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The quest for hope, p.14
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       The Quest for Hope, p.14

           A. S. King
 
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  Aliatta gazed at her grandmother with an affectionate smile. They were now on their third day of hiking through the Icy Mountains and the journey, though “worth it” as Raziela had said, was taking its toll, especially on the older woman. It was, in fact, her weakening state which had prompted them to stop early on this day to rest at the edge of a huge clearing where the view was indeed an awe-inspiring one. From this vantage point, you could see all of White Country and beyond. Half frozen rivers, huge jagged mountain peaks, and beautiful snow covered fir trees littered the countryside.

  Raziela’s old body shook as she sat resting on the ground with her back up against a large pine tree. Her eyes, in contrast to her body, shone brighter than anyone.

  Levi and Raz set about getting a fire going and then settled Raziela close by. The rest of the frozen travelers also huddled around the welcome warmth and rested there all afternoon.

  Raz stayed next to the fire only long enough to get his blood flowing again and then left with Sean, Zavier, and Reut to scout out a good place to camp for the night.

  By the time evening arrived, the weary travelers were making themselves at home beneath the overhanging cover of a large boulder.

  Long after the others had fallen asleep and the coals of the fire glowed with their last hint of red light, Raziela lay awake, her spirit troubled.

  “What is it,” Raz asked quietly, stirring slightly beside her.

  Raziela shook her head. “I don’t know,” she whispered. “With all the beauty of this land, it feels dark—cold—some places more than others. It feels so different from what I remember it being. There is anger in the air, and right now that anger is strong.”

  Raz became instantly on the alert. “What exactly are you sensing right now?” he asked. He had now been with his grandmother long enough to know better than to take her “feelings” lightly.

  “Anger, hatred … wicked glee?”

  “And that feeling is stronger than usual right now,” Raz reiterated, his eyes peering intently into the darkness beyond their camp. “Grandma,” he said slowly, “I think you are picking up on the spirit of some very unwanted guests—Swords! Everyone! Now!”

  The rudely awakened group had just enough time to grab their swords and form a protective semi-circle around the opening to their shelter before the silhouettes of a hoard of Skerps appeared before them in the moonlight.

  The hoard rushed forward, screeching in excited glee. Swords clashed, and the sound of steel hitting steel rang out across the mountains.

  The swordplay among the Adamas had, as a whole, certainly improved and for a long while, they successfully kept the attackers at bay. Gradually, however, the younger and less experienced members of the group began to tire, and as they did so, they retreated into the shelter with Raziela and Marnie. The fight lasted through the night. By the time dawn began to signal its approach, only Raz, Aliatta, and Levi remained fighting. Raz and Aliatta used their swords quite effectively while Levi fought in the form of a giant bear.

  The Skerps, however, outnumbered them significantly, and Raz found himself evaluating their chances of survival to be growing smaller by the minute. Just when Aliatta felt she could hold out no longer, they heard a loud, terrifying yell.

  “Stop!” a voice thundered.

  It was a cold, harsh voice and the sound of it echoed through the mountains. The Skerps completely froze and then scurried away in a whimpering retreat.

  The Adamas breathed a collective sigh of relief and exhaustion. Their relief, however, was short-lived, for the source of the voice which had caused the Skerps to cower was coming fast upon them.

  At first, it looked like a cloud rolling soundlessly down the mountain. Then they realized that the cloud was really snow—a silent avalanche cascading down the mountainside, heading directly towards them. Most of the group wisely huddled beneath their shelter, but Aliatta stood just outside it, watching in awe as the avalanche drew nearer. At one point, she rubbed her eyes, sure that she could not be seeing what she thought she was seeing, for what she was seeing was this: in the midst of the cloud of snow was the figure of a tall, slender woman—her white hair and grey raiment billowing around her in harmony with the tumultuously tumbling snow.

  “The Ice Witch,” breathed Levi. He had transmogrified back to an Adama and was also standing outside the shelter, as mesmerized by the sight as Aliatta. Fortunately, good sense took hold of him immediately after he spoke and he thrust both himself and the Lady Aliatta beneath the shelter of the large boulder.

  The ice and snow careened silently and harmlessly over their rock, and when it cleared, the woman who had been riding within the cloud was standing firmly before them. She was tall, though not abnormally so, with long white hair that fell wildly down her back and across her shoulders. She wore a long-sleeved gown of gray fur. Fitted down to the waist, the dress then billowed out in layers all around her, giving one the impression that she was always moving or floating above the ground. Her face, however, was by far the most noteworthy aspect of her appearance. It was young-looking in the sense that there were no wrinkles, but it was a hard, sharp, angular face. The mouth held no trace of a smile and the eyes—they were fierce and dark, so dark in fact that they seemed to be without pupils. These eyes surveyed them, and nearly all of them shuddered with the intensity of the inspection. Raziela was the only one not affected in that manner.

  While the others shuddered and cowered, Raziela shook her head in disbelief. “Could it be,” she muttered under her breath.

  Before the Ice Witch, for it was indeed the Ice Witch, could utter a word, Raziela hobbled out from among the crowd and gave the woman a tremendous hug. “Elsie, my friend!” she burst out joyously. “Let me look at you.” She stepped back and observed the woman. A sense of wonder filled her eyes. “Why, you look as young as ever!”

  For the first time in many, many years, the Ice Witch was caught off guard. Her mouth opened in surprise, and a look of pain rushed over her face. Even those black eyes seemed to shine a little less dark.

  “Ra- Raziela?” she stammered. “How … how are you still alive? I was sure the Dark One would have killed you by now—you and everyone else who still followed the High King.”

  “Oh, Elsie, the High King is so much more than you’ve ever given him credit for being. Look at us. Look at all of us. We are all servants of the High King, and he has kept us very much alive, though—we are exhausted at the moment.”

  The Ice Witch Elsie looked, really looked, for the first time at those who gathered behind her old friend. Surprisingly, her gaze softened and her angular features looked a little less sharp. “Come with me, then,” she said. “There is a place close by where you will be warm and safe.” She turned, clearly expecting them to follow, and as she did so, she ignored for the first time in a long time the Chashak, who stood by her side advising her against such hospitable actions.

  28

  The Lost Princesses, Elsie

  Less than half a mile south of where their overhanging rock shelter had been, Elsie turned off the path, navigated smoothly over and around some large boulders, and then slipped sidewise through what looked merely to be a large crack in the mountain. The others were none too sure about following this questionable ally into such an unknown shelter, and so they lingered by the opening until Raziela and Raz caught up to them (it had taken Raziela much longer to maneuver around the large rocks, even with Raz dropping back to help). Raziela took one glance at their wary faces and then moved without hesitation through the large crack. Raz immediately followed and then the rest of the group did likewise, though with far less confidence. After a few feet of sidewise movement, they were amazed to find themselves in a large, spacious circular cave. Furs lined the perimeter, both on the floor and on the walls, giving the place quite a cozy feel. A large fire glowed and flickered in the middle of the cave. Elsie sat watching their arrival from a raised rock ledge on one side of the shelter. This ledge, as well as the walls around it, had been cover
ed with fur, making it look as though she were sitting on a fur throne while her subjects entered meekly into her presence.

  Once they were inside, Elsie, with a rough jerk of her head, motioned them over to one of the rugs on the far side, opposite from where she sat (they didn’t dare disregard her command). She then proceeded to study Raziela and her family carefully. Everyone else was casually ignored for the time being.

  “Elsie,” spoke Raziela in the same congenial tone she had first used upon seeing her old friend, “I would like you to meet my family: my son Elior, his wife Grace, and their children Raz and Aliatta. Family, this is my old friend Elsie, the one I have often told you about—the lost princesses of Novus.”

  The family smiled kindly, and Elsie found herself giving a rusty smile in return, though she offered no words of acknowledgment. She felt peace, a gentleness, a kindness among these people. It was a familiar feeling, and she recognized it as the spirit she had always admired in her confidant of so many years ago. With a pang in her own spirit, she realized just how much she had missed it.

  “Elsie,” spoke Raziela again, emboldened by her friend’s smile, if not by her silence, “I’ve always wondered, what happened to you after you left?”

  Elsie’s eyes took on a distant look. “I have not thought of that time for many years, my friend,” she said sadly, “but if anyone deserves to hear my story, I suppose that person is you. I was upset, as I’m sure you remember. I didn’t know what to think or how to feel. I was angry and scared. I ran out of that castle as fast as I could, having no plan, no idea of where I was going. I only knew I had to get away—away from the evil masters who were trying to control us. As I left the city gates, I was stopped by this Chashak.” She gestured over her right shoulder and seemed to be listening to something. Her eyes narrowed, and although her facial expression never altered from that of annoyance, her gestures indicated that she was immersed in conversation.

  “What are they saying,” Aliatta whispered to her grandmother.

  “I don’t know, my girl, and it is good that you are not picking up on the conversation either, though I’m sure you can feel the spirit of it. It is best not to try to attune yourself to the voice of the Dark One, for in doing so, it becomes harder to hear the voice of the High King. By the way—as long as she is not paying attention to us, listen carefully to my warning: it is imperative that Elsie does not learn you have been selected by the King and Queen as her replacement—”

  Elsie turned back to them, the annoyed expression still on her face. “Anyway, this Chashak, Casimir, stopped me on my way out. He was writhing in the most pitiful way. When he saw me running away from the castle, he begged me to take him along.

  “‘I thought you served the Dark One!’ I yelled. I didn’t even glance at him as I ran on by. He kept pace with me, however, whining and assuring me he had no allegiance with the Dark One. ‘What about the High King,’ I demanded. ‘Why don’t you run to him then?’ At this suggestion, he shook even more.

  “‘No, not the Terrifying One! Anywhere but him! Don’t make me go back to him!’ he pleaded in absolute horror. I couldn’t believe how desperate he sounded. ‘He’s even scarier than the Dark One!’ Casimir continued. ‘He would do all kinds of terrible things to punish me!’”

  “He would do no such thing,” interrupted Raziela. “Elsie, if you believe those words of the Chashak then honestly, you do not know the character of the High King. If Casimir, or you, were ever to desire to return to him, He would welcome you gladly.”

  Elsie’s gaze softened as it always did when she looked at her friend. Her eyes took on a wistful shine. “Your sincerity almost makes me believe it, my friend,” she said. “But I am too far gone at this point for either the High King or the Dark One. In these mountains, I am Queen.”

  Raziela opened her mouth to respond, but another voice chimed in before her thoughts had the opportunity to be heard.

  “What happened next?” prodded a wide-eyed Aliatta. She had already been drawn into the story, and I am sorry to say that her question was ill-timed.

  Elsie smiled and continued. “Well, I finally stopped to listen to the poor creature. ‘What do you have to offer me in exchange for allowing you to accompany me?’ I asked.

  “‘Long life,’ said he. ‘I can give you long life, make you look young forever, and make you stronger than you’ve ever been before’ he said.

  “I agreed, and we sealed the deal, creating a bond between us which can never be broken.”

  “What did you do?” Raziela asked in a small voice. Alarm shone through her eyes. Of all her friend had told her, this was by far the worst—to form such a bond with a Chashak was indeed a dangerous business.

  Raziela’s alarm was by no means lost on Elsie. Her eyes turned defiant, and she responded harshly. “It is of no concern to you, oh old one. Though you were my friend and I consider you one still, you are no longer my advisor and therefore the means I have used to get where I am now are of no concern to you either. You always were very judgmental, Raziela. Anyway, after our bond was made, Casimir led me here, to these mountains. I have spent the last eighty years building and expanding my power and influence. Now, every creature I allow to live here is under my power. The Skerps fear me and do exactly as I command. The Hellions do not dare to cross my borders.”

  “If that is so,” broke in Ian coldly, “then would you mind telling us what that thing is?” As he spoke, he gestured towards the cave entrance.

  They all looked. Standing large and ominous against the wall next to the entryway was a Hellion.

  There was a second of stunned silence before Elsie burst into action. In one fluid motion, she moved to the fire, picked up a flaming log, and threw it at the intruder. The moment it made contact with him, the wood exploded into a thick cloud of fire and smoke.

  “This way!” she yelled. They immediately jumped up and followed her as she led them down tunnel after tunnel through the mountain. The weaker members of the group soon tired and had to be carried by the stronger ones. Raz and Raziela came last, their eyes and spirits alert to any threat which might be following them. They emerged from the mountain on a steep, rocky hill which sloped steeply downward until it made contact with the pastureland at its base.

  “Go!” Elsie commanded once they were out. “Those two trees at the entrance of the valley mark the border of my realm. There is a forest to the north and a small settlement to the south. Both should offer you protection.” She turned to Raziela, who had made her way over to her friend as soon as she’d been able. “It was so good to see you, my old friend,” Elsie said in all sincerity. “Truly, I wish you the best.”

  “Look!” yelled Raz, pointing up at the mountain from which they had just emerged. A lone Hellion stood high upon a rock. His bow was raised and aimed directly at Elsie. A second later, he released the arrow and Elsie fell to the ground. It was not the arrow which had knocked her down, however, but Raziela—and it was from Raziela’s back that the arrow protruded.

  “Quickly, this way!” they heard a voice cry. Elior and Raz picked up Raziela and followed Melhem down the hill and into the forest while Elsie unleashed a fury of fire and ice upon the entire mountain in retribution for the injury done to her friend. Then she turned and followed the group into the trees. A short distance into the forest, the ground opened, taking them to a hidden, underground burrow. It was the home of a family of Pronghorns—giant chipmunks who spoke and thought with Adama clarity.

  The Pronghorns had already pushed the beds together by the time they entered. Raz laid Raziela down gently and stepped back. The rest of the family stood close by while Rosemary and a couple of the Pronghorns tended to the wound. Elsie paced restlessly. Everyone else found an out of the way place to sit as they nervously awaited the outcome.

  “She’s alive, but fading fast,” squeaked one of the Pronghorns after a quick assessment of the patient.

  Elsie stopped in her pacing long enough to bark out, “Why doesn’t the High King
do something? Doesn’t he know this is one of his own?”

  They were quiet as her question penetrated deep into their souls. The voice that answered was not one they had been expecting to ever hear again.

  “He did do something,” rasped Raziela in labored speech. “He led me to you, Elsie. He gave me one more opportunity to show you how much He loves you and wants you to return to him.”

  The room was completely still as Raziela turned her head in search of the next person to whom she knew she must speak. Her gaze settled on her son and the force of it drew him nearer the bed. “Elior,” she said, “The High King has led you in ways I never could. Continue to trust him to guide you and this family. They will need you more than ever now—”

  Elior nodded as he squeezed her hand in the promise to look out for their family. Then he stepped back.

  Raziela’s eyes roved about once again and finally came to rest upon her granddaughter. “Aliatta,” she said, her voice now barely discernible, “There,” she whispered, pointing a shaky finger at her small bag of possessions, “there … in that bag is the full copy of the story so far … from the beginning … add to it … add this journey to the tale … and grow … always be growing … in wisdom, beauty, and truth … Aliatta, you are my descendant—” Her words died off as her face took on softness and peace, unlike anything they had seen before. Her fading eyes brightened and shone as they stared at something in front of her, beyond her … and then her physical body moved no more.

  Everyone was still; tears ran down the faces of many of those present. Each found themselves busy with their own thoughts—their own emotions—

 
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