Windsinger


 

Chapter 4

 

S

leep was hard to come by that night, but that was the least of Landon's problems. They had packed all day and everything was ready to go, which just made him even more nervous. In the morning they would be heading to town to stock up on things they need—and hopefully say goodbye to Mark.

            Most boys his age would do anything to get away from the farming life, but not Landon. He didn't want to go on a life threatening journey to the capital and train in the Palace of Songs. But as long as he stayed here, he put not only himself but all those around him in danger. He had no choice.

            Yes, there was a part of him that was excited for the adventure. He just wished he wasn't so worried. He'd only had a few hours of sleep, but he got up early and dressed anyway. The anticipation of his choice left him void of any patience.

            When the time came to say goodbye, Landon took one last look at his house and blinked back threatening tears. This was the place Landon had grown up. So many memories took place in this shabby old cabin, and now it was about to become one. Everything was changing so fast.

            Ben came out to see them off, and Landon was surprised to see his eyes were misty. Smiling sadly, he held out his hand. Landon grasped it tightly, then embraced him with all his might. "You're all grown up," Ben said when he released Landon.

            "A little too fast," Landon replied, trying hard not to cry. That would be really embarrassing in front of Chelsea. "I wish I could stay here with you."

            "Nah," Ben said offhandedly. "You need to get out and see the world. You're still too young to be doomed eternally to my company. Go and have an adventure. And don't forget to keep in touch when you get the chance." He winked, and Landon felt homesick already.

            "I will, I promise." He paused. "Well, I guess this is goodbye."

            "Indeed it is. But not forever. We will meet again, be it in this life or the next."

            "I prefer this life."

            "As do I," he chuckled, then turned serious. "Goodbye, Landon, Chelsea. Be safe."

            Chelsea, who had been waiting patiently by the horses, smiled and said, "Don't worry. I'll make sure he doesn't get into any trouble." Ben nodded appreciatively. Like she could protect him any better than he could her.

            They said their final farewells and started off to town in silence. Chelsea shot sympathetic glances at him, but Landon tried his hardest to keep his eyes on the path. Occasionally he would look around and silently say goodbye to the forest. This might be the last time he would ever climb trees or hunt with his bow in these woods. He had never imagined that he would have to leave, and yet here he was.

            Finally, Chelsea spoke up. "Are you sure you want to come?"

            "Yeah, I guess so."

            She wasn't convinced. "If we must keep secrets, let's keep the lying to a minimum, shall we?"

            He stared at her for a moment and said, "Well, in that case I must say I'm not sure at all."

            She didn't look scornful or hurt, just curious. "Don't you want adventure? Don't you want to see the world and what life is like outside? I have never enjoyed being cooped up. Besides, this could be fun." She was trying to cheer him up. He sighed halfheartedly. She deserved more than the minimal syllables he had been giving her. "Maybe you're right, but I grew up here. I can't imagine life outside the Smallwoods," he said.

            He expected her to be sympathetic and try to comfort him, which was the last thing Landon wanted at the moment. Instead she said, "Well you won't have to imagine any longer. I haven't seen much yet, but what I have seen is worth the hardships. If you can't lug your own weight, then I will leave you behind. I know you don't fancy leaving, but if you stay with me I expect you to make the best of it." Her tone softened. "Landon, I know you're hurting, but I promise you that things will get better. The world out there is amazing." Landon met her eyes and he felt a little better. How did she do that?

            Town came into sight and Landon's self-pity returned in full. This probably was the last time he would see Tiltook. Looking around at the faces he knew, he wanted them to beg him to stay. No. I will do what I must. But I will come back some day, he promised himself. Would he have to break that promise? Landon decided not to think too hard on that.

             They stopped at several different shops and bought extra supplies. They had to pack light because they were only taking Wildfire and another gray horse called Misty, for Chelsea. Operation 'get to the capitol as fast as possible' was their goal, and they could not afford to bring unnecessary items that would only weigh them down.

            Paul Jordy, a cranky old clerk, was polishing his silver watch at the counter when Landon came in. Tucker, a boy about his age with black hair and green eyes, was sweeping the wooden floor in his working apron. Leaving Chelsea to her own devices, Landon approached the clerk. "Morning, sir." Jordy lifted his one beady eye to look at him. The other was hidden behind an eye patch. Rumor had it that he had lost it fighting the Blackmasks in the Song War. No one was brave enough to ask him outright, though. Landon had never believed the tale himself until now.

            "What do ya want, sonny? Be quick with it. My clothes are goin' out of fashion," he grumped. Landon thought his clothes were out of fashion to begin with.

            "Just need some food for travel. I'm going away for a while," Landon said nonchalantly. Jordy's eye searched him suspiciously and then rested on Chelsea, who was petting the horses. His lone eye narrowed. "You with her?" He pointed a gnarled finger in her direction. Landon nodded and the dilapidated old man leaned forward eagerly. "She's a bloody sun-head, she is. Can't trust 'em." Tucker shook his head good-naturedly and rolled his eyes. At first Landon was confused, and then he remembered that Chelsea didn't look at all Adrian. He was no expert on origins, but she very well fit the description of a Saldian. Sun-head, he had called her. That made Landon angry, which wasn't like him since he wasn't particularly hotheaded.

            "Is that right, now?" he snapped. "How many Saldians do you know? Surely you wouldn't say that because of the war. After all, they were only doing their duty to their country, not much different from yourself. Of course, the Blackmasks were the real enemies and, unless I am mistaken, consisted of Adrians also. Pity that forgiveness is not our nature, wouldn't you say so, Jordy?" Jordy's face darkened. Leaning on his broom now, Tucker watched him with a mild interest. Landon realized the wind was rattling the windows, picking up with his anger, and made it stop. "Take your stuff and get out," Jordy growled, readjusting his eye patch. Landon was happy to oblige.

            As he left, Tucker called after him. "Wait!" Landon hesitated. Tucker might have been his friend if he had spent more time in town, and Landon respected him, so he waited. Tucker was very good looking and a genial person by nature. He attracted girls left and right but never seemed to notice or care. Landon didn't think he had ever said an unkind word that he actually meant. Tucker was the sort of guy that had that pleasant aura that made him extremely likable.

            Catching up with him, he shoved a few coins into Landon's hand. "Here, you need this more than I do. And I'm sorry about Paul. Sometimes I wonder if his head is on strait." Landon stared at the coins in disbelief. He hardly knew this boy and here he was giving him money!

            "Tucker, I can't take this! You earned it," Landon protested, trying to give it back to him. But Tucker was insistent. "Nah, take it. I have more where that came from. Better get back to work or Paul will take another swipe at me with that cane of his." He headed back inside the shop. "Good luck!"

            "Where to next?" Chelsea asked when he found her, oblivious to the way he vigorously stuffed the goods into his saddlebag, still a little angry at Jordy. Or perhaps she just ignored it. "To say goodbye to Mark," he responded simply.

            Her brow furrowed slightly. She looked thoughtful. "I would very much like to meet this Mark fellow."

            "Oh, he would love to meet you," Landon retorted, thinking about Mark's reputation with girls. She smiled knowingly.

            Mark's house was always smoking from their forges next-door. Landon could hear the banging before he even saw the house. He wondered how the neighbors felt about that.

            Mark was lounging next to his dad, watching a sword being made. From far off he appeared to be bored, leaning against the wall with his arms folded like he would rather be anywhere else. But Landon knew him well enough to know that his eyes were trained on the sword before he even saw them. All 100% of those hazel eyes were focused on the work. Mark always pretended he wasn't paying attention, but he was always listening and watching. Landon had wondered more than once why he pretended to be dumber than he really was. Maybe the girls liked it. 

            "Mark!" Landon whispered urgently. He wanted to tell Mark the truth—he knew he could trust Mark—but he couldn't do that with his father there.

            Either the noise was too loud or he was too consumed because Mark didn't respond.

            "Mark!" No response. Losing patience, Landon picked up a pebble and threw it. It hit him hard enough in the back of the head to catch his attention. Jumping up and drawing Pointblank—one of the many swords he carries around to impress the girls and scare off boys (which a few of them have learned the hard way he knows how to use them)—he whirled around in search of his attacker. "What is it?" asked his father, never taking his eyes off his work. Mark spotted Landon and Chelsea and blinked his surprise. Sheathing his sword, Mark answered, "Nothing, dad. Um, I'll be right back." He set off toward the shed, motioning for us to follow.

            Locking the door behind them, Mark turned around, clearly expecting an explanation. "This better be good, Landon. Who is this and why have I never seen her before?"

            "I'm right here, you know."

            "Fine, then. Who are you and why have I never seen you before?"

            Her expression turned stony, but Landon thought there was a hint of suppressed amusement buried in that mask. "I cannot tell you that. But I can tell you my name is Chelsea. If you want more information I suggest you improve your manners." Mark threw up his hands in exasperation. Landon had never seen him get so worked up before. Then again, he always did have a sixth sense for knowing when something big is about to happen. Like when he is about to be caught stealing pies out of windowsills.

            "Mark, I need to speak to you alone," Landon said, trying to sound calm. Mark shot a suspicious look at Chelsea which Landon thought strange. Mark had never met a girl he didn't try to woo. Chelsea raised an eyebrow, then nodded and left the shed.

            "Who was that?" Mark asked curiously.

            "Do you remember that girl I told you about? The one that pulled me out of the lake?" Landon prodded. Mark's eyes widened. "Holy figment of your imagination! That was her? You mean she's real?"

            "I told you. I found her at the circus and she  followed me home. It's kind of a long story."

            "She saves your life, runs away, then comes back and stalks you. She must like you a lot. And I suppose she told you who she is?"

            "Nope. And I won't tell her anything either. It's kind of an agreement between us if we are going to travel together. I don't pry on her and she won't pry on me."

            "Tell her what? Hey wait a minute! Travel together? You're leaving? Where are you going?" Mark protested. He looked almost frantic. "Why?"

            Landon took a deep breath. This is the part he had been dreading. "That is just what I came here to talk to you about. I didn't know it until yesterday. Mark, my parents were the Evers. They moved here to protect me. But the Blackmasks have found me and they want me dead. You must understand that I have to go to the Song Palace. But that's not all. Mark, I'm a Windsinger," Landon explained earnestly. At first he looked stunned, then he frowned doubtfully. "You're joking right? I mean, you? Son of the Evers and a Windsinger? There is no way." Landon didn't know why, but this made him angry. No way, huh? Let's see about that. Summoning the wind, he directed it at Mark. Not too hard, but hard enough to slam his shirt to his body and blow his hair back.

            "Yeah," was all Landon said, drinking in the satisfaction as Mark stood there, astounded, with his mouth hanging open.

            Recollecting himself, Mark re-ruffled his hair and said, "This is....this is....amazing! You're a Windsinger—not to mention a legend's son!—racing the Blackmasks to the Palace of Songs—"

            "You forgot about the near-death part."

 "—with a mysterious and beautiful companion and your best friend there to fight by your side! This is the best thing that has ever happened to me! Oh, and you, of course."

            "I'm only going with her because she is heading in the same direction and—hold on. Mark, you are not coming. It's going to be dangerous and your family needs you. I can't let you needlessly put yourself in danger, as much as I wish you could come," Landon pleaded. If Mark came, something might happen to him, and Landon didn't want to see that. It would be all his fault. This journey was too dangerous to be letting Mark tag along. He was already putting Chelsea in danger and he didn't want to risk another life. Mark, though, seemed perfectly at ease.

            "You can't just leave me here milking my mom's cows while you go and have all the fun! My parents have threatened to kick me out before so I don't think they'd be too disappointed to see me gone." His eyes fell on Tempest. "Whoa! What is this?" Landon drew the sword for him to examine. "A Dancer! Where did you get this? Dancers are the finest type of sword. Quick and precise. They really do dance on the battlefield.” His eyes were glued onto the sword as he ran his fingers lightly over the blade. “The workmanship is like nothing I have ever seen before.”

            “My dad had it storm-forged for me when I was little, but I guess Uncle Ben never saw the need for me to have it until now,” Landon told him. Then clarified, “But of course, he didn’t see the need to tell me that he wasn’t even my real uncle let alone who I was until now.”

            “Storm-forged! I would kill to have one of these!” Mark exclaimed. Landon should have known he would know what that meant. He knew more about weapons than any other person Landon knew. “I’ll tell you what,” Mark offered as he handed the sword back. “We duel. I win, I get to come with you. I lose, you’re rid of me forever.” Landon considered this offer carefully. It would be nice to have Mark along on any other circumstances, so he wouldn’t be losing anything if Mark won. Besides, Mark could carry his own weight. He also had much more weapon experience than himself anyway. And not to mention much more experience with the sword. What did he have to lose?

            “Alright. But no going back on your word,” Landon replied carefully. Mark smiled and got that mischievous glint in his eye. Not a good sign.

            “I would never!” he said innocently. “But if it makes you feel better then we’ll have Chels judge.”

            “Chels?”

            “Chelsea is too long. Come on, let’s fight.” Mark drew Stinger—another sword of his collection—and called her in, explaining the situation. Thankfully he left out the Windsinger part of the conversation. At first she looked a little dismayed that he might be coming, but she agreed to make sure they played fair. This was going to be interesting.

            Tempest raised in front of him, Landon moved into a fighting stance, waiting for Mark to make the first move. For a moment they both analyzed their advantages. Adjusting both hands on his sword, he examined all possible chances of winning. Then without warning, Mark lashed his sword out and there was a clash of metal as Landon blocked it. Pushing Stinger back with his own sword, he took a swipe at Mark's shoulder. Not too hard, though. They weren't trying to kill each other, after all. There was an unspoken rule not to badly injure the other that they had always played by, and he didn't want to be the first to break it. Mark blocked it just in time and tried for his leg. Dodging his blade, Landon continued to meet his sword until it became part of some kind of trance. Everything came instinctively. Slash, dodge, strike, twist, parry, block. His breathing remained calm and steady and his rhythm constant as if he were dancing with Tempest. The sword felt natural in his hands, as if it were a part of him. But Mark was meeting his every blow. Sweat beaded on their foreheads as the fight dragged on, both matching each other equally. As Landon grew more tired with every strike, his attacks became weaker. Mark took advantage, but he was beginning to tire also. Landon went in for a blow, but Mark was quicker. Parrying, he feigned a strike and when Landon lifted his sword to block, knocked Tempest out if his hands and lifted Striker to his throat.

            Raising his hands in defeat, Landon said, "Well, you'd better get your stuff. We need to move as soon as possible." Lowering his sword, Mark wiped the sweat from his forehead. "Well played! I have never fought so hard in my life!" he panted, laughing. Chelsea, who was seemingly indifferent, said, "That was quite the duel, but I suggest that you keep your chin down during a fight, Mark. Expose as little as possible. And Landon, practice more on delivering blows. Your defense is excellent, but that won't defeat the opponent."

            "Since when were you such an expert on swordplay?" Mark huffed in disbelief. "I'm going to get my stuff." And he left, muttering darkly about women.

            Landon turned and caught her smiling mischievously. Searching for something to say, he asked, "Do you practice the sword?" That couldn't hurt, could it? He didn't want her to think he was prying.

            She shrugged. "Hardly. I've seen a lot of it, though. Personally, I am much better at archery." He was surprised that she was even involved in weaponry. It only aroused the question again, who is she? The fact that she knew so much about duels was rather unsettling.

            As it turns out, Mark's parents weren't too hard to persuade to let him go. They gave him supplies and equipped him with his horse, Sergeant, a tall black stallion, and a belt that made Landon feel under-protected. It held four swords—two on each side—two knives and two daggers. Mark would probably have brought along a mace if he could have.

            After saying their final goodbyes, they set off to the capitol. 

 

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