Doubts, Memories, And Puzzles Unmasked
I awoke slowly to near the same blackness I had fallen asleep in. Arhael stood over me, a dim silhouette in the dark. I sat up stiffly, my back and legs aching from the long run of the day before. Looking still half-asleep around me, I asked quietly, “Why are you waking us? What…what time is it?”
Arhael bent over Netya, shaking her gently. His voice was soft, and I noticed anew his strange accent as he spoke. “‘Tis nigh an hour before dawn, fair one. Time to be waking and moving. If we are to catch Pethnor before he reaches the stronghold he makes for, we must run fast. Though I do not think we will make it,” he added, as Netya sat up, rubbing the sleep from her eyes and tossing her long fair hair out of her face.
“Do not think we will make what?” she asked, stretching and wincing beside me.
“I do not think we shall reach Thalon before Pethnor carries him into the stronghold. He has had too great a lead, though it was hardly a morning’s time. Pethnor travels fast. He knows these woods like the palm of his own hand. I am less familiar with them. When I lived in his house, he rarely took me out with him, for I had not come of an age. I left him before I turned ten. I roamed the woods long enough on my own, but always aimlessly, never with a thought of mapping them out. It has been fifteen years since I left my home…and not until this past month have I had the courage to speak against my father,” he spoke bitterly. “Always ranging the woods alone. Always hunted by my own kin. My own friends. Yet…I did find one friend who would stay true to me. Ten years I was alone, and then she found me one day by the bank of a stream, so sick of running I was considering just waiting until Pethnor’s thralls caught me. She took me back to her home and I have lived in hiding near her these past five years, until a few months ago when one of Pethnor’s men showed up at her door. I knew she could defend herself well enough if I were not nearby. So I ran. I have not seen her since…And yet, I believe I shall take you to her. I see no hope of catching Pethnor before he is safely behind his own walls. With the help of my friend, however…we may be able to scale those walls. She does not live far from here, only a good half-day’s journey. But we must be quick. Time is too precious to squander.”
Standing up from where he had knelt beside us, Arhael pulled the hood of his cloak over his face, hiding his long scar from the slowly growing light of dawn. Reaching down, he pulled Netya and I to our feet, and we started off. We began slowly, little more than a fast walk through the trees. As the light began to grow, Arhael led us faster, until we went at a steady running pace through the golden-green light of dawn filtering through leaves.
As the morning under the trees began to grow warmer, we stopped for a few moments to rest and take another sip from Arhael’s water skin. He informed us that we were nearly to our destination, and we could take the rest of the journey slower. I sighed with relief. Netya had always been the faster, more agile of the two of us, and although she did not struggle to keep up with Arhael’s fast pace, I often found myself lagging behind. As we continued on our way again, Arhael walked beside us, rather than leading the way in front. I jumped at the chance to ask the last question that remained in my mind, the question that I knew filled Netya’s thoughts as well.
“Arhael, Berion said it must be Netya and I to rescue Thalon, and you agreed when we told you our story. Why? Why must it be us, two girls with very little knowledge of…anything, really. How come Berion could not go, with his great strength and courage, and his men? Or the Castle Guard, or the Rangers? Why must it be us? I don’t understand. I mean,” I added quickly, “It’s not…it’s not that I’m afraid…or anything like that. If Berion would have gone, I would have followed him anyway, even if he forbade me to come.”
Netya nodded in agreement. “Yes…so would I. But why must the two of us be the only ones to rescue Thalon? Berion said he would send someone to help us save him, not the other way around.”
Arhael laughed. “You don’t know? You can’t even make a guess at it now? It should be quite apparent…but I suppose you wouldn’t see it from your perspective. Not the way Berion did. Not the way I do. Let me explain,” he said, shaking his head and smiling. “I did not mention this before, as it was not essential to my tale, but when I returned from leading Thalon’s mother to the forest’s edge, Pethnor was still in the clearing with Mirriel’s husband. I saw him turning in disgust to leave Thaldir wounded on the ground. Just before the darkness under the trees swallowed him up, however, he turned back and spoke a parting shot at Thaldir. I remember his words vividly. ‘You may think you have won this battle,’ he said, ‘but I am the stronger man by far. I let you go now only in anticipation of the victory I shall have in the years to come. I shall not rest until your bastard child is returned to my grasp, either voluntarily or by force. You have stolen my blood, and I shall make yours wither before the end. I will get the boy back. And once he is safe within my walls, no force of this earth shall wrest him from me. Those who try…I shall break them.’”
A chill crept through the trees and turned my blood to ice as Arhael stopped speaking. Netya drew closer to me as we walked, and I knew the sinister words of our enemy had affected her the same way they touched me. As Arhael did not seem to be willing to continue without encouragement, I asked again, “But what does that have to do with us? It only makes it the more impossible…doesn’t it?”
Shaking his head gravely, Arhael looked down at me. “No, Alasse. It does not. You see, there is a power in words…a power that binds. And Pethnor made a fatal mistake in his statement that night.”
“I don’t understand. What do you mean?” Netya asked.
“I mean just what I said. Pethnor told Thaldir that ‘no force of this earth’ could wrest Thalon from his grasp once he closed his greedy fingers upon him. That was his mistake. No force of this earth can save Thalon now. But you…you two mere girls, who know nothing, as you said, have a power within your hearts that is not of this earth.”
Confused, I traded glances with Netya. “But…that can only happen in the stories of old. We’re just…normal people. This is real life, not a hero’s legend.”
Arhael laughed again, shaking his head. “You do so intrigue me, young miss. How that mind of yours works…it is amazing. No, that is not what I meant. I am sorry, but there is no magic word you can say to cause your sword to burst aflame and the bravest of foes to cower before you. That is not my meaning. No, I mean something realer, and ever so much stronger, than anything found in the tales of heroes. I mean true friendship,” he said, smiling at us.
A short silence followed, broken at last by Netya’s laugh. “Friendship? You mean…because we are Thalon’s friends, Pethnor will let us walk into his stronghold and carry him away without lifting a finger? Are you crazy?”
“Yes I am, but that’s beside the point,” Arhael answered. “You don’t understand me. Friendship will not make rescuing Thalon any easier. But it will make you stronger, Netya. The power of friendship…is something I have never known,” Arhael said, smiling sadly. “But you…you have. I see it in your eyes, I hear it in your words, I feel it in the vibrations of each step forward you take. There is an old saying, one I learned when I was still but a young child. It is this. A cord of three strands…it is not easily broken. You, Netya, and you, Alasse…you are two of the strands. Thalon is the third. You will not be broken. And just as a rope will protest at being unraveled, and curl back by itself to its original twisting, so will you. It is not within earthly power to save Thalon now. But you have a power that is not of this world. Love is a strong force, and friendship is the greatest of its manifestations. The love a mother has for her child…that is great. It is unconditional, it is undying. But it contains only two strands. Friendship can encompass an entire army.”
I shook my head slowly. “Perhaps…but I cannot believe that for the reason of our friendship alone, Berion sent us alone with only you to help. I do not doubt your worth,” I said, eyeing the line of Arhael’s sword beneath his cloak and the bow strung over his back. “But…you are only one man. Pethnor has a veritable horde at his command.”
“I know. But you told me your story. You told me how Thalon was willing to risk his life for you, in teaching a girl the forbidden art of swordsmanship and taking the arrow meant for you. And you told me how you risked your lives for him in turn, searching unwaveringly for help and braving the fiery storm of the cabin. Greater love has no one than this. You laid down your lives for your friend. I do not know of many who would brave such a sacrifice. Friendship…it is a great power, and it is not of this earth.”
Arhael finished, his voice low and strong in seriousness. I glanced up at him, surprised at the certainty and force in his words, but the deep cowl of his cloak shadowed his face and I could not read his expression. A moment later, however, he threw back his head, laughing at the breeze. The sunlight glinted from his eyes, but I could not believe the sparkle came from the cheerful twinkle that so often sheltered there.
As the sun began to crawl slowly from its throne at the peak of the sky, Arhael began to examine the trees around us carefully. He often changed our direction slightly, adjusting our path at the slightest signs that we could not see. Finally, he stopped and turned to us, speaking softly. “We are nearly there, assuming she is still at the same place I left her. I just…want to warn you. My friend, she’s a little bit odd. Please, fair ones, don’t take offense at anything she says. She doesn’t mean the half of it, and the rest…well, she speaks truth easier than compliments, and can read the character of a man at a glance, usually. I think she’ll like you, though,” he added, smiling. “You’ll like her too, once you get past the exterior. Let me go first, though. Don’t follow until I call you. I need to sound her out. I haven’t seen her in a few months…and you never can tell with Wanderers,” he added with a wink.
Netya and I agreed to wait, and rested against a tree as Arhael went on ahead of us again. As he walked slowly, careful to keep each footfall silent, I turned to Netya, speaking softly. “I wonder if we shall ever get back to the castle? We seem to be taking…a rather round-about way. I wonder who Arhael’s friend is.”
Netya smiled. “We will get back eventually, Alasse. We have to. Not just for Thalon…I can’t stop thinking of Mother,” she said slowly. “I didn’t like to slip off to the forest without her knowing before, but I couldn’t stand the confinement of the castle…I wonder what she must think now. They must have found the swords and Thalon’s cloak in the forest long ago. They must know. I don’t think we are doing much to help them find us, though,” she laughed softly. “Always moving, and probably in the wrong direction. I wish we had a map. I’d like to see where we are. I never studied the ones at the castle…it always seemed pointless to know the land beyond the castle walls and the edge of the forest. If only we’d known where we would end up. We might have planned things a bit better,” she laughed.
I smiled back, pushing her affectionately away from me. “Silly. If we’d known, we wouldn’t be here right now.”
“Wouldn’t we, though? I’ve wondered…” Netya said, looking around at the beauty of the forest in the early afternoon light. “If we’d known…do you think we really would have stopped it? We always said one day we would run away and have adventures under these trees. This is our daydreaming come true, isn’t it? It’s horrible. And yet…I don’t know. I can’t help enjoying the moments like this. The heroes of old had adventures. They started much the same as this…and they always ended beautifully.”
I nodded. “Yes. But Netya…this is real. We still…we still don’t know whether Thalon is even still alive. We’re walking towards the stronghold of the most evil man in the world. Or at least, in the kingdom. I can’t see our adventure ending…beautifully. It is getting darker and more hopeless with each second.”
“No it isn’t!” she insisted, grasping my hands. “It isn’t! It’s getting brighter! Before, it was just the two of us, trying to help Thalon against an unknown foe. Now, we know what we are up against. We know Berion is for us, and we have Arhael to help us. It’s getting brighter, not more hopeless.”
I smiled at Netya, squeezing her hands. “You know…I don’t know what I’d do without you. I’m glad you’re here, even though it means you aren’t safe at home, Netya. We’ll manage somehow. And…I suppose you are right. We did always dream of escaping out here, didn’t we? I just…never envisioned it this way. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. Thalon…Thalon was supposed to be here too.”
“But he is,” Netya said, giving me a hug. “He’s here. We just have to find him. And we will. It’s our own adventure. We can do it.”
I smiled at her courage. “Yes. I don’t think I like adventures much after all, though. If…when we get home, I mean…I think I will stick with reading them, or listening to the scullery maids singing the old ballads.”
Netya laughed, tugging my sleeve. “No you won’t. I know you better than that, Alasse. You won’t settle for that. It’s ever so much too passive for you. You’ll be back to sneaking out of the castle for lessons with Thalon before long.” She grinned mischievously at me. “And I shall be back to getting you in trouble…oh, did I just say that? Sorry. I was just kidding! Really!”
I laughed with Netya. It was almost as though we were back again, in our secret glade in the forest by our castle, with the whole world at our fingers. I shut my eyes, and I could see the blue sky above me, painted with whisping clouds like brush strokes. The pine needles beneath my palms on the ground turned into warm grass, soft and green. The scent of sunlight through growing trees crowded the musty smell of dying leaves and pine from my nose, and I could nearly hear the songs of the small birds. I sighed, knowing the moment I let my eyelids flicker open, the reality of our position would come flooding in, breaking the chains of memories I could only wish were true now.
I opened my eyes.
Netya was looking at me, puzzled. “What is it? You look happy, Alasse. What happened to bring about that change?” She smiled teasingly at me.
I forced a laugh, brushing it off as nothing. “Oh, I was just thinking. You know, about our clearing back home. The grass and the sky. So unlike here,” I said, motioning at the space around us. The trees grew close together, most of them tall, twisting pines. The sunlight, slanting down sickly from above, kindled the thick layer of dead leaves on the ground into a steaming brown fire under the shadows. So unlike our cool, bright glade back home.
Netya nodded. “Yes. I was too. It seems like years and years have passed since we left. I guess…it has only been a few days, though. Hardly a week. I fell as though it would look so different if we returned now, hardly recognizable. So changed. Yet I am sure it is still exactly as we left it.”
“I suppose that should be a comforting thought, shouldn’t it?” I asked, looking at the sky to keep the tears I felt in my heart from spilling from my eyes. “Still the same…even without us there.” There was a catch in my voice.
“Hey…” Netya leaned against me, following my gaze. “Remember what Arhael said? About friends. You can’t do this alone. Neither can I, and neither can Thalon. But together…we can. We will get back home. We’ll see the glade again. We’ll see Thalon again. So you stop doubting yourself, miss,” she said, smiling at me. “We can do this. What did Arhael say? A cord of three strands…it is not easily broken.”
I sighed. “I suppose. But even a cord of three strands can be cut with a knife.”
Netya stood up, pulling me to my feet beside her. “Perhaps. But not if we knock the knife out of Pethnor’s hand first. Come on. Let’s go find Arhael. He said not to follow until he called…but we’ve been waiting long enough. I don’t like the thought of being forgotten and left out here in the dark all night, alone. Let’s go. He went that way,” she said, pointing through the trees. “Let’s follow that direction, at least for a bit, and see if we find him. He may not be far off…the trees are so thick here you can see hardly ten feet away.”
I agreed, and following Netya’s lead, pulled the hood of my cloak up over my head. We looked at each other, and I could hardly help smiling. “You look just like a Ranger. Armed and dangerous, and very nicely disguised.”
She laughed, grabbing my shoulders and pushing me before her. “Come on! Let’s go find Arhael and his mysterious friend.”