Chapter Four: 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 guard 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.
There was definitely now color in the knight’s face. “I can’t get up.”
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 fact 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.