The First Day

Chapter eight: The First Day

Before their departure just after sunrise, Nolle and Xarthanias made a stop at the weapons room. Nolle discouraged Xarthanias from bringing his favorite sword, which was worth hundreds of thousands of gold pennies. It would be a sought-after item for thieves.  Xarthanias settled for a smaller sword and a dagger and Nolle opted for his bow and arrows. For a treat to bring on the way, they decided to make a stop at the palace kitchen.

Leaving the weapons room behind, they took the back door and crossed the East Gardens as a shortcut to the kitchen. Princess Belladia and Princess Daymial were on their way to the East palace wing. Belladia’s hair and the back of her cloak were covered in soil and bits of leaves, and her once-white boots were black as soot. There was a series of tears in her dress as well. Nolle greeted her brightly, albeit with an eyebrow raised at her appearance, and Xarthanias barely paid her a second glance.

Nolle frowned slightly at him. Belladia was a belle of the rarest kind, sweet and beguiling with enchantingly sombre grey eyes. She was their first cousin thrice removed or third cousin once removed or some such relation; the twins’ paternal grandmother and her great-grandmother had been sisters. Nolle was an entire generation above her, yet they were the same age and had been inseparable since toddlerhood. They had rarely spent any time together since she had devoted herself to Xarthanias. It was as simple as the fact that she had chosen him over Nolle, for reasons Nolle could not see, and despite Xarthanias’s indifference to Belladia, Nolle could foresee much jealousy if he was too friendly with her. The last occasion that the three of them had been together was burned in his memory.

Nolle was hardly self-celebrating, but his brother did not love or appreciate the fair princess the way Nolle once had. Even now he felt stirrings in his heart at the sight of her among the peach blossoms, barely tempered by the stale kinship between them, just as Xarthanias felt next to nothing aside from boredom. Nolle quickly stifled the longing and his wistful essence.

Are you excited for the trip? Nolle asked lamely when Xarthanias said nothing. He knew that Belladia was anything but excited for the impending journey, but he knew not what else to say.

She nodded wanly, tucking back the lock of hair that was not trapped in jewels, and Nolle noticed an irritated red welt on her cheek. What happened to you? he asked her finally, brushing his finger lightly over the abrasion and taking in her rough appearance again.

She twisted her lips and wrinkled her nose. We were going to town early this morning to deliver a payment to Rongar Sans…when we were attacked by thieves. She seemed nonchalant.

Thieves!

Yes, but a kind stranger came along just in time and saved us. Belladia shook her head in quiet marvel. There were at least five of them, and he took them on all by himself. He seemed like he was in a hurry, though, and didn’t stay long after that.

Well, are you alright?

Of course. Thank you for your concern, Nolle. She put a little emphasis on his name, this time unmistakeably looking at Xarthanias. Nolle sighed inwardly.

The door to Belladia’s family’s wing opened, and Osarius stepped through. Belladia! Mother sent me to look for you. We need to finish up with our preparations. Belladia smiled at him and nodded. Turning to Xarthanias and Nolle, Osarius gave a slight bow. Thank you again, Cousin, for the honour of having us in your escort, he offered graciously. Osarius would be an asset to have along; he was a skilled fighter, training to advance in the military. Xarthanias was a good fighter as well, but he would be much better if he paid more attention to his instructor. Combat was the only class that Nolle didn’t tag along with Xarthanias to. Otherwise he would have no time at all to read, write and draw.

Are you almost prepared to leave? Xarthanias asked. Bored with their talk, Daymial let go of her sister’s hand, and with a small curtsy to Xarthanias, ran inside.

Indeed, confirmed Osarius, moving closer to Belladia. But I must say, it was quite the feat for me to get up this morning. And my mind is spinning from all that…exercise. He held a hand to his head for emphasis.

I couldn’t agree more! exclaimed Prince Fredric, coming into view from the entrance to the North Gardens. Or rather, bounced into view. He was a pole of a young man, so he looked like a willowy moose. Fredric was the twins’ first cousin, son of their late Aunt Chanurise. Does anyone see that bulge in the side of my head? he asked. Anyone? That’s my brain about to explode from information overload.

 Belladia giggled, which was an uncommon thing for her. Prince Fredric was tall and gangly, over six feet tall at nineteen years old, and leaning over to show them his head had caused him to lose his balance and totter into Osarius. Laughing, Osarius slapped the young man on the shoulder. Belladia, Osarius, and Daymial were a shy, solemn bunch, like their reserved but fierce parents, and Prince Fredric was one of the few remedies to their soberness. Osarius and Fredric were the best of friends.

Fredric, you old toddy! I cannot sincerely say I look forward to the prospect of three perilous months with you…

With one of his trademark, ear-to-ear grins, Prince Fredric returned the slap. Then, dear cousin, I will stay behind you the entire time!

Smiling fondly with a shake of his head, Osarius took Belladia’s arm and steered her toward the door. We will see you in a little bit, Fredric. Try not to fall into a well in the meantime.

I cannot help thinking that they were trying to be politely rid of me, Fredric commented with mock anxiety.

Nolle could feel that Xarthanias wanted to roll his eyes in disgust. With his light humour and easy charm, Fredric needed only to appear to capture everyone’s attention. For an attention-seeker like Xarthanias, Fredric was not an easy person to like. The effortless way Fredric was able to make Belladia laugh put Xarthanias further on edge. Fredric had insisted on coming along when it was found that Osarius was going—where you go, I go, he had insisted. In any case, Prince Fredric was an expert navigator and had experience captaining ships, so he was an asset to the Pilgrimage. He had uncanny orientation abilities and like Osarius had been asked to join the military several times. But unlike Osarius, Fredric had declined. He liked to have time to travel with his father. Though they hadn’t been to Aghyml by way of the Volcanic Belt in years (it was easier to follow the western shoreline to the Port than to try to cross the Larentac Falls and the Arid Grasslands, and Blackwolf Ridge, among other things) he claimed to know the way to Vaupen Island in his sleep.

Come on, Nolle, Xarthanias commanded, starting to walk again.

Where are you going? asked Fredric curiously.

To the kitchen for some snacks. Come along with us, if you like. Nolle could practically hear Xarthanias’s teeth grinding as Prince Fredric strode after them.

The kitchen wrapped them in a warm, bread-fragranced hug. Dark wooden walls enclosed the large, ventilated room with the black iron stove where Toora, the old cook, sauteed raspberries for raspberry rolls. Her twenty-year-old assistant Mara sliced apples on the table in the corner. Both abandoned their work when they saw the three princes and curtsied.

How may we be of service, Your Royal Highnesses? asked Toora.

Cheese, said Xarthanias, bread, and shagar.

Please, added Nolle emphatically, glaring coldly at his brother. And do you think we could have a basket of raspberry rolls as well?

Certainly, Prince Nolleban, said Mara, smiling. They will be ready in about half an hour. Would you like a piece of chocolate while you wait? It’s a new shipment from Cora.

Wonderful! Prince Fredric grabbed her hand and stooped to bestow a light kiss upon it. You, milady, have made my day as bright as the sun.

I’d like some too, please, quipped Xarthanias, using his manners now that chocolate was on the line. While they nibbled on their treat, Toora wrapped their bread and cheese and Mara dipped empty flasks into the shagar barrels. Despartus was famous for, among other things, their raspberry spice wine. Raspberries were the most respected crop in Despartus, followed by watermelons and then pumpkins. There was a small garden near the kitchen where these fruits and more were grown, so Nolle knew that the raspberries in Toora’s rolls weren’t more than an hour old. When he and Xarthanias were home they went many times in the week for the sweet, sticky treats.

How is Thalys? Nolle asked Mara conversationally of her three-year-old son. Mara’s husband, Spar, tended the royal gardens while their little boy stayed with Mara’s grandparents.

Looking more and more like Spar every day, Mara replied. He started his own little flower garden last week, just a small thing as wide as he is tall, and he is so proud of it! A few little shoots came up this morning and he practically died of excitement. Spar tells him that he has the magic touch, like he does. Mara smiled. But I’m quite certain it’s nothing more than crabgrass. I know Spar will transfer some real flower shoots later.

Nolle smiled too. He sometimes talked with Spar when he saw him in the gardens, and he told Nolle that Thalys was looking more and more like his mother every day. The tender adoration between the young couple and their child made the cold world seem a bit warmer. Nolle had yet to see Thalys in person.

Fredric and Nolle thanked the women for the food, and then the three walked back to the palace.

The first lights of morning began to probe the sky

* * *

Almost all the royals in the palace had awakened to wish them farewell, gathered in the courtyard just before the five met the King and Queen in the south courtyard. Queen Arlynaura handed Xarthanias a large, resinite soaked box made of rockwood, thus named because it was nearly unbreakable, and gave Nolle a golden key on a tardon cord to put around his neck. King Ziyan gave Prince Fredric the map. As a final precaution, Belladia was given a sizeable book with notes on the lessons they had endured the past week, which she tucked into a bag on the packhorse. It was a fair day to the south, the direction they were going, and a cluster of clouds took refuge in the north. The high sun cast everything in warm brightness, making the freshly polished horses shine like stars. The five young travelers were dressed in the tough black material used for playing fireball in volcano arenas, made from woven athimus-stem fibres soaked in several chemicals and cured in a rilsewood-burning oven. They also ported long hooded capes, black gloves, and thick boots. Astride his glossy ebony steed Tiger Fang, Fredric looked like the formidable Death Rider. Belladia had her hair pinned securely to her head with plain clips, not a strand astray. The severe style made her eyes look full and dramatic.

Be safe, the Queen thought to them. And Nolle, please look after your brother. He gazed sceptically at his mother. What a feat it would be! Xarthanias was the warrior, the adventurer, and he almost never heeded Nolle’s advice.

After embracing their mother and bowing to the king, Xarthanias and Nolle mounted with the rest. Xarthanias led the way, Nolle and Fredric rode side-by-side, and Osarius and Belladia, who led the packhorse with the rockwood box strapped to its back, brought up the rear. They were cheered by the courtiers as they trotted away and disappeared into the woods. Nolle sent his father a farewell message which was returned with a warm, hopeful image of sunshine leading their way. A blessing. His chest contracted slightly as he waved one last time before they disappeared into the woods.

Thus it began: the journey of their lives.

***

As they rode deeper into the woods and farther from home, the air smelled more and more of rain. These were the familiar woods where the palace children strolled, played, and had picnics. Bird calls echoed back and forth, and in the distance Nolle could hear the bubbling of Haqian River. But under the natural noises, so faint he wondered if he was imagining it, there was a sound like metal striking metal with an occasional human grunt interspersed.

“Does anyone else hear that sound?” inquired Fredric before Nolle could.

Xarthanias gazed intently into the woods. “Does anyone else feel that essence? Looks like we’ve got company.”

They slowed to a walk and listened. The noise was louder than before, and Nolle could feel the essence of another person. Once he concentrated, he could feel that there were actually three people, just ahead and to the left. This way, he decided. A faint cry rang out. Belladia kicked her horse into a lope, and he remembered her story of nearly being robbed that morning. Maybe somebody was in trouble.

They followed Belladia’s example.

The four arrived just as the fight was over. A boy about their age was in the midst of choking a large, muscular man in his early twenties, and two other men were on the soft forest floor. Nolle couldn’t tell whether they were alive. A silver sword, a battle axe, a bow, and some arrows were strewn beside them. The boy had dark hair that fell over his depthless black eyes, and though he was wearing a cloak, Nolle could tell that he was not half as muscular as the other men. The man the boy was choking gasped once, and then his massive head lolled limply to one side. The boy smiled with cold satisfaction and let the man drop beside the others. He hummed loudly a song that inspired such terror, such sadness that Nolle thought he could hear the melody of his own death in the notes. One of the men on the ground began to stir, and opened his eyes to see the boy grinning down at him, humming the morbid tune. He moaned, felt his forehead where a bump was beginning to form, and turned his eyes heavenward. The boy brought the silver sword to him and dangled it in front of the man’s face, laughed once, and turned to face the five mounted palace children watching him with open mouths. He froze as recognition settled on his face, and narrowed his abysmal eyes. His gaze was fixated on Princess Belladia.

That’s him, Belladia thought privately to Nolle. Chimley. He saved Daymial and me this morning.

Before anyone else had a chance to react, Belladia dismounted and left her horse ground-tied. Ignoring the glower from Xarthanias, she went to the boy who was still staring.

“Very impressive. Just like this morning. What are you, some foreign militant?”

Chimley shook his head. No. Just a little misunderstanding. I suppose they thought they could defeat me with their fancy knives. A dark laugh.

Everyone else dismounted. As they moved into better light, Chimley’s eyes widened for a moment, before his face became slightly leery. In a manner that reeked of sarcasm, Chimley bowed deeply.

“Prince Xarthanias. Prince Nolleban.” Osarius and Fredric were also introduced, though Chimley regarded them as one might regard bricks in a wall. What was immediately strange to them about this boy was that he had no essence, yet could communicate using telepathy. Instinctively, they grew suspicious and a little frightened of him. Even Fredric regarded him with narrowed eyes and nothing humorous to say. To Osarius, on the other hand, a different thought came when he considered Chimley.

“You know,” he began, his essence speculative, “we could use someone like him. How old are you, Chimley?”

Seeming as though he could hardly be bothered to answer: Sixteen.

“Where did you learn to fight like that? Did you really render all of these men unconscious?”

Chimley’s lips twitched. Yes. It was quite simple, really. I had multiple teachers, my father included.

“And who else?”

You said you could use me, Chimley said, looking squarely and menacingly at Osarius. He was not in the mood for mind-games. For what?

Osarius gave Chimley a long, measured look. The dark haired boy and the blond regarded each other evenly, neither one blinking, neither one moving. Were they exchanging thoughts or simply taking each other in? Without warning Xarthanias moved to stand beside his cousin as Osarius drew his sword. Chimley raised his also, something like boredom etched on his face.

Osarius struck.

The tension stretching between them snapped. As Chimley moved to defend himself with his own sword, Xarthanias used telekinesis to rip the weapon away. With a jerk of his elbow Osarius pulled the sword back before it hit Chimley, but kept it pointed at his chest. Xarthanias poked the other sword at Chimley’s back. Chimley quirked an eyebrow, unconcerned, and squeezed a fist. A groaning sound came from one of the monstrous trees, and then a branch as wide as a man came flying toward them as Chimley deflected Osarius’s sword away from him with a fist and whirled to do the same to Xarthanias’s. So fast that they blurred, the two swords struck a tree behind them and became embedded hilt-deep; a split-second following Chimley’s trick the giant branch struck Xarthanias and Osarius, suddenly held by Chimley, who pinned them to the ground with it.

“How are you doing that?” Fredric wondered. “Why aren’t their pendants protecting them?”

The effects of graphite were discovered less than a hundred years ago. It creates a sort of incoming-filter of thought energy from telekinetic energy by projecting an invisible screen. Telepathic energy, in a sense, is less potent than telekinetic energy. If these energies were particles, telepathic energy would have smaller particles than telekinetic, allowing it to pass through the filter-screen created by the graphite.  

However, it deflects telekinesis, with a range of about two or three feet. Therefore, graphite allows others to communicate and use their own levitation powers without a problem, but it staves telekinetic attacks. A confounding conundrum of telekinesis is that the energy facilitated by orbalite is somewhat of a phantom energy that vetoes laws of momentum. Even if one were to send a telekinetic projectile toward someone protected by graphite, the way one would throw a ball (building up the energy and then letting it go) upon contact with the graphite screen the projectile would drop—it wouldn’t bounce in any way. Telekinetic—not merely kinetic—energy allowed the projectile to move. The telekinetic energy would be repelled by the graphite-deflector, leaving the object with no kinetic energy at all.

The tree should not have come within three feet of Osarius and Xarthanias.

Chimley kept the branch firmly on top of Xarthanias and Osarius, and after a moment they stopped struggling under its weight. There were an infinite number of ways they could have fought back against this unprotected boy, but they had seen all they needed to see.

“We can use you if we run into trouble,” said Osarius, answering the question that had been asked barely a minute ago, and Chimley let them both up. The branch rolled away. Pulling the two swords free—not before a few moments of struggling—Xarthanias tossed Chimley the one that belonged to him. The butterfly symbol flashed in the sun. The Escort thought the same thing to themselves: Capraiwan.

“We are going on a journey,” Xarthanias explained, a gleam in his blue eyes, “to Pavliona’s Acropolis on the island of Vaupen in the Cremavian Sea. We can use all the help we can get. Will you join us?”

Disbelief spread over Chimley’s face. Vaupen Island? You want me to go with you?

“Indeed.”

And we will be passing through Adlin, I presume?

“Yes, we will.”

But you just met me.

Indeed, Nolle thought to himself, nonplussed. What was this? What were they trying to do? Was that even allowed?

Xarthanias, however, had made up his mind, and was therefore shielded from logic and reason. “And? That doesn’t change the fact that you might be useful. Apparently this trip could be dangerous.”

Chimley shrugged. Sounds like fun, he said drily after a moment. I only need a moment to write a note to my father to find when he comes back.

“Where is your father?”

Wespiser.

“Alright. We’ll be around here, but do hurry. We haven’t much time to lose.”

It was a good opportunity to let the horses have another drink, and they made their way to the little stream near the meadow where they had picnics. Prince Fredric’s mood had passed and he cracked jokes about Chimley’s sullenness sufficing to keep all dangers away. Osarius and Xarthanias sat on their horses together quietly, probably reflecting on their scrimmage with Chimley. Belladia looked thoughtfully off into the distance.

“Why do you really want him to come?” Xarthanias asked.

Osarius flicked his eyes toward Fredric, and Xarthanias followed the gaze in confusion. “Observation,” Osarius muttered.

Everything about Chimley was strange, Nolle thought as he stroked Ribbon’s mane; something about him caused stirrings of a memory once dormant somewhere in his mind. His face seemed vaguely familiar. It was like trying to describe a particular shade of green that was like others, except for a small difference that was impossible to pinpoint.

Nolle couldn’t shake the feeling that he had seen Chimley before.

* * *

Just before Chimley finally sauntered back with one satchel overflowing with weapons and another filled with bottles and flasks, the five of them were considering moving on without him. Nolle was certain that it was unheard of to ask a stranger into the Escort. It was as though some outer voice were insisting this, and when Osarius had privately shared the idea Xarthanias instantly agreed.

He prided himself on his combat competence, and he wondered if there was finally someone to equal up to him. Chimley and Xarthanias should have been twins! For their personalities were equal and opposite mirror images, although later on they would throw down their lives before admitting they had anything in common with the other.

Chimley handed the bag up to Xarthanias. From my father and I, to show my gratitude for allowing me to accompany Your Royal Highnesses to Vaupen island. Take your pick.

“These are beautiful,” Fredric commented as he quickly scanned the contents of the bag.

Xarthanias put them aside. “I’ll take a closer look when we stop tonight, but I’ve never seen anything like these. Where did you get them?”

Oh, here and there, said Chimley dismissively. 

Chimley and Xarthanias exchanged superior looks.

“Where is your horse?” Nolle finally asked, breaking the cold stare.

Those charcoal eyes focused sharply on him. I am faster than any horse. I think I will keep up on foot, Your Highness. Nolle raised his eyebrows but said nothing more.

The sun disappeared behind a cloud, leaving cold shadows in its wake. The smell of rain that had been noticed earlier was growing stronger, and thunder could be heard in the distance.

“Alright, well, let’s go,” quipped Fredric merrily. “We have been standing still much too long. If we want to reach the first rest point by nightfall, we will need to make double-time.”

The animals grew skittish as the coming storm stirred the air. Of all the dangers they had faced as military-trained horses, Shimmer and the others were still insanely afraid of thunderstorms. The five riders kicked their mounts into a steady trot, and like some sort of animal, Chimley swung and leapt from tree to tree above them, managing to stay several horse-lengths ahead the entire way. When the wind became too strong, he dropped back to the ground and followed at a steady run alongside them. Though it was no more than an hour after noon, it was dark as twilight. For a moment, a flash of lightning lit up the forest around them, and before the flash faded, thunder swiftly followed.

A plump drop of rain splashed on Xarthanias’s ear, and then another on his hand, but that was all. Storms in Despartus mostly consisted of wind, thunder and lightning, and buckets of rain for no more than an hour or so. The wind was mild on the forest floor, but the massive trees rocked and groaned. A crack of thunder that made Xarthanias’s heart stop startled Shimmer into a fit of bucking, which excited the other horses into following her lead. Rain began spluttering down, and Shimmer reared.

Denedo melac! Calm down!” Xarthanias commanded over the racket, jerking his horse into quick, tight circles. Shimmer trembled, head down, breathing shallowly. Xarthanias had gotten Shimmer as relaxed as he thought she was going to get when there was another boom nearly twice as loud as the first that seemed to shake the ground.  Shimmer jumped (as did Xarthanias) but immediately went back to her breathing after a sharp jerk on the reigns.

Belladia screamed.

They turned as the pack horse ripped its lead out of her hand and galloped off into the stormy forest, the rock wood box bumping unstably on its back.

The five of them shot off. Belladia had made the mistake of wrapping the lead around her right hand, and it had been constricted almost to the point of breaking bones. Cradling her injured hand, which was starting to swell inside the black glove, she guided Keana with her right.

They hadn’t even left the kingdom and already they had lost a fortune worth of goods. They rode fast and hard for a few minutes before realizing they had lost track of the horse. A mental scan of the area revealed nothing. It was dark and the rain and blowing leaves obscured their view even more. Xarthanias also noticed that Chimley was missing.

“Where are we supposed to look?” Belladia asked, riding up beside him. Some of her rain-soaked hair had come loose and waved in the wind. Her hand continued to grow, and before it became too big she peeled off the glove, letting only the barest grimace show. “He could be absolutely anywhere.”

“And he’s probably still running, too. We need that chest back, but do we really have any chance of catching him until this storm stops?” As Fredric said this, there was a flash and then a loud clap.

“But what if he gets hurt?” worried Belladia.

“Always concerned about the wrong things. If he gets hurt he will probably stop running and we will have a better chance of finding him,” Xarthanias replied.

“Don’t be such a crow, Xarthanias,” Nolle retorted snappishly. His essence was pale and colourless, as though he were in great pain. “If the packhorse gets hurt, guess who’s going to be carrying the chest and all of our supplies?” He dismounted from Ribbon and dropped to the ground, nearly toppling over. He favored one foot. Osarius had a bump on his head. Both had been run into trees. Xarthanias and Fredric had suffered only minor scrapes.

“Give me your hand, Belladia, please,” Xarthanias said, knowing Nolle was right.

Belladia, he thought as he gently took her hand. His joy and his sorrow. It was a tactless insecurity, but he couldn’t shake it and he didn’t know why. Of all the women he could have, why Belladia? Why had he given her his ring? She was beautiful, yes, but so dull. And yet, he was plagued by the fear that he might really love her. He was too young for love, too young! The unsettling feelings could not be stifled, though he wished they could be—maybe then her rejection would not sting so much.

At first, he tried to ignore it, as he did most things that discomforted him. The small but meaningful glances between her and Nolle, the way she laughed for Nolle but not him. Remembered when something important was going to happen for Nolle but not him. His life was tenfold more important than his brother’s! He was the crown prince, but he may as well have been a peasant for all the care she gave to it. She cared as she cared of dust about the most monumental thing in his life.

Xarthanias nonetheless couldn’t bring himself to be angry with Nolle. Nolle was just…Nolle. Even though he was boring and did nothing much but study and write and drink, people seemed to really like him. They did things for him that they would never do for Xarthanias, trusted him more. Apart from Osarius, none of Xarthanias’s “friends” had been willing to accompany him to doom. When it was learned that Nolle had been going, dozens had tried to convince him to let them come with him (Nolle had stubbornly refused, but at least he had been given the offers!). Xarthanias knew his brother would never betray him in such a significant way, and had thought the same of Belladia also. Not only had she played him for a fool, she somehow still captivated his heart. He loved and loathed her, and could find no remedy for either. He was trapped.

Xarthanias hated traps.

Only just in control of himself, he took a dry piece of cloth out of his bag and mapped an umbrella over them while he examined her hand, using the gentlest touch. “Does anyone know what to do with this? I do not think it is broken.”

“I think the only thing to do would be to keep it cool, and the rain is doing that already,” Belladia answered. Pertaining medicine, her word was law. The boys had learned a little about first aid during their intensive training, but they had only had time to go over the most essential life-saving procedures like treating and stitching wounds, making tourniquets, and finding plants and herbs that could be used for medical purposes. 

Xarthanias gave Belladia back her hand as Fredric dismounted to kneel by Nolle, whose eyes seemed unfocused. “Have you seen Chimley?” Fredric asked as he pried Nolle’s injured foot out of its boot. Nolle hissed through his teeth, biting down on his lip.

“I hope it’s not broken. It hurts like fire. Can someone pass me my flask?”

Fredric complied, then continued his ministrations. Taking off the stocking, Fredric grimaced. “Well, Nolleban, you really showed your foot. All Ribbon did was slam it into a tree?”

“Yes.” Nolle took another long swig.

“Must have been some tree.”

Nolle shrugged tightly and gritted his teeth as Fredric prodded the foot. Using a bit of spare cloth he wrapped it as tightly as he could, and decided that the rain soaking it would help keep it cool. Belladia approved his procedure. Fredric put the stocking back on and tied Nolle’s boot to Ribbon’s saddle. Propped up, Nolle stared anxiously into the trees. Osarius said his head was fine, and the three of them sat around Nolle to wait out the storm, keeping a firm hold on the horses.

“Has anyone seen Chimley?” Fredric asked again.

“Oh! As a matter of fact, no,” said Belladia, worry making creases in her forehead. “I think we left him behind when we galloped off! That’s three things we’re missing now. Not good.”

Osarius stood and swung onto his horse Covah.  “I will retrace our tracks to where we ran off and see if he’s still around.”

“Tracks! Osarius, that’s what we have to do! Go back and follow the packhorse tracks from there.” Fredric and Xarthanias bounded to their feet.

“Will you be alright with Nolle?” Osarius asked his sister.

“No, I am coming, too.” He started to push himself to his feet, but he swayed a little. From pain or from drink, it was hard to tell.

“Nolle, you and Belladia are the most injured,” said Xarthanias dismissively. “You will only slow us down. We will find the horse and Chimley and return for you. You two must rest for a while.”

Belladia nodded and moved closer to Nolle, who glared angrily at his brother. A violent cough interrupted his furious stare, and without another word Xarthanias led Fredric and Osarius into the woods. The wind let up slightly and their hair was quickly soaked to the scalp. They could only imagine how it must be pouring if they were getting so wet under the shelter of the gargantuan, leafy shousu trees. Their prints were washing out, but still visible as they backtracked.

“Hey, look at that!” Fredric pointed at a dark lump on the ground. Upon closer inspection it resolved itself into a large sack. One of the sacks that the packhorse had been carrying. A hundred feet ahead was another, and then another.

After trotting along for a few minutes, picking up packs as they went, a faraway voice drifted into Xarthanias’s mind.

where are you..?

Fredric looked over at Xarthanias, slowing Fang to a walk. “Did you hear that?”

“Could it be Chimley?” wondered Osarius

“I don’t sense him anywhere,” said Xarthanias.

“Chimley! Where are you?” Osarius yelled

“Chimley!” Fredric shouted as loud as he could. They yelled his name together, trying to make their weak voices penetrate the noise of the wind and the rain and the restless grumbling thunder. Listening, they didn’t hear anything. But Shimmer lifted her head and looked into the trees. She whinnied, loud and long. A ghostly answer floated from that direction. Xarthanias kicked her into motion. Rain streamed into his eyes off his hair.

The packhorse was standing under a tree, its chestnut coat turned nearly black from the darkness and the rain. Standing beside it holding its lead was Chimley. He was smiling.

Don’t you just love this rain? he asked, oddly cheerful as he led the horse toward them. I wish it would do this every day.

Xarthanias stared at the horse, horror stricken. “Where’s the box?”

Box?

Xarthanias jumped from Shimmer’s back and strode toward them. The strap that had held the box to the horse’s back was broken, hanging over the wet, steamy hide. He looked frantically around for the box and saw nothing. He thought about waiting out the storm, their original plan, but knew that if someone were to happen along and see it they might take it and it would get even more lost. They had to find it, and quickly. He didn’t want to think of what would happen if the jewels and other treasures that had been so difficult to find were lost.

They showed Chimley what they were looking for, and he vaguely recalled seeing it. In a moment of helpfulness, Chimley quickly spotted the packhorse’s path. He led the trembling horse while the princes followed astride, peering into the brush. Every time the lightning flashed Xarthanias tightened his grip in anticipation of the thunderclap. It was by the light of one of these flashes that Osarius spotted an object that was large, rectangular, and stuck in the brambles of a bush.

“Stop! There!”

Eagerly Xarthanias jumped to the ground and rushed toward the object. His smile faded, though, as he picked it up.

“This isn’t the box. It’s just a piece of wood. Actually, there are at least a dozen behind this bush.” Glowering he tossed it aside, climbed back into his wet saddle, and signaled to Chimley to keep going.

I could have told you that, he leered.

It was a long, wet, miserable ride before they found the precious box. But its relocation brought them no relief as they took in the scene before them, saw who had it, and realized it would be no small task to retrieve it.

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