Chapter Fifteen: The Namirèn
The Sleeping Death, as it came to be known, did not come to Courerà that year, or the next. With the help of the courts, Elven and Gwendolyn banned all travel across the kingdom, unless it was a direct matter of life and death. The great gate to Erârün was shut, and Kiriün became a sealed kingdom indeed. Camps were set up at the entrances to all the largest towns, and healers—under the watchful eye of soldiers—monitored all who entered and left for signs of illness. Many were turned away; food became scarce in the capital, and even the rich grew hungry. Word of illegal trade in luxuries reached the ears of the courts, but to Elven it was a small price to pay to keep the plague at bay.
In the Outlands, though, and slowly into the Hösland, the disease grew. Riders would set out from Courerà each month to the four corners of the kingdom, and the news they returned with was ill. Village after village of poor and starving folk succumbed, and the crops grew thin and weak with no one left to tend them. Oddly, the livestock seemed unaffected, and they would wander the countryside freely, cattle and sheep and goats left to their own until someone found them and took them in.
As king, Elven would wander the streets of Courerà, always guarded, and speak with the folk of the town. He soon learned the depth of their disdain for Salâthar, and their gladness at his imprisonment. Many called for his execution, but Elven would not have him put to death; he had seen too much of death in the past years to wish it upon any other, no matter their vileness. He was also, after all, still Gwendolyn’s father, and though she would not speak to him in his dungeon, she would not hear of his murder, either.
As for Talya, she came to live with Elven and Gwendolyn in the Great Hall, along with Meredith, as a consort to the king. To Elven’s surprise, she was not looked down upon by the people of the court, but rather embraced as a mother figure for their young queen—a role she played gladly, in addition to raising their own daughter. Although Talya knew little of the doings of royals and courts (admittedly, neither did Elven), she was pleased to be so accepted among the nobility of Kiriün, and spoke often of their fortune when they were alone. Amongst the folk of the town she was more reserved and humble, but Elven began to feel they formed a kindred family—the queen, the king, his consort and their daughter.
While Elven wanted to ensure that Gwendolyn understood the importance of her role, and convinced her to continue her studies—not only in healing but in law and policy—he wanted more for the people of Kiriün to understand that they were not ruled by a king, and never had been. He asked that all notices sent throughout the kingdom bore her name and mark, and when they appeared in the streets he would walk behind her, not beside—an indication to the people that he submitted to her higher power. Gwendolyn rapidly grew into her position, and before long Elven found he could no longer follow some of the deeper discussions that took place among the councils of the courts. To her credit, she would speak to him of the difficulties and nuances of ruling an entire kingdom—sometimes in frustration, but more often to educate him—and Elven found that, against anything that he might have once suspected of himself, he was beginning to feel comfortable in so high a position.
And the people welcomed him, and welcomed their new queen, with open hearts. Here, Elven saw a deep difference between the folk of Kiriün and those of Erârün: he could not imagine the Greatlord Farathé willingly giving control of his kingdom to anyone, much less his wife or daughter. And he suspected the people of Erârün would not accept such a rule, either—theirs was a military kingdom in the end, and he saw this now with clearer sight than when he had ridden with their soldiers to battle. In this, he saw a bleak future for the people of Kiriün, though he spoke of it with no one—not even Gwendolyn. With a plague upon them, they could not reach out for aid to Erârün, for fear of spreading the disease across all the lands of Thaeìn. Yet without their aid, Kiriün had no martial strength to speak of; should the forces of Darkness spread their influence further south, they would encroach upon their borders, and his people would be left with little defense indeed.
It was odd to Elven to consider the folk of Kiriün ‘his’ people; to his mind, his people were those of Consolation, though he doubted now he would return there in his lifetime. But this kingdom of so many looked to him and Gwendolyn for guidance, for comfort and for strength, and he knew he could not abandon them. He could not abandon Gwendolyn.
So he fell into a routine that involved meetings, councils, public appearances and the blessing of children, and he found he had very little time to himself, or to spend with his family. What little privacy he could find was in the dark whispers of the night, when he lay with Talya and listened to the wind howl through the branches of the Life Tree, bringing to mind howls of a much darker nature. In time, Talya came to bear Elven another child—a son, whom they named Farthyn, for they felt their journey had been long to lead them to such a place. He was welcomed by all into the royal family as a child and a brother, and as Gwendoyln came of age, Meredith turned seven and Farthyn two, and Elven was as content as he could be within his own life, despite the whispers of growing death among the people of the Outlands. He found himself dwelling ever less on Brandyé, his attention taken so fully by more immediate matters; it had now been over eight years since he had last set eyes upon his friend.
Yet in spite of the comfort of his life—he and his family never wanted for food or medicine, though he still tended to the children’s scrapes and illnesses himself—there was unrest in his heart. Four years had passed since travel had been forbidden, and from the reports that still came every month the spread of the Sleeping Death had been slowed, but it had not been stopped. It was not long before the entire kingdom, from north to south, knew of the decimation in the Outlands, and this weighed heavily in Elven’s thoughts. When he was not called upon for other things—things that were insignificant to him, but required of him as king—he spoke at great length with healers from across the land. Healers were the only folk allowed free reign of the countryside, and the courts required that each one be approved by Elven himself as possessing great knowledge and skill in tending to poisons and disease. But try as they might, there was no pattern to who the Sleeping Death took, and who it spared; sometimes an entire village would fall in a matter of days, whilst others survived for months—and some escaped the clutches of the disease entirely. Elven meticulously tracked every affected village and town across countless maps of the kingdom, and every month word would come of signs of the disease in yet another village, and another, steadily creeping further south. Soon the Outlands were ravaged and all but deserted, and the Hösland was the next to fall. As its inhabitants began to pass into sleep, and then into death, unrest grew among the population of Kiriün. People began to question what was being done to protect them, and Elven soon realized that his efforts in finding a cure to the disease were not enough to quell the folk’s fears. Word began to arrive in the city of Courerà that the people of the Hösland were beginning to lose hope, and faith in their new rulers. Gwendolyn was too young, it was said, and Elven had no experience of leading a country. Nothing was being done, and a farm boy sat on the throne while honest workers were dying.
In was in the winter of his fourth year as king when the growing Darkness began to plant the seeds of fear in the capital itself. The days were short and dark, winds gusting and freezing rain cutting through the air incessantly, and the mood of the city was dark, and low. Elven found comfort before the roaring hearths of the Great Hall, but stepping outside brought cold and misery, the clouds thick and black. Looking out from the wide steps of the Great Hall, the town disappeared in fog and mist, and below the dreadful skies Elven felt small, and insignificant himself.
Late one evening, as Elven was preparing to retire for the night, a messenger came upon him quietly and asked for a word. Elven was sitting beside Gwendolyn and Talya, though the children were sleeping, and he stepped with the messenger to a darker corner of the room.
“What is it, sir?” Elven asked. He had formed a habit of referring to all those he spoke with as ‘sir’ or ‘madam’, for he felt it reminded him that he was no different than these folk, and just as vulnerable.
“My king,” the messenger said softly, “there is a healer in the outskirts of the city that has requested your presence. He says it is an urgent matter, and that you come to see him.”
Elven was by now familiar with many of the healers of the town, and asked, “What is this healer’s name?”
But the messenger shook his head. “He would not say, but said that if you value your rule as king, you will see him tonight, and alone. He is in an apothecary on a side street in the Gründel district.”
Elven’s eyes narrowed. “This healer is threatening me, and wishes me alone? I think you’ve been fooled, sir.”
But there was something in the messenger’s voice next that shook Elven’s confidence: fear. “He said, ‘It has come to Courerà.’ He said …”
The messenger looked away. “He said he would see you hanged before all the town unless you prove to him tonight that you care for the people of Kiriün. He says he knows a thing that would unseat you from the throne, and send the kingdom into chaos.”
The messenger now appeared outright terrified to have said these words to his king, but his fear had spread to Elven, too. What could this person, this healer, know? He laid a hand on the messenger’s shoulder. “Thank you, sir,” he said. “I will decide what to do.”
The messenger swallowed, and thanked him before retreating. But Elven stayed in the dark corner of the room, his eyes focused on nothing at all. The firelight flickered, and it seemed to him the room was suddenly a shade darker than it had been a moment ago. He knew it was folly to go out at night into the city—even more so on his own—but his fear and concern overrode his judgement. It was not for himself that he was concerned, he thought; he cared little if he remained king of Kiriün or not. But he knew he would not sleep that night without discovering what could be at the heart of the plague that was upon them. He would meet with this healer, and he would be alone.
His decision made, he returned to the fire where Talya and Gwendolyn remained. “I must go out,” he said to them. “A healer has requested my presence.”
“At this hour?” Talya said. “Surely it can wait until morning …”
“What do they want?” asked Gwendolyn.
Elven shook his head. “I’m not certain—the messenger was not told. But I think it might be important.”
“No,” Talya said firmly. “If someone is ill, the healer can deal with it. And if it’s only information, it will remain the same tomorrow as tonight. Ye can’t go.”
Elven leaned down to kiss Talya briefly. “I’ll return soon,” he said. “Don’t stay up.”
With that, Elven turned and left them behind, making for the stables. He would not ride, but he thought he might find an old riding cloak that could disguise him as he made his way through the streets. He would not have folk recognize him as their king at this hour, and certainly not alone.
The stables were warm, though he could hear the dreadful wind outside, and the horses were clearly restless. His suspicion of finding a cloak bore true, for there were many used by servants that bore no royal colors or crest. He took one of these from a peg and donned it, pulling the hood far over his eyes. As he stepped from the stables’ lantern light and into the night, he felt the biting wind on his cheek, and was glad of his cover. In the dark, he was certain no one could see his face.
He made his way slowly across the horseyards, avoiding the main entrance to the Great Hall, for he knew there would be guards there. There was a small door in the wall surrounding the Great Hall to the south that was seldom guarded, for it only opened from the inside and was built to close itself if left open. He came upon this door soon enough, and slipped through it and into the town below. As the door clacked shut behind him, he shivered; he thought it unlikely that he would be able to return unnoticed.
Down the winding streets he then passed, silent steps over the wet cobblestones, taking care not to slip. Snow began to blow down upon him, and he knew a storm was approaching. He wondered if he would even be able to return from the Gründel district at all; it was far across the town, near the southeastern border of the city. As he walked, he saw a few folk passing here and there, and was grateful for the weather; there were fewer people in the streets than there might otherwise have been, and those that were out and about had little interest in the goings-on of anyone else—their only concern was finding shelter.
It was some time before he had descended the hill upon which the Great Hall was built, and knew he was nearing the Gründel district. He knew of two apothecaries in that area of the city, and realized he had not been told which one to make for. He chose the nearest one, turning a corner and making his way down a dark alley that was now coated with snow. For a moment he thought he heard a noise behind him, and stopped; as he turned, he saw his footprints in the snow, and realized there was no hiding his path from a pursuer. He looked about him, but there was no other sound, and so he wrapped the cloak tighter around him and carried on.
The first apothecary was one of a great row of homes and buildings along a wide street that branched off the main thoroughfare into that part of town. As he turned into it, he saw a few lights in the windows, and was glad for their light: it was becoming difficult to see where he was going. The apothecary was perhaps halfway down the street, and dark when he arrived; he tried to peer in through the window, but could see nothing inside at all. For a brief moment he was reminded of the place where he had taken his apprenticeship with Sörhend in Daevàr’s Hut, and knew it was likely the healer that worked here lived above. But looking up he saw only dark windows, and began to suspect that he had come to the wrong place. He was about to turn and move on when a hoarse whisper called out to him in the dark.
“Eh! Who are you?”
Elven looked about him nervously, but could see nothing in the darkness. “Who are you,” he called softly back, “and where?”
For a long moment there was no response, and Elven began to wonder if he had merely imagined the voice when suddenly he felt a tight grasp on his arm, pulling him toward a tiny alley between two buildings. “This way,” the voice whispered gruffly.
“Release me!” Elven called out, but the grip only tightened. He nearly tripped over his own feet as he tried to keep up with the dark and shadowed figure that was pulling him, he was now certain, to a grisly and untimely fate. He pried at the hand holding him, but the fingers were cold and hard as steel, and he could not loosen their grip. Propelled into the tiny alley, Elven now found he could see nothing whatsoever, and braced himself for a blade, or a noose, or some other instrument of death. He started when he heard a loud noise, as of metal scraping, before he realized it was merely a key turning in a lock. Suddenly a dim light appeared in the darkness, and he saw that a door had been opened. The person before him dragged him forward, and into the building.
Despite his overwhelming fear, Elven could not help feeling grateful for the warmth and light inside the room in which he now stood. Though it was dim, it seemed miraculously bright after the deep dark of the night, and he saw by the fire’s dim glow the shapes of many odds and ends, a room full of furniture and clutter. As such, it was a moment before he recognized the prone figure lying on a low cot by the fire, and he made to start toward it almost instinctively, wanting to know what was ailing this person.
But the figure that had pulled him in here now restrained him, and suddenly the hood was swept from his face. “So you did come,” the figure spoke softly, and with more than a little disdain. “I had thought you would not.”
Elven knew it was no use trying to hide his identity, and said in return, “Why have you asked for me? What is there here that could not wait until tomorrow?”
The figure stepped forward, and removed its own hood. Elven settled his gaze upon a man, not too old but with a grizzled white beard, peering at him with a deep mistrust. “I am Dantèl,” he said, “and I would have you know your efforts have failed. The Sleeping Death is upon us.”
Elven thought he understood, and nodded slowly. “Is that what this person is suffering from?” he asked, motioning to the prone figure on the cot.
Dantèl nodded. “My brother. He will not wake, and is cold as ice. His breath will cease before light.”
“I’m sorry,” Elven said. “I’ve worked tirelessly for years now, trying to find an answer, a cure—”
“Have you, though?” Dantèl asked scornfully. “I know who you are, and where you come from.”
Elven could not think what this man meant, but felt a chill nonetheless. “What are you saying?”
“Do you remember the town of Kyte-on-Farrowmill?”
“How could I forget? Gwendolyn was nearly murdered there.”
“Oh—so you prize her survival?”
Here, Elven hesitated, for he felt the wrong words might send Dantèl into a fury. “I … I do,” he said quietly.
“More so than the hundreds who lived there?”
“Lived …” Elven murmured. “You lived there, didn’t you?”
“No longer. My brother and I fled at the death of our wives, four years ago.”
For a moment, Elven shut his eyes. Sharp in memory came the images of that town, and the folk who had dwelled there. The Outlanders who had lived on the outskirts of the town, and the disease that had come upon them unsuspected. “I’m sorry,” he repeated. “If there was anything I could do—”
“Don’t speak to me of what you could do!” Dantèl barked. “I know what you are, and what you do is nothing!”
“What are you talking about?” Elven asked, now deeply confused. “I’ve spent the past four years speaking with healers, traveling the lands, and searching desperately for an end to this plague!”
“That is precisely what I mean,” Dantèl growled. “You, who walk among the dead, and have no fear of death!”
“You think I don’t fear death?”
“You don’t fear the plague—it can’t consume you!”
“Of course I fear the Sleeping Death! I fear what it will do to this kingdom!”
“But you don’t feel the fear inside,” Dantèl said. “You don’t know what it’s like to feel that first cough, and to dread sleep, not knowing if you’ll wake again. You don’t know what it is to know you have only days left in this world.”
Pity began to creep into Elven’s heart then, for he saw what this man was driving at. “It isn’t only your brother, is it?” He asked gently.
To his surprise, a tear emerged at the corner of the man’s eye. “We have had nothing but each other for four years, and now he is gone. I feel the plague upon me—I will not long outlast him.”
“Why did you call me here?” Elven asked. “How can I help you?”
“You can’t help us,” Dantèl said bitterly. “I know this as deeply as I know my hatred for you.”
Elven found himself searching his memories of Kyte-on-Farrowmill, wondering where he knew this man from. “What did I do to you?”
“You killed my wife; you killed my town. And now you have killed my brother.”
Fear crept back into Elven’s chest then, for he realized that he was now alone with this man, and at his mercy. This Dantèl might well try to kill him out of a misguided blame. “I’ve tried only to help,” he insisted.
“You came from the east; you aren’t even of this land. And everywhere you go, the Sleeping Death follows. You went to my village—it is gone. You speak with healers and send them out—and death follows. This plague—I know what it is, and it is you.”
Elven took a deep breath, for he was beginning to think this man was completely mad. “If I brought the plague, how have I not succumbed to it?”
“Well that’s just it, isn’t it?” Dantèl spat. “You don’t succumb. You can’t succumb. You sit on the throne of a dying people, and have nothing to fear! You and all your kin are safe while you watch us die. When will it be enough for you? When will you stop the death?”
“Dantèl,” Elven said, for he thought speaking his name might bring him back to reality, “believe me when I say I would not have a single person more die of this disease. If there was a cure, and I knew it—I would not withhold it.”
For a long moment, Dantèl looked deep into his eyes, and Elven felt terribly uncomfortable. Finally, the man said, “I can’t tell if you are deceiving me, or deceived yourself. But this plague is not natural, and nor is your seat on the throne. This is no coincidence. If you are meant to rule this kingdom, then it is for one of two purposes: to heal it, or to destroy it. And I have seen little healing in these past years.”
Elven looked then into Dantèl’s face, and saw past the fear and the hate, and saw a deep sadness, and a weariness that he felt reflected in his own heart. “Why did you bring me here?” Elven asked again, gently.
And then Dantèl revealed from beneath his robe a long dagger, and brought it forth before him. Yet he made no move or aggression toward Elven, and to his surprise, Elven felt no fear. “I brought you here to murder you,” Dantèl said. “But now … I find I do not have the courage.”
Elven reached out to place a hand on Dantèl’s shoulder. “Thank you, sir.”
Dantèl’s lip curled. “For sparing your life?”
But Elven shook his head. “For sharing this moment with me. In return, I would like to share something with you. It may put your heart at ease—it may not. But I assure you, what I say is the truth as best as I know it.”
Dantèl sniffed. “What would you have me know, before I die?”
“What I tell you now, I have not told a soul since it happened, save the queen and the mother of my children. But speaking with you now, I’m starting to believe I have made a mistake in keeping this secret. As far as I know, I am the first person in this world to encounter the Sleeping Death. This was over seven years ago, now—long before it came to Kiriün. It destroyed the party of folk I was traveling with, and spared me. To this day, I do not know why. But I continued to travel, and … although I did not see it, perhaps I brought it with me. But if I did, it was not intentional. I was alone in all the world then, and thought of nothing but reuniting with those I loved. I failed to consider the possibility of spreading disease, which as a healer is inexcusable.
“You are right: I do not fear the Sleeping Death, at least not for myself. I have encountered it too often—were it to take me, it would have done so already. And perhaps that lack of fear has inspired a lack of motivation, though I still believe I’ve done everything within my power. But maybe my power is not enough. I can—and I will—try harder. And if there is a cure to be found, it will be given to the people of this kingdom.”
After a long pause, Dantèl nodded slowly, and moved to sit in a chair beside his brother. “I don’t know if I can believe you,” he said with his head down. “But I will not stop you.” He coughed, and then continued, “I would have had the city know of your treachery, but now I’m not convinced myself. I may be putting my trust in a power of evil, but …” he turned to look at Elven again. “Now that I see you, you don’t seem all that evil to me. Perhaps you just … don’t know what you’re doing.”
Elven shook his head. “I’m not sure any of us do.” He moved to Dantèl’s side, and knelt beside him. “May I stay with you for a while?”
Dantèl nodded, and so together they tended to his brother in silence, keeping watch over his cold body until morning came, bleak and gray, through the grimy windows. And when Dantèl’s brother breathed his last, as Elven knew he would, they pulled the blanket over his face together, and Elven stood by silently as he wept.
Later, as Elven walked through the snow-filled streets on his way back to the Great Hall, hood pulled far over his face, he began to contemplate what Dantèl had said. As much as he wanted to dismiss him as a lunatic, mad with grief, too much of what he had heard rang true. Had he indeed brought the Sleeping Death with him? Was he responsible for spreading it throughout the entire kingdom of Kiriün, Hösland to Outlands and beyond? And if so, what was protecting him? Since he had first known the disease, he had never felt so much as a tickle of a cough, and he realized that Dantèl was right: he no longer rightly feared the Sleeping Death. Somehow, he had come to believe he was immune. And if he was, what had given that immunity to him? He refused to believe there was anything special about him that separated him from those who were dying, yet he could not deny that, by exposure to the disease at least, he ought to have died himself several times over by now.
When he finally stepped over the threshold into the Great Hall, having convinced the guards to let him through the gates (they were greatly displeased that he had slipped by them in the night, and said they would be stationing someone by the side door from now on), Talya rushed upon him, a deep concern on her brow. “Ye’ve been gone the night through!” she exclaimed. “What happened?”
But Elven did not feel ready to discuss his conversation with Dantèl yet, nor to tell her that the Sleeping Death had come to Courerà. “It was nothing,” he said instead. “Just an old healer with old news.”
It was clear Talya did not believe him, but she chose not to pursue the point. “Well come and eat something warm,” she said. “Farthyn wants to see you.”
Elven stripped himself of his wet cloak and followed her into a dining room, where a hearty breakfast was laid out, partly eaten already. Meredith was at the table gnawing on a strip of bacon, and looked up with a smile as he entered. “Good morning, father!” she said.
“Good morning, darling,” he replied. “Did you sleep well?”
Meredith shook her head. “Farthyn was crying all night and I couldn’t sleep.”
Talya picked Farthyn up from where he had been playing on the floor, and handed him to Elven. “Keeping everyone up, are you?” he asked. Farthyn nodded sagely, and clasped a tiny hand against Elven’s cheek. Elven smiled, and brushed the boy’s hair out of his face. “Well I certainly hope you have a nap later—I know I’ll need one.”
Elven put Farthyn back on the floor to play, and sat at the table, suddenly ravenous. He pulled a plate of bacon and eggs toward himself, and began to eat. After a few minutes, Gwendolyn entered the room and sat at the table beside him. At first she did not speak, and so Elven looked up at her, mouth full of food, to see a disapproving look on her face. “What is it?” he mumbled.
Gwendolyn raised an eyebrow. “What is it? Sneaking out without a guard, visiting strangers in the middle of the night, staying out until morning? This is no way for a king to behave! What would our people do if something were to happen to you?”
A thought flashed through Elven’s mind that they would probably be better off, but he silenced his tongue before it came out. Instead, he said, “I’m sorry, Gwen. I made a poor choice, and it led to nothing.” He looked around to see that Talya was playing on the floor with Farthyn, and leaned closer. “But I do have a matter I want to speak to you about.”
“It’ll have to wait,” she said. “I have a council with the Farmers’ Court this morning. Courerà is starving, and the farmers in the Lichae and Hösland don’t want to send us anything more. We need to find a way to convince them that our support to them matches theirs to us. I can’t have the entire city starve, but trade is suffering greatly.”
Elven shook his head. “We can’t start lifting travel bans,” he said, lowering his voice. “That’s what I need to talk to you about.”
But Gwendolyn stood, and brushed his cheek. “You need to shave,” she said. “I’ll find you when the morning councils are over.”
When he had finished his breakfast, Elven bathed, and then spent the rest of the morning in the company of Talya, Meredith and Farthyn, talking and playing with his children. Their happiness at play often lifted his spirits, but today he could not shake the sensation that, as dreadful as the Sleeping Death had been so far, much worse was only just over the horizon. As he watched Farthyn build towers with blocks and Meredith draw with charcoal, it occurred to him that he could think of nothing more precious in all of Erâth than these two small people before him. Even his love for Talya paled in comparison to what he felt for his children, and he wondered if this is what his own parents had felt for himself and his siblings. Thanks to Sonora he was able to keep in touch with them, and knew that they continued to live in peace in the forests of the Trestaé, Arian and Timothaï, along with his sisters Julia and Maria and Maria’s husband, Erik. The crazy old man, Ermèn, continued to keep them company, and he had learned not too long ago that Maria and Erik had welcomed their first child into the home.
As for news of himself, his parents would write back of their disbelief that he was king of an entire kingdom, and their suspicions that he must have succumbed to a dreadful madness. They were delighted to learn of Meredith and Farthyn, of course, and were terribly sorry that they could not travel to meet them. In fact, Elven sometimes wondered if it might not be better for himself and his family to simply leave Courerà entirely, and return to the forests of the Trestaé where he knew he would be welcomed.
But his sense of duty to the people of Kiriün prevented him from acting on these thoughts; coincidence and fate had conspired to place him where he was now, and as much as his heart longed to retreat from all royal doings, he could not abandon a people that looked to him for guidance and help. And to this he now turned his thoughts: when the people of Courerà discovered the Sleeping Death was among them, there would be an outcry. As much as they professed their preference for him over their last king, he knew that would vanish the moment they learned that he sat, untouchable, while they were dying.
In fact, very few people appeared to suffer from the Sleeping Death in the months after its first appearance in the city, but fear and paranoia gripped the town nonetheless. Folk refused to leave their homes, even to work, and as spring came in a dull gray the streets grew worn and filthy with no one to clean them. Markets withered, and if the folk of Courerà had been hungry before, they were now outright starving, as poorly fed as any in the Outlands themselves. Even the Great Hall became affected, and though Elven and his family did not outright suffer for lack of food, their meals became leaner and less varied, often consisting of thin soups, dry bread and very few fruits or vegetables. Gwendolyn and the children suffered the most, of course, for they had rarely known great hunger in their lives (Meredith hardly remembered the times before Elven had found them), and despite Elven and Talya often forgoing their own meals to give the children more, they grew thin and malnourished.
So time wore on, and despair began to grip at the heart of the great city. Elven began wandering the streets more often, sometimes with a guard and sometimes in disguise. Either way, he was rarely welcomed by any in the town, for it had become usual to fear strangers who might carry death on their shoulders. And to Elven, it seemed the skies themselves grew darker with the mood of the city, rain often cascading in torrents for days, washing filth from the higher streets and pooling it in the lower ones. So other diseases began to spread, and between cholera and measles and the ever-present fear of the Sleeping Death, Courerà grew dark indeed.
As if these things were not terrible enough on their own, after the rains came great swarms of dreadful insects, breeding and multiplying rapidly in the cesspools of the lower streets, and they would overwhelm the poor folk who lived nearby. These insects were biting ones, and whenever Elven visited these areas of the city, he would return with countless stings and bites across his face and arms, no matter how covered he had been. The only fortune for the city in this regard was that the insects rarely traveled far from their breeding grounds, and so the folk who lived higher on the hills were mostly spared. However, these folk were by nature of a higher caste than those who dwelled lower in the town, and so a rift began to form between the city’s people—the poor resenting the rich and fair (who in fact were no better off for lack of food and medicine).
Soon conflict began to break out, and the guards and soldiers of the town were hard-pressed to contain outright fighting in the streets. The people began to say that the Great Hall was a sign of death, and that the Life Tree above it would soon topple entirely, and that such would be a sign that the end of the world itself had come. They cursed the new king and queen, and it became dangerous for Elven to venture forth from the Great Hall at all, whether in disguise or not. Soon the soldiers could not police all that occurred, and the prisons were emptied because the prisoners could not be kept fed. Crime grew rampant, and Elven and Gwendolyn looked on in horror as the heart of Kiriün, the great city of Courerà, tore itself apart.
And then, before Elven could take stock of what was happening to the kingdom—to his kingdom—matters turned to the worse in the Great Hall itself. All through the decline and demise of the city, Elven had remained hopeful that the people of Kiriün would prevail, and hoped against hope that the survival of the royal family might help the folk keep faith. Whether the truth of this was realistic or not he was uncertain, but so long as his family kept their health, he maintained his hope. But one night, perhaps three months since he had spoken with Dantèl, Elven was awoken in the deep dark by the sound of coughing. At first he wondered if he had imagined it, for it was only quiet, and not repeated, but then, as he lay down to sleep beside Talya, he heard it again.
It was the softest of sounds—a single, gentle cough from a room outside and down the corridor, to muffled to discern whose it might be. A cold fear flooded him, and he lay paralyzed, unable to move or even think. The room’s fire was mere embers, and shadows and shapes danced before his eyes as he stared at the ceiling, waiting for the cough to come again. For minutes he lay in silence, and they were the longest minutes of his life. Who was sick in his home? Could it be just a cough, and nothing more? Or was it what he feared the most? Just as the last embers of the fireplace dwindled to nothing, he heard the cough again, and he knew he could lie still another moment. Gently so as not to wake Talya he rose, grasped a candle from beside the bed, and lit it from the dying embers. Light in hand, he tiptoed to the door, undid the latch, and stepped softly into the corridor.
Here, all was utterly dark for the lanterns had been snuffed for the night. The children were sleeping several rooms down, he knew, near to Gwendolyn’s own chambers, and so he made his way in their direction, ears listening incessantly for signs of another cough. He heard the creak of the boards beneath his feet, the ragged shortness of his breath, and the thud of his own heart loud in his head. As he neared the door to the children’s chambers he paused, holding his breath and listening. For an eternity there was nothing, and then he thought he heard another breath. Staring into the dimness beyond the light of the candle, he realized he could make out a dark shape—a flowing laced gown moving slowly toward him. Heart in his throat, he took a step forward and toward it, and as his candle illuminated the figure he saw it was Gwendolyn—her own face pale and terrified.
For a long moment they merely stared at each other, and it was she who broke the silence first. “I thought I heard something,” she whispered.
Elven nodded ever so slightly. “Was it a …” but he could not finish.
“A cough?” she said softly. He nodded again. “It wasn’t me,” she said, as if reading his thoughts.
And as relieved as Elven was to know that Gwendolyn was safe, it was vastly overwhelmed by the terror that now filled his mind: if Gwendolyn had not coughed, then it was either Farthyn, or Meredith. For an eternity the two stared at each other, not speaking, and when the door before them unlatched suddenly, the sound was deafening in the silence. Elven nearly dropped the candle, and Gwendolyn gasped. The door creaked open, and there stood Meredith, clutching a small blanket and looking blankly into her father’s eyes. Her own eyes were wide and frightened, and she murmured, “Farthyn woke me up, father. He …”
But Elven did not hear anything that she said beyond those words. From within the room where his children slept came another tiny cough, and he thrust the candle into Gwendolyn’s hands before racing to his son’s bedside, all coherent thought gone from his mind. It was merely a cold, he told himself—it had to be. And when he shook his son’s infant shoulder, the boy stirred … but did not wake. And so he shook him again, and again it was to no avail.
Tears flowing unchecked, Elven stooped and picked Farthyn up bodily, cradling him to his shoulder. “Please wake,” he murmured gently. “Tell me you’re awake, son.”
Relief flooded through him as the boy finally yawned and opened his eyes. “Da?”
“It’s all right, son … I’m sorry to wake you. It’s all fine.” He laid the boy back in his bed, and sat on the edge beside him. He reached a hand out to stroke his hair, and it was then that he felt how cold Farthyn’s skin was.
“Father?” Elven had forgotten Meredith and Gwendolyn, who were still standing just inside the room. “Is he okay?” The young girl looked astonished and frightened, and Elven thought she had never seen him cry before.
Despite the lump in his throat, Elven managed to nod gently. “I … yes—yes, he is.”
But if Meredith was fooled by his words, Gwendolyn was not by his tone. “Come, Meredith,” she said softly. “Let your father tend to him—you can sleep with me tonight.” She took Meredith by the hand, and led her from the room.
Now Elven was alone with Farthyn, and he rested the back of his hand against the boy’s forehead. Farthyn had rapidly returned to sleep, his breath slow and shallow, and he did not stir as Elven caressed his cheek. Time seemed to stand still, and Elven saw his son with a clarity he had never known in his life. From the little dimple of his ear to the infantile hairs on his cheek, Elven took in every detail that lay before him, and the room darkened around him until he could see nothing but the tiny face, resting calm and peaceful. The candlelight flickered, and he thought in the dim light he had never seen anything so beautiful. Soon the flame began to gutter and go out, and only then did Elven realize that hours must have passed, for the candle was almost spent.
And then a new light approached from behind, and he felt a hand on his shoulder. He reached to grasp the hand without looking, knowing already that Talya had missed him in their bed, and had come to find him. “What is it, dear?” she asked softly.
But Elven could find no words to say, and merely tightened his grip on her fingers. He heard her breath quicken, but he still could not speak, nor even turn to face her. “It isn’t … it can’t be … ?” she whispered, and suddenly there was a commotion as he felt her hand slip from his. The candle dropped from her grasp, rolled on the floor and went out, and in the sudden dark he heard her fall to her knees and begin to weep. Only then did he find he could move, and sat on the floor beside Talya, taking her into his arms and holding her as tight as he could. Together they wept through the night, and did not move until the dismal dawn crept through the windows and brought an awful grayness to the room.
Throughout that day, Elven and Talya did not leave Farthyn’s side, and he felt no hunger, no thirst and no fatigue. The boy did not wake, as Elven knew he would not, and it occurred to him that in the night he had likely heard his son’s last word. With every breath Farthyn took he held his own, waiting to see if another would follow. Every so often he would rock the boy, and had servants build high the fire to keep him warm, but there was no change, as Elven knew there would not be. He had amaranthium brought to him, placing small drops on the boy’s lips, but he knew the medicine was not a cure, and soon he left the jar alone beside the bed, untouched.
To her credit, Gwendolyn kept Meredith occupied throughout the day, so that her thoughts did not dwell on her brother. Elven was grateful, for he did not think he could face his daughter that day. He felt weak, in both body and spirit, and could not bear the thought of her seeing her father so broken. As for Talya, she paced the room, stoked high the fire, and held Elven tight, and he realized in those moments that she was far stronger than he had ever known, and far stronger than he was himself. While he felt tears return every few minutes, she did not weep again, and he was grateful then to her, and felt his love for her burn brighter than he had ever known.
And so the day passed into night, and Farthyn continued to sleep, but there was no further coughing, and no further sound. As the skies darkened, he heard rain begin to patter against the window, and the sound, usually so soothing, quickly infuriated him, for it overwhelmed the sound of his son’s breathing, and he found he could not tell life from death. Candles were lit and lanterns brought, and the room remained illuminated far into the night, while all the world outside faded into nothingness. Elven found his thoughts dwelling on Dantèl again, and the death of his brother. He had said that Elven would never know the fear of certain death, but he thought that now he knew something far worse: the certain death of his child.
Sometime after midnight, Talya finally fell asleep in a chair in the corner of the room, but Elven could not rest. He climbed into the bed with Farthyn’s prone form, holding him tight, and realized that he could at least feel his son’s chest rising and falling, even if he could not hear his breathing. Wild thoughts took his fancy, and he began to think that perhaps Farthyn was not succumbing at all, for surely he would be dead already—how could so small a person last so long against so terrible a disease? And against all rational thought, he did a thing that he knew he should not, and allowed a tiny flicker of hope to build in his heart. Perhaps not all was lost; perhaps Farthyn would wake come the morning. Perhaps he would be the one person who could survive the Sleeping Death, because he was his son, and because he could not die.
But such thoughts were folly, and when Elven withdrew from these imaginings and saw the room again, it was still dark, and Talya still slept, and Farthyn … he laid his hand on the boy’s chest, and it was still. For an eternal moment Elven held his own breath and waited, but there was no flicker of movement, no sign of life in the boy, and his skin was as cold as ice.
So Elven lost his son, his youngest child, and madness took him as he stood from the bed and passed out of the room into the dark halls beyond. He could scarcely breathe, and as despair and rage welled inside him his only thought was to find somewhere where he could rid himself of the world, release his anger and fury and curse at the forces of Darkness and Death. Without wit he found himself at the great doors that led into the Great Hall, and he flung them open and stalked out into the night, and as the rain poured down upon him he sank to his knees. And then he could no longer contain the fury and despair, and he raised his head to the black sky and cried out, an incoherent howl that went on for an interminable minute and left his throat raw.
When his strength was spent, he collapsed on the wet stone, and then the tears returned. He wept, and cursed, and rocked madly to and fro until his breeches ripped and his knees bled from the stone. For an hour he carried on, until his eyes were sore and his head ached with the strain. And when he had no more tears to shed and no more curses to spit, he finally stood, and saw a thing that made his blood run cold.
A dark figure stood before him, tall and silent, robes so black that they appeared as a shadow against the night. The hood was drawn low over its face, and he could make out nothing of its countenance. Bewildered, he rubbed at his eyes, as though to convince himself that the figure really was there. But when he opened his eyes again, it still stood silent, and he thought there was something dreadfully familiar about it. “Who … who are you?” he asked finally in a hoarse voice.
The figure took a step toward him, and as it lowered its hood he saw that it was a woman, pale as snow, her eyes as black as her robes. She bowed, and he saw the crimson jewel that hung at her breast. A chill passed through him, but oddly he felt no fear. When she looked up at him again, he saw that she seemed not unkind, though she did not smile. “I am Shaera,” she said, and her voice was soft and cold.
“I know you,” Elven said slowly. “How?”
“Brandyé knows me well, and has spoken of me. But you know me also, though we have never met. I wished to speak with you tonight.”
“I’m sorry,” Elven said, “but I don’t understand. I … what does Brandyé have to do with you? I haven’t seen him in years.”
Shaera nodded. “He is alive, though far from here. It is not about him that I wish to speak.”
Elven closed his eyes for a moment. “Can this wait until the morning? I don’t feel I can speak right now.”
“I know. I would only have you listen.”
“You know? You know that my son is dead?”
“Your son is with me, now.”
Suddenly, Elven thought he understood, and he felt a deep surge of resentment. “Are you … you’re Death, aren’t you?”
Shaera nodded again. “I am Namirèn.”
“Then we have nothing to speak about,” Elven ground out. “Leave me!”
“Elven … your son’s death was not of our doing.”
Shaera took another step toward him, and he took one back in turn. “Not only the Namirèn take life, Elven. You must listen—”
“Stop!” Elven cried. “I won’t hear it! Your kind bring death, and then you lay blame elsewhere!”
“This Sleeping Death, as you have called it, comes from the Duithèn, Elven.”
But Elven shook his head. “You’re all the same, your … races of power! The Illuèn said the same thing—that the Duithèn brought low the world. But what did they do? What have they done? I’ve seen no Illuèn since the plague came upon us! They don’t help—they won’t! And you—you take my son, and think I would hear a word you have to say? Begone! I would rather see the Duithèn themselves than see your face right now!”
“You may see them soon enough. The Duithèn are returning, Elven, and their strength is in Darkness, and despair. You must not let your loss defeat you.”
“What would you know of loss? What would you know of despair?”
“You are closer than you know to defeating the Sleeping Death, and the Duithèn are afraid. How better to stop you than by taking that which you love most?”
“I don’t care! I never set out to stop them—I never meant for any of this! I would give it all up now, in a heartbeat, to …” his voice cracked, “… to have my son back.” Tears came again, and he wept.
“All things must die, Elven; it is only a matter of time. But, they must die in their own time, and the Duithèn are bringing death to many before their time. So they have done to the people of Kiriün; so they have done to your son. Soon, they will have brought it to all the peoples of Thaeìn, and Erâth will be under their power. This cannot happen.”
But Elven could not hear her words, and turned his back. “Leave me, now! I curse you, and all races of power! I swear today that I will never speak to any of you again!” He was surprised by his own vehemence, and discovered that he meant every word. He wondered if she would try to convince him otherwise, but she did not speak. For a long moment he remained with his back turned, and there was only silence. When he finally turned back, she was gone, swallowed by the night. A cry came from within the Great Hall, and he knew that Talya had awoken. He turned back, knowing she would need his strength.
Perhaps Shaera was right, he thought; perhaps the Sleeping Death was not of their doing. But he realized it did not matter: he would not give up, and he would find a cure. But it would not be for the Namirèn, or the Illuèn, or even to defeat the Duithèn. It would not be for the people of Thaeìn, or even of Kiriün. He would do it, he resolved, for his beloved son, and for no other.