The Sun Devoured
“Alright. Here’s the plan,” Netya whispered. We were once more on our way to the forest, walking slowly over the fields as my friend filled me in on the details of our quest. “I don’t think Thalon suspects anything. I asked him if he would come with me to the forest, and he said he would meet me on the eaves. He thinks he’s going to be giving us another lesson with our swords–”
“The swords no one but he knows we have,” I added.
“Yes, those. We can’t help it if we want to learn! They should teach girls if they want to be taught! Honestly. It’s their fault we have to sneak away and get Thalon to teach us. At least we know he shan’t tell on that,” Netya said. “Anyway. He thinks he’s going to be giving us another lesson, but in reality, we will be kidnapping him. Hopefully he shan’t suspect anything until it’s too late.”
I nodded. “Sounds good. But Netya, what if he does manage to escape us? We aren’t strong enough to hold him down ourselves…”
“That’s what I brought this for,” Netya said, holding up a small length of rope.
I laughed. “Oh, this will be interesting. Come on, let’s go. I think he’s already waiting for us!”
Netya tucked the rope carefully out of sight, and we ran the last yards to the forest. Sure enough, Thalon stood leaning against a tree, bow strung at his back, watching us approach. When we ran up to him, breathless and giggling, he straightened up and cast a suspicious eye over our laughing faces.
“You two look up to no good. How does this lovely afternoon find you?” he asked, bowing in mock humility.
We laughed, and Netya grabbed his sleeve, tugging him along with us into the woods. “Did you bring them? The swords?” she asked. “Oh Thalon, you’re so good to teach us. I’m sure we’d go stir crazy if we couldn’t come out here and learn to fight and defend.”
“I don’t know about ‘good,’” Thalon replied, extracting his arm from Netya’s enthusiastic grasp. “I don’t like to think what would happen to you if anyone found out. You’d both be in a world of trouble and so would I. But…I think you should learn to wield a sword if you want to. There may not always be a man around to protect you. Just because a lady should not use a sword, it does not mean she may not die by one. Not that that is a pleasant thought,” he said, and smiled at Netya. “Yes, I brought your swords. Can’t have a proper lesson without them, now, can we? You can only go so far with sticks. Even if they are only practice blades, they are the proper weight. Here,” Thalon handed Netya one of the small swords he held concealed under his cloak, and passed the other to me.
I took it gently, running my finger across the hilt and reading the words that were inscribed in a spiral from the hand guard to the pommel aloud. “‘Defend the cause of the weak and fatherless; maintain the rights of the poor and oppressed. Rescue the weak and needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.’ It’s inscribed on every sword of the Castle Guard. Every man must swear to uphold this. I don’t understand why that cannot be the pledge of every woman as well.”
Thalon reached out and took the sword from my hands and held it up so the sun filtering through the leaves made it gleam in the dusk of the forest. “See this?” he said, pointing to the dulled edges of the practice blade. “On a real sword, they are sharp. They wound, and are stained with blood. They rob the life from a man’s heart, the breath from his lungs, the dreams from his head. They kill. And that is not the job of a woman,” he said gently, handing the blade back to me. “I will teach you to fight with a sword. Someday, you may need to know how to defend yourself, maybe your children. You can make this verse your pledge, Alasse. But a woman does not uphold it in battle. She honors her pledge with her open heart, ready hands, and gentle words. When you have learned, not to fight, but to love others with all the compassion in your heart, then you will be an opponent no enemy can overthrow.”
I nodded slowly. “I suppose. But I still can’t help but wish…”
Thalon smiled. “I know. But you will realize eventually that it takes the greater strength to love and to mend, not to hate and to kill. That is one thing I can’t teach you.”
I laughed and grabbed his hand, pulling him faster again through the trees. “At last! Thalon has found something he cannot teach us!” I called to Netya where she stood waiting impatiently.
“Indeed? I’m all astonishment. It cannot be possible!” she joined in, taking Thalon’s other hand and pushing him into the clearing. “However, you can teach us this,” she said, brandishing her sword. In a whisper to me, she added, “Don’t forget the plan!”
I giggled, and tightened my grip on my sword hilt. “Of course! Come on, Thalon, teach us something new! Something pretty!”
“Alasse…” Thalon sighed in mock exasperation, “I do wish you would stop referring to my highly calculated exercises of deadly precision, speed, and accuracy as pretty.”
I smiled mischievously, and struck a fighting pose. Thalon shook his head in amusement, dropped his bow on the grass and carefully took off his cloak and quiver of bright-tipped arrows, and drew his own sword. “Alright. Remember the stance we were working on last time? Now I’m going to teach you how to go from that into the sequence we learned the other day. Netya, you stand here…”
As Thalon talked us through the nuances of the exercise, explaining each new movement carefully and thoroughly, I traded glances with Netya. We both grinned. Thalon, finishing his explanation and looking up to find us not paying him the least attention, sheathed his sword and glanced from Netya to me and back again. “Alright, you two. You obviously aren’t listening…what’s this all abou–”
Netya shouted, “Now, Alasse!” She grabbed one of his arms and I took the other, pulling him to the ground. Laughing, we strove to hold him down as he struggled to escape, caught off-guard by our sudden onslaught.
“Hey! Alasse– Netya, what–“ Thalon spluttered as Netya began attempting to tie his hands with her rope. “You’re tying me up? You two little girls are tying up the son of the Captain of the Guard. After ambushing him on no provocation. Not on my life, you aren’t!” He grinned back at us and twisted his hands free, rolling easily aside and breaking our grasps on his arms. Jumping up, he grabbed his bow and slung his quiver over his shoulder. “Now. Come and catch me if you can!” He called out, and dashed laughing into the trees.
“…Now what? This was your idea, Netya,” I said watching Thalon’s retreating back.
“Yes, but you encouraged me! Come on, let’s go catch him!” she answered, leaping up and sprinting after him. I followed, leaving the practice swords and Thalon’s cloak on the grass where they had fallen.
“Thalon! Wait for us! Where’d he go?” Netya stopped running and collapsed against a tree, breathing hard.
I caught up to her and stood panting. “I don’t know. He must have gone somewhere…we’ve got to catch him,” I said.
“You’re right, Alasse. I did go somewhere. However, there your correctness ends, because you shan’t catch me unless I let you. Which I won’t until I know the exact reason you were attempting to tie me up in the first place.”
We both jumped and looked up. Thalon sat on a branch above our heads, in the very tree we leaned against. Laughing at our surprise, he dropped lightly to the ground before us, stepping out of our reach, and crossed his arms. “Now. Suppose you tell me what’s going on?”
“It’s Netya’s fault!” I said quickly, before she could protest.
“Why am I not surprised. However, I am sure Netya will tell me that it’s really your fault for encouraging her. Am I right?” Thalon smiled at Netya.
“Exactly,” she answered. “Now we are going to catch you, so hold still.”
“Sorry, my lady, but there you are wrong again. I haven’t decided to let you yet.” Thalon turned and began to run again, but his bow, catching on a low-hanging branch, slowed him down. I sprang after him, and we soon had him caught again, each holding tight to one of his arms and laughing. He struggled and tried to twist out of our grasp again, but this time we could not be shaken off. Finally, Thalon stopped struggling, and gave a sigh of defeat. “Alright. Let it be known that the son of the Captain of the Guard has been conquered and successfully captured by two mere girls. So. What is it you wanted to capture me for, anyway?”
I traded a suspicious glance with Netya. “Are you sure you shan’t try and run again, Thalon?” I asked.
“Positive. Now, if you would be so kind…impart.” He smiled innocently.
“Alright,” Netya began, “We wanted to take you captive and hold you for ransom.”
Thalon choked, and burst into a peal of astonished laughter. “Ransom? Me? You really are hopeless…whatever for?”
“Because you foiled our last attempts at a perfectly harmless plot!” I responded, indignant.
Thalon laughed again. “Alright. So I foiled your plans to join the Castle Guard and get yourself killed, or some such equally impossible task. And you are holding me for ransom now?”
I nodded and smiled. “Yep. You got it.”
“Ah. In that case…I think I’ve decided to run again,” he said, ducking under our hands and escaping into the woods for the third time.
Thalon led Netya and I on a wild chase through the trees, always just barely within our sight. As we traveled deeper into the woods, following the path of a wide, dry ravine, Thalon stopped suddenly, falling against a tree. We caught up to him at last and collapsed at his feet. “Oh Thalon, look how far we’ve come!” I panted, looking around. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so far into the forest! Look at–” I broke off suddenly as Thalon ducked to the ground between Netya and I, grabbing our shoulders.
I took one look at his face and knew something was wrong. “Thalon? What is it? What–”
Thalon spoke softly through clenched teeth. “Hush. Don’t speak. Don’t move. We need to get out of here. Now. I should not have let you come so far.”
Netya, voice suddenly tight with fear, asked in a whisper, “Why? What…Thalon, what is it?”
Thalon pointed through the trees to an outcropping of stone that ran along the edge of the ravine, creating a nearly sheer cliff face pocketed with rifts and channels in the stone. I gasped, and grabbed Netya’s hand as I realized what Thalon was pointing out. At the top of the ridge of stone stood a single man, masked and cloaked with black, a small, powerful bow in his hands. On the breast of his tunic, a small coat of arms was emblazoned. I could not see it well from where I sat, but I knew what it was. A black lynx on a crimson field, devouring the sun. I had seen it before. We all had.
“One of Pethnor’s men,” Netya whispered, voice wavering as she spoke the name. “But…but why? I thought…Thalon, Pethnor is in the deepest dungeon in the land, and his men are all run out of the kingdom. …Aren’t they?”
Thalon shook his head. “Later. We need to get out of here. He hasn’t noticed us…yet. Alasse, Netya, go back the way we came. Carefully. There may be more men around. I will catch up to you soon. Go now!” he whispered urgently, taking up his bow and nocking an arrow to the string.
I nodded, and pulled Netya up. “Come on.”
Carefully, we began retracing our steps back down the ravine. The laughter, the sunshine, the carefree excitement of our mad dash through the forest was forgotten. We both knew our lives might hang in the balance. Netya went in front of me, picking her way softly over the jumbled stones that lined the further side of the ravine, which sloped gently up to the level of the rest of the forest. I came behind, taking care to follow her movements exactly. One misstep, and we might dislodge a stone to fall avalanching into the wide gully. The man, or men, if there were more of them near, would be upon us in a moment at such a noise.
I looked back over my shoulder and saw Thalon, camouflaged by his green Castle Guard tunic, standing tense behind a tree, eyes scanning the ridge. As I watched, he turned to follow us, keeping his bow ready in his hands. I turned back and took another step forward towards freedom, but my foot slipped on a small stone, and I fell. The stone slid bouncing down the slope, bringing others in its wake. Netya gasped. A harsh cry rose from the ridge opposite us, and I could see the strange man in my mind, turning his masked face in my direction. I pulled myself up, stumbling on the rocks, and looked back. The man had disappeared from the ridge and Thalon had nearly reached the spot where Netya and I stood. He called out, motioning us onward. “Hurry! Don’t stop, he may cut us off. Just go, go!”
Nodding in terrified comprehension, we scrambled to the top of the ravine, stones skidding down the slope behind us.
Suddenly, a new sound reached my ears, whistling and quick. Time seemed to freeze as my frightened mind registered what it had heard. It was a sound I had heard often enough before, back in the ranges behind the castle armory. There it had seemed friendly and brave, like a whisper of valor coming down through the timeless ages that came before. Now, the sound was filled with cruelty and hate, a spiteful malice that delighted in the destruction of peace. It filled my heart with a feeling akin to despair. It was the whistling of arrows.
Suddenly Thalon was beside me, pulling Netya behind a tree and pushing me toward another. Another arrow skipped on the ground at my feet and I pulled away, blind in terror. I heard his voice through a roaring wind tunnel in my ears. “Alasse! Alasse, no!” The meaning of the words did not register in my mind. I had room only for one thought. I must get back!
Stumbling, I shook Thalon’s hand off my arm and tried to run. An arrow sped through the air by my face, and I ducked involuntarily. Glancing back for a moment, I saw Thalon, bow discarded on the ground, place himself between me and the source of the arrows. He grabbed me forcibly by the arms and I struggled. Suddenly, I felt his body lurch and his grip slackened. I twisted away and he fell, face down on the leaves. Netya screamed, and I stepped back in shock and horror. The cloud of fear lifted for a moment from my head, and my eyes cleared. What I saw caused me to fall stumbling to my knees beside Thalon.
A black-feathered arrow, shaft cruelly thin, sprouted from his back. Blood seeped to stain his tunic where it lodged, quivering, below his shoulder. A brazen horn call echoed through the woods.