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Hero's Song - Chapter Twenty

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"Hang on," I called. "Give me a few minutes." I swung my leg over the saddle as Nevalle and the guards halted. We had just entered the gates of the city, and the Sunken Flagon was across the way, it's door closed...odd, that.

Nevalle gave me an exasperated look, but I barely glaced at him as I walked by. I carefully pushed the door open; the fire in the common room was banked low, and it left a chill throughout the tavern. The place looked near deserted...only a few patrons sat around tables close to the fire, talking quietly. I nodded at them as I passed them; they ignored me. Duncan was behind the bar, wiping out a glass; he had dark circles around his eyes, and his face look tired, haggard. He was younger than my foster-father, but I was reminded very sharply that he was half-human by the lines arond his mouth and eyes, seemingly made deeper with worry. He smiled at me when I walked around the bar. "I heard they made ye Captain, lass," he said, his voice chipper. "Rising in the world now, are ye?"

"Not really by choice." I surprised both of us by hugging him; my arms went about his waist snugly, since I was still shorter than him by a few hands. "You all right?"

"Aye, don't ye be worrying about me." He patted my shoulder awkwardly as I stepped back. "It's just...well, I can't keep tabs on you now, off in your grand keep in the middle of nowhere, getting in to who-knows-what kind of trouble..."

I laughed. "Trust me, I wish I was still staying here." My voice dropped in a worried tone. "Have you seen Daeghun, by any chance?"

He blinked at me. "Why would I have seen him? He'd have no reason to visit me...isn't he still at West Harbor?"

I sighed. "West Harbor was sacked. Completely. I couldn't find his...find him. I had hoped..." My heart sank as I saw the shocked, uncomprehending look on my uncle's face. "But you haven't seen him."

"No, lass, I'm sorry. Damnit, the whole town? Did anybody...?"

I shrugged helplessly. "There were a few bodies I didn't find, but that could mean anything."

"Well...look, I travelled with Daeghun for years, in and out of all kinds of madness. I don't want to give you any false hope, lass, but if anyone could scrape their way out of a mess, it'll be your father." He frowned at me quizzically. "Not that I ain't a bit worried about him, too, but I thought you two weren't exactly...well, close. At all, actually."

I smiled at him ruefully. "We weren't. Most of the kindnesses he wrought for me, like my old violin, were just tools for me to use so I wouldn't grow up stupid like some of the other villager children. At least, that's what he told me." I sighed. "But family is family...and he's all I've got." My voice broke slightly at the end, to my embarassment, and I looked down at my hands, fidgeting.

"Nay, he's not all ye've got." Duncan smiled at me. "I know ye don't really need me, lass; you'll outlive me by many years, and you could probably clean the floor with me by now, but ye've got me just the same." He punched my shoulder (not as lightly as he must have thought, because ow!). "Hey, I'm good for a free beer whenever you want, right?"

"Aye, I guess I'll keep you around." My tone was teasing, but my smile was genuine. "Thanks, Duncan."

"Where are you off to, now? Not just coming to the city to check up on me, are you?"

"No, Lord Nasher needs to see me about something or other." I winced. "I should probably go before Nevalle tries to smoke me out."

"Wouldn't be the first time someone set fire to my tavern. How is Qara, by the way?"

o o o o o o

Nevalle led me into a side room when we entered Castle Never, telling the guards to wait in the hallway. I arched an eyebrow at him as he closed the door behind us. "You didn't drag me all the way here to kill me, did you? Because if you did, it's the worst assasination attempt I've ever seen." My voice was teasing as I took in his shocked expression, and I sighed in mock resignation. "At least you opened the door for me."

He blinked at me in surprise, and then even more surprising, he burst into laughter. "My gods, woman, you spent too long with the thieves. Are elves always this suspicious?"

I shrugged, smiling. "My father claims we have long memories. We must, since I even bothered remembering he said that." I watched as he opened a wardrobe in the far corner, still chuckling to himself. He pulled out a cloak, shimmering iridescently in the torchlight, and even as he shook it out I could see flowing runes and spells glowing and fading into the fabric, barely visible unless you were looking for it.

I whistled appreciatively. "That looks like fine weaving...what's it for?"

"You." He walked to me, the cloak draped over one arm; his normally serious expression was softened with a smile as he held it out to me. "It is a mark of knighthood; the finest mages and weavers make these for us, and it will offer you some protection, as well as other abilities."

I stared at him. "Knighthood?"

"Aye, Captain. You're to be knighted; Lord Nasher awaits us in the main hall to perform the ceremony." His smile widened at my panicked expression. "You don't have to do anything except kneel, so stop looking at me like that." His tone regained some of it's seriousness as he went on, quietly, "We wouldn't have gotten this far without you, and Lord Nasher knows this. He means to reward you, Harper; it's a great honor he's giving you." He regarded me. "Aye, and I think you deserve this as well."

"Really?" I snapped back to myself a little. "No more talk of dragging me off to the dungeons?"

He laughed. "I think the good outweighs the bad, in this case." He looked away from me for a moment. "You know, I...honestly, I thought you'd abandon us, once things began getting harder. Lord Nasher thought you could handle the keep, but I...well, I told him you'd probably take to the road and we'd never see you again, once you realized running a working keep was more than titles and gold." He clapped me on the shoulder, making me wince...damn it, that shoulder is taking a beating today...and nodded at me. "But you stayed, and you've worked hard without complaint. You've done a great good for Crossroad Keep and it's people. I misjudged you, Harper, and I apologize."

A flash of guilt ran through me as Bishop's words came echoing back through my head. I know it tempts you, Harper...

"Come, Lord Nasher is waiting for us. You'll need this; be careful with it, it's probably older than you..." He appraised me curiously as he handed me an elegantly crafted longsword, "..and that's saying something."

I snorted at him, which brought a wry smile to his lips. I know that I looked to be but a maid, fresh in the first bloom of adulthood, but I was older than Nevalle by a good score of years. "Mind your elders, young pup." I tucked the ceremonial sword into my belt, it's unfamiliar weight hanging against my hip as I followed Nevalle, who briskly opened the door and led me back out into the hallway. I had begun tying the glittering cloak around my shoulders, focused on my fingers working the knot, when suddenly the door to the throne room slammed shut with a resounding bang.

All of the gates around us began dropping in response, and a high, magical keening filled the air. The nobles gathered in the hall began shouting, shoving each other in confusion to get to the main gate; no use, for it had closed as well; we were locked in. Nevalle's sword was out instantly. "Is that... gods, it's the ancient alarm! I never thought I'd live to see this day...we are under attack!"

I drew my weapons, astonished. "You've got to be kidding me! This was a trap?"

"Harper, we don't have time..." his voice trailed off as a thick, dark mist began seeping into the room, collecting in one targeted area in the middle of the hall. The noblemen and women huddled at one end of the room; some of them were screaming in terror (and not just the women) while a few others ran forward with Nevalle's guards, brandishing torch brackets, sconces, and candelabras as weapons. One of them ripped an ancient, rusted spear from the hands of a decorative suit of armor, breaking it neatly in half. The elegantly dressed man stared at the pieces for a second, and then shrugged, brandishing both of them as he ran towards us.

Two forms began to solidify in the mist, and a man and a woman stepped forward, their eyes glowing in an unearthly red light. The woman smiled, baring sharp, pointed fangs.

"Vampires?" I hissed, incredulous. "I thought this palace was supposed to be warded!"

"It is! They must be here for Nasher..." He snarled orders to the guards behind us, and they spread out quickly, creating a barricade to protect the whimpering nobles behind us. "We've got to get to him!"

"I think you'll be going nowhere, human," the male vampire said smoothly; behind him, the dark, writhing mist took shape, and a score of wraiths formed behind him, menance pouring from them like a cold wind. "Except, maybe, the Shadow King's army, if he deems you worthy to serve him."

In answer, I extended an arm, sword pointing at the undead creatures before us...I could feel the energy billowing inside of me, to the tips of every hair on my head, as the notes poured out from my throat. The ritual magic that had been mine since we had dared the ruins of Illefarn burst outwards, my small frame the catalyst, and the the vampires shrieked as pure, searing light burned them, dissolving near half the wraiths at their command into nothingness. When the spell ended, they had staggered back to the far end of the hallway, horrible, smoking gashes covering their bodies, and the wraiths that remained milled around them, confused.

Nevalle stared at me, shock and awe apparent in his voice. "By the gods, Harper...!"

I shrugged, the after effect of the spell making me feel light and heady, as if I had drank too much wine. "Well? He wasn't speaking to you very nicely." I gripped the handles of my blades, attempting to control the raging energy that was rushing through my body. "And it pays to make the first move..."

There were no more words from them, then. They came at us, shrieking with rage, and I found myself locked in battle with one of the vampires, his fangs extended and his fingers curved like claws. He kept driving me back, and soon I realized he was driving me away from the others, a wall looming up behind me. Shite...I saw one of the nobles go down, rended by a wraith, and moments later, a small, black shape rose from the body, red eyes glowing, and joined the other wraiths in their assault. And I was halfway across the room...

I redoubled my efforts, attempting to break free from the vampire, but he was determined, and recklessly threw himself on me bodily, both of us crashing to the ground. I cried out, losing my grip on one of my scimitars and watching it skid across the floor to clatter harmlessly against the far wall, my other sword arm pinned to the floor in the creature's grip. The vampire was all fangs and glowing red eyes, snarling desperately, clawing at my throat, and my fist crashing into his face did nearly nothing; he ignored my pummeling as if one would a small, incessantly annoying fly, and I was slowly losing the battle to keep his fangs from my neck...

The sword! I reached down by my waist, and grabbed the hilt of the ceremonial sword Nevalle had given to me, shoving the pommel-stone straight into the vampire's gut. He merely grunted, but his reflexes pulled him away from me somewhat, and the blade was free; with one quick, clean slice, it bit through his neck, and his body crumbled into dust almost instantly (and all over me.) A white mist rose from the ashes and dissappeared into nothingness as I rose to my feet.

One of the nobles was desperately trying to fight back one of the wraiths...and oddly enough, trying not to kill it. I ran over to him, shouting, "Strike it, already!"

He shouted back in an agonized voice, "It's Sir Gregoire! They got to him, and now he's attacking me!"

By the hells...I felt bad for the poor man, but I swiftly stepped into the path of the wraith's descending strike, and my blades made short work of it; with nothing more than a sigh, the creature evaporated into nothingness. I turned from the man's sorrowed expression and sprinted to where Nevalle quickly dispatched the last of the creatuers, staggering backwards.

I helped steady him as the wraith let out a deafening shriek and faded away, a thick silence falling on the hallway. Shouting and the sounds of combat could be heard through the door to the throne room, and I heard pounding on the far door, mixed with the heavy moaning of undead creatures. "We've got to get somewhere more defensible, Nevalle! We'll be torn apart if we stay here!"

Nevalle gave the throne room door one quick, agonized look, before turning and gesturing. "Follow me, I know someplace...we can hold out there!"

The guards herded the remaining nobles like cattle down the dark passageways, Nevalle leading while I took the rear. We all made piled into a tin room at the end of the hall; no windows, and no doors except the one that I quickly shut behind me and bolted. Not a bad place for a decent defense...but we couldn't stay here forever.

Nevalle was thinking along the same lines; he was instantly at my elbow, his face lined heavily with worry. "We have to get to Lord Nasher; who knows what he is facing in that throne room right now. Listen..." he glanced at the guards watching us, and leaned towards my ear, lowering his voice. "No one knows of this outside of Lord Nasher and the Nine. There is a passage, a secret way into the depths of this castle that might get you into the throne room through another route."


"Yes, you! Harper, I can't leave these people, my men, alone here, while I go gallavanting off. And besides..." two pink spots appeared on his cheeks, and his eyes were full of begrudged admiration. "'ve probably got a better chance of surviving the Neverneath than I do, with that magic you've got. I wasn't the one who blasted those creatures up there."

An easy answer to the problem, I thought bitterly...and then I realized who exactly I sounded like, and brushed the thought away, setting my jaw firmly. Nevale's expression was watchful, hopeful...everyone else was watching our exchange with pale faces and fear in their eyes.

I nodded at him. "Tell me where to go."

Hero's Song - Chapter 20 © Avariel

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