Tufas led Avarron and Eleana through the forest to an old, abandoned keep. A remnant of the war, once a formidable fortress but now in ruins. The gate was left open and no guards were posted. Not that Avarron expected any in these ruins, but it was still odd to him to walk into a keep with no defenders.
As they entered the courtyard, Avarron realised that the keep was not entirely uninhabited. Given the ashes and the piles of logs, there had to be many fires here at night. Probably that horde of raiders that ambushed them. As they were ahead of the raiders , the keep was completely empty.
Crossing the courtyard in a straight line, they entered the keep itself. A straight hallway with many doors, but Tufas led them straight ahead to the end, where large, ornate doors granted access to the keep’s main hall.
The hall had once been beautiful. Large banners hung on the walls but time had eaten away on them, leaving only mouldy shreds. Golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling but were entirely tarnished. Moss and vines had crept into the keep and overgrown much of it. The only piece of the hall that seemed to be well maintained was a large chair, almost a throne, at the other end of the room.
In it sat a dark, brooding man. He had long, black hair that reached over his shoulders and a well trimmed, thin beard on his chin. He clearly took care of himself, which starkly contrasted him with all the other raiders. Of course, his adjudant, if the raiders had such a thing, was anything but ordinary.
As Tufas approached him, he looked up. “I see you have brought our guests. Excellent.” he turned to Avarron and Eleana. “Please come forward,” he beckoned.
Avarron boldly stepped forward, looking the bandit leader straight in the eyes. Eleana followed in his step. She did not cower behind him, but walked right next to him and gave the bandit leader the same defiant look.
The man got up from his seat and made a formal bow. “Sir Avarron Therindonas of Windvale and Lady Eleana Mantione of Nevarus. I would introduce myself as Lord Achyran and I thank you for accepting my invitation,” he said smiling.
“And some invitation it was,” Avarron said, softly rubbing his nose. He had little patience for the man’s feigned politeness.
“You’ll have to forgive Tufas, he lacks the finesse of more civilized people. Besides, I expected it would take some rather forceful reasoning to get you to accept. You can hardly blame me for believing in the power of good rhetoric. You at least, Lady Mantione,” He calmly replied.
“If you truly did, you would not have backed up your ‘invitation’ with deadly force. Everyone in this room is very well aware that Sir Avarron and I were brought here against our will and with ill intent, so let’s not try to keep up any appearances, shall we?” Eleana said. Clearly she felt the same way about the man’s manners.
“As you wish. However you may feel about my invitation, you are confused about the nature of my intent. You should have realized by now that I am no simple highwayman, seeking to ransom you for wealth. Nor am I a bloodthirsty warmonger, seeking to profit from conflict. In fact, and I do not mean to be rude, it is not you who interests me, Lady Mantione. You are mostly here to fool my enemies into such assumptions.”
Avarron looked at Eleana. If she was not the reason for the ambush, then what was? She looked at him with a similarly puzzled expression. Then he realized the answer: “Me?”
“Yes, you,” Achyran said as he circled him, observing him as one might a statue or other artwork. “You are a walking mystery, even to yourself. As a knight from the lowest of houses, you go as far as to hide your name. Yet you manage to win the favour of your king, and the love of his daughter. As such, you cannot stay in the shadows, whether you like it or not. You have attracted attention to yourself. A lovestruck songbird, unaware of the prying eyes and ears of the many hungry hawks flying around.”
Eleana looked away, hiding her face from him.
“After all your good fortune, Destiny is cruel indeed to suddenly reveal your secret to one who would use it against you. And it used someone you care about, no less.”
“Stop it,” Avarron interrupted. “It’s not her fault.”
Achyran stopped circling Avarron and faced him, looking the knight straight in the eyes. The irises of the man’s eyes were as black as his pupils. “Ever the protector, I see. Good, that’s just what I need.” he smiled.
“You need protection?” Avarron asked puzzled. “This is not exactly the most logical way to acquire a guardian.”
“It isn’t, is it?” Achyran returned the question.
“So why are we here, then?” Avarron asked, getting tired of the man’s cryptic language.
“I was wondering when you’d stop making assumptions and start asking questions. After all, assumptions are the tools of the blind,” Achyran said.
It was no answer at all, and clearly Eleana was tiring of it as well. “Then maybe you are willing to start answering?” she asked.
“Of course. I brought you here to hide you from the hawks.” Achyran said, as if that explained everything.
“And how do we know you’re not one of them?” Eleana asked sceptically.
Achyran gave her a wide, toothy grin. “I hunt the hawks, and Avarron here provides an excellent lure.”
“You’re saying that he’s your bait?” Eleana asked.
“You are preceptive. That’s exactly what I’m saying.”
Avarron tried to follow the conversation, but found himself lost in the metaphor. If he was a lure, what exactly did he attract? And what did Princess Lannvaire have to do with it? But most of all: “How exactly do you see hiding to be in my well-being? I’ll be executed if I don’t get lady Mantione to Altraom.”
“That’s a risk I am willing to take,” Achyron shrugged disinterested. “I’m sure that the two of you will get there eventually, and she can vouch for you. Her opinion of you will likely determine whether you get to keep your head or not. Better be nice to her,” he gave Avarron a malicious grin.
“That’s comforting,” Avarron sighed. The man seemed to try very hard to get on his nerves. He was certainly successful.
“I’m no nurse-maid, boy.” Achyran said, his tone suddenly stern.
“No, from what I gather, you are a rather cruel man,” Eleana told him. “You consider us to be little more that useful tools in whatever mad scheme you are plotting.”
“I already complimented your perceptiveness, Lady Mantione.”
“I’m not looking for compliments.”
“Now that would be a first for a woman,” Achyran smirked. “But I shall give you something much more valuable; knowledge.” he turned to Avarron: “The three soldiers you lost a few nights ago were in fact hawks, which is why Tufas slew them. He’s a good boy, and you don’t have to mourn the dead. They were not your friends, and only signed up to spy on you.”
“So those three were in fact some of the enemies you claim that I have?” Avarron asked. “I doubt I have enemies at all,”
“You’re in doubt? Excellent. Keep it up if you want to win. And trust me, you do. You always have more to lose than you realize,” Achyran said pleased
“That’s not an answer,” Avarron complained. He would have complimented the man for his skill in dodging questions and providing evasive answers if he was not fed up with the whole conversation.
“Do I really need to repeat myself?” Achyran sighed. “You gained the love of a princess. You threw yourself in the political arena whether you wish to join the gladiators or not. They consider those that don’t put up a fight nothing but an easy victory.”
“So how do we know you’re telling the truth regarding those men? We have no reason at all to believe you are looking out for us.” Eleana asked.
“I gave you my truth. I would swear upon one oath or another that it’s not a lie, but I doubt that would convince you. It is my truth, though others surely would give you another.”
“That sounds an awful lot like a lie,” Avarron argued.
“We all see things in our own light. I’m not asking you to take my word for anything. In fact, I’m asking you not to take anyone’s word for for anything.”
“You… don’t want us to believe you?” Eleana asked in disbelief.
“Refreshing, isn’t it?” Achyran laughed. “All I’m asking of you is to find your own truth, with your own eyes. To act, with wisdom, courage and justice in your heart, as your priests like to call it, and then watch. See your own hand shape the destiny of the world.”
“A lot of big words, but you still haven’t answered my question: why did you take us prisoner?” Avarron asked annoyed. It was simply absurd. The man hired bandits and an assassin for no other purpose than to tell him that?
“Why, to make you listen to my big words, of course,” Achyran grinned. “But you are confused again: neither of you is a prisoner. There are no locked doors, no guards to arrest you and Tufas stands ready to bring you to the road.”
“You lead a band of raiders, planned an ambush and shed blood for no other purpose than to tell me some nonsense?” Avarron stepped forward, ready to draw his sword.
Achyran simply kept smiling but his eyes were on the door. “I’d love to debate the importance of your visit over a glass of wine, but I have other guests to attend to. An impatient lot, I’m afraid. Thus, I must ask you to leave. Now.”
“That sounds like another trap,” Eleana said suspicious.
“Obviously,” Achyran grinned mischievously. “I cannot let you get caught in the middle, though. I will ask nicely one more time: please leave immediately.”
“And if I refuse to let you harm another?” Avarron asked as he drew his sword.
Achyran stepped back, but did not touch the sword on his hip. His black eyes seemed to grow as his gaze centred on Avarron and the playful smile turned grim.
Suddenly, torches on the walls burst aflame, burning far brighter and larger than any torch he had seen before. They cast their light on the banners and Avarron saw now that they were not the banners of houses, but rather Ardaithe ones, bearing the threefold spiral. They were not worn by time but shredded as by a huge claw.
“Warlock!” Eleana hissed.
“Demon!” Avarron roared simultaneously. He charged, but Eleana held him back.
“Whatever. We should run, now!” she told him.
“Go, I’ll cover your escape,” the knight replied as he pulled himself loose.
“No, you cannot!” she cried.
Achyran whispered to the torches and the flames rapidly spread across the stone floor. They set almost the entire hall ablaze and surged towards them. “Listen to your sorceress, Avarron. She knows,” Achyran’s voice roared in the blaze.
The heat pushed Avarron back. Eleana took his wrist and pulled him along into a headlong run for the door as the flames roared behind them. Together, they slammed the double doors shut. With her finger, she drew a strange mark on the door. Her touch left thin blue lines on the wood, which started to emit a faint light and briefly radiated an intense heat that stirred the air.
“That won’t hold long,” she said with a ragged, dry breath and continued to pull him along with a sweaty hand.
“Angels, it was a real demon. Here in Altraom,” Avarron muttered, but allowed himself to be pulled along.
Outside, the courtyard was empty. It looked larger than when they entered, now that the entire keep was lit up in sunlight. Halfway through, Avarron realized that the lighting was not so much the result of the rise of the sun above the trees, but rather the lack of any trees at all outside the walls. He shook the thought from his head. The walls simply obstructed the view. They were higher than he realized when he entered. He was still unnerved, the demon playing tricks on his mind. Of course there were trees on the other side, they were in the middle of a bloody forest.
When they passed through the main gates, the real shock hit him. They were standing on a hill, overlooking a city almost as large as Altraom. There was not a tree in sight. He shut his eyes tight and opened them again, hoping for the world to start making sense, but the city was still there and the forest wasn’t. He looked at Eleana. Clearly he wasn’t the only one that didn’t see trees. He tried to say something to her. Something that would make sense of this situation. “We’re not in the forest anymore,” was all he managed to get out of his mouth.”
Eleana did not respond. She was as stupefied as he was. Slowly she turned around to the old, ruined keep and Avarron followed her gaze. It was not there. In its place stood an equally old and forsaken palace. The gates they had just passed through were closed, though Avarron was certain he would have heard if someone had shut the gates behind them.
“No, we’re not,” Eleana finally managed to get out. “But where did we end up?”
“He did warn you it would be difficult to catch up with your friends.” Tufas stepped from the shadows.
“I am completely fed up with both you and your foul master,” Avarron yelled at him.
“I can imagine that,” Tufas replied calmly. “But I know where to find the way home from here. Do you?”
“So where are we?” Eleana asked.
Tufas looked down on the city. “I wouldn’t go down there if I were you. I certainly won’t. Follow me if you’d like to go home.” Without waiting for either of them, he started to walk down the hill, keeping his distance from the city’s walls.
Hesitatingly, Avarron and Eleana followed.