Galan [The Minstrel's Song #5]
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by Jac Eddins
Description: The Triumphant Conclusion of The Minstrel's Song! Darkness has eclipsed the light. It is a time when humans, elves, giants, druids, even god, tremble. Only a small, desperate band of comrades still continue to struggle against a demon's inevitable triumph. But, Arthur the minstrel, and Malwyn the druidess, Rubio the elf, Faranor the giant, and Elezar the druid are defeated at every turn. Their last hope lies in an ancient prophecy that only Galan, Arthur's father, can defeat the demon. And Galan has been dead since Arthur's birth! Discover for yourself why Ayden Delacroix, In the Library Reviews says Jac Eddins' novels are "Fast-paced, attention-grabbing, full of surprises, and filled with intriguing characters."
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: May 2005
21 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [266 KB]
Reading time: 180-252 min.
The Black Keep
Change hung in the air, as perceptible as the scent of roasting meats rising from the kitchens below. It wasn't anything Faranor could put his finger on, just a feeling he could not shake. It reminded him of the restlessness he ofttimes felt when a storm approached and he knew it was coming, when he paced in agitation long before the dark clouds and the ominous rumble of thunder rolled in from the distance.
The world outside had not changed; it never did. From his tower window he saw the same land of eternal snow and ice it had always been. The early day sun sparkled and played upon the jagged white peaks of mountains ringing the castle, that pale watery light which only shone on the cold days of winter.
He expelled a deep breath and turned from the wide window to make his way to the broad hearth. His study chamber was not cold, but the blaze gave him comfort. How had he come to this strange, isolated place?
Many a song had been sung and many a tale told of the Black Keep far in the vastness of the northern wasteland, but few, other than the druids themselves, had ever seen it. Icy winds howled and whipped about the outside the walls. Inside, its halls filled with warmth and light, sealed against the bitter chill; just as the castle remained insulated from the world. The castle was, altogether, a pleasant place. In another hour breakfast would be done and the corridors would ring with the songs and laughter of children while they tended their chores or went about to their lessons.
Those children had come from all over the lands of the earth, children born with the gift of the Old Magic. They came here to learn and to be trained in the wise use of their talents, to see their magic was disciplined and dedicated to the service of all the peoples. They would be the next generation of druids.
Faranor smiled to himself. These children would not have to face the darkness and evil of past years. The Demon had been defeated; twenty-two years had passed since it ended. No terrible challenge loomed on their horizon; no awesome enemy awaited them in battle. Plenty of work remained to be done, old scrolls of spells to be found, here and there, with the potential for mischief, and the usual assortment of enchanted relics to retrieve and render harmless. All very routine.
But something was wrong, and there lay the problem.
When Faranor accepted the post as acting Guardian, he understood he would hold the position for juat a brief time. Twenty years could not be counted brief, not even by Elf reckoning. The Guardian had left on a mysterious mission without giving Faranor any clue as to what it was about. Personal. Faranor had wished many times over he had pressed for more information.
The tall Elf frowned to himself. He had been certain the Guardian went to investigate Arthur's disappearance, although the Guardian, the Old One, had declined to discuss it. Faranor's expression softened when he thought of Arthur, his old friend. The Guardian had summoned Arthur shortly after the Demon was destroyed. Arthur had helped in that, as had Faranor himself. But Arthur had just married and didn't want to leave his bride. The Guardian had been patient. Time passed. Still, the Minstrel put off the journey; he would come after his child was born.
To say the Guardian had been upset was akin to stating a hurricane had a bit of wind. The Old One left shortly after the news of Arthur's disappearance reached them. He persuaded the Elf to take his place in overseeing the Black Keep until his return. The Guardian went away with a stranger called Torin and the Elf, Roper, the best tracker in the known world. They had vanished as completely as the Minstrel had. Twenty years without a word!
Faranor's hair, the silver of moonlight, reflected the glow of the fire. He stretched his lean body and resumed pacing before the hearth. Part of his disquiet resulted from the dreams which had troubled him of late. When he awakened, he could not remember them, only that they disturbed him greatly.
Enough tragedy had occurred in the past score of years to influence those dreams. The small band which had found and conquered the Demon had not fared well since. Arthur went missing and no clue had ever been found. Roper had gone with the Guardian and disappeared. Malwyn and Baran had been killed in a senseless accident. Evelyn lived in madness, in a world of her own making where she need not face her loss. Elezar had been disgraced and outlawed. Daemon, the huge half-Orc friend of Arthur's, had left the prejudice and suspicion of men and returned to his own people. When Faranor thought of it that way, it almost seemed the Demon had won.
A timid knock on the jamb of his open door brought the Elf from his thoughts. Daneel, one of the Masters who taught the children, smiled at him in apology for intruding. Faranor returned his smile and motioned him in.
Daneel stood the average human height, but measured nearly as much around as he was tall. Easy laughter had etched the lines of his face. After a century of teaching at the school he appeared to be a man in his mid-forties. His half-Elven ancestry had given him long life, but not the lean grace of his mother's people. That was further aggravated by his love of comfort and rich food. The students and his fellow Masters teased him for it, but he took it all with a grin and his usual jovial good humor. On this morning an unaccustomed frown replaced his normal expression.
"I'm surprised to see you so early in the morning," Faranor chided him good-naturedly. It was well accepted Daneel loved the warmth and comfort of his quilts on chilly mornings.
Daneel gave a deep sigh and dropped his bulky form heavily into the chair opposite where the Guardian customarily sat. "You know me," he admitted with a bit of a sheepish grin. "But, this morning, I have a problem."
The silver haired Elf studied him carefully. Faranor stood with his back to the hearth and warmed his hands behind him while he waited patiently for the Master to explain further.
"It's one of the new boys," Daneel said. "Have you seen the latest group of students?"
"I thought not."
For a moment Faranor wondered if that was meant to be a criticism, then rejected the idea. Daneel was not a petty person. Faranor tended to be too sensitive about his responsibility. There were so many things to oversee in this position which had been delegated to him. How the Guardian had ever kept up with everything for all those years was beyond his understanding. Faranor never had the time to do all the things he felt he should. He just plodded along doing the best he could and prayed for the Guardian's return.
"And that problem is?" Faranor prompted.
"Small mischief, really."
Faranor brushed back the hair falling over his forehead and walked to his chair. It was that hair, silver white from birth, that gave him the appearance of venerable age. In reality, he was quite young. For an Elf. He continued to study the Master's troubled face and seated himself.
"This lad, the problem, is very talented," Daneel said. "Somewhat rebellious. Mischievous. But it's not exactly that. There's something--unsettling--about him. I wish you would see him, sire. I'm getting on in years and it might be just memory and imagination getting confused."
That piqued Faranor's interest. Daneel knew the Guardian involved himself in student discipline except in the most extreme cases. If the Master had brought this to his attention there had to be more to it. "What is it you want me to do?" he asked.
The teacher shrugged as if he hadn't thought quite that far ahead. "Maybe--reprimand him for his pranks?"
"What sort of pranks?"
"Illusion mostly, sire. As I mentioned, he's quite talented. Spiders, snakes, he projects anything that will make the girls shriek. He--he has a bit too much interest in the girls."
Not another one! The hint of a smile played at the corners of the Elf's mouth. Arthur had been one of his own students and incredibly gifted in the art of illusion. He had loved the girls, too. "Very well. Send this rascal of yours up to see me," Faranor said. He would put a stop to this in a hurry. They had learned a painful lesson when they hadn't acted quickly enough that last time; Arthur had nearly destroyed all their plans.
Daneel hurried off to his class. Faranor had all but forgotten the boy and gave his attention to the piles of urgent messages strewn about his desk. Most of the notes were from the coast. Piracy had become rampant, with corsairs growing bolder by the day. The authorities ran about in circles, getting nowhere in their attempts to curb it.
Engrossed as he was in his reading, Faranor suddenly became aware a youth had entered his study and taken a stance before him. The boy stood there restlessly, waiting for him to finish the communication in his hand. Faranor finished reading, set aside the missive and looked up. He was not prepared for what he saw. For one brief moment he thought it a vision or a dream. The tall youth with tousled, sun-bleached hair looked steadily at him with emerald eyes which showed neither fear nor measure of deference.
"What is your name?" Faranor asked with a calm he did not feel. He recognized at once what had alarmed Daneel.
Faranor had not realized he had been holding his breath. He actually thought the boy might answer--He thrust the thought away. But this had to be more than coincidence. The youth had clear, slightly Elven features, a handsome lad with a lean and powerful build even at his young age. Faranor nodded and studied the boy closely. "How old are you?"
"This coming summer will be my fifteenth," the boy replied.
Fifteen. Could it be possible Arthur had survived? But how? And why hadn't he returned to his friends? Or his wife? Was there the remote chance he had found his way back late, after Malwyn had remarried? Arthur could have moved on rather than cause trouble. It didn't seem likely. But--Easy! Faranor's mind had raced too far ahead with 'ifs' and 'possibles'. All he had to go on was the remarkable resemblance the boy bore to Arthur. And the coincidence the youngster exhibited similar magical talent. Faranor needed more information than that. "Where are you from?"
"Hollin. Gulf City," he gave his country and city.
"And your father?"
For the first time the lad lowered his gaze and stared sullenly at the floor. "My father lives and is well. He is a merchant of Gulf City."
A barrier lay there; Faranor sensed the lad's reluctance to speak of his father. He must not push. "And your mother?"
"Yes, sire. She is there and enjoys good health."
A bitter twinge went through Faranor, a disappointment which broke the spell. The lad should have said 'aye' and there would no longer have been a vestige of doubt in Faranor's mind. That was the one thing about Arthur they had never been able to change. The Minstrel spoke with the lilting accent and idiom of his native Galedon. How many times he had been teased for it! Faranor could picture Malwyn mocking him, her hands on hips and answering him with a saucy 'aye'.
The memory of Malwyn sobered Faranor. The tragedy of her death had pierced him through. Arthur and Malwyn. They'd had a stormy road, but they had loved fiercely--and they'd had far too little time.
Faranor observed the youth again. The resemblance was incredible. This boy looked more like Arthur than his son, Damir, the boy Malwyn had borne him. It raised questions. If Arthur were his father, he would surely know everyone at the Black Keep would see the resemblance when the boy came there. If Arthur wished to remain in hiding, why would he allow the boy to attend the school? This called for investigation.
The lad took his scolding with quiet dignity. Faranor cautioned the boy in his sternest manner concerning the use of his talent and warned him to give his attention to his studies, not the girls. Faranor also made a mental note to speak to the boy's teachers and have them watch him carefully. If the lad was anything like Arthur, his admonitions would fall on deaf ears. Arthur hadn't been much older than this youth when he became a father--and turned all the plans of the druids upside down!
Faranor disposed of the matter quickly and sent the boy on. His mind already raced on ahead, planning a visit to Hollin. * * * * CHAPTER 2.
En route to Hollin
Faranor had plenty of time to reflect during his journey, bouncing along in a crowded coach bound for the Gulf city of Hollin. Broad, empty lands stretched out for great distances, filled with nothing but expanses of low, growing crops. The farmlands had long since ceased to interest him. He had little in common to discuss with his fellow passengers, speaking no more than met the bare minimum of courtesy. Faranor had suppressed the urge to suggest some of them bathe more often. A few seemed to believe that cheap cologne made a suitable substitute for soap and water.
The frequent stops slowed travel immeasurably. They halted to change horses, eat, and use what they laughingly called 'sanitary facilities', sometimes no more than a screen to hide the sight of men urinating on the ground from the ladies. Faranor had become annoyed with himself for not taking advantage of his position and have one of the druids capable of teleportation blinking him immediately to his destination. Too late for that now. The long ride gave him time to think. And remember.
From his early youth, Faranor always had a strong sense of his destiny. Somehow, he had known he would play a large role in determining the future of his world. And he had done that. He had been one of the small band which found and defeated the awakening Demon. That was the name they gave the evil magician who could not be killed; he could only be returned to sleep for another two hundred years. Faranor had been dedicated to the druid cause of peace, freedom and justice. He had been serious--sometimes too serious--for his work had left him with little personal life. The world of the druids was all he had ever known.
What did he have left? Just about all those he had loved were gone. Was that one of the reasons he became so obsessed with finding Arthur, believing he could be alive? Or was there a yet more sinister turn to all that was happening, as his uneasy premonitions hinted?
When had it started? Eons ago, long before his birth, when the Demon spawn of the Wizards sought to enslave the world? It had been a long, painful time of war and horrors before the Evil One was stopped. And, it had been at great cost. All the other children of the Wizards, the ten remaining, united against the renegade and at last, with the help of men and Elves, and others of good heart, they defeated the Demon. The Firstborn, those born of the visitors to this world, were immortal. The Demon could only be changed and confined with a spell which would last some two hundred years. To insure he would not then get free, the ten used their great powers to ordain that, as the term of the Deman's imprisonment came to an end, a Champion would be born, one with the magic to renew the bond for the next age. And so it had worked down through the centuries. Until the last time.
Last time it almost failed. A brash young scoundrel seduced the pretty Elf girl destined to be their savior and turned all the druid hopes to chaos. On the surface, they had managed to smooth things. The couple had been deceived and separated. The youth never knew he had been a father. He went on his way to become a minstrel, a spy and thief, in the service of the Black Keep, all the while thinking the girl had deceived and deserted him for someone of higher lineage. The girl gave up her child to a good couple, to a home where the baby would be safe and cared for, while the young mother went on with her training. All the while she believed she was the one who had been abandoned.
Arthur had been that lad. He became very good at the work the Guardian assigned him. He studied under a Master Thief and learned well. Too well. Arthur had taken to larceny the way baby ducks do to water. Wisely, the druids decided that, rather than try to change him, they would use his taking ways to their own advantage, retrieving magical relics greedy men refused to relinquish to the safekeeping of the druids.
Faranor had grave doubts when the Guardian assigned that very rogue to the Elf girl's band. Later, Faranor learned of the old Seeress' prophecy, that of the woman who first discovered Arthur's magical talent. The Guardian trusted her prediction that Arthur had to be with the girl when she faced the Demon. The Guardian had used his great power to cloud both their minds so they would not recognize each other and could work together. Through the long months they spent together the situation remained potentially dangerous, a constant test of wills and the possibility one or both might regain their memorrys. The girl, Malwyn, swore a new vow of chastity, one she would keep until her task was accomplished. At times it seemed Arthur had also taken a vow--not to let her keep hers. He never gave up trying, apparently intrigued by the one woman who said 'no' and meant it. He tormented her with his persistence, and his lapses in conduct when he found other pretty maids who did not refuse the handsome rascal. Fate played a strong hand; the two had fallen in love again. Malwyn managed to fulfill her oath--barely. In the final confrontation they had been together, just as the Guardian had foreseen. And they had won.
Their wedding was a gala affair; Faranor recalled it with a bittersweet remembrance and smiled to himself. A more emotional being would probably have laughed aloud. Arthur had been the happiest, and most surprised, bridegroom of all time. It was only then he discovered Malwyn was the girl he thought deserted him--and the mother of his teen-aged daughter. He had never so much as suspected Evelyn existed. Malwyn had learned the truth earlier, but the Guardian persuaded her of the need to keep it from Arthur until their task was complete. The only time Faranor had seen the Minstrel happier was the day his son, Damir, was born a year later.
Faranor had been busy at that time. With Malwyn retiring from the Guardian's service to be a wife and mother there had been one less archdruid to tend the business of the Black Keep. That work went on regardless and it left Faranor with Malwyn's work in addition to his own. On his way to the coast he had stolen a bit of time to stop and visit. A few months later he stopped again on his return through the area to stand beside his friend, Arthur, when the Minstrel gave his daughter in marriage. At the feast which followed, Faranor reminded Arthur of his promise to come to the Black Keep. The Minstrel swore he would, right after his friend Elezar's wedding a few weeks hence, and urged the Elf to rejoin them for that celebration.
In the days that followed Faranor's work went well and he found the time to attend the ceremony. He had entertained the pleasant thought Arthur would keep his word and they might travel together to the Black Keep when the celebration ended. Despite the Minstrel's many bad habits, Faranor was fond of the rascal.
Faranor arrived at the castle two days before the marriage was to take place. He had looked forward to a time of rejoicing, of visiting Malwyn and her new son. Malwyn had always been very special to him and they were of distant kinship. Had it not been for her love for Arthur--But it was just as well; he had his work. At midmorning Faranor rode into the courtyard of the castle and discovered he had missed Arthur and Elezar by an hour.
Elezar, giant warrior and Prince of a noble house, had become increasingly nervous as the day of his marriage approached. Arthur proposed a hunt to keep him busy and his mind off of the wedding. The extra meat they could provide would surely be welcome with the throngs of well-wishers and friends who would attend the festivities. Deer were plentiful in the region to the north of Wizard's Keep, the old name for Elezar's castle. The two men left for the hunt in good spirits and with high hopes, intending to return by nightfall.
At noon the next day Elezar came galloping in at breakneck speed. He gathered his men and the Elf tracker, Roper, who had also come for the celebration. Something had happened. Arthur had disappeared. The troop searched in vain. No trace of the Minstrel had ever been found.
Elezar told them all he could. Arthur and he spotted a magnificent stag and chased it through the day. When they realized the lateness of the hour, they decided to camp for the night and return home in the morning, something they had done on many a similar hunt. In the darkness, seated by their campfire, they laughed and joked. They finished their meal with a warming draught of miroval, Elven brandy. That was when they noticed the strange flashes of brightly colored lightning up on the mountainside.
His new boots had rubbed a blister on Elezar's heel and he was not eager to go climbing the rough terrain to investigate; it was not an area for the horses. He complained of that, and of the darkness, not ideal circumstances for exploring an unknown region, but Arthur's eternal curiosity would not allow him to rest until he solved the puzzle of what caused the brilliant flashes. Arthur teased his big friend for letting such tiny pain deter him. Arthur, who had been blessed with the night vision of his Elven ancestors, offered Elezar a light-hearted, mocking pity for the limitations of human sight. Elezar had become accustomed to such ribbing and, with his usual good nature, ignored it. He accepted it when Arthur decided to have a look on his own. Elezar had no worries for his friend's welfare. Arthur had traveled on his own for many a year and in far more dangerous places. He carried both sword and dagger and had considerable ability with magic. What could happen? Arthur left their camp with a promise to return within the hour. He had not come back.
The search party combed the area. Roper found the trail where Arthur climbed up the steep slope. He followed it to a point where it abruptly ended. All tracks simply vanished. The only possible solution Roper could suggest was that Arthur had been plucked up by some large, flying creature. The men covered the ground in all directions and found nothing more, no sign of man or beast. For months afterward Elezar and his people followed every wild clue or idea, regardless of how fanciful. The conclusion became inevitable; Arthur was gone.
Elezar did not marry. He could not bring himself to take his own happiness while they sought his friend and Malwyn grieved. Deronda, the prospective bride, expressed her sympathy in the beginning, but, as time passed and Elezar continued to put off the wedding, the woman became venomously jealous of the consideration he showed the bereaved Malwyn. Within a few months she called off the marriage completely and eventually wed someone else.
Months dragged into years. Malwyn leaned heavily on Elezar's broad shoulders. A bond had always existed between them and their friendship deepened into a mature love. Elezar accepted that Malwyn would never love him with the passion she had for Arthur, but he refused to allow that to mar the relationship which developed. They had each lost one great love and they were no longer idealistic children.
Faranor had been there when they were wed, happy that two good people could find happiness and comfort in each other. He wished them bliss and long life. It was not to be.
By then the Guardian had embarked on his mysterious quest, whatever it was, and left Faranor in charge, and with little time for much more than the running of the Black Keep. He received word when Evelyn, Malwyn's daughter, found herself with child. The news delighted Faranor and he resolved to visit them at the first chance he had to get away from the Keep. His first opportunity to do so came late in the summer, on his way to the coast for an important conference. He did not have much time to spare, just long enough to see Malwyn for a few hours and promise her a longer visit on his return trip. By then he would be able to see Evelyn's newborn child as well and extend congratulations.
In his haste at the time of his visit, Faranor saw nothing amiss. Admittedly, Malwyn had appeared pale, distant and preoccupied. She was not well, unable to keep her breakfast down mornings. The Elf did not think too much of that, suspecting there would be a joyous announcement for Elezar, too. Malwyn had not confirmed his suspicion and he had not pried. Later, sadly, he found he had been correct.
During the short period he had been at Elezar's Keep a message came for Faranor. It was from Baran, Evelyn's husband. Faranor sent a brief note in reply, explaining his rush to the meeting on the coast and he assured Baran he would stop there again shortly. Regretfully, he had no further news of Roper, Baran's brother, who was gone along with the Guardian. Since that time Faranor had often berated himself for not taking Baran's message more seriously. Like a fool, he assumed Baran simply inquired for his lost brother and Faranor never considered the urgency might concern something far more ominous.
Baran was a loremaster. His greatest pleasure had been in the study of ancient scrolls and the legends contained in them. He loved nothing more than solving riddles found in the crumbling works of ancient peoples. Baran had exactly the kind of knowledge Faranor now needed. If only he had the benefit of Baran's knowledge and scholarship!
The day came when Evelyn was ready to deliver. It did not go well. At her pleading, Baran went to Elezar's Keep to fetch her mother. The journey from their home was not far, a half day's travel. Malwyn set out immediately with her son-in-law, to be with her daughter. The former druid considered using her ability to teleport, but hesitated to do so. Her own child was growing inside her and she had no idea whether such travel could harm it. The countryside had long been peaceful and there was nothing to menace them on the way which Baran could not handle. Elezar wanted to send an escort, but neither Malwyn nor Baran wanted to wait for it to be arranged. In the end, Elezar permitted them to go without much argument.
What happened was never completely certain. From what had been pieced together later it seemed Malwyn and Baran were attacked by a band of renegade Orcs. They had been caught on one of the narrow rope bridges spanning the deep mountain ravines. It appeared Malwyn had reached safety, but had turned and gone back for Baran. She might have thought that, reaching him, she could teleport them both. The Orcs cut the supporting lines before she could. Malwyn and Baran perished in the plunge down to the rocks below.
Evelyn at last gave birth to a baby girl, but she had been shattered by the double tragedy of losing husband and mother. She retreated into a world of her own, inside her mind. Arthur's foster mother, Kyla, had gone to the young woman and remained with her, caring for Evelyn and her child.
Daemon, Arthur's huge half-Orc friend, had long served as Elezar's Captain of the Guard. He stoutly denied Orcs were responsible for the deaths, but no one would listen. Malwyn had been well loved by the people and the resentment against him, with his Orc blood, was bitter and intense. Daemon resigned his position and left the castle. He returned to his people, soured and hurt. Relations with the Orc clans deteriorated with his going, and that condition extended until the current day.
Once again the years flew by. Faranor had not realized just how much time had elapsed until he was given word that Elezar stood accused of attempting to murder Damir, Malwyn's son. Faranor had been shocked. Ugly rumors surfaced, that Elezar had disposed of Arthur so Malwyn would be free to marry him. The giant warrior narrowly escaped a vengeful mob, his own people turning on him, and he had taken refuge in the wild country northwest of Archet. A small band of those men who were loyal to him, and could not believe such evil of him, gathered to him. There in the desolate mountain caves he lived as an outlaw, a wolf's head, in the land he had once so justly ruled.
Faranor never accepted the tale. He could no more believe Elezar capable of raising his hand in treachery than he was himself. As Damir grew older it became more apparent where the evil lay. Conditions at the castle worsened. Druids were no longer welcome in that land and those stories which came out of the area chilled Faranor to the marrow of his bones.
At that time the suspicion began to weigh upon Faranor that the Demon might not have been banished as they had thought. What if it had survived? What if it had grown again and now controlled Damir as it once had the Baron Jorus? Could that have been the cause of the Guardian's hurried, almost frantic behavior? The Guardian had to find Arthur. But why? Why not Malwyn? After all, Malwyn was the Chosen One, the Champion who had been destined to defeat the monster. And to where had the Guardian and his entourage disappeared? Faranor found himself burdened with questions, and the only ones who could answer them were the very ones who were gone.
Into this situation came the youngster at the Black Keep, like some ray of light through the dark storm clouds. The boy was enough in Arthur's image that Faranor dared to hope the Minstrel had somehow survived. And, if Arthur lived, he held the key.
The very tall, silver-haired Elf sat back in his seat on the coach and tried to work himself into a more comfortable position, a difficult thing under the circumstances. The accommodations were never designed for one of his height. He took a deep breath, closed his eyes and concentrated, remembering, and devoutly praying the ride would soon be over. * * * * CHAPTER 3
Faranor had the greatest of difficulty keeping his disappointment from showing in his expression. He sipped his wine and listened to the boy's father complain, for the tenth time, about the depredations of the pirates and the terrible market conditions. The man was definitely not Arthur, had not the faintest resemblance to his old comrade. About the only similarity was their approximate age. This dark heavyset man had huge black, bristling brows, his hairline receded at the temples and his stomach tended toward a decided merchant's paunch. He showed no trace of Elven blood. The man behaved with courtesy, however, if not great friendliness, and repeated on several occasions his surprise that the druids would take the trouble to report on a student's progress. Faranor did not give his true reasons for visiting and did not discover any more than he had already known.
The boy's mother appeared but briefly and had been dismissed by her husband. He would handle the matter.
Faranor's glimpse of her showed a woman of uncommon beauty, fair of coloring and with fine, clear features. But not Elven. He would have sworn the boy had Elven blood, but it did not show in either parent. If he just had an opportunity to speak with the mother, or the chance for a closer look. It would not do to press the issue; Faranor did not care to anger the husband. Humans could be very irritable about what they considered interference in their domestic lives. If he had to be honest about it, so were Elves. Perhaps he was making too much of the whole thing. It could be one of those weird coincidences, just as another of the druids suggested, a practical joke of nature to teach him not to count too far ahead. If it were not so important-!
The interview finished and Faranor departed, taking his leave with the promise of keeping the family informed of the boy's health and progress. Faranor walked along with heavy steps; he had come a long way to have all hopes dashed.
The city of Hollin was a bustling seaport where the Great Mother River flowed into the Gulf, its local market a kaleidoscope image of colors and noise. Faranor made his way amid the jumble of peddlers and carts laden with wares from all corners of the world, scarcely noticing them as he wended his way along the narrow lanes. Through the teeming streets he made his way back to the inn where he planned to stay the night. The possibility occurred to him he might be able to take a barge upriver to Andor rather than endure the long coach journey overland. A cabin would be far more pleasant traveling and he would have the luxury of solitude, away from the reek of some fellow passengers. In the morning he would see to booking passage. Tonight he would get a good night's rest.
After a light repast of fruit and cheese, Faranor prepared for bed when a knocking sounded at his door. With his robe fastened about him he answered and, to his amazement, found a heavily veiled woman. She peered about her like a doe pursued by hounds and he admitted her with a bit of apprehension.
She relaxed somewhat once the door had been closed behind her and removed her cloak. It was the boy's mother. When she had been seated in one of the large chairs provided in the chamber she accepted Faranor's offer of wine.
"I am surprised to see you here," Faranor said. He poured the red liquid into a goblet and presented it.
The woman took the drink and sipped. She moved uneasily and studied his face. "You are surprised, and I am curious. I want to know why you have such interest in my son. Has he done something?"
"No. Not really. He's a talented lad." Faranor took some wine and seated himself opposite her. He could see she was troubled. Apparently she knew her son better than his father did. "I should admit we have found him a bit of a rascal."
"He's too much like his father," she said with a nervous laugh. "I was hoping the discipline of your school would help."
Faranor could not picture her husband as ever fitting that description. The solid merchant showed no hint of such mischief, unless, perhaps, in his distant boyhood.
The woman smiled faintly in amusement at his puzzled expression. "Let me be candid with you. I like to think I am perceptive, and I saw your disappointment when you spoke with Norel, my husband. Could it have been you expected someone quite different?"
Faranor saw nothing to be gained by evasion. "To be honest, yes."
Her gaze lowered to study her hands and she twisted the handkerchief she held in her lap. "I thought that was the case. There is a simple reason. My husband is not my son's father."
Anticipation coursed through Faranor. Could he have been right after all? He regarded the rosy flush of embarrassment which mantled the woman's cheeks with as much patience as he could muster and waited for her to continue.
"My husband did not want me to speak to you. To his credit, he did so to keep me from any shame or dishonor. He has never denied the boy. However, if this is for the good of my son, and I cannot see why else you have come all this way--" She wasn't making herself clear. After a pause to gather her thoughts she went on. "First I must know what it is you want with his father."
"Fair enough. I strongly believe he may be an old friend of mine."
"You jest!" The woman laughed heartily. "I cannot believe a person in your position would know such a man, much less, that you would call him 'friend'."
Faranor frowned. "We have had differences in the past, but, I assure you, we were friends. Good friends. As a matter of fact, I was once his teacher."
She shook her head in firm denial. "I can see you mean what you say, but there must be a mistake. Perhaps we have two separate men in mind."
"I don't think so. Not after seeing your son. He is the very image of the man I seek. Let me meet him and see for myself. Tell me where I can find him."
"I cannot tell you precisely," she said with a sigh. "I have not seen him these many years. He has never met his son." She avoided meeting Faranor's eyes.
Faranor smiled kindly. "I understand how difficult this must be for you, and I regret I must ask. Please believe me. I do not judge you and it is of great importance I find this man. He may have the answer to a question of life or death."
The woman's slender hands wrung the small cloth and she considered. At length she raised her head to face him and tears filled her deep blue eyes. "I have always been taught to respect the druids. I know who you are, even though you did not say. It must be urgent for someone like you to come all this way. I still think you may be in error, but I will tell you all I can. But, will it go beyond us?"
"Whatever you say will be in the strictest confidence. Just between you and me. You have my word."
The woman reached for her goblet and took another sip. Then, with a deep breath, she began her story. * * * *
Rianna had been born to a wealthy family in Agora, a seaport on the eastern coast. When she grew to marriageable age, she became known throughout that part of the world for her beauty. Her father, like most of the men of that time and place, considered her a fortunate bit of financial luck. Without her knowledge or consent, he arranged a marriage which would bring him considerable riches. He sold his daughter to the highest bidder, to a man he had never met and knew little of except for the wealth.
Rianna was devastated. She had been filled with romantic dreams and looked forward to marriage, but not to a man she had never seen and a continent away from everyone and everything she knew. Her mother, a more fortunate case of the same custom, urged her to accept and find what happiness she could. Rianna would have run away, but her father anticipated it and had her closely guarded until she could be placed on a ship bound for her husband-to-be.
From the stern Rianna watched her homeland fade into the distance, her heart heavy as the ship's great leaden anchor. Still, she detwrmined to find a way. One way or other she would make her own choice!
Two days out of port the lookout spotted a sail on the horizon, that of a swift running pirate vessel. The Captain tried to escape with all the tricks of seamanship he knew, but to no avail. He ordered the terrified women aboard to the cabin below, away from the fighting which would begin when the corsairs came alongside.
From where they huddled together in the dark hull of the ship, the women could hear the sounds of battle on deck, the thuds of impact, the screams of the wounded. They cried in helpless terror, uncertain of what their fate might be and powerless to do anything about it.
The ship's crew fought valiantly, but were no match for the pirates. The ship was taken, its colors struck. Within a short time the pirates battered down the door to the cabin. The women cried and shrieked, begging for mercy, certain they would be ravaged and murdered. Rianna held her head high and tried to put on a brave face although she was just as frightened as the rest.
The pirates were surprisingly courteous. One of their officers addressed the women once they had been herded together on deck.
"You will not be harmed if you do as you are told. There is an island where you will be taken and held until a ransom is paid for you. As long as you do no harm to one of us, you will be protected. Any man who--offends--you will be punished severely. It is my duty to advise you that many of the seamen are crude and have long been away from the company of women. If you play the flirt and allow any of them to take you with them, alone, you will have only yourself to blame for what occurs. That will not be faulted against the sailor. Stay calm. Remain with the other women and no ill will befall you. If you have a question, you may ask to see me."
The officer departed. The women were divided into groups and given cabins on the pirate ship. Rianna found herself with several older women, three more her own age and two children. Their quarters were small but adequate. At regular intervals a sailor would come to unlock their door and take them onto the deck for a few minutes of exercise. It felt good to stretch their legs after the confinement of the small room and the bunks. The area of the deck where they were allowed to walk had been restricted, a stretch where none of the sailors could approach them.
Days passed slowly. On the fourth day of their captivity they ran into a squall and the ship began to heave and pitch in the rough sea. What had been marginally comfortable became a nightmare. Almost everyone became ill. By morning, when the storm had passed, the cabin stank horribly of sickness. Rianna was one of the few who had not suffered, and all she could think of was fresh air. That was when she made her first mistake. Although none of the other women went along, Rianna took the first opportunity to go up on the deck--along with the children who had weathered the storm far better than their mothers..
Rianna stood alone at the ship's rail while the children dashed about and looked out over the vast emptiness of blue. From behind her came a soft cough, the kind people make to announce their presence when they have approached unseen. She turned to see a man, the handsomest she had ever encountered. He stood tall, his clothes showing his powerful body to full advantage. He wore snug fitting dark trousers and calf high boots, a wide sleeved shirt with the front lacings loose to mid-chest. His golden hair had been cut short rather than tied back in a queue in fashion of those in the cities. The light breeze ruffled it, giving him a boyish look. His eyes, the color of fine emeralds, sparked with mischief. Rianna's breath caught and she flushed when she realized she was staring.
The man laughed easily, as if he were used to that reaction. Rianna had no fear, just a giddiness such as she had never before experienced. When he reached out his hand, she took it and went where he led her.
In the hours and days which followed he was all any lovesick girl could dream of; gallant, considerate, romantic. He did not rush her or force his attentions upon her; she went eagerly into his arms. This was the love she imagined in her maiden's heart. She stayed with him in his cabin for the remainder of the voyage. When they reached the island she lived with him in his suite of rooms there. For a time she lived in a state of ecstasy, never considering her idyll would ever end. But it did.
The day came when her pirate told her he would sail again; he was a man of the sea, after all. Rianna would have waited for him. He told her no; she had been ransomed by her prospective husband and was to be released. The woman begged him to let her stay and he comforted her, but did not change his mind. She was left behind when his ship departed, crying and already suspecting she was with child.
Back safely in Hollin, Rianna found her betrothed hurt but understanding. She told him the truth, all of it, giving him release from the marriage contract. Norel told her he would still take her as his wife, that he had made enough youthful mistakes of his own not to condemn her. For a time she hesitated, thinking her handsome Captain would realize he loved her and come for her. That was when she began to hear the stories--of the pirate who wooed his fairest captives on each prize, of the man who would never settle for a single woman when he could have them all. In her humiliation, knowing she would soon grow round with pregnancy, she accepted Norel's offer.
Janus was born in due time and Norel took him as his own, never complaining or giving indication by word or deed the boy was not his. It had not been easy for either and, as the child grew, they did not always get on well together. Janus would never be the solid, practical man Norel wanted in his sons. Rianna thought Janus had, perhaps, become suspicious of the differences between himself and the two brothers who came after. The father would never tell him the truth. To that day the man preferred to believe his wife had been forced by the pirate. Rianna no longer argued with him. * * * *
Faranor sat back in his chair with an expression of amazement. Why hadn't he thought of it? Arthur had been to sea several times in his career and it was perfectly logical. But why?
"So he has gone back to the pirates!" the Elf exclaimed. "Arthur is back to the sea."
"Who is Arthur?" the woman asked.
"Your pirate. Was that not his name?"
"Not that I ever heard."
Faranor frowned. "What was he called?"
Faranor wanted to shout aloud. Instead, he sat for a long moment in silence. All those many messages piled on his desk concerned that most notorious of pirates, yet never, not in his wildest fancies, had Faranor ever linked the two. It made perfect sense. While they had searched through all the lands for the missing man, he had roamed the seas.
"Thank you," he told the woman. "I know the telling was difficult for you. It is just that this is most urgent. I must find your pirate. If he still lives--"
Rianna covered her mouth with her handkerchief to smother the laughter bubbling forth. "He is most definitely alive."
"How can you be so certain? You said you had not seen him--"
Her expression sobered. "He was alive three months ago when he took a merchant ship, one with my husband's cargo. Norel has more than one grievance against Hawk."
The woman rose and made ready to leave. Faranor helped her with her cloak.
"I should tell you," Shallena said as she replaced her veil, "That was one of the reasons I so readily agreed to send Janus to the druid school. Norel is good, but Janus is a constant reminder of that rogue pirate. I shall keep my husband busy with our other two boys. I pray you, watch over my son. Help him make something of his life. Something honorable."
Faranor promised he would do his best and saw the woman to the door. If the boy turned out anything like his father, that could prove a monumental task.
Once more in the quiet room Faranor sat and sipped his wine, a cynical smile playing over his lips. All he had to do now was track down the worst scourge of the seas and get him to listen--without getting himself killed in the bargain. Years before, when he had set out on his first adventure, he'd had a strange sense of excitement coupled with a fleeting fear. He had it again. Most of all, he had the satisfaction his journey had not been for naught. With just a bit of luck he might succeed.