Times were dark then, though not as dark as they are now. Where there had been peace, fear reigned. Where there had been good, evil subdued. Yet most of us were unaware. Forgotten was the harsh reality of the war that destroyed the world as it had been known. A world of ages past. What we know of it now comes from a few remaining artifacts and those among us with prophetic insight. It was a grand society, advanced in every way. A people who flew great distances in metal birds and traveled easily in horseless carriages. A people who had a cure for every disease and injury. A people who erected buildings miles high and made machines that produced pictures and sounds.
As those among them predicted to their closed-ear society, the great war came. All of humanity gathered in the place which is now Empyrean and there fought against one another in a battle unequaled on the earth until that time. Weapons were forged not of metal and wood as we have now, but of the elements of nature. Their advances and inventions uncovered the power in the very forces which hold elements together and that power destroyed them all. The effect of this weapon of theirs was more then they had imagined. The continents broke apart and reformed. Nearly all they had worked so hard to build was destroyed. And the people themselves were changed. Where there had once been races only of different colors, now came races of dwarves and elves, winged peoples and peoples with fins as fish.
Yet hope remained. For He who had created the world was not yet through. He rose up these races from the ashes of their forerunners and guided them in rebuilding a peaceful inhabited earth. For one thousand years evil was banished from all the lands as all creatures were devoted to their Creator. He whom we know as Elah bestowed gifts among the peoples. Gifts of controlling elements such as water, fire, wind and earth. Gifts of understanding emotions and speaking to animals. Gifts of mind, such as I have, which enable me to make myself invisible, call objects to myself and project an unseen force unto others.
For many years the races of the earth lived peacefully and were fully devoted to Elah, their Creator and Provider. Schools of clerics arose training spiritual leaders which then developed into orders of warriors, healers, philosophers, scribes, linguists, scholars and theologians. Yet we forgot the lessons taught us by the great war. We forgot that our gifts were meant to prepare us for the time when the Deceiver would once again be released. Therefore, few noticed when he was.
It happened before my time, before even the time of my grandparents. The Deceiver came quietly. Slowly, he lured men and women of all races away. He darkened their hearts with the shadows of his lies and they followed willingly. The purity of the races had been defiled. Yet for a long time we knew of it only in rumors. Even as a child my life was relatively care-free. Both of my mother's parents were Enforcers of Brattain, guarding the palace and the land. They would tell me many stories of heroic adventures, yet the evil and darkness seemed so far removed. At least until it came into my home. One day when I was thirteen I witnessed the murder of my parents. From that day forward, my life and destiny were bound to a quest which had not yet begun. A quest to destroy the portal stone of the Badlands where many of the Deceiver's minions lived and had access to portals in the other lands. For to completely destroy the ancient gray stone would slow the spread of evil considerably. Such was the mission of those on the quest.
Now, dear Ariel, my sweet child, I will tell you of the time when I crossed paths with the questers. The day which ended my search for closure to my parent's murder and began my adventures in fighting against the Deceiver. The story that you have pleaded with me to tell you.
That day started out as any other. I had been working in the garden all afternoon planting vegetables and the sun was now in the western sky. It was a bright and sunny day. I basked in its warmth.
Suddenly my brown and gray fox friends came skittering up to me with Phoebe flying right behind. Gad and Asher skidded to a stop on top of the carrot I had just watered. Panting, they tried to calm their rapidly beating hearts. Phoebe alighted on the edge of a bush to my right, chirping faster than a hummingbird's wings. Her message was fearful and urgent.
"Strangers in the orchard?" I reiterated to make sure I understood. I have been given the gift of communicating with animals, yet in her frenzied state, Phoebe was hard to understand. Their concern astounded me. Usually carefree and playful, Gad and Asher rarely became so agitated. "Take me to them," I instructed.
I grabbed my bow and quiver of arrows from the side of the small stone cottage I called home and headed off toward the apple orchard with two foxes and a bird as my guides. As we approached the edge of the orchard I slowed my pace and motioned for my friends to tone down their excitement.
Walking tenderly as not to make any noise, I entered the grove of apple trees. There was a shadowy figure up ahead. I took a few more careful steps before ascending one of the trees. The ancient sturdy tree provided enough coverage to conceal me while allowing me to maintain a good view of the figure. Gad and Asher forgot their fear and began chasing each other through the orchard. Only Phoebe remained close, perching on a nearby tree.
As the figure approached I noticed that it was a young man. He was dressed in robust gray with a fine blue cloak. His brown hair was neatly combed, parted down the middle. His face clean, with a trim goatee matching his brown hair. This was not your average scoundrel. There was an air of confidence about him as he paused at the trees trying to find a ripe apple. He moved on to the tree beside my own and paused again to inspect the apples. At that moment I was first able to catch a full glimpse of his face. My heart rose to my throat and my stomach turned. It was a face I recognized. But one I had not seen for three years.
Like a terrible nightmare the memories came back to me. Grandmother and I returning from the well. My mother slain on the floor. Grandmother pulling me into a corner with her and commanding me to remain perfectly still. My father fighting a devilish creature, human, yes, but no doubt thoroughly evil.
The figure that now stood below me at the next tree was one in the same. My eyes narrowed to a glare, watching his every move just as I had that horrid day three years before. My grandmother's command had given me opportunity to memorize every detail of the young man who slew my father. Now he was standing not six feet from me.
My face became hot and an anger burned inside me. I had never felt such anger or hatred before in my life. On the day my parents were killed there was a deep anguish, but no time for any feelings as my grandmother and I fled to the hills. And for the past three years under my grandmother's careful eye and caring hand I had been trained to be a woman of Elah, reverent and submissive, sure and steady. I had not known that such deep anger resided inside of me. It welled up to overflowing. The young man turned his back towards me as he picked off a ripe apple. That was my chance.
I sprang out of the tree with bow in hand and had an arrow cocked and ready as the scoundrel turned around to see what was behind him.
"Just how do you plan on paying for that?" I asked firm and steady. The orchard belonged to the Northshire Abbey on its northern side. Though we never had any contact with those within the monastery, I had always been protective of their orchard. The young man cocked his head slightly to the right never moving his eyes from mine. The air of confidence about him never wavered, causing my blood to boil all the more. It took all the control in my being to keep the bow steady and refrain from bursting with the rage that was so unexpectedly welling up inside of me.
The corners of the young man's mouth turned slightly upward into a small sly smile. I wondered what this evil grin meant but did not have time to ponder long as the ground beneath me began to rumble. The sun quickly disappeared as black clouds came in beating heavily on kettle drums.
"I think it's time you put that down," came a female voice from behind me to my right. My glare never wavering from the young man, I noticed lightning flash in his baby blue eyes as they darted from right to left. At that moment I knew two things. There were at least two people behind me and I was in way over my head.
My mind began to race. I was unsure of what to do. Those behind me had displayed a strong warning in their skilled use of the powers of earth and weather. I had never been surrounded by such evil persons before. I had not been around people at all other than my grandmother since my parents were killed. My parents were dead. And their murderer stood before me. My heart pounding rapidly and my glare yet unwavering, I laid my bow, arrow and quiver at my feet. Ever focused, I stood back up, pulling myself straight and composed. I may have been surrounded, I may very well not have survived, but I would not give up so easily.
"Do you know your friend here is a murderer and a thief?" My question was directed towards those behind me, though my eyes remained steadily on him before me. I heard the female to the right back of me draw a sharp inhale. After a glance from the scoundrel, her exhale was steady and controlled. I pressed on. "He murdered my parents three years ago."
A brief look of confusion crossed the young man's face. I took no time to muse this as I heard a person from behind me to the left approaching. I controlled my urge to take my eyes off the louse and look to see this other rogue.
"I am afraid you are gravely mistaken," came the voice, female and firm, as she walked right by me and stood beside the young man. Out of the corner of my eye I saw her cross her arms. Her red hair stood in contrast to the green surrounding us and the green of her attire. That was all I could tell of her appearance from my peripheral vision. But then something caught my eye. There was a jewel on her sword belt that looked familiar.
For the first time since spying him, I took my eyes off the scoundrel. Blinking a few times to try and adjust my eyes, I gazed at the jewel. I recognized the milky gray chalcedony stone engraved with a gold plated lightning bolt. I had helped work that stone when apprenticing with my father.
I turned my gaze upward and looked at a face I had not seen for years, and even then, only once close up, five years before. But it was most definitely her.
"Princess Adriana!" I gasped, immediately dropping to one knee and bowing my head. I closed my eyes as the current of thoughts pushed my emotions to the back burner and began eroding my stability. The princess would not be with him. Not if she knew. But certainly she would not succumb to any trickery. Perhaps I was wrong. I lifted my head to meet her eyes. "I beg your pardon," I apologized. "I had no idea that it was you."
She nodded in acceptance of my apology and I rose to my feet. The female from behind me to my right walked up to join the other two. So there were three. The second female looked me over with indisputable brown eyes as she rested her hands on twin daggers fixed in the front of her belt. I once again looked at the young man. My heart began to pound faster. The pulsing caused my hands to shake. He did not have the air of evil that my parents' murderer did. But still. That face.
"I will never forget that face," the thoughts in my head tumbled out of my mouth. "It's the hair, though shorter. The ears. The jaw." My heart beating ever faster, my breathing ever heavier. "The nose. The forehead." Unknowingly my fists clenched tightly, my fingernails digging deep into my palms. My eyes once again locked with his gaze. "The eyes."
The back burner had been turned on and now my emotions boiled over red hot, scorching every fiber of my being. The emotional pain was more excruciating than any physical pain could ever be. My eyes welled up with tears and I fought to retain them. My whole body became rigidly tense. The pressure inside me was building up and screamed for a release. Suddenly, before my brain could react, my fist thrust forward in a reckless raging fury.
But the young man was quick and caught my fist. All the pent up anger and pain collided full force with his hand as it came to an abrupt stop. Too abrupt. The pressure needed to break somewhere. So the pain and anger made a hot wet trail down my cheek in the form of a single tear. I looked down. My skin and every nerve in my body cried for release from the touch of the scoundrel. Pulling my thoughts together, I concentrated all my energy into a solid mass of mental ammunition. My eyes returned to meet his with a force of unparalleled intensity. Taken off guard, the young man stumbled back and released his grip. I immediately recoiled, stepping back and pulling in both arms in a primeval impulse.
Just as quickly, Princess Adriana gripped her sword and the other woman drew her daggers. But the scoundrel was not off-balance for long. He regained composure promptly and looked at me intensely, narrowing his eyes. The two on either side of him took a step forward. Immediately, he put up his hands in a motion for them to stop. Giving each other a glance they returned their step. The daggers were resheathed, but both retained a firm grip on their weapons.
"What is my name?" The young man spoke his first words since our meeting. If the words alone had not shocked me, his tone would have. There was no anger or hatred to be found within the chords of his voice. Perplexed, I relaxed my arms and allowed them to drop to my sides. Yet desiring to answer the question without delay, I quickly scanned the depths of my memory. The picture was clear and the voices from my past echoed loudly within the chambers of my mind.
"Daniel," I replied simply. I was able to again look him in the eye, but this time no anger stirred within me. Gathers formed across the young man's forehead as his eyes seemed to shape question marks. He looked at Princess Adriana, and then at the other young woman. Their puzzled expressions mirrored his. He turned back to me.
"What is my family name?" The second question was no more absurd than the first. Yet I was immediately stumped. I would have to survey my memory even further. I closed my eyes and in a moment a scene from that horrific day flashed in front of my eyes. The murderer had just slain my father, when suddenly our door opened and another rogue stepped in. The dark clad brute looked right and left and then at the murderer.
"Alexander!" he exclaimed, catching his breath while still clutching the door frame. "We have to hurry, the palace guards are heading this way!"
The murderer clenched his teeth and turned swiftly to face his companion. His eyes narrowed and his words came out as a dragon's fire. "That's Daniel to you!"
I opened my eyes before the next memory was able to flash in front of me. Looking back at the young man I knew I must answer his question. So I said the only other name of which I knew. "Alexander."
Princess Adriana looked over at the other woman who cocked her head. But my vision was fixed on the young man's face. A light seemed to come on somewhere behind his eyes and his face softened.
"It was not I who killed your family." The young man's words were gentle and caring.
Emotionally and physically exhausted, I had no fight left in me. The rage and anger had depleted itself and nothing remained except pain. Pure, deep, aching pain. A gentle breeze cooled my face and lifted my hair from my shoulders and back. My eyes welled up once again. But there was no way to dispute him. And I had no energy left to argue. The searing emotional pain made my voice raw as despair-filled words barreled out of my mouth.
"Well then it must have been your evil twin because he looked exactly like you!" I spun around so they would not see the tears. I was so tired I had not the energy to retain them any longer. I closed my eyes as the warm wet anguish cascaded down my cheeks. 'Why Elah?' my thoughts ran laps inside my head, 'why?'
"That is just about the sum of it," His voice interrupted my thoughts.
I wiped my tears as best I could and turned once again to face them, my eyes sore and my face red. The smile on the young man's face was not a broad smile or even an amused one. It was small, caring, honest. I relaxed. There was not trace of evil in him. But his smile faded into disgust as he continued. "Those with evil intent created a clone of myself. His name is Alexander Judas."
There was an evil twin. My thoughts became so jumbled that they nearly stopped all together. I had been wrong. I needed to apologize. But before I got the chance he continued.
"I am Daniel Co'var, crowned prince of Empyrean."
A prince! Horrified, I gasped and for the second time that day fell to one knee and lowered my head, "My humblest apologies." I had no other words to say.
"Apology accepted," The Prince responded immediately. His voice, mature and controlled, was vastly different from that of my parents' murderer. Still kneeling, I looked back up at his face. His eyes. My threats and accusations must have put him on guard for now his eyes were soft, compassionate and good. The color was the only remaining likeness of the eyes of the murderer. The evil clone of Prince Daniel. He continued, "Seeing my face must not have been easy for you."
I returned to both of my feet and shook my head slightly. "No, it was not. I watched him kill my father. Without a thought to it." My voice trailed off. I looked down at my feet, where my bow and arrows lay, then smiled slightly. Looking back to them, I continued, "I did not realize that I had so much anger pent up inside me."
"I can understand." The other young woman spoke up, her voice also much softer than when I had first heard it. She smiled empathetically. "I'm Michaela, clan chief of Sikara."
Embarrassed before this prince, princess and clan chief, I nodded my head in a respectful response to her introduction. I could hardly believe that I had thought them to be evil and even more that I had tried to challenge them.
Suddenly aware of my folly and my manners, I introduced myself. "My name is Kerygma Cha'rash." I gave a slight bow towards all of them, "it is my pleasure to meet you."
"Cha'rash?" It was Princess Adriana who spoke up. "As in the jeweler?" I nodded as she continued remembering. "He did a great deal of work for my family. The palace guards found him and his wife dead," she paused and looked at Prince Daniel then back to me, "three years ago. No trace of the rest of his family or the royal jewels he was working on. They had assumed it was a robbery."
"It was not a robbery." I informed them. "They knew nothing of the royal jewels."
"Then why did Alexander kill your parents?" the Prince inquired.
I looked at Michaela, then Prince Daniel, then Princess Adriana. I seemed to be in good company, surely I could tell them. I took a deep breath. "My father overheard him and his cohorts planning to attack the palace. He sent a neighbor boy to warn the palace guard, for Grandmother and I were off to get water. He planned to stall them there until the guard could arrive. But he did not survive that long. Grandmother and I returned to find Mother lying dead on the floor and Father fighting Alexander. Grandmother pulled me into a corner and told me to remain still as she wove a cloak of invisibility around us. I could do nothing but watch in horror. One of his cohorts came in and told him the palace guard was coming, so they took off. With Father's dying breaths he told us what had happened. He warned us that Alexander knew he had a daughter and threatened revenge. So Grandmother and I fled here."
Michaela spoke up. "He did not see through the weave? Alexander is strong in mind."
I smiled. "So is my grandmother. She spent twenty years as an Enforcer of Brattain." A look of surprise swept across their faces. "She has taught me everything I know."
"My family owes a great deal to your family then." Princess Adriana smiled. "But I still do not understand what happened to the jewel."
I bit my lower lip. What had been done in hope and with good conscience three years prior now caused waves of guilt. I made my confession to the ground, "I took it." I looked up into the Princess's confused face, then quickly added. "I wanted to finish it for you, but we have not been around people at all these past three years, and Grandmother said it was still too dangerous to go back to the city." Her face softened into an understanding smile. "I have it finished," I continued, "it is back at the cottage." Princess Adriana's smile widened and the Prince's stomach rumbled. Hearing his hunger, I offered an invitation, "You are all welcome to come back to our cottage and have dinner with us."
Suddenly Phoebe began to chirp incessantly and Prince Daniel broke out into a boyish grin. Confused I stilled my mind and listened. I heard footsteps behind me, a multitude of them, heading our way. Included was the sound of low chattering as a group approached. I figured from the Prince's grin that this group was with the three who still stood before me. I looked again at Daniel, whose eyes were twinkling.
"I am not so sure you should have said 'all of us,'" He grinned.
Curiosity grabbed a hold of me and I turned around. My eyes widened at the sight. Coming towards us were two, seven, no, twelve figures of mixed ages, genders and races. They all looked relaxed and seemed to be having a good time talking among themselves. One male and two females were at the head of the pack and arrived just ahead of the rest. They came to a stop not more than five feet in front of me, looked me over, and then looked at their comrades.
I recognized the one female immediately as a cleric, one of the red order, no less. Though I had never interacted with the clerics, I had seen them many times, working the fields and orchard, or, most often, sitting and studying in the shade of the apple trees. Out of the seven orders of clerics, those of the red order were perhaps best known and most feared. For these received training for using their gifts in battle.
Yet it was not the cleric who spoke up; it was the other young woman, outfitted in royal purple and wearing an air of confidence and authority.
"We were wondering where the three of you had wandered off to." Her smile betrayed her relaxed nature as she spoke.
The rest of the group stopped behind the three. Their chattering subsided as they entered the silence of the others. Three elves, two dwarves, and the others human, or close to it. A few looked at each other, presumably wondering who I was and what I was doing, just as I wondered who they were and what they were doing. The group looked like a picture from a book, adventurous and confident. I wondered what kind of quest they could possibly be on. Such a diverse group, but such obvious unity of purpose. What had brought them all together?
Gad and Asher came bounding in and out between the legs of this massive group until they came to my feet. They looked up at me, echoing my questions loud and clear. The growing silence begged a question from all of us except the prince, princess and clan chief, who already knew. "Who are you?"
But the young man just to my right, clad in blue shirt and crimson cape, was looking down at my feet. Not at Gad and Asher, but on the other side. He looked up at me inquisitively and tensed up, gripping his twin swords. Then he looked past me to the Prince.
"Is everything all right here?" He asked firmly, punctuating his question with an fierce glare at me.
"Everything is fine." Prince Daniel replied, a bit of question in his voice as well, wondering why the young man thought otherwise.
The young man's eyes revealed his answer as he looked back down at my feet, where my bow and arrows lay. The rest of the group followed his glance downward and began murmuring. I tried to hold in my smile as I realized what he must be thinking. But judging from the look on his face those behind me did not hold in their smiles. Michaela walked up beside me on my left and the prince and princess joined me on my right. I could see their smiles.
"Everything is fine, Kevan." Prince Daniel repeated. The young man did not relax at all. So the Prince continued. "She thought I was Alexander," Kevan's eyes narrowed and his head cocked quizzically, "who murdered her parents three years ago." Kevan relaxed, taking his grip off his arms.
Prince Daniel smiled again and looked to me. "Kerygma, this is Kevan," he motioned his hand towards the young man, "captain of my guard and very loyal friend." He then set about introducing the rest. As he said each name I etched it into my memory. The cleric was Sister Maiandra and the young woman who had spoken was Rozena, Ambassador of Empyrean. Then there was Abira, Eitan, and Tekith, the three elves. The two dwarves were Caelan and Aislinn. The last four were Elihu, Liam, Kumiko and Edana. "And this is Kerygma." Prince Daniel concluded, silencing just in time for his stomach to rumble again.
"The invitation for dinner is still open." I said to the original three. "If you do not mind eating outside, for I am afraid we do not have that many seats inside."
"That would be fine, we would love to join you and your grandmother." Princess Adriana confirmed.
I kneeled down to where Gad and Asher were sitting at my feet. "Run on ahead and let Grandmother know there will be fifteen guests tonight for dinner." They took off in a flash and I gathered up my bow and quiver, slinging them over my shoulder as I stood.
"Home is back this way," I said nodding towards the clearing just behind the large mass of questers, then weaving my way through them, I took the lead. Prince Daniel and Princess Adriana followed me to the front of the wave of bodies. As they came up beside me I pointed to the woods in the distance. "Our cottage is just beyond the meadow on the edge of those woods."
I received a nod of understanding from them just as Kevan came up beside Daniel and Michaela beside Adriana. They quickly became engaged in conversations on the ripeness of the apples and where their journey would take them next. Quietly, I led the group across the meadow.
So there we were. Capes of all colors sweeping behind as we made our way towards the cottage. I could just imagine how the group appeared coming across the meadow. Royalty and banditry. Officials and warriors. Walking at a moderate pace, yet sure of step and with an unquenchable passion. As they caught sight of our bantam place and Grandmother outside cooking, a hush settled over them. Whatever Gad and Asher might have told Grandmother, I was sure she was not expecting quite the assortment heading her way.
Glancing up from the black kettle neatly hung in our stone fireplace, Grandmother broke into a warm smile and almost appeared as if she was going to laugh at the sight of us. Prince Daniel could not resist and his laugh was echoed with smiles and a brief recurrence of discussion.
"I have not seen an assortment of young people like this is nearly two decades!" Grandmother spoke as soon as we were all within hearing distance. "Certainly brings back memories."
The group responded to her chortle with their own, while I stepped beside Grandmother to face the group as a whole for the first time. Prince Daniel stepped forward with Princess Adriana just behind him.
"Oh, gracious, where are my manners?" Grandmother wiped her hands on the apron tied round her waist. She extended her hand as she continued. "I'm Charis Amad and I am quite honored to meet your acquaintance Prince Daniel Co'var, crowned prince of Empyrean." Then, ignoring his confused expression, she turned to the princess. "And Princess Adriana, it has certainly been a long time, you have matured into a beautiful young woman."
"Thank you, ma'am." The princess responded, slightly bowing her head.
Grandmother turned to the still confused prince and smiled. "I know who you are because I remember the day you made your entrance into this world. I have also watched you as you have grown and matured. Your business in these parts is a grave one indeed, but you will find your quest victorious."
Prince Daniel looked at her intently and Michaela narrowed her eyes. The rest of the group began murmuring rapidly. Many shifted from foot to foot and the fact that they were uncomfortable was readily apparent.
Grandmother was not bothered by them, nor was Princess Adriana bothered by her words. I myself just stood back taking everything in as swiftly as I possibly could. Grandmother's words. Their reactions. Michaela whispering something to Prince Daniel.
Grandmother deliberately looked around at the now quite anxious group of questers. They gradually quieted down as they returned her intense eye. When she had made eye contact with each and the group had quieted down, she spoke up again.
"I did not mean to catch you off guard," she spoke quietly. "I am not a sorcerer nor a soothsayer. But wisdom does not merely come with age. Wisdom and sight are gifts, just as are the abilities to control fire, water and mind."
I could feel the group relax as she spoke. I saw my grandmother with new eyes. I had always known her to be a woman of Elah, tried and true, warm and wise, respectful and respected. Yet seeing the impact she had on this magnificent group and the deep regard they had for her unequivocally increased my love for and dedication to her.
"Please," she continued, "make yourselves comfortable. The meal will be ready momentarily." Then she turned to me and directed, "Kerygma, go in and bring out some of the stools we have inside."
I turned to head into the cottage but was stopped by a young man with short brown hair. Dressed in all gray and black, he asked, "Could you use an extra hand?"
Trying to remember my own manners, I nodded saying "That would be very helpful, thank you." He followed me into the cottage and as I pointed to the larger bench inside the door I inquired, "I apologize for my lack of memory, but I cannot recall your name."
"Liam," he replied simply as he hoisted the bench onto his shoulder and headed, ducking, out the door.
I took hold of two small stools and also headed back out. Liam approached as I made my way toward the group. I held up the stools, "This is all we have." He just nodded his head and took one from me. I held the other one out and a tall, long-haired woodsman named Elihu took it with a bow of the head.
The group was scattered about our small patch of ground. Princess Adriana, Prince Daniel, and Michaela were sharing a large rock near where Grandmother was cooking, engaging her in conversation. Kevan had pulled up a stump near them. Rozena and Maiandra shared the long bench with Abira. The two male elves, Eitan and Tekith, took seats on the ground, as did the woodsman and Liam. The ninja Kumiko and the husky Edana took the other two stools, while Aislinn and Caelin used some logs from our log pile.
The group as a whole seemed glad to be off their feet and able to relax and enjoy themselves. They chattered among themselves and with Grandmother as she made rounds to each of them between stirring the stew. I returned into the house to gather as many bowls, plates and cups as possible to feed the large band we had assembled outside. Just able to gather enough eating materials, I returned to Grandmother. She dipped the stew out and I would take some to each of our guests. When everyone was served, Grandmother brought out fresh bread and offered to all.
"I want you to fill up with some good foods, you have a long journey ahead of you." Grandmother spoke now with a parental tone. "Do not hesitate to come up and get some more. We have plenty here."
Grandmother handed me a bowl as well, but my insides were churning too fast with excitement to eat. I leaned back along the stone of the cottage just left of the door and, for the thousandth time, surveyed the group. My eyes fell to Princess Adriana who was laughing at something which had just been said. Suddenly I realized why I had wanted her to come so badly. I sat my bowl down beside Grandmother and rushed into the cottage. I knelt down in front of the trunk beside my bed and carefully lifted the lid. Taking out blankets and warmer clothing and laying them aside on the bed, I dug down to the back bottom corner of the trunk. Finally, my hand touched something small and cool. Grasping the small chest I brought it out to the light. Dark wood and covered in a thin bronze decor, it was my gift from my parents when I had turned nine, the age I would begin apprenticing with my father. I opened my treasure. All three artifacts remained inside.
I took the small chest outside and knelt down on my knees in front of the prince and princess. I pulled out a small cloth and handed it to Princess Adriana. "Your sixteenth birthday jewel," I presented. I watched as she carefully folded back the cloth. My stomach suddenly tightened. I was giving Princess Adriana her emerald! I instantly felt embarrassed. "It is not the best," I began apologizing, "for I do not have all the proper tools here, but. . ."
Princess Adriana had finished unwrapping the jewel and gasped. "This is absolutely breathtaking!" she exclaimed.
My face flushed. The princess gingerly held up the long silver chain in front of her. At the bottom dangled an oval pendant. The base was silver, overlaid with the crest of Brattain in gold and bronze and covered with a thin, translucent sliver of emerald.
"It's exquisite," The princess's voice was barely above a whisper. "Thank you. Thank you very much."
I merely nodded. I wanted to thank her for her reaction and compliment. Her words somehow eased the pain of losing my father and mentor just as water eases parched desert sands. I watched as she tenderly handed the pendant to Michaela who readily agreed with her appraisal. Rozena and Maiandra leaned in to see what was attracting such acclaim.
Regaining my humility, I turned to Prince Daniel. "I have some gifts for you as well," I said when I had caught his attention. I pulled out the largest of the cloth-wrapped items in my chest and handed it to him. "This is the dagger of Alexander." I lowered my eyes as my heart sank. "The one he left in my father's chest as he made his abrupt escape."
Prince Daniel looked down at the shiny metal. The top of the handle was inlaid with cornelian, an opaque orange-red stone, overlaid with a black fist holding copper lightning. He studied the dagger carefully and then looked back to me, rewrapping the cloth around it. "I think that you should keep this. It is fine handiwork and will serve you well. By right of affliction it should be yours."
"Thank you." My voice was still catching as I took the dagger back. Returning it to its place in the chest, I pulled out the final item. About the same size as Princess Adriana's pendant and also wrapped in cloth. I handed this one to the prince. "I have a feeling that this one you will want to keep."
I watched as Prince Daniel lifted back the pieces of cloth, revealing the charm attached to a black leather band.
"Daniel!" Michaela gasped as she caught sight of what he held.
"Where did you get this?" the prince sternly inquired of me.
Taken aback by his suddenly severe tone, I replied, "We found it on the floor of the cottage." My answer seemed extraordinarily simple to me, considering their reactions to the object. "Father must have cut the leather band from around Alexander's neck when they were fighting."
Princess Adriana picked up the stone. From my perspective, it was a piece of cornelian which had been carved into two rings joined in the middle by a triangle, point down. That would have taken some time, for cornelian is one of the harder stones to work with, but there was nothing spectacular about the stone or shape. Or at least not to me.
The rest of the group certainly appeared to be interested in the charm. Kevan and Rozena came to look. The others followed shortly. I remained there kneeling on the ground, now surrounded by a dozen set of feet as low voices and cryptic words echoed above my head. They were in awe and wonderment, talking now with amazement, now with excitement. Finally Prince Daniel's voice became the loudest and he seemed to take charge of the unusual situation. The feet backed away and I felt a cool breeze once again lifting my hair from my shoulders.
"We are indebted to you for this gift, Kerygma," Prince Daniel again looked directly at me. He must have seen the clouds of confusion in my eyes. Searching for the best words, he continued. "The importance of this charm cannot be explained to you fully at this time. For to retell our journey and the revelations which have been disclosed to us would take more time than we can now spare. I will tell you what I can in brief. This charm is the key to the portal stone of the Badlands which we seek to destroy. Had we shattered the stone without the key, it could have been rebuilt. With this key we will be able to demolish the portal stone forever. Please know that the life of your father and your generosity have aided the world as we know it."
I was taken aback by his words. So grave. So commanding. So regal. I could not imagine how finding a charm on our dirt floor three years ago would have had such an impact. The possibility that my life lived in silence and secret for three long years bringing about a good was refreshing. The thought that the death of my father was not in vain was held onto even more tightly. For the first time in three years, my heart, my soul and my mind were all completely calm, melted with an indescribable peace.
"We must be on our way." Princess Adriana startled me from my thoughts. I looked up to her. "Thank you again, for all you have done for us today. Our kingdoms shall not soon forget you."
"Are you certain that you would not prefer to rest here for the night?" Grandmother inquired as they all rose and gathered their belongings.
"We must take off as soon as possible." Michaela spoke this time. "We dare not waste time now. The early evening hours should prove beneficial for our speed."
"The horses should be ready to go by now." Maiandra affirmed, looking off towards the monastery.
"Well, here, if you must be going so soon. . ." Grandmother was busy scrambling around gathering the leftover bread. "Take some of this bread with you. Kerygma, bring them some besemeseb from the pantry."
I headed into the cottage but was still able to hear Prince Daniel assuring Grandmother that food would be received from the monastery. Grandmother merely replied, "You shall not find any besemeseb there." I returned, handing her the leather satchel which she then handed to the prince. "Take it. You will find that when your food has run out and you are wearied by battle, the besemeseb will restore vitality to your limbs and peace to your nerves."
Prince Daniel took the sack, handing it to Kevan to place in his bag with the bread. "Thank you very much, Charis Amad, for your kindness and hospitality. Your service to the country of Brattain does not end."
Grandmother nodded as the group took off heading north toward the monastery. Grandmother and I stood outside the cottage and watched as the immense group stepped urgently away. Within minutes the flowing green, blue, brown, red, and purple capes became tiny gems sparkling in the setting sunlight.
Finally, I turned to Grandmother. "Grandmother, how do you know they will be victorious?"
Grandmother looked at me and smiled. "Because, my curious one, Elah fights with them. He goes before them and they have chosen to follow. Do not think that finding the charm was coincidence or accident. And do not think that your part in the fight against the Deceiver and his servants is over. It has only begun. Continue to hold tightly to Elah and His ways, Kerygma, and you will find yourself an essential part of many significant quests."
I have clung to her words all these years, Ariel. I pray that you, too, will find yourself in the service of Elah. Times are dark, my child, and the end is approaching. But now, my dear, sleep peacefully for what tomorrow brings we do not know.
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