A tall woman in dark gray stood waiting for them. Her long dark hair was drawn back into intricate braids, carefully placed so that a circlet of gold set with white and violet jewels rested securely. Her eyes were dark and suspicious, the sharp nose between her high cheekbones uplifted as if in disdain, and her full, rosy lips were puckered in an unbecoming scowl.
"You are those that trespassed on the land of the Allistrey?" she asked suspiciously. Her voice was strong and deep and the younger 'trespassers' were almost frightened by the stern distrust in her voice.
Emrey bowed, partly out of respect and partly to hide the suppressed anger glittering in his dark eyes. When he raised his head, his face was calm and smooth.
"We are," he replied coolly. "I am Emrey, Prince of the Trastille." He put a hand on Viara's slim shoulder. "This is Viara, a Lady of the same." She curtsied deeply, and sent a timid smile in the Princess's direction that faded when it wasn't returned. Emrey gave her a sympathetic glance, then turned back to the suspicious elf-maiden and finished, "The others shall speak for themselves."
Cheryl started as if shot at and hit. She'd hoped he would introduce them all and allow her to remain comfortably silent, but that last statement crumbled her hopes.
The silence became sharp and she hurriedly tried to come up with something to say. She bit her lip in consternation while the three boys looked at her anxiously, waiting for her to speak. Feeling dizzy, Cheryl at last threw away all attempts at elegance and turned to the dark Princess, who was watching her coldly. The Terran girl could feel her face getting hot.
"I--I am Cheryl," she stammered, extremely flustered. "I--I'm from a place far away, yet very near--Iowa! Uh, no, I mean, I be-believe you people here call it something e-else, umm, what is it?" Her hands flapped awkwardly, fanning her face, as she became more and more embarrassed. "Boy, it sure is hot in here!"
Tekoa, standing at the door with the other Allistrey elves, snorted with laughter but quickly stifled it when Chaeremon sent a stern gaze in his direction. Chaeremon then turned back and locked eyes with Cheryl, who had also turned at the noise. Compassion was in the elf-leader's gaze, and a calm that soothed her without words. He lifted his hand to his chest, an urgent message in his eyes. The girl copied the movement in reflex and touched the silver-steel locket.
Comforted and calmed, Cheryl turned back to the Princess, clutching the marcellia stone. She took a deep breath and held it. Then she released it, along with much of her fear and embarrassment.
In a much more possessed tone, she continued, "Terra, I think you call it, Princess." She held out a hand and signified her brothers in turn. "This is Lenny, and this is Ralph, also of Terra. They are my brothers." Last she gestured to the blond-haired boy who stood by Ralph. "And this is Arim, son of Raemon and Faela, of Maychoria."
The ruler of the Allistrey studied each visitor in turn, undiminished suspicion in her eyes. "Why do you tread on our ground without leave?"
Emrey did not allow himself to be angered. The Princess obviously thought her clan to be wronged, and whether that violation was real or imagined, the wise Prince wished to rectify it as quickly as possible.
"It was not by our will," Emrey replied tranquilly, easily preventing the frustration he felt from leaking into his tone. "The young Lord Lenny and myself were captured by the minions of the Black Shadow, and while the others were freeing us, the boats we had traveled in 'til then were lost. We assume they drifted downstream. At any rate we were forced to travel afoot. We could not avoid setting foot in your land without going far out of the way, and our quest is urgent."
"You should have gone out of your way, whatever the distance," the Princess said sharply. She stubbornly folded her arms across her chest. "You should have shunned the Allistrey with great fear, fool! We want nothing but to be left alone, and yet you pursue us far beyond your right! You should have left us be." Her voice was immeasurably hard and cold, but Cheryl, gripping the Seeing Stone, could detect another shade of her voice. Fear.
"We meant you no harm, and still don't," replied Prince Emrey, his deep calm contrasting with the cold mistrust of his counterpart. "We wish only to pass through your land unmolested--"
The Princess laughed icily, cutting him off. "You bely your name, Prince Emrey!" She began pacing back and forth before the six visitors. "You, your name, Emrey, it means 'wise one,' does it not?" Emrey nodded. She began to gesture wildly, nervously, showing her words to be empty of conviction, full of fear and false hope of being left in isolation by good and evil alike. "You who style yourself as a 'wise one,' you are a fool! You should have left us be. Now I have you strangers on my hands. I must dispose of you, or the life work of many of my people is for naught! And what shall I do?" She paused, facing her small audience, hands on hips. Her face was firm, but her lower lip quivered slightly before she noticed and quickly clamped down on it.
Emrey watched her calmly, brow furrowed. "I know not, Princess. If by dispose of us you mean leave us at the border so we may continue, I encourage you to do so. We are anxious to continue our journey."
"Nay!" Distress and anger fought for dominance in her voice. "This dwelling place is to be secret, concealed. Noticed you not the camouflage? It is not permitted for any not of the Allistrey to see this place and yet live! Knew ye that not, traitorous captain?" she cried, turning to Chaeremon and pointing accusingly at him. "I ordered you to get rid of all trespassers immediately, whether by the sword or by leading them back whence they came. Why did you not follow my command? Did you not know of the law of death to all strangers who see these dwellings?"
Chaeremon turned as pale as the white blossom on the vine that adorned the wall behind him. So did the six travelers.
"Every time we escape certain death," Lenny moaned softly, "we get caught up in a another, worse crisis. Does it never end?"
Chaeremon felt trapped. "I am very sorry, Princess Morralitha. I thought, when I heard of their cause for traveling the dangerous road they did, and with manling children, no less, that this would be the exception to your orders. You must have issued your decree of death to strangers after I left to scout the south-west quarter, for I had not heard of it 'til now."
"That is no excuse," the Princess insisted, resuming her stomping and gesticulating. "You should have gotten rid of them immediately, never mind their cause for violating our privacy. Now they must be put to death, and their blood is on your head, Chaeremon! We may need to have a council meeting about changing your name from 'leader with wisdom' to something more appropriate." She shook her head angrily, venom in her dark eyes.
"But Princess Morralitha," Chaeremon protested, holding out his hands in pleading for the lives of the visitors he had presumptuously called guests. "Princess Morralitha, you don't even know their reason for trespassing! It is worthy of your audience, I assure you! Please listen, I beg!"
"Enough!" Morralitha thundered. "I will hear no more from you! You have broken your vows of loyalty and obedience, and you will soon find yourself discharged and summarily banished from my domain!"
"Please, Princess!" Chaeremon tried again. "Only listen, and you will underst--"
"Guards!" Morralitha cried. At least a dozen armed Elves in light gray appeared from no where and surrounded the astounded travelers. "Seize them and carry them away, out of the hall. Do not soil our dwelling places with their blood, but carry them into the forest to finish the deed."
Torn in two, Chaeremon stood undecided for a moment too long, and Olírin and Tekoa grabbed his arms.
"I'm sorry about this, captain," Tekoa murmured, his voice cracking. "I will not help to kill these innocents, but I cannot allow you to try to stop it. I too can feel the pull of two loyalties."
"You're a discerning Elf, Star-watcher," Chaeremon said in a low voice. His eyes were pools of pain, watching the terror on Viara's lovely face as the guards closed in.
The very air crackled with the concentration of tension in the room. The muscles of the guards bulged, and Emrey knew that even he, the strongest of the six, could not free himself from even one of those guards without a weapon. Their tiny group, now pressed into a tight back-to-back circle, was outnumbered two to one. Once they were caught, there was no escape.
It was a good time for near-death experiences, a good time for fear and desperation. But despite the terror that could have filled them, most of the soon-to-be captives were calm, though Viara could think only of what she and Chaeremon could have shared, and Ralph felt Arim tremble violently next to him. He squeezed Arim's arm and whispered, "It's okay."
And then it happened. Lenny had felt nothing but despair. So this was the way their quest would end: violent death at the hands of those who should have been their friends. They had no weapons to defend themselves. Except--Lenny had sudden flash. Indeed, there was a weapon, but little time.
Suddenly a brilliant violet-white filled the hall, blinding the Allistrey guards. They fell back with cries of surprise and pain, collapsing to the floor with their hands over their stricken eyes. The six travelers remained on their feet, but the blinding light sealed their eyes. Garments were tugged and twisted in a great wind that whipped Cheryl's loose hair and nearly tore the blue turquoise clasp from her head. Lenny alone stood firm in the maelstrom, eyes open, apparently unaffected by the bright light.
When the light and wind passed, the six visitors stood alone in the midst of what seemed to be a battlefield. All around them the Allistrey Elves had fallen to their knees or onto their faces, hiding their eyes. By the door, Chaeremon and his two subordinates were struggling to their feet, shaking their heads and rubbing their eyes. Opposite them, Princess Morralitha lay prone on her face. The wind had undone her braids, and her hair lay loose over her back and hid her face. Her shoulders shook under the mantle of dark silky hair, and Cheryl could hear muffled sobs. One arm was folded under the Princess's head, the other outstretched, fingertips almost touching the light crown the wind had snatched away.
Cheryl felt nothing but compassion for the dark Princess. While the others stood wondering what action to take, Cheryl swiftly walked over and stooped by Morralitha.
"Princess?" she asked softly, hesitantly putting a hand on the woman's shoulder.
"Such peace," Morralitha whispered. "Such wonderful peace." She lifted her face, tears streaming down her cheeks. "I'd forgotten it."
A smile, gentle and understanding, was all Cheryl could offer. "I know."
Ralph rushed up and squatted by them. In his hands he held the crown. "Here, Princess Morralitha," he said, holding it out to her.
She sat up and dried her tears, then took it from him and placed it on her head. "Thank you, little one. You are very kind." Ralph smiled back and blushed slightly.
Princess Morralitha rose to her feet, and the siblings followed. The elf-maiden had regained much of her dignity, and a light of calm and peace in her face had dispelled the fear.
Lenny stood holding his magnifying glass, which he had pulled out in the very nick of time. Morralitha walked directly to him and embraced him, much to his surprise and embarrassment.
She pulled back and held him by the shoulders, smiling down at his flushed face.
"Thank you, Lord Lenny," she said. "You have saved me from a great folly. I beg your pardon for my distrust." Then she looked around, including everyone in her gaze. "I beg pardon of all of you. I have greatly sinned, but Atheos' mercy has been greater. To think--" she laughed, her low husky voice vibrating in the clear air. "To think I thought that Atheos could not protect me, and that I could trust no one but myself. It was very foolish. Please pardon my unfaithfulness."
Emrey smiled and extended a hand to her, eyes shining. "All is forgiven, Morralitha. I too have shouldered responsibilities beyond my strength and been drawn back to the King's side by the violet light of peace. It is an experience I shall not soon forget."
A warm smile made Morralitha's stern visage quite beautiful. "Neither shall I." She took his proffered hand.
Princess Morralitha's suspicion and fear had been entirely demolished. She was so marvelously transformed, it was hard to believe she had ever been so angry and paranoid. In after times the Bryant children got to know her quite intimately, and they knew her only as the wise and beautiful Princess she was. The hard-eyed, dark-hearted elf-maiden never returned.
She immediately revoked the edict of death to strangers, saying it was not in keeping with the laws of the High King. She also apologized to Chaeremon and praised his wisdom. Then Morralitha turned to her visitors.
"You have told me your story," she said, "and I believe it. But you are mistaken on one point." She smiled at their bewilderment, then looked directly at Viara. "You thought the canoes were lost because of your negligence, Lady Viara. But in fact, it was not your fault." She gestured Chaeremon to continue the tale.
"Actually, Lady Viara," Chaeremon said, "they were tied very well. It took my scouts and I some time to release them and paddle them to our outpost on the bank of the river. By the time we returned, you visitors were long gone, and we didn't catch up until you were already in our territory and I couldn't warn you to stay away."
Viara's eyes widened. "You mean, you--but--"
He chuckled and took her hand. "Yes, it was I. The course you were on would have taken you deep into our lands, and I knew Morralitha did not want that, though I little knew with what passion she protected our dwellings. But now the time for suspicion and trickery has passed. I beg your pardon for the measures we took, and I will gladly return your goods as soon as you desire."
"Thank you," Emrey replied. "I am pleased to learn of their recovery. But it matters little. We must now head for the lands of my own people, the Trastille."
"Surely you will not leave immediately?" asked Morralitha in dismay. "Please stay and rest for a time. You have a long journey ahead of you."
"Thank you for your kindness," Cheryl replied, "But it is only a few days' journey to the lands of the Trastille. That is the end of Emrey and Viara's path with us, and the rest of us can refresh ourselves there. We really must go on; you speak the truth that we have far to go to reach Galgolb."
"But wait," Morralitha urged. "Tonight we hold a feast in your honor. Please tarry for that, and rest here tonight. Tomorrow we will speed you on your way with all haste."
Emrey and Cheryl exchanged glances. Cheryl smiled, and Emrey bowed to the Princess. "We are honored by your invitation, and accept gladly," he replied for them all.
The feast with the Allistrey differed greatly from the one they had attended in Maychoria Castle, Lenny thought. He had taken it upon himself to escort his shy sister, and was well repaid by the grateful smile she gave him. They walked together to the table, which was placed under the trees in the midst of the forest, not in a hall.
As daylight deepened into twilight, the trees shone blue, at first faintly, but more brightly with each passing moment. It was a pleasant change from the smoky, smelly, dim torches that had lighted the feast in Maychoria Castle.
Once more, Cheryl found herself in the place of honor, on the right hand of Princess Morralitha. On the Princess's left sat Emrey, and beside him Viara, then Chaeremon. On Cheryl's right were Lenny, Ralph, and Arim, in that order.
Instead of the rich, spicy foods of Maychoria, the table was spread with fruits and salads and woodland game dishes. The bread was heavy and wholesome, just the way Cheryl liked it, though Ralph made a face and wished for Wonder Bread.
That remark got Arim started on his eternal questions about Terra. Looking down the table, Cheryl saw Viara and Chaeremon in close conversation and smiled faintly, guessing what they were talking about. Beside her Emrey and Morralitha were talking quietly, correcting old grievances and making pledges of faithfulness for the future. That left Lenny for Cheryl to talk with.
"Lenny," she started. "How is your walk with God?"
Since that night on the trail to Maychoria Castle, Lenny had borrowed Cheryl's Hosridon each night, and they sometimes read it together. But they hadn't discussed it much; Lenny was rather solitary, and they had been very busy, besides.
Lenny hesitated, then plunged in. "I'm a Christian now, and I know God's forgiven my sins. But I keep making more! And the same ones, over and over again. I tell God I'm sorry, and promise I'll change, but I don't. How can He keep forgiving me, over and over and over?" The frustration and sorrow at his own mistakes were evident in his voice.
Cheryl smiled gently and put her hand on her brother's slumped shoulder. He was watching her frankly, pain at his inadequacies dulling his pale gray eyes.
"It may be hard to believe, but I know how you feel," she said softly. "Everyone has problems they struggle and struggle with. I still fight things like that. It seems hopeless when you keep failing and failing, but it's not. Eventually, by God's grace, you will overcome."
"But I keep making the same mistakes, over and over--"
"And God keeps forgiving, over and over." Cheryl offered another gentle smile and squeezed his shoulder. "His grace is sufficient. Remember what we read the night before last? Grace abounds in sin."
"But I promise to change, and then I don't!"
"But you are changing." She shook her head with the barest suggestion of a laugh. "I can see Jesus in you, though you cannot."
Lenny nodded soberly. "I feel that He is there."
"Then accept that is so. Change is slow and hard, but it does come, if you keep pressing on. Let's press on together, okay?"
The corner of his mouth twisted up. "I should have spoken with you earlier. I feel much encouraged."
She smiled outright. "Excellent! You can come to me anytime, you know."
"I'll remember that." He smiled back.
They went back to their food, but soon Lenny had another question.
"Cheryl, when did you name your sword? How did you learn the language of the land to pick such a fitting title?"
Her eyes narrowed thoughtfully and she sat still for several minutes, seeing things beyond the forest meadow.
"I'm not sure, Lenny," Cheryl answered finally. "It wasn't as if I gave it a name, but simply said aloud the one it already had." She chuckled ruefully and looked at him a little sheepishly. "That doesn't make much sense, does it?"
He considered it. "Partially. But how did you know its name?"
Unconsciously her hand stole up to clutch the silver-steel locket. "I don't know, but I think it's a gift of Abba."
He noted with interest where her hand now rested. "Do you know the names of more things, do you think?"
She shrugged. "I dunno. Try me."
Lenny grinned. He loved experiments. "How about the name of the stone in the locket you're wearing?"
"Morríenna, the Dark-Lighter," she answered without hesitation. She blinked and cocked her head to one side, looking comically birdlike. A slow grin spread across her face. "Wow. I wonder what else I know."
"As do I," Lenny replied. An astonished smile was plastered over his face. Excited, he realized he was sitting forward in his seat, one finger relentlessly tapping his wooden bowl. He stilled his fidgeting with a grimace. "Well, what about the name of the strange metal your sword is made of?"
"The elf-trees that shine blue?"
"Denlon trees. Men call them zadrons, which means 'blue-leaves.'"
"And what's the name of my magnifying glass?"
"Chumégal, or Peace-Magnifier."
"That's perfect!" Lenny was clearly delighted, and so excited he could scarcely stay in his seat. "Can you translate names, too?"
"Only one way to find out." Cheryl was almost as eager as her brother.
"Okay…." He tapped his chin, thinking. "What does Tekoa mean?"
"Tekoa--" She thought for a moment, and then it came to her. "Tek means star, and koa means watcher, so the name Tekoa means Star-watcher!"
"That's great!" Lenny fairly squealed. "What does--oh--Olírin mean?"
"And Mount Oran?"
"Oran means 'mountain water.'"
"And the River Olnar?"
"Olnar is, um, 'Swift River.'"
"And Morralitha means…?"
"Um, it means…"
"My name means Dark Maiden." The new voice startled the two, and Cheryl turned to see the Princess watching them curiously, a hint of a smile on her lips.
"Oh, Princess--you startled me!" Cheryl gasped, her hand on her chest.
"Your pardon. I heard my name and turned--but what were you doing, Lady Cheryl?"
"Well first off, I'm no lady," Cheryl replied, feeling more at ease. "You might as well get that down right now."
"We were playing a kind of game," Lenny said. "Cheryl knows things she has no way of knowing--like the name of these trees, and the meaning of Maychorian names."
Interest lit the dark maiden's face. "Here is a point that troubles me--you come from an alternate world, and yet you speak the Maychorian tongue. How is this possible?"
"Funny," Lenny said. "I wondered how you knew English."
Cheryl shrugged. "Another gift of the Maker, you sillies."
Morralitha smiled. "True." She then frowned in thought. "But you hear the names in our language and the rest of our speech in your own tongue, just as we hear your strange names, yet understand what you say."
Lenny rolled his eyes. "Our names sound funny in our own language, trust me. Our people have borrowed personal names from many different lands. I don't even know what my own name means."
Morralitha blinked. "How odd…. Here, names bring images with them…. When I hear Olírin's name I see him speeding away on those light feet of his. When I hear Tekoa's name, I see him gazing at the night sky, as he often does. But when you hear each others' names, you see nothing?"
"Well, not exactly…."
Morralitha smiled suddenly. "But do not mind me. There are other subjects more worthy of our contemplation."
Cheryl unconsciously gripped her tibian locket, a mannerism she had only recently picked up but now constantly employed. "Well, what would you like to discuss?"
As Lenny had earlier, Morralitha notices where Cheryl put her hand. "That pendant," she said softly. "Where did you get it?" She looked up, and her eyes were wide.
Cheryl briefly explained how she had come to own the Seeing Stone. She removed it from her neck and showed it to Morralitha, springing the tiny latch with a light touch.
The Dark Maiden gasped at the sight of the gray marcellia stone inside. "Truly this is a wonderful thing," she said, quickly pulling a pendant on a tibian chain from her bosom, where it had been hidden, "for see, I bear the sister of your treasure, Golíenna! And that must be the Seeing Stone forged alongside mine, Morríenna! Could it be so?"
Cheryl's smoke-gray eyes were wide. "Morríenna is the name of my marcellia jewel. How could this be?"
The Princess closed her eyes and chanted softly:
The child Princess received Morrìenna
And used it to do much good.
The elves of her tribe received Golìenna
And hid it in the Bluewood.
"But how did Morríenna come to be in the river?" Cheryl asked. "And what does Morrévril have to do with it?"
Morralitha shook her head. "I know only those two verses of The Legend of the Stones. But wait! My minstrel can surely recite the rest."
The Princess stood and called for the minstrel. "Jóram, Clear-Stream! I require your services!"
Jóram, a young Elf with hair dark as the night sky above and eyes blue as the shining of the trees, came and stood in front of their table, holding his curious stringed instrument. It looked something like a cross between a harp and a mandolin.
"How may I serve my Princess and her honored guests?" he asked with a low bow.
The Princess smiled and curtsied in response. "I wish to hear The Legend of the Stones," she said as she sat again. "Do your very best, Jóram."
Jóram played a haunting, beautiful melody on his instrument, then sang in a voice clear as the sky and pleasant as running water. He repeated the verses the Dark Maiden had chanted, then continued singing:
One by one the traitors were slain
'Til one alone was left with the sword.
He hid it in the forest of Kemalay
And called a Katamobe to stand guard.
When Princess Zena to her rest went,
Her Seeing Stone was lost-
Taken by a traitor with evil intent
Who knew not the terrible cost.
Long in the Bluewood has Golìenna been hidden,
And there it will yet remain.
'Til evil has triumphed it will not be bidden
To come out and take a last stand.
Elsewhere the tale of Morrèvril is told:
How it was found by a warrior small
Who fought the foul Katamobe through fire and cold
In answering the High King's call.
In time of trouble strange warriors will come down,
Wielding Morrèvril and fighting for right.
Then and then only will Morrìenna be found
And be used to dispel the dark night.
The entire table had become silent, listening to Jóram's clear, sweet voice. The Elf continued playing his instrument for a moment, then ended on a final harmonic note.
"How fascinating," Lenny said drly. "Everywhere we turn we are anticipated by songs and prophecies, and we are constantly referred to as 'strange warriors.'"
Cheryl laughed. "Well, of course! Don't you think having kids head off to fight a war is a little 'strange?'"
Lenny half-smiled. "I suppose."
Morralitha laughed with them. "Come, my guests! Tomorrow is time enough to worry about the dangers ahead. Tonight be merry! Talk gaily and listen to the fair tales Jóram will sing. And may peace be long with you, for I see that you will need it."
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