The Redemption of Erâth: Book Three, Chapter Two

Chapter Two: Rumor

It was many days that Elven trekked alone, and the solitude was often unbearable. He would not return to the waters of the lake, for he knew not how to make a raft of his own, and did not wish to return to those used by the Hochträe. He also was wary of watercraft in general, and so kept to the borders of the lake by foot.

After nearly a week, there came a place where the lake began to grow a current, and Elven realized the lake was emptying itself into river almost a quarter of a mile wide. Luckily the river’s course seemed to continue in the general southerly direction that he had been following all along, and so he was spared the trouble of fording the fast and deep waters.

All this while, Elven had become wary of all that surrounded him, from the trees to the plants and even the streams that crossed his path here and there. He still had no thoughts on what had caused the deaths of the Hochträe, nor why he had been spared, but he began to look upon every herb and root as poisonous, and rationed himself to what provisions they had carried with them—dried meats, mostly, which were becoming less and less. For several days he even tried to go without drinking for fear that there was something in the water, but eventually his thirst conquered him, and when he did not begin to cough or doze off he admitted to himself that at least the waters in the land were not tainted.

He would not even hunt, for fear there was something in the flesh of the animals of that place, though he saw Sonora catch and eat many mice and rodents without ailment. He grudgingly thanked Elỳn for having once shown him and Brandyé how to survive on plants alone, and when the dried meats ran out and his hunger became unbearable, he uprooted several tubers, stewed them to a mush and came to the conclusion that it was probably not the plants that had stricken the Hochträe either.

So time went on, and Elven was left daily to his own thoughts. Often he would think of Talya, and sometimes of Brandyé, but other times his mind wandered to darker places, and he remembered the shadowed figure he had seen—or had he imagined it?—the night the Hochträe had died. He recalled Brandyé having spoken of shadowed figures in places he had called dreams, and he wondered if he might not have been subject to a dream himself. He recalled the chill in the air at the sight of the figure, the sense of loss that had filled the space between them, and he knew in his heart that it had been an omen: a portent of the Hochträe’s doom.

Elven was of a sturdy mind, however, and would not allow himself to linger on such thoughts for long. If the figure had been real, he reckoned, and if it had some need of him, it would approach him again. If it had not, then there was no use contemplating it at all. After a while there was no sign of the figure, and so he let the thought fall and did not consider it again.

As the mountains fell, the river began to meander amongst low hills, and slowly began to track westward. Elven was uncertain, but he thought that Vira Weitor might be along a more eastward line, but he was unwilling to leave the familiarity of the large river. There was also the thought that, if not the great city of black stone, there was likely to be at least a village or town along this great stream at some point, and if so, there would be a road for him to follow, and people whose counsel he could seek.

And so Elven left behind the higher mountains to the east in favor of the rolling hills and plains of the west, and his going was made far easier. The thick pine forests gave way to gentle woods, and each night he would camp by the riverside, eat and drink, and felt surprisingly calm for the first time in many weeks.

Then, nearly four months after he had set out from the Hochträe’s mountain realms, Elven came across a dry stone wall in the middle of a field, and his heart leapt for joy for it was a sign of humanity: that here, at some point, another living body had once stood. The wall was but a ruin—untended in many ages, and only a few feet long—but Elven’s pace nonetheless quickened, and the following day, he came across yet another wall, this time in full repair. Even better, there were sheep on the other side of this wall, and he knew his salvation was near.

Elven knew now that a farm was at hand, but he knew not in which direction the farmhouse might lie, so he began to follow the wall, which after many miles turned a corner and continued onward to the west. Over a hill it led, and as Elven reached the summit, he looked down and wept, for below him lay stretched out a home and several barns, and there were people amongst them, tending to their work.

From over his shoulder flew Sonora, eager to inspect these new folk, and at her overhead appearance several of the folk looked up to see Elven standing atop the hill, and called out to him. Despite himself, Elven could but grin, for he understood their words, and with a sudden bolt he began to run down the hill toward them.

To his immense fortune, the farm folk were friendly, and grasped his arms and led him to a bench outside the main farmhouse. Swiftly he was brought ale and bread, and at their scent a hunger he had hitherto ignored stole over him, and he ate and drank for many minutes in silence like a ravenous beast.

There was much bustling and whispering as he ate, but suddenly as he tore into his last piece of bread the folk fell silent, and then a figure stood before him and Elven knew this was the master of the farm. He swallowed his bite and looked up into lined, but not unkind, eyes.

“Ye’re a long way from anywhere, traveller,” the man said, “with nought but a donkey and a bird. Where d’ye hail from?”

Elven recognized in his voice the lilted accent of Erârün, and knew he could not be far from the great capital city. “I’ve come from the mountains in the north,” he replied, choosing to forgo a more lengthy history of his origins. “I was with a large number of men, but … they fell, some time ago. By a great lake. Do you know it?”

“Aye, I’ve heard of the great lake. The Ütherschae River flows from it, it’s said. But nought lives there but beasts!”

“And beasts alone live there still. All my party are dead, to a disease I have never encountered.” At his words the farmer seemed to retract, and Elven pursued, “I don’t have the illness myself—it struck these men down in less than two days, and it has been weeks since I left their … their remains.”

“What were the signs?” the farmer asked.

Elven shook his head. “Nothing but a cough; then they fell asleep … and would not wake.” He looked up into the man’s face with suddenly fierce emotion. “I’m trained as a healer, and I could do nothing!”

For a long while the farmer seemed to consider Elven and his words. Finally, he said, “Ye seem healthy enough to me, though I’m no healer myself. Thin, perhaps—in need of a good meal and a bath!—but I’ve seen ill before, and ye’re not it.” He stretched a hand out to Elven. “I’m Jacob.”

Elven took his hand, and allowed himself to be pulled to his feet. “Elven,” he returned. “This is your farm?”

“All ye see,” Jacob replied. “Come—let’s get you clean, fed and rested.”

In the end, Elven stayed with Jacob and his family for a week, by the end of which he was starting to feel much more his old self. Jacob’s wife, Martha, had brought him a looking glass, and Elven had been astonished to see the pale, gaunt face and thick, scraggly whiskers staring back at him. But they brought him hot water and a sharp blade, and when he could once again feel the skin on his cheek, he began to feel more whole.

For a week also he grieved the passing of the men of the Hochträe. They had had families, he knew, and folk who cared for them, and they might never know their fate. To this end he wrote a note, addressed to Nisha, in which he described how fortunate he had been to know them, and how mournful their passing was. He did not know how the Hochträe would receive the news, for they had not struck him as a people to overly mourn death, but in his heart he knew they deserved to know.

He was at first reluctant to ask Sonora to bear the message, however; he did not blame the bird for her failure to deliver his note to Talya, but he was worried something might happen to her in her passage over the Üthervaye and the Reinkrag mountains. This was a new consideration for him, for always he had trusted the bird to know her way and to care for herself. But with such sudden death afar in the mountains, he imagined her drinking from a tainted stream and falling to the same fate as his traveling kin. In the end, however, Sonora seemed more than willing to bear his message, and the awe with which the farmhands regarded the bird and her talent kindled in him a kind of pride, and he could not deny the urge to show off.

All the while, though, he felt the pressing passage of time, and when his week had passed, he spoke to Jacob of his intention to make for Vira Weitor.

“None here’s been there,” Jacob said, “and I couldn’t rightly tell ye how far ye’d need to go. It’s to the south, and the east of here, I know as much … but there’s a village a day’s walk south where ye’d get better directions, I’m sure. Wutherford, it’s called, and there’s an inn there called the Dancing Sticks. Ask for  Abbey—he knows the land here better than any.”

“I can’t thank you enough for your kindness, and your generosity,” Elven told him. “It’s been an age since I’ve known such pleasantries as bacon and eggs for breakfast!”

“Ye’ve had an interesting life, from the few tales ye’ve told us,” Jacob acknowledged. “I hope ye find your lady, and your friend, Brandyé; he sounds like he needs more help than he knows.”

Elven could not agree more and laughed at Jacob’s words, though the feeling was tainted with concern for Brandyé’s fate, and the twinge of guilt he felt at having left him.

A twinge was all it was, though, for Elven was practical and knew his friend would have gone to his fate, with or without him. What he needed to concern himself with now was what was in his power, and finding Talya was such. He set out early in the morning while the mists were still low, with a clean cloak and a tall walking stick and a full pack, all courtesy of Jacob and his wife. He felt almost at ease as he set out down the dirt track, and resolved to put the tragedy and death of the past months firmly behind him.

The day passed in calm and in silence, and Elven discovered that Jacob had a good reckoning of distance for the first homes of Wutherford appeared just as the clouded skies were beginning to darken for the night. It was a small village, by his reckoning; perhaps forty or fifty families lived there cosily, and he imagined it boasted little trade such as towns like Bridgeden, or even Daevàr’s Hut. Nonetheless, there were folk about when he walked into the village’s center, where there stood a solitary well and a trough. The people were happy enough to guide Elven to the Dancing Sticks, though they seemed distant to him, and he recalled the subdued nature of the other towns of Erârün he had passed through.

If the folk of Wutherford were subdued, the inside of the Dancing Sticks was yet more so. Far from the raucous noise of the Burrow Wayde that he recalled from his youth, the Dancing Sticks was a dark and low-lit tavern, what conversations there were being carried out in furtive whispers. A fire popped in untended solitude in the corner, and Elven set his pack beside it and roused the flames with the poker that stood beside the hearth.

“Good evening, stranger,” rumbled a voice from behind him, and Elven turned. “What’ll ye be having afore ye go?”

Taken aback, Elven said, “I … I was hoping to spend the night, if it isn’t too much trouble.”

The man before Elven, short and portly and sporting a meat-stained apron, pursed his lips and nodded. “Ye’ll go tonight, or ye’ll go tomorrow, but ye’ll be going. No offense, mind ye—but strangers is strangers, and ye can’t be too careful these days.”

In fairness Elven thought he could understand the town’s wariness, and said instead, “I’ve no trouble passing through—my destination’s elsewhere. If I could ask you for a meal, though, and perhaps an ale?”

“And what’ll ye pay with?”

Elven had of course long-since lost what coinage he had once possessed, but fortune was with him for Jacob had been willing to part with a small number of coins for Elven’s journey. Elven had protested, but found them later that day when he stopped for lunch, tucked neatly into the bottom of his pack against his knowledge.

And so Elven sat by the fire, and cold meat and bread was brought to him. He thought it might be a few days past its best, but ate it anyway for he was hungry. The ale was warm and strong, and it was not long before he began to doze by the fire’s heat. When the innkeeper came to retrieve his plate and refill his mug he was startled awake, and saw that the inn was beginning to empty.

“We’ll be closing up in a bit,” the man said, “I’ll show ye to your room when ye’ve finished.”

The thought of sleep was welcoming, but it also reminded Elven that he had business to attend to before he turned in for the night, and left the village: he must find the man, Abbey. This turned out to be easier than Elven had expected, for when he spoke of it to the innkeeper, the man laughed. “Look no further—that’d be me!” He narrowed his eyes. “But how d’ye know of me? Who told ye to ask?”

Briefly, Elven spoke of the farmer, Jacob, and his stay with his family. He did not speak of his journey unto that point, and Abbey seemed to recognize his reluctance and did not push the point.

“Ye’re a traveler and a stranger, then,” Abbey grunted. “Travelers have destinations; what’s yours, then?”

Elven told him, and Abbey laughed. “Ha! Ye’re a long way from there, friend … though not as far as ye could be. I daresay, not as far as ye’ve been, I reckon.”

“I was told you could give me sound direction,” Elven said.

Abbey nodded, and took a seat beside Elven. “Aye. D’ye know the town of Farthing’s Bar?”

Elven recalled how he, Brandyé and Tharom Hulòn’s soldiers has passed through the town so many months ago on their way north to the Rein, and nodded. “I’d know my way from there.”

“It’s your safest route, I reckon. Ye could take a course straight southwest over the mountains—that’d land ye in Vira Weitor in ten days, if ye’re lucky. But there’s beasts in the wild, and it’d be easy to lose yourself.”

For Elven, having traveled possibly hundreds of miles over the course of months, a ten-day journey felt less than nothing, and he was astonished to think he was so close to his final destination. Yet he had swiftly grown accustomed to the comfort of civilization, and even ten further days in the wild was more than he thought he could bear.

“How far is it to Farthing’s Bar, then?”

“Six days’ walk, four at a ride, with Brouke in between.”

“And if I recall, it’s perhaps five days from Farthing’s Bar to Vira Weitor?”

Abbey smiled, a grim look in the dim firelight. “Ye must of ridden afore—ye’re thinking on horseback. Seven or eight, I reckon, at least.”

Elven contemplated his options; ten days over hill and mountain, or two weeks by trail and path. And as desperate as he was to arrive, to see if Talya had received his message or made her way their of her own accord, he simply could not face returning to the wild on his own. He breathed deep and said, “I’d take the road.”

“Fair choice. When ye leave tomorrow, take the west road from the center of the village. About five miles, ye’ll come to a branching. Go south and keep the main path, ye’ll reach Brouke in two days. There’s an inn there, the Black Kettle; tell them Abbey sent ye, they’ll put ye up for the night.”

Elven thanked him, and it seemed Abbey was readying to bid him goodnight, when a sudden thought struck him. “Abbey,” he called the man back. “Jacob said you knew the land here well—so it seems you do. Can you tell me if you know anything of the fields to the north? The Rein?”

In the fading light Elven could not read Abbey’s expression, but his voice was low as he said, “Ye’ve been there?”

“I’ve … come from there, in a manner of speaking,” Elven replied.

Abbey shook his head gently. “No one’s heard aught from there in a long while. We’re out of the way here, mind ye—rumor doesn’t cross our path often. Last I heard, though, things were going ill; armies of Darkness, or some such nonsense.”

“Do you know if the Grim Watch still patrol?”

“If they do, friend, I doubt there’s much left for them to defend. I’ll tell ye the one thing I know: at least one of the villages was burned to the ground. I was in Farthing’s Bar not two months ago; I overheard it said by a soldier—a knight, he was, dressed in black. Their kind don’t lie.”

Elven thought he knew who Abbey was speaking of, and knew that if Tharom Hulòn had retreated from the Rein to Farthing’s Bar, there was likely nothing left of the Rein at all. Despite the warmth of the darkened inn, he shivered at the thought. Yet at the same time, it meant that some, at least, had survived the attacks from the north. Had Talya also been able to escape the mountain caves and return with Tharom?

Not long after, Elven had finished his ale, and been escorted to a small and dingy room upstairs. He was exhausted, however, and could not complain at the straw pillow or hard bed: he was asleep within moments all the same.

Abbey roused him early the following morning, and after a breakfast of milk and pork pie, even escorted him as far as the village well, from which the road he was to take led.

“Fare well, stranger,” he said to Elven as they parted. “I wish ye well on your travels.”

Elven turned his back, hoping indeed that he would be well, and set out. It was not long before Elven reached the branching Abbey had spoken of, and when he turned south he realized he was on a path of some good use, for it was wide with deep wheel ruts running through it. Yet for all that day he met not a single soul, as he passed over fields and through woods, and spent the night alone by a small stream that ran under a decrepit bridge. All the while, he could not help the nervousness he felt in being alone once more, far from the safety of towns and homes and other folk. He had yet seen no sign of danger, and even the crows that had haunted him in the mountains were absent. Still, he knew that if the armies of Darkness from the north had succeeded in overrunning the Rein, it would not be long before they pushed further south, toward the larger towns such as Farthing’s Bar.

But when he arrived in Brouke the following evening, there had been not so much as a rustling of grass in the wind to disturb his passage. He found the Black Kettle and mentioned Abbey’s name, and was indeed put up for the night, though not a person there would speak to him, and he learned nothing of the goings-on of the village.

He left Brouke early the next morning without a word of goodbye, and as if to complement the dismal mood of the town, it soon began to rain. He raised his hood and lowered his head, and was soon thoroughly soaked. For three days it did not relent, and Elven was glad that he was making this journey in what would have been early summer if not for the sun’s permanent absence, for despite the rain it was at least not cold. The final day of his journey to Farthing’s Bar was better, but the road had turned to thick mud and his feet squelched in his boots with every step by the time he arrived finally in the town.

The place was as large and as busy as Elven remembered it, and despite his filthy condition he was paid no heed until he found himself at one of the town’s many inns and was asked to take his boots off at the front door. There were number of other pairs there as well, and he turned his upside-down so that he would not forget them.

Perhaps it was the nature of the larger town, or perhaps it was being further south and further away from the dangers of the north, but Elven found that there was more commotion, more noise and more joviality to found here than he had seen previously in either Wutherford or Brouke. By the end of the evening he was deep in conversation with several folk around a table at the inn, most of whom were, like him, merely passing through the town. A young man named Adrian said he had come from one of the west villages bordering the kingdom of Kiriün, and brought with him a strange rumor.

“Of course,” Adrian said, “I can’t tell ye for certain—the wall that keeps our kingdoms separate is as tall as it ever was—but we’ve been hearing whispers that there are folk from Kiriün that reckon a great danger’s coming from the north.”

“There is a danger from the north, ye fool!” another at the table said. “We’ve seen it ourselves!”

“Aye,” replied Adrian, “so it’s been said. But if the enemy is attacking Kiriün and ourselves, then that makes us allies, doesn’t it?”

“That’s kings’ business, not ours,” said a third. “What of it?”

“Well don’t ye see? No one from Erârün’s seen the other side of the wall in a thousand years! Wouldn’t it be something to travel into their country?”

Elven thought perhaps Adrian seemed unusually excited about this. “How different could it be?” he asked.

“The old tales say Kiriün is a country of farmers,” Adrian said, which to Elven seemed if anything even less exciting.

“Well if they are,” said the first man at the table, “they’ve kept it to themselves for long enough while we starve.”

And it was then that Elven, born in Consolation to a land of plenty, realized the importance of this to these folk. “You think they’ll open trade with us,” he said. “That we might get some of their produce.”

“It’d be only fair,” said the first man.

But Elven frowned. “What would we have to trade in return?”

The man’s eyes widened. “Defense! If they’re truly being attacked, they’ll need good soldiers, and there’re none better than ours.”

Elven thought this somewhat foolish: if no one had been to Kiriün in a thousand years, what knowledge could they possibly have of their armies’ skill, or lack thereof? He bit his tongue, however, and said, “Let us assume such a thing is to occur. Perhaps we will be a little less hungry. Surely this won’t happen for many months—years, even. It hardly seems cause for excitement, at least not yet.”

“Then how about this?” said Adrian. “Kings’ business, ye say,” he said, addressing the man who had spoken previously. “Then kings would need to travel. And what town is right between Vira Weitor and the walls of Kiriün?”

“This one?” Elven asked, for he truthfully had no idea.

“This one!” exclaimed Adrian. “The king’ll be passing through here any day now!”

This was too much for Elven, and he laughed out loud. “Because of a whisper on the borders of this country, you think the king of Erârün is coming to Farthing’s Bar?”

But the other men at the table were not so amused. “It’s more than idle fancy,” said the first man. “And it’s not just whispers from the borders. I met a man from Vira Weitor not three weeks ago, and he said there was uproar in the city because the king would do nothing to help those dying in the north. They were demanding the king either retreat from the north entirely, or seek help to reinforce their soldiers. Help from abroad.”

Elven considered this for a moment, then said slowly, “What you’re suggesting is enormous. The reunion of two kingdoms that haven’t spoken for a thousand years? This is madness!”

Yet there was something in the conviction of these men that stayed Elven, and for two days he remained in Farthing’s Bar, rather than continue on his way to Vira Weitor. He was unsure why he felt he should stay, other than he would rather meet the king’s entourage in the relative safety of the town than alone on the open road. He could not help recalling the last time nobility had visited his village as a boy, and the fate it had brought upon them. He realized he harbored a deep mistrust of the higher castes, and wondered if Vira Weitor might even be better without them there.

In the end his patience was borne out, for as the days passed by the fervor of the town grew, and before long it was undisputed knowledge to every adult and child that the king was passing through in a day’s time, in the grandest of carriages they had ever seen.

On the day itself, Elven found himself in the large courtyard that formed the center of the town, waiting to see if the rumors would come to be true. For several hours into the day he waited, and was beginning to think that perhaps in fact nothing was going to happen at all, when suddenly in the far distance and over the noise of the crowd came the ringing of great trumpets. In an instant the crowd hushed, and a moment later the call was repeated, louder and closer.

Then came the sounds of hoofs on cobblestone, and within a minute a phalanx of armed horsemen burst into the square, dispersing instantly to push the onlookers to the far edges of the court, clearing a great space between them. In a slow circle they moved, resplendent in black armor, and Elven knew these were not mere soldiers, but knights. His heart beat a little faster then, for behind their helm one of these men could be Tharom Hulòn, and Elven was unsure what the man would say to find him here. Certainly Brandyé had spoken of the man’s wrath at his desertion in the fields of the Rein, and though Elven had not been there, Tharom knew the friendship between them well. He would not wish Tharom’s vengeance wreaked upon himself.

The trumpets rang again, and despite himself and the danger of being recognized, Elven stood on his toes to see over the heads of those around him, waiting for the king’s golden carriage to appear. To his astonishment, a moment later rode in yet another formation of riders, and in the center, tallest among his riders and with a great black velvet robe trailing behind him sat a man whose hard countenance and commanding eyes defined him as none other than the ruler of these men, and the ruler of all those that surrounded him. Herein, Elven saw the difference between the lord of Consolation and the lord of Erârün; here was a man who rode with his men, even to having a great sword at his side, and though he was not from this kingdom and held himself in no way allied to this man, Elven felt a deep inspiration take him, and a smile slowly spread across his face.

This, then, was the king Farathé, and though he had never seen him before, Elven saw by his posture and scrutinizing gaze that this was a man capable of great kindness, and of great terror. Yet there was no harshness to his face that Elven could see, and he wondered if the king might make a speech to his people.

And as he was thinking these thoughts, his attention was drawn to the king’s entourage, and suddenly his smile faded and his jaw dropped, for if he could recognize the king by reputation, the person riding to his left he knew instantly by sight. He had not thought of her since they had departed Vira Weitor almost a year before, and the sight of her brought sudden, overwhelming memories of Brandyé, and reignited no small amount of jealousy in him. Elỳn of the Illuèn rode with Farathé, bright in her snow-white robes, and Elven found he simultaneously wanted desperately to speak with her, and to run as far from her as he could.

“My good people,” the king said, and his voice was deep and sonorous. “I am your lord and king, Farathé of the line of Healdòr, and I am pleased to be among you today.” At his words the crowd gave a cry of enthusiasm. “My fellows and I are on a mission of worldly importance: to speak with the lords of Kiriün, and seek their aid in the fight against the armies of the north.”

The crowd cried once more, but the king held a hand to silence them. “I do not wish to trouble you more than we must: I ask only that you accommodate my men for the night, and in the morning we will have left you in peace. I would have you go about your business as usual.”

And that was all the king seemed inclined to say, and Elven thought he was much less wordy than the lord Garâth had been, and liked him for it. Momentarily, the king spurred his horse forward and onward out of the court, and Elven thought perhaps he had escaped notice when two things happened almost simultaneously. As she made to ride out with king Farathé, Elỳn looked once more around the courtyard, her clear eyes darting here and there among the crowd, and for a moment Elven thought she caught his gaze, and their eyes locked.

He could not be certain then, however, for at the same time he felt himself grasped forcefully by the collar and hauled violently through the crowd. Desperately he tried to turn and resist, but his assailant was exceptionally strong and it was all Elven could do to keep his feet as he was brought unceremoniously into a side alley, away from the people of the town. Only then was he released, and gasping for breath Elven staggered away, one hand on the wall, and turned to see his attacker.

It was one of the knights, he saw at once: the black dragonstone armor was intimidating. Yet more intimidating was the sword the knight now held to his throat, and Elven suspected he knew what was happening, despite the man’s face being hidden behind his closed helm.

“Where have ye come from?” the man growled.

“Who are you?” Elven returned, though he supposed he knew.

The man grasped his helm and drew it from his head, and as the long black hair fell to the man’s shoulders and the lined, hard face revealed itself, Elven saw that he was right. “D’ye recognize me now?”

“Please … don’t hurt me,” Elven said, for it was all he could think of.

“No?” Tharom tilted his head and smiled grimly. “I daresay I can’t call ye a deserter, though I’m burning to know how ye got here. What of your friend? Where’s he?”

Elven looked Tharom in the eye, and saw a dangerous madness there. This man might well kill him, he realized, and he wished heartily for a moment that he had never met him. “Brandyé’s gone,” he said. “I left him.”

“I’d say ye were smart to do so,” Tharom said. “If I’d found ye together, ye’d both be dead. Where’d he go?”

“Nowhere you’ll find him,” Elven said with a hint of belligerence. “He went north.”

Tharom’s eyes widened. “To the enemy; I can’t say I’m surprised. Why’d ye leave him? D’ye realize his cowardice and evil for what it is?”

This was too much, and Elven nearly shouted, “Brandyé isn’t evil! He’s been fighting against Darkness his whole life!”

“From the last time I saw him, I’d say he’s lost the fight,” Tharom retorted. “Now—I ought to take you prisoner for abandoning the folk you were sworn to protect, but I’d have to bring you all the way to Kiriün and back again if I did. You’d spend your last days in the dungeons of Vira Weitor as it is; tell me, why shouldn’t I ease your passing right now?” He pressed the tip of his sword harder against Elven’s throat.

“Because I will ease yours first,” came a sudden voice from beyond them both, and Elven, daring not to move his head, looked with his eyes to the alley’s entrance, where there stood a white-gowned figure with a bow drawn and aimed at Tharom’s head. “Don’t be a fool, Tharom. You know you’re not fast enough. And what would the king say to you murdering innocent folk in secret?”

Tharom did not lower the blade, and growled low in his throat. “This lad’s not innocent—”

“He’s innocent of everything except helping his friend to survive,” Elỳn said. “A friend who had no business in your army as it was.”

Finally Tharom lowered the blade and whirled on Elỳn. “This lad and his friend swore an oath of loyalty to the king! An oath they both broke.”

“An oath they were forced to obey,” Elỳn said, “on pain of death. Would you say such an oath is one taken in good faith? Leave him be.”

“He deserves punishment!”

“Let us bring him before the king,” Elỳn suggested. “Perhaps you will respect his opinion, if not mine.”

“Fine,” spat Tharom, “though his’ll be the same as mine, I can assure ye.”

“We shall see,” said Elỳn. But as Tharom left the alley and she motioned for Elven to follow her, she said in a low voice, “Do not worry, Elven—I will protect you.”

And so Elven had no choice but to follow in the wake of someone to whom he now begrudgingly owed his life.

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