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The quest for hope, p.12
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       The Quest for Hope, p.12

           A. S. King
 
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  Hours later, the group arrived at their destination on the southern edge of the forest. Here they were met by a family of elk-people. Their bodies were like those of an elk, but from the chest on upward, they were human. They did, in fact, look very much like centaurs, with the exception that from their heads protruded a light and intricate arrangement of horns.

  There were nine Pronghorns in this particular family group. The largest, who was apparently the group’s chief, stepped forward to speak with Eamonn Moonkind, the Livid elder. Aliatta’s father, Elior, and Levi were invited to join the discussion as well. The others of the Pronghorn family, seven adults and one child, hung back. The adults kept a keen eye on the surroundings while the child stared at the Adamas in unbridled curiosity. The darkness, however, made staring more difficult and far less interesting. Therefore, it wasn’t long before the young elk-child scampered right on up to Aliatta.

  “I’ve never seen an Adama before!” she whispered in awe. “It must take forever to get places with only two legs to walk on!”

  An older Pronghorn, who was apparently this young one’s mother, turned abruptly from her surveillance duties in dismay.

  “Sitsi,” she reprimanded in a loud whisper. “Don’t be so rude! That is no way to talk to the Princess!”

  Sitsi’s eyes widened in dismay. “I’m so sorry, Princess! I didn’t know you were the princess. I thought the princess would have beautiful clothes and her hair would be done in all kinds of beautiful ways and—”

  “Sitsi,” cried her mother again in shock and embarrassment.

  Aliatta laughed quietly. “It’s okay,” she said. “I wouldn’t recognize myself as a princess either. Right now, I am simply a wandering girl who is trying to follow the directions of a High King whom I barely know.”

  The elk-mother smiled. “We welcome you with honor anyway, wandering girl. Come,” she said, noting that the meeting of the elders was breaking up. “Ride on my back for this first part of the journey. As my precocious child pointed out, it is much faster to travel on four legs than on two.”

  Aliatta readily accepted the offer and hoisted herself up upon the elk-mother’s back. As the elk-people sprinted off into the darkness, Aliatta vaguely noted that the shapes of the trees had disappeared and been replaced by other shapes. She strained her eyes in an attempt to better see her surroundings. Her eyes, however, were as tired as the rest of her, and she soon fell asleep.

  ***

  Aliatta awoke to the soft glow of the rising sun. The earthy fragrance of fresh grass surrounded her and drifted in through her nostrils. A muted rustling sounded beneath her as she stretched and moved her head from side to side. Tall grasses loomed high above her in all directions. She reached a hand down to her side and grasped a handful of thick, spongy grass. Although the makeshift bed was soft enough, her body felt stiff. I miss my own bed, she thought as she stood up in an attempt to work out some of the kinks. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Aliatta surveyed her surroundings. They seemed to be in some kind of shallow ravine. Hills rose up on every side, decorated by boulders of all colors, shapes and sizes. The tall grasses were interspersed with understated wildflowers. She smiled in delight as understanding dawned. They were in her hills—the rolling hills of Alsta—and the land was even more beautiful than it had appeared from the castle window.

  The two hundred mile journey to their midway stopping point in Darnstall hold passed pleasantly in its own way. This isn’t to say there weren’t dangers (at least half the Pronghorns were always on alert), but for all that, it was a smooth journey. Aliatta used these days to practice transmogrifying herself into the likeness of a Pronghorn. This exercise was a treat not only for Aliatta but also served as entertainment for the others of the group as she worked through the awkwardness of learning to move and function as the Pronghorns did.

  “You’re right,” Pronghorn-Aliatta called out once as she raced Sitsi across an open hillside. “Having four legs is so much faster than having two!”

  “Then why don’t you stay with us like this for always?” asked Sitsi, who rather liked the idea of having a playmate.

  Aliatta came to a stop. “I can’t,” she said thoughtfully. “As fun as it is to be like this for a while, it isn’t who the High King made me to be. He has something else in mind for me, though I’m not exactly sure what.”

  “When will you know?” questioned Sitsi in awe. Everything about Aliatta fascinated her, and she couldn’t imagine not knowing what you were made to do.

  “I don’t know the answer to that either, Sitsi,” responded Aliatta softly. “But I think the answer is one of the things this journey is supposed to show me.”

  In addition to transmogrification practice, these days of travel also provided a much-needed opportunity for Aliatta and her parents to get to know each other better. It was a bit tricky sometimes, trying to figure out how to interact. Aliatta had always been rather independent, and the responsibilities of this situation, as well as the nature of the case itself, were serving to mature her at a much faster rate. What then was her relationship with her parents to be? It seemed strange to ask them for permission to go play, and yet disrespectful not to. Her parents, too, were hesitant and reluctant to request things of her or to offer a correction. Levi was the only one whose treatment of her remained constant. Their relationship continued to be what it had always been—that of tutor to student.

  As the days went on, Aliatta and her parents slowly found themselves opening up to one another. Her parents would share their experiences and Aliatta would find herself drawn into the lives of these people who seemed so familiar, and yet so foreign. Her own world widened as she listened and took hold of the wisdom they shared. Aliatta soon discovered she finally had people to whom she could openly and unreservedly share her heart. Thoughts, questions, dreams, and emotions she had never felt safe speaking about with the Duke and Duchess came flooding out. With each thought and experience, she shared, her mother would empathize and provide an in-depth analysis of the emotions going on within those involved while her father would lay out the bare truth of what had been happening in those moments. In this way, Aliatta came to see her parents as people whom she could trust to provide her with truth, insight, and wisdom; and her parents came to understand their responsibility in guiding this growing-up princess in the way of truth.

  The days of travel were so pleasant that Aliatta was almost disappointed on the day they were to arrive at Darnstall Hold. The thought of an inn, however, did serve to stir up some excitement within her. Although her body was becoming more accustomed to sleeping on the ground (there was less stiffness when she woke up in the morning), Aliatta was relishing the idea of a night spent in a real bed.

  Their approach to the bustling settlement was a quiet one. It was to be their first venture into a populated area since Zion, and though it would be dangerous, both Levi and Elior felt it was necessary to gain information on the state of things, namely—how much knowledge of them had spread and where the forces of the Dark One were located. It was agreed that the Pronghorns would stay hidden in the hills outside the city while the four Adamas made their way to the inn of a loyal one.

  And so, under the cover of darkness, the four well-intentioned fugitives traipsed toward Safehaven Inn where a small white candle glowed dimly in the darkness. It was after midnight when they arrived, and their steady knock was met by a large, grumpy man who was none too pleased to be bothered at such a late hour.

  “May the King live forever,” greeted Levi softly, looking the man directly in the eye.

  “And his light never be extinguished,” returned the man with a sigh, his cranky expression lessening somewhat to one of sorrow. He looked them over as carefully as he could in the dim light. “Four of you—,” he said slowly. “You should know, there are agents of the King here, and I don’t mean the King that lives forever. They have been here for a couple of days now—looking for a group of four Adamas—I’m sure that wouldn’t be you, though.”

/>   “If it was,” said Levi slowly, never breaking eye contact, “what would you do?”

  “I have a wife and child of my own,” answered the innkeeper with some reluctance. He looked down, no longer able to meet the gazes of those who had come to his door for help. “I’m afraid the best I could do for them would be to suggest that they make their way from Darnstall Hold as quickly as possible.”

  “We see.” Elior stepped forward and spoke without emotion. “In that case, we must beg your pardon for having troubled you. Good night.”

  As they turned away, Aliatta looked back, mourning the loss of a comfortable bed. Her eyes accidentally met those of the innkeeper, and he turned away in shame.

  It’s okay, she wanted to say. You’ve turned your back on us, but it doesn’t mean you have to turn your back on the High King altogether.

  She watched with a sinking heart as the innkeeper shuffled heavily over to the candle and blew out the light. An inexplicably heavy sadness filled her soul. A comforting hand touched her shoulder, and she looked up to seeing Levi’s understanding eyes gazing into her own.

  Have hope, Princess, Levi said, spirit-speaking into the sadness. The Innkeeper may have given up on himself and on the High King, but the High King has not given up on him. Above all, hold on to the hope that he may again light that candle.

  Unbeknownst to the Adamas, their brief, and silent exchange had been witnessed. Dark eyes peered out of the windows of another inn nearby before disappearing as silently as they had appeared.

  “Quickly, over here. Now!” Nakai, the Pronghorn chief.

  The dejected Adamas looked up in alarm to see Nakai the Pronghorn chief urgently beckoning to them from the shadows of a nearby building. With him were three other Pronghorns.

  “Your presence here is known,” he told them once they were all gathered. “We came as soon as we could. The innkeeper is no longer counted among the loyal ones.”

  “We know,” sighed Aliatta.

  “I’m afraid things are even worse than that, Princess,” said the chief. “A hoard of Hellions arrived a week ago and have taken up residence in this settlement. One of the Dark One’s servants was at the inn across the street. He saw you speaking with the innkeeper and has alerted those foul creatures to your presence. They are on your trail even as we speak.”

  “What’s the plan?” asked Levi, his mind instantly switching to action mode.

  “You will ride upon our backs onto the open roads. Once the Hellions have seen us and are in pursuit, we will ride to the eastern edge of the settlement. There, we will meet up with the other half of the Pronghorns. They will travel on in the direction of the sea, making it look as though they are the ones who are carrying you. Meanwhile, we will double back and continue to head in the direction of Redford Palace.”

  “Why doesn’t the High King just—zap them away or something?” asked Aliatta. After all, she thought, He had blinded the eyes of those at Earlington palace so she and Raz could escape. He had created a tunnel in the midst of the water. Why didn’t He just do something like that again?

  “He has already helped us and will continue to help us,” answered Nakai in all seriousness. “Who do you think gave us the idea in the first place? Sometimes the High King provides help through miracles. Sometimes He helps by the plans He reveals and the strength he gives. Now come. We must go at once.”

  The Pronghorns, with the Adamas, mounted upon their backs, raced in and out among the shadows of Darnstall Hold. Nakai led the way. He always seemed to know exactly what to do at just the right moment. Aliatta lost track of the number of close calls. Arrows whizzed by on all sides, and there were too many times when the wind of a Hellion claw could be felt as it narrowly missed either herself or Nizhoni, the young Pronghorn maiden she rode upon. Once outside the settlement, they quickly gained ground across the grassy knolls, then made a sudden turn. This change of direction brought them to a hidden cave where the other Pronghorns waited. As soon as they arrived, the other four adult Pronghorns, each loaded with a large, Adama-size bundle, galloped off in the direction that the Hellions had last seen them going.

  Nakai motioned for them to keep still as he listened for evidence of what was happening outside. Then he motioned to Sitsi, who cautiously crept out of the cave. When she returned a few moments later, she nodded to the Pronghorn leader. The Hellions had taken the bait and were in fervent pursuit of the decoys.

  The Pronghorn chief led his charges through the cave to a back exit which emerged just south of the city. From here, they continued on their original course, heading southwest towards the village of Wintertide which rested in the foothills of the Icy Mountains.

  The journey from Darnstall Hold was not at all like the journey to it had been. For one thing, the land was completely different. Gone were the hills with their protective ravines and large boulders. In their place were miles upon miles of flat, open plains—the agricultural district of Novus. Golden-hued wheat rose high above the ground, moving in waves like an ocean when the wind blows. An endless azure sky reached down and wrapped the land in an all-encompassing embrace. Clouds of all shapes and sizes floated carelessly in the heavens above, drawing imaginative games from any below who cared to look. For the leisurely traveler, this land was an undisturbed joy to travel across. However, our travelers were not of the leisurely sort. They were in a desperate race to save their lives. So instead of being a land of spacious beauty, the open plains became a place of grave danger. The tall crops gave them occasional cover, and the level ground made it easier to spot trouble far off, but for the most part, our friends were pushing hard to make it across the treeless plains without being captured.

  Aliatta found herself wondering if it was all worth it and if she would ever again have the luxury of sleeping in a real, full-cushioned, silky-sheeted bed.

  25

  The Keepers of the Gem

  It was a weary group of travelers who carefully made their way beneath the shadows of Redford Palace and down into the level valley which was home to the tiny community of Wintertide. The days through the shelterless plains had been long and rough. Sitsi had long since lost her joyful little bounce, Aliatta had ceased changing into other creatures—it took too much energy—and even Levi seemed more tired in spirit. This exhaustion increased with every step, for, after the disappointment of Darnstall Hold, each traveler had their doubts about entering even a sparsely populated area.

  Their spirits lifted only slightly when they arrived at a stone well on the edge of town, then sank again as they gazed at the village—or what they could see of it anyway. From their place at the well, they could see the full width of tree-high hedges which surrounded Wintertide and served as the settlement’s only wall. These leafy barriers were thick and provided outsiders no opportunity to catch even a glimpse of what might lie within. Not even the smallest of openings was visible. The group looked at each other in dismay. Entering the settlement might not be an option after all.

  For now, though, they at least had water. The Adamas went to work lowering and filling the bucket for the Pronghorns before tending to each other. Once this task was complete, they sat down with a sigh against the stone walls of the well. Only then did they notice a young lady in a simple green dress who was staring at them with sympathetic gray eyes.

  Elior was instantly on the alert. There was no telling who could be trusted. He pulled himself up as quickly as his tired body would allow and then he and Nakai approached the woman—to greet her and, more importantly, to assess whether or not she posed a threat.

  The woman smiled knowingly, almost as if she guessed their intent. She spoke quickly before they could offer their veiled greeting. “Please, good travelers. I wish you hadn’t felt the need to get up. You face no threat here, and you are tired. Please, let the waters of this well refresh you and then come with me to my father’s house. You may stay with us for as long as you have need before continuing on to your journey’s end.”

  Elior and Nakai looked at
each other uncertainly. They looked to the others of the group as if to say, “Can we trust her?” The others shrugged, clearly having no more insight into this than they did.

  Finally, Elior spoke. “May the King live forever,” he said meaningfully, looking her directly in the eye.

  The young woman looked confused, though her eyes never left his. “I suppose some may wish that to be the case,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone, “but nobody lives forever. For now, though, I would be honored if you would come to my home and stay with us.” She hesitated and then admitted, “There are others there already—more than a dozen Adamas, but between my family and our neighbors, we always find room for everyone.”

  At this proclamation, the ears of all the travelers perked up, and they sat a little straighter.

  “This group,” said Levi, “is there a man named—”

  “Don’t!” interrupted the woman sharply. She shot them a look of warning. “We don’t know their names. We never ask the names of those to whom we offer shelter and protection. We find it better not to know, so please don’t tell me your names or ask the names of the others. I only ask that you come with me and allow my people to help you.”

  The group, however, remained where they were, still uncertain. Could something like this really be trusted? The young woman seemed honest and sincere enough, but was she only pretending so as to lead them into a trap?

  In the midst of their uncertainty, two familiar faces walked onto the scene—Rosemary and her granddaughter Marnie.

  Aliatta stared at them blankly. Her interaction with the family had been brief, and she had been taking in massive amounts of new information. Therefore, it is understandable that she didn’t even remember little Marnie. Levi, however, knew immediately who they were. While Aliatta was still racking her brain to figure out why they seemed so familiar, Levi jumped up to greet them.

 
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