Continued… (for a full list of the parts to Ancient Fire, click here)

(Previously: Moving on towards Khent, the last stronghold of men under he Witch’s shadow, Elad warned Lottie that he would be unwelcome there, and on the fifth day since their close encounter with the Witch (eight days after Lottie’s flight) they arrived outside of Khent.)

“This is it?” Lottie asked dubiously.

“All that’s left of it, aside from Khent-Ali. Most of the Khentian people have fled across the sea – though if the Witch does put this world beneath her feet as she would like then even that would not save them. This is more a last stronghold, to make sure no one steals the land that was theirs while they’re gone. They guard it jealously. This wasn’t the capitol in days of old; this used to be called Ghi-Maddon. But when they edged as far away as they could from the Witch without abandoning their precious land, they had to move the capitol to here. I come from the original Khent, far to the south. This is little better than a small fishing village.”

“In that case I really hope Ulaf hasn’t packed up and moved off. I’m supposed to go to him first, and if he’s gone…” Before she let herself finish the thought, she banged on the gate. For a moment, there wasn’t any answer, so she banged harder. They waited, and she cast a grim smile at Elad.

“Well black whelp, let’s see what we can do about knocking some sense into these closefisted misers.”

At that moment, the postern gate opened and a man in chainmail with a sword at his hip and a helmet on his head looked them over. He eyed Lottie with a baffled frown, but when his eyes lighted on Elad they darkened to cold distaste.

“I believe it was made absolutely clear that you were never to return.” His voice was ice, but edged in something like fear. Lottie stepped forward.

“Excuse me, but I come urgently from the Cloak Girl. I must come in. It is paramount. It’s about the Witch, and ending her rule, and the Cloak Girl begs that you do all I ask of you. She told me that when I told you she sent me you would let me in. Does your kindness and hospitality fall short then of what she knows?”

“A friend and messenger of the Cloak Girl is always welcome within our walls, whatever ill news they may bring. Ill or no, they are never wrong.” The guard eyed her with something between amazement and doubt. “But Elad the Fallen is forever unwelcome within our walls, and so are those like him.”

Lottie glared at him. “He is a friend of mine and a friend of the Cloak Girl’s. He is an enemy of the Witch. I come with news that could mean the death of the Witch. I come on the winds of the storm, and I must be let in. Now!”

The guard shrugged. “Please do come in, then. You are more than welcome. And if you could possibly have tidings half as good as you claim, then my king will be more than ready to see you at once.”

Lottie planted her feet firmly on the ground and crossed her arms, staring defiantly at him. “Neither you nor your king will hear a word more. You can burn in the Witch’s fire. Unless you let Elad in with me and treat him just as well as you do me, I will not go in or speak a word of hope or warning. Not a word, understand? I can help you defeat the Witch, but on my own terms. Got it yet, bonehead?” The guard gasped in insulted horror. Elad stepped forward and put a hand on her shoulder, starting to say something to calm her. Lottie charged on, her voice a burning scythe. “Listen carefully as I lay this out for you. The Cloak Girl… asked you to do everything… I asked of you. That’s not hard to follow now, is it? Here we go, my first request, which the Cloak Girl asks you to grant: Let. Elad. In. With. Me.” She emphasized each word with painful isolation. “Do you get it now?” she added, her tone somewhat less biting.

The guard stood flummoxed, clearly uncertain of what to do. It was the first time he had been spoken to like that by a stranger at his gate, and he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been called bonehead. Certainly not by a small girl much younger than him. But if the Cloak Girl really was backing her up… His eyes flicked from Lottie’s face, solid and unwavering, to Elad, who shrugged, his look one of startled amusement.

The guard stepped hesitantly back through the postern, threw back the bolts and opened the gate.

“Uh, just, go on ahead up the main street to the tower and ask for the king.” He gestured the way in. “And your friend can go too,” he added, seeing the determined glint in Lottie’s eyes.

“Where will I find Ulaf?” she persisted, not moving.

“At the smithy near the tower. You can’t miss it. Wait, you know Ulaf?”

But Lottie was already through the gate and didn’t bother to answer him. Elad paused as the guard closed and rebolted the gate.

“Don’t take it too hard,” he told him. “She’s just a born fighter. She stands up for what’s important to her, even if it involves calling people bonehead.” He grinned and slapped the man on the shoulder. “I’m sure she didn’t really mean it.”

Then he turned and followed quickly after Lottie.

The guard at the gate was right: the smithy couldn’t be missed. The smoke that billowed out from the forge marked it, and the soot-stained man who tended the fire could be no one else but Ulaf.

He was a bear of a man, twice her own height, Lottie thought. His hands massive slabs, he seemed to be carved out of pure muscle, and she decided that if he had the inclination he could pick her up and hurl her far beyond the city walls with one hand.

As she ducked into the dim interior of his smithy, he turned and greeted her with a slow, welcoming smile.

“You come for something important,” he said, his voice vibrating through the floor. “I see it in your eyes. The tides of the earth are about to be changed. You have the look of only a few – those who change the world. What do you seek of me?”

Lottie was taken aback by his clear perception. “I come from the Cloak Girl. Is there anywhere we can talk that’s more… private?”

Ulaf considered, then nodded his head with ponderous decision. “If you will follow me, my young lady. I know a place.”

 

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