Netya stepped in front of Aranel, arms crossed and anger blazing from her eyes. “Why? Why must we go alone? What do you have against Thalon? How do you even know him? You’re a Wanderer,” she said, spitting the word out with contempt.
Aranel stiffened, glaring down at Netya. She spoke quietly, her face tight and her words dangerous. “How dare you ask into my private business? You are a stranger to me. I do not know from whence you have come. I do not know the reasons you have for wishing to take back a captive from the hell you say Pethnor creates with is presence. Why should I speak to you?”
I spoke up quietly. “Because, Aranel. Because we are trusting you to lead us safely behind Pethnor’s lines and into his very stronghold. Because we are placing our lives, and the life of our friend, in your hands. And because Arhael trusts you. He brought us to you, so that you could help keep us safe where he could not.”
At the mention of Arhael, Aranel’s face softened. She nodded slowly, glancing at him over our heads. When she spoke again, her voice was quieter, less hot and fierce. “Alright. I suppose…I suppose you do have a point. I’m sorry. ‘Tis just that I…do not speak easily about this matter. Also, I fear you will not trust me at all should I tell you.”
I smiled at her. “Arhael is Pethnor’s son. We are still trusting him. Please…will you tell us why you will not come with us?”
“Alright. But I do not say this willingly,” she said, her face sinking once more behind a mask of hate and anger. “I know Saewon’s mother,” she said, using Arhael’s given name. At her words, the forest around us seemed to darken, and Arhael flinched and looked down. Netya gasped, and I touched her gently, warning her to be silent. Aranel continued. “Yes, I know Lastare. She is a good woman. Wild and dangerous as a flacon, but with a kind heart inside her, buried deep as it may be under the layers of what life with such a man as Pethnor brings. It…it is to her that I take you now.”
I jumped, biting off an exclamation of horror. Aranel looked at me, defiance in her eyes. “I told you would not trust me, should I tell you. But you have made me speak, and so speak I shall. I am taking you to Lastare, wife of Pethnor. She is the only one who can get us inside the walls. She may thank you a thousand times over for getting the boy she hates so much away from her sight, or she may kill you for taking him from the torment he deserves. How should I know? That is your problem to overcome.
“But you want to know why I hate him so. That is the reason. Lastare told me of the night Pethnor brought Mirriel into their home. Since then, her husband has been ever straying, ever searching for the child of the strange girl. He wronged Lastare by giving his favor to another woman, and then caring more for the unlawful child than for his own legitimate son. Granted, he never claimed to love Thalon, but Pethnor has spent the last eighteen years searching tirelessly for him, ignoring his own son. Lastare blames Mirriel for causing Saewon to flee from her, as well she should. An she had not so captivated Pethnor’s licentious mind, Lastare would have her son beside her still.
“I care not for the wickedness you say Pethnor causes. I care not for your grand noble cause. I care not for what you say. Lastare morns the loss of her child because of your Thalon. No mother should lose her son because another woman and another child have taken their place. For that reason, I have sworn against Thalon and Mirriel. I realize it is as much Pethnor’s fault as their own, yet Lastare loves Pethnor still. I cannot hate one that a woman I know yet holds within the confines of her heart. And so I turn my hate upon the outcome of Pethnor’s sin, upon the one Lastare hates as well with every fiber of her soul. I turn my hate upon your Thalon.”
Aranel stopped speaking and turned her face away, head held high as though daring us to protest. Netya was silent, and I too did not know how to respond. I had told Aranel that we trusted Arhael, despite his lineage, and I could hardly refuse to follow her now. She remained our last hope of reaching our friend.
Silence fell between us as we walked. Aranel stalked ahead, her footsteps determined and angry. Netya and I walked behind her, unsure of how to react. Unsure if we should fear this strange wild woman or trust her judgment as the only help we could receive. Arhael followed last, his head bowed, lost in thought at the mentioning of his mother. I could see Aranel’s words threw him into confusion. I could only imagine what her talk of a mother who loved him must do to him, thinking about his betrayal.
Midday crept slowly upon us, and Aranel began to lead us slower, moving cautiously through the thin underbrush. Finally, she stopped, allowing us to catch up to her and gather around. She spoke quietly, barely above a whisper. “We near the front lines. I do not know what men are out, patrolling. There may be none, or there may be a hundred or more. We must wait here until nightfall, and then I will lead you to Lastare. I will leave you there, and return to my home. Do not come back to me, an you escape alive. You will not be welcome. Arhael will await you here,” she said, glancing at him. “He will take you back from whence you came. Do not look for further aid from me. Do not call me your ally. Do not pretend to have my friendship. For you do not. I know nothing of friendship.”
“Yes…we understand, Aranel,” I said, nodding in compliance.
“Thank you for doing this for us,” Netya added, smiling. Aranel did not smile back.
Night fell slowly. I sat on the fragrant, pine-spread ground, leaning back against a gnarled old tree. I watched as the sun set and the moon rose, waiting for the first stars to sparkle out like pinpricks in the deepening blue of the sky. I smiled as the first one twinkled out dimly above the moon. The branches of the trees above me melted away, and I was pulled back, back through years of timeless memory, to a night long ago on the castle walls. I stood my mother, just a wee girl of three years. My mother looked so young and filled with the joy of life, not at all like I remembered her now, with the tired lines that court life wore into her face. In my memory, she was young again, and beautiful. She pointed up at the night sky above us, naming the constellations. I could hear her voice again in my ears as it had sounded that night.
“Look. There is Vilarin, the Moth. It was set long ago in the skies, when the earth was still young and men just waking. It lights our paths as we journey, guiding us straight home as a moth to candlelight. And there is the Remlas, the Joy Net. It is a signal of heaven to come. A signal of hope forever. And here, look, little Alasse. Here is my favorite. Melmacar, Bowman of the Sky. He guards us here below and guides our steps. He will always watch over you as he crosses the skies. Every night I look out my window and ask him to keep my little one safe.” She smiled at me, and I remembered laughing in my innocence at her words.
“If you wish upon a star,” my mother had continued, running her hand through my hair, “If you wish unselfishly upon the first star you see at night, then your wish will come true. Wishing on stars is powerful, Alasse. But it cannot be just any star, and it cannot be just any wish. It must be the first star to brave the darkness and shine out after the sun sinks. And it must be an unselfish wish. If you wish for your own pleasure and desires, the star will not hear you. You must wish for others.”
At the time I had hardly understood what my mother was saying, but every night in later years I had gone to my window and watched the sun sink, waiting for the stars to appear. The first to light the sky hung low in the west, and glimmered brightly forth with an orange-red light soon after the sun disappeared. My mother told me it was called Morwinyon, a Glimmer in the Dark. I spoke a word to it each night, even when I had no wishes to make. Now, as I sat beneath the trees in the darkling forest, my eyes searched the sky to the west for my star, but the branches blocked my view and I could not see.
I was restless, and could not close my eyes. Sighing, I stood up and walked a short distance away from where the others sat or lay, sleeping lightly after the long walk of the morning. Images of my home ran one after another through my mind, like the half-forgotten fairy palaces I used to fashion with Netya in our clearing when we were small. I remembered the way the open grasslands churned like the ocean in a gale. I remembered the glitter of the morning sun on the rooftops of the town. I remembered my mother, and Netya’s. I remembered my father too, like a dim light of warmth in the past. I remembered my family together, standing on the castle walls. I held my father’s hand on one side and my mother’s on the other.
Tears sprang up in my eyes as my memories continued finally down a long-closed trail. I remembered watching my father ride out with the Castle Guard, at the head of his company. I remembered the day he had come home, borne on his shield between four silent soldiers. I could see again in my mind, myself waking up in the early morning and coming out of my room to see my mother, so brave and stalwart as I had thought her in my childlike innocence, dressed in black and kneeling by the window, tears streaming down young cheeks that somehow looked ancient. I felt the chafe of my small black dress too as I stood by an open grave. A shining new coffin lay beside it, and I did not understand why my father would not give me a hug like he was wont to.
Trying to shut off my mind, trying to turn my thoughts away from the memories I had tried so hard to forget, I sank down with my head resting on my knees. I grasped at the next thoughts of my childhood, as though they could push away the others and make them unreal. My memories carried me on through the years, each day marked not alone, but with Netya and my mother beside me, and Thalon standing firm behind. All the times I had stolen off with Netya and Thalon to explore the town alone, or to learn the ballads the scullery maids sang in the kitchen, or to lose ourselves in the deep grass of the summer that reached up over our young heads. Every day we had ventured further from the castle. I remembered vividly the time we had gone for the first time all the way to the forest’s edge. Netya had laughed and raced impulsively ahead into the unknown darkness under the trees. Thalon and I had followed her, and together we had stumbled upon the clearing.
My memories from that point onward grew clearer. Stealing away every day to play in the glade, keeping it a secret from everyone. Asking Thalon to show us what he learned at the armory and in the training grounds with his sword and bow. Netya’s and my attempts to imitate him, brandishing dead branches like sword blades. His agreement to teach us. Our play weapons progressing slowly from smaller sticks to bigger ones, and finally to the practice swords we had been using the day our adventure began. In each of these memories, Netya stood beside me, and Thalon too. My mother sank slowly into the background, a kind, gentle, but now somewhat hindering and unwanted figure of protection and love.
My thoughts began to wander down the trail we had been walking over the past few age-long days. How far Netya and I had come, but how far we had still left to go. Through the forces of darkness and evil to save a friend whose capture we had caused.
I sat upright suddenly as this thought burned into my heart. The sky was fully dark now, and I could hear the others moving in the darkness behind me. Standing, I walked back to them, hastily wiping the dampness from my cheeks so they would not see.
Aranel looked up as I came back, and spoke softly. “Come. We will go now. Do not speak a word, and follow exactly where I go. Arhael will await your return here. Do not forget the way we come.”
I glanced at Netya, catching and holding her eyes with mine. I could read the apprehension and fear in her expression even through the darkness. I hoped she could not see mine so well. Turning, we followed Aranel on through the trees. I looked back once, eyes searching for Arhael in the darkness. His cloak blended perfectly into the shadows, but I saw him raise his hand in a farewell. Taking a deep breath, I stepped forward again, following the stealthy movements of Aranel and Netya before me. Our broken entrance into Goemorn had begun.