Two and a half sennights later, after crossing the Parbatas at the northern Antsnel Pass and then turning south, the companions finally came within sight of the walls of Torkeln. Ga’briyel smiled and nudged Kumar closer to Taraka.
“There it is, my heart,” he said to Sophyra. “Home.”
“It is bigger than I was expecting, Ga’briyel,” she said softly. Her hands tightened on Takara's reins. “What if your parents do not like me?”
He reached over and caressed her hands until they relaxed. “They will love you, Sophyra, if for no other reason but that I do.”
She shook her head. “That is not enough of a reason.”
“Then they will love you for yourself. Do not worry.”
“I am worried, Ga’briyel. I will be with them alone for moons while you are away. If they do not like me, I will be miserable, and so will they.”
“I know you are worried, my heart. I can feel it, but you do not need to be, I promise.”
As they got closer to the city, Sophyra’s worry diminished but never completely disappeared, and Ga’briyel could feel the astonishment from the guards at the north gate. The astonishment turned to pleasure when they stopped in front of the guardsmen.
“Captains!” one said as they both saluted sharply. “Welcome home, sirs!”
“Thank you, Noya,” Ga’briyel said as the three captains returned the salutes. “Are Ma’ikel and my father in the city?”
“Yes, sir. I believe General Mistri is at the training grounds and Ma’ikel should be with King Tomas, sir.”
Ga’briyel just nodded and kicked Kumar into motion. Sophyra stayed by his side at the front of their small group, Mathi and Zahin came next on two dun mares Ga’briyel had purchased from the people of Mirstone, and Dinton and Tero brought up the rear. Debhida had parted from them as soon as they had reached the eastern side of the Parbatas.
They passed through the gates and entered the city. Ga’briyel sighed in relief when he saw that everything was just as it had been when they left. No Dirack had visited the city, and, as far as he could tell, no Takosa had either. He was sure that if either had, there would have been a miasma of fear overshadowing everyone, and there was not.
He saw a Chatra walking in front of them, and he called out, “Chatra, stop!” The boy did, turned around, and then snapped to attention with a sharp salute.
“Captain Mistri, sir!”
“I want you to do something for me,” Ga’briyel said, leaning down from his saddle. “Run and find General Mistri and Ma’ikel and tell them we have returned. Tell them that I am going to my home and that I will meet them there unless you come back to me with different instructions."
“Yes, sir!” The boy ran off and disappeared almost instantly amid the winding streets of the city.
Ga’briyel turned toward Dinton and Tero. “Go home and get cleaned up. I will send word to you when I know what our orders are. I will take Mathi and Zahin with me.”
“Yes, sir,” they both said and guided their horses toward the stables at a brisk trot.
“Stay close to me,” Ga’briyel said to the three that were left. “Torkeln is a large city, and you could easily get lost here.”
“Yes, sir,” the boys said, and Sophyra nodded. Ga’briyel led the way through the streets toward the stable, but he kept Kumar to a walk. He wanted to take his time in case his father gave him different instructions. By the time they reached the stables, Shala and Klynn were already in their stalls contentedly munching on some oats. A groomsman with white hair, leathery skin, and very few teeth stepped out of the small office and took Kumar’s bridle.
“Welcome home, Captain Mistri,” he said. “I will take the horses for you, sir.”
“Thank you, Iyakub, but I will handle Kumar if you do not mind.” Ga’briyel slid to the ground, his boots thudding on the wooden planks of the walkway.
“Aye, Captain. That is what the other two captains said about their horses,” Iyakub answered with a grin. Ga’briyel clapped him on the back with a return grin and then helped Sophyra down from Taraka.
“I am not fragile, Ga’briyel,” she teased.
“I know that, but I want to help anyway, my heart.”
Iyakub’s eyes went wide at the endearment, and Ga’briyel’s grin grew as the boys dropped from their mounts.
"Sophyra, I would like to introduce Iyakub Jemas, the palace’s head groomsman. “Iyakub, this is my wife, Sophyra Mistri si’Adama.”
“Wife?” The older man’s eyes widened further. “My congratulations, sir.” He smiled at Sophyra and gave her a small bow. ”Mistress Sophyra, it is very nice to meet you.”
“Thank you,” Sophyra answered, and Ga’briyel chuckled as her embarrassment swept over him. She slapped his arm as Iyaukb took Taraka’s bridle, and his chuckle turned into a laugh. It felt very good to laugh; he had not done it for a long while. He quickly divested Kumar of the tack, brushed him down, and led him to his stall.
"Iyakub, can you please make sure our bags get to my home?” When the groomsman nodded, he continued, “Thank you. Come on, Sophyra. It is time to meet my parents.” Ga’briyel watched the boys tie their horses to the rail by the door of the stable, and then he wrapped his arm around Sophyra’s waist. “Follow me, boys.”
“Yes, sir,” they said, and he led them to the main steps of the palace. He walked up them and returned the salute of the two guardsmen at the main doors. “Does everyone do that with you, Captain Mistri?” Mathi asked, gazing at the guardsmen.
“No, not other captains, and definitely not my father.”
“Why not your father, sir?”
Ga’briyel chuckled. “Because he is the General of the Guard. Everyone salutes him, not the other way around. The only person in the palace with a higher position than him is King Tomas.”
“Will we meet the king, sir?” Zahin asked, his eyes wide.
“Will I meet the king, Ga’briyel?” Sophyra whispered as they entered the palace.
“Most definitely, my heart,” he answered with a kiss to her temple. “But first, my parents.”
That was his plan, anyway, but at that moment, the Chatra Ga’briyel had sent to find his father stopped in front of him and saluted.
“Captain Mistri, sir, King Tomas requests your presence in the throne room immediately.”
“Just me, Chatra?”
“No, sir, Captain. All of you. Captains Rabina and Sekara also.”
“They have gone home. Run and tell them quickly, Chatra. I will let King Tomas know they are on their way.”
“Yes, sir,” the boy said and ran off toward the main doors.
“Well, it seems you will meet King Tomas sooner than I had anticipated,” Ga’briyel said as they walked down the main hallway of the palace. “When we get to the throne room, stay behind me until I tell you otherwise. Do not say anything unless the king asks you a direct question. Do you all understand?”
“Yes, sir,” the boys said, and Sophyra nodded. Ga’briyel could feel fear mingling with the worry, and he tightened his grip around her waist.
“Nothing will happen, my heart. King Tomas is a good man. He is no one to be frightened of.”
“Nevertheless, Ga’briyel, I am frightened. I have never met a king before.”
He would have said more, but they had reached the throne room, and he released her. He took one step toward the doors, and the guardsmen snapped to attention and saluted him.
“Captain Mistri reporting to King Tomas,” he said as he returned the salute.
“Of course, Captain,” one of the guardsmen said as he opened the left-hand door. “Welcome home, sir.”
“Thank you.” Ga’briyel stepped into the room, and the other three followed. Their fear and awe was almost overwhelming, but he ignored it the best he could. He strode to the front of the room where King Tomas was seated on his throne, and a smile formed on his lips when he saw his father and Ma’ikel standing to the side of the dais. When he reached the steps, he dropped to his left knee, his right hand on the hilt of his sword, and bowed his head.
“Rise, Captain Mistri,” Tomas said, and Ga’briyel stood. “Welcome back.”
“Thank you, sire. It is good to be home.”
“I am sure it is, but there will not be much rest for you, I am afraid. At least not for a while. As soon as you have cleaned up and have seen your mother, I expect you and Captain Rabina and Captain Sekara to tell me everything that has happened since you left.”
“Yes, Your Majesty. The other captains went home, but I have sent for them, sire. They should be here soon.”
“No matter. You need to go home first, anyway.” Tomas smiled. “I can smell the horses from here, Captain.”
“I am sorry about that, sire. I was told to come straight here.”
“Who are these others with you, Captain?”
Ga’briyel looked behind him and gestured for the other three to join him. Sophyra stepped up to his left, and the boys moved to his right. “These boys are Mathi and Zahin, sire. I have been told that Mathi is essential to my quest, sire, and Zahin as well.”
“By whom were you told this, Captain?”
“A priestess of Yisu named Nikale, sire.”
“A priestess? So you are saying Yisu Himself wants these boys with you?”
“Yes, Your Majesty. That is exactly what I am saying.”
“Hmm.” Tomas’ eyes moved to Sophyra. “And this lady, Captain?”
Ga’briyel grinned and took Sophyra’s hand. “This is my wife, sire. Sophyra Mistri si’Adama.”
“Your wife? When and where did you marry, Captain?”
“More than a moon ago, sire, in Grama. Nikale performed the ceremony.”
Tomas smiled brightly as Jarda stepped forward. “Then it seems congratulations are in order.” The king’s gaze flickered between the two men. “For both of you.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty,” Jarda said, bowing his head with a grin. “Now I have a daughter as well as a son.”
“Take them home, Jarda. Come back soon, though. I need to hear what your son has to say.”
“Yes, sire,” General Mistri said, and both soldiers dropped to a knee before their king. After they stood, Jarda gestured toward the doors. As Ga’briyel turned, Jarda asked, “Are you coming, Ma’ikel?”
“No, Jarda. I will speak with Ga’briyel later.” Violet gaze met violet gaze. “There is much to talk about, Anmah.”
“Yes, Ma’ikel. I know,” Ga’briyel said, bowing his head respectfully before grinning at the older Anmah. “It seems as if you will be third in line, however.”
“So it seems,” Ma’ikel said with a nod and a smile.
“Come on, son,” Jarda said, putting his arm around Ga’briyel’s shoulder. “Let us go see your mother.”
With a glance at Sophyra as they left the throne room, Jarda said, “So, my son, it seems you found love after all.”
“Yes, Father, and in the most unlikely place,” Ga’briyel replied as he squeezed Sophyra’s hand lightly. “I will tell you about it later.”
“Of course you will,” Jarda said with a laugh.
When they reached their home, Elise was waiting in the corridor, their saddlebags at her feet, wringing her hands together. She rushed toward her son as soon as they turned the corner, and he grunted as she wrapped her arms around him with a sob.
“I am so glad you are home, my son,” she whispered. “I missed you.”
Ga’briyel held her tightly. “I missed you too, Mama.” Then he pushed her back. “I would like to introduce you to my wife, Mama.” He held Sophyra to his side. “This is Sophyra.”
“Your wife? Since when?”
“About a moon ago.” His smile dimmed slightly. “She is also from Desa.”
Elise and Jarda’s eyes went wide at that. “Another Anmah from Desa? That is too much of a coincidence,” Jarda said softly.
“It is no coincidence, Father. Let us go inside, and I will tell you about it. After a bath.”
Elise said, “Yes, you all should bathe.” She looked at the boys. “Jarda, will you take these boys to the barracks, please? They can clean up there.”
“Of course, my love,” Jarda said. “Come on, boys. Get your bags and follow me.”
“Yes, sir,” they both said, and the three of them disappeared back down the corridor.
"You two will come with me," Elise said with a smile at Sophyra. Ga'briyel's wife gave her a shy smile back, but it was hesitant. Elise looked up at her son. "You do stink, Ga'briyel."
He laughed. "That does not surprise me, Mama. We have been traveling for a long time, and we only stayed in an inn twice during that time. The last inn was three days ago."
"Well, you two go bathe, and I will get clean clothes for you both. Do you have any in your bags, my son?"
"Hmm. I suppose you could wear some of your father's, Ga'briyel, but the breeches will probably be a little short." Elise shrugged. "Just tuck them into your boots and no one will know." Then she looked at Sophyra. "Do you mind wearing something of mine, Sophyra?"
"No, ma'am. That would be fine, thank you."
"For Yisu's sake, child, you do not have to call me ma'am. My name is Elise."
Sophyra just nodded, and Ga'briyel squeezed her hand again. "Come, my heart. King Tomas will not wait long."
"Yes, Ga'briyel," Sophyra said softly, and he led her to the bathing room. Her fear and worry were suffocating him, and he took her in his arms as soon as the door shut behind him.
"Relax, Sophyra, please. You have nothing to fear here and nothing to be worried about." The door opened, and Elise brought in a large kettle of boiling water.
"Do you need enough for two baths, Ga'briyel, or will you be bathing together?" she asked with a twinkle in her eye.
Ga'briyel grinned at his wife, and her turbulent emotions settled a bit. "What do you think, Sophyra? Shall we save some water and bathe together?"
Sophyra dropped her head as her cheeks flamed red. "Whatever you decide will be fine, my love."
Ga'briyel looked at his mother. "One will be enough, Mama. Thank you." He took the kettle from her, and she winked at him before leaving the room. "Come, Sophyra, I need to get back to the king." He emptied the kettle into the large copper tub in the middle of the room that always held clean but cold water. Then he pulled his shirt over his head and took off his boots and breeches. Sophyra slowly removed her dress, and then he took her hand and helped her into the tub before climbing in behind her. "How I wish we could just relax here," he said, "but we cannot. I must hurry. King Tomas may be a good man, but he is not known for his patience."
Sophyra took the linen cloth and soap from him and began to wash him. He groaned softly at her touch, and the heat flowing from her quickly overpowered all her fear and worry. When she finished, he returned the favor. Her blond hair now reached to the middle of her back, and he carefully washed it, running his fingers through it when he was done. Elise had silently entered while they were washing and had put clean clothing on the bench by the door before just as silently exiting. Ga'briyel stepped out of the tub and grabbed two towels from the shelf above the bench.
"Stop, Sophyra," he said quietly.
"Stop what, Ga'briyel?" she said with a small smile.
"Stop sending such passion my way or I will find myself in the stocks for disobeying my king." He looked at her seriously, but the corner of his mouth twitched as he forced himself not to smile back.
"I cannot help it, husband," Sophyra said as she stepped up to him and laid her hands on his chest. "You are so handsome that I cannot control myself."
He wrapped his arms around her and kissed her. "Try, please. I must get back to the king."
"I know, my love. What will I do while you are gone?"
"You can talk with my mother. Do not tell her about the child, though. I want to be the one to do that." The fear and worry returned as strong as before. "Please, my heart, relax. She will like you."
"If you say so, Ga'briyel." Sophyra did not sound convinced.
They finished dressing and left the bathing room. Elise was in the kitchen, and she smiled at them when Ga'briyel ushered Sophyra into the room.
"I must get back to King Tomas, Mama," he said. "Will you make sure Sophyra is comfortable, please?"
"Of course, my son," Elise said with another smile at Sophyra. "We will get to know each other while you talk with your father and the king." She gestured toward the table in the next room. "Please, sit, Sophyra, and I will bring us tea."
"Yes, Elise," Sophyra said as she looked at Ga'briyel. He dipped his head and kissed her softly.
"I do not know how long this will take, my heart," he said quietly. "Promise me you will try to relax."
"I promise to try, my love, but I do not know if it will happen."
He cupped her cheek, and she leaned into his touch. "It will happen, Sophyra. I love you."
"I love you, too, Ga'briyel."
With a heavy, regretful sigh, Captain Mistri turned from his wife to obey his king's summons.
"More of them, Captain Mistri? How many more?" King Tomas glared at his captain.
For the last four hours, the three captains had filled in their king and their general on everything that had happened since they had left Torkeln so many moons before. When Ga'briyel mentioned his four additional deaths, his father scowled, and King Tomas looked pale. Ga'briyel didn't give them anything but the bare minimum of details, but he assured them that he was fine, and the talk moved to the evil that he had found in Hela Era Larai. When Ga'briyel told his king of the Dirack eggs, Tomas had been furious.
"Dozens, Your Majesty. Manali said we have five moons to destroy the eggs. Now it is about four and a half moons, sire. It will take about four moons to reach the volcano which leaves two sennights to destroy the eggs."
"But first you have to get there, Captain," Tomas said with a frown.
"Who will go with you?"
"I would like to take Captain Sekara and Captain Rabina if Your Majesty would allow it, and the boys must come with me, sire."
"And your wife? What about her?"
Ga'briyel looked at his father. "I want her to stay here with my parents, sire. Where we are going will be too dangerous for her."
Jarda nodded as Tomas said, "I agree, Captain Mistri. The three of you and the boys will leave for the volcano the day after tomorrow. Will that give you enough time?"
"Yes, sire. Thank you, sire."
"Just do what you must, Ga'briyel Mistri," Tomas said, laying his hand on his captain's arm. "I admit that I do not understand everything that you are or that you must do, but I understand enough that I will not stand in your way. Do you need any additional men?"
"I do not know, sire. May I think about it?"
"Of course. Let me know by tomorrow so that I can make plans."
"Yes, Your Majesty."
Tomas smiled then. "Now go home, Captains. Be with your wife, Captain Mistri."
"Regretfully, sire, I cannot. I must speak with Ma'ikel. There is much he needs to know, sire."
"Very well, but I would not keep that beautiful woman waiting too much longer, Captain, if I were you."
Ga'briyel smiled as he and the other two dropped to one knee. "I will keep that in mind, Your Majesty," he said.
When they rose, Jarda said, "If Your Majesty has no more need for me, I would like to go home as well."
"Go, Jarda," Tomas said with a wave of his hand. "Get to know your daughter."
"Thank you, sire," Jarda said as he also bent a knee.
"I will meet you at home soon, Father," Ga'briyel said, and Jarda clapped him on the shoulder before he and the other two captains left the throne room. Ga'briyel bowed his head respectfully to his king and walked toward the door that led to Ma'ikel's room. He desperately wanted to go home, but he knew he couldn't. His Siskaska needed to know what was going on, and he needed to know now.