They made their way along the bank for about five miles when they came upon the ford. They crossed without trouble, leaping over large rocks worn smooth over time. They then turned southeast again through a sparse wood of hickory and white oak trees, on the edge of the Glenavon forest. A few peaceful days passed as they went through the wood, until they emerged at a steep rocky bank that went down for at least forty feet to the waters of the Ru'iera.
“We must take my boat and go downriver from here,” Raena stated.
They retrieved her gray boat hidden in the ferny brush hugging the forest edge. Shortly they got it to the water's edge below.
Eitan sniffed the boat with interest, walking around them as they slid it over the gravelly stones. Alexis stepped in the boat, and took the packs as Resen handed them to her.
Eitan lifted his head, and his nostrils quivered. He snorted with expectation, and leap into flight, veering silently off to the northeast.
“Does you always let him just take off like that?” Raena asked with surprise, a bit concerned with his unexpected departure.
Resen laughed to himself as he handed Alexis the last bundle, and Alexis smiled at Raena. “He does what he wants. He's a wild animal.” And she was content to let him be so.
Raena look back, and made a face of surprised acceptance. She couldn't help but realize the truth of it.
They slid the boat out into the water, their paddles gliding smoothly as they turned it in line with the current. The current snatched at them and they swept forward, leaving a narrow, silvery wake.
They all let the current do most of the work. The river rushed along smoothly, curving in slight bends.
Alexis breathed in, relaxing with the draw of her oar. With the flow of the running water the hours passed.
The sun set in soft orange shades that evening as they finally made camp at the feet of a bank, where there was enough space to sit and make fire. Before they went to sleep they sat around the firelight eating the last of their meal. Eitan had curled up over a rock bed just above them.
“I was afraid of saying anything distasteful, before he actually came,” Raena said as she scraped her bowl. They had been discussing her meeting with Eitan. Raena looked at Alexis. “Have you actually ever flown on him?”
“We fought in the war while I on his back. He was wonderful. He played a crucial part,” she replied simply, before spooning some cooked roots into her mouth. Chewing them, she made a funny face as their strange taste permeated her mouth.
“They also battled Crow in the air. Those who saw say he rode a foul beast the like none have seen before,” Resen put in seriously.
“The cowards got away,” Alexis said, her face masked with a fleeting look of abhorrence. She worked her tongue around her mouth, trying to wash away the rooty taste.
“You did what you could,” Resen chided softly. He watched as she shifted herself. “Another thing to Eitan's credit is that I would have died as a kaul's lunch if not for him,” Resen said, continuing.
“A kaul's belly isn't the pleasantest burial site,” Raena conceded with a smile.
“Oh, it doesn't stop there,” Resen chuckled.
Raena gave him a light punch in the arm as Alexis laughed.
Resen tried not to choke on his food, and let out a laugh. “You should have seen him tear into that monster, though. He's a thing of the beyond when he's battle hungry.” He grimaced as he tried to dislodge a piece of meat from between his teeth.
Alexis put down her bowl, and leaned on her arm, looking into the fire. Her gaze pierced through it, as if into something else.
Raena and Resen saw it, and watched her with slight unease.
A moment later Alexis quietly stood up and went into the shadows at the riverbank, behind some trees.
Resen put down his bowl as he mused over Alexis's behavior. “I hope she and Eitan ride tomorrow. It seems to give her a sense of contentment, most of the time.”
“So this it is a common thing for her to fly on the trail?” Raena said, as she again picked up her bowl as he collected his and Alexis's.
“Very common,” Resen answered as he stood. “It gives them both a measure of peace. I'm sure I would too if I could experience the release of open space.” Then he made a face. “But then again, maybe not.”
“I have a feeling she's going to continue to amaze me,” Raena said with certainty as they both went to the river's edge to wash the bowls.
“You have no idea.” Resen looked down the riverbank, and saw Alexis sitting a distance away, her arms around her knees. More and more it seemed that she was locked in a far away world filled with an emptiness...and heartache.
That night they all fell asleep listening to the music of running water and the owls overhead.
The next day passed similarly, with a steady pace carrying them swiftly over the miles. The morning after was cool, as the sun peacefully rose. A blue, dim light rested over everything as the three pushed out into the river, and went downstream.
Alexis looked at the steep, high banks that rose on either side as they swept onward. They were green and rocky, with trees of mingling color climbing the left bank. As they continued east Alexis noticed the right bank was getting rockier and had less vegetation. She pointed this out to Raena.
“Yes. We are nearing Armanthea. The southern bank will soon turn to low mountainside.”
“It's rather pretty,” Alexis commented, still observing it. The rocks were a soft combination of light grays and shades of gray-blue, and vibrant greens covered them in areas were there was some mossy vegetation. Even from this distance here and there a flower could be seen peeping out from underneath the rocks.
At noon, when the sun was turning the water into rippling, burning glass, Raena slowed the boat and gazed at the crags above. Resen and Alexis likewise paused and looked up. Among the crags they could discern the faint outline of what used to be arches and windows. Nature had nearly erased them. Wherever they looked they could find more such ruins, crumbling and wearing down under weather and time.
“Armanthea used to be a proud nation,” Raena said just loud enough for them to hear. “They loved the sea like we Smyrnans did, but they still loved the mountainside. Though small, in their day Armathea was a thing to behold. This site was the loveliest to build upon—it had sunshine has long as the sun was in the sky. The Armatheans loved songs and music, and gay jubilees in spring and summer. Festivals for autumn. They got much of that love from the Iorwaen Arlwenar. They were here for a small time before the Armatheans, but they chose to dwell in peace together, and chose nearby lands.” Raena blinked, her lips curling into a soft smile. “Nature has made Armathea a part of itself.”
Alexis continued to look up at the old ruins as they all silently paddled on. Another country erased from time, that could have—should have—been able to live on. Another voice forever still.
The hours of the day passed. At evening the sun was shining its fading colors on the water, and casting its light on the reflecting mountains.
Raena gripped her oar more securely as they came to a low fall in the river next to a high, jutting arm of the mountainside. “Steady yourself,” she warned, her voice loud enough to carry behind. The jutting arm blocked their view for a moment, but both Resen and Alexis braced themselves.
The boat turned with the current, and the bend opened up as they came right abreast of the low fall. They streaked over, landing with a smooth gentle splash. Cold foam flecked into their faces.
“You can thank the Smyrnans for the superb boat-making skills,” Resen commented with a slight smile as he wiped his face. “Although the expert handling helped.” He wiped his hand off onto his coat.
“Look,” they heard Raena say. Resen and Alexis looked ahead.
As the low jutting arm of the mountain was passed, a gigantic statue came into view. It was carved out of the mountainside, and stood to about six hundred feet, if not more. It was the figure of a woman, beautiful and untainted by time. A cascading waterfall fell from her eyes onto her up-turned hand, from which it fell to the river below. The fall splashed and foamed, the spray like falling diamonds in the sunlight. The woman's hair looked windblown with flowers of white stone embedded in it, and her robes whipped about her. But the thing that first impressed itself on them was the emotion that emanated from its perfect form. A broken heart, a loss of hope. Her face looked straight ahead, her eyes unseeing. Forever etched in stone, it looked like the face of grief itself.
“Who was she?” Alexis asked, feeling a deep twist in her heart. They all paused to gaze up in the slower-paced waters.
“The Lady of Armanthea. She was the last queen.”
“Her heart was broken.” Raena turned the boat back into the current, and paddled on. Then she began a slow, sweet song.
Beloved Armanthean Queen,
She walked this earth in joy
Brimming with love and compassion
A lady of kindness was she.
Not a lady of war, nor military might
She sang her song, all the day long,
Morning through evening
With eyes like sweet sunlight.
'This Life is a haven
This day a hope
This morning flowing,
Like the voice of heaven
And the Sun will ride
Over plain and mountainside
Over river and ocean's tide
Til' it's going down and resting
Under the spell of Lark's Fountain.
My joy is in Life,
My hope in the Day,
My song in the Morning,
My lullaby in Evening.'
Ruewenda, lady so good,
Beloved of all,
Wedded to King,
You sing in joy,
Never should evil on you fall,
But all evil is sleepless,
And your joy it seeks to foil.
Is fallen to Shadow,
Having long been in the accursed brood
Now, in Hate, Greed, and Power lust
Who ever loves
Your heart is broken!
Thee, who should never have had
To know of the Fallen.
Your tears run like the Great River
Filling it to the brim
And running to the Ocean
As your eyes begin to dim....
Your song of Morning
And lullaby of Evening
Are turned to a ballad of Mourning....
'My voice echoes through the fields
My voice trickles through the streams
My tears water the lilies
And they droop because of my grief.
The birds silence their singing
The once silent stream going to roaring
The sea churns at my sadness,
For it knows that I am athirst.
My love is straying,
As is the Sun
No more New Day
Or Morning or Evening...
Nor Sun running over Tide.'
Lady of Armanthea...
Her heart has wasted away.
Nothing left to make her stay.
Her love is no more.
So at the last she lays on the sea,
And drifts to her death...
To the depth's lifeless, chilly core.”
Alexis gazed silently back at the waterfall of tears. The world seemed to be filled with the brokenhearted and with traitors. No wonder so many despaired.
As they pulled ahead and out of sight of the statue around a bend, Alexis asked, “What happened to the people after the queen died?”
“They tried to get on without them, but many things happened all at once. They had been strong leaders, and the people were too heart broken to get much done, or elect another ruler before Ravens moved in. The Ravens pillaged the whole nation. None were left alive. No woman or child...at least, as far as any know. I suppose it is possible a couple people were able to hide away. But if so, they've remained in hiding for two hundred years.”
“I hope they did,” Alexis whispered to herself. Even the smallest ray of hope can be enough.
The next day passed with them continuing downriver and camping on the bank. That evening they came to a overreaching arm of the mountain, forming a small cove within the left side. Mosses and other low creeping vegetation hung down, gripping crevices and rock faces. They cast subtle waving shadows among the fading sunbeams.
Their fifth day on the river the water got swifter. It splashed over the dips and bends, then took a turn into the mountains. The boat rushed gently along, steadied with their oars. They kept at this safe speed for a few hours, into early afternoon.
Alexis saw the water stretch out for ahead from the chasm. Suddenly they emerged from the walls of the mountains and into the sea. It was shimmering and wide, a radiant green-blue. White birds took off from the cliffs, skimming over the surface of the water ahead before swooping up again into the sunlight. The soft foam against the cliffs created a gentle music, close to the pale shores. The place felt so alive.
“Welcome to the Southern Sea,” Raena said, her face shining with radiant adoration.
They let the running water carry them out into the rippling water, until the swift current dissipated.
“Ah, he is on time,” Raena said, shading her eyes as she looked west. The others turned and saw a ship emerging out of another inlet in the cliffs, gracefully swerving round a white beach nestled at the cliffs' feet. A copse of grey-green weeping willows there waved in the gentle breeze.
“Who's that?” Alexis asked, gaping at the beautiful ship. Resen gazed at it, but his thoughts seemed to be elsewhere.
“Sorrey. He is a helper and friend of mine,” Raena replied as she began to turn the prow of the boat to meet it.
With steady strokes they approached and came up along broadside. The ship came to a smooth stop, making the barest whisper of water. It was of a silvery blue, with a transparent white sail like mist. The shape was slender and graceful. A man at the helm came to the rail and gestured at them, and tossed two ropes into the water. They tied them securely to the two loopholes of the boat, and then climbed up. Once on board they then hauled up the boat after them. Sorrey then secured it to the side of the ship.
“Thank you for being so prompt, Sorrey,” Raena told her friend once he was finished, extending her hand.
He nodded as he gripped it.
“This is Alexis, the Athondul, and Resen, of the Sec'rim,” Raena introduced.
Sorrey observed Alexis with a glint of interest in his speculative eyes, but he seemed to know something of Resen already. He was courteously nodded to them in turn before returning to the helm.
The wind filled the sails, and the ship pulled ahead at a swift speed. It sailed close along the mountain range to the west. After awhile Sorrey directed it to the southwest.
Alexis was at the prow, and she lifted her face to the breeze. The scent of the sea air felt fresh and peaceful. A few miles away she could see the shore of another beach, and to the southwest could be seen a tall mountain towering above the range, it arms reaching down into the sea.
Raena and Resen were with Sorrey. They were discussing something, Sorrey nodding in accord of what was being said. It seemed to Alexis that he was a man who looked rather than talked.
She was looking out over the softly churning water when she heard Raena come up.
“So where's Sorrey taking us exactly?” Alexis asked.
“Farther out to sea, and then he'll go back to the city Linsor. At least until he is needed again. Also we wouldn't want to draw suspicion by taking his ship down into the sea, although it'd be easier.”
“Take the ship into the sea? You mean under water?” she exclaimed incredulously.
“Yes, indeed.” Reana grinned.
“How do they do it?”
Raina's grin broadened. “Ah, that's our secret.” After a moment she continued as they watched the sea foam. “Our cities, both on land and underwater, make our wonderful ships. Much dedication goes into every single vessel. Our ways and ships are our inheritance. We pride ourselves on our skill and unique handiwork.”
“Your people are impressive craftsmen,” Alexis praised with conviction, trailing her hand along the smooth railing and looking at the billowing mast.
Raena leaned on the rail alongside her, closing her eyes as she basked in the light and spray of the sea. For a moment the dignified, stately young woman was gone, replaced with someone losing herself in a beautiful thing that had her heart. Alexis watched her for a moment, knowing just how that love felt. Her heart stirred with her own longing.
“My home is beneath the sea,” Raena's soft voice began a moment later. “Many of the cities other than Aysel and Ariel are on Mount Varun, but some are submerged. My own home, The Emerald Mountain is at Varun's feet,” she indicated the high mountain. Then she looked at her. “You will love our gardens...our wildlife. It's unimaginably beautiful. The flora...the schools flashing all colors of the sun...the dances in the waters' currents....”
Alexis touched Raena's hand. “Home is always best.”
Raena gave a soft nod, her thoughts going far away, into memories. There was so much dear to the heart to keep safe.
Later in the day Alexis found herself observing Sorrey. He seemed to be in his late sixties, but he had a steely quality about him. His head of white hair brushed against his shoulders in locks, and he had bright, slightly squinting eyes of bright blue.
Finally she walked over to him. Sorrey nodded to her as she approached.
“How long have you been a sailor?” Alexis asked.
Sorrey gave her a quiet look, but not unkind. Then he again fixed his gaze ahead. “For all my life. My life is the sea.”
“You feel free here.”
Sorrey glanced at her again, observing her with interest. “That is the truth. Nature moves apart from the problems of men. It keeps on running. I take my solace in the peace and flow of its cycles.”
The waves roared as gulls cried overhead in the evening light. “I can understand why.”
At that moment Raena called back to them from the prow. They were nearing the southern arms of Varun.