The Case of the Short, Short Prince

by Geron Kees

Chapter 10

When Jamie awoke in the morning, it was to the dual pleasures of a soft coverlet holding in his warmth against the cool of the dawn, and the equally soft and warm closeness of Garvin curled against him.

For a moment, the troubles of the previous evening - and, in fact, their entire expedition thus far against the red mage, Urvan - seemed far away and unimportant. Only this small and special moment, in this soft and warm place, and with this one special person, mattered.


Jamie sighed, running a hand gently up the other boy's side, and back down again. The slow and regular pace of Garvin's breathing signaled that he still remained in the realm of sleep. Jamie let his hand move slowly over his friend's skin, and marveled that the touch of another could be both so pleasant and so arousing.

But then, memory did come. Briefly, he recalled the events of the previous evening, and how close he had come to losing this very special person.

"I do love you so much," Jamie whispered, and then laid his lips against Garvin's cheek and kissed him. Never again would Jamie be so careless in this venture. Too much was at stake.

For a few more minutes Jamie lay with his eyes closed, holding Garvin and rubbing him, and kissing him lightly so as to not awaken him.

He might have dozed, even. He was brought back to full awareness by a soft rap at the door between rooms.

Garvin sighed, and opened his eyes. "So unfair, to have this wonderful moment brought to an end."

Jamie blinked in astonishment, and then smiled. "How long have you been awake?"

"Only from when your lips first touched me. Difficult to sleep through something like that."

Jamie laughed, squeezed Garvin to him mightily, and then flipped the coverlet off and squirmed from the bed. The coolness of the morning air hit him then; but it was invigorating more than startling. Spring was well along, and the nights, though chilly, were far from cold; and the morning air treated Jamie's naked body with tolerant kindness.

"Good morning," Snave said, from his spot in the corner. "It was a quiet night. I sensed nothing suspicious."

Jamie nodded. "All the better. I know I needed that sleep, Snave. After last night, I will be walking on fiery embers every step of the way from now onwards."

Snave sighed. "Jamie...oh, we shall talk later. First, the door."

Jamie nodded. He went to the door between rooms and threw the bolt, and then kept his nakedness behind it as he pulled it open a crack and peered around the edge.

It was Geert, looking sleepy, his head a mass of untrained curls and his body covered in only the briefest of undergarments about his loins. Jamie was unable to stop his eyes from assessing the pleasantly muscled exterior of the other boy's body, defined, but not hard in any way. Geert was still not quite awake, and did not notice the silent appraisal.

Instead, he rubbed at an eye and cleared his throat. "Sir Dorf says to be up, and to get dressed and come down to break fast."

Jamie smiled. "I see we are not the only late sleepers."

The shadow of a smile crossed the other boy's lips. "Hah. So much has happened in the past day that my head is still awhirl with it all. Sleep was a certain countermeasure to all this confusion." He laughed then. "I was reluctant to give it up, until Sir Dorf removed the coverlet and gave me a good prod."

"Well, we are up now, and will soon join you for the day's first meal," Jamie returned. He looked back over his shoulder at the bed, and saw that Garvin was now sitting on the edge of it, yawning. Jamie let his gaze go back to Geert." Ten minutes to wash and dress?"

Geert nodded. "Aye, suits me." He frowned. "I just hope I can unburden my bladder. Sir Dorf must be quite mighty in this area, as the chamber pot seems almost full already."

Jamie managed a grin. "A ferocious knight in every aspect, I suspect."

For a second Geert's eyes opened wider, and then he smiled. For the first time he seemed to notice Jamie's attempt to remain modest. "No need to hide behind the door. I saw everything last night, remember?"

Jamie nearly laughed. "Oh? And you took note? Are you saying that you wish to see more?"

The apprentice's gaze grew playful. "Not at all. I was just saying that to be shy at this point seems without need."

Jamie let his gaze drop. "Easy to say, for one who is covered against interested eyes."

Geert laughed, and turned back to his room. "Wash and dress, and meet me when you are ready." The apprentice headed off, and Jamie watched the pleasant play of the other boy's buttocks inside his loin cover as he crossed the room to the chamber pot and wash stand. As Jamie was about to close the door, Geert grabbed his scant undergarment and dropped it, revealing a pleasant backside, indeed. Jamie gaped, and Geert flashed him a teasing smile over his shoulder. "See? I am not so shy."

Jamie laughed, feeling his cheeks unaccountably grow warm. "See you in ten minutes." And then he closed the door.

"Our Geert is a devil," Jamie said, returning to the bed and sitting next to Garvin. "He just showed me his bottom before I shut the door."

Garvin gave a startled laugh. "You jest."

"No. You heard the conversation?"

"Only a part. Something about Sir Dorf's bladder."

Jamie nodded his head, and recounted his experience with Geert. "He teased me purposefully. Do you think he has our nature?" Jamie asked, after he had finished.

Garvin narrowed his eyes in thought. "I would not have guessed it by knowing him thus far. He may be attempting to ascertain your nature, Jamie. And mine."

That had not occurred to Jamie. He knew that many people considered two males consorting in intimate fashion to be...unusual. Certainly it was not done in public society, but behind closed doors. Those men and lads that kept such relationships were careful to keep them private, as things had happened in the past that no sensible man would wish to see happen to himself. There was always some danger in being found out.

But, in truth, most townsfolk were too involved in the day-to-day practice of surviving to worry overmuch about what others were doing in this area. If such behavior was witnessed, some would laugh, or shake their heads uncomprehendingly; but most would move on without a word being spoken, never quite knowing with just whom they were dealing. One's personal opinion lost much of its importance when confronted by a sword, and even more so when a magic-user was involved.

And...Geert had been present in the mage's workshop at the castle when Jamie and Garvin had met with Sedwick, and had to have seen their closeness. Jamie had simply not thought to camouflage his actions, having accepted that the king's mages knew the nature of their prince, and were not judging of its importance. Dorf, too, had shown himself to be more than tolerant of the closeness between Jamie and Garvin. That the fellow was close in the service of the prince said enough of his acceptance in this area.

So what was that little play about? Was Geert expressing interest, or was he just teasing? Jamie smiled at that last, having known other boys who had perhaps felt Jamie's interested gaze one time too often to miss, and had set about to tease him, while never really offering anything in the way of intimacy. A game played between boys, and a not uncommon game, at that.

Jamie had determined some time back that many boys liked their own kind, but that social pressures and fears generally kept most of them in line. But given an opportunity to exercise those likes in the way of teasing another who had shown interest - many boys would risk that much, and enjoy it.

So which was Geert?

Jamie mentioned his thoughts to Garvin, who just shrugged. "Nothing to do for now but see how it plays out." He frowned then, looking not at all happy. "Just one more thing to have worry of."

Jamie smiled at the look of upset that Garvin wore. He put an arm around his friend and gathered him close. "What that one thinks has no bearing on us. He is here by grant, and not by right. I sensed no hostility, just an urge to playfulness. I rather think he will be mindful of our mission for the prince, and make no problems if he wants to continue in our company."

Garvin sighed. "I guess you are right." He smiled, and kissed Jamie. "Time slips by quickly. Let us wash and dress."

They did that, first relieving their bladders into the chamber pot, and then smiling as they quickly ran damp cloths over each other, and then dried each other. As Jamie dressed he made a small list in his mind of items he wanted for the journey, which would include at least one change of undergarment. Nothing harder than walking about in foul-smelling clothing.

They knocked on the door between rooms, heard Geert call for them to enter. They found the apprentice just fastening his boots. "Good timing, lads. I hope this establishment serves a grand morning meal. I feel as if last evening's was just a fond memory."

Jamie grinned at the other boy's enthusiasm. Up until that point, Geert had been mostly quiet, seeming content to remain in the background of things and watch. Jamie understood this, being of the type himself to survey a situation before plunging into it. Geert obviously felt more relaxed now. Perhaps facing the previous eve's dangers together had forged a bond. And perhaps the little bit of teasing between the apprentice and Jamie this very morning? Jamie smiled inwardly at the memory of that. He certainly felt closer to the other boy now than he had the day before. There was something to be said for being shown a quite appealing bottom. Geert was a year older than he and Garvin, but such things were truly negligible in the world beyond basic bragging rights to a more experienced view of things.

And Jamie knew that age was no measure of experience, nor guarantee of sense.

Geert stood and brushed gently at the front of his shirt. "You say we will purchase some supplies before taking to the road? I hate to ask, but a change of clothing would be appreciated. Master Crillis had me up early the morn the shop was burnt, and I had jumped into clothing worn the day before to hurry away on his mission." He raised a sleeve and sniffed at it. "My third day in these same garments leaves something to be desired."

Jamie nodded. "Garvin and I are of like mind. There are several good dealers in garments in the market, I know. We shall see them on our way from town."

Geert nodded, and looked around his room a last time. Then the three boys headed for the stairs, while Snave brought up the rear.

They descended to the front desk, which was unoccupied. In fact, the inn was quiet, and Jamie wondered if what guests there had been in residence the previous night were now gone. The noise of the confrontation with the minions of Zeeros would have been hard to miss. Most persons of sense would not have remained to see what such a ruckus was about.

They walked through an arched doorway to one side of the desk, and circled around through a side room and into a larger one. Jamie paused in mid-step, his eyes widening at the surroundings.

It was quite a splendid room, truth be told. Down the middle ran a grand, long table sided with a multitude of chairs. Tall windows with stained-glass panels let the sun inside in soft, multi-hued tones, and carved wooden cabinets about the other walls held a variety of polished weapons, mostly swords, both those of obvious utility, and those of quite regal splendor.

At one end of the table sat Silas, with his brother Dorf to his right hand. Both men, who had been talking quietly, looked up at their arrival, and broke into smiles.

"Dawn is two hours past," Dorf said then, shaking his head in feigned disapproval. "Not the most auspicious start to this venture."

Jamie nodded. "I am sorry, Sir Dorf. We were exhausted."

The knight smiled. "I know. I let you sleep on purpose. It will not do to have you nodding about while we are on the road."

The cook was summoned, and the boys brought a meal of sausages, vegetable stew, and fresh-baked pandemain bread with berries. It was a wonderful repast after the strains of the previous evening, and Jamie felt reinvigorated in every fiber of his being.

"Wonderful," Garvin breathed, as the last of it vanished from their plates.

Jamie and Geert both nodded.

"Then we need to be off," Dorf said. "Unless you have more surprises to tend to first?"

Jamie grinned. "No. But I wanted to tell you that we want to purchase a change of clothing for each of us while in the market." His eyes went to Geert. "Lest we slay Urvan upon meeting him with our very odor."

The other boy grinned, and Garvin laughed. "I am of like mind. Bad enough, the smell of this town, without us adding to it."

Dorf nodded. "As you have said that our method of travel to the Forest of Night is to be your instantaneous one, I will not quibble over time not spent on the road. However, be aware that we wish to arrive at our destination well before dark. I do not fancy scurrying about, looking for a safe haven for the night even as the sun vanishes to earth."

Jamie nodded. "It should not take long to equip, and then we can be away."

Silas leaned towards Dorf. "Be very careful, my brother. The Forest is not accommodating to strangers."

Dorf nodded. "Wise counsel." He looked around at the boys. "Hear that? If we are to finish this journey all in one piece, let us watch where we place our feet among the trees."

The boys nodded, already imagining the dangers ahead.

Geert looked over at Jamie, looked like he wanted to ask something, but then gave his head a little shake and looked away.

"What?" Jamie asked, turning to look at the boy. "A question?"

Geert frowned, but then nodded. "The blue shield you used last night? it hard to create?"

For a moment Jamie was stunned. Somehow, he had forgotten that Geert was an apprentice mage, and that the boy might not be up to producing magics that Jamie knew, albeit only learned under duress. And then Jamie was further surprised to see that he could not answer the question. Not easily. He was just an apprentice mage himself, and did not always know exactly how he did some of the things he did. The night of the first encounter with Urvan, Jamie had been in a heightened state of awareness, and had - only in consultation with the lens upon his chest - come up with the correct sequence for tying the knot that produced the blue shield. He had also learned the golden shield in that heightened state, where he could apparently witness magic created by another and intuitively understand the mechanism of its creation.

But that was an oddity of the heightened awareness an intense meld with the lens could give him. Now, sitting here at a table in a fancy inn, Jamie was not sure he even knew how to recreate that sense of added awareness in which the lens focused him on the right path to take. Some of that meld was initiated by the lens itself, and Jamie had already learned that his ability to communicate with the life that lived within the peculiar nether-glass focus was somewhat quixotic unless the both of them were highly aroused by danger.

Geert took Jamie's slowness to answer as a reluctance to part with secrets. "I only thought...I only thought it might be helpful to learn, so that there was one more of our group able to muster a defense should danger strike." The disappointment in the boy's eyes was plain to be seen.

Jamie smiled. "I think I may be able to teach it to you. I was not unwilling. I was just wondering if I was able to pass along the information in a manner in which it could be learnt. I am only an apprentice myself."

Geert blinked at him. "An apprentice?"

Jamie laughed. "Surely you knew?"

Geert looked a little undecided. "I actually did not know what to believe. I have heard you referred to as the apprentice of the Master Thorvil, but you seem to know far more than any apprentice I have ever known." He leaned forward, "An apprentice...really?"

Jamie nodded, and Garvin laughed. "I can attest to that," Garvin added.

Geert smiled then. "All I can say to that is that you must learn exceedingly quickly, and that your master must be anxious to teach you. My master is always telling me I will burn myself up if I am not careful, and seems reluctant to share with me magics of more potency than games."

Jamie looked at Garvin a moment before answering that. His friend just shrugged, the message plain. Tell him whatever you think is wise.

Jamie nodded, turned back to Geert, and leaned a little closer to him. "When we set out on this journey, I likely knew no more than you."

Geert stared. "All this...translocation, defense shields, the fantastic charm upon your chest...learnt in days?"

Jamie nodded. "All forced upon me by circumstance."

"Often the best instructor there is," Snave put in quietly.

Geert looked over at the gargoyle, and then at Garvin, and then back to Jamie. "And your friend? The magick of his movements?"

"The same," Garvin said. "Before setting out to the castle, the fastest I had ever moved was when one of Jamie's magicks went awry." He grinned, and reached down and rubbed his backside. "And that was a matter of self-preservation."

Jamie sighed, but took Garvin's comment with humor. He nodded at Geert. "I am just learning, as are you."

Geert rubbed his chin a moment, looked about at the eyes watching him, and then grinned. "How lucky could I be, then, to join in a journey such as this? Perhaps a chance to grow as you have, Jamie and Garvin? And to avenge my master at the same time?"

Jamie smiled. "It is not about revenge so much as restoring what was taken from the prince, and ending the threat of the red mage, Urvan."

Geert immediately nodded. "The beggar-thief who burned my home from beneath me is a part of this, I feel certain. Ending the power of these mages to torment others will be sufficient for me."

Jamie nodded. "Then I will see what I can help you learn that may assist in that goal."

Geert sighed, and lowered his eyes. "I am grateful, for myself, and for my master."

Jamie was touched by the depth of the other's feelings. That Geert felt about Crillis much the same thing that Jamie felt about Thorvil was plain. Master, father, teacher, friend. And, perhaps, stern taskmaster, at times. But...that was part of the learning of the world, Jamie knew. The older taught the younger, both in act and by association. And...sometimes the young learned from their peers, and their peers from wanton circumstance.

"It seems a good idea," Snave put in then. "Our every defense will be needed in the coming days, I feel. I can assist in the teaching of the shield magic, if need be."

"I will think on the best way to do it," Jamie said then. "I have never needed to pass along magic. Perhaps the lens can assist as well."

Silas, who had been listening to the conversation without expression, frowned now. "Yes. If those were truly the Gliftok of ancient legend, you will need every arm at your disposal in order to win the day. These mages you face are not common bandits to be brushed aside, nor magic wielders of doubtful ability. These are devils - perhaps in human form - but devils, nonetheless. No good can come of consorting with Zeeros, or his minions."

"Who exactly is this torturer you mentioned?" Jamie asked. "I had never heard the name before you spoke it last eve, and my master has many texts on the ancient gods of disfavor."

Silas looked thoughtful a moment. "In truth, I cannot recall where I first heard of the legend. In conjunction with that of Methuwan, of course, the evil city beyond the Forest of Night; for that was said to be the abode of Zeeros and his legions of demons." Silas scratched his head. "I will have to think on that. So vivid was the description of the minions of Zeeros as they ripped apart the siege of the Tramodil that the name came unbidden to my mind last night on first spying those dreadful creatures." Silas leaned forward over the tabletop. "I'll say this: If those visitors of last evening were not the minions of legend, they were so close a copy as to be indistinguishable from the real thing."

A slow tingle crept up Jamie's spine. Here again was some association with the ancient ones, even if indirectly. That the world had once been far different than it was now, Jamie knew. That it had once been the abode of mages of fearsome power was told in more accounts than could be named, for history is most potent when it is terrible history, and survives where stories of golden glories do not. Tragedy and terror seemed to have been the hallmark of those ancients; or, at least, it was the stories of their fearsome battles and uncompromising demeanor that had remained in their wake for twice a millennium, and perhaps more. Yet...those events took place so long ago. What could survive so long a time?

"If this be a story of the ancients, should not its threat be past, even as those ancients are now gone?" Garvin asked quietly, framing in words exactly the pattern of Jamie's thoughts.

"One would think so," Silas admitted, nodding. "Yet the scourge of the Tramodil is a recent trouble to the world, and their decimation at the walls of Methuwan only two centuries past. So at least in that period, the tales of Zeeros and those like we saw last eve, have not vanished from among men."

"Odd that such beasts would not be better known," Snave mused aloud. "If they were out and about in the world, and airborne at that, one would think there would have been sightings aplenty. Yet I have no more knowledge of these creatures or the one you call Zeeros than does Jamie."

Silas nodded. "Perhaps it was my service with Praxus that instilled the legend within me."

For a moment silence reigned at the table.

"You were with Praxus on the Great Journey?" Jamie whispered, into the awestruck quiet.

Dorf managed a laugh. "If you speak of it with such reverence, Jamie, you will swell my brother's head even beyond its already inglorious dimensions."

Silas laughed at that, and gave his younger brother a fond nudge. "You enjoyed the tales in your younger days, Little Dorf."

Jamie couldn't help grinning at the byplay, but it did not detract from his focus on what had been said.

Praxus had been the historian on the Council of Mages in Arthros, the seat of the Kingdom of Vestphal, far to the south. Very far to the south, a journey of a month by wagon, in good weather. Jamie knew of it because Vestphal was where the Council of Mages met, the very place that Thorvil had journeyed to in order to attend the Conference on the Arts. Of course, flight was much faster; once moving and surrounded by the blue shield to ward off the effects of atmospheric buffeting and drag, Thorvil had likely reached speeds that were just short of incredible. His journey to that great, far-distant city would have been accomplished in a single day.

Many years past, this Praxus, lamenting over the incompleteness of the many maps of the world, had organized an expedition to remedy that dilemma. A compliment of mages and soldier-warriors had undertaken an expanding spiral of flight, eventually extending to the four extremes of the compass, mapping the lands along the way, and encountering peoples, magicks, and forces in their journeys still unnamed to this day.

Master Thorvil had several accounts of the ten year-long journey in his library, all of them quite stirring reading. And the accuracy and breadth of the maps in use today were in great part a result of this epic journey. But...that journey had been...

"That was nearly a century past," Jamie blurted then. "How old are you, Silas?"

Dorf laughed, and Silas smiled. The older brother scratched his head and looked at the ceiling. "Is it one hundred twenty-seven this year...or twenty-eight?" He shrugged. "I forget sometimes."

Jamie and Garvin looked at each other. Only mages lived such long lives!

"Yes," Dorf said, reading their expressions. "Our parents are indeed mages. But their offspring did not inherit the knack - at least, not for cast magic." He grinned. "We do have some other talents, however."

Garvin pointed a finger at the wagon driver. "Are you, as well, far older than you look?"

Silas and Dorf both grinned.

"I am the youngest," Dorf admitted, "and am the twenty-six years I appear. Silas is the oldest. There are five brothers between us."

Jamie gaped along with the rest of the boys. "Seven of you! And yet none are magic casters?"

"No." Silas shook his head. "Our father is a caster, but our mother is...something else. The two apparently did not result in mages able to cast spells."

"But you have other talents?" Geert interjected. He turned and looked at Garvin. "Perhaps like this one? The speed of the wind, and the strength of a tyrbeast?"

Garvin and Jamie both laughed, and Garvin reached out and gave Geert a small pat on the arm. The other boy grinned, but looked unapologetic for his bold comparison. "It is quite true, as I have my own eyes as witness," Geert added.

"No, not like that, though I could wish for it," Dorf said, smiling. "To be a swordsman able to move thusly would be a feat indeed. A sellsword could not ask for a better advantage."

Surprisingly, Silas curled his lip at that statement. "None of our line have ever been sellswords, brother."

Dorf frowned, but nodded. "I spoke figuratively, Silas. I just meant that one who requires speed as an asset in his profession would welcome such talents as this lad possesses."

Silas nodded, and looked pointedly at the boys. "My family has been in the service of kings, always. Only I of my brothers have reached a point in life where I desire quieter times, and so I run this establishment. But my hand remains in the politics of this kingdom, and my brother remains in service to the prince and king."

"What about your other brothers?" Jamie hazarded to ask. "What do they do?"

Dorf looked at Silas, and both men smiled. "They do as I do," Dorf admitted, "in service to some king of their liking, in lands close and far away."

Jamie was amazed at this news. Dorf had thus far exhibited nothing in the way of wild talents, and the thought that he might have some hidden abilities such as Garvin's was enthralling. "You will not tell us?" Jamie asked.

Dorf looked pained. "Jamie, it is not that I wish secrets kept from any of you. But it is my experience that a soldier's assets are best kept hidden until needed. Should we need them, they will become apparent, I assure you."

Somehow, that satisfied Jamie. He understood the need to keep one's strengths from possible identification by the enemy. In the coming encounters with Urvan and those that might associate with him, those strengths could be important advantages, if unknown.

"Granted," Jamie said, nodding, "and understood. Shall we then be off?"

In a short time they stood outside the inn. A half dozen carpenters had arrived, and were already at work repairing the roof and the staircase.

Rolf and Jasek had finished harnessing the tyrbeast to the wagon, and stood quietly together, the boy with one hand on the animal's throatlash, the other gently rubbing its broad, furry snout.

"I've replaced the loinstrap on your harness," Rolf explained, as they crowded around. "T'was a bit worn at the buckle. Probably would have lasted your journey without fail, but one can never be too careful with wagons." The man smiled. "Walking is so much slower, it seems."

Dorf laughed, reached into his trousers, and emerged with a gold piece, which he flipped at Jasek. The boy's eyes grew wide, but he snaked out a hand and grabbed the coin from mid-air.

"You must share that with your family," Dorf said, grinning at the look of wonder on the boy's face. And then Dorf turned and grasped Rolf's hand, and shook it well. "Thank you for your usual good care, my friend."

The man smiled, and returned the clasp with obvious affection. "It is always good to see you, Sir Dorf. And my Jasek thanks you, as do I."

Dorf nodded, and released the man's hand.

Jamie was suddenly aware of a presence at his side, and turned to see Snave next to him.

"Ride in the back with me to the outfitters, would you, Jamie?"

Jamie opened his mouth to ask the why of it - but then closed it again. "Very well." That Snave wished to talk was obvious.

Garvin had overheard, and now playfully grabbed at Geert's upper arm. "Ride in the seat with Sir Dorf and I so that these two may talk, okay?"

Geert may have overheard as well; he simply nodded, and climbed into the seat ahead of Garvin. Garvin winked at Jamie, and smiled, and then followed the apprentice.

Jamie went to the back of the wagon, waited while Snave went horizontal and slid himself inside. Then he climbed inside himself, and moved to sit on the boards by the gargoyle's head. He heard Dorf whistle once at the tyrbeast, and then the wagon lurched, and began moving.

"First thing, Jamie," Snave said then," is for you to stop berating yourself over the incident with the beasts last night. What happened is exactly the kind of thing that happens in the world of mages, every day. Someone uses magicks, and someone else counters it. Until it happens to you, you really cannot prepare for it, mentally."

Jamie licked his lips, but nodded. "It could have had dire results."

"Yes, it could have. But that is why mages have such strength in numbers. What affects one may not necessarily affect another quite so strongly, nor in the same fashion. I believe that that particular magick was tailored specifically to you."

Jamie blinked in surprise. "Me?"

Snave actually produced a grunt. "The beast did not swat at us in an attempt to do harm, Jamie. It reached directly for you. It is my belief that your capture was the goal of that operation, not our destruction."

Jamie took a deep breath of surprise. "Why would they wish to capture me?"

Snave laughed. "Jamie, you quite humbled Urvan at the castle that evening, and in front of witnesses. He did not strike me as one whose ego will allow such treatment to go unpunished. I do believe he wants you brought to him, so that he may take his revenge upon you." Snave went silent a moment, and then resumed. " are a puzzle to him, I think. He surely felt the power inherent within you, just as all of us have. He may wish to try to...control it, for his own use."

Jamie was aghast at that idea. The only way that someone like Urvan could gain control over Jamie's abilities was to...enslave him.

Snave correctly interpreted Jamie's silence and horrified expression. "Yes. So we must be especially on guard for your safety, as well as for that of the group. This entails understanding the cloak of confusion used against us, for it is only by such a power that Urvan can hope to gain possession of you. In order to gain your powers, he must control your mind."

There was a flash in the back of Jamie's thoughts, and he felt a warmth upon his chest. Automatically, he brought up a hand and gently stroked the lens through the material of his shirt. That that strange life was also worried about Jamie's safety suddenly became apparent to him. A brief swirl of colors through the eye of his mind served to confirm this.

"So what must be done?" he asked.

"I think we are all safe for a time," Snave returned. "The failure of that last operation will force Urvan to design a new attack. He may try to separate you from the rest of us, feeling that without our combined strength to aid you, he will have a better chance at you. So you must promise me not to go off on your own at any time on this journey, understand?"

Jamie nodded. "Yes. I shall heed your words, Snave. I have no wish to become closer to Urvan."

"Good lad." The tone of Snave's voice was reassuring. "Consider that last attack a warning, and be on your guard. But also understand that it was not a failure on your part, but a learning experience. Every mage that has ever lived and ever will has had them, and will continue to have them. Am I understood?"

Jamie smiled. "Yes."

Snave made a sound almost like a sigh. "Good. There are things happening with you and Garvin, Jamie. Great things, I think. But they must be allowed to grow in freedom, and so the safety of the pair of you is to be my primary concern. I will have certain magicks on guard now that should give us some warning of another confrontation. But our primary goal must be the thwarting of the magicks used to cloud your mind and alter your perception of what is real. And...I think I have some ideas on that."

Jamie felt a burst of excitement come over him. "Really? What have you come up with?"

"Not just yet, Jamie." Snave's voice held a note of patience that Jamie could not miss. "More thought is required. By you, as well. Use your lens to look through Thorvil's volumes and see if there is any mention of this magic of confusion."

Jamie nodded. "I will. But my experience thus far is that the lens produces on its own such links in my mind if they are available."

"Then maybe something of a similar nature," Snave persisted. "Something that may offer even a slight assistance is better than no assistance at all."

"Agreed." But Jamie could only wonder at the sort of magic that could cloud one's thoughts with unrealities dressed as apparent fact.

He continued to wonder even as the wagon lurched and came to a halt.

The front flap jerked, and then Garvin poked his head through. "We have reached the outfitters, Jamie."

They climbed out of the wagon, and met by the tyrbeast. Having journeyed the roads before, they all knew what was needed, and it was just a short time later that they regrouped at the rear of the wagon to load their supplies inside.

The weight of the little bag of gold coins given to Dorf by the prince seemed not to have decreased at all, despite the amount of provisions they had purchased. As well as food and clothing, they had included in the purchase a small crossbow with a robust compliment of hunting and battling shafts for the weapon; a woodsman's short sword for each of them, honed to a sharpness that would slice through even the thickest of undergrowth; a small but efficient stew pot; worked tin plates and bowls for each of their compliment; water tins, filled from the well at the seller; a supply of flints and strikers; medicinal herbs and wraps to combat any injuries they might receive; thin bedmats of soft woven fiber to sleep upon, and covers to keep off the late night chill; and a harness-pack for each of them, worn about the shoulders, and festooned with pockets and pouches that could be used to port their supplies through the woods. The straps for a modified version had quickly been hand-sewn for Snave, as he could carry more weight than the rest of them combined, if need be.

It would have been best to keep the wagon as a mobile base; but even Jamie was under no illusion that the tyrbeast would be able to drag the heavy vehicle through the dense undergrowth. At that thought, he was suddenly aware that to leave the wagon and the tyrbeast by the Forest of Night might well be the same as offering the animal for some unknown predator's dinner. Having served them so loyally and so well thus far, he could not permit the animal to suffer such a fate.

"We will now return to your brother's inn," Jamie told Dorf, after the supplies had been stowed in the wagon.

The knight squinted, looking less than pleased. "Have we forgotten something?"

Jamie briefly described his fears for the tyrbeast's safety. "We don't need the wagon or the beast," he added. "We will be on foot once we enter the forest. So we may as well leave the wagon at the inn. It matter's not where we translocate from; our destination will still be the same."

Dorf nodded, and Jamie told the others.

So they returned to the inn, and pulled the wagon over by the stalls. Rolf held the door while they pulled the wagon inside the barn, and then led the tyrbeast away to a stall for safekeeping. Silas reappeared, and had to be told what was happening. He nodded, but seemed to understand that they were leaving again right way. He shook each of the boy's hands, patted Snave on one broad shoulder, and gave Dorf a mighty hug and a kiss on the cheek. "Come back, all of you."

They filled their packs with supplies, and strapped the extra pack to Snave that bore some of the heavier items. And then Jamie had them all stand together at the rear of the barn, and raised his right hand, and brought forth the green focus of his translocation spell.

A year before, Garvin and Jamie had traveled with the Master Thorvil to Bastion. They could have flown, or translocated; but Thorvil had opted to go by wagon, and Jamie was certain now that it was because the old mage loved the actual act of travel, with the sights to be seen and the people to be met. They had stayed the first night near the crags by the Forest of Night, within a stone's throw of the tall and forbidding wall of trees that marked its edge. Jamie and Garvin both, having heard the legends of the place, had asked if this was perhaps not the safest of places to stop.

Thorvil had laughed. "That which lives within that is of a magickal bent is bound by the forest's own perimeter, and will not emerge. All else, no matter how fearsome, is of an animal nature, and can be dealt with as such."

Thorvil had placed a magickal perimeter about their camp, which he said resonated at a level inaudible to human ears but which could be heard by all animals, and which would keep them from wandering closer. The unbearable sound was directed outwards, and affected not their own tyrbeast, which stood quite placidly in place, nibbling at the wild grasses underneath its feet.

Jamie remembered the spot they had stayed that night - remembered it well. Also the sounds of the forest, both eerie and enticing in nature, and quite unlike anything else that Jamie had ever heard.

"Everyone ready?"

The others nodded, and Jamie began to tie the great knot that would move them across the leagues that separated them from their destination.

"So large," he heard Geert breathe, in wonder. "Jamie, it's beautiful!"

And quick. The knot tied, the world briefly darkened as if beneath the wings of night, and then they were standing in the tall grasses of the place that Jamie remembered from the trip with Thorvil.

Immediately, they heard shouts, and the sounds of battle.

"Down!" Dorf hissed, drawing his longsword and dropping to a crouch. All but Snave quickly joined him. Jamie was already through the dual knots for the physical shield and the one that protected against magicks; a dome of blue tinged with gold enveloped them. Jamie drew it close, reinforced it, the lens upon his chest warming as the life within sorted through a thousand pages of text to show Jamie an additional phasing of the shields that would blend the dome into the surroundings and reduce their visibility.

They were among a large stand of leafy green trees of short stature, perhaps twice that of a man in height. The actual edge of the Forest of Night, composed of much larger, much older trees, was another hundred feet behind them. At about the same distance in front of them, the road ran past; a packed, slightly rutted trail that disappeared to the south around the edges of a steep and jagged bluff that loomed above even the trees of the Forest, and vanished away to the north across a great plain of waving grasses.

On the road before them, stopped, were three wagons. They were of the same type that Jamie's party had just left in Rolf's keeping back at the inn. The three wagon's tyrbeasts were all sprawled upon the ground, collapsed in their harnesses, each missing parts or all of their heads.

Beneath the rear wagon, two men were crouched, yelling and poking the tips of swords out between the spokes of the wheels at the creatures that stood all about them.

The demon Minions of Zeeros, six in number.

Even as Jamie focused on a way to help them, two of the great dark beasts swatted the shielding wagon over onto its side, and two more of the demons grabbed the two men in those great, sideways opening jaws. The men screamed in fear and terror, and then were suddenly stilled.

Jamie's mind went blank at the horror of the moment. He was not alone - none within his group uttered a single word. They watched as the corpses of both men and beasts were quickly eaten, vanishing in great gulps into those teeth-filled jaws, which could apparently slice and sever with great efficiency. The period of this viewing was timeless. Minutes or hours, Jamie could not tell.

But then the creatures were done. They formed into pairs, and each grabbed hold of one end of a wagon; and then the great brown wings came out, and vibrated into intense motion, and the beasts leapt into the sky...taking the wagons with them!

They passed so closely over the spot where Jamie and his party hid that Jamie almost cringed; but then the shadows flitted over the interval between their shielding copse and the bulk of the forest, and were gone.

Slowly, in the wake of the beasts passing, sounds began to emerge from the Forest of Night: a growing swell of strange bird calls; the odd, hooting barks of a pack of predators on the prowl; a myriad of sounds of less identifiable nature - living things in the motion of life. Jamie realized then that all of these creatures had been paused, silent, while the demon-beasts had attacked the wagons.

Jamie looked back at the road. Nothing remained. I would not call attention to myself, either, he mused.

So here, then, was the answer to the riddle of the missing wagons.

Dorf turned to look at him, and even the knight looked unsettled at what they had just witnessed. "Demons, indeed. I can see now why the Tramodil were routed from the walls of Methuwan. Men cannot stand against such as those, no matter how well-armed they may be."

Jamie took a breath, felt a grim determination slowly displace the knot of horror inside him. "Not armed with swords or lances, no."

Dorf watched him a moment, and then nodded. "You are determined to go on?"

Jamie looked at Garvin, who searched his eyes a moment, and then smiled. "I go where you go, Jamie."

Jamie looked at Geert. The apprentice looked aghast still at what he had just witnessed. But he nodded. "I'm in. There must not be many of these beasts, or they would be everywhere, killing everything. Perhaps we can reduce their numbers yet further in our quest."

Jamie laughed. "Snave?"

"Wood is quite unappetizing a meal," the gargoyle replied. "And after what I just saw, I feel a need to take revenge on someone or something. To return home now would leave me irritable for at least a century. I vote we go on. And that, should we see the likes of these beasts again, we strike first, without warning, and as hard as we are capable of so doing."

Dorf raised an eyebrow. "No mercy?"

Snave gave a short, barking laugh. "None whatsoever."

Dorf nodded, and looked up at the sky. "Still perhaps five hours until darkness. Shall we proceed?"

"A moment," Jamie said, stepping over to Geert. He untied the knot of their defense, and the shield about them vanished. He reached down, took the other boy by the wrist, brought his hand up. Geert did not resist, just watching Jamie's movements.

"A way occurs to me," Jamie said quietly. He took Geert's hand, thrust it up beneath his shirt, settled the apprentice's fingertips upon the lens. "Close your eyes," Jamie instructed.

Geert nodded, and his eyelids dropped into place. Jamie closed his own eyes, and brought forth within his mind the new knot he had designed, which incorporated the blue shield of physical defense, the golden shield of magickal defense, and the nebulous overlay that was the new camouflaging element he had discovered with the help of the lens.

"You see the point?"

Geert gave forth a startled breath. "I see it in my head!"

Jamie nodded. "It draws in this fashion." And Jamie slowly tied the magickal filament into the required knot.

Geert gasped. " is so complex!"

"No," Jamie said, reassuringly. "It is quite easy. Now follow me." He retied the magick again, and then another time.

Jamie opened his eyes, and looked at the apprentice. "Now you."

Geert nodded. Jamie closed his eyes again, watched as the point of light slowly retied. There was an elegance of motion to the movement, the pace slow and studied, but each curve perfectly formed; and Jamie realized then that Geert had talent - had the knack well and strong - and would someday become a potent mage.

"Excellent," he said softly.

There was a final, inaudible click, heard only in the mind, and Jamie opened his eyes and looked about them. The shield was again in place.

Geert opened his eyes, looking amazed. "I did it."

"And well, too," Jamie said, grinning. "You have it now?"

Geert frowned, looked inward a moment, and then nodded. "Yes. I can perform it now if needed." He stared at Jamie a moment; and then he smiled. "You're amazing."

A flush crept into Jamie's cheeks as embarrassment overtook him. "You have talent," he replied, for want of anything else to say.

Geert's smile widened into a grin. "Magicks astound me, and the learning can overcome me." He shrugged. "I would learn more, if you feel the urge to teach me."

Garvin grinned. "Be careful what you ask for."

Jamie laughed, but took it in good humor. "Exactly. Hard to teach that which I barely control myself. But...we will see what happens."

Geert nodded. "Fair enough." He looked about at the shield, and grinned again. "Of my own construction. I can hardly believe it."

"You will need to remove it so that we can proceed," Jamie pointed out.

Geert frowned. "It cannot move with us?"

"No. It can be made flexible to movement, as, if you takes steps in one direction or another, it can expand in the direction of your movement while contracting behind you. But that flexibility is limited to a small area. In order to move off in a given direction, the shield must come down."

Geert nodded. "So I can see how it cannot be an ongoing defense. One would need to disperse and reform the shields every dozen steps." The boy's tongue suddenly hung out, as if in exhaustion. "The energy involved would be intimidating."

Jamie laughed. "To say the least. Shall we?"

Geert nodded, concentrated a moment, and the shield vanished.

Just then, a sudden bout of crashing and tearing echoed forth from the Forest beyond them, as something extremely large bulled its way through the undergrowth. The million sounds of life ebbed once again as thunderous footfalls neared the edge of the forest. A small tremor came through the ground to them; and then the titanic footfalls began to fade again, as did the sounds of destruction from within the woods.

Jamie realized he had been holding his breath, and allowed it to sigh out from his lungs. "This shall be interesting."

Snave came up beside him. "An intuition, Jamie?"

Jamie laughed. "Oh...just a feeling I have."

Garvin came up beside Jamie, his eyes on the tall trees ahead of them. "I have the same feeling."

They checked each other's packs a last time, and then stepped out of the copse and proceeded as a group for the forest wall.

Another bout of crashing, and a strange trumpeting from deep within the woods, briefly halted them; but those sounds also faded, and soon they stood at the edge of the great wall of trees. Undergrowth was thick within, and Jamie was astounded at how quickly it seemed to grow dark as he gazed in among the immense trunks. His eyes traveled up the nearest of the great trees. They were far taller than anything he had ever seen before. So tall that one would have assumed there would be more spacing between the boles. Yet the canopy far above them formed a true roof, with nary a hole to be seen anywhere.

Dorf stepped up then, and drew his short sword. "Let me part the way, Jamie." The knight stepped to the undergrowth, swung the blade, and the undergrowth fell away.

And they took their first steps into the Forest of Night.

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