The Blackfire Annals: Chasing Ghosts

By Osprey703 All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter Nine: Distant Thunder

South Yard

Carsten looked up at the axe blade, glittering evilly in the torchlight. He was about to die, and he knew it. He had never felt something so certainly in all his life. As the guard-master swung, however, the dwarf heard a curious jingling noise in his belt. Keys, he thought, and felt a surge of energy coupled with hope. An idea started to form in his head, and he immediately put it into action. First, he rolled down the stairs, striking Sadens below the knees and knocking his legs out from under him. Before the guard-master could regain his feet and his axe, Carsten had run into the yard and picked up his war sword again. Unlike before, the dwarf assumed an ox stance, preparing for a variety of attacks. His opponent delivered; the first strike came high, a vertical cut aimed at his head. Carsten’s quick thinking led him to a conclusion; the axe strike had the heavy weight of the weapon’s double head behind it, and his sword, though well-made, would probably not absorb many such hits. So, in lieu of an up-front block, Carsten settled on deflection. He sued his sword to divert the axe strike and returned with a normally eviscerating low counter. But again, Sadens one stayed down momentarily; he rose almost immediately and attacked again, his axe sweeping low for the dwarf’s leg. Carsten leapt up, avoiding the slash, but his foot caught an icy rock and he slipped. The guard-master’s axe came once more, again in a vertical stroke. Again, he rolled out of the way, and Sadens’ stroke went wide. Carsten rolled to his feet and thrust forward, his sword piercing through his armor and out his back. Instead of withdrawing it, the dwarf sliced upward, opening a massive gash in the man’s side. This time, the guard-master felt it, Carsten knew. He staggered backward, holding his side and moaning. The dwarf followed up immediately, grabbing Sadens around the throat and slamming him repeatedly against the stone staircase. The axe fell from the man’s hands, and Carsten seized his belt buckle and threw him onto the steps. As the guard-master struggled to rise, the dwarf reached down and snatched the keys from his belt. Then, for good measure, he slammed his boot against the side of Sadens’ head. Not that it did anything; the guard-master still stubbornly held on to consciousness, but he was in no position to do anything, either. The wound Carsten had inflicted had healed as though it was never there, but it seemed that wound had overwhelmed his pain tolerance. He lay on the ground, unwilling or unable to move.

Carsten had not seized the keys a moment too soon; the guards had already almost doused the fire, and they were beginning sweeps of the courtyard. Carsten descended the stone steps one by one, quickly reaching the bottom. Then he was at the postern door and frantically trying to select a key. The first four did not fit the lock, and he skipped the fifth and sixth were too small to fit the lock mechanism. The seventh and eight were the wrong shape, but the ninth did the trick, opening the door. Carsten immediately swung the gate open and stepped through, though he immediately regretted doing so.

The postern opened onto a narrow, precarious stone walkway above a steep, near-fifty-foot cliff. At the base, he could see sharp, jagged rocks, any one of which could kill him. Carefully balancing, he swung the gate shut and locked it again. Then, he began the descent. The stone surfaces had frozen over in the e, and more than once Carsten almost slipped and fell to his death. Still, his natural tenacity kept him going, and he managed to descend the rough-hewn stairs after roughly twenty minutes. At the bottom he could see the wide, snow-covered plains stretching out before him. The tunnels Issavea had marked out on the map she gave them opened to the east, about forty yards from where he was standing. Ahead, in the shadow of a small copse of trees, Carsten could see the vague outline of several people. Sighing, he sheathed his sword and broke into a run, his boots crunching in the thick blanket of snow. Here was hoping they were the others, and not a returning patrol. He had not heard of Issavea’s mean venturing frequently beyond the castle walls, but that by no means rendered such a thing impossible.

Everwinter Waste

Arcaena and her group were still waiting for any sign of other survivors. To allay her fears, or perhaps to ignore them altogether, she had begun fixing wounds on other prisoners. Even though she was low on magical power, the young dark elf did her best. Minor cuts and injuries were easy; things like full-on arrow wounds proved harder, and it was for these she reserved her healing spells. She was currently pouring magical energy into a nasty arrow wound on another elf’s shoulder.

“You ought to be careful,” she said, ending the process with a sealing spell. “Even after healing wounds, they can reopen if you treat them too roughly.” The other dark elf nodded.

“Thanks. I’ve had my share of healed injuries, so I know exactly what you mean.” The girl gently massaged her shoulder as Arcaena stood. Once again, the princess’s eyes scanned the plain, hoping for some sight or sign that Carsten was coming. Like the other times, however, she felt the bitter tide of disappointment sweep over her as she saw nothing. Dutifully, she went on to the next injured prisoner. This one was a man with several laceration wounds on his face and hands in addition to an arrow sticking out of his arm. The dark elf knelt beside him, running her fingers gently along the injury. After a brief examination, she looked up at him.

“To heal that wound properly, the arrow will have to come out,” she told him. “It will hurt quite badly.” The man shrugged, his face twisted in pain.

“Hurts like fire right now,” he replied. “Take the thing out.” Arcaena nodded, snapping the arrow in two and pulling the fletched end backward out of the wound. The man grimaced, but his muscles almost immediately relaxed.

“Thank you,” he breathed. “That’s better.” Arcaena shook her head, emerald light creeping down her fingers.

“I am not quite finished,” she murmured, eyes fixed on her work. The wound’s edges began to seal and the tissues to regenerate. Arcaena whispered the last word in the spell, and the edges of the gash sealed. “There,” she said, sighing heavily. “You should be fine. No risk of infection, now that the wound has closed. Also, I flushed it thoroughly in the event that the arrow was poisoned.” The man stared at his arm, almost disbelieving.

“That’s a proper healing and no mistake!” He breathed. “As if I’d never been shot.” Arcaena nodded and stood again. This man was the last, she realized sadly. And the time she had said they would wait was almost up. Her eyes swept the snowbound plain once more, in search of any sign of life. As this was the fourth time she had done so, she had little hope of seeing anything much. The snow all around looked undisturbed, as it had before. She was about to turn and give the order to move out when she saw him. The dwarf was running full out, his fur cloak trailing awkwardly behind him. Still, she cared not a bit how he looked. Carsten was alive, and he was coming. An excited exclamation came from among the prisoners.

“He survived!”

“That’s one lucky kid!” As he approached, however, Arcaena had to question whether he was lucky or simply stupid. His armor was pitted and gashed in several places, and blood oozed from several minor cuts on his face. She did, however, note a more serious laceration on his right shoulder. He ran until he was in the midst of the prisoners, at which point he stopped at took several seconds to catch his breath. When he had finished, he stood straight up and looked at Arcaena.

“The others are dead,” he said flatly. “We did not anticipate that there would be archers in the south tower. They fired on us while we were getting the gate up, and they killed the rest of the captives. I am truly sorry. If I had known…” Arcaena shook her head and was about to say something when one of the survivors from Carsten’s group spoke up. It was one of the dark elves, the girl who had been shot in the shoulder.

“We accepted that our task might be dangerous when we accepted it. You are not to blame because it proved so, are you?”

“Besides,” one of the dwarves put in, “We’re out, and that’s what counts.”

“About that…” a man said from the rear of the group. “What are we supposed to do now? We’ve got provisions, but we can’t just sit here.” Arcaena nodded. Moving would be logical, but where to, and with whom?

“All right,” she said, with more confidence and authority than she felt, “we escaped the prison. Now, we have to work out how to get everyone back home.” One of the man raised his hand.

“My village is right on the border, about forty miles from here. I’ve been up here before, and I know my way back.” A few other humans and elves murmured that they, too, came from that village.

“So, are we going to form groups based on home destination?” Arcaena asked. The prisoners looked at each other. One of the orcs spoke now.

“We have no permanent home to return to. If we split up that way, what becomes of us?”

“You will travel with the smallest group,” the dark elf answered. “Does anyone want to travel all together?” A few people raised their hands, but no more than five. Of the twenty-six remaining prisoners, this hardly constituted a majority. The rest of the prisoners looked around uncomfortably. “All in favor of travelling separately?” Everyone else raised their hands high. Arcaena sighed. “Then we part ways here, friends. It has been a pleasure, and I wish you all the best of luck.” The prisoners all said their separate farewells; a few tears might have been shed, but they quickly froze to the faces of those who were crying. Carsten watched them go, but he did not see them long; the snowy night enveloped their retreating forms relatively quickly. Rolf, Edessa, Thomas, Arcaena, and Carsten remained. Five people, alone in the Everwinter Waste, with enough food to last them four months at the most. Most likely less than that.

“Well,” Edessa said, sighing, “they left.”
Rolf snorted. “Are you shocked? They wanted to get home and, come to think of it, so do I. Now, are we going to sit around in the snow gossiping, or are we going to get a move on?” Arcaena shook her head.

“No need to get hostile,” she admonished. “We will have our share of strife without it. And before we go anywhere, it would be prudent to decide where exactly we make for.”

“Does it matter?” Thomas asked.

“It does,” Carsten replied. “We will by no means benefit from a shorter route if we run into a village that fell on a sparse harvest last year. For all we know, the first place we come to might have suffered exactly that.”

“Then what do you suggest?” The other dwarf challenged.

“I suggest that we decide where we plan to resupply,” Carsten retorted. “It ought to be a large village, but one fairly close to the border.”

“What difference does the size of the place make?” Edessa asked. Rolf rolled his eyes.

“Woman, how much time have you spent looking at farmland?” He asked. The Huntress bristled.

“Not much,” she snapped. “My family lacks the time or desire to spend our days staring at cows and pastures.” Rolf folded his arms.

“Well, if you had ever bothered to pay attention to the world around you, you would have realized that villages are large or small based on the amount of arable land around them. The more of an area you can cultivate, the more people you can support.” Arcaena nodded.

“Rolf is right. Size is an important factor in making this decision. Now…” the dark elf pulled out Issavea’s map and stared at it, not easy to do in the pitch dark of a winter night. “I cannot see a thing. The storm blots out even the moon.”

“What do we do, then?” Thomas asked. Carsten pointed south.

“We walk,” he answered. “That way.”

“Until what?” Edessa challenged.

“Until we find cover,” Arcaena said, pushing forward. “Or until the sun comes up. Whichever happens first.” The others watched her trudge forward. After several seconds, Carsten shrugged his shoulders and followed her, Rolf and Thomas close behind him. Edessa was the last to move; she spent nearly a minute standing there, looking back at the castle. She could not shake the feeling that, although they were now free, they had not yet escaped danger.

The Everwinter Waste was a merciless place; the wind whipped up sudden blasts of icy crystals into the faces of the five dark figures struggling through the snow. Aside from the wind whipping in their ears and the breathing of the travelers, the world was silent around them. Arcaena had pulled the fur hood over her head, and it kept a good bit of the precipitation out of her face. The others, however, did not have this luxury. While Carsten’s cloak had a hood, he had unwisely caught it in the straps of his sword sheathes, and he was not willing to stop to undo it. Thomas had chosen insulated armor, and it kept the snow out of his garments. Edessa’s garments maximized mobility, the reason for which she had chosen them, but they minimized protection. Although she was near the front of the line, Rolf, who was all the way in the back, heard her swearing under her breath. One of the curious things about him was that he seemed to be able to hear things that others could not. The cold did not really affect him, in all honesty. It never had; the world around him had stopped hitting him long ago. Suddenly, he heard a voice at his side.

“So, where are you from?” It was the red-haired dwarf. Carsten, if he recalled correctly. He had fallen back, a good distance behind the others. And he seemed to have no trouble with talking while he moved, even though the snow was up to his shins. Rolf sighed.

“Forgive me for sounding standoffish, but why do you care?” Carsten looked ahead, his face twisting into a curious half-smile.

“I care because you do not speak often,” the dwarf answered. “And, from what you do say, I know that your quiet exterior hides a busy mind. Not one devoid of activity.” Rolf found himself actually smiling at that.

“So you do pay attention,” he murmured. “I had to wonder.”

“Do you feel like talking, or would you rather I left you alone?” Carsten asked. The gray-haired man sighed. Although he was indeed a man, Carsten thought, he looked no older than twenty.

“All right, fine. I came from a village in the south, close to the sea. Bustling trade city, full of gilded images and vices.”

“Where did you fall on the spectrum, if I may ask?” Carsten queried.

“A thief,” Rolf spat, with somewhat more heat than he had intended. “And worse, one of the Abandoned.” Carsten was silent for several moments, and Rolf felt the heat rising in his cheeks. “Go ahead, say it. I know it is knocking around in your head. You can vocalize your contempt. Everyone else does.” Carsten looked at him. The anger in his eyes, had it been much more intense, might have melted snow. The feeling was understandable; the Abandoned were more than orphans. Many towns and villages had a system in place to care for widows and orphans, but even these systems ignored the Abandoned. These were true social outcasts; often left alone at later ages, these people were shunned by society and often referred to as “sons of the wind”, reflecting parental absence. With no real choice before them, the Abandoned often turned to crime or mercenary employment to make ends meet. Therefore, others often disdained, them, saying they chose this life. Those who did so often neglected to remember that they had pushed the Abandoned to that position in the first place. In rare cases, families would try adopt the Abandoned. While their familial peace was often unaffected by this, society never quite accepted the Abandoned as members.

“You know,” Carsten said, “I was not going to say anything of the kind.”

Rolf raised an eyebrow. “Really?” He challenged. “I doubt that.” Carsten’s eyes narrowed.

“That is not true at all,” he answered. “I had three siblings who started as Abandoned. I would never disparage either them or you. You cannot judge someone because of where they started life. In fact, my mother was one of the Abandoned, too.” Rolf lowered his eyes. He had not stopped walking through the conversation, but they had kept a respectful distance from the others.

“Sorry,” he said. “I have no idea what came over me. I just…lashed out.” The dwarf shrugged.

“I know how you feel. People judge the Abandoned based on what they do, and they never consider that the reason that they turn to crime is that they have no other recourse. But you said that you were Abandoned. Did you know your parents?” Rolf shook his head.

“I never did. I was far too young; an infant, in fact. Later, I learned that I was brought to the orphanage in our city, but they would not take me.”

“If they would not care for you, someone had to ensure that you would survive,” Carsten reasoned. The gray-haired man nodded.

“There was a…group in the city that adopted me as a member. The leader even offered to adopt me as his son.”

“Did you accept?” Rolf shook his head.

“I did not,” he answered. “How could I? They were criminals, and I knew it. I got involved at a young age, and I wanted to escape as soon as I could.”

“Then who were your…” Carsten searched for the right word. “…caretakers?”

“I sought out a wealthy family and served in their house in lieu of working with the criminals. My former…allies did not joyfully accept my leaving and tried to bring me back. Therefore, the family decided to adopt me instead.” Carsten’s mind was whirling; for a wealthy family or group to simply adopt an Abandoned man with little background information on him was unheard of. “They treated me well, as a son. But people always gave me strange looks, no matter where I went or what I did.”

“Why?” Carsten asked. “Men do not always need a reason to be unkind, but did they ever give you one?” Rolf shook his head.

“To this day, I cannot understand it. The people at the orphanage did not even want me as a child, and almost no one has since.”

“But something else bothers you.” It was neither phrased as a question nor tendered as a topic for debate, and Rolf did not like it.

“How would you know?” He asked. The dwarf shrugged.

“The one thing you have not discussed is the matter of your biological family. I believe that in part may contribute to your general animosity.” Rolf sighed, his breath crystalizing as it left his lips.

“I suppose you are right,” he said. “I often wonder what was wrong with me that my parents would leave me like that. Hello,” Rolf said, suddenly interrupting his train of though. “I think we found what we were looking for.” Indeed, the others had stopped up ahead in the midst of a large, elevated ring of toppled stones. The dell looked for all the world like an angry giant had simply thrown the stones to the ground in frustration. Arcaena turned around, looking at the two of them.

“We stop here,” she said simply. “It keeps out most of the wind, and we should at least be warm here.”

Edessa looked around. “I dislike this,” she said. “It is far too open. We would be vulnerable from almost every point of approach.” Thomas shook his head and took off his pack.

“You worry too much,” he told the Huntress. “Anyone stupid enough to be out in this weather would be frozen to death before it ever reached us. Besides, we could see them coming.” Carsten leaned against one of the overturned rocks.

“I cannot believe I am saying this,” he began, “but I agree with Edessa. This just feels bad.”

Arcaena shrugged. “I do not really care how it feels. We are exhausted, and cannot go much farther without at least taking a small rest.” She, too, undid her pack and removed her bedroll. “I would help you build a fire, but there are no trees that we could cut.” Thomas shrugged.

“Then line up the bedrolls,” he suggested. “Males on one side of a stone and females on the other. Have the males each take three hour watches.”

“Good idea,” Carsten said. “I would be happy to start on watch.” They all laid out their bedrolls, although Arcaena and Edessa decided to move at least four meters away from the others simply for privacy’s sake. Carsten took a seat on an angular stone, his eyes peering into the blackness. As Rolf rolled up in his sleeping bag, he looked up at Carsten.

“About what I said earlier…” he began. Carsten turned to face him.

“What about it?” he asked.

“I just wanted to say that the reason that being Abandoned bothers me is that everyone except my adoptive family treated me like an outcast. They always acted like there was something wrong with me.” Carsten nodded. Come to think of it, the dwarf’s youngest sister had always been seen the same way. No matter how much love and affection the family showed her, she always felt like an outsider.

“And you believed them?” Rolf shook his head.

“I no longer see clearly what I am to believe or why,” he said simply. “Life and the world used to be so uncomplicated and straightforward.”

Carsten shook his head. “It never is, Rolf. Forgive my saying so, but that is just as much a part of coming of age as being a man physically. A word of advice, though: never let the world define you.”

“That is easier to say than to do,” Rolf replied. “How can you not listen to what the world says to you? Or about you, for that matter? Ignoring words is not so simple.” Carsten laughed as he pulled his bedroll out of his pack.

“I never said it was easy. But simple? It is that, my friend. Look at me. My great-grandfather killed his second-born son with his own hands. My grandfather was murdered as he travelled home from a family gathering. And for all my life I have been told time and again that I come from a family of liars and traitors. So listen when people point out your faults. But never, ever let them tell you that you are bound by what your parents or ancestors did. Or who they were. As much as you might feel it, you are not as they are.”

“What choice do you have?” Rolf asked. “Other people shape your life.”

“But they do not have to shape you and you should not let them,” Carsten said. “You never have to accept the hand that fate deals you, ever. There is always hope, even if you cannot see it.”

Rolf shook his head. “I wish that were easy.”

“Nothing good is,” Carsten replied. “Now you should get some sleep. Morning will come a lot sooner than you think.”

Frostspire Castle

King Shargann sat calmly in the banquet hall, sipping the wine Issavea’s servants had brought him. In truth, he did it as more of a formality than anything else; he hardly tasted or felt anything anymore. It was one of the side effects of the repeated use of his people’s powers. The Mierthyn, as they were called, had a unique set of skills. Although they appeared as normal humans, they were actually something much more deadly. They possessed the ability to dissolve into any shadows present, and to travel great distances when they did so. Also, they could use the darkness around them to heal injuries, drawing strength from pure night. While their powers waxed strongest at midnight, and they were virtually immortal, they had several weaknesses. One of these was sunlight; the absence of shadows into which they could vanish or from which they could draw strength made them vulnerable. Also, weapons forged out of shilthain could inflict serious harm. The longer the Mierthyn lived, the less they felt, part of the side effect of drawing on shadows to sustain their lives. Shargann was unusual among them in that he had reached out from his people’s domain in the north to Issavea in the south. When he had explained the reason for his alliance, she had been willing to join his endeavor. The black-haired and violet-eyed king was watching Issavea’s men as they rushed about the castle. He knew why they were going in all directions, and one thing they did not: that he and their mistress had planned it so. The sorceress currently sat across from him, quietly watching her men as they worked feverishly.

“They are gone,” she murmured, staring into space. “They escaped long ago.” She could no longer see them clearly, but what she could discern told her that her men threatened them no longer.

Shargann nodded. “Yes, as we planned. Having that dwarf knock my nephew down, however, was not how we orchestrated this.”

Issavea looked down, her eyes half-closed. “I know,” she answered. “But nothing about those five has gone exactly as we planned.”

“That is no excuse,” the shadow king responded. “You should have foreseen this.”

“I cannot predict every tiny detail,” the sorceress protested. “That was unexpected.”

“Is it that you did not see it, or that you hoped that you could end our alliance?” Shargann queried. “Since the first day, you have been unwilling to share your reservations with me.”

“Do you not feel pangs of guilt?” Issavea asked. “What we have done could destroy all five of them.” And still might, she thought. It often seemed cruel to her, machinating like this. Using people might be necessary to accomplish their goals, but that made it no easier to justify.

Shargann nodded. “But I doubt you concern yourself about all five of them.”

The sorceress looked at him, her unseeing white eyes glistening. “No, I do not. Are you not concerned with the effect this could have on those two?”

“What we have done is merely an earlier realization of what you foresaw as inevitable,” he pointed out. “What you did here only accelerated an already-commenced process.”

“It is still not right to play with them like pawns,” she admonished.

“More like knights,” Shargann amended. “They are more vital than anyone else. And you allowing them to escape will provide an opening later on.”

“Should we have warned them?” Issavea asked. Shargann shook his head.

“What would it have profited?” He returned. “They would not believe us now. Give them time. While on this topic, what have your agents reported?”

Issavea frowned. “Nothing of interest. Small troop movements, but no naval activity. They are far removed.”

“Anything else?” Shargann asked. Issavea hesitated.

“Yes. I believe they may have made overtures to our mutual problem children in the north.”

Shargann smiled at that. He had already heard this, as he had his own agents on the ground. Nevertheless, he had wondered whether or not Issavea would share the truth with him. It pleased him that she had in fact done so. Lately, her reservations had created doubts in himself of how far she was truly willing to go. “Any activity on that end?”

Issavea shook her head again. “What is there to report? They are fractured, leaderless. As they have ever been. Did you think that the Free would leave so serious a threat with any tools to resist them?”
“Ironic,” Shargann remarked, “given that the Vanahym are the least of their worries. And the worst part is that they can see neither threat.”

“Still,” Issavea said, “I cannot help but wonder whether we in fact chose wisely.”

“What do you mean?”

She hesitated. “They seem so…unremarkable when you examine them individually. The dark elf, for example. She has too much turmoil within her. By the time she realizes her true importance, it may be too late. The gray one knows nothing of his true power or, if he suspects, he dares not confront it. The other dwarf worries about his inheritance, seeing himself as unworthy to take his father’s place. Ironically, that is the only thing holding him back. The Huntress is impulsive to the extreme, and her sheer lack of patience may lead to all their deaths.”

“And the dwarf?” Shargann asked. “You did not speak of him.”

“He does not seem like much, I grant,” she said. “And now he is not. But soon, very soon, he will make face his demons.”

“And then?” The dark king asked.

“Either he becomes the stay of all the others, or he will break utterly,” she answered. “I believe the latter is more likely, given what is to come.”

“And if he does not?” Shargann questioned.

“Then he will cease to be a man or a warrior,” she whispered. “I cannot clearly see the future and yet…” Her eyes narrowed. “The other,” the sorceress said finally.

“What?”

“The other,” Issavea repeated. “Carsten’s cousin. He may be the way in we need, the one variable we can control.”

“And how, exactly, do you intend to control him?” Shargann asked. “From what I have heard, he seems more than a little…unyielding.”

“The way every man can be controlled,” Issavea replied, her eyes gleaming with a crafty light. “I shall send a message to my niece, and then to him.”

“What makes you think he will listen?”

“He covets power, even if he loathes to admit such a thing. The dwarf fears for the security of those he cares about, and believes that victory can be had in strength. And we will make him strong.”

Karkopolis

Royal Halls of House Blackfire

The dark elves were often called the mainstay of the Outlands, and in many ways it was true. They were by far the wealthiest of the peoples that inhabited the less-habitable outer regions. Also, they faced little discrimination among the Free; their exile had been by choice rather than by force. No one quite remembered what had galvanized them to retire underground and seek the riches of the earth, but no one interfered or complained either. Also, being the religious center of the Outlands helped at least partially endear them to their neighbors. Their city, the underground trade center known as Karkopolis, was in utter opposition to Andrion, the light elven capitol. Their reclusive Free cousins had merged their homes with the towering trees of the redwood forest and linked them with rope bridges. They arose with the sun and slept when it set. In Karkopolis, all light was artificial, created by torches and luminescent crystals. The dark elves could extinguish these lights when they chose, and the dark of the earth would return. At its center rose a tall, elliptical building that everyone in the Outlands would have recognized as the Temple of Rebirth. Behind it stood the more angular palace, home of House Blackfire and the largest fortress over the border. Its current royal occupant, Oriem Blackfire, was standing on his balcony, brooding. His eldest daughter, Arcaena, had left fourteen months ago and had not been heard from since. And this had occurred after she had defied his wishes and declined an offer of marriage from Dothnae Redbark, whom her father believed to be worthy of her hand in marriage. Although the rejection had been against his wishes, her departure had not been so. She had asked to travel with members of the Thornroot House, a noble family that had helped his for generations. That they had not yet returned troubled him. Add to that the rumors he had been hearing of voiceless, merciless marauders in the north, and he had good reason for concern. Suddenly, footsteps behind him interrupted his contemplations.

“Your majesty?” The voice came from a new servant at the place, one whose name had not yet become familiar to the king.

“I do not recall asking to be disturbed,” he murmured.

The dark elf female hesitated. “Your highness, the members of House Thornroot have returned. I think you will want to hear the news they bring.” In an instant, Oriem had turned around and bolted past her. While running was certainly not a dignified activity for a nobleman, he was past caring. Any news of his daughter was worth breaking protocol.

Luthe Thornroot was standing inside the gatehouse of the royal palace, for once without his sister. Oriem came down himself, still running. The sight of the king moving at such speed rendered the guards speechless for a full two minutes. He reached Luthe and paused for several moments to catch his breath. After he had done so, he stood up, trying to reclaim some of the regal bearing expected of a monarch.

“You have returned,” he said simply. “Where are the others?” Luthe looked up at him, a haunted look in his eyes.

“Can we go someplace private? I do not think you want to hear what I have to say.”

In the king’s chambers, Luthe told Oriem the whole story. About how he had hired Carsten, about the fight with the snow phantoms, about their trek north, and then the kidnapping. Then he detailed how they had been sent on their way by the kidnappers and told brusquely not to follow.

“And then?” Oriem asked.

“We did as instructed,” Luthe replied. “We did not dare risk them harming Arcaena, and therefore we left. They threatened to kill us on the spot if we did otherwise.”

“Where did you go from there?” Oriem asked.

“A small village to the south,” he answered. “The citizens gave us provisions for the journey. We did stay for a week to recuperate.”

“Could you lead a force back there?” Oriem asked. Luthe looked up.

“No,” he said, tears forming in his eyes. “You do not understand. We barely escaped the village. My sister lies in the castle infirmary now, at death’s door. The raiders came from the north, riding wolves. Or I think they were wolves; they were larger than any I have ever seen.”

“What did they do?” Oriem queried.

“They razed it,” Luthe whispered. “They burned that village to the ground.”

“What did they take?” The king asked. “There must have been something of great value there.”

“Nothing save lives,” Luthe said bitterly. “They did it of their own depravity.”

“Then we shall avenge them,” Oriem declared. “We will claim justice for your sister.”

“No,” Luthe said again. “You misunderstand. I came back to warn you. I believe Carsten and your daughter were important to their kidnappers somehow, but they planned an escape, I am sure. Arcaena told me that she would return to you, and I believed her.”

“Then where is the danger?”

“The raiders,” Luthe replied. “There were only sixty of them, but that was enough. They were huge, at least seven feet tall. Their skin was dark grey or black, their eyes blue or red. They had long, mane-like hair down their backs, and they wore no armor.”

“They sound like nothing more than savages,” Oriem said confidently. “Wherein lies the danger?”

“In their strength,” Luthe replied. “Only three fell when they burned that village. And they destroyed the garrison of men-at-arms in five minutes.” Oriem’s heart sank. Men-at-arms were professional soldiers; war was their business if they stood no chance in battle…

“Then why have you come?” Oriem asked.

“To tell you that your daughter cannot return,” Luthe replied. “Not with them blocking the way. More came after they burned the village, and they are systematically wiping out cities and towns in the north. I fear that there is great likelihood that they will find your daughter first.” Oriem shook his head.

“They will not,” he replied. “Go get some rest. Guard!” He called. A dark elf soldier was at the door in a moment. In another, he had opened it and stood stiffly at attention.

“I am here to serve, your majesty.”

“Tell my cooks to get this boy some food. Then, instruct Pherne to go to the infirmary and tend to Ciara Thornroot. She will know who to look for.”

“Is that all, my king?”

“No, it is not. Assemble our swiftest Airknights and order them to saddle our best steeds. I will lead them north without delay.” The soldier bowed and turned away.

“As you command, my liege,” he said. As the soldier left, Oriem had to wonder about his daughter. Perhaps she was rebellious, and maybe too headstrong for her own good. But he loved her, and he hoped that she was all right. She was so much like her mother, and he could not bear the thought of losing Tywana again.

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