Labored footfalls crunched the newly-fallen snow as a tiny, stooped child painstakingly picked her way over the rocky path. The biting wind tore at the cloak of the sprite and dragged back her hood revealing huge, curious eyes and a mop of unruly curls. Yanking the coverlet back into place, face set in a mask of determination, Honor turned down the lane that would lead her home. She sighed at the word – it never really seemed accurate. Although she had always resided with her caretakers, Honor had never felt as though she truly belonged. Orphaned at birth, she had been given a decent life with two wonderful beings who labored in honest endeavors and sought to bring her up into steadfastness and truth. Nevertheless, there was something missing…some ever-elusive notion that Honor believed would bring understanding from her confusion…peace to her troubled spirit…if only she could find what was lacking.
Honor stepped up her pace as she approached the little cottage she shared with Authorious and Soddgauble. Seeing smoke rising from the chimney, she was immediately cheered by the knowledge that the Scholar would be awaiting her arrival. The girl was not disappointed, for the cottage door swung open upon her approach and out bustled a spindly man of great stature.
“Ah! You’re back, Little One! I expected you sooner. I’m afraid our lunch has become blackened tar in the cook pot!” Soddgauble’s green eyes danced with mirth.
“You are the finest cook in all of Banyon Cray, Soddy. If lunch is tar, then I am a gazelle,” Honor giggled.
“Come in and sit by the fire while I hang your cloak to dry, child,” the towering man replied affectionately. As the Scholar shut and bolted the huge wooden door, Honor removed her cape, and as always, Soddgauble’s heart wrenched at the tiny, twisted form of his hunchbacked charge.
“Tell me where you’ve been all this time, Honor,” the Scholar said as he took a stool near the fire and faced the little girl.
“Running the errands you sent me to complete. Where else would I be?” Soddgauble watched the girl’s face, waiting for truth. She wiggled in her seat and looked at the pot of soup. “That smells wonderful, Teacher! Please, serve me before I faint from hunger.”
Taking up a trencher and spoon, he ladled steaming broth and set the bowl on the table. “Let it cool a bit and in the meanwhile you can tell me of your impressions of Pennar’s Notch.”
Indignantly, Honor blurted, “How did you know I was at the Notch?”
Soddgauble chuckled. “A little bird told me.”
“He’s resting in the eaves. You wore him out, Little One!”
“Tripe. Nothing wears out my Eberheart. Where is he?” Hearing a soft coo, Honor looked up to see a grey dove alight from the rafters. He landed gently on her outstretched arm and Honor nuzzled his downy soft feathers with her face and cooed to him. “He disappeared while I was exploring Pennar’s Notch and didn’t respond to my whistles. I was worried.”
“So was he. He was frightened that you would stumble in the snow and be lost to us. He came back to tell me where you were.”
Honor giggled. “Sillyheart! You always speak as if Eberheart can talk to you!”
“Eat your soup, my child. Then we shall resume our studies. I think your sojourn to the Notch could be considered the geography lesson today…what do you think?”
“I think,” Honor replied, as she took her tutor’s hand and held it to her chest, “that you are the greatest teacher in the world for letting me choose what I study!”
Late that night after the girl was deep in dreamless slumber, her patrons sat by the fire, concern etched on their faces.
“I never thought the day would come where she would wander, Soddgauble,” Authorious said wearily.
“This tiny village will not contain her for much longer, my friend. Her curiosity grows stronger by the day. She knows there is more to her than what we have told her.”
The Guardian dragged a hand down over his face. “I can keep watch over her in the village without her realizing it, but it’s almost impossible in the forest. She almost saw me today.”
“Can we give her wider berth? Follow and protect her from a greater distance, perhaps?”
“I fear to let her out of my sight in the forest, Scholar. There has been word from the King’s Heralds. They sense that danger is coming soon.”
The Teacher sat forward in dismay. “Tell me what they have seen, Authorious!”
“Nothing has been laid out yet. It’s just a foreboding.” The Guardian stood and paced the clay floor. “I cannot fail in my duty to protect the King’s daughter, Soddgauble! Honor must be kept safe, at any cost!”
“The child’s safety was entrusted to you because His Majesty knew there was no one in all the land that was more capable. You will not fail her. You always look to her as your duty, but I know you love the little waif and would die for her.” The teacher leaned in and stoked the fire.
“As would you, Soddy. As would you.”
Far away in the bowels of Infernius the Seers were narrowing the gap in the hunt for the Royal offspring. It was only a matter of time before they would be able to discern the location of each child. Apocalypto had long since grown impatient and summoned his assassins to ferret out the targets. They were gathered this night to give account of their progress to the dark lord. Ffeyjer, the most depraved of the butchers, had been scouring the land, devouring mile after mile in his intrepid pursuit of the the hidden children. He knew he was close. His finely-honed instincts were leading him to one target in particular…Valor. He would not stop until he slaughtered her and fed on her still-beating heart.
Approaching his master, the butcher hissed as he spoke, “I am close to one of the children, my lord. I feel it. I hear her foul heart beating in my head. I am confident I will discover her identity within the fortnight.”
“So you know the town in which she resides, Ffeyjer?” Apocalypto asked anxiously.
“I do, my liege. I am sure of it.”
“Tell me!” his master commanded.
“Banyon Cray, Dark One. I will find her in Banyon Cray…”
“Depart from me, assassin! Bring me the heart of Valor upon your return!”
Wicked shrieks of laughter filled the halls as the insidious figure of the assassin shifted its form and made it’s way towards the tiny sleeping Hamlet…