he sun beamed brightly overhead as the citizens gathered together at the plaza. Carefully, father drove the mare on through the streets. The wagon ride was long and they had to ride from their house on the outskirts of town early in the morning to get there on time. Wide-eyed, the boy had stared at the curious neighborhoods they passed through, and gawked in wonder at the enormous walls of the old city boundaries. When they arrived, there was already a huge crowd assembled. The market people had opened their stalls early, eager to vend food and goods to the throng of citizens gathered together. There are so many different races at the center of the city, the boy thought. He had seen a few Elves and Dwarves before in taverns and shops back home in their outlying district. He had even seen some Orc children before when he dared to venture close to the outskirts of Orctown. But here were creatures assembled together the likes of which he'd never imagined. Enormous creatures with horns on their heads, others with shaggy hair all over their bodies, some with long, pink, tails, and still others whose skin had the appearance of stone.
Then the crowd began to cheer. Father lifted the boy up on his shoulder and turned around abruptly. He pointed toward the window of a high tower perched on the City Hall. It was called the King's Tower, father explained. Intrigued, Tavis gazed at the pink glow of the tower dome glass as mid-morning light shone through it. Then, a man appeared. Tan-skinned even as the boy was. The man waved, and the crowd began cheering even louder. An older woman placed a sash on the man, then a robe. The crowd began to chant. The man bowed to the crowd, then stood erect again and waved to them from the tower. The crowd continued chanting a name over and over.
The boy leaned down and spoke in his father's ear.
"Speak up son!" his father shouted in reply. "I can't hear you over the crowd!"
"I said, who is that man in the tower?"
Father smiled. "Why Tavis, that's our new Enteroh!"
"How long is he going to stay like that?" piqued the young elf girl. She heard about magic before, but could not recall ever having seen a creature like the one seated before her. The cloak hung about it's hunched, frail body like the hide on a tired, old mare. She turned her head gradually to look into the hood of the cowl that covered it's head.
It wasn't really a head, either. At the best of times, it had the ephemeral appearance of smoke. Now that the creature was in it's trance, it almost seemed to be even more vaporous -if that were possible, like it would just seep out of the robe and across the ground. It didn't though; Just held together -by what power the girl did not know, the eerie glowing orbs hovering inside the cowl where a man's eyes should be.
The eyes. She never thought she could sleep soundly again, she said inwardly, remembering the first time the creature stared at her, piercing pinpricks of scarlet light searing through the air between them, penetrating her own eyes like a pair of ruby needles. They did not seem as threatening now, absorbed as the creature was in its trance, the wan, crimson light eerily illuminating the inner folds of it's hood, while all around permeated the darkness of forest and night.
"Get away from him, Gin," scolded the young man crouched nearby. The pale moon pulled a faint glow and moonshadow across his thick, black hair and the firm muscles of his shoulders and arms which protruded from his simple tunic. "How can you stand to look at that wraith, much less be near it?"
The girl glared at him. "You're not my dad, Tavis, and you're sure not my stupid brother either!" The moon traced lines around her sharp, Elven features also, the darkness unable to hide her ancestry. "You could pass for him though, the way you order me around!"
"Thee weey yeew eerder mee eereund!" Tavis snapped back, mocking her prominent Elven accent, twisting up his face as he did so.
"Quiet, you two!" The baritone voice seemed to come from the very ground on which they crouched. In fact, it rumbled out from deep within the chest of the beast that towered beside them, as he stared intently out into the gloom in the direction of the inn. It caught the girl by surprise, and she looked up with a start, ashamed at the very instant that she was so taken aback. Black eyes like obsidian peeking out through the pits in his head. -That was always wrong, she thought, that tiny head on top of that big, thick body. It's so little on top of all those muscles. Massive brawn clung to the rawboned frame, knotted up so tight at the joints that they seemed to want to break free of his pink-tinted skin. Seeing him standing there, hearing his voice, it made her uneasy. She had only seen one of these beasts on one previous occasion when her father took her to Temacus. She stole a peek when they passed by the fighting pits on their way to the bazaar. BeHemoths, they were called. At first, she thought the beast was conjured up from Belza, the way it grunted and roared, and charged.
Tavis was startled as well, but did a better job at hiding it. He too, jerked his head up toward the BeHemoth. "It said to watch it's body for a moment, not to go poking into its robe," he mumbled in protest.
"Silence, the pair of you." the conjurer hissed. He was peering out toward the inn, in the same direction as the BeHemoth. Moonlight glinted like water off of the widow-peaked silver hair and ponytail which ran down his back. Rhoden wasn't all that old, Tavis thought, a man of thirty some-odd summers… But already his hair had taken on a shiny silvery tone. The conjurer turned and the subtle, silver runes on his cobalt robes caught the moonlight as well. He didn't follow up with any further scolding, just turned quietly back to stare at the inn. Tavis didn't know which one he distrusted more, the taciturn conjurer or the enigmatic wraith.
Suddenly the cloak seized and filled, like a lung gasping in breath. Slowly, the garment rose off the ground where it hunched, as though it was suspended on a wire. It turned smoothly and drifted over toward Rhoden extending a hand out of a loose-fitting sleeve. Black tendrils of fingers uncurled. They looked more like tentacles, thought the young man. Too many joints on the fingers, too. The wraith gently placed the tips of the wispy fingers against the temple, ear, and cheek of the conjurer. A long, uneasy moment passed while they stood poised, hard hazel eyes staring into fiery, red orbs. At length the hand dropped, they parted, and Rhoden looked on at the company.
"Zeyn says that they are in the inn."
Then that is where the lance is, the dark-haired youth thought.
Mother was humming as she stood over the stove, cooking the evening meal. The boy squatted on the floor playing with the top that uncle Wiljes gave him for Solven's day. That day was a lot of fun, the boy thought. He had hoped that he might go to the center of town for the parade, but father had to work that day. Father had to work a lot lately. He missed seeing him in the afternoons like he used to.
And then the door swung open. Tavis jerked his head up to look at the door, a smile broadening his face. "Dad!" he cheered.
But then Tavis saw his father's face and his smile faded. The old man's brow was furrowed, his mouth was drawn down in a frown, and his eyes were like glass as he glared out across the house.
Tavis bolstered his smile, thinking that perhaps he might cheer up his father. "Daddy!" he shouted as father entered the room.
"Hello, son," his father replied mechanically, tousling Tavis' hair as he walked by.
Tavis ran after him to the kitchen. Hearing him, mother turned around and spread her arms to embrace him. "Jovis! How was your day?"
"Hello, petal," father replied, kissing her perfunctorily on the cheek. He gave her a brief embrace and then took a loaf of bread off the shelf behind her, and trudged to the table. He plopped down on a chair, tore off the end and popped it into his mouth. Absently, he chewed on it for awhile, and then spoke.
"The emporium raised the shelving fees for me leathers again."
Mother knitted her brow. "Again? But they just raised them a month ago."
"What else can they do? The Enteroh raised the land taxes again? It's all they can do to stay in business! Some of the shop owners have had to close down entirely!"
Mother looked on earnestly.
Father tore off another chunk of bread. "Bleedin' Enteroh. How's a man like that get into the Hall anyway?"
Tavis looked at his father with sad eyes. Father said a lot of bad things about the Enteroh lately, the dark-haired boy thought. At first it seemed that father liked him when he was the new Enteroh, but he was always angry with him now, it seemed.
"Here… Come on, just give me your hands!" Gin snapped, dabbing some more sticky white powder onto her rag.
"Isn't my face enough?" the youth protested, "Here, I'll just wear the sleeves real low over my hands and no one will see."
"You're going to have to take your hands out at some point. Now give them to me!" She took him by surprise then, clutching one of his hands instantly and turning it over to see the palm. A horrified look crossed her face as she saw wicked the burn marks on them.
"Ho, Tavis… What happened to you?"
"None of your business. -Here, just put the powder on, okay!"
"All right, all right, you don't have to yell at me!" Delicately, the Elf girl began applying powder to the youth's palms, knuckles, and fingers.
"How come Rhoden doesn't have to put any of this on?" Tavis protested.
"Cause his skin is light enough already. He comes from the highlands, you know. That's really not too far from Noriel -My dad used to go there on trips- Of course the Elves here are a little paler…"
"Doesn't anyone up here ever see the sun? -Hey! You're getting it on the sleeves!"
"If you'd just quit fussing this would all be done now."
"Stuff stinks, too. Where'd you find this awful powder?"
Tavis' eyes shot to the conjurer who responded, with a gentle gaze and a little finger-wiggle wave.
"Well hurry up!" Tavis barked again, grumbling and muttering curses the whole time.
They had to leave Brogan behind. There was no way they could disguise his features, and no way to conceal his bulk. It was a pity, too, thought Tavis, always feel more secure when Brogan's around… They didn't think Zeyn would come either; they had no idea how to disguise his features, but he stood resolutely, waiting for the remainder of the company to ready themselves, leading the group to the inn when they were finally prepared.
The conjurer and the youth had managed to alter their clothing somewhat to comply more with current Elven fashions. They also took the precaution to cover up their ears by brushing their hair down and donning their foul-weather cloaks with the cowl drawn low over their faces.
"I wonder if this is how Zeyn feels all the time?" Tavis mused from within the dank, musty cowl, brushing away the locks of thick, black hair that tickled his face.
"Ssshh!" Rhoden replied sharply.
Like specters, they came walking out of the woods. If they could just get past the guard at the door, they would have no trouble blending in with the other patrons in the dim light of the inn. Everyone noticed that Zeyn had pulled his hood completely over his head, completely covering the searing red orbs of eyes. As they approached, the guard stood up from her chair, holding a wicked-looking spear menacingly.
"Shafon! Yje nes quo?" the guard barked out the words as they approached. Now was Ginny's time to shine. The small elf girl advanced to the front of the company, her walking stick dwarfing her tiny frame.
"Yje nes po," she replied confidently. "Yje nes senk Noriel jo." It bothered Tavis that they had to rely on this waif to get them through the door.
The Elven guard and Elven girl exchanged a few more words in their urbane tongue. The guard then looked up and squinted at the group. A firm-jawed, silver-haired patrician not yet to his middle years, she noted, a dark-haired Elven youth, perhaps when I was younger… and a fourth hiding his face in the hood of his cloak. The guard reached up and grabbed the back of the hood. Tavis gasped. Rhoden's face was stone. Gin rocked back and forth from one foot to the other. The guard yanked the hood from his head.
The members of the company stifled on their gasps. Two red eyes hung suspended above the cloak The supernatural light glaring out like a beacon. Swarming about the eyes was that uncanny mist of which the creature was composed, buzzing, as it were, like insects where its head should be.
The guard peered at the revealed face and smiled. Here's handsome one… cheekbones stark and perched under blue eyes, strong jawline, eyebrows dark, slanted, pointed ears perking up from long, blonde hair which fell gracefully about his broad shoulders…
A delicious smile appeared under parted lips as the guard smiled. "Yje pues entre," she cooed. Then as an afterthought, "Ilje pues tchriff co mi passe pere en bespe, men asiz." She stood by and let the travelers enter.
The company set foot in the vestibule to the inn. A warm fireplace blazed at the far wall, and a homey oaken chandelier hung overhead, suspended by iron chains. Quickly, they company was seated at a table near the door. Tavis looked at Gin.
"Well, what did you tell her?"
"That you were Eremites from the temple in Noriel and that I was your shteil."
"Your, eh, squire… announcer… traveling companion… -You really haven't got a word for it."
"And she believed it?"
"We're in, aren't we?"
Tavis paused and then looked over to Zeyn, who had covered his head up his hood again. "What did she say to him afterward?" he inquired, motioning to the wraith.
Gin looked down at her hands. "She said that ah… he could meet her later for a drink… or something."
Tavis' jaw went slack. He looked over at Zeyn. "How about that…" he said after a moment. "Ungodly banshee out of your worst nightmare… and a ladies man."
The band of minstrels in the corner ended their tune and the patrons gave up a warm applause. The leader of the minstrels stood up holding his mandolin and began to speak to the crowd in the Elven tongue. Thanking them, Tavis thought, possibly announcing their next song, a request perhaps, behaving like a performer above all.
Tavis looked down to the bowl of stew before him that Gin ordered. He poked at it with his spoon a few times, then lifted it to his mouth and sucked out the gravy, taste of meat and wood on his tongue.
The minstrels began to strum, blow, and beat their instruments again. Tavis looked up, scanning the faces of the other members of the company. Rhoden and Gin were both quietly consuming their food. Zeyn sat like a statue on the seat, cowl drawn back over his head, his bowl of stew untouched and growing cold.
Rhoden nudged Tavis and signaled to the far end of the room. A fireplace was elegantly adorned and a huge fire roared within. Before it was a huge oak table; the largest in the inn. Tavis quickly identified the men seated about it: Mjorda's men. Ruffians, hunters, trappers, many of them wearing the pelts of strange animals. They were joking and laughing loudly, clapping each other on the shoulders, swilling their ale, and ripping chunks of flesh from great drumsticks. Shields, weapons, and pouches cluttered about the seats and floor. Leaning up against a seat at the end of the table stood what appeared to be a large pole, covered with canvas and secured with twine.
Tavis looked to Rhoden, wide eyed. "The lance!"
"Keep your voice down," the conjurer rebuked, looking down into his stew again.
"How are we going to get it?" Tavis whispered.
"It's your pursuit. Haven't you got a plan?"
Tavis' brow knitted. He looked across the table and noticed that Gin had been eavesdropping. "Have you got any ideas?" he said, his irritation showing.
Gin bit her lip and looked over at the ruffians. "They're being pretty noisy. We could probably just sneak up there and take it if we had some sort of distraction."
"What? Just take it? You don't think they'd be careless enough to just let someone take it right out of their hands?" Tavis snapped.
"It worked when they took it from you." Gin countered, her voice flat.
Tavis glared at her, eyes squinting, mouth pursed. Rhoden nudged him again, interrupting. "I will provide the distraction," he declared, "while you seize the lance."
Some plan, Tavis thought.
The boy looked over the crates and boxes piled high in the front room and out the door. He checked again in the box which held the items from his room, making sure that Uncle Wiljes top was secure within the box. Father came into the room with some more boxes. It seemed he wore a scowl almost all the time now. He hadn't shaved in some time. He and mother fought a lot more lately.
"Jovis," mother spoke, a sharpness in her voice, "I have lived all my life in Piruville. Since I was a child we had to put up with hard times -harder than this! Why must we move now?"
"Because, petal, there is work for a tanner in Rhendale and living is not so expensive!" father shouted over his shoulder.
"But the neighborhood… when I went there with you on Dreisday it looked like an absolutely criminal part of town!" mother pleaded in response.
"Well I'm used to it, after dealing with the likes of the emporium foremen and the king's bleedin' mercenaries."
Mother bit her lip. "I'm concerned about Tavis. All his friends are here. The foundation is just nearby where he can be schooled. Besides, I don't want him growing up in that element."
Father turned to her, exasperated. "Well at least he will grow up, because if he stays here, he'll starve with his parents."
Mother ground her teeth together. She clenched her hands into fists and stormed from the room. Father looked down at the boy.
"C'mon, son. Help your dad put the boxes in the wagon."
Tavis got up from the table and sauntered around the room, trying to be obvious about admiring the decoration. Passing by the fireplace, he looked up at the mantle. An enormous Strok's head was perched above, horns arching back and eyes glittering. A bit too lifelike, Tavis thought. Hunter's spears were crossed above it and below was a banner with bold Elven writing on it.
Pausing, the dark-haired youth looked back to the table where his companions sat. Rhoden looked back. They held gazes for a moment and then Tavis gave Rhoden his best well, go on look. In response, Rhoden picked up his mug and began taking a long, slow draught.
Tavis turned away angrily and began muttering something about conjurers and wraiths and Elven girls and how could anyone work with people like this.
Then the fireplace erupted.
The musicians stopped playing instantly. The lively chatter of the inn died in a heartbeat, and was immediately replaced with screams of alarm. The ruffians, whose table was closest to the fireplace took the brunt of the blast. Flames lashed out at the table and chairs. The hunter who sat at the head was ignited, his leathers and animal skins caching the flames easily.
Tavis leapt back in shock. All about him, he could hear the resounding popping noise of wood in an inferno. Some of the hunters leapt from the table, clothing on fire, waving their arms about uselessly.
And then Tavis regained his composure. The lance had been kicked onto the floor and had rolled over by the fireplace. Tavis shielded his eyes from the inferno as he glared at it. Already the flames were beginning to lick at the canvas covering.
Keep your wits lad, hold your head together! He could hear his old mentor bellowing in the back of his mind. Tavis spied a stoker for the fireplace hanging on the wall nearby. He took it from its hook and reached out toward the lance. After a few unsuccessful stabs at it, he hooked it in the canvas and dragged it toward him, pulling it away from the flames. He picked it up and turned, gasping from the heat, and dashed right into one of the minstrels.
"Lad're! Lad're!" the musician screamed, taking hold of Tavis' tunic. Tavis immediately sought to shake free, but the minstrel held him fast. Focus, boy! He could hear his mentor's voice again. Tavis paused, ducked, went under the minstrel's arm, threaded his leg behind the minstrel's and gave a forceful shove, sending the tunesmith to the ground. He turned again, searching for his friends.
Instead he saw the hunters, eyeing him with a burning glare. They had heard the minstrel's cry. Those who were unburnt, picked up their weapons and headed for him. Tavis searched for an escape route, but the inn was packed with bodies. He cried for his companions but could not be heard over the cries of "Majee! Majee!" which now came from the patrons. The hunters rushed for him.
Then the wall behind the youth spewed outbelch out, bricks and timber hailing into the room. Behind it was the bulk, ruddy figure of the BeHemoth. Tavis' look of fear transposed to relief.
"Brogan!" cried Tavis. The BeHemoth shook off mortar and wood and looked up at the youth.
He took a step forward and the ruffians were on him. The shaft of a bo staff cracked down on Brogan's back and snapped on impact. Brogan turned, flailing his arms as he did. Two ruffians took the brunt of his fists and flew back into two more. He turned again to the youth.
"Come on!" he screamed, and swept up Tavis, lance and all in one of his mighty arms. He leapt atop a distant table the flames had not yet reached. With another bound, he reached the chandelier. He swung through the air holding Tavis like a lame animal. With a resounding thud, he descended into the midst of their traveling companions.
Only to find that they had problems of their own. An Elven woman of mature years stepped from the shadows. She was wearing well-fitting ebon leathers and wore the insignia of the Elven police. Backing her were three other Elven guards wielding wicked-looking spears. They kept their distance, however.
And then Tavis realized why. The elf woman began chanting. She raised her hands and a glowing ball of energy was forming between them. Her eyes fixed on the group like the icy stare of fate.
Zeyn sprang out before her like a bowstring. Where had he come from?, thought Tavis. The cowl had fallen away from Zeyn's head and the sinister red orbs of his eyes pierced vividly in the dim light. The space between the orbs seemed to take on a tangible quality like a globe of frost. At once, a spear of glistening light shot out from Zeyn's head and struck the Elven woman in the brow. She went down, falling into the guards behind her, the light globe dispersing instantly. She hit the floor convulsing, fluid pouring from her eyes and ears.
"Over here!" came an impulsive cry that could only belong to Ginny. The company looked up and saw her by the door. As a body, they rushed, Brogan at the lead, going through anything that wouldn't get out of his way. The rest followed through the tunnel of rubble and fire the BeHemoth left in his wake.
And then the cool air of the night filled their lungs. They dashed for the concealment of the woods, hoping the calamity would conceal their departure. They entered the glen where they had gathered before, panting and heaving from the sprint. Calmly, Zeyn hovered behind them.
Then Gin reached up and began punching Rhoden in the buttocks and back of his thighs. Rhoden gave a half-turn and grabbed her head with one strong hand, pushing her out of striking distance. Gin threw a few more blows into thin air, then caught her breath in half a dozen huffs.
"You stupid! Don't you know that magic is forbidden in Noriel? That was a stupid distraction!" she cried. There were tears in her eyes, but whether they came from smoke or fear, he couldn't tell. His face clenched to a scowl and his eyes locked on her.
"Run, girl. They will come for us soon."