"No!" Elfin Prince Vantann Merripen faced the two boys before him with authority and determination in his blue eyes. "And if you so much as think a Travel-Spell, Thomlin, I'll go straight to Papay."
Ten-year-old Thomlin glared at his twin brother, then gripped his young companion by the arm and steered him toward the bedroom door. "Come on, Durri, let's get out of here. We won't get any help from him."
Vantann blocked their path. "I'm warning you, Thomlin. Forget this crazy idea now."
Thomlin's anger exploded. "One year ago, you wouldn't have called it crazy," he shouted. "One year ago, you'd have thought of it yourself! And one year ago, you'd have done it!"
Vantann grabbed Thomlin by the front of the tunic, his face red with rage. "One year ago I was a child! I've grown up since then. Why haven't you?"
Thomlin stared at him, his anger giving way to fear and heartache. This was not the Vantann he'd grown up with, not the identical twin who shared everything from looks to emotions, not the Vantann he loved with heart and soul. That Vantann had disappeared, replaced with this rage-filled boy threatening his own brother.
The threat was not an idle one. Vantann had already given him three black eyes and a split lip in the last year. Wisely, Thomlin decided to placate his brother. "All right, Vans," he said softly. "It was a stupid idea. You're right. Again."
Vantann regarded him for a moment then released him, his small, finely chiseled face softening. He visibly relaxed and placed a trembling hand on Thomlin's shoulder. "I...it's just that..." He struggled to find the words, and when he did his voice shook. "I don't want you to get hurt. Or you either, Durriken. And...I don't think you should cause Papay the worry. That's all."
Sadness pierced Thomlin's heart. The grief and agony that lay in Vantann's eyes was almost too much to bear. "I know, Vans," he said softly. "You're right. I won't do anything further about this."
"Promise." Thomlin reached out tentatively and gave his brother a hug. It was like holding a marble pillar. Thomlin released him. "Vans, Pepin is going to Mere Odain today to visit Faolan. Do you want to go?"
A wild look came into Vantann's eyes. "Is Papay going? Why can't Faolan come here instead? Why does Pepin have to go there? Doesn't he know how much Papay worries about him going there? Gods! Doesn't anybody care about Papay? Doesn't anybody care how he feels?"
"Vans," Thomlin pleaded, easing away from him. "Papay knows. He says it's all right. He's not worried about Pepin going and neither should you be."
"Well, I am!" Vantann snapped. He ran a shaking hand through his shaggy blond hair. "I don't think Pepin should go. Even if Papay tries to act like it doesn't bother him, I know it does. Where is Pepin?"
Thomlin sighed. "I don't know. But, Vantann, you can't police the whole household. Pepin is an adult and so is Papay. I think they're capable of making their own decisions."
"Are you going?" Vantann asked.
Thomlin hesitated, not quite sure what to say. He had planned to go. Mere Odain's Queen El'leigh had just had a new baby and he wanted to go see her. If he lied, Vantann would know and probably get more upset. Lately, Vantann had a thing about being lied to. On the other hand, if Thomlin told his brother the truth, who knew what Vantann's reaction would be? He seemed more tightly wound today than usual. Thomlin took a deep breath. "I sort of wanted to see El'leigh and Andison's baby," he admitted. "Don't you?"
"No!" Vantann's answer was immediate. "I hate babies. There are entirely too many babies."
Durriken rolled his eyes at Thomlin and stepped around Vantann to the door. "Well, I don't hate babies," he said. "I'm going."
"No!" Vantann grabbed his arm. "What if something happens? Durri, stay here where it's safe."
Durriken grimaced. "Laith, Vantann, you need help."
Rage tore across Vantann's face and Thomlin quickly jerked him away from Durriken. "Get out of here, Durri!" he ordered.
"I said go! Now!"
"But Thoms, I thought we were going to use Mere Odain as a jumping-off spot," Durriken blurted. "If you don't go then--"
"What?" Vantann interrupted. He whirled on Thomlin, furious. "You were going to leave from Mere Odain for Winze? Without telling anyone?"
"N...no," Thomlin stammered, backing out of reach. "I...I only said that if we went, Mere Odain would be a good place to--"
"Liar!" Vantann roared. "You were going to go! Well, you're not now!"
Thomlin cringed as a WardSpell enveloped him. Then his own anger exploded. "Stop it, Vans!" He crumbled the WardSpell easily. "Maybe Durri's right. You do need--"
He never finished his sentence. Vantann's fist slammed against his mouth. Durriken bolted from the room, as Thomlin staggered backward. Fury and pain drove his tongue. "I'm sick of this, Vantann! You've been trying to control everything I've done for the last year. Ever since we came back from the Caves of Challenge you've been like this. I know you got hurt there. I know you used your magic to kill. But, it was a year ago. Let it go!"
"I can't!" Vantann shrieked, his whole body trembling. He yanked off his tunic and turned his badly scarred back to Thomlin. "Anymore than I can let this go!" He spun back around and stomped toward Thomlin. "It was my fault that we went there. It was my responsibility. And it's my responsibility to keep you from making the same stupid mistakes that I did." He grabbed Thomlin's forearms. "I'm not going to let you go! Not anywhere!"
Thomlin struggled against his brother's hold. "You're not my keeper, Vantann! Sometimes I wonder if you're even my brother!"
Vantann sucked in his breath, his eyes going wide with disbelief and hurt. With an enraged roar he flung Thomlin toward the floor. Thomlin pulled Vantann with him as he fell, then punched him soundly in the side. Vantann retaliated with a series of wild, painful blows. One punch caught Thomlin on the ear and pain ripped through him. Without a conscious thought, he snapped Vantann with a bolt of magic. Vantann gasped and arched back, then retaliated with a searing bolt of his own. Thomlin recoiled in pain, and in horror at what he had done, what Vantann had done. He made a desperate grab, snagging Vantann's wrists. "Stop it, Vans!" he begged. "Please, stop it!"
But Vantann was beyond listening. Tears leapt to his eyes, flooded over and fell on Thomlin. "You want to use magic, Thoms?" he sobbed. "I can use magic! You know that! I can kill with magic. Remember?"
"Vans!" Thomlin shrieked as a wave of dark magic washed over the room.
Abruptly Vantann was gone, snatched off Thomlin by the strong arms of their father. Thomlin crabwalked backward, his heart racing, his gaze locked on Vantann as he fought against Treyas' hold. Durriken rushed to Thomlin's side and helped him sit up. A second later, King Jansson van Tannen darted into the room, his face pale, his dark eyes wide. Thomlin felt another wave of magic, only this one was bardic magic and was aimed at Vantann.
Vantann stopped struggling, relaxed, then turned and buried his face against his father's chest, sobbing uncontrollably.
Thomlin knew he should understand, should feel something besides anger. But he didn't and couldn't. The thought that his own brother--his identical twin, a part of him--would gather killing magic against him was too much to bear.
Treyas Merripen, Crown Prince of the Elfin Empire, handed Vantann over to Jansson and extended a hand to Thomlin, but Thomlin ignored it and got to his feet unaided. He saw a flicker of concern dance through his father's mismatched blue and green eyes, felt Jansson watching him, heard Vantann's quiet, heart-wrenching sobs. Without a word, he spun and bolted through the open doorway, his father's calls echoing in his ears. He took the stairs two at a time, half-sliding, half-running, and tore through the hallways toward the outside of the palace.
It was raining; the air held a chill of fall. Thomlin ignored both, though he wore only a lightweight silk tunic and thin woolen hose. He darted into the forest surrounding the exquisitely manicured lawns and ran down paths he and Vantann had played on as small children, past the pond they swam in each summer. He ran until he could run no more, then collapsed on the wet, needle-thick ground, his breathing hard and painful in a chest filled with grief.
For a long time he sat there, fighting back tears of despair, while the woods grew darker and colder, the rain heavier. He was sunk in memories of the Caves of Challenge. Vantann had suffered there. Suffered greatly. He had been imprisoned by war gnomes. He had been savagely beaten and had seen his friends beaten. The scars on his back had come from a whip, wielded with strength and hatred. He had almost died in a barrage of crossbow quarrels and had felt the cold steel of a gnome dagger at his neck. He had killed and been severely punished for it.
And he had been punishing himself ever since. He had become over-protective and over-authoritative, dogging Thomlin's every move, reporting every minor infraction, every use of magic no matter how slight. And if Thomlin tried to do anything Vantann considered inappropriate or dangerous, Vantann flew into a rage. Much like the one today.
Only, today had been the worst. Thomlin had never seen his brother this out of control. He shuddered even now, recalling the darkness of the magic Vantann had seized. If Papay hadn't intervened...Thomlin began to cry. He wanted his brother back--the Vantann he had grown up with, the wild, spontaneous boy who was always getting into mischief. And dragging everyone else with him. Thomlin managed a smile at the memories of Vantann's escapades. A smile that rapidly faded as he thought of the day's events.
Maybe it had been a crazy idea. It probably was. But when Durriken had suggested several weeks ago that he would like to go to Winze and seek out his own twin, the idea had seemed like a good one. Thomlin had not wanted to ask his father for help, hadn't wanted it to turn into a diplomatic mission. He had only wanted himself, Durriken and Vantann to go. Now, the whole thing was off. Vantann would have apprised Treyas by now of the plan. There was no way Treyas was going to let a ten-year-old and a seven-year-old go trekking off alone.
Thomlin picked up a soggy pinecone and hurled it into the bushes.
"Whoa," a familiar voice said. "That almost hit me."
Thomlin brushed aside his tears and stood up as his father stepped through the trees.
"Do you want to talk?" Treyas asked softly.
"What's there to talk about?" Thomlin grumbled.
"Well..." his father touched Thomlin's chin and turned his face gently toward him. "A fat lip would be a good place to start. What set off Vantann this time?"
Thomlin shrugged, looking away. "Who knows anymore?"
"You used magic on each other. That's never happened before."
"It was my fault. I threw the first Bolt. I'm sorry. It's just...he was so angry today. More so than usual. It scared me."
Treyas studied him for a moment, then sighed. "Vantann talked to Jansson of his flogging," he said softly, then paused before going on. "It happened one year ago today."
Thomlin gasped. "Today?" he whispered. He, himself, had felt the agony of those blows through the intimate magic bond he shared with Vantann. He had pulled Vantann to him through a TravelSpell, had seen the mangled, bloody flesh of his brother's back. "Oh, gods, Papay," he whispered. "I didn't know. Oh, poor Vans." He took his father's arm. "Where is he? I need to go to him."
Treyas held him back. "Thoms, Vantann is not the victim here. You are. You've been suffering his tantrums and outbursts for a year. I know you've been angry, though you've rarely shown it. You've always put aside your pain to allow others to deal with Vantann. It's time for that to change."
"What are you saying?"
"Vantann told me about yours and Durri's plan to go to Winze."
Thomlin grimaced. "I figured he would."
"He was worried about you, and rightly so. You're only ten and a half years old. Durri's even younger. You can't just go running off to a country you know nothing about. At least, unprepared and alone.
Thomlin stared at Treyas in disbelief. "Are you saying we can go?"
Treyas nodded. "The general consensus seems to be that you and Vantann need some time apart. You need to be able to relax your guard, to come and go without threat of being pummeled. And Vantann needs to see that he doesn't have to be your personal bodyguard, that life outside of Lidgerwood doesn't have to be painful and dangerous."
"Oh, Papay!" Thomlin hugged his father tightly.
"Gods!" Treyas cried. "You're dripping wet!" He pulled off his cloak and wrapped it about Thomlin's shoulders, then urged him back toward the palace.
"Does Vantann know I'm going?" Thomlin asked as they walked.
"Not yet. Your Uncle Jansson thought it would be best to wait until this episode has been dealt with. He's moved himself and Vantann into one of the guestrooms for the time being."
Thomlin glanced up at his father, a sick gnawing in his stomach. This would be the first time in almost eleven years he and Vantann had not shared a room. They had always wanted to be together, no matter how big the palace was. Now, the thought of being alone hurt. Thomlin pressed closer to Treyas and felt his father's arm go around his shoulders.
They walked in silence for several moments as mist gathered and swirled about their ankles and the rain fell in heavy, cold drops from over-laden tree branches. The woods smelled fresh with this first rain of the season, and Thomlin inhaled deeply, before again looking to his father. "Papay, Vans said something really strange about babies. He said he hated them and that there were entirely too many of them. Why would he say that?"
Treyas' eyebrows rose in surprise. "I don't know, Thoms. Vans has always liked babies as far I knew. Maybe he's just feeling crowded. I mean, we did bring back three children from the Caves and, shortly after, Pepin and Nila had their baby. But I'll mention it to Jansson. Maybe he can find out during one of Vantann's bardic sessions."
"How long will it take?" Thomlin asked. "I mean, how long will it take before Vans is better?"
Treyas sighed heavily, and for the first time he could remember Thomlin saw uncertainty and fear in his eyes. "I don't know, Thoms," he murmured. "I don't know."
They crossed the lawns and climbed the steps to the wide porch. Thomlin paused, one hand on the door handle. "Papay, can I go see Vans?"
"First, let's take care of your mouth. Then, I'll check with Jansson and see what he thinks."
Thomlin frowned, but nodded his agreement and led the way into the kitchen. It was warm and smelled of wood smoke, apple pies and cinnamon cookies. Thomlin's stomach rumbled, and he realized that he'd probably missed dinner. He snatched a warm cookie from a baking tray and stuffed it into his mouth, ignoring the pain in his lip.
"Here now!" the cook scolded. "That's not a proper dinner for a growing boy. Change out of those wet clothes and I'll set you down to a feast. Shoo!" She waved her pudgy hands at him.
Thomlin grinned at the dwarf and snatched up two more cookies before dropping Treyas' cloak and dashing for his room.
"Thoms!" Treyas called. "Your lip!"
"I'll clean it up!" Thomlin yelled back and pounded up the stairs, finishing off the two cookies on the way. The bedroom was empty, tidy and clean. Thomlin's side was usually that way, but Vantann tended to be rather messy. Now, though, his side was immaculate, almost sterile, as if he had never been there. Thomlin shuddered and hurriedly changed clothes. He was about to return to the kitchen when an envelope on the floor near Vantann's bed caught his eye. Vantann hadn't said anything about receiving correspondence. Usually, if he did he shared.
Thomlin picked up the envelope. There was nothing on the outside, no seals, no name except 'Vantann' written in a graceful, flowing hand. Hesitantly, Thomlin drew out the letter and opened it.
It was a birth announcement. A short note to say that Cappi and Shuri Mestil had just had a baby boy. Thomlin refolded the letter with a sigh. No wonder Vantann had said those things about babies. Thomlin knew Vantann's feelings for Shuri had been deep, but he hadn't realized how deep. Shuri hadn't been under King Kyel's guardianship for long, but obviously it had been long enough. Still, Vantann had let her go, knowing the differences in their race would be an all but insurmountable problem. Shuri could be expected to live only about a third as long as elves, even halflings like Vantann and Thomlin. But Cappi was also a Standian, Shuri's countrykin and now her husband. Though Thomlin couldn't understand how someone just fourteen was old enough to be a husband. Or how Shuri, at just nine, could now be a mother. The thought was almost repulsive. He replaced the note in the envelope and started back to the kitchen. On impulse, he decided to go past the guestrooms on the way.
As he drew close, he heard soft lute music and, as he climbed the spiral staircase toward the solar, he felt the calming touch of bardic magic. He stopped outside the half-open door and sat down on the steps. Thomlin could see Vantann inside, hear him alternating between raging about the family's lack of concern for Treyas and uncontrollably sobbing his apologies to everyone in the palace and beyond. Thomlin's heart spasmed in grief and reflexively he touched his brother's mind gently.
::Thoms?:: Vantann grabbed for the TwinTouch like a drowning man. ::Thoms, I'm so sorry. I didn't mean to hurt you. I love you.::
::I know, Vans. I love you, too. And I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have used magic on you. It was wrong. I feel terrible.::
::Don't. I deserved it.:: Vantann replied. ::I deserved everything.::
::No, Vans, you didn't!::
::I killed four gnomes, Thomlin! And I almost killed--:: His voice broke off in a sob.
Thomlin frowned. ::Who, Vans? You almost killed who?::
::It doesn't matter,:: Vantann snapped, his anger returning. ::I'm evil, Thoms. I can't control my magic. I shouldn't even have it. I should go away like I planned a year ago.::
Thomlin saw Vantann surge from his chair and begin to pace. Jansson looked up from his lute, startled at the unexpected movement. His gaze darted to the open door, and Thomlin shrank back into the stairwell. But Jansson had seen him and the look on the bard's face made Thomlin bolt down the stairs and toward the kitchen. The TwinTouch broke with a snap, and Thomlin felt more than heard Vantann's enraged cry. He flinched and sidled into the kitchen, sliding onto a bench by the fire. The cook smiled at him and a few moments later placed his dinner before him.
"Eat up, young prince. I've saved you a piece of pie as well," she said.
Thomlin stabbed absently at the roast duck and small potatoes. "Apple pie is Vantann's favorite. Did he have any?"
"I've a piece waiting on him when he finishes his ravings and settles down enough to eat." She clucked her tongue and turned back to her work. "Gracious, the boy's not well. He needs help. More help than King Jansson can give him."
Thomlin looked up at her. "Uncle Jansson is a very talented bard. He's doing fine."
"I'm not faulting the King, Your Highness, but seems to me he's...well, it's not my business. I've said enough already. Keep my silly dwarfish mouth flapping and your father will send me packing for home."
"Not likely," Thomlin said with a small smile. "You're the best cook we've ever had. Mamay says you're the only one who's been able to put some meat on Papay's bones."
"Tsk, doesn't look like it. Nothing there a good strong gust of wind couldn't take away." She eyed his plate. "And it looks like you're following his path. You haven't touched your food."
"I guess I'm not very hungry." Thomlin pushed the plate away and rose.
"You sit yourself back down and finish up that dinner," the cook stated. "Your father's order. And I'm not one to disobey an order from the Crown Prince, I'm not. So, eat. Keep me from a tongue lashing."
Thomlin couldn't help but smile as he reseated himself. "Papay would never tongue lash you and you know it," he said, but he made a gallant attempt to eat at least some of the food before him. When he was finished to the cook's satisfaction, he rose. "Do you think I could take Vantann a piece of pie now?"
"I've no misgivings about that, but you'd best ask your father first. He may have other plans."
Thomlin nodded, took the plate and hurried from the kitchen. As he passed the library he heard his father and Jansson talking. He slowed and peeked through the half-open doors. He could see Jansson's crossed legs jutting from one of the chairs, while Treyas stood facing the fire, one hand on the mantle, his gaze on the flames. Thomlin was about to knock, when Jansson spoke. Thomlin froze at the words.
"Trey, I'm not trying to be cruel," Jansson said. "But it's been a year. I've done my best, but Vantann needs more help than I can give him. I'm too close. I can't break through. Hell, I don't know that I want to! And that's the problem." He rose from where he had been sitting in the high-backed hearth chair. "There's something there, Trey. Something that Vantann can't express. Or won't. At least, not to me. Maybe someone else could get him to talk about it."
Treyas sighed and turned to face him. "What about Webb?"
"I thought of Webb. In fact, I've spoken to him already. His professional opinion is that Vantann needs to talk to someone not connected to this family. He suggested the bards at the Bardic Training Facility in Kartonn."
Thomlin's heart leapt to his throat. Kartonn! That was half a world away. They couldn't send Vantann there! Surely Treyas would never agree. Thomlin stared at his father, desperately willing him to say no.
Treyas drew a deep breath, ran a hand over his face and looked at Jansson. "And you think this is best for Vantann?"
Jansson nodded. "I think it's his only hope, Trey. He could leave tomorrow."
Treyas sagged, grief flooding his face. "Does he have to go alone? Can someone in the family join him?"
"I think Elek would be a wise choice," Jansson replied. "He has enough sorcery power to control whatever magic Vantann attempts to use."
"There's not much elfin magic in Kartonn," Treyas mumbled. "How will that affect Vans?"
"I don't know, but after what happened this afternoon, I think it's best that he's away from magic he can use. Just for a while."
And that's what he wants, Thomlin cried silently. He wants to be free of the magic. And he will be. But not this way, not alone in Kartonn. He turned and bolted for the stairs, ignoring the chunks of pie that slid from the plate and spattered on the carpet.
He dashed into his room, placed the pie plate on the table and rummaged in his wardrobe for packs and clothes. He filled Vantann's pack with blankets and two daggers, gifts to the boys on their tenth birthday. His was filled with spare clothes and all the dried food he had in his stash. Satisfied, he whirled and flew to the guestroom.
Jansson had not yet returned and Vantann was asleep, no doubt under a bardic SleepSpell. Well, no matter, SleepSpells were easy to breach. Thomlin did so quickly and efficiently, then shook Vantann awake.
Vantann woke with a start. "Thoms? What are you doing? What's the matter?"
"Nothing. Remember you said that you wanted to go away? Out of magic? Do you still want to?"
Vantann nodded slowly, blinking the sleep from his eyes. "Yes. But...right now? It's the middle of the night."
"Not in Mere Odain. Come on." He pulled Vantann up. "We can take the Portal to Queen El'leigh's palace, snag some horses and be gone before anyone can stop us."
Vantann hung back. "But what about Papay? He has to know. He'll be frantic with worry, Thoms. You can't do this to him."
"He already knows you're going away," Thomlin said truthfully.
"And he doesn't care?"
Thomlin chose his words carefully. "Of course, he cares, Vans. But he knows what you want. You want to be away from elfin magic for a while and he can understand that."
"Then why do we have to sneak out in the middle of the night?"
Damn! Thomlin had not expected Vantann to be so coherent after the trials of the evening. "We're not sneaking. I'm just excited. I want to go now. I don't want to wait. Besides, if we go when it's daylight here, it'll be night there and then we'll have to wait even longer. Come on, Vans, please." He shoved Vantann's pack at him. "We'll get food in Mere Odain. And Papay left some money for us in the study." He pulled Vantann toward the door, relieved when his brother followed with no more questions.
They crept down the dark hallway to Treyas' study, where the TravelPortal was located. Thomlin breathed a sigh of relief that his father and Jansson had not yet left the library. He could still hear their voices in the distance.
"You get situated in the Portal," Thomlin instructed. "I'll get the money." He went around the large desk and popped open the top drawer, then drew out two small money pouches.
"Are you sure Papay knows about this?" Vantann asked warily. "I can hear him in the library with Uncle Jansson. Uncle Jansson never said anything about me going away. I think maybe we'd better ask again about--"
"No!" Thomlin grabbed him by the arm, pulling him into the Portal. "Papay knows. So does Uncle Jansson. In fact, it was his idea. Now, come on."
Vantann looked at him suspiciously. "I just want to hear it for myself, Thoms." He tried to free his arm from Thomlin's grasp.
"Oh, hell!" Thomlin threw his magic into the Portal, grabbed the TravelStrand Pepin had used earlier to get to Mere Odain and cast the TravelSpell.
"He doesn't know!" Vantann cried. "You lied!" He tried to throw the magic back, tried to disrupt the TravelStrand, and succeeded only in snapping the Strand to Mere Odain.
Thomlin fought back, grabbing randomly at Strands as they whipped by. Each time he caught one, Vantann snatched it from his grasp, trying to grab the Strand that would take them back to the study. With a scream of desperation, Thomlin hurled a BrownBolt at the Strand, severing it and sending him and Vantann surging towards lands unknown.