Thais, Rachel and Kaio had spent their early childhoods tumbling around the countryside surrounding the great city of Titua. They had come to know every distant hillock, every species of grass, every type of edible berry and most importantly, every friendly settlement. After nearly two weeks trapped under the suffocating canopy of the Kaba wood Thais and her allies stumbled out into the plains they had explored in their youths. They knew instantly where they were and hurried onwards into the rolling hills. The minor ring road swept near and with it would come the patrols. Thais had been lucky to avoid them so far, but now she had emerged from the sanctity of the gang-ridden trees her luck would soon run out.
It felt good to run about under the early winter sun, feeling the chill of the frosty air streaming through their hair. Never had the children enjoyed the darkness and the gloom of Denari’s mighty forests. Thais’ free spirit had led them mostly towards the rolling plains, the expansive lakes and the staggering peaks. The cold seemed not to bother them as the trio of scallywags marauded through the dry grass, their goal a small settlement at the base of the downs. Red Tavern was a friendly sort of place where everyone minded their own business. This was needed in a place like Red Tavern, where most people had their hands in a number of business ventures they would rather the patrols and the taxman knew very little about. It lay a day’s march from the minor ring road and seemed a perfect place to hide for a day or two and find a fresh stock of supplies.
Thais may have been fed well during her unplanned visit in the tree city of the Southlands Gang, but her companions had lived on their meagre rations and what little they could catch, growing more and more desperate for their friend high up in the canopy. Fresh food and hunting supplies were direly needed.
The children had never visited the settlement itself, finding themselves more drawn to the large town of Isanmouth a mere ten miles further into the hills. The large brawling town offered raucous entertainment and plenty of adventures, though it also boasted an entire contingent of the guard and seemed therefore an unwise place to halt in their journey on this occasion. Kaio assured his friends as they approached the smoke rising from the dozen or so chimneys that a settlement named after a tavern wouldn’t leave them wanting for a night’s good entertainment.
The children entered the village hooded, their eyes darting to the men, women and children milling about the place. Their appearance warranted little more than a raised eyebrow from an old grandmother washing an old sheet in the front garden of her hovel and before too long the trio had come across a crooked dwelling that boasted a cracked sign with a tumbler and an ass on it.
“Well this is the place,” Kaio exclaimed dubiously. He had quite expected more.
“I hope it’s more welcoming on the inside than it is on the outside,” Rachel replied softly, though in truth she knew she would stop in for something warm to eat even if she were expected to sit in a sty to eat it.
“Why is there an ass on the sign?” Thais finally piped up curiously.
“Only one way to find out,” Kaio happily announced before he pushed heavily into the door of the tavern. Robust jolly music drifted out into the early evening sky leaving the three friends to pass a smile between them; music was a good start.
The tavern was heaving with the colourful inhabitants of Red Tavern and the neighbouring villages leaving the children to shoulder their way through the inebriation to find a small crooked table by the wall. While Kaio slinked off into the crowds to order the children a silver ale apiece Thais glanced beneath Rachel’s hood to catch the girl’s eye.
“What are you worried about?”
“You know me Thais,” Rachel sighed with a small smile. “There is very little I don’t worry about!”
“Well try not to let it ruin your evening. Here you are, the first drink you’re going to have that isn’t water and hasn’t just come from a rusty old canister. Enjoy it, please!”
“I’ll enjoy myself when you’ve found whatever it is you’re looking for and we can all go home. I am so very worried about the patrols Thais.”
“Well don’t. I know you always have to worry about something, but try to worry about what Kaio is ordering us for supper instead. Right now that’s a much bigger threat to our safety than the guard.”
“You might have a point there.” Though Rachel’s voice seemed to ease, her face remained stony and sad.
“Look, the guards aren’t going to come to a small backwater village where the only thing they’ll find is a mad old grandfather cooking up some illegal alchemy in his garden shed. I mean, why would they come here of all places?”
“Because Thais even though you don’t like to admit it, your father knows you and he knows exactly where you would go and hide.”
“Yes, but even I didn’t know we would find ourselves here did I? It’s a happy accident. Just you wait; nothing terrible is waiting to pounce on us. Ah look, Kaio’s back.”
Rachel buried her concerns deep down in a heart riddled with an array of impressive concerns already before she looked up to see her cousin approaching with three tankards full of silvery ale. It was a light drink, brewed with the likes of Thais and her companions in mind. The most usual affect it could inflict on the mental functioning of a youth was make them feel slightly giddy and the worst damage it had ever done to the three friends was the day they had consumed three pints of stuff and had then all fallen off their stools laughing in The Windy Cricket in Acrabar.
Thais gratefully accepted the tankard from her friend and took a deep gulp of the warm buttery liquid. It trickled down her throat and warmed her body from the inside out, leaving a tingling feeling in her fingertips.
“I needed this,” she finally exhaled glancing up to see her friends sporting an identical contented glassy look.
“Well good, because you owe me two copper pieces,” Kaio piped up.
“Two coppers? For what exactly?”
“Well unlike some I’m not royalty princess, I can’t afford to buy dinner, a round and fix us a room for the night on my merchant’s wage can I?”
“A room? You got us a room? Is that a good idea Kaio?” Rachel quickly cut in before Thais could burst into a joyful retort to the boy’s jibe.
“Of course it’s a good idea. I’ve just spent the last week sleeping on the hard ground with one eye open. Allow me a comfortable bed for one night please before Thais drags us into another fortnight of bad backs and spiders crawling down my neck!”
“I never dragged you anywhere friend,” Thais chuckled while Rachel quickly calculated her odds at winning this stand off.
“And you?” the flame-haired girl finally spoke, glancing to Thais. “What say you to this?”
“I vote for the warm bed option over the hole dug into the frosty ground option any day.”
“Wonderful! Then it’s settled. Just so you know, I would have stayed here without the pair of you and been quite merry for it had you decided to go and sleep under a hill out there.”
As one the children looked up to see a tree branch dancing wildly in the wind. A night out in the cold seemed a pitiful comparison to a night spent in a friendly cosy tavern.
“So Thais, my coppers?”
“I’ll play you for them,” the girl announced cheerily, pulling a battered deck of cards from the depths of her sack. “If I lose you’ll get your two copper pieces and two more to boot.”
“And if I lose?” Kaio asked with a grin.
“Well if you lose then you will have to catch dinner for the next three days.” Rachel giggled while Kaio thought it over.
“The wager is weighted in your favour there princess.”
“Yes Thais, hunting dinner for three days is hardly worth two copper pieces.”
“Very well, five copper pieces and I’ll throw in a pint of silver ale as well.”
“Well it’s a start,” Kaio agreed through a whistle. “And you cousin? You’re also going to benefit from me hunting for the next three days. What are you going to bring to the table?”
Rachel leaned back, her eyes becoming visible in the warm glow of the candle lit table. Kaio and Thais’ hoods were aimed in her direction and the girl was sure she could feel their smiles across the gap between them.
“If I lose,” she finally mused. “Then I won’t nag the pair of you or tell you what to do for the rest of the journey.”
“Let’s play rummy!”
“’Tis unfair! He cheats! Surely you can sense his lies and his trickery?”
Laughter wafted out from the dell where the men had camped for the night. Three days had passed since their cosy night spent at the Blue Palace and now they had found their way back to the mountains. A warm fire sent sparks dancing into the cloudless night, rivals to the blanket of bright twinkling stars filling the sky with beauty. The cards lay on a wooden crate the men had found and usurped, growing sticky with spilt ale and grease from the boar that had been hunted and bested.
It was Thalius who had sent the accusation flying into the cold night sky, his irritation aimed squarely at Selmain, who had just placed down a run leaving him the victor for the umpteenth time in their battle over chance.
“That is a serious accusation friend,” Gallus laughed while he leaned back to finish the dregs in his tankard. He had consumed far too many such as this one and every time he closed his eyes the silhouette of a campfire with three men sat around it spun in and out of focus. The days had been hard going, but he and his men were making sound progress. The foot of the mountain path was a day’s ride away and with it he would be on the last leg of his journey northwards.
“How am I supposed to have cheated?” Selmain asked calmly, his subtle smile making Thalius’ temper flair up.
“How am I to know? You might have read our minds or seen our cards somehow.”
“I know him to be able to do both those things,” Avery chimed in cheerily.
“Thank you Avery, you certainly know how to help matters,” Gallus chuckled, before he leaned forward and dragged his arms about his knees. “Thalius Avery is right, yes Selmain is more than capable of perpetrating such acts of duplicity, but let me ask you this, do you think he would?”
Thalius grumbled under his breath and looked out into the darkness. Of all the men, he was most easily baited by his fiery temper and after an uncomfortable weeklong ride his patience was wearing thin. While he brooded his friends smiled to one another. They knew him well and forgave him his faults in favour of his strengths.
“Come now Thalius, we will play again,” Avery chuckled. “This time I will keep the mage under a watchful eye.”
“No I feel suddenly tired,” Thalius complained. Gallus and Avery exchanged gleeful smiles and chortled silently while Thalius sulked.
“You sound like my daughter when she has been caught doing something she oughtn’t,” Gallus spoke up cheerily. “Do not let a mere game ruin your evening.”
“He means to say stop sulking like a little girl Thalius,” Avery chimed in. Determinedly Thalius rolled over and stared out of the dell with angry brooding eyes leaving his friends to roll about in mirth at his expense. He would see to it that they ate their words, but right now all he wanted was a moment’s peace and quiet away from their gimmickry.
“Come,” Selmain exclaimed happily, revealing the shuffled deck of cards. “We play again. I am on to a winning streak that I have no intention of relinquishing just yet.”
A deep rumble vibrated through the chests of all four men. Those sat around the crate stared accusingly at the brooding man lying on his side a few feet away.
“Thalius!” Avery complained heartily.
“That wasn’t my stomach.”
The rumble roared through the men’s chests once more leaving them all staring at one another in bewilderment. Thalius sat up slowly and as he did so, his eyes caught those of a large creature sat barely a few feet from his bedroll. The moonlight reflected off its shiny black coat, glinting off a set of fangs capable of tearing a man’s throat to pieces and wreaking havoc with the unfortunate corpse left behind.
“’Tis just a wolf,” the sturdy warrior grumbled, turning his back on the interloper before sitting back down at the fire. His companions passed a grin between them while the prowler stalked their gathering.
“Well are you not going to be our hero and slay the beast?” Avery chuckled earning himself a look of sever reprove from the sulking warrior.
“Why ought I do it? The three of you never lift a finger when there is hard work to be done.”
The wolf inched closer, pausing for a moment to raise its fearsome snout to the air to sniff out further prey. Wicked beasts, the wolves of the Shield Mountains. They were larger and more aggressive than their lowland brethren and shared not the same age-old connection with the descendents of the Kudai. These creatures had not been endowed with sentience. They were wild cruel beings, roaming the mountains in gregarious packs, taking down passing caravans of merchants in a bloody single swoop. Usually they hunted together, but it was not unknown for these beasts to challenge a small group of people alone. Were they human they would certainly be villains of the very worst calibre.
“What about that bear that tried to eat you in Elanin not so long ago. I lifted more than a finger then did I not?” the spy piped up cheerily. Thalius graced Avery with a raised eyebrow, but no more. He was determined not to be roused from his satisfying self-pity.
“And as I recall I was the one to rid us of the wild dogs that hounded our tracks along the Great Eastern road just last week,” Gallus added cheerily. “Come now, it would seem it is your turn friend.”
“Well I will not do it. The damn thing will have to rip us limb from limb.” A grumble so deep it ought to have shaken the earth rose up in agreement with Thalius’ claim. “There, see, the wolf agrees.”
Avery glanced over his shoulder to see the foul beast barely a yard from his back.
“Shall we flip a coin?”
A round of shrugs went round the circle, resulting in Avery dragging a dusty copper piece from the pocket in his cloak. He blew on the thing carefully and wiped it clean from the lint that had been accruing in his old cloak for the past decade at least, before he flipped it high into the air. The wolf stared at the glinting metal object, before revealing its displeasure at this peculiar group of men with another low growl.
The copper landed heavily in Avery’s palm before it was quickly slammed down onto his other awaiting hand.
“Thalius, ‘tis your call my friend.”
“Heads,” the warrior grunted with a mischievous grin.
“As you wish. If heads it be then I shall deal with the wolf, but if it lands on the crown…”
“Yes, yes, quickly please, I can feel its breath on my neck.”
Avery grinned, his eye never leaving the wolf, barely an inch from Thalius’ back. He raised his hand, which covered the coin.
“Argh! Feia forsakes me at your beck and call Avery! Every time!”
A stream of profanities escaped the tall brooding warrior as he reared to his feet, his mighty sword unsheathed. Avery shared a wide grin with the king while Thalius bore down on the terrified wolf, which ran from the scene as quickly as its scrambling legs could carry it.
“Careful Thalius!” Gallus called out cheerily. “There may be more of them!”
The plates lay strewn across the table as three delightfully satisfied children lay back in their seats and rested their hands across their bursting stomachs. For Rachel and Kaio this was the first proper meal either of them had enjoyed in ten days and for Thais the most pleasurable. Before long the three children had been dragged into a battle of wits and a cascade of memories. The hours passed by and soon the bell for last orders was ringing through the merry din of the tavern. Kaio, Rachel and Thais looked to one another for a moment before instantly their hands shot into the middle of the table.
“Whoever loses buys the round,” Kaio announced unnecessarily. The six hands rose and fell three times before an assortment of gestures lay exposed for all to see. Kaio and Thais’ hands were formed into the spread wings of an eagle while Rachel’s hands had turned back on herself in a hollow motion.
Thais and Kaio beamed triumphantly.
“I’ll have a silver ale please Rachel and make it quick,” the boy exclaimed contentedly, stretching back to rest his hands behind his head. Rachel narrowed her eyes at her cousin and climbed to her feet.
“How the pair of you always manage to pick the same thing I’ll never know, but I suspect there is more trickery involved than even I feel you capable of.”
“Oh come on,” Thais laughed. “How could we cheat? Your halfwit of a cousin doesn’t know his left from his right so I doubt he’d be able to work out some very clever code I’ve devised.”
“I don’t know Thais, but mark my words, one day I’ll find out!”
As Rachel slinked away through the exuberant punters of the tavern Kaio turned a feigned bemused look at the princess.
“Oh give over Kaio, don’t get precious, I had to lie didn’t I?”
“Well it’s not like she’ll ever find out will she?”
“Maybe she will. That cousin of yours is brighter than the pair of us put together and when she finds out we’ve been landing her in it every time we play hands she’ll murder us both.”
Kaio laughed loudly and shook his head, imagining the terror Rachel was capable of bestowing on those who wronged her. For a girl almost entirely preoccupied with doing the right thing, she was really rather good at suddenly breaking her vow of discipline to revenge herself upon poor unsuspecting scoundrels. The Greenwood family was ripe with such scoundrels, Kaio one of the very worst, and if Rachel hadn’t developed her split personality then she might never have made it in the wild clan.
A shadow fell over the table, but before Thais and Kaio were given the chance to look up and see what had caused it someone heavy set and hooded like the children sat down on the other side of the table. For a moment there was silence while the hooded newcomer seemed to stare in Thais’ direction, before finally a pair of weathered scarred hands lifted to lower the heavy hood.
There appeared before Thais a face that seemed like a memory of a dream. She knew the deep lines etched into the weather-beaten forehead, the kind grey eyes and the crooked nose. This was a face she had known in the very earliest years of her life, of this she felt certain.
“Ought you really be cavorting in a place such as this? What would Gallus say?” the man asked in a deep whispery voice.
“I know you! How do I know you?” Thais exclaimed in surprise while Kaio grabbed the sleeve of her cloak and pulled her firmly while he climbed to his feet.
“Thais come, we must flee!” the boy urged in a fierce whisper, his eyes scanning the crowd to see if this hooded fellow had any accomplices. Thais though shook her head and continued to stare through narrowed eyes at the familiar man.
“Kaio don’t,” she complained weakly.
“You go, I’ll give you as much time as I can,” the boy insisted, standing now to face the rugged man with as much bravado as he could muster. The man smiled slightly and lowered his eyes away from the pair.
“But you don’t understand,” the girl said softly. “He’s a sensitive, we stand no chance.”
Kaio’s eyes creased in pain before he dropped down angrily at the girl’s side. He and Rachel had been through so much only to have their friend now snatched away by this man, this member of the guard or the Royal Confidence. Who else could he be?
“Who are you?” Thais demanded drawing the newcomer’s gaze once more.
“You do not remember me,” he replied gently, his eyes showing his amusement at the girl’s reaction to him.
“I do know your face.”
“Aye, ‘tis always the way of things. I have such a face.” The lie hung heavily in the air after the man had spoken it leaving Thais to glower at the man.
“You know my father. You were at the palace once. How did you serve the king?”
“Thais be careful,” Kaio spoke up softly, his fierce eyes never leaving the weathered face opposite him. “You shouldn’t trust him.”
A broad smile grew on the man’s face.
“Ah, you must be Kaio.”
A deep chuckle escaped the dry lips of the puzzling man while Thais and Kaio stared at him with eyes as wide as dinner plates. Their shoulders dropped, their faces grew ashen, how did this man know these things?
“Yes and here now is Rachel.”
A wide-eyed Rachel stood suddenly beside the table, three trembling pints of silver ale slopping onto the floor at her feet. With a genial laugh the man reached out and took the tankards from the girl’s hands. Only when the third member of the trio had taken her seat did the mysterious newcomer deign to explain himself.
“Yes Thais, you do know me and once, I knew you. My name is Hood.”
“You!” the girl burst out in surprise. “Yes! It is you. I thought you to be dead.”
A faint trace of sadness washed over Hood’s face before he nodded soberly.
“And so it should be known.”
“But your were papa’s oldest friend, he often spoke of you as though you were his father. You should have been there after mama died, papa could have used your support, but you were just gone,” Thais exhaled in one long breathe. “What happened to you?”
Hood’s face grew tired and he hung his head for a moment. Such innocent words from a child, a child who knew none of the dark times he had spent nearly a decade running from.
“That I cannot tell you. It is not my place little one.” Thais wrinkled her nose at the familiar term. “Thais let me ask you. Are you sure you are doing the right thing?”
“Pardon? How do you know of my plans?”
“You have been taught better than this princess,” Hood chuckled. “You wear your intentions on your sleeve. Close your mind if you do not wish others to know its contents.”
Instantly Thais concentrated her efforts on shifting the ether in her halo. It was a difficult task for a young sensitive to perform and often unneeded in most situations. sensitives were such a rare occurrence in the Agea these days that happening across one rarely occurred more than twice in one month.
“From the moment you saw me your thoughts have strayed north. So tell me, what are you seeking in those lofty mountains?” Hood asked with a curious expression.
“I need not tell you!” Thais grumbled indignantly.
“No indeed you need not, but I might take a guess. You are seeking Khaled-Dîn are you not?” Thais’ expression remained unchanged. “I know your mother told you the path to the city of the elves is one no mortal can take. What would she say of this?”
“She wouldn’t say anything of it,” Thais hissed. “She’s dead.”
“I knew Mai Avani very well and held her in the highest respect,” Hood mused aloud, seeming for a moment to succumb to a dreadful memory.
“Obviously you didn’t respect her well enough to show your face at her funeral. Why did we never see you again?”
“And she would not wish for her only child to throw herself needlessly at the mercy of the wilds,” Hood continued as though the fiery princess had not interrupted him.
“I know what I’m doing,” the girl grumbled. “I know it’s the most important thing I have ever done. I know that when I find my grandfather everything will change.”
Hood held the girl’s eye for a moment before he looked away into a reverie Thais could not even imagine.
“You mean to speak with Sil’Vein. What about?”
“That’s none of your business.”
“If you take that path, there will be no turning back,” Hood suddenly warned firmly catching Thais’ dark eyes with a gaze full of trepidation.
“How do you know?”
“I was there Thais…” Hood stopped and shut his eyes suddenly. Opposite him the princess exhaled firmly and leant back folding her arms over her chest protectively.
“It’s something about me isn’t it?” she finally asked heavily. Hood’s eyes remained closed. “All of this! Uncle Eunus’ trip, nana Darling’s secrets and my father going away so suddenly. It’s something to do with me isn’t it?”
“I hope you never find out young one,” Hood responded sadly, finally opening his eyes to reveal a deep sorrow barely veiled. Thais shifted uncomfortably while at her side Kaio grew fierce once more.
“I’ll fight him, Thais just say the word and I’ll fight him,” the young man growled, standing to his feet at his friend’s side. Thais sighed and shook her head while opposite them Hood’s face suddenly grew in mirth and the man started laughing warmly.
“And I wager I would feel sore for many days after young mister Greenwood,” the enigmatic man chuckled. “Now then, young Thais, if I cannot dissuade you then you should be on your way. I will not stand between you and your path.”
“You mean not to tell my father where I am?”
“That is not my path little one.”
“Then what is your path?”
“Long have I been following these tired old feet hoping to stumble upon it, but alas, ‘tis lost to me. I envy you little one, your feet know without a doubt which way to point themselves. Would it be that I had such certainty in my life.”
“What are you doing in Red Tavern?” Rachel finally spoke. She had been keenly watching and observing the conversation unfold and had more to mull over and ponder than she could quite understand. Hood’s kind eyes found Rachel’s curious ones.
“That I did not know.”
The flame-haired girl frowned at his peculiar answer, but said no more. From behind the bar a loud and rather rude call came for people to make their way home for the night.
“Well then, I see we must leave each other,” Hood exclaimed heavily while he climbed to his feet. For a moment the tall weathered man caught Thais’ eye with a gaze ripe with affection, though not for her. Thais could tell this much. She sensed his mind wandering to days long gone by, to a time when Hood felt happy and secure, to a time when his feet knew which way to point.
“You look like…” Hood stopped and smiled, before he shook his head and raised his heavy hood once more. As soon as he had come he was gone leaving Thais, Rachel and Kaio to stare at the crowd he had suddenly melted through.
“We should get out of here while we still can,” Kaio insisted firmly, climbing to his own feet hurriedly.
“What?” Thais laughed.
“For all we know he was lying through his teeth and there’s a garrison of soldiers waiting for us out there.”
“Oh don’t be ridiculous Kaio,” Rachel exclaimed earning herself two surprised glances from her friends. “Now really, Thais believed him. He wasn’t lying. He said an awful lot of things we should really talk about, but he wasn’t lying. Thais, you believed him didn’t you?”
Thais paused for a moment before she nodded slowly.
“What a strange night this is,” she finally uttered weakly. “Rachel won every game of rummy, I encounter a ghost and now the pair of you have swapped personalities. Whatever will happen next?”
“Let me tell you,” Rachel replied happily, inflated by her own change of mood. “We are going to go march straight up to that bar, get the key to our room and spend our first night in a proper bed!”