Man are leaves and life is the rotten tree from which they hang.
— ANCIENT PROVERB
The good weather continued for the rest of the day, the sun a touch hotter than comfortable. Some complained that now the Dark One was trying to melt them out of their armor. A scant few clouds drifted across the sky, barely enough to provide any shade. Wind lashed the wet banners until they dried and once again flapped. By the time they stopped for the day the sun was already beginning to set. Erik was surprised at how far they had already traveled.
The soldiers arrayed the camp rather quickly, placing massive wardstones at the four corners of a clearing they had rested at on their way to Hjörtur. Neat lines of tents soon sprang up around fires while wagons and carts were unloaded and placed between the wardstones and the camp as a makeshift wall, manned by soldiers armed with bows and spears.
With help from Kai, Erik put up his tent on the other side of the camp from Hanna’s own much larger tent. They had avoided each other for the last three days and he did not mean to correct that now. He warmed his hands at the fire as Kai whittled away at a piece of wood.
Erik shifted his gaze inward. His mind locked onto the egg-sized, crystal sphere in his gut. It glittered oddly at the edge of his perception, filled with swirling prana.
How do I use this thing? he asked Patrick.
The Lightbender rumbled within his darkened corner but otherwise said nothing. Erik sensed his disdain like wisps of hot air rising from a freshly baked pie.
Ah, not talking to me then. Erik smiled because he knew it would irritate the man. How noble of you. I think I might start calling you the noble rapist.
Asbjörn snickered sinisterly. Better to murder the whole world than to rape a single woman.
Silence, punctuated by deep malice. It oozed off of Patrick, black tar bubbling to the surface of a bog.
The smile slipped from Erik’s face. Do you think you’re the only teacher there is? Do you? I promise you that you’ll need me before I ever need you. He ran a hand through his hair. This was not like him. He did not goad people just for the sake of goading them—he was smarter than that. I’m beginning to . . . act more like . . . you.
Dread tore at Erik. He lowered his hand from the fire and doubled over, his breath coming out in a gasp. He was plagued by images of waking up to find he was no longer himself. Disorientated, he steadied himself with a hand.
“What’s wrong?” Kai looked up from his piece of wood.
Erik calmed himself. “Nothing. Everything.”
Kai nodded and returned to working on the piece of wood. From time to time, the wind caught wood shaving and hurled them into the fire where they burst into flames.
“You making that for Súla?” Erik asked, trying to get his mind off his own problems.
“It’s a horse. Or it will be when I’m done.” Kai paused, uncertain. “Do you think she will like it?”
“She’d be crazy not to.”
“I’m don’t know about that, but thank you for saying so, my Prince.”
Erik stretched his back. “Do me a favor would you? Stop calling me my Prince when it’s just the two of us. It gets tiring. After all, you decided to follow me back to Vetur. Can you do that?”
“I’ll try, my. . . .” Kai chuckled and shook his head. “Habits are hard to break. My father told me it’s always smart to treat. . . . I once watched Viscount Baldur cane man to death for not greeting him with proper respect.”
“We noble aren’t the nicest bunch,” Erik said, “but I’m giving you permission to address me by given name in private.”
“Yes, my . . . Erik.” Kai smiled.
Erik favored the man with a grin of his own. “Well, it’s a start. Tell me something about yourself.”
“What do you want to know?”
Erik unsheathed his longsword and studied it by the light of the fire. Its deadly edge glittered with the reflection of the fiery glow. This one Tár Guðs blade was enough to buy a small kingdom, and he now had three of them.“Why did you become a soldier?”
“I’m the last of three sons. My father was a soldier, and I’ve always wanted to be one for as long as I can remember. It probably has to do with the stories he used to tell us as children. They captivated me.”
“I see,” Erik said. “He infected you with tales of glory.”
“In a manner of speaking. My father in the army that helped conquerer Ógilt. He often spoke of meeting your father. He was awarded a Moon Shard personally by your father for his heroism that day. Last I saw it still hangs on his wall.”
“You love him, your father?” Erik asked with a slight hitch in his voice. He often found himself envying those that had a good relationship with their fathers. Especially since, his own despised him, and with good reason.
Kai nodded, the easy smile on his lips widening. “He was a good man. I mean he is a good man, he’s not dead yet as far as I know. But I haven’t been home in few years.” The smile slipped from his face. “I hope he still is. He won’t believe what I have to tell him.”
“I’m sure he’s still alive. Any man who can produce a son like you must come from hardy stock.” Erik inflected his voice with as much good cheer as he could stomach. “He’s the reason you are risking your life to follow me, isn’t he? You want to make him proud.”
Kai snorted. “Not much of a risk traveling with so many able-bodied men.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure of that if I were you,” Erik said. “I’m a magnet for trouble and danger.”
If the man heard Erik’s words, he ignored it and said, “Plus, my Prince, you’re not the only reason I’m making this journey.” He thumbed the piece of wood in his hand almost lovingly.
Before Erik could reply, a short soldier, in armor much too large for him, stopped in front of their fire. He dropped dead ferret next to Kai. “Compliments of the Viscount.”
“It would appear we eat like kings today, Kai, well as long as you know how to cook.” Erik sheathed his longsword and stood. “Because I certainly don’t.”
“I think I will be able to manage.” Kai tucked the half curved piece of wood into a sack.
Erik gave the short soldier a light smack on his should. “And, you, give the Viscount our thanks.”
The short bowed, hand to heart, and left the way he had come.
“You all good here? Erik asked Kai. “I need a walk to clear my head.”
Kai waved the Prince off and began removing feathers from the ferret, plucking them and throwing them into the fire.
Erik shook his head and strode away. He slowly worked his way around the edge of the makeshift wall, nodding to the soldiers that glanced in his diction, then headed deeper into the camp.
A force of two hundred and fifty soldiers, fifteen Lightbenders, and a handful of servants created not a small amount of clatter even when they were trying to be quiet as they were now. Over the steady cacophony of human babble rose a sound, unlike the rest, the sound of clashing swords.
Erik found himself unconsciously drawn to the clang of ringing steel. He intruded on an open space ringed by eight Lightbenders, watching two shirtless men—Lightbenders as well by the topknots swinging from their heads—attacking each other with longswords. The two men probed and slashed at one and other with such quickness that their limb blurred and the air hissed with every strike.
Their leader, Sir Aron saw Erik and motion him closer. He was a man of middling height, with a silver starburst pinned on of his high-collared coat of the blackest silk. The man’s silver buttons and buckle glittered in the torchlight as Erik came to stop beside him.
“Watch do you think?” Aron nodded at the combatants.
Erik studied the fighters. The two Lightbenders were graceful, he would give them that. They were much better than Viscount Balder’s men had been, which made sense, seeing how they severed one of Erik’s father most trusted advisers. Their every lunge and dodge were economical, using the least amount of energy to accomplish their movements.
“There are no wasted movements,” Erik said, leaning forward. His palms itched to test his hand against them.
“You’re not wrong.”Aron nodded, a slight bend of his head; his face none the less remained unreadable. He stroked one of his silver buttons. “The less energy you waste the more prana you hold in reverse. Battle is a marathon, not a sprint, most don’t understand this.”
Erik shifted all of his focus onto Aron. “We noble look down on you Lightbenders too much, I think. I don’t even really understand how your power works except it uses prana like we do.”
“And you’ve just come to this realization?” If the Aron was made uncomfortable by Erik’s careful study he did not show it, not anyway Erik could perceive.
“Sad, is it not?” Erik laughed. “Sometimes I wonder how far I could’ve already come if only I grew up sooner. So much wasted time, and I’ll never get any of it back. There is a lesson in that somewhere, don’t you think?”
Aron remained silent, his index finger polishing his button to a shine.
Have I lost my touch? “Good conversation, Sir Aron,” Erik turned to leave, “but I should really—”
“They say you move as fast a Lightbender, and I wouldn’t believe it if I didn’t witness the aftermath of your battle with Viscount Baldur myself.” Aron dropped his hand onto the hilt of his longsword and turned to face Erik. “I like to cut to the heart of matters, my Prince. I’m not one for endless words. I’m a man of action.”
“So it would appear.”
“What you did shouldn’t be possible,” Aron went on as if Erik had not spoken, “if only half what the say about you is true. That worries me. I don’t allow the unknown slumber beside me, I prefer to keep bedchamber fully lit.”
“Scared of the dark are you, Sir Aron?” Erik’s face twitched. Scared of the dark? What’s wrong with me? He felt as if there were a slow blurring between what was him and what was Patrick. Fear knotted his chest. He would rather spend the rest of his life as a human eating monster than become Patrick.
Aron smiled, a slight curving of his lips that never quite reached his eyes. He invaded Erik’s personal space. “In a manner of speaking. Would you care to spar with me?”
Erik did not allow his face twist into a scowl, though it wanted to. He refused to give Aron that pleasure. Was he always to be tested? He was a Prince. How many men would he have to leave bloody before they learned the error of their ways?
Conscious of all the eyes that had shifted in their direction, Erik graced the knight with a condescending smirk. “Perhaps another time, Sir Aron.”
He left before the man could needle him some witty barb. If that happened, he might not be able to control himself, and a fight with Aron gained him not benefit not that he could see. If he lost it would be a stain on the legend that had begun to spread around him, and if he won he earned himself another enemy. The best path as far as he could see was to do what he did.
Erik bumbled his way through the camp, a part of it, but not a part of any group. He hunted until he found what he had been searching for, the tent that held Númi’s unconscious body. Ten armored soldiers and one Lightbender stood guard outside the man’s tent, eyes pausing on him as he appeared.
From the sudden tension that entered their gaze, it seemed they had been warned to be wary of him. A number of hands fell onto sword hilts. It would appear that Viscount Gilbert was taking no chances with Númi’s health.
Just great. This time Erik could not keep the scowl from his face. His felt blood rush to his extremities. How was he supposed to murder the man now? Perhaps he left it off for too long? He shook his head. No. He could not believe that. There would be a chance to do the deed, all he had to do was wait for the opportunity.
“I knew I would find you here,” a voice said from behind Erik.