“What have you learnt?”
Thais stared up from the ground, her body twisted between the king’s feet and grip, disabled, weak, helpless. One small mistake and it had cost her the match. One small mistake that Gallus had seen to exploit the moment his keen eyes noticed it.
“What have you learnt child?”
The tall man tightened his grip causing a sliver of pain to course through Thais’ shoulders.
“Not to advance too quickly,” the girl responded in a strangled cry. Instantly Gallus let his daughter go, who squirmed across the sand and pushed her head to the side to ease the pain from her neck.
“Never let your impatience get the better of you daughter,” the tall warrior instructed the girl, turning his broad back on his student to take a drink from a flask of water dropped carelessly in his shirt and boots. Thais dropped to a crouch and watched her father, the strength in his body was immeasurable compared to the strength in her own. Though he taught her daily in the arts of combat, how could she ever best him? She would never have the strength of a man; were his lessons futile?
Her mind must have been laid bare and at this moment the king turned and stared his young daughter in the eye curiously.
“You see little point in my teachings,” he pondered aloud, his jaw cocked slightly to the side in thought. Thais shook her head.
“You’re teaching me to defend myself papa, that’s important isn’t it?”
“No Thais, don’t you see?” Invigorated Gallus threw his flask to the floor and reached out a hand to his blades, strewn carelessly at the side of the training ground. As though the ether had been brought into existence only to serve Gallus the blades flew to his hands. Thais’ shoulders drooped once more. Not only would she never have her father’s strength, she would also never harness his control over the ether. She was going to be a poor substitute for the warrior king.
“Stop it,” the tall man uttered quietly, his gaze cold. “Stop such thoughts daughter. Remove them from your thinking. We are each in command of our own fates. You will never be me, just as I was never destined to be my father. We make our own path. Get your blades.”
It was an order, one Thais obeyed immediately. With blades in hand a calm washed over her. Hand to hand combat against a foe immeasurably more equipped left the child feeling weak and useless, but with her weapons of choice clasped in hand Thais felt ready to do battle against the most powerful of enemies. For it did not matter that she was a mere child, small and weak. Only her prowess with her weapons mattered and after being raised to do battle Thais was more able than most with her twin swords or her long bow.
“I do not teach you to defend yourself girl,” Gallus stated firmly, coming forward in a double edged attack. Thais easily defended herself and lunged forward forcing her father into retreat. “I teach you to fight. To fight and to win. So fight!”
Thais felt invigorated by her own skill and the feelings of self-pity, which so rarely found a place in her proud mind, were gone.
“She looks familiar.”
Thais suddenly stopped and stared at her father, who seemed for a moment to smile and nod. The girl frowned.
The training ground was fading, leaving way for blackness behind closed eyes. It was but a dream of a memory made long ago. Feeling suddenly desperate not to lose this well of safety Thais ran forward, reaching out to her father, but he was retreating with equal speed.
“She’s Median, they all look alike. See her fair hair and bronzed skin? They all look as though they have spent too many hours under a warm sun.”
The voice cut through the memory, scattering the tendrils of dream into the blackness of consciousness. Only a glimmer of Gallus’ face remained before even he was gone. Thais was awake, her eyes still closed, her ears listening to the two young men that had dragged her from her happy memory.
“I’m sure it’s more than just her Median ancestry Phable, look at her ears. They’re elven aren’t they?”
A bemused grunt came from the one known as Phable.
“Elven? You’re having a laugh aren’t you? Elven! As though the elves would let one of theirs have a half-born runt with one of us. Nah, she’s Median through and through. Probably from the city.”
“She carries their blades brother, look.”
“Gray listen to me, the elves haven’t had anything to do with us mortal folk in over eight-hundred years. This one, she’s a spoilt Median city girl out on her adventures about the woodlands, nothing more.”
“I am not spoilt.” Thais opened her eyes to meet the embarrassed eyes of the elder of the two brothers, late in his teens and in the throws of trying to grow a spindly beard; this one was Phable. “And I’m not having any adventures. I didn’t mean to get waylaid saving one of yours.”
Glancing about Thais realised she was in a tree house dwelling, laid upon a comfortable bed with a bandage around her left wrist and a splint snaking up her right leg. The skin beneath the bandage felt taut and uncomfortable, suggesting a cretinous beast had managed to bestow a nasty injury to her prior to finding its end on the hilt of Thais’ blade and when the girl tried to bend her leg she found she could not do so without wincing in pain. She would not be able to walk with such an injury.
“Ignore my brother friend, he speaks before he thinks,” the younger, Gray, assured Thais, his bright blue eyes demanding trust from all who looked upon them. “I’m Gray and this is Phable and we’re both indebted to you for saving our sister Raven and her children.”
“You aren’t indebted to me,” Thais countered stiffly. “I was doing my duty as a citizen of Denari.”
“You sell yourself short friend,” Gray insisted, his kind eyes easing the mistrust from Thais’ sore mind. “Pray, what is your name?”
Thais’ red eyes slid from the welcoming face of the younger brother to his older sibling and she felt the ease dissipate into a thousand splinters of worry. Phable was not a trustworthy man, Thais had never been so sure of anything in her life.
“Helen,” the princess lied. “Helen Shortwood.”
“You’re from the city aren’t you?” Phable finally spoke, his voice surly with the annoyance at being made to feel embarrassed by this privileged child. Thais regarded the young man uneasily before she nodded.
“Yes, my father is a merchant in the district of Acrabar in Titua.”
“Truly?” Gray cut in, his voice alight with interest. “I have always wanted to visit Acrabar. Is it true there are streets in the market that are lined with gold and rubies?”
Despite her current unpredictable situation Thais giggled and nodded.
“Aye. More impressive perhaps are the stalls in Coscona market that are full of penguins from the north, that is a sight more valuable than the glittering gold stalls.”
“Don’t get your hopes up little brother.” Both Gray and Thais turned disappointed eyes at the aggressive expression in Phable’s face. “You nor I will ever set foot in her city. They’d lock us up after one look at us, mark my words.”
“’Tis not my city, so don’t point your accusing eyes at me friend,” Thais growled at the angry man, refusing to shy away in the face of his temper.
“Oh no?” Phable goaded cruelly. “I thought all Tituans thought of the capital as their own. Like to keep it their own too I hear.”
“Well then you’ve heard wrong. Titua is the city of all peoples. Denariens are not the only ones who call it their own you know.”
“Truly?” Phable sneered. “If it is a city for all people then I can only assume that the bombings in the Farojian quarter last year were what, an accident?”
Thais shut her eyes and felt her heart racing in anger. How dare this fool wade straight into the complex layered politics of her city and start making accusations. The inhabitants of Titua welcomed everyone with equal vigour. Yet shamefully there were those who did not agree with this free-minded policy and sought to rid the capital of its multi-cultural heritage. The bombings Phable had foolishly referred to had been on of the capital’s most dark and shameful events since the founding of the city. Scores of innocent people from all over the Agea had been maimed and killed. It had nearly broke Thais’ heart.
“You know nothing of those dark days,” she growled powerfully, her brown eyes ablaze with passion.
Thais looked up in surprise at the compassionate expression on Gray’s face and she felt her anger waning. He was a truly caring soul and wore his empathy in his expression for all to see.
“My brother didn’t mean to offend you. We hear many stories of the city, many lies as well. I’m sure you can appreciate that we have a very different view of Titua to your own.”
Phable let out a low growl and rolled his eyes, but allowed his younger brother to fashion a peace of sorts between the hot-headed combatants.
“Well I’ve heard many things of the Woodland gangs as well you know,” Thais finally spoke, her tone guarded. She didn’t trust these people. “I can only hope that they have been lies also.”
Gray’s large eyes widened for a moment, but then creased while a big smile grew on his young face. He looked to his brother, before getting to his feet and collecting a tray from a low table near what Thais could only presume was a door, though it was unlike any door she had ever come across, for it was made entirely out of a tapestry, depicting a vicious battle between what looked like greymen and heroic warriors of the trees.
“We brought you something to eat. It looks like you haven’t had a good meal in ages,” Gray explained as he brought over a platter of delicious meats and breads.
“Oh I always look like this,” the girl countered cheerfully indicating her rake like form. It was common knowledge in the city that Thais of Apollo was a scrawny little thing, though thankfully most people tactfully never raised the issue with the princess who was quite defensive about her bony form. Without being offered Thais reached out for the tray, eager to fill the gaping void that had been protesting in her stomach since she set out from the palace.
“You must train every day,” Gray remarked amusedly, looking considerately away from the hungry girl as she devoured the generous helping of dinner. Thais paused for a moment and raised an eyebrow at the boy, wordlessly demanding an explanation for his remark. “Oh, I was not implying you look…I mean to say…”
“He means to say that he is impressed by the way you fought the greymen,” Phable cut in to save his brother the embarrassment that was clear on his face. Thais smirked and nodded.
“Well then yes, I do train every day,” she answered impishly.
“Why would a merchant’s daughter need to train for combat?” Inwardly Thais admonished herself while she met Phable’s sly eyes. That he suspected her was thinly veiled, but she was a fool for blundering straight into his trap. Gray didn’t come to her defence either, for it would seem that he was as curious as his brother, though arguably his motives were purer than Phable’s.
“I’ve been sneaking out of the city into the wilds since I could walk,” the girl finally spoke, opting for truth over more lies. “My father started worrying for me and enrolled me in the School of Archery and found a swordsman to tutor me.”
Gray whistled in admiration while Phable laughed cruelly.
“And what does your mother think of that? She can’t be too happy.” Thais’ gaze turned cold.
“My mother died when I was five.”
Gray turned accusing eyes on his brother and shook his head, daring him to push the matter with the heroic girl. Feeling alienated and bitter Phable climbed to his feet and stalked from the tree house through the tapestry door. Thais watched him leave, glimpsing torch light, but not much else in the gloom. Night had fallen since she had rescued the woman and children.
“You should finish your dinner before it gets cold,” Gray spoke while he too climbed to his feet. Thais looked to him quickly and felt suddenly afraid.
“Are you going too?” A small smile pulled onto Gray’s young face.
“I don’t have to if you don’t want me to.” Thais felt her cheeks burning and she looked down to the half-empty plate.
“I would appreciate the company,” she finally spoke softly, while she reached out to pick up a chicken leg. The young man chuckled and nodded. “If you wouldn’t mind.”
“I would gladly keep you company.”
Thais nodded feeling mortified at her own weakness and tried to avoid looking at the amused young man by finishing her dinner slowly and purposefully. Gray watched her with a smile for a little while, before he turned away and amused himself by investigating a tear in his britches. Finally Thais finished her food and pushed the tray from herself and as though he were her nurse maid Gray quickly stole the tray away and left it by the tapestry to be collected once more.
“So am I your prisoner?” Thais finally spoke eliciting a surprised glance from her companion.
“No,” he quickly replied. “Of course not. You can leave when you wish.” His eyes drifted to her incapacitated leg. “Whether you will be able to do so soon however, is another matter.”
Thais frowned and tried once more to bend her splinted leg. Even were it not bound so tightly, she still wouldn’t have been able to move it. Her knee was screaming in raw agony.
“What happened to it?” she asked wearily. Gray shrugged his shoulders and took the chair at Thais’ bedside.
“Not sure. It was really swollen apparently. Our healer thinks you dislocated it in the battle. He thinks you should be able to walk again within a week or so.”
Thais raised her eyebrows at the mention of the healer. Healers tended to be powerful sensitives and if he had dealt with Thais’ injuries he would have sensed her abilities. In a world where less than one percent of the population were ether sensitive and where even fewer had a significant enough power to actually use it, most people inundated sensitives with questions about the ether, or at least mentioned it. These brothers however, had not, suggesting they weren’t aware of Thais’ abilities.
She decided to let the matter rest. There were very few young sensitives her age in the city and it would make her story seem far less plausible should she be found out to be powerful.
“Have you lived here your whole life?” Thais asked Gray when the silence between them became awkward. The boy shrugged his shoulders.
“I think so. I don’t remember anywhere else.”
“You mean you’re not sure?” Thais persisted with a frown. “Isn’t that strange?”
“And you? You have always lived in Titua I suppose?” Gray did not seem offended by Thais’ incredulous expression.
“Yes,” the girl replied proudly. “My family have lived there for generations. I can’t imagine leaving it.”
“From what I’ve heard about it, I cannot blame you,” the boy sighed and there was a deep sadness to his voice that made Thais falter.
“You could leave this place you know,” she said softly, eliciting a frown from the young man. “If you wanted to of course.”
“I don’t think you understand Helen. People always know, where we’re from I mean. It’s as though we’ve been marked in some way that I cannot see. We aren’t welcome outside these woods.”
“People are afraid of you,” Thais explained quietly, speaking without thinking her words through. “Of the horrible things the Warlords have done to the villagers.”
Gray snapped his eyes up sharply and for a moment he seemed cold and angry. Thais swallowed hard, but met his gaze, wishing she had her elven blades to hand. The young warrior had felt they were not at her waist from the moment she had woken up and had spotted them soon afterwards on a low table by the wall out of her reach along with her bow and quiver.
All the amiability seemed to have leaked out of the young man sat at Thais’ side and inwardly she cursed herself. One of her greatest failings was her ease with strangers, this she knew. Her tongue loosened itself far too quickly and often she said things she ought not and would never have spoken were she to think her thoughts through. Labelling the woodland folk as barbarous to one of their own was not a wise move.
Without a word the young man climbed to his feet.
“I have business to attend to,” he said gruffly, before he stalked from the room in much the same manner his brother had done. Thais watched him leave before she sighed heavily and dropped her head back onto the soft pillows.
“Your tongue is quicker than your wits you fool,” she whispered bitterly. For hours the girl lay staring up at the workmanship of the wooden domed roof. She had never imagined the woodland peoples to have such skilled architects and engineers. Truly she had never really thought much of what their settlements might look like.
Over her short life Thais had visited all but a few of the Agea’s most dazzling cities and sights accompanying Gallus on his kingly duties, yet it was only beginning to dawn on the princess that there were hidden wonders in her world; wonders the guide books failed to mention, wonders kept hidden from almost everyone. There were many things she was yet to learn it would seem.
When Thais could punish herself no longer she climbed to her feet gingerly, feeling her body aching and complaining all over. Her arms, legs and neck were littered with tiny lacerations from her encounter in the river and her joints were screaming out in stiffness after the battle she had endured to save the young boy Kristoff. Gingerly the princess tested her injured leg to see if she could put any weight onto it, but soon pulled back with a wince when she discovered that she could not.
“Curse you Feia,” the girl grumbled, her malcontent aimed at her usual ally, the Goddess of Lies. With a wince she hobbled over to the tapestry door. “Barely three days north of the city and you strike me down! At this rate I’ll be thirty by the time I reach Khaled-Dîn.”
Finally Thais reached the tapestry, which she gingerly pulled back before glancing out onto a new world. The woodlanders had built themselves not a village, but a sprawling city high up in the canopy of the Kaba trees. These leviathans of the forest rose up from the ground like the legs of giants, straight and true, sprouting no branches until they reached their full height some two-hundred yards above the forest floor, where mighty arms branched outwards. The trees knitted together up in the heavens, forming a mighty carpet of wooden roadways and man-sized leaves. It was here the woodlanders had built their city.
Dwellings littered the gigantic branches, looking like mere dewdrops against the sheer size of the Kaba trees. They were shaped similarly too, with a relatively wide base and a tall pointed roof. No windows could be seen, but from behind fluttering tapestries thousands of candles blinked and twinkled. There were no streets; instead walkways, ramps and staircases had been carved from the majestic branches, snaking upwards, downwards and across the busy settlement. Thais lost sight of how far the city stretched in all directions except downwards, for she seemed to be in a dwelling near the lowest level of the settlement. Far in the distance the girl could see a vast dome that twinkled with a hundred lights. It was different in design to the houses and Thais could only assume that this was a building of extreme importance. She could see men with bows and cutlasses stood outside the entrances.
Never had the girl seen anything like this city. No wonder the woodland gangs were so feared; if they were capable of creating a city in the sky that defied the guard and managed to evade the king, then surely they were a people to be feared?
I’m not safe here, Thais thought darkly and for the umpteenth time she tested the strength in her leg. Was it her imagination or did the pain seem less sharp, less agonising than before? I must not languish. I must keep the weight on it!
Thais spotted a raised platform a hundred yards away. It seemed to be a meeting place of sorts, though it was quite deserted at this late hour. A long winding road hewed from a mammoth branch wound the way towards it and with her teeth grinding together in pain Thais set out. The walk was slow going and several times she had to stop and force away the tears threatening to spill down her cheeks. Yes the pain was horrendous, but it was the only way to keep going. It was the only way to reach her grandfather. It was the only way to end this.
Slowly, painstakingly, Thais walked until finally, perspiration wetting her brow, the girl reached the platform and dropped down onto a solid wooden bench, littered with carved graffiti. It was a small triumph, but an important one nonetheless and as Thais reached down to loosen the binding around her knee she realised with a smile that she could bend it far easier now.
Thais took a while to respond to the call, before the memory of her lie brought her back to her senses. Looking up the girl found the young man known as Gray sprinting towards her across the branches. The boy did not stop running until he had dropped down beside Thais, his eyes wide with worry.
“What’s the matter?” she asked amusedly earning herself a frown from her would-be-rescuer.
“I thought you had been taken!” the boy panted. “You should be careful Helen. This city may seem safe to you, but we live under the constant threat of attack from the greymen. They will be vying for your blood, mark my words.”
Thais sighed and nodded.
“I thought this place was too good to be true,” she remarked gently. “I have to say, I’m very impressed by your city. I never imagined how you might live, but now I’m here it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. Why do you want to leave?”
“Did I say I wanted to leave?” Gray challenged fiercely, though his eyes gave away his lie. Thais rolled her eyes and smiled.
“You didn’t need to.”
“Are all city girls as nosy as you are?”
“I can’t speak for every girl in Titua if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“What are you doing out here anyway? Does the hut not live up to your high standards?”
Thais thought of her decadent home at the Green Palace and smirked. ‘High standards’ did not even come close to describing what the royal girl was used to.
“Oh, I just felt like a walk,” she merely replied breezily, choosing not to mention her ardent desire to get well so she could leave this city built in the heavens. Gray sized the girl up for a moment before he nodded and eased his suspicious glare.
“Next time you really ought to let someone know.”