Chapter 5
A Battle of Arrows

Laurana was waiting in the courtyard the next morning when Tanis arrived with his bow and arrows, his mood matching the glower of the overcast skies. Miral had given him the morning off, and he resolved to practice his weaponry until Tyresian could find nothing to criticize.

But there was the Speaker’s daughter, attired in a hunter-green gown with gold-embroidered slippers, her long hair loose except for a thick braid on each side of her face. She sat, legs swinging, on the edge of a stone wall, managing both to hint at the alluring woman she would become and to show the indulged child she was now. Tanis groaned inwardly.

“Tanis!” she cried, and hopped down from the wall. “I have a terrific idea.”

The half-elf sighed. How to deal with her? She was only ten years old to his thirty, a mere baby compared with him; the age gap was similar to that between a five-year-old human child and a fifteen-year-old.

He was genuinely fond of the little elf girl, even though she was a touch too aware of how her cuteness affected people. “What do you want, Laurana?”

She stood, arms akimbo, in front of the half-elf, her chin pert and her green eyes sparkling with fun. “I think we should get married.”

“What?” Tanis dropped his bow. As he stooped to pick it up, the child tackled him and, giggling, pulled him to the moss. Gravely, he kneeled, set her on her feet again, and then stood. “I don’t think it would work, Lauralanthalasa Kanan.”

“Oh, everybody uses my full name when I’m in trouble.” She pouted. “I still think you should marry me.”

Tanis prepared to aim for the mutilated target, which still leaned against the high stone wall, but Laurana danced before him, getting in his way. “Do you want to get hurt?” he demanded. “Sit there.” And he pointed to a bench off to his left, the same bench that Lady Selena and the others had used yesterday. Laurana, amazingly, obeyed him.

“Why not, Tanis?” she chimed as he released an arrow that missed the target, clinking against the stone two feet above the padded hay and falling harmlessly to the ground.

“Because you’re too young.” He nocked another arrow and squinted at the target.

She sighed. “Everyone says that.” This arrow hit the hay bales, at least, though it was about three feet to the right of the dragonseye. “How about when I’m older?”

“Then maybe I’ll be too old.”

“You won’t be too old.” She spoke with stubborn force, her lower lip puckered, tears threatening like the thunderclouds overhead. “I asked Porthios how long half-elves live, and he told me. We’ll have plenty of time.”

Tanis turned. “Did you tell Porthios you wanted to marry me?”

She brightened. “Of course.”

No wonder the Speaker’s heir had grown especially chilly of late. Didn’t want the Speaker’s daughter running around telling people she wanted to marry the palace’s bastard half-elf, Tanis thought bitterly. He released the arrow without thinking, and it thunked into the canvas-covered bales mere inches from the dragonseye. Another arrow bit into the cloth between the first arrow and the dragonseye.

Laurana had been watching carefully. “Pretty good, Tanis. So, will you marry me? Someday?”

Tanis walked forward to gather his arrows. When he came back, he’d made up his mind. “Sure, Laurana,” he said. “I’ll marry you someday.”

She clapped her hands. “Oh, hurray!” she chattered. “I’ll go tell everybody.” She scurried out of the courtyard.

The half-elf watched her go. That’s right, Lauralanthalasa, he thought; tell everybody. Especially Porthios.

Later that morning, as rain still threatened, Tanis encountered his “future bride” again as he neared the Hall of the Sky, seeking to clear his head after four hours of archery practice. “There you are!” the small, breathless voice said, interrupting his reverie. The half-elf turned with a start to see Laurana scurrying across the square, hiking up her green-gold dress about her knees so that she could run toward him. The shiny material contrasted with the grayness of the midday light.

Laurana had taken to dressing less like a child lately and more like an elven woman, abandoning the soft, gathered playsuits that elven children wore. Perhaps her new mode of dress reflected the strictures of court decorum, though Laurana, to be honest, seemed to be less concerned with the intricacies of etiquette and social protocol than were elves of lesser birth. She’d probably lose that naturalness as she grew up, he thought with a sigh, feeling terribly old all of a sudden.

“We’ve got to go,” she chirped. “Gilthanas said he saw him heading for the square!”

“Saw who?” Tanis asked.

“Master Fireforge!” Laurana said, as if this should have been terribly plain.

Tanis groaned inwardly. Watching another session of the children and the toymaker was not what he wished to do right now, but Laurana’s grip on his hand was firm, and he had no choice but to stumble along beside her.

Sure enough, the dwarven smith was there when they reached the square, surrounded by laughing children; Laurana promptly dove into the fray. Tanis sighed and hung back among the trees as usual. Soon the crowd began to break up as children ran off to experiment with their new toys. Laurana was caught up in the gift the dwarf had given her, a small, paper-winged bird that really glided. Tanis shoved his hands in his pockets and turned to leave.

“All right, lad, hold it right there!” a gruff voice said behind Tanis, and he jumped, startled, as a heavy hand fell on his shoulder. “You’re not getting away this time.”

Tanis spun around and found himself looking at the dwarf. Master Fireforge’s eyes glimmered like brightly polished steel. Tanis didn’t know what to say, so he remained silent, though he felt his heart jump.

“Now,” the dwarf began carefully, “I know that—for a few folks, anyway—a simple toy isn’t enough to make them forget their cares.” He cast a wistful glance back at the merry children. “I wish it was that easy for everyone.” His eyes met Tanis’s again. “But be that as it may, I want you to have this all the same.” He held a small parcel forth, and Tanis found himself taking it with uncertain hands.

Not knowing what else to do, he fumbled with the string, but finally the knot loosened and the parchment fell away. He gazed at the object in his hand, and his throat grew tight. It was a pair of wooden fish, carved in perfect detail. Each hung by a tiny golden thread from a small crossbar mounted over a wooden base that was carved to resemble the rocky bed of a brook.

“Here,” the dwarf said softly, “let me show you.” He touched the crossbar gently with a stubby fingertip and it began to spin. The fish traveled round and round the base, bobbing gently on their strings. It looked as though they were swimming, graceful and free, there on the palm of Tanis’s hand.

“If you’re embarrassed at receiving a toy, perhaps you can call it a ‘wooden sculpture,’ ” the dwarf suggested, and winked.

“It’s wonderful,” Tanis whispered, and a smile crossed his face.

Tanis was waiting at the courtyard, the fish sculpture perched on a stone sidewall, when Tyresian arrived that afternoon, once again trailed by Selena, Ulthen, and Litanas. Porthios stepped through the double doors a few moments later. Just at that moment, a drop of rain splattered on one of the paths that crisscrossed the area, and Tyresian, wearing a knee-length tunic the color of storm clouds, glanced irritatedly at the leaden sky.

“I think we’d best cancel today’s lesson,” the elf lord said, and his companions—minus Porthios—groaned. The Speaker’s heir merely looked somberly at the group, his light eyebrows drawn together, his face wearing its characteristic frown.

“Now what’ll we do for entertainment?” Tanis heard Litanas mutter, and Selena covered her mouth with one gloved hand and trilled. Tanis cringed.

But he hadn’t spent most of the morning slinging arrows into hay bales to be put off now. He nocked an arrow and drew aim on the target. His tone was intentionally mild. “I’m not too frail to stand a little dampness, Lord Tyresian. If you are, you’re welcome to retreat inside. Perhaps one of the servants will light a fire for you. As for myself, I will remain.”

The short-haired elf lord flushed from his square chin to his hairline. “We will continue,” he said flatly.

The rain held off as Tanis sent arrow after arrow toward the target, blue feathers, then red, flashing as they sped across the courtyard. A few arrows clattered against the wall, but more and more consistently he hit the hay bale. He even struck the round target itself once in four or five tries—but never the dragonseye at the center. Tyresian offered his usual litany of criticism. “Hold that shoulder steady. Keep that elbow back! You shoot like a gully dwarf, half-elf. Keep both eyes open. You want to be able to tell how far away the target is, don’t you?”

Finally, Tanis, his face damp with sweat in the heavy air, placed one arrow only two inches from the dragonseye. He turned triumphantly to Tyresian and the chattering crowd of commentators. Selena, dark smudges visible under her violet eyes, was draped like a cloak against Ulthen, giggling helplessly. Ulthen’s medium-length, light brown hair swept against her shoulder as he attempted to stifle her laughter by placing one hand over her mouth. Litanas’s brown eyes crinkled into slits as he snickered. By contrast, Lord Xenoth, the Speaker’s adviser, stood by the door, his face impassive. Off to one side, Porthios looked unimpressed; he picked up Flint’s toy and idly twirled the crossbar, sending the pair of fish whirling.

“There!” Tanis cried desperately. “What’s wrong with that? It’s almost a dragonseye!” He found himself fighting off tears, to his horror. If I cry now, I might as well move to Caergoth, he said to himself.

Porthios set the fish carving on a deserted bench and moved forward to take Tanis’s smooth ash longbow. Pride battled with unease in his face, and for a short moment Tanis thought his cousin was embarrassed by the turn of events.

“Here.” The elf lord’s voice carried a ragged edge.

Seemingly effortlessly, Porthios swung the bow up and placed an arrow into the target, splitting Tanis’s arrow with a thunk of steel arrowhead against wood and canvas. Wordless, he handed the bow back to the half-elf and began to turn toward the steel double doors. Again for a moment, Tanis saw discomfiture show in Porthios’s deepset eyes.

“But you didn’t get any closer than I did!” Tanis protested, and Porthios swung back. Several raindrops splashed on the two, and Tanis heard Selena order Litanas inside for her oiled-cloth cloak. Off to one side, Tyresian snorted.

With his back to the onlookers, an expression of sympathy crossing his features for the first time, Porthios reached toward Tanis and gripped his upper arm. “I aimed for your arrow, little cousin, not for the dragonseye,” he said softly. His green eyes, so much like the Speaker’s, flashed a warning.

“So you say now!” Tanis said loudly, despite himself. He felt his hands clench into fists at his side. A raindrop plopped on Porthios’s head, flattening a lock of the dark blond hair. “I say you missed the dragonseye!”

He felt, rather than saw, Tyresian appear at his elbow, and heard the elf lord say smoothly, “That sounds like a challenge, my lord. Let’s see how our hotheaded half-human friend can do against you, Porthios.”

The sympathy flew from Porthios’s face. “You challenge me?” he asked softly.

They were all looking at him. Tanis decided quickly. “I do!”

“It’s hardly fair, Lord Porthios,” Ulthen called from the bench. “The half-elf has barely begun his lessons. You do have a bit of an advantage.”

“I can outshoot you, Porthios,” Tanis cried recklessly.

Porthios watched Tanis carefully, then moved close. “Don’t do this, Tanis,” he murmured. “Don’t force me to do this.”

But the half-elf’s temper had heated to boiling. “I can defeat you under any conditions, Porthios!” he said. A steady drizzle now began to mist the area. “You name them.”

Porthios sighed and surveyed the moss at their feet. “Four arrows apiece,” he finally said. “We will use your bow, Tanis.”

Servants scurried to bring small pavilions that could shelter the silk-clad young nobles under their striped canvas. Lord Xenoth vanished, and returned with a hooded cape.

Tyresian appointed himself referee and, hair by now plastered against his angular skull, his pointed ears drooping slightly in the steady shower, took a stance between Porthios and Tanis. “Porthios Kanan names these conditions: Tanis Half-Elven will go first, shooting four times.” His military voice boomed off the damp stone walls. “A dragonseye brings ten points. Hitting any other part of the circular target brings five points. Striking the hay bales outside the target carries two points. Missing the bales completely—” He smiled snidely—“loses the bowman ten points.” He coughed. “Catching pneumonia in this gods-forsaken weather costs both archers fifty points, but we all hope that won’t happen.” Litanas, who had returned by now with two extra cloaks, applauded the jest. “Scarlet arrows for Porthios, cobalt for Tanis. Let the contestants begin.”

The rain grew harder. Occasional bunches of laurel leaves flopped to the ground, bounced, and lay still, like bits of forest flung by an angry, skybound god. Tanis took his position, and aimed through the slants of rain. The crowd behind him drew silent, to his surprise, though the weather may have had more to do with their quietude than courtesy had. Ulthen and Litanas looked like sea elves, their leggings damp to the knees. Selena, who had selected the favored spot in the yellow and white tent, had fared better.

Almost without thinking, Tanis released the arrow. It wobbled, caught in a fold of canvas to the right of the target, and stuck there, a bright splash of blue against a dun backing.

“Two points for the half-elf!” Tyresian called. “The next is Porthios.”

The Speaker’s heir, his face a mask of resignation, accepted the longbow from Tanis. “Remember, Tanis. I did not ask for this.” Tanis met his stare impassively, as though they’d never met.

Porthios nocked an arrow, drew his arm back—and Tanis froze in humiliation.

Porthios was right-handed. Yet in this contest, he had reversed the bow, drawing the bow with his weaker arm. Tanis felt his face go white, then red. Shooting with the off-arm was like saying Porthios could defeat the half-elf without trying. Porthios barely seemed to aim before the crimson-feathered arrow struck solidly in the dragonseye.

“Ten points for the full elf!” Tyresian cried.

The next turn brought the same result, and the score stood at twenty for Porthios and four for Tanis.

“It’s not too late to back down,” Porthios said softly as he handed the bow back to Tanis after his second dragonseye. For once, Porthios’s friends had grown quiet. “We could call off this farce because of rain.”

The words stung like the downpour that drilled into the moss around the two contestants. Even Tyresian had moved to one of the pavilions. Only the two combatants remained in the deluge. The half-elf stepped back to the line.

On the third round, Tanis’s shot slashed through the rain toward the target—and past it, chipping a shard of stone from the wall behind.

“Minus ten!” Tyresian cried. “The score stands thus: Tanthalas Half-Elven, minus six in three. Porthios, twenty in two.”

Porthios sighed and gestured in a way that suggested he’d like nothing better than to abandon the contest. “Go ahead,” Tanis said. “Shoot.”

Porthios, still shooting left-handed, took even less time on this round, and his arrow arced overhead, striking the target a hand’s breadth from the center. He barely seemed to hear Tyresian call, “Five points. The score stands at minus six for the half-elf and twenty-five for Porthios.”

“There’s no way you can win,” Porthios urged. “Let’s stop this.”

Tanis felt his jaw stiffen, and Porthios looked away as the half-elf took more care than ever lining up the shot, concentrating on what was to come, visualizing a successful hit in the dragonseye. Tanis closed his eyes, willing the gods to be with him on this one. He thought of the contemptuous stares of Xenoth, Selena, and the rest, and felt anger rise like a boil within him. He narrowed his eyes against the rain, lined up the target, and released the arrow.

The cobalt-feathered projectile arced slightly, and Tanis’s heart sank.

Then it arced back to earth and neatly struck the dragonseye.

“Ten points! The score stands at plus four for Tanis, twenty-five for Porthios.”

Porthios refused the bow when Tanis handed it to him. “Let it rest, Half-Elven. You are new to the sport. Let it rest.”

For a moment, Tanis almost succumbed to the sympathy that sprang up once more in Porthios’s green eyes. Suddenly, Tanis was painfully aware of his surroundings—the damp green smell of wet moss, the perfume of battered apples lying beneath a nearby tree, the faint cheep of a sparrow hiding from the storm in the branches of a spruce.

Then Tyresian spoke up. “Perhaps you should have chosen a more ‘human’ form of competition than the bow, half-elf.” Tanis felt rage mount in him again.

“Shoot, Porthios,” he snapped. “Or forfeit.”

Obviously tired of the charade, Porthios raised his arms and, sparing only a half-glance for the target, did as Tanis demanded. The arrow missed the target by more than ten paces.

“Final score: Porthios, at fifteen, is victor. A total of four for the half-human who seeks to show his expertise at an elven sport,” Tyresian said flatly, and turned on a muddy heel to head into the palace.

Even Selena and Litanas gasped at the vitriol in Tyresian’s words, but they followed Tyresian toward the steel doors, which shone dully through the gray downpour. Only Ulthen protested. “Unfair, Lord Tyresian,” he complained. “He did the best he could.”

Tyresian’s reply was smooth. “And it wasn’t enough, was it?”

As the courtyard emptied, Porthios stood uncertainly before Tanis, seemingly oblivious to the deluge that bent tree branches like reeds. Something like shame showed on the elf lord’s hawklike face. “Tanis, I …” he said, and trailed off.

Tanis said nothing, merely bending deliberately to pick up the discarded bow; then he paced to the wall to retrieve the arrows, blue and red, their feathers sodden in the mud that welled up around the patches of moss.

“Tanis,” Porthios repeated, and his face, for once, showed the strength of character that could be his as Speaker, if he only let it grow.

“I want a rematch,” Tanis interjected.

Porthios’s jaw dropped, and his upper lip drew up crookedly as though he couldn’t believe what he’d heard. “Have you no sense, Tanthalas? You are thirty to my eighty years. I’ve embarrassed myself enough already with this travesty. Would you duel with Laurana, by the gods? That’s what this comedy is to me.”

Tanis intentionally misunderstood Porthios. “Perhaps this is humorous to you, Porthios. It is dead serious to me. I want a rematch.”

Porthios’s shoulders slumped in resignation. “It is raining, Tanis. I do not want to match bows with you again …”

“Not bows,” the half-elf insisted. “Fists.”

“What?” the elf lord snapped. Tanis could practically hear his cousin thinking, What a human method of settling a dispute.

All the spectators but Lord Xenoth had straggled inside for dry clothes and mulled wine. Xenoth hovered near the doorway however, possibly attracted by the cutting undertone in the pair’s voices. With his puffy, white hair, puckered lips and silver robe, his hands folded before his chest, the old adviser resembled an aging long-haired cat, minus a few teeth but curious still.

Fine, Tanis thought. You want something to report back to the Speaker? This will do.

And he slugged Porthios in the face.

A second later, the Speaker’s heir lay sprawled on his backside in the mud, a clod of dislodged moss still sailing through the air, a look of stunned shock on Porthios’s face that might have been funny in another situation. The rain had caused the colors in his long, silken tunic to run, and rivulets of yellow, green, and blue ran down the elf lord’s arms. He looked positively jaundiced with surprise, and Tanis burst into laughter.

 … and found himself slung against a small peach tree. It was like being tossed headfirst into a huge Darkenwood porcupine. He felt twigs scratch his face, heard small branches crack around him, and felt wet, ripe fruit bump against him as he knocked them loose. A smell of squashed peaches rose in his nostrils.

The battle escalated quickly. Porthios fought to defend himself, but Tanis battled out of sheer rage. Porthios, older and quicker, could outmaneuver Tanis. But the human blood of the half-elf gave Tanis a strength that the lithe elf lord lacked. Thus, while Porthios drubbed the half-elf early on, Tanis soon felt the tide of the fight swing his way.

“Boys! Boys!” The new voice penetrated the miasma of anger clouding Tanis’s brain. The blood stopped roaring in Tanis’s ears long enough for him to focus on Lord Xenoth. The old adviser danced hysterically between Porthios and Tanis, all three of them mindless now of the rain that continued to pelt them. The dye of Porthios’s tunic had been washed to sickly greenish yellow, and the front had been torn from collarbone to abdomen. A rivulet of blood dripped from the elf lord’s mouth, and one eye was swelling shut. Xenoth’s gown bore a splash of mud down the front. Tanis looked down at his own clothes; one mud-caked moccasin lay against a bench. The sand color of his breeches had disappeared under a coat of slimy mud. And the bow—the weapon that had started all this—was in pieces at his feet. Although spots of blood dotted his shirt, he didn’t appear to be injured beyond minor bruises and cuts, however.

Then Tanis’s breath caught in his throat. For on the granite path, cracked and broken, lay Flint’s carving.

As the wheezing adviser helped Porthios into the palace—screeching, “You’ll hear about this, half-elf!”—Tanis dropped to his knees and tenderly picked up the fragments of the carving. One fish survived unbroken, but the thin chain that had attached it to the crossbar had snapped. The crossbar itself was missing. And the base—the delightfully carved representation of the bottom of a rocky stream—had cracked right through the middle. He gathered the pieces together, finding the crossbar in a puddle about five paces away, and wrapped them in the front tail of his loose shirt.

Tanis looked up. The door had slammed behind Xenoth and Porthios, and he stood alone in the gray courtyard.

The rain continued to pour down.

The Speaker of the Sun strode swiftly down the corridor, his forest green cloak billowing out behind him like some fantastic storm cloud, its golden trim flashing like strange, metallic lightning. But it was the lightning in his eyes that caused startled servants and courtiers to step quickly from his path as he passed through the palace on his way toward the family chambers. All knew from experience it took much to anger the Speaker, but mercy to those unfortunate enough to be caught in his path when he was finally moved to ire.

“Tanis!” he called out sternly as he pushed through the door to the half-elf’s bedchamber. “Tanthalas!”

The room was unlit by lamp, but a form, silhouetted in the red light of Lunitari, which streamed in through one window, shifted on the bed.

“Tanthalas,” Solostaran repeated.

The figure sat up. “Yes.” The voice was like lead—flat, heavy, immovable.

The Speaker moved to strike a flint and light a small lamp. He looked over at the slumped figure on the bed, and caught his breath.

Bruises and scabs stood out against the pale skin of Tanis’s face and arms. He shifted his weight, inhaled sharply and grasped his side, then just as quickly sat up straighter.

Over the years Solostaran had learned to force his emotions into the cool mask that he presented at court. That training stood him in good stead now as he watched the adopted nephew he loved so well struggle to maintain a look of nonchalance—as though a wealth of welts and bruises were a normal part of everyday life.

The Speaker remained standing, voice devoid of warmth. “To be fair, I will tell you that Porthios refuses to explain what happened. And apparently he has cowed, coerced, or cajoled everyone else out there—even Lord Xenoth, to my surprise—into keeping silent as well. Will you tell me what occurred in the courtyard today?”

The figure on the bed remained silent. Then Tanis looked down at his lap and shook his head.

The Speaker’s voice continued implacably. “Somehow, I am not surprised at your reticence, Tanthalas. And I will not force you to speak—if, indeed, I could. This appears to be something that you and Porthios must work out on your own. But I will tell you one thing.” He stopped speaking. “Are you listening?”

The figure nodded but didn’t look up.

The Speaker went on. “Good. Then let me tell you this: This will not happen again. Ever. I will not have my son and my … nephew rolling in the dirt, acting like … like …”

“Like humans,” Tanis finished softly. The phrase shivered in the evening air.

Solostaran sighed, searched for another way to phrase it, then decided that bluntness might work best. “Yes, if you will. Like humans.”

The figure on the bed waited several heartbeats and nodded again. Solostaran stepped closer; Tanis held something in his hands. A carved wooden fish? A shock of suspicion went through the Speaker.

“Don’t tell me that all of this was over a broken toy,” he demanded.

When Tanis didn’t answer, Solostaran sighed and prepared to go. “I will send Miral with salves. Get some sleep.” His tone grew gentler. “Can I have anything or anyone sent to you, Tanthalas?”

The reply, when it came, was so soft that the Speaker barely heard the words.

“Flint Fireforge.”

Kindred Spirits