Nándor entered the courtyard, his eyes checking out the shadowed corners of the complex. He dismounted, keeping his hand on the sword pommel. His skin crawled as if he was being watched. The atmosphere here was strange, heavy. Maybe that caused the leery feeling he had since entering the forest at the mountain’s base.
A double set of doors opened at the far end of the courtyard. A group of people exited after an elderly man, who spoke benisons to each of them. They dispersed soon after.
A welcoming smile grew on the man’s face when he saw Nándor. He motioned for Nándor to come closer. Was he one of the augurs?
He approached with Tesni in tow.
“Ah, I see you have arrived unscathed. The young one was concerned that the bandits would find you on the road yesterday.”
Nándor stiffened. The man knew of his near miss with the encamped blackguards? No, he said the young one was concerned about him? Who was that?
The man laughed. “Ah, the young one was correct, I see. You did not believe. She has impressed me with her bailiwick. She shows exceptional talent at augury at her age. Her gift is indeed remarkable.”
Nándor shifted uncomfortably. He disliked these peoples’ abilities to perceive his movements. This place put him on edge, but he would tolerate it for some inkling of Ahriman’s location. “Sir, I would like to –”
The man cut him off with a wave of his gnarled hand. “Yes, we know why you’ve come. I will show you where you need to go. Leave the horse. It will be provided for by our stable master.”
He took Nándor by the arm and half dragged him to an archway. The old man’s strength surprised him, but he realized the folly of his amazement. This was the Aerie. Stories of its strangeness abounded everywhere. Nothing here should surprise him.
Turning down endless passages, Nándor became lost almost immediately. They went left, right, left, before going around what seemed like an apparent circle. Just when his frustration was at the boiling point, the old man pushed open an arched gate. “There you are, lad. Follow this path to the end and you will find the one who can help you.”
Nándor released a heavy breath. “Thank you, sir.”
The old man laughed at the disgruntled courtesy, patting the younger man on the shoulder. “You’ll do.”
Nándor shook his head at the cryptic remark and watched the old man walk away. He turned to enter the garden and stopped dead. The garden’s brio struck him. With slow careful steps, his astonishment grew. Never in all his travel had he seen the moisture loving plants of the island nations of the Southern Sea grow next to those of the high Northern Tundra. This place was truly magic.
He reached the path’s end to find an open pavilion where a young woman reclined upon silk pillows. Intricate braids wove around her head and hung down in a thick rope. Her face was awash in sunlight, glowing like burnished marble.
A slight smile curved her mouth, but she did not open her eyes. “I am glad you avoided the scoundrels.” Her lashes fluttered open. She turned her head to study him then stood and held out her hand.
Nándor helped her descend. “My lady.”
Her eyes glittered with deep intelligence as she studied him. “The man you seek came not a week ago.”
Nándor could not believe her words. The devil had been here! “Where is he? Does he still have the bibelot?”
“I know not, but neither does he have what he sought here.”
When he made a move to speak again, she held up an imperious hand. “Do not interrupt. I give this information freely and you will be grateful and silent.”
His chin tightened and the muscle there twitched, but he acquiesced with a bow. “Forgive me. I have tracked this man for months. This is the first news of him I’ve had in all that time.”
She touched his arm. “Yes, I know. I have divined it.” An impish grin grew and her eyes danced. “He bedaubed himself in finery and scent, but his brackishness of breath, body, and soul were too great to ignore. He was escorted out of the Aerie and ordered never to return.”