Vhindr whistled a pleasant tune as he skipped down the stairs of the inn and paid his bill to the man at the front desk before heading outside to where the horses already waited for him.
As he came out the door Legin smiled to him and joined in with whistling the song, Bel’eak was quick to join in as well causing Kōrrin shake his bald head at them.
“Enough with the cursed whistling,” Valianna grumbled irritably as she slowly came from the inn.
“Someone is in a bad mood,” Vhindr remarked lightly.
“Rot in the Abyss Vhindr,” Valianna snapped back as she moved to her horse.
“What is your problem?” Vhindr asked curiously, but his sister did not reply so he looked to Legin for answers.
“She vomited in the garden fountain last night,” Legin gave him a shrug, “Drank too much wine probably.”
“And what did you do Legin?” Vhindr asked, giving his friend a serious look.
“Gave her a big glass of water and put her to bed,” Legin smiled back as he stretched his legs, ready for a day’s running.
“Thank you,” Vhindr gave Legin a nod, “A lesser man would have taken advantage of the situation.”
“By the Gods,” Valianna grumbled loudly, “Can we just depart already?”
“Suits me,” Rhalin agreed as she joined them, seeming refreshed and eager to be on the move.
“You know, Valianna,” Vhindr remarked as he swung into the saddle, “I do know a spell that will alleviate hangovers.”
“So why don’t you tell me,” said Valianna irritably.
“If I do you will not learn anything,” Vhindr smiled back and kicked his horse onward.
“Rot in the Abyss Vhindr,” Valianna swore at him again, causing Vhindr to smile wide as they headed off.
It was still early in the cave of Cairn, the street lights were bright and a cloud of light smoke drifted above the houses. Rays of light from Inüer streamed through a few gaps in the cave walls, an indication that dawn had come to an otherwise oblivious populous.
“Learn much from Hazeldin?” Vhindr asked Rhalin as they rode along.
“Less than some,” Rhalin replied, “I did ascertain the name of the assassin though. Her name is Dun Hyic.”
Vhindr nodded, “I learnt this too, from Captain Idunn. Anything else?”
“No,” Rhalin shook her head, “For the most part I was trying to dissuade the man’s sexual advances. Absolutely no charm that one. But I noticed your charm worked on Idunn.”
“Rhalin, I am surprised by you,” Vhindr turned a stunned expression to his companion. “I never thought you considered me charming.”
Rhalin’s blue eyes widened and she quickly looked away, causing Vhindr to laugh aloud.
“What I meant was …” Rhalin began quickly, but her voice trailed away in defeat, “Let’s get going.”
The investigator from Gaianaus kicked her horse on faster through the streets with the others close behind her. The pale light of the morning warmed their faces as they rode out of the gigantic cavern and down through the foothills onto the flat plains.
The road to Iceguard was muddy from the Spring thaw, but it was smooth and followed the line of the mountains on a gentle curve to the south before moving back towards the north.
Most of the villages and townships sat in the foothills of the Gaia Mountains. They were built high in the rocks and plateaus, or running along the many deep vales between the mountain peaks. To the north there was virtually not a thing in sight, only endless wastes that were still covered in snow and ice.
The wind whistled past his ears as Vhindr kept pace with Rhalin, the breezes icy touch turning his cheeks and nose red and blowing the cobwebs from his mind.
“Slow down Rhalin,” Vhindr called to his companion as he spotted a trio of wagon stopped on the road ahead of them.
* * *
Liuden let out a deep sigh as he watched the men continue to struggle to lift the wagon out of a muddy hole.
“This is taking too long,” Liuden mumbled to himself.
After leaving early from Cairn they had made good time along the road, even with heavy wagons stuffed with gold. He had thought that the amount of guards and wagons would make them a target for bandits or monsters, but so far their trek had been uninterrupted. Up until now.
“Riders to the west.” One of the guards called and all looked to the west to see a group on horseback trot towards them.
As the riders drew closer Liuden recognised Vhindr Varrintine’s company immediately, the company Roht Ellengar had asked him to look out for. Of course he had seen them in Cairn at The Stone Giants’ Inn and had watched on with jealousy as Vhindr and Idunn danced.
“My Lady Rhalin,” Hazeldin greeted with a wide smile as he stood leaning on his walking stick. “I had hoped you would come galloping after me. And you could not have done so at a better moment. Will you save me from this dastardly fate and help with my stuck wagon?”
“I would rather leave you to it.” Rhalin replied irritably.
“Come now Rhalin, that is no way to treat a fellow adventurer in need of aid,” Vhindr said with a grin. “Stand back gentlemen, allow me.”
“What? By yerself?” one of the burley guards laughed, “Me an’ me boys could hardly move it.”
“Stand back please,” Vhindr said again and the men hesitantly complied.
Stretching his hand towards the wagon, Fog began to swirl around his finger and a strange light began to glow around the wagon. Several of the guards fell back in horror as the sound of sucking mud was heard and the cart slowly lifted out of the divot.
“Magicks user.” A guard gasped in fear as the wagon moved slightly to the side and onto relatively solid ground.
“Very nicely done sir,” Hazeldin congratulated, “If you were only here but an hour ago. Please join us on our convoy, we could use such talents if more trouble comes our way.”
“But boss, he’s a damn magicks user,” the leader of the guard protested, “An’ they ‘ave a dwarf in company.”
“I believe I am paying you to guard the cargo, not to share your opinion.” Hazeldin was quick to say and waved the man away.
The man shot Vhindr a fearful expression before moving away to join his men.
“Shall we?” Hazeldin smiled at the group.
“It would be a pleasure,” Vhindr smile back, though his eyes did not.
Liuden watched curiously as Hazeldin re-joined Idunn at the middle carriage and another pair of Vhindr’s company came running along the road to meet up with the others, interested expressions on their faces.
Swinging back into his saddle Liuden moved his horse to the back of Idunn’s wagon as the convoy headed off down the road.
“Why did you invite them to stay?” Liuden heard Idunn ask of Hazeldin as he rode along.
“Why not?” Hazeldin asked in reply.
“Vhindr knows who you are and guesses as to why you are here,” stated Idunn as she steered the wagon.
“Yes,” nodded Hazeldin, “But he has better things to do than to arrest me, like chasing down an assassin.”
“One that was on your ship, if I am not mistaken,” Idunn was quick to say.
“You are mistaken.” Stated Hazeldin seriously, “Dun Hyic was travelling home. That is all you need know.”
“Roht did not send me to be another one of your guards,” Captain Idunn snapped angrily.
“But he told you to do as I say.” Hazeldin retorted, “So do as I say and leave that topic alone.”
“Do you think Vhindr will?”
Hazeldin laughed slightly, “He and Rhalin are fools chasing a carrot on a string with no understanding as to who controls the carrot.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“That is not your concern either,” said Hazeldin, “Just do as you are told and there will not be any problems.”
Idunn shook her head irritably but did not continue the conversation, leaving Liuden wondering what was going on.
For the remainder of the day’s trip Liuden rode along in a slight daze, his thoughts upon the conversation between Idunn and Hazeldin. Annoyingly though, his mind continuously drifted back to last night as he watched Idunn and Vhindr dance. Jealousy filled his eyes and he glanced over his shoulder to Vhindr who rode calmly at the back of the convoy speaking with Rhalin.
What was it about that man that attracted Idunn?
What did Vhindr have that he did not?
“Aside from money and power, nothing.” Liuden said to himself, “I am younger, more attractive, not to mention a more amicable personality. So what is it?”
Liuden’s thought continued to run in circles as he rode by himself with none wishing to engage him. But he had expected as much when he met up with Idunn and Hazeldin at The Stone Giants’ Inn. They were not pleased with him accompanying them but because he was Regional Commander they begrudgingly accepted it.
This whole situation seemed strange to Liuden, aside from the fact that all of the guards with the convoy were not in the Gaianaus military, this transport of excessive amounts of money seemed impractical. And now Vhindr’s company had been happily invited to join the convoy even though Liuden got the feeling that they seemed to be working at odds with Hazeldin’s objective.
“But why would they be?” Liuden wondered softly to himself. “Everyone wants the assassin who killed Baron Ellengar brought to justice. Don’t they?”
Liuden ran a hand over his face and shook his head in frustration as he continued to mull over his thoughts and doubts.
That evening they made camp on the road, fearing that if they were to go off the path they would become bogged in the mud. As expected Liuden sat by a fire alone and ate his dinner without company. He knew he had no friends among either Hazeldin’s mob or Vhindr’s company, a fact that saddened him but also made him more determined to do his duty as Regional Commander.
“Mind if we join you?” came a surprising question and Liuden looked up from the fire to see Vhindr and Rhalin sit down opposite him.
Liuden shrugged and pulled his coat closer around his shoulders.
“If you do not mind me saying, you do not seem to be overly friendly with Hazeldin and his group,” Vhindr remarked friendly.
“I am Regional Commander,” Liuden replied seriously, “I am not here to make friends.”
Liuden looked away from Vhindr irritably, for every time he looked at the man images of him dancing with Idunn flashed through his mind.
“Devotion,” Vhindr said with a smile, “An admirable trait.”
“What do you want?” Liuden asked suddenly.
“To sit by the fire and make pleasant conversation,” Vhindr replied offhandedly.
“Then you could have stayed with your convict friends,” Liuden was quick to reply, and Vhindr raised an eyebrow in surprise. “Of course I know who Legin is, a man with a monkey’s tail, he was famous at the Gaia Penitentiary. And the psychotic dwarf Kōrrin nearly as much.”
Vhindr and Rhalin glanced nervously to each other.
“I’m not going to arrest you all,” Liuden said with a sigh, “I don’t even care.”
“More important matters to concern yourself with?” Rhalin asked curiously.
“What do you want?” Liuden asked again.
“Dun Hyic.” Vhindr stated and Liuden’s brow furrowed in confusion.
“The snow elf that came on the ship with Hazeldin.” Rhalin clarified, “Were you there at the time?”
“Perhaps,” Liuden shrugged and looked away.
“Dun Hyic, or The Hawk, is the one we believe who killed Baron Ellengar,” Vhindr explained seriously. “Did you speak with her?”
“I never said I met her,” Liuden dismissed the question.
“You did not need to,” Rhalin said, “Hazeldin and Idunn have already told us that you were there to see Commander Heldar about Gaianaus’s armada. Tell us what you know of the elf, please.”
Liuden stretched his shoulders and let out a deep breath.
“I knew there was something strange about that one,” Liuden recalled, “The way she spoke, the way she walked, and the way Hazeldin was quick to dismiss her appearance, all seemed unsettling.”
“We should tell you, the Captain of the Fluyt they came on is dead,” Vhindr said, drawing Liuden eyes to his. “Tortured. Most likely by the elf.”
“What?” Liuden wondered aloud. “Wait, how do I know you are not making this all up?”
“Why would we?” Rhalin asked in surprise.
“So I will ignore the fact that Vhindr is the son of the ruling Lord of Port Na’brath and quite possible spying in my region,” Liuden said seriously.
“Espionage is most certainly not my area of expertise,” Vhindr smiled, “However, solving gruesome and baffling murders is more my pace. So, which do you think is more plausible?”
Liuden narrowed his eyes slightly at Vhindr.
“Of course, you do not need to reply to that question. It was entirely rhetorical,” Vhindr continued, “Believe us or not, that is your prerogative. But perhaps you should wonder why exactly Hazeldin is in Gaianaus.”
“No need,” Liuden replied, “I already know.”
“Transporting investment monies to lordly clients in Issia.” Vhindr smiled and Liuden was taken aback slightly. “We also know what he said. But let me tell you this, there are only two lords in Gaianaus who have investments through the Merchant Bank in Port Na’brath: Roth Ellengar and Barron Barrgarah. So ask yourself this; why has Hazeldin come now?”
“To avoid the war,” Liuden said as if it was unimportant.
“How did he know there would be war?” Rhalin was quick to ask, “And why was he travelling with an assassin?”
“Food for thought,” Vhindr said before Liuden could reply and nodded to Rhalin before they both stood up. “Feel free to join us at our fire, I am sure Legin and Kōrrin will not mind.”
“Wait.” Liuden called before Vhindr and Rhalin moved outside the fire light. “Why are you putting these questions to me?”
“You are the Regional Commander.” Rhalin stated obviously.
“And you want me to look into your suspicions, is that it?” asked Liuden, narrowing his eyes.
“Do what you wish Regional Commander,” Vhindr answered, “Do what you feel is right. Talk to Idunn and Hazeldin if you also think this situation is peculiar.”
“Sure,” Liuden scoffed and shook his head.
“Captain Idunn is under the Regional Command, is she not?” Rhalin asked curiously.
“She is,” Liuden nodded, “Though she seems to have a personal vendetta against me. Why don’t you talk to her Vhindr, the two of you seemed close the other night?”
Vhindr raised an eyebrow curiously and Liuden silently berated himself for making his jealously so obvious.
“Did you know, Liuden,” Vhindr said slowly, drawing Liuden’s eyes to his. “Captain Idunn was a sure pick to be the next Regional Commander after Rathgard. In fact, being such was her greatest ambition. That is until an unknown guard from a prison happened to be with Rathgard when he was killed. That guard virtually stole the position out from under Captain Idunn.”
Liuden’s eyes widened as he comprehended what Vhindr was saying and all Idunn’s hate towards him suddenly seemed to make sense.
“Wait, how do you know about what happened with Rathgard?” Liuden asked suspiciously.
“My brother Vythe told me of the events,” Vhindr replied, a sadness coming to his face and tone.
“Have a pleasant evening Regional Commander,” Rhalin remarked as she and Vhindr turned to go. “Please think on what we have said.”
But Liuden hardly did for he finally knew why Idunn despised him so, why she had been so hostile to his advances. It all made sense to him now and finally he might be able to set things right with the beautiful Captain.
So elated was Liuden that he did not notice the heavy set man take up the seat that Vhindr was previously occupying.
“What’d they want Commander?” the burly man asked seriously.
Liuden looked to the man and narrowed his eyes with annoyance.
“What is your name again?” Liuden asked.
“Meddler,” the man sneered back.
“And you work for Hazeldin?”
The man half nodded.
“You’re not a soldier, you are a sword for hire. How much does he pay you?” Liuden continued.
“Enough to not be swayed by another offer,” Meddler growled back. “Now, why was you talkin’ to Vhindr and Rhalin?”
“Tell Hazeldin that if he wants an answer that he must come and talk to me himself," Liuden said as he stood up, “And not send his paid dog. Have a good night.”
Smiling to himself Liuden left the dangerous mercenary at the fire and took a walk about the camp. Stopping briefly at the back of the convoy, and where one of Hazeldin’s mercenaries stood guard, a fire light far down the road caught his attention.
“Be extra vigilant tonight,” Liuden said seriously to the mercenary, “There could be bandits.”
“With all due respect Regional Commander,” the squinty-eyed mercenary turned slowly to Liuden, “We work for Hazeldin.”
Liuden left it at that and clenching his jaw in annoyance he headed back to his camp fire. Meddler had gone by now so Liuden made himself comfortable and tried to get some sleep.
During the night it snowed and by the next morning all lay under a cloak of white ice. Liuden awoke with a shiver and was quick to jump to his feet to try and shake the coldness in his bones. His thick cloak had provided him much warmth during the night, but he still felt the chill keenly.
After a short breakfast the wagons were once again on the move and Liuden was once again riding slowly at the back of Idunn and Hazeldin’s wagon.
The revelation that Captain Idunn was only angry at him because he had been given the position of Regional Commander over her consumed his thoughts and for the next two uneventful days he looked for an opportunity to speak with the Captain.
Just when he was thinking on giving up on the notion, the following evening by the fires he noticed that she and Hazeldin arguing about something. From his lonesome fire Liuden watched Idunn storm away from Hazeldin and to the wagons.
Not wanting to miss the opportunity Liuden jumped to his feet and headed for the other side of the wagon line, thinking to meet her at the end.
As he came to the end of the line the smell of snowdrops and blueberries filled his senses and he turned around the end to see Idunn leaning against the wagon looking back along the dark road.
“Captain Idunn,” Liuden greeted, trying not to sound like he had planned the encounter. “Nice night.”
“It was,” Idunn replied callously before she turned to leave.
“Wait.” Liuden called, making her stop.
Idunn stopped and stood ridged before slowly turning to look at him, her irritation obvious.
“You don’t like me, I know,” Liuden stated.
“Where ever did you get that impression?” asked Idunn sarcastically.
“Look,” Liuden said after taking a deep breath, “I know now that I practically stole the Regional Commander from you.”
Idunn’s lips went tight and she turned to leave.
“I never really wanted it,” Liuden called out, making her stop again but she did not turn. “It was thrown upon me because of what I witnessed with Rathgard. If you want, the Regional Command is yours. Take it I don’t want it anymore. I’ll resign.”
Idunn turned slowly back to him, her expression confused.
“Why?” Idunn asked slowly, “What game are you playing?”
“No game,” Liuden’s shoulders slumped, “I’m just sick of it. Especially when it makes enemies such as yourself.”
Idunn narrowed her deep brown eyes at him and did not reply.
“You think a simply apology will change what happened?” asked Idunn threateningly. “You think it will change the fact that my experience was overlooked for some novice? Do you think that resigning now will allow me to simply snatch up the position?”
“No,” Liuden said with a sigh and looked to the muddy ground, “I said what I wanted to, take it as you may.”
Idunn continued to glare at him with her beautiful eyes for many seconds before simply turning and leaving him at the end of the wagons.
“Man, you are useless with women.” Laughed a guard from the shadows at the other side of the wagon.
“Shouldn’t you be keeping a lookout instead of eavesdropping?” Liuden snapped back.
“Ain’t dropping eaves, sir,” the guard replied petulantly. “You best get some sleep 'afore the morrow. Don’t want to be fallin’ asleep if bandits raid, or worse.”
Liuden regarded the man curiously for a few seconds before leaving and heading back to the fire. Things had not gone exactly how he had planned with Idunn, but he had said what he wanted and now all he could do was hope that she no longer detested him. He really hated being disliked.
Half way through the next day they reached Iceguard situated on the north-facing mountain side of a spur of the Gaia Mountains. Like a prow of a ship it stood out from the rocky slopes with high walls and guarded entrances. Iceguard was the most northern city in Gaianaus and the residents prided themselves as being the first line of defense against the dangers that came down from the Northern Waste.
It was there that Vhindr’s company parted ways as they went into the city to find accommodation for the night. Liuden’s eyes lingered on that company, his thoughts going back to the question Vhindr and Rhalin had posed to him, and all of sudden he felt as if he was alone amid a company of enemies.