ONE YEAR AGO
GARNET PROVINCE - THE SPIDER ROAD
“Someone, I need help!”
The door to the sleepy, roadside tavern exploded inward, disturbing the peaceful quiet evening as a man forced his way inside. He was stocky, and strong-looking, but also bloody and bruised, carrying the body of a boy in his arms. He stumbled forward, and the six people in the large room scrambled to make space as he hurriedly lay the boy onto a table top. Old Verth, the innkeeper, pushed his way around the bar and rushed to the man’s side.
“What’s happened here?” he demanded, raising his thick, wispy eyebrows in alarm.
The man fixed him with a piercing stare, violet irises filled with pain and panic.
“My son, he’s been poisoned,” he answered quickly, but seriously “I need someone to heal him.”
Verth looked the man up and down, and then peered at the boy on the table. Both were battered, covered in open wounds. The boy’s face on the left side was a mess, and looked like it had been hit with a hammer. The father’s right arm looked mangled, crushed by something heavy. Or strong.
“Just poison?” Verth asked.
“We battled a Giant,” the man stated urgently, “but my boy, he--some of the beast’s blood got in him. In his mouth. Is there anywhere near that has a healer, or an apothecary? He’s going to die.”
Verth shook his head.
“There’s nothing ‘round here for leagues,” he said, “closest is Vuss, on the other side of the Berrywood. I’m truly sorry. We are just a tavern along the route to Darring.”
“Do one of you men have a tincture or draught, or salve of some sort, that I can give him to keep him roadworthy?” the man asked, turning to the group watching the display. Though his voice was firm, it had an edge of stress to it. It seemed he was quickly losing hope.
The men stayed silent, like stoic statues. Verth stepped forward and placed his rough fingers in front of the boy’s nostrils, and waited. He brought them back to his side after a moment.
“He’s still breathing, though it’s shallow. I may be able to find something to…” he looked into the menacing gaze of the father, “ ...ease the pain.”
Old Verth moved behind the bar, and began pulling stoppers out of bottles, smelling them, searching for something. While he moved, he spoke.
“Where in the realm did you happen upon a Giant?” He asked quietly, amidst the popping of cork.
“A few hours east,” the man returned, placing his hand on his son’s forehead, “in the Dairn.”
“In the Dairn?” Verth asked, “that’s dead land. Nothing to be found there but ruins and wayward spirits. You younger folk need to learn to steer clear of them ancient grounds. Why were you in that stretch, in any case?”
“We went there for the Giant,” the man said sharply, glaring at Verth now.
Verth sighed, and shook his head like a disappointed elder.
“And what was the result?”
“The Giant is dead,” the man declared, and from his satchel he removed something, then slapped it onto the tabletop. A large, yellowed fang.
“Killed…?” Verth wondered aloud, examining the object from the other side of the room. His eyes were wide, and he looked dazed.
“Yes,” the man said simply, and turned his back to Verth, to face his son.
There was a murmur among the assembled folk inside the tavern, each face dimly highlighted by the flames of the hearth, the sole source of light in the space. The man with the mangled arm leaned down, pressing his ear to his son’s chest, listening for a heartbeat.
“Stay with me, boy,” he whispered.
From the group, a hooded man stepped forward. He was tall, and an unkempt beard jutted out from beneath his cowl.
“Are you Alder Carthage, of the Berrywood,” he asked, his voice was a rumbling bass wrapped in smoke, “son of Cassander?”
The father paused, the side of his head resting on his son’s chest, and slowly stood. His face was expressionless. The man turned his body so as to fully face the men in the room, his shoulders squaring as he lowered his brows.
“That’s a name…” he said, as if in warning, “...by whose request?”
The hooded figure raised his hands up.
“Easy,” he said carefully, “just confirming.”
He reached up, sliding back his hood to reveal a bald head, and a stony, angular face. He turned to the men with him.
“Get the old woman,” he commanded.
Carefully, the crone weaved her arthritic fingers in the air, forming seals of power. Then she lowered her hands, palms down, over the boy on the table’s prostrate form. The gnarled, wooden staff resting next to her against the table’s edge, started to glow faintly with a soft, smokey purple light. The old woman began moving her outstretched hands in slow circles, each rotating in opposite directions. She took turns passing each palm over the other and grumbled pitchlessly in concentration. The magic from her staff slowly drew forth, like the funnel of a twister, swirling its way toward her moving hands. The power began to twist with her motion, circling her hands like a coiling serpent until it coalesced beneath her fingers, forming a tight sphere.
The mass flashed with violet ribbons, like a ball of captured lightning, and as it grew, it began to radiate light. The glow spread beneath her hands, washing over the boy on the table and continued until the whole room was bathed in the light from the old woman’s magic. Slowly, a light began to pulse from within the boy’s body. It was green, and outlined the shape of his heart in his chest. Those gathered could see it beating very slowly, and with each quivering pump from the struggling organ, the same magical green light could be seen circulating through his lifeblood.
When it reached the wound in the boy’s face, the men could see growth. Like a sprawling patch of moss, a thorny substance began crawling across the sections of the boy’s fractured eye and cheek until it was as thick as forest peat. The green light continued to circulate, but once it traveled to the wounded eye, it stayed, simmering like a flame within the socket.
It took another minute, but eventually, both the boy’s heartbeat, and his breathing returned to normal. As it did, the magic orb began to dim and then disperse, turning to mist that evaporated into the dimness of the tavern.
Alder, who had been just at the edge of the table, breathed a heavy sigh of relief, and his eyes flickered up at the old woman. Her own pale orbs held his gaze for a moment, and then she closed them, and her lips turned upward in a kindly smile.
“This could not have been better timed,” said a warm, rich voice.
Alder looked at the group, to see who had spoken. A younger man, perhaps in his later teenage years, or early of twenty, with chin-length green hair, squinted down the slope of his nose at Alder, smirking.
“It must be fate, that you would cross our path on this night, of all nights,” he continued.
“It would seem so,” Alder agreed, and he peered over at his son, still resting placidly on the table.
“We were waylaid by rockfall along the Everna Pass, we had to double back and find a new route,” the young man said, “we almost took the Green Road, but… well, here we are.”
Alder nodded seriously. He seemed to regard the words with careful consideration, and then turned to the crone again.
“Thank you,” Alder said respectfully, reaching out and grasping her wrinkled hands, “you’ve done me a great service tonight, one that I fear I cannot repay.”
The crone nodded, but didn’t say anything. However, a tiny voice behind her piped up.
“There is something you can do.”
The group of men parted, and a boy, perhaps not older than eight or nine stood in their midst. He wore his blond hair in a close crop, the bangs cut straight across and was dressed throat to foot in fine red cloth, tailored perfectly to fit his small frame. Stitched into the lapels of his pleated frock was a rams head beneath a three-pronged crown.
Alder also noticed the boy’s eyes. They burned like gemfire, red as glittering rubies.
The woodsman wondered if the boy had been there the whole time, watching. Alder met the boy’s gaze and asked, “perhaps you’d allow me to do you a favor as well, once I have done one for the elder?”
The bald man stepped forward, shaking his head and resting a meaty hand on the boy’s shoulder.
“The prince speaks for her,” he clarified, “only he can hear her voice.”
Alder gazed upon the rams head and crown once more, and nodded to himself. He’d known who the boy was the moment he saw those eyes. That would make the old woman Ragna, the mother of the kingdom’s queen, Nyxis. She was famous the realm over, not just because of her daughter, but because of her own mythology.
She was called far-seeing, for her predictions, and it was believed she consulted with the spirits of the stars, and held court with demon lords. She was said to use a powerful Arcane Deck, and it was believed she was one of the few who had seen the boughs of the World Tree, learning the color of her leaves, and tasting of her fruits. Her healing powers were also legendary, and few could match them. All of these things tucked away into a frail-seeming old woman’s withered body. But, if the rumors were to be believed, she had not left her home in Hvitr in years.
What was she doing hundreds of miles from the western shore?
Alder woke from his thought, and inclined his head to the boy.
“Very well, Your Highness,” he said quietly, “what can I do to redeem such a wondrous favor as snatching my son’s soul from Wold’s embrace?”
The crone turned to face the boy and met eyes with him, then the prince turned back to Alder.
“Ragna requests that you assemble your deck," the boy said gravely, as if handing out a gallow's notice, "and draw the cards.”