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The quest for hope, p.10
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       The Quest for Hope, p.10

           A. S. King
 
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  Long after Aliatta had gone to sleep for the night, Elior, Grace, and Levi stayed up talking. There was much to discuss. Of primary importance was how to get them all out of the city.

  “Although the King and Queen do not know of our connection to their family through Raziela and Aliatta,” said Elior, “we have been noticed and singled out for other reasons. Grace makes beautiful clothing, and her services are in high demand by Queen Malka. My carpentry skills have also come to their attention. In fact, we will be going to the castle tomorrow to deliver our latest products. This favor has allowed us to move freely within the city and even to the forest beyond where I find the lumber I need for my work and Grace finds the dyes she needs for hers. However, I fear this attention will also make it more difficult for us to leave the city for an extended time without being noticed. Written permission must be applied for and given to all who come and go from Zion.”

  Their conversation continued well into the night, though they were careful to extinguish the candle at the regular time so as not to arouse suspicions.

  The next morning, Elior and Grace made their way to the castle. The Queen, as always, was enthralled by Grace’s bright and tasteful creations. The King was appropriately pleased, though less vocal than his wife, about the new bow Elior, presented to him. Once the items were received and paid for, Elior handed the King his request to leave the city. “I am in need of more wood, and my wife must herself seek the special flower which allows her to make such beautiful clothing for her majesty.”

  King Lev looked over the written request carefully. In the past, he had merely signed and returned the application with scarcely a glance. His hesitancy and perusal now made Elior and Grace uneasy. Finally, he spoke. “Elior,” he said. “You seem to be a trustworthy man who keeps a keen eye on the goings-on in this city.”

  Elior nodded. No other response was expected.

  “We have recently learned that the Princess of Novus has been kidnapped—taken by your son actually. His motive is unknown, and I am sure you know nothing of this.”

  Elior and Grace shook their heads, feeling and communicating in their expression a genuine surprise.

  King Lev studied them critically. The severity of his expression lessened only slightly as he said, “The punishment for such an action is death—for your son and for anyone who aids him. Should he appeal to you for help, a vicious choice will be set before you. If you help him, it will be found out, and you will all be killed without mercy. However, if you alert us to his presence and his plans, I can promise that your own lives will be spared and that you will be rewarded for your actions.”

  “We have not heard from him in many months, your royal highness,” Grace said with confidence and calm she didn’t know she possessed.

  The King nodded. Very slowly and deliberately, he signed the request and handed it back to Elior.

  All this time, the Queen had remained silent, though she twitched nervously. As Elior and Grace turned to leave, she stopped them. “Please,” she pleaded. “Please, if you are contacted, return my daughter to me. It has been many years since I have seen her and I am so worried.”

  Elior and Grace had to clench their fists and bite their tongues. After a few deep breaths, Grace turned to the Queen, looked her straight in the eye, and evenly said, “I understand, your majesty.”

  With a wave of his hand, the King dismissed them. As soon as they were out of the room, he snapped his finger. A tall, dark, spindly man instantly appeared. “Follow him,” the King commanded in a low voice. “I want to know everything he sees, everything he does, everyone or everything he is with—”

  The lanky man nodded and slunk silently out of the room.

  Scarcely more than a few hours later—indeed as soon as all of the necessary arrangements could be made at the house, Elior and Grace left their home, each carrying a small bag. Grace rode upon their trustworthy mare, Dahara, while Elior walked along beside her. If one were to have watched especially close, one would have seen a couple of dogs slide out the door behind the exiting couple.

  As it happened, one lanky man hiding in the shadows was watching especially close, and there was not much his sharp eyes missed.

  Although the mangy-looking dogs and the couple did not travel together through the city, they did end up at the same place: Elior’s workshop. Elior hooked Dahara up to the cart they kept at the shop and loaded the tools. Before heading out, he scanned the route ahead of them, absent-mindedly scratching the fur of the dogs as he did so. Then the dogs and people parted ways again.

  21

  Teman River

  When Elior and Grace arrived at the city gates, they handed the guards their signed permission slip, hoping for the same careless inspection they usually received. Their hope was realized. The guard barely glanced at the paper, nodded, and held it out for them to reclaim.

  The document never reached their hands.

  A long bony arm shot out of nowhere and snatched up the paper before Elior could grab hold of it. At the man’s appearance, the guard became as disconcerted as Elior and Grace. He quickly retreated and busied himself, or tried to busy himself, with anything else.

  “Just another day in the woods is it?” asked the lanky man who had grabbed the paper. His voice was slimy and full of sarcasm.

  “Yes sir,” answered Elior evenly. He knew as well as the guard who this man was—Mêkar son of Moreth—the king’s chief informant. Not only was this man an informant, but he had also been given full power over the lives of anyone whom he suspected was in league against the king. In other words, he was the king’s swift judge and merciless executioner.

  “And taking your dogs with you, how very thoughtful,” Mêkar spoke again, his voice continuing in a falsely friendly tone.

  The couple looked puzzled. “Dogs sir?” asked Elior.

  “You must be mistaken,” said Grace hurriedly. “You see, we don’t own any dogs.”

  “Really?” Mêkar pretended to look confused. He shook his head as though he were trying to clear the mix-up, then stopped and looked directly at them, a small smile playing at the corners of his thin mouth. “No, I am sure I saw two dogs leave your house not too long ago. And then—let me see—yes, Elior, you were petting them and seemed quite friendly with them later at your shop. Are you sure they are not yours?”

  Elior shook his head, trying desperately to remain as aloof as the man before him. “Just trying to show a bit of kindness to some poor, homeless animals, sir.”

  “How kind of you. Oh look, there they are again. They certainly do follow you about, though not directly, I’ve noticed, which is also rather strange.”

  One of the dogs stepped further back into the shadows at this attention. The other stepped forward, on full alert, its hair standing up on end.

  “I say,” continued the lanky man, pretending to look at the paper. “I have an inkling that the king would also enjoy the company of such worthy animals. I tell you what. I am willing to do you a favor and take care of these animals while you are on your outing. They would only be a nuisance to you. What do you say?” He held the permission slip tauntingly toward Elior. Elior wavered in indecision.

  A flash of movement brought all further negotiations to a direct halt. One of the dogs had lunged at Dahara, causing her to rear and bolt recklessly forward. Elior and Grace, who had dropped hold of the reigns during the exchange with Mêkar, had no control over the mare and were forced to hang on to the cart for dear life. A bark from this same dog to the cowering one caused that frightened creature to bolt forward as well. The desperate mare plowed a path of destruction that Aliatta (for she was indeed the timid dog) easily followed.

  Levi was a menacing canine and was quite successfully keeping the guards and Mêkar at bay. However, he could not hold them off forever. Soon he was surrounded, and a sword pierced one of his shoulders. The wounded creature slammed desperately into one of the guards, giving himself enough of an opening to burst through the men and become lost in a sea o
f people and overturned carts.

  Mêkar glanced disdainfully at the disorganized soldiers and then strolled casually after the disappearing dog, following a trail of blood.

  Meanwhile, Darhara was galloping away as fast as any racehorse. After all, what horse wouldn’t run away from that strange shiny creature who was chasing her? Emerging from Zion’s gates, she bolted down the hill and flew across the miles of open plains. That thing kept pace with her, always just out of reach. Kings Creek slowed her pace only slightly as she splashed through the shallow waters. It wasn’t until she neared the North Badali Forest that her gallop slowed to a trot, then to a walk. She stopped right at the edge of the trees. The creature had finally disappeared. Dahara looked back at her owners then as if to say, “Well, I got you here. Now it’s your turn.”

  Elior and Grace climbed shakily down and, with fumbling hands, managed to unhitch the cart. Needless to say, little remained of what had once been in the wagon. Aliatta soon caught up to them, panting heavily from her own frantic race through the countryside.

  While Elior ministered to the needs of the horse, Grace gave her attention to Aliatta. It was a one-sided conversation, for although Aliatta could understand everything her mother said, she was only, at the moment, capable of communicating in dog language. It finally dawned on her that she could try spirit-speaking. After that, conversation flowed much better.

  Aliatta had already grown tired of being a dog and was reasonably desirous of changing back. I’d really like to be a girl again, but I think I’ll need your help, she told her mother.

  Grace nodded and promised to help in any way she could, but before Aliatta could begin the process, her father came over and put a hand on her shoulder. Then he gravely pointed to the horizon from which they had come. A cloud of dust filled the air, indicating the presence of a large group of riders coming fast in their direction.

  “We should hide the cart and move under the cover of the forest before we do anything else,” Elior said, his brows furrowed in concern.

  Grace and Aliatta agreed with question. Once the cart had been carefully camouflaged, Elior and Grace mounted Dahara, and they all disappeared into the dense forest. They traveled without speaking; their hearts pounded loudly within them. The slightest movement of forest life caused them to jump in alarm.

  “This used to be my favorite place,” Grace whispered, her voice full of regret.

  While Elior’s keen eyes and knowledge of the wood were engaged in seeking out a trail in front of them, Aliatta’s attention was turned onto the path behind—listening for the sounds of those who hunted them.

  They had not traveled long in this fashion when Aliatta heard a rustle in the undergrowth not far behind. She instinctively froze, on alert, teeth bared, ready to confront the intruder.

  Her heart nearly gave out when the canine form of Levi immerged. He was no longer the ferocious animal he had been when she’d last seen him. His body sagged and pain filled his big, brown canine eyes as he limped up to them. Those eyes met hers and he let out a shuddering sigh of relief. Looking carefully around, he painstakingly made the change back to his Adama form. The stress of the change caused blood to flow freely from the wound that cut across his right shoulder.

  Elior and Grace gasped at the sight and quickly dismounted. Grace grabbed some extra material she had brought while Aliatta utilized her knowledge of forest flora to sniff out some helpful plants—in this case, garlic and yarrow. The garlic would serve to disinfect the wound while the Yarrow would speed up the blood clotting process. Within a short time, the wound was dressed and cared for to the best of their limited abilities.

  This task complete, Grace suggested they take a moment to rest beneath the cover of some nearby trees, but Levi shook his head and stood up.

  “I would love to rest,” he said wearily, “but we can’t. Not yet and definitely not here. Dogs aren’t the only bloodhounds—he’s still tracking us, and I’m afraid I’ve been inadvertently helping him.”

  “Mêkar?” Elior asked, correctly identifying the Adama bloodhound.

  Levi nodded.

  “The blood you lost,” said Grace with a new awareness of the situation. “He’s been following that.”

  Levi nodded again. “I know I shouldn’t have come after you. I’ve probably endangered you, even more, this way, but … I didn’t know where else to go.”

  “Of course, you were right in coming to us,” Elior said confidently, giving him an encouraging pat on his uninjured shoulder.

  “So, where do we go now?” inquired Grace, shouldering her pack.

  “Would it be better for me to change back?” asked Aliatta. She had remained admirably focused on the task of searching out the healing plants and had been equally successful in putting her own desires aside. However, now that they were talking about moving on, she really wanted to be an Adama again. She was also afraid that she wouldn’t be able to make the transformation on her own.

  Levi shook his head. “It would be even more dangerous for them to find and recognize you, Aliatta. Besides, your dog senses can still be a great help to us. We need your help; we need you to guide us now.”

  Aliatta’s canine head dropped in disappointment, and a little doggy whine escaped. “What do I need to do?” she spirit spoke to him.

  Levi talked her through what to look and listen for and how to use her senses to find the kind of shelter they needed. The plan was successful. Aliatta was able to find and guide them to a large, spacious bush. A bit of minimal crawling between the branches brought them all (except Dahara) to the bush’s hollow middle. Its spacious center contained thick branches that curved and crisscrossed all throughout, creating a plethora of backrests and seating areas. Once inside, they sank into the ground or against the branches to rest.

  Aliatta was finally given the go-ahead to change back into an Adama. This time, Levi merely said, “Ok, Aliatta. You know what to do.” Then he leaned back against a branch and fell asleep.

  This was not the response Aliatta had been expecting, and it nearly sent her into a panic. How would she ever change back if he didn’t help her? She ran around him in circles, pulled at his legs, breathed stinky dog breath in his face, but he didn’t budge. With a final whine, she gave up and found a little corner in the bush away from the others. After all, she didn’t see any point in making her parents watch her awkward and inevitably failed transformation.

  In less than fifteen minutes, Aliatta reemerged—a twelve-year-old girl once again. Levi was still sleeping, and she glared at him as she passed by to talk to her parents.

  Two hours later, after they had eaten and Levi had awakened, they discussed their next move. It was decided they would travel south to the Teman River, though they had no idea how they would get across.

  “The High King has gotten us this far,” Levi comfortably pointed out. “He’ll provide a way for us to cross.”

  Though her parents seemed to accept that response easily enough, Aliatta did not possess such a natural confidence. However, seeing as how they had no better options, she decided to once again lean on Levi’s faith. Maybe one day she’d possess more of her own.

  One by one, they cautiously emerged from the bush, looking and listening for any sign of danger. Levi and Aliatta rode on Dahara while Elior and Grace jogged silently beside them. A couple of hours later, they reached the edge of the forest, a short distance from the river. A dangerous clearing was all that stood between them and the Teman.

  Elior crept out into the open, looking this way and that for any sign of their pursuers. There were several moments of silence and then—

  “Run!” he cried

  Hellions were emerging from the trees to the west of them. Leading the menacing hoard was the dark, malicious Mêkar, coolly mounted on a fierce black horse.

  Dahara reared and bolted straight back into the cover of the woods, her movement so sudden and erratic that she threw off her two riders. Now all four of them were on the ground.

  “To
the river!” cried Levi.

  They were closer to the river than to their enemies. Otherwise, they may not have even attempted to outrun the monstrous Hellions. But run they did, though they still didn’t know what would happen once they reached the river.

  Mêkar smirked as he watched them run, waiting for just the right moment—

  “What are you waiting for!” cried one of the Hellions.

  Mêkar looked down with disdain upon the creature who had spoken. “Patience, creature,” he said calmly. “Those pathetic fools are running towards a dead end. They have nowhere to go once they reach the water unless they are planning to commit suicide by trying to swim across that vast thing. Let us wait just a minute longer and at least get some exercise out of this chase.”

  The Hellion said no more but furiously waited for the order. When the order came, it was not the order for a full attack. Instead of sprinting full force, they were ordered to jog—a demeaning order for Hellions.

  Even with the slower pace of their enemies and the closer distance they had to the river, the evil behind our sprinting quartet was too close for comfort.

  At the very edge of the water, they stopped. Aliatta and her parents suddenly realized that they had been expecting—something—to happen by now, but nothing had. Levi, however, threw a last glance over his shoulder and then, to the great wonderment of the others, plunged straight into the powerful river.

  That is when the something they had been waiting for happened. As soon as Levi made contact with the water, it began to change. The waters separated and swirled about. Water from the East gathered and grew into a massive wave. The wave curled over but didn’t crash down. Instead, it stayed frozen in that curled position. Through the barrel of the wave, a tunnel emerged, leading down and through the vast sea like river.

 
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