Vhindr growled angrily and kicked a metal box across the floor, causing it to tumble over the edge where the Nevārancien ship had broken away.
“I guess you haven’t found anything,” Rhalin called up from a lower level, “Well I think I have gathered enough of this strange rope made of wires and peculiar fabric to make a quicker descent down the shaft.”
Vhindr did not reply as he dropped from the ledge of one room down one to a walkway below him. Swinging his legs over the railing he dropped another level and calmly walked to where Rhalin was waiting.
“Perhaps we should wait a few more hours,” Vhindr offered as he gazed at the view out from the broken ship.
“We have been here half a day already,” Rhalin replied, “If the assassin was here it seems she has departed to make a new home somewhere else.”
“Then why did the hawk come here?” Vhindr asked back and Rhalin shrugged as she dragged the large roll of strange cable towards the shaft.
“Maybe the assassination of Baron Elengar was her last contract,” Rhalin offered as she began tying one end of the cable to a secure anchor.
Vhindr shook his head slowly.
“The snow elf Haylien,” a voice suddenly echoed down from above, “Also known as Dun Hyic. Be so kind as to dispose of her for me.”
Vhindr and Rhalin were on their guard in an instant and their eyes darted to the many broken levels above them.
All of a sudden Vhindr was flying forwards from an explosion at his back. Turning in the air he slid across the smooth surface and looked up in time to see Rhalin slide into the shaft that dropped hundreds of metres to the ground.
“Rhalin,” Vhindr called out as he tried to get to his feet.
But then Haylien was right in front of him and he was flying backwards once again. His journey ended in an instant as he slammed back first into the wall, blasting the air from his lunges and causing him to whack his head on the metal.
White dots flashed before his eyes as Vhindr blinked repeatedly, trying to shake the daze from his mind. He felt the warmth of his own blood trickle down the back of his neck to stain his collar.
“A contract on myself,” Haylien said as Vhindr’s thoughts sharpened. “So very witty of you. But tell me, what did you hope to accomplish in coming here? You cannot defeat me, that is painfully obvious.”
Vhindr glared at the elf and his wits returned to him.
“Is it?” Vhindr replied and his hand shot towards the elf.
The anther crystal ring on his finger flared with light as the spell burst forth from his hands. Magickal bindings twisted through the air and wrapped around Haylien’s wrists, knocking her off balance as they shackled her arms.
A second spell immediately followed the first, this time the bindings diving for her ankles. Agilely the elf spun away from the spell and turned to face Vhindr, hers eyes sparkling with excitement.
“Anther crystal,” Haylien remarked as Vhindr got to his feet, “Very inventive.”
“And bindings that prevent magickal use,” Vhindr replied with a smirk, “A technique used in the old days during a time when Void magicks were used prolifically. There is no escape for you now.”
“Very clever,” Haylien replied flatly, her deep green eyes still smiling. “It seems it is over for me. You win. Take me to Issia where I am to be tried and sentenced to death.”
Vhindr’s eyes narrowed at the elf as he approached her cautiously. With another wave of his hands more magickal bindings twisted around Haylien’s ankles and connected with a ghostly chain. Even more cautiously Vhindr carefully unbuckled the elf’s belt that held her twin swords.
“Careful now.” Haylien remarked coyly as he slid the belt from her hips.
Stepping back from the snow elf he wrapped the belt around the two short swords, his eyes the whole time watching Haylien closely.
“Well these binding on my ankles will make the climb down rather difficult,” Haylien remarked despondently her eyes falling to the ground.
“Vhindr?” a call came from the chute, “You there? A little help might be good.”
“Don’t move,” Vhindr instructed the elf and as he waved his hand the binding around Haylien’s ankles reached out and connected to the floor.
“Hang on Rhalin,” Vhindr called as he grabbed the roll of strange rope and tossed it over the edge of the void. “Lucky save, I thought you were dead for certain.”
“Luck is all it was,” Rhalin called back as she carefully got onto the cable, “I think I dislocated my shoulder though. What happened up there?”
“The assassin is in custody,” Vhindr replied proudly, “Head down to the bottom, we shall join you shortly.”
Rhalin called her agreement and began to slide down the odd rope, heavily favouring one arm.
Vhindr watched her descend for a few seconds before looking back to the elf who stood patiently gazing towards Issia.
“Haylien,” Vhindr called and the binding around the elf’s ankle unhooked from the ground, “You will go first, and do not even think about trying to escape.”
“I wouldn’t dream of it,” Haylien remarked flatly as she moved by him and skillfully swung over the edge of the shaft and rapidly descended.
Vhindr had to rush to catch up with his captive and was forced to head down quicker than he wished. Rhalin had just reached the ground floor when the snow elf landed behind her and Vhindr close behind.
“How is your shoulder?’ Vhidnr asked Rhalin as they moved along the uniform corridors with Haylien in front of them.
“I’ll survive,” Rhalin replied as she hugged her right arm close to her chest. “It is back in the socket at least.”
“That is good,” Vhindr replied with a slight smile and looked back to the elf ahead of them. “Stop. That is the wrong way. We came in via the hallway to the right.”
“No, this is the right way to the exit,” Haylien replied without slowing.
“I said stop.” Vhindr growled, his voice carrying a magickal command to make her ankle bindings anchor into the floor.
Mid-stride the elf nearly fell on her face, but somehow she kept her balance.
“Take the hall to the right.” Vhindr said seriously.
“That is the long way,” Haylein replied in the same tone. “This has been my home for the past two years. Do you think I don’t know my way around?”
Vhindr looked to Rhalin who could only offer a one-sided shrug.
“Fine.” Vhindr decided and the magickal bindings detached from the floor. “Lead the way.”
The elf did not reply and continued on her path. To Vhindr’s surprise they reached the large room in minutes and were met by their patient horses.
“You will walk behind my horse.” Vhindr said seriously and with a motion of his hand Fog created rope snaked from Haylien’s wrist bindings and to his hand.
Swinging into the saddle Vhindr wrapped the rope around the horn of his saddle and with another motion of his hand the ankle bindings around the elf disappeared.
Nudging his horse into a walk Vhindr led the way from the Nevārancien ship and onto the plains of Gaianaus. The city of Issia could be seen in the distance with clouds of steam drifting above the roof tops.
“It is a long walk to the city,” Vhindr remarked and looked to Haylien who walked beside his mount, her eyes to the ground. “Perhaps you can enlighten us as to why you killed Baron Ellengar and who hired you.”
A light laugh came from the elf and her white teeth flashed in a smile.
“Am I to pour out my story to you?” Haylien jested, “Am I to divulge some grand scheme or conspiracy?”
“Perhaps just tell me what happened on that trip you took with your brother and father,” Vhindr replied seriously and the elf’s mirth vanished in a flash, her eyes turned to stone.
“Your stay in Bel’Dōr’raine was pleasant I trust,” Haylien changed the subject. “Tell me, how is Meil’hiel?”
“Did you kill your brother and father?” Vhindr pressed, causing the elf to shoot him a deadly glare.
“I will tell you, Vhindr Varrintine,” the elf spat his last name, “But you will not like what you hear. I was but a child when my father took my brother and me out hunting. My mother had died during my birth so my father raised us on his own. It was in the pine forests north of Hornberg that we decided to track down some elk. Mist hung heavily among the trees and not a bird sung its morning song.
“My father was showing us how to judge the time the elk had passed through by the depth of its hoof-print. Next thing I realised was the splatter of his blood on my face as a spear drove through his chest. My brother tackled me into the undergrowth and told me to lay still.
“A group of men then arrived on the scene and a man called Ragnarr ripped his spear from my father’s dead body. Ragnarr laughed that although he had not killed an elk, an elf was the next best thing. Anger driving him my brother rushed from the undergrowth and stabbed the man in the heart. The one called Barrgarah responded just as viciously and nearly cleaved my brother in two with his axe.
“I watched it all, unable to move, lying a still as a rock. I watched and listened as they thought only for their murderous comrade, Ragnarr and not for the two elves they just killed. I listened as Ellengar and Varrintine made up a story about elves attacking them to try and cover up the death of Ragnarr. This resulted in hundreds of elves and others of the Elder Races being slaughtered in the cities and towns.
“They left with their dead friend without a second thought of the two they had murdered. They left and still I laid their staring at the corpses of my family as the warmth left their bodies and their blood soaked the earth. For two days I could not move, could hardly breath, I could not even cry.”
Haylien finished and Vhindr looked to Rhalin who seemed as if she had just been slapped in the face.
“Do you expect me to believe what you have said about my father?” Vhindr scoffed, “He would not have fabricated a tale to cover Ragnarr’s death, he is a man of honour.”
“So you think him above conspiracy and lies?” Haylien laughed back. “How do you think he orchestrated your house’s rise from eighth ranked in Port Na’brath to fifth, in one night?”
“Prudent planning.” Vhindr replied as if it did not matter.
“Prudent planning indeed,” Haylien mocked him with a laugh. “He controls the Thieves Guild and ascended through guile and blackmail.”
“You know nothing of my father,” Vhindr snapped.
“And you do?” Haylien asked back, “If he is so filled with honour as you say why did he not seek to help Rhalin and her mother? Why did he let his friend’s wife and child suffer on the streets? He knew about them and didn’t do a thing while Rhalin’s mother had to sell her body every night so they could survive the next day.”
“You lie.” Vhindr shouted and yanked on the magickal rope that bound the elf.
With such force he pulled on the rope that it caused the slight elf to be thrown to the rocky ground. Immediately Vhindr pulled his horse to a halt, regretting his actions and looked away in shame as Haylien got back to her feet with blood trickling from a cut on her eyebrow.
The elf smiled at him as she wiped away the blood, and with a steadying breath Vhindr urged his horse onward at a walk.
“So you were making reference to my father when you wrote the names in blood on the ship in The Dale,” Vhindr remarked trying to move on from his outburst.
“Are you so arrogant that you thought I wanted to kill you?” Haylien looked amused.
“You don’t want me dead?” Vhindr asked back and the elf burst out laughing.
“Why would I want to kill you now?” Haylien asked with a wide smile, “I thought I would need to initially. But now … now you are just too fun to kill.”
“So you are out for revenge, is that it?” Vhindr asked seriously.
“Not revenge,” the elf replied, “Retribution. The ones who destroyed my life and the lives of my kin who were slaughtered in the cities and towns of Gaianaus must die.”
“You speak nothing but lies.” Rhalin snapped suddenly. “That is not how my father died.”
“Do you truly believe what they told you?” Haylien asked back innocently, “Tell me, what took them so long to find you and your mother? Your father would have told his friends all about his wife and beautiful daughter. But for two years you and your mother lived on the streets, a sad fact that claimed your mother’s life in the end.”
“They could not find us,” Rhalin replied quickly, “We were turfed out of our home the moment my father’s death reached Hornberg.”
“And it took them two years to find you?” Haylien asked slyly and Rhalin looked away.
“Enough.” Vhindr shouted at Haylien, “You will lie no more, else I shall ride at full speed to Issia with you dragging on the ground behind me.”
“You are smart enough to realise there would be no point in me lying, Vhindr,” Haylien replied, ignoring his threat.
“Tell me, if you are so intent on their deaths why have you not acted sooner?” Vhindr asked as the thought came to him.
“I have planned it for a long time,” Haylien looked back to the ground, her eyes hard. “And then this opportunity arose. I did want to wait until they were all together, but this will be better.”
“What will be better?’ Vhindr was quick to ask, “What are you plotting? Tell me.”
“Come now Vhindr,” the elf smiled up at him, “Where would the fun be in that? You are just going to have to wait and see.”
Vhindr shook his head, “No, on the morrow you will be executed and your plots and schemes will be all for naught.”
“Then I guess you will never discover what they are.” Haylien replied calmly, causing Vhindr’s brow to furrow in concern.
His trepidations continued to run around in his mind and before he knew it they were riding through the gates of Issia. The guards at the gate recognised them and they moved into the streets without any delay. Some gave them curious looks as they walked along with Haylien tethered to Vhindr’s saddle, but they continued about the daily tasks without any thought.
As they moved through the gates to the castle keep Vhindr waved over a guardsman and dropped from his saddle.
“Take a message to Roht and Baron Barrgarah would you,” Vhindr said to the young man, “We have in custody the assassin who killed Baron Ellengar.”
“Truly?” the man balked and looked to the elf, “This ‘er then? Figures it would be an elf. You whore, Baron Ellengar was a great man. You’ll be beggin’ for death by the time you walk to that executioner’s block. Here sir, I’ll take her to the dungeons as well.”
Hesitantly Vhindr handed over the magickal line that held Haylien along with the elf’s weapons, which the guardsman eagerly took it.
“Guardsman,” Vhindr called before the man could leave, “I trust you will keep this quiet, for no doubt the Baron will want to make the announcement himself.”
“Right you are sir,” the man nodded and smiled.
“And Rhalin and I will be doing the interrogation ourselves,” Vhindr was quick to add, “So don’t harm her in any way. Understand.”
The guardsman looked disappointed and looked angrily to the elf.
“Here,” Vhindr said and he took a pouch of coins from his belt and handed it to the young man, “For your help.”
“Thank you kindly sir,” the man smiled wide, “I’ll sure to do what you say.”
Vhindr gave the guardsman a curt nod and turned as they departed to speak with Rhalin, but she was no longer around.
Vhindr tried to not think about it too much and led his horse to the stables before moving quickly to see Roht in the castle.
“Master Varrintine,” a page called to him as he moved through the doors. “Please come with me, the Baron has requested an audience.”
“We should find Rhalin first,” Vhindr began to say but the page cut him off.
“Lady Ragnarr is already with the Baron. You will follow me.”
The elderly man gave no room for dispute and hastily led Vhindr through the foyer into the castle. It was not long before the page stopped in front of the large doors that lead to the main reception all.
“The gentleman will go in alone.” The elderly man explained and motioned for him to go on.
Vhindr did not reply and cracked open the large to slip inside.
“There he is,” Baron Barrgarah bellowed as Vhidnr entered, “You look just like your father. We should have met earlier but now I see that this is the perfect occasion.”
Vhindr gave a bow before he walked along the hall to join the Baron and his two other guests in Roht Ellengar and Rhalin.
It was a good occasion Vhindr agreed silently, though he had hoped for a bigger audience to cheer his and Rhalin’s accomplishment. But he reasoned that this would simply have to do, and besides the Baron’s exuberance was more than enough to cover a small crowed.
“Very well done,” Roht smiled wide, “Both of you. Not only have you brought the murderer to justice but you have abated the war between Gaianaus and Sesserrech. Your fathers would be proud I am sure.”
Vhindr saw Rhalin strain a smile as she still appeared distracted.
“You are too kind,” Vhindr replied politely, “I shall not lie, it was a difficult task. But the assassin now sits in the dungeon of this very castle.”
“You should have just killed her,” Barrgarah said loudly and shook his hairy head as he placed his hands on his hips.
The remark made Vhindr narrow his eyes slightly, but he dismissed the sudden concern that pushed its way into his thoughts.
“No, Vhindr and Rhalin did the right thing,” Roht cut in, “Justice must be seen to be done publicly. So all know that the person who killed my brother is dead.”
“Fine, whatever,” Barrgarah waved his hand in the air, “But before that we shall have a feast to celebrate. I shall go and have that sorted immediately. Roht see to the rest of this discussion.”
With that the Baron stomped from the hall and out the main door.
“He does love his feasts,” Roht sighed as they watched the Baron depart, “Almost as much as he loves his battles.”
“A good Baron of Gaianaus then?” Vhindr asked curiously as he looked to Roht.
“Indeed.” Roht remarked, his eyes going distant before he quickly snapped out of his reverie and looked to Vhindr. “But come now, tell me how you tracked and captured this dastardly assassin.”
“I shall do so,” Vhindr said hesitantly, “But not now. I will tell you all at the feast. At the moment I would like nothing more than to rest, for I am quite weary.”
“Of course,” Roht smiled back, “You have earned the rest.”
Without a word Rhalin moved away from them and headed for the door.
“My Lord,” Vhindr nodded to Roht before heading after his companion.
“I shall see you both tonight,” Roht called after them as Vhindr trailed Rhalin from the hall.
“Rhalin, wait up,” Vhindr called as he headed along the hallway, but the woman did not slow.
“Rhalin,” Vhindr called again, this time grabbing her gently by the arm to stop her. “What is the matter?”
“What do you think?” Rhalin snapped back as she pulled from his grasp.
“What Haylien said,” Vhindr did not really need to ask.
Rhalin cradled her injured arm and looked away from his eyes.
“She is trying to break your resolve. Play with your mind,” Vhindr said seriously, “What she said about your father’s friends not looking for you and your mother is complete nonsense.”
“How can you be certain?” Rhalin cut in emotionally.
“Because I know my father,” Vhindr replied calmly, “I know he would have looked for his friend’s family. Baron Ellengar and Barrgarah are men cut from a similar cloth. They were honour bound to do so. Rhalin do not let what Haylien said get to you.”
“If they really were looking for me and mother why did it take nearly three years to find us?” Rhalin asked as tears began to rim her blue eyes. “Hornberg is not a large city.”
“I cannot say,” Vhindr replied, “Only they can answer that. But whatever you do don’t take heed of what Haylien said, she is naught but lies and deceit.”
Rhalin did not reply and she turned from Vhindr, moving quickly along the corridor. He did not pursue her again, and her watched walk away with sadness and concern. Those thoughts continued to linger in his mind as he went to this room to have a rest before preparing himself for the night’s celebration.
It was well after dark by the time he headed from his room and down to the main hall where the celebrations had already begun. Apparently, soon after he had spoken with the Baron and Roht the news of the assassin’s capture had spread through the city and now the streets were alive with music and frivolities.
As Vhindr walked into the bustling main hall a thought suddenly came to him, and one that added to his troubles.
“Excuse me, miss,” Vhindr reached out and stopped a serving girl.
“Anaid, m’lord,” the red-haired replied politely.
“Yes, I remember you. Have you seen my sister, Valianna?” Vhindr inquired, “She was staying here in the castle with me. She had raven black hair and is about your height.”
“I know who you speak of m’lord,” Anaid nodded, “But I haven’t seen her for several days now. Thought she was with you.”
“No,” Vhindr said quietly as the girl moved on, “Damn Valianna, I am not in the mood for pranks and getting back at me for telling you to stay here.”
Vhindr let out a deep sigh and ran a hand over his face before moving through the crowd to join Roht at the table in front of the throne.
“Lord Ellengar,” Vhindr greeted the man politely, “Any luck in finding your gold?”
“Hopefully the Regional Commander and Captain Idunn will return in the coming days,” Roht replied with a smile, “And with my coin in toe.”
“That is good,” Vhindr said sincerely, “Tell me, did my sister return to the castle this morning?”
“No,” Roht shook his head and a grave expression came to his face, “I assumed she was with you. She was not I gather.”
“No, I told her to return to the castle when Rhalin and I left to track the assassin,” Vhindr replied seriously, his anxiety growing.
“I have not seen her, I am sorry,” Roht remarked, “But I have been busy talking with the Baron. Likely she came and left without anyone noticing.”
Vhindr nodded slightly and clenched his jaw in frustration.
“I see both Rhalin and the Baron are late for their own celebrations,” Roht remarked jovially drawing Vhindr’s attention to the empty seats.
“That is not like the Baron,” Vhindr said seriously.
“Nor Rhalin,” Roht agreed.
“But she has a lot on her mind,” Vhindr replied.
“Like what?” inquired Roht pleasantly.
“Best that she be the one to tell you,” Vhindr said as he poured himself a mug of water.
“Fair enough,” Roht conceded, “Damn it, where is Barrgarah? Girl come here.”
Lord Ellengar waved over the serving girl Anaid who was quick to oblige.
“Go and get the Baron would you,” Roht said with a smile, “He is missing his own celebrations.”
“Of course m’lord,” Anaid nodded and quickly handed her serving tray to another before rushing from the hall.
“I can see that you are Barrgarah’s closest adviser,” Vhindr remarked, “As you were to your brother.”
“Yes,” Roht replied, turning a curiously look to Vhindr.
“I would have thought you would be Baron yourself by now,” Vhindr said offhandedly and Roht chuckled.
“I did put my name down,” the man admitted, “But the decision went in Barrgarah’s favour.”
“And you are comfortable being the adviser to the man who beat you?”
“Story of my life Master Varrintine,” Roht replied simply and smiled.
Just then the serving girl returned and pushed her way through the crowd feverishly, her face white and her hands shaking.
“What is it girl?” Roht laughed as she stopped, “You look as pale as snow. Barrgarah give you a yelling did he?”
“D … Dead,” Anaid stammered as she continued to shake.
“What, speak up?” Roht demanded.
“He … he’s dead.” The girl stammered again.
“What?” Roht yelled as he jumped to his feet.
Immediately he looked to the stunned faces nearby and composed himself.
“Vhindr with me, quickly,” Roht said quietly and pushed passed the still stunned red-haired girl.
Vhindr did not need to be asked twice and was quick to follow Roht from the hall. Through a few doors and down a corridor they went until Vhindr followed Roht through a door. Both stopped as they entered, stunned expressions coming to their faces as they saw Baron Barrgarah sitting in a chair directly in front of the door, his severed head in his lap.
“By the Gods,” Roht breathed and tore his eyes from the scene. “No, this is not how it was meant to be ... ”
Shaking away his initial shock Vhindr walked closer to the body, his mouth agape. The man’s head had been cleanly cut from his shoulders before being placed deliberately in his hands on his lap. But that was not the most perplexing thing. Embedded in the stump that remained of his neck, and cutting half way down his chest, was Barrgarah’s own axe.
“Why did you guys leave the … ” Rhalin began to say as she came through the door but he sentence was cut short and her face turned white.
“Roht, send some guards down to the dungeon immediately,” Vhindr said seriously as he continued to examine the corpse.
“Certainly,” Lord Ellengar stammered and he walked from the room in a daze.
“You think it was Haylien?” Rhalin stated as she moved over to him.
“Of course,” Vhindr nodded as he looked at Rhalin curiously. “I did not expect you to dress up so nicely for the feast.”
Rhalin looked in surprise down at her black gown that hugged her figure closely and shrugged.
“I see you made no effort at all,” she replied and Vhindr laughed slightly as he brushed some invisible dust from the shoulders of his leather coat.
“You are certain it was the snow elf?” Rhalin asked as she began to walk around the chair.
“Yes,” replied Vhindr.
“She played me,” Vhindr said seriously, “I wondered why she had surrendered so easily.”
“Easy?” Rhalin balked, “If not for your anther crystal ring she would have beaten us.”
“That surprised her, true,” Vhindr nodded, “She had not expected the fight to take that turn. But she adapted and chose to let me capture her.”
“And take her right to Barrgarah,” Rhalin finished his sentence as she realised what he was saying.
The door to the room swung in again and Roht returned his features still pale.
“How?” Roht wondered aloud, his eyes wide as he looked upon the dead Baron.
“Tell me Roht,” Vhindr asked, ignoring the man’s question, “What did you mean when you said it was not meant to be?”
Roht looked to Vhindr in surprise and blinked repeatedly.
“You said it when we entered,” Vhindr clarified, his suspicions growing.
“I don’t recall saying that.” Roht stammered awkwardly.
“You did, and I want to know what you meant,” Vhindr pressed seriously, “The word is that the contract for Baron Ellengar’s assassination was written by someone of importance.”
“What exactly are you suggesting, Master Varrintine?” Roht asked back, his composure returning.
“What are you suggesting Vhindr?” Rhalin asked seriously.
“Nothing yet.” Vhindr replied after a brief pause.
“M’Lord Ellengar,” a guard yelled as she burst into the room, “They’re dead, all dead.”
“What? Who?” Roht asked.
“The … ” the guardswoman’s voice trailed away as she noticed the dead Baron.
“Focus man,” Roht yelled, bringing the woman’s eyes to his, “What happened?”
“All the guards are dead,” the guard stammered, her eyes going back to the Baron’s corpse. “The assassin gone, along with half of the prisoners.”
Roht let out a deep breath and ran a hand over his face.
“Go and clean that mess up, now,” Roht yelled angrily and the guardswoman slowly left.
“Rhalin, Vhindr,” Roht said as he turned back to them. “Find this assassin again, and this time kill her.”
With that Roht strode from room, his cloak billowing out behind him.
“Got any ideas where to start?” Rhalin turned to Vhindr who was still watching Lord Ellengar depart.
“My father is next on her list,” Vhindr stated seriously. “But she will not succeed.”
“Back to Port Na’brath?” Rhalin nodded in agreement.
“No,” Vhindr was quick to say, “First we need to find my sister.”
“Your sister is missing?” Rhalin asked with sudden concern, “When? How?”
“I don’t know,” Vhindr said darkly, “But I think I know someone who might. The King would have been looking for us after we destroyed his warehouse in The Pools. Perhaps they came across Valianna and abducted her. If not, the man would still have likely heard something. In any case it is time we pay The King a visit.”