"I have never heard so much nonsense in all my life!"
The Prince of Summerealm was sat astride his throne, gesturing flamboyantly, as was his way. His courtiers were seated nervously around him, listening.
"I assure you, your stalwartness. The Order has never lied to you before, despite your less-than-friendly relationship."
"Then why has this information been withheld from me until now?"
"The Order were afraid, sire! The Fasthammer dynasty has been one of the most power-hungry to rule the Four-Ridings for centuries! The Order has kept the information from you for fear that you would attempt to seize the Seven for your own use."
"Well, wouldn't I be a strange sight with seven of the most mismatched weapons on my person," galumphed the Prince, chuckling. "It reminds me of the one-man bands which you see striding gaily down the streets of Lionhold these days -"
"I'm afraid I don't see the connection, sire," said Hook.
"And I don't think now is the time for jest," added a corpulent nobleman.
"Very well, perhaps not ..." The Prince stroked his chin pensively. "Now I know why the Order strives to keep the weapons apart. They are of such magical significance -"
"- that the more they have, the stronger they get," Hook chimed. "And once one person has Seven - they are truly invincible. Your entire army would stand no chance against them."
"So why choose this moment to impart such sensitive and dangerous information?"
"The Order has run out of people to trust. It now has five of the seven items under its eyes, and some members are beginning to get restless. The Order is sworn to selflessness - anyone who even shows a hint of desire of another's object is ousted immediately. In the Hermit of Highland's case, this meant exile, so serious was his demand for possession."
"Thank you, Hook," said the Prince. "You've done well. Funny ... the ear you've got for gossip I wouldn't have been surprised if such important information ever went beyond these four walls. Off you go."
"If I may, sire ..." Hook looked nervously at the Prince. "He is dead."
"Who is dead?"
"I told them to capture him alive, not to kill him on sight."
"Winterealm was not responsible for his death."
"So they did not recapture him?" said the Prince.
"Who on earth else is capable of committing such a feat, then?"
"We cannot answer," said Hook. "We only know this from eyewitness accounts from the villagers who saw his body."
"Then he isn't dead," said the Prince.
"He's - he's not dead, sire?"
"He's not dead."
"But - the eyewitnesses -"
"They didn't see what they thought they saw."
"But returning from the dead is impossible, it's one of the few laws of magic -"
"I said, Hook, he's not dead! He did not die in the first place, so he cannot come back. He has not, and will probably never be, dead!"
Hook bowed respectfully and left the room, seeing the Prince's stern look as a clear dismissal. The door closed with dismal finality behind him.
"May I ask, sire - what is keeping Wolfram alive?" said the corpulent nobleman.
"Wouldn't you like to know."
"Well, yes, sire, that's usually why people ask questions -"
"Any more of your silver tongue and I'll have it sewn to the roof of your mouth," the Prince snapped acidly.
"Wolfram is bound to life - through his daughter."
A frisson ran around the drawing room. The corpulent nobleman rubbed his nose sheepishly.
"I assume you all know about the Collar of Belendar?"
"Made for attack dogs so they could be controlled by magic?" piped up a courtier, eager for praise.
"But it's not used for that any more. Like most of Belendar's creations, it has been magically altered to suit the needs of its respective owners, throughout the ages. Whilst it may not be a physical weapon, as such ... it is definitely a metaphysical weapon.
"Wolfram has bound his daughter to him with a powerful magical bond. The Collar was never intended for human use, but the effect it had on the beasts of old can now be applied to men, too ... and Wolfram has engineered this magical link so that while his daughter lives, so does he."
"Who would use their own offspring as an instrument of mortality?" said the nobleman indignantly.
"So, what happens now?"
"The Order will not want us interfering. If too many of Summerealm's soldiers get involved, it will destroy the integrity of the organisation. My men are not as well trained to deal with the temptation of uniting the Seven. I had no idea, even, that the Order were able to do it until a few minutes ago ..."
"We can, however, assist them in locating the last two items of Belendar's workmanship, to ensure they don't fall into the wrong hands and to lock them away to prevent them from doing any harm."
"You know where these are?"
"At the word of Gwydion himself, I know where one is. The other, I have mere suspicions."
"Where is this item, and what is it?"
"It is in Winterealm, gentlemen - it remained under Wolfram's nose for seven years of imprisonment and he never even considered to get it! I hear tell from Gwydion that it was the Lance, entrusted to one of the more wise and powerful Elders."
Unseen, unheard, black among the rafters, the Raven crouched, twisting its head sharply to catch the best sound of the meeting below. It ruffled its feathers in fury. Not only had the Lance been under Wolfram's nose for so long, it had been under the Raven's beak for so long ...
... he had known, known the staff was a powerful artefact, but never would he have believed that it was the Lance - one of the Seven! And he had entrusted it to the Whitecloaks in his absence! That meddling Arianwen girl might already have her unworthy hands on it ...
It was time to fly. Back to the place he had thought he was leaving forever.