Aster walked back toward the inn with a small package of clothing for the youngster he would have to fight for in less than a day's time. Already a few lads were moving up and down the streets announcing the Challenge of Ownership at the gladiatorial arena.
Aster recognized one of the boys from the orphanage. "Hontel!"
The young teen glanced around finally seeing Aster, "Hey! Long time no see."
"Yea, well I got hired for an expedition. I doubt I'll be around for a long while."
Hontel frowned while kneeling to pet Shade; "I'll sure miss you my friend. But I am happy for you."
"Don't worry. I'll make sure someone will finish your Swordsman training. I already talked to Master Lannet about you and all the others at the home."
Hontel nodded, "I wasn't concerned about that at all. You have made sure every one of us in the orphanage gets tested for years. I figured you would find a way to keep that going even when you left, but it will not be the same without you."
"What do you mean?"
"You know," Hontel stated somewhat sadly, "Your showing up every once and a while really helps the new kids. Remember me?"
"You would have done fine without me." Aster's voice held a degree of confidence.
"Yea right. I was afraid of my own shadow after my family was murdered by trolls. It was you who came in after I had only been there a few days and took me out to eat, bought me a sweet roll, and made sure some of the other older kids knew I was under your protection. Man, you have been like an older brother to me for six years now."
Aster grinned, "Now you are my older brother."
"Only by a year." Hontel laughed. "And as far as I am concerned you will always be my older brother, my favorite brother."
"Thanks Hontel," Aster turned serious, "What is the word on this special attraction tomorrow?"
"Don't know much about it. One of the arena masters showed up about an hour ago and offered two copper a piece for town criers. Sounds kind of exciting."
"I'll try to make it interesting." Aster sighed.
"You?" Hontel blurted out in concern.
"Yea, I was wondering if you could gather some of the guys to find out more about this jerk. The more I know about him, the better off I am."
"I'll head back now and round some people up." Hontel announced.
"No, I want you to finish your job. The better the crowd, the more chances the arena master will give you guys to earn some spending copper."
"But you are scheduled to fight to the death!"
"I know. But I am not thinking about just me. I know how hard it is to get a single copper to spend in the orphanage." Aster stood firm, "Do your job and pass the word out as you do your announcements. That way you guys can get me some information while drawing almost no attention to yourselves."
Aster stopped and took a breath, "Hontel this guy beat a kid terribly. He is no one to mess with. I don't want any of you to do anything that would endanger yourselves."
"Aster every kid in the orphanage owes you something. It is time we pay you back."
"No. You owe me nothing. You have repaid me with friendship. What more could I want?"
"I, for one, want you to stay alive!" Hontel said with a pair of tears falling from his dark brown eyes.
"I plan on it my friend. But if even one of you gets hurt trying to help me, I will not be able to concentrate properly tomorrow."
Hontel relented, "OK, we will get you everything you need to know before the fight, without taking any hard risks then. Are you really going to kill the guy?"
"Even if I had to go through Master Lannet to do so." Aster's whole posture hardened to a deadly edge. "You have no idea how badly the boy I had to patch up had been treated. He will die, and I will be the one putting the blade in his neck. If not, it will be Shade's jaw."
Shade nodded seeming to want a piece of whoever had been cruel enough to hurt the boy Aster had spent hours trying to heal.
Hontel swallowed hard, "The last time I saw that look was when you went out with the Watch to find the trolls who had killed my family."
"I feel pretty much the same way too." Aster confirmed. "Hontel take care of the young ones while I am gone. I am counting on you to make sure all the new arrivals get a warm welcome."
"I'll make it happen Aster. That is a promise."
Aster gave his friend a quick hug before heading back down the road. A few men glanced up as he entered the inn. All of them quickly went back to placing bets on the upcoming contest talking eagerly about wanting to see a real fight.
Pocet met him at the entrance to his room; "He is asleep. Dart is keeping an eye on him."
"Did he eat any real food?" Aster asked as he handed over the clothing to Pocet.
"Yea, some of the nut bread. He still hasn't said a word though."
"Do you blame him?" Aster gave Pocet a questioning look; "I didn't talk to anyone at all for several days after I was found wandering the city."
"You're right, it is just so frustrating. Making matters worse, Handri is furious about this fight."
"Why?" Aster looked confused.
"How would you feel if you had spent as much money as he has on us only to find out your employees were going to risk their lives for some personal reason?"
Aster cringed, "Gee, I had never thought about his feelings. Should I pay him back for his expenses or something?"
"No need. A couple guys from the Watch made it clear Handri would be recompensed if anything went really wrong, but he still isn't happy." Pocet paused then snapped his fingers. "Oh, Master Lannet delivered your slave. He is in your room."
Aster gave Pocet a quick hug before bolting to his room. He started to open the door, but stopped. He had no way of knowing how Conner would react about being turned into a slave, even for a single day. Ex-slaves were about the lowest class of society. Conner would have an advantage because he had a Primary guild rating, so very few would hold his former slave status against him. However, if he would ever find himself in a room of other guilded Mages of the same Echelon, he would be the lowest class member in the room unless one of them was currently a slave.
Taking a breath he opened the door slowly. He saw Conner sitting with his back to the door at the large desk; his head rested on the hard wood. A leather slave collar could barely be seen around his neck. Still it looked uncomfortably tight the way Conner's head was currently positioned. In the quiet of the upper hall he could barely make out the sounds of muffled sobs coming from the young Mage.
Shade forced the meeting by bounding into the room and rubbing up against Conner.
Aster felt weak and helpless as he overcame his desire to turn and leave. "Conner?"
His voice came out as barely a squeak.
Conner turned giving Shade a light pat on the head. His hazel eyes and dark skin told of his Dark Forest Elf heritage. Many mistakenly mistook a Dark Forest Elf for Drow Elf, but they were not even close to the same. The nasty tempered predominately evil Drow had white hair, violet eyes and much darker skin tone and texture. Dark Forest Elves had more olive colored skin and dark colored hair.
For several awkward moments the two Elves looked at each other neither saying much. Again Shade broke the tension by jumping up on Conner's lap knocking him clean off the chair. The friendly canine buried its muzzle into The Dark Forest Elf's belly and started thrashing its head back and forth tickling the youngster. Within seconds the boy had tears of laughter replacing tears of sorrow.
Aster joined in the fun piling on top of both Shade and Conner. Within mere minutes the two boys went from being alienated nervous acquaintances to beginning their friendship all over again.
Pocet walked by, taking a second to glance in the room by opening the door ever so slightly. He knew Aster had been next to petrified by the reuniting of him and his friend. One look brought a smile to his worried expression. There was nothing more beautiful than a pair of boys being boys. He walked down to the bar whistling a happy tune.
Both boys called it quits about the same time; they were dripping with sweat, tired, hungry, but smiling.
Conner spoke first while they rested on the floor; backs propped up against the bed, with Shade nestled in a ball between them. "It sure has been a long time since I have been able to have some real fun. Thanks."
Aster joined him in petting Shade; "I missed you. But I have to ask…"
"I know," Conner interrupted, "Why did I do it, right?"
"No." Aster shook his head, "I don't care why or even if you stole from the shop. What I really what to know is, why you didn't just ask for the blades? I would have given them to you!"
Conner's face fell as he looked into Aster's eyes and saw the truth behind the words. Wordlessly he lowered his head onto Shade and cried.
Aster wrapped his arms around the boy who had been his best and only friend the first few weeks in the orphanage, "Conner, You are not my slave now nor will you ever be. I don't know what you went through the last few months, but you are still my friend. Can you at least tell me something?"
Conner forced himself to take a few deep breaths, "Aster, I got in over my head. I can't tell you much more than to say I really screwed up when I started training. The man who trained me set the whole thing up. I don't know what happened to the daggers and I never took them, but I was required to take the blame or I would have been hunted down and killed."
"Killed by who?" Aster's brow furled.
"Everyone." Conner's cryptic reply went no further. Instead he switched the subject as he wiped away his tears, "I hear we have a combat tomorrow."
"Only if you want to Conner. One of them is a spell caster, so I could use the magical backup. However you owe me nothing. I will cut that collar off right now if you prefer."
Conner shook his head. "Not a chance. I can't fight for you unless I am your slave."
"You sure?" Aster felt he had to give Conner one last chance to bow out.
"Positive." Conner looked relived about Aster not perusing the matter of the daggers further. Now was his chance to begin to repay a debt he doubted he would ever be able to make full recompense on. "Tomorrow I will fight for a better friend than I will ever deserve to have."
"You are wrong Conner. I am the lucky one. You were already in training when I came to the orphanage. I just wish you had told me you were in trouble. We could have worked things out without having you spend a single night in a cell."
Conner shook his head, "I should have stayed put, but I got scared. I didn't think there was a chance anyone would believe me."
"I would have." Aster stated with total certainty before changing the subject. "How would you like a real meal?"
Conner nodded, "That would be great, but they don't allow slaves down in the eating chamber here, and I would think you would want to keep me a secret."
"Good point. I'll grab us something."
Glaster sat back on the cushioned throne-like chair on the balcony watching the young crown prince play with a trio of his lower royalty friends. While this would have normally been a wonderful sight for the man who loved to see kids having fun, his facial features told of the real state of his mood. His eyebrows were pushing together, his face wore a befuddled frown, and his one hand rested on a magical scimitar with a readiness that forewarned of just how anxious his overall state of mind was.
He looked over the scene again knowing he was missing something. A pair of rodent spirits had alerted him to the presence of an armed group just outside the palace walls. The group's words warned the pair of spirits of their plans to attack the Crown Prince. The real problem with the spirits was their limited intelligence. They knew enough to notify him of the danger, but couldn't really understand what the entire group had been talking about.
Glaster allowed a larger piece of himself to enter the spirit realms for a moment. His tension eased as he saw the massive earth spirit watching the prince play. Earth sprits were among the most reliable; thus Glaster had spent days helping one out in a fight against a rather mean tempered water sprite. His efforts were rewarded with one favor from the massive earth being.
"Etran." Glaster spoke to the Earth spirit, "Your rodent friends just came to me. Prince Klandon's life is in danger. Be ready!"
"I am my ally." Etran boomed.
While the voice could not be heard in the world of mortals, it still caused a slight vibration that all standing within a few meters of it could feel in their feet.
A pair of boys playing with the prince obviously noticed and glanced around, but seeing nothing they returned to their game of roll the hoop. Basically it was a test of skill using a stick to roll a metal hoop of a cask. Without knocking it over, they had to roll it over a set course while staying within the lines they had scratched in the dirt. The game taught more than any of the eight and nine-year-olds realized. The one prospective Swordsman along with the Mage potential prince learned balance that would be useful in fighting stances. The other two were learning how to move in ways that would eventually help them to cast spells, although Glaster seriously doubted the marquis' son had enough raw potential to ever receive more than token training.
Glaster, even in his heightened state of cautiousness, smiled as the duke's twin boys noticed, even for a moment, that something was amiss. He would later turn this into an important lesson. He continued to watch wondering how a group on the other side of the walls could know the prince was currently playing outside.
For several weeks now he had stopped one attack on the prince after another, but they kept on coming. This was a possible chance to capture one of the assassins instead of having to kill them. It meant endangering the prince and the other boys though. This only increased his anger. Yet he saw no other choice. Every failed attempt, up till now, had resulted in the loss of guards and death of every assassin. He needed information. The only way he could see to do so revolved around capturing one of the attackers.
Glaster clenched his teeth as the group of boys moved closer to the wall. This put him further from the boys and them closer to their potential attackers. Still he could not alert them. For this to work, he had to keep his knowledge a secret. From his first day talking with the king and his guards, Glaster suspected a spy. As the attacks continued, he realized there had to be more than one. No single guard or even commander knew of each trip they had taken. A few times the king himself didn't even know the boy's plans. Yet attacks occurred, men were lost, and he remained no closer to a solution than the first day he arrived in Eaglecrest, capitol city of the Kingdom of Kronar.
Suddenly his eye caught a movement from one of the guards on the wall. Sure they all moved, but they were supposed to keep their post. This one stooped for a moment to pick up a dagger he had dropped on the wall. 'A signal!' Glaster thought instantly.
Sure enough, seconds later, a barrage of arrows launched into the guards. Several guards were hit, while three fell from the outer wall, two into the palace grounds, one out of sight fell with a scream and crash to the cobblestone street outside the fortified walls.
Glaster jumped to his feet as the part of him, which had been in the spirit realms, returned. As he did so, the servants' gate buckled and fell under the onslaught of a high echelon spell. Shards of metal and wood tore into the six guards stationed there instantly killing two and rendering the others unconscious. Unlike previous attempts, however, Glaster stood ready.
Speaking arcane words, he extended his fingertips at the group advancing through the destroyed gate. The ground turned to mud under their feet, catching four of the eight in a quicksand-like quagmire.
A woman with a book looked around desperately, but she realized she was pretty much powerless to undo the spell. If she canceled the effects the three men and one woman would still be trapped, only it would be in hard ground, not thick mud.
Glaster ignored the other three and the four large animals. The spell caster had to fall before she realized who had put a halt to half her party. He concentrated on a spell he had not used in a very long time. He spoke a long phrase and pointed to the ground right in front of the female spell caster. As he did so, she noticed him and tossed a Force Bolt at him. Both spells found their mark.
Glaster spun as the bolt of magic energy ripped into his left side. He fell to his knees as his one hand gripped the soft tissue between his hip and ribs. He could feel the warmth of his own blood. He started work on a healing spell before he even looked at the results of his own magic.
The woman let loose with the Force Bolt just as the ground in front of her bubbled for a moment, then let loose with a geyser of steam. The super hot wave washed over her whole body with such violence it took several seconds for the extent of her pain and injuries to become a reality to her mind. Fighting stopped on both sides as an unearthly scream of pain escaped her burned and blistered lips. Those close to her saw blisters already forming on the exposed face, arms and legs. In several places skin hung open, while blood oozed out of other places like a bad case of road rash.
Battle resumed as quickly as it had stopped, but the shock of seeing their spell caster so horribly disfigured slowed the attackers by a heartbeat. A guard in the tower managed to drop a Great Fanged Squirrel with a crossbow bolt, while another guard managed to loose two arrows into a giant scorpion. A pair of tossed daggers from the duke's boys caused even further damage to the poisonous creature.
With one animal dead and another seriously wounded, the tide of the battle quickly swung in the direction of the defenders. The remaining attackers made a token effort to fire an arrow or two at the boys who were now running for the inner palace. A dire wolf jumped forward trying to take a bite out of the marquis' boy, but a pair of rock hands suddenly jutted out of the ground halting the beast's motion in mid-air.
Glaster swayed as he stood. He saw the orangish-furred beast thrashing about as its mid-section was slowly crushed. Blood blasted out of its mouth silencing its howls once and for all. "Thank you Etran!" He cried, knowing the earth spirit could hear his words even though he could not hear a reply without being in the sprit realms.
The remaining guards rushed forward cutting down all the remaining attackers. This little ritual could not be completed though. The huge mud pit entrapping the first four, prevented the guards from delivering quick deathblows. A few arrows splashed into the mud. One found a target and killed the man as it pierced his skull, but heads sticking out of the mud made small targets and the first volley of arrow fire had reduced the amount of archers on the walls.
Glaster called to the archers to hold their fire before they could eliminate his captives. His anger at seeing one of his possible captives needlessly killed got directed at the guard who had knelt to pick up his dropped dagger. "You," he shouted at the man as he cast a spell, "are going to die!"
The man tried to run only to find his feet had seemingly became part of the rock wall and were fixed in place. The guards on the wall moved in knowing Glaster had the king's personal authority when it came to matters of protecting the prince.
Glaster used the balcony rail for balance, fighting off the weakness from the wound. His spell had stopped the bleeding and had healed much of the damage, but he was still hurt and he knew it. He temper flared again. "Cut off his feet and cauterize the wounds."
"No!" The guard pleaded on deaf ears. "Please no!" Again he pulled at his legs only to find his feet would not move.
Glaster glared, "Struggle all you want, spy! My Root In Place spell has you more firmly anchored to the outter wall, than a rowboat with a sailing ship's anchor and chain would be to a coral reef."
Glaster directed his attention to the guards. "Make sure you have torches ready. I want him alive to answer questions! Then chain the others!" He left the balcony, almost stumbling from the pain in his side.
As he made his way down to the Prince's play room, he smiled to himself as the shrieks of pain from the traitorous guard filled his ears. "One down, at least one to go." He stated aloud to himself in total satisfaction.
The Royal Healthman ran up to him seeing the hole in his shirt and the blood on his hand and leg, "Master Glaster, let me help you!"
"The boys first!" Glaster commanded.
"They will all live Master. Lylan took an arrow, but it is nothing a junior Shaman cannot handle. It is but a scratch."
"I will be the judge of his injuries!" Glaster stated with cold eyes. "His wound falls on my shoulders."
"Very well Master." The Healthman spoke, "But you are far too hard on yourself. The duke will not fault your actions. In fact, I am sure he will praise them!"
"Well he might," Glaster shot back, "however, a boy in my care still received injury. I have failed myself and Lylan, if not his father!"
The Royal Healthman shook his head knowing any argument would be a waste of time. Glaster had just accomplished what no other man in the kingdom had yet to do, capture one of the assassins. Yet the feat went far beyond that. The guard on the wall confessed before his first foot had been removed in a furtive attempt to save his limbs. It, of course, hadn't worked at all.
On top of this, three others awaited interrogation in the palace dungeons. Not at all bad for a semi-retired Watch member who had not wanted this assignment, but had taken it because the life of a child had been in danger. A child Glaster didn't seem to like much at all, the Healthman added to himself in thought.
Glaster forced himself to stand tall as he entered the child's playroom. All four boys looked up as he entered.
Mylan, the duke's other son, jumped to his feet upon seeing the injury, "Master you are hurt!"
"Worry not young Mylan, I will live." He knelt and gave the boy a hug; feeling better just receiving the most special gift a boy can give a man. "But thank you for your concern."
Glaster turned his attention to Lylan, "I hear you did not escape without a taste of pain. How do you feel?"
"It was hardly but a scratch on my shoulder Master." The boy spoke without concern; "The head did not even need to be pushed through. The Healthman was able to pull it out without much problem. It will cost me nothing but a new shirt."
Glaster smiled upon seeing the boy attempt to make a joke. Children were such wonderful beings. Only a heart of a child could find a way to make something so serious into such a minor thing. "I am proud of you and your brother. I saw how you stepped between Prince Klandon and the assailants. Your actions probably saved his life."
He allowed his praise of the boys to sink in before he turned to admonish them slightly, "However, both of you made the same errors. Do you know what they were?"
Lylan and Mylan exchanged glances and shrugged. As was custom with twins the first born, Lylan, spoke for both of them. "No Master I do not know, nor does my brother."
"First you ignored your own perceptions. You both looked up seconds before the attack."
Mylan nodded, "I felt the ground move, but I didn't think…"
Glaster cut the Shaman apprentice off, "There lies the problem, young man." He turned his scolding tone on both boys, "You as well Lylan. Both of you felt something but didn't give it a second thought. Were yourfun and games more important to you than your safety?"
"No Master." Lylan answered.
Mylan swallowed hard before nodding, "Yes Master."
"One of you is not being honest with me or yourself. Which one is it?" Glaster kept his voice soft hoping Lylan would conquer his fear of speaking the truth. His teaching tone paid off quickly.
Lylan lowered his head; "My brother is correct Master. I wanted to continue the game, not worry about something I was not sure of."
Glaster smiled as he rubbed the boy's back. "It is more important to admit a failure, than hide behind a lie. I am proud of you." He bit back a twinge of pain, wanting to make sure he completed his lesson, "The second thing I have to tell you two is just as important. You each had a dagger. It was your only weapon. Do you know what I am talking about?"
Lylan again looked to his brother only to get a blank stare. He pondered where he had made his second mistake. Nothing came to mind. "I am sorry Master. I do not understand."
Glaster forced himself to stay calm and not show pain. Every boy he had ever trained had done similar things without thinking, often times resulting in someone getting hurt. This time their mistake had not had such dire effects. He turned to the room guard, "Soldier, pull your sword and advance on the boys!"
"Master?" The man's expression was of total disbelief.
"Humor me." Glaster stated calmly.
The man drew his blade and moved toward the boys.
Not knowing what exactly was going on, but knowing the Master had just commanded the man to pull a weapon on them, all four boys jumped back. Lylan and Mylan still positioned themselves between the prince and the guard.
"What is the problem boys?" Glaster asked in a harsh, yet soft, voice. "What if he happens to be one of the spies?"
Mylan figured it out first, even as he picked up a candleholder as a makeshift weapon; "We both threw our daggers. Now we are unarmed!"
Lylan nodded as he picked up a small walking stick, "Never give up your last weapon! Master we really messed up!"
"Sheath your weapon and return to your post soldier!" Glaster commanded
Showing a great deal of relief, the man did as instructed. He quietly returned to his post knowing the lesson he had just helped give a group of royal children had also given him some insights into battle, which his own teachers had neglected to pass on. Clearly the man in command of the boys was more than a Master Shaman; he was a master teacher as well. Equally clear was the fact this lesson would stick. All the boys, especially Mylan and Lylan, looked thoroughly tongue lashed even though Glaster had not raised his voice in the slightest.
Glaster, however, had not completed his session. "Prince Klandon, what were you thinking!"
"Huh?" The nine-year-old prince spit out.
"Do not huh me child!" Glaster's voice rose in anger. "You put not only your own life, but those of your friends' in danger!"
"What are you talking about? I did nothing of the sort!" The boy's gray eyes stared out defiantly from behind long black hair.
Glaster took a breath before completely loosing his limited patience with the child before him, "You moved further and further away from me and your guards. What did I tell you about staying away from the outer walls?"
"We were in the palace!" Prince Klandon retorted angrily, "It's not my fault the guards weren't doing their jobs good!"
"Contractions and 'Jobs good' all at once?" Glaster snorted, "You sound like peasant trash!"
"How dare you! I am royalty!"
Glaster grabbed the boy with lightning speed; pain ripped at his side but he ignored it. Although judging from the looks on the faces of the other boys, his facial expression spoke volumes as to the seriousness of his injury. "You are only as high as your manners and speech dictate. Things are done well, food tastes good. Things are not done good. Besides, you were told about staying close to the main house unless you get an escort!"
"So what! We're alive. That's all that matters." Prince Klandon shouted back.
Glaster shook his head; "I will not accept such remarks when at least seven men died defending you today! You will help clean up the grounds after a physical punishment!"
The Royal Healthman looked to the guard; "Get the whipping boy."
Glaster held his tongue while the guard returned with Prince Klandon's whipping boy. The child's bright blue eyes looked at the prince with sorrow as he was bent over the guard's legs, removing his britches and loincloth as he did so. The guard grabbed a long thick piece of leather with a sad shaking of his head.
Since Glaster had come to protect the prince, this child had endured beating after beating on the prince's behalf. Yet the boy continued to do his utmost to make friends with the boy for whom he was getting the punishment. Prince Klandon, on the other hand, had ignored every single nice thing the child had done for him, including carving a beautiful walking stick.
Glaster had been waiting for this moment for a couple of days. "Release the boy soldier!"
The Healthman scowled as the guard let the boy go, "But you decreed physical punishment."
"So I did, but not for a whipping boy. Soldier grab the prince."
The man did as commanded but looked terrified as he secured the youngster.
"You lay a hand on me and you will die!" Prince Klandon bellowed.
Another voice broke the tension, "Not so, my boy."
Everyone stood as the king entered the play chamber. The sudden movement caused Glaster to wobble.
Mylan and the whipping boy, still minus his everything below his shirt, moved to steady the one armed Shaman. Lylan moved around, as the king watched, to give a hand of support as well.
"Dad!" The prince's voice sounded desperate; "He is going to whip me!"
"Yes, my son, he is." The king looked at the boy in the guard's grip. "Master Glaster is correct. Even your speech is starting to sound less than royal! Calling me dad! What is wrong with you?"
"But father!" The boy cried out realizing the mistake of calling him dad. Dad was the language of peasants not royalty, especially high royalty like a prince.
"Do not attempt to cover your undisciplined speech my son. Your poor behavior has brought shame to me." The man turned to Glaster; "Your are hurt Master. Let someone tend your wounds."
"Not yet My Highness. If you please, I would very much like to oversee this detail."
The king motioned approval, "Guard, do as the Master commands and I will make you a lieutenant of my son's watch. This will be part of your duties, so get used to it. My boy has no more need for a whipping boy until he learns to respect what the boy is doing for him. I truly do not understand what has gotten into my son. He used to be much better behaved and had at least some respect for those around him."
The man knelt, still keeping a tight grip on the prince, "As you command, My Highness."
The King turned to leave then stopped, "Healthman?"
"Yes, My Liege?"
"Make sure the only attention my son gets is if his life is in danger. He is to feel every bite of the whip until it heals on its own. If I find out any, and I do mean any, pain-altering herbs are given to him by anyone, I will have you publicly flogged every third day for a month. Do I make myself clear?"
The Healthman swallowed hard, "As you command, My Liege."
"Very well." The man glared at the prince one last time and shook his head; "You were better behaved when you were five than you are now. Over the last six moons I have seen your behavior steadily go down hill. Such rude and uncultured behavior changes back to where it once was starting this instant." Without a further word he left the shocked group and headed back in the direction he had come from.
The guard, now knowing the prince had no authority over him any longer, yanked the spoiled boy up by his arms with one hand, while removing everything below the waist with the other hand.
The young nobleman screeched in embarrassment and fear. "You can't do this!"
Glaster shook his head, "Can't? So you still insist on talking like peasant trash? Your undisciplined use of a contraction will add five lashes."
The Guard's eyes went a little wide, "How many lashes should he receive over all Master?"
Glaster chewed his lip in thought for a moment before turning to Lylan, "How many does your whipping boy get when you do something that would endanger your brother's health or safety?"
"None Master. We get ten." Mylan gulped knowing his father was nowhere near as strong as the powerfully built guard holding the leather strap, "Our whipping boys are only for what Father calls 'foolishness or deviltry' on our parts."
"I knew I liked your father." Glaster chuckled, "Very well. I would say the deeds done by our prince makes thirty, ten for each royal boy endangered, excluding himself. Add another twenty for poor language and conduct unbecoming of a prince. Finally, five for the last can't, instead of cannot. I should add another ten for endangering yourself, but I will let those last ten slide this one time."
"Fifty-five?" The guard asked in some surprise, "He is only eight, Master."
"Than spread them out!" Glaster commanded, "Fifteen to the back, twenty to the rear and twenty to the legs." Seeing a look of disbelief at his harshness, he added; "If I see you holding back even a little, you will face me in a sparing match once I recover."
Glaster stood over the man until each and every blow landed. Finally he backed off, ignoring the bawling prince, "Mylan, Lylan, would you mind helping me to my quarters."
The brothers moved instantly. Both wanted to get away from Prince Klandon, knowing full well the boy would remain unbearable to be around for quite some time. His temper tantrums were next to legendary within the court when he did not get his way.
In a way, neither brother felt very sorry for the boy. Yet another part shuddered. Never before in their young lives had they seen a member of high royalty treated with so little fear, let alone so viciously. Their father told them only a few days before of his decision to pay the Shaman a great deal of money for them to train under Master Glaster's guidance, even though only one of them was a Shaman trainee. If he could treat the prince like this, then they knew they would have it no easier.
From their first meeting with their new Master the boys realized things were radically different than the way things had been up till then. Glaster had made it clear their previous two years of training in one of the best schools in the kingdom meant nothing to him. They would start from scratch. For the next four to six years they belonged to him, as did their whipping boys. This was the first time since they had packed up their things and moved in with him, either had received any sort of training other than two hours a day of basic Field training. Mylan got one hour of weapon drills and an hour of magic training, while Lylan had two hours of weapons, one with his primary, a long sword which would take a long while before he would be able to wield without hefting it like a battle sword. Still, Glaster made him work an hour a day with it, even after both his slender arms shook under its weight. Glaster reminded the exhausted boy of the simple fact he had chose to master a long sword, not Glaster, so he would have to deal with it.
Not even the guards who helped do the training had been able to sway the Master Shaman. He stood firm watching the child try to parry with a weapon almost as tall as he was. Making matters even worse, Glaster had switched from the bronze blade Lylan had been using to Dwarvin Steel one. The weight of the new weapon easily surpassed the old by 10%. It was also far more dangerous to use, keeping an edge longer than any iron blade let alone a bronze one.
However, the rest of their days, up till now, revolved around things that were basically fun, like the roll the hoop game, riding horses bareback, building sand castles on the royal beach, and swimming competitions fetching a stick tossed by Glaster into the ocean waves. Everything was a game where the winner got first choice of the evening chores, which Glaster seemed to have an abundance of.
What astonished the youngsters more than the strange training, was the treatment of their peasant whipping boys. Both boys had been indentured for that one purpose and had lived with the twins from the time they were three. In exchange for their services, their parents received full adult indentured servitude remuneration, testing to verify the boys were trainable (no royal whipping boy was mundane) and the boys were taught to read and write. Finally, and most importantly, upon turning sixteen they would be entered into a training school to receive training they would be very unlikely to get otherwise. With all the perks given to the low peasant boys, Glaster didn't treat them like the low servants they were. Whatever went for the twins, the same applied to their whipping boys. They participated in the same games, got the same amount of training, and split the same numbers of chores. Often times the boys were paired up as a team and got to share in the victories of the Duke's boys, or help with the chores.
The few days of relative short training days looked like they were coming to an abrupt halt. Glaster leaned on the boys as they guided him to his royal quarters within the palace. Upon reaching the room, he ordered the silken sheets be removed and an old blanket to cover the canopied bed. He then made sure he got both boys' full attention. "I may not be able to watch over your classes for the next few days, but you will attend every class and swim the length of the royal dock six times each day. You will also go to the barracks and find a soldier who will teach you to carve wood. Three days from now, I expect you and your servants to come in after training with a long piece of wood suitable for a walking stick and a carving blade."
Mylan couldn't hide his confusion, "Why are we going to carve a walking stick Master?"
"Because as soon as I am fully recovered, we are going on an overnight hike and I want you to have them." Glaster replied without further explanation. His thoughts on teaching had always been to make it interesting and not really tell his students they were actually getting some valuable lessons. Boys play harder than they work, so if work can be made into play, they work harder. Even in his pained state, he had to bite back a grin from his twisted logic.
Glaster allowed the twins to help him out of his bloody clothing as he again cringed. The boys' servants moved in to help but Glaster help up a hand. "No. Mylan and Lylan want to be Healthmen. You two have not made up your minds yet, so let them learn a few things."
Lylan looked up with a start, "Master we could get you a Channeler to heal you instantly."
Glaster grunted in pain as he lay back on the bed, "You could, but that will teach you nothing. I expect the two of you to provide all my care. The Royal Healthman will guide you, teach you, and when necessary give you a step-by-step method of healing me, but will not lay a single finger on my flesh. You will not learn half as much from watching as you will from doing."
As he watched the words sank into the children, he couldn't help remembering Kandric's look when he said the same things only a few years before. Kandric had not only accepted the challenge, but had looked for ways to teach himself. The same self-drive could not be seen in the eyes of Mylan or Lylan. As his thoughts drifted back to his prize pupil, he sighed. At this moment he would have given everything up to have the wonderful little redhead sitting next to him.
What Glaster could not know was Kandric had the same feelings and thoughts at that very moment several hundred leagues away. With the dawn of the new day, well at least it was light out again, he knew for certain his powers had advanced to the next threshold. He experimented with a Levitate spell. Sure enough he found he had not only remembered the casting sequence, but had also cast it. The guilds would have granted him Teaching Echelon for just such a display. Testing for Echelons for spell casters required nothing more than proving the ability to cast a spell within that echelon. The fact he currently sat on the ceiling pretty much verified he had that part of the testing down.
He canceled the spell before his slave woke, however. The last thing he wanted anyone to know was just how quickly he had advanced. Sure, the fight with the Hobs and demon had improved his spell casting abilities along with his combat talents. What the youngster hadn't taken into account was just how much of his abilities he had been constantly using though.
From the encounter with the bullies back in Slome, where he had held back his magical powers because of his promise to Glaster, he had been almost constantly using and improving skills. This constant practice was the reason so many of the so-called 'adventurers' had so many legends about them. The only difference between many adventurer types and Kandric centered on not age, but independence.
Unlike most groups of explorers seeking fame and fortune, Kandric had done everything on his own. This required blending all of his teachings and had forced him to really work on his skills. On top of this, surviving since Glaster had left had been far from easy. The past few weeks leading up to the attack on his body within Slome had been about enduring the harsh weather, limited food, and still scratching out a living while doing what he could to feed his family. This meant he had done little but focus in on what he had been taught up till now. The solid work on all aspects of his Shaman Field and Outdoorsman and Ruinseeker Subfields translated into what would take years of book study to learn and understand. Now, more than ever, it was those skills which were keeping him alive and, since he knew this in his heart, it only forced him to work harder on honing them.
Kandric watched his slave sleep on the rough hard wood floor with a sense of regret. Here he was, an officer of sorts, in a band of soldiers and he couldn't even treat the boy the way he really wanted to. Maybe one day he would be able to make up for his mistreatment, but at least he wasn't hanging on a wall from an arm bar anymore.
The more he felt and thought about his new abilities, Kandric longed to be with Glaster. As he continued to watch Jamon slumber, with chains locking his bronze neck shackle to the bedpost, he thought back to when he first made Primary Echelon.
The fireplace crackled as some fresh cut pine popped in protest over Glaster demonstrating Fire Start yet again. In essence it was nothing more than a more powerful version of the Spark Autospell.
Glaster spoke softly while rubbing his hand all over Kandric's nude body. "The primary difference between the two, my little Shaman, centers on the fact a Fire Start will ignite something meant to burn regardless of whether or not it wants to."
Kandric smiled as the warmth of the fire eliminated the cool dampness of the secret basement. It had been over sixteen months since he first had been 'hired' by Glaster and had begun to enjoy these training lessons. He snuggled into the nook of Glaster's chest and shoulder as his teacher again spoke of how to feel the flow of the spell.
Glaster responded by giving his student a kiss on the top of the head and starting a section-by-section massage. He did so without missing a beat of his lesson, "Every spell you cast is nothing more than a more powerful Autospell. You have learned all fifteen of the most basic auto spells and how to control them plus dozens more basic and more advanced Autospells. How do you do it?"
Kandric felt sleepy after the hard day of work and study but he concentrated on the lesson. "It is like when you taught me. I have to take control of the magic and shape it."
"Correct. The difference is real spells require a hand motion, spoken word, or other body motion to get them started. Some require two or even all three, but this one is based on a single word and the caster directing the word at the material to be lit on fire."
This was great! All he had to do was sit on the man's lap and learn magic, while getting the soreness of his whole body rubbed away. What could be better? Still there was something about the explanation he didn't quite comprehend. The difference this night was he suddenly knew what didn't make sense, "Sir, how do you direct a word at something?"
Glaster paused his back rub for a moment, a sure sign the man was either upset or surprised. His voice quickly gave truth to the second; "A very interesting question my young student. Please explain to me what you are asking."
Kandric knew this meant he was close to some new discovery. All he had to do was figure out what it was. He leaned forward shaking off his sleepiness. "Well, I guess I thought I was asking a simple question, but I guess not huh?"
"Not at all. Give it some thought for a moment then ask in a different way."
Kandric pondered how something so simple could be so important. The more he concentrated the less sure he became, so he decided voice his thoughts. "I am not sure sir. I guess it does not quite make sense to direct a word at something. I mean I can yell at it or scream or even throw a fit, but the way I see you cast a spell has nothing to do with any of those things. I have heard you mouth a spell so quietly I cannot hear all the words. Sometimes you are not even looking where the spell goes so you cannot mean to be facing it. So maybe I am asking how do you direct a soft spoken word at something while you are looking the other direction?"
Astonishment caused Glaster's eyebrows to shoot up. He recovered, but not without some difficulty. Giving Kandric a kiss he smiled an uncertain smile. "When I cast a Fire Start where does it come from?"
Kandric scrunched up his nose, "I always thought it came from your mouth."
Glaster noticeably eased some, resuming his rubbing motion on Kandric's left hip. He remained silent, seeing Kandric clearly didn't like his own answer. He figured the lesson had ended, but Kandric's next words changed everything.
"No." Kandric's voice became more certain, "I feel the spell go off when you speak, but not from your mouth. The spell starts at the logs." Kandric looked up as his insight burst into a new realm of understanding, "The hand motions and the words do not direct spells do they?" His tiny body felt a shiver run down Glaster's spine as the man's eyes opened wide. Never before or since had Kandric seen such a stunned expression in the normally unflappable Shaman.
Glaster suddenly reacted in a way he had never done before. He gave Kandric a hug, then stood him up. He had never stopped a rubdown before. In fact, Glaster had not even allowed Kandric to stop a rubdown for any reason. "Did I say something wrong?" Kandric asked in concern.
"No my wonderful little pupil! You said something very right." Glaster knelt and put his hand around Kandric's shoulders. "Do you see the log that fell off to the side and is not burning?"
"Yes sir. It fell off when you lit the fire because the wood below it popped."
"Very good! You are even learning to pay attention to little things! Now I want you to think of the word for the Fire Start spell. Do not say it just think about it."
Kandric focused all his thoughts on the single arcane word. Not knowing what to expect he remained quiet holding for instructions. He didn't have long to wait.
"Now with the word invoking Fire Start in mind, think about the magic of the spell, the fire it creates, and most importantly of all the log off to the side of the fire. The word, the magic, the fire, the log." Glaster's voice got softer, "The word, the magic, the fire, the log," softer still his voice droned on, "the word, the magic, the fire, the log."
Kandric felt an increase of magic he could no longer contain. Yet he still didn't know how to get rid of it at the log. His mind raced as he again heard the words "The word, the magic, the fire, the log," Then, when it seemed he could hold it no longer, understanding came to him in a sudden flash. The word was the spark, nothing more. It didn't matter what he was looking at, where his hands pointed or what was between him and the log. The word would go where he wanted it to go, because he controlled the magic it created. Willpower, concentration, and magical training propelled the enchantment he invoked. The incantation merely combined the raw magical energies around him with his own internal force.
He whispered the single arcane word with a sense of relief. A simple thought sent the bursting energies of his spell to the intended target. Almost instantly the log split and burst into flame. As he watched his own handy work, his knees buckled slightly from the massive expenditure of magical force it took to control such a powerful spell. Glaster had been partially ready for the side effect, but had been caught totally off guard by the ease of which the spell had rolled off the boy's lips. Every other student he had ever seen cast their first verbal spell had shouted it trying to use their voice to add to their control. He recovered quickly, lowering Kandric onto his knee. He hugged the youngster tightly. "You have gone into Primary Echelon faster and at a younger age than I have ever heard of before."
For over half an hour the man's strong hand held Kandric as his strength slowly returned.
Being utterly exhausted, Kandric felt a sensation of safety and love so strong, he knew even back then he would never forget it.
Kandric let the memory fall away. Still, nothing would have made him feel better as he hovered from the effects of the Levitate spell, than the hug of Glaster around him now. He knew his teacher and master would be as excited and pleased with him now, as he had been that night he had moved secretly into the Primary Echelon at human equivalency age of eight. It had taken four years before Glaster had allowed him to take his Primary Guild testing. By then, Kandric had achieved human equivalency of ten and was begrudgingly accepted, but had in all actuality already made Secondary Echelon. It required a massive amount of work to learn not only more control, but how to hide just how skilled he was, so it took another two years before Glaster allowed him to take that guild exam. At the time of Testing, Kandric had to be very careful and once again held back, so he made tested as a Step 2. Now here he was Teaching Echelon, at a point in his life where he would really enjoy going outside in the blustery snowfall to play.
Giving it some thought, he shrugged to himself and started to get dressed. Glaster always said he couldn't let what others expected get in the way of what he wanted unless he had given his word. Grinning to himself, he left Jamon to sleep and ventured into the white surroundings to make a huge snowman.
Little did Kandric know, Vondum watched his frolicking out in the snow with a bemused grin. He caught himself trying to fit a man into the boy currently entertaining himself with the winter wonderland; a snow filled wilderness which had almost killed every man in the small enclave just the day before. 'Would have,' Vondum reminded himself as he continued to watch, 'had it not been for that cute little Shaman with the quick under fire thinking ability of an elite Swordsman, we surely would have all died.'
As he continued to watch, he saw Kandric's child side infect a couple of the adults. Within half an hour, four snowmen were being built even, as the wind and snow pounded at the small group.
After they had all built their men of snow, Kandric playfully tossed a snowball, striking one of the adults in the chest. It took only seconds for a full-fledged snowball fight to erupt.
Sounds of Kandric laughing along with the men around him didn't go unnoticed by Vondum either. Silently laughing at the scene, he realized he better have Tyfod prepare a king-sized breakfast for the youngster. A skilled warrior, yes, but still all boy, he decided as he turned to get Tyfod going.
For the first time in years he wore a non-forced smile on his face. Without knowing it, he had done something he had promised himself he would never allow to happen. He had grown to not just respect a person but to like someone as well. However, this change of heart didn't totally transfer to others.
Vondum grabbed Tyfod and gave him a hard shove toward the fireplace, "Get some food on you lazy sloth. There happen to be real people to feed!"
Tyfod glanced back with a degree of astonishment, even as he went to work on the meal. He couldn't help but wonder why Vondum had been so gentle. Normally, he would have received a few lashes for not knowing what his master wanted. Relieved, he put a kettle of water over the fire for warm tea and thanked whatever god had been kind enough not to let Vondum beat him yet again.
As Vondum walked to his study, his face slowly twisted back into a grin. For a brief moment he even considered going out to make a snowman of his own, but dropped the idea just as quickly. He was a Captain of the Guard and couldn't allow his troops see him acting the part of a fool. He would let them play; they had earned a rest. His rest and relaxation walked beside him silently as had been dictated.
Looking down at Conth, Vondum saw the boy's haggard expression. The boy had received only a few hours of sleep a night since his arrival. He had made sure the youngster stayed up late every night before going to his own straw mat in the corner, then ordered Tyfod to get him up for morning chores, well before anyone else started to stir. The results, as always, were striking.
The first two days he had obeyed because his natural intelligence had told him to. Then he started to complain and slow down. Reacting instantly, Vondum forced him to run around the cabin twenty times, with no clothing other than a loincloth and no shoes. All the way around the building, guards held paddles that smacked at his bare flesh. The faster he ran the less the sting. However after about ten laps, his ability to outrun the stinging effects diminished rapidly with each remaining circuit. Upon completion, Vondum used one of the wooden paddles on the bottoms of Conch's feet. The punishment on very cold feet, coupled with an extra hard day of chores standing on those same feet, broke the boy's ability to resist.
"I believe it is time you tell me about your training." Vondum stated as he sat in his favorite royal velvet cushioned chair, stolen right off one of the wagons destined for the King of Kronar.
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