Yillmara waded into the river, her eyes filling with tears. Her flowing white gown danced softly on the surface of the cool water. She laid her hands flat above the water and closed her eyes. With her heart, she reached out to the Spirit of the river. Spirit, hear my plea and grant me my heart’s desire. I ask only to conceive a child. For centuries my life mate and I have tried to no avail, and our family is incomplete. Help us, please, and my child and I shall serve you for the rest of our lives.
Silently she stood and waited for the Spirit to reply. Minutes passed, and she began to lose heart. Perhaps the Spirit did not care for one insignificant elf. What service could she possibly hope to offer such a powerful being? She felt foolish as she stood among the waters. Bowing her head, she wept softly.
As her tears splashed against the top of the water, she realized someone was watching her. Lifting her head, she looked in every direction but saw no one. Looking back down into the water, she noticed a pale blue light swirling just beneath the surface. A sense of peace rushed over her and compelled her to lie back in the water. She rested her head on the water’s surface and surrendered herself to the ever-changing current. Sleep overcame her, and she closed her eyes to the world.
When she awoke, she found herself lying on the riverbank. Sitting up, she stretched her delicate neck to the side and turned her face to the sun. Its warmth kissed her cheek and filled her heart with hope. As she looked out over the river, she could see no change. The light she had seen was most likely imagined. The Spirit had not answered her prayer.
She brushed at the sand clinging to her gown and climbed up the bank to her village. As she walked, she realized she was not alone. A second heart was beating within her. Realizing her prayer had indeed been answered, she broke into a run.
“Ryllak!” she cried as she approached the village.
Hearing the excitement in her voice, her life mate rushed to meet her.
“I am with child,” she said as tears welled in her eyes. “The Spirit has answered my prayer. We are finally going to have a baby.”
Ryllak took his love in his arms and held her tightly. His eyes began tearing as well. He had long ago put the thought of fatherhood from his mind. Now his life would never be the same. “I love you, Yillmara,” he said. “This is the best news you could ever give me.”
The couple proceeded into the village to spread the good news to their friends. Their immense joy shone readily on their faces. The Spirit had provided them a child, but a price would have to be paid.
Ulda tapped a heavily jeweled finger against the arm of his mahogany chair as he smirked to himself. It seemed he was always beaming with pride these days. Since taking control of the island of Ral’nassa, he had finally achieved what he always desired—ruling an entire kingdom of his own. Now with so many souls at his disposal, he had the power to take over all of Nōl’Deron. Next on his list was the Kingdom of Na’zora. They had earned his wrath, and he would soon have his revenge.
Rising from his seat, the elf’s lean form blotted out the sunlight behind him. His shadow spread before him as his boots tapped against the smooth marble floor of his tower. Servants lowered their eyes as he passed, avoiding the dark eyes of their master. Standing seven feet in height with an angular face and weathered appearance, Master Ulda looked every bit as calloused and cruel as he had proved himself to be. No one was safe, not even his closest allies. Many innocents had fallen to his wrath in his bid for the throne.
Stepping out onto the balcony, Ulda peered over the edge and looked to the sea. Soon I will have vengeance, he thought, his chest burning with anticipation. Looking below, he narrowed his eyes as the servants scattered in all directions. His sudden appearance had unnerved them, and he preferred to keep it that way. They would work harder for a master they feared.
Taking Ral’nassa had been less of a challenge than he had expected. In fact, it had almost been easy once he had the souls necessary to complete the task. Throughout his years in exile, Ulda had perfected the art of soul binding. Though he had dabbled with it for some time, he had only recently come to realize its intricacies. Splicing the soul of a human with that of an animal had been his first step. The process allowed him to create an army of creatures beholden to him. They obeyed his every whim because he controlled their life essence. Holding such power over a being had triggered something in his mind. His lust for power was only beginning.
In time, Ulda learned to place the essence of other Enlightened Elves inside gemstones. To his delight, the power of an elf proved far more potent than that of a human. With this new ability, he crafted more-powerful spells, allowing him to easily subdue his victims. By placing an elven soul inside a gem, he could combine that elf’s power with his own, augmenting his magical stores and providing protection against would-be attackers. There were many uses for these souls, and he delighted in studying them and unlocking their every potential.
With everyone aware of his reputation for bloodshed, Ulda knew it would be difficult to win allies. It had taken him years to find the correct formula, but eventually, he managed to concoct a potion that would allow him to preserve the physical appearances of the most beautiful elves of the islands. Capturing and killing them had not been difficult, with the help of his hybrid creations. All the animals needed was a scent, and they would stalk their prey for days if necessary. They never failed to deliver the particular elf Ulda sought. Before extracting their essences, he would administer his new potion, thus preserving the physical beauty of his victims along with their souls. By this method, he could make himself more appealing to those around him, so long as he kept the gem on his person. This undeniable charm had served him well.
Ulda enjoyed decorating himself with an excessive amount of enchanted jewelry. Unfortunately, gems and precious metals were quickly weighing him down. It would require more research before he could bind these things to himself permanently, eliminating the need to constantly wear so much jewelry. Then he could save room on his body to wear only the most powerful souls—the ones that proved too strong to subject to the permanent binding process.
With practice and careful planning, he devised a method of binding the strongest master wizards. Luring them to his tower with his newfound charm, he was able to easily subdue even the most powerful sorcerers. The new process did not involve taking their lives. On the contrary, they lived and lived well as slaves to Ulda’s whim. They were his finest soldiers, his elite warriors.
With an army of master wizards at his side, he marched on the island of Ral’nassa, enslaving nearly every elf who lived there. Only those who proved too difficult to bind were killed. He did not have the patience necessary to deal with the opposition, and he had no need for so many souls. The ones who were lost mattered not to him. His sights were set on the Grand Council who ruled the isles.
Upon reaching the Council Tower, Ulda had called out to the sorcerers who held control of Ral’nassa. “I am master of this island now,” his voice boomed. “All life here serves me, and you must as well. If you stand against me, you will beg for death before I’ve finished with you.” Given the choice between joining him and dying painfully, most of them had chosen the former. What he had failed to mention was that they would be subjected to the binding process either way. The only difference was that the ones who chose to serve him would become part of his elite force of wizards. The others would be terminated before having their souls extracted. They would live on in eternal torment.
Beaming with pride, he stood upon his balcony and looked down upon his island. The salty breeze from the ocean found its way to his nostrils, and the cry of gulls met his ears. Nature held little beauty for him. Only power mattered.
From his balcony high above, Ulda had a perfect view of any invaders who might come from across the ocean. He feared no one, but he was not so foolish as to allow himself to be caught by surprise. A vast army of soul-bound creatures remained at his beck and call. Looking toward his monsters in their cages, Ulda smiled to himself. His newest creations delighted him so, their beauty unmatched by anything the natural world had to offer.
Splicing the souls of elves with those of the tigers that inhabited these islands had resulted in a beautifully striped quadruped with a sharp, cunning mind. They were the true gems of his animal creations. With the strength and stealth of the majestic cats, combined with the magical power of the elves, he had given birth to the grandest fighting force Ral’nassa had ever seen.
Footsteps sounded from behind him, but Ulda did not look up. No one came into his presence without being summoned, and he was well aware who was approaching.
Prin stepped cautiously through Ulda’s throne room, pausing momentarily to determine the whereabouts of his master. Seeing the edges of Ulda’s black robe fluttering upon the breeze, Prin proceeded toward the balcony. With his long silver hair pulled tightly back and his bronze skin polished to a shine, Prin had conformed his appearance to his master’s instructions. Anything that appeared unkempt or unclean would anger the master sorcerer.
Prin hadn’t been foolish enough to resist becoming part of Ulda’s army. In fact, he jumped at the opportunity to ally himself with the great wizard. It allowed him to keep his own will intact and prevented him from becoming enslaved. Most of the island’s inhabitants had not been so lucky.
Without turning around, Ulda said, “I need a gift delivered to King Aelryk of Na’zora.”
“Of course, Master,” Prin replied with a slight bow.
Ulda turned and strode back inside his throne room, not bothering to look upon his servant. A small golden box adorned with intricate filigree lay upon the wide arm of his throne. Flipping open the top, he observed himself in the small piece of reflective metal inside. “See that my old friend receives this without delay,” he stated, extending the box toward his servant.
Bowing, Prin grasped the golden box in his hand. “I will, Master,” he said.
Ulda began to walk away, but paused a moment and said, “Oh, make sure you don’t open it. Only Aelryk may do so.” Without warning, he shot a single beam of silver light at the box, sealing it. The magic inside was for the king alone. He did not wish to waste the spell on anyone less worthy. With a smirk, he proceeded up a twisted staircase to his laboratory.
At the center of the circular room sat a large metal table that held a crystalline orb. As he approached, the colors within began to stir. Various shades of red, blue, and yellow faded in and out as the souls of those he had bound remained trapped inside. These had yet to be put to use. Likely they would become the necessary component to splice with some animal and add yet another soldier to Ulda’s army. The next step in his research would be to find a way to use one soul to create multiple creatures. Eventually the population of the isle would dwindle, and he would not want to run out of soldiers. Once all Nōl’Deron was under his control, he would have an abundance of souls to work with. For now, he would have to settle with what Ral’nassa had to offer.
Moving to the oval-shaped mirror that hung just above the fireplace, Ulda waved his hand in a single stroke. Before his eyes, the land of Na’zora came into view. His scrying enchantment had worked perfectly on the dwarven-crafted mirror, and it had cost him only a small fortune to obtain. No other craftsmen had the abilities of the dwarves. Unfortunately their souls were useless in the binding process. They contained no magical powers, and trapping them was a waste of a perfectly good gem. Once a dwarf’s soul was placed inside, the stone would lose its luster, making it impossible to use it again. Something about the dwarf race prevented them from being used in Ulda’s spells. Instead of wasting his time studying them, he decided to focus all his attention on humans and elves.
As he looked upon the people of Na’zora going about their daily lives, he laughed quietly. Soon he would own them all. They would bend to his will even faster than the elves, but first he would have his vengeance upon their king. There would be no glorious death in battle for the aging Aelryk. No, he had earned a far greater punishment.
Thirty years ago, Na’zora joined forces with the only band of Westerling Elves remaining in this world. Their armies combined would not have been enough to stop Ulda and his minions, but the elves brought a weapon unlike any other. A special elf stood among them—a being of remarkable power. Not only did he possess the powers of the First Ones, he also held the power of a water elemental. Only nature’s magic could break through Ulda’s enchantments, but water alone had not been enough to finish him. Ulda had escaped with his life, but his army lay in ruins.
It had taken these many years to rebuild what he had lost, but he learned much over that time. With his new spells and his perfection of the binding process, he had ensured himself victory in Ral’nassa. His triumph in Na’zora would come next. At the same time, he would turn his attention to the Vale and destroy the elves who once stood against him. Previously he lacked the strength to bind the souls of the First Ones or elementals. That had all changed. After studying carefully the writings of an elf named Telorithan, he had found exactly what he needed. This elf had accomplished both of those feats, and Ulda could now do the same. All it took was the added strength of the wizards he had bound. A simple solution to a difficult problem.
Na’zora’s white-stone palace came into view before Ulda’s eyes. Nestled along the coast, it gleamed in the sunlight that radiated through a clear blue sky. Waves pounded against the rocky shoreline, finding their way to the soft white sand where Ulda’s army had been defeated so many years ago. All was serene—for now.
* * * * *
Prin cradled the golden box delicately against his chest. This was a prize, enchanted by his master, and he would allow no one to do it harm. Though he could not leave the island himself, he would see that it was delivered safely to Na’zora’s king. It was necessary to find a human to deliver it, as an elf might fall under suspicion in the kingdom across the sea. There were very few, if any, elves living in that land, and the people had not forgotten their last encounter with his master, whose lineage was that of the Enlightened Elves. Ulda had left a lasting impression, and it was unlikely they would trust any elf bearing a gift to the king. A human who was fully under Ulda’s command would do nicely.
After making his way down the seemingly endless spiral staircase, Prin stepped outside the massive tower that served as his master’s home. Once, it had been the center of government for the island. Now it was Ulda’s base of operations—the place where he crafted and perfected his army of beasts. Prin was delighted to have a room on the seventeenth floor, just across from his master. What better place to serve his needs? No other servant was allowed on the floor while Ulda was present. That privilege was Prin’s alone. He served his master’s every need, day or night, without complaint. It was an honor to wait upon such a brilliant sorcerer.
Sand crunched loudly beneath the soles of his leather boots as he hurried along the path. Prin knew of several human slaves working in the shipyard who might make a convincing Na’zoran messenger. It would require minimal work on his part to prepare them. With their souls bound to Ulda’s whim, they would each gladly serve in whatever role was required of them.
The shipyard was noisy as men shuffled about performing various tasks. They called out to one another in rough tones, and hammers rang out as the master’s ships were tended to. Eventually Ulda would possess a mighty fleet—one that would aid him in his plans to take over new lands.
Prin’s eye fell on a tall man seated quietly in a corner. In his hand he held a finely chiseled ornament that would soon grace the handrails of Ulda’s personal vessel. This man was capable of delicate work, and Prin knew he would fit in nicely among the nobles of Na’zora. For the past few years, Prin had studied the noble families, memorizing their names and locations as well as the source of their wealth. Such information would prove helpful to his master once they landed on Na’zora.
“You there,” Prin called, pointing to the man. “Master Ulda requires your services.”
The man set the ornament down carefully before approaching Prin. “How may I serve?” he asked in a quiet voice.
Prin held forth the golden box. “I will arrange your transport to Na’zora. Once there, you will deliver this item to King Aelryk. Say you are a servant to Duke Lumbry, who lives in the southlands. Your master sends a gift to please his king.”
The man looked down at his shabby clothing. “I am not fit to stand in the presence of a king,” he stated regretfully.
“No matter,” Prin replied. “I will provide you with new clothing before you leave.” Lifting both hands, Prin muttered an incantation. Swirls of yellow light appeared at the sides of the slave’s head before dissolving inside his mind. This simple charm spell would correct every flaw in the man’s speech and give the illusion that he was a member of the upper class. The spell would last for several weeks, thanks to Prin’s own magical skills.
Turning on a heel, Prin proceeded outside to choose which ship could carry the slave to Na’zora the quickest. Ulda’s gift must not be delayed.
From the window in his solar, King Aelryk peered out toward the sea. A ship had recently docked, and he observed with interest as a group of men disembarked. Among them were both humans and Woodland Elves, their difference in height being quite prominent. The short Woodland Elves laughed and gestured, while the taller humans made faces and clapped the elves on their backs. The camaraderie among these sailors was obvious, though this was not the case in the entirety of his kingdom.
Relations had improved between the elves and the Na’zorans, but years ago there had been much bloodshed. For the most part, Aelryk’s treaty had kept things under control. Unfortunately, bands of elves had resisted over the years. One of their uprisings had claimed the life of Aelryk’s dear friend and loyal companion, Mi’tal. He fought bravely, of course, but he had been unarmed at the time of the attack. Aelryk sent him to talk peace, but the elves had only slaughter in mind. Many good men fell that day.
Turning away from the window, Aelryk pictured the image of his friend’s face. How many years had it been? Ten? Twelve? The pain was still fresh. Such a senseless death for a good man. Mi’tal deserved better.
Running his fingers through his gray hair, Aelryk pondered his many years as king. With every act, he strove to improve the lives of those under his care—both human and elf. If he had retaliated against them over his friend’s death, there would have been a second war. The ones responsible were never caught, but it won the king some sympathy from the other elven clans. Every elven uprising since then had been met by the combined resistance of both humans and elves. Perhaps Mi’tal’s death had accomplished something after all.
With a sigh, Aelryk sat heavily upon his high-back chair. His black satin tunic had become too tight, as well as his woolen leggings. Age had slowed him down and added to his girth, reducing him to the single role of a political leader. Rykon, Aelryk’s only son, had taken over the training and supervision of Na’zora’s army, leaving Aelryk with far less physical activity and too much time to eat. He could still swing a mighty sword, but battle was best left to younger men. Rykon had done an excellent job as a military leader, commanding both human and elven soldiers. Aelryk took pride as a father, knowing he had taught his son well.
A rapid knock on the door snapped the king back into the moment. Prince Rykon stepped inside, still dressed in his finest burgundy doublet. He was tall and broad-shouldered, with dark hair and eyes—the image of his father in his younger years. The prince was more than old enough to take the throne, and even had a grown son of his own. Aelryk, however, had not seen the need to step aside. Presiding over his kingdom was a lifetime commitment.
“Good morning, Father,” Rykon said as he approached. With a slight bow, he took a seat on the opposite side of the king’s desk. Placing a rolled bit of parchment on the desk, he said, “We’ve secured trade agreements with the Sunswept Isles.”
“Well done,” Aelryk replied with a smile. Rykon excelled at diplomacy, much more so than his father. The prince was well liked among the neighboring kingdoms, but his ability to conduct business with the Enlightened Elves exceeded all expectations. They were an arrogant race, one not given to trusting humans. Few kingdoms ever managed to have their voices heard among them. Now, Na’zora had secured trade with the wealthy islanders, thanks to Prince Rykon.
“The Grand Council’s only stipulation was that they would deal with me directly. No other emissary or appointed officer will be allowed to have dialogue with them. They were quite clear on that point.”
“That might be difficult after you ascend the throne,” Aelryk pointed out.
Rykon waved his hand dismissively. “They will send someone here to stand before me should I ever become too busy to answer their letters.” He paused for a moment, then added, “All will be well.”
“Will any of their representatives be visiting Na’zora?” Aelryk asked. For a time, there had been talk of establishing a small estate where the elves could stay during business transactions. Naturally they would want to oversee every aspect in fine detail. They were a demanding people.
“I forgot to mention,” Rykon said with a grin. “There will be some elves staying awhile in the palace. They plan to construct new living quarters near the Mage’s College—at their own expense.”
Aelryk’s jaw dropped open in shock. The Enlightened Elves charged a great deal of gold for their services at the College. “Why would they be willing to pay for it themselves?” he wondered. “Normally they would send me a long list of their needs and insist I see to it at once.”
“Normally,” the prince replied. “This time they want to ensure things are done exactly as they wish. I suppose they hoped to avoid any chance of things not being right the first time.” Na’zoran construction was never up to their standards. If they couldn’t find something to complain about, they would be forced to admit that humans had done something worthy of their approval. That simply wasn’t an option.
“This means they’re willing to expand the College with us then,” Aelryk said. In years past, Aelryk’s father, King Domren, had employed the Enlightened Elves to train human mages for battle. After Aelryk took the throne, he expanded the College to studies of a far greater range. Na’zoran mages now assisted in a variety of activities, including medicine, carpentry, weapons crafting, farming, and even cooking. Scholarships were available to students from all walks of life, as long as they showed a talent for the craft. Though mages still accounted for only a small percentage of Na’zora’s population, they were a well-trained and highly respected group.
“The elves are aware that we’ve been hiring humans to teach magic. They find it alarming.” Rykon laughed quietly and shook his head. “They want to send more elven teachers to us at a reduced rate. It’s a generosity, or so they say.”
Aelryk smirked. “They just can’t believe humans could ever be so good at magic.”
“They’ll always see themselves as superior,” Rykon replied. “It’s in their blood.”
“Nevertheless, you have done what I could not,” the king admitted. “I am proud of you, Son. Let’s call for some wine and raise a glass to a job well done.”
With a gesture of his hand, Rykon summoned the servant who had been standing idly in the corner. “Wine and two goblets,” he commanded. With a bow, the servant rushed from the room.
“Your mother will be pleased as well,” Aelryk said. “The island jewelers are some of the finest in the world, I hear.”
The servant returned bearing a tray containing the wine and a curious golden box.
“What is this?” Rykon asked, wrinkling his brow. He plucked the small item from the tray and turned it over in his hand.
“It is a gift for the king, Your Highness. It was delivered only moments ago.” The servant poured the wine and backed away, resuming his at-the-ready stance near the window.
Rykon passed the golden box to his father, who observed it closely. “The decorations are beautiful,” the king commented. “Who sent it?”
“The page who gave it to me says it came from Duke Lumbry, Your Majesty,” the servant replied.
“He’s a man of great wealth,” Aelryk stated. “This is a most precious gift.” As he pressed his thumb to the latch, the box sprung open, revealing a small piece of reflective glass inside. It appeared to be no more than a worthless shard, and it puzzled the king that such an ornately finished box would contain such a mundane item.
Rykon appeared confused as well. “Could it be an uncut gem?” he wondered. “Perhaps it needs to be shaped and polished.”
“I’ve no idea,” the king replied. Aelryk touched his finger to the reflective glass, and a burst of white light immediately encompassed his form. For a moment, his breath was stolen away, and every muscle in his body clenched.
Rykon jumped to his feet. “The king has been attacked!” he shouted.
The servant ran from the room to fetch help, his boots echoing throughout the marble corridor.
Rushing to his father’s side, Rykon knelt next to him. “Father,” he said, his eyes wide. “Can you hear me?”
Aelryk sat motionless for a moment longer before turning his head slowly to face his son. His dark eyes seemed distant, almost as if he had witnessed some terrible event. Only the sound of a labored breath escaped his lips before he slumped forward, dropping the mirrored shard.
Rykon kicked the item aside, not wanting to touch it himself. Some enchantment was at work here, of that he was certain. The servant returned with a dozen guards and Queen Lisalla, who had been alerted by the commotion.
“What’s happened?” she cried as she ran to her husband’s side. She placed her hands on each side of his face, and said, “Aelryk, my love, please wake up!”
The king showed no sign of movement. Rykon placed an ear near his father’s heart. “He’s alive,” he declared. “We must get him to his room and call for the healers.”
The guards moved in and lifted the king among them, gently carrying their stricken sovereign as he lay motionless in their arms.
“Who could have done this?” Lisalla asked, tears spilling from her eyes.
“The servant said it was Duke Lumbry who sent this gift,” Rykon replied, pointing to the golden box. Lisalla reached out for it, but her son stopped her. “You mustn’t lay hands on it,” he said. “It bears some evil curse.”
“We must send riders at once to arrest Duke Lumbry,” Lisalla said.
“Leave the matter to me,” the prince replied. He would send riders to bring the duke to court for questioning, but at the back of his mind, he knew there was something more at work here. The duke was an elderly man who had stood next to the king in battle many times. The two had been good friends, and Rykon could not imagine either harming the other. Approaching the servant who had delivered the box, he asked, “Who was the man who claimed to serve Duke Lumbry?”
“Just a servant, Your Highness,” the young man replied. His face was reddened, and he had obviously been shaken by the event.
“What did he look like? How did he speak?”
“Brown hair,” the servant replied. “About my height.” Looking at the ground, he could think of nothing else to say. The servant had been unremarkable and no different from anyone else he might encounter working for a nobleman. Feeling embarrassed by his inability to help, the servant could do nothing more than weep. “Will the king recover?” he asked.
“I can’t say,” Rykon replied. His eyes wandered to the piece of glass laying on the floor. “Summon a Master from the Mage’s College,” he commanded. If this item was of magical design, a Master wizard would be able to tell. “And see that guards are posted at the door. I don’t want anyone coming in or out of this room unless accompanied by myself.”
As the servant rushed off to obey, Rykon made his way along the marble corridor to the wide staircase. He ascended slowly, dreading what news he might receive when he reached his father’s room. This is no fitting end for a king, he thought. My father must survive.
Several tapestries adorned the walls along the hallway on the palace’s second floor. They depicted various scenes of King Aelryk’s life, including his first peace treaty with the Wild Elves, or Woodland Elves, as they had come to be called. Rykon looked at each of them as he passed, each footstep falling heavier than the last. Finally he reached the door and stepped inside.
Lisalla looked up, her eyes full of tears. “He lives, but he is in pain,” she said through sobs.
Two attendants stood on either side of the king. One wore the traditional black robe of a physicker, the other wore the white robe of a healing mage. Both men were examining the king.
“What is your diagnosis?” Rykon asked.
“This is of magical design,” the man in white said. “I’m certain of it.”
“I have never seen such an illness,” the physicker admitted. “I will do what I can to treat his symptoms.”
“Work together,” the prince demanded. “Do whatever is necessary to preserve his life.” Rykon approached his father and looked down upon his sleeping form. His eyes were closed, but his face was twisted as if he were in agony. “Do something to ease his pain,” he commanded.
As the prince turned away, another change caught his eye. For many years, his father had worn a sapphire ring upon his left forefinger. The stone had been gifted to him by a powerful elf, River of the Vale. He possessed the powers of a water elemental, and he had been of great service to his father in the past. Though the two had not seen each other for many years, King Aelryk considered River among his closest friends.
As Rykon looked closely at the stone, he noticed that its color had changed. Instead of a sparkling ocean blue, it was now a drab gray. Rykon lifted the king’s hand, turning the ring for his mother to see. “When did this happen?” he asked.
Dabbing a handkerchief to her eyes, Lisalla said, “It was blue this morning. I’m sure of it.”
Rykon briefly remembered seeing the ring when he delivered the trade agreement to his father only an hour ago. The blue stone had shone brightly as always. Could the magic that affected the king’s health also have had an effect on this ring? “Is this ring imbued with magical abilities?” he asked. He knew that his father wore it always, but he did not know its significance other than it had been a gift from River.
“He said he could use it to contact River, the Westerling Elf, should he ever need his assistance,” the queen replied. “I don’t believe your father has ever done so.”
“We must use it now,” Rykon decided. Perhaps there was a chance the elf would know how to cure the king.
“I’m afraid I don’t know how,” the queen replied, looking down at her husband.
Rykon wiggled the ring until it came loose from his father’s hand. Tucking it safely into his breast pocket, he said, “A representative from the College is on his way. We will figure out how to use it.”
Striding to the door, a million thoughts swirled through Rykon’s mind. Who was really responsible for this attack? Would River be able to determine it? If the attack left a magical imprint on the ring, perhaps it would be enough information for the elf to discover the truth. There was a much bigger agenda behind this attack, the prince was certain of it. Glancing back at the unconscious form of his father, he clenched his jaw and drew in a deep breath. Whoever had done this would pay.
Afternoon sunlight filtered its way through the green leaf canopy of the Vale. River and Lenora strolled arm in arm along the bank of the Blue River, enjoying the permanent springtime weather of their forest home. A single robin heralded their passing as it fluttered its wings and bounced from branch to branch. Yellow butterflies flitted about, one landing upon Lenora’s shoulder.
Smiling, Lenora held out her hand for the tiny creature to climb aboard. It stepped onto her finger and fanned its wings a few times before heading off into the wild. The fragrance of honeysuckle was thick in the air, and the tiny insect could no longer resist the temptation to sample the nectar.
For nearly ten minutes the couple walked in silence. Throughout their eight-hundred years of marriage, they found it was almost as easy to communicate through silence as it was through speech. As they approached a metal bench wrought with silver leafing, River gestured for his life mate to sit. She obeyed, taking her seat and looking out over the crystalline water. Sunlight danced upon the ripples as the water flowed past, working its way to the sea.
River retrieved a single white flower that had broken loose from the tree above and placed it behind Lenora’s ear. Gently he brushed her golden hair as it danced softly upon the wind. He took a seat next to her and rested his head against her shoulder.
Lenora casually rubbed a hand against the skirt of her white dress. “Your daughter was out exploring again,” she said. “This time she was an hour from the village before Rogin found her.”
River sat up and asked, “When did this happen?”
“While you were meeting with the Elder Council,” she replied. Shaking her head, she added, “Alyra has too much adventure in her spirit.”
River smiled and looked out into the woods. “What harm is there in a little adventure?”
“She’s too young,” Lenora stated. “When she’s of age, she can venture where she pleases.”
“I seem to remember a young elf with golden hair and pale eyes who liked to sneak away to visit the dryads,” River said, his tone playful.
“I was older than she is now,” Lenora argued, crossing her arms. A smile crept over her face, though she tried to hide it. “It was one of the dryads who told Rogin where to find her.”
River laughed. “Then why so much concern? She was safe under the watchful eye of your sisters.” Though Lenora herself was not a dryad, she had spent many years of her youth living among them and learning their healing arts. At over eighteen-hundred years of age, she still remained close to her adopted sisters.
“She’s so young, River,” she said. “I’m not ready for her to strike out on her own.”
“No worries there,” he replied. “She won’t come of age for over a hundred and fifty more years.” He turned his attention back to the waters of the Blue River.
“With her always running off, it feels like she’s much older,” Lenora said with a hint of sadness in her voice.
“Children grow up,” River said. “That’s what they’re supposed to do.” The couple had raised seven children in total, with Alyra being the youngest.
“I’d like to have another baby once Alyra comes of age,” Lenora said. Looking into her husband’s sapphire blue eyes, she added, “Just one more.”
Softly he kissed her cheek and smiled. A disturbance at the water’s surface interrupted the moment, and both of them turned their attention to the river. A small jet of water sprayed high into the air, a white light surrounding its source at the surface.
“What is that?” Lenora asked, despite already knowing the answer. Someone was trying to communicate with her life mate through magic.
River touched her hand before approaching the riverbank. Removing his blue robe, he laid it on the bench before stepping into the cool water. His long dark hair floated to the surface as he submerged himself, swimming with ease to the disturbance.
Lenora watched as patiently as she could while River conversed with the water. Each day at dawn she waited on the bank while he consulted with the Spirit of the river, but this was different. This was not the Spirit who had called to her husband. Someone else was in need of his help, and she could not guess who it might be. A line of worry crept across her forehead as she watched him swim back toward her.
Stepping out of the water, he said, “There is trouble in Na’zora.”
Lenora rose to her feet. “What has happened?”
“Whoever was using the king’s ring to communicate was not Aelryk,” River replied. “He is the only one who can use it with ease, so the conversation was not clear. I must consult with the Spirit.”
Nodding, Lenora said, “I will wait for you at home.” She turned and headed up the hill that led back into the village, turning once to see her life mate re-enter the water. As he swam upstream near the waterfall to speak with the Spirit, Lenora’s heart pounded in her chest. This could not be a simple matter. In thirty years, no one from Na’zora had attempted to contact the elves. She feared what her husband might be told.
Gliding effortlessly through the water, River made his way to the base of the waterfall and stood near a formation of glistening black rocks. It was on this very spot that his mother had stood centuries earlier, cradling the stillborn body of her infant son in her arms. Here she begged the Spirit to trade her own life for that of her child. Her desire had been granted, and River was imbued with life.
Gazing into the water, River focused his mind to the Spirit. It had guided him throughout his life, and he visited with it each morning at dawn. River could sense its presence as it surrounded him, projecting itself into his mind.
King Aelryk in the kingdom by the sea is in need of my help, River communicated. Are you aware of trouble in the land of Na’zora? Thousands of elementals lived in the ocean near Aelryk’s kingdom. Surely one of them would have knowledge to share. The Spirit could hear all of their voices.
Your friend is ill, the Spirit said. He has fallen to evil.
River closed his eyes and bowed his head. I must help him, he replied. May I go to him? Only by the Spirit’s leave could River travel away from the Vale and the banks of the Blue River. It was a condition of the gift of life that had been bestowed upon him. As a creature of the water, River’s magical abilities would wane if he traveled too far from the source of his power.
You may visit your friend, but you cannot help him. His fate is certain.
You mean he will die? River awaited the Spirit’s reply, but there was none. He could feel it traveling away from him. His heart sank as he realized why the Spirit had nothing else to say. King Aelryk was doomed, regardless of the path River chose.
Slowly he waded out of the water, returning to the elven village. Lenora stood outside the massive silver tree where they made their home. All elves of the Vale lived inside the trees, using forest magic to create larger homes than a tree could naturally accommodate. They lived as one among the trees, never harming them for their own desires. Instead, the trees assisted, lending their magic to that of the elves. In return, the trees were blessed by the Goddess to grow tall and strong.
Crossing the grassy path to his home, River’s feet made no sound against the soft earth below. From the corner of his eye, he caught sight of his son, Rogin, dressed as always in silver armor. Daylight glinted from its intricate design, a runed longsword hanging at his hip. While River and the Spirit protected the Vale with magic, Rogin and his soldiers protected it with steel. River was proud of his son, who had grown to the image of his father, with dark hair and striking blue eyes. Rogin, however, was always quick to act. He did not inherit the gentle nature of his father, who was ever patient and thoughtful.
“There’s trouble,” Rogin said as he approached his father. “I can see it in your face.”
River said nothing but placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. Together they made their way to Lenora, who was anxiously awaiting the news they would bring.
Lenora crossed her arms as they approached and slanted her head to the side. “Tell me,” she said.
“King Aelryk has taken ill,” River said.
“I’ll get my things,” Lenora replied. In a flash, she turned and disappeared inside her home. Her entire life had been spent in the study of healing arts. Whether through magic or the use of herbs and salves, she could treat hundreds of illnesses. Though the Westerling Elves rarely suffered any type of natural disease, she had kept the skill alive. Not only could the creatures of the forest benefit from her skill, but the trees could as well, though that task was normally left to the dryads. The future was always uncertain, and she insisted on learning as much as she could in case the skill was needed among any race. Any person or creature in need of her care would have it.
River admired his life mate’s resolve. Though he knew there was no way she could cure their ailing friend, he would never dissuade her from providing him with comfort. If all she could do was ease his passing, so be it. Turning to Rogin, he said, “Your mother and I will be leaving the Vale for a time.”
With a nod, Rogin replied, “I will protect our home in your absence.”
Through magic, the Spirit and River kept all those with evil intent away from the Vale. No invader could cross the Blue River, nor could an army march down from the mountains. A dense network of forests protected the only other path into the Vale, and River had set up magical barriers, which he had maintained for centuries. Only those who had been granted leave could enter the Vale. All others were repelled by the strongest elemental magic. No mere elf or human sorcerer could hope to penetrate its defenses.
Rogin and his soldiers frequently patrolled the areas outside the borders. Though he trusted in the magic his father had set in place, it was wise to know what was going on near the borders of their land. Sitting idly and trusting that no one would ever attempt to penetrate the barriers would be a grave error. There were always enemies, though they did not always show their faces.
“The Vale is in good hands,” River said, a warm smile upon his lips.
Rogin gave a single nod in reply. Heading toward the council house, he intended to spread the news to the rest of the village.
With three bags full of various medicines and herbs, Lenora felt herself ready to depart. Stepping outside, she announced, “I think I’ve got everything.” She took one last look back at the house, hoping she hadn’t forgotten anything.
“Then it’s time we were underway,” River replied.
Led by Rogin, a small crowd of elves hurried toward the couple to bid them farewell. The oldest member of the Elder Council, Brandor, stepped forward. “I wish you good journey, Lord River,” he said, grasping his friend’s forearm.
An elf maiden handed River a satchel full of food. “Good journey,” she said.
Nodding his thanks, River looked upon the elves of the Vale. Here in this close-knit community, no elf ever stood alone. Neither did anyone suffer in silence. When there was trouble, the Westerling Elves came together in camaraderie, offering whatever help they could manage. Seeing another in distress and doing nothing was not in their nature.
Isandra appeared from among the crowd, making her way to her mother’s side. “I’m going with you,” she stated.
Lenora placed a hand on her daughter’s cheek. “I know,” she replied. Her daughter favored her greatly in appearance, but her golden locks were trimmed short, and her eyes were the same sapphire blue of her father. Isandra never wore gowns—her duties as a soldier would not permit it. Not that Isandra would have worn them anyway. She wore her shining silver armor like a badge of honor, her sword never far from her reach.
River looked upon his eldest daughter and said, “There is no danger ahead. The Wildlands have been made safe through King Aelryk’s efforts, and I am able to offer some measure of protection for your mother.” He grinned slightly. Sometimes his daughter needed reminding that he was, indeed, capable of magic.
“Nevertheless,” she said, “there are some questions that can be answered only with steel.” She stood proudly and added, “I will accompany you.”
With a nod, River gave his permission, not that it was being asked. His daughter was strong willed and sure of herself. She would go and do as she pleased.
Young Alyra approached her parents and hugged them each in turn. Her blue eyes dripped with tears as she asked, “May I come along too?” Though she knew the answer would be no, she could not resist the urge to ask.
Holding his youngest daughter tightly, River said, “You are too young to leave the Vale. We will return soon.”
Lenora squeezed her daughter close to her heart and gently tucked a strand of dark hair behind the girl’s ear. “All will be well,” she reassured her.
Alyra hugged her father once more. Though she loved her mother dearly, she felt a stronger bond with her father. Not only did she share his features, she shared his love of the Vale and all the creatures within it. Together they would sit for hours on the banks of the Blue River, listening to the symphony of birdsong and the rushing of the water.
Stepping away, Alyra pressed her face to her nursemaid’s shoulder. Though she had grown tall for her age, she was still quite young. It would be another one-hundred-and-fifty years before she came of age. Her dreams for the future were numerous, and one day, she hoped to travel alongside her father to explore the regions beyond the Vale.
After saying farewell to their kinsmen, the elves headed for the stables where three silver horses awaited them. Rogin had seen that they were made ready, and he carefully tied Lenora’s supplies behind her saddle.
“Safe journey,” he said to his father. Hugging his mother, he said, “Remember to have a care for yourself while you’re caring for others.” Lenora had a tendency to overwork herself whenever there were others in need of her services.
“I’ll take good care of her,” River stated.
Rogin nodded to his father. To Isandra, he said, “Keep an eye on these two.”
Isandra let down her guard momentarily and laughed. She clapped her brother on his back and kissed his cheek before mounting her horse. The two shared a close bond, and spent many long hours sparring and honing their battle skills together.
Raising an arm, River projected his mind to the Blue River. Slowly, the water began to lower its depth, allowing the riders to cross with ease. Spurring the horses forward, the trio set out into the wild.