The forest swallowed him up as Kael moved deeper into its interior. A few bends and curves of the path and the exit from the woods onto the Southlands of Zodra disappeared. As he moved inward it grew darker. Kael wondered if this were due to the day growing longer or the woods becoming thicker. He walked on.
The boy lost track of time as he hiked down the path. The monotony of the forest lulled him. His mind drifted over happier times in Kelky, when his mother ran the day to day business of the inn and he and Aemmon spent afternoons playing in the fields around the village. Their father was often away on business in those days, but had since stayed close to home in order to raise his boys and keep the inn operational.
Suddenly, Kael sensed a strangeness in the wood. At first he shrugged it off as irrational fears playing in his mind. Then, he convinced himself something was watching him. However, he neither heard nor saw anything to add credence to his fears. Kael increased his pace and jogged down the path. He desperately needed to make up lost time anyway.
After fifteen minutes at this tiring pace, Kael slowed and shook his head. The feeling was gone, and as he caught his breath he laughed. How foolish he felt. The fears and imaginings of a child got the better of him. Thank goodness no one was a witness to that stupidity.
After another hour, Kael stopped by the western side of the path. He was unable to determine if the storm raged outside the forest. The trunks of the trees were coated in water and drops constantly fell from the canopy of the forest. Kael was certain the hottest, driest days outside the forest appeared this way. The Nagur was a cool, wet, dank place, all to itself. Quiet permeated everything.
From his calculations, Kael felt he should be nearing the Efer river. As he sat propped against a tree, he listened for the sound of rushing water. He closed his eyes and let his mind stretch out and reach for that sound. Did he hear it? Maybe, just faintly, he heard the sound of water spilling over rock. It grew louder the more he concentrated and focused his mind. Yes, now he definitely heard the steady rush of water.
A loud snap interrupted the rhythm of the river. Then another. Kael's eyes sprung open, but his mind and ears stayed alert. The noise came from the eastern side of the Nagur trail. He rolled around the trunk of the tree and gazed into the woods on the opposite side of the path. Nothing. After a minute, Kael heard another faint crunching noise. His eyes shot in the sound’s direction. Was that movement he saw? He couldn’t be sure. A few more soft rustling noises and Kael was up and moving Southward down the path.
The boy fumbled inside his cloak for the blade Jasper gave him. He ran lithely, springing over rocks and fallen tree limbs, his ears on the alert. The rustling turned into a soft thumping noise that quickened as Kael increased his own pace. This was no longer his imagination. Something followed behind him and sounded as if it were gaining. When he reached an open stretch of pathway, Kael stole a glance over his shoulder. The boy was sure he saw movement inside the tree line. He increased his speed, pushing his body’s endurance.
The sound of the river grew. Ahead of him the path widened and cleared. A narrow, wooden bridge arched over a small gorge. The Efer river rushed beneath the bridge. If Kael made it over the river, whatever followed would be required to do the same. Tactically, that gave him an advantage. If he had only kept his bow. Courage replaced fear. His goal became the bridge.
The path flew under his feet as he increased his speed. Behind him he heard a crash and glanced back to see a figure break free from the trees and onto the path. Kael leapt onto the bridge. His heart leapt as well. Jasper’s blade flashed from beneath his cloak. The boy prepared to turn at mid bridge and face his assailant.
His hopes crashed. Ahead of him, three shadowy figures rushed from the woods. They took positions at the end of the bridge and notched arrows into short bows. Kael's heart sank. The bridge was to be his salvation. Instead, it was the perfect trap sprung by this group of thieves. Thirty feet ahead lay an arrow to the heart. Thirty feet below a nasty fall to the turbulent Efer. Thirty feet behind .......
Kael turned to see a hooded figure in green slowly advancing across the bridge. The figure gripped a sword and moved to within three yards of the boy. Kael clenched his teeth, spun the dagger’s balanced weight in his hand and glared. His assailant froze. Kael was shocked to hear the snarl emit from his own lips.
“Yours is a bit bigger than mine, but both cut deeply enough! Stay back!”
The man on the bridge relaxed and stood straight, throwing back his hood.
“You possess backbone.” said a handsome, young elf with dusky gray skin and dark black hair. “But you are hardly in a position to make demands. I am Eidyn, Captain of the Imperial Guard. Drop your weapon and state your business.”
Kael’s shoulders drooped and he glanced nervously between the trio on the bank and the lone elf advancing on him.
“How can I be certain who you are?” muttered Kael over the rush of the river, ”The four of you might be thieves.”
“Grey Elves do not become thieves! You were about to enter our lands. Who else would be guarding the entry way? Now comply with my demands or be taken by force. Those archers could have killed you long ago if they so desired.”
Kael weighed the stranger’s words, and knew they held merit. He could not help but weakly smile at how poorly this trip was progressing. Now he was captured by the very people he came to visit. He plunged the dagger into a post of the bridge and stepped toward the archers with his hands held high.
“I mean no one harm,“ said Kael, “I’m here to do some trading.”
“Trading eh,” replied Captain Eidyn, “It’s extremely late in the day to be thinking of trading. The markets will be closed soon.”
“Unfortunately, my companion was injured and needed attention. This took some time and forced me behind schedule. If you need someone to vouch for me, I’m to meet an Elf named Teeg when I arrive. He’s a friend of my father. He should clear things up.”
“If you use prominent names to impress me, you’ll soon learn they do not.” said Eidyn. “Lord Teeg will be notified of your arrival and we shall see if he supports your story.”
The Elf moved forward and checked Kael for any other weapons. When he was satisfied, he turned and worked the dagger free from the bridge post. His eyes widened and he took a step back from Kael.
“Where did you get this dagger?” he demanded.
“From a friend.” returned Kael.
“The owner of this dagger would not give it away! Turn around!” ordered Eidyn.
Kael complied. Eidyn bound Kael’s hands behind his back and placed a gag in his mouth. The captain marched Kael to the opposite side of the bridge.
“Lieutenant Diom, make sure your men are as vigilant as ever,” Captain Eidyn said to one of the bowmen, “The stories of trouble in the North Nagur are true. I bear much to report to his majesty. I don’t know what role, if any, this prisoner plays in the trouble, but he wears the dress of a Southland villager without the features of one. You three will come with me. You others maintain your positions and guard the bridge. Support will arrive shortly.”
Kael scanned the woods on the south side of the bridge and picked out the figures of Elves crouched behind trees and boulders. Eidyn moved ahead down the path and led the five men on their march toward Luxlor.
After a short while on the path, one of the bowmen left Kael’s side to walk with Eidyn several yards ahead.
“Sir?” he whispered, attempting to keep his conversation low.
“Yes, Diom,” answered Captain Eidyn.
“I was wondering sir. This prisoner, he hardly seems like much of a threat. I mean, he’s just a boy. What worries you about him?”
“He may appear a boy, Diom, but after the things I’ve seen this week I’m taking no chances.” replied Eidyn.
“Sir?” prompted Diom.
“Several nights ago, I came across tracks I’d seen only once, long ago.” continued Eidyn. “Immediately, I assumed there was an unnatural to the north. I tracked it for the remainder of the evening and lost it.”
“Impossible!” gasped Diom.
“I tell you it eluded me by some black magic.” said Eidyn, “And that is not all that seems impossible. As I was returning home, I came across this boy. Taking the usual precautions, I trailed him.”
Eidyn paused and furrowed his brow.
“He heard me.” said the captain.
“No! This cannot be. No mere Southland lad could detect you. I myself find it difficult. You’re like a shadow amongst the trees.“
“Not only did he hear me, but he saw me. I took every precaution and still he saw me!” exclaimed Eidyn.
Diom furrowed his brow in a troubled expression.
“Sir, I’m glad we spoke. I supposed it to be a trick of my imagining, but when you ordered our troops in the wood to maintain their positions,” said Diom “I swear the boy looked directly at Firn and Erlin’s stations. For an instant, I was convinced he saw them as well.”
Eidyn considered the news.
“Diom, this boy concerns me. Once I knew of my discovery, I moved to capture him. As heaven is my witness, he outran me. If he ran in any other direction than that of the bridge, he might have evaded me.”
“Ridiculous! You are a champion of the Grey Elves. This boy could not outrun a champion of Luxlor.”
“You saw it yourself. By the time he reached the bridge I was nearly spent. In another locale he would have outstripped me.” Eidyn clenched his teeth. “When that boy heard me, saw me, then outran me, I knew I was dealing with something unusual.”
Diom turned and looked over his shoulder as the group marched on. Kael diverted his eyes as his mind and heart raced. What were these men talking about?! The boy was frightened and confused. His blood rushed and his senses were alert. He prayed that once they reached Luxlor his father’s old friend, Teeg, would set things straight. Diom turned back to his superior as Captain Eidyn slid Kael’s dagger from beneath his cloak.
“Not only did he accomplish these improbable tasks, but he carried this.” whispered Eidyn.
“The Needle of Ader!” hissed Diom and he shot a glance back to the boy.
Kael was shocked and his eyes went wide as he gazed ahead at the dagger. The revelation that he carried a weapon of significance to the Elves was too much for him to grasp. His reaction did not evade the keen eyes of Diom.
“Captain.” hissed Diom “He hears us and he understands!”
Again Kael was shocked. Something strange was going on. Eidyn wheeled around and marched back to Kael. The captain tore the gag from the boy’s mouth and held the dagger to Kael’s throat.
“Is this true!?” demanded Eidyn in his Elvish tongue.
Kael’s eyes were wide with fear.
“IS THIS TRUE!?” demanded Eidyn once more.
“Yes,” stammered Kael “I .... I don’t know what’s going on here. Please, sir. I’m just an innkeeper’s son on his way to Luxlor to trade some goods. I don’t know about any trouble in the Nagur.”
Eidyn’s eyes narrowed.
“An innkeepers son. From what town?”
“Kelky.” answered Kael.
Eidyn's face grew stern. He threw the gag to the ground and spun to face his troops.
“I want the three of you in a tight formation guarding the prisoner. It’s time to move. Quickly!”
Eidyn thrust the dagger into his cloak, turned to the trail and ran toward Luxlor. Two of the Elves grabbed Kael under the arms and forced him forward at a similar pace.
Once again Kael’s mind raced. What was going on? Did he step into the middle of a battle? Was he being mistaken for someone else? Certainly, he reasoned, this was not normal behavior for the Elves. Possibly there was a murder or theft in the Nagur, and he was in the wrong place at the wrong time. If they believed him to be at fault, would they arrest him or just execute him? He desperately wished his father were with him.
After forty minutes at a steady run, the five men passed a guard outpost. Two Elves manning the post stepped into the road, but recognition of Captain Eidyn flashed across their faces and they quickly stepped aside. Within another five minutes, the group arrived at the outskirts of the city of Luxlor. Simple cottages of earth and wood appeared here and there in the surrounding forrest. As they traveled onward, the number of cottages grew.
Kael was fascinated by the trees in the city. Their number did not diminish as the group traveled deeper and deeper into the heart of Luxlor. More and more houses and cottages appeared, but the Elves constructed them in order to give the trees room. In fact, the citizens of Luxlor built their cottages, stores and other buildings around the trees. In some cases, the trees were an important part of the structure. They passed a cottage with a huge oak trunk sticking out of the middle of the roof and soaring high into the forest ceiling.
Dusk was approaching and Elves crowded the streets traveling to their homes.
“We do not need to alarm the populace by rushing through the streets.” said Eidyn to his men. “Watch the boy closely.”
The group slowed to a walk. Kael was allowed an opportunity to observe the people of Luxlor. Most of the men were about his height, somewhat short by Zodrian standards. All had the distinctive smoky gray skin and black hair common to the elves. Also, Kael noticed the Elves were predominantly slight of build. Almost delicate. This feature coupled with their graceful, fluid motions made even the most mundane tasks appear a beautiful dance.
As Kael was watching an attractive young woman glide by him carrying a basket of apples, he was pulled to a stop by the hand of one of his guards. He turned and stared forward. Stretching across the road in front of him towered a row of gigantic trees. Each spanned a width of ten paces with an unusual cloudy white bark that appeared smooth to the touch. The trees grew so closely together that Kael guessed his fist might just be able to pass between the nearest two. The giants created a formidable wall. Whatever lie on the opposite side was protected by their towering mass.
Ahead, two of these titans grew together over a steel archway and a set of massive steel doors. Eidyn approached a guard stationed by the doors. After a few moments of conversation, the guard stepped away and the doors slowly swung a few feet open. Kael and his escort hurried through the opening before it was slammed shut.
The group stood in a passageway beneath the trees. A thirty foot long steel tunnel had been constructed and anchored to the forest floor ages ago. The trees were coaxed to grow against and around this tunnel. The passageway was so large, two carts could pass one another in the tunnel with room to spare. The high ceiling was lit by glass jars containing a greenish glowing gel. As Kael gazed about in awe, he noticed Eidyn staring at him.
“For your sake, I hope you told us the truth about yourself,” said the Elven captain, “You are about to enter the palace of Luxlor and the Almighty help you if you lie.”
The Elf turned and strode ten paces to another set of steel gates. He whispered through a hole and the door swung open.
The group stepped into a wide, circular opening in the forest. The only trees visible were those they had passed beneath. The wall stretched behind Kael to both his right and left. The line of living columns arced around the clearing, enclosing this portion of the Nagur Wood within their formidable defenses.
Sitting within the center of this circle and towering above even the giant white trees stood the palace of Luxlor. Shredded clouds skirted across the sky above as the remnants of the storm sprinkled the buildings with a fine mist. The last rays of the setting sun pierced the fleeing clouds and struck the palace. Its surface glistened in brilliant white.
“Its beautiful.” mumbled the boy.
Eidyn smiled as he stared at his home.
“Yes, it is.” he replied.
The Captain turned to one of several gatekeepers in attendance and issued a series of quick commands. The soldier spun and ran toward the palace. Captain Eidyn addressed the group.
“Diom, you are to take command of the prisoner. He is to be presented to the royal guard immediately. Hopefully, I will be afforded time enough to attend to business before the court is assembled.” said Eidyn.
“Yes, captain.” answered Diom with a salute.
The Elf captain spun and ran toward the palace. Diom nodded toward the remaining guards, then prodded Kael forward toward the shimmering white structure. As they walked, Diom turned to the prisoner.
“How in heaven’s name did you outrun the captain? No Elf is as swift.” said Diom.
Kael furrowed his brow and questioned whether he should say anything. Was this a trick to get him to speak? Then again, what could he possibly say that might get him in greater trouble than he found himself? Diom waited a moment then scowled. Kael determined silence was not the best course of action.
“To tell you the truth, sir,” replied Kael, “I was so frightened, I couldn’t tell what was happening. I reasoned you were thieves.”
Diom pondered Kael’s answer then grinned.
“Swift or not, I know one thing you cannot outrun.” Diom winked and tapped an arrow in the quiver strapped to his back. “Nothing outruns one of these. So don’t give me any trouble while you are in my care.”
“Absolutely not.” replied a wide eyed Kael.