The hearth crackled and purred in the cold night. The room was dark, lit only by twinkling light coming from the Yule Moon and the glow from the dying fire that had entertained the family in their Yuletide celebrations. Now though, it was late and everyone had retired for the night to better await the morning’s festivities.
And yet, a pair of large dark eyes peered at the fire from the door. The eyes scanned the room next and found it to be empty as expected. Jubilantly, the owner of the large orbs tiptoed into the room and ran to the hearth where the Shrine had been erected with utmost care and love earlier that day. Sacrifices and sculptures to honour Yule, Goddess of the Moon had been laid out carefully to celebrate the longest night of the year and there pride of place above the mantelpiece stood the Moon, intricately decorated with crystals and precious jewels. This family heirloom had been used to celebrate the passing of Yuletide for hundreds of years in the House of Apollo. The hollow silver sphere held the Candle, which burned for three days unceasingly and twinkled in sharp crisp rays through the gaps in the Moon.
Thais loved to watch the flicker of the candle; she loved the prickly holly branches adorning the hearth and the beautiful festive statues of the Goddess and her star-like cherubs. This was the girl’s favourite religious festival and every year the girl dressed in a white robe, wore a wreath made of holly and danced through the streets with other young girls in the annual parade. It was a time of year the people of Titua forgot about their troubles and awoke to the merriment of fine feasts and wines, to the joy of presents given and received and to the strong pull of family and friends.
Thais dropped down at the hearth and smiled broadly at the mountain of finely dressed presents laid down there only a few hours earlier by her family and their friends. She herself had contributed to the pile with scruffily wrapped gifts in poorly cut lengths of cloth she had insisted on choosing. That is why her present to nana darling was wrapped in a scrap of leather and Uncle Eunus’ in the remains of a floral tablecloth. The youngster had been adamant not to let anyone help in her present choosing and wrapping. They would all suffer the consequences in the morning.
Thais reached out to feel the presents. It was not her own dreadfully wrapped gifts she had come to inspect. No, she had come to inspect those that had been left for her, as doubtlessly tens of thousands of other children were doing at this very moment across the Agea.
“Yes,” the little girl whispered in the gloom when she felt the telltale form of a new toy sword hidden beneath a fine gold threaded fabric. “Thank you Nana.”
The girl’s joy did not last however, when she picked up a heavy object wrapped in spartan brown cloth. She could feel what it was instantly and grimaced at the thought. “Another book? No thank you mister Selmain,” the girl grumbled, dropping the offending item heavily back into the pile.
Lilting laughter carried across the room on a draught let in by the open door. Thais spun around guiltily to find a pair of fond grey eyes watching her from the doorway. The young girl had been caught.
“I thought you seemed to fall asleep all to readily when your papa read you the Yuletide tale,” the woman at the door spoke affectionately, before she stepped forward into the room. Her face was more beautiful than the painting she stood beside; the painting that had been commissioned a few years ago at the wedding of the king and his elven bride, a painting of the queen. “Now I see you were plotting to escape all along.”
“Mama,” Thais called out embarrassedly. “I didn’t pretend! I fell asleep, really I did.”
“Don’t you worry little one,” Mai Avani uttered gently, while she crossed the room silently to sit upon the floor beside her young daughter. “I was not about to run to his side and tell him of your scheming.”
Thais grinned cheekily and crawled across the gap to find her mother’s lap. The beautiful elven woman wrapped two willowy arms about her little daughter and pulled her close to her chest.
“Are you feeling better mama?” the little girl asked vulnerably, turning for a moment to catch her mother’s eye. Mai smiled and nodded briefly.
“Much better.” Her eyes were lying. Thais knew. “So then, what are you doing at the shrine?”
“Well I wanted to check I’d wrapped my presents carefully.”
“Oh I see,” the gentle mother replied adoringly, smoothing Thais’ wild curls with her cheek. “Do you know little one, when I was your age I used to do the exact same thing. I would wake in the night and come through to feel through the wrappings to see what gifts lay waiting for me. Though we did not celebrate Yuletide of course.”
“You didn’t? But then how did you get any presents?” Thais asked aghast, while she spun round to show how sorry she felt for her mother with a dramatic pout. Mai laughed warmly and leaned forward to rest her forehead against Thais’ nose.
“You silly thing,” she laughed. “We celebrated other things. You know that Aius and his Gods forsook my kind long ago. Well, we celebrated our own customs. So instead of Yuletide we celebrated the Minea, our winter festival to mark the passing of the longest night.”
“And did you get presents mama?”
“Yes,” Mai replied with a broad smile. “More presents than you can imagine. My mother adored spoiling my brothers and sisters and I. One year I believe we all received a hundred gifts brought to us from the elves from every corner of the Agea…”
“But mama, the elves only live in the mountains,” Thais countered with a frown. Mai’s smile faltered and she paused for a second. Thais’ own face crumpled and she leaned forward wrapping her chubby arms around her mother’s shoulders. She knew that look on Mai’s face. She had been seeing it all too often as of late. The beautiful queen would falter and need to go for a lie down while her racing heart and tight chest eased.
“Mama?” Thais whimpered softly bringing Mai back from the deafening rush of her blood coursing through her body at speed. The age-old elf shook her head briskly and rubbed her little daughter’s back.
“Do not worry Thais’nin,” the mother soothed. “It was just a headache.”
“I don’t believe you,” the little girl whispered into the folds of Mai Avani’s nightdress, quietly enough for her mother not to hear.
“Now then, you know my darling that the elves lived in every corner of the world before the Kudai came. It was only after when the men built their cities and drew up their borders that my people retreated to the Hal’Es’Ein Mountains,” Mai explained, wishing to distract young Thais from her health.
“Why didn’t they stay and live with the men?” Thais asked, finally pulling back to meet her mother’s large kind eyes.
“You know why little one.”
Thais sighed and shrugged her small shoulders. The night was growing late and soon Yule would be retreating to make way for her brother Huan to bring meagre warmth to the winter-ridden nations of the northern continent. Mai sensed her little daughter’s tiredness and stood to her feet, lifting young Thais to her hip as she went.
“Now then, ‘tis long past your bedtime little one.”
“Mama, tell me more about the Hal'Es'Ein Mountains. Tell me more about your city,” Thais asked tiredly. Mai chuckled gently and nodded.
“I have told you this story more than I have told you any other. Why do you obsess so about Khaled-Dîn?”
“Because mama, one day I want to go there,” the little girl replied while her mother carried her through the dark corridors towards her bedroom door that lay ajar. At the door Mai paused and dropped Thais to her feet so that she could run across to her grand bed and snuggle down under the covers.
There was a deeply thoughtful look on the wise elf’s face.
“Khaled-Dîn is a magical place,” the woman finally spoke, while she sat down at Thais’ side and swung her legs up onto the bed beside her daughter. “It was built at the beginning of time by skilled elven master craftsmen, hewed from the silver mountain into tier upon tier of wondrously decadent buildings. Rivers and streams trickle down through the gardens and everywhere you look there are rose bushes. White roses, red roses, purple roses, the city is full of colour. In the spring the blossoms turn the silver streets white and pink and in the autumn the mountain becomes awash with yellows and reds and every colour in between.”
“Tell me about the Silver Halls!”
“Ah,” Mai laughed gently. “The Silver Halls. You could travel from the very tip of Inmuin down to the foot of Karthor and you would never find a building so beautiful as the Silver Halls. It was built as the meeting place for the tribal elders. Every room opens to the sky; every wall and ceiling is intricately carved from silver to show the history and the heritage of my people. There are a thousand columns holding up a hundred different roofs. There are chambers so secret and so hidden in the winding corridors that we suspect only the builders’ eyes have seen them. It is a maze of beauty.”
“Can you take me there mama? Please?” Thais begged happily through a wide yawn. Mai paused and seemed to sober for a moment before she shook her head.
“No my darling,” she replied darkly. “No I cannot.”
“Why not?” Mai caught her mortal daughter’s eye.
“The path to Khaled-Dîn is one no mortal shall ever take. It is too dangerous, too treacherous…”
“But why?” Thais whined tiredly. “I bet I could do it!”
“Thais my darling, listen carefully please. Though actual danger is never far behind on the journey northwards, ‘tis the damage to your soul I am most concerned about.”
“But papa went to Khaled-Dîn,” Thais complained weakly. Mai nodded, closing her eyes to remember when her beloved had come for her in the silver city. She remembered that day all too well. It was an awful day.
“Hush now little one,” Mai spoke shakily, leaning down to kiss her daughter’s warm forehead. “Sleep awaits you.”
Thais yawned once more and nodded, pulling the blankets up to her chin. Mai Avani brushed the little girl’s wild curls from her face and stood up with a foreboding expression. She thanked the darkness for concealing it.
“I will go to Khaled-Dîn one day mama,” the little girl murmured through her drowsiness. “I will…”
Mai Avani pulled back, her hand clutching her tight chest. Her ears filled with the rushing of her beating heart. Unsteadily she fell against the wall by the door and grasped for the doorframe for support.
“I know,” she whispered. A tear rolled down her cheek. “I know you will. It will be the beginning of the end.”
Thais opened her eyes and stared at the hearth crackling and purring in the gloomy room. Fragments of her dream drifted before her eyes. Her mother’s smile, the smell of the Yule Candle, the heaviness of that ghastly book Selmain had got her about historical Denarien customs, all had seemed so clear the moment she awoke, but now Thais was finding it difficult to remember the sound of her dear mother’s voice.
“Mama,” she called out.
“She’s awake! Mama, she’s awake!” a girl’s voice cried out and moments later a friendly pale fair face appeared in Thais’ vision. All that was left of the dream disappeared like a puff of smoke. “How are you? Does your arm hurt? We thought you’d die! You were so ill when papa found you. Can you speak? What’s your name? Have you been here before? Do you want me to be your guide? I can show you around…”
“Guide,” Thais croaked. “Be my guide?”
“Erith! Erith don’t you go bothering that child you hear?” Moments after the call a portly woman armed with a baby on her hip and a mixing bowl in the other stepped into the room. Her face was arranged into concern. Within moments the bowl was deposited beside the fire and the baby rested gently in an armchair before the woman dropped down at her daughter’s side. Without so much as a warning she reached out to feel Thais’ forehead, pulled her eyelids apart to study Thais’ right eye and poked her sharply in the ribs with the wooden spoon she had been mixing with.
“Hey!” Thais complained weakly and tried to push the spoon away before it came back for a second approach. The portly woman inhaled through her front teeth and then smiled broadly.
“I daresay you’ll live,” she spoke kindly, reaching out to ruffle Thais’ matted curls. “What you were doing traipsing through the White Sea alone I’d like to know. Do your parents know where you are?”
The young girl Thais had first encountered jumped up and skipped around her mother through the small and cosy sitting room. Thais lifted her head painfully to see she was in a small cottage of sorts. There were children and toys everywhere and along one wall was an impressive array of weapons.
“Hunters,” Thais uttered through a swollen dry throat.
“That’s right,” the woman replied. “My husband’s out at the moment. He’s the one that found you. Saved you from a wild boar he did.”
“I thank him,” Thais quickly cut in and she tried to sit up, though her head spun with the effort of it. “I got lost. It’s been so long. I’ve been so lost.”
“The White Sea is not a playground young lady,” the formidable hunter’s wife instructed firmly, coming back to sit at Thais’ side with a glass full of thick cordial in it.
“I didn’t think it was,” the girl replied respectfully, eyeing the cordial with a sense of trepidation. She had correctly assumed that she was about to become the unwilling recipient of this foul smelling gunk. Without giving fair warning Thais found her head craned back and the bitter liquid forced into her mouth. The girl known as Erith cringed.
“I hate that stuff,” she announced. “Mama always feeds it to us when we have Akana Fever.”
“Akana fever is the very least of this one’s troubles,” the woman warned her daughter. “A few hours longer and you’d be dead and gone. Now then…” The woman pulled the glass away from Thais’ lips. “What’s your name dearie?”
“Named after the princess were you?” the hunter’s wife asked approvingly. For a moment Thais’ eyes went wide. She hadn’t even thought to give a pretend name, though it would seem this much wasn’t necessary.
“Yes, I think so.”
“You must have loyal proud parents to bear such a name. Our oldest, we named him after the king,” the firm woman stated proudly. Thais fought a smile.
“He’s called Gallus?”
“The very same.” Behind her mother Thais could see Erith begin to roll her eyes as though she knew what was coming next. “What a wonderful son he is. He’s the most kingly of all my children and I’m sure it’s the name that did it. He works alongside his father, always helping round the house, what a wonder he is to me! Here, have some more of this, your fever’s already going down.”
Thais winced and managed to prepare herself this time before the liquid was poured down her throat once more. She found if she shut her eyes tightly she could almost imagine it was horseradish sauce accompanying a fine roast meal after Temple.
“There now, we’ll see how that does you. Later on we’ll try and get some stew down you. Now then, your parents, where are they and why did they let a little thing like you traipse through the mist on your own?”
“My mother is dead and my father is on his way to the Silver Mountain. He has business with the Elf Lord,” Thais replied truthfully. Lying had done her very little good this far; why not try telling the truth? “I have been travelling to meet him.”
The hunter’s wife sat back for a moment and frowned.
“I know the way to the Khaled Pass!” Erith piped up and she jumped down beside Thais once more. “Mama when Thais is well can I take her?”
“We’ll see what your father says,” the portly woman barked, before she climbed to her feet and picked up her discarded baby once more. “I believe you young Thais, but I’m not sure if we can help you. We don’t hold them elves in high regard and I don’t know if my husband will be inclined to see you on your way if you’re headed north.”
Thais nodded and watched while the woman returned to her kitchen leaving the indomitably giddy Erith behind to drop down in the chair her mother had just vacated.
“Are you really on your way to see the city of the elves?” the curious girl asked. Thais smiled and nodded.
“Have you ever seen it?” Erith giggled and shook her head.
“No! I’ve never been allowed. I know someone who made it to the gates once. She tried to get in, but they wouldn’t let her. They don’t like us mortals. Say, how old are you?”
Thais blinked at the abrupt change in conversation.
“I’m twelve,” she finally responded.
“Oh I always get such bad luck! I’m always the youngest. I’m ten next summer. You look much younger you know.”
Thais grinned painfully and nodded.
“Yes I do know, I’ve always been quite short. Nobody really knows why, my father is enormous and my mother was once very tall.”
“Is she really dead then?” Erith next asked, her impish face arranged in inquisitiveness. Thais’ smile fell before she nodded.
“When I was five.”
“But you called out to her when you woke up,” Erith countered with a frown.
“I was dreaming about the last time I saw her.”
For a moment Erith nodded slowly before she jumped to her feet and careened across the room to where a bundle lay covered in Thais’ cloak. With difficulty she brought them to Thais’ side and pulled the cloak away. Thais’ forehead creased in surprise at what lay beneath.
“Are these yours? My papa found them near the slope where he found you.” Thais’ eyes roved over her curved blades and her snapped bow. Her weapons, the ones she had lost in a battle that nearly killed her.
“Yes,” she whispered, as she reached out to run her fingers over the ivory handles of her curved blades. “Yes they’re mine.”
“Looks like you were in a pretty bad fight. Can you tell me about it? Do you get into fights all the time? It must be so exciting!”
Thais leaned back in the comfortable pillows on the settee she had become festooned in before she nodded.
“Let me tell you the story of my journey north from the city. It’s a tale full of battles and heroism.”
“It sounds exciting!” Erith gushed jubilantly. Thais laughed quietly and nodded.
“It certainly has been. After everything that has passed I can’t deny that. Well, it started many many days ago. I have quite lost track of time, but let’s say it’s nearly four weeks ago. My friends and I went to see a madwoman known as Alucia Dal Am. She’s a seer and foretold an epic journey I would take…”