Alexis opened her eyes. The dream was still fresh. Birds were twittering in the thick boughs of the trees above her.
“Good morning.” Resen said, crouching by the fire. Alexis groggily smiled in acknowledgment, and then sat quietly thinking to herself.
Raena stepped through the trees. She walked with the poise of a hunter, and had a natural presence that inspired mutual respect. Alexis had at first thought perhaps it was because Raena was a princess, but that was before she had come to know her better. She liked how Raena carried herself. With dignity, but not an aloof sort, and with confidence and capability. And she was kind.
“We are alone, as far as I can tell,” Raena said as she seated herself. “We are still heading southeast at a good pace. In two, or three weeks if given difficulties, we'll reach the coast of Smyrna.”
“That's good.” Resen handed her a hot bowl of food. He filled one for Alexis and handed it to her. From what Alexis could pick up Resen and Raena knew each other well, as if for years. She often wondered what their history was.
Although Raena was always composed, Alexis could see that she was anxious to return. Her mother, Queen Solonna, was apparently ruler of the air kingdom of Thysatira, and her father Origen king of Smyrna, in the depths of the sea below. Disturbingly Origen had gone missing. Her mother Solonna ruled presently in Smyrna, with a faithful general keeping peace in Thysatira. But something was wrong with the queen's mind.
“I'm starving,” Alexis said lethargically, scooting forward and receiving her bowl into her hands. She and Raena glanced at each other, and smiled their greeting.
Alexis leaned back against the log she was seated against, and stroked her bow as she stuck it in her lap.
Raena observed her caressing it with her fingers as she chewed. “I understand that your bow has seen you through many dangers,” she said conversationally. Her tone conveyed her understanding of the feeling such an attachment to a weapon.
“Yes,” Alexis answered, running her fingers again over its design.
“Have you given it a name?”
“That's a good name.” Raena smiled.
The group struck out under a fair sun that morning, striding through the thick, glimmering trees. It had been five days since Raena first appeared. She had quickly told them her story. After Origen's mysterious disappearance from his library, Queen Solonna was quickly informed and she swiftly took up residence in the palace, Emerald Mountain. Within a month Raena noticed the effect of Slorda, an old advisor was before less favored than others, who had been rarely heeded. As each day passed Raena had felt a darkness falling, closing in on the southern kingdoms. Finally she felt that something had to be done, before it was somehow too late. In secret she sent word to the Vulduin Council in Oringarde, asking for aid, and then came in search of Alexis and Resen, having heard that the Athondul had arisen and already begun stirring up the people.
After she was finished Resen had turned to Alexis and asked what she thought. Genuine concern was in his tone and look. Alexis wholly agreed to make the issue their immediate mission.
Stepping over the knarled root of a bush, Alexis thought it in a way seemed providential. Within a short time after Ethen'dor's temporary victory, this seemingly next step revealed itself to them. For some time now she had had a keen interest in what Smyrna was like. What she remembered reading had said that the Southern Sea was of a different beauty than the Western Sea, was wrought with history, and a much loved subject among the poets. But what awed her most was the description of the underwater city amid the vibrant corals and flashing aquatic life, the fortress itself nestled within the feet of the sea cliffs.
While trekking through the coloring trees, Alexis found herself climbing the leafy slope beside Raena. Autumn had cast its spell, and a carpet of vibrant colors lay beneath their feet.
Raena looked at Alexis and gave her a smile. Her eyes always had that thoughtful, discerning expression. She regarded Alexis for a moment. “You're afraid of me, in a way,” she stated simply.
Alexis thought for a moment. “I think I'm just not sure what to think of you yet.”
“We're not so different, you know. We both strive to do what is needed with what strength we have, for those we care for.”
“As do so many others. But you're significantly more experienced, if I may say so.” Alexis gripped a branch to help her over the knoll.
“I've had a lifetime to learn. I was at a loss, but my will drove me forward—like you. We could have been sisters, had things been different.” Raena grinned. She had a beautiful smile, bright and full. It gave her countenance a vibrant glow.
Alexis laughed. “Ha. An interesting idea, but I daresay I prefer my own life. Being here has taught me what it is to truly appreciate what you actually have.” A solemn look settled on her face.
“What's it like, your world?” Raena asked, with a look of intent curiosity.
“Oh...well,” Alexis started, trying to think of a way to describe it. “I guess it's not much different than here. We have beautiful places. Mountains, lakes, oceans, plains...grasslands far as the eye can see, and cities. Huge ones—like Emyris, only not a castle. They're of many, many buildings and neighborhoods, like villages, close together. In my world we have learned to use nature in ways that we invent better and better devices to make our lives easier, and to do things more efficiently. But not all of them are good, or even the good ones used right. In some ways our progress is beautiful, but we lose a bit of what had been, I think, by moving forward. Such things come with that price, I think.”
“You are a wise one, Alexis,” Raena said quietly.
Twigs snapped under their feet as they used some branches to help them upward. A short way ahead Resen was striding on.
“Almost all things have their price,” Raena continued. “But we can preserve what has made us, by passing it on to those who come after. So that they are not forgotten, though the times have passed. Life has its cycles. Sometimes life repeats itself, or doubles back, or starts over. And it's at times like those we realize there isn't anything new beneath the sun—just in the way that it is seen, or happens.”
Alexis intently watched Raena as she said this, taking in her words. She felt a little twinge in her heart as she wished she had had such a sister. But perhaps that would have changed things somehow, and in ways that would not have been for the better. The last few months had shown her many things, among them that even the smallest thing can have extreme consequences or effects. Even something harmless. But she decided she liked Raena very much.
“What were you like when you were little, and to grow up in your home?” Raena asked.
Alexis chuckled. “Oh, I was a mischievous pest for the most part. I loved to wander and get into things, do things I knew I shouldn't but thought I had to, because it was something new and undiscovered. You don't know how many times I'd suffer the consequences long after—like getting into poison ivy or something of that sort. Stung by bees.”
“Sounds like me, for the most part,” Raena said with a rippling laugh. “Only I liked to take my bow with me. I loved to wander the wilds of the Smyrnan cliffs. You can't imagine how beautiful the cliffs are, or the wonders you might see,” Raena told her, and as she spoke her eyes lit with the light of a loved place. “For hours I'd sit and just wait for something to happen, because I knew that it just might, and when it would it'd be simply glorious. Time itself would stop.”
“I know what you mean,” Alexis replied softly, thinking of the meadows and woods at home, the cries of the wild birds, the blowing of the wind. Or in those beautiful moments when the sun was rising or setting, and the sky aflame in all its glory and radiance, like its soul had finally burst open.
“May I ask you something?” Raena asked.
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“How old are you?”
“Your vocation is a heavy burden to carry, for one so young.”
“It would be a heavy burden for anyone.”
“True. To be fair, I'll tell you my own hefty age. I'm twenty-seven.”
“Hmm. Where I'll be in ten years.” She smiled at her. “What's it like to be twenty-seven?”
Raena laughed lightly. “Absolute woe. I'm an old maid, don't you see?” They laughed together as they walked on.
“Glad to see you're finally getting along,” Resen called back lightly. “Although now I'm worried that I'm not the favorite anymore.”
As they both smiled, Raena's eyes briefly lingered on him. Alexis noticed, and shifted her gaze between them, but Resen hadn't seen the look.
By nightfall they stopped in a clearing along the bank of the Li'era river, where they rested and ate some bread.
Raena sat before the fire with her legs crossed. “There is a ford a little upstream. We'll cross there and move in a more south-easterly direction for awhile. We'll also take the Ruellan. Within a few days we should reach Armathea, heaven willing.”
Resen nodded. Alexis watched the water as she listened to everything being said. Armathea was small mountain range beside the sea, not nearly as big as Ethen'dor, that was due east of Smyrna.
A little while later the moon rose and cast its soft reflection over the rippling river. Alexis and Raena lay at the banks, just under the shadow of the forest stretching boughs. Resen stood afar off, listening and musing silently.
“Do you have moons like this?” Raena asked, shifting slightly as the leaves above rustled.
“All the time,” Alexis answered softly. Gazing at the pure white of the moon brought a whispering feeling of homesickness, as she thought of nights that she had watched from her own meadows, when the sky was clear. She never would have imagined where she'd truly be in the future: lying on the banks of a strange river, with much behind her, yet so much before. And the uncertainty of her ever getting back home.
Raena looked at Alexis's liquid green eyes, shining from the moonlight. “I'm sorry,” she said gently.
“I wish this didn't have to be passed to you, the problems of our world. It is unjust, but little in this world is fair.”
“Oh. I know. I don't really think much on whether or not it is fair...I just....”
“You just keep going,” Raena finished for her.“...And you miss being home.”
“Yeah. Some things just can't be put into words. I feel like I'm drowning in a world and a duty that I was wholly unprepared for. I wasn't even born into it—I'm literally an alien to all Aunninguld. Yet still I was chosen. The world moves in mysterious ways. And the ways in which it does move can be very hard...and lonely.”
“But there is always those that can help you find the answers, or at least the courage to keep one foot in front of the other,” Raena tried to comfort.
“Or my sword arm up, ready to defend my neck.”
They both gazed at the individual constellations. The Anglaran, with it sharp thrown out arms; the Ring, with is dense circle of scattered stars; the Oldor, which its branching labyrinth of groping fingers; and the Five Eyes with their glinting individual white stars surrounded by studs of color. And there were so many more besides. Sweeping curtains, and lone stars shining bravely through the dark.
There was silence between them for awhile, then Alexis asked, “What is Smyrna like?”
Raena took a deep breath. “Smyrna.... A realm of otherworldly beauty. We live in peace with the sea life, for the most part. We love to hunt, but mostly ronknwar. They're devilish beasts. There's a difference between savage predators of the sea, and them. They're beyond savage—they have a malignancy incomprehensible in any natural creature. But they have good meat, to their one credit. We appreciate other creatures too much to kill them, unless we have to, or are in need.”
“What do the ronknwar eat? I mean, like little fish or big ones?”
“Both. Whatever they can get their teeth on. They seem to have a special taste for humans. But still...they're the greatest things to hunt on earth. Men and women turn out to get their count. It's held in great esteem to have a ronknwar head mounted on your wall, or have adornments of their teeth or claws. Even with their savagery, they have some beauty about them. But not near as much as the aluvon.”
“The rarest and most beautiful creature of the sea. More deadly than even a ronknwar, and larger, but so...beautiful and majestic. Their scales glisten like jewels in the rays of the sun, and their eyes are like the eyes of the anglair. But though they are the deadliest of the sea beasts, they are peaceful. They eat what they need, they keep to themselves. If you're lucky, you can stand there and just watch one. It'll let you. No one has ever tried to catch one. We are to awed and frightened to try. It would be of the greatest shame for anyone to try to catch an aluvon. They are our insignia. To catch one would be desecration, horrible crime to our kingdom. It'd be suicide anyway.”
Raena's gaze peered into the heights, picturing an aluvon dancing in graceful arcs among the stars.
“I hope I get to see one,” Alexis said with sincere interest. “I know how I love my Eitan. He has a savage kind of beauty. His beauty is in his strength and his spirit. I'm extremely proud of him.”
“I've heard tell of him. Where is this Eitan?”
“Out hunting. But he'll be back soon, I'm sure.”
“I'd like to meet him. I'm curious.”
“Just be careful at first. He doesn't always take to strangers.”
“I see. Is he loyal?”
“Fiercely—to both of us. He always comes when I call.”
“He must be of much comfort to you.”
They both fell back into silence, watching the moon pass slowly over the trickling water.
Closer to the fire Resen laid out his roll, and looked over at Alexis and Raena. It was good for Alexis to have one of her own to talk to. He knew their own bond was strong, but he could see she still needed a woman to talk to. There were things that women needed other women for. It was beautiful to see them just lying there quiet side by side beneath the gliding moon.
For a moment he just observed them, wishing with all his heart he could protect them both from the world that lay ahead of them all.
Soon they all lay slumbering under their blankets beneath the shadows of the trees, close to the warm fire.
The dawn of the next day was bright and sweet. Not a cloud was in the sky, and the sunrise was swift. They awoke at the first tittering of birds and rays of light, and were off again on the long trek just as their surroundings were lightening.
They traveled on along the woods, climbing slopes and constantly watching the flow of the river. At noon they paused for a brief respite and quick fare, then continued on. Raena and Resen took the lead.
Alexis followed a little behind, using big stones that covered the bank as stepping stones. She was listening hard. The soft trickling sound of water over rocks was the only sound. Then she stopped, and listened again.
She whistled to them. Both Raena and Resen paused.
“What is it?” Raena asked.
“Eitan. He's come back,” Resen answered.
A happy smile was on Alexis's face, and he watched, thinking it was a precious thing in her usually tired countenance.
“I didn't hear anything,” Raena said skeptically. She was very good at such things.
“Alexis always hears him,” Resen chuckled, and Raena could see his own amusement. “She'd hear him if he was a hundred miles away.”
They all stood watching the skies. The whoosh of powerful wings met their ears and drew nearer, and a wind began blowing on the clearing. As Eitan appeared over the treetop he let out a soft bellow, and landed in front of Alexis, flapping his wings to slow his descent as he trumpeted his greeting.
“Nice to see you again, big boy,” Alexis beamed as she hugged his leg. He was entirely too big to hug his chest anymore. Eitan trumpeted joyously again, and flared his wings with pride.
“So that's Eitan?” Raena asked tentatively, observing Alexis and the massive karaki's happiness.
“I can't help but be surprised. I had heard accounts of him, but he impresses more now that I've seen him. He's massive!”
“Eats a lot too.”
“I can see why he has earned such a reputation. At first the thought of the Athondul riding a karaki seemed like madness, but once you see them together....” Raena trailed off.
Alexis had climbed on Eitan's back and lie scratching the back of his neck. He growled with pleasure.
“You see that it was meant to be,” Resen finished. “Let me just give you a piece of advice,” he stated, turning discreetly to her. “Never refer to his kind as the 'Accursed'. Alexis will get pretty upset. And when I say 'pretty upset', I mean absolutely furious. Eitan is dear to her heart and he has proven himself time and time again. He's not evil. I doubt his race ever was. Just hungry.”
A soft look came over Raena's face. Alexis and Eitan acted as natural as master and dog. “It's really a shame there are so many misunderstandings in the world, Resen.”
“I agree. It is to our benefit that Alexis was chosen. She is a girl that sees many things differently, and through her many things are becoming clear. How weak we are, sometimes. Afraid. That we need to see clearly, and be strong. Not hold prejudice.”
Alexis softly kicked Eitan's sides and guided him to the Resen and Raena.
He snorted as he looked at Raena, and drew himself up to his full height, gazing steadfastly. Then he bent to smell her.
Raena watched him warily. She was bold and frightened by very little, but having Eitan so close really put her on her guard.
Alexis watched them both carefully. Eitan snorted, and drew back. Raena then lifted her hand to touch his snout as she ran her eyes over his impressive bulk. “You're a handsome boy. You're lucky to have him,” she said, looking at Alexis. “I'm glad he's with us.”
Alexis smiled in relief, appreciative of her acceptance.
“We really should get going,” Resen said.
“You're right,” Alexis answered, nodding.
They all continued on along the river, and Raena looked back at Alexis and Eitan with interest. It seemed strange yet wonderful how she could climb on the karaki's back without fear. She looked perfectly happy up there.
“That went well enough,” Resen said, overstepping a large stone. “You didn't get eaten.”