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The quest for hope, p.16
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       The Quest for Hope, p.16

           A. S. King
 
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  It was a merry group who gathered around the table, chattering and laughing as they ate. Aliatta found herself enjoying her surroundings in a way she had not done since Wintertide. They were about halfway through their meal when the door to the dining hall burst open, and a rough-shod young man came careening into the room.

  “Father!” he cried. His light, sun-bleached hair was windblown, giving evidence to a desperate ride, and his brown eyes blazed as he rushed over to the Duke.

  “Yes, Dedrick, what is it? What did you find in your wanderings?” asked the Duke, quickly and accurately assessing the nature of his son’s alarm.

  “Hellions, Father! Headed this way from the north—a large hoard of them—larger than any I’ve ever seen!”

  “Aliatta, this is due to your presence here, I presume,” said the Duke gravely, but not unkindly, as he turned to face her.

  Aliatta lowered her eyes. “I’m afraid I was not entirely honest with you about my reason for being here, my lord,” she said.

  “What?” responded Lady Adina in mock indignation. “You mean you didn’t come all the way from Earlington just to visit me?” The Lady’s eyes turned gentle. “Do not worry, my friend. We knew the High King had sent you here, and that was all we needed to know for the moment.”

  “What we need to know now,” said the Duke, “is where He has directed your journey’s end to be. If it is to be here, we will guard you with our life. But if your journey’s end is to be elsewhere, then we’d better help you be on your way as soon as possible.”

  Aliatta bowed her head in a gesture of humble thankfulness. “My journey’s end is elsewhere,” she said. “It is to end, I am told, in the valley of the Loyal Ones, but I do not know where that is. Levi has been my tutor and guide throughout this journey. If it pleases you, I need him to show me the way.”

  “Of course, he must go with you,” the Duke agreed. His gaze swept over the rest of those who sat at the table. “We will need help,” he said to them, “so if you are willing, I would appreciate your service in assisting us with the defense of this city. We must hold off the Hellions and give Aliatta time to escape.”

  “I offer you my service as a strategist and swordsman,” spoke Raz without hesitation.

  “My family and I offer you our services as well,” spoke Benicio. Sean and Zavier cheered at this pronouncement while his wife Livna smiled bravely.

  “My sister and I offer our service, too, my lord,” said Reut.

  The Duke nodded. “It is well. It is well, too, for Elior and Ian to take their families and accompany Aliatta to the valley of the High King. Elior, I can see the conflict waging within you, but you have been separated from your daughter long enough. Now your place is with your family, as is Ian’s and Faran’s, for though Faran is strong, his children are young, and they need him as much as your daughter needs you.” The Duke turned again to look at his son. “How long until they arrive?”

  “Nightfall for sure.”

  “Then we’d better get busy—as soon as we finish our meal. It may be the last full meal any of us will be able to enjoy for a while. Adina, once you have finished eating, go with Aliatta and help her prepare for the journey. I will send servants to attend the others who will be leaving. Livna, you will go with my wife. She will show you where you can be of service. Sir Raz, you will come with me. Everyone else will follow Dedrick to the armory. We will be ready.”

  The room lapsed into silence after the Duke’s instructions. The merry spirit of the meal had disappeared. In spite of the Duke’s suggestion that they finish eating, nobody was hungry anymore. Bit by bit, the members of the company excused themselves from the table and moved to do as the Duke had directed.

  It was quiet in the room where Adina was assisting Aliatta with her travel preparations. Though the girls did not know each other well, a fast bond had formed between them, and they were now feeling the loss of the coming separation.

  “Take these,” Adina said abruptly, handing Aliatta a pair of leather pants. “They are not the most glamorous things, but they are stretchy and comfortable and will make it easier to travel … And here, take these.” She handed Aliatta a handful of blank parchment. “I’ve heard you like to write,” she said by way of explanation. “Oh, and take these.” Here she produced a beautifully embroidered box. “It contains our most rare and effective healing plants.”

  Aliatta smiled, grateful and touched by the generosity of her friend, but inwardly hoping the kind girl would not give her anything more to carry. To her relief, she didn’t.

  A knock at the door momentarily interrupted the travel preparations. Raz entered and walked slowly across the room to where they stood, his travel bag laying across his shoulders.

  Aliatta looked at the bag, confused. “Are you going with us,” she asked hopefully.

  “No,” he said, shaking his head. He put the bag down and wrapped his little sister in a big bear hug.

  “I can’t believe I’m going to be separated from you again!” she cried.

  He hugged her tighter still and then released her to arm’s length. “Look at me, Little Liat,” he said. “Don’t forget that this day, this battle, belongs to the High King. Trust and hope that you will see me again. I will come and find you at the first opportunity. But right now, I must stay and fight. It is what I have been trained to do, and now, I can fully use my abilities in the service of the High King!”

  Aliatta nodded, tears still in her eyes. “I understand,” she said, surprised to discover she truly did.

  “Here, I brought you something,” he said. He reached into his bag and pulled out a beautiful satin dress. It was one of Aliatta’s own, the one he had stuffed into the bag before they left Earlington. “Put this on right before you are about to come upon the settlement. You will no doubt be greeted as royalty when you arrive, and you may as well look the part.” After a final hug, Raz turned and left the room.

  Aliatta looked at the dress wryly—one more thing to carry. Then she took it in her arms and hugged it close. If it had been important enough for her brother to bring all this way, then she would do him the honor and wear it. She tucked the dress carefully into her travel bag.

  By mid-afternoon, the eleven travelers were ready: Elior, Grace, and Aliatta, Levi, Ian and Rosemary, and Faran and Kamila with their children. Lady Adina took them down the corridor after corridor through the castle until they came to a steep stone staircase which wound its way even further down into the mountain. It was musty and, if they listened, they could hear the sound of running water in the distance. After what felt like a long time, they arrived at an underground stream.

  “This is where all of our water comes from,” explained Lady Adina. “There are four streams which flow beneath our city. Each stream is connected to a well on the surface. In this way, even if we are surrounded for a long time, we will never run out of the water and, it is also a way to escape, known to only a few of us. Follow this stream eastward and you will eventually emerge in the forests of the Livid. Goodbye, my friends. May the High King continue to guide you in your journeys.”

  “And in yours,” they replied.

  “Lady Adina,” Aliatta called as her friend turned to head up the stairs. “Do you really think you will be okay?”

  “Of course,” the lady said with a smile. “Didn’t you see the shining lights coming down to surround the city? It would be silly of us to think we are alone in our battles.” With that, Lady Adina began her ascent up the stairs, ready to take her place of service in the fight.

  After one last look at her disappearing friend, Aliatta turned to follow her companions to her journey’s end.

  32

  Salem Forest

  It was a quiet journey through the underground caverns. A soft glow of light surrounded them and continued on for several feet in front of them. Everywhere else was darkness. To their right, at the edge of the light, they could hear the sound of gently running water.

  “We have company,” Levi said with a s
mile, motioning to the light which encompassed them. The presence of an Erela was a cheering realization, one that served to lighten the mood of the whole group.

  After they had been walking in silence for quite some time, the children began to get antsy, for it is a hard thing for young ones to remain quiet for an extended period of time, and their ability to do so was running thin.

  Giron was the first to break the silence. “What is it like in the Valley of the Loyal Ones?” he asked.

  “Do you like living there?” asked Henry, following the lead of his older brother.

  “Have you always lived there?” piped up Marnie.

  “Children,” Kamila reprimanded them gently, “leave Levi alone. He needs to be able to concentrate on the way we are going. You don’t need to ask him so many questions.”

  Levi smiled, “It’s okay,” he said. “I would love to tell you about it. I was born there, Marnie, so yes, I have always lived there. In fact, I had never left or known anything different until I was sent to get Lady Aliatta. I love living there, Henry. As for what it’s like, well, you wake up every morning to the sight of the sun streaming its light across multi-colored mesas rising up to greet the high mountains behind them. If you listen carefully, you can hear the trees rustling, the birds singing, and the river gurgling. There are people from nearly every race living and working together. Everybody has work to do before breakfast, and while you eat, you talk to each other about what the High King showed you that morning—about himself, the people around you, and the world he gave us.”

  “It sounds perfect, almost too good to be true,” stated Aliatta softly. “Why on earth did you have to leave? Couldn’t someone else have come to get me?” she asked.

  “I didn’t have to leave. I was given the choice to go or stay. If I had said no to the task, if I had chosen to stay where I was comfortable, someone else would have been chosen to go. But I knew I wanted to serve the High King more than I wanted to remain in my own comfort. Maybe the High King knew I needed to see that there is a world in need. The world needs the peace and beauty you can experience in that valley. It is a good place to learn, to rest, to have a refuge, but it isn’t where the High King wants all of us to stay, at least not yet. I’ve now been able to see that there is a troubled world in desperate need of the things I’ve learned in that valley. If I keep it all to myself, where does it leave the world?”

  “So, I won’t be staying there forever?” Aliatta asked hesitantly.

  “I don’t know,” Levi replied. “I don’t know how the High King will lead you, but I would venture a guess that no, you won’t be there forever. All I really know is that I was sent to bring you to the valley and to teach you what I’ve learned along the way. It is probably safe to say that you will spend many years there until it is time for you to take what you have learned and share it with the rest of Novus, just as you shared your knowledge of reading and writing with the group in Wintertide.”

  The conversation continued and was a welcome change from the silence they had earlier been walking under. Levi never lost his concentration in leading them, as Kamila had been afraid he might, but seemed to grow ever more excited as they traveled. It was the kind of restless excitement one gets as they begin to feel in their bones that they are almost home.

  After a couple of days, they spotted a different kind of light ahead of them. It was natural light, the kind of light given by the sun, and not the supernatural light they had been receiving from the Erela. A short time later, they came up from the underground caverns and found themselves in a thick, lush forest. To the east, scarcely visible through the tops of the trees, majestic mountains thrust their peaks upward into the floating clouds above.

  Aliatta looked around and noticed that some of the trees were not trees at all. Rather, they were tall, broad Livids. Being much larger than those of the northern forests, these Livids more closely resembled full grown redwood trees. As the group walked onto the fresh green grass, the Livids bowed their heads and rustled their leaves in respectful Livid greeting.

  “Welcome, oh worthy servants of the High King,” rustled one of the Livids. “Welcome to our refuge, our home that is only visible to those who have eyes to see the Truth. Welcome back, Levi, conquering servant of the High King. You are now no longer an apprentice but have proven yourself to be a master. Welcome, Queen Aliatta. We of the Salem Forest are at your service. We have come to meet you and to accompany you on the final leg of your journey.”

  “Shalom. It is good to see you again, good teachers,” said Levi, bowing his head in a show of respect to his old tutors, “but I’m afraid you speak too soon in regards to your words about me, for I have not yet finished my task.”

  “Your humility does you credit, Master Levi, but indeed, my words are not premature, for, in the eyes of the High King, the moment you began was the moment you also completed. Even so, you will continue to journey with us to bring the Queen to the Valley of the Ronan. Before we begin, however, I sense you are all in need of rest, so sit now. Rest. Eat.”

  The Adamas gratefully sank down onto the soft, grassy forest floor (such a nice change from the cold, wet ground they had rested on in the caverns). Once they were all settled, the Livids gave them deep wooden bowls filled to the brim with a variety of fruits and nuts.

  While they ate, Aliatta engaged in a private conversation with Levi. “Why are they calling me Queen?” she whispered. She was not nearly bold enough to ask them directly. “I’m nowhere near being Queen. I don’t want to be Queen! I’ve never wanted to be Queen!”

  “Don’t you?” Levi whispered back in a gentle challenge. He looked deeply into her eyes.

  “Well—” Aliatta faltered. “I didn’t want to be Queen—not when the Duke and Duchess of Earlington told me I’d been chosen to be.”

  “What about now?” he persisted. “What about being Queen under the guidance of the High King, rather than the Dark One?”

  Aliatta paused and thought. She was surprised to discover that something within her had indeed changed. There was a desire which had never been there before. Something else began to dawn on her as well. She thought back to her grandmother’s words to her so many months before—back to before she’d even known Raziela was her grandmother. The High King promised me that one day, one of my descendants would help usher in a new age of light for the land, Raziela had said. Aliatta gasped in sudden realization. Her grandmother’s last words came to her again, only, this time, they made sense. You are my descendant— “That’s what my grandmother meant, isn’t it?” she said in breathless awe. “I’m her descendant. I’m the one the High King has chosen to be Queen so I can help bring back the light.”

  “Yes, the High King has chosen you, but like I did, you also have a choice. If you choose not to be Queen, then He will find another descendant of Raziela’s to complete the task.”

  “Then, I guess—” she said slowly, “I suppose, maybe, I’m willing to be that kind of Queen, as long as I have someone to show me the way.”

  “Well then,” said Levi with a shrug, “I can only suppose these Livids call you Queen for the same reason they call me a master—in the eyes of the High King, the moment you accept and begin the journey is the moment you have also completed it.”

  “I’m not sure I understand,” she whispered with a frustrated sigh.

  “Few do,” he said with a sympathetic smile. “You need to realize that the High King is beyond time. We see things as they progress from beginning to end. He sees these events, as well as all the ones in the middle, as one. Once you are among the Ronan, you will learn many more such things and, if you continue to have an open heart and an open mind, you will eventually grow to understand.”

  “On your feet, everyone,” bellowed one of the Livids. “We still have a long way to go, and it is time to get started!”

  The Adamas reluctantly stood to their feet, uncertain how much more walking their bodies would be able to take. Much to their surprise, they discovered a new streng
th, a new energy. They tiptoed at first, following the Livids south through the emerald forests and across a sparkling river via a bridge of well-placed stones. The Livids soon began to sing. It was a joyous little tune—one that made you want to skip and dance. The melody was beautiful and before long, Levi joined in the singing. Soon after, Aliatta gave in to the influence of the music and began to dance. She even took to humming along with the melody. The Livids looked at her with smiles of approval, and her heart felt light at the thought of having earned the support of such a noble people.

  The Livids sang for many hours. It wasn’t until they stopped to eat that the Livids ended their songs.

  As they sat relaxing and eating, a thought suddenly occurred to Aliatta. “Levi,” she said, “Who are the Ronan? You said I was going to be among them. Are you one of them?”

  “I am,” he replied, “and so are you. Ronan is simply the name given to those who are loyal and faithful to the High King. Many of the Ronan now reside in the Valley of the Loyal Ones, which is also known as the Valley of the Ronan. Most of the older inhabitants originally came from Zion, but there are people from nearly every race, from every part of Novus, there now, and as you saw on our journey, there are Ronan, who still reside in other parts of the country.”

  “How did the first group find that valley?”

  “That is a story which I think the Livids are better qualified to tell.” Levi raised his eyes in question to the Livid whose trunk was serving as their backrest.

  The Livid nodded and began the tale while everyone gathered close to listen.

  33

  The Loyal Ones

  “It was a time of great trial and testing for the loyal followers of Zion. Although they were spiritually protected, their bodies were still plagued with the consequences of the choice the King and Queen had made. Every day they fought an inner battle—a battle to conquer the darkness that so desperately wanted to take control. Every day, the followers of the High King had to decide: give in to the darkness, or rely on the strength and power of the High King.

 
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