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The quest for hope, p.15
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       The Quest for Hope, p.15

           A. S. King
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  For the first time in nearly eighty years, Elsie didn’t know what to do or how to feel. Love, hate, fear, anger, sadness, remorse, guilt, longing, envy—all these feelings and more coursed through her in reckless abandonment, uncontrolled and unrestrained.

  Standing next to Elsie was Aliatta. As Raziela’s life had moved on to another place, Aliatta had stepped back to stand next to this beloved friend of her grandmother’s. She reached over now and timidly touched Elsie’s shoulder as she spoke. “She cared very deeply for you. Please, come with us. Come with us and learn about the One she served. I don’t know very much about him either. Maybe … maybe we can learn together.”

  Elsie’s gaze softened, and she looked longingly at the young girl who reminded her so much of her friend. She could feel herself wavering. She almost wanted to accept the offer—to go with these people who were so closely connected with the only one who had truly loved her and had proven her love to the very end. She almost wanted to, but then—

  The High King killed her, she heard a familiar caustic voice whisper. He sent her to you and killed her—he only wants to cause you pain.

  Elsie shut her eyes as the words of the Chashak ran through her mind. It was all so confusing. Who was the High King? Was he the good, kind ruler who could be seen through Raziela’s love, or was he an evil, vindictive being, as bad or worse than the Dark One?

  Raziela must have been deceived, whispered the voice persuasively.

  Yes, Elsie thought, that must be the case. To acknowledge otherwise would suggest that the last eighty years of her life had been in vain—the deal she had made to be of a horrible and fruitless nature. These thoughts were too much for her to bear. No, it had to be the Chashak who was right and these mere people who were deceived. The Ice Witch shook her head and stepped away from Aliatta’s touch.

  “I won’t serve such a cruel master,” she said, angrily spitting out each word. “But serve him if you will. You will learn the truth about his character sooner or later. I pity you all for how much you are deceived. And it is because of this pity and because of my friend Raziela that I tell you to go now. Leave my presence. Flee to Brance. I will send my Skerps to protect you, but know this—if you or anyone else dares to trespass onto my land again, they will die!”

  Ian wasted no time following these orders and immediately began readying the group to leave as soon as possible.

  Elior and his family, however, remained unmoved as a wave of sadness and loss rushed over them. It was as though they were experiencing another death. Elsie had come so close. “Please,” Elior said, holding out his hand towards her. “For my mother’s sake, please come with us.”

  With tears running down her face, the Ice Witch shook her head, and her eyes narrowed as she spit out her final words to Raziela’s family. “I will never serve the one who killed my friend.” Then she turned and stormed out of the hideaway to carry out her last display of affection for her old friend—her Skerps would protect that family with their lives.

  “Don’t you see,” whispered Elior before he led his family out the door, “you have already been serving the one who killed her, and now, you will serve him deeper still.”

  Sir Raz and Grace were the next ones to exit. Finally, only Aliatta lingered with the Pronghorns in the little home where Raziela’s body lay. With tears running down her cheeks, Aliatta collected her grandmother’s bag. Shouldering both it and her own pack, Aliatta turned and walked out the door.


  Sorrow, Swift, Battles Fought

  The dark, rocky plains of Ebrodon looked as though someone had taken a chunk of the mountain, crumbled it up, and sprinkled its crumbs across the level ground. It was by no means the easiest terrain to even walk across. And this heartbroken group was not walking over the rocks, but running, scarcely aware that a strong wind had swept them up from below, carrying them slightly above the loose gravel with a speed they didn’t otherwise possess.

  Aliatta moved through the world as if in a dream, scarcely able to discern what was real and what wasn’t. Her grandmother’s final words to her ran through her mind again and again, “You are my descendant … you are my descendant … you are my descendant …” What did that even mean?

  One fact of which Aliatta was vaguely aware was that they were receiving help from multiple sources—some seen, some unseen. Her father had taken heart to his mother’s last words to him, and so, trusting in the guidance of the High King, he had soon set to work dividing the leadership and responsibilities. He and Levi led the Adamas across the rocky plains, keeping their eyes and spirits on the alert for any danger ahead, while Raz and Ian served as the rearguard. The slight shimmering of the air at their flanks gave evidence to the presence of Erela traveling with them, guarding and surrounding them on all sides; a hoard of Skerps followed at a slight distance—never nearer than a hundred yards. Unlike their previous interactions with Skerps, these Skerps were not pursuing them or trying to hurt them. They were instead, as the Ice Witch had promised, fighting off the Hellions, who were indeed in deliberate and malicious pursuit.

  The frenetic race continued all that day and well into the night. Much to their great relief, the treacherous gravel eventually gave way to smooth, fertile soil. The ground gently rose until it became a series of small mountain ranges with a very obvious road winding its way through the large rocks that peppered its surface.

  After what seemed like forever, Elior and Levi halted next to one especially gigantic rock. They circled it and discovered an empty hollow center. It wasn’t until they were all gathered inside that they realized they could no longer hear the sounds of either the Skerps or the Hellions. It appeared, for the time being, that they were safe and alone.

  Though not entirely alone, thought Aliatta, for as they settled into the cozy refuge, the glow of several Erela began to appear. Thes Erela guided them to beds of soft mountain grass and gave them food to eat, ministering to their weary bodies and exhausted spirits. With this host standing guard, the Adamas drifted peacefully to sleep.

  They awoke the next morning to discover fifteen mustangs munching on the vegetation right outside their cave. Faran’s children were perhaps the most excited. Giron, Henry, and Marnie ran amongst the horses, enthusiastically claiming first one, then another, as their personal pets. The horses gave a whinny of acknowledgment to the children, but for the most part, kept eating. Finally, Faran and Kamila called their children over to eat their own breakfast.


  The City of Brance

  They journeyed through Ebrodon on horseback. Giron rode with his father, Henry rode with his mother, and Marnie rode with Aliatta. The wind which had carried them along so quickly the first day was gone. So too, were the Skerps and, by all indications, the Hellions. The host of Erela, however, continued their vigilant guard around them.

  These were quiet days. Raziela’s passing weighed heavy upon them, and they knew the danger had by no means disappeared forever. The land of Ebrodon, however, has a way of soothing those who are troubled and in search of peace. As the refugees rode beyond the boulder fields, they entered into lush forests where vibrant flowers and leafy vines flowed over every available surface. Gurgling streams called out their happy existence to the travelers while cascading waterfalls invited them to bask in their own exuberant life. It was indeed difficult to be disheartened in the midst of this happy land and the group soon gave into its joyful call. Spirits lightened, bodies relaxed, and peace entered in.

  It wasn’t until the end of their second week of travel, when the stone walls and towering castle spires of Brance appeared on the horizon, that their previous fears reemerged. They wondered what the city would be like. Would they receive rest there, as they had at Wintertide, or would it be a place of peril, as Darnstall Hold had been?

  The next day found them nervously approaching the long causeway which would take them up and into the city itself. Before they could step out onto the road, however, Elior led them behind the shelter of some large
rocks off to the side. For a moment, they all sat gazing up at the city before them. There was no doubt that this was indeed an impressive and intimidating place. Built into the upper part of a rocky mountain, the city loomed high above its surrounding landscape. The protective outer walls had been fashioned from the mountain itself and within these barriers, the city rose in accordance to the natural lay of the land. The castle had been built atop the highest point and could be seen for miles around.

  The travelers looked at each other with doubt and trepidation.

  “Do we dare move forward?” Raz asked silently.

  Elior didn’t know. He closed his eyes, trying hard to listen. Finally, he spoke. “This is not a decision I can make on my own,” he said. “We must be in agreement. Raz, from the training you have received in calculating danger, what do you think?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe that is what worries me. I know so little about this city and its people. When it comes down to it, I guess I don’t really sense any danger, only fear that something might go wrong.”

  Elior then turned to Grace. “What does your spirit tell you, my dear?” He asked his wife, looking deeply into her eyes.

  “It feels fine,” she answered simply, amazed at how much peace she was feeling.

  He nodded and turned to Ian and Rosemary. “Do you sense any danger?”

  They shook their heads. “I’m afraid I don’t know anyone from this city, but I think I remember hearing that it’s a beautiful place to live,” offered Rosemary weakly.

  Ian nodded in agreement. “The tradesmen from there are known far and wide for their excellent craftsmanship.”

  Bit by bit, the tension among them began to fade.

  “Aliatta,” her father said suddenly, as though something had just occurred to him. “Have you ever met the Duke and Duchess of Brance?”

  “Umm …” her brows furrowed in thought and then her eyes widened in remembrance. “Yes, I have! It was a couple of years ago. They passed through on their way to Zion. They seemed okay to me then. The kids, Dedrick, and Adina were really kind, more so to me than I was to them, I’m afraid.”

  Elior nodded in satisfaction before turning finally to Levi. “Levi? What have you seen with your Second Sight?”

  Levi answered without hesitation. “I’ve seen a host of Erela traveling with us everywhere we’ve gone. The High King will not abandon us now. I think we should proceed to enter the city.”

  Elior sighed. “I guess it’s settled then.” With nods and murmured assent from the rest of the group, he steered his horse around the corner and onto the wide stone road which wove its way up to the city gate.

  While the exterior walls of the city were an intimidating sight, meant to discourage any would-be attackers, the interior of the city was pleasantly different. The moment Aliatta stepped through the gate and onto the cobblestone streets of the city, she was met by an onslaught of the most beautiful smells. Elaborate gardens were interspersed among the buildings made of sweet-smelling Rosewood. As they rode on through the streets, they passed by the shops of bakers whose delicious aromas drifted into the streets. Aliatta saw leather workers and wood carvers who were busy shaping their craft, sending earthy smells swirling and dancing among the other aromas. The streets of Brance were full but did not feel overly crowded. People of nearly every race smiled as they walked along the roads, and only very rarely did anyone bump into another.

  Aliatta was so absorbed in the sights and smells of the place that she didn’t see the familiar faces until they were almost upon them. Before she could think to turn her head away or find a place to duck into, she heard a voice cry out.

  “Aliatta, Lady Aliatta, is that you? Surely, it can’t be, but it is!”

  Everyone on the street froze as three stately figures brought their horses to a halt directly before Aliatta and all who traveled with her. The girl who had spoken was taller than Aliatta by several inches. Her brown hair was intricately styled atop her head, and she wore a beautiful light blue riding habit which served to bring out the rich tones of her tanned skin.

  “Wow,” breathed Marnie from where she sat on the saddle behind Aliatta, “so that’s what a princess looks like when she isn’t running away.” Aliatta grimaced and turned to shush her little friend.

  The Lady Adina didn’t see the uncomfortable grimace of her friend, for she had turned to her parents, the Duke, and Duchess of Brance. “See Mother, I told you it was her!” she exclaimed.

  Aliatta, seeing there was no use pretending otherwise, summoned up what dignity she could in her travel-worn state and approached the lordly family to offer up the appropriate greetings.

  “Aliatta, whatever are you doing here?” the young lady asked once the courtesies had been exchanged.

  “Looking for you, of course,” sang Aliatta with a practiced smile. “You see, I’m … I’m on vacation.” Aliatta’s confidence began to falter as she realized she couldn’t come up with a viable, safe reason for her presence in the city. “I’ve—come to see you, actually, and—” Aliatta searched desperately for anything that might help her out of her current predicament. Her eyes settled on her brother. “You remember Sir Raz. He is, of course, serving as my bodyguard.”

  Raz took the hint and rode purposefully forward to stand protectively beside the Lady Aliatta. He had also met this family and, though he agreed with Aliatta that they seemed kind enough, they couldn’t afford to let their guard down.

  “Really?” Lady Adina asked an eyebrow cocked in doubt. She didn’t seem to be buying Aliatta’s explanation. Her eyes narrowed as she looked carefully at the young noble, then at those around her. There was whispered conversation between the noble family and then the Duke of Brance himself rode forward.

  Aliatta found herself growing more and more nervous and unconsciously started backing her horse up. Raz remained in his protective position, his hand resting lightly upon the hilt of his sword, alert and ready to spring into action if the situation called for it.

  The Duke ignored him and instead looked directly into Aliatta’s eyes. “We would like to welcome you, all of you, to our city of Brance,” he said. “May the King live forever.”

  Aliatta’s eyes brightened, and she gave a quick gasp before answering. “And His light never be extinguished,” she said hurriedly, her face relaxing into a smile.

  Lady Adina rushed forward, her face beaming with delight. “Come,” she exuded. “You must all come. You are our guests and are very welcome.”



  It was an impressive party that made its way through the streets and up towards Braewood Palace. The Duke and Duchess rode at the head, followed by Lady Adina and Lady Aliatta, with Marnie, who was having the time of her life. These girls were followed in pairs by the fourteen other horses carrying the sixteen other people who had been traveling with the Princess. All in all, it was quite the parade, and nearly everyone in the city stopped what they were doing to watch.

  When the assembly arrived at the castle, each individual was welcomed and treated with the highest regard. New clothing, made of the finest leather, was generously distributed.

  Swords of the highest quality were given to Elior, Raz, Ian, Faran, Benicio, and his teenage sons Sean and Zavier.

  “What about me?” asked Aliatta with envious eyes as she watched each of the men receive their weapons.

  “Your skills are by no means inferior to theirs, my lady,” said the Duke, bowing his head to her, “but your days of fighting with a sword are passed, at least for the time being. There are other things you will be engaged in learning, and I’m afraid a sword would only serve to distract you.”

  The twins, Reut, and Maya were each given a bow and quiver of arrows.

  “With practice, I believe these will suit you better than swords,” the Duke said with a knowing look.

  Grace was given a selection of the most beautiful plant dyes.

  Rosemary, Kamila, and Livna were each given cuts of the most valuable plants
in Brance.

  Giron and Henry were given wooden swords, and Marnie was given a puppy. “Take good care of him and he will stay by your side no matter what,” said the Duchess with a smile.

  In addition to the new clothes, Aliatta was given a collection of scrolls. “Many races pass through these gates,” explained the Duke. “These scrolls contain stories and wise sayings from each of them. May the study of these documents aid you in your service to the High King.”

  As for Levi, he would, at first, accept nothing more than the new clothing. “I have no use for a sword,” he stated casually. “I have other means of defense.” He did show an interest in the documents Aliatta received. This prompted the Duke to show him the library. After meticulously perusing the options, Levi chose a couple of scrolls and tucked them carefully away.

  Once everyone had received their gifts, they were taken to ornate bedchambers where they were able to wash away the dirt and grime of their past travels. Cleaned up and clothed in new garments, they made their way down to the dining hall where a large banquet had been laid. They feasted long into the night and slept late the next day.

  The sun was already high overhead when Aliatta awoke. She lay still for a while, relishing the soft, luxurious feel of the silk sheets. Now this was the kind of bed she could appreciate waking up in. It would have been tempting to lay there for the rest of the day had her stomach not growled, reminding her that many hours had passed since last night’s meal. With a reluctant sigh, she got up, dressed carefully, and made her way downstairs in search of food.

  Aliatta arrived in the dining hall to discover that most of her companions were on the same time schedule. Some appeared to have just been seated, others were coming in with her, and still more could be heard making their way down the hall. She gazed at the table fully laden with savory dishes. It seemed they had awoken just in time for the midday meal.

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