Hours had passed and the disorientation and bewilderment were slowly fading. The mysterious city was well behind them as they had steadily been walking north. Avarron still had no clue where they were, as he did not know of any large city south of Kynnard. He’d have entered the city to ask for directions if Eleana had not decided to follow Tufas. He didn’t trust trust the assassin to lead them home but the best he could make of the situation was to protect Eleana as best as possible. Besides that, heading north was always good. It meant that sooner or later, they’d find themselves on the highlands of windswept fields and thick pine forests. It meant heading home.
Their current surroundings were the complete opposite. A softly rolling landscape, but without true hills, was covered with lush greenery. Trees were scattered through the landscape, bearing wide crowns, while flowers of every colour decorated the grassy plains. There were forests too, but they were not as dense and dark as up north. The transition from plains to forest was also a smooth one, where the trees slowly increased in number. Even the weather was more friendly here. It was a cloudless day and after long days in the mist, the blue sky was a welcome sight. It was hard to believe that it was mere hours ago they were ambushed in the fog.
He glanced at Eleana. The sunlight shimmered in her golden hair and she was clearly enjoying the weather. She had taken off her warm fur coat. Underneath, she wore a light blue dress of a strange fabric, like her hair, shimmered in the late morning sun. The combination created a dazzling display of light that almost blinded Avarron when he looked at her.
She seemed much more at ease than before. For some reason, the mysterious city had filled her with dread and she had been uneasy as long as it remained visible on the horizon. Once it had disappeared, she immediately relaxed and started to enjoy the pleasant surroundings. Avarron imagined that the greenery and warmth were entirely unlike her snowy mountain home.
She glanced at him and smiled. Suddenly he realized that he had been staring and quickly looked away.
“Does something bother you, my knight?” she asked.
“No, it’s nothing,” he shook his head.
She smiled again and urged him: “Ask.”
He hesitated a moment before he voiced: “Why are Neverrans known as sorcerers?”
Eleana smiled. For a moment, she didn’t care that they were lost, following an assassin into his next trap for them. The sun’s warmth and lush surroundings soothed her mind. It was everything she had hoped for when she descended from the mountains. She glanced at Avarron. The knight was lost in thought, probably mulling over the morning’s turn of events. The warlock, Achyran, had certainly managed to scramble his mind and it didn’t take long for the inevitable question to rise.
Knowing it would have come eventually, with or without the warlock’s interference, she had a well practised answer ready: “That is no simple matter, dear knight. But the short answer is: because we know and understand things that remain mysteries to others.”
It fitted perfectly in the Kystan philosophy of superstition and witchcraft, and it was child’s play to read from Avarron’s face the correct understanding of her words.
“Ignorance is the root of superstition. It is why the Ardaithe have set up schools across the kingdoms,” Avarron aptly translated her argument to the Kystan situation. “But…,” he paused hesitatingly.
Eleana knew exactly which question was next: “You mean to ask about the ward I drew.” After he nodded in confirmation, she said: “The technique is hard to explain, but I froze the door in order to halt the fire.”
“But how is that even possible?”
“The basic truth of wizardry; knowledge is power, my dear knight,” she replied amused. He was an excellent test subject for her practiced rhetoric. “And there is much our peoples could learn from one another, especially after that terrible misunderstanding of a war.”
“A misunderstanding?” Avarron asked puzzled.
“Whatever unfortunate event happened back then that had everyone in upoar, there has been no fundamental change to our practices and tradition. We continue to study and learn techniques that the simple-minded call sorcery. But we are wizards, not sorcerers,” she explained to the knight.
Avarron frowned. “I thought wizards were all old, bearded men, not young-” his mouth clicked shut.
Eleana chuckled. She was tempted to pursue him on that thought, but it was not the right time. “The magisters would certainly give that impression. Yet wisdom comes with learning, not just age. Although, I do have to admit I am the first in generations to earn the title at my age,” she paused. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to brag. Perhaps a demonstration, rather than words, would best ease your mind?”
“That would be very interesting, my lady,” Avarron replied, his curiosity clearly raised.
They walked the entire day through the idyllic landscape. They simply followed Tufas, who led them in as straight a line as possible through plains and forests. The assassin hadn’t said a word since they had left that dreadful city behind, and Eleana was glad for that.
Eventually, the sun started to set. Tufas decided to stop for the night on top of a small hill with a lone tree. He had gathered some firewood as they had passed through the last forest. While Avarron and Tufas prepared a fire, Eleana prepared her demonstration. As the two men were about to light the fire, she stopped them: “Allow me.”
The day had been warm and dry. The wood really didn’t require any wizardry to be lit, but for the sake of demonstration, she took a pinch of a coarse powder she always carried with her in a satchel and sprinkled it over the wood. With a small spark from a flint-stone, the powder burst alight and the flames quickly spread over the dry wood.
“That’s amazing. How did you do that?” Avarron asked her, looking at the tiny flintstone in her hand in awe.
“Wizardry is nothing unnatural, merely a combination of knowledge and skill. However, you can call it witchcraft if you’re feeling superstitious,” she smirked.
When the sun disappeared behind the horizon, Avarron and Eleana drew closer to the fire for warmth. Tufas had vanished without a trace, but that hardly startled them anymore. They sat close together, reading ‘The Miller’s Ashes’ together:
Sir Cearnall walked slowly through the palace, on his way to the throne room. There was no hurry in bringing news to the king that was no news. The guards let him through without questions. They had become used to his ever more depressing monthly reports to the king. He guessed that the look on his face was all they needed to know. The king looked up as he approached and he quickly knelt.
“How much did we lose?” King Rynann asked calmly, in an almost disinterested tone. It was the tone of a man who had become accustomed to defeat. Over the years, the king had lost much of his once strong spirit.
“Too much, your majesty. The dead don’t drown. They simply walked across the river during the night and attempted to surrounded us. Retreat was the only option. Many were unable to escape the trap.”
“So the necromancer now controls everything east of the Sohann,” the king sighed.
“Not yet. We have retreated south into the forests. The hunters there wish to defend their homes through hit and run tactics. That will slow them down and thin the ranks.”
“Regardless, with his recent victory, his army has yet again grown in size. As it has after every battle. A few arrows in the woods will not stop that.”
The large double doors of the throne room were thrown open and a very tall man, at least two meters, entered. Long black manes reached all the way to his waist and danced around as he moved forward with long strides. The man’s deep green eyes were fixated on him, rather than the king, whom the man seemed to completely ignore. “Conventional tactics won’t stop death itself. They never have and never will,” he said.
“Who are you?” Cearnall asked as he placed a hand on the hilt of his sword. Whatever had happened to the guards, he was now the only one between this stranger and his king.
“I am Lord Aras. You should not fear me, but the necromancer will forfeit his life to me,” he replied calmly, but the green eyes spoke of anger.
“Allies rarely come unannounced, and even less so without the promise of reward.” King Rynann said.
Aras finally faced the king. “There is no need to bargain, as our interests are aligned. The necromancer must fall.”
“And how do you propose we do that?” Cearnall asked.
“Ignore his armies. The dead will not rest until their master joins them. But the necromancer derivs his power from an enchanted book, which he stole from my personal library. I want it back, and I want the thief punished for his transgression.”
“And what forces did you bring for this joint assault, Lord Aras?” the king asked.
“None but my daughter, Amethyst,” Aras replied with a smirk.
Cearnall gave the man an unbelieving look. War was no place for women or girls. “This is not the time for jokes, Lord Aras.”
“This is no joke, sir knight. Stealth is the key to victory here, and my daughter is, to her mother’s chagrin, an expert at that,” Aras replied seriously.
“We’ve tried to get agents into Windvale castle for years, without success. No living soul can get in there alive.”
“The Necromancer has a family, has he not? Would he slay them?” Aras asked.
“We can’t send the boy on such a dangerous mission. He’s only twelve.” Cearnall protested. He started to dislike this Aras more an more.
The lord completely ignored his protest and asked: “I take it you know the lad, then? What would he think of it?”
“He’d do it. Eagerly, even,” Cearnall said sadly. “But as his guardian, I object.”
“I do not intent to let him undertake such a mission without proper support and protection,” Aras said and elaborated: “First of all, I brought a set of enchanted armour. It will shield him from the dead. Second, as I mentioned, my daughter is exceptionally cunning and sneaky. Perhaps not the traits a father would wish to see his daughter, but she will be more than capable of supporting the boy during the undertaking. Does that soothe your mind, sir knight?”
“Hardly,” Cearnall sighed. He looked up at the king. After all, it was his majesty’s decision to make.
The king returned his look thoughtfully for a moment and then said to Aras: “I’ll accept your proposal, Lord Aras, under one condition: the boy must volunteer.”