Chapter 11. The Golden Stag
The prince's sword cut through Alanis' thoughts as it whooshed past her arm. He had been going at her in full force ever since she mentioned interest in partaking in one of the Winter Festival tourneys. She figured, it was his own way of telling her it was a bad idea without saying so.
After several minutes of heavy swords play, Alanis stumbled backwards and lowered her sword, signaling a much-needed break. He stopped, but gave a telling smirk, informing her that he was unhappy with her request.
Oh, well, she thought while she panted then took seat on an uprooted tree. Faris sat across from her and drank from his canteen. She could tell it was something strong, from the foul smell that carried on the breeze.
"Did you spring from the womb with a drink in your hand?" Alanis joked as she reclined against the cold-stone-tree, sighing contentedly at the magic it was working on her achy back.
He chuckled. "Don't tell me you haven't noticed how damned cold it is out here."
"You can't be serious. How can you be cold after all of that?" she questioned again, thinking he couldn't be too cold.
Hell, even her tiny frame was becoming accustomed to the chilly weather of the north. Especially now, after their training sessions. She was so hot during their exercises that she stripped most of her winter wear away.
His laughter continued as he replied, "Try it, it will do wonders for your aches."
I'm sure it would, she thought skeptically while raising a brow at him. To his surprise, she lifted her head from the tree and joined him, accepting his canteen.
She took a sip and nearly gagged—nearly. Somehow she managed to swallow the gulp without so much as a wince. He better appreciate the show she was putting on for him, acting tough, and pushing herself to the brink of exhaustion, just so he wouldn't give her one of his famous cocky smirks.
Again she drank from the canteen, to add to the illusion that she wasn't fazed by the taste, then smiled.
"So," he said, noticing her smile, "We've got several hours till sundown. I was wondering if you wanted to continue training until then. And since you like that drink so much, I'd like to take you to the tavern and share a few more with you—that is, if you want to."
Her eyes lowered, she was both intrigued and worried by his offer, wondering why he was being so friendly to her. Usually he made it his mission to avoid her while in town. In fact, the only time the ever interacted was in passing in the castle.
So yes, she was suspicious at his sudden interest in taking her out for a friendly drink.
Despite her concern, it was a tempting offer. It would be nice to get to know the prince a little better, outside of training, she thought, but realized canceling her plans with Wesley last minute would be rude.
"I'd like to, I really would, but I've got to get back to Ati soon," she said politely then capped his canteen.
Damn the timing, she wanted to say, instead she handed him his canteen hoping he'd ask her again at some later date.
"This wouldn't have anything to do with a certain captain returning?" he asked with a smirk playing at his lips.
Wait, was he merely asking me out to see if I'd change my plans with Wesley, she pondered as he uncapped his canteen again.
He took a drink, then another before adding, "I'll take that as a yes."
They finished their short break in silence then continued to pack their belongings for the trip back to Ati Harei.
Alanis' clothes were fresh and her hair bound into a tight bun near the top of her head. On her back she wore a thick cloak and made sure to throw on an extra layer of clothing, should any unforeseen problems arise in their short outing.
She was nervous, it had been several days since the captain left for the neutral plains of the Ati Tundra to escort a passing caravan to the south. The northern kingdom he was escorting was much smaller than Ati, but had a bad reputation for selling secrets, and assassinating royal targets for gain. Likely, Stronghold thought it wise to keep an eye on them, as they could be considered a potential threat.
If he is tired I'll let him rest, and reschedule later, she mulled as she walked into the royal stables to greet the returning men.
As she came upon them, she noticed their tight-knit bond at play. They were all seated atop their horses, joking and reminiscing about the journey they took. She observed them silently until Sir Sparrow noticed her watching eyes. He nudged their captain, who was deep in conversation with Sir Marcus Greensong, at least that's what she thought his name was, she was horrible with names, especially strange ones.
Fulton looked over his shoulder curiously, then smiled as his eyes met with her nervous wave.
It was nice, the rushing feeling she felt as she took in his pleased smile. Whoever said, absence makes the heart grow fonder, must have been referring to this feeling. She smiled innocently, as he ushered his steed to her side.
Gods, he was a thing a beauty. And yes, she knew those thoughts were vain, but it couldn't be helped, not when the man embodied everything a woman could possibly want in a man. Perfectly built, beautiful eyes, a stunning smile, and a personality that was on par with a saint. She could almost picture herself settling for this man if she wasn't careful with her heart.
"I thought we were going to meet at the castle front?" he asked, though she could sense he was pleased with her unexpected pop in.
She bowed politely, regardless of the nature of her visit. Even though he was courting her, she needed to respect the captain's title while his men were around.
"I know," she said, "I thought I'd catch you here and see if you needed to rest. We could change our plans. I know you must be tired after riding all day."
He dismounted with a chuckle. "Nonsense, I'm fine. Truth be told it was the promise of our date that kept me sane throughout the journey. Those northerners are nothing but talk, my men, and I were bored to tears."
"Great," she said, noticing his step back to his horse. Was he ready to go now, dressed like that? Not that she didn't mind, his body armor was not without its own charm.
He offered his hand and she looked upon it hesitantly.
What is he thinking, is he expecting me to ride with him?
"Don't give me that look," he said sternly, "The last time you journeyed to the Stone Forest you were nearly killed. This will ensure that we won't get separated." She scowled teasingly while walking over to his offered hand, then took it.
"Smooth," Alanis said to him as he hoisted her to the saddle.
After she found her balance, she scooted back in the seat making room for him on the saddle ahead of her. Almost instantly he mounted and set his steed to trot, the sudden jerk forced her to wrap her arms around him for support. Sneaky bastard, she mouthed as she heard him chuckle with satisfaction, he had merely done so to gain that reaction. She'd let him keep his win, he was clever enough to get his way.
Besides, she kind of liked it.
They rode to the north of Ati Harei, to the Stone Forest's edge. As they breached the stone trees, Alanis' hold on Wesley tightened. Whether he minded or not, she didn't notice as a lingering fear came back to haunt her.
He heart began to race as she recalled the day she was attacked there. She closed her eyes and willed her heart to ease, and was secretly grateful the captain had suggested they ride in together.
Within minutes, the captain's steed slowed and she opened her eyes. Ahead of them, red sunlight broke through the stone canopy, filling the forest with a beautiful glow. She let out a small gasp, unable to keep her amazement to herself. It needed to come out, to be heard.
That's what moments like these were for.
"The throne is through these cluster of trees," Fulton said, "We'll have to trek the rest of the way by foot if we're going to reach it."
He dismounted and reached up to help her down. While lowering her from the saddle, she fidgeted at the sudden caw of a crow. The frightful memory she was fighting to keep away returned, and she fell quickly into his arms, trembling like a child spooked by some hidden monster.
The warmth of his arms enveloped her until she could no longer feel his embrace. Her arms lifted and she felt around for him, but he was no longer there. She opened her eyes and fell back into the vibrant, wild grass. There was a great deal of confusion, followed by a wave of panic. Those feelings fled quickly as she studied the forest, a forest that was hauntingly familiar.
"Where am I?" she whispered, hearing her question reverberate all around her , humming into her very core.
The ground beside her twisted and churned as the roots of the tree nearest to her awakened, in a snake-like dance. Alanis lifted and watched them, as they melded together to form the body of a beautiful creature, a glorious stag with antlers as gnarled as the roots it spawned from.
It called to her silently, and friendly. She stood up and walked to the creature, noticing with each step how beautiful her new surroundings were. This place reminded her of someplace else. The lake in Berthold. It carried the same air, a feeling of time lost.
The stag lowered its head when she reached it. Something compelled her to reach out and brush its golden antlers. They were smooth, mostly, with several patches of velvet that had yet to shed. As she pulled her hand away a woman appeared on the back of the beast, she was wrapped in a shimmering cloak and wore a crown of golden leaves. Her black hair spilt over her tanned cape, spiraling to the golden saddle she sat upon.
Alanis knew who this woman was.
She was one of the Sister Goddesses, she was Reiro of Terra.
"Oraur Lahre.” The goddess smiled, her pale lips didn't move with her words. They came about through the forest around them. "It's been so long since I've seen a friendly face, one of such merit. I am overjoyed, but also curious. Why are you here?"
"The temple master said I should come. I thought that if I did, I'd gain insight on my quest." As the goddess looked her over she suddenly remembered what she wanted to ask. Those inquiries came out in a long chain that left her short of breath when she was finished. "Where are we and how did I get here? And what exactly does the prince have to do with my quest?"
Reiro's laughter echoed throughout the forest, every living creature seemed to stop and join in her heavenly flutter—like they were one.
"Oraur Lahre, you are in Furisre Sreuni. Standing in the same spot you left Lord Fulton."
"It can't be, this can't be the same place. Besides, even if it were, how could it be so beautiful here? The land is so ravaged by bleak weather that it couldn't sustain this type of life."
"You forget, this was once the God King's kingdom, a kingdom for Gods and mystic creatures alike. The true Devine Kingdom. The harsh weather that surrounded the kingdom kept it secret from the mortal realm. That was, until a wave of dark magic swept through the Ati Tundra."
"But why am I here?"
"You said you came here for answers...?"
Alanis nodded, perhaps her inner desires brought her to this place, but it didn't explain why the forest was different.
"The first Oraur Lahre, Helene, sealed the forest. What you see around you exists now, and is as real as you and I. The great Stone Forest is merely an illusion, a spell cast by Helene over a millennium ago."
A thousand years, Alanis thought while stepping back and took in the forest. Tyrell was wrong about Helene's power. It didn't destroy the forest—it saved it. Once again, she was left with more unanswered questions. The only reason to conceal a place would be to hide something important, but what could that be?
"The less you know the better off you'll be," Reiro answered, "Helene's sacrifice bought us time, but that time is nearly over. Everything until this point has gone according to plan, a plan that must be executed, or everyone you know, and care about will die—or worse. Both you and the prince are the key to our survival."
Everything Reiro said after Helene's sacrifice was lost to Alanis' ears. What did she mean by that, was she saying Helene gave up her life to protect this place?
"Sacrifice?" Alanis replied hesitantly, afraid of the answer, but curiosity wouldn't allow for it to go unspoken.
Reiro bowed her head, her gray eyes were darkened by sorrow before she replied, "Yes, in order to unleash your true power, you must give your life for Reoki'mani’s power to be wielded. Letando’Na made it so the blessed wouldn't abuse their power, that they would use it when necessary, the perfect moment."
"P-Perfect moment," Alanis quailed, backing further away from the goddess. Her stomach twisted, making her sick with fear as she realized her life came down to a perfect moment, the perfect moment to end it.
"Our plan would be lost without you," she said while dismounting from the stag, her bare feet crunched against the loose vines that webbed the forest floor. "Your life wouldn't end for nothing."
"Why me, why does it have to be me?"
"There isn't much time."
"No," Alanis shouted, her fists balled at her sides and shook with her words, "I've had enough of this. Every time I ask—I get the same answer."
"The Sorrow who follows you now, it was her duty to perform, but she failed. You are the only one who can do this, there is no other. If you listen to your heart, your purpose will be the same as hers. But if you don't cooperate everything ends."
"That purpose, what is it?"
"Again, I cannot tell you. You must follow your heart, Alanis. Words corrupt—but your heart will never steer you wrong."
"What does it matter? If I do what you're asking, I'll die—won't I?"
The forest grew dark with her mood. The bark sheltering the trees faded into the lifeless gray she was used to. The sun that hung overhead brightened, causing the colors of the forest to contrast into black and white.
"Yes... you will." The goddess walked to her side and lifted her hand to her shoulder then spoke softly, "You're pure of heart. Those blessed by the Gods always are. The darkness that shrouds you will pass, and you will find that light has always been on your side."
"Don't touch me!" Alanis slapped her hand away, the sudden contact beveled the land between them, forcing her to fall back. She could feel a strange sensation tingle under her hand. It soon radiated up her arm, coursing its way to her heart. When it reached it, she doubled over in pain, though it wasn’t physical.
"What did you do to me?"
"I gave you a gift," The goddess replied as she faded into the building light.
That light grew and grew, flooding the forest, forcing her to shield her eyes. Winter's touch was the next to take over. The transition back was definitely less forgiving than the ride in. Her body felt like it had been expelled to a place that was full of darkness, a place that was corrupted by it. She could feel it now, the evil that lurked the lands. Though she couldn't put a name to it, it was definitely there, and large whatever it was.
Was this the gift the Goddess spoke of?
The captain's stormy stare was the first thing she saw when she opened her eyes. She could read the relief that filled his eyes, but couldn't share in it, not this time, and maybe not ever again. The fear she now felt outweighed everything.
She tried to sit up, but was locked in place by a pair of strong arms.
"Alanis," Wesley said, "what happened?"
What happened, where should I start? She wanted to say thinking she at least wouldn't be blubbering like a wallowing child, like she would have in the past. No, she was done being used, and lied to. This quest was done, at least until she had answers. The Gods could call and call, but there would be no more yielding to their every demand.
"I spoke to one of the sisters," she replied, betraying everything she was told. At this point, she didn't care who she told their secrets to, she was angry, feeling betrayed by them.
He replied with a confused stare that annoyed her further.
She muttered, "Don’t look at me like that. Just let me up, please."
The only good that lurked in this place was taken away, as he removed his grip on her. His hand slipped from around her waist while he regarded her silently.
"Are you pushing me away, because I don't understand? I just want to know what happened.”
"You have no idea what you're dealing with," she shouted, giving in to her need to let out her frustration. "I don't want to involve you in any of this. Every time I get close to someone, something like this happens."
"If it's a relationship you're trying to avoid, that's fine. I can be your friend. I don't want you to feel torn between your duty, or me. I understand and would never ask you to choose me over it. It's important, more important than my pride."
"That’s just it, Wes. I don't know if I'm up for the quest anymore..."
"You have to." He stepped forward, "The Gods chose you. This is something bigger than you or I. It's not a simple chore that can be brushed away. You can't turn your back on this, not while innocent people are depending on you."
Idiot, she wanted to scream. Those words were easy for him to say without having all the information. Would he still think that way if he knew that she was going to die at the end of her quest, would he push her then?
"Don't speak of things you know nothing about," she choked on her tears, while standing to her feet. "I still have a choice, as long as I haven't given up." She couldn't deal with this new information, not now. All she wanted to do was cling to the prince's advice, that she still had a choice, that she could say no.
This was still her life.
Wesley frowned at her answer. He was downright disgusted with her attitude, but held back his scolding words.
"Whatever you need of me, I'll provide." Was all he said to her selfish reply. He never once turned his gaze from her. Although she knew he was deeply disappointed in her, he would never turn his back on her. There was something special between them, the goodness she felt flowing from him, it called to her. It made her want to reconsider her decision regarding her calling. It made her want to protect the light he held.
"You're right—I'm sorry," she yielded to the overwhelming feeling that grew in her heart, "I'll speak with Tyrell, then decide what needs to be done."
• Thanks for reading. If you'd like to support me please remember to heart the book if you liked it. Comments and questions are welcomed, and don't forget to follow me for updates.
More information regarding Alanis' power will be revealed in the next chapter when she speaks with Tyrell. You think things are messed up now, prepare yourselves for another bombshell that will change everything you thought you knew. Again I know this needs a lot of editing... I'll do it later. I'm so tired of worrying about things.
Things that happened this chapter...
**Alanis will die at the end of her quest when she unleashes Reoki'mani.
**Reiro tells her the Sorrow that follows her was on the same quest as her, following the same goal.
**Reiro leaves Alanis with a gift, which isn't explained. More information regarding her gift will be revealed in upcoming chapters.