Chapter One: The Eleli Rei



by

Josie Beaudoin







“What do you mean we can’t get there?” Paige was indignant.

“Oh we’ll get there, we just can’t get there from here. We have to go around.”

“Go around what?”

“The world.”

The Landers all looked at Jasper in surprise and confusion. At last Morgan broke the silence with a scowl.

“Is that supposed to be a joke? I’m not in the mood for jokes, brother.” Morgan was recovering from his motion-sickness thanks to a potient Jasper’s healer had given him, but his temper was lagging behind his physical health.

“It’s not a joke,” Jasper assured him. “It’s the fastest, safest and easiest way to get to Krisadon from here.”

“Can’t be. Geite is just north of here. Sail us up the coast to Geite and we’ll go overland until we reach the Krisad river and follow it down to the capital. Why is this complicated?”

Morgan was scowling at the charts Jasper had laid out on the table. He traced the direct route with one long, thin finger. He hesitated as he came to the mark indicating his home, not quite willing to touch it. Not yet. Morgan turned his glare from the paper back to Jasper.

“Explain it to me,” he demanded.

Jasper sighed and looked at his brother.

“Can’t you trust me?” he asked.

“No. Explain it to me.”

The others, also curious, gathered around the table. Only Emmy and Ruby remained where they sat, amused at the Landers’ ignorance.

“We can’t go through the Cauldron,” Jasper said, pointing to the chart.

Morgan did not budge.

“Why not?” he asked.

“It’s too dangerous and I’m not willing to risk it. This is my ship and my crew and I am not taking them in there. This is not open for debate. I don’t tell you how to cast spells so don’t tell me how to sail. That water is impassable and we’re not going that way, that’s all. End of discussion.”

“But the world, Jasper? We can’t sail all the way around the entire world just to get back to the same continent we started from. There has to be an easier way.”

“This is the easier way, brother,” Jasper said.

“We could go around Tarquan,” Morgan said, “and come to Geite from the north.”

“No.” As Paige sat and watched the argument volley back and forth between the two men, her face deepened into a scowl.

“Then south. We can sail around the southern tip of Erlaya.”

“Also not an option.”

“Well why not? It looks straightforward enough to me.”

“Because you don’t know how to read the sinking charts, that’s why!” Jasper shouted. Ruby, sitting in the corner, chuckled at her captain’s frustration. In contrast, Paige stood and went to the door.

“I don’t understand any of this, but I’m certainly not going to sit and listen to you bicker,” she said. “It’s making my head spin just thinking about this plan. I’ll be with Brand if you need me for anything.”

With that she left the cabin, and Kemen slipped out just behind her.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Brand was not awake when Paige opened the door to Ruby’s quarters. Ruby was the ship’s healer, and they had taken Brand directly to her cabin when he was brought onboard unconscious. He had drifted in and out since then, but never really seemed quite lucid. Paige sat on a three-legged stool next to his hammock which swayed subtly with the gentle rocking of the ship. She was still getting used to hammocks, but it seemed nearly everyone on board the Eleli Rei used them.

“Is he any better, Holiness?” Kemen asked.

Paige startled. Kemen followed her everywhere, but he was so quiet and unobtrusive she sometimes forgot he was there, especially when wrapped up in her own thoughts. The loyal Eraso had even followed her out of Erlaya, making himself a traitor to his Emperor and his God, leaving his whole world behind. Just for her? Yes. The depth of his devotion moved her, but it also bothered her a little. Certainly she had been proclaimed semi-divine at one time, but he knew better now. Yet still he followed her, waited upon her, called her ‘Holiness’ and ‘Aiyana.’

“Kemen, I am not holy, please stop that,” she answered him with a weary sigh. “And no, I don’t think he’s any better, but he’s no worse either. I suppose that’s good, right?”

“I’m no healer, my lady,” Kemen said, “but I’m certain he’ll be alright. Surely they wouldn’t leave him alone if he were in grave danger.” He twisted the dainty gold and tiger’s eye ring on his smallest finger. The ring had been hers, found by him as he tracked her across the country, and when he returned it to her at long last, she had given it to him as a reward. Twisting it was something of an unconscious gesture by now.

The last few months had so confused Kemen he scarcely knew what to think. One thing he knew for certain was something the sleeping man before him had once said: that the only reason he spared Kemen’s life was to find the Aiyana Opari, or Paige as she now preferred to be called. Kemen had come within a hair’s breadth of execution, only to be told that she was his sole reason for living. It was something he had taken to heart. Holy or not, she was sacred to him in a way he would have been hard-pressed to verbalize. She was quite literally his life. But in the course of protecting her, he had betrayed everything else he once believed in, including the man who had charged him with her rescue. She was now all he had in the world, but he was quite content. As if roused by Kemen’s thoughts, Brand woke with a flutter of his eyelids.

“Shhhh...” Paige said. “Lay still, everything’s going to be alright. How are you feeling, cousin?”

“Where are we?” Brand asked. The worried frown he had worn in his sleep deepened as he looked around him, assessing his situation. Memories slowly returned, and with them came anger. “Where are they? Bizki and the others? Kemen, how could you be a party to this, how could you allow it? You were supposed to help me return the Aiyana to Gurthiri, not help her abductors. I should have known your arrogance would lead to something worse, should have killed you for it right then and there.”

Kemen turned his eyes down, offering no explanation. There was nothing he could say.

“You need to rest, Brand,” Paige said. “You won’t get better if you’re fussing and making threats. We’re safe here and everyone is alright, and there’s nothing to worry about, so don’t worry. I’m here with you. That’s what you want, isn’t it?”

“I want to take you home,” Brand insisted. “I am relieved - and grateful, truly - that you are alive and well, cousin, but this is not the proper place for either of us.”

“We are going home, Brand, all of us,” she said. “That’s where we’re sailing to. At least, so Jasper says. I don’t understand all of what’s going on, but I trust him. Jasper will do what’s right.”

Brand snorted.

“We are on a ship, aren’t we? Do you realize what that means?”

“Yes, Brand, it means that we’re finally safe.”

“Will you please stop calling me that, Opari? We are not safe, we’ve been kidnapped. By the Ria. Do you know if they’ve demanded a ransom? Will they let us go?”

Paige sighed. The conversation had not advanced since the apple orchard, and she was beginning to fear it never would. Brand had to be brought back to his senses, but she had no idea how to go about it.

“He’s awake and angry, I see,” Galen said. He had stepped through the door so quietly neither Paige nor Kemen had noticed. “I felt it in the other room. How is he doing?”

“You!” Brand spat out the word, and Galen flinched as he felt the hatred flare up. “Where is she? What have you done with her?”

Without a word, Galen turned and left the room, but Kemen could see the man’s hands shaking as he worked the door latch.

Paige turned and addressed her cousin gently but firmly.

“No one will call you Erris on this ship,” she told him. “You had best get used to the name Brand, and learn to answer to it, because it’s all you’ll be called from now on. Now if you’ll excuse me, I think you need some more rest, and I need some fresh air. Is there anything I can get for you before I go?”

But Brand had turned his face away from her and would not answer.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Paige made her way up on deck, trailed by Kemen. She saw Galen sitting in the bow, letting the wind whip his hair around his face. She motioned Kemen away, and he wandered off to study the riggings of the ship, which were much more complicated than those of their small boat had been. Apart from Paige herself, nothing else mesmerized him so much.

Paige went and sat by Galen’s side. She saw with surprise that the quiet Erlayan had tears tracking down his face. Reaching out, she laid a hand on his arm, not knowing what to say.

“I’ll never be able to speak to him, or even be in the same room,” Galen said. The wind nearly whisked his voice, always so soft, out of her hearing. “He will never stop asking me, and never believe my answer.”

“You loved her.”

“Yes.”

“Who was she?”

“Dreyma.”

Galen felt Paige’s concern turned to shock in his Vada.

You? You were the one? By the Gods, Galen, what... oh no, I’m sorry. I am, I’m sorry. I remember hearing about ‘an apprentice,’ who disappeared at the same time, but I never put it together, never realized.” She was still unable to recall ever having seen Galen at court. If he had disappeared at the same time as Dreyma, it was unsurprising she had no memory of him. Paige had only been in Erlaya a few months when Dreyma had gone missing, and Galen had been an extremely peripheral member of the court.

“No reason you should,” he said. “I know she was your friend, and I’m sure her disappearance hurt you, but I swear to you I don’t know where she is.” Galen’s voice began to break as he pressed on. “I didn’t hurt her and I didn’t abduct her. I loved her with all my heart, and now she’s gone, and your cousin will never believe me. He’s so full of rage, and utterly convinced I did something terrible and debasing and cruel to her. To my own beloved! I’ve lost her, Paige. I don’t know if she’s alive or dead or where she is. She’s just gone, and I can’t - I d-don’t...”

“Shhhhhh...” Paige said. She had never seen Galen cry, not even show weakness, and had no idea what to say to him.

The Aiyana Dreyma was the Emperor’s granddaughter, and at that time his only surviving relative. He had, as everyone knew, only sons. Hundreds of them, over the millennia, but always sons. Most of those were sterile, but the few who had offspring usually had only sons themselves. Laric doted on his only granddaughter, lavished her with every affection and luxury that could be imagined.

Yet she was not spoiled. Paige remembered Dreyma as a quiet young woman who was kind and generous to everyone she met. There was not a cruel bone in her body, unlike Paige herself, who frequently had slaves whipped or even executed for the slightest infraction. Paige had been, like her cousin, feared and respected, but Dreyma had been adored by all.

And then she had disappeared.

The Emperor had been beyond rage. He had also been unable to find her despite all the power at his command. Neither search party nor spell had ever turned up the slightest trace of the woman who meant more to him than any other in the world. He had gone on a rampage, slaughtering every search party that returned unsuccessful, every courtier that expressed doubt of her return, anyone who laughed or smiled or sang within earshot. Entire villages were razed and depopulated when they reported that she had not been seen passing through. Thousands of men, women and children were sacrificed on his altars in a desperate attempt to assuage his temper until the temple floors were sticky with blood, but still he raged on. It was months before he slept, and when he finally awoke a week later he went into a deep seclusion. She was gone, and he knew it. The entire nation had gone into mourning.

For her own part, after the initial furor had died down, the Aiyana Dreyma’s disappearance was something Paige had seldom if ever thought about. She had been too busy with gowns and parties and luxurious baths to worry about anyone else. Her self-absorption had been total and, in her own eyes now, shocking. Morgan’s words came back to her, pleading with her to come back to her senses. “You have lived too long as an Erlayan,” he had said, “too long with their customs and ways. Even now this land’s morality clings to you, distorting your mind. Remember who you are, not who he has made you into...”

His words had angered her at the time, but now their full truth sank in. In the back of her mind she still thought of the entire adventure as something temporary, something from which she would eventually return to her comfortable life. Though she may tell Kemen otherwise, she held on to the image of herself as the semi-divine woman Laric had proclaimed her to be, the adoration and worship of the populace right and proper. Not for the first time, she felt the baby kick, and it brought her thoughts back to... to... everything. It was no dream, no game. It was real, and it was happening to her. A different kind of self-absorption came over her as that thought settled in.

“Here I am, on a ship, sailing farther from land with every minute that passes,” she whispered to herself, half in awe.

Galen did not answer her, only stared ahead, lost in his own world.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


Here do I, Morgan ap Phaelan, Forty-Seventh Shield of the North, Traitor, set down yt wch I have truely seen & heard during ye years I spent in ye donjons of ye Necromancer. I do ys in hopes yt ye knowledge may prove some day to bee of use. With what little remaineth of my honour I sware and attest yt ye confession wiche follows is a trew & accurate account of my observations & experiences.

Should ys work come to ye hands of one who disbelieveth it, I cannot find fault with thy skepticism, both for ye fantasticall nature of ye things I have to tell & yt ye words of a betrayer must allways be held in doubt. In addition to ys my sanity allsoe must unfortunately be questioned as I have endured much wch may in fact have defeated it. Even now it is possible yt I write nott these wordes, for though itt seems to me yt I am, yet ye Enemy hath wrought a grayte many deceptions in my mynde. How am I to know truth from dream? I cannot say. I can only proceed as seemeth right to me now & pray to Vatha I goe not too far astray.

May She guide my pen!

How I came to bee in Erlaya, my misdeeds & inevitable capture will in due time be sett down elsewhere. What I purpose to tell heere are ye inner werkings of ye mynde, pouuers & weaknesses of ye Darknesse which itt is my entyre purpose to fight - ye Necromancer whome ye Ria call “Oathbreaker,” ye Erlayan Magician & Emperor, Laric. There is much to tell. In all ye Krisadon library - both Royall & Shield, I have nevver hearde mention of one who hath spent tyme with Our Enemy, who hath spoken with him on such a veriety of subjects as one woulde speake with a friend or colleague. Yett this is-”

The door opened and Jasper stuck his head through the door.

“Morgan, he’s awake,” he told his brother.

Morgan set his quill aside and stoppered the ink bottle with its hinged base.

“Is he coherent this time?” he asked, moving towards the door.

“Not very, but I’d like you to take a look at him anyway. You and Paige know him better than any of us, and she’s not feeling so good today.”

Morgan nodded and left the room. Jasper went over to the desk. His leg was healing up, but he still walked with a limp. He picked up the papers Morgan had been working on and read them over, his scowl deepening as he read. At length Morgan returned.

“Brand is asleep again,” he said, “he only woke briefly. What are you doing with that? Give it back.”

“Oh, Morgan, really,” said Jasper. “It’s bad enough you insist on writing down all this nonsense, but do you have to use all the ‘thees’ and ‘thous’? Why can’t you write like a normal person?”

Morgan sat at the desk and took the sheets from Jasper’s hand.

“It’s how scholars write,” he explained patiently.

“It’s hard to read and it’s dull,” Jasper shot back. “Seriously, if this is a ‘confession’ then presumably you want someone to read it. No one’s gonna read this, it’s pompous and obtuse.”

“You’re a scholarly critic now, brother?”

“No, of course not, but if no one reads it, you’re wasting your time. Of course, I think you’re wasting your time anyway, you should be working with Galen. I only agreed to let you write it out because I thought it would help you get over this... this self-flagellation you’ve been so obsessed with. Paper is expensive - can’t you write a little normaller?”

‘Normaller?’” Jasper could practically hear his brother’s eyebrow rise, though his back was turned.

“You know, like normal people talk. Look, you’re not even spelling stuff right, and nobody’s talked like that in hundreds of years.”

“It’s the classical format. Standard. Traditional.”

“Pedantic, you mean. Boring. Pompous.”

“I’ll buy you more paper next time we make landfall. Leave me alone and let me work.”

With a sigh, Jasper left the room and went about his business, leaving Morgan to his. Morgan re-read his pages, sighed and shook his head.

“Well maybe it’s a little pompous,” he admitted to the empty room. He picked up his quill, inked it again, and resumed writing.

“...Yet this is precisely what passed between us during my years as his prisoner.

That he is immortal is of course well-known, & many things have been written over the centuries speculating what this could mean in the forming of his character, & yet the man (for man he assuredly is, not demon or animal in man’s form) continually surprised me in this respect. He is very human, a fact which no years have managed to change. Though it sounds treasonous to say it, I have already proved myself a traitor, & so dare much: I pity him. Perhaps this is a result of spells he has inflicted upon me, yet I cannot help but believe that he would be enraged to learn of it. During our years together two emotions dominated me: hatred & curiosity. Standing now distant from him, pity finds me when I consider him as a man & not merely a foe.

Let me for the moment set emotion aside & address a fact. Laric is stronger than I am. I do not refer to the Great Theft but to his skill & cunning. His knowledge is astounding. That we have resisted him this long is no small feat, but it has come at a price. We have directed all our efforts to one objective - Laric’s thwarting, but he has been at leisure to study whatsoever takes his fancy. Conqueoring the North is his passion, but knowledge for its own sake is his delight.

With that established, let us proceed in something resembling order. When first I arrived in Erlaya I was understandably upset, yet clinging to a hope of rescue or escape made me mindful of details. The ordering of the rooms & passageways I visited have been set down elsewhere, & the spells I have seen him cast are to be found in my grimoire, but let me speak here of Laric’s style, for I found it most interesting.

I have read in many accounts of his appearance, & have little to add to those very accurate descriptions save only that his physical proximity carries a power that mere words cannot convey. His voice compels & persuades, while his eyes pierce one’s very soul until it is impossible to look away. If you have met him, you know whereof I speak; if you have not my words cannot prepare you for the experience. Pray that your paths never cross!

Having successfully removed my Magærum, which is the worst pain my flesh has ever endured, the Enemy took me from his workroom & down through endless marble corridors & heavy doors to his gaol. I have visited gaols before & know that they are not meant to be pleasant, yet the gaol below the Golden Palace is the worst I have ever seen. The outrages visited upon the human body were nearly all represented therein. I was soon to discover that the rest had not been overlooked but were perpetrated elsewhere, for below the gaol lies the donjon. Descent is only possible by the use of an assistant in the gaol proper who works the locked gates one at a time by means of ropes or chains set within the walls. Laric could of course open these gates with a gesture, a thing I was to see him do in the future, but for my first traverse of the passages he wished to demonstrate his cleverness & the security of the accommodations.

“Do you see this, Morgan?” he said to me as we passed through a massive iron gate. “The locks cannot be opened with a key nor can they be picked. If anyone below were to escape their cell they cannot make their way out of the donjon.”

The door slammed shut behind us & I heard the distinct sound of the lock fastening.

“You designed this,” I said, not asking but simply acknowledging the obvious. He nodded with pride. “You must be very afraid of your prisoners.”

His smile never faltered, but his eyes narrowed & shone briefly. The guards accompanying us could be heard shuffling their feet & there was a soft hiss of surprise behind me.

“Don’t hurt him,” Laric said, & looking about I saw a man with arm poised to strike me but frozen in the act. It was with ill grace that he slowly lowered his arm, & for the rest of our time together he was forced to satisfy his outrage with sullen glares.

My tormentor led me on through numerous corridors which lit in his presence then darkened behind us so that it seemed we walked in an island of light. The corridors were spacious, clean & dry, & the air, though still, had not the stale sense enclosed spaces so often acquire. After passing through a large quadrangle we entered at last the donjon proper & began passing cell doors.

My Vada, as I have said, had at this point been removed, though Laric had increased my natural empathy, but I think even the dullest of men would have sensed the life that was so rampant behind those doors. My senses were raw with both loss & excess - loss of the Vada & excess of emotion. Pain, anger & fear seeped through the stonework like rancid water, pooling on the floor. The stench of it filled my nostrils & I sank to the ground retching. The Emperor looked at me approvingly.

“Impressive, isn’t it?” he beamed.

I couldn’t answer. I couldn’t stop crying.

The guardsmen shuffled about a bit in their nervousness, but Laric stood calm & relaxed, waiting for me to regain my equilibrium. He was in no hurry. Time has no meaning for him. When I could at last breathe without choking I looked up at him from my huddle on the floor. The white lock of hair at his nape seemed almost to glow in the dim.

“Listen,” he instructed me, & listen I did, though for what I did not know.

Torchlight danced redly on my closed eyelids & I strained my ears to faint sounds that gradually resolved into whispering voices & the pattering of many small feet. I opened my eyes, expecting perhaps to see more guards, perhaps with a fellow prisoner, but what met my eyes when at last the sound approached was a small troop of children coming around a corner.

There were perhaps half a dozen of them, & they ranged in apparent age from the youngest around four or five with the eldest being no more than thirteen. I say ‘apparent’ because I was to learn that their true ages were much greater. They were uniformly dressed in filthy rags, their faces & hands besmirched with grime & long ragged hair in hopeless snarls. Yet for all this they were beautiful children, their faces open & eager, their eyes bright.

When those eyes found Laric the children rushed forward with squeals of delight & cries of “Pappa! Pappa!” With a huge grin he stooped down & lifted the smallest into his arms, spinning her around as she giggled. Then he settled her on one hip, her arms round his neck as he greeted the others with fond embraces & kisses.

“Have you brought us any treats?” a young boy asked.

“Yes, Papa, are these sweets for us?” another echoed.

“Now children, calm yourselves,” Laric said. “You’re all to have sweets by & by. Put on your best manners first, though, for I want you to meet a friend of mine. Line up now.”

The youngsters scurried to obey, lining themselves up from tallest to shortest save for the little one who clung still to the Emperor, her head nestled on his shoulder.

“Aren’t they beautiful?” he asked, turning to me with obvious pride.

“What are they?” I replied, afraid to know the answer.

“They’re children, Morgan,” he said to me in the patient tones of one addressing an idiot. “Sweet, innocent children. I’m not actually their father, of course, but that’s purely academic. I’m the only thing resembling a father any of them has ever known. They live down here without a care in the world, only playing & enjoying themselves. It’s an idyllic life, really.

“Children, it is my great pleasure to introduce you to my very dear friend Morgan. He’s come to stay with you for a while. Morgan, these are my little Wildings,” & he rattled off their names for me.

“He’s not a sweet then, Pappa?” the girl in his arms asked.

“No, not this one. In fact, I don’t want you touching him at all.”

“Will he be in a box?” the oldest child asked.

“Yes of course he will,” Laric answered, “just like all the others.”

“A box?” I asked him, arching an eyebrow.

“A cell,” he said. “They don’t like being in the cells. I tried to keep them there, but the poor things cried so piteously that at last I had to let them out. They’re so much happier romping in the corridors. Children should have room to run about, don’t you think?”

“For Quphic’s sake, why are you punishing children? What crimes can they have committed that would make you put them in a donjon?”

Laric set down the child he was carrying & turned to address them all.

“Run along now,” he said. There were mews of dismay, but he was gently firm. “No no, there’ll be sweets before I leave, I promise, but I have things to do first. Go on & play.”

Reluctantly they trudged off, but soon enough I could hear their voices pick up with loud cries & shrieks of laughter as they began some game in the darkness. Laric lowered himself to the flags beside me.

“I love children,” he said. “They’re so innocent, without a hint of the dark knowledges that age brings. You see, my friend - ”

“I am not your friend!” I insisted, but he continued as though I had not spoken.

“ - these little ones aren’t being punished, they were born here. In fact I believe one or two of them may still have living mothers down here somewhere. Most of them are long dead, of course. The original experiment ended oh, I don’t know, a few centuries or so back. I made a few more over the years just to keep the first ones company. I suppose a millennium from now there’ll be scores of them down here.”

“And the ‘sweets?’” I asked.

“Mortals, of course,” he answered. “You taste different to them, sweeter than immortals.”

“They’re cannibals? You feed them human flesh?” I was nauseated, but the Emperor only laughed. The miasma of fear thickened around us & I gagged. Laric slapped me on the back congenially.

“Morgan, my very young friend,” he smiled. “You’re not much older than my Wildings were when they stopped aging. You think of yourself as sophisticated because of your education, but you’re still so innocent.”

I was to learn over the years that he was right.

“Yes,” he went on, “they eat mortal flesh. How is that different from you eating a steak? They only do it for fun though. It’s a game to them, little different from the one they’re playing now. There’s not a drop of malice in them, can’t you see that? They don’t need to eat, they’re immortal. They live down here, never knowing hunger or thirst, heat or cold. Their every need is provided for, & they spend all their time at play. They are perfect innocents.

“Are you well enough to stand? There are so many other things I would like to show you before putting you in your cell.”

The ship’s bell rang, summoning everyone to dinner. Morgan shook himself out of the nightmare memories he was invoking with his pen. Calming himself, he read over the words themselves, looking at them objectively.

“Well Jasper can’t call that ‘formal,’” he said with a sigh. He set aside his quill and placed a paperweight on the sheaf of papers.

*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*.*


“... and though I love you dearly, I cannot stay here any longer. I hope you will understand and someday forgive me, Grandfather, but this must be.
                                                                                                              Please bless me always,
                                                                                                              Dreyma”

Dreyma read over her letter once again, and, satisfied with its contents, folded and sealed it with her own personal seal. There was really no need for it, he would know it was hers and not a forgery, but it was an old habit. She set aside the seal with a touch of regret, knowing she would never use it again. This was the end.

Well really the beginning, she thought. Look ahead, not behind.

Her letter written and propped on her desk, Dreyma slipped out her door. The guards were fast asleep just as Galen had said they would be. Whatever he had given them, it had worked perfectly. Still, she wasted no time but hurried to his room.

It was eerie descending the wide stone staircase alone, a slowly-setting full moon drenching the place in blue light. She felt utterly exposed and had to shake her head to remind herself that so far she had done nothing wrong. If someone came along she would simply tell them she was feeling restless that night, and go on her way. Down she went, into the Grand West Hall, her bare feet making no sound on the marble floor. Through the audience chambre and back through the labyrinth of corridors in the East Wing.

Galen's little room lay next to his master's workroom. He opened the door as she approached, his magic senses tuned to her arrival, as always. He ushered her inside and shut the door behind them without a sound.

The room was little better than that of a servant. It had a functional but not luxuriant bed, a chest to keep his clothes, a single chair, and no window. What did make it special was the desk where he did so much of his studying, and the shelves of books and scrolls. A dripping candelabra sat on the desk, and two sacks lay by the door. On his bed – their bed – was a uniform and a pile of bandages.

“What is this, love?” she asked. “Am I sneaking out as a cripple?”

“No, as a man,” he answered her. “You, however, look nothing like one. We have to bind your breasts. You, uh, well...” with a smile his hand traced the curve of her breast. “You aren't the least bit mannish, my sweet. We'll also have to redo your hair. Fetching as it is, it's not exactly regulation.”

Dreyma sighed.

“I wish Grandfather would listen to reason,” she said. “This is so wrong, us going away like this.”

“You know he won't.”

“I do. I know.”

Dreyma sat on the edge of the bed while Galen took her hair down from its elaborate braids and curls. He spoke softly of this and that, soothing her ragged nerves. He brushed the locks out, then tied them at her nape with a simple strip of leather.

“Well there's the first part done,” he said with satisfaction. “Let's see what we can do with the rest of you.”

Binding her breasts was awkward, even working together.

“We should have done this before taking down your hair,” Galen muttered as her tresses got caught once again in the wrappings, and they both laughed. Eventually she was flattened to his satisfaction, and she put on the uniform he had procured for her. Then there was an ointment to cover her scent, then they were ready to go.

“What time is it?” Dreyma asked.

“Close,” he said. “They'll be leaving soon, we have to be in place.”

“Do we have to do this? Can't we just - ”

“He'll kill me if I'm lucky, Dreyma. Torture me and then kill me when he grows bored of it. He'll also kill the baby, you know he won't let you keep it. I'd leave on my own if I thought you'd be safe here, but he'll take the baby. You can't let that happen, no matter what happens to me. Come along, it's time.”

She did not question his knowledge; he was a sorcerer. If he said it was time to go, then it was. Though her heart still pounded in her chest, and she had trouble breathing, it was due more to the bandages than to fear. The two of them moved silently through the corridors until they heard a cluster of palace guards moving ahead of them in formation. Galen and Dreyma slipped into place at the back of the line, and were soon outside the Golden Palace.

Once in the city proper they split away from the group and made their way down one squalid alley after another until Dreyma was thoroughly lost. The moon had long since set and the warm night was dark and quiet. Wordlessly, soundlessly, Galen led her to a low shack and helped her climb up to the roof, then to the roof of a house that abutted the city wall. From the darkness he procured a length of rope which he secured to the eaves, throwing the other end over the wall.

“You go first,” he whispered in her ear. “If you should slip, I can catch you. Wait for me at the top.”

With a nod that he could not see and a gulp he could barely hear, she started up the sheer and solid wall. Dreyma was not fond of heights. Galen waited until he felt the rope go slack, then followed her up. He found her shivering, splayed flat along the broad width of the stonework.

“Now I'm going, and you follow me. Feel the rope? When it's loose, start climbing down. Again, I can catch you. You're being very brave, beloved, and I know you can keep going. Trust in me, and trust in yourself. This is going to work.”

As he climbed down the wall, Galen prayed he was right.

When he reached the bottom he looked up. There was no sign of her, the night was black as pitch. Then he felt the rope moving, and knew she was on her way down. So strong, this woman he loved. He could feel the panic in her heart, knew her arms were aching, but she did not stop, and he willed her strength with his Vada. Soon she was in his embrace, arms limp from the unaccustomed effort, but steady in spirit. They stood there a moment, catching their breath and holding each other tight.

At last it was time to go. They walked along with the wall to their left, holding hands and talking in hushed voices.

“You remember what I told you?” he asked.

“I remember,” Dreyma said. “Use the salve, and use it often. Stay on the main road and don't hurry or dawdle. Keep the bandages on no matter what. Use a man's gait, not my own. Don't talk to anyone unless I have to. When the hunt for me starts, join it. Find more clothing and change often. When I reach the coast, find a Rian priest. I'll make it, Galen. I will.”

“I know you will, my love,” Galen said. “I think you're stronger than I am. You get that from him, that strength. I only wish I could go with you, but we'd be found out almost at once. He'll be looking for two of us, he'll never imagine you'd go on your own.”

“I could never go alone without you,” she said. “But knowing you're out there, away from me but with me, this I can do.”

“Here's the road,” Galen said. “This is where our paths part.”

“Be brave, Galen. If I can do this, so can you. Now you'd best go on before I cry.”

“I love you.”

“I know.”

Dreyma took her sack of food and provisions from his hand, turned, and walked down the road, off to the west. He lost sight of her quickly in the black of the moonless night. There was no last impassioned kiss, no farewell endearments, and she did not look back.

Galen stood in the dry, dusty road until she faded in his Vada, then returned to the hanging rope and climbed back into the city. People would be waking up in a few hours, and he must hide himself until the gates opened and he could leave unnoticed before Dreyma's disappearance became widely known. Loosening the knots, he coiled the rope and slung it over his shoulder. It was his face the tears tracked down, not hers.

Dreyma was gone.














This web page and all it's contents were written by J.C. Beaudoin, who is solely responsible for it, for better or for worse. Copyright 2005 and 2006. Hands off. Lookie, no touchie! :-)