CH THEIR SON
A late spring storm had wrapped the isles in freezing rain and dense fog. None of the Royal Guardsmen now stationed in the Southern Star Archipelago had fought with the Huntsman or the Oracle so Rieth didn’t have to worry about anyone accidentally triggering Fleur’s memories or recognizing him. Since the investigation by the Guardian Kalen two months earlier, there had only been two robberies of unattended residences, and no more assaults or murders. Many believed the brigands had left the isles. Patrols of the Isles were now being left to the local Guardsmen who tended to be lax in bad weather.
According to his travel paperwork, the proprietor of the Whispering Woods had just returned from installing the red wood molding in another of Lady Serapha’s rooms. Rieth cautiously made his way along the southern Midcoastal Road from Port Arbor to Soldiers Cove. He had come in on the last ferry and spend four hours trying to settle from his sea sickness enough to continue on his journey. Unlike others, Rieth did not believe Protector Corbin’s proclamation that the cooperation with the Royal Guardsmen had dissuaded the criminals from returning from wherever they fled to when the portals had opened. The First Protector Lord Abrieth had recommended to the Mayor of Arbor that Corbin be replaced in the next election, but no one was willing to run against him. The Lumberton Protector had been summoned to Aetheria for weekly “refresher courses” on the Kingdom’s Laws. Just last night, Abrieth had had a meltdown over Corbin’s incompetence and not so jokingly asked his brother for Corbin to have a hunting accident.
Rieth had narrowly managed to avoid Shadz in his guise as a woodsmith and made a few appearances as Lord Yurieth over the last two months. Regis was often sending their Junior Huntsman Noctos to Jura pretending to be Yurieth. The young man saved with the Relic Refugees was smitten with Yuri’s niece Jenna, but felt as many from his time did, that the ranked and the unranked shouldn’t marry and that he was unworthy of the King’s half-sister. Jenna was determined to change Noctos' mind and his heart. Seeing his Junior Huntsman with his quiet niece, gave him hope for he and Fleur. If Fleur could never remember, then High Lord Yurieth, the Huntsman of Yophriel was willing to spend the rest of his life as Rieth the woodsmith.
Rieth’s magic let him sense the men waiting by the roadside near the turn to Lumberton before he saw or heard them, so he went up the closest tree. Moving from tree to tree, he quickly found six men, huddled in a group. He called his full power so he could see and hear them clearly. His magic spread through the cold damp forest like the fog that hid him. The men were arguing in hushed vicious tones and huddled around a small smoky fire.
“He’s just a boy. I don’t like it.” One said. Two others were agreeing with him, as he finished. “Stealing children will bring the wrath of the Royals and we don’t even know if he’ll come.”
“Oh, he’ll come if he thinks his mother is ill,” the tallest one snapped.
Then a scarred one snarled at the others, “We won’t get paid if we don’t take the boy to the boss and I want off these wretched islands. The boss never said he had to be alive. And you lot can join him if you don’t do what you’re told.” He reminded Rieth of someone as he stalked around, threatening the others. Rieth looked at his eyepatch curiously, certain the man had not had it when they met before.
“We’re not going to hurt him,” the shorter one insisted, “Just the wolfhound, then we take him to the boss.”
“I’ll gut that dog and that damned cat if it’s with them,” The scarred one threatened and the tallest one agreed.
Rieth suddenly knew that those two were part of the group who attacked him and that they were waiting for Yuli. Using all his skill as a huntsman, Rieth moved from treetop to treetop. He wouldn’t be seen or heard by the men even if they looked straight at him. Dropping to the ground beyond their hearing, he let his magic reach as far ahead of him toward Lumberton as it would. Yuli was like a beacon in the night to his heightened senses and was hurrying toward him at a run with Fang beside him. Behind Rieth, the brigands had not moved from their fire.
“Who’s there?” Yuli called out when Fang growled. Rieth code whistled like a bird and Yuli froze, crouching down next to Fang who stood protectively but made no noise. The boy whispered, “Rieth?”
Rieth let himself appear beside them out of the shadows, he covered Yuli’s mouth so he wouldn’t cry out, then tapped on his startled son’s arm. ‘What’s wrong? Why are you out at night? There are men on the road ahead.’
Yuli whispered, “Someone dropped a note at the Inn that Mom was ill. Nevin wouldn’t let me leave until morning so I sneaked out.” He sounded afraid, “Are the men brigands?”
“Shhh,” Rieth warned him, then tapped on his arm again, ‘I will come with you and go around them.’
Yuli nodded, then tapped back, ‘I know a shortcut.’
They started back toward the Midcoastal Road but instead of following the curve of the road, Yuli lead Rieth up a slope on a deer track. They topped over and moved quickly down the other side of the ridge. They were almost to intersection of the path to Soldiers Cove and the Midcoastal road when Fang growled quietly. Rieth knelt quickly and put a finger to his lips, as Yuli knelt beside him. A hand on Fang’s shoulder kept the giant wolfhound from growling or charging the men stomping around in the cold wet night trying to stay warm. Both Yuli and Rieth were using very weak night-seeing magic and Rieth could sense the men but he could not see them in the misty, dark night without his stronger clear-view magic. He had no choice if they are going to get by undetected. He was going to have to reveal his magic to Yuli. Rieth’s eyes began to glow with his power and he could feel Yuli’s surprise, but the boy made no sound.
Rieth’s magic allowed him to see three of the men clearly through the night fog and trees as if it were day in a meadow. He realized the brigands had split into two groups to make sure they caught Yuli. Further down the Midcostal Road where the turnoff to Lumberton was, he could sense the other three were where he left them. He silently guided Yuli away from the outlaws and they crossed the road between the two groups. Yuli quickly found a path he knew and sprinted ahead until they came out of the forest on the opposite side of town. There was only a light on in the kitchen of the stone house as they rushed up the hill to the lighthouse.
Fleur was making cookies when they rushed in.
“Mom? Mom?” Yuli called out.
“In the kitchen, Yuli? What are you doing here?” She turned her face toward Reith in question, “It’s so late.”
“I got a note that you were sick,” Yuli almost cried as he hugged her.
“No... No... I’m fine. Rieth, what is going on?” Fleur demanded.
Rieth whispered, “I found him on the road from Lumberton, he told me why he was coming home. There were brigands on the Midcoastal road, so we went through the woods.”
Fleur looked at him horrified as she hugged her son, Rieth put his hand on her shoulder and one finger drummed, ‘We need to talk.’
She nodded very slight then said in an almost cheerful voice, “Well, somebody played a rotten trick on you and we are lucky Rieth found you first. Go get some dry clothes on, I’ll make some cocoa to go with the cookies I was baking for the cafe.”
After Yuli went up to his room, she sagged visibly. “Why would someone lie to Yuli that I was sick?” She was shaking as she poured milk, cocoa powder, and sugar in a saucepan.
“I think they meant to kidnap him. I heard them talking as I sneaked around them, so I hurried ahead until I found him. I didn’t tell him what they wanted, just that they were there because he was so worried about getting to you.” Rieth’s damaged voice sounded raspy and harsh. It made the reality of why the brigands were there seem more terrible.
“We need to get Banth and the others and go after them. Now!” She hissed angrily, stirring the cocoa with such violence it sloshed.
He took her hand away from the pan and held it to his check, and shaking his head no as he whispered. “Yuli was terrified for you, calm him first. Once he’s in bed then I’ll go after them.” He pulled her into his arms and just held her. As her cheek rested over his pounding heart, he wondered if she could sense how worried he was. They had almost lost their son tonight, and he couldn’t tell her he knew the truth because she didn’t know it herself.
Fleur let Rieth pull her into a hug, his strong, steady heartbeat beneath her cheek made her feel much calmer. She felt safe in the circle of his arms, she felt loved. She knew she shouldn’t become accustomed to it, but she wanted to. She had almost lost Yuli tonight, and it was almost overwhelming because she had already lost so much. It was her worst nightmare and greatest fear. Slowly, she drew herself away from Rieth and poured the cups of warm comforting chocolate. They ate the warm cookies and cocoa without speaking.
Later, Fleur sang to Yuli until he fell asleep. Rieth stood in the doorway behind them, listening and feeling painfully nostalgic. He had watched her sing to her other son, a son she didn’t remember. It was a weird deja vu that made Rieth’s heart twist painfully for Kalen and he wondered if Kalen could hear her now.
Rage replaced his pain and he went back out into the cold wet night, Finn and Arthos, another veteran, went with Rieth to the place where the brigands had laid in wait for Yuli. The men were gone but it was obvious where they had waited. Fang sniffed out the trail and lead the veterans straight to the turn off toward Lumberton. They followed it to the ridge above the town then Fang began snorting and sneezed. The same scent confusing dust had been sprinkled across the path that had confounded Fang’s nose the night of the last murder.
“Well, that seals it. It’s the same group and they are back.” Finn’s mouth made a tight line.
Arthos spat on the ground. “Let’s go to Nevin and Vela’s and wait for Corbin to wake up.”
“Why bother?” Finn demanded. “Corbin hates Rieth, and with nothing more than muddy tracks and a wet pile of ashes as proof, he’ll just say Rieth made it up to discredit him in front of Fleur. Besides, how do we know the brigands aren’t camping in his basement and that’s why neither we nor the Royal Guardsmen could find them?”
“Let’s go to my shop,” Rieth whispered. “I’ll make breakfast.”
Arthos just shrugged and started down to Lumberton, Finn followed. Rieth remained behind, looking over the valley. He used his magic to see every path in and out of the town. None looked disturbed except the one they were on, wherever the brigands were in Lumberton, they had not left. He tapped his thigh for Fang to follow, hoping the wolfhound would catch the scent of the criminals again. But as they walked, Fang would sniff then sneeze, and Rieth realized the whole of the town had been sprinkled with the scent confounding dust.
Finn also noticed Fang’s dilemma and murmured to Rieth, “It’s definitely someone in Lumberton.”
Rieth could only nod, he knew whom he suspected and, from the direction Finn had glanced as he spoke, Rieth knew the boarding house keeper suspected the same. The Protector’s house was sat ostentatiously next to the Mayor’s Manor. There was a light on upstairs despite the late hour.
Later, in the morning, Corbin had exactly the reaction Finn had predicted. Arthos stayed in Lumberton to see if he, Nevin, or Vela could find out anything. Finn and Rieth returned to Soldiers Cove angrier than when they left.
Banth was at the lighthouse trying to calm Fleur who was still raging mad.
Fleur was pacing with one sword strapped to her hip and another over her shoulder. “I am going to find them and finish them! No one threatens my child.”
“Easy Fleur, they probably just wanted some ransom since they can’t rob from those traveling anymore,” Banth tried to reassure her. “Some people think us veterans are all wealthy living off our benefits.”
Rieth shook his head and wrote, ‘I heard them. They were arguing about whether or not their boss wanted Yuli dead or alive. They were willing to kill Fang to take him. They took the road to Lumberton and there is something sprinkled on the road at the pass and on all the streets of the town. Fang can’t track them. It is the same dust they used the night Desa’s brother was killed.’
“But why?” Fleur demanded in frustration. “Why would someone in the town make an agreement with those murders to steal my son?”
Banth, Finn, and Rieth shared a look as Stacy came out from the kitchen, with a tray of tea and plate of the cookies Fleur had made last night. Rieth noticed she was also wearing a sword.
“Fleur, it won’t do any good to get dusted. Rieth saved Yuli, the Brigands didn’t hurt him, everything is gold. Stop making it dead gray.”
“Monastaci, that’s not the point,” Fleur snapped.
The taller, pale blonde put her hands on Fleur’s shoulders. “It is exactly the point, cousin. Grandmother Meara always said you were one to go over every worst case scenario when you should hope for the best outcome. Well, Rieth made sure we had the best outcome. Yuli is home safe. We know the brigands are back and can be prepared. Now, go take off your swords before he wakes up.”
Fleur sighed in surrender, “I know you’re right, Stacy, it’s just... Yuli is all I have left. I can’t bear the thought that someone might take him from me.”
“No one will take him,” Rieth vowed in a gravelly voice.
Banth nodded, then announced, “From now on, no one travels alone. And everyone keeps their swords close.”