Evan forgot about his hunger as he rushed across the lobby and stepped into the great hall. About halfway down the wall opposite the doorway, an extra wide hearth burned with a moderate fire. A display case, resting on an oak platform that sat a foot and a half off the floor, was at the far end of the room. The enclosure had a glass top and front panel; the other sides were made of pine.
Five dwarves with long white beards stood along the front of the case. Each dwarf wore a blue cloak with a hood and stared intently at the jewel inside the glass.
“Bah!” said one of the dwarves. “It’s all an act. Let’s go. We have better things to do with our time.” The other dwarves nodded in agreement and together they strode out of the great hall in single file.
Evan watched them go and then turned to face the clean-shaven man and the elven woman who stood behind the display. The man was tall and attractive; his blue eyes sparkled and his brown hair was neatly combed. The image of a lyre was clearly visible on his left breast. Evan recognized the patch as the one worn by members of the College of Bardic Lore.
The elf was pretty and slim, with dark hair that reached her thighs and bright green eyes. She wore a loose beige blouse that revealed nothing of her figure. Olive trousers and a black leather belt completed her attire. Hanging from the belt, in a burgundy leather case, was a dagger with a pearl embedded in the hilt.
Evan inclined his head to both of them. “They’re right, of course. This can’t be a real Elf-gem.”
“You doubt my uncle’s word too?” asked the elf.
“Your uncle …” Evan paused as recognition came to him; his face brightened. “You’re Tindolen’s niece, Iriel.”
The woman’s eyes widened and she reached out with her right hand to the bard. “James,” she said. “He knows my name!” Addressing Evan, she said, “How do you know who I am? We have never met before. Only a spellcaster reading my mind could know this.”
James saw the red Michaeline cross on Evan’s shirt and his priest’s collar. “He’s not a wizard; he’s a priest, a Michaeline priest.” He unfurled the coiled whip that hung off his belt and narrowed his eyes. “But even so, mind reading isn’t appreciated by Iriel or me.”
Evan raised his arms and opened his hands so that they were flat and parallel to his chest, with the palms facing James and Iriel. “Calm down. I’m not a mind reader, just a good friend of Tindolen’s. I spent many hours at Tindolen’s jewelry shop as a boy. I used to listen to him talk for hours about his family back in Oldarmare, and most especially, about his eldest niece.”
James and Iriel both sighed and relaxed; the bard lowered his whip and said quietly, “Sorry.”
Evan let his arms drop to his side. “He’s quite proud of you, Iriel.”
The elf shrugged. “That could be, but he has many nieces and nephews. Still, I suppose I am fortunate; out of all my cousins, he sent only for me.” She smiled and her eyes brightened like emeralds. “I love living and working with humans. I’m learning so much! And Uncle has been so helpful. He got me this job working for Mr. Jones as a serving girl.” Then Evan’s words registered and her smile faded. She seemed to recognize the priest. “You’re Evan Pierce.”
Evan inclined his head. “Guilty as charged.”
She gently elbowed James. “Uncle used to send letters home about Evan’s pranks in town, James.”
“Nothing too embarrassing, I hope,” said Evan, flushing a little.
“I do not think so. But at the time, I was amazed at each new act of mischief you got yourself into. I admired your creativity, your curiosity, and your adventurous spirit.”
“Yes, well … the simple fact is I was a boy. I needed to grow up and become responsible for my actions.”
“Sounds boring,” replied Iriel, with a smile.
Evan glanced at the gem behind the glass as the elf spoke. Resting on a velvet cloth was a dark mustard topaz, round like a marble and the size of a shelled peanut.
The gem looks ordinary, but then what would a magic gem look like?
From the little Evan knew about gems, most topazes were not cut this small or this perfectly round. These characteristics alone made the gem rare and special, but that did not mean it was magical.
You can’t tell anything by the appearance. Evan grimaced and narrowed his eyes. How had a gem from the beginning of the world survived? The priest couldn’t say and he had a hard time believing it was even possible.
Evan began to turn away when he noticed James had coiled up his whip and attached it to a clip on his belt. Catching Evan’s eye, James extended his hand. “We’ve not been properly introduced. I’m James Claymont.”
“Pleased to meet you,” Evan said as he shook hands. He studied the bard a moment and noticed that, in addition to being well-groomed, James was also well dressed. He was outfitted in a gray shirt and trousers, and wore black leather boots and a black leather belt. Very sharp. “What brings you to Clearbrook?”
“A change of scenery mostly,” began James. “I worked in Bryford at the Silver Snake for five years and it was becoming old and stale. So, I decided it was time to start anew elsewhere. And you? What brings you here?”
“Rest, initially. But I didn’t know there was an Elf-gem here. I may have to change my plans now if the jewel is authentic.”
Iriel raised an eyebrow. “Of course, it’s authentic. Uncle said so.”
“So you are taking his word for it then?”
“I am; he wouldn’t lie.”
No, thought Evan, but he might not tell the whole truth. Tindolen had been known to go his own way on many town issues.
“But,” said Evan, “the only way I know that you can tell whether you have an Elf-gem is to place it next to another one.” He gestured with his hands and brought them together. “If both gems brighten, both gems are real.”
The elf shrugged. “There could be other tests.”
Perhaps, but Evan’s doubt told him otherwise. “Do you know if Tindolen put magic wards on the display case to protect it?”
“He did, why?”
“Just wondering,” said Evan. “Since professional guards are not standing watch over his gem, I was curious if he had taken any other precautions.”
“He’s done the best he can. The protection wards should stop anyone but the most powerful of spellcasters.”
“Glad to hear it. Good to meet you both.”
“Good to meet you too,” Iriel said and smiled.
“A pleasure,” James said with a wave.
Evan turned to leave. He needed to talk to Mayor Bigsbee and Tindolen. He did not relish the thought of confronting His Honor, but he had no choice. If the gem was genuine, it needed more protection and should not be on display at all. It was too important. He would need to take the gem to His Grace so that an expedition could be mounted and the other six Elf-gems located. Only then could the Crown of Power be remade and used against the dukefs.
Daniel yawned, stood, and straightened his white Qua’ril uniform. He saw light streaming into the room he shared with the other members of the Inn’s staff and realized it was almost time for guard duty.
He stretched and then spread apart his feet to assume a Qua’ril stance. With luck, he could get some exercises in before he reported to the great hall. Daniel paused and listened for the voice he had been hearing for the last two days. It was not there.
Good. Maybe whatever it was is gone.
He grimaced, and doubt played in his clear blue eyes.
Daniel began his exercises, slowly moving, defensive posture flowing into one of attack and then changing back into a position of defense again. Back and forth he moved from a defensive stance to one of attack and back again.
A voice in his head resumed as he moved. It began as a hum and grew to a low unintelligible babble. Daniel concentrated on his exercises, ignoring the noise and hoping it would go away.
Two days earlier, the voice had been unclear and indistinct, sounding like wind howling in a bad storm. The weather had been bright and sunny that day, so Daniel had dismissed the noise and concluded it was his imagination.
Fear bubbled to the surface and the lad began to shake uncontrollably. He inhaled deeply, exhaled slowly, and turned his attention to the terror he felt, applying the Qua’ril disciplines of control and focus. His fright ebbed and his shaking lessened gradually. After about a minute, he was able to continue exercising.
The voice became clearer as he proceeded with his training, just as it had for the last two days. Initially, the noise had changed from a raging storm to a distant voice gasping for air. Yesterday the voice had changed again, from a distant voice to a mournful cry.
Daniel silently wished for the noise to end, but it persisted unabated. His hands became clammy and he realized his effort at controlling his fear was beginning to wane.
He sighed and wondered why only he heard the voice. No one else around him seemed to, and this scared him too.
Am I going mad?
The voice said, Hlee. Daniel froze in mid-stride.
Hlee, the voice said again.
Maybe it is not my imagination after all.
Daniel sat on the floor and slowed his breathing. He fixed his mind on the sound. The voice burst into his brain, becoming louder and more powerful. Unbearable pain stabbed at his temples.
The lad fought to stay conscious and let his concentration lapse. The pain in his head subsided slowly, and he gave himself a moment to recover before resuming his meditation and training his attention more intensely on the voice. It became clearer and more distinct, as if it were coming from a person standing next to him.
Hlee, the voice repeated over and over again.
Daniel smiled to himself. He was not going mad. There was a voice — disembodied perhaps — calling to him. But why? And from where?
Perhaps if I meditate and apply basic Qua’ril principles, he thought, the voice might become clearer and easier to understand. But I can’t do it now; it will have to wait until I’m on guard duty. I should be able to sit in a corner of the great hall unnoticed and meditate.
He stood and yawned once more. Seconds later, Daniel ran out of the shared room to assume his post in the great hall.