The next morning, Dethar assumed a more pleasant attitude when he came down for breakfast. Temilda appeared skeptical, but Haughten, who had not been there to hear their first exchange, and Leanne, who was apparently still smitten with him, treated him well. When he asked, quite casually, what the news was in the town, Haughten freely explained to him everything concerning Alemira’s party. Dethar listened and then declared that he would attend.
“Indeed, you should come!” Haughten agreed. “I’d be happy to introduce you to some people, if you’d like.”
“Perhaps,” Dethar mused, but then added, “though I’d rather not draw too much attention to myself. There is one family I’d be interested in, however.”
Haughten raised an eyebrow. “Which is that?”
“Do you know them?”
Dethar laughed deceitfully. “Not personally, but I was acquainted with Arthen Brightscar, before he passed away. I couldn’t help but overhear your talk last evening.”
“Well, isn’t that something?” Haughten cried. “Here I thought you were a mysterious traveler, just passing through, and yet, you knew Arthen?”
“Not well. We were never extraordinarily close. Tell me; what is the name of his wife?”
“Elise. Elegant creature. Strong, too, for one so young. She hadn’t reached eighteen when her husband passed away. She’s a cousin of the rest of the girls.”
“I see.” Dethar nodded thoughtfully. “I have something of his, something I believe he’d want his family to have.”
“May I ask what it is?”
“I’m afraid not, though you may ask Elise when I’ve given it to her.”
“Of course,” Haughten agreed.
The item that Dethar was speaking of was a ring. It had fallen off Brightscar’s hand during one of their skirmishes, and since it had no magic Dethar could detect, he esteemed it to be of no worth, though he’d kept it all the same. Knowing now that Arthen had been married, Dethar suspected it was a wedding band. If indeed that proved to be what it was, engaging Elise’s trust would be easy.
Leanne appeared, then, calling her father’s attention away with loud protests. “We’re going to be late! We promised we’d be early, and we haven’t even hitched up the wagon!”
“Maybe you’d like to ride with us, Dethar?” Haughten suggested. “We have plenty of room in our wagon, and I’m sure Temilda wouldn’t mind.”
“Thank you, no,” Dethar replied. “I’d prefer to arrive on my own.”
“Secretive to the end!” Haughten chuckled. “Very well, Dethar. I’ll introduce you to the Morrens once we’re there.”
He followed his daughter outside after that. The room was silent save for a slow, rhythmic drumming as Dethar tapped his fingers against the table. Things were coming together rather easily. If all went well, Arthen’s sons would be dead before the day was out.
“Here she comes!”
The crier’s announcement sent thrills through the crowd, which hurried to assemble itself along the path connecting Chesstel to the Green. Atia stood with her sisters, watching for the noble family.
Bridles jingling, horses’ hooves clopping, Sir Grimnor and Lady Alemira emerged from the forest trail. Their daughter, Loma, and their son, Mathias, rode behind with a small train of friends.
The crowd cheered as Sir Grimnor raised a hand in greeting. A footman helped Alemira dismount, and then Mathias was there, leading his frail, smiling mother up the platform steps. She waved a white hand. The villagers were still cheering. Settling into the high-backed seat beside her husband’s, she beamed, a willow-wand of lavender linen, blond hair done up in an intricate knot.
“Good people of Chesstel,” Sir Grimnor began, standing on the dais, “such happy faces do the impossible. I complained to our lady just an hour ago that the morning chill was not lifting, yet I feel the heat of summer from your smiles.”
The crowd applauded, and then Sir Grimnor signaled for silence and continued, “I wish to thank you all for the work you’ve expended making this day as perfect as it is, and for your obedience and loyalty to your superiors, most of all the king.”
There was another bout of clapping, and then Sir Grimnor concluded, “Let us enjoy ourselves now and put the preparations to use! I extend the invitation for all to come and visit our lady and wish her what joy you can. Indeed, I hereby declare: let the celebration begin!”
A final roar of applause accompanied Sir Grimnor to his chair. The crowd broke as people fanned out to explore the booths and games. A line immediately formed at the steps of the dais. Hungry diners converged on the banquet laid out on the long, decorated tables heavy with provender from nearly every kitchen in the Basin.
Famished, Atia hastened to the tables, hoping to fill her stomach with some sort of food before she fainted. In the rush of the morning, she had forgotten her breakfast.
Before she could eat anything, however, Mavaya was suddenly pulling her away.
“Don’t eat yet!” her younger sister exclaimed. “We have to speak to Alemira, first!”
“Says who?” Atia cried, looking over her shoulder in dismay at the increasingly distant edibles. “And let go of me!”
“Safira says,” Mavaya replied, ignoring Atia’s irritation, but releasing her arm all the same. “It’s our duty, Atia, you know that.”
Atia stopped abruptly. “Wait a minute. We can’t go up there! I’m not going within ten feet of Mathias, much less shake his hand!”
“Safira says we go up,” Mavaya replied. “ ‘As the daughters of Jairo Morren, we have a duty to honor the friendship between Sir Grimnor and our father.’ ”
Atia raised an eyebrow. “That’s what she said?”
Mavaya nodded. “That’s what she said.”
Atia stared at her sister blankly. Their father, after whom Elise had named one of the twins, had been a close friend of Sir Grimnor, before he and their mother passed away. In honor of that bond, the sisters were always among the first to greet Lady Alemira on her birthday, which for the past few years they had done without fail. This year was different, however. Mathias had returned from school.
“Let’s just get it over with,” Mavaya suggested, starting to walk once more.
Sighing, Atia followed her. We’ll see what Acinath has to say about this.
Much to Atia’s surprise, Acinath had no objection. She and the others were near the front of the line by the time Atia and Mavaya reached them, and after a few minutes of waiting, Safira led them up.
Sir Grimnor came first and then Alemira. Everyone smiled and chatted as handshakes were exchanged and birthday wishes given. Atia watched closely as Acinath approached Mathias.
At first, neither showed any signs of discomfort. The former sweethearts were like a pair of bored strangers, nodding and smiling as they shook hands and exchanged short but polite pleasantries.
When Acinath turned to go, however, she moved too quickly, tripping on the hem of her dress.
“Acinath!” Mathias seized her arm to stop her from falling flat.
Everyone on the platform went stone still.
Mathias released his hold as soon as Acinath recovered her footing, but rather than linger, took a hasty step back, all composure gone as he stared at her.
Acinath’s hair hid her face as she mumbled a low “thank you” before hurrying down the stairs.
Mathias stared after her, not turning even when Loma placed a hand on his shoulder and whispered in his ear. It wasn’t until Sir Grimnor cleared his throat loudly and called to him that he reacted, shaking his head in frustration and looking to his father.
“Welcome home, Mathias!” Safira said sunnily, hoping to gloss over the awkward moment, taking his hand and shaking it firmly, sharpening his awareness with a steady gaze and smile.
“Thank you, Safira. It’s good to see you.” He flashed a guarded grin. He looked much different than the youth who’d left four years ago. The boyish light in his eyes was gone, and he’d filled into the full stature of a man. His mop of dark hair was still shoulder-length, but no longer full of snarls. Safira had the queer sensation that he’d finally recognized he was a nobleman.
Once their respects had been paid, the sisters were free to wander off on their own. Atia returned to the tables, and, after she had eaten her fill, meandered about, searching for familiar faces while waiting for the dancing to begin. Atia remembered the first time Sir Grimnor gave Alemira a public birthday, and how surprised she had been at the sheer number of people who actually lived in the Basin. The attendance had grown even larger since then because by the second year people from the other villages under Sir Grimnor’s jurisdiction also began coming.
Atia had just sat down to rest when she caught sight of the innkeeper Haughten, talking with a man whom she did not recognize but immediately wanted to know. His clothing was completely black, singling him out as a stranger, and there was an ornate dagger strapped to his belt. While he looked well-traveled and somewhat rugged, there was an eliteness about him that Atia had often seen in people of rank. Her curiosity increased when Haughten suddenly pointed to her and moved his lips in such a way that Atia knew he was saying “Morren”.
Why are they talking about me? Atia wondered, immediately suspicious that it had something to do with Mathias’s presence. Atia couldn’t stand the way the people of Chesstel gossiped. It seemed their most favored pastime, as necessary as food and water. Atia couldn’t be sure that they didn’t measure intelligence by the number of stories you could hunt down.
They’re coming over, Atia realized as both men began to draw closer to her. She rose to meet them.
“Atia Morren, might I introduce Dethar? He is a stranger to the Basin, and is staying at our inn.”
“I’m pleased to meet you.”
Dethar smiled and inclined his head. “The pleasure is mine, of course.”
“Dethar has a great interest in meeting the rest of your sisters, Atia,” Haughten said in a slightly conspiratorial manner.
“But that can wait,” Dethar interrupted. “If you don’t mind, I’d like to become better acquainted with Atia, first.”
Haughten didn’t seem to be listening, eyes searching the many faces around them. “Your sisters are here, aren’t they?”
“Why, yes, of course, they are,” she replied.
Someone shouted over the din, announcing the start of the dances and calling for partners to gather on the prepared dance floor.
“Do you dance, Atia?” Dethar asked quickly, just as Haughten was opening his mouth to talk again.
Atia nodded. “Yes, I do.”
With an innocent smile, Dethar offered her his hand. “Would you do me the honor?”
After a brief hesitation, which came as a result of amazement rather than suspicion, Atia slipped her hand into his. It was unnaturally warm, but before Atia had time to think on it further, Dethar led her to the floor, and the music began.
Throughout the dance, Dethar’s eyes never left Atia’s. He moved with a grace uncommon for a wanderer, which Atia was beginning to suspect that he was. A tint of the supernatural hung about him, as if he weren’t human at all, but rather a collection of every desire and fear she’d ever had, rolled into one and put in the form of a man. As the dance wore on, Atia began to feel increasingly drawn to him. His eyes seemed to be daring her to do something, but what it was, Atia couldn’t tell. When the music finally ended, Atia couldn’t bear to tear herself away, but stood there, rooted to the spot, unsure of what to do.
“I’m relieved to finally find you,” Dethar said.
Atia raised an eyebrow. “You were looking for me?”
“You are the cousin of Elise, no?” Dethar asked.
“Yes,” Atia replied, instantly alert.
“I knew Brightscar.”
“You knew Arthen?”
The music began again, and Dethar and Atia hurried off the floor to find a bench where they could sit together.
“Arthen was an acquaintance of mine,” Dethar went on. “I didn’t know him well, but we ran into one another often.”
“You are a wanderer, then!” Atia exclaimed excitedly.
Dethar deliberated for a moment but then shook his head. “Not exactly. More like a wandering lord.”
“A wandering lord?” Atia wasn’t sure what to make of this strange man. “What do you do? Are you a houseman?”
“That’s not important. In fact, I don’t have much time. I must be leaving Chesstel soon, but before I go I’d like to at least meet Arthen’s family.”
“Oh, of course!” Atia replied, jumping to her feet. “I’ll take you to Elise at once.”
Atia led Dethar through the throngs of people, searching for her cousin and nephews. A neighbor pointed her toward the sidelines of the festival, where she found Elise sitting in the shade of a tree, Jairo and Nius curled on a blanket beside her. Little Mara was with her, and they were talking quietly. Both looked up when Atia came near.
“Elise,” Atia said, gesturing to her companion, “this is Dethar. Dethar, Elise Brightscar.”
The young widow rose to her feet and nodded politely. “Pleased to meet you, Dethar.”
“He knew Arthen.”
The change in Elise’s face was outstanding. Her eyes, which were already large, grew wider, and her mouth opened in shock. “You…you knew my husband?”
“Yes, ma’am, I did,” Dethar replied.
Elise blinked at him, unsure of what to say. “I…I’ve never met any of Arthen’s friends, at least none from his adventures.”
“Yes, well, despite the accidental nature of this meeting, I’m pleased that it happened. I have something of his that I’ve carried with me for some time. I’m not sure if it will mean anything to you, but…” When Dethar drew forth the ring, Elise gasped.
“Arthen’s ring!” Atia breathed, looking over Dethar’s shoulder at the silver band. “How did you find it?”
“It’s a long story,” Dethar said dismissively.
Elise took the ring from Dethar’s hand, gazing at it in wonder. Though it had not been her who had given it to him, the ring had held special meaning to Arthen, and after they were married, Arthen had commenced wearing it on his left ring finger. Elise would have given him one herself, but at the time of their wedding, she had absolutely nothing and no means of getting him one. The ring she wore herself Arthen had found on one of his travels several months afterward, and Elise had worn it ever since. It was gold, set with a small red gem, and the perfect size for her slim fingers, something Arthen had jokingly complained about the day he had given it to her.
“It took me forever to find a ring that might just fit you,” he had said. “Those skinny little fingers of yours are impossible!”
He had kissed those skinny little fingers after that, and Elise felt tears spring to her eyes as she recalled the moment.
“I never thought I’d see it again,” Elise said, looking up at Dethar. “Thank you, sir, with all my heart.”
“Can I see, Elise?” Mara asked.
Elise smiled and held the ring lower for Mara to inspect. “Do you remember this, Mara? It’s Arthen’s ring!”
Mara studied it for a moment, and then nodded. “He told me he found it in the forest.”
“He always wore it.” Elise slipped it onto her right pointer. The ring was far too big for her, and she laughed sadly. “I can’t wear it for him.”
“You could get a chain,” Atia suggested.
Dethar cleared his throat and motioned toward the sleeping twins. “Are these Arthen’s children?”
Elise nodded, kneeling down beside them. “Arthen’s sons, Jairo and Nius.” Elise touched each head softly as she spoke their names.
“May I?” Dethar asked.
Dethar crouched next to her. The twins looked nothing alike. At first glance, Jairo looked like any other child he’d seen, but Nius looked just like his father.
Two little brats being raised by a group of hare-brained women. Blessed be the knave that slew their father, though I’ll be revenged, by and by, for the satisfaction he stole from me. Dethar wisely kept his thoughts to himself, however, putting on instead a face of admiration and compassion.
“They look like their father. Him, more than the other,” he commented.
Elise nodded. “I know. They’re just like him, too. Full of trouble and mischief.”
“He did seem to enjoy trouble,” Dethar muttered.
“Did he lead your company into it?” Atia asked, grinning expectantly.
Dethar nodded, eyes widened to reinforce the point. “On more than one occasion, yes.”
“Can you tell us?” Mara asked, moving closer.
With a sigh, Dethar rose to his feet. “I’m afraid not today. I must be moving on.”
“Thank you again.” Elise clutched the ring to her heart. “This means a great deal to me.”
Dethar bowed. “It was my pleasure.”
“Are you leaving the Basin already?” Atia was plainly disappointed.
Dethar nodded. “I cannot tarry. I have business elsewhere. Take care, the lot of you.”
“And you,” Atia said.
“Goodbye,” Elise said, smiling.
Bowing again, Dethar turned and left. Having found out what he wanted to know, the next step was getting the mother away from Brightscar’s sons, so he could work his will.
“I just can’t believe it,” Atia repeated, leaning over Elise’s shoulder. “Strange but kind, I suppose, for Dethar to carry it with him all this time.”
Elise hadn’t said a word since Dethar had left. She sat there, legs crossed, turning Arthen’s ring around and around in her hand, each detail bringing back a thousand memories surrounding its former owner.
“I wish he hadn’t had to leave so quickly,” Atia sighed, then perked up. “Let’s show Safira and Acinath and Mavaya! They’ll be stunned!”
Elise hesitated, looking over at the sleeping twins. “Can we leave them alone?”
“No one’s going to hurt them,” Atia replied. “It’s Chesstel, for heaven’s sake!”
When Elise remained doubtful, Atia added, “Mara could watch them for a while.”
“I can watch them if you want,” Mara agreed.
Pleased, Atia waited for Elise’s consent, loath to suggest herself as a watchman.
“All right.” Elise jumped to her feet, ring clenched in her fist.
“We won’t be gone very long anyway, I’m sure,” Atia added.
Elise nodded. “We’ll be back soon,” she promised Mara, and then touched Atia’s shoulder before they darted off together.
After taking leave of the sisters, Dethar had gone immediately to get behind them. Winding his way through the crowds, he made for the woods and, though it took some time, succeeded in hiding himself in a thicket directly behind the small family. Several yards still divided him from his victims, but he doubted to be able to reach them soon, anyway. Getting them alone would be difficult. From what he could tell, Elise didn’t seem like the careless type, and even if she was, there was a whole set of aunts to act as seconds. Of course, there was always the option of killing the aunts, too. Now that he had announced his departure, however, Dethar knew he couldn’t linger at the inn, lest word should spread. He would stick to the shadows instead and watch the family’s movements. They had to go home at some point, and then Dethar would follow.
A sudden stir caught his attention, and Dethar watched in astonished delight as the two older females suddenly rose up and left, leaving the child to watch.
Fate grants me favor. Dethar studied the shrunken group with greater attention. The girl barely measured up to his waist, and he wouldn’t have to use violence on her, anyway. He had a different plan, a much simpler one.
A soft rustle in the bushes made Mara turn her head. There was no sign of movement amidst the trees, though Mara was sure she had heard something. Shrugging it off to be no more than a bird, she continued building her miniature hut of sticks at the base of the tree.
The noise came again. This time, when Mara turned to look, she saw a bright light vanish behind a tall birch tree.
A faerie? she wondered. Atia had told her about faeries, said to live abundantly in the lands of the elves, beautiful and mysterious, the shape-shifters of Mel’tar. They were said to fly as orbs of light, and now, as Mara sat watching her nephews, she wondered whether it was possible that the strange flash of light could be a faerie, perhaps strayed far from home. The idea was enchanting, but as she contemplated following, her heart sank when she remembered that Elise had left her in charge of the twins. They were still asleep, lying peacefully on the blanket. Mara worried what punishment she might face if she dared leave them alone.
The light appeared again, whizzing from one birch to the next, glowing flame red as it flew about the forest.
Rising, Mara took a few hasty steps toward it. As she did so, the light came to a standstill, hanging in the air like it was waiting for her.
Surely, a few moments alone won’t harm them, Mara reasoned, looking cautiously over her shoulder at the small boys. Everyone would be cross with her, but they would forgive her once she told them her excuse.
Unable to restrain herself any longer, Mara darted after the fiery orb, calling as loud as she dared for it to come back as it danced farther and farther away.
Once the girl was out of sight, Dethar emerged from his hiding place and strolled as casually as possible toward the twins. No one in the distant crowd so much as glanced his direction, and seconds later, he was hidden behind the large tree.
Dethar crouched, fishing the tiny vial of poison out of his pocket. One drop would sicken them for weeks, three drops would kill them. He twisted the cap from the vial, but then paused.
How he had fantasized about killing Arthen, and how infuriating it was that he’d never get the chance. When he’d heard that Arthen had children, Dethar had believed that killing them would satisfy his lust, but as he looked on them now, watching as they slept, Dethar felt a shadow of disappointment. This wasn’t the revenge he had been wanting. It wasn’t retribution enough, considering the things Arthen had done.
What good would it do me, sending them off to join their father? What harm would it bring him, being united early with his children? There must be something better that I can do.
A cold smile darkened his face. Dethar placed a hand on the forehead of each twin. There was a darker revenge, a better satisfaction for his hatred. Arthen had spent his life fighting Fire City. It was likely the reason he died. What better payback, then, could there be besides enslaving and turning his children to the service of the Demon? What greater nightmare could disturb Arthen’s rest more than having his own flesh and blood laugh at the death of innocents, relish the scent of ash and death, worship the very thing Arthen had fought to destroy?
Closing his eyes, Dethar uttered words of magic. Instantly, the breathing of Jairo and Nius softened. Dethar rose to his feet.
And why not have a bit of fun?
The sound of snapping branches made him remember the girl, who had gone off to chase the illusion, which would have expired by now. He had barely managed to re-hide himself when she appeared, looking mystified. She didn’t seem to notice a change in the twins, hardly giving them a second glance before sitting down beside them again.
Silently congratulating himself, Dethar slipped away.
“Did they wake up at all?” Elise asked when she returned, accompanied by Mavaya.
Mara shook her head.
Elise bent down to look at them. “They seem rather pale,” she commented, feeling their forehead. “No change in temperature.”
“Should we wake them up?” Mara asked.
Elise shrugged, lifting Jairo into her arms. She chuckled when he slumped against her shoulder. “Poor baby. All this rush must have exhausted him.”
Mavaya smiled, reaching for Nius, but when he, too, failed to awaken, the young woman became concerned. “Are you sure they’re not ill?” Mavaya asked, feeling Nius, searching for signs of a fever. “They don’t feel sick, but…Elise, they’re very pale, and Nius always wakes up when someone touches him.”
Frowning, Elise shook Jairo softly, but he didn’t stir, nor make a sound. “Jairo,” she called, “Jairo, wake up!”
“Nius?” Mavaya followed suit, shaking the young boy gently.
With each failure came greater anxiety, until Elise dropped to the ground, placing Jairo on the blanket and shaking him violently, panic gripping her heart.
“Jairo! Jairo, wake up!”
“What’s wrong with them?” Mavaya cried.
Mara stood off to the side, watching in fright. She shouldn’t have gone after that faerie. This was all her fault. Why had she left?
“Mara, go get Safira, now!” Elise commanded.
The girl flew off toward the crowd and disappeared. Elise and Mavaya heard her screaming for Safira.
“What’s the matter with them?” Mavaya wondered again.
Elise hardly heard. Her mind was racing, and her heart was going even faster.
After what seemed like an eternity, Safira arrived, thoroughly confused and dreadfully frightened, followed by Acinath, Atia, and Mara, who was crying uncontrollably.
“What’s the matter?” Safira demanded, dropping to her knees beside Elise.
The wide-eyed mother shook her head. “I don’t know. They won’t wake up. They aren’t responding to anything! Look, they’re ghastly pale!”
Safira placed a hand on Jairo’s face. He was pale and limp, but alive. “Find Elebeth!”
Mavaya darted off.
Elise started weeping, and Acinath put her arms around her.
“Did you see anything?” Atia snatched Mara’s wrist.
The young girl’s tears flowed faster, and she fell into a heap on the grass, bawling harder than ever.
“Mara, did you see anything?” Safira repeated Atia’s question. “Calm down, and tell us! We need to know.”
“I didn’t see anything!” Mara cried, shaking her head.
Safira and Atia exchanged glances.
In a few moments, Mavaya returned with Elebeth, the town healer. By now, people had begun to notice the disturbance, and many stopped to watch from a distance.
Safira moved aside so that the healer could reach Jairo.
Elise had silenced her moans by now and was leaning against Acinath, still wrapped in her arms, eyes flicking nervously from child to child.
After studying them for a moment, Elebeth leaned back and shook her head. “I don’t know what’s wrong.”
Elise moaned and buried her face in Acinath’s shoulder, and Elebeth quickly added, “But we should get them indoors. Come, follow me to the shop.”
Elise snatched up Jairo, and Safira carried Nius. Elebeth led them through the masses to where her wagon stood. Elise relinquished Jairo long enough to climb inside, but as soon as she was seated she hurriedly took him back.
“Bring Nius to me,” she told Safira.
The eldest Morren climbed in and sat beside her, holding Nius as close to his mother as he could be without lying on top of his brother. Acinath climbed in afterward, as did Mara, who was behaving like a statue.
“Atia, Mavaya, would you please give our apologies to the Grimnors?” Safira asked.
“Is that really important right now?” Atia protested. “What about Jairo and Nius?”
“Please, just do it,” Safira said, her voice unsteady.
Reluctantly, Atia nodded. Elebeth urged her horse forward, and the wagon set out toward the town.
“Let’s go,” Atia said.
She and Mavaya headed for the platform, hoping that one of the family might still be there. To their dismay, the platform was vacant.
“Where could they be?” Atia growled.
Mavaya cast her eyes about for a moment, and then pointed. “There!”
Atia turned to where she had gestured and groaned inwardly when she saw Mavaya running toward Loma.
“Loma,”—Mavaya didn’t bother concealing the worry in her voice—“will you tell your mother that we’re sorry we have to leave so early, but Nius and Jairo are ill?”
Sir Grimnor’s daughter frowned, blue eyes narrowing in concern.
“What’s happened to them?” Loma asked.
Atia stepped in quickly. “We’re not really sure, but we have to leave at once. Please give your mother our apologies.”
Loma nodded. “I will.” Clearly, she wished to know more, but to Atia’s relief, she did not ask.
Nodding once, Atia turned and dashed for the road.
Mavaya gave Loma’s hand a fervent squeeze before following her sister.