Safflower Tuffin stood on the hill overlooking Oatbarton. She rubbed her arn as she thought back to two weeks ago when she collapsed in a heap just inside the round door of her little homestead at Northcotton Farms. She remembered how she winced as she pulled the cotton fabric of her sleeve from the drying wound on her arm. The light blue was stained dark brown and she knew that if she pulled it off, the bite would start bleeding again.
“Bloody wolves,” she had cursed beneath her breath.
The animals had begun moving into the Bullroarer’s Sward again and she did not have to wander far to see signs of their passage. For a piemaker, she was extremely well versed in the lay of the surrounding lands all the way up to the far northern sands of the banks of the Brandywine.
The Baranduin Coldaer called it. She had humoured the shaggy man of the wilds and allowed him to teach her the tales of his people and how to read the language found etched in the ruins of all that was left of his people’s legacy. It was he who gave her the shining star trinket for assisting him when she found him wounded and alone on the dunes. It was he who opened her eyes to the Big Folks’ world beyond the Shire.
She thought of the gift he gave her for making the trek to his little haven to deliver food and medicine as he recovered from the injuries he had sustained in his adventures. The little clear star was hardly the size of her thumbnail and it reminded her of the glass stars Ronald made for children’s mobiles. It wasn’t made of glass, however, this little star.
“Adamant,” Coldaer had said. “A gem that is nearly indestructible. I think you are nearly indestructable, Miss Tuffin. You will probably outlive me.”
“Yes, especially if you keep traipsing about without watching your back like you say you do, Master Coldaer!” Safflower had smiled up at the Ranger who, once on his feet, would have been a bit intimidating if it hadn’t been for his gentle brown eyes. Coldaer had laughed but there was something about the way he looked at her that made her regret the joke.
The stars began to rise over the Sward and she thought of Miss Harawyn and Master Tenorbekk and how thoughtful they had been to help her clear the infection that set in from the wolf’s bite. While she didn’t feel like a werewolf (the full moon had passed after all), she knew the villagers would feel better about things now that she had taken the ancient antidote. And besides, it cleared up the infection within the hour.
As the stars twinkled into being, she thought of the empty space in her collection box where the adamant star had sat for years. It was only fitting that she received it for helping a man live and in return she gifted it to her own saviors. Master Tenorbekk had accepted the star with a disgruntled humility she found endearing. She only hoped he had the fortunes of having someone to pass it along to if he should ever have need.
The ruins of Rantost loomed over the motley collection of men and women that represented the dozen pockets of tomb robbers throughout Evendim. Lômiphel had worked hard to secure their allegiances through temptation or threat over the past year and eight months ago, the return of her father, Parmanen, only made things easier.
Parmanen was timeless; Lômiphel knew her father had to be reaching seventy, but the man looked no more than a weathered late forties. She knew part of it had to do with his command of the elements around him; she knew he possessed a magic that could slow the decay of time. He favored ice over fire and thus the island in the middle of Lake Nenuial was a perfect base for his most loyal followers. She herself had felt the icy blast of his disdain and often wondered why she had no magical influence over ice or fire herself.
Not that it mattered. Her eyes could reel in most men and women and if that failed, she always had her sword or Redford’s brute strength leading the power of the rest of the tomb robbers’ clans to beat the dissenters into submission. Power. And strength. This is what she learned from her father and for that she will always be grateful.
Now, as she watched the boats glide across the deep blue waters of the Nenuial, Lômiphel wondered how a little adamant trinket could possibly bring her father more power or strength. They had been looking for it for months and most men knew the search was a going to yield nothing. Still, Parmanen insisted the little star would find its way to reveal itself and they had to be in position to seize it when it did.
Redford stepped from the boat even before it pulled up fully onto the banks of their island. “Nothing,” he said bitterly and she frowned at her husband.
“So we can rule out Tham Ornen?” she said coolly.
“Yes. You shouldn’t be so surprised.” Redford shot a glance toward the ruins of the large estate. “I thought your father said it was getting closer,” he muttered to her as he joined her side.
“My father never said when it’d show,” she reminded him with a quick yet withering glance. Redford ducked his head and shifted his gaze from her face to the brittle grass beneath their feet. “Besides, it is not as though you came back empty handed.” Lômiphel looked over her shoulder at the second boat which had several large brown sacks stacked in its bow.
“The men are getting restless, Lôm. I had to let them bring back something. We found a nice-”
“You wasted time.” Parmanen’s voice was crisp in the late autumn air. “You must understand how important this is, Redford. We cannot be complacent.”
Redford ran a hand through his hair and said without looking at his father-in-law, “But if we only knew why…”
The wind picked up around them and tossed Redford’s hair causing him to shudder from the chill running down his spine.
“Do you not have faith, Redford? This artifact will bring us more riches than you can imagine. The men will be placated. It will help us take Annúminas from the Rangers and then the entire city will be ours.”
Though Redford still looked skeptical as he looked at his wife, he nodded. “All right, all right,” he mumbled and quickly went to help his men unload their plunder.
Lômiphel walked up to stand beside her father and they watched as Redford yelled at one of the men for nearly dropping a sack into the lake. A shove and a punch and the man was cowering beneath Redford’s imposing form on the rocky bank.
“He is not pleased with our guest,” Parmanen commented dryly.
“No,” Lômiphel agreed. “He is not. He does not trust him. But you do?” The daughter looked up at the father seeking his guidance.
“Oh, yes. To the extent that any man can be trusted, Lôm. Do not fear him. He is well under control.”
“Do you truly think this gem will bring the power back to the Dragon, Father? It seems to function well without it.”
Parmanen kept his gaze on his son-in-law as the man beat the clumsy robber into submission. “I need it for more than a good luck charm, my daughter. Do not worry about why the Dragon must be whole.” He turned finally and smiled, his dark brown eyes penetrating hers with an intensity that made her feel completely naked and vulnerable.
“In time,” he said softly, “ you will see.”