Vhindr drew in a deep breath and stretched his arms above his head. A slight groan escaped his lips as he spread out on the soft grass. The sounds of running water and light voices pulled him from his sleep and he slowly opened his eyes. Sitting up Vhindr rubbed his face with his hand and brushed back his black hair. With a wide yawn Vhindr got up and moved to the stone table beneath the wide bows of the tree. His companions were already awake and enjoying the assortment of fruits laid out on the stone.
“Sleep well?” Valianna asked cheerfully.
“I did, thank you,” Vhindr smiled back, “What of the rest of you?”
Vhindr looked to the others around the table and they all nodded enthusiastically, except for Kōrrin.
“Would have slept better if I couldo’ found a decent rock to lay me head,” the dwarf grumbled, “An’ what’s with this fruit? I want some bacon an’ eggs for me breakfast.”
The others laughed at that and Kōrrin continued to grumble.
“Where is Bel’eak? Legin?” Vhindr asked as he noticed the Nevārancien was missing.
“Talking with Meil’hiel,” Legin replied, his mouth full.
“Did he say what about?” Vhindr inquired as he helped himself to the food and drink.
“The elf said he had an affinity with ice magicks, Bel’eak wanted to know more,” Legin replied with a shrug.
“It was curious that Meil’hiel said that,” Rhalin remarked and took a sip of her drink.
“I thought the same.” Vhindr said with a nod.
“Maybe that is why he looks like he is cold all the time now,” Valianna remarked offhandedly, “Did something happen in Ard Thengr?”
“Well like he said he meditated in some Fog clouds,” Legin replied casually.
“And he was not too well off afterwards,” Vhindr added seriously.
“Maybe that Celniel lady had something to do with it?” Legin offered thoughtfully, “She was all ice and snow.”
“But why would she interfere?” Rhalin asked aloud, and the others had no answer.
Vhindr finished his meal quietly as he looked about the peaceful environment, soaking in the scenery and musical sounds that drifted down from the high tiers.
“Here he comes,” Legin spoke up, breaking the silence and pointed to where Bel’eak was coming through the foliage. “He looks troubled.”
Vhindr silently agreed with that statement for the Nevārancien had an irritated gait about him and his face was a mask of frustration.
“Are you alright Bel’eak?” Valianna asked sweetly as the man came across the bridge, “You look upset.”
“It is just what Meil’hiel said,” Bel’eak dismissed their curiosities and grabbed some food.
“Well, what’d he say?” Kōrrin pressed.
“Don’t worry about it,” Bel’eak again dismissed their queries, “It is my concern.”
“Tell us Bel’eak, we’re your friends,” Legin implored.
The Nevārancien let out a deep breath, “The elf suggested some things about the lady we met in Ard Thengr, Celniel, and my meditation in the Fog clouds. He could not say anything for certain, so I am going back there to talk with this supposed Guardian of snow and ice.”
“What?” everyone asked in unison.
“Why?” Legin asked with a confused expression.
“Meil’hiel seemed to think that this Celniel had a hand in what happened and why you all think I look pale and cold,” Bel’eak continued, “I don’t like being used. So I am going back to those tombs to find out for certain.”
“I’ll come too,” Legin said with a smile.
“Don’t leave,” Valianna said sadly, “Stay with us, once we are finished in Issia we will go back to Ard Thengr.”
“No,” Bel’eak replied seriously and shook his head, “I need to do this now.”
“If that is your desire,” Vhindr said, “But it is a shame we are to part company so soon.”
“Hopefully this will be resolved quickly, and then Legin and I will head to Issia,” Bel’eak replied and gave Vhindr a smile.
“Suits me,” Legin said, “You coming with us Kōrrin? Or are you going to head to Issia as well?”
The dwarf scratched his bearded chin as he ponder the offer, “Yeah, I’ll come with yous.” He decided and Legin grinned wide.
“Well, I hope to see you all again soon,” Rhalin said pleasantly. “So, shall we depart?”
They all agreed and went about gathering their things. Meil’hiel did not come by to bid them farewell, nor did any of the other elves, so they simply left what food was left on the table and headed across the stream and back up the path.
It was not easy to get lost and Vhindr confidently led the way back to the tunnel leading from the beautiful grove of the snow elves.
“I will miss this place,” Valianna remarked as they departed down the tunnel. “Bel’dōr’raine: the magickal grove of the Lithinüer, a warm oasis in a wasteland of snow and ice where a weary traveler may find peace and comfort.”
“You should surrender your magickal studies and become a Bard, dear sister,” Vhindr remarked dryly.
“I should, just to spite you all,” Valianna quipped.
“I am sure father will be thrilled with that,” Vhindr snickered, “He always wanted one of his children to become the Grand Magi, yet we have constantly disappointed.”
“I have no wish to be Grand Magi,” Valianna said, “So I guess his disappointment will continue.”
“Feel that wind,” Valianna suddenly shivered, “Its freezing. I wish we could go back to the warm stream.”
Vhindr shivered also as the chilled breeze off the frozen tundra blew along the tunnel and whipped about his ears as they moved out onto the high ledge on the side of the mountain. There Nien waited for them leaning up against the cliff face and gazing across the plains below.
“Your weapons,” the elf said as they approached and she picked up the two blades that sat beside her and handed them to Bel’eak and Rhalin.
“Thank you,” Rhalin said as she belted her sword around her hips.
But Bel’eak was quick to unsheathe his saber and inspect it.
“I assure you it is the same blade that you handed to us,” Nien remarked flatly, “In the same condition when you handed it to us.”
“I know,” Bel’eak replied as he continued to looked over the blade and hardwood sheath. “Force of habit. It’s a Wynar thing.”
“Wynar?” Valianna asked curiously.
“It is what I am,” Bel’eak said as he sheathed his saber and strapped it around his hips. “My race, the race of warriors. There is more than one type of people in Nevārance you know.”
“Thank you Nien,” Vhindr spoke up, “For your gracious hospitality and the trust you have placed in us in sharing your home. Vun Nāra.”
The snow elf smiled genuinely, “Your words are kind. I wish you the best on your journey. You will find your mounts around the corner. Vun Nāra.”
The others bid their farewells too and Vhindr led the way along the path and to their horses that waited patiently, saddled and ready, and seeming as well rested as the companions were. Eager to be on his way Vhindr swung up into his saddled and kicked his horse onward down the track. They did not see the elves again as they followed the stone trail down through the mountain’s foothills and across the ford.
“And here we part ways,” Bel’eak said as they stopped at the other side of the shallow lake. “Good luck hunting your assassin.”
“Farewell,” Vhindr smiled, “I hope you find what you seek in Ard Thengr. It was good to see you again Legin.”
“And you Vhindr,” Legin smiled back, “I’ll see you again soon no doubt.”
“I am going to miss you all,” Valianna said sadly, “Promise me you will stop by if you are ever in Port Na’brath.”
“Count on it,” Bel’eak replied with a nod.
“Here girl, take me horse,” Kōrrin said as he dropped to the ground and handed Valianna the reins. “Best if I go on foot, me thinks.”
“Think you can keep up?” Legin baited with a laugh.
“’Course,” Kōrrin roared, “We dwarves have the stamina of a dragon.”
“I hope you do not come across any of those,” Rhalin remarked seriously, “Apparently there is an Emerald Snow-scale stalking about the north. But I am sure you will be fine. Good bye and good luck.”
“Great.” Legin remarked sarcastically. “Well, have fun in Issia. See you guys later.”
They all waved their goodbyes as they parted ways and Vhindr watched with a sense of sadness as Legin and Bel’eak agilely jogged along the edge of the lake back to the west with Kōrrin’s rolling gait close behind them.
Turning his thoughts back to the path ahead Vhindr urged his horse into a slow gallop along the muddy road to the south. He was close to catching this assassin, this Dun Hyic, he could feel it, and that in Issia his hunt would come to an end.
* * *
Snowdrops and blueberries.
The sweet scent filled his mind and brought him back to consciousness. But as his eyes slowly peeled apart the smell vanished and was replaced with damp wood and disinfectant.
Liuden groaned as he noticed the ache at his wounded arm and the painful stiffness of his joints. The back of his head throbbed as did his ankle and his mouth was dry.
“Where am I?” he croaked as he craned his neck to look around.
Liuden lay in a single bed in a small room with a single door. Opposite the foot of his bed was a long bench with an assortment of potions, jars, bandages and other medical instruments. Near the door was an old trunk which had his clothes piled on top and beside his bed was a smaller table with a glass of water on top which Liuden greedily grabbed and gulped down.
“Easy there Regional Commander,” said a doctor as he came silently through the door, “Your wounds have not yet healed.”
Liuden finished the glass and dropped back into the scratchy sheets and lumpy pillow.
“I made it to Issia than,” Liuden said with relief and the doctor gave him a strange look.
“Of course,” the man replied, “Where did you think you were?”
“I don’t know,” said Liuden, “I don’t remember making it to the city.”
“Not surprising,” nodded the man, “You had lost a lot of blood from that wounded arm and other cuts. In truth I am surprised you were able to ride with that twisted ankle of yours.”
“I don’t even remember hurting it,” Liuden replied as he watched the doctor move to the medical table and begin doing something.
“What of Captain Idunn?” Liuden asked suddenly and tried to sit up in the bed.
“Keep your movements slow, or you will open the stitches again,” the doctor replied harshly, “As for the Captain, word was that she arrived at the city not long before yourself. Badly wounded and also suffering for blood loss.”
“Is she alright?” Liuden pressed, “Is she here somewhere?”
“She is at the Castle,” replied the doctor, still absently concocting something. “Roht had her taken there immediately upon arrival. I hear she lives.”
“To the Castle,” Liuden wondered, “Then where am I?”
“The city’s House of Healing,” the man replied casually.
“So the Castle doctors are too good for the Regional Commander,” Liuden remarked bitterly.
“Well you aren’t the most popular Regional Commander,” stated the doctor, “I mean no offence of course, just stating the fact.”
“Thanks,” Liuden replied sarcastically.
“Don’t feel bad, Rathgard was not that popular either,” said the doctor as he came over carrying a glass of clouded liquid. “He had some friends among the lords, but most of the common folk disliked him. Though I doubt a lot of them even knew who he was. Here, drink this and go and soak that ankle in the hot pools.”
Liuden took the glass and swallowed the potion, it had no flavour but his stomach turned as he emptied the glass.
“I don’t think I can walk on my ankle,” Liuden said and he slowly got out of bed. “And what about my stitches?”
“That is what the cane if for, and you will be fine if you go slowly.” replied the doctor as he left the room, leaving the door open.
Wearing only his small clothes Liuden grabbed the cane in his good arm and painfully pushed himself to his feet. Hobbling to the door he glanced along the hallways, wondering which way the hot pools were. With a despondent sigh he headed to the left.
For the better part of seven days Liuden limped from the hot pools to his bed and back again, his only company were the nurses and doctors that came by to bring him a small amount of food or to give him some potion or other.
“I don’t think you should leave just yet Commander,” the doctor remarked one morning as he walked in on Liuden slowly pulling on his clothes.
“I am not sitting around here anymore,” Liuden replied flatly.
“Very well,” the doctor nodded and sighed, “Albeit for me to keep you. Care for some breakfast before you depart?”
“No, and thank you for your aid,” Liuden stopped dressing to give the stern man a shake of the hand. “One thing before you go. I meant to ask earlier, did the banker Hazeldin make it into the city before Captain Idunn and I arrived? Likely yelling about bandits on the road.”
“I don’t know who that is, and we did not hear anything until Captain Idunn collapsed at the gates.” stated the doctor.
“Alright,” Liuden nodded slowly, “Thank you again.”
The doctor gave him a curt nod before departing the room and leaving Liuden to finish dressing. His clothes were still dirty and blood stained, but he did not mind and was glad to see that Idunn’s hunting knife was among the affects. Belting the large knife at the small of his back Liuden walked eagerly from his room and out of the House of Healing. His ankle was still weak though he was not limping greatly as he moved through Issia’s cobblestone streets. Passed the bath houses he went as the steam from the hot pools drifted into the cold and hung like a blanket across the clear skies.
Issia was a huge city and by the time he reached Gildorf Square, which marked the transition into the middle class, his ankle was aching terrible. Liuden was quick to hail a carriage to take him the rest of the way to the castle to take the weight off his ankle and at least seem healed when he met with Roht Ellengar.
The carriage followed the winding road as it twisted up through the foothills of the mountain, through the wealthier townhouses and finally to the gates of the castle. There the cab stopped and Liuden was forced to walk through the courtyard, castle gate and the long hallways and staircases to Lord Roht’s chambers.
“Lord Ellengar,” Liuden greeted tiredly as he walked through the doors and into Roht’s meeting room.
“Regional Commander,” Roht returned the greeting as he turned from the group of people he was talking with. “I would have invited you to an audience upon hearing of your recovery.”
“Perhaps it would have been better if I was treated here in the castle,” Liuden replied bitterly, and Roht gave a smile.
“We will talk later,” Lord Ellengar said to the other dignitaries in the room and they left, but not before giving Liuden an irritable glare.
“Please, sit with me,” Roht bade Liuden and motioned for him to take a seat on the settee.
Liuden happily obliged and breathed easier as he sat down, granting relief to his throbbing ankle.
“So tell me, what happened?” Lord Ellengar bade curiously.
“Hazeldin and Idunn have not told you already?” Liuden inquired as he rested back in the comfortable seat.
“They have told their side of the story,” Roht nodded, “Now I wish to hear yours.”
“There is not much to say,” Liuden replied honestly, “The hired guard Hazeldin provided betrayed us and stole two of the carriages. Hazeldin fled to Issia with the third leaving Captain Idunn. We barely survived.”
“Virtually the same as Idunn’s report,” Roht nodded seriously.
“What did Hazeldin say?” Liuden asked curiously.
“That he fled to protect my investments,” Roht smiled back, “Another way of saying that he is a coward.”
“That gold was both yours and Baron Barrgarah’s, yes?” Liuden turned a curious expression to the Lord.
“Indeed,” Roht let out a deep breath and ran a hand over his face, “Monies to keep the war effort strong.”
“I thought you were against the war,” pressed Liuden, drawing Roht’s eyes to his.
“I am against the manner in which Barrgarah has gone about it,” Roht clarified deliberately. “The one who killed my brother must be brought to justice, but that does not necessarily mean we must lose our allies in The Port at the same time.”
Liuden nodded absently as he stared at the top of the old table that sat in the middle of the gathered recliners.
“Is there something else preying on your mind?” Roht asked curiously.
“No,” Liuden shook his head, “Well … No I suppose it is nothing.”
“Perhaps it is something,” Roht offered, his expression still curious.
“Hazeldin’s men were loyal to him,” Liuden began, “When speaking with one of them the man was adamant that Hazeldin was paying him a fortune to stay loyal.”
“Not as much as two carriages full of coins, I’d wager,” Lord Ellengar replied seriously.
“It was more than that,” Liuden said, “The men who betrayed us were determined to kill Idunn and myself. Any normal bandits would leave it, they would be happy to take the money and run.”
“You think Hazeldin would double cross Baron Barrgarah and myself,” Roht stated more than asked.
“I am not sure what I think,” Liuden replied honestly.
Roht nodded his head and stood up, “I shall look into it further. You should go and rest though, you look tired. I shall have a room made available for you.”
Liuden did not reply and he slowly stood up wincing as the pain in his ankle quickly returned.
“Come to dinner tonight, Liuden,” Roht called to him before he left the room, “Barrgarah requested your attendance once you were healed.”
“Why?” Liuden asked back.
“He wants to hear your tale of survival,” Roht smiled genuinely, “He has always enjoyed those sorts of stories. You will come?”
“Sure,” Liuden replied, though he doubted he really had an option.
“Until later Regional Commander,” Roht said and gave him a curt nod as he turned back to the door.
Limping out the door and along the corridor Liuden continued to think about Hazeldin and wonder whether the man was foolish enough to steal from the two most powerful men in Gaianaus. So distracted was he that he nearly barreled head first into someone around the next corner.
“Captain Idunn,” Liuden exclaimed, and he could not hide his smile, “How are you? Are you well?”
“I am alive,” Idunn replied, the slightest hint of a smile at the corner of her lips. “And you?”
“Well enough,” Liuden replied, trying to look as if he were not favouring one leg over the other.
A few seconds of silence drifted awkwardly by and Liuden continued to smile stupidly at the Captain.
“Well I should-” Idunn started to say.
“Of course,” Liuden blurted, “Wait. Here. Your hunting knife.”
Liuden took the large blade from behind his back and handed it over to Idunn who smiled as she took it.
“I was worried you had lost it,” the Captain remarked.
“So was I,” replied Liuden, “It saved my life though.”
“That’s good,” Idunn said, “Well, Lord Ellengar is expecting me.”
“Right.” Liuden replied and stepped to the side to allow Idunn to pass.
“I will talk with you later Commander,” Idunn said as she headed around the corner, leaving the scent of snowdrops and blueberries lingering.
Liuden smiled to himself as he headed down the stone hallway, there was a skip in his step and the pain in his ankle seemed to have vanished.
“She called me Commander,” Liuden said to himself, and his smile spread wider across his face.