her a fierce headache. She clenched her teeth against the rattle of Ghalaad’s swift trot, and tried to keep herself from falling asleep, sure that she would only wake to find herself tumbling head-first the moment she drifted away.

The hours dragged on. It seemed to Kyraen that they had spent years in a row of swift-moving horses, the tail of one disappearing in the tall waving grasses just before the next. The sweet scent of crushed grasses lingered in the air all around them, touched by the wild flavors of wildflowers. The air echoed with the different calls of the plains birds. The plains were endless and un-breaking, rolling like a sea without end across the expanse of all of Sundala.

They did not halt for meals that day, but continued on until Kyraen felt she would break into a million pieces. Her only respite was a changing of pace, to a walk to ford the many streams that interlaced the grasslands, and to gallop across the rare flat lands where the grasses did not grow too high for visibility. Mostly it was just trotting, hour after hour, as relentless as the beating of the sun on the companions’ backs.

The sunlight faded in a display of color and two moons rose high above them, Kassadreia and her Mother, Millovinia. The travelers came to the crest of a hill, horses and riders tired and aching from the long and swift ride. Far below them Kyraen saw the twinkling of city lights, like so many stars shimmering in a valley below. Beyond them she could see the silvery moonlight kiss the gentle waves of the sea. The air was full of the salty taste of it. Kyraen almost laughed with relief.

“We will go only a little further before we camp for the night,” Vulfzen called to his companions, tearing their eyes away from the beauty of the city below them. “Tomorrow we will enter Sordeski. For tonight we will rest. It has been a long day.”

Kyraen heard the others murmur in agreement. She was too tired to even do that much. She could not tear her eyes away from the sight before them. She had never seen so many lights, nor had she before seen the silver-crested silence of the sea. Vulfzen urged Ghalaad forward and they made their ways down the slope towards the city that lay far below. With their goal in view Kyraen’s tired and sore body protested. Even before Vulfzen called them to a halt she was trembling with fatigue. Kerysk had to lift her from the saddle and, even then, her legs wouldn’t hold her weight.

“I am afraid that you are not used to such rough traveling,” He said kindly, no mocking laughter in his green eyes. He helped her away from where the horses would be picketed, to the smoother ground where they would sleep. “You will be a little sore tomorrow, I’m afraid. We will all be in need of one of Vulfzen’s marvelous herbs.” He wrapped a blanket around her. “Don’t worry, tonight I’ll care for the horses myself. I have the first watch. You sleep. Tomorrow will be another day under the Sun.”

Kyraen tried to thank him, but the words seemed to slur and fade away before she could say them. She dropped her head on her arms and was asleep.

Five days after Kyraen left Balin’s household and kitchen as a free woman she entered Sordeski, the great harbor city, for the first time. Even before she stepped through the great stone pillars of the First Gate she was awed and astounded. All she could do was stare. She had never seen such a diversity of people or heard so many languages in one place. In her village a man was knowledgeable if he understood two languages. In Sordeski it seemed that everyone spoke or understood at least that many.

A woman with an impressive headdress swept by in a dress that was made of swirling colors that made anyone who looked for long very dizzy. Trebble was all for tracing the colors with his grubby fingers and was only dissuaded by the appearance of a gooey sticky roll in Kerysk’s possession from one of the nearby stands. By the time he had swallowed that whole the woman was long past.

“That was a high lady from a Sordeskian family if I am not mistaken,” Chiara said in a low voice, leaning towards Kyraen. “The more impressive the headdress the better the lineage and fortune. It’s supposed to make it easy on the Sordeskian High Families to make advantageous matches.” She made a face. “They also weigh a ton. Those women must have necks of iron.”

Kyraen grinned back, her eyes caught by three men marching by in scarlet uniforms, their plumes and cloaks shimmering like flame in the morning sunlight. They wore swords at their belts and heavy bows over their shoulders.

Chiara whistled under her breath. “Those are Juscuran warriors from the highlands. We don’t see them in Sordeski very often. They are very class conscious so it’s a good idea to stay out of their way. It takes,” She leaned closer to confide, “them an unbelievably long time to arrange dinner parties as everyone of rank must be seated precisely and those unworthy must be delicately weeded out of society. Their functions can be quite stuffy, but once in a while you meet a good Juscuran. They tell the best tales this side of the mountains.”

In just crossing to the next street they saw an Ardvhi Magician, an Ovbertin assassin, and a troop of jugglers and dancers that filled the streets with their antics. Kyraen had never seen anything quite like it.

“Just look at her eyes,” Kerysk teased in her hearing to Chiara. “I think she may be feeling just a tad overwhelmed.”

Chiara laughed and grinned, her beautiful silver eyes sparkling like moonlight on a river. “It’s a little overwhelming at first, but you will get used to it over time. No worries there.”

Kyraen was glad that they had left the horses at a stable near the city gates until they could make arrangements for their own lodging. The crowd was pushing and shoving as it was, squeezing impossibly into every corner of the streets, laughing, singing, dancing, shouting, arguing. The sounds made Kyraen want to clap her hands over her ears to block them all out. There was, she decided, a such thing as too many people.

The cacophony of sound and colors brightened with music shops and other shops boasting the finest fabrics. Jugglers did tricks and fiddlers played, while people of every size, shape, and color, seemed to be gathered from every corner of Sundala just to view the wares the merchants boasted of.

They turned onto another street and the hubbub disappeared behind them. This area of the city was a higher, more refined, district. More than one sign Kyraen saw had the markings of a scholar and other master craftsmen. Here the bargaining was quiet and organized, compared to the noise and clatter of the lower districts.

At the far end of the district stood the Great Library of Sordeski, its golden domes rising above all else in the city. It was there that the companions were headed. It was for the library that they had traveled so far and with so much haste. Kyraen stared at it, dumfounded. Never had she imagined that living creatures could build so majestic a building. White, towering walls reached up high to the glittering domes that classified the library. It was truly awe-inspiring, and more than a little frightening, Kyraen decided.

A tall man in a white robe, that parted to reveal heavy green armor hidden beneath, halted them at the golden gates. He was tall and broad across the shoulders, with long golden hair and blue eyes. “Who seeks the knowledge of the ages,” he demanded, his arms crossed before him.

“We are travelers from many lands, having journeyed far to search out wisdom that can only be found here. It was my understanding that these doors were open to all willing students.” Vulfzen’s voice, though friendly, carried steel beneath its overtones.

“Once, perhaps,” the guard said, “before the darkness in the lands began to stir. Times have since changed when we would open these gates simply for the asking. I ask your names, if you will.” He stared at them unmoving, unrelenting. “It would seem that these two companions of yours are elves, sir. In this day we must be careful. Those who use magic,” his mouth moved around the word distastefully, “are not welcome within our gates.”

“Can this be Sordeski?” Vulfzen exclaimed. This the city that boasts of its open gates, for its open minds and societies. Since when do the Sordeski insult their allies, the elves, with suspicion and hate?”

“Come now, Obrynton,” came a low, soft voice. “What seems to be the problem?”

“My lord.” The guard saluted, touching his forehead with his fist. “These travelers seek entrance to the library.”

“Then, by all means, let them enter.” The speaker, an old, slight man that reminded Kyraen strongly of Balin, smiled softly, almost shyly, at them. He was clad in a long white robe, similar to that of the guard’s, though Kyraen was fairly sure that his was not concealing armor beneath it.

The guard bowed stiffly and opened the gates, allowing them to pass. Kyraen did not miss the red fury that flushed his face at having to allow their entrance.

“I am Petrin, the Mapmaker,” the old man said by way of introduction. “I have been waiting for your arrival for some time.” He smiled at their astonishment. “Vulfzen, as you have been calling yourself as late, you are familiar to me, as are your companions.”

His eyes moved from Chiara to Chieron, to Kerysk, where they rested for a moment before turning to Kyraen, where she stood with Karaouk on her shoulder and Trebble holding on tightly to her hand. “Even you, young Kyraen. I have been eagerly looking forward to your arrival.”

“How?” Kerysk burst out with, unable to contain himself.

Petrin just smiled. “I know many things, young master. More than you would expect.” His look was so candid that Kerysk looked away, his face white, and his hand creeping towards the crystal he wore around his neck.

“I am afraid that what you are looking for is no longer here,” the old man continued, his strides surprisingly brisk despite his obvious age. “A good friend of mine at the School of Stars has it in his keeping. It is a dangerous thing to have in this hour.” His eyes grew misty, as if he were seeing a great ways off. “A very dangerous thing in this time.”

“The School of Stars?” Kerysk demanded. “But that is on the other side of the continent!”

“You are welcome to find what you can here, young priest,” Petrin said easily, “if the other side of the continent is too far for you to journey.”

“Priest?” Kyraen said in astonishment.

Kerysk shook his head and bunched up one shoulder. “That was a long time ago. I left the order many years ago.”

“Once a priest always a priest,” Petrin said calmly, “at least in my understanding.”

“I was dismissed,” Kerysk said shortly, “I was not… what they were looking for in a priest.” Kyraen noticed that he was rubbing the dark crystal around his neck in a nervous gesture.

Petrin shrugged. “Very well, perhaps I was mistaken.” He opened a large door at the end of the hallway into a room containing more books than Kyraen had ever seen before, something she had thought impossible after being in Balin’s study.

“You seem sure of what it is that we are seeking,” Vulfzen said with his feral smile. “The truth of the matter would be that we are not quite sure ourselves.”

“Feel free to search the archives,” Petrin answered. “If you need anything pull that cord and someone will attend to you.” With a bow and a sweep of white robes he turned out of the room. The great door closed behind him.

“Well,” Chiara said brightly. “That was certainly enlightening.” She turned towards the books with a sigh. “Now, what exactly is it that we are looking for?”

Vulfzen crossed towards the shelves. “I suppose anything having to do with the black diamond of Acura.”

Black diamond? Kyraen’s mind shot back to the dream she had had in the clearing. Her other companions looked as surprised.

“The Black Acura?” Chiara asked, “I thought it had been destroyed or lost long ago.”

“That is what we are trying to find out,” Vulfzen said, “Balin seemed to think that it was our only hope.”

Chieron shook his head. “I believed the Acura to be a myth, or a story. After all, the tools of the greatest power have already passed from this land.”

“Not,” Vulfzen said, “the Acura, it seems.”

Kerysk looked dizzy, but he did not say anything. He just strode towards the shelves, to an area marked ‘index’. “Well,” he said finally in a strained voice. “This would, apparently, be the place to start.”

Vulfzen nodded. “Chiara, you and Chieron look under ‘magical artifacts’. Kerysk, you check under the School of Stars and see if you can make a connection, keep Trebble with you. That should keep him out of trouble. Kyraen, you and I shall look under the title ‘Acura’. We’ll see if we can make some connections and be able to determine its whereabouts.”

Each of his companions nodded and turned towards the index. Vulfzen came towards Kyraen with a large volume from the index and flipped through it. He paused, “Balin said you could read?”

Kyraen nodded. “Yes, I can read, sir.” The ‘sir’ popped out of her mouth before she had even thought about it. She blushed and he winked kindly at her.

“Now,” he said. “It has a list of documents here. It also says ‘refer to the Kesriguth, magic of’, and lists another set of documents. You read through those and I’ll read through this first set. Remember, if you see anything, no matter how unimportant it may seem, tell me.”

Kyraen nodded. She read the list quickly and murmured the titles under her breath a few times to make sure she knew them before heading towards the shelves. She returned to the tables heavily loaded down with books and began to search through them.

For the next several hours the companions were silent, save for the turning of pages and an occasional giggle or stage whisper from Trebble. Karaouk stood on the table in front of Kyraen and watched her with fascination. He cocked his head and seemed almost to be trying to decipher the words on the page. They had been all written in a neat, but tiny, script and at times Kyraen could barely make out the sentences.

Chiara sat back with a loud sigh and a groan. “Moons! I am running in loopholes here. Every time I find anything that speaks even remotely about the Acura it refers me immediately to ‘The Notebook of Seriah Meciza. ’ I have checked the shelves seven times and have not been able to find so much as a trace of it.”

“Same here,” Kyraen, who had just come across a similar reference, said.

“And here,” Vulfzen said.

“I have not found anything on the Acura,” Kerysk said. “But I have seen the name Seriah Meciza several times in the records of the School of Stars. Here,” his finger slid down a page. “It seems that she was a Sorceress and a teacher at the School of Stars. She disappeared long ago to unknown whereabouts, though there were rumors about Black Magic.” He shrugged, grimacing. “It’s all very vague.”

“Ah,” Chiara said, “But it gives us our connection. That must be the manuscript that Petrin said we wouldn’t find here. There must be some connection between this vanished teacher suspected of Black Magic and the black diamond of Acura.”

Vulfzen nodded. “Then it would seem that he was also correct in assuming that we would need to travel there, and with all haste.” He rose to his feet just as the door opened to allow Petrin to enter. He was carrying a tray and a slim boy in a white robe carried another.

“I thought that you might care for refreshments,” he said. “You have had a long journey, and, unless I am mistaken,” his eyes twinkled and Kyraen felt fairly certain that he was rarely mistaken in anything, “another one to be started immediately.”

“May the Moons bless you,” Chiara said in relief. “I could eat my horse.” She grinned. “Though don’t tell her that I said that. I have a feeling she would take it the wrong way.” The other companions joined their thanks to hers.

“Will you join us?” Vulfzen asked politely.

Petrin shook his head. “No, no. I have much to many things to do.” He smiled his almost shy smile. “We get few visitors here so I wanted to see to your comfort before returning to my writing.”

Kyraen looked down and his long, ink stained fingers and wondered if he had been the one to write all the books they had been searching through. She dismissed the thought almost immediately. That many books would have taken several lifetimes to write. At that thought she looked up to see his eyes twinkling at her.

Petrin bowed to them each in turn, even including Trebble and Karaouk in his honors, before leaving the room.

Even an innkeeper is a king in his own castle

-- Balin, Treatise to the Ilisji: Of Men and Pride

Chapter Eight

“Now, then,” Chieron said several minutes later, when the first pangs of the companions’ hunger had been lessened. He pulled the rolled up map he carried from his belt and spread it out before them. “I think you would all agree with me that it would be impractical for us to cross by land. Sordeski happens to be one of the largest seaports on this side of the continent. I say we take advantage of that fact and sail to Mohavmoor, around the southern tip, and continue from there to the School.” He traced the path with a slender finger before leaning back with another cake in his hand.

“That would seem practical,” Kerysk admitted, “Much as I might despise the thought of sailing. If we are lucky, though luck seems hardly to be with us on this journey, we should be able to shave off several days traveling with this route.”

“I will see about ships immediately,” Vulfzen said, rising. “I will join with you again at the Inn of the Three Moons. I am sure Kerysk is familiar with it.” The red-haired man nodded easily. “Gather together provisions and the horses. If all goes well we will depart from this fair city at dawn.” He strode from the room, letting the great golden door swing shut behind him.

Not long after Vulfzen’s departure the remaining companions split up. Chiara and Chieron headed towards the city gates to collect the horses while Kerysk and Kyraen took Trebble and Karaouk into the bustling market to barter for supplies.

Kyraen was impressed by the way Kerysk moved easily through the marketplace as if it were no unusual thing, as if he had done it many times before, which, she admitted, was probably the case. It was all she could do to keep up with him. The many sights and sounds kept her eyes and ears busy every moment.

The Sordeskians showed little curiosity towards the tall red-bearded man and the slim dark-haired girl that followed him around, but Karaouk seemed to fascinate them. Wherever she went Kyraen could see eyes following them and fingers pointing towards the bird. Karaouk sensed the attention and preened visibly. It was not above him to flick his obsidian wings at the onlookers.

“Now don’t be getting all swell-headed,” Kyraen advised sweetly. “Or you won’t be able to fly, even when that wing heals.”

Kerysk gave her an amused look, but the raven settled down, deciding to behave himself.

“There,” Kerysk said, after giving his name and the name of the Inn of the Three Moons to the last merchant. “We are ready for our voyage. Now we must make haste, for Chiara and Chieron are most likely already at the Inn.”

Chiara and Chieron were already at the inn, and an indignant innkeeper was standing in the doorway, blocking their entrance when Kyraen and Kerysk arrived. Chieron had his sword drawn, and Chiara’s eyes were glittering with anger.

“No elves allowed,” the innkeeper, a fat busybody, said loudly. “I am not intending to change my mind whether or not you threaten me with that over-sized dagger. I don’t hold with magic folks or magic doers and my patrons expect me to keep the folks in here civilized.”

“Then it would seem that you failed even before you began,” Chiara said hotly. “For you have hardly shown civilization let alone the hospitality that is suggested by your presence in Sordeski, a city known, until now it would seem, for its kindness to travelers and visitors.”

“I don’t hold with magic,” the innkeeper said stubbornly. “And your threats and insults will get you nowhere.”

“Come off it, then,” Kyraen said cheerfully, figuring it was about time that someone intervened before it came to an all out brawl. A crowd had been gathering and the innkeeper was not the only one looking on the elves with suspicion. She stepped up. “These here elves are brother and sister, my companions. I ain’t never seen them work so much as one tiny teeny spell. From my understanding they are Winter Elves, and Winter Elves are not what you would call magicians or wizards. Here they are, offering you perfectly good gold for a night’s rest before they leave again. They won’t be a spot of trouble. You know that. They are jus’ not the type.”

Chiara cleared her throat with what sounded remarkably like a snort. Kyraen smiled at her innocently and tucked her hand under the innkeeper’s elbow. “We came here,” she continued. “Because we heard that it was the best lodgings in Sordeski.”

The Innkeeper was flabbergasted, but he wouldn’t let such a statement pass. “It most certainly is!”

“Now, see why we came all this way?” Kyraen was at her sweetest. “We have heard so much about your wine and entertainment, not to mention the softest beds in the city.” Her voice was coaxing and the innkeeper was starting to beam.

“Well,” he said. “Everything you say is true.”

“Why,” Kyraen said, trying hard not to giggle, or overdo it. “In a city of hospitality this inn boasts of the very best!”

With a laugh the innkeeper gave her a slap on the back that almost sent her sprawling. “Youngster, you have it all right, and though you may be conning me I have never been conned so sweetly. You and your companions are welcome to my inn. Huff Yert at your service.” He bowed to the elves. “I hope you won’t be taking insult at the manner that I greeted you. These are dark time and even this fair city has seen its share of trouble as of late.”

“No insult taken,” Chieron said, returning his blade to its sheath.

“No insult,” Chiara echoed. “We do understand the need to be careful.” She gave him a smile that would have made a serpent purr.

The innkeeper looked startled and even blushed as he ushered them into the inn. He gave Trebble another startled look, but offered him a hand in greeting as he had with the others. With no brawl in the making the crowd quickly dispersed. Vulfzen pushed through the last remaining spectators to join them.

“I’ll send my servant to tend to your horses,” Huff Yert said, not even blinking at the addition of this final companion. Once he had let them in he had obviously decided to be blind to any difference between them and his regular customers, even if this one towered over him and had feral golden eyes. “If you don’t mind sharing rooms I believe that I may have two that would suit you just fine.” He showed them up the stairs and Kyraen was pleased to see that the rooms were well worth boasting about. They were neatly furnished and looked comfortable.

“You run a beautiful establishment here, Huff,” she said. “I’ll remember it wherever I go.”

His smile broadened. “They are the best rooms in the house. I reserve them for special guests. Will you be eating in the dining room? Good. Our cook is famous for her meat pastries. I’ll be expecting you all.” With a bow he hurried from the room.

“Nice enough man, once you get to know him,” Chiara said with a smile.

Kyraen nodded. There was a knock at the door and she opened it to let Kerysk enter. He was laughing, his green eyes twinkling and a hand pressed against his side as if it ached him.

“How you handled that old fuddy-duddy!” He gasped, tears of mirth rolling down his cheeks. “I have never seen anything like it. No one has ever taken Huff on like that. You turned him into a regular softy!”

Kyraen shrugged, grinning because she could not help it. “I just didn’t want it to end in a fight.”

“Well, your slave-cant certainly came in handy,” Chiara said. “I almost died when you started up. Do you realize that you never speak like that when you are around us?”

“I had not really thought about it.” Kyraen shrugged. “I just figured it would mellow him a little if we did not sound so much like… royalty. In an inn the innkeeper is used to be lord, master, and ruler. They don’t like it when people are smarter or better educated or better born then they are, even if they don’t usually show it.”

“Well, we are indebted to you,” Chiara said seriously. “The last thing we wanted was a brawl and it looked for a while like we wouldn’t be able to avoid it. As it is we have drawn more attention than I would like.”

“We should all get cleaned up,” Kerysk suggested. “Last chance for a hot bath for who knows how long. And,” He chuckled again, pointing a finger towards Kyraen’s nose. “We are being expected for dinner. Don’t forget that!” Still chuckling to himself he left the room and headed back to the one he was sharing with Chieron and Vulfzen.

It did not take long for Chiara and Kyraen to act on his suggestion of hot baths. Kyraen sighed as she slid into the delicious heat and just let herself soak clean. Her muscles, tight and sore from days of riding in a row, eased slowly out of their knots.

She glanced over to see Chiara smiling contentedly. She yawned sleepily. If she was not careful she was going to fall asleep and not wake up for a week at least.

There was a soft knock on the door and Huff’s servant announced that dinner was finished and that the serving had begun. Kyraen looked down at her wizened fingers and decided that it was probably a good time to get out of the tub. She dressed quickly and dragged a comb through her hair, putting it up in its usual braids. Karaouk pecked at her hair, as if to help.

“You know,” Chiara said, plaiting her own mass of dark hair. “If we had time we would have to order some new clothes for you. Those have seen their day come and go, many times by the look of it.”

“Well, it’s what I am used too,” Kyraen pointed out. “It’s not like I have had money of my own to spend on things like clothes. I am a slave, not royalty.”

Chiara wrinkled her nose. “As far as I have seen there is absolutely nothing that says ‘slave’ about you. Maybe the innkeeper knows of a place where we could get you at least a new cloak, maybe even a tunic or two.” She shrugged. “Mohavmoor is the city I was born in. If we fail to find you something here we will find it there.” She smiled. “You are tall enough to dress in the Elvin fashion, you know.”

Kyraen nodded. “We had best be getting downstairs. Huff is expecting us.”

The innkeeper, indeed, had been expecting them. He had saved the largest table just for them and was already having his servants scampering back and forth from the kitchens with dishes of delicious smelling foods. Kyraen’s mouth immediately began to water. She had never had good fare to eat, but the past couple days had been poorer fare than even she was used to.

“By the Moon, this is a feast!” Kerysk exclaimed. Huff beamed in response. Kerysk raised his glass to the innkeeper, followed by his companions. They toasted him and his hospitality, several of the locals chiming in. Huff turned scarlet and could not stop smiling.

“Where’s Trebble?” Kyraen asked, when things had settled down. The imp was nowhere in sight and she missed his childish voice in the general chatter of the inn.

Kerysk sighed. “I don’t rightly know. He vanished. He loves to explore, so he probably took off. I just hope that, this time, he can manage to stay out of trouble.”

“He’s missing out on this feast,” Kyraen said sadly. “He would love it.”

Kerysk grinned. “I wouldn’t worry about him. He can always find something to eat. We just have to hope that it’s not something, or somebody, important this time.”

They were only halfway through the magnificent meal when an armed Sordeskian soldier, resplendent in green and gold, came into the inn. He marched straight to the big table without hesitation. “Are any of you responsible for the welfare of an imp?”

Kerysk nodded with a groan. “What did he do this time?”

“We just apprehended it. I am afraid we had to impound it, sir. It was caught in the governor’s garden, eating his birds of splendor. As you know, these particular birds are extremely rare. Stealing them alone necessitates serious punishment. Hunting or killing them… well, I am afraid that its punishable by death.”

“Death?” Kyraen jumped to her feet in horror. Chiara grabbed her shoulders from behind, pulling her back into her seat. Kerysk was completely livid.

“Death?” he roared. “Would you condemn a child to death? That is how much understanding an imp has of such things! This is ludicrous!”

“It’s the law, sir,” The soldier said coldly. “The imp is a dangerous criminal. I have fulfilled my duty in informing you.” He bow once and marched back out of the inn.

“Oh, no!” Kyraen wept. “What are we going to do?”

Kerysk had a strange look on his face. He turned to his companions. “I’ll meet you at the ship at dawn. If I am not there then continue on without me and I’ll find a way to join you again, if I can.” He snorted. “Dangerous criminal? Sunspots! It’s madness.” Still shaking his head he ran up the stairs. Moments later he passed them again, bounding through the inn door.

“I hope he does not get into too much trouble,” Chiara murmured. She put an arm around Kyraen’s shoulder. “Now, don’t you cry, dear. Kerysk will take care of Trebble, don’t you worry.” Despite her words she looked concerned. She glanced at Vulfzen. “The ship you found departs at dawn?”

He nodded.

“Perhaps it would be wise to move our things there as soon as it has quieted down for the night,” the Elvin woman suggested.

Nodding in understanding Vulfzen and Chieron turned back to the meal at hand. Kyraen, however, had no appetite. As soon as she could politely go she nodded her thanks to Huff went up the stairs. She sprawled across the comfortable bed that had been prepared for her and, despite her apprehension for Trebble and Kerysk, was asleep in seconds.

“Kyraen,” A voice whispered sharply. . “Kyraen, wake up!”

Kyraen sat up sleepily, dragged from her strange dreams by Chiara’s voice. “Oh, are we leaving now?”

Chiara’s nod was nearly invisible in the darkness. “Gather your things together as quickly as you can. Something is happening in the city and we have to go, even earlier than any of us anticipated.”

The urgency in the Elvin woman’s voice drove the sleep right out of Kyraen. She hurried to her sack and made sure all was in order. One good thing, she thought wryly, about not having much is that it made it so much easier to move on. She set Karaouk on her shoulder. He fluttered once or twice, then sat sleepily, without making a sound.

“All set?” Chiara whispered. Kyraen nodded in return.

As they crept down the stairs they could hear shouting from different corners of the city. Sordeski was wide awake this night. Something was going on, all right. The other patrons of the inn slept on, oblivious to the noise outside of the heavy oaken door.

“Vulfzen and Chieron are tending to the horses,” Chiara murmured. “They are going to meet us outside of the stables. Keep quiet and stay low. Stick close to me.” To Kyraen’s astonishment the graceful elf drew her dagger before starting forward, creeping along with her back to the wall.

Kyraen followed closely, her own dagger hanging from her belt. She opened her mouth to ask what all the precautions were for, but remembered Chiara’s admonition and shut it again, deciding to just follow along and ask questions later.

The shouting was coming closer. Kyraen and Chiara had just cleared the wall of the inn when they heard a voice cry out in a strange language. Oiya! Ghadit tu frezmida!”

“Quickly now,” Chiara hissed, leaving her crouched position. “Now!” Together they raced across the courtyard. The lantern lit outside the stable cast fiery shadows across the faces of Vulfzen and Chieron.

“What is it?” Kyraen asked. “Who are those people? What is happening?”

“It’s the Syraki,” Chieron said grimly. “They have found us and evidently think that we have something they want.”

“Hush,” Chiara commanded as three men, clothed in black and scarlet, came silently around the corner, swords drawn, crouched low, and obviously looking for something. Without know quite why Kyraen cowered behind her companions. Something about these men made her skin crawl and shiver.

One of the men called to the others, angling his sword towards something resting on the cobblestones. One of his companions stooped and lifted it up into the poor lamplight. It was a raven feather.

Chiara hissed under her breath, so softly that Kyraen, who was closest to her, could barely hear it. The Syraki drew closer and closer. Any second now, Kyraen was sure, the soldiers would certainly see them.

With a cry Chieron burst out of the shadows, his sword gleaming silver, gold, and red in the light of the lantern and the light of the moon. Before the Syraki could even respond he had driven the blade hilt-deep into one of them.

“Millovinia!” Chiara cried, leaping forward with daggers gleaming, to join her brother in the fray. One of the Syraki fell with her knife imbedded deeply in his throat. His war cry was cut off halfway through and he slumped to the ground with a sickening burble.

Behind her Kyraen heard a wild howl, sending shivers violently up her back and making the hair rise on the back of her neck. A wolf jumped out of the stables. The horses whinnied and shifted nervously. Kyraen grasped for their reins and held them tight as the lean, furry-shape, seized the throat of the third soldier with a soul-shivering snarl.

The last cries of the Syraki soldiers had drawn attention from their comrades. Shouting grew closer and more soldiers stumbled into the courtyard. Chieron, Chiara, and the wolf-figure rose to meet them. In the shadows Kyraen could scarcely see who was who. She heard another cry as a man went down, and the whistle and clang of Chieron’s sword as it cut through more than just air.

Kyraen thought she was going to be sick. The metallic-sweet smell of blood filled the air, making the horses wild and hot, eager to join the battle or be away from it. The reins ripped at Kyraen’s hands, but she refused to let go. She clung on with both hands and cursed them.

Chiara dropped back beside her, her face white and her eyes wild, framed by the crescent of her dark hair. “There are too many of them,” she said breathlessly. “We have to find a way out of here.”

The sound of wild hooves clattering into the courtyard at a gallop rung out, even over the clash of sword against armor. Suddenly a brilliant white light flashed out, touching everything, brightening to the point of being blindingly intense. From the light came a ringing, commanding voice, which spoke words that Kyraen felt she should understand, but she could not make them out. The Syraki fell back from the light as it surrounded them and seemed to bind them to the cobblestones. They screamed in terror.

“Come,” the new voice called. “I have halted them for just a moment. We must go.”

Without time for thought the four companions turned to their horses. Kyraen found herself clinging to Redwind’s mane with both hands, realizing with horror that she did not know how to direct a horse. With relief she realized that she did not have to. As they burst clear of the courtyard it was apparent that the gelding was more than willing to just follow his companions. Kyraen clung on, their wild gallop jarring her teeth and shaking, she was sure, every bone from her body.

They followed the twistings and turnings of the Sordeskian streets. It was Kyraen could do to hold on has they back-tracked and spun around the sharp streets, not following any path that Kyraen could see. The mad path seemed to be doing its job, and the voices and shouting of the Syraki soldiers faded into the distance. Karaouk’s talons dug for purchase into Kyraen’s shoulder, yet he somehow managed to keep his grip.

The man leading them suddenly raised a hand and the companions halted, warily. Kyraen trembled as the clatter of armor and raised voices proclaimed the nearby presence of a group of soldiers. The companions huddled silently against the arch of a great courtyard. Kyraen held her breath as the soldiers drew nearer, sure that they would be spotted and afraid to even speculate what would happen when they did. She could see the glint of lamplight against the hilt of a sword. A single soldier came into sight. Kyraen saw Chiara draw the string of her bow across her cheek, ready to strike, should the Syraki soldier spy them.

The soldier looked down the alley-way in the other direction, ignoring the almost jovial voices of his companions. Shaking his head, he turned back the way they had come. Kyraen waited to breath a sigh of relief until the voices of the soldiers faded away, again, into the distance. Their leader threw his hand forward and they were off again, flying through the crooked streets once more. They did not halt their wild ride again until the cobblestones turned to wood and they were at the piers.

“This way,” called the voice that had rescued them. “Your ship is ready to leave in a short time. You must lead your horses aboard.”

Kyraen dismounted and firm hands took Redwind’s bridle and led him up the gangplank. She followed quickly, not willing to be left behind. She almost screamed when a hand grasped her shoulder in the darkness.

“What took you so long?” Kerysk asked, his green eyes sparkling with mischief in the moonlight. His red hair was slicked back with sweat. “We have been waiting for you.”

“Yes, Kyra,” said a childish voice. “We have been waiting such a very long time.”

“Trebble!” Kyraen shrieked, throwing her arms around the furry little monster. “How under the moons…?”

“First we had best get below deck,” suggested the new voice from the courtyard. “The decks will not be safe for long from the Syraki archers. Dawn is approaching.”

Still holding Trebble, with Kerysk right behind her, Kyraen followed her companions below deck to their cramped cabins. The deck rolled, not unpleasantly, under her feet and it took her a moment to gather her balance. The door closed silently behind them, darkening the room into a hollow cave of musky night.

For many long moments they waited there in the darkness. The ship’s sides creaked and gave a sudden lurch. The gently rise and fall of the hull soon indicated that they were already leaving the harbor into the safety of a Syraki-free sea.

“Now, perhaps,” said the new voice, “Would be a proper time for introductions.” A hand reached out and the companions found themselves bathed in a silvery light.

A thin, tall, sun-tanned man, clad in golden brown, stood before them. His dark hair was pulled up high on his head and knotted. Behind him was the most majestic, tall, and powerful horse Kyraen had ever see. His eyes glowed red in a noble head, intelligent eyes that seemed to pierce straight into Kyraen’s soul. She suddenly found it hard to breath, realizing that this was no common horse. No, it was not a horse. It was a…

“Sidh,” Chiara breathed, her tone reverent. Her face reflected all the awe that was filling Kyraen. “You are a Sidh-Rider?”

“Sidh-Friend,” the man said in his rich velvety voice, a slight smile on his face, “to Vezdik.”

The companions introduced themselves and the man told his own story, in a few words that left them to fill in the gap between them. His name was Davyr. He had been born among the Kesriguth, but abandoned on account of his gift for magic.

“A common practice among them,” Chiara whispered to Kyraen.

He had been rescued from a certain death and raised by the Sidh, becoming, as he came of age, a Sidh-Rider, or a Sidh-Friend as he referred to it. It was no mistake that he had come to the Inn of the Three Moons when he did. The Sidh, it had seemed, had become aware of the journeyings of the companions and had sent Davyr and Vezdik, the youngest of their numbers, to offer their assistance.

“We will travel with you now that we have caught up with you,” Davyr said. There seemed to be no question of their acceptance into the group in his eyes. What the Sidh said to do was done.

Chiara said that rule was always true, when Kyraen asked her, softly, as they prepared their berths for sleep.

“I don’t know anything about the Sidh,” Kyraen confessed. “I have only heard of them in a few of the old tales. I never thought they were real.”

“Well, as you saw today, they are most definitely real,” Chiara said. “You should ask Vezdik to tell you the ‘Story of the Sidh’. Only the Sidh can tell it properly. I can do my best though.”

I would be happy to tell it.

Kyraen and Chiara both jumped then grinned as they saw that the Sidh’s attention was on them. Kyraen did not need the Elvin woman to tell her that it was a rare blessing for a Sidh to dain to speak to a person other than his rider.

The Sun and the Moon, to teach the inhabitants of Sundala about goodness and the light of knowledge, created us Sidh. It was given to us to teach and to guard and to help. From the beginning of man and elf, and Karduul, and Hagri, and Ilisji, we have been here. We will be here when they have faded away, back to dust.

Though we may appear somewhat like mortal horses, we are not. For example, I am small for a Sidh, though I tower far over the height of any mortal horse. We are untamed. We are the Wild Magic. We are the protectors and the guardians of Sundala.

Once Man hunted us for meat and for the power that we hold within our hearts. Those days, for most, have passed, though the Kesriguth still pursue us. We are Sidh. We are the masters without a master. We are the watchers that even the sun does not watch. We are the parents of knowledge.

Now, girl-child, Elf-woman, Elvin-son, Man-son, Imp, and Raven, and even you, Shape-changer, you all know more about the Sidh. It was the Sidh that taught you how to change. We gave you the Wild Magic inside of you.

The Sidh turned his head away, clearly finished with his words. His molten red eyes closed, his moon-silver mane falling across his neck like the touch of Millovinia, the Moon. Davyr stretched out across the Sidh’s neck like a tawny wildcat and was soon asleep.

“Well, then,” Kerysk said with a snort, nevertheless softly, so as not to wake the pair. “This has turned into quite a company these past few weeks.”

“How did you ever rescue Trebble?” Kyraen asked, watching as the imp explored the cabin for edibles, happily chattering to himself. It warmed her heart to see him so happy and well after such a close shave with the Sordeskian magistrates.

“I have to admit that we are all dying to hear the tale,” Chiara said dryly. “I, in particular, would love to know what you were doing while we were fighting off twenty Syraki.”

Kerysk’s eyes widened. “Now I am the one dying to hear the tale. When and how did this come about?”

“You first,” Chiara insisted. “Then we will tell you our tale and we can all get some rest. I would prefer to have more distance between us and the Sordeskian plains before I tell our part of the tale.”

“Well, there is not much to it,” Kerysk said, stretching out his long green-clad legs. “The prison cell they had him in was typical of Sordeski prisons. I have been in, and broken out of, my share of those. It was simply a matter of capturing one of the guards. (I hope they have found him by now, otherwise he will have had quite a cold night. I am afraid I took his uniform.) From there it was as easy as anything to get into the jail and free Trebble, along with all the other misfortunates that were to swing tomorrow. By the time they realize that Trebble is missing, if they ever do, we will happily be far out of even their great reach. Now, how about your tale? I am particularly interested in hearing how the Syraki found you in the first place.”

Kyraen wearily curled up on one of the bunks while Chiara told the story. Vulfzen muttered something about getting the cabins straightened out in the morning, his long fur-clad arms legs awkward in the small space.

Trebble crawled up onto the cot next to Kyraen, and Karaouk snuggled down on her shoulder. The last thing she heard before her eyes shut on their own accord was the quiet snores of the imp as he, too, fell fast asleep.

A dagger in the night

Is a coward’s tool

-- Kesriguth Proverb

Chapter Nine

It took the companions more than six weeks to reach the port city of Mohavmoor from the time they left Sordeski in the pre-dawn, sailing around the southern tip of the continent and further on, into the northern waters again. During that time Chiara showed Kyraen more tricks with her knife and other weapon’s out of the Elvin-woman’s impressive arsenal. For hours every day the Elvin-woman would drill her, until it felt natural to hold a knife or sword in her hand.

At odd moments, the Sidh would tell them all tales from the ancient days. Davyr himself did not speak much after that first day. At times he seemed to be scarcely more than a shadow that heard much and spoke little, in the wake of the forceful presence of the Sidh.

“You are going to love Mohavmoor,” Chiara old Kyraen as they drew closer to their destination. “It is a beautiful city, perched on the high black cliffs. Down below the towers is the port, literally floating on the water. The mountains above are green and bountiful in everyway. The trees reach up towards the Moon and are almost tall enough to touch her. There is a tree there that they say was alive before the elves came to Sundala. Near it is our temple to the Moon and her daughters. The temple rivals even the Great Library of Sordeski in beauty. I’ll have to show you the market places and get you those clothes that I promised you. We will dress you like an Elvin maiden. You will love it.”

At this point Kyraen would have welcomed anything that was not ocean. The first few weeks of sailing had been swift, light and fun, but with the harder and harsher northern waters had come seasickness. Now she could hardly wait to stand on solid ground again.

“Look,” Kerysk called from the prow. “Moon-children!”

Kyraen rushed to where he was standing to see the cheerful whales dancing and leaping into the air before the ship. She reached out and could almost touch one as it rushed past, screeing and chirping cheerfully. They had accompanied the ship more frequently in the warmer, quieter southern waters, but it had been several weeks now since Kyraen had seen them. ‘Bard-Fish’ Davyr called them in the fashion of the Sidh. He had spent hours watching them when they had first appeared. Now he stood silently, ever silently, watching their antics with a quiet smile on his face.

Vulfzen was in the crow’s nest, where he had spent much of his time on the sea voyage. The crew of the ship, the Lady Seafarer, called him Master Vulfzen and gave him a wide berth. Since their hurried departure from Sordeski, so had Kyraen. She could not help but flinch when she thought of the wolfish form that had ripped out more than one Syraki throat. On a small ship such as the Lady Seafarer it was difficult to avoid any one person too much, but Kyraen had managed it, somehow. Perhaps that was because Vulfzen had grown strange and quiet in the weeks since they had left the port. The Sidh had called him ‘shape-shifter’ many times since the first day, confirming all and any fears and concerns she had had regarding him. He had never been anything but kind to her, but she could not help but shiver.

Maybe it was her fear that made her feel that since that night, also, there had been an even more feral light to his golden eyes. At times it seemed that, though in man form, he was living in a wolfish mind. Kyraen tried to ignore it, but at times she was truly afraid of him.

The horses had fared the sea voyage the best of anyone. They had grown round and glossy with plenty of good hay and grain, and little to do, other than a walk around the deck in fair weather. Kyraen had been surprised to see Vezdik down in the hold with them, supposing that he would hold them in distain, instead he seemed to like them.

“They are small, silly creatures to him,” Chiara explained. “Just like Trebble seems small and silly to us, yet we could not be without him.” She said that dryly, having just rescued him from nearly deep-frying himself in the galley while trying to grab a simmering fish-roll from the boiling oil while the cook, a big, burly, man with no fondness for imps, had his back turned.

Karaouk flew down from the top of the mast, where he had been sitting. His wing had healed perfectly and he found joy in nothing more than skimming over the waves ‘admiring his reflection’, as Kyraen put it. The bird was excessively vain and preened constantly, keeping his dark feathers a smooth and glossy black. The sailors very much admired him, calling him their good-luck token. He knew it, using his popularity to reap treasures in the shape of shiny pins and badges. He back-winged to perch on Kyraen’s shoulder, his favorite spot, and smoothed his feathers happily.

“City soon,” he croaked, in report. “Not far now. Two days by ship. Karaouk could be there by night fall.”

“Really?” Chiara said with interest. “If you boast is true, Karaouk, perhaps you could send a message to my father, so that he will be expecting us when we come into port.”

Karaouk cocked his head at her doubtfully, regarding her with a beady black eye.

“Please,” Kyraen pleaded, “Do a favor for a friend.”

“Anything for Kyra,” he answered. “What message?”

Kyraen left him and Chiara to sort out the wording and the payment. Karaouk, greedy beggar than he was, would never do anything without some sort of bribe. He came back to her happy and triumphant, sporting a shiny twist of wire around one ankle. “Karaouk goes to the city now. Will see Kyra there when she arrives.” With that he lifted up into the air and winged swiftly away, a shimmer of obsidian against the sea-gray sky.

Chiara came up, laughing softly. “That bird is a shrewd bargainer. If it were not for his weakness for something shiny I would have ended up giving him all I have.” She shook her head, sending her dark hair flying around her face. “Though I can’t imagine what a raven would do with a sword. Well, at least now there should be rooms waiting for us when we reach Mohavmoor. Perhaps, if my father is there this year, even a feast in celebration. It has been three years since I have seen my father or my home.”

“At least you have a home and a family,” Kyraen pointed out. “I don’t really have anyone.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Chiara said. “Karaouk and Trebble may make odd companions, but I am sure that they think of you as family. All of us do, really.”

“My thanks,” Kyraen answered, “But you know that it’s not the same thing. I don’t even know who my parents were. All I know is that I was abandoned when I was three outside of an inn. Some parents to do something like that, huh?”

“Davyr’s parents did that and he does not seem to hold a grudge against them,” Chiara said. “I know I would have been angry, just as you are. Who knows, perhaps someday you’ll be able to find them and show them how wrong they were to give you up.”

Kyraen grinned. “Sure.” She looked down at her arms, browned by hours spent in the sun, while Chiara’s were still a silvery-white next to hers, as if the Elvin-woman had never seen the sun at all. “I don’t even know where I come from, let alone who,” she pointed out. She thought of the talisman that she was wearing now, as always, around her neck, but left it alone. It probably didn’t mean anything.

Chiara leaned over to watch the water sweep past them, foaming white against the hull of the ship. “I have some hunches about that too,” she said softly, her silver eyes distant. “But we will let that be for now. I don’t feel that it’s time for you to hear those things quite yet.” As intended, her voice was lost in the rush and hiss of the water against the prow.

The cook rang his triangle and they went to dinner, leaving many words unspoken.

By dawn two days later the port of Mohavmoor was visible in the not-far distance. As Chiara had said, the city was built up in two majestic layers, many houses built on the ocean level beneath the high, black cliffs, and Kyraen could make out white towers and buildings on the top of the cliff, crowning it in glory.

“There are tunnels through the cliffs that lead to the city,” Chiara said, leaning against the side of the ship. “Mohavmoor is surrounded by mountains and ocean on all sides. The only way to get into the city is to go through the tunnels.” Her smile widened. “Or fly.” Her eyes narrowed suddenly as she peered at the peer and the lower levels of the city that floated on the water.

“What is it?” Kyraen asked.

Chiara shook her head. “I am not sure. Something is not quite right, but I cannot place what it could be.” She shrugged, dismissing her suspicions. “We should be getting our things together. In a few hours we will be walking the streets of the fairest city in all of Sundala.”

Kyraen stayed a moment more, gazing at the city that was still in the distance. She remembered the small village in the mountains she had called her home and smiled wistfully. If she had lived in a city like Mohavmoor, she was certain she would never have had the heart to leave. Why would Chiara, having been born in a place like this, have chosen to leave and see the rest of the world? With a last look at the shining buildings high above, Kyraen turned and went under deck to put together her few belongings.

Chieron was leaning against one of the berths, listening with half an ear to Trebble, who was telling one of his wild stories. He gave Kyraen a small smile as she moved past. He was cleaning his sword, rubbing it until the iron shone blue. Kyraen noticed that he had dressed carefully. Though he was always neat he had dressed with unusual precision this time. Kyraen shook her head as she remembered that Chieron and Chiara were not just returning home, they were royalty, so their homecoming would be much more than for just an ordinary person.

“An ordinary person like me,” She murmured to herself, digging under her bunk to collect her small pack of belongings. She looked up to see Kerysk smiling wryly at her.

“So, tonight we feast with the Elvin folk,” he said, settling himself on the edge of his bunk, his lanky length sprawled across it in his usual manner. “This should be a story to tell the people back in your village, if you ever return, that is.”

Kyraen shrugged. “I had never even seen an Elf before I met Chiara and Chieron,” she confessed. “Though, the way I see it, they are just like anybody else.”

Kerysk laughed softly. “Well, I think you will soon discover that Chiara and Chieron are the exceptions, not the rule, which is why they have been away from Mohavmoor for the past three years, traveling with Vulfzen. I’ll be interested in hearing how you feel about the Elvin folk after we leave Mohavmoor.”

“You’re not just trying to scare me, are you?” Kyraen asked bluntly.

Kerysk blinked in mock astonishment, his green eyes laughing at her. “Scare you? Why would I want to do such a thing as that? No, I am not trying to frighten you into believing that the Elvish folk are dangerous. I am merely saying that I think you will be surprised at how different Elves and Humans really are.”

“Imps are different-er,” Trebble announced, bouncing onto the bed and taking a huge bite out of what looked like a hat.

“Trebble,” Kerysk said, reaching for it. “Where did you get that?”

“Davyr gave it to me,” the imp said happily, snatching it back with his quick little hands and hugging it to his chest.

“Are you sure you did not simply find it somewhere?”

“I am very sure,” Trebble said firmly, taking another bite. “Davyr did not want it anymore.”

Kerysk sighed and got up. “I suppose I had better check on your story,” he said to the imp. He looked up at Kyraen for just a moment, his eyes serious. “Keep your eyes open in Mohavmoor,” he suggested. “You may learn more than you expected.”

Kyraen wondered over that peculiar statement as he strode away. She shrugged. She was sure that there was a lot to be learned in Mohavmoor. She just doubted that she’d have the chance to learn any of it.

“I don’t belong in this company, really,” she thought, looking at the companions, all busily gathering their things together. “Look at us, Elvin royalty, a shape-shifter, an imp, a man, a Sidh, a Sidh-rider, and a slave girl. Who would have thought that we would be traveling together?” With another shrug she stuck the knife that Chiara had given her into her belt and headed back up onto the deck.

An hour later, they were near enough to the docks for Chiara to put her finger on the wrongness. “It’s too quiet,” she suddenly said, waving an arm in a graceful, expansive gesture. “The piers should be busy with life. Fisher folk should be swarming over the docks, selling their catches, the merchants should be selling their goods. Where are all of my people?”

Indeed, when Kyraen looked ahead, she realized that it was unusually quiet for a major city’s port, though she has seen few in her life.

Where usually there would have been sailors swarming over their ships and the laughter and riotous ruckus of every-day life, there was silence. The few ships that rested in the port were still and silent, as if they had been created where they were, moving gently to the rocking motion of the ocean, and had never sailed from port to port on the open seas, as free and light as a dragon on the wind. Their sails were missing, leaving them as wingless sea birds, abandoned to move with the tide alone.

Chieron’s face grew drawn and worried. “The fleet must have been sailed into the undercove,” he announced. “But it’s not the high-water season and no one has used the undercove in the sailing seasons for hundreds of years. Not since the Great Wars ended.”

“Something is not right,” Chiara said with a shiver. “We must go immediately to Father on landing.” She looked towards Vulfzen. “Have you heard any word of Mohavmoor that you have not shared with us?”

Vulfzen shook his tawny head. “I have heard nothing, but that, in itself, I am realizing, is unusual.”

Kerysk had kept silent through all of their words, but he now looked towards Davyr and Vezdik. “Do the Sidh know of any unrest among the Winter Elves? Anything that may have led to this unusual silence?”

Vezdik lifted his majestic head and snuffed at the wind, mouth agape, as if he were breathing in the very essence of it. He turned to the lean, brown, man at his side, his eyes burning molten bright.

Davyr shook his head. “We know nothing, though there is a taint of mistrust in the air. It is possible that events have happened without our knowledge. The stirring of the Syraki, and the awakening of many dark things have distracted our attention for many years now.”

Kyraen saw that, while Chiara’s face was void of all emotion, the Elvin woman clutched the railing towards Mohavmoor until her knuckles showed white through the skin. The look in her eyes was so fierce that Kyraen was afraid to speak to her. It seemed to take months for the Lady Seafarer to glide the last sword lengths into port.

“Hail,” shouted the captain in a stentorian voice. “We are the crew of the Lady Seafarer. We come from the ports of Sordeski. We ask permission to unload our passengers.”

There was a heavy silence that permeated through the mist that gathered around the port. Kyraen shivered without knowing why. It was as if some shade had run its icy fingers down her spine. The silence was un-natural. Even the slap of the water against the docks was muffled and silenced.

When a voice finally came it was so close and clear that everyone aboard the Lady Seafarer jumped. “The ports of Mohavmoor are closed,” the voice announced. “Outsiders are no longer welcome in the City of the Moon.”

“But we are not outsiders or strangers to Mohavmoor,” Chiara protested. “I am Chiara Melgiolhast, daughter of Cheistar Adraesta, and my brother, Chieron Adraestani, is aboard as well. Will you prevent us in returning to the home of our father?”

Chieron added his voice to hers. “Since when are the ports of Mohavmoor closed to any? How is it that in the three years since we have departed that the open arms of the Winter Elves have been closed?”

“My pardons, my lady, my liege,” the voice said. The mist cleared enough for those aboard the Lady Seafarer to see the tall, slim, form of a Winter Elf. “Many strange things are in the winds these days. Your companions are not of the people, though. I must hear their names and their purposes in entering. It may seem that our courtesy is wanting, my lord and lady, but kindness has been met with cruelty all too many times. It is not within the Winter Elves to trust outsiders. These things you have no knowledge of because of your distance from your father.” Even Kyraen heard the tone of accusation in his voice.

“I will introduce my companions if you, in return, pay us the respect of an explanation. We have been journeying, it is true, but our Father always knew how to reach us, and we have heard no word or evil tidings from the City of the Moon.”

“I am not worthy nor permitted to tell the tale,” the Elvin man returned. “But I put it on my honor that one who is able will tell you the tale if your companions are, indeed, able to enter here.”

“I don’t like this,” Kerysk whispered in Kyraen’s ear. “If doubt and suspicion have touched even Mohavmoor then Sundala is in more desperate danger than I have hereto believed.”

“Come aboard and greet my companions,” Chiara commanded in a tone that Kyraen had never heard coming from her before. She turned to stare at the warrior in surprise. The Elvin woman’s silver eyes were glowing with pride and something else that Kyraen could not quite place. “Royalty,” she realized. “She looks like a princess. That is how a person with authority looks.”

Bowing slightly to the captain of the ship, the elf boarded the ship. For the first time the companions were able to see his face. He was older than Chiara and Chieron, though the only sign of it was in his brown-silver eyes. He was slight and dark haired in the fashion of the Winter Elves and his hand rested easily on the hilt of his sword. “I present myself, Hedren Odeskar, of the royal guard,” he said, with a more formal bow to Chiara and Chieron.

“Hedren,” Chiara said formally. “I present to you my companions. Vulfzen should already be familiar to you, as he spoke to the counsel not four years ago. He is of good reputation and has been welcomed into the house of my father for many long years. The man across from you is Kerysk, a human man, and once a thief, but now honorable. He is a swordsman with a swordsman’s honor and has earned his place in these halls many times over during our travels. The imp is Trebble, who will eat anything, yet is childish in sweetness and spirit. He would bring no harm to Mohavmoor, nor would he bring harm to any of us.”

Chiara introduced them in turn, speaking briefly of the manner that Davyr and Vezdik had joined the company. Hedren’s silver-brown eyes widened perceptibly at the sight of the Sidh, but, to his credit, he made no other sign of acknowledgement. Chiara finished the introductions with Kyraen. “Last of all I present to you Kyraen Aduli, a freed slave from a small village where the mountains are cold and less beautiful than ours.”

Hedren did not speak for a long moment. His face was still and unreadable. “It is strange, indeed,” he said at last, “for there to be such an odd assortment of peoples in a company. I have no choice but to take you all under the protection of the royal guard and present you to the king.” He paused, his face stern. “It has been many years since a human has visited the King’s City.”

“Many years indeed,” Vulfzen said softly.

Hedren must have made some sort of sign, though the companions did not see one, for in a moment the ship was surrounded by elves, both men and women, bearing arms, and dressed in the black and silver of the royal guard.

“Keep an eye on the imp,” Hedren warned. “Do not let him touch anything. On your lives.”

Kyraen looked up hesitantly, intimidated by the elf’s imperial manner, yet unable to quiet her fears. “S…sir,” she stammered. “We sent ahead a messenger to convey warning that we were coming. The messenger was a raven by the name of Karaouk. Has there been any sign of him?”

Hedren looked at her, not a trace of emotion on his face. In his eyes she saw the distaste he felt in being degraded to the status of speaking to a human and a slave. “Any questions you have will have to be addressed to the Emperor.”

The captain of the Lady Seafarer looked nervous. “What happens to me and my crew, sir?” He asked. “We won’t be having any business with the Emperor.”

Hedren hesitated, looking the crew over. “Be on your way,” he said at last. “I can see that you are nothing but common sailors. I doubt my Emperor would have much interest in you.” His very expression of aversion dismissed them.

Kyraen could see the captain flush in anger, but he bowed deeply and turned back to his ship, not responding to the open jibe. The sailors helped the companions to gather the last of their belongings together and carried them onto the pier. The horses were led down the gangplank and loaded carefully with their packs. They pawed at the wooden planks beneath their feet uneasily, tossing their heads and rolling their eyes. They had grown accustomed to the close quarters of the ship. Only Ghalaad seemed unfazed by their surroundings. When the loading was finished each of the sailors bowed in turn to every one of the companions before boarding their ship again.

Chiara put a hand on the captain’s arm before he walked up the gangplank again, the last to leave. “Pay no mind to the Guard, Captain,” she said loudly enough for Hedren to hear every word. “You are a fine captain and the journey was a swift one. May the Moon guide you and your ship on pleasant seas.”

The captain’s face creased with a sun-weathered smile at the ancient formality, from a time when the men who ruled the seas were the men who ruled the land as well. “I thank you, my lady. May the Moon guide you as well.” With a bound he was on board. The tide was already turning and he was eager to be out in the open sea again.

Chiara turned towards Hedren, her silver eyes icy. “There was nothing to be gained in antagonizing the captain,” she said severely. “To be sure, Guard, the Emperor will hear of this.”

Hedren bowed coldly, his face showing no emotion. “As you wish, my lady. If you will follow me I will guide you to the Heights.” He turned sharply on his heel and the companions found themselves forced to follow him, whether they would have chosen to or not.

Several of the guard remained behind, fading into the mist like phantoms to stand sentry among the empty ships as so many ghostly spirits. The rest of the guard accompanied Hedren, holding to a fast enough pace that Kyraen was forced to half-walk, half-run. She glanced at Chiara. The Elvin woman’s face was drawn up with worry. She caught Kyraen’s eye and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but it did not reach her silver eyes. She seemed preoccupied and troubled by what she had witnessed. Chieron, too, looked disturbed, unusual for his typical placid demeanor.

The wood plank road that they were following was banked on both sides by the lower levels of the seafaring city, but all was silent. Kyraen could see that the houses on this level were all boarded up, abandoned and left lifeless. It almost looked like they had never been inhabited. Certainly no one had lived here for a long time, if the faded signs and worn paint were any indication.

The wood beneath their feet rose and fell gently to the rolling of the ocean beneath them. If it had not been for the guards breathing down their necks Kyraen would have been tempted to stare around in wonder. She had never seen anything quite like this floating city in her life. She had never even imagined that such a place could exist. She had yet to grow used to seeing new things. Everything around her was all still very much new to her.

As they approached the cliffs she could make out a series of tunnels that would most likely have been busy highways when Chiara was still living at home. Most of them were closed and locked behind bars and gates of iron. The caves beyond were cold and quiet. No torches burned within. Only one single cavern was open, and two tall Elvin soldiers guarded that. Their eyes were curious as they looked upon the companions, but they evidently recognized Hedren and allowed them to pass without even so much as demanding his name and business, as Kyraen expected them to do.

The horses entered the passage uneasily, snorting at the bleak darkness before them as if it were a strange creature, reaching out to devour them. Kyraen thought for a moment that they would not move forward at all. She tugged on the lead of the packhorse. He snorted uneasily again, rolling his eyes and pulling back with all his strength, then seemed ashamed of himself and lowered his head again, allowing the girl to lead him into the darkness. The hooves of Vezdik and the horses echoed hollowly into the far reaches of the cavernous paths that curved deep into the shadows of the corridors before them. The walls were smooth, carved into the stone and centuries old.

The tunnels turned and twisted inside the cliffs, lit only by the light of softly glowing torches, hung from the walls. The caves were full of the scents of damp and smoke. A cold breeze whispered through the tunnels, chilling Kyraen so much that she started to shiver. Despite the chill she could see that these tunnels had been carefully carved through out many hundreds of years, if not for much longer than that. The path in the stone beneath her feet was worn smooth by the passage of many feet over a long period of time.

“Many of these channels here were cleared out by the imps as a favor to the Emperor in the olden times,” Chiara said softly. “That was thousands of years ago. We have forgotten the deed that we did in return. We only know that it took an army of imps thirty years to complete them. Even my father does not know where all the passages lead.”

Kerysk, having taken Hedren’s warning seriously, had Trebble’s arm in one hand and Redwind’s reins in the other. The imp was pulling at him eagerly, bouncing in the tunnels, completely at home among the stone and cold. His voice was high and excited, echoing through the tunnels.

“After all,” Kyraen thought, remembering Trebble’s tales of stony depths far beneath the surface. “His home must be something like this.”

The horses sensed the end of the tunnel before any of the companions saw the sunlight shining at them from far ahead. They pulled eagerly on their leads, dancing towards the open air, away from the flame of torch-light and the mysterious caverns that reached out to swallow them.

The companions, for the most part, were just as eager. They blinked and squinted in the sudden light of day. After the blackest darkness of the tunnels and the mist before that it was startlingly bright. Kyraen shaded her eyes with one hand, pulling back on the reins of the packhorse to keep him from charging ahead into the open until she was used to the light once more.

They were challenged only a few strides from the opening of the tunnel.

“Names and business,” A sharp voice demanded.

Hedren stepped forward, straight and proper. “Neistresa, I am in charge of this company. I am bringing them into the presence of the Emperor. Two of these companions claim to be Chiara and Chieron.”

“Claim?” Chiara demanded. “Why would I claim a name other than my own? Have I been gone so long that you are unable to recognize me?”

The Elvin woman on guard merely eyed her impassively. She was tall and straight, dark-haired with a stern, severe, yet somehow pleasant, face. After a time she turned back to Hedren. “Very well, Guard. You may proceed. However, the prisoners must leave their horses and weapons here.” She looked over the company with expression-less eyes, blinking only when she saw Vezdik, with Davyr standing next to him, reminiscent of a lean brown shadow. “The Sidh, of course, may proceed with the others.”

Kyraen reluctantly surrendered her dagger. She had grown used to its weight by her side, however unlikely she would have thought that to be at the beginning of her travels. It took much longer for Chiara to disarm herself. Kyraen thought she saw Neistresa’s lips twitch, but surely she must have imagined it. She could not picture the stone-faced Elvin woman do something as human as smiling. Kyraen’s own lips twitched at the thought. After all, Elves were not humans, were they?

Chieron flat out refused to leave his sword behind. His eyes flashed, his hand resting on the hilt. “I will not disarm myself,” he declared, when the guards reached for his sword. “I bear the sword of the Emperor of the Winter Elves: Windefyer. None may bear it save the heir of these lands, or suffer the curse of my forefathers. You may be willing to take such a thing upon yourselves, but I will not allow it!”

Kyraen blinked at his stance. It was so foreign to her knowledge of him for him to do such a thing. He had taken upon himself the dignity of a king. The guards drew back warily, glancing to Neistresa for instruction.

“If this sword is Windefyer as you claim it to be than I can do nothing but allow you to carry it,” The Elvin-woman said, “but, on your honor as an Elf, you must not so much as move to draw it unless commanded by the Emperor himself. If you do I swear that my archers will have you down, pierced with a hundred arrows, before you can draw it. Have I made myself clear?”

Chieron nodded once, sharply.

Kerysk turned in his knives and sword. “Watch them well, brother Elves,” He admonished them. “They are ancient weapons and know their master.”

Davyr hesitated only a moment before drawing a blood-red bladed long knife from a sheath hidden by his side. He did not say anything, but the expression in his eyes was enough for the guards to lay it aside reverently. Even the Winter Elves respected Sidh-magic, it appeared.

Vulfzen dropped his sword at Neistresa’s feet and she laughed. “Master shape-shifter, I know that your greatest weapon is still hidden. Yet I warn you as I warned your companion, make no move to change or you will find yourself very dead, indeed.”

“I thank you for your warning,” Vulfzen said seriously, but Kyraen thought she could see a light of laughter in his tawny golden eyes.

Only Trebble, of all the companions, had no weapon to turn in. Kerysk still had him firmly by one slender arm, to keep him from bouncing into certain mischief.

The horses were led away by black-clad grooms. Chiara and Chieron’s black horses nickered happily, obviously in familiar territory. The other horses nickered wearily, perhaps dreaming wistfully of hay, grain, and a secure stable that did not rock and leap as the ship had.

“Hedren,” Neistresa said smoothly. “You are dismissed. Return to your post. You are commended for bringing these travelers here.”

The Guard bowed and departed, his soldiers following on his heels. Neistresa watched, devoid of expression, until they disappeared into the shadows.

“I pray you will forgive Hedren’s rude behavior,” she said at last. “It has been a trying three years for the Winter Elves since the departure of the children of the Emperor, but that is enough said from my lips. The Emperor will wish to speak of it himself and hear of your own travels. These are dark times, strange companions, and in dark times all caution must be taken. Some of my people, I fear, take it further and despise outsiders of any form.” She shrugged and stepped towards the great stone doors that stood before her, the stone doors of the Halls of the Emperors of Mohavmoor. Neistresa lifted a large brass ring and rapped it against the stone seven times in succession. The doors echoed hollowly, then all was silent.

For a moment nothing happened, then the doors swung slowly and silently inward.

He who sits in great halls with the Emperor

May think himself Great

But he who rides with the Emperor

Truly finds honor

-- Winter Elf Proverb

Chapter Ten

The great halls that opened up before the companions were faintly lit and as deep as the mountains themselves, but, even so, Kyraen could make out a straight white-clad figure sitting high up on the far side. On either side and behind this figure were other tall forms, clad and hooded in red, black, and silver robes.

Neistresa stepped forward swiftly and smoothly. The companions followed on her heels, Chiara and Chieron first, then Vulfzen, then Davyr and Vezdik. Kerysk and Trebble followed the Sidh closely, the imp still chattering excitedly, the brilliance of the room they were entering having no affect on his tongue. Kyraen follow last, almost reluctantly, as if something in her wanted to race as fast as her legs could carry her out of the room. Despite Trebble’s high voice the room was hushed and silent, almost too much so.

The white figure on the tall, polished obsidian throne, sat silently, regarding them impassively as they made their way towards him. It was as if all of the figures on the dais were carved out of the same stone as the cliffs, no more animate than the statue that had resided in Balin’s courtyard. Silence reigned.

A flurry of activity to one side caught Kyraen’s attention and she cried out before she could help herself. “Karaouk!”

A rich laugh rolled towards them, but there was something in it that made Kyraen recoil, a bitterness and strength of overwhelming power.

“So,” The figure in white said, rising to his feet slowly and majestically, his Elvin face high and proud. “You are acquainted with this raven, then?”

Kyraen nodded mutely.

The figure gazed at her silently for a long, uncomfortable moment, before letting his eyes turn towards her companions. “What is it that has brought my wandering children back from their journeying?” He said softly. “I see that the quest remains unfinished, and yet, here you stand.”

To Kyraen’s surprise it was Vulfzen who spoke. “We sought nothing more than passage through your port, most gracious Emperor of the Winter Elves. In Sordeski we learned nothing save that our search should have begun at the School of Stars.”

The figure sighed so softly that at first Kyraen was unable to discern it from a breath of wind sighing through the room. “Then Balin was unable to tell us what we should do?” His voice was full of tired defeat. “We are lost?”

“No!” Vulfzen said forcefully, his voice ringing out to the walls and then muffled again into silence. “We must hold on but a little bit longer, Lord Emperor. Balin believes that the key to victory is the Black Diamond of Acura.”

Cheistar Adraesta hissed softly through his teeth. “So, we rely on myths and legends now, do we? I suppose that there are worse things to put our hope in.”

“I was hoping that you would see it that way.” Vulfzen’s voice held a note of questioning.

“Yes, yes, though I have no choice but to hold on, if only for the sake of my people. The struggle against the darkness grows more difficult everyday. Soon the land will be smothering in its foul fumes, yet we struggle on.” The white figure came a step towards them. “Your company has grown since I saw you last. Many I can place, for my knowledge of the world is not slight, but, I must confess, one confuses me.” He pointed a long, slender finger towards Kyraen. “Girl, come towards me.”

Kyraen’s chin went up a notch, but she obeyed, curtsying to the Emperor as best she knew how. He regarded her for a long moment, his dark eyes misty, yet piercing right through her, as if he could read her very soul. “No,” he said, finally, a mix of light surprise and confusion on his face. “I cannot place her. She is hidden from my view. How is it that you happened upon her?”

“She was a slave in Balin’s household,” Vulfzen said. “I swore to give her a taste of the world as far as she longed to continue traveling. Balin suggested that she remain with us.”

The Emperor stared at Kyraen for a moment longer, then flicked his fingers in dismissal. At last his gaze turned to his children.

“Forgive my hasty words, my children,” he said humbly. “For times have been hard in the City of the Moon, and I find myself lacking in courtesy. Neistresa, alert my household to the return of my children. Tonight we will feast and sing of the defeat of the darkness.”

The Elvin woman nodded and retreated behind stone doors.

Cheistar’s impassive black eyes turned back towards the companions. “Before you partake of my hospitality, company of strangers, you must first tell me your tales. In return I will speak of what has befallen us in the three years since my children first sought their quest.”

Chiara stepped forward and told their story in careful detail. She left nothing out, Kyraen noted with embarrassment, not even the small parts she had played in diving into the frozen river to save Trebble, and her rescue of Karaouk and the raven’s decision to stay with her. She finished with an account of the way they had been treated by Hedren and his soldiers. Cheistar looked thoughtful, then sat, gesturing for the companions to follow suit.

“Hedren has out-stepped his boundaries before this,” he said at last, as if admitting something that he would have rather left in the dark. “In dark times some choose to seek advantage and grasp for any power that may come their way. Hedren is mistaken in believing that his actions have been unnoticed. Should he step too close to the boundaries I assure you he will be dealt with.”

“My father,” Chieron said in his rich, quiet voice. “What dark things have occurred that could be responsible with the changes we have seen in Mohavmoor?”

Cheistar sighed wearily. “It is not just Mohavmoor that has suffered. All of Sundala has fallen under a strange darkness. Your friend, Master Vulfzen, knows much of this, I believe.”

Vulfzen nodded once solemnly. “The Syraki have wakened the dark sleepers.”

“I fear they have done much worse than that,” Cheistar said. “In these times the darkness has taken on the guise of friend and foe alike. Not long after my children left to join you on your travels a man came here, claiming to be a companion of yours, calling himself Gilgreth.”

Vulfzen’s face froze, but his tawny eyes burned. “That is impossible!” There was a touch of growl in his voice.

“It was not he, that we know now,” Cheistar said soothingly. “However, we welcomed him with open arms, as has long been the way of the Winter Elves. He stayed within the lower levels for several moon-passages.” He sighed, looking troubled. “On the last night Mohavmoor was possessed with a darkness that threatened to destroy all. I hid myself away with the Followers of the Moon within the walls of our great temple and we were able to hold them at bay until the sun rose and their power weakened with its light. It was a victory, but at a terrible cost.”

To Kyraen’s astonishment the Elvin Emperor dropped his proud head into his hands. The red-robed figure by his side reached out to him in a graceful motion of consolation. “More than three thousand lost their lives that night.”

Chiara stepped forward with a cry of distress. He held up his hand. “Wait, there is more! For, though they are gone, they haunt this place, with spirits hungry for blood. Only here, in the upper levels of the city, have we been safe, under the watch of the moon and the few of us that have managed to hold this darkness at bay. These souls have turned into the ghuli. They are dark sleepers!”

Kyraen could tell by the expressions that crossed the faces of her companions, that the dark sleepers must be horrible, but she had begun feeling very lost during the Emperor’s story. Not much of it made sense to her. How could spirits be hungry for blood? She licked her lips nervously before cautiously interjecting, “What are dark sleepers?”

Immediately every eye was on her face, every head was turned in her direction. She bent her head in embarrassment and could feel her face growing hot. “I…I have never heard them spoken of,” She stammered. “As a slave I did not have much opportunity to learn of things outside of my own village…”

It was Kerysk who answered her, an intense look in his green eyes that made Kyraen’s skin crawl without reason. “The dark sleepers are spirits of the dead that have no rest. They hunger for the blood of the living, for the chance to possess flesh again. The great Rugan magicians of the ancient times became the first dark sleepers in seeking a way to live forever. They did not realize the hungers that would be awakened in seeking for permanent existence… and the hungers are great. The dark sleepers are soul-eaters.”

Kyraen shuddered convulsively, and saw that the others had had similar reactions. Soul eaters? She had heard ancient tales about dark creatures that would devour souls, inhabit the bodies they had stolen, spreading carnage…She shivered again.

“Is there no hope for us?” Davyr asked in a voice that was hardly more than a whisper. Kyraen realized that, for once, he was speaking for himself and not for the Sidh.

“Of course there is hope,” Vulfzen said brusquely. “The Black Acura, if we can find it.” He shifted his weight in an impatient motion. “Urgency grows more and more. We must leave early tomorrow for the School of the Stars. The information that we need should be there.”

“The journey will take at least two days,” Cheistar said thoughtfully. “I will have packs made up for you and your horses.”

Vulfzen inclined his head. “Our thanks, Great Emperor of the Winter Elves.”

Cheistar smiled faintly. “I have many questions I would ask you, but there is no need for it to be done on empty stomachs.” He clapped his hands once and a servant stepped forward. “Have our guests shown to their quarters. Tonight we will celebrate the return of my children and the hope, slight though it may be, that they have brought to me.”

The Elf bowed and gestured towards the walls of the room. The companions found themselves facing several Elves that had stepped out from the shadows.

“If you will follow me,” A slim Elvin maiden said quietly to Kyraen. “I will show you to your room.”

Kyraen hesitated for a moment, then stepped towards the Emperor to catch his eye. “If it please you, your majesty?”

Cheistar turned towards him, his slanted, narrow brows rising in surprise.

“T…the raven,” Kyraen stuttered. “May I beg his freedom? I will keep him with me.”

“By all means,” Cheistar said with a laugh. “Release the bird!” He turned his dark, laughing eyes to Kyraen. “Young Lady Raven-friend, I look forward to speaking with you this evening.”

Kyraen bowed in an imitation of Neistresa and gratefully took Karaouk from the elf that freed him from his cage. The raven tucked his head into her hair and murmured. “Nice girl, Kyra is.”

Kyraen allowed herself to be guided to her room. The Elvin girl directing her opened an ornate door along a long hallway and gestured for Kyraen to enter before her. Kyraen looked around, feeling her jaw drop. She had never seen a room like this one. It had been, like the tunnels, carved and hollowed out of stone. Richly colored tapestries and hangings covered the walls, billowing in a slight draft of air. The floors were covered in thick carpeting that was soft under her feet. The room was filled with the some sweet scent that seemed to warm Kyraen, even to her soul. It was a room fit for a princess.

“My lady,” The Elvin maiden said with a bow. “If you care to bathe I will have some clothes laid out for you.”

Kyraen nodded, at a loss to do anything else.

There was an ornate silver tub in the middle of the room, steam already rising from it. Someone had obviously prepared it in anticipation of the Emperor’s orders. She waited until the Elvin maiden left the room, before shedding her clothes and sliding into the delicious warmth with a sigh. She dug her fingers deep into the soap dish and lathered herself all over, determined to get rid of as much grime as possible. She rinsed off, letting the water close over her head until her lungs burned with holding her breath. When she stepped out of the tub she was red from scrubbing, but was cleaner than she had been in weeks.

She looked at the clothes that the girl had lain out for her and cringed. The rich cranberry-colored gown was far too fine for a slave-girl, much nicer than anything Kyraen had ever owned. She could no more wear that dress then she could call herself queen and rule over Sundala. She looked back at her own clothes with distaste, reluctant to put them back on. They had been rags before her journey had even begun, now they were good for not much else but kindling in a fire.

“What do you think?” She asked the raven, drying her hair in the crackling heat of the hearth.

“Dress pretty,” Karaouk offered. “Very nice.”

Kyraen sighed. “Yes it is, that is the very problem. That dress is fit for a princess. I am just a slave-girl.”

Karaouk just cocked his head at her and she found herself grinning. “I suppose it wouldn’t hurt, just this once. I would like to surprise everyone.”

So saying she lifted up the gown and slipped in on. Her rough work-hardened fingers caught on the fine fabric as she smoothed it, marveling in the delicacy of the needlework. There was a belt of gilt leaves that she clasped together around her waist.

Karaouk, admiring himself in the reflective surface, croaked. “Nice, nice.”

Kyraen smiled, feeling rather like a slave wearing her mistress’s best gown. “Thank you.”

She found a comb on a low table and pulled it through her thick dark hair, grimacing at the snarls. She wondered to herself if she dared putting her hair up like she had seen some of the fine ladies in Sordeski do. With a grin she parted her hair in the middle and started braided. “Why not?” She murmured. “Might as well take the dragon as the egg.”

Not long after she had finished with her hair there was a tap on her door. She crossed the room and opened it. The Elvin girl was there, waiting patiently. She bowed deeply. “If my lady is finished dressing then I will guide her to the feasting hall.”

“I am ready,” Kyraen said, holding her arm out for Karaouk to perch on. The gleaming black bird swooped happily to her, preening himself when he saw the awed look on the girl’s face. Kyraen hissed softly at him to behave and he clacked his beak at her cheekily.

“My name is Janista,” the girl offered softly, directing Kyraen down the long hallway. “I heard my Lady Chiara speak of your adventures together. Did you really jump into a river to save an imp?”

Kyraen grinned to hide her embarrassment. “I am afraid I did.”

Janista smiled quickly, sensitive to the girl’s discomfort. “The stories are already circulating about Lady Raven-friend. It must be glorious to travel with the Heroes.”

Kyraen opened her mouth to protest the title, but the girl nodded to two guards in resplendent black and silver, who bowed deeply and opened the grand doors into the great Feasting Hall.

If her rooms had been lavish the Feasting Hall was more so. Precious stones gleamed in the light of many torches, all throughout the hall, glittering and casting colored light against the marble walls. Elvin men and women filled the hall with their graceful forms and silvery, light, voices that sang like the summer winds on a fair day. Kyraen found herself thanking the moons that she had worn the gown after all.

The guards seemed to be waiting for her to enter so they could close the doors. She blushed as she ducked forward quickly, forgetting the length of her skirts. She gathered them around her in the imitation of the ladies in the hall and made her way forward more cautiously.

She saw that Kerysk was just entering from another entrance. His eyes slid past her, then snapped back to her, a smile touching his proud face. He crossed to her and offered her his arm. “You look lovely. I did not recognize you.”

Kyraen smiled. “You look very nice yourself.” She gestured to his fine Elvin-wear, a deep green that matched the green of his eyes. His cape was clasped with a golden leaf, not unlike the gilt leaves on Kyraen’s belt.

Kerysk grimaced. “I loathe finery, I must confess. I feel like an exotic bird like the ones in the cages of Sordeski.”

Kyraen laughed at the image. “You had best stay away from Trebble then.”

Kerysk grimaced again. “Don’t remind me!” He pulled a chair out for her and she took it with the air of a lady, silently laughing at herself for the airs she was putting on, hardly befitting a girl of her rank. Kerysk seated himself next to her, sprawling as he always did, not caring who might see him. Trebble, brushed and bedecked in a cap that perched ridiculously on his over-sized head, was escorted to his other side, where he happily surveyed the contents of the table. The hallway was slowly filling up with the companions and elves in more finery than Kyraen had ever seen in one place.

Last to arrive were Chiara and Chieron. They entered in Cheistar’s wake, dressed in the royal black and silver of the winter elves. All those present rose as they entered, sitting again only after Cheistar had taken his place.

Rich scents rose from the silver platters that the servants set on the long, stone, table. Kyraen heard her stomach let out a very un-ladylike growl. She blushed furiously, then had to stifle a giggle as Trebble shamelessly let out a loud belch.

Karaouk had even been provided with a perch near Kyraen’s seat. He was offered choice parts of the food and fluffed up his feathers. Kerysk leaned towards Kyraen, his breath soft against her cheek. “With this treatment he will be too proud to fly, next thing you know. We will be forced to carry him in a litter wherever we go.”

Kyraen giggled. “Well, I suppose it’s because ravens are sacred to the Winter Elves,” she reminded him. “That is what Chiara said.”

As the night progressed Kyraen began to feel a little giddy. She had taken only a cautious sip of the wine placed before her, but all the unfamiliar sights and sounds around her were beginning to make her dizzy. A minstrel was singing in one corner of the hall of some great deed done in olden-times, but she could not concentrate on what he was saying.

An Elf appeared at her elbow, bowing low. “My lady, the Emperor wishes your presence at the head of the table.”

Kyraen nodded, rising to her feet to follow him. Her head was spinning and she twiddled the talisman around her neck with her fingers, lengthening her stride to keep up with the Elf that was guiding her. She stumbled, reaching out a hand to steady herself and Kerysk was instantly at her side.

“Are you all right?” He asked worriedly. Chiara rose from her seat, concern written on her face.

Kyraen was gasping for breath without knowing the reason why. The talisman she wore burned in her hand. Light and colors swam before her eyes, then turned into one blazing light that threatened to consume her completely. She cried out, throwing up her arm to protect her eyes, then found that the light, instead of consuming her, was embracing her. She could make out the outlines of her friends and the elves in the brightness. Only one spot of darkness marred the beauty and peace of the light. It was from this area that the dizziness was coming.

So, you are the one, a voice as sharp and deadly as ice hissed. What is to prevent me from taking you now?

Kyraen screamed and fell to her knees. She found herself back in the feasting-hall, her eyes staring at an almost-hidden figure standing in the shadows.

“No, no,” she moaned as Chiara tried to help her to her feet. She could feel the figure’s eyes boring holes of heat into her head. She felt as though the darkness she had seen were devouring her, tearing her to pieces with claws of icy fire.

Davyr leapt to his feet, Vezdik trumpeting a warning. “There is Dark Magic here among us!” He cried out. “There! In the shadows!” As the guards rushed towards the figure there was a burst of light and Kyraen slid to her knees in a dead faint.

I am afraid to sleep

For fear that I will dream

And my dreams cast shadows

Across my heart

-- Song of the Seer

Chapter Eleven

Cool, gentle hands smoothed Kyraen’s forehead as she swam through the darkness that had dragged her down into consciousness. She could hear Trebble babbling something in a high, anxious voice and Karaouk croaking in response. She opened her eyes slowly. The lids felt heavy, like the stone of the mountains of the Winter Elves.

“How kind of you to join us again,” Chiara said, soft laughter in her voice and dancing in her silver eyes. “Quite a scene you put on in there.”

“What happened?” Kyraen managed to make her mouth say. For some reason her body did not want to respond to her.

Chiara shook her head. “We are not sure. Vezdik detected Dark Magic in the hall just before you fainted. For some reason it was directed at you. Unfortunately, whoever was the source of the magic somehow managed to escape the guards. There are many questions I would like to ask the creature responsible.” The Elvin Woman’s beautiful face hardened for a moment, a look that was replaced with concern on Kyraen’s behalf. “How are you feeling?”

“In good health,” Kyraen lied, struggling to sit up.

“None of that,” Chiara said sharply. “Rest. You will need as much sleep as you can get tonight. We leave early tomorrow.” She rose to her feet and started for the door. She paused with her hand on the doorknob, her dark hair down and framing her delicate Elvin face. “Everyone was very worried about you. Kerysk would have stayed, but I sent him away. Trebble and Karaouk refused to be persuaded to leave. I am going now to tell the others that you are awake.” She smiled again, closing the door behind her.

“Kyra feeling better?” Trebble’s little boy voice came from the bedside. The imp bounced onto the bed. “You fell down.”

“Yes,” Kyraen said, with a tired smile. “I fell down.”

The imp settled down next to her, patting her chin with one of his tiny hands. He started singing a rollicking rumbling song in his native language, rocking back and forth in time to it. His clever hands stroked Kyraen’s hair and made wide gestures.

There was a tap on the door and Kerysk stuck his head in. “May I come in?”

“Please,” Kyraen said awkwardly. “Enter. I am not sick or anything. I just feel a little odd.”

“Odd, huh?” Kerysk said, seating himself on the side of the bed. Kyraen noticed that he was still wearing his formal clothes, though they were considerably rumpled. “I think you scared the howl out of Vulfzen.”

Kyraen giggled and Trebble paused in his singing to pat her head lovingly before starting up again. “What is he doing?”

“That is probably an impish lullaby,” Kerysk said with a laugh. “No doubt glorifying rocks and eternal hunger.”

Trebble giggled suddenly, in his little boy voice. “No! Not rocks! Trebble was singing about ravens and friends!”

“That are no doubt good to eat,” Kerysk murmured in Kyraen’s ear.

Trebble bounced off the bed and started going through the chest at the foot of Kyraen’s bed.

Kerysk watched him tolerantly and leaned closer to Kyraen. “What happened in there? If you don’t mind telling me, that is.” Kyraen noticed that he was holding tight onto the dark crystal that hung around his neck.

“I am not sure,” she confessed. She quickly described to him the bright light, the dark figure, and what it had said. “Maybe you can make more sense out of it than I can.”

Kerysk sighed and leaned back, shaking his head. “I am afraid that I know just about as much as you do what happened or why.”

“Perhaps whoever it was confused me with someone else,” Kyraen suggested. “Perhaps they were looking for Chiara.”

Kerysk considered that for a moment, then shook his head. “No, I don’t think so. The spell Vezdik detected was certainly aimed at you. Now if only we knew why!”

“It does not make sense,” Kyraen protested. “I am nothing but a slave-girl. Why would anyone want to harm me?”

Kerysk gave her a long look, his green eyes unreadable. “I would very much like to know the answer to that question. Maybe you should stick close to me for a while.” He paused for a moment, his eyes low and one finger stroking the dark crystal he wore. “I could keep an eye out for you.”

Kyraen smiled shyly. “Thank you, but I cannot help but think that this has all been a mistake. I could not ask you to trouble yourself on my behalf. I will be fine.”

Kerysk smiled wryly. “I thought you would say something like that.” He tapped her cheek with a finger. “You are a puzzle, Kyraen, Lady Raven-friend.”

Kyraen grimaced in dismay at the title. “Oh, no! Not you, too!”

Kerysk laughed. “Ah, so the title holds no pleasure for you, does it?”

Kyraen made a face. “No one seems to realize that I am just a slave.”

“Perhaps it is you who is mistaken.” Kerysk rose to his feet. “Try to get some rest, Lady Kyraen. These next two days will be hard riding for all of us.” He hesitated for a moment, a strange look crossing his face. He leaned down and kissed her softly on the forehead. “May the Moon watch over you, slave-girl.”

Kyraen watched him leave the room, her brow folded in confusion. She wrapped her arms around herself, rolling her talisman in the fingers of one hand as if it could answer the questions that were dancing in her head. Her face cleared as Trebble finished emptying and scattering the contents of the chest around the room and settled down at the foot of her bed, cheerfully murmuring to himself in his childish voice. Karaouk was perched on her bed-stand, his head tucked under one blue-black wing. All was quiet. Perhaps everything was going to be fine after all.

A bitter wind was howling through the black cliffs of Mohavmoor when the companions gathered their horses together and prepared for their journey. The dawn was bleak and gray, as if the Sun had not enough energy to muster his usual cheerful colors.

Cheistar himself came out to see them off. Concern was written on his high, regal, brow. He shivered in a long black cape. Kyraen could see the glimmer of silver armor below it.

“Go with the Moon’s blessing,” he said. “The very hopes of Sundala ride with you.” He lay a hand on Chieron’s head and another on Chiara’s. “My blessing with you, my children. May we all live to meet again within these very walls. Carry your weapons with honor.”

Chiara and Chieron bowed deeply to their father, taking up the reins of their matched black horses.

Cheistar’s eyes slid to Kyraen. “I had looked forward to speaking to you, Raven-daughter,” he said kindly. “And though our parting now is unavoidable it has come to my attention that you are lacking a horse of your own.”

He waved a hand and a groom, clad in the royal black and silver, led up a slim Elvin mare, fine of face and long of leg. Her sides were mahogany and a dark mane crested like a black sea over her withers. “I would that you ride Farseer. She is a good mare and will carry you swiftly.”

Kyraen went forward stiffly, glancing at Chiara, doubting very much her skills as a horsewoman. The Elvin woman nodded encouragingly, so she took the reins from the Emperor and bowed deeply. “My thanks, Gracious Emperor.”

“When your journey is through,” he said kindly. “Return here and we will have our talk. You will have to tell me all about the mountains that are your home.”

Kyraen bowed again, a curious knot in her throat at his kindness. She let the groom boost her into Farseer’s saddle. She caught his eye and he smiled slightly, sketching out a salute. Farseer turned her finely shaped head curiously to regard Kyraen with bright eyes and pricked ears. She seemed to be waiting for something. Kyraen awkwardly stuck a rein into each hand and tried to sit in a position similar to Chiara’s, embarrassed by her ineptitude.

Vulfzen raised a hand and they were off at a swift trot. Looking back, Kyraen could see Cheistar still standing there in the cold light of this dawnless morning, a tall, sorrowful shadow. She wondered if she would ever see him again.

To her delight, Kyraen discovered that she remembered how to keep her seat from her riding experiences on Ghalaad. Farseer’s long strides were smooth as well as swift. She kept up with the other horses easily, without making Kyraen feel like she was going to slide out of the saddle at any moment.

They traveled through the floor of a great canyon, surrounded on all sides by the fortress-like walls of ancient stone. As they moved further away from Mohavmoor the color of the stone shifted from the shimmering black of the city to browns, and even startling reds. Slender trees with golden leaves stood guard over their path, blending into the brilliant colors of the stone so that it seemed to Kyraen that the companions were riding through the land of the sun.

“Breath-taking, is it not?”

Kyraen turned her head to see Chiara, who had dropped back to ride along side of her.

“If it were not for the urgency of our mission I would show you the wonders of the Winter Elf lands,” Chiara said, glowing with pride for her home. “There are mountains that you can climb that, when you look down, make it possible that you may see far in every direction, the whole northern lands. Some of the highest peaks are covered in ice all year round. Of course, they are not made of ice themselves. You would have to go into the Far North for that.”

“It’s lovely here,” Kyraen said shyly. “I can understand why you would want to come back.”

Chiara shrugged, a bemused expression on her face. “Yes, and no. Adventuring is in our blood, I guess. Our line is not the line of Kings for our peaceful natures.” She snorted, then shrugged again. “Perhaps someday, when this is all over, I will get the chance to show you the mountains here. They are wild, you know. Only a few know the ways of these hills.”

“Red rock!” Trebble called out. “Look, Kyra! Red, red rock! Beautiful rock!”

“I see it, Trebble!” Kyraen called back to him. She glanced and Chiara and giggled. “I wonder if red rock tastes any different than any other kind of rock?”

Chiara laughed. “You would have to ask Trebble that question, I certainly don’t know the answer.”

Vulfzen whistled from the front of the company and swung his arm. Chiara shortened the reins of her black mare. “We have hit some flats here. Vulfzen is signaling for a gallop. Do you think you can handle it?”

Kyraen set her teeth, but nodded. She looked down at Farseer’s black ears, flicking forward eagerly. “Yes, I’ll be fine.” She wished she felt the confidence that she heard in her own voice.

“Good,” Chiara said. “If you need to pull up just give a holler.”

“Don’t worry,” Kyraen said grimly, under her breath, as Chiara moved ahead of her on the path again. “I am sure that I will.”

With another whistle, Vulfzen urged Ghalaad into a flat out gallop. The Elvin horses and Redwind followed eagerly. Kyraen could just make out the shimmering shape that was Vezdik ahead of her before Farseer launched herself forward in a light, ground-eating stride. Karaouk leapt into the air with a dismayed squawk and took to flight, his obsidian wings shimmering in the mid-morning light.

Kyraen leaned forward, lacing her fingers through the mare’s thick black mane. After a few seconds of panic she sucked in a deep breath and realized that she was enjoying herself. She sat back with a laugh and patted Farseer’s neck. The mare tossed her head playfully in response, and lengthened her stride until she was running neck on neck with Redwind.

Trebble was bouncing gleefully in the saddle in front of Kerysk, squealing with childlike delight. Kyraen caught Kerysk’s eye and grinned. He grinned back at her, urging Redwind into a swifter gallop.

With a snort of laughter Kyraen accepted his challenge and loosened her reins, letting Farseer have her head. The mare’s small, neat ears, pricked, and then swept back as she flew past Redwind and the other horses. Kyraen picked up her reins a bit as they came close to the Sidh and Ghalaad, moving nimbly and swiftly.

The path took a sudden turn and Vulfzen raised his hand, calling for the company to draw to a halt. His feral eyes were alight with something akin to laugher as he turned to her and smiled, showing all his teeth. “You ride the Elvin horse well.”

Kyraen wrinkled her nose, breathless with the excitement of the ride. “Actually, I think she just keeps me on well.” She rubbed the mare’s neck and Farseer snorted, dancing in place until Kyraen had to grab fistfuls of mane to stay in the saddle. Kerysk laughed.

Vulfzen turned to address the whole company. “We will come upon the river soon. We will be fording it at Heskel’s Pass, then making all haste to the School of Stars. If, for any reason, we become separated at the fording, we will wait to regroup at Havilaari’s Inn. Everyone understand?”

Kyraen and the others all nodded. The company started off again at an easy trot, almost mild after their exciting gallop. Karaouk landed neatly on Kyraen’s shoulder and scolded softly in her ear. She smoothed his ruffled feathers with one hand absently until he settled down.

When they reached the riverbank Kyraen began to understand why Vulfzen had been concerned about any of the companions getting separated from the others. The water was fast moving, a heavy current, though rather shallow. Vulfzen crossed first and the water swirled and eddied around Ghalaad’s solid legs. The big gray staggered for just a moment, midstream, before pulling his bulk up the incline of the bank on the other side.

Vezdik and Davyr followed in their wake. The Sidh seemed to be enjoying himself, lifting his flashing hooves high above the water, and sending a spray over Kerysk, Redwind, and the packhorse he was towing with every step.

“Hey,” The red-bearded man protested, without regard or respect to the Sidh. “Watch what you are doing. I am carrying the supplies!”

Chieron crossed next, his slim Elvin-horse nimbly wading through the deepest of the water with scarcely a problem. Kyraen watched them uneasily. She did not like the water, or the way it swirled and pulled at the horses as if it would suck them down and devour them all whole. Unconsciously her hand reached up and clasped her talisman in a tight fist.

She started back with a cry. The water was alive! Instead of plain water rushing through a riverbed it was now shot full of dark light. Instead of the rumbling and hiss of flowing water she heard malicious laughter. She shivered. It was going to reach out and get her. It was going to destroy her. It wanted to destroy her because…

Kyraen jerked as Chiara lay a hand on her arm. She looked up and the water was just water again. Chiara looked concerned. “What is bothering you, Kyraen? Is anything wrong?”

Kyraen licked her lips. “I am fine. I… I just don’t like this river.”

Chiara looked thoughtful, regarding the river steadily with her silver eyes. “If you like, I will cross with you. I promise that I will not let anything happen to you.”

Kyraen nodded, setting her jaw. “Very well. Let us cross.”

The moment Farseer stepped into the water the she snorted uneasily, her ears pressing back, flat against her skull. Kyraen did not notice, preoccupied by her own fear and what she had seen on the riverbank. There was a loud roaring in her ears that had nothing to do with the motion of the river in its beds. She could vaguely hear Chiara urging them forward, so she closed her legs around Farseer’s sides and they took another step, further into the water.

As the water grew deeper the roaring in Kyraen’s ears grew louder and louder until she almost cried out in protest, clapping her hands to her ears as if they could hold out the sound. Sweat rolled down her face, though she felt as if a winter wind were whistling through her cloak. When one of Farseer’s hooves splashed her with a drop of water it felt like an ice-cold dagger ripping through her.

The water deepened, so that it reached Farseer’s chest, midway through the river. Kyraen pulled her knees up in front of her to keep away from the deathly touch of the water. Without knowing why, she feared its touch, like poison.

Even through the roaring, menacing, laughter that filled Kyraen’s ears she could hear Chiara cry out in horror. She turned in the Elvin woman’s direction and the breath caught in her throat, refusing to be exhaled. A wall of water was surging down upon them.

With a cry Chiara hurtled herself and her black mare forward towards Kyraen. She slapped at Farseer with her reins until the mare stumbled out of her shock and started forward again.

Eliei!” Chiara shouted to the mare, her silver eyes wild. Eliei!”

With a powerful surge Farseer tucked her hindquarters under her in a magnificent effort and launched herself for the far shore.

“It’s too far!” Kyraen wanted to shout, clutching the mare’s black mane with two hands. She turned her head, unable to keep her eyes away from the raging waters that were now upon them. She let out a cry as it tumbled Chiara and her valiant mare end over end like saplings in an avalanche. The Elvin woman surfaced once, her black hair tumbling in the waves like the battered wing of a raven, her hands reaching. Then she was gone.