“Oh Lord… Oh Good Lord… What happened here?”
Solnel’s eyes spread wide at the aftermath of destruction that had taken place. He took in everything. The molten snow, dirtied with blood; flowing like a sadistic river with a corpse in a frigid puddle as the source. Amber flames burned openly against the quiet, still snow.
Ardray was not far behind him, and she too was gazing openly, sorrowfully at the sprawled-out devastation brutally displayed before her. The trees were blackened and their bare branches were alight with angry red embers. Their flaming figures etched out starkly against the grim sky of a dark early morning.
Garril looked over at where the fruit store they’d been to the previous day had been. Now it was only a dark patch of forever-ruined earth. Burned and still burning wood and thatch lay silently on the slight cliff face on the Cathreina Mountains. There was almost nothing left.
“What do you suppose happened here?” he whispered in a heavyhearted voice.
Nobody wanted to answer, and Garril did not want an answer anymore. Their fearful reverence in the blind madness was overbearing.
Quite suddenly, there came the uneasy sound of wood shifting over wood, and thatch rolling onto itself. All of them looked to where the noise came from—and found the tattered purple curtain rag. The old Elvin…what happened to her? And what happened to her son?
“Vankesa!” Garril suddenly called, remembering the man’s name. “Vankesa!” The two of looked at him, confused. “The old woman’s son—Vankesa. Maybe he’s still…”
Garril let it die right then, but Ardray and Solnel seemed to understand. They did as he did, calling for Vankesa.
They were in mid-sentence of calling his name when there was suddenly a dark figure, rising over the blackened bale. He hunched as if he were injured, his head hanging low as if he had failed something. There was the unmistakable glint of metal glowing off of the oily amber night. Like blades.
Involuntarily, Garril took one step back. The sword he held in his hand grew warmer with the eternally-passing seconds. He watched the morose figure rise from the burning licks of amber flame on darkened wood. That shining metal was definitely present now—two enormous points of light that sheafed quickly over large metal crescents. Garril’s grip tightened suddenly on the hilt of his sword.
And then the old Elvin woman’s son came from the flame, weakly holding onto a pair of enormous curved blades. Garril lowered his sword cautiously, but Solnel and Ardray were already at his side, helping him stand. His hard face showed no signs of gratitude—only pain, and a violent hate.
And then Garril noticed that he was clutching at his side too. From his hand there was a small but steady trickle of dark red blood—almost black. There came not a flowing river of red, but a dismal-looking flow that was small. Garril, too, dropped his sword and moved toward the man.
“Don’t come near me!” the wounded man then exclaimed bitterly.
Garril stopped right in his path at the sound of his brutal voice. The old woman’s son’s face was alight with a horrible chagrined grimace—his eyes danced with an unvoiced hate. The hand that held the two crescent blades tightened around the blades’ hilts.
“What happened here?” Ardray asked in a dismayed voice to the wounded man. The man took no heed to Ardray, and instead turned to face Garril.
“Kyram tivej Elvyjna saczyvara,” Vankesa roared angrily in Elvin to him.
“Hyryp di, pejan tivej,” Garril replied, in a worrisome tone. “Ja tivej…ja sza tivej komyra.”
“What?” Solnel interrupted. Vankesa threw him a flinty look, and turned to Garril again, keeping the same infuriated glare.
“Vu kalyma,” he growled bitterly. “Vu parrjos szady kalyma mara.”
At Vankesa’s coldly-spoken accusation, Garril took a shocked step back. His shaking right foot landed right on the hilt of his sword—and at that sensation, a rippling tremor of unspeakable fear rippled through him.
“I did not kill your mother,” Garril said with a bluntly forced calm.
“Lies!” the wounded Elvin barked. “I heard what those men spoke! ‘By order of Prince Garril, your mother is under arrest for sorcery and treason.’” A frozen chill ran through him then.
“You ordered my mother to be arrested?” Vankesa whispered in a dreadfully quiet voice. “Why? She didn’t do anything to you.” The air remained still—a cold ugliness seeping through. “She didn’t do anything to you!” Vankesa screamed.
It made Solnel and Ardray finally relinquish their hold on him. That proved to be a bad idea, for the moment they did, the wounded man lunged forward, his immense blades immediately in his hands. Though the blood flowed freely once or twice from his wound, Garril could see his uncaring as the two blades—like the fangs of a snake—came toward him at unbelievable speed.
Garril’s hand went immediately to his sword. With sword in hand and a blind spin, he knocked Vankesa off to the side. A volley of sparks erupted from the two colliding blades; and again Vankesa rushed at him, his two blades extended.
Something inside of Garril clenched suddenly. A deep, silent rumble echoed in his mind, and he felt a sudden contracting and shrinking. He raised his hand in front of him—and Vankesa stopped in his tracks. Garril peered carefully into his bleary reddened eyes.
It seemed as if every muscle in his body was locked in a sudden stasis, making it so he could not move even an eyelash. His frozen midair stance was awkward at first, but then Garril walked somewhat lax, smug—yet still mildly apprehensive—manner, and said to Vankesa leisurely; “Listen to me, man. I did not order this attack on you and your mother.” Another unconscious clenching happened deep in Garril’s mind, and he felt a sudden lurch gravitate onto Vankesa’s lips.
“How am I to believe that?” the still-frozen man barked apprehensively right afterward Garril’s will released his voice.
“How could I?” Garril replied slightly conversationally. “I have no power in Elvinia, so how could I have ordered the attack?”
“More lies! You are the prince. You, after the king, can command all that happens in Elvinia.” Garril looked at him oddly.
“You didn’t know? I was banished from Elvinia years ago.”
And with that, Vankesa shot him another odd look. Once again there came that odd clenching—except now, it felt more like it was releasing its vice grip rather than tightening it. And quite suddenly, Vankesa fell to the ground with an audible thud. His scarred marble-pale was still distraught, as he sat up in the dirt, letting everything sink in. He sat still, in a void-like trance, as if waiting for another movement; statement; anything.
“Is he saying the truth?” Vankesa asked after an unbearable silence with only the crackling of the flames nearby.
Ardray nodded with her lips tightly pursed—her gray eyes danced alight with the bleak reflection of fire in them. The wounded man looked to Solnel next; helplessly. He only nodded plaintively, in agreement with Ardray—arms folded across his chest.
So, Vankesa had no other action but to stand and face Garril. Now that his head was clear, Garril was sure that Vankesa would not blindly charge at him again.
“Forgive me,” the wounded man sad now soberly. “I’m afraid that my anger gets the best of me sometimes.” His face suddenly grew incredibly somber and serious. “Anybody who harms my mother will fall under my blades.”
Garril smiled, faintly sardonic. “I believe you’ll have your chance at revenge,” he said.
Ardray and Solnel both threw surprised, gaping looks at him. Not one of them would have expected that to come out of Garril’s mouth. Though perhaps it was of his Elvin heritage. Garril was still an Elvin; a mild-mannered and practical—but an Elvin nonetheless.
“And how?” Vankesa asked next, his eyes suddenly aflame with a grim happiness.
Solnel could not believe the similarity in the two Elvins’ expressions when Garril flashed Vankesa a frozen-cold smile.
The day was a dark one. Tarja could see dark misty forms hovering in the corner of her vision—ones that vanished when she tried to focus on them. The cold chains tugged at her wrists every time she tried to move her arms. They responded rather bluntly by scuffing her skin, just deep enough to elicit blood. And every time it did, she swore with a bitter rancor in her voice.
Elinan was not far in front of her, being pushed gruffly into the dark caravan. The gaping mouth of the dark wagon looked like a great beast, ready to swallow them whole and never let them go. Tarja secretly worried that if Elinan’s frail, bony form entered the wagon, she would never see her again.
Finally, Tarja was pushed into the yawning opening, and she landed on her behind onto the creaking wooden floor. It had been raining recently, so the floor was soaking wet. The weak sputter that the Evanescent River had become—as it always did in the wintertime—only added to the dripping wetness of the boards. It soaked through her patchwork skirt and into the leather pants she wore. It was disgusting.
“Where are we headed?” the driver of the caravan asked in his clearly Paitish lilt.
“Rav Kosta, Khh'onta,” came the unemotional voice of the warden. “We’re to catch the slaver barge there, and from there we sail to Gerodathia.”
“Gerodathia?” the driver gasped with an almost audible fear. “You’re sending them to Duke La Kai?”
“Yes, and Duke Teles of Elvinia. Somehow those two have gone into the slave business together, and they’re taking slaves from the prison here.”
“How odd for the duke to work with an Islander,” the driver mused.
“I know, but they are acting on the king’s orders after all.”
“Syrregain allowed this?”
That name struck a frozen cold arrow into Tarja’s heart, making her ears prick up suddenly. Tarja listened intently then for the warden’s next words.
“Yes, he did,” he then replied rather gravely. “And so did King Bat’ahan. I don’t quite know how, but Syrregain got Bat’ahan to sell the Mur’tombi’kaam prisoners to Duke La Kai.”
“That man always was an odd one. I don’t frankly understand why he does things. And what for, for that matter.”
“It isn’t our place to question, my good man. Now, are we going to stand here idly bantering, or are we going to take these people to Gerodathia and not have our heads chopped off by Bat’ahan—or worse, Syrregain?”
The driver did not speak another word, and reined in the horses. With a crack of a whip, they lurched forward and started a slow canter.
Meanwhile, Tarja sat with her back leaning rather uncomfortably against the wagon cover. Elinan was by her side as always, watching her as her eyes quivered somewhat, trying to rein in her discovery.
“It’s…been Syrregain ruling Elvinia?” she said finally to Elinan, who replied with a short nod of her head. Tarja heaved a mournful sigh. “Then the kingdom truly is falling to pieces,” she then said with a dark tone.
Elinan placed a placating hand on Tarja’s shoulder, who, although the hand offered was not warm, leaned into it nonetheless.
For a few moments, Tarja kept her head low into the slight folds of her leather bodice. The bony woman’s eyes became a trifle sympathetic, when suddenly, Tarja lifted her head, jerking her chin forward.
“My sister,” she said simply. Elinan looked at her.
“What of your sister?” she asked her. Tarja gave Elinan a look, her pale blue eyes alight with a solid determination, and a prim little smile lighted her usually uncreased face.
“Have you heard of Queen Anukka Peryszavia?”
“Yes, she’s the Queen of Elvinia.” Elinan’s eyes softened greatly. “God rest her weary old soul.”
“The name our mother gave her is Anukka Vattiksi.” Elinan’s jaw dropped a little bit—and as the driver hit a bump, it suddenly snapped shut.
“Y-You? Anukka—T-Tarja? Vattiksi?” she pressed out chokingly, as Tarja gave her a slow, proud nod. Elinan’s eyes steeled then, and her face split into a wide smile. “Then a reunion is in order, no?” she said with a determined lilt to her voice.
The sorceress nodded approvingly, and then looked around the caravan. Her eyes saw grim faces, soot-covered and without another purpose in the world. Most importantly, they had so much as a care about Tarja than a dead grasshopper. She pressed her hands tightly against the canvas tarp of the wagon.
“Press against the cover, Elinan,” Tarja instructed her. She did that, and then she took a deep breath.
“I hope you know what you’re doing, friend,” she hissed under her breath.
“Let’s just wait until the wagon goes a ways,” Tarja replied.
The wagon went forward at a leisurely pace for a few minutes. In the view outside, the prison had become a tiny gray dot against the deep green of great cedars—as if having been put there by accident. For the first time in two years, Tarja felt the invigorating rush of energy radiate through her. Though that prison had, for two years, been the stopper that clenched her will in a grip so she could not use it, that grip came free, and all of her will returned to her. It was time to use it again.
Tarja sent her probably boundless will to her hands. With ease, she released it in a small radius around her wrists as an intense white flame. It did not burn her, but it sliced like a hot blade into the stark white canvas. She felt the warm rush of the tropical Paitish air against her skin, and looked down into the ground. It was a freshly rained-on loam, and she figured she would land into it smoothly enough.
“Here’s to freedom, Elinan,” Tarja said bravely to her friend, suppressing the boundless exultation in her voice.
Elinan watched plaintively as a bright orange tongue of fire spread out beneath Tarja, and her friend rolled backward out of the wagon. The splayed-out flame did not burn her as she landed on it, but rippled like the breaking surface of water. Elinan followed suit, awkwardly falling out of the wagon like a wounded bird, but landed safely enough on the surreal flame. It vanished in a bright rippling wave. Right then and there, Elinan laughed—a hearty, gusty titter that had longed to be let out for a long time.
“We have to move quickly,” Tarja said next, her voice growing serious. “I want to go back to my farm, to get some things before we go anywhere.
Elinan nodded in stark agreement, and stood. The wagon was still moving slowly forward, completely unaware of the two escapees.
“Mind doing something about this?” Elinan murmured, jerking her chin in the direction of the chains. She held out her wrists without waiting for an answer.
“Kartta,” Tarja whispered. A few faint lights sparkled around the chains, and in an instant, they fell to the ground. Their cold links scarcely made a noise as they landed with a thick plop in the loam. Between the two women, there was a seeming air of freedom and relief—but their work was not finished.
They ducked into the thick, tall bracken at the foot of the Cathreina Mountain range. With the addition of the gnarled mandrakes there, the two were fully hidden. When Tarja was sure that all four of the wagons were in the perfect view, she aimed chalk-white finger at the wagons, and whispered; “Sitta.”
Bright, visible flowers of flame bloomed on the wheels of the wagons. Horses whinnied fearfully, and reared up, throwing the driver off his seat. The prisoners in the wagons suddenly lurched back, and were thrown from the canvas. In the prevailing confusion, nobody noticed two missing women.
“It probably won’t be long till they find us,” Elinan said to Tarja. “Shall we go on to your farm?”
“Yes, let’s,” Tarja agreed with a firm nod. The two of them dipped under the jutting knee of a mandrake root, and slipped forward; their captors none the wary.
They were tired, and they were hungry—and most of all, they were more lost than a blind rat in the caverns of Khh'onta. Vankesa was none the shabbier, but the bleeding at his side had stopped soon enough after their exchange at the remains of the marketplace. Now, they found themselves otherwise terminally lost in rural Sycracia, probably miles away from any town.
“I hate Sycracia,” Solnel murmured bitterly as they finally stopped in the middle of the forest. “It’s so big. And so very spacious between cities.”
“So is Athastre,” Ardray sighed wearily. “But that castle in the middle of it goes between two cities, and I wonder why.”
“You know it,” he replied, a wide, proud grin flashing on his face.
Ardray looked at him and merely sighed. A wan smile parted her expression.
“Whatever am I going to do with you?”
Solnel put the tip of his forefinger on his lower lip. He looked like he pretended to think.
“You could carry me on your back to the next town.”
“Ah—no. Let’s not break my back before I’m old.”
“I’m not that heavy,” he objected in a falsely hurt tone.
“No, but I’m talking about how dense you are, not how heavy.”
He looked at her, a dumbly innocent expression in his brown eyes. “What?” he asked.
Ardray rolled her eyes heavenward. “Borans!” she groaned.
Meanwhile, Vankesa and Garril were not far away; idly trying to start a fire. Actually, it was more of Garril attempting to start a fire, and Vankesa watching him for not far away.
"You’re doing it wrong,” he said absently.
“Shut up,” Garril mumbled. “You make one then.”
He shoved the dry leaves and the rock in Vankesa’s arms. The stony-faced man shrugged, and dumped all the leaves into the rough dirt circle. He struck the rock quickly three times against the steel of his large metal blade. A bright shower of sparks flew from the sword, and fell into the leaves. The dark leaves became alight and soon enough, a little fire was in the center.
“Warmth!” Solnel chortled, moving closer to the flame. He poked at it with a nearby stick, and it grew a little bigger. Meaningfully, his eyebrows then screwed in the middle. “Ardray…couldn’t you have made a fire?”
“You boys never asked,” she chuckled, leaning in close to the pathetic little fire Vankesa made. She moved her hand slowly over it, and concentrated.
Soon enough, a fire—however doleful, but larger than Vankesa’s—had erupted over the windrow. It gave off an almost unnatural yellow glow however, and Solnel pointed that out.
“Because it was conjured,” Ardray said; “it isn’t really from this world. The sorcery was taken from another.”
“I…guess that clears it up…” Solnel muttered, still in confusion. He shook his head rather idly, and thrust his hands out toward the flame.
“Maybe we could have at least asked for some food,” Garril noted grimly.
His pale green eyes were distant, casting far past the amber illumination of the flames. Garril’s dim eyes saw merely the great, dark forest past it.
“They were chasing us out, Garril,” Solnel reminded him. “It isn’t as if we’d say ‘Oh, and before you chase us out would you please give us a nice fat ham, two loaves of bread and enough cheese to last all of us?’” Garril laughed, an empty, lost chortle.
“That maybe would have worked. After all, with all the money those churchgoers pay, those nuns ought to have something to give back.”
“Back to whom?” Vankesa asked from across the flaming windrow.
“Back to the community.”
“Ah.” He tilted his head heavenward in a rather thoughtful manner. “You know, I never really fancied that a god or goddess was out there.” The stars in the dim blue fluttered about in a spectral dance before his eyes. “Never had any reason to,” he continued idly.
“I was always told,” Garril started; “that everything was controlled by a beautiful Goddess named Tullamatti, and that she lives in Elvinia’s forests. Where the Tulla live.” He cast his gaze down to his stained shoes. “But I’m not so sure that she exists now, after I was banished from Elvinia—by my own father!”
“It was the king who made you leave?” Vankesa said in astonishment. Garril nodded slowly at him. Vankesa laughed a cold laugh; “Then so much for your Goddess.” Ardray’s gaze at him became flinty.
“I happen to believe in a god, no problem,” she snorted briskly. “He watches me, He governs my life. God…is God.” She glanced momentarily at the ruddy flames before her. “He’ll still love me…even if I use sorcery.” And quite suddenly, Solnel snorted in laughter.
“Please,” he mumbled dryly. “If a god really does exist and has for millennia, then how come his followers haven’t been able to prove him?” He cast a sidelong glance at Garril. “Or her for that matter.”
“I told you, Solnel,” Ardray huffed. “God is God, and he doesn’t have to be anything else. He doesn’t have to be some visible, towering man with a bright show of lights behind him. He is what he is…just like you are what you are.”
There came another disbelieving snort from Solnel, however this one sounded unsure. They sat in silence for much of the night, staring at the bright flames—unable to sleep. Still, the darkness did not vanish from the sky any more that there was hours ago. Vankesa suddenly stood, and the fire cast ominous-looking shadows all over his body.
“If you three sleep by day, then fine,” he said; “but I need sleep now.” He turned on his heel, and moved toward a nearby oak with a huge uprooted section. It looked like an alcove in the tree—providing safety from rain or snow. “Good night,” he mumbled, and dozed off.
“He has the right idea,” Solnel said to Ardray and Garril. “Good night.” And he too leaned tiredly against a dark towering tree. Moments later, he was asleep.
“Where do you suppose we go after this?” Ardray asked Garril in a worrisome voice.
Garril’s became rather hard and resolute. “We go to where that knight took my aunt Tarja,” he said. He pointed to the wide road at the forest’s entrance. “She was kidnapped on that road two years ago—when Solnel and I came to the church.”
“Two years ago?” she blurted. “Why didn’t we go after her before, or gotten somebody who could have?”
“I-I don’t quite know,” he admitted, his face falling into his chest. “But what I do know is, I want my aunt back. It’s time I took steps to see her again.”
Ardray’s usually-hard gray eyes softened considerably then. She leaned over to him, and quite unexpectedly, she gave Garril a kiss on the cheek.
“You are a brave young man,” she said simply. Ardray curled into her large monk’s robe and fell asleep.
Garril sat up in the light of fire for a few more moments, tenderly touching where her lips touched his face. They were soft and full, leaving a lasting impression—as if the mark was visibly there. Garril leaned against the tree he had his back to, and fell asleep.