The Redemption of Erâth: Book 3, Chapter 5

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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:

Dear Elven,

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,

Nisha

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.

Thought of the Week: Dark Universe

Don’t forget – you can claim your free copy of The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation just by emailing satiswrites@icloud.com and telling me which digital format you’d prefer (ePub, Kindle, PDF, etc.)!

***

Silesian Planetaruim (not the one we went to).

Silesian Planetaruim (not the one we went to).

I was at a planetarium this weekend with Little Satis and my family, and we watched a wonderful short presentation on dark matter narrated by the smooth-voiced Neil deGrasse Tyson. (Mrs. Satis actually dozed off because of his voice.) I’m pretty partial to anything space related, and although I didn’t learn any astounding, never-knew-that-before statistics, it re-awoke the old fascination in me about the origins of the universe, and space in general.

One of the revelations of the presentation was the fact that all of the matter and energy (stars, planets, heat, light, etc.) that we can observe represents about 5% of the total contents of the universe, calculable by the gravitational effects of dark matter on the rotation of galaxies and the expansion effects of dark energy on the universe as a whole. But things like that make me wonder, because there are a number of far-flung theories out there regarding the nature of the universe as a whole, and as an absolute lay-person I sometimes feel like I can almost piece it all together, if only I was a little brighter.

 

This would mean that every black hole in our universe is in fact a lower-dimension universe in and of itself…

 

Dak matter strings.

Dak matter strings.

String theory (to my limited understanding) essentially postulates that all particles in the known universe are actually space-time representations of ‘strings’ that permeate the entire universe. What this essentially means is that this hydrogen atom that I see spinning away from me is actually part of an infinite string, pulled along by the expansion of the universe itself. If such is the case, then it makes me wonder whether ‘dark energy’ is required to explain the expansion of the universe. After all, energy is required to explain the kinetic movement of objects in a three-dimensional space. However, if the movement of objects on the largest of scales is actually the act of the universe dragging them along, no energy, as I see it, is required.

It does still raise the question of why the universe is expanding at all, but what if that expansion is purely relative? For example, it’s been calculated that as the universe expands, it cools. Therefore, it was hotter in the past than in the present. But if our existence in the universe is dependent on the relative conditions at the moment in time in which we exist, then isn’t it just as likely that earlier in the universe’s life, the relative heat was no greater than it is now? In other words, to an observer ten billion years ago, the universe was no hotter than it is now, although for that observer, the universe was still hotter in the past and cooler in the future.

Does that make any sense? If it does, it means there may be no such thing as ‘dark energy’ at all, since the movement of distant galaxies and the temperature of the universe as a whole is entirely relative to the observer.

Super neat image of a black hole (not real).

Super neat image of a black hole (not real).

Another theory that I quite like the idea of is that the entire universe is actually the interior of a higher-dimension black hole. This is fun, because it explains the big bang as the point of creation of that singularity, and the expansion of the universe as the continued accumulation of matter and energy from that black hole’s event horizon. It could even explain the increasing rate of the universe’s expansion by the black hole going through a period of increased accretion, perhaps because it’s moving through a space of higher-density matter/energy in that higher-dimension universe.

This would also mean that every black hole in our universe is in fact a lower-dimensional universe in and of itself, which is an exciting thought. It aligns the thought that one can’t ask the question “what is outside the universe” because the universe is the entirety of existence with the thought that nothing can escape a black hole once in it in the first place. It makes me wonder what forms of life might exist inside black holes that we would never know of…

So that only leaves dark matter, which…well, I don’t have time or inclination to attack that now. This essay will have to stand as-is for the moment. Still – it’s exciting stuff. What do you think of the origins of the universe and the fate of its continued expansion?

Featured image adapated from http://kipac.stanford.edu/kipac/media.

Satis Logo 2014

The Redemption of Erâth: Book 3, Chapter 4

Don’t forget – you can claim your free copy of The Redemption of Erâth: Consolation just by emailing satiswrites@icloud.com and telling me which digital format you’d prefer (ePub, Kindle, PDF, etc.)!

***

Chapter 4: A Greener Kingdom

 

By the following morning, the rain had abated only a little, and Elven was thoroughly as wet and miserable as he had ever been. No one had spoken much since Tharom’s song of the previous evening, and it was in grim silence they set out in the gray dawn, Elỳn leading the way. Farathé’s party would have advanced some miles since the day before, it was assumed, and so they followed the stream from the village as it meandered south and west: it would cross Farathé’s path eventually, Elỳn said. It was not easy going, for there was no road, and the stream had grown wide and spilled over its own banks, creating great marshes and swamps from the grasslands.

It was to be some hours before they would reach their destination, and so Elven passed the time lost in idle thought, allowing his horse to pick its own way through the bogs. His mind wandered, and he pondered Brandyé’s fate, as well as his own, and missed Talya. He wondered if it was raining also wherever she was, and hoped she was dry if it was. He hoped Sonora was safe and dry as well, and that she had found her way to the Hochträe without difficulty. It had been some weeks now since she had left, and he was beginning to worry, for although she had never failed to return to him before, she was rarely gone for so long.

As such, he scarcely noticed as their path was diverted further and further south by the swirling storm waters, until eventually they came to a place where they were forced to mount a steep, wood-crowned hill and away from the stream itself.

“It’s becoming impossible to follow the stream any further,” Tharom grumbled.

“Let us pass through the woods and south, then,” Elỳn said. “Rejoin the west road, and follow it to the river’s crossing: there may be a bridge to ease the way.”

Elven recalled Farathé’s aversion to passing through the forests of this countryside, but he supposed that any outlaws that might dwell there would be seeking shelter from the rain themselves, and would be unlikely to attack them. In any case, the leaves provided some small respite from the downpour, and Elven was glad of this. Into the dark woods they went, and for some time their progress was unimpeded. Soon they had crested the hill and were descending the other side, toward the main road which they had left the previous day.

Before long, however, they came to a place where the briars began to grow thick, and their course was diverted once more as they tried to find passage through the brambles and thorns. Here and there they twisted, and it seemed to Elven that every time they came to a standstill, an opening presented itself and led them yet deeper into the woods.

Had Elven not known better, he would have thought they were being deliberately directed along a path, with brambles for walls. Apparently this thought did not escape Tharom, for he said, “Keep your wits about you; I don’t trust this place.”

Onward they went, until they came to a place where there was but a narrow passage between two trees, and there, barring their way, stood a man of utterly prodigious proportions. He was dressed in skins and fur, and stood eight feet above the forest floor if he stood an inch. In one hand, resting on the ground, he held what Elven thought to be an enormous hammer, of the kind used for demolishing buildings.

Tharom, who was leading them, brought his horse to a halt and called out to the man. “Sir! We’re seeking the west road we know to be south of these woods. Can ye direct us?”

But the giant man stood tall, straight and oddly silent. After a moment, Tharom called out again: “Sir! D’ye understand my words?”

Still the man made no reply. Tharom prodded his steed a few steps closer, and Elven saw that even mounted, the knight’s head was hardly above that of the man who now barred their way. “I don’t know where ye hail from, but if ye’ll not aid us, then let us pass. We’re on the business of the king!”

Elven could sense Tharom’s mounting agitation, and wondered if the knight would make to strike the man down; he wondered equally if such a thing would even be possible. Then, quite suddenly, there came a startled cry from behind him. Turning in his saddle, he saw the soldier that had been riding with them (whose name he had never learned) being dragged bodily off his horse, a thick rope around his throat. As Elven stared incredulously, he saw the man hoisted high into the air by his neck, hands desperately scrabbling at the cord that was cutting off his breath.

In an instant, Tharom had drawn his sword, but even swifter was Elỳn, her bow at her shoulder before Elven could even see her move, and with a great flash of light her arrow passed clear through the rope, and the soldier dropped to the ground, gasping.

Then the woods around them exploded, men bursting through the foliage and dropping down upon them from above, and as Elven looked this way and that in a panic, he saw the mute giant lift his hammer and bring it down fiercely upon Tharom’s horse. With a dreadful whinny the creature crumpled to the ground, its neck broken, and Tharom was thrown hard upon the ground.

He had scarcely time to see the knight regain his feet before one of their foe was upon him, and Elven kicked out at the man’s head for lack of any other weapon. Perhaps the man had not been expecting such an attack, for to his surprise Elven struck him under the chin, and sent the man reeling. His enemy staggered but did not fall, and with terror Elven saw him regain his footing and come at him again, waving wildly the short sword he carried with him.

It was in the instant before death was upon him that suddenly Elven’s vision was overwhelmed by a light brighter than lightning or sun, and he heard startled cries from all those around him, both friend and foe. The brightness burned through him, seared his eyelids and threatened to drive away his consciousness entirely, but then he heard Elỳn’s voice calling above the shouts: “Elven—Tharom—follow me now!”

Elven wondered how he could follow anything in the blinding light, but turning once more in his saddle he found he could nonetheless see her, as clear as day, yet somehow radiant even against the white that raged around them. It was then, as she called again and motioned to him, that he realized the impossible: she was somehow the source of the light that surrounded them, it came from her and was a part of her, and in blind disbelief he urged his horse forward, aware that the beast likely could see no more than he could, and wondered how they would not run headlong into a tree.

But with his sight focused singularly on Elỳn, he spurred his horse into motion, and in a moment felt his horse stumble over tree roots and into the forest beyond. Some dozen yards he followed until she brought her own steed to a halt, and only then did the light begin to fade, and his vision began to return. Around him the trees came once more into view, and he saw Elỳn astride her horse, Tharom standing beside her and staring upon her with such wide eyes that Elven might have laughed, if not for the direness of their situation.

The soldier was not with them, he saw, and looking now behind him he saw that the folk who had attacked him were themselves recovering from their blindness, shouting and calling furiously after them. He thought he caught a glint of silver armor lying on the ground, but it was quickly obscured by the band of outlaws that was now approaching them madly.

And here it was that Elven saw Tharom prove his worth as a knight of the fourth order of the dragon, for he stood his ground even as he called to Elven and Elỳn, “Flee!” He swung his sword wide, and his enemies were brought up short at the sight of this suddenly imposing man, clad in black dragonstone armor and growling fiercely at them.

Elven had no more time to watch, however, for Elỳn cried to him, “Ride!” and at the power of her voice he spurred his horse once more into motion without thought. There were here no more brambles or thickets of thorn, and he recognized what they had just passed through for what it was: a trap. Instead the forest floor lay clear and open, and within only a few minutes he and Elỳn had left the woods behind, and to Elven’s indescribable relief saw the west road, wide and muddy, laid out before them.

Here they finally stopped, and Elven looked back to the forest, unable now to hear or see any sign of battle. He turned to Elỳn, about to ask her what they should do, when he saw that she was slumped over her horse’s mane, eyes closed and breath ragged. With horror he watched as she slowly slipped from her saddle and fell hard upon the ground, her white robes swiftly stained with mud.

Elven fairly leapt from his own horse (much to the beast’s indignation) and raced to Elỳn’s side. His panic grew as he realized he was now alone, a host of dangerous men quite possibly following him even now, and that his only protection now lay unconscious upon the wet and cold ground. He knelt beside Elỳn and took her wrist, feeling for a pulse, and when he couldn’t find one realized he had no reckoning of healing Illuèn. He could clearly still hear her breathing, even in the rain, and so knew she was alive: but what he could do for her was beyond him.

Momentarily, he began to hear noises from the woods, the sounds of war cries and what he thought were galloping hooves. Dreading the worst, he took up Elỳn’s bow, which had fallen to the ground with her, and arming himself aimed toward the woods, waiting for their enemy to appear.

Instead, out of the dark trees came Tharom, riding furiously on the horse that had belonged to the soldier. In his surprise, Elven nearly loosed an arrow upon him, and looked beyond him for signs of pursuit.

Tharom was alone, however, and as he brought his horse alongside Elven and Elỳn he could see the blood of his enemies, dark against his black armor. “What happened?” he asked.

But Tharom ignored him, and dismounted from his horse. “Quickly—we must get her back on her horse. I’ve stayed them for now, but it’ll not be long before they’re after us.”

“Why would they chase us into the open?” Elven said.

Tharom smiled grimly at him. “I slew many of them.”

Together they lifted Elỳn up, who was now murmuring gently to herself, and with great effort managed to set her upright on her horse once more. Tharom took some cord from the riding pack of his own horse (Elven marveled to think a soldier would carry such things with him) and swiftly bound Elỳn to her saddle, so that she would not fall again. He then bade Elven remount his horse, and did the same. “We must now ride!” he cried, and taking Elỳn’s horse by the reins he spurred his horse to a gallop, Elven following close behind.

For an age did they continue at this breakneck pace, until their horses’ flanks were heaving and the woods had disappeared behind the rise of a hill, and only then did Tharom call them to a halt, their breath steaming in the rain. “Curse the Illuèn!” he growled, and spat in Elỳn’s direction.

Shocked, Elven said to him, “What are you speaking of? She saved our lives!”

Tharom turned a vicious look on Elven. “Were it not for her, we’d never have entered those woods in the first place! A soldier of Erârün would still be with us.” He cursed again. “And my horse.”

Elven wondered that the knight seemed to equate the life of a man with that of his horse, but said nothing. “What do we do now?”

“We follow the road, and rejoin the king,” said Tharom. “What else?”

And so they set out, this time at a slower pace, Tharom with the comment, “I suppose ye think ye’ll be keeping that bow with ye, now.”

“It’s Elỳn’s bow,” Elven pointed out. “It isn’t my place to keep it. It’ll be hers when she awakes.”

Tharom grunted, but said no more, and Elven wondered if in his way the knight was beginning to warm to him.

For some miles they continued then, their horses plodding through the thick mud, their cloaks soon well-stained. It was only after an hour or so that the narrowness of their escape truly struck Elven, and he began to grow dizzy at the thought that they might have all died at the hands of the outlaws. And Tharom … Tharom had continued on as if it had been nothing, a mere inconvenience. No mourning, no tears for the fallen soldier, and Elven was struck at the contrast now with the man who had uttered serene and beautiful words only the night before. Here was a man more complicated, and more resilient, than he had ever suspected.

By the time they arrived at the great river they knew would lay in their path, the rain had finally relented, and Elven was grateful for the drier air. Elỳn had still not awoken, and Elven was growing ever more concerned for her. He brought himself alongside her horse and listened for breath, which he could only just hear above the horses’ own snorting.

Before them lay a great bridge spanning the river, but at once Elven knew they would not cross it: the swollen river was rushing only inches under the bridge, and the center of the structure had been washed clean away, leaving a gaping space a dozen feet wide or more between the two sides. Even at a gallop Elven was uncertain their horses could make the jump, and Elỳn was not awake to spur her own horse onward.

Tharom clearly shared Elven thoughts, for he said, “We shan’t cross here. The river’s not deep, though—let’s make our way downstream, and see if there’s a place we might ford the stream.”

So they left the path and continued to follow the river, which like the stream near the ruined village was nearly overflowing its banks. In places it narrowed and in others it widened, and Elven knew they were looking for a place where the river grew shallow and slow. Finally, after what felt an interminable age, Tharom stopped them and said, “Here.”

Elven looked to the river and saw that there was here a place where the riverbed was risen high with stones, and appeared at its deepest only a few feet. The current was yet swift, though, and Elven worried that their horses might not make it across. He shared this thought with Tharom, and to his surprise there was no disdain in his voice when he replied, “I agree—but it’s our best chance.” He grinned at Elven. “I tell ye what—ye go first. If ye make it across, I’ll send the Illuèn.”

Elven had doubts about the knight’s gallantry, but against a man who would likely cut him down if he refused, he had little choice. Into the water he reluctantly guided his horse, who whinnied nervously. Gently prompting the beast forward, he kept his sight focused ever on the river bottom, not even trusting the horse to pick its own footing well. As they neared the river’s middle his feet began to trail in the swirling eddies, and he felt a strong current begin to pull at them.

He began to coax his horse, whispering softly to it, “Go on, lad—you can make it.” The horse, he was sure, was just as terrified as he was, and suddenly with a great burst of motion it leapt forward, almost clear out of the water, and in just a few swift paces reached the far shore, where together they breathed a great sigh of relief.

“It’s fast in the middle,” he called back to Tharom, “but it’s safe enough!”

He saw Tharom nod, and the knight began to urge Elỳn’s horse forward. Her horse, however, seemed far more reluctant, and refused to enter more than a few feet into the water. Elven thought he heard Tharom curse, and saw him dismount from his horse and step into the fast currents himself, pulling hard at the horse’s reins.

With a great deal of effort, Tharom managed to pull the horse a few more feet into the river, but Elven could see that the horse would not make the entire crossing of its own volition. “What should we do?” he called out.

Tharom looked up toward him, and Elven could see the strain on his face as he resisted the strong flow with all his might. “I’ll have to pull her across!” he shouted.

“I’ll help!” Elven returned, though he was far from confident that he would be able to maintain his own footing.

“Don’t get too far into the water,” Tharom cautioned him. “I’ll not have us all swept away!”

So Elven dismounted from his horse and took a few tentative steps into the river once more, the water swiftly pushing hard against his calfs and threatening to overturn him. So strong was the current here at the river’s edge that he wondered how Tharom could possibly manage to make it all the way across on foot, but slowly, step by step and foot by foot the knight moved forward, now up to his knees, and now up to his waist, pulling all the while at Elỳn’s horse and keeping it moving as well.

As Tharom crossed the halfway point, Elven noticed an odd thing: pieces of wood, like broken planks and boards, floating atop the water. At first there were only one or two, and he ignored them, but when what appeared to be a length of wooden railing nearly struck Tharom, he looked upstream, and what he saw struck him motionless with terror.

In the distance but moving rapidly toward them was what seemed to be the remains of the bridge they had forgone, carried forth on a veritable wall of water. Elven felt the water begin to rise at his feet, and knew that some dam or obstruction had burst upstream, and in only moments they would all be engulfed.

“Hurry!” he cried to Tharom, who it seemed had not yet noticed the deluge approaching them. “You’ll be drowned!”

At this the knight finally looked up, and for the first time Elven thought he saw a look of fear on the man’s face. Without a word he began to move himself onward, pushing as hard as he could against the current. Elven risked a few further steps into the water, which moment upon moment was rising ever higher. Finally Tharom was only a few paces away, and here he let the horse pass him, so that Elven might take its reins. Elven grasped the cord and pulled as hard as he could, and with Tharom pushing from behind the horse made one final leap and took its first steps onto dry land again. Elven fell backward against its force and landed hard on the ground.

And then the flood was upon them, and even as Elven felt the water rise about him and threaten to drag him away, he saw that Tharom was still a dozen feet out into the river, and in horror he saw the water crash down upon him and in an instant, the knight was gone.

A few moments later, Elven thought he saw the knight resurface, but realized that with the weight of his dragonstone armor Tharom would be unable to swim with the current. Thinking as fast as he could, he whipped the rope binding Elỳn to her saddle from her, hoping that she would remain mounted. In a heartbeat he remounted his own horse and kicked it into a gallop, following the course of the water and hoping desperately that he could outpace the river.

Ahead, he saw a place where the water coursed over a great number of boulders, and knew that Tharom would be crushed against them if he could not reach him first. Urging his horse ever faster, he began to coil the rope, hoping to throw it out to the drowning knight. Soon he was abreast with him, and called out: “Tharom! If you can hear me, take the rope when I throw it to you!” The knight made no sign of response, but Elven could see him thrashing in the waves and was encouraged to know he was still alive, and conscious.

The sharp rocks were drawing ever nearer, however, and with a sick feeling in his stomach Elven realized he would not get ahead of Tharom before he struck the boulders. Digging his heels into the horse’s flanks he pushed it ever faster, but in only a moment he saw Tharom lifted up and dashed against the first of the great rocks with force enough that his chest ought to have been crushed.

But then, to his astonishment, Tharom appeared impossibly to cling to the rock, and as the water forced itself past him, he remained fast and did not move. Disbelieving the knight’s strength, Elven nonetheless threw himself from his horse and, taking a stone from the river’s edge, tied it fast to the end of the cord. Then, with all his might he flung the stone to Tharom, hoping as he did so that it would not strike his head.

As it happened, on his first throw the stone did not fly nearly far enough, and so Elven reeled the rope in as fast as he could. This time, wheeling the stone about him he threw it again, and this time it struck the boulder to which Tharom was clinging, and Elven saw him make a mad grasp for it. In horror he watched as Tharom slipped off the boulder and disappeared once more into the waves, but momentarily he felt a great force pull on him, and knew that Tharom was clinging fast.

Elven had not considered the weight of the knight and the force of the water, and felt his arms nearly pulled out of their sockets. As it was he was pulled helplessly toward the water, and knew that he must brace himself, or they would both be lost. Fighting against the pull as hard as he could, he called for his horse between gritted teeth, hoping the beast would come.

Miraculously, the horse understood either his words or his whistle, and stepped toward him. Lifting the straining rope above him, he clawed desperately at the saddle, and managed to pass the rope through the leather strap that bound it to the horse. Holding it fast now to the beast, he cried for the horse to move forward, and to his immense relief it did, hauling the rope and its load with it.

The rope was long, and it was many yards before Elven saw the knight appear on the bank of the river, and when he did, he was still and unmoving. Finally releasing the rope, great welts on his palms, he moved to Tharom’s side and knelt by him, gently turning his head and placing his fingers under his throat. To his relief the man still had a pulse, but he was utterly unconscious and when he bent his ear to his lips, he could hear no breath.

Scrabbling at the armor, Elven manage to loosen Tharom’s breastplate and lifted it from him, revealing beneath it the green tunic and white embroidered dragon that marked his status as a knight of the king. Pressing hard and repeatedly on Tharom’s breast he finally heard him splutter and cough, and a great deal of water issued forth from his mouth.

Finally breathing again, Tharom began to stir, and when he opened his eyes he looked upon Elven groggily. Elven was unsure what Tharom might say, but it he was certainly not expecting an accusation: “You removed my armor.”

“You were drowning!”

“So ye should have let me. Ye’re the worst kind of fool!”

“You’d rather have died than be saved by me?” Elven asked incredulously.

“Where’s the Illuèn?”

“I left her—”

Tharom nodded pointedly. “Ye left her, unattended and unconscious. Now she might be dead, for all we know.”

Elven felt a surge of guilt run through him, followed swiftly by anger. He stood, and said, “Fine! I’ll go tend to her, and you can get yourself back on your feet!”

And then Elven thought perhaps Tharom’s cheeks flushed, and he muttered beneath his breath.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“I said, I can’t,” repeated Tharom, a little louder.

“Can’t what?”

There was definitely now color in the knight’s face. “I can’t get up.”

“Why not?”

And Tharom turned his head slightly and said, “My arm. It’s dislocated.”

Elven stared at him in disbelief; anyone else he knew would have been crying out in agony. He looked at Tharom’s arm, and saw what had happened: the knight, with his last breath in the water, had tied the rope fast around his wrist, so that he might be dragged out of the water. In doing so, his shoulder had been pulled clean out of its socket.

Elven sighed, and knelt beside Tharom once more. “I’ll put it in place for you,” he said, “but you’ll not be swinging a sword for a while.” He reached forward and prodded Tharom’s shoulder with his fingers. “This’ll hurt.”

But as Elven set Tharom’s shoulder the knight let out no more than a grunt, and he was once more struck at the man’s resilience. Tharom allowed Elven to pull him to his feet by his good arm, and Elven said, “If you come back to Elỳn with me, I’ll put you in a sling.”

Tharom scowled at him, and he supposed the knight knew his own limits, even if he would not voice them. Soon they were reunited with Elỳn, who had remained passed from thought throughout all of this, and Tharom’s arm was thoroughly bandaged with a sling made from a scrap of Elven’s cloak. Tharom once more accepted his help in mounting his horse, which he said he was taking from Elven. “My horse’s bolted,” he pointed out. “Ye can ride with the Illuèn.”

Begrudgingly Elven acknowledged that this was sensible, for despite her great height Elỳn was not heavy, and a horse would be better able to carry them than he and Tharom. Before long they continued on, leaving the now-subsiding waters behind them, and did not stop until nightfall. To Elven’s immense relief Elỳn had roused herself partway through their journey, though she would say no more than a few words.

When they stopped, Tharom refused Elven’s help in dismounting from his horse, and despite himself Elven secretly smiled as the knight cursed at his pain, and thought he deserved it for being so obstinate and ungrateful. He knew (and supposed Tharom knew) how fortunate he was not to have died in the flood, but if the knight would not even thank him for it, he would not do more than his due to help him.

There was no food to be had that night, but Elven gathered wood for a fire, and sat on one side of it with Elỳn, while Tharom tended to himself on the other. Elỳn was now able to sit, and since she had said little when he had tried to speak with her on horseback, he did not speak to her now, and allowed her what time she needed to recuperate.

Eventually, though, she turned to look at him, and he saw in her pale blue eyes a pain that he had never seen in her before. “Are you all right?” he asked.

“Are you?” she replied.

He nodded. “I’m fine. Tharom is hurt, but—” he lowered his voice “—he is too stubborn to accept my help.”

Elỳn smiled weakly. “You escaped.”

Elven’s thoughts turned to soldier they had left behind. “Not all of us.”

Elỳn lowered her head sadly. “I failed.”

“You did not fail us,” Elven said, trying to comfort her. “If not for you, we might all be dead.”

Elỳn placed a hand on Elven’s. “You are too kind. I allowed a man to die.”

Elven shook his head. “It wasn’t of your doing. We shouldn’t have entered the woods at all.”

“It was my idea to enter them,” Elỳn pointed out, and Elven cursed himself for not remembering this. Perhaps Elỳn saw this, for she said, “Death has been around me for many centuries, Elven. Do not concern yourself: I will be fine.”

For a moment there was silence, and then Elven was encouraged to ask, “What is it you did? I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

“I am Illuèn,” she said, as though reminding him of an obvious fact, “the race of Light. As the Duithèn bring darkness, we can bring light.”

“But so much …” said Elven. “Never in the brightest day have I seen such light.”

“It is not without consequence,” she said, “and some of us are stronger than others. Some, this would have destroyed. For me …” she sighed. “I am weakened, yes. But I will regain my strength over the coming days. Do not worry.”

They set out early the next day, and Tharom said he expected they would reunite with the king’s caravan by that afternoon if they kept to a brisk pace. Elven worried for Elỳn’s strength, but she seemed able enough to remain astride her horse through the hours of the day, and so they went on in silence, avoiding any woods they came across as the king Farathé had clearly been wise to suggest.

It was in face late in the evening before they began to see signs of other folk, and Elven was greatly nervous at first as they saw camp fires in the distance, for in the gloom they could not tell their provenance. As they drew near and passed the first of many blazes, however, Elven saw the firelight reflected off many armor plates, and knew they had finally reached the company of the king.

They drew many gazes as they passed through the encampment, not the least of which was for their wet and bedraggled condition, Elven was sure. Eventually they reached a place where the many horses were being tended to, and here they finally dismounted, leaving their steeds in the care of the hands there. Elven and Elỳn set out at once for the dining tent, but Tharom said he would speak with the king at once, for he must give an explanation for their prolonged absence.

There was hot food and there was ale, and when he had eaten his fill Elven sat back, and allowed the events of the past two days to pass through and out of his mind. He would not dwell on the soldier’s death, he thought, any more than he would dwell on the destroyed village, for to do so would certainly drive him to madness. Still, he could not help wishing he had never seen or mentioned the smoke of the village’s burning, for their excursion had served ultimately no purpose at all.

Elỳn was not so certain, however, and reassured him. “We know now that there is a force in these plains that would destroy entire villages,” she told him. “That is a thing worth knowing.”

“They nearly destroyed us,” said Elven bitterly, and gulped at his ale—the third for the third for the night.

“I do not believe the men in the woods were the same that burned the village,” Elỳn said. “They were violent, yes, but they would have had no reason to slaughter an entire village. Thieve, yes; burn, yes. But to murder every man and child there? There is some other force at work here, and I hope the king is wise enough to see it.”

“Do you think there are fierundé about?”

“It is possible,” she said.

“Why haven’t we been attacked?” Elven asked. “Surely the king of Erârün presents a worthy target for the forces of Darkness.”

“You must understand,” Elỳn said, “the creatures of the Duithèn are cowards. They would not attack such a gathering of fighting men unless their numbers were very great.”

“Like in the Rein,” he said.

“Let us hope those armies have remained in the north,” she said.

Elven passed the night in the soldiers’ tent, and it was with a heavy head that he helped dismantle and pack the camp at dawn the following morning. They were soon on their way again, and for two days they travelled without further incident. Elven saw no sign of Tharom, and though Elỳn would often come back in the line of soldiers and men to speak with him, she also spent much of her time at the head of the convoy, presumably in conversation with the king. Elven thought perhaps she was telling Farathé her thoughts on the fate of the burned village, and hoped the king would listen. It would lend strength to their argument to Kiriün, he thought.

Over many hills and through many dales they passed, though they crossed no further rivers, and Elven found himself beginning to anticipate their arrival at the gates of Kiriün. He had only heard speak of the great wall that divided the two countries, and wondered if it would be akin to the one the Fortunaé had build around the town of Daevàr’s Hut, or even that which surrounded Vira Weitor.

He did not have long to wait. Toward noon on the third day since their reunion with the caravan, he began to see a curious phenomenon in the distance: a place where the horizon seemed to dim, and he thought almost that a thin line wandered over the hills and through the countryside. As they moved further on, the line became sharper and more defined, and before long it realized it was growing, rising ever higher above the plains.

It was then that he became certain his eyes were deceiving him, for it appeared to be a colossal cliff, one that stretched north and south unto eternity, and which rose at the least two hundred feet from the earth. And they grew closer still, and he began to perceive that it was far too straight, far too regular to be of natural formation, and came to realize it for what it was: the wall of Kiriün.

Never in his wildest imaginings could he have conceived of such a construction. Slabs of rock that stood ten feet to a side had been stacked high, forming a vast and utterly unscalable stone palisade, one that faded into the distance, and Elven expected it formed the border of the two kingdoms for many hundreds of miles. He stared, awestruck, and he was not alone: before the wall of Kiriün the caravan halted, and there was not a man among them who did not crane his neck to look upon the highest ramparts.

Elven could see, tiny figures though they were, many men marching to and fro along the wall, and it seemed they were armed to a one with bow and arrow. Elven knew they would be easy targets for the men above, for there was hardly a hope that their own arrows could have reached those men.

For an age it seemed they stood still before the wall, and only after nearly an hour of procrastination did it occur to Elven that somewhere in this gargantuan, man-made cliff must be an opening, an entrance, and that they would need to pass through it. It was then that he realized that the king must certainly be at that entrance, negotiating their passage. His curiosity at their delay ceased; it would certainly be some time before the king could convince the guards of their intentions, for they had surely never seen such a procession in their lives.

Indeed, the day wore on, and as night fell Elven realized that they would not be passing through the wall that day. He helped the men set up camp for the evening, and after a hearty meal turned in with the others.

Come the morning, Elven awoke to much commotion and shouting, and as he dressed and peered out of the tent, he heard many calls to the men to arrange themselves in various ranks and formations, and wondered what his place in all the chaos would be. Uncertain, he made his way to the dining tent for breakfast, which he found unusually empty.

“Where are all the men?” he asked of the cook as he helped himself to a bowl of cold oatmeal.

“Haven’t ye heard?” the cook answered. “They’re letting us through! Just some of us, mind ye—they’d not take an armed battalion into their kingdom, no.” He peered closely at Elven. “Ye’re friend of the Illuèn lass, aren’t ye? I’d be willing to bet she’ll be among those that pass through—if ye hurry, maybe ye’ll have some luck and they’ll take ye too!”

“You mean you aren’t going?” Elven asked.

“Nay,” the man replied. “My job’s feeding men, and most’ll be staying here under the wall.” He gestured to the wall of Kiriün, behind the canvas of the tent. “Never seen a sight like it, have ye?”

Elven could not but agree, and finished his porridge in several swift spoonfuls, and left to seek out Elỳn. He would not stay here, he thought—having traveled so far and overcome danger and death, he would see Kiriün or die. Even the nagging thought of Talya waiting for him could not outweigh his desire to see this other country. After all, he was still uncertain whether she had ever made it to Vira Weitor or not.

It was not difficult to find the Illuèn, for she was indeed at the head of the convoy, closest to the wall itself. As Elven approached, he became aware of the course of the road as it led toward the wall, and he looked for the entrance, which he had hitherto not seen. Elỳn was there, as was the king and several knights, and they were utterly dwarfed by the vast doors that barred their passage west. The road itself was minuscule by comparison—a dozen yards wide at this point, the doors were fivefold wider, and rose over half the height of the wall: over a hundred feet they towered above the ground.

Elven found he was still unable to comprehend the scale of what he was seeing, and felt as though be had wandered into the land of a giant, from myth long ago. As he stared, he hardly noticed Elỳn as she approached him on horseback, and started when she said, “Will you be coming?”

He turned his gaze upon her. “I would like to,” he said, “but I’m not sure the king would allow it.”

Elỳn smiled a little. “He will allow it—I will see to it. This is a momentous occasion, and I would have you see it. Go, now—find a horse. Tell them it is my bidding!”

And so Elven did, retreating into the camp to where the horses were stabled, and returned a few minutes later astride the same horse that had borne him so far. He was only just in time, it seemed, for the king’s procession was aligning itself, a great row of horses and men: a neat dozen there were accompanying the king: Elỳn, and eleven knights in their dragonstone armor. Briefly Elven considered the thought that he made them thirteen, but did not dwell on it, and brought his horse to a halt behind Elỳn, who was to the left of the king. She saw and ushered him forward to her own left, so that he stood astride his horse between her and one of the eleven knights: Tharom Hulòn, as it happened.

The knight briefly looked over at him, and though his face remained impassive, Elven did not see the disdain in his eyes that was usually reserved for him. Then Tharom’s gaze was focused ahead again, and so Elven allowed his own gaze to fall upon the enormous doors that stood before them.

They were made of wood, he could see, but not one he recognized: darker in hue than any tree he knew, the boards were nine or ten feet in width, and Elven knew of no tree with such a girth. This sight served only to reinforce his curiosity to see the country of Kiriün, and he found himself waiting anxiously.

And then king Farathé broke the silence and called out, “Guards of the great country of Kiriün! I come before you now with less than twenty companions, as agreed upon. Will you now open your gates?”

For a long moment there was only silence; then, from high above on the wall came a voice, oddly magnified over the distance: “Are your men unarmed?”

“They are!” Farathé called back, and indeed, as Elven looked upon Tharom and even Elỳn, he saw not a one of them bore a sword or a bow. He wondered at the wisdom of this, but supposed it was the price to be paid for entering into hostile lands.

“And we have your oath that the rest of your men will remain here, before the wall, and at peace?”

“You do!” cried the king.

After another pause, the voice atop the wall called out, “Let the gates of Kiriün be opened!”

And then, to the sounding of many trumpets and horns came a deafening crack, and ever so slowly, Elven saw the great doors before them begin to part. Their size was such that it took many minutes for them to open enough for even a single man to pass by, and this, it seemed, was as far as the people of Kiriün were willing to open them. With scarce two yards between them the doors ground to a halt, and in the silence that followed, Farathé spurred his horse onward, and in a line they followed, Elven behind Elỳn and Tharom.

As they drew near, Elven saw the doors themselves were many feet thick, and knew it would be futile to storm such a defense. Whatever happened to them next, no rescue would come from Erârün. Then they had passed the doors, and found themselves in a great tunnel that led through the wall, and Elven realized the wall was nearly as wide as it was high: darkness and shadow clouded everything, and it was a moment before he saw that they were now surrounded on both sides by at least four times their number of horsemen, all armed with sword and bow.

Yet they allowed them to pass on, and moved to encircle them so that they rode in the center of a great phalanx of soldiers. Behind them Elven heard the great doors begin to grind inexorably shut, and with a great, shuddering bang knew there was no going back.

And so Elven looked forward instead, and as they emerged from beneath the great wall of Kiriün, looked his first upon a new kingdom, and was dismayed. Ahead and all about them, over rolling hills and endless flats stretched vast plains of dry, rocky soil and fields of dead and dying grasses. There was hardly a tree to be seen, and those that were there were nearly bereft of leaves. In shock Elven stared about him, and it was many moments before realization dawned upon him: Kiriün, the green and fruitful kingdom, was utterly barren.