Chapter Four

Two days later, Tristan was beginning to weary of their fruitless quest. They stayed close to the coast, hugging the shore just within the tree line, heading north and west. Even the energetic young Narvin became subdued and withdrawn. Aryn fretted constantly.

Only Dremenon seemed unaffected by their utter lack of success. Of them all, he seemed the least suited to life in the wilderness, being the most reliant on the order and stability of civilization. The rust on his stately armor was proof enough of his need, and yet something about his gung-ho, bullheaded nature allowed him to forge ahead even after the others might have given up. And he was strong enough—in spirit as well as body—to drag the rest of them along with him.

Tristan quietly debated whether he or Narvin would be the first to succumb to the madness born of such absolute boredom. Currently, the young ruffian held the clear advantage.

Thankfully, something exciting happened just then.

Actually, the really exciting things had already transpired. They arrived on the tail end of the action. A tall, slender, gaudily dressed man armed with a sturdy hardwood staff and with a lute strapped across his back pursued a handful of creatures that most closely resembled wolves, with the exception of the fearsome spines they bore in place of fur. A series of well-placed arrows aided the flame-haired man in his endeavor until the combatants disappeared behind the trees on the far side of the open clearing.

The clearing looked similar to their own campsites, the dry little voice pointed out in the back of Tristan's mind. Two thin bedrolls had been spread on either side of a little fire, and a small tin pot boiled over, dripping into the flames from where it hung on a clever tripod of sticks.

Tristan tore his attention away from the scene as a long-limbed, willowy man stepped out from behind a nearby elm, his bow strung and at the ready, his arrow drawn, but pointed down. Aryn lifted her own bow.

"Hail, stranger!" she called.

The lanky young man froze, then turned slowly to face them.

"Lay down your bow," Aryn commanded, her voice strong and clear.

"I think not, madam. I'll see you set yours aside first." He did not move, but spoke as though he held the upper hand, not her.

For a long moment, the pair stood perfectly still, each sizing the other up for a weakness neither found. Then, quite suddenly, the stranger brought his bow up. The two strings twanged simultaneously. Dremenon howled and tackled Aryn, and the stranger loosed a second shaft right on the tail of the first.

Tristan had not even realized he had lifted his hand until the second arrow tore into the tough linen, pinning his sleeve to a tree behind him and jerking his arm back. The knife in his hand—one of Narvin's—flew wildly astray, cartwheeling through the air and landing midway between Tristan and the archer. It took everyone a moment to realize that the stranger's first shaft had not been intended to harm anyone—he had successfully knocked Aryn's shot right out of the air, a stunt Tristan could hardly have imagined.

By the time they had established this, the archer had pinned Narvin to a wide maple by the shoulders of his much-patched shirt and had his bow trained on Tristan's chest.

"One false move and your companion dies," the archer called, his voice as clear and distinct as the twang of his unerringly accurate bow. "Ser knight, I bid you rise, and keep your empty hands in sight."

Dremenon did so very slowly, careful to keep himself between Aryn and the auburn-haired archer.

"And now, good lady, leave your bow where it lay and bring his sword to me. Take it slowly, now, we've all the time in the world."

Aryn picked herself up, her gaze flicking over Narvin before lingering on Tristan's carefully blank face. She straightened up and stepped out from behind her guardian.

"No!" Dremenon grabbed her arm, pulling her back. Tristan's heart stopped when the bowman jumped, then skipped ahead, all to cognizant of the close call. Dremenon seemed oblivious. "Here, friend archer, I'll make you a deal. Do with me as you will, but allow the girl to go free!"

The archer lowered his bow, but held the string taut. Tristan let out a breath he had not realized he was holding. "You lot are new to the Farlands, aren't you?"

Aryn glanced at Dremenon, then Tristan, and stepped forward. The knight started to pull her back, but she dodged his grasp easily, spreading her hands in a placating gesture. "Indeed we are, friend archer."

The man finally put up his arrow and allowed his bowstring to relax. "Forgive my suspicion, good travelers, but caution is a must in these strange climes. The only other humans I have encountered in the Farlands before this day have been those of his ilk." The archer jerked his chin in Narvin's direction. "I am known as Thyriad Huntswell."

Aryn inclined her head graciously. "Well met. My name is Aryn, and these are my friends, Ser Dremenon Ravenwood," and the stately knight drew himself up threateningly, "Tristan," he paused in his efforts to pull free of the arrow pinning his sleeve long enough to nod in terse greeting, "and Narvin the Lifter."

Thyriad lifted a brow. "A fitting title."

Narvin offered an elegant bow, a grandiose affair shot through with ridiculously flamboyant embellishments. His single golden stud clashed as garishly with his ragged appearance as his decidedly prolific greeting. "Do not judge me too harshly, friend."

"I've dealt with your kind before."

"Indeed," came a new voice, "we've had dealings with you before, Narvin the Lifter."

Everyone turned—except for Tristan, who found Thyriad's arrow to be very well embedded in the hard bark of the old oak.

"Teeve Longgait!" came Narvin's thrilled exclamation. There followed a muffled thump, then a low chuckle. Tristan grasped the arrow pinning his sleeve to the tree and yanked as hard as he could. It finally gave, and Tristan lost his balance, staggered backward, flailed his arms a bit, and toppled, grimacing as his rear hit the ground hard. Thyriad extended a hand a moment later. Tristan, thinking he intended to offer his assistance, reached out to take it, but Thyriad took the arrow from him and turned away.

"You've grown!" Narvin howled happily.

Tristan scrambled to his feet and turned about in time to see the flame-haired man who had chased the wolfish beasts away muss Narvin's hair. He stood a full head and shoulders and chest taller than the diminutive rogue. "Would that I could say the same for you, you little runt!"

Narvin whirled about, grinning hugely, as Thyriad approached. "So you're that Thyriad, huh?" He eyed the young man—younger even than him—speculatively. "Last time I saw you, you stood at half your height."

"Teeve, do you know this man?"

"Of course!" Teeve beamed at Thyriad. "Narvin and I stumbled upon each other years ago, but you were probably too young to remember. It was right after father died—Narvin had a peculiar knack for acquiring food and other necessities, and I had my lute. Between us, we brought in enough to keep the three of us alive. Eventually, we went our separate ways—I never imagined we'd meet up again here, of all places!"

Aryn, looking as confused as Tristan felt, voiced the one question he suspected even Dremenon shared. "Narvin, is there anyone in all the world you've not encountered before?"

The rogue offered a brilliant, toothy grin. "None that I've met thus far, little lady."

Aryn and Tristan exchanged a bemused glance, then shrugged simultaneously. Dremenon watched the proceedings with a general aura of distinct disapproval. Any friend of Narvin's was clearly not welcome at his side.

"Is this your stuff, then?" Narvin asked, trotting over to the little campsite.

But Teeve shook his head, his long queue of straight, fiery hair slipping over one shoulder. "Not ours. There were two others—a man and a woman. They fled when the spikehounds attacked."

"We'll have to hunt them up come morning," Narvin muttered into the gathering twilight.

Tristan shook his head. "It's all right, they haven't gone far."

Narvin peered closely at him. "Where are they, Tristan?"

"Over there." He pointed out a young cedar with particularly low-hanging boughs. "They've taken shelter beneath that tree."

Teeve and Narvin exchanged a quick look, one quizzical and the other grim, before stalking toward the tree together. The man and the woman emerged long before they reached it, their hands raised high in surrender. The man seemed to be holding the woman back, and she glared stonily at the company in general. It was the man who spoke.

"My name is Krevin Drevis, and this is my escort, Shanna Cloudspeed." He bowed shortly in Teeve's direction. "We owe you our thanks, and you as well, good archer." He nodded toward Thyriad.

Narvin and Teeve paused, then tossed each other a pair of knowing smiles. "Might we share your fire, friends?"