The king stared up at the towering silver Gates ahead of him and he wiped his brow. Here lay the end of his travels; here lay the end of a journey he started over a decade ago. The last time he had stood before the powerful gates he had been but a young man, a foolish, headstrong, passionate young man in love with someone unattainable, about to embark on the rest of life. That day he had won his prize. That day he had felt a joy so grand it had threatened to upend him. How different his life had turned out to how he had imagined it would that day.
As he and Mai had left the elven city, their hearts giddy with their boldness, her sorrow masked by her love for her future husband, they had spoken of a palace full of children. Had the cruel twist of fate not stepped in to destroy everything Gallus had hoped for then Thais would have been the first of many beautiful children he and Mai were to have. Their summers they had planned to spend in the White Palace in the tropical lands of Ghoboran and their lives were to be punctuated with travels to show the children the wondrous world they were to inherit. He and Mai had laughed over the beauty of their future daughters, the apples of every suitor’s eye across the entire continent, while their sons would break the hearts of every princess in every land.
There had been more to their enthusiastic ponderings. They had discussed what would happen once their children left them. It had been Gallus’ favourite part of their discussions. He had loved how he and Mai intended to pass the throne on to the eldest of their many children early while Gallus the king and his beautiful bride disappeared into a life so simple and so obscure only those who loved them would know where their footsteps fell.
Simplicity and love; those had been Gallus’ fantasy. A life with his wife in the lap of the world and all the adventures and wonders it could offer.
“It was stolen from me,” the great man uttered into the early morning, while he stood, hand resting on the silver gates. “Stolen from me by him.”
Gallus raised his eyes to see the curious faces watching him from the distance. For two days the king had been waiting, attracting attention from the beautiful elves watching him from within. They had ignored him thus far, ignoring his calls to be heard, his calls for the mighty Elf Lord Sil’Vein to meet with him.
“I have come to meet with Sil’Vein and I will not leave until I am heard,” Gallus called out to the observers once more, repeating a call he had made a hundred times at least. “He owes me this much, tell him that!”
In the distance there was movement amidst the watching elves. Gallus squinted to make out what was happening. He had so far been ignored, not approached nor spoken to by the distant watchers. Now it would seem this was about to change. There ahead of him a tall form was moving slowly towards him. In the dusky light the shape seemed a blur of obscurity, but as it came into focus Gallus knew this to be a person he had once trusted, a person he had once been glad to see.
The elf approached the gates and came to halt in front of them, barely a few inches from Gallus the King. The elf man had not changed in the many years that had passed; his face was equally as youthful, equally as beautiful as it had been the last time Gallus had sorrowfully laid eyes on it. The elf was as beautiful as his sister had been and seeing him now threatened to lay waste to Gallus’ fragile sense of control over his raging emotions. How Mai had resembled her brother.
“Sil’Ahmen,” Gallus exhaled hoarsely. “You have not changed in the years that have gone between.”
The elf raised an eyebrow delicately and looked the human up and down, noting every change, every difference that time had ravaged upon this once dear friend.
“Would it be that I could say the same of you Gallus,” the elf spoke with a hint of fondness in his serenity. Gallus laughed broadly and nodded.
“I am growing old friend, time is my master and I must obey it.”
“Gallus why have you come?” Sil’Ahmen asked suddenly, his face contorted briefly in pity.
“I have come to meet with your father.”
“He owes me answers Ahmen. He owes me that much after everything that has happened.” The elf shut his eyes tightly, his sorrow very close to the surface where the memory of his sister forced it to remain.
“My father does not hold the answers you seek.”
“That cannot be true,” Gallus spoke firmly. “You know about the seer do you not? You know what was said. You know what will happen if I cannot find a way to prevent it. Your father knows the answers. He must do!”
Sil’Ahmen stared with deep compassion into the human’s eyes. It had been many years since such passion had come before the elf. Human lives were so short and so punctuated by sorrow and great suffering that many elves had hidden away to free themselves from the burdens of the short-lived race of men, but not Sil’Ahmen. He had found his human companions fascinating and loved to share their great highs and their terrible lows. When the elves had become so insular and so isolated that he stood no choice but to join them he had lost a great many friends, all of whom were now long dead. The elf had a deep compassion for the likes of Gallus. He could never let the king suffer while he was able to prevent it.
“He is waiting for you,” the elf spoke softly, reaching out to open the heavy gates with a delicate set of keys. Gallus pulled away from the gates, his face arranged in deep gratitude.
“Thank you Ahmen,” he spoke softly. The elf nodded and moved to the side while Gallus stepped into the elven city where no human had entered since he last talked his way in. Then it had been Sil’Ahmen who had led the way just as it was now.
“From the moment you saw me Gallus, you must have known I would not leave you out there,” the tall elf countered with a serene smile. “We were once great friends you and I.”
“You speak as though we no longer share such friendship,” Gallus interrupted cheerily. Sil’Ahmen smiled.
“Well, your human lives may be short, but they are awash with friendships and hatred, how was I to know you remembered me at all?”
“You are right of course,” Gallus agreed amusedly. “I am lucky if I remember the name of my grandmother sometimes.”
“How is the dear old woman?” Sil’Ahmen quickly enquired, his eyes bright with the memory of Nana Darling, whom he had adored in equal measure as her grandson.
“Oh she is well,” Gallus chuckled. “Still as fiery and headstrong as she ever was. She is growing slower, but I suppose we shall allow her to do so, considering she is entering her ninetieth year.”
“Still only a child in our eyes,” Sil’Ahmen mused fondly. “And your brother? Last I saw him he was finding his feet in the world, unsure of any direction and enjoying his misdirection all too well.”
“The very same friend. That one will never change. He spends most of his time lost in the world and very happy for it.”
A happy silence passed while Sil’Ahmen led Gallus through the crowd of onlookers who had come to look at the mortal human man who had disrupted their serene lives enough times to become notorious in their lore. Gallus of Denari was a man well famed to the elves of the north.
Sil’Ahmen seemed preoccupied as though he were unsure of how to next pose his question. Gallus sensed as much and patiently waited for the tactful elf to find an appropriate way to next question the king. Sil’Ahmen cleared his throat.
“And Mai’s daughter, how fares she?”
Gallus sighed and hung his head slightly.
“She is a wild one,” he responded softly. “I cannot tame her my friend. She is too much her mother’s daughter. Her spirit wanes when she is kept indoors. She struggles to listen to authority, she struggles to understand why there is suffering in the world, she struggles to understand most of my responsibilities. She would live her life in the wilds if I let her.”
“She sounds like one of us,” Sil’Ahmen mused quietly.
“She is one of you!” Gallus complained. “Though your father denies her existence, surely you can understand? You will meet her I fear, before too long.” Sil’Ahmen turned a questioning expression on the king. “She is on her way to this city Ahmen. Nearly four weeks she has toiled, scraping through perils that make me shudder in my very soul, but she is more determined than I have ever known her. She will evade capture and she will make it to these gates, mark my words.”
“Why is she coming here?” Sil’Ahmen asked quickly, his serenity momentarily lost to the possibility of meeting his sister’s young mortal child.
“Aius knows. She has been speaking of coming here since…” Gallus trailed off and hung his head. In truth it had been on Thais’ mind since the night her mother had died.
“Where is she now?” Sil’Ahmen asked urgently.
“If I knew that then she would be safely apprehended and guided far away from this place. If she were to find out about the seer…”
The elf at Gallus’ side nodded slowly. Yes, it could do not good for the young heiress to the Denarien throne to find herself embroiled in the pains and troubles her father had held at bay for nearly twenty years.
“If she finds her way to this mountain Gallus, I will try my best to protect her,” Sil’Ahmen spoke dutifully.
“I thank you Ahmen, truly, from the deepest recesses of my foolish human heart.”
The two men looked up as they fell into shadow in the early morning light. They had reached the grand causeway that spiralled round the silver mountain to reach the Silver Halls at its summit. That is where Sil’Vein resided. With a heart heavy with providence Gallus strode forwards, he would not be turned away until Sil’Vein gave him the answers he sought.
Thais lay in the comfortable bed and stared up at the ceiling. Erith’s gentle breathing was the only sound, but it filled the quiet room. The two girls had been granted one of Lady Esmeralda’s more comfortable suits and for now Thais was happy that Erith had convinced her to come. The bed was worth the worry alone.
After a late dinner feast in their suite the girls had fallen into bed and succumbed to a heavy stupor. While Erith slept on Thais had awoken in the early hours of the morning, her mind heavy with troubling thoughts. The mist outside lit up the room with an eerie glow and a hazy shadow of a tree outside the window swaying gently in the breeze forged patterns across the ceiling. Thais watched these now, her mind drifting uncomfortably between her heavy thoughts.
The ether seemed as unsettled as she was and the girl could feel it swirling across her skin, making the hairs stand on end. Through eyes half closed Thais saw the orange haze of the ether plains. There was a steady current swirling around her in the misty light. Thais knew what this meant, though secretly she was trying to push the thought away.
She closed her eyes and rolled onto her side.
A gate, strong and silver lit up her mind’s eye. There was a man sat in front of it, his head leaning back against the cool metal. He seemed so alone.
Thais’ eyes flew open and she sat up in bed. Beside her Erith mumbled something incoherent in her sleep, before succumbing to her gentle snores once more. Thais held her breath and climbed gingerly from the comfortable bed. Her toes recoiled as they touched the cold wooden floorboards.
The gate again. It snaked its way into her mind, bringing with it the isolated broken man. Thais shook her head, trying to shake free the vision, but it held firm. The gate was getting closer, glowing in the ether that swirled around the man furiously.
In the grand suite Thais wrapped her cloak around her shoulders and walked over to the window. The gate never left her mind and soon the girl became blind to the room around her, all she saw was the gate and the man.
He was so close now Thais could make out every feature on his handsome face. He seemed older. Thais fought the vision. No, she didn’t want to see him, not like this, not now. But the girl had no choice; the man had invoked the ether to serve his purpose and now it had started his daughter had to obey.
In the gloom of the night the man opened his eyes and looked straight into Thais’ mind.
*Do not come to this place.*
The ghostly words filled Thais’ mind and she fought against the firm grip the ether held over her.
*You must not come to this place!*
The princess’ heart burned with anger and she stared ferociously into the man’s dark sorrowful eyes.
“You cannot stop me papa. It’s too late.”
Thais cried out in pain as the ether tightened its hold on her. The orange haze around the man had become a blur as it spun around him in a vortex. The girl felt the link between them growing stronger. To a sensitive it would light up the sky like a beacon.
*Do not come to this place!* the passionate voice thundered around Thais’ mind. She fought to open her eyes, but saw only a furious orange path carving through the darkness towards the shining mountain in the distance.
Terror gripped the girl and she started pulling away from the window. She could feel her father’s dismay and his heartbreak and felt her own heart aching in turn. What had happened to him? How could he have fallen so? Was he not always the strongest most impenetrable person Thais had ever met?
“You’re hurting me!” the girl cried out. The ether whirled around her, closing her in. She was trapped. “Papa! Let me go.”
*You must not come to this place.*
“But why?” the girl wept. “Why?”
“Thais!” A muffled voice sank through Thais’ misery as sharp hands grasped her by the shoulders and wrenched her back. In a bright flash of orange the dim room came into view once more. The spell was broken. The chain had been broken.
Panting Thais spun around to see Erith looking at her with wide terrified eyes.
“You were shouting Thais! What’s the matter?”
The taller girl opened and closed her mouth several times yet no words came to her. Instead she ran back to the window and looked out at the path blazoned upon the sky by the ether. It was fading now.
“He’s there,” she whispered. “He’s waiting for me.”
Erith came to stand beside the elven girl and together they looked out into the misty gloom. They said nothing.
There were men shouting in the distance. The cries were coming closer and closer in the hazy mist. People were approaching in the darkness. Erith shuffled closer to Thais and both girls hid behind one of the shutters. They peeked out and watched while tall figures appeared in the mist. They were surrounded. Beneath them came a hammering on the door. The shouting was louder now. Some of the figures were struggling with one of the smaller ones.
“Who are they Thais?”
The princess turned a furrowed brow on her friend and shook her head.
“I don’t know. Come on. I’m not going to be caught in my bed.”
She ran from the window and quickly got dressed while below them the hammering grew louder. All around the boarding house lanterns were being lit and worried voices streamed out from under doors. Erith and Thais were soon dressed and armed. Quietly they rushed out of their room and onto the landing. Lady Esmeralda met them at the bottom of the stairs. She seemed ruffled.
“Get in here you silly girls,” she barked, pushing them into a small storage cupboard. She slammed the door and locked it with a heavy padlock. Thais and Erith fought for the largest peephole formed by a knot in the wood.
The lady of the house whisked over to the door and after picking up a large axe unbolted the many locks and chains. The sturdy door swung forward revealing two heavily armed soldiers. Thais held her breathe and clapped her hand over Erith’s mouth to stop the girl from giving their location away.
“You again,” Esmeralda growled to the soldiers at the door. The men looked to one another darkly and stepped forward into the boarding house. “Excuse me! I don’t remember inviting you in gentlemen.”
Esmeralda stumbled backwards while several more members of the guard strode into the house. A large burly soldier walked towards the cupboard, his eyes glancing around suspiciously, before he turned his back on the girls, blocking out there view of the door. There was the sound of more feet and Esmeralda’s complaints, before finally everyone fell silent.
“Lady Esmeralda?” a smooth voice spoke up. Thais’ lips parted in surprise and she fell back against the back of the cupboard. A mop rolled onto the ground with a small thud as she did so. Erith stared with wide eyes while the burly soldier in front of the cupboard turned around with a frown. “I apologise for this rude interruption.”
How had he found her? He wasn’t a sensitive. How had he known she was here?
“And your name is?” Esmeralda demanded, though her tone had changed. She knew the man now stood before her was no soldier.
“Avery madam,” the spy replied. In the darkness of the cupboard Thais closed her eyes and dropped her head back against the wall. “My name is Avery Roe and I work for the king.”
The soldier stood in front of the cupboard stepped closer and inspected the padlock keeping the door tightly bolted. Erith shrank away from the light.
“That may be so Mister Roe, but that does not give you the jurisdiction to burst in here in the middle of the night and wake up my paying customers.”
The soldier had completely blocked out the light now and was leaning slowly towards the hole in the wooden door.
“And what’s more!” Esmeralda’s loud and formidable tone echoed around the room. “I do not appreciate having a dozen soldiers drag mud into my front room.”
The soldier at the cupboard door had nearly reached the hole.
“You’re right,” Avery’s charming voice drifted over the soldier and into the cupboard. Thais and Erith could have sworn their heartbeats had become audible to the soldiers out in the room.
“Captain Arrius, lead your men out and wait for me there.”
“You heard the man,” a clear cutting voice bellowed. “Everyone, outside!”
Thais shut her eyes and counted to ten slowly in her head. By the time she had opened her eyes again light shone through the knots in the wood. Erith was shaking at her side, but all Thais could offer her was a comforting pat on the shoulder, before she leaned forward once more and pressed her eye against the peephole.
There he was: one of her father’s closest friends.
“Why have you come Mister Roe?” Esmeralda asked in a more gentle tone now the soldiers had filed out into the mist. The wiry spy smiled charmingly at the formidable woman in front of him.
“I am sure you are aware that there is a fugitive loose in the White Sea.” His voice was like silk. Thais grimaced and hoped against hope that Esmeralda was not going to succumb to these spy’s tricks. The girl did not know much about the daily exploits of her father’s friends, but she had surmised from Thalius’ jeering that women rarely withstood Avery’s charms.
“If by fugitive you mean Princess Thais, then yes, I am aware of this,” Esmeralda’s impassive voice responded.
“Five miles from here she assaulted a member of the guard madam,” Avery replied smoothly. “Princess or no princess, this makes her a fugitive.” In the gloom Thais cringed.
“Does her father see it that way?”
“King Gallus wants nothing more than the girl to be found.” Avery’s tone was changing. “She is in terrible danger.”
“I couldn’t agree more,” Esmeralda replied gravely. “The White Sea is no place for a young thing like her. I hope you find her soon Mister Roe.”
Thais smiled while she watched Avery stare at the large formidable form of Lady Esmeralda in silence for a few moments. She could see he was gauging her, trying to read the lies in her face, but he was failing. The woman must be truly powerful, Thais thought to herself.
“As do I madam,” the spy finally replied, before he smiled broadly. “I am sorry to have wasted your time.”
“And I am sorry I haven’t been of more use to you.”
Esmeralda was leading Avery towards the door. He was nearly out into the mist when he turned around. Thais could make out his face. He was scheming something, she was sure of this much.
“There is one more thing,” the spy spoke smoothly. “The men have apprehended a young man. He has been desperately trying to make his way towards the Khaled Pass, but he is in no fit state to do so. He is dehydrated and needs a few hearty meals in him. Will you nurse him back to health and then send him on his way with a traveller returning to Titua?”
Esmeralda frowned heavily, but nodded all the same, “Send him in.”
Avery granted the woman a twinkling smile and glanced behind himself. He clicked his fingers to the soldiers and after a few moments a hooded gangly youngster was dragged struggling to his side. Avery dropped his arm around the youth.
“Calm down, you’re in good hands here,” he assured the young man, who struggled less at these words. “Now get yourself well and go home. She won’t make it past the patrols. Do you understand Kaio? She’s not waiting for you up at the gates.”
Thais exhaled suddenly as all the breathe fell from her lungs. At her side Erith struggled to keep the taller girl on her feet.
Out in the room Avery smiled to Lady Esmeralda before he reached out and pulled the boy’s hood away revealing a gaunt face with red cuts making one side seem ravaged. Tears started welling up in Thais’ eyes. What had become of him?
“I am sending word home that you are on your way back Kaio. I am sure your family have been worried about you.” The youth looked down at his shoes and scuffed the carpet with the tip of his boot. “I will check on you when I get back to Titua.”
Avery looked up at Esmeralda with his charming smile restored.
“The king is adamant that this young man receive the best treatment you have to offer madam. I believe this should cover the expense.” There was a jingling sound as the gold exchanged hands. “And now I must be off. Good night to you Lady Esmeralda.”
The front door shut and for a few moments everyone remained frozen to the spot. Esmeralda was looking Kaio up and down and the boy, aware of the scrutiny was focusing more keenly on scuffing a hole in the carpet.
“Well then,” the large lady finally spoke and she started bolting the front door again. “First things first, we need to get some food in you.”
“I’m not staying,” Kaio spoke. His voice was croaky. “I’m just waiting till those soldiers leave and them I’m gone!”
Esmeralda smiled knowingly and kindly placed her hand on the boy’s shoulder. He pulled away from her moodily.
“You’re a friend of the princess aren’t you?” she asked him kindly. Kaio looked up at her stubbornly, before he nodded.
“What’s it to you?”
In the cupboard Thais, who had only just overcome her shock stamped her foot slightly at her friend’s rudeness.
“Well,” Lady Esmeralda replied calmly, her smile broadening. “I’d like to show you something.”
Kaio pulled away from the kind woman again, his face a picture of bitter anger.
“I don’t care what you have to show me. I just want to get to the pass.”
“I have a feeling that once you’ve seen what I have to show you, you won’t be going anywhere,” Esmeralda countered conspiratorially. With a furrowed brow Kaio followed the large lady towards the cupboard under the stairs. The woman indicated the small hole in the wood with a broad smile. Kaio frowned deeper, but leaned in and pushed his eye up against the wood.
“Where are your manners Kaio?” Thais demanded, the moment she saw her dear friend’s green eye as it blocked out the light. Lady Esmeralda was quick to cover the boy’s mouth with her hand before he could shout out the princess’ name. No doubt there were still several soldiers milling about the place.
“You’ll see each other in good time,” Esmeralda told the struggling boy firmly. “We’ll give those soldiers an hour or so to get lost in the mist. Now if you promise to come and have something to eat then I’ll let your friend out. Do we have an agreement?”