Stormaway Treemaster extracted a small message from the leg of his favourite wood pigeon. He gave her a few grass seeds and tickled the back of her neck before turning his attention to the tiny parchment held between his forefinger and thumb. Stormaway, part woodman, part sorcerer, was an experienced wizard and needed little concentration to murmur the words that would reconstitute the parchment to its original size. As he waited for the parchment to stabilise, he gazed abstractedly at the sorcerer prince who was now generally accepted as liege, albeit with a sense of wry bemusement, by the egalitarian woodfolk.
Tarkyn was sitting under a tree on the edge of a clearing, his long black hair partly obscuring his face as he bent forward, deep in conversation with Harkell, ex-Captain of Prince Jarand’s Royal Guard. Over the past months, Stormaway had watched his young liege mature from a meticulously courteous, aloof youth into a self-assured leader, friendly and more relaxed in the company of the straightforward woodfolk than he could ever have been amid the sophisticated guile of the Court sorcerers. The old wizard felt a pang of regret as a fleeting expression on Tarkyn’s face reminded him of his old friend, King Markazon, who had died so many years before. Stormaway sighed. The prince looked so much like his father had at that age. Tarkyn was a fine young man, a liege to be proud of, but he was not Stormaway’s contemporary. Feeling the wizard’s eyes upon him, Tarkyn looked up, his eyes brilliant amber just like his father’s, and sent him a warm, understanding smile.
Blast the boy! grumped Stormaway to himself. Too knowing by half.
Seeing the wizard’s frown, Tarkyn’s smile faded. “I could feel your regret and caught a brief image of my father,” he said by way of explanation. “I am sorry, Stormaway, if I remind you of my father but am not the man himself. I hope I do not disappoint you too much.”
Stormaway was so flustered by this remark that he dropped the parchment and had to chase after it as the breeze caught it and threatened to send it up into the trees. As soon as he had snatched the parchment back into his safekeeping and had drawn breath, he gasped, “No sire! You do not disappoint me. You have misconstrued my feelings entirely. I merely regret the loss of your father’s company.”
Tarkyn cocked his head and waited, knowing that some of the regret had been directed at him.
“All right. I do regret a little that you are not he, because we were such close friends and you remind me of him so much.” He waved his hand. “Mind you, we argued all the time and I usually lost because he held the balance of power. But we plotted the future of Eskuzor together, and together we planned for your safe passage through the foreshadowed power struggle of your brothers. But despite all of that, we found time to drink and laugh and…He was never as reserved as you were… Not that you are so much now, but you were.” Suddenly he frowned and wagged a finger at the young prince. “But don’t you think for a second that I am disappointed in you. You are every bit as fine a man as your father, quite possibly even finer. You’re just not him, that’s all.”
“Besides, you must be such a youngster in Stormaway’s eyes,” said Harkell, softening his unnerving acuity with a disarming smile.
Tarkyn watched the betraying flush mount Stormaway’s cheeks. “I see… ” Suddenly he smiled at his wizard. “Well, I can’t do much about that, can I? But perhaps you can console yourself with the knowledge that your accumulated years and wisdom provide me with a much needed mentor. You link me with my heritage and guide me in the ways of magic…. And although it will always be different, I think, I hope that we are developing our own friendship between us.”
Stormaway smiled fondly at his young charge. “Yes, Sire. We are.”
Faced with the depth of feeling in his usually stoic wizard’s eyes, Tarkyn covered his embarrassment by letting his eyes wander down to the piece of parchment waiting disregarded in Stormaway’s hands and raising his eyebrows.
With a jolt, Stormaway remembered what he was holding. He scanned it briefly before saying to the prince. “They’re on their way, Sire. The king and his brother have left Tormadell and are heading towards the encampment.”
Harkell nodded in grim satisfaction. “And so the game begins.”
“Indeed it does. We still have about a week until they reach the encampment. Their travel will be slow with so many people.”
“And the important question; how many men have my brothers decided to bring with them?” asked Tarkyn.
Stormaway consulted the parchment. “The king has two hundred and forty armed men with him plus retainers. Jarand has only eighty of his men with him since half of his entourage are still at the encampment after dealing with Andoran and Sargon.”
Tarkyn frowned. “And are we sure that Jarand is not gathering his forces around the encampment?”
“There are no reports of it from the woodfolk in the area.” Harkell shrugged. “He would be mad to, Tarkyn. He knows you are a wildcard within the woodlands. He can’t afford to risk showing his hand and then being stymied by you. The king would have no choice but to haul him up for treason if he tried and failed… even though I gather he doesn’t really want to.”
Tarkyn gave a quietly derisive grunt. “No. Kosar will think twice before besmirching the reputation of everyone in our family. He doesn’t want the dirt to rub off on him.” He shrugged, “Besides, he always was closer to Jarand than to me. I was much more expendable.”
“Twins are always closer, Tarkyn,” said Harkell gently.
The side of Tarkyn’s mouth lifted in wry acknowledgement as he turned his attention to Stormaway, who was saying, “So, what do you think? Can we just leave them to their own devices?”
“I would not presume to dictate to you two,” replied Tarkyn, “who are so much better versed in intrigue than I, but I would suggest that if our presence is all that is holding Jarand’s intentions at bay, we need to make sure our presence is felt.”
A blond sorcerer bounced into the middle of the conversation. “I couldn’t agree more,” Danton turned to the young woodman at his side. “What do you think, little brother?”
Rainstorm frowned. “I am not little. I am seventeen now, you know.” Faced with Danton’s unrepentant grin, he rolled his eyes and prepared to take issue.
But before he could say anything further, Tarkyn clapped him on the back and gave a short laugh. “Welcome to the club, Rainstorm. Ancient Oak calls me little brother all the time.” He shrugged, smiling, “There’s nothing we can do about it. No matter how old or tall we grow, neither of us will ever be older than they are.”
Rainstorm glanced at him then broke into a smile. “Yeah, true.” For a moment he looked quite cocky, pleased with the link between himself and Tarkyn, “But we younger brothers are still a force to be reckoned with, aren’t we?”
“…which is why I asked your opinion,” put in Danton placatingly, before a sense of mischief prompted him to add, “…even though you are just out of nappies.”
“That’s it! You’ve had it!” bellowed Rainstorm, laughing as he launched himself at Danton.
A little off to one side, standing beneath the overhanging branches of a pair of huge sycamore trees, Falling Branch and Waterstone watched as the two of them rolled in the dust at everyone’s feet. Falling Branch shook his head, smiling “This used to be such a quiet family.”
Waterstone gave a short laugh. “No it didn’t. You and Rainstorm were always fighting with each other. Just be glad that he now has someone other than his father to draw his fire.”
Falling Branch chuckled. “Oh I am.” He glanced at Waterstone. “It’s rather nice having a sorcerer in the family.”
Waterstone smiled. “Yes, it is, isn’t it?”
When the two newly-linked bloodbrothers had played themselves out, stood up and dusted themselves down, Stormaway remarked dryly, “Just as well Kosar’s men aren’t bearing down on us as we speak.”
“Wouldn’t have done it, if they were,” said Rainstorm firmly. “We have a week to sort them out, as I understand it… plenty of time to knock my cocky older brother into shape before they arrive.” He chortled and ducked as Danton swung a casual fist at him. “Anyway,” he continued, in belated answer to Danton’s question, “I think Tarkyn is right. We don’t have to be aggressive or embarrassing, but Tarkyn does need to let them know he is still watching them.”
Falling Branch sent a dry mind message to Waterstone. “Never did I think to see such tact in my son.”
Waterstone let out an audible grunt of laughter that made everyone look around. He waved his hand. “Sorry. Private joke. Not to anyone’s detriment, I assure you.” He hastily moved the conversation on, “So shall we make our presence felt on the road through the forest, or wait until they reach the encampment?”
“I think we need to do it before they reach the encampment,” replied Harkell. As they conferred, he was working his way diligently through a pile of arrows that needed sharpening. While someone else was talking, he would run his fingers gently along each edge of an arrow tip, murmuring “Feeyen”, and sending a small spray of purple sparks along the edges, honing them. “They will be more vulnerable in the woodlands. Once they reach the encampment, the gap between them and the treeline will make them more difficult to deal with.”
“And how do we know that this Lord Davorad won’t take things into his own hands and launch an ambush on the king?” asked Waterstone.
“No one would follow Lord Davorad. He depends on his association with Prince Jarand for his influence,” explained Danton. “If he acted without Jarand’s agreement, or attacked the king when Jarand was in the possible firing line, Jarand would foreswear him and leave him isolated.”
Stormaway nodded. “Lord Davorad does not have enough firepower on his own to subdue the kingdom, even if he were more popular. He depends on his alliance with Prince Jarand. He will do as the prince tells him to.”
“So ideally, we need some way of alerting the royal twins to our presence without letting their men know, don’t we?” asked Rainstorm. He thought for a moment, “You could use your power with animals, Tarkyn, but I’m not sure that Jarand would recognise it for what it was.”
“No, Jarand didn’t realise, and neither did I for that matter,” said Harkell, “that you took over control of our horses when you ambushed us.”
Tarkyn gave a wry smile. “And I am not sure that I convinced Kosar either. He may have believed it for a while but I suspect he has convinced himself by now that the eagle’s movements were coincidental. After all, he didn’t really accept the fact that I am Guardian of the Forest….let alone of Eskuzor.”
“Do you want to visit them again?” asked Waterstone, carefully neutral, not wishing Tarkyn to endanger himself but also not wishing to make an issue of it unnecessarily.
“No, I have nothing else to say to them at the moment. It would be taking an unnecessary risk for little point.” Tarkyn smiled at the look of satisfaction that crossed Waterstone’s face.
“I could send a message on your behalf via one of my pigeons,” suggested Stormaway.
Tarkyn shook his head. “No. As Orolan, our brigand friend, put it, I want to flex my muscles, that is, our muscles, to make sure they stay aware that I can do something about it, if they decide to ignore my wishes.”
Harkell chuckled, as he raised an arrow tip to eye level to check its acuity. “In all my wildest dreams, never did I contemplate being a party to ensuring Prince Jarand’s compliance, let alone that of the king.”
Tarkyn raised his eye brows and said disdainfully, “They are merely men, after all. You, with your outlook, should know that, as well as anyone.”
Harkell lowered the arrow and raised his soft brown eyes to meet Tarkyn’s “Perhaps. But saying that, they are very powerful men with many people at their command.”
“Tarkyn!” exclaimed Waterstone, his eyes gleaming with laughter, “I never thought I would hear you speak so disparagingly about members of your precious Royal Family.”
“Hmph. If you remember, I said that I no longer acknowledge any allegiance to either of them. And I do not feel very kindly towards them. They may outrank all of you, but I respect all of you more than I respect them.”
“Thanks,” said Waterstone with a lurking smile. “And even though they outrank you, we respect you, and each other, more than we respect them.”
“Huh.” The prince folded his arms, “Well, for your information, I think you will find that at least Rainstorm and Danton feel that, as Guardian of the Forest, I outrank my sorcerer brothers.”
Waterstone gave a short laugh. “And I think you will find that I couldn’t care less who outranks whom.”
Tarkyn unfolded his arms and chuckled, “So, nothing new there, then.”
“Come on you two. What are we going to do to flex our muscles?” asked Danton impatiently.
Tarkyn shook his head, “Danton, Danton. Be calm. After all, we have all just waited patiently for you two to pick yourselves up out of the dirt.”
“Whatever we do,” said Rainstorm, ignoring this little jibe, “I think we should show them that we can penetrate their defences.”
Harkell nodded his approval, “Yes, I agree. In fact, that’s pretty much all you need to do to make them feel vulnerable.”
“I think we should do something nice for them,” said Danton slowly. A slow smile spread across his face as everyone stopped and stared at him. “Tarkyn, I have never seen you more menacing than when you were treacly urbane to those two bounty hunters we captured – you know, the two who had been part of Journeyman’s posse. Being kind to someone when they know you have them at your mercy can be very unnerving.”
Tarkyn narrowed his eyes, “Hmmm. You may be bombastic with your magic, Danton, but the subtle way you manipulate people is quite worrying, particularly now I know that I myself have been a victim.”
Danton gave a little bow. “Sire, it is merely your own strategy that I am suggesting.” He straightened up with laughter in his eyes.
Tarkyn put his hands on his hips and frowned, “Does no one take me seriously these days?”
There was no answer to this, since reassuring him was likely to sound either patronising or sycophantic. So instead, the prince found himself surrounded by grinning faces. He threw up his hands, “Fine then. As long as we know where we stand.”
“Why don’t we place a basket, full of fruits and flowers, in the king’s tent beside his bed while he is sleeping?” suggested Lapping Water, calming down the air of hilarity that was threatening to hijack the discussion.
“With a note,” added Rainstorm with relish.
“We could say, ‘Welcome to the woodlands’,” suggested Lapping Water.
“They are not welcome,” said Tarkyn flatly.
“‘With best wishes’?” suggested Rainstorm.
“I don’t wish them well.”
“‘With kind regards’?” suggested Danton.
Tarkyn shook his head, “No. I don’t feel kindly towards them.”
“So, ‘As a token of my esteem’ probably won’t do either then?” said Rainstorm.
“You could take it as read that the note is sarcastic,” suggested Autumn Leaves, strolling into the middle of this.
“Perhaps. But some people miss sarcasm even when they have the tone of voice to listen to, let alone with just words on paper. No. I think I would prefer to be clear in my statement. I would not like either of them to think that I am trying to curry favour with them.”
Waterstone regarded the prince with his head slightly to one side, “You’re still angry, aren’t you?”
Tarkyn turned to stare at him. After a moment, he asked, “And why shouldn’t I be, after what they did to me?”