Bundle smiled at the innkeeper as he placed upon the desk a silver dollar, two copper five-pieces, a copper ten-piece and a tip of twelve in copper, mostly quarters, that he placed separately.
Noira looked up at the fare listing and frowned.
"A room for three, please," requested Bundle.
"She's not with you?" asked the innkeeper, perplexed by the expressions on his other three patrons' faces.
"You didn't need to do that," said Axbrand.
"I wouldn't trust me either," admitted Noira, though her tone of voice suggested that she was, in fact, quite offended.
"What I meant was," continued Axbrand, "Williard and I can pay for ourselves."
"Nonsense!" proclaimed Bundle. "You're travelling under the wing of the Order of Belendar, now."
Noira snorted and then muttered to herself, "I should have known."
"And, if I may..." said Bundle as he showed a badge from his pocket to the innkeeper. He palmed it carefully in his hand.
The innkeeper gasped, "Two in one night. Well, I'm afraid that room is taken. I will have to offer you a regular room."
"Already taken? Damn. We have to leave then. Now."
"Sir, err -- Bundle, we've been on the road all day and evening from Hathenford!" protested Williard.
"And I already let my wolf go!" whined Noira.
"It's not safe for us here," Bundle said as he took back the money he had placed on the table.
"The young'ns are right. We can't go on like this. No ruttin' way!" argued Axbrand. "I may butcher animals for food, but I ain't riding a horse until it dies of exhaustion."
"We've been followed," said Bundle as he led them out onto the city streets.
"You're crazy!" said Will.
"If it wasn't for me, Williard, you'd be dead in that alley, just like Wolfram."
"Quit your yelling, both of yous. People are trying to sleep," said Axbrand. They were right on the edge of a residential neighbourhood in East Gategrove.
"Wait - the Wolfram, the Hermit of Highland, is dead?" questioned Noira.
Williard ignored her. "With Wolfram gone, just take me with you, and let Axbrand return to Bottom Bridge."
"I need Axbrand to carry the shield, because I don't trust this pretentiously deceptive warrior princess type. And as I've told you before, it is against my Order's oath, the same oath that Wolfram broke, to carry more than one of Belendar's relics."
"Excuse me, but-" Noira was interrupted.
"Then let me carry two!" argued Will, though he knew that wasn't an option.
"We kill anything with two or more," said Bundle. "Provided they won't part with it. It's what we do."
"Oh, demondung," cursed Noira. "That explains why I was att-..." she let her voice trail off. "Wow, I'm absent-minded. Did I say that out loud?"
"I'm afraid you did, lass," chuckled Axbrand.
"My Order attacked you... why?" asked Bundle.
"Because my fa--" Noira stopped herself. "Umm... on second thought, nevermind. Forget I said anything."
There was a swift movement of steel, as Bundle drew the Sword of Belendar to Noira's neck. However, in that same instant, she had drawn her twin knives to block the attack.
Bundle's eyes bulged in surprise.
"That's why I have two Gifts," Noira confided. "With the Knives of Belendar, I have slain a Beast-Whisperer in self-defence."
"Who attacked you from my Order?" asked Bundle.
"I believe his name was Odium. He came to check up on another member of the Order. I was in the vicinity. Not knowing the significance of the Collar of Belendar, he attacked me."
"Where? Who was he checking up on?"
"Northeast Skathain. A small town named Fountcreek, near Centaur territory. He was checking up on... Wolfram."
"The Hermit has been frozen in Winterealm since before you'd be old enough to survive an attack from Odium, regardless of whether Odium was wielding the Lance of Belendar, as he does now."
"It was before Odium had the lance."
"You would have been a baby!" said Bundle. He edged the sword further towards her neck."Your story makes no sense."
"The Collar of Belendar was on my neck. Wolfram put it there. He owned me. I was his puppet. I was his lapdog. I hated it. And I hated him. While he was frozen in Winterealm's prison, I became nothing but an ice sculpture."
Bundle was even more surprised now. "Ahh, it all makes sense now. Forgive me." He sheathed the sword, in a scabbard too small. Then, he knelt on one knee.
"Why do you kneel before me?" asked Noira, an edge of fear in her voice.
"I saw a beautiful ice sculpture as a boy. Ice that never melted, and was always cold. They say it was the sculptor's ode to a young princess."
"Shutup!" Noira hissed.
"The young crown princess of Skathain, who never became queen because of Wolfram. He brutally murdered her entire family. Your entire family." Bundle looked up at her, a playful glint of moonlight in his eyes.
"Well, I'll be a farm rat's uncle," exclaimed Axbrand.
"The heir of Skathain, that's not who I am," Noira whispered with indignance.
"Only because the story isn't entirely true," said Bundle. "Wolfram was a great man before he went mad; before he was exhiled from the lands of the Gifted and left to rampage mortal countrysides in search of any Gifted who might fall prey to the sword. Wolfram was respected in Summerealm, in Winterealm, in Highland and even in Skathain."
"Tell me something I don't know," requested Noira.
"You're not the only one listening to me," said Bundle. "Besides, you already know I'm right to be on one knee."
"I am not the heir of Skathain!" she raised her voice, and then remembered that they were trying to keep their discussion low-key. Then she unclasped her cloak, and indicated the metal collar that tightly fit around her neck, with barbs digging into her skin, which was scarred from its wearing. "This would fall from my neck if he were really dead."
"I cut his head clean off! You saw it, Will!" Axbrand whispered harshly.
"He is invulnerable," said Noira.
"Physically, yes. And Williard has a Gift that put a stop to that, my dear," said Bundle as he stood up. "Shortly before we met you."
"I felt the collar shake. As you can see, these scars are fresh."
"You walked away, while there was still blood in his veins!" rasped Noira. She stomped her feet in anger and cried out, "You fools!"
Bundle and Axbrand exchanged glances of dismay and foreboding.
Bundle got down on one knee again. "I am sorry, my princess. I should not have let your father live."
"Father?!" exclaimed Will.
"Yes..." she acknowledged with great shame.
"How can she be both heir to Skathain, the Kingdom of the Gifted Among Ungifted, if her father is not the late king?" asked Axbrand.
"Good question, Ax," said Bundle as he walked over to the side of the road and lifted a grate off an entrance to the sewers. "Queen Blanchetta of Skathain is of Skathainian descent. It is her husband, the late king, who was an earl of Highland before their wedding. He wasn't even Gifted until their honeymoon."
"I was not conceived on that honeymoon, or by that man," said Noira.
"Forget about your horses. They will do us no good, if we intend to lose whomever is tracking us," said Bundle.
Then, the princess lit a torch from a lamp post and then climbed the ladder into the sewers. Williard, Axbrand and then Bundle followed, lowering the grate into place above them.
"I thank thee, moonlight, fall to my blade," Bundle prayed in a somber tone. Shortly thereafter, the Sword of Belendar began to glow brightly as Bundle slowly slid it out of his scabbard.
"Is that a power of the sword or can I do that?" asked Will.
"I'd be surprised if you couldn't," said Bundle. "But we can see just fine."
"I thank thee, moonlight, fall to my blade," repeated Williard, as he followed Bundle through the smelly sewers. After a moment, he lifted his shortsword from its sheath.
Noira giggled. "Sorry."
"Do I need to focus more intensely? I scrunched my brow and everything! Well, I suppose I was already scrunching it a bit on account o' the smell down here."
"Your problem, Will, was that you didn't make it your own. I have an affinity to the moon, among other things. You may or may not be Giftedly tuned thus. And regardless of what you draw your power from, you have to rely upon your needs, your emotions and your own self-expression. Using my words, wasn't the best way."
"So it's not like chanting a spell?" asked Will.
"Well, I could have found a way to cast light without necessarily uttering a single word, from tongue or mind. And... no, it's not like the magic half-humans and non-humans cast, which relies upon repeating phrases with matched effects. This is far more about creativity and being your own person."
"Hmm..." Will pursed his lips.
"Now's not the best time for a magic lesson, lad. If we keep progressing north through these sewers, we'll enter the catacombs of Old Gategrove, or whatever it was called back then. Older, more ancient ruins of the town that was here before there was a town that was here before Gategrove was here. In fact, some of it, especially the deeper we go, was probably here many towns ago. Another civilization entirely."
"There will no doubt be goblins. Hopefully no Gifted ones," said Noira.
"Really? Goblins in these parts?" asked Bundle.
"Oh yes, I encountered some a couple moons back. Out for blood he was."
"How long is it since you were a cold sculpture?" asked Axbrand.
"Since Wolfram escaped. Must be... almost seven changes of the moon ago," she answered.
"Huh." Bundle said.
"Why didn't you use Gifted magic to get us light earlier, Noira?" asked Will.
"I didn't want to draw any more attention that our voices had. There was an old woman and in another window, a man, watching us in the streets," she told them.
"I only spotted the man," said Bundle. "Good eye."
"Thanks," said Noira.
"Just know that, any sign of Wolfram around or Wolfram pulling your limp little puppet strings, and we aren't such friendly company," said Bundle.
"Where exactly are you leading us?" asked Axbrand. "And will I be able to return to Bottom Bridge on my own? I have family there."
"I will see to it that the Order gives you safe directions home," said Bundle. "And we can even provide you with a horse, and perhaps an affordable guide."
"That didn't answer my question," said Ax.
"Wait," said Will. "There's something ahead. Hold your sword over there."
"Rats. I can sense them," said Noira. "Hey little fellas."
They squeeked and shied away from the light.
"Got no breadcrumbs for you," said the princess. "Sorry."
"Tell me more about Wolfram, will ya?" Will said to Bundle.
"Well, I'm not sure what there is to say. One of the best knights of Skathain there ever was. One day, he was sane. The next day, he wasn't. Started killing. Gift hungry with that sword. But since as far as we knew, he hadn't broken his oath, the Order let others deal with him."
"Does he have any family? I mean, other than Noira here and the late Queen."
"Oh, I don't believe for a second that he killed Queen Blanchetta!" said Bundle. "But most people just call me conspiratorially optimistic. That is to say, I think the love they shared kept him from taking her Gift."
"Really?" said Noira. "The Pope of Skathain who took power after my family, he'd call that herecy. Do you really, truly think my mother might still be alive?"
"Yes. I do. Call me a fool, but I do," said Bundle. "But apart from the family he made, I don't know of any parents or siblings, Will."
"Hmmph," Axbrand snorted. "I wouldn't have pegged that foul man to have a heart."
"Nor would I," said Will. "Though I hope your mother is still alive." And then, Will found himself wondering about how his own mother was faring without him. He couldn't even bring himself to say goodbye to her when he was rushed out of town, not that he gave much thought to it until now. She had made most of his live rather miserable.
"Thank you, for that sentiment, Will," said Noira. She paused. "Maybe I can tell you more about the Hermit of Highland. Do you know how he came to be?"
"How he came to be so daft 'n bloodthirsty?" asked Axbrand.
"No," said Noira. "Wolfram was special, among the Gifted. Special in origin, at least. Some might say it made him more primitive, but I much prefer the term raw."
"Princess," said Bundle. "I do believe you pique my interest with this tale."
Noira smiled in the dim light of her torch and his shining sword. "A storm raged against the South Skathainian countryside, south of the capital, the night he was conceived. And on that night, no love was made by man and woman for miles around, for all were braced fearfully against the storm."
Bundle smiled as they rounded a corner and the air became far more agreeable.
"There was a wolf on the prowl that night, in the midst of the storm. Farmers who saw him say he was larger than any wolf around, and that his eyes glowed in the darkness like the eyes of the underworld's most feared demons," continued the princess.
Axbrand and Will exchanged looks of doubt.
"The wolf broke into a farmer's barn where all the animals that roamed freely nearby were sheltered. And with no exit, cornered, the wolf began to kill them one by one. And he gorged upon them, tearing them to pieces, but drank only their blood and ate only their hearts. Those that tried to run were struck by lightning in the storm. And when only one sheep was left in the barn, all other animals dismembered and without blood, each drop lapped from their veins, the wolf grew amorous and copulated that sheep."
Bundle contorted his face. "That's a sickening tale if I ever heard one. Are you telling me his descent is part wolf, part ram?"
Noira nodded, "Indeed. For when morning came, the great wolf ceased to rape the sheep. It left into the parting storm, quite satisfied with itself. And where the sheep had been, there lay a stunningly beautiful, naked, young woman."
"Ahah, it does have a happy ending!" said Will.
Axbrand's and Bundle's laughter echoed down the halls of the under-city ruins.
Noira shot Will a sour look. "The farmer's eldest son became engaged to her, but never did more than kiss her. Yet soon, she became pregnant."
"Oh, no-oo-o... I know where this is going," said Bundle.
"The farmer's son was consumed with such rage that he killed his brothers, and caused his father to disown him. And then, the farmer's son took his own life. And the beautiful woman, whose hair was as fair and curly as a baby lamb's, died in child birth. And her baby, Wolfram, was raised by an orphanage run by the temple in the capital."
"That's tragic," said Axbrand.
"The farmer and his wife, had lamb chops that night for dinner," said Noira.
"Who told you that story?!" said Bundle in disbelief.
"My father," she said with disgust.
Then, the fabric of Axbrand's pocket ripped open as the Shield of Belendar flew out of it to block an arrow from hitting his chest. The arrow fell to the ground.