The Mountains of Lathinor
"You dared attempt to raise yourself up over the Realms of Deithanara, and for your insolence even that which you do possess shall be taken from you. You shall no longer rule Lairannare, but another, more fitting and worthy, shall be found to take your position. And of this place in which you caused such great destruction–of Lathinor: you are forbidden to enter it, unless you wish to hasten your own death." So did Nyght, Queen of the Realm of the Heavens, curse Phyre, King of the Realm of Earth.
The wind whistled past Mystia’s ears as Nightfall flew through the air. The princess’ eyes were squeezed tightly shut and her skin was very pale. She sat in front of Orion, her back pressed against his chest, but even having his arms wrapped around her waist did not allay her fears.
She gasped as Nightfall flapped his wings, making himself rise slightly.
“Hold me tighter!” she cried.
Orion whose body hurt all over from his battle with Phyre, tried not to groan.
“Don‘t worry, Your Highness,” he spoke in her ear, “I won’t let you fall.”
“Still...” she said after a slight pause, “hold me tighter!”
Wincing in pain, he did as she asked, but, after a few minutes, he slowly began to relax his grip until he was holding her as loosely as he had to begin with. He could feel her trembling. She clutched his legs tightly, and he was thankful for his armor for, without it, her fingers would have dug deep into his skin.
The sun was fast setting. Wearied as he was by the battle and weighed down with an extra person, Nightfall could not be expected to reach Zenas’ house in a timely manner. Therefore, as the sun dipped beneath the trees, he landed in the Forest of Althoros, and there, in a small glade, the three made their camp.
It would have been very picturesque had the season been summer. It was, however, still winter. The trees were laid bare of their leaves, and, though there was no snow upon the ground, the night was chilly.
Orion, exhausted by the fighting of the day, silently made a fire. Leaving Nightfall to guard and Mystia to do what she willed, he rolled up in a blanket and fell instantly to sleep.
Mystia sat and slowly ate a piece of bread as she stared into the shifting flames. There was little mystery to the course her reflections took; her kingdom had been destroyed, her mother murdered and she herself almost killed. For the time being, she could think of little else. Occasionally her body would tremble slightly, either with the chill of the night or a sudden shudder of fear; however, she made no noise, and when she had finished eating, she also covered herself with a blanket and tried to sleep.
The night passed slowly. The clouds, which lay heavy above the three travelers, drifted lazily across the sky, sometimes parting enough for the moon’s silver rays to shine down upon the countryside only to hide them again in the next moment. The forest was almost dead with the winter, but there were some animals still in residence, and occasionally their soft sounds would pierce through the trees eerily.
The hour of midnight was drawing near when Mystia rose and walked to where Nightfall sat, head held high and white eyes alert, guarding the camp. He was surprised to see her there, for he had thought her long since asleep.
"You sleep not, Highness?" he asked.
"I find the ground a harder bed than that to which I am accustomed," answered the princess as she sat down.
"Highness, lean upon my side. I cannot be harder, perhaps might be softer, and, at any rate, can be no colder than the ground."
"Thank you, Nightfall," she said as she leaned against him.
A moment of silence passed, before she stirred.
"I have spoken to Orion very rarely in the last two years," she stated. "My mother was loathe that I should ever have contact with him. You, however, have ever been his closest companion, and perhaps you can tell me how he fares."
"In some matters he seems well, Highness; in others he seems not well," answered the griffin. "He takes both command and rebuke in silence. He does all which he is asked. He is the model of a servant and a soldier, yet he is very silent and very sad."
"A far cry from the wandering warrior who once saved me from the hands of Kozan....
"Tell me something, Nightfall. You yourself say that Orion is sad, and I have seen as much with my own eyes. Why then, seeing the burden he carries, does he continue in his service to Nor?"
"Do you not remember the vow he took to serve and protect the royal house of Nor, though that service may claim his very life?"
"But why made he such a vow at all, seeing it's made him so unhappy?" she cried, sitting up.
"Your enemies are his enemies, and your wars are his wars."
"And is the shedding of blood his only reason for serving Nor?" Mystia demanded. Her large, black eyes seemed to plead for a certain answer, but Nightfall was a griffin young in years who had yet to truly understand the ways of humans–much less of women–and so her silent question escaped him.
"Am I a seer to search and know all that transpires in the heart and mind of a man?"
"So you know nothing?"
"I know only what Orion has told me, and the answer to your question is something which he has kept to himself, or, if he has enlightened anyone, it has not been me."
"Then so be it," Mystia murmured as she leaned back against Nightfall's side.
"He is a strange man is he not?" she added softly. "With eyes like those of a specter and blood as clear as crystal but with a heart more noble and courageous than many a human in Lairannare. A man who cannot touch magic and yet who cannot be touched by magic. Certes he is a strange man."
She said no more that night but fell asleep, her head resting upon Nightfall's warm, soft side as the griffin kept watch over the small camp.
Mystia and Orion awoke at the break of dawn and were greeted by a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly through the trees, and the forest was alive with the sounds of the birds that had remained through the winter.
They ate a light and hurried breakfast and prepared to leave. Before they continued on their journey, Orion drew the princess away from the camp to a place where, though Nightfall could see them, he could not overhear their words.
"Your Highness," the warrior said in a low voice, "what in the Three Realms possessed you to give me your soul stone, and why didn’t you tell me what it was? I deserve no such gift, and 'tis dangerous for me to possess it. I’m a soldier, and were I to be overcome, your stone could fall into the hands of men who ought not possess it. Please, Your Highness, take it back, for I’ve no desire to be the means by which it falls into the hands of those who do evil."
"Do you truly wish to return it?" she asked.
"I am your servant and will do whatever you command me," Orion stated.
"Then it would seem we are rather at an impasse, since I would have you decide but you would have me," she said, trying to sound light-hearted.
"Your Highness," Orion murmured reproachfully.
She looked up at him, fully serious.
"I wish you to have it,” she told him quietly. "I understand the risk inherent in giving it to you, and if you don't want it then I will take it back. But I wish you to have it." She looked away, suddenly embarrassed, and let her gaze travel idly across the clearing. "It is the only thing I have to give that is truly mine."
For a moment Orion stood still, not knowing how to respond, painfully cognizant of how dangerous it was for her if he kept her ring yet struck forcefully by her active desire that he should keep it. Finally he bowed his head and replied, "I will do as you wish. I shall keep your stone and do all that is within my power to keep it from falling into the hands of wicked men."
Without further words they returned to Nightfall who had stood patiently by as they conversed, and once more they began their journey to Zenas’ home.
Far they flew over hills and plains, lakes and rivers, saying nothing as they went, for both were wrapped up in their separate reflections. What precisely Orion thought was difficult to know, but they were troubling and kept his features grim and solemn. For Mystia's part, she had finally worked up the courage to open her eyes. Once she did so, she could not keep from gazing down upon the ever-changing landscape beneath her. She had but once before been outside the country of Nor, and that had been during the summer. Now, however, winter still reigned and afforded her a chance to see things which she had hitherto only heard of and imagined. Never before had she seen entire forests laid bare of all their leaves and covered with a blanket of snow. Never had she seen lakes frozen over with ice or whole plains of snow sparkling in the light of the sun. She was freezing to be sure–the cloak she wore did little to hold back the cold–but she barely noticed it, such was her wonder.
The sun was several hours past its zenith before the princess' amazement and the warrior's grim thoughts were arrested by the appearance, on the horizon, of the Mountains of Lathinor, tall and imposing, bathed in the light of the sun. They were, by far, the tallest of the mountain ranges in Lairannare. But had they not been the tallest, yet would they have been the grandest, for, with nary a hill to announce their beginning, the mountains shot up thousands of feet almost perpendicular to the ground.
It was said that thousands of years before those mountains, like all the land about them, had been smooth and level. In those days there arose a great prince named Balor who possessed magic power unlike any who had ever come before him. He ruled many countries and even the greatest kings and queens paid homage to him.
Balor followed the path of wickedness. He was not content to rule only that which he had been given authority over or to wield merely such power as had been given him–no matter that both were extensive. He searched out the darkest and most arcane forms of magic–magic so evil few dared work it. He raised an army so great its like had never before been seen in the Realm of Earth and filled the land with war, forcing all to bow before him, crushing all who stood in his path.
But even after all Lairannare served him he was not satisfied. He turned his eyes to the Realm of Magic and the Realm of the Heavens–to Keiliornare and Bellunare–and in his heart he lusted after them and all the power they could bring him.
Yet no matter how greatly he desired it, Keiliornare and Bellunare could not be taken by his mere army of the Earth. Great though it was, even it was not that strong. But Balor's desire would not be appeased.
Filled with a knowledge and power he should never have possessed, he went and stood upon the Plains of Adalrick. Using words he should never have spoken, he called forth the dead from Elmorran. The spirits, freed from their torment, rushed forth from the pits of darkness. They were terrifying, twisted creatures–dead and yet alive, with only one desire: the death of all. Balor cried out commands for them to follow him, but who was he to think they would obey him? They turned and began to wreak havoc upon Lairannare.
Think not, however, that during the whole of the time in which Balor had conquered and ruled over the Realm of Earth, not one man had risen up to oppose him. Vallendar–a child of the hated race known as the Shallee–stood against him. He gathered together a band of men, and, even as Balor journeyed with his army to the Plains of Adalrick to call up the dead, Vallendar brought his followers there to stop him. The two armies stood stretched out across the vast plain, the wind rushing over them, their weapons glinting in the sunlight.
Balor threw out his arms and shrieked the fateful words of sorcery which summoned the dead. As the spirits of all of those who had fallen into Elmorran rose up out of that dark and evil place, terror fell upon the hearts of the warriors until even the mightiest of them fled. Vallendar alone remained, the only one who dared challenge the accursed spirits. One against many was he, but, though they had all the power of evil at their command, he, a child of a hated race, held within him the power of Joretham.
Firmly he stood and fought against them. Though they struggled with all their might, he defeated them and sent them back whence they had come. Then he turned upon Balor who had fled in terror at what he had brought about, and Vallendar slew him.
Thus was Balor defeated and the spirits of Elmorran banished once again from the Three Realms, but ever after the Plains of Adalrick bore the scars of that great battle. Nevermore was that place called Adalrick but was renamed Lathinor–"the place of struggle"–for thereon had the greatest of all struggles been waged.
As he approached the mountains, Nightfall lifted up his voice in a shrieking cry of triumph. He rose high into the sky, and seemed to hang with Orion and Mystia upon his back at the apex of his ascent, before he went hurtling with breathtaking speed back down. Mystia was, in terror, holding tightly to Orion, but she was also laughing, for she, like Nightfall, felt the air of victory imbued in Lathinor. It was as though nothing evil or unjust could ever enter that place again.
Nightfall sped through the tall mountains, until he came to one that was in the midst of all the others. From high atop its cloud-covered peak poured a waterfall. The waterfall was by no means broad, but it was very high, and Mystia could only look in awe upon it. It was not until Orion had begun to slide off of Nightfall's back that she realized they had landed.
"Orion," said she softly when he had helped her to the ground, "I've never seen anything as wondrous as this place.
"Of course," she continued when she had thought for a moment, "I’ve seen precious little of anything."
"I have traveled far and wide over Lairannare, Your Highness," Orion answered, "and I have experienced the privilege of looking upon Keiliornare. But, for all the things I’ve beheld, Lathinor is the greatest, save for one place."
"And what is that?" asked Mystia, gazing up at him.
"The place in which the rulers of Deithanara gather together in the Council of the Three Realms."
Mystia looked at him in amazement, not certain what to say. Orion, for his part, spoke as if he laid claim to no great thing. He did not, in fact, even look at her but instead continued to gaze at the panoramic view before him.
"You have seen where the Council meets?" breathed Mystia in awe.
"Yes, Your Highness," he replied as he looked down upon her. "Twice, in fact–once when I was a child so young it's a wonder I still remember it, and once when I was eighteen years of age.
"But enough of this. You're shivering. 'Tis time we met Zenas."
He led her though a small door, which, up until that point, had remained hidden in the stark shadows caused by the bright light and the tall mountains. Mystia found herself in a wide, open cavern, and though she searched, she could find no sign of life.
"Zenas!" Orion cried. His voice echoed off the stone walls, but there was no answer. He shouted the name again, but still there was no reply. He opened his mouth to cry a third time, but stopped short when, from one of the dark recesses of the cave, a voice could be faintly heard. It grew steadily nearer until finally the words could be discerned.
"...but wake ye up from y’r a’ternoo’ nap seekin' shelter," the voice grumbled. "And wi' ne'er so much as a 'please' they walk righ’ in an' make ‘emselves comfortable in front o' y’r fire and fill their fat stomachs with y’r food, and then withou’ so much as a 'thank ye' they leave, takin' y’r best horse while they're at it."
An old man came into view around a large stone. He was small, and the fact that he was hunched over with age did nothing to increase his stature. His hair was entirely silver, and his beard flowed down almost to his waist. His garb was completely gray save for the black belt fastened around his waist. In his hand he held a thick wooden staff.
Zenas–for that was who the old man was–continued on with his muttered complaints during the entire time it took him to cross the cavern. It was not until he came within three feet of Orion and Mystia that he actually looked to see who it was that had called his name. When he did, his entire demeanor changed.
"Orion, m' boy!" he cried out in delight. "How be ye?! By the Powers I’ve missed ye." He turned to Mystia and said in a voice somewhere between awe and delight, "And ye brought a woman with ye too. And what a woman." He bowed low–no small task when one considered how bent he was already–and said, "Welcome, m' lady. Though ye cover yourself with a veil, still do y’r eyes betray a beauty which shines above that o' other women. The greatest poet in Deithanara could ne’er find words t' give ye half th' justice ye deserve. How then can I, a simple man, find words t' describe y’r beauty?" Suddenly, through some working of magic, he held a dark red rose in his hand. "Please, m' lady, take this as a token o' my esteem, though y’r beauty far outshines this simple flower."
"Thank you," Mystia said as she curtsied and took the rose. "Few times if ever have I received such a fair gift." Neither Zenas nor Orion could see that beneath her veil she was laughing silently.
"Tha’ is th’ greatest compliment I’ve e’er received," Zenas said as he kissed her hand. He would have continued in that vein had not Orion interrupted.
"Zenas," the warrior spoke, "we need your help."
"Anything t' help so beautiful a woman," Zenas murmured.
"This is Princess Mystia of Nor...."
"Your Royal Highness," Zenas said as he bowed even lower than the first time and gave Mystia another rose. "Honored I am by y’r presence."
"Princess Mystia is in..." Orion began, but Zenas continued speaking.
"It has always been rumored ye were th’ most beautiful woman in Deithanara," Zenas told her, "but I ne’er believed it 'til now."
"Phyre is..." Orion said louder, but still Zenas continued speaking.
"Now I see wha' I’ve heard does ye no credit. Ye truly are..."
"Zenas!" Orion exclaimed. "The princess is beautiful and none deny it, but this is not the most appropriate time to speak of it. Please, let me continue."
"Ye have m' utmost attention, lad," Zenas said, not turning his eyes from Mystia.
"I have no time to tell the tale in its entirety," Orion began, "but suffice it to say the dragon Phyre desires to kill her, and 'tis my duty to see he does not have her. I, however, have certain tasks I must fulfill without delay. She can't accompany me, and I need someplace safe for her to..."
"She can stay here," Zenas suggested, even before Orion had finished his sentence. "By all means let 'er stay here."
"Thank you," Orion breathed in relief.
"Yes," Mystia said softly, "thank you."
Zenas turned his eyes from Mystia and looked at Orion. "Will ye be needin' any food?"
"If you have any to give it would be appreciated," the warrior answered.
Zenas laughed. "O' course I have food t' give. Especially when ye're th' one I'm givin' it to."
The old man turned around and began walking back the way he had come. Orion and Mystia followed, and the old man led them behind the large rock he had come from and into a small room. A cheery fire burned in a fireplace which had been cut into the rocky wall, and the whole room was lit with flickering oranges and yellows. From a metal hook within the fireplace hung a large iron pot in which boiled an unknown substance.
The wizard crossed to the larder and pulled out a loaf of bread, some cheese, and some fruit. He then wrapped them all up in a large cloth and gave it, along with a skin filled with water, to Orion.
"I have nothin' t' give Nightfall," Zenas said. "I hope he isna too hungry. I feel bad enough already tha’ he canna even fi’ through th’ ca’ern door, but now I canna give him anythin' t' eat either."
"Griffins are hardy folk. Nightfall is able to fend for himself," Orion assured him as he took the napkin of food Zenas held.
"I hope ye're right."
"I regret I can’t stay longer," Orion told him, "but I have much to do and little time in which to do it."
"I quite understand, lad," Zenas answered, as he sat down at the table, "and I wish ye th’ best o' luck." He would have said something more, but he suddenly realized the contents of his metal pot were boiling over into the fire.
"Confound this bleedin' thing!" he cried as he rushed over to rescue it before any more was lost.
"What a curious man," said Mystia laughing, as they walked back to Nightfall.
"He is rather absent-minded and no small bit eccentric, Your Highness," admitted Orion, "but he has strong magical powers and great knowledge. Phyre can't enter these mountains, and I think Zenas is strong enough to protect you from any other enemy which might discover your presence."
"Thank you, Orion. During the time that you’ve been with us of Nor you’ve proven yourself to be the best of servants and the greatest of friends."
Orion smiled and bowed his head to her.
Silently they walked out into the cold mountain air, and Orion mounted Nightfall.
Before they could leave, Mystia opened her mouth and spoke again. "Where are you going, and how long will it be until you return?"
"I go first to seek help from Queen Eagle, and after that I want to return to Nortath's Fury and learn the extent of Nor's defeat," answered Orion. "It should only take a few days, a week at the most, and I’ll return as soon as I possibly can."
"I wish you luck, Orion, for that’s all I can do."
"You are too kind to me, Princess."
"Nay," she said, "if anything, I am not kind enough."
Then, before he or she could say another word, Nightfall leapt into the air. As they flew away, Orion looked long upon Mystia, and the thought struck him more forcefully than it had ever done before that there was nothing he would not do for she who was so noble and beautiful.