“Come in, my prince!” Perendin said, gesturing Laegon through the door. “It’s good to see you. I see that Guardian of yours has been behaving himself lately.”
“It’s a passing phase, I’m sure. He must have eaten something that didn’t agree with him.”
“Perhaps it’s because Silevethiel isn’t responding to his advances.”
Laegon chuckled. “That’s never stopped him before. Perhaps she’s finally knocked some sense into him.”
Perendin shared in the prince’s laughter and clasped his shoulder in greeting. “What brings you here, my friend?”
Laegon sat in the chair the elven night offered. “How would you like to defy the Elven Council?”
“What?” Perendin handed him a mug of ale. “Disobey that bunch of ornery, arrogant weasels? Do you even need to ask?”
“Well, when you put it like that, no.”
Perendin winked and took a swig of ale. “So tell me, my prince, what do you have in mind?”
The jovial grin vanished from Laegon’s face. The mug of ale remained forgotten in his hands. “We’re going after Irewen.”
The elf knight sat back in his chair, his expression somber. “What’s happened? Is she safe?”
“We honestly have no idea.”
Perendin’s eyebrow raised in an unspoken question.
“Silevethiel lost her connection with Irewen during the night.”
The troubled expression that flashed across Perendin’s reaffirmed Laegon’s concern. “What do you mean? I thought Protectors and their Guardians could always feel each other regardless of the distance between them.”
“They can, unless one party intentionally hides from the other.”
“But why would Irewen do that? After how much she fought the Council on the matter, I can’t believe she wouldn’t want to feel the link to Silevethiel, however slight.”
Laegon held his friend’s gaze, letting the gravity of the situation descend upon them. “Exactly.”
“When do we leave?”
“After sundown tonight. Hopefully, with the aid of darkness, we won’t be followed.”
Perendin nodded. “What do you need me to do?”
“I want a group of about ten Culthen. Some of our best. You’ve fought the Drulaack. You know what we’ll be up against and what skills are needed.”
Laegon held up his hand, stopping Perendin before he could respond. “There is more. Whoever joins me on this journey will be in direct violation of the ruling of the Elven Council. No matter our level of success or our current positions, there will be repercussions upon our return. My father cannot help us or lighten our punishment. We’ll have to endure whatever sentence is given. At the very least, we’ll be stripped of our titles.
“Whoever joins me must understand this and be prepared and willing to accept it. There can be no arguments or protests when it occurs. I need people who will remain loyal to our cause and be respectful of the Council’s decision upon our return.”
“Consider it done, my lord,” Perendin replied, holding his hand to his heart. “I know exactly who to ask. You will have a group of at least ten Culthen ready to depart by sunset.”
Laegon relaxed, feeling a sense of relief for the first time since Irewen departed. He’d expected it would be much more difficult to find that many Culthen who were united in searching for Irewen and who would also remain loyal to him when the Council passed sentence.
He bowed his head slightly. “Thank you, Perendin.”
“You are quite welcome, my lord. There aren’t many who believe the Council made the correct decision in sending Irewen off on her own. I could easily get you at least three dozen Culthen eager to ride with you after nightfall.”
“Is it that bad?” Laegon asked, not bothering to disguise his shock.
“Aye. The corruption of the Council has been extremely evident of late. I began to notice it around the time you and Brégen left for patrol, and it has gotten worse ever since. You would be hard pressed to find a handful of elves in all of Silverden who haven’t noticed the change. More importantly, I don’t believe you’d find a single elf who liked what they saw.
“There is something deeper at play here. The current councilors have all ruled for decades. None of them have shown even a trace of unethical behavior. Until now.”
Laegon’s face went pale. Fear gripped his heart, taking his breath away.
“What is it my lord?”
“It’s nothing.” Laegon spread his lips into a faint smile, unable to convince even himself of the truth behind his words. “It’s probably the overblown concerns of a love-struck prince.”
Perendin’s smile seemed just as fake as his own. “Understood, my lord.”
“In addition to the group of Culthen you’re assembling, I am going to ask Halthed and Drell to do the same with Protectors and their Guardians. You understand the journey and what we are up against. Order your knights to prepare accordingly. Be at the northern gate and ready to depart by sundown.”
“We will be there.”
Laegon stood and waited for Perendin to step closer before grasping the Culthen’s shoulder in salute. “Depending on whether my love-struck concerns prove true, we may need more than ten knights,” he added somewhat hesitantly.
Perendin didn’t flinch. “How many?”
“You made a generous offer of three dozen earlier.”
“Consider it done.”
Laegon squeezed the Perendin’s shoulder before releasing his grasp. “I will contact you later this afternoon. You’ll know if more than the original ten are required before supper.”
The corner of Perendin’s mouth raised in a playful grin. “I will await your news with bated breath.”
Laegon returned the knight’s grin. “I knew you would.”
Perendin raised his ale, waiting for Laegon to do the same. “Strength and good fortune, mi frélán.”
“Strength and good fortune,” Laegon repeated. He drank the rest of his ale. The words he didn’t add hounded his mind.
We’ll need them.
* * *
«Brégen,» Laegon said a few minutes after leaving Perendin’s home. He’d started down the cobblestone walkway toward Halthed’s cottage but changed his mind, deciding it would be best to talk to his fellow Protector after investigating his suspicions.
«Yes, my dear prince?»
«I need to know the whereabouts of every member on the Elven Council.»
«I knew you’d have such a request,» Brégen answered haughtily. «And I have taken the liberty of doing your job for you while you were lounging about drinking ale.»
Laegon rolled his eyes. «Where are they?»
«Do you want the good news or the bad news?»
«Just get on with it.»
«My, my, someone is impatient today.»
Laegon could visualize the lion’s large toothy grin. Brégen’s wittiness sometimes drove him nuts. Well, ‘sometimes’ was an understatement. There was hardly a conversation with his Guardian where it didn’t feel like he was talking to a revolving door.
But he wouldn’t trade Brégen for anything. Their jocular exchanges alleviated some of the stress from their extremely demanding positions. That wasn’t to say they didn’t take their jobs seriously. They did. What they didn’t do was allow that seriousness to break them.
«If you don’t get to the point,» Laegon replied, «I will go straight to Silevethiel and tell her about your intended hobbies.»
«I suppose I’ll give you what you want just this once. The good news is your concerns weren’t driven by your infatuation with Irewen. They are most valid. There were other traitors within the Elven Council. And if my guess is correct, they were Drulaack.»
Laegon’s heart sank. It’s exactly what he’d feared. That’s how Elthad bypassed Silverden. He didn’t need to send anyone through the city. He already had Drulaack here. All that was needed for them to slip out of the city at various times, convene at a chosen location, and go after Irewen.
With their speed, they wouldn’t need horses. In order to avoid any suspicions, they most likely waited a few days after Irewen departed before leaving themselves. Even if they remained in Silverden for three or four days, they’d have been able to catch up to her without difficulty.
«How many?» he finally asked. «And I noticed you said it was your guess, not mine.»
«I believe I had the thought a few seconds before you,» Brégen replied, clearly pleased with himself. «Though, who’s keeping track? And there are six counselors missing.»
«I thought you’d enjoy that. Six has always been one of my favorite numbers.»
«It’s one of my most endearing qualities.»
«According to you, perhaps,» Laegon retorted. «What I find completely baffling is that no one noticed six members of the Elven Council were missing. The entire Wood Elf population cannot be as oblivious as you.»
«That doesn’t even deserve an answer. But you are sadly mistaken if you think for one moment I’m going to let you forget that you were among the oblivious.»
«Counting Elrondelthen,» Laegon continued, ignoring Brégen’s comment, «over half of the twelve councilors were betrayers.»
Laegon paused. His mind was racing. It wasn’t just those seven who’d been acting far differently than normal. The entire Council had acted the same. He thought back to the original meeting regarding Irewen’s quest. Not a single member had disagreed with the group. They’d all had the same ideas and the same arguments. Such a thing was unheard of, especially among the Elven Council.
It wouldn’t surprise him at all if the five remaining members were Drulaack as well. In fact, it would be more shocking if they weren’t.
«Who are the last five members?»
«Why would you like to know my good Protector?»
«Just tell me, Brégen.»
«Sülleren, Farotholen, Illwenen, Nyrnielle, and Tündren.»
Laegon called his Sight as soon as Brégen said the first name. He sensed the Councilor almost immediately, though not where he’d expected. Instead of hiding out in his home in the south eastern part of the city, Sülleren was only a few feet away from Laegon.
Stepping to the side, Laegon spun around just as Sülleren’s sword slashed through the air, striking where he’d stood only seconds before. Unsheathing his sword as he pivoted to the right, he lifted it just in time to parry the Councilor’s overhead swing.
«I’m already on my way! Hold on!»
Brégen immediately transferred him some of his energy, and he couldn’t have been more appreciative of the Guardian. Sülleren was the youngest member of the Council. Previously an accomplished Culthen, he knew how to fight and hadn’t lost his technique since accepting the post to the Elven Council. Add the heightened abilities of the Drulaack on top of that, and this was going to be a difficult fight.
Laegon twisted to his right. A clang of metal rang out as he parried a swing to his leg. At least Sülleren wasn’t wearing the heavy armor of the other Drulaack he’d encountered. That gave him a greater target area with which to land his attacks—should he be able to execute any. Thus far, he’d done nothing but barely manage to deflect those of his opponent.
Sülleren’s agility shocked him, and he silently kicked himself for not expecting anything less. The Drulaack at Dremond’s Cave had been formed with human hosts. Sülleren was an elf.
Feigning an attack, the Councilor rotated to his left just before Laegon’s sword sliced harmlessly through the air. Sülleren swung again, but Laegon didn’t see it in time. The Drulaack’s sword sliced cleanly through his right side. Excruciating pain erupted through his entire body. He wasn’t wearing his leathers. The blade had gone deep.
«Turning the corner! Hold on for a few more seconds!»
Biting his teeth against the pain, Laegon managed to turn just enough to parry Sülleren’s return swing. He swore under his breath, trying to focus through the spots clouding his vision. He fell to his knees, dizziness fought to take control. He was losing too much blood.
Sülleren raised his bloody sword high in the air, a devilish grin plastered across his face. Laegon grimaced as drops of his own blood fell on his face. Just as he thought the blade would come crashing down, Brégen’s enraged roar reverberated through the air.
Sülleren was barely able to turn around before Brégen’s front paws rammed into his chest and knocked him to the ground. The Guardian landed on top of him, sinking his sharp claws into the councilor’s unprotected skin. The elf’s scream augmented to a high pitched squeal when Brégen pushed more of his weight onto his victim’s chest.
The popping sounds of ribs breaking could somehow be heard amidst the screaming. Roaring in triumph, Brégen then lowered his head and ripped out Sülleren’s throat. The howling turned to gurgling and then silence.
With his surroundings spinning about him, Laegon struggled to keep Brégen in focus. The lion wrinkled his blood-soaked nose in a look of disgust and disentangled himself from Sülleren’s body. Bounding over the dead elf, Brégen’s expression quickly morphed into one of concern. Laegon tried to wave off the Guardian’s distress, but no matter how much he urged his hand to move, it wouldn’t budge.
His stomach turned when Brégen nudged his snout beneath his chest. The lion’s head slid further underneath him, and his entire body screamed in pain when he flopped onto Brégen’s back.
Fighting the tendrils of unconsciousness taking hold, Laegon ran his fingers through the lion’s thick tawny fur and gripped it as tightly as he could.
“Get…Perendin,” he whispered.
Then the world went black.