Finally, Avarron thought as they arrived at their destination. It had been a long day through the mist, which had persisted almost until dusk. As the sun was setting, Dann had come to report that he had found both the border and a small camp at it. Having reached the camp, the sky was now dark blue.
A group of what seemed to be twelve people approached them. They carried torches from their campfire, making both themselves and Avarron’s group more visible. A young lady, the ambassador’s daughter, he guessed, in the centre of the group stepped forward to greet him.
Despite the twilight, Avarron immediately noticed that she was incredibly beautiful. Long blonde, curling hair framed a soft face and fell over her shoulders. Bright blue eyes lit up in the torchlight, looking at him as her lips hinted at a smile. She moved gracefully as she approached him.
Avarron was about to dismount and introduce himself to her, but she spoke before he had the chance: “Sir Avarron Theryndonash of Windvale.”
Formality and etiquette made way for horror and shock. Avarron felt his jaw drop and heard himself gasp for air as his mind raced to answer the question: “How does she know?” Hardly anyone in Altraom knew of his family. Their status as stewards of Windfall was often disputed by the lords of Altroam, who demanded a man of higher birth, especially one of their own, to take up lordship of the north. Thankfully, they could never agree who the new lord ought to be. Thus, he had spent years to carefully build up a reputation of being an honourable knight of no noteworthy family.
Unable to find an answer, Avarron slowly became aware of more than ten pairs of eyes behind him, staring at him in wonder. “Did she just call you…?” he heard Rogan say in disbelief.
Slowly he opened his mouth and said: “Actually, it’s Therindonas.”
He had little hope that he would fool anyone with that, but he had to do something to salvage the situation and it was the best his mind could come up with on such short notice. It seemed to have an effect on the blonde woman, though. “I’m sorry, my Kystan is not perfect,” she apologized.
Looking over his shoulder told him he was less successful with the Kystans. Rogan, Dace, his royal guards and the princess all looked at him in shock and awe. Avarron knew that there was nothing he could do to convince them he was someone else, aside from outright denying it. But it was too late for that now. He decided to instead simply ignore the whole thing. As if she had not just revealed his big secret to everyone, he returned to his original intention. He stepped from his horse and bowed for her. “Greetings, my lady. I am known as Sir Avarron. Might I know your name?”
Bowing for him, she answered formally: “Greetings to you, Sir Avarron. I am Lady Eleana Mantione. It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance. You and your companions must be cold and tired. Please feel invited to sit at our fire.”
“Thank you for your hospitality, Lady Mantione. We would all appreciate that, but I’d like to see Lord Mantione first,” Avarron said. He didn’t really have much to discuss with the man that had any urgency, but anything was better than giving those staring eyes the opportunity start asking questions.
The lady gave him a very confused look. “I’m sorry, but I don’t understand, Sir. I did not bring any family.”
Now it was Avarron’s turn to be confused. “Ambassador Mantione, my lady? I was supposed to meet him here. Am I wrong to assume he is your father?”
Her confusion suddenly turned into a bemused smile and she let out a soft laugh. “Sir Avarron, the ambassador you are looking for is me.”
Avarron felt a blush of embarrassment rising on his face as his mouth once again fell open in shock. “Please forgive me, I was not informed… I assumed… It is not customary…” he stuttered.
He cursed himself for being unable to even formulate a proper apology. This meeting turned out to be one social disaster after another. Avarron felt like hiding somewhere in the forest until people would forget. Which would probably take a lifetime.
Mantione strangely didn’t seem insulted. In fact, she seemed amused by the shock on his face. “There is nothing to forgive, my good knight. The error is not yours. I know some things of Kystan customs. Now, let your companions sit at the fire. I’d like to talk to you in private,” she said kindly as she softly chuckled at his diplomatic clumsiness.
Avarron happily agreed. Anything was better than having to deal with the inevitable questions. Without people staring at him, perhaps he could even stop making a fool of himself.
Without another word, Eleana took his hand and led him away from the group. As he followed, Avarron waited for Ferdiag to roar some inappropriate joke. He didn’t hear the warrior’s voice and hoped that he had taken the warning Avarron had given him to heart, and kept the joke to himself and those in whispering distance.
Eleana led him to a small fire, away from the main campfire. Clearly she had planned this in advance.
“I wanted to apologize again…” Avarron started.
At the same time, Eleana turned to him and also spoke: “I am truly sorry for…”
They looked at each other for a moment. Eleana shook her head with a sigh. “Please, Sir Avarron, I am the only one with any right to apologize.”
“But…” Avarron tried again, but Eleana put a finger on his mouth. “No, you only embarrassed yourself. If you insist on apologizing, do so to yourself.”
“That would be a rather silly thing to do, wouldn’t it?” Avarron asked her confused.
“Yes it would,” Eleana answered laughing. Her face turned serious again as she said: “So please allow me to apologize to you instead.”
“But my lady, you already did.”
“Not exactly. That was a mere excuse. The truth is, I’ve been reading a book called ‘The Miller’s Ashes’,” she explained. “I understand that yours is not a name to wear publicly. And I apologize for not realizing this before I opened my mouth. Such a great first impression I must have made,” she sighed.
“Well, Then I suppose we both did. Let’s call it even,” Avarron grinned.
Eleana gave a soft laugh in response to his grin, but it was not hard for her to see how deeply concerned he was that his secret was now unveiled. “Does everyone in Kyst know this story?” she asked.
“No, but just about everyone in Altraom does.”
“If you don’t mind, I have some questions about it. Care to sit and talk with me a while?” she asked, gesturing at a blanket next to the fire.
“With pleasure, my lady,” Avarron answered as he took place on the blanket. With a bit of luck, he’d get a chance to salvage some of his reputation, at least in her eyes.
Eleana sat down besides him and took the small book out of her pocket. “I got this from the great library in Nevarus. I have reason to believe that it is a Nevarran alteration of the story you know. I do not wish to make any more embarrassing mistakes in this matter,” she explained.
“Of course, I’ll be happy to answer any questions.”
Eleana opened the book and together they went through the first four chapters. Eleana summarized what she had read and Avarron confirmed it. They spent a good hour talking like this. “What I don’t get is how such a humble and peaceful man can suddenly become such a ruthless and power-hungry necromancer.”
“It’s the merchant’s influence. He is a demon that corrupts Donash into witchcraft. With that, he turns his back on his Destiny The man is a fortune seeker and urges Donash to be the same, rather than trust in his own Destiny. Donash eventually falls for his corrupting influence and becomes a ruthless opportunist, taking what he can without regard for the risk and consequences,” Avarron explained to her.
Eleana nodded as a sign of understanding. As soon as she had received the honour of becoming the Council’s representative in Altraom, she had started to study their culture and religion. Witchcraft was the antithesis of the Kystan sense of justice: everything had to be earned. Even for hereditary positions, the proposed heir had to prove his worth through a notable act of courage and wisdom.
“This is your heir’s quest, isn’t it?” she asked.
“No. An heir’s quest can only be undertaken under the eyes of the Angels, in the form of an Ardaithe witness. This mission requires secrecy, so I cannot claim it as my quest. To be honest, I don’t know why the king…,” he stopped himself.
Elena placed a hand on his shoulder. “You must have proven yourself to him somehow, even if the Angels didn’t see it.”
“A chance encounter doesn’t count. It has to be a deliberate effort,” Avarron explained. “And in my family, the quest always receives additional scrutiny. My grandfather singlehandedly built a watchtower at the coast and kept watch by himself for a month, warning the villages whenever pirates approached. My father then ousted a band of pirates that had slaughtered an entire village and taken up residence there. They say he drove them into the sea and since then, none have raided our shores any more. And Haran, our ancestor,” he paused. “Well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the book for you. You’re getting to the part of it that I like best.”
“Would you like to continue reading it with me, then?” Eleana asked him hopefully.
“Certainly, my lady,” Avarron said smiling.
She shuffled close to him, her shoulder leaning against his and opened the book at the fifth chapter.