When he had gone, Steven called to someone unseen, "Jennifer, could you come in for a minute? I need you to draft a message back to the senior thespian for the area that the Countess has just sent off a young man and his companions to Kendall Keep in order to deal with the Winterkin incursion there. Thank you."
Back at the keep, Robin hung around watching the mounted fighters practice from the little area that had been set aside for observers; she'd never been so close to a real horse, let alone ones this size--nothing like the mules they had in Crapaud. The rest of the audience seemed to be composed of eligible-looking young women, who may or may not have had a different reason for watching. Off in another corner the courtiers practiced fencing; though their weapons looked insignificant next to the jousting lances and broadswords the others used, they were blindingly fast. Like the rest of them, Robin was getting a good education in just how little she knew. Jared and Harrick hung around for a bit as well; after a while Harrick wandered off in search of a library; he was bored, and while no one had mistaken him for a practice target yet, he'd like to keep it that way.
He wandered for a while, admiring the books, before overhearing a snatch of conversation that caused his ears to prick up.
"You're looking for what?" the librarian said.
"Information on the town of Crapaud, I believe it's within Mignonet County," a soft voice replied.
"Yes, it is, I just don't think anyone's asked for it yet... hang on. Yes, here are a few scrolls, a map, and the tax rolls."
"Those should do just fine."
There were bookcases in the way, so he angled around trying to get a view of the door so he could watch the person leave. He heard silk swish, and a door close that was not the one he was watching. Harrick looked around. There didn't seem to be any other doors.
"Can I help you with something, sir?" the librarian inquired.
"At the moment, I'm just looking."
"Very well, then."
"Is there another door out of here?"
"Excuse me, sir?"
"I thought someone walked in just ahead of me, they seem to be gone. I was just curious."
"Oh. No, there isn't another standard door out of here, sir."
Pause. "I see. How would you define a nonstandard door, just out of curiosity?"
"There are passages that are not open to the public, sir."
"Ah." That explained it.
"Are you sure I can't assist you with anything?"
"No, I'm just looking at the moment, thank you."
"I'll be over at the desk if you need me."
Followers of Mathelwyn like secrets--knowing them, that is. Harrick quickly narrowed down the area where it had to be. The air smelled like flowers. He scanned the shelves. Divine inspiration touched him. What was that copy of A Treatise on the Serpents of the Northern Greenbriar doing on that shelf? He pulled it out. Nothing behind it. He opened the book, shrugged. It was a thick book, very thorough, with nice color plates. Pre-Winter, a lot of the big snakes had died in the cold years. He pulled on the book to the right of where it had stood on the shelf, and the door swung out slightly.
He slipped inside; Terzin wasn't there, and someone had to do it. He found himself in a narrow stone corridor, and began to explore, following the flower smell. He lost it, and himself, after a rather short time. Every once in a while he passed short, dead-end corridors that led to other doors, opening onto who-knew-what. Eventually a page walked by and paused.
"Excuse me, sir, you're not supposed to be in this corridor."
"No. This is for staff and family only."
"If you'll follow me?"
The page escorted him to the nearest door, paused and shook his head, moved on to the next and opened it. Harrick stepped out into a stairway.
"Just head down those stairs and to the right, sir."
He did as instructed, and found himself in a familiar hall. He was still carrying the serpent book, so he returned to the library, nodded to the startled librarian, found a sunny window and settled down for an instructive afternoon of pre-Winter serpent lore.
"Did you enjoy the text, sir?" the librarian asked as he put it away later on.
"I don't think it goes on that shelf...."
"I got it from there," he shrugged.
"Hm. I wonder who filed it there?" He moved down a few shelves and placed the book in its proper location. "Have a nice afternoon, sir."
He went by the temple of Mathelwyn later that night to give the god his thanks for the help.
After his meeting with Steven, Terzin spent the afternoon wandering around the keep. Late in the day he found an interesting door, opened it and stepped inside. He smelled flowers, heard silk, and there she was.
"You! You're not a hallucination!" he exclaimed.
She walked over to him, slid an arm behind him and closed the door. She was a mere hand's width away, her presence overwhelming.
He stammered. "What's your name?"
"Take this," she murmured. It was a silver coin. "Keep it with you."
"Okay." He put it in his pouch.
"Just don't lose it," she whispered. "I'm very sorry about your parents. It must have been very difficult."
"You showed great courage. I've heard quite a bit about you." She backed away again, not taking her eyes off him. He certainly wasn't going to look away from her. "You will protect me if it comes to that?"
"Of course," he promised, dazed. "I pledge my life to you."
She stepped back again, into the wall, and vanished.
Must be a secret door.... The room he was in looked like a servant's working room, with a washtub, small stove, some food, and ironing materials. He left the room and grabbed the first page he saw.
"Does the Countess have a daughter?"
"Yes," the startled boy replied. "Adrianne."
"She's still alive?"
"What a strange young man," the page muttered.
The following morning they sent the Countess their regards and set off early to claim their mule and begin the journey up the Old North Road. As they left the keep, they all felt watched again. Terzin was obviously very happy about something--glowing, singing in fact--but wouldn't say what. Repeated pleas to shut up did not dampen his enthusiasm, or his voice.
The journey was uneventful. Sometimes they stayed in common rooms, sometimes they camped by the roadside. Sometimes they did some chores for their keep, and sometimes Harrick used his magic to aid townsfolk in return for food or coin; he could shape wood, clean a well, or steer a breeze to blow the tannery's stink in the other direction, and similar useful elemental tasks. They saw quite a bit of traffic in the first few days, slowly thinning out as they traveled north. Casual inquiries about the road to the north yielded little information; the caravan leader they spoke to hadn't had any trouble and said things at Kendall Keep were fine to his knowledge.
In ten days they had left the towns and traffic behind; trackless forest lay all around, and only the Keep before them, another day or so distant. They kept their eyes out for trouble, but nothing and no one bothered them.
Jared finished up his watch in peace and went to sleep. He was standing in an open field, with mist all around. He heard singing. Beautiful. His feet carried him toward the sound, into the woods. He was running. Then he stopped. There was a woman in the tree, singing to him. She leaped down to stand before him, her enormous wings spread wide. They were black, and... strange. She was bare-chested. When his eyes reluctantly traveled down he noted the feathers, and the clawed legs. She was still singing, and he continued to gaze at her in bliss, until she ripped his throat out with her teeth.
He woke up with a yell. Moths rose off his thrashing body in a cloud; only Terzin, on watch, noticed them. Everyone else woke up when he shouted, but went back to sleep after he told them it had been a dream. He didn't.
That afternoon they saw the keep on the horizon.
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Copyright © 2000 Brian Rogers