The hunter did not return for two days, by which time Thais’ fever had dropped and she was able to walk about the cottage with ease. The hunter’s wife, whose name turned out to be Branwen, had fed Thais till she was on the point of bursting in order to fatten her up and restock her greatly diminished energy supplies. When the princess had complained passionately that she could eat no more, Branwen had entirely ignored the youngster and continued to force feed her.
The hunter’s son Gallus preceded him, laden down with baskets full of vegetables and goods. Branwen, who had been loading the bread oven with a round loaf raced across the hovel to wrap her eldest child in her arms the moment she saw him.
“Gallus! You have returned!” she cried out in joy. The young man smiled abashedly and returned his mother’s embrace.
“Of course I’ve returned you daft old thing. Why wouldn’t I?”
Branwen pulled back and gave the boy a firm look.
“Every time you go off to Nesiath I fear you’ll meet a lovely young girl and want to stay there.” The young Gallus sniggered and shook his head.
“Of course I wouldn’t do that mama,” he countered smoothly. “I’d have to come back for my things first wouldn’t I?”
“Oh! Be away with you. Get in here and then go help your father. Erith, Mari, Penn! Come help your father unload the cart!” A tumble of children sped out the door leaving Thais to try and follow them.
“Oh no, not you young lady, sit down and mind you don’t get in the way. You’re not well enough to go lifting heavy loads just yet.”
“I am well enough to help mother Branwen,” Thais tried unsuccessfully and soon found herself pushed back down onto the settee that had rather become her home these past two days. On his way back through the hunter’s eldest son gave Thais a peculiar look, one of surprise and suspicion. Thais avoided his eyes and looked instead to the crackling fire turning blue with heat and passion. As she stared the embers lying in their fiery grave seemed to come alive. It had come as a great surprise to Thais that there were such creatures as salamanders living in the northlands. She had never come across the fabled creatures in her home city or further to the south.
On her first day at the cottage Thais had been staring as she was now into the roaring fire when suddenly it seemed to come to life; wriggling, churning, squirming in the fireplace. Thais had jumped so suddenly that her new companion Erith had laughed so hard she had been severely told off for waking the baby. Since that moment the princess had never tired of catching sight of the small glowing lizards, their dark blue skin becoming so hot in places that it seemed to glow akin to the embers in the fire bed.
Thais watched one now, crawling cautiously on top of a burning log to peer out into the fiery din. How passionate their souls must be, the girl though to herself, to live a life served in a blaze of fire. The girl had listened with fascination while Erith had told her that salamanders lived for a few weeks, their final moments a beautiful explosion of colour. This one on the log seemed near the end of its life, as its skin glowed more than its companions. Before too long it would burst into a cascade of sparkling glowing eggs that would in a few days start the cycle all over again.
“Would it be I could take one of you home,” Thais sighed while the hunter’s family traipsed through the house with the goods and supplies he had procured in Nesiath, the nearest market town. “People will never believe some of the things I have seen.”
Finally the steady stream of children ceased and in came the hunter himself. Thais had learned his name was Galen and from the enthusiastic adoring description of the man that Branwen had delivered the young girl could tell the married pair were very happy. Indeed, the pair had produced seven happy children. Their poverty and isolation within the White Sea seemed not to make a difference to their joy nor their generosity. Thais had been welcomed with open arms by them all.
Galen was a very tall man with broad strong shoulders and a very generous girth about his waist that held aloft his long flowing beard. His face was kind and from the moment Thais saw him she knew Branwen’s gushing complements about her husband had not been embellished.
For the briefest of moments Thais wanted to stay in this cottage with these people till the end of her days. Why did she need to see her grandfather? Why did it matter that he denied her existence?
“Galen!” Branwen called out passionately, before she crossed the room to throw her arms around her husband’s neck. Thais averted her eyes tactfully while the husband and wife greeted one another, before she heard Branwen answering to her husband as to how the half-dead little thing he had saved from the forest was fairing. The girl looked up cautiously to find the young Gallus walking quickly to his father’s side to utter something quietly in his ear. The expression the pair of men exchanged caused Thais to look away with a frown; they knew her true identity.
After rubbing his muddy hands awkwardly on his shirt Galen stepped forward, his son and wife peering concernedly in his wake. Thais started chewing on the insides of her cheeks until the hunter stepped into her vision and crouched down to meet her eye. Thais stared into his kind eyes with a heartbreaking expression. Few could both wear their heart upon their sleeve while other times hide their true emotions entirely as well as Thais could.
The hunter cleared his throat and quickly removed his cap. His eyes were darting between Thais’ face and her ears, the most obvious indicator of the girl’s true identity. Seeing the small pointed ears Galen swallowed loudly and then turned his eyes back to Thais’ to find the girl watching him in return.
“We’ve just come from town,” the man spoke in a hoarse tone. Quickly he indicated his son. “My boy and I. There’s word spreading about the princess of the Green Throne wandering about through the White Sea. Everyone’s out trying to find you.”
“There’s a heavy reward,” the young Gallus informed his mother; though not quietly enough for Thais’ keen hearing to catch. The girl cast the young man a sidelong glare before looking back to his father. “Seems she’s on a mission northwards to the elven city.”
On the other side of the room young Erith stepped into Thais’ eye line, her face tumultuous and expectant. She had come to adore Thais as her new favoured playmate.
“When I found you, I thought it was odd, a youngster like you lost and battered in the middle of the Sea. We don’t often come across young travellers. In town I thought of you; nearly went to the patrols to tell them I picked up a young girl in the sea the other day.”
Thais’ large eyes seemed suddenly hopeful. The hunter noticed.
“I didn’t,” he assured her. “It all seemed too farfetched. Me, find a royal princess wandering in the sea? I still can’t quite get my head round it, but you are her aren’t you? You’re Thais of Apollo.”
For a moment Thais hung her head and stared at the thread in her britches that had been determinedly unravelling to leave a thin tear across the knee for a few weeks now. So this was it. She had come so close.
“Yes,” the girl finally responded quietly. “Yes I am Thais of Apollo, heiress to the Green Throne, keeper of the Denarien star of the Eden Alliance, Lady of the Ghoboran Islands, princess of this nation and all of that other official nonsense that no one really cares about. Yes I am she. You’ve found me out.”
Thais dropped her head and her shoulders trembled. While the hunter and his family watched on in surprise the girl started to cry; quietly at first and then in loud choking wails. Galen looked to Branwen with a clumsy expression while his wife rolled her eyes fondly and stepped forward to sit behind the sobbing princess.
“There, there,” the woman soothed and she rubbed Thais’ shoulders in a motherly way. Thais dropped against her and continued to cry. “It’s alright dearie, it’s not the end of the world.”
“But it is!” Thais managed through her sobs. “I’ve come so far! I’m nearly there and now it’s all lost. This is the only chance I’ll ever have. My father will make sure I never come back to this place.”
Branwen looked worriedly to her husband and shook her head as if to say she knew not what to do for the first time in a very long time. Galen shrugged his shoulders; he too was at a loss.
“But it’s not so bad,” the woman tried. “There’s not much to see up in these parts anyway. You wouldn’t want to visit those elves anyway, they’re a cold cruel people.”
Thais pulled away and tried to express how passionately she disagreed with this statement.
“They’re my mother’s people!” the girl cried out. “She’s dead, but she was cast away by them before I was born. She was cast away by her own father! I have to find him. I have to find out why. I have to ask him what my mother did to deserve his forsaking her. She always seemed so sad, like a part of her was already dead. She died knowing everyone she loved before my papa had turned her away. She died outcast and alone. He did that to her, Sil’Vein.”
Thais paused and panted wildly while everyone stared at her, their expressions frozen and surprised. The princess looked from one to the next, glaring them down, before she settled on Galen.
“I have to find him. He doesn’t even acknowledge I exist you know? He won’t admit that my mother had a child. Well I’ll make him acknowledge me! I’ll make him admit that I exist and when he does I’ll tell him what I think of his people. These mighty elves! They hide in their mountains and no once challenges them. Well I intend to. I’ve come so far. I’ve lost my closest friends. This is my only chance to do right by my mother and if you stand in my way, as much as I respect and adore you, I will fight you. I will hate myself forever, but I can’t let this opportunity go without fighting for it till the end.”
Thais panted and stared with round wide eyes at the hunter’s wife, who seemed for a moment to tremble herself. She had never seen such passion or anger in a child so young. Unable to respond Branwen turned to her husband, whose face mirrored her tumultuous feelings.
“Papa.” It was Erith who spoke, coming forward to sit at Thais’ side. The small fair girl wrapped her hand through the princess’ in comfort. “You’re not really going to give Thais up to the patrols are you?”
Galen looked to his daughter with a deep-set frown. How to explain to one so young and so spirited as Erith that laws were not easily cast aside. The heart could not always be put in charge when a decision the brain ought to take was at hand.
“I don’t know little one,” the father finally responded. At the door young Gallus let out an exasperated sigh and stormed towards a small rickety door that led to the bedrooms up in the loft. Thais watched him go with narrowed eyes, before turning her attention back to Galen.
“I would be breaking the law by aiding you,” the hunter spoke heavily. Thais nodded.
“Yes, you would.”
“But I am not a man to stand in the way of such passion.”
Thais’ shoulders fell and tears trickled from her eyes once more.
“You mean to say you’ll let me leave?”
“Oh papa!” Erith exclaimed and she lunged forward to throw her arms around her father’s neck. Galen smiled to his wife, who was nodding, tears sparkling in her own eyes.
“I think nothing of those lofty elves,” the man explained with a grim expression. “They’re cowards. Hiding themselves away while the rest of us suffer at the consequences of a harsh world. I think someone should set them straight. And by the sounds of it, that’s exactly what you’re going to do. I just hope they listen.”
The following morning Thais and Erith were dressed for a journey out into the mist. Thais had been given a new pair of britches and a fresh shirt by Branwen, courtesy of Erith’s older brother Penn and felt better than she had in weeks. As they sat at the table in the corner of the cottage eating a hearty bowl of porridge Erith gabbled on about the journey towards the Khaled Pass. She was trying to make it sound incredibly dangerous and exciting, but Branwen kept butting in to inform Thais it was a very safe path and Erith took the route every spring to collect strawberries at the base of the pass. Thais giggled though and let her new friend show off as best she could.
Galen seemed subdued and Thais knew why. In the night she had heard the blazing row between young Gallus and his father. It would seem the eldest son did not believe in his father’s compassionate view on the world. Listening to the muffled shouting from the young man Thais thought him to be a bully. Over breakfast now he was glaring very forcefully at the royal girl, brooding over his hurt pride and passionate anger. As the time of the girls’ departure was growing nearer, it would seem he could sit in silence no longer.
“You’re making us lose out on a fortune. Do you know that?” the boy growled when one of Erith’s stories came to a close. Everyone turned to stare at the young man in surprise.
“Don’t Gallus, now is not the time,” Galen warned.
“Yes father, now is the only time! She needs to know.” Galen rolled his eyes and sighed heavily, but Gallus was continuing, “We’re poor Thais. You will never know what that’s like and this is a chance for us to make a lot of money. My father is a fool for turning this chance down, but I am no fool.”
“You’re acting like one,” Erith complained childishly.
“Oh what do you know Erith? You’re a little girl! You don’t know how much we struggle, how much father and I have to give up on our trips to town…”
“Gallus,” Branwen suddenly spoke up firmly. “Your father has told you to stop.”
“But mama! We’re so close to losing…”
Galen rose to his feet towering enormously high above the large family. Young Gallus gulped and dropped his gaze slightly from his father’s enormously powerful expression.
“There are more important things in life than money my boy,” the hunter spoke in a deep dark tone. “Your mother and I never chose money over passion. Money can’t make a heart burn with joy or weep in agony. On your deathbed, you cannot look back over a life and be thankful for all the pennies you have saved up at the expense of a life well lived. How empty your life will seem if every time the choice between money and doing the right thing cropped up you chose the wealthy option. This child is fighting for something more important than money. She’s fighting for what’s right.”
Gallus’ face contorted into something cruel, something ugly.
“We don’t all have to pay for your mistakes father. You chose not to have money, but the rest of us don’t have to. What sort of a life is this? We’re all lost in the mist, driven mad by each other and always wanting more! Wanting food, wanting clothes, wanting a bed that we don’t have to share with four others…”
“I don’t want anything more,” the young boy known as Penn suddenly interrupted. The boy Gallus laughed cruelly.
“You’re a liar Penn. You all are if you think that by helping this girl we’re doing the right thing. We’re doing the stupid thing and I won’t stand by it.”
With this the boy stormed from the cottage leaving everyone staring after him in shock. Thais hung her head and closed her eyes to avoid looking at the pained family. Erith saw.
“Don’t Thais,” the girl insisted. “Gallus throws a tantrum every week about something or other.”
“Aye,” one of the other girls, Mari, agreed. “He storms out after every Saturday roast.”
“See! Even on the Day of Auis Gallus throws a wobbler!” Erith added bringing a chuckle from her parents. Galen sighed heavily and sat down at the head of the table once more.
“The girls don’t lie,” the hunter said softly. “My son is of that age where he is rebelling against everything we have provided for him. It’s in some children’s nature to disagree with everything their fathers do.”
Thais smiled at the secret message behind the hunter’s words. Yes, she was such a child. She had been flatly disobeying her father since the day he started attempting to lay down sanctions on her behaviour. Was she all that different to this young Gallus?
With a small clearing of her throat Thais reached around her neck to the back of her shirt and fumbled with something for a little while. Eventually what she had been battling with came free and the girl lifted from her shirt a silver chain with a beautiful pendant attached. Diamonds and deep green emeralds clustered the pendant leaving space for little else, save an inscription in the old language. It was an heirloom Thais had been bestowed by her great grandmother.
Nana Darling would approve, Thais assured herself before she looked up and reached out to hand the pendant to the hunter.
“Take it,” the girl urged. “It’s the least I can do to thank you for helping me.” Galen stared at the pendant quietly for a while.
“Did you not listen to what I told my son?”
Thais smiled and nodded.
“Of course I did, but I also listened to him,” the girl replied. “This is for him and for your other children. You were right in everything you said, but Gallus was right as well you know. He and these others, well maybe they want something else and, well, this is a chance for them to have it.”
“Oh Thais,” Branwen exclaimed and she clutched her hands to her chest in admiration. The princess promptly ignored the outburst and continued to focus on Galen.
“Look, this won’t buy him a palace in Titua, but I’m sure it’s worth more than any reward could have been,” Thais explained. “I’m not giving this to you. Think of it as a gift to him, and to Erith and Mari and Penn and the others. Please, take it. Don’t make me sob again!”
Galen smiled broadly at last and reached out to take the beautiful pendant.
“It’s more than he deserves,” he said quietly. Thais nodded slowly. Within her a great realisation was dawning. The powerful thought was of such a humble nature the girl did not know what to do with it at first, but after struggling initially, she allowed it to sink in. Thais of Apollo, Thais Mai Avani, the wild daughter of the Gallus the Great took her first step towards her father’s throne.
She smiled while she spoke, “And I also. The only different between he and I is that he was born into a cottage in the White Sea and I the Throne of Denari.”
In the presence of her guide Thais left the cottage far behind and headed out on the last stretch towards her destination. The route was easy going and well marked out by red pieces of cloth tied to the trees. The inhabitants of the White Sea had easily overcome their blindness with practical ways to keep track of things. The girl explained that in the autumn when the air was heavy with moisture it became so thick you could not see your hand in front of your eyes. Thais wondered why anyone chose to live in such a place, to which Erith responded,
“Well someone has to live here.”
There was little logic to the statement, but Thais liked it and she vowed to always remember the simple words and the mentality that caused them. Erith and her parents were a curious type of person, a type of person Thais admired more than any others she had met. They embodied the spirit of Denari better than those in the great cities of the south. How wrong they all were in their lofty buildings and their fineries.
It was a day-long walk to the pass and around noon Erith grew tired and insisted they stop for a rest and a drink of water. Thais was reluctant to stop now she was so close, but Erith was too important to alienate and so she gave in.
While they ate Thais regaled Erith with stories all about Titua. The younger girl drank in the adventurous tales about location she had only ever heard described by the inhabitants of the White Sea, who knew nothing about the big city compared with Thais. The girls were enthralled by one another and didn’t notice quiet footsteps padding across the moss towards them.
By the time he was upon them it was too late.
“Stand up slowly and put your weapons down.”
Thais and Erith exchanged wide-eyed stares before they slowly turned around to face the young man that had crept up on them. Thais’ heart fell when she saw him. She had come so close.
“Princess Thais,” the soldier spoke nervously. He was very young for a member of the guard the girl thought. “Put your weapons down and come with me. Please.”
Erith edged closer to her friend, who had started trembling slightly.
“No,” the elven girl finally spoke firmly. The soldier licked his lips anxiously and took a step forward, his short sword raised ever so slightly at the member of the royal family. Surely this is treason? the young man thought frantically. He had not been trained for this. Was he allowed to point a sword at the heiress of the Green Throne?
Thais saw the young soldier’s mental anguish and slowly climbed to her feet, her fingers only inches from the twin blades hanging from her belt. The young soldier’s eyes followed her hands and he gulped. Everyone in the guard had heard about Princess Thais. She had been trained personally by every noteworthy warrior in the lands and though the soldier knew she was but a young girl and he a fully-grown man, he did not want to hurt the girl before she realised this.
Thais started inching forward while the soldier stepped back. They started circling one another, their eyes locked in a furious battle.
“You’ll have to fight me,” Thais finally told the young man, who winced visibly at the thought of doing so. “But you won’t will you? So you should let us pass and you can pretend this never happened.”
“I cannot do that Your Highness,” the soldier countered quietly. His hand started moving very slowly to the cow-horn bugle slung across his shoulder. Thais edged closer in response.
“Please don’t do that,” the girl urged. “I’ll have to stop you. I don’t want to hurt you any more than you want to hurt me. It wouldn’t look good for either of us.”
The soldier paused and he dropped his gaze to the princess’ feet, watching as they circled him. What could he do?
Thais saw the young man floundering and she edged forward slightly once more. She felt a great deal of pity for him. Her seemed young enough to be a recent graduate from the Camp and as he was posted so far north Thais could guess that he hadn’t been particularly successful in the mountains of the guard. He probably joined the army because someone had told him it would be a steady job with a decent wage. He probably hadn’t imagined that one day he would find himself in this perilous situation.
“What’s your name?” Thais asked edging closer and closer to the young man. He looked back up to the girl’s eyes and frowned slightly.
“Private Tristen Pax Your Highness,” the soldier replied. His fingers had closed around the bugle now and he was slowly lifting it towards his mouth.
“Pax, you’re making a mistake,” Thais warned softly, but it would seem the young man had made up his mind and with fumbling fingers he lifted his bugle to his mouth and blew firmly. A squeaky sound fizzled out of it as a silver blade flashed past the young man’s face, nearly grazing the skin on his knuckles as it flew by. The top of the bugle fell to the ground with a thud as Thais stepped back, one of her blades pointing unwaveringly at the young man’s chest. Behind her she heard Erith gasp.
“Please,” Thais begged, feeling ashamed that her new friend was witnessing this. “Turn around. Go back the way you came.”
Private Tristen Pax lifted his sword up to meet the girl’s. The tips of their blades met while Thais grimaced in annoyance. This should not happen. She was not supposed to go around the countryside fighting members of the Green Army. This soldier served her country. This soldier would one day serve her and now here she stood about to fight him.
“You are giving me no choice Pax,” the girl warned and she nudged the young soldier’s blade away with her own. He brought it straight back with more strength this time.
“I am doing my duty Your Highness,” the soldier replied, his voice firm and his resolve strengthened. Yes, his duty. He had found strength in that. Thais sighed heavily and nodded.
“And I am doing mine.”
The blades clashed against one another again, with more fervour this time. Thais pulled away and lifted her second sword from the sheath hanging from her belt. She felt defenceless in her loose shirt and cloak, whereas opposite her the young soldier wore a vest of chain mail and a breastplate. Pax lunged forward, making Thais jump sideways, but it had been a feint and the soldier crept back once more. This time Thais thrust with her right blade. Pax lifted his sword to meet her, but had not expected the girl to pivot on her right foot and bring her left hand blade down on his side before skirting backwards once more. It had only been a gentle knock. Thais was making a point.
The pair started circling one another again, each one taking it in turn to feint into the space between them before withdrawing once more. From the sidelines Erith watched with bitter disappointment. She had waited her whole life to see a sword fight and this one was less exciting than a trip to the market.
The clash of the swords meeting time and time again rang out through the mist. Thais was very aware of this and was starting to get worried. How long could this go on for before more soldiers came to find out what had happened to their new recruit? She was also aware that Pax knew this and was happily biding his time in this perilous dance.
The girl let out a frustrated groan before she thrust forward harder and quicker than before, forcing Pax to parry out of her path. She was prepared for this and followed him with her other blade, landing a strike just above the greave on his left leg. Pax cried out in surprise, a thin trickle of blood pouring down his armour. Thais forced forward once more, her left blade coming up to meet the soldier’s defensive strike while she lifted her right blade to his throat.
Pax stood motionless while Thais slammed the hilt of her left blade down on his sword hand causing him to drop his weapon while she pushed harder still with her right. The skin around the sharp blade started to bleed slightly. The girl was panting, her eyes narrowed in anger while she stared furiously into the soldier’s frightened face.
“I warned you,” she growled. “I told you to go back! And now we’ve come to this. I didn’t want to hurt you!”
Pax opened his mouth to speak, before all of a sudden a loud thud reverberated in Thais’ ears and the young soldier fell to the ground at her feet, a fresh dent in his helmet. The princess stared open-mouthed at the man before she looked up to see Erith standing on a fallen tree trunk with a large rock held aloft in her hands. The young girl was wide-eyed and panting also.
Down on the ground Pax was groaning through his stupor while in the distance the girls could hear more voices approaching.
“Come on!” Thais cried out and she grabbed the heavy rock from Erith’s arms and lobbed it into the mist. The two girls sprinted through the trees, stumbling over roots and rocks. Erith led the way through the blinding whiteness of the Sea. They had strayed from the path too far for Thais to remember the way back, but that did not concern her. Her only worry was putting as much distance as she could between them and the soldiers.
Finally, when both girls felt their throats burning for something to drink the pair came to a stop. Erith bent over double, struggling to fill her lungs with air while Thais moved away from her, her keen ears listening for signs that they had been followed. They had been lucky this time; all the girl heard was the muffled silence of the White Sea.
“Thais! Our packs, we left them by the soldier!” Erith suddenly cried out. The princess nodded. Yes, she had realised this as well. “We can’t go on without supplies. It’s another eight hours walk to the pass and it’s already gone noon.”
“We can’t go back Erith,” the royal girl replied gently.
“Well we can’t go on without any water either. I’m so thirsty.”
Thais sighed heavily and leaned back against a thin spindly silver tree trunk. Her heart was still thundering in her chest. What now? Alucia Dal Am had not warned her about this. Her guide was supposed to lead the way. She was supposed to find her way to the city, not throw herself deeper into trouble.
“We should go home and get some more supplies and then try again tomorrow,” Erith told the princess firmly. Thais shook her head.
“We can’t do that, they have our packs. They will find your cottage and wait for us there. We have to keep moving.”
“Not without water we can’t.”
“Well what can we do then Erith? We cannot go back because they’ll be waiting for us and we cannot go forward because we need supplies. So what can we do?” Thais demanded, her tone slightly cruel. Erith furrowed her brow deeply and looked away.
A sorrowful silence overcame the pair.
“I know,” the smaller girl piped up suddenly and her mischievous face seemed restored. “I know of a place, it’s not far from here. It’s a boarding house; my mother’s friend runs it. Everyone who’s travelling up to the Khaled Pass passes through there on the way.”
“Well then it will be crawling with soldiers,” Thais complained. Erith grinned and shook her head.
“No, not this place! I can guarantee it.”
“Lady Esmeralda’s guest house isn’t exactly on the path to the pass you see. It’s well hidden and she absolutely hates soldiers. Can’t stand them!”
“Convenient,” Thais mused dryly. “She might not want them near the place, but that doesn’t mean they will listen.”
“Look, let’s go. When we come near I’ll go ahead. If the coast is clear I’ll come back for you,” Erith argued sensibly. Thais narrowed her eyes, before finally she nodded. She needed to keep Erith happy if she was going to lead her to the pass.
“We’ve strayed quite a distance from the path. Can you find your way from here?” the princess asked. The shorter girl grinned happily and reached behind Thais to place her hand upon the silver bark the royal girl had been leaning against.
“Here, feel this,” Erith instructed and she guided Thais’ hand towards several notches in the wood. “This means we are five hundred yards from the path. I know exactly which path it is because of this marking here…” Thais’ fingers were guided towards another symbol in the wood. “You get used to being blind in the mist. We’ve come up with all sorts of ways of getting by.”
For a moment the princess stared at the mist dwelling girl before she smiled broadly and clapped her arm around Erith’s shoulders.
“One day I want you to tell me all about this White Sea of yours.”
“No,” Erith complained. “The White Sea is so boring. Tell me more about the street fights in Varanasi!”
Thais laughed heartily and followed her companion through the mists, regaling the smaller girl with the most blood-curdling stories she could remember. Every now and then Erith would stop to feel a tall spindly tree and would point them in a slightly different direction. They were too far from any paths for Thais to worry about soldiers and for now she was happy to amble through the mists telling her tall tales.
Three hours after setting off Thais fell silent as a large building rose out of the mist. She looked to Erith, who nodded happily and ran forward at a sprint to the wide sweeping porch. Thais ran after her.
“Here we are,” the hunter’s daughter announced before she ran up to the door and knocked. Thais’ eyes went wide and she darted down under the porch before Erith even had a chance to turn around, which she did, moments later.
“Where are you?” she called out.
“Shhh!” Thais complained hoarsely from beneath the wood decking. “You need to check first remember?”
Erith rolled her eyes and nodded, turning around just in time to have the door wrenched open by a heavily built woman.
“Erith!” the woman exclaimed. “Get in here quick.”
The small girl on the porch found herself pulled unceremoniously inside and the door tightly closed behind her. The boarding house never changed, the youngster mused, while she took in the warm fireplace surrounded by an assortment of peculiar travellers, each wrapped up in their own conversations, nursing a cup of Lady Esmeralda’s mysterious healing tea in their hands. Many of these were hikers heading to or from the Hal’Es’Ein Mountains, but occasionally a foolish glory hunter sought to infiltrate the elven city. They all found their way back to this place disappointed and embarrassed before too long.
Nobody batted an eyelid at the appearance of the hunter’s daughter, leaving Erith to follow Esmeralda into the small kitchen off to the side and privately out of the way.
“What are you worried about Aunty Essie?” the youngster asked curiously and she strained her eyes to follow Esmeralda’s gaze outwards into the mist.
“Oh it’s them soldiers,” the large woman grumbled. “Ever since news of that dratted princess hit they’ve been crawling all over the place. I can’t abide them! Hateful men!”
“So there are none here are there?” Erith asked hopefully earning herself the full attention of the haughty woman at her side.
“Erith Goswain! To hear such words come freely from your mouth. Has your mother told you nought about me? Of course there aren’t any here! Why would there be?”
Erith smiled guiltily and she glanced out the window that enjoyed a clear view of the porch outside.
“Auntie Essie there’s someone I’d like you to meet.”
Lady Esmeralda, as she was known throughout the White Sea, was a large and formidable looking woman. She dressed in the most vibrant hues of red and pink Thais had ever seen and stormed about the boarding house as though it were her private castle. She might have been beautiful once a long time ago when her face had not been so full nor so wrinkled. Her glorious auburn hair was going slightly grey, but still seemed full of life, needing to be tamed into a rather elaborate hairstyle atop the woman’s head. When Thais had come before the large woman she had stared into eyes she had seen before. They were the palest blue Thais had ever seen and behind them lay wisdom and memories that the young mortal girl couldn’t quite comprehend.
Thais sat on the divan now in Lady Esmeralda’s private chamber and felt thoroughly ashamed in the glare of those peculiar eyes. She had just received a rather haughty telling off for running away and finding herself in the White Sea, causing all manner of inconvenience for the very private inhabitants who cared very little for the disturbances she had created. The princess had been patient, realising that if she wanted to get away in tact she would need to be gracious; which was something Thais found incredibly hard to do.
Erith hopped about while her Auntie Essie ranted and raved, until finally the proud woman came to a pause and took a deep breath. Here the precocious youngster took her chance to speak up.
“Auntie Essie? Will you help her? Can we stay the night?”
The large woman looked from one cherub-like face to the next and felt dismayed. Curse her large heart and her reckless emotions. She knew she could not fool herself into thinking she could abandon this young girl to her fate out there with the soldiers.
“Of course I’ll help her,” she complained through a rattling chest irked for years by a cough brought on by the dampness of the White Sea. “Let me go and fetch you some food. You both look half starved.”
Barely ten minutes later and the girls were tucking into an early dinner in Lady Esmeralda’s private chambers. The large woman joined them quietly, always watching the young princess with a deep frown set in her wrinkled forehead.
“Why are you here?” the broad woman asked when the girls leaned back with their hands leaning on their bulging stomachs. The princess frowned.
“Erith brought me here…”
“No, not here in the boarding house. I mean here, in the White Sea?”
“We told you Auntie Essie,” Erith piped up. “Thais is going to find her grandfather in the elven city!”
Esmeralda looked briefly to the hunter’s daughter before she looked more probingly at Thais. She was asking a question that the princess couldn’t truly answer.
“I was sent here,” the elven girl finally responded quietly.
“By a seer in Titua…”
“I knew it!” Esmeralda exploded with passion and Thais pulled back with wide eyes. She had sensed that the large woman was looking for a particular answer, but she never would have guessed this was it. “Alucia Dal Am sent you!” Thais’ lips parted in surprise.
“How do you know of the seer?” the princess demanded in shock. Esmeralda rolled her eyes, a broad smile on her face.
“Oh that woman and I share a history I shan’t trouble your nightmares with my girl. Oh no. Alucia Dal Am is an old enemy; I shall put it in so many words. I could sense her all over you the moment you walked in. Don’t trust her girl, don’t trust her one bit!”
“But why?” Thais demanded, angry quite suddenly at adults and their hidden meanings. Why not be direct and save people the heartache of trying to work out what you were saying? Why say anything at all if you were to veil your true message in secrecy?
“There is a reason why Alucia Dal Am is hated in almost every circle in the known world my girl. If I’m not mistaken, even your own father wants rid of her, but can’t seem to do it. She’s protected by old old magic that woman…”
“I don’t believe in magic,” Thais grumbled tiredly. Esmeralda opened her eyes wide and shook her head.
“Coming from you, who’s about to inherit her father’s gift with that stuff you call ether? You listen to me girl. To you that ether is a tool, well to the rest of us, pure magic.”
“Ether isn’t magic!” Thais complained. “It’s…well, it’s energy. It’s just like those other particles that the physologists are always lecturing about. Ether makes sense, it’s nature, but magic, well magic’s just make believe.”
Esmeralda lowered her eyes to the ground while she nodded slowly.
“You have a lot to learn little one,” the large woman spoke finally, looking up once more into Thais’ indignant eyes. A loud giggle escaped Lady Esmeralda. “Oh yes, I know you think you’ve seen it all my dear girl, but you’ll discover one day soon that you haven’t.”
“How do you know Alucia Dal Am?” Thais asked quietly. Esmeralda’s expression became cold and she shook her head.
“She and I go back a long way. You might say…you might say we are sisters of a sort. She betrayed our kind long ago. Be careful around that one Thais. She has not got your best interests at heart. She’s conniving, twisted and will do anything to sway the future in her favour.”
“Lady Esmeralda, are you a seer?”
Esmeralda met Thais’ worried eyes for a moment before she smiled kindly. She reached out to take Thais’ hand in her own and gave it a squeeze for good measure.
“Some people have called me a seer in my time, others have called me far crueller names. It’s best not to question what I am Thais. Just accept the shelter I am giving you and promise me you will think about what I have said. If it was Alucia Dal Am that sent you here, then you should think very carefully about why that is. Don’t blindly follow the advice of a mad old woman who your father has made an outlaw in this nation. Promise me Thais? Promise me you will think carefully before reaching the end of your journey! Maybe it is a journey that should never have been made.”
Thais looked deeply into the pale blue eyes of the enigmatic woman, before she nodded slowly.