The Balomar soldiers halted in front of the inn, which was
several hours ride from the Khadoran city of Chastise. The cortain rose in his
saddle and silently issued orders to his men. One squad of twenty soldiers rode
past the inn and positioned themselves on the road to the east. Another squad
turned and blocked the road to the west.
“Is this really necessary?” Lord Oktar
questioned. “We have no right to block the road.”
“I promised Marshal Berman that I would take every
precaution,” replied the cortain. “As soon as we determine that the inn is
safe, our men will unblock the road. I will keep a few men posted on the road to
make sure that no armies are approaching, but the rest will make camp behind the
The lord of the Balomar clan nodded with resignation
as the cortain issued orders to the third squad of soldiers under his command.
Four soldiers dismounted and approached the inn. Two went around to the rear of
the building while the other two opened the front door and entered. Within
moments the soldiers returned with Marshal Berman in tow. The marshal paused
outside the front door of the inn as his eyes swept the area to note the
position of the Balomar troops. He nodded with approval as he approached Lord
“Well done, Cortain,” the marshal said. “Have
your men make camp out back. One squad at a time may enter the inn and dine
while the rest keep watch.”
“What about blocking the road?” asked the Balomar
lord. “That is uncalled for since the Emperor’s decree regarding attacks on
“It is not neighboring clans that triggers my
caution,” explained Marshal Berman. “There have been strange reports of
murders recently. I will not allow the Lord of the Balomar clan to be
assassinated under my watch. The road will be watched, but not blocked. Let’s
Lord Oktar nodded, and the cortain ordered his men to
dismount. Half of the squad preceded the Balomar lord into the inn, and the
other half followed. The soldiers filled the benches on one side of the common
room, reserving the far corner table for their lord and marshal. The other half
of the common room was left open for travelers. The innkeeper’s eyes
brightened as he watched the soldiers taking their seats. The three lone
travelers already in the common room watched with curiosity, but soon returned
their attention to their meals.
“Tell me about these murders,” prompted Lord
Oktar after he had ordered meals from the innkeeper.
“There is little to tell,” frowned the Balomar
marshal. “They are random attacks, and no one can see the reasons behind
“They are not attempted robberies?” inquired the
“No,” Marshal Berman shook his head. “They are
just senseless murders. The assassins are unknown to the victims as best we can
tell. People are afraid to stray from their estates.”
“Have any of the assassins been caught?” asked
“Not yet,” replied the marshal, “but I have
spoken with the neighboring clans, and we have all agreed to try to capture
“Well, I don’t think a lone murderer is going to
take on an entire corte of troops,” shrugged the lord. “That would be
“You are probably correct,” nodded the marshal,
“but I will keep you protected regardless. Why are you not returning directly
to the estate?”
“Emperor Marak is still having trouble convincing
some of the clans to send their troops to Khadoratung for training,” explained
Lord Oktar. “He asked me to visit some of the recalcitrant lords and convince
them of the need to join together.”
“Why are they refusing?” frowned the marshal.
“Emperor Marak has the blessing of the Lords’ Council in this endeavor. Do
they think the battle with the Jiadin is the end of our troubles?”
“Some do not see any troubles on the horizon,”
conceded Lord Oktar. “They are demanding proof of the Emperor’s warnings.”
“How can he prove anything to them before the
invasion is actually launched?” responded the marshal. “Must they see the
armies of the enemy to realize the danger that they are in?”
“Some would probably try to find an innocent
explanation even then,” sighed Lord Oktar. “I do not have much hope of
success for this mission, but I promised Emperor Marak that I would try my
“How long will you be away from the estate?”
asked the marshal.
“Perhaps a week more,” shrugged the lord. “I do
not plan to spend a great deal of time at any one estate. If they will not
listen to my plea, I will leave for the next estate.”
“I want every precaution taken,” Marshal Berman
demanded as he turned to the cortain beside him. “Lord Oktar is to be always
surrounded by your men. Do you understand?”
The cortain nodded as the door to the common room
opened. A middle-aged man entered the room. His dark cloak had a hood, but the
traveler had chosen not to use it. His beady eyes scanned the room slowly as he
took a seat at an empty table on the side of the room opposite the Balomar
troops. The innkeeper delivered plates of food to some of the soldiers and then
walked across the room to the newcomer. The stranger ordered a meal and a cup of
ale. He stared vacantly across the room as he waited for his food.
Marshal Berman watched the new arrival in silence for
a few moments. When the innkeeper delivered the man’s food, the traveler
sniffed the plate cautiously, his hawkish nose crinkling with concern. He
finally shrugged and began eating his food.
“Do you watch every traveler with such interest?”
Lord Oktar asked as he noted the marshal’s distraction.
“I guess I do,” sighed the marshal as he returned
his attention to the Balomar lord. “It is one thing to protect a lord against
known enemies, but suspecting every unknown person has become irritating. I will
feel safer when you are back on the estate. Perhaps I should double your
“An entire corte is more than sufficient,” Lord
Oktar shook his head. “Any more men and I will go broke feeding them. Keep
them training for what is to come.”
“Very well,” agreed the marshal as he watched the
stranger devour his food and push his plate away from him.
The soldier across the table from the marshal noted
the concern on his leader’s face. He turned to watch the stranger stand up and
leave the table. The soldier’s hand drifted towards the knife in his belt, but
he relaxed as the traveler turned and headed for the door.
“Now you have made your men nervous as well,”
chided Lord Oktar as he shook his head. “If a traveler cannot stop at an inn
for a meal, Khadora is in a poor state indeed.”
When the stranger reached the front door of the inn,
he suddenly turned and threw a knife at Lord Oktar. The Balomar lord looked on
in horror as the knife sped towards him. The room erupted in shouts with
soldiers scrambling to their feet. Being crowded into the corner of the room,
the lord knew there was no way he would be able to rise in time to avoid the
knife. Lord Oktar closed his eyes as he waited for death to claim him.
The nervous soldier across the table from the lord
rose quickly and threw his body into the path of the knife. He grunted quietly
as the knife ripped into his flesh. His body fell onto the table, sending food
plates and cups of ale flying.
A soldier closer to the door leaped to his feet and
drew his sword. As the assassin turned to flee, the soldier shoved his sword
into the door, slamming it shut. Another soldier drew his sword and attacked the
stranger. With his back to the closed door, the assassin had nowhere to flee.
The soldier’s sword struck the assassin in his left eye. The stranger slammed
backwards into the door and tumbled to the floor.
Marshal Berman leaped onto the table and ran towards
the front door. He shouted orders to secure the entire building as he raced
across the room. Soldiers immediately seized the innkeeper and the other
travelers in the room as the marshal knelt next to the assassin and searched his
body. Marshal Berman rose with a disgusted sigh.
“Throw the body outside,” commanded the marshal. “I
will not him fouling the air in here.”
Two soldiers opened the door and tossed the body
outside while the marshal marched back to the table of Lord Oktar.
“I owe you an apology,” Lord Oktar said softly to
Marshal Berman as two soldiers lifted their wounded comrade off of Lord
Oktar’s table and placed him on the next one. “I could not imagine such an
attack. How could he have possibly hoped to survive?”
“Overconfidence?” shrugged the marshal. “I
really cannot fathom what goes through such a mind. There was nothing on his
body to identify him in any way. He had a small pouch of gold and nothing else.
We don’t even know what clan he hails from.”
“Is he dead?” asked Lord Oktar.
“Very much so,” nodded Marshal Berman. “I wish
I could have interrogated him before he died. Barring that, I can make no sense
of his attack.”
“Perhaps some people around here will recognize
him,” suggested the cortain. “I could have my men start asking around.”
“No,” the marshal replied adamantly. “Get your
other two squads fed. You are escorting Lord Oktar away from here within the
hour. I will stay and see if I can find any clues as to his identity.”
The cortain nodded and ordered the squad to go
outside and relieve one of the other squads. Marshal Berman walked over the
“I’ll be alright, Marshall,” smiled the soldier
as he held a rag to the wound in his side.
“You acted properly,” nodded the marshal. “Your
act of bravery will be rewarded. You will stay with me, and I will get you to a
healer. Are you well enough to ride?”
“I can ride,” nodded the soldier. “It looks
worse than it is. I will be alright.”
The squad of soldiers entering the inn paused and
looked around the room. Several soldiers still held the innkeeper and the
travelers at sword-point. The squad leader issued crisp instructions to his men
and they relieved the soldiers still on duty.
“What are we to do with these men?” the squad
leader asked the cortain.
The cortain turned to Marshal Berman for orders.
“Let them go,” sighed the marshal. “I think the
assassin was working alone.”
“Assassin?” questioned the squad leader. “What
“The one who tried to kill Lord Oktar,” snapped
the marshal. “You had to trip over his body to get in here. Concern yourself
with your orders and not foolish questions.”
The squad leader felt thoroughly rebuked, but he was
still confused. He inhaled deeply to summon his courage and then faced the
“Begging the marshal’s pardon,” the squad
leader said sheepishly, “but there was no body outside. I did not know there
was an attempt on Lord Oktar’s life.”
The marshal opened his mouth to berate the squad
leader, but he stopped before he had issued a syllable. He rushed to the door
and threw it open. He stepped outside and scanned the area for the assassin’s
body, but he found nothing.
“He must have an accomplice,” shouted the
marshal. “Did you see anyone carrying a body away from the inn?”
“I only saw one person leave the inn since we
arrived,” answered the squad leader. “He was a strange looking man with an
eye put out. He rode off just a few moments before we were relieved.”
“That is impossible,” shouted the marshal.
“That man was dead. I checked him myself.”
“He still knew how to ride a horse,” the squad
leader replied sheepishly.
* * *
The river barge bumped to a halt as the lines tugged
on the pilings. Mistake adjusted her stance as the movement threatened to topple
“I never thought that I would get to see
Khadoratung,” MistyTrail said softly as a gangplank was thrown from the dock.
“This is exciting.”
“I am glad that you think so,” frowned Mistake.
“I doubt that Eltor and Caldal even know that we have arrived. What is wrong
with them? They have refused to come out of the cabin the entire trip down the
“They changed even before that,” answered
MistyTrail. “When we boarded Emperor Marak’s ship, they started acting
weird. I don’t think they like being with us any more.”
“Well I am going to find out what is going on,”
Mistake said with determination. “I will not be embarrassed by them in front
of the Emperor.”
Mistake strode purposely towards the small cabin in
the center of the barge. She opened the door and stepped into the small communal
kitchen area. As she approached the ladder to the bunkroom upstairs, she heard
the voices of the elves. She froze and listened.
“We have to get off,” declared Eltor. “This is
the end of the line for this barge.”
“I don’t care if it is the end,” retorted
Caldal. “I do not understand why we didn’t just get a ship at Raven’s
Point and head home. Now we are even deeper inside the land of the humans. We
have to escape.”
“Escape to where?” countered Eltor. “We do not
even know where we are. How do you expect to find Elvangar?”
“I don’t know,” admitted Caldal, “but we must
leave anyway. You know the restrictions set down by Queen Alycia.”
“We broke those restrictions when we sailed past
the Barrier Islands,” replied Eltor. “Talking to humans will not add any
more punishment to our debt. We have no choice. If we ever hope to see Elvangar
again, we will need the help of humans to get there.”
“Not if I can help it,” swore Caldal. “I had my
fill of humans on Motanga. I do not wish to see another.”
Suddenly, Eltor’s head appeared over the edge of
the hole allowing passage to the bunkroom. He gazed down at Mistake with a
“Is it common in this land to eavesdrop on
friends?” Eltor asked accusingly.
“Is it common among elves to keep secrets from
their friends?” retorted Mistake. “MistyTrail and I have been wondering what
was wrong with the two of you. Why did you not share your concerns with us? Must
I resort to spying to learn the truth?”
“Fair enough,” conceded Eltor. “We should have
told you earlier, but we are forbidden from meeting humans. It is the law of the
“You have chosen a fine time to reveal that,”
frowned Mistake. “We have arrived in Khadoratung, and we are expected at the
Imperial Palace within the hour. There is no way to change that now.”
“You cannot force us to go,” Caldal said loudly.
“I cannot,” Mistake conceded, “but go you must.
If you tried to leave now without seeing Emperor Marak, he would suspect that
you are allied with Vand. He would order your arrest.”
“Allied with Vand?” protested Caldal. “Nothing
could be more ridiculous.”
“She has a point,” interjected Eltor. “This
emperor has provided passage for us to Khadoratung so that he might meet us. If
we disappeared at the last moment, who could blame him for being suspicious? We
must go, Caldal. We have already broken the law by speaking to humans. Another
one won’t make a difference.”
Mistake heard Caldal grumbling under his breath, but
the elves started descending the ladder. She retreated to the deck of the barge
and waited alongside MistyTrail. A few moments later, Eltor and Caldal joined
them. The elves stared at the city of Khadoratung as Mistake led them off the
barge and away from the dock.
The wharf area was busy with men bustling to and fro
as they unloaded a long line of barges. The smell of overripe fruit permeated
the air and Caldal started breathing through his mouth. Mistake hurried the
small group past warehouses and trade shops as they moved deeper into the city.
Eltor looked curiously at the tradesmen and their goods as he passed by. Within
minutes they were at the edge of a vast marketplace. The group involuntarily
slowed down as Eltor, Caldal, and MistyTrail took in the immenseness of the
market. None of them had ever seen a market so large.
Mistake gave up trying to herd the small group
directly to the Imperial Palace. Eltor and Caldal studied each of the stalls
intently, while MistyTrail roamed on ahead quickly scanning the tables as if
searching for something in particular. When MistyTrail reached the end row, she
turned and strode along it. Suddenly, someone grabbed her arm, and she whirled
around, a knife automatically sliding into her hand. The man’s eyes widened in
horror as MistyTrail brought the knife up between them.
“Hold,” the man swallowed hard. “I did not mean
to accost you. I thought you were Mistake. I am sorry.”
“You know Mistake?” MistyTrail asked, her eyes
narrowing with distrust.
“Yes,” the man nodded vigorously. “I am Wendal.
That is my stand over there,” he added as he pointed to a small stand a few
paces away. “You look remarkably like her.”
“I am her sister,” MistyTrail smiled weakly as
she returned the knife to its sheath. “She has mentioned you. I am sorry if I
“Well you did indeed scare me,” Wendal chuckled
nervously. “I see that you are as quick of hand as she is, too. It must run in
the family. Please come back to my stall. I dare not leave it unattended.”
MistyTrail nodded and followed the merchant back to
his stall. She gazed at the expensive merchandise with interest.
“Where is Mistake?” asked Wendal. “Has she come
MistyTrail looked around and saw her small group of
friends a dozen stalls away. She pointed them out to Wendal.
“She will be here soon,” answered MistyTrail.
“We are on our way to visit the Emperor.”
“Are you now?” grinned Wendal. “I would suspect
that your statement was all bluster if I did not know your sister. What makes
you think the Emperor will see you?”
“He sent for us,” answered MistyTrail as she
picked up a piece of jewelry and examined it. “We rescued two elves from the
Island of Darkness. Emperor Marak wants to talk to them.”
“The Island of Darkness?” responded Wendal. “It
“It was,” MistyTrail sighed as she placed the
jewelry back on the table. “I am sure that the Emperor will see us
Mistake saw MistyTrail talking to Wendal. She grabbed
Eltor and Caldal by the arms and hurried them towards Wendal’s stall.
“Take them to the end of the market,” Mistake
commanded MistyTrail. “I will catch up to you in a moment.”
MistyTrail frowned and was about to object when she
saw the displeasure on Mistake’s face. She smiled politely at Wendal and then
herded the elves away from the stall.
“So you found your sister,” beamed Wendal. “I
never had a doubt that you would succeed. She looks very much like you.”
“That she does,” nodded Mistake, “but she is
prone to telling tall tales. I am trying hard to break her of the habit, but it
is hard. Sometimes I think she doesn’t even know what is real and what is
fancy. I hope she didn’t say anything really crazy. She embarrasses me
“Actually,” grinned Wendal, “we barely had time
to say hello before you arrived. I hope you have time later to stop by for a
chat. I would like to know what you have been up to.”
“I will try,” Mistake said cheerily as she left
the stall and hurried to catch up to her friends.
Mistake caught up with the others and guided them out
of the market and into a large well-groomed park. She paused when they were free
“What did you tell Wendal?” asked Mistake.
“Not much,” frowned MistyTrail. “Why are you
upset? I thought he was your friend?”
“In a way he is,” shrugged Mistake, “but that
does not mean that I share things with him freely. Wendal is the most expensive
merchant in Khadora. He buys and sells anything that commands a large price.”
“Well I wasn’t going to steal any of his
wares,” pouted MistyTrail, “if that is what you were worrying about. That is
your thing, not mine.”
“That is not what I was talking about,” Mistake
retorted angrily. “Sometimes what commands a large price in Khadora is
information. Did you stop to think that some people might pay to know that there
are elves in Khadora? Emperor Marak asked us not to share any information with
anyone until we talked to him first.”
“Well we ought to go see him then,” countered
MistyTrail. “There is no reason for us to stand in this park debating it.
Eltor and Caldal had dismissed the conversation when
it started. The elves stood in the park gazing at the Imperial Palace. The
massive white building sat behind a high black metal fence with gates sprinkled
along its length. They watched people coming and going and saw soldiers marching
in and out the doors in a wide variety of uniforms.
“Are you sure that this emperor will even speak to
us?” asked Eltor. “We may have to wait days just to find out if he will
speak to us.”
“He will speak to us,” assured Mistake as she
exhaled in frustration. “Come on. Let’s get this over with. I am tired of
being a shepherd.”
Mistake led the way through the park to the black
fence. She opened one of the gates and marched the group to the steps leading to
the door. Four Imperial soldiers stood guard outside the door. They stared at
the small group as they approached. Mistake winced as she imagined what they
must look like. Eltor and Caldal were still dressed in the Motanga uniforms they
had stolen. The garish red uniforms were torn and ill fitting. Mistake and
MistyTrail were dressed in animal skins, but even their clothes needed mending
in more than one place. She chewed on her lower lips as the eyes of the soldiers
bore into them.
“What is your purpose in coming here?” demanded
one of the soldiers as soon as the group reached the bottom of the steps.
“This is not going to go well,” Caldal whispered
to Eltor. “It will not be days of waiting. It will be weeks.”
“I am Mistake,” announced Mistake as she flashed
a white pin before the soldiers’ eyes. “I have been commanded by Emperor
Marak to bring these three before him immediately upon entering the city. Please
send a runner immediately to inform the emperor of my arrival.”
The nearest soldier’s eyebrows rose in surprise at
the bold response. He stepped to the door and cracked it open. He whispered to
someone inside and then closed the door.
“Marshal Chack will be here in a moment,” the
soldier declared. “Please stand off to one side while you wait.”
“I am sure his response will be swift,” retorted
Mistake. “Anyone coming behind us can wait.”
The soldier shook his head and glared at Mistake. He
was about to demand that she move to one side when the door opened. Marshal
Chack walked out and stood on the top step. He stared at Mistake and the others
around here. He smiled thinly and shook his head.
“Let them in,” stated the Imperial marshal. “I
will take care of them.”
One of the soldiers opened the door and Marshal Chack
led the small group into the palace. He halted in the massive entry foyer and
stared at the group again.
“Do you know how to find the soldiers’ dining
room?” he asked Mistake.
“I know where it is,” Mistake nodded.
Marshal Chack reached into a pouch and handed two
small white pins to Mistake. “Put one of those on your sister and one on
yourself,” he commanded. “Go to the dining room and wait there. I am not
going to let these two men roam the halls in those uniforms. I will take them to
change their clothes. They will meet you there.”
Mistake was suspicious about the arrangements, but
her eyes gleamed with the thought of having two more Imperial pins. She reached
out and grabbed the pins. Marshal Chack gently took Eltor and Caldal by the arms
and led them away.