With a shiver of dread, the Queen of Lothria clenched her hands on top of the tower wall and turned her gaze to the east. Far in the distance—beyond steep, rocky cliffs, beyond the basin of a harbor below—sky and sea retained a dark oneness. The stillness in the air enveloped her like the cool mist clinging to her skin. Then slowly, an orange orb crowned the horizon. A swath of luminous red crystals danced on the water in its wake, and dawn spread like flaming tendrils across the receding darkness. Her breath caught in her throat as night surrendered its hold. The fine hairs on her arms prickled.
Rivers will burn.
“We have been undone.” Her voice rasped on a whisper. “All is as I saw in my dream.”
The old man at her side laid a warm hand on her shoulder. His silence told her he had seen the omen as well, and yet he remained soundless, watching.
She looked up at the black outline of her father’s face in the brightening morning. “You must take my daughter now and do as we discussed.”
“Lysienthe…!” The disbelief in his sighed reply sent a wave of panic coiling into her very center. “The king…?” His voice hoarse with urgency, he tightened his grip on her. “Did you not warn the king?”
Hot tears surprised her with the harshness of their sting and suddenness. Where cold fear had restrained her as if in shackles, a pang, deep and long, now rippled. “I could say nothing to convince him.” She turned away lest he see the weakness overcoming her in a debilitating wave. She shivered in her shift, hugging herself against the chill.
The memory of her husband’s breath on her neck yet clung on her senses, its warmth rustling the loosened hair from the braid that fell over her shoulder. His words, with their sincerity and single-minded resolve, resonated still on her aching heart. His smile, forever seared in her mind’s eye, moved her with its tinge of sadness mixed with resolve. The sweet taste of his kiss lingered on her lips.
“Wolthar says he has no reason to fear deception.” She labored for calm and closed her eyes, fighting back images in her mind. “He said his course is set. He said no price is too high for our chance at a lasting peace.”
“Oh, my dear child….” The old man gently turned her around and opened his arms to her, the trace of his expression reflecting the anguish in his voice. Pressing her cheek to his chest, Lysienthe succumbed to her father’s embrace. For a long, silent moment, he held her close, warming her with his dark cloak and his hands on her back. “Many years have come and gone,” he said in a quiet voice, “since you placed such faith in your gifts.” He took a step back, holding her at arms’ length, his large hands strong on her arms. “Why now?”
Fighting the panic that seized her, she shuddered. “It was fear for my children. Fear made the denanth strong in me…my gift…my curse….”
The light of the red sky cast his face in shadows. His jaw tensed, then relaxed, and his eyes shone black as fenstones. “It has always been strong in you, my daughter. True and wondrous gifts you have been blessed with and not a curse at all.”
Lysienthe breathed deeply of morning’s raw chill and, with its release, all fear and panic melted away, leaving her with a clarity of thought she had never known. She had foreseen all that had come to pass, and that which had yet to occur. But she had no power to prevent the events from unfolding; she had not been blessed with that particular gift.
“Then I beg you to trust me.” She raised her head and squared her shoulders. “Soon it will be light. Take Elthwen to my sister, by any means you see fit. I will distract her maid.”
“To Morolath…?” Her father backed away. “The girl will go kicking and screaming if she goes at all. I told you, if the plan was to see her to the fortress at Elyndrus, I would take her there.”
“The Imperon will expect that. I fear he and his lackeys will stop at nothing to prevent our alliance with Elyndrus.” She grasped his hand in her two. “See her safely to Morolath Island. That is all I ask. Protect my daughter…”
“You needn’t worry on that count. I would die before I let anything happen—”
“…by any means you see fit.”
He stared back, eyes glinting shards of light. “Of course you do not mean—”
“By any means.”
He drew in a slow breath and expelled it in a short burst. “I have taken an oath to the king, as have you.”
“Oaths, it seems, can be broken. You must awaken your crystal. As your queen…. No….” She hesitated, reluctant but compelled to continue. “As a ghathwen…I…I command you.”
“If you put it like that, I have no choice but to….” Her father fell silent, head bowed in contemplation. “The use of such power has been outlawed. Surely, you—”
She tugged on his hand. “I know what is at stake! You know it as well. As soon as Elthwen is safe at Morolath, you will go to Elyndrus and plead our cause to the old king. He will listen to you. You are Nochlan, Eryth Rhanthir, a man of great gifts.” She added softly, “At least you were…once.”
“That was long ago,” he said with a slow shake of his head. “Now I am known as Old Nochlan, the queen’s doddering father. I hardly remember how to….” He sighed and then spoke with resignation in his voice. “And what of you?” He found her eyes with his shadowed gaze.
“No harm will befall me.”
“But your place—”
“My place is here. My son needs—”
“Elthric is lost.” He flapped a hand in the air to punctuate his words. “His uncle has twisted him. You said so yourself.”
She paused and said in a measured voice, “Then I mean to untwist him.”
Nochlan, Eryth Rhanthir, raised his head and opened his mouth, as if he would protest. Instead he simply nodded with a forced sense of duty. “As you wish.” He set his jaw. “My duty is to abide by the old laws.”
He made a move to turn, but she could not bring herself to release his hand. “No, Father…I beg you, not as your queen, not as a priestess of Morolath, but as your daughter….” She ached to tell him of her fear. For herself and her husband, for her children. For everyone. The anguish deep inside cried out to him, of the hopelessness and the darkness to come, all she had foreseen. She held her breath at the hope of comfort in the words she longed to hear. But the moment of weakness dissipated before she could give voice to her thoughts.
His hand slipped from hers. For an instant, he lingered as if sensing the unspoken turmoil churning inside her, waiting for her to speak, and then he hurried off, leaving her utterly alone and shivering.
From high in her tower, Lysienthe gazed out over the brightening harbor where the rising fog revealed shrouded forms of longships moored along the quays. Dark forms scurried to and fro among them. “My dearest husband, my love, my lord,” she said softly, “may Nirmanath, Mother of All Things, watch over you.”
* * *
Lysienthe could not bring herself to protest such an inappropriate display of merriment. For days prior to the king’s departure, tensions ran high in both the household and garrison. The unexpected arrival the previous day of an envoy from the Imperon of Nortlunde and his entourage added to the stress with their demands, their coarseness, and their arrogance.
Yet none of her attendants—not even her captain of the guard—had reason to question a feast in honor of the truce to come that would mark an end to the rebellion in the north, even if, in her mind, all seemed more than a little premature. A bit of levity, her own women agreed, was long overdue; she could not argue that point. Yet she sensed a more sinister undertone. Othreld, her husband’s brother, showed none of the self-control, which now in retrospect screamed of his deception.
The longships had barely cleared the stone jetties at the mouth of the harbor when he announced his plan for a celebration. The last of the vessels had yet to disappear over the horizon, its square sail emblazoned with the blood-red dragon of Wolthar their king. A hundred oars dipped in unison into a dead calm sea, the polished bronze of her crew’s shields and ornaments gleaming in the windless morning, until they vanished into the place where sky meets sea. But to Othreld, they were long gone. To what fate, even her gifts could not tell her.
Evening dragged on before night settled at last over the great hall. By flickering light of the torches along the walls and braziers’ red glowing coals, the revelry continued unabated. Sitting at her customary place at Wolthar’s table, the queen fingered the stem of her silver goblet and watched the blur of light shimmer in its contents. Voices hummed in conversation and in raucous song, punctuated by peals of laughter. By the sounds and sights in the great hall that night, all was as it seemed—nothing more than a celebration in a time of little cheer for the hope to come. More than once she caught Othreld’s furtive glance. More than once she observed him in conversation with this man or with that, and even as he appeared at ease, his eyes smoldered with dark thoughts. Guilt perhaps? Second guesses?
How long before he assumes his brother’s throne? How long before he reveals his treachery?
Despite her sharpened senses and renewed vigilance, not a hint of insidiousness intruded on the festivities. No messenger had burst through the door, short of breath and ashen-faced, his clothes stained with sweat and blood, to announce…what? A mutinous riot at sea. The king is dead. If she concentrated with all her mind, she could almost see the scene unfolding. Almost. Not quite with the clearness of vision she craved. Almost, as if from afar.
Fire on water.
The queen clenched her eyes shut and, resting her head against the ornately carved high back of her chair, allowed the strains of nearby harp music to wash over her nerves. The tune, an old Lothrian ballad from days long forgotten, sweet in its melody and idyllic of word, swelled above the surrounding confusion.
At the very least, Elthwen is safe.
But what of Elthric?
She could not discount Othreld’s influence over her son. During the ten years abroad under his uncle’s fostering and tutelage, Elthric naturally developed affection for the man he had come to regard as more than an uncle. Othreld had witnessed her son’s growth into manhood in Nortlunde, the land of his father’s father’s people, teaching him the ways of their lords and warriors.
Nothing in her heart would allow her to believe that Elthric had knowingly involved himself in a plot against his father’s life and throne. It was no secret that the Imperon had grown displeased with a host of events that continued to rattle his empire, not the least of which concerned Wolthar’s hereditary rule in Lothria. Such displeasure surely had some influence on Othreld and Othreld on her son, but not to the extent that Elthric would….
Othreld owed his kinsman, the Imperon, more than just his lands and fealty. Perhaps his life, as well, hung in the balance. For the Imperon had never displayed any reluctance when doing away with even his most trusted retainers, which he did on a regular basis, with unthinkable cruelty and enjoyment.
Earlier in the evening she had observed her son dancing. The youngest of her women, all clamoring for his attention, took their turns with him, never quite as graceful or as agile as he, never quite as exuberant. She marveled at Elthric’s confidence, his casual assurance, the joy in his eyes. How like his father he had grown in face and form, with his father’s full, soft mouth and his mother’s golden hair and eyes. No longer the fragile, sickly child who had shared her womb with his sister, he had long since surpassed Elthwen in height and strength. She shuddered when, more than once, he sought out Othreld with his gaze, as if for approval.
“I hope my mother is not bored.”
The voice startled her from her thoughts. “Elthric!” She could not help smiling at the sight of him standing at her side, an easy smile on his handsome, beardless face. “Come. Sit by me.” She patted the seat of her husband’s chair.
Elthric pulled out the king’s high-backed chair and dropped into it with a carelessness that, had she not been so absorbed in premonitions of disaster, would have caused her to laugh out loud.
“I saw you sitting here alone with no one to amuse you.” His flushed face glistened under a sheen of perspiration, the sweet, heady scent of sithleberry wine on his breath. “I thought you might be—”
“Not bored.” Coercing a smile, she lifted her goblet and swirled its contents. “Only a little tired.”
“It has been a day of excitement…for everyone.”
Rather than speak her mind, she sipped her wine.
“You look pensive,” he said in a playful tone, his leg draped over the arm of the chair, his words softly slurred. “Shall I tell you what you are thinking?”
She shuddered at the prospect. “What would be gained by that?”
Elthric shrugged and said with a lopsided smile, “If you are thinking boring thoughts, my efforts will be wasted.” He leaned close. “By my denanth I sense sadness in your heart.”
She forced a laugh that felt as hollow as it sounded. “You were not given your gifts to use so lightly.”
He leaned closer still. “’Tis plain to see, Lady Mother, and not a misuse of my…gifts. I thought only to make you smile, and I’ve succeeded.” He sat back in the chair, hands folded in his lap.
She lowered her gaze into her cup. “’Tis no secret that I did not approve of your father’s mission.”
The chair grated on the flagstone floor as Elthric dragged it closer. “You fear for him, and I tell you there is no cause.”
Lysienthe met her son’s steady gaze. “When he returns safely, I will have no cause to fear for his welfare.”
“Mother, I was there. I came back…and quite safely, too, I might add.” Confusion darkened his face.
Surely he sensed her disquiet in the same way he knew she had not been completely forthcoming. Both shared some of the same gifts, among them the ability to seek and read the thoughts of others. In deference to her husband, she had suppressed her denanth for over twenty years, and Elthric’s long tenure in Nortlunde, where such gifts were regarded with suspicion and misunderstood, had eroded his skills.
An anxious pang squeezed her heart as he narrowed his eyes and tilted his head to the side, as if to take issue with her evasion. “How can I assure you that all will be well?” He laid a hand over hers on the table and gave it a gentle squeeze. “My uncle went through great pains to arrange this truce at the Imperon’s bidding.”
She shuddered. “Only a few short weeks ago a band of armed Skaddock rebels attacked two outposts along the northern border, killing and plundering. They were armed and aggressive, Elthric! Their aggression against us was unprovoked.”
“Now they will join with us in peace.” By the earnestness in his voice and innocence of his smile, he believed what he said.
“Yes…of course. We will be at peace with those monsters. And the Imperon will have his precious ore again to continue his wars and conquests in the East.”
His aspect lightened. “They were fierce, Mother, those armed Skaddock. But, after centuries of enslavement, who can blame them? I will admit that we all feared for our lives on more than one occasion, but they are not as savage as you would think. Clenmoc, their war lord, received us with kindness and honored us with gifts.” He lightly fingered the intricate silver pendant dangling from the black ribbon around her neck. “Their metal work is extraordinary, is it not? I was surprised to discover that, despite our differences, they are very much like us.”
“They are only part human, Elthric. Never forget that.”
“Why do you think they agreed to meet with my father?” His face grew more animated, his eyes large and shining, their golden hue deepening in the flickering light of wall sconces. “To allay our doubts! Clenmoc himself said it makes no sense to commit all their resources to warring when it is such a hardship for them to simply subsist in that inhospitable region. They can learn from us. Mother, I was there. I tell you there is no reason to fear.”
She took his face in her hands and planted a kiss on his forehead. “Then I shall sleep well tonight, my son.” She pushed herself out of her seat and stretched her arms. “I had not realized how late it is…and how tired I am.” She cast a glance at the table where her retinue, young and old, sat with a few of the male household, some chatting, some yawning. Inid, her personal attendant, nodded and began rousing the others.
Elthric rose quickly, grasping her hands. “You promised I would see my sister this night. Why has she not come? Not feeling ill, is she?” He glanced over his shoulder in Othreld’s direction. His uncle had been watching them at intervals from across the hall while appearing to listen to a group of Nortlunde officials arguing among themselves with a great deal of animation. In that instant, Lysienthe met his gaze. Othreld’s face quivered into an uneasy smile as he rubbed his ruddy, neatly trimmed beard.
“My uncle is vexed,” Elthric whispered with a laugh behind his hand. “He fears Elthwen and old Gamba have run off into the forest on one of their childish adventures.” He bent his head close to her ear, “I tried to tell him. But he does not know my sister as I do.” He let out a sigh. “I did so want her to come tonight. I was hoping to have a special dance played in her honor.”
A cold sticking sensation seized her heart as Othreld strode around the tables toward the dais, meeting her smile of controlled cordiality with a perfunctory nod.
“Not to alarm my lady,” he said softly, “but no doubt Elthric has expressed my concern that your daughter and the old man have disobeyed the king’s edict.”
She took a moment to study his face, probing his mind for a glimmer of his intent. In the wavering shadows and torch light his hooded eyes betrayed no hint of feeling, his mind a jumble of conflicting thoughts. “I am aware of no edict.”
“In my brother’s absence, no one is to leave the citadel. Conditions remain far too dangerous.”
“Are you telling me that Elthwen and my father—?”
“Your daughter’s maid informed me that my niece has not been seen since before daybreak.”
Lysienthe cast a glance at the women assembled near the stairway. Young Ildra dropped her gaze to the floor. “Ildra knows nothing. She was attending me this morning.”
“It would not be the first time old Gamba has become stricken with itchy feet,” Elthric chimed in with a laugh. “Is that not so, Mother?”
Othreld’s left cheek twitched. “I have been told of the old man’s penchant for…shall I say ‘mischief’?” With narrow eyes, he held her gaze. “Times as they are, no one is safe outside these walls.”
Her back stiffened. “My father would never allow harm to befall her. The king knows this.”
“My brother has long been infatuated with your kind and your ways. Still, he recognizes the danger.”
“We all recognize the danger…and where it resides.” She leveled her gaze on Othreld’s face.
His cheek a-twitch, Othreld met her eyes from under darkly knit brows. “Then, for the safety of all concerned, you must tell me where they have gone.”
She bristled. “Must? Until an edict from the king states that I am no longer queen, I will take my own counsel regarding what I must or must not do.”
Again he nodded. “Forgive me. I overstep my authority.”
In more ways than one. “Besides,” she added with more self-control than she felt, “I have no idea where they are. Have you looked for them in the herbarium?”
“We searched everywhere.”
She emitted a short breath of dismissal. “For what purpose I cannot imagine.”
“I will remind you that in his absence, I am sworn to uphold the king’s law. I intend to have them returned. At first light I will send out a search.” He turned to Elthric, who anticipated his uncle’s words with the eagerness of a puppy. “Elthric, you will accompany them.”
How could she not have foreseen this turn of events? A jolt of alarm constricted her heart. Elthric’s face beamed, and while she sensed the ripple of excitement that enlivened his otherwise carefree stance, he simply bowed to Othreld.
Lysienthe sighed. “We all must do as we see fit. I expect no less of my son.” Again she felt Othreld’s probing gaze and she met it fully. “I will take my leave. The hour is late.”
Elthric kissed her cheek. “Worry not, Lady Mother. We will bring Elthwen and our wayward grandfather home.”
She brushed away the shock of flaxen hair falling over his shining eyes, her hand lingering on the side of his brow. “My love for you is deep.” Then she added, “And so is my trust.”
Without a glance at Othreld, she took her leave, followed by Inid and the other women.
Elthwen hunched low to the ground until her face was but inches from the tiny sprig poking through the forest floor. Leaves crackled under her knees as she carefully brushed away the cover of crumbled debris and pungent earth to reveal a number of similar shoots. Even as the sun had sunk to just above the line of distant trees, its fading light meshing with lengthening shadows of massive oak, the find was unmistakable. Pale yellow and green striped stems drooped under the weight of tight, yellow buds on the verge of opening. She widened her eyes and gasped in surprise.
“Gamba…?” Her voice burst out in a startled half-whisper. “Gamba!” Her grandfather would explain.
With shaking fingers, she fumbled with the gold brooch securing her cloak at the shoulder and wriggled free of the heavy woolen garment. On hands and knees in the patch of moss at the gnarled roots of the giant oak, she cleared away the detritus to reveal yet another cluster of similar shoots…and then another, and yet another. She pushed up the close-fitting sleeves of her kirtle and, bending lower still, savored their scent of honey and burnt beeswax.
Scarcely able to contain her growing excitement, she glanced back toward the small clearing only yards away where her grandfather had set about prying a dead sapling from the ground. Gently wiggling it to and fro in an effort to extract it with roots intact, he coaxed and cajoled in a soft voice.
Without a pause from his struggle, he turned to her, an addled look in his eyes. “Did you speak?”
Elthwen scrambled to her feet. “You must see what I’ve found.”
With one last tug, the sapling gave up its hold. The old man staggered backwards, prize firmly in hand. Elthwen raced to his side, but with flailing arms and a nimble cross-step, he quickly regained his balance.
“Stubborn to the end!” He shook his head, a wry sparkle in his pale blue eyes. “It’s their way, you know, to cling to the earth, even in death. See how the roots resemble fingers? Quite clever, eh?”
She took his arm in both hands. “You might have fallen!”
“Yet, here I stand here before you.” He winked and flashed her a smile.
“For that I am grateful.” She slipped her arms through his and, pressing her head to his chest, added in a playful tone, “I’m grateful not to have to carry you home on my back.”
He planted a kiss on the top of her head. “No fear of that, my sweet.”
“Gamba, you must look at this.” She stepped away and motioned him to follow, but her grandfather, knife in hand, had turned his attention fully on the dead sapling.
He flipped it upside down and flicked at the clumps of earth still clinging to its roots. “It appears perfect!”
“It’s mortrilian! I’m certain.”
“No, no, my dear, it is brackletorne…and a fine staff she will make.” He shook more earth from the tangle of roots. “Perfect circumference from top to bottom. She merely needs some pruning and polishing.” He cast a glance at the sack hanging from the belt at her waist and pointed at it with his knife. “What of those mushrooms I sent you after?” He began paring away the tiny dead branches and flaking white bark.
Elthwen pulled open the sack. “More than enough, and in good variety.”
“Hmmph! Are you certain they are all edible?”
She let out an impatient sigh. “I was schooled in your teachings, Gamba. For both our sakes, I hope they are.”
“Then you had best commence to getting them ready. I am quite famished.”
“Do you not wish to see?”
“See what, Ellath?”
Rolling her eyes, she thought she’d die before he paid her any mind. “The mortrilian.”
He turned his gaze upon her as if he had been startled from a dream. “Mortrilian, you say?”
“I’ve been trying to tell you.” She snatched his hand and hauled him to the spot. “I noticed a cluster of unusually plump sprendel mushrooms here between the roots of this oak, so I dug them up and then I noticed this….” Elthwen dropped to her knees and ran her hands over the nodding buds poking through a nest of tender fronds.
Her grandfather knelt beside her. “I have never had much use for mortrilian,” he said softly, reverently fingering one of the tightly furled blossoms. “It is rare, yes, but one needs only the tiniest drop of its extracted juice to bring on utter forgetfulness. And you can never be too careful, or it will prove deadly. It does, however, have some redeeming qualities….” He rubbed the top of his shiny head, as if doing so would help him remember. “But I am hard pressed to think of one at the moment.” He breathed deeply of its scent. “Ah, yes! Peculiar smell to be certain. How it causes my thoughts to journey….”
He sank into a brief reverie, eyes focused on his thoughts. Then he blinked three times. “But to find it in such numbers!” Taking in the sight, he settled back on his haunches. “Only rarely can you find one or two in one place, let alone…six, seven…eleven…!”
“I counted sixteen of them…and see how orderly the rows….” A tickle of excitement fluttered in the pit of Elthwen’s stomach. “Someone must have planted them here. Is that not so?”
Again he rubbed the top of his head with his fingertips. “An educated assumption.”
She scanned the perimeter of the clearing for telltale shadows darting through the thicket in the settling twilight. “Would that not also indicate the presence of Milith people nearby?”
She sought his gaze. “Gamba, you said that by coming this way through the forest, we would see the Milithos.”
“Perhaps we will see them another time.”
Since before she could remember, her grandfather had told tales of the people who, long ago, had been banished to the deepest wood for abusing their gifts for selfish gain. The Milithos or Hintervolk, as her father’s people referred to them, had a reputation as tricksters with the ability to render themselves invisible.
She slumped her shoulders. “I was hoping to see them this day.”
He glanced around. “Apparently, they have no wish to be seen.”
Elthwen fixed her gaze on the settling shadows of the forest. “Do you think they are nearby? Do you think they are watching us?”
“Possibly….” He sniffled at the air for a whiff of cabanium, a sweet blend of flowers, seeds, and herbs, which served as the basis for Milith potions and was ever-present in their blood and sweat. “Then again, possibly not. One can never be certain. Some are so cunning, their tincture is nearly scentless.”
She shrugged and sighed. “I suppose if they wished to do us mischief, they would have done so by now. Is that not so, Gamba?”
“There’s no telling with the Milithos.” He hauled himself to his feet and resumed paring the staff. “Have I ever told you about that Milith woman who put such a stuporous spell on me?”
She had heard the tale countless times, yet never tired of it.
Continuing on as if speaking to himself, he did not wait for her reply. “To this day I have no recollection of how long that temptress kept me under her spell. Kaylwen was her name…flawless skin white as alabaster, eyes the color of the palest skystone….” He harrumphed and slowly shook his head. “Not to be trusted, not a single one. But never have I beheld a fairer race of people, Ellath. Men and women of uncommon comeliness.” He added with a snort, “As comely as they are guileful.”
His voice faded into the sounds of falling night. Wind stirred in the treetops setting off a distant squeal followed by a low groan and the tapping of branches. Somewhere in the forest an owl hooted.
Elthwen pushed herself up beside her grandfather and gathered her cloak around her. “It grows late…and cold. Should we not start back?” She shivered.
“Did you speak?” Without looking up, he scraped at the peeling bark of his brackletorne staff with his knife.
Even as a small child, Elthwen sensed when her grandfather was being evasive or chose not to discuss of matters he feared she would not understand. But for a man of advancing years, his hearing remained unsurpassed. That very day he remarked on the minutest of sounds, differentiating the notes of one forest bird from another, or the particular timbre of a hawk circling overhead, whether it was hunting or crying for a mate.
In thinking back over the events of the long day spent traipsing through the forest, signs presented themselves everywhere. The stealth with which Gamba had awakened her before dawn and urged her to dress quickly while Ildra, her maid, was off attending to a matter for the queen. Of their clandestine departure through darkened halls and back stairways, she thought nothing at the time. Anticipating an adventure with her grandfather in the wood on a fine spring day after a long, hard winter, she went along with his peculiar behavior as if it was just another of his larks. Gamba’s joy at escaping the suffocating air of her father’s hall infected her with the same sense of release.
Now she shuddered, as much from cold as uncertainty. “Soon it will be dark.”
He lowered his hands and turned to her, his face in shadow. “Elthwen….”
Rarely did he address her by her given name. To him she was Ellath, a pet name derived from his favorite flower, sweet ellathanea, and he was Gamba since she was but a babe. Childish names in her younger days never failed to keep the outside world at bay. Childish games maintained the pretense that everything was as it appeared.
But having already passed her eighteenth birthday, she was no longer a child.
“We will not be going home,” he said.
She sensed it all along, and still the gravity with which he met her gaze sent a creeping numbness through her brain. Her knees buckled. Elthwen closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. In looking back over the events of the day…and the preceding days…she recounted the many times in which she had ignored signs or simply refused to acknowledge that her world tottered on the brink of a great disruption.
She was not unaware of the whispering in the corridors after the emissary from Aldain of Elyndrus, “the old king-in-hiding,” came and left without fanfare. Then, following her brother’s and uncle’s return from that bleak and barren region, an envoy from the Imperon of all of Nortlunde arrived only days before her father’s departure on his “peace mission” to the north. Not to mention her mother’s reticence and her father’s grim countenance.
But she had learned that premonitions and signs often needed to backed up by more tangible evidence and were not to be relied upon. Besides, this night would not be the first they spent in the forest after a day of taking delight in the mysteries of its flora and fauna.
“I suppose I should prepare the mushrooms if we are to eat tonight.”
“An excellent suggestion” he said with a broad smile. “We will need fire…and water.”
* * *
Shivering from cold, Elthwen huddled deep in the folds of her cloak. Lying on her back she stared at the moonlit sky through a tangle of budding branches. Pale stars glittered amid the glow. The damp forest floor penetrated even the heavy woolen fabric of her garments, and her body ached from its unyielding hardness. The bed of leaves offered no relief. If not for the cushion of moss under her head, the remotest thought of comfort would have evaded her. Exhausted as she was, sleep would not come, as her mind raced with unsettling thoughts.
Heaving an impatient sigh, she rolled onto her side.
Across the fire pit, seated on a fallen tree trunk, his back to her, Gamba remained engrossed in his work. Bands of moonbeams outlined his form against smoldering embers, his closely cropped hair sparkling like a snowy crown, his bald pate shining in the silver light. Hunched over the gnarled root of the brackletorne shaft, her grandfather continued to whittle away. Save for his scraping and paring, he had barely moved and made no sound for hours.
When the moon reached its apex, he pulled a dark cloth from his haversack. He unwrapped an object in his lap, regarded it for a moment then held it up to the light. A multifaceted crystal the size of a toddling child’s fist flickered with a milky glow. He mumbled something in an ancient tongue and slipped the jewel into the roots of his brackletorne rod, which closed one by one, like fingers, around it. The stone’s glimmer brightened.
She sat, hugging her knees to her chest. “Gamba,” she said quietly.
After a short while, her grandfather turned, his features masked by the lengthening shadows of trees in the moonlight. He set down the knife and raised his staff to peer through the swath of murky light it cut through the darkness. “I thought you were asleep.”
She shielded her eyes with a hand to ward off unexpected intensity. “Is that a corrath?”
“I have not had a suitable staff for it since before you were born.” She sensed his smile in the soft tone of his voice.
Elthwen scrambled to her feet, and barely suppressing her eagerness, entered the pool of soft yellow light now spilling around him.
“Bracklethorne…not too green, not too dry. It is perfect, actually.” He let out a short, muffled laugh. “This was an auspicious find.”
She dropped beside him on the log. Enveloped by the crystal’s light, she basked in its warmth spreading through her aching bones. Like a weight, her head defied all attempts to keep it upright. She rested it on his shoulder and settled her gaze on the stone’s growing radiance. “How does it do that?”
As he slowly rotated the staff between his palms, the crystal’s pulsing light changed from yellow to pink and back to yellow. “I am a ghalthrach,” he said simply. “The staff is but a conduit. It connects us—the corrath and me, and the two of us—to the earth. By the grace of Nirmanath, we are now one with the current of life.” The light sputtered, nearly going out. “Ach! Perhaps I should have said, ‘We soon shall be one.’ We are both old and woefully out of practice. It will take us a bit of time to…. ” Focusing full attention on his task, he rolled the staff between his hands until the stone flickered back into luminescence. “Aha! Do you hear that, Ellath?”
She willed herself to focus on the sounds of the night. “I hear nothing but the wind in the branches and the song of tree frogs.”
“She hums to us!”
Elthwen concentrated with all her fading faculties. “I’m afraid it hums not to me, Gamba.”
“To some…those born with the calling…the sound is sweet music to the soul, a summoning. Irresistible.”
Fighting the soporific weight spreading over her mind and limbs, she made a vain attempt to stifle a yawn. “I thought the keeping of corraths was outlawed.”
The corrath made fizzling sound and flickered with a rapid energy before settling back into its gentle transformations.
“Outlawed…?” He continued to work the staff, concentrating on the crystal as it changed to pale stuttering blue, then red and back again to yellow.
Her eyelids grew heavy. “After that mad ghalthrach…what was his name?…killed my father’s grandfather. Under the reign of the first Nortlunde kings of Lothria, all corraths were destroyed.”
The corrath crackled as if from an affront.
“Did you speak?” He blinked at her with a befuddled expression. “Destroyed? Oh, no, no, Ellath. This is Glaer, as you can see, alive and well. She’s been with me all these many years. Of course, she needs some reminding now before she awakens fully. Glaer, I would like you to meet Ella…er…Elthwen, Lysienthe’s daughter. You do remember Lysienthe, don’t you?”
The stone appeared to wink at her.
Her head an onerous weight, Elthwen glanced with a start at the luminous crystal. “Has it a mind?”
“Ahh…that remains to be seen.” He turned his gaze fully on her and continued to ply the staff between his hands. “No doubt you are referring to King Gorod’s infamous decree.”
A tragic story. She’d been told how Rarweth Rhanthir, an aged ghalthrach unhinged after years of wandering in the north and incensed to madness over Gorod’s cruel reign, traveled to the fair in celebration of the night of The Summer Radiance at Eithennor in the border lands. Along with Muli, his corrath, he plotted to murder the king. By a stroke of luck, Gorad and his queen had decided to forego the procession into the town that evening. In his stead, young Prince Gorthar, Wolthar’s grandfather, and his wife rode in the royal coach and were mistakenly killed in the storm of fire the old ghalthrach unleashed. Muli, in a fit of remorse and guilt then destroyed herself and Rarweth in a great blinding light, turning them both to dust, which scattered on the wind.
“Yes, the keeping of a corrath was punishable by death in those days,” Gamba continued, his face taut from the recollection. “I was but a lad then, just beginning my training. Those of us who weren’t rounded up went into hiding in the deep wood among the Milith and wild Skaddock. There we bided our time until Aldain’s uprising. So, no, Ellath. No, not all corraths were destroyed.”
“Gamba…what…what prompted you to—?”
“Now let me think…. Ah! If my memory can be trusted, there is Belida, Agard Rhanthir’s stone…and the corrath of old Rew Rhanthir….” He scratched at his head. “…whose name escapes me at present, although we were well acquainted at one time. And of course, Thenyd, Faenil, and Beldasta, the three stones of Tachlanad. There are more, most definitely, but those are the ones that come readily to mind.”
“Tachlanad…? Do you mean the Sword of Names?”
“That’s…just an old story.”
“Simply because Melthir’s sword has been lost since a time before anyone can remember doesn’t mean it is ‘just an old story.’”
She forced herself to stand on wobbly legs and move away lest she further succumb to Glaer’s power to dull her senses. “But what compelled you to awaken—?”
“Who knows…?” Immersed in the act of rotating his staff, Gamba followed his own train of thought, paying no heed to her question. “It has been foretold that one day Tachlanad will come again and assemble the three corraths that were lost. One day peace and unity will return to our land.” He harrumphed softly, a mirthless sound that sent a shiver through her veins. “A lifetime I’ve waited. A lifetime my brinnad waited, before he crossed over into Glothras. How many lifetimes will it take?”
Elthwen shook off the last of her lethargy. Her grandfather’s words unnerved her. “My father wishes nothing more than peace and unity in Lothria.”
“Yes…yes…. Wolthar is a good man…a good king. But it appears he rules by the grace of the Imperon, who everyone knows is a greedy little pup, who….” Glaer dimmed for an instant, and then burst into a clear bright light before settling into a warm, steady glow. “Ah! Thanks be to Nirmanath, she lives!” He stood suddenly, a befuddled expression on his face. “What was I saying?”
“The Imperon…. You were—”
“Ah, yes. Greedy, spiteful little runt of a mongrel whelp! Like his father before him…only this one was brought up to think the entire known world owes him its undying obedience.” Animated with a sudden burst of energy, he raised his staff as if in triumph. “But he has bitten off more than he can chew, hasn’t he? I’d say his are hands full. Slave rebellion in the Ice Mountains, Isenia up in arms, his own armies suffering defeat after defeat in the East….”
“Gamba,” she began slowly, uncertain, “Is that why you awakened Glaer? To help put an end to all this—”
“Is that why I…?” He fixed on her fully with a pale smile and lowered the bracklethorne rod. “Must an old man have a reason?”
His evasiveness was plain. Hard as it was to force her mind from the subject, she chose a different tactic. “Elthric seems in good health.”
He nodded, strolling toward her, using the staff for balance. “Your brother has grown since last we saw him.”
“He has prospered under Uncle Othreld’s tutelage.”
The old man cleared his throat. “That’s quite an admission, coming from one who shares her mother’s views on Elthric’s education.”
“Elthric is a prince of Lothria. His ‘tutelage’ has gone on long enough.”
Gamba emitted a barely suppressed laugh. “Now you even sound like your mother.”
The farther she wandered from the reach of his light, the clearer her thoughts became. “Mother doesn’t trust Othreld. She fears he is a pawn of the Imperon.”
“Your mother worries far too much over things she has no power to change.”
No longer able to keep her anxious thoughts in check, she whirled around to face him. “Gamba, how do you think my mother fares this night?” From the darkness beyond his circle of light, she watched as he sank into thought.
His breath made a soft, hissing sound. “I expect she sleeps not.”
“She charged you with taking me away today, didn’t she?”
“I was not averse to the idea,” he said with a shrug. “And we had some amusement, did we not?”
“I always enjoy larking with you, Gamba.” She swallowed hard, her mind swirling with images of her father in doleful introspection during those days before his departure. “And my father…?”
Her grandfather hung his head. “I cannot say with any certainty.”
“My father sailed this morning for the land of the Ice Mountains. My mother begged him to stay. He told her that his was a mission of peace, to prevent the war that everyone says is coming.” She strode back into his light and stood before him. “Is this true, Gamba?”
He laid his hand on her arm and squeezed. “I do not involve myself in matters of war and peace. That is best left to kings and their armies.”
“I do not care for my father’s brother.”
Gamba emitted a snort. “Othreld is but a servant of Nortlunde…and his own ambition.”
“Mother says he has twisted Elthric.”
“Your mother is not always right.”
A chill settled over her as his thoughts grew distant. “Gamba…? Are we in danger?”
The light of his corrath cooled with a shushing sound. “So long as we remain circumspect, there is no danger.” Her grandfather moved ponderously with the aid of his staff. “Now you must sleep!” He pointed to the bed of leaves. “Dawn is not far off and we must leave before first light.”
“Where are you taking me?” She clutched at his arm. “Why all the secrecy? Why do we travel where there is no road and no path?”
“We go to Morolath Island,” he said plainly.
The news settled over her like a crushing weight. “To Nirmanath’s Shrine?” She spun away. “But you promised me….” He said nothing. Slowly, she turned back to him. “Gamba…?”
“Your mother’s sister, the high priestess, will provide for your hospitality.” His voice had a preoccupied sound.
Once again, she whirled away, rage battling her best effort to remain calm. “For how long?” The thought of abiding in such a place squeezed at her chest, depriving her of breath. “Surely this cannot mean….” It was no ...