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Chapter 5: Appointment to the High Court
Elven could sense the shocked and disheartened mood of the rest of their convoy by their utter silence as they began to make their way along the road and through the desolate fields. Like him, they had been expecting to see great fields of green, luscious growth and fruitful trees abounding everywhere. The tales of old, the legends and myths, held that Kiriün was bountiful land of plenty, a place of year-round harvests and free-flowing drink.
Yet none of that was to be seen anywhere. It occurred to Elven that Kiriün, like Erârün, might well have different regions of varying prosperity, but there were other signs that the dying lands spread far wider than their present province: the gently haunted look in the eyes of their soldiers, the thin, almost emaciated frames of their horses—all spoke of a country whose folk had often too little to eat. Elven felt a deep pity grow in his breast for the people of Kiriün, and he began to hope fervently that their negotiations went well—the people of this land needed aid perhaps more even than those of Erârün.
They left the great wall of Kiriün behind, and despite its height it had soon disappeared into the distance. The road led often straight onward, and across the low plains came rushing winds that no doubt would have stirred up great clouds of dust, had it not been for the recent rains. As it was, the road was muddy and the fields even more so, and when they eventually stopped for the night under the shadow of a low hill, it was a struggle finding somewhere to lie that did not threaten to swallow them whole in the muck.
“What is this place?” Elven whispered to Elỳn that night as they sat huddled around a miserable, low fire. “I’ve never seen anywhere so desolate in my life.” He was afraid to raise his voice lest the folk of Kiriün hear him—he did not want to offend.
“It is something I was afraid of,” she replied, her face grim. “We have spoken long of the coming of the Duithèn, and the influence of Darkness on the world. Now, here—you can truly see the consequences of their power. How could a land of life and green thrive when there is no sun?”
Elven was appalled. “This … this is a power we can’t fight! Evil men, dark beasts—they can be defeated. But how can we prevail against the very darkening of the world? How can we return the sun to the sky?”
But Elỳn said, “It is the men and beasts of Darkness we must concern ourselves with now. They are the most immediate and real threat to the kingdoms of Thaeìn. If we should fail to resist their coming forces, the truly nothing will be able to stop the Duithèn in their conquest of Erâth.”
“Why can’t your people do anything?” Elven asked in exasperation. “You’re a people of Light—surely you can resist the powers of Darkness.”
Elỳn shook her head. “We are fading, Elven—you know this. Our influence on this world has already diminished beyond hope, and we cannot stop that which has been set in motion. It is with men now that the fate of Erâth resides.”
“It’s Brandyé, isn’t it,” Elven said with sudden realization. “He’s the one who is meant to stop the Duithèn.”
“So believe the Illuèn,” said Elỳn.
“Why? What power does he have that could possibly stop—” he gestured around them “—all of this?”
“None,” she said, “and all. I believe that he alone among men has the strength of will to resist the Duithèn’s influence; he has been resisting them all his life.”
Elven thought he felt somewhat slighted by her comment. “What makes him stronger than any other?”
“I do not know. Perhaps the tragedy that has been wrought upon him—”
“That tragedy was wrought upon many,” Elven protested.
“I will not argue for whom the pain was deepest, but remember—you are not the only one to have lost.”
Elven then remembered Athalya, and felt color in his cheeks and was grateful for the darkness. “I’m sorry.”
“The Duithèn have tried to destroy him, many times,” she said. “His body, and his will. Never have they succeeded. There is something in him that frightens them greatly. All the more so, I feel, since he set out to find Namrâth. If he succeeds, they will stop at nothing to end his life.”
“I’ve been a fool,” muttered Elven. “I should have gone with him.”
Elỳn reached out to touch his arm, briefly. “His path is not yours, and there is no shame in that. You helped him safely to the Hochträe—your purpose is fulfilled. Look now to your own life.”
“My life should be with Talya,” he grumbled, “but look at where I am now—in a desolate kingdom with no hope in sight!”
“If your path is to lead you to Talya, so it will,” said Elỳn. “Do not despair.”
But unlike Brandyé, Elven was not given to despair, and begrudgingly he saw the wisdom in Elỳn’s words. He pondered them over the following days as they made their way steadily through the barren wastelands, for he was often alone: during the day Elỳn would spend her time in the company of the king, and Tharom and the other knights would pay him no heed. Several times Elven tried to engage the folk of Kiriün in conversation, but they also would not speak to him, and so he was left in silence with nothing but his own thoughts.
Slowly he became accustomed to the brown earth and dried trees, and as he did he began to notice the subtle variations in the soil and land. Some places the earth was dry and rocky, and not a plant was to be seen; other places there were odd, brown-leafed plants scattered throughout the fields, and he realized these were some of the only living things anywhere to be found. Curious, he moved away from the convoy one day at noon when they stopped for rest, and walked some way into the field near the road. He soon came to a clump of these plants, and knelt down beside them. They grew no more than a few inches above the rocky soil, brown leaves jagged and sharp, curled downward toward the ground. They boasted no flowers, and were thoroughly as rotten a plant as ever Elven had seen. For a long while he inspected the plant, looking for signs of thorn or sting, but he could see nothing that gave away any sign of danger. Eventually, he reached out and, with a moment’s hesitation, plucked a leaf from the stalk.
The leaf was soft and velvety between his fingers, and he was surprised, for he had expected it to crumble in his grasp. He raised it to his nose and sniffed, but it gave off no odor. Growing ever more curious, he gently tore the leaf in half, and smelled once more the thin line of sap that was revealed. Finally, he placed the leaf between his teeth, and took a small bite.
A dreadful bitterness exploded in his mouth, and he gasped and spat it out. He felt a tingling on his tongue, and his face contorted into an involuntary grimace. It was by far the most foul thing he had ever tasted in his life, rank and rotting: no plant should taste thus, he thought.
So distracted was he by the unexpected vileness in his mouth that he did not hear the soldier of Kiriün approach him, and jumped at his voice: “Giftôr, we call it. It is all that grows here.”
Elven stood and turned to face the man, mildly astonished: this was the first time one of their company had spoken with him since they had left the great wall. “Where did it come from?” he asked. “It tastes dreadful.”
The man raised his eyebrows. “It is not for eating. It is not for anything.” He lowered his gaze to the clump of plants. “It came many years ago, as a weed. I remember pulling them from our garden as a child.” He then gestured to the empty fields around them. “But it spread, and grew: it poisoned the land. Now where it grows, nothing else will.”
Elven was aghast. “How do you survive?”
“Come,” the man said, and motioned for Elven to follow him. “It is considered bad luck to linger in these fields.” He began to walk back toward the encampment. “We have managed to keep the giftôr from a small part of our kingdom, closer to Courerà[ Heart], our largest city. Perhaps a quarter of our fields are now left with crop and cattle; the rest, as here, languish.”
Elven heard then such a sadness in the man’s voice that he could not help himself: he hurried after the man and reached out to touch his shoulder. The man stopped and turned back to him. “What happened to the garden of your childhood?” Elven asked him.
The man looked upon Elven for a long moment, as though wondering whether to trust him. Finally, he said, “Like my parents, it is gone.”
Elven felt his heart go out to this man, who for all his armor and bravery looked scarcely older than himself. “What is your name, soldier of Kiriün?”
“I am Atleas,” he said, “son of Hurin and Theleas.”
“Elven,” said Elven in kind, and held out his hand. After a moment Atleas grasped it, and suddenly Elven felt better than he had in many weeks, for here, he thought, he had made a friend. Together they returned to the convoy, and though they did not speak again that day, Elven felt a kinship with Atleas, and thought perhaps Kiriün was not so desolate in spirit as it seemed.
It was fortunate that Elven had introduced himself to Atleas, he thought, for the knights would not speak to him, and Elỳn was often cryptic—if not for the man of Kiriün, Elven would have learned little of where they were, or where they were going. That evening Atleas introduced Elven to his own comrades, who begrudgingly welcomed him into their company. Over a sparse meal, Atleas took the opportunity to explain something of Kiriün to Elven.
“The heart of Kiriün, the greatest town, is Courerà,” he said. “It is where the king and his councillors reside. The fields around Courerà are yet green and fruitful, and the nobility do not want. Those lands are called the Lichae[ Body], and it is a luxury and a privilege to live there.”
Elven, who knew something about farming, was curious. “If the nobles live in the Lichae, where do their farmers and laborers live?”
“Many live with their lords, or in workhouses,” Atleas replied. “It is the dream of many in Kiriün to be employed in the Lichae, but I have seen the workhouses—they are no luxury.”
What of those that don’t live in the Lichae?” Elven asked. “What do they do?”
“Now you speak of the Hösland[ Homeland],” said Atleas. “Around Courerà is the Lichae, and around the Lichae is the Hösland. It is where most of our people live. The folk of the Hösland struggle daily against the presence giftôr, and to keep their livestock healthy. There is cultivation there, but it is poor; nonetheless, it is where most of our produce comes from.”
“And where are we now?” Elven asked.
“These are the Outlands,” said Atleas. “Few live here, and those that do have forsaken the aid of our country.”
“You let them starve?” Elven said, astonished.
But Atleas shook his head. “We would help them if we could, but it is too far to send them food or medicine, and they have nothing to trade in return.”
“How do they live?”
“I do not know,” Atleas said. “Few do, I suspect.” He pointed into the dark, down the road. “We will pass through one of the Outland villages tomorrow; you will see for yourself.”
“I hope you don’t take offense,” Elven said, “but your country appears on the brink of destruction.”
In the dim firelight, Elven saw Atleas nod grimly. “So it is. This is why our king, Kharim, has agreed to meet with your own. We are desperate for aid.”
As understanding of Kiriün’s plight started to dawn on Elven, he began to fear for the upcoming audience of the two kings. “You know we’ve come for the same reason,” he said. “We had hoped your country would have food to provide us.”
“We have not enough for our own folk, never mind yours,” said Atleas. “I hope you do not take offense,” he added hastily.
Elven shook his head. “They are not my folk. I am not from Erârün.”
At this, Atleas’s curiosity seemed piqued. “Then why do you travel with them?”
“I am a … ‘guest’ … of the king,” Elven said, and in Atleas’s gentle nod saw the man understood his meaning. “I can go nowhere else.”
Atleas sighed, and leaned back against the trunk of a dead tree. “The business of kings,” he said. “It seems both of our countries are hoping on a lie—that the other has aid that does not exist.”
Elven secretly felt this was true, and began to wonder what would happen when the two kings realized they had nothing to offer each other. Would Kharim allow them to return to Erârün, or would he imprison them in his wrath? Would he even kill them, thinking they had betrayed his trust?
The next day dawned in gloom, as had every day unto that point, and it was not long before they came upon the village Atleas had spoken of. The rain had held off for some time now, and the earth had dried; dust blew across the road as they entered the town, and to Elven it appeared to be one of the most forsaken places he had ever seen in all of Erâth.
Lining the road along both sides were squat, wooden buildings, some homes and some clearly businesses, yet Elven would have thought the place utterly abandoned were it not for the gaunt, pale faces staring bleakly at them from the porches and windows. He had never seen inhabited buildings in such a state of disrepair, and wondered how some of them were still standing at all. Here and there he saw a chicken, or a sow, and wondered what the animals ate.
All was utter silence as they passed through without stopping, and Elven’s heart cried out as he passed by a pair of children, brother and sister, sitting quietly by the side of the road. The brother was younger, and his head rested on his sister’s shoulder, for it was clear neither had the strength to play: their frames were scant, their arms mere bones, and their hair thin. Impulsively, he drew his horse to a stop beside them and dismounted. He took his riding pack from the horse and approached the two lone children, kneeling before them.
“When did you last eat?” he asked them, but they gave no reply: pale, empty eyes stared back at him. “What are your names?” he tried agin, but still received no response. Only when he reached out to touch the girl’s face did she react, and only then to pull away from his touch as though afraid.
He withdrew, and considered them with haunting melancholy. He had never seen children in such dire need of food, and knew there was little he could do. “Here,” he said, and offered them the riding pack. Both children looked at it, but neither made move. He placed it on the ground and pushed it toward them. “This has food, and water,” he said, and when they continued to look blankly at him, he continued, “I’m sorry—it’s all I have. I … I wish there was more I could do.”
And with that he drew himself up again, and remounted his steed. As he pulled away he looked back at them, and saw them staring after him, now joined by their mother. None of them had moved to take the pack. His heart torn, Elven continued to watch them until the town had disappeared into the distance, and he could see them no longer.
Later, Atleas came to him. “You should not have done that,” he said.
“Why not?” asked Elven, appalled. “You wouldn’t help them? They were dying!”
“So they are,” Atleas nodded, “and you have prolonged their suffering. How long will your food last them? A day? A week? And then what? You have given them hope when there is none to be had.”
“I couldn’t just pass them by!” Elven cried.
“There are more villages to come,” Atleas said. “What will you give them?”
And with a dawning horror Elven saw the truth in Atleas’s words, and he began to feel despair gnawing at his heart: what, indeed, could he offer these people? Never had he so desperately felt the need to help, and never had he felt so powerless to do so.
For several days they continued onward through the wastelands thus, and as Atleas had spoken they passed through more villages, some of which appeared utterly abandoned. They did not stop, not even Elven—as much as it tore at his heart, he knew there was nothing he could do to help them. As they traveled, a curious feeling began to overcome him, and for the first time in months he found his thoughts were not entirely filled with images of Talya. Vague recollections of conversations about the purpose of things in the world came to him, and he started to wonder if it might be here, among the desperate and dying people of Kiriün, that he might finally find his own.
After some time their road began to climb steadily, and soon they found themselves passing through a series of tall hills, though after the Trestaé and the Reinkrag Elven could hardly think of them as mountains. These hills were called the Rurinar, Atleas told him, and formed the border between the Hösland and the Outlands. Indeed, as they passed over the hills Elven saw that the giftôr became less omnipresent, and here and there be saw the first true grasses growing in sick clumps in the earth. There even began to be leaves on the trees, and it was with relief that Elven felt the dread of the Outlands begin to leave him.
They passed their first night in a village that evening—a place called Ostberg, a town of some hundred folk or so nestled in a narrow valley of the Rurinar. It was almost as though they had been afraid to stay with the folk of the Outlands, Elven thought, until Atleas pointed out to him that the villages there would have had nothing to offer them—and they had nothing to offer in return. “Our coins mean nothing to them, for they have nothing on which to spend them,” he told Elven. “Here, at least, we can pay for food and ale, and leave this place slightly better than it was.”
They spent much of the evening in Ostberg’s only inn, the men of Erârün begrudgingly at the hospitality of the Kiriün soldiers, for of course they own coinage was unacceptable in this country. The men of Kiriün seemed not to mind, and it was this evening that Elven felt the barriers between the two countries begin to break down, and was glad. The knights of Erârün began to speak with the soldiers of Kiriün, and as the night wore on the drink loosened their tongues all the more, so that by the time they were booted out into the cold night, there was no small amount of laughter between them all. Even king Farathé partook, sitting in a corner with Elỳn and telling tales of his own youth as a prince in Vira Weitor. Elven was surprised to see the soldiers of Kiriün enraptured by his words; he would have thought tales of nobility and wealth would have made them jealous, but it seemed the grandeur of Vira Weitor had transcended the generations of separation between the two kingdoms, for they were eager to hear of the great city, and many professed a desire to see it for themselves.
As for Elven, this evening of warmth and rest served only to endear him further to the people of Kiriün. Despite their hardships and the gruffness of their soldiers, they seemed a gentle folk, even more so than those of Consolation: he recalled with a rueful smile the many evenings in the Burrow Wayde that had ended with Mrs. Heath breaking up brawls between the farmers and smiths, and the many others that returned each night, only to raise fists once more. Then he thought of the times that he and Brandyé had been involved in brawls of their own, and a sudden homesickness stole over him. The carefree, sunlit days of his childhood in Consolation were long behind him now, smothered by Darkness and the cruel reign of the Fortunaé, and unless a way was found to stop the Duithèn’s relentless encroaching upon their lands, there might be no carefree days left for any.
They left Ostberg early the next morning, most of their party quiet after the drink of the night before, but despite the silence Elven noticed that there was no longer a split between the two countries; the knights of Erârün had spread their horses amongst those of Kiriün, and side by side they rode together, the most senior of the Kiriün men abreast of king Farathé.
Before long, Elven began to notice a change in the countryside, and by mid-morning realized that the fields they were passing by held no longer just giftôr and meager grasses but livestock as well. Though thin and scrawny, there were now to be found many sheep and some cattle, too. They had soon left the Rurinar behind and were once more among endless, flat plains, broken by occasional lines of trees and stone walls. The trees did not appear natural to Elven, and he asked Atleas about them.
“They are planted,” Atleas told him. “In the flats of the Hösland, the wind can be great; the trees help to break it.”
“Are there no natural forests?” Elven asked.
“There are many. They abound mostly near water—you will see when we cross the Mira-Thuèn. It is a great river that passes through our land.”
For a day their path carried on in a unwavering straight line, through fields of increasing green and past the occasional farm, near which Elven was glad to see men and women laboring in the fields. Here there was not the sense of dread and desolation of the Outlands, though he could still spot giftôr growing plentifully here and there, especially under the shade of trees or walls. Elven was curious that there were no meanderings in the road, and once more raised the question with Atleas.
“Our country is like a great beast,” Atleas said. “We often think of it as a living creature. Courerà is the heart; all roads lead to and from it.” He shrugged. “In the flats, there is no need for a road to bend. We are passing nearly due west; in five days, we will have arrived.”
Elven was becoming increasingly excited to see the city, and after the endless journeying of the past months, the next five days could not pass soon enough. The land continued to improve in health, and by the time they reached the Mira-Thuèn there was more green than not, though Elven had to admit the soil still looked rocky and thin.
The great river announced itself far in advance with the uprising of a great forest of maple and elm and chestnut, and as the canopy closed in over their head the world became green. But for the lack of sun, Elven thought it was quite pleasant—a far cry from the dark forests of the Trestaé or the Reinkrag. He wondered if the trees changed colors in the autumn, and thought it must be quite a glorious sight if they did.
Elven wondered if he would hear the river before they met it, but it was a quiet affair: unlike the Ütherschae or even the Tuiraeth in Consolation, the Mira-Thuèn flowed slow and silent, their path crossing it as it led in a southwesterly direction. Though Elven had some reckoning of water and rivers, the sheer size of the Mira-Thuèn astonished him: he could scarcely see the opposite bank, and estimated its width at over a mile. “Your country clearly does not lack for water,” he remarked to Atleas.
“You will see many canals from here on to Courerà,” Atleas agreed. “The Mira-Thuèn is the life of Kiriün. If it were to dry, our country would be gone.”
A strange shiver passed through Elven. “How could so great a river dry?” he asked.
“Do not forget the season,” Atleas reminded him. “Early summer, and we had a wet winter. We are fortunate this year. In years past, it has not been so well, and I fear for the future.”
“The Duithèn,” Elven muttered. “Is there nothing they can’t destroy?”
There was a bridge here, spanning the Mira-Thuèn, and to Elven it was equally as astonishing as the river itself. A solid hundred feet in width, it rose gently to a point some fifty feet over the center of the river, before descending to the other shore. It was made of wood, but Elven could see its construction was strong, for there were countless poles, a thick as a man, that descended into the deep water and would have held the bridge steady in the strongest of floods.
They stopped here at the foot of the bridge for a moment, and it was as Elven was resting in the dark shade of a great oak that he heard an ever-so-familiar, long forgotten cry and looked in surprise to the sky. So consumed had he been with the desolation of Kiriün that he had entirely forgotten Sonora, now returned from her trip to the Hochträe, and his heart lightened tremendously to see her form circling high above them.
He was not the only one to have spotted her, and he saw with amusement the soldiers of Kiriün pointing at her and talking among themselves. After a moment (perhaps considering whether the soldiers were friendly or not), Sonora deigned to descend upon Elven, who held out his arm for her to perch upon. He winced as her talons dug into his skin, for he had not his leather gauntlet with him, but even the pain was familiar, and despite himself he smiled broadly.
“I’m so glad to see you!” he said to the falcon. “I was worried that you’d fallen afoul of some beast in the Reinkrag.” He reached out to pet her head, and she nuzzled against his palm. “I see you delivered my note—is this a new one in return?” With delicate fingers he unwound the parchment tied to her leg, and was glad because it was not the one he had sent with her. It was good to know she was still able to deliver messages; and then, of course, he thought of the one she had not delivered, and his thoughts went out again to Talya, wherever she might be. He unwound the parchment and read:
It makes me glad to know you are well. It is unfortunate that you must bear the death of my kin with you, but know they are well grieved. They are good people, and remain so in death.
You must be concerned for your friend, Brandyé. He departs from us in the night, alone. He does not accept our help—I do not think you are surprised by this. Into the Eternal Snows he goes, and we do not know of his fate. It is not his time to find Death, though, and so I continue to believe he is well.
Our greatest thanks for sending us word of our kin’s passing; you do well against the coming of the Duithèn.
With warm thoughts,
Many thoughts raced through Elven’s mind as he read Nisha’s note. He was glad to hear from the old man of the Hochträe, glad to know he was well; when he had left him, he was still recovering from wounds inflicted by a fierund. The note also brought back to him the haunting memories of the deaths of his traveling companions in the Üthervaye mountains, and he closed his eyes for a moment in remembrance.
More than anything, though, the note brought to him thoughts of Brandyé. He had left the Hochträe alone, and deep inside Elven acknowledged that he knew his friend would have done so. He does not accept our help, Nisha had written; Brandyé had never been one to accept help, from any, and his departure did not surprise him. It gave him great concern, however, to think that Brandyé had continued alone on his journey north, into what Nisha’s folk called the Eternal Snows: how Brandyé expected to survive there, he did not know.
For a moment he was lost in reverie, and then Atleas’s voice broke through: “This is your bird?”
Elven opened his eyes and looked to the soldier of Kiriün, who seemed utterly perplexed by the falcon on Elven’s arm. He saw that around him, the other soldiers were looking upon him as well. “It is,” he replied. “Her name is Sonora.”
Atleas’s gaze fell to Elven’s arm, where spots of blood had appeared through the cloth of his sleeve. “Does her grip not hurt?”
Elven smiled. “It does indeed, but it’s a pain I am used to. I have had Sonora since I was a child. I have trained her to bear messages far and wide. Just now I’ve received one from the mountain folk with whom I stayed many months ago.”
“I am astonished,” said Atleas. “She is a precious bird.”
Elven lowered his hand to Sonora’s head once more. “She is indeed.”
They soon set off from their resting place, passing onto the great bridge that spanned the Mira-Thuèn. Elven found himself in high spirits with Sonora’s return, and the despair of the Outlands fell from his thoughts. He felt somehow strengthened by her presence, as though the knowledge that she had survived her passage to the Hochträe and back foretold his own survival in whatever struggles were yet to come. For the following days until their arrival in Courerà he rode on contentedly, often humming to himself, and his mood was infectious—before long there was much conversation and laughter among the men of both Kiriün and Erârün.
The day before they were due to arrive in Courerà they came upon yet another great body of water, though nothing close to the size of the Mira-Thuèn. It was a canal, wide and deep, and there was once again a great bridge that crossed it. Here, though, there were guards, and for some time their party stopped as king Farathé, the senior soldiers and the guards conversed.
“This marks the passage from the Hösland into the Lichae,” Atleas explained to Elven. “This canal provides transport of goods around the Lichae and the Hösland, but also serves to separate the two: it runs for three hundred miles around the entire Lichae.”
To Elven’s mind this was yet another astonishing feat of the engineering the Kiriün seemed to have mastered, though he doubted anything would equal the great wall of Kiriün for sheer size and ingenuity.
After some time it seemed the guards and soldiers reached a consensus, for after some general cries and shouts they moved forward once more, passing across the bridge and into the Lichae. Within only a few miles, Elven recognized the difference between the Hösland and this inner circle of land: the giftôr was almost nowhere to be found, fields of wheat and barley and orchards springing instead out of earth that seemed browner and healthier than any he had seen hitherto.
They passed through yet more villages, these more bustling and alive, and Elven noticed that the cloth of the folk seemed finer, and the construction of the homes more durable; here, then, lived the wealthy and well-to-do of Kiriün, as Atleas had spoken. They spent their last night of travel at one of these, a place by the name of Rentham Green, and it was here that the consideration of what was to happen once they reached Courerà came upon Elven.
He was sitting in a corner of one of the town’s several inns with Atleas and several of the Kiriün soldiers, and unusually Elỳn had decided to join them that evening. “The king needs no further counsel from me tonight,” she said as way of explanation. “I would rather spend my time with you.”
Elven was glad, for it turned out that Atleas was not terribly knowledgeable about the happenings of the royalty of his kingdom. “I was enlisted to make the journey to the great wall, and escort you back,” he said. “What is to happen to you when we reach the capital was not explained to me, and I did not ask.” He shrugged nonchalantly. “It is a job, no more—I am proud to do it.”
“And you’ve done it well,” Elven said, for he had come to think of Atleas as a friend. A thought occurred to him. “What are you to do when we arrive?”
“I imagine I will have some days of leave,” Atleas replied, “and then I will be reassigned. Patrol of the great wall—policing of the outer villages, perhaps—who knows?”
“Do you think we’ll have the chance to meet again?”
Atleas smiled. “My duties will always return me to Courerà, sooner or later; for as long as you remain here, I shall seek you out.”
As kind as this sentiment was, it concerned Elven slightly, for he had never considered the possibility that he would stay in Courerà long enough for Atleas to conduct a tour of duty and return again.
“How long do you think we will remain here?” he asked Elỳn instead.
“I cannot say,” she said. “A few days—a week. A month, perhaps? As long as it takes for our negotiations to conclude.”
Elven was relieved, for he had begun to think of their stay in terms of years. “So we’ll return to Vira Weitor soon?”
She nodded. “I expect so. It will depend on how well the conversation between Farathé and Gwenyth goes.”
“Gwenyth is their king?”
But Atleas laughed. “No, no—our king is Salâthar. Gwenyth is his wife.”
“I don’t understand,” Elven said.
“What your friend here is saying, could easily be considered treason,” said Atleas, “but it is true nonetheless. All know of it, but none speak of it: it is the queen who rules our kingdom, from behind the folds of the king’s cloak. So it has been for hundreds of generations.”
“Does Farathé know this?”
“Not yet,” said Elỳn, “though I imagine he will come to suspect it soon enough. Salâthar will speak of nothing but pleasantries unless his wife is by his side. I imagine our first dinner with them will be entirely fruitless.”
“Why is that?”
Atleas laughed. “Women and children are not permitted at the great dining hall table,” he said. “Even a soldier such as myself knows that.”
“What of you?” Elven asked Elỳn.
She smiled. “I believe for me they will make an exception. If not …” she shrugged. “I have nothing to gain by dining with Salâthar. I wait to speak with Gwenyth myself.”
Elven was silent a moment, contemplating this. It was as circuitous a way of governing as he had ever heard. “How do you know all this?” he finally asked of Elỳn.
“It is not only the people of Erârün we have been watching these past centuries,” she said. “We know well of the doings of Kiriün.”
Elven recalled once more how the Illuèn seemed to be watching the kingdoms of men dwindle, and were doing nothing about it. “Why didn’t you help Kiriün?” he asked. “When you saw they were suffering?”
“What help would you have us give?” she asked. “We have no great supplies of food to offer—”
“Medicine,” Elven said at once. “Your healing skills are beyond any of ours. My leg—” he shook his foot “—is evidence of this. You could have helped heal their sick and dying.”
But Elỳn shook her head. “We are too few, Elven. Once, perhaps … but no more. Our help is here, though, now—in my presence. Farathé would not be journeying to Kiriün were it not for us.”
Elven shook his head. “I suppose I have no choice but to trust you,” he said reluctantly, “but it seems a wayward, subtle kind of help.”
“Perhaps that kind is what is needed,” she answered.
“I wonder if Brandyé would agree.”
Elỳn made no response to this, and momentarily Atleas spoke of another subject entirely, and the moment of darkness passed. Nonetheless, Elven could not help but dwell once more on the Illuèn’s apparent lack of aid to the kingdoms of men, and slept poorly that night.
Come the morning, they set out from Rentham Green on the final stage of their journey to Courerà, and it was not long before Elven perceived a gentle rise in the ground.
“Courerà is built on a great hill,” Atleas told him. “The king’s hall is at its peak, looking down upon all the country surrounding it.”
They proceeded over the land in small rises and dips, gaining ground all the while, and it occurred to Elven to wonder how the great city got its water, if it was so much higher than the rest of the surrounding land. He did not have the opportunity to ask Atleas, however, for they were soon upon the outskirts of the city, and once more Elven was struck speechless at the sight. Unlike Vira Weitor there was no wall surrounding the town, and the homes were smaller, to a one: hardly a single building was raised more than two stories high. Yet they grew over the great hill in such enormous number that he estimated several thousand homes and buildings lay within his sight, just on this side of the great hill.
They passed onto cobblestone, and Elven saw that, like the road they had been following so far, the streets here radiated out from the center of the city, with crossroads every hundred yards or so that seemed to curve gently around the entire hill. Up they climbed, and Elven’s eye was drawn toward the center of the town, and their ultimate destination.
There, atop the hill and resplendent amongst the lower buildings around it, was the great hall of Courerà. Twice the height of any other building in the city, it was a single, grand building whose roof rose to a sharp peak, the trim painted in gold and glinting even in the dull gray daylight. Elven could but imagine what the place would have looked like at sunrise, before the clouds had come to cover the face of the sun. As they drew nearer the details resolved themselves and he saw the great carved horse heads that adorned the roof’s apexes, and marveled to see such carpentry.
But what truly astonished Elven, more than the height of the building or the gold of its decoration, was the single, enormous tree that appeared to be growing straight through the roof and towered some hundred feet above the already towering roof of the hall. Its trunk at its height was thicker than a man, and Elven wondered of its girth at its roots. It appeared to be a kind of enormous oak, though Elven had never heard of a tree reaching such prodigious proportions. Its leaves were bright and green, and it did not occur to Elven that anything might be missing until Atleas said, “It is always sad, to see the Life Tree so bereft of fruit.”
“The Life Tree?” Elven asked.
Atleas nodded. “Ever has it grown here—before even there was a Courerà. The city was built here because of that tree. But it has not flowered now in many years; there are few who can remember what its petals look like.”
“But it’s still green,” Elven pointed out. “It still has life.”
“But it is the lingering of old age, you see—there is no new life to be had. So it is with our land: we linger, and we die, but there is no new life.”
Elven wondered if he meant there were no children anymore, but before he could voice his thoughts they were at the foot of the great hall. Wide stone steps led to the doors, and it was here that the soldiers of Kiriün finally separated themselves from the folks of Erârün, for here, they said, their road ended. The king Farathé was to enter into the home of Salâthar alone, with one aide for counsel. Elven had little doubt who that would be, and indeed, before long he saw Farathé and Elỳn mounting the long steps toward the entrance, which was flung open before them. Into the hall they went, dark against the brightness of day, and Elven could not help thinking the sound of the doors closing behind them was somewhat ominous.
For an age it seemed they waited, and as they did Atleas bid goodbye to Elven, for it was his time to depart, along with most of his company. Only a few of their number remained behind as a guard for the knights of Erârün, and Elven secretly thought that, should the need to fight arise, their few soldiers would be no match against the knights in their dragonstone armor.
For the first time in many days, Elven brought his attention once more on Tharom, whom he had not taken much notice of since they had entered into Kiriün. He alone among his peers seemed to have remained wary of the folk of Kiriün, rarely partaking in conversation and remaining always close to the king, lest his service be needed. Elven wondered what Tharom thought of the king going ahead without him, and with the Illuèn, instead.
The sky was beginning to darken when the doors to the great hall opened once more, and a man emerged dressed in robes of a deep blue. “Men of Erârün!” he called to them. “You are bidden to enter into the hall of the great king Salâthar, where we have made provisions for your accommodation.”
There was some shuffling amongst the knights, and Tharom led them up the steps toward the usher. “Ye’ll show us where we’re staying, then?” he asked gruffly.
The man seemed somewhat taken aback by Tharom’s demeanor, but said, “There are guides inside who will take you to your rooms. There is to be one for each of you, for you are esteemed guests of the king. There you will be given instruction for tonight’s feast.”
So they mounted the steps and so they entered the hall, but Elven’s anticipated view of the great tree was obscured, for they found themselves instead in a long passageway, where indeed many servants appeared to be waiting for them. Elven was very unused to this sort of treatment, and allowed himself to be led to his accommodation with bemusement, insisting that the servant call him Elven, and not ‘great master of the east kingdom’.
“Clean robes have been provided for you,” the servant told him, “and you are to be given time to rest. In two hours I will return, to lead you to the feast.”
Elven could not deny the appeal of the very soft-looking bed in his chambers, and nodded with as much seriousness as he could muster. “Thank you,” he said. “I shall look forward to seeing you then.”
Then the servant looked at him awkwardly, and Elven sensed he had a question for him that made him nervous. “What is it?” he asked.
“I … I am sorry, but I have been bidden to ask: what is your purpose on this journey? We have seen that you do not bear the armor of the knights.”
Elven was unsure quite what to say, and realized that, so far, he had had little purpose. “I am a healer,” he said finally. “I travel for the health of the men.”
The servant nodded gratefully. “Thank you, sir. It will help with the seating arrangements.”
Elven thought this an odd comment, but dismissed it in favor of the wash basin and the bed. Two hours seemed to pass far too quickly, and he was still dreary when the servant knocked at the door and entered, now bearing a lantern, for it had become dark. “Are you ready, sir?” he asked.
“I suppose I am,” Elven said with a yawn, and made to follow the man into the corridor. The great hall seemed if anything larger on the inside than it appeared from the outside, and it was through quite a labyrinth of passageways that he was now led—he knew he would not find his way back to his chambers on his own, and resolved not to drink too much that night.
When finally they entered the center of the great hall, Elven was yet more astounded at the size of the great tree. It formed the centerpiece of the dining hall, fifty feet across if it was an inch, great branches as thick as a man sprouting from the trunk some fifty feet above the floor. Looking up, he saw that the branches themselves intertwined with the rafters of the ceiling, and it seemed the tree supported the roof itself some hundred feet in the air.
A great table was built around the base of the tree, encircling it in an enormous ring, and there were already many people sitting at it. Elven spied the king Farathé, sitting beside a man who could be none other than king Salâthar, for he bore a golden crown and magnificent, crimson robes. Elỳn was there also, sitting beside Farathé, and he saw she had been right about their exception to her sitting at the king’s table.
It was not to this table Elven was led, however, but to a smaller one in a corner of the great dining hall, close to a set of three hearths, over one of which a pig was being slowly roasted. Even this table could hold twenty or thirty people comfortably, and Elven sidled in beside a young woman and a boy, supposing that these were the wives and children of the sires at the great table. He wondered why he was being seated here, and glanced around: Tharom and the other knights were at the main table, and he guessed that a mere healer did not deserve the honor of the king’s table. He was hardly bothered by this: he had no interest in conversing with nobility, and would much rather eat and retire to his chambers as soon as possible.
Elven was near the middle of this secondary table, and opposite him was a middle-aged woman of not inconsiderably beauty. Beside her was a girl, perhaps eleven or twelve, and he was struck by her appearance: she was pale, and seemed unwell. He felt compelled to introduce himself, but stopped himself short of addressing the child directly, and gave his attention to the lady instead. “Good evening,” he said. “I am Elven. May I make your acquaintance?”
The woman favored him with a small smile. “I am Gwenyth.”
“The king’s wife!” Elven exclaimed.
“The queen,” she corrected him with no small amount of disdain.
“Apologies,” Elven said hastily. Remembering Farathé’s haughtiness, he added, “Your highness.”
Gwenyth dipped her head gently. “You are not from here. Our customs are perhaps strange to you?”
“Perhaps,” said Elven, “though your soldiers were friendly enough. There is one, Atleas—I would call him my friend. Do you know him?” Even as he said these words he flushed, for he knew it must sound ridiculous for the queen to know any one particular soldier.
Indeed, she shook her head, but was graceful in her reply: “I do not. I am glad to hear our men have treated you well, though.”
“They have indeed.” Elven glanced at the girl beside her again, and saw that she had scarcely moved since he had sat down. Her eyes appeared glazed, and he began to feel concern. “My I ask who your companion is?” he asked, nodding toward the girl.
Gwenyth’s face was impassive as she said, “This is my daughter, Gwendolyn.”
Elven wondered if it would be improper to address Gwendolyn directly. “May I speak to her?” he asked.
“You may,” said Gwenyth, “but do not be surprised if she does not answer.”
Elven nodded. “She seems unwell.”
A small sigh escaped Gwenyth’s lips. “She has been ill for some time. Our best healers have been unable to rouse her.”
“Hello, Gwendolyn,” Elven said to the girl. “My name is Elven. How are you feeling?”
To her credit, the girl turned her gaze upon Elven, but said nothing. Instinctively, Elven reached out across the table and laid the back of his hand against her cheek. She did not recoil, but Gwenyth said, “May I ask what you think you are doing?”
Elven quickly withdrew and said, “I apologize, your highness. I am a healer also; I acted before I thought.” He thought he might now feel her wrath for having touched a royal daughter, and was thus greatly surprised by her response:
“Healer—Elven—what do you think of her condition?”
“She is too cold,” Elven said. “I would move her beside the fire if I could.”
“She has been cold for a long time,” Gwenyth said. “Fire seems not to warm her.”
“How long has she been like this?”
“It is near a year, now.”
Elven shook his head. “Can you think of anything that has changed in the past year? Her environment, her company … her diet?”
“I can think of nothing,” the queen replied. “Have you seen anything like it before?”
But Elven had to admit he had not. “For an illness to last so long is very unusual.” He looked once more upon Gwendolyn, and pity stole across his heart. “I will think on it,” he promised the queen. “If I can help her, I will.”
Gwenyth smiled. “I appreciate your sentiment, stranger. I would ask nothing of you, though.”
And so they began to eat, Elven digging into a salad that had been brought to them as they spoke, and though it was delicious, his mind could think of little but the poor girl opposite him. He saw Gwenyth coax her daughter into eating a few leaves, and his mind flew back to his apprenticeship with Sörhend. Diseases, he knew, came and went; they either left the victim well again, or took them to death. But an illness that continued on, month after month … he recalled his travels with Brandyé through the forests of the Trestaé, and how he had fallen victim to the potency of the corinthiaë plant. Had the Illuèn not rescued him, he might well have succumbed to death then.
Lost in thought, Elven slowly stopped eating, staring instead down at the leaves on his plate. Most he recognized, though a few were unusual in look and taste. Flecked here and there throughout the food was a herb he did not know, though the taste was certainly pleasant.
Down the table, he saw a second course being served, and wondered if it would be considered rude that he had not finished his salad. Quite suddenly, he was no longer hungry. He looked across at Gwendolyn again, and saw she had closed her eyes, and was leaning back in her chair, breath short and ragged. Gwenyth was tending to her, and with a sudden thought, Elven surreptitiously reached out his fork to pierce a sample from the girl’s own plate.
To his mouth he brought the girl’s food, and chewed it slowly, allowing the taste to linger on his tongue. So similar to his own plate, he was uncertain, but he thought there was a subtle difference, a slight bitterness to the girl’s dish that had not been in his own … a taste he somehow recognized.
And as he watched Gwendolyn suddenly collapse upon the table, he remembered where he knew the taste from, and heedless of the stares he garnered, spat his food out hastily onto his own plate. The queen appeared not to notice, and swiftly Elven pushed back his chair and stood from the table. If he was right in his suspicions, there was little time to lose.
Quickly he moved to the nearby hearth and, ignoring the heat, scooped up a great handful of ash from the ground, biting his lip as he felt them sear his skin. Returning to the table he poured the ashes into his water cup, and passed the cup to Gwenyth, who was looking at him now as though he was insane. “She must drink this, now,” he said, and there was such a forcefulness in his voice that she wordlessly took the cup, and gently poured the mixture into her daughter’s mouth.
The scene had by now caught the attention of all in the hall, and Elven was painfully aware of the silence around them. If he was wrong, he thought, the king’s wrath would be great …
And indeed, there were suddenly guards surrounding him, and as they pulled him away, he heard Salâthar calling for him to be imprisoned, that he was poisoning his daughter, and his only thought was that he must tell the queen, and he shouted out, “Do not let her eat anything more this night!”
And with that he was led away, away from the table and the dining hall, and within a few minutes found himself not in his chambers, but in a barred cell, and when the guards left they took with them the lanterns, and it was dark indeed. Elven wondered if he had jeopardized the negotiations between these two great kingdoms, wondered if the rest of the party from Erârün were being imprisoned as well, and found he did not care: if the young girl survived, he thought, it would all be worth it.
It was daylight by the time Elven was approached again, and to his great surprise, it was Gwenyth who had come to see him, accompanied by several guards. She stood quietly outside his cell, and as he looked upon her, he saw that she had slept no more than he had, and saw the tears in her red eyes.
“How did you know?” she asked finally.
“It was her food,” Elven replied. “It did not have the same taste. There was something in it—something terrible.”
“Giftôr,” the queen said. “We have arrested the cook who prepared it.”
“How is she now?”
Gwenyth closed her eyes for a moment, and Elven thought he saw relief on her face. “She is better. Far better than she has been in months. She wishes to see you.”
Elven could not help smiling. “I would be glad to.”
The queen nodded, and motioned to one of the guards, who moved forward toward the bars. “My husband says you are to be released. He—and I—apologize for your treatment. He thought you were—”
“I’m certain,” Elven said. “I can’t imagine what it looked like.”
“You saved her.”
“Then my work as a healer is done.”
And then the queen smiled. “Perhaps not.”
Elven’s actions—and his fate—were the subject of much discussion over the following days, and he was brought before king Salâthar, in the presence of Farathé, Gwenyth and her daughter. “I understand you have no home to speak of,” the king of Kiriün addressed him, and Elven could but nod.
“My true home is far behind me, and I doubt I shall ever return.”
“I also understand you are, strictly speaking, a prisoner of Erârün.”
At this, Elven looked to Farathé, who said, “This man is indeed in my custody. However—we are not in Erârün, and I must bow to the discretion of this kingdom.”
Salâthar then looked momentarily to Gwenyth, and Elven saw her nod. “It would honor me, then, to offer you a new home: here, among the people of Kiriün. I would have you as healer to the high court of Kiriün, to look to the health and well-being of all our kingdom.”
And Elven was stunned, and for many moments could not speak. Many thoughts raced through his mind: the idea of not returning to Vira Weitor, of not knowing the fate of Talya, was horrifying. Yet the possibility of helping an entire kingdom was tantalizing, whispering of a purpose he had long been looking for. Speechless, he looked at those around him, but it was not until his gaze fell upon Elỳn that he felt his mind settle: her smile told him everything he needed to know.
“I would be … honored, your majesty,” he said. “Gladly, would I take this position.”
And so he did, and so it was that Elven came to live among the people of Kiriün, as a healer of the high court.