Isolde was thrilled to have found a piece of the Signet of Nature, but her other discovery - the coded letter - was proving far less satisfying. She and her mercenaries were seated at their usual table in the Stuck Pig, which had become something of an unofficial headquarters for them in recent weeks. The letter was laid out before them, but no matter how long they spent poring over its strange symbols, they simply could not decipher them.
“Why would someone go to all the bother of writing this in code,” Isolde mused as she stared at the patterns of red ink, “Then leave ‘Sir Hagan’ sitting right in the middle of the letter like that? It doesn’t make sense if you’re trying to keep something a secret.”
“Maybe the Sir Hagan part wasn’t a secret,” Park suggested, “And the rest of the letter was.”
“I don’t see how that works,” Roline scoffed, “Unless it’s a total red herring, Hagan must have something to do with whatever it is the message says. The only thing that makes any sense to me is that the whole thing is bogus. Someone’s laying a false trail for us.”
“May I suggest a third possibility?” Said Carason, looking up from the letter to group, “There are elvish names that cannot be written in the languages of man. For all the variety in our alphabets, we lack the precise sounds required to render them on the page. Just the same, there are human names that cannot be written in the language of the elves.”
“And if Sir Hagan was one of them…” said Isolde,
“... that would explain the need to write his name alone in a form we recognize,” said the priest, nodding.
“Doesn’t really help with the rest of it, though, does it?” Said Park, miserably, “We’re no closer to understanding one word of it.”
“If this message was meant for elvish eyes,” said Carason, “Then the code, not just the language it hides, will be theirs. The Brotherhood use elvish code to communicate amongst themselves. Did you know that, chosen one?”
“I do now! Thanks, Carason,” said Isolde. She grabbed the letter, rolled it up, and tucked it into the fold of her leather tunic. “I’m going to take this to Chairman Yarl,” she said, pushing her chair back from the table, and rising to her feet, “I reckon he owes me a favour after all that we went through on the Burning Moor. Time to call it in.”
“Good evening, Isolde,” said Chairman Yarl as Isolde pushed past the guards that stood by his office. He waved them away with a hand, and beckoned her to take a seat opposite him at his desk. “What brings you to my door? I was afraid I had soured relations between us.”
Isolde glared at the Chairman. His hood was pushed back off his head, showing a mane of red hair that glowed like fire in the candlelight.
“Don’t think for one moment that you’re off the hook, Yarl,” she grumbled, “Until I’ve heard that Tegan is well again, I hold you responsible for the girl’s fate.”
Chairman Yarl’s cheeks coloured slightly, and he turned his face from Isolde’s steely gaze.
“Have you come only to taunt me with my failures, then, Chosen One?” he mumbled.
“No,” said Isolde, “Not just that. I’m here to offer you a chance to redeem yourself slightly.”
“Oh?” asked Yarl, turning back to face her.
“I need your help.”
“Your priest is right,” said Yarl, after Isolde had fished the letter from her tunic and flattened it out before him. “It is an elvish code.”
“Can you read it?” Isolde asked, impatiently.
“An elvish tongue obscured by an elvish code… it won’t be easy… but yes, I think I can, given time.”
“Time is something I do not have, Yarl,” said Isolde, firmly, “Sir Hagan is in trouble. He may even be lost to us. But I have to help him if I can. I have to bring him back.”
“But you don’t know where he is.”
“No. But the letter might tell us.”
Yarl sat back in his chair and a knowing smile spread across his face.
“What?” asked Isolde, impatiently.
“You should have told me your primary purpose and saved all that talk of codes and secrets, Isolde,” said Yarl, smugly, “There may be more to this letter, but as to the whereabouts of Sir Hagan, I already know them.”
“What? Where is he?” demanded Isolde, “Is he alone? Is he unharmed?”
“Sir Hagan has been seen by one of my scouts, near the Hellgate,” Yarl continued, enjoying the swing in the balance of power that his knowledge brought him, “According to their report, he was unwounded, if that’s what you mean. But ‘unharmed’? Alas, that may be too great a claim to make.”
“Explain yourself, Chairman,” said Isolde, fiercely. Yarl’s manner had a way of grating on her nerves and she was in no mood to put up with him. Yarl must have realised that himself, because he straightened himself up and wiped the smile off his face as he replied.
“I am reluctant to spread a rumour based on a glimpsed sighting by a single guardsman…”
“But?” said Isolde.
“But my scouts are reliable, and the news, if true, is troubling.”
“Then for the love of the Gods, spit it out man!” barked Isolde, startling Yarl out of his self-satisfied demeanour.
“Very well,” he said, leaning towards Isolde and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper, “My scout reported that Sir Hagan has changed much since he was last seen in Dawnshire. Not just his manner, or his dress. His very form has altered… become twisted.”
“What does this mean, Yarl?” said Isolde, frustrated, “Speak straight, will you?”
“Magic,” said Yarl, gravely, “Powerful, evil magic. If my scout’s report is true, and I have no reason to doubt him, our friend Sir Hagan has fallen under the Dark Lord’s spell.”
“I must travel to the Hellgate at once,” said Isolde, standing to leave.
“You may take a column of men from my ranks, Isolde, if you want them,” said Yarl.
“My mercenaries will serve well enough,” said Isolde, “Though I thank you for your offer. Decipher the letter while I’m gone. As you say, there may be more to its contents than news of Sir Hagan.”
“As you wish, chosen one,” said Yarl, nodding. Isolde bristled at his sudden politeness - he was so very hard to like - but she found that she trusted the Brotherhood’s chairman, and it was trusted allies she needed, not friends. Yarl, she decided, was just that.
“If the language of the letter is beyond you, I will call upon Beltheron of the Angeli,” she said as she turned for the door, “He knows the elvish tongues.”
“No need,” said Yarl, “Unrest among the elves has split their people into their rival tribes. The Fey, loyal to Hakan, and the Silvans, from which the Elf Resistance are drawn. I am in the process of negotiating an alliance with the leader of the resistance. Our new friends will help with the letter.”
Isolde remembered her encounter with the Elf Princess’s maid and the promise meeting with her brother, who led the resistance against the Elder Elf.
“Good. The Dark Lord draws his allies from every tribe of monsters and demons in Midgard,” she declared, “It’s right that men and elves should work together to banish him from our lands. When I return, I will meet with this Silvan ally myself. As it happens, I have something I need to give to him.”
“Good luck, Isolde Hart,” said the chairman, getting to his feet as she left, “Gods’ speed.”
“Thank you, Yarl,” said Isolde, before stepping into the street and setting off at a run towards the tavern, where the others were waiting.
“But I’ve just ordered a pie and some ale!” Park protested as Isolde gave her orders to the mercenaries. They were to arm themselves and assemble at once for a mission to the Hellgate in search of Sir Hagan.
“Give the pie to the landlord’s dog. Your beer will still be waiting for you when we get back, brother,” said Roline, “I thought you never turned your back on a fight.”
“Yes, but one can have too much of a good thing, you know,” said Park, glumly.
“Are you talking about fighting or ale?” said Roline.
“Either… both,” said Park. He sighed heavily. “Come on then. Let’s go and slaughter the Dark Lord’s hordes. I didn’t want dinner, anyway.”
Having not returned to their various lodgings since their earlier expedition to the Dungeon Realm, all that was required to prepare for their departure was a quick weapon check, and a brief strategy talk from Isolde.
“If we do find Sir Hagan, our aim is to help him,” she reminded her band of warriors, “Even if he has fallen prey to dark magic, you are not to harm him except to save yourself. Keep him alive, so that we might return him to himself. That’s the mission. Got it?”
The others nodded and turned with Isolde for the tavern door. A soldier in the livery of the Brotherhood of Light blocked their way. He was red faced from running and in his outstretched hand he held a sealed message.
“Isodle. Isolde Hart,” he panted, “A message from Yarl. He begged me to catch you before you depart for the Hellgate.”
“Give it to me,” said Isolde, taking the note and breaking its wax seal. She read it quickly and turned to her mercenaries to impart the news. “The Chairman has made quick work of our coded letter,” she explained, “He says we should delay our hunt for Hagan and hear what it says.”
“Delay?” Asked Park, “Long enough for dinner?”
“No. You lot are coming with me this time. We all need to hear this. And we may yet need to leave for the Hellgate once Yarl has told us what the letter holds.”
It was cramped inside Yarl’s office, with all of Isolde’s mercenaries in attendance. The burly frame of Shcer alone half-filled the little room. Yarl, seated at his desk as before, looked somewhat uncomfortable to be hemmed in by five armed warriors, even if they were his allies.
“My Silvan guests were able to decipher the letter you left with me at once,” he explained, “Because it was one of their communications.”
“It was written by the resistance?” Isolde asked.
“Aye,” nodded Yarl, “A despatch of the greatest import that failed to reach its intended recipient, the leader of the resistance. Hakan’s treachery is revealed in full.”
Isolde had much reason to suspect Hakan. Hadn’t Hagan ranted at the Elder Elf as he cradled the body of his dying love? And what was it the handmaiden Lenora had said to her? Hakan had allied himself with the Dark Lord; that was her claim.
“Then tell us!” she snapped at Yarl, eager to resolve the questions in her mind.
“The Elder Elf, Hakan, has formed a pact with our enemy and sworn the Fey to his foul cause.”
“I knew it!” said Isolde, “What more?”
“In return for his place in the Dark Lord’s court, Hakan allowed his daughter to be sacrificed in service of his new master’s magic.”
Isolde gasped. So it was true, just as Hagan had said. Hakan had killed his own daughter to use her blood for the Dark Lord’s magic.
“Nidhogg…” she said quietly.
“Nidhogg has awoken from his long sleep,” Yarl said sadly, lowering his eyes, “The world will soon know the great dragon’s fire again.”
“Gods preserve us,” said Carason.
“There is more, still,” Yarl announced, “It seems Hakan had planned to kill Hagan and yourself too, Isolde.”
“Me? How is Hakan even aware of my existence?”
“That I do not know. Perhaps the Dark Lord has a reason to want you dead. But he failed in that part of his plan, did he not? At least in your case?”
“But not Hagan’s… is he… is he dead, then?” Asked Isolde, though she wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer.
“Not dead, no,” the chairman replied, “Nor yet fully living.”
“Speak plainly, Yarl,” Isolde snapped.
“In return for Hakan’s daughter’s life, The Dark Lord promised to rid the elf of his enemies. It seems he lent a talisman of great and terrible power to Hakan, who in turn concealed it somewhere upon Sir Hagan’s person.”
“What kind of talisman?” Asked Isolde.
“A soul stone,” said Yarl, gravely, “As a bowl of salt draws moisture from the air, so a soul stone draws the spirit from the man who carries it. Sir Hagen’s body may yet wander the lands, but soon it will be only a shell of his former self. Sir Hagan’s fate is sealed… I’m sorry, Isolde. I know that you held him in high regard.”
“High regard?” Isolde yelled, feeling her face redden with anger, “Sir Hagan has held the front against the Dark Lord’s advance and juggled the petty politics of you squabbling men singlehandedly! Every one of you owes him your life! His fate is sealed you say…” She placed her hands on Yarl’s desk and leant over him, glowering, “Not yet,” she continued, “Not while there is breath in his body. If you’re too cowardly to attempt his recovery, my men and I shall!”
“She means men in the general sense,” said Roline drily, from the back of the room.
“A fool’s errand,” said Yarl, unmoved by Isolde’s anger, “Sir Hagan’s curse cannot be lifted. Even with Gelderrin’s ring on your finger, Isolde, it is beyond your power.”
Isolde ground her teeth and narrowed her eyes, leaning closer in on the inscrutable Yarl.
“If Hagan can be found, I will find him,” she growled, “And if he can be restored, I will restore him. And come what may,” she added, “I will hunt down the vile Hakan and make him pay for his crimes. Has he not declared himself my mortal enemy? Very well. He will regret that decision before he dies.”
Isolde’s mercenaries were worried. After leaving Yarl, they practically had to chase her through the streets of Dawnshire, while she raved wildly about revenge. Eventually, Park and Roline managed to get her to agree to at least rest a little before setting out in search of Hagan or the Elder Elf again. She retired to her room reluctantly, with a solemn promise that her search would resume again at sunrise.
“This will not end well,” said Carason, to the others as they watched Isolde close the door of the healer’s house behind her, “Rage will obscure Isolde’s true purpose. It will hamper her judgement and lead us all into peril.”
“We are no strangers to peril,” said the guardian Shcer, leaning on his sword as he thought, “But you are right. Revenge is a distraction from the war against the Dark Lord. And Isolde’s haste could be her undoing. We must all be ready to run to her defense.”
“And if she is determined to walk this path alone?” asked Carason.
“She need not know that we are aiding her, priest,” said Shcer, “I propose a mission of our own.”
“Go on,” said Carason, his interest piqued.
“I do not fear Hakan,” said Shcer, “And you, Carason, you have a way of worming information out of the most reluctant stranger.”
A strange half-smile passed over Carason’s thin face.
“Between the two of us,” Shcer continued, “We could find and kill Hakan ourselves. There was no mention of us in the letter. I’ll wager we are unknown to Hakan. It will be easier for us find him, and end his miserable life.”
“What do we do,” Roline asked, “While you’re off having all the fun?”
“Follow Isolde,” said Shcer, “Keep your distance. Let her follow the trail. If she finds Sir Hagan, or Hakan, you will be able to come to her assistance. And, if Hakan or his elves find Isolde first, you will be able to foil any ambush or attempt on her life.”
“It’s a plan,” said Park, nodding approvingly.
“Aye,” said Roline, “It might even be a good one.”
True to her word, Isolde left her lodgings just as the sun was rising, and set off with her bow hitched over her shoulder, on her lonely mission of revenge. She did not see her mercenaries, huddled together in the grey gloom of the dawn as they watched her leave.
“Go now,” said Shcer to Park and Roline as Isolde turned out of sight, “Mind you are not seen, and be vigilant for enemies, elf or man.”
The siblings shook hands with Shcer and Carason, wishing them luck in their search for Hakan, then they turned and jogged silently after Isolde through the still sleeping town.
They slowed as they neared the corner where she had turned, and listened for movement, then stepped stealthily into the next street. Roline grabbed Park’s arm and tugged on it urgently.
“Look!” she whispered, “In the doorway, there!”
She pointed along the street to the doorway of a cobblers where, in the grey early morning light, the figure of Isolde could be seen. And beside her, another figure, their face hidden under a hooded elven robe.
“Well, that didn’t take long,” said Park, “Come on. She might be in trouble.”
They darted together across the road and slid along the walls of the buildings until they reached the cobblers. Then, in one smooth, fluid movement, they swept around to face the doorway, weapons drawn. Roline levelled her crossbow at the chest of the elf and spoke.
“Isolde, forgive the intrusion. We thought you might be a target for elven assassins, so we tagged along. It looks like we may have been right.”
“Drop your weapons, elf,” said Park, pushing back the elf’s hood with the tip of his sword. The hood fell back to reveal the nervous, pale face of the handmaiden Lenora.
“You idiots,” said Isolde, “Do you think I’d allow myself to be ambushed two streets from home?”
“Well, I…Now that you mention it, it does seem…” stuttered Park.
“Lenora, meet Park and Roline, my mercenaries. Park, Roline, meet Lenora, maid to Princess Lera, and the sister of the resistance’s leader, Leones.”
“Charmed,” said Roline, lowering her bow. The young elf maiden breathed a sigh of relief.
“Hello,” said Park, sheepishly, “Sorry about pointing all those sharp things at you.”
“Tell them what you told me,” said Isolde to Lenora.
The handmaiden turned to Park and Roline and repeated the news she had been charged with bringing to Isolde.
“My brother’s spies have located Hakan. He is well guarded, but without sanctuary.”
“Where?” asked Park.
“Hakan is on the Road of the Cursed Tree,” said Lenora.
“Well guarded,” said Roline, “Perhaps we can be of use to you after all, Isolde.”
“To make up for spying on me, you mean?” said Isolde.
“Not spying, protecting,” said Park, “We just don’t want you rushing in recklessly… We’re supposed to be the reckless ones,” he added, with a smirk.
Isolde furrowed her brow. She had not wanted company, but she could not pretend that she was unhappy to see her friends. Nor could she deny that their fighting skills might be useful in a showdown with Hakan and his guards. She sighed heavily.
“Well,” she said, “You’re here now, I suppose. Gods speed, Lenora, and thank you for bringing me this news.” She hugged the elf maiden warmly, then turned back to Park and Roline. “You two, come with me.”