It was a cold, misty, overcast day, as Gideone, Stavros, Vayan, and Phautina continued to press forward toward the Mountains of Scalavori. The trees which had surrounded them throughout the whole of their journey now began to thin out. The straight, towering, gray trees that remained would not fully disappear until the four travelers passed the town of Haflashon, which they would soon reach.
Gideone pulled his cloak tighter around himself and tried to keep his teeth from chattering.
"Are you cold, Your Highness?" asked Stavros.
Gideone rolled his eyes and, with the most sarcastic tone he could muster, replied, "No."
Stavros gave him a worried look, for he could not recall a previous time when the prince had given a one-word answer when a longer one was possible. "Your Highness, I think we ought to stop and rest for a moment."
"I need no rest," answered Gideone, crossly.
"Then at least let me look at your wound."
"My wound looks exactly the same as when you last examined it, and simply because your memory is too poor to remember doesn’t mean I ought to be obliging."
"Your Highness..." Stavros began. He disliked how pale Gideone's face was.
"No," Gideone cut him off. "You may stop if you wish, but I, for one, will not rest until I reach Haflashon. We may be evading Abiel now, but I have no doubt he still seeks us, and I intend not to sit still while he draws ever closer."
"Very well, Your Highness," said Stavros after a moment's pause.
They rode on in silence for several minutes until Gideone spoke softly. Though his words were simple, his voice conveyed command.. "When we reach Haflashon, Phautina shall part company with us."
"But..." Vayan began to protest.
Gideone cut him off. "She was supposed to have left us when we reached Jwassax, and 'twas only because I allowed it that she traveled with us further. Now her time with us has ended."
"But, Y’r High..."
Gideone turned and gave Vayan a dark look. "I am the prince. I am the heir to the throne of Nor. My word is the law, and you’re expected to obey it."
Vayan looked as though he was going to protest again, but Phautina, who was riding beside him, put a staying hand on his arm. "Trouble not yourself, Vayan. I’ve traveled all across the Realm of Earth–sometimes by myself and sometimes with others–and I’ve learned even the best of traveling companions must eventually part ways. If Prince Gideone doesn't wish me to ride with you, than I’ll do so no longer."
Vayan fell silent, but it was clear he disliked the thought of her leaving.
They said nothing more as they pressed forward, the silence broken only by the occasional chirping of a bird and the sound of the horses’ hooves striking the earth. Stavros looked in concern upon the prince. Haflashon would not be reached until late in the afternoon, but Gideone looked as though he would fall off his horse at any moment. His face was extremely pale, and his jaw was clenched tightly in an effort to keep his teeth from chattering. His hands trembled slightly, and there was a look of pain in his eyes which, though he tried desperately to hide, Stavros could see. These things alone made Stavros very worried, but there was another thing which caused him even more concern. Ever since they had argued the night they had escaped from Jwassax, Gideone had grown more and more subdued, but behind his worn and wearied exterior lurked an anger that grew only stronger as the days passed. There was not a moment when his dark eyes were not clouded with hatred, as though some fell spirit hid within him, threatening at any moment to emerge.
The hours wore on, and the faint shadows grew longer as the evening drew nearer. Gideone managed to stay upon his horse, but it was only through the sheer power of his will. When they reached Haflashon–close to the time of dinner–even that was barely enough to sustain him.
Haflashon was a very small town, peopled mainly by cheerful, rustic folk. Though the sky was gray and overcast and the air cool, children ran about and played in the streets just as they would had the countryside been bright with sun. As the four travelers approached, the children darted out of the way and stood at the edge of the streets, gazing up at them with curiosity.
Phautina laughed and waved at all whom she passed. Vayan smiled softly but said nothing. Gideone scowled at any child who dared look at him; indeed, he sent several of the younger children running to the safety of their older siblings. And Stavros kept a close eye on the prince to see that he did nothing rash.
The town was so small it had but one inn–the Ranger's Lodge–and to this the four travelers made their way. All arrangements were quickly taken care of. Stavros took Gideone, who was so sick and weary he could not even dismount unaided, upstairs to their room, and Vayan and Phautina betook themselves to the common room to have dinner.
* * *
Gideone lay upon a bed in one of the dimly lit chambers of the inn and stared up at the ceiling.
He sighed. "Are you almost done?"
"Yes, Your Highness," Stavros replied. He finished examining Gideone's wound and began to rub some more of Wild Rose's salve upon it. The web of black lines had crept all the way to the prince's shoulder, and soon they would reach even his neck. Stavros finished rubbing on the salve, then quickly went about bandaging the wound. He remained silent as he worked, but as he finished he spoke hesitantly. "Your Highness…"
Gideone turned his head to him.
Stavros took a breath then continued, "I think you ought to allow Phautina to continue with us."
"What?!" Gideone tried to sit up.
Stavros put a staying hand to his shoulder. "Lie back down, Your Highness."
"I already said that she could come no further. Why don't you accept my words?"
"Even a prince can be in error."
"Are you accusing me of being wrong?" demanded Gideone as he pushed Stavros' hand aside and sat up.
"No," Stavros said as he stood. "I simply think you ought to reconsider your decision. Phautina’s been nothing but an aid to us, and something tells me she should journey with us all the way to Scalavori."
"What tells you that?"
Stavros was silent for a moment before he answered, "I know not what–something–a feeling–a sense that this would be best."
The prince sighed in disgust. "Give me what can be seen and what can be touched; give me not your feelings or your senses."
"Your Highness, please we’ve had nothing but good luck since she joined us. Abiel’s not attacked us since Jwassax."
"Do you think I care if Abiel attacks us? If you’d simply allow me to do so, I could destroy him once and for all. I am the greatest swordsman in Lairannare."
Stavros could not help but smile slightly at that. "The greatest?"
"Yes!" Gideone cried. "The greatest. I have never been defeated."
"Never!" Gideone declared with an anger and a vehemence that surprised Stavros. "Not even once!" His eyes were flashing. "I’ve no need of Phautina, and I’m not going to let her come with me. Everyone else has turned against me, and I’ll not give her the chance to betray me also."
"I still stand with you, Your Highness."
"You do not. You stand with Phautina. Your pitiful excuse for a son stands by Phautina."
Gideone did not allow Stavros to finish. "Orion, cur that he is, ran away. And Eagle..." He slammed his fist against the bed. "Eagle..." the words caught in his throat. "Eagle...you know what Eagle did."
He fell back on the bed and said dully, "Leave me alone."
Stavros looked upon him for a moment then, with a sigh, turned and walked from the room.
* * *
The common room of the Ranger's Lodge was alive with merriment–not with the revelries so often found in the inns of larger cities, but with simple, rustic gusto. There was not a person there not engaged in at least one conversation. Two rangers sitting in the corner were in the midst of giving a very animated telling of one of their adventures. Their voices and the shouts and laughter from their audience mixed with the sounds of the other conversations filling the room, and behind all of that was the ever-constant sound of music coming from the three musicians who sat in a corner. The smoke of old men's pipes rose and wafted through the air and mixed with the smell of the smoked and spicy food.
Vayan and Phautina, sitting at a table against the wall, smiled and laughed just like everyone else. Many people had come up and spoken with them, but the two had been so famished that they had made sorry conversation. Vayan would have dug right into his venison had not Phautina stopped him and given a quick prayer of thanks, during which Vayan had kept one of his eyes opened and turned toward his plate. Thankfully, Phautina was not one given to long-winded prayers, and when she had finished, Vayan wasted no time in attacking his food. Phautina had not been able to keep herself from laughing at how much he consumed. He simply grinned silently and continued eating.
As the night wore on, even Vayan's hunger was appeased. Phautina recovered from nearly choking on her ale–not only were the rangers excellent storytellers, they were comedians as well. The conversation had grown rather subdued, and it seemed the night was winding to a close, when one of the rangers jumped up and declared it was time to dance. Immediately everyone was on their feet, pushing tables and chairs out of the way. They formed two lines–women in one and men in the other–down the center of the floor. The musicians struck up a merry tune, and the laughter and shouting began anew. Those who were not dancing were stomping their feet and clapping their hands, and some were singing along to the music.
The first song ended, and Vayan's eyes were sparkling as he turned to Phautina. "Do ye want t' dance?"
She smiled and shook her head. "I would rather watch."
"But everyone wants t' dance!"
She laughed. "Not after the dinner I had."
"Phautina, ye had no' nearly as much as me." He took her arm. "Come on, it's y’r last day with us."
She pulled her arm away from him. "No, you go dance, but I’d rather just sit and watch."
He was clearly disappointed, but he turned and took his place among the dancers, and after a couple songs, he was almost as lighthearted as he had been before. The time passed quickly, and it was Phautina who drew him away and reminded him he ought to go to bed and get as much sleep as possible before the morning.
They stood outside the room Vayan shared with Gideone and Stavros. As he looked down upon Phautina he could scarcely believe it was actually time to say goodbye to her. He had never been one to say much, and now words escaped him completely.
"Well, Vayan," said Phautina, "I suppose it's time to bid you farewell. I’ve enjoyed traveling with the three of you, and I’ll pray that you reach your destination safely."
"Will I see ye tomorrow before we leave?"
"No." She shook of her head. "I doubt Gideone would be pleased to see me, and it would probably plunge him into an even worse mood than he's already in, which would hardly be enjoyable for you. So, I’ll bid you goodbye tonight, and may Joretham be with you."
Vayan could think of nothing else to say, so he simply said, "Goodbye…and I wish you good luck, too."
Phautina bowed her head, smiled, then turned and walked quietly away, leaving Vayan to gaze after her.
* * *
Nearly a full day passed. Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan had left early the next morning, and Phautina shortly after them. Few had noticed their departure, and, of those who did, fewer still remembered for more than an hour. By nightfall they were, for most, but a distant memory.
At that moment, the innkeeper was wishing he too had forgotten all about them–or, better yet, had never seen them to begin with.
Only the flickering flames of a dying fire lighted the common room of the Ranger’s Lodge, and the room was empty save for the innkeeper and Abiel. The innkeeper's hands were clasped tightly together, yet still they trembled as he looked upon Abiel's scarred and twisted features.
The Delovachian prince paid no attention to the innkeeper. With his sword gleaming red in the light of the fire, he stared into the darkness and battled an unseen enemy.
"What can you tell me of four strangers who passed through this town?" Abiel's voice was soft yet deadly, as his sword arched through the air.
The innkeeper licked his lips and took a deep breath before saying, "There was one man, older than the others, who seemed to be the leader; a young man with a Delovachian accent; a homely woman who couldn’t have been more than twenty years old; and a black-haired man who was sorely wounded."
Abiel gave an evil smile as he continued to battle. "That would be them. When did they leave, and where did they go?"
The innkeeper answered with a weak voice, "The three men left early this morning and set out almost directly north."
Abiel concentrated on a point just in front of his blade. "And the woman?"
"She left about a half-hour after the men and seemed to follow them."
"Good," Abiel said, an evil gleam in his eyes. "Very good."
He continued to fight in silence. The innkeeper could only stand, pale-faced, watching him.
Finally, Abiel gave a grin that only made his features more twisted and gruesome. "Do you think me ugly?"
The innkeeper searched for an appropriate reply, but before he could answer Abiel continued, "Most people do." There was a gleam of hatred in his eyes. "I was not always this way–" the terrible grin was still upon his face–"but fire springs up quickly and burns hot."
The innkeeper swallowed.
"Do you know what it’s like to lie helpless in the midst of a raging fire and watch your skin burn away before your eyes? And do you know what it’s like to feel the creatures of Elmorran rise up out of the depths and fall upon you? Do you know the pain that takes you as your flesh is torn from your face?" Abiel smiled unpleasantly. "I do."
The innkeeper's face was completely white.
"Now go," Abiel ordered. The innkeeper, all too happy to obey, exited as quickly as possible.
"To the north, ever to the north he goes," murmured Abiel as he continued to battle his unseen foe. "Where could he be going? Surely not to Tmalion. Gideone would never be fool enough to do that. Tmalion stands firmly with the Powers. Where could he go?" The dark prince chuckled. "No matter. Wherever he goes he shall not reach it."
He gave another laugh and continued to fight. "Strike, thrust, parry, and three steps back, but this time it will be you who feels the pain of your body being consumed by the fire and the dead."
He spun and with a snarl sent his sword slicing deep into a wooden beam which supported the ceiling.
"I will have my revenge!"