Authors: Mackenzie Morgan
After Kevin left, the other three unloaded the wagon and carried the groceries to the kitchen. When they got to the dining room there was a large tray of cookies sitting on the table next to a pitcher of milk. Theresa and Joan were heading for the table with mugs in their hands.
“After you put the groceries down, grab yourself a mug and join us,” Joan said. “We’ll put them away in a few minutes.”
Once the men joined them, it didn’t take any time at all for the cookies and milk to disappear. As the men were heading back outside, Macin handed Theresa a sealed envelope. It was from Evelyne. She quickly ripped it open and skimmed the two-page note.
Macin delivered your note this morning. I am writing this while he collects the supplies that he’s taking back to his family. I hope this letter finds you safe and in good health.
You mentioned coming here for a visit. I really do not think that is wise at this time. For the past month some rough looking men have wandered in and out of Abernon, asking a lot of questions about the minstrels, you, and most especially about Taelor. From what I’ve been able to gather, they are bounty hunters sent by Rolan with orders to arrest all of you for aiding an escaped slave.
Since you stayed at the Chapel while you were here and did not go out into the town, they have not been able to find out much. I know that they have questioned my staff, but there was very little that any of them could say.
I was the only one who talked to Taelor when he came by late that night. No one else even saw him. I imagine he planned it that way. So, as far as the bounty hunters know, he was never in Abernon. As for the rest of you, the only thing my staff knows is that a Sister Theresa stayed here one night, accompanied by some minstrels, and that all of you left the next morning.
For some reason the bounty hunters have been hesitant to question me. But do not fear. Even if they do try to get information out of me, I have none to give. You never mentioned your plans or your destination. I know that you headed south when you left Abernon, and that much I will gladly tell them if it will get them away from here.
I have warned Macin not to talk while he is in Abernon, but he is a quiet boy and is used to keeping his own counsel. The giants never discuss any of their guests with the townspeople of Abernon, so his reticence is not seen as unusual.
As long as all of you stay away from any of the roadways and towns around here, you should be safe. There are too many valleys and canyons for the bounty hunters to consider searching all of them. They seem to be waiting for one or all of you to surface. They have pretty good descriptions of all of you, but they don’t have any names other than yours. The people of Billows remembered Sister Theresa, the sister who treated them during the recent illness that swept through their town, and they also remembered the young man who assisted her.
Take this seriously, Theresa. Be careful, and stay out of sight. Maybe when things settle down I will be able to take a short vacation. We’ll see. I certainly could use one.
After Theresa read Evelyne’s letter, she passed it on to Joan, who stopped putting away groceries, sat down with a cup of coffee, and began to read. When she had finished, she said, “I think we need to tell the guys, don’t you?”
Theresa nodded. Then she slowly shook her head in dismay. “It wouldn’t hurt to bring the giants up to speed on this, too. You never know. We might have inadvertently involved them.”
“What a mess. Oh well, let’s finish putting away these groceries and get dinner started,” Joan said as she got back up and continued sorting through the groceries.
~ ~ ~ ~
That evening, Theresa passed Evelyne’s letter around so that everyone could read it. Chris was the first to comment. “It’s almost funny. We made it all the way from Kalen’s to Glendymere’s without anyone catching on to who Kevin really is, only to get a gang of cutthroat bounty hunters on our trail.”
Darrell nodded. “I’d rather not have anyone looking for us for any reason, but I’m surprised it took them so long to connect us to Taelor’s disappearance. I expected them to be hot on our trail within a day at least.”
“Maybe they’ll give up before we have to leave for Camden,” Theresa said hopefully.
“I don’t think we’d better count on that, especially not if Rolan has put prices on our heads as well as on Taelor’s,” Darrell replied.
“Even if the bounty hunters do move on, everyone will know there’s money involved in our capture. That’s not a very comforting thought,” Chris said.
“Everyone’s going to be looking for a troupe of minstrels and a sister,” Steve pointed out. “The only reason we traveled as performers was so that no one would pay any attention to Kevin. Now we simply need to come up with new roles to hide in.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right. I just hate to give up a routine that worked so well,” Karl said. “And it was nice that we were able to travel pretty much for free using the minstrel show.”
“We won’t be able to do Healing Clinics on the way to Camden either, so we can’t use that to trade for room and board,” Joan added.
“I’m still bound by my vows. If we come across anyone who needs help, I have to help. It’s not optional,” Theresa said quietly.
“Okay, but not as Sister Theresa. Sister Theresa is wanted for assisting a runaway slave,” Karl said. “Is there anything in your vows against using a different name?”
“No, at least not as far as I know. I guess I could use Marie, my middle name, if you really think it’s necessary,” Theresa replied. “Or maybe Teri.”
“Well, we have plenty of time to work out the details, but we’ll need a new cover story for traveling together, and maybe some kind of simple disguise,” Karl said.
“You know, we could split up. If the bounty hunters are looking for seven people, maybe we should travel as five and two,” Kevin suggested. “Then no one would look at us twice. Chris and I could go first. In fact, I could go as Myron. That would certainly distract any bounty hunters out there. They would be too busy trying to collect the bounty on my head to worry about the rest of you.”
“I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I’d rather come up with a way for all of us to travel together. I still think it would be wiser to make it to Camden before you let anyone know who you are,” Karl said. “After all, the only reason any of us are even on Terah is to get you to Camden and to Badec’s castle safely. That has to be our primary focus.”
“And if we do travel together, your magic would be like a secret weapon, held in reserve until needed,” Darrell added. “I sort of like the idea of having a powerful sorcerer to act as backup should we have to defend ourselves.”
“Well, I don’t know how powerful I’ll be by then. I could be more of a hindrance than a help. At any rate, we don’t have to decide tonight, but keep splitting up in mind as an option,” Kevin said.
“Whether we stay together or travel separately, we’ll need to do something about the instrument wagon,” Chris said. “It’s a dead giveaway as it is now.”
“I don’t want to leave the instruments behind though,” Joan said.
“We may have to,” Karl said. “How could we explain having all of those instruments if our things were searched? I’m not sure we should chance it. We might be able to take your harp though. Let’s see what we can come up with for a cover story.”
“Steve, you’ve been awfully quiet over there. What do you think about all of this? Do you have any ideas?” Joan asked.
“As a matter of fact, I might. Take a look at these sketches,” Steve said as he handed a sheet of paper to each of the Tellurians.
On the left-hand side of the papers, Steve had sketched each person as he or she had looked on the trip to Rainbow Valley. On the right-hand side, he had sketched the same person, but with significant differences.
“First of all, we’ll be traveling in the dead of winter. If we could get hold of some thick sweaters to wear under our tunics, we would all look a bit heavier and rounder. Of course, that would also mean that we would need larger tunics, but we’re going to need new clothes for the trip to Camden anyway.” Steve looked around as everyone nodded in agreement. “I had already decided to stop shaving and let my beard and hair grow out, but I wasn’t thinking in terms of a disguise. I was thinking it would help with the cold winds we’re going to run into crossing the prairies. But if all the men grow beards and wear their hair long, and Joan and Theresa pull their hair back over their ears and braid it, we won’t look anything like the minstrels that the bounty hunters are looking for. Top it off with clerical hats or maybe fur-lined caps that come down around our necks, add long dark cloaks, and I don’t think even Evelyne would recognize us.”
“I like it,” Karl said as he studied the pictures. “I think that would definitely work for a disguise. Can we come up with the clothes we’ll need to pull this off?”
“Let me talk to Ashni. We were already planning to make more clothes. This will just alter the things we need to make a little,” Joan said. “I think we have enough time to get it all done, but I may need some of you to help with spinning and weaving. Karl, we’re probably going to need another spinning wheel and loom.”
Karl nodded. “All right, but to make this work, we’ll have to come up with some kind of compelling reason for traveling across the country in the dead of winter.” Karl stood up and stretched. “Let’s think about it for a while, and talk about it some more later. As for now, I’m ready to get some sleep.”
“Joan, you’ll have to let us know when you need our help. I’m going to count on you to do that. Otherwise, I’m going to stay out of the way. You too, Karl. If there is anything that any of us can do to help, just let us know,” Steve said as he gathered up his papers and pens.
As everyone got ready to head off to bed, Kevin offered to take care of straightening up the living room and washing the mugs. Chris stayed behind to help.
“Do you really think it would be best for us to strike out on our own?” Chris asked when they reached the door to his bedroom.
“I don’t know,” Kevin admitted. “It might be safer, for them at least, but then again, maybe not. As it is now, we have enough people to be able to stand guard through the night when we camp. If we split up, neither group would have enough people to be able to post a guard. I keep remembering that night when the bandits attacked. If we had not had someone on guard duty, I think we would all have been murdered in our sleep.”
“I know. That thought crossed my mind, too. Oh well. We don’t have to decide tonight. We have time to come up with a plan,” Chris said as he entered his room.
Taelor knew that if he was going to have any hope at all of finding Landis, he was going to have to find her foster parents, but all he knew about them was that her foster father’s name was Hayden and that he was an elf. Since most of the elves lived in North Amden, which was on the west coast, Taelor set his course by the sun and headed west when he left Abernon.
Whenever possible, he followed streams and rivers as he worked his way through the mountains, and although he came across a few wandering shepherds, for the most part, the wilderness was uninhabited. Along the way, he gathered and prepared herbs, which he used to barter for food when he came across a farm or a village.
The valleys to the west were a little more populated, but he kept a low profile and avoided established roads. The few towns that Taelor came across were usually no more than tiny villages, with maybe a tavern and a dry goods store. Travelers were rare in this area, and most either camped out in the woods or bartered with a local farmer for an empty stall for the night. Weather permitting, Taelor slept in the woods.
No one paid much attention to him. He was just a skinny young man who was passing through. The biggest problem he encountered was that other young men occasionally wanted to join him. Traveling with others could provide a certain amount of cover and safety, but at the same time it could cause a lot of problems. Companions expected conversation, and there were few topics Taelor could safely discuss, including his destination. His plans to go to North Amden would make even the most disinterested of companions curious. Humans just didn’t go there.
Taelor’s first sight of the ocean came as a bit of a surprise. He hadn’t realized how close he was until he climbed a hill one morning in August and saw the deep blue waves shimmering in the distance. When he reached the coastline, he wasn’t sure which way he should go, but north felt like the better choice, so he that’s the way he headed.
A couple of days later, he came across a large sheltered bay. On the east side of the natural harbor, there was a town about the size of Abernon. A sign near the docks welcomed him to South Port. Taelor was hesitant to enter the town until he saw that the inhabitants were elves.
None of the elves in North Amden would be interested in capturing him and returning him to Rolan. They didn’t recognize human laws, and as long as humans left them alone, they didn’t bother humans. At the same time, they were just as likely to ignore him to the point of refusing to help him in his search.
When Taelor entered South Port, he attracted quite a few stares. He needed to talk to someone in authority, but he had no idea how to go about finding out whom that might be. Since he wasn’t sure what to do, or where to go for help, he ended up just wandering around town.
After a couple of hours, he became aware that there were a couple of elves keeping an eye on him from a distance. Finally one of them approached and asked if he could be of any assistance.
“I hope so. I’m looking for someone who lives in North Amden, but I have no idea where. I have a name, and a little information, but not much. Is there anyone around who might be familiar with some of the outlying families?” Taelor asked.
“Why are you searching for a resident of North Amden, sir?” the elf asked warily.
“I have a message to deliver, concerning someone who has passed away. Unfortunately, he died before he could tell me exactly where to find the elf.”
“Let me take you to Weldon, the head of the Council of Elders. I’m his assistant. He can advise you,” the elf replied.
Taelor knew that the elf was turning him over to the authorities as much as he was helping him out, but the end result was the same. He would get a chance to present his case to the elders, and if anyone in South Port had any idea where Landis might be, it would probably be one of them.
Weldon conducted council business from a room in the back of one of the taverns. He welcomed Taelor to South Port and then said, “I understand that you’re looking for someone who lives in North Amden.”
“Yes, sir. I’m looking for an elf named Hayden.”
“I imagine that there are quite a few elves named Hayden in North Amden. It’s not an uncommon name. Can you be a little more specific?”
“I don’t know very much about him. The last time I saw him was in Trendon about seven or eight years ago. He was visiting Tsareth, the Seated Sorcerer of Brendolanth. From what I gathered, he and Tsareth were good friends.”
“Many elves have human friends, but since the humans seldom visit North Amden …” Weldon shrugged.
“Well, there is one other thing that might help. Hayden was fostering Tsareth’s youngest daughter, Landis, so he would have a human girl living with his family.”
“I don’t suppose you could describe this girl, could you?” Weldon asked.
“She would be about twenty-four years old now. She has red hair and dark green eyes, and would probably be about medium height and build for a human woman.”
“Hmm. You seem to be able to describe her better than you can describe the man you’re looking for,” Weldon said, a little suspiciously.
“I knew her better,” Taelor said. “Whenever they visited the castle, Tsareth would ask me to keep an eye on her.”
“I see. Anything else?”
“I do remember that they talked about someone named Rhee, or at least that’s how it sounded,” Taelor said. When Weldon gave Taelor a puzzled look, he added, “I had the impression that Rhee might have been Hayden’s daughter.”
“Did you meet this Rhee?”
“No. I just remember the name. I can’t even say why I think she’s Hayden’s daughter. I could be wrong about that.”
“You don’t seem to know this Hayden very well at all. Why have you come such a long way looking for him?”
“I need to talk to him concerning Tsareth’s death,” Taelor said. Weldon raised his eyebrows and gave Taelor an appraising look. “I know. That was six years ago. I should have come sooner, but this is the first chance I’ve had.”
Weldon did not look completely satisfied with Taelor’s answer, but he let it go. “Would you like to give me the message so that I can relay it to Hayden, when and if I find him?”
“No, sir. No disrespect intended, but the information I have is for Hayden’s ears only.”
“Very well. I’ll see what I can do. In the meantime, what are your plans? Where do you plan to stay while you’re in South Port?” Weldon asked as he took out a pen and a sheet of paper.
“I haven’t really thought about it. I hadn’t planned to stay in South Port. Do you know if any of the merchants in town could use some help in exchange for room and board? Most of my experience has been in stables and in healing chapels.”
Weldon wrote a note on the paper, folded it, and placed his stamp on the outside. “Take this note to Chandra, the elf who owns the stable up the road. He doesn’t really need help right now, but I’m sure you can find a way to make yourself useful. He’ll let you bed down in the loft. Won’t be fancy, but at least it’ll be dry, and his wife’s a good cook. I’ll look into this and let you know something in a few days. Oh, I don’t recall that you ever said. What is your name?”
“Taelor, sir. I don’t expect that Hayden will recognize the name, but Landis should.”
“Very well,” Weldon replied. Then he turned to the elf who had escorted Taelor in. “Please show Taelor the way to Chandra’s stable. When you return, I have another errand that I would like for you to take care of.”
The elf nodded and replied, “Certainly, sir. I’ll only be a few minutes. Come along, Taelor.”
~ ~ ~ ~
After the elf dropped Taelor off at Chandra’s, and privately made sure that the stable owner understood that he was to keep an eye on Taelor and have his wife find out everything that she could about the man, he returned to Weldon’s office.
When he walked in, Weldon had just finished drafting a note and was waving it around in the air to dry the ink.
I had a visit today from a young man who calls himself Taelor. He was asking for you and he knew about Landis. I’ve had Chandra put him up for the next couple of days. Please let me know how you would like for me to handle this.
“Would you mind delivering this to Hayden? I want to be sure that it makes it to Hayden and no one else. I have a funny feeling about all of this.” Weldon folded the note, stamped his seal on the outside, and handed it to his assistant.
His assistant nodded. “No problem, sir. I should be back by next Tuesday if all goes well.”
~ ~ ~ ~
The next week passed quickly for Taelor. Although Chandra’s stable was not busy, a lot of repair work needed to be done, so Taelor found plenty of things to do to pass the time. After breakfast the next Wednesday morning, Weldon walked into the barn while Taelor was brushing one of the horses.
“If you are who you say you are, you are one of Rolan’s slaves,” Weldon said.
“I see that you were able to locate Hayden,” Taelor said without looking at Weldon or missing a stroke with the brush.
“You’re a cool one, I’ll give you that,” Weldon said as he sat down on the edge of the tack table. “How did you manage to escape?”
“I waited until Rolan was occupied with other things. Then I just walked away one night, and kept on walking.” Taelor stopped brushing the horse and turned towards Weldon, looking him straight in the eye. “Are you planning on collecting the reward for my return?”
“No, I’m just surprised that you managed it with everything I’ve heard about Rolan. I would have thought that he would have sent troops after you just for the principle of the thing.”
“He did. They just haven’t caught me yet,” Taelor said as he returned to brushing the horse.
“It seems to me that the smart thing for you to do would be to put as many miles as possible between yourself and Rolan. We have overseas ships in our harbor right now. I could probably arrange a berth for you on one of them if you’d like.”
“I need to talk to Hayden before I make any long-range plans. After that, I may take you up on your offer.” Taelor walked the mare over to her stall and closed the door after she went in.
“I have a question to ask you before we talk any more,” Weldon said. “The last time that Landis visited Trendon, she didn’t want to leave. She was in the stable preparing to go when you gave her something. What was it?”
Taelor grinned. “A test to see if I really am Taelor? I gave her a kitten to take home with her. It was small, hardly old enough to leave its mother. I made a pouch that Landis could wear around her waist to keep the kitten safe and warm while they were traveling and a leash so that she could let the kitten walk around when they stopped.”
Weldon nodded. “Hayden sent a horse and map for you. When would you like to leave?”
“I’d like to be on my way as soon as possible.”
“Fine. I’ll tell Chandra that you’re leaving while you get your things together.”
~ ~ ~ ~
Taelor rode out of South Port around lunchtime, and by dusk he had entered the redwood forest. Thick overhead branches formed a canopy a hundred feet high, allowing little light to penetrate the deep shadows of the forest. Mosses and ferns cushioned the damp forest floor, muffling even the footsteps of his horse. It was a place of peace.
The forest enveloped him, and although there was no tangible sign of animals, he could envision deer, elk, unicorns, and pegassi wandering through the quiet forest, stopping to drink at the small streams that he heard more often than saw. The haunting beauty of the dark woods struck a chord deep inside Taelor.
After his two-day journey through the redwood forest, Taelor felt the calmest that he had felt since the day of Tsareth’s death. He no longer felt the need to hide in shadows or check over his shoulder to see if anyone was hunting him. For the first time in years, he felt safe.
Around lunchtime on Saturday, he heard the sounds of rushing water. A few minutes later, he broke out of the forest and into the sunshine that beamed along the banks of the Crinsor River. He followed the river upstream as it curved around one mountain and then snaked its way between two more. According to the map he’d been given, Hayden’s home was in the valley between the two mountains, known locally as Crinsor Run.
When Taelor reached the little valley, he saw five houses fanned out in a horseshoe, with the largest at the heel. The houses resembled wagon wheels, each with a central hub and several long spokes leading away from it. The courtyard framed by the houses and bordered by the river was full of flowering bushes, plants, and trees, with a few small waterfalls and pools scattered about. Two gazebos, one on each side of the courtyard, were connected by winding pebbled walkways.
Taelor turned away from the river and started down the small drive that separated the gardens from the houses. He caught a glimpse of red hair in the closest gazebo only seconds before Landis spotted him. He dismounted as she ran down the steps to greet him.
“Taelor, I can’t believe it’s you! You’re really here,” Landis cried as she hugged him. “It’s so good to see you.” Then she asked, “Why did you come? Did Rolan send you?”
“You look all grown up now,” Taelor said as he held her at arm’s length to get a good look at her. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, great actually. Come on and say hello to Hayden and Gwynn,” Landis said as she led Taelor towards the largest house. “We were hoping you’d get here today. Everyone’s coming for dinner tonight to meet you. Gwynn’s been in the kitchen cooking all day.”
“I hope no one went to any trouble on my account,” Taelor said quickly.
“Of course they did!” Landis laughed. “After all, it isn’t every day that my closest and dearest human friend comes to visit! Tell me everything about Trendon! What’s Rolan like? Do you think I’ll like him?”
“Trendon is just the same old Trendon. As for Rolan, he’s not at all like your father. In fact, if Tsareth had not vouched for the fact that Rolan is his son, I’d think he was an imposter. You look more like your father than Rolan does.”
“Is he married? Does he have any children? How about my other brothers and sisters? Do I have any nieces and nephews yet?”