In the Company of Wood Elves
Then Vallendar smiled and answered her. "You ask me why it is I give not up hope? Because, though few good men are found in times of trouble, there are yet some, and they are the most noble and courageous of all those in Deithanara. They are not ones to let fear keep them from following after what they know to be good and just. Though the whole of Deithanara stands against them yet are they willing to give you succor and to stand by you in your darkest hour. That is why I still hope."
When Chzaros introduced himself as the king of Raia-Torell Gideone, Stavros and Vayan were quick to kneel before him. At this Chzaros laughed and spoke. "Methinks you should be more careful to whom you show reverence. I saved your life, but you know not what I intend to do with it."
He laughed again at the expressions his words drew from them. "Rise, my friends, and worry not, for, unless you find the thought of feasting and sojourning with the children of Raia-Torell unpleasant, you have naught to fear."
"You are most kind, Your Majesty," said Gideone as he rose. "Not only did you provide us with much needed aid in our fight with Abiel, but you open your house to us who are perfect strangers."
"'Tis but a small service which we, who have been blessed with so much, can give to three weary travelers," answered Chzaros lightly as he, followed by his elven warriors, began to lead the way through the forest. Then he grew more serious. "The forces of evil wax great, and desirous am I that there would be at least one place of refuge left in Lairannare, though I fear soon even Raia-Torell shall be overcome.
"Oh, but I make sorry conversation," said he, once again lighthearted. "Darkness may come tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t rejoice in the sun today.”
He looked at them. "So tell me, good sirs, what are your names?"
"Stavros, Vayan," said Gideone motioning to each in turn, "and I’m Gideone."
Chzaros laughed. "Honored am I to be let so quickly into your confidence. Were I a prince fleeing from my enemies, I would not be so quick to give my true name to strangers no matter what aid they had lent me."
Gideone was surprised that Chzaros was able to so easily discern his true identity, but he did not show it.
"And did I judge you so wrongly as a man who can be trusted?" he asked, speaking lightly and easily. Though his voice sounded natural, his hand, which was pressed against his heart, betrayed he felt not entirely well.
"Nay, not at all, but, still, 'tis best to show prudence in times such as these."
Chzaros looked and saw how Gideone held his hand against his chest. Turning to him, he spoke in alarm. "Prince, I knew not you were wounded in the battle."
"I was not wounded in the battle," answered Gideone, "only wearied."
"Sit down, sit down. You’re in no condition to walk." The prince’s face had by this time turned astonishingly pale.
"No, I can walk," he insisted, though he was not too stubborn to refuse Stavros' support.
"What happened to you?" Chzaros asked in concern.
Gideone motioned for Stavros to answer the elven king's question, which Stavros did as they continued to make their way through the forest. He was just concluding his account when the group of men and elven warriors emerged from the cover of the trees and found themselves in a wide glade.
"Welcome to my home," said Chzaros as, with a sweeping gesture, he motioned to everything before him.
In the center of the clearing burned a large fire about which were gathered many elves, some singing softly and some engaged in conversation. They became aware of their king's return and made their way toward the group of elven warriors who stood at the edge of the trees.
Chzaros raised his voice and addressed those who came, "My friends, we have triumphed. The evil has been driven from our forest, and, what is more, we’ve brought back three guests to sojourn among us."
As the elves gathered around Gideone, Stavros and Vayan and welcomed them to Raia-Torell, Chzaros turned to a young elf and asked, "Where is Wild Rose?"
"Here I am, lord," came a soft, female voice. She walked out from the midst of the crowd and stood before him. "What do you require?"
"We have a wounded man with us," answered Chzaros as he motioned toward Gideone who had by then sunk down upon the grass. The elven king turned and, raising his voice, spoke to the elves. "I want our guests to be treated with the greatest of hospitality. See that they want for nothing."
As Stavros and Vayan were led away, Chzaros helped Gideone to his feet. Chzaros, the prince and Wild Rose made their way across the wide glade into the trees on the other side, and as they walked, Chzaros quickly informed Wild Rose of all that Stavros had told him of the origin and nature of Gideone's wound.
Amidst the trees were the small, well-built huts of the forest elves. Wild Rose led them into one that was filled with all manner of healing balms and potions and had Gideone take off his tunic and lie down upon one of the beds there. When he had done so, she went about unbinding and examining his wound. Her brow furrowed deeply as she searched it, and for a long time she remained silent. The thin, black lines originating from the point where the arrow had pierced him had crept even farther across his chest since Stavros had last looked at it.
In a troubled voice, she finally spoke. "I have seen such wounds as this before, and I can say with certainty that it was given by a far greater Magic than ever I hope to be. You’re not wrong in believing that none save an arch-mage or a Power can heal it."
She turned her blue eyes up to him. "'Twas the Dark Sorcerer who gave you this wound, was it not?"
"I don’t think it was the Dark Sorcerer himself who shot the arrow," answered Gideone slowly. "Though it does stand to reason 'twas he who cast the spell upon the arrow."
"Well," broke in Chzaros, "whether or not the wound was given by the Dark Sorcerer, the fact still remains that none save an arch-mage or a Power can heal it."
"Aye," said Wild Rose. "The only thing which has kept you from being overcome already is that amulet which you wear about your neck." Gideone turned his eyes to the golden feather Eagle had given him.
Wild Rose paused. "But the power of the amulet is slowly being overcome by the power of the dark magic." She rose and walked to a shelf, which stood against the wall and, after taking a small, ornate jar from it, turned back to Gideone. "This is the strongest of all my healing balms. By itself it could not fight the arrow’s poison, but it can, I think, strengthen the power of the amulet and give you more time. I know not how long it will keep you alive, but I pray it gives you enough time to find one who can heal you fully."
She rubbed some of it over Gideone's wound, and immediately all the pain the prince felt subsided. He took a deep breath and slowly rose to his feet.
"Thank you," said he with a slight bow of his head. “I am in your debt.”
"You’re welcome," she answered with a slight smile. Then, turning to Chzaros, she said, "Lord, if it be your will, I’ll see to it that Prince Gideone is properly quartered and attended to."
"As you wish," answered the king.
When Gideone awoke the next morning he felt more refreshed than he had since the Delovachian army had first come to Zaren. It was beautiful outside, and he was drawn away from the glade where the elves made their home and into the solitude of the surrounding forest. He did not walk very far before he came upon a river. It was, in fact, the very same river over which he, Stavros, and Vayan had had battled the troll. With no bloodthirsty beasts threatening the solitude, it was a very peaceful place. The water swirled silently by, the tall trees cast cool shadows down upon the ground, and only the soft chirping of the birds broke the stillness. Here Gideone stopped and sat upon a large rock at the river's edge where he was soon lost in reflection over all that had happened and all he feared would yet come to pass.
He was so deeply caught up in his thoughts that he did not notice that Chzaros–who had walked through the forest in search of him–now stood very near. For a moment the elven king simply looked upon the prince, but finally he broke the silence. "You seem very troubled, Prince."
Gideone started, then regained his composure. Turning to him, he replied, "If I seem troubled, Your Majesty, ‘tis because I am."
"And what troubles you?"
"Death and that which comes after and the fact that I shall, in all probability, soon be in possession of first-hand knowledge of both."
"I wish I could help you," returned the elven king. "There was a time when I had the power to overcome the might of the Dark Sorcerer. But he has grown strong, and I have grown old. Such is the way of things."
"My only solace," stated Gideone, "is that, in the thirty summers which I have breathed the air of Lairannare, I have lived a far fuller life than many a man." Then, as an afterthought, he added rather sadly, "Though it could have been fuller still."
"You speak of Eagle do you not?"
"Yes, I speak of Eagle. It seems rather fitting; the Powers have taken away my country, my family, my love, and now myself–everything I hold dear."
They were silent for a moment until Gideone said, "Have you ever loved?"
"No," answered Chzaros with a thoughtful smile, "I have never loved." He laughed and continued, "Noble women hold me in derision, and common women exalt me to a place I should not hold. I have never yet met one who viewed me as an equal." He sighed. "But such is the lot of one who was born a king with a commoner's heart."
He was silent for a moment then spoke again. "'Tis true I have never loved, but I do know that one should never give up hope too quickly. It is possible to regain that which you have lost. The Powers are not immortal. You are not yet dead, and there are those in Deithanara who have the power to heal your wound. You have yet the chance to defeat your enemies, and who knows: you might also regain the one whom you love."
"I am reassured, Your Majesty," said Gideone in a voice which said he was anything but.
"Whether I reassure you or not, I still speak the truth. But perchance this shall reassure you more: should you or any of those who follow you require aid–be it small or great–you have but to ask the children of Raia-Torell. We shall give it most willingly."
"Thank you," answered Gideone. "In that I truly do find assurance."
Several hours passed. Although Chzaros departed, Gideone did not leave the river's side, and it was there Stavros found the prince, in the mid afternoon, still sitting upon the large rock, looking down upon the flowing water, with the cool breeze blowing across his face.
"Your Highness," said Stavros interrupting Gideone's reverie.
"Yes?" said the prince as he turned to face Stavros. Then, after seeing the expression Stavros wore, he said, "Is something wrong?”
Stavros took a short breath then said, "Your Highness, forgive me if I seem too bold, but I desire to know why it is that Abiel bears such a great hatred for you; certes something terrible must have happened between you and him that would cause you both to enter the Ring of Fire."
Gideone paused, considering for a moment whether he ought to tell Stavros, then answered, "Abiel and I first met each other several years ago during the time that I was wandering throughout Lairannare. He loved a woman who loved me." The prince gave a wry grin. "The amusing thing is I didn’t care a whit for the maid. That, however, didn’t matter to Abiel who felt I had personally affronted him. He challenged me to enter into the Ring of Fire, which I did." He chuckled. "Sadly for him, I was a much better swordsman than he. I threw him back into the fire, and he was so wounded he could not rise. Until now, I believed him to be dead, but evidently he survived and, being the incredibly vain man that he is, has come to seek revenge for his marred face–which I never thought was particularly comely to begin with."
"That’s the reason for your quarrel?!” cried Stavros. “A face scarred during a duel fought over a woman you didn’t even love? For something as small as this you’re willing to break the law of Joretham and enter the Ring of Fire?"
Gideone laughed and exclaimed, "Stavros, what does it matter? Methinks you put too much weight upon ancient laws written by mythological personages. Fire is fire; ‘tis the same whether it’s in a ring or a hearth; whether someone is dueling in it or cooking food over it. If Abiel wishes to fight in a ring of fire then far be it from me to keep him from doing so. If the one who’s killed truly is feasted upon by the dead then so be it; I still won’t fear."
"But, Your Highness,” pressed Stavros, “how can you say such a thing?"
Gideone, laughing at Stavros' horrified expression, answered, "’Tis easier than you might think." Then, more seriously, he added, "I fail to see why this troubles you. Give me one good reason why I shouldn’t enter it."
"I’ll give you two, Your Highness," answered Stavros gravely. "Firstly, Joretham forbids it, and, secondly, I, who have ever been the most faithful of your servants, ask you not to."
Gideone grew silent as he thought upon what Stavros had said. He cared nothing for Joretham, certainly, but he suddenly thought of Stavros, with no tunic, traveling through the cold, wet forest of Raia-Torell. He sighed and rather grudgingly answered, "Very well, it shall be as you wish; I will not enter the Ring of Fire."
"Thank you, Your Highness," said Stavros in relief as he bowed his head.
"Thank not me," answered Gideone with a grin. "Thank whatever it was that possessed you to give me your tunic." With that, he stood up and walked away, leaving Stavros to stare after him.
The day passed quickly, as times of joy and peace seem always to do. As twilight fell upon the forest, the elves and their three visitors gathered around the great fire in the middle of the glade. There they feasted, conversed, laughed, and sang, for such was the way in which the children of Raia-Torell bade farewell to those who left their midst to go to war or seek adventure. The feast was not as long as some would have liked, but Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan needed to leave early the next morning so the merrymaking was cut short. After but a few hours, Wild Rose appeared, bearing in her hands a large, golden goblet filled with sparkling, amber-colored liquid.
"Your Highness; good sirs," said she, turning to Gideone, Stavros and Vayan in turn, "'tis the custom of the elves of Raia-Torell to have their warriors drink from this cup before they depart for battle. You are neither elves nor go you off to battle, but the road ahead of you is dangerous. We wish to honor you as though you were one of us. So drink, and may Joretham give you strength to complete your journey."
To each in his turn she walked and, curtsying, handed him the goblet. Each drank, and Wild Rose received it back again when each had finished. And thus did the feast end. The elves and men quickly retired, and for one last night Gideone slept under the watchful eyes of Raia-Torell.