In the end, theyâ€™d decided to take the pony but to leave the cart behind at the cave. Lydia had rigged up a pack saddle for it, so they loaded her rucksack and the food onto it and set off across country towards the mountains with Eyvindr as their guide.
Four days later they reached the foothills. It would have taken longer because Karen and Andrew werenâ€™t used to walking long distances, but Kimi had transformed and started carrying them after they both developed blisters.
Eyvindr pointed to a mountain in the distance. It was the tallest in the range by a good margin and pushed into the sky like a jagged black trident. The way it seemed to absorb the sunlight made it look more like a crack in the sky than a mountain. Lydia got the feeling that it would be dark all the time once they got close to it.
â€œThatâ€™s our destination,â€ he said. â€œKing Dariadâ€™s palace lies within.â€
â€œI donâ€™t like the look of that place,â€ Karen said softly. â€œI donâ€™t like the dark.â€
â€œNo, I donâ€™t suppose you would, Light Warrior,â€ Eyvindr said. â€œIâ€™m not fond of it myself. The svart alfar are good people, but all that darkness…â€ He trailed off with a shudder. â€œOf course, thatâ€™s why they like it.â€
â€œAre there many places like that mountain and the area round the Ice Cave?â€ Lydia asked.
â€œYou mean that show a marked affinity for a certain essence? Yes, quite a few. Some of them more obvious than others. Areas with life affinity are notoriously hard to-â€ he broke off and looked back towards the mountain. â€œSomeoneâ€™s coming. Youâ€™d better hide until we know if itâ€™s safe.â€
The kids fled into the undergrowth as Bennu and Kimi flew up into the sky.
â€œYou! Stop!â€ Someone ordered in a sharp voice as the kids crouched down among the bushes.
Lydia wished she dared peek out to see who was there, but theyâ€™d certainly see her if she did.
â€œCertainly, captain,â€ Eyvindr said. â€œHow may I help the Mountain Guard?â€
â€œIs this pony yours?â€
â€œNo, itâ€™s a friendâ€™s. Iâ€™m returning it for him.â€
â€œI see. Weâ€™ve received information that a citizen of the Mountains was murdered. This looks like his pony.â€
â€œI assure you Iâ€™ve murdered no one, and I have this pony with the ownerâ€™s permission,â€ Eyvindr said.
â€œAnd where is the owner?â€
â€œAh, that is…â€ Eyvinder said.
â€œI thought as much.â€ There was a sharp clapping sound. â€œTake the Ljos into custody and search the undergrowth. Letâ€™s see if we can find his accomplices.â€
Lydia held her breath and wished her heart would stop beating so loudly as footsteps approached their hiding place. There was a pause, and then a spear slammed into the ground inches from her leg. She scrambled back as more spears began probing the bushes which concealed them.
Damn! Itâ€™s only a matter of time before one of them hits, she thought and felt a jolt of surprise from behind her. She flinched away from another probing spear and glanced back at Andrew curiously.
I heard that, but Lydia didnâ€™t say it… Andrew was staring at her. Lydia paused. Sheâ€™d picked up impressions of what her siblings were thinking before, but words were new. This wasnâ€™t the time to explore this new development, however. Andrew was too stunned to notice the spear descending on him, so Lydia flung herself at him and pushed him out of the way. Her momentum threw them both off balance and they crashed to the ground loudly.
â€œWell, thatâ€™s torn it,â€ Karen said softly even as a booted foot landed near Lydiaâ€™s ear.
Lydia rolled away from Andrew and looked up. A dark haired, dark eyed alf was standing over her, holding a spear to her throat.
â€œDonâ€™t try anything foolish, girl,â€ he said.
Lydia swallowed and nodded silently.
â€œStand up slowly, and keep your hands in view.â€ He backed up a couple of steps to allow her to comply with his order, but didnâ€™t relax his guard at all.
As Lydia did what he demanded, she glanced over at Karen and Andrew. They were also being prodded to their feet by similar captors.
â€œMove!â€ The alf prodded her with his spear towards where theyâ€™d left Eyvindr.
â€œOw!â€ She glared at him. The spear had pierced her skin enough to draw blood that time. â€œKeep your hair on! Iâ€™m going.â€ She began to walk in the direction heâ€™d indicated, but the butt of his spear cracked her across the the side of the head hard enough to send her crashing back to her knees.
â€œMind your tongue, murderer!â€ he snarled.
â€œIâ€™m not a murderer!â€ she protested and then scooted backwards as he aimed another blow at her. She climbed to her feet and then swayed and nearly fell as a wave of diziness overcame her. Her head was killing her and her ears were ringing. How hard had he hit her? she wondered, as she staggered towards Eyvindr. She barely made before her knees buckled. Fortunately Eyvindr managed to catch her. She swallowed back a wave of nausea and looked up at him. â€œThanks.â€
â€œWhere are your heart friends!â€ Another dark haired alf demanded. From the more ornate mail he wore Lydia guessed he was the captain of this band. â€œCall them!â€
Lydia looked round at her siblings as Eyvindr helped her stand up properly. â€œYouâ€™d best do as he says,â€ he said softly. â€œSvarts have notoriously short tempers.â€
â€œI noticed,â€ she muttered and closed her eyes. Bennu?
I heard, came the reply and a moment later he landed on her shoulder. She opened her eyes and saw Kimi landing nearby. She took another steadying breath as her head finally began to clear and looked round at their captors. There were a dozen of them, mostly svart alfer but there were two dwarves and three short ugly creatures, with large eyes and ears. Goblins? No, wait, speakers seemed to count goblins as something else, and these three had heart stones. She pushed a questioning thought at Bennu and was answered with the mental equivalent of a shrug.
Spriggans, he told her.
â€œWhereâ€™s the other one?â€ The captain demanded. He pointed his spear at Karen. â€œYou, call your Heart Friend.â€
â€œForgive me, Captain. I would, but heâ€™s not here. The Storm Queen has him prisoner,â€ Karen said in soft, respectful tone.
â€œWhat?â€ The captain narrowed his eyes at her. â€œOh, I see!â€ He looked back at his troops. â€œForm up round the prisoners and prepare to move out!â€
There was angry murmering from the group at that, especially from the dwarves.
â€œWhy waste time taking them in?â€ one of them said. â€œWe should execute them here!â€
â€œKing Dariad ordered them taken prisoner, not killed,â€ the captain said.
â€œI donâ€™t care! They killed Korrig, they die here!â€ The dwarf drew an ax and charged at Andrew before anyone could react.Â He never reached him, because he bounced off a semi-transparent figure which materialised between Andrew and his attacker. It was another svart alf, dressed in richly embroidered robes.
â€œYou donâ€™t care, Hardma?â€ The newcomer said softly as the guards all bowed. â€œWere Korrig not your brother Iâ€™d take your refusing my commands as treachery. As it is, I will grant that you are overwrought and forgive your disobedience.â€
â€œYour majesty,â€ the dwarf said.
â€œBut we donâ€™t kill people without a trial, do we, Hardma?â€
â€œNo, your majesty, but…â€
â€œNo buts. We donâ€™t because all we have without a trial are accusations. They might be mistaken or malicious.â€ He sounded like he was explaining something to a small child. â€œBring them to me, and we will ascertain their guilt or innocence and act accordingly.â€
â€œYes, your majesty,â€ Hardma said in a hard, bitter tone.
The strange half-present alf looked down at the dwarf with an odd expression. â€œThat was a very grudging agreement,â€ he said and looked over at the Captain. â€œKeep Hardma away from the prisoners, Faf. I donâ€™t trust his objectivity.â€
â€œYes, your majesty,â€ the captain said, and the projection vanished.