Fred and company find themselves in a new neck of the woods as their path carries them to the elven city of Crutchen filled with the fancy, pointy-eared folk of lore. A welcome surprised awaits their coming, and they have more free time on their hands then they planned. They make use of their new-found leisure time to explore the ins-and-outs, intrigues, plotting, scheming, and deception in the fair city as their adventure sneaks up on them and reminds them that danger lurks just around the corner.
The sun was a bright orb in the sky that beat down on a few weary travelers as they meandered their way through a large forest. In the lead was Percy, and he guided his companions down the narrow, hard-packed, bare dirt path southeastward. It was over two weeks since they left the region of Kite and entered Caston, the home region of the elves. The windy, dry cliffs of Kite had given way to the thick, ancient forests of the elvish people. Birds flitted over their heads and the brush grew wild along the road, but kept out of the way of the path. Dark, old shadows hid beneath the solid branches of the tall trees and the air was filled with the scent of countless years of growth and decay and regrowth. There were few travelers along the road and even fewer homes. They had met nor seen anyone for the last two days.
The peaceful, serene silence was broken by the grumbling voice of a dwarf at the rear of the party. “How’s someone supposed to breathe in this heavy air?”
“Through your nose,” Ned advised. He breathed in deeply through his mentioned organ and breathed out through his mouth. “See? Quite easy.”
Canto growled at him. “Ah see it, but Ah’m not going to be looking like a fool doing it,” he argued.
“Perhaps we need a rest,” Percy spoke up. There was a storm brewing across Canto’s tense eyebrows.
“Agreed, and perhaps some entertainment,” Ned added.
Pat looked at the old castor with suspicion. “What sort of entertainment?” she asked him.
“I thought perhaps Canto might keep his promise and teach you what tricks he knows with the sword,” Ned suggested.
Canto perked up at the suggestion. “Now that’s the stuff! A good clang of steel will stop all this infernal silence!”
Canto pressed his ass and passed Percy to take the lead. He hurried the whole crowd onward and in a few miles they came to a clearing beside the road. It was a small grove of green grass with a few rocks and stumps strewn about the perimeter. Canto steered them into the open space and tied his ass to a nearby tree with the others following suit. The spectators found some suitable logs to sit on while Canto and Pat stood in the center of the clearing facing each other.
Canto pulled his ax from the strap across his back and slipped into a defensive posture. “Now Ah haven’t had much chance to be watching ya during our battles, so Ah want ya to be fighting me for a round or two,” Canto instructed her.
Pat removed her sword from its gilded hilt and clasped it with both hands in front of her. “Very well,” she agreed. Pat charged him, and they swung, thrust, and parried one another’s attacks. The clang of their metal resounded through the clearing and into the open skies above them.
After a short time Canto scowled and pushed aside her sword. “Not like that. Aim at me as if ya were wanting to do me in, not like ya were wanting to take me out for a picnic,” he ordered her.
Pat straightened and wiped some sweat from her brow. “It would be easier if your head were not so short,” she shot back.
“That’s the advantage of being a dwarf,” he pointed out.
“And what may be the advantage of being a human?” Percy called from the sidelines.
“Ya’ve got some longer arms, though not as long as the elves. They’re a bad sort when ya duel ‘em,” Canto replied.
“Are elves interested in such bloody pastimes?” Percy wondered.
“Quite enthusiastically,” Ned spoke up. “They are a very proud people who will duel at the drop of a hat.” Ruth covered her mouth to hide her smile, but Ned didn’t smile. “I’m afraid it’s quite serious, and since we are so close to the city I feel I must warn those of you who haven’t been inside the elven domain. They see dropping one’s hat the same as swiping a glove across the face or pulling a dwarven beard, and thus it is a challenge to duel.”
The inexperienced youngsters in the group blinked. “Are you quite sure it is as serious as that?” Percy asked him.
“Yes, but fortunately we have very few of us wearing hats,” Ned pointed out. Everyone tipped their heads back to look at Ned’s hat. He chuckled and patted his pointed hat. “There’s no need to worry. My hat is magically stuck to my head,” he assured them.
With that assurance the group turned their attentions to the other member of their party with a hat, Sins. He sat apart from the group on his own log, and the assassin’s eyes narrowed as he glared back at them.
Ruth tilted her head to one side and scrutinized him. “Should we sew it to his head?” she suggested.
“No,” was the blunt reply from their dark comrade.
“I’m sure it will be fine. He has yet to lose it at an inopportune time. Or any time, for that matter,” Ned pointed out.
“Enough talking about hats and duels,” Canto spoke up. He turned his attention back to Pat. “Now swing harder and don’t be afraid of cutting off some fingers. Ah’ll block ya and keep ‘em on my hands,” he promised.
“All right,” she agreed. She swung at him again and they clanged away.
On the logs the spectators watched with a mix of amusement and apprehension. Pat was putting her all into destroying Canto and the old dwarf was defending well enough to keep his head on his shoulders, but one false move and they would be down a companion. Ruth sat on her log beside Ned and her hands gripped the wood so tight they splintered beneath her fingers. She looked to Ned to plead for him to stop the bout, but his attention was on the skies.
Ruth followed his gaze and saw nothing, but her ears caught a sound above the clanging of steel. It was the call of a large bird. She couldn’t understand why a forest creature would catch his attention so completely. “Is something the matter?” she asked Ned.
He pursed his lips and his old, keen eyes watched the tops of the trees. “There is no bird in these woods large enough to make such a screech,” he told her.
“Watch yourself!” Canto yelled. The two sparring partners had continued their exercise and Canto saw an opening in Pat’s thrusts. He blocked one of her thrusts and quickly turned his ax so the head slammed into her sword. Her weapon flew from her hand and clattered to the ground a few yards off. Canto swooped forward and pressed the tip of his ax against her throat. A bead of blood dribbled down her neck. “Yer grip’s a little weak and yer fighting stance is unsteady. Only by the grace of Phaeton and some natural skill have ya survived this long.” He pulled back his ax and she clutched at her throat. “Have ya not wielded a sword before this little adventure of ours?” he wondered.
“Yes, though I wasn’t given this sword until during this adventure,” she replied. She walked over to her sword and snatched it from the grass.
Canto held out his hand. “Let me have a look at it.” Pat obliged him and he raised the sword so the blade was only a few inches from his eyes. “A fine make, but not by dwarves,” he commented. He tossed it in the air and snatched it. “The weight is off. It’s lighter than the metals used to forge it.”
“Perhaps the elves in Crutchen will be able to tell us its origins,” Ned suggested
Canto scoffed and returned the sword to Pat. “Elves don’t care about crafting weapons except what they can use in their duels.”
“They did long ago, and perhaps one of the librarians may still care enough to tell us about this sword,” Ned countered.
“The librarians in the Feora Library?” Pat asked him.
“Yes,” Ned replied.
Percy furrowed his brow. “I believe I have heard of this library. If I recall correctly it contains all the wisdom of the elves and the legendary History Book.”
“The exact one,” the old castor concurred. “It is a scholar’s paradise of literary delight, and the History Book is their prized possession. It contains all the events that have affected their kingdom.”
“What a beautiful word is ‘Feora,’” Ruth spoke up.
Ned turned away and coughed. “Yes, well, it’s less what it means than the beauty of the sound-”
“It means ‘musty’ in elvish,” Percy explained to the group.
“Aye, and ya won’t find a mustier place than that library,” Canto agreed. He looked to Pat. “Were ya wanting to do more today or are ya finished?”
“More. I wish to learn how to block your move,” Pat replied.
The combatants returned to their positions facing one another, and Pat lunged forward to strike the first blow when a noise broke the forest silence. It was the clatter of hooves and someone yelling. “Yaw! Yaw!” they heard a female voice cry.
A horse broke from the woods behind the logs and the companions dove out of the way. Their movements startled the beast who reared up and kicked its forelegs in the air. The rider was thrown from the saddle and landed hard on their back on the grass. Their head hit the ground and they lay still. Sins snatched the reins of the rearing horse while the others hurried over to the prone figure. It was a young, beautiful woman with silky white skin and pointed ears. The strands of her hair shimmered like silver and her riding clothes were soiled, but woven of the best fabric. In her limp arms she held a small hawk. Its chest moved up and down with a rapidity that bespoke illness.
Canto took the bird while Ned looked over the young woman. Her beautiful skin was blemished by deep scratches across her cheeks, forehead, and arms. The old castor pressed his hand against her chest and breathed a sigh of relief. “She is only unconscious,” he announced to his companions.
“Then she’s a sight better than this bird,” Canto commented. He set the creature on the ground close to its mistress and showed them his hands were covered in blood. “Something’s got at it real well.”
“Perhaps that is why she was hurrying,” Ruth suggested.
“Maybe, but her hurrying might be for nothing,” Canto returned.
“Is it well?” Ruth asked him.
Canto pursed his lips and looked to Ned. “How far is the city?” he asked the castor.
“Ten miles off, or a good half hour’s sprint,” Ned replied.
Canto shook his head. “Then this creature isn’t well. A shorter distance and a good doctor would get it fixed, but that’s too far and too much time.”
“Time. . .” Ruth whispered. Her eyes widened and her hand flew to the small pouch by her side. She glanced to Ned who watched her with a careful eye. “May I?” she pleaded.
He kindly smiled at her. “I gave you the treasure as a gift, but yes, I agree that now would be a good use for it.”
While the others looked on with curiosity Ruth hurriedly pulled out the small box from her pouch. The blue petal was still contained inside, and without having moved an inch. She quickly opened the lid and a faint wisp of fog flew out. Ruth placed the box on the ground, gently took the hawk from Canto’s hands, and set it inside the container. She shut the lid and the haze drifted over the bird. When the fog cleared the bird was frozen in time.
“My god,” Canto murmured.
Percy’s eyes sparkled with wonderment. “What a magnificent box,” he whispered.
“Did you kill it?” Fred wondered.
Pat glared at him and whacked him upside the head. “Do you believe Ruth would kill an innocent creature? And can you not recognize magic when you see it?”
Fred rubbed his head and scowled back at her. “I can see the magic, but I don’t know that it does,” he argued.
“It is a time box. Anything capable of fitting inside its walls is stopped in a moment in time,” Ned explained.
The young woman before Ned stirred, and her eyes fluttered open to reveal a pair of golden eyes like those of ripe wheat. They widened when she glimpsed all the strange faces gathered around her. She was the picture of a beautiful doe with her shining hair and serene, albeit confused expression.
Then her face darkened and she wrenched herself from Ned’s hands. She jumped free of the group and with great agility landed five yards from them. One of her feet stumbled on a rock, but she quickly righted herself and glared at them. The woman held her open hands out on either side of her with her fingers stretched toward the ground. A blue flickering light like a clear flame erupted from her palms and her eyes flickered from companion to companion.
“Who are you?” she snapped at them.
Ned slowly arose and smiled at her. “You are among friends,” he assured her.
Her scowling expression told them she didn’t believe his word. “Where is my hawk? Where is Anduvis?” she frantically asked them.
“Here he is,” Ruth spoke up. She held up the box with the still bird.
The stranger’s eyes widened and the flames in her palms jumped and blazed. “What have you done to him?” she accused them.
“We have suspended him for you, Princess Telana Hawain,” Ned replied.
The woman started. She squinted at Ned and her mouth slowly dropped. “Edwin Tisule!” she gasped. Percy snorted, but quickly composed himself.
Ned smiled and bowed his head to her. “At your service,” he greeted her.