Copyright © 2015 & 2017 Tanya Cliff
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced by any means, including electronic without the written permission of the author/publisher except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. All the characters, names, incidents and dialogue in this novel are the product of the author’s imagination.
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Table of contents
“We are lost.”
“We are NOT lost.”
“Have you ever been to this place before? Does any of this look familiar to you? Loni…Loni!”
Loni continued down the path without looking back. Dovni sighed, shrugged his shoulders, sat down and leaned against a tree. His body ached, and he was hungry. They had not eaten a proper meal since setting out on their journey four days before. Now, as far as Dovni could tell, they were lost. The small men from Hill Country were a rugged sort, provided frequent meals from their well-stocked kitchens and long naps in their comfortable beds. “Adventurer” was the polite term given to those folks who fled Hill Country to avoid being locked up in one of the local jails.
Dovni pulled a loaf of bread out of his bag and tried to bite into it. He frowned. The bread was stale. He hit it on a rock repeatedly until it broke apart. He picked up one piece at a time, brushing off dirt and a few insects as he ate. He watched Loni walk from one side of the path to the other, searching through the forest undergrowth. Loni pushed branches, ferns and weeds to the side, feeling the tree trunks with his hands. He moved methodically from one tree to the next. He searched one side of the path and then the other, repeating the process every few steps.
Dovni felt a crunch and squish of beetle juice in his mouth. He shuddered and gulped, washing it down with water from his flask. He shuddered again.
“We are lost!”
“We are NOT lost,” Loni responded, his words muffled by the leaves and stems surrounding him. “I found it!” Loni stood, holding what appeared to be a Luna Moth in his hands. “There! See!”
He walked back up the path and sat next to Dovni.
“Look,” Loni said, “I told you we were not lost. We’ve followed the Gat’s instructions to this point. And here is the next piece.”
Loni unfolded and gently rubbed the back of the wings. As the scales shed, parchment was revealed underneath. Drawn on the paper was a meandering line with a tiny “x” marked in the corner at the bottom and a larger “x” marked toward the top.
“Here is where we are now,” stated Loni, pointing to the bottom corner. “And there is where we will find the next piece of our map. So, no, we are not lost at all. We are exactly where we are supposed to be.”
“Where we are supposed to be? I am supposed to be home, sitting in front of a fire eating my dinner. Or maybe at “The Border Inn” enjoying a meal and some ale with you. Or at your Granny Nana’s house eating…oh, I can’t even think of it.”
Dovni picked a chunk of the bread off the ground, brushed it off and held it out to Loni. Loni took it and began gnawing on its edge, a grin on his face.
“No,” continued Dovni. “We are NOT where we are supposed to be.”
“Where is your sense of adventure?”
Loni spat out small crumbs as he spoke.
“Adventure?!? Adventures are for Valdaren or the large men who hunt in the Trividian Forest or sea-trading men. They are NOT for simple folk like us.”
Loni bumped his shoulder into Dovni as he spoke.
“I am NOT!”
Dovni leaped to his feet and put his hands on his hips, glaring. Loni grinned up at him as he chewed.
“I am…I am NOT! We are days away from Hill Country, following a…well, what would you call it? It isn’t a map. The Gat could have at least given us a proper map!”
Loni folded the disguised paper in half for Dovni and then opened it back up.
“It is a map…or a fragment of a map. We are here.” He pointed again to the small “x”. “And we are going here.” He traced his fingers along the jagged line to the “x” at the top. He folded it again, showing off its lime green wings, and held it for Dovni to see. “It is a Gat map,” he stated proudly.
Dovni shook his head.
“And what do you know about the Gat?”
“Plenty. Do you ever read?”
Loni stood and brushed the dirt off his pants. He examined the inside of the moth map and looked down the trail ahead of them. He folded the map, opened the side pouch of his bag and placed it behind several dozen other maps in the shapes of various moths and butterflies. He closed the flap, secured it and patted it a few times with his hand.
“I read…plenty,” Dovni protested.
“Well, then, you would know that Gats are secretive. They take great measures to hide their houses. It is written that a single Gat home contains more histories, potions, records of dark creatures and mysterious things than all the libraries in the great cities of men combined.”
“You mean there are more of them? I have only ever heard of Mattoby.”
“I think there used to be…a long time ago. Mattoby is the only Gat I know of, but the old books told of more.”
“Mattoby is old…ancient.”
“Yes, so he must have a treasury of things worth hiding. He has given us a map, or fragments of a map, to get us to his gate. We are exactly where we are supposed to be…one more day to go…seven more maps to find. We are NOT lost. You are a Drougerhead, but you are a nice one who shares your moldy bread.” He grinned at Dovni, bumped him with his elbow, chuckled and started walking down the path.
“I am not a Drougerhead!”
Loni continued walking.
“What does he want with us anyway?”
Loni didn’t look back. He concentrated on the path ahead, matching his steps to the jigs and jags of the picture of Gat’s map in his head.
Loni picked up his pace along the dirt trail. Night would be falling in a few hours, and they would have to stop lest they miss one of Mattoby’s clues in the dark. He wanted to reach the next map piece, if possible, before dark and find a safe place to hide for the night off the trail. That should get them to the Gat’s gate before nightfall tomorrow. He wanted to leave extra time, just in case they did get lost, although he said nothing about that to Dovni.
Dovni sighed, shook his head, scowled and jogged to catch up to his friend.
The Gat climbed the ladder to the top shelf of books. He swiped the boney finger of his right hand along the dusty spines, sending a small cloud of white particles into the air. He puffed through his scraggly beard several times to clear the air in front of his nose. More dust followed. He sneezed and blew vigorously. Still, his finger continued moving down the titles:
One Hundred Potions, One Hundred Cures by Finnaous Dolspringer
Gorgenyweed, Uses and Dangers by Dorian Middlesnout
Ancient Herbal Spells for Today’s Gat by Meldringfor the Gat (a Gat who had been dead for more than 200 years)
Plant use in Gates and Portals by Melvin Parnoidian
Herbaceous Curses by Doddlesnick Twofinger (rumored to have lost the other three to a particularly potent mix of Nodlesleg Weed and Brovlinine Seed)
“No…no,” muttered Mattoby. “Where is it?”
He continued along the line of books, careful not to damage the tattered spines. His finger stopped, and he gently patted the title of the next book.
“There you are.”
He pulled the book off the shelf and hugged it to his chest as he walked down the ladder, mumbling under his breath. He carried it past piles of books that covered every part of the room, from the overstuffed shelves and mismatched tables and chairs to the floor. Mattoby’s library contained books of every shape and size, color and age, history and use arranged in a haphazard order understandable only to himself. He knew the general location of every title, including those stacked on the floor, books that he was now stepping over and walking around to get to the one empty table in the back of the room.
He placed the book on the table and read the title out loud, “Magical Cures, The Lingering Effects, by Vagmorgian the Gat…ah, Vagmorgian, my old friend…I do wonder whatever became of him.”
He opened the book, taking care not to rip the brittle pages, and ran his finger down the Table of Contents.
“Ah, there you are…Chapter 7: Tests of Completeness – The Theory of Magical Growth…dry topic.” He coughed a few times and sneezed. “Let’s see…let’s see…I know it is in here.” He resumed muttering and mumbling to himself as he scanned Chapter 7. “Aha! Yes…yes…,” he read fragments aloud, “…magical powers displayed in young and developing beings…lingering effects connected to…especially pronounced in cures…provided the benefiting specimen remains alive…powers reflect, in theory…” He stopped. “Yes…yes…it’s all theoretical, isn’t it? Still, Vagmorgian…I wonder…I wonder…” He continued reading, stopped at one point, retracing his finger under the words. He read them slowly, “The connection between a healed living organism and its magical healer is a strong bond, lasting the life of the healed organism. In theory…yes, there it is again…yes, yes…In theory, the recipient organism reflects the power of its healer, the reflection growing in intensity with the maturing magical power of the being that delivered the healing. The healed organism does not possess the magical powers, merely reflects them under the proper test conditions, in theory…yes, yes.”
Mattoby waved his hand as to chase the word “theory” off the page.
“You always were a cautious one Vagmorgian. In theory…”
“I wonder…I wonder…We shall put it to a test.”
The Gat returned the book to its place on the shelf in the same manner he had retrieved it, sneezing a few times at the top of the ladder. He paused at the door to his hallway, held up his hand and snapped his fingers. The candles in the lanterns on the walls and hanging from the three chandeliers on the ceiling all dimmed to a soft glow. He entered the brightly lit hallway and turned to the right. The ceiling in this hallway was high enough for the tallest of men to walk comfortably, though the Gat, diminutive as he was, did not require it. He had rare, but occasional, company to the rooms down this corridor, and the hallway was set to properly accommodate them. He reached the room in the front of his house.
The corridors to the left and the right of this main hallway were never used by company. They were narrow and winding tunnels, with low ceilings. He could pass through them on his tiptoes if he desired, but tall men and Valdaren would have to duck and walk bent over at the waist to navigate the passages. It was no bother to him. These rooms were never intended for company.
He stepped into the hall to the left of the main passage. The lanterns scattered down the corridor lit up as he did but provided only dim light. Unlike the main section of the house with its wooden plank flooring and clapboard walls, the floor beneath his feet was dirt and the walls stone. Mattoby walked down the corridor, past three thick wooden doors, each locked with a different variety of bolts and barricades. He stopped at a fourth, mumbled quietly and ran his fingers over the face of the locks. One after another they unlocked.
He opened the door, walked into the dark room and shut the door behind him, repeating the process with his fingers. The muffled snapping of the locks on the backside of the door answered him. He snapped his fingers. The lights in the room, bright white lights, responded by flicking on together, revealing an enormous greenhouse that stretched for a hundred feet in front of him. The ceiling vaulted high above his head, and numerous birds took flight, startled by the sudden brightness. In the center of the room was a grove of rare trees that pushed to the top of the glass panels on the ceiling. A few of the birds landed by his feet, and he tossed some crumbs from his pocket to them.
“Yes…yes,” he said quietly to the birds. “I’ve disturbed your sleep…It cannot be helped.”
He walked down the path to the right of the tree grove. Several vines twisted their tendrils and brushed against him as he passed.
“Hello, my friends. I will not trouble you for long.”
At the back of the room was a small greenhouse contained within the cavernous room. It was made of glass panels all around with no apparent entry. Vines wrapped around the outside of little room, blocking its insides from view. Mattoby snapped his fingers. The vines recoiled off the structure. A light in the center of the room illuminated revealing a table with a single plant on it, a plant with emerald leaves shaped like hearts and lovely white flowers as large as man’s hand. There was nothing else in the greenhouse.
“Still alive, I see…good thing…yes…yes.”
He mumbled a few words, and the front panels of glass folded themselves to the side, creating a doorway.
He stepped inside the room and gently touched a leaf.
“The first gift of the last Lightbearer…a child’s wish for your flowers to ever bloom…and still you bloom…though hundreds of years have passed. She is a child no more, but is she ready? Is her magic strong enough? I wonder?”
Mattoby reached to the belt around his waist that was hidden by his long grey beard. He pulled out a thin dagger, a blade that looked more fit for a child’s play than a powerful Gat’s use. The handle was made of carved bone in the design of a twisted vine. It was an ancient bone, the former owner of, Mattoby would never confess. He pulled a clean tissue from his pocked and folded it precisely into a perfect square several layers of cotton thick. He placed the cloth directly underneath a leaf and held that leaf in his left hand just at the base where it connected to the stem. He held the dagger in his right hand and poised it above the leaf.
“Forgive me Lorien. This will sting a bit.”
He whispered a few words, then plunged the blade into the center of the leaf, resting its tip on the cloth. Blood flowed through the gash in the leaf and down the blade, saturating the folded tissue. It dripped off the table and onto the floor.
“Ouch!” Lorien gasped and formed her hand into a fist. Drops of blood slipped out from her palm through her fingers. She held her hand close to her body and kept her back to her father, who was seated at a table in the center of the balcony.
The blood ran down her wrist. She grabbed the sleeve of her shirt with her left hand and pulled it over her wrist up to her fingers, grateful for the dark clothes of the Valdaren Guard she was uncharacteristically dressed in. Warm blood oozed from her hand down the arm of her shirt. The dark splotch on the sleeve grew, and she could feel thick blood pooling up to her elbow. Her hand throbbed. But where had the cut come from? Her eyes scanned the railing in front of her. She had been resting her hands on it only moments before, gazing out over the rushing waterfalls into the moonlit night that was to guide her journey. The marble was polished and smooth.
“There was a sharp piece of rock loose on the banister. I caught it with my palm. It’s just a scratch. It is nothing.”
Her father watched. Lorien, keeping her back to him, glanced down at her fist. She pulled the sleeve back slightly. There was no blood. She opened her fist. There was nothing. Not even a scratch. She had felt the sharp pain. She had seen the blood. Even the stain of the shirt sleeve was gone. She bit her lower lip, then forced a smile and turned to her father, holding her hand up for him to see.
“See, it’s nothing. I just caught it on something. That’s all.”
Still, he watched her.
“It was nothing,” she insisted.
He got up from his chair and walked to her. He took her hand in his own and studied it. He touched the spot where she had felt the cut and traced his finger down the middle of her palm.
“It was nothing.”
She tried to pull her hand away from him, but he held on, his finger still pressed to the spot she had felt the gash. He looked intently at her and grinned. He pushed her hand gently toward her chest and let go.
“I’ve never known a little scratch to cause you to gasp.”
“True, but this isn’t an ordinary night.”
“Hmmmm…I’ve never known you to be jumpy whether the night was ordinary or not.”
“I didn’t say I was jumpy.”
“You gasped and grabbed your hand.”
“I don’t know what it was, but there is nothing there now.”
“What was there?”
“Honestly, what does it matter?”
“Lorien, there is a task at hand that requires YOUR hand, but I will not allow you to leave the Northern Realm unless you are honest with me.”
Lorien forced a smile and held her palm up for him to see.
“Do you see anything?”
“Then there is nothing to tell.”
She looked away to avoid the piercing gaze of his blue eyes, but she could feel his probing. She bit her bottom lip, and shifted from one foot to another.
“Fine…I felt a sharp piercing. I looked down, and it was bleeding…gushing blood. Then I looked down, and there was nothing.”
He grabbed her hand again and held it palm up between his hands. He closed his eyes. Lorien relaxed. The strength and warmth of his hands had always reassured her. She was content to stand by him. She didn’t want him to let go. Without releasing her hand, he opened his eyes and looked deeply in hers.
“A test,” he said quietly.
“Well, that is lovely and nonspecific, Father.”
“I believe you have been the unwitting victim of a little Gat mischief. It is nothing serious.”
“Yes, that is what I said…nothing.”
She laughed, though she tried not to.
“Honestly, I’m going to fix that Gat for good one of these days,” she protested. “He is always meddling…always!”
“He means you no harm, Lorien. Quite the opposite.”
“I know that, but…”
He raised his hand to stop her and nodded his head.
“Lorien, if I didn’t think you were ready, you would not be going anywhere. For all their magic and potions and knowledge, Gats are not Valdaren. They were neither Lightbearers nor Kings. To us were these tasks given, and we have always fulfilled them. The Gat sees a linear progression of life. He does not understand the swirling of the wind or the radiating of light. When the real test comes, what is inside of you will match it.”
They both stood for a time, side-by-side, staring out into the forest of the Northern Realm just beyond the pools and river that collected below the waterfalls of the City of the Great King. On any other night, the two of them would have talked quietly and laughed, remembering stories of times passed or playing word games in a language only the two of them understood. He would challenge her and try to stump her. She would challenge back. They would make sport of words and strategies, ideas and plans, constructs of a brilliant mind and its singular off shoot. This night, for the remaining moments they had, they waited silently.
“Shouldn’t the Captain of the Guards be out…guarding…something?”
Ajie moved to pass the tall figure blocking his way through the corridor, but Eijivar matched him step-for-step, waving his hand like he wanted to swat Ajie down the hallway and back to the grounds outside. Ajie stopped.
“Well? You are the Captain of the Guard…of Many Guards. Certainly, there is something out there you need to watch over?”
Eijivar ran a hand down his long, blond hair and brushed it over the silver-scrolled, emerald fabric of his fitted vest, as if to flick off the imaginary dirt that Ajie had dragged in from the forest. The two male Valdaren companions, similarly dressed to Eijivar, chuckled. Eijivar looked back at them furiously and nodded his head for them to leave. The look silenced them, and they both walked away. He turned back to Ajie and scowled.
Ajie, dressed in the plain greens and browns of the Guard, looked out of place in the Halls of the Great King. The bow and arrows strapped to his back and the sword and daggers sheathed on his belt spoke to his purpose. The dirt on his boots and sweat on his brow testified to the lands he had already patrolled that night. The shoulder-length, brown curls that adorned his head belied his Valdaren blood. He stared back at Eijivar.
“There is nothing in these halls or in this city for that matter, in need of your presence. If the guards are doing their jobs outside, then they have absolutely no need to drag their dirty feet down these pristine corridors.”
Eijivar took a step toward him. Ajie responded by placing his hand on the handle of his sword.
“I have been summoned by the Great King. If you have a problem with that, take it up with him.”
“Summoned? For what purpose?”
“You are welcome to join me, provided you aren’t afraid of a little dirt, Eijivar.”
Ajie walked past Eijivar, bumping his side with his shoulder as he passed. Eijivar spun and caught up to Ajie, keeping pace alongside him.
“Summoned for what?” he asked as they walked.
“Take it up with the King.”
“I will take it up with you!”
He grabbed hold of Ajie’s arm. Ajie stopped and pulled his arm free. He grabbed his sword and pointed it to Eijivar’s chest before the man had a chance to react. Eijivar spread his hands wide and grinned.
“Ever the quick one.”
“It’s why I have been summoned,” he said with a grin, and he put his sword back in its sheath. “For that…and other reasons. Take it up with the King if you don’t like it.”
Eijivar kept pace with him as they continued walking. They turned down several corridors, and then Ajie stopped. Ahead was a closed door with a guard on either side. Unlike the Guard that patrolled the lands outside of the City of the Great King, these guard were dressed in fitted shirts and vests in dark blues and greens, in similar fashion to Eijivar, but without the fancy scrolling. They were armed with swords but nothing else. Ajie grabbed hold of Eijivar’s arm.
“What you discuss with the King is between the two of you, but this task is given to me. If you try to interfere, I will stop you,” Ajie responded.
“Then it involves her.”
“You are going to accompany Lorien somewhere? This time of night?”
Eijivar took hold of the front of Ajie’s vest.
“Where? Where are you taking her?”
Ajie pushed Eijivar’s hand away.
“I am not taking her anywhere. I am to accompany her. And I don’t know where. As I said, you can ask the King yourself. I am warning you, do NOT interfere.”
Ajie walked up to the guard and bowed. They returned the bow and opened the door. Ajie entered the room, and Eijivar followed him. They both stopped, puzzled, as soon as they saw Lorien and the King. Neither of them remembered to bow. Lorien was dressed in the dark browns and greens of the guard. She had a bow and quiver full of arrows strapped over her back, and a thin sword and dagger sheathed in holders strapped to her waist. She wore old boots of the guard that rose just above her ankles. The King nodded to the two men and motioned them into the room. The door was closed behind them.
“What is going on?” Eijivar asked. “You are allowing her to leave…like…like…?”
He waved his hand in the direction of Lorien. She glared back at him, furious.
“Like what?” she asked.
“Like a common guard,” he answered, returning her glare. “What is going on?”
“Lorien has business outside of our lands. Ajie will be accompanying her. Would you have her leave the Northern Realm in flowing, silver-scrolled gown and slippers?”
He grinned at Lorien, and he winked at her. He was tall and strong. His long, white hair, the only testimony to his age, shined in the moonlight on the open terrace. Lorien found herself fighting the urge to hide in the protective fold of his arms.
“I would not have her LEAVE the safety of the Northern Realm at all. I would certainly not allow her to run wild in the night like a common guard. She is the daughter of the Great King!”
“Yes, I am aware,” responded the King. “I don’t recall summoning you, Eijivar, but please, have a seat.”
He extended his arm to the table in the center of the balcony. Eijivar did not move.
“Ajie, follow her,” the King stated firmly. “Do not leave her side. Once you pass through the gates and out of our lands, move swiftly. She knows the way. Keep your eyes sharply tuned. There are shadows moving beyond our lands…”
He stared at Ajie, who bowed in acknowledgement.
“Lorien…” he said more softly.
“I will be careful, Father. Besides, I’ve already been wounded once tonight. How much mischief can he cause?”
“Plenty, but it is not HE who concerns me,” the King said, hesitating for a moment and nodding toward the door.
Lorien needed no further encouragement. She turned and hastened out of the doorway and down the long corridor, Ajie following at her heels. Eijivar stood by silently and waited until they were out of earshot.
“Do you not think,” Eijivar stated, carefully measuring each word, “that it is beneath the status of the daughter of the Great King to run like a wild thing in the night? And with a member of the common guard, for that matter?”
“Ajie has extraordinary eyes. He will spot trouble long before it spots them, and there is no COMMON guard, as you put it, who is more skilled than he,” the King responded calmly. “Lest you forget, by my hands he long ago was made Captain of many of the King’s Guards.”
The King sat at the table on the balcony and motioned for Eijivar to join him. He watched the pathway leading to the forest, hoping to catch a glimpse of Lorien. He spoke to his guest without turning his head.
“Neither the will of a Great King nor the lust of a Valdaren prince can alter the ground that she must travel.
“Long have I…,” Eijivar protested.
“Long have you lusted. You have lusted both the beauty and position my daughter possesses. I caution you, Eijivar, they are hers. She is free to share them as she wills, or not.”
“I do not…”
Two figures emerged from a ground patio and moved rapidly along the path toward the woods. The slender figure with long, dark hair walked in the lead. Ajie followed, matching her steps. They passed the tree line and disappeared into the woods.
Eijivar walked to the table and sat across from the King. He looked out toward the path that the King was still watching, then turned back to the King. He leaned forward.
“You belittle my feelings for your daughter by reducing them to lust. Long have I cared deeply for her. How can you allow her to wander out of our lands like that? And with him?”
The King looked at Eijivar and sighed.
“It was her choice.”
Eijivar sat back in his seat and folded his arms across his chest.
“I see. You had nothing to say about it?”
The King laughed.
“I always have something to say about it. In this case, I agreed with her. Ajie has keen eyes and a quick draw. They must travel swiftly and keep out of sight. He was the correct man for the job.”
“I would have willingly traveled with her. I’m a stronger with the sword than Ajie, and I am…”
“You are what?”
“A true Valdaren of the Northern Realm…one of her kind.”
The King laughed again.
“Ajie is a distant cousin of a lesser family born far from these lands. No matter how many Guards you make him Captain of, nothing will change that,” Eijivar’s words bit through the cool night air with hot bitterness.
“Jealously does not suit you.”
“I am not…”
The King held up his hand and stopped Eijivar.
“Time alone will reveal your intentions toward Lorien. It will sift you by its own moving measure, as it does us all. Do not profess to me. Save your words for her, if she will hear them. I have answered. She is free to choose a suitor, or to choose no suiter. This night, she chose a protector, and she chose well.”
“I do not…”
“I know what you would say. Eijivar, you are a noble and trusted warrior, a fighter second to none, but you have much to learn. You have chosen to grace my presence this night, my old friend. As it happens, Lorien’s test has just begun. I believe it is the beginning of your test as well. We have business to discuss.”
Lorien and Ajie hurried down the paths of the Interior Lands of the Northern Realm. It was a cool and clear night. The leaves of autumn had just begun to fall. Their shadows, cast by the silver glow of the full moon, danced along the path, darting in and out of the tall trees that lined it. Lorien had not spoken a word since they had begun. For the moment, Ajie was content with that. The territories of the Valdaren were well-guarded. The gates that allowed passage to the Interior Lands were hidden to all but those who knew their secrets. The Great River exited the Interior of the Northern Realm at the Alvormine Pass, an arched bridge that connected the footpaths on either side of the river. A massive stone garrison stood on each end. The Pass, the only vulnerable entry to the Interior Lands, was protected day and night by the best archers of the Valdaren guard. Even the Outer Lands of the Northern Realm gave Ajie little cause for concern. They were patrolled by the King’s Guard, an army of archers and swordsmen who moved through the lands swiftly, silently and unseen.
The occasional trouble that found its way into the Outer Lands of the Northern Kingdom consisted of intoxicated humans taking wrong turns down the Garven Road, a misguided (or at least claimed to be) dwarf nosing around where he didn’t belong — a favorite pastime for dwarf, or a naughty little gnome child eager to cause mischief of some sort or another (though they rarely made appearance in the Valdaren lands, preferring to steal from the human villages). A giant bear from the Trividian Forest, where everything grew large, had crossed the Outer Border years before and had given sport to an amused group of archers who took until the next morning to chase it out of Valdaren lands. He and Lorien were safe on these trails. Ajie relaxed and enjoyed his quiet company and the soft brush of her hair on his cheek as it blew behind her in the wind.
Lorien stopped before a wall of contorted vines which stretched impassable as far as one could see in either direction, each vine larger than the trunk of an elephant. This wall of greenery reached around the entire boundary of the Interior Lands except for the Alvormine Pass. It was said to be a mile thick in places, although the only measurable distances were through the gates, and only the Valdaren of the Northern Realm knew where those were. One could not cross over this gate unless one had wings, as the vines would give way to the slightest pressure, sending one deep down into the web of plant to a tangled oblivion. One could not dig under it, as the roots were as large and twisted as the vines. One had to know the secret of the location of the gate and how to maneuver through it, and that meant that one was a Valdaren of the Northern Realm. It was rumored that Mattoby the Gat had discovered the trick to passage; although, if he had, only he and the Great King knew for certain. When one lives to be as old as Mattoby the Gat, he discovers many things.
Lorien stepped one foot over a tangle of branches, ducked down to the right and stepped around another mass, repeating the process to the left and then to the right again. With the next step, she entered the tunnel of vines, an ancient archway ten feet high at the center and five feet wide, which continued for several thousand feet, far enough that only Ajie’s keen eyes could see the break of moonlight at its end. Ajie followed behind her, stepping, ducking down and moving around in the same manner she had. The lights of Valdaren lamps gave a soft golden glow every ten feet on both sides of the passage.
Turning toward Ajie, she said, “Are you going to ask me where we are going?”
“Lorien,” he responded with a grin. “I know that I am going wherever you are going, and you seem to know where you are going well enough for the two of us.”
“Will you, then?” she asked abruptly.
“Will I what?”
“Will you follow me wherever I am going? Or will you chase a dusty dream through the mist to a faraway land where my heart will be not follow?”
But she turned and continued, an urgency to her steps, in hopes they would carry her away from an answer she was afraid to hear. When they reached the end of the tunnel, it was two steps up, another duck, and one more step up. They crossed into Outer Lands of the Northern Valdaren. Lorien resumed the path, her eyes fixed ahead, which was just as well for Ajie. Now there were eyes all around them, in the trees and on the hillsides, the King’s Guard, silently and curiously watching them pass.
Soon they reached the end of the Northern Realm. Lorien paused and turned toward the winding dirt path that lead to the Garven Road, but Ajie reached out for her arm.
“Lorien, follow me,” he stated quietly. “It will only take a moment.”
Ajie headed in the opposite direction of the dirt road, leading her to a narrow rocky path up a cliff. He climbed ahead, reaching back to help her up the steepening rocks. He stopped on a short ledge and pulled her up beside him, holding onto her with one arm and pointing to the river that stretched to the horizon.
“See where the moon reflects off the Great River,” he started, pointing to the South. “You can follow it snaking along to a place where it is swallowed by darkness.”
“The Trividian Forest,” she said.
“Yes. And past that land, there is a sprawling marshland in the basin of the Great River that leads straight to the Undulan Sea. From there you must sail, but if you go far enough you will reach an island treasure at the end of the earth. It is a place where the water runs in clear streams that cut through dells surrounded by mighty trees and flowering vines. The roots of those trees are intricately trained over decades to form the structures that my people have dwelled in for two thousand years, living extensions of my paradise home. It is not like the chiseled stone and carved wood of the Northern Realm. Every tree and waterfall has meaning and purpose. It is a place where you will find intoxicating answers to questions you had never thought to ask. It is not a dusty dream in the mist,” he continued. “For the hundreds of years have I lived among your kin, I still know every tree there by heart.”
“Ajie –,” Lorien began to protest.
“You ask me an unfair question, Lorien. Will I follow you? What have I always done? What am I doing now? Can you divide my heart?” he challenged.
He beat his fist to his chest. She looked away. He held her arms with both hands and turned her to face him.
“Look at me! Can you? Lorien!”
“Ajie, I didn’t…”
“No! You didn’t. You never do. There is a throne in that kingdom to which I am the rightful heir. Yet where am I? Where am I right now?”
Movement in the forest below caught Ajie’s eye. He held his hand up to silence her and stared toward the pathways below. At the edge of forest a few miles down the road he noticed several shadows moving through the darkness. They slipped into the trees. He could not discern any form.
“Come quickly, Lorien,” he said in a whisper. “It is a foolish thing to be waylaid by dusty dreams on a night like this. Quickly!”
Now Lorien followed Ajie, silently stepping through the night. When they reached the Garven Road, she pointed to the North. They had not walked far, Ajie’s eyes darting this way and that, when a short, thin, ancient man in a long, brown cloak with the hood pulled so just his glinting eyes could be seen jumped out from behind a twisted mass of sharp thorn bushes onto the road beside them.
“Quickly, quickly, this way,” he said in a high, nasal tone. He jumped back into the bushes. Lorien followed, disappearing into the tangle of branches. Ajie paused, staring at the spot she had entered, but his keen eyes could see no opening.
“Quickly, quickly,” he heard the old man’s voice say again, muffled from behind the thicket. “This way.” A gnarled hand popped out of the thicket and grabbed hold of Ajie’s arm, pulling him through it with shocking strength. On the other side of the thicket lay a narrow stone path, twisting through the thorny vines. The plants were dense in places, blanketing the trail. The man hustled down the path, leaping over greenery every few feet. Lorien followed. Ajie glanced back at the thicket. Even from this side, he could see no break in the thick branches, yet he did not have a single scratch on him from his passage through it.
“Quickly, quickly,” the old man yelled back at him.
Up and down and around and around, they twisted on that path. The trail narrowed as they traveled, requiring Lorien and Ajie to squeeze sideways in spots. They reached another thorny thicket that completely blocked the path. The old man motioned for Lorien to continue. She grinned at Ajie and disappeared into the mass. The old man turned to Ajie.
“Welcome young Ajie, Prince of the Island Realm. I am Mattoby the Gat, and this is my home, as often as I keep it.”
Ajie, caught off-guard by both the “young” and the “Prince,” simply returned the bow and said nothing.
“This is a Gat gate, my gate specifically,” Mattoby continued, motioning to the thicket. “Now only a Gat can show you the way through his gate, and a Gat will only reveal the location of his gate to a guest and rarely at that. You cannot see the way. You must simply trust that it is there and follow. We do not have much time, so please do follow, and quickly.”
With that, Mattoby disappeared into the center of the thicket. This time Ajie followed without hesitation, though to his bewilderment, he did not understand how. Lorien grinned and did her best not to laugh. Not far down the path in front of them leaned a decrepit shack with one window emitting a faint glow of light from within.
The Gat approached the door with his hand raised. He motioned his fingers over the single, rusty bolt. A drumroll of locks could be heard unfastening all the way down the opposite side of the door. As soon as the noise stopped, he snapped his fingers, and the door opened, revealing a bright entry. Ajie and Lorien both ducked and followed the Gat inside.
The inside of the Gat’s home bore no resemblance to its impoverished exterior. Ajie, Lorien and Mattoby stood inside a spacious, circular room, warmly lit by lanterns on the walls. Hooks, matts and several benches formed to fit the space’s curvature extended down both walls from the entry door. Three hallways branched from the area. The center passage continued the entry’s lofty ceiling, wood-planked floors and bright lights. It was a straight hall with two doors on each side and a double door at the end. Two cave-like corridors with dirt floors and stone walls wound down either side of the main hall.
Mattoby led his guests through the middle hall and into the dining room on the other side of the double doors. A long, wooden, rectangular table filled the room. A hodgepodge of chairs and stools lined each side of the table. A single, highbacked chair was pulled up to the head of the table. The other end had no chairs and backed up to a stone-tiled hearth with a blazing fire. Shelving on either side of the fireplace was stocked with an odd array of dishes, decanters, serving trays and a variety of baskets filled with foods. The table was set for many guests.
“What is this?” Ajie asked.
“This is a gathering, a Gat’s Gathering, although it is not Gats who will be attending, except for me, and I am a Gat, and this is my home, so this is a Gat’s Gathering by definition,” the Gat spoke and moved in quick, jerky motions, fidgeting around the table as he answered the question. He paused to count the place settings, added one more to each side, shifted a couple of chairs and recounted.
“What is this?” repeated Ajie.
“Yes, yes, but to other business first,” Mattoby responded, dismissing Ajie with a wave of his hands. “Our guests will be arriving soon, and I must go back and show them the passage through the gates. So quickly, Lorien, quickly. Do you have it?”
“What gathering?” Ajie insisted.
Mattoby let out a quick sigh.
“My gathering. You shall see soon enough. Do you have it, Lorien? We must make fast work of this.”
“A gathering of whom?” Ajie demanded.
This provoked a warning glance and a swift whack to his arm from Lorien. Mattoby continued flitting around the table. He filled one tray with biscuits, two with an array of meats and cheeses and another with crispy wafers, lining them down the center of the table. He proceeded to pop open bottles of wine, filling a cup at each chair and placing extra bottles for every few chairs. Mattoby was not known for his food, but the red wine he made was coveted. It was rumored that he cultivated a grape in his private gardens that was long extinct in the rest of the lands. If it was true, he wasn’t saying. The trade of his rare wine allowed him to add to the eclectic collection of books, trinkets, ingredients and other oddities he had amassed over the years. He picked up two full glasses and handed them to Ajie and Lorien. He grabbed another and took a quick, but large, drink himself.
“A gathering of those scattered throughout this land and a few beyond who have been summoned to my home for what business…”
His voice trailed off, and he waved in Ajie’s direction again.
“Well, you shall understand soon enough. Do you have it?” Mattoby urged, turning to Lorien.
Lorien produced a small, leather pouch that had been carefully tied to the belt around her waist. She held the pouch over the table in front of Mattoby. A wrapped object, the size of a skipping stone, slid onto the table. Ajie stepped forward to Mattoby’s side and set his glass down. He and Mattoby both stared at the package. Lorien picked it up and pulled back the wrapping, holding it forward for them to see. Ajie recoiled at the sight and backed away from the table.
Mattoby leaned toward the stone and studied it carefully. It was a clear, white crystalline stone, perfectly smooth and flat and a half an inch thick. There were no visible marks on the stone. After a few minutes of studying it, he shook his head, his scraggly grey beard rustling with the motion. He muttered to himself, with only a few audible words like “yes” or “no” overheard. He was verbally wrestling with himself. He took another gulp of wine and shook his head “yes” as if he had reached a conclusion. He left the room in a hurry, saying in hushed tones, “It is the only way to be certain.”
“They were all destroyed,” cried Ajie. “Lorien?”
She glanced back at him.
“Wait,” she whispered. “Just wait. I will…”
“Yes, yes,” muttered Mattoby, as he returned to the room. “A stone like this hasn’t been seen in this world for nearly a thousand years, save for the single stone kept secretly by the Great King that rests in the hands of Lorien…not for a thousand years.”
Mattoby placed a box forged of thick metal, bolted along its seams and corners, down on the table. He moved his hand over the case, mumbling under his breath. He snapped his fingers three times, each snap unlocking one of the three oversized padlocks securing the container. He shuddered, opened the box and motioned to Lorien.
“Quickly,” he said.
Lorien placed the stone she was holding to the side and reached into the box. Her fingers located the object of interest. She wrapped them around the object but delayed in removing it.
“It cannot be,” she whispered. “They were all destroyed, all but the one I carry.”
“Oh, yes,” responded Mattoby. “The Lightbearers destroyed all of the Lumenstones before they and many of the Valdaren of the North left this world. As you know, your father possesses the only remnant, painstakingly locked away, mind you…until now.”
Lorien pulled the stone out of the box and set it on the table next to her stone, a perfect match.
“The Lightbearers called them Deathrocks, for that is all they wrought,” she said. “It cannot be. They destroyed them all.”
“I discovered this stone in the Great River basin among the villages of men, thinking, or hoping, that it must simply be a strange coincidence, a random happenstance, something that looked like something that once was but could not be. When I reasoned with the men of the basin to give it to me for further inspection, they responded in a most unpleasant way. This led me to suspect that what could not be, in fact, just might be. There is only one way to know for certain, Lorien. Is this simply an uncanny imposter, or has darkness found a new foothold from which to rise again in this world?”
Lorien acknowledged with a nod. She wrapped the stone she had brought and placed it back in her pouch, securely tying it to her belt. She moved to pick up the other stone but hesitated, looking back at Ajie. He was watching her intensely. She tipped her head down and stared at the floor, closing her eyes.
“Quickly, Lorien,” Mattoby urged her. “There is not much time.”
She glanced back at Ajie again, a look of sorrow in her eyes, then picked up what she hoped to be an imposter rock and held in her hand. Without word or motion, a bright ray of bluish light emanated from her palm and radiated around the stone, lapping at its sides. At first, the stone answered back with a light of its own, dancing golden against the blue light from her palm. But golden turned to ashy grey, then a sickly greenish brown, and finally black – a coiling viper locked inside the stone. The wispy snake broke through its rocky hold, sending small curls around her hand. The rays of blue light absorbed each ringlet as it licked the sides of the stone. Suddenly the blackness exploded out of the stone. The light in Lorien’s palm responded with an impenetrable blanket of blue that smothered the serpentine smoke. Both dark and light disappeared, and the clear, crystalized stone was left a powerless clump — black, dull and opaque like coal. It dropped out of Lorien’s hand and onto the table with a thud.
“Then it is true,” said Mattoby, his quivering voice filled with nervous energy. “The light of a Lightbearer will only do that to a Lumenstone. I must go, quickly, quickly, for there is less patient company than present awaiting passage at my gate.” Mattoby scurried out of the room.
Lorien picked up the dead Lumenstone.
“Deathrock,” she said quietly, with great surprise and dismay.
“Lightbearer,” responded Ajie, staring at her with equal surprise and dismay.
“This is not how I wanted to tell you. There is an hour for explanation, but this is not it,” said Lorien quietly, still fixed on the stone. “For the world’s understanding, the Lightbearers were gone from this world long ago along with such things as Deathrocks and the evil that crafted them. You join my father and Mattoby and, by this late hour, Eijivar, in learning of this secret kept for my protection.”
Eleven diverse people plus the Gat filed into the room in a disorganized manner. Mattoby repeated, “quickly, quickly,” as he motioned them around the table. Although they complied with his directions, not one of them sat down. He walked to the head of the table, shot a quick, warning glance to Lorien and Ajie and broke into a smile, just visible through his beard.
“Welcome friends,” he began, to no response from those gathered. “Please, sit. Though the food be simple, the wine is, as you are all aware, not. Please,” he repeated. They stared at each other and one at a time took their seats. Mattoby motioned toward the guest directly to his left.
“This is Vidor, son of Vandor, the Lord of Shrevdon, noble trading city of the Trividian Forest to the west of the Great River.”
A great, bearded man dressed from head to toe in mixed leather and furs nodded toward the Gat.
Mattoby moved to the next man. “And this is Jamae, son of Hyanmae, the Lord of Harsedon, EQUALLY noble trading city of the Trividian Forest to the east of the Great River,” Mattoby paused, then grumbled, “although, I say, the two of them rarely agree to anything equal or noble.” Jamae, a large bearded man also dressed from head to toe in animal skins, distinguished from Vidor by the many colorful strands of beadwork adorning his garment, scowled and guzzled his entire glass of wine. He poured himself another.
“These three have come together, though I have only met the one in the center, Shetovenar, son of Tovenesh of the Airedian Islands,” said Mattoby, bowing. The three tall men were unmistakably Valdaren, adorned with the long, straight locks of their people. Shetovenar bore a striking resemblance to Eijivar of the Northern Realm in both appearance and mannerism. Ajie stiffened at the introduction.
“Forgive me, Mattoby,” said the companion to the right of Shetovenar, who glared at the Gat. “But this,” he said, motioning to Shetovenar, “is the High Prince Shetovenar, son of King Tovenesh, of the Island Realm of the Valdaren. I am Ledron and our other companion is Tehodenar.”
“Yes, please, do forgive me,” stated Mattoby, turning his back to Shetovenar.
The three Valdaren were dressed in brown pants and deep blue shirts of the Island Realm with subtle scrolls of green vines down their sleeves and across their vests. They remained motionless until Shetovenar, who was, regardless of his foul mood, fond of Gat Wine, took a long drink from his glass.
“Next, we have Loni and Dovni, my young friends from the village of Grendor in the Hill Country of Men to the north. Please eat and drink,” Mattoby said, waving his hand in their direction.
Loni needed little encouragement. He gulped his first drink down and helped himself to another.
“Drougerhead,” Dovni muttered and gave him a swift elbow to the side.
Loni responded by handing Dovni’s glass to him. Dovni took a small sip, conscious of the eyes of many at the table staring at him. He blushed and took another.
Next to Dovni sat stood a statuesque man with dark skin wearing a colorful spun wool vest, buckskin trousers and a thick leather belt with a massive sword clasped to it. He had a fine braid running down the right side of his long, wavy, black hair.
“This,” said Mattoby, “is Tolmar of the Southern Morlene plains. Tolmar’s father, Adumar, fought valiantly alongside the Great King in the Battle of Dorghorn some thousand years ago, I believe?”
Tolmar nodded, but he did not eat or drink.
The two men across the table from Tolmar were absorbed in wine and their own conversation, and they paid no attention to Mattoby. He cleared his throat a few times. Giving up, he shouted, “And these are Joram, Master of Novidia, the great mercantile city of the Fandorn Sea, and Dorpor, the son of the Mayor of Port Town. Apparently, they both find Gat Wine more interesting than present company!”
There was an empty chair on either side of the next person at the table, a man dressed in travel clothes of coarse cloth. He looked like he hadn’t had a proper bath in weeks. He was tall like the Valdaren, but his hair was scraggly brown, and he had a strong, square jaw adorned with a short, rough beard.
This,” Mattoby said, “is one of my dearest and most trusted friends, a man who knows as much about the goings on of these lands as I do…almost. This is Keshtor of the Dernan.”
“I did not know,” interrupted Shetovenar, “that your invitation, Gat, would involve such…regal…company.”
Keshtor smirked and stared at Shetovenar.
“If hellish mutts ripped out the Southern Prince’s vocal cords, he would lodge a written complaint on the ground with his finger dipped in his own blood, protesting that he hadn’t been mauled by pure bred pups.”
Shetovenar jumped to his feet.
“Stop!” Mattoby yelled, holding an upturned palm toward each of them.
Keshtor grinned and nodded his head to Shetovenar, taking a drink from his glass.
“Please, Shetovenar, both of you…”
Shetovenar sat down, folded his arms across his chest and stared at Keshtor.
“This is Ajie, son of the Vasjulei, King of the Island Realm of the Valdaren. He is the HIGH PRINCE even by your standards, Shetovenar. Ajie is the rightful heir to the throne of the Airedian Islands…or he would be if he chose to be.”
Shetovenar laughed out loud.
“If you are waiting for my retort, Gat, I have none to offer. You have rebutted your own claim regarding my father’s throne.”
He lifted his glass to Ajie and took a drink.
“Since the untimely passing of his father in the Battle of Dorghorn, Ajie has had a seat at the table of the Great King of the Northern Realm and is the Captain of many Guards,” Mattoby stated, directing his words to Shetovenar.
“As you said, Gat…he chose.”
Shetovenar raised his glass to Mattoby and grinned.
“I did not know,” Keshtor interrupted, “that your invitation, Mattoby, would involve such…foolish…company.”
Shetovenar laughed again.
“Nor did I.”
“Enough!” Lorien stood and addressed the company. “Enough! The only foolishness in this room is the bickering between the two of you. There are worse things than the grievances of your respective people to consider on this night. Enough!”
The eating, drinking and arguing all stopped, and the party stared at Lorien.
“And this,” continued Mattoby, before any more interruptions could occur, “is Lorien Andumae, the daughter of the Great King and heir to the throne of the Northern Realm of the Valdaren.”
Shetovenar stood and bowed deeply.
“Forgive my hasty words, my lady. This is, indeed, a great and unexpected pleasure taken in strange circumstance.”
Lorien nodded slightly toward him, sat down, took up her cup, forced a smile, raised her glass and took a long drink of Gat Wine. The rest of the company joined her, Tolmar included.
“Now, to the business at hand,” said Mattoby. “As you know, you all were summoned here on a mission of great urgency, although not all of you are fit for a mission of great urgency. To that end, I will pick among you. I caution you now, this matter involves most certain peril, likely death, with small chance of gain, though the gain that it might bring would be large indeed. But there is small chance of that. Are there any of you who would like to leave at that announcement and make my picking less picky?”
No one responded to the invitation to leave.
“Perhaps,” said Keshtor with a grin, “If the Gat’s wine was more — simple — ‘certain peril, likely death, with very small chance of gain’ would have greater effect.”
“Yes, yes,” answered Mattoby, a mischievous smile lurking under his beard. “Please continue to enjoy the wine and food.” Mattoby waved toward the table, although most of his guests needed little encouragement. “Yes, yes, keep your mouths and stomachs busy at their pursuits; but please give me your ears, as matters of such great urgency demand urgent consideration.”
“Would the Gat care to speak in a straight line? Or must we run in circles all night? For my men and I have traveled far, and although I do enjoy your wine very much, I do not enjoy your games,” interrupted Shetovenar.
“Games, you will have, however,” responded Mattoby dryly with a dangerous gleam in his eyes. “I must choose among you, and I will, for this task I have been given.”
“By whom?” belted out Dorpor of Port Town, followed by a loud belch.
“Myself, if you must,” the Gat belted back. “Dorpor of Port Town, for that rude response, you shall go first. Answer the riddle if you can.
Long the night at Dorghorn’s height,
There was a tiny glimmer.
Fortune’s right and great delight,
Held in the hand, did shimmer.
“What, exactly, did shimmer?” asked the Gat, with satisfaction at the puzzled look on Dorpor’s face. The rest of the party grew quiet and watched Dorpor.
“Let’s see, height, Dorghorn, but Dorghorn is a forest, and it doesn’t have height,” at this Dorpor belched again. “Shimmer, shimmer — held in the hand,” he stared at his own hand. Growing frustrated and embarrassed, Dorpor turned to Mattoby, “This is not a fair question. This is something from far back in history, isn’t it? Unfair, Gat —belch — unfair,” he protested.
“Fair or not,” replied Mattoby, “for you, it is the price of admission.”
“I do not know,” stammered Dorpor.
“Very well,” said Mattoby. “Can you answer the question, Joram?”
Joram sat and stared at the cup in his hand, took a large drink and shook his head “no.”
“To your credit, Joram, you did not waste my time protesting unfairness.” Mattoby answered. “Loni, can you answer the question?”
“I do not know, but I will try,” answered Loni. “In Grendor, when I was a lad, which to me seems long ago, but to most of the present company, I am afraid, is nothing but a whisper and a blink, I heard tell of great stories of the men who explored the Gossen Mountains.”
“Yes, go on,” Mattoby smiled.
“The Dorghorn Forest rolls along until it meets the edge of those Gossen Mountains. I have heard that in places the dark, old trees of the Dorghorn climb up the sides of those mountains as if to challenge their supremacy. The mountains are strong, and the farther up those rocky sides the trees of the Dorghorn try to climb, the smaller and weaker they become. So, the Dorghorn does have heights, so to speak, but they are made up of small and scrubby shrubs, clinging to a rocky host that has little respect for them.” Loni answered.
Loni, a small man with naturally disheveled hair, dressed in the plain clothes of people of the Hill Country, well-made but simple buckskin and hand-spun wools, appeared to the party to be little more than a Dorghorn shrub himself. They all were paying close attention to his answer, which was turning out to be much larger than his person.
“So, ‘long the night at Dorghorn’s height’ would place your riddle, Mattoby, directly at the end of those shrubs in the middle of winter. The legends say, it was during the winter when a brave, and many would say foolish, man named Dorbinger Dobbin, found himself lost in the Dorghorn Forest. It is said that Dobbin opted to climb, thinking that the trees would thin and he would find a way out. Half frozen, he made his way up past where great trees become lesser trees, and lesser trees become bushes, and bushes become scrubby shrub. And there, he found a passage into the mountain, which he entered to escape the bitter cold. When he lit his torch, there on the cave ground before him was the tiniest glimmering stone, a beautiful shade of green. He picked it up and held it in his hand. Yes, that is it,” answered Loni, smiling broadly. “Dobbin’s Find — the answer is Dobbin’s Find. The first jewel discovered in the Gossen Mountains, a tiny gem of mossenstone.”
“Very good,” responded Mattoby. “Yes. Very good. Now, to my three friends from the Airedian Islands, I have only one question. And only one answer will I take, though I will demand three. Think carefully and measure your response, as you would measure my wine had you but one bottle and a great company to satisfy. My question is this: To whom does the well-carved throne in the heart of the Airedian belong?”
At the question, Shetovenar glared fiercely at the Gat, but Mattoby held up his hand.
“Think on it, my friends, and I will come back to you,” Mattoby said. “Great and urgent matters are at stake, matters that require great responses of those who would meet them.”
“Another game then, for I do so enjoy games. And at my age, I know most of them. This one is called, ‘The Standing Game.’ What? You haven’t heard of it? Come now, am I that old? Very well, then. Tolmar and Jamae please stand up.”
Tolmar stood slowly, bowing to Mattoby with a smile.
“If it pleases, my friend.”
But Jamae sat stubbornly in his seat.
“I have had enough of your games, Gat, though not of your wine,” he said loudly.
He held his glass up in toast to Mattoby, then drank. Mattoby paused.
“Very well, thank you, Tolmar. To humor an old friend is a gift, one that is not taken lightly,” said Mattoby, motioning Tolmar to sit back down.
At this, Vidor of Shrevdon stood up and bowed deeply to his host.
“Perhaps, my old friend Mattoby, you simply asked the wrong man of the Trividian to stand?”
“Perhaps,” responded Mattoby. “No, no, do not sit down. Come here.”
Vidor walked to Mattoby’s side, and the Gat handed him a small pouch that the others could not see. Mattoby leaned in and whispered to Vidor, “This belongs to someone at this table who does not know that he, or she, is missing it. Your task is to discover the owner, without letting on that you have this in your possession. Step outside quickly and examine it. When you return, you may ask the present company three questions.”
Vidor smiled and stepped out of the room.
Mattoby turned back to the table. “While that game is readying itself, my dear friend Keshtor —” Mattoby began.
“Do you want me to stand?” asked Keshtor, with a coy grin.
“No, no, much better than that. I would like you to sing,” stated Mattoby, as if asking a guest to sing in unfamiliar company was commonplace. “And not just any song, my friend. I request a song that now rises out of the depths of the Gossen Mountains, deep and mournful, like many other songs that now rise from those lands of men. I know this present company has not yet heard this song, for it has not made its way to the Hill Country of Men or the Morlene Planes, though I fear it may. You know the one I’m thinking of. Please.”
“To humor an old friend?” asked Keshtor.
“That and more, perhaps.”
Keshtor began humming a soulful melody, haunting and beautiful, which silenced the entire room, including the Valdaren of both the North and the South. After a few minutes, he added the lyrics:
Did you see my Adrianne?
On the far end of a dream,
Searching for me in the light,
My footsteps vanished in the stream.
Did you see my Adrianne?
Did you hear her cry my name?
All is darkness now and weary.
‘ round my waist there is a chain.
Did you see my Adrianne?
Always wondering where I went.
Lost to shadows, sold to darkness,
This the tomb where I was sent.
Here in the night
of darkest gloom,
We work the mines
of Dobbin’s tomb
Here in the night
of darkest gloom,
We work the mines
of Dobbin’s tomb.
If you see my Adrianne,
Tell her please and not to cry,
I have found the way to exit,
For I must work until I die.
Here in the night
of darkest gloom,
We work the mines
of Dobbin’s tomb.
As Keshtor finished, Vidor returned and sat. For a moment Mattoby seemed far off and lost in thought, but he regained his composure. “Very good, thank you,” he said to Keshtor. “Yes, yes, Vidor. Vidor has been given a task, a task that will require him to ask any of you, or all of you, three questions. Then we shall see whether he has won his game or not.”
“I will only need to ask one,” he responded with a broad grin. “And I will address it to all of you, although I really need address it only to one. There is an edible mushroom, small and shades of deep brown with grey undersides, which grows in a few places in the Trividian Forest. It is subtle in scent and difficult to find. It is called a carshdin. It is quite delicious, nutty and rich in flavor, and a prized ingredient, expensive and coveted. One at this table has recently held a fresh carshdin in his or her hand. Which one of you is it?”
At the question, Shetovenar stood and turned to Vidor. “That would be I,” he responded.
“Then this,” stated Vidor, holding out a silver ring with a beautiful blue stone in it to Shetovenar, “would belong to you.”
“Very good, very good, Vidor,” said Mattoby, with great enthusiasm. “And only one question. Very good. Apologies,” he said, bowing toward Shetovenar, “for the theft was mine. But what great fun. Have I missed anyone?”
A small hand went up at the end of the table as Shetovenar took his seat.
“Oh, forgive me, Dovni, of course,” Mattoby grinned.
Dovni stood up. “Please don’t ask me to sing,” he said, bowing to the Gat and bringing laughs from everyone at the table.
“Show me what you carved on the way to my house. That is all I ask. Whittling in wood you were, quickly and carefully, all the way down the path. I would see what you made,” answered the Gat.
Dovni blushed, hesitated and shrugged his shoulders.
“Well, it is better than singing!”
He reached into his pocket and produced a small deer.
“Please pass it around so we can all get a look at it,” requested Mattoby.
When the deer reached Ajie, he held it up and examined it closely, smiled at a blushing Dovni and said, “Impressive.”
“Now we reach the end of our gathering,” announced Mattoby, once the deer had been returned to Dovni and stuffed it back into his pocket. “We have one question with three answers left to give, and then I will tell you who I have deemed fit for ‘certain peril, likely death,’ and so on. My question was: ‘To whom does the well-carved throne in the heart of the Airedian belong?’ Shall we start with you, Ledron?”
“The throne of Airedian belongs to King Tovenesh, and it will someday belong to the High Prince Shetovenar, son of King Tovenesh,” responded Ledron.
“And you, Tehodenar? What do you say?” asked Mattoby.
“The throne of Airedian has belonged to King Tovenesh for a thousand years and will continue to until it passes to the High Prince Shetovenar, son of King Tovenesh,” replied Tehodenar.
Mattoby sighed deeply. “And you Shetovenar, High Prince of the Island Realm of the Valdaren, whom do you say the throne belongs to?”
Shetovenar stood with kingly air and bowed deeply to Mattoby the Gat with a smile on his face. “The well-carved throne in the heart of the Island Realm, my dear Gat, belongs to the Valdaren, not to any namesake or bloodline. For long have my people, our people prized noble traits over inherited ones…”
“Provided they were purely bred noble traits,” interrupted Keshtor. He had his arms folded across his chest and nodded his head to Shetovenar.
Shetovenar paused to consider him.
“Perhaps. My father sits on the throne now because a beloved King fell in battle a thousand years ago, and the son, who would have been King, did not return to our lands, to the long-felt grief of all in the Southern Realm.”
Mattoby smiled at Shetovenar, who sat down and studied the Gat.
“Very well, I have made my choices. And my choices will accompany the Lady Lorien and Ajie along with myself to the Northern Realm where the table of the Great King awaits. Dorpor, your wit is as dull as your appetite is big, and I have no use for either of them. You may take your leave.”
Dorpor, attempted to glare at Mattoby on his way out, but his inebriated state left him looking like a sleepy bulldog.
“Joram, Novidia is a great city that deserves a great leader. You have a wealth of many things, including books and scrolls, in your city. Might I suggest that you spend some time learning all those things that you ought to already know? Until you know them, you are of no use to me. You may go.”
Mattoby pointed toward the door.
“To my three friends from the Airedian Islands, three answers did you give me, yet in only one did I find any depth of thought or wisdom. Anyone can regurgitate an obvious answer, and that is all that you, Ledron and Tehodenar, have done. You are a great people of an inspiring land. I challenge you to think like a great and inspired people.” Mattoby bowed and held out his arm toward the door. They both looked to Shetovenar who nodded for them to leave.
“Jamae, you were asked to complete but a simple task that cost you nothing, yet you failed to attempt it. How will you be trusted to cooperate in a large task that may cost you your life? You are a mighty hunter who lives among mighty hunters, but your pride and stubborn heart make you vulnerable. I fear for you, my friend.” Mattoby pointed again to the door.
After he left, Mattoby surveyed the remaining group with satisfaction. “Yes, yes,” he stated. “I believe that will do. I have met my quota. I was to provide six along with myself for a total of seven. Three will be supplied from the Northern Realm, including Ajie and Lorien. That will make us an even ten. Ten is a good number. The table in the Hall of the Great King awaits, a pleasure deeper than my wine, which alone has been worth the trouble of the journey this far. Shall we?”
The group followed Mattoby out of his house and to his first gate. Lorien went through the gate followed by Ajie. The Gat stopped at the gate and pushed Loni through. Dovni stepped back and out of the Gat’s reach.
“Quickly,” Mattoby scolded. “It is no different than when you crossed from the other side. Simply step into it.”
“Drougerhead,” came Loni’s muffled voice.
“I am NOT a Drougerhead!”
“Quickly,” Mattoby insisted.
“You are,” Loni continued. “In fact, you are a TambrinToed Snoodlemouth…and a full grown, curly-feathered Chickenbutt! Walk through!”
Dovni stepped forward, brushed the Gat’s hand off his arm and marched through the gate. Echoes of “TambrinToes”, “Drougerhead”, “Snoodlemouth” and so on could be heard from the other side.
“They’ve had too much wine,” grumbled Shetovenar.
“They are young and rambunctious,” he answered, “but sturdy and reliable folk.”
“Annoying little children, more like.”
“Not everyone can meet your standards, my lofty friend.”
The name calling increased in volume, and the rustle of leaves with a few cries of “Ouch!” and “Stop that!” ensued.
Shetovenar stepped through the gate. The commotion stopped. The rest of the group passed to the other side, where they found Shetovenar standing between Loni and Dovni with a firm grip on an arm of each. The men from Hill Country were staring at the ground. Shetovenar and Ajie were exchanging angry words but stopped as soon as the party was through. The Gat signaled Ajie to continue. Lorien followed behind him. Shetovenar pushed Loni ahead of him and Dovni behind him. Tolmar walked up by Dovni and placed a hand on his shoulder.
They continued the journey down the overgrown path. Their respective jumps and side passes around the underbrush gave the appearance of a caterpillar crawling down a bumpy leaf. No one spoke. Shetovenar’s rebuke of the two men from Hill Country and the difficult terrane sobered the company.
They had not travelled far when a shrill scream shattered the silence around them. They halted and listened. Tolmar, Keshtor and Ajie all drew their swords. Shetovenar grabbed hold of Loni and Dovni and shot them a warning glance.
“What was that?” whispered Lorien.
Ajie motioned her to be silent.
Several minutes passed.
“Animal or human?” Keshtor called back to the Gat.
“If animal, none that I have heard. If human…”
Ajie kept his sword drawn and grabbed hold of Lorien’s hand, pulling her close.
“Stay right behind me.”
He continued down the passage slowly, stopping frequently to peer into the dense greenery and listen. Everyone halted with him. Shetovenar kept hold of Loni’s shirt in front of him and Dovni’s vest behind, stopping them every time Ajie paused.
When they reached the gate, Ajie listened again. Keshtor pushed his way past the others to join him. They all waited in silence. Nothing but the rustle of leaves in a gust of wind was heard.
“Can we go through together?” Ajie called back to the Gat.
“No. One at a time. Keshtor, grab hold of his vest and follow him straight through. Do not let go!”
“Ajie,” Lorien protested.
Keshtor nodded in agreement. He held his sword in his right hand, allowing it to dangle behind him, and took firm hold of Ajie’s vest.
“Ready when you are,” Keshtor said.
“Everyone else wait on this side until they signal,” Mattoby warned.
Shetovenar released his hold on the two men and stepped up to Lorien’s side, drawing his sword. Lorien did the same. Tolmar nodded to Loni and Dovni, and they each drew a dagger. Ajie looked back and nodded to Shetovenar.
“Stay here!” he repeated to Lorien. “On my count. Three. Two…”
He disappeared, sword first, into the tangled hedge with Keshtor right behind him. The others could hear a rustle of leaves, movement and muttering of voices. Several minutes passed.
“Ajie!” Lorien yelled.
“Stay there! Send Mattoby through!”
Mattoby hurried past the line of travelers and through the gate. His gasp was heard from the other side. The group stared at the gate. Another few minutes passed. The muffled voices of the three could be heard, but what they were saying was inaudible.
“Stand back!” Mattoby yelled.
A droopy head followed by a slumped body and legs emerged through the gate and fell to the ground with a thud. The body didn’t move. Ajie, Keshtor, and Mattoby returned to the Gat’s side of the gate. Lorien knelt at the side of the leather-clad, large body lying face-down on the ground. Shetovenar knelt by her side, and together they rolled the body over, face up.
It was Jamae, the great hunter of Harsedon, an expression of terror frozen on his face. Aside from one scratch that extended the length of his cheek, he appeared to be uninjured.
Shetovenar ran his hand over the scratch without touching it, whispering words in the ancient Valdaren tongue.
“He’s dead,” Lorien said. “He has passed beyond reach.”
“Yes,” Shetovenar answered, standing up. He walked back to Loni and Dovni. Dovni’s hands had dropped to his sides, and his mouth was gaping open.
“Yes,” responded Shetovenar. “Keep your weapon ready.” He grabbed Dovni’s forearm and raised his dagger to striking position. “Stay close to me.”
“Mattoby?” Lorien asked.
“No, not here, not now,” he said, alarmed. “There are things in this world that a Gat’s gate will not discourage for long. Leave him. You can do nothing for him.” Mattoby pushed his way to the back of the line. “Quickly, quickly. Follow me. We must go a different way.”
Ajie reached out and took hold of Lorien’s arm, helping her to her feet. The others followed the Gat. Ajie held Lorien back for a moment, putting a distance between themselves and the group.
“Ajie?” she asked, as he kept his firm hold on her.
“Mattoby will lead the others through Marville to the Western Gates of the Valdaren. If they have any luck, the sun will rise before they return to the Garven Road. The witches do not like daylight. When the sun rises, they will flee to the shadows. Then the Gat can lead the others safely to the Northern Realm.”
“And what are we going to do?”
“Follow the Gat’s instructions and quickly.”
They retraced their steps back to the Gat’s home, Ajie keeping a firm hold of Lorien’s hand the entire way. Lorien followed without protest. Soon they reached Mattoby’s house. Ajie raised his hand to the dilapidated door.
“What are you doing?”
“Following the Gat’s instructions.”
A rattle of locks and chains could be heard on the other side of the door. Once it stopped, Ajie pushed the door open and entered the Gat’s home. Ajie turned back toward the door and pulled a large key out from under the mat at its entry.
“What are you doing now?”
“Following the Gat’s instructions.”
He turned the key into an oversized lock in the center of the door. An assortment of chains, bolts and locks manifested from the walls and completely covered the door.
“He is thorough,” she joked.
“I have seen that mark before, the scratch down the cheek of the hunter. After the Battle of the Dorghorn was won and my father dead, I followed your father through the Dorghorn Forest all the way to its western borders. We were tracking remnants of the enemy’s army, destroying any we found in their various forms: giants, evil men, the great bears and the serpents. We heard rumors of dark witches and werewolves passing that way, but they eluded us. We reached the boundary of the Western Plains at dusk. Your father stopped, refusing to lead us into that land of desolation. As we watched along the border, my eyes caught shadows moving in the mist of the bogs beyond. I could see no form. They were moving away from us. Your father refused to chase them. The next day, we reached a village of men deep in the Dorghorn that was nestled along a stream amid the sprawling trees of that place. From a distance, we could see that something was wrong. It was silent. Nothing stirred except for the waters and a few stray dogs. When we reached the village, we found them — men, women and children — all with a single scratch down their terrified faces, and all of them dead.”
“The dark witches?”
“Yes. We searched the area for several days, but your father would allow no one to enter the Western Plains. We found no trace of them save for the misty figures beyond the border of the Dorghorn witnessed the day before. I have never seen shadows like that move again until tonight. Three of them.”
“So now what?”
Ajie motioned and, she followed him down the hallway and through the second door on the left. The candles in the room brightened as soon as she crossed the threshold.
“Following the Gat’s instructions?” she asked.
Ajie was no longer in the doorway to answer the question. She gazed through the room. For all she knew of Gats, she had not expected this. A treasury of books and scrolls surrounded her. It was a comfortable, well-used room, lit with lamps all around, small tables and old, worn leather chairs. On each side of the room was a ladder attached to the topmost shelf, which could be rolled back and forth along the shelves that lined the walls. Books were scattered here and there throughout the room — on the floor, tables and chairs — many of them open. Ajie re-entered the room with Gat Wine and two cups in hand.
“And the Gat’s instructions were?”
“Exactly what we’ve done,” he answered, pouring them both some wine. “Mattoby claimed that the locks on his front door are effective in keeping out all manner of foul things, including witches. He suggested, in strong terms, that I keep you here until the sun is high enough in the sky tomorrow to light up even his overgrown pathways. Then we will return to the Northern Realm, via the best lit path we can find. He thought you might find his library amusing.”
“I’ve been to this house before but never stepped foot in this room. Look at his books! It’s no wonder…”
“No wonder what?”
“Well, look around you! He has books from lands of men,” she picked up and pointed to piles as she talked, flipping pages and blowing off dust, “chronicles from distant lands, old Gat history and potion books, Valdaren scrolls. Look! Mystical Creatures, Real and Imaginary, by Darvious Mantrilingor. This is a Goblin book! There are few Goblins left in the world!”
“There are few Gats left in the world.”
“What a collection! Just look at them all!”
Lorien removed her weapons, though she kept the small pouch by her side. Ajie handed her a glass, then sat in a chair against the wall opposite her, a position that provided him full view of her no matter where she moved in the room.
“I have more interesting things to look at.”
She ignored him as she flipped through the Goblin book, stopping on a chapter about winged creatures.
“This is amazing! Look, Ajie! It mentions Sirens, Unicorns, Wyvern, Dragons and Phoenix. Phoenix, Ajie! The Lightbearers of old told tales of Phoenix. I always thought they were simply bedtime fantasies to stir young Valdaren minds. But…look…here in the Goblin book. There are recorded encounters. It’s amazing!”
“That is one word for it.”
“Phoenix, Ajie!” she implored him.
“Lorien, we have no place to go and a long night to get there. I think it is an hour for explanations, Lightbearer.”
Lorien turned to face him with a smile. “But Phoenix! Phoenix…Explanations then, but you first. I will tell you what you want to know and possibly some things you do not. First, I have one, and only one, question for you. Shall I play like the Gat? Make a game of this?”
He grinned and raised his eyebrows at her. She sighed.
“Have it your way. Let’s waste the hours in this library having the conversation YOU never seem to want to have. I get one question, and I am going to ask it in my best Gat!” Her voice grew quiet, and she stared at him. “Ajie, I will know if you are telling me the truth. And if you hold back from me, do not expect the answers you are looking for.”
Ajie took a drink and studied her. “You are playing. I will play along, to a point, but when your game is finished, I will have an explanation.”
Lorien smiled and laughed. “Careful, Ajie. If you annoy me, I will twitch nervously around the room and mutter to myself as I take ten sentences to ask it. Ready? I see two thrones and three kings; two kingdoms and three lords; two peoples who are one, and three princes who are anything but. I see two crowns, one forged among mountains high with towering castles of stone, strong and beautiful, and one forged among an island paradise with structures of twisted root, ornate and breathtaking. Ribbons of waterfalls cascade down its cliffs. I see three heads. Two of those kings, lords, princes and heads will each take a throne and lead a kingdom and maybe unite a people and certainly wear a crown. One of those kings, lords, princes and heads will not. He will choose a high road and a narrow path, one that does not look for glory but lives for it.” Lorien looked at Ajie. “Which one are you?”
Ajie paused before answering. “You do play, Little Gat. You took at least ten sentences to ask that. Is that your question? Do you want to know which king, lord, prince or head I am? I have already answered you. Where my words have fallen short, my actions have surpassed. Did I return to the Airedian Islands even though my heart yearned for it? Did I claim a throne or a kingdom or a people or a crown, even though they were mine to claim? No, I served alongside a Great King like an adopted son of lesser beings. I loyally tended to duty and accepted only the scraps of greatness. That is something for you to ponder. Your question presumes a simple answer, and I do not see the answer as simple at all. Crown or no crown, judge by my actions and not your presumptions. I have no words that I can give you stronger than these. I enjoy your games, little Gat. But if the question you want answered is why I stayed in the Northern Realm, then you must stop playing games. I have endured and even enjoyed them, but they have gone on for too many years.”
“Why then? Why did you stay all those years when you longed for the Southern Realm and the throne that was yours?”
“No, it is my turn,” Ajie responded. Lorien started to protest, but he interrupted her. “You said one question. You have asked it. I have answered honestly, and now it is my turn.” He rose from his seat, set down his drink and moved toward her, grabbing her arm as she started to move away.
“I will have an explanation, Little Gat,” he said quietly, motioning her to sit in the chair he vacated. Lorien sat without looking at him. “I am waiting, Lightbearer,” Ajie said quietly.
She began slowly, “After the Battle of the Dorghorn, when darkness was driven away, the Deathrocks were destroyed and the world of men regained the luxury of village to village squabbles, the Lightbearers gathered. Their work in this world was completed. They desired a different home, a home among the stars in that vast and beautiful place from which their light had come.” Lorien paused. “Do you know that I have seen it? Glimpses in dreams, mind you, quick reflections through the mist of a place unspeakable. Even your Airedians would blush in shame should they stand in the company of such beauty. Speak to me of yearning, and I will tell you, Great Prince, that you have not even begun to taste it.”
“They went to their home, returning to the light. Many of the Northern Valdaren went with them, including my mother. We were to go also. But one night shortly before their passage, my father found me in the gardens at the foot of the waterfalls outside our home. I was fully grown but young. The moon was bright that night, and there I sat in the gardens, weeping. I think he watched me for a time, before he could stand it no longer, and he came to me. ‘What are you weeping about, my little star?’ he asked me, sitting beside me in the grass.”
Ajie smiled more broadly, and Lorien finally met his gaze, returning the smile.
“Yes,” she said. “That Great King and Mighty Warrior among all peoples sat in the gardens among the flowers, because he was moved by the tears of his child. He asked what I was holding, so I stretched out my hand and showed him a wilted, white lily plant that I had pulled out of the ground. It was no ordinary lily, but the kind that came from the Airedians long before, the kind that never wilted or died. With the Lightbearers leaving, those plants started to die, Ajie. So, I asked him, ‘Who will tend this garden when we are gone, Father? Who will keep the flowers alive?’ I asked him through many tears.”
Lorien glanced around the room. She noticed several dead plants and a few dried leaves ground in a mortar next to an open potions book. She rose from the chair and carried a dead stem with dried flowers, leaves and roots still clinging to it over to the table next to Ajie.
“And that is when this happened.”
She balanced the stem on her palm. Soft blue light rose from her hand and wrapped itself around the stem and parts of the plant. Each portion the light touched burst into life: emerald green stem and leaves, thick strands of roots and tiny purple flowers.
“Without telling anyone of my gift and warning me likewise, my father decided that he and I and any who would join him would stay behind. He reasoned that if another Lightbearer had been born into this earth, then the darkness would rise again someday. That light was only given this earth where darkness threatened. That is the part, I believe, that you wanted to know.”
Ajie nodded but said nothing.
She placed the plant down on the table.
“That is a rare plant. If the Gat needs it in a dried form, he will need to find another source. Even unplanted, this flower will survive for years. The touch of a Lightbearer is powerful.”
She walked in front of him and took his hands in hers. “Here is the part you may not want to know…” At that, the light rose from her hands. Instinctively, he let her hands go. But, he did not move away from her. “True light is little but an extension of love, Ajie. I loved that flower, so the light, which was a gift given to me, rose up in me to repair it,” Lorien smiled and looked in his eyes. “But, Ajie, can you catch it? Can you bottle it? Can you hold onto it?” she paused, looking back down at her hands. “Can you put it on a throne and set a crown on it? No. It is wild and free and goes where it will, when it will and for its own reasons, for, in truth, that light belongs to all people for their good. It was always that way with the Lightbearers, and it must be so with me.”
She again took his hands, and this time he did not pull them away. “You can love this light and follow it and be as free and as wild as it is. You can love the people it seeks to heal and help. Or, you can turn your back to it and admire it from afar, satisfying yourself with thrones and kingdoms and people and crowns. This light will never confine itself to such things. Ever will this light seek darkness to destroy. That was always the way of the Lightbearers. It will always be.”
Ajie pulled her close and held on to her.
“Why didn’t you return to your people when you had the chance?” She cried.
Ajie did not let go of her.
“I was ready to leave. Not for the Island Realm, but with the Lightbearers, into all space and light and time; because I too had been given a place among them. And this is no small thing. One night I passed by the garden of the palace of the Great King, and there, sitting among the lilies and the waterfalls was one whose hair cascaded down to her waist, enthralled with those flowers and,” he said with a laugh, “completely oblivious to me. And, my Little Gat, my heart broke in a thousand pieces, and I knew I would never leave this world without her by my side, not if ten thousand years were to pass. I learned that you were not leaving with the Lightbearers, so I did not leave with them either, though I yearned to. That land of light was my escape from…”
He looked away. She reached up to his cheek, her warm hand guiding his face back toward her. He looked deeply in her eyes.
“Great have been my sufferings on your account, Little Gat. I have lived to follow you. There is nothing else for me.”
“What is it now?” Lorien demanded.
The noon sun flickered through the painted leaves above as they rustled in the breeze. Ribbons of gold and red reflected off the rippling waters of the river below. Ajie led Lorien south on the Garven Road, a route that took them away from the trouble of the night before and opposite of the direction the Gat had taken. They followed a dirt trail east along the Fandan River, a narrow tributary that wound from the Garven Road to the Great River. From there, they planned to take a rarely traveled path that cut north through the rough terrane and dense woods to the Fandan Pass into the lands of the Northern Realm.
“Ajie, this is the fifth time we’ve stopped,” she said. “We are not far from the Outer Boundaries.”
He shushed her.
“Wait here. I want to get a better look.”
He climbed the steep rocks leading into the woods away from the river bank with speed and vanished over the ridge.
“There is nothing out here but birds and squirrels! Ajie!”
She adjusted the leather belt around her waist and ran her fingers along the handles of her sword and her dagger. Her hand paused on the small pouch that carried the Lumenstone. She looked around and sighed.
She stared after him for a few minutes.
She waited. Finally, she unsheathed her dagger and held it by her side. She walked a few steps down the trail. She paused and looked back up the rocky incline, but there was no sign of Ajie. She gripped the handle of the dagger but kept it dangling next to her. Then, with a sigh, she hiked down the path.
Within a few minutes, she reached the trail that cut north to the Fandan Pass and protected lands. The path traversed up and down through the rocky hills and thick vegetation. She brushed the leaves off the ground in front of her with her boot, revealing a semi-buried, flat stone that marked the path’s entrance. The corner of the stone was engraved with worn, Valdaren runes. She translated, “To the Spirit of the Fandan for quick passage north…blah blah…can’t read that…beware…blah blah.” She knew of the passage from old maps but she had never used it.
“Beware of what? That is not useful information.”
She waited for a few minutes, but Ajie did not follow. She climbed a steep path. The trail flattened out on top for a dozen steps and then dropped sharply down the backside of the hill. She repeated the process over another hill. From there the trail turned and passed through the dried bed of an ancient river, providing easy footing between the two rock walls of the glen long ago cut by those waters. At the end of the glen was another incline and a long trail overgrown with foliage. She traveled across the path and continued down the next hill. At the bottom, the woods opened to a spacious, circular meadow framed entirely by the surrounding hills. The path continued straight across the meadow. The Outer Boundary of the Valdaren lands was close.
“Where are you?” she whispered.
She ventured into the middle of the meadow and stopped. She thought she heard something strange in the woods above her. She listened.
“Oh, this is silly. There is nothing there.”
Still, she paused. She raised her dagger to striking position and circled in place. Then she heard it again. A low, throaty clicking sound met her ears. It was unfamiliar to her and sent a shiver down her spine. She turned toward the direction the noise had come from and waited. She heard it again, this time behind her, from the woods at the top of the hill. She turned and put her dagger back in her belt. She withdrew her sword and held it to strike, clasping it with both hands.
“Ajie, where are you?” she whispered.
Another clicking sounded, this time to her right. Then another sounded to her left. She could hear the rustling of leaves and branches snapping. She heard crashes through the woods from the ridges in front of her and behind her. The clicking increased in volume as did the sound of thrashing through the woods. They were closing in. She gripped her sword and continued to circle, watching the ridge for any sign of motion.
A shadow emerged from the trees above. The giant, lizard-like beast slithered down the hill toward her, its tail knocking over small trees and plants. It was ugly. Two blunt horns sat atop its block-shaped head. Its broad mouth was full of sharp teeth, each the length of a man’s hand. It was covered in matte black scales that caste no reflection from the sun. Lorien stared. Two more of the creatures emerged from the woods on either side of her and, she could hear a fourth coming from behind.
The animals reached the edge of the meadow and began circling, watching her and clicking back and forth to each other. She stood her ground, ready to strike the first to approach.
They increased their pace, and their clicking grew louder. It was a frenzy. She was the prey. Ajie dropped in behind her in a flying jump off a rock on the hill. He was out of breath and had his sword drawn.
“You do not listen!”
“Can we have that discussion later?”
The creatures were tossing their heads and thrashing their tails violently.
“When they attack, they will attack as one,” said Ajie. “You must strike them fast and hard. Aim for the neck or the chest.”
The beast closest to Lorien turned, and with a blood-curdling screech, lurched toward her. The other three followed. Lorien swung at the beast’s neck, diving out of the way of its snapping jaws and just avoiding its lashing tail. She made little more than a dent in the animal’s tough hide. She dodged to the side as it passed, it’s momentum carrying it to the edge of the meadow before it stopped and turned.
Ajie sliced his sword straight into the chest of the animal closest to him, killing it on the spot. He swung at the next two, but they each jumped to a different side and backed away.
“In the chest, Lorien!” he yelled as he pursued one.
Lorien ran from Ajie, drawing one of the beasts away. She turned back to face it just as it attacked. She plunged her sword through the thick scales deeply into the animal’s chest. It dropped in front of her and let out a long gasp of hot air that stank of sulfur. It stopped moving. She grabbed the handle of her sword, but she could not remove it from the carcass.
The remaining two creatures surrounded Ajie, who now had his dagger in one hand and his sword in the other. She tugged on her sword again, barely budging it. She placed her foot on the animal’s hide and pulled. She pulled again. She glanced and watched Ajie plunge his dagger into the neck of one beast and strike with his sword at the other. She pulled. Then, out the corner of her eye, she caught movement of a shadow in the woods. She paused and turned to look.
“I’ve got…it…Just stay…put…”
“No! You don’t!”
Lorien turned toward the beast as it crashed down the hill, its massive tail knocking down small trees. It was twice the size of the others.
It charged. She grabbed her dagger and threw it at the beast. It hit one eye and bounced off its forehead. The animal paused and let a blood-chilling screech that rattled the trees and caused Lorien and Ajie both to wince. She gave one last tug on her sword and freed it from the dead animal, stumbling back as it let loose
“Get up the hill!” Ajie yelled, as he removed his sword from the chest the other beast.
“And let you have all the fun?”
The animal shook its head and shrieked again. It charged.
“Brace yourself! At the chest!”
The animal crashed through them, knocking them apart and to the ground. Lorien rolled and jumped to her feet, blood streaming down her face. Her sword dangled from the beast’s side. It turned to face Ajie. He leaped to his feet and raised his sword.
“Go, Lorien! Run for the gate!”
The creature rose on its hind legs and let out another long screech, striking at the air with its front claws. Ajie’s dagger was stuck in its thigh.
“Go!” he screamed.
Lorien pulled out her bow and an arrow. She took aim at the beast’s head. She released the arrow, and it zipped through the air. Its tip landed in the creature’s eye. It shook its head violently. Ajie dodged, looking for a spot to strike. Lorien shot another arrow. It bounced off the animal’s back. The beast paused. Ajie stabbed right into the chest. The scream of the animal as it fell sent Lorien to her knees, her hands pressed over her ears.
Ajie walked to the beast and grabbed the handle of the sword, thrusting it deeply inside the chest. The animal snorted and fell silent. It was dead. Ajie walked around the beast, studying it and removing the weapons. Lorien walked to his side.
“What are they?” she asked him. “The great serpents?”
“You should have listened to me!”
He glared at her.
“It’s nothing. What are they?”
He walked over to her and pushed her hair to the side. She had a gash several inches long. He ripped a corner off the bottom of her shirt, placing it in her hand and pressing her hand over the wound.
“It’s nothing. What are they?”
He held her hand in place until she relented and held it herself. He walked back to the beast.
“I could kill the largest of the great serpents with a single strike the chest or neck.”
“So, you are out of practice,” Lorien suggested.
Ajie looked at her and grinned. “Fortunately for you, no,” he answered. “Even the little ones are twice as big as those were. They attack in similar manner, but their bodies are different. The great serpents had narrow bodies, lithe movements and smooth scales. These hides are tough, their tails spiked, and look at this.”
From the back of the largest of the serpents, Ajie unfurled a small wing. All four of the others had the same tightly held small wings on their backs. They were so small they had gone unnoticed in the fight.
“This is an ungrown wing, Lorien,” Ajie answered. “This is a juvenile, not an adult. They are not merely the great serpents of old. They are young dragons.”
A company of Valdaren Guard appeared in the clearing. Ajie acknowledged them.
“We heard —” stated the first to Ajie. “Well, we weren’t certain what we heard, but you are late in crossing. The Great King sent out orders to watch beyond the boundary closely.”
“What you heard,” responded Ajie, stretching the wing out as far as he could, “was the dying screech of a young dragon. Reinforce the Outer Boundaries, and set our best archers all along the Inner. This one cannot yet fly. But it has parents someplace who can. Did the Gat cross with his company?”
“Yes, Captain,” responded the guard member. “They are all safely within Northern Realm and awaiting the arrival of Lady Lorien and yourself.”
Ajie nodded. “Shall we then?” he asked.
Lorien walked closely to him and talked quietly. “Dragons, witches from the west, Lumenstones. This is more than a stray stone found in a village of men by a meddlesome Gat.”
“Evil gathers and then rises. It bides its time in the dark places of this world, grows and multiplies. It attacks when it thinks it can win. We will respond as we always have and drive it back under the rock from which it crawled.”
Though his words spoke confidence, Ajie was relieved when they crossed the Fandan Pass and into Valdaren lands.
The Northern Realm was a vast and wildly beautiful land that extended from the mountains that met the Eastern Sea to the woodland that ran west to the Hill Country of Men. At the heart of the Northern Realm of the Valdaren was the magnificent City of the Great King. The city was carved of marble and granite and set among the seven major and many minor waterfalls that cascaded out of the mountains to form the head of the Great River. The city was built into the mountains, a breathtaking extension of tall archways and giant columns, faced with grand balconies. It consisted of twenty levels of structures connected by an elaborate system of stone bridges, some built in front of and some behind the falling waters. Even Shetovenar, whose island paradise home was considered the most beautiful in the world, was awed by the splendor of the City of the Great King.
As Mattoby and his weary company approached the gates of the city, the early morning light glistened off the waterfalls, reflecting in rainbows of color. The travelers said little. Loni and Dovni, the young men from the small village of Grendor in the Hill Country of men, had never imagined such a sight. Loni’s eyes were wide with wonder. Dovni trembled.
The Great King, along with Eijivar and several of the guard, stood inside the archway that served as entry to the city and awaited the guests. Mattoby was the first to step forward and bowed deeply. The Great King took his hand in both of his own, smiled and addressed him as “My dear friend,” followed quickly by the rebuke, “You are two short.”
“Yes, yes,” answered Mattoby. “We encountered a body outside of my outer gate, that of Jamae of Harsedon, a hunter of the Trividian Forest, who had not long before that been excused from our party. His cheek was marked with one long, jagged scratch. There were no other marks.”
“As we suspected,” said the Great King calmly.
“I sent Ajie and Lorien back to the safety of my home with the instructions not to leave until the sun was high enough to shine light even onto my overgrown paths,” continued Mattoby.
“Good,” answered the King, “Then we will not expect them yet.” To the rest of the company, he turned and nodded. “Welcome, my friends, to the City of the Great King.”
Mattoby continued with introductions as the King walked in front of the line. Each one bowed to him.
“This is Tolmar son of Adumar of the Morlene Plains,” stated Mattoby.
The King responded with a warm grasp of Tolmar’s arm. “There were few braver or more loyal in war than your father. I was privileged to count him as a great friend.”
Tolmar bowed more deeply.
“This is Vidor, son of Vandor, King of Shrevdon, one whose tracking skills are unsurpassed,” Mattoby continued.
“A trait this company will find particularly useful on this journey,” stated the King, grasping Vidor’s hand. “Welcome.”
“And this, Great King,” stated Mattoby, “is Keshtor of the Dernan, a dear friend of mine, and one who knows more about the comings and goings of the people of this world than any I know, save for myself.”
Shetovenar studied the Great King’s reaction. To his surprise, Keshtor received the same warm welcome the as the others. “That knowledge,” stated the King to Keshtor, “is highly prized in the Northern Realm and will be important to this venture. Welcome.”
“And these two,” stated Mattoby, “are Loni and Dovni of Grendor in the Hill Country of Men. Loni has proven himself resourceful in understanding difficult problems, and Dovni is a master craftsman.”
The King leaned down and addressed them quietly. “You do not need to fear. All who enter here as friends are treated as such.”
“And last,” continued Mattoby, “This is Shetovenar, the son of King Tovenesh, High Prince of the Airedian Islands.”
Shetovenar bowed deeply, a bow the King returned.
“It is indeed a great honor to finally meet you. Your father is held in high regard by all in this realm.”
“The honor,” stated Shetovenar, “my King, is all mine, and I send long overdue greetings from all your brothers in the Island Realm.”
The King smiled and gripped his hand. Eijivar embraced Shetovenar. “It has been long, indeed, my friend,” said Eijivar.
“And once again, after all these long years,” said Shetovenar, “it is trouble that brings us together.”
“Now, please,” stated the Great King, “there are rooms for all of you.” The King motioned, and several Valdaren came forward. “You have had a long journey. Refresh yourselves for a time, and tonight we will gather again.”
It was afternoon before Ajie and Lorien approached the city. After a brief discussion of Lumenstones, witches, and young dragons – a discussion safely hidden from other ears by the rushing of water past the terrace – Ajie left Lorien in the company of the King and Eijivar. Ajie did not enter the main archway but continued down a side path, over a stone bridge and up to a set of lesser terraces and balconies that extended from the mountain. He stopped on a small balcony where Dovni and Loni were sitting under a tree in its center. It was covered with emerald leaves and white flowers, unfamiliar to the two Hill Country men. All the terraces and balconies were filled with trees, vines and strange flowers that had no names in the realms of men. They were plants that had never felt the sting of autumn nor the burn of winter, regardless of the harsh mountain climate of the north. Autumn and winter held court in the gardens and woods beyond, but the City of the Great King was blessed with a perpetual summer. Dovni was busy carving and twisting something.
“What do you call this tree?” asked Loni to Ajie. “And where does such a tree come from?”
“All of the plants you find within the City of the Great King came from the Airedian Islands. They were brought here long ago by the Valdaren,” he said, walking over to the tree. “A Valdaren Prince named Airedial discovered the islands. This is the same Airedial who led my father and the rest of the exiles to the islands thousands of years later. But in that day, he brought back hundreds of the beautiful plants from those islands, and the Lightbearers found a way to keep them alive and green. They are ancient and well-loved. This tree is called a Tahmin Tree. It is the only one in all this city, and these flowers never leave it.”
“It is quite beautiful,” said Loni in a dreamy sort of way.
Ajie answered with a grin, “There are thousands of them in the Airedians, a whole forest of green and white, the fragrance of which is beyond description.”
“Then I hope to see them someday.”
Ajie sat next to Dovni.
“What is this?” Ajie asked.
Dovni stared at his hands and blushed.
“Is it true that you fought a dragon?” asked Dovni. “I have overheard that rumor several times from the mouths of some of the guard who returned before you and Lorien arrived.”
“No, we fought five dragons,” answered Ajie, again grinning. “Although they were, fortunately for Lorien and I, young dragons, dragons with ungrown wings who could not yet fly.”
Dovni hesitated, and then handed the small pile of leather strands and wooden sticks to Ajie, who looked at it puzzled. Ajie manipulated it but could not tell what it was.
“It,” stated Dovni, moving the pieces carefully into place as Ajie held them, “is a crossbow designed to kill a dragon, though I hope to never meet one. Most crossbows are designed to shoot an arrow at an enemy for the protection of walls and the defense of cities, but this crossbow is designed to be light and portable, easy to assemble, and yet strong enough to shoot a sharp and long arrow through the thick hide of that beast. It can shoot high into the air, into the very chest of the dragon, destroying it before it can destroy me.”
Dovni placed a small wooden arrow into the model crossbow that Ajie was still holding, set it in place, and launched the little arrow, up and over and straight off the balcony. Ajie laughed. Dovni blushed.
“It’s just an idea really…the tinkering of a nervous craftsman.”
“Might I borrow this?”
Dovni nodded his head in agreement.
Ajie rose to his feet and began to walk away but stopped and turned back. “Aren’t you getting ready for the Leharjin, the Festival of Lights?” Both Loni and Dovni stared at the ground. “My friends, this is the one night each year which the Valdaren remember the Lightbearers and all those who sacrificed to make peace in this world. Surely you will not miss this?” Loni and Dovni still did not look up.
“Shetovenar mentioned it,” Loni answered him quietly, “but we have nothing to wear.” He motioned to his plain clothes.
Ajie laughed out loud. “My friends,” he answered them, “in the Northern Realm of the Valdaren you will find that whatever is needed will be given. To turn down an invitation to grand halls on such a night, the Leharjin, is to miss one of the joys of life. Please reconsider,” he urged them. “Many are the days to speak of dragons and witches, but only one night each year do the lights of the city of the Great King rise up to such heights.” He left the balcony.
Loni and Dovni returned from the balcony to their given room, a lovely space with three archways that led to an outside terrace. The sun was just beginning to set, casting a warm glow over the waters. Music drifted into the room. They heard enchanting sounds of voices and stringed instruments. It beckoned them to come out and play. They smiled at each other.
Each turned to the couch he had been given to sleep on, a couch that had earlier provided a long, deep and well-needed nap to each of the men. The covers were restored and exquisite garments were laying carefully folded on the comforter of each. A lantern formed of twisted metal cords sat beside the clothing. Loni picked up his shirt. The fabric was soft and light, yet strong, and made of a sky-blue color with silver scrolling embroidered throughout. He held it up to Dovni. He also held up a silver belt of fine, twisted strands. In return, Dovni lifted his own shirt. It was a larger than Loni’s and a deep shade of blue. The silver lacing on his shirt was thicker than Loni’s and designed in the shape of leaves and vines.
“These do not go with my pants,” said Dovni.
Loni put the belt down and held up pants that looked more like tights and less like trousers. They were made of the same durable, soft fabric as the shirt. He pointed to a pair of slip-on shoes, also intricately laced in silver, which looked a bit too much like slippers for his taste.
“I believe that we are supposed to wear these.”
They both broke out laughing in fits.
“They look like the little girl tights!”
“And girly dance shoes!”
Their laughter continued.
“Do you think they will all be dressed in these?” asked Loni.
“I don’t know, but that is what WE are to wear. And,” he continued, between laughs, “Apparently, this is what we are to carry.”
He picked up his lantern, and at that moment it took on a soft, blue glow that filled the darkening room.
“How did you —?” asked Loni.
“I don’t know.”
He set the lantern down. It maintained its light. He picked it up and turned it over and then upside down. He could find neither switch nor source for the light. He shook it.
“Stop that!” Loni scolded.
“I want to know how it works.”
“You will break it.”
“I will not!”
Loni considered the pants that looked like tights and the scuffs that looked like slippers. He glanced longingly at the lantern on his couch.
After a moment, he stated, “Tights and slippers or no tights and slippers, I am not missing this.” With that, he picked up his own lantern. It lit up with the same mesmerizing hue of blue light. Loni and Dovni smiled at each other and proceeded to change into Valdaren clothes. The garments fit them each perfectly, including the pants, which, once on with silver belt buckled, looked more like pants and less like tights than either would have imagined.
Loni and Dovni stepped out of their room to an amazing sight. Before them were hundreds of Valdaren with their long, straight hair in every shade, from brilliant white to deep black and every blond and brown and red in-between, elegant in person and dress, occupying every terrace and winding stone staircase and bridge and balcony, each carrying a lantern with the same glowing blue hue. The Valdaren progressed slowly, but gaily, toward the main entrance. Some wound up toward the Grand Hall, and some wound down. There was laughter and singing. The waterfalls were interlaced with tiny, glimmering lights all the way from the top of the mountains down to the river below, millions of little sparkling stars. Ajie was waiting on the balcony with the Tahmin Tree. He wore garments like theirs but in a deep shade of blue with more elegant scrolling than their garments. The only thing that distinguished Ajie from the other Valdaren was his wavy, brown hair that fell in an unruly manner down to his shoulders. His were the locks of men and not Valdaren. Ajie smiled at the sight of his two young friends.
When they reached the balcony, Dovni asked him, “Where is your lantern, Ajie?”
Ajie contemplated, then he leaned down to Dovni and answered, “I have a light to hold this night, my dear Dovni, which cannot be contained in a metal housing.” With that, he laughed, and motioned them to continue down the steps. They passed him and followed the procession of Valdaren making their way toward the archway. Loni began to hum, and Dovni soon joined in.
The songs and laughter of the Valdaren that had been rising in volume through her archways were now fading in the distance. It was late. Most of the Valdaren had made their way into the Grand Hall. Still, Lorien hesitated in her rooms. She brushed her hands down the sides of her gown, though the flowing, white, silky fabric needed no adjustment. Her gown was delicately laced with azure strands holding thousands of tiny white crystals. They sparkled in the moonlight with every movement she made. She wore a crown of intricately woven strands of azure with the same beading and a belt to match.
She looked out over the balcony. Ajie was standing on a terrace below watching for her. She sighed and reached up to smooth her hair, resting her hand on the spot she had received the gash earlier that day in the fight with the dragons. Her father had healed the wound. She could feel no remnant of the injury. She watched Ajie for a few minutes from a corner in her room that was out of his view. Her heart longed and feared.
“You are nearly late!” Eijivar boomed from her entry.
She stiffened at his presence but stepped out of the shadows and forced a smile.
“Though you are well worth the wait.” He bowed to her deeply.
“And you are intruding.”
“Your doors were open.”
“My father left a short time ago. Since when do you wander our private halls?”
Eijivar, in his elegant array of deep purple clothing with gold lacing throughout, stepped toward her and grinned.
“I saw your father a few minutes ago.”
He extended his arm to her.
“You are nearly late. I came to escort you to the presence of your waiting people.”
She walked up to him but did not take his arm. He smiled again but stared at her. She followed him into the hallway, and they proceeded down the corridor in silence. Lorien stopped at the steps that led outside and down several flights to the balcony where Ajie was waiting. He was looking up at them. Eijivar placed his hand on her back and leaned down to her ear.
“I see you have an escort,” he whispered. “Lorien Andumae, you are the daughter of the Great King of the Northern Realm and the star of your people. He is the lesser son…”
“Stop,” she warned him quietly.
“No. I will not.”
He pulled her back around the corner out of Ajie’s sight. He leaned forward, his face close to hers, and spoke with quiet intensity.
“Many years has he looked at you with lust in his eyes, and yet never has he professed his love. You wonder at it. I know you do. There is a throne in the Island Realm that calls to him. He may want you, Lorien, but he also wants that throne. It is a longing that you, who walk so often indifferent to your duties, do not seem to grasp.”
She tried to break away from him, but he held onto her shoulders firmly.
“You have a duty to your people, the very people waiting for you in the Grand Hall. A throne will be yours one day. You can pretend otherwise, but nothing changes it. Lightbearer or not, you are the daughter of a King. Long have I loved you and made it known to you. I love you with your duties attached. I am not torn. He is. For all your wondering, you do not know how this will end. The pull on him is a strong one. It is like a drug…an addiction…something you do not comprehend.”
She pulled away from him, and he raised his hands to her and smiled.
“Have it your way, but do not underestimate the lure of the Island Realm on his heart…Lightbearer.”
He turned and walked down the hall without looking back. She sighed, smoothed her dress and walked back to the steps. Ajie was watching intently. She walked down the staircase toward Ajie who smiled up at her.
“Poor Lorien,” he said with a charming smile and a bow, “fighting off dragons by day and suitors by night.” He leaned back against the railing, enjoying the view of her. “I am not certain whether I like you better fighting dragons or fighting suitors.”
Lorien laughed and walked down to him. The line of Valdaren streaming toward the archway was growing thin. “I believe,” she responded, “that the young dragons were more easily defended against.”
“What do you mean?”
“You were watching.”
“Yes. I saw him pull you out of my sight.”
“You know Eijivar.”
“Yes. Still, humor me. What did your old suitor challenge you with this time?”
“It is nothing.”
“Like the wound to your head earlier? I see no blood.”
He smiled down at her and laughed.
“You are enjoying this,” she answered, studying him.
“Perhaps,” he answered, smiling at her, “but indulge me anyway, Lorien.”
“Have it your way. The dragons, the young dragons, had a finite set of tools with which to attack. While they were not easy to slay, I did not doubt the victory. The well-seasoned suitor, on the other hand, has a treasure chest of tools that runs old and deep. In that chest are claws forged from fears. He is well-studied and cunning, and he jabs them with precision.”
“Hmmmm…,” Ajie laughed again. “I did notice that you opted not to follow him to the halls but to walk down to this balcony to me. I wonder if the fears he turns into claws perhaps missed their mark.” He took her by the arm and walked down the next staircase, “I think we shall face this suitor the same way we faced the dragons…together. And, if we do, neither young dragon nor old suitor will deny us the victory.”
Loni and Dovni followed the Valdaren through the archway and down a lengthy corridor lined with marble columns that ran from the floor to the lofty ceiling. They were lit from the top down with thousands of tiny lights, suspended freely in the air. The festive spirit was contagious. Loni and Dovni linked arms and hummed an old, Hill Country folk song. A few steps later, they added words. By the next set of columns, they were high-stepping and singing at the top of their lungs. Many of the amused Valdaren bowed or clapped along as the two men pranced down the hall. The encouragement fueled their enthusiasm, and they leaped from side to side as they belted out the song. They reached the doors to the Grand Hall out of breath and laughing. They peered into the cavernous room and stopped abruptly. Dovni gasped.
Before them was a magnificent room. The same columns that lined the hallway formed four rows stretching the entire length of the Grand Hall. At the front of the room were five steps that led to a terrace bordered by lofty archways and a curved, marble railing. The balcony faced an intricate chain of waterfalls that danced over the rocky cliff directly in front of it. One could reach an arm over the railing and touch the waters. A long table, filled with flowers and foods and beverage, ran the length of the terrace perpendicular to all the other tables in the room. High-backed chairs were set around it. At its center facing the room was a chair with a higher back than the others. A white glow hovered about it and illuminated the space around it.
The twinkling lights were everywhere: in the waters, on the ceiling, down the columns, on the walls. The lanterns that the Valdaren had been carrying were set on every table filling the room with blue orbs of light. All the tables in the room were set with a great variety of food and drink. Most of the Valdaren were standing, and none were eating or drinking. They were engaged in the same merriment that had carried Loni and Dovni into the room.
“I am afraid to enter such a place,” said Dovni quietly.
“Let’s look for someone we know.”
Loni took a few steps into the room and stood on his tiptoes to try to see past the heads of the tall Valdaren who filled the room. He returned to Dovni after a few minutes.
“It’s no use. I am too short to see.”
He grabbed Dovni by the arm and led him into the room. He pulled him to a table at the back away from most of the crowd. Dovni sat down and scanned the table, his stomach grumbling audibly. Directly in front of his place setting was a basket of muffins with a variety of toppings. The smell of warm bread and melted butter made his mouth water. He reached for the basket. Loni batted his arm away.
“Ouch! We haven’t eaten in hours!” Dovni protested.
“None of them are eating or drinking.”
“What do you think they are waiting for?”
“Not what; whom,” answered Loni, gesturing to the large table on the terrace. “The Great King, I would imagine, and whoever is important enough to sit at THAT table with him. How magnificent!”
“I just want a taste.”
“Can I at least take a drink?” asked Dovni sheepishly.
“No!” answered Loni. “We do not want to insult them.”
Loni pulled a chair from the table and climbed up on it. He scanned the room.
“Are any of them standing on chairs?” Dovni grumbled.
“Look! There are Vidor and Tolmar!”
Loni pointed to the front of the room.
“All I can see from down here is food, and I am hungry!”
“I can see Mattoby too. He isn’t wearing Valdaren garments. I think he is the only one in the room not wearing them. He is with Vidor and Tolmar. Let’s go to them!”
“I,” answered Dovni defiantly, “plan to hide safely in this spot until this evening is over.”
“There is Keshtor, too,” stated Loni. “In those clothes, he almost looks like one of them, doesn’t he?”
“I don’t know. I can’t see!”
“Well, he at least looks like a rough, brooding, muscular version of one of them with unruly hair…if they came like that. I suppose he ought to. He almost IS one of them.”
“They don’t seem to think so,” retorted Dovni dryly.
Dovni started to reach for the food again. Loni jumped down from the chair and batted his hand away.
“Stop that!” Loni yelled. “I really think we should join them.”
But Dovni sat back with his arms crossed over his chest. “I,” he stated, “plan to do no such thing. This is far too grand and beautiful of a place for a plain tinker from Grendor. I am going to sit here, as invisible as I can muster, and enjoy all this food and drink as soon as you stop slapping my arm, you Snoodlemouth.”
Loni was about to protest when he noticed Shetovenar walk up behind Dovni. Shetovenar looked completely at home among his cousins of the Northern Realm. He wore garments of deep red with gold lacing and a twisted golden band of a crown on his head, the mark of the son of a King. He leaned over Dovni’s shoulder, giving the poor tinker a start. “That would be unfortunate, Dovni,” he stated, grinning, “You and Loni have been invited this night to sit at the table of the Great King. That is a rare honor.”
He straightened and walked toward the rest of the group on the opposite end of the room. Loni jumped to his feet and ran to catch up. Dovni mumbled a few “Drougerheads” and “Snoodlemouths” along with other choice words. Finally, with a glance at the food and a deep sigh, he stood up and walked toward the front of the room, keeping his eyes lowered. When he reached the group, he gave Loni a whack to the arm.
Before Loni could finish, Shetovenar stepped between the two men.
“This is not a night for ‘Drougerheads’ or ‘Snoodlemouths’,” he stated to the laughter of the company. “However, a certain jig and folk song from the city of Grendor, from what I overheard on my way into the hall, would receive enthusiastic applause.”
“Do not mind him,” said Mattoby to a blushing Dovni and Loni. “By the end of this night, and mind you, this party will stretch to the end of this night, there will be more than one Valdaren performing a jig, if they can stand long enough to perform it. Mind your beverages, you two.” He pointed to Dovni and Loni. “They have stronger drink at these tables than Gat Wine.”
“Though none,” said Shetovenar, bowing deeply to Mattoby, “as wonderfully complex.”
“My Lady,” said Tolmar, with a deep bow, as Lorien and Ajie joined the group. The rest of the group followed.
“Please,” she protested. “That is not necessary. But come, sit at my father’s table, where you are all most welcome. I believe we have just beaten him here.”
She had no more spoken the words when a hush fell over the room. There, in the entry, stood the Great King, tall and splendid. On his head, he wore a crown of woven, deep blue strands. A large crystalline stone was framed in the center with small stones sparkling all around. His garments were pure white, overlaid with intricate lacing of deep blue in similar fashion to Lorien’s. His belt of the same color was thickly wound and strong, and unlike any of the other company present, a sword with a silver handle engraved with Valdaren runes was strapped into it. He wore a cape around his shoulders that trailed along the floor behind him. The dark strands woven into it formed ancient words in Valdaren runes that few in the room could read. A faint glow rose from the letters as he moved. The Valdaren bowed as he passed, and Eijivar and other Elders of the Valdaren followed behind him.
When he reached Lorien, the company present with her all bowed, Ajie with hand over his chest. Lorien was the only one who did not bow, and he smiled as he came and took her hand. He reached up with his free hand and touched the spot on her head that he had healed earlier.
“It’s fine,” she said.
He leaned into her and whispered in her ear, “You look lovely tonight, my little dragon slayer.” He kissed her forehead. Then, standing back, he addressed the rest of the group, “Come and sit,” he said, “I believe we have kept the room waiting long enough.”
The King took his seat in the center of the table, Lorien to one side of him and Eijivar to the other. Ajie sat to Lorien’s other side. All the rest of the company filed in, and the King waited until everyone in the room had found his or her seat. Shetovenar placed himself between Dovni and Loni with a wink and a grin, much to Dovni’s dismay. After everyone was seated, the King stood.
“This is not a night,” he began in a strong voice, “for long-winded speeches but for simple memory. Long ago in a time of great darkness, there arose lights from among our people.” He stole a quick glance at Lorien, who was watching him closely. “Those lights united many diverse peoples of this earth who worked together to secure freedom for the all in this world. By their sacrifices, the Lightbearers, along with those who were brave enough to join them, battled that darkness back to oblivion.” He lifted his glass, at which the entire company in the Grand Hall lifted theirs. “May this same light reign in our hearts!” At that, a great and joyous cry rang up from the room, and they all drank together.
Dovni was about to take another drink as the King took his seat. Shetovenar reached to stop him.
“The Valdaren have a great tolerance for many things, Dovni,” he stated. “Young men from the city of Grendor would do well to enjoy some of these things — very slowly.”
Dovni set down his glass, looking wounded.
“The food, however,” said Shetovenar brightly, handing a tray to Dovni, “you can enjoy at will. It is second to none.”
Dovni took the tray filled with biscuits. He bit into one and discovered that it was nothing like any biscuit he had tasted before. It was still warm, even after sitting on that table for such a length of time. It melted in his mouth like warm butter with a touch of honey. The next bite suggested a cherry liquor. The final bite finished with a dark chocolate aftertaste. All the breads were similar, progressing in a complex and morphing array of flavors. Dovni’s favorite bun started out with a mild lemon undertone and ended with a burst of rich mango. Some were light and fluffy. Some were dense and crumbly like the pound cake his grandmother used to make. He sampled as many as he could reach.
Fruits and vegetables, exotic and fragrant, filled a long tray at the center of the table. There were platters of fish, delicately cooked and lightly seasoned in a mix of citrus and rare spice, each bite flakey and delicious. The darker meats of fowl and hooved creatures were served to tender perfection in a variety of stews and roasts, each mouthwatering.
Then there was “the beverage” of which Mattoby and Shetovenar had warned, that all in the room were enjoying. Dovni sipped it. It was slightly sweet and warming as he swallowed. It comforted him like sitting in front of a fire in the cold of winter or walking through a warm, summer’s rain. He spaced his sips between copious amounts of food and listened to the stringed music and laughter that echoed through the room. The King was telling a story from the old war, a humorous tale of the misadventure of a group of Valdaren archers. They had chased an antlered cornymill into a glen only to come face-to-face with a giant who had lost his way.
As the King talked and those around the table laughed, Dovni’s eyes wandered to the trickling waterfalls over the King’s shoulder. The tiny lights twinkling through the waters brightened and started dancing. At first it was just a few circling. More and more of the lights joined in, and they swirled around each other and bounced off one another with increasing rapidness. Their bright flashes met his eyes like laughter. Soon, they began taking on soft tones that seemed to cascade like a million gentle notes through the waters. He stared, transfixed. Then everything went black.
The merriment at the table was interrupted by the “thump” of Dovni’s head landing in his plate and splattering food.
Shetovenar grabbed Dovni by a thick clump of hair at the back of his head and lifted his head off his plate. His face was dripping in mashed potatoes and the remnants of stew. Dovni snored loudly. All at the table laughed.
“We are going to have to carry that one back to his room,” said Vidor.
Shetovenar held up the glass in front of Dovni’s plate with his free hand. It was still half full.
“I do not believe that he has had enough of this drink,” he said, “to cause this,” as he nodded toward Dovni. He gently shook Dovni’s head, but Dovni was deep in sleep. “He has been smitten!”
Laughter rang out from the table.
“Smitten?” asked Vidor. “Smitten, by what?”
Ajie, who had been watching the whole thing with amusement, leaned forward and addressed Vidor, gesturing back over his shoulder, “By dancing waters and lights. Be careful, lest you also become ‘smitten.’ It is a powerful enchantment.”
Shetovenar pushed Dovni’s plate toward the center of the table and set his head down carefully on the table cloth.
“He will, however, have the most wonderful dreams,” Shetovenar answered back.
The Feast of the Leharjin stretched into the evening. The King left the table to mingle with his people. The Elders joined him, save for Eijivar, who moved to the balcony and watched the waters with cool indifference. Mattoby had disappeared from the table hours before and not returned. Dovni was still sound asleep with his head on the table, giving off the occasional snore, to the delighted laughs of the remaining company.
Ajie stood up. Lorien moved to join him, but he placed his hand on her shoulder. He leaned down and spoke quietly to her, “Stay here. I won’t be long. You clipped an old dragon’s wings. I plan to make sure they do not grow back.”
“Ajie,” she protested, but he had already stepped away.
Shetovenar left his seat and sat in the one Ajie had vacated. He leaned in to Lorien, putting his hand on her shoulder to gently hold her as she tried to rise again and follow Ajie. “Leave him be. I would imagine that his is an old grudge.”
She turned to Shetovenar. He smiled.
“I’ve known Eijivar from old. His…preferences…are not secret.”
“Biases toward anyone who is not like him, you mean?”
“No. There is no one like him. I mean his preference for you.”
She started to rise again, but he held her.
“If they draw blood, I will tell you.”
Lorien relaxed and sighed.
“Long has he haunted my footsteps.”
“Eijivar is proud, even by Valdaren standards. You have been a coveted prize in his mind since you first entered this world. As I said, his desires are no secret to those who know him. But I was never certain until tonight why our Southern Prince contented himself with nothing but the role of Captain of the Guard. Long has there been a crown and throne awaiting his challenge. He simply let them go. I thought he might follow the Lightbearers, but he didn’t do that either.”
Shetovenar paused and watched Ajie and Eijivar. The discussion appeared heated but had not become violent. The few Valdaren in the area had stepped away. Lorien glanced over her shoulder then back at Shetovenar.
“All this time he was following a Lightbearer.”
“How did you —” she began to ask, but he held up his hand to her mouth to stop her.
“We each have our gifts,” he answered. “But look, here comes your Ajie, not a drop of blood drawn. I will take my leave,” he rose from the chair and bowed deeply.
Shetovenar returned to his seat by Loni and rejoined the storytelling and laughter. Ajie returned to her side, but he did not sit down. She looked up at him curiously.
“It is time to go,” he said to her, taking her hand.
Lorien took his hand, smiled and nodded to the table. She followed him out of the Grand Hall. Many of the Valdaren had wandered out onto the terraces, carrying the merrymaking and song outside.
“The night is still young,” she protested as he led her down the terraces and over bridges. “Can I ask where we are going?”
They walked for many minutes in silence. Soon, they were past the city and away from the Great River. They walked along a path that led into the outer gardens and streams of the realm.
Still Ajie said nothing. He didn’t look back at her. He kept his grip on her hand and walked quickly. They wound over a series of smaller trails that led to the end of the gardens and the beginning of the woods. Ajie stopped in the middle of a modest, well-tended garden with a stone cabin built at the edge of the forest. A stream meandered throughout. It was crossed by a wooden bridge in the center of the garden. The bridge was covered with flowering vines that draped down into the water. Though most of the plants outside of the city had lost their flowers and begun to dry up in the cool autumn air, the plants in this garden were still green and the flowers blooming.
“Take it in, quickly,” he said.
“Take what in?” she asked, bewildered at him. “Would you like to explain now?”
“No. Have you ever been here before, Lorien?”
“It isn’t familiar to me,” she responded. “Should it be?”
“Under any other circumstances, very,” he responded.
“Ajie?” she asked.
He led her to the cabin.
“Are you going to tell me to take it in quickly?” she asked.
“There isn’t much to take in.”
He opened the door and extended his arm, inviting her into the cabin. Lorien entered the small space. Moonlight streamed through its windows, providing enough light for Lorien to see around the room. Ajie entered and closed the door behind him. He did not bother lighting any lanterns. There was a bed in one corner of the tidy room and a table in the other. Many books and weapons – arrows, bows, knives and swords – were placed on shelving and hung on the walls.
“I always assumed that my father had given you a place inside the city to live,” she said quietly. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Ajie laughed. “He did, Lorien. At least he offered. I discovered this place long ago, sitting here all cold and abandoned. Its garden was overrun with weeds and sickly plants. I asked to stay here instead.”
“How strange to think that I didn’t know,” Lorien said. “I wander these lands all the time, and I have never seen this place before.”
“I’m aware of that,” he answered.
“I should have known…” her voice trailed off.
There was a long silence. Lorien searched his face for answers. She finally gave up, walked to the corner and sat on the edge of the bed.
“This night is young, Ajie. I will wait you out until the break of dawn if that is what it takes to get answers from you, you who live in a cabin in a little garden far away from all important matters. What a mystery you are!”
“Mystery?!?” He said, laughing. “Lightbearer.”
Ajie sat down on the bed next to her, took her hand, and placed something in her palm, keeping his hand over it. “Mystery? If you want a mystery, I can give you one. Do you know what this is?” he asked quietly. He removed his hand. In her hand rested two bands of silver intricately twisted together. She examined it in the moonlight streaming through the window.
“Shealondofin,” she whispered. “It is a ring of Kings, perfect in every way.” She held it up in her fingers, the light streaming through it. “It was crafted by the Lightbearers for the Kings of old. My father received the last one.”
“I received the last one. But go on.”
“The Lightbearers crafted these for the Kings of old, two perfect rings, held together as one, until such time the King would choose —” her voice trailed off. She tried to pull them apart, but could see no way to do so. She examined it closely, awed by its simple beauty as much as the fact that she could not separate it, no matter how hard she tried.
“The King, or the Prince, is the only one who can separate the bands,” he said taking the ring back from her. “He would only do so once he chose she who would be his partner for the rest of time. It is an unbreakable bond, uniting them by the same light by which the rings were crafted.”
“My father still wears his half,” she responded. “Its partner traveled into the light with my mother a long time ago.”
“He cannot take it off, Lorien,” said Ajie. “He is bound by that promise for all time. And why did he stay, Lorien? Why didn’t he go with her?”
Lorien got up and walked to the window, watching the moonbeams dance along the stream outside.
“He stayed because of me,” she finally answered.
Ajie walked over to her.
“It is the same reason I did not leave,” he said gently. “Look at me.”
Lorien turned to face him.
“When I did not follow the Lightbearers, this was given to me, and it IS the last one. I do not enter this lightly but with all my heart and soul.” He easily pulled the rings apart and placed the larger on his own finger. Lorien allowed him to take her hand and slip the smaller ring on her finger, the tears in her eyes glistening in the moonlight.
Though Ajie had many things that he had planned on saying to her in that moment, they all escaped him as he found himself lost in the deep pools of her eyes. His kiss that met her lips in the moonlit cabin in a little garden far away from every important matter, surpassed his heart’s every longing. He lost himself in her.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My pen is a mighty tool. I’ve been using it all my life to tell stories and explore this world in all its natural wonder and human diversity. I write everything from the diminutive, but powerful, haiku to the full-bodied epic adventure. Of all my writing endeavors in the past few years, I’m most proud of the successful use of some of my work a juvenile detention center in SE Wisconsin to foster creative expression and encourage these children to develop their unique talents.
My passion for human rights manifests in a strong voice of advocacy for the persecuted and poor and an ongoing family effort that supports a range of humanitarian efforts. If you visit my blog at tanyacliff.com, be careful where you step. I shatter a lot of glass of past hypocrisies with my pointed quill.
I’m a classically trained flutist with a rich and eclectic taste in music, performing everything from Mozart to jazz improvisation. My favorite playing hours, however, find me behind the piano keys. I am a graduate from the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
"The Lightbearers called them Deathrocks, for that is all they wrought..." Mattoby the Gat believes he has discovered a Lumenstone in Lependore, the boggy city of men. If he is right, evil has found a new foothold in the world. To answer the challenge, he calls together a gathering of people from the surrounding nations. His motley crew ranges from Loni and Dovni, the short men of Hill Country, to Lorien Andumae, the last of the Valdaren Lightbearers and the only one who can destroy the cursed rocks. The mismatched group of heroes will set out on a quest to uncover the secret of the Lumenstones, if they can first survive witches, young dragons, a Valdaren banquet and each other.