The Wizard's Curse
Tarkyn whirled around to face the wizard, his long, black hair flying out behind him. “No, Stormaway. I can’t be.”
When the wizard made no reply, the prince pressed home his point. “I will not pit myself against the king. I have never wanted the throne. You know that. The intrigue would be more than I could stand.” He glanced around at the woodfolk who stood silently watching him. “Besides, I would not ask these people to go to war against my own brothers, especially when the countryside is littered with people who would turn me in for the price on my head.” Tarkyn scowled. “The whole concept is preposterous.”
The wizard shrugged. “I did not say you had to wrest the throne from your brother. I said you were the one true hope for Eskuzor. I do not know how the prophecy will evince itself. But in the life of a prince, your own wishes are not always paramount. If, one day, you had to assume the monarchy, I know you would put your personal preferences aside for the sake of your people.”
“But not at the expense of my people.” Tarkyn swept an arm around him. “Anyway, I cannot see how having me on the throne would do anything to forward the welfare of the woodfolk, except perhaps to relieve them of my presence.” He gave a wry smile. “But I am vain enough at this point to think that they no longer have a vested interest in getting rid of me.”
Waterstone watched this interchange with some satisfaction from the periphery, pleased that Tarkyn no longer felt so alienated from them. His attention was drawn to North Wind who glanced at Waterstone as he stepped forward to speak.
Before he could say anything though, Danton placed his hand on the prince’s shoulder and said in a tight voice, “Sire, the woodfolk are not your only people. Don’t forget the rest of us.”
Watertsone smothered a smile as he saw Tarkyn stiffen under the unaccustomed familiarity from Danton.
However, since it was Tarkyn himself who had granted Danton permission to behave less formally with him in line with the woodfolk’s behaviour, Tarkyn could do nothing but suppress his automatic response and relax his shoulder muscles under Danton’s hand. As he turned slowly back to look at Danton, his liegeman’s hand dropped from his shoulder.
“Sire,” Danton glanced around the gathered woodfolk, “I mean no disrespect to the woodfolk, and I know you have a special bond with them. But you are also a prince of sorcerers and wizards in the world outside these forests. And those people may need you every bit as much as the woodfolk do.”
Tarkyn stood silently considering him for several long seconds, “Danton,” he said finally, “I am guardian of these forests and all who live in them. That is not the case with the sorcerers and wizards. My brother is their sovereign. Since his betrayal of me, I have foresworn my allegiance to him but that is no reason for me to challenge him and bring civil war to Eskuzor.”
Stormaway shook his head. “I am afraid civil war is brewing, even as we speak, Sire. Conversations around the firesides in the encampment were all of unrest and revenge.”
Danton pressed home his point. “According to Sargon and Andoran, the encampment itself is a marshalling point for vigilantes waiting to take the law into their own hands because King Kosar is failing to protect his people.”
“I didn’t realise that, Danton. This is grave news.” Tarkyn looked around the gathered woodfolk. “I think we had better sit down, have some breakfast and hear everything you and Stormaway have to tell us. Perhaps this will also shed some light on how and why woodfolk are being hunted.”
As they headed back to the firesite, Tarkyn manoeuvred himself so that he was walking next to North Wind. “So. What did you wish to say to me?”
The woodman glanced up at him. “I didn’t think you’d noticed.”
Tarkyn merely nodded.
North Wind drew a short breath. “I wanted to say that even though your death would mean we were freed from the oath, I wouldn’t want you to die.”
A puzzled frown creased Tarkyn’s brow. He shook his head slightly. “I see…Thank you, North Wind, I think…actually, no. I don’t see at all. Why are you suddenly telling me this? I thought we were already friends.”
“We are. That is, we were…and we still are. It’s just that…” North Wind stopped walking, in a total fluster. The people behind them nearly bumped into them. “Tarkyn, when I first got to know you, when we were helping Rain Storm, well, it was more that I thought you were better than I expected, given that I had to put up with you as our imposed liege, if you see what I mean.”
Tarkyn looked at him quizzically. “More or less.”
North Wind took another breath. “So now, I would choose to put up with you, even if I could choose not to.”
Tarkyn laughed and clapped North Wind on the shoulder as they set off once more. “I do see what you mean, and I thank you for it. It is high praise indeed if my company is worth your freedom.”
“Yes, it is high praise,” said North Wind stiffly. “And although I may not have expressed myself very well, I did not come to this view lightly.”
“I beg your pardon, North Wind. I hope my laughter did not offend you. It was pleased laughter, not derisory.” Tarkyn glanced down at the young woodman. “I hope you weren’t bullied into your new viewpoint. I know Waterstone can be a little feisty at times…and I couldn’t help noticing your bruised jaw.”
North Wind gave a reluctant smile as he shook his head. “No. Woodfolk don’t work like that. Waterstone wouldn’t bully me into submission. He just belted me because he was angry about something I said. I make my own decisions. That’s why I didn’t come straight over and talk to you. I needed time to think.”
“I see.” Tarkyn did not tell him how much anxiety the woodman’s reticence had caused him. As they reached the firesite, Tarkyn headed straight over to where Autumn Leaves was sitting, propped up against a tree with a blanket over his legs.
“How are you?” asked Tarkyn as he sat down beside him.
Autumn Leaves glanced at him. “Not too bad. My face is still sore where they slammed me with the knife hilt.” He shrugged and gave a wan smile. “I guess it could have been worse. They could have used the sharp end.”
“It feels horrible, doesn’t it? Being treated like that. I hated that a lot more than the pain.”
The woodman nodded miserably. “Yes. Much worse. I felt as if I were some sort of contemptible, curious beetle they had found. I still feel now as though my very soul has been jarred.”
Tarkyn grimaced, “And what’s worse, now you’ll have an even poorer opinion of sorcerers than you did before.”
“No, I won’t,” said Autumn Leaves firmly. “Not when you put yourself in danger to rescue me. I already knew Sargon and Andoran were amoral bastards.” He nodded across at Danton. “And it looks as if your friend there maintained his loyalty in the midst of the enemy. So, the score still stands at two good sorcerers, a few known bad ones and thousands still awaiting my judgement.” He looked at the sorcerer beside him. “Tarkyn, thanks for what you did. I know you said you weren’t at risk, but we both know you were.”
Tarkyn shrugged. “Well, I wasn’t in as much danger as everyone assumed I would be. I did have help from my little mouse scout. I was very careful, for your sake as well as mine.”
“And you knew you would have to face everyone’s displeasure when you returned.”
“If you can risk being burnt to a crisp to support your friend, I think I can risk a small argument… But seriously, Autumn Leaves, no one is going to stop me from helping my friends if they are in trouble.”
The woodman gave a little smile. “Do I gather from your tone that you gave them one of your supercilious set-downs?”
Tarkyn nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid poor Thunder Storm drew the worst of my fire. He made the mistake of demanding that I should not place myself in danger again.”
“I wondered how long you would meekly accept everyone’s overprotectiveness.”
Tarkyn raised his eyebrows. “Did you? You didn’t say so.”
“No. That would have diverted the focus away from rescuing Golden Toad and his family. I knew you’d assert yourself when you needed to.” Autumn Leaves gave a reluctant smile. “You do, after all, hold the balance of power.”
As he finished speaking, Danton handed them each a bowl of porridge and sat down on the other side of Autumn Leaves, “I hear you had a bad time at the hands of Andoran and Sargon. They are utter bastards, those two. Although it is not appreciated,” he added with heavy irony, “I had to endure hours of their company. True, I wasn’t being battered about like you two. But I did have my senses assailed by their opinions, and it tested me sorely to listen to them running you down, Sire, without retaliating.”
Tarkyn gave a rueful smile. “I’m sorry we doubted you, Danton. If it’s any consolation, I banged their heads together very hard. So they should at least have bad headaches this morning.”
“Oh, Stormaway and I have done worse than that. We spiked their water and wine and rubbed crushed nettles and poison ivy in their bedclothes. It won’t kill them, but it will make them very sick and uncomfortable!”
Waterstone chuckled, “Danton, you were cross, weren’t you?”
“Unfortunately, the hallucinogens in the wine kept Sargon and Andoran awake and I spent the evening of the rescue trying to distract their attention from the sounds outside.” He shrugged. “Only partially successful, I’m afraid. At least they didn’t rush outside at the first sounds they heard. I managed to hold them until right near the end. I’m sorry I didn’t do better, Autumn Leaves, but of course I was in no position to help you after that because this suspicious lot kidnapped me about then.”
By this time, Stormaway and the other woodfolk were seated around the fire, listening to Danton.
“You’re right, of course,” said Waterstone. “The outcome would have been better if we’d trusted you.”
“Yes, possibly. I may have been able to save Autumn Leaves straight away which would have saved him from having to endure all that unpleasantness. But, despite what I said earlier, I’m not sure that I could have maintained my role with Andoran and Sargon. When they thought back over the evening, I think they may have realised that I had been consistently trying to dismiss their suspicions. It depends largely on how confused they were as a result of the drugged wine. You probably did me a favour getting me out of there.”
Tarkyn was watching Danton, a small crease between his brows. “Danton, what are you up to? You can’t possibly be grateful to us for knocking you out and keeping you tied up for hours.”
Danton’s eyebrows snapped together, and he spoke with a formality that barely covered his impatience. “I am not up to anything, Your Highness. I didn’t say I was pleased with being knocked out again and tied up again.” He drew a breath to reign in his temper. “But it might actually have been a good time to leave anyway. I certainly didn’t want to stay. Ask Stormaway. I hated having to spend that time with Sargon and Andoran.”
“Sire, Danton acted tirelessly on your behalf even though it clearly distressed him. He knew he risked arousing your suspicions but took that chance in support of your cause.”
Danton sighed, “I was not particularly surprised to find myself back in the forest under guard. I was annoyed, but I was also relieved that I wasn’t in the same predicament somewhere in the sorcerer’s encampment.”
“You have been playing a dangerous game, haven’t you, Danton? Made all the more dangerous by having an uncertain liege.” Tarkyn accepted a cup of tea from Lapping Water who came to sit beside them. He blew on it and took a sip before saying quietly, “I apologise for my lack of faith and applaud your courage, my friend. It is one thing to risk physical danger but quite another to risk alienation from people you care about.”
Waterstone watched the colour in Danton’s cheeks heighten as the passionate young sorcerer murmured gruffly, “Thank you, Sire.”
There was a short silence. Finally, Waterstone broached the subject that was on everyone’s minds.
“Stormaway, Danton, how many people know about the captured woodfolk that we rescued?”
The two men looked at each other, then Stormaway shrugged. “We can’t say for sure. But my impression is – not many. No one mentioned woodfolk or anyone bearing any resemblance to you in the conversations around the fire. Sargon and Andoran didn’t mention them as far as I know. Danton?” When the blonde sorcerer shook his head, Stormaway continued, “Golden Toad and his family were kept concealed in a tent that had a magically warded entrance. And people we spoke to thought there was a sick wolf chained up in there.”
There was a collective sigh of relief.
“So, who does know?” asked Waterstone.
“Whoever was feeding the wolves knows,” said Tarkyn unexpectedly. “I saw him through the raven’s eyes when I was watching the encampment. He’s the young man who led the hunting party after we foiled the wolf attack.”
“Is he? I wish I’d known.” Stormaway frowned. “It is very frustrating to be unable to pick up images like you and the woodfolk. I could have told you who he was when you showed everyone the image of the hunt more than a week ago.”
Tarkyn raised his eyebrows. “And?”
“And so, who is he?”
“Oh, sorry. He’s my old apprentice, Journeyman Cloudmaker. And unless I’m much mistaken, he will also have been behind that storm we dissipated last week.”
Thunder Storm looked from one to the other of them. “So, is this Journeyman the driving force behind the search for us? Why would he be looking for us?”
Stormaway shook his head. “No. He is not a leader. He will be acting under orders.”
“Andoran and Sargon told me that the encampment was a gathering for forces who are being financed by some lord, Davorad of Stansbeck. Apparently, he is concerned that brigands are mounting constant attacks on farmers and travellers and has decided to address it himself.” Danton looked at Tarkyn. “Do you know him?”
“I have met him at court. He is a thickset bullish sort of man, not that I suppose that’s relevant. He didn’t strike me as a philanthropist. In fact, I would have said he is the classic sort of parasite that revels in the games of power that are rife at court.” Tarkyn scraped out the last of his porridge and set the bowl down on the ground. “So. I can think of three reasons that he might be doing this. He might be supporting the king by clearing up the countryside on his behalf. He might be supporting Jarand by gathering resistance against Kosar, or he might be planning to overthrow both of them.”
“No,” said Danton firmly. “Your family has held the monarchy for over a thousand years. The populace would not contemplate an outsider usurping the throne.”