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Hunter Predd was patrolling the waters of the Blue Divide north of the island of Mesca Rho, a Wing Hove outpost at the western edge of Elven territorial waters, when he saw the man clinging to the spar. The man was draped over the length of wood as if a cloth doll, his head laid on the spar so that his face was barely out of the water, one arm wrapped loosely about his narrow float to keep him from sliding away. His skin was burned and ravaged from sun, wind, and weather, and his clothing was in tatters. He was so still it was impossible to tell if he was alive. It was the odd rolling movement of his body within the gentle swells, in fact, that first caught Hunter Predd’s eye.
Obsidian was already banking smoothly toward the castaway, not needing the touch of his master’s hands and knees to know what to do. His eyes sharper than those of the Elf, he had spotted the man in the water before Hunter and shifted course to effect a rescue. It was a large part of the work he was trained to do, locating and rescuing those whose ships had been lost at sea. The Roc could tell a man from a piece of wood or a fish a thousand yards away.
He swung around slowly, great wings stretched wide, dipping toward the surface and plucking the man from the waters with a sure and delicate touch. Great claws wrapped securely, but gently, about the limp form, the Roc lifted away again. Depthless and clear, the late spring sky spread away in a brilliant blue dome brightened by sunlight that infused the warm air and reflected in flashes of silver off the waves. Hunter Predd guided his mount back toward the closest piece of land available, a small atoll some miles from Mesca Rho. There he would see what, if anything, could be done.
They reached the atoll in less than half an hour, Hunter Predd keeping Obsidian low and steady in his flight the entire way. Black as ink and in the prime of his life, the Roc was his third as a Wing Rider and arguably the best. Besides being big and strong, Obsidian had excellent instincts and had learned to anticipate what Hunter wished of him before the Wing Rider had need to signal it. They had been together five years, not long for a Rider and his mount, but sufficiently long in this instance that they performed as if linked in mind and body.
Lowering to the leeward side of the atoll in a slow flapping of wings, Obsidian deposited his burden on a sandy strip of beach and settled down on the rocks nearby. Hunter Predd jumped off and hurried over to the motionless form. The man did not respond when the Wing Rider turned him on his back and began to check for signs of life. There was a pulse, and a heartbeat. His breathing was slow and shallow. But when Hunter Predd checked his face, he found his eyes had been removed and his tongue cut out.
He was an Elf, the Wing Rider saw. Not a member of the Wing Hove, however. The lack of harness scars on his wrists and hands marked him so. Hunter examined his body carefully for broken bones and found none. The only obvious physical damage seemed to be to his face. Mostly, he was suffering from exposure and lack of nourishment. Hunter placed a little fresh water from his pouch on the man’s lips and let it trickle down his throat. The man’s lips moved slightly.
Hunter considered his options and decided to take the man to the seaport of Bracken Clell, the closest settlement where he could find an Elven Healer to provide the care that was needed. He could take the man to Mesca Rho, but the island was only an outpost. Another Wing Rider and himself were its only inhabitants. No healing help could be found there. If he wanted to save the man’s life, he would have to risk carrying him east to the mainland.
The Wing Rider bathed the man’s skin in fresh water and applied a healing salve that would protect it from further damage. Hunter carried no extra clothing; the man would have to travel in the rags he wore. He tried again to give the man fresh water, and this time the man’s mouth worked more eagerly in response, and he moaned softly. For an instant his ruined eyes tried to open, and he mumbled unintelligibly.
As a matter of course and in response to his training, the Wing Rider searched the man and took from his person the only two items he found. Both surprised and perplexed him. He studied each carefully, and the frown on his lips deepened.
Unwilling to delay his departure any longer, Hunter picked up the man and, with Obsidian’s help, eased him into place on the Roc’s broad back. A pad cushioned and restraining straps secured him. After a final check, Hunter climbed back aboard his mount, and Obsidian lifted away.
They flew east toward the coming darkness for three hours, and sunset was approaching when they sighted Bracken Clell. The seaport’s population was a mixture of races, predominantly Elven, and the inhabitants were used to seeing Wing Riders and their Rocs come and go. Hunter Predd took Obsidian upland to a clearing marked for landings, and the big Roc swung smoothly down into the trees. A messenger was sent into town from among the curious who quickly gathered, and the Elven Healer appeared with a clutch of litter bearers.
“What’s happened to him?” the Healer asked of Hunter Predd, on discovering the man’s empty eye sockets and ruined mouth.
Hunter shook his head. “That’s how I found him.”
“Identification? Who is he?”
“I don’t know,” the Wing Rider lied.
He waited until the Healer and his attendants had picked up the man and begun carrying him toward the Healer’s home, where the man would be placed in one of the sick bays in the healing center, before dispatching Obsidian to a more remote perch, then following after the crowd. What he knew was not to be shared with the Healer or anyone else in Bracken Clell. What he knew was meant for one man only.
He sat on the Healer’s porch and smoked his pipe, his longbow and hunting knife by his side as he waited for the Healer to reemerge. The sun had set, and the last of the light lay across the waters of the bay in splashes of scarlet and gold. Hunter Predd was small and slight for a Wing Rider, but tough as knotted cord. He was neither young nor old, but comfortably settled in the middle and content to be there. Sun-browned and windburned, his face seamed and his eyes gray beneath a thick thatch of brown hair, he had the look of what he was—an Elf who had lived all of his life in the outdoors.
Once, while he was waiting, he took out the bracelet and held it up to the light, reassuring himself that he had not been mistaken about the crest it bore. The map he left in his pocket.
One of the Healer’s attendants brought him a plate of food, which he devoured silently. When he was finished eating, the attendant reappeared and took the plate away, all without speaking. The Healer still hadn’t emerged.
It was late when he finally did, and he looked haggard and unnerved as he settled himself next to Hunter. They had known each other for some time, the Healer having come to the seaport only a year after Hunter had returned from the border wars and settled into Wing Rider service off the coast. They had shared in more than one rescue effort and, while of different backgrounds and callings, were of similar persuasion regarding the foolishness of the world’s progress. Here, in an outback of the broader civilization that was designated the Four Lands, they had found they could escape a little of the madness.
“How is he?” Hunter Predd asked.
The Healer sighed. “Not good. He may live. If you can call it that. He’s lost his eyes and his tongue. Both were removed forcibly. Exposure and malnutrition have eroded his strength so severely he will probably never recover entirely. He came awake several times and tried to communicate, but couldn’t.”
“Maybe with time—”
“Time isn’t the problem,” the Healer interrupted, drawing his gaze and holding it. “He cannot speak or write. It isn’t just the damage to his tongue or his lack of strength. It is his mind. His mind is gone. Whatever he has been through has damaged him irreparably. I don’t think he knows where he is or even who he is.”
Hunter Predd looked off into the night. “Not even his name?”
“Not even that. I don’t think he remembers anything of what’s happened to him.”
The Wing Rider was silent a moment, thinking. “Will you keep him here for a while longer, care for him, watch over him? I want to look into this more closely.”
The Healer nodded. “Where will you start?”
A soft scrape of a boot brought him about sharply. An attendant appeared with hot tea and food for the Healer. He nodded to them without speaking and disappeared again. Hunter Predd stood, walked to the door to be certain they were alone, then reseated himself beside the Healer.
“Watch this damaged man closely, Dorne. No visitors. Nothing until you hear back from me.”
The Healer sipped at his tea. “You know something about him that you’re not telling me, don’t you?”
“I suspect something. There’s a difference. But I need time to make certain. Can you give me that time?”
The Healer shrugged. “I can try. The man inside will have something to say about whether he will still be here when you return. He is very weak. You should move swiftly.”
Hunter Predd nodded. “As swift as Obsidian’s wings can fly,” he replied softly.
Behind him, in the near darkness of the open doorway, a shadow detached itself from behind a wall and moved silently away.
The attendant who had served dinner to the Wing Rider and the Healer waited until after midnight, when the people of Bracken Clell were mostly asleep, to slip from his rooms in the village into the surrounding forest. He moved quickly and without the benefit of light, knowing his path well from having traveled it many times before. He was a small, wizened man who had spent the whole of his life in the village and was seldom given a second glance. He lived alone and had few friends. He had served in the Healer’s household for better than thirteen years, a quiet, uncomplaining sort who lacked imagination but could be depended on. His qualities suited him well in his work as a Healer’s attendant, but even better as a spy.
He reached the cages he kept concealed in a darkened pen behind the old cabin in which he had been born. When his father and mother had died, possession had passed to him as the eldest male. It was a poor inheritance, and he had never accepted that it was all to which he was entitled. When the opportunity had been offered to him, he snatched at it eagerly. A few words overheard here and there, a face or a name recognized from tales told in taverns and ale houses, bits and pieces of information tossed his way by those rescued from the ocean and brought to the center to heal—they were all worth something to the right people.
And to one person in particular, make no mistake about it.