Tanis looked from face to face, each showing the same accusing stare. Only Flint looked anything but convinced that the half-elf had slain the adviser.
“You saw!” Tanis cried. “You all saw! I shot to the right, toward the body of the beast. Xenoth was to my left when the creature’s tail hit him. How could my arrow have struck him?”
“Yet it did strike him, Tanis,” Porthios said quietly.
Tyresian gestured, and several of the elves moved forward as if to restrain the half-elf. With a bound, Flint, still clutching his battle-axe, thrust himself between Tanis and the approaching captors. He raised the weapon, glared fiercely at the advancing elves, and shouted, “Stop!” Obviously taken aback by the sight of a dwarf outfitted for battle and ready to fight, the nobles stopped.
“We volunteered for this expedition knowing that it could bring our death,” Flint said angrily. “Isn’t that true?”
Ulthen, who with Litanas had been kneeling by Xenoth, stood, his cape splashed with blood. “But we expected the death to come at the jaws of the tylor, Master Fireforge, not by one of our fellow hunters.”
The elves muttered and growled. The adviser had been disliked by many of the courtiers, so there seemed to be little real sadness at his demise, merely shock that it appeared to have come at the hand of another elf.
“Who says Tanis killed him?” the dwarf demanded.
Tyresian sighed loudly. “It was Tanis’s arrow, Master Fireforge. Now, let’s get on …”
But Flint pressed ahead. “Lord Xenoth was dead when the arrow hit him.”
“How do you know?” Tyresian demanded with a sneer. Behind Tyresian, Litanas had withdrawn the yellow and scarlet arrow from Xenoth’s chest and was laying his travel cloak across the body of his former superior. Several other nobles stood apart, poking the tylor’s body, glancing at Tanis and Tyresian, and talking in low voices.
Flint folded his arms across his chest, the axe still clenched in one thick hand. “I saw it.”
“Don’t be ridicu—”
Flint interrupted, raising his voice until it boomed across the clearing. “I was there, Lord Tyresian. You and the others were on the far side of the ravine. I had a clear view. You did not.”
“They argued,” Tyresian said doggedly. “Tanis all but threatened Xenoth at the stables. Who’s to say the half-elf’s human blood didn’t prompt him to avenge himself? And who will trust the word of a dwarf who also happens to be the half-elf’s closest friend?” He turned to Litanas and Ulthen. “Bind his hands. We will return to Qualinost and set the case before the Speaker of the Sun.”
But Miral, supported by Porthios and Gilthanas, had finally risen to his feet. He staggered forward, holding his bleeding right hand inside his cloak. His eyes were glazed with pain and fury. “You are wrong, Tyresian.”
Tyresian bristled. “Mage, you forget who is in command here.”
“Being in command does not imbue you with wisdom, Lord Tyresian,” the mage replied.
Flint interjected. “Let’s examine Lord Xenoth’s body. Perhaps that will tell us something.”
After a long pause, during which several elves began to drift over the rocky clearing toward the adviser’s corpse, Tyresian nodded and pushed his way through the crowd around the body. Flint followed. Kneeling, the elf lord gently withdrew the cloak from Xenoth’s face. The adviser’s visage was blank with death and surprisingly free of wounds. His white hair moved with the breeze. He looked as though shortly he would open his blue eyes and speak.
“Farther, Lord Tyresian,” Flint prodded. “Look at his chest.”
The elf lord drew in a deep breath and pulled back the cloak. The tylor’s knifelike tail had caved in and lacerated Xenoth’s chest. Gilthanas gasped and looked ill. Porthios laid a steadying hand on his brother’s arm.
“Where is the arrow?” Flint said.
“Here.” The new voice belonged to Litanas, who sidestepped through the other elves and placed the arrow into Tyresian’s black-gloved palm. Fully one-third of the shaft was stained with blood. Litanas, brown eyes angry, pointed at the shaft. “Lord Xenoth’s blood,” he said.
The dwarf stayed calm. “I’m not disputing that it is Xenoth’s blood,” Flint said.
“Well, it’s definitely Tanis’s arrow,” Tyresian said stubbornly.
“Certainly,” Flint conceded. “I’m not arguing that, either. In fact, I made the arrowhead.”
Tyresian laid the cloak back over Xenoth’s torso and head, and rose. “Then what, dwarf?” he snapped, towering over Flint.
“By Reorx, use your brain, elf! Don’t you notice anything unusual about the arrow?” Flint put all his scorn into the statement.
“Correct,” Flint said, nodding.
“So?” Tyresian’s voice throbbed with contempt. “You’ve admitted it’s the half-elf’s arrow. So what?”
Porthios made a small noise, and Flint’s blue-gray gaze shifted back to the Speaker’s son, whose eyes were suddenly wise. “You understand, don’t you?” Flint asked.
Porthios nodded and explained. “If Tanis’s arrow had struck Lord Xenoth before the tylor’s long tail did, the arrow would have been crushed by the beast. As you can see, the arrow is undamaged.”
The commander’s sharp blue eyes widened. Then he swept one arm aside, all but knocking Gilthanas into Miral. “His arrow still found its way into Xenoth. So what if the half-elf didn’t kill him. Tanis is still guilty of a gross error of judgment.”
Flint and Tyresian stood frozen, gazes locked, for a long moment. Miral’s voice finally broke the spell that held them. “All this talk is not getting our comrade’s body back to Qualinost,” he stated wearily. “I suggest we return immediately and discuss this matter with the Speaker.”
Tyresian balked. “I have one more question,” he said. “Who killed the tylor? Tanis?”
“Did the mage kill the beast, perhaps?” Litanas murmured. Several other elves nodded agreement. “Look at his hand, after all. Even from across the ravine, we saw the lightning burst from his fingers and hit the lizard.”
Porthios turned his gaze to Miral, still supported by Porthios’s younger brother. “Show us your hand, mage,” Porthios ordered.
Miral’s hood had fallen back from his pallid face, and the mage’s eyes squinted against the light. He gingerly drew his right hand from beneath his cloak. The sleeve was in tatters. Nails were missing from his first two fingers, and all five digits were blackened from the tips to the palm. Angry red streaks extended from the mage’s wrist to a scar near his elbow.
The mage looked confused. “Nor did I.” He appeared to be on the verge of collapse.
“What happened?” Porthios asked gently.
The mage stammered as he spoke, and a blotch of red appeared high on each blanched cheekbone. “I saw the beast threaten Flint and Tanis,” Miral said. “I am but a weak magic-user. Under normal conditions, I would have had no power against a beast such as this. I came along merely to tend some of you, should you get hurt.
“When I saw the monster looming over Tanis, I could not stand the thought of losing yet another beloved friend to a violent end. I … I thought of Arelas, if you must know, and suddenly I and my horse were in the clearing with Tanis and Flint, and … I felt power like I’d never known course through me.” The mage’s breath was shallow, his voice nearly a whisper. “I felt a jolt, as though I’d fallen from a great height, and my hand … pained me. Then I awakened on the ground, with all this around me.”
A gesture of his left hand encompassed the adviser, the dead tylor, and the bloodstained clearing strewn with shredded leaves and bark. Then Miral slumped to the ground in a dead faint.
The hunting party rode slowly from the forest. The rain continued to hold off, the threatening clouds sparking tempers already stretched thin by the events in the clearing. Xenoth’s body had been lain across the back of Litanas’s horse, and—at Tyresian’s order—Litanas rode with Ulthen. The mount was skittish, rolling its eyes, the scent of blood in its nostrils.
Porthios and Gilthanas kept their horses close to Tanis and Flint. Although the elven brothers said nothing, their actions spoke clearly enough. They were guarding him until the case could be laid before the Speaker.
The journey back to Qualinost stretched endlessly. The thunder drummed overhead, and the wind rose, with no rain to ease the tension of the charged air.
When they neared the city’s boundaries, Gilthanas pushed his roan ahead, to go inform the guards of their coming. The Tower of the Sun loomed like a specter in the leaden sky. When they reached the city’s south archway, a quartet of guards was waiting for them.
“These guards will escort Tanis to his quarters, where he will remain under guard until we have met with the Speaker,” Gilthanas said.
Flint protested. “You mean this one”—and he gestured at Tyresian—“will get a chance to tell his story to the Speaker without Tanis being there to defend himself? Is this elven justice?”
Porthios spoke. “Lord Tyresian, as commander of the expedition, has the right to report to the Speaker of the Sun.”
“Will you be there?” Flint demanded of Porthios.
“Certainly. As will Gilthanas. And Miral, if he is strong enough.”
“Then I’m going, too,” the dwarf rejoined. “I’ll tell the Speaker Tanis’s side of all this.” Flint set his jaw; it was obvious there would be no dissuading him.
Two guards, dressed in their glossy black livery, accompanied Tanis, still mounted on Belthar, through the streets of Qualinost to the palace. The somber trio drew some glances from passers-by, but all in all, the city’s residents appeared to find nothing odd in the Speaker’s ward traveling with two palace guards.
“Out of my way!” Tanis heard a deep voice growl outside the door to his palace chambers several hours later. The half-elf turned from where he’d been gazing out of his second-floor window, which overlooked the courtyard. He faced the source of the noise.
“You know darn well who it is,” Flint roared. “Now stop this nonsense, and let me pass. I intend to speak to Tanis, and I warn you, don’t you cross me.”
“But Master Fireforge, Tanis is a prisoner,” one of the guards protested. “He cannot—”
“Prisoner schmisoner!” the dwarf spat. “I come by order of the Speaker of the Sun. Now let me pass, or by Reorx I’ll …”
Tanis could only imagine the look in the dwarf’s steely eyes at that moment, but suddenly there was a jingling of keys. The heavy door swung inward, and the dwarf stepped through.
To Tanis’s surprise, Miral had come with the dwarf. The mage’s right hand was heavily bandaged, and his face was as colorless as his eyes, but he appeared pleased.
The guard shut the door, obviously glad to have the dwarf on the other side of it.
The glower on Flint’s face couldn’t disguise the fact that he was as pleased as Miral. “We explained everything to the Speaker,” the dwarf said, refusing a seat. He remained standing on the thick, hand-knotted rug, which depicted a stag hunt in swirls of green, brown, and orange.
Miral made his way to a canvas-and-aspen chair next to a spare-looking table that served Tanis as a desk. The mage eased his body into the chair. Tanis offered him water from a porcelain pitcher, but the mage shook his head wearily.
“Your friend here,” Miral said with a nod at Flint, “told the Speaker everything that happened in the clearing—how Xenoth was yards away from the path of both arrows, how you shot to protect the adviser as the creature attacked …”
“… and how Miral came thundering through the clearing to release his magic against the tylor,” Flint added. “There was some debate over who killed the beast. The mage contended it was your arrow that slew the tylor. Others said it was the mage fire that killed it.”
Miral interjected. “Tanis’s arrow was in the creature’s eye. I but raised a little smoke and fire.”
Flint raised an eyebrow. “Your ‘little smoke and fire’ was far more than a mere distraction.” He looked at the half-elf. “More important, the mage here also proposed an explanation for the strange deflection of your arrow.
Tanis, wordless, looked at Miral. The mage smiled. “Tylors are creatures capable of strong magic. I, as you know, am not. Yet somehow, back in the clearing, I was able to send a blast of lightning so strong that it knocked me out of my saddle and, quite possibly, killed the creature.”
“Yes?” Tanis asked, not sure where the mage was leading.
Miral sat up a little straighter in the canvas chair and gestured with his left hand. His bandaged one remained motionless on the arm of the chair. “I merely conjectured whether, in the heat of the emotions of that moment, the creature released its magic and I somehow unwittingly deflected it, turning it back upon the tylor.”
“Is that possible?” Tanis’s face looked dubious.
The mage shrugged, and slumped again. “I don’t know. It’s only a guess. But if that did happen—and it’s a big ‘if,’ I know—could that same burst of powerful magic also have deflected an arrow from its path?”
Tanis looked wonderingly at the mage. “You are saying …”
Miral drew a deep breath. “That what happened to Lord Xenoth was an accident, that you were in no way to blame.” He paused to gather his thoughts. “And that, in fact, you behaved honorably and bravely in the face of near-certain death, seeking to save Lord Xenoth.”
Flint stomped over to Tanis’s desk and helped himself to a handful of sugared almonds from a covered wooden bowl. “The Speaker said he will check with experts in magic to see if that is a plausible explanation,” he added. “And thus, it appears, you are cleared. The guards have been dismissed from your door.”
“Lad, you look as though you’ve lived through ten years in two days,” Flint said, clearly unaware of the pouches under his own bloodshot eyes.
With no more words, the dwarf and the elven mage left then, one to his shop and the other to his rooms at the palace. Tanis moved to his wardrobe to prepare to retire. He had just shrugged out of the leather shirt when he heard a knock at his door. Thinking it was Flint, he strode to the door and threw it open, not bothering to throw anything over his torso.
A light voice greeted him, and Laurana stepped out of the shadows of the corridor into his room. She appeared hesitant, which was unusual for her but probably not surprising considering Tanis’s level of undress. The only light in the room came from a lamp on Tanis’s desk and the moonlight streaming through the window behind him. The lamplight glinted against the metallic strands in her long silver gown. “Tanis.”
He said nothing. Tanis hoped this interview wouldn’t last long. He was suddenly so tired that he could barely focus on the elven princess.
“I …” She faltered and tried again. “Father talked to me about the discussion you and he had this morning.” She passed him and stepped onto the thick rug that Flint had occupied only moments before.
Tanis, shaking his head, remained in the doorway. Was it only that morning that he had met with Solostaran in the Speaker’s private chambers at the Tower? How badly the half-elf needed sleep. He reeled and caught the stone door frame.
“He said you don’t love me,” Laurana continued. “Not the way I hoped you did.” She kept her chin high, but her agitation showed in the way she kept smoothing the lace at the wrists of the gown.
“That’s not true!” Laurana protested. “Just because we were raised in the same house doesn’t make that so. I can love you, and I do.” She moved toward him and grabbed for his hand with her slender fingers.
Tanis groaned inwardly, yet he knew deep down that Laurana was right. She was his cousin only by marriage—and even that link was tenuous. She certainly was not his true sister. But did he even wish her to be so? He shook his head, thinking of the golden ring that lay hidden still in the bottom of his leather purse.
“Laurana, please understand,” Tanis said, his voice weary. “I do love you. But I love you as a—”
“—as a sister?” she finished acidly, and suddenly pulled away from him. “That’s what you told father this morning, wasn’t it? ‘I love her only as a sister.’ ”
Only the ragged sound of her breathing broke the silence in the room. When she spoke again, her voice was bitter.
“I’ve been a fool, haven’t I? I won’t trouble you any longer, Tanthalas, my brother. I should thank you, really, for opening my eyes to the truth.”
Her face was as cold as the quartz walls of the room, but Tanis saw Solinari’s light reflected in the tears in her eyes.
“I could learn to hate you, Tanis!” she cried, and then shoved past him to the corridor, leaving Tanis to stare after her. Just before she disappeared down the hallway, she stopped and turned. Her voice was nearly calm again. “Throw away the ring, Tanthalas.” Then she vanished.
Tanis mentally kicked himself. There must have been a better way to have handled that. He shook his head and sighed, then closed the door.