Rai was worried. Following Queen Valeriaâ€™s orders, heâ€™d finally tracked down the three humans as they approached the Dark Mountain of Caerdu, but had no opportunity to capture the light warrior before the Mountain Kingâ€™s troops had arrested them. Heâ€™d followed them as closely as he dared until they entered Caerdu proper and he couldnâ€™t continue without being detected.
Now he was hiding among the neighbouring peaks while he waited for the lightning imp heâ€™d formed from his own essence to return. Even sending the tiny construct to spy under the mountain was a risk, but it should be small enough to go unnoticed. He needed to know what was going on in order to come up with a plan and fulfill his mission. His queen wanted the girl alive, so if she was in danger heâ€™d have to rescue her.
The constant darkness around Caerdu made it hard to judge but he thought it was about a day before the imp finally returned. So strong was the dark affinity of the area that even as bright as its blue lightning was, Rai still didnâ€™t see the sparkling near-creature until it landed on his beak and waited to be reabsorbed. He closed his eyes and concentrated, drawing it and the information it carried into his heart stone. Everything it had witnessed since he created it flashed into his mind and integrated into his own memories.
On the upside, it seemed that his target wasnâ€™t in immediate danger, so he could take time to plan. But that was the only good thing. The events of the trial and its aftermath were alarming. It would have taken several speakers working together to cause that much of the crowd to disregard the mirrorâ€™s evidence. Speakers who themselves knew the truth about what had happened.
Worse, Huldre was involved somehow. Valeria trusted the troll. Rai clacked his beak in distress and flapped his wings. He had to warn her, but he couldnâ€™t abandon his mission. He took a breath and set himself to creating another imp to send to the queen. Blue lightning crackled out of his heart stone and formed into a tiny glowing figure. He imbued it with the knowledge of his previous imp and sent it shooting east towards his queenâ€™s realm. Then he sank down to the rocks and collapsed into resting form.
Heâ€™d never created two imps so close together. Exhaustion sent spots dancing before his eyes. That must have been why he didnâ€™t sense the other speaker approaching until someone nudged him with their foot. He looked up tiredly and saw a svart alf standing over him. Trust one of them to manage to be visible in the pitch dark. He shook his head to clear his vision and looked up again. The svart was dressed in the black and silver livery of the Mountain Kingâ€™s personal guard. From the impâ€™s memories, Rai identified him as the one called Hried.
â€œWhat are you doing here, little bird?â€ Hried asked. â€œApart from overstressing yourself to send messages to your queen, that is.â€
Raiâ€™s mind raced as panic wiped away his fatigue. He couldnâ€™t admit to being there to capture the Light Warrior. Not when she was under the Mountain Kingâ€™s protection. Perhaps part of the truth would work.
â€œMy Queen sent me to watch the human interlopers while she decided what to do. My imp saw the trial and I felt she needed to be warned about Huldreâ€™s testimony.â€
â€œHmm…â€ Hried sounded amused. â€œWatch, is it?â€ He closed his hand round something Rai couldnâ€™t make out. â€œWhat do you think, your Majesty?â€
â€œWell, she must be conflicted, Hried.â€ A projection of the Mountain King appeared lounging against the nearby rocks – rocks Rai hadnâ€˜t been able to see until the King appeared. â€œBut yes, I think his orders would be a bit more specific than watch.â€ He looked at Rai directly. â€œVal cares about Alban, so she wonâ€™t want the Light Warrior hurt. If your orders are what I think they are, then donâ€™t even think of obeying them in my territory, Rai. And donâ€™t think I wonâ€™t warn her that Valeria might be after her.â€
â€œYour majesty.â€ Rai dipped his beak. Damn! If Dariad did warn the humans, it would complicate things terribly.
â€œGet out of here, and the next time you send a spy imp into Caerdu Iâ€™ll rip your feathers out and make a cloak of them. But for now, youâ€™re right. Valeria does need warning, and I certainly donâ€™t need more tension with her at the moment. I was going to send an imp myself, but sheâ€™s more likely to listen to yours.â€
â€œYour majesty.â€ He gave another bird bow and turned to fly away before the King changed his mind. He didnâ€™t manage to get more than two flaps away before his exhaustion kicked in again and he plummeted towards the rocks, only to be caught by Hreid.
â€œI donâ€™t think he can â€˜get out of hereâ€™ right now, your majesty. Not under his own power. Do you want me to take him to the border or just wait for him to recover on his own?â€
â€œLet him rest, Hreid, and come back to Caerdu. I need you here more right now. He isnâ€™t foolish enough to stay around once heâ€™s recovered and it shouldnâ€™t take long.â€
â€œAre you sure, your majesty? He couldnâ€™t defend himself right now if something attacked him.â€
â€œThatâ€™s true.â€ The king closed his eyes. There was a tearing noise and then a little black imp appeared.
Rai gave a startled caw. Producing an imp through a projection was nearly impossible. â€œ
â€œThere. The imp will guard him and then escort him to the border once heâ€™s recovered,â€ the king said. â€œNow come back here.â€
â€œYes, your majesty.â€ Hreid laid Rai down on the ledge and turned, heading down the mountain towards the gates of Caerdu. The projection of King Dariad remained.
â€œGive my greetings to Tonara, Rai,â€ he said before vanishing, leaving Rai alone with just the imp for company.