"Your majesty, I just received word that the four children have defeated the Dark Gate."
Ryoo turned from her window and faced Sarah. To the girl's surprise, she did not look angry.
"This is not unexpected, Inaryoo. I suspect they will continue to surmount every obstacle set in their path."
Sarah stepped back. "Yet you don't seem afraid. What is your plan?"
The Witch laughed. "I need none. The moment they come face to face with me is the moment they die. You have seen evidence of my power. Do you need more?"
The girl was silent.
"Then watch." Ryoo extended her hand toward an ugly cut-glass vase set on the windowsill. In a sudden violent gesture she clenched her fist, and two feet away the vase shattered into a thousand splinters.
Sarah didn't know whether to be reassured or terrified. She settled for respectful skepticism. "And what of the rumored the Jubilee Guild, the supposed resistance within Kakon?"
Ryoo's slender shoulders moved in a fluid shrug. Without bothering to brush away the jagged glass fragments, she stepped back to the window and leaned with both hands on the sill.
"This so-called 'resistance' is weak and futile. Few, unorganized, unarmed. They shall cause us no trouble."
Sarah was troubled by the dark queen's brush-off. "Please your majesty, how can you be so certain?"
"Come, Inaryoo. Join me at the window."
In the courtyard below an army of Katamobi marched, led by a distinctively hairy, putrid fellow known as Lunehyder. He was a Vorprix, a monster shaped somewhat like a man, but much bigger and stronger, with bulging muscles, coarse dark hair covering his huge body, which was naked but for a loincloth of animal skin, and sharp, twisted horns protruding from his bony skull.
The Katamobi were a virtual potpourri of monsters, freaks, and demons. Each was terrifying alone, and the sight of dozens and dozens of these horrible creatures working in tandem was enough to panic the stoutest of hearts and paralyze the bravest of limbs.
Sarah now understood Ryoo's confidence. And she shared it.
Eben stood near a forge in the hidden Jubilee Headquarters, watching a dwarf named Láerkamai fashioning a new sword of metal they had acquisitioned from Ryoo's ovens. Láerkamai's shoulder swung in easy rhythm as his hammer pounded the heated metal, smoothing bumps and shaping the blade.
Eben glanced up as Juthwara joined him by the forge. For a moment they stood silently watching Láerkamai's work, then Juthwara turned away and Eben followed. Juthwara led his young friend to a small pile of completed weapons.
The elf lifted a sword and peered down the length of the blade. He noticed Eben's blue eyes staring frankly at him.
"Well, my young friend," Juthwara said, lowering the sword. "What thoughts stir in that sharp mind of yours?"
Eben flushed, but continued to stare. Juthwara stood casually, but his stance was that of a warrior, his sword at the ready. No enemy could possibly attack them here, but Eben knew that at the first threat of danger that blade would flash up and out, ready to defend and attack at need.
"I happen to know that sword is almost too heavy for me to lift," he replied, "but you hold it as easily as I hold the smaller rapier you've been training me to use."
Juthwara's bright smile flashed across his dark face like a sunbeam streaking through a cloud. "Ah, yes. And you are showing remarkable skill for so little time under tutorage, Eben. Even at the beginning your talent astonished me, and it has developed at a marvelous pace."
"Thank you, sir." Eben allowed a warm smile to soften the crystal blue of his eyes. Juthwara did not like to be praised. This wasn't the first time he'd turned the tables to compliment his complimenter. A sudden thought cast a shadow over the youth's handsome face. "But we have so few warriors, Juthwara." Eben bit the inside of his lower lip. "And I have heard rumors…."
"Of a Katamobic army?" Juthwara set down the sword and started toward a tunnel. Eben followed. "They are more than rumors, my friend. Mariel returned an hour ago with news of an army of demons training in the courtyard of Castle Ryoo. I've been circulating the tidings among our warriors, and we'll be ready for the battle when it comes."
The passage from the forge to the training ground had never seemed chilly to Eben before, but now he shivered. Juthwara put a comforting hand on the young man's shoulder as the light of another entrance grew bright in front of them.
"Don't be afraid, Eben. Remember that our Ally is greater than all the powers of the world, as all power came from Him. And though our warriors are few, each is strong, and very skilled in his weapon of choice. I'm sure you would hold your own in any battle we may fight."
Eben let out his breath in a sigh. "Thank you, sir, but I--I'm afraid…. The thought of facing a pack of those monsters--even one of them--makes my stomach turn and my palms get sweaty. I'm pretty sure I won't turn and run, but that's about all I'm certain of."
"I understand, Eben. In fact, I would be worried if you weren't nervous. But I know you well, and I'm absolutely certain you will do much more than just stand your ground." Juthwara smiled to himself. He did indeed know Eben well. The youth's parents had died when he was very young, and Juthwara had been among those members of the Guild who had taken it upon themselves to care for the orphaned boy. Eben had grown into a sturdy, loyal young man--brave but not haughty, strong but not a bully, openhearted but not weak-minded. The Elf knew very well that Eben would never admit timidity to anyone but himself, for Juthwara was the youth's confidant and mentor, as well as teacher and trainer.
The elf-leader patted the boy's shoulder. "Yes, I'm very certain that you will do well."
They emerged from the tunnel into the training ground, where the Jubilee Guild's small band of warriors trained and fought with guarded weapons to prevent injury. Eben eagerly swept up a blunted rapier and faced his companion, then paused, gazing thoughtfully at the weapon in his hand.
"It feels good there," he said quietly, looking up at Juthwara. "But it is dangerous! If I let myself, I can come to enjoy using it against others." The youth shuddered and almost dropped the slender blade in repulsion.
"Yes, power can be dangerous," Juthwara agreed soberly. "We must be ever careful to always and only use it for the King's glory, and only against evil, for the protection of the defenseless. And when you use your skill and strength for those purposes, you will always be on the right path, my friend. You know that sometimes power is necessary, as now. Do not throw away your weapon, Eben; use it, train with it, be prepared to fight the King's fight. And when you are on His side, you will always win in the end."
Eben's chin lifted, and a new light of courage and resolve shone in his blue eyes. He was ready to do whatever needed to be done, and he wasn't afraid he would fail. He knew Juthwara was right, and was even beginning to look forward to fighting to liberate Kakon. Not for the joy of killing--that did not appeal to him at all--but for the joy of knowing he was on the right side, the winning side, freeing the captives and making the world just a little bit better because he was there.
Even the thought of dying did not frighten him.
Well, maybe a little bit. He didn't want to leave behind--
Mariel ran out of a tunnel on the other side of the training ground. Her grinning face was flushed and shining. For a moment she looked around expectantly, then spotted the two opposite her and waved to them.
"Eben, Juthwara!" she called excitedly. "I have great news."
She wove a speedy path between and around the numerous sham hand-to-hand battles being fought in the underground clearing and reached their side, panting happily. The excitement made her look like a little girl again, and Eben and Juthwara smiled fondly at her.
"Good news," she said breathlessly. "Remember I told you of the Katamobi army, and their leader, Lunehyder?" She shuddered involuntarily.
"Well, that's not all I found at the castle today. I went back after I made my report, and guess what?"
The last two words were spoken with such mischievous vigor and excitement it was all Eben could do to keep from yelling 'what.' Instead he teasingly pretended disinterest and faked a yawn.
"What?" he asked mock sleepily through the hand over his mouth.
"Oh, you!" She laughed, pushing him so that his hand was forcibly removed from his face. "No, really, it is exciting. You see, I discovered where the Hosridon is."
Juthwara had been grinning at their banter, but now he turned dead serious. Eben sobered as well.
"This is very important news, Mariel," Juthwara said, turning towards a tunnel in eagerness.
"And that's not all," Mariel interrupted, grabbing his arm before he could leave. "I heard Ryoo and Inaryoo talking, and you know the four warriors Abba sent us from Maychoria? Well, they got through the Dark Gate yesterday noon. That means they ought to be here--"
"Tomorrow!" Eben exclaimed, as excited as she, now.
"Mariel, this is wonderful news," the elf said joyfully, clapping the hand on his arm. "I must go and tell the others!"
The young people watched him go, and Mariel felt her excitement ebbing. The battle they had been anticipating for so long--it was almost here. She turned to stare reflectively at her friend.
The sound of metal on metal all around reminded her that Eben was no long the childhood playmate she had known, and the sword in his hand seemed poised to strike her heart with the sudden realization that this boy--no, this young man--would soon be struggling in a life-and-death struggle with the terrible Katamobi she had seen close up at Castle Ryoo. She was both bursting with pride and disturbed to the point of tears.
Eben grew uncomfortable under her gaze. "Mariel, what's wrong?" he asked gently.
"Oh, Eben!" she cried suddenly, throwing her arms around him. "I'm so scared--and proud--and happy--and upset--and excited--and--and--"
"Confused?" he asked mischievously as she pulled back.
"Yes! Extremely!" She wiped her eyes and prayed for composure. "Eben, you've been like a brother to me…."
"Is that all?" There was disappointment in his deep voice.
"Well, we grew up together--worked, played, fought, like any siblings, and I always thought of you as a dear, a very dear brother, and then when my parents died--"
He grabbed her hand and squeezed it. By that time she had been almost an adult, but the death of her mother and father had set her adrift emotionally. Eben had been there for her then, as had Juthwara and her grandmother and many other people. Now both were orphans, and their bond had only been strengthened by tragedy.
"Yes, well, you've been more than a brother to me--much more."
"And I want to be even more, Mariel."
Mariel blushed and stared down at her hand, locked in his. Like Juthwara, she knew this young man very well, and she was willing to--to what? To do whatever he wanted just because he wanted it? Or to make a lifelong commitment to him, and to take his commitment in return.
Mariel looked up at his face, remembered the gentleness in his deep voice, saw the understanding and affection in his blue eyes, the determination written on his strong features.
"I--I'd like that, Eben," she said softly. "Forever and ever."
Eben pulled her into a warm embrace and whispered in her ear, "Much longer than that, Mariel. Much longer than that."
Come to think of it, dying was not what he wanted to do at all.
After her meeting with Eben, Mariel had been very light-hearted and enthused on her way back to the castle. It's too bad, she mused disgustedly, that I had to meet up with the one person who has a worse temper than Ryoo and the power to make my life miserable.
Inaryoo stood in front of the servant girl, and she was in a foul mood. The thing that frustrated her most was that though Ryoo had placed her in charge of all the slaves, she couldn't get this one slave to behave--at least, not the way Sarah wanted her to.
Besides, her shining eyes and gentle smile irked the younger girl.
"Mariel, where have you been?" Sarah demanded. "I've been looking for you."
"I am sorry to have kept you waiting, mistress," Mariel answered as meekly as she could.
Sarah wouldn't let herself be distracted. "Where have you been? I demand to know the truth!"
Flustered, Mariel felt her face get hot. This irritating little mite had the power to send her to the dungeon, not to mention all her Jubilee comrades. "I was with some friends…."
Inaryoo caught her hesitation and pounced on it. "Your friends? The ones in the Jubilee Guild?"
Mariel felt her whole body tense, but she answered with innocence and nonchalance, "The Jubilee Guild? What is that, mistress?"
"Never mind." Sarah's eyes narrowed to hazel slits. She still suspected Mariel was connected to the resistance force in some way, and she was still nervous about the group, despite her master's assurances. "But I will tell you this, servant-girl: the Jubilee Guild will never win. The ones they place their hopes in, the four warriors from Maychoria, are children, a girl younger than you are and three boys younger than I am. They can do nothing against Ryoo."
Mariel faced Inaryoo soberly. This revelation made no difference to her--she had already known the coming reinforcements were young, led by a girl several years younger than she was. But she also knew that Abba was on their side, while He most definitely did not stand behind the Witch. And the servants of the King always win in the end--no exceptions.
"Mistress, I do not know what the strength of the forces that will join in battle soon will be, but I know one thing: the force serving the High King will win. And so I ask you: which side is He on, Ryoo or the Jubilee Guild? And then let me ask further: which side are you on, the winning or the losing?"
"Preposterous!" Sarah snorted, sounding eerily like Ryoo. "Of course I'm on the winning side!"
Mariel's greenish-blue eyes gazed deeply into Sarah's. "Are you?"
Now Sarah was flustered. She knew the answer, deep down, but refused to acknowledge it. Taking a step back, she stared wildly at the older girl.
Mariel did not back down, willing her opponent to realize the truth and turn from the dark path. For several moments their eyes remained locked, but at last Sarah broke contact and stumbled away, fighting for control.
Mariel sighed. It would have been nice to have Inaryoo on their side. But it made no difference involving the outcome. The young woman pitied the Witch's apprentice, for soon she would find that everything she had worked so hard to get was worth nothing.
"Grandmother, I felt so sorry for her. What will happen to that poor little girl when she finds out all her work has been for naught? Will she come back to the Maker?"
The old woman fondly laid a hand on her granddaughter's reddish-gold locks. "I do not know, my dear. But Abba does, and that is enough."
Mariel squeezed her grandma's other hand and gazed reflectively into her sea-green eyes. "You're right, Grandma, but we can still pray for her, right?"
"Of course! We must pray always, just as Juthwara says. And we will pray for you and the rest of the Jubilee Guild, that you will all come safely through the battle ahead."
Mariel's blue-green eyes lit at a sudden memory, then faded gravely at another. "And will you also pray for Eben, Grandmother? And, there's something else I must tell you about us…."
Mischief lit the green eyes. "Are you engaged?"
"Grandmother!" Mariel cried in shock. "How did you know?"
The woman chuckled. "I'm sorry, dear. I suppose you wanted to surprise me. Well, I'm afraid that all grandmothers can tell these things. It's an instinct."
She laughed and patted the smooth hand lying in her wrinkled one. "And where is your true love now, my dear?"
Mariel's face became sober. "That's what I wanted you to pray about. You see, he and some of the younger Guilders are out scouting the wild, watching for the four warriors from Maychoria. Juthwara doesn't want them to be caught by Ryoo or the Katamobi, or find themselves at the wall of Kakon with no way to get in. I understand the need, but I am afraid for Eben."
"I understand, dear. Come, let us pray together now."
Four hands joined in close communion, and two heads--one gray and one gold--bowed in humility before the throne of the High King.
"Oh Maker of all, we humbly pray that You will protect us…."
Chaeremon was sitting in the forest, his heart near to bursting with joy, for next to him sat Viara. They had been enjoying each other's company all morning, and the elf-leader had finally gotten up the courage to ask his companion a question.
"Viara," he began, taking her hand.
"Yes, dear Chaeremon?"
Her eyes were like clear jewels, and the love in her heart shone so purely out of them Chaeremon had no doubt of her answer.
"I talked with your father last night, Viara, and I have his approval. Now I only need yours to make my joy complete."
"Oh, Chaeremon, need you ask?"
He sighed from sheer bliss. "It's settled, then."
"Of course it is, dear-heart." She snuggled close, and he put his arm around her.
At that moment a twig snapped behind them, and they whirled around to see Princess Morralitha stepping towards them.
The Princess smiled fondly at her favorite couple. "I'm sorry to interrupt, but I have urgent news."
"Is it about the four children?" asked Chaeremon, instantly on his feet.
"Must be, or she would have sent Olírin," Viara replied without thinking as she rose beside him.
Morralitha smiled. "Yes, it's about Cheryl and the boys. In a few hours they will be within Kakon, and soon after they will join in battle with the hosts of evil."
Chaeremon sighed in dejection. "I would I were with them. Truly that would be a noble fight for me to join."
"I know, fearless leader," the Princess said. "But you know it is impossible. You would never have fit through the door in the gate Golíenna depicted. It was a tight fit for Cheryl, much less you!"
The elf-leader sighed again. "But I wish I could do something! Anything!"
"We can pray," Viara gently pointed out.
"Yes, we can," Morralitha replied firmly.
Instantly three heads bowed and six hands clasped in prayer.
"Oh King of the universe, we pray that You will protect our friends…."
Faela looked up from her work with a stricken, far-away expression. She had been organizing her collection of scrolls on which were written various prophecies and histories, but now it was forgotten.
From long communication with Abba, the woman could instantly recognize His voice. Her son, Cheryl, and the other boys were in danger, or at least they soon would be.
Immediately Faela dropped to her knees, folded her hands and bowed her head.
"Oh Father, please protect them…."
Eben did not like the swamp. He'd had to use his sword many times already--not against wild animals or Katamobi but to hack through thick brush or free himself from the grip of thorny, clinging vegetation. And there was always the chance of stepping into a quickpool. Mud caked him to mid-thigh the way it was.
The young warrior halted as voices came floating in the heavy, noxious atmosphere.
"Are you sure coming into the swamp was a good idea? This gray gunk is disgusting!"
"Yeah, Cheryl. Now I know why it's called the Urnvile Swamp, all right."
"Well, it is certainly superior to the alternative: walking in sight of the walls of Kakon."
"Which reminds me; Cheryl, how are we going to get inside?"
Now a fourth voice replied, sweet, girlish, and innocently wise. "I don't know the details, but we're supposed to wait here."
"Wait here? In the Stinky Slimy Swamp? I'd rather face a pack of Katamobic wolves!"
Eben had been steadily drawing closer, and now he was in time to see the boy with dark, curly hair as he pointed behind the green-eyed boy and answered nervously, "You may get your wish, Ralph. Look out!"
Like a mirror image, Eben and a Katamobic wolf exploded in from opposite sides of the clearing. Eben had his sword ready, and he struck at the monster with all the considerable force in his tall, sturdy frame.
The fight was very short and fierce. In two more strokes of the shining saber the Katamobe lay dead, melting in the sun like all its demonic brethren. Eben quickly wiped his rapier on the body and sheathed it. Only then did he notice that the wolf had laid his right forearm open with its wicked teeth.
"Oh, you're bleeding!" The girl rushed in and took his right hand. "Here, sit down on this patch of dry ground. We'll have you fixed up in a jiffy. Lenny, where's that flask of water from the Pool of Turuth?"
The small maid's attentions and obvious concern amused Eben. "It is but a scratch, my lady. Do not trouble yourself. I can bandage it myself with a strip from my tunic."
"Oh, nonsense." The maiden knelt by his side with the flask in her hand. "Bother this armor. It's always in the way."
Eben stared as the deep gashes on his arm closed and healed under the soothing influence of the water. His eyes grew even wider when he saw the eagle-hilt of her sword and the gray jewels shining thereon. He looked up to see the three boys gathered around him, their shining armor strangely contrasting with their small stature and young faces.
"Thank you for saving us from the wolf," said the boy with dark curls peaking beneath his tibian helm. "I am Lenny Bryant."
"And I'm Ralph."
"I am Arim son of Raemon."
The girl with dark gray eyes smiled. "I'm Cheryl."
The young warrior smiled back. "I am Eben son of Amel."
"What are you doing out here in the swamp?" asked the green-eyed Ralph.
Eben glanced around at the four children. "Well, I think I was looking for you."
Cheryl's face lit up. "Oh, you must be from the Jubilee Guild!"
"How'd you know?"
"That is only one of the strange properties of the marcellia stone Cheryl wears around her neck," Lenny offered. "She knows many things she has no way of knowing."
"A good quality for a leader," Arim added thoughtfully.
"Oh," was all Eben could think of to say.
"My thoughts exactly," Ralph wryly agreed.
"Well," said the young man, shaking his head to dislodge the confusion there. "I don't know about you, but I want to get back to the Jubilee Guild." And Mariel. "I was sent to watch for you and, if I found you, to show you the way back to Juthwara."
"Who?" asked Ralph.
"The leader of the Jubilee Guild. He's an Elf."
"Right." Eben shook his head, uncertain how the maiden knew these things. "Anyway, if it's okay with you, we'd better get going. Katamobi never travel alone." As if on cue, an ominous howl reached their ears on a faint breeze that also carried the noisome smell of rotting plants.
"Uh, no offense," Ralph started. "But how do we know we can trust you? It might be a trick."
"He did kill the wolf," Arim pointed out.
"Coulda been part of a clever trap."
Eben shook his head. "Look, none of Ryoo's loyal servants are in their right minds. We call them Sleepwalkers because she seems to have them in some kind of trance. The only exception is Inaryoo, her apprentice."
"Inaryoo?" Cheryl perked up. "That wouldn't happen to be a young girl with auburn hair and hazel eyes, would she?"
"I don't know about hair and eye color, but Mariel has told me she's just a girl."
Cheryl sighed. "That's our sister, Sarah. The only good thing about her leaving us is that we got Arim in her stead." She dug her fists into her thighs. "This is not good."
"I'm sorry, but we've got to go. Do you trust me now?" Eben's crystal blue eyes impaled the boys with their intensity.
Blue gazed into blue as Arim measured the young stranger. At last the Maychorian boy nodded. "I trust you, and I'm willing to go where you lead."
Lenny agreed. "As do I." He turned to Ralph. "Well?"
The boy glanced to his sister. "Is this what we were waiting for?"
Cheryl looked surprised they even had to ask. "Of course it is. Let's go!"
Eben grinned. "Come on, then." He stood with some help from Ralph, then turned and began to lead them out of the swamp.
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