The Wood waited, a patient and dangerous predator. It watched a path open slowly, leading further into its embrace. It knew this Path. It knew that it could not touch whatever or whoever walked this path. So it simply watched as a pert figure came into view.
The cat wore a cocky grin as he strutted through the Between.
Many other paths beckoned him to leave the safety of his own. But he steadily ignored them, as do all familiar with the wiles of the Between.
Eanrin didn’t even try to keep up a charade of cheerfulness. Why conceal his humiliation? Who would the Wood tell? Imraldera knew. The Prince knew. And if the Wood did tell anyone else, who would care? He allowed the smile to drain from his face and self pity began to take over.
So rarely did the cat let his façade of smugness slip that when the Wood saw him without it It was astonished. Absorbed in his own thoughts, Eanrin did not notice the soft murmur that swept through the trees.
His Path now wove through some live oaks. Those majestic trees, though just as dangerous as the other trees in the Wood, were much wiser. Eanrin thought that the Wood could tell no one else-at least, no one that mattered. The oaks knew better.
Eanrin began to mutter to himself.
“I shouldn’t have told her. I should’ve kept it to myself. Then everything could have gone on just as it did before.”
Could it have though? After all a fellow can only hide his feelings so long. She was too keen not to catch on eventually. Or was she? After all, if a century was not sufficient to expose his love, would five or six do it? Would she have realized how he cared for her, had he not told her?
Eanrin growled and kicked a tree root. What was it he had told that Smallman?
“One conversation! One simple, honest, true conversation and all your questions would be answered, all your problems solved! Really, man, is it that so difficult? Then you’d be free to fall into each other’s arms and live your Happily Ever After. Why make it so complicated?”
But love was complicated! Especially if your lady didn’t love you. Dragon’s teeth, he couldn’t even try to make her love him. Imraldera knew him too well. Everyone else (except the Prince…and, maybe, Bebo) saw the Bard of Rudiobus. Imraldera saw Eanrin. The cat, the man, and the songster. She saw his virtues and his faults. She saw Eanrin, and he had hoped she could love Eanrin. A vain hope.
Eanrin stopped walking. He sat down, began to clean his fur and talk loudly to no one in particular.
“What is chap to do? Let’s see, how does this go in stories? Gallant knight loves beautiful girl, girl says ‘sorry, the feeling isn’t mutual’. Gallant though broken hearted knight sadly leaves beautiful girl and…and…dragon’s teeth, what does he do?”
Eanrin cocked his head to one side and squinted. Then he remembered.
“He tries to forget her”, Eanrin said, extending and retracting his claws. “And I must try to forget my love for Imraldera. I will serve my Prince loyally and I will only think of her as a fellow knight.”
With this he got up and continued along his path. The trees around him grew still and quiet.
Usually, the trees would be taunting or gossiping or both. As Eanrin began to look around for anything that would provoke such behavior he caught sight of a small path on his right. Strangely enough, it led through the trees tops. What sort of faerie walked this path? A bird of some kind?
Eanrin’s eyes follow the small path and suddenly he froze. About five paces in front of him that path crossed his own.
There was a soft rustling of leaves, and a small form leapt from a tree branch and landed in front of Eanrin.
“Well met, bard.”
Imraldera sat at her desk, copying some of Eanrin’s poetry.
“Can’t that fool cat write anything sensible?” she muttered. She glanced at a pile of neatly stacked parchment on her desk. She’d started to chronicle the story of Shadow Hand but having played such a small part in it could not recollect it all.
Exasperated with Eanrin’s poetry, Imraldera threw it aside and grabbed the stack of parchment. She decided she would write as much as possible and Eanrin could help fill in the rest when he came back.
Imraldera realized that she’d been taking his return for granted. It could be years or decades, if ever, before she would see him again. She missed him dreadfully. Eanrin had always been there when she needed him. If she was writing well and didn’t want to lose her inspiration she could ask him to do the gate rounds. He would complain, but he would do it. If she hit a writer’s block, he would saunter into the room and talk nonsense while she pretended to be miffed at the interruption, but was really grateful for a break.
Now Imraldera had to guard the gates by herself. When she wasn’t doing that she was writing, writing, writing, with no welcome distractions. Nidawi’s children were helpful, of course, but not like Eanrin.
Imraldera dropped her head in her hands and sighed. Though she never would have admitted it, she really needed Eanrin. It was going to be very difficult to adjust to life without him.
Eanrin stared at the figure in front of him. It was a squirrel. With fur of silky black and vibrant eyes of a very dark blue, it was a bit frightening, even to Faerie Eanrin.
“Who are you and what are you doing on my Path?” Eanrin demanded.
The fey creature laughed. “That is not the way one ought to address a stranger. I confess I had hoped for rather better manners from the bard of Rudiobus.”
Eanrin took his man form and swept his hat from his head in an elegant bow. “I am Eanrin, Bard of Rudiobus, and Knight of the Farthestshore.”
“Well, since you seem to know a bit about me already, may I repeat my question with more gallantry? Who are you and what are you doing on my Path?”
The squirrel lifted itself up on its hind paws and shook its head. Instead of the squirrel, there now stood before Eanrin a beautiful, powerful Faerie. She was about an inch shorter than he, with straight midnight hair that fell to her waist, and rich, creamy skin. She wore a long tunic the color of her eyes with a matching pair of calf length trousers.
“I am on your path because, for the moment, our paths are the same.”
“And your name?”
“You may call me Laurlin.”
“Well, then, my lady Laurlin, may I ask how you know me? I can’t recall having seen you before.”
Ignoring his question, Laurlin began to stare at him intently. This unnerved Eanrin and he walked past her to continue his Path. But his Path stopped where his crossed Laurlin’s.
“And my Path ends where it crosses yours”, said Laurlin, as if responding to his thoughts.
Eanrin turned to find that her penetrating eyes still rested on him. “Why are you looking at me like that? Don’t you know that it’s rude to stare?”
“Forgive me. You seemed sad. I was trying to figure out why.”
Eanrin suddenly realized why she made him feel so uncomfortable. When she looked at him it was like she was reading a book; like his whole life was laid bare for her to see.
“Not your whole life. I can only see what you show me.”
“What?” Eanrin started.
Laurlin smiled. “Your thoughts are as clear to me as those of mortals are to you.”
Eanrin narrowed his eyes at her. “How can that be?”
She shrugged. “I was given the gift of keen discernment. All Knights of the Farthestshore have some sort of gift, but they must look for it. My mother has a similar gift, though she is much wiser.”
With that Laurlin sat down and drew a large bottle out of a satchel she wore over her left shoulder.
“What are you doing?”
She took the lid off the bottle and poured some of its contents into a small glass. “When two people’s paths cross it is not by accident. It is so that one or both of them that may learn something and follow their Path with more wisdom than before. Our paths will not lead us on unless the reason for which they stopped is fulfilled.” She pulled another glass from her satchel and filled it also. “I thought we might as well have something to drink while we try to figure out what that reason is.”
Eanrin looked at the glass she held out to him. Strangely enough, he didn’t suspect her of attempting to poison him or turn him into anything unnatural. Normally, he would have grown suspicious at his lack of suspicion . But as he looked at her and the cup she offered him, he found that he neither distrusted her nor distrusted his trust. He gingerly took the glass from her hand and took a small sip. It was thick and smooth, a soft pink that reminded one of early dawn. It tasted slightly sweet with an undertone that was like the smell of a meadow tossed by a crisp autumn breeze. It was so pure, so gentle, so real; and it reminded Eanrin of nothing so much as Imraldera.
Eanrin ground his teeth and set down the cup on a rock. Imraldera was the last person he wanted to think about right now.
“It won’t help, you know.”
Eanrin looked up at his companion. “What won’t help?”
“Trying to forget her. The harder you try the harder it will become. If she never comes to love you in return you will do one of three things. Either you will come to hate her for breaking your heart, or you will despair and spend the rest of your immortal life dying from the inside out.”
“And what’s my third option?”
Laurlin’s eyes glazed over and she was silent for a while. When she finally replied Eanrin did not feel as if she spoke to him at all.
“You will love her anyway. You will be the fellow knight whom she can rely on. You will be the friend she can confide in. You will love silently, faithfully, and eternally. Should you be granted the opportunity, you will die for her.”
Now Eanrin was silent.
Laurlin came out of her reverie and looked sharply at him. “Do you think that you could die for her? Do you think that you love her enough to walk the path of Death for her? You have seen Death. Would you face it again to save her? Or would you turn back?”
She grabbed his hand. “Look, Eanrin, and I will show you how to love.”
He looked into her deep blue eyes and into the past.
Akilun turned to see Laurlin and another Faerie behind him. “Akilun, what has happened? Your call was urgent but unclear.”
“Laurlin, Klyre. I am glad you are here.”
Klyre echoed his companion’s query. “Akilun, what has happened?”
Akilun sighed and motioned for them to follow him.
They were in a rolling northern country of the mortal world, near one of the Houses of Light. They walked to the crest of the hill they were on and looked down to where the House of Lights should have been. But all that was left was a pile of ash and ruble.
“Dragon,” Laurlin breathed. “A dragon did this.”
“Yes. Etanun is determined to find the monster and kill it. But I need someone to help me rebuild this House in the meantime. That is why I sent the message. We need to rebuild it as quickly as possible.”
“We will do whatever we can to assist you,” said Klyre.
They started down the hill toward the ruins. Laurlin took a deep breath. “Your message is not the only reason that we came, Akilun. Something disturbing has happened that we wished to discuss with you.”
“What is it?”
“The queen of Etalpalli?”
“Yes. She left Etalpalli about a month ago. No one knows where she went. The Wood told me that she enter the Near World not far from here ten days ago. Have you seen any trace of her?”
Akilun looked thoughtful. “No, I’m afraid not.”
They now stood directly before the burned House.
“Perhaps Etanun will know something,” suggested Klyre. He walked around to the other side of the ruins where Etanun stood.
Laurlin frowned and looked up at Akilun. “I see no trace of evidence to point what direction the dragon might have gone. It most likely flew away.”
“Most likely,” he replied.
“Then how does Etanun know where to look for this dragon?”
“He doesn’t. He intends to search for it anyway though.”
“Where does he mean to start?”
“I don’t know. He’s been rather distant.”
“Why do you think that is?”
Akilun glanced over at Etanun and Klyre who, after exchanging a few words, had become quiet and were staring toward the lightening horizon in silence. “The day before yesterday we were on our way here from farther south. An old farmer met us along the way and told us that the House and the farms surrounding it were decimated. He had gone to visit his grandchildren and returned to find his home a pile of ash. We soon saw for ourselves.” He waved his arm across the blackened countryside.
“Laurlin,” he said softly, “this was where Klara lived.”
“The girl Etanun loved?”
“I heard the rumors but did not know if they were true.”
“They were true. He has hardly spoken since we got here. But he was determined to begin his search as soon as you arrived.”
Even as he spoke, Etanun shook hands with Klyre and started toward them.
“Laurlin.” Etanun spoke only her name as he squeezed her hand in farewell. “Goodbye, brother,” he said, embracing Akilun. He left without another word.
They watched him until he was a faint speck in the distance. Then they turned and began to repair the damage the dragon had done.
After a few days they had cleared away the debris and were preparing to begin rebuilding. On the afternoon of the sixth day they were working so intently that they did not notice the figure watching them until it spoke.
“Why are you rebuilding the House of lights?”
Laurlin turned to see a familiar face. “Ytotia!” Her glad cry was cut short by a roar. She felt herself pushed aside from beneath the sweeping claws of a dragon.
“How dare you call me that? How dare you rebuild the House that I destroyed?”
They would have been turn to ash the next second had not the dragon been distracted by a shout from behind.
“Dragon! Fiend! You will feel my wrath!”
The faerie queen turned dragon turned to fight Etanun.
Laurlin raised herself from the ground and turn to find her friends. She instantly dropped to her knees again beside Klyre’s still form. He opened his eyes and smiled as her tears fell upon his face and her hand touched the deep gash in his side.
“He died a few minutes later. He took the poisoned claw that was meant for me.”
Eanrin sat silent for a moment. “So you never knew he loved you until he died for you.”
Laurlin smiled sadly. “I never knew he loved me and I never knew I loved him. But to give your life for someone is the greatest way to show love. Maybe you won’t give your life literally for the one you love but you can still give them your life by making them more important than you and your comfort.”
“Love is a call to come and die, that you might live.”