| “Kelen? Is that you?” The speaker was an old man, hunched on a walking-stick, whose eyes had long since gone cloudy white with blindness. He stood in the open doorway to his small house on the edge of town, staring sightlessly into the dusty, busy street as he waited for a reply from whoever had knocked on his door.
“It’s me, Hald,” replied Kelen.
“Please, come in,” said Hald. He hobbled around and limped inside. “If my home is a mess, I’m sorry.” He let out a chuckle. “If I could see I might be able to clean it more than once in awhile.”
Kelen glanced around with a smile. The little wooden house wasn’t messy at all, of course. It never was. This was merely one of Hald’s ways of making light of his predicament, living alone and blind on the edge of town.
Hald was a storyteller, and rumour had it that he was the best one the city of Five Bridges had seen for centuries. Kelen had grown up listening to his stories in inns and taverns throughout the city, and always he’d stayed around after to see if there was any chance for more. Now, twenty-odd years later, they were fast friends.
“You wanted to see me?” Kelen said as he followed the old man.
“I’m grateful you managed to find time to come,” said Hald. “I hear being in the city guard leaves one little time to himself.”
“I can always make time for an old friend.”
“And old I am indeed,” smiled Hald. “I suppose you’re wondering as to the occasion?”
Kelen shrugged and laughed. “Does there need to be an occasion?”
“Not at all,” replied Hald. “But as it happens, there is an occasion today.” He felt his way to a table at the edge of the room and took the only item sitting on it: a large bottle of dark wine. He grinned. “You see, I was given this yesterday by a rather wealthy man who appreciates my stories. I hoped you would share it with me.”
“I’d be glad to.” Kelen smiled.
Hald sat down at the table and set the bottle on it. “The cups are on that shelf,” he said, pointing across the room. Kelen fetched them quickly and joined his friend at the table. Hald opened the bottle and filled both cups. “Now, let us see if it is as delicious as he said it would be.” They raised their cups and took long sips.
Hald smacked his lips appreciatively. “Good.”
Kelen nodded in agreement. “I haven’t had much like it.”
“Oh, I’ve had better,” laughed Hald. “But not often.” He took another drink. “Ah, this reminds me of those nights we spent in the taverns after my tales had been told, me with a cup of wine and you with a cup of water.” He grinned. “You always did love to hear more stories. Which was your favourite again?”
“King Barodar and the Battle of the Blade River.”
“Ah, yes. Four centuries ago, in the fourth year of the reign of King Barodar and the second year of the Great War…That was one of my favourites as well.”
After they had both finished a second cup, Hald said, “Many years have you been my friend, Kelen, and friendship is not something an old man takes lightly. You have my thanks.” He paused. “But in truth I did not ask you here merely to visit.”
“I suspected not,” said Kelen.
“I need your help.”
Hald sighed. “Tamm!” he called. Kelen frowned. Hald lived alone, didn’t he?
A boy of no more than five years came around the corner. “I’m here, Uncle.”
“Kelen, this is Tamm. He is the son of a very dear friend of mine from a city far from here. Thank you, Tamm, I’ll call for you again when I need you.” The boy wandered away.
“I didn’t know you had anyone living with you,” said Kelen in astonishment.
“No one does, save you. And with good reason. His parents were both murdered five months ago.”
“Murdered?” Kelen echoed. “By who? Why?”
“I don’t know the answer to either of those questions,” said Hald. “Maybe someone had a grudge against them. Maybe the boy’s father was too outspoken against King Terandas. He was well known for speaking his mind.” The old man sighed. “All I know is that before they died, they sent Tamm here to me with a letter detailing their fears.”
“What do you need me to do?”
“Hald’s voice became a whisper. “Someone is after Tamm now.”
“How do you know?”
Hald smiled grimly. “Because about ten feet beneath my tomato plants is the man they sent to do it. You must get Tamm out of the city. I have a friend in Valdrek who can look after him. It’s only about a week’s ride from here.”
Kelen nodded. “I’ll take him there. I’ll tell the guard-commander that I have urgent family matters in Valdrek. I can leave tonight.”
“Thank you,” said Hald. “If there is some way I can repay you-”
Kelen smiled and shook his head. “Not at all, my friend.”
The moon glittered on the great river that flowed through the city of Five Bridges, faintly illuminating the many boats that floated beneath the mighty stone arches that spanned the water. Across the westernmost bridge a figure stole quietly. He was shrouded by a cloak, but a closer inspection would have revealed the glint of armour underneath. Someone who had known what to look for might also have discovered the outline of a sword belted at his waist.
The man slipped off the bridge and into the shadows of the streets. He threaded his way cautiously between the night-darkened houses until at last he came to a small wooden house on the edge of town. He glanced around warily, then strode up to the door and knocked quietly.
Hald opened the door, sightless eyes searching fruitlessly. “Who’s there?”
The cloaked man lowered his hood and showed his face. “It’s me. Kelen. My horse is waiting on the edge of the city.”
Hald reached behind him and drew Tamm forward. The boy also wore a cloak but he kept shifting and adjusting it in discomfort. “Where are we going?” he asked.
“To my friend in another city,” Hald whispered. “He wants you to visit.”
“I don’t wanna go with him,” Tamm said, pointing accusingly at Kelen. “I want you to come!” He hugged Hald.
“I can’t go,” said Hald. He crouched down and drew the boy close. “I have to stay here. Kelen is my friend. It’ll be an adventure!”
Tamm looked up at Kelen suspiciously, until finally he left Hald’s side and stood next to Kelen. Kelen gave the boy’s shoulder a squeeze.
“Ride swiftly,” Hald whispered. “Be careful. Goodbye, Tamm,” he added, turning to face the boy with a smile. “Be a good boy.”
Tamm waved solemnly as Kelen led him into the dark streets. He hurried along beside Kelen in silence. The city, which would have been noisy and bustling during the day, was deathly quiet. Tamm kept casting wary glances up at Kelen but said nothing. It was only after they had crossed one of the great stone bridges that he finally broke the silence. “Where are we going?”
“To my horse. He’s waiting for us.”
A door banged open and Kelen jumped. Three men came stumbling out of a tavern, singing uproariously. Kelen placed himself protectively in front of Tamm but the drunken men didn’t notice them as they staggered away. Kelen laid a hand on Tamm’s shoulder and whispered, “Not far now. Come on.”
His horse was tethered exactly where he’d left it, outside a quiet inn called the Sleeping Prince. Its saddle was already laden with his shield and a sack of food. Kelen glanced around, untied it, and lifted Tamm onto the horse before vaulting up behind him. “Have you ridden before?”
Tamm shook his head nervously.
Kelen ruffled the boy’s hair before grabbing the reins. “Hold on tight.” He kicked the horse forwards into a brisk trot towards the city walls. Ahead he could see smallest of Five Bridges’ gates, little more than a low archway set with a barred wooden door. There was a guard standing beside it.
“Don’t say anything,” Kelen murmured in Tamm’s ear. He hunched forwards so that his cloak hid most of Tamm’s small form and he trusted in the darkness to hide the rest.
The guard raised a hand as Kelen approached. “A little late for a ride, don’t you think?” he said calmly.
Kelen cursed his luck. The guard’s name was Toren, a likeable enough man, but one who held unwaveringly to the law with no exceptions. Under other circumstances it was admirable, but now it was a hindrance. There were other guards who would have let Kelen through at night with hardly even a glance, but not Toren.
“I spoke to Commander Rekaan already,” replied Kelen, hoping that the night was deep enough to keep Tamm hidden. “I have to go to Valdrek immediately.”
“You know the laws, Kelen. You should have left during the day.”
“I meant to, but I had things to take care of,” said Kelen. “And that law exists to stop people from helping enemies inside the city. As a guard myself I hardly think I’m likely to do that.”
Toren smiled. “I know that, but the law is the law, isn’t it? Even those who enforce it aren’t above it.”
Kelen sighed. “Five Bridges is my home. You know I wouldn’t be leaving if it wasn’t important. And I won’t say a word about you letting me pass.”
Toren was quiet for a moment. “Very well,” he said at last. “I’ll let you through.” He turned and unbarred the door before shoving it open. Kelen breathed a sigh of relief. “Thank you, Toren. I won’t forget it.”
Toren grinned ruefully. “I’d rather you did forget, actually. You know how it is.”
Kelen nodded in acknowledgement and kicked his horse forwards out of the gate, hunching even more to hide his passenger. Toren did not appear to have noticed, and within minutes Kelen had left Five Bridges far behind.
Tamm shook his head free of his hood and looked around. “Are we gone?”
“Kelen smiled. “We are. Now it’s only a week to Valdrek.”
“A week?” Tamm whined.
“We’ll make the best of it,” replied Kelen. “Don’t you worry.”
Tamm slept through most of the night as they rode. Kelen didn’t halt until a few hours before dawn, when he turned off the road and led his horse into a small cluster of trees. In the weak moonlight it was difficult to see more than ten feet, but he supposed that was for the better; if they couldn’t see then no one could see them. He dismounted and tied his horse to a tree; then he scooped Tamm out of the saddle and laid him in the gentle crook of several large roots. The boy shifted but did not wake.
Why would anyone hunt down a five-year-old boy?Kelen sat down at the base of a tree opposite him. What did his parents do to cause someone to hunt him too?Kelen didn’t know, but he trusted Hald and that was enough for now.
They set off again as the sun rose. A heavy wind was rolling over the long grass around them and clouds had streaked into the sky overnight. Red-gold light from the sunrise glowed along the clouds like fire.
Tamm craned his neck to look at Kelen. “How far now?
Kelen laughed. “We’re only a day out. Here, are you hungry?” He reached into one of the saddlebags and handed Tamm an apple. The boy took it and began to munch in silence.
It was late afternoon when they stopped for a full meal. Kelen helped Tamm off the horse and rummaged around in the saddlebag again. He withdrew a loaf of heavy travel bread and some cheese and handed some to Tamm. The boy began to eat eagerly.
Kelen sat down beside him with his own pieces of bread and cheese. “Well, how’s riding?”
Tamm glared at the horse. “It’s bumpy.”
Kelen wanted to kick himself. If Tamm had never been on a horse before of course he would have found the hours of hard riding rough, even painful. Kelen was surprised that the boy hadn’t complained at all. “I can fold a thick blanket on the saddle for you. Would that be better?”
Tamm nodded and continued to eat. Kelen smiled sadly. Poor boy. First to Five Bridges and now to Valdrek. He’s running from people he doesn’t even know exist. Why? For what?
“Tamm,” he said quietly, “what were your parents like?”
Tamm took another bite of bread before he answered. “They live far away. I’m visiting Hald but I’ll go back soon.”
Kelen’s breath caught momentarily. Hald hadn’t yet told Tamm the truth. And of course, for what person in their right mind would tell a five-year-old boy that his parents had been murdered? Kelen let the subject drop. Tamm probably didn’t even know what his parents had done, and discussing it would be too difficult for Kelen to do without letting slip the truth.
They were on the road again within a quarter-hour. The wind had intensified over the course of the day, now whipping past them from behind with a howl like a wild animal. Kelen fought with his cloak to keep it from thrashing about in front of him. The clouds above were darkening. Not rain,Kelen thought. But there was nothing to do but keep on and trust that they’d find shelter before the storm broke.
As they rode, Kelen’s horse began to toss its head and snort. At first Kelen thought the beast was merely irritated by the wind, but as he watched it became clear that the horse was smelling something, a scent borne upon the wind from behind them. Kelen turned in the saddle and gazed back down the road.
There was nothing.
No…Not nothing. He looked again and saw perhaps half-a-dozen horsemen tearing along the road. Kelen didn’t doubt they would ride him down if he stayed in their way so he pulled on the reins and led his horse off the road. Tamm frowned up at him. “What are we doing?”
Kelen smiled comfortingly. “Just getting out of the way.” What he didn’t say was that while it was unlikely that the horsemen were in any way connected to Tamm, it was the unlikely, the things that just mighthappen, that frightened him. For that reason he drew his horse to a halt about fifty feet from the road and dismounted. He helped Tamm down and bade his horse lie on the ground; then he too ducked into the grass.
The thunder of hooves along the road grew louder. Kelen risked a glance over the top of the grass and saw that they were soldiers, clad in a mismatched assortment of leather and steel that betrayed their identity as mercenaries. The rider in the lead, however, wore burnished plates and a flowing cape of crimson. Kelen frowned. That was too much wealth even for a successfulmercenary leader. But before he could think on it he heard something from far away behind him. He turned and saw more soldiers, maybe twenty, galloping towards the road on a path that would take them straight through Kelen and Tamm.
The horsemen on the road seemed to see those in the field and they halted. The leader shouted out, “No sign of him?”
“No,” came the response. The soldiers in the field drew their horses to a halt. “He may not even be on the road anymore.”
The commander began to ride calmly into the grass. “He came this way.” His eyes swept the fields around him and his hand fell to his sword hilt. “I can feel his echo.”
The twenty soldiers in the grass were drawing closer and closer to Kelen. Any second now they would see him, see Tamm-
The nearest horseman suddenly froze in his saddle, thirty or forty feet away. His gaze raked the grass and fell directly on the place where Kelen and Tamm were concealed. Kelen had no choice. Before the man could open his mouth Kelen had hoisted Tamm onto the horse’s back and pulled the horse to its feet. Even as the mercenaries were shouting out in surprise Kelen vaulted up behind Tamm and kicked the horse forwards into a mad gallop. The soldiers charged after him; the ones on the road were riding forwards to cut him off; he swerved and thundered away across the grass.
Too late he saw more mercenaries racing through the grass ahead, on foot and carrying long spears. Kelen turned, trying to angle away, but the horsemen behind were gaining and the ones who had been on the road were now closing in as well. He rode madly towards the only gap he could see, grass whipping at his legs and wind howling in his ears. Nearly there! Almost-
It was too late. The spearmen closed the gap and Kelen’s horse reared, whinnying and beating the air with its hooves as it tried to stave off the wall of spears. Kelen fought to remain in the saddle and hold Tamm in place at the same time. The horse crashed back to the ground and Kelen drew his sword as the beast began to circle wildly.
“A merry chase,” said a voice behind him. He turned and saw the richly armoured man riding slowly towards him. He was very tall and held himself as haughtily as a lord.
“Put your sword away,” the man said again. “Let us discuss this like men.”
“What do you want?” Kelen growled.
The red-caped man sneered. “The boy, of course. Give him up and you can go free.”
“Not on your life,” Kelen snorted.
The man sighed. “You have no idea what you are dealing with.”
“I know enough,” retorted Kelen.
“What your aged friend told you?” The mercenary smiled faintly.
“What does it matter?” growled Kelen. “I won’t give him up, not to murderers like you.”
The man’s face grew deadly serious. “I warn you again, fool. You do not know the forces with which you deal. Stand aside. You can give us the boy willingly and leave alive, or we will kill you and take the boy by force.”
Kelen’s eyes flicked around quickly and calculatingly. The mercenary leader was drawing close enough for him to attack. If Kelen could kill him, maybe it would take the fight out of the rest of them.
At the very least he’d take a few of them with him. Three, four, maybe five. He’d always prided himself an excellent swordsman.
“Walk away,” commanded the horseman. He reached into his saddlebag and hurled something heavy and round towards Kelen’s feet.
Hald’s sightless eyes stared up at Kelen from the severed head.
Kelen’s mind went numb. What he was seeing wasn’t true. It wasn’t. Couldn’t be.
His mouth moved on its own. “You murdered…a blind…old man…” Kelen could scarcely speak.
“We are not playing games,” snarled the horseman. “Give up the boy or it will be your head next.”
“No,” Kelen growled. “It’ll be yours.” He launched himself from his horse and hit the red-cloaked mercenary in mid-air. Both of them fell hard and Kelen landed on top. He struck the man in the face and tried raise his sword; the mercenary caught his arm and threw him off. They sprang to their feet, swords in hand.
“Get the boy!” roared the man. “Leave-”
His next words were cut off as Kelen’s sword rang hard against his parry. Kelen swung again, trying to sweep his enemy’s legs but the man was too quick and Kelen’s strike cleaved empty air. Then Kelen too was forced to block as the mercenary’s sword hammered downwards again, again, and again. Kelen was being forced backwards, out of the corner of his eye he could see three men yanking Tamm down from the horse.
Kelen tripped. His adversary’s sword stabbed into the dirt where he’d lain half a second before. Kelen kicked out and missed; he lifted his sword just in time to catch a vicious slash that would have taken his head off. The man sneered and flicked his weapon and Kelen’s sword flew from his hand to disappear into the grass. In the space of a breath, Kelen was lying on his back looking up at a dozen spears pointed at him.
Their leader waved them off but kept his own blade hovering a fraction of an inch above Kelen’s throat. “I warned you not to be a fool,” the man sneered. “But take comfort as you die. Know that we are not the evil you believe of us. What we have done here today will spare the world a far greater danger.”
Kelen spat at him.
The sword pricked his neck and drew blood. Tamm screamed and suddenly wriggled free of his captors. “Stop!” he whimpered.
Two men grabbed the boy’s arms fiercely and the red-cloaked commander planted a foot on Kelen’s chest. He raised his sword to kill. Kelen flinched, waiting for the pain-
Then the clouds above began to boil.
The sword froze a hair’s breadth above Kelen’s neck as every eye looked up. The clouds were black, churning like smoke, blotting out the sun. Thunder rumbled in the air like a thousand drums and lightning flashed within the dark depths of the clouds. The howling wind was now a tempest, screaming and whipping cloaks and hair about in every direction. Some of the mercenaries staggered, fighting to stand.
And in the split-second it took the red-cloaked commander to look up, thunderbolts shattered the sky like glass.
Every mercenary was dead in an instant.
Kelen couldn’t move for terror. The smell of charred flesh and burned hair was all around him and made him feel sick, and still the clouds rolled and flashed with inner fire even as the mercenaries lay dead upon the ground.
Then his eyes fell on Tamm.
But it wasn’t Tamm. Not anymore. The boy’s eyes had gone jet black. His mouth, open in a wordless snarl, was lit from within as though by embers and the air around him was shimmering like water. Through that wavering field Kelen saw what could only be great, curving horns crowning Tamm’s head.
The storm vanished as suddenly as it had started. Tamm collapsed – and it wasTamm now – onto his hands and knees. Tears were streaming down his face. Kelen rolled over and the nauseating smell of scorched meat hit him again and he nearly retched. He crawled towards Tamm and without thinking, reached out and touched him.
Tamm sprang away like he’d been burned. He was crying, really crying, like any five-year-old child should have done in such a moment, and Kelen nearly forgot about what he’d just seen. He whispered, “Tamm? Tamm, it’s alright.”
Tamm didn’t look at him, but edged towards him nonetheless. When he reached him he fell against Kelen, sobbing loudly. Kelen held him close. “It’s alright.”
Eventually Tamm looked up. He pointed shakily at the dozens of blackened corpses around them. “I didn’t-” he gasped. “I…” His words failed and he just cried into Kelen’s shoulder.
Kelen looked at Tamm and took the boy’s hands in his own. “I…” he began hesitantly. “I don’t know what happened either. But we’ll find out. I promise. I’ll be with you until we do.”