Monday, March 4, 2013

~~STONE GATE: Chapter Ten--Who We Are~~

          I reach the grave of my best friend in two weeks. I had gone solely by foot, with nothing more than the clothes on my back, my pack, my rapier and my knife belted at my hips. I had taken the time to grab nothing but my pack and a map from the Red Root Inn before I had set off.
          I remember little of the journey, Liana. Very, very little. I remember frightened and desperate nights spent sheltered in caves or beneath the boughs of trees, my sword in hand, unable to sleep for the howling of wolves. I remember the five times in two weeks I had come into contact with the many troupes of highwaymen, but every last one of them fell before long. There was none of my playfulness in these fights, none of my joy. I was too tired to fight for long—but I was lucky; they were all human, and easy to kill.
          When at last I reached Serria, I walked in under cover of darkness, and collapsed against the door of the first building I come to, too tired to knock. The door opened behind me, and I fell onto my back at someone’s feet.
          The last thing I remembered before a wave of exhaustion came over me was a pursed golden brow over a pair of cloudy gray eyes.
                   ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~       
          When I woke up, I was lying in an unfamiliar four-poster bed, the curtain drawn around it to give me some privacy. The privacy was welcome, because I found that, beneath the blankets, I was wearing loose trousers and a massive tunic. I could tell they were made for humans, because there was no way someone with an elf’s natural build and wiry body type could have a hope of gaining that size. And I was small even for an elf, so I was swimming in these clothes.
          I lie there for a few minutes, not willing to move. It was warm—the warmest I’ve been for two weeks—and the bed was a far cry from the ground. But then I remember my final memory of the night before, and jolt into a sitting position. I remembered seeing gray eyes and golden hair on a human face—was it possible? No, it couldn’t be. Liandros was from a village near Graceling, not Serria!
          But he’d been put to death in Sheeler, and buried in Serria. Could his parents have gone to see him die?
          I shake my head, before pulling aside the curtain and sliding from the bed. I look around at my new surroundings—my elegant bed was tucked into a corner, its headboard resting beneath a window, the gentle breeze rustling the gauzy fabric. Where in hell was I? It was far too fancy for an inn. To my eyes, it looked more like a castle bedchamber than anything else. But that couldn’t be. Unless I’d gone miles off course, I wasn’t anywhere near the capital city. Anyways, why would the Lady of Slemerria take me in? Slemerria was a city so far from here it didn’t even appear on any maps and was actually little more than a rumor. Traceria was a massive place—it took up an entire continent and a bit. The ‘bit’—an island a third of the size of Traceria—was the capital city, a place nigh impossible to get to. I didn’t remember taking a boat, but it was possible.
          I look around more closely, examining the shelves filled with small items and books. They were a strange assortment of odd items picked up in the forest and elegant books. I page through them briefly—there were many pictures, which helped me figure it out. I was not the best reader back then, Liana, it took a very special person to make me get better. And we both know who that is.
          Back to the story.
          My musing and curious fiddling was interrupted by a knocking at the door. I jumped, and whirled, eyeing the door. “Come in?” I called, cautiously. Time to meet my savior.
          A second later, the largest man I have ever seen walks into my room. He’s easily seven feet, his shoulders are larger than I would be curled into a ball, and his long golden hair hangs to his waist in dreadlocks.      
          I almost fall flat on my butt, looking up at him.
          He lays a hand on my shoulder, steadying me when I waver. “Hello, I take it you must be Kelree. I’m Liandros’ father.”
          Now that’s when I fall over.
          ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~       
          When I wake up, I’m in bed again, and I’m tucked snugly under the covers. The giant was pacing at the foot of the bed, waiting for me to wake up. When I groaned, he looked at me, and searched my eyes. “You look exactly as he described you. He also told me about the fainting thing, but I’m afraid he was too worried in prison to tell me much about you. I know you knew he was gay, which is why he left home, but there’s so little beyond that that I know about you.”
          “Can I eat first?” The words pop out without thinking, and the giant laughs. He walks across the room, thudding with each step, and as he goes he pauses.
          He turns to look at me, and says, “My name’s Taurion Graceling. So very glad to meet you.”
          With that, he walks out of my room, leaving a very confused, hungry, tired, and sad human behind him, watching him shut the door.
          He returns a few moments later with a massive plate of food. It was a little bit of everything: Eggs, rolls, broccoli, apples, pears, and little odd items from elven and human cuisine alike. I savor every bite, and he watches with amazement when I devour the bacon and eggs before I even touch the more elven food. When I look up, a strip of bacon hanging from my lips, strawberry juice coating my lips as if they had been drenched in blood, he quietly backs away.
          I blush, look at my meal, and decide to eat a bit slower and use a fork.
          ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~       
          I’m afraid this is where my tale gets a bit boring, Liana. Over the period of the next few months, Mr. Graceling and I talk often about his son and about the times we’d had together. After a while, I get used to spending time with someone like Liandros again, always with a little worry in the back of your mind that you will do something wrong. But, yet, as time wore on and I finally got my strength back after the weeks of exhaustion, we became friends.
          And, on the nineteenth day, we take a journey I have been longing to take since that day on the tower: The journey to Liandros’ grave.
          Taurion told me where we were going early in the morning. We left his friend’s manor at around ten, and walked the few miles to the graveyard where Liandros slept for eternity.
          When we reached it, I looked around. It was a small, well-worn place. There was no one there but a single elven maiden, kneeling in front of a fresher grave. My heart gave a leap as Taurion led me towards her, and when we approached, she turned to face us. Her eyes were a dark, deep green, her hair was a soft and silken veil of the purest sunlight about her almond-shaped face, and her lips were full and red.
          And then she spoke only a few words, but ones that would sing in my memory for the rest of my life, “Kelree, my name is Nalika Toth.”
          Oh, Liana, I can imagine the look on your face as you read this! You know well the woman I describe—ah, too well! What is in your eyes as you realize who she is, the woman standing before me? Anger? Love? Jealousy?
          What is it?
          But I’m getting ahead of myself.
          I can’t think of a thing to as I look at her. So the first thing out of my mouth is a surprise to me, “Hi. You’re beautiful.”
          She laughs, and smiles at me kindly. “Thank you. I’m sorry if I made you nervous—I have that effect on people. In fact,” she takes a step forward, laying a hand on my shoulder, “I would be worried if I didn’t have that effect on you.”
          I look at her hand. I can’t think of a thing to say; my eyes keep getting wider and wider and I feel my face reddening. What do I say? What do I do?
          Taurion finally takes pity on me and touches Nalika’s shoulder. “Lotus, dearheart, could you please give us a single moment? This is his first visit. He doesn’t need to be frightened before he ever reaches the grave.”
          “Frightened?” I look up at him. “Why would I be frightened of a grave?”
          “It’s not the grave he should be frightened of; it’s what’s in it,” Nalika explains, and touched my arm. “I’m sorry for what I must tell you, Kelree, but there is something about your people—our people—that is barbaric and cruel.”
          I look at her swiftly. “We’re elves….What do we do that’s so bad?”
          “It’s what we do to our prisoners. The ones we kill or put to death….The truth is, we never kill them. We do something worse.”
          Taurion steps forward, opens his mouth to cut her off, but she raises her hand and continues, her eyes like emerald night in the daylight: “We make them immortal, and bury them.”
          I feel faint.
          Lucky for me, Taurion knew about my tendency to faint, and I didn’t hit the ground all that hard.
          ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~       
          I wake up in a world of pine needles. I open my eyes, expecting to see a forest, but instead seeing a gentle smile and forest-green eyes. “Liandros warned me about you,” she whispers, gracing my forehead with a kiss, “Before they hauled him away, he told me much about you, knowing you would come here one day. They allowed us to have time, the guards, because of who I am. Elsewise, they never would have let him live long enough for him to say what needed to be said.”
          “Who are you?” I asked, looking at her.
          “I’m the wife of the man Liandros killed.”
          Do I even need to say what happens next, Liana?
          I faint again.
          ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~        ~       
          I look up to see the now-familiar wood of the four poster bed at Taurion’s friend’s manor.
          I roll over, and see one of the curtains pulled aside, Nalika standing at the window. She turned to me, and smiled. “Good morning.”
          I wipe sleep from my eyes. “Good morning?” I try, not sure if I can manage to talk right now or not.
          “Don’t worry,” she whispers. “It’s natural to faint from shock. And you, my young friend, must still be so exhausted and starving from your long travel.”
          It’s then that I notice something: I sense something.
          Something ancient.
          Something evil.
          Nalika turns from me and raises her right hand to the window, her long silken gold sleeve falling down one delicate arm.
          My eyes fall on her wrist.
          My shoulders fall.
          On her wrist lies a golden bracelet.
          I no longer need to describe them, do I?
          If you are like me, you see those bracelets on the darkest of nights, in your worst nightmares. You hear them whispering to you, calling your name, tempting you.
          And you hear HIM, don’t you? Whenever you close your eyes, block out the world, you hear HIS voice.
          And remember that the world’s not yet safe.
          The Sacrifice is still to be made.
          But I’m getting ahead of myself again.
          HE doesn’t come until later.
          Right now, Nalika is turning to me. “You shouldn’t be surprised, Kelree. Sourcerors are common among the elves.”
          I just blinked, stood up, and went for a walk.

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