Times of Trouble
In times of peace friends abound, but in times of trouble few are found.
The country of Kerril was not truly a country at all but rather a very large forest. It was ruled by one of the three most eminent people in Lairannare, namely, Tnaka who was one of the two Lesser Powers. He was a wood elf who ruled a kingdom of wood elves, but she who sat at his side upon the throne of the queen was young Eagle of the sky elves. Eagle may have sat upon the throne, but she did not help her husband rule the country. She sat, silent and humble, letting her husband do the leading.
Night had already fallen upon the forest kingdom when Queen Eagle entered her chambers. She came alone, for she disliked being waited upon. The main room of her chambers was plain with a simple, blue rug covering much of the floor and a wooden table in the center. There was a well-sized fireplace, and upon the wall hung a few paintings; for the room of a queen, it was very un-adorned. When Eagle entered she set silently about lighting the many candles which rested in various brass holders and wall sconces.
The queen had a beautiful face: long blonde hair, large gray eyes, soft pink lips, and the small, delicate features typical of the elven races. But comely though she was, she was also very sad, and her sadness was made only more pronounced by the fact that she was a mere nineteen years of age and should have been merry and carefree.
Queen Eagle had just begun to light another of the many candles in her chambers when she heard a sound behind her. She spun around and found herself looking up at a hulking man with long, wild, auburn hair and eyes like those of a magic beast. A sharp yelp of frightened surprise escaped her, but she stopped short of fully screaming when, instead of attacking her, he knelt down before her and said reverently, "Your Majesty."
"Who are you, and what are you doing in my chambers?" She demanded sharply as she backed away from him.
"Men call me 'Orion', Your Majesty," he answered, rising. "Please, do not fear, for I come not to harm you but to seek your aid on behalf of the country of Nor and of Prince Gideone."
She stood still and stared at him, each moment her fear growing less until finally, her face was a stony mask of impassivity. When she finally spoke, her voice was cold. "What mean Gideone and Nor to me?"
"Are you not the one who once spoke so boldly against the Powers? And are you not the one who once was betrothed to Prince Gideone? And are you not the one who, even now, is part of a secret group of people in rebellion against the Powers?" answered Orion.
Eagle was silent, as she regarded him closely.
"It is true I once spoke against the Powers," she finally said, "and it is true that I was once betrothed to Gideone, but what makes you think I am part of a rebellion against the Powers? My husband is a Power. Perhaps you’ve been sent by one of my enemies in order to find something that would turn my lord against me."
"I have not come from your enemies, Majesty."
"'Tis only a fool who takes a man at his word. Prove to me you come from Gideone."
"I know that about the prince's neck there hangs a golden amulet which is in the shape of the feather of an eagle. Inlaid within it is a small diamond. The prince showed it once to me, saying as he did that it was you who gave it to him."
She looked upon him unconvinced so Orion continued. "I know also that once, several years ago, in the county of Sha-Lalana, on a night when the moon shone full, you were given a second name by a man who loved you."
Her face did not even twitch, and she asked coolly, "And what was that name?"
"'Honoria', for he who gave it said you were a woman of honor."
"And if, as he did say, I am a woman of honor why ask you succor of me?" she questioned as she turned back to lighting her candles. "It would be dishonorable of me to aid the enemies of my lord."
"That keeps you not from doing it," replied Orion.
"And how would you know what I do?"
"Since your earliest days in the court of your father word of you has spread throughout Lairannare. There are few who do not know that at one time you opposed the Powers. I do not believe a woman such as yourself would turn her back upon all she deemed right simply because of her husband.
"Please, Your Majesty," Orion pleaded, "Nor is in desperate need of help. Will you give it?"
Eagle's voice was cold and soft. "What have the people of Nor ever done for me?"
"Is not Prince Gideone the one you love, Majesty?"
"And what did loving him bring me?" There was a tinge of anger to her voice. "He spoke of love, but his words were hollow. I promised him my heart, and in return he would not even say a word in protest when I was given to Tnaka. Now he has not even the courage to come to Kerril himself, but sends some servant in his stead. I will not help a spineless dog."
"Prince Gideone is no coward, Your Majesty," Orion protested. "He’s one of the bravest men I’ve ever met."
"Then you’ve met precious few men."
"On the contrary, Majesty, I’ve met many men both great and small." He paused for a moment then continued, "I can but speak for my own actions and know not the reasons for those of others. Perhaps he had some plan by which he’d meant to rescue you but which was defeated before you learned anything of it. This I do know: Prince Gideone loves you, for he has said as much to me, and many times have I seen him with his face turned toward the south where he knows you abide."
Her gaze, so studiously focused on the candles she was lighting, flicked to him. "What are words and what are looks when no actions spring from them?" she asked. "I will not help him." She walked to another candle stand, and, as she lit the candle, she said almost as an afterthought, "Even were I desirous to lend him aid, and even had I the means to do so, I could not, for my lord and I shall shortly journey to Jocthreal that we might visit Queen Provenna."
Orion began to speak again, but she cut him off. "I serve the Powers now. Leave this place quickly, else I shall be forced to call the guards."
Her tone was as unambiguous as her words.
Orion took one, slow breath then murmured, "Yes, Your Majesty," as he bowed stiffly.
Silently, he turned and left.
* * *
"She will not help us," Orion informed Nightfall, when he had rejoined the griffin.
Nightfall glanced about them at the deep shadows of the Forest of Kerril. "Where go we now?"
"Nortath's Fury, for I would see whether the fortress there has fallen. Come," he cast his gaze upward to the sky, "it may be night, but it would be best to leave this place as soon as possible."
They flew for several hours until they crossed a wide river which snaked its way through the forest. They landed and made their camp at the edge of a small glade, where Orion set about making a fire as Nightfall prowled throughout the trees in search of food. The warrior proved more successful in his venture than the griffin was in his, and soon they both huddled beside a warm blaze.
For many minutes they sat in silence. Orion made no movement to eat or to lie down and sleep. He simply stared into the flames.
After a long moment, Nightfall broke the stillness.
"Orion," he said, with his head tilted as it always was when he was about to ask a question, "I know why I eat not, but I do not know why you don’t."
"I have no stomach for food," Orion answered dully.
Nightfall blinked his large, white eyes. "Why?"
His voice was very soft as he said, "What am I to say to the princess when it comes time to tell her there are none who’ll fight to keep her country from falling and her people from being sold into slavery?"
"You could tell her the truth," answered Nightfall, not knowing what else to say.
"Would there were another man to tell her, for I wish not to cause her sorrow."
His eyes were still turned to the fire, but he seemed to be looking at something very far off. He spoke again in sad and subdued tones, "One as fair and innocent as she shouldn’t be made to feel the cold harshness of war."
"You speak truth," the griffin answered with a sad nod of his head. "Would that it were so, but this land is a dark and imperfect place where that which is just and true does not always reign." He brightened a little. "One day, 'tis said, the Realms of Deithanara shall be made perfect once again when he who made them returns. Until then we have but the promise that those who chase after wickedness shall be banished to Elmorran upon their deaths, while we who follow that which is righteous shall enter Lothiel."
"Lothiel," said Orion with a bitter and angry laugh, but after doing so he fell silent.
"Tell me of Lothiel," he said, after a moment. "Certes you must know more than many, for have you not said yourself your father guards its gates?"
"Yea, have I said so," Nightfall answered, "and, because 'tis you who ask and none other, I shall tell you that which you desire."
His shiny black coat gleamed in the orange glow of the fire, and his croaking eagle voice, rising and falling with a melody all its own, pierced the still and silent night. "Never have I seen it, and never shall I until my death, but my father spoke once of it to me. It lies not in Deithanara but is indeed outside the Three Realms. 'Tis a place of glory and majesty that no mortal can truly comprehend." And thus did he begin.
It would be impossible to repeat his words. He spoke of a place so beautiful and peaceful and glorious that it made Orion's heart ache with longing, but throughout the whole time the griffin spoke the warrior would not allow his face to betray any emotion. He sat and stared deeply into the flickering fire, and not once did he move.
He stayed like that for a long time after Nightfall ceased speaking, but finally he raised his eyes to the griffin and gave a slight smile. It was filled with sadness, and yet it bore also a hint of hope–if only very small.
"'Tis a fair land of which you speak," he said softly, "and it is good that Princess Mystia will one day abide in a place that is so worthy of her." His eyes returned to the fire, and he smiled that sad yet hopeful smile once again.
"And who knows," he continued, "but that I also might one day gaze upon it."
Nightfall could only tilt his head and blink his eyes in confusion, for he did not understand what Orion meant by his words.
The warrior said nothing more but silently wrapped himself in a blanket and went to sleep.
The light of the early morning sun shone through the trees, falling upon Orion and Nightfall where they slept side by side. They awoke presently and went about preparing for their departure in silence. Nightfall still asked no questions, and Orion seemed disinclined to speak upon his own. Soon all was made ready, and the griffin, with Orion upon his back, once again leapt into the air. The flight to Nortath's Fury was long, and throughout it neither said a word, for both were wrapped in their own silent thoughts.
Twilight was turning to night when they arrived at the Mountains of Shem-Joloch. Concealed by the long shadows of the mountains Orion and the griffin were able to creep up unnoticed to the Caves of Nortath's Fury. In front of the main entrance to the caves two soldiers could be seen standing guard, and through the cool night air drifted the sound of raucous celebrating.
"Wait here," Orion murmured to Nightfall, as he pulled from one of the packs a dark, gray cloak.
He did not make his way toward the main entrance but instead began to edge around and to the left of it. There were many ways into Nortath's Fury–most of which Orion knew. After several minutes of quiet creeping, he found himself in front of one of those hidden entrances.
Silently he took off his red, dragon-scale armor and placed it in a small crevice in the rocks and put on his long, gray cloak. Hidden beneath its cowl, he took a deep breath, entered through the small opening, and stepped into the darkness beyond. It was practically impossible for him to see even his hand in front of his face, but he knew this section of the caves well enough and was able to grope his way through the darkness to where he knew an opening to one of the larger caverns was.
His journey through the blackness began well enough, but, when he tripped over some rocks, tumbled down a rather steeply slanting incline, and struck his head on a particularly large stalactite, he found himself wishing for a torch to light his way. He had just begun to mutter some rather strong words when he tripped over yet another object which lay across his path. It was during the time that he was saying some more-than-strong words that the thing over which he had tripped began cursing as well. It was then Orion realized how close he was to his destination.
"Sorry," he whispered to the Delovachian over whom he had stumbled. "I meant no harm. Hold your peace."
The Delovachian, however, did not cease his snarls of annoyance and was just in the process of saying something about his armor when Orion tripped over that also. He picked himself up, offered a quick word of apology for disarranging the man's armor, then began once more groping his way forward.
He stopped suddenly and thought for a moment. Then with one quick motion he turned, drew his dagger, and stabbed the man in the heart.
Orion wiped his knife off, re-sheathed it, and proceeded to put on the Delovachian's armor–methodically adjusting each piece by feel in the darkness. He completed his disguise by picking up the large battle-axe that had lain next to the armor, then continued along the passage.
He ran into only two more stalactites before he reached the entrance to the large cavern, which had been his goal. The light of countless, smoking torches revealed the throng of Delovachian soldiers spread out through the caverns, riotously celebrating their slaughter of Nor. All were drunk, and Orion knew he would not learn anything of value from them.
As his gaze wandered over the crowd it came to rest upon two soldiers who seemed to be having a serious discussion. One of them was obviously a man of high rank, but Orion could not tell who or of what rank the other was. Whoever the other was, he appeared to be a Magic of some sort, for he was clothed in a long, flowing black cloak, the cowl of which was drawn up to hide his face. Only his flashing green eyes could be seen.
Orion made his way through the throng so that he could hear what was being said between the two men. As he neared them he heard the cowled man say "...of King Kozan, and yet you dare question my words, General?"
"But, Highness," said the general who was unfortunate enough to come under the other's withering glare, "th' Dark Sorcerer left ye t' lead th' army in his absence, and if he returns and finds ye gone there's no knowin' what his anger’ll be."
"And what care I for his anger?"
Orion thought he recognized the cloaked man: Prince Abiel, Kozan's oldest son.
Orion continued listening.
"He can do nothing to me. I, on the other hand," Abiel added darkly, "can do a great deal to you."
"But, Highness," pleaded the general in one last attempt to change his commander's mind, "I tell ye plainly: Gideone is dead. I was standin' almost righ’ next t' him when ye shot him. I saw him fall."
"But before he fell I saw him fight with a strength and fury far greater than any Delovachian's, and I saw him being dragged off the battlefield by soldiers who took every precaution to see he was not struck again. I won't believe Gideone is dead until I hold his severed head in my hands."
"Very well," returned the general sullenly. Then, seeing that further argument was useless, he turned and sulked off.
Orion turned to go as well.
"You!" growled Abiel as he laid a hand on Orion's shoulder.
"Who? Me?" asked a startled Orion as the prince spun him around.
"Why aren’t getting drunk like everyone else?" Abiel demanded. Orion paused for a few seconds and waited for his mind to catch up with this sudden turn of events.
"Sir," he finally said, "I believe I run far less a risk of hurting myself or being skewered by a comrade's sword if I remain sober."
Abiel opened his mouth to say something in reply, then stopped. He had been looking intently at Orion and had just caught a glimpse of his bright blue eyes through the holes in his helmet.
"Orion?" he cried in surprise.
He reached out and tried to pull the helmet from Orion’s head, but his hands closed upon thin air, for, even as he reached forward, the auburn-haired warrior suddenly disappeared in a swirl of blue and gold dust. Abiel and the others who had witnessed the sight were left staring in surprise at the empty spot where Orion had stood.
"There’s dark magic afoot here," murmured the prince, frowning. But despite his grim foreboding, he turned quickly and departed; not even magic of the strangest kind would keep him from hunting down his greatest enemy, Prince Gideone of Nor.