Chapter Eleven: A New Illness
The conspiracy Elven had stumbled upon—namely, to poison the king’s daughter—was unfortunately deeper than just the cook who had been preparing Gwendolyn’s meals, and although he and several others had been arrested, even the threat of torture of death (much to Elven’s dismay) did not unravel the entirety of those responsible. Thus a tension was left over the king’s hall, and although Gwendolyn swiftly recovered and her meals were now prepared exclusively by her mother, the thought that the culprit was still about was disturbing.
As for Gwendolyn herself, she became very fond of Elven, and spent much of her time in his company. At first Elven was uncertain what to do with the girl following him around at all times, but Gwenyth took him aside one day and spoke of it.
“My daughter is fond of you,” she said frankly.
Uncertain how this statement was intended, Elven looked first left and right before answering, “I have noticed.”
“She has been shunning her own studies to spend her time in your presence.” Gwenyth’s cool gaze bore into him, and he felt his cheeks flush.
“I would not have her abandon her studies—” he started, but she cut him off.
“There may be more she can learn from you than from all of her instructors together.”
This was far from what Elven had expected her to say, and frowned in confusion. “I’m sorry?”
Gwenyth sighed. “Half of her tutors are dim as night, and of those who are not, none have the experience of the world that you carry with you.”
Elven opened his mouth, then closed it again. Finally, he said, “I hardly think—”
“Gwendolyn is a daughter of queens,” she interrupted, and Elven thought this was an odd phrasing. “She will one day take my place in this house, and all the knowledge of our scrolls cannot prepare her as well as someone who has suffered truly in this world.” At his perplexed look, she added, “The world grows darker, Elven—you know this as well as I. Our scholars do not see, and do not understand. I would have my daughter know strength against the coming Darkness.”
Then, not for the first time since coming to live in Kiriün, Elven’s thoughts went out to Brandyé. “I’m not sure I’m the right person to teach her of Darkness.”
“Then teach her what you can.”
“What would you have me teach her?”
“That which you know best.”
It occurred to Elven that he had not been much older than the queen’s daughter when he had taken on his apprenticeship with Sörhend, and so when Gwendolyn came to see him the next day, he said, “Your mother wishes that I teach you.”
The girl pursed her lips momentarily. “What would you teach me?” she asked. “I don’t like my other instructors.”
“Would you like to know how I saved your life?” At this, Gwendolyn’s eyes widened. “I could teach you to one day do the same for others.”
“Please!” she smiled.
Elven raised his palms for her to see. “Do you see the scars here?” She nodded. “They are from the ashes I gathered.”
Concern flooded her face. “I’m sorry—”
“Do not be,” he reassured her. “Every scar is a reminder of what caused it, and some things are worth remembering. Why do you think I had you consume ash?”
She shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“Do you know what charcoal is?”
Again, she shook her head.
“When wood smolders, the ash left is very absorbent. In your stomach, it would gather the poison, and prevent it from entering your blood.”
Gwendolyn looked at him in awe. “How do you know such things?”
He smiled. “I had a wise instructor.”
“Teach me more!”
Thus Elven gained an apprentice, and she proved a swift and adept learner. Though there was rarely illness among the inhabitants of the king’s hall, they would often wander the streets of Courerà (always with a guard), and Elven would have her assist him in tending to the inevitable illnesses and injuries that they would come across in their daily travels. Along with the folk of Courerà they would tend to the animals as well, and often Elven would seek out other healers, so that Gwendolyn might learn from more than just himself (he did not fully trust himself to be her sole source of knowledge).
During their many days and weeks together, Elven felt a kind of bond form between them, and found that after a time, he thought of her as a friend, and not just a student. Often their discourse would turn to matters other than healing, and it occurred to Elven that Gwendolyn was the only child of Gwenyth and Salâthar. He understood that the lineage was passed down from queen to daughter, but his infrequent interactions with Salâthar left him with the distinct impression that the king would be less than willing to abdicate his power when the day came. He posed this question to her one day: “What would happen if your father refused the throne to your future husband?”
They had been walking through an outdoor courtyard, and she shushed him into corner. “That would be unheard of!” she whispered.
But Elven was concerned for the girl, and pursued, “And what if you choose not to marry at all?”
Gwendolyn looked around, as though to ensure no one was listening to them. “I must, or there will be no one to rule the kingdom!”
Elven shook his head. “You shouldn’t have to marry only so that there will be a king. When are you expected to choose a suitor?”
“Tradition holds at seventeen.”
“But you’re nearly thirteen now! In four years, you’ll be expected to find a husband who will become the next king of Kiriün? That must be a terrible decision—what if there is no one worthy to hold that title?”
“Perhaps there already is.”
At this, Elven frowned. “Are you saying you already know who you wish your future husband to be?”
For a long moment there was silence, and Elven noticed that Gwendolyn had turned bright red, and was looking about her furtively. Uncertain what to do, he stepped closer to her and took her hands. “You needn’t be ashamed,” he said. “You can tell me if you like.”
Though her head was down, she briefly glanced up at him through her hair. “I … I can’t say. It isn’t proper,” she whispered.
Gently he brushed the young girl’s hair out of her face. “Any man in this kingdom will be lucky to have you as a wife,” he said. “But—when you are ready. Don’t feel that you must make any decisions now: you are young. Enjoy your youth!”
Unexpectedly, she suddenly embraced him in a fierce hug, grasping him tight around the shoulders. Taken aback, Elven was uncertain how to respond, but before he could think what to do she had already released him and fled from the yard.
“Was I so strange as a child?” he mused to himself. He knew he was exceptionally fond of Gwendolyn, and for more than her brightness and aptness as an apprentice. There was something painfully familiar about her, and he suddenly realized what it was: Sonora, his dear sister, had been hardly older than Gwendolyn when she had been taken from them all. And with her intelligence, spirit and candor he saw so much of Sonora in her that it hurt. He wished nothing but the best for Gwendolyn, and it came to him that he desperately wanted to see her grow into a strong and capable young woman—the woman Sonora might once have been.
Soon more than a year had passed for Elven in the company of the high court of Kiriün. Much of his time was spent wandering the corridors of the great hall, when he was not teaching Gwendolyn as a healer’s apprentice. Although she continued to show a lack of interest in her other studies, he was able to convince her that a healer must be wise in many facets.
As for his own duties, aside from when he was with Gwendolyn he began to feel distinctly useless; wander the city of Courerà as he might, he found little to occupy him, and his thoughts began once more to return to Talya and the kingdom to the east. He could not help the deep pang of guilt that took him every time he thought of her, and wondered if she was somewhere in Vira Weitor, frightened, alone and wondering why he had abandoned her. He knew this held little resemblance to Talya’s true character—namely, that she could easily fend for herself, and was unlikely to suffer in that great city—but he also knew that there was an increasing likelihood that, should she not have ever made it back, she might not ever.
This was a thought that pained him daily, and he began to wonder if he might find an excuse to leave the city of Courerà and travel north again. For some time he put this thought aside, believing it to be traitorous to the royal court that had, in essence, rescued him from lifelong servitude under the Greatlord of Erârün. He had a duty to the king and queen here, and to their daughter; instead, he bent to the task of writing yet another note, one that he hoped to send out into the world and never see again:
My dearest Talya,
It has been nearly two years that we have been apart, and my heart aches for you daily. For many months I had hoped to travel to Vira Weitor and find you there, but I am now bound to a city outside of that kingdom: I live now among the royal family in Kiriün, as a healer and tutor to their princess. I recognize that it may be impossible for us to travel from one of these cities to the other, but my hope to be with you will not wane.
I am sending Sonora once more into the wild, to bear you this note wherever you may be. I have done this once before, and it was the first time Sonora failed to deliver any message I have asked her to pass on. I know what this may mean, but I cannot relinquish hope. If you do somehow receive this one, do not allow Sonora to return with it—she will not allow any other but you to receive it, and I will thus know you are alive.
If you receive this letter, my heart will stop breaking; if you reply, it will be mended. I hope still, to the ends of Erâth, to yet find you one day.
With deepest love,
Sonora had taken up roost under the eaves of the great hall, and he was glad of this: like himself, she was not proud, and had forgone the glory of the Life Tree for more humble accommodations. He wondered, in fact, if Sonora would have even been allowed to nest in the Courerà’s great tree, or if it was forbidden for animals (or at least, pets) to dwell among its leaves. He called for her, and as always she was at his windowsill within moments. As he often did when he saw her, he wondered at her resilience and strength: she was now more than ten years old, and although he did not know how long a falcon was likely to live, he knew she was no longer youthful. As it often did, the sight of her reminded him of his long-dead sister, and he grew all the more saddened to think that, one day, he would have to say farewell to yet another Sonora.
That day seemed far, however; Sonora the falcon yet bore herself well, and she cawed gently as her spoke to her: “My dear Sonora … I know it’s been a while since I’ve asked you to bear a message for me; I hope you don’t think it’s because I no longer trust you. I don’t know why you were troubled to find Talya before, but I trust in you still: I know you will seek her out. Fly, and fly well: find my love!”
Her response sounded particularly wry to him, as it often did, as though she did not quite believe his words. He still wondered how much of what he said was understood by the bird, but it was certainly enough that she was able to carry out his requests. With a final caw she fluttered and took to the air, soaring from the window and rapidly into the distance. He looked after her for some time, until the sky began to darken and drops of rain pattered at the sill. He thought perhaps that if he focused intently enough, his hopes would fly with her. Into the night he watched, waiting until the candles were drowning in their own wax and the air was thick and dark.
It was not for some days, however, that a sign came, and when it did it was not what he had hoped. He was finishing a lesson with Gwendolyn on healing herbs when he noticed that her mother had been silently present in a corner of the room for an unknown time. Uncertain if he should address her, since she had not deliberately made her presence known, he took a few minutes to finish Gwendolyn’s lesson before turning to the queen.
“Your highness,” he said with a small bow.
“Elven,” she returned.
“Today was a good lesson. Gwendolyn has learned—”
“Will you walk with me?” she interrupted. “Gwen, darling—you may go wash for supper.”
Uncertain, Elven nodded. “Of course, your highness.”
Gwenyth turned and led the way out of the lesson room, keeping silent as she made her way through the great hall and to the courtyard outside. It was not until they had left the great hall entirely and were walking slowly along a path that led around its perimeter that she spoke again.
“We have had word of a detachment from Erârün arriving this week,” she said. “They passed the wall two days ago, and are traveling through the Hösland as we speak.”
Elven’s heart skipped a beat. “What word do they bring?”
But Gwenyth shook her head. “We do not know yet—only that they are coming, and that they have no soldiers with them. The Greatlord, too, is absent, though I suppose that is not unexpected.”
Although Elven found his spirits lifted at the thought of news from Erârün, he could not help but wonder why the queen was choosing to share this information with him. “Do you have suspicions, my lady?” he asked.
“I do,” she acknowledged, “and not entirely for the better. I believe them to be an outreach party: few in number and with no soldiers, they are not here to bargain for arms.”
“What are they reaching out for?”
“Help in health is my belief. It is widely known across both our kingdoms that our healers, and our herbs, are the better.”
This was something Elven did not doubt—he often felt himself lesser than many of the experienced healers he knew in the city. Yet for centuries, Erârün had managed without Kiriün’s help. “Why would they need such help?” he asked. “Why now?”
For a moment Gwenyth stopped, and gently reached out to touch a rose that was growing by the border of the path. She plucked a crimson petal, and rubbed it between her fingers. “Word from the east is not all I wished to share with you. There is word from the north, as well—ill word.”
At this, Elven’s tentatively raised spirits came crashing down, and he felt a chill in his blood. “What word from the north?”
But she shook her head. “As with any rumor, it is unclear. But it is said that in the northern Outlands a sickness has arrived. One that our healers have no experience with, and for which they have found no cure. For the moment it is isolated to the Outlands, and has struck no more than a few villages … but it is an ill omen.”
For a moment a thought came to Elven’s mind, but the queen spoke again before he could voice it. “I believe this is why Erârün is reaching out to us again—possibly why they came before, two years ago. If they are suffering as I believe we are beginning to, they will need our help, and the king will be reluctant. Yet a gesture of good faith in the past—intentional or not—will speak much.”
“What do you mean, my lady?”
She let the rose petal fall, and turned to look at him directly. “Your appearance, when my daughter needed help the most, is a curious twist of fate. Your selflessness in saving her has brought our kingdoms closer, whether you meant it or not. Now my husband will be more willing to pay aid to our neighbor.”
For a few moments they resumed their pacing, and Elven thought over her words. It certainly was likely that Erârün, if they were suffering some new illness, would reach out to Kiriün, whose strength in healing was indeed well-known. And while he found it difficult to think that he was responsible in any measure for bridging the rift between the two kingdoms, it was true that—from their point of view—a healer of the one kingdom had saved the daughter of the other.
He had yet to see why this would be important to him, though, and asked, “My lady—why are you telling me this?”
She sighed. “The struggle of this world against Darkness is becoming ever greater,” she said. “It will be paramount that our two kingdoms be able to work together. If we can aid the people of Erârün, we must. But: it cannot come at the cost of our own. I am afraid I must ask for your help once more: this time in saving more than my daughter.”
“What can I do?” Elven asked.
“If the party from Erârün do indeed bring the news I suspect, we will need to send a healer to the north. One who can report faithfully and truly on what is afflicting the outlying villages; one whose experience will keep him from danger; and most of all, one I can trust implicitly.”
“You can’t mean me,” Elven said. “What do I know of healing the unknown?”
Gwenyth pursed her lips. “As much as any healer of this land. But wait—I am asking more than to seek out this disease. Why do you think I have allowed my daughter to spend so much time with you these past months?”
Elven was caught off guard by this question. “I—I assumed it was because you wished her to learn to be a healer.”
“My daughter’s education is, for me, second only in importance to her survival. In you, I found someone who can ensure both.”
“I don’t understand,” Elven said. “I’ve done nothing to protect her; her guards—”
“Her guards, for all I know, were involved in the plot to end her life. We have yet to arrest the mind responsible for that high treason. There are very, very few in this hall whom I trust.”
She fell silent then, and it was a moment before the import of her words truly fell upon Elven. “Are you saying that you trust me with your Gwendolyn’s life?”
She stopped and turned to him once more, and took his hands in hers, grasping them so hard her knuckles turned white. “More than anyone else in this city, beyond myself.” Her gaze bore into him. “I cannot speak more than that, but please—think carefully about what I am saying.”
And then, Elven thought he understood. The queen, desperate for her daughter’s survival, had made sure that she spent as much of her time as possible with the only person she knew for certain would not harm her. He thought of the fact that she did not trust her own guards, nor the city’s healers, nor even … and then he realized how deep her mistrust ran. Had she just placed him above her own husband in ensuring her daughter’s safety?
“Your highness,” he said slowly, “if you are asking me to travel north, to investigate the source of this illness, then … are you asking—”
She nodded abruptly. “I cannot leave Courerà, or I would travel with you myself. Yet I am busy, and cannot keep Gwendolyn by my side at all times. She was poisoned before my very eyes, and I had not the wit to see it. If I cannot protect her, then I would have her remain with one who can.”
“Your highness! You can’t possibly expect … surely you must know, the dangers of the Outlands—”
“Please,” she said, and he was astonished to see a tear in her eye. “I know in my heart that she will be safer with you than with anyone else in this kingdom. I can trust no one else.”
Elven stared at her, unable to comprehend the depth of what she was asking, and the weight of trust that was being placed on his shoulders. If he traveled to the north with Gwendolyn, and if anything were to happen to her …
And then he realized the importance of the queen’s request: beyond protecting the heir to the kingdom, beyond saving a life, she was asking him, as a mother, to save her child. And as a healer and as a person, he knew he could not refuse. He shook his head, and then returned her gaze, looking deep into her tearful eyes. “I will do everything in my power to ensure her safety. If it claims my life, she will survive.”
He had not been invited to welcome the travelers as they entered the great hall, and so on the day of their arrival he found himself with Gwendolyn in a high tower, looking down upon the courtyard and waiting impatiently for any sign of activity. As the town clocks rang in noon, he saw the king and queen descend the great hall steps into the courtyard, and knew the procession was soon to arrive. Although he knew it would be folly to expect her, he held a hope that perhaps Elyn would be among the folk traveling from from Erârün. He wished very much to speak with her, and not only for word from Vira Weitor of Talya’s presence in the great city; he wanted to know her own thoughts on his dilemma with Gwenyth, Gwendolyn and his impending journey to the north.
Before long he sensed commotion in the streets, and within a matter of moments great trumpets were ringing, heralding the arrival of, as he saw, no less than a score of travelers on horseback. They swept into the courtyard, preceded by Kiriün’s own mounted guards. Unlike when he had arrived two years previously, not one of the people from Erârün was clad in dragonstone, emphasizing what Gwenyth had said about these folk not being martial in nature. But at the front of the phalanx, discernible by the white cloak that contrasted starkly to the browns and blacks of the others, was a figure whom Elven recognized instantly, and was most welcome to his eyes. In a swift motion, Elyn of the Illuèn swept down from her steed, and knelt before the king and queen of Kiriün.
“Look!” Elven whispered to Gwendolyn. “See her? She is Illuèn, and a friend!”
“You know the Illuèn?” Gwendolyn said in awe.
“I have lived among them,” he said to her disbelief, “and Elyn there is friend of a friend, and so is a friend of mine.” He leaned down near to Gwendolyn. “She has saved my life.”
For a moment he thought he saw the girl frown, but she merely said, “As you saved mine.”
He watched as Elyn rose, bowed, and was ushered into the great hall. Just before she passed out of sight, he saw her glance up, and he thought for a moment their eyes caught. He waved, and she smiled in return.
Later that evening, dinner was held once more in the grand banquet hall surrounding the Life Tree, and again Elyn was invited to the great circular table, alone as a woman among the men of the court. Elven himself had been invited, but was once more seated with the queen, Gwendolyn and the lesser men of both Kiriün and Erârün. From their table, far to the side of the hall, he could hear nothing of what was being said at the great table, but he had the distinct impression that the discussion was not happy, for the room was quiet, and the clink of glass and steel on plate was loud over the hushed conversations.
“What do you think will come of this?” He asked Gwenyth as their plates were being cleared for the third course. Throughout his time among the people of Kiriün he had felt guilty about the plentiful meals he was supplied with, knowing people in the Outlands were starving; he had eaten less than half of his serving.
“With any luck, the king will have listened to me, and will offer aid to Erârün. Even if they are afflicted with the same unknown as we are, we can only benefit from working together.” She glanced toward the table where Elyn and the king were deep in conversation. “Your Illuèn friend is convincing, to say the least; I have hope.”
“I wish it didn’t take so much talking to get things done,” said Gwendolyn. “Surely if people are dying, there are better things to do than sit and eat.”
Elven couldn’t help but smile, and Gwenyth patted her daughter’s arm fondly. “I think,” she said, “that soon enough there will be better things to do.”
The rest of the dinner passed uneventfully, and by the end Elven could not tell if any resolution had been achieved between Elyn and the king. As the last plates were cleared and the king stood, he whispered to Gwenyth, “What will happen now?”
“The king will speak with me privately tonight,” she whispered back. “If your Illuèn friend is aligned with us, she will have spoken to him of sending our own healers to Erârün. I must convince him this is a just course of action.”
Later, as Elven was retiring for the night in his own chambers, there came a sudden knock on the door.
“Yes?” he called out.
“Apologies for the lateness of the hour, sir,” came a voice through the door, “but you have a visitor who says you will not mind the intrusion. She says you, ah, share a mutual friend who is lost, but not forgotten.”
So Elven knew who was at the door, and said, “Please—let her in.” The door swung open, and in stepped Elyn, still resplendent in the evening’s costume. She allowed the attendant to close the door behind her, and removed the tiara from her hair with a sigh. The two stared at each other for a moment, neither one speaking.
Finally, Elven said, “Elyn—how are you?”
She smiled wearily, and said, “I am tired. It has been a long day, and a long week before that, and a long year before that. Time flies, they say, and if so it flies into danger. Tell me, my old friend, do you know why we are here?”
Elven wondered at the ‘old friend’, but said, “I have heard you are seeking aid from Kiriün’s healers. Something about a new sickness that has descended upon the lands.”
“Now, more than ever, these two kingdoms of men must help each other,” she said. “The Illuèn can do only so much. The Greatlord Farathé has seen much of death this past year: the Rein is all but gone, taken by Darkness. Worse than attacks by the enemy, though, are the folk who fall ill and do not recover. So far this illness is limited to the far fringes of Erârün, but I suspect it will not be the case for long. The king professes no knowledge of such an illness in Kiriün, but I do not believe him.”
“Nor should you!” Elven exclaimed. “The queen told me only the other day of such a thing, in the Outlands to the north.”
Elyn nodded. “I gather that you have understood the importance of the queen in this kingdom,” she said, “and of her daughter.”
“I have,” Elven agreed. “Between us, the king appears quite dim.”
“So it has ever been,” Elyn said. “This country is ruled by women from behind lesser men, for the folk would not accept a queen to rule them.”
Elven shook his head. “It seems absurd,” he said. “Surely it doesn’t matter if a country is ruled by king or queen, so long as their rule is just.”
“If only the world was so,” Elyn sighed. “Justice has little to do with rule.”
“So it seems.”
“Listen to me,” Elyn said, suddenly approaching Elven. “This sickness that is approaching is of more than nature. I believe it is of Darkness itself. I have seen nothing like it in all the thousands of years I have walked this world. We know little, for it has remained in the far wilderness, but what we do know is this: it does not afflict everyone, but those it does do not survive. The Greatlord and the King must be united in fighting this disease: it cannot be allowed to spread to the greater towns and cities of these two countries!”
Elven nodded. “The queen has already tasked me with finding the truth of this disease. I must admit, though, I am afraid.”
Elyn smiled. “Surely, with what you have lived through, this is no great challenge to you!”
But Elven remained somber. “It is not for myself I am worried. Do you remember the circumstances under which I was permitted to remain in Kiriün?”
“Of course. You saved the king’s daughter.”
“Gwendolyn,” Elven confirmed. “And the culprit has not been caught. Gwenyth trusts very few people in this city, Elyn; I am one of the only people she believes has her daughter’s best interests at heart.”
Elyn took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “I wish such was unusual,” she said, “but Kiriün has long been susceptible to corruption, precisely because their leaders are incompetent, and their wives are a threat to their patriarchy. Tell me, what has she asked of you?”
And so Elven told Elyn of the queen’s request, and how he was to journey north with Gwendolyn in companionship, to seek out the source of the illness and, if possible find a cure.
“What if no cure is to be found?” Elyn asked. “A disease of Darkness will have no easy remedy.”
Elven bit his lip. “Then we must quarantine the northern villages, and make absolutely sure the disease does not spread.”
“Even if it means the death of hundreds in those same villages?”
For a moment Elven lowered his head, and covered his face in his hands. Elyn kept her gaze upon him, and finally he said, “As a healer, I can’t bear the thought of even a single person dying under my watch. But if sacrificing a few means sparing many …”
Elyn moved forward, and took his hands. He looked up into her eyes, and she said, “Can you do it? Can you allow a person to die, if it will save many others?”
“I don’t know, Elyn. I’ve never been so tested in my life.”
“These are trying times,” she acknowledged. “But the fate of many may lie in the hands of only a few.” He looked up as she said this. “Or even one.”
“I don’t think that one is me,” he said. “I think that one is long-since gone. I haven’t seen him in almost three years.”
“Nor have I,” she said quietly, “but I have never given up hope. Have you?”
For an eternal moment he was silent: he was unsure if he had given up hope on Brandyé or not. He thought about their parting, among the Hochträe, and how he had been so certain they would see each other again. But now, so much later, he had not seen or heard even a whisper of the existence of his friend, and he realized he had come to accept that Brandyé was, for better or for worse, never going to return. “I don’t know,” he whispered. “How could he return, after so long?”
Elyn smiled sadly. “Stranger things have happened,” she said. “And Darkness has not yet covered the world. There is still hope.”
That night, Elven fell asleep with Elyn’s words on his mind. There is still hope. But what hope, truly, was there?
The party from Erârün stayed only a few days in the end, but within those few days much talk grew in the Great Hall: talk of plague and death, but also talk of help and hope. When Elyn and her companions left, they did not leave alone; a caravan of aides and a consort of Courerà’s finest healers went with them, trumpets ringing them out of the city. As the horses and carriages disappeared into the city streets, Elven felt a great weight settle on his shoulders, for now he was left alone to seek out a deadly plague on his own, accompanied by a girl whose survival was more important than his own.
Not more than two days after Elyn’s departure, the time came for his own. They set out at dawn, himself and Gwendolyn, accompanied by a host of guards—“whom I trust, though none so much as you”—Gwenyth had told him in secret. He was still uncertain what to make of the profound trust Gwenyth had placed in him, though he meant dearly to uphold it. He could not help thinking that if there was genuinely a conspiracy to assassinate the princess, gaining the queen’s trust first would be a remarkably clever ruse.
For her part, Gwendolyn rode straight and without sign of fear. She had grown tall in recent months, and her horse was nearly as large as his own. She wore riding leathers and a cloak, as did he, and only the guards bore a vestige of armor: they clearly were not anticipating battle. With golden hair tied in a neat bun and stoicism written on her countenance, she rode in front as they passed through the city and appeared very much to be in charge of their band.
On that first day they made good headway, leaving Courerà long behind them as they made their way through what appeared to be endless fields of barley and maize. Sometimes there would be a farmstead alongside the road, and they would stop at these to allow their steeds water, which the farmhands reluctantly allowed when they saw the royal crest at Gwendolyn’s breast. For many long and quiet hours, though, there was nothing but plain to be seen, and they spent their first night in a field off the road. They cleared a space in the tall wheat, uprooting the grasses where they desired a fire. As luck would have it the weather was calm, and the clouds let loose no rain.
As the night drew on Elven watched the firelight flicker across Gwendolyn’s face, and wondered at her uncharacteristic silence. She had not spoken since they had left Courerà, and he was uneasy to wonder at her thoughts. Finally, he brought it upon himself to break the silence and said, “I suppose you must be wondering where we’re off to.”
Her gaze never wavered from the fire, but she replied, “I suppose.”
It was hardly an encouraging response, but Elven forged ahead anyway: “We’re to head north, as far as the last Hösland villages, to see what we can learn of this new illness that seems to be spreading. I was studying the maps of your kingdom, and I believe that we can make for the village of Terrine on the outskirts of the Overland in ten days if we keep true to the road. We will pass through Kyte and Hallowfirth on the way, so we won’t be without civilization.”
Gwendolyn’s expression hardly changed as she said, “I hope it to be less than ten days.”
Elven considered her carefully for a moment. “I had thought you would be excited to venture forth and discover new things,” he said finally. “Will you tell me what’s bothering you?”
At this, she finally turned to look at him, and he was surprised to see fear in her eyes. “I’m afraid,” she said.
“You needn’t be,” he replied, somewhat awkwardly. “We’ll be sure to protect you.”
But she shook her head. “I’m not afraid for myself; I’m afraid for my mother.”
At this he was truly surprised and drew back, brows furrowed. “What do you mean?”
For a moment she looked about her, then leaned close so that she might speak into his ear. “You must promise me not to utter a word,” she whispered, and he nodded. “I am afraid that my father is going to kill her.”
A shiver passed through Elven then, and he could think of nothing to say. As his thoughts caught up with him, he finally uttered, “How could you think such a thing?”
“Did you never wonder how they could fail to capture the person responsible for poisoning me?” she asked. “Did you never wonder how they got so close inside the Great Hall?”
Elven shook his head. “I hadn’t …”
“It isn’t just me he wishes removed—it’s both of us. The end of our line.”
For a moment, Elven could but stare into the fire as she spoke these words in his ear; to hear such things from the mouth of someone so young was beyond him. “You’re accusing your father of conspiracy, you understand?” he said. “The king!”
She clapped a hand to his mouth. “Shh! Please don’t be loud. The king is a fool, and everyone knows it. He is hardly my father—he hasn’t spared me five minutes since I was born! I think he wished that I was a boy, and the line of my mother would be ended naturally.”
Elven could scarcely believe his ears. “How could you come to think such terrible things?” he whispered to her.
“Have you ever been slowly poisoned, so that you believe every day to be your last?” Again, Elven had nothing to say. “If not for you, I believe my mother and I would be already dead. You have saved us both.”
She smiled a little then. “You are a renowned healer, Elven. They would not dare commit murder when someone such a yourself could tell at a glance that our deaths were not accidental.”
Elven poked at the fire with a stick, and it flared briefly before dying back down to embers. “So why are you worried now?”
“You aren’t there to protect my mother.”
“Then we should turn back!”
Again, she shushed him. “We cannot. As important as mother is to me, this disease is more so. Our people are frightened.”
Elven looked at her again, almost as if seeing her for the first time. “You’re very old for a fourteen-year-old,” he said.
She laughed then, and it was as merry sound in the night. “There have been younger queens than I,” she said.
“None so clever, I’m sure,” he replied.
Though it was hard to tell in the dim firelight, Elven was certain she blushed at this. “Come,” she said, “will you sleep near me? I would be comforted.”
As Elven pulled the travel blankets over himself that night, it occurred to him that Gwendolyn must not even trust her guards, and the thought sent a shiver down his spine.