Hosus sat observing her group. The twins were muttering to each other and Nar kept glancing at the body while he and Bertran dug a shallow grave. She could only shake her head. Hosus understood the need for secrecy in their work. Only she and Pral knew their mission, and how much depended on their success. The other members of their group had no idea what they were planning, and Hosus only hoped they would still follow Pral once they were told the group’s true goal.
Sitting beneath a low hanging branch, Hosus reflected on that critical night when she had met Pral and they had embarked on this journey.
* * *
It had not been a day that foretold some fateful event. It had been a cool day, but sunny, at the beginning of the previous autumn. The leaves had begun to change colors, and the birds were beginning to migrate, soaring over her homeland in large Vs or in giant flocks.
She had been stalking game through her Highland forest home, hunting for her dinner. She had spotted her prey, a small doe that had gotten separated from her herd and had been wandering ceaselessly for two days. The deer was now refreshing itself at a small brook, but before Hosus began her final approach, a soft rustling close to her right froze her step. It was not an animal noise. Hosus knew that for sure. Her attention focused on this intruder, and, quieter than a mouse, made her way to a better vantage point to view this newcomer. It bothered her that she had only discovered his presence now, for she had been scouting about constantly whenever she lost her doe, and she had seen no other signs of human presence.
Sliding along a backward route, Hosus slowly circled around to where she had pinpointed the source of the noise. But when she came upon the spot, there was no one. Approaching carefully, she saw the slight indentations where a body had been crouched in the soft earth.
She sensed rather than saw the attack coming from behind. She dodged right, hoping the attacker was right-handed and his attack would leave him off-balance after missing. Turning quickly, she aimed a spinning kick where her opponent’s head should have been. But he had anticipated her, and had already retreated a few steps.
Hosus drew her knives, one held in a defensive grip while the other was grasped to throw. But before she could begin her next attack, the man stood up to his full height and lowered his weapons. Though this was obviously the end of the round, Hosus was in no way prepared to call this the end of the fight.
“As skillful as they claimed. And as wary.”
“Who are you?” Hosus whispered, peering into the shadows of her assailant’s face, obscured by a dark cowl.
“Someone who knows things. And knows people. For example, I know that you are one of the best scouts in the known world. I also know a certain person who requires your considerable talents to complete an endeavor.”
“If you are but a messenger, give me the message and be gone. You have already lost me my meal.” Her voice held an edge of anger.
“As perceptive and aware as I imagined. Possibly better. Few, if any, could have detected me at all, let alone evade a surprise attack.” He seemed to be talking to himself.
“The message.” Though Hosus responded calmly, this man put her on edge. She wanted to be away from him as quickly as possible.
“If you insist. Hosus, daughter of Trieth, sister to Lian, you are hereby requested to appear before the Council of Seven to discuss matters to be then disclosed. This meeting will take place in Terada, in one week’s time. If you decide to refuse this invitation, your sister will be killed...” Here the man paused. All Hosus could see was the glean of his teeth as he grinned nastily at her. “…by our appointed messenger.”
He paused again, as if to allow Hosus to process this information. He said only one more thing before disappearing. “And trust me, little Lian and I will have much fun before she dies.”
At this final threat, Hosus launched her dagger at the man, aiming for his heart. But he was too quick, side-stepping the attack and melting into the brush as if he belonged to the forest.
Hosus quickly retrieved her weapon. She sensed nothing around her and the forest was full of natural sounds again. Hosus figured the man would not bother her now that he had relayed his message but she was still very uneasy. Sheathing her weapon, she let her fingers linger on the hilt as she began the day long journey that would take her back into civilized lands. It would take her at least another day to prepare for her trip to Terada, and then several more to reach her destination. The thought of not going never crossed her mind.
Since their mother had died two years hence, Hosus and her younger sister Lian had become closer than ever. Where Hosus had learned and perfected the art of the forest, Lian had mastered those of people. Lian was the most important person in Hosus’s life. If that masked messenger could track and nearly trap her that easily, Lian would never stand a chance. The decision had been made for her, it seemed.
It took her most of the day to leave the forest, and from there it took her a few more hours into the night to reach her home at the edge of the city Goril, approximately a three days journey by horseback from Terada.
She slept until nearly noon the next day, allowing her body to recuperate after the harsh pace she had set herself the day before. When she finally did arise, she began her preparations immediately, stopping only to wolf down a quick lunch of apples and smoked venison. First, she went to her sister’s home, and told her everything of what had transpired. Although Lian was frightened for Hosus to be doing anything under such threats of violence, she had enough confidence in her sister to believe she would keep herself out of trouble. As for herself, Lian would invite some tracker friends to stay with her for a time as added security.
After saying a short goodbye with admonitions to be careful, Hosus prepared all of her clothes, as well as laying out all of her knives. She sharpened each meticulously before storing them in hidden pockets about her person. By the time darkness fell, all was in order. In the morning, all she would need to do was saddle up her chestnut mare Waterlily, and she would be off. Though her mind was plagued by worries and doubts, Hosus quickly dropped into the deep and dreamless sleep that follows adrenaline.
The night passed quickly, and Hosus woke with a start at dawn. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, she made herself some sandwiches for the ride today. She quickly packed and saddled Waterlily, turning the mare out of the little stable and onto the road. Hosus let Waterlily set the pace for now, but she paused in front of her sister’s home to mutter what she hoped would not be her final goodbye. She didn’t know what fate had in store for her though, and with these final, gloomy thoughts clouding her mind, she heeled Waterlily into a slow trot down the road.
The three days and two nights ride from Goril to Terada passed smoothly. The weather remained cooperative, even warming slightly as the days passed. Hosus spotted some menacing storm clouds on the horizon the eve of the second day but they had passed south of her.
As she rode, she contemplated the arrival of the Council’s messenger. His sudden appearance during her hunt made her anxious. She knew that forest, had lived in its glades and knew its secret places. The fact that that man had taken her so completely unaware made her feel violated in a much more profound way than merely being ambushed. He had ambushed her in her own place, possibly could have killed her. The thought made her shiver despite the warm sun on her back.
On the eve of the third day, Hosus arrived at the gates of the bustling market metropolis of Terada. They were majestic, ornately carved with the history of the Terada nation, and gilded in silver. They stood wide, releasing a slowly moving line of merchant trains and farmers who squinted as the setting sun glinted off the silver, causing the gates to shine brilliantly and the city walls to glow. Hosus paused a moment at the side of the road to admire the road and bask in the last warmth of the day. Then the sun slid below the horizon with a last wink and Hosus hurried through the gates before they closed for the night.
Hosus wandered through the torch lit streets, searched until she found a respectable looking inn with decently priced beds by the name of The Crying Onion. The inn’s sign, Hosus noted, showed an onion crying while peeling an onion. She was still chuckling at the dark joke as she threw her pack on the soft down bed and looked out of her small window onto a still busy avenue just off the market street. She had three days left until the Council meeting and contemplated her next steps. After washing the dust from her face with water, Hosus decided to use that time to discover as much about the Council of Seven as she could. What under the sun would they need me for? This thought gnawed at her as she turned in and tried to sleep.
As it turned out, the next few days revealed little to her, only what was common knowledge. No one knew their actual identities, but no one had a grudge. Even the riffraff praised their leaders. They ruled fairly, and judged righteously, according to all concerned. Despite handing out rather more coins than she would have liked for information, she could not find a single negative opinion of the Council. This finding intrigued and worried her. Even though she spent most of her time in the forest, she found it difficult to believe that not a single person she had spoken with had any gripes with their rulers, especially such enigmatic ones. Her only recourse, it seemed, would be to find out for herself.
On the appointed day, Hosus approached the building that housed the Council chambers. They had not thought it necessary to give her an exact time, a small detail that would have saved Hosus a great deal of irritation. As it was, she appeared at the Council building doors shortly after breakfast. The building itself was not particularly grand but it was well-built and had a simple beauty to its curves and domed roof. There was nothing ornate besides some fancy latticework she noticed was carved out of white marble. She noted the wealth and was impressed by the subtlety of its display. She entered the open doors and was immediately greeted by a liveried butler who ushered her down several short hallways to a room of middling size. Apparently, she was the object of importance today.
The room was shadowed, the windows covered by thick curtains. Two lamps had been placed toward the back of the room, flanking a long, curved table. Placed behind the table were seven in the middle chairs, all rather plain in appearance, which did not surprise Hosus. Even here at the heart of their power, the wealth and power of the Council was subtle but strong. With the position of the lamps, the Council members would be shadows to her eyes. This seemed almost dramatic to her after the subtlety of building, and she was curious about this shadow of anonymity they maintained. She expected this would an interesting meeting indeed.
She stood waiting against the wall across from the chairs. There were two chairs positioned in the center of the room, facing the Seven, which she assumed she was to occupy at some point today. Who the other chair was meant for, she had no idea.
Hosus did not have to wait long, but enough time elapsed to make a normal man uncomfortable. The door through which she had entered reopened and a towering man emerged. At first, Hosus believed it was the Council’s messenger, but when she looked more carefully, she did not see the same cruelty in either his face or his bearing.
Dressed in a forest green cloak that fell to his ankles, he was handsome, with green, penetrating eyes that had fading crow feet, as if he had once smiled a great deal but no longer. His black hair was cut short, except for a small topknot. His face was hard, his nose had that once broken look, and his dark skin was patterned with white crisscrosses of small scars. Under his cloak, she could see hard muscle moving beneath his shirt. He had the look of a predator, and a successful one at that.
He looked only once at Hosus, but she felt that same appraising look that she had just given him. Without hesitation, he moved to the middle of the room, and stood behind the proffered chair. He did not sit. Hosus decided to follow his lead, and walked forward. She felt tiny standing beside him, but she did not let this slight discomfiture show. Wordlessly, they awaited the Seven.
They waited only a few moments before two doors on the side of the great room swung open noiselessly to admit the ruling Council of Seven. They filed in and took their places in ceremonious silence, and remained thus for several minutes, simply staring at Hosus and the other man.
Hosus did not move, but stared directly back at the man in the center. They were all watching her and the stranger next to her, but she guessed the man in the middle lead these men. If she understood anything about ruling groups, then it was he who had summoned her. Straining to see through the shadows, Hosus faced down the man who had threatened her and her sister.
“Hosus, daughter of Trieth, and Pral Stanj,” began the central figure, “You have been summoned before this ruling Council on matters of great import. But firstly, would you prefer to sit? We may be together for quite some time.” The speaker, whom Hosus took to be the Council Minister, motioned to the chairs in front of them. Hosus decided it might be wise to look pliant, at least for the time being. She needed to learn more about these men who played with her life.
Pral, however, remained standing. His eyes never stayed still, but were constantly roving all over the room, scanning everything. Hosus could not decide if this was merely paranoia or simply the way the man acted. She did not let it bother her.
The man nodded, once, his mouth twitching perceptibly at Pral despite the heavy shadowing. “Very well, down to business. You have been summoned because you both have tremendous talents. This council has recently uncovered information that could be dangerous to our land in the future if it is not immediately acted upon. We are asking you,” here he paused, as if contemplating his next words. “We are asking you to make a foray into the Dead Lands and retrieve a certain artifact we believe has been hidden there. Please, do not scoff at this duty. This artifact, if it were activated, could be an instrument of great destruction in the wrong hands.”
Once again he paused, this time gauging both Hosus and Pral’s reactions. Hosus stifled any response, but she was experiencing no small measure of incredulity. She noticed that her companion also covered any reaction to this odd request.
Appearing satisfied, the man opened his mouth again to continue, but he was cut short when Pral finally spoke.
“Reveal your true plans, Herkiel, or we will certainly not cooperate.”
Herkiel’s mouth snapped shut with a click. Even in the gloom of the Council chambers, Hosus could see color flood his cheeks. She glanced quickly at Pral, wondering why he might include her, but he was as stoic as ever.
The Council Minister immediately reined in his anger, and said normally, “Very well, Pral. If you will be insolent to this Council, we will simply dismiss you. Guards!”
A pair of heavily-muscled guards entered the room and flanked Pral, who still did not move. The minister nodded, and they each took an arm and tried to steer Pral out of the room. As quick as lightning, he broke their grips, and with two swift strikes, left the guards crumpled on the ground.
The Council collectively gasped and one of them pushed his chair back as if to leave. Hosus was impressed by this man’s speed and skill but she was not surprised. Pral returned to his former position, and stared hard at Herkiel. The minister stared back dazed, but could not hold the stare for long.
“Tell us the rest, Minister,” Pral made the title sound like a curse, “or both of us shall leave you to fetch your artifact on your own.”
Herkiel’s gaze turned to his unconscious guards, his jaw hanging. Hosus could almost smell the fear emanating from the entire Council, but it was strongest from Herkiel. She smiled slightly to herself, impressed with how Pral had so quickly reversed the side with power.
Although Pral had spoken to the minister, it was another of the Council who spoke. Hosus turned her attention to him, but kept a wary eye on the Council Minister. “This artifact was the source of the original Seven’s power. It allowed them to regulate the weather and other factors to improve the harvest. But over six generations ago, the Council decided to lock the artifact in a vault. They feared the possible consequences of theft, for their neighbors to the south had been raiding deep into Teradan lands. It is this artifact that has been stolen. We want it returned before the thieves discover how to activate it and rain destruction down upon us all.”
Hosus was intrigued by this revelation. A magical artifact capable of controlling the weather, among other things. That was a powerful ability, and a very dangerous one. She noticed Pral glance at her, and she could feel her lips pursed in thought. Hosus stilled her features to match Pral, who only looked bored by the news.
“We have now revealed to you what no one outside of this council has knowledge of. We are charging you with the task of retrieving the Staff of Archelum and returning it to us, that we might hide it once more and keep it safe.”
Silence reigned as the Council waited for an answer. “The Dead Lands lie on the far side of the continent, far outside any boundaries Terada has ever claimed. Why would you hide something that out of reach? And where and how did you get the information that it was found or at least being sought?” Hosus asked.
“Obviously, we did not choose to hide the Staff anywhere,” Herkiel said derisively. “As for our information, it came from a source accorded the highest trust by this Council. This source informed us that, as of two months ago, organized bands of men were seen traversing the Dead Lands. They appeared to be looking for something. It is our belief that these men seek the Staff.”
The men on the Council gave Hosus questioning looks. “Why what?” asked Herkiel, obviously annoyed by the questions.
“Why do you believe these men are after the Staff? Surely it can’t be the only thing to find in the Dead Lands. What particular fact, real or imagined, makes you think they are after this Staff of yours?”
The man who had delivered their mission spoke again. “Our source…our source managed to follow one of these groups. The source reported these men complaining of the cold and sun all for a bloody weathervane. Pardon my language.”
Hosus resisted rolling her eyes. The man’s high voice and chauvinism did not elevate him in her opinion. “One source seems like hardly enough justification to send out a search party to retrieve your toy. Another thought occurs to me that if someone really is looking for your Staff, then they could just follow us to its hiding place and take it from us.”
Herkiel’s mouth split into a toothy grin. “We had thought about that. Thus, we won’t be providing you with the Staff’s exact location.”
Hosus could only shake her head. “You want us, just two people, to search an entire frozen desert by ourselves? For what? To protect something that might as well be a myth to us?” She didn’t bother to mask the contempt in her voice.
She glanced up at Pral, but he did not return her look. “I cannot speak for my companion, but I will accept this task,” he said quickly. Hosus thought the Council’s news had surprised her, but she had thought Pral less obedient than this.
Herkiel must have been just as surprised because he started to say something but sputtered off into shocked silence. “You will?” he sounded positively incredulous.
Before Hosus could begin to argue, Herkiel had dismissed them with their charge and Pral was guiding her out by the elbow. She and Pral walked out together, not speaking until they had left the building. When they were finally in a trafficked area, Pral turned to her and offered his hand. “My name, as you know, is Pral Stanj. It is a pleasure to meet you.”
Hosus shook his proffered hand, but coolly returned his gaze. “What was that all about? I’m not going on some fool’s errand for a bunch of hypocritical egomaniacs. Especially not after they threatened my sister.”
“Your sister will be protected. The tracker friends she has staying with her are also friends of mine. They will see that no harm comes to her.”
Hosus was caught off guard. “How do you know my sister?” She had to forcefully keep her hand from going to her dagger. Violence would not get her any answers from this man.
Pral eyed her, and then gave a curt nod. “Not here. Let us adjourn to someplace more private.” He walked off in the direction, not of the inns, but rather towards the docks. Hosus had no choice but to follow.
They walked down the crowded streets, refraining from speaking until they reached their destination. Hosus kept glancing at her large companion, wondering about him, where he came from, what was his history, how he knew her sister, why were they embroiled in this together. The questions never ended, and she was impatient, knowing she would not discover the answers immediately but needing to know now.
The buildings around them quickly changed the further from the town proper they moved. The well-maintained, red-slated roofs began to diminish in height, and the shingles looked worn and weathered. The meticulously clean streets acquired trash along the edges, and the paving stones were worn smooth by the countless footsteps of merchants and sailors traveling towards the markets and inns with their supply of ale.
The smell of the river met her nostrils, and she breathed deeply of the damp scent. It had been many years since Hosus had seen the large river that ran through Terada and carried trade items to and from the capital city, but she would never forget that scent. It reminded her of home, of the streams that ran through the forest and the damp earthen banks. It helped to calm the storm of questions raging in her mind. She would find the answers one way or another.
She finally spotted the docks from around a building at the end of the street. This main thoroughfare from the docks to the city curved slightly, so new travelers moving towards the city center would be constantly surprised at the simple beauties around the bend.
Hosus peered out upon the many docks that extended out into the river. The early afternoon sun glinted off the surface, illuminating the boats and ships that traversed the flowing water. Dozens upon dozens of crafts flitted between the docks and ships anchored in the deep center of the river. The docks, themselves immense creations of timber and stone, extended across only a small portion of the water. They looked like fat, stubby fingers grabbing greedily at the wealth the river represented. Hosus resented this perversion of nature, but she understood the human necessity.
They were nearly among the ships when Pral finally turned into a dilapidated building where the door hung askew on rusted hinges. She entered and her ears were immediately assaulted by shouted conversations and raucous laughter. She peered up at Pral, and figured this place was as safe as any for a private conversation. Hosus also doubted that anyone would mind if she was forced to get a little rough.
Working their way to the back of the tavern, they took a small table in the corner, and both put their backs to the wall. A waitress walked by to take their orders. Pral asked for ale but Hosus shook her head. They waited in relative silence until his drink was delivered.
Though she was impatient, Hosus showed none of it and waited stoically for Pral to sip his ale. When he placed the mug back on the table, nearly empty, she expected him to begin speaking. When he remained silent, Hosus decided to begin.
“So who are you really? You’re name might be Pral Stanj, but that tells me nothing about you. And you owe me some answers.”
Pral glanced over at her before speaking. “I am like you, a loner,” he said, a sad grin appearing slowly, “some might even call me a mercenary.”
Though Hosus had known several mercenaries in her time, she had never met any like this. Though she assumed she would have heard of such a one as Pral before, she took nothing for granted. “You fight for money. Perhaps not an honest profession, but a lucrative one.”
He almost looked surprised, shrugging away her comment. “And yourself?” he asked in turn.
“A hunter by profession.”
He shrugged again, his only reaction to her taciturnity.
“How do you know my sister?”
“I do not know her personally. But I know the man the Council sent for you. He is cruel and petty and very dangerous. He and I have had dealings in the past, none of which ended pleasantly, and I try to keep informed of his actions. When I found out the Council had sent him for you, I decided to take steps of my own.”
Hosus paused, unsure of whether or not to feel appreciative of his protective response or suspicious. “Why?”
Pral sipped his ale again before answering. “Partially because I do not feel particularly comfortable with leaving anyone in that man’s hands. Partially because I feared that you would not assent to joining me under any condition if your sister were in danger.”
“So I should trust you over the Council? Why should I trust any of you?”
“Honestly, you probably shouldn’t.” The words came slowly, as if it were an effort for Pral to speak. Hosus waited for him to continue but he just stared into his mug.
Frustration was building up inside of her and Hosus felt like taking the mug and smashing it over Pral’s head. Why did any of this have to involve her sister? How could she protect Lian? Even if she could trust this strange but powerful man, what was she to do? Amid these questions, a curious part of her whispered about the Dead Lands and the Staff.
“How do I know Lian will be safe?” she asked quietly.
“There are no guarantees in this world, but she will be protected by men I trust. This is the only guarantee I can give you.”
Hosus remained silent. Something in Pral’s words, the way he spoke, made her feel inclined to trust him. Yet her natural tendency this way made her suspicious. The conflicting emotions gave her a headache the longer she considered the implications.
“So what do you propose we do first?” Hosus asked finally, decision made, not really expecting an immediate answer.
“Straight to business. I expected no less.” At this Hosus looked quickly at him, suspicion glowing brightly in her eyes. “Though my name may not be known to you, Hosus of Trieth, you are certainly known to me. A hunter…”here he paused for a moment, “of your aptitude does not go unnoticed to those who search out such talents.”
At this, Hosus’ mind changed and she made as if to leave, but as soon as she put her hand on the tabletop her wrist was seized in an iron grasp. “You don’t want to leave. That would only draw unwanted attention.”
“From whom? Friends of yours? Are you going to threaten my sister too?”
“Do not be silly. Do you truly believe that we, the Council’s chosen, won’t be followed, precisely as you suggested?”
Their relationship from that point on had been strained, and it had only been in recent weeks that her suspicion of him had diminished to a normal healthy level. After that incident in the tavern, they had decided to gather a small group of fighters to aid them. Pral found Phanza, and Hosus managed to convince Bertan and Nar, whom she had known since they were children. Glyc and Wenley were last moment additions to their party. When they had all met in the town of Drakna before setting out, the town had been holding a festival. One of the spectacles was an archery tournament, and the twins had tied for first place. Though they fired a dozen shafts apiece, neither was able to outscore the other and they finally split the grand prize. After the tournament, Pral and Hosus approached them jointly, offering them the adventure of a lifetime. The twins had deliberated only a few moments before agreeing. With that, their group was set. They started out on their journey the next day.
Now, two months later, Hosus wondered if any of them were experiencing doubts about this endeavor. She only hoped that, in the end, they would all live to tell about it.