The ravine was hours wide. Reniko could not believe the depth of the ravine, all this time traveling, and the bottom was still so far down she could not see it. She was eager for the sun to reach its zenith, to see if some light could be shed on the ground below, but the more she talked with Malik the less likely it seemed.
“How long until we reach the other side?” Reniko asked. She had been starting at the other side of the cliff watching it loom ever closer, but could not judge the distance they yet had to travel.
“Not long now, we should reach the forest surrounding Tordaskar before the sun reaches midday,” Orric said. So much for seeing the bottom of this place, Reniko thought.
Orric was true to his word. Before the sun had reached its peak, they had met the cliff wall, and soaring close to it, entered the woods of Tordaskar. Orric landed, his body nearing exhaustion. Malik, Rimca, and Reniko began to set up a camp, all of them tired from their trek through the plains surrounding Ocean’s Wall. They stumbled around camp preparing a make-shift meal, and when it was completed, they all sat in silence while they ate. Reniko was glancing at the woods around them. The trees that surrounded them were immense, giant Sequoias and Redwoods amazing!
“I’ve never seen trees so tall before,” Reniko said as she listened to the wind from the ravine blow through the trees.
“They are very old, thousands of years, they’ve all reached their full height,” Orric said yawning.
“We have nothing in this quantity so well preserved on Earth,” Reniko said soaking in the sight as she too yawned.
“I think we should get some sleep before we travel forward,” Malik said succumbing to his own exhaustion.
Rimca conceded, all of them finished their meal, and took position in the shade of the nearby trees. Orric woke them a few hours later.
“I’m sorry to disturb all of you, but I have some urgent matters that I need to discuss with my people. I can drop you all off on the outskirts of the city, unless you feel like walking the rest of the way,” Orric pressed.
“That will be fine Orric, I don’t think any of us are up for a two day hike through this forest,” Malik said.
Packing up their small camp, they climbed aboard Orric and he took to the air. Now high above the trees, Reniko could clearly see their destination in the distance. Malik had been right; it would have taken them the better part of two days to walk. Luckily, by air, it was only a matter of hours before they reached the walls surrounding Tordaskar. Orric landed briefly, allowing only enough time for them to disembark and grab their belongings, and he took to the air.
“Good-bye Orric, thank you for everything,” Reniko called after him, watching as he disappeared above the tops of the trees. When she could no longer see him, she joined Malik and Rimca in gathering their belongings.
Malik walked over to her, worry written all over his face. “Reniko there is something I have to tell you. I should have told you this a long time ago, I just didn’t know how. Lyss, I – ” Malik stopped talking as he glanced over Reniko’s shoulder and saw the point of a spear directed at her back. He made to move, only to realize that there was more than one spear. They were surrounded by the Tordaskan guard.
“Not now. Why now?” Malik shouted.
One of the guards, the captain, pushed his way through the ranks to face his prisoners. “Who are you, and how in the name of the goddess did you get so close to our gates without detection?” he asked and looking at Malik gasped in surprise and knelt on the ground, head bowed. “My Prince Malik!”
Prince? Reniko looked at Malik shocked, Malik looked at her defeated. He was trying to tell me, Reniko realized, and she was angry. Why didn’t he tell me?
“Prince?” Reniko whispered. “Oh Malik, why didn’t you tell me?”
“I didn’t… I didn’t know how to tell you. I’m sorry Reniko.”
“Your father, King Zanith has ordered you detained, my lord. I dare not defy his order,” the captain said standing once again.
“Of course he would,” Malik said stepping away from Reniko.
“I will come with you without trouble if you assure me that my companions will be unharmed,” Malik demanded with authority. He suddenly looked the part of a prince, despite how travel worn he was. Guess I’m not the only one that’s been hiding things.
“You have my word that they will be unharmed until they go before the King,” the captain said.
Malik turned back to Reniko and held her tightly. “Promise me Reniko that no matter what happens, you won’t eat or drink anything that is given to you.”
“Why Malik?” Reniko asked.
“I’ll explain later, just give me a chance to talk with my father. I won’t let them do anything to you Reniko, I promise.”
“Malik, you’re scaring me,” Reniko whispered as she was torn apart from him and led into the city away from both him and Rimca. Trembling slightly, she tried to avoid the curious looks that accompanied her as she moved with her guards deeper into the city toward the castle.
She was trying to contain her sudden fear when she was led beyond the castle gates and guided to the dungeon. Wasn’t expecting to be alone in this venture, Reniko thought as she was left alone in a cell, the clothing that the Le’a’to had given her the only things she possessed. Reniko stared through the bars of her cage and whispered her only comfort, “I trust you Malik.”
Malik entered the throne room reluctantly, followed closely by Rimca and the captain of the city guard, Reese. At the sight of him, King Zanith got to his feet, anger evident in his face.
“How dare you,” Zanith shouted, “How dare you leave like that. It’s been five years, Malik; the only word I ever received was from the Lady Rimca. I should disown you for what you have done.”
“I couldn’t come back, not after everything I have seen. The people out there are suffering. I couldn’t just ignore them and come back here to hide behind Ocean’s Wall.”
“So why have you returned?” Zanith asked.
Reniko sat numbly in the corner of her cell, unnerved by how long it had been since she had seen Malik or Rimca. She was worried something terrible had happened to them, or something terrible is going to happen to me. What did Malik mean don’t eat or drink anything. I wonder if that vial he carries has anything to do with this. Reniko’s thoughts were interrupted as someone passed by her cell. She jumped to her feet at the sight of the person and neared the door to her cell grabbing the man’s clothing firmly in her hand before he could leave. The man looked back at her annoyed.
“How dare you,” he shouted at her, and upon seeing Reniko’s puzzled look he relaxed.
“Do I know you?” Reniko asked. “You look familiar to me.” She was looking over the man once again trying to pin point where she had seen him before. His hair was coal black and shaggy almost hiding his eyes, which were a dark brown in colour. Reniko guessed him to be about twenty-five years old. As she looked at his face, she was sure she knew him from somewhere.
“I do not think so. You are new here are you not?” he said.
“I’m sure…” Reniko said and shook her head. “No, I’m sorry, it’s nothing. I must have been mistaken.”
“Why are you here, milady, if you mind me asking?”
“Malik tried to warn me that they didn’t like strangers here. I didn’t think it would be quite like this,” Reniko said releasing the man’s clothing and shuffling backward to lean against the nearest wall.
“You? The Prince? The crowned Prince, Malik?” Crowned Prince, oh this just keeps getting better. Malik, why didn’t you tell me?
“We traveled here together.”
The man contemplated this information and furrowed his brow deep in thought. “I see. If you’ll excuse me, I must take my leave.”
“It’s not like I can do anything about that. But please, before you go, I’m Reniko Dorsalin and you are?”
The man looked a little surprised as he stuttered his own name, “Ryne.” With names exchanged, he hurried past Reniko’s cell and out of sight.
“I came because of her, father. I think she can help us, help us rid Vespen of the Rük forever.” Malik finished speaking.
Zanith sat on his throne digesting Malik’s words when a figure appeared behind the throne and began to whisper in Zanith’s ear. With words exchanged, Zanith sat up straight and his gaze fell maliciously on Malik.
“Malik, have you kept something from me?” Zanith asked.
Malik looked at the shaggy haired man and back to his father. “I don’t know what you mean.” Malik tried to hide his concern, the vial against his chest burning.
Ryne stalked intently toward Malik who was suddenly sure that this man had somehow found out about the vial. His suspicions were confirmed when the man tore open his shirt and ripped the vial from around his neck.
“As I suspected you highness, the vial is still full.”
“Am I to believe you brought a defiled woman into our midst, Malik?”
“Father, please. Everyone who has ever taken that poison has died. How could I do that to her? She has done nothing but good since I met her, she doesn’t need to take it. She is not a Rük, believe me.”
“No one in over five hundred years has ever remained defiled once inside these walls. I will not allow your weakness to kill us all, Malik. Ryne, see to it that my son is taken to his room and does not leave. I will not have him warning our enemy.” Malik felt arms wrapping around him and he struggled to free himself.
“Father, please! Don’t do this. I love her,” Malik screamed unable to free himself from his captors. Suddenly he remembered Rimca and glanced in her direction. Rimca caught his gaze and dashed from the throne room.
“If she is who you say she is, no harm will come to her,” Zanith said with finality as he gestured for Ryne to remove his son from his presence.
Reniko, why did I let you convince me to take you here? There was nothing that I could do in the end and now you’re going to die.
Rimca ran straight to the dungeons, and using some stealth, she managed to find her way to Reniko’s cell struggling for breath.
“Reniko,” Rimca said, startling Reniko out of her solitude. “I have a message from Malik. Everything had been reconciled. Some guards are going to come and release you soon. You have an audience with King Zanith. He is anxious to meet you as a representative from Earth.”
“Where is Malik?”
“He sent me to tell you. He wanted to go see his family. He hasn’t seen them for five years. After you meet with Zanith, Malik will come find you. Everything is fine now Reniko.”
“Thanks Rimca,” Reniko said sighing with relief. I knew Malik would fix this.
“They’re coming,” Rimca said and disappeared back where she had come from. Moments later three guards appeared.
“I’m to escort you to the audience chamber. Our King Zanith wishes to meet you,” The lead guard said.
“It’s an honour I’m sure.” Reniko said as she followed the guards out of the cell and into the throne room. Reniko was surprised when she saw Zanith. She realized that if she had not been told, she never would have known that Malik was related to this man. Where Malik had brown hair, this man had blond, and where Malik had brown eyes, this man had blue. At his side, however, sat an elegant woman, Malik’s mother, there was no doubt in Reniko’s mind about that fact, they looked almost identical. Reniko also noted one other presence in the room, Ryne, who was standing behind the King’s throne.
Reniko knelt before the throne, bowing her head in respect. “Your eminence, it is an honour. Thank you for letting me come before your throne.”
“Rise, please. My son has told me much about you. It is not every day that someone from Earth arrives at the doorstep of my city.” A door opened on one side of the room and Reniko glanced at the source of the sound noticing Rimca step into view a warm smile on her face. A girl followed closely behind her, dressed in highborn clothing and carrying a tray with bejewelled goblets on it. Rimca took up residence at the side of the hall, out of the way, while the girl stepped toward Reniko.
“Please, a toast to the union of our people against the Rük,” the Queen, Killashandra said.
As Reniko grabbed a goblet from the tray, she hesitated, thinking of Malik’s warning. Casting a worried glance in Rimca’s direction, she was reassured by the calm demeanour of her Le’a’to friend. She finally grasped hold of the goblet only to be startled by the girl before her that was now looking very familiar.
“Shayrah?” Reniko asked.
The twelve-year-old girl looked up frightened that this stranger knew her name.
“You look older than Malik remembered you,” Reniko said.
Shayrah looked puzzled by this comment. “You know my brother?”
“We traveled here together,” Reniko said.
“Really?” Shayrah brightened at this comment and was about to ask Reniko some questions when she heard her father speak at her. Hurriedly, Shayrah headed to the throne and gave the remaining glasses to her parents.
Zanith raised his glass high and stared intently at Reniko as he spoke, “To the destruction of the Rük.” With a nod, Reniko raised the goblet to her lips and drank deeply. Zanith smiled and set down his goblet.
“How do you feel?” Zanith asked. Reniko’s heart stopped, that was not the comment she had been expecting. She frantically glanced down at the goblet she held in her hand and released it, letting it crash to the ground, its contents spilling out in a spray on the ground.
“What have you done to me?” Reniko gasped looking from Rimca to the King and back again.
“Reniko calm down. It was a test. It was only a test. One that you passed. If it was going to have any effect it would have been immediate,” Rimca said walking slowly toward Reniko.
“Where is Malik,” Reniko asked shaking. She wasn’t so sure she believed Rimca anymore.
“My son is safe, in his room. I couldn’t have him warning you. Please Reniko, we had to be sure; had to be sure you were what you claimed you were,” Killashandra said.
“But I overheard you,” Reniko said looking at Rimca, “I heard Malik say that vial he had was poison. You poisoned me!” Reniko’s heart was racing. They poisoned me.
“Reniko listen to me, please. That vial my son had around his neck was not a poison. It was a cleansing potion, given to us by the Levanith. There are Rük who can take the form of humans and Le’a’to. If those Rük come to Tordaskar, this potion kills them. Those who are not Rük are unharmed. All that this has done has proven to us that you are what you say you are.”
Reniko looked to Rimca who was avoiding eye contact. These people are insane, Reniko thought.
“Of course, Sire. It seems like a good protection for your people,” Reniko said not voicing her thoughts. “If you please, it has been a long trip.”
“Yes, yes. Shayrah will take you to your room,” Zanith said urging his daughter forward. Shayrah made her way to Reniko’s side and shyly took her hand and led her out the door. Rimca followed closely behind.
Once they were clear of the throne room, Reniko glared back at Rimca.
“What the hell was that? Malik didn’t send you to tell me that everything was fine, I’m sure of that. I know he didn’t want me taking that potion, poison, drug... whatever it was. I also know that what the King said can’t possibly be true. Did you take that stuff? What is going on here?” Shayrah who was still leading Reniko along stopped, curious about the conversation between the visitors.
“I’m sorry I made you drink that awful stuff. But what my father says is true,” Shayrah said. Reniko looked at her and back at Rimca.
“Did you take that stuff or not?” Reniko asked.
Rimca seemed hesitant to answer, “Well, no I didn’t. Reniko, I wasn’t supposed to be the one that explained this, but really I have no choice now.”
“Milady Rimca, may I have a word with you,” a voice, Ryne’s, called out suddenly.
Rimca turned to see the shaggy haired man running toward them.
“Yes, Ryne, just a moment,” turning back to Reniko, she smiled apologetically, “looks like our conversation will have to wait.” Rimca started walking to Ryne; however, Reniko caught her arm, fire in her eyes.
“Rimca, you are not leaving until I know what is going on,” Reniko said, frustrated as well as angry.
“I promise I will explain it to you. But I must speak with Ryne first,” Rimca said unwrapping Reniko’s hand from her arm. “Go see Malik. He’ll want to know you are okay. I’ll meet up with you there.”
Ever since the council meeting in Corbasin I’ve been afraid Malik would abandon me, and all along it has been Rimca who has been deceiving me. Reniko turned away from the retreating forms of Rimca and Ryne and followed Shayrah, who was waiting patiently with a confused expression on her face.
“You know, I can take you to my brother if you want. I haven’t seen him since he got back,” Shayrah said grabbing Reniko’s hand once again and leading her deeper into the halls of the castle. “Could you tell me how you know who I am on the way there?” Shayrah asked curiously.
Reniko smiled despite herself. “Well it started when your brother and I went to this hidden city on Edonal Eclith –”
Malik glanced out his window wishing that his quarters were not stationed so high above the ground. The sun had set some time ago and every minute he wasted in this room was another that brought Reniko closer to her death. He turned back to the confines of his room and glanced around frustrated. Finally, for lack of a better plan, began stripping his bed of its covers. A commotion at the door halted his actions as he heard a small female voice speaking at his door and suddenly it was flung open. The first thing that Malik saw was Reniko standing there with a smile on her face.
“Reniko, you’re alright. How did you get out of your cell?” Malik asked.
“Well the captain of the guards let me out,” Reniko replied.
“Did Rimca enlist his help?”
“Not exactly…” Reniko said.
“Malley?” Shayrah asked breaking into the conversation. Malik looked down at his young sister for the first time and smiled.
“Shay, you’ve grown so much,” he said scooping his sister into his arms and hugging her.
“So have you… I think,” Shayrah replied. “I missed you so much. Father was so angry when you didn’t return when you were supposed to. I was sure it was something that I had done that caused you to stay away for so long.”
“Shayrah, no, it wasn't anything you did. I love you so much. I thought of you every day that I was gone, but I couldn’t come back. There were things that I had to do. I’m back now though.”
“For good?” Shayrah asked.
“No, I haven’t finished yet.”
“I thought so. I mean bringing a defiled girl to Tordaskar was pretty stupid, Malley. I’m sure you had some reason for doing it. But she passed the test you know.”
Malik looked horrified suddenly and looked at Reniko who was still standing in the doorway, watching the family reunion.
“Reniko, they didn’t make you… I mean... you’re not dead?”
“Yes, and no,” she replied. “I’m fine Malik, I promise.”
“Shay, do you think that Reniko and I could talk alone for a little while?” Malik asked his sister.
Shayrah’s shoulders sagged. “I knew that would be coming eventually. Just promise me that you’ll tell me what’s going on later.”
“Of course, Shay,” Malik said tousling her hair and receiving a purely venomous look from Shayrah in return as she tried to rearrange her rumpled hair.
“Guess she’s too old for that now,” he said to Reniko as his sister left the room, shutting the doors behind her.
With the doors finally shut, and them alone, Reniko exploded. “Malik, what the hell is going on?”
“I was trying to get my father to understand that we didn’t need to cleanse you with that poison. He locked me away here. I’m sorry Reniko.”
“It’s not your fault Malik. I just wish you had told me about this sooner. If I had known, maybe we could have done something about it. At least now your parents are willing to trust me, now that they think I can’t possibly be a Rük.”
“I can’t believe you survived. You and Rimca are the only two people I know of that have ever lived through the cleansing.”
“About Rimca, something’s wrong with her. She’s hiding something. She lied to me Malik, you as well. She told me that you said that everything had been resolved; it was why I drank that potion. Not to mention out in the hall just now she just told me that she never took the potion herself. Why does your family trust her so readily if she has never endured the cleansing?"
“They trust her because she has endured the cleansing, or at least they thought so. She told you she never took the potion?”
“This isn’t making any sense. What is going on here?”
“I don’t know anymore. Rimca was only allowed to travel with us because the council ordered her to. Do you think that the Le’a’to have some hidden agenda. Are they really sided with the Rük?”
“I don’t know what to think anymore,” Reniko said. She paused and rubbed her head.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” Malik asked stepping behind Reniko and sliding his hands across her waist.
“It’s nothing, my back is just a bit itchy. Do you mind?” Reniko asked. Malik let go of Reniko and they sat on the floor as Malik gently scratched Reniko’s back.
“Out in the hall, Rimca ran off with a man named Ryne. Do you know him?” Reniko asked.
“I’d never seen him before this day. He seems to be my father’s new advisor.”
“I met him when I was in the dungeon. He looked familiar to me, I just can’t place why,” Reniko said and added. “Is it hot in here?”
Malik glanced around the room and noticed the window was still wide open. “I was just thinking about closing the window, I’ll leave it open for you.”
“Thanks,” Reniko said wiping beads of sweat off her forehead. Malik stopped rubbing Reniko’s back and glanced at her worriedly.
“Reniko you don’t look so good.”
Reniko turned to him her eyes glassy and unfocused. “Malik, I feel strange. Something’s happening.” Reniko began to get to her feet and swayed. Malik lunged forward and grabbed her as she fell. She was burning hot to the touch and sweat was trickling steadily down her forehead.
“Hang on Reniko. I’ll get help,” Malik said cradling Reniko in his arms. If they’ve killed her I swear they will not see tomorrow.
The door burst open and Malik looked up into the eyes of a stranger.
“Who are you?” Malik asked as the man rushed forward and kneeled next to Malik, grasping tightly to one of Reniko’s hands.
“I’m too late,” the man whispered clutching Reniko’s hand protectively. “Reniko? Reniko can you hear me?” he called out to her.
Reniko opened her eyes in response to the voice trying to focus. “Am I dreaming? Dare? Is that you?”
“Reniko, listen to me carefully. Whatever happens, fight. Your body is just trying to do what it was supposed to do a long time ago,” Dertrik said.
“Dare, I wish it was really you.”
“It is Reniko, I’m here. Stay with us, it will all be over soon I promise.”
“Dare, what’s happening?”
“A lot. A lot of things I should have told you about a long time ago.”
Then Reniko heard no more.