Chapter Four

21 Dawnbud, YK 109

Rolf paused beneath the final boughs of the last little saplings at the edge of the Zareen. It took Logan a while to realize the lad no longer dogged his steps, and when he did, he whirled about, reaching for his sword as though he feared some mortal danger had befallen him. When he saw Rolf simply standing there, staring blankly out at the grassy hills of the Rolling Plains, he crossed over to the lad and took his arm, perhaps a bit rougher than necessary.

"Come along, boy."

But Rolf resisted his tug, digging in his heels with all the strength of his sudden desperation. "No!"

Logan, sensing, finally, that something was wrong, tossed Rolf a quizzical glance. "What seems to be the matter?"

"I…I can't…the woods…"

"Ah." Logan nodded sagaciously. "Homesick already, my boy?"

"No," Rolf shot back testily. "I just…I've never left these woods before. It seems…I don't know, like it should be more difficult. Like there should be some sort of ceremony or big production…like on a birthday or something."

"Indeed." Logan lifted a single speculative eyebrow before shaking his head a bit sadly. "This is nonsense, boy. All children must leave home eventually. Such is the way of the world."

"I guess…you're right…" Rolf stepped hesitantly out of the shady embrace of his homeland, his spine rigid and his jaw clenched as though he expected to be struck down by the hand of the gods right then and there. Nothing happened, so he let out a breath he hadn't realized he had been holding.

Logan clapped him warmly on the back. "There, you see? It is not so bad as you think."

Rolf did not respond. His momentary hesitation aside, the lad suddenly recalled the nature of his mission and the directions Martha had imparted to him upon their leave-taking. He dashed ahead through the thick, knee-high grass and scaled the nearest rise.

A sudden gust of wind tore at Rolf's loose hair, whipping the already-unruly locks into a tangled mess. His loose clothing snapped taut against his skin as the multitude of grass bowed down in a rippling wave before the mighty current. Rolf stumbled, and might have fallen, but Logan caught his elbow in a tight, steadying grip. They looked out together over the roiling landscape.

The hills grew smaller as they marched along, almost like the ripples from a stone dropped into a still pool, but in reverse. A dark smudge marked the distant city of Crestilan, nestled in the deepest valley, and beyond that, the hills grew progressively back to the height of the one Rolf and Logan now stood upon.

"That's where we're going, right?" Rolf asked, indicating the hazy, indistinct shape so far below.

"Yes. And if we hurry, we may reach our destination before nightfall.

"Then let's go!" Rolf laughed, dashing ahead before Logan could think to stop him.

The roads that crisscrossed the Plains wove in and out around the hills, taking the most indirect, but flattest, route on their way to Crestil's bustling capital. Rolfando had read about the two largest roads—the Great North Road and the Great West Road—but there were also a number of packed-dirt trails and paths that tied Crestilan to the dozen or so little villages scattered throughout the Plains. Every thoroughfare, no matter how twisted its path, seemed to converge on that single point, drawn to the seat of the king as though by an invisible hand. One might have said that all roads touched in Crestilan, and one would not have been far from the truth.

Rolf and Logan did not follow a road, but took the most direct route. Their destination danced tantalizingly in and out of sight as they climbed and descended a hundred hills that day.

Rolf stopped abruptly at the edge of the city, his head tipped to one side as he considered the length of barbwire fence that barred his path. Logan appeared at his elbow a moment later. "What's this?" the lad inquired.

"It is called barbwire, boy. It is used to discourage ruffians who do not wish to use the roads," Logan replied icily.

"You mean like us?"

That single brow jumped up. "Indeed," he muttered dryly. "Come along, now. Let us seek a point of entry."

It did not take long to follow the fence to a spot where it crossed one of the many roads. The single, sleepy-looking guard who lounged against a nearby building straightened up at their approach. "Welcome back, Sir Faldor!"

Logan nodded briefly in the guard's general direction as he hurried past. Rolf thought this was quite rude, but refrained from saying so. He was quite proud of himself, since he rarely refrained from doing anything he knew he was sure to regret later on.

The streets of Crestilan were very scary for a backwoods boy like Rolfando Denevar. He had never seen quite so many people all in one place before, and all of them seemed to have something immensely important to be doing, for they all rushed about, pushing and shoving each other in a rather uncouth manner. For one brief moment, Rolf feared he might be swept away by the tide of humanity as he once had been by the current of the little creek near Denev. But then he noticed that no one really came near him. Indeed, the crowd seemed to melt away before Logan's commanding figure and did not disperse back into his trail until he was long gone. All Rolf had to do was stay close, and he was fine.

To this end, Rolf rushed to keep up with Logan's long-legged gait and hardly noticed the scenery as it flashed by. When the man came to a sudden halt before a towering gate, it was all Rolf could do not to collide with his very solid back.

"Sir Faldor!" A guard far above their heads leaned out over the rampart, and Logan craned his neck back to squint up at the solitary figure.

"Open the gates, Durin, you bumbling oaf!" Logan snapped, the laughter in his voice belying the harsh command.

"Sure thing, sir," Durin replied merrily before he disappeared.

Within moments, the mighty gates began to groan and creak as they parted with the sort of ponderous slowness that drove young children to madness. Rolf, entirely nonplussed by the whole affair, glanced about gloomily.

That was when a small, ratty man snagged his attention. The man stood off to one side, nearly swallowed up by the shadows of the cluttered alley he stood just inside, his gaze fixed upon the boy. Rolf caught his eye and frowned in thought when the man vanished. Had he been seeing things?