“And there it is.” Talfin took a deep breath as he walked down the road towards Tirinnoufin. The walls rose high into the sky, towering above the plains. This time, it was real. Once again, Talfin was struck by the fact that when you were in a dream, it was impossible to tell that you were dreaming, and yet, when you were awake, it was impossible to understand why you hadn’t realized you were dreaming.
He whistled as he walked up to the suburbs around the city. Not casting a magical spell, just whistling for the sake of it. As he drew closer, two guards on the outskirts of the shacks lowered spears at him.
“Hey, now.” Talfin held up his webbed hands. “No need for that.”
“We’ll decide if there’s a need.” The guards took a step forward. “Do you have paperwork?”
“I do at that.” Talfin reached into his pockets and withdrew the papers that he had borrowed from the unconscious Vaspara. “Ambassador Talfin, here to reclaim my position.”
The guards frowned at the papers, then slowly stepped back and nodded. They didn’t bother to say anything. No words of encouragement, no admonishments of doom. Talfin sighed and walked past them, towards the capitol. It was disappointing, not being known throughout the kingdom. Not that he had really ever been that well-known, but when he was able to parade around regularly at the king’s side, he would usually at least get a few shouts of praise here and there. People wanting help, begging for mercy. He didn’t usually grant it to them, but it was nice to be asked.
He meandered through the suburbs slowly and carefully. It wasn’t that he particularly wanted to linger in the place, but he knew that there was a high probability that his brother had placed spies throughout the city, watching for his return. If he hurried too fast, he was going to make an obvious target. The only way he was going to slip in quietly was if he managed to sneak past all forms of detection, act like any ordinary Aqahartis.
He had only made it about halfway through the slums when he heard booted feet behind him. Carefully, he closed his eyes. There were three distinct impact patterns. Thump-thump-thump, thump-thump-thump. Soldiers always ran and walked in step with each other, to mask how many of them there actually were. Three sets of footsteps meant an unknown number of soldiers coming from three directions.
He bit his lip. Severin had already found him. Granted, using his actual name at the gates probably hadn’t exactly been the best way to avoid all forms of detection, but it had also been the easiest way in. How was he supposed to know that his brother had paid off the guards?
He knew that he had only seconds before the troops converged on him. He also knew that if he ran off in the wrong direction, he would run smack into the troops and wind up captured. With three sets of footsteps, it took him several moments before he was able to discern their directions. One set from behind, probably the soldiers guarding the entrance. One set from either side, moving through the huts. Both of the sets coming in from the huts were at an angle, moving away from the main city.
Without hesitating, he ducked into the rows of shacks to his right, moving away from the city as well. His webbed feet smacked loudly in the muddy dirt that composed the street there, and he grimaced. His hearing was better than most Aqahartis, but soldiers were still usually trained to lock onto their target’s sound. He needed to hide, and fast.
In front of him, a massive ox stomped through the street, snorting and stamping in the damp ground. A dark elf girl, no more than fifteen or sixteen, wrestled with it, holding onto a rope around its neck. Talfin swept up next to her as the ox started to back away, threatening to run off into the rows of homes.
“Let me help.” Talfin grabbed onto the rope. “Throw your shawl over my shoulders.”
The ox swung its head, sending pointed horns carving through the air. The girl ducked, let go of the rope, and tossed her shawl over Talfin’s shoulders.
Talfin braced himself and pulled against the massive beast with everything he had. After a moment of thought, he opened his mouth and started singing, a melody used to calm beasts. It took all his effort to sing the song slightly off-key, creating a hollow ring that did manage to slightly calm the horned monster. Nevertheless, the monstrous, pure-black creature continued to stamp and snort, pawing against the rope.
The soldiers came past a moment later, three columns, just as Talfin had thought. Each column held three soldiers, all aqahartis. They swept past, heads turning left and right. A few moments later, they were gone, vanishing into the homes. Talfin held his breath, not wanting to give any sign of relief.
“Sir?” The elf tapped him on the shoulder. Talfin turned his head to see the girl pointing towards the edge of the slums. “He needs to go that way.”
Talfin sighed and refined his voice a bit. Now that the guards were gone, it wouldn’t be a problem if he didn’t sound like a commoner. The ox’s head rolled around, and he was certain that it smiled. Carefully, he pulled against its rope, leading it through the shanty town outside his glorious capitol city.
Above him, the walls seemed to mock him, proclaiming just how close, and yet how far away he still was. He shook his head as the booted footsteps rose in the distance yet again. If he was going to survive, if he was going to regain his position, it was going to take every ounce of cunning that he had. He only hoped that it would be enough.
“And here we are.” The girl pointed at a corral on the outskirts of the city. Talfin’s eyes widened as he realized that it was truly on the outskirts of the city. The slums extended for nearly a quarter mile outside the city, with the outer ring of the slums containing small farms with entire gardens, plots, and pens. Nevertheless, this particular girl had a farm that was truly on the outskirts, with nothing but prairie beyond the wooden panels.
“Wow.” Talfin pulled the ox through the gate and took the rope off its head. The creature swung its head in his direction, and Talfin swept back through the gate again. The girl swung the gate shut, and the ox started pacing around the outskirts of the pen. “Quite a view.”
“It’s something.” The girl walked past him, towards the tiny hut that was built up next to the pen. In fact, one of the walls of the corral was a wall of the hut. “I’d take a place a bit closer to the actual walls, but I make do.”
Talfin followed her as she walked through the open door into the home. He frowned, as not even a blanket hung over the entrance. She walked back out an instant later, a bag of feed in her hands. She hefted the rather large bag over her shoulder, ripped of a corner, and dumped a large quantity of corn and wheat into a shallow trough. The ox started munching on the meal, and she carried the last bit of the food back into her home.
Talfin turned to leave, then paused. The likelihood that he was going to be able to just walk back through the town and into the city was extraordinarily low. Slowly, he turned back to the dark elf and took a deep breath.
“How’d you wind up out here, then?” He leaned against the fence, only to move away as the ox snorted at him.
“Pretty simple.” The girl walked back out of the house with a small hoe. Talfin frowned, until he saw her walk around the pen to a tiny patch of vegetables that she started weeding. “No money to pay the rent.”
“Rent?” Talfin snorted. “There is no rent out here. That’s why you’re outside the city walls.”
“Says the person who’s probably never lived outside the city walls.” The girl straightened up. “Are you going to actually do something constructive, or are you just going to stand there and mock me?”
“Mocking does seem to be a habit of mine.” Talfin sighed and dipped his head. He was half-tempted to just turn and walk away, but he was being hunted. Not to mention the fact that he was short on contacts in the outer suburbs of the city. Might be good to have an ally. “I’m sorry, I truly am. What’s your name?”
“Druila.” She bowed plucked up several weeds and shook her head. “Lighnigt!”
“What’s wrong?” Talfin walked over to the garden, unphased by the swear word. The plot of land was tiny, perhaps five feet on every side. Inside, he could see dozens of plants growing, packed together far closer than he imagined was proper.
“The carrots are rotting.” Druila shook her head and climbed to her feet. “I’m going to have to pull them all tonight or the rot will spread into the other crops.”
Talfin bit his lip as Druila walked back into her home, returning a few moments later with a small basket.
“Why not just make a bigger garden?” Talfin held up his webbed hands. “You have plenty of room.”
“Rent.” Druila just shook her head. “Can’t afford it.”
Talfin frowned in confusion. “There isn’t rent out here.”
“Once again, coming from the person inside the walls.” Druila started pulling the orange roots from the ground. Sure enough, Talfin could see dark blots across the tubes, marking the once-edible plants. “Have you ever struggled for money in your life?”
“Once.” Talfin nodded. “Granted, I was being held prisoner at the time in Sintison, but-”
“You? Held prisoner?” Druila snorted. “I can’t imagine why anyone would want to lock you up.”
Talfin cracked a smiled. “Touché.” He took a deep breath and knelt down next to Druila. “How can I help out around here? Is there anything that you could use a hand fixing?”
She turned, staring at him. Deep black eyes stared out from dark blue skin. One corner of her mouth twitched upwards, and she turned back to the garden.
“Answer me a question, then.” She pulled up another carrot. “Why would you help me? Why are you even still here, instead of running back to your palace or whatever in the city? Why stop to help a poor girl like me? I suspect that it’s not out of the goodness of your heart.”
Talfin chuckled softly. “Perhaps not.” He sighed deeply and climbed back to his feet. Slowly, he closed his eyes and turned his ears to the wind.
He could still hear booted feet, armored aqahartis, elsewhere in the slums. They were far away, though, perhaps a quarter mile by then. If it had been himself he was hiding from, he wouldn’t have risked saying a word. Of course, if he had been chasing himself, he would have been caught by then, so the qualifications of the guards were certainly in question. After a moment, he nodded and crouched back down.
“Had to make sure the coast was clear.” Talfin shrugged. “The long and the short is that my brother paid off all the guards in the city and is trying to kill me.”
Druila pointed out at the prairie. “Then just run. Get away from here.”
“If I was going to do that, I would have stayed in Donisil.” Talfin snorted. “I came back here so I could kill him. Or just oust him from the position and subject him to public humiliation. Whatever happens to be easiest at the time.”
“And this is why everyone who isn’t an aqahartis hates you people.” Druila finished pulling up the carrots and stood up. “Well, then. We’re both stuck here, for one reason or another. Tell you what?”
Talfin raised an eyebrow. The girl’s heart rate was picking up, and her breathing was coming in faster gasps. Anticipation. She wanted something, and she wanted it badly.
“You help me and I’ll help you.” She crossed her arms. “I know a secret way into the city. A tunnel that runs under the city walls. You could use it to sneak in without being seen.”
“That sounds excellent.” Talfin held out his hand. “And in return?”
Druila looked up and met his eyes. They were hard and cold, like coals days after a fire. She reached out and shook his hand, balancing the basket on her hip as she did so.
“And in return, you help me stop paying rent. For good.”
“I’m still not sure I understand.” Talfin followed Druila as she walked into her home. She dumped the carrots into a small washbasin, picked up a bucket, and walked back out of the house. Talfin followed as she made her way back into the homes, towards what looked like a well. “What rent is charged out here? I’ve worked for the treasury before, and none of the tax collectors report pulling any funds from outside the walls.”
“That’s because no one could pay.” Druila laughed ironically. “They’d have to arrest everyone, and it would wind up costing them more for jail time.” She shook her head as she reached the well, set the bucket down on the ground, and started cranking the handle to bring the common bucket full of water up to the surface. “Rent here is charged by the Collectors.”
Talfin frowned. “Collectors? Are-”
“Hey!” A voice rose off to their right. Talfin turned as three individuals stalked towards the well, muscles bristling. The leader was a plains dwarf, nearly a foot taller and slightly skinnier than Garnisic had been. Behind him was a dark elf and a high elf, both of which had their sleeves rolled up, revealing dozens of scars. “Girl!”
“Brunt.” Druila finished hoisting the bucket up, hefted it over the wall, and filled her own bucket. Task finished, she dropped the bucket back into the well and began to lower it into the depths again. “My, aren’t you looking terrible today? You look like you’ve lost three pounds and gotten two inches taller.”
“You insult my kind!” Brunt, the dwarf, stomped forward. “Did you pay the well tax?”
“Right here, Brunt.” Druila reached into her pocket and pulled out a small copper coin. She flipped it through the air, which Brunt caught with a pudgy hand. The dwarf pocketed the coin, walked over to her, and kicked over the bucket. Druila just raised an eyebrow and kept cranking the handle. Somehow, Talfin got the distinct feeling that she had known that the assault was coming, and had started preparing for it ahead of time.
“You spilled your water and have to get another scoop.” Brunt grunted. “Guess you’ll have to pay the tax again.”
“Now just a minute.” Talfin stepped forward. He frowned down at the dwarf, then turned and glared up at the elves. Soliciting funds as tax without paying a due to the proper government was illegal in all of Tifingor. And the city guards allowed this? “She already paid. It’s not her fault that you were clumsy and knocked her cargo over.”
“We’ve got a smart one, don’t we?” The high elf walked over and hissed as he walked around Talfin, snarling down at him. “I don’t think he understands the rules here.”
“And I’m not sure you understand stereotypes.” Talfin held up a finger. “High elves don’t hiss. You’re just cocky and arrogant. Dark elves, on the other hand, are allowed to hiss.”
Druila snorted, and Brunt crossed his arms.
“Have you paid the rent?” Brunt growled. “You look like you’re due.”
“Of course not.” Talfin met Brunt’s gaze. “I don’t own property here. I’m not taking anything. I’m just standing here.”
“Then you’re taking up space.” Brunt marched forward. “Rent. Now.”
Talfin sighed, reached into his pocket, and pulled out a gold coin. He flipped it into Brunt’s hands, and the dwarf lit up. He could hear the greedy creature’s heartbeat speeding up, he could hear the dwarf’s tongue sloshing around in its mouth as it gazed down at more money than it had likely seen in a long while.
“I think that’ll be enough for awhile.” Talfin raised an eyebrow. “I think it’s even enough to buy us a few minutes free of your presence.”
“Perhaps so.” The dwarf pointed a finger at Talfin. “I like you.”
Talfin shook his head as the creature stalked off. He walked over to the well and sat down, chuckling softly.
“No, he likes my money.” Talfin sighed. “And he’s going to like it a good deal less when he realizes that it was just an illusion. Give it an hour, and that coin will reveal itself to be a simple, conveniently-shaped stone.”
“He’s going to kill you.” Druila finished raising her bucket back to the surface and filled her bucket. “He’s going to kill both of us.”
“For someone about to die, you don’t seem that concerned.” Talfin picked up the bucket and started walking back towards Druila’s house. “You almost seem happy.”
“You’re going to fix the problem.” Druila walked up in front of Talfin and shrugged. “Simple as that.”
“Right.” Talfin sighed as they made their way back to her home. “Still working on that.”
“You know the deal.” Druila crossed her arms as they reached the shack. “Get me out of those thugs’ line of fire, and I’ll get you into the city.”
“In that case, consider yourself free.” Talfin bit his lip. “I just need to work on the details.”
“In that case, pull up a chair.” Druila pointed at a bucket leaning up against the wall, took the full bucket from Talfin’s hands, and dumped the water into the cooking pot with the carrots. Talfin picked up the bucket, flipped it over, and sat down, frowning as she pulled a small piece of a purplish stone out of a cupboard.
“Now that is interesting.” Talfin leaned forward as Druila held the small stone in one hand and held her other hand above the pot. The water began to swirl, and steam wafted up off the liquid. “That’s a ravstone, isn’t it?”
“Probably one of three or four in this entire city.” Druila flashed a small grin as the water started to boil. “It only heats up water. One of the safest ways to cook a stew that you could possibly think of.”
“Right.” Talfin frowned. “And you haven’t sold it yet? A gemstone like that would sell for a fortune.”
“A fortune?” Druila snorted. “Not exactly. It would sell for a lot. Couple hundred gold pieces, certainly. After the initial sale, you have the dark elf tax, the tax on items from the Dark Realm, and Brunt’s cut. Not to mention all the robbers I’d have to fend off.” She shook her head. “Selling it would be more trouble than it would be worth.”
“Interesting.” Talfin leaned back against the wall. “It would be enough to buy you a carriage ride out of here, though. Get you back to Delsinar, where things might be a bit easier.”
Druila took a deep breath and shook her head. The pot reached a rolling boil, and she folded the gemstone back into the cupboard. “Can I ask a question?”
“Go for it.” Talfin nodded.
“Where were you born?” Druila turned around. “Hatched, whatever aqahartis do to enter this world?”
“Tirtin.” Talfin smiled. “I was actually born in the ocean itself, on the western shores of this land. Grew up there with my brother and my parents.”
Druila nodded. “Since you live here now, I’m assuming you didn’t stay.”
“Not a chance.” Talfin snorted. “That place was a dump. No way to move up the ladder, no way to advance in society.”
“Right.” Druila turned around and faced him. “My parents and I fled Delsinar years ago. This is where we stopped. They’re gone, but I’m still here.” She shrugged. “Maybe it’s not moving up in the world, maybe it’s a step back from where I came from, but I can’t go back. Communing with the Dark Realm, living among spirits and mystics. I’d rather tough it out here, on the plains, than face the dark forests of my homeland again.”
“Fair enough.” Talfin sighed as Druila began to drop spices into the pot. “What happened to your family?”
“A question for a question?” Druila turned and raised an eyebrow at him.
Talfin smirked. “Technically, you already asked me a question. Where I was born? I’d say we’re equal.” Druila turned and screwed up her nose at him, and he chuckled. “Fire away.”
“Good.” Druila turned back to her stew. “Why is your brother trying to kill you?”
Talfin frowned. “What do you mean?”
“I meant exactly what I said.” Druila frowned. “Your brother is trying to kill you. Sibling rivalry gone to the extreme? Or did you do something like kill your parents and now he wants revenge?”
“Ahh.” Talfin chuckled. Truth be told, there was a bit more to his feud with Severin than simply met the eye. “Fair enough, I suppose. Yes, it’s a bit more than a simple rivalry.”
Talfin took a deep breath. He didn’t want to spill his entire story, not to some random girl, but he did need her as an ally. Not to mention the fact that most of the details of the story were public enough knowledge anyway, available to anyone who bothered to look through the ponderous volumes kept in the city records.
“Severin never wanted to leave Tirtin.” Talfin shrugged. “He was happy living life as a fisherman. He was happy on the shore, never advancing anywhere. Just living.”
“So why didn’t he stay when you left for Tirinnoufin?” Druila crossed her arms. “Seems simple enough.”
“Simple enough.” Talfin sighed. “Perhaps. Simple enough until you met my parents. Hard, cruel individuals. When the two of us stood together, we could oppose them, shame them. Make them realize what they were. When there was only one of us, it became impossible. They were experts in the voice, they could turn the entire village against us for the slightest infraction.” Talfin spat in the dirt. “I left home the moment that I could. Severin wanted me to stay, wanted me to help him claim the waters that we had been farming for generations. I couldn’t.” Talfin shrugged. “When I left, he tried to stay. After a year or two, he found that couldn’t bear it and wound up following me to Tirinnoufin. He’s hated me ever since.”
“Sounds like he’s plenty powerful enough.” Druila stirred the pot with a long spoon, then took down two bowls. Talfin held up his hand, and she put the second bowl away again. “He hates you for that?”
“The last time I spoke to him, he told me that he hated what he had become.” Talfin shrugged. “He’s good, born for the world of politics. He just doesn’t want to be.”
“Wow.” Druila nodded slowly and began to spoon the meager liquid into her own bowl. “Sure you don’t want anything?” Talfin shook his head. “I’m actually not hungry.” He wrinkled his nose slightly. The pot burbled with a soft roll, nothing that could possibly appetize an aqahartis. “Not to mention the fact that aqahartis can’t digest most of the food that you other races can.”
Druila smirked and started sipping her meal. “Well, you answered my question. I’ll answer yours.” Talfin crossed his arms and leaned back against the wall while Druila walked across the room and dropped down onto her bed. “My parents were killed by the Blight.”
Talfin winced. It shouldn’t have surprised him, in fact, he should have guessed that that was the case. The Blight was a disease that plagued the entire world. It rose and it fell, coming in force some years and remaining curiously absent the next. All that was known of it was that it was magical, carried by an unknown agent that seemed to have no qualms about killing millions. Perhaps ten years earlier, a massive outbreak of Blight had nearly wiped Tirinnoufin from the map. Talfin had been at the center of it, avoiding infection through seeming coincidence.
“I’m sorry.” Talfin finally managed. “You probably just arrived at the time.”
Druila nodded. “About six months earlier. Wasn’t fun.”
Talfin took a deep breath and shook his head. “I’ve lost people to the Blight before as well. It’s not an easy way to go.”
“Not particularly.” Druila hopped off the bed and placed her empty bowl on the small cabinet. “Look, I answered your question. Doesn’t mean I like thinking about it.” She flashed a small, pained grin. “How about we work on my not having to pay rent?”
“Right.” Talfin sighed and glanced out the door. Armored footsteps rose in the distance, the soldiers doing another sweep. He shuffled deeper into the house and hunkered down a bit more, making himself less visible. “I think I have a plan.”
“I like plans.” Druila smiled. “Is it a good one?”
“I sure think so.” Talfin crossed his arms. “We’ll need to wait for dark, which I suspect will be when they come for us, so it’ll be a tight timeframe.”
“I like a bit of adventure.” Druila grinned. “You’d better make sure I know exactly what to do once we have to move.” Talfin just grinned. It was a crazy plan, but he was relatively certain it would work. Relatively. All they had to do was make sure they didn’t get caught.
“You know, when you said that you had a plan, I thought you had a good plan.” Druila hissed. “This is awful.”
“We had all afternoon to revise it.” Talfin shrugged. “Not my fault that you agreed to it.”
“Yeah, but that was before we actually went to start working on it.” Druila shook her head. “This is madness.”
Talfin raised his eyebrows. He didn’t necessarily disagree, but he also didn’t see any other way to set the thugs straight. The only way to make sure that Druila wouldn’t have to pay rent was to discredit the people forcing her to pay rent. The only way to do that was to plant evidence in the thugs’ residence that would lead the city guards straight to them. They get arrested, swept up, boom. Simple as that.
Of course, making that happen meant that they had to sneak into Brunt’s home and plant something that he shouldn’t have been able to possess. Of course, making that happen meant that they had to actually steal something that the guards could start looking for.
Talfin took a breath as someone inside the guard house moved. Armor clinking against armor. Judging by the pitch of the ping, it had been a piece of scale mail bouncing off a piece of leg armor. Which meant that the guard was sitting. Talfin slid up next to the wall, breathing as shallow as he possibly could. Beside him, Druila did the same. He was actually impressed by her ability to mimic the shallow breathing, masking her presence. She truly was devious, a credit to her species. Dark elves were fantastic when it came to deception.
He started creeping along the backside of the house, making sure that his webbed feet didn’t suck in the mud. The guard house was located in the middle of the slums, and typically housed twenty or thirty guards through the night. Typically, guards in the slums served in two-day shifts, sleeping and living in the outskirts while they were there. The guards who were actually on duty would patrol in four-hour shifts, allowing them to get sleep and still cover as much ground as possible.
Talfin knew from experience as a temporary soldier in the guard that the best time to strike was about ten minutes after the guards changed shifts, around midnight. The guards that had been out and about took about that long to fall asleep, while the guards heading out still weren’t awake enough to properly hear everything happening. At that exact moment, it was about three minutes until the change, meaning that the guards inside were just starting to wake up.
“Why don’t you just do that cloaking thing?” Druila’s voice echoed in Talfin’s ears, a result of a mental connection that he had set up earlier. “I’ve seen other aqahartis do it.”
“Trust me, you do not want to try that around any official building.” Talfin whispered back, trying to keep his voice quiet. “That’s the oldest aqahartis trick in the book, which means it has more countermeasures than anything else in the book.”
“And you’re whispering now, too?” Druila raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that? No one else can hear us.”
Talfin sighed. Did he have to explain everything? “For the same reason I’m not using a cloaking spell. In theory, aqahartis mental links are so powerful that someone could be standing in between us and not be able to tell that we’re talking. That said, I’d rather not find out the hard way that the government has a way of breaking that link.”
“Right.” Druila sighed. “Let’s just move, okay?”
“Just a few more minutes.” Talfin froze as metal struck against stone, perhaps two hundred feet away. “Now, stay very still. If you move, if you take too deep a breath, we’re dead.”
Druila nodded slowly. Talfin winced as her hair brushed up against the stone behind her head, making a soft rasping noise. Inside, something shifted, and his blood ran cold. If they were discovered, it was all over.
The armored feet came closer. A bed squeaked as a soldier climbed up and out. Armor clanked as another soldier simply fell out and landed on the floor. Laughter boomed at the fate of the hapless guard. The feet outside the room reached the door, and the wood creaked on rusty hinges as it swung inward.
That was perhaps the most crucial moment. Talfin closed his eyes and focused on the world of sound. Four guards returning, four guards leaving. In that moment, there were eight sets of ears listening. Eight sets of ears primed for whatever might happen. The four returning were still high off the adrenaline of the hunt, searching through the slums for any signs of trouble. The four leaving were running on the just-awoken rush, and though they would soon slow, for those few moments, they would be attuned to any and all problems.
Beside him, Druila shifted her weight ever so softly. Her tunic, a rough, twisted-yarn construction, brushed up against the stone. In Talfin’s ears, it was a thunderous explosion, a massive sign pointing straight to the two perpetrators.
“You hear that?” The words came almost instantly. “Sounds like someone just brushed up against the barracks.” Talfin bit his lip. No. No. No.
“Yeah, probably.” A tired yawn resonated in the air. “You’re new, right? The local kids like to see how close they can get before we scare them off. They make a game of it, they’ll probably run of in a few minutes.”
“Should we go and run them off?”
“Nah.” The voice was already slurred. “High command doesn’t want us doing anything that could start an uprising. Scare innocent kids, we could be looking at a full-blown revolution. Just ignore them, don’t even go behind…”
The rest of the guard’s statement was lost in a tired slur, and Talfin frowned. That was the official policy now? What had happened to true aqahartis dignity? Why were the common soldiers so quick to throw in the towel, let commoners live in peace? Why would they bow to that level?
A few seconds later, the door sounded. A crash, a signal of closure. The guards stomped off, vanishing into the darkness. Talfin held his breath as they left, trekking away for parts unknown. One of the sets of footsteps was substantially less sure, less certain than the other three, and yet he went along. Talfin ground his teeth together. If he had been in that guard’s position, he would have ignored command and simply gone and rooted out the problem! That was how terrible situations were solved, after all. People taking action, people actually doing something to make things better! Granted, that would have meant Talfin’s capture and Druila’s likely death, but at least Talfin would be able to raise his head high in the pride of the aqahartis military.
“They gone?” Druila whispered a few moments later. “Are we safe?”
“Safe? No.” Talfin had to refrain from sighing in defeat. “Can we move forward? Yes.”
It took the duo another ten minutes to creep around the building and up to the door. A torch blazed over the entrance, theoretically allowing distant guards to see if anyone was breaking in. Given the conversation that Talfin had just overheard, he rather suspected that no one was going to check in on them for quite some time.
Talfin slid up to the door, taking short, shallow breaths. One thing that he was certain of was that the guards would be trained to wake up at the squeak of the door’s hinges. Carefully, he allowed the mental bond to break, and slid up to the hinges.
Druila stared at him in silence as he opened his mouth and stuck his finger inside. Carefully, he ran his finger through his saliva, then started moistening the hinges of the door. When he glanced back at Druila, he couldn’t help but notice a distinctly disappointed look on her face. She had obviously been expecting him to cast a spell. He flashed a soft grin, then slowly pushed the door open.
There was certainly still a creak, though it was lessened by the lubrication that Talfin had applied to the rust. Inside, the guards all stirred in their sleep, but failed to wake. They were in deep sleep, and would only be woken up by a noise louder than a footfall. Which was still relatively easy to accomplish, but it gave them some breathing room.
Carefully, Talfin stepped forward, allowing his feet to roll, heel to toe. He slid across the floor like a cat, padding through the darkness. The room was set up like any other standard barrack in the kingdom, with a dozen bunk beds filling most of the space. They were stacked two-high, though none of the sleeping guards seemed keen on sleeping above or below someone else. Between the beds were small nightstands, containing a small array of items.
One item in particular caught Talfin’s eye. It was a dagger, sheathed in a scabbard encrusted with several small gemstones. Nothing particularly phenomenal, certainly it wasn’t worth much, but it was probably a family heirloom. Enough of a theft for the guard to come after them.
Talfin picked up the dagger and smiled. Druila stepped up next to him, and he handed the weapon to her. Carefully, she wrapped her hands around the weapon. They needed to make a few alterations to the blade if their plan was going to work. Thankfully, Druila’s dark elven magic was strong, and the alteration took mere seconds. That problem solved, they turned around and slipped back towards the exit. Talfin breathed a sigh of relief as they reached the door. They were going to make it out, plenty of time to spare. The guard would wake up for his shift hours later, discover the theft, and go searching. With luck, the guards would go straight to Brunt and ask for his services in tracking the missing weapon down. Since Talfin and Druila should have had the weapon planted on Brunt by that point, it would be a simple matter for them to discover the weapon and implicate Brunt for good.
Druila stepped out in front of Talfin, and he eased out behind her. Slowly, he reached out and pulled the door shut. Which was when he realized that his spit from earlier had probably dried.
A loud creak echoed through the air. To a human, even most species of elves, it likely would have gone unnoticed. Talfin heard blankets rustle as three of the guards sat bolt-upright in bed. He heard even more clearly the sound of swords sliding out of their sheaths, the sound of metal on metal.
“Run.” Talfin turned and tore across the muddy ground. “Now!”
Druila followed as they pounded away into the darkness. Shouts rose behind them as the aqahartis guards burst through the door and pounded out into the camp. Talfin’s feet splashed in the mud, and he grimaced.
This time, there was nothing else to mask their noise with. No one else was out and about, no one was moving. They were the only ones, marking their trail with the sound of a thousand footfalls. Light blazed behind them, armored footsteps rose to match their own. If they were going to survive the next several hours, Talfin was going to need to come up with yet another plan. And fast.
“What now?” Druila hissed as they tore through the homes.
“Not so loud. My mental link broke in the commotion.” Talfin hissed back. “If they hear you, they’ll be able to recognize your voice.” Druila clammed up, and Talfin sighed. “And I have no idea.”
Talfin frowned as they ran through the area. All he could see were homes, interlaced with garden plots and small animal pens. Bulls and cows snorted at them as they ran by, a few chickens clucked as they were awoken from their slumber. He took a deep breath as he ran, trying to form the words in his mind. He had a plan, a semblance of an idea, but it was going to take more effort and concentration than he had put into a spell for quite some time.
Behind them, the guards continued to press forward. Light flickered across their path, casting pale shadows over the ground. They had been seen. Talfin took a deep breath, grabbed Druila’s hand, and pulled her around the corner of a home. The instant that they were out of sight, he opened his mouth in song.
It was the song of invisibility, the song used to hide his people from sight. The complex chords rose on the air, making him vanish from the minds of anyone who could hear it. He had to widen the music a bit to make sure that Druila was included in the spell, adding a few higher and lower notes to make the spell work correctly. When he had hidden Garnisic from the orcs, it had been a simple matter of masking the dwarf’s smell. Had they actually decided to look in the basement, they could have seen him easily. Here, he had to hide an entire elf, which wasn’t nearly as easy as it sounded.
The guards tore past an instant later, heads twisting left and right. They turned to keep running in the direction Talfin had been moving, chasing after ghosts. Talfin continued to sing for several long seconds before allowing the music to fade in the air. He took a deep breath and turned to face Druila.
“You did it.” Druila whispered. “The invisibility thing.”
“It won’t take them long to figure out what happened.” Talfin grabbed her arm and pulled her back across the roadway, towards the walls of the city. “They’ll think they’re still hearing noises, so they’ll keep moving for a few moments. A minute, maybe, before they realize they’ve been duped. One of the weakness of tracking by sound, it’s easy to get disoriented.”
“So where are we headed now?” Druila’s head twisted back and forth. “Shouldn’t we be hiding?”
“Yes.” Talfin shrugged. “Well, sort of. We need to get this,” He pulled the dagger out of his pocket, “into Brunt’s house. And soon. Before we get caught, by either Brunt or the guards. I’m honestly not quite sure which would be worse at this point.”
“You don’t want to get caught by me?” A ham-sized fist shot out of the darkness and slammed into Talfin’s gut. Talfin gasped and collapsed to the ground. He looked up to see Druila flailing against the arms of the high elf, who happened to be quite a bit taller than she was.
“I can’t say as it’s on the top of my to-do list.” Talfin climbed back to his feet as Brunt materialized out of the darkness. “Fancy meeting you here.”
“It is a coincidence.” Brunt stalked around them, frowning at the duo. The dark elf materialized out of the darkness behind them, a black mineral in his hands. Talfin winced, as he recognized the material instantly. Darnisould. It was one of the most deadly minerals to come from the Dark Realm, both for the person being targeted and the person doing the casting. It wasn’t something that he wanted to see aimed at himself. “We were actually coming to see you, Druila. Seems your rent wasn’t quite as good as we thought.”
“Don’t tell me that you lost the coin I gave you.” Talfin shook his head. “Now that’s just being a bad dwarf. Seriously, you people hold onto money like it’s your life.”
“We like gold.” Brunt snarled. “If there was any attack on my dwarven nature, it came from not being able to tell that you gave me a fool’s gold.”
Talfin shrugged. “You’re still a lesser dwarf because of it.”
Brunt growled, then started pacing around them yet again. “So, we were heading to beat you up. It’s convenient that you’re here now. Some might say too convenient.”
“Some might.” Talfin nodded. “Of course, the only people who could say such things are people who have functioning brains. Something I imagine that you’re slightly lacking in.”
“You insult me.” Brunt snapped.
“Why yes, I believe that I do.” Talfin crossed his arms. “Now, shall we get down to business? You were going to beat us up?”
Brunt walked around him and stood in front of his face. Talfin stared down at the pathetic dwarf, watching as the creature debated in his pathetic mind. “Why would you ask for such a thing?”
“Just a hunch.” Talfin shrugged. “Well, your hunch. You have a hunch, I bet. It might even be a good one.”
Talfin could hear the fire in Brunt’s mind, the ideas slowly coming together.
“You’re running from the guards.” Brunt’s eyes lit up. “You’re running from them!”
“And there he has a bright idea.” Talfin grinned. “Now, why were we running?”
“You killed a guard.” Brunt sneered. His face clouded, and he shook his head. “You’re trying to stay hidden. You stole something.” His eyes went wide. “You stole something.”
“Did we, now?” Talfin raised an eyebrow. “We stole something, did we?”
“I think you did.” Brunt gestured at the dark elf. “Search him.”
The elf stepped forward, put the darnisould away, and started frisking Talfin. He sighed as the elf worked, and frowned as the creature actually patted over the top of the dagger, missing it entirely. Talfin twisted his head, staring at the deep blue henchman. Was he really that incompetent?
The elf frowned up at him, then began a second search. He had very nearly missed it a second time when he finally discovered the weapon, hidden in the folds of fabric. Carefully, he pulled the weapon out and tossed it to Brunt. The dwarf caught the dagger and frowned down at the blade. The encrusted gemstones, the silver handle. Brunt began to sniff the weapon, even biting down on it here and there. Talfin smiled at the attempts to discover if the blade was truly real or if Talfin was casting another illusion. There were much better ways, but he rather enjoyed the sight of the increasingly incompetent mob boss trying to look like he knew what he was doing.
“So, real?” Talfin held up his webbed hands. “Or fake?”
“It’s real.” Brunt nodded after a few moments. He frowned at it after a few more seconds. “Looks like it might even be dwarven.”
Talfin cracked a small smile. That had been a good deal of the magic that they had worked on the blade. Druila’s magic had been able to carve a small rune into the silver handle, a dwarven crest. With luck, Brunt would now be convinced that the blade was something that the guard had stolen from a dwarven kingdom. With luck, it would make him even more attached to the weapon.
“This is amazing.” Brunt hissed. He turned the dagger over in his hands several times, admiring the length of the blade. “You stole this from the guards?”
“Consider it her rent for the next several years.” Talfin dipped his head. “I’ll be moving on here, but I’d like you to leave her alone. I promise you even more gold, real stuff, if you let her be.”
Brunt scowled down at him. “And how can we trust you?”
Talfin nodded at the weapon. “That’s real, isn’t it?”
“I suppose.” Brunt sighed and tucked the blade into his belt. “Consider your rent paid, Druila.”
The high elf let go of the young girl, and the trio turned and walked away. Talfin grinned and turned to face Druila, who had a frown of approval on her face.
“And that’s how you do it.” Talfin shrugged as they began to walk back through the camp. “It wasn’t quite what I had planned, but it was enough. He had the blade, which means that now, all he has to do is get caught.”
“And how do we manage that?” Druila raised an eyebrow. “The guards are still looking for us?”
“Oh, I think it’ll be easy enough.” Talfin shrugged. “Brunt won’t be able to keep that thing hidden, not if it’s a true dwarven artifact. He’ll start wearing it, the guards will notice, and…”
“Stop right there!” Fire blazed in the air as several torches were whipped out from under closed jars. Talfin froze as four guards appeared around them, coming out of the darkness. They had used ceramic jars to cover the fire, masked their approach. He had been so focused on dealing with the gangsters that he hadn’t thought to keep listening for the soldiers. Talfin let his head drop as the soldiers surrounded him. There was nowhere to run, illusion magic wasn’t going to work when they were this close. They were going to haul him into town, interrogate him, and hand him over to Severin. Druila was probably dead.
“You two are in a heap of trouble.” One of the guards muttered. “Come with us. Now.”
“And you’re certain you didn’t see anyone running through the streets?” The first guard paced back and forth across the barracks floor, a frown on his face. His scales were flushed purple, a sign of impatience and confusion. “Nothing?”
Talfin shrugged. “I’ve told you everything we saw. She came to my house, said some thugs had attacked her parents. I went to help her find them, but we were attacked. I certainly saw the torches running around, but that happens enough that I wasn’t concerned.”
Talfin desperately hoped that the guards actually ran around with torches every now and then. He certainly assumed that they did, but if this really was an abnormal occurrence, he was in trouble.
“I suppose that’s fair.” The guard rubbed a hand across his face, yawning widely. “You went to find your parents, and you got attacked by Brunt?”
“You know his name?” Talfin leaned forward. “Why not stop him?”
“City orders.” The guard shrugged and shook his head. “He keeps the population in line out here. Enough so, at least, that they’d rather him be here than total anarchy.” The guard frowned at Talfin. “What’s a true aqahartis doing, living out here anyway?”
“Parents threw me out.” Talfin shrugged. “Said they didn’t want me in the city, but I just can’t stand to leave this place.”
The guard nodded slowly. Talfin could only imagine how exhausted the man was, as he tried to process as much information as possible with a sleep-deprived mind. The other guards seemed a bit more awake, but not by much.
“Well, we apologize for your trouble.” The guard dipped his head. “I had hoped you would know something about the perpetrators. We don’t know why they tried to break into the guard house, but it can be assumed that they didn’t have good intentions in mind.” The guard chuckled. “Thank Sorosin for rusty hinges.”
Talfin’s eyes narrowed as he thought that through. They thought that someone had been breaking in, not slipping out. They probably hadn’t even noticed the missing dagger. That was going to make life interesting.
“Well, you’re welcome to go on your way.” The guard stood up and gestured at the door. “I see no reason to detain you any longer. We’ll reprimand Brunt come the morning. If he’s starting to attack families, it means that he’s forgetting his place.”
“Thank you.” Druila nodded in thanks. She stood up, speaking for the first time since she had been taken away. “We appreciate the help.”
“Of course.” The guard sneered slightly at the dark elf. “Now run along home, girl.”
Talfin stood up and placed a hand on her shoulder. She relaxed, and he smiled. Now, they just had to figure out… The door burst open mid-thought. Talfin took a step back as Brunt kicked through the edifice, dagger in hand. His eyes were wide, his skin red. His right hand seemed fused to the hilt of the weapon, and he roared in anger and pain.
“I hate you!” He ran at Talfin. “This blade is cursed!”
The dwarf didn’t even have a chance to swing at Talfin or Druila before one of the guards hit him over the head, knocking him unconscious. He fell to the ground with a thud, and the weapon clattered from his hand.
“Wait a minute.” One of the guards knelt down next to the fallen dwarf. “This is my dagger!” He picked up the weapon carefully, only to drop it an instant later. “He did something to it.”
Talfin’s eyes narrowed, and he tried to put on an air of confidence. “Looks like he applied an enchantment to it.”
“An enchantment? Or a curse?” The head guard kicked the blade away. “So he was the one who broke in.” He sneered at the creature. “He’ll pay for his crimes. Take him away!” Two of the guards bent down and hefted the plains dwarf onto their shoulders and carried him out of the barracks. The head guard then turned to the other two. “Find a way to carry the blade safely and take it into the appraiser in the city. Find out what was applied to the blade and how to break it. Also, start sweeping the camp. Look for any sort of portable enchantment forge that may have been used to forge the weapon. I want it destroyed.”
Talfin stepped out of the way as the room emptied of guards, leaving only the leader behind. The aqahartis smiled softly and held out a webbed hand.
“I’m afraid I must apologize.” He dipped his head. “We didn’t exactly trust Brunt, but I never imagined that he would go to such lengths. If you’ve been harmed in any way-”
“I’m fine.” Talfin smiled, and turned to Druila. “What about you?”
“She would not merit the treatments we could give her, anyway.” The head guard snorted. “You must know how that is.” Talfin sighed and nodded. He knew well enough how that was, and, had their positions been reversed, he likely would have done the same.
“I guess I do.”
“Then be off.” The guard smiled. “May tomorrow be better for you.”
Talfin nodded in agreement, and the duo stepped out of the barracks. Together, they started wandering down the street, towards Druila’s home. They were inside the shack, listening to the snorting and stamping of the bull, before Druila spoke again.
“So that’s why you wanted to fuse the ravstone into the blade.” Druila flashed a clever grin. “It drove him insane.”
“Sort of.” Talfin wagged his hand back and forth. “We carved it into the blade in the shape of a rune so that he would hold it. The ravstone then began to heat up the water inside his body. It didn’t truly drive him insane, not the same way as other magic will, so much as it put him in extreme pain. Every part of his body, every organ, boiling as his blood turned against himself.”
Druila whistled. “I didn’t even know ravstone could do that.”
“It’s a fairly advanced technique. Even most dark elf masters can’t handle it.” Talfin winked. “I once knew a dark elf lord. He showed me a few things.”
“And still, nothing about you makes any sense.” Druila shook her head. “You came from a fishing village and became a court ambassador.”
Talfin shrugged. “Lots of the court officials came from small villages, some of them not even on most maps.”
“Right.” Druila held up a finger. “Not what I’m talking about.” She leaned forward. “You’re the most powerful aqahartis I know, I’ve ever heard of, and you’re only a court ambassador.”
Talfin just chuckled. “I like a bit of mystery about my life.” He turned and nodded at the bullpen, only feet away. “I suspect that you do, as well.”
Druila frowned. “How so?”
Talfin cracked a smile. “You bought a bull. Not a cow that could produce milk, not a calf that you could raise and slaughter. A bull. Not good for eating, and it doesn’t even particularly look like it’s that good of a breeding animal.” Talfin wagged a finger. “Something about you doesn’t make sense.”
Druila’s toothy grin was wider than it had any right to be. “Maybe that’s why we work so well together.”
“Maybe.” Talfin clapped his knee and climbed to his feet. “Well, you should be set now. Brunt’s helpers saw you give Brunt the knife, only for him to go insane. No one else is going to touch you.”
“Possibly.” Druila shrugged. “On the other hand, I might wind up as a target.”
“Equally possible.” Talfin shrugged and sighed. “What a day.”
“It isn’t every day that I break into a guard post, steal something, and frame someone else for it.” Druila snickered. “So, I suppose you want the way in?”
“That would be nice.” Talfin nodded. “As soon as possible, preferably.”
Druila sighed and frowned. “Then why did we come back to my house?”
“So we wouldn’t lead the guards straight to an illegal city entrance?” Talfin shrugged. “Come on. Let’s go.”
Druila made a mocking groan, climbed to her feet, and jogged out through the door. Talfin followed her as she loped across the ground, leading him through the homes and shacks. It didn’t take long before they reached the well, where Druila pointed down into the darkness.
“You have to be kidding me.” Talfin turned and stared at her. “The well? The well?”
Druila chuckled. “Strange, isn’t it? That we draw our water from the same spring that you people live in?”
“It makes me want to drink it even less now.” Talfin grimaced. “You never swim in the same water you drink from.”
“When the wells out here ran dry, we had to come up with something.” Druila shrugged. “We bored over and connected it with the city waterworks about ten years back. Right after my family got here, actually.”
Talfin’s eyes narrowed. “You wouldn’t have had a say in that, would you?”
Druila just flashed him a coy smile. “Mystery, remember?”
Talfin grinned and sat down on the edge of the well. “Thank you. For everything.”
“It was my pleasure.” Druila crossed her arms. “You held up your end of the bargain. I held up mine.”
“I’m glad we see it that way.” Talfin swung a leg over the side of the well. “Truly, I hope we never find ourselves as enemies.”
“Nor I.” Druila took a step closer. “Would you do me one more favor? In exchange for payment, of course.”
“A favor for a favor?” Talfin smirked. “Name it.”
“Keep me in mind when you oust your brother.” Druila nodded. “I know I’m a dark elf, I could never live properly within city walls, and I certainly couldn’t hold a position within the government. That said, I could be useful.”
“I’ll certainly keep you in mind.” Talfin held up a webbed hand. “Farewell, Druila.”
“Farewell, Talfin.” Druila waved back.
Talfin cocked his head slightly to the side. “I don’t believe I ever told you my name.”
“No.” Druila chuckled. “I don’t believe you did.”
Talfin just snorted. The fact that she knew his name was a bit concerning. For all he knew, she could have been working for his brother. She could have been a direct employee of the king himself!
Alternatively, she could just be an exceptionally brilliant dark elf that deserved every once of respect he could give her. Whatever the case, the fact that he couldn’t come up with a proper answer was a testament to her character. He had traveled the world, lived temporarily in seven different countries, and he had never met someone as good as the elf standing in front of him. He only hoped that he was conveying the proper respect. With a flip, he rolled backwards into the well, falling the twenty long feet into the narrow chasm. He struck the water with a crash, sending plumes of liquid back up into the air.
The moment he hit, he felt the liquid surround him. It only took an instant for him to confirm that the water was, indeed, the same water that filled the central spring of Tirinnoufin. Slowly, he kicked downward, towards the bottom of the well. Ten feet under the surface of the water, he found it. A small hole, three feet wide, leading towards the oppressive walls. His freedom. He kicked forward, shooting inward, towards the city. Towards his brother.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical means, without prior written permission of the publisher, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law. For permission requests, write to the publisher, addressed “Attention: Permissions Coordinator,” at the address below.