Chapter Twenty-seven: The Return
The next day’s travels took them out of the thieves’ forest and into the open. It seemed that they did not need the cover of the trees with the mountains shielding them from the rest of the world. They began angling east; gradually at first, but soon they were traveling more east than north.
As time wore on, Adesina was surprised to see that she was not shunned by those around her. Instead, they did all that they could to show her their desire to help her through this difficult time.
E’nes rode close to her, sharing with her memories of his childhood. He spoke of their parents, describing them in great detail. He and Ravi would remind each other of happier times and laugh at old jokes. Adesina was grateful for the pictures he painted for her. It made her feel like she knew her family. It made her feel like she almost belonged to them.
Sa’jan was also spending a good deal of his time with Adesina. He was an excellent storyteller, whether he was recounting his experiences as a soldier, as a father, or simply as a man. They never pressed her to share any information of her own, but after a while she found herself doing it of her own accord.
Adesina talked about her dearest friend, Lanil, and her greatest enemy, Basha. She described to them what it was like growing up in a strict and constantly military environment. She spoke of what the students did to amuse themselves when the Shar were not around, what was expected when they were being supervised, and what it took to be the best among one’s peers.
Bit by bit, the other L’avan joined in these conversations. They would listen to Adesina’s stories and share tales of their own. Their journey seemed more relaxed now that they were beyond the mountain range.
Adesina kept a close eye out for any other group of travelers, but they were completely alone. When she commented on this to E’nes, he smiled.
“These lands are roamed by ferocious beasts. Travelers keep as far away as possible.”
There were a few chuckles at this remark, and Ravi rolled his eyes. She looked at the others in confusion. “What do you mean?”
Ravi spoke up. “These are Rashad lands. We protect them from intruders.”
At first Adesina didn’t see any signs of the Rashad. The lands were filled with wildlife of all different kinds, but there was no hint of any sleek black forms other than Ravi. As the fourth week of their journey from the High City came to a close, Adesina was beginning to think that they would never see anything other than the local wildlife.
They were riding their horses through the tall green grass, basking in the morning sun. Adesina was marveling at the colors of these northern lands. Everything seemed so much richer—so much more alive—than the south.
She was about to comment to Ravi, when she saw him stiffen and a low growl sounded in his throat.
She looked around in alarm, for she had never seen him act in such a way. “What is it, Ravi?”
He didn’t answer, but crouched low in the grass. The other L’avan continued to ride as if nothing was wrong, but Adesina slowed her horse, still searching for the danger.
Without warning, a golden figure launched itself at Ravi from an impressive distance. Adesina had never seen Ravi fight before, and she was struck by his deadly beauty. He moved with a speed and precision that would be breathtaking to any warrior. His movements were so smooth and effortless that Adesina was amazed.
Ravi evaded the attack with ease, pinning the golden figure to the ground. The attacker didn’t even try to fight back. Instead, a throaty giggle escaped from it.
Ravi’s voice was still a growl. “I had expected a more mature welcome, Rissa.”
The name rang a bell in Adesina’s memory. This was the younger sister that E’nes had told her about.
The two siblings were soon surrounded by several other Rashad. All of them had varying shades of golden yellow fur and large blue eyes. Adesina had expected them to have Ravi’s black fur, but it seemed that he was an aberration in his own way.
“Adesina,” E’nes called gently.
She took the hint and left Ravi with his family. After all, they hadn’t seen him in a long time.
They were now approaching another large forest that seemed to go on for several leagues. In the distance there was a lone mountain, which seemed to be their destination. E’nes confirmed what Adesina surmised.
He pointed to the peak. “Our capital city is at the base of that mountain. Once we enter the forest we will be in L’avan lands. All the area east and north of here belongs to the L’avan. We call them Pevothem. It means dwelling of the heart.”
This forest was even older than the thieves’ forest. However, rather than being tainted with decay, this forest was still thriving. Light danced along the forest floor, casting merry shadows as it went. The sounds and smells of a thousand forms of life seemed to join the light in its caper. Something deep inside of Adesina awoke as she entered this forest, although she could not identify what it was.
Adesina couldn’t believe how different the north was from the south. She had never imagined that there could be so much light and color condensed into one place. The climate was cooler, but Adesina found that she preferred it. There was a much bigger variety of plant and animal life, some of which even evaded her thorough education.
It didn’t take long for Ravi to catch up, accompanied by those who had greeted him. They appeared on a ridge just ahead of the path on which the L’avan were traveling.
L’iam brought his companions to a halt, greeting each of the Rashad by name, but Ravi was the one to introduce them to Adesina. He indicated to his father, mother and younger sister, speaking in affectionate tones. Then he introduced Remah, his betrothed, and her family.
Adesina was surprised at how easy it was for her to tell them apart. She had worried that they would all look too much alike for her to be able to learn their names, but each face was unique to her eyes. She took a particular interest in the one Ravi had introduced as his “betrothed.”
Remah had golden tan fur and dark blue eyes. Her build was more petite than Ravi’s, and her face exuded sweetness. She was standing close to Ravi, almost as if she was afraid he would leave without warning. Ravi didn’t seem to mind her nearness. In fact, there was a sense of being complete in his expression.
Rissa walked beside Adesina as the growing group went onward. Her laughing eyes of sky blue danced with joy in everything around her. Adesina found her to be an interesting contrast from her older brother. While Ravi was sage and reserved, Rissa was playful and outgoing.
“So, you are the reason my brother has been gone for so long.”
Adesina didn’t know how to reply to such a statement.
Rissa laughed at her expression. “Oh, do not worry about it. He was a great bore even before he left. We did not miss him much.”
Everyone laughed, but it was clear that Ravi had been missed very much. The Rashad all gravitated around him, as if he had some sort of invisible power that gave them energy. Ravi appeared to be used to the proximity of the others of his race, as he didn’t seem to notice it himself.
They traveled all of the next day, stopping near a warm spring the following evening. Each of the L’avan took turns taking baths, shaving and cleaning their clothes. E’nes gave Adesina a teasing smile.
“My wife would throw me out if I tried going home smelling like this.”
Most of their conversations had been focused on his childhood or teenage years, so he had never mentioned that he was married. Adesina suddenly felt uneasy.
“You are married?”
Her brother looked surprised. “I was certain that I had told you.”
She merely shook her head. She would have remembered something like that.
He turned back to his razor and small mirror. “Wren’na and I have been married for one year. Most L’avan couples marry when the younger of the two reaches their twentieth birthday.”
Adesina pulled a leaf off of an overhead branch and began turning it over in her hands. “Why twenty years old?”
“Because that is when a L’avan is considered an adult.”
He continued with his shaving while Adesina watched. Even though her eyes were on the motions of her brother’s hand, her mind was far away. She had never considered the possibility of meeting a sister-in-law, and the idea of it worried her. What if this Wren’na didn’t like her?
E’nes saw the expression on his sister’s face and smiled. “Wren’na will love you, Adesina. I know she will.”
She nodded doubtfully and walked away to begin her own preparations. E’nes had been thoughtful enough to set up a blanket and build a small fire by the spring. Adesina washed her clothes first and hung them up to dry by the fire. Then she stepped into the pool that had formed around the spring, sinking up to her neck. She let out a quiet sigh as the warm water relaxed her muscles.
She let the water wash away the troubles that plagued her mind. The young woman filled her thoughts with the sounds of the forest around her, the feeling of the water, the colors of the sunset filtering through the trees.
Adesina was the last to bathe, and had been encouraged to take as much time as she wanted. Still, it was only a matter of time until she felt she needed to finish. She washed herself thoroughly, and then began working on her long hair. Adesina had brought with her a root which could be worked into a lather, and left her quite clean.
She stepped out of the pool and went to sit by the fire to dry. By the time her skin was free of the water that clung to it, her clothing was dry as well. Adesina dressed carefully and rejoined the group.
No one slept well that night, due to the heightened anticipation in the air. Eventually, morning came and they all prepared to begin the last leg of their journey.
The group was unusually quiet as they rode through the trees. Some felt anticipation, others apprehension. Adesina felt an uncomfortable mixture of both.
As they topped a ridge, the trees ended and a grassy valley spread out before them. Nestled directly against the lone mountain on the far end of the valley was a large city that made the High City seem humble in size.
It glistened in the late afternoon sun, set gracefully against both mountain and forest. It was clearly an entity of its own, but it still seemed to fit in with all of its surroundings—like it had sprung up with the trees around it. It was easily the most beautiful thing Adesina had ever seen.
E’nes saw the stunned look on her face and smiled. “Welcome to the city of Yavar.”
They nudged their horses forward, moving out into the open. The group was soon spotted by the city guards, and word of their arrival was sounded throughout the city. By the time they reached the city gates, a crowd had assembled. The sound of hundreds of voices washed over them as they entered Yavar, some cheering for their returned soldiers and others studying Adesina in curiosity.
“Welcome home, Protectors.”
“What news have you?”
“Are the rumors true?”
Adesina was pleased to find that she could understand everything being shouted, even though it was all in the language of the L’avan.
This cry caught Adesina’s attention. She turned and saw a pretty young woman with auburn and honey colored hair pushing her way through the crowd, her pixie features flooded with joy. E’nes saw her as well, and a wide grin split his face.
She ran up to his horse, and he lifted her onto the saddle with him. Wren’na threw her arms around his neck and gave him a loving kiss.
Slightly embarrassed by this open display of affection, Adesina focused her attention on the city beyond the crowd. There were L’avan everywhere, moving in a strange sort of organized chaos.
There were merchants selling their wares, artisans at work, street performers entertaining groups of children and adults alike. There were also a number of Rashad throughout the city, but as before, none of them had the same coloring as Ravi. Adesina made a mental note to ask him about it when they were alone.
Everything in the city was clean and well kept, but also looked completely natural. The architecture looked as if it had been grown rather than built. The L’avan people wore rich, cheerful colors, and were a happy combination of dignified grace and uninhibited joy. The contrast to the High City was striking.
She turned in response to her brother’s voice. E’nes and Wren’na still had their arms around each other, but they were turned to face her.
He made a sheepish gesture towards his wife. “This is Wren’na,” he said unnecessarily. “Wren’na, this is my sister, Adesina.”
Wren’na looked at Adesina in shock. She knew the sad story regarding her husband’s mother and unborn sister, and could hardly believe what she had heard.
She soon recovered and gave her sister-in-law a warm smile. “Welcome to Pevothem, Adesina. I am so happy to meet you.”
Adesina nodded uncertainly. “Thank you.”
E’nes whispered something in Wren’na’s ear and she turned her attention back to him. They leaned their heads close together, speaking in low voices and occasionally laughing.
The group of travelers were moving towards the center of the city, followed by many of the crowd. In fact, the gathering of people only seemed to grow as they rode onward. When they reached their destination, it felt as if the whole city surrounded them.
They came to a stop in front of a large building made from shimmering white stone. Adesina had to look twice, because at first she mistook it for several large trees whose branches were intricately intertwined. It wasn’t until they got closer that she saw the elaborate stairs leading up to a set of large golden doors.
The crowd slowed to a stop, letting the soldiers and Adesina approach the building alone. E’nes kissed his wife again before lowering her to the ground, where she moved to join the masses. They all dismounted and moved towards the white stone stairs.
Adesina’s apprehension seemed to magnify with each step she took. She scolded herself silently for such weakness, and straightened her back in a show of pride and courage. She ignored all the people staring at her and fixed her gaze on the doors at the top of the stairs.
There were two guards dressed in the same crimson uniform as E’nes and the others. They saw L’iam, who was leading the company, and bowed, opening the doors for them to enter.
The travelers crossed into a long hallway lined with white treelike pillars and guards standing at attention. Light shone in through the high ceilings, brilliantly illuminating the white interior.
There were multicolored banners hung at regular intervals in between the columns, all of them different from each other. The ones closer to the doors were clearly the oldest. Adesina could see the signs of age on the rich fabric, even though they were clearly treated with care. She counted twelve on each side with the twenty-fifth hanging at the far end of the room to which the hall led.
In that far room there were a number of people dressed in elegant clothing and speaking to each other in low voices. A silence fell over the room as the travelers entered.
Adesina’s eyes passed over the observers and turned to the figures seated beneath the final banner.
Three white thrones were set there upon a dais. The queen sat on the right, wearing a silk gown of pale blue and a flower-like gold circlet on her white and red hair. She was beautiful, but had the appearance of one who had been ill for a long time. Her complexion was pale, and there were dark circles underneath her eyes. In spite of the frailty of her physical being, there was a gentle strength in her eyes that both captivating and inspiring.
The king sat in the middle, wearing a dark blue uniform and a leaf-like circlet on his gold and chestnut hair. He seemed to be the opposite of his companion, with a strong expression and aggressively handsome features. He sat on the edge of his seat, as if ready to spring into action.
The chair on the left was empty.
The group came to a halt several feet from the dais. They all bowed and received an acknowledgment in return. L’iam took a step forward to speak.
“I greet their Majesties, King L’unn and Queen Ta’mala, upon returning from the task given to my care. I also come bearing news of the Chief Protector General.”
A murmur ran through the room, but King L’unn acted as if they were completely alone. He leaned forward with concern written on his face. “What news?”
“He has been taken by the Shimat.”
A stunned silence followed this statement. The king looked at L’iam with penetrating eyes. “You are certain? How did you come to this knowledge?”
The young man hesitated before gesturing to Adesina and answering, “By the confession of the one who captured him.”
All eyes turned to Adesina.
She fixed her gaze on the ground and kept her expression stony. What difference did it make if they thought her unfeeling? After what she had done, they would not think kindly of her anyway.
E’nes shifted to stand closer to his sister, giving her his unspoken support.
The king’s face was unreadable as he studied the young woman before him. “What is your name, Shimat?”
It took her a moment to find her voice. “Adesina.”
His eyes narrowed slightly. “Why have you returned to Yavar when you have so clearly betrayed your people?”
Adesina shook her head. “I did not know…”
L’iam intervened. “She is not a traitor. That is to say, betrayal was not her intent. She is the lost daughter of Me’shan and E’rian, taken and raised by the Shimat.”
The room was suddenly filled with excited whispers.
The king’s expression softened marginally. “What do you have to say on your own behalf?”
There was a pause while she searched for the right words. What could she possibly say to justify her actions in their eyes? She looked down at Ravi, who gave her a supportive smile in return.
When Adesina turned back to the king, she felt her shoulders slump ever so slightly. “Nothing, your Majesty.”
King L’unn raised his eyebrows in surprise. “Nothing?”
Her brother reached over and took her hand, pressing her fingers with his own. “Your Majesty, my sister did not know she was doing wrong. She was doing her duty, as she had been raised to do. She has since felt deep remorse for her actions and has forsaken her order. I have seen this with my own eyes.”
The king’s gaze swept over the others standing with them. “Are you the only one to vouch for this change?”
Several heads began shaking, but Sa’jan was the one to speak. “No, your Majesty. We all vouch for her.”
Ri’sel’s lips tightened and his eyes dropped to the floor. King L’unn took note of this. “Do you not agree, Ri’sel?”
The grim man looked at his niece long and hard. He had hardly spoken to her since their encounter in her cell. Adesina felt no love for him, and was sure he felt the same.
He took a deep breath before speaking. “It is true that she has undergone much in her journey to Pevothem. However, I am still wary of allowing a Shimat in our midst.”
L’unn acknowledged his concern with a nod, then he turned his attention back to L’iam. “What say you, my son?”
Adesina’s eyes whipped over to L’iam. How could she have missed it before? If the deferential treatment hadn’t been enough to indicate L’iam’s position, the resemblance between him and the king and queen should have been.
She would have berated herself for her lack of observation, but she was too worried about what he was going to say to his father. If L’iam didn’t think she should stay, then it wouldn’t matter that the others had vouched for her.
The young prince looked over at her and smiled when he sensed how nervous she was. “I believe that Adesina does not pose a threat to the L’avan.”
She could tell that there was something he wasn’t saying. The king could also sense it, but chose to not address it at this time. Instead, he got to his feet and slowly walked down the dais, stopping directly in front of Adesina.
He looked deep into her eyes before placing a hand on her shoulder and speaking. “I pardon you for your crimes against the L’avan, Adesina, daughter of Me’shan and E’rian. You are welcome to dwell among us for as long as you wish.”
She bowed her head, uncertain what to say. An unexpected surge of relief put a lump in her throat, and the wild hope of finally belonging somewhere danced through her thoughts.
King L’unn turned and climbed the steps back to the throne. “L’iam, I will expect a full report this evening.”
This seemed to be an indication that everyone was dismissed. K’eb, Mar’sal and A’asil left immediately. Sa’jan and Ri’sel spoke a few words to L’iam before following. Ravi approached King L’unn and entered into a solemn discussion with him.
E’nes gave Adesina a triumphant smile, but she was too perplexed over her own feelings to return it.
She covered her feelings by scowling at him in exasperation. “When you said that L’iam’s father got him the position as leader of your group, I assumed you meant that his father was a general in the army, not the king.”
Her brother laughed freely at his own joke. “I doubt it would have mattered to you. Besides, L’iam hates being treated differently.”
She cocked an eyebrow. “Well, he will have to get used to it, will he not? I mean, if he is going to be king himself.”
E’nes shook his head. “No, L’iam is not next in line to be king. He has an older brother to take that job. Although,” he paused to look around the room, “I do not see L’on here. I cannot think of anything more important than the arrival of his brother that would keep him away.”
A girl about Adesina’s age separated herself from the group of people standing closest to the thrones and ran to give L’iam a fierce hug. Based on the close resemblance, Adesina assumed that this was a younger sister.
E’nes, who was still holding Adesina’s hand, gave it a gentle squeeze. “Shall we go home?”
“Home?” asked Adesina in confusion.
He stared at her, suddenly unsure. “Yes. I assumed that you would want to stay with me and Wren’na. If not, there is a small inn not far from here or you could stay at Father’s house.”
Adesina didn’t like the idea of being among strangers or of staying at the home of the man she had captured. She gave E’nes a half smile. “Staying with you would be nice.”
He looked both pleased and relieved. “Very well. We should hurry, though. I am sure that Wren’na is anxious to dote on us.”
Adesina nodded and followed her brother out of the palace.