To begin at the beginning, click on Prologue in the Table of Contents, then on Chapter One, etc.


Segway dismounted and hesitantly walked up to his young master. “What is it, m’lord?”

Taraval held out the branch he had plucked from the tree. “Look,” he said. Segway took the branch and saw that the leaves were wilted and turning black around the edges.

The boy didn’t understand. “But it’s just a broken branch,” he said. “That’s why it’s dying.”

“No, Segway,” Taraval replied, “it I broke off a living branch. The wilted leaves, the blackening – it’s just the way it happened with the ravenwoods in Ilahee. Don’t you see? The blight has struck this place, too.”

Segway saw in the young prince’s face a despair he had never seen there before, not even when they had been lost without food or water. He placed an awkward hand on Taraval’s arm. “But… but that only means we need to keep looking, doesn’t it, m’lord? It isn’t all bad news – at least we know now that ravenwoods do grow outside of Ilahee. And if they grow here, they can probably grow farther north. Maybe the blight hasn’t reached them there.”

Taraval sighed and was silent for a moment. Then he tossed away the dying branch and remounted. “Thank you, Segway,” he said. “You’re right, it does show us we’re not searching for the impossible. And this tree is just beginning to show symptoms, so we may have a chance of getting ahead of the blight. But we’ll have to travel north faster than it does, and with winter coming on, I don’t know if we can do that.”

“Maybe winter will slow the blight down, too,” Segway said hopefully.

“Let’s hope so,” Taraval replied with a rueful smile. “And now, if we’re off in a race with the ravenwood blight, the sooner we get back to Landshut and onto the northern trial, the better.”

At as fast a pace as Festinalentay could muster, they retraced their route back to the stone-bordered clearing where they had been ambushed, hoping to find the men still lost in their delirium. But as soon as they entered the enclosure they saw it was not so. Red Hair and Big Belly were beginning to rouse, and Philip Carbold was already wide awake and struggling with his bonds.

He glared at Taraval and snarled, “You’ll regret this, minstrel. I’ll track you till my dying breath, and then I’ll have the lute – and your life with it!”

“You’ll have to find me first, Carbold!” Taraval taunted, surprised by the strength of his voice.

“There’s no place you can hide from me.” The man’s hateful eyes bore into Taraval’s own, though he made no move to thwart their progress.

As Taraval and Segway rode past, Philip Carbold hurled not stones but vile words at them, a threatening rant that the two youths tried unsuccessfully to shut out of their ears.

Why don’t you play the lute again to renew the spell on them, my lord? Segway asked. “That would give us another hour’s head start.”

Taraval halted and placed a hand on the lute case. When there was no response, he flicked Tressiter’s reins to continue on toward Landshut. “That passed through my mind, too, Segway,” he said, “but I must let Featherbroom decide when – and if – she wants to help us. After her tantrum at the inn I have a feeling that if I expecdt too much from her, she’ll balk just to show me she isn’t my servant. Her silence just now seems to confirm that.”

There was a busy rustling and sputtering inside the lute case, and Taraval patted it soothingly. He must be careful what he said about the wood nymph in her presence.

“Carbold is strong as an ox, but I think the ropes will hold him a while longer,” he assured Segway. “But we musn’t waste any time.”

It was almost nightfall by the time they reached the inn. Taraval sent Segway to the stable immediately to gather his grooming tools and other belongings. Lisa met Taraval at the door of the inn and gasped when she saw his shirt sleeve torn and stained with blood.

“Minstrel, what happened?”

“You were right, Lisa. Those rocks are dangerous. We were ambushed there by Philip Carbold and two others. Carbold threatened to pursue us, so we must leave at once.”

“You’ll never escape him if he’s vowed to get you,” she said, shuddering. “I know Philip. He always gets what he wants.”

“We left the three of them tied up and without horses.”

“That will only make him more determined to catch you,” she said. “You must stay away from the main road until you’re safe.” She glanced back into the common room of the inn and, seeing several patrons watching them, stepped outside, pulling Taraval into the shadows. Her face was pale in the waning light.

“Take me with you,” she said urgently. “I can show you a better trail.”

Startled by her request, Taraval immediately shook his head. She would slow them down, he feared. “I can’t…”

Only until you and Segway are safely away from Carbold,” she assured him. “And me, too,” she added her eyes on the ground. “I have relatives in a village three days north of here. Phlip doesn’t know about them, so he won’t know where I’ve gone. They’ve asked me to come live with them, but I had no way to get there until now.” She looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Please, do this for me,” she whispered. “Your horse can carry both of us, can’t he?”

“Tarval looked at her with furrowed brow for a long moment. Finally he nodded. “Very well, Lisa. Can you gather up some food? I’ll pay Mistress Witherspoon for it.”

Within a quarter hour they were ready to leave. When Segway learned that Lisa was going with them, he stared at her with such wide-eyed wonder that Taraval could see he was infatuated. He had to nudge the boy to get his attention. “Did you feed and water the horses?” he asked.

“Oh, yes, m’lord,” Segway replied. Lisa smiled at him, and the boy responded with a look of dumbfounded pleasure.

Taraval mounted Tressiter and swung Lisa up behind him, her pale woolen skirts billowing over the horse’s flanks. An instantaneous buzzing erupted inside the lute, but after several short bursts Featherbroom quieted down, apparently no longer threatened by the girl’s presence. Perhaps she sensed that despite Lisa’s arms encircling him, Taraval’s thoughts were only on escaping Carbold. At first Tressiter balked at the brush of skirts and the unfamiliar weight, but Taraval rubbed his ears and muzzle and the horse quickly settled down.

To Taraval’s surprise, after they crossed the bridge over the River Halcyon, Lisa directed them onto the trail going south. “The bridge guard has seen us,” she said. “This may throw Philip off our trail for awhile.”

Soon the last glimmer of daylight faded and they had only moonlight to guide them. Lisa led them off the road, then dismounted and with a branch she broke from a bush started rubbing out the tell-tale hoofprints of the horses. Instantly Segway leaped from Festinalentay’s back and took the branch from her. “I’ll do it,” he said gallantly, and then helped her back onto Tressiter.

When he had finished sweeping away all sign of their passing, they cut across country at the girl’s direction and soon came to a little-used trail, where they turned back to the north. They traveled well into the night, until Festinalentay’s usually blodding pace began to slow even more, and Taraval could tell that Lisa was exhausted from the limp way she clung to him. When they came to the ruins of an abandoned hut, he called a halt.

“We’ll spend the night here.”

Segway dismounted with a grateful sigh and helped Taraval clear parts of the collapsed roof from inside the hut to make a sleeping place. The walls provided some protection from the weather, but a cold breeze whipped through the opening where the door had been and he saw Lisa shiver.

“Here,” Segway said to the girl. “Take my blanket.”

She shook her head. “Thank you, Segway, but I brought my own.”

Looking at the boy in his shirt sleeves, Taraval was reminded that they still had not bought the supplies they needed. And now that they had left Landshut, he wondered, when would they have another chance.


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