Chapter I

They’ve taken the prince.

There: if I get nothing else down in this little pamphlet, those words will bear witness against my captors, should I not make it home – as seems ever-more likely. They won’t do me much good – my captors are the only ones who know this book exists. Exhillion, at least, knew of my last journal… though this one isn’t half so generous as that book, used up with fearful writing. It’s little better than a practice book, like the ones Obris had me use. Ha! Those always came back written-over with corrections; the eyes reading over my shoulder now, already so full of judgement, make me fear it will share the same fate. At least he read that bold opening and didn’t snatch the book away. Guess I’ll go on, then.

I remember dreaming again last night: walking down the empty road with springtime dying around me. The clanking and the rustling and the snapping of black cloth grew louder and louder. I pulled against invisible cords which seemed to hold my neck in place. I caught the shoulder of a night-black robe at the edge of my vision… and woke, bolting upright in bed.

Or rather I would have; the horrible paralysis which sometimes chases dreams sat heavy on my chest. My heart hammered beneath the weight as I tried to breath, breath, breath… but the weight refused to fade. And it wasn’t just on my chest, either; the air felt heavy across my entire body, pressing me into the mattress. I breathed again, slower and deeper. Thin steam met the frigid air, then rippled like water in the pale light. The ceiling stared back at me. I lay on my back, unable to see much of the room… but in the corner of my eye, something stirred: a dark shape, moving past my bed.

I screamed. At least, I tried to scream: my mouth opened and thick, heavy air poured down my throat, cold as lake water. My fear that dreams had somehow breached the waking world was overshadowed by a new panic – I was drowning, a hundred miles from the sea. The shape turned in the dark, and I made out the wide, black brim of a hat against the curtain. It raised one long, pale finger to its lips (or what I presumed were lips). The sound which followed was too much like the hiss of a snake, but still all-too-human: a signal for quiet. Beneath the broad rancher’s hat, I caught sight of two glimmering blue eyes before the figure turned back to rummaging through my pack.

Mage-Addict! was my first thought. Of course it was: the glowing eyes, the dark clothes, the magyk suffocating me as they searched through my supplies for more of the stuff – or failing that, coin to buy it. My second thought came screaming in just after: The prince! He was still on the nightstand; unguarded, unhidden, and the thief had just come from that direction. His secondvessel looked dull and insignificant; without the aid of the drug, I doubt it could even be seen in the dark. But if they looked closer, and saw the gemstones glittering in the crest…

My third thought trailed, a little slower than the others: What if they’re looking for him? I’d long dismissed the king’s fears of Ælfali spies, but if the half-seen creature rummaging through my pack was an ælf… I hadn’t seen their ears when they stood silhouetted against the dawnlight, but their hat would’ve hidden them – from me, and from anyone else who might’ve taken offense at the presence of ælfkind in the stronghold of man. If Ælfal had learned of Alexi’s death and sent a spy (or worse, an assassin) to claim his ashes, I was a dead man – I, and half the Vale with me. Had I but a moment to think, I would’ve realized it couldn’t be so; ælfs don’t use the maj magyk.

My reader (my captive audience, backwards as the phrase may be) made me cross out the Warden-slang. Guess he’ll be doing more than reading after all. Arches. Arches? Fine.

I didn’t get a moment to think: the shadow rose again, slinging its satchel ’round one shoulder. A sense of familiarity rose with them: the shape of their hat, the cut of their cloak… I felt certain I knew them, but I couldn’t place the feeling. The figure reached out, pressing a spiderish finger into the hollow of my chest. The drowning air thinned and disappeared. Suddenly free, I tried to scream for Brook; forgetting he’d already left me behind. Someone else might’ve heard me, though – but all I got out was a wheeze like a man with lung-flu. My chest felt like it’d been crushed by a wayward hay bale for the second time in a week. My arms and legs lay heavy as stones and limp as wet corn stalks, though the paralysis was gone. Running was out, but I could finally turn my head. I took the easiest course, letting it fall towards the window, the intruder, and (most importantly) the nightstand. Even that felt like moving a millstone. Something filled my throat again, but this time it had naught to do with magyk. The prince was gone.

I didn’t see if my journal was still there; I was too distracted to notice. I don’t know what’s become of that volume – the only record of the dark doings of Raligstae – but I hope it wasn’t left in that room. Or maybe I hope it was.

In any case, the prince was gone, and his spindly thief-kidnapper was hauling me to my feet. Whoever they were, they were stronger than they looked, thanks to the maj magyk. Managing to sit me up, they sat beside me on the bed (carefully keeping their bag from being crushed between us) and slung my arm over their shoulder. Pushing up with a muted groan, they stood to their full height, pulling me up with them. My head lolled forward: all I could see were the hardy, dirt-crusted boots of my captor and my own stockinged feet, dragging useless on the floorboards as we made for the door. I was unable to help, even if I wanted to. I did try to struggle, but I doubt they even noticed; all I could do was set my dead weight against our course. We hardly lost a step.

The door opened of its own accord, creaking far less than when I’d opened it. We stumbled into the third story hall; a small, glass lamp at one end banished total darkness. Realizing my chance, I turned to look at my captor’s face (my head still feeling like a bag of bricks), but they had already turned back towards my room – parlor, I mean. Their scarecrow arm (the one not pinned to my side) rose, knobbled knuckles popping as they snapped. Blue sparks flashed in the corner of my vision. I craned my neck further. My backpack was ablaze, the maps and charts feeding it like so much kindling. My eyes went wide, and shock made me forget to hold my head up. It knocked against my kidnapper’s skull as we both turned back. The hallway dimmed, and their shoulders sagged; I dared to hope they’d topple to the floor. Alas, no favor from Lady Fortune; the thief sucked air through their teeth, straightened, and started for the end of the hall. Last I saw of my parlor (which I didn’t need to pay for after all), the flames, blue and unnaturally bright, caught the corner of the itchy wool blankets.

I wonder if the guests on the floor above made it out in time – I can only hope they fled before the fire stabbed its fingers into the ceiling.

Those on the third floor (far fewer than the innkeeper had implied) got ample warning. We were halfway down the passage before the smoke began tickling my nose. As we neared the exit, my eyes started to sting. The kidnapper-arsonist stopped a few feet from the door, turned, and cried Fire! Fire! as loud as they could. The words seemed to echo in the quiet dark for a long, breathless moment, then the doors burst open behind us. Footsteps hammered on the carpet. Other voices picked up the call, one after another, until it was impossible to say who’d said it first. I barely heard any of that, though: my feelings of recognition came home with the first shout. That voice… his voice…

It had been raised in quite a different call the night before, as the student made his loud toast in the commons. Before that, it had raised the very same words in a very different room… Capital keep, that is. I lifted my eyes, finally seeing his face. I’d seen it once before, in the kitchens beneath the castle, where he’d ordered me to turn my pockets out. Every other time I might’ve glimpsed it – in the darkened corners of Raligstae and Shellingor (and maybe even Gillerhern) – its features were hidden beneath his wide, dark hat. A pentaform glittered gold in the shadows despite his attempt to tuck it under his lapels; too sanctimonious to leave it behind, I suppose, though I’m sure he’d prefer to call it reverence.

The revelation was too much. My chin fell back onto my chest as several guests pushed us out of the way, racing down the stairs in varying states of undress. Others rushed back into their rooms, calling for canteens, chamber pots, blankets… anything to smother the flames. I presumed they were soldiers, Wardens, or fools: I’ve known few smallfolk who’d even consider such a brave, vain course. I wouldn’t – but then again, I knew the fire was a mage-flame. They burn like ill-tempered oil fires, and quenching them just makes them madder. The firestarter-father needed a diversion for his kidnapping scheme. He picked the most extreme.

We’d reached the door. A well-meaning fellow, stocky as a dwarfish and twice as tall, stopped to help us as the air began to grow warm. The man, bigger than Brook (if not so well-built) and sporting the ruddy beard and arms of a lumberman, took my right arm over his shoulders and lifted with the priest, hauling me down the stairs. My toes dragged and fell, dragged and fell as they played the part of drinking partners to a too-heavy drunk. We must’ve looked like the Wardens who’d stumbled down the Kingshead’s steps when I first arrived.

My feet were so bruised by the time we passed the keeper’s desk I doubted I’d ever stand again. Alarm continued to grow as new voices picked up Fire! Fire! on the floors above. The guests, half-asleep or quickened by fear, poured into the commons. Whoever chose to stack the inn so high clearly hadn’t been thinking of fire half so much as profit: the stairwell was fast becoming a chimney.

I managed to raise my head towards the crowd. A terror-blind mob filled the tavern, four dozen strong and clawing for the door just wide enough for three. One man took a violent swing at his neighbor, who scampered back. I saw no more. My head was too heavy to hold up, but the whistle of air and the crunch of bone told the rest. Make Way! the woodsman cried, with all the deluded conviction of someone trying to save a life. The clambering ahead stopped dead. As we crossed the spit-polished oaks of the common room floor, stockings and bare toes passed by on either side. No one resisted us at the front door.

Our unlikely trio – the arsonist-holy man, the kidnapped farmer, and the unknowingly-complicit giant – went across the porch, down the steps (each a fresh toe-battering for me) and over the narrow road quicker than words… quicker than my words, at least. Not that the alley would long be safe from the fire, but it was safe enough for the moment – the woodsman thought so, at least. He took my full weight, lifted me onto the porch of the building opposite the Kingshead (the tailor’s shop?) and leaned me against the railing. My head fell back against the post with a loud thump, but I hardly felt it: I could finally see the smoke.

It poured poison from the third story windows; not just from mine, shattered by the heat, but the entire row. Glowing tendrils of red and blue reached for the rooms above. The guests, fire-fighting Wardens included, poured out of the inn like rats from a sinking ship. Guess those heroes finally realized the futility. A few people stared gap-gawed in the middle of the street at the tinderbox they’d all been sleeping in a moment before. It was fast transforming into a picture of the lowest Arches.

Huh… guess it’s okay to write Arches, so long as I’m not swearing. Good to know.

The wiser ones (mostly those wearing uniforms) ran for the safety of uptown… safety for the moment, at least. Fires spread faster than thought in the cities.

The woodsman, staring up at the blaze, turned back and knelt to check my eyes for signs of smoke-poisoning. The dark priest watched, eyes shining out of the shadows ‘cross his face. My face hung limp as a banner on a windless day; I couldn’t so much as grimace. I tried, like Brook, to burn words into the air: Help me! I stared, For Heaven’s sake, Help Me! (Oh, so that’s blasphemous? Perfect.) No words appeared – and even if they had, they would’ve been selfish. My eyes should’ve written Run! Run you fool… he’s right behind you!

The priest had crept up without a sound, but I must’ve made some sign when I saw him; the woodsman raised an eyebrow, then turned to face him. He opened his mouth, probably meaning to ask what happened… but nothing came out. The priest reached out, as though to shake his hand in thanks – then tapped him, ever-so-lightly, on the chest. Beneath his hat, his eyes flared brighter, and the giant stopped, tottered, and toppled. My head fell forward as he did: he landed on his face, blood pouring from his nose to stain the dirt a deeper red.

Oh? My reader (a more impatient audience than I would’ve liked) insists the man was fine; that he conjured heavy air beneath him to slow his fall. I’m grateful if he did – even if it was just to muffle the sound.

The priest stepped over the man (at least half again over his height and weight) and hefted me to my feet, dragging me towards the crowd. Men and women fled the neighboring buildings as it became clear the fire wouldn’t stop with the Kingshead. Embers landed on the thatched roof of the blacksmith’s, setting it ablaze. Horses and mules screamed in the stables as I was pulled along, following the people of the fortress city as they fled the enemy within their walls. Like fish in a dike, my captor and I were carried through the alleyways and back into the main avenue. Even so far from the inn, the commotion had wakened the city. My head was less heavy by then, and I saw more of the citizens (more than their feet, anyways), dressed in naught but their nighties as they gawked at the flames and rising smoke.

Most, at least, looked that way: calculating how long they had before the fire reached their homes (not long)… but not all of them. Some – not many, but a good few – seemed hardly to notice the fire. Their eyes were fixed on another strange, terrible sight, further down the street. Noticing the crowd gathering ’round the Warden barracks, I craned my neck towards it. I couldn’t make sense of what I saw: City-Wardens, a full troupe of them, stood outside the double doors with crossbows in hand – not the bolt-throwers Brook used, but the heavy, full-laden arms of the Capital guard. Two sheriffs stood to either side of the gate, long, cruel pikes leveled at some unseen person within. They all seemed unused to the weapons, but nothing in their bearing suggested they’d find difficulty in using them should the need arise. A pack of cadets held the small but growing crowd back with hard words and the occasional hard shove. The whole scene felt so un-Warden-like, playing out in front of their headquarters as it did. I thought maybe they’d captured some outlaw in the wild: a dangerous felon who needed to be removed from their sanctum. I was almost right.

The prisoner stepped out into the reddened light. The archers gripped their unfamiliar weapons tighter. Two Wardens held him by his arms; their commander followed, lean and tall with a velvet cape draped over his uniform – hardly Warden-fashion, to my eyes. Their captive was red faced and bleeding from a dozen cuts, sustained in some recent struggle. Chains held his wrists in the small of his back, connected to fetters on his ankles and a collar ’round his neck by further chains. They looked excessively tight and heavy… yet somehow seemed insufficient to hold the man they bound. I would know: above the iron noose, beneath the blood and bruises and swollen flesh, was the face of my once-called friend.

Brook was rearing to fight. The all-too-familiar fire burned behind his eyes, visible even down the street… or maybe that was just the Kingshead fire? Even so, he didn’t struggle to free himself. Strategy had been beaten into him as a cadet, and I could almost hear him counting the weapons surrounding him in his head. This was not the time or place for an escape, and he knew it.

I lacked his discipline. Hope rushed in over reason when I saw him, and I tried to shout his name again, forgetting the dry hollow feeling in my chest. Something – a squeak, perhaps – got out above the noise of the crowd… but he heard it. Brook turned my way. Through the mob and fire and my own damnable weakness, he heard my voice. He turned his fearsome figure, took a half step towards me… then took a baton to the skull. The captain lowered his weapon.

Brook didn’t topple. He stopped mid-step, scowled, and turned back towards the officer with an annoyed look. The captain raised his club again, taking a worried step backwards as Brook leaned forward… then collapsed, unmoving.

I heard a voice call for more men to lift the sixteen stone of unconscious Warden – but I saw no more. My captor’s eyes flashed in my periphery, and what strength I had left failed. My head fell back to my chest; if anything, I felt weaker than I had at the start. The priest turned for the south gate. It glared back at him, wide, spiked, and sealed fast. Why we were going that way with such haste (as much haste as he could muster, with the magyk starting to run out) escaped me. It was nearing morn, but the doors wouldn’t open ’til true-dawn… still an hour hence. And how did the priest get through them in the first place? He was back in Raligstae with Brook and I the day before – I know he entered the Kingshead after me last night. He’d been following me, perhaps since I left the Capital… and none too close, if he’d kept the Warden from smelling him and his hateful magyk. The gates had practically closed on our heels as we entered, so how (how?) had he entered the city?

Apparently, he apparated through the city wall – at least, that’s what he’s claiming now. I’ve heard some priests boast that they can do that: turn the Vale on its axis and push themselves through walls. Honestly, I think it’s less of a stretch to say some city watchman will be feeding his family a bit better than normal for the next few weeks… if they still have a table to eat off of.

An alarm bell sounded from the northeast tower, joined quickly by those in the other three. From the battlements, horns rose in an ear-splitting wail. If anyone in Shellingor was still sleeping, they weren’t anymore. Above the tumult I heard (or rather felt) heavy iron boots running past us. A moment later, there came grunting and the scrape of wood over iron as the crossbeam was lifted free. Hinges big as bookcases groaned as half-giant soldiers strained at the doors. Panicked murmurs turned to cheers, and I felt the air moving ’round us as the Shellingorians rushed out, desperate to put the walls between themselves and the blaze. The priest didn’t rush – he didn’t need to. We slipped through the gates just as they opened wide enough. As in the commons, no one got in our way. I’m glad the fortress city still shows such kindness to strangers.

It was darker outside the walls than in, despite the sun glimmering on the horizon beneath a high sheet of cloud. I made another effort to look up and saw the crowd gathering some fifty feet down the road, where the smoke could be clearly seen. My eyes were quickly drawn away from them. A half-cart, hitched to an ancient-looking ass with a mangy grey coat and a mop of black hair, sat to the side of the road. It wasn’t so unlike the wagon Jayceson and I hired every year: simple, cheap, and old – though I doubted that the checkered quilt across the back concealed cabbages. The creature at the end of the reins gave a muted whinny: they’d muzzled their mule. Its mane matched the hood and dark cloak of its driver. Like my captor, he was slight and bony, hidden by the dusk as he sat on the wagon’s bench… but he, too, seemed terribly familiar. I had no trouble recognizing his cloak: it was identical to the ones worn by the other priests in the Capital. When he turned his boyish face into the firelight creeping from the gate, I had no trouble recognizing it either; it wore the same anxious expression it had in the Raligstae chapel. Guess I was right to suspect the young acolyte.

The reins jittered and shook in his hands, and I saw sweat shining beneath his hood in spite of the chill. His eyes lit as he saw us approaching; if the layer of frost on the blanket was any sign, he’d been waiting there all night… he was more than ready to go. Me? I could’ve tarried a while… perhaps long enough for someone to notice the strange goings-on outside their gates. Again, Dame Fortune didn’t smile so kindly: the fire held the attentions of everyone in Shellingor, watchmen included.

The priest-kidnapper slid my arm off his shoulder as he dumped me into the bed of the cart, taking just enough time to prop me against the side rail before turning to fuss with the tarp. He spent a few minutes struggling with the heavy, dingy patchwork of colorful cotton, wool, and goodness knows what else. I turned my head as he worked. The assembly down the road all looked more or less in our direction; one even caught my gaze, returned a shy smile, then looked back up in terrified awe before I could signal my distress. No one took me for anything more than a lounger in the back of his friend’s wagon – never mind that the wagon had clearly been lying in wait since before the fire started. They had other matters to distract them. Unless…

There was one way. Even without Brook’s training, I thought the chance at escape was decent – perhaps the only chance I’d get. The priest, just finishing with the tarp, exchanged some hushed and hurried words to comfort his nervous follower. Slowly – ever-so-carefully – I did one of the few things left within my power: fall. My plan (no masterstroke, but elegant enough for the likes of me) was easy as anything… I’d done it often enough by accident, and seen others do the same. Someone would rush over to help me; they had to. I didn’t even need to worry about losing my nerve – I couldn’t catch myself, even if I tried.

And I didn’t – some other force took hold of me before I could, arresting, then reversing, my fall. I was back upright before I knew what was happening. Still it kept pulling. I fell again… backwards, slower, and quieter than I’d planned. The walls of Barrow-stone sank in my vision. The fattening smoke, glowing red and orange, appeared and disappeared. The last morning stars twinkled above as my head thumped down on the rough boards of the cart-bed. The priest, holding the sheet aloft with one hand, rested the other on the rail as he looked down at me.

His eyes, still glowing in the fading dark, turned towards the Shellingorians with a look I didn’t much like… though I liked the one he gave me even less. “I don’t expect much company on the road today,” he said, “but if we do meet anyone, try not to make any noise.” He didn’t give me a reason. He didn’t need to. My imagination did his work for him.

The curtain fell over me, a suffocating darkness worse than the magyk in the Kingshead; at least that hadn’t itched so fiercely. Leather snapped against horseflesh, and the mule gave a muted bray before the cart rolled forward: up and over the curb, then down and off it a moment later. I tried not to cry out. Every bump in the road jolted and bruised me, already pack-sore and stiff from sleep and cold. Lying flat on my back and strengthless, there was nothing I could do to lessen the blows. Even when the spell began to fade (two torturous cross-country hours later), I dared move only enough to curl into a ball. The priest’s non-threat wasn’t the sort of thing I easily forgot.

Had I been riding any other way, I might’ve welcomed a day off my feet… maybe even been rocked to sleep by the sway of the wagon. Lying in the bed of the cart, however, with splintery planks for a mattress and an itching quilt for sheets, I stayed well and wide awake. Mindless fear of what waited at our journey’s end grew with every mile. Beatings? Torture? Death? We’d just descended a rolling wildland hill and begun to climb another when the acolyte called a whoa to his unfortunate animal. Tired of hauling the three of us along, he gratefully obliged. The cart rocked sideways; someone had just jumped off. I coiled tighter beneath the tarp, ready (I thought) for anything. The blanket flew free; daylight, only slightly dimmed by sunset, screamed into my eyes. I threw my arms against it, fearing some last terrible bit of magyk and then – the Dreamlands.

“Hullo there, farmer!” a child’s voice called out of the white-hot haze.

My eyes were slow to adjust, but they eventually made out the shape of a broad, boyish smile on a round, hairless face. I leapt up, realizing I was defenseless – and regretted every old bone in my back as I did. The acolyte (whose name I’ve yet to learn) jumped back too, clutching the pentaform at his neck. It still hung open and empty as it’d been in Raligstae. Neither of us moved for a long while.

The elder priest was far less friendly than his follower – as should be expected. He’d doffed his cap, exposing the harsh line of his bare temple and tapered scalp to the merciless sun. He marched to the center of our soon-to-be camp without a glance in my direction, examined the spot for a moment… then fell to his knees. He dropped so quickly I was almost worried for him – almost. Maybe he’d consumed too much of the holy stuff. His disciple noticed the look in my eyes. He turned, then chuckled; “He’s fine, farmer,” he said, simple smile returning, “just praying, that’s all.”

And so he was – praying, that is, and for the better part of an hour. The acolyte made camp while I stood a ways off, sulking beside a spire of rock at the hillock’s edge. The last red rays of day met the first silver streams of night as the sun westered. The archer’s moon bent over a rolling white plain, heavy with snow for leagues on end. The low rise where we made our camp – a frozen hill ringed with sharp, dark points of stone – was the only landmark besides our tracks. Those vanished over the far-off horizon, and, just beyond that, a thin blue line of smoke caught the last of the sunlight. When day finally failed, the flatlands glowed cold and empty in the moonlight. I shouldn’t have worried so much about drawing passers-by: we’d come to a place fit only for thieves and kidnappers… or their victims.

My hand rested on the smooth, cool stone. In truth, my whole weight rested on it; I barely felt strong enough to stand. It wasn’t the spell (long-faded), or even the day in the cart (over and done with) which stole my strength. It was the sight of the dead lands below, devoid of farmhouses, cottages, or even Warden-cabins. In the silent stillness, question after question raced screaming through my mind: Why did they take me? What were they planning? Was this a kidnapping? Arrest? Execution? What were they waiting for? And (and this one still hasn’t gone away) where was my journal?

No answer for that, eh Kirlinder? Damn.

I’d been mooning over the lonesome wilds so long I was nearly snoring on my feet when a hand clamped all-too-eagerly onto my shoulder. I must’ve left my skin behind as I jumped. The acolyte (as panicked as I was) jumped too… in a far safer direction; the ridge of the hill, and the sheer drop beyond, were at my feet. I tripped on a snowdrift, turned my ankle, and slid down the cold, cold, cold hillside. The snow slid up, into my jacket, shirt, and trousers – thankfully, it stayed out of my boots. I glared up at him with all the gratitude of a housecat on bath day. The boy managed to turn both red and pale all at once. “Fire’s ready,” he squeaked before scampering away.

A warm fire, a lukewarm supper, and a new journal (if you can call a ream of ribbon-wrapped hemp paper such); those were the things waiting for me at journey’s end. If I’d known that, then maybe I would’ve stolen a few winks of sleep during the ride. The acolyte was fussing with something in the cart by the time I limped, shivering, to the flames. The old sorcerer was rising from his prayers, knees wet, face unsmiling. I turned and set my cold back towards the heat; thankfully, that also put it towards my captor. He could’ve done better with the fire… I’ve seen his earlier work up close, after all. Without magyk, the stack of straw and kindling-branches would’ve barely burned for an hour – not stacked that way, at least. For all his grim scowls and hardy garb, he’s just a city priest. These are the wilds: the domain of the Wardens. I doubt he even knows how to strike a flint.

Thinking about Wardens brought Brook (and the much warmer fire we’d once shared) back into my mind. The image of him, bloody and battered and wrapped in chains, felt like a dream which wouldn’t fade with daybreak. Kirlinder (the arsonist-father watching me write) must’ve seen my brow knit with confusion – or else read my thoughts, as some priests claim to do.

“Thinking about your friend?” he asked. His tone wasn’t so different from Brook’s, come to think of it: the question didn’t sound like a question at all. “The Warden?” he added, when I refused to answer.

Brook. I kept my back to him as I spat the name out like a curse. I had nearly dried out by then (thank Fires above and below), but I still refused to look him in the eyes.

“Brook?” the priest echoed. His tone changed – genuinely asking, or else just mocking. “Brook?” he repeated, feeling the name on his magyk-numbed tongue. I finally glared over my shoulder to keep him from saying it again. His thin mouth drew up in a smirk which didn’t quite cover his face. His tongue ran over his teeth beneath his lips. The so-called stew of lentils and dried greens simmering on the fire suddenly looked even less appetizing.

“So that’s what he called himself,” he pondered. “Yes… it works. Good choice. Sounds like a Warden-name, at least. I wonder where he got it?”

For a moment, I thought he’d gone mad; I could make no other sense of what he said. Brook got his moniker from the order, from his captain – same as any other cadet. Even I knew that much about the Wardens.

Kirlinder’s smile grew wider and no less sickening. The nameless acolyte busied himself with the pot, lifting the ladle to his lips to test the broth. His master raised a single finger, like a teacher giving a lesson. “You’ve been sorely used, my young friend,” he said, making sure to put me in my place before he started – even if I’m only a few years younger than him. “We were tracking you when you met ‘Brook,’ as you call him. Making certain you were safe – you, and the prince,” he added, tapping his bag. “But when we saw the company you’d fallen into, we knew we needed to act, and act quickly.

“Your companion was a Warden – once. A sheriff, as he likely claimed.” I felt no need to correct him… not that he gave me the chance. “A sheriff. A sheriff from the north… with a face of crosshatch scars.” He paused, looking into my eyes for some sign of recognition. There was none to find. He gave a patronizing chuckle. “You Gräzlanders really are a backwards bunch, aren’t you?” His smugness slipped somewhat as he turned back towards the fire. “I thought everyone had heard the treachery of Sheriff Willow.”

He didn’t see my eyes light up. But I had heard it: another long, sad tale in a world which seems full of them, and another I didn’t put down in my journal. And – though Kirlinder might not believe it – I heard the story from Brook himself. Willow, I suppose… if my kidnapper tells the truth. He told it to me on that night outside the Warden-shelter, as the belt of stars wound overhead like a great silver serpent…

The look which just crossed my captor’s tired face almost makes being kidnapped by him worth it. He must’ve seen me readying to indulge my vice and realized he’d be awake for hours more overseeing it. It’s been a long day for the old man, after all: kidnapping and arson before breakfast, censorship after supper. Not that it’s been short for me, either. Even if I felt impish enough to try and keep him awake, I’d be the one left snoring in the cold. Besides, there aren’t enough pages in this thing for one of my stories… so much for a book of tales.

I don’t even know why he’s letting me write. He just shoved this book into my hands after supper, while the acolyte was putting up the tents. “I understand you write,” he said, hardly looking me in the eye. “Write.” He didn’t need to say it twice.

Like his grand master in the city, he could hardly have imagined this old farmer would take to words like a fish to drink… or a farmer to drink, for that matter. Arches, I could use a warm ale…

Come, sleep: bring dreams of better days. Waking’s used up all my nightmares.

~the ‘winter’s fire’ destroyed most private structures within shellingor before it was finally extinguished. the city was rebuilt into the purely military fortress it is today when the king’s army arrived to reinforce the ælfali border~

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