Kael scowled at the ceiling inches above his bunk. He was so close to finally convincing his father to let him journey to Luxlor when rumors of trouble in the Nagur Wood reached the village. Would Brelg call the trip off and spoil Kael’s first chance for a bit of adventure?
The boy rolled onto his stomach with a dejected sigh and glanced below at his sleeping brother, Aemmon. The absurdity of the sight that greeted him, made it difficult to continue his brooding.
Aemmon, nearly a man now, lay in the lower bunk. Half of Aemmon’s lower legs dangled over the end of the small bed their father, Brelg, had fashioned for the boys when they were young. Aemmon’s right arm stuck out from beneath a woolen blanket, knuckles lying on the wooden floorboards.
In the early morning light, Kael could just make out Aemmon’s dirty blond hair jutting out from under a goose down pillow. The snore that rumbled from under the pillow kept rhythm with the bulk heaving beneath the dark blanket.
Aemmon looked so content, Kael found it difficult to disturb his brother’s slumber. Instead, he grinned and dug beneath the blankets of his own bed. He and Aemmon had a bit more time before they needed to start the day’s chores and Kael’s bunk still fit him so comfortably.
Contentment filled the boy. Many a night he crawled into this bunk for sleep and many a morn he reveled in its warmth. Memories flooded him now. Memories of wondrous stories told to him and Aemmon by their father as the pair of small boys yawned and drifted to sleep. Memories of their mother always at a bedside when one of them woke from a nightmare.
Other memories crowded his reverie. Memories of worry and sleepless nights. Memories of the sound of his father’s boots as Brelg paced the hallway outside his mother’s room. Memories of a healer shaking his head in confusion. And finally, memories of tears soaking the blankets on this very bed.
Kael’s smile disappeared and he quickly sat up and threw his legs over the edge of his bunk. He noiselessly dropped to the ground, landing in a crouch beside Aemmon. A twinkle danced in his eye.
“Aemmon, get up.” he whispered just inches from the lumpy pillow.
The deep snoring sputtered then stopped.
“Huh?” came a confused reply from beneath the pillow.
“Get up.” said Kael softly. “Father hasn’t cancelled our trip yet. Maybe if we ignore the news, he will too?”
Aemmon moaned and the big hand lying on the floorboards slowly rose and dragged the pillow from atop his face. His chiseled features remained placid and his eyes closed.
“When I open my eyes I’m going to see sunshine, right?” mumbled Aemmon.
“Not exactly.” chuckled Kael as he glanced out the tiny window of the room atop their father’s inn. The sky was awash in the rosy hue of dawn. “You may see a bit of ‘shine’, but you certainly won’t see any ‘sun’ yet.”
Aemmon grumbled once more and plopped the pillow back over his face.
“C’mon Aemmon.” pleaded Kael. “I won’t be able to go without you.”
The pillow didn’t move. Kael frowned and softened his tone.
“I can understand if you don’t want to go to Luxlor.” he murmured sheepishly. “I wouldn’t want to force you into anything. I suppose I could always try again next year ...”
Aemmon dragged the pillow from his face once more, but this time his eyes were wide open and his smile was etched with accusation.
“You’re not fooling anyone with that sad tale.” announced the big lad. He broke into an imitation of a simpering Kael. “I could always try again next year.”
Kael grinned and the pair chuckled. Aemmon sat up and rubbed the sleep from his eyes while Kael dressed. In a moment, Aemmon stood, producing a loud groan from the floorboards in their room. The elder brother dressed and the boys made their way to the main stairway of the inn.
They moved quietly in order not to wake any of the lodgers. Kael dashed down the old wooden staircase without making a sound. He turned and suppressed a laugh. Aemmon took each step slowly, wincing as the knotted wood creaked and popped under his impressive weight. After quite some time, and considerable frustration, Aemmon reached the bottom of the staircase.
“How do you do that?” he whispered.
“You looked as if the whole staircase was about to collapse!” chuckled Kael as he clapped his brother on the back.
Aemmon smiled, gave his smaller brother a poke to the ribs, and the pair walked out the rear door of the inn toward the stables. In the early morning sun, the differences between the brothers were quite evident. Aemmon was a classic example of a young man from the Southlands of Zodra. He was tall, with his bulk comprised mostly of muscle. His blond hair and blue eyes mirrored many Southlanders’ traits.
Kael, on the other hand, stood out. He was smaller than most and his wiry body held a darker complexion. The single most striking characteristic of Kael was his hair. It was jet black. Dark hair was unusual for a Southlander, and Kael’s hair was darker than a raven’s wings.
The pair strolled along and Kael noted heaviness in his brother’s step.
“What’s wrong?” asked Kael.
Aemmon stopped and the sadness in his eyes disturbed Kael. They stared at one another for a long moment.
“Everything will be fine.” Kael blurted cheerily. “These recent stories about the Nagur are nothing. The ale starts talking when the loggers stay in the common room too long. There’s nothing to any of it. You know that, right?”
Aemmon frowned deeply.
“Do you think Old Sarge would allow us to go on this trip if he didn’t think we’d be fine?” sighed Kael.
“No, course not.” his brother replied.
“The only way to get to Luxlor is through the Nagur Wood. You’re not afraid of the Elves are you?”
“No.” returned Aemmon with a shake of his head. “Father’s been trading with them for years.”
“Well, as for the Nagur, the stories we heard are just that, stories, made up by lonely men who spend far too much time out on the open road.” Kael shook his head and smiled broadly. “Besides, where’s your sense of adventure?!”
“My sense of adventure is still sleeping in our room, as I should be.” yawned Aemmon with a smile. “And neither the Elves nor the Nagur concern me.”
“Then what?” prodded Kael.
Aemmon frowned once more and his eyes focused on the ground at his feet.
“Oh ... nothing.” murmured the lad. “I ... I just wish things didn’t need to change. I like them the way they are.”
Kael looked quizzically at his brother and chuckled.
“You and I going on our first trading journey isn’t going to turn the world upside down, Aemmon!”
Aemmon paused and searched Kael’s face. He flashed his brother a light grin and arched an eyebrow.
“Maybe ... maybe not.”
The larger boy grabbed an ax from the stable wall and went to split logs for the woodpile. Kael watched him go and doubt entered his mind. Why was Aemmon so reluctant to go on this trip? In the past, his brother always brimmed with confidence. Nothing bothered him. No challenge was too great.
The loud thunk of the ax lodging deeply into a log drew Kael from these thoughts. He hustled to the shed, retrieved a bucket and entered the inn. He filled the oaken bucket from the kitchen pump and stepped into the dining area. His father, Brelg, was eating breakfast. Kael hefted the heavy bucket toward a dark corner of the common room, hoping to avoid any notice.
“Good morning, boy.” said Brelg without raising his eyes from his food.
“Morning.” answered Kael as he froze in his tracks.
Brelg frowned, glanced up and waved the boy over. He pushed a chair back from the table and motioned Kael to sit.
“I’ve a bit of a problem. Perhaps you can give me some advice.” began Brelg.
Kael smiled and took his seat at the table.
“An extremely persistent young man I know has been pushing to help me expand my business. He’s rather young, so I’m not sure I’ll approve, but his resolve is slowly wearing me down.“ grumbled Brelg. “I was ready to concede when recent news caused me to become a bit apprehensive.”
Kael smiled broadly.
“I’m sure he’s quite competent, sir” replied the boy. “Besides, what could go wrong?”
Brelg frowned and placed his fork upon his plate.
“Seriously Kael. This business in the Nagur Wood causes me concern.” said Brelg. “I know how much you want to experience a bit of the wider world, but maybe this isn’t the proper time.”
“You know how the loggers talk when they’ve been in the common room all night.” frowned Kael. “One acre of cleared forest becomes ten. A six point buck becomes twelve. What does their story amount to? Some unfamiliar tracks. A ‘feeling’ of being watched or tracked. Both are easily explained by a large bear and the fertile imaginations of men alone on the open road.”
“Mr. Drovor is a very sensible man.” returned Brelg with a frown. “He does tend to exaggerate things a bit, but this time his story seems ... different. I’m a fair judge of men, my boy. I must be in this business. The usual twinkle that dances in Drovor’s eye when he spins a tale was missing.”
“Well, you’ve often said that I’ve learned the business pretty well myself.” said Kael proudly. ”My advice to you is to forget Drovor’s tale. How many times has he stood in the common room describing how he out maneuvered a band of highway bandits or outran a pack of starving wolves?”
Brelg furrowed his brow. Kael tried to change the subject.
“Don’t forget.” said the boy. “A candidate for the Zodrian Guard rides with me.”
Brelg smiled and his eyes took on the faraway look Kael often noticed when they spoke of the Zodrian Guard and the capital city.
“That would be a fine day, wouldn’t it?” whispered Brelg lightly nodding his head. “If Aemmon were chosen for the Guard ...”
Brelg’s voice trailed off. Kael smiled and put a hand on his father’s shoulder.
“That would be a fine day for all of us, even mother.”
“Yes, if she were here she would be proud of you both.” sighed Brelg. “She loved you dearly. However, I think she watches me from somewhere shaking her head in disapproval over this trip you’ve concocted.”
“Mother never objected to your trips.” said Kael with a sly grin. “As I recall you went on plenty, leaving the three of us to manage the inn.”
“Business is business.” huffed Brelg. “Besides, I was younger then and settling down proved difficult.”
“Exactly.” winked Kael.
Brelg frowned deeply at the smiling boy. Kael continued to grin until Brelg chuckled and tousled the boy’s mop of black hair.
“Get to work.” laughed Brelg. “Or you’ll never get out of here.”
Kael spun and dashed toward the kitchen to retrieve a mop.
“You better hurry with your chores,” called Brelg after the boy. “And tell Cefiz to get the stove fired up. I don’t want my customers slipping on a wet floor, on their way to a breakfast that has yet to be cooked.”
Cefiz, the inn’s handyman and cook, stood yawning in the kitchen.
“You best get your fires started or he’ll have your head.” smiled Kael.
“Who? Good old Sarge? Angry with me? You must be joking?” Cefiz laughed.
Kael always grinned when Cefiz called the demanding innkeeper ”Sarge”. Aemmon and Kael picked up on the moniker and often used it to refer to their father, but never in his company. Brelg, on the other hand, took to calling Cefiz “chubby”, and constantly teased the cook concerning his expanding waist.
In Kael’s early memories, Cefiz was a powerfully built young man employed by the inn to carry out odd jobs and general maintenance. Since the death of Kael’s mother, Cefiz became the cook of the inn as well. His hair had begun to frost and a noticeable paunch hung over his belt line.
Cefiz pulled wood chips out of a box and stuffed them into the stove.
“So today is the big day?” yawned Cefiz.
“Today is the day!” repeated Kael with a smile.
“I suppose you still don’t care for my suggestion?” said Cefiz.
“Just as I told Sarge.” said Kael eyeing the door. “I’m not a boy anymore. I don’t need you to come along and watch over me. Besides, I think your ‘suggestion’ came from Sarge more than yourself.”
“Are you accusing me of being a deceitful scoundrel!” smiled Cefiz.
“Not a deceitful scoundrel.” said Kael. “Just a loyal one!”
Kael retrieved his mop and returned to his bucket in the common room. While he scrubbed the stone floor, he contemplated his journey through the Nagur. Were any of the dangers real or the stories true?
An inn is a wonderful place to pick up bits and pieces of information. Kael excelled in this ability. He badgered customers for stories from their travels. He lingered over tables where woodsmen or hunters were discussing events in the faraway corners of the kingdom. He ferreted out all he could about places he would never visit and people he would never meet.
However, the recent rumor of trouble didn’t come to Kael by the usual ways of a small village. No local washer woman or merchant passed the information onto him in casual conversation. Instead, Kael found out in the manner he gathered most of the truly important information in the town of Kelky. He used the Touch.
For as long as Kael could remember he was able to employ the Touch. It was as natural to him as breathing. However, something warned him it wouldn’t be considered normal by others, so he spoke to no one about it, not even Aemmon.
Usually, he performed the Touch when he was engaged in one of his boring chores in and around the inn. He might be washing dishes in the kitchen, mopping the common room floor or hanging laundry in the yard when the desire struck him. He concentrated, forcing his mind to block out all distractions. The banter in the common room faded, the chickens in the yard went still and the rushing of the wind quieted.
Kael focused on what he needed to “touch”. Not in a physical way. Instead, he reached out to an event with something other than his hands. He forced his senses to “brush” against the scene he wished to view. Even if a conversation were whispered in a room full of rowdy patrons, Kael heard it as if he sat hunched over a table with its participants.
The Touch is how he came to hear the rumors concerning the Nagur. A few evenings earlier, two loggers ate dinner in the common room. They were fresh from an excursion to the forests of the lower Zorim mountains where they cut for weeks then bundled their timber and circulated through the small villages of the Southlands selling their haul.
Often, the loggers held back a portion of the wood and traveled to Luxlor. Although the Grey Elves lived within a massive forest, they never put ax to living wood. They often referred to themselves as “guests” within the Nagur and refused to harm it. The Grey Elves paid a premium for the fresh lumber and the loggers claimed a tidy profit in the Elf city.
This pair of loggers sat within the common room of “The King’s Service” as their foreman returned from Luxlor. He joined the men at their table as Kael passed with an armload of dirty dishes.
“Drovor.” said one of the loggers. “How did you fare? Profitably I hope.”
“Aye.” replied Drovor. “The Elves always pay a fair price for timber. I unloaded a full ...”
Kael stepped past the kitchen door and dumped the stoneware dishes into a tub of hot water. His hands plunged in, retrieved a horse hair brush and he slowly began to scrub the hardened mess from the plates. A moment or two into his chore, the boy let his mind wander. Boredom quickly overcame him as he stacked the third of the cleaned plates. He closed his eyes and let himself calm. The bustle of the nearby common room faded. The chatter at the bar grew faint. The Touch drifted from his body.
Kael stood over the tub of soapy water, but another part of him passed through the kitchen door and back into the common room. He couldn’t “see” the room or its occupants, but was well aware of everything and everybody in the dining hall. In fact, the Touch gave Kael more clarity. Rushing through life distracted him, but the Touch let him sit back and truly observe.
He sensed the loggers and moved the Touch toward their table.
“... are always quite free with their coin as long as you treat them fairly.” Drovor was saying.
“Thank heaven. We’ll be out of a job if the Grey Elves ever decide to cut the Nagur.” said one of the loggers.
“True.” muttered Drovor.
“What’s bothering you?” The other man asked. “A fine haul, no accidents and a tidy profit. What more could you want?”
“The Nagur.” stated Drovor. “Something felt wrong. Something was wrong.”
“The only thing wrong with the Nagur is the fact that we don’t cut there and sell the wood back to the Grey Elves.” said the first logger.
“That’s what you think, eh?” An edge entered Drovor’s voice. “Sell ‘em their own wood, that’s your plan?”
“Sure, why not?” continued the man. “The Elves don’t even travel north of the Efer River much. The whole of the North Nagur is there to be cut. We travel all the way to the Zorim for wood that can be had on the Elf’s very doorstep.”
“Let me tell you something.” growled Drovor. “Cutting the Nagur is one of the dumbest things you could do.”
“That’s hogwash. We could be rich if ...”
“Dead!” cut in Drovor. “You could be dead! Men have tried it before. Men like yourself who see nothing but coin in front of their faces. Men who haven’t been on the crews long. Off they go to cut the Nagur and after four or five weeks with no news, everyone realizes you can’t, or shouldn’t lay an ax to that wood. They end up as just another group of fools who tried to log the Nagur and were never seen again.”
“How?” asked the first logger. “The Grey Elves?”
“No.” scoffed Drovor. “The Grey Elves are good people. I should know. I’ve dealt with ‘em for years. Actually, I’ve never had a clue as to why those men disappear. That is until now.”
Kael heard the creak of a chair as Drovor leaned in close and lowered his voice.
“I saw some strange tracks this last visit. Tracks of something big. Never seen the like. Maybe .... eighteen feet long.”
“What d’ya think made ‘em?” asked the first logger.
“Don’t know.” replied Drovor. “But I decided not to press my luck and got out of there as fast as I could. I picked up my pace and had a strange feeling someone ....”
“Don’t fall in and drown!” laughed Cefiz, breaking Kael’s concentration.
The Touch lost its hold on the common room and Kael lurched as his senses sprang back into his consciousness. A loud crash snapped Kael’s eyes open and his breath came in short bursts. The small earthenware bowl he had been washing lay in broken shards at his feet.
“Sorry to startle you, lad!” chuckled Cefiz. “You looked as if you were about to pass out into the wash tub. I would hate to inform Sarge that you drowned in the dishwater while I was outside collecting fuel for the fires.”
Kael turned to find the cook standing upon the threshold to the yard, hefting a stack of split wood. The boy blinked and ran a hand through his dark hair.
“Uh, thanks.” smiled Kael weakly. “Didn’t sleep well last night.”
That was two nights ago. Now Kael rushed through a day of chores in the hopes that he and his brother could head off into the very wood from which Drovor raced. The boy thought over the foreman’s story for the past two days. Slowly he convinced himself that Drovor imagined much of what he saw. Certainly, a bear or other large animal was responsible for the tracks. What other explanation was there? An animal certainly wouldn’t attack only those cutting trees. The whole idea was absurd.
Kael left the kitchen and went to help Aemmon bring firewood into the main hall. They proceeded to work on the remainder of their chores for nearly two hours.
As Kael fed the chickens, a rickety old cart slowly headed up the southern trail. The boy smiled at the old man driving the cart.
“Jasper! Good morning!” called Kael.
“Kael! Already feeding the chickens eh!? You woke early today!” called the old man on the buckboard.
Jasper stopped and stepped down in front of Kael. The tinker was old. How old, Kael couldn’t be sure. Jasper’s stark, white hair lay cropped close to his scalp. He wore silvery stubble on his deeply tanned and lined face.
In contrast, the old tinker’s eyes defied age. Neither young nor old. Every time Kael talked to Jasper, the intensity in the old man’s eyes startled the boy. Those eyes were a piercing, silver blue. They captured your attention.
Jasper wore a heavy leather jerkin which shared the shade and texture of his complexion. He sported sturdy wool pants beneath it. Normally, a pipe hung lazily out of his mouth, but today it wasn’t present.
“Come around, boy! Come around.” coaxed Jasper, motioning Kael to the back of the cart.
A stern faced, broad shouldered Zodrian sat on the open gate.
“Good morning, Rin.” Kael remarked.
The man hopped from the back of the cart and stepped from Kael’s path.
“My son is quiet as usual.” Jasper stated. “So I will conduct our business. Take a good look over the merchandise, Kael, while you tell me how your family is getting on. You know I haven’t visited Kelky in months.”
Rin untied a bundle and spread the contents out for Kael to see.
“You’ve been gone for quite some time this season. My brother misses your stories by the fire. You captivate him with news of the greater world.” Kael paused. “How much for the Elven blade?”
“Ah!” said Jasper “Now there is a man with a keen eye. That is a quality piece of weaponry. What do you offer in trade?”
“How does a free meal and a night’s lodging sound?” Kael offered.
“Kael” frowned the tinker. “One should never take an opponent for a fool. You know I’ll receive a meal from your father for simply trading some news of the world before the fire tonight. Now come, come. Try me again.”
After some consideration, Kael sighed, “I own a Westland bow. It isn’t much, but I take good care of it.”
“Done!” cried the old man with a laugh. “The dagger is yours. You outfox me again, my friend.”
Kael knew he didn’t outwit Jasper. In fact, he grew accustomed to their bargaining sessions ending in a “victory” for Kael. He was sure the tinker allowed him to win. Possibly as payback for the kindness shown by Brelg.
Kael ran his fingers over the intricate detail in the ancient dagger, marveling at the beautiful design trapped under years of tarnish. Jasper questioned the boy on the health of his family and the happenings of the town. Kael didn’t intend to pass along Drovor’s rumors, but as always with Jasper, the boy started to talk and found himself desperate to tell all he knew.
“Kael , elaborate on this trip you plan.” suggested Jasper unexpectedly.
“Jasper, how did you know we ...”
“Remember, Kael. One of my talents is information. I know everything because I must. That is how a traveler survives in this world. Now tell me of your journey.” said Jasper.
“Well” Kael began “My father is interested in obtaining more Elven rope and medicines. So we decided I should go to Luxlor to buy them.”
“You mean ‘you decided’ don’t you?” frowned Jasper.
“Father is reluctant to let me go,” replied Kael grinning. “but I pestered him enough.”
Jasper turned to Rin.
“Old Sarge grows soft as the years go by, eh Rin?”
The straight faced Zodrian nodded then allowed a slight smile to creep across his face. Jasper turned and walked toward the inn, with Rin following.
“I must transact some business with your father. I suggest you stop dawdling if you want to leave before high sun.” called the old trader and he disappeared behind the inn’s front doors.
Kael inspected the dagger he purchased. Surprisingly, the seven inch blade held a sharp edge even after its apparent neglect. The handle was made of a blue stone, but was so dirty Kael couldn’t determine what type. With a bit of cleaning and sharpening, he he was sure the blade could be restored to its former beauty. Kael rubbed some of the grime from the stone and the light played off its surface. The boy determined that he probably did get the better half of the bargain. He tucked the blade in his tunic and ran to retrieve the Westland bow.
Kael descended from his room into the main hall. He noticed his father sitting at a corner table with Jasper and Rin. Kael approached the table with his bow.
“Excuse me, gentlemen.” said Kael.
“What is it you wish, Kael?” asked his father as all three men turned to look at him.
“I just came to give this to old Jasper.” said Kael holding out the bow.
“Kael!” said Brelg sharply. “Plain ‘Jasper’ is the man’s name. Don’t be rude.”
Brelg turned to Jasper and shook his head.
“The boys’ mother was in charge of teaching them proper manners.” said Brelg frowning. “I’m afraid I’ve been a bit lax in that department.”
Jasper grinned and waved off any insult he may have received. The innkeeper turned back to his son.
“And what does Master Jasper want with your bow, Kael?”
“I traded for something.” said Kael.
“You traded for something? What are you thinking? That bow puts good game on our table in some of the leaner months. How could you trade away something that important? And what frivolity did you trade for?” said Brelg in a growing voice.
Kael pulled the dagger out of his tunic, and awkwardly held it forward. Brelg shot a glance at Jasper and back to Kael.
“So you trade a fine hunting bow for a toy to play soldier, is that it? I’m astonished at you, boy. If you think this deal through, you’ll see your folly. I’m sure Jasper would reconsider his deal ...”
“Now hold on, Brelg. The boy made a sensible trade you know.” cut in Jasper.
“How so?” asked Brelg respectfully.
“Well, if he means to travel the Nagur, he may need a weapon. A dagger draws more quickly than a bow.”
“Your words are true, but do you really think he’ll need it? If so, I would just as soon neither of my boys journeyed today.” said Brelg.
Kael looked over his father’s shoulder with a pained expression. Jasper’s eyes met the boy’s and a smile flashed across the old trader’s face.
“Oh, of course not, Brelg. There is really no need for it, but better to err on the side of caution, eh! Let us call the dagger a loan to carry with him through the Nagur. Next time I’m in town, I will pick it up. Mind you, Kael, don’t act foolishly and trade away my property.” laughed Jasper.
“No sir, of course not.” stammered Kael.
“Well, it is settled then.” said Brelg. “Now Kael, get to your chores. I’ve some more business to discuss with Jasper and you’re running late.”
“Yes, sir.” said Kael. He spun from the men and dashed out to the stables.
Kael entered the low building and tied on a long leather smock. He was puzzled by his father. When most men visited the inn, old Brelg made it perfectly clear who was in charge. However, when Jasper and his quiet son appeared at “The King’s Service”, Brelg demanded perfect manners from his sons.
Brelg too became reserved and polite. Kael assumed this was out of respect for the old trader’s age and knowledge. An innkeeper needed information about the wheat crop in the fields outside Ymril and the fishing hauls on the Derzean sea to help set his prices. However, this politeness was uncommon for Brelg.
Aemmon stood in the stables holding a shovel and a bucket. A sour expression crossed his face.
“I hate cleaning the stables. You know that, Kael?”
Kael burst into laughter. “That’s one thing we certainly agree upon!”
Kael picked up another shovel and went into the nearest stall. The pair worked for nearly an hour. In addition to cleaning the heavily laden floor, they filled feed bags, carried water into the troughs, and finished by giving each horse a brush and rub down. Finally, a broad smile crossed Kael’s face.
“Aemmon, get the harness for Battle-ax. We’re almost ready to go.”
Aemmon frowned and walked to the end of the stables. He took a small harness from the wall and entered the last stall. Kael heard a few muffled groans and finally Aemmon emerged holding the end of a leather strap. As he backed out of the stall, the strap went taut. Aemmon gave a pull.
“C’mon” pleaded Aemmon. “Be a good girl.”
“You need to be polite to her or she won’t be polite to you.” laughed Kael.
“You know it doesn’t matter how I act toward her. She refuses to do anything I say. Come over here and help me.” pleaded Aemmon. “She listens to you.”
Kael approached the stall smiling. Inside, a small donkey stared defiantly at Aemmon, her legs stiffly braced against the compacted earth. As Kael entered, the donkey’s stance relaxed. Kael cupped his hand around her ear and whispered soothingly. The donkey stepped slowly from the stall and pulled Aemmon out of the stables.
Aemmon glanced over his shoulder, rolling his eyes at Kael in exasperation. Kael shrugged his shoulders and followed into the yard. In the courtyard the boys tied empty saddlebags to the donkey, and then the bag of provisions for their trip. Next, they entered the kitchens for some breakfast. Cefiz stood at the cutting board slicing a large ham.
“All of your work is done?” he questioned.
“Absolutely!” said Aemmon, staring at the ham.
“Stables, hens, pigs, horses, floors, dishes, everything?” said Cefiz solemnly.
”Please, Cefiz. Don’t tease us. We’re hungry!” pleaded Kael.
“Did you get Battle-ax ready?” asked Cefiz raising a questioning eyebrow as he sliced.
“Yes, sir.” groaned Aemmon.
“Let’s see, am I forgetting anything?” smiled Cefiz.
Aemmon’s stomach growled loudly. The trio laughed and Cefiz forked ham onto two small loaves of bread.
“I also cut some ham and put it into this sack for you. It’ll be nice to stop for a quick bite when you’re into the Nagur a ways. You should start getting hungry about then.” he paused. “Well Kael will, but Aemmon will be hungry twenty feet from the front gate!”
Aemmon blushed. He finished stuffing half of his loaf into his mouth and was munching furiously. He chewed some more and gulped hard.
“I could do without food for a couple of hours if it means getting this over with.” grumbled Aemmon.
“Oh, you won’t run into any trouble in the Nagur, Aemmon.” said Cefiz. “On a sunny day like this it’s an easy journey. The trail is well marked. Nightfall is when it’s easy to get lost in the Nagur. You can’t see a yard in front of your face.”
“How do you know that, Cefiz?” asked Kael. “Did you ever travel the Nagur?”
“Oh, when the Sarge could spare me,” smiled Cefiz. “I used to go on trading trips for the inn. I haven’t been able to go to Luxlor since ...”
The cook trailed off and resumed slicing ham.
“Ever since mother died.” finished Aemmon.
The three men grew silent for a while. The cook finally coughed and cleared his throat.
“An inn can’t survive without a cook. I don’t think I’ve left this town in nearly ten seasons.” frowned Cefiz. “You boys better get going. You want to be through the forest before sundown.”
Kael picked up the sack and headed for the door. Aemmon finished picking at the scraps left on the cutting board and followed. As the boys walked toward Battle-ax, their father and Jasper approached.
“Well, it’s close to the time you two should be on your way.” said Brelg. “Did you pack everything you need?”
“Yes, father.” answered Kael.
“Remember, Kael.” said Jasper. “I’m a man who’s traveled the Nagur many times. There are a few simple rules to follow to ensure your safety.
First, do not stray from the path. The forest is thick and overgrown. It’s easy to lose one’s way once you step from the path.
Second, respect the Wood. I’m not a superstitious man, but mystery befalls those who harm the trees. If you need firewood, collect kindling from the ground, never lay an ax to the trees.
Finally, if you do get lost, listen for the sound of rushing water and move to it. This will most assuredly be the sound of the Efer river or a creek flowing to it. Once you reach the river, follow its banks and you should find a bridge and the path to Luxlor.”
“Thank you, sir.” nodded Kael as he glanced to his father.
With that, the two boys moved toward the donkey. Kael grabbed the reins and led her to the south road.