A set of eyes watched as a Scout of Gray and a Dark Empress settled into the shadows of the night forest on horseback. The only indication of their presence was the frequent snap of twigs and the rustle of undergrowth by massive hooves. Ryker inhaled deeply, closing his eyes as he released the breath slowly. All left to do was wait. Wait for an end. Wait for a continuation of what was. Wait for a new beginning. The unknown had to be the most terrifying. But seeing his longtime friend riding off into strange lands next to an entity filled with darkness brought little comfort, but Ryker trusted Emri, and if she trusted her life to the fallen monarch, then what right did he have to judge.
Silence soon fell upon the grounds and with that came a certain eeriness. Each breath could be seen in the night under the artificial lights. Torches and rush lights lit the surrounding palace and foregrounds, all the way up to the exterior walls. A heavy fog was settling in. An after effect of the bay and cold ground. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his vest, allowed his shoulders to fall, and then turned around to make his way back to the palace.
“Master Anders,” Ryker greeted, almost startled by his mentor’s sudden appearance. “All’s well I hope?”
Anders nodded while approaching the young man with sharp eyes and solid steps. “A word,” he spoke under his breath and walked to a remote section of the yard. They were within the shadows and out of ear’s reach.
“We are alone here,” Anders began as his unseen eyes scanned the night in suspect. “These people are not our friends, they’re our foes.”
Anders knew very well the two-faced nature of man, especially men from The White and from the Black. Both had their own agendas and would talk kindly to your face, and then slide a knife right into your back a mere second later. Honor, even by those of supposed righteous values such as those of light, was nonexistent. No, despite what they wanted everyone in the three to believe, they were just as crooked and dark as those very beings they condemn. Hypocrites they were. Oh, the irony. Perhaps the truest and most straightforward people were that of The Black. They did not deny who they were or their faults. But again they were nothing more than labels. Every realm is like that to a degree, though. People are only defined and judged by their labels—actions. They are seen in black and white, never in gray or in color. Two-dimensional instead of three. One facet instead of many. The Gray like to think otherwise, but they were just as guilty as the others.
Ryker leaned forward, brows furrowed, with his hands still shoved in his pockets as he regarded his former mentor. “Sir?” he asked unknowing where Anders was headed in the conversation. His eyes followed a watch guard with torch in hand as he made his rounds a few yards from them.
Anders lowered his voice further. “We can trust no one here, but the sad reality is we’re stuck here. Nowhere else to go. Stranded in this wasteland,” he spat the last word with venom. “I fear there’s somethin’ more goin’ on than the eye can see. Listen closely, and keep yer eyes open. We need to know who our real enemies are, and who just get’n the way.”
Ryker nodded as he remembered a very piece of information that had been told to him just this afternoon. “The Dark Empress spoke of someone still loyal to her, here, in this palace. He was her old Governor, I believe. Darcy was his name.”
“Darcy? And you heard this straight from the Empress’s mouth?”
Anders was silent as wintertide bugs began their nightly ritual. Ryker heard the older man swallow and stroke his beard several times in contemplation. “Right,” he began. “I need you to do a little diggin’.”
“You’re a Scout, are ya not? So put yer skills to good use, an’ find out what Lord Tyron knows, because I sure as Hell don’t believe he’s ignorant to these events. I’ll find and speak with this Darcy character.”
“D’you believe Lord Tyron had somethin’ to do with this?”
“Let’s call it an inklin’, but we’ll find out one way or another.”
Twilight had fallen and the shadows of night now blended forebodingly into the surrounding darkness. No wonder nighttime was so often the center of nightmares and bad happens. It concealed the beasts and torturers of day and allowed them free roam in the tenebrous cover. It was fitting that both women decided it best to travel in the shadows of night. Obscurity was their best friend at the moment. At least until they breached the far boundary.
Two hours had since passed as Nora and Emri finally broke through the limits of Gravens and its surrounding area. They had remained silent through the trip, afraid of unwarranted attention to those walkers of night. The horses had been pushed hard, their powerful gallop making quick work of the long distance. The horses were sturdy beasts, but extremely agile and light on their feet. They were a northern breed, bred for hard labor and harsh environments, which included rough and uneven terrain. They were perfect mounts and guides for the unknown road ahead.
Visibility was naught as they both finally made their way to the edge of the woods. They were nowhere near the boundary, and if Emri had understood Nora, they still had yet to pass into the Dark Forest of Fawr. If Emri had to guess, she would say that forest was in their direct path.
Emri, feeling uneasy at the drawn out silence, decided they were surely far enough out to engage in quite conversation. “So,” Emri began; her voice raspy from disuse. She cleared her throat for good measure. “What lies out beyond the boundary?” Emri asks as she leant forward to accommodate her horse who was mounting a steep hill. Both horse’s hooves crushed the dead and rotten foliage as they moved. Dull thumps were heard methodically as they beasts moved in tandem with the other. Nora was leading the way as Emri followed closely behind.
Nora turned slightly in the saddle to address Emri. “Only the Gods know,” she stated as she motioned for Emri to ride beside her. The hill had given way to a large grass field that looked to stretch for several leagues. But in the distance, an even darker void silhouettedagainst the night sky. Thick, dark forests stared threateningly at them in the horizon.
“Well,” Emri began as she tried to ease her nervous and mind of the daunting journey before them. “I don’t know about you, but my childhood was filled with stories of beastly creatures, half-breeds, and lonelings that roamed the great hollows. Folklore told to children to keep them well away from the boundary, I guess. Much like the grim fairytales parents too often tell their children. Both were stories meant to instill fear and caution. It worked because I never dared to venture too close.”
Nora smiled despite herself and kept her eyes trained on the path in front of them. “Truly? Well, if I recall, you were pretty insistent of escaping the dark lands and traveling to a far off place. Am I mistaken?” Nora asked.
“No, I did yearn to escape,” she confirmed. “But what child doesn’t see themselves as invincible? Able to take on the all the worlds, Gods, Goddesses, and beasts that stand in their way. I think it’s human nature to defy rules. How else does one learn but through mistakes and missteps?” Emri suggested with a shrug of her shoulders. She certainly learned that way.
“I’ll be sure to remember that when you so blatantly disregard common sense out here.” Nora teased. Emri took the, what she would consider, playful swing at her character with stride; smiling inwardly to herself.
“Whatever you say, Your Majesty. But I know you’re still fond of me.” Emri joked and she saw Nora roll her eyes in mock irritation. Gods, she could still annoy this woman in the span of a candle flicker. This would definitely be a memorable journey.
“Don’t be so sure, dear. I loathe everyone,” she said with exaggeration, giving her best monarch impression. “But you really shouldn’t call me that out here,” she stated quickly as she gave Emri her best glare. “That title served its purpose long ago, and you’d be best to remember that. She’s the last person you want me to be. Furthermore, it would only bring us unwanted attention. I’m sure there are many traitorous thugs who would love to get their hands on the fallen Empress.”
Emri regarded her gently and with care as she spoke. “You won’t have to worry, Nora. With your exquisite skills at a bow and arrow, and my skills with a sword and energy, I’d say we’re both in capable hands.”
Nora’s face fell at the mention of her previous sport. “Well, considering it’s been nearly a decade since I last held a bow, let alone shot one, I’d say I would have a better chance at falling from my horse than hitting a target. Especially under pressure.”
Emri heard disappoint in her voice. “Don’t discount yourself, Nora. The moment your hand cradles that bow and your fingers grasp an arrow, you’ll wonder why you even thought that in the first place.”
Nora smiled into the night as her right hand moved to her back and gripped the smooth wood of her bow. Fond memories came with the touch. The bow had been made by her own hands nearly thirteen years ago. She’d had help of course. Her private guard, Dane, personally oversaw its making, aiding her in gathering the appropriate woods, tools, and other materials. It was done without the knowledge of her mother. Using riding lessons as a cover for not only her time away with Emri, but also in crafting and mastering the bow and arrow. She remained silent in thought as Emri, sensing the heavy air, opted for a change in topic.
“So, which way is our intended destination?” Emri finally asked as the tension between them seemed to melt away at the crossing of the final line before they marched into The Dark Forest Fawr. In front of them lie leagues and leagues of dark, oppressive forests. The Black Realm was notorious for them, among many other things, of course. But the Dark Forests often held untold secrets. They were within the boundaries, often acting as borders themselves, but many dared to venture into them. Past the forests, lies the Mountains Lore within the Great Hollows. Past them, no one knew.
“The mountains in the south.” Nora stated as she pointed ahead. “Just past them, is The Realm of Gray according to my notes and readings.”
Emri knew exactly the mountains Nora spoke of. She had spent years gazing at those same mountains. The only distant mountains in the Black, and they just happened to be the same mountains she looked upon while in the Gray. “The Mountains of Lore? Those are the same?” She whispered the last question more to herself in astonishment. Of course she had never suspected those to be the same mountains, they were, after all, suppose to be in an entirely different realm—an entirely different world. That knowledge in itself was mind boggling. “I constantly wondered why they appeared so familiar. This is unreal.”
“You know those mountains by name? How?”
“I don’t know them. They were just always part of my childhood folklore. I always pretended an ancient dragon took refuge within them, and one day, the beast would awake and lay siege to the city, and I, of course, would be the one to save everyone from emanate doom.”
Nora chuckled. “You had quite a flight of imagination. I remember your stories … flamboyant stories concocted within your overly active mind,” she teased. “But I enjoyed them nonetheless. They were far better than my own imaginings. More colorful, grandiose. I would often retell them to myself in my chambers whilst awaiting sleep to take me. It was an escape.”
“That’s the idea. Why do you think there is such a need for storytellers? It offers an escape where there is none otherwise. Keeps ya sane.”
“Leave it to you to always be the heroine,” she said quietly, but it was without malice. Her words were only filled with fondness. “I wrote them all down, you know,” she continued. “I spent many hours locked away in my chambers, or the library if my mother was feeling particularly gracious. I would sit with a stack of unbound papers and an inkwell and quill. I would write in the evenings, mornings, or afternoons. I had stacks of papers filled to the outer margins with writings of your stories, some of my own which weren’t worth the space. I had them bound in secret, and kept them in a hollowed out section of my bedroom wall, wherest mother would never find them. I’d wished to share them with my children someday. I presume they are now lost.”
Emri wanted to speak, to say something—anything that would hold as much meaning to Nora as those words had meant to her. Her mind refused to produce any intelligible sentences, but finally, the words formed and were voiced. “I’m honored they meant that much to you. Here I always thought they were nonsensical stories voiced to a young girl who was too kind to say otherwise.” A hint of a smile sprouted across her windblown face as her chapped lips split from the expression. She quickly licked them, instinctively attempting to moisten them, and tasted blood.
Nora regarded her quietly as she kept her pace steady. She fiddled with the leather reigns resting at the horn of the saddle before speaking. “Perhaps you have new stories to tell?” she asked. “Many years are now behind you. Many experiences follow many years. I’d venture, your stories have changed drastically, no?”
“Not really, no. More mature, realistic perhaps, but the general idea still remains.”
“We have long days and nights ahead of us. Maybe some of that time could be allotted for such trivial enjoyment?”
“I’d like that. I’d imagine you have quite a few stories to tell now yourself,” Emri said without much thought. Therefore, when Nora’s response came to pass, the younger woman was taken aback.
“None that I wish to share,” the fallen Empress spoke sharply before urging Uajo into a canter, quickly putting distance between herself and a bewildered Emri.
It took Emri a few seconds to realize what exactly was happening as the sound of a heavy and fast gait drew further away. Almost riding blindly, Emri coaxed her horse forward in hopes of catching up to Nora.
“Nora?” she called as quietly as her voice would allow. “Nora, if I’ve said something to offend you, I’m sorry. That was never my intention.”
“Think naught of it, Miss Dyer,” she stated as she paused in the field. “I told you back at the palace to have patience with me. You have to understand that not but two nights ago I was a captive. All of my hope and desire to live was lost. My past is not something that will ever easily or completely be overcome. Please understand my thoughts are still as dark as the Void Keeper’s robe, and for now, they are all that is left of me.”
They traveled lightly, keeping the horses at a subdued pace. The leisurely walk did both women leagues of good. There was not much conversation, merely the methodic beat of the beasts underneath them and the constant hum of various night insects, birds, and other forest dwellers. It was the sound that everyone knew and had experienced. The type of sound that might have gone unnoticed until one stopped to hear and appreciate it for what I was. It was nature’s own symphony and acted as the background for all of life’s journeys. It was soothing … mesmerizing. Calming stormy souls with its grace and subtlety.
Emri felt a front moving in. The wind was heavy, fierce, and biting. Bringing in the all too well known frigid airs of The Northern Mar. The hairs on the back of her exposed neck stood on end as she clutched her heavy coat and blanket tighter against her. She glanced over at Nora who seemed too preoccupied with her own matters than that of the approaching weather. She donned the same attire as Emri and cared an equal load in supplied. Perhaps it was just Emri who was unused to the weather. Nora, after all, had never left the gripping season and months of winter in The Black. She too had been imprisoned in a small unheated cell with only mere rags and a ratty, moth-eaten blanket to counter her chills. The dungeon was certainly not insulated, so Emri could only cringe with the sheer brutality her old friend had suffered. In truth, the cell was probably kinder to her in those years than her mother had been her entire life.
Emri cleared her throat from the hours of disuse before she directed her words to the only other person with her. “There’s an inherent chill to the air,” she stated hoarsely. “I believe there’s a front comin’ in.”
“Hmm, yes. I believe you’re correct. Doesn’t feel as strong as it normally does, however. But expect it in the future, nonetheless. You know how unpredictable the weather is. We best not anger the Gods any more than necessary. We need them on our side while we trek across these suspect lands.”
Emri nodded her understanding.
“How long until we’re clear of this forest?” Emri asked as they maneuvered through the dense woods. They had been riding for hours and Emri was desperate for a break. She shifted in her saddle as she awaited Nora’s response.
“I don’t expect until late evening tomorrow or the day after.”
“You mean we hafta camp here?” Emri asked. Shocked painted her fact, but in truth, she shouldn’t have been nearly as surprised. What else were they to do? Sleep and rest were necessities with a journey this long and unknown. Exhausting terrains and daunting mental and physical power plays were sure to be at their worst. Neither woman knew the paths that awaited them, or in actuality, where those same paths would lead for certain.
But one thing was for certain now, and that was the drifting night. Its reign was over until it was inevitably called back again. For now, light was incipient.
“It’s the Blue Hour,” Nora observed as she looked to the small slits of blue sky hidden behind the forest understory. The heavens were dark, but a magnificent royal blue filled the atmosphere as the rising sun chased away the darkness. It would be light soon which meant they could finally stop to rest. “We will need to find an appropriate stopping place for the day,” Nora said as she eased Uajo’s step. He whickered in appreciation.
There had been a stream that cut through the dark forest. They had done their best to avoid following too close with fear of what they might come across. After all, water was a necessity in life, and often tempted those who you did not wish to find. But both women agreed the stream would likely benefit them: water, possible shelter with rock formations, trees, or shrubs, and food. After following the stream for half a league, they spotted several small landings secured by a wall of dense and vine covered trees.
They dismounted their steed, removed what few supplies they needed for the short stay, and allowed Trysu and Uajo to drink and graze.
Since daylight was upon them, Emri gathered what few dry timber she stumbled upon. While the air was cold, it wasn’t as miserable as it could have been. The thick trees and brush shielded them from most of the wind and moist morning air.
The winter quarter here was different, though, as opposed to the Gray, or even within the limits of Graven. Here it was a cold, wearisome place. Everything was bare and the wind howled with deafening ferocity through the bare trees and thickets. The chill penetrated layers of clothing and left one feeling iced from the inside out. The sky above was ominous, dreadful, and gray. It blended nicely with the other dull and muted colors of winter. Shades of gray, browns, blacks, and light, sickly blues surrounded one’s world in hopelessness and misery. Every step was tiresome and burdening as the sodden ground shifted under feet, threatening to bring the traveler to their knees in humiliation. The muck and sludge from mires bogged down clothing with heavy mud. It was hell on earth, and damn the person who painted winter to be a season of beauty and peace. Heaven on earth when all was painted in pure white snow. It was a sign of purity and innocence when the worlds were silenced with such beauty. The rarely occurring hoar frost was thought to be one’s first and last sighting of The Shinning whilst alive. But Emri had never seen such spoken beauty. Perhaps it was something only the nobles and wealthy adored and experienced. They would sit inside their homes in front of roaring fires and full bellies as poor laborers and peasants suffered to heat those homes and fill said bellies, and at the end of the day, those same people who kept society functioning, went to their shacks and often starved or froze to death. Sure, Emri thought; heaven on earth indeed. Life in the Gray wasn’t this hard, but her years in the Black were enough to give her lasting memories of hardship and pain.
Emri built a small fire and gathered some snow and frost berries. No use using up their food rations this early in the journey. Not when nature was so willing to provide. She would have hunted for small game, but had no traps or weapons that she was willing to use. The bow and arrows were to be saved for a later date, when they would surely need them for true survival—living or dead. Emri made note to make some spears and traps when they stop at a more permanent location once outside the boundary.
Emri made her way back to the makeshift camp where Nora sat stoking the small fire. She must have finished tending to the horses. A job Emri left solely to her, given her knowledge about the beast.
Emri grunted as she sat down on the cold rock. Stiffness gripping her usually fit form. Nora didn’t seem to be fairing much better as she palmed her lower back. Horseback riding seemed to test muscles one didn’t even know he or she had, and whereas Nora had leagues of experience with such sport, she obviously hadn’t for near a decade. Trying to keep her grimace at bay, Emri handed Nora a palm full of berries and a few leaves of mentha.
They sat in silence as they ate the sweet and tart winter berries. The songs of crows and the moving water of the stream allowed the silence to move on without awkwardness. It was odd that more conversations had yet to take place between them. As close as they had been, there was still thirteen years of separation, and thirteen years of questions that need answers. But where does one begin with histories such as theirs? From the beginning? From the middle? Or do they simply start over? It was like they had to relearn and reacquaint themselves with the other. The natural comfort and ease had never dissipated; Emri had experienced it first hand, and so had Nora. Their moments of touches and gazes spoke volumes to their unsundered connection.
Emri inhaled the fresh air of morning as she finished the last of her berries. She’d decided to just allow things to move naturally between them. Nothing ever came of forcing something, and for Emri, this was far too important for missteps. They’d get there, she was confident of that.
Emri dusted her hands off and noticed Nora fumbling with the new bracelets on her wrists. Unconsciously, she fiddled with her own, her fingers gliding over the smooth, cool metal. She thought back to the day she first was exposed to such foreign objects. The emptiness and weightlessness felt on her hands had been new and welcoming, and the metal that had been placed her wrists had felt freeing.
When Emri looked back up, Nora’s fingers had moved to the bandages wrapped around her hand. Her fingers and thumb caressed the area of skin where the receptor of black had once been placed. Emri had remembered with vivid detail how the closed wound itched for days and the infection that had developed.
Emri stopped her movements, and went to sit by Nora.
“Here,” she began as she motioned for the older woman’s hand. “Lemme see?”
Nora watched her through guarded eyes as she lifted her upturned palm toward Emri.
Emri took them each one by one within her own hands and removed the bandaging. She looked at them with a keen eye, vigilant for any signs of infection. Pleased with the improvement, she spoke, “They’re healin’ nicely. You shouldn’t have nearly the scars that others do.”
When Nora looked up to regard Emri, she noticed how close the younger woman to her. While gentle fingers marked her palms, Nora’s eyes traveled the length of Emri’s face, taking in all her imperfections; the twin scar on her lips, the one on her eyebrow, a deep indentation on her left cheek, and the healing wounds that would become just another tangible piece of her life story. She had grown into a beautiful woman. She swallowed audibly as she recalled the last time she had seen Emri. Emri had just been ten years old. Ten years old. Remarkable.
Nora jumped from her recollection as she felt cool fingers brush the slightly raw skin. She inhaled sharply, but as Emri paused her movements and looked up, Nora lifted her right hand, and cupped her cheek.
Emri closed her eyes at the sensation. She would gladly take hours of silence for a second of Nora’s calming touch.
“Your scars are far more prominent than mine.” Nora spoke reverently as she examined the rough skin adorning Emri’s palm. Her fingers lightly traced the jagged patterns right before she brought it to her lips and placed the faintest of kisses against Emri’s skin. “Did they not heal you before you went into the Gray?”
Emri swallowed thickly as she tried to alleviate the dryness now consuming her mouth. “No, I was an ‘unofficial’ transfer. I wasn’t presented to the Council of Thrice. I was taken as a stole away.”
Nora looked at her with blatant curiosity and bafflement. “You mean you went illegally? How were you not detected?”
“I was, but for some reason they allowed me to stay. I guess I had abilities and knowledge they needed. They utilized me the best they could, and I was good at what I did. But generally, one’s receptors are removed prior to transfer, but because of my circumstances, I went to the Gray with them on. The Marker there had no idea how to remove them. So I was mangled and butchered as they came off.”
Grief washed over Nora’s face as she downcast her eyes to Emri’s palm and stroked it ever so gently. Her fingers trembled as emotions and thoughts proved almost too much to bear. Nora believed there was only so much insurmountable pain and anguish a living person could tolerate. And she knew she was as close as she’s ever been to breaking completely. She vowed to keep it at bay until their journey was over, and she was no longer needed. With a shuddering breath, she enclosed Emri’s hand within her own two and squeezed with a kind touch. “I’m so sorry, Emri.”
“Hey,” Emri encouraged as she tried to meet eluding eyes. “It’s nothing you did.”
The sincerity of her words gnawed at Nora’s chest, making it seize in protest. “How could you possible know that?” she asked.
Emri searched crimson eyes, desperate for any hint of what was causing her friend such sorrow. As usual, the fallen Empress held her walls up well. Her eyes were equally untelling as they were remarkably apparent. They told countless stories, like books. They had a story to tell. A tome full of little happiness, suffering, hatred, and fear. A book not for the lighthearted. But reading her book was like trying to read through thick and unpurified forest glass. The words were distorted, unreadable, but the pages as a whole were visible, alluding to a powerful story within.
“Look,” she started after a releasing a calming breath. Her eyes eased their intensity as she spoke softly. “We’re out here alone. We’re all each other has, and we are the only hope for thousands of innocent people…for the three kingdoms. I know it’s beyond possible, but I just wish, for a fleeting moment in time, we could forget about our pasts, and start anew…a blank slate, if you will.”
Nora shook her head sadly. “You know that not feasible. Our pasts are too prominent in our lives. It makes us who we are.”
Emri’s lips formed into a poignant smile. “Then humor me, just for today…please? Just for today.”
“Very well. Why don’t you rest for awhile? I will keep watch—”
“Oh no, I’ve had far more sleep than you. I’ll watch.”
“Sleep does not come easily for me, Emri.”
“Nor for me, but you rest first. I’ll be right here.”
The older woman reluctantly conceded as she reclined against the truck of the tree and rested against Emri’s side. Emri, for her part, encouraged Nora closer for warmth as her right arm wrapped around her shoulders.
“I always said I would protect you,” Emri whispered as she felt the older woman’s breathing settle to deep, methodic breaths. She couldn’t see Nora’s face, and didn’t know if her dreams were kinder for the time being or not, but she held her close, foolishly believing it would be enough to keep the monsters at bay. Her eyes fixed on the fire as the hot flames licked the black and ash logs. “In my heart I always believed I could. What a distorted view of reality the mind of a child has, huh?” she huffed in frustration. “I didn’t know much about failures then. If I fell, I got back up. When injured, I healed and continued on. I always found a way to solve things. Never giving up. Never losing hope. I mean you had to if you were to survive. But my failure to protect you was the first of many, and the hardest. I guess because I discovered I couldn’t solve or fix everything. Things happen out of your control, and you are helpless to stop them. You’re just expected to accept it for what it is and move on. But I couldn’t, Nora. Not for you and not for my family.”
She stopped at that and looked at the area surrounding them. What a dark and desolate place they were at, but at least the wildlife was here to drown out the oppressive silence. She relaxed against the tree with Nora and tried to make the most out of their temporary stop.