Almost immediately after the king’s coach left the inn, he closed his eyes and went to sleep. A few minutes later Evaughnlynn watched Roselyn’s bird form in her palms and fly out the coach
window to circle around and head south. It was difficult to let go of the responsibility for the caravan’s safety, but all day yesterday she had felt a growing need to concentrate on
Phylon. He was moving into greater and greater danger.
The memory of their meeting on the road, when she asked him to go to the Freeholds, had been constantly on her mind, along with his question, “What am I?” She had concealed the truth by her
answer, “You’re my friend,” and she didn’t know why. How do you explain what you don’t understand yourself? A great truth seen through a swirling wall of fog that involved the
coming of the Child of Derision. He was clearly not the child whose coming was foretold, but his passing through the fires of war was necessary to the child’s… what?
“You vex yourself unnecessarily,” Sorcha whispered. “The events you are trying to see are yet years away and change in detail with each passing move on the board of life.
The decisions upon which these events hang have not yet been made.”
A vision struck Evaughnlynn like a bolt of lightning, there and gone in a moment. Two men wrestling on a field of grass, tended like a garden, but surrounded by wild thorn. One wrestler
cloaked in shadow, yet always the same, while the other shone like the sun and constantly changed in appearance, as if he were many different people, men and women. A voice whispered in her
mind, “You will tip the scales in favor of the Light, but pain will be the price you must pay.”
“What was that?” Evaughnlynn said aloud.
“I don’t know,” Sorcha replied.
“What?” Her father jerked awake and looked around outside the coach. “What did you see?”
“Nothing, Father.” She smiled as he turned to search her face. “It was a sudden feeling that something in the future has been determined.” And as she said it, she knew it was
true. The mist was lifting. A hard decision would have to be made. But first, she had to save the people of the Freeholds. She was certain the plague had been loosed upon
them by agents of darkness.
Her father’s eyes narrowed and his brows lifted. “What’s been determined?”
“I don’t know. For the first time I feel as if something outside the pattern has affected it.”
He blinked and a look of surprise crossed his face. “You’re here?” He glanced at Roselyn and whispered, “She’s scouting ahead? I thought you’d do that at this stage of the
journey. It’s the most likely place for an ambush.”
“I don’t think there’ll be an ambush.” She shook her head. “The pattern of events remains unchanged, but an unknown new factor’s been added.”
He leaned toward her and whispered again, “What factor?”
“You don’t need to whisper, she’s in a trance. And like I said, it’s an unknown factor.” She glanced at Roselyn. “How did you know we were scouting ahead?”
He smiled and yawned. “You’re my daughter. How do you think I was able to sleep yesterday? I knew you two were on watch.”
“And we went to all that trouble to be quiet until you fell asleep.”
“And I appreciated it. It was very kind of you two to do that, I don’t recall having a better nap.” He stared at Roselyn for several long moments. “She can’t hear us?”
“No, she’s in a trance. Why?”
“Have you talked to her about Captain Tamir?”
“What about him?”
“He’s a Freeman. They’re different from our people. For one thing, they don’t hold with stones of power, and she’s a stone bearer. I know she hasn’t told him she carries a stone
by his continued interest in her. Also, the way she looks at him, I think she sees him as more than a travel companion.”
“She wouldn’t tell him about her stone. She’s our secret weapon. Her hidden stone tipped the balance against Padraig on the way home from Anglia.”
“That’s something else I’ve never understood. How is it she has a stone? At first I thought she found it in the chamber under Tower Farm, but then I realized it was the stone on the end
of your staff before the battle. Steward referred to it as a focusing stone. When I asked him, he didn’t know how it became a stone of power, and he lived with wizards.”
“Sorcha said that our minds were strong enough to imprint a part of us on the stone, enough so that she was able to teach it. A stone of power is able to store both knowledge and power.
A focusing stone only stores power. She said she’s not sure how it happened, that it might have been Roselyn’s helping me build the storm to defend Tower Farm. Sorcha said that she
didn’t realize what had happened until after the fight, when Roselyn started to hand me the staff. The stone cried out that it didn’t want to leave Roselyn. That’s when Sorcha told me
to let her keep it.”
“Amazing.” Her father leaned toward Roselyn seated across from him. “Her mother’s beside herself with worry about Roselyn being sent into the Freeholds. I had to remind her I’m
sworn to protect her with my own life to stop her fretting.”
The mention of her aunt brought to mind what Roselyn had said the night before. “Was Aunt Hilda always so stern and unhappy?”
“What? Always unhappy?” He shook his head. “Roselyn reminds me of her.” He leaned back. “Just as you used to remind me of myself. When we were growing up I was
always in trouble, and Hilda was forever tattling on me.” He glanced out the window. “Until Eric came home with me from Anglia. He was a Jute noble from my mother’s
province. His father was a baron, but he had three older brothers and little hope of inheriting, so he came to Anglia seeking his fortune. I offered him a companionship. Since I
was the crown prince, he accepted.”
Her father looked at Roselyn. “I never saw sparks fly like they did between those two. The moment Hilda saw him her face went red and Eric’s jaw fell open.”
He turned to her with a smile, “She’d run off all the suitors my father had arranged and my mother was determined that Hilda get a say-so in who she married.” He sighed. “Now there was
an unhappy woman, your grandmother. She never got over leaving her family estate in southern Jutland. Our cold northern clime was not to her liking.”
He shrugged. “Anyway, Hilda was just what Eric needed, a good and steady mind, while he was just what she needed, a happy and cheerful soul. Together, they made a perfect couple, and my
father was so happy to be quit of her, he made Eric a baron and gave him the manor house near South Tower. Eric named it Roselyn Manor.”
He nodded toward Roselyn. “She was born there. But after Eric fell in battle Hilda never went back.”
When he turned to her, Evaughnlynn saw sadness in his eyes. “My parents were very stern and much too harsh with her as a child. She rebelled, but their treatment of her left its
mark. When Eric died, she lost the only happiness she’d ever known. She became the very thing she had fought against all her life, the image of our mother.”
They rode in silence for a while as Evaughnlynn thought over what her father had said. She felt guilty at the way she had treated her aunt as far back as she could remember. It’s
different when you know why someone is so miserable. I thought she just enjoyed making me unhappy. And all this time the poor woman was so unhappy she couldn’t help
making people around her unhappy.
“Such is wisdom,” Sorcha whispered. “Some people never learn to feel sorry for unhappy people, but think only of themselves and the misery such unhappy people cause.”
A short while later Roselyn stirred as if dreaming, and then settled again into a quiet trance. When Evaughnlynn turned to her father, he was asleep again. She leaned back and closed
her eyes, wondering if there was anything she could do to ease her aunt’s pain. She quickly felt herself drifting off, and then suddenly the fluttering of wings brought her eyes open.
Roselyn’s sparrow flew around the inside of the coach and then landed in her hands. Roselyn’s eyes popped open and she exclaimed, “That bloody idiot nearly skewered me with an arrow!”
Evaughnlynn grabbed her hand. “What happened?”
“Tamir’s lieutenant nearly killed me.”
Her father harrumphed as he leaned forward. “Spent too much time following the captain, did you?”
“I….” Roselyn breathed deeply. “I was just checking to make sure he was all right. He’d been sitting by that rock a long time.”
“No doubt,” Evaughnlynn said. “But did you see any evidence of an ambush?”
“None. And I searched both sides of the trail. The only thing I saw was a column of smoke off in the distance. Some farmer must be burning a field this morning, but it’s out now.”
The king’ head tilted. “You’re sure that’s all it was?”
“It’s mostly pastureland ahead, but I could see some farms and people moving about unconcerned. They wouldn’t be if there were raiders in the area.”
Her father said, “No, they wouldn’t.”
Evaughnlynn relaxed. The humor of her cousin circling Captain Tamir so often that his lieutenant loosed an arrow at the annoying bird competed with her confusion that no ambush lay
ahead. She had feared an ambush almost from the moment Captain Tamir arrived. And yet, as the danger to Faolan had grown the ambush had faded. I wish I knew what made that
Her father glanced out the window. “We’ll be stopping soon. I’d prefer you two remain here while we’re stopped just in case Rose missed something.”
Roselyn scowled, “You mean, like an ambush?”
“Well, yes.” He grinned. “I’ve seen you two in a fight and I want both of you here if there is one.”
“In that case,” Roselyn replied, “thank you, I think.”
Her father laughed.
A few minutes later the carriage pulled off the road and into a clearing by a stream. Both Roselyn and Evaughnlynn got out to stretch their legs. Almost immediately Beowyn rode up and
dismounted to talk to the king. He showed the king something in his hand and smiled.
Evaughnlynn and Roselyn walked back. “Since you’re smiling,” Evaughnlynn said, “it must be good news. What is it?”
“It’s the note Tamir left us.” Her father held a slip of parchment out to her. “He says he’s cleared the last probable site for an ambush between here and Bar Krouth. There’s no
further place where any ambush force could hide. It’s all farmland from there. He’ll meet us at the Inn.”
Evaughnlynn felt relief for a moment, then a sense that danger lurked—somewhere. Faolan, where are you? What are you doing?
The rustling and grunts were coming closer. Faolan pulled Gutter over to a large mulberry bush at the base of an oak tree. “Stay in here,” he commanded. “If they get too close, Badger
and I will try to draw them off.”
“I should stand with you,” Gutter insisted. “I can fight.”
“I don’t doubt it. But it’s more important to get the camp’s location to the captain. If he knows where it is, he can wipe it out. That’s more important than dying for
honor.” He gripped Gutter’s shoulder and looked down into his eyes. “You can do it. You can find your way back here. You’ve found more ways in and out of the mountain than
all the other dwarves combined.”
Faolan turned to Badger, sitting to one side. “Hide a little to the right. If they get close to Gutter, break and run. It’ll draw them away. They’ll think their approach
frightened you.” He drew his sword and turned to Gutter. “I’ll be over here.” He waved to a tree to the left. “If Badger doesn’t draw them off, I’ll come out fighting and
force them to the north. When that happens, you run for it. Get back to the mountain as fast as you can. Watch for traps like I showed you.”
Gutter looked from Badger to Faolan. “What about you?”
“It’s not about me, or Badger, or even you. It’s about the mountain and the clan.” He smiled. “Don’t worry. They might not come this way, or Badger might draw them
off.” He nodded. “Just be ready in case it comes to it. Okay?”
“As you command.” Gutter’s head dropped and he slipped into the bush.
“That’s better,” Faolan whispered to the bush. “Almost no noise. Wait for my yell, then bolt.”
The noise of the approaching goblins was growing louder, yet they hadn’t entered his field of vision by the time he had his bow strung and four arrows ready. By the gods, the whole tribe
must be here, and in daylight. He watched the forest for sight of the twisted elves the Old Ones had created for their war. The image of his friend Crek rose in his mind and he
hoped the hobgoblin was happy with the elves.
The rank smell of the goblins grew stronger. They were close. The noise and smell continued to grow stronger and stronger until he was sure they were on top of Gutter’s bush. As
he glanced around the tree quickly, he saw goblins spread all through the forest and closing with their position.
Suddenly, Badger bolted to one side out of the concealing brush to zigzag through the goblins, who responded with spears and slung rocks, most of which struck other goblins, setting off a lot of
screaming and snarling. Half the goblins turned in pursuit of Badger while the other half screamed at each other.
“Leave Off!” The yell echoed through the forest with such authority that all the goblins immediately stopped.
The voice came from uphill and off to one side. Faolan turned slowly to see a tall man dressed in a black robe standing on the hillcrest, backlighted by the sun. Fire shone from a large
stone set in a ring on his finger. “Come to me now!” Again the voice rang unnaturally loud over the area, and the goblins turned and started up the hill toward the wizard. Faolan
did not move, but kept his eyes from looking directly at the wizard.
Then Gutter walked out of the bush toward the hill as if he hadn’t a care in the world. Oh, no. The sorcerer’s spell over the goblins caught a Dwarf in his nets as
well. There was nothing he could do with the wizard standing on the crest, but if he saw Gutter… “Your pets are coming, go back to your camp,” Faolan whispered his thoughts at the wizard
as hard as he could in wishful hoping.
The sorcerer nodded, as if he had heard Faolan, then turned and disappeared over the hillcrest. Faolan darted from hiding and tackled Gutter just before he reached the top of the rise.
The two of them rolled under a bush. A moment later a group of goblins walked by in a trance. Gutter was still trying to go to the wizard, so Faolan tapped him on the back of the head
with the pommel of his knife. The boy went limp.
Now, where’s Badger? He stood and looked around. There was no sign of his friend on this side of the hill. He scurried to the crest and peered over. Relief washed
over him when he didn’t see the badger among those gathering in front of the rock where the sorcerer stood. However, the wave of relief became a stone of fear in his stomach that his friend
had been struck by spear or stone. Faolan slipped back over the crest and started downhill toward the bush where Gutter lay unconscious.
The voice of the wizard rang out. “I must leave you and seek Brother Banag. He has not reported since yesterday evening and I must know if he stopped the Hawkland witch before I return
to the foul lair of the swine people and spread more pestilence among them. You will remain here and continue to pin the cave rats in their runs. Soon, their food will run out and
they’ll have to face us in open battle or starve. Then, my little cave dwelling friends, the caverns will be yours.”
The grunts and hoops of the goblins echoed over the crest like a wave of thunder. Faolan quickly lifted Gutter over his shoulder and started downhill, looking desperately for Badger as he
went. His emotions were in turmoil. Relief weakened his muscles and rolled his stomach when he didn’t see Badger’s body, but concern that his friend had been wounded and now lay injured
or dying in a bush cramped his chest and twisted his heart, leaving him sick with worry. Only the need to get back to the cavern to tell the captain of the enemy camp kept him going.
An itch at the back of his neck made him glance back twice and then finally stop and turn, ready to drop his load and pull his bow taunt. Badger sat directly behind him, looking up.
“I thought they got you back there.”
Badger snorted and then walked past, leaving him to follow.
“When the wizard called his goblins,” Faolan said as he started after his friend, “he caught Gutter in his net. How is it he missed you?”
Badger stopped and looked back over his shoulder, then shook his head and started forward again.
“Didn’t feel a thing, huh?” Faolan smiled. “You and I are both too hardheaded for them, I guess. That’s good to know.” They continued toward the cavern entrance. “The
wizard said his brother wizard had a run at Princess Evaughnlynn yesterday but didn’t report afterwards. I suspect she’s accounted for another one. As soon as we’re done here, we’ll head for
Bar Krouth to see what she wants us to do.”
A few minutes later Gutter moaned and twisted in Faolan’s grip. “It’s all right,” Faolan said. “It’s me.” He stopped and set the young dwarf down carefully to stand, swaying
Gutter rubbed his hands on either side of his skull. “Head hurts.”
“Ah, yeah. I had to knock you out when the wizard’s spell caught you along with the goblins.” When Gutter looked up, Faolan added, “You were walking right for his camp in the middle of
a bunch of goblins.”
Gutter nodded slowly. “I remember. I was hiding and pain came, like a knife stuck into my skull. Then I was walking. Nothing mattered, not the mines, not you. Not even
the clan. All that mattered was getting to him.” Gutter looked at Faolan. “Who was he?”
“A dark wizard.” He reached out and rested his hand on Gutter’s shoulder. “Only someone trained to protect their mind could have resisted his spell.”
“You did,” Gutter replied.
Faolan’s eyes rolled. “I’m not typical. My friend I was telling you about, she told me that I’m too hard-headed for spells to work. Apparently, it runs in my family.”
“Can you teach me?”
The look of fear on Gutter’s face tore Faolan’s heart and he glanced at Badger, who also escaped the spell. “It can be done. I have a friend who knows how to do it. Maybe she can
show me how to teach you. I’m going to meet her in Bar Krouth after we destroy this nest of snakes.”
“Take me with you, please.” Gutter was near tears and all Faolan could do was wave ahead. Gutter turned and started walking but looked back over his shoulder. “Please?”
“Let’s get this done with first.” He did not know why, but suddenly the image of his hobgoblin friend, Crek, rose in his mind.
© Copyright 2020 R. M. Keegan. All rights reserved.