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BRINGER of BALANCE - Book II of THE LAND series

By smatusky All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 3 - Forging an Alliance

While packing the next morning, I lightly touched the minds of those in our group. They were curious about Riley’s behavior the night before, but no one inquired about the situation. We left our cozy camp and traveled south until we came across some villages east of . People watched us as we passed through. We saw untended fruit trees growing wild throughout the landscape. In other areas, farmers harvested a variety of fruits, vegetables and nuts that grew on trees and bushes.

From my Noore history books, I read that produce and seeds were transported out of North and to other areas of the continent. They relied heavily on other towns for trade yet it looked as though was suffering economically since we passed numerous patches of neglected land.

We asked local villagers to direct us to the rulers of . Soon we were enroute to a town called “Marideth.” The dirt path we traveled gradually transformed into a cobblestone road and merchants gathered along the edge. They called out from their covered wagons lining the streets, advertising their wares. The bustling area lacked guards, so , and Theo rode ahead to search for the leaders of Marideth while the rest of us searched for lodging. Accommodations were scarce, but we eventually found a rustic inn with two available rooms.

We waited in the lobby’s cramped dining hall for the others. Townspeople stared at us while they ate at nearby tables. Riley and I were not normal folk, especially when the others addressed us as “My King” or “My Queen.” Devin and the knights opened the door and caught everyone’s attention.

“We found the town’s ruler,” said in a hushed voice. “Marideth is his name, but he prefers the title of…” cleared his throat before speaking in a low melodic tone. “Thy Noble Sir Marideth from the House of Singletary.” Devin snickered.

“He’s willing to speak with us later in the day.” continued. “We’ll have to wait for him to summon us, and even that is uncertain.”

“We should stay the night and continue on tomorrow at dawn,” said Devin. “I hope we’ll have better luck in . We haven’t been warmly welcomed here. I have a feeling that people of our stature are intimidating to this lone ruler.”

“I think you’re right,” I glanced at all the eyes investigating our quiet discussion. “If the ruler doesn’t send word by dusk, we’ll take our chances and see if he will at least hear us.”

We strolled through town investigating the shops along the streets. There was much trading and clever thieves roamed the area. After George almost lost his flute at the hands of a skillful thief, we kept closer to each other and were more cautious while exploring the town.

, and Theo escorted Riley and me to the ruler’s lavish manor soon after dusk. We waited a long time to speak with this man and my nerves were on edge. I never thought about what I would do or say when meeting another ruler, and it was up to me to communicate since Riley did not understand human ideas. Our first meeting could have been better.

After hours of waiting we were allowed to see Noble Sir Marideth, although his presence seemed less than noble. We entered an exquisite dining hall and the ruler walked around a long table before sitting on a throne in front of us. He must have just eaten since he was still picking his teeth.

“So you’re the King and Queen from that “Land” place.” He waved his hand nonchalantly while speaking. “What brings such folk to my humble town?”

“Sir, I am King Riley of The Land and we’re on a journey to ” The man tilted his head, examining Riley. I knew what he was going to say.

“Aren’t you rather young for a King?”

“I am Queen Crystal,” I decided to intervene. “And we are spreading word about a plague infecting the continent. We are hoping to forge an alliance with the rulers of Noore Continent to combat this plague before it reaches our cities.”

“A plague? I’ve heard nothing of it.” Marideth was truthful about his naivety of the matter.

“So far the plague has affected just the people outside of towns, mainly free-roamers. It’s deadly, but we’re hoping to find a cure.”

“Why bother?” He said. “Those damn roamers are always raiding my supplies. I hope this illness of yours kills them all. Don’t bother looking for a cure. Those people should hang for their thievery.”

I could not believe his lack of compassion. I should not have expected that all the rulers of Noore would share my view, so I decided to try one more approach before giving up.

“What about your people? What if this illness spreads and begins to kill them? Would you do anything to protect them?”

“Of course I would, but it is no threat to us. Besides, I can handle Marideth on my own. We need no alliance.”

I felt miserable. This had not gone well at all.

Sir Marideth stood and walked to the side of the table. He was tall with long, orange hair that lay upon his shoulders. I bowed to him and the rest of the men followed my motion. My party and I held high moral values, and even though this man did not seem worthy of our respect, we gave it to him.

“We thank you for your time Sir Marideth of . May you and your town be well.” When we turned to leave, he spoke.

“If you travel to South Groves my brother may be more interested. He is Marion, my twin, but don’t expect much.”

I thanked him and we left.

“I hope the rulers of this continent do not deliberate like that man!” blurted as we left the manor. I agreed because my job of uniting our rulers would never work if the other leaders of this world thought the same as Marideth.

We settled in for the night and Devin offered to have Sae’ka and himself stay with the others so that Riley and I could have some privacy. I thanked him for his gracious offer, yet I could not have six people cramped in a tiny room while Riley and I spent the night comfortably. It was cramped enough with four people to a room. Besides, I would not sleep well after our disappointing meeting with the first ruler we had encountered.

Early the next morning we had a large breakfast at the Inn, the only highlight on our trip to . It would take two days to reach . At least we knew the name of its ruler, Marion.

After a day and a half of travel, we reached the outskirts of . The south seemed a paradise compared with the gaunt north. We noticed that the small crossing between north and south was heavily guarded, and when we reached the first town, the landscape looked greener than that of Marideth’s realm. Groves were well tended, fields ripe with grain and corn stretched across the landscape. This place was a sharp contrast to North Groves and I hoped that our meeting with would be vastly more successful than with his twin brother.

We asked guards along the road if there was a town named “,” thinking that the ruler would follow the same pattern as his brother, naming the city after him. They had not heard of a town with that name. A guard told us a man named was the keeper of their land and that he could be found in a town called “.”

Unlike the citizens of , the people living south spoke to us when we passed through their villages. They were excited to see a King and Queen and gave us all the fruit we could carry. Once our party strode into the town of , there was no doubt that their keeper cared about his land. The area was more organized than the city of , and guards were spread out in vast numbers patrolling the streets. There were more merchants trading and plenty of inns to choose from. We found a place called “The Knighthood Inn.” The name seemed fitting, so we reserved four rooms. Riley’s grin widened as soon as he knew that we could share a night together, apart from the others.

“The ruler sent guards when he heard of our arrival. They’re waiting outside for us.” Devin informed everyone standing together, huddled in the Knighthood tavern. When we stepped outside, the guards asked us to follow them. At first the alliance feared something was wrong and that did not want us here, but I told them that I did not sense such orders from the men escorting us.

We walked through town and after passing a number of streets we were brought to a tall, black-iron gate. A delightful smell came from white blossoms that drooped from trees behind the gate and a guard opened the lock. He led us along a brick pathway. Hidden by the tall trees was an old, immaculate estate. It was well tended like the surrounding grounds.

Our escort led us through a series of great halls before asking us to wait in an elegant sitting room. Devin tapped my shoulder and pointed at three portraits hanging behind us. One portrait was of a young Sir Marideth, and the other must have been . In a family portrait, their mother had long red hair, and the twin boys resembled her. They were identical except Marideth’s hair was longer.

“Welcome to . I am Marion, the keeper of this land.” We turned and I thought I was looking at Marideth, but ’s outfit was not elaborate like his brother’s and he trimmed his orange hair shorter, neater.

“I am King Riley of The Land, and this is Queen Crystal.” bowed, and then scrutinized Riley’s appearance.

“Aren’t you rather young for a King?”

I glanced at Riley and we exchanged looks of astonishment. We could not believe that had said the same exact words as his brother. I hoped the rest of our conversation would not be the same.

“I’m sorry,” said. “Where are my manners? I hope your meeting with my brother didn’t leave a sour taste in your mouth. I believe you’d be more impressed with a sack of stones than with my twin brother. If there could be a ‘bad’ twin I believe it would be Marideth. Do you know how North Groves and came into being?”

“No.” Riley replied.

“‘The Groves’ were one town when my parents served as its guardians. Generations of our people worked hard for centuries on these lands. With time we began transporting our goods across the continent. My family had traced their lineage back to the earliest development of our town, so we became the keepers of The Groves. My brother was not happy being a keeper though. He wanted to be a ruler and control his own land and groves.

“Even when we were growing up he could not share. In our room he would place a line dividing his half of the room from mine. When our parents died The Groves were left to us and, as I predicted, my brother wanted to rule. He did not want to be a keeper, so he divided our land and took the North for himself. You probably noticed that the city he resides in is named after him. He is a disgrace. His streets are populated with thieves and there are too few guards to watch over shipments. I am truly sorry for my rambling, but I do get frustrated. Please forgive me.”

“I understand,” I said. “Our family influences our lives more than we know and they can be a great burden at times. Still, when you least expect it, they might surprise you.”

walked close to me and took my hand, then kissed it.

“Queen of The Land, I’ve heard you have some experience with such matters.” I nodded to him. “I have also heard other things about you though I must admit I never imagined you would be so lovely. I was told that you can heal and that you also read minds. You might be interested in what I’m thinking now.” He raised his brow, his gaze filled with sexual innuendo. I knew what he was thinking and it was lustful.

“You should be happy that I do not slap you right now, Sir Marion,” I said. He laughed loudly and asked for forgiveness again. Then he invited us to dine with him. I was glad that he included our entire party in the invitation.

On that evening our second meeting with a ruler went much better. did care about the plague, unlike his brother. He had also heard about the illness from the knight of , so he had predicted our arrival. had not told his twin because he considered it better that Marideth not take part in our alliance.

I informed that I would not discuss the nature of the plague until reaching but he was welcome to send someone with us on our travels to represent . We already had the support of Farmoore, so when he met Cal and Theo he decided to send one of his guards with us. We would meet his representative in the morning at the .

“I’m quite sorry for my brother.” repeated and insisted on paying for our lodging. His thoughts told me that he was ashamed of Marideth. tried hard to make up with manners and responsibility where his brother was lacking although the burden of his other half was great.

“Don’t trouble yourself, Marion,” I spoke softly, for I was the only one in the group who understood his pain. “We act nobly to the best of our ability. Anyone close to us must choose his or her own path. Don’t feel guilt for another since that is not your responsibility. It is your people who are your responsibility, and you have shown true admiration for their well being. Thank you for your kindness.”

kissed my hand once more and we were escorted back to the .

That night Riley and I shared some intimate time together and slept soundly. It was an evening we had eagerly awaited since leaving the castle. We did not care to think about our longer wait for privacy while traveling to Not only would our journey be long and grueling, but it would also be filled with dangers that were literally unseen. Luckily for our party my skill of foresight would help guide us.

Everyone looked great that morning at breakfast and it was as though a fresh, morning breeze had blown across our souls. Sleeping in a bed was much more comfortable than on the ground.

We had just started to eat when a man entered the inn. He looked like someone from a tall tale, a really tall tale. He stood almost eight feet high, and his form resembled a sculpture that had been chiseled out of solid rock.

The man who had fought Riley for the right to be King was minuscule compared to this incredible guard. He walked to our table carrying a huge ax.

“I am Gullane. My keeper has sent me to travel with you to ” Devin beamed at Gullane’s massive forearm. Wolfe’s sausage fell off his fork when he froze, his mouth open and eyes glaring. Cal and Theo glanced at each other, amazed by his girth, but it was Sae’ka who was most captivated by our new alliance member.

“Where’s our manners,” Devin broke the awkward silence and introduced everyone at the table. Gullane quietly nodded to each of us. I read from the knights that they were intrigued not only with Gullane’s enormous body, but with the fact that he was bald. His shiny head sat atop a neck thicker than a tree trunk.

“I will wait outside until you finish your meal. I’m ready to leave at any time.” Gullane left the inn. He was surprisingly charming despite his grand size and I sensed that he was loyal and trustworthy. had told us that he originally hailed from and would make an excellent guide for our alliance.

We packed and went out to the horses. Gullane’s horse was larger than any horse I had ever seen; it needed to be to carry a giant.

I read Riley’s thoughts as he helped me onto Sesha – he wanted to stay at the so we could have our privacy. We knew it would be quite some time before we could be alone again.

After we left town, we had two routes south that would take us to a long stretch of mountains called “Summons Pass.”

“The more direct route cuts through the south. Another meanders farther to the east.” Gullane informed us, his voice pleasantly deep. “The eastern route is more frequently traveled since tales of monsters and missing men are often told among the free-roamers who travel the southern route. The eastern path takes weeks of extra travel and will lead through difficult terrain along the mountain range.”

Most of the party wanted to take the southern route because they did not believe the rumors about monsters. Still, Gullane warned us of the truth in the tales passed between the nomads of the south.

“The eastern path will take us through woods,” Gullane continued. “Whereas the southern path passes through desert and will be very uncomfortable. I am in favor of the eastern route.”

“Me too!” George said. Wolfe nodded in agreement, both siding with Gullane.

, and Theo wanted to take the southern route. Riley, Sae’ka and I listened to the arguments until Devin asked Riley his decision. Since Riley was our guide and the King, Devin knew it would be up to him to make the final decision for the entire party.

Riley looked at me, uncertain what to do. “We will take the southern route,” he said. “I have traveled this land much and, as your guide, I can tell you that I have not seen such monsters. I do not believe they exist, but maybe with the help of Sae’ka’s hawk we will be better informed than other parties that have traveled the same path.” Then Riley asked me for my opinion.

“I had foreseen us taking the south crossing, even though there will be dangers.”

“Why didn’t you tell us to take the south path if you had already seen us do so?” asked Devin. I had learned from my aunt the complexities of foresight and explained.

“To foresee an event does not give me the right to follow it of my own accord. The moment has to evolve on its own. I’m merely an observer. My visions allow us to prepare for a future that will somehow fall into place.”

I did not know if Devin or the others really understood my reasoning, yet I knew that if I intervened, I would change what was meant to happen. After I became Queen, I understood why my aunt did not combat my father before her death. If she had done so, she might not have died and the future would have been very different. Like my great-grandfather Christopher Farmoore, my aunt believed that it was dangerous for a single person to change the future.

We rode south without trouble, and that night we sat around the fire to learn more about our new member. Gullane had markings on the side of his head, tattooed onto his skin. Wolfe asked what they meant. I noticed during our entire conversation that George stared at Sae’ka. At the same time, she was intrigued with Gullane. The tension of this situation would later be unavoidable.

Gullane told us that the markings were “imprints.” One tattoo was his name written in the language of his homeland. Under his name was the inscription of his birthplace: Les Aluis Gurgand de Palleo, commonly known as “Valley of the Giants.” The script was elegant.

“It’s tradition for every child to be imprinted. That way, if someone is lost or his body discovered, my people can trace his birth origin. The writing also helps families locate their children who had left on pilgrimages.”

“Pilgrimage?” asked. “What do you mean?”

“We leave our homes when our voices change, before we are strong, and the men of our land search for a territory that will help them grow. The larger and stronger men stay within the reach of our people, but smaller men must travel further in order to grow in strength. It is said that the farther a man travels, the greater he will be, so the smallest of men may travel to the far reaches of the world.”

“But why did you travel so far?” asked Wolfe. “Aren’t you stronger than the rest?”

“Perhaps stronger,” said Gullane. “However, I am one of the smallest men of our land. Compared with those of your Continent I appear grand, yet my home lies south on the Continent of Palleo, far across the , where I am but a small man.” Cal and Theo looked at each other. They could not imagine a man larger than Gullane.

“You traveled here from another continent?” asked Wolfe. Gullane nodded.

“Do you miss your home?” Sae’ka asked in a kind voice. Again, Gullane nodded. He did not like to talk, especially about himself. He revealed that he had battled against the West Bank armies when they invaded , and soon after he wandered north and began his service to . He said he was eager to travel back to the South and visit after so many years.

George left the group and sat on a nearby log to play his flute. We were used to him playing, but this time the tune was sad. It seemed his mood affected the melodies he chose and we could tell that he was troubled.

The next three days of travel passed without event. On the fourth day, we entered a rocky, desert wasteland that stretched for miles. I recognized the area even though I had never traveled it. My dreams had showed me this place and the troubles that would test our skills. The heat became extreme during the day, and at times the sand reflected like water. The sunlight teased our eyes, so we relied on Skinny to watch our path. As soon as the sun fell behind the rocky horizon, a cool breeze blew from the northwest and the temperature dropped drastically.

Although the weather remained our greatest hindrance, we anticipated more obstacles along the desert trail.

The next morning Skinny flew above, circling our area. She told me that the trail ahead was clear. We packed and left before the sun extended its rays across the landscape, heating the air around us. By mid-morning we had our first encounter with at least one hundred free-roamers traveling north hurriedly. A scuffle developed briefly between us and the first of the free-roamers, but a man waved them on. The thoughts from this man revealed that the group was fleeing after raiding a shipment from the south and taking captives.

I told everyone in our group to let them pass. Their captives were slung like saddlebags over the horses, their legs and arms bound with rope. Some struggled and cried out. I thought about my grandmother, Rose, who had been captured by free-roamers and I wanted to help them. Even if we tried we could not overtake such a large pack of nomads. Besides, this was not a part of the foreseen future. Something else would happen that day and we would witness an event from my dreams. It was difficult to understand and could not be explained.

We rode further south. The heat was so intense that each of us took turns wetting our faces. We used shirts to cover our heads, hoping to provide shade in the smallest fashion, but we had no relief until the sun began its descent along a range of rugged, mountainous terrain.

We were nearing but it would take three more days to reach the high mountain range. The ground became rocky and the air cooled as we moved steadily higher. Soon we would be out of the desert and free from danger.

Wolfe rode up to Devin and spoke with him. Something troubled the sensitive young man. He could not describe the danger he sensed, in the same way I could not explain my vision. We stopped the party and waited for Skinny to circle the area. She returned and told me she saw a group of men traveling the southern route, just ahead of us. She also warned me that the free-roamers we passed earlier were hiding to the west.

Once I told everyone about the warning we decided to lead our horses up a rocky range to a ledge overlooking the path. Wolfe said that something else bothered him besides the roamers and travelers from the south. He said a strange, unrecognizable smell traveled the air.

From the ledge we could see many miles in every direction; however, the sunlight was fading rapidly and I knew we would not see much for long. Devin pointed out dust rising from the south and we watched the trail closely. We observed a troop of guards from South Port pass beneath and Sae’ka pointed to the west.

The free-roamers must have planned an attack the same way they ambushed us in the woods. We watched the event transpire directly below us. The free-roamers still had their captives with them.

At least fifty guards began chasing the free-roamers after the raid on the caravan. The free-roamers intended to kill the entire troop. That way no one could alert others about the raid. The roamers relied on the myths of the area to keep out other parties.

The guards were hit with arrows, but their armor protected them and the nomads fell to the ground when slashed by the guards’ swords.

“We must go down there and help them!” insisted. “The free-roamers still have the prisoners from the caravan. Maybe we can help the guards release them.” Theo was ready to help also.

“Don’t go!” shouted Wolfe. He was on edge, but it was because of what he sensed. I read Wolfe’s thoughts and realized the seriousness of the matter. Wolfe knew that something else waited on the path besides the men battling below.

Riley and I insisted that we all wait above. Cal, Theo, and Gullane felt like cowards watching the battle from our safe distance. I saw a captive break free during the commotion and someone chased in pursuit. They were headed up the range toward us, but I knew it would be a while before we were discovered.

“This is a dreadful sight,” Sae’ka said, shaking her head. We crouched and peered over the ledge while the battle raged below.

“Look, did you see that?” Wolfe pointed to the right of the battle. “It’s like the ground shifted. There! Look again. The rocks and dirt look like they’re moving closer to the men.”

“What is that?” asked George. We were at a loss to understand this new development that we scarcely saw in the fading light.

“It’s what I dreamed. I remember now.” I said while staring at the shifting scenery. “This is awful!”

What happened next few people of the continent had ever seen. After today, the rumors about monsters were never more thought of as myth. A massive, earth-colored, squat blob opened its mouth and the fighting men were scooped into its gelatinous, rose chasm. The creature gobbled up the living and the dead. From horses and prisoners to guards and roamers, the creature feasted until there was no trace of a living being. We could see its long tongue protrude, snatching numerous free-roamers running into the desert.

“What is that thing?” Wolfe asked in a panic, horrified that the creature would come after us next. Riley began to recall some of the creatures he had discovered long ago as a protector.

“Those of you who know my past will understand what I’m about to explain. Long ago, before any of your kind roamed the continent there were creatures that used their surroundings to help them trap their prey. They’re much smaller now and most live in the oceans. They move slowly and hide while unsuspecting animals go about their way. Then in an instant, they feast on the animals oblivious to their presence. I remember seeing such creatures, but we had considered them extinct. This one is like a toad, its color matches the ground and the bumps on its back resemble rocks. They are almost impossible to see until they strike, but they have a distinct odor. That’s what you smelled, Wolfe. I’m impressed. Your senses are keener than most animals.”

Everyone stared at Riley. Gullane was very confused by what Riley had said and how he spoke. I told Gullane that he would understand more once we reached

“The prisoner!” Devin stood quickly and looked to the side of the range. It was harder to see now, but surely both the prisoner and the person in pursuit had seen the quick death of the people below.

Riley told the men to find the survivors before darkness fell, and I asked Skinny to find them. I heard a few familiar clicks coming from Riley. His head darted around while he listened, developing a mental map of our surroundings.

“The monster from below has left. It’s nowhere close, so I believe we’ll be safe here for the night. We should leave early in the morning though. There could be more ancient reptiles similar to that one, but it’s likely they feed at dusk.”

An hour later I had gathered some wood even though it was hard to come by. I started a fire while Devin and the knights rode up to us with the two survivors.

The prisoner was a woman with dark skin, her long black hair swirled around her exotic face as she jerked her head and chattered frantically in a strange language. We watched her in silence. To us her words were gibberish.

Being pulled up the side of the range behind Gullane’s horse was the same free-roamer who had waved to his clan when they passed us earlier on the trail. He was their leader and now grieved the loss of his people.

It was quite a disturbance as the man wailed, expressing grief for his clan and the woman screamed at us in her tongue. We had to keep both of them tied and gagged until they settled down.

Gullane told us that he understood the woman’s language. He said that her name was Rhaida and she traveled here with her family from Palleo, the same continent as Gullane. Rhaida’s clothing was sparse, and I read Devin’s thoughts as he placed a blanket over her shoulders. He was interested in her. She looked quite different from the women of our kingdom.

I asked Gullane to speak with her. I read her thoughts and tried to see if they matched her words. If not the same, she would be lying to us about her situation. Gullane slowly removed the cloth gag. He told Rhaida in her language that she would not be harmed. She was silent for a moment, and then spoke rapidly. Gullane could not translate her words fast enough and I asked him to tell her “Slowly.”

Gullane repeated the word in her language several times before she finally took a breath and slowed her speech. He asked her a question and she replied idly, glancing nervously at us.

“She was traveling north with her family.” Gullane translated. “They were going to Guesaviles but were ambushed in the mountain pass.”

Rhaida asked Gullane a question and I read her thoughts. She wondered where her family had gone. She wanted us to find them. Apparently, Rhaida had not seen the creature while being pursued, so she was unaware that all the people involved in the battle below us had perished.

“Gullane,” I interrupted. “Ask her if all of her family had been taken by the nomads.”

He asked the question and the reply was “Yes.”

We looked at each other and our hearts filled with pity. She had traveled so far and had now lost everyone. Gullane had to tell her that her family was gone, all of them eaten by an ancient beast.

After our long silence she began speaking frantically again and Gullane tried to calm her. He spoke with her for a moment, trying carefully to explain the situation although it was clearly difficult for him. We knew when he related the story of her loss because she began screaming and weeping. The moment reminded me of the time when I forced myself to cast my brother’s paper into the fire in order to set his soul free. It was a terrible loss; he was the last of my family.

Devin was a gentleman and tried to comfort Rhaida, but his charm could not overcome her loss. We left both survivors alone to endure their grief.

A short time after talking with Rhaida, Riley and I walked up to the leader of the free-roamers. He would not speak to us on our first attempt, so we left him in silence and returned an hour later.

“We saw what happened to your people,” said Riley. “Even though we do not agree with your attack on the caravan, we are sorry for your loss. We would like to offer you a chance to represent the free-roamers of Noore Continent by traveling with our alliance. We cannot explain the details of our journey until you have made your decision.”

The wary man, with dark shoulder-length hair and rough features, glanced up at Riley and then spat at us. I did not care to waste time with this man, but Riley and I knew it would be wise to find someone who represented the nomadic people and allow him to join our quest.

Riley was losing patience. I squeezed his arm, gesturing him to relax, and I said that I would try.

“Speak or spit, it makes no difference to us, but you may want to reconsider your position. You can leave when you are free of the ropes that bind you, free to walk away – but for what purpose? Your people are gone and you would be alone.”

He glared at me and finally spoke.

“Why should I even bother to follow a girl and a boy?” He looked up and down at us with contempt. “You are weak and worthless.”

“You sound exactly like my father… just before I killed him,” I said. He was startled. “Your people followed my grandfather, Tegan Farmoore, over a century ago. They built a place for themselves, a home in which to live and grow in The Land.”

“You’re from The Land?” he asked, and Riley nodded. “I have heard of that place, but it means nothing to me.” The free-roamer paused a moment before continuing. “Why did you kill your own father, if I even believe you?”

I walked around him while he sat on the ground. His gaze had become one of curiosity rather than hate.

“My father tried to destroy the people of The Land and take control of the home that I love. He also tried to kill me when he learned I would be Queen, so I had to kill him before his need for destruction prevailed.”

“So you are the Queen of The Land?”

“Yes and the so-called ‘boy’ standing here is Riley, King of The Land.” I gestured to my husband while the man stared at us in disbelief.

“I have heard that you have magical powers. If you are the Queen, than prove it!”

“I will prove nothing to a thief and a kidnapper!” I yelled. “You are a disgrace to the people who fought hard to make my home a peaceful place for everyone to live. You should be lucky I do not leave you to rot in the desert. Fortunately for you we’re looking for someone to represent the nomadic peoples of Noore Continent. Though I fear that if all free-roamers are scum like you, your people will be completely destroyed by the plague.”

“What do you know of the plague?” he asked quickly.

“We know its cause and we are learning how to stop it, but we cannot speak about the matter. We’re traveling to to form an alliance, one that will inform every ruler of Noore Continent about the plague. I will free you, so leave if you wish. If you decide to help your people, then you may travel with us at daybreak. It’s your choice.”

I concentrated and his ropes turned to ashes. The action surprised him and he backed away while rubbing his wrists. When Riley followed me to the others, our free-roamer stood up and disappeared into the darkness. We sat by the fire to talk but soon fell asleep while the knights of Farmoore kept first watch.

The next morning a desert fowl cried, its sound echoed across the canyon. I woke to find half the party already packed and waiting for Riley and me. They were respectful of us, although I wished they had woken us earlier. We could have at least gained ground along before the scorching sun lifted above the horizon.

While we were eating our porridge sprinkled with dried fruits and nuts, Gullane told us that the leader of the free-roamers was nowhere to be found. We assumed he hiked many miles during the night to escape our party.

What a shame. He could have been important on our journey and might still be. It was difficult to know if this man, whose name I did not know, would take part in our journey south.

When we finished packing, melancholy loomed over the entire party. We were in shock from the horrible events the day before, as well as saddened for Rhaida who had lost her entire family.

Devin looked after her. They rode together during our trip to , a place she had recently left. We were uncertain what she would do once she arrived at the port, but I saw her in our future.

We walked our horses down the rocky mountain slope to the same road where so many had died by the ancient monster. The entire party remained silent while passing through. I counted the footprints pressing into the dirt in an attempt to block out the numerous thoughts of my party. It took almost an hour of travel to calm them. When we came to the first range of mountains a voice from above startled us.

“So what will your party offer me if I follow you?” The words echoed strangely, bouncing off the nearby cliffs. The reverberating sound made it difficult to determine the location of our stranger.

Cal and Theo drew their swords, and Skinny left Sae’ka’s shoulder to look for any sign of trouble. Half of us dismounted and looked above, turning in circles while hoping to find the person responsible for the question. Before anyone could figure out who he was, I responded to the leader of the free-roamers. I knew exactly where he was.

“We offer you no riches, just knowledge and protection during our journey.” The others looked at me, wondering how I knew who was speaking to us. I went to the front of our group while Devin followed close behind.

“Where is he?”

“He’s in front of us, to our left, and hiding behind a rock. Our free-roamer is still alone. I can see him in my mind.” It was odd for me to visualize something happening at the present moment, rather than seeing a future event.

“Give me a sword, Devin, one that we can spare for now.” Devin found a short sword packed with his belongings and placed it in my hand while we waited patiently for a response.

“Those are meager offerings. How do I know you can even protect yourselves during this journey?”

“We don’t know how well we can protect ourselves, nor do we have all the answers. We can only hope that through diversity and cooperation we will gain strength and insight. We don’t need you, but the nomads of this land will need you to represent them. If you do this, it will be for those free-roamers who have not yet perished.” I read the free-roamer’s mind. He was considering the offer although he still did not trust us. He was a rigid man who harbored a history of distrust. I had just one idea, a plan that might sway him toward joining our alliance.

I concentrated and the sword in my hands lifted high above me. After a moment of being suspended in air, it dashed in a blur and headed straight for the man. The rest of the party gasped because they thought the sword would strike him down, but it traveled hilt first. In an instant the sword hung above the rock that the man had been crouching behind. Its handle hovered close to his head, ready to be grasped.

“We’ll protect you. Also, we will allow you to protect yourself if you do not trust us. This is a token of our trust; take the sword and you may join us.”

I looked at Riley and waited for the man’s response. Devin asked if what I had proposed was a sensible act. I replied that with this man we would be stronger.

The free-roamer slowly stood up from his position. My actions had bewildered him and he was fascinated with my magic. He wondered how powerful I truly was, and he stared at the sword floating in the air.

“Will you join us?” asked Riley. We waited while the man looked down at us from the ridge.

He slowly grasped the sword’s handle and lifted it, examining the weapon.

“I may follow your party for a limited journey south, that is until I tire of your company,” he said as he began walking down the slope. Riley motioned for us to move ahead, joining our reluctant new partner. Devin had to calm Rhaida because she did not like the idea of this man approaching us; little did she know we were asking him to join our party.

Once we were close enough to face the man, Riley spoke to him.

“What is your name, Sir?” Riley looked as though he could have been the man’s son, with twenty years difference between their ages, though most of us knew Riley’s secret. The man bowed to Riley and me, mocking our highness with his motion.

“I am Dawuz, Edwardo Dawuz the third, but you may call me ‘Sir Edward’, King Riley of The Land.”

I did not have to read Edward’s mind to figure out that he did not care for hierarchy. He was a true roamer, probably just like his father and grandfather, so he answered to no man.

Riley nodded and I stood behind him nodding also. No one in our party bothered to talk with our new member. Everyone shot him looks of suspicion and distrust then moved on, understandably unhappy with the situation at hand, especially Rhaida who had been Sir Edward’s captive. She leered at him with hateful eyes.

Gullane allowed Sir Edward to ride with him because his horse was the strongest. I was glad our South Grove representative offered to carry the free-roamer since Edward seemed most intimidated by Gullane. I figured the less comfortable our new partner, the better.

For two days we rode through the mountains. The terrain became tougher than traveling in the desert. Although the temperature dropped steadily as the elevation rose, we were still scorched by the relentless sunlight. We searched for shade at every resting point, and I wondered if the passage east could have been as bad as we thought. Our current route was grueling.

One late afternoon we stopped early and rested by a tarn nestled between a deep green mountain range. The air was brisk and cool, but the sun burned hot on our backs. Bubbles flowed up from various areas in the lake, and steam vented in spots. Patches of cold water flowed between the warm.

I had seen this strange glade in my dreams. We watched Wolfe and George take the first plunge into the blue-green waters. Riley and I waited for everyone else to wash first.

Daylight faded behind the imposing mountains. Riley and I took off most of our clothes and ran into the water. The water was refreshing and something everyone had dreamt about while traveling the hot, barren wastelands. We were far from the group but stayed close to each other just as Devin had advised.

Finally we had a chance to kiss and briefly share some affection. Riley’s physical urges were stronger than ever, and staying with the group was difficult for both of us.

We found an area where the water was extremely hot, so we decided to get out of the lake. I splashed the water with my feet while leaving the lake, and an image flashed before my eyes – an animal’s head and a thin tongue. On the riverbank I quickly turned to Riley behind me and yelled for him to watch out. I was not sure what I had envisioned, but something was stalking either me or Riley.

I saw the high grass move by Riley on the edge of the lake and when I pointed he noticed it also. I could tell by its slithering movement that the creature was a snake. It emerged from the brush, large and black, at least eight feet long. Riley backed away from the snake, but it moved quickly toward me.

I used my powers and a branch stretched down from the tree I stood under. Its green tips wrapped around the snake and snatched it up from the bank. It hung a few feet from the ground, trapped helplessly. Riley and I slowly walked to the snake while its body curled around the flexible twigs.

Riley fearlessly grabbed the snake behind its head and pulled its body straight so he could examine it.

“Interesting,”

“What?” I asked. I could not sense Riley’s thoughts because I was shocked by everything that had happened in a matter of seconds.

“This snake would not attack us. It’s normally timid unless provoked.”

“Is it poisonous?”

Riley nodded his head before speaking. “Yes, but this species will hide from larger animals. It hunts small rodents and frogs.”

I tried to speak with the snake.

“It won’t speak with me,” I told Riley. As he held the snake it disappeared, evaporating in his grip and a green mist lifted rapidly above the trees.

Riley was stunned to discover that he had held in his hands one of his own, a protector that had been following us. I told him that I briefly sensed the protector’s intentions before it vanished. It had been targeting Riley.

“Look,” I grabbed Riley while he glanced around the landscape. “Down here!”

I crouched down and noticed a glob of something. I would not have felt it if part of the substance had not splashed onto my toes.

“Here, I felt this when it vanished. Do you think it’s the potion? Could it be?”

Riley touched the liquid and then told me to go wash my feet quickly. He did the same with his hand. He was sure that the potion had been stored in the snake’s venom sacks.

“I’m not sure how they did this,” said Riley. “But I think they’ve found a creative method for injecting travelers with the potion. Let’s go warn Devin and the others about our discovery.”

We ran back to the group and warned everyone to stay close for the evening. We hoped that was not far, and I was extremely worried about Riley. The protector now knew that he survived the injection that had made him mortal, so it would not be long before all the protectors knew he still lived among humans.

The next day we crossed the mountains before nightfall and stayed close together although it was hard to keep our newest member, Sir Edward, under our supervision. He had clearly never taken orders from anyone except himself and viewed Riley and me as children. He demanded several times our knowledge of the plague or said he would leave the party, but we insisted that our information would be given in the safe confines of I sensed that he was not looking forward to visiting the city that he stole from so willfully. He worried that he might be taken prisoner if his true past with the free-roamers was discovered.

Everyone else in our party hoped for time to rest, and we looked forward to a longer visit than our previous stops. We also needed to decide what to do about the protectors. It was up to Riley and me to convince the leader of about our knowledge of the plague.

Before reaching the city, visions of our sojourn troubled me. They showed hard times: arguing among men, darkness, sitting in a small cold space with whistles blaring around me. Again, I could not decipher these vague images and hoped that our visit would not be a disaster.

A day and a half later we entered the main city of South Port, and my heart leapt with anticipation and awe. The city was enormous. Maps in my library had shown the layout of , the oldest city on the continent, and books had told of its battles with neighboring West Bank Commons. However, nothing could take the place of actually being in the city and seeing it in person.

I read that seafaring men had traveled from distant continents and settled here thousands of years before The Land ever came into being. My party watched the streets busy with citizens while our horses strolled along boarded walkways. There were hundreds of visitors, people like Gullane and Rhaida who were now our newest alliance members.

I could not imagine a scene so unlike my home. Even the smell was foreign. The sounds and smells of the ocean and fish markets filled my senses while images of massive ships traveling in and out of port caught my attention numerous times. Being so stimulated by my surroundings I almost did not see the buildings lining the port. We were headed directly into the heart of the city.

Gullane led the way. He was the only member of the alliance that had traveled this far south. As he led us toward our destination, we marveled at intricately carved marble fountains. We passed by gigantic stone columns leading to the inner city and bronze sculptures of South Port’s founders lined the road, tinted with streaks of teal. Closer to the entrance more fountains depicted sea mammals and people in conflict with mighty waters, while others showed humans harmonious with the billowing ocean.

The buildings were made of thick stone brought here by ship from other continents, and their surfaces sparkled in the yellow afternoon light. The salt air must have worn the city because it looked dirty; streaks of darkness ran down the rock and marble.

We followed the knights like small children filled with wonder, and no one spoke a word, not even Sir Edward. We found a place to leave our horses while Gullane, the knights, and Devin left to set up our first meeting with the leader of

“Have you ever been here before?” I asked Riley. He thought a moment before responding.

“Yes, but not when it was occupied by humankind. This place looks very strange now. I can hardly believe this city has withstood the waters. They are unkind to foreign things.” I looked at Riley with curiosity. I sensed that he thought of the ocean as a being. He noticed my gaze and asked me what I was looking at.

“Nothing,” I smiled at him. “I’m just delighted to have you with me.”

I noticed that Sir Edward sat nervously on a bale of hay. After over hearing our conversation he was cautiously interested.

Wolfe sat across from us on a log outside the barn. His head hung low, his face covered by his hands. He was clearly troubled, so I walked up to him and asked what was wrong.

“My Queen, I’m sorry. I will stand.” He started to stand and I told him to stay seated.

“No, Wolfe,” I said as I sat next to him. “I respect your senses. Please, tell me what’s troubling you.”

“My head, it’s hurting. I don’t understand what this means. My head never hurts like this. I wonder if it’s the smell of the ocean.” He rubbed his forehead, and I could sense his confusion with this unfamiliar pain.

“Give me your hand,” I said and offered him my hand. He looked at me, bewildered.

Wolfe gradually lowered his hand and I took it gently in mine. He stared at me then noticed the warmth of our palms and watched my hand glow slightly. It was not hard to heal his pain. When Wolfe looked into my eyes he must have seen them glow. He did not know what to say and his thoughts were occupied with fascination. I let go of his hand and stood.

“Is that better?” He thought about his mother taking care of him when he had become ill from my father’s curse, but then he tried to hide his thoughts. His attempt at concealing his affection for me was futile. Finally, he nodded to let me know the pain had subsided. When I turned around he grabbed my hand.

“Thank you,” he said, and I told him that he was much easier to heal than most. Wolfe shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant. Thank you for choosing me to join you, Devin, and the King.”

“Devin mainly composed the party. He makes excellent choices.”

“Did you read my mind just now when you healed me?” he said. He was embarrassed.

“Yes, and I’m very flattered, Wolfe.”

A bit of panic shone in his eyes, now that he knew that he could not hide his thoughts from me. He was about to apologize, but I spoke before he could utter a word.

“Don’t worry, I won’t tell the King your thoughts. Remember, we’re only human, so don’t worry what crosses your mind. It will be our secret.” I smiled then walked toward Riley who was speaking with Sae’ka.

As soon as I left Wolfe our party returned escorted by three men. One was the knight, Sir Gabrial, who had visited The Land with news of the plague. Our introductions were brief and we were told that the governor and his council awaited our presence.

I would soon discover that centuries-old politics would play a greater role during our stay at than the threat of the protectors. My naïve ideas would be further challenged while I struggled to forge an alliance as the Bringer of Balance.

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