The morning we leave there isn’t much fanfare; all that was taken care of at the official dinner yesterday. Plenty of people gathered to see us off, but they’re all still asleep when we depart today. Although Faladel claims we’re leaving this early so we can make it to the river outpost this evening, I find myself wondering if it isn’t also due to the fact that he wants to avoid any more well wishers. He was swamped with them yesterday, and although I got plenty of weird looks and whispers, I heard more about him than about me. Some wondered aloud if he should even be taking this trip at all, because of what happened ‘last time’. I couldn’t hear anything more concrete than that though.
I thought it was just politics, gossip, and rumor, but Faladel does seem worried as he sorts through the luggage we’re carrying with us one last time before we leave the marketplace. I find myself wondering what could possibly be so bad that people wonder if he should even be let out of the palace again. Does it relate to whatever put was so heinous that he was locked up for twenty-two years? His eyes might be creepy, but he doesn’t seem like the serial killer type. And if whatever he did was really that bad, how come he didn’t lose his position as a prince? Something’s not adding up. I frown at Faladel’s back, wondering what exactly he’s hiding in his past.
Briareth suddenly puts a hand on my shoulder, making me jolt. How did he sneak up on me so easily?
“Still jittery after going down the elevator, Balderk?” His question is accompanied by a gleeful smile. Why does he find my suffering so funny?
“I don’t know why you elves invented such things.” I grumble instead of answering. “Near freefall for a hundred feet isn’t something bodies are meant to handle.”
“But you survived right?” His grin is unending.
“Barely.” I mutter, and then divert the topic. “How did Faladel’s hair stay neat? I felt the wind whipping through my hair, yours looked insane after the fall– in fact it still does –so how is his so neat?”
“If you hadn’t had your eyes shut and weren’t whimpering the entire time you might know.” Briareth chirups. I glare at him, he chuckles. “Actually I don’t really know either. It’s just one of those ‘him’ things that you learn to accept. ”
Briareth seems to be in a good mood so I decide to take a risk, and ask the question I was thinking about earlier. “Why was Faladel imprisoned? He seems to be a nice person, I can’t imagine him doing anything too terrible, but it made him go to jail for over twenty years, but he’s still somehow the prince? Which you say is a position? So what exactly did he do? ”
Briareth looks at my worried face, and then laughs. “How about you ask him yourself?” He says as Faladel finishes going over the supplies and starts coming towards us. I gulp, and chicken out. My curiosity can wait. Briareth isn’t letting me go that easily though. “Hey Faladel!” He calls, and waves at him to hurry him up.
Faladel obliges, and when he reaches us, asks “What’s wrong?”
“Balderk has a question for you.” Briareth says. They both turn to look at me expectantly.
“What do we do now?” I ask Faladel, throwing Briareth a quick glare.
“Were you listening at all when Faladel was going over the plan with us?” Briareth asks me, looking bemused and disappointed. Like I’ve let him down by not asking a supremely awkward question.
“Nope.” I claim innocently, “my mind must’ve wandered off.”
“We’re going to be riding deer,” Faladel explains, glancing between the two of us. “Well, Briareth will be riding his horse, Myrddin, but you and I will be riding deer. We should arrive at the river by nightfall. In the morning we’ll cross via raft, and head to the second branch of the river, which should take about a week. From there we’ll take a boat to the mountains, about a four day trip. Then, depending on the weather, it should take us another week to reach this librarian’s home.”
After I nod my understanding, Briareth goes off to get his horse out of the stables and Faladel goes into the woods nearby to call some deer. I ask if I can come along but he shuts me down. “Until a peace treaty is signed, military secrets have to stay secret, sorry Balderk.”
So I wait with our supplies and watch the early morning market traffic. It’s mainly just vendors setting up stands, a few early shoppers looking for bargains, nothing interesting. Faladel eventually arrives back with two deer in tow. We start strapping supplies on them, and Briareth arrives to help. His poney is a lot less skittish than the deer, and accepts the bundles with much more grace. When it’s time for us to mount up, Briareth has to help me onto my deer. He proudly says that he grabbed a stool from the stables for just this reason, and actually whips one out. We throw a few jibes back and forth, but he wins as usual. I personally believe he’s teasing me because he’s still miffed I didn’t ask Faladel about his prison sentence.
After we get started, Briareth actually stays silent for the first few hours. Faladel seems to enjoy the quiet of the forest, and the birdsong, and whatever else he might be listening to, so I don’t disturb him. I try to enjoy nature as well, but give up when a bird poops on my head. I guess nature just doesn’t like dwarves, and after that incident, I return the feeling.
Our lunch consists of rations we eat while riding. Because we save time by not stopping for lunch, we’re nearly at the river by the time the darkening sky forces us to stop. I’m exhausted from riding so much and muscles I didn’t even know I had are protesting so loudly I can’t think. I basically roll off my deer and collapse at the area Faladel chose for our campsite.
“Tomorrow we’ll ride downriver to the outpost where we’ll get the raft to cross.” He says, immediately starting to unpack his buck. “The deer don’t like to go on water, so we’ll have to let them loose and then summon more once we’ve crossed. ”
“Thank goodne-” I yawn loudly, cutting off the rest of my sentence. “A short break from riding! Those deer are really uncomfortable to ride. Oh, no offense,” I say to my deer, which seems to be studying me. It snorts in response.
Faladel finishes unpacking quickly, and comes over to help me, soothing my deer and steadying it while I unload the heavy bags of supplies.
“Was there something you wanted to ask? Your question from before we left felt off, but you didn’t bring anything up during the ride.” He asks me gently, and I feel rather insulted. I’m not one of these deer. I won’t spook if he accuses me of lying. I’m about to give him a piece of my mind and blurt out the question of his prison sentence, but I remember his cold eyes in the throne room, and hesitate.
“Balderk?” Faladel presses, noticing my hesitation. I remember other sides to him, laughing with Briareth while we ate, explaining how every word of his is recorded. I broach a different question.
“Are people still listening to this conversation?”
“Unlikely.” He looks rather confused. “We’re far from the castle now, it’s not impossible, but most of the reporters aren’t that persistent. However, they may ask for a full disclosure of what happened when we get back. Is that what you were wondering about this whole time?”
I think on the fly. “No, but I realized that my next question might be a sensitive topic for you.”
“Ask away,” Faladel says, spreading his hands out to either side.” if I don’t want to answer, I’ll tell you and explain why.”
“Why were you imprisoned?” I ask, the questions flooding out quickly “What did you do wrong? And if being a prince is a position, why didn’t you lose it for doing whatever it was that put you in prison in the first place?”
Faladel chuckles. “Ahh… you must have misunderstood something. I was imprisoned by dwarves not elves. My only crime was that someone thought I’d make a good political prisoner. That’s why some wondered if I should be leaving the capital in the company of a dwarf. They don’t trust you not to kidnap me and drag me back to your superiors.”
“Oh.” I say, that answer was so anticlimatic, and now I feel stupid. That’s why those elves shut up when I got close. They were talking about me, not Faladel. And here I was worrying he might be a murderer. “No wonder Briareth wanted me to ask you. He knew I’d make a fool of myself.”
Briareth pops up behind us. “Did someone say the dwarf makes a fool of himself?”
Faladel doesn’t seem surprised. “No, Balderk was accusing you of trying to make a fool out of him.”
Briareth pauses, “It’s quite possible that I was. He is quite fun to make fun of.”
“You really shouldn’t pick on him so much, Briareth.” Faladel scolds, shaking his head. “We’re supposed to be working together.”
Briareth sighs, “Fine, I guess you have a point. I’ll limit my antics, but you can’t convince me to drop them all together Faladel, that’s too much to ask this poor Elf.”
“Good enough for you Balderk?” Faladel asks me, ignoring Briareth’s last comment.”
“It’s fine, I can take care of myself.” I say gruffly, but nod at him in thanks.
The place Faladel picked for our campsite is really clever. We’re right outside a grove, so no one can see us through the trees, but the deer have room to graze. There isn’t much more chit chat until after supper, when a few jokes are made and questions are asked about my background. I explain to them how I was just a common footsoldier, not any sort of prince or secret agent, who just overheard the wrong conversation and thought something must be done. Faladel and Briareth don’t judge me for my lack of titles though. Instead they ask about my family, I tell them of my three sisters and mother waiting at home, probably in disgrace because of my desertion. Briareth asks if I’m married, I laugh at him. I never had time for marriage, the military was my life. I didn’t care to start a family because I already had one to take care of and believed I was serving a good cause.
After I say it, I’m surprised that I put it in the past tense. Believed. Have I really changed so much? Do I not believe anymore that exterminating the elves is a noble cause? Braireth, Prince Faladel and his family, they’re all so different from what I’ve always known. Their beliefs are so other to me that I don’t know how to react. However, they aren’t the heinously evil beings I’ve always been led to believe. They don’t seem to be rotten to the core. Faladel isn’t nearly as cold as he first seemed. Briareth can be cruel, but he sees everything as a joke. He doesn’t mean any of it. Both of them earnestly believe this war can be stopped by a treaty. That they can save countless lives without any more bloodshed. They’re surprisingly innocent for creatures whose race is supposed to be made of a demon’s laughter at others misfortune.
Briareth and Faladel, seemingly noticing my introspection, don’t ask any more questions and we head off to bed rather quickly after we’re finished eating. The deer graze nearby as we climb into our bedrolls. Faladel opens his mouth, as if to say something, but he hesitates as Briareth yawns loudly, and instead of bringing it up, just murmurs a goodnight and crawls under his own blanket. I stare at the stars puzzling out my change in attitude till my eyes close.
When they open again it’s to a frantic call from Briareth.
“Wake up! Faladel! Balderk! Get up now! We’re surrounded!”
Faladel scrambles for his sword, but halts as seven archers train their bows on him. Briareth already has his bow out, but he’s so outnumbered there’s nothing he can really do. I don’t even have a weapon to begin with, and can only watch and shiver in the chilly dawn air as the leader of the ambushers emerges from the trees at the edge of the clearing.
“Drop your weapons if you want to live.” He says, coldly. I see Briareth glance at Faladel –who gives him a subtle nod— before he lowers his bow and carefully places it on the ground.
The swordsmen approach, and deftly search all of us for weapons. Briareth has seven daggers taken from him after three searches before they are satisfied they got them all.
“What should we do with the dwarf, Sir?” One of the swordsmen asks the leader. “Can we dispose of him?” He looks all too eager to ‘dispose’ of me. I gulp, nervously.
“Hmm…” The leader pauses, considering. “Not yet. I’m curious to know why he was in the company of the Prince.”
“The Prince?” The swordsman asks incredulously, switching his glances between us and his boss.
“Yes. Don’t you recognize the heir to the current sovereign?” The leader’s smile is like ice. “They’re not traveling with fanfare, but it is most certainly the ‘long lost Prince Faladel’ that was in the news two years ago.” He raises his voice. “We’ve struck gold with this catch men!” I glance over at Faladel. His face is grim amidst all the cheers that surround us.