Escape from Etalpalli
“The Flame at Night will return!” the man shouted. His body tensed, and his crimson wings flared, turning gold in the torchlight, as if he dared any of the assembly to contradict him.
The tower in which they were gathered was dark and lit with fires burning in alcoves of the wall. Beams of wood, like perches, branched out from the inside of the tower, and platforms sat on some of these. Standing or sitting on these beams and platforms were tall people clad in resplendent colors, strange and fey. But most remarkable of their appearance were the magnificent feathered wings sprouting from their shoulders, arching over their lithe, sinewy bodies.
Opposing the joyful colors of their wings and attire, the people wore expressions as sorrowful as death, for they did not want to believe the scarlet-winged man who stood at the center of a beam that spanned the width of the tower. The firelight flickered on his fierce face, and no one could tear their eyes away from him, so thus no one noticed the woman standing on the same beam, closer to the wall.
At last another man, higher in the tower, answered. His voice was weary. “Queen Ytotia died long ago…”
“Yes!” said the first, raising a clenched fist. “Yes, she died. Every bit of her and all of her!” He spread out his arms beseechingly. “That is why we must fear, O people of Etalpalli. Ytotia is dead. Hri Sora, the Flame at Night, is not.”
“What nonsense you speak!” another cried from below. “Hri Sora fell to her third and final death ten years past.” Others murmured their agreement.
“Nonsense?” The new voice was sharp as glass shards. All looked to she who spoke—the woman on the same beam as the first speaker. She stepped to the side of the speaker and took his hand. She spoke softer, but her voice rang through the tower none the less. “Was it nonsense when my husband foresaw the coming of the Cren Cru? Was it nonsense when we foresaw the transformation of Ytotia? Was it?”
There was silence.
The woman lifted her chin, but her voice trembled. “No, it was not nonsense. And neither is this.” Her head bowed.
An elder Etalpallian said at last, “What then, Seers, shall we do?”
The man spoke again. “We must prepare for battle. Better still, we should flee.”
Shouts of protest echoed through the tower. “Leave Etalpalli?” “Our beloved city?” “How dare you?” “I will never leave my home!” In a matter of moments, nothing could be heard but a blur of angry voices.
The man and his wife stood still, hand in hand, and waited.
When the voices finally died down, the elder Etapallian stood. “Seers, we respect your gifts, and we will consider preparing for battle. But we will not desert Etalpalli. Did not Hri Sora herself swear that the City of Wings will live forever?”
The crimson-winged man’s face hardened. “So be it,” he said. Without another word, he and his wife spread their wings and flew from the tower.
The outside night was cold, but the two did not seem to notice as they shot past more towers. The woman, rose wings shimmering, came alongside her husband. “What shall we do?” she asked.
“If it is the people’s will to stay, so must we,” he replied, his eyes cold. “Our chance for survival increases in number. But our children…our children cannot fight. We must send them into the Wood Between.”
The boy lay on the length of the cushioned beam. His head rested on his folded arms, and his green wings draped over his body. He slept soundly, as did the girl on the beam below him. Her blue wings stirred in her sleep.
Neither of them awoke when shadows cast across the doorway nor when dark forms bent over them.
“Dalanantu,” a voice whispered to the boy, and a hand gently shook his shoulder.
The boy’s eyes fluttered open, and he struggled to look through his brown hair falling in front of his face. He focused on the figure bent over him, a figure whose wings were red. “Father?” he whispered. He yawned. “What is it?”
His father stepped off the beam; he sleepily rolled off. He swayed on his feet, thrown off balance by his wings.
Mother was having more difficulty waking his little sister, Calizanti, or Caliz, as he preferred to call her.
Dalanantu sent his mind to listen to the rustling vines that spilled into the room of the tower, surrounding the waterfall that skimmed down the far wall. Do you know what’s going on? he asked.
The leaves crackled and whispered back, Such going ons. We hear messages from our brethren in one of the great towers. An argument stirs amongst your people.
Dalan rubbed his arms uneasily. His fingers brushed over the vines painted on his arms, signifying his gift—the ability to speak to plants.
“What’s going on?”
Dalan’s own question echoed in the voice of his sister. She was awake now, raking her fingers through her black hair. She wore blue to match her azure wings, just as Dalan wore green to match his. But painted on her arms were swirls and waves, for she spoke with water.
Caliz’s bleary smile faded as she saw her parent’s solemn faces, and she took a step closer to Dalan.
Sighing, Mother took Caliz’s hands. “Darlings, we have never kept from you the fact that your father and I have the ability to dream of the future. It is a special gift given by the Lumil Eliasul, just as he gave Dalan the gift to talk with plants and Caliz to speak with water. But our gift can be troubling, and now we have seen that…” her voice faltered.
“The Flame at Night is coming home,” Father said.
Dalan felt the vines shudder in fear, and he himself shivered. “I thought she died when Caliz was a fledgling,” he said.
“So did we all,” Mother whispered. “But we were wrong. She is coming back to destroy everything.” She pulled Caliz to her. “We must send you away.”
“Away?” Dalan repeated sharply. “Where?”
“Into the Wood Between,” said Father.
“We’ve never been in the Between,” Caliz protested. Mother shushed her softly.
“Caliz can go,” Dalan flared. “I want to stay and fight.”
“No,” Father said. “You must take care of your sister.”
Desperate, Caliz tried a new argument, one that she wavered on even as she said it. “We’re too young to be…a…alone.”
Father put one arm on Dalan’s shoulder and his other around Caliz. “Dalanantu,” he said. “You are fifteen. Calizanti, you are twelve. You are no longer children.” His voice caught. “You can no longer be children.” He kissed them each. Mother came forward, and they all held each other close. Dalan breathed in the scent of his father and the sweet aura of his mother. Suddenly, he was terrified, and he held them tight, unwilling to let go.
“Now we must hurry,” Father whispered. “You must pass through Cozamaloti Gate.”
Cozamaloti, the gateway to Etalpalli, suspended above a colossal waterfall. Getting through it from the outside was more difficult than going through it from the inside. From the inside all you had to do was walk forward at a certain place and you would appear on a bridge leading across to the shore.
Dalan and Caliz’s parents had accompanied them as far as the gate, and there the siblings had to go on alone.
His cheek still warm from his parent’s parting kisses, Dalan held tight to Caliz’s hand as they passed from the Far World into the Between. They stood on a rope bridge above a trickle of a stream draining over rocks. Dalan stared at in disbelief. He’d never seen them before, but the falls were supposed to be a magnificent cascade of water. Not this meager…thing.
“What happened to the river?” he demanded.
Caliz hunkered against him, her blue eyes wide. “It’s afraid,” she whispered. “It’s afraid of something coming, and it doesn’t want to be noticed.”
So Caliz could still communicate with waters outside of Etalpalli. That was good news at least. Could he communicate with the trees? He probed his mind forward and felt the pressure of the Wood before him. Yes, he would be able. But the vines back in Etalpalli were still present in the back of his consciousness. Where did you go? they asked.
He tried to send back a reply, but it was no use. It was only because there were so many of them that their voices could reach him. They couldn’t hear one of him.
Then, breaking forth from far away, came the baying howl of a dog.
Caliz froze next to him, her wings taunt, ready to fly. “What was that?” she asked.
The baying began again; this time there were two howls.
Grabbing his sister’s arm, Dalan pulled her towards the Wood. But Caliz pulled back. “Dalan!” she cried. “It’s too thick. We won’t be able to fly in there! We’ll get lost!”
He tugged her forward. “Father told us to stay in the Wood until they come for us. Come on!”
In that moment, the howls sounded again, far closer than they should have been after such a short time.
She stumbled forward in her fright, and they both entered the Wood Between.
And then came the heat.
Even as they passed into the trees, three figures appeared charging along the river’s bank. In the center was a tall woman who seemed to burn with rage, and two monstrous black dogs flanked her. The woman, without breaking her stride, walked over the riverbank’s edge into open air, shouting, “ETALPALLI!”
She vanished instantly. The Flame at Night, Hri Sora, Queen of Etalpalli, had returned home.
The two Black Dogs sat down on the river’s edge, whining in bewilderment.
Both Dalan and Caliz were fixated in horror. Then Dalan summoned his strength, and grabbing his sister, plunged deep into the Wood. The foliage was thick, and the trees were close together, blocking out any sight of sky. He could feel its mocking attitude, and he seethed when it silently laughed as their wings caught in the branches of a bramble.
How dare you treat us so? he told it angrily. We are but guests. Leave us alone!
Immediately, the Wood recoiled in shock. The next moment, suspicion emanated from every branch and leaf.
How dare you speak to us? it replied. You are but a traveler.
He felt its presence poking into his mind, determined to learn why he had been able to speak with it. Annoyed, he brushed away the jabbing branches of its presence and started to speak back.
A searing shock of pain jolted through his mind. He staggered over, breathless. At first, he thought the Wood had hurt him.
But then he realized that the pain was not his own.
He felt burning, horrible burning, disintegration into ash. It was the vines. The vines back home whom he’d spent his entire life talking to. They were burning.
About that same moment, Caliz suddenly reeled and fell to the side. Her eyes widened, and her hands flew to her throat. “I can’t breathe!” she gasped, heaving for air.
He grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Yes, you can!” he shouted. “It’s the water that’s getting suffocated. With ash! It’s all in your mind. You can breathe.”
She stared at him with huge eyes, barely comprehending. Her forehead knitted, folding the painted teardrop on her brow.
Wrapping an arm under both of hers, he held her against him and dragged her forward, ignoring the sweltering pain that scored his own body.
The Wood laughed at them.
Dalan’s temper exploded, and his mind lashed out at it. Go away! Leave us alone!
The Wood laughed harder.
Suddenly, Dalan’s feet tangled in foliage, and he fell to the ground, pulling Caliz with him. He glanced at his sister and saw that she was still and white. She was in shock. In shock because she was beginning to understand what the ash-filled water meant. His own mind throbbed with the cruel laughter of the Wood. He wanted to tear it out, anything to get away from such a presence.
Then quite suddenly, above the roar of the Wood, a silver song of a bird trilled through the air.
The sinister laughter cut short.
The silver song whistled and cooed, filling the Wood with a softer, kinder emotion.
And then Dalan heard the voice of a tree.
There, there, little sapling. Do not be afraid. My brethren do not yet know you, but with your special gift, perhaps you will make friends with some of them. But I am a maple tree, very old, and my roots spread far. I drink of the River, and it speaks of strange things. Etalpalli is burning. But then here you are, a young Etalpallian sapling with a little sister. You are tired, I can feel it. Come and rest under me, and you shall be safe.
Dalan struggled up, bringing Caliz along, and followed the kindly voice. There was a maple, a hollow curved into the base of its trunk. He collapsed against it, exhausted, and Caliz curled up next to him, her head in his lap. He managed to place an arm protectively over her before falling into a deep and troubled sleep.
The vine crept along the forest floor. It moved with steady grace, its many tendrils curling and its flowers swaying. The wood watched it respectfully and did not try to hinder its passing.
As the vine crawled along its way, it suddenly heard the stream-like trill of a wood thrush. Curious, the vine slid along after the song. In the branches of an ancient maple, the wood thrush sang to the unseen skies. The vine rose up, winding around the trunk, rising over a large root that stood in its path.
Then the vine leaped back like an elastic cord pulled taunt and let go.
Next moment, the green vine widened and then took form. In a matter of seconds, the vine transformed into a woman. Her long-limbed, slender form was green, and her lithe hands were six-fingered. She was clothed in darker green scarves that swathed her body, and green hair tumbled down her back, vine tendrils and blossoms growing from them.
Such was Lady Asilvee, the Wandering Beauty of the Wood.
Her lovely face was full of surprise and sorrow for she beheld a wondrous sight.
Around the bend of the tree, beyond the root she had just climbed, there lay in the hollow of the trunk, two children. She knew instantly what they were, for she was a Faerie Queen, and thus knew all other demesnes, even if she had never seen them. The two children were from Etapalli; their wings made that obvious. But what were they doing out in the Wood? Their dirty faces were streaked with tears, and their bodies were tense, even in their sleep. They had to be cold amongst these trees for their silky clothing was hardly suitable to the present chill. The boy’s upper tunic only covered half his chest and left his arms bare. The girl’s arms were likewise bare for her dress tied behind her neck. The clothing was designed for flying, not for keeping warm.
The woman tisked and reached forward. But then she paused. “Poor little things,” she said in an undulating voice that dipped from high to low. “I mustn’t startle them.” She sent a swift glare at the tree. You put them in an enchantment of sleep, she reproached.
I didn’t know what else to do, the maple retorted. They were exhausted, and if they had continued to plunge through the Wood, they were likely to plunge into Guta’s pit! Don’t blame me. But I’ll lift the enchantment now that you’re here. See if you can talk to the boy. He has an unusual gift.
Tilting her head, she let her mind reach out to his. Yes, here was something that was like unto hers, one with whom she could speak. Young one, she said silently. Do not be afraid. I’m trying to wake you without frightening you.
The boy’s eyebrows drew together. Suddenly, his eyes flew open, and he struggled up into a straight posture, twisting at the waist to face her.
She drew back, smiling a little. “So much for not scaring you,” she said gently. Judging from his hostile expression, he didn’t appreciate strangers in his mind.
“Where did you come from?” he demanded, sounding out of breath as if he’d never recovered it during his sleep.
“I am the Lady of my own demesne, but I wander far. I come from Here, There, and Everywhere,” she said in her strange voice. “I am Lady Asilvee the Wandering.”
Dalan glared at her and felt for the knife at his belt. “I’ve never heard of you.”
“I have,” said Caliz. She had woken and was sitting up next to him. “You wander through the Between and the Far, bringing cheer with the sweetness and beauty of your vines and flowers.”
Dalan frowned at his sister, even as the lady smiled. “How come I’ve never heard of her?” he asked.
Caliz smiled. “Mother used to tell me stories about her when I was little, and you never listened.”
“If it was about a plant person, I think I would have been interested,” he insisted.
“It was a lady plant person,” Caliz reminded. Suddenly, her smile faded away, and her eyes widened as she stared about the forest as if seeing it for the first time. “A story…Mother…used to tell me.” Her voice broke, and her hands flew to her mouth. “Used to tell me!” She began to sob.
Asilvee slipped into the cove beside them and held out her arm. Dalan scooted away, but Caliz practically crawled over the top of him to reach Asilvee’s embrace. The faerie lady hummed gently and rocked her, saying things like, “Poor little thing.”
While she comforted Caliz, Dalan decided to take the opportunity to explore the Lady’s mind, for she was a plant now just as much as in vine form. He did so hastily, skipping over actual thoughts and picking up only emotion. If there was any malice in her, he would find out. But he could only sense compassion and kindness. Then he read one thought.
It is well that the Lumil Eliasul brought me to them.
Her voice spoke again, as clear as if she were speaking in his ear. You know, I can feel you in there, young man.
Startled, Dalan jumped and stared at her. She smiled at him, and he blushed. Hesitantly, he silently spoke with her. You said the Lumil Eliasul brought you to us.
I did. And I am beginning to understand why. Why did two Etalpallians run away from free skies into tangled forests?
Dalan winced. I fear we no longer have a home. He realized then that the burning sensation had faded long ago, leaving only a shell of emptiness.
Asilvee’s eyes widened, and she hummed louder as if she were afraid Caliz would overhear their thoughts.
Tears began to prick at Dalan’s eyes, and he fought them back. I don’t know what to do.
She nodded. She rose, tall and thin, Caliz still in her arms.
But Dalan drew back, still cautious.
Sympathetically, she said aloud, “When you entered my mind, young one, what did you read?”
“You follow the Lumil Eliasul.”
“Do you trust the Lumil Eliasul?”
“My parents did. I did. But after this…” He looked away. “I don’t understand,” he said shakily.
“It is hard, yes. But if you will place faith in him, then I ask you to follow me. You do not have to stay in my demesne for long, only for as long as you wish.
Dalan took another deep breath and nodded. She nodded back, and turned to walk. He had to trot to keep up with her long strides, and he kept his gaze anxiously on Caliz, who still had her face buried into the Lady’s shoulder. He sighed. Would she ever recover from this? Would he? He understood what the emptiness in his heart meant, and he had never felt so alone. What was he to do?
They passed along the chosen Path through unmeasurable reaches of the Between, worlds rushing past them. But at long last, they stepped into the Far—the corner that was Asilvee’s alone.
A landscape of canyons and cliffs covered in lush green moss, ferns, and vines with waterfalls, large and small, spilling and plunging through crevices and down depths, spread out before them. Above the lush realm spread a sky alight with the rainbows and sparkles of mist and light.
At its Queen’s return, the land chorused a welcome, plant, water, and bird, while many vines curled forward to meet her.
Dalan gazed awestruck at the beauty before him. The skies, the waterfalls, the lush green…it reminded him so much of home. Sudden tears pricked his eyes. Anything could have happened to them in the Wood. What were the chances of Asilvee finding them and offering her home; her out of all the Fae? It seemed the Lumil Eliasul did care for them still.
Caliz lifted her face and stared out upon the realm, her tears slowly drying. She clung a little tighter to Asilvee, but the pain of her near past was already beginning to fade in the bright light shining overhead.
Breathing in deep, Dalan’s resolve hardened. The race of Etalpalli was not ended. The legacy and beauty of the Sky People would live on in him and his sister, and here they could learn to live up to that role. Where would their Path lead after that?
He did not know. He only knew that he would follow the Lumil Eliasul.
Prisoners of Arpiar
Danger, the Wood whispered.
The youth paused, tilting his head as he considered the hushed warnings that shuddered through the leaves. Danger from you? he asked, raising an eyebrow in mock surprise.
The Wood chuckled. It was a treacherous sort, one to never turn your back on. Yet the boy understood its wily ways, even if he didn’t agree with them, and he could respond with a humor that it would appreciate. Most of the forest would always be hostile to him, but there were groves of it that were beginning to accept him.
A message of danger, came the response. It is coming this way. There was malicious glee in its tone, and the boy recognized that he should take it seriously. What form this message would take, he did not know, so he must be prepared. With fluid grace, he drew an arrow from the quiver on his thigh and fit it to the bow he held in hand.
Tendrils of pale sunshine slipped through the tangled boughs of the Wood and haloed the boy in gold. He had a fair face of about sixteen years, and all his appearance—from the green scarves he wore, to the painted vines about his arms—bespoke of his bond with trees and shrub. But most startling of all, strong wings of emerald feathers sprouted from his back, curving gracefully behind him.
At last, the message came through the trees. It came upon the ground, curling over roots and rough. Asilvee Vines.
For a moment, the boy hoped it was Lady Asilvee herself, the Wandering Beauty of the Wood. But no, it was her vine messengers. He relaxed. These vines were his friends ever since their queen had sheltered the boy.
What is it? he asked.
Their emotion of sorrow hit him. There’s great trouble, Dalanantu. Your sister, Calizanti, is in dire peril.
Dalanantu frowned as he hurried after the leading vines. Caliz in peril? He never should have agreed to allow her to wander alone. But she was a far cry from the timid child she had once been. The loss of their homeland, the great Etalpalli, and the fact that they were the last of their kindred, devastated her. In that dark time, Lady Asilvee had cared for them in her lush demesne—a place reminiscent of the glory of their former home. Over time, with the assurance of the Lumil Eliasul, they had healed. Caliz’s spirit had matured, but neither had aged out of Time. Dalan, sensing a tumultuous future, had begun training himself with a bow, and Caliz wielded two knives with deadly accuracy. She was still gentle and sweet, but unable to take care of herself? Hardly.
He hurried along the path, pulse pounding with dread. The vines halted, and so did he. Warily, he let his mind reach out to probe the boundary before him. He recoiled in horror.
His sister had entered Arpiar.
Calizanti swiped her silky sheen of black hair out of her eyes and returned to glowering. What an idiot she was. Everyone—everyone—knew you did not step off your path in the Wood to help a wounded animal. Yet she had, and the wounded animal, the Wood, and everything else had promptly vanished, leaving her on the barren plains of Arpiar.
And just her luck that a Roc was flying overhead. Her blue wings had borne her as fast as they could, but it was not enough. The shadow of those monstrous talons had fallen on her. Her wings still hurt from being crumbled up in that grab. The Roc had borne her to the palace for the Witch-queen would wish to see what had stumbled into her realm.
The queen had taken one look, and Caliz had found herself locked in a cage.
She shuddered. To cage a winged creature was utter cruelty. With iron bars, no less! But then, she expected nothing less from goblins.
Vartera, Witch-queen of Arpiar, stood below her suspended cage. Alone of all goblin-kind, Vartera was beautiful, through dark enchantment. She stood tall, her robes of silver falling in alluring curves around her shapely form. Her skin was blushed gold, her hair midnight dark, and her eyes gleamed silver. But her beauty was terrifying as all beauty must be when it hides evil.
The goblin inhaled, her eyes gleaming with greed. “A maiden of Etalpalli. Impossible. All the Sky People were slain long ago, burned into ashes.”
Caliz turned her face away. She knew it was so; she’d always known. But hearing it spoken for the first time was harder then she imagined. A tear slipped down her cheek.
“Perhaps you are from a different Time,” Vartera mused. “Perhaps if you’d continued through Time you’d be nothing but a pile of ash. Oh, but have no fear, pretty one. I have you now, and I shall keep you safe.” She tilted her head as if listening. Then she began to glide down the hall, calling over her shoulder. “Tune up your voice, my songbird. I expect a song on my return. And see if you can perk up that tree of mine.”
Once she’d vanished, Caliz began inspecting her cage. It hung on a long chain from the ceiling. The cage was tall and slender. It was also inescapable.
Sighing, she dropped to the floor, wings cramped, and stared out at the tree of which Vartera spoke.
No tree grew in the forsaken land of Arpiar. She must have stolen it from a realm as a sapling. The tree was as imprisoned as Caliz. It grew up from the floor, its roots held down by marble tiles. An iron fence encircled its trunk. It was a beech, forced to stay in a diminutive size instead of growing to the giant it should have been. Such a tree should have been proud and savage. This one was utterly defeated, from its decaying bark to its leafless boughs.
Caliz had never seen a spirit so broken, and she wondered why Vartera bothered to keep it since it was no longer beautiful. She longed to comfort it, but such was the gift of her brother. She spoke with water alone.
So instead, she began to sing. She sang of the great Wood Between, its beauty, magnificence and power. For long she sang, and when at last her voice faded away, the tree’s branches rustled, as if softly sighing.
The crossing into Arpiar was so easy, Dalan shuddered. Just like Vartera to keep her borders open so that any might stumble into them.
The Karayn Plains spread out before him, and the grey sky strained taunt overhead. Instead of freeing, the open air seemed to constrict around him.
He flew along the plain, feeling lonely, for he could not remember a time when there was not the spirits of green, growing things tugging at the back of his mind.
There was a tree’s presence here. So far off and so forlorn…but there. Uncertainly, he hovered. How could a tree be in Arpiar? Was it a trap? But it was the only sense of direction he had. He sped off towards it, and it was only a matter of time until Queen Vartera’s palace rose up amongst the crags.
It was dangerous business, sneaking into the palace. Goblin guards stood on duty, and Rocs circled overhead. With dartings and hidings, Dalan entered the palace through a high window. He crouched in the shadow of the flying buttresses, scanning the hall below him. There was the tree, but he had no time to study that wonder, because in that moment, he saw his sister. She was huddled in a cage of iron, her beautiful wings confined by bars.
Hot anger blazed in his veins, but he forced himself to scan the hall for any other life-forms. Nothing.
Quick as an arrow, he darted down to the cage.
Caliz gasped, leaping to her feet. “Dalan!” she cried. “You came! I knew you would.”
Scowling, he searched the bars. “How’d you get in here?” he growled.
“It just grew up around me,” she said. “There’s no lock. But Dalan…I think I know what might break it.” She pointed beyond him, and he turned.
There stood the tree, great, but defeated.
Every fiber of Dalan’s body suddenly ached as he felt the tree’s sorrow and confinement. His throat caught in sympathy, and he fluttered closer. Hail, Lordship, he said, addressing the majesty all beeches have. How came you to this state?
The tree shuddered with shock. It had been barren of any communication amongst its kindred for years upon years. Now here was this boy, speaking as if he was a tree himself. How, it wondered. How?
Dalan stood, concentrating on respect and awe. In time, the tree would answer.
It did. Where did you come from?
From the Wood.
Longing hit him so intensely, Dalan staggered back. “Caliz!” he gasped. “This a tree of the Between!” His mind reeled as he imagined it being torn out of its proper place and trapped in the Far.
When were you taken, Lordship? he asked.
Long ago. Long ago. When I was very young.
Inhaling sharply, Dalan said, I will help you if I can. But do you think you might break through the floor and snap the bars that cage my sister? We shall go for Lady Asilvee, and she shall help us—
The tree’s horror nearly knocked him off his feet. No! it wailed. No! A spell is upon me. If I break my bonds, I shall burn! Burn into cinders!
Dalan strained to push aside the tree’s rumbling terror from his mind. Never mind then, he said. He bit his lip, unsure of his next move. His hand reached out and stroked the bark of the captive. It trembled in wonder under his caring touch. What could he do for it? For now he needed to rescue Caliz, but how if the beech could not help?
In that moment, the bark contracted underneath his hand, and he heard Caliz scream, “Dalan!”
Vartera appeared behind him.
She simply appeared out of thin air. As Queen of Arpiar, she could skim across its expanse in seconds.
She lunged for him.
With a gasp and a thrust of his powerful wings, Dalan shot backwards. His feet hit one of the supporting pillars, and he boosted off it, shooting up to a corner of the roof.
Vartera laughed, shaking her head. “Another pretty bird!” she cackled. “How many more are you? Send me a few more, and I could start an aviary. I could breed the Sky People back from extinction!”
Dalan froze in fear as he felt threads of spells weave around him. In another moment, he’d be caught.
“Don’t you dare treat us like animals!” Caliz shouted, and with deft aim, she threw one of her knives out of the cage. It bounced off the goblin’s perfect skin, causing no more harm than a toy, but Vartera looked away in surprise.
It was all the distraction Dalan needed. He shot from his corner, the unfinished spell scraping his skin, and darted up the flying buttresses to hide in their shadows. He needed a plan. Perhaps if he made Vartera angry enough, he could cause a misfired spell to sever Caliz’s bars.
Admiration radiated from the beech.
Yes, he agreed. I think it just might work. Before he could start coming up with reasons it wouldn’t, Vartera’s voice trilled up from below.
“Your sister doesn’t like me to treat you like an animal. Very well, I won’t. How would you like to become a man before your Time? I could use a guardian as enchanting as you are.”
Biting his lip and shooting a quick prayer to the Lumil Eliasul, Dalan dove down. With blurring speed, he swooped past Vartera, grabbing one of her trailing silver scarves, swiping it off her.
She gasped, then smiled as he flew about the room. “That’s right, show off, my pet.”
His heart hammered as he kept up the speed. Would she only mock him until he was too tired to fly? He needed her angry—fast.
He dove again, dodged a stroke of her claws, and this time, he grabbed her crown.
To even touch one of the Faerie crowns was a capital offense. He flinched as he plucked it off her head, half expecting a bolt of lightning to strike him dead.
She snarled. “Give that back, my lovely,” she commanded, her enticing voice becoming threatening.
He clutched it to his chest before throwing it sideways to Caliz. She reached through the bars and caught it.
Dalan cried out in pain as the spell sliced through his wing. He looked over his shoulder to see his severed wing fold in on itself.
Then he fell.
Caliz screamed, dropping the crown, as he hit the floor.
His breath tearing out in agonized bursts, Dalan struggled to his feet as Vartera approached. His ruined wing threw him off balance, and he swayed as she reached for him. Quickly, he drew his dagger and sliced across her extended arm, only succeeding in making her angrier.
The Witch-queen caught him by the throat and jerked him off the ground. Stars exploded in front of his vision as every slice of air was cut off by her horrendously strong grip. He fought fruitlessly at her grasp as her claws dug into his skin. He could barely hear Caliz’s screams above the throbbing of his ears and the cry of his lungs.
“You dare assault one of the Queens?” she mocked. “You shall be taught a severe lesson, before you learn to serve me. I rule all.”
The tree’s roots burst from the floor.
Snarling so that the palace shook, one root went for Vartera, several others for Caliz’s cage.
Simultaneously, the tree burst into flames.
Its snarl morphing into a roar, the beech grabbed Vartera with terrible power. Shrieking, she dropped Dalan as she stabbed into the wood.
Caliz’s cage splintered as the roots wrenched the bars apart. With a savage cry, she streaked over to her brother.
Dalan lay paralyzed by the sight of the consuming flames and by both his and the tree’s pain.
In one tearful glance, Caliz saw he would not be able to fly. She wrapped her arms around his waist, and with a mighty push of her wings, she lifted them both up.
“No,” Dalan moaned. “No…his Lordship…I promised…”
Do not mourn, the beech said, barely visible in the raging inferno. You are free, my friend. And so, at last, am I.
Flapping hard, Caliz soared out of the place, leaving the chaos behind. Dalan went limp in her arms, the pain overwhelming him to unconsciousness. He was heavy; she could barely keep her arms around him, and his wings, draped below her, slowed her speed.
A harsh croak of a Roc rumbled overhead.
She gasped in fear. Not now. Not now!
Lumil Eliasul! she pleaded. Would you deliver us from Etalpalli only to be enslaved by Vartera?
Before her a Path materialized. It had always been there, but in her fear she had never seen it. She dashed towards it. A glimmer stretched before her.
The River of the Between snaked across the grey land, its current terribly swift.
More Rocs screamed in pursuit. Vartera must have recovered enough to send them.
The Path led to the River and stopped. Caliz understood at once, but her heart quailed. Surely not! The River, no matter how many times she’d sang to and played with it, was no friend of hers. She would die!
The Rocs swooped.
Throwing all her faith on He Who Names them, the girl dived, darting between the very talons of the Roc, plunging into the water.
The entrance wrenched Dalan from her arms, and she flailed, her limbs dragging every which way. Her wings sucked her down.
Where was her brother? Where was he? There.
She saw him tumbling in the current along the river bed like a broken plant. She struggled after him, but even as she grabbed him, she realized it was hopeless. The River had no mercy. They would drown in its depths.
Trust in me, the Lumil Eliasul called. Trust in me and use the gift I gave you.
Closing out the vision of churning water, Caliz spoke to the River. You know who I am, my friend. I have danced on your shores and cared for your ways. If ever my love meant anything to you, I plead upon He Who Rules the Farthestshore to deliver us.
Water roared in her ears, and she tightened her embrace on her brother in despair.
The current surged under them—lifting them to the surface.
Caliz gasped as her face broke above the water. River! she cried in disbelief. River! My—my friend!’
The gift I gave you, echoed the words of the Lumil Eliasul.
She closed her eyes, thankful tears streaming into the water. Thank you, my Lord.
The River pulled them along till at last they emerged from Arpiar into the Between. Here the River slowed to an unnaturally sluggish pace, and Caliz dragged Dalan onto the bank.
Exhausted, she stared up at the leaves bending over them. Bending a little too close. The branches of the trees swayed above Dalan, brushing his face gently.
She smiled. He would be glad to know they were concerned for him.
He coughed, and she crawled over to him as his eyes fluttered open. “Calizanti?” he murmured.
“I’m here.” She stroked his hair out of his eyes. He smiled, then gazed curiously at the leaves rustling above. They pulled back, pretending indifference. Wincing, he sat up, then met his sister’s eyes with dread.
Her lip was trembling as tears rolled down her cheeks. “Dalan,” she whispered. “Your wing…”
His eyes burning, as he remembered the agony of the tree’s sacrifice, he extended his wing—and gasped.
The wing was whole, as if it had never been rent.
“How? What?” he stammered.
Caliz’s eyes rounded as wide as moons, but before she could speak, the River gave a burbling laugh. Slowly, her mouth dropped open as she turned to it. “You?” She stopped and considered her words. Who could say what powers the River had? If it could heal, who would have known, for it had never been compassionate? Could it truly have…?
Brother and sister sat silent upon the River’s banks, the great Wood surrounding them, bathed in golden light as they considered the beech, the River, and the gifts they had been given.
Slowly, Dalan stood, pulling his sister up beside him.
“Where do we go now?” she asked.
He studied the vast forest surrounding them: the ominous shadows, the dancing lights, with gates unseen, and the pull of mystery and song. “Forward,” he replied, and smiled. “Forever forward in the path of the Lumil Eliasul.”