A Path Through Their Hearts
By S. Johnson
Chelle woke with a start. No light filtered through the crack under her door, but her elven eyes needed none in order to see clearly in the faint moonlight that slipped through the curtains covering the oval window.
Her mother had finally stopped crying in the next room, her father trying in vain to comfort her. The news had hit both her parents hard, but Chelle still had trouble feeling anything but excitement. It’s what I’ve always wanted, isn’t it?
The slight sound came again, and this time Chelle recognized the noise that had awakened her as a light tapping on the window glass. Silently she slipped her feet over the edge of the bed, sliding over to the window to part the curtains and peer out.
Even to her eyes, the trees of the grove, with the stream flowing through and under a wooden bridge, presented themselves only in gradients of silver and black. A thick mist hugged the ground, so that even her mother’s abundant flowers, planted in rainbow bunches around the base of the house, were hidden from view. The shed where her parents housed the tools of their furniture-making business rose like a dark island out of the mist to her left.
And then Chelle saw movement.
For a moment she froze, terrified. It can’t be them. Fear churned in the pit of her stomach, and adrenaline coursed through her, leaving her shaking in the predawn dark. But then she made out a torso--a human torso, she thought--and two arms, silhouetted against a patch of reflected light from the stream. It was her friend, Sariah, using ranger signals to communicate soundlessly with Chelle. The tapping had come from gravel throw lightly against the glass--Chelle saw some pieces stuck on the ledge below the pane.
“If anyone sees her using those signals--” Chelle whispered to herself, angry at her terrified reaction, and then cut off as she deciphered what Sariah was signaling.
--Make no noise--come out as quietly as you can--leave a note--may not come back--your life in danger--
Chelle knew that Sariah, human and therefore lacking the almond-shaped eyes and enhanced vision that Chelle possessed, could not see her friend in the bedroom window, but Sariah had always been quick to spot movement, so Chelle snatched a white pillow and waved it back and forth. Sariah signaled that she had seen the movement, and Chelle replaced the curtains. She dressed quickly in the dark, silently slipping on her tunic and pants and tucking the cuffs into her calf-high boots, all a dark green-brown, then donning her belt and cloak. Careful not to forget her camping gear, she grabbed her pack and stuffed a few prized possessions into it, then strapped her longbow, staff, daggers, and quiver to her body. At the door she paused, clutching the heart-shaped locket around her neck, as fear lanced through her body again. What did Sariah mean? But Chelle knew better than to distrust her friend, even when she came bearing such an odd message.
Her room was on the second floor of the house, a house built into and around the trunk of the largest tree in the grove she called home. She slipped down the spiraling stairs, her elven skill allowing her soft boots to make no noise, passing first the ladder to her brother’s room on the third floor and then the door to her parents’ room, and only paused in the kitchen on the first floor to write a quick note to her parents. What do I say? It pained Chelle to think of her mother’s likely reaction to the note in the morning--she has enough reasons to worry about me already--but fright made her anxious to be away, to find out what Sariah’s message was and why she was using signals that only rangers were supposed to know.
Cool, damp air wafted against Chelle’s face as she slowly stepped into the grove, searching every shadow for movement. Nights were not safe anymore, not like they used to be, not even this close to Eliath City. Eliath Town, is more like it. The elder folk are always grumping about how it’s nothing like the real Eliath City, the one they knew, but no one’s ever been able to pass through the mountains again, so we’ll never know if they’re exaggerating. Chelle spotted Sariah and ghosted her way along the paths she knew so well until they met under the concealment of a huge pine near the bridge. The quiet lapping of the silvery waters, sounds she had grown up hearing, did little to still her fear.
--No one heard you?-- Sariah asked, still using ranger signals.
--Of course not-- Chelle replied, her hands jerking through the motions a little more harshly than she intended. --But what--
They both froze as a great patch of darkness appeared out of the mist. Chelle’s staff was out in front of her in a flash as she stepped instinctively in front of her more diminutive friend, who had just as quickly loaded a small, one-hand crossbow.
--What are you two doing outside in the middle of the night?--
Chelle relaxed again and let out a breath she didn’t realize she had been holding. She was only slightly comforted by hearing Sariah doing the same. Rangers don’t let fear rule them like this, Chelle thought disgustedly. But I’m not a ranger yet.
--Sariah woke me-- Chelle signaled to Ryais, her brother, who was just appearing through the fog. Actually, Ryais was not really her brother, just as Ryais’ father and mother were not truly hers. But they had adopted Chelle when she was only a few months old, so they were family to her, and Ryais was her closest friend.
No one would mistake Ryais for her true brother, though. Where her grace and slimness of limb, her height that allowed her to look directly into any man’s eyes, and her long, pointed ears marked her as an elf, his stocky build, fairly short stature, and plain ears marked him as human. He lacked her delicate features, as well as her straight, sunlight-blond hair and bright green eyes, having the more common brown-hair, brown-eyes combination. But she loved him still, loved him like a true brother, even the lack of reserve and carefree attitude that marked his humanity as clearly as his form. He might as well be my twin, we’re so similar in other ways. And, of course, Ryais saw her as his sister--his little sister, no less--and looked out for her. Like now.
--Do you even know how dangerous--
Sariah cut him off with a sharp, diagonal slash of her hand. --Chelle’s life is in danger. She has to leave right now, and secretly--
A strange look crossed Ryais’ face, and then his shaking hands formed the words: --Well, if she’s going, I’m going too--
“As am I,” came a whisper from behind Chelle. Her stomach flipped before she recognized Allian’s voice.
--Quiet-- Sariah motioned to her older brother. --What are you doing here?--
--Followed you here, dear sis-- Allian had his typical trickster’s grin on his face. Unless you knew him, thought Chelle, you’d never guess he’s the responsible one. Chelle, Ryais, Sariah, and Allian--the four friends who had been an inseparable unit all through school, by a variety of circumstances placed in the same class even though Chelle and Allian were older than the other two by a year. All four had wanted to become rangers for as long as they could remember, painstakingly teaching themselves the secret ranger signals by watching the few of those elite men and women who came to Eliath City. And by some miracle all four had been accepted, the news coming just yesterday. Human rangers were almost unheard of, and three of them--all from the same class, and all her close friends--was a blessing that she hadn’t dared hope for. But my parents don’t see it that way. Rangers were highly esteemed trackers and woodspeople, almost legendary for their skill in stealth and in reading nature’s signs, but now they were being used in dangerous reconnaissance missions and as border guards. Too many had died already.
--We need to leave right now-- Sariah’s hands barely formed the signals in her haste. --Chelle’s life--maybe all our lives--are in grave danger--They’ll be here any minute!--
As if to confirm Sariah’s words, faint sounds came to Chelle’s ears from somewhere to their right. She knew her friends did not have her keen hearing, but the look on her face must have been unmistakable, because Allian immediately set out in the opposite direction, nocking an arrow to his bow as he went. In minutes the mist flowed gently around the deserted base of the pine tree.
--My parents-- Chelle signaled to Sariah.
--They won’t be harmed--it’s you they want-- came the reply.
Chelle could barely steady her hands on her longbow as the four shadows sped through the forest. Arrows have never stopped them before. At least not until they were as spiky as hedgehogs with them. Fire worked best, but of course fire arrows would give their position away. And so they ran for their lives, none of them making more noise than a slight wind through the forest.
Howls rose up through the mist behind them, the unearthly wails wrapping like cold fingers around Chelle’s mind. As fast as the friends ran, still the sounds came closer. Shadows began appearing through the silvery shroud that still hugged the ground, huge bestial shapes that spoke of the terror plaguing all of Eliath City and the surrounding homesteads. We’re being flanked, Chelle thought desperately.
She took the lead as a cloud crossed the moon, plunging the area into almost total darkness for everyone but Chelle--and them. The friends slowed, only Chelle able to keep the pace in the near-total darkness. Her friends followed close behind her, holding each others’ hands to keep from losing the way, as Chelle led them in a dodging, twisting path through the trees. Allian’s fingers gripped Chelle’s tighter than necessary as the forms closed in. Some growled and backed away momentarily as bolts from Sariah’s crossbow thudded into their thick skin, but soon they were back again. Time was running out.
The physical and mental stress from their flight had dulled Chelle’s fear until it was only a cold ball in the pit of her stomach, and as exhaustion began to set in, her training took over. She scanned the area for breaks in the pack, and as one appeared, thanks to Sariah’s crossbow, she dove through it, pulling Allian’s hand from hers as she went into a long roll and came up facing the menacing shadows. Desperately she sent arrows flying into the half-visible forms, some of them little more than ten feet away.
“Run!” She screamed to her friends.
“Just go! I can see better in the dark than you! Head for Eliath City and get help!” Chelle knew none would--none could--be given. Even as she spoke arrows came streaking from her bow as she beat back the shapes materializing out of the mist, inhuman arms reaching for them.
“We’re not leaving you,” came a voice at her right, and she saw Ryais grimly pulling something from a pouch at his belt. His flint box! Maybe we have a chance--
But all of their movements were beginning to slow from exhaustion, as Chelle, Sariah, and Allian fought in a circle, arrows flying from their bows almost as fast as they could be nocked. Chelle knew that, alone, she with her elven body could most likely slip through the misty forest and get away, but she would not leave her friends.
A tiny bright speck appeared, then flared as Ryais nursed the small flame into being on the end of one of his arrows. He quickly passed it around to the others, who lit their arrows and sent the burning lengths of wood into the fog. Howls came, this time wails of pain, not of the chase, but there were too many grotesque shapes surrounding the friends, and closing fast.
Chelle turned to fire an arrow past Ryais, only to see him tug his sleeve back down his right arm, a flaming arrow held so tightly in his hand that his knuckles were turning white. I hope he’s not hurt. But Chelle had no time to ask, and he quickly nocked and fired the arrow, so Chelle assumed he was fine.
Suddenly a series of growls and grunts, and then the long, piercing note of a horn, sounded to their right, and to their surprise the beasts began backing away. Elated, the friends sent more arrows slamming into the beasts, but soon the forest went silent around them, only the flowing fog lending any sense of movement to the scene.
“What--they retreated?” Chelle stared in shock, as fear, held in check by the adrenaline of the fight, burst from the cold ball in her stomach.
“Let’s not question. Run--we can’t be far from the city.” Sariah’s voice came rough and tight.
And so they ran, holding each other up to keep from falling in exhaustion. Sometime during the fight, the cloud cover had broken, and the forest was lit by the quiet silver glow of the moon. Soft streamers of light drifted through the forest canopy, dappling the ground and giving the fog an aura of great depth.
Ryais caught Chelle as she fell, her elven form not made for extended periods of exertion, and easily hoisted her into his arms as they broke from the cover of the forest onto the burned and desolate stretch of land that surrounded the walls of Eliath City. Even with the fog, the guards could clearly see the friends’ approach--and their humanoid shapes. Cries went up for a small gate in the walls to be opened, and the three young humans, with Chelle still in Ryais’s arms, plunged gratefully through the small opening, gasping for air as the gate slammed shut behind them.
* * * *
The first heralding of the dawn was beginning to glow above the mountains to the east as the four friends were led to a single room right under the roof of an inn near the walls of the city.
“Wish I could give you better,” the innkeeper sighed wearily, “but with all the recent refugees from the nearby homesteads ...”
“This room is fine. Thank you. Here’s something for your trouble.” Allian smiled gently as he pressed a coin into the woman’s hand. That’s just like Allain, Chelle thought, leaning tiredly against the wooden walls of the narrow hallway. She followed him into the cramped room as the innkeeper squeezed past them to the stairs at the end of the corridor.
“Sariah, you and Chelle take the beds. Allian and I can sleep on the floor,” Ryais said as all four of them crowded into the room. Besides the two small beds, it held a pitcher and washbasin on a stand against the opposite wall, and small chests at the foot of each bed. A candle in a holder on the same wall as the door provided a sparse illumination. There would be just enough room for the two young men to stretch out on the floor.
“No arguments,” Allian quipped as Sariah opened her mouth stubbornly. She glanced at Chelle and shrugged. The four shared the cold water from the basin to wash their faces and hands, turning the water a murky brown, and then retired to their respective beds. Allian, lying closest to the door, blew out the candle.
After a few minutes, Chelle broke the silence in the room. “Sariah, what’s going on?” Chelle could hear Sariah slowly sit up and adjust her shoulder-length light-brown hair, as she always did when she wanted to collect her thoughts.
“My father was at a council meeting last night. Just after sunset an arrow had thudded into the main gates of the city with a sheet of paper stuck on the end. The guards knew it had to have been from them because the arrow had been shot from within the concealment of the forest, and no human or even elf could shoot that far.” She paused. No one spoke.
“The paper and arrow were brought to a hastily called council meeting that night. The note simply stated that the council was to hand Chelle over, or suffer the consequences.
“Of course the council wouldn’t do such a thing, and they felt relatively secure within the walls of the city. They were going to warn you by messenger this morning, because it isn’t safe to travel at night, so they doubled the guards and started to prepare for an attack. The council didn’t think that the enemy would act until at least tomorrow night.
“But I knew something felt wrong. Someone had to warn you, Chelle. They’re vicious beasts--who knew what they would do? So I had to come warn you. I didn’t tell my parents. The guards have probably notified the council--and my father--of our arrival already. I’ll wager I’m in trouble, too,” she added as an afterthought.
“That ... that was very noble of you, Sariah. I owe you my life--”
“Don’t mention it,” Sariah broke in quickly. “On my way over, I began noticing signs of unusual activity, and the forest was too quiet, like it was hiding and holding its breath or something. Apparently, they had somehow already found out where you were--I still don’t know how. That’s why I used only signals, and that’s why I had us hurry.”
Chelle shivered, terrified by how close she had come to being killed. And killed viciously--they’re never merciful or fast. She tried to focus on Sariah’s story to keep from crying out with sheer fright, fiddling with the locket on the chain around her neck. “Sariah, how did you get past the walls of the city? They never would have let you through the gates in the middle of the night.”
“Same way as I got out after I heard her leave the house,” Allian chuckled. “Pre-ranger climbing training isn’t useful only for scaling trees and cliffs, y’see. And I knew, dear sis, that after everything our father told us about the council meeting, you’d be off to warn Chelle in a flash. That’s why I was awake when you left--I knew you were going to be foolhardy and do it, and that I was going to be foolhardy and follow without telling.”
“Did the council discover why they wanted me, though?” Chelle was grateful her voice did not shake.
“Chelle, you were easily the most promising student in pre-ranger training. They probably feel that you’re a major threat to them.”
“Sariah, even if I am the best--which I highly doubt--you three are close seconds. Why not you as well? How would they even know about our skills? And what could one ranger--or even four!--do against so many?”
“First of all, you know they have human go-betweens and spies--dirty traitors--who could have passed information to them about potential threats. And everyone has been touting you as our greatest hope ever since you were just a little tot. I think the bigger question is, how did anyone know where to find you? Not many people know where you live.” Allian’s usually gentle voice was tight.
“I don’t know ... “ Chelle sighed. Silence reigned again as exhaustion caught up with the four friends.
But, tired as she was, Chelle couldn’t sleep. She listened as her friends’ breathing grew slower and deeper, the events of the day running through her head. She relived the flight from her home, the chase, the fight, and the relief of finally entering the protection of the walled city. And she hated the close confines of the inn room, missed the familiar sounds of the nighttime forest that she heard at home. Often she would climb through her bedroom window, up through the thick, close boughs of the tree, and sleep on a platform she and her brother had built, out under the stars.
“Can’t sleep, Chelle?” came a soft whisper from the floor, loud enough for only her elven ears.
“No.” She paused. “Thanks for coming, Ryais. It makes me feel safe to have you near.”
“That’s what brothers are for.” Her brother’s voice sounded thick, as if he were struggling not to cry. Ryais never cries, Chelle thought. Several minutes of silence passed.
“I’ve ... I’ve never been so terrified as I was tonight.” She paused.
“It’s okay to be scared, Chelle. All of us were.”
“But we’re going to be rangers. Rangers are never afraid.”
When Ryais answered, Chelle could hear the smile in his voice. “Do you remember your first flying lesson?”
“Of course.” Chelle had wanted to learn to fly on the backs of the great eagles for as long as she could remember. It was another reason she wanted to be a ranger, although the number of eagles left were dwindling. But some had been spared to teach the young would-be flyers how to ride. “I was so scared that I was crying as the teachers attached the safety cords.” The memory came back, lying on the back of a huge eagle, staring over the edge of a canyon, feeling the hot air of the updraft loosen strands from her braided hair, crying both from fear and from shame.
“And do you remember what your teacher told you? ‘No fear of flying, no fear of falling. If you’re not afraid to fly, you’re not afraid to fall--and everyone’s afraid of falling.’ It was okay to be afraid, but not to let that stop you. So you let the eagle take off, and by the time your lesson was over, you were all smiles. You loved it.”
“Yeah, I remember. But I never got over my fear of falling off the birds, you know. I just love flying more.”
“Exactly. You didn’t let fear stop you.”
“I’m sorry you had to carry me there at the end.”
“Don’t mention it. It kinda reminded me of that story Father used to tell us about the War.”
Waves of homesickness and worry for her parents washed over Chelle; she could almost hear her father’s voice as he recounted that tale to his children. It was right when the tides turned against us, he would say. When things were getting worse and worse. We thought we had driven them all the way out through the pass, and we foolishly followed their retreat, only to find they had greater numbers than we had ever suspected. They cut us off from the pass--from our homeland. Our men turned and fought, fought to get back to our families, but eventually we had to run the other way. That’s one thing we could do, though--run, and faster than them. Some of the dwarves with us bravely sacrificed their lives for our homes by breaking through to the pass, and exploding the walls so that the very mountains rang and avalanches crashed all around. They died there, but not before taking many of the beasts with them. When the beasts saw that all of our hope of retreat had been cut off--as well as their path to the rest of Eliath--they left to tend to their wounds, knowing they could pick us off at their leisure. But the humans, elves, dwarves, and eagles who had survived were tougher than they thought. We found high ground, and built New Eliath City, put walls around it, and learned how to defend ourselves. Eventually we fought the beasts off until we could expand beyond the walls, creating farmlands and pastures and homesteads apart from the crowded city life.
I was only a young man at the time, barely through fighter training. I had never seen such horror and carnage before. The only thing that kept me sane in all that craziness was my best friend, Laimal. Just when we turned to retreat to higher ground, I discovered that Laimal had been knocked down. Without thinking, I picked him up, threw him over my shoulder, wounded as I myself was, and ran with him to safety. Later he thanked me, and I told him that that’s what friends do. I would do anything for my friends.
“But how do you define ‘friend’? their mother would ask half-teasingly. Mother had been one of the nurses who had followed the army through the pass, only to be trapped on the other side. “Would you have done the same for an acquaintance?”
“Who are my friends? Anyone in need is my friend,” her husband would reply seriously.
“Like Chelle?” little Ryais would pipe up. “She was in need.”
“Yes, like Chelle. Wife, your actions answered your own question. You found Chelle on the slopes just outside the pass, just another one of the prisoners the beasts had abandoned in their apparent flight, and took her in, even though you had enough problems on your hands already.” Her parents would smile at each other and then at the two children, holding them close ...
Chelle woke with a start. A small sliver of light filtered between the door and its frame, enough for her eyes to see a figure looming over her bed, hands reaching for her neck. Just before she screamed, she noticed an odd design on the right forearm, which was angled toward the light coming from the door.
Her scream woke the others, and at the same instant she gathered her legs to her chest and kicked out hard into the figure before her. She heard a rough grunt and Allian’s voice as he cried out in pain. In the ensuing scuffle, the door was flung open, the light that it let through hardly enough to illuminate the room. After several moments, Sariah had the candle lit, and the four friends stared around the room. The room was empty, save for them. All of them stood, breathing hard and nursing various bruises.
“What--” The innkeeper burst into the room, followed by her rather burly husband, she clutching a lantern, he a stout staff.
“Someone broke in--he was reaching for my neck--I think it was one of them--” Chelle was shaking.
“Oh no ... That--that can’t be possible ...” She rubbed her face in worry. “My apologies--an inn should be safe for its guests ...” Allian made a gesture of dismissal. “Well, we just received word anyway--the council will see you now. You should hurry.”
* * * *
Sariah, Allian, Chelle, and Ryais stood in a line, facing the rectangular wooden table with the ten council members seated around it. The mediator and tiebreaker, Jeliah Kense, sat at the opposite end with his slim arms folded across his chest, facing the four friends. The men and women of the council, dressed in their long purple robes of office, wore grim expressions. Ambient light from the late-afternoon sun floated through the glassed-in wall behind Chelle, giving the wooden walls of the meeting room a rich texture. On the other side of the glass, grass sloped down to the banks of a small, tree-shrouded pond, surrounded by flowers in full spring bloom. The people may live in a walled city, Chelle thought, but they haven’t lost touch with the wilderness they so love. It reminded them of their homelands, on the other side of the Black Teeth Mountains that rose in the distance to the east.
“I ... I’ve told you, Leader Denneis, of everything I brought with me. There can be nothing of value there.”
Chelle’s pack lay open in the middle of the table, her belongings, even her longbow and staff, laid out in neat piles. She tried to answer as politely as she could, but all were feeling frustrated, and her patience with the endless questioning was growing thin.
“But there must be something.” Leader Kense’s voice was tight. “Once they discovered you were not at home, they left immediately, without harming your parents. And then they try to attack you while you’re in an inn inside the city itself. They wanted to catch you, or something you have. And so far our only surmise is that they so desperately want to capture a young elf-maiden, who, although showing promise in ranger training, does not have any vital inside information, does not hold any secret weapons, does not even have any idea why they might be after her. They may be beasts, but they’re not stupid.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Chelle saw Allian push his wavy brown hair out of his eyes and smile at her encouragingly. He was the only one whose temper still held. Exasperated, Chelle fiddled with her locket, desperately searching her mind once again for any reason they might want her. And how they seem to know where I am all the time. They’re always only one small step behind!
“Sir, I have told you--”
“What’s that you’re playing with, child?” The only elf on the council, Iellah Kendell, had a voice that was thin and reedy with age, but her mind was as sharp as a knife’s edge.
“This? This is a locket that my parents gave me. My birth parents,” she added quickly. “Ryais’s mother found me wearing only the locket and a blanket.”
“Let us see it, if you will.” Hesitantly, Chelle unclasped the chain from her neck and handed it to the old elf-woman. Chelle never took it off, and now she felt naked without it, even though gnarled hands held it only a few feet away from her.
Iellah studied the gold locket for a few moments, twisting and turning it, and then gasped. She looked up intently into Chelle’s face, and nodded to herself.
“Of course ... The slight tip to the eyes, their pure green color, the lighter gold highlights in her hair ... Why didn’t we see it before ...!” Other council members were nodding now, too, their eyes as wide as children’s.
“It is a rumor. We do not know if it is true.” Kense’s voice, though hard and authoritative, was ineffective in extinguishing the sense of excitement in the room.
“But the writing on the locket--it is the language of the Ellerall!”
Kense cut her off. “Which helps to explain her amazing propensity for ranger skills. As well, I might add, as her tendency to go ‘exploring’ and ‘adventuring’ during class hikes. Yes, Chelle, word did get around from your teachers about your role as ringleader in those ‘expeditions.” He smiled slightly. Chelle could feel her face heat. She hadn’t known her wanderlust--and lack of respect for rules--to be such common knowledge.
“Child, do you know what you are?” Telorkand Bokp was of an age with Iellah in dwarven reckoning, his hair and long beard a snow white, and just as quick. His voice was grandfatherly as he leaned across the table towards Chelle.
Chelle glanced at her friends. Ryais shrugged back at her, but Sariah and her brother stared at her as if she were an apparition. Turning back to Leader Boll, she replied, “Well, sir, I’m an elf, like Iellah.”
“You are an elf, yes, but not like Iellah. Iellah is an Ameril elf. You, however, are an Ellerall, and I cannot believe we did not see it before. The Ellerall are elves, as well, close relatives of the Ameril, but they constitute a more reclusive race, and a more mysterious. Their rapport with the natural world is unsurpassed. They maintained an alliance with the humans and other elves when we lived across the mountains, but mostly they wanted to be left to themselves.
“When the enemy first started to come over the mountains, a grand council of all peaceful races was called to determine at how many places the mountains could be crossed. It was concluded that the only accessible route was the pass, the mountains unpassable for many, many miles in either direction from there. However, there was a suggestion--” he paused, glancing at Kense; “a rumor that the queen of the Ellerall had appeared before the council, telling them of one other route through the mountains that ended in the domain of the Ellerall. She swore them to secrecy, promising that it was carefully guarded and locked, and begging the council not to destroy it, or even to let its existence be known.
“Of course, when the pass was destroyed, some began searching for this alternate route back to our homes. It was never found.”
Iellah raised her leathery face from staring at the locket. “I can translate most of the writing, I believe,” she said quietly. “But I cannot open the locket. Would you like me to read what it says aloud?”
The incongruous thought occurred to Chelle at that moment that one of her most treasured dreams was to stand before this same council. However, she had wanted to stand before it to receive the conferral of rangerhood, not to be interrogated. My dream to be a ranger seems so insignificant now, she noted wryly. She was beginning to feel a little lightheaded. Kense nodded to Iellah.
“The symbol engraved in the center of the hearts, on each side, is the symbol of the throne of the Ellerall rulers. On one side, the writing translates roughly to, ‘The servant of the people,’ which is what the Ellerall call their kings and queens. Such a locket as this, with the royal symbol and phrase, would only be worn by the rightful ruler of the Ellerall. On the other, it says, ‘The door lies open in your heart.’ Actually, the literal translation would be “through your hearts,’ but I am assuming it is an idiom.”
Wooden chairs creaked and cloth rustled as the council members shifted in their seats. Chelle looked at Ryais. He seemed lost in thought, as did Sariah and Allian, who would not stop staring at the golden-haired elf.
Finally Allian spoke. “So does that make Chelle the ruler of the Ellerall? Or the heir to the throne or something?”
“No. That is the odd part. Rulers are chosen through election; their is no ‘heir’ to the throne. But Chelle cannot be the rightful ruler, if what you say about her adoption is true. She could hardly have been chosen to be their leader as an infant.”
“Did the Ellerall ... did my people fight with the others?” Chelle looked to Leader Boll.
“In the beginning, yes. But when the council decided to pursue the beasts through the mountains, the Ellerall queen alone stood against the proposal. Somehow she feared that what actually did happen would come to pass. The Ellerall formed a home guard and remained behind. When they saw us cut off from the pass, some tried to clear a path back for us, but they were never a numerous people, and the war had taken its toll on their army. They could not save us.”
Silence reigned again until Sariah broke the impasse by stating what no one would in Kense’s presence. “I’ll bet the beasts think that Chelle, the only Ellerall on this side of the mountains, holds the key to the other pass through the mountains. Either they want to find it, to finish what they started, or they don’t want us to find it, or both. But how did they discover her heritage, when you only just recognized it? And how would they know what it signifies?” No one answered.
After a few more minutes of fruitless discussion, the council dismissed, agreeing to meet the next day for further discussion. Chelle and her friends were to stay in the city, available for further questioning and hopefully safer from possible attacks.
Chelle felt overwhelmed as they walked out into the sunshine and onto the stone-paved square where merchants were closing their stalls and packing up their wares. Smells of dinner being cooked and fresh flowers lifted to her nostrils on the slight breeze. Now what? She knew the answer, though. She took a deep breath.
“I’ve never heard any of this before.” Her voice shook only a little as she turned to face her friends, stepping towards them so that she could keep her voice low as a portly woman hurried past. “But if everything we just heard is true, I don’t have a choice. I must leave. If this secret pass exists, I have to find it. Even if it doesn’t, I can’t stay here. The beasts won’t allow us any chance of escape, and I must lead their focus away from the city, our last bastion of survival. You will be safe here--”
“Well, now that that’s decided, how soon can we be ready to leave?” Allian said cheerfully, smiling. Chelle opened her mouth to argue, but then closed it without a word. She knew it was selfish not to protest, knew she was leading her most beloved friends into terrible danger, yet she could feel nothing but relief that she would not be going alone.
* * * *
“Ryais!” Chelle squealed as cold water splashed down her neck. She deftly scooped up a handful from the stream and retaliated, just as Sariah and Allian splashed Ryais for doing the same to them. Laughing, Ryais splashed back until Allian tackled him and shoved him entirely into the water. As he fell, Ryais grabbed Allian’s leg, and soon they were both gasping in shock as they surfaced.
“Cold!” Allian shivered as he climbed back onto a rock on the bank, holding out his hand for Ryais to climb up beside him. Chelle and Sariah looked at each other, grinning, then went to join them. All four lay down and stared up at the light-dappled branches above them, until Ryais squeezed the water out of his tunic sleeve right onto Chelle’s neck. Soon they were all laughing again as Chelle shot upright and gave Ryais a dirty look.
I’m glad to see him like this, Chelle thought as she lay back down, smiling. They had been traveling for nearly a week, with no signs of pursuit, and they were now high in the foothills of the Black Teeth Mountains. Ryais, usually so carefree and mischievous, had been uncharacteristically quiet at the start. But now he seems fine. He was probably just worried. Actually, all of us have been quiet lately--Allian and Sariah too.
The four friends dried off, ate a quick lunch of fruit and journeybread, and then continued onward. They had headed straight for the mountains from the beginning, but none really knew where they were headed. Chelle was supposed to be leading them, but even she was unsure of where to go, and so followed wherever her fancy lead her. Or maybe I’m following my heart, she thought wryly, watching a black raven wing overhead to the west. They had seen a lot of ravens lately, but Allian would not let them waste their arrows on the birds. A lot of ravens, most headed west, back to where my home is. My home, and my parents ...
That night they camped on a high, flat outcropping of rock that provided a clear view for miles around. Stunted trees grew on its crown, enough so that their own silhouettes would be hidden from sight. Nevertheless, they did not light a fire. Chelle took the first watch.
She climbed up into the branches of one of the trees and looked off across the miles toward Eliath City, too far away to see. At the very edge of her vision, she could see the forested plains of her home. Closer to their campsite, hills, some quite large, rose and fell, some forested, some barren, in places opening into ravines or valleys. Chelle glanced at the myriad stars in the cloudless night sky, and then looked off to the north and south. With a start she realized that they had finally left the foothills and were now in the mountains themselves. The faint sounds of a waterfall somewhere to her right reached her ears as she watched a bird glide slowly through the air in the distance.
This was what she loved to do, traveling and camping and watching life happen. She let her mind wander and soar on the breeze that gently brushed her face, bringing the scent of late-blooming wildflowers from some hidden crevice.
With a start she brought her attention back to the shallow valley that stretched away from the foot of the outcropping of their camp. For several moments she stared, not moving, and then she saw it again. Movement. It was fairly far away still, probably a day’s journey away, but her fear grew as she sat, frozen, leaning against the tree trunk. She could not distinguish individual shapes, but she could see that there was too much motion over too large an area for there to be any doubt in her mind. It was a pack of them, and they were coming.
As Chelle slipped down the tree to wake the others, her mind filled with questions. How did they find us? We covered all our tracks, we didn’t tell anyone of our plans--we don’t even have plans!--and we haven’t been headed in a straight line at all. We’ve crossed enough rivers for them to lose our scent--
The other three came instantly awake at her slight touch, and she whispered to them of what she had seen. They had no choice but to set out again, traveling both night and day with only short stops for food and rest. The mountains rose high above them all around now, ravines slowing their progress in places, cliffs completely blocking it in others.
All enjoyment of the journey had fled, and they walked mostly in silence. One morning, Sariah asked the question that was on all of their minds.
“How did they find us? And how are they following us? We may not be rangers yet, but we are not novices at covering our trails. I don’t think even we could retrace our own steps. And yet we have seen signs of pursuit behind us several times now, and they grow closer every day!” Her voice broke with frustration and tension.
No one answered. Chelle tried to think of something else, to avoid the conclusion--the paranoid, completely impossible conclusion!--that kept nagging at the back of her mind. They follow so well because someone is leading them. One of my friends could be a traitor. She pushed the accusing voice out of her mind, angry for even thinking it. But the voice would not stop.
On the third night after seeing the first signs of their pursuers, Chelle fell asleep planning in her mind how she would break away from her friends. She hated to abandon them, but they could take care of themselves easily in the wilds, and hopefully the beasts would follow her, not them. Chelle didn’t know what she would do, where she would go, but she could not endanger her friends any longer. Nor could she bear the voice that still whispered in her mind of treason.
She woke with a start and screamed as hands closed around her neck. A figure, looming over her, was silhouetted against a partially-covered moon. The hands jerked back, but not before anger and frustration pushed terror from her mind. She launched herself at the shape, taking it the the ground and latching her hands on its clothing. She would not let it get away this time.
They struggled, rolling on the ground, for several moments as the others, awakened by Chelle’s scream, lit a torch and tried to help, but could find no opening. Just before her attacker broke away, its hood fell back, exposing its face to the torchlight.
It was Ryais.
Chelle screamed again as Ryais sped away in the night, back towards the west. She tried to get to her feet, tried to follow, screaming his name, but found something holding her down. It was Allian, and she saw tears in his eyes as she collapsed in his arms. Sariah stood to the side, torch in hand, staring in shock into the woods where Ryais had fled.
Allian and Sariah lit a small fire as Chelle sat numbly on the cold ground. Ryais is the traitor. How could he do this to me, to us?
“Maybe there’s some other explanation,” she said weakly as the other two joined her around the small flame.
Sariah stared at Chelle for a long time, and then glanced at Allian before speaking. “Chelle, that can’t be true, and in your heart you know it. What’s more, when you two were wrestling on the ground, Allain and I saw a mark--a tattoo--on Ryais’s forearm.” She paused. “His sleeve had been pushed up, almost to the elbow, and about halfway up, clear as day, was their mark.”
“It can’t be true.” Chelle wiped tears from her cheek. “He’s my brother. He wouldn’t do this. Why would he do it?”
“Chelle, we don’t know why he would betray us like this, but there is no way he can talk his way out of this. They found your house, they found our room at the inn--no, that must have been him at the inn!--and they’ve been following us for a week and a half now.” Allian stopped and looked up suddenly. “The ravens. I should have known it wasn’t natural. He’s been sending messages by raven.” Sariah nodded. Chelle just sat and stared into the fire. He’s my brother. Well, at least I’ve always thought of him that way. She thought of all the times that he had stuck up for her, comforted her, laughed with her. She thought of the nights they had stayed up late telling each other ghost stories, and the platform they had built in the branches above their house. Ryais is--was--my best friend. He has always been there for me. Why would he do this?
* * * *
As morning dawned, Chelle tried to convince her friends to let her continue the journey on her own, but they would hear nothing of it. Numb and too tired to argue, Chelle gave up. She would just sneak away on her own that night.
Over a cold, gloomy breakfast they discussed their plans. Actually, Allian and Sariah discussed options; Chelle just sat and picked at her food. Allian thought that they should continue their journey, or even head back to Eliath City. Sariah, on the other hand, kept arguing in her typically blunt manner that they should track Ryais and confront him.
“But he probably went back to them, sis. Following would be suicide!”
“Well, we obviously can’t go back to Eliath City, and how long can we wander around here before they catch up to us! We don’t have any specific goal, no idea where we’re going, remember?”
“We cannot let them catch Chelle, no matter what. That would mean they’ve won, not to mention that it’s unthinkably dangerous! So we can’t follow Ryais back into their waiting arms. Or should I say ‘teeth,’ if you’ve forgotten what we’re dealing with here!”
“You two could go back to the City and let me go on alone.” Allian and Sariah ignored Chelle’s comment.
In the end, though, Sariah’s plan won out, if only because Chelle, too, wanted to confront Ryais, and because they really didn’t have any other feasible options. But Allian first made them promise that if Ryais’s tracks seemed to be leading to the beasts, they would turn back.
They walked all day, easily following Ryais’s wild dash through the forest. He had made no effort to hide his progress, and by late afternoon they could tell that they were gaining on him. They could also tell, though, that he was leading them straight to their camp, as Ryais’s path crossed theirs and then turned to follow it to the northeast.
Allian stopped them soon after Ryais’s path merged with the other.
“We are not going any further. You two promised. There is no point in following him any longer! His trail is hours older than theirs. There can be no doubt of his loyalties now.” Allian’s face was set, his arms folded across his chest.
Chelle stood, staring off into the forest, green eyes not seeing the broken branches and huge, clawed prints in the soft ground. Sariah turned to Allian, hands on her hips, but before she could begin to argue, Chelle said, “You’re right, Allian. We gave our word, and a promise is a promise. So you and Sariah will be staying here.”
“As will you,” Allian said firmly.
Chelle shook her head firmly. “I’m breaking my promise.” She knew she wasn’t making much sense, but she didn’t care. “I’m going on, but I’m not going to let you come with me. It’s too dangerous, and besides, someone needs to send word to the council, telling them what happened. But I’m going on.” She turned and started walking through the trees.
“Alright then, I guess we’re going.” Sariah sounded exasperated and exchanged a look with her brother as she and Allian began to move forward.
But when they looked again, Chelle was gone.
* * * *
Chelle’s slim elven form slipped easily past the pitiful guards at the edges of the enemy camp as she ghosted her way up the slight incline and to the edge of a clearing. Fires burned in random places in the camp, with chaos and disorder ruling supreme. She quietly skirted the edge of the clearing, keeping out of sight and downwind of the camp, searching for any sign of Ryais. She grew more and more anxious as the setting sun sent slanting rays across the camp but revealed no sign of her brother. My enemy, she corrected herself. But anxious as she was to find him, for once she felt no fear, even though she was within easy range of the beasts. In fact, she felt more numb than anything else.
One side of the clearing ended in a steep cliff that dropped down hundreds of feet into a rocky river below. The forest surrounded the clearing on all other sides. Chelle reached the edge of the cliff and was about to turn around when she caught sight of two silhouettes against the setting sun. Two human silhouettes.
The elf crept closer, making no noise as she snaked between concealing rocks. She paused behind one of the larger ones, not more than eight feet from the two humans and a crowd of them. Chelle shivered in horror as she caught a whiff of the stench, like rotting flesh, that rolled off their huge, twisted bodies. They walked upright, and held a motley assortment of weapons in thick, hairy hands that sprouted from corded, muscled arms. But their torsos were too large and barrel-like to be mistaken for human torsos. Their faces were in no way human, and were not even identifiable as those of animals, though they had snouts and long, sharp teeth like canines. Small, evil black eyes stared hungrily at Ryais and a tall human male, near the edge of the cliff.
Chelle had to cover her mouth to keep from crying out when she saw Ryais. His face was covered with blood, and more ran from numerous wounds on his body. He cringed before the tall, dark-haired man before him, who sneered with disgust at the boy. Well, this is what he deserves for siding with them. This is what he gets, Chelle thought.
“You have failed us, boy.” The man’s voice was nasally and slightly high-pitched, his posture melodramatically arrogant, but Chelle could tell that no one would dare cross him. His very stance exuded violence and threat.
“I--I tried my best, Master, but--”
“Silence! Do not waste your breathe on your pitiful excuses. Your efforts do not matter, only the results! We gave you ample opportunities, but you have nothing to show for it!” He backhanded Ryais across the face. Where does this guy get off, talking like that? Chelle thought. He’s crazy!
“If you give me one more chance--”
The man sneered dramatically again. “I don’t think so, boy. From now on we do things our way. You have outlived your usefulness to us!” He snapped his long fingers, and two of the nearest beasts stepped to each side of Ryais, grinning and gripping weapons excitedly.
The man gave a pompous wave of his hand and then turned his back on the cliff, beginning to return to the camp. The beasts on either side of Ryais each grabbed one of his arms, twisting them cruelly and laughing as Ryais cried out. They tossed him, screaming, over the cliff.
Chelle’s body shot over the cliff unseen as she launched herself full-force after him.
* * * *
Chelle slammed into Ryais, wrapping her arms around him and flipping herself upside-down so that she was falling backwards. She grabbed at the coiled rope she always carried on her belt, one end secured to her waist, and desperately threw a loop over a rocky outcropping as they rushed past. Time slowed down as she watched the circle of rope move through the air. She could tell that it wasn’t going to make it.
She twisted her head around, trying to spot another such outcropping below them as they fell, and gasped as the rope caught the rock and snapped taut. They slammed into the cliff wall and hung there, spinning slowly, halfway between the top of the cliff and the sharp rocks at the bottom.
Ryais was unconscious from the impact with the wall--his body had taken the brunt of the force--and Chelle could feel her arms beginning to tire. Panicked, she glanced around--and caught sight of a small ledge to their right and above them. She would have to climb up almost twelve feet, with Ryais in her arms, and then use the rope to swing out over the ledge. With no other options, she began painstakingly making her way up the cliff face, grateful that there was no wind.
The sun had completely set by the time she had ascended far enough to look down upon the ledge. Breathing deeply, trying to still the fear that gnawed at her stomach, she pulled herself over to the left, and let go. Ryais’s back scraped against the cliff wall as they swung slowly to the right, but not far enough. Chelle pushed off to the left again with her toes, and this time they swung far enough over that she could drop to the ledge. She landed with a thud and almost fell backward over the edge as Ryais’s dead weight unbalanced her. But she caught and steadied herself, and then carefully lowered her brother to the ground. There was barely enough room for her to kneel by his head.
Ryais regained consciousness as Chelle tended to and bandaged his wounds with strips of cloth from the medicine pack at her belt. He wouldn’t meet her eyes, and so Chelle worked in silence. She was too hurt and angry to speak anyway.
After she finished, she leaned back and adjusted the rope that was still attached to her belt, loathe to detach it even on the relative safety of the ledge. She jumped when Ryais sat up and spoke, his voice flat and empty.
“They said they wouldn’t hurt you if I helped them.” He still wouldn’t look in her direction, but instead stared off into the depths of the ravine. “They said they wouldn’t hurt our parents, and ... and they said they wouldn’t hurt me.” He paused. “You’re more important than you realize, do you know that? You don’t even know who you are. I didn’t either, but they dropped enough hints for me to figure it all out.
“I was scared, Chelle. I’ve seen what they can do, and fighting them is just hopeless. The council is too shortsighted to see that--”
“Ryais, don’t be an idiot.” Chelle tried to keep the anger from her voice, but couldn’t. “We either fight them or die, remember? They hurt their own, too. As you can see, traitors don’t fare any better than the rest of us.”
“I’m sorry, Chelle.” Ryais was crying now. “But what choice did I have? They said that unless I brought your locket to them, they would hunt you down and kill you. The only reason they let me go, that day that they caught me, was because I agreed to help them. They would have killed me, and then you.” He hung his head. “You always say you’re scared, Chelle, but you never let that affect your actions. Me, on the other hand ... I thought I was doing what was right, but instead I guess I was just acting out of cowardice.” Chelle didn’t respond. “I tried to protect you, Chelle! Remember the fight in the woods? How they retreated unexpectedly? I showed them my mark of loyalty, showed them that I was already on the job.” Chelle glanced at the tattoo he pointed to on his forearm, then stared at the fading light of the sun on the cliff walls.
After a few minutes, she heard Ryais’s quiet voice again. “The day Mother found you was a day of triumph for them, or so they thought. And not only because they had trapped the Alliance forces on this side of the mountains. When the queen of the Ellerall saw that we had been cut off, and saw the dwarves preparing to blow up the pass, she tried to fight through enemy lines to reach the Alliance army. She had the key, you see, to the other, hidden passage through Black Teeth. Kense is wrong, it’s not just a myth.
“But the queen and her small band were soon way outnumbered, and eventually they were surrounded. The queen and one of her attendants were taken prisoner, and the rest were killed. By this time the pass had been destroyed. The beasts knew they had won the battle, and they now had the queen of the Recluse Elves, the Ellerall, in their hands as well.
“Somehow, during the struggle, the queen had taken the key and given it to someone else. The beasts didn’t discover this, or even the existence of the key, until later, when they tortured the two captives for any information they might have. The queen died without revealing anything, but the attendant told them everything. He said that one of the queen’s fighters had smuggled the key to another Ellerall prisoner under the guise of trying to rescue the captives. The queen’s fight was just a cover, a distraction. And so they’ve been trying to find out who got the key ever since. They killed and searched the others, but they never found it. And now you know why--because you got left behind, and you have the key around your neck.”
Chelle realized that she was fiddling unconsciously with her locket. My necklace is the key? She realized she had never really thought about her very early childhood, nor asked the questions that now appeared in her mind. Who was my real mother, and how did we get captured? She imagined her real mother receiving the key and somehow hiding her child on the battleground with it around her neck, hoping someone would find the infant. She must have known the prisoners would be questioned and searched. She felt disoriented, like she had at the council meeting more than a week ago.
A bird call sounded from somewhere in the ravine below them. It took several minutes for Chelle to recognize it as a ranger signal. Allian and Sariah! She leaned out over the ledge, straining her eyes for signs of her friends, but could make out only the silvery glitter of the river far below.
The call came again, this time closer. Chelle shifted her gaze to the cliff wall and stared in surprise at the sight of two forms nimbly scaling the rocky surface. In what seemed like a very short amount of time, Allian’s head, and then Sariah’s, popped over the edge of the ledge.
“Chelle! You’re not hurt, are you? When we saw you go over, we thought--”
“What were you thinking! And what is he doing here?” Sariah’s voice was hard and angry.
“Long story, Sariah. How did you find us?” Chelle was anxious to change the subject. Ryais kept his head down, staring dejectedly at his hands.
“Simple, Chelle.” She could see Allian’s impish grin in the gathering twilight. She and Ryais shifted so that Allian and Sariah could squeeze onto the ledge. There was hardly enough room for all of them. “We couldn’t get past the guards as easily as you, so we gave the camp a wide berth until we found ourselves on the edge of this ravine. After climbing down--it’s not as steep further to the south--we made our way back up to where we assumed the camp must be. We were just in time to see Ryais go hurling over the edge, and to watch you follow. Unfortunately, we were still south of you, and we had to forge the river a few times in order to get to where we could scale the cliff with our ropes--”
“After searching the rocks below for your bodies, of course.” Sariah did not share Allian’s smile. “Chelle, I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but--”
“Can you help us down? Ryais is hurt, and I’m exhausted.” Sariah opened her mouth, but one look from Chelle cut her off. She didn’t want to give an explanation for her actions, mostly because she didn’t have one.
Climbing back down the wall took longer than climbing up had taken, as Ryais’s injuries necessitated almost constant help from Allian. Ryais still wouldn’t meet anyone’s eyes, and Sariah treated him coldly. When they reached the bottom of the ravine, Allian led them to a sheltered spot between piles of rocks, out of sight of the enemy camp, and they wearily assigned watches for the remainder of the night. No one suggested Ryais take a turn, and he did not offer.
* * * *
“I assume we won’t be followed anymore, so where are we headed next?” Sariah’s voice was still hard as she helped distribute breakfast the next morning. Sunlight reached only halfway down the walls of the ravine, but the four travelers were eager to be away from the beasts’ camp.
“Chelle?” Allian turned to his friend as he tore off a piece of journeybread. “You should decide. You’re the expedition leader, after all.”
The elf stared off into the shadowy reaches of the ravine. Yeah, I guess we won’t be followed anymore. Can we really trust Ryais now, though? The river raced over rapids, crashing down a gentle incline and throwing spray into the cool morning air. Chelle could see wildflowers and verdant greenery hanging down the cliff walls where the rock was slick with wet. To the south the ravine walls gradually lessened and the canyon opened up, but to the north the way narrowed sharply.
“Well ...” How should I know where to go? I still don’t have any more ideas than when we set out. Her muscles ached from yesterday’s exertions, and her mind still reeled from the shock of Ryais’s betrayal. “Why don’t we follow the river north?” So we don’t have to climb out of here, or head past the enemy camp again. North’s as good as south, I guess. The ravine was cool and peaceful, and Chelle was strangely loathe to leave it.
High rocky walls surrounded the friends as they made their way up the slight incline of the ravine. In some places they used ropes to cross the river or to steady themselves on slick rocks. By midmorning, their hair and clothing were wet with spray, but hiking up the ravine made them welcome the cool mist. A gentle breeze blew in their faces and made the plants growing on the walls wave slightly. Even Ryais found that he could not maintain his despondent attitude, and after the fourth time that Ryais caught Sariah’s arm as she slipped, some of the tension among the friends had eased.
Just as they were about to stop for lunch, Chelle, in the lead, rounded a sharp bend in their path. Her breath caught. The cliffs that surrounded the river here widened slightly, forming a tear-shaped enclosure. A thick waterfall fell hundreds of feet over the eastern lip only to crash into a wide, round pool at its base. Plants grew everywhere, covering the banks that surrounded the pool and climbing up over the rocky walls. Moss covered the rocks near the falls, watered by the lacelike mist that perpetually drifted off the cascade. The sun, now high overhead, shattered and sparkled in the moist air and lit the enclosure with a radiant glow. The air was hot and smelled thickly of wildflowers and grass.
Chelle’s friends came up behind her and they, too, stared around at the unexpected sight. They carefully made their way over to a moss-covered boulder situated on the edge of the pool and ate a leisurely lunch. Something about the place made the four feel relaxed and lazy; they reached an unspoken decision to rest by the pool instead of trying to find a way to continue northward, which would involve scaling the cliff or retracing their steps for several miles.
Chelle lay down in a patch of grass, idly watching a bee make its way over the contours of a purple flower above her head. If only we could stay here forever, she thought sadly. But they’ll find us if we stay here long enough. They always find us. She thought of those vile beings swarming over the mossy rocks, trampling flowers and killing the tall grass, polluting the waterfall ...
Something about that waterfall keeps pulling my gaze. She stood up sleepily, brushing dust from her tunic. Allian, chewing on a stalk of grass, glanced up from the boulder where they had eaten lunch. Sariah lay next to him, her eyes closed. Ryais was sitting with his bare feet in a tranquil part of the pool, cleaning some wounds Chelle had missed. No one paid much attention to her as she skipped over some half-submerged rocks to move closer to the falls.
The water fell over the edge of the cliff high above on three sides of an outcropping, so that the falls formed a neat half-circle that completely obscured the area behind it. Chelle stood for a long time on a rock in the pool before a gust of wind drove some of the water back for a second. There! There’s a cave behind the falls! Chelle’s adventuring instinct was beginning to awaken; she was determined to get behind that waterfall.
“I thought there was something funny about those falls too.” Ryais’s voice was quiet behind Chelle. She turned to see him trying to balance on a pointed rock a few feet away.
“I’m going to try to jump through the falls. There’s a cave on the other side.”
“How do you know this cave has a floor, Chelle?”
“Well,” she replied, smiling at him, “if there’s not, you’re going to have to jump in and save me.”
“Chelle--” But Chelle had already turned back, gathered her feet under her, and jumped.
For an instant everything went white as she soared through the water screen, and then she stumbled onto a smooth rocky floor. A moment later, she heard Ryais land heavily behind her.
As her eyes adjusted to the twilight of the cave, she looked around to find herself on a deep ledge. The entrance to the cave formed a rounded arch, too perfect to have been sculpted by nature, with a ceiling high above either of their heads. The cave extended back for many feet into the cliff, and ended in a broad, seamless wall.
Light flared faintly as Ryais made a makeshift torch out of some cloth. He held the small flame out in front of him, his eyes wide as the dimensions of the cave became apparent. Rivers of sparkling rock ran through the walls in places, shining in the torchlight.
As they moved back into the depths, Chelle became more and more convinced that the cave was artificially made. The walls were too smooth, the corners too precise, to be anything else. Moss grew on the wall in places towards the front, but the back of the cave was surprisingly dry.
When they reached the back, Ryais and Chelle stared in wonder at the huge slab of stone that confronted them, more than three times Chelle’s height and about half as wide. And perfectly smooth--except for two identical side-by-side indentations in the center of the wall, even with Chelle’s shoulders.
Ryais ran his hand lightly over the apparently marred surface, his brow furrowed. Chelle’s eyes were drawn to a ribbon of silver in the wall, as wide as her hand and extending for the length of the face.
“Chelle, what does this look like to you?” Ryais murmured thoughtfully.
“I don’t know. A pockmark or defect of some sort.” Chelle was only vaguely interested.
“Doesn’t it look ... heart-shaped to you?” Now Ryais had her attention. She leaned closer to the wall, and nodded slowly. “It looks like two hearts, their sides touching. How odd.”
“Looks about the same size as your locket.”
Chelle’s eyes went wide as Ryais’s meaning dawned on her, and her hand flew to her neck. She quickly undid the clasp and let the locket slide off of its chain into her palm. Her hands shook as she carefully fitted it into one of the holes. It fit perfectly. A small lock clicked as the locket slid into place, and the other half popped open to reveal a nondescript gold surface inside. Chelle pushed the locket all the way open, placing the second half into the heart-shaped opening next to the first.
Chelle and Ryais stepped back together as a thin crack, almost imperceptible at first, formed to the right of the locket in the wall and spread upwards and downwards simultaneously. Moved by machinery on the other side of the wall that they could hear but not see, great portions of the wall to either side of the crack squeakily swung outward, revealing a passageway extending back into the darkness beyond the sphere of torchlight.
“‘The door lies open through your hearts!’ Of course! Ryais, we did it! We found the way back home!” Chelle threw her arms around her brother, laughing. She started to turn back to the entrance to the cave, eager to tell Allian and Sariah what they had found, but stopped at the sound of Ryais’s voice.
“You found it, Chelle, not me. You don’t need me. You shouldn’t have done it, Chelle, back there on the cliff.” His voice was bitter, and so quiet that even she had to strain to hear it. “Why did you come after me? You should’ve let me die.”
Slowly she turned to face him. “Ryais, you’re still my brother” were the first words out of her mouth. “Or at least my friend. Remember what Father said? ‘Anyone in need is a friend.’ You were in need. I couldn’t just let you die.” She gave up trying to explain herself as a smile hesitantly lit up Ryais’s face.
“Now, we should remove the key from the door so no one can find it. Then ...” Everything was back to normal.