Authors: Donita K. Paul
One of the other tumanhofers draped an arm over his leader’s shoulders. “We got tired of sitting around, waiting to free Holt when he got into trouble.”
Holt frowned. “Shouldn’t that be
I got into trouble?”
No one bothered to answer.
“So,” continued the tumanhofer leaning on Glaringtonover, “we decided to have a bit of fun.” He tilted his head toward his boss. “Our chief engineer came up with a truly amazing plan.”
“Inspired,” said the two other tumanhofers.
Kale noticed a ruddy tinge come over Glaringtonover’s cheeks.
She touched Bardon’s arm.
Look! He’s blushing.
“Wonders never cease.”
Lady Lyll and Sir Kemry reinforced the gateway on one side. Bardon, Kale, and Pat strengthened the other by tightening the threads making up the edges. With the invisible frame fortified to accept the transport of so many individuals, the rescued Followers passed through to Namee’s castle. Mistress Orcutt trundled them away to the many bedchambers, offering baths and fresh clothing. After washing to rid themselves of the dirt and grime resulting from their underground escape, they donned normal clothing that had none of the earmarks of the Follower sect’s twisted thinking.
In the great hall, Mistress Orcutt spread a hearty breakfast.
“They’re so quiet,” Bardon commented as he stood with Kale and Lady Lyll at the end of one serving table.
A woman came in through the double doors and stood. She stared as if lost and trying to locate something that made sense.
Bardon went to her, gently guided her to the sideboard, and handed her a plate. “May I get you a drink? Wizard Namee has provided hot tea and cold juice. What would you like?”
“Tea,” she whispered.
The woman stood with the empty plate in her hand, and her eyes drifted over the many delicacies on the table. After a moment, Lady Lyll came around to the front and gently took the dish.
“Let me help you.” She picked up tongs and began to pile on small squares of light pastries filled with jam and crushed nuts. “Some fruit?” she asked and, when the woman nodded, added cut-up bites of green, yellow, red, and orange melons.
Lady Lyll escorted the woman to a table. Bardon followed with tea.
“What’s going on?” Bardon asked as they moved back to the table where Kale served the next victim of the Followers.
“They’re dazed. The depth of the persuasion used must have been extreme. Bringing these people under the authority of the echoes damaged the beautiful souls Wulder gave them.”
Bardon looked around the room to where nine minor dragons perched, watching the people. The citizens of Paladise were skittish of the tiny creatures. Holt had said dragons had been scorned, and the wary eyes of these guests supported that idea. The friendly dragons held back, confused at the odd reception. Most were unhappy with the situation. “Tieto is as depressed as the Followers are.”
“He sees their shattered auras.” Lyll patted Bardon’s arm. “But Tieto also reports that the dent he saw in Wizard Namee’s colors is completely restored. We shall work to see these people rejuvenated. It is not Wulder’s desire for them to be in pain.”
“What happened to Namee?”
“I can tell you that.”
Bardon turned at the sound of the wizard’s voice. “I was curious about those Followers. Invited them into my home. There were a number of them present at our ball. Some of their arguments were persuasive. I suppose that was the dent your Tieto saw.” He grinned at Bardon and winked at Lyll. “Even an old man can be lead astray.”
He sighed. “Fortunately, Wulder sends reminders. When a servant brought me the body of a small dragon, no bigger than a buzz-bird, apprehension niggled at my comfortable tranquility. The servant described the onslaught of the black dragons, and I saw my error.”
“How is that, sir?” asked Bardon.
“One tiny creature with a little bit of poison can cause a small wound. But it weakens the body. A horde of the beasts wears down the resistance and ultimately kills.”
Namee sighed again and rubbed his hand across his chin. “My curiosity had led me to listen to the Followers, even though I detected a dart of impurity, a prick of untruth, a jab of heresy. Had I continued to entertain their false representation of Wulder, I might have succumbed.”
He looked around the room at his solemn and weary guests. “I escaped. They did not. We must give them health, good cheer, and hope.”
The wizard wandered off to mingle with his visitors.
“So much sadness,” commented Lyll. “I’m glad Namee avoided this downfall. When a leader follows the wrong path, so many people suffer.”
Bardon poured a cup of tea and handed it to her. “Mikkai, on the other hand, is delighted.”
“Why is that?”
“The destruction of one of the Paladise villages.” He poured a cup for himself. “He considers these new cities to be blemishes on the countryside because they are not on his maps.”
Lyll laughed, then turned serious eyes toward her son-in-law. “Have you noticed your wife’s figure this morning?”
Bardon searched the room and found Kale serving a couple at a far table. Her silhouette showed a slight bulge at her abdomen. He caught his breath.
Lyll giggled. “Yes, that baby is growing.”
“Is it safe to take her on the rest of the quest?”
“She will be fine. And traveling and being useful will keep her mind off her discomforts. The last stages of gestation are a bother, but the baby is worth the trouble.”
Holt strode into the room, looking debonair in his borrowed clothes. He stopped and scrutinized the many tables. At one, the young lady he sought lifted her hand in a shy wave. He smiled.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” He spoke so that all could hear. “I have information as to where your children are being held. I have spoken to Wizard Namee, and we will have warriors from Paladin’s army to accompany us. These are soldiers from Paladin’s legitimate army, not the counterfeits we saw in Paladise.”
Several of the women began to cry.
“Take heart!” said Holt, exuding his most convincing charm. “We go forth this afternoon to retrieve your little ones, and you will have them in your arms by sundown.”
At that news, the silence that had held the room dissolved into a mixture of cheers and relieved sobs.
Holt grabbed a plate from the sideboard and began to pile up a bountiful breakfast.
Bardon followed him as he moved down the table. “How do you know where the children are, Holt?” he asked.
Kale approached from the other side in time to hear her husband’s question.
The marione chuckled. “How do you think I became acquainted with Mardell, the lovely daughter of the esteemed echo? I prowled through his office in his home nightly, looking for any information I could use. She caught me at it, and I convinced her not to turn me in.” He turned and winked at the young woman. “I also discovered she hated everything about the Followers.”
Kale took his arm. “The children are alive, then? You’re sure?”
“Yes, they’re alive.” Again, a sober expression stole away Holt’s usual carefree facade. “I don’t think they’re happy. But they are alive.”
Kale threw her arms around Holt and kissed his cheek. Her sudden action knocked his plate. Several pastries and a sausage fell back onto the table.
Bardon rescued the tilting dish from Holt’s hand. “Go ahead and give her a big hug. She’s expecting our first child and gets quite demonstrative with her feelings.”
Holt did just that. He embraced Kale and swung her around. Before he put her down on her feet, the lovely Mardell stood waiting. He smoothly let go of Kale and gathered his current beloved into his arms. He kissed her forehead.
“You must meet Kale Allerion, sweet Mardell. She’s like a sister, and I just learned she is to have a baby.”
Mardell accepted the explanation, and she and Kale sized each other up. Both women smiled and went off together to get better acquainted.
Holt reclaimed his plate and continued picking delicacies from the sideboard.
“You handled that awkward situation with panache,” said Bardon. “But your memory for the order of our conversation was not exactly accurate.”
Holt poked a small fried mullin into his mouth and merely nodded as his answer.
“One minute, I think you have completely turned from your old habits.” Bardon continued to follow the marione down the feast of breakfast items. “Your insistence that we rescue others from Paladise and your concern for the children show a different attitude from the Holt I knew years ago. But then the way you twisted this little incident to avoid trouble reflects a lack of respect for truth.”
Holt held up his hand, finished chewing, and swallowed. “I have changed, Bardon. Allow me time to adjust to the things I now deem important. I am not perfect.”
Bardon fought the pride that wanted to block his response. A snakelike thought hissed in sympathy.
You come from superior stock. You’ve served from childhood. You stand in favor with our sovereign. Say no more to this sinner.
Bardon blocked out the voice he knew was his own. The words did not honor Wulder, and he chose to refuse them. He put a hand on the marione’s shoulder. “Forgive me. Yes, you deserve time. And if you need anything from a knight who’s been at it a long while and still commits errors, just let me know.”
In the afternoon, Holt led a group to storm the halls of a makeshift academy while Kale and her group returned to Arreach.
Sittiponder and Toopka ran out to meet them. But only halfway there, Toopka stopped, bent over, and gasped for breath. Kale, Bardon, and Seezle ran the rest of the way.
Kale scooped the little doneel into her arms. “What’s wrong?”
Toopka buried her head in Kale’s neck and cried.
“She hurts,” said Sittiponder. He grabbed hold of Kale’s moonbeam cape. “She’s all right a lot of the time, but when she runs, she gets out of breath. And when she’s tired, she says her chest hurts. I’m glad you’re back. I’ve been worried. And the voices have no answers to my questions.”
Gymn crawled over and around Toopka as Kale held her close. Bardon put his arms around both his wife and the child she held.
Kale looked up into Bardon’s face. “Gymn says she has a growth, but it doesn’t seem to be the kind that takes over and kills a person.” She squeezed the doneel. “Toopka, did you hear that? Gymn says you aren’t to worry. This thing is odd, but not life-threatening.”
“I know.” Her furry head moved up and down against Kale’s chin and neck. “I don’t like it. I don’t want to talk about it.” She sniffed and moved so she could peer down at her friend. “Sittiponder, tell Kale what we found.”
“A mural!” Sittiponder jumped, his face brightening with a huge smile. “A mural, Lady Kale. In one of the taverns. When the urohms cleared away the rubble, there it was, lying on its back. The wall had fallen outward, and the mural is facing the sky. Toopka described it to me. You’ve got to come see it.”
“Indeed, I do.”
“Will you carry me?” asked Toopka.
They followed Sittiponder into the village.
“Going to see the mural?” asked one of the urohms as he laid another timber on his pile.
“Yes,” called Bardon.
The big man scratched his head. “That’s caused quite a stir among the children. The older folks have seen it often enough, but not the young uns. And your two have been telling them all sorts of tales. To be honest, they have my interest too.”
He left his work to follow them. By the time they’d traversed the cleared streets in the small town and come to the other side, a whole line of people accompanied them.
Kale and Bardon stopped to examine the wall. Someone had swept away dust and debris. A crack ran from one corner to the opposite side, but the image was still intact.