Authors: David Wells
Tags: #Epic, #Fantasy, #General, #Fiction
“The room is secure and easy enough to defend if need be.” Anatoly took a chair next to Lucky and put his short sword on the table, nodding his thanks to Abigail when she placed a steaming bowl in front of him.
The aroma of the stew triggered Alexander’s hunger. He poured himself a flagon of cider while Abigail dished a bowl of stew for herself. She took her seat next to him and he raised his glass. Lucky stopped short of his first bite, looking almost sheepish.
“May the Lord and Lady of Valentine Manor fare as well as we do this night.” Alexander’s toast was simple but heartfelt. All raised their flagons.
They ate in silence. Everyone was hungry and glad to have a hot meal in a warm and dry room. The past few days had been cold, wet, and filled with fear. They didn’t know if they were being pursued but could only assume that they were.
After they had eaten their fill and the kitchen staff had cleared the table, Anatoly secured the room again. He bolted the door and checked the windows in the main room and the two bedrooms to be sure they were secure. Lucky followed after him and sprinkled a silvery dust on the windowsills and at the base of the door.
Alexander gave him a quizzical look. Lucky responded with a wink and said, “Just in case.” He always had some potion, powder, or salve for nearly any situation.
“I’ll stand first watch,” Anatoly said in spite of his obvious exhaustion.
Lucky shook his head, “Nonsense. We have more need of sleep than we do of a guard. The room is secure and the entrances are spelled. No one will get in without me knowing about it.”
Anatoly frowned and looked to Alexander.
Alexander suddenly felt very tired. He’d always looked to his father and brother to make the decisions. He never realized what a burden it must have been for them. After a moment he nodded, “I agree with Lucky. We all need a good night’s sleep.”
Anatoly frowned, “Very well, I’ll sleep on the couch; it’ll certainly be more comfortable than the floor and I can keep an ear on the door. Besides, I don’t fancy sharing a bed with Lucky,” he added with a brief grin as he unrolled his bedroll on the oversized couch.
Alexander was asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow. Abigail was breathing deeply in the big bed before he’d even stripped down to his nightshirt. Despite his worry, he slept soundly without any dreams.
He woke with a start. It felt like only a few minutes had passed since he’d lain down. He rolled over and looked at the window to see that the sky was just starting to glow with the coming dawn.
Then the layer of dust Lucky had sprinkled on the windowsill pulsed brightly. Alexander sprang out of bed and drew his sword. He heard a scuffle coming from the main room before he made it to the door.
He burst into the large room to see Anatoly holding a smaller man down on the table with the point of his long dagger at the man’s throat. Without a glance toward Alexander he barked, “Bar the door!”
Alexander slammed the door shut and threw the bolt as Lucky emerged from his room holding a brightly glowing glass vial high in his left hand and a long knife in his right. Abigail stood in the doorway to their room dressed only in her nightgown but with her short bow in hand and an arrow nocked and ready.
Anatoly growled into the sudden silence, “How many men do you have with you?”
The man pinned to the table sputtered, “No one else … just me … don’t kill me … I’ve come to help you.” His words tumbled out quickly.
Anatoly grunted, obviously not convinced.
Alexander relaxed his vision. What he saw surprised him. The intruder’s colors were those of a good man, perhaps even a fiercely good man. He saw loyalty, reverence for life, and courage. He also saw that the man was telling the truth.
“Anatoly, let him up,” Alexander said quietly. Anatoly looked to him for confirmation. He nodded slowly. “It’s okay … I don’t believe he’s a threat.”
Anatoly grunted again. “That remains to be seen,” he said as he released the intruder while still pointing his long dagger at the man’s chest. Anatoly stepped back and allowed the man to stand while deftly removing the intruder’s knife from his belt.
The intruder looked straight at Alexander, “You would be Darius Valentine, yes?”
Anatoly tossed the intruder’s knife away and grabbed him again by the throat. His long dagger pierced the intruder’s tunic right over his heart and he pressed the point against him firmly enough to draw just a drop of blood.
“Choose your next words very carefully.” Anatoly was in a foul mood.
Before the intruder could speak, Alexander asked, “How do you know my brother’s name?” Abigail came up alongside him, tension still on the string of her short bow.
“Your brother … but you bear the mark.” He looked genuinely confused, but only for a moment before a look of sadness came over him. “Your brother is dead then.” It wasn’t a question but a statement of realization.
Abigail repeated the question with a hard edge to her voice. “How do you know my brother’s name?”
He looked back to Anatoly who still held him by the throat with a long knife to his heart, then back to Alexander and Abigail. “It’s somewhat of a long story and we haven’t the time at the moment. There is a small contingent of Reishi Protectorate in Southport and they are aware of your presence. They’re searching for you and will likely find you soon. We must flee if you are to have any hope of living through the day.”
Alexander shook his head slowly. “You still haven’t answered my question and we aren’t going anywhere until you do.”
The intruder looked at the resolve in Alexander’s face and nodded stiffly. “I could explain more easily if you would kindly let go of my throat.” He forced a smile as he looked at Anatoly.
Anatoly looked to Alexander, who nodded. Anatoly released him again, still pointing his long dagger at the intruder’s heart.
The man stood, made a brief show of brushing himself off, turned to Alexander and Abigail bowing deeply and said, “My Lord and Lady Valentine, I am Master Bard Jack Colton and I am at your service.”
He stood six feet tall and looked to weigh about 160 pounds. He had dirty-blond hair, a fair complexion, and piercing blue eyes the color of the top of the sky a moment after the sun sets. He was altogether too good-looking and possessed a kind of charisma that was a mixture of youthful charm tempered by the confidence of more real-world experience than someone his age ought to have. His clothes were simple and ordinary. His way of speaking and his bearing were not.
“Since the time of the Reishi War,” Jack began, “the Bard’s Guild has passed the story of the Marked One from one generation to the next. When my father told me the story, I set out on a quest to find the true bloodline, your bloodline, which led me to House of Valentine. When I discovered the truth of your line a few years ago, I moved to Southport so I would be ready when the Reishi Arch Mage awoke.”
“Stop … you’re rambling. How do you know of my brother?” Alexander was getting mad. “I won’t ask again.”
Jack glanced at Anatoly who was standing dangerously close with his very sharp long dagger still poised to strike. He took a deep breath. “Darius Valentine was the eldest son of the House of Valentine. Your house has hidden the cursed bloodline for centuries. Your brother was supposed to defeat the Reishi Arch Mage, Prince Phane, and deliver the Seven Isles from a thousand years of darkness.”
“Darius is dead,” Alexander said flatly. “He was murdered less than a week ago by an assassin.”
Jack closed his eyes and took another deep breath. “I am very sorry for your loss, My Lord. That sad fact explains the mark you bear on your neck. The eldest son of the cursed bloodline will be marked when the Arch Mage Prince awakes. With your brother dead, the task falls to you.” Jack Colton closed his eyes as if he were dredging his memory. “That would make you Alexander and you Abigail, yes?”
“You have our names, and much more it would seem. What is your interest in us? Why have you broken into our room and how did you find us in the first place?” Alexander noticed that Lucky had already packed his things and was nearly ready to go. Apparently, he was taking Jack Colton’s story seriously.
“I found you because I have been waiting for you to arrive since the warning spell alerted the Seven Isles to the coming threat. I broke into your room to warn you of the danger you are in and my interest in you is obvious. I want to be the one to write the songs of your story.”
Lucky started laughing, “Sounds like a bard to me. What does your sight tell you, Alexander?”
Alexander frowned, “It tells me we should trust him.”
Anatoly frowned too, as he stepped back and shrugged. “Sorry about the nick, Mister Bard …”
“Actually, it’s Master Bard, but you may call me Jack.” His smile was warm, comical, and disarming all at once.
Anatoly grinned in spite of himself, “Very well, Jack, but know this,” his grin turned menacing, “if you’re lying, I
Jack’s expression turned deadly serious. He appraised Anatoly for a moment before nodding solemnly. “Given the nature of the coming storm, I for one, am glad to see that the Marked One has such a devoted protector.” He strolled over to his knife on the floor, retrieved it and returned it to the sheath on his belt. “I’ve also read the stories of Prince Phane … and they still give me nightmares. He must be stopped or I fear the whole world will fall into darkness.”
Jack took a seat at the table. “The Reishi Protectorate is looking for you as we speak. If we stay here, they will find you. The only question is when.”
“Very well then, you can finish your story on the road,” Alexander said as he turned back to his room.
They began gathering their things and preparing to leave.
Lucky took a chair opposite Jack and introduced himself, “Aluicious Alabrand, Master Alchemist and Valentine family tutor.” He gestured toward the room where Alexander and Abigail were packing. “My friends call me Lucky.”
Jack inclined his head in formal greeting. “It is an honor and privilege to meet you, Master Alabrand.”
“So, Master Colton, where did you train?” Lucky spoke while he laid out a breakfast of cold biscuits, berry jam, and butter.
“Please, call me Jack,” he said.
Anatoly grunted in the background as he packed up his bedroll.
“My father was the Master Bard of New Ruatha. He trained me from the time I was old enough to speak.” Jack looked pleadingly at a biscuit.
Lucky nodded eagerly; he was always happy to share a meal. “Ah … so you know of Kelvin, the Guild Master of the Ruathan Wizards Guild … Oh what’s his last name? I’m terrible with names.”
Jack nodded and smiled gently at the test, “Gamaliel … Kelvin Gamaliel, Guild Mage of Ruatha and the finest magical craftsman in all of the Seven Isles … or so he likes to claim,” he added with a wink.
Lucky chuckled at the friendly gibe. Kelvin didn’t so much boast of his talent as state the truth of it without discomfort.
“He once crafted a necklace of warding for my father,” Jack said around a bite of biscuit. “It was the damnedest thing I ever saw. Once, an arrow would have killed my dad for sure, but the necklace glowed and the arrow stopped dead in the air not three feet from burying itself in my dad’s chest, hung there for a full count, then fell to the ground.” Jack shook his head slowly as if marveling at the wonder of it. “Boasting or not, the Guild Mage is okay by me.”
Anatoly finished packing his bedroll and joined the two at the table just as Alexander and Abigail came out of their room packed and ready to go. “So … Jack, tell me about the Reishi who are looking for young Alexander here,” Anatoly commanded.
“I know only what my people tell me. In the few years I’ve been here I’ve developed a network of sources, some more reliable than others, who bring me information concerning the happenings about town. They all know I’m especially interested in any activity of the Reishi Protectorate.”
Alexander and Abigail set their packs next to the door and took seats at the table. Alexander motioned to Jack to continue as he helped himself to a biscuit.
“About a month ago, I caught wind that agents of the Reishi Protectorate were meeting. They don’t usually do that so I started poking around. When I learned that Phane’s obelisk on Tyr had started acting funny, I made sure to pay every gate guard, bartender, and innkeeper in the city to send word the moment they spotted you. Then I got a few of the Reishi Protectorate drunk and talked them out of what they knew.” Jack smiled conspiratorially and winked at Abigail. “It’s amazing what a man will tell you when he’s had a bit too much to drink.”
Anatoly grunted, nodding his agreement. “Do you know how many men the Reishi have in the city?”
“I’d say about thirty, and only a handful of those have any real experience in a fight. The one I’m most worried about is a wizard named Rangle.” Everyone sat up a bit straighter at the mention of a wizard. “Rangle is pretty good with fire. He works for the Southport Smithy and Iron Works. I wouldn’t want to tangle with Mercado, the master smith, either; he’s an ox of a man with arms as big as my thighs. Those two are likely to be leading the hunt for you.” Jack glanced out the window at the growing dawn and said, “And I suspect they are looking even as we speak. I’m sure they know you’re in town.”