As he approached the carriage, Haldan glanced up at the darkening sky. Evening was closing in on the kingdom of Tarea in the Valley Forest before the three companions were to start out, but whoever was in charge of the journey decided against delaying their departure.
Upon closer inspection, Haldan realized that this was no carriage. He threw the satchel containing his clothing into the odd-looking vehicle they would use on their journey, stuffing the bag unceremoniously under the driver's bench. He eyed the vehicle suspiciously. It looked as though it had, at one time, had runners like a sleigh, but the runners had been removed and awkwardly replaced with axles and wheels. Above the strange modifications, the body of the sleigh was unremarkable, an open sleigh with a seat for the driver in front and a bench for the passengers behind. The two horses harnessed to the carriage were similarly ordinary.
Haldan had not been told very much about the trip—only that he was to accompany two women to their home kingdom in the mountains to the north. As excited as he was to go to the Mountains of the Moon for the first time, the sight of the vehicle they were using to get there dismayed him somewhat. King Veldun, Haldan's father, had seemed very secretive when he told his son to go. Haldan wondered why he'd been selected instead of any one of his older brothers.
"Hello," came a woman's voice behind him. His thoughts interrupted, Haldan jumped slightly and turned to face the speaker, a woman who appeared to be around Haldan's age.
"I'm Olaren," she informed him.
"I'm Haldan," he replied, and extended his hand in greeting. He hoped he was hiding his disappointment—Olaren looked nothing like the descriptions of the legendary mountain people. Not that Haldan even believed in the Surilt. They only existed in songs and children's stories, as Haldan kept reminding himself.
Like Haldan, Olaren had fair skin, light grey eyes and light blond hair. She stood a hand span shorter than Haldan and was wearing the traditional brown and green dress of the Valley Forest. Even Olaren's hair was styled the same way women of the Valley Forest styled their hair—the front portion of it bound back in braids twined together at the back of the head, and the back portion of their hair hanging loose below the braids.
"I didn't realize you were from the Valley Forest," he finally said.
Olaren had already begun checking the horses' lashings. "Oh, no, Master Haldan, I live in the mountains," she called over her shoulder. Haldan frowned as he leaned back into the vehicle to carefully place his weapons with his other things. If everyone from the mountains looked just like everyone from the Valley Forest, it would be a terribly disappointing trip.
"You're bringing weapons?" Olaren asked. She had climbed onto the driver's seat and was looking over the back of the seat, watching Haldan load his bow, quiver and knife.
"Yes," he said.
Olaren shook her head. "I think that's just silly. There's no need for those kind of weapons in the Valley Forest or in the mountains."
Haldan silently wondered how often Olaren made this trip, but decided it would be best not to voice his doubts. "What kind of vehicle is this?" he asked instead.
"Well, it should be a sleigh," she said, stepping down from the driver's seat, "but it looks like they've put wheels on it to travel on the forest roads." She paused to touch one of the wheels. "Looks ugly like this, if you ask me."
Haldan nodded in agreement. His ears perked up as he heard footsteps approaching. He turned around to watch for the third member of their traveling party. After a few minutes, a second woman appeared in the doorway. This time, Haldan was not disappointed.
The second woman, like Olaren, looked to be about Haldan's age, was dressed in the green and brown dress of the Valley Forest, and had her hair styled in the same way. Like both of her traveling companions, the second woman had fair skin and light grey eyes—but her hair was a dark brown. Haldan's eyes widened at the sight. No one in the kingdom of Tarea, or all of the Valley Forest, had anything but light blond hair. Haldan vaguely remembered a verse from the legends about the Surilt. Something about dark hair . . . "The Surilt are quick but sometimes seen," he whispered to himself. "By one whose mind is fast and wit is keen. / You'll know them by their dark, dark hair, / Power and beauty beyond compare."
"What did you say, Master Haldan?" the dark-haired woman asked.
"Oh, n-nothing," Haldan stammered quickly. He knew that any Tarean would have heard him without trying, even standing as far away as the woman was, even with Haldan only whispering. And, more than that, how did she already know his name?
"Are we ready, Olaren?" asked the dark-haired woman. Haldan searched for some unusual quality in her voice—it was there, but he couldn't quite identify it.
"Absolutely," Olaren replied cheerily. The other woman handed Olaren a satchel as both women stepped into the sleigh-turned-carriage. Olaren continued speaking, "Master Haldan seems to think that we'll be needing protection—he brought along his weapons." She placed the satchel under the driver's seat next to the weapons as she mentioned them.
"Well," said the woman, "let's hope he doesn't plan to use them."
"Let's hope I don't have to," Haldan replied as he stepped into their vehicle.
The woman nodded wisely as Olaren took her place at the reins. "Are we off, then?" Olaren asked.
The other woman turned to Haldan. "Do you have everything—warm clothing?"
"Good," the woman nodded. "There's snow in the mountains. Rushith," she said to Olaren. The last word meant nothing to Haldan, but Olaren seemed to understand, and they set off.
They rode in silence until the capital city of Tarea was far behind them.
"Olaren," began the dark-haired woman, whose name Haldan still did not know, "Master Haldan might like to become more proficient in the Ihhesumil, so why don't we try to help him?"
Olaren glanced back over her shoulder at Haldan. "Is that so, Master Haldan?"
"What is the Ihhesumil?" he asked.
"The Ihhesumil is the language we speak in the mountains," said the other woman.
Haldan was silent for a moment. Another language. Spoken in the mountains. That doesn't mean anything, Haldan told himself, the Surilt didn't exist. "Well," he said aloud, "since we're journeying to the mountains, I guess that would probably be useful. But I still don't know your name, and that might be useful, too."
The woman laughed. "Did I forget to tell you my name? I'm sorry—my name is Avelath."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Avelath," Haldan repeated her name slowly. It certainly sounded foreign. "What does your name mean?"
"Avelath means 'Maiden of the sparkling moon.' What does Haldan mean?"
Haldan shrugged. "Something about a sword."
Avelath cast a glance at him from the corner of her eye. "You ought to know what your name means," she advised him. "Haldan means 'Untarnished sword.'"
"If you knew, why did you ask me?" he retorted.
She turned her head slowly to regard him for a silent moment. "I was trying to be polite."
Somewhat embarrassed, Haldan pondered the trip that lay ahead of them. "Why did you request protection?" he asked quietly, casting a cautious glance at Olaren in the driver's seat.
Avelath didn't respond to the question, but glanced uneasily over her shoulders. Haldan did the same.
Olaren began to hum loudly just then, and Avelath jumped.
"We don't need to worry for a while. We're safe within the borders of Tarea," Haldan reassured her quietly. For one who was so concerned about a safe trip home, Avelath seemed conspicuously unarmed as far as Haldan could tell.
"In that case, Master Haldan," Avelath said, "I was at the reins all night, so if you'll pardon me, I may nod off." Within a few moments, Avelath was sound asleep.
"She let me sleep last night," Olaren informed Haldan quietly. "She was so bent upon talking to King Veldun that she wanted to drive through the night. But don't worry, Master Haldan, if you'd like to sleep, I'll be fine just driving through the night."
"Where are we going to, Olaren?"
"You're following Avelath very blindly," she noted. "We're going to a kingdom in the mountains called Ihhazel—Moon-Mist."
"South of the mountains?"
"No, no, all the way to the mountains."
"Isn't that difficult for . . . who is the regent?"
Olaren turned around, surprise written across her face. "You really don't know?"
Olaren looked at Avelath, whose head slumped forward. "Maybe you shouldn't know."
"Not supposed to." Olaren glanced at Avelath again. Haldan looked at the sleeping woman, following Olaren's lead, but Avelath revealed nothing. Her head bobbed slightly as the sleigh-carriage crossed an uneven rut. "In any case, we're bound to have a grand time in Ihhazel for the next fortnight."
"Is that so?" Haldan asked absently. He wondered about Olaren's comment about the regent of Ihhazel.
"Oh yes, festivals and fairs every night for the next two weeks. It'll be one of the best times in all the history of Ihhazel!"
Haldan didn't reply for a long time. When he realized he'd allowed the conversation to die, he quickly tried to revive it. "So, do you come down to Tarea very much?"
"I daresay more than you come to Ihhazel, that's obvious."
Haldan frowned at Olaren's teasing.
"Oh, Master Haldan," she said as she glanced back at his displeased expression, "I'm sorry, I didn't mean anything by it."
He shrugged slightly. "It's all right."
Olaren turned around and watched Haldan for a moment as he glanced uneasily at the shadows of the forest.
"So, are you afraid of the dark?" Olaren asked, taking a playful mocking tone.
Obviously, Haldan observed, Olaren didn't know the dangers of the Valley Forest. No one who did could take them so lightly.
After a long silence, Olaren continued. "Well, if you're not going to make conversation, Master Haldan, you may as well go to sleep," she said softly.
"But when we come to the river——" Haldan began.
"That won't be until tomorrow, and even then I know how to navigate crossing the river." With that, she did not seemed disposed to talk further. The very last glimmer of light that filtered through the leaves overhead waned as Haldan dozed off. Within his father's realm, he knew that he didn't have to be on his guard. It would be noon of the next day before they reached the borders of Tarea.
Haldan and Avelath awoke at the same time. The sleigh-carriage hit a deep furrow in the road, jostling the pair. Both were confused at the first instant, and sore from sleeping in some awkward position. A thought occurred to them simultaneously and the two exchanged a questioning look.
"Oh, I was wondering when you'd be awake," Olaren said, and they broke their gaze to look at her.
"Have we been asleep all this time?" Avelath asked sleepily, looking up at the evening sun which peered back through a hole in the dense, leafy canopy overhead.
"Well, you have, but Master Haldan was awake for all of this morning. He was letting you sleep on—."
"It's the evening?" Haldan exclaimed as he sat up with a start.
"Oh, yes, sir. Has been for quite a while. You dozed off a couple of hours ago. I suppose you didn't find me entertaining enough to keep you awake, and that afternoon sun can be quite a powerful sleeping spell."
Haldan tried to shake off the remnants of sleep that clung to his mind like spider webs. He blinked. "I shouldn't have been asleep," he muttered to himself.
"Don't worry, Master Haldan, everything has been quite fine."
Avelath yawned and stretched her arms. "I've slept too long as well," she said as she stepped down from the sleigh to walk alongside. Haldan, too, jumped lightly from the sleigh to walk next to it on the wide path. He carried his bow with an arrow nocked and ready.
"You seem alert," Avelath noted as she reached into the sleigh-carriage to pull out the parcel that held their provisions for the trip. She had noticed, as Haldan had, that it was suddenly and ominously quiet in the forest as the dusk set in.
"Oh, Master Haldan," Olaren said, turning back to look at him, "there hasn't been a need for that so far, and it seems to me that everything will be just fine for our return home."
As Olaren turned back to face forwards, Haldan glanced behind them. Avelath was surprised to hear the twang of Haldan's bow. Alarmed, she looked first at him, and then behind them.
"Nhakach!" she breathed. Three villainous-looking creatures marched behind the sleigh. Walking upright on two legs, each creature stood nearly as tall as Avelath, and was covered in dark, matted fur. Eerie blue eyes and vicious teeth completed their menacing appearance. Two carried stained swords. Carrying a longbow, the closest creature had been the target of Haldan's arrow, which was lodged in its arm.
"Nice shot," Avelath said sarcastically. "Great, make them angry."
He shot another arrow at the creatures and a look at Avelath, who was hopping into the sleigh. "Have you ever been in a battle with gilmat?" he asked under his breath, but she still heard.
"No," she replied in the same sardonic tone, looking nervously back at the trio of monsters and noting that the leader had been felled by Haldan's second shot. "Have you?"
Haldan didn't reply, but felled the two remaining beasts with two more arrows and leapt into the sleigh.
"Olaren, we must hurry," Avelath said, leaning forward over the driver's seat to whisper in her ear.
"Oh, ma'am, you know all is quite well in the Valley Forest," Olaren said lightly. She had not heard Haldan fire his arrows, nor had she heard the conversation between the passengers. Before Avelath could urge her onward again, a gilm sprang onto the path in front of the horses. As soon as the creature had its bearings, it shot an arrow straight at Olaren. The horses, thoroughly spooked, reared back before the monster, then with a jerk began to run. The jolt threw Avelath and Haldan back onto the passenger bench and nearly out of the sleigh-carriage entirely. They came to a shuddering, crackling stop as the vehicle stuck in a deep rut in the road. Haldan regained his feet almost instantly, shooting off an arrow at close range to hit Olaren's assailant. Avelath clambered over the driver's seat to tend to the injured woman.
"Olaren," Avelath shouted, but the gilm's arrow had been too well-aimed for Olaren to survive the attack. Avelath's eyes widened in disbelief. Haldan watched her panic begin to set in until an arrow embedded itself in the back of the driver's seat. Avelath jumped at the solid thud of the arrow's impact. Looking back at the slain woman slumped over in the driver's seat, Avelath placed her hand over Olaren's eyes. "Rahhith hu la-uth sha Futhor Zahhu," Avelath whispered. Haldan didn't know what her words meant, but he could tell by her reverential attitude that it had something to do with Olaren's death.
Another arrow thudded into the wood of the driver's seat. Avelath and Haldan both looked upward toward the source of the attack.
Arrows rained down from overhead, and Haldan turned around to shoot at the gilm-archers perched in the trees. Avelath watched as a few of his arrows lodged in trees instead of their intended targets. She reached out and grabbed his arm as he made ready to draw back another arrow. "We have to get out of here!" she shouted.
Haldan fired off another shot, which hit its mark, before looking back at Avelath.
"The axles are broken," she informed him, scrambling over the lashings of the sleigh onto the back of one of the horses. Haldan turned to shoot again and found himself face to face with a large gilm. Panicking, he jabbed out at the creature with the arrow he held in his hand. The beast crumpled before him as something sliced across the back of his knee.
"Cute," Avelath called, "add that to your bag of tricks. Now get on the other horse!"
Instead, he shot at a gilm still in the trees.
"No, Haldan, get on the other horse!" Avelath whispered something to calm the horses, which were still very frightened. She didn't seem to have noticed the shot that had nearly hit Haldan. Haldan hopped over the driver's seat and climbed onto the second horse. Avelath drew a sword and began to hack away at the horses' harness. "You could help," she muttered to him. Haldan quickly reached under the driver's seat to grab his knife. He began to help Avelath at cutting the lashings, but the two could not make much progress while trying to duck the continual volleys of arrows from above.
Avelath suddenly sat up erect upon her horse. She began with a whisper, "Ohaheth-dolil, ruhhrule sha esumilaf." The trees rustled their leaves in response. "Ruthuth!" she shouted, throwing her arms apart in a huge gesture. Although she had just been shouting to Haldan, her voice seemed completely different now—powerful, echoing and forceful. Haldan stopped short to look up at her. The gilm archers fell from their tree perches as the leaves in autumn.
"Go, go, go!" she called as she sliced through the last two lashings, simultaneously freeing both horses. Neither Haldan nor the horses needed the urging—as soon as they were freed, the horses took off at a gallop. Avelath breathlessly repeated a spell or a chant Haldan could not understand as the horses bore them away from the sleigh and the site of the ambush, but as he looked back over the path they'd traveled, the darkness behind them seemed to close in and the trees seemed to obscure the road as soon as they passed.
When the horses finally slowed to a stop, Avelath swiftly jumped to the ground. Looking up, she could see no light, but whether that was because of the dark leaves overhead or the dark sky above, she could not tell. Haldan rode up behind her and leapt from the horse before it stopped completely. Avelath whirled around, brandishing the sword she still held drawn.
"Avelath," he said softly, trying to calm her.
"I'm sorry," she choked out. "I forgot I had it in my hand." She sheathed the sword and found that she was still clutching a satchel in her other hand. Peering inside, she found the food and water for the journey. Just before the ambush, Avelath had been very hungry, but even a Tarean feast would not have tempted her after the flight.
"We should make camp," Haldan whispered.
"I'm not tired," she replied. "We both just woke up."
"I know, but the horses need the rest."
With an assenting nod, Avelath led her horse off the path and into the dense woods crunching leaves underfoot. They needed to walk only a short way before the road was completely out of sight, but they would not risk lighting a fire. Hours passed before either of them made any noise—silence reigned until Avelath began to cry.
"Olaren?" Haldan asked gently.
"She was my friend," Avelath managed as unheeded tears ran down her cheeks, "my . . . my . . . my. . . ." She searched for the right word, but trailed off after failing to find what she sought. Haldan knew there would be little he could do to console her and stood by uncertainly for a few seconds. Finally, he clapped a hand upon Avelath's shoulder, patting it a couple times before giving it a comforting squeeze.
"Have you lost many friends?" she asked.
"No," Haldan admitted. "I've been very fortunate."
Avelath shrugged off Haldan's hand and turned to face him, although it made little difference in the dark. She sank down to sit on the ground and lapsed into silence.
"Avelath," he began slowly, kneeling next to her, "I'm very sorry about Olaren. I feel as though it's my fault—I shouldn't have let it happen—I should have been more alert—I shouldn't have fallen asleep—"
"Let's not speak about her until we reach my city," she interrupted. "It makes me too . . ." She let her voice trail off into a sigh.
"How far to your city?"
"Not too far, if we ride hard . . . And if we don't encounter any further troubles." She was silent for a few moments before venturing to speak again. "What were those . . . creatures?" she asked.
"I thought you called them something, didn't you?"
Avelath paused, contemplating the question. "Oh, I called them nhakach. 'Bad beast.'"
"They're gilm—gilmat, I should say, since there were lots of them. We aren't sure where they came from or why they're here, but they can make traveling in the Valley Forest difficult. I thought you knew about them."
She shook her head.
"Avelath," he began cautiously after a few moments of silence, "how did you make the gilmat fall out of the trees?"
"What are you talking about?"
"Back there," he nodded in the direction of the site of the ambush. "You said something and all the gilmat fell out of the trees. And then when we were riding, you said something and the trees moved behind us. How did you do that?" Avelath didn't reply for what seemed like a long time, so Haldan continued speaking. "Are you . . . magic?" he ventured.
Avelath scoffed. "Magic—what's that, anyway? An excuse to trick simple people."
"Then how did you do it?"
"It was the trees. I told them to do it, and they did."
Avelath's answer only made Haldan more confused. "But . . . you can't just tell trees to do things."
In the darkness, Haldan could just barely see Avelath look at him blankly. "Perhaps you can't," she said. Haldan could find no words to reply, and they lapsed into silence.
"It will begin to get light in an hour or two," Avelath said, breaking the silence that had settled upon them. "We can have some breakfast at daybreak and then start off. But we'll have to walk the horses."
"The horses shouldn't be run today," Haldan agreed. He realized that even in late summer, dead leaves blanketed the forest floor. "The horses can't eat our bread," he pointed out.
"Well, the trees will just have to give us something for the horses." Avelath waited long enough for Haldan to be mystified before adding, "Or they'll survive on the bracken." She rose to her feet and walked over to where the horses stood. She was silent for a few seconds before turning to the horses, murmuring to them in a language Haldan couldn't understand. Avelath talked to them, sang to them, and brushed them as best she could with her bare hands.
The sky was just beginning to grow light when Haldan spoke again. "What are you saying to them?" he asked curiously.
"Different things. Praising them for their hard work, chants for strength and endurance, and just soothing them."
"Perhaps a little of our bread would do them some good—give them strength—if we could get them to eat it."
"These horses have been spoiled with sweetbread for years. Especially Ethur, haven't you, beauty?" Avelath directed the last part of her comment to the roan horse she'd ridden, lovingly rubbing Ethur's neck. She glanced over at the other horse and she startled in surprise. "Why is there blood on my horse?" she suddenly exclaimed.
"Are you hurt?" Haldan asked.
"No—you were riding Sharlith, not I. You must be the one who's hurt." She pointed at the bloodstains on the grey horse in the dim morning light. Haldan jumped to his feet and was suddenly and painfully reminded of exactly why Sharlith bore his blood. He gasped through his teeth, grimacing in sudden pain.
"Oh!" Avelath exclaimed in alarm. "Where are you injured?" she asked in an urgent tone, rushing over to where Haldan stood, still clenching his teeth from the stinging pain. He could only point at his injured knee. He stayed still as Avelath knelt behind him to examine the wound. "What happened?"
"A gilm arrow grazed the back of my knee," he said.
"Do they poison their arrows?" she asked herself softly.
Avelath looked in dismay at the cut across the back of his knee. Haldan looked away from the woman kneeling behind him for a moment. He suddenly cried out at the top of his voice, jerking his knee away. "What was that?" he shouted.
"Sorry," she said as she rocked back onto her heels. "I was just checking to make sure your knee wasn't poisoned."
"How—jabbing my knee with needles?"
"No, it was just a little pinch. Now calm down and let me see that knee."
Frowning, he reluctantly lowered his knee again, allowing Avelath to examine it more closely. "Oh," she exclaimed, "this won't even need medicine to heal."
"It hurts all the same."
"I'll bind it for you. Don't think of how much it hurts, and it will be well by noon."
Fine by noon was not the prognosis Haldan had hoped for, but it was far better than what he feared. He stood still while Avelath splashed cold water from their supplies onto the back of his knee. She pondered for a moment before deciding to use the sash of her dress to bind the wound. "There you are," she said once she had finished.
Haldan looked down at his knee, and the strip of embroidered green fabric now tied around it. The wound was still sore and the makeshift bandage hindered his movement. Still, it would be better than going the whole day in pain. "Thank you," he said.
"You're more than welcome," she replied as she handed him a piece of bread. "But I should be the one to thank you. You saved my life."
"Duty," Haldan said, shrugging. He looked down, clearly disappointed with himself. "I didn't fulfill my duty as I should have."
"No, Haldan, you've more than fulfilled your duty. Olaren's death was . . . painful for all of us, but our journey isn't doomed. Don't count your losses until the road is through—otherwise, you'd lose the courage to reach your destination."
Haldan didn't say much as they traveled that day. He was too busy thinking about the events of the day before. Avelath seemed too sad to speak anyway. They made camp for the night and without a word settled down to sleep on the forest floor beside a small fire.
Haldan awoke just before the sun began to rise. After a few moments, Avelath, who'd been awake for some time, noticed that Haldan had finally woken up and offered him some of the bread she'd been eating. Quite honestly, Haldan was tired of the bread, but he didn't see much point in complaining.
Haldan silently looked at Avelath in the early morning light as he slowly chewed on the stale bread. Her dark hair still caught his attention. She spoke another language—not that speaking another language was uncommon, but Haldan had never even heard of the Ihhesumil before. She lived in the mountains. She called his people "the Tareans"—and said her hearing was not as sharp as theirs. And whether or not she'd admit it, she knew how to use magic. "Avelath," he began slowly. "Are you from the Valley Forest?"
"You know that I live in the mountains," she said, clearly not understanding his question.
"Yes, but are you descended from the people of the Valley Forest?"
Avelath slowly shook her head. "My ancestors have lived in the mountains for thousands of years."
"Well, if you're not a Tarean, what are you?" Haldan realized too late that he had phrased the question rather rudely.
"I am an Ohaf."
"Oh, I suppose you'd say I was a Suril—one of the Surilt. That is the Tarean word for the people of the mountains, isn't it?"
Haldan could only nod dumbly for a moment. A Suril. A real, living, breathing Suril standing in front of him. Taking him to her home. One of the legendary people who hadn't been seen in his home kingdom for centuries.
"Now then," Avelath broke into his thoughts, "let's continue and we'll reach the mountains soon."
Avelath said little else as they walked alongside the horses that day. She was still thinking of Olaren it seemed, and Haldan was too shocked over his discovery of a real Suril to attempt conversation. At sundown, Avelath climbed onto Ethur's back and looked at Haldan as if he should mount Sharlith. Once he'd followed her lead, Avelath started Ethur off at a trot. They continued at that pace throughout the night and into the next morning.
Noon was fast approaching when Haldan spoke. "Sharlith needs water," he said, suddenly interrupting the silence that had settled over them. He had been riding a few lengths behind Avelath, but nothing that morning had gone wrong.
Avelath was so absorbed in monitoring her own horse that she almost didn't hear him. Once his words registered in her mind, Avelath stopped her horse and turned around. "Hhashun," she said, pointing to the spring off the trail a short way. "Hhu we."
Haldan was somewhat uneasy about her sudden use of the Ihhesumil. She had throne in an occasional term from her native language, but usually she spoke in Tarean. And now he had no idea what she'd just said.
"Where?" Haldan replied in Tarean. He hoped she would explain in a way he could understand.
"Thu," she said impatiently, pointing off the trail.
Assuming she was talking about some source of water for Sharlith, Haldan slowly turned from the path and walked the horse to the spring, which was in the direction Avelath had indicated.
"Rahhuth! Halt!" Avelath's voice carried through the trees to Haldan's ears. He also heard the last line she added, although it could not have been more than a whisper. "Come now, Haldan. Now!"
As Haldan came closer, he saw that she was still astride her horse, but was staring down in contempt at what appeared to be a Tarean man.
"Zithe. Name," Avelath demanded.
"You ask my name?" balked the man in Tarean. He seemed to be approaching old age. The man hadn't noticed Haldan's arrival, so Haldan slipped silently from Sharlith's back and crept up behind the stranger. Not about to let some aging Tarean or Valley Forester harm Avelath, he bent his bow, standing at the ready with the arrow aimed straight at the person.
"Speak, man—friend or foe?" Haldan demanded.
The man startled and whirled around. He was surprised to find Haldan standing behind him—not only standing behind him, but prepared to kill him, if necessary.
"Wha-what did he say?" the man stuttered.
"Do you not understand your own language? He said 'Speak, man—friend or foe?'" Avelath repeated.
"Which is safer?" The stranger glanced up and back at Avelath, as if speaking to Haldan would be too dangerous.
Avelath didn't reply to the man. "Haldan, zelilash," she said, making a calming gesture with one hand, "rahhalen afana sehor. Eno zul zeke. If he proves true." The last sentence was added in a low whisper. Haldan wasn't sure if the man heard it or not. Reluctantly, Haldan lowered his bow, but he didn't lower his guard. He hoped the man couldn't tell Haldan had no idea what Avelath said.
"Haldan?" repeated the man. "Ah, Untarnished-sword, I have heard much of you." The man didn't seem to think that Haldan would understand him. Haldan's chin lifted and a shadow passed over his face. The man's dark tone sounded foreboding. Haldan shot a look at Avelath.
"My prince wishes to know what you mean by that comment," she interjected.
The man looked up at Avelath. "Traveling through Tarea, one hears nothing but 'Prince Haldan.'"
That was an outright lie, Haldan was sure. "Zithe," Haldan commanded, hoping he'd remembered the word Avelath had used. They were closer to her home than his, and if escape were necessary, she would have to lead the way. The other man rolled his eyes at Haldan's tone.
"Name," Avelath repeated. When the man hesitated, Avelath addressed Haldan. "My prince," she said in a warning tone.
"My lady," Haldan replied, raising his bow and drawing back his arrow.
"Wait, wait!" cried the man. "My name is Roithan!"
It was Avelath's turn to take offense at the man's words. "Roithan?" she repeated in surprise. Her grey eyes filled with rage. "How dare you enter the realm of Kazel!" she hissed.
The man laughed. "Kazel is dead." He took a menacing step toward Avelath's horse. "The heir of Kazel is young and weak, ill-suited to the throne, even more so than was Kazel, as you well know," he paused before the last word, which he emphasized carefully, "Avelath—."
"Evil, terrible man!" Avelath shouted. "Death! Death to you!"
Haldan let his arrow fly, but Roithan anticipated and somehow deflected the shot. Roithan sprinted off and Haldan began the pursuit. He threw his knife after the man, but Roithan disappeared in the trees before Haldan saw if the blade hit its mark.
Haldan suddenly became aware of the sound of hooves behind him and quickly moved out of the way as Avelath galloped past on Ethur. Sharlith followed, stopping only long enough for Haldan to mount before racing in pursuit. The trees soon thinned, and the riders reached the edge of the forest with no sign of Roithan.
"Nhakach!" Avelath shouted after the man, cursing him.
"Is he dead?" Haldan asked
"Gilm!" she continued, not heeding his question.
"Is the man dead?" Haldan repeated insistently.
Finally, she turned to him, still seething. "No," she said. Her tone seemed rude, but Haldan attributed her curtness to anger.
"Who is Kazel?" he asked cautiously.
"He was a great king—Ihhazel Zelild."
Haldan scrutinized the woman before him. She was breathing heavily, but whether that was from her ride or her rage, he could not tell. She had seemed in no great hurry to arrive at her home kingdom, or had not since Olaren's death. He recalled Olaren remarking that perhaps Haldan shouldn't know who the regent of Ihhazel was. Suspicion filled his thoughts. "Are you an exile?" he finally asked Avelath.
Her concentration upon the forest eaves was broken. "Exile? No, not at all!" She glanced back at the woods. "Roithan was, though. It was he who murdered King Kazel, even as the king sat upon his throne. You will die this hundred-day, Roithan the traitor!" she shouted at the top of her voice after the man in the forest. Ethur snorted, as if the horse were reinforcing Avelath's curse.
"I should have shot at him from the trees," Haldan muttered to himself.
"Yes, you should have," Avelath agreed grimly, "but there's nothing to be done about him now. He'll receive his reward." She turned with her horse away from the forest to face the foot of the mountains. After their twisting chase through the forest, they'd ended up only a short distance from the road they'd been traveling. "Come," she sighed, "let's eat a little something before we part ways."
"Part ways?" Haldan repeated slowly, as if not fully comprehending the meaning of her words. Was he supposed to return through the forest and face Roithan and the gilmat a second time—and not even get to see the great Suril kingdom?
"The horses can travel through the city, but we can't."
Avelath pretended not to hear his question as she slid down from Ethur's back. She glanced at him and caught sight of the set jaw and the distrustful look in his eyes. "Oh, Haldan, you know that I'm no exile. It's just a household rule that I'm not to ride through the streets of the city."
"Why?" he insisted.
"For my safety," she said as if that were obvious.
He said nothing in response. His eyes softened, but his jaw remained set.
"Come," she said, "let's eat before we start into the mountains. Thuror othurild." The last phrase was only a sigh, but it was obvious that she was very happy to reach the mountains of home.
The horses were sent down the main road bearing a letter from Avelath that simply said, "I'm home." As Haldan and Avelath started up the hidden streets—kevel osale, Avelath called them—Haldan began to wonder about the snow Avelath had mentioned before they left his home.
"Where's the snow?" he asked. As they climbed higher, the air became steadily colder, but they still tread upon dried leaves and needles which covered the path.
"Just a little higher," Avelath said. "I didn't know it snowed often in Tarea."
"It doesn't," Haldan replied. "Just once that I can remember."
Exactly as Avelath said, within moments the trees, which were already more sparse than in the forest, began to thin and patches of snow appeared on the path. "Ala," Avelath breathed. She sprinted ahead to where the snow lay more thickly upon the ground, then turned to Haldan, her features suffused with utter joy.
"Come!" she called. "Come to the snow!"
When Haldan reached her, he found Avelath kneeling upon the snow. She was rummaging through the provisions bag, which was now mostly empty. Looking up and smiling at him, she offered him a hooded white cloak. "Asuthala," she informed him. "A snow-cloak for you."
Haldan accepted the cloak, made of fine and light-weight material, but held it in his hands instead of putting it on.
"You really should put it on," Avelath informed him. "It's very warm."
He looked over his shoulders, as if he expected a gilm to leap down on them the moment he was off-guard.
"It's safe, Haldan. We're in my realm now, and even the kevel osale are protected. I'll help you put it on."
He reluctantly removed his quiver and bow and handed them to Avelath, then threw the cloak around his shoulders and fastened the crescent-moon-shaped brooch to secure the cloak. It wasn't a cloak made for an archer, which he regretted as he pushed the folds of fabric over his shoulders.
"It won't keep you warm if you just let it hang down your back," Avelath said.
"If I'm going to carry my weapons, I have to wear the cloak like this," he said.
"But you'll be cold," she protested feebly as she helped him with his quiver and bow.
Haldan said nothing. He didn't much want to speak. Avelath kept changing, and he didn't know how to respond, especially not now that she was so lighthearted. And with every change, Haldan got the feeling that there was even more about her that he didn't know.
"Where's your knife?" Avelath asked as she pulled the hood of the cloak from between his back and his quiver.
"I threw it at Roithan."
"Did it hit him?"
"I don't know."
"I hope so," she said with sudden vehemence. "Nhakach." He could hear her take a deep breath to calm herself. She stepped away from Haldan and began to twirl around in the snow.
"Dancing?" he asked, turning to look at her.
"Oh yes!" she replied before spinning around a final time. "I'm so glad to see the snow." She threw her arms open and her head back as if she were going to embrace the sky. Instead, she leaned backwards and allowed herself to fall into the snow.
"Avelath!" Haldan exclaimed, hurrying over to where she lay. She rolled over onto her stomach, still lying in the snow, before accepting Haldan's hand to help her to her feet. Snow clung to her dress and hair in clumps. He took a step back—it seemed they were standing too close to one another. "You're covered in snow," he informed her.
"Good," she said. "Why are you suddenly so somber? Is your knee bothering you?"
"No, my knee is fine."
"Well then," she said, placing her hands on her hips, "you're going to have to return my sash. And . . . you have to laugh."
Haldan raised an eyebrow. "I have to?"
With a mischievous grin, she took a step forward through the snow. With her second step, Avelath tripped over some hidden obstacle and fell gracelessly into the snow, face first.
He didn't laugh, but he did smile as he reached down to help her to her feet again.
"I didn't do that on purpose, I'll have you know," she said as she stood. Haldan laughed softly to himself as Avelath walked to fetch her own snow-cloak from the provisions bag. After fastening the brooch, Avelath produced a pair of white gloves from the bag and slipped them on. Just as Haldan wished that he, too, had some, Avelath offered him a pair, white like her own.
"I hope they'll fit," she said as he accepted them.
"Thank you," he said graciously, pulling them on. "You brought these things for me?"
"Well, not really," Avelath murmured, looking away.
Haldan understood—Olaren. "I can't take these." He tugged at the gloves, trying to pull them off.
"No, no," Avelath said, placing her hands over his to stop him from removing the gloves. "If she were with us, Olaren would have given them to you. Please, take them." Haldan looked into her eyes, as she stared back with all sincerity, asking him to keep the gloves and cloak. In a barely perceptible manner, he smiled, the corners of his mouth moving only faintly. But the gratitude in his eyes was clear.
"Thank you," he said softly, still staring into her eyes. A few breathless seconds passed with their gazes locked before Avelath suddenly blinked and shook her head, as if just waking up. She laughed softly at herself as she realized her hands were still clasped over his. Stooping to pick up the provisions bag, she slipped one of her gloved hands into his.
"Let's go," she said cheerfully, tugging him down the kevel osale. Once they were a few steps down the road, she let her hand fall from his to pull up the hood of her cloak.
"Is it far to your city?"
"It's not far to anything within the realm of Ihhazel. It's a very small kingdom, and that's how we like it."
Haldan said nothing for a moment. Her answer didn't satisfy him. "When will we reach your city?" he attempted again.
"We've already passed Ihhame—Greymist. The only other city in the kingdom is Ihhazel, our destination."
Still, Avelath had not answered the question. "Do we have much longer to travel?"
"No—look! Thoror odu-e!" She pointed to elaborately wrought gates which obstructed their path—the gates of home. Immediately behind the gates sprang up a dense evergreen forest. The snow-covered trail slipped under the gates and into the forest. "They should meet us here," Avelath said, mostly to herself. "Well, these are the Ihhazel gates. Allow me to be the first to welcome you." She stood up straight and tall—she was nearly as tall as Haldan—and continued in a commanding voice. "This is the Kingdom and City of Ihhazel, and I," she paused to open her arms wide in a welcoming gesture, "I am—."
"Avelath Zelathild!" interrupted a voice. As if on cue, two sleighs pulled by four horses each glided over the snow of the dense evergreen forest on the far side of the gates.
"Hhu!" Avelath called. "She hhu!"
Several Surilt stepped out of the first sleigh and unlocked the gates. Haldan watched in amazement as both sleighs, full of Surilt, rode out onto the kevel osale to turn around for the return journey. There were at least a dozen Surilt in each sleigh—men with the same dark brown hair as Avelath, and each taller than Haldan. He wondered if all of them were magic as the legends said.
"I come bearing ill news," Avelath informed the other Surilt as they approached on foot and in the sleighs. "All the good news I have to offer stands beside me." She gestured toward Haldan. "My companion—my worthy companion—will be renown as a slayer of gilmat and a pursuer of Roithan. We shall prepare a great welcome for Haldan, son of Veldun."
Haldan was surprised both at the praise and the formality of Avelath's speech, but the welcoming party of Surilt paid no attention to Haldan. "Roithan?" one of the Surilt asked darkly.
"Yes, we encountered him in the forest at the foot of the mountains. We pursued him, but to no avail." The other Surilt began to clamor with questions, but Avelath ignored them. "Rahhish, Naren," she called. As the others fell silent, one Suril man approached her. "Naren-zelil," she began, "eno the Haldan Zelilash." The introduction was all that Haldan understood even a little bit. The rest of the conversation was conducted in the Ihhesumil. Haldan watched Naren as his features filled with grief. Occasionally, Avelath gestured to Haldan, and Naren looked at him. When her story was through, Naren bridged the space between himself and Haldan in two great strides and threw his arms around him. Haldan, confused and frightened, stiffened and cast a questioning look at Avelath over the shoulder of the Suril man.
"He's Olaren's father," she informed him.
Naren stepped back and placed his hands on Haldan's shoulders. "Thank you for whad you've done," he seemed to struggle in Tarean.
Haldan wondered about Naren's odd pronunciation, but decided not to say anything about it. "I'm sorry," Haldan said. He glanced at Avelath in time to see most of the Surilt surround her and escort her to one of the sleighs. The party set off through the gates and into the evergreen forest.
"Come," said Naren. "The queen will have an official rece'tion for you, and you should ged ready."
"A reception?" Haldan asked.
Naren nodded. "As I said, a rece'tion."
Haldan followed Naren to the remaining sleigh. Haldan's first experience with that type of vehicle hadn't been very pleasant—very uneven and bumpy. He was surprised to discover how easily the sleigh moved over the snow. After they passed the gates, they paused long enough for two Surilt to hop down to shut and lock the gates. Then the company was off, following distantly the sleigh carrying Avelath. The sleigh bore them quickly towards the home of the queen, who wanted to officially receive Haldan, although he could not guess the reason for the reception.
The evergreen forest was less than one league deep, and soon the road opened up to the snow-covered mountainside. As they climbed above the heights of the trees behind them, Haldan looked back. In the waning evening light, far in the distance, he could just make out the trees that surrounded his father's castle.
They soon reached the Ihhazel palace, but Avelath's sleigh was nowhere in sight. Haldan wondered when he would see her again—he longed for anything familiar; he felt very much out of place. He realized he was the only person in sight wearing dark green—the Surilt were clothed in very pale grey or white. At his home in the forest, grey-clothed people would be very conspicuous, but here even the white-clad palace guards seemed to blend in well with the white of the palace walls and the snowy terrain.
The palace of Ihhazel's queen was, in Haldan's opinion, magnificent. Perfectly smooth white towers stretched skyward. Tall arcaded windows, brightly-lit and glazed, formed most of the walls between the towers. Ethereal light glowed from within—not the yellow gleam of a flame, but a pure white light that glowed with amazing clarity in the dim twilight. Even the plaster of the walls seemed to glimmer and sparkle with some inner radiance. The entire palace looked as though it belonged in some sort of heavenly kingdom—or, as Haldan suddenly realized, just where it was, on top of the highest peak in the mountain range.
"Come," Naren said, bidding Haldan to step out of the sleigh. "Id is nearly nighd, and you have much do do before you see the queen."
"Will she receive me in the morning?" he asked.
Naren regarded Haldan warily, as if Haldan had said something to reveal his own great stupidity. "No," he said slowly. "She will receive you before the moon-rise meal."
The mention of food reminded Haldan of his hunger, although he didn't like the prospect of waiting until moon-rise to eat. He followed Naren into the palace before gathering the courage to ask another question. "Why is she receiving me at night?"
Naren stopped and turned around to give Haldan another look. These looks were beginning to make Haldan feel extremely unintelligent. "You are in Ihhazel—Moon-Misd. The queen always receives her guesd under the rising moon."
Haldan nodded with understanding.
"Naren!" called a female voice from behind them. Before he turned around, Haldan hoped that it might be Avelath, but her knew it wasn't her voice.
"Hello," said approaching the Suril woman. "My name is Lurdol. I am an attendant of the queen. You are Master Haldan?"
Haldan tried not to reveal his relief. Lurdol didn't have Naren's accent, and it was much easier for Haldan to understand her. "Yes, I am," he said.
"You shall want to change out of those . . . things immediately," she said, eying his clothing. Haldan frowned slightly, self-consciously fingering the hem of his tunic. "I mean no offense," Lurdol continued. "Your garments are just not . . . suitable for court. We'll be more than happy to provide you with apparel as long as you stay with us." She turned to look at Naren. "You are dismissed, Naren," she said disdainfully. Naren turned on his heel and left the pair without a word.
Haldan's frown deepened. Although he could understand her , Haldan did not care for Lurdol's manner—she was far too condescending. As she led him through the halls, he wondered if the queen behaved the same way.
The "apparel" Lurdol offered fit Haldan surprisingly well—but it did not suit him at all. The tunic was particularly strange for him—from his belt up, it was fitted to his form somewhat tightly, except the sleeves from the elbow to the wrist, where they hung loose and flowing. Haldan frowned at his reflection in the mirror hanging in his chambers. The sleeves looked like they belonged on a dress of his mother's, not Haldan's tunic. He looked to the elegant white chair that held his clothing from home, as well as his bow and quiver. After putting on his quiver and bow over the white cape he had been given, he checked the glass again. As a final touch, he wrapped the extra fabric of the loose sleeves around his arms and put on his bracers over them.
Finally reasonably comfortable in his new attire, Haldan walked to the hall where Lurdol waited. Upon seeing that he still wore his weapon, Lurdol looked dismayed, but said nothing about the bow or bracers. "The court is assembling," she informed him, "and the queen is making ready now. Soon they will begin the reception. Now, as you enter the hall, you must . . ." She began to instruct Haldan on the courtly customs of Ihhazel. He did not interrupt to tell her that he knew what he was doing, that he had spent most of his short life in the courts of Tarea, or that he was the son of King Veldun. Lurdol seemed too happy giving directions for Haldan to stop her.
They reached the main hall and Lurdol stopped her instructions abruptly. She pushed Haldan forward, forcing him to stand alone in the arched entrance to the hall. He eyed the court assembled in the main hall—all dressed much like he was now, in varying shades of grey and white, except none wore a quiver or bracers. All had dark brown hair. Haldan realized he was staring at a room full of Surilt—part of an entire kingdom of Surilt. And only a few short days before, he'd doubted their very existence. Trumpeters on either side of the entryway Haldan stood in announced his arrival to the hall with a brief fanfare.
"Go!" Lurdol whispered, reaching into the entryway to give him a slight push. As Haldan marched solemnly toward the raised dais on the opposite side of the room, he hoped that the queen would be different from her subjects that he had encountered so far. Other than Avelath, of course—she was the only one who had not gone to great lengths to belittle and disrespect him. Haldan resisted the temptation to look from side to side at the members of the court who were silent as they regarded him.
He reached the stairs that led to the dais and distantly recalled Lurdol's directive to drop to one knee and bow his head, waiting for the entrance of the queen. There was a flourish of silver trumpets to announce her entrance. Her soft footsteps reached the center of the dais and the hush of the hall seemed to become more reverent as she turned to survey her court.
"Ohaf-or, my people," began the queen, "tonight we assemble to receive Prince Haldan of the Untarnished Sword, son of King Veldun of Tarea. Arise, Prince Haldan."
Haldan tried to remember what Lurdol had said to do next as something in the back of his mind fought to make itself known. Something about the queen's voice . . .
"Haldan, friend, arise," the queen said softly.
As he rose to his feet and looked up at the queen, Haldan found the reason for the nagging in the back of his mind—and a host of questions. Before him on the dais stood Avelath, now wearing the popular shade of white. The first thought clear enough for Haldan to understand was doubt—she could not be the queen! But the silver circlet on her head seemed to silently counter that argument.
Seeing that he would not speak, Avelath held out her hands to him and took a step down. He, in turn, stepped up to take her hands. With her hands holding on to his, she guided him to stand next to her on the dais, facing the court.
"Prince Haldan was my sole protector on our journey from his home. He valiantly defended me in the face of great dangers. We owe him our deepest gratitude." She turned to face Haldan before finishing. "And I owe him my life."
He noticed that she didn't mention Olaren in her speech praising him. Avelath motioned for an attendant, and Lurdol stepped forward, carrying a delicately engraved box fashioned out of dark wood. Avelath released Haldan's hand to accept the box from Lurdol. Haldan wondered how Lurdol had arrived at that end of the main hall so quickly, but knew better than to ask her in front of the court.
"I give you these," Avelath said only loudly enough for Haldan to hear, "a token of my gratitude."
She presented him with the box, which he accepted. Once he had taken the box, Avelath lifted the lid, revealing a pair of exceedingly fine Tarean knives, with intricate patterns engraved down the blades.
"These knives were once a gift from your father to mine," she announced for all to hear. "Now, I give them to you. Though they can in no way begin to express how deeply we desire to thank you, it is my hope that you will accept them as a token of gratitude, a token of friendship, and a token of welcome to the Land of the Moon-Mist."
"I thank you," Haldan said, matching Avelath's formal tone and bowing his head.
Lurdol stepped forward to shut the lid of the knife case and take it from Haldan as Avelath once again offered him her hands. He took them and she turned him to face the court again. "Tonight," she announced, releasing one of Haldan's hands to make a sweeping gesture, "we feast in honor of the prince of Tarea!"
Haldan and Avelath turned to face one another, him bowing low and her giving a small but respectful curtsey. She stepped forward and took his hands. "Wait until I have left," she whispered to him, "then bow to the court and follow me." She kissed his cheek rather ceremonially before curtseying to the court and departing through a curtained door on the side of the dais, Lurdol following on her heels.
They found Naren awaiting them just outside the door. Lurdol called his name in a commanding tone. "Take these to the prince's chambers." She thrust the knife box into Naren's hands.
Avelath turned to look at her attendant. "Did you just give Naren an order?" she asked in disbelief.
Lurdol knew that Avelath wouldn't be happy with her, but raised her chin in defiance. "I did," she said.
"Naren is one of my trusted counselors," Avelath said, giving Lurdol a disapproving look. "If anyone will be taking orders, it will be you."
"Avelath!" Haldan said sharply from behind her.
Avelath turned her disapproving gaze to glance at him over her shoulder before striding off without a word.
"Do not address the queen in such a manner," Lurdol snapped once Avelath was out of sight.
"Calm yourself, Lurdol," said a soothing voice belonging to Naren. Haldan was almost glad to see him. "Do you need do speak with the queen?" he asked Haldan.
"I should like to see her, yes. Before the feast, if possible."
"And where will you receive her?"
"Do you have gardens?" he asked uncertainly as he removed his quiver and bow—he finally felt comfortable enough to go without his weapons.
Naren smiled. "Yes, we have many n'gardens. Lurdol, deliver Masder Haldan's things and his n'gift to his quarters, and then inform the queen thad Masder Haldan wishes do see her, in the main n'gardens, before the moon-rise meal."
Lurdol pursed her lips, but said nothing as she stalked off with the knife box tucked under her arm, snatching Haldan's quiver, bow, bracers and cape from his hands as she passed. As Naren led him to the main gardens, Haldan wondered at the sudden reversal of power between Lurdol and Naren. Haldan's opinion of Naren was greatly improved with his new-found sense of power.
"The queen will be with you ad her earliesd convenience," Naren informed him as they reached the gates of a courtyard. "Here are the main n'gardens. If you will excuse me, I have many errands before the moon-rise meal."
"You are dismissed," Haldan nodded to him.
Naren turned and began to leave the gardens, but stopped short. "Masder Haldan?" Naren began, turning back to face the prince.
"I was very n'glad do hear of your bedrothal tho the queen. Do nod heed Lurdol—she is only an ill-mannered servand."
Haldan was too surprised to react for a moment. "Thank you, Naren."
"Yes, sir," Naren bowed slightly and left the gardens.
He was grateful for the time he would have alone—time to gather his thoughts, and to prepare to meet Avelath again. Betrothed? Betrothed! So that was why Veldun had sent Haldan. Utterly shocked, Haldan stood stock still for what seemed like a very long time before finally looking around to take in his surroundings. He cast his eyes around slowly, as if anticipating another unexpected revelation to leap out at him from behind a tree. So far in Ihhazel, everything had been quite a surprise.
Snow blanketed the ground in the garden, though the white was spotted with a few bright winter-blooming flowers. Tall evergreen trees and short evergreen bushes grew throughout the gardens. He saw a few elegant, silvery chairs in clustered groups around the gardens and could hear the sound of a cold, burbling brook. It was not quite home, but at least it felt familiar.
Avelath came into the gardens without a sound. Haldan had planned to observe her from his tree-perch, but his plan hadn't taken into account his reaction to seeing her. She was a vision—if the Moon herself walked through that winter garden, she could not have looked more beautiful. Avelath's dress was the color of pale yellow moonlight, decorated with beads, clear gemstones, and everything delicate, glittery, and luminescent—and trimmed in fine-silver. She seemed strangely exposed, even though the dress swirled around her feet on the snow and the fine-silver collar reached to her chin. It was her arms—they were clearly visible through the long, lacy sleeves. And her hair—in the courts of Tarea, it would be improper for him to see Avelath with her hair down as it was then. Haldan felt as though he should look away, but he couldn't. It was as if Avelath were the only source of light, and the garden had suddenly grown dark.
"Haldan?" she said in a low whisper. "I don't want to play games. You wanted to speak with me, so please just come down." She didn't even look to find him, but settled into one of the silvery chairs to wait for him, removing her delicate circlet with the crescent moon insignia to hold it in one hand. In her other hand, she held a few long ribbons which matched the dark red ribbons tied around her elbows and the sash around her waist.
"I'm here," Haldan replied, trying to preserve the hush of the garden. She did not turn around.
"Please," she said wearily. "We have a long night planned—and lots of celebrating. Just come talk to me."
Haldan lighted from the tree and gingerly tread over the snow. Avelath made no move to look at him until he was standing beside her. She rose from her chair and offered him a snow-cloak. "I thought you might be cold," she said. "You said you brought warm clothes."
"I did," he said. They both glanced toward the Valley Forest and the sleigh which still held his clothes. The sleigh probably wasn't even there any more with the gilmat around. "Thank you," Haldan continued quickly as he accepted the cloak and threw it around his shoulders. "Surely you're also . . ." His voice trailed off as he motioned to her visible arms.
Avelath ignored Haldan's comment, instead gesturing for him to take a seat. Haldan sat in a chair and Avelath did the same. "Haldan," she began, "why did you want to talk to me?"
Distrust flashed in his eyes. "You didn't tell me the truth."
"I beg your pardon!" she exclaimed in a whisper.
"You didn't tell me who you were."
"I told you once we were underway! I apologized!" she continued in a hushed tone.
"No, Avelath, not your name. You didn't tell me you were the queen of Ihhazel."
"Haldan, you didn't come all this way thinking I wasn't . . . did you? Didn't your father tell you?"
Haldan shook his head. "He also didn't tell me that we were . . ."
"We were . . . ?"
Haldan suddenly foundered. He couldn't actually say it, could he? Of course he could—betrothed. It wasn't difficult. If only he could just make his mouth understand that. "We were . . . uh . . . not eating until moon-rise."
Avelath regarded him skeptically. "Do you think you'll be able to survive, Master Haldan?"
"Yes," he said. Did she know what he was really wondering?
She half-smirked, rather bemused. "Does this clear up all your concerns?"
Haldan pondered for a moment. "What are those red ribbons for?" he asked, pointing to the ones she held in her hand.
Avelath's smile faded and her gaze fell. "They're mourning bands."
Regretting that he'd asked, Haldan looked down. "I'm sorry," he said in a low voice.
Avelath stood and took his hand. "We all know you tried," she whispered as she began to tie a red ribbon around Haldan's elbow. Although he was surprised, Haldan said nothing as she knotted the ribbon and left the ends hanging loose like the bands around her own arms. He offered her his other arm, and she tied on the other mourning band.
"You're done," she informed him. "I have a little more to do." She retrieved her circlet from the chair where she'd left it and carefully placed it on her head. Haldan quickly rose to his feet and turned his back to her, suddenly aware of the impropriety of the situation again.
"Haldan?" she asked. "What's wrong?"
"In Tarea, it would . . . not be appropriate for me to see you with your hair down," he said. "I guess the constraints are . . . different here."
"Hm," was all that Avelath said for a long time. "Well, you may turn around now. I'm done."
Haldan glanced over his shoulder at her. In her hair, dark red ribbons were woven into several braids which twined around the back of her circlet. Oblivious to Haldan's attention, Avelath eyes were closed as she tipped her head back. Light seemed to gather around her as thickly as mist, ensconcing the more distant reaches of the garden in shadow.
As suddenly as if Haldan shouted at her instead of holding his breath, Avelath looked at him. The light around her seemed to disperse as her concentration was broken. After recovering from her initial shock, Avelath looked rather bemused, a wry smile playing across her lips. "Your modesty is . . . charming," she said, smiling more broadly, "but you might find it inconvenient someday." Avelath started toward the gates of the garden. "Come on, Haldan," she said, managing to sound both appropriately somber and happy at the same time. "We'll feast in your honor."
That night Haldan remembered with amazing clarity—a very clear blur. Whether it was because of too much wine, too much excitement or too little rest, he never figured out. Whenever he tried to recall the feast in his honor, he could recall mostly sitting next to Avelath and enjoying the food very much, along with a few scattered images of what a few of the courses looked like. After the feast came a few images of some sort of ball or dance—he seemed to remember politely declining Avelath's invitation to dance, and the next image that came to mind was Avelath teaching him one of Ihhazel's favorite dances. From what he could recollect, Haldan thought he had enjoyed the dancing, the feast and the entire night. Most of the rest of the evening was slurred together in his memory, flashes of white and grey, smiles and laughter, music and dance, and a delicate circlet, fashioned of bright-silver, with the crescent moon insignia of Ihhazel—and, finally, retiring to his chambers some time after the sun rose. Before falling asleep, the last thought that crossed his mind was that it had been a long day and two nights since he'd last slept.
When he awoke again, the sun was just beginning to set. A flash of panic sparked in his mind as Haldan was thrown back in his memory to the last time he'd awakened from sleep—just before the gilmat ambush, darkness had begun to tinge the sky as it was now. In a split-second, he mentally relived the entire ordeal, ending with Olaren's death. A wave of grief washed over him as he sat up in bed, remembering his failure—and the consequences. Looking around, he saw that he was still in Ihhazel, which surprised him somewhat. After the blur of the night before, he could be sure of nothing in his memory.
Haldan saw that a fresh set of clothing had been laid out for him on one of those elegant, ubiquitous, white chairs. On top of the light grey clothing lay the red mourning bands he'd worn the night before. After dressing, Haldan knelt and tried to perform the mourning ceremony as Avelath had shown him just the night before, although it already seemed like a distant memory. Satisfied with the bands, Haldan set off to find Avelath—to have her check the mourning bands, he told himself. But he wasn't sure if he believed himself.
Lurdol was waiting outside the door to his quarters, busily examining her hands. "The queen requests that you join her for the moon-rise meal," she said without looking at Haldan.
He was slightly tempted to remind her of who he was, but decided against it. "Can I see her before then?"
Lurdol raised her eyes to give him a skeptical look. "Why?"
"I . . . I wanted her to check my mourning bands."
She gave the knots a perfunctory glance. "That will do."
"Is there anything I can do to talk to her before supper?"
"Look, Sir," she began, drawing out the title in derision, "Ihhazel is in the middle of a critical phase. I have been directed to tell you to wait until the moon-rise meal, but if you feel as though you just cannot go another minute without her, the queen is in the winter gardens." Lurdol took a step closer to Haldan with a menacing look in her eyes. "Do not interfere, stranger."
Haldan drew himself up to his full height, secretly wondering if he might want to wear his bow and quiver again today. "Lurdol," he said in his best commanding tone, "you are dismissed." She looked at him incredulously, but marched off without another word.
As she left, Haldan allowed his body to relax, but his mind couldn't. "A critical phase," he repeated pensively as he headed toward the winter gardens.
Haldan reached the garden gates and stopped short. Seated in those ever-present, silvery white chairs were ten Surilt. One, he assumed, would have to be Avelath, but they were all wearing long hooded cloaks—six of the Ihhazel snow cloaks, three cloaks of a grey color, and one heavy cloak of dark red. Haldan heard their whispered conversation with perfect clarity, but the sounds made no sense to him. He heard names he recognized: Olaren, Naren, Avelath, Haldan, Veldun, Roithan. Everything else seemed to be in their native tongue.
After they seemed to finish the story of his arrival in Ihhazel, the group moved on to other things. Haldan could pick out fewer words once they finished the discussion of people that he knew. His attention had begun to wander when he heard a Tarean phrase that pulled him back into focus—"the desert."
"The desert?" Haldan breathed. The council of Surilt seated in the garden suddenly fell silent and Haldan realized his mistake.
One of the white-cloaked Surilt turned around to look at him. He was relieved to find it was Avelath. Upon seeing him at the gates, she sighed, although he couldn't tell if it were a sigh of annoyance or relief. "Rahhish," she called to him, beckoning for him to come. Haldan entered the gardens and Avelath introduced him to her council. He recognized a few from the feast—or at least that was where he was pretty sure he had seen them. The grey-clad Surilt were from Ihhame, the other city of Avelath's kingdom. The Suril in red proved to be Naren. Haldan realized that the cloak matched the mourning bands he wore.
After the introductions were through, Avelath said something to her council in their language. The nine other Surilt stood and, after bowing to Haldan and their queen, quickly left the gardens.
"Was there something you wanted to see me about?" Avelath asked as she motioned for Haldan to have a seat.
"I only wanted to know if I tied the mourning bands properly," he said, holding out his arms for inspection as he sat in the nearest chair.
Avelath examined the knots and nodded approvingly. "Thank you for interrupting," she said with a wry smile.
"Why do you say that?"
She sat back in her chair and tilted her chin up toward the moon. Haldan saw the same effect he had seen the night before—gentle light suddenly gathering around Avelath in a mist. "I needed some time alone," she was saying, but Haldan was only half listening. As she spoke, he reached toward the mist, as if trying to snatch a handful of it. Avelath looked down at what he was doing.
"Oh, no," she said, "you can't catch it."
"It's not ordinary mist. It's light mist."
Haldan looked at her inquisitively.
"From the moonlight," she explained. "The legends say that the ancients used to sing down the light of the Moon. The light, the Moon and the mountains loved the ancients so much that the Moon and the mountains began to bring down the light themselves. That's how it was in the ancient times, and I guess it stayed that way even after the ancients left the mountains. The ancient kingdom was much grander than this one, of course. But, for a Time, the kingdom of Ihhazel was able to benefit from the ancients."
Her explanation raised more questions in Haldan's mind than it answered, but he pushed most of them aside. Above all, three things suddenly stuck out in his mind—Lurdol's "a critical phase," Avelath's "for a Time," and the council's "the desert."
"Why were you discussing the desert in your council?" he asked cautiously.
Avelath turned quickly to face him, a look of surprise in her eyes. "How much did you hear?"
"Just 'the desert,'" he said.
Avelath nodded, as if approving the limited information he'd received. Haldan looked back on the night before. Although no conversations came to mind, he could recall many people referring to "the last"—."the last feast of honor," "the last fortnight," "the last of Ihhazel." At the time, he'd briefly thought it odd before brushing it off, but now the phrases pressed to the front of his thoughts.
"Avelath," he said slowly. "There's something wrong in Ihhazel."
"I know," she said calmly. "I'm the source of it, I guess you could say."
"What did you do?"
"Don't worry yourself too much, Master Haldan. The short history of Ihhazel is coming to an end, and what I did, or didn't do, will soon matter very little."
Haldan sat in stunned silence for a moment. "What do you mean, coming to an end?" he finally managed.
"My people must leave these mountains," she said softly.
"The desert," Haldan breathed, fitting one piece of the puzzle together. "But why are you going to the desert?"
"There is Evil coming, Haldan. Great evil. The Earth knows it."
"No!" Haldan cried, still not fully believing what Avelath said. "The earth can't be afraid," he insisted.
Avelath looked at him blankly. Yes, it could, her expression seemed to say. Of course it could. "Haldan," she began slowly, casting her eyes to the ground. "The Earth's memory is deep and long. The Earth knows the future better than any Ohaf, better than any Tarean."
"But . . . how do you know what the earth feels?"
"All you have to do is ask."
Haldan looked at the ground beneath them. "How do you feel, earth?" he said slowly, feeling foolish.
There was a long silence while he waited for the earth to respond. "You can't say it in Tarean," Avelath said, as if that were obvious.
"Then how am I supposed to speak to it?"
Haldan frowned. "Why would it work in your language and not mine?"
"The Ihhesumil is 'mist praise.' The ancients . . ." Her voice trailed off as she realized it would take too long to explain the relationship between the ancients' speech, the mist, and every other living thing. "It just works," she finally concluded with a shrug.
"So you can speak to the earth?"
Haldan thought about this new information for a moment before cautiously asking, "Can you teach me how?"
Avelath smiled. "I would love to pass on the Ihhesumil traditions to you. What do you want to learn how to say?"
"To ask the earth how it feels."
"Then you say, 'Earth-friend, listen to the singer. Speak: what do you feel?'"
"And how do I say that?"
Avelath took a deep breath and closed her eyes. "Repeat this," she instructed, and Haldan repeated each phrase as she said it.
"Thure-dolil, rahhrule sha esumilaf. Rahhelur: julin hhudere?"
After finishing the command, Haldan sat in breathless silence, waiting for the response of the earth. Finally, there came a voice that was like a deep rumble of a whisper. "Kol, arisho," the whisper spoke more to his mind than to his ears. At the feeling of the voice, Haldan gasped slightly, his wide eyes looking in surprise at Avelath.
"What did the Earth tell you?" she asked gently, hoping he wasn't too frightened by his first encounter with the voice of the Earth.
"Kol, arisho?" Haldan repeated slowly. The shock was quickly wearing off—Haldan began to feel as though the voice he'd heard—or, rather, felt—was a familiar and comforting one.
Avelath nodded. "Distant fear," she interpreted.
"It must mean a shadow of its past fear," Haldan insisted.
"No fear is enough to make the Earth cower once it has passed. The Earth has had time to recover from any past fears. This marks a new fear—the shadow is not one of an old fear, but future darkness."
"Many years from now. Generations and generations."
"In that time, your people could build a great army—they could defend the land!"
"My people would not be safe from this evil—not even within my palace walls. Ihhazel and the mountains will be forever changed. The shadow will always hang over our great home—even your father's kingdom will be affected. My realm will be destroyed." Avelath looked into Haldan's eyes. Looking back, he could see all the pain and sadness in her eyes. The decision had only been reached with much deliberation with her counselors and the consent of her people. It had weighed heavily upon her. "I don't want to abandon Ihhazel to evil. I would defend the forest and the mountains to the last tree and the last rock—to the end of my life. But this evil will be too great for the kingdom of Ihhazel. The city of Moon-Mist would be among the first to fall and then we'd be of no use to anyone. The loss of our lives would be in vain."
"It would be in vain if you fled in the face of a vague and 'distant fear.'"
"Haldan!" Avelath said sharply. "My people are not like yours! We don't have the strength, nor the numbers, nor the heritage of your people."
"If you leave, the land will become lonesome and sad—its desolation will invite the great evil you're afraid of."
"If we stay, we would be quickly defeated—we would become a symbol of the speed and power of a great enemy. 'He destroyed the entire Kingdom of Ihhazel,' it would be said in Tarea and further south, 'in two days. They were preparing their army for hundreds of years. How then could we withstand him?' The people would lose heart."
Haldan almost declared that the people of Tarea would never lose heart in the face of some nebulous fear. "You'd rather destroy any possible hope of resistance for the people?" he asked instead.
Avelath said nothing for a long time. Her shoulders heaved in a sigh and her gaze was distant—and weary. "Haldan, my dear friend," she began in a voice that little more than a whisper, "I've heard all the arguments from all my counselors—I've made the arguments with myself. I've sought counsel from the wisest—Thatara, Grinal, Veldun, others—and everything comes back both yes and no. But the voice of my people has spoken—." Avelath paused. Her eyes shut and her voice was laden with emotion when she spoke again. "We go to the desert, and from there, to the Unknown South."
That was one of the only discussions Haldan remembered with any clarity from his time in Ihhazel. He passed "the last fortnight" with the people of Ihhazel, but the nights blended as the first one had—flashes of white and grey, dancing, singing, mirth, festivals, feasts and Avelath. During the days, if neither of them felt inclined to sleep, she would recount to him tales of the history of Ihhazel. After a few days, she realized that he wasn't learning the history at all, so she began teaching him the songs instead.
She was the only one he saw during the day, then she disappeared into council from sundown to moon-rise. From the moon-rise feast until dawn, Haldan found himself continually surrounded by sound, commotion, Surilt, light, snow and food. Eventually, he stopped trying to do anything—to remember the history, to remember the Surilt he met, to remember the food or the time or the activities or the fun or the diversions. He did his best to enjoy his time there, but even as he lived it, his memory was tainted by the ominous knowledge that it would all end soon.
The only memories he tried to make were those with Avelath, but even then he failed miserably. During the night-long parties, she was able to sing and dance with the best of them, as if nothing ever were nor ever could go wrong. But during the day, Avelath seemed quiet and withdrawn. More than once, Haldan was reasonably sure, she had cried in front of him . . . but he couldn't seem to remember what he did in response . . .
"What day is it?" he asked one day as they sat in the solemn silence of the gardens. The trees and the snow seemed to detect Avelath's somber mood and matched it. She had tried to teach him a song about Velilath, the maiden of the light and an ancestor of Avelath, but eventually she stopped because she simply didn't have the heart to continue.
"The fifteenth day of the Tarean month of Sas," she said. "We're leaving tomorrow."
Haldan's eyes widened in surprise. "Tomorrow? But that's so . . . soon."
"I know," she said softly.
"Avelath, can I ask you something—something about the history of Ihhazel?"
Avelath perked up. "Of course, anything about Ihhazel."
"Who was that . . . Tarean we met on our way here?"
She frowned. "Roithan," she said disdainfully. "I told you, he assassinated the great king, Kazel."
"Kazel was your father."
"And Roithan called you weak and ill-suited to the throne."
"Yes, he did. Thank you for reminding me." There was an edge in her voice.
"I didn't mean to offend you," he said gently. "But I wanted to know . . . more about Roithan. How did a Tarean come to murder the king of Ihhazel?"
"We misplaced our trust. He came to us and we thought he was wise. My father took him onto the council."
"But why did he kill your father?"
Avelath shrugged. "I wish I knew . . . I believe he wanted to rule the kingdom himself. He probably would've killed me if we didn't capture him first."
"Then why was he in the forest that day?" The day of their arrival seemed as though it had been only yesterday—and years ago.
"He escaped," she said as if it were obvious. "He cut off his own hand to escape."
Haldan was too surprised to speak.
"He's still very dangerous, I think, and he still wants power. If a man without a right hand comes to Tarea, capture him immediately. He should never be trusted." Avelath sighed. "There won't be a council tonight, our planning is done. Tonight is the last feast and the last ball of Ihhazel. The last moon-rise . . ." Her voice trailed off and she paused for a moment. "And tomorrow we leave." She rose and looked around the winter garden, eyes full of sadness. "Well, let's get ready," she said softly, turning toward the gates of the garden. "Tonight will be one to remember."
Unfortunately, Haldan was never able to recall anything about it.
The day of the departure came upon Haldan very suddenly. It seemed impossible to believe that an entire fortnight had passed in feasts and dances—and that he could remember so little of it. But as he rode on Sharlith next to Ethur and Avelath, Haldan couldn't naïvely deny that the city of Ihhazel was coming to an end any longer. In front of them and behind them stretched an impressive caravan of Surilt, horses and carts bearing a varied collection of possessions.
To Haldan, the procession was a sad sight, but, judging by Avelath's silent tears, he was probably among the less affected segment of the population.
"When we arrive in Tarea," Haldan said softly as he guided his horse closer to hers, "they'll be celebrating—it's Olas now." Once he'd said it, Haldan realized how feeble his attempt at cheering Avelath was.
"Olas," Avelath repeated absently. "Is that a holiday month?"
Haldan nodded. "Avelath," he said gently, "you really don't have to do this."
Avelath didn't look at him, and didn't say anything. Her only response was a sniff.
"If you won't stay in Ihhazel, then come live in Tarea. You and your people are welcome there."
Avelath looked at Haldan, and he thought that he saw a glimmer of hope in her eyes. "We . . . no, we couldn't impose upon your people."
"It wouldn't be an imposition, I promise you—."
"And where would I go? What would I do? Just come to live in the palace with your family? And after a few years, just conveniently marry you?"
"You would be—."
"No," she said firmly. "I'll marry for love, not convenience. I'll stay with my people—not because I want the power, but because I love my people."
"I didn't mean to propose marriage to you, Avelath," Haldan replied. "Not to say that I would never propose marriage to you, just that—."" He stopped short when Avelath looked at him curiously. Didn't she know they were betrothed?
"I can't stay in Tarea because it isn't where my people have decided to go, and you shouldn't come with us through the desert because . . . there is something else for you . . ." Her voice trailed off and Haldan looked at her, mystified by what she'd said.
"How will I find you?" Haldan asked.
"Why would you need to find us?"
Haldan didn't answer. Perhaps they weren't betrothed—or perhaps Naren had been mistaken. Maybe Avelath was really betrothed to Bertald. That would make more sense, after all, Bertald was the oldest. And if Haldan were really betrothed to Avelath, who would Bertald marry? How could Bertald ever outdo that match?
"Haldan?" Avelath broke into his thoughts. "I'm sure you could just take the road south if you need to find us."
Haldan nodded. It didn't matter anyway. It had to be Bertald. They would announce the betrothal when they reached Tarea—Bertald's birthday was next month. Everyone would celebrate, and Haldan would be stuck there, watching, looking like a fool.
And then Avelath and her people—and maybe even Bertald—would go south, and Haldan would never have to see any of them again. He would never have to see Avelath again. Unfortunately, that idea didn't appeal to him.
Veldun was waiting for the procession of Surilt when they reached the Tarean king's castle. Haldan and Avelath rode at the head of the file as they came to a halt at the steps of the castle. As the Surilt walked through Tarea, they'd attracted the attention of just about every person within hearing distance. The parade passed through the arched outer gateway of the castle, leaving behind the townspeople. Haldan, Avelath and her counsel were allowed to pass through the narrow inner gateway on foot, but the rest of the Surilt had to wait in the lower court.
As they crossed the upper court, Veldun awaited them at the south porch. "Haldan," Veldun called, holding out his arms in a welcoming gesture. Haldan slowly walked up the stairs toward his father. Veldun placed his hands on Haldan's shoulders. "You should go inside now," Veldun said sternly. As he ducked inside, Haldan hoped Avelath hadn't heard his father's quiet reprimand.
Standing just inside the doorway, Haldan could hear his father welcome Avelath and her people warmly. "The Surilt have at last returned to Tarea!" he declared. "Welcome, Avelath, Queen of Ihhazel, and welcome to your people."
"My people and I thank you, King Veldun," she replied.
"Please, be persuaded to stay a night here in Tarea. We will gladly accommodate your people—and we will feast in your honor! Today is the first day of the month of Olas, Over-Holiday, and a time of celebration in Tarea. Now we have a double cause for such festivities."
"Thank you, King Veldun. An offer such as this is too kind to be refused."
"Do come in and rest," Veldun insisted. His voice was coming closer to where Haldan stood. Within a few seconds, Veldun entered the great hall where Haldan waited, Avelath on the arm of the king. As soon as they reached the room, Avelath and Veldun stepped away from one another.
"Welcome back, Avelath," Veldun said, smiling.
"Thank you, Sir, she said, "but my people are still in the lower—."
"We will accommodate them in the lodgings of the lower court."
"And my counsel?"
"West range, upper court."
She nodded. Seeing Avelath in his own home was strange for Haldan. He had become so accustomed to seeing her in all her moonlit glory, but here in the shadowy entryway, her white clothing seemed dull, and she seemed small and young. Standing next to Veldun, the well-respected and long-established king of Tarea, Avelath seemed so insignificant.
"Haldan!" Veldun suddenly called. Haldan stepped forward. "I want to speak with you," he said grim tone. Haldan hung his head. "Avelath," Veldun continued in a gentler tone, "Queen Telca has prepared an apartment for you. She is waiting for you there."
Haldan looked up in time to see the shadow of a frown pass over Avelath's face. Veldun had already turned back to reprimand his son, waiting only for Avelath to leave.
"I am afraid I do not know the way to my quarters," she said softly. Haldan glanced at her. Her expression did not match her tone at all. Avelath, Haldan realized, would not bow to Veldun as everyone else did. Or, at least not as soon as everyone else.
Veldun didn't turn around. "In the east range. Take those stairs," he said, pointing to the narrow staircase in the corner of the great hall.
"Perhaps Master Haldan could show me to my chambers," she suggested gently. Her determined expression still contrasted with her meek words.
Veldun looked at her over his shoulder. "Do you really think that is necessary?" he said with an overtone of impatience before turning back to face his son.
"Is it becoming a queen to be lost at any time?" The edge in her tone made her words seem less innocent than their face value. Veldun realized that she would not back down.
"Of course not," he said kindly, turning to face her. "Prince Haldan would be more than glad to escort you to your rooms. Is that not so, my son?"
Avelath smiled and bowed her head slightly. "Thank you, sirs," she said. Haldan approached her and offered her his arm to escort her across the great hall.
"Return immediately, Haldan," Veldun called after them as they reached the stairs.
"Why is your father angry with you?" Avelath whispered.
"Sh," Haldan whispered even more quietly. "He will hear you."
Avelath nodded. "I had forgotten about the sharp ears of Tarea."
Haldan was silent until they passed through two pairs of heavy wooden doors which slammed shut behind them. "You do know that no one in Tarea stands against my father that way, don't you? No one in Tarea would repeatedly defy him like that."
"No one in Tarea is a monarch in their own right," she replied lightly. Suddenly, she stopped Haldan and pulled him to face her. "I may seem younger than some of your father's horses, but I will not be treated like one," she said emphatically. Her angry expression softened. "You shouldn't be treated like one, either."
Haldan took her arm again and looked away, continuing toward her apartment. "My father is the king of Tarea."
"And I was the queen of Ihhazel. I never treated anyone that way—."
"What about Lurdol?" he interrupted quietly.
"Lurdol challenged the authority of Naren."
Haldan walked in silence for a short time before stopping. "Your chambers, my lady," he said, releasing her arm and bowing stiffly. He straightened and quickly turned to walk back to the great hall where his father awaited him.
He turned on his heel, a wounded look on his face. "Avelath, I am the youngest son of King Veldun. I have no rights, no claim and no inheritance." His voice dropped to a whisper. "I am nothing here. I couldn't even protect two women in my own Valley Forest."
Avelath's gaze fell. "I'm sorry, Haldan, I had no idea—."
"No," he said. "You didn't." With that, he turned and left her alone in the hallway. As he marched back to his father, Haldan suddenly recalled the transformation that had come over Avelath when they reached the snow line in the mountains, and how it different was to see her in her home kingdom. "At least I know how she feels," he muttered to himself.
Avelath wore an Ihhazel gown to the feast that night. Aside from winning the disapproving looks of basically everyone in attendance, Haldan realized there was little remarkable about her dress with its fine-silver trim, or the bright-silver circlet that rested on her head. And yet he was pretty sure he was in love with her anyway.
Haldan was stuck escorting the daughter of some minor local noble from the feast to the ball. He glanced over his shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of Avelath being escorted by his father, or even his mother and his oldest brother, but they were much farther back in the line.
As custom dictated, Haldan had to dance first with the girl he'd escorted. Halfway through the dance, she leaned forward to whisper to Haldan. "Who does that woman think she is?"
"What woman?" Haldan asked lightly, choosing to gaze over the girl's head instead of into her intent eyes.
"That dark-haired woman—that queen."
"Queen Avelath of Ihhazel?" he asked in the same tone.
"Whoever she is, you can see her arms straight through her dress!" she hissed.
"Really? I hadn't noticed." Haldan turned to look at Avelath dancing with Veldun. Avelath was looking back at Haldan, but quickly turned away. "Hm," Haldan mused. "I rather like it."
The noble's daughter gasped.
"What is your name?" he asked, changing the subject.
"Calarel, daughter of Lord Mindoth."
Haldan nodded as if he cared, but didn't look away from Avelath. She never returned his gaze.
As soon as the song ended, Haldan quickly bowed to Calarel before hurrying off.
"Sire!" he said as he came up behind Avelath and Veldun. Veldun turned around and frowned at his son, whom he'd never gotten the chance to reprimand earlier.
"Can they play the trugot?"
Veldun seemed to contemplate the idea. "I suppose," he sighed, then raised his hands above his head and clapped. The murmur of the crowd died instantly. "The trugot!" he called. A cheer rose up from the crowd as the musicians shuffled through their music.
Haldan took Avelath's hand and bowed low to kiss her hand. "May I have this dance, my lady?"
"Oh, Prince Haldan," she began politely, "I am afraid I do not know 'the trugot.'"
Haldan smiled. "I will teach you. Come, please, it is a favorite dance of Tarea."
Avelath remembered telling Haldan nearly the same thing at the first dance in Ihhazel. "If you insist, Prince Haldan," she said, allowing him to lead her into the middle of the floor as the musicians played the introduction to the song.
Haldan quickly pulled Avelath close. As an instinct, Avelath tried to push him away.
"This is how we dance the trugot," he whispered.
Avelath stopped struggling, but still didn't look comfortable. "In Ihhazel, it would not be appropriate for us to dance this way."
Haldan grinned broadly. "Your modesty is charming," he told her, "but you may find it inconvenient one day." Avelath laughed as the dance began.
The trugot was the only dance Haldan had with Avelath that night. According to custom, Avelath should have danced with his older brothers before Haldan got the chance. Haldan knew that his father would certainly lecture him about that when he got the chance, in addition to whatever it was that Veldun had to say before. Haldan didn't care, though. If this were going to be his last ball with Avelath for a long time—perhaps ever—then it was well worth it.
As darkness fell, the musicians put away their instruments. Haldan bowed to his partner—he'd already forgotten her name—then quickly walked to the other end of the hall to join his parents and brother on the dais. Veldun made his usual farewell speech, and made some comment about Avelath in passing, but Haldan wasn't paying attention to him. Instead, he watched the court of Tarea and the people of Ihhazel file out of the hall until only Avelath and a few of her counselors remained with the royal family. As her counselors left, Avelath thanked King Veldun and Queen Telca profusely, then followed Naren and the rest of the council. Veldun offered Telca his arm and the royal couple left their sons alone in the hall, with Veldun casting a meaningful look at the youngest.
"Haldan!" shouted his older brothers in unison, suddenly gathering around him.
"You were with the Surilt all that time?" asked Bertald, the oldest.
"What were they like?" clamored Edrild, who was just a year older than Haldan.
"Were they everything the legends said?" asked Malzen, the middle brother. The three began talking at the same time. Haldan, unused to so much attention from his brothers, took a step back and held up his hands. Bertald, Malzen and Edrild stopped their flood of questions, eagerly awaiting Haldan's answers.
"They're . . . a little like the legends," he said, shrugging.
Haldan held up his hands again and waited for silence. "Would you like to meet Avelath?"
"The queen?" Edrild gasped, glancing at his two older brothers and then back to Haldan. "Really?"
"Right now?" asked Bertald.
Haldan nodded. "If she'll see us now."
Haldan's older brothers followed him to Avelath's chambers. He knocked on the outer door and took a step back, waiting for someone to come to the door. Bertald, Malzen and Edrild all stepped in front of Haldan.
Lurdol came to the door. "Yes, Sirs?" she asked, stepping into the hall to speak with them and closing the door behind her.
"We were hoping to see Queen Avelath."
"Just a moment." Lurdol stepped back into the room and again shut the door, but the Tarean princes heard every word of her conversation.
"Ozelilash Tarea uthuthare elur sha seh."
"The Haldan thu?" At the mention of his name, Haldan's brothers glanced back at him. The door opened again. Lurdol peered out at the princes, then called "che" over her shoulder.
"Rahhish, Haldan," Avelath called from inside the room. Lurdol opened the door a tiny bit wider as Avelath repeated herself in Tarean, "Come."
Surprised, the three older men stepped aside to allow Haldan through. Lurdol followed Haldan into the room and shut the door behind them.
Haldan smiled at Avelath, but she didn't return the unspoken greeting. Haldan suddenly realized how out of place Avelath must have felt—seeing her sitting in that large, rough-hewn wooden chair that was so unlike anything in her home was a sharp contrast from the way he'd always seen her.
"What do you need?" she finally asked.
"My brothers wanted to meet a real Suril," he said.
"Why? Do they think we're magical or something?"
Haldan nodded slowly. "It's what the legends say."
She thought it over a moment before sighing. "Let them come in," Avelath said.
"Wait!" Haldan called to Lurdol. Turning back to Avelath, he suddenly found his courage faltering somewhat. "Avelath . . . if it's all right . . . do you think you could call down the light?"
"Haldan, that's a mountain trick—."
"I know, but you do speak the Ihhesumil, and I thought that . . ." His voice trailed off.
"Go get your brothers," she said softly. As Haldan turned away, he could hear Avelath whisper, "Ihhvelild-dolil, rahhrule sha esumilaf. Rahhish."
Smiling inwardly, Haldan opened the door to allow his brothers, still standing bewildered in the hallway, to come into Avelath's chambers. He watched as his older brothers' eyes grew wide in amazement at seeing the queen of Ihhazel in her ethereal glory. Avelath smiled at the four princes. "Hello," she said softly.
"You speak Tarean?" breathed Edrild in amazement.
"Are you magic?" Malzen blurted out.
Haldan would have glared at Malzen if he'd been paying any attention to him, but Haldan's gaze was fixed on Bertald. There was something in Bertald's eyes that Haldan didn't like at all.
"I am not magic," Avelath said gently, "but I am a 'Suril,' as you would say."
"You're beautiful," Bertald whispered.
Avelath glanced at him, but pretended as though she hadn't heard. "I apologize, my prince, but I do not have the sharp hearing of the Tareans. Could you speak a little louder?"
"I . . . I was just expressing my disappointment because you said you were not magic," Bertald stammered.
"I understand," she replied, then looked at Haldan. His jaw was set and his eyes were burning with anger as he stared at his oldest brother. "Master Haldan," Avelath called, "would you introduce me to your brothers?"
"Of course," he said with an edge in his voice. "Bertald of the Bright Glory-sword is the oldest, then Malzen of the Storm-sword, then Edrild of the Venerable Counsel, and, last of all, me." As he mentioned each of his brothers by name, the princes bowed to Avelath. "Bertald, Malzen and Edrild, this is Queen Avelath of Ihhazel." She bowed her head slightly. "If you will excuse me, my lady," Haldan continued, "I believe I will retire now."
Although Avelath was confused, she waved him away. Once the door had closed behind him, Haldan could hear his middle two brothers clamoring for information about Avelath, Ihhazel and the Surilt. Bertald's voice, however, did not join in with his younger brothers'.
Haldan balled his hands up into tight fists. How could he have been so foolish? How could he ever think that promising a proposal of marriage to Avelath would override the traditions of Tarea? Why didn't he realize that Bertald would certainly fall in love with her? And even though Haldan had loved Avelath longer than Bertald had, because Bertald was the oldest, Bertald would have the right to marry her. And even if Bertald weren't in love with her, Malzen would be next in line, then Edrild. The only way Haldan could ever marry Avelath was if all three of his older brothers declined. And how could they? Avelath was beautiful, powerful, mysterious, extraordinary, strong . . . a queen.
"Master Haldan?" came a voice from behind him. Haldan jumped and turned around. He had been so caught up in his thoughts that he hadn't noticed the outer door of Avelath's chambers open and close, nor had he heard Lurdol's approaching footsteps.
"Yes, Lurdol?" he replied wearily.
"The queen would like to see you in the gardens at moon rise."
Haldan closed his eyes. She would tell him that she could never marry him. She would say she was in love with Bertald, or Malzen, or Edrild. She would say she had never loved him. "No, Lurdol," he said without opening his eyes.
"No? But she is the queen—."
"And I am tired," Haldan said through clenched teeth.
Lurdol took a step back, afraid. "But Master Haldan—."
"No!" he barked. Lurdol fell back a few more steps. Seeing that he had truly scared her, Haldan tried to calm down before continuing. "Tell her to marry Bertald," he said, pronouncing his brother's name with disdain. Lurdol looked at Haldan in bewilderment as he turned and stalked off.
The next morning, the Surilt prepared to leave. Haldan walked through the lower court as the people lashed their horses, loaded their carts and laded their backs with their possessions. They seemed strangely silent to Haldan, who was used to balls and festivals with them. Their dark green Tarean clothing lent to their somber mood.
Avelath was nowhere in sight. Haldan wondered how she had reacted to his message the night before—or if she'd gotten it at all. He wondered if his brothers had heard him—and if they had, whether or not they cared. Probably not, he concluded, since they almost never paid attention to him anyway.
He'd regretted it the instant he'd said it, but he couldn't take it back—not with Lurdol. Not with anyone. Except maybe Avelath, but he wouldn't have said it in the first place if she had been there. Like the entire situation, Haldan's thoughts were a scattered mess.
Looking at the Surilt around him, Haldan wanted more than anything to go with them—with Avelath. There was no need for him in Tarea, nothing to keep him here—except Veldun. Veldun would never consent for Haldan to follow the Surilt. Haldan could almost feel his father's disapproving gaze. Turning around, he saw his father glowering at him from the stairs of the inner gateway. Queen Telca stood next to Veldun, as did Bertald, Edrild and Malzen, all staring down at Haldan. As he ascended the stone steps to take his place with his family, Haldan realized that he probably should have been standing with them for quite some time, and his family had been, most likely, watching him.
As Haldan turned to face the people, golden trumpets played the Tarean fanfare, followed by the Ihhazel fanfare. It didn't sound as beautiful as it did on the silver trumpets in the mountains, Haldan noted as Avelath rode up to the steps on a white horse. She did not dismount as she was supposed to. After a lengthy pause, Veldun slowly walked down the stairs to meet her. Haldan's eyes widened in surprise—his father giving in? "We, the royal family of Tarea," began Veldun, "thank you for staying with us, Queen Avelath."
"It was my pleasure, King Veldun," she said, bowing her head slightly. Her stilted words didn't belie how little of a pleasure it was for her.
"If we were not sure that you would have no need of it, we would wish you luck for a safe journey. But the Surilt have never been short of luck, nor of magic."
"King Veldun, you know well that the Ohaf do not believe in magic."
"No," he said, "but the Tareans do. May you have a safe journey to wherever your destination may lie in the Unknown South."
Haldan watched his father carefully. Veldun was displeased with Avelath's apparent lack of respect for him, and Avelath seemed to feel the same about Veldun. Haldan almost breathed a sigh of relief—no matter how they might feel about Avelath, Haldan's older brothers would never do anything to displease their father. Haldan himself tried not to do anything that would upset Veldun, but Haldan usually failed miserably, despite his best efforts.
In what was for him a great act of humility, King Veldun offered Avelath his hand. Avelath accepted his offered hand, and Veldun helped her down from her horse.
"The Ohaf and I greatly appreciate the hospitality of you and your people, King Veldun," she said, this time in a more sincere tone.
"It was our pleasure to finally host the legendary Surilt," he replied. He bowed to her, and she curtseyed to him before turning to curtsey to Queen Telca. Telca returned the gesture. Instead of bowing first to Avelath, as protocol would have demanded, Bertald quickly stepped down to meet her. Bowing low before Avelath could react, he took her hand and kissed it. Avelath smiled—although her smile seemed a little indulgent to Haldan—and bowed her head to him. Malzen, Edrild and Haldan followed their brother's lead.
"Queen Avelath," Veldun began once his sons had finished paying their homages, "I regret that we do not have a token of our esteem worthy of the people of the Mountains of the Moon."
"Even the smallest portion of the riches of Tarea we could not carry with us," she replied kindly. "I regret only that we do not have anything with which to express our gratitude to you." She quickly glanced over at Haldan as they both remembered the knives she'd given him in Ihhazel.
"May you travel in safety," Veldun bade her. Two Ihhazel palace guards rushed over to help Avelath back onto her horse.
"May you continue to live in peace in Tarea," she replied. "Rushith," she called to her people. The Surilt began their slow march down the trail that led back to the north.
"Wait!" Haldan cried, "they're going the wrong way!"
"Haldan!" Veldun said in a warning tone. Avelath looked back at Haldan and his father with her lips pursed before spurring her horse forward.
"But they're going—." Haldan began again.
"Haldan!" his father snapped at him, "the Surilt are going to Fog Island and the Ring of Trees before they journey south." Haldan nearly objected again, about to mention that they could take the road south and turn east instead of having to retrace their trail, but saw Veldun's glare and stopped short.
Farewell, Avelath, Haldan thought.
"Farewell, Haldan," she whispered. Avelath glanced back at Haldan in time to see King Veldun clamp a firm hand onto the shoulder of his youngest son and march him into the castle. Haldan was in trouble. And Avelath would not be there to save him this time.
As the caravan came to a stop for the night, Avelath looked around the dimly-lit forest. She missed Ihhazel already, and now they would have to find some way for all of the Ohaf to camp along the trail or in the dense forest, or perhaps along the banks of the nearby river . . . The river whose tributaries ran through Ihhazel. In the back of her mind, Avelath was somewhat glad that her people had consented to make this journey instead of her making an arbitrary decision. At least they were all in it together.
"Avelath Zelathild," called Thanash, a palace guard, as he rode up on his horse. She turned to acknowledge him. "Ewelaf thish," announced Thanash.
Avelath nodded—a rider was approaching. She turned to Naren. "Naren, rahhith sha ewelaf." Sending Naren to investigate the rider seemed like a safe alternative. Her counselor rode off with the palace guard and returned in a few moments.
"Ze ewelaf ke thu?" she asked. They had not been gone long enough to have spoken with a rider, so Avelath concluded the rider was gone.
"Ke, ewelaf ze thu," Naren replied. He explained that they found the rider, injured and unarmed—and the rider had requested to see Avelath. Alone.
Avelath looked uneasily at Thanash. He nodded to her, and she began down the trail on foot to meet the stranger.
It was not far to where the injured rider waited. Avelath stopped as soon as she saw him, careful to keep her distance. "Hail!" she called, assuming any rider in the Valley Forest must speak Tarean.
"Hail," replied the rider. "Come closer, Avelath."
Avelath hesitated before cautiously taking a few steps forward. She didn't like the idea of this stranger knowing who she was. The only person that came to her mind was Roithan, but she couldn't tell for certain in the twilight with the rider's dark hood drawn over his head. "I won't come any closer," she said firmly. The rider started towards her.
"Stop where you are!" Avelath commanded forcefully. The rider only paused for a brief second before continuing toward her.
"Ses rahhazena!" she shouted. Out of nowhere, an arrow imbedded itself in the trail at the rider's feet.
"Avelath, it's me!" cried the rider, throwing back his hood.
"Haldan?" Avelath exclaimed. "What are you doing here?"
Haldan started forward, but stopped himself before he could take a step. He looked around nervously, as if expecting another arrow to come sailing from the trees.
"Thanash," Avelath called, looking up at the trees, "rahhalen afana sehor. Ushe odolil." Haldan heard something fall from a tree and land in the underbrush beside the trail. Within seconds, an Ohaf archer stepped onto the path. "Haldan, this is the head of my palace guards, Thanash. Thanash," she continued, turning to the Ohaf man, "Eno the Haldan Zelilash."
Thanash bowed to Haldan. "She kachudere."
"He says he's sorry," Avelath informed him before turning to Thanash. "Haldan Zelilash thelurke Ihhesumil."
"With, atha ses vahelo," said Thanash.
"Seh wahelo," Avelath nodded to him, and Thanash turned and walked down the path. Avelath turned back to Haldan. "Thanash is going back to camp. What are you doing here?" she repeated her earlier question.
"I've come to . . . come with you," he said lamely. "If you'll let me."
"Of course I'll let you," she said slowly. There was something he wasn't telling her. Something about his father.
Haldan tried to respond to her apparent reluctance. "I'll explain everything later," he promised.
Avelath nodded slowly, then turned and started to follow Thanash back to camp. After a moment's hesitation, Haldan grabbed his horse's reins and followed Avelath.
"I thought they said you were injured," Avelath said, recalling the words of her counselor and chief guard.
"I . . . uh . . . made it seem that way."
"I see." Avelath walked a few steps in silence before speaking again. "Haldan, when we left Ihhazel, I told you that you should stay in Tarea."
"Yes, I know—but why?" he replied.
She shrugged. "I don't know yet." Avelath paused and turned around to wait for him to catch up to her. "You may be changing history," she informed him gravely as they began to walk again.
"I've never had any influence on history," Haldan muttered with a note of bitterness.
"But you're the son of the longest-reigning king in the history of Tarea."
"The youngest son," Haldan corrected her.
Avelath didn't detect a difference. "But still the son."
"You don't have any brothers or sisters, do you." It was not a question.
"No," she said slowly. "Why?"
Haldan sighed. "In Tarea, everything relies upon birth order. Bertald is the oldest, and he will always have the first choice—the best choice. After Bertald is Malzen, and whatever Malzen doesn't want, Edrild gets. If there's anything left over, then it comes to me."
"The first choice of what?"
"Everything—toys, pets, food, horses, weapons—."
"Dance partners?" Avelath interjected.
Haldan stopped short. "Yes," he said quietly.
"So you broke protocol, then, when you asked me to dance that night?"
He nodded curtly.
Avelath suddenly turned to look at him. As clearly as if she were remembering it herself, she could see the face of King Veldun in her mind, red and distorted with rage. She flinched as the image of the king prepared to shout, but at least in her mind no sound accompanied the picture. She certainly didn't envy the full-sound version Haldan was doubtlessly viewing in his mind.
Haldan shook his head as if to shake off the unwelcome recollection, releasing Avelath from the memory as well. She gasped loudly, shock registering on her face before she could stop it. Haldan looked back in alarm. "Are you all right, Avelath?"
"Yes, of course." Sometime during the memory, they had slowed to a stop, so Avelath began to walk briskly down the path.
"Last choice of wives, too," Haldan tried to continue their almost-forgotten conversation.
Avelath glanced at him wordlessly. Was he implying something?
"But I guess that should be expected," he pushed onward with a shrug, "because they choose our wives when we're born."
"So you've spent your whole life knowing who you'd marry?"
Haldan shook his head. "They don't tell us who we're betrothed to until our thirtieth birthday, and then we're expected to marry whoever it is within a year."
"When does Bertald turn thirty?"
Haldan's thought was as clear to Avelath as if he'd spoken it—so she is betrothed to Bertald. His tone seemed . . . disappointed? "In four days."
"And you're going to miss it?" Avelath tried to hide her surprise at Haldan's thought. A queen of Ihhazel, betrothed? Not in this lifetime.
Haldan looked as though he were just realizing that he would not be in Tarea for Bertald's birthday celebration. "I guess so."
"Well, if you're sure you want to come with us, you're welcome to join us," Avelath invited again. She knew he would not turn down the offer—the image of King Veldun raging at his son was burned too brightly upon both of their minds for either one of them to seriously think Haldan would return to Tarea.
"I'm certain," he said firmly.
The Ohaf camp was now visible—scattered fires casting their light upon tents among the trees all along the riverbank. "Is our camp suitable?" she asked.
"I'm sure it's more than suitable," he replied, his voice and eyes distant. Suddenly, he halted and tensed. His horse, seeming to sense his master's thoughts, stopped as well.
Avelath stopped and watched him in silent concern for a moment. "Do you see something?" she whispered.
Haldan stood still, watching something in the dark trees. Avelath tried to follow his gaze, but could make out nothing in the dark. With a sigh, Haldan relaxed. "Nothing," he said quietly. "Just a night-bird."
Avelath relaxed as well, releasing a breath she didn't know she'd been holding. She didn't want to live through another gilmat attack, even with Thanash and all of her palace guards with her. "Come," she said, "let's go sit by a fire. We can . . . talk." She took care to laden her last word with meaning. Haldan reluctantly followed her as she made her way through the trees toward one of the small fires.
Naren sat by the fire, speaking in low tones with two of Avelath's other counselors, Duni-ash and Thurvahhe, both from Ihhame. Avelath greeted them. "Eze." She nodded at Haldan. "Haldan Zelilash de ewelaf."
"You're going to have to teach me the Ihhesumil," Haldan whispered behind her.
Avelath glanced over her shoulder at him. "Lesson one—'eze' is a greeting."
"Eze," Haldan said to the three counselors, bowing slightly.
"Eze, Masder Haldan," Naren replied with a smile.
"Naren," Avelath began, "have you been using that awful accent all this time?"
By the uneven light of the fire, Naren appeared to be embarrassed.
"I am sure Master Haldan will think no less of you if you speak in a manner clear enough for him to understand," she said gently.
"I apologize, Master Haldan," Naren said, completely dropping the thick Ihhazel accent.
"You are forgiven," he nodded.
Avelath knelt on the ground beside the fire. "Sed ruhhazena," she called. Two attendants quickly appeared. Avelath pointed first to Haldan's horse, then to the corral where the Ohaf had placed their horses for the night. The two attendants took Haldan's horse to the corral, and Haldan sat on the ground next to Avelath.
Avelath glanced skyward and sighed. The Moon was not yet up, and she wanted to see it very badly. "Naren, Thurvahhe, Duni-ash, dore ruhhith."
The three counselors bowed their heads to Avelath. "Che, zelathild-or," Naren said softly as the counselors rose and walked away from the fire.
"Dore ruhhith?" Haldan repeated. "Che zelathild-or?"
"I said, 'Please go,' and Naren said, 'Yes, my queen.'"
Haldan sighed in disappointment. "It's going to take me a long time to learn the Ihhesumil."
Avelath looked at him curiously. "How long do you think you'll be with us?" she asked.
Haldan was silent for a moment. The image of the enraged Veldun flashed in Avelath's mind as Haldan recalled it, then quickly pushed it away. "I . . . don't know. Maybe to the end of my days."
Avelath silently considered his answer. After what seemed like a long time, she finally spoke again, this time in a whisper. "What did your father do?"
"What he always does," Haldan said. Avelath could tell that the light note in his voice was forced.
"What did he say?"
Haldan closed his eyes, but whether it was in shame, frustration or exhaustion Avelath couldn't decide. "Is it really that important to you?"
"It's why you're here," she replied. "If it's that important to you, then why shouldn't it be that important to me?"
"It's not like we're married," Haldan said bitterly, "or betrothed. All that matters is that I'm here to escort the Surilt."
Avelath recoiled inwardly, sorry she'd asked. "Fine," she said softly. "But if you want to come with us, please refer to us as the Ohaf."
"Che, zelathild-or," Haldan replied curtly as he rose to his feet. "Where will I sleep?"
"Please, Haldan, sit." Her command was murmured as the two attendants finally returned from corralling Haldan's horse. The attendants bowed to Avelath before continuing on their way back to their tents.
Haldan reluctantly seated himself by the dying fire once more, sighing impatiently. "Where is Lurdol?" he asked, looking after the two attendants that he didn't recognize.
"You don't know?" Avelath asked, a hint of surprise in her voice.
"No," Haldan said slowly, "should I?"
Avelath shrugged. "No one has seen her since we left your father's castle this morning. I thought she might have stayed there."
Haldan shook his head, "I didn't see her, and I didn't see her on the path here, either."
Avelath frowned. Where had her attendant gone—and why? "Naren," Avelath called, "Dore rahhazena Haldan."
Naren crawled out of one of the small tents nearby. "Do you need something, Master Haldan?"
Haldan appeared confused, so Avelath spoke for him. "Somewhere to sleep."
"There is an extra tent right there," Naren replied, pointing. "We thought the rider might join us."
"Yes, he did," Avelath replied. "Master Haldan has decided to accompany us."
Naren seemed glad for that news. "Oh, that is very nice of you, Master Haldan."
In the light of the dying coals, Avelath saw Haldan bow slightly to Naren before walking toward the indicated extra tent. "Good night, zelathild-or," Haldan called over his shoulder.
"Shahh kelil," she said.
"Shahh kelil," he repeated with some effort before crawling into his tent.
Avelath sat by the weakly glowing embers for what felt like a long time. The Moon rose, and sent a few brave shafts of light through the leaves to the forest floor, but Avelath was too absorbed in her thoughts to notice.
Haldan had joined them—Veldun had said something to him. As wise as Veldun could be, when it came to dealing with people, he only accepted one behavior from others—submission . . . Lurdol was gone. She'd resented Avelath from the first day Haldan had arrived in Ihhazel—the day Avelath had reprimanded her for disrespecting Naren . . . There was something foreboding about the disappearance of her attendant.
Avelath suddenly realized she was cold. Glancing at the fire, she discovered that it was long dead. She noticed the beams of moonlight as a wave of drowsiness swept over her. Trying not to think any more, she walked to her tent and crawled inside.
She laid there, awake, avoiding thought, for what seemed like hours before finally drifting off to disquieted sleep.
His lungs were bursting as he tried to gulp down enough air to satisfy his exhausted body. His hand hurt for some reason. Glancing down at his hand, he remembered that he'd lost it years ago and cursed the phantom pains that still plagued him. Still, he had his life, which was more than he could say for that fool Kazel.
At that thought, Roithan smiled between gasps. So Avelath was still alive. That was rather surprising. He'd always figured she would end up casting one too many spells and follow her mother to the World Beyond.
Her mother . . . Roithan smiled again. Velilath was a unique beauty, even among Suril women. If Roithan's plans hadn't gone so horribly awry, Avelath would be disposed of, Roithan would be married to Velilath now and ruler of the most powerful people on the face of the planet.
Roithan was beginning to catch his breath now, and leaned against a tree with a sigh. "Nhakach!" he heard a woman's far away voice shout. "Gilm!"
He snorted in derision and rolled his eyes. The threats of Avelath amounted to nothing. She may be a good spell-singer, but her powers would come to nothing when the day came that he could confront her with a sword. He knew the girl, her weaknesses, her strengths—and he knew that his final victory over her would be almost too swift to enjoy.
"You will die this hundred-day, Roithan the traitor!" came Avelath's voice again.
"Naïve girl," he muttered to himself. "A vow like that should not be made so lightly."
And she had Prince Haldan of Tarea with her. That would make for an interesting couple. The two weakest members of the royal families to make it to adulthood, together? That could be a dangerous match for both of their kingdoms.
As Roithan pondered this, he moved further into the forest, away from the angry couple who'd pursued him. They would definitely be a dangerous match for both of their kingdoms—and the best thing to happen to Roithan in three years.
With a smile on his face, Roithan—the traitor, as Avelath called him—started to walk a little more quickly. After three years of hiding, he would be glad to return to the "civilized" world, and it was still a few days' journey to the nearest Tarean city.
Four days, in fact. He arrived on the outskirts of a small town as the sun reached its peak. In his left hand—his only hand, as he reminded himself bitterly—he clutched the letter that would finally serve him. The letter was nearly four years old now, but Roithan had cared for it as if his life depended on it—and it did.
He fingered the waxy seal that was still in place. The single Ihhesumil character imprinted in the seal meant nothing to Roithan, but he'd been told repeatedly that it stood for Kazel.
"I could have picked a more intelligent man to write my letter of recommend," Roithan told himself, "but none was better suited to my plan." He winced at the thought of his original plan, and how it had gone awry so badly. It made his right hand, gone though it was, ache once again with phantom pains. Glancing again at the letter, Roithan smiled through his pain. "At least I had foresight enough to make a secondary plan."
Composing his expression into one of enigmatic wisdom, Roithan straightened his brown-grey cape and brushed invisible dirt from his sleeves. He wasn't just returning to civilization, he was returning to high society. Glad that he'd stopped that morning to wash in the river and change into the only set of formal clothing he had, Roithan stepped onto the path. Today, his life would begin again. Today, he would begin his revenge.
Roithan reached the town gates—although why the town had gates when it had no walls was beyond him. "Gatekeep!" Roithan commanded authoritatively. "Direct me to the lord of this town."
The keeper of the gate, sitting heavily in a coarse wooden chair, looked up at Roithan from his handicraft—a rough sketch of some sort. The gatekeeper's look was disrespectful and sardonic, but Roithan didn't have time to deal with him properly.
"Direct me to the lord of this town," Roithan repeated.
The gatekeeper pointed down the path behind him and turned back to his drawing.
"And what is the name of the lord of this town?"
"Mindoth," the gatekeeper replied in a monotone.
Roithan strode quickly through the wooden arch that defined the "gate" and headed down the path. Was there nothing made of stone in this entire land? He almost missed the clear and beautiful lines of Ihhazel. He'd forgotten how rough and coarse a Tarean town could be.
The castle of Mindoth was made of stone, to Roithan's relief. He was rather dismayed, however, to see how squat the structure was, no taller than the trees surrounding the town. At least he wouldn't be spending much time here.
"You there!" he shouted at a guard. The guard looked at him with the same look the gatekeeper had used—disrespect bordering on impatience. "You shall commend me to your lord at once!"
The guard wordlessly dropped the spear he held and walked through the main door of the castle. After a few moments, the guard returned. "What business do you have with Lord Mindoth, stranger?"
"I am Roithan, most recently of the Grand Council of Ihhazel. I have come to seek a position in the court of your lord because I wish to live among the Tareans once more." The guard looked at him skeptically. Roithan suddenly remembered that nearly all Tareans believed that Ihhazel was a mythical place. "I have a letter of recommend from King Kazel of Ihhazel," he added, offering the letter to the guard. The guard took the letter and walked back into the castle.
"Come," the guard said upon his return, "Lord Mindoth wishes to speak with you."
Roithan followed the guard in silence as they made their way to the main hall, where Lord Mindoth awaited them.
"Welcome, Roithan of the Grand Council of Ihhazel," said Mindoth, waving away the guard.
Roithan bowed respectfully.
"You have come at the perfect time. Our steward has just left us, and I am about to go to the capital city of Tarea for the celebrations of Olas."
Roithan nodded reverentially. "Of course, you must see the king in our Over-Holiday month," he said.
"Precisely." Mindoth paused to glance at the letter he held in his hand. "You come very highly recommended, however, I have never met King Kazel."
"The Surilt seldom leave their mountain home."
"How am I to be certain that Surilt even exist?"
Roithan had anticipated the question. He drew his sword and presented it to Mindoth. Mindoth looked over the surface. It was engraved with foreign characters and made of bright-silver. Upon the hilt was the crescent moon insignia which appeared on both the seal of the letter and below the signature of King Kazel.
"Well, I do not believe you could fashion such a sword and invent a culture, even if they are based upon our myths. Furthermore, we are in desperate need. I leave in less than a fortnight for the capital city."
"I would understand your reticence to take me on, if you should chose not to do so," Roithan said respectfully. If he had to continue this belly-scraping act much longer, he completely lose patience with this man.
Mindoth scrutinized Roithan. "If I may ask, what happened?" Mindoth gestured towards Roithan's right arm.
Again, Roithan had anticipated the question. "Actually, the loss of my right hand is how I came into the service of King Kazel. A wolf sprang at the king, and I threw out my hand to save him. I had to contend with the wolf, and he fought fiercely, but King Kazel was safe, and that was all that was important. And after that day, he took me onto his Grand Council. My lord sir," Roithan lowered his voice slightly, adding an inflection of deference, "I would gladly do the same for you if I were a part of your court in the smallest role."
Mindoth pondered the situation carefully for a long moment. "You shall be my steward temporarily, at least. You will be in charge of the town before I go in order for me to judge how well you execute your duties. If I am pleased, then you will be my steward when I leave for Tarea."
"Thank you, my lord sir," Roithan bowed low.
"Enough of this scraping," Mindoth said. "If you're to be my steward, we must be able to speak plainly."
"Now, I leave in less than a fortnight, so we'll begin at once." Mindoth sighed. "I wish I didn't have to go to Tarea; I really prefer staying here. Now, while I am away . . ."
Roithan pretended to listen attentively to Mindoth's directives until a young Tarean woman walked in.
"Father," she interrupted him mid-sentence, "someone has taken my other fine silk glove." She frowned petulantly and held up one long glove as evidence.
"Calarel," Mindoth said patiently, "this is Roithan. He is to be the steward of the town while we are in Tarea for Olas. Roithan, this is my daughter, Calarel."
Calarel smirked a greeting at Roithan before continuing. "Father, you must check all of the guards' quarters at once!"
"Daughter, I don't think your fine silk glove would fit any of the guards. Why don't you go check your room first?"
"Calarel," he said firmly. "Have Vilta help you search your room. I'm certain you'll find your glove before we have to leave."
Without another word, Calarel turned and flounced from the room.
"I apologize for my daughter," Mindoth said to Roithan.
Roithan smiled and nodded. "She is still young."
"That's no excuse." Mindoth shook his head. "She's very agitated because Prince Haldan is going to escort her at the banquets and balls of Olas. That's the biggest reason we're attending Olas in Tarea."
"It is quite an honor," Roithan remarked.
Mindoth's expression showed that he didn't fully agree. "He's not Bertald or Malzen, or even Edrild."
Roithan nodded sympathetically. "I understand your disappointment—but Haldan is still a prince," he offered.
"Very true. Come, let me show you around the grounds."
Just under a month after Roithan arrived in his town, Lord Mindoth returned to his home to find everything in perfect order. "You are the best steward we have ever had in Mindoth!" he praised.
Roithan smiled modestly. "Did you enjoy your holiday in Tarea?"
"Somewhat," Mindoth said, brushing past Roithan to go into the castle. Calarel ascended the stairs to where Roithan stood. At her side was a woman in a white cloak with her hood drawn down over her face.
"Miss Calarel," Roithan greeted with a respectful nod. "Did you enjoy being escorted by Prince Haldan?"
Calarel frowned. "Yes," she said slowly. "For the first two nights. But on the third day, Prince Haldan disappeared and no one has seen him since. That's why Father insisted we return early, because there was no sense in staying if Prince Haldan wouldn't even be there." Roithan raised an eyebrow, but Calarel continued talking. "There were real Surilt at the holiday," she said in a whisper, casting a furtive glance at the woman beside her. "You should have seen their queen," she hissed. "You could see her arms through the sleeves of her dress. It was the biggest scandal the whole week."
Roithan frowned disapprovingly. "How immodest," he agreed solemnly.
"This Suril woman has returned with us," Calarel said in full voice, gesturing to the woman in white. "She was an attendant of the queen," Calarel added in a whisper, "but when I told her that you were our steward, she said that she wanted to speak with you very badly."
Roithan tried not to show the fear that suddenly began to gnaw at his stomach. Had Avelath been intelligent enough to send a spy to kill him? "Greetings, Madame Suril," Roithan attempted, holding out his hand to her.
The woman accepted his offered hand with one hand and cast back her hood with the other. "Greetings, Roithan," she said with a smirk.
"Lurdol?" Roithan said cautiously. "About what topic did you so greatly desire to speak with me?"
"It is an extremely delicate topic, about Queen Avelath. May we discuss this in private?"
"Of course," he replied, his guard still up. "But I am afraid that it may have to wait a little while."
Lurdol nodded in agreement. "Later will be fine—but we must speak of this today."
"As you wish, Lurdol."
Just after the meal that evening, there came a knock at the door to Lurdol's quarters. She found a guard waiting on the other side of the door.
"The steward wishes to see you now," announced the guard.
Lurdol gave an assenting nod and silently followed the guard to Roithan's chambers. "You may go," she informed the guard as he opened the door for her.
"No," Roithan called from inside the room, "stay."
The guard looked torn. Lurdol scowled at him. "Rahhith," she hissed menacingly. The guard startled and quickly backed away. Lurdol slipped into the room and shut the door behind her.
She turned around to find the tip of a sword pointed at her. "Roithan," Lurdol said impatiently, "this is no time for games." She swatted the flat side of the sword and it clattered to the ground.
"What have you come for, Lurdol?"
Lurdol half-smiled, half-sneered at him. Although he tried to keep the fear from registering in his eyes or thoughts, he could not hide it from Lurdol. "No, Roithan, you have no need to fear. I haven't come to kill you—I would never go on such an errand for Avelath."
Roithan regarded her skeptically. "You are the queen's head attendant."
"And if she were to treat me as such, then we would not have a problem."
"Problem?" Roithan repeated, his interest raised. "Why have you come here?"
Lurdol paused. Roithan had been a member of the council, just like Naren. He probably wouldn't understand how offensive it was to Lurdol that she had to treat Naren as a superior, nor that Avelath had reprimanded her for being disrespectful to Naren. "She struck me," Lurdol cried.
Roithan, who'd leaned forward to hear her answer, straightened in surprise. "Avelath struck you?" Lurdol looked away and nodded. "Why have you come here?" Roithan repeated.
"Because I heard you were here. And I know you want revenge on Avelath."
Roithan pondered her words for a moment. "You're saying you want a part in that revenge."
"And what role would you play?"
Lurdol looked at him as if he were stupid. "I am one of the Ohaf. You know what role any Ohaf can play."
"You're going to use magic?"
She rolled her eyes. "It's not magic, Roithan—you know that."
"The Ohaf may say that, but I have seen more of their doings than any other Tarean, and I say more emphatically than them all that it is magic."
"Whatever you may say about what we do, it is your choice as to whether you will have that power working for you."
Roithan smiled. "Of course I would—but can I trust you?"
"She struck me!" Lurdol shouted at the top of her voice. "There is no place for such violence in the Ohaf society! The people would be better off without her!"
"Be calm, Lurdol. Your anger will have its day."
Before Lurdol could respond, there was a knock on the door. "Enter," Roithan called.
A guard stepped into the room. "Master Roithan, Lord Mindoth wishes to see you. He must make another trip to the capital city in a fortnight for a meeting with the king."
Roithan glanced at Lurdol, his eyes shining with excitement. "Guard," began Roithan, gesturing to himself and Lurdol, "let us go for an audience with Lord Mindoth to discuss this trip now. I believe I have a proposition that would allow him to stay in his beloved town."
Lurdol and Roithan followed the guard to the main hall where Lord Mindoth awaited them. Mindoth appeared slightly surprised to see Lurdol with his steward, but did not make any comment.
"Master Roithan," announced the guard, "with a proposition to allow Lord Mindoth to remain in the town."
As Mindoth rose to his feet, the expression on his face indicated his curiosity. "You've devised some method by which I might remain here?"
Roithan nodded. "I am your steward, my lord, and I could act as a representative to the king, of both you and our town."
"I do appreciate the sentiment, Roithan, but the king and I have some business to discuss."
"My lord, I have been administering in your business here for almost a month now, since before you left for Tarea. Could I not represent the town of Mindoth well?"
"I have no doubts in you, Roithan," Mindoth said. "However, the king and I have made agreements and had much discussion in the past."
"Lord Mindoth," Roithan began, "I know that you do not want to leave your town. I am offering you the opportunity to remain here and tend to the people and the land which you love."
"Sir, you could teach me the things which I should know to represent you in Tarea, just as you have taught me the things which I should know to represent you here."
Mindoth paused, mentally deliberating. "You are indeed wise, Master Roithan," Mindoth said slowly. "We will begin in the morning. You are dismissed."
Roithan bowed and turned to leave. "Oh, Lord Mindoth?"
"I would like . . . ten or so men to accompany us."
"Oh, is Madame Lurdol journeying with you?"
Roithan looked at Lurdol. "Oh, yes," she said belatedly.
"You may have a retinue of whatever size you like."
"Nine will suffice, Lord Mindoth," Roithan said. "I wouldn't want to render the town short-handed in anyway."
Mindoth smiled at his steward as Roithan turned and left the hall with Lurdol following him.
"And what was the purpose of that interview?" Lurdol asked as she caught up to Roithan.
Roithan abruptly stopped walking and whirled around to face her. "For now," he instructed her, "you will simply have to trust me."
"Trust you?" Lurdol balked. "Do you expect everyone to be dazzled by your bending and scraping like that fool Mindoth?" She glanced around, but there was no one within hearing range.
"No, 'that fool Mindoth' is the only one I'll have to obtain by flattery. You, my dear Lurdol, will cooperate because I'll help you exact your revenge on Avelath."
"My revenge? I thought you wanted vengeance upon her, too."
"Oh, let me assure you, I will exact my own kind of revenge on Avelath." To emphasize his point, Roithan shook the stump of his right arm at her. "But she will only be a step on the path for me—a path that you will have to follow me down, for now."
"Roithan, there is no reason to keep a secret from me—."
"I have my own reasons for everything I do, and for my own reasons I will not explain exactly what will happen until we are on underway with our retinue." With that, Roithan turned and stalked off, leaving Lurdol behind to scowl at his retreating figure.
Haldan glanced back at Avelath and the rest of the Ohaf behind her. "We're almost to Fog Island," he informed her.
Avelath nodded as she came even with him. "We'll stop when we reach Safna Ohaheth."
"What's that?" he asked absently, turning to look toward the bright sunlight that awaited them at the edge of the forest.
"The Ring of Trees."
Haldan looked at Avelath in alarm. "We're going to go on Fog Island?"
"Of course," Avelath said, shrugging. "We have to get to the Ring of Trees."
"But Fog Island is evil," Haldan murmured.
"Evil?" Avelath asked gravely, looking towards him. He turned to assure her that it was, but saw the amused look on her face and realized she was mocking him. "Thure-hhashil Ihhil—Fog Island is no more evil than you are, Haldan. We'll be perfectly safe."
Haldan said nothing, but silently recalled every story he could about travelers who'd journeyed to Fog Island, never to be heard of again.
"Such as?" Avelath asked aloud.
"Catharch the Conquerer, Myryl and Aryl the Fairest, Armica—wait, what do you mean 'such as'?"
Avelath just stared straight ahead.
"How did you know what I was thinking?" Haldan demanded.
"Tareans are very powerful," Avelath said quietly. "Their thoughts overpower ours. They project their thoughts into our minds."
"What do you mean 'project our thoughts'? Are you saying that you can read my mind?"
Avelath shook her head and turned her innocent-looking grey eyes upon him. "I can't help it—you project your thoughts into my mind."
"So . . . you've always known what I've been thinking?"
Avelath faltered before forcing herself to speak. "No—no, sometimes, we can block your thoughts from our minds."
"Oh, well, that's very reassuring," Haldan said sarcastically. He looked down the path—they were nearly to the edge of the forest, and the north fork of the river. Fog Island stood right across the river from them.
"Sometimes," Avelath began gently. Haldan tried cut her off with an impatient sigh, but she continued to speak. "Perhaps the Tareans you were thinking of—Catharch, Myryl, the rest—came to live on Fog Island, and that's why they never returned."
Haldan considered her idea for a moment. "Perhaps," he conceded. "But why do we have to go to the Ring of Trees?"
"It's a place of learning for the Ohaf," Avelath explained. "And besides that, we could stand the rest."
Haldan agreed heartily, but tried not to let Avelath detect how tired he was. "That's probably a good idea," was all that he said.
"Perhaps we'll have a celebration when we stop. We should arrive some time tomorrow morning—what day is it today?"
He thought for a moment. "The eleventh of Olas. It's been a fortnight since we reached Tarea."
"And thirty-one days since we first left there," Avelath murmured.
Haldan nodded dumbly, amazed that so much could have happened in just over a month and a half.
They reached the edge of the forest and Haldan lifted a hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the sun. Avelath slipped down from her horse and began to lead it toward the river's edge.
"Avelath, look!" Haldan called, pointing toward the island. Wind whipped the high grass covering the island, throwing dirt and seeds high into the air.
"I'll take care of it," she replied lightly as she set foot on the stone bridge. "Come on." She gestured for Haldan and the rest of the Ohaf to follow her. Reluctantly, Haldan urged his horse onward.
"Owhu-dolil," Avelath began once she'd set foot on the island, "ruhhrule sha esumilaf. Ruhhuderun!" She raised her hands and slowly lowered them in a calming gesture. The winds obediently slowed until they were nothing more than a gentle breeze. "Let's go," Avelath called to Haldan, who was still waiting at the foot of the bridge. "We still have a way to travel before we can rest." Looking southward, the Ring of Trees was visible even at that distance. The trees were the only thing that dared to rise above the high grass and the flat land of the island.
As Avelath predicted, they reached the Ring of Trees late the next morning. The Ohaf, glad for a rest, began to make camp. Haldan looked around at the Ohaf. For the first time in a very long time, the people were smiling and laughing. Their lighter mood reminded Haldan of the way he'd seen them in Ihhazel. He frowned slightly at that memory. The people had been so much more than that they were now—vagabonds, having cast themselves out of their home, wandering in search of a better place to live.
Avelath and her council seemed to be the only Ohaf not enjoying the stop. Haldan observed them from a distance as they quietly discussed something, frequently looking toward the Ring of Trees. He had not yet learned enough of the Ihhesumil to be able to understand what they were saying. Finally, after the matter seemed settled, the council members turned and headed to where the rest of their people stood and waited. The counselors smiled at the other Ohaf, but Avelath's expression was somber and her eyes were distant.
"Avelath?" Haldan began, walking over to where she still stood, alone now that the council had gone to rejoin the people.
She shook her head as if she'd been remembering something, then looked at Haldan and forced herself to smile. "Oh, hello, Haldan—eze."
"Eze," he said. "What were you discussing with the council?"
Avelath shrugged. "Safna Ohaheth, of course," she replied lightly, gesturing to the trees behind her.
"Safna Ohaheth is a place of learning, you said?"
"Did I say that?" Avelath paused to think about it. "Yes," she concluded, "it is."
"What do you mean a place of learning?"
Avelath sighed. "I thought I told you all this in Ihhazel," she said.
"I wasn't listening," Haldan said lamely.
"Well, near the beginning of their reign, all monarchs of Ihhazel are supposed to come to Safna Ohaheth to learn the history and the future of the world."
"The entire world?"
"But how do you do that?" he asked.
"I'm not exactly sure how it happens. All that I know is that the king or queen who goes there spends a few days in the ring, and then he or she understands the world, and knows what they must do."
"Have you been here before?"
Avelath shook her head. "No. This is the first time I've ever been on the island."
"What about when your father came?"
"That was years before I was born."
"Oh," Haldan said softly. He looked into her eyes carefully, searching for something. After a short second, Avelath looked away uncomfortably. "You're afraid?" Haldan asked.
"No," she replied too quickly.
Haldan looked at her skeptically. "I see."
"Well, in any case," Avelath chattered, "I don't have to think about it until tomorrow. Tonight we can celebrate again."
"Of course," Haldan said, offering her his arm. She accepted and he escorted her back to where her people were preparing for a feast and dance that night.
That night, Haldan learned something—it wasn't the Ihhazel wine that blurred his memory. There was only water to drink, but just like every other feast he'd enjoyed with the Ohaf, little remained of it in his memory by the next morning. He remembered nothing of the dance, but found that easier to explain—he didn't attend.
It took him about ten seconds to realize that Avelath wasn't at the dance. He walked away from the dance—away from the Ring of Trees—toward another, smaller gathering of Ohaf. Glancing back at the main group, Haldan was surprised to find that a white glow seemed to surround them. It wasn't the color of the flames that leapt up from the small fires around the edges of the dance, but the same ethereal light that had clung to the city of Ihhazel, and to Avelath herself. Light mist, he recalled.
"Ihhvelid," came a voice behind him.
"Eze, Avelath," Haldan said, turning around.
"Eze," she said. "What are you doing over here?"
"I was going to ask you the same thing."
Avelath gestured toward some of the Ohaf standing behind her. "Just talking my people."
Regarding Haldan warily, the dark-haired people stood huddled together a short distance behind Avelath. They were definitely Ohaf, but they were different from Avelath and her court, whom Haldan normally associated with. Unlike Avelath and her elaborate gowns trimmed in gems and fine silver, these women wore plain white dresses decorated only with the occasional hand-embroidery. The men's clothing were made of the same plain, coarse material as the women's. Even the children looked at Haldan in suspicion and fear, their faces smudged with dirt and their hair disheveled and tangled. Haldan stared at these people. For some reason, he had never realized that there were people like this among the Ohaf. He'd seen them in the streets of Tarea, in the alleys, in shanty houses on the outskirts of the city. But the Ohaf seemed too noble to have this variety—the poor.
"Haldan!" Avelath hissed.
He jumped slightly. "What?"
"You are just fortunate these people do not speak Tarean." She shook her head at him in disgust.
"Maybe I should go back," Haldan managed after an uncomfortable silence.
Avelath frowned, the disappointment on her face clear. "Whatever you feel is best," she said softly, turning back to walk toward the Ohaf behind her.
In the distance, the musicians finished their song. Silence fell over the small campfire. The only sounds were the crackling of the flames as their light played unevenly across the mistrustful faces of the Ohaf. Haldan glanced at the Ihhazel court assembled far away, then turned back to face Avelath again, his jaw set in determination. Avelath stopped short and slowly turned her head to look over he shoulder at Haldan as he drew himself up to his full height and marched past Avelath.
"How do you say, 'May I have this dance?'" he asked as he passed.
Surprised, Avelath hesitated a moment. "Are you sure?"
"Certain," Haldan replied firmly without turning around.
"It's: Ses volen eno rabana?"
Haldan reached the closest Ohaf woman and bowed deeply as the first notes of the next song carried to the small group. "Eze. Ses volen eno rabana?" he asked.
The woman looked around uncertainly. "Che," she finally said with a tentative smile.
Haldan took her hand and they began to dance the traditional Ihhazel step Avelath had taught Haldan at a dance that seemed so long ago.
The foremost though on Haldan's mind was this woman's name. He faltered as he tried to remember one of the few words of the Ihhesumil that he'd learned. Finally, as if struck by sudden insight, the words he was searching for appeared in his mind. "Julin the zithe-or?" he asked.
The woman kept the step on rhythm, but started slightly. "She kachudere. Sheneke." She shook her head and made a helpless gesture.
Avelath stifled a laugh, but Haldan heard her. "What did she say?" he called. When Avelath didn't respond, Haldan glanced back at her to find that one of the Ohaf men was asking Avelath to dance. As Avelath and her partner joined Haldan and his partner, Haldan was relieved that Avelath would be there—and that he remembered how to do the step with two couples.
"What did she say?" Haldan muttered to Avelath.
Avelath smiled at him and she danced around him in a circle. "She said that she's sorry, but she doesn't know." Avelath stepped away and took her partner's hands.
"Doesn't know what?" Haldan called after her as he stepped forward to take his own partner's hands.
"Your name." Avelath punctuated her statement with a laugh. Haldan had to wait until the women switched partners before he could talk to Avelath further.
"What do you mean?"
"The way you said it, you asked her what your name was."
"Then tell me how to ask what her name is!" Haldan exclaimed in frustration.
"Julin the zithe sehor."
Avelath pulled her hands out of his and spun away from him as the other woman stepped forward.
"Julin the zithe sehor?" Haldan said breathlessly.
The Ohaf woman smiled. "Zithe-or the Salara-e," she replied. "Sehor?"
Haldan paused. Her name was Salara-e, if he'd understood correctly, and she'd asked . . . Well, the only thing that made sense was to ask his name. "Haldan," he replied with a smile.
Proud of his conversation in the Ihhesumil, Haldan searched for what he might say next, but before he could construct another sentence, the dance came to an end. Haldan bowed to Salara-e and she curtseyed in response. Haldan waited for Avelath and her partner to exchange pleasantries before he offered Avelath his arm.
"Vish mul ses?" Haldan asked, hoping he'd asked Avelath to walk with him.
Avelath smiled as she accepted his arm. "Che," she said. "Where did you learn to say that?" she asked as she turned back to wave goodbye to her people.
"I heard someone else say it," he shrugged as he began to lead her away from the small group of Ohaf.
Avelath nodded. "Well, you asked me to come with you. If you wanted to ask me to walk with you, you'd say 'vefela' instead of 'vith.'"
Haldan frowned slightly. Not only did she make it seem as though he'd made no progress in learning the Ihhesumil, Avelath had read his thoughts. He looked over at Avelath, and she cast her eyes down guiltily.
"I'm sorry. I'll try to block your thoughts more." She looked up, sincerity shining in her eyes. "But you have to understand that I can't control it—I don't even want to hear your thoughts." Haldan pursed his lips and looked away. "And I didn't mean to discourage you about the Ihhesumil," Avelath offered. "You're the best student I've ever had. Of course, you're the only student I've ever had." Her attempt at humor received no answer.
"Well," Avelath said after an uncomfortable silence, "I'm so very glad you deigned to associate with the 'lower class.' You know, of all of the princes of Tarea, I would have thought that you would be the most compassionate toward the less fortunate."
It was Haldan's turn to look away guiltily. Avelath's sarcasm-laced tone made Haldan angry, but he knew that she was right. They settled into quiet once more.
"I'm sorry," she said.
"Avelath," Haldan began impatiently. Before he could continue, Avelath pulled him to a stop and turned him to face her.
"Haldan, please remember that you are a guest among my people. They don't understand you." Although she didn't voice her thought, Haldan practically heard Avelath add, "I don't understand you."
She was right. Of course she was right. She was always right. Haldan turned away from her intent stare, mentally berating himself for coming with the Ohaf. They weren't his people, this wasn't his journey, and it wasn't his destiny, as Avelath reminded him daily. But the real reason he regretted coming was Avelath. He loved her. But . . . she was so frustrating—he could never tell what she'd do next. And most frustrating of all, he didn't know if she loved him in return.
He shouldn't have come. She didn't have any feelings for him.
"Haldan," Avelath said gently as she placed a hand on his arm. He looked over his shoulder at her, waiting for her to continue.
"Haldan, today is the twelfth of Olas."
"I know that," he said flatly.
"I don't know how long I'll be in Safna Ohaheth."
Haldan shrugged. "We'll still be here when you're ready to go."
"I . . . There's something else for you, and for my people," Avelath said distantly. Haldan recognized her words and her tone—they were the same as when she told Haldan that he should stay in Tarea.
"And what does that mean?"
Avelath walked around Haldan to face him. "If I'm not out of Safna Ohaheth by noon of the nineteenth, I want you to take my people onward."
Haldan started in surprise, breaking the steely facade he'd carefully constructed. "What?"
"Noon on the nineteenth."
"Do you think you'll be in there that long?"
Avelath shrugged. "The earth is more than three thousand years old, Haldan. There's much history to learn."
"But Avelath, that's eight days in the ring!"
"And I might be in there longer. If I am, just follow the road eastward to the south fork of the river."
"And will you catch up with us then?"
"I don't know when I'll be able to rejoin you."
"You can't stay here all alone," Haldan said, allowing a glimmer of concern in his voice.
"I'm not," Avelath replied, "Naren is staying, too." Haldan pondered silently for a moment before Avelath continued. "After you cross the south fork, you must leave the road."
Avelath's requests were becoming more and more strange by the minute. "What?" Haldan asked again. "Why?"
"You must avoid Suletha at all costs."
"What's wrong with Suletha?"
Avelath looked away. "The Ohaf are not welcome there."
Haldan, who was becoming weary of constantly asking for an explanation, just looked at her, expecting her to elaborate.
She did. "Over seven hundred years ago, a few Ohaf passed through Suletha and convinced the Council of the Wise to go on a journey to the Unknown South. The Council never returned, and no Ohaf has ever been allowed to set foot in Suletha since."
Haldan vaguely remembered history lessons about the Lost Council of Suletha. It was when the Sulethans began reckoning their years. The only difference was that Ohaf involvement had been omitted from Haldan's lessons.
"So," Avelath continued, "after crossing the river, head southeast to avoid Suletha, and when you reach the Suletha South Road, take it back to the Suletha East Road."
"Surely you won't be in the ring that long," Haldan said, secretly hoping they had a map.
Avelath looked uncertain. "I just don't know," she said. "If you'd like, you can wait for me at the South Road, but don't wait too long."
Haldan wanted to ask why Avelath insisted that they hurry if the danger were hundreds of years away, but he could tell by the look in her eyes that even she didn't know what was urging her onward at such a fast pace. She turned abruptly and broke their gaze. "I should go," she said softly, "I need to rest for tomorrow." Avelath started toward the main camp of the Ohaf.
"Shahh kelil," Haldan whispered after her retreating figure.
Avelath turned around. "You'll come with me in the morning, won't you?"
Haldan nodded quickly. "Of course." He watched Avelath flash him a nervous smile before heading back to her tent. As he watched the shadows fall more and more thickly upon her retreating form, Haldan found it necessary to remind himself that she was the queen of the Ohaf. But what kind of sacrifice was she about to make for her people?
Haldan awoke before the sun the next morning, but Avelath and a few of her counselors were already awake. Avelath, wearing a ceremonial Ihhazel dress, stood silent and withdrawn, sipping on a warm drink. Haldan caught a whiff of the drink from the small pot over the cook fire and recoiled. It smelled like rotting flowers, something that may have once been sweet but was now mostly rancid. Naren and Thurvahhe watched Avelath as she drank, and Thanash stood guard nearby. Haldan didn't understand why Thanash was so caught up in protecting Avelath when they were so far from any civilization, but he knew this wasn't the time to ask.
Avelath awoke from her trance-like state and turned toward Haldan. "Good morning," she said. "Are you ready?"
Haldan nodded. "Are you?"
She shrugged and turned back to her drink.
"Is that good?" Haldan asked, gesturing toward the mug she held cupped in both hands.
"No," she said flatly between sips.
"The queen will need her strength," Naren informed Haldan. Haldan glanced over his shoulder at the two counselors standing in solemn silence and back at Avelath. Apparently, this was no small matter.
Avelath drained her mug. Naren stepped forward and took the mug from her. As he started to refill it, Avelath held up her hand. Naren laid the mug aside and waved Thurvahhe forward.
"Folon sehor, zelathild-or," he said with a bow, offering Avelath the finest, whitest quilt Haldan had ever seen. Avelath silently pointed to Haldan, and Thurvahhe handed the exquisite blanket. Much to Haldan's surprise, the blanket was very light, although the quilting made it somewhat bulky. As he gathered it into his hands, the fabric seemed to shimmer in the moonlight, reminiscent of the sparkle unique to Ihhazel.
As he raised his eyes to the woman who had reigned over that city, Haldan realized that she might have seen his thoughts. If she had, the only indication was a sad smile on her face. The smile slowly faded, leaving behind only a distant sorrow in her eyes. Tilting her face up toward the moon, she closed her eyes as the light mist seemed to materialize around her. Haldan glanced down at the blanket in his arms and was surprised to find the quilt glowing with light mist as well. He looked to Naren and Thurvahhe—both were outlined faintly by the light mist. Thanash was the only Ohaf that avoided the light mist—Haldan could hear the guard whispering "Ihhvelid-dolil, ses rahhalen shu."
Thurvahhe stepped forward again. "Rozel sehor, zelathild-or," he said, presenting Avelath's circlet. Avelath curtseyed low enough for Thurvahhe to place the bright silver circlet upon her head. As she stood again, the light mist around her seemed to intensify.
"Haldan," Avelath called. He turned back to her as she continued speaking. "Naren."
Naren stepped forward.
"She barith. Rushith."
Avelath's voice conveyed much more meaning than her words. Haldan understood only the last word—which meant something along the lines of "let's go"—and quickly fell into step alongside Avelath. Naren marched in silence on the other side of her.
As they approached the Ring of Trees, Haldan looked at the sky. It was beginning to grow light, but the moon still hung high in the sky. It appeared to be about halfway between a crescent moon and a half moon, but it was difficult for Haldan to concentrate on the distant light of the moon with the pure light walking next to him. He glanced at Avelath. Her determined expression revealed nothing, but Haldan thought she was still nervous about the Safna Ohaheth. Through the light mist, which seemed thicker than it had been in the past, Avelath's face appeared pale.
They reached the edge of the Ring of Trees, and a narrow path. Naren took the lead on the path, guiding Avelath and Haldan on the winding road through the dense evergreen trees.
They reached the center clearing of the Ring with surprising speed. All around the clearing, the evergreen trees stopped abruptly, leaving a perfect circle of barren ground in the middle of the thick grove. Naren paused as they reached the edge of the clearing, but Avelath continued onward toward the very center. Naren signaled for Haldan to follow her.
The exact center of the circular clearing was marked by a ring of darkened ground. As Avelath reached the hub of the Safna Ohaheth, she slowed to a stop. Haldan came even with her, casting an inquisitive look at the woman next to him. Avelath turned to him and placed one hand on the blanket he held.
She lifted her eyes to meet his. Although her expression revealed nothing, the instant Avelath's gaze met Haldan's, he knew exactly what she needed him to do. He spread the blanket over the center point of the Ring and quickly retreated to where Naren stood. As Haldan approached him, Naren started down the path back to their camp. Casting a fleeting look at the sky, he noted the moon still high above as the sun began to creep over the edge of the trees.
Haldan stood at the edge of the clearing as Avelath stepped onto the blanket and glanced back at him. Haldan turned to follow Naren, but looked back as Avelath began to speak.
"Ke-azel je azel!" she began. Although she didn't raise her voice, it echoed through the Ring.
"Vel je ihh je na!" Her voice remained the same, but the power in it filled the Ring. Haldan took a step away from Avelath. The light mist around Avelath grew brighter.
"Ses ruhholen futhorene—ses ruhhubre!"
As she finished the incantation, a flash of blue-white light enveloped the clearing. Haldan had to turn away and shield his eyes as the intense but strangely heatless light washed over him. When his eyes had recovered from the shock, Haldan turned back to Avelath. Her prone figure lie on the quilt. Suddenly abandoned by the glow of the light mist, she seemed small and weak. As a low fog rolled in at an unnatural speed from the edges of the clearing, Haldan took a step forward. He tried to call her name, but his cry died in his throat, choked by a gasp as someone clamped a hand on Haldan's shoulder. He turned to face the newcomer, half-expecting to see Avelath in some ethereal form standing beside him.
Haldan sighed with relief to find Naren next to him. With his hand still on Haldan's shoulder, Naren directed him out of the clearing. Before they set foot on the path, Haldan cast a last glance at Avelath, whose body was shrouded in an unremarkable fog. Haldan frowned in dismay as Naren silently urged him onward.
As soon as they cleared the evergreen trees, Naren released Haldan.
"Why did you just leave her there?" Haldan asked, angrily pointing back at the Ring of Trees.
"That is what we must do," Naren said, continuing toward camp. Haldan had to take a few quick steps to catch up with him.
"It is dangerous to speak anything other than the Ihhesumil in the Safna Ohaheth," Naren continued. "Even the Ihhesumil is not completely safe."
Haldan looked back at the Ring. "What's going on now?"
Naren shrugged. "When the queen returns, she is not to inform anyone of the revelations she has received; she is only to live according to the information."
Haldan found no words to reply.
"In the meantime, the Ohaf will have a storytelling festival."
Before Haldan had the chance to become excited over the prospect of hearing the legends of the Ohaf, he realized the stories would most likely be told in the Ihhesumil. He changed the subject to cover his disappointment. "Avelath said she doesn't want us to wait too long for her; she asked me to lead the Ohaf on if she hasn't returned."
"On the nineteenth of Olas."
"What day is it on the Tarean calendar?"
"Today is the twelfth."
"Well," Naren said, "you must do as Queen Avelath wished, but I will stay here and wait for her."
Relief and apprehension washed over Haldan simultaneously. While he was glad someone would be there to receive Avelath when she returned, Haldan's closest—and only—advocate was Naren. He didn't even know if anyone else spoke Tarean.
"Duni-ash speaks Tarean," Naren informed him.
Haldan chose to ignore the fact that Naren had read his thoughts. "I haven't seen Duni-ash in days."
"He is yet with us," Naren replied. "We have not lost anyone apart from Lurdol."
Speaking of Lurdol made Haldan nervous, although he couldn't determine why. "The Ohaf certainly seem to be a hardy people." As he said it, the image of an unconscious Avelath flashed through his mind.
"A journey such as this could not end the life of any of the Ohaf."
As they approached camp, Haldan lowered his voice to little more than a whisper. "Naren, how long do you really think Avelath will be in there?"
Naren considered the question. "Well, her father went through in a little more than eight days, and only 150 years have passed since then—."
"One hundred fifty years?" Haldan repeated in amazement.
Naren nodded. "That should be about half a day. I would think Avelath would return in nine or perhaps ten days."
"Wait, wait, wait—150 years?"
"Is this not very long by the standards of Tarea?"
Haldan gaped at him. "It's longer than anyone in Tarea has been alive."
"I see," Naren said slowly. "To the Ohaf, the reign of Kazel was a brief period of time, the shortest of all the reigns of the kings."
"I don't understand—how can someone reign for more than a century? It's rare for any Tarean to even live that long."
Naren stared blankly at Haldan for what seemed like a long time. Finally, Naren spoke. "Avelath is 124."
"One hundred twenty-four?" Haldan repeated. He wouldn't even be 23 for another month—Avelath had lived more than a lifetime longer than he had?
"She is young," Naren admitted.
"Young?" Haldan exclaimed. "How long do the Ohaf live?"
"Five hundred years."
The new information was too much for Haldan to absorb all at once. He stood there, staring dumbfounded at Naren. Finally, he formulated something to say. "How old are you?"
"Three hundred seventy-five."
"And you came here with Avelath's father 150 years ago?"
"Were you Kazel's counselor then?"
"Not when he came to the Safna Ohaheth. I came because Kazel was married to Velilath, my sister."
Once again, Haldan gaped at Naren. "But that makes you Avelath's uncle," he said.
Naren considered Haldan's words. "In the Ihhesumil, we do not have specific terms for most relatives as they do in Tarean," Naren explained, "but I suppose you could say that."
This time, Haldan could find nothing to say. There was nothing to say as Haldan realized that Olaren was then Avelath's cousin. Naren eventually left him and returned to camp, but Haldan took little notice of Naren's departure.
As he watched the storytelling festival over the next seven days, Haldan understood very little of the stories, other than what was portrayed by the pantomime actors that shared the stage with the storyteller, who was usually one of Avelath's counselors. He had plenty of time to mull over the new information he'd received, but even with that to occupy his time, the days passed very slowly.
The morning of the nineteenth dawned as usual and the Ohaf arose to pack up camp. As Haldan helped to pack the wagons, he couldn't help but glance toward the Safna Ohaheth between each load. The disturbing image of Avelath's lifeless form still plagued his memory.
No one else seemed to share his anxiety. By the time the sun had reached its apex, there was no excuse for Haldan to keep them there any longer.
"She will be fine," Naren assured Haldan. "You must move on."
Haldan bowed his head and nodded. "After she returns, hurry to catch up to us."
"We will," Naren vowed.
Haldan mounted his horse and started forward. As the Ohaf procession jolted into motion, Haldan looked back at the Safna Ohaheth for as long as he could bear. Finally, A voice that sounded remarkably like Avelath's seemed to remind him that he was leading the Ohaf.
"To lead others, one must have their eyes on the destination," came the voice.
With a reluctant sigh, Haldan obeyed, turning to face the south fork of the river and the Grasslands beyond.
The fortnight passed very quickly for Roithan. He'd had no idea that there could be so vast a history of intricate negotiations and delicate balances for such a small town a small town subject to the powerful capital. Roithan was grateful that he would not have to remember any of the information Mindoth had so carefully imparted to him. More importantly, Mindoth had given them two horses and ten guards.
From the time they'd left the castle, Lurdol had eyed Roithan carefully, anxiously awaiting his explanations. From the corner of his eye, he caught her gaze and shook his head. Not yet.
Roithan closed his eyes tightly, concentrating on one thought—which of these men could he trust? The Surilt claimed that Tareans had the power to "project" their thoughts into a Suril's mind. If there were any time that Roithan needed that power, it was now.
Lurdol suddenly looked at him. Roithan, hoping that she'd understood his thought, gestured to the ten men marching in ranks in front of them. She turned to look at their retinue and frowned in concentration.
Well? Roithan thought impatiently. Lurdol shrugged and shook her head. She couldn't tell yet.
"Well, when will you know?" he exclaimed. The well-trained guards managed to keep their eyes forward.
"When you tell me what the plan is," she whispered back. "Why don't you just project it?"
Roithan shook his head. "Not until tomorrow."
Lurdol didn't look happy, but said nothing.
They stopped for the night, and Roithan still had not told Lurdol the plan, nor had he thought it loudly enough for Lurdol to hear. She went to sleep that night still unaware of Roithan's plan.
It was nearly nightfall of the second day of the trip, halfway between Mindoth and Tarea, when Roithan finally spoke up. "Halt, men," he said, reining in his horse. The ten guards came to a stop.
"Are we camping here?" asked one of the guards.
"Yes, we'll make camp here—if you're with me." At Roithan's answer, a few of the guards stopped short and looked up at him. Roithan glanced at Lurdol—she was watching the guards, measuring them. Finally, she turned to Roithan and nodded.
"Men," Roithan began, "we have been sent out on a special mission. I was under special instructions not to reveal this information to you until now."
"What kind of special mission?" There was a wary note in the guard's voice.
"A mission which requires utter secrecy. You must trust me completely, and I you."
"And what will this mission entail?" asked the same guard.
Roithan paused. Now would be the moment which would prove these men. "A mission of execution." The guards looked alarmed. Lurdol simply looked interested. "King Veldun," Roithan answered the unspoken question. "We have been sent to assassinate King Veldun."
"He has long usurped the powers of Lord Mindoth, and abused our small town along with a dozen others. We have made him to seem a benevolent tyrant, but his wrongs have gone too far now." Roithan scrutinized the men before him. They were not going to support him. Not yet.
"If you do not wish to participate on this mission, you are free to return home now," Roithan invited.
The guard who'd voiced all of the questions looked uncertainly at his fellow guards. He stepped away from the other guards and walked slowly past Roithan and Lurdol. Pausing, the dissenting guard glanced back over his shoulder, then began to run down the path toward the town of Mindoth.
With amazing speed, Lurdol wordlessly relieved the closest guard of his bow and an arrow, firing it at the retreating figure of the soldier. In the dim evening light, the nine remaining guards watched him fall to the ground. Before the guards could react, Lurdol took another arrow from the guard's quiver and drew back her bow.
"Is there any one else who would like to return to town?" Roithan asked. He was answered by silence. "Good," he nodded. "If we fulfill our mission well, you will all be ministers in the court of the King of Tarea."
Veldun barely admitted it to himself, but deep in his heart, he was worried. It had been nearly a month since the Surilt left Tarea—and Haldan followed the next morning. Perhaps Telca was right, perhaps Veldun had been too hard on his son. And now the evil month of Kas was upon them. Haldan would be twenty-three years old by the end of the month. Would Veldun see Haldan before then? Would ever he see him again?
"Father?" Edrild called from the doorway.
Veldun turned from the window to face his third son. "Yes?"
"The party from the town of Mindoth is entering the upper court."
Veldun nodded and followed Edrild out of the room, down the staircase and to the south porch. Stepping out into the light, Veldun shielded his eyes and blinked in the setting autumn sun. Edrild glanced at his father uncertainly. This would be Edrild's first year to take part in the annual discussions with Mindoth. He'd served as his father's representative to the city of Suletha, capital of the Grasslands, for over four years, but Edrild had little experience in domestic relations.
Within moments, the guards stepped into view from the narrow passage of the inner gateway. As they reached the upper court, the guards reformed into ranks, three by three. From his place a step behind the king, Edrild saw Veldun nod in approval—the guards had been trained well, he noted. They were better than the ones that had accompanied Mindoth to the Olas festivals, if fewer in number.
"Who is that?" Veldun muttered, again raising his hand to shield his eyes as the leader of the procession stepped out from the inner gateway. "It's certainly not Mindoth."
Edrild peered at the two people marching behind the guards. "The woman looks familiar—she's a Suril," he whispered to his father.
"Yes, but who is that Tarean man?"
Neither Veldun nor Edrild spoke as the small procession made its way toward the porch where they stood.
"Roithan, Steward of Mindoth!" decreed the Suril woman as the guards reached the stairs at the bottom of the porch. Edrild knew he recognized her, but wished he could remember who she was, beyond one of the Surilt.
"Hail, Roithan," replied Veldun. The guards reached the stone porch and Veldun as the two others stopped behind them. In unison, all nine guards knelt and bowed low, an expression of deep respect which Edrild hadn't seen in a very long time. Veldun returned the gesture by bowing low over the closest guard. But the king did not straighten. As the guards backed away, Veldun drew in a rasping breath, and slowly fell to his knees.
"Sire?" Edrild asked, stepping forward to place a hand on his father's shoulder. Under the weight of Edrild's hand, Veldun slumped over and fell to lay on his side. "Father!" Edrild shouted. Then he saw the blood on his father's tunic. Edrild looked around in terror, his eyes falling first on the guard holding the blood-stained dagger, then on the Suril woman and Tarean man, Roithan.
Roithan's eyes widened. "Prince Edrild," he reproached. "What have you done?"
"What have I done?" Edrild repeated. "But I haven't—you—your guard—."
"Prince Edrild has murdered the king!" shouted Roithan.
"No!" he cried. Panicking, he looked for anyone who could defend him, but there was no one in sight. Edrild drew his sword and point it at the nearest guard.
"The penalty for murder is death," Roithan continued, unphased. The guard that held the dagger started toward Edrild.
"You, you murdered my father!" Edrild shouted. He backed up a step as two other guards joined Veldun's murderer.
"We all saw you," said the Suril woman. "Now you shall die for your crime."
"No!" With the final scream, Edrild cast a sorrowful look at his slain father's form, then leapt from the porch, running toward the stables.
"Let him go," Roithan commanded. "His brothers or the people will take care of him for us."
With a disdainful glance, Veldun's murderer tossed the dagger onto the stones next to the body.
"Come," Roithan said, offering his only hand to Lurdol. "We must inform the royal family of their misfortune." He led her through the south porch, stepping around Veldun's body.
"Now what?" Lurdol asked, glancing behind them at the guards still in the supper court.
"We tell Queen Telca that we found Edrild standing over the body of Veldun, and when we came upon them, Edrild ran off." They continued across the great hall in silence.
"But where is Edrild going?" Lurdol asked as the reached the stairs that led to the king's chambers.
"It doesn't matter—there are only two roads out of the city. Malzen and Bertald will no doubt separate to go after Edrild." Roithan grinned evilly. "And then we'll see to it that they do not return."
"And what if Haldan returns?"
"The people will kill him," Roithan said lightly.
"How will you manage that?"
"Why do you think Haldan disappeared at the beginning of Olas?"
"To follow the rest of the Ohaf," she replied.
Lurdol paused on the stair, looking to Roithan for the answer to his question.
"Because he was in league with Edrild, of course."
Lurdol smiled. "Ah, I see. And, of course, the Ohaf were in league as well," she said.
"If you wish to say so."
"Your plan is to make Tarea rise against its own princes, correct?
"Then my plan is to make them rise against the Ohaf by the same method—by making them seem to be the enemy."
Roithan smiled at her. "Excellent idea," he said as they reached the door to the king's chambers. "Are you prepared to inform the queen of her misfortune?"
Lurdol composed her expression to portray great sorrow. "Of course."
Edrild banged on the wooden door. Panting, he sank against the stone doorway. A paranoid anxiety constricted his chest as each second passed with agonizing lethargy. No one would come to the door. They knew. Somehow, the lie had traveled faster than Edrild—no, that wasn't possible. Edrild glanced back at his exhausted horse and banged on the door again.
Someone had tried to catch him—Bertald. But Bertald hadn't made it to Suletha. As Edrild watched, the two guards rode up behind Bertald, grabbed the oldest prince—King, Edrild corrected himself—and threw him onto the ground. Edrild had turned away then. He didn't have to watch to know his brother's fate. The guards were from Roithan's entourage. And once they finished with Bertald, Edrild knew they would come after him.
"Thatara!" Edrild shouted, hitting the door with his fist.
Finally, a woman opened the door. The faint yellow light from inside cast a shadow over her dark skin. Her black eyes held a spark of anger. "Why do you call?" she demanded.
"Please," Edrild gasped, "Thatara."
"Why do you need to see Thatara?"
Edrild pulled back the sleeve of his tunic and showed the woman the brightsilver trinket on his wrist. The woman's eyes widened slightly as she stepped back from the door.
"Come in," she invited. "I shall get Thatara."
"Please hurry," Edrild said as he stepped inside, "it's urgent."
The woman nodded as she shut the door behind him. She disappeared behind a crimson curtain in the corner of the room.
Edrild glanced around the room. The yellow lamplight cast a sickly pallor over the familiar sitting room. It was furnished with rough-hewn wooden furniture, which seemed rude by Tarean standards, although the room was among the nicest in Suletha. Most of the things in the room had been imported from Tarea; the wood and stone were form the Valley Forest.
Overhead, the boards creaked as people tread on them upstairs. Thatara's pounding footsteps on the stairs followed. The dark-skinned man threw aside the curtain and burst into the room.
"Prince Edrild!" he exclaimed in surprise.
"Master Thatara," Edrild panted. He prepared to launch into the fast version of the story, but couldn't seem to fill his lungs enough. "My father—Roithan—Surilt—chasing me—but I didn't—but no one—and Roithan did—."
"Edrild, you must slow down. Here, have something to drink." Thatara poured a warm, thick liquid from a kettle and offered Edrild the cup. Edrild accepted it, but didn't drink, opting instead to take a few deep breaths.
"They're following me—they want to kill me."
"Why?" Thatara exclaimed.
Edrild set the cup on the table. "They killed my father and they're saying I did it."
"I do not understand—who killed your father? Why?"
"Thatara, I can explain later—I need to hide now. They're following me."
Thatara led Edrild to the curtained corner. Pulling aside the curtain, Thatara revealed the wooden stairs that led to the upper level of the house. The stairs occupied only half of the closet-like room. The other half, recessed in shadow, was home to brooms, mops and other innocuous cleaning supplies. As Thatara pushed the brooms aside, someone pounded on the door.
"Marash," Thatara called up the stairs, "get the door!" He pushed Edrild into the space beneath the stairs just before Marash ran down the stairs.
Eying the brooms in Thatara's hands, Marash spoke with a note of sarcasm in her voice. "Oh, are you too busy sweeping to come to the door?"
"Just see who it is," Thatara replied curtly, leaning the brooms back against the staircase.
"Did the Tarean leave?"
"Yes, he did—now answer the door."
Marash brushed past and jerked the curtain closed behind her.
"Why do you call?" her voice carried through the house. The response didn't read the stairwell where Thatara replaced the brooms. "Enter," Marash replied. She returned to the stairway to announce the arrival of "Two more of the Order of the Brightsilver Bracelet," before disappearing upstairs. Casting a final gland through the stairs at Edrild's hiding place, Thatara turned and left, his crimson and white robes flowing after him.
"Did you have to use your bracelets to get in?" he said to the visitors. "Could you not have—."
"Thatara," interrupted a woman's voice, which Edrild recognized as that of Grinal, "this is urgent business."
"Well, what is it?"
"Two Tarean guards arrived at our house just a few moments ago," said a man's voice. "They are looking for the man that murdered King Veldun."
"And what relevance is this supposed to have to Suletha?"
"Have you seen Prince Edrild?" the man demanded.
"No," Thatara replied slowly. "Surely you are not implying that Prince Edrild would—"
"He did," the man assured.
"If I see Prince Edrild, I shall be sure to notify you."
"Do more than just notify us—bring him to us."
"I think we should call a meeting of the Council—"
"Simala," Thatara began patiently, "the internal affairs of Tarea are not enough for the Council to discuss."
"But Edrild possibly seeing refuge in Suletha is."
"No," Thatara insisted, "unless something more develops, this matter does not involve Suletha—and will not involve the Council of the Wise."
"This is exactly why the Council was formed—"
"No, involvement with the internal affairs of other countries led to the Disappearance."
Thatara was answered by a long silence. "I shall consult Lathin—"
"You cannot say that—"
"Grinal?" Thatara asked for her second to his decision.
The woman, who hadn't said anything for several minutes, hesitated. "No," she finally decided. "The Council will not meet."
"Grinal," Simala objected.
"No. We meet in six days anyway; we may discuss this at our next meeting."
From his hiding place, Edrild could hear stomping punctuated by a door slam.
"Grinal," Thatara began, "I do not believe Edrild murdered his father."
"Then who did?" she asked wearily.
"I do not know. But I shall find out."
"What do you mean?"
Edrild didn't hear Thatara's response—no response at all until the door shut again.
Within seconds, Thatara pulled the curtain open. "Now tell me what happened," he said, beckoning Edrild to leave his hiding place. Edrild knocked over the brooms and mops as he clambered out from behind the stairs.
"I didn't do it—Roithan's guard did."
"Who is Roithan?"
"He was a representative sent by the town of Mindoth."
"Then is Mindoth the real culprit?"
Edrild hesitated. "I don't know. But the guard killed my father and they told everyone I did it. Bertald and Malzen believed them—"
"Why did they believe?"
"I don't know . . . I don't know."
"So Bertald is now King of Tarea?"
Lowering his eyes from Thatara's, Edrild shook his head. "Bertald came after me, and two of Roithan's guards caught him."
"Then who is King?"
"I don't know—Malzen, maybe. I can't tell anything for sure anymore."
"What are you going to do?"
"I want to find my brother?"
"My younger brother," Edrild said, "Haldan. He told me he was going to travel with the Surilt, and I'm hoping they'll pass through—"
"They will not," Thatara declared.
Surprised, Edrild paused. "But they're headed to the desert," he insisted.
"The Surilt will not pass through Suletha—they would not dare."
Edrild almost asked why—but stopped short. The Disappearance. The First Council. "Well, if they wouldn't come through the city, then can I watch for them to pass by?"
"Do you mean from the Seeing Hill?"
"Edrild, I simply cannot permit that. You know the Seeing Hill is reserved only for meetings of the Council."
"Yes, I know, but this is an emergency."
"Edrild," Thatara said in a tone that conveyed his reluctance.
Edrild looked at his friend, head of the Sulethan Council fo the Wise. "I am in danger, Thatara. I need your help. You heard Simala—he'll come after me. He believed the guards."
"Simala is a fool. He has no place within the Order."
Edrild glanced at his wrist, where the sleeve of his tunic hid the brightsilver bracelet. The Order was reserved only for those who knew the identities of the Wise.
"At least Simala is not on the Council," Thatara continued. "The counsel of Grinal is worth all of the foolishness of her husband."
"Let me go to the Seeing Hill," Edrild insisted. "I'll only go at night, and—please . . . just help me."
Thatara stared at Edrild, his black eyes scrutinizing Edrild's light grey ones. Slowly, the darker man nodded. "Let us go, then."
As the days had passed, Haldan gradually found himself looking back more and more frequently. Although he knew everyone around him could read his thoughts, Haldan didn't stop himself from thinking of Avelath almost constantly.
Of all the Ohaf he associated with, Duni-ash seemed to be the only one that shared his concern. If any other did, Haldan didn't know it.
Six days. They'd left six days ago. Avelath had been in the Safna Ohaheth for nearly three weeks. And they were only an hour or so from the Suletha South Road.
What if Avelath were dead? What if she never left the Safna Ohaheth, and Naren waited there until he died? What ws Haldan supposed to do then? He only had directions as far as the Suletha East Road. How was he supposed to lead an entire nation after that? He couldn't even speak to them!
"Masder Haldan?" Duni-ash ventured. Unlike Naren's, Duni-ash's heavy accent was authentic.
"Whad is thad?" He pointed toward the north.
Haldan shielded his eyes from the slowly setting sun and looked out across the high grass of the plains. "A rider," Haldan said. "Two. E-ewelaf?" he attempted.
"Ewelaf—one rider. Whad is the word for more than one rider?"
Haldan smiled at Duni-ash's praise, then looked toward the riders again. "One of the riders is a Sulethan," he informed Duni-ash. "The other looks Tarean."
"I wonder whad they wand."
"So do I."
They didn't have to wait long to find out. The riders, traveling as fast as they could, soon reached the Ohaf procession.
"Hail!" called the Sulethan man as he approached His Tarean companion hung back, his back turned to the procession. "Is there a Prince of Tarea among you, one who is called Haldan of the Untarnished Sword?"
"I am here," Haldan said, eyeing the dark man who already knew his name.
"I am Thatara of Suletha. My companion has been searching for you, Prince Haldan. What have you heard of your brother, Edrild of the Venerable Counsel?"
Haldan shook his head. "I have had no word of the Tarean royal family for more than a month."
"Then I have a message for you," said the Tarean, turning around.
"Edrild!" Haldan exclaimed. He scrambled down from his horse and ran to meet his brother.
Edrild didn't dismount at first. "I have very bad news for you, Haldan."
"What is it?" Haldan asked cautiously.
Edrild slid off his horse. "A man named Roithan—"
"Did he have only one hand—his left hand?" Haldan interrupted.
Edrild paused. "I didn't really check, Haldan."
"Roithan came to meet with father and me . . . and he . . . he killed him."
"Roithan is dead?"
Edrild stared at his younger brother before slowly shaking his head.
Haldan's expression faded from interest to blank shock. "Is the funeral over?"
"Haldan, is that all you can say? Our father is dead!"
"What am I supposed to say? What?" Haldan asked.
"Swear vengeance upon Roithan," Edrild said in an ominous tone.
Haldan hesitated, glancing back at Duni-ash. Avelath's counselor couldn't help Haldan now. Not for the first time, he wished Avelath were there—but as soon as he thought of her, Haldan knew what she would have said. Avelath would have wanted revenge.
"I'll go," Haldan vowed, "but where are Bertald and Malzen?"
"Bertald . . . has also been murdered. I don't know where Malzen is."
"Then Roithan is hiding in the Valley Forest?"
Edrild shook his head. "I believe he's still within the walls of Tarea."
"Why haven't our soldiers risen up against Roithan? Why hasn't someone else done something?"
Edrild fixed his gaze upon his younger brother. "Roithan has blamed Father's murder on me. He may have control of the soldiers by now."
"We can't hope to stand against the Tarean army alone."
Edrild cast a meaningful glance at the Ohaf behind Haldan. "Will they help?"
"I wouldn't ask it of them," Haldan began. His brother's eyes fell. "But Roithan is their enemy as well."
"Then they will come?" Edrild asked hopefully.
"I'll have to ask Duni-ash."
Within moments, Haldan, Edrild and Thatara were riding northward along with Thanash, and fifty other Ihhazel Palace guards. The small force would not be nearly enough to challenge the Tarean army—but it would be enough to start with the plan Edrild had formed, with some help from Thatara, during his long, tense hours of hiding in Suletha.
As the group rode northward, Haldan never glanced at the setting sun. If he had, he would have been surprised to find in the distance two plumes of dust rising up from the grassy plain, marking the trek of a pair of riders heading eastward along the same route which the Ohaf procession had taken only hours before.
They reached the Ohaf camp at midnight. Avelath was the first to arrive, and leapt onto the ground without waiting for her horse to stop completely. "Haldan!" she called. "Where are you?"
"He is nod here, zelathild-or," Duni-ash said, walking up to Avelath.
"But I must speak with him—his father—"
"He knows," Duni-ash said. "His brother Edrild caught up to us just before sunset, and they rode for Tarea."
Avelath felt her heart sink. So the day had come for Haldan to leave their company. She had always expected it, but when the time actually came it was more disappointing than she'd anticipated.
"I send Thanash and fifdy guards with him," Duni-ash continued.
Avelath started and turned to stare at Duni-ash in surprise. "You did what?"
"They are n'going do seek vengeance on Roithan."
"This is rather unexpected," Avelath admitted. "It isn't—" She broke off her sentence to fix her gaze upon the ground.
"How was the Safna Ohaheth?" Duni-ash asked, but Avelath held up a hand to silence him.
"Julin hhudere?" Avelath said, still looking at the ground.
Duni-ash glanced at Naren. Avelath had followed none of the conventions for "spellsinging." She hadn't even addressed the Earth by name.
"Kol, arisho," came the Earth's answer.
"Kol arisho zanala?" Avelath continued.
"Ke," the voice of the Earth said. "Kol, arisho zure."
Duni-ash's eyes widened as he looked at Naren.
"We mush ged Thanash and the resd back," Duni-ash said with appropriate urgency.
"Where did they go?"
"Do the village called Bralna."
"We must follow them," Naren urged. "How long ago did they leave?"
"Sundown," Duni-ash replied just before Avelath began to speak.
"It doesn't matter. We must do something else."
"Something else?" Naren began. "We can't leave Thanash and fifty guards to die in Tarea."
Wearing a smile that was both grim and ironic, Avelath looked at her two counselors in the fading light of the fire. "We won't."
It took nearly a week to reach Bralna, the closest Tarean village. It stood on the very edge of the Valley Forest, far from any of the large Sulethan byways that cut swaths through the high prairie grass. Traveling only at night, it was a few hours before sunrise when they arrived at the small village nestled just inside the treeline.
With only his rudimentary knowledge of the Ihhesumil, and Thanash's even poorer grasp of Tarean, Haldan was seldom ever able to explain his intentions aloud. For the first time, Haldan was actually glad the Ohaf could see his thoughts, and those of Edrild. Only through their thoughts could the brothers fully explain the assassination, the danger and the plan.
The plan was Edrild's. Haldan was to enter Bralna and find Dawell, the village bailiff.
As the sunlight began to filter through the trees, Haldan suddenly realized it had been almost a month since he'd last been under the canopy of the Valley Forest. And according to Edrild, it had been nearly two weeks since the death of their father. News had surely reached Bralna.
The sun had not even been up an hour when Haldan marched into Dawell's thatched roof hut. Although it seemed early in the village, Dawell was already sitting at his desk, pouring over a record book. Haldan glanced around the room at the sparse furniture—a bed which must have been kingly by the village standard, a table fit for a village feast, six chairs, including the one Dawell occupied, and a desk. There was a single window cut in the bare stone walls of the hut, and in the window hung a faded red scrap of fabric, tied with a rough bit of string. There were candles, candlesticks, a stone fireplace—Dawell must have been the richest man in the village. His hut, although nothing in comparison with the castle of Tarea, was a stark contrast to the mud-and-stick huts Haldan had passed in the village. And, judging by the record book and inkwell on the desk, Dawell could read and write—probably the only literate person in the village.
After Haldan had had time to observe every facet of the one room hut, and Dawel still had not noticed his presence, Haldan spoke. "Bailiff Dawell," he called.
Dawell jumped at his desk before whirling around to look at the caller. "What do you mean," he began, but choked on his words at the sight of Haldan. Dawell rose to his feet, his sword clanging against the legs of the desk. According to Edrild, of all the relative riches Dawell possessed, his sword was the one he held most precious. It had been a gift from King Veldun. The thought of that gift reminded Haldan of the knives Avelath had given him months ago which he now carried.
"My prince?" Dawell ventured.
Dawell approached him cautiously. "I am afraid I do not know how I should receive your visit," he admitted.
"What do you mean?" Haldan asked.
"I only mean that we have had much conflicting news of the princes of late."
Haldan waited for him to continue. "Could you elaborate?" he asked when Dawell didn't say anything.
Dawell's intense gaze grew suspicious. "What is your name?"
"You recognized me as your prince."
"Yes, sir, I know that you are a prince, but I do not know whether you are Edrild or his brother."
"I am the brother of Edrild, Haldan of the Untarnished Sword." Dawell still seemed reluctant to give out information pertaining to the Tarean royal family. "I have been away for a month now, I have had no news of my family in that time. Is there anyway you might be able to inform me of their latest doings? I know that Bralna is a faithful servant of the King of Tarea." Edrild had advised Haldan to say something along those lines, since it was something the people of Bralna prided themselves on.
The suspicion in Dawell's eyes faded to sadness. "Then you have returned only to receive news of the worst kind," he said. His hand moved to the hilt of his sword, but he made no action to draw it. "King Veldun has been murdered, by your brother Edrild."
Haldan tried to act appropriately shocked and paused a moment to compose himself. "Then is Bertald king?"
"King Bertald rode after Edrild, who fled after the murder was discovered."
"And where is King Bertald now?"
Dawell's eyes fell. "More ill news, I am sorry to report. He fell at Edrild's hand."
Again, Haldan pretended to be surprised. Pretending was not as difficult as he'd anticipated, as the official decrees about the fate of his family were more outrageous that he'd imagined. After waiting a few moments, Haldan asked, "Then is Malzen the king of Tarea?"
Dawell shook his head. Malzen rode after you, Master Haldan, and has not been heard from since. After he left Tarea, Governor Roithan revealed that Malzen had been involved in the plot against King Veldun's life."
"Governor Roithan?" Haldan asked, but Dawell seemed not to understand Haldan's startled tone.
"Oh, I should say King Roithan now."
This time, there was no need for Haldan to feign shock. "King Roithan?" he demanded, advancing toward the bailiff.
Dawell fell back a step, his hand tightening its grip on the hilt of the sword. "I've told you too much," he said, dropping his formal manner of speech. "It's true then. You were involved, too."
"Involved in what?" Haldan asked, making sure to stand still this time rather than threaten the bailiff.
"The plot to murder King Veldun," Dawell spat out in disgust. "Your own father," he added just above a whisper.
Again, Haldan didn't have to pretend his surprise, throwing his hands up in a defensive yet confused gesture. "Involved in the plot? I knew nothing of a plot!"
Dawell scrutinized him.
"Bailiff Dawell," Haldan began, "I was no more involved in this plot than was Edrild."
In one swift movement, Dawell drew his sword and pointed it towards the younger man. Haldan wished Edrild were there—Edrild could have battled Dawell with a broadsword if needed, but with only his bow and his knives, Haldan stood little chance.
"Bailiff Dawell," Haldan tried again, "Roithan has usurped the power of the throne."
"You said you had had no news of your family while you were gone."
Haldan continued, ignoring Dawell's response. "It was Roithan who murdered my father, not Edrild."
Dawell studied Haldan before slowly lowering his sword. "How did you come to this conclusion?"
"Edrild told himself."
Dawell lifted his sword again. "Then how can I believe you?"
Edrild's plan had not included an answer to that question, and Haldan found himself desperately fumbling for the words. But before he could even begin to stammer a response, Thanash stepped into the hut.
"Wazena, atha ses vahelo," Thanash offered. Haldan guessed that Thanash had seen Haldan's struggling thoughts from where he waited outside Dawell's home, and was now offering aid. Haldan nodded his permission.
Dawell was so taken aback at the appearance of a legendary Suril that he lowered his sword. Thanash stared straight into Dawell's eyes and the bailiff returned his gaze as if completely transfixed. No one spoke for a long, tense moment, then Thanash broke off his stare and left once more.
Dawell looked to Haldan in awe. "Was that really . . . a . . . Suril?"
Haldan offered half a sympathetic smile and a nod. "What happened?"
The bailiff shook his head. "I don't really know. He looked at me, and the next thing I knew, I was in the castle at Tarea. King Veldun was standing in front of me—he was alive—and King Roithan was approaching us. One of King Roithan's guards . . . he murdered King Veldun," Dawell finished in a whisper. At the mention of the slain king, Dawell looked down at the sword in his hand. He was too astonished by the vision to question or doubt Haldan's words.
At length, Dawell looked up again. "Why have you come?"
"We need your help to avenge our father's murder."
"You and . . . Edrild?"
Dawell placed his sword on the ground in front of him and knelt next to it reverently. "You will have my help," he vowed, "and that of the village of Bralna."
Recognizing the ceremonial significance of Dawell's gesture, Haldan solemnly approached the bailiff and bent to pick up the sword. Haldan held the sword in his hands for a moment before offering the hilt to Dawell. "Arise, then," Haldan said, "and help us."
Avelath was beginning to appreciate the gift Veldun had given her father on his last trip to Tarea—a current map of Tarea. Haldan, Edrild, Thanash and a group of the palace guards were in the village Bralna, minuscule but easily located on the map. With the rest of her people, Avelath headed north of the village to the larger town of Hartkana. She had a plan that was both intricate and risky, but she knew it was what they had to do. They had to take Hartkana before Haldan could make it there. And then she would have to convince Haldan not to fight Roithan.
Naren cast a final glance back at Avelath before he disappeared into the woods with his thirty men, former palace guards. His role in the battle with Hartkana was important, but it was just as important as those of Thurvahhe and his thirty, and Duni-ash and his thirty, and Avelath with the rest of the Ohaf.
Naren was unaccustomed to carrying his own supplies, but the horses and wagons had been left behind at the edge of the forest, waiting with a few Ohaf. The heavy pack held blankets, food and water enough for a few days, and the most important piece of equipment for his group—a heavy grappling hook and rope. As he and his men picked their way through the forest, Naren glanced at the thick stone walls that encompassed the town. Avelath said that this town and its villages, which included Bralna, had enough of the Tarean military strength to threaten the rest of the Tarean army. If that were true, Naren could only hope that they would not fail.
His group had the farthest to travel. They were to walk around the town to the northernmost part of the walls and prepare for the attack. Thurvahhe, Duni-ash and their men were ensconced in the woods south of the city, waiting on either side of the narrow path that lead to the gates of the city. Everyone else, led by Avelath, would wait until the guards were hidden and ready.
Naren cast a grim glance at the reddish stone walls in the quickly fading sunlight. The blocks rose to the leaves overhead and beyond Naren's range of vision. If they didn't succeed here . . .
At sunrise, as Haldan prepared to enter Bralna, Avelath found herself at the gates of the town of Hartkana. For the final time, the alternative of a siege flitted across her thoughts. Avelath shook off that idea. It was too late for that. Her counselors were hidden in the forest, and besides that, there was not enough time to wait out the people of Hartkana. They would have to take this town by the next dawn.
Avelath glanced back at her people standing behind her. The children were all hidden in the forest, so all that remained with Avelath were the adults not in the palace guards—most of the people. Many of them had survived the civil war just a few years before Avelath was born. While the counselors' groups might face some danger, this group should be safe, but Avelath wouldn't dare risk the children. It was almost too much to risk the lives of the men and women standing with her now.
Glancing back at the town walls before her, Avelath could see the first watch just coming on to duty atop the wall-walk. Taking her seldom-used longbow in hand, she nocked the prepared arrow and pulled the bowstring to her anchor point in one movement. Before she even thought of aiming, Avelath had released the arrow. She watched it sail up to her desired target and embed its point in the stone wall as she handed her bow to the closest person.
Two guards, alerted by the twang of the arrow at impact, jogged along the wall-walk to fetch the arrow. Although she could nor hear them, Avelath knew they were reading the letter attached to the arrow aloud.
"Town of Hartkana: we come in peace, as representatives of Prince Edrild. We are the Surilt nation. Roithan, who is now governing your kingdom, is the murderer of King Veldun. I request a meeting to discuss action against Roithan. —Avelath, Maiden of the Sparkling Moon, Queen of Ihhazel"
As the guards disappeared from the wall-walk, Avelath hoped the letter's tone was urgent enough to appeal to the ruler of the town, whatever his title was.
She did not have to wait long to find out. Only two hours after her initial message of attack was sent, the heavy wooden gates of the town began to creak on their hinges. Avelath gasped softly and her eyes widened as the sand-filled doors started to open, revealing Tarean troops assembled in rank and file. She cast a quick glance over her shoulder at her people. Her pulse quickened as she realized the first battle her people had fought in over 140 years was about to begin. If her plan succeeded, the battle would be bloodless.
"Avelath of Ihhazel," called a man from atop the wall-walk. He grossly mispronounced her name and that of her kingdom. "We will meet your challenge with must opposition. I believe you will find that opposing us will prove futile!"
"Challenge?" Avelath shouted back. "We have called you to action."
"You have called us to treason, which we will never abide," the man vowed. "I am Trakna, Lord of Hartkana and all surrounding villages!"
"The only treason is to support Roithan the traitor," Avelath said. She knew her words would avail her nothing—she knew the Tarean troops would begin their march any second—she knew the battle was coming. She had already seen it.
Trakna didn't respond to Avelath, turning instead to face the men standing on the ground below him. "Fight for your homes, for your lands, for your wives and for your children!"
Avelath, too, turned to face her people. She drew her sword and held it aloft. "Rushwela!" she cried, hoping it sounded like a battle cry to the soldiers standing behind her.
The Ohaf understood and immediately obeyed. Before the Hartkana soldiers could move out, before they could even react to Avelath's scream, the dark-haired men and women turned and began to run down the narrow path, away from the town.
Bringing up the rear, Avelath heard Trakna scream, "Charge! After them!" The pounding of the pursuers' footsteps rang as loudly in her ears as her own heartbeat. It was a race to the death, and they would have to maintain their breakneck speed until all the Hartkana troops were clear of town.
As he watched the groups of Ohaf run past, Duni-ash tensed. It was almost time for the invasion. He looked at his thirty palace guards, each at the ready.
The ranks of running Ohaf began to thin, and a few exhausted individuals lumbered off the beaten path and into the woods. As the Hartkana troops began to march past, they took no notice of the Ohaf hiding in the trees. Three times, Duni-ash thought the Hartkana troops were past, and three times, another division appeared on the path. Duni-ash waited for the fourth and last division to pass by, risking only the shallowest breathing. When the echo of their footsteps was all that remained of the Hartkana soldiers, Duni-ash signaled for his force to begin wending their way toward the town. Undefended, it would be theirs for the taking.
Thurvahhe and his thirty waited on the other side of the path. As Duni-ash moved out, Thurvahhe did the same. Together, their sixty men would enter at the main gate.
Naren stared up at the reddish stone wall before him. He thought he could hear distant marching, but he couldn't be sure. Not yet.
He waited until the sun neared its apex before giving his force the signal. The thirty men, each carrying a grappling hook, stepped out of the trees surrounding the wall and began to swing their hooks. After a few tries, nearly all of the men had managed to hook their grappling hooks on the parapet high above. They tugged on their lines to test them before beginning the long climb to the top of the wall. With Thurvahhe and Duni-ash from the south, Naren from the north, and all the defenders chasing Avelath, it should be only a matter of hours before the town was in Ohaf hands. Or so Naren hoped.
The initial response of the Tareans left in Hartkana was, naturally, panic. As Thuvahhe and Duni-ash entered the gates with their forces, women and children screamed and fled. Although vastly outnumbered, the Ohaf were better equipped and trained. Leaving most men to block the gate, Duni-ash and all those who could at least struggle through a sentence in Tarean began to walk through the city, vowing no harm would come to Hartkana.
"We do nod desire bloodshed," Duni-ash called. "We only desire you do listen! Edrild of the Venerable Council is an innocend man!"
The shouts of the Ohaf did little to abate the terror of the Tareans. Eventually, Duni-ash and the other Tarean-speakers gave up, returning to hold the town gates.
By mid-afternoon, Naren and his thirty had long-since scaled the wall and tied up the few Tarean bowmen that had remained behind. The Ohaf were sitting on the wall-walk, staring down in utter boredom at the gradually slackening chaos below. Naren alternated between staring at the Tarean town and the forest path, wondering about Avelath.
Finally, some sort of internal order was restored to the town. The Tareans began to realize the Ohaf were not hurting anyone—they weren't even fighting. Duni-ash watched as a delegation of Tarean women gathered and cautiously approached the Ohaf guarding the gate.
"Hail," Duni-ash called, raising a hand in greeting.
One of the women raised a hand in response and stepped forward. "I'm Anchla, wife of Trakna. Why have you threatened our town?"
"We have no desire to threathen your home," Duni-ash replied. "We have only come tho defend Edrild."
"You have deprived our home of any defenses," Anchla countered. "That seems to be quite a threat to me."
"Thad was nod our choice," Duni-ash pointed out. "Your husband commanded his soldiers do follow the Ohaf."
Anchla frowned. "Then we are at an impasse."
"There is no im'asse," Duni-ash stated. "There is only the druth—Roithan killed King Veldun, nod Edrild!"
Anchla's frown deepened. She said nothing, turning away from the Ohaf to rejoin the group of women behind her.
"Realize thad we have caused you no harm!" Duni-ash called after her. Anchla glanced over her shoulder at him, casting him a disdainful gaze before leading the delegation away.
Duni-ash looked up at Naren on his wall perch. Naren, staring back, shrugged. Tareans.
Avelath glanced behind her. The Hartkana troops were still a safe distance away. As fast as Tareans could normally run, Avelath had to push her people to run faster. Many had already given up, running to hide in the trees as the Tareans marched past.
Rounding a corner, Avelath came to a stop. Her lungs were bursting, her legs ached, her arms ached, her back hurt, her hair clung to her face and neck, and her dress was soaked with sweat. She had only time enough to question the brilliance of the running idea before a cold wind rushed over her. Her first impression was to enjoy the respite, but before Avelath could relax, a number of odd things struck her. The wind wasn't rustling the leaves of the trees around her, and it didn't blow in a straight path. Instead, the wind swirled around Avelath and her other Ohaf standing on the path. The cool of the air suddenly seemed piercing and evil. "Gilmat," she said under her breath, looking up to the trees for any sign of the furry assailants.
"Onhakach!" she shouted to her people. "Rushith!"
At her signal, the Ohaf quickly left the path, hiding behind trees as they waited for the Hartkana troops. The four divisions came lumbering past, each slower than the last, none seeming to notice that their quarry had disappeared.
As soon as the Tareans had passed, Avelath and the others began to pick their way through the forest. It was already late afternoon, and Avelath wanted all her people inside the walls of Hartkana before nightfall.
After only a few minutes, Avelath tired of crashing through the underbrush and took to the path that led back to the town. "Rushith!" she called as she walked.
"Rushish!" answered the hidden Ohaf from the trees. As Avelath passed and shouted, her people emerged from the forest, including the children who'd been hidden for their protection, and followed Avelath toward Hartkana. Avelath hoped the town would be in Ohaf control for their welcome.