Chapter One: 17 Dawnbud, 126th Year of Kings

"I will so!"

The older boy smiled nastily at the younger, towering over his foe, who crouched on his knees, wiping ineffectually at a bloody nose. "You're too small to be a Ranger!"

"I'll get bigger," the younger boy snapped fiercely, "but you'll always be just as stupid!"

The larger boy made a very uncouth noise and leapt at the smaller. At first, it seemed as though the younger boy actually stood a chance. But then two of the older boy's friends, silent observers thus far, entered the fray, pinning down their hapless victim. Their leader untangled himself as his lackeys hauled the small boy to his feet. Both children were panting heavily, and blood from the younger boy's nose had been smeared all over the pair of them. The younger boy struggled mightily against his tormentors, but he was too small, and they too strong. The older boy punched him—hard—right in the jaw, and the younger boy slumped in the grasp of his captors, momentarily dazed.

"You sniveling brat! You'll never be anything but a sleazy, worthless, spineless worm! Just like your precious daddy!"

Something about the taunt seemed to revive the young boy. He lunged at his enemy with renewed vigor, meeting with just as much success as before. "My dad will come back for me! You'll see! Then won't you be sorry, Marc!" One of Marc's friends kicked the back of the younger boy's knee, sending him crashing to earth in an undignified heap. They hauled him ruthlessly upright.

Marc backhanded his young prey almost casually. "Your daddy's dead, you idiot. Why do you think he left you here?"

"He will come back!" The younger boy blinked back tears as his voice broke. He gritted his teeth, his face hardening into a fiercely determined expression, as though the very force of his will could make his words truth. "He will!"

Marc lifted a hand to deliver another blow, but then stopped. His steely gray eyes looked over the younger boy's head, and he quickly shoved his lackeys back. Grabbing the young boy roughly by the arm, he began to dust off the lad's soiled clothing. "Now, now, Rolf, it's all right. You shouldn't get yourself in such a hurry all the time, and you wouldn't fall down so much…"

"What are you—?" Rolf tried to pull away, but Marc held him firm, his quick hands patting him down hard enough to hurt.

"What's going on?"

Rolf and Marc looked up simultaneously, the former surprised and the latter trying his best to look innocent. They ducked their heads in unison. "Mistress!"

A plump woman in a simple blouse, skirt, and apron flounced up to the foursome of boys, eyeing Rolf's bloodied nose with obvious distaste. "Well?"

Marc stepped forward, right onto Rolf's foot. He made a grandiose gesture, pushing the younger boy back a step. "Mistress, we were just going for a walk, ma'am, when we saw Rolf here take a terrible spill. He had been running across the yard—you know how hyper he gets sometimes! I guess his feet just couldn't keep up with him. See, he busted his nose. So we came over to help…"

The headwoman of the Denev academy nodded brusquely and racked Rolf with her sharp gaze. "Go on, now, off to bed with you. All that rushing around must have made you very tired, boy."

"But—!!"

"Don't argue with me, lad! To bed with you—now!"

Rolf sputtered with outrage. It wasn't fair! He hadn't done anything wrong! Marc was the one who…He bowed his head, fairly trembling with suppressed rage, and muttered a subdued "Yes, Mistress…"

The trek to his room was not a long one. Rolf bunked just off the school kitchens, so his was the first room in the long hall that housed the other boarder students. He plodded through the door and threw himself facedown on his small bed. After a long moment, the boy rolled over and sat up, planting his feet on the floor and clasping his hands between his legs while resting his elbows on his knees.

It really wasn't fair, but this was how it always happened. Rolf was smaller than the other kids because he was at least three years their junior. And the headmistress rarely blamed the other kids for picking fights. They were paying good money to be here, after all. Why should they break the rules? Rolf, on the other hand, had no choice in the matter. Ever since his father had left ten years ago, when Rolf was barely old enough to walk and talk, he had been the legal ward of the academy. When he had turned ten two year ago, the headmistress had demanded that he begin attending classes, mostly to keep him busy and out of the way.

The first year had been terrible. Most kids in Denev did not begin school until they were fifteen. That way, they finished just as they came of age and all the knowledge would be fresh in their minds when they took up a career. Denev was such a backwoods place, as a matter of fact, that most of the kids probably wouldn't attend school at all, if King Keith had not mandated that every man and woman over eighteen know how to read and write and figure arithmetic. An uneducated populace was easily fooled, the king claimed.

But Rolf had survived the first year, and the second year had been even more confusing. The boy did not understand why on earth he was even attending classes anymore. They went over the same stuff every year, and he already knew how to read and write and work with numbers. He read better than most of the third years!

And that was the real crux of the matter. It wouldn't be so bad if Rolf didn't know all the answers. But he did. Hell, living at the school as he did, he'd picked up on most of them before he even began attending classes! For some reason, that made the older kids angry. Or maybe just jealous. Maybe if Rolf hadn't been underfoot so much, the headmistress would never have…But no. The old woman was just mean enough to make Rolf attend classes whether he had been good or not.

Rolf sighed and lay back, stretching across the width of his bed and crossing his arms behind his head. He kicked off his boots before rolling onto his stomach to scan the shelves of books against the wall. There had to have been scores of books there, books of all kinds. They were mostly old textbooks, but there were lots of books on Crestilian history, and even a few on the Killiks, the Andivasi, and the Killeen'ghymn. Biographies and fictional tales rounded out the collection. Rolf reached out, tipped one book out to get a better look at its cover, then slid it back before snatching up the one next to it.

Flipping through the pages, Rolf came across a tattered bit of old parchment folded between two of them. He drew the slip of paper out almost reverently and set the book aside. The brittle parchment crackled ominously as the boy unfolded it with the utmost of care. Long before he had become literate, Rolf had pestered the headmistress to read and reread the contents of this letter a thousand times. He knew it by heart. But it felt good to be able to look at it, to trace the small, untidy letters and know that, somewhere, the one who had written them eagerly awaited the day of their reunion.

Rolfando,

I know you are too young to understand, my love, but I must embark now on an extensive journey of the greatest import. Perhaps, someday, you will come to understand the full extent of my love for you. I regret that your mother is no longer with us, and I know it must be hard for you to lose me, as well.

I will not be gone forever. I will return eventually, but I expect that you will be a young man by then. Until that time, I leave you in the charge of my good friend Martha. I dare not leave you elsewhere, for reasons you may someday come to know. Be good for her, my dear son.

May you think of me as fondly and often as I do you,

Tedric Denevar

Tedric Denevar. Rolf closed his eyes briefly. My father! Rolf could hardly wait for Tedric's return. Oh, what he would give to see Marc's face then! And Martha! If Tedric learned how mean she was to his son…Rolf could just see his father now, the sandy brown hair so similar to his own, cropped short in a warrior's fashion; the strong, stately features, the defiantly raised chin and upturned nose, the glittering blue eyes, ringed in laugh lines that deepened now as the man smiled, revealing straight white teeth and a pair of slight dimples.

Rolf curled himself around his father's letter and rested his head on his pillow. Oh, what he wouldn't give…