Prince Tristian Beauvallet opened a bleary eye to peer out from under linen sheets at his page, Lyndell. As usual, the boy’s red and white vestment hung off his right shoulder.
“I told you I was not to be disturbed. I was out late last night.”
The boy grinned. “I saw her, and you’d best hope her father did not see you as well.”
“Lord Radcliffe would sell each of his daughters to form an alliance with me.”
“He’s not the one seeking alliance with your father in the Great Hall now, so hurry.”
Tristian rolled over on the bed. When the sun from the open window shone full in his eyes, he covered his face with his arm. “Explain, and it better be worth waking me.”
“A party from Rin is here…the royal heir, Prince Riordan…and elves.”
“Elves? I have never seen an elf.” Tristian sat up and yanked at leggings and shirt. “Fetch my boots…by the door. What reason did Prince Riordan give for this visit?”
“Didn’t wait to see. I thought you’d want to know.”
He patted the lad alongside the head. “You did well, Lyndell. Find Lord Justin and tell him.”
“He is present already.”
“Good. He will know what I’ve missed.”
Less than five minutes later, Tristian strolled into the royal throne room, remaining underneath the balcony against the satin that draped the wall. Though he was anxious to get a glimpse of an elf and to hear what the crown Prince of Rin desired from King Raghnall Beauvallet, he had no desire for his father to detect his presence.
In all, he identified five visitors, Prince Riordan, another man and woman, and the two elves, one male, one female.
Tristian paused behind a column where he could hide from the king’s view yet gain a better vantage of the elven woman.
During Riordan’s previous visit over a year ago, Prince Tristian had been at sea, somewhere his father liked to keep him of late. But, that was soon to change. Thanks to his father’s greed and unfair laws, Tristian’s supporters grew in number each day.
The elven woman wore breeches, something his father would never allow from the women in the royal court. Not that he allowed women in court. According to King Raghnall, they belonged in a harem where they could not influence the minds of weak-willed men.
Tristian admired the elf’s self-control. Though he studied her for several minutes, she didn’t once take her eyes off the human woman. Wasn’t she the least bit curious about her surroundings?
Most visitors to the throne room expressed great appreciation for the opulent furnishings, colorful rugs the size of a small house, tiled floors with inlaid jewels, silks and satins hung from ceiling to floor, and a dais which raised his father’s ivory chair at least three feet above all the heads of his noblemen.
All, save Prince Tristian, the tallest man in the kingdom. When he stood before his father, their eyes met. Something which annoyed the king no end, if his caustic comments concerning Tristian’s extraordinary height were anything to go by.
Perhaps the elf served as bodyguard for the woman. For all Tristian knew, the human maiden could be a Princess. Why else would Riordan bring her with him? Still, Prince Riordan often did strange things, having a somewhat inexplicable liking for all the races in Elohan’s domain.
Riordan seemed to have reached the end of his opening speech, flattering the king on his orange turban, white and gold brocade jacket and pants, his magnificent castle with eight turrets, and his vast country, per the customary greeting.
His father had replied, yet not offered them seating, a serious dereliction of protocol. What was his intent? To insult Prince Riordan on the eve of his coronation would bring a breach in their already weak relations with the land of Rin.
King Raghnall held up a hand. “Prince Riordan, let us dispense with the usual pleasantries. You and your party have traveled far and are doubtless weary. Why have you come to Gennargentu? We heard you were entranced by a siren.”
Tristian watched the visitors for any sign of reaction to his father’s rudeness. The elves remained expressionless, the eyes of the human woman widened then she lowered her head, the man closest to Riordan took a step even closer as if he anticipated the worst, but Riordan remained calm, even smiled.
“The siren’s lure was perhaps overstated. I thank you for your consideration. You have heard of our recent losses, I’m sure. First, the war against Lord Droll and his emissary Mordred resulted in the burning of several villages and my castle grounds by dragon fire. Then the sorceress Iymithra caused an early winter which decimated our crops. If we do not receive aide, my people will not outlast the winter. We would like to offer trade for grain and livestock.”
That explained such a precipitous visit. Tristian had heard rumors of the ice and snow that plagued Rin, but thought them merely exaggerations. His father had claimed so. He had also discounted any talk of dragons burning towns and lands. If it was true, many other stories might be true as well, which made the elves even more fascinating.
Tristian moved within view of the king and stood to his full height. That would surely draw the attention of the visitors and annoy his father. At any rate, his presence could no longer be overlooked.
King Raghnall’s thick lips tightened, but he proceeded as if an interruption from his son was most beneficial.
“Prince Riordan, Princess Arlaina, honored guests…please allow me to introduce my son, Prince Tristian. Son, you have heard Riordan’s request, no doubt?”
Tristian walked past the elf, but her eyes refused to meet his. He smiled to himself. Many women began that way, but few refused him long. He continued to his father’s side.
“I did, Father. What say you? Can we offer aid?”
“I am afraid not. Our own crops suffered this summer and will scarcely meet the demands of our people during winter.” He spread his beefy hands in a gesture of finality. “There is nothing we can do.”
Though Tristian could scarcely believe how easily his father spun lie after lie, long practice had taught him to school his features. He scanned the faces of Riordan’s entourage. This time, the elven lady betrayed her dismay, but quickly offered solace to Princess Arlaina when the former turned to her with tear-filled eyes.
Riordan showed more fortitude than the rest. His smile never left his face, though his hand sought Princess Arlaina’s. “I understand, King Raghnall. We would never ask that you put your kingdom at risk. We thank you for your time and ask for lodging for the night so that we might return to Rin on the morrow.”
An overnight stay would not be at all wise. His father was up to something, and until he could discover his true purpose, Tristian must protect Riordan and his party. Who knew? They might prove to be valuable allies when he overthrew the king.
He stepped forward. “I think not. It would most benefit you to find relief for your people immediately.” He gestured at Riordan’s companions. “The elves, perhaps. They are rumored to have great stores of grain.”
He stared at Riordan, willing him to accept his word, but the elf came to his aide. She raised her chin as she addressed them all. “We would be happy to make up what is lacking in your hospitality. Thank you for suggesting it, Prince Tristian.”
He could have laughed aloud at her audacity, though she had studiously avoided making eye contact with him. His father was, no doubt, approaching one of his rages, which Tristian needed to circumvent at all costs.
He smiled at the party and held out his hand to lead them away. “How fortuitous. May I escort you out of the castle? Father, at your leave…”
Either the king would throw all etiquette aside, or he would rein in his legendary anger.
He scowled down his hooked nose. “My son has spoken well. It would please me greatly if you saw our guests to their transport. Prince Riordan, we are distressed at your misfortunes. Please advise us as to your progress.”
He stood and dipped his head as far as the double chin would allow. The visitors bowed, and he exited the room, his vast frame jiggling as he moved.
If only Prince Tristian could reach Riordan’s party and move them away from his father’s usual spies. He gestured at Lyndell and smiled when Justin moved to block the advance of said spies.
“Prince Riordan, one moment, please, and I am at your service.” He bent to Lyndell’s ear. “As fast as you can, leave the castle and meet the visitors at the fork to Shivendale. Take them to the usual place. I will slip out to meet them as soon as possible.”
He straightened and walked toward Riordan, keeping his eyes on the elf. Her heart-shaped face and streaming pale tresses intrigued him, but she kept her eyes just above his head, which only piqued his interest more.
He held out a hand to Riordan and received a strong handshake in return. Their eyes met, though Tristian surpassed him in height by at least four inches.
He offered a hand to the woman. “Princess?”
She offered a weak smile. “Arlaina of Semantria. My father is King Randulph.”
Riordan extended his hand to the other human and the elves. “This is Ryan, one of my…aides, and Gregory and Maerwynne of the high elves of Elshamir.”
This visit became more intriguing by the second. He bowed to all then turned to Arlaina.
“We have heard of the reactivation of your portal. May I say that your country’s absence was our loss?”
He moved to the rear of the throne room, walking quickly. “How long does it take to reach Semantria?”
“From Gennargentu?” asked Riordan. “Several weeks, though I would not advise it. Going through the portal will bring you face-to-face with a sphinx. Unless your skill at riddles is unparalleled, you would be eaten.”
They reached the outer wall of the castle, and Prince Tristian paused. “A sure way to discourage unwanted visitors. What does it take to become your ally, Princess Arlaina?”
Riordan moved closer to her, but didn’t prevent her from answering, another sign of weakness, the king would say.
“I am sorry to say I do not believe Gennargentu has anything to offer Semantria. However, I have been wrong before. If Elohan instructs us differently, then, of course, we will extend the hand of friendship.”
“Elohan? We do not worship-”
“That is exactly why you have nothing of value to offer. Goodbye, Prince Tristian. I pray some day you will find what you seek.”
Tristian smiled. He sought the overthrow of his father, and she could pray for that all she wished.
The entire party walked away without another word and climbed on horses to ride under the portcullis.
Prince Tristian hurried inside the castle. By this time, his father would be seeking him to ferret out any morsel of information he had gleaned from the five-minute conversation. He reached the throne room as the king regained his seat.
His eyes narrowed, and his caterpillar brows nearly touched as he frowned at Tristian. “Why do you look as if you just woke?”
“Because I did. How was I to know you would receive honored guests? Surely, you would have informed me had you known of their approach so that my appearance might be more pleasing.”
“Of course, of course. You are my right hand. What did you learn?” He picked up a grape from the bowl at his side, as if the conversation mattered no more than the weather.
Tristian knew better.
“The Princess hails from Semantria, the land of magical beasts. But, it is impossible to gain entry through the portal. A sphinx waits on the other side.”
“A sphinx can die.”
“So can a number of men attempting it.” He sat on the smaller throne beside the king’s, a move sure to annoy his father and bring about his dismissal. “I do not think you will find any takers. Doubtless, you will think of something else.”
“Doubtless. You may return to your slumbers. Late nights and fast companions do nothing for your appearance.”
“It is not always one’s appearance that one considers late at night. The companions, however…”
His father smirked at the hidden meaning as Tristian made his way out of the hall.
Two twists and a mad dash downstairs, and he gained the side servants’ entrance. With a quick look to the left and right, he escaped through the wall and gained the meadow.
His horse waited, tied to a tree, and nickered at his advance. Bless Lyndell, he always thought of everything.
He swung a leg up, and they started off at a gallop. As he rode, he kept a tight rein on the horse to remain well within the privacy of the tree line, hoping he wouldn’t meet anyone who reported to the king. These days, he had no way of knowing who that was. His father paid exorbitant bribes to be made aware of his movements. Their land abounded with traitors and turncoats, which was no way to run a country. When he became king, he would get rid of them all. He knew full well that amongst all the peoples of Elohan’s lands, a person from Gentu was considered synonymous with liar. His people would live honestly, or they could leave.
He came upon the old mill and reined in his horse behind the barn. In a clear voice, he gave the signal, two calls of the lownbird.
Lyndell ran from the barn and took the reins of his horse. “They’re in the mill.”
Tristian hurried inside and shut the rickety door behind him. The women sat stiffly in the only two wooden chairs. Arlaina held tightly to her hem lest it drag in the thick dust on the floor. The men stood at either side of them, their expressions no more inviting than when they had left him.
Tristian bowed his head. “Forgive me. I know this setting leaves much to be desired. I asked you to leave because you would not wish to remain in the castle overnight. Your women…they would be taken to the harem.”
Riordan’s hand immediately went to Arlaina’s shoulder. “The king would so transgress against visitors? That would invite war.”
“Father would make excuses about a woman’s place…that they invited his attentions. Face it. You are hardly in a position to declare war on anyone. I can offer you some help…with food.”
“Your father would not, why would you?”
“I am not my father. A ruler should not cut himself off from the worlds around him. I travel a great deal. My father prefers to keep me at sea. Until lately, this suited me. But certain…unfortunate incidents came to my attention. I heard rumors of the shadow dragon. Is it true?”
“And the dragons…they have taken riders again…from the elves?”
He studied the elven girl, but she ignored his gaze.
“Yes,” said Riordan. “You said you can aid me?”
“I have amassed a large warehouse of salted fish. It is yours. And grain…I have my own fields of which my father knows nothing.”
“What would you require as payment?”
“Nothing. Someday in the future, I may need allies. You need them now. I offer what I have.”
Riordan held out his hand. “After meeting the king, twice now, I can see why you may need allies. I have very little aside from my throne, but I offer my hand in friendship.”
“I as well.” Arlaina put her hand over Riordan’s.
The elves and the other man followed suit.
Prince Tristian stared at them all. “You offer friendship very easily. I did not expect such.”
“Elohan is a lord of second chances. If we refuse to give you what he freely gives us, we are not his children after all. Accept our friendship. It is freely offered.”
Prince Tristian placed his hand under Riordan’s. “I accept. And the siren…was she as bewitching as they say?”
“Worse. I would not recommend it.”
After hastily devising a method of getting the supplies to Rin, Prince Tristian left them. For the first time in his life, he had made contact with the outside worlds and gained allies. The day had been profitable.
After Prince Tristian rode away, Maerwynne sighed. “I agree with the human.”
Prince Riordan jerked around to gape at her. “In what way?”
“You trust him too freely.”
“Perhaps, but we need aid. It won’t hurt to begin an association.” He rubbed his chin. “Little is known of the prince…Ryan, I have a job for you.”
Ryan peered at Riordan. It wasn’t difficult for Maerwynne to imagine his thoughts. He had already expressed a desire to return home to his people. He had ridden with Riordan for years and wanted a break from intrigue.
“What is it, Riordan, but this is absolutely the last. I have to visit home.”
“Understood. If Tristian is true to his word, he will need allies. He may also be in danger. Remain in the capital city and see what you can discover. It may benefit us all.”
Ryan clomped out of the rickety mill where they found themselves, and Maerwynne turned to Arlaina.
“You are strangely quiet, Arlaina. Are you well?”
The princess laughed. “Just because I’m not babbling, Maerwynne, does not mean I’m ill. I was just thinking. I believe Prince Tristian, and…I think he liked you.”
“Fathoms of unutterable joy are mine.”
Arlaina and Riordan collapsed in a fit of laughter at her expressionless delivery, but Gregory turned a bored stare her way. Couldn’t he ever have any fun?
The following day Maerwynne woke long before the others. Sleep had not come easy, plagued as she was by conflicting thoughts. If Riordan was right and Tristian was in danger, there was little Ryan could discover. She, on the other hand, could wear her elven cloak and move amongst the people completely invisible. She might learn more.
When Riordan woke, she pulled him aside.
“I am returning to Gentu.”
“Whatever for? Elves are not exactly welcome there.”
“I will wear the cloak. I…have a feeling. Something is not right. I wish to investigate for myself.”
He glanced at the camp toward Arlaina. “Arlaina will miss you, of course, but I trust your judgment…and I would like to know more of what goes on in Gentu.” His eyes narrowed. “Exercise great caution, Maerwynne.”
“I am always cautious, Riordan. Explain to Gregory for me.”
He smiled but nodded.
Did he know of her frustration with Gregory’s repeated attempts to woo her? It mattered little. She grabbed her belongings and began walking to Gentu.
Tristian woke the next morning before the sun broke the horizon. With impatient movements, he combed his pencil thin mustache, soul patch, and goatee, pulled his dark hair back with a cord, and hurried to the stables. In the dim light, he recognized Lyndell’s small, lanky form waiting beside his horse. Though not yet fourteen, the lad already proved to be a valuable and reliable servant.
“What are you doing outside at this ungodly hour?”
“I packed you some food and water. I saw you staring at the elf. You’re going to see her, aren’t you?”
He tweaked the boy on the chin as he accepted the reins. “Why in the world would I visit an elf? Here…” He handed Lyndell a gold coin. “Take it and stay out of the way today. I will not return ’til nightfall. If anyone asks, my father in particular, you have no idea where I am.”
Lyndell ran off without another word. He would take the coin directly to his mother, a trait Tristian admired. He didn’t share his father’s antipathy for the minds of the fairer sex, having met many skilled businesswomen in his sea travels. Oft times the women showed more initiative than their men. When treated as equals, they became valuable fonts of information and goods. They had other, more enjoyable, uses as well.
He climbed on the horse and cantered past the castle, through the meadow, and on toward the deep woods. No one ever traveled this way because it led nowhere but to the border of Elshamir, a border which had not been crossed in hundreds of years, long before his father’s time.
He stopped at the edge of the lake and tied off his horse. He could pass no farther without running up against the invisible barrier that protected the homeland of the elves. Though it looked as if the forest stretched before him for miles, in truth, he couldn’t enter the treeline. But he could watch, which he did for all of thirty minutes before becoming bored.
A soft wind rustled the grass and trees, fragrant yellow flowers teased his nose, and a flock of honking geese dove in the lake, but nothing moved beyond the barrier. He sat on a fallen log and braided several strands of grass. Could the elves even see him? Perhaps their dwellings were located nowhere near the barrier.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are. I would like to exchange…what would I like to exchange?”
“It might be prudent to discern that before making contact,” a clear female voice said.
Tristian turned so quickly he nearly fell off the log. The voice came from the water, but there was no one there.
“Who is it? Where are you?”
He stood and walked to the water’s edge, but nothing marred the still surface of the lake.
“Am I losing my mind? Of course, I am. I am talking to myself.”
“A sure sign that one is extremely…comfortable with oneself,” the distinctly feminine voice sounded again.
“If that is meant to insult me, you will have to try harder. I like myself no more than the next person. I just happen to trust my company more than…than one who hides in bulrushes.”
“I am not hiding. You cannot see me because you do not believe I am here.”
He did not believe she was there? A riddle of sorts. Who would be in the water that he would not believe could be there?
“Are you a mermaid?”
She laughed. “I have legs. Mermaids live only in the sea. Surely, a seafaring gentleman such as yourself would know this.”
“I have never seen a mermaid, nor do I expect to, since they do not exist.”
“If they do not exist, then neither do I. Thus, you are arguing with yourself…again.”
He smiled and pulled another piece of long grass. “And how do you know that I argue with myself? Do you follow me about?”
“You come here often when you need to think, but you have been gone for weeks, a sea voyage, I believe, from your smell.”
“It matters not. You think I cannot detect the salt on you?”
“Who are you?”
The game had become tiresome. Was she an elf or not? If not, she was some witless girl who could be in league with his father, and he had no desire for the king to know of this place. It was his sanctuary.
Water splashed at his feet, and he looked up.
At the edge of the lake stood a woman waiting for his attention. Strands of grass or pond weed fell in an unruly mass around her long face, which was lovely, if also odd. Bright blue eyes and lips, a small nose as cute as a button, and a smile that wavered as she watched him.
As she raised a hand, water trickled down her arms and legs to fall into the lake. She stuck out her tongue, and then dissolved into the lake as if she’d never been, not even a ripple remained where she’d stood.
“You…you aren’t human. Are you an elf?”
“Does it bother you that I’m not human?”
“Decidedly not, but my father says fairy tale creatures don’t exist.”
“He says many things, few of worth.”
Tristian laughed. “How do you know this?”
Her face formed above the water line, and her hair, or grass, floated around her. “Elohan’s creatures speak to one another. If you listen, you learn.”
“I would like to learn, but I don’t believe Elohan or his creatures will speak to me.”
“Probably not. You have removed the sacred stone.”
“Absolutely not. My father would never do such a thing. He may not worship Elohan, but he knows better than to remove the stone. It sits high in the tower surrounded by ivy and vines. I doubt I could reach it if I tried.”
“I’m sorry for you, Prince Tristian. I believe you could have been a fair ruler, had you known Elohan. As it is, your kingdom will pass into oblivion as any land that forsakes our lord.”
She sank into the water, and Tristian jumped up to run to the bank.
“Wait. It’s not true. I know it’s not true. I can lead my people fairly.”
When she didn’t return, he squatted beside the water. “Fine. I’ll prove you wrong. Tonight, I will climb the tower and find the sacred stone. When I return tomorrow, you must tell me who you are.”
But she had disappeared.
Tristian rode back to the castle, planning how he would scale the tower wall. All the steps leading to the tower had crumbled and fallen away years ago. He would need a long rope and a grappling hook. And an explanation. If his father caught him, it would mean his head.
He reached his rooms in time to bathe and dress for dinner. Moments before Tristian was to meet the king, Lyndell put in an appearance. He held out a black satin jacket, one of Tristian’s favorites.
“I told you I wouldn’t return today. Why are you not off playing with other boys?”
“I heard you were back. Did you see the elves?”
“I did not, and do not speak of such things in the palace. The walls have ears.”
“Shall I wait here for you?”
“No. Go and find some…supplies. We are going on a hunt tonight. And tell your mother we will not return until quite late.”
“Are we hunting a stag?”
“Not that kind of hunt.”
He explained what he would need and hurried downstairs to dinner. His father was probably waiting. When he reached the banquet hall, drums and flutes already played, and women turned and swayed to the beat, their veils flailing around them. Tonight, his father must be in a green mood. Each woman wore a green bustier and matching harem pants. As he moved farther into the room, he noted the green satin cushions on the floor surrounded by green draperies. Definitely, a green mood.
What a waste of time! Did the king have nothing better to consider than what color to decorate the banquet hall each day for dinner? When Tristian became the ruler, his people would not waste their days changing out the color of the pillows and curtains.
“Tristian, where have you been all day?” His father’s booming voice came from the alcove where he spent his evenings.
On a mountain of green cushions, nestled between two scantily-clad, veiled women, his father reclined. Along the sides of the table, cabinet members and servants waited to do his bidding. Tristian took an empty space near his father and sat on a cushion. The king clapped his hands twice, and platters of food arrived at the table.
In between bites of curried lamb, his father leaned forward to stare at him. “So…you did not say where you have been today.”
“Nowhere, in particular. I took Shasta riding. He has been cooped up far too long while I was at sea.”
“Ridiculous. You have a page and a horse master. Do you mean none are capable of exercising the horse in your absence?”
“It isn’t the same, besides, I like to ride. Did you have need of me? I must learn how to govern the people. I wasn’t aware we had lost our grain this year. What a travesty! Have you plans to feed the population? I could spend the day with you tomorrow.”
He wanted to do nothing of the sort, but his father would like the idea even less, having no desire for Tristian to learn what transpired in the empire from day-to-day.
“A slight exaggeration for our unexpected visitors. All is well. No, boy, don’t give up your endeavors on my account. I lead a quiet, tiresome life. You would not enjoy the details at all.”
“If you insist.”
The meal continued with one course after another. Tristian barely touched the offering on each plate, but his father enjoyed hearty portions of everything, which explained his hefty girth.
These dinners invariably bored Tristian no end since not one person was allowed to speak unless the king first spoke directly to them. It made for desultory conversation as King Raghnall held no interest beyond himself and never discussed anything that might enlighten Tristian about the true state of affairs in the kingdom.
Tristian also disliked the way his father’s cabinet members vied for his attention and watched his every move. Only Lord Justin showed any sense and commanded Tristian’s respect, but he knew better than to relate anything pertinent in the king’s hearing.
After a reasonable length of time, Tristian stretched his legs and leaned back.
The king noticed at once. “You are finished, my boy? I will call for the dancers again.”
“Thank you, but no. I have other entertainment planned. If you will excuse me, Father. Lords…” He bowed his head around the table to the silent counselors and rose.
“Certainly. See you tomorrow.”
Tristian changed his clothes for a more practical pair of leather breeches and a dark linen shirt then went outside to search for Lyndell. He found him waiting behind the gatehouse, sitting atop a collection of barrels.
The boy’s face lit with excitement when he saw Tristian. “I found them.”
Sometimes Tristian wanted to scoop the child in his arms and swing him around, but at nearly fourteen, Lyndell would hardly appreciate the gesture. And it would scarcely be in keeping with the character Tristian portrayed to the world.
Instead he rubbed the lad’s head. “I never doubted you. Where is it?”
“Here.” He hopped off the barrel and removed the lid. “I hid them in case the guards came by.”
Tristian reached inside and pulled out a length of coiled rope and a grappling hook then paused. The guards were approaching. He held his hand to his lips and gestured for Lyndell to follow.
They sneaked through back alleys, muffling their footsteps across stone and avoiding the more popular nightspots where men caroused in taverns. By crawling on their bellies, they slipped past the nightly barricade to reach the overgrown walls around the sacred tower. Crumbling masonry lay strewn along the ground, and a thick covering of vines marred the once pristine structure.
After offering Lyndell a drink from his canteen, Tristian held out a hand and boosted the boy up the wall. Their accord amazed him. How did they come to read one another’s minds so well? It had been that way since the lad came into his service at the death of Lyndell’s father three years ago. Tristian had not wanted a page, preferring to keep his movements clandestine, but the king had insisted. It had proved a most profitable association.
Lyndell reached a scrawny arm down, and Tristian threw the line to him. After a moment, the boy signaled. With a quick look around the empty courtyard, Tristian grabbed the rope and climbed up the side of the wall. When he reached the top, he dropped to the other side with a thud.
“You know what to do?”
Lyndell nodded. “If the guards come, two hoots of the lownbird.”
With careful footsteps they circled the tower, searching for the entry. When they found it, Tristian pointed back at the wall. Lyndell ran there to listen for the guards.
For one moment, Tristian felt distinctly uncomfortable staring at the lock on the door. He might not worship the Most High King, but he had a healthy fear of interfering in anything that concerned Elohan. However, he didn’t intend to take something away, merely prove its existence. If the lady in the lake said he couldn’t be a fair ruler without the sacred stone, he would insure that it stayed where it belonged.
With a deft twist of his awl, he popped open the padlock and slipped inside the door, which squeaked with a deafening racket. When was the last time someone had oiled it? On the day he became king, the sacred tower was in for major renovations.
For now, lighting proved an impediment to his progress. If he lighted a torch, the guards might notice the glare through the barred windows. Since climbing the sacred tower was a capital offense, he needed to avoid giving his father a reason to kill him.
He climbed the stairs with the evanescent light of the moon. Each time he neared a window, he made better progress, taking the stairs two at a time, but those were sparsely spaced halfway between floors. Several times, he heard the rustle and scamper of night vermin. It should not be so in a sacred tower. Something else that would change when he took the throne.
After ten minutes of climbing, he sighted the top. Windows surrounded the loft, lending the soft glow of moonlight to the cradle of the sacred stone. Though he wasn’t sure what to expect, he ventured closer. Surely, the stone should note his presence, glow, or spark fire…something to show its power.
When nothing happened, he stood directly over the small round platform. As far as he could see, nothing rested in the circle of steel but dried leaves. He reached down, but his hand nearly touched the floor. Still, he must be sure. He applied a flint to the torch and swung it around. The tower held nothing, nothing but an empty stand.
He shoved the torch into the floor to extinguish the light and hurried back downstairs. After receiving the all clear signal from Lyndell, he closed the noisy door and pushed the padlock in place.
“Did you find it?” Lyndell whispered.
He gave the lad a leg up then followed him over the wall. Now that he knew the truth, he was in no mood for conversation. Several courses of action occurred to him, none ideal. This problem required careful consideration.
They returned the way they had come without running into a single guard. Instead of feeling exultant, Tristian grew concerned. Where were the men? Someone should be watching over the city.
At the side entrance to the gatehouse, Tristian put a hand on Lyndell’s shoulder. “Go to Lord Justin and tell him to meet me then go home to your mother. She will be worried.”
“She worries not when I am with you.”
“She should. Everyone else does.”
“I tell her what you’re really like.”
“You will ruin my reputation, boy.”
Lyndell grinned. “Or save it.”
“Be off before I think better of this.” He held out another coin.
Lyndell threw his arms around him then took off at a run.
Tristian turned in the opposite direction. For him, the night was far from over.