The fire was dying as Haldirian rolled onto his back and tried not to think of his large soft bed back in Tirithawáe. His men slept deeply in their bed rolls, but he was restless despite the exhaustion leaking into his bones. He had agreed, been eager even, to come on the ranging trip to inspect the far borders of his kingdom. It had taken only four days for the novelty to wear off. Maybe you are getting too soft and spoilt princeling, his brother Eeilos’ voice echoed his mind. Eeilos, the warrior, and heir to Tirithawáe was a massive man bound with muscle and heroism. He wouldn’t be thinking of a soft bed; he would be sleeping as deeply as everyone else.
Haldirian’s ears pricked up as a snap of footsteps disturbed the forest floor around them. Maybe a curious animal, Haldirian thought until he saw a shadow move near the horses. His hand crept slowly to the hunting knife he kept under his cloak. Through the small crack in his eyelids, he watched the hooded figure step between the rangers. Haldirian’s heart gave a surprised jolt as the man turned toward the fire. He saw the dark skin and eyes hidden under the hood. Easterner.
Haldirian was on his feet in a heartbeat, his knife raised. The Easterner blocked his blow, pivoting and ducking around Haldirian’s strikes and kicks. The other rangers were up and causing enough of a distraction so that Haldirian could pin the stranger to the ground.
“Who are you?” Haldirian demanded in Aloré. The stranger looked up at him blankly, not a flicker of recognition in his black eyes. Haldirian repeated the question in the common dialect used by the Men all over Elindor, but there was no response.
“What shall we do with him, my prince?” Zir asked, his spear pointed at the prisoner’s back. Haldirian felt a flicker of unease; to his knowledge, an Easterner hadn’t been seen in Elindor for over a hundred years. He could be an innocent traveler…but then why would he sneak about a camp?
“We take him back to Tirithawáe and learn what his intentions are. If he’s innocent, we will cut him loose, if he’s a spy than my father can deal with him.”
Chapter One – The Messenger
Haldirian gazed blank-eyed at the mural in Elithador’s study. It was a magnificent sailing ship crammed full of Aloré fleeing their homeland, the glorious and doomed Lorianath sinking into the sea. Behind him Elithador, King of Tirithawáe, muttered and paced, his long white fingers massaging his throbbing temples.
It had been two weeks since Haldirian had captured the Easterner and they were no closer to discovering his true intentions. They had uncovered a thick wad of documents in their prisoner’s satchel but no one in the city could decipher the Eastern script.
“I’m going to call a High Council,” Elithador stated suddenly. “We’re well overdue for one and I’ll need the other lord’s to help me get to the bottom of this. If he is a spy, it concerns all of us, and I won’t charge a man to hang because of the color of his skin. Who knows? Perhaps one of the lord’s will be able to get him to talk. Mirithadûn would have information on the East; Kalonera spent enough time there when she was alive.”
Haldirian listened to his father spout ideas and theories as he walked out onto the balcony. The crisp autumn air cleared his mind as he breathed slowly. Elithador joined him, handing him another goblet of wine.
“I want you to go to Mirithadûn and convince him to come to the council,” he said, the edge of a command to his voice. Mirithadûn was king of Silandáe, an Aloréan kingdom in the south and at least a fortnight’s journey away.
“Father, I’ve only just got back. Isn’t this why we have messengers?” The thought of more cold nights on the trail wasn’t a comforting one. Elithador gave him a stern glance, and Haldirian squirmed as he tried to hold it.
“It will do you good. Mirithadûn hasn’t seen you since you became a man and he will appreciate the visit. I’m worried about how antisocial you are becoming. Your mother agrees with me that a trip away will help clear your mind.”
“You’re worried about me being antisocial, so you are sending me into the wilderness alone?”
“It’s not only you I’m worried about, Haldirian. Nothing good has ever come out of the East. I am going to be very careful who I trust to deliver the messages. I don’t want people to become fearful over something just because it’s different.”
Haldirian drained his wine before getting to his feet, “Fine, fine. I’ll leave at dawn.”
“Pack warm; there will be snow on the Alcifin Ranges already.”
“Great,” Haldirian said unenthusiastically before bidding his father goodnight.
Haldirian hurried through the marble passageways of the palace hoping to avoid any council members or courtiers who were curious about the prisoner. They had kept the knowledge of the Easterner’s appearance to a tight circle in order not to inflame speculation. Naturally, the whole palace knew.
“Haldirian!” a feminine voice called out to him. He stopped and let the tall, beautiful woman catch up to him. Blessed with the long lifespans of the Aloré his mother barely looked forty years of age, despite being over a century old. Her long black hair fell in ringlets to her waist, the gold stitching on her plum gown sparkled in the lamp lights and her deep aquamarine eyes were brimming with motherly concern.
“What can I do for you mother?” he asked.
“Walk with me, Haldirian,” she said, linking her arm tightly around his, making escape impossible. She directed him silently out of the palace walls and into the gardens. Below them, the city around them had settled down for the night, the lamps filling the streets with a soft glow.
“Your father has told me that you plan on leaving tomorrow,” Aldaneán commented.
“Already? It sounds as if you had a hand in its organization to me. Plant the idea in his head, did you?”
“Of course I did! You need to leave this city before you drive me mad with your moods,” she replied sharply. “You haven’t left our borders since your Rites Ceremony two years ago.”
Haldirian had remembered the celebration, the day he had officially become a man under Aloréan Law. The Aloréan’s were not considered adults until their fiftieth year; by Man’s standards, it would have been equivalent to an eighteenth birthday. Haldirian knew this because King Renath from the country of Baitriona had told him how strange it was to be honoring a prince’s Rites Day when the ‘boy’ was older than he was. Haldirian had been happy that day, filled with a nervous anticipation of what the future held. Two years later he knew it held more of the same; weapons training, kingship training (even if he wasn’t heir) and his studies of whatever he chose. The only thing that had changed was his mother’s eagerness to find him a wife.
“I want you to take Zir and some of the other rangers with you. You will need the company on such a long trip,” Aldaneán said and sat down on a stone bench. Haldirian left her side to sit under a tirith perial tree.
“Zir is needed here to keep patrolling the borders in case this Easterner wasn’t alone. I don’t want any company; I’ll travel faster by myself.”
“Haldirian, I’m worried about you. You haven’t been yourself for months. You are becoming more distant every day.”
“I’m well enough,” Haldirian said firmly.
“Just tell me what is wrong, I can fix it if you let-”
“I want to be left alone! Is that a crime now?” he said, a groan of exasperation escaping from his lips.
Aldaneán got to her feet, her face cold. “I hope you work out whatever is troubling you and soon. I want my son back.”
“Mother, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to shout. I’m exhausted and worried, and it’s worn my nerves raw,” Haldirian apologized, hating seeing her so upset.
“Let’s hope this trip gives you the space you need,” Aldaneán sighed. “Aláenor had her Rites Ceremony last spring. I feel awful for not being there. Kalonera would have been so proud of her.” Kalonera, the wife to Mirithadûn, had been his mother’s best friend until the day of her death. Aláenor was the only Aloréan princess Haldirian had never met.
“Is that so,” Haldirian commented, shredding a leaf between his fingers.
“Now she is a woman she is of marriageable age,” Aldaneán added. Ah, so this was the reason he was being sent as a messenger.
“I have no want of a wife.”
“Did I suggest that? I would not concern yourself. If Mirithadûn’s letters are anything to go by she’s been rejecting suitors since the spring. I have often lamented to him about my own son’s being just as difficult. I don’t think there is a woman in all of Elindor that would reject you or Eeilos.”
“Except Aláenor obviously.”
“I would be wary of her if I were you. It sounds as if she has grown wild and formidable without a mother to guide her.”
“How dangerous can a royal madam be? What is she going to do? Gossip me to death? Stab me with her embroidery needle?” Haldirian laughed but his mother’s frown only deepened.
“I hope she does stab you if you speak like that when you arrive.”
Haldirian got to his feet and bent down to kiss his mother’s pale cheek.
“I have to go and pack. Don’t worry; I’ll be home soon,” he said. “Make sure father get’s some sleep.”
Back in his chambers, Haldirian packed his gear into black leather saddle bags. He checked that both his sword and hunting knife were razor sharp; their cold steel shone with delicate tracings and the insignia of Tirithawáe, the silver leaf of a tirith perial tree surrounded by three sapphire stars. He sheathed them on their leather baldric and placed them on top of his other gear. He hoped he wouldn’t need them but the business with the Easterner made worry fill the pit of his stomach.
Haldirian went into the bathing room and turned on the silver taps, watching the hot water fill the large tub. Many years ago the Aloréan engineers of Tirithawáe had learned how to pump water from the river into heated copper braziers. The braziers connected to a maze of pipework that ensured they could turn the hot and cold water on and off with ease. It still baffled humans when they came to stay. They often made large accusations of magic, even though the Aloré had turned their back on magic a thousand years beforehand. Magic had not been able to save Lorianath, so the art was forgotten when they resettled in Elindor, the sacred knowledge left to be consumed by the waves.
Haldirian stripped off his clothes and settled in the steaming water, luxuriating in the warmth while he still could. He ran his hands through his thick black curls. He didn’t want to go to Silandáe but the thought of watching Elithador fret for the next few weeks wasn’t a tempting prospect either. It would be so much easier if Eeilos had been there instead of away in the northern Aloréan city of Sashnára. Rumours leaked down occasionally that Eeilos had been sent to fight barbarian raiders in the north but apart from the tales Haldirian had received no word from him in a year.
Haldirian waited for the water to turn cold before he dried off and climbed wearily into bed to dream of burning cities.
Haldirian was up before the sunrise. With bleary eyes, he saddled Blán, his dappled gray stallion, and led him out to the palace gates. He was surprised to see Elithador waiting for him. He must be more worried than what he seems, Haldirian thought. His father had never seen him off on a ranging trip before.
“I knew you would skip breakfast,” Elithador said, handing him a bundle of warm bread and fruit. “That’s no way to begin a journey.”
“I have supplies in my saddlebags,” Haldirian replied, feeling like a boy again.
“Good luck down there. Please try not to antagonize Aláenor. She doesn’t get to meet too many royals.”
“Half her luck,” Haldirian replied, swinging himself up into the saddle. “Are you going to try and convince me to marry her like Mother did?”
“Gods above, no!” Elithador chuckled, patting Blán’s neck. “She wouldn’t have you, and you would just embarrass yourself. Give them our greetings.”
“I will father. Make sure the rangers are doing rotating patrols and send word if you need me.”
After Elithador’s assurances and goodbyes, Haldirian rode quickly through the waking streets and into the southern forest beyond.
Five long days saw Haldirian to the end of the Mindala Forest. He had never been so far south, but it wasn’t hard to find the two elaborately carved pillars that marked the entrance to the mountain passes. They stood out like great white beacons in a land of autumn trees. As he drew nearer to them, he took the time to study the circles of story carved into them. Elithador said it was a retelling of the Battle of Kin. You already know the story, you are wasting time, Eeilos’ voice dredged up in the back of his mind. His brother had always teased him about his love of reading. Haldirian pushed it out of his mind and continued riding passed the pillars.
Misty rain fell steadily, making the stone roads through the Alcifin Range slippery and treacherous. Haldirian took to leading Blán rather than risk them both toppling down into the Náde River below. The only respite from the cold and rain were the caves made by the Aloréan’s to provide shelter to travelers. For a brief few hours, Haldirian could be dry before the next day drenched him once more.
Haldirian couldn’t remember a more welcome sight than the pillars marking the exit to the range. He felt like damp death. Once back in the saddle and under the golden leaves of the silan trees, he began to wonder what kind of reception he would receive. He had never met Mirithadûn or his troublesome (but of marriageable age) daughter. At dusk he stopped at a small waterfall to rest Blán before he pushed on. He would be close to the city and as he remounted Blán the thought of being clean and dry filled him with a renewed energy.
There was a rustle in the branches above him, and Haldirian only had enough time to cover his head as cloaked figure dropped on him, knocking him out of the saddle. He landed hard on the ground; the air knocked out of his lungs as his assailant cut the strap of his baldric and flung it out of his reach.
Haldirian swung out at his attacker and hit air as they wrestled on the wet ground. Haldirian brought his knee up, wedging it between them and used the leverage to flip them over onto their back. Haldirian pinned his attacker to the ground as the golden hood fell back, sea green eyes glared up at him.
“You’re a woman?” he exclaimed.
She smiled sweetly before she struck him hard in the sternum with heel of palm. He fell off her, gasping on all fours and trying not to vomit.
The woman was on her feet in a flash, her boot shoving his shoulder so he fell over onto his back. The tip of a cold blade touched his throat putting her heavy, muddy boot on his heaving chest. She watched him carefully as she put gloved fingers to her mouth and whistled.
Four people dressed in mahogany and golden yellow cloaks dropped from the trees around them. They blended in so well with the colors of the silan trees he had failed to spot them entirely.
Idiot Haldirian! Of course, their borders were protected; he cursed inwardly. A tall Aloréan with platinum hair was bent double with laughter as the other three jeered.
“You couldn’t help yourself could you Flower?” the platinum man said.
“You owe me, Lindon. Pay up,” she held out an expectant hand. Coins were dropped into it, and other debts were settled between the group. Her attentions flickered back to a red faced Haldirian.
“Who are you?”
“A messenger,” he said as his breath started to return, “from Elithador of Tirithawáe.” She gave him a hard stare before finally removing her boot, leaving sticky mud and leaf litter behind. Haldirian climbed to his feet, and she sheathed her sword.
“Lindon, escort him to the palace. Take him through down the main roads,” she instructed before whistling again. A black horse trotted through the trees, and she climbed onto its back. “I’ll debrief the king; he will want to know we have a stranger.”
“Don’t do anything stupid now,” Lindon said with a grin.
“Never,” she smiled brilliantly before rearing the horse and taking off at a breakneck speed into the dark forest. Haldirian gazed stupidly after her. Lindon chuckled, giving him a friendly slap on the back.
“Don’t worry not everyone in Silandáe greets newcomers that way.”
“So no more violent surprises?” Haldirian asked as he bent to pick up his sliced baldric and strapped it to his saddle.
“It all depends on whether you are bringing good or bad news,” teased Lindon. “Come on; we have a few hours riding to go if we aren’t taking you the back way.”
Lindon and the others were good company, managing light conversation without prying into the purpose of Haldirian’s errand. He told them about Tirithawáe, and they competitively boasted about the beauty city that was Silandáe.
They crossed a stone bridge and stopped in front of the locked city gates.
“Gelian!” Lindon called, “Open the gate, I have urgent business in the city tonight.”
A dark head appeared over the battlements, “They only business you have ever considered urgent is quenching your thirst.”
“Hurry up! Look! I have a messenger and everything,” Lindon complained. Gelian eyed Haldirian skeptically before signally below. The gates opened with a groan. “Meet Flower did he?” he smirked as they rode through. Haldirian blushed brightly as they entered the city.
The buildings had been constructed with the same yellow stone as the bridge, making Silandáe glow gold in the lamplight. They rode under sweeping arches over the city streets, lush hanging gardens and silan trees growing wherever he looked. It didn’t take long for them to reach the high golden gates of the palace. Lindon chatted happily with the guards who let them in without a second glance at Haldirian.
“Welcome to Ellowen,” said Lindon as the palace came into view. It was a city within a city with its elevated, sprawling walkways half hidden by gardens and the tallest silan tree’s Haldirian had ever seen. “Try not to sleep walk if you don’t want to plummet off one of the bridges.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” Haldirian grinned as they gave their horses to the stable hands. Haldirian carried his sword and hunting knife awkwardly in his ruined baldric. It was definitely not the way he wanted to meet the king for the first time.
Their companions departed, leaving Lindon to guide Haldirian through the myriad of staircases and walkways in search of the king. Guards opened a pair of gold laced doors and Haldirian was led into a magnificent hall. A high roof was held up by dark beams of silan wood, great tapestries hung from the walls as well as and the standard of the House of Ruel; an elaborate golden sun on a red background. A tall, broad man sat on a throne carved with dizzying sun designs and inlaid with gold. Lindon and Haldirian bowed low.
“Welcome Prince Haldirian of Tirithawáe,” the king exclaimed in a deep voice that seemed to echo from his broad chest.
“King Mirithadûn, how did you know it was me when we have never met before?” Haldirian asked as he stood tall once more.
Mirithadûn laughed, “Haldirian, you look so much like your parents it would be impossible to mistake you for anyone else.”
Beside him, Haldirian heard Lindon mutter a few curse words. He was staring at Haldirian with a new found interest.
“Thank you Lindon, that will all.”
Lindon bowed and all but ran from the hall. Mirithadûn turned his intense gaze back to Haldirian. He was every inch the Golden King. He had a red gold moustache, and long blonde fell over his shoulders. His pale blue eyes settled back on his face. “What has happened Haldirian? I know Elithador wouldn’t spare you for a social visit.”
“We have had trouble in Tirithawáe and Elithador is calling a High Council,” Haldirian answered, doing his best not to show how intimidated he was. “We need your help.”
“I can see you have traveled hard to get here, so perhaps the bad news can wait until morning?” Mirithadûn got to his feet and came to stand beside him. Haldirian was six foot six and the King of Silandáe towered over him. He patted him on the shoulder affectionately, “How is it that Elithador managed to breed such big handsome sons?”
“It was combined effort,” Haldirian said and was rewarded with Mirithadûn’s booming laughter.
“Indeed! The beautiful Aldaneán. She would be the grace and dark hair but your gray eyes are all Elithador.”
The door to the hall opened, breaking their friendly discussion and a woman strode in. She wore a soft green gown, her hair falling in a thick golden braid over her shoulder.
“Excellent, you are here,” Mirithadûn gestured to her, “Aláenor may I introduce Prince Haldirian of Tirithawáe.”
Haldirian’s heart dropped to his stomach as he once again faced the angry sea green eyes of his attacker.
Chapter Two- Lady of the Forest
Mirithadûn’s words hit Aláenor with a jolt. For a moment she wondered if Haldirian would recognize her. The disbelief burning in his eyes confirmed he did. Aláenor’s shock was replaced with a fierce pride. She couldn’t wait to tell Lindon that she had beaten a prince to a pulp.
Haldirian bowed low, “My lady, how nice to see you again.”
“You’ve already met?”
“We had the brief pleasure of making our acquaintance at the northern border’s earlier this evening.”
“I see,” Mirithadûn frowned at her and she squirmed inwardly.
“She greeted as warmly and politely as any queen, you would’ve been proud,” he added and Aláenor’s palms itched with the urge to hit him.
“It’s good to see she remembered her manners,” the king replied unconvincingly before gesturing to his steward. “I’m sure you’re fatigued from your journey Haldirian. Follow Halba, and he’ll see you to your chambers. We can talk business in the morning.”
“Thank you, your majesty, Lady Aláenor,” Haldirian bowed again before giving Aláenor a sideways grin that only she could see, and following Halba from the hall.
“What a polite young man,” Mirithadûn commented, “He had a fascinating mark on his chest, did you notice?” She shook her head innocently.
“The boy has been traveling for weeks he was one whole dirty mark,” she replied.
“It was a boot print,” Mirithadûn stated flatly, “and about your size. You met him on the borders, do I need to give you a lecture about attacking royalty?”
“I didn’t know he was royalty did I?”
Mirithadûn grinned despite himself, “My daughter defeating Elithador’s son…I’ll never let him forget it.”
“I should hope not. What does he want anyway?” she asked, dreading the reply. Please don’t be a suitor, please don’t be a suitor.
“There is going to be a High Council in Tirithawáe. He hasn’t come for a bride. You needn’t look so worried.”
“I’m not worried,” Aláenor said, “If he were a suitor I would be sending his worthless hide back to Tirithawáe.”
“I don’t know why you are so set against marriage. I was the happiest when I was married to your mother,” he replied. He didn’t sound convincing.
“I’ve only just had my Rites Day! I am hardly a spinster and besides I have no want or need of a husband.”
Mirithadûn held up his hands in defeat, “I don’t want to fight with you. Go and get some sleep, I want you in my meeting with Haldirian tomorrow.” He kissed her forehead, his eyes sad. He looked at her more like that the older she became. She knew it had something to do with her mother, so she tried her best to ignore it.
“Good night father,” she mumbled.
Back in her apartments Aláenor kicked off her shoes and pulled off her green dress. Servants had cleaned up the muddy clothes she had left in the bathing room and the lamps had been lit. Aláenor climbed into bed, creating a fort of pillows around her and stared up at the ceiling.
Why was Haldirian here? Surely if it was only for a High Council they could’ve sent a messenger…something had to be wrong.
Aláenor tossed and turned for another hour before she kicked back her blankets and got up. She pulled on a pair of boots under her night dress, wrapped a fur-lined robe around her before walking down the steps from her balcony and out into the gardens.
Aláenor breathed deeply as she wandered through the trees slowly making her way to her favorite thinking place. She paused by a statue of embracing lovers. It had been carved by Kalonera, her mother, and it was nicer to visit it than her grave.
Aláenor brushed it with her hand in silent greeting as she passed it, heading for a large boulder half hidden in the faint lamplight. It had a curved sloping basin that Aláenor liked to lie in. She slid down into it watching the stars flick through the trees above her. A branch snapped and she sat up, angry and alert.
“We need to stop meeting like this,” a voice said and the shadow next to a silan moved to join her.
“If it isn’t the little messenger boy,” she sneered as he approached her. Haldirian had washed and dressed in clean clothes. The week’s old stubble had been shaved, making him look younger. Dark curls had been pushed back from his face and intelligent gray eyes watched her cautiously.
Aláenor wasn’t interested in a husband but even she would grudgingly admit he was handsome. He probably has an ego to match it too.
“Tell me wild ranger, do you always attack people you have never met?”
“Only royalty,” she admitted, “although you weren’t much of a fight.”
“I assure you that if we were ever to meet in battle again, you would be the one on your back,” Haldirian retorted.
“I should warn you, I am a dangerous person to challenge.”
“And why is that?”
“I never lose,” she replied with conviction.
“It’s easy to be confident when you are jumping out of trees onto unsuspecting travelers.”
“I’d still defeat you even if I was standing on the ground.”
Haldirian smiled and it was brilliant and open, “We’ll see.”
Aláenor pulled her coat tighter around herself, trying to think of something to say. She was terrible at small talk unless it was with Lindon. She didn’t know where to start with a stranger. Haldirian must’ve thought she was cold because he untied his cloak and unexpectedly dropped it around her.
“Thank you,” she said awkwardly and to return the kind gesture she moved over and allowed him to sit down beside her.
“Here I thought it wasn’t only the weather that’s chilly in Silandáe,” he joked.
“Why are you here? You aren’t another suitor are you?” Aláenor blurted out and then blushed fiercely. To her surprise, Haldirian burst out laughing.
“Gods no! A wife is the last thing I need.”
“Oh good,” she sighed with relief.
“That’s right, I’ve heard how you treat suitors.”
“Which rumor was it? Do I chase them out of Silandáe or live in a cave and eat them one by one?” Aláenor was almost as tired of rumors as she was of suitors.
“Nothing so vicious, I’ve only heard that you have rejected them all. But after meeting you in person, I need to ask…do you eat them?”
“Not recently,” she grinned before adding, “I may live far in the south but don’t think I haven’t heard the rumors about you.”
“Rumors spread by my mother’s correspondence with Mirithadûn no doubt. Please, enlighten me.”
“You are illusive, introverted, anti-social and refuse to marry much to her dismay.”
“I’m not the heir to the throne. I hardly need to marry to secure an alliance, or marry at all for that matter,” Haldirian replied, running a hand through his hair; a nervous tick she was surprised she’d noticed, usually she ignored people completely. “My father would have started the antisocial rumor.”
“Is that why they sent you to Silandáe instead of a messenger?”
“Partly,” Haldirian replied cautiously, “I have a private matter to discuss with Mirithadûn that Elithador didn’t trust to anyone else.”
“I see,” Aláenor replied. “You’d best wait and tell us both tomorrow.”
“Can I ask you a personal question?”
“If you must.”
“Why does Lindon call you Flower? You don’t strike me as flower-like. That’s a name associated with delicate royal maidens. Not ones that like to jump out of trees to kill people she doesn’t know.”
Aláenor slid from the rock and started searching through the gardens. Haldirian followed her until she stopped and picked a small white flower.
“This is the aláen flower, I was named after it,” she explained placing it into his large brown hand. “That is why Lindon calls me Flower. He also knows I hate it and likes to provoke me.”
“He does seem to be the teasing type,” Haldirian said, twirling the bloom between his fingers. “I suppose it’s my fault you attacked me.”
“My mother warned me about you and I laughed at her.”
“She must have the wisdom of the family.”
“Without a doubt.”
“Unfortunately for Mirithadûn I didn’t turn out to be the lady he hoped for. I find that kind of life boring and always have. Life is full of lots of things more interesting than being a royal madam,” Aláenor stated. “He wanted a boy. He raised me as a boy. I had my Rites Day and all of a sudden he is surprised I am more interested in ranging than getting married.” She bit her lip wondering why she’d told him something so personal. She would have to watch her mouth in his easy company.
“If it makes you feel better I’m not good at being a royal madam and I like ranging as well,” Haldirian said seriously. She laughed as the palace coming back into view and she handed him back his cloak.
“Thank you for the company,” she said and hesitated, “I haven’t had the chance to talk to someone new for a long time.”
“My pleasure, princess. Thank you for not eating me.”
Aláenor snorted, “Don’t call me, princess. Aláenor will suffice or I might change my mind and eat you after all.” She watched the smile twist around the corners of his lips and she found herself grinning back before hurrying away, desperate for him to not see the blush spreading across her face.
Aláenor woke late the next morning, stretching lazily in the sunshine that shone on her bed. She was exhausted from a week ranging followed by talking all night with Haldirian. She tried to hide her smile. He had been good company and it had been the first night in weeks that she hadn’t had nightmares.
Aláenor had spent the last months dreaming of a great city rising from the ocean, dripping with blood. She would be in a different section of the city every night but it always ended the same way; she would burst into flames and would wake frightened, the smell of smoke and burning flesh in her nose.
Getting out of bed she washed her face and braided her golden hair. She dressed in her ranger’s official uniform; knee high black boots, firm fitting mahogany trousers and tunic with a dark golden yellow undershirt. Haldirian already knew that she was not the kind of woman to parade about in dresses and despite his presence, she was determined to treat it like any other day. She grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on her dining table before strapping her sword about her waist. She needed to train, needed to feel her muscles burn and for the fog in her head to clear away.
The hall was empty and Aláenor worried for a moment that she hadn’t been invited to the meeting with Haldirian and Mirithadûn. She pushed the thought from her mind, she had attended all of Mirithadûn’s meetings for years. She took her place at the end of the hall and pulled her sword from its scabbard.
It had been a gift for her Rites Day from Mirithadûn. It was a perfectly balanced blade, the hilt made from silan wood and carved with the sun insignia of the House of Ruel. The king knew his daughter well; there were no fancy designs or flourishes or gold inlays. It was a simple and deadly, made for her hand alone.
On the floor of the hall was a large mosaic of concentric circles, making up a large sun motif. The Warrior’s Sun it was called, each circle representing a different, more complicated drill. Aláenor positioned herself in the largest sun, determined to wind her way through to the centre at least twice before Mirithadûn summoned her. She gripped her hilt and began, each movement smooth and precise. Aláenor dismissed all thoughts from her mind, allowing the world to drop away. Only the action mattered, the positioning, everything else melted in the burn of her muscles.
Aláenor was in the third circle when the shadow of a figure moved behind a pillar. She’d been so focused that she hadn’t heard them enter. Sloppy, she chastised herself. She said nothing, letting them believe that she had not noticed them.
In the fourth circle, she turned sharply to look directly at them. As they hid out of sight, she ducked around the nearest pillar. She heard their footsteps moving along the marble tiles as they searched for her. Aláenor moved slowly from pillar to pillar, keeping out of sight. The figure made to turn around and found the tip of her sword pointed at his chest.
“Don’t you have anything better to do than stalk me?” she questioned. Haldirian’s smile was confident as he leaned back against the pillar.
“I wasn’t stalking you. I came looking for Mirithadûn and found you instead.”
“You could’ve said good morning.”
“And interrupt your concentration? I was too scared to in case I got a sword in my throat,” he glanced down at the blade she still had aimed at his heart. “I can see that didn’t turn out well for me. Are the drills all for practice or can you use that thing?”
Aláenor moved slowly back to the center of the hall, her sword aimed at him, “Would you care to find out?”
“I must admit, I’m curious,” Haldirian replied as he pulled his blade from the scabbard that hung down his back.
“I see you found a new baldric,” she commented innocently.
“I had a spare.”
“Perhaps I’ll claim that one too.”
“You’re welcome to try,” he replied as he faced her.
Aláenor didn’t need to be asked twice; her sword was a flash of light as she lunged for him. He blocked her easily but she swung again, and he was forced to go on the defensive.
Haldiran was fast and far more graceful than she imagined for a man as tall as he was. He moved around her and she had to work to keep up with him. Sweat trickled down the side of her face as their match continued, neither one wanting to admit defeat or stop. He swiped out at her legs and she jumped backward before aiming a blow at his head. He ducked and the edge of her blade caught the wood of the pillar, he went to raise his blade to her neck but she caught it against the edge of her hunting knife that she had hidden under her tunic.
“Another blade? That’s hardly fair,” he said as Aláenor pulled her sword from the wood.
“I never said anything about playing fair,” she replied as she spun the knife once in her hand before secreting it back into its scabbard. Haldirian moved, attacking her left side and she only just twisted as his blade cut through the side of her tunic. She was lucky he hadn’t caught skin.
“This is one of my favorite tunics,” she growled.
“I’m sure as a royal madam you will be able to stitch it up later,” he teased and anger seethed through her. She wanted to wipe that smirk off his pretty face.
Haldirian staggered backward at the force of the blows she rained down on him. The hilt of her sword locked around his and they brought them down, facing each other between crossed blades.
“You aren’t half bad,” Haldirian heaved, “For a woman.” Aláenor pulled down sharply then pushed up, the hilt slipped out of his hands, sailed through the air and hit the floor with a sharp clang. Haldirian stared at the sword and back to her just as her left fist hooked him in the jaw. He stumbled but didn’t fall.
“What was that for?” he asked, rubbing the tender spot.
“You insulted me for being a woman,” she hissed, leveling her sword at him, “One woman from the House of Ruel is worth five of your useless sex.” Aláenor sheathed her sword and stormed from the hall before she drew blood.
Chapter Three- The Keeper of Records
Haldirian stood cursing himself for a long while, contemplating whether or not to follow Aláenor. Would she talk to him or stab him? He rubbed his jaw, feeling the bruise that was already blossoming there. He had to find her. Haldirian reached for the door when it burst open and Mirithadûn strode in. Haldirian bowed quickly.
“Good! You’re here. I can’t find Aláenor anywhere so I’ll debrief her later,” said Mirithadûn, brusquely. “Tell me what this is all about, Haldirian.”
“I caught an Easterner on our borders,” he said and pulled a wallet of documents from the inside of his jacket. “I was on a ranging trip and he walked straight into the camp. We have no way of talking to him to find out if he is just an explorer or…”
“A spy,” Mirithadûn growled.
“We found these on him. Elithador said that some of Kalonera’s books might be able to help us translate them.” Haldirian handed him the wallet and the King flicked through the papers his brows lowering.
“I can’t read them but go to the library and see Largareth. He’s studied much on the East and may have some way of translating them. Elithador is right to call a High Council. We need to be ready if they are planning on invading.”
“Invading! This all could be a misunderstanding,” Haldirian said as Mirithadûn gave the papers back to him.
“We can hope. Halba!” Mirithadûn called and his steward came rushing in. “Take Haldirian to the libraries at once. Largareth will be able to tell you what all this means and whether or not Elithador needs to announce a hanging.”
Haldirian bowed to the king and quickly followed Halba. All of Mirithadûn’s good nature had vanished at the mention of the East. At least you know where his daughter gets her temper.
Haldirian tried to push thoughts of Aláenor from his mind; he could always seek her out later to apologize. He didn’t know why he provoked her. He didn’t know how anyone could look so beautiful when they were angry.
Halba led Haldirian quickly through corridors and up staircases before pointing at a set of double doors, bowing and then disappearing once more. Haldirian pushed open the door and felt his mouth drop. Tirithawáe had a large library but nothing compared the spiraling, multiple leveled structure he found himself standing in. It had a large domed roof of glass so that natural light flooded down into the structure. Here and there large branches of the silan trees poked through walls and windows and used to hang glass lanterns on.
A large ornate bell hung in the foyer and as Haldirian raised a hand to pull the cord a man with silver white hair appeared from amongst the shelves.
“There is no need for that young prince,” he said, staring at him with intense blue eyes. Haldirian had heard about Largareth from Elithador; he was ancient, even by Aloréan standards, the tutor of kings and a keeper of history. He was taller than Mirithadûn and his presence was potent. Haldirian fought the urge to look at his feet.
“Lord Largareth?” he asked hesitantly.
“I am no lord,” Largareth huffed and held out an expectant hand. “What do you have for me?”
“I…ah…the king said you might be able to help translate these,” Haldirian said, “I’m sorry, how did you know I was coming?”
“Aláenor said we had a visitor,” Largareth said as he took the pages from Haldirian.
I wonder what else she said? Haldiran thought.
Largareth gestured at him to follow as he started walking off again, his eyes never leaving the pages.
“Can I ask where you found these?” Largareth asked as they moved between the shelves.
“They were on an Easterner I captured near Tirithawáe. My father is worried he was a spy. Mirithadûn seems to agree with him.”
“My king is perhaps not the clearest thinker when it comes to the East,” said Largareth as he took a key from his belt and opened a wrought iron gate. “Everything we have on those lands is in this section. Perhaps we can find an alphabet in one of the books.”
“Why do you keep it locked up?” Haldirian asked curiously.
“Because I don’t have all the answers and Mirithadûn discourages people traveling there,” Largareth explained. “People are often afraid of what they don’t understand.”
“Why would he discourage people traveling? Didn’t Kalonera go there often when she was alive?”
“You just answered your question. Kalonera grew very ill and died after her last journey. Something in the East caused it and Mirithadûn doesn’t want any of his people to be at risk.”
Largareth started to pull down books for Haldirian to carry as they walked amongst the shelves. Finally, Largareth sat down at a study table under the branches of a silan and started flicking through them, ignoring Haldirian completely. Haldirian amused himself by wandering about studying artifacts and strange jewelry on display.
“How did all of these books come to be here if no one ever goes to the East?” he asked when the silence became overwhelming.
“There was a time when the Aloré of this country, the learned and too curious, use to make expeditions to the East to learn what lay there. Everything that they wrote or collected has been housed in here. Many of the travelers never returned. I can’t imagine that it would be easy to be a tourist in such a hostile place.”
“What do you think happened to them?”
“There are countless dangers to a journey like that; shipwrecks, murders, disease, capture- who knows?”
Haldirian picked out a book from a shelf; it’s brown leather cover cracked with age. Inside were drawings of landscapes, plants, buildings and at the very end a hastily drawn family tree. Largareth discarded the last book with a frustrated sigh.
“I am going to have to consult the only person who knows more about the East than I do.” To Haldirian’s surprise, Largareth leaned back in his chair and stared up at the sprawling branches above them. He spotted a glimmer of angry eyes looking down on him.
“Aláenor? Could you come down here a moment please?” Largareth asked gently. Aláenor put her book down on the nest of pillows in the fork of the tree before swinging down branches and stone work to land beside them. She glared at Haldirian before turning to place an affectionate hand on Largareth’s shoulder.
“What are you looking for?” she asked, before snatching up the papers and studying them. Largareth got up and offered her his chair.
Aláenor sat down without a word, took a quill from the inkwell and started scribbling on a spare sheet of paper. Haldirian watched her golden brows draw together as she concentrated on them like she seemed to do everything else; with a single minded ferocity. He wanted to apologize, but the words seemed glued to his tongue.
“Come Haldirian, let’s leave the lady to work,” Largareth suggested, steering him away from her. Largareth proved to be a valuable guide, explaining the murals and history of the Silandáe as they strolled.
“This is one of my favourite places in the library,” Largareth said leading him out to a large balcony that overlooked the forest. In the distance, Haldirian could make out the bright glimmer of the sea. He turned to look closely at the small carvings of men and women that decorated an entire wall.
“That’s the entire ancestry of the House of Ruel,” Largareth said as he sat down on one of the stone benches. “From the great man himself to little Aláenor.”
“Stone seems to be the appropriate medium to render her likeness,” Haldirian commented before flushing. “I am sorry, I didn’t mean-”
Largareth chuckled, “Don’t worry Prince Haldirian, she is quite intimidating even for those who know her. She said that you two had crossed swords this morning. Did she give you that bruise?”
“I may have deserved it,” Haldirian said, rubbing his jaw self-consciously. “Any suggestions on how to proceed next?”
“With caution and humility.” Haldirian was still laughing when Aláenor charged out into the courtyard.
“They’re lists!” she declared, spreading them out on the bench beside Largareth. “Look, this lines of figures are different resources in cities. This one is for Endelin; boats, storehouses, soldiers, farms. The same are listed here for Baitriona and Selar.”
“These are all Men cities,” Haldirian commented, lifting up her translations.
“Clearly he was wandering about the Mindala in search of Tirithawáe,” Aláenor pointed out.
“I must go and tell Mirithadûn-” he began as she snatched the papers back from him.
“No, we must go and tell him. You don’t know what you are talking about.”
“You’ve written notes; I don’t need you.”
Largareth looked at the glaring royals and took a step back. “Excellent work, Aláenor,” he said before hurrying from the courtyard. She gathered up her papers and strode away, leaving Haldirian with no choice but to follow.
Haldirian didn’t try and make conversation as they walked, instead focussing on the swing of her long braid and worrying about his city. She was right; the Easterner had been looking for it, and he was a spy. A part of him still hoped that it was a misunderstanding. Spies have masters.
“Father, I’ve deciphered it!” Aláenor declared as she pushed her way into the hall. Mirithadûn took the papers from her without questioning her ability. He swore under his breath.
“He’s checking our supplies and defenses,” he said scanning her translations. “This situation needs to be dealt with swiftly and with care. The last thing we need is the kings of these cities planning to be attacked or trying to send an army to the East to attack first. We will come to your council Haldirian and we’ll get to the bottom of this.”
“With your permission, I’d like to leave in the morning for home. Elithador will want to know about this,” Haldirian said resolutely.
Mirithadûn looked up from the papers in surprise, “So soon? I hoped you would accompany us for the journey.”
“Elithador will need me to help prepare for the arrivals of the other lords and I don’t want this news delayed.”
“Very well, I’ll give instructions for provisions to be sent to your rooms tonight. You will give my regards to your parents,” Mirithadûn insisted and passed the papers to him.
“Of course,” Haldirian bowed low. “Thank you for your hospitality and help.” His eyes flickered briefly to Aláenor but her face was as blank as a statue.
That night Haldirian prepared himself and repacked his saddle bags with the extra provisions and gifts Mirithadûn was sending to his parents. Servants had filled his bath and as Haldirian sank into the water, his mind started to try and unravel itself. Now that the documents were translated and their worst suspicions confirmed he was anxious to get back to Tirithawáe.
Had they found anyone else lingering in their lands? Or had the spy been acting alone? More importantly who was he working for? Haldirian’s jaw throbbed painfully. He wanted to talk Aláenor, work out their misunderstanding so that when she came to Tirithawáe, there wouldn’t be bad feelings between them. She had seemed so cold in the hall that he thought it best to leave her be.
Haldirian was climbing out of the bath when there was a loud knock on his door. Wrapping a towel around his waist he hurried to open it and instantly wished he hadn’t. Aláenor stood on the other side dressed in a pale blue tunic, black leather pants, and boots. Her hair was out of its regular braid and was hanging like liquid gold over her shoulder.
“And what do I owe this unexpected pleasure?” he asked, painfully aware of his nakedness.
“I’ve come for an apology,” she said walking past him, her eyes flickered over his torso in a way that made him blush scarlet.
“That’s very presumptuous of you,” Haldirian answered shutting the door behind her. He hurried to fetch his robe, tying it tightly around him, before joining her on the balcony. “Remind this bruise on my face what I’m meant to be apologizing for?”
“You offended me and belittled my skills by claiming I was only good for a woman,” she said folding her arms.
“Aláenor, I apologize for damaging your pride and gargantuan ego,” he said, hand on his heart.
“Your arrogance knows no bounds,” she muttered.
Haldirian crossed his arms and pouted at her, mirroring her dour expression, “Are you going to let me finish? As a man, humbly standing before you in only a robe I say this proud princess; you fight astonishingly well and I’m sorry if my teasing comment caused you offense, it was not my intention. You’re a skilled swordswoman. Your intelligence is impressive and your blunt nature is in turn refreshing and intimidating. You’re also the most stubborn, unpredictable woman I have ever met.”
Haldirian caught her hand as she lifted it to slap him and had to move quickly as she swung the other. He gripped her hands together, his brown hands folding over hers completely as she struggled to break free. “I would not like to leave tomorrow with this misunderstanding hanging over our heads,” he continued.
“This misunderstanding is of your making!”
“And I have just apologized for it.”
“And insulted me again. You are the most frustrating man I’ve ever met and you try to hide it with a charm you believe you possess,” she retorted. “I would also like to remind you that you are only in a robe and one wrong move could make this situation more uncomfortable than what it already is. I suggest you unhand me before I start to fight back.”
“Uncomfortable for whom? I’m not letting you go until you accept my apology. If you don’t neither one of us will be getting much sleep tonight,” he smiled suggestively at her.
“Fine! I accept your lame apology.”
“I’ve managed to charm my way out of you despising me then?”
“Don’t push your luck princeling.”
Haldirian laughed and slowly released her, “I’m glad we got that settled.”
“So am I, though I’m suddenly relieved I never had a brother. I thought Lindon was annoying,” she held out her hand, “Friends?” Uncertainty flickered in her eyes as if expecting him to reject her.
“Friends,” he agreed shaking the small, calloused hand. “Now you’d best go before someone catches you in here without a chaperone. They’ll think we have no sense of propriety.”
Aláenor pulled a face, “I carry a knife; I don’t need a chaperone. And I’ve never been known to do what’s proper either.”
“You’re carrying a knife right now?” Haldirian looked her slowly up her leather-clad legs and firmly cut tunic, “Where?”
“Goodnight Haldirian,” she said bluntly but he didn’t fail to spot the blush creeping up her neck.
“Good night princess.”