The night was cold, and not a sound could be heard as Vayan stood watch over the small camp. Gideone, Stavros and Phautina were all sleeping peacefully, and there seemed to be no evil about; yet Vayan could not shake the feeling that there was something out of the ordinary about the night. He looked at the tall trees rising all around him and tried to peer into the darkness beyond. He gazed back down at the three sleeping people, then rose and turned his eyes once more toward the trees.
He hesitated, cast one last look down at Gideone, Stavros and Phautina and began to slowly make his way through the forest. He walked as quietly as a wood elf and, though he knew not where he was going, made his way confidently through the trees. By and by, he found himself at the top of a small gully. He lay down upon his stomach and peered down over the edge. What he saw made his eyes open wide in wonder.
Below him stood three of the most beautiful people he had ever seen. They were all dressed in flowing, white robes, and they seemed fairly to shine with glory. They were strong, and behind their eyes lurked power and passion unlike anything Vayan had ever seen before. They could have been the most deadly and terrifying of enemies, but they exuded a love and humility which put Vayan at peace. They seemed more perfect and more glorious than any other creature he had ever seen before. What they did there Vayan knew not. He could only lie and look down upon them in wonder.
The stillness of the moment was broken by the sound of someone approaching. He turned quickly, and found himself looking up at Phautina. She smiled softly and, lying down beside him, looked down into the gully.
"Torelli," she whispered. "The Unfallen."
Vayan gaped at the figures below. "Are ye sure?"
"What're they doin' here?" he asked as he turned his face to her.
"I can’t say," she answered, as she stared intently down upon the beautiful figures. "'Tis said that the Torelli travel all throughout the Three Realms, doing the bidding of Joretham. They fight in wars and help weary travelers. They comfort those filled with sorrow and lend aid to those in trouble. One can never be certain if the stranger one meets is truly another creature of Deithanara or one of the Torelli. Usually when the Unfallen travel throughout the Realms they do so in the guise of those who have fallen, but these don‘t, and why they don't I cannot say."
Vayan was silent for a long moment and continued to gaze down upon them. As he watched, one of the beautiful creatures disappeared into the forest.
His heart began to pound as he suddenly realized something.
“They can heal Gideone!” he exclaimed and jumped to his feet only to see the second of the beautiful creatures disappear. He started charging down the gully’s slope.
“Wait!” he cried, but even as he did so, the third also disappeared, leaving the gully empty.
Vayan reached the bottom and looked around, desperately trying to catch at least a glimpse of one of the shining beings.
“Da...” he started to curse then caught himself when he heard Phautina behind him.
He turned to her, a look of frustration upon his face. “Now wha’ d’ we do?”
“The only thing we can do: return to camp."
Vayan cast one last, disappointed look around him and started climbing up the incline to return to camp. “They coulda saved him.”
“Obviously that was not their purpose in coming here,” answered Phautina, as she too climbed the slope of the gulch. “But just because they came not to heal Gideone, doesn’t mean they’re not helping him. Perhaps Joretham has sent those three Torelli to protect him from Abiel.”
Vayan said nothing, but her words made him feel better.
They reached the top of the gully then began their way back through the trees to the camp. Vayan found it to be just as silent as when he left, but after what he had seen and been told, it felt far safer.
Stavros lay fast asleep, and there was a look of peace that Vayan had rarely seen upon his father's stern features. Gideone also slept, but peace did not come to him. Beads of sweat had formed upon his brow, and his face was twisted into a look of agitation. Vayan saw that Phautina looked sadly down upon him. No, peace would not come to the prince that night.
* * *
Orion lay in a soft bed covered with warm blankets. His body ached slightly. Though many scars remained, his wounds were, for the most part, healed. He sighed and rolled over. The last thing he wanted to do was wake up–it was so peaceful in his dreams–but his stomach was growling with hunger, and even sleep had its limits. He rolled over again and, sighing once more, slowly opened his eyes. The room was dimly lit, but still it took a moment for his eyes to grow accustomed to the light. He did not try to rise but lay still and stared up into the empty space above him, for, when faced with the actual prospect of getting up he realized he was still very tired and his body weak.
"Your Highness, you’re awake!"
Orion started and sat half-way up. His gaze fell upon a beautiful slave girl. Her long, blonde hair was pulled away from her face but was allowed to tumbled down over her shoulders and back. Her arms were bare, and the necklace she wore served only to accentuate the fact that her dress was entirely too low-cut.
He stared in shock for a moment before he recovered and tried to rise. Even as he threw back the covers, the slave girl was at his side.
"Please, Your Highness, forgive me," she said. "I meant not to startle you. Now please, calm down and rise not so quickly. You’re still wounded, and 'tis not wise to move so suddenly."
She reached out and took him by the arm. He started at her touch and jumped to his feet.
"Leave me alone and stop calling me 'Your Highness'," he said as he pulled his arm away from her.
"But you’re the prince. What am I supposed to call you if not 'Your Highness'?"
Orion crossed his arms. "If you would leave me alone, you wouldn’t be faced with that problem."
When he crossed his arms, he realized, much to his dismay, that his chest was bare. Looking down, he found he was wearing nothing save a pair of undergarments.
"Sadly, Your Highness, I cannot do as you ask," the slave-girl said. "Queen Provenna was most strict in ordering me to stay beside you and see that you’re properly bathed and fed."
"I’m twenty-seven years old," Orion answered, annoyance evident. "I think I can properly bathe and feed myself without the aid of a half-naked slave-girl."
"Most men can, but they find it not nearly as enjoyable as when I help them," she said with a demure smile.
"Get out," Orion ordered, stepping back and shooting her a look that showed he was not in the mood for games. After giving a small curtsy, she turned and walked from the room.
The warrior scowled at her back as she passed through the door, then went off in search of a bath and some clothing. He found both and, less than a half hour later, returned washed and dressed in the finest garments Leilaora had to offer.
He was thoroughly uncomfortable. He far preferred the simple garb of a soldier to the finery of a nobleman. The boots in particular he disliked, for they were new and already chafing against his heels.
He wandered into the main room of the series of chambers, which evidently, at least for the time being, he occupied. The room was amply proportioned and made of gray stone so light as to be almost white. Dozens of candles lined the walls, lighting the room almost as well as sunlight. Beautiful tapestries decorated the walls at various intervals, and much of the floor was covered by a large, light blue rug. In the center of the room, sat a wooden table upon which a hearty breakfast had been laid.
Orion stopped when his gaze fell upon Provenna. She was sitting next to the table and looked up at him, a hopeful, expectant expression upon her face.
"Hello, Orion," she greeted him, not certain what else to say.
Orion remained silent for a moment then answered coldly, "Hello, Mother."
She continued to look up at him, hoping he would say more, but, when he did not, she motioned him to the table. "Please, Orion, come and eat, for certes you must be hungry. You’ve not eaten since you were first brought here."
He stared at her a moment longer, then, without a word, made his way to the table and sat down across from her. He picked up a piece of bread and began to eat it, concentrating on the plate before him.
For a long, awkward moment Provenna simply sat and looked at him, until, finally, she burst out, "Orion, have you nothing to say to me, your mother? For ten, long years you’ve been gone, and now that you’ve returned all you can do is sit and stare at your plate?"
He raised his eyes and looked at her. "What would you have me say, or what would you have me do?" His voice was soft. "Should I come give you a kiss on the cheek and say 'Hello, Mother, 'tis so good to return to Leilaora, though I’ve spent almost a decade running from it.'? Or ought I ask you how your many wars are faring and whether Nor has been completely overcome? Mayhap you’ve taken a new lover–no doubt one who’ll be the cause of as many problems as your last two." Provenna's face flickered with hurt at those words, but Orion did not stop. "Or perhaps I ought to inquire whether the Arch-Bishop has any sage advice on how to torture your prisoners; certes that is something that ought to be discussed in a cathedral dedicated to the worship of Joretham. Or perhaps I should simply forget about everything and everyone and lose myself in the embrace of the half-dressed slave-girl you sent to wait on me."
"I thought you would have liked Eluned," Provenna answered, thankful she could contradict at least one thing he said.
Orion's eyes narrowed. "I disliked her immensely, and I never want to see her or any other slave-girl again."
Provenna laughed. "Methinks you’d not be so heavy in your hatred, nor so hearty in your expression of it, if you truly did find Eluned displeasing."
"Think what you will, Mother," he muttered. He rose and began to walk away.
He stopped but did not turn.
"Orion, forgive me," she pleaded. "Leave not so quickly. 'Twould be sad if, after ten years, we did not exchange a few kind words."
He glanced at her. "And what kind words can be exchanged between enemies?"
"Orion...I’m your mother."
"What does that matter?" Orion demanded. "Did you keep my country from being conquered, my people from being murdered, or my princess from being taken captive by Kozan?" His voice was rising. "No! You did not! You stood silently by, and there is no doubt in my mind that you encouraged it! Kill me or set me free but expect no kind words from my lips."
"I think that hardly fair," Provenna answered. "Do you think I want Kozan to be free to conquer what he wills when he wills? Goodness knows I would stop him if I could–"
"Then kill him."
"Kill him?" Provenna exclaimed. "Orion, 'tis not as easy as that. You know as well as I that if I kill him my power will die with him."
"And what do I care?" Orion snapped. He turned to walk away.
"Orion, stop!" she cried. “I need your help."
"What?" he demanded as he turned back to her.
"Orion," her green eyes were filled with emotion, "return to me. Become the prince of Jocthreal once again. Kozan fears you; he cannot touch you with magic, and you’re a far greater warrior than he could ever hope to be. If you stand by my side, Kozan will not dare oppose me."
Orion was silent for a long moment as he turned her words over in his mind. Finally, he opened his mouth and said, "Have Princess Mystia taken from Kozan and brought here to Leilaora."
A bitter laugh escaped his lips. "I've no power over Kozan, and you don’t think I do, else you’d not fear doing as I ask. You want me at your side not because I can help you oppose Kozan, but because I’m your son, your firstborn, and you can’t bear the thought of having me as an enemy. But I am your enemy. Free me or kill me, but think not I’ll return to you." With that he turned and walked from the room.
Provenna stood and stared after him, her face filled with hurt. She opened her mouth as if to speak, then shut it. Turning, she walked quickly from Orion’s chambers.
* * *
Mystia stood beside Kozan’s great, golden throne and looked out over the vast crowd gathered in his throne room. It was considered by some to be beautiful. Large tapestries, each depicting a separate dark and gruesome picture of Balor’s history, hung from the walls. The tall, stone pillars supporting the ceiling were covered with elaborate, gold ornamentation. A rich, red carpet ran up across the floor to the foot of the dais upon which Kozan sat. It was a dark room, however, lit only by the flickering red light of torches which sat in black dragon-head sconces. The red light reflected off their fearsome features, giving them a demonic aspect.
The sound of movement came from the corridor outside. A moment later the heavy, oaken doors were thrown open, and a servant announced, "The king, Rolfaren, of the country of Mornland."
Through the doors walked a man dressed in robes of royal purple, a golden crown upon his head. His long, brown hair was streaked with gray, and his face bore a proud, ruthless look. He turned his eyes neither to the right nor to the left as he made his way up through the throne room to King Kozan. He was followed by a large entourage of noblemen, soldiers, and slaves who bore with them three large, wooden chests. Mystia could feel Rolfaren's cold gaze upon her, and she turned her eyes to the floor. Beneath her veil, her cheeks flushed.
When Rolfaren reached the foot of the dais, he knelt, with his right knee touching the red carpet and his head bent.
"Rise, my friend," said Kozan. "I welcome you to Nolhol."
"Thank you, my king," answered Rolfaren, standing up. "As every year, I come to worship Balor and give you honor. By Balor's might have I crushed all my enemies, and I now offer you gifts from the spoils." He motioned to the first large chest, which slaves opened. "Gold." He motioned to the second chest. "Silken cloth and precious gems." He motioned to the third chest. "Foreign weaponry." Then, with a sweeping gesture, he turned and motioned to a group of people who stood behind him. "And slaves–men capable of teaching the art of using their foreign arms, and women trained in arts far more gentle." He bowed low before Kozan.
"I accept your gifts, Rolfaren," Kozan said, the corner of his mouth turning up in the slightest of smiles. Mystia turned her gaze to Rolfaren as he rose.
"The Day of Chanar draws nigh,” Kozan continued, addressing himself to all who were in the room, “and tonight we shall feast in honor of Balor." At his words the people gathered there began to murmur in muted excitement.
King Rolfaren said nothing. He smiled and bowed low, but not before he had looked once more up at Mystia.
The great banquet hall of Kozan's palace was filled with the sound of music and singing and the laughter and cries of drunken celebrants. The long, wooden tables were covered with all manner of meats–deer, pig, bear, sheep–all smoky from the cooking fires and all covered thick with spices. Scattered among the steaming platters of meat were all types of fruits and breads. There was an endless flow of strong drink, and everyone made certain to partake of it.
Mystia's head throbbed as the laughter and shrieks of the people pounded in her ears. Kozan had made her stand beside him and pour his wine; all night she had been forced to listen to Kozan and Rolfaren laugh and exchange coarse jests and speak of wars and women. As the night wore on, the more drunk they became and the lower their conversation sank. The princess was near tears, for throughout the night, Kozan had not ceased looking at her. Now he was so drunk she knew not what he would do, and the glint in his cold, brown eyes terrified her.
Rolfaren held up his goblet, and Mystia turned to fill it. He had not ceased eyeing her since he had first seen her in the throne room. Until now, something had warned him to not speak of her to Kozan, but drink so clouded his mind now that, as she bent forward to refill his goblet, he reached out, grabbed her by the arm, and pulled her close to him. She gasped in fear and surprise, and the pitcher she held went tumbling from her hands.
"Let go of her!" Kozan snarled as he took her by the waist and yanked her away from Rolfaren. She stumbled back, tripped, and fell onto Kozan's lap. She struggled to rise, but he held her fast and, glaring at Rolfaren, growled, "Never touch her again!"
Rolfaren may have been drunk, but even he could see how fiercely Kozan's anger burned.
"Let go of me," Mystia sobbed as she struggled to free herself.
Rolfaren licked his lips nervously and, without saying a word, nodded.
Mystia was crying uncontrollably. When Kozan let her go, she stood up and tried to run away, but, drunk as he was, he managed to grab her by the arm and pull her back.
"Pour my wine, slave," he growled. She looked down on the table where the overturned pitcher lay, the spilled wine spreading out from it.
"I have no wine," she cried.
"Pour my wine." His fingers dug into her arm.
"But I have none!" Her whole body was shaking with giant tears.
"I said pour my wine!" Kozan snarled as he jumped to his feet, drawing back his free hand to strike her. Mystia screamed.
"Here!" someone cried.
Kozan stopped short, and both he and Mystia turned to see a young, wide-eyed slave-girl holding out a pitcher. Still terrified, the princess snatched the golden pitcher; the girl, almost as frightened of Kozan as Mystia was, darted off and disappeared from sight.
Kozan released Mystia, and she, still trembling, filled his goblet.
Rolfaren did not dare so much as glance at Mystia, but the glint in Kozan's eyes grew, and often, as the night wore on, his hand brushed across her body.
Kozan stumbled through the corridors of the palace, dragging Mystia after him. The princess struggled to free herself, but he held her in an iron grip.
"Let go of me!" she cried.
He pulled her roughly to him. "Let go of me."
She turned her head as much to escape his cold stare as to avoid the stink of alcohol upon his breath. His words made no sense to her.
He turned away. Ignoring Mystia’s sobs, he began once again to make his way through the palace. He rounded a corner and almost ran into the Dark Sorcerer. Stumbling, he lost his grip on Mystia who was at the Sorcerer's side in a second.
"Help me!" she cried.
The Sorcerer, whose clothes were still dusty from his long journey from Leilaora, looked at Kozan and Mystia in shock.
"Give her to me!" Kozan snarled as he tried to rush around him to Mystia.
"What are you doing?" the Sorcerer cried as he pushed Mystia behind him and away from the drunken king.
"Give her to me!" Kozan again demanded.
"Your Majesty." The Dark Sorcerer took Kozan by both shoulders and looked directly into his eyes. "You want her pure for the sacrifice."
Kozan gave a snarling cry and, before the Sorcerer could react, pulled his arm away and struck him across the face. The Sorcerer felt magic rushing into him, and howled as he stumbled back from Kozan's blow. His head struck hard against the wall, and he fell unconscious to the floor.
* * *
The Dark Sorcerer groaned as he awoke. His head pounded with pain as he sat up. He breathed deeply, and after a moment the corridor stopped spinning. He looked around and tried to gather his thoughts. It could only have been a few minutes since he was knocked unconscious, considering no one had found him lying there. With another groan he struggled to his feet. His head was still pounding as he made his way unsteadily toward Kozan's chambers; he could still feel the king’s magic pulsing within him.
He reached Kozan's chambers. Ignoring the guard's cries to stop–they dared not forcibly hold him back–he walked into the room. It was dark, and it took a moment for his eyes to adjust. Even then he could barely focus.
He held his hand to his head, and tried to concentrate. When the room came into enough focus, he made his way unsteadily across the main room to the bedchamber. He opened the door and peered in. He breathed out in relief. Kozan lay passed out upon the bed; he would not wake until long after dawn.
Princess Mystia sat upon the floor, her knees drawn up to her chest. She looked pitifully up at him, and the part of her face that was not veiled showed the streaks of tears.
He grimaced in pain as he fought against his headache.
"You’re safe for now," he told her. Then, without a word, he turned and walked away, leaving her to stare in disbelief after him. As he disappeared, she burst into tears afresh.
He did not hear her. He could barely think with Kozan’s magic still struggling to overcome him. He had to lie down and heal himself; then he would learn all that had transpired during his absence.