"I am sorry," Wynn whispered, trying to pull Magiere closer. "For what I said... the way I said it. You are not what they tried to make you. You do not have to be this."
But Magiere only thought of one thing.
Outside in the dark was the half-blood she loved, made for a purpose to counter her own... created to be her enemy.
In two days, Magiere stood on the riverside docks beside Leesil. Of all inappropriate times, Wynn struggled with a brush to clear tangles from Chap's fur. Brot'an, Sgaile, and Leanalham watched her efforts with amusement.
"Hold still!" the sage snapped in exasperation.
Osha kept his eyes on Wynn as well, but his expression held no humor.
In the middle of them all, Nein'a stood quietly distracted near Leesil, and he fell into his old habit of babbling whenever nervous or upset.
"Remember what I said-there are elven ships that sail the Belaskian coast. Just send a letter to Counselor Lanjov at the bank in Bela, and he will get it to us straight away. We have some things to finish before going home to Miiska. But you can come there just the same, whenever you wish."
Nein'a nodded, her eyes drinking in her son's face. She, Gleann, and Leanalham had delayed their own departure to see the "visitors" off.
"You may have more than one task," she whispered.
Magiere hoped when they finally returned home that her aunt Bieja would be there waiting. She wondered what the blunt, gruff Bieja and the sly, watchful Nein'a might think of each other.
Gleann had handled any dissatisfaction among the elders at the delayed departure. Now they had to leave-for more reasons than just the council's decree.
The market up from the docks bustled with activity. Tall elves in bright clothing bargained over goods from smoke-cured fish to beeswax candles to bolts of the elves' strange shimmering white cloth that look much like silk or satin.
The barge arrived to take them down the river, and pulled up to the docks. Leanalham stepped out from behind Nein'a. Her face filled with alarm at the sight of it.
"I'll try to send word of how we fare," he said.
Most likely, that wouldn't happen, but Magiere kept quiet. The girl would miss him, and Leesil had never been one to write letters. Then again, he'd never had anyone to write to, if such a letter could make it into the elven lands.
Sgaile and Brot'an boarded the barge.
"What are you doing?" Magiere asked in confusion.
"We come down the river with you," Brot'an answered. "It is best, considering... It is best. We can arrange passage for you at the coast." He gave Nein'a a long look. "Leshil must be kept safe."
For the first time since her return, Nein'a almost smiled.
Chap whined and gazed down the riverbank. Lily roamed there with her pack.
Wynn kneeled beside him. "Do you wish to run with them for a while?"
He hesitated, then licked her face and bolted off.
It was time to leave, and Magiere hurt for Leesil, watching him look one last time at his mother. Magiere agreed that Nein'a should remain here for now, to rest and gather herself. But knowing this didn't make the parting any easier for Leesil.
Nein'a reached out with her slender tan hand to Leesil's cheek. "Good hunting, my son."
Magiere found this an odd farewell, but Leesil just turned and stepped onto the barge, and she followed with Wynn.
Wynn held a hand up to Osha. She didn't speak. From the dock, he held up his own in response, but his expression was impossible to read.
"Good-bye," Magiere called to Gleann and Leanalham. "I won't forget you."
Gleann smiled sadly as the barge pulled away.
Wide silver birch trees and hanging vines rushed past once again, and the docks of Crijheaiche vanished behind them.
Eight peaceful days later, Chap stood beside Lily gazing down a gentle slope toward the coast. He clearly saw the Hajh River and his companions' barge near its mouth spilling into a expansive gulf. An azure ocean stretched beyond it to the horizon.
After all Chap's time in the immense forest, it was strange to see a city at the far edge of these wild elven lands. Small, thatched dwellings spread around higher structures at the middle and along the shore. He was surprised that coastal elves did not live in trees like those of the inland. Lily followed as he loped down the hill through the thinning trees and headed for the city's outskirts.
As the distance closed, he saw a few shops and stalls and scattered domicile trees on the fringes. One larger structure was composed of multiple floors built around the towering trunk of a redwood. Its upper branches spread wide like a second leafy roof over the building. Judging by the windows and small specks of people about it, it appeared to be an inn or its equivalent among the an'Croan. He kept on, looking ahead to the far docks barely visible between the shoreline structures. The barge would be tied off there soon enough.
Lily whined and stopped.
Chap spun about and pressed his head against hers, showing her memories of his companions who waited. Lily backed up. He looked into her crystalline eyes, tinted with yellow flecks.
She would not come with him.
They had left the other majay-h beyond the last hill, for the pack would go no further. Lily pressed her head to his and showed him images of inland elven enclaves and her kin running through the forest. Perhaps her kind did not approach the coastal people.
He did not want to leave her, and barked as he bounded a few steps forward and then spun about. But she held her ground. Chap looked to the coastline with its faint white lines of waves curling into the shore.
He had broken with his kin, the Fay. He had tangled and thwarted Most Aged Father's attempt on Magiere's life and his plans to use Leesil to ferret out dissidents. And now that Brot'an had revealed himself, Chap would do whatever was necessary to keep Leesil from the man's reach.
He would resist anyone who sought to use Leesil or Magiere. He would find his own answers for what lay ahead of them all.
Chap went back and pressed his nose against Lily, breathing in the rich earthen scent of her fur. It made him feel heavy and weak with sorrow.
But Leesil and Magiere and even Wynn still needed him.
Chap turned from Lily and ran for the coast. He could not bear to look back, even when he heard her howl fade into the forest.
T he dreamer fell through boundless night, frigid wind ripping past. The night sky began to undulate. Rippling mounds arched within the darkness like black desert dunes and then sharpened into clarity. Stars became glints of reflected light upon black reptilian scales the size of small battle shields. Those scaled dunes shifted into mammoth reptilian coils, each larger than the height of a mounted rider. They turned and writhed on all sides of the dreamer, with no beginning, no end, and no space between. he dreamer fell through boundless night, frigid wind ripping past. The night sky began to undulate. Rippling mounds arched within the darkness like black desert dunes and then sharpened into clarity. Stars became glints of reflected light upon black reptilian scales the size of small battle shields. Those scaled dunes shifted into mammoth reptilian coils, each larger than the height of a mounted rider. They turned and writhed on all sides of the dreamer, with no beginning, no end, and no space between.
The scales vanished, but the dreamer still fell. A coastline appeared below, fringed by high snow-packed mountains.
Here , a voice whispered above the roar of rushing air. , a voice whispered above the roar of rushing air. It is here It is here.
The dreamer tumbled downward, until high mountain peaks of perpetual ice rose like a jagged-toothed maw on all sides. Within that snowbound canyon stood a six-towered castle bordered by stone walls. The dreamer, in rapid descent, caught only a glimpse of high arched gates.
A white snowfield beyond rushed up.
No pain or darkness came, only shudders of fear, as to a child lost in the wilderness. The dreamer lay in crusted snow, staring up at twin gates of ornate iron curls. They joined together at their high tops in an arched point. Mottled with rust, the gates were still sound in their place. Beyond stood the castle's matching-shaped iron doors atop a wide cascade of steps.
A carrion crow sat upon the gates, watching the dreamer expectantly.
The castle dimmed from sight into darkness. Reptilian coils rose all around, their twisting and churning increasing in speed.
The orb is yours... I now give it to you alone... take it!
The dreamer tried to scramble across the snow, but then only the black coils remained, closing in, tighter and tighter.
Sister of the dead, lead on.
Magiere's eyes snapped open, as she gasped for breath and thrashed out of the bed. She scrambled across the floor and huddled naked and shaking in one corner of the elven inn's tiny room. She tried to scream, but all that came out was a harsh whisper.
He sat up quickly in the bed.
Black coils seemed to move in every shadow of the dark room as Magiere reached out for Leesil hurrying toward her.