Gideone's eyes narrowed as he looked upon the blonde-haired elf.
"Sir elf," he said as he drew his sword, "you defeated me once before, but I’ve learned much since our last encounter, and this time you shall not be so fortunate."
The elf simply sighed and drew his sword.
Orion lay in the same soft, warm bed in the same dim, silent room to which he had been taken when he had first been brought to Leilaora. His wounds were already greatly healed; the unbearable pain had subsided to a throbbing ache. He rested his hands upon his stomach and stared darkly up at the ceiling. He had slept through the whole night, but though he was still exhausted, he could sleep no more. He was filled with so many different emotions, all of them dark. They welled up within him and seemed to fill his soul until he knew not what to think or feel.
He could stand lying still no longer. With one swift movement, he threw off the sheets and sat up. He groaned at the sudden pain that accompanied the motion, but he forced himself to stand. He held himself tightly as he looked around the room and could scarcely believe this was not a dream and that he was indeed free. Slowly, he reached out and touched the bed. He could feel it, warm from his body and firm beneath his hand, and he could feel the carpet, soft beneath his bare feet.
Slowly, he walked across the room. His steps filled him with pain, but he forced himself to continue until he reached the door and entered the adjoining chambers. He stopped as his gaze fell upon a slave-girl who stood with her back to him at the table in the middle of the room. Either she had heard him approach or had felt his gaze upon her, for she suddenly turned. Orion recognized her as Eluned, the slave-girl who had previously waited upon him.
"Your Highness!" she exclaimed.
He groaned and held his hand to his head. "Stop screaming."
Eluned was at his side in a moment.
"Forgive me, Your Highness," she murmured as she took him by the arm and began to lead him to the table. "I was told you’d heal quickly, but I didn’t expect you to rise so early."
Orion said nothing; his body hurt too much for him to think of any reply.
He breathed a sigh of relief as Eluned helped him sit down and the pain eased. He rested his arms upon the table and let his body slump forward.
"Forgive me, Your Highness, but I have not your breakfast ready," said Eluned. "As I said, I didn’t expect you so early. Do you wish me to bring you something?"
"Yes," he answered softly.
Eluned curtsied and left Orion's chambers, and it was not many minutes before she returned bearing a silver platter upon which rested a bowl of soup, a piece of bread, a goblet of water, and a spoon. She curtsied once again and set the platter on the table before him.
"'Tis not a large meal, Your Highness, I know. But it’s not wise to suddenly eat a great deal when you’ve previously eaten so little."
Orion said nothing, but his features darkened at her words. Anger welled up within him as a thousand different images of what he had suffered rushed unbidden to his mind.
"Your Highness?" Eluned asked hesitantly.
"What?" he snapped as he looked up at her, his blue eyes flashing.
"Are you well?"
Orion turned his gaze back to the table and the platter resting upon it. "Yes."
Eluned was not entirely convinced. "Your Highness, when you’ve eaten, the healer will come and tend once more to your wounds. Perhaps you should then rest some more, for tonight you’re to be presented to the people of Leilaora."
Orion looked at her in confusion, and a nameless terror rose within him. "What?"
She gave a slightly amused smile at the look that crossed his face.
"Your Highness," she said as she sat down across from him, "for ten long years you’ve been gone from Jocthreal. Many have forgotten you, and many–like myself–never knew you. 'Tis only proper then that you should be presented to us, your people, and crowned and proclaimed our prince."
"I–crowned and proclaimed your prince?" he whispered. The mere thought caused his heart to pound with fear.
Eluned looked up at him. "'Tis merely a formality, for ever have you been our prince. Queen Provenna simply wishes that fact declared to the whole Realm of Earth."
Seeing the look upon his face, she asked, "Does the thought of being crowned the prince of Lairannare frighten you?"
"I know not," he answered as he picked up the spoon. He began to slowly stir his soup and realized that his hand was shaking. He concentrated in an attempt to still it, but try as he might he could not keep from trembling. He bit his lip in frustration as the spoon fell from his hand.
Eluned reached out, taking his hand in hers, and gazed deeply into his eyes. "There’s no reason to fear. Crowns have graced far less noble brows than yours."
Orion took a deep breath, and his racing heart began to slow.
"I..." he began, but he knew not what to say.
"Lord," Eluned said softly as she placed her other hand upon his, "you’ve lived through much and suffered far more than any man should suffer. You’ve given so much and received so little. You were born with the spirit of a king within you, and yet you were forced to be a servant. Now fate gives you a chance to grasp that which was beyond your reach. Take what it offers–that which you’ve earned–and look not with fear upon it."
Orion was silent as he looked into her large, green eyes.
"You speak the truth," he whispered, even as he tried to convince himself of his words. "I should not fear."
He seemed no longer to look at her but through her, and his thoughts seemed far away as he continued, "In Keiliornare, I am a powerful Magic–more powerful than the arch-mages and perhaps as strong even as the Powers themselves. That strength never frightened me, and 'tis not such a great leap from there to being the prince of Lairannare. No, I shouldn’t fear." But he could not convince himself it was so.
"Lord–Your Majesty–" said Eluned who still held his hand in hers, "we are your people–your humble servants. We don’t want you to fear us; we want you to lead us."
Orion looked at her, and now it was he who held her hand in his, and he who gazed into her eyes and deep into her soul.
"My people," he said. It was both a statement and a question.
"I am your prince and your king, and you are my servants. No longer must I hold the lives of others above my own. No longer must I live in fear that today will be my last within the Three Realms and the land of the living. No longer must I live for others, but others shall live for me. And I’ll not simply stand by and gaze upon the joy and peace of others, but I shall have joy, and be free of fear, and have peace myself."
Eluned looked up with her soft green eyes into his spectral blue ones and held his hand tightly. "Yes, Lord."
He looked down at her. His breathing grew more steady, and he became more calm. But still there was a part within him filled with terror, and, try as he might, he could not free himself from it.
* * *
Mystia stood atop the high walls surrounding Kozan's palace and looked down at the dark city which lay spread out before her. Overhead the sky was gray, and the wind blew strongly across the city. She held herself tightly and shivered as her dress and her veil danced around her.
Kozan stood unmoving, his arms crossed, his mouth firmly shut, his expression dark, as he gazed down upon his city. What went on behind his cold, brown eyes Mystia could not tell.
The princess turned her gaze away from the city below and looked up to the north. Somewhere beyond the horizon–how near or how far she knew not–was Orion. She brushed away a long strand of black hair which had escaped from beneath her veil and blew in her face. How he fared and whether he even lived she did not know, but something within her would not allow her to believe he was dead.
She started as she realized Kozan was looking at her. She took a step away from him, held herself even tighter, and stared back at him.
He sneered. "Tell me, why do you look toward the north?"
"I..." began Mystia, but she could think of nothing to say.
"I can tell you." Before she could say anything more, he continued, "You turn your eyes to the north because to the north lies Jocthreal and Leilaora, and ‘tis Leilaora which holds your love."
"And why think you that?" Mystia asked softly.
"One does not have three wives and a dozen concubines without learning something of women."
"If it’s through wives and concubines you’ve learned of women then you’re at a disadvantage, for I am neither."
"You’re less!” he spat.
Mystia turned from him as he continued, "I know why you look there. Orion lies there, and you love him–bastard child that he is."
Mystia looked back startled.
Kozan laughed. "Yes, I said 'bastard', for that is what he is."
"And what of it?" Mystia demanded, holding her head up defiantly. "Should I hate him or love him any less because of a sin his parents committed?"
"You can hate him because of the sins he’s committed, and I can tell you a great many of them.”
"I won’t listen!" she cried as she held her hands over her ears and turned to run away, but Kozan reached out and grabbed her by the arm.
"A slave refuses nothing her master desires," he growled as he pulled her to him. Mystia’s face twisted with fury, and tears of frustration welled up in her eyes as she tried to free herself from his grasp, but the dark king held her closer to him and hissed in her ear, "Do you think you’re the only woman he‘s ever loved? Do you forget so quickly why Lareina tried to rescue you? He stole her from me, just as he stole Rhianna, and just as he stole who knows how many other women."
"I don’t believe you!" Mystia cried as she struggled against him. "Orion’s a noble man!"
"Orion’s a lying, thieving, ravishing murderer. No doubt a bastard father of bastard children. He cares nothing for you."
"No!" Mystia cried.
Kozan chuckled wickedly. "His mother is Provenna."
"Let go of me!"
"And his father is Phyre–Norenroth–the king of Lairannare."
Mystia‘s fingernails dug into his skin as she tried to free herself. "You‘re lying!"
Suddenly Kozan let go of her, and she tumbled to the floor where she burst into tears.
"Little fool," spat Kozan as he looked in disgust upon her, "I don’t lie."
"You do," Mystia sobbed. "Orion could never be Norenroth's son."
"He is," Kozan said with a sneer. "And he bears the curse of Phyre–to never find Joretham's forgiveness and to enter Elmorran upon his death. He may act noble and pure now, but he has sinned far more than many a man, and, unlike you and–“ Kozan's eyes glinted "–unlike even me, Orion's evil soul is not one Joretham will forgive. So Orion will always be evil–that’s the deepest most defining part of his nature." The dark king laughed at Mystia’s tears and, spurred on by her sorrow, continued. "No matter how noble and honorable he acts–were he to appear to be the most pure man in the whole of Deithanara–his core is still evil. And one day I promise you, if he’s not dead already, the mask he wears will crack and reveal the darkness within."
Mystia opened her mouth, but Kozan stopped her before she could speak. "Tell me not I’m a liar, for I speak the truth as your religion declares it; you know I do."
She could say nothing in reply but simply continued to weep.
"Poor, little slave," said Kozan as he dragged her to her feet, "Not only is your love a monster, but you shall soon be sacrificed to Balor."
"No," Mystia whispered.
"Yes," said Kozan softly as he held her close, "yes, you will be sacrificed; not even your pretty face will keep Balor from receiving his due." Then, more to himself than to Mystia, he said again, "Yes, you will be sacrificed.”
* * *
The sun shone brightly down upon the plains and plateaus and mountains, and the wind rushed across the countryside. Abiel sat upon his horse and galloped across the open country. In the distance he could hear the roar of the River of the Melted Snow as it rushed down the mountains, across the plateaus, and to the plains below.
The cool wind blew against his face and body and sent his hair and cloak dancing madly to its song. Gideone was dead, and now all that remained was to kill Gideone's servant. Then would there be no one left to complete Gideone's mission–whatever it was. Victory was close and nothing would keep him from it.
* * *
Tnaka sat alone at a table in his dark and silent chambers. He buried his face in his hands as despair filled him. All of his hopes, all of his dreams were being torn from him even as he was on the verge of realizing them. Orion had turned, and with him went all hope for peace. The elven king pounded his fists against the table. He wanted to scream; he wanted to cry; he wanted to run to Eagle for comfort.
He clenched his fists and forced his trembling body to be still. He could not scream; he could not cry. He was a king–a Power; it was his duty to rule. He could not show weakness. Nor could he run to Eagle, for he knew he would find no comfort from her.
He tried to calm himself. The time for Orion to be presented to the people of Leilaora drew near, and Provenna expected him to be part of the procession.
Anger and despair welled up once more within him, and again he pounded his fist against the table. How could he be calm? Orion had turned.
* * *
Orion stood with his head bowed, his hands resting upon the table and his back to the door of his chambers as he tried to calm himself. Soon it would be time for him to be presented to Leilaora.
He was dressed in the finest clothing to be found in the city. His trousers and his leather boots were of the darkest black, and his tunic was a deep, royal blue. Beneath his tunic he wore a white shirt with long, loose sleeves that covered his arms and the mass of scars upon them. His long, auburn hair was brushed and flowed freely down over his shoulders.
He tried to still his trembling hands, but the more he tried the more he trembled. The terror that welled up within him was almost unbearable.
He felt a hand upon his shoulder, and turning, he found himself looking down upon Eluned. She looked up at him with her large, beautiful eyes.
"Prince Orion," she said softly, "it’s time."
He could think of nothing to say, and he could not make himself move, so he stood there and look dumbly down at her.
Eluned took his trembling hands in hers and with a soft smile said, "Come, Your Highness. Leilaora awaits."
He allowed her to lead him out of his chambers and through the long corridors of Provenna's palace; he could do nothing else. His head was pounding, and he felt as though he were in a dream. All was hushed and the slaves and servants looked in silent awe upon him as he walked past.
Eluned led him through the corridors and out into the wide, open courtyard of the palace. There stood a large assembly of soldiers all dressed in their finest armor, shining brightly in the light of the sun. As Orion appeared, they let out a loud cheer which caused him to stop in surprise and fear.
Provenna, who sat upon a brown palfrey, smiled down at him and motioned with her hand toward the large, gray charger standing beside her.
Orion could see Tnaka looking at him. The elven king's jaw was firmly set. Though he tried to keep all expression from his face, it was impossible to miss the look of despair that swirled behind his gray eyes.
Eagle sat mounted on her own horse next to Tnaka and looked silently upon her husband.
Eluned squeezed Orion's hand, and he looked down at her. She gave him a soft reassuring smile. He swallowed then walked to the charger and mounted.
Trumpets sounded and the gates to the palace slowly opened, revealing the huge crowd that had gathered to gaze upon their prince. Slowly the procession started forward. Drums rolled, and the trumpets continued to sound. As Orion and Provenna moved out of the courtyard and into the city street, the whole of the vast crowd burst into roaring cheers.
* * *
Abiel galloped across the plateaus. He was close; every fiber of his body seemed to scream out that Gideone's servant was near. The wind rushed all around him, lending him strength and fury.
He gave a sudden cry, for far off at the edge of the plateau he saw a dark figure. He turned his horse and charged off toward the plateau's edge, but he had not ridden many paces before he gave another cry–this of disappointment. The figure he saw was nothing more than a single tree which had somehow managed to grow atop the plateau.
He was about to turn but instead reined in his horse, and, for a long moment, he stood and stared at the tree. At first he thought his eyes played tricks upon him, but the longer he looked the more certain he became that he saw another, smaller, figure standing beside the tree.
The corner of his mouth turned up in a look of satisfaction, and he dug his heals into his horse's side. He had found Gideone's servant.
* * *
Up they rode through the magnificent city of Leilaora, making their way to the great cathedral of Joretham. The bright sun shone out across the golden city, making it shine gloriously in the light. The cheers of the people rose and seemed to fill the whole of the city. The ground trembled beneath them, and their cries pressed in upon Orion until he felt he could stand it no longer. The setting sun shone brightly in his eyes, and he raised his hand in front of his face; it was as much to ward off the people as it was to shield his eyes.
Beside him Provenna sat straight and tall as she rode her horse and smiled at the people crowding the sides of the street. Behind the queen, Eagle rode and looked upon the crowd with regal detachment. Behind him, Orion could feel Tnaka's gaze–dark and anguished–upon his back. All around him he could hear the cries of the people and see the looks upon their faces as they reached out their hands and tried to touch him. There was nowhere for him to run.
* * *
Fury and evil joy filled Abiel as he galloped across the plateaus toward the tree and the one who stood beside it. The prince was terrified that the man would run away and disappear before he could reach him. He dug his heals into his horse's sides, and his horse fairly flew across the ground. Yet Abiel had no need to worry, for his adversary stood unmoving a short distance from the tree and seemed to wait for his arrival.
As Abiel drew nearer, the figure of the man became more clear, and it seemed to Abiel that it was not the austere, unmoving form of Gideone's servant but that of another individual altogether. The man was still a distance away and the setting sun cast his body into sharp shadows, which further hid his features. But Abiel's heart leapt within him, and he urged his horse on even faster.
As he finally neared the man, he found himself looking down not upon Gideone's servant, but upon the prince of Nor himself. Gideone stood and looked up at Abiel. His face was deathly pale, and how he had managed to escape the river and climb to the top of the plateau Abiel could only imagine. But Gideone stood there before him, tall and proud, eyes burning with hatred. As Abiel neared him, Gideone threw out his arms, and there erupted around him a circle of fire. The bright orange and yellow flames danced wildly around the prince as he drew his sword. His eyes never left Abiel.
"Enter the Ring of Fire, Abiel," he said, "and let us duel."
Abiel said nothing, but the corner of his mouth turned up in a sneer of satisfaction. He drew his sword, jumped from his horse, and stepped into the ring. As he and Gideone stood facing each other, the fire surrounding them seemed to burn even brighter.
With a cry, Abiel fell upon Gideone.
* * *
The Cathedral of Joretham rose tall and majestic before Orion–its towering spires shining golden in the light of the sun. Its massive bells chimed in celebration, and as the procession drew near the cheering of the crowed seemed to swell to a thundering climax. Orion bowed his head and tried to make his hands stop trembling. Terror filled every fiber of his being, and as he turned and looked out over the crowed he could see in their faces only adulation. It seemed they could not see his fear. He looked at his mother and saw that she was smiling at him, but it seemed a cold, empty expression. She saw his fear and, reaching out, took his hand. Anger filled Orion at her touch, and, pulling his hand away, he turned his face to the crowd. He raised his hand to them and tried to smile. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Tnaka still looking darkly upon him.
Suddenly he found himself at the foot of the Cathedral. He looked up in surprise at it, for he had not expected to reach it so quickly. Provenna, Tnaka, and Eagle all began to dismount, and after a moment Orion also did so. He did not want to, but he was like one caught in a dream who could not control his actions. Provenna, Orion, Tnaka, and Eagle, followed by four of the chief guards, began to walk up the long flight of steps, which led to the door of the cathedral.
At the very top stood the Arch-Bishop. As they reached him, he bowed low before them and said, "Welcome, my Queen. Welcome, my prince. May the blessings of Joretham fall upon you both."
Orion said nothing and did nothing, but Provenna smiled softly and nodded her head slightly.
The Arch-Bishop straightened, and his flowing, crimson robes swirled around him as he turned. Without further words he led them into the cathedral. Up, up he escorted them through the twisting stairways of the ancient structure, and with each passing step terror took a firmer hold upon Orion's heart. He tried to fight it, but the thundering sound of the people's cheers seemed to take away all his strength.
It seemed they climbed for an eternity until, at last, they emerged on a balcony high above the cheering crowd. Orion could only look down upon them and swallow.
* * *
With a cry, Gideone threw Abiel from him and scrambled to his feet. He whipped his hair out of his face and raised his sword as he turned to face Abiel, but even as he did so the dark prince fell once more upon him. The fire raged all about them.
Gideone stumbled back and fell to the ground as Abiel sent another blow crashing down upon him. He tried to dodge the blow but did not entire escape, and he cried out in pain as the steel of Abiel's blade cut into his arm.
He rolled to his feet and, holding his arm, looked at Abiel. His legs were weak, and his head was pounding. He struggled against the nausea which took him. His legs would no longer hold him, and, with a groan, he sank to his knees. His sword fell from his hand as he clutched at his chest in pain. He was covered with sweat, but his body was shivered with cold. Abiel looked upon Gideone's pitiful form, and his scarred and broken features twisted in an evil sneer. He threw back his head and laughed.
"Pitiful fool!" he cried. “Did you actually think you could defeat me?"
"Pig!" Gideone spat as he struggled against the pain. "My sister could defeat you!"
Abiel suddenly stopped laughing, but the sneering smile did not leave his face. "But your sister isn’t here is she?" His leer deepened. "By now, no doubt, she’s far away in Nolhol enjoying the tender embraces of my father."
Gideone’s face twisted in fury as he reached for his sword, but Abiel kicked it out of the way. It spun across the grass and came to rest at the edge of the circle with its blade thrust into the flames.
Abiel knelt down before Gideone.
"I can just imagine the things he’s doing to her now," he hissed. "How does it feel to know I’ll be the older brother of your sister's children?"
With a howl Gideone lunged at Abiel, but the dark prince struck him to the ground with ease. Gideone lay, clutching at his chest and fighting for breath, and looked up in fury at Abiel.
Abiel rose to his feet. The fire raged behind him as he raised his sword above his head to deal the prince his deathblow. But suddenly he stopped and chuckled. "How amusing; you lost your sister to one Power and your love to the other, and the child of Tnaka hurt you almost as much as the son of Kozan is about to."
At those words, Gideone gave an unintelligible cry of rage and pushed himself off the ground, propelling himself into Abiel. The dark prince's sword flew from his hands as both men fell to the ground. Gideone drew back his fist and, with a cry, slammed it into Abiel's face. The dark prince howled in pain and tried to reach for his sword, but Gideone punched him again. Grabbing him by the throat, he began to squeeze his hands tighter and tighter. The fire in his eyes burned almost as hot as the fire that raged around him.
* * *
The cheering crowd, the ringing bells, the drums, and the trumpets had all fallen silent. All eyes were turned up to the balcony high above the street. In his hands the Arch-Bishop held a crown of pure gold inlaid with sparkling sapphires. He looked down upon the gathered people and opened his mouth to speak. His voice rose into the sky and spread out to the farthest reaches of the vast crowd.
"People of Leilaora!" he cried. "We come here today to honor the greatest prince in the whole of Lairannare!"
Orion's heart was pounding, and his hands continued to tremble. The Arch-Bishop's voice seemed so far off, and yet his words forced themselves into Orion's mind and wrapped around his heart.
"For ten long years has he been gone from us," continued the Arch-Bishop, "but now, by the blessing of Joretham, the son of Provenna has returned!" A huge cheer burst from the crowd, and Orion winced. Provenna still smiled upon him, and Tnaka's face was still filled with despair.
"Kneel," said the Arch-Bishop to Orion, "and receive the symbol of your office."
Something within Orion screamed out for him to remain standing, but he felt as though someone else, whom he had no strength to fight, was controlling his body. Slowly, he sank to his knees.
The Arch-Bishop's voice rose above the cries of the people. "He has returned to be Provenna's son! He has returned to never leave us again! He has returned to be the prince of the Realm of Earth!" With that, the Arch-Bishop thrust the crown above his head so all could see. The gold shone brightly and the sapphires flashed in the light of the setting sun as the vast crowd erupted in a thundering roar.
The Arch-Bishop turned to Orion, and slowly began to lower the crown. Orion's heart pounded in terror, and his whole body trembled, but he continued to kneel, his eyes closed, as he waited for the inevitable.
He wanted to cry out for help or for comfort, but there was no one to cry to. In the middle of that vast city, with every eye upon him, he was completely alone. His body shuddered, and a groan escaped him as the crown was placed upon his head.
Slowly, he opened his eyes and looked around him. Provenna still smiled down at him. Tnaka could not even stand to look at him any longer, and Eagle still bore no expression on her face.
He took a deep breath and forced himself to rise. His crown sparkled in the light of the sun as he looked out over the people of Leilaora. Their cheers threatened to shake the very foundation of the city, and they were all looking up in joy and wonder at him–the prince of the Realm of Earth.
* * *
Gideone's body was trembling, and sweat poured down his face, but he held the dark prince's throat in a vice-like grip. Abiel grabbed hold of Gideone's wrists, struggling with all his might to escape. Finally, with a strangled cry, he managed to throw Gideone from him. Gideone stumbled back as Abiel, gasping for breath, rose to his knees.
Gideone tried to rise but his legs would not hold him, and he sank back to the ground. He could feel the fire hot upon his back, and he clutched at his head as everything began to swim before his eyes.
Abiel grabbed his sword, which lay upon the ground near him. He rose to his feet, and as he drew close Gideone could do nothing save look weakly up at him.
* * *
Orion looked down upon all the thousands of people cheering for him. They were crying out for him to lead them–for him to be their prince and one day their king. They would love him. They would serve him. They would die for him. Who in his past life would have done the same?
A frown darkened his face as he forced back the terror filling him. It fought to rise, but he held it down with all his might; what had he to fear? He reached out his hand across the people so far below, and his lips turned up in a small smile when he saw that his hand no longer trembled.
* * *
Abiel raised his sword. Even as he did so, Gideone looked down and found his own sword lying beside him–its blade still thrust into the raging fire. Abiel sent his sword arching down through the air toward Gideone, but as he did so, the prince rolled out of the way and grabbed his sword from the ground. Almost immediately, he yelped in pain and dropped it as the heated metal burned his skin. But he had no time to stop and clutch his seared hand, for Abiel ran and swung his sword at him.
Gideone jumped out of the way and fell to the ground. He whipped his hair out of his eyes and scrambled aside as Abiel sent his sword slicing down once more toward him. The fire burned with fury. As the prince tried desperately to rise to his feet and escape, Abiel rained blow after blow relentlessly down upon him. Gideone's feet kept slipping on the grass.
Finally, Gideone managed to gain his footing. He stood wide-eyed with his back but a few inches from the fire–Abiel standing in front of him.
The dark prince gave an evil smile and drew back his sword. With all his might he sent it slicing through the air toward Gideone. Gideone tried to jump out of the way, but his feet slipped, and he screamed in pain as he fell into the fire.
* * *
Tnaka looked in horror at Orion. He could see the look upon the blue-eyed warrior’s face. He could see the way he stretched his hand out over the people. He could hear the thundering cries of the people of Leilaora, and he could stand it no longer. He turned and fled into the cathedral.
* * *
Gideone scrambled out of the fire and onto the grass outside the circle. He began to roll on the ground in a desperate attempt to smother the flames which had caught his clothing. He could hear Abiel's evil laugh as the dark prince approached him. Terror filled him, for he knew he had no chance of putting out the fire before Abiel reached him.
But suddenly he heard the sound of a horse galloping toward him. Even as Abiel snarled in fury, the prince looked up in surprise and found himself staring at Stavros, mounted and barreling toward them. Abiel ran toward Gideone in a desperate attempt to kill him before Stavros could stop him, but he was not quick enough. The dark prince was struck by the horse's shoulder, and he went tumbling to the ground. He groaned and struggled to his feet, clutching his arm.
Gideone managed to smother the flames and began struggling to his feet, but he had not the strength. Groaning, he clutched at his chest. His long, black hair fell down in front of his eyes, and, though he tried, he could not shake it out of the way.
Abiel started toward him again, but, before he had taken two steps, Stavros jumped from his horse and ran toward him.
* * *
Tnaka ran with all his might, trying to escape what was going on around him. He ran down the twisting staircases, but the cries of the people followed him. He ran through the cathedral, but he could hear the bells ringing in honor of Orion. The despair within him grew even more as he ran into the sanctuary of the cathedral.
"Lord!" The sudden cry startled him, He spun around and found himself looking at Eagle.
"Look at this!" he cried in despair, arms outspread and face turned to the heavens. The stone walls of the immense building echoed with his voice.
The sanctuary was lit by the light of hundreds of shimmering candles. The arched ceiling rose high above them, and the light of the setting sun shone through hundreds of beautiful stained-glass windows.
He sank to his knees, but his arms were still outspread and his face still turn upward.
"This is a cathedral of Joretham!" he cried. "Is there no peace even here?"
He gave a sharp cry and covered his ears with his hands as the cheers of the people filled the sanctuary.
"Fools!" he shrieked. "Fools!"
* * *
Stavros growled as his sword clashed with Abiel's.
"Run, Gideone!" he cried.
The wounded prince had no strength to rise. He dragged himself toward Stavros' horse and, with a groan, sank to his belly. He lay still, only his eyes half-way open so he could see the battle.
* * *
"Fools!" Tnaka shrieked again as he jumped to his feet. "To blaspheme the cathedral of Joretham with praise to that unholy creature!"
"Lord..." began Eagle as she reached out to him, but Tnaka was not finished.
"How can you let them do this?" he demanded as he turned his face once more to the heavens.
"This is your house!" he screamed as he threw his hands up above his head. "How can you let them praise him?" He spun and motioned to where Orion stood.
"Lord!" Eagle cried as she reached out to try to calm him.
"Kill him! Stop this!"
"How can you do this?"
Tnaka sank to his knees.
"Eagle," he whispered, his voice trembling with despair. She knelt before him and reached out to him. He held her close and began to weep, and, though he saw it not, tears fell from her eyes also. They knelt there together crying as the cheers of the people filled the cathedral.
* * *
Stavros sliced with his sword at Abiel, and the dark prince was barely able to block it. Stavros did not wait but sent another blow crashing down toward him, and another, and another. The dark prince's eyes were wide with fear as he struggled to defend himself. He cried in pain as Stavros' sword sliced across his side, and before he could fully recover, Stavros drew back his weapon and lunged toward him.
In terror, Abiel turned and ran back toward the Ring of Fire. He leapt into the middle of the flaming circle, trying to catch his breath, but Stavros ran in after him. The dark prince jumped back and held up his sword. His whole body trembled.
Stavros' face darkened and his eyes flashed with fury as he lowered his sword toward Abiel. The fire raged all around them, and the clang of their swords echoed across the plateaus.
* * *
"When will it end?" groaned Tnaka as he rested his cheek against Eagle's soft, golden hair. "When will it end?"
"I know not," she whispered with a trembling voice.
* * *
Abiel reeled beneath Stavros' blow. His eyes were wide, and his broken face was twisted in terror. He turned to flee, but the wall of fire raged before him. Thrice had he leapt through it, but memories of his body being consumed by flames suddenly rushed unbidden into his mind; he dared not run through it again.
He turned back to Stavros and held his sword up to defend himself. Stavros' blow sent him stumbling back a step, and he could feel the fire's heat upon his back. Stavros swung at him again, but fear gave the dark prince strength. With a mighty cry, he blocked Stavros' blow, and lunged. He drove Stavros back to the center of the ring, but Stavros quickly recovered and lashed back at Abiel with even greater fury. He struck the dark prince a terrible blow. With a gasp, Abiel reeled backward then fell to the earth, looking up in terror at Stavros.
Stavros, breathing heavily, held his sword to Abiel's throat and prepared to finish him. But he hesitated. He raised his sword slightly as he looked at the fire which burned brightly all around him. How could he, a follower of Joretham, kill a man in the Ring of Fire?
Abiel saw his hesitation. In the brief moment when Stavros' gaze was upon the fire surrounding them, the dark prince rolled out from beneath his sword. Stavros started and stepped back as Abiel rolled up onto his knees. Stavros lunged at Abiel even as, with a furious cry, Abiel thrust his sword into Stavros' stomach.
Stavros did not cry out. He made no sound at all. He simply looked down in astonishment at the sword sticking out of his belly. His sword fell from his hand, and, with a slight groan, he fell forward onto his face–the bloody blade of Abiel's sword sticking up out of his back.
With a laughing cry, Abiel picked up the blade of the fallen warrior. He rose to his feet and raised the sword above his head, and with another cry he sent it slicing down through the air and into Stavros‘ neck.
* * *
The sun had nearly set upon the golden city of Leilaora, but the vast crowd still cheered for Prince Orion. He looked silently down upon them, then suddenly turned away.
Provenna stood behind him, still smiling. His own lips turned up again in a soft smile, as empty as his mother’s. He cast one last look back at the people of Leilaora–his people–before he walked from the balcony.
* * *
Gideone struggled to his knees and looked in horror upon Stavros' dead body.
Abiel's evil laugh rose into the darkening sky.
"You killed him," Gideone whispered, scarcely believing it was true. Abiel's maniacal laughter filled the prince's ears.
"You killed him!" Gideone screamed as he struggled to rise.
Abiel, standing in the middle of the Ring of Fire, thrust his sword over his head and continued to laugh like a madman. Suddenly, his laugh became a shriek. The sword fell from his hand, and he clutched at his chest. He looked at Gideone and laughed once more before he fell to the ground–dead. Stavros’ last sword-thrust had found its mark.
Gideone stumbled forward. He knew not what he wanted to do, but his anger at Stavros' murder would not allow him to sit idly by. He wanted to kill Abiel again. He wanted to destroy the dark prince's lifeless body. He wanted to do anything to appease the fury and despair which filled him.
He gasped in surprise instead and scrambled back. The fire, which still raged around Stavros and Abiel, suddenly leapt up fairly fifty feet into the air. It burned so thick it completely hid the bodies of the two men. Gideone turned his head away, covering his eyes with his arm, trying to somehow shield his body from the sudden, overpowering heat. From the midst of the swirling flames arose the most terrible sound the prince had ever heard: like a thousand different voices all screaming out in hissing cries of fear, hatred, and fury. It lasted for scarcely more than ten seconds, but it seemed like an eternity.
The fire flared up even higher and hotter. The voices rose too in shrieks of absolute terror. Then, abruptly, they were simply cut off. The fire grew low, then disappeared completely, leaving a charred circle on the grass with two figures in its center–the body of Stavros, lying just as it had been before the fire had flared up, and the bones of Abiel, a blackened heap of ash.
Gideone looked at them, and now it was he who laughed. His voice echoed across the plateaus and filled the evening sky, until, suddenly, as quickly as he had begun, he stopped. He groaned and fell unconscious to the ground, overcome by fatigue and injury.
There he lay for almost an hour. He could not move and lay trapped more in the realm of dreams than in reality. He heard the sound of a horse approaching. It stopped, and someone jumped to the ground. The person walked to him and knelt beside him. He felt himself being rolled over, and he managed to open his eyes. To his astonishment, he found himself looking up into the brown eyes and homely face of Phautina.
He had no strength to speak. His head fell back, but just before he sank once more into unconsciousness he noticed a dark, gruesome scar around her neck.
Phautina walked over to Stavros horse, which stood idly by nibbling at some grass. She quickly took off the saddle then returned to Gideone and with ease picked him up and slung him across the horse's back.
She mounted her own horse. Casting a sad look back upon the body of Stavros and what was left of Abiel, she turned and, leading Stavros' horse after her, set off across the plateaus toward the Mountains of Scalavori.
* * *
Night had fallen many hours before. Aeneas, upon his horse, stood atop a hill and looked back through the darkness upon Leilaora. Across the distance separating him from it, he could not hear the sounds of celebration, but he knew they existed. Prince Orion had returned, and it was he–Aeneas–who had helped bring that about, and, now that he had done so, he dared not stay, for Orion would surely kill him.
The overpowering anger and hatred which gripped Aeneas at every thought of Orion had melted away into a deep shame at his treatment of his older brother. As he looked back at Leilaora, it welled up within him so strongly that his body began to tremble and he felt as if he would throw up. It was by his own hand that he was forced to leave his mother, his home, and his kingdom. He had known very little of any of them, but he had longed to learn more. Now he would never have the chance.
“You fool," he murmured to himself. He turned his horse and disappeared into the night.
* * *
Kozan and Rolfaren sat alone in the grand banquet hall. Not even Mystia was there to wait upon them, for the closer the Day of Chanar drew, the more Kozan hated her presence.
Rolfaren stared at the great oaken doors through which Mystia, wide-eyed and terrified, had been escorted by the guards.
"'Tis rather a pity she must be sacrificed," he said, breaking the silence, "for High Elves are by nature a beautiful race, and, from what little I’ve seen, she seems to be a beauty among beauties."
"Then what little you’ve seen has vastly misled you," Kozan growled darkly. "She’s ugly to the point of excess."
The dark king held his goblet in hand but did not drink. His thoughts seemed to drift to a place far away as he continued softly, almost longingly, "But she has eyes, dark and beautiful...they seem to gaze into your soul. They take you and bind you and never release you."
He tried to smile, but his face only twisted in even greater despair.
"You’re a captive forever," he whispered, "never to be free again."