Chapter Fourteen: A Sealed Kingdom
Their progress was slow through the night, and by daybreak they had gone less than five miles from the town. Here they stopped by a stream, dismounted, and only then did Elven go to Gwendolyn. Her face was impassive, and she stared into the distance as he wet his sleeve in the stream to clean the blood from her face.
“My dear,” he said softly, “you did what you had to. There was no choice—he would have murdered you without blinking.”
“There are five more,” she said dully. “Could you kill them all?”
Elven shook his head. “With luck, it won’t come to that. We’ll follow the stream here for a ways—it’ll cover our tracks. They’ll be hunting for us, yes—but if we stay alert, we may yet arrive home in one piece.”
“His blood was hot.”
“So is it in all living things,” he answered.
“He’s not a living thing anymore.”
He cupped her face, now cleared of blood, in his hands. “Look at me,” he said, gently but firmly. For a moment he thought she wouldn’t, but then her gazed focused in on his own. “You did what you must,” he repeated.
“Did he deserve to die?” she asked bluntly.
For a moment Elven stared, and realized he had no answer for her. He wracked his thoughts, and finally remembered the wolves that had once beset him and Brandyé, in the forests of the Trestaé. “If a wolf was upon you, alone in the wild,” he said, “would you kill it?”
He saw her face contort with pain, and he knew he was making the right point. “I suppose,” she said quietly.
“Would the wolf deserve it?”
“The wolf follows the orders of instinct,” he pursued. “The guard—the orders of his master.”
A tear gently fell down her cheek. “No one deserves to die,” she said.
“Yet die we must,” he replied. “If you could live it again, would you hold your blow? Would you die, instead of him?”
She shook her head, and shut her eyes tight. More tears fell.
“You, my dear, deserve to live. He made a choice, and therein lies the difference between man and wolf. A man chooses his fate; a wolf cannot.”
He saw that she was starting to sob outright, and leaned in to hold her tight. “I’ll never kill anyone again,” she choked. And Elven heard Brandyé’s words through her mouth, and he breathed a great sigh. He could not weep now, he knew; it was her time to grieve.
“It’s all right,” he said. “It’ll be all right.”
For a long time then, he held her as she wept, and when she was done, he released her and she sat back on the grass. “Does it always hurt like this?” she asked.
Elven tried hard not to remember the deaths of his life, but before he could control he thoughts they resurfaced: Sonora, Athalya, the soldiers in the Rein … and the countless others he knew of but had not witnessed. “Every time,” he said. “It marks you as human; it’s what makes you good, and not evil; light, and not Dark.”
She heaved a deep sigh, and looked around. Despite the break of day, the sky was ever clouded and the light was dim and ill. “If the world truly is so dark,” she said, “then I suppose those who have left it are in a better place.”
Elven smiled. “I like to think so.”
“We should be going soon,” Talya broke in. “It isn’t wise to linger here longer than we must.”
Elven nodded in agreement. “Can you ride?” he asked Gwendolyn.
“I can,” she answered.
As they mounted their horses again and led them into the shallow water, Meredith said, “Are we all right, mommy?”
“Have I always kept you safe, darling?” Talya said.
“And I always will.”
For some hours following they made their way upstream, hoping that the lack of tracks and scent would throw off any pursuers. By midday they were entering hillier territory, and the stream began to cascade over rocks that the horses could not leap over. They left the stream then, continuing southward, passing through green valleys and amongst low hills. There was no sign of life around them, and the pat of their horses’ hooves was loud in the silence. Elven had Gwendolyn ride in front, so that he might be able to see her, and after a while Talya brought her horse up beside his.
“Where do we go from here?” she asked quietly. “We can’t continue in the wilderness like this, but I’m afraid to rejoin the road.”
He nodded. “We should make camp in one of these valleys tonight,” he said. “The hills will hide us from sight. Come the morning I’ll climb to the top of one, and see what I can see. With luck, the guards will have already taken the road in pursuit, and may have passed us by.”
“That’s what I’m afraid of,” she said. “They know we’ll rejoin the road eventually; all they have to do is wait.”
“Then we’ll go around them. Trust me—we can think of something. I’ll not let them take us.”
“I’m afraid for her,” Talya said, nodding toward Gwendolyn. “What do you think is waiting for her at home? More assassins? This plot to end her life seems to have grown far bolder, if they are willing to have guards strike her down.”
Elven bit his lip. “I’m afraid for her, too. I don’t know what will come of her, but I swore to her mother I would protect her, and so I will.”
Talya lowered her voice. “What if her mother is no longer there when we arrive?”
“Are you saying we shouldn’t return to Courerà at all? Where might we go?”
“I just think that, for her safety, we should keep her far from any who might harm her.”
As sensible as Talya’s words were, Elven knew the truth: Gwendolyn was a daughter of queens—queens who truthfully ruled the kingdom of Kiriün. If she did not return—if she did not grow into that queen—the fate of the kingdom would be given over to lesser men. For the sake of all the folk of the land, he knew they must return. And then, he realized the deeper truth behind this thought: if King Salâthar was truly behind the plot to murder his own daughter, then upon their return they would not be safe—not until the king was deposed.
Suddenly he was brought back to Consolation, and Daevàr’s Hut, and the plot to end the reign of the Lord Garâth. It was treason, he knew, and such treason did not come lightly. It had once cost the life of the person he had held dearest in all the world; would it now cost more? This was no simple town, but the seat of an entire kingdom. Should they even prove successful, would the soldiers and guards prove loyal to their new queen?
With these thoughts, he road forward until he was alongside Gwendolyn. “How are you?” he asked.
“Better,” she said. “I’ve been thinking.”
“What of?” he asked.
“Of our return home.”
“Have you been listening to us?” Elven thought this train of thought suspicious, coming on the heels of his discussion with Talya.
“Only a little,” she admitted. “I must return—I have no choice.”
“You think we would take you away.”
“I wouldn’t go,” she said frankly.
“What do you think will happen should we reach Courerà?”
For a moment, Gwendolyn was quiet. “I must speak with my mother,” she said finally, “and find a suitor.”
“What do you mean?”
“By law, once the queen’s daughter is wed, she can choose to remove the king from power. The judges of our court would have no choice but to side with me.”
Elven was astonished. “Are you certain? Has this ever happened before?”
“Rarely, in the histories I’ve been taught,” she admitted. “But I am certain nonetheless.”
“You told me once that you would have to be at least seventeen to find a husband.”
“That is custom—but it isn’t law. I told you—there have been younger queens than me.”
“What makes you think your father would obey you?”
“Once I am wed, the guards will obey the new king. He would be removed by force, if necessary.”
“This is madness,” he said. “You are fourteen—you can’t possibly choose a husband!”
“I’ve seen more horror in this journey north than I had ever thought possible, Elven. My people are starving and dying, and my father has done nothing. That rat, Guenther—he was right, you know. Why did my father allow the folk of the Outlands to be driven from their homes? Why have the Outlands been left to ruin and decay?”
My people. For a moment, Elven dwelled on her words. She was right; as a princess in the Great Hall, she had until now led a sheltered, if educated, life. But this trip—he would not have intended it for all the world, but it had brought her forcefully into the real world, and she was now awake to the reality of suffering. Perhaps more so than even he was, so much of it had he seen in his life. And now, she was intent on doing something about it.
“Gwendolyn,” he said gently, “what you’re suggesting may be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Won’t your father have some say over your choice of husband?”
“Not if my mother overrides him. In these matters, the queen has the final word.”
“And who would you choose? What man out there could be suitable for you?” But at this, Gwendolyn remained silent, until he spoke again. “Do you know who, already? Have you made up your mind?”
“Elven,” she finally said, “I’m no fool. When that guard came at me with his sword … I knew I was going to die. I believe childhood is over the moment you realize that. I’m no fool, and I’m no child. I could die tomorrow, when we reach the main road. And if I do, I would want the person whom I wish to be my husband to know.”
“You’ll tell him yourself,” he replied vehemently, “when we reach Courerà.”
“There’s no need to wait,” she said softly. “I just did.”
It was a full minute before the implication of her words sunk in to his thoughts. “Gwen?” he said, aware that it was the first time he had used her shortened name that had hitherto been reserved for use by the queen. “What are you saying?”
Only then did she look at him directly. “I would have you as my husband,” she said. “I can think of no other.”
Despite having guessed her thoughts, to hear the words out loud was still a shock. “Gwendolyn … I couldn’t. I can’t! I … I have a child with Talya!”
“Yet you aren’t married,” she pointed out.
“That doesn’t mean I could marry you!”
“It would be a marriage in formality only,” she pushed. “You are already respected among the courts and throughout the city; the folk know who you are. They would accept you.”
“This is insanity,” said Elven, to himself as much as her. “You’re asking me to be a king!”
“You would be a far better one than my father.”
“You must put this out of your mind,” he said. It’s impossible.”
“Please,” she implored. “It’s the only way that makes sense. It’s the only way that is certain to succeed.”
Later that night, after they had stopped in the down between two hills, Elven took Talya aside. “Can Gwendolyn watch Meredith for a moment?” he asked. “I need to speak with you, privately.”
Talya appeared confused, but said, “Gwendolyn, dear—will you watch Meredith for a moment?”
Gwendolyn nodded. “Of course.”
“Call if you see anything,” Elven added. “Even a squirrel.”
They left the fire together, until Elven was certain they were out of earshot. Only then did he turn to Talya and say, “I must tell you what Gwendolyn said to me today.”
“What is it?” she asked.
So Elven told her of Gwendolyn’s plan to remove her father from power, and how the courts would have no choice but to side with her. “She says that if we wed, he’ll have to step down immediately. Tell me you think this is madness, as do I!”
But to his astonishment, she was silent for a moment, and then said, “It makes sense.”
“You must be joking.”
But she shook her head. “Think about it, Elven—all your life, ye’ve sought to do good in this world. And ye’ve done so much—here’s a chance to do more than you could’ve imagined. Think what you could accomplish as Gwendolyn’s king. Her mother would still help, but that girl is capable of the job, I’m certain: and so are ye.”
“I must be mad myself,” Elven said, “because nothing I’m hearing is sensible in any way.”
“My heart belongs to ye,” she said, “and I’d have us wed if we could. But this … this is larger than either of us. This is a kingdom in despair, against rising Darkness. If there’s a chance to fight against that …” she shook her head. “Then we must. It wouldn’t change a thing between us.”
“But to wed …” he protested. “I won’t go along with this!”
Talya shrugged. “And ye don’t have to. She can’t force ye into this, and nor can I. But, I would beg ye: consider it?”
But Elven refused to consider even the notion, and spent the night in a furious silence. He thought of anything and everything else, and slept very little. By morning he was exhausted, but remembered his promise to scout the land, and set out up the slope of the nearest hill. It was slow progress, and he was in a sweat by the time he reached the top and could look out over the landscape around them.
For miles around, there were only further hills, descending in height to the south to meet a large river that swept across the countryside. Far to the west, only a thin line in the distance, was the road they sought. Though it was difficult to make out, he thought he saw some movement in the furthest distance, as though a rider was making its way along the road toward the south. But for all the rest of the road’s length, there was nothing. After some time, he returned to their camp, where Talya and Gwendolyn were preparing a light meal. He wondered if they had spoken of Gwendolyn’s plan between them; they were sitting in silence, but it felt a comfortable silence.
“The road is to the west,” he said, “perhaps five miles. I couldn’t see any sign of the guards, but someone is riding south.”
“We should make for the road, then,” Talya said. “At least as far as we can safely go; our journey will be much faster.”
“I’m not sure,” Elven said. “I’d feel safer here, at a distance but within sight.”
“If you can see the road, then any traveler can see you also,” Gwendolyn pointed out.
Elven sighed. “There’s a river to the south, also. I suppose we’ll have little choice when we reach it—the road will be the only crossing.”
So they set out westward for the road, nervousness deep in Elven’s stomach. Yet by the time they reached it, there was no sign of anyone on it at all. They turned south, and indeed their progress was greatly aided by the path, though it was at times narrow and muddy. It was not long after midday when Elven began to see the river in the distance, and the bridge that crossed it. From his memory, the bridge was not more than two days from Pelegrin, and from there it was a further day to Courerà. If they could reach Pelegrin in the Lichae, he thought, he would feel much safer.
As they approached the bridge, Elven started to notice that the road drew ever lower, such that it became walled on either side by steep grassy slopes that would be impossible to climb. He knew the walls would give out by the waterside, but until then his nervousness grew, for it was a perfect spot for an ambush if ever there was one. He kept an eye on the height of the slopes on either side, and one hand on the sword he had stolen from Kyte-on-Farrowmill. If the guards were around, he thought, and armed with bows, they would be slaughtered.
They were nearly through, and he could see the bridge head, when suddenly a call rang out over their heads. Elven jumped in his saddle, sword drawn in a heartbeat. He saw that Talya had done likewise, and even Gwendolyn was pulling her short blade from beneath her cloak. He looked up, and to his horror saw men on both sides of the path—three on the left, and two on the right. It was the guards, and he had been right: they had waited for them to be forced into this gulley, only to set upon them when they could not defend themselves. In the hands of at least two of them he saw bows, and knew they were doomed.
But the guard who had called out raised his voice and spoke again: “Hold! We only want the princess—the rest of you can pass unharmed! We have no quarrel with you!”
But Elven called back, fear and fury battling in him. “If you have a quarrel with any one of us, you have one with us all!”
“Don’t be a fool!” the guard called back. “You have a child with you—don’t risk her life for the princess. She’s hardly worth it!”
“He’s right,” Gwendolyn said softly to Elven. “If they want me, they can have me: I can at least spare you and your daughter.”
“Don’t even think that,” Elven said between gritted teeth. “Why don’t you come and take her?” he challenged.
The guard grinned. “We don’t want to take her—we only need to kill her. But I swear, I’ll shoot you and your child down in a heartbeat if you interfere!”
Elven looked up, and around, fear overcoming all else. There was nowhere to go that their arrows could not reach, and they had none to return fire themselves. And then, as the guard motioned for his comrade to take aim, there was suddenly a great flash in the air, and the guard with the bow cried out in anguish. To Elven’s astonishment, he dropped to his knees, the bow falling from his hand, and he saw protruding from his chest a snow-white arrow, almost glowing. The first guard cried out in surprise and anger, but before he could finish his voice died in his throat as he too was struck.
The remaining guards, seeing two of their comrades fallen at unknown hands, panicked and fled. And it was only then that Elven heard the approaching sound of hooves, and looking down the road toward the bridge saw perhaps the most welcome sight of his life: Elyn was riding fast toward them, her Illuèn bow in hand.
“Elyn!” he cried out. “How is it you’ve come?”
The Illuèn drew her horse to a stop beside them, and Gwendolyn looked up at her height in astonishment. “I’ve been riding for you for days,” she said. “There is grave news from the Great Hall, and we cannot waste a moment. Gwendolyn—I’m so sorry to be the one to tell you, but your mother is dead.”
Gwendolyn’s face paled in an instant, and Elven thought she might fall from her horse. But she gripped the reins tight, and within moments he saw the shock and anguish turn to a simmering rage. “It was him, wasn’t it,” she ground out. “It was my father.”
Elyn shook her head. “I don’t know what’s happened, exactly; the king won’t see me. But he is sealing the city—none are allowed in or out, and he’s a fool to think he can sustain the town in such a fashion! Without food from the Lichae and Hösland, the people of Courerà will starve.”
“What is he doing?” Elven said, aghast. “Can he really be so dim?”
“I am starting to understand,” Elyn said. “This plague, the disease and death—it is of Darkness. I know this as I know the sun lies behind the clouds. But there is something stopping its spread—something working against it, preventing all from succumbing.”
“So we found,” Elven acknowledged.
“The Duithèn need something more; they need the cooperation of men. Gwendolyn, I believe your father has been taken by Darkness. I curse myself for not seeing it sooner—surrounded by the life of Kiriün, I could not sense his Darkness.”
“I would believe it,” said Gwendolyn. “He is a horrid man.”
“He was not always,” Elyn returned. “He has been corrupted by Darkness for many years—possibly since before you were born. And your mother—she knew. She knew, and tried to convince him to do well by his people. And sometimes he would—he was fighting the Darkness. But the Duithèn are growing stronger, and he can no longer resist. Gwendolyn, you must return with me at once: only you can set things right for your kingdom!”
Gwendolyn nodded. “I know. I have already thought of a plan.”
Elyn nodded sagely. “Then you will tell me all about it as we ride. We can delay no longer.” She turned her horse, but before she set out she said, “Talya—it is wonderful to see you. Elven has been searching for you for years, you know.”
Talya smiled. “I know.”
“Is that your child?”
“She’s ours,” she said proudly.
“We will protect her,” Elyn said. “She will grow up strong—like the both of you.”
And so they set out, five of them on four horses, across the bridge and toward the south. They reached Pelegrin by the middle of the next day, and passed through it like a breeze through leaves. “Not far, now!” Elyn cried as they rode onward. Indeed, by the following morning they were nearly upon the town, passing over the canal that surrounded the great city. But here things became more difficult, for as Elyn had told them, there were guards at every entrance to the town, preventing any from passing—by force, if necessary. They pulled their horses to a halt just out of range of these guards on their road.
“What is our plan?” Elven said. “How can we pass them by?”
“Do you think they’ll allow me through?” Gwendolyn asked.
“I doubt it,” Elyn answered. “They will almost certainly be looking for you, and if the king has been bold enough to kill his wife, I’m certain they will not hesitate to strike you down as well.”
Elven saw Gwendolyn wince as Elyn mentioned her mother’s death, but saw the resolve in her to face her father, too. “Then we leave the horses,” she said finally, “and wait until cover of dark. We distract the guards, and Elven and I will pass under the bridge, through the canal, and into the city. I know where we must go: the Golden Pavilion is where our courts are held, and where Elven and I can be wed.”
“I still disagree with this—” Elven started.
“It is the most sensible course,” Elyn interrupted. “The fate of this kingdom is held between you. Elven, you need not do anything—it will be up to Gwendolyn to have the courts depose her father.” She turned to Gwendolyn. “Are you ready for this?” she asked. “If you succeed, you will be the queen of a nation.”
Gwendolyn swallowed, and squared her jaw. “I am ready. For my mother.”
So they turned and retired their horses out of sight of the guards, and waited for night to fall. The clouds were thick that day, and the dark was not long in coming. Soon, Elven could scarce see his own hands, and was thankful for Elyn’s subtle glow. “I’ll go ahead,” she said. “I’ll be of little use with you—my light will give you away. But it will be a useful tool to distract the guards.” She smiled grimly. “Wait five minutes, then follow—and keep out of sight.”
She set out at a pace on foot, and Elven watched as she disappeared into the darkness. “Talya,” he said, “you must understand this has nothing to do with you—”
Talya put a finger to his lips. “I understand perfectly, dear. This is all I could hope for: the fate of Kiriün is at hand. To think that ye’re able to direct that fate is something I’m terribly proud of. I love you.”
“I love you too,” he returned. “Keep Meredith safe, and I’ll send for you as soon as I’m able.”
“Come,” Gwendolyn whispered. “It’s time.”
She began to creep forward into the darkness, and Elven followed. He could hear, faintly in the distance, raised voices, and knew that Elyn was already engaging the guards. He and Gwendolyn made their way carefully along the road, keeping to the side in case a horse or carriage should happen by. As they neared the bridge over the canal, they saw the glow of many lanterns. It seemed Elyn had attracted the attention of not only the guards at the bridge, but those further into the city, as well. It was the best he could hope for.
Soon they were descending the bank toward the canal, and soon he realized they could go no further without falling into the lantern light. “Here,” he whispered to Gwendolyn. “We must swim.”
She nodded, and gently stepped into the water. He followed her, and winced as the cold bit at his toes. Soon the water was up to his waist, and the ground beneath him gave way. The water at his chest took his breath away, and he gasped for air as he forced himself on toward the other side. He knew Gwendolyn must be suffering the same frigid cold, and resolved that he would get them both across, one way or another.
The canal was only about thirty feet across, but the bank on the other side did not rise gently from the water; instead, a sharp rise of several feet fronted the water, and Elven realized that Gwendolyn, who was in front of him, was having difficulty. “I can’t get up,” she whispered through chattering teeth.
He nodded, shivering himself, and grasped for the height of the bank. With a scrabble at the bank with his feet he launched himself up, and reached out over the edge of the bank. To his delight, his hands found the exposed root of a tree, and he heaved on it with all his strength, pulling himself up and out of the water. Gasping, he rolled over and lowered a hand to Gwendolyn. “Hold on to me,” he whispered. He felt her grasp his hand, and as her fingers closed around his he pulled her up and out of the water.
For a moment they both sat against the tree, catching their breath. “Thank you,” she whispered.
“You’re very heavy,” he whispered back. “Where now?”
She pointed into the dark, in the direction of the city. “The Golden Pavilion is in the heart of the city, near the Great Hall,” she said. “We can make for it by way of side streets, so that we might not be seen.”
He nodded. “Lead the way.”
She stood, dripping wet, and smiled. “We look awful!” She took a few steps forward. “Elven—my shoes are squelching. I can’t be quiet.”
He took a step toward her and realized the same was true of him: still filled with water, his own boots were making wet sounds with every movement. “Take them off,” he said.
“Take them off,” he repeated, and demonstrated with his own boots. He laid them beside the tree, and felt the grass against his bare feet.
“This will hurt on the stone streets,” she said.
“We’ll have to deal with it,” he replied.
She nodded, and set off again toward the city. Elven could see the lights ahead that signified the lanterns and lamps of the main streets, and knew their success lay in keeping to the shadows. It was late, but not so late that folk might not still be about. Soon they were approaching the first houses, and as their stepped onto the cobble of the streets, Elven wished he had kept his boots on: the stones were cold and hard against his feet. With a cautious glance, he looked back down the road toward the bridge: Elyn was gone, it seemed, and the guards were beginning to disperse.
“Hurry!” he said. “I think some of the guards are returning.”
But then, as they passed onto the main road, a light flared above them, and from a window above a voice called out, “Hold—who are you?” Elven looked up instinctively, wincing at the brightness of the light. It seemed to be an old man holding a lantern, scowling down at them. “Are you sneaking in?”
For a moment Elven almost thought to reply, before pushing Gwendolyn forward: “Go!”
“Oi!” the man called after them. “You can’t come in like that! Guards—guards!”
“Run!” Gwendolyn cried, and suddenly there was a commotion from behind them as the guards heard the man’s call and looked up the road. Elven knew perfectly well they were visible in the street lanterns, and hoped only that the guards had no bows with them.
“Can we make it?” he panted as he ran beside her, his feet pounding achingly on the stone.
“We have to,” she returned. “But we can forgo the side streets—I know the way.”
It seemed an eternity to Elven as they sprinted through the streets, and after a time he could feel nothing but the searing pain in his feet. He began to feel a soft warmth with every step, and knew his feet were beginning to bleed. He expected Gwendolyn’s were, also, but she made no sound as she ran, other than her rapid breathing. Noise abounded around them, however—as the guards called and shouted after them, window after window lit up, folk sticking their heads out to see the commotion. Some were quiet, but others started calling out to them: amongst the cries of fright and anguish at the thought that their sanctity was being violated, he heard a few folk calling out encouragement to them, and knew they recognized Gwendolyn for who she was.
And then behind them, he heard the guards begin to shout in anger, and he risked a glance backward: some of the townsfolk, it seemed, had actually stepped out into the street, and were attempting to block the guards’ passage.
“Do they know?” Elven gasped.
“I don’t think so,” Gwendolyn panted back, “but they know me, and they certainly know my mother.”
Elven began to realize the loyalty the people of Kiriün had for their queen, and it finally sunk into his heart that this rash course of action might actually work. With these thoughts in mind, it was not long before they were mounting a final hill, and Elven saw the Golden Pavilion ahead: a towering building capped with spires, it was laced with gold and painted a deep crimson, which in the lantern light looked almost black. They stopped at its entrance, and Elven realized that the path to the Great Hall lay not a hundred paces away. He had seen this building countless times, and not once had he ever asked what it was for.
“In—in!” she cried. He heaved at the enormous oak doors, and to his surprise they gave easily: they were not locked. They slipped inside and swung the doors shut behind them, scrabbling for the bolt that had been left undone. When the door was locked, Elven turned to look at what lay before them.
The building was one, enormous hall, a high ceiling rising to an apex dozens of feet over their heads. Colored windows lined the walls, mosaics of queens past staring down at them. At the end of the hall was a high dais, covered in cloth, tall candles burning bright beside it. They slowly made their way toward the dais, past rows upon rows of pews, and as they approached, an old man came stumbling in from a door to one side. “Bless me!” he exclaimed as he saw them. “What are you doing?”
“Your lordship,” Elven began, for he knew not how else to address the man, “you must help us—we wish to be wed!”
“Wed!” proclaimed the old man. “Bless me! This is not the place for that—only the royal princess can be wed in the Golden Pavilion—”
“Gwendolyn stepped forward, into the candle light. “You must listen to us,” she said vehemently. “This is a matter of life and death!”
The old man’s eyes widened at the sight of her, and he took a step back, bumping against the dais. “Bless me!” he proclaimed for the third time. “I thought you were away—”
“Parthère,” Gwendolyn said, and Elven wondered what the word meant, “I wish I could explain this to you, but there is no time. In a few minutes guards will be breaking down the doors to this place, and they will kill us both!”
“But … but … oh, my,” stuttered the old man. “This isn’t possible—there are ceremonies to be held, rites of passage, guests to invite … and your father must approve—”
“My mother must approve,” Gwendolyn said firmly.
“My child …” the parthère said, “your mother is dead.”
“At my father’s hand!” she cried.
The parthère’s eyes widened in shock, and he gasped. “Now child, you don’t know that!”
“With my mother gone, I am queen.”
“Not until you wed, child …”
“Then wed us!”
There came a sudden banging at the door, and all three jumped at the sound. “Open this door at once, parthère!” came a voice from outside. “Don’t be a party to treason!”
Gwendolyn turned back to the parthère, desperation in her eyes. “That’s my father!” she said. “He cannot be allowed in until we are wed!”
The parthère looked frantically from Elven and Gwendolyn to the doors. “I … I can’t …”
Elven grasped the old man firmly, and stared into his face. “You seem a kind man,” he said, “and I believe your heart is in the right place. Think! Is King Salâthar a just lord? Is he helping the people of your country?”
“Oh, oh dear,” the old man said faintly. “You cannot ask me to make such a decision …”
“Then let us!” said Gwendolyn. “This is my wish, and as the royal princess, you must obey me!”
“I must … I must,” murmured the old man.
“What is the briefest ceremony you can hold?” Elven said, as the pounding at the door grew louder. “What is the minimum for us to be wed in the eyes of your law?”
“In my presence, you must both swear to uphold each other, the courts and the kingdom,” he said. “You must swear to be loyal to each other, true and kind, and to remain as one until death parts you.”
“Then I swear!” Elven and Gwendolyn cried at once.
“Do you?” the parthère asked weakly.
“Yes,” hissed Gwendolyn.
“Then you are husband and wife,” the parthère moaned, and the doors splintered and came crashing in.
“Stop this madness!” cried Salâthar, rushing in with a host of soldiers. “My daughter cannot wed without my approval!”
“It’s too late!” Gwendolyn cried back. “We are wed, I am queen, and this is the new king—you are nothing!”
“Parthère!” shouted the king fiercely as he stormed down the aisle, “tell me you have had no part in this fallacy!”
“Your … your lordship,” the parthère said in terror, “in the absence of the queen, I must obey the princess …”
“You must obey me!” the king roared. “Not some child!”
“Your majesty,” the old man groaned, “the law states—”
“I am above the law!”
“You are not!” Gwendolyn shouted.
“You—” the king blazed, eyes wide in fury, “you stay silent! You are worse than your mother—”
“Don’t you mention her!” Gwendolyn cried. “I am queen now, and I demand that you leave the throne!”
Suddenly the king lunged forward, grasping Gwendolyn by the throat. “You aren’t fit to polish my floors,” he snarled, “and you will never be queen.”
Elven watched in horror as the king slowly started choking her, as her fingers scrabbled madly at his grip. Suddenly and without thought, he threw himself at the king, striking him down in a massive blow. Unprepared, the king fell to the floor, and Elven tumbled on top of him. His grip on Gwendolyn was gone, and she stumbled back, gasping for air. With a roar of fury, the king threw Elven to the side, his head cracking against the dais. Elven hardly saw as the king regained his feet, and without a word tore the sword from the nearest guard. He began to advance upon Elven, who dizzily tried to stand. As the king raised the sword, the parthère stepped forward. “Your majesty, please—there must be no bloodshed in the Golden Pavilion!”
With a terrible, incoherent roar, the king swept the sword down and across the old man’s throat. His eyes widened in terrible shock, and as Elven watched in horror he crumpled to the ground, blood pouring thick from his throat.
“No!” screamed Gwendolyn. “Guards—arrest him! He’s just murdered the parthère!”
“You would dare order my own guards?” the king spat. “Kill them both—they are guilty of high treason!”
The guards stood motionless, clearly uncertain who to obey. The king was the king, but if what the parthère had said was true, perhaps he no longer was …
The king, distracted from Elven, began now to advance upon his own daughter. “If no one will silence you, then I will,” he growled. “You will die faster than your mother.”
With a scream of fury, Gwendolyn blindly grabbed at the nearest object she could—the tall golden candelabra that stood flaming by the dais. Several paces still separated her from her father, but she heaved it as hard as she could. The burning candle struck the king in the face, and he screamed in pain as the flame engulfed his eye. The sword dropped from his hand, clattering deafeningly on the stone floor. The king clawed at his face, the embers smoldering in his eye. Gwendolyn raced toward him, pushing him as hard as she could, and the king stumbled and fell to the floor. “What have you done?” he cried out. “I can’t see!”
“Then you’ll not see your own death!” Gwendolyn cried as she stooped to grasp the fallen sword. Though it was heavy, she hefted it high over her head.
“Gwen!” Elven cried out. “Don’t!”
“He killed my mother!” she raged through tears.
“Remember the guard! What will killing him achieve?”
“But …” she stammered, the sword wavering high above the king. “But he deserves it!”
“He does,” Elven said, “but you don’t. You don’t deserve his blood on your hands.”
“I want him to suffer!” Gwendolyn was sobbing outright now, the sword lowering toward the king.
“Then spare his life!” Elven stood, finally able to find his feet, and moved to her side, trying to ignore the blood under his bare feet spreading from the lifeless parthère. He grasped her tight, one hand on the sword and the other around her. “Lower the blade,” he said softly, “and we will see him suffer.”
And finally, slowly, she lowered the sword, and as Elven released it she let it fall to the ground. “I want my mother,” she sobbed.
Elven hugged her tight. “I know, dear. We will both miss her.” And then he looked to the guards, who were standing by in stunned silence. He realized that he was, indeed, the king of this city, whether he wanted it or not, and he had a duty to perform. He called out to them: “Guards—you heard the queen. This man, Salâthar, is guilty of murder in the Golden Pavilion: arrest him, and lock him in the deepest dungeon you can find.”
Slowly, the guards began to move, yet all seemed reluctant to approach the king, who was kneeling still on the floor, moaning in agony. Finally, one stepped forward. “Men—you saw with your own eyes. The king killed the parthère, and he was going to kill the princess. We serve the law here—not the king.” One by one, the guards began to nod in agreement. “Take him,” said the guard. “Lock him away, and tend to his wound. The courts will decide his fate.”
Salâthar made not a sound as he was finally led away in defeat, and gently Elven pulled at Gwendolyn. “Come,” he said. “Now we can grieve. Let’s get clean, and we shall go to see your mother.”
Gwenyth’s body lay, pale and still, in the ornate casket that was to become her tomb. There was a candid beauty to her pallor; a serenity and peace that marked her brow where, in her last days, only worry had been. It was as though, in death, she was trying to communicate to her daughter the tenets that would lead her to become a great queen. Elven had no doubt that this would be the case, though he had grave doubts over his own role in what was to come.
“They say she was suffocated in her sleep,” Elyn said gently as she, Elven and Gwendolyn looked on. For Elven, who had seen death before, the scene tore at his heart; he could scarce imagine the tragedy Gwendolyn felt, looking upon her own mother.
“If that was the case,” Elven said, “she would have died painlessly. Know your mother did not suffer.”
“She was so strong,” Gwendolyn mumbled. “How could he do such a thing?”
“Know that your father was once a good man,” Elyn said. “Good, but weak. He was corrupted by the Duithèn—”
“Don’t speak to me of ancient powers!” Gwendolyn said abruptly. “That awful man, who I will not call my father, murdered her. He put an end to her life, when she had so much more to give.” Elven saw the tears come back to her eyes once more, and deep inside was glad. Gwendolyn was strong indeed, he knew, and grieving now would only grow that strength. She could not afford to hold on to it. “I needed so much more from her.”
“Your mother gave you what you needed to survive,” Elven said softly. “And what she could not, we will learn together. You are a daughter of queens, Gwendolyn; I know you will honor her memory.”
She looked up at him with tear-streaked cheeks, and it took all his strength to keep tears from his own eyes. “I miss her,” she sobbed. “I miss her so much.”
“As do we all,” said Elyn. “But her legacy will live on, through you. It is up to you now, to rule your people. And know that you are not alone.”
“I will not leave your side,” Elven said, “for as long as your reign might last. I will help you, always.”
“Thank you,” Gwendolyn said through her tears. “I just need time, I think.”
“Then let us give it to you,” Elyn said kindly. “Come, Elven—leave her to grieve. My child: take as long as you need.” With that, she pulled surreptitiously at Elven’s sleeve, and together they left the burial chamber. Once outside, Elyn spoke to him in a hushed voice. “This is a dark blow to the world,” she said gravely. “The Duithèn are stronger than we had anticipated, if they are able to so corrupt men. Gwendolyn may not accept it, but the queen’s death was of their doing—they were acting through the hands of Salâthar.”
“But they didn’t succeed entirely,” Elven pointed out. “Gwendolyn survived.”
“By fortune and your own skill,” Elyn remarked. “You have performed admirably, Elven—the folk of Kiriün are indebted to you. The Illuèn are indebted to you.”
Discomfited by her praise, Elven said, “What are we to do now? How can a fourteen-year-old run an entire kingdom?” He paused for a moment. “How can I run a kingdom? I have no experience at this!”
“You need not worry,” Elyn comforted him. “The country is ruled by the courts, and they remain loyal to the king—whomever he may be.”
“I can’t be a figurehead for the rest of my life!” Elven exclaimed.
“Had you a better plan?”
Elven shook his head. “What would Brandyé say?” he wondered aloud.
But Elyn nodded gently. “What would he say, indeed. Our friend was always one to follow his heart—what does yours tell you?”
Elven sighed. “To help Gwendolyn until she is old enough to rule. And if that means acting as king, then so be it. But I will be king in name only—it is Gwendolyn who truly rules Kiriün. The people must be made aware of this.”
“I believe you are right. The world is changing, Elven. it began in Consolation, and through your actions—yours and Brandyé’s—it has spread to the greater kingdoms of men. If ever there was a time for these people to accept a queen as their leader, it is now. The Duithèn are nearing their full strength, Elven, and they will do all they can to bring down the spirits of men and destroy their last remaining hope.”
“This plague,” Elven said. “It’s of their doing, isn’t it.”
“And it is spreading fast. As fast as we can bring hope to men, the Duithèn tear it away. While Gwendolyn grows accustomed to her new responsibilities, we must turn our attention to containing the spread of this disease. And we must start with Courerà.”
“What thoughts do you have?”
“Sadly, the king was not far wrong in sealing the city. As far as we know, no one within this city has shown symptoms of the disease; we must start controlling the coming and going of all people in and out of Courerà.”
Elven nodded, thinking. “This plague starts with a cough, and manifests itself within a matter of days. We can start with quarantine camps: all those who enter the city must remain there for several days under surveillance of healers, until we are certain they are not infected.”
“Once we are certain of the city’s safety,” Elyn continued, “we must send healers out to the towns of the Lichae, and do the same. And the Hösland after that.”
“We will have busy work,” Elven pointed out. “This is no quick process. I imagine it could take months—years, even.”
“The alternative is to allow the disease to ravage the country unchecked, and it will decimate the population swiftly.”
“Or perhaps not,” Elven said slowly. “Not all who come in contact with the disease are infected. Twice now I have been close to those who carried the disease, and I have never shown a sign or symptom. There is something in the air or the water that helps protect some.”
“Then we find what that thing is,” Elyn pressed. “As soon as we can ensure the safety of Courerà. As we move out into the countryside, we send our best healers to discover the source of this immunity.”
“I should be the one to go,” Elven said swiftly.
But Elyn shook her head. “We need you now, here with the queen. Her safety is now paramount. She must remain strong, and I believe she needs you for that.”
“What of Talya?” Elven said. “What will happen to her and Meredith?”
“She is the mother of your child,” Elyn said. “She will come to live here in the Great Hall with your daughter. You will be with her always, night and day.”
“I had thought we would settle,” Elven said dejectedly. “I had thought we could find a small home in the country, and raise our children there.”
“So you shall!” said Elyn with encouragement. “Start your family—settle here, where it is safe. What better protection could there be for your heirs than the guards of an entire kingdom?”
“And what of Gwendolyn? Is she to remain alone for the remainder of her days?”
“That will be her decision,” Elyn pointed out. “And that decision is many years away. For now, there is work to do.”
“I only hope our work will not be in vain,” Elven said.
“It will not—I am certain,” Elyn said.
But in his heart, Elven was not so sure. He could think of no reason why some might be spared the plague of Darkness, while others succumbed. And if this disease was truly more than natural—if it was of Darkness—then how could any of them hope to defeat it? What hope could there possibly be?