‘How long have you been here?’ Torhond asked.
‘Oh, a hundred years or so, I think,’ Merkal said calmly. ‘I know it probably sounds strange, but I sort of lost track after a couple of decades. It wasn’t really important.’
‘And there’s no one else here?’ Eldrian speared a sausage.
‘Then how did you build all this?’ he waved his fork to indicate the house.
‘I’m a mage, so it wasn’t that difficult for me. And there’s an elf comes through every few years. I trade him some pelts for supplies, help around the place, that sort of thing.’
They exchanged glances.
‘I don’t think he’ll be back for a while,’ Aravir said. ‘If ever.’
Merkal shrugged. ‘That doesn’t matter. I’ll be going with you when you leave.’
There was an abrupt silence through which Merkal continued eating, his expression unperturbed.
‘Coming with us?’ Aravir said eventually.
‘Yes. Unless you want to flounder around on the borders of Faen waiting for the snow to arrive.’
Eldrian leaned forward. ‘What makes you think we’re going to Faen?’
‘Well, if you’re going to reach Holt from here you haven’t got a lot of alternatives. And if you’d intended to go via Gault or the northern Sealands, you wouldn’t be here in the first place.’
Sild felt the surge of power as Aravir lifted Merkal from his chair and pinned him against the wall.
‘Enough of this,’ the mage shouted. ‘Stop playing around and—’
Merkal landed on his feet, righted his upturned chair, sat down and resumed eating. ‘Fourth circle?’ he said between bites. The look on Aravir’s face was so stunned that Sild had to press a hand to his mouth to keep from laughing.
‘Yes,’ the mage admitted unwillingly.
‘Thought so,’ Merkal said. ‘Talented, but messy. With that amount of power you should be at least a fifth by now.’
‘Aren’t we getting off the point?’
‘I’m not sure we were ever on one.’
Aravir scowled. ‘What the hell is this about?’
Merkal put his fork down. ‘I thought I’d made that obvious. I’ve been waiting for you. My job is to help you make contact with some of the people in Faen who can get you through the mountains and then to the coast. I am not,’ he said firmly, ‘going to Holt. I hate boats. I’ll go the long way round, wait for you at the port, and ride with you when you get back.’
‘And how do you know all this?’ Eldrian said sarcastically.
But Sild was staring at Merkal, odd facts lining up in his head. ‘This elf—the one who visits you. What’s his name?’
Merkal smiled. ‘He never said. The first time he came I didn’t ask, and after that it seemed…rude.’
‘What did he look like?’ Sild persisted.
‘Ordinary. Just ordinary. Apart from…’
‘Yes?’ He resisted the urge to shake the man.
‘He had eyes as green as that meadow out there.’
Sild leaned back in his chair. ‘I knew it.’ He glared at Merkal. ‘And you did, too. Or you’d never have gone along with it.’
‘I was fairly sure, yes. He told me I have a task to perform.’ For a moment grief passed across Merkal’s face, but it was gone so quickly Sild found himself doubting what he’d seen.
‘Will someone explain what’s going on?’ Aravir said tightly.
‘His elf,’ Sild pointed at Merkal, ‘is Whitestar.’