“I beg you, Lord Jendell,” Meister Willem said, “pray allow me to accompany my son on his quest.”
They stood at the gate of the realm of Bast, surrounded by a small crowd. Guards still held Korbin fast, lest he run away. Korbin’s mother Berthe stood near him weeping, clutching a small bag of food, and his brothers and sisters were also by.
“Father, no!” Korbin cried. “Think of mother, and the children!”
“Silence!” Lord Jondell roared. “I have had enough of you, young man. Say one more word and I give the order for the guards to cut off your tongue. And as for you, Willem, you are needed in the castle. Especially in these new few days. I cannot possibly spare you, especially not for this reason.”
“Then allow someone else to accompany Korbin, my Lord. Our second son, Ronel,” Meister Willem said, pointing to Korbin’s younger brother, a spindly youth who had just had his sixteenth Name Day.
Berthe let out a soft groan. Just then, a man emerged from the crowd. Of middle height and age, he looked frightened but determined. It was Alaroc, Berthe’s younger brother, whom Meister Willem had helped many times in the past.
“I will go with young Meister Korbin, my Lord. I owe my brother Willem and my sister Berthe my life.”
Meister Willem and Berthe looked at Alaroc with thankfulness.
“Very well then, so be it. Go on. I am weary of all of you.” Lord Jondell leaned against a post, and covered his face with his hand. “Guards, open the gates and show these men out!”
Berthe ran to embrace her son and her brother. “The heavens watch over you,” she whispered to Korbin, pushing the bag into his hands.
“And with you all, Mother,” Korbin said, fighting back tears. Berthe put one hand against her son’s cheek briefly, then on his forehead to bless him, and then she ran back as they heard Lord Jondell cry, “Guards, close the gates!”
* * *
Dazed, Korbin sat on a stone for a moment, too stunned to know the first thing to do.
“Easy, lad,” Alaroc said. “Steady now. That’s right, just sit a moment and breathe.”
“That was a brave thing you did, Uncle. I thank you.”
Alaroc shrugged. “After everything your father and your mother have done for me? I could not bear to see their hearts break if they would lose both you and Ronel on the same day. And I have no wife, no other family. I will not be so missed if I go, I thought.”
Korbin had to smile a little at this. “You will be missed, Uncle.”
“Perhaps. But if being with you will buy my brother and sister some peace, then I made the right choice. But come, we can lollygag no more. Best to move while the day is not yet so warm. I know you are tired, but you may have your sleep later.”
“But which direction do we go?” Korbin remembered that his uncle was a trapper who knew the forest around the realm as well as the palm of his own hands, but he doubted if Alraroc knew the direction to the Stone Cliffs.
“Open the sack your mother gave you.”
“I’m not hungry, Uncle.”
“Do as I say, boy.” Korbin opened the sack and found a map. He looked at Alaroc.
“The Crone sent a messenger to give this to you, lad. She is on your side, and on young Lady Zaeraiah’s as well. Besides, she wants you to bring back the dragonsblood bloom for Lady Sonaly. It’s her last hope. That should breathe some fresh strength into you.”
Korbin nodded his thanks to the heavens, and he and Alaroc took a good look at the map.
* * *
If all went well, according to the map the journey to the Stone Cliffs would take them at least eight days.
“It’s a long way,” Alaroc said, tracing the line toward the Stone Cliffs with his finger.
“And we no provisions, only what Mother brought. If I had my bow we could catch what we need to eat along the way.”
“A good trapper is always at the ready, lad, didn’t you know that?” From the side of his left boot Alaroc took out his scabbard, and gave it to Korbin.
“I cannot take this, Uncle!”
“You must. You never know what or who we will meet along the way.”
“But you will be undefended.”
Alaroc laughed. “Hardly,” he said, taking out another scabbard from his other boot. “This was my father’s—your grandfather’s. Now we’re all set.”
* * *
They were able to make five leagues that first day. As daylight faded, they came upon a small clearing, and Alaroc told Korbin to sit down and rest. Within a few seconds Korbin was asleep.
By the time Alaroc woke him up sometime later he had already caught, skinned and cooked a rabbit, which the two hungry men made short work of.
“Good thing it’s summertime,” Alaroc grunted, stamping out the fire he had built for cooking the rabbit. “We will be warm enough not to need a fire, because the smoke will attract unwanted visitors. Now go back to sleep, lad. We need to cover at least eight leagues tomorrow.”
Korbin lay back, and thought of what happened from the night before, at Zaeraiah’s Betrothal Dinner, until then.
Zaeraiah. He remembered her lovely face, and the way she smiled at him.
‘Korbin. I’ve been waiting for you.’
‘Raiah! Are you all right?’
‘As all right as one can be by herself in a dark tower. But I suppose where I am is far more comfortable than in a clearing at the edge of the woods, beside a stamped out fire.’
‘You can see me?’
‘Yes. I have been watching you and your uncle the whole day. I did not want to interrupt your progress, and so I kept my thoughts from you.’
‘Oh, Raiah. I am so glad we have each other this way still.’
‘I am, too. This way I can see the way you’re going, and if there’s any danger up ahead.’
‘The Crone sent us a map to the Stone Hills.’
‘Yes, I know. I saw that, too. There’s no way you can fail now.’
A sudden warmth flowed through Korbin’s chest. Hope. He smiled in the dark. He heard Zaeraiah’s sudden tinkling laugh.
‘Yes, hope, Korbin! Let hope keep you strong, my love. With me and Dame Hulde on your side, you must succeed. You must come back to me.’
‘I will succeed, Raiah. And I will come back to you.’