All I have left to write…is the Epilogue. I would like the world to know that Anna has nearly finished her novel. You can throw me a party at your convenience. Preferably with chocolate.
This is a longish chapter =P And then there’s only one more…and then the Epilogue…and THEN IT’S DONE. …I amaze myself sometimes.
~Chapter Thirty Seven~
A Brother’s Recognition
A minute passed in silence. I could not take my eyes from the sight of Arhael’s tall form bent over Aranel, his shoulders shaking. Suddenly, however, a movement caught at the corner of my eye and I glanced up. There, at the end of the street creeping towards us silent as a cat, was a black-cloaked soldier of Pethnor. He held a drawn knife, the blade stained with blood, but his hand shook. I grasped Thalon’s arm, alerting him silently. As I moved, the soldier froze. His gaze locked with mine for a half-second, and the knife fell clattering to the stones. He turned and fled. A moment later, the deep booming of a gong sounded from a nearby tower.
Thalon moved to Arhael’s side. Placing his hand on his shoulder, Thalon spoke softly. “We need to move. Someone has heard us, and we can’t afford to stay here longer. We need to get Netya and Alasse out of here.”
Looking up and meeting Thalon’s eyes, Arhael nodded. “You’re right. Aranel said I should see you got safe away, and I will.” Taking Thalon’s offered hand, Arhael pulled himself up. “Leave the body of that demon where it lies. One of his creatures is sure to find it soon.” Stooping, Arhael took up the body of Aranel, carrying her gently in his arms like a child. Thalon took my hand and placed an arm around Netya’s shoulders, drawing us with him. Mute, we followed silently, automatically. Arhael led us through the wreckage of the gates, picking his way carefully around the heaps of splintered wood and the bodies of the men who had fallen in the first assault. As we stepped at last onto the grass outside the walls of Goemorn, the sun dipped to the horizon. Brilliant hues of red-gold and purple sprang across the sky, lighting up the clouds and changing every raindrop that still lingered, soaking the ground, to a shiver of light. I drew in my breath, surprised by the beauty. Never had I seen a sky so beautiful. It was as though the world mourned for Aranel, and gave her this last sunset as a gift to memorialize her passing. My breath caught, and a tear slipped down my cheek. Biting my lip, I dashed it away, pressing back those that ached to follow. Now was not the time.
We followed Arhael down the log slope of the hill. No one spoke, and Netya and I struggled to keep up with the long strides of Arhael ahead of us. As we reached the edge of the woods, a sudden sound of wild shouts and pleading cries aroused our attention. Turning, I saw the broken gates of Goemorn flooded with a cloud of black. Pethnor’s men. Running for their lives. The Castle Guard and the Rangers pressed behind them, swirling over the broken ranks of Pethnor’s horde. Many of the black men were shot down by Berion’s men with longbows, but some escaped down the hill, fleeing into the woods away to our right, and were swallowed by the crowding underbrush. Those who were left before the gates, seeing themselves abandoned and encircled by the Guard, laid down their weapons and sued for mercy, begging on their knees before Berion. Beside me, Thalon spoke softly. “They run, without Pethnor’s strength to hold them together. In the death of one man, an entire fortress is overthrown.”
We turned, and followed Arhael into the woods. As night fell, it grew black beneath the trees. The moon, now full, shone through the branches. By its light, we continued on, Arhael never breaking his stride. Exhaustion weighed heavy on my mind and body, but I was too tired to notice; beyond the point of caring. I merely walked, merely strove to keep Arhael, and the white form in his arms, in sight. We met with no opposition, the thralls of Pethnor being all fled away toward the east.
Though the journey from Aranel’s home to Pethnor’s stronghold had taken the entirety of a day and half a night, the return went by much quicker. When we had set out, only a day before, to break in to Goemorn, we had been traveling slowly, carefully. Keeping a watchful eye out for any guards or sentries we may come across, and taking a roundabout way around them. Now we traveled straight, and quickly. The darkness beneath the trees was beginning to lighten into dawn and the moon was setting as we reached again the familiar hillside, speckled with pine trees and the huge boulders of a long-ago landslide, that held the entrance to Aranel’s cave home. As the sky lightened softly, Arhael carried Aranel into the cave. I made to follow, but Thalon stopped me, shaking his head slightly. Arhael needed to be alone.
The three of us sat together outside the cave watching the sun rise, leaning against each other. As the rim of the sun slipped above the earth, Netya spoke quietly. “I’m too tired to sleep. It’s too bright, and…and Aranel…” she broke off, and I saw that her cheeks were wet.
I nodded slowly. “It doesn’t seem real…” the tears I had been struggling to hold back all night spilled over. I got up, walking to the edge of Aranel’s small courtyard. The ferns and mosses that grew in the sheltered space brushed against my legs and sank coolly beneath my feet, reminding me of Aranel. Netya came and stood beside me, and I put my arm around her waist, hugging her.
After a moment, Thalon spoke softly behind us, questioning. “Who was she?”
Before I could answer, Arhael stepped back out into the small courtyard. “Her name was Aranel. She was the bravest woman I have ever met, save one,” he said quietly. “And she was my…my friend.”
Arhael sat beside Thalon, and Netya and I walked back and sank down between them. After a minute, Arhael continued, “The only woman I know who equaled Aranel in bravery is your mother, Thalon. Mirriel.”
Thalon started, and looked sharply at Arhael. “I don’t question your knowing my name, as you seem to be friends with Alasse and Netya. But how do you know my mother’s?”
Arhael shook his head, a smile once more creeping to curl about his mouth. “Yes, I know your name, Thalon. My name is Arhael, and we have met before, though you will not remember it. But that is a long story. And not altogether pleasant. We should rest, then…then bury Aranel’s body. Afterwards, we will tell you all.”
Thalon nodded wearily, too tired to protest or be more than mildly confused. The four of us sat in the mossy courtyard, shaded by the stone at our backs, as the sun slowly rose. All the exhaustion and anxiety of the past hours suddenly swept over me in a rush, and I felt my eyes closing. My dreams were filled with visions of a white-robed woman, her breast stained red with blood.
When I awoke again, the sun was sinking towards the west. Netya was awake, but still sat beside me, leaning against the rough stone and playing with a flower picked from among the grassy plants in the courtyard. Arhael and Thalon were gone. I sat up, and Netya, seeing me awake, spoke. “They’ve gone to the hilltop. To dig her grave. Arhael says it was one of her favorite spots.”
I nodded silently. After a moment I stood up, stepping towards the opening to Aranel’s cave. Netya followed.
Together, we entered Aranel’s home. I saw instantly in the light filtering through the open door behind us that Arhael had bathed and bandaged her wound the night before. Aranel’s body lay now on the pile of skins that had once been her bed. She looked almost alive again, save for the deathly pale of her skin and the stillness of her breast.
Netya reached out, and I saw that she still held the flower she had picked outside. Carefully, she wove the stem into one of the many braids of Aranel’s hair. I smiled, turned back to the doorway. In the courtyard, I gathered as many of the brightly-colored flowers as I could hold. Going back into the cave, I knelt beside Netya. Gently, we twined the flowers in Aranel’s hair and placed a bouquet between her still fingers. When Arhael and Thalon came down from the hill, we still sat beside Aranel’s body, flower petals scattered about us on the floor.
Arhael smiled at us, and as he bent to lift her body, he whispered his thanks quietly. Netya smiled at him, and together, the four of us walked to the hilltop.
As the sun sank, sending it’s golden rays dancing about the fresh earth that covered Aranel’s grave, we gathered in Aranel’s house, curled on the soft skins that covered the floor. Arhael began the tale he had told Netya and I so many days ago as we walked through the forest on Pethnor’s trail. Thalon listened silently as Arhael related the first meeting between Pethnor and Mirriel; how he had carried her away to his home and then let her escape. How two years later, he had met with Mirriel and her husband in the woods and demanded they hand over his child. How Arhael had watched, and learned of his half-brother, and had himself had led Mirriel to the woods’ edge and pointed the way home for her through the darkness. How ever since that day, Pethnor had been searching avidly for a way to steal Thalon away from the woman who had once captured his fancy and now haunted his memory. How Pethnor’s wife Lastare had been consumed with jealousy, and Pethnor had distanced himself from his family, destroying any semblance of love between them. Thalon was silent, listening intently.
At last, the story, fraught with darkness and hateful memories, was finished. Arhael sat quietly, eyes trained on Thalon’s face. To my surprise, Thalon showed no sign of agitation, confusion, or anger, only intense concentration. He sat still for many minutes, staring into the air before him, lost in his thoughts. When finally he spoke, he addressed Netya and I. “And this story…it is true?”
Netya nodded, saying softly, “It is.”
Thalon stood, walking to the doorway. After a moment, he shook his head, turning back to us. I was surprised to see the smile that twinkled in his eyes. “Maybe it is. Maybe it is true,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “But do not, and I will not, recognize that man as my father, were he as good and kind as anyone could wish. My father is Thaldir, Captain of the Castle Guard. He chose to love me as his own, and to raise me as though I were his true son. He has protected and loved my mother, regardless of Pethnor’s actions. I will always call him my father. I will not recognize the blood I may share with Pethnor.” He smiled, and walked to where Arhael sat leaning against the wall. Holding out his hand, he continued, “But I am glad, and proud, to recognize the blood I share with my brother.”
A wide grin spread slowly over Arhael’s features. He stood up, and taking Thalon’s hand, clasped it gladly. “And for that, I am glad. I have long hoped to meet you again, Thalon. It has been too long a time…too long and lonely. I am glad to call you brother.”