Paechra’s ears listened as the bells of the city announced it was two hours after midnight. That meant it was now four hours after Raven had woken from his nightmare and still sleep alluded her while her traveling companion seemed to be sleeping well. Paechra sat upon the roof of the forge, taking the opportunity to enjoy the heat below and the blanket of stars that twinkled above.
“Paechra! Paechra!” called Gregory.
“I am up here, above you!” the sylva called back.
The blacksmith took one look at the strange creature perched upon his roof before he turned his eyes skywards to follow her gaze.
“Yep, the very best view in the city,” Gregory exclaimed, giving Paechra a knowing smile. “Can’t sleep either? Then let me join you,” he added, beginning to climb.
It took the blacksmith longer than a minute to haul his bulk onto the roof of his home. The sylva was impressed even so with this surprising show of agility.
“So, how did you and Raven meet?” Gregory asked before shifting his weight into a more comfortable position, causing a groan to erupt from the roof’s wooden beams. The blacksmith turned his face to give his full attention to the beautiful sylva.
“Well…” began Paechra, hiding with a moment’s pause, the shock she felt from the blacksmith’s forwardness. “For weeks I had been traveling through your kingdom. I was following the straight road east as my father had done, almost a year before me.”
Gregory nodded, for although it was very rare for one of the sylva to visit the kingdom, it made sense to the blacksmith for all travelers to follow the mentioned straight road which ran right across Thuraen from the border east to the border west. The citizens of the kingdom referred to it as the Path of Truth.
“The Path of Truth is indeed the straightest and safest way across our kingdom,” Gregory stated.
“My father has always been curious where you humans are concerned and I knew that it would be in the heart of your lands where he would want to settle,” added Paechra, smiling as she thought of her father and his interest, almost what Paechra considered to be an obsession with other races.
“Why would he want to settle there? Why not anywhere in Thuraen?” the blacksmith asked.
“A linguist seeks out the place where they would be most exposed, the location where they find that they can immerse themselves in the culture of a people or race,” Paechra explained.
“Of course,” laughed Gregory, a hearty laugh that caused the wooden beams to protest again. “The best metals create the best blades. If I had the chance I would seek out the best base blocks I could find to create from. Is it near Andrapaal, traveling the Path of Truth where you met Raven?”
Paechra shook her head, for this was not the case.
“I had found the path of my father had diverted from the straight road I had thought he would follow. Perhaps he too had found your people to be at first unwelcoming…” Paechra said, uncertain of how to explain the difficulties she had faced traveling alone through Thuraen to Gregory, a proud citizen of Andrapaal.
The blacksmith raised one dark, bushy eyebrow, but remained respectfully silent.
“My forest homeland is a place where those of your kind gather to be near to the earth, the trees and those of my race who care so deeply for these things. Beyond our boundaries the love that the humankind harbours for the forest and those that dwell within it tends to wane,” Peachra added as a brief explanation.
Gregory gave a curt nod in response.
“So Raven was off the straight path? Headed northwards, or was he seeking the way of those who love the flowers and the trees?” rumbled the blacksmith.
“I followed Raven after I spotted him leaving a farm on the border between the land of the humans and the land of the sylva in the northwest,” Paechra continued. “It made me curious to see that like me, he traveled alone. This was something my father once told me humans rarely seem to do.”
“And then?” asked Gregory.
“I followed Raven at a distance, a day or so, until I discovered that I was not the only one traveling in Raven’s shadow…”
“Bandits? Angered villagers? Who? Who was following Raven so closely?” Gregory asked, eager for the answer.
“A small party of vorzurk!” announced Peachra, surprised by the blacksmith’s intense interest in her tale.
“Why would that race be so far west and so far north? Such behavior is unheard of… Have you reported this to the sages?” Gregory asked, his face showing great concern.
“Blacksmith, Raven has recorded our arrival to your city only hours ago. I know not what he has told the sages, though I doubt he could recall this story. You are the first I have told,” Paechra stated, kindly.
“Tell me more of these monsters wandering through our lands,” demanded Gregory.
“I followed the vorsurk, more than twenty of them as they followed Raven. For two days we seemed to travel an aimless path,” Paechra continued. “Then they attacked!”
“What happened, Paechra?!” Gregory asked, caught up in the story that the sylva spun.
“If it were not for my horse, I would have burst in on the wolf-like beasts killing our friend and making off with his few possessions,” Paechra explained. “I know not what business the vorzurk had with a lone human. The survivors of the skirmish ran off before I could ask and Raven has been tightlipped the whole of our short trip.”
“How strange of Raven, what did he do next?” asked Gregory.
“It was almost like the battle with the wolfkin deflated him,” Paechra stated. “He was not at all happy about traveling the straight road though. It was almost like he had something unaccomplished that he had given up on finishing.”
“Did Raven say anything at all as you shared the Path of Truth?” Gregory asked.
“No coaxing of mine can get Raven to speak of his past,” Paechra replied. “He would not stop talking about this city though. Andrapaal seems to hold for him special memories.”
“Indeed Andrapaal’s gift to her citizens is fond childhood memories for all who grow up in such a fine city,” Gregory agreed.
“I look forward to meeting his father,” finished Paechra.
At the mention of Raven’s father Gregory dismissed himself.
“Many thanks for your tale, Mistress Paechra. I shall take our friend tomorrow to see his father,” the blacksmith said. “I believe he will be in need of your company after such a meeting.”
Now it was Paechra’s turn to give the blacksmith a quizzical glance. Gregory dropped to the cobbled stones, tightlipped, not willing to explain.
“Good night, fine host,” stated Paechra, her eyes drawn skywards again.
“Enjoy the twinkling of the stars above, fair sylva. Tomorrow shall be a busy day,” called the blacksmith as he vanished back into the forge.
“You humans seem all so strange,” Paechra sighed in reply. For the next hour she searched the night sky for signs from the gods, messages from home, anything to distract her from her worry. There was something about what the blacksmith had said that did not bode well with the druid. The stars continued to shine innocently in the blackness of the night’s sky. Eventually Paechra let their familiarity ease her into a deep slumber.
Far from Andrapaal in the lands of the Vorsurk, Zerrick the sorcerer grumbled noisily as a human slave girl tried to accurately apply the arcane symbols he required for his next spell to his pox filled face. The swine blood that half filled the plain ceramic bowl she held was far too thin and watery; therefore none of the important symbols remained intact. Instead they ran freely down the ancient sorcerer’s face like tears. As the human continued desperately to try and paint in vain, her hands shook violently. True tears streaked her soot smudged face as she mumbled apologies in a crude mix of the human language and the harsher Vorsurk tongue. In another life the girl may have been considered beautiful. Here, a week’s worth of hard pressed travel beyond the official border between the lands claimed by her kindred and the cruel creatures that she now called master, this poor girl was considered naught more than a breathing carcass.
Zerrick took the girl’s shaking hands in his arthritic claws.
“Enough…” his canine like voice rumbled quietly, gently, a soft and low growl caught in his turkey like, flabby chin. The strange common tongued word rang false on the girl’s ears, so used to harsh barked orders or deafening cruel silences as the sorcerer simmered in varying degrees of fury. She looked into the sorcerer’s eyes for guidance, just in time. One of the clawed hands of the sorcerer flew free from his light grasp on her and, with lightning speed it shot toward the girl’s face. The bowl exploded, splattering the pig’s blood as the sorcerer’s blow hit home.
“Now paint!” Zerrick ordered with a scream, frustrated that his blow, an attack that he had hoped would slay the human, had merely ripped off her hand. The girl stood still for a single moment, shocked as she watched her life force spray free from the deep wound at her wrist where her fingers and palm had been only seconds before. A scream of pain and anguish caught in the slave girl’s throat as she locked eyes with her master. The sorcerer grasped the thumb that hung by a mere strip of flesh and tore it free. The digit joined the bleeding hand that lay upon the floor landing in a small pool of crimson with a quiet splat.
“You and your kind are nothing to me,” growled the sorcerer in his own language. “Now you will paint and paint straight, true symbols. Your very left depends upon this.”
Forced to obey, the slave girl dabbed at her own wrist and began to form the runes again. It took all her fast waning strength not to whimper or spoil her work. This time, to her relief, the fresh blood painted to Zerrick’s satisfaction.
“Urga sa thuth,” Zerrick stated, a vorsurk dismissal. The slave girl turned away immediately and wrapped her still bleeding stump in her dirty rags. She prayed to the scribes of truth that someone in the slave camp would know something of the art of healing. Either that or someone would take pity on her and take her life, quickly and painlessly.
On the morrow following their arrival into Andrapaal, Raven told their blacksmith host that he and Paechra were both interested in speaking with Anton.
“I want to find out exactly why he treats the Stormsong house as his own,” Raven added, before Gregory could make any argument.
“I would also like another look at your fascinating prophecy,” Paechra stated.
“Are you a wise sage, like your father?” Gregory asked.
“Do you..?” the sylva began to ask.
“Mistress, your kind is more than welcome in our kingdom, but you are different and so you do stick out… at least a bit,” Gregory explained.
“And so the sighting of one sylva, followed by the sighting of another…” Paechra continued. “No good host, I am not a sage. I have other talents.”
“Talents she used to save my life,” said Raven soberly.
“I’ve a perfect day planned already. Of course it can begin with a visit to the Truth Keeper that wears the silver sash,” Gregory replied.
Raven gave the blacksmith a quizzical look.
“The perfect day?” asked Paechra.
“The perfect day,” the blacksmith confirmed. “I am Gregory, your host. I would not be doing my duty unless I was helping you find your father Stormsong, if we get to show off the greatest city in the world to a beautiful girl so be it…”
“Let the tour begin then,” Paechra laughed.
“So be it,” Raven added, hoping that his father would be found soon.
On the outskirts of the township of Eastern Limits, a sparrow flapped its wings frantically. It was desperate to escape the creature that filled its tiny nostrils with the smell of blood. The creature effortlessly crushed spindly legs of the captured bird in a simple finger and thumb grip. The sparrow wanted to be free, to fly home and warn the other creatures of the small forest that existed as a barrier between the road and the township. All of the tiny bird’s natural instincts told it to flee. As the bird cried out for help, the creature that held it and examined it, suddenly consumed it. While smirking with a fanged grin, the creature slipped away, using the shadows of the late afternoon. It went in search of Thurzuk, for the moment its master and the discovery of sparrows and a human village the master needed to know.
The perfect day that Gregory had promised Raven and Paechra had not gotten off to a great start. It had taken their host less than half an hour to locate Anton. The head of the Truth Keepers was busy at his second home, the barracks. Raven could have led the way to the two storey complex with both eyes closed, many of his childhood days had been spent at that very place watching his father train, suffering long lessons in diplomacy, discovering the art of the holy weapon the sword, the only weapon Truth Keepers were allowed to wield. Paechra took in the sights, smells and sounds of the city and then the barracks as the three of them left Gregory’s home and place of work to take the short trip through the city. Not the most glamorous of Andrapaal’s buildings the barracks was considered a home away from home for many of the Truth Keepers. Its location was in the heart of the poorer part of the city. Unlike his sylva companion, Raven charged into the barracks with purpose. They found Anton inspecting the sleeping quarters of fifteen student Truth Keepers, not a day older than eight any of them.
“Good day to you… captain?” Raven said querying the silver sashed older man.
“Johannas! You have graced me with two sightings in as many days. I must record such an occurrence with the sages,” Anton replied.
“These young boys seem quite young to receive weapons,” Paechra stated, examining the boys who stood straight, tall and silent.
“They may seem like children, but these boys need to be ready to go forth to the forts by the time they reach their early teens. Sage Vladimir has drafted a rule for the king to proclaim that those of the student soldiers that show uncanny ability are to be sent out to protect us at the border by their eleventh birthday…” Gregory explained the blacksmith quite proud of his knowledge of the Truth Keepers.
“Such an occurrence does not require a record in the great tome, master Truth Keeper Anton. I merely need an answer to a single question and then I will depart,” Raven continued.
“Ask away. My duties often keep me busy, but I always have time for a Stormsong and a sage’s daughter,” Anton stated. “You are dismissed until I summon you,” the silver sashed Truth Keeper then murmured to the boys before him.
“As you command, master!” the fifteen students all replied. As one they left their room, Paechra watching them all intently, fascinated by the mixture of unison amongst so many individuals.
“Now ask, Johannas. What is your question? I shall answer if I am able,” Anton said with the friendly smile and pause that a teacher offers to a curious student.
“Why has the crest on my father’s house been replaced? Why does your emblem grace the gate between the city and the Stormsong home? Why does a fence run around the house that once was open to all?” Raven asked.
“That is in fact three questions. Three questions that can all be answered with a single name… Vladimir,” Anton replied.
“Since I have arrived, home again, the name of Vladimir seems to be everywhere,” said Raven, pondering the information.
“I am sure that your father will know something of this situation too,” Paechra suggested.
“Indeed. The Chief Sage is often a busy man,” agreed Gregory.
“I can tell you no more of the last ten years, Truth Keeper. However, if you wish to continue as a member of this kingdom’s guardians present yourself at the gate that is marked with my family crest,” ordered Anton. “Make certain that your sword is ready and your armour gleaming.”
“The trust in truth sets us free,” stated Raven, giving the older Truth Keeper a stiff bow.
“The free are the true keepers of truth,” replied Gregory automatically.
“Listen carefully to the truths that will come forth from the silver sashed one. Chief Sage Vladimir will explain how the fortune of the Stormsong name has changed,” Anton said instead of the more traditional response.
“Come Gregory, Paechra, we still seek answers,” Raven stated.
“And I must gather up my herd of students,” laughed Anton.
“It was a pleasure to meet with you again, Anton,” Paechra eloquently stated.
“As it was my pleasure to see you once more too, Mistress,” replied the master Truth Keeper. “I do so hope you find your father and enjoy your stay in our fine city.”
“Work before family is the way with father. He shall appear when the translations are complete…” Paechra replied, “If the translations are ever complete,” she added with a sigh.
As the hourly bells of Andrapaal rang out ten chimes, the blacksmith Gregory dragged his guests to yet another of the many taverns that littered the slums of the city. The sign hanging above the fourth or fifth one that they approached gave Paechra the idea that it may have been known as The Unicorn and Bear, or at least something similar. Like so many of the other places they had seen already, the oaken door that led within was made from a dark solid wood that Paechra sadly noted was far too long from the life giving earth for her to sense even a weak spark of life. The sylvi girl thought it strange that none of the places they visited in this section of the city had written signs. When Paechra asked Raven and Gregory why that was both men looked at each other with uncertainty.
“It must have something to do with the preciousness of words,” suggested Raven.
“Definitely,” Gregory said with a nod. “We can’t have just anyone putting words together. That would certainly be against our laws.”
Realising that she would not get a better answer from the humans, Paechra made a mental note to ask her father the same question when he eventually found her.
Aside from the painted unicorn and bear looking down upon them and the door, this tavern featured four sets of arrow slit windows showing torch light that flickered at the movement of the patrons within.
“What do you think?” Paechra asked of Raven as both the sylva and the truth keeper paused outside the oaken door. As he had with the taverns before, Gregory had already entered with confidence, without even a glance to see if his guests had followed after.
The truth keeper looked towards the sun, its arc not even close to being the middle of the day. His breath smelt similar, though not quite so potently of spirits as that of the blacksmith’s. In the short time the sylva had traveled with Raven he had hardly consumed a single mug of ale, and never had he drunk to excess. The druid gave her companion a concerned look.
“I…” Raven murmured with uncertainty.
“Come on,” Paechra urged “if our gracious host feels that this is somehow necessary for finding your father we may as well oblige him.”
“I suppose we must. Though, I can’t say that this would be my first choice of where to take visitors to the city of knowledge. I’m worried too if this is where my father spends his days…” stated Raven.
“Just try not to breath,” Paechra replied, “And Raven…”
“Keep a hand near your hilt. I fear that although the forest creatures here all feature in the stew they are not the only kind of animals which can be savage.”
The truth keeper merely replied with a stiff nod of agreement. So far the occupants of the taverns they had seen had been quiet, subdued, giving Paechra a secondary glance but not staring at the obvious stranger. Even Raven knew that eventually one such subdued drinker would take closer interest in the beautiful stranger. The truth keeper kept one gloved hand on the hilt of his blade as he and Paechra finally followed Gregory inside.
The door stuck slightly, but with a bit of a shove Raven forced it open. The tavern was simple and smoky, the kitchen fire causing most of the haze. Pairs of torches lined the walls like ladies and lords preparing to dance, shedding their light upon the activities of the few morning drinkers. The sound of dice, rolling across the table four or five at a time, was accompanied by the sounds of loss and bitterness as money changed hands. Paechra ignored the gambling, scanning the tavern floor until she found Gregory chatting to a girl, pretty in the torch light, who served behind the bar in a revealing uniform. Paechra rolled her eyes at the thought of meeting another of the blacksmith’s barmaid friends and wondered for a moment if she could concentrate hard enough upon her father to make the man appear and take her away from such filth. Knowing her father’s dedication to knowledge and language, the sylvi girl abandoned the idea as quickly as it came.
“There he is…” Paechra whispered.
“Where?” asked Raven, his eyes only for the gambling game being played two tables to their left.
“This way,” the sylva urged, taking her companion by the arm and leading Raven towards the blacksmith and the barmaid.
“Surely that is not accepted by the sages? Surely not…” Raven muttered as he let himself be led away, his eyes still focused only upon the small pile of gold and silver coins sprawled in front of each player and the larger pile of similar coins in the centre of the table.
“And finally they arrive!” Gregory exclaimed, breaking off mid sentence his conversation with the girl that served behind the bar.
“How is this helping us find Raven’s father again?” Paechra enquired.
Gregory the blacksmith ignored the sylva’s quizzical stare, his eyes full of boyish innocence as he gave all his attention to the truth keeper.
“What do you think Raven?”
“Yes Gregory… Explain to us what is all this dice rolling? What is all this gambling? I’ve been away a little while yes…”
“Another genius idea of Vladimir the Young,” Gregory began with great excitement. “A great enjoyment for citizen and visitor alike, and a great source of income for the kingdom, when the games are played under lawful circumstances…” the burley bear continued, leaving his final few words hanging in the air, like a hook awaiting a fish.
“Raven, what of your father? Is he here or not?” Paechra asked, scanning the dark room for anyone resembling her traveling companion.
Raven too scanned the room, giving the gamblers the most attention. Finally he shook his head.
“Gregory, as Paechra has stated this is the fifth tavern we have visited and the day is not even at noon,” stated Raven, the drink giving his voice an edge that Paechra had never heard before. “I do not know what games you play believing this to be the best way to locate my father. I also cannot see how this shows off the most beautiful side of this fine city.”
“I forget Raven. Of course you and your companion will be unfamiliar with our ways,” the blacksmith said smugly.
Two of the gamblers stood, flanking Gregory, staring at Raven. Paechra examined the piles of coins that graced the tavern table. In the piles before each of the men there were more than ten silver and gold coins. In the center of the table there was a similar pile. The dice rolled by each player, like the sign outside the tavern showed only pictures, no words, no numerals.
“Did I hear you correctly Gregory? I am just as much from Andrapaal as you are,” argued Raven.
“Raven, please calm yourself. Did you not say during our travels that the truth keeper’s role was to destroy monsters, not become them?” warned Paechra.
As Raven flared, the look of innocence left the blacksmith’s face. Paechra detected a little fear in the burly man’s eyes.
“Of course,” Raven stated, Paechra’s words causing his uncharacteristically short temper to die down again.
Paechra gave the two gamblers either side of Gregory a calm gaze. After a few moments the pair folded and quietly returned to their seats.
“Gentlemen, lady of the bar, it has been lovely to meet you all,” the druid announced.
“Come Gregory, Paechra. Perhaps we should continue our tour elsewhere. Do you have some other part of our fair city that you would like to show us Gregory? Perhaps an area that is not near a tavern?” Raven asked calmly.
Gregory’s crestfallen features suddenly lit up as an idea dawned.
“Come,” urged the blacksmith, taking Paechra and Raven each by the arm. “I know just the place.”
As the tavern door closed behind them Paechra distinctly heard the sound of dice rolling across a table top.
King Fredrickson sighed, an almost silent sigh as he looked across the Great Hall. This morning, as it seemed to be every morning, the gigantic room was filled with aggrieved citizens, all seeking his justice.
“Your Majesty..? Is something the matter?” the red robed sage beside him asked pleasantly. It was Moosuf, the underling that Vladimir had first sent to see the king yesterday. Fredrickson had to only think a moment before the whole argument returned, clear to his mind.
The king drew his eyes from the crowded room to grant the sage his complete attention. Moosuf’s dark bags stared back at him.
“Has Vladimir got you burning the candle at both ends?”
“Only, when I meet my match, Your Majesty.”
“So the foe of yesterday is the ally of today? Shall we begin this morning’s hearings, Knowledge Speaker Moosuf?”
“It shall be as Your Majesty requests. Eight of the Citizens’ Eleven will present twenty-seven grievances this morning for you to rule upon. Following this, the Chief Sage Vladimir the Young would request an audience with you.”
“Well why not now? The people can surely wait for their king a moment longer.”
“Your majesty…? Your people seek your justice and, as the Tomes of History teach us, justice delayed is like justice not granted. What is more, the Chief Sage has other appointments this morrow.”
The king considered refusing the sage’s request, throwing the kingdom into chaos without its figurehead. He wondered whether it were he or history that truly ruled the kingdom. The thought only lasted a moment.
“Very well then, Knowledge Speaker. We had best begin.”
“Thank you my king. I shall see to silencing this crowd and we shall begin our busy day. I assure you however, that Your Majesty’s comments about his people shall not be recorded for future reference.”
“You have my thanks, sage, and the thanks also of my wife.”
Without comment, the sage turned to the wall of noise in the crowded Great Hall and raised his hands for silence. As the crowd grew still, the king wondered how long it took to learn such magic. No… not magic, he corrected himself. Such wickedness as that was forbidden in the Kingdom of Thuraen, forbidden in his kingdom.
For well over a century the Kingdom of Thuraen had been governed in such a way. It fell to the king for the final decision on all rulings. Before this final decision was made however, he was advised by the attending Knowledge Speaker. This advice was always and without fail taken from the thousands and millions of tomes recording past rulings, penned and edited by the Knowledge Keepers. Thus, the rulings very rarely deviated from the decisions of kings from the very dawning of the kingdom. Consistency was the key to a strong reign, so did the sages advise each king in turn. It was a fact which had been well documented in the words of history, one of the Ultimate Truths which the very faith of the kingdom was based upon. None, up until this point in history had ever abused such trust.
Back out upon the street again, Gregory pleaded with Raven, as Paechra stood by.
“I meant nothing by it!”
“Think nothing of it, Gregory,” Raven murmured reassuringly, “Perhaps we could next visit somewhere in the city that might interest a Truth Keeper and his sylvi companion. “Somewhere like one of the branches of The Tree of Knowledge?” Paechra suggested.
“I can show you something even better. Show you why, although our gamblers seem unlawful, they were not the criminals you think they are,” Gregory answered.
Giving Paechra an apologetic glance, Raven shrugged his shoulders.
“Lead on blacksmith…” Raven said with a sigh.
“The king has decreed, as was written in the fifteenth chapter of the seventh book of Sage Wilhelm the farseeing;
The markets shall not be found trading before the rising of the sun.
As history has taught us, the penalty will be two days working in the arena. The king and the sages of old have spoken,” sage Moosuf pronounced with the air of familiarity and professionalism. The crowded room filled with a murmuring like a low wintry wind, as the merchants of Andrapaal and far away, mumbled to themselves and each other about the verdict. Whether they agreed or not to what history had forced the king to decide, the merchants were still an indistinguishable murmur as they left the great hall. The two truth keepers armed with the new style of long blade eyed them all suspiciously, but in the instance there was no trouble and the exited merchants left the great hall empty of sound.
That was until Moosuf, the red robed Knowledge Speaker announced the next case.
King Fredrickson flicked his eyes in the direction where he had seen Anton, the chief of the truth keepers. The greyed soldier was still there, sitting uncomfortably in his ceremonial armor with the silver sash across his chest, seeming both awkward and permanent.
‘Why does he insist on spending his days here?’ the king thought to himself, frustrated.
“My liege, would you prefer to hear first from Simeon the Stonemason or Harrison the Tavern Keep?” Moosuf asked gently, his red robes swishing quietly as he turned to face the king.
‘If only Vladimir himself could attend, instead of getting second hand information. When Father ruled he was only ever attended by truth keepers picked for their faithfulness to him and the city…” the king continued, distracted by the truth keeper’s presence.
“King Fredrickson..?” Moosuf said after a loud clearing of his throat. Only when the king gave his full attention did the sage continue.
“King Fredrickson, in the time of Great Sage Theodore the Wise, it was the custom to allow the defendant to speak first, but as is often quoted in his tomes, the taverns shut for weeks on many an occasion and the truth keepers were forced by the law to partake in violence that sadly had to be recorded by the sages of old. May I, my liege, be so bold as to perhaps suggest…”
“Yes… please… Do ask Harrison the Tavern Keep to speak on his brethren’s behalf,” the king sighed.
Vladimir, Chief Sage and bearer of the silver sash of such office, sat silently at his desk. He was so engrossed in the black bound tome open before him that the room seemed lifeless. Not that there were any others present to notice. The fiery locks of blue magic barred his door from any visitors, making certain of this.
“Sim val van zoon,” Vladimir chanted quietly and precisely, the runes that were written across the page he had opened. He mouthed the sounds exactly as the black bound tome had taught him to do, for it had explained those many years ago, when first he felt and used such magic, that for the power to succeed, the very sounds that the symbols represented would need to be spoken rhythmically and phonically correct. Of course the terms used exactly by the tome were much more simplistic than that, spoken just like a barbarian from the wilder outer planes or a commoner like one of the eleven, simple minded and easy to manipulate. Vladimir had been quite shocked however to discover just how unlike the eleven of Andrapaal that the tome actually was. In a matter of a week, the compelling feeling behind the voice of the untitled volume had begun to speak fluently in the common tongue, using more structured sentencing and incredibly much more complex terminology.
‘Greetings I send to you lowly worm! Word from one for whom your darkest thoughts and deeds are a pleasurable memory. The question that is put to you concerns your city’s eleven puppets. Has the master prepared them as you were commanded?’ the runes upon the page swirled and evaporated, being replaced with the message as if an invisible quill formed each carefully scripted letter. Vladimir hated such interruptions as this. They reminded him that this powerful tome was not something he alone possessed, thus it was a power he was forced to share.
‘Of course!’ thought Vladimir angrily, he had been interrupted yet he could still feel the pain that the magic attacked him with, and now the very book that caused him such pain insulted his intellect. What made things worse though, was that it seemed able to twist his words and his thoughts. The sage could have sworn that speaking to the city’s eleven and involving them in the plan was his idea and his alone. It escaped his memory of how that was to occur, but Vladimir had a faint feeling that how ever this was to happen, that this was his idea. Now the tome was asking questions. The tables of power had turned. Vladimir slammed the tome shut in frustration and instantly felt the migraine start at the centre of his balding head and quickly spread across it. The great sage vowed that once the headache passed, he would devise a way to wrestle back this power.
The king lounged lazily in the royal bed chamber with his young, pale wife. He had a single servant waiting on the other side of the chamber door, a young boy who had proven his loyalty and secrecy many times already. The boy whose name was Joseph, had been instructed to contact the king the moment that the sage Vladimir did finally arrive. Watching his wife with concern as she slept, Fredrickson strained to hear as hour after hour passed by at the watch man’s cry. He smiled as he heard the poor boy at the door collapse at his post and drift off to sleep, unable to wait for the king’s visitor any longer. As Fredrickson began to feel himself drift off there was a ruckus erupted throughout the palace.
“Your highness…” the mild voice of Joseph was just audible in the bed chamber.
“Settle our guest Joseph and then send the others back to bed,” Fredrickson called back, cursing as he heard his wife murmur beside him.
“I’ve just to see to our friend Vladimir, darling. I plan to finally tell him our news…”
“Return soon my love…” his wife, the queen replied with a yawn without opening her eyes.
“Do not worry… I plan to…” King Fredrickson whispered before he kissed his wife, first upon the forehead, then lightly upon the lips and finally upon the small, but growing mound that was her belly, and more importantly, their child.
The queen smiled a smile that illuminated her pale face and slept on.
With that, Fredrickson slipped out of bed and into his royal gown before sneaking out of the royal chamber and following after Joseph.
As the third child of a simple miller, Catherine the Mild seemed an unlikely candidate for queen. With a step-uncle who had gone from Edward the Blacksmith, to Edward Bear-Heart, and then finally Chief Sage Bear-Heart, all in twenty summers, the transition from village most eligible, to crowned queen was not quite so far fetched. The Great Tomes of Truth recorded such a journey as miraculous, and prophesied. That such a miracle was paved by the greatest sage of the modern era, that such words of prediction were penned and spread by the girl’s step-uncle, these facts were somewhat absent in the history’s final draft. To the people of Andrapaal, Catherine the Mild was a sweet, young, innocent queen who fulfilled her role as hostess to guests and inspiration to her subjects with grace and ease. Her humble beginnings gave hope to any and all to aspire to greatness and achieve their dreams. Beyond the walls of the great city, Catherine was an occasional subject for gossip, a subject that usually focused upon the lack of an heir. Beyond the throne room, within the palace, in the place that Catherine lived, she was Catherine the meek as well as mild queen. So far from her home and almost cut off from the villagers she knew as friends and family, the queen accepted the love of the king and the duties to the kingdom as a gift and a burden. It was something that she struggled with, but that she equally enjoyed, totally unprepared for such duty she faced everyday as an exciting new adventure. With a life growing inside her now, Catherine thought happily to herself, the true adventures had only just begun.
Gregory led Paechra and Raven through the winding maze of the slums until they arrived at the place where this area met the market district. Here stood a huge warehouse, the place where large carcasses of beef, sheep and the occasional goat had once hung awaiting purchase. Paechra noticed that the paint upon the sign hanging above the pair of doors, was adorned with a symbol faded to a red and black blur that could once have been a pig or cow. Painted upon both doors in identical gold paint was clearly depicted a stack of coins and above it three dice in an arc. The die on the left and the die on the right of the arc were six sided while the die in the middle had eleven faces.
“Surely not more gambling?” sighed Paechra.
“I swear Raven, your father is renowned amongst me and my friends for frequenting this very place at this very hour,” Gregory stated, his hands spread, one palm on each of the doors, ready to shove them open.
‘Why would the business of my father be known by Gregory and others of the poorest district?’ Raven thought to himself. ‘It is one thing to discover that my father has vacated the family home. It is completely something else to find out that the once Lord Michael Stormsong is regularly rubbing shoulders with those from the city’s lowest rung.’
“If we discover your father here I doubt he will be in any fit state to meet with anyone, Raven,” Paechra murmured.
Raven replied with a nod.
“Oh dear me no, fair sylva. Drinks of that nature are not served until at least… after midday,” Gregory explained, having heard Paechra’s quiet comment.
“So you take us all morning to various taverns and inns, places that smell of stale beer and too much sweat and then you say that you have known where Raven’s father has been the whole time? Good host, what game are you playing with us as your players?” Paechra asked calmly.
“Please Paechra, understand that Raven’s father is not the man he once was. He does spend some days hanging around the inns, other mornings he can be found here. Mornings when he does not need a drink to face the daylight…” Gregory tried to explain.
With that said the blacksmith turned back to face the double doors of the warehouse.
“Please just take me to my father, Gregory. I fear what I will find when we eventually meet,” Raven sighed.
Gregory tensed his muscles and threw open the doors. Paechra detected the faintest scent of animal blood as she followed the blacksmith in.
Still a fair journey away from his target the city of Andrapaal, Thurzuk rubbed his clawed hands together eagerly, happy so far with the progress of his small band of warriors. His scouts were reporting sightings of larger human populations leading the sorcerer to believe that the farms the slave kind had spoilt his land with were now far behind. The city that he had been shown by the Eleventh Tome as images plaguing his nightly dreams had to be only a week away. The barer of the tome seemed weak, old and feeble. Thurzuk felt he was now standing on top of the great pyramid of power, the single magic wielder leading his eleven loyal warriors. Once Thurzuk had sent forth word that the humans were enslaved again and the tome was his, then those loyal soldiers in turn would give his orders to one hundred and twenty one grunts and finally below them a throng of one thousand three hundred and thirty one, the holiest number multiplied and multiplied again. Any number of his kind that were valued beneath that amount of eleven multiplied by eleven and then multiplied again were not worthy of a thought. They were mere servants, only considered better than the slave kind due to their race. His place at the very top of this holy pyramid was surely less than eleven days away. It was the will of the Eleventh Tome. Surely it was the will of the tri gods too. As the summer sun set on another day Thurzuk urged his loyal followers to rise up from the camp. Dusk and night were the times when the band found it easiest to sneak through the human lands. Under the cover of darkness they could strike this nearby town and leave it as another sign to the slave kind that their days of freedom were numbered. It was the will of the Eleventh Tome.
“May such will be done,” Thurzuk growled with a fang filled smile.
Raven left his blade with the pair of truth keepers who stood behind a great table at the entrance to the warehouse. The pair of soldiers coughed politely as they eyed Paechra. The sylva shrugged.
“I have no blade or weapon to speak of,” the druid confessed.
“We heard you took on a thousand vorsurk and lived to tell the tale,” stated one.
“Are you telling me you managed this without a weapon?” the other asked in amazement.
“I’m sorry, Paechra,” murmured Gregory. “After our conversation last night I could not help but mention it to some of my friends.”
“No great harm has been done,” laughed Paechra. “Just know that I have my own ways of protecting myself,” she added mysteriously.
“And the story grows bigger,” Raven added, giving his brother truth keepers a nod.
“Have you seen Michael Stormsong this morning?” Gregory asked.
Both truth keepers shook their heads.
“We have only been on the doors since the ninth hour,” stated one.
“Most of these blades have been logged as predawn. You can see by the sign of the rising sun,” explained the other, pointing to the symbol etched into the table and the various dagger blades and swords that littered the great table beneath that sign. Raven’s blade sat beneath the sign of a cat. Paechra guessed that it had somewhat to do with the myth of a cat’s nine lives. Two daggers and an unsheathed knife sat beside the sword.
“Why so many weapons?” asked Paechra.
“Mistress Paechra, in such a large city one cannot know all. Often we have unsavory visitors and sometimes less than savory citizens. All have the right to defend themselves…” explained both of the truth keepers.
“And where so much treasure is piled up in one place it does not bode well to have so many citizens and visitors all armed,” added Gregory.
“So the skirmish developed from jealousy, disappointment and alcohol is allowed to spill out onto the city’s streets instead?” Paechra asked in a serious tone.
“The sages trust the citizens to behave whether they win lose or draw with each other. To make sure of this there are a few of us on hand at the end of every night,” one of the truth keepers explained.
“And this day there will be one extra,” laughed Gregory, his great arms ushering Raven and Paechra passed the weapons table and into the warehouse.
Paechra looked up as she entered to see great ladders lent against the walls, figures at the top of each one hammering wooden boards to block the day’s light from entering. Other figures were busily lighting torches illuminating the darkness.
“Raven, come and help us put this table together,” called Gregory. The blacksmith had a large round table under each arm. Beside their host was a man of similar build to Raven. In his arms this man was holding eight short table legs.
“I suppose while we are here we may as well help out,” said Raven.
“You help then and I will ask whether your father is here or not,” Paechra replied.
After erecting tables, chairs and helping put together a stage, Raven felt Gregory place ten silver pieces in his hand.
“These are for later,” the blacksmith murmured. “Keep them safe until the sages arrive.”
Raven nodded and added the coins to the few he had of his own.
“I have been told your father has been here and left already,” Paechra stated with a sigh.
“It seems the head of the Stormsong house is as difficult to catch as lightning itself,” Raven replied.
‘Lightning can be caught if you just know how and where to seek it,’ thought the druid to herself.
“Michael Stormsong was overheard saying that the dead should have stayed dead, or something along those lines,” Paechra stated.
“He could be back at one of the taverns we visited,” Gregory suggested.
To this idea the truth keeper Raven shook his head.
“I doubt that my sylva friend would like a second look at such establishments,” he said. “Perhaps we wait here and see if the mysterious Lord Michael returns,” added Paechra.
When the head of the Stormsong house still did not appear after another hour Paechra decided to take her leave.
“I am returning to the forge. With any luck we can still purchase something from the markets for our evening meal…” Paechra murmured as she lent in to speak with Raven.
“Of course,” Raven replied. “I believe we will not be a long time here. Gregory and I will meet you at the markets.”
“If not, fair Paechra, please take these two silver pieces for purchasing the meal for tonight,” Gregory stated, passing the sylva the offered coins.
Paechra thanked the blacksmith with a smile and turned away. As he bid his companion farewell, Raven felt Gregory guide him towards a table.
“I think I spotted your father here…” the blacksmith said.
The sylva turned her eyes skywards as she left the warehouse, noting the sun showing the time to be midday.
“I shall believe we have found your father when I see him with my own eyes,” whispered the sylva.
It was just before the bells tolled the first hour after noon when the three red robed sages arrived at the warehouse. Their appearance seemed to trigger the transformation of the warehouse from a peaceful crowd of citizens into a cloud of chaos that was the gambling hall. Citizens suddenly pushed and shoved each other, trying to get to the tables where the men in red robes positioned themselves. To the truth keeper it seemed as though the sages acted as conductors of the chaos, magnets that drew the coinage away from the citizens. It was something that Raven had never experienced ever in his life. Even the time he had spent upon the border, and the adventures he had survived since then, had done nothing to prepare him for the compulsive vices that filled the huge hall. The truth keeper vaguely recalled the hall once as being a factory where masters of carnivorous delights turned cattle into cuts of beef for the lucky, and offal and off cuts for the hungry. This was when he was a very young boy. Even before he had begun training as a truth keeper. Now the tools of the butcher’s trade were replaced with tables and chairs and so much noise. Every corner of the floor, every inch of the old warehouse was now covered in men and women throwing dice. Mountains of copper, silver, gold and jewels sat in the middle of the army of tables with smaller hills of treasure heaped before each one of the gamers.
“Now do you see?” Gregory had said.
At first Raven shook his head in disgust, an exact copy to how Paechra had responded to what Gregory had chosen to show them that morning with his boyish excitement.
As Gregory proudly explained the intricate taxation system to Raven, another creation of this sage Vladimir, the truth keeper had felt himself begin to believe that the chaos did suit the more modern style of the city and her citizens. However, something still did not sit right with Raven. He could not see how a crowded hall of gamblers helped a city pay its way, let alone in what way it assisted those who risked it all to change the pitiful nature of their existence.
‘Surely encouraging such entertainment would only lead to a city and a kingdom falling into ruin,’ Raven thought.
He vowed that he would discuss this with Paechra when they met again. It was at this moment that Raven was handed the dice.
Peachra had discovered the market district to be alive as the sun showed the day to be half over. The very moment she stepped out from the warehouse she was caught up in the crowd that had gathered during the hours she had spent in the warehouse. The call of merchants filled her sharply pointed ears, urging her to spend the few coins she had in her possession on pots, pans, gems and exotic fruits brought from the edges of Thuraen’s northern and southern borders. The druid was drawn to the delightful voice of a musician, a young boy with a strong and sweet voice who was surrounded by listeners. Each of the members of the gathered crowd were throwing a coin or valuable trinket into the singer’s cap which he had placed on the cobbled street just in front of his feet. Another musician, a harpist began to play nearby, elegantly plucking a graceful tune on her instrument, drawing some of the listeners away from the singer. Paechra opened her gift of druid’s sight and felt the anger of the singer touch her mind. The boy’s sweet voice waivered for a moment and a few more of the listening crowd turned their interest and their money toward the harpist. Still with her mind open, Paechra also moved away, seeking the food stalls and the spice sellers. In this area of the market district the very plants called to the druid, sending feelings of sadness at being removed from the earth. The insects buzzed in Paechra’s ears or sent to her basic feelings, complaining that the humans had waved them away from flowers, picked them off of the fruits they were enjoying. Paechra sent back feelings of reassurance, that they still fulfilled the will of the goddess. Along with three pieces of smoked fish Paechra purchased three plants baring small fruits and some spices to flavor the evening meal. With a caterpillar, the sylva shared a few of the leaves from a strawberry plant while enjoying the afternoon shade given by a sturdy tree in the garden district. She watched a pair of the plant’s leaves shrivel and turn brown as she took the essence from their deaths and gifted it to the little creature as it began to create a cocoon.
‘Be beautiful, in the image of the great goddess,’ willed Paechra, sending the thought as she privately worked her magic.
‘Lightheart… Seek the words upon the wall,” murmured a faint reply in her mind, so faint that the sylva almost did not hear it.
“Thank you,” whispered Paechra, searching the sky through the branches of the tree, seeking the source of the voice. A tiny sparrow hopped down from the branches and pecked with its small sharp beak, removing a ripe red berry from the strawberry plant. The creature stared at the sylva with first one and then the other of its cautious eyes.
‘Kindred spirit of the forests, the prophecy speaks to you,’ another faint voice, this one almost trilling sang in Paechra’s mind.
“As you so wish my goddess,” the druid laughed to herself. “How can I refuse the lady of fate and possibility?”
The bees buzzed, the birds sang, full of curiosity Paechra took her purchases from the markets back to the forge.
Still at the warehouse hours later, Raven thought of his sylvan friend. Was she safe? What had she bought at the market and with what money? That thought was drowned out by Gregory’s voice as the blacksmith shouted new instructions in his ear.
“Keep yer sixes and roll for a sword! Been playing truth keepers all night and they have treated you as they should’ve!”
The factory floor was now packed shoulder to shoulder and it was impossible to hear except when the blacksmith lent forward and he still had to bellow in Raven’s ear.
Raven looked back over his shoulder shouting to the blacksmith his concerns for Paechra, adding a quizzical look in case his words could not be heard. Gregory though only had eyes for the dice and the pile of treasure that Raven had managed to build from a few of the blacksmith’s silver coins.
‘I have witnessed Paechra carve through her enemies,’ thought the truth keeper, the drinks he had consumed up until now helping to convince him that the sylva was safe. Without another thought Raven took up two bone dice of six sides and rolled them lightly. A two and a six showed face up giving Raven three sixes at least. The truth keeper saw rather than heard the cussing from the four other players that sat at the table. The representative of the city with whom sat the responsibility of keeping the dice and more importantly keeping the rules, sat stone faced, passing the truth keeper a die of sixteen faces. This die contained eleven minor symbols representing the citizens eleven and then five major symbols representing the truth keepers, the sages and finally the extinct fool, a reflection of both the Kingdom of Thuraen in its earliest time and a celebration of the changes that had been suggested by Vladimir the Young and made law by King Fredrickson in present times.
Raven had learnt through Gregory’s instructions and explanations that this all important die made or foiled a gambler’s chance of winning. If the die rolled a low score then your treasure was surely lost. A higher picture value and it was then up to how your other dice had fallen to see if you gained a hoard or lost it all.
Raven felt the strange shaped die heavy in his hand. He sent it spinning across the small table, bouncing amongst the small piles of treasure dedicated to the roll of the dice.
The blacksmith smacked Raven upon the back with a booming chortle.
“None will match such a mighty throw!” he yelled, delighted with the result.
The others at the table agreed as they pushed their dice back towards the representative of the city.
“I declare the table’s champion…” announced the representative. “Roll to earn your winnings.”
Raven looked with confusion to Gregory for guidance.
“Now comes the hard part, lad. We roll against Andrapaal herself…” Gregory quickly explained.
“The champion has rolled a straight line of three, four, five and six. The city has rolled two sages of the yellow robes, two sages of the blue and a truth keeper.”
The odds were in favor of the city winning over all because the rules stated they roll five of the sixteen sided dice. The attraction to the citizens and other gamblers was that this gave the city an equal chance of rolling high or poorly. It was rare, but possible to out roll the city herself and win, but over all, the city every night came out ahead.
Raven let the last die fall from his hands. Gregory whispered the numbers two and seven over and over under his breath. As the die rolled Raven whispered the same. A lot of treasure sat heaped before him and treasure like that could tempt even the purest of hearts. Once again the sign of the sword showed face up. Crestfallen, Raven rose and left the table. Gregory stormed through the crowd after him.
As Raven left the table he felt himself caught up in the swell of the leaving crowd. The truth keeper noticed that the number of hung heads and faces filled with worry or woe he could see around him far outweighed the number of smiling faces, the features worn by those who had earned more than they had lost that night.
“So the rich become richer and the residents of the slums and the streets only increase in number. Somehow the sages record this in their great tomes as history,” he murmured to himself.
Raven had discovered firsthand the addictive nature of the game that Vladimir had created. It led players more often than not down the path to ruin and a life in the slums.
“Perhaps we can try taking back my silvers tomorrow night then?” Gregory enquired.
Raven smiled in reply.
‘A simple taste of such addiction leaves me feeling sick with worry,’ Raven thought to himself.
“Maybe…” the truth keeper replied. “Then again I’d prefer not…” Raven replied.
“But you must compete..! It is written and therefore it is law,” Gregory exclaimed, stopping mid-stride. The crowd swirled around the pair as Raven examined the blacksmith, not believing what he had heard.
“Is it still a crime to steal from a friend?” asked the truth keeper.
“Of course,” replied the blacksmith indignantly. “It is a crime to steal from anyone.”
“Then how can the city… no how can the sages, especially the sage who wears the silver sash steal from the people of Andrapaal their possessions and then label those who refuse to play their game as the criminals?” asked Raven.
“They give you a chance to win it back?” the blacksmith replied with a shrug.
Vladimir left the king’s personal chambers pale faced and at great speed. Weariness from the late hour played a part in his poorly way. What had mostly given him his off complexion was the surprise the king had delivered.
“Chief of all the sages. How is it possible none thought it important to tell me of an arriving heir,” he muttered as he hurried through the corridors.
Vladimir noted to himself that he needed to speak with his brother sages. In the kingdom of knowledge it did not sit well that the head of the knowledge keepers did not know all.
Far to the east of Andrapaal, beyond where the border between the sylvi lands and the lands of the Kingdom of Thuraen remained unguarded, Paechra’s sister druids tended the great trees of the forest that were their responsibility. This was Spiritgrove, a temperate land similar to that of the Kingdom of Thuraen, but where the human kind enjoyed the mild warmth of summer, the sylva lavished in the wondrous showers of an easy winter.
Sheltering from this damp in the forest hut she called home, the thoughts of Ambrosia, the mother druid turned to Paechra, her only student to have traveled abroad. Such thoughts caused Ambrosia discomfort, as the circumstances under which her pupil had left the community were ill fated according to the forest sprites.
“Well enough,” grumbled the head of the druids of Spiritgrove and she swatted at a fairy that buzzed about her ears chattering constantly.
The role of a druid was that of keeper of the forest, but even before that role had been named it had been far greater responsibility than just the tending of the great trees. The lady goddess, the unnamed deity of neutrality and balance in the world had gifted the druids with the ability to source power from their surroundings, in exchange for granting all living things protection.
Now the little goblin sprites from beneath the earth, the fairies that made their homes in the clouds, the creatures from the waters, and the spirits of the stones themselves all spoke to the druids, telling them of wrong doings in the world, of the secrets kept in men’s hearts, and of all things that troubled them so.
It was one of the frustrating results of being the first amongst druids that Ambrosia heard all that these sprites wished to say. Even when she wished to have peace to think her own thoughts, the mother druid had a fairy chattering in one ear while a goblin droned in her other. Ambrosia clicked her tongue at the goblin, offering sympathy for the creature’s simple worries, the fairy she silenced with a knowing smile.
On this occasion both creatures wished her to comfort the High Prince. As luck had it, the mother druid’s thoughts on Paechra concerned the High Prince too. She wrapped her cloak about her ancient frame and ventured out into the rain.
So silently did Ambrosia move up to the Head Prince of the Spiritgrove sylva that she could see the very veins of his tensed muscles, bow string on his great bow drawn back before he twitched, an indication that her presence had been discovered. The rain continued to pour about the pair. Four goblins arose from the soil, like curious moles as they detected the presence of the mother druid. They remained to watch the prince in his tense pose, but vanished underground again as Ambrosia narrowed her eyes and flung her hands in their direction in a vigorous sign that she wished them gone.
“Fire the shaft at your leisure, Lord Prince,” Ambrosia stated simply, her melodic voice ageless, unlike her facial features that showed evidence of her multitude of years.
The High Prince shot enchanted arrows at a vorsurk-like dummy, five of the shafts had already pierced a variety of lethal targets, the sixth effortlessly found yet another killer mark. Ambrosia had to squint in the downpour to site the target, for it was many yards away. She noted the accuracy, but her knowledge of the prince and his famed ability with the bow left her unsurprised. The High Prince was alone. Normally he would have been surrounded by supporters, a few protectors, and family, but this state of loneliness had been his request since the disappearance of his brother.
“I worry for my student, Paechra,” Ambrosia began lightly.
At the mention of the druid’s name the seventh shaft let fly. It was the first arrow to miss the target, whizzing past at a pace that would rival a lightning flash, as the enchantment upon the shaft instructed it to do.
“The scroll that we wrote together seems to have been sufficient to see Paechra through to the kingdom of the humans,” the mother druid continued, undaunted by such a scene.
The High Prince shouldered his great bow and twisted about to face the ancient druid, anger flashed across his handsome features, but it was gone almost before Ambrosia could register that it was there.
“To hear such a name troubles me still,” sighed the High Prince.
Ambrosia merely nodded. She understood completely the emotional fight and tough decisions that the High Prince expressed in such a simple statement.
The sylva fired off three more arrows, each one flying true and hitting its mark. The mother druid left the High Prince at peace. When he was ready to speak, Astran, High Prince of the sylva of Spiritgrove knew where it was that Ambrosia would be. He would come, and when he did, Ambrosia vowed that she would do everything she could to help her student. As the mother druid mouthed her vow the forest sprites around her vanished quickly to spread the news. Of the whole of the community that called Spiritgrove home, even the fairies loved Paechra. There was only one who did not. Athun, Low Prince of Spiritgrove concerned Ambrosia greatly. The mother druid narrowed her eyes and cursed, for she hated feeling concerned.
Billy the inn keeper sucked air past the gaps in his teeth. Those that knew him well knew too that the shrill, but soft whistle was a sign that the big man was thinking.
“Sorry, stranger,” Billy stated with a frown. “The girl that you’re so anxious and antsy to see hasn’t been anywhere near these parts.”
“This… news… pleases… me,” the stranger forcefully replied, seemingly tasting each of the words before he spoke them.
The way that the strange figure’s face distorted as he slowly formed the sentence made Billy doubt just how pleased the figure actually was.
“Sounds like a beauty of a catch,” joked Billy, trying to lighten the moment. “Sister or lover?” he added with a smirk, thinking his comment ammusing.
The stranger replied with a voiceless, icy frown, a look that caused the usually flapless Billy great discomfort.
“Perhaps you’d be liking to bunk down for the evening, and continue this important search at the sun’s rising?” Billy suggested, dropping his eyes from the stranger’s harsh ones. To the relief of the innkeeper, the stranger turned those eyes away and considered the darkness beyond the inn’s open door. Billy scratched at the stubble on his chin as he awaited a response, his right hand holding the quill poised above the ledger, ready to record the stranger’s details. Heron’s Nest inn, which Billy owned, was located in a farming community so far off the Path of Truth that it was not named on any official maps. Visitors were limited, always the lost who had strayed from the main road, and the curious who wished to discover the unknown parts of the kingdom. The pages of the ledger that recorded those who stayed the night at the Heron’s Nest usually remained blank. Billy felt a slight tingle of excitement at the chance of finally scribbling down a name, even the name of this awkward creature that may not have been human. His years as a student sage had seemed a waste as Billy poured ale after ale, without a chance to write a single word. The gentle sound of a drop of black ink splattering upon the page broke the silence.
“Nay,” stated the stranger, with unnecessary force. “I… must… continue my… travels,” he added, gently this time.
Billy again sucked in a deep, thoughtful breath.
“Are ya sure?” the innkeeper asked, “Big storm is coming in, and I must say you definitely do not want to be caught out in one of our summer storms…”
“Is… that… a…” the stranger growled, the snail like speed that he spoke the words making Billy nervous.
“A threat? Nah,” the innkeeper stated quickly. “All I’m saying is that the lightning show from a summer storm out this way is better enjoyed from one of the inn’s comfortable rooms.”
Billy held his breath, expecting a blow, or some other physical response from this figure before him. When nothing came, the figure motionless, seemingly without emotion, Billy pushed his luck further.
“You’d not want to be caught out on our roads tonight. That is definitely no threat; more a suggestion… Consider it merely some friendly advice.”
The stranger’s face screwed up again as he pondered over this new information.
“The… outdoors and I… have… an… UNDERSTANDING,” said the stranger with a mysterious smile. The final word of the statement was said with such conviction that Billy believed him.
“As you wish,” the innkeeper whispered, under his breath, focusing entirely upon getting the quill nib back into the pot of black ink while his hands shook. When Billy finally stilled his digits and looked up again from the ledger before him he was not too surprised to find that the stranger had gone. Like winter snow, the unique figure had blown in through the doors of the Heron’s Nest without a sound. Like the snow too, the figure had seemingly just melted away. Billy pondered for a moment, wondering if this stranger’s visit was something that needed recording. He smacked his lips and laughed. This was exactly the sort of thing the Kingdom of Thuraen needed to know. To accurately pen what he had just witnessed was the very reason he had learnt his letters. It was just a great pity that if his words were read, they would probably be never believed.
Paechra counted the stairs to the palace as she climbed them, two at a time. The very spirits had instructed her to satisfy her curiosity, had hinted that there was a secret hidden within the writing upon the prophetic wall. Paechra was eager to discover exactly what it was that the goddess needed her to know. At the top of the flight she was blocked by the crowd of citizens that were lined up, patiently waiting to record their business in the city.
“Sister, how long have you spent in Andrapaal?” asked one of the humans.
Paechra did not recognize the face of the speaker but she did find a familiarity in the tone of the voice. Spiritgrove was close enough to a human settlement for Paechra’s kindred to mingle with that race on occasion, to trade goods, to create bonds of trust between forest dwellers, sometimes to even develop deeper relationships. Although Paechra herself had not mixed with the humankind before her travels into the Kingdom of Thuraen she had heard stories from her kin. Travels with Raven and time spent eating and sleeping in the villages and towns before coming to the city of Andrapaal gave the sylva confidence to speak with such humans.
“Less than half a year, far less time than my father,” the druid confessed.
“I too am only a month or so away from my family and the forest. I am Ivor, a carver of sculptures from wood… Dead wood that I am given by the great Goddess herself,” said the face, offering both of his hands in the official greeting of the Sweetwater sylva.
“I am Paechra, of the Lightheart family. I herald from Spiritgrove,” stated the druid in reply. She in turn offered only one hand, the traditional hand shake of her clan.
“We will not have you speak of any gods or goddesses within the fine city of Andrapaal,” a gruff voice behind Paechra and Ivor demanded. “Such talk is banned.”
Paechra and Ivor turned to see that this command came from one of the many truth keepers who mingled about the palace entrance.
“I am not yet a citizen,” pleaded Ivor, his arms open and his palms up in a sign of surrender.
“The girl is recorded as one of us, for now anyway,” the truth keeper answered abruptly.
“I sense the power of a druid within her. Your laws cannot change who she is,” replied Ivor with a smile and a shrug.
“Druid or not, all must obey the laws of our kingdom,” the truth keeper stated before moving away.
“Is it truly that obvious?” laughed Paechra.
“Indeed servant of the lady Herself. I see power in your eyes, as friendly as they are,” Ivor whispered.
“You are daughter of that sylva sage!” announced another nearby voice from within the crowd. As the packed line surged forward the owner of the voice, a young lady dressed in a bright orange dress allowed the waiting citizens to flow by her so she could get closer to Paechra and Ivor.
“I am Ella, and my daughter is Luna,” the lady stated as an introduction. Cradled protectively in her thin arms she nursed a child who would have been only weeks old.
“Such a small one to be traveling,” said Ivor.
Paechra smiled at the child and imagined that she saw the tiny girl smile back.
“My child and I are part of a band traveling beyond Andrapaal. We left the south and are hoping to find a new life further north,” Ella explained. There was something in the way that the lady lowered her head as she spoke that made Paechra open her druid sight and look again at the mother and her young child. The sylva felt a sudden sadness fill her. A dark shadow outlined the woman while a sickly green colour tinged the baby’s face, limbs and where her heart strongly beat.
“By my limited power, I offer you a gift from the great Lady of Possibilty,” announced Paechra quietly. As she placed her fingers upon both Ella and Luna she felt part of her life fade and transfer to the two humans. Ivor cried out weakly as he witnessed the blue light suddenly flare upon the sylva’s fingertips. As the magic touched both mother and daughter the feeling of sadness left Paechra replaced with a great sense of joy.
“I never thought in my life I would ever witness that! Especially so deep within Thuraen’s lands,” whispered Ivor in awe of what he had seen.
“Thank you for your gift, mistress,” Ella whispered before she was pulled forward, into the palace by the surging crowd.
“Mistress!” called another voice.
“Druid girl, I have a sick child!” called another, further away.
Paechra tried to ignore the voices as the wall containing the prophecy came into view.
“Please come this way to us, mistress! We beg that you please smile upon us to know that we too have the blessing of your goddess!” called more voices, pleading for Paechra to look their way.
With her special sight Paechra saw their needs shown as horrid orange smears across their faces or dark brown and blue shadows that shimmered about above them. The worst was seeing the black winged butterfly, symbol of the dark god and sign of impending death.
“There is nothing I can do for you,” murmured Paechra to those who were marked in such a way. As she spoke her voice was full of regret.
“Silence!!” boomed Vladimir, wading his way into the crowd, flanked on one side by the truth keeper Anton and on the other by another sage dressed in blue robes.
SYLVA DAYS ARE NUMBERED whispered a voice in Paechra’s mind. The same very words plainly could be seen by Paechra written in her native tongue. She read the prophecy quickly, ignoring anything that was not written in the sylva alphabet.
THEY WHO YOU SEEK MAY BE FOUND IN THE CITY BENEATH
“Where is the city beneath? Is this where my father is hidden?” whispered Paechra. She looked away from the words on the huge wall to see the blurred features of Vladimir, a young boy mixed with an old man, both faces tinted by a dark shadow of crimson.
“I’ll not have my palace disrupted by your presence, mistress Paechra,” announced Vladimir.
Paechra closed off her druidic sight and focused upon the ancient face before her.
“I wish only to see what it is that has kept my father so long from his family and his people,” replied Paechra, meeting Vladimir’s gaze.
“Sylva, I shall escort you back to the forge. Perhaps you can visit the prophecy of Andrapaal again tomorrow? Midday seems to be a time when most are seeking a meal…” Anton suggested. As he left Vladimir’s side the silver sashed truth keeper took Paechra by the hand and led her through the crowd.
“Farewell mysterious mistress,” whispered Ivor. “Beyond this city and its laws we may meet again.”
“I look forward to it,” replied the sylva while Ivor could still hear her.
Anton led Paechra through the streets of Andrapaal in silence.
“I meant nothing by my visit. Such a disruption was never my intention,” stated Paechra. Her truth keeper guide nodded sympathetically. When they finally reached the forge Anton broke his silence.
“Please mistress, your presence is a fascination for humans living so far from the forested lands of our kingdom. Vladimir has seen with your father just how such an exotic presence can disrupt the day to day running of a city. We ask that you restrict your travels through our city,” explained the truth keeper kindly.
“I will not be kept captive in your city or in a city supposedly owned by anyone else,” replied Paechra crossly.
“Your father is merely a captive of curiosity,” said Anton. “And like him you are free to explore our streets at your leisure. We merely ask that you allow us to live our lives.”
“I shall request that Raven show me his city then,” said the sylva.
“If that is what you wish. Sleep away the day then. I expect your friend to be at my gate as the sun announces the dawn of another day,” stated Anton.
“Until Raven can unravel the mystery of why you, Anton of the silver sash lord over the Stormsong family home, I doubt he will be showing up at your gate anytime soon,” stated Paechra with a friendly smile.
Anton sighed. “I guess it shall have to be as he wishes,” the truth keeper stated. “Good night, Mistress sylva. I am certain that our paths will cross again,” he added solemnly, bowing deeply as he left.
“I am certain we shall,” Paechra murmured as she watched the truth keeper go.
Timothy Law is a writer of fantasy, horror, detective fiction, general fiction and everything else that pops into his head. He heralds from a little town in Southern Australia called Murray Bridge. A happily married father of three, family is very important to him. Currently working at the Murray Bridge Library in the role of Library Manager he has dreamed since his early high school years of becoming a full-time author. Working for a library, surrounded by so many wonderful stories it is difficult not to be inspired to write. Many of his short stories and general musings can be found on The World of Myth magazine website, his blog - There Are Some Who Call Me... Tim! or on the Parenting Express website. Tim is also the author of the fantasy novel The Eleventh Tome, book one of The Prophecies of Andrapaal. He has a multitude of other novel ideas floating around in his mind. All he now needs is what every author wishes for, time, a little peace and quiet and of course a willing and understanding publisher. While seeking what seems to be the impossible he somehow finds time for scotch and board games with his brother-in-law, family movie nights and weekends away with his wonderful wife.