Blushing, Lyddie giggled. “Oh, Kierney! I am much too young for suitors--or at least Popa thinks so. He says I must be at least seventeen before I can entertain suitors. That is practically an old maid!” She was starting to push her bottom lip out and furrow her brow, a pouting expression Syndria knew well from the time she had spent with Magen at the castle. And if Lyddie was anything like Magen, that expression would be followed by an avalanche of complaints and self-pity. Since she really didn’t want to listen to that after a day on the road, Syndria tried to move the conversation back to something positive.
“All fathers say their daughters are too young. Why, your popa would probably keep you at home with him forever if he could!” Seeing Lyddie’s pout start to turn into a smile, she continued, “Now, even though you can’t have a ‘suitor’ I’m sure there are some young men who have their eyes on you. Am I correct?”
Lyddie nodded shyly. “Well, there is one boy. He walks me home from school sometimes and he is wonderful!” she gushed. Syndria smiled absently, only half listening to Lyddie as she chattered on about the boy she liked. Soon, the Healer was lost in her own thoughts.
What was happening at the castle? Had anyone seen Nedra come to her quarters early this morning? If so, the Ancient Syndria had come to love as family would soon be tortured to reveal her location. Anyone who could say they had seen Nedra helping Syndria would be greatly honored by King Simann, and she feared what would happen to her friend. Maybe she could ask Sir Lawrence. He had gotten word from Nedra once before, so perhaps he would know what was happening to her now.
“Don’t you think he’s just wonderful, Kierney?” Syndria’s thoughts were interrupted by Lyddie’s giddy question.
“What? Oh--yes, Lyddie. Just wonderful,” she stammered.”
“Well, goodnight, cousin. Sleep well.” Lyddie pulled back the covers from one side of the bed and climbed inside. Following her lead, Syndria pulled back the thin blanket and slid under it.
“Goodnight,” she said quietly. Lyddie blew out the candle, leaving Syndria to stare at the ceiling in the dark. Tomorrow, she thought, I will find out about Nedra. Then I will leave and endanger the Councilman’s family no longer.
Paodin spun, wishing his sword and dagger hadn’t been taken when he was captured. Instead, he clutched a broken branch in his hand as a club. Raising it above his head, Paodin was ready to defend himself when he saw who had been following him.
“What do you want, old man?” he asked. Though no longer scared that he would be attacked, Paodin still held the thick branch cautiously.
“Quiet, boy. You are the one who should be answering questions,” the old man said as he turned away. “Come with me.” That said he started walking away, not even looking to see if Paodin was following.
He thought of moving on, but Paodin couldn’t resist following the man who had managed to surprise him in the dark woods. After only a brief hesitation he started after the figure quickly fading into the shadows. Catching up to the man, Paodin started to ask his name until he recalled the old man telling him he should answer questions instead of asking them. He decided the wise thing to do would be to wait for the stranger to speak first. The two men moved quietly through the dark night, neither speaking. Paodin could hear only his own footsteps as he followed the man. Much to his surprise, Paodin found himself struggling to keep up with the hunched old man.
After a few minutes of walking deeper and deeper into the forest, the man stopped and knelt. Paodin watched in curiosity as he brushed aside leaves and twigs, revealing what appeared to be a small trap door in the forest floor. As the man lifted the square door, a soft glow form underground revealed a steep, narrow staircase.
“Shut the door behind you,” the man commanded, walking down the staircase ahead of Paodin. Since turning away from him in the woods, the stranger had not once looked back at Paodin. “Leave your stick behind,” he called back, already halfway down the stairs.
Reluctantly, Paodin tossed his makeshift weapon back into the trees and pulled the small door shut above him as he descended behind the mysterious man. Once he reached the bottom of the stairs he looked around. Surprisingly, Paodin found himself standing in a large comfortable room. There was a fire burning across from the staircase with a large kettle hanging over it. The old man stirred the steaming contents before taking the kettle out of the fire and placing it on the table. That was when Paodin noticed the table was set for two.
Now that Paodin could see the man in the light he took a moment to study him. The stranger was stooped and ragged, dressed in a grimy gray cloak and heavy leather moccasins. His knotted hair hung past his shoulders. As he spooned the thick stew into the two bowls on the table, the long sleeves of his cloak fell back to reveal hands gnarled with age. Seeing him in the light, Paodin was even more surprised that he had had to struggle to keep up as they walked through the woods.
“Sit and eat,” the man said as he sat in one of the heavy wooden chairs. As he ate he stared at his bowl, not at all interested in conversation. Paodin sat down across from the man and ate in silence. For once, he didn’t mind the silence. It had been almost a week since Paodin had eaten a good meal, and the stew was delicious. The stranger gave Paodin a second bowl of stew before finally speaking.
“What were you doing sneaking through the dead of night? That is an excellent way to get yourself into trouble,” he said, his gravely voice revealing no emotion. Paodin still hadn’t seen the man’s face, and he didn’t look up now either.
Swallowing, Paodin answered, “I don’t believe it is possible for me to be in any more trouble than I already am.” He swallowed another spoonful of stew before continuing, “In fact, you are probably in danger just by having me here. If you want, I will leave.”
The old man looked up, staring into Paodin’s eyes for the first time. “I can take care of myself. Perhaps it is you who are in danger by being here.”
Paodin stared into the stranger’s deep midnight blue eyes. Somehow they looked both younger than the man’s body and more ancient. After studying the stranger for only a moment, Paodin spoke. “Your eyes betray you. You are no more a danger to me than I am to you.” Looking away, he asked, “Why did you bring me here?”
At first the old man didn’t answer. Instead he filled his own bowl a second time and started to eat. When he finally spoke, the stranger looked directly at Paodin.
“Bound by nature’s strength and frailty,
Though two, as one in unity,
Shall true heir of Tundyel make
And by the Truth the throne room take.”
He spoke the words quietly, his raspy voice so low that afterward Paodin wasn’t certain the old man had said anything at all. The stranger pushed his wooden bowl aside, his gaze never drifting from Paodin’s face.
Suddenly uncomfortable, Paodin struggled not to look away. Never before had he allowed anyone to intimidate him and he had no desire for this old man living deep under the forest floor to be the first. Clearing his throat, Paodin asked, “What did you say?”
“What does it mean?” the old man questioned, his deep blue eyes sparkling.
“What?” Paodin was confused. How did this old man expect him to decipher such a riddle?
“What does it mean?” the old man repeated more insistently, leaning forward to lean his elbows on the table.
Shaking his head slightly, Paodin replied, “I’m sorry, stranger, but my mind does not lend itself well to such riddles. Perhaps you should find someone else to ask.”
The rumpled man was not deterred. “What is the Truth? Surely you can answer me that,” he prodded, his eyebrows rising slightly as he watched Paodin.
Deciding to humor the man, Paodin answered, “The truth? The truth is what is right.”
Not sure he could trust the man across from him, Paodin said what most in Tundyel would: “King Simann.”
“Not the Truth!” the old man smiled, clearly amused. “You know. Who?”
Paodin was quickly growing tired of this game. He had no time to answer the cryptic questions of a crazy old man, so he decided to speed up the process. The old man would agree with him or send him from the room, but either reaction would be some progress. “The True Wizards are Truth,” he stated, confidently looking at the old man.