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Authors: Lana Axe

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Chapter 3
 

As she did every morning, Lenora stood at
the riverbank and watched her life mate perform his morning ritual. He stood
naked in waist-deep water at the base of a small waterfall. Despite watching
this ritual for over eight hundred years, she still could not help but worry.
His life was a gift from the river, and each day he offered it back. She knew
that one day the river would claim him.

His long brown hair flowed carelessly at
the water’s surface. Though his back was facing her, Lenora could see that
River had completed his offering and was conversing with the water’s Spirit.
Many times the Spirit had granted him visions to aid their people. They knew when
danger was drawing near and also when the rains would come. The Westerling Vale
was a beautiful and magical place, thanks to the Spirit’s presence.

River turned and smiled at Lenora. Coming
up from the water, he touched her chin and kissed her softly on her lips. She
welcomed the kiss and enjoyed the warmth of his lips. After helping him on with
his robe and placing a silver ring with a sapphire stone on his left hand, she
put her arm in his and said, “Did the Spirit give you good news?”

“Today’s news is somewhat troubling,” he
began. “I am not exactly sure what to make of it. It would be best if I called
a meeting of the Elders and discussed it with them. Perhaps one of them can
identify the creatures I saw.” He paused for a second and then asked, “Have you
ever heard of a dark man-like creature with long curving claws? They seem very
unfriendly but have so far avoided entering or crossing the river.”

Lenora thought about it as they continued
walking towards the village. “I don’t believe I ever studied such a thing. I
hope they aren’t a threat to us.”

River stopped and looked into her pale
eyes but said nothing. “You seem troubled,” she said, breaking the silence.
“What is it?”

“It’s just a feeling. Something is wrong,
but I don’t know what it is yet.” He took both of her hands and kissed her
cheek. “Do not worry, my love. The Elders will know what to do. I’ll speak with
them immediately.”

River was highly respected among the
Council of Elders. He frequently joined them in their meetings to share his
visions and assist in any way possible to better the lives of his people. He
had been feared by many of them as a child. His life essence had been granted
by the river Spirit, imbuing him with great powers. No one knew his exact
purpose, not even River himself. But their fears had all been for naught. The
Spirit of the river was kind by nature and had no malevolence within it.

River headed towards the council house. It
was a huge tree with silver leaves that stood at the center of the village. Two
intricately carved doors opened to the hollowed area inside. The magic of the
forest made the interior much larger than the tree outside would suggest. Most
of the Elders had already gathered inside to discuss daily matters of life in
the Vale.

“River, my friend.” Brandor, a tall
fair-haired elf, strode forward to greet him. “Welcome this fine morning,” he
said. “How are you?”

“I am well, Brandor, thank you. I have
some news I wish to discuss with the council.”

“You are always most welcome here, River,
of course. Please be seated while I gather the others.”

River sat at the oval-shaped table and
waited. His mind swam with the images he had seen in the water. A heaviness
weighed on the back of his mind, and he knew some work of evil was at hand.

The Elders each took their seats. “Good
morning, gentle elves,” Brandor said. “This morning we are joined by Lord
River, who has come bearing some news for us.” He gestured to River. “Go ahead,
my friend.”

“My lords, I have had a vision that
troubles me greatly. I have seen savage creatures roaming in the Wildlands.
They are unknown to me, and they have a sense of evil about them. They have
not, as yet, attempted to cross the river, but I sense that they do not fear
the magical barrier. I believe they are powered by some unknown magic of a very
dark nature. I cannot see where they are from or where they have been, but I do
feel strongly that they are a threat to us. I believe it’s only a matter of
time before they enter our lands.” River’s sapphire eyes were somber, his
expression grave.

Silence filled the room with a heavy
foreboding. The Vale had enjoyed many centuries of peace, and the thought of
evil at its doorstep was difficult to digest. After a few moments, the Elders
looked at one another. Finally, Rundil spoke. “My Lord River, will your magic
be enough to protect our people from this menace?”

“For a while, I believe,” River answered.
“But some unknown source is giving power to these creatures. I might be able to
determine what they are if I could see them up close. I’m not completely sure
whether they aren't able to penetrate our magic or are choosing not to at this
time. All I know is that the matter is most pressing. We must determine what
this threat truly is.”

The Elders began chattering amongst themselves
just as the doors to the chamber flew open. “My Lords!” cried Rogin. “There is
evil at work in our lands. A dryad was found badly beaten. She’s been taken to
my mother for healing.”

Brandor spoke first. “This is indeed distressing
news. A peaceful magical creature attacked near our very borders!” The room
sounded with agreement and the anxious voices of the Elders.

“I must go to her,” River said as he
stood. “If these were the same creatures I saw in my vision, perhaps I can
glean some evidence from her.”

“I’ll go with you, Father,” Rogin said.
River placed a hand on his shoulder and together they walked to the House of
Medicine.

Inside, Lenora was ordering her maids to
bring herbs to halt the bleeding. She was a highly skilled healer, but the
dryad was severely wounded and near death. She looked up as River and her son
entered. “I don’t know if I can be of much help to her,” she began. “This is
savagery I have never seen. I fear her injuries will prove fatal. All I can do
is try to make her passing as gentle as possible.” Tears filled her eyes as she
looked down at the beautiful creature lying before her. This was a peaceful fae
of the forest. Harming a soul such as this was truly a most vile act.

River took her in his arms to comfort her,
and she sobbed onto his shoulder. Dryads were indeed peaceful creatures who
often assisted those who had lost their way in the forest. They were playful
and good-natured and had no natural enemies.

Lenora wiped her eyes and stood back over
the dryad. She laid her hands upon the dryad’s heart and whispered words of
comfort. White magic flowed through her fingertips and into the suffering form
of the fae. Her face, formerly twisted in pain, changed to an expression of
peace. She let out one final breath. Lenora whispered a prayer to the Goddess
of the forest.

River knelt beside the lifeless dryad and
laid his hand upon her forehead. He closed his eyes as blue magic spread over
the dryad. Within seconds, her body disappeared. “She is at rest now,” he said.
“Her spirit is free. I have seen the creature who did this to her. I know now
what it is we are facing.” He looked into his life mate’s eyes. “It is far
worse than we could have imagined.”

Chapter 4
 

Master Ulda stood at the coast, his black-red
robe dancing behind him in the wind. He watched the black ships arriving from
Ral'nassa and was pleased. His invasion could not have gone more smoothly.
Sure, he had lost two assassins in his attempt to murder Al’marr’s royal
family, but the third attempt had succeeded. Men are so easily swayed by their
love of gold that gaining inside help had been simple. Now Al’marr was his and
so were its rich gem mines. Those gems would be the key to unlocking his
unlimited power.

He held up a hand with his palm facing the
ships. His impatience fueled the spell to move the ships along faster. They
carried inside them the rest of his army. With them, he would have an easier
time controlling his new subjects and quelling any rebellions that might be
planned. The people of Al’marr would work for him, or they would die. He needed
miners, polishers, and shapers for his gems. Naturally, he would still need
farmers and bakers to provide food for the workers. It was not his desire to
kill his own subjects. No, it would be much easier to kill citizens of the
nearby kingdom of Na’zora. They were numerous and had provided him with several
quality souls for binding.

Finally the ships made it to shore, and
the soldiers began to disembark. Master Ulda turned to look at General Fru. “I
trust you have assignments ready for these troops?”

General Fru replied, “Yes, your majesty.
The plans are all in hand. Every inch of Al’marr will now be under watch by our
troops. We should have extra to tend the mines and prevent any theft or halt of
work.”

“Excellent,” Ulda replied. “Make sure they
are aware that anyone caught stealing from me will face most dire consequences.
I will deal with them personally.”

“Yes, my lord.” General Fru bowed and
strode forward to meet his lieutenants.

Ulda turned and headed back up the slopes
to his palace. It was small but suitable as a home for now. After he had
secured his place as absolute sovereign, he would begin work on a much more
lavish home. By that time, he would be able to control the will of every subject
in his realm.

He approached the palace doors as his
servants rushed to open them. They bowed low as he walked through. First
Minister Tu’vad was waiting for him in his throne room. Tu’vad had been an
invaluable ally in Ulda’s seizure of the throne. As First Minister to the
former king, he had provided nearly every bit of information necessary for the
murder of the royal family. He had personally opened the doors for Ulda’s
assassin. When the king’s youngest daughter had tried to run, it was Tu’vad himself
who grabbed her and snapped her neck.

“Majesty,” Tu’vad said, bowing.

“Ah, Tu’vad,” Ulda began “The rest of our
army has arrived, and soon every corner of the kingdom will be fully under our
control. I’m putting you in charge of the mines. They are of the utmost
importance to me, so naturally I need someone in there I can trust. Make sure
you install supervisors who are trustworthy as well. I cannot afford to lose a
single gem. Ensure the largest gems are brought to the palace immediately. Have
you taken care of the jewelers for me?”

“Yes, Majesty,” Tu’vad replied. “Every
jeweler in Al’marr has been brought to the palace, and a workshop has been set
up on the lower floors. They are at your service, my king.”

“You have done well again, Tu’vad. I shall
not forget it. Do we have any new prisoners?”

“Today has been surprisingly quiet. I
suspect word has gotten out of what happens to those who disobey their new
king. Once the new troops are in place, I doubt you will have any trouble from
the outlying villages for very long.”

“We can always keep a few prisoners on
hand, though.” Ulda shook a finger at Tu’vad as he spoke. “You never know when
we will need to use them.”

Tu’vad nodded. “I’m sure there will be
some petty thievery once the mines are running at full capacity. Even knowing
the punishment, some people are always tempted to break the law.”

“Very good. I don’t want to run low on
specimens.” Ulda sat upon his stolen throne. If only those elves who were so
keen to reject him could see him now. The ideas which caused him to be reviled
by his peers in Ral'nassa were all coming into fruition now. He had managed all
this with only a small group of soldiers and a few purses full of gold.

Humans were certainly much easier to
conquer than elves. Had he tried to stage a coup in Ral’nassa, he would have
had countless sorcerers to deal with. Surely some of them would have come to
his side. Limitless power would be a very attractive reward for a sorcerer, but
given the so-called morals of the royal council and the general dislike of dark
wizardry, Ulda was sure to fail.

Here in Al’marr he had succeeded. Men are
weak and their souls easily corrupted. They are easier to intimidate and not
nearly as resistant to magic. Their so-called mages have to ingest regular potions
just to cast the simplest spells. Without a doubt, Ulda would be able to
persuade many human mages to assist him. He could offer them powers they had
never imagined possible. All he would require is that they bend the knee to
him.

Chapter 5
 

The drums summoned the clansmen to the
feast. The emissaries were seated next to the Overseer in a place of honor. Mel
took a seat on the log bench next to Thinal, who already had a mouthful of
honey cake. She swallowed the cake, gave Mel a guilty smile, and proceeded to
lick her fingers. Mel smirked and shook his head.

The Overseer stood and raised a goblet.
“These men here are emissaries from the king of Na’zora. They have come in
peace to request our aid in a most urgent matter. Tonight, they are our honored
guests, and tomorrow they will leave us.”

Mel looked at Thinal, his jaw dropping
open slightly. “Tomorrow?” he whispered.

Thinal smiled and shrugged.

“Eat, drink, make music, and dance!” the
Overseer continued. “Tonight we feast!”

The clansmen responded with a cheer and
began grabbing at the ample supply of food before them. Drums pounded, wooden
flutes sang, and bones and shells rattled. A group of ladies began to dance.
The shell bracelets on their ankles jingled and kept time with the music.

Despite the festivities, Mel was not fully
at ease. He was not looking forward to working with these men from Na'zora. He
didn't trust them and didn't want to work with them. He filled his plate with
every kind of food available: fruits, nuts, boar meat, elk meat, and sweet
cakes. Since he would be eating trail food for who knows how long, he was
determined to enjoy a good meal tonight. The ale was in good supply as well.
After a few mugs, he might be able to take his mind off the journey ahead.

One of the dancing ladies twirled by, bent
down, and kissed Mel on the cheek. She offered a hand inviting him for a dance,
but Mel shrugged and waved her away. Though their society was not particularly
monogamous, he only had eyes for Thinal. She too was free to take other mates,
but she seemed to prefer Mel above all others.

A group of fire twirlers took over the
dance. They each held flaming wooden batons which they tossed back and forth
and threw high into the sky. Applause roared from the gathered elves. The
twirlers took a bow, doused their flames, and began dancing with the ladies.
The music swelled louder, and many elves from the crowd joined in the dance.

Thinal, who had just downed a mug of ale,
grabbed Mel by the arm and dragged him to the dance area. He still had a mouthful
of food, but he swallowed, smiled, and began dancing. Thinal's eyes twinkled
with starlight, and she smiled and laughed as they danced. For the moment, Mel
forgot his troubles and focused only on his lover.

After several dances, the pair sank back into
their seats and reached for more ale. They touched glasses and drank. Once his
cup was emptied, Mel stretched out on the log bench and focused his green eyes
up at the stars. Thinal, mug in hand, asked, “What do you see up there?” She
smiled as she gazed up into the heavens.

After a pause, Mel replied, “The future
and the past.” He sighed and added, “Everything.” With another sigh, he sat up
and looked at Thinal. She set down her mug, took his hands, and looked up
towards the sky.

“I think I see it too,” she said with a
smile.

“Pardon me,” a voice said. “I don't wish
to interrupt.”

They looked and saw Mi'tal standing next
to them. He took a seat on the log next to Mel.

“Perhaps this isn't the best time, but I
would like to say a few words to you both. I know my people have not always
treated you kindly. There is tension between us because of the past, but I do
not believe we are the same as we once were. King Aelryk is older and far wiser
than he used to be. He is no longer a young prince under the orders of his
father. In his youth, he was eager to prove himself a true leader in battle. He
followed his father's orders without question. Many years have passed since
then, and I do believe his views have changed. He enjoys the peace we share
with your people. I truly believe that in time he will do all he can to make
amends.”

Mel was silent, contemplative.

“The war was a long time ago,” Thinal
said. “Neither of us had been born yet. Our parents fought in it along with
some of the elder members of our clan, but I think you have a chance for a
fresh start with the youth. It's true our numbers are growing, and in time we
will need more space. I hope you will allow us an audience with your king, and
I hope he will listen. Personally, I am helping you because I want to see what
lies beyond our borders. I also wouldn't mind the chance to take on a few of
these monsters of yours.” Her lips turned up into a mischievous smile.

“You may not wish that once you've seen
them, my lady, but you are indeed brave,” Mi'tal said. “It will be an honor to
have you and your sword along on this journey.”

Mel remained silent. He was listening to
every word, but he had nothing to say. Perhaps this man was telling the truth,
and perhaps this king had grown wiser over the years. Thinal was going, so he
must go. She was willing to trust these men, and Mel trusted her judgment.

Mi'tal rose. “I suppose I will see you
both in the morning then.” He nodded at Mel and walked away.

The festivities continued late into the
night, and finally Mel and Thinal headed for their hut. Once inside, Thinal
undressed and washed her face. She pulled the shell comb from her hair allowing
the dark tresses to fall freely. Mel lay flat on the bed, exhausted. Thinal,
however, was still swimming with excitement.

“I can’t wait to get started!” she said.
“This is a chance to wander farther into the Wildlands than any of us has ever
been. Maybe they’ll even let us explore part of Na’zora. Just imagine being
allowed to wander freely in their lands. What if their king actually granted
your request? That would mean so much to our people.”

She sat on the edge of the bed and put her
hand on Mel’s shoulder. “I know you’re going to hate these men and any others we
have to deal with, but promise me you’ll see it through to the end. Promise me,
Mel.”

“I promise,” Mel said. He closed his eyes
and slept.

BOOK: A Story Of River
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