Mondal took a slow, deep breath and said, “Come, then, mortals, let us leave this place before it, too, fades.”
“What do you mean?” Michael said.
“This place is a creation of Porthil’s heart and mind more than mind. Without his spirit here, it’s details will become lost. So, I fear, shall we. Come, please.” Mondal motioned as he walked toward the strange house.
Cautiously, Michael followed, Sharona at his side.
“This place is not yours, as well?” Sharona said.
“My heart dwells beyond the realm of Shadathal the Deep,” Morthal said. “And beyond it shall be forever lost, I fear. My brother wanted power over my father. I… I did not care for that. This dream is not mine.”
They reached the door and walked inside. The interior of the house was as motley as the outside, filled with strange objects and decorations, sick-looking food and drink. many things hung from the ceiling: feathers, bits of metal, stones. Mondal picked up an object from a table and handed it to Sharona.
“Here it is,” he said. “Alanrae told me it was a focus from the sunless years, but we knew this to be false, for the the objects of that time lost their power forever when light was returned to the world. Still, it permitted us to go and to return, but then ceased to function.”
He handed the object to Sharona. It was a carved stick that had, tied to its end, a ball of glass or crystal, its insides dark.
“Was that the deal you made with her, that you would get this object?” Michael said.
“Part of it,” Mondal said. “This was more for Porthil than me, for he wanted to both be free and have his world as he wished it. This would have given him that power.”
“What about you?” Sharona said.
Mondal sighed. “I believed a lie, that she would make one love me who did not, for she has that power.”
The house shook, the wood groaning around them. Mondal picked up a bag and began putting various things into it.
“Let’s get back to the horses,” Michael said.
“Give me the talisman, so that I know you will not leave me here,” Mondal said.
Sharona gripped it tightly. “Just come quickly, Mondal.”
Mondal nodded and disappeared to another room. He returned bearing the bag, little more than a leather sack, on his back. The house began to shake as they left. The dark trees swayed in the moonlight as they walked up the hill to where the horses nervously stamped their feet.
“Do you know how to use the talisman?” Mondal said as Michael began untying the horses. “I have little skill in lightweaving.”
“Not quite,” Sharona said. “But I think I can guess.” She breathed on the ball at the top of the carved wooden handle, and then rubbed it. It sprang to life with an inner fire.
All around them, the dark woods was pushed back into translucents obscured by mist. Through this mist they could see a familiar moon and stars, and long grass underfoot, slightly dim.
“Interesting,” Sharona said. “It’s like the mirror I created, but it projects the world.” She ran her hand over the ball again, and the world came into greater clarity. They waited there, listening to the mounting wind, and the vision of twisted trees slowly faded, even as the light from the talisman died.
They found themselves standing, with the horses, at the top of a windswept hill. A few gnarled oaks stood on one side, and some miles on the other a woodland began, made of small hardwoods.
Michael stood and looked around taking in his bearings. He gasped as Sharona hugged him from the side, pushing her face into his shoulder.
“What is it?” Michael said.
“Just needed to feel you, to know you are real for a moment.”
Michael put an arm around her and held her close.
“Where are we?” Sharona said.
“We’re far in the west of Ferralla,” Michael said. “The plains of Pious’s Fall are south of here. Those woods mark the beginning of the Gold Mountains that separate the two kingdoms. This is a fortune place to be.”
“How so?” Sharona said.
“Well, we might have come out in the middle of Forgoroto.”
“I could have returned my library book,” Sharona said, patting her saddlebag.
Michael smiled. He turned and saw Mondal sitting cross-legged on the ground, staring out to the east, where the heart of Ferralla lay.
“What of you, Mondal?” Michael said.
“I don’t know,” Mondal said. “I thought my sadness would end, stepping out… It has not. Do you know Alanrae?”
Michael chuckled. “I was her betrothed, briefly.”
“Than she does have the power control hearts and minds.”
“It’s not like that,” Michael said. “What do you know of her?”
“I know she is a powerful sorceress.”
“Well, she is also the queen of this country we are standing in, the ruling monarch.”
“Then finding her and taking what I am owed will be difficult,” Mondal said. “And who are you that you were betrothed to a queen?”
“I am – I was – a prince of a neighboring country, Artalland.”
“Named for the great goddess of light?” Mondal said.
Michael clicked his tongue. “Patron goddess of art and aesthetics.”
“That which is beautiful to behold.”
“Michael, they have different ideas of the gods,” Sharona said. “The dark elf gods are older gods, or older versions of the same gods. Oh, and I am Sharona, Mondal. I am… a simple mage.”
“Far from simple,” Michael said. “Well, Mondal, the countries we are in now we collectively call the Divine Strand, because once they composed a great empire, the empire of the divine empress. That was a long time ago. Each great city was dedicated to a different of the twelve gods. When the empire fell, that became the means by which each kingdom became named, save for Datalia, which is in truth Naustarium by tradition.” He laughed. “This country is Ferralla. To our west, my homeland of Artalland.”
“I knew some of this,” Mondal said. “But not that Alanrae was a queen. He stood up. “The future is cloudy, and I know not whether I pursue revenge or some other redemption.”
“And what about you, Michael?” Sharona said. “Do you seek revenge now?”
“I have seen to the vengeance of my father,” Michael said, looking at the assassin as he scanned the hills. “Such as I have a right to.”
“You wished now you had killed me too?” Mondal said. “I have no doubt now that you could have.”
“No. I was right to keep Sharona out of it. If I have any right for revenge, I have none for risking her life, and so I accepted the bargain. There are not debts between us, Mondal. I declare it so.”
“Michael, you can always count me in on a fight,” Sharona said.
“No,” Michael said emphatically. “That is not my way or my wish. Your life does not belong to me.”
“But it does…” Sharona said, and turned her head from Michael. “But what shall we do?”
“I will go to Artalland first, in secret, and see what aid I may have earned,” Michael said. “That is as far as I can plan. If I can procure some charity, you and I could find somewhere else to live.”
“You will abandon your rights as prince?” Mondal said.
“I have no rights as second son, and my brother tried to kill me.”
“I see. Then we are both wanderers in this world. Good luck.” Mondal picked up his bag and began walking down the hill, to the west.
“There’s no such thing as luck,” Michael said after him.
Mondal did not answer. Sharona and Michael watched him as he disappeared into the night, losing his shadow amongst the scrubby oak trees.
“Let us go,” Michael said quietly. “There is a village to the west where we can find vittles, but it will take all the night and most of the day to get there.”
“Oh, of course!” Sharona said, thumping her forehead. “We should have gotten frood from Shadathal.”
“I still have tack biscuit in my bag,” Michael said. “It’s not pleasant, but it will keep away the hunger. I am more worried about our clothing, which I think we will find lacking once we’re sitting in the cold winds of the mountains.” He fingered the the thin fabric of his shirt and vest, well-made and beautiful in a cool green.
“Don’t worry, I packed my old wool dress,” Sharona said. “And a few blankets, in case we need to camp. But I think you’ll find your clothes adequate. They’re a type of silk, and are supposed to be good against cold and heat alike. Besides, I like the way they look.” She brushed some wrinkles out of her dress, which fell to her ankles in straight lines, covered her arms, and accentuated her hips even as it was loose over her body.
“What about my clothes?”
“I got rid of them,” Sharona said. “A good shirt with a large, bloody hole is no longer a good shirt.”
The next day, they reached the small village of Erithice, made of rocky turf-roofed houses built along a slow-running river in a valley between two rocky mountains. They were both weary and saddle-sore (for neither of them had done much riding while enjoying the hospitality of Shadathal). Michael had spent much of his time working against his horse, which he named Trouble in jest, not knowing what his old rider had called him.
The people of the village, though they had met Michael before, did not recognize him. There was still much attention paid to him and Sharona, but for their dress, which made the children of the village (who didn’t know any better) think they were high elves. The first thing Michael did (after acquiring a hearty supper for himself and Sharona from a homely house), was set about buying new clothes. He managed, in addition to buying a new jacket of deer hide, to find an old gambeson that a middle-aged man was willing to part with, knowing that the war was now over.
There they rested for a day and reprovisioned (which came at an inflated cost – the people of Erithice had fallen on hard times since the armies of Ferralla and Artalland had collided nearby the previous autumn, ruining many crops and fields). Their sleep cycles, they found, were not correct; the day-night cycle of turns in the dark elf world had apparently not matched the pattern of the sun. So, it was early on the second morning from their arrival that they woke, sleepless, and decided to set off. The sun was not yet up, and they had gone to bed very early; had either of these things been true they would not have missed the messenger that came in the night bearing important news.
Being ignorant, they left the town without disturbing anyone, having paid for all they consumed, and headed up a winding path out of the valley and to a pass in the Gold mountains. It wasn’t a treacherous path, being well-maintained by the people of Erithice, but it was too narrow for an army to use, and so was strange to Michael. At the top of the pass, they were able to look forward into the Gold mountains, growing smaller and more green as they went west, and were even able to see, far off, fields of green in Artalland proper.
Night fell soon after clearing the pass, and since Michael and Sharona lacked a tent (for of course neither had bothered to pack one before Johan’s attempted assassination), Sharona made a shelter, using her magic, of many boughs of a twisting live oak. This was well, for a thunderhead, moving quickly from the Datalian coast in the south, swept through the mountains and delivered both lighting and snow.
The tree limbs above them were soon heavy with snow, but it filled in the gaps between the leaves and actually improved their function, compared to time Sharona had tried to put such a thing to use in the rain. They stayed warm (along with both horses, who fit tightly under the shelter) with a small fire Sharona built – a magical one, which she absent-mindedly changed the colors of every so often.
“What’s troubling you?” she said softly as she leaned against him.
“Just some things going through my mind,” Michael said. “Wondering how I ended up here, for one. How I could have avoided this outcome.”
“I don’t begrudge any outcome,” Sharona said. She put an arm around his waist. “I have the man I love. I wouldn’t have him to hold if things had gone differently.”
Michael smiled at her. “I love you, too. Perhaps… perhaps we could travel to your home. I don’t know much about the wildlands, but they if they produce people as resourceful as you, I think it would be decent place to live.”
“It was decent, but I don’t know, now.”
“Would someone be willing to take us in, say your parents, while we built something for ourselves?”
“Like I said, I don’t know. My parents will be long dead by now.”
“How do you know?”
“They would be getting close to two hundred by now.”
Michael flinched. “What? How?”
“I haven’t been to the Dobo Wold in well over a hundred years.”
“How is that possible? How old are you?”
“I’m… What’s the year now?”
“Twenty-five Twenty of the Fourth Dominion.”
“I’m one hundred and seventy years old,” Sharona said. “But don’t go getting odd just because you’re with an older woman. You said you loved me.”
“I just…” Michael trailed off. “How many… How many men have you had before me?”
“Just one. My husband, Donovo. He died before I left the Wold.”
“I’m sorry,” Michael said.
“Don’t be. He was a good man, and our time was brief, but all things happen for a reason, and I now I have you.” She leaned up and kissed his face. “I love you much more, if you wish to know.”
“Doesn’t that… feel a bit… odd? Like you’re insulting his memory to say and feel that?”
“He’s not here to be insulted, Michael. He was the fleeting glimpse of a life I wasn’t meant to have. You must have had other women, surely, being a prince.”
“If you were anyone else I would lie and say not,” Michael said. “But truthfully it has been only one other, and I regret it.”
“I took what should have been reserved for her husband. I dishonored myself by letting her… By letting her believe that she could have a prince. It was a vicious thing to do.”
“I see,” Sharona said. “Well I forgive you for knowing another woman.”
“It is she who should forgive me, not you.”
“I am forgiving what you gave away, that you should have reserved for me.”
Michael laughed softly. “You are a strange woman. If you are truly one-hundred seventy-”
“I am not lying Michael – have I ever?”
“No.” He cleared his throat. “How did you live to be so… old?”
“I shall forgive you for calling a lady old,” Sharona said. “ but truthfully, most of the time I was… lost in a pocket of the Fay Lands. I was dreaming, and wandering in real dreams. It gave me long life, to fulfill it, I thought. Always my dreams were about a man. A man that I was supposed to follow. Protect. A man that, through all the visions I saw of him, and of me, that are now fading from my mind, I came to love beyond all hope and reason, for I saw in the dream that he was a great prince, even a king. And how could a king love me?”
“A king could love you because of who you are, and your loyalty. A king could love you because of your devotion, because you save him, over and over. But I am not a king, Sharona. I am not even a prince, anymore.”
“You are a greater man than the king,” Sharona said. “And you are yet young. Perhaps you will be a king. I saw it. Or, I think I did. Since I walked away all those years ago the dream has haunted me, torturing me with visions of a man I loved but would probably never know, and now it fades.” Suddenly, Michael felt her weeping, her chest heaving as she leaned against him. She pounded her fist into his chest softly. “I love you more than in the dream. So. Much. More. It is like comparing a reflection of the sky in a pond to the real thing. What I have is so much better than the dream, but I just need to see it again, so I know what to do.”
“You said it was up to me to decide,” Michael said. “You will have me, whatever I decide. I promise.”
“Good.” Sharona took a breath and wiped the tears from her face with her sleeve. “I am sorry. I have talked about myself, and not what is troubling you.”
“Don’t worry about me.”
“That’s all I do, Michael, and I’m fairly certain you don’t mean that, or you’d likely be dead at the hands of your brother.”
“True. Very well. I am thinking that I am very bad at politics, and had I followed my brother’s lead, things would be alright. He tried very hard to give me the right advice, once, and part of me wishes I had taken it.”
“What about the other part?”
“I’m glad I didn’t, for I know my brother more truly now. And that is not a worthless thing, for who can say he truly knows another man? I know why he tried to kill me, and it was because I knew Alanrae was responsible for my father’s death. He killed my father, as much as if his own hand, by colluding with the queen. I could not have avoided this, but is there a lesson I can learn to bring justice to my father?”
“You can only be who you are, Michael. I would not have you be like your brother.”
“I would never murder my father for the sake of ambition,” Michael said, “so I will never be like him. But that doesn’t mean some parts of what he did and what he knows are without merit. Just as an enemy can have valid sword techniques, so too can he have valid understandings and approaches in the political world. There is something else, though.”
“I look at my brother, and all he did, and I wonder if I could be as proficient a king as he. If I could manage the intrigue. He may be the better king, and do I owe it to my kingdom to give it the best king?”
“Does an evil man have the capacity to rule with moral righteousness? To uphold the law he is charged to oversee?” Sharona said. “That’s not rhetorical. I truly do not know. You’re the first prince I’ve ever met.”
Michael laughed. “I don’t know either, but I don’t think it is as cut and dry as that. To do right, you must have the power to do right; to have that power, you must… act along a different set of dictums for behavior. Perhaps.” He was silent for a few minutes, rubbing gently Sharona’s shoulders. Then he said, “I think I will go to Angelico’s estate, here in the eastern Hinterlands. If any family would lend me aid, it is the Travisti family.”
“The path is set, then,” Sharona said.
Michael smiled. “It is. Now I believe it is time for something that should have no debate on my part.” He leaned over and kissed her, then she fell backward with him to the bedroll.
This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a companion or sequel.