Across the icy planes of Denari four men sat about a campfire, their hands thrust forward to the flames in an attempt to ease the chill from their fingers. Gallus had led his friends on horseback from dawn well past dusk. The men, bitter allies to the end, had not complained of tiredness or saddle ache, but dinner had been calling and without a word to their sovereign Avery, Thalius and Selmain had stopped in their tracks, dismounted and started assembling a camp. Gallus had soon returned to find them searching for kindling and rather than harassing them to saddle up and pursue the road with him, the king had dismounted and accepted that they had travelled enough for one day.
“Curse those mountains yonder,” Thalius grumbled long after the fire had been lit and his fingers had started to regain the colour of healthy flesh. “Were it not for them we could shave weeks from our journey.”
His companions shared a knowing smile. Trust Thalius to complain of the journey; he had never enjoyed riding. Since their boyhood long rides had always been accompanied by the drone of Thalius’ displeasure.
“We could always traverse them by foot,” Selmain countered with a small smile, which broadened when a foul expression formed on Thalius’ face aimed directly at him. “Well it was only a suggestion.”
“A foolish one. Step foot in the White Sea? You must be mad.”
“There are other ways to climb the Shield Mountains Thalius,” the mage responded.
“Each one more perilous than the last. You would not catch me scaling those peaks, not for all the gold in the continent.”
“Those who live in Shield city must contend with the mountains,” Avery now added, wandering into the friendly battle with a smug smile on his face. Long had it been Avery’s mission to emasculate his virile friend in jest and often had it led to drunken amused brawls.
“Men in Shield City must have courage I do not know,” Thalius claimed boldly, a broad smile adorning his own face. It had not taken him long to grow wise of Avery’s tricks. “True men they must be.”
“Indeed,” Avery chuckled. “For what it is worth friend, I have no desire to traverse that mountain range. I would sooner spend an evening entertaining the Heiress of Baeru. Wouldn’t you Gallus?”
Raucous laughter filled the bleak and wintry dell the men had commandeered for the night, which was soon stifled by a tumbler being thrown across the fire spraying ale all over the perpetrators.
“Don’t mention that woman,” Gallus protested in a deep growl, though his eyes smiled fondly at the disgruntled way in which his friends attempted to wipe away the sticky ale from their cloaks. “As for myself Avery, I believe I would take the mountain pass any day!”
“Ah,” Thalius crowed. “There you have it Avery. Our friend the king is in truth a real man. You go back to your ladies and dine them well. I would sooner join Gallus on the pass than go near that wench from Baeru.”
“Need I remind you gentlemen,” Selmain interrupted the laughter. “That you are speaking of a lady. Might you show some respect in her absence?”
“Describing that woman as a lady stretches my imagination certainly…” Avery began, but he fell silent when he saw Gallus shaking his head in mirth.
“Our friend is right, we need not mention the Heiress of Baeru. Her name has no place in these bleak hills.”
“You back the mage only for fear of what might be said of your house Gallus,” Thalius jeered, unwilling to remove so entertaining a source of mirth from their conversation. The king raised one eyebrow at his friend, though the smile on his face was growing. He knew what Thalius spoke of.
“Your daughter warrants a reputation that has become well known across the lands. And certainly you would not have her spoken of in such terms, so you play the middleman. Always wanting to join in, but never allowing yourself to.”
“Thais’ countenance has little to do with my wanting to leave the Heiress from our discussion I can assure you my friend,” Gallus replied smoothly.
“Besides,” Avery now cut in, wary of where such a discussion might lead. “Who could speak of that child in an unworthy manner?”
Once more laughter filled the dell, though this time each occupant joined in and the ale remained thankfully in the tumblers. Gallus reached over and clapped his friend on the shoulders.
“You defend her honour well Avery,” he chuckled. “But you need not pull the wool over your eyes. The girl is a disgrace I am sure. You can be certain that from the western shores of the Cape all the way to the Kudai Isles in the east my daughter’s reputation is the source of many underhand remarks about her character and mine for that matter.”
“Gallus you cannot speak so plainly about the girl,” Selmain remarked amusedly. “You don’t believe her to be a disgrace.”
“No indeed I do not,” Gallus replied firmly. “But there are many who do.”
“More fool them,” Thalius grumbled fondly. “They will never know her charms.”
“Nor her wickedness,” the king added. “And for that I am certain they have no regrets.”
“Does it not pain you to know your only child is so frowned upon by the rest of the world?” Avery enquired with a raised eyebrow of interest. Though Thais was a regular topic of conversation between Gallus and his friends, they had never discussed her position in the minds of others. Usually their conversations were practical discussions as to whose turn it was to mind the young hellion on her jaunts about the kingdom.
“In truth, no it does not. I am sure when the time comes her reputation will cause my daughter all manner of grief. When finally she removes herself from her troublesome youth and seeks to assert herself as a queen she will spend more time battling explosive rumours than governing the land.”
“You do that girl a disservice sometimes Gallus,” Avery laughed, to which Gallus smiled roguishly.
“Can it be called a disservice if it is entirely warranted?”
“See now, the winds are changing. It looks as though we will meet with snow before the sun has risen after all,” Selmain suddenly announced alerting the men to the changes in the heavens.
“Well I blame Gallus,” Thalius grumbled, his tone ripe with fond undertones.
“Indeed, and your cause for doing so?”
“Merely that it is easiest to do so. You have dragged us on this quest after all.”
“Thalius must you?” Avery groaned. “You will start him off again…”
“Avery!” Gallus complained, for a moment the mirth leaving his handsome face to be replaced by a look of concern. “And Thalius for that matter as well. We all know what is at stake. We all know the consequences should we fail. My options are fading fast.”
“Dear friend,” Selmain quickly spoke, his green eyes creased in unease. “Do not let me hear you losing hope. Many more options lie open to us. The time for mourning will be staved I can assure you.”
“Would it be that I had your faith in the matter friend,” Gallus sighed, his noble head hanging in the cold winds that had swept into the dell. Swathes of cloak lashed at the king’s face, distorting the grief in his face into something cruel and twisted. Drowning in anger and pain Gallus had suffered long enough. He could not allow himself to sink into the depths of despair. “Come, more ale. Thalius you make a very poor publican, I shall think twice before I enlist your services again.”
“I cannot be blamed! ‘Tis Avery who guards the barrel.”
“For if I didn’t you would have the lot before we had even travelled two miles from the city gates.”
Once more laughter wafted over the lip of the dell, carried away on the twisting bitterly cold winds towards the city the men had long left behind.
A young face set in a grey reverie stared from the warmth of luxury into a whirlwind of snow intent on bedecking the Green Palace in a blanket of white perfection. A daring escape into the most unrelenting blizzard the winter months had yet delivered seemed ever more unlikely. Many of the princess’ escape routes relied on fine weather for rarely had the girl felt cause to break the confines of her marble cage during storms as pernicious as the one that enveloped the city now. Thoughts of how she might manage such an act of cunning recklessness had plagued Thais since she returned home. Her behaviour had not gone unnoticed.
“Has the window offended you my love?”
Startled, Thais turned her head to find her foremother watching her intently from the doorway to the dining room. After supper the princess had made herself comfortable sat upon the worn wooden floorboards in a spot she had many a time commandeered for her ponderings. From her vantage point she could gaze over her father’s city.
“No, not this time. Did I disturb you nana?”
“Oh no darling. I have not heard you move in at least an hour and wondered if you had succumbed to a bout of sickness. But now I am stood before you I must say you seem in the utmost of health. Is something else troubling you?”
“My friends and I had an argument this afternoon,” the girl replied truthfully. A deep sorrow lined her usually bright eyes and without a moment’s hesitation the elderly woman lowered herself slowly onto the floorboards beside her grandson’s child. Thais stared once more to the window before she continued. “Kaio. He finds it very difficult when I do things without him and yet at the same time I know he’s only fighting for my wellbeing. I…”
“Being a young woman is a troubling time dear Thais.”
“Nana it’s not about being a young woman. It’s about so much more.”
“Truly? What could be so terrible darling?”
Thais hung her head, wrapping a dangling thread from her cardigan around her muddied scratched fingers.
“I can’t tell you. I don’t actually know myself.”
“Your riddles confound me I’m afraid,” Nana Darling chuckled soothingly, before she wrapped an arm around the child’s small shoulders. “Follow your heart Thais. Trust it to lead you on the just path.”
The young girl sighed and hung her head slightly.
“Nana, there are so many paths. How am I supposed to know which is the right one?”
“Thais,” Nana Darling chuckled. “You have to take a chance. Every day we are tempted by a hundred different paths, but we must trust our heart to lead us down the one that is right for us.”
“And you?” Thais asked interestedly. “Do you think you have been following the right one?”
Lovely rich laughter emanated from deep within the old woman and for a moment she squeezed her great granddaughter to her side.
“Oh my dear girl. There have been many times where I have taken the wrong path and found myself in trouble I could have avoided, but this is part of living. Our wishes and desires make it difficult for us to make the right choice. All we can do is try. Your path will change every day, but you must always make sure it is the right one for you. We all live our own lives. Yes, we live them side by side with our dear friends and family, but we must always remember we have our own journeys. No one can make a decision in your stead; you must do what you think is right. I cannot decide for you and neither can Kaio or Rachel.”
Bolstered by Nana Darling’s words Thais looked up at the old woman and nodded vigorously.
“You’re right,” she agreed firmly. “I know what I have to do. Goodnight nana!”
Quite suddenly the elderly woman found herself buried under an exuberant firm embrace, which she had only a moment to return before the tireless youngster leapt to her feet and pelted down the corridor towards her chambers. Without a look back at her perplexed great grandmother Thais pitched herself into the double doors of her bedroom, throwing them open and then closing them just as quickly.
Thais’ chambers were lit by the glow of a nightlight. The girl looked to it before closing her eyes, seeking out a path between her and the flame; a path in the ether. Somewhere amidst the haze of the ether a stream of particles connected them. Precious time flowed over the girl while she stood eyes closed in the middle of her gloomy bedchamber. Her skin prickled while she cast out from her limited blanket of ether to connect herself to the candle. A dozen tendrils extended from her in the invisible sea of particles until finally she saw the lamp in her mind’s eye, alight with an orange haze of fireflies. The ether was beautiful. With great difficulty Thais eased the flame into a roaring fire, bringing light into the darkness.
“One day,” the girl breathed out tiredly, her eyes easing open to glare at the bright flame. “One day I’ll be able to light you without a moment’s thought. And when that day comes I’m going to cast you from the window for all the years of torment you have caused me!”
Exasperated and spurned on by a sudden resolve Thais darted to her wardrobe and flung open the doors. Loose britches, shirts and cardigans dripped out into a pile upon the weathered rug accompanied moments later by a spare pair of boots. Possessed the child wrapped her meagre possessions in a leather shoulder pack, which she soon supplemented with a fine array of portable weaponry and as much gold as she could find in the green glass jar she had been collecting coins in since she was a very tiny girl.
Without hesitation Thais wound a thick woollen scarf about her neck, wrapped a thick woollen cloak around her shoulders and slung her longbow over the top. Nearly as tall as she was, many doubted the girl could even string such a fine weapon. Thais though, had worked her whole life at mastering the arts of archery and sword fighting. The blood of her Kudai ancestors far outpaced her pacifistic elven nature and long had the girl been a competent little warrior. To complete her armament the girl slung a belt bearing her twin elven blades about her waist.
“Aius,” the girl whispered as she walked determinedly towards her desk, which she scaled with ease. “If you think I’m being foolish please send me a sign.” Eyes lifted to the darkness of the wintry sky Thais waited for the King of the Gods to warn her against her course of action. The darkening sky seemed moody and troubled, but relayed no such sign to the girl. So without a second thought Thais pushed firmly into her window spinning it on it’s hinge freeing a girl sized gap up for the child to scramble out onto the icy ledge high above the frozen ground. Quickly and adeptly the princess edged along the ledge, her eyes never seeking the ground, merely staring ahead at her target: a wall of vines that snaked ever further up the Green Palace during the summer months.
The last ten yards the girl took at a run, her feet sliding on the perilous ledge until finally her fingers closed on the brittle twisted wooden stems. Quickly, so as to avoid capture, Thais swung herself into the thick of the wood, hiding her small form from view. For a moment she allowed herself a sigh of relief, before she started to clamber down.
As soon as her shins disappeared into the blanket of snow that had already fallen atop the palace grounds Thais dropped onto her front, diving into the freezing camouflage. Hidden now from view the girl dragged herself forward, occasionally sticking her head over the wall of snow to check her course. A particularly tall section of the wall not far from the palace boundary was her beacon. There she would find a secret tunnel hewed many centuries before to aid the escape of the royal family. It was a well-kept secret, known only by the members of the royal line and their closest allies. Even the guards were oblivious to the existence of the tunnel should they harbour intentions treacherous to the royal family, the House of Apollo.
Within a stone’s throw of the tunnel Thais froze: noises. Low rumbling voices and the howl of the wolves. Sinking into the snow as far as she could Thais stopped breathing when she heard voices of the men growing ever closer to her hidden location.
“That Arbarus, you can’t trust him,” a man with a thick northern accent growled. “His speeches are full of promises he will never keep. He’s a liar I can assure you.”
“Nonsense Thalen,” his companion countered fervently. “Prime Minister Hester is an old fool. Long has he been a pointless addition to the government. What does the old beggar actually do?”
“The prime minister does what a prime minister ought to do, he supports the king.”
“Hester couldn’t support anyone I am sure of that.”
“You know Arbarus means only to unsettle King Gallus’ grip on the throne. How you can support him knowing full well his treacherous intentions…” The men fell silent and in her snowy prison Thais shrunk ever closer to the ground, her chin digging into the frozen ground, her eyes prized tightly shut. She could hear the wolves getting closer. Any moment and they would come across her.
One of the guards whistled a peculiar triad of notes.
“Kaseez is onto something,” the northern guard noted darkly. “Call the others.”
Another triad of whistled notes flew into the air, sending shivers down Thais’ spine. Before too long she would have the whole troop to contend with.
“Here, what’s that dark shape in the snow?”
Shutting her eyes as tightly as she could Thais tried her very hardest to send spikes of ether into her surroundings, hoping to disturb anything into action. Often her wild turbulent patterns had wreaked havoc when she had least wanted to, but rarely could she control her outbursts into working in her favour. Indeed, being a sensitive had so far been more of an inconvenience than it had been an asset in Thais’ young life.
“Oy!” Thais’ eyes darted up, expecting to find a burly guard glaring down at her, but found instead the clouded sky hanging high overhead. The source of the guard’s annoyance was obviously not her presence in the snow. “Thalen! To the west! Hurry, we are being ambushed. Signal the others.”
Thais dared to breath as she heard the men running from her position, beckoning their four-legged companions with a series of whistles. Several minutes passed before she lifted her head above the snow to see a hoard of guards holding flame torches up to the wall a few hundred yards away. Whatever had caught their attention had saved her skin and after thanking Aius for her close escape the girl scrambled forward, diving into the bushes that hugged the wall at its tallest point. Without hesitating Thais wedged one of her knives into a cracked burnt stone in the wall and pulled it free. Brick after brick tumbled revealing a small passageway. Easily the child climbed in and carefully rearranged the bricks in her wake. As the last brick slid into place the light from the palace grounds slid into darkness and Thais was free.