Gallus and his friends were making good progress. They had passed into Lapai Dabu two days ago and had followed the road northwards through the foothills of the Hal’Es’Ein Mountains. On their third day since passing into the country the four riders stopped for lunch atop a small hill overlooking a vast swathe of farmland surrounding the Urutas River. Lapai-Dabu was well famed for its fertile floodplains and everywhere the men looked small farming villages dotted the horizon. The sun was making its way down the cloudless sky, which was already turning slightly pink behind the mountains.
The men were enjoying the last remnants of the supplies they had brought with them from the palace. Soon they would be hunting for their dinners. Spirits were quite high, as the barrel ale they had brought with them from Titua was still going strong. To Avery and Thalius this journey had so far seemed a relic from their youths. Many years ago, before he had been married and before a child had demanded so much of his time their friend the king had spent many weeks tramping through the countryside at their side. How times had changed.
“Do you remember when we were seventeen and we took that trip to Delanova?” Thalius mused aloud. The others looked to him with wry grins. Yes, they remembered that trip very well.
“Took us nine weeks to get there did it not?” Gallus asked fondly.
“Would have been far shorter had Thalius not fallen from his horse so many times,” Avery cut in with a dark smile.
“Even shorter still had you not fallen into trouble with the city watch in Hal Ghad. How long did it take us to get you out of their dungeons Avery?” his burly friend countered.
“Only a week or two, which I still say was less of a waste of time than your accidents!”
“Nevertheless,” Selmain cut in smoothly. “We got there in the end did we not?”
“Yes and only because you wanted to visit the firewater distilleries on the Red Coast.”
“How many bottles did you buy in the end Selmain?” Gallus chuckled.
“It was at least three in each distillery, I remember that much,” Avery replied on behalf of the tall thin man sat furthest from the fire overlooking the sweeping landscape.
“True,” the mage mused. “But if I remember correctly it was the three of you who had managed to deplete almost my entire collection before we got back to Titua.”
“As though you had nothing to do with it,” Thalius laughed heartily. Selmain sighed whimsically and shook his head.
“I just wish you could have left the forty-year-old single malt from Thindelrad alone…Gallus?”
Avery and Thalius turned their eyes suddenly on their friend the king, who was looking through narrowed eyes across the flood plains. He ignored the attention of his companions for a moment longer, before he stood to his feet and made his was slowly down the hillock towards the horses.
“I see nothing,” Thalius grumbled while he squinted in the direction Gallus had been looking.
“Why does that not surprise me?” Avery jeered while he and Selmain climbed to their own feet to follow their leader. “My old grandmother can see better than you can.”
“Which one? The blind one or the one with the eye patch?”
Avery chuckled as Thalius grumbled in his wake. Selmain had already reached Gallus and was engaged in a hurried conversation. The spy looked from one man to the other and sighed morosely. He knew things had been going too smoothly.
“What is it Gallus?” Avery asked grimly.
“There is a squadron of men on horseback approaching from the east with some speed,” the king replied evenly, before he lifted himself onto his horse and made himself comfortable in the saddle.
“And where are you going?”
“We shall ride out to them.”
“What are you so worried about?”
“They carry with them the banner of the Blue Army,” Selmain replied, eliciting a confused frown from the spy.
“Is that a problem? We are friendly with the Blue Throne are we not?”
“We are indeed, but you know very well Avery that the army only ever raise the banner when they are riding into battle,” Gallus explained calmly.
“Well who are they intending to battle? Not us surely?”
“That is exactly what I intend to find out.”
Gallus gently urged his steed on while Selmain mounted his horse in order to accompany the king. Avery quickly followed suit and trotted to catch up with the other two. Behind them Thalius was hurrying down the hill to join them. Within no time the four men were back on the road. They could all now see the approaching horsemen, their banner raised high.
“Gallus? Have you been making enemies again without letting anybody know?” Thalius asked somewhat seriously.
“Not that I am aware of friend.”
“Well the last time I checked Lapai-Dabu are not at war. So why are there full contingents of cavalrymen roaming the countryside ready for battle?”
“I think we are about to find out Thalius,” the king replied dryly. The cavalry were nearly upon them and so after a quick order to his men Gallus stopped. The others came to a halt beside him while they waited. With a deafening stampede of hooves the men found themselves hemmed in by the members of the Blue Army. The ones directly surrounding the unwelcome visitors from Denari held aloft long swords. Straight ahead of the men was the captain of these cavalrymen, who seemed to be looking the trapped men up and down, trying to decide whether they were the threat he had clearly believed them to be from afar.
“May I introduce myself and my friends officer?” Gallus called out humbly, lifting his hands out to the side to indicate he wasn’t a threat.
“Why are you armed?” the captain instead barked hoarsely. “You know the law. All weapons were to be turned in two weeks ago to the Blue Army.”
“We are not from these parts. I apologise, we didn’t know the law had changed,” Gallus explained calmly, hiding his frown at this surprising announcement. A ban on all weapons? Why had the Blue Throne ordered such a command? “We come from Titua.”
“Titua?” the captain echoed darkly. “Your accent is convincing, but you can pull the other one. Drop your weapons immediately!”
Gallus exchanged a mystified expression with his men, before his gaze settled on Selmain, seeking guidance as to how to proceed. The two men stared at one another for a few moments, their thoughts darting backwards and forth along the ether. Finally, when the captain had sidled forward impatiently, Gallus looked back.
“I am Gallus of Apollo and these are three members from the Royal Confidence. I demand that you let us through.”
A titter of laughter spread through the ranks while the captain of the cavalrymen sneered unpleasantly.
“You’re the third one today sire,” he countered tiredly. “Over the last week alone we’ve apprehended five King Gallus’, three King Kamos’ and even a Prince Vago, who I believe recently celebrated his fifth birthday. Wouldn’t have thought it to look at him. He looked more like fifty to my eyes.”
Gallus frowned deeply and glanced once more to Selmain for the briefest of moments. Selmain was slowly shaking his head.
“Where is your mage?” Gallus asked. “We will prove ourselves to him then.”
“Unfortunately for you sire, our mage has been taken injured. You will need to save your party tricks for the inquisitorial squad.”
“Show them your shield Gallus,” Avery complained drolly. This had all seemed amusing at first to the spy, but now he was quite bored with the whole thing. “It will prove you speak the truth.”
“It will prove nothing,” the captain cut in. “Anything you show me could have been stolen. Why, just yesterday another King Gallus was showing me a signet ring with the crest of the Green Throne convincingly emblazoned upon it. Now drop your weapons or we will take them by force.”
“And what do you intend to do with us once we are unarmed?” the king of Denari asked dryly while at his side Thalius and Avery gripped the hilts of their swords.
“You will be taken back to Tirith Ahden for questioning.”
“Taken for questioning? What exactly are we supposed to have done?” Gallus demanded. Selmain reached out a hand to touch Gallus’ shoulder.
*They are frightened Gallus. Do not argue with them,* the man’s sensible voice spoke in Gallus’ mind.
*We cannot go with them Selmain! It will add days to our journey.*
*So what then? We fight them?*
Gallus sighed angrily before he shook his head. With exaggerated movements he undid his sheath from his belt and threw the sword to the ground. Moments later it was joined by three knives, his bow and a quiver full of arrows. Thalius and Avery stared at their kind with wide eyes.
“Gallus!” Thalius complained heavily. “You do not mean to go with these fools do you?”
“What choice to be have Thalius?” Gallus replied darkly. “We cannot fight them. I will not spill the blood of the Blue Army on their own soil over a…misunderstanding.” The kind seethed while he spoke the word. “Do as they have asked, all of you.”
Thalius and Avery exchanged a mystified expression before they joined Selmain in discarding their weapons on the quite significant pile at the hooves of the captain’s steed. One of the cavalrymen dismounted and gathered the weapons together hurriedly into a large sack.
“You had better treat those weapons with care,” Gallus warned the young man dangerously. “That was my father’s sword and I expect it back unharmed when we get to the city.”
The cavalryman stared into Gallus’ black eyes before he nodded quickly and with the utmost care attached the sack to his saddle. The king of Denari cast the mountains one last longing look before he led his captured men not north, but east towards the sprawling capital city of Lapai-Dabu: Tirith Ahden. His cousin the queen would have a lot of explaining to do once they got there.
Thais sat down on the bench and smiled knowingly. Five days she had found herself the guest of the woodlanders. Five days had she bit her lip and chewed the insides of her cheeks while she exercised up and down the walkway leading from her hut to the square. She still cringed at the agony shooting through her leg, but no longer did she limp and no longer did she need to stop and rest every ten paces. She was on the mend.
Gray knew as much, as he often accompanied his newfound friend on her routinely walks to and from her guest dwelling, entertaining her for hours on end with his tales of the tree people and his antics as a boy. The young man had tried to convince the girl to come further afield with him to visit the rest of the city, but Thais had resisted. He could not know she was keeping well hidden lest one of the more travelled tree dwellers recognise her face. Thus far her disguise seemed to be working perfectly and though she had only really conversed with Gray and his moody older brother Phable, she was very confidant that she would escape this place unscathed.
“Tomorrow,” she sighed softly, smiling to herself while she sat on the wooden bench looking interestedly at a small group of children undergoing some sort of instruction by an elderly man. “Tomorrow my journey continues.”
The day was turning out to be a fine one. Up here in the forest heavens the warmth of the sun seemed more punctuated than far down below on the forest floor and even though winter had trapped Denari within its grasp, it was not untowardly cold here in the middle of the woods. Thais hoped this good fortune would persist, but knew to hope for such things was probably a foolish thing to do. The Gods were peculiar beings and none more so than Pollux, the Lord of the Skies. Sailors knew not to pray for strong directional winds, for they knew that Pollux would most likely offer them a damp squally day in return. When would-be brides planned their perfect lakeside weddings in the picturesque swathe of land known as the Great Lakes, it was not unheard of for them to kneel before Pollux’s alter in the Great Temple of Titua, present offerings to Him and openly pray that he would bring them rain and storm clouds. Unfortunate were those brides whom Pollux chose to take literally.
So now Thais kept her lips tightly sealed and even her thoughts at bay lest Pollux hear her desires for good weather on her journey northwards. Instead she turned her attention to the children and their old companion. They were very young, probably only about five years old, and all were sat around the elderly man listening intently. He seemed to be pointing at various parts of the canopy while the children occasionally stuck their hands high into the air to be chosen to speak. This was undoubtedly a school, but unlike any schooling Thais had ever undergone. If the princess had ever undergone parts of her education out in the wilds then she might have stood a fighting chance of enjoying herself.
“Helen!” Thais looked around to see Gray trotting towards her with Phable at his heel. The former seemed decidedly more pleased to come across the city girl than the latter, who wore his customary sour expression.
“Good afternoon friend,” Thais called to the boy, who dropped down at her side with a smug smile on his face.
“You have been invited to dine in the Great Hall tonight with the city council,” the boy explained happily, though his smile dropped slightly when the girl did not seem to react to the news. Little did he know that as a royal child Thais had spent her life dining with members of far more prestigious organisations than a woodland clan and inevitably, such occasions elicited a dissatisfied grimace in the girl whenever she found herself roped into one. It was a miracle that she managed to suppress it now.
“’Tis a great honour to be invited,” Phable spoke up gruffly. “We’ve never been asked to one of these things.”
Why would you? What importance do you have in the world? a cruel whisper crept into Thais’ mind, before she scolded herself for thinking so.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to seem ungrateful,” the girl instead spoke humbly. “I meant no offence. I am of course delighted to be invited.”
Gray’s smile seemed restored and he nodded vigorously.
“You will meet our father at last. He is a member of the council and he’ll be the one to pick you up.”
Thais nodded in feigned exuberance and followed the brothers back to her hut where she tried to make herself seem more presentable. Were her ladies in waiting ever to find out that she had attended a formal occasion dressed in clothes she had not changed in weeks and with a neck full of dirt then they would surely have a funny turn, of that the girl was sure. Her private fantasy gave her the giggles for a moment before she sighed morosely. A part of her missed even them, the silly old women. Her time in the tree city had been slow paced and everything about Tituan life seemed to mould into one large nostalgic memory. Thais missed her home and her friends.
“And my family,” the young girl sighed. She hoped Nana Darling wasn’t worrying about her too much and Uncle Eunus, could he have returned while she was away? He could be in the palace right now and Thais would never know. Then there was Gallus.
Thais shivered and pulled her ragged cardigan more tightly about her shoulders. Her father. Would he be worried for her also?
“Will he know where I have gone?” Thais pondered more pertinently. For if he knew where the young princess was heading, he would surely cut her off before she reached her goal. Somehow, now she was on her quest, Thais felt more than ever the importance of her mission. Now she had started nothing could convince the girl that finding her grandfather was anything less than the most important undertaking of her life.
The afternoon slid by while Thais readied herself until finally loping uneven footsteps came to a halt outside her tapestry door. A man cleared his throat before calling in a rasping voice,
If sounds could cut, this man’s voice would be lethal Thais mused before she walked over to the tapestry and pulled it back. Upon seeing her escort she very nearly let the tapestry drop, but a lifetime of being forced to learn solid proper manners made her smile meekly instead.
“Good evening,” she said softly, trying not to stare at the patch covering half of the man’s horribly scarred face. Half his body had been mutated leaving him disfigured and instead of a left hand a hook emerged from his sleeve. What remained of his face was cruel and wrinkled leaving no doubt within Thais’ mind that this man had killed many times before. His eyes seemed dead.
“Good evening,” the man spoke, revealing a mouth boasting only half a contingent of teeth. Thais wanted to run from him. “Helen Shortwood is it?”
Thais nodded quickly and reached out to shake the man’s hook-free hand. It was as though she were shaking hands with a block of sandstone.
“Yes sir,” the girl replied for good measure. “You’re Gray and Phable’s father aren’t you?”
The man sized the girl up for a moment, his eyes lingering on her ears longer than he might had she not had such notable ones, before he looked into her dark worried eyes and nodded stiffly. His every movement looked as though it caused him great pain.
“Taelius,” he exclaimed gruffly, pulling back onto the walkway. Thais followed him, letting the tapestry swing shut. Taelius…where had she heard such a name before? Her instincts, which were generally quite finely tuned to danger, were vying for Thais’ attention. She was not safe with this man. No good could come of this.
“Taelius Harbinger,” the man spoke again; louder this time. The breath caught in Thais’ throat and she started to cough. A memory snaked its way into her mind and demanded her attention. Long ago, when she had been but an eight-year-old trouble maker Thais and her urchin chums had loved nothing more than to terrify one another with horror stories. The little princess had been particularly adept at making the other children squirm in fear, but there had been one boy who had always bested her. His stories had always been far more chilling. His stories had been real.
Dalos Theden had come from the small village of Lochan near the woodlands. His father and uncles had all been farmers. They had survived the troublesome years of the warlords relatively unscathed. Dalos’ father Archos was a strongly built man and had always taught his youngest son about valour and pride. That was why he didn’t follow the example of the other farmers in the village. That was why he didn’t send tributes into the woodlands.
It had been a wet miserable day in Titua when Dalos had told the street urchins his very worst tale. They had all been sheltering under Treacle Bridge in Varanasi. Thais had just surprised everyone with an eerie tale about a dragon loose in the underground tunnels of the city, which had made even Kaio’s skin crawl. Dalos, not to be beaten by the little royal girl had told everyone about the day his mother fled with him to the city. With tears trickling down his dirty cheeks the boy had told how he had woken to the sounds of screams coming from the kitchen one night. With eyes still blurry from sleep the young boy had hurried through out of his room to find his mother, her clothes stained in blood, running towards him. She had lifted him from his feet and dragged him out to the stables. Dalos heard his father crying. He had begged his mother to stop, but she had lifted them both onto Torry, their strongest steed and galloped them away into the darkness of the night. Dalos had no choice but to escape with her. At the end of the road he had turned around to catch his last ever glimpse of his family’s farm. There, in front of the house stood three spikes and upon each one had sat the heads of his brothers. And in the window he saw his bloodstained father watching his wife and youngest child fleeing into the night. Behind him had stood a man: Taelius Harbinger.
Thais started to tremble through her spluttering cough. What had she done?
“Heard of me have you?” the scarred man growled when Thais’ coughing subsided. The youngster looked up, but couldn’t quite meet his good eye.
“Everyone’s heard of you,” she replied through a constricted throat.
Harbinger seemed to size the girl up once more before he let his gaze return into the distance. Thais heeded the man little; instead her mind was racing, desperately contemplating every single escape route out of the city. Every single plan though, had to be abandoned due to one overpowering obstacle: how the Graces was she supposed to get back down to the ground?
“We have a pulley system,” the scarred old man spoke at her side. Thais looked up in surprise only to be greeted by a toothy sneer from Harbinger. “Your face gives your feelings away girl. Not to mention that nice halo of yours.”
“You’re a sensitive?” Thais demanded in shock, to which Harbinger nodded. “But I can’t feel you.”
“Nifty trick isn’t it? I’ve been working on that one for over fifty years. Someone like your father would be able to see through it and that mage of his definitely could, but to you, I’m invisible.”
Thais stopped dead in her tracks and felt cold dread wrap itself around her heart. He knew her true identity. Had he known all along? Had he told Gray? An image of Gray’s wounded large eyes flashed before Thais’ eyes and for a moment she felt confused as to why hurting the young man’s feelings had taken precedence over her own life-threatening situation for a brief moment.
“That’s right, I know you who are Thais Mai Avani, daughter of our king.”
Harbinger had stopped now too and the pair stared one another down.
I could run, the girl thought to herself wildly. I don’t know where I am, but I’m fast. I could outrun him at least.
*You wouldn’t get very far.*
“Hey!” Thais growled angrily, backing away from the warlord. His invasion into her mind was not a welcome one. There was etiquette to be observed in situations such as this one. Though at the thought of it Thais rolled her eyes; here she stood opposite the most notorious criminal in the whole land and she was surprised that he hadn’t kept to the rules other sensitives abided by as a common courtesy.
“So you know me. What do you intend to do?” the girl demanded, sounding much stronger than she felt. Harbinger raised his eyebrows before glancing up the path to the well-lit building he had been leading his charge towards.
“I intend to escort you to dinner young lady. Our tribal elders are waiting for you.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well after dinner, what are you going to do with me?”
Harbinger frowned for a moment before he dropped his one-eyed gaze to the floor seeming much more humble and less threatening.
“You saved my daughter Raven and her children’s lives,” the warlord spoke softly. “I owe you a debt of gratitude, which is why I have overseen your recuperation. My sons will escort you to the edge of the woodlands and see you on your way. I know of no warrant that has been sent out from the palace for your safe capture, so I can only assume you are on a tourney of some sort. I will see you return to it safely.”
Thais’ thundering heart slowed slightly. Could she trust this man? This villain who had slain innocent children while they slept in their beds?
What choice to I have?
“I always settle my debts child,” Harbinger stated stonily, before he beckoned Thais to follow him once more. “Now come. The tribal elders have been waiting some time for you to recover enough to meet them. They are most interested in you.”
“Do they know who I am?” the youngster asked warily, shuffling over to Harbinger’s side once more.
“Of course, but only they know. I have not and will not inform my sons or the rest of the city, for I cannot account for their actions.” Thais exhaled slowly with relief. “Our healer informed us of your level of Settling. We knew your story was false, but truly it is your appearance that gives you away. We may live in trees, but we are not cut off from your city. We know your face.”
Thais hung her head as the pair walked towards the meeting place. She felt stupid and naïve. Of course people knew what she and Gallus looked like. There were paintings of them all over the Agea. Being invisible and the princess of a country like Denari were not two of the most compatible occupations.
“May I leave tomorrow?” Thais asked quietly once she and Harbinger had traversed the long path towards the great meeting hall. They stood now at a grand entrance, looking in to an enormous cavity glowing by the light of hundreds of torches. It was one of the most mesmerising sights Thais had ever seen. Wrinkled faces peered out from the depths, their curious eyes gleaming in the darkness. Thais looked away from them to meet Harbinger’s gaze.
“I was expecting as much. It can be arranged if you think you’re well enough.”
“Very well. Then you shall leave tomorrow.”