Rumours clawed at his heart. Visitors that passed through the forest they spoke of murders, and polluted lakes and rivers in the southeast. When the ogre Havica had first become the High King in Naedin’s capital, most of the elves had set aside the infrequent stories.
However over the years Taegaeim had continued to hear more. Others seemed content with not investigating but he believed there had to be someone who shared his concern. The thought was enough to encourage him to speak with his mother.
Queen Wayina was in her throne room. Seated on the steps of the wide dais, she was surrounded by a small group of children and their teacher. While others in the Queendom played flutes or violins, Wayina was one of the few who enjoyed the guitar. She occasionally sang as she strummed. She wore a simple cream and green coloured dress and her intricate golden crown was resting on the cushion of the throne.
The children laughed, clapping along to the beat.
Smiling, Taegaeim approached. He took a seat near his mother as he waited for the musicians to finish. She nudged him but he murmured under his breath, “You know I don’t like to sing.”
Wayina shook her head.
Towards the end of the song the youngest elf walked up to Taegaeim with outstretched hands — opening and closing them. He smiled and reluctantly brought her onto his lap. She tried to reach up and grab at his curly black hair but he nervously laughed and eased her arm away.
“No, no, little one.”
She weakly protested, “Aww….”
The others giggled and the song stopped.
“He’s right,” Wayina said as he lowered the girl. “Only I can do so.” Chuckling, she reached over and ruffled his hair. He smiled dryly as he reset the thin crown on top of his head.
After packing his things away, the music teacher instructed the group to bow and thank the Queen for her time. As they disappeared from view at the opposite end of the great hall, Wayina rose and placed her guitar on its wooden stand.
“Now my son, what do you wish to talk about?” she inquired as she returned to sit beside him on the steps, her few laugh lines crinkling as she smiled. Her long brown hair was wavy and thick like his, but instead reached the middle of her back.
“Mother I…. You know about the rumours of the things King Havica might be doing. The stories are getting worse and there seems to be more and more of them.” Her smile disappeared but he continued, “Please, listen. I think we should get help from the other doms. We need to confront Havica, speak with him, and if those stories are true: stop him. If it is true, he shouldn’t be allowed to treat everyone or the land like he is.”
Tired of similar conversations she’d had with him she sighed, but remained resolute. “If it is true, stopped by whom, Taegaeim? I won’t — I can’t — tell the High King what to do with his land.”
“But why? Beyond protecting our home and people, why?”
“Because,” she snapped, then sighed again. “I’m sorry. I believe that if others or I were to speak with him, nothing would be achieved. Not only that but have you heard about his army, should it come to that?”
“It’s become stronger in recent years. It’s as diverse as Éaob itself, bringing with them all their strengths. The knights of the late King Vatine have been rumoured to lead them as well.”
Taegaeim’s brows rose, remembering that the knights and their former King had been known for their ruthlessness.
“So you see, I’m not going to Éaob when I know I’ll never be heard. One race can’t end it alone and I doubt others will feel any different,” she finished. She rose and strode passed him toward the private exit hall.
“Then I still see no reason why we can’t speak to the others. Won’t they help you if we all come together as one?” he risked without looking. Her footsteps ceased. The swish of her dress followed a second later and he gazed upward.
“No,” the Queen said softly, smiling wistfully. “I don’t believe so. I won’t travel to Éaob.”
Once she was gone Taegaeim sat in the silent hall for a long moment. Not far outside people spoke and laughed as they went about their day. The city’s noises faintly drifted through to him.
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “No.” Taegaeim debated with himself for a moment more before standing and slipping away from the hall through another passage. After a while he stepped into his room, closing the doors behind him and gathering his warmest clothes into a pack along with a set of goggles and gloves.
He took a step back to ensure he had everything he needed. He then moved to the large window opposite the doors, gazing out over the vast forest for kilometres. The castle was a behemoth jack pine, which was grew tall and thick despite a portion of the elves’ population living inside. Its bottom branches were half a kilometre above the trees below.
A cool wind blew over the forest, brushing the evergreens. The elf breathed in deeply and then closed the glass door. On the wall beside the window was a large map illustrating Naedin. Éca Forest was near the centre, and bordering its southeast were the highlands of Éca’s Shield.
Though he had memorized most of it Taegaeim carefully removed the drawing, neatly folding it and placing it into an inside pocket of his coat. Then he retrieved his sword from where he had temporarily placed it on the bed. Lastly he reached up to touch his crown — thin branches intertwined with a few leaves and threaded gold — and for a moment thought about leaving it before deciding otherwise.
Leaving his room he snuck out of the palace and across the base floor of Aeim, through small crowds and passed the gates. He walked through a hidden entrance he had found as a child, and on the outside secreted his pack, then returned to the palace for food and a friend.
Alo’s brown coat shone richly in the light. She had a thin, white stripe down her long thick nose and white fur around her hooves. She and Taegaeim were nearly out of the stables when her new stable-hand stepped around the corner.
She snorted, displeased at the roadblock.
The elf hair was shorter than Taegaeim’s. His thick brows furrowed in confusion and his eyes widened when he realized who it was. “Oh, Your Highness. I was just about to groom her.”
Alo shifted impatiently and Taegaeim patted her neck. He whispered to the workhorse and then turned to him. “Thank you, but she won’t be needing it today.”
The stable-hand nodded in awe.
Taegaeim smiled. “Please, keep this a secret.”
“Y-yes of course,” he said, bowing and moving aside as they left.
Once outside Taegaeim breathed a sigh of relief. After patting Alo’s nose and giving her a kiss he bent over to grab the packs, tightly attaching them to her saddle and climbing up with ease. Alo eagerly shuffled as he grabbed hold of the reins.
He glanced at Aeim a final time — his blue eyes traveling up the extensive trunk until the smaller pines obscured the view.
Keeping a wary eye on the faraway guards at the gates, Taegaeim directed Alo away from their home and toward the north.