Authors: M. R. Mathias
By the time King Mikahl arrived, more than forty Salayan soldiers and a dozen red-robed priests had been killed. Several of the acolytes and novices confirmed this. Worse was that the high priest had gotten away with the staff. And even worse than that were the bodies of the thirteen virgin girls murdered in a ceremony to reanimate the sewn-together body of the Dragon Queen. The corpses, both old and new, lay rotting in the clearing, filling the air with the horrible stench of death.
The High King was angry beyond words with what he found. He spent long hours interrogating the survivors about where the high priest might have fled, but none of them would say. The senior priest who would have actually known had been cut down by Prince Raspaar’s men. Mikahl wasn’t too worried about the tales of the reanimated Dragon Queen. He was more concerned with getting the staff away from the absconded priest of Kraw.
“What should we do with all these red robes?” Prince Raspaar asked Mikahl later.
They were back on Salaya looking at the strange circle of fairy trees that refused to die.
“Borina is not part of my kingdom,” Mikahl said. “Nor is Salaya. I would punish the novices severely, but let the families of those thirteen girls decide the fate of the priests.”
“It won’t be pretty.”
“Nor will it bring those girls back to their mothers,” Mikahl said flatly. “I have to worry about this rogue priest now. I have to get that staff away from him, and if he has somehow managed to revive that bitch queen, then there is a whole new keg of worms to deal with.”
“This staff is dangerous, then?” Prince Raspaar asked.
“Aye.” Was all Mikahl could think to say.
Captain Biggs, like most of the men on his crew, couldn’t get over the elven girl’s wild yellow eyes. Their stares, when she first came aboard, made her uncomfortable, so she stayed below deck for the short journey to O’Dakahn.
Once they were tied to the dock, Oarly sent a deckhand into the city to procure fresh clothes for the girl. He asked for a hooded cloak, so that she could hide her elven features, and even spent several golden coins to hire a carriage to carry them to Kander Keep. They planned to catch a river boat that would carry them all the way upstream to the fork. From there it was only a half-day’s ride to Dreen.
The whole journey would take four or five days, depending on how strong the current was versus the strength of the water mage. The Kahna River was as unpredictable as a witch’s mood. Phen and Oarly explained all of this to the elven girl, who still couldn’t remember her own name. When they were done, she recounted the one thing she could remember, which was the strange ceremony performed by priests wearing red robes as she looked down from the sky.
Phen, feeling foolish for doing so, made a sending to Cresson. If the girl had really seen what she said, then the High King would need to know.
Cresson’s response to the elven girl’s claim surprised Phen.
“The High King has already gone to Borina to deal with the matter. There is also a standing order for you and Master Oarly to report to Lord Gregory immediately.”
“What is that about?” Phen asked the distant mage.
“I don’t know, Phen. A giant named Borg came to Dreen. A real giant, with a pack of great wolves. I overheard him talking to King Mikahl. The giant gave him a scroll from Sir Hyden Hawk himself. The next day, the High King made the order for you to report here immediately.” Cresson paused only to catch his breath. “They found some undead men, left over from Pael’s army. I am readying to travel to Westland to aid Lord Spyra in tracking them down.”
Phen had quit listening when he heard Hyden’s name. When Cresson finally stopped speaking, Phen said, “Tell Lord Gregory that we are leaving O’Dakahn this moment. We will sleep along the way. And Cresson—” Phen paused to see if the castle mage was paying attention. “Don’t tell anyone, other than Lord Gregory or the High King, about the elven girl. Do you understand?”
Cresson seemed displeased at having to keep his mouth shut, but he agreed. After a brief parting courtesy, Phen ended the sending.
He was so excited to get back, he didn’t bother to put a cloak over himself as he followed Oarly and the robed elven girl off the ship. Without a care, he strolled down the dock to their carriage. When they saw him, the people of O’Dakahn, hundreds of them, stopped what they were doing and stared. Heads bowed in respect, some even took a knee.
“What is that all about?” the elf asked Oarly from under her hood.
“Marble Boy here rode a dragon into this city and freed these people from Ra’Gren’s slavery.”
“King Mikahl, King Jarrek, and even you were there, Oarly,” Phen replied. “I didn’t do anything by myself. All I mostly did was hang onto Claret.”
Oarly stopped them midway down the plank-walk. “No, lad.” Oarly’s voice was serious and held much reverence. “You and Claret saved all of us. We were about to be crushed by the Dakaneese soldiers, and those slimy skeeks outside the city wall.”
“I barely knew what was happening,” Phen argued as he herded them back into motion. “Claret did it all.”
Oarly leaned over and whispered to the elf, “He’s being modest because he likes you, I think.”
Once again, Phen found himself feeling the urge to blush, but his stony flesh wouldn’t allow it. He found that he wished he’d remembered to put on boots, gloves, and a cloak, so that he wouldn’t attract so much attention, too. Now the people on the streets were staring at him, and would until they were well out of the city. He was thankful that Oarly had gotten a covered carriage for them to travel in. The eyes of so many made him feel uncomfortable and strange. He was certain that if he didn’t appear as a marble-skinned freak, his heroic status would draw far less attention.
“At least the way out of the city will be clear,” Oarly said, as if Phen’s discomfort pleased him. “They always part the sea of people for Marble Boy to pass through.”
“You’re abominable,” the elven girl said, moving from Oarly’s side of the coach to Phen’s as the boy got in. “I think he is just jealous.” She hooked her arm in Phen’s. “Not only are you taller and more handsome than the dwarf, you don’t smell like a wine-soaked goat.”
Even Oarly had to laugh at that one, but when the laughter died down, and the two sitting across from him were looking at the overcrowded cesspool of humanity that was O’Dakahn, he sniffed at himself to see if he really stank. Nearly gagging, he decided he would take a bath at Kander Keep. In the meantime, he decided he would do what he always did. He pulled a flask from his boot and proceeded to get drunk.
King Mikahl noticed a strange look in the eyes of one of the monks as he spoke to Prince Raspaar. When he mentioned that an elven girl had been found in the marshes, a girl who had supposedly seen the red-robed priests and the dark creatures they had released, a certain monk looked at his feet and hurried away. Mikahl didn’t make a scene. Instead, he approached the monk later, when the man was in his private quarters.
“Tell me what you know of the elven girl,” Mikahl said. “Our conversation will be in confidence, for there are far worse creatures, and more dark things liable to come calling, if I cannot put a stop to this.”
The monk took a long time contemplating his response. “She is safe, then?” he asked.
“She is in good hands, and in the process of being escorted to the city of Dreen.”
“Dreen sits at the edge of the Evermore Forest, no?”
“Yes,” Mikahl replied impatiently. “Now tell me what you know of her.”
“I cannot betray her confidence, but I can tell you the rest.” The monk glanced at a long, black, hanging tapestry with the symbol of a tree emblazoned on it, and mumbled a short prayer. “Only because I feel it in my heart that your intentions are true and have your word that this conversation will be kept in confidence, will I speak to you.” He smiled somberly. “After all, King Mikahl, you and your sword started all of this.
“A few months ago, nine elves came here to study the blooming fairy trees. They traveled in secret across your lands. The elven girl’s name is Lady Telgra. I stress Lady as her title, for she is older than you and I both, though she appears to be half as young as either of us. She had a premonition, a dream while she slept among the trees. Your mage recounted the vision to you true, save for the fact that she didn’t see this happening physically; she saw it in a vision. She also knew that the stench of death wafting on the wind from Borina was making the trees ill. The elves cast a powerful protective spell. The circle of trees you see that are still thriving is the very circle their bodies made when the spell was cast. The wyverns came, and there was something bigger, too. Lady Telgra and an elven guard were the only two who survived. She was badly wounded, and both elves refused to let the kingdom folk know that they were here. The guard helped us bury the other elves and then left the island on a small boat.” He paused and seemed overcome with sadness. “No others were found with her?”
“No,” Mikahl answered. It burned his blood to a boil that the elves were so foolish. They had been this way about helping to fight Pael’s undead army. At Vaegon’s burial, they were too high and mighty to stand with Hyden Hawk and him while one of the bravest beings to ever lived was put into the earth. If he had been told immediately after the attack, he would have been able to face down the high priest and gain possession of the staff, but the elves were too good to call for the help of men.
“I only ask about more survivors because one of our monks, a simpleton named Dostin, was seen leaving with the two elves. I had hoped to learn that all three had survived the storm.”
“Why would they take a human with them, if they didn’t want the humans to know they were ever here?” Mikahl asked.
“Dostin and Lady Telgra became friends while the elves were on Salaya.” The monk shrugged. “I can’t answer that question. Already I fear I may have betrayed the trust of the elves.”
“No,” Mikahl corrected. “You did what was wise, and I appreciate your candor.”
Mikahl had no idea what all of it meant. He couldn’t believe that a race whose people lived for hundreds and hundreds of years could be so ignorant and arrogant. He finally had to force it all out of his mind as he rode his flaming bright horse over the Isle of Borina again. He spent long hours flying low, searching for any symbols in the earth, or any other sign of an open portal. He was relieved to find none, but the relief only lasted until he realized that no one knew where the high priest had gone. That meant that no one had any idea where he might try to breach the barrier to the Nethers.
After a while he forced even that out of his mind and began to wonder about Phen. How that boy and the dwarf wound up finding the elven girl in the marshes he would never know. He didn’t relish telling Hyden Hawk that the staff was still missing, and that instead of answers, he would be returning with more questions. He felt as if he had somehow failed his old friend.
As he left the island behind for the journey back to Dreen, he began trying to reason out where the high priest might try to hide.
Who would possibly welcome him? It was only after he had passed the blue of the ocean and was flying over the dingy brown expanse of the marshes that it came to him.
“Two men, one very large, but with feet small for his size, and the other man short and wide, were here with her,” Corva said, studying the trampled-down mud and grass where Phen had built his fire in the marshes.
“How do you know all of that, Corva?” Dostin asked slowly with eyes full of both skepticism and wonder. His expression seemed to teeter between belief and total disbelief of the elf’s findings.
“Footprints, Dostin,” Corva said. “Come with me.” He led them down the trampled and hacked trail that went where Telgra had washed ashore.
“See there.” Corva pointed to the obvious boot heel marks in the soft earth. “See how the steps are really close together.”
Dostin nodded as he studied them intensely.
“They are close together because the man in those boots had very short legs.” Corva pointed to a more widely spaced set of tracks. “See how deep those prints are? It’s because the man who made them is extremely heavy, or maybe he is wearing armor. I doubt it’s protective gear, though. Armor out here will get you killed faster than it will help you.”
“Why?” Dostin asked, completely forgetting his lesson on tracking.
Corva chuckled. It had been like this the whole two days since the storm. Dostin was scared for Lady Telgra and trying to keep his mind occupied. Corva found answering the monk’s silly questions helped him to stay focused, so he did his best to not get frustrated.
“Because the weight of armor will sink you in the mud,” Corva said as he knelt down to study the depression where Telgra had lain. “If you fell in the water, you would drown because you couldn’t get out of the stuff.”
“Oh,” Dostin huffed. “So you think she is all right?”
“When you asked me that this morning I was stretching the truth when I said yes, but from what I have seen here, she was found by two men and was taken from this rise in a flat boat. They probably went to a bigger vessel, maybe-” He tensed, straining to listen.
Dostin saw his sudden jerk to attention and tried to listen as well. “What is it?” he whispered.
“Down now!” Corva hissed, indicating for Dostin to get on his belly.
Corva swiftly and silently put an arrow to the string. He squatted down so that his head was just below the top of the marsh grass. What he was hearing, he could not say, but he was sure that something large was quickly coming toward them.
Dostin tensed. It was clear he heard it now, too. Corva was ready to shush him when the monk started to ask what it was.
Corva’s heart hammered in his chest as the sound of speech came to his keen ears. The language wasn’t one he had ever heard before. It wasn’t even close to human. It was broken with hisses and gurgling growls. He chanced a peek up over the grass and was disheartened to see a huge, four-legged lizard with several armed lizard-men riding its back. They were headed right for the sailboat that had carried Dostin and him to the rise. If he’d been alone, he could have fled easily, but a glance down at Dostin made him cringe. The monk wasn’t nearly fast enough, or smart enough, to survive out in this type of terrain for very long. That meant Corva had to fight, at least until he and Dostin could get back on the boat and away.