FOREVER BEYOND A TIME, she waited.
She did not wait while doing nothing; indeed, she kept herself busy tending the gardens and those she found in the garden, singing with the stars, exploring more and more new beauties to share with him, and fulfilling herself in ways beyond her dreams. Nor did she wait in sorrow, for she had learned that self-pity and wishful thinking did nothing to hurry the Outside Time. Sorrow was not even to be found within her.
But she did pray. Prayed that he would be strong as he struggled on. And that one day, no matter when, he would return.
Torrents of rain poured mercilessly down, tearing the turf and branches alike. Eddies of water swirled through the mud and stone, washing away any firm ground.
The girl struggled on, wrapping her sodden cloak around her. Every few steps she would straighten and call out a name, but even as her voice left her lips the wind ripped it away and carried it up howling to the dark rumbling clouds. Night shrouded the land, and she had no light at all to see, so she fell many times. Shivering with cold, caked with mud, she paused under a slight rock ledge to catch her breath.
The calf had bolted through the rickety fence when the thunder first cracked overhead, running to the forest beyond as fast as its newborn legs would carry it. She had managed to herd the cow into the stable where it had bawled loudly for its child, before grabbing her cloak and rushing off after the calf just as the rain had first began to fall.
She regretted it now. If the calf survived this storm it would most certainly be picked off by predators; but she couldn’t pity the senseless creature now, not with the fear of her own safety crushing in all around. She was lost and freezing. It was so dark she could easily walk off a cliff. It was best, she knew, if she found a place to shelter out of the rain and wait for the storm to pass.
But she couldn’t, not with her father, sick in bed at home. What if he needed her and she wasn’t there?
Gritting her teeth, she forced herself into the elements, which seemed like faerie monsters the way they harried her. She had gone no more than a few paces when the ground gave way under her feet, and she was sliding out of control down a muddy slope. She hit the ground hard, the breath rushing out of her body, her cheek lying in water. Drawing in deep breaths, she lifted herself up with trembling limbs, but as she took a step, her leg sank up to the knee in mud. Gasping, she collapsed back on her rump, scooting back till the mud released her leg with an agonizing squelch.
Her face tilted up to the roiling sky, the rain striking her brow, the lightning flashing in her eyes. “Please, Lumil Eliasul!” she cried. “Please, help me!” She buried her face in her arms, all strength bled out of her. The night seemed ready to swallow her up, leaving no trace of Klara, a mere farmer’s daughter.
A hand touched her shoulder. She jumped and twisted around to see a tall dark figure bending over her. With a gasp, for she was too exhausted to even cry out, she shrank back. But the figure seemed to take no notice of her protestations. As she tried to scramble away, she felt herself swooped up from the ground, nestled in the large arms of the stranger.
She was terrified. Whoever this was, he was far too strong for her to do anything to resist, even if she hadn’t been spent. What men in the village nearby matched the size of this figure, and what was their reputation? Where was he taking her? Here her mind failed, for her body began to shake uncontrollably, and she faded in and out of consciousness.
They were at the door of her house. The sudden realization of this cleared her senses for a moment. Surely she could not have faded off that long? Surely she hadn’t been so near the house? Wouldn’t she have seen the lights in the window?
The stranger pushed the door open with his shoulder, stepping into the simple home built of wood, furnished with curtains and rugs, a bright fire crackling in a hole in the wall, the smoke drifting up through a chimney.
How did he know where my home was? Klara wondered vaguely. He must be one of the men of the village. But she couldn’t imagine which one would be kind enough to carry her home.
The stranger laid her before the fire, pulling her sodden cloak off her.
“P-p-please,” she stammered out from her numb lips. “P-please, you need t-to go.” Mind reeling, she searched for the words to explain that he needed to step out, because she needed to change out of these wet clothes before she caught her death. She wondered if she even had the strength to stand and find another dress without fainting. Shuddering, the possibility crossed her mind that he would see her dilemma and feel the need to disrobe her himself. Not that. But she needed to dry off. For a moment, she wished she was unconscious and completely unaware of everything.
“Don’t be afraid,” said the stranger’s voice, and she caught a blurry glimpse of his face, ever so briefly. Were eyes supposed to be that blue? It must an effect of her oncoming fever. His hand cupped around her head, and she flinched as he began murmuring words under his breath that she could not understand. Summoning the last of her strength, she reached up and pushed his hand off her head, but as she moved, it struck her with the force of lightning that she was no longer wet. Indeed, her shivering had stopped, her dress folded around her, and her hair softly brushed her face. She went still, staring at the fire flickering before her, knowing that its heat could not have dried her so quickly. Was it a hallucination?
“What were you doing out?” asked the man, but she didn’t dare turn around to face him.
“My calf,” she whispered. “It was lost in the storm. I had to find it or else Butterbell would be upset, and if she stopped giving milk, then we would—” She broke off, mortified to be babbling.
She heard no footsteps, but she realized he had left her side, and the next moment the door shut behind him. She bolted up, surprised to find renewed life in her. But other than that, she wasn’t sure what to do.
“Klara?” a weak, crusty voice called out from the only other small room. “Klara, child, is that you?”
Sucking in a sharp breath, the girl ran to the call, dropping down beside the cot and the withered man who lay upon it. “Dada.” She took his hand, once so strong, now so frail. “Do you need me?”
“I thought you were out in this storm,” he muttered. “The house was so quiet. I was about to go search for you.”
Klara blinked back a few tears, knowing he couldn’t even leave his bed. “I’m safe, Dada,” she whispered. At least, she thought she was. Who had been that stranger, and why had he left so quickly? None of it made sense. Kissing the top of her father’s forehead, she said, “I’ll get you supper.” And she wouldn’t try to wonder how she dried so quickly. She feared she already knew and wondered what demands such a creature would make if it felt payment for the deed was due.
The wind continued to howl like a wolf, and she wondered how the stable and fence would fare. She bent over the stew hanging above the fire and began to ladle the soup into a wooden bowl—
The door burst open, the wind and rain screaming as it rushed in, carrying with it a tall, multi-armed creature.
Klara screamed, dropping the bowl; the soup splattering across the ground.
With his heel, the creature flicked the door shut, despite the protesting shoves of the gale, and stood a moment in silence.
She then realized that the extra, horrific arms coming out of the man were in fact the ungainly legs of the lost calf. Heart hammering, she straightened. “How did you…”
He came towards her, adjusting the calf to settle in one arm as he reached up to undo his cloak and sweep it off him. Crouching, the calf calmly splayed across his knees, the stranger bundled the large cloak into a sort of bed before the fire.
Speechless, Klara took several steps back, her mind vaguely noticing that though he had been soaking wet when he first entered, the stranger was dry now, and so was the floor. Mewing a soft cry, the calf craned its head back to lip the man’s caressing fingers. “I’m sorry,” the man apologized. “I know I should have asked if I could bring it in here, but I thought that you would want to care for it.” He stood and turned, and Klara’s breath fled in a sickening rush even as confirmation of her suspicions strode in with still more sickening force.
There could be no denying it. Though he wore the body of a man, no man glowed with that inner eternity or stood with such overwhelming presence.
Klara reached out a hand to steady herself on a chair. Faerie. She’d seen them before, but always Faerie beasts that were animal-savage, though far more intelligent. Not this kind.
He saw the fear greying her face and frowned. “Do I frighten you?” he asked in concern as he took a step back.
Yes. Yes, you do. Instead, she said, “What…do I…” She swallowed hard and forced it out. “Owe you?” It was best to get it over with now, instead of dreading a demand. Faerie folk were well-known for their greed and cunning. They never let a deed, no matter how minute, pass without demanding tribute.
He raised an eyebrow and smiled, and her heart gave an unexplained twist. “You owe me nothing.”
Her mouth opened and closed. Faerie or not, she knew it was common courtesy to offer him food and shelter in this horrible storm. But how could she? She was alone or very nearly so, for her father was bed-ridden. There wasn’t any way to pretend that she had a brother or able father. By now he might have already realized this, as no girl should have been out in the storm looking for a lost calf. But if she did nothing, he might become very offended, no matter his pretty claims of no debt.
She could offer him food. At least that. And the stable. Yes, the stable. “I’ll get you some soup,” she said.
Her father’s feeble voice was just heard above the storm. Ladling the soup into the bowl,she froze. “I’m sorry,” she murmured. “My sick grandfather…”
“Go and see to him,” the stranger said. “I assure you, I need nothing.” He bowed deeply, and without another word, turned and disappeared into the storm.
The calf bawled at his passing, and Klara jumped, for it had been laying quietly the entire time the man had been in the room. The bowl shaking in her hand so that the soup almost sloshed over the side, she crept back to her father.
“I thought I heard something,” her father sighed. “Are you all right, my dear?”
“Of course, Dada,” Klara replied, and she was glad that the dark room could not reveal how she trembled.
The storm passed on in the night, leaving behind a muddied, wrecked world. But for all the broken branches, for all the squelch of mud under her feet, the beaten down brush, Klara still found beauty as she stepped out into the morning air. Water-drops sparkled on the trees like jewels, the full stream could be heard singing merrily, and a rainbow arched against a wall of distant dark clouds.
She breathed in deep, smiling at the scent of wet earth and morning mist. Taking the rope collar around the calf’s neck, she coaxed it forward towards the stable. It was adamant, and it took all her effort to drag it on. So great was her concentration that she didn’t even look at the stable until she had come quite near it. Only then did she look up, dreading what the storm might have done to the already weak wood.
And she screamed.
She bit it off before it was quite finished and stumbled back, dragging the calf with her.
Kneeling atop the roof was the same Faerie man she had met the night before. He seemed to have been very caught up in whatever he was doing on the roof for he looked startled to find her there, or maybe he was only startled by her cry.
Klara stared up at him, mouth open. Unexpectedly, her dismay turned into anger. “What are you doing up there?” she shouted.
He glanced from her to the hammer in his hand to the freshly cut boards he was nailing into place. “Fixing the roof,” he said at last, almost puzzled.
No breath came to her for a matter of moments, and then she finally sucked in air. But why… Where had he acquired the boards, the nails, the hammer? Fixing the roof indeed! From what she could see, he had replaced the entire roof, somehow without her hearing, though the work should have certainly reached her ear.
You’re forgetting, Klara, she scolded herself. This is a Faerie. Faeries can do strange things.
Strange things, yes, but when had anyone ever heard of one fixing a roof? And it occurred to her as she stared at him in astonishment, that he didn’t look like a faerie either. Oh, he was certainly of fey blood, but even she knew that the Faeire did not suffer any slight on their appearance. And he, sitting in wood dust on the roof, had hair and shirt damp from the morning mist and a large dirty smudge down his cheek that somehow made him look…endearing.
Blinking in surprise, Klara stumbled forward, pushing the calf into the corral with its frantic mother. “Th-thank you,” she stammered, but she didn’t dare look at him again. Gathering up her skirts, she hurried back to her house, forcing herself not to glance over her shoulder like a hunted animal. Once inside, she braced herself against the door and took a deep breath.
Had he been trying to cast a spell on her?
What sort of game did Faeries play anyway? Was he trying to come across mortal as a way to deceive her? And the roof! Why bother with the roof?
She peeked out the window, where she could see him set the last board in place. She’d heard their kind drove strange bargains, even asking for strands of hair. Well, he would have not a strand of her hair nor anything else! At the same time, she knew it was very unwise to offend a Faerie. Suppose…an odd thought…he was just doing this out of kindness....or out of boredom…or perhaps he’d lost a bet with another and this was the punishment. Whatever the reason, he might expect some sort of civility. And father had always taught her to be kind to strangers.
And there was her dream. If she acted this way around one stranger, where would she ever find the courage to make her dream become reality? There was at least something she could do for him.
Stepping out the back door with a wooden bucket and ladle, she hurried a little distance into the trees behind the house. A pure, bright stream ran there, beckoning with sweet song, asong that always seemed familiar, though she didn’t know the tune. Many times she came here to listen to the song, and it always eluded her. But this morning, as she dipped the bucket into the water, she almost thought she heard voices—voices in a reflection of something sung above.
The Faerie, nailing the last board into place, sat upon the edge of the roof and surveyed the farm with a critical eye. What a strange place for the Lumil Eliasul to send him! He smiled and shook his head. How very like his Lord to send him to fix a roof at a farm, after all his great conquests. But yet—and here he frowned--yet fixing a roof didn’t seem to be all that was in mind, for he was done, and there was no sign of any Path leading away. Perhaps there was more work to be done? The fence, clumsily repaired where the calf had broken through, would take a matter of moments to fix. A mere blink of the eye if he wished, but he preferred working with his hands. What else then? What else about this farm was he missing?
Was the girl all alone here with her ailing grandfather? No wonder she was so frightened of him. He’d have to be extra careful of what he said or did, so that he did not intimidate her. Another smile tilted the corner of his mouth as he considered her outrage on discovering him on the roof. Poor little thing. He’d hoped to have been done before she came out. But despite her obvious fear, she was able to keep an assured dignity. Admirable, that. He’d seen many grown men act far less courageously in his presence.
He sensed her approach.
The first time she had come, he had been listening to the Songs of the Spheres, and somehow her presence hadn’t distracted him until she screamed.
Now here she came from behind the house, carrying a wooden bucket. She stepped up to the side of the barn and glanced up at him. “I was wondering…” She took a deep breath. “I was wondering if you’d like some water.”
She was a slight girl, but she held the heavy bucket of water with ease. “Thank you.” He wasn’t particularly thirsty, but it would have been rude to refuse since she brought it all the way out. Catching the side of the roof with his hand, he dropped down to the ground. Stiffly, she scooped up some of the crystalline water with the wooden ladle and handed it to him. He drank it slowly as he contemplated what he would do next. There was still no sign of any Path leading away. The girl was beginning to look nervous.
Klara eyed him. What was taking him so long to swallow and be done? Yet she was afraid for him to continue, afraid of what he might do next. She glanced down at her feet as he handed the ladle back to her.
“I was wondering…” the Faerie said slowly. “Might I fix your fence?”
She blinked. Clutching the bucket against her in a crushing embrace, she stepped back. “Why?” she demanded. “Why would you do that?”
“Well…” He rubbed the back of his head. “I’m a pretty good builder.”
She couldn’t stop staring. She looked from his face to the roof and then to his sword. She’d noticed that he wore it all the time, even now, though it was slung across his back so its great length couldn’t hamper him. On its pommel she could faintly see something that looked like a moon and stars. Then a terrible suspicion began growing in her mind, one that she could not believe she hadn’t considered before, but then, it was so unbelievable, so unexpected. And as soon as the possibility entered her mind, she knew it was true.
“You are the Brothers Ashiun…” she breathed.
“Half of them,” he said with a smile and a bow. “Etanun Ashiun.”
Again, she stepped back. Her heart pounded so fast and hard in her throat, she didn’t think she could get any words past. Etanun Ashiun. How could she have been such a fool? One of the legendary Faeries who traveled her mortal world doing the will of…of the Lumil Eliasul. Yet having him standing here was too hard to believe. This Etanun Ashiun was a renowned hero, worshiped by some, famed for slaying terrible monsters. And when he was not battling with his great sword, he and his brother were building spectacular Houses of Lights that were said to allow the mortals to hear…hear what Klara always strove to listen for, always wondered if she heard in silent times of the night or in quiet meadows of the forest—the Sphere Songs.
“My Lord,” she gasped. “For-for-give me.”
He shook his head. “I’m not your lord. And there is nothing to forgive; you have done me nothing but kindness.” He glanced back to the fence again, where one log creaked dangerously in a breeze. “So if I may, shall I repair your fence?”
“Whatever you please,” she faltered, unable to tear her gaze away, yet unable to stay near him for a moment longer. Etanun Ashiun! The powers he was rumored to possess made him perhaps the most dangerous Faerie of all! She spun and hurried for the house, keeping her stride at a walk, albeit a fast one.
She was locked back in the house in a matter of moments, yet the wooden bar across the door seemed the flimsiest of guards. Pacing back and forth, she tried to recall every legend of the Brothers Ashiun she had heard. Since Ma and the baby had died, and Dada had come down ill, such stories were no longer carried from the nearby village,and Klara stayed no longer in the village than her trips required.
The Brothers Ashiun had come soon after the world had begun, and they had driven away the strange monsters that terrorized the people, one with a sword and strength and the other with a lantern and insight. And they served the Lumil Eliasul.
Klara had never heard of any legend in which they had harmed the innocent.
So why was she so afraid?
The Lumil Eliasul…
The Giver of Songs…He Who Names Them…
When she heard the stories of his love that he offered to all no matter who you were, how infinitely great he was, how he cared for the weak and poor, that his grace could forgive anything…she always dreamed that such impossible love might be for her.
And what if it wasn’t?
The farm hardly needed as elaborate a fence as the one the knight was building, Klara thought to herself as she peeked around the curtain at the outside. It even looked like he’d carved designs into the wood! He was also constructing it extremely fast. Every time she’d look, he’d just be laboring by hand and tool, but whenever she was gone for a little while he accomplished far more than was physically possible. What exactly was his reason to be here? Did he even know?
“Klara?” Her father’s voice commanded her attention, and she hurried back to his room. “You seem very distracted…is something wrong?”
It broke her heart each time she saw him lying there on the straw cot. He was always looking dirty and ragged no matter how many times she bathed and dressed him. He could hardly even move anymore. She didn’t know what sickness ravaged him, but she feared he was losing the battle. No! If he couldn’t fight it, she would fight it for him. She would not lose him.
“We have a visitor,” she said hesitantly, kneeling beside him and taking his bony hand in hers.
A spark of anger lit behind the foggy film over his eyes. “Is it the Valexson boys?” He tried to push himself up, and his breath rattled recklessly. “You tell them to leave my farm at once!”
With a gentle shush, she pressed him back down, reassuring, “No, no, no one like that. It’s a faerie…Etanun Ashiun of the Farthest Shore.” The words were impossible. Him. Here. She wouldn’t blame Dada if he scoffed at her.
But his eyes widened. “Farthestshore…The Song Giver has heard my plea…” He reached out and grabbed her hand. “Bring him in, Klara, bring him in!” His excitement elicited a spasm of coughing, and after Klara had calmed him, she slipped out.
It didn’t seem likely that Etanun would care much about the wishes of a sickly mortal, but Klara couldn’t refuse to ask. After all, he was only building a fence, not fighting monsters. As a matter of fact, if he didn’t come in, she might get mad at him, legendary faerie knight or not.
The fence appeared to be finished as she stepped outside, and Etanun was sitting underneath a tree talking softly to himself or someone she couldn’t see. Swallowing hard, she approached. “It’s my father,” she said when he looked up. “He wants to see you…if you’re not…preoccupied.”
“I’m on your father’s farm; I’m sure he wants an explanation,” Etanun replied a touch of amusement in his tone. “Of course.”
He followed her inside, and she was suddenly aware of the bareness and simplicity of the house. Well, what of it? He’d seen it already. She would not be ashamed. When she led him into her father’s room, she was shocked to see her Dada sitting up against the wall, though he hadn’t had the strength to do so in days. The effort seemed to have exhausted him though as he’d broken into a sweat. But when she tried to fret over him, he waved her away, his attention fixed on the faerie. “Etanun Ashiun,” he said.
Bowing his head in respect, the knight stepped forward and knelt alongside the bed, the surprise in his eyes at the old man’s condition fading to concern.
“Where is it?” her Dada rasped. “Where is Halisa?”
“Here,” Etanun replied, drawing his sword and laying it upon the blankets. The room lit up in the blade’s glow, softening every edge in the presence of the sharpest edge of all. Klara couldn’t take her eyes off it, stunned at how one sword could represent such power.
“The Blade of the Lumil Eliasul’s righteous wrath and judgment,” the old man murmured. “Forged within Lumé himself.” His watery eyes rose to the faerie’s face. “Where is your brother, the bearer of Asha?”
“Our Paths have been separate these past few days,” Etanun answered.
Her father sighed. “Ah, well. I shall see the light in full soon enough then, shan’t I?” With another cough, his eyes fluttered shut, and his breath rattled in uneven swells.
Etanun stood and stepped back, drawing Klara with him. “How long has he been like this?” he inquired softly.
“His health has been failing for the past several months, but only recently has he been confined to the bed.” Her mouth trembled. “I don’t know what illness it is that plagues him…do you?”
A line creased his brow. “I confess my brother knows more of the diseases that manifest in mortals…but it seems to me that he is dying.”
Heart grinding to a halt, she stepped away from him. “No. No, you’re wrong. You don’t know; you faeries always think we’re dying!” Her voice began to shake and she spun around so he couldn’t see the tears beginning to pool in her eyes.
His reply was gentle, not at all offended as his kind could have been. “I shall go find my brother and see if he can come. Perhaps there is something he will able to do.”
Before she could turn around, he had already vanished, though the door hadn’t opened or shut. Shivering, she wrapped her arms around herself and sat alongside her father’s bedside, waiting and hoping for some intervention of what she secretly admitted was inevitable.
After dusk’s shadows had wreathed the woods, the door to her home opened once again, but before she could be alarmed, all fear was driven out by the light that flooded the room. Unlike the glare of Halisa which had demanded sole attention, this light hallowed everything in the room with a gracious touch. She could not see its source yet, so bright it was against the outside darkness. Two figures stepped inside with it; one she recognized as Etanun and the other was a smaller and slimmer man, somehow humble despite being fay. As the light drew back into itself, no less potent, but less far-reaching, she saw it shone from a small silver lantern, delicately wrought.
“Klara,” Etanun said, though she afterwards realized she’d never given him her name. “This is my brother, Akilun.”
“May I see your father, Klara?” Akilun asked, his amber voice soft.
She nodded mutely, overwhelmed by both Brothers Ashiun and their amazing gifts being in such close proximity with her.
Akilun slipped into the small room, the lantern lighting up every corner of the room, driving away all shadows, cobwebs, and dust. Her father’s eyes flickered open at once, and he gazed long and full at the light. “Asha,” he murmured. “Have you come to guide me to the Final Water?”
With a quiet smile, Akilun knelt alongside him, taking his hands. “Do you know who you will meet at the Water’s edge?”
His eyes took a while to focus on the knight’s face, but his words did not falter. “I have been a proud and stubborn man….I don’t deny. But I’ve heard the Wood Thrush’s call, and I should like to meet him there. The Lumil Eliasul. I would call him Lord…”
“Then meet him you shall,” Akilun replied. “Walk the path with peace and the hope that shines brighter even than Asha.”
Throughout the conversation, Klara watched them with mesmerized awe. But as she watched her father’s eyes close again, dread clutched her, forcing her forward. “You—you will help him, won’t you?”
Ever so slightly, her Dada opened his eyes and looked at her. “That….that was all I needed, my little…my little Klara.” His shaking hand reached out for hers and she caught it to her lips as his eyelids dropped again and his chest collapsed in a gasping exhale.
And the light of Asha shone its brightest.
A song always seemed to lilt through the stream in the forest, perhaps reflecting the Songs of the Spheres as much as the sparkling water reflected their light.
But Klara heard nothing that morning as she sat amongst the ferns. Her feet dangling in the icy water had long since gone numb, but she refused to remove them. Somewhere in the distance, or perhaps not as far as her mind was from it, she heard a songbird trill.
Why notice anything?
Her Dada had died.
The knights had buried him behind the barn amongst a host of wildflowers.
How could he? So soon and without any warning? If she was fair, she knew that it had been a long time in coming, that he had simply been hanging on and only just let go. But why? How could he just leave her…alone?
She didn’t notice the person coming up alongside her, until he’d sat down. A vague corner of her mind recognized him as Etanun, but she didn’t bother to acknowledge him.
“It’s very beautiful,” he said.
With a slow blink, she looked over at him. “What is?”
“The Farthest Shore,” he answered. “My brother and I were taken there when we were trained as Knights. I look forward to returning one day, whenever my task in this world is done.” He met her eyes, his blue eyes deep with compassion. “There is no better place for your father to be.”
Her throat knotted. “What about with me?” she pleaded. “It would have been better for him to stay with me.”
With a heavy sigh, Etanun propped his arm up on his knee. “As an immortal it was strange for me to understand death when I first came here. Since then I have seen thousands die, even my own kind, many at my own hand. I’ve never lost anyone I’ve been close to, so I do not know that pain. But I do know of the assurance the Lumil Eliasul gives us. Death doesn’t have to bring despair. You will be with him again…that is…” He trailed off and looked at her earnestly. “What do you know of the Lumil Eliasul?”
Taking a deep breath, she rubbed her face and straightened. “I’ve heard the tales of him. And…I’ve heard the songs he gives.”
“You’ve heard the Sphere Songs?” His eyes lit up. “Where?”
“Here mostly,” she answered. “In the stream, the trees, the wood thrush’s call.” She looked up at him, her mouth trembling. “I want to believe in the Lumil Eliasul. I do believe. I know I’ll see Dada again. But what am I to do? I can’t keep up this farm just by myself.”
“Do you have any family you can go to?”
“No one. My parents had no siblings and my grandparents died long ago. I’m alone.” She sighed.
Frowning, Etanun stared off into the distance. “I shall speak with my Lord and see what is to be done. Our path brought us here, and it is not leading away yet. Do you know of anything that we might do for you?”
She began to shake her head, but then a thought occurred to her, and she burst into sobbing laughter. “I don’t suppose—you know how to build—an inn,” she moaned.
“I suppose we could,” he said, confused. “But what will that avail?”
“It was our dream,” she replied, pulling herself back under control. “Dada and I always wanted to build an inn for the passing travelers, but there was never time with the farm...” As she trailed off, a sparkle of life finally entered her eyes. “But…now…if I can’t keep the farm up, perhaps an inn would work better for me. I could keep a small garden to provide food and earn money from lodging. All I need is a building, and I can do the rest! I—”
“Half a moment,” Etanun said, raising his hand to halt her outburst. “You’d be inviting strangers to your farm. What about your safety?”
“Dad and I talked about that before.” Excitement began to tingle in her voice. “Any ill-meaning traveler already could force themselves into our house, and no would really care. But as an inn, we would be a place of public safety, recognized as a haven. That would be some protection, more than I have now. And having the possibility of good people coming through regularly would also serve as safety. I—” She trailed off, uncertain of how to interpret the strange expression that had entered the knight’s face. “Forgive me,” she said. “I’m not thinking clearly. Of course, the inn is not necessary; I didn’t mean to overstep.”
“No,” Etanun replied. “No, you weren’t overstepping at all.” He chewed his lip in concentration as he stared off into the trees, leaving Klara to wonder if faerie’s normally had this habit, or if he’d picked it up from mortals. “Yes,” he said at last. “You’re right, that would be better for you.” He leapt to his feet and bowed. “I shall speak with my brother over this. For now, farewell.” He disappeared into the woods, with scarcely a step, leaving her alone again by the stream.
But this time she was surrounded by the water’s sweet song and the trilling of a thrush hovering always nearby.
However the discussion between the two brothers went, the conclusion was apparent enough when Klara wandered outside to feed the animals. In the dim morning light it took her a moment to recognize the sight before her as felled logs being sawed into fine boards.
The knights paused as she approached them, staring at the smooth wood with awe. “You’re building it?” she gasped, her wide eyes rising to theirs.
“Where will you want it?” Akilun asked, a pleased smile faintly hovering on his lips.
“Close to the road,” she stammered. “Over there. So that the trees create a sort of wall between it and the farm.”
“An ideal location,” Etanun agreed. “We’ll begin work on it at once.”
She finished her outside tasks, watering the plants and beasts, visiting the freshly covered grave, before retreating back into the cabin for indoor cleaning. It was strange not to hear her Dada’s crackling breath in the next room. Strange to hear everything so silent.
A rumble of voices caught her attention, and she darted to the window. The faeries were nowhere to be seen, presumably gone into the forest for some new logs, though she hadn’t seen an axe with them. Instead, the figures of three men came swaggering up the growing path that led from her farm to the village.
“Lights above us,” Klara whispered. Inhaling deeply, she moved out of sight from the window. Let the men think she was gone for the day. She waited for their muffled voices to fade.
But their voices came closer and closer; then the door swung open and knocked back against the wall with startling force. Her heart leapt, jolting her body with it, and she swung around to face the intruders, her hands clutching the rim of the table.
The Valexson brothers swaggered in, three she’d known and feared since they were all children. Though she didn’t linger in the village often, she knew that their behavior had never improved with their age.
“What are you doing here?” she shouted. “Get out of my house this instant!”
“Easy there, Klar,” one by the name of Grale chuckled. “Didn’t think there needed to be an invitation for neighbors. We just wanted to see how your ol’ Da was getting along, and see if we could offer any help on the farm.”
“I appreciate it, and so will he,” she said, her pulse pounding so that she could barely squeeze words past it. “However, everything’s just fine. We don’t need anything, thank you.”
“Then how about a little picnic?” he intoned, his fellows smirking behind him. “If you’re working so hard, surely you could use a little break.” His hand reached out to catch hers, but she jerked it back.
“No, I don’t!” she snapped. “I—I’m perfectly well, and you need to leave. Now.”
“Oh, come on, pretty. You need to spend more time—”
“I believe the lady has made her wishes quite clear.”
Everyone, Klara included, jumped at the sound of Etanun’s voice and turned to see his imposing form filling the open doorway.
Grale squinted and then flashed Klara a look of utter disgust. “And here I thought you were shy of men. Who’s Handsome?”
Her mouth too dry to respond, she could only shake her head, but the faerie spoke, his voice pleasant.
“I am Etanun Ashiun. If that means anything to you.”
How it could not? Grale and his two friends took a horrified step back, one of them breaking out into an instant sweat. “What have you been doing, you wretch?” Grale snarled at Klara. His wild gaze darted back to Etanun “We don’t want your kind, you hear? You get off this farm and—” His hand raised as if intended to shove past the knight or perhaps hit him, but he did neither, for Etanun caught and held it fast. Growling, Grale tried to break his hold, but at the faerie’s flick of the wrist, the mortal’s arm twisted completely over.
Grale’s scream sent his companions rushing forward, but another strange voice stopped them just as quick. “Surely you know that interfering would be foolish?” Akilun warned leisurely, leaning against the door frame behind his brother. “I advise you to just watch and listen for once in your lives.”
Etanun’s eyes, turned icy cold, remained fixed on Grale’s face until the miserable man finally met his gaze. “I believe you misunderstood,” the knight said. “It is you who will leave this farm for it is under the protection of the Lumil Eliasul. If we ever find you on it again, you will receive far more than a broken arm as a warning.”
“Lumil Eliasul?” Grale stuttered in disbelief and anger, but he went no further for Etanun turned and sent him out the door with a slight push, then pulled the other two forward and sent them out as well. They staggered to keep their balance, and then turned eyes, blood-shot with wounded pride, upon the knights.
“Leave,” Akilun said quietly. “Leave and consider your path. You will not last long following it.”
At his words, the youths turned and fled for the safety of their village.
Etanun turned back to see how Klara was faring and found her still up against the back of the table, her face white and her eyes fixed on where Grale had stood. “I do not believe they will bother you again,” he assured.
With a hard blink, her eyes refocused. “I-I don’t think they will e-either.”
I’ve frightened her, he thought with a sigh. She was such a delicate mortal, as timid and small as a mouse. In this circumstance she had every right to be afraid. But he couldn’t help but wonder if her anxiety would improve with the future she was undertaking. “Are you sure you want that inn?” he asked.
She nodded, unable to look at him.
With a deep breath, he nodded as well. “So be it.”
During that day and then the next, Klara kept a close eye on the progress of the inn, marveling over how quickly the frame was raised. When they’d asked her exactly how she wanted it built, she admitted she hadn’t really thought about it before, so they had gone ahead with their own design. From what she could see looking out the window with discreet scrutiny it was going to be magnificent.
“Wish you could see it, Dada,” she whispered.
She watched in fascination as the faeries worked, walking across beams and swinging from support to support with no tether or anything to protect themselves from a two-story fall. Etanun especially intrigued her as he seemed to have no concept of gravity or height at all, once even hanging upside down to grab something instead of hopping down—
You certainly have better things to do with your time than watching him, she chided herself in exasperation. Pushing away from the window, she returned to her work; any work, so long as she was busy.
But despite remaining busy, the day crawled by. Every sound she caused reminded her of the absence in the house. Throughout her work, she abruptly broke into tears, wondering if she would ever be able to feel truly happy again.
But when night fell, a knock at the door interrupted her bereavement. Running a damp cloth over her soiled face, she peeked through the window then cracked the door open. “Yes, Sir Etanun?” she asked, her voice cracking a little from its crust of tears.
The candlelight within the house illuminated the sympathy in his eyes as he beheld her. “You can wait till tomorrow to see it, if you wish, but it might do you good to look at it now.”
“I’m sorry, what?”
“The inn. It’s finished.”
Her mouth fell open, and she gripped the door to keep from stumbling. “Already? But you hadn’t even put up the roof yet…”
He simply held out his hand in invitation, and she took it with trembling fingers. A thin cloud cover skimmed the sky, the starlight faintly glowing through to brush the tips of the trees, while the shadows beneath ever darkened. Gleaming in the night, beyond the dusky forest, she could see a light. Several lights. As her heart rose, she pulled ahead of Etanun and darted through the last few trees to see her inn.
The light of Asha shone through the door. Akilun stood inside, the lantern’s beams sanctifying the building from the inside out. She stood still, her gaze smoothing over the perfect proportions, the gabled windows on the second story. Through the open door she could see all the way across a golden wood floor to an open door on the other side—opening east and west—just like the House of Lights these brothers built. Slowly, she stepped inside, staring up at the burnished supporting beams, the rail on the stair. She could imagine it all already, muslin curtains at the windows, a braided rug on the floor, a pert fire dancing in the hearth. Her knees weakened, and she knelt to the ground. “Dada,” she whispered. “It’s so perfect.”
She didn’t notice Akilun quietly leave the house and pull Etanun away with a subtle tug at the sleeve. She never saw the Path open before their feet, beckoning them onwards. She didn’t see them vanish into the night, leaving no trace but their work behind them.
All that she knew, and all that she cared was that she breathed in the light of hope, and around her she could hear, like never before, the Songs of the Spheres glorifying the purity and strength of He Who Named Them.
Stars danced overhead, chanting stories of all that was, is, and to be. Their sparkling light reflected in Akilun’s brown eyes as he lay back in the heather deep in a mortal wood. With the chirrup of the crickets and the zephyrs stirring nearby, everything was almost perfectly peaceful. Almost, except Etanun seemed to be having difficulty settling, as apparent by the constant rustle of grass beneath him and his occasional sighs.
“What is on your mind?” Akilun asked.
“I wish he hadn’t called us off like that,” Etanun muttered. “With no farewell or explanation…what will she think?”
“What she thinks of us does not really matter,” his brother replied. “We have done our duty to the Lumil Eliasul, and he called us on.”
“Yes, yes.” There was a few moments of silence before he began again, “Still, I’m not convinced those cads of men would really stay away. And her inn is now a welcome invitation to anyone. I would rest better if I was assured of her safety—”
“Etanun.” Amusement softened Akilun’s voice. “She is in the care of the Lumil Eliasul. He would not have sent us away if he did not have an express reason for it. Live or die, she is his, and he will keep her safe.”
“I know this, brother,” he said with a regretful sigh. “Forgive me for my blathering. I suppose I am just sorry we had no chance to say goodbye.”
Leaves of light flicked on the floor. Klara blinked, the edge of her lashes skimming the wood. A moment later, she bolted upright after finding herself curled up on the smooth floor of the inn. The door and windows were still flung open, cool morning sunshine whisking inside. A fresh scent of cut wood dusted the air. She’d fallen asleep? She must have! How humiliating! Yes, she’d been tired throughout the day, but really. Brushing off a powder of wood shavings, she scrambled to her feet and looked around the empty room. Aside from the twitter of sparrows, all was still.
Last night seemed like dream, so surreal in its perfection and peacefulness. Little wonder she’d fallen asleep, come to think of it. She’d rarely felt so content and safe.
But where had the knights gone?
Hesitantly, she called their names, but only the awakening woods chattered back at her. Well. Maybe they had gone off to fetch some final furnishing of the inn. Or they’d left.
Sore from sleeping on the hard wood, she tottered down the dirt path back to the house. The door creaked on its hinges as she opened it, and though light streamed in, it did little to help the drab bleakness of her cabin. The walls were still grey, the wood was still splintering. Compared to the inn, glorious even in its bareness, her house was very dull indeed. And empty. Just as the inn was empty. Just as she was empty.
Her hand caught a nearby stool and she sank into it, the ecstasy of the lovely night quickly fading. Here she sat—alone. “Dada,” she whimpered, a quivering finger touching to her lips. “Oh, Dada…” She didn’t want to be alone. Perhaps the knights were not too far away. “Akilun? Etanun?” She knew her voice was too small to even carry out of the room, but she knew somehow for them that it didn’t matter. They would not hear for they were far away.
But scarce had the tears began to fall when a silvery voice sang, “Never alone.”
Startled, she jerked upright, her tangled hair springing around her. Though she scanned the room thoroughly, there was no sign of anyone nearby. Finally, a movement on the windowsill caught her attention, and she stared as a wood thrush hopped down onto the table beside her. Its head cocked to the side, its bright eye gentle and considerate. “You’re not alone,” he said again.
She vaguely wondered if she should feel more surprise and decided she shouldn’t. “Are you another faerie?” she asked.
“Then you’re a figment of my imagination.” Folding her arms, she glanced away. Some people were said to have gone mad during grief. She hadn’t known she was that far along yet, but then they said the true sign of madness was oblivion.
With a twitter very much like a chuckle, the bird said, “Not that either.” He bounced forward, trying to catch her gaze.
Shyly, she looked back at him, observing his speckled breast and delicate little feet. It was then that she recognized him. He could have been any wood thrush. But she knew this one. She’d heard him many times before. Even the Sun, the Moon, and all their children could not sing the Sphere Songs as lovely as he. “I know who you,” she whispered.
“Yes, you do. You’ve heard me many times before. But not till now have you stopped to understand what I say.”
No heart could feel as heavy as hers; like a weight, it wished to drag her down into the ground, away from him. “Why me?” Her words were weak and hushed, barely able to escape her lips. “I’m just a farmer’s daughter.”
“You are one of mine,” he promised. “And that makes you a child of the King. You are never alone.” He fluttered to her shoulder and his downy head nuzzled her cheek. “I will always be here for you, no matter what may come.”
And as she listened, her heart began to lift as if chains broke, leaving her spirit to fly as if on the wings of the wood thrush himself.
One Year Later…
“Miss Klara, Miss Klara!”
The panicked cries of children brought Klara scrambling up from the slick wooden floor, as she was in the midst of scrubbing it. Tossing the soiled rag aside, she darted out on bare feet. Only two out of the three children in the family staying at her inn were running towards her. Their parents had gone into the village for some supplies, and Klara had given the children permission to play in the gardens, so long as they didn’t wander. She’d seem them all playing together only minutes before. What could have happened?
“Calm down, calm down,” she soothed as they ran into her arms. “Samuel, tell me what’s wrong.”
“It’s Eima,” the boy gulped, his usually stalwart face gaunt with fear. “We were playing by the stream, and a monster came! It has her cornered and won’t let her past! It’s scary, Miss Klara; it’s an awful green woman!”
The realization sunk in her like a rock in water. Taking the children by the shoulders, she pulled them inside the inn. “Just stay in here, and don’t leave,” she said calmly. Desperate not to show them how frightened she was, she swept to the kitchen and quickly selected a few items. A sweet bread she’d made for after dinner. Food usually appealed to faeries. And after a moment’s hesitation, she concealed a knife in the apron wrapped around her waist. Not an iron one; though it might be more effective, a faerie would smell it on her before she left the house.
Please let Eima be safe, she prayed as she closed the inn door behind her. If anything happened to that little girl…
A distinctive humming vibrated her ears as soon as she stepped out. She followed it back into the trees towards the stream, and as she got closer, she could hear Eima whimpering. At least the child was still alive then. Finally, she reached them and slowed to a stop.
Eima hunkered against a tree, her little face scrunched up in a strange mixture of fear and fury. Before her a slender green woman rose from the stream, her equally green hair dissolving into a green cloud in the water along with the rest of her body. She beckoned to the girl with long claws, her hum matching the sway of her body. At Klara’s approach she whirled around, and any visage of beauty that she might have suggested was ruined by her pinched and vicious face. She snarled, clenching spine-like teeth.
“Greetings, fairest,” Klara said, keeping her voice steady and unafraid. “Please, will you take this cake in return for the child?”
Hissing, the creature slid around towards her, its body dissolving and solidifying as it dipped up and down through the water. At the bank it studied her, slit nostrils flaring to smell the extended cake. For a moment Klara felt her breath unknot; felt confidence that she had won.
Then the faerie’s eyes widened, and with a garbled cry of “Halisa!” it swirled around and lunged at Eima. Without thinking, Klara lunged after the faerie, instinct warning her that the child would never be seen again if it entered the water. She caught the faerie’s hair, but the coils slid out of her hand like waterweeds. Her touch was all it took for the monster to twist around and slash at her throat. Falling back into the water, Klara reached for the knife, but she had not yet pulled it out when a shout broke through the chaos.
Through her watery eyes, Klara watched in disbelief as Etanun Ashiun lunged out of thin air towards the creature. With a shriek the monster dove for the water, instantly dissolving into the green fog to sweep away in the current. But before its spindly legs could liquefy with its body, Etanun caught it around the ankle and jerked it out, throwing its thrashing form onto the grassy bank.
Klara darted to Eima and scooped the girl in her arms.
The foul immortal writhed in the grass, slashing out murderous talons to catch the knight’s leg, but Etanun stepped to the side. A moment later, Halisa flashed in his hand, curving in brilliant light and plunged into the monster’s breast. Shrieking again, the creature shuddered and then was finally still.
“Enough,” Etanun said again, softer.
Weak-kneed, Klara knelt in the stream, Eima squirming and squalling in an attempt to escape her tight embrace.
Etanun turned with a slight bow and almost looked as if he was going to disappear the very next moment, but then he saw them, and his mouth dropped open into a perfect “O.” “Klara?”
She nodded, unable to take her eyes away. Where had he come from? After a whole year what had caused him to appear at such a crucial moment! And he remembered her name, not that that really mattered, but still!
The frantic calls of Eima’s parents drifted across the stunned silence. “I have to get her back,” Klara stammered. “They’re worried and…will you be here when I get back?”
Taking the bow of his head as confirmation, she staggered out of the water, giving the lifeless coils of the faerie plenty of room. When she broke out of the trees, she saw the parent’s hurrying towards her. They gasped with relief when they saw their daughter and took her from Klara’s arms, exclaiming over her drenched clothes and asking if she’d almost drowned.
Klara herself wasn’t sure she’d not imagined everything that happened and didn’t trust herself to have a coherent answer. “She’s fine…you should take her back inside…I’ll join you in a moment.”
Once they’d carried the furious child into the inn, she hurried back into the forest, hoping the knight had not already left. When she saw the grass empty where the dead faerie had lain, she feared he’d gone, but then she saw him standing in the stream, lowering the body into the current. As soon as it submerged, the creature melted into its green fog, but instead of staying cohesive, it swept apart and away.
He looked up as she approached and smiled. “I was so intent on this villain’s trail, I did not even notice where it was leading me.” He stepped out of the stream, instantly dry. “I was hoping my path would lead me past your inn again.” For a moment, he almost appeared shy. “You…you are doing well, aren’t you? How much time has passed?”
“I am well,” she said, feeling like someone other than her was answering. “And it has been about a year.” After an awkward silence, she asked, “Where’s Akilun?”
“Once again, you find me in a rare occurrence where our Paths are separate. But we shall be back together soon.”
Her gaze dropped down to the stream where every trace of the monster had flowed away. “What—” She swallowed past a lump in her throat. “What was that? Were you hunting it?”
“All of her kind have a predatory nature,” Etanun explained. “But she left her realm and started hunting mortals. She had to be stopped.” He glanced at her furrowed face and added, “I’m sorry that I slew her in front of you.”
“You saved us.” She shrugged and tried to laugh. “It’s just…just a pity…I know I’m a farmer’s daughter and have seen my share of death, but I’ve always been sensitive to it, especially after Dada. It’s just…so final.”
“How did you fare after we left?” he asked as they began to walk along the stream away from the scene of death.
“It was hard,” she admitted. “No one bothered me on the farm, or when I went into the village, but I felt like I was drowning in isolation, yet too afraid to swim out.”
“I’m sorry. I wish we could have stayed longer to help you adjust.”
“No, it was good that you left.” She smiled at his look of surprise. “You see, in those dark days, I heard songs like I never have heard before. As if the light of Asha had cleansed my sight, I began to see the truth of Lumil Eliasul. And he came. He came to me. Sweetly, gently. As a word thrush winging away my sorrow.” She glimpsed a large smile spreading across Etanun’s face as she continued. “So yes, it was hard, but it turned into the most beautiful time of my life. I wasn’t alone. And with the knowledge of He Who Loved Me, my fear began to melt away. He gave me strength when travelers came to the inn and now…I feel so different.” She sighed. “So new. Reborn.”
“Yes,” he said, his voice sounding distant as if he himself had gone far away. “I know that feeling.”
When she gave him an askance look, he continued, “My brother and I experienced something similar when we became Knights. It was as if our past lives were dead, our connection to them severed. We moved on from those who were our friends but now treated us like we were foreign. It was startling, but rewarding.” He took a deep breath of satisfaction. “Now we build Houses of Light, and mortals learn of truth, and truth casts out fear. I do believe this world might rise to become even more in tune with the voice of the Song Giver than the Far World.”
She cleared her throat. “I would like to hear more of your service, but I understand you must be constantly busy…”
“As a matter of fact,” he said. “Akilun and I will be serving in this part of the world for a while. There is a House of Lights we shall raise over Gaheris. Perhaps I can visit from time to time? I also wish to hear how your service has progressed.”
“Oh!” She blinked. “Yes, that would be lovely.”
“Then I shall see you then.” He bowed and kissed her hand; the next moment he disappeared on his chosen Path.
As the next months passed, the Brothers Ashiun did indeed come and visit her often, regaling her with the tales of their conquests when she asked. She was thrilled to show them the progress of her work, thrilled that she, a simple mortal, could work side by side with them in the service to the Lumil Eliasul. Her shyness around them gradually began to fade as they found common ground in the Song Giver, and she was not ashamed to ask them to accompany her on some of her morning calls to the village. Such a humble thing she would never have dared ask of them at first, but she knew now that they did not deem it unworthy of their prestige.
She had overcome her fear of the village some months back and had become something of an angel of mercy to the poor and sick therein. Though she didn’t bring the Brothers Ashiun into the more crowded part of town for the sake of the more superstitious people, she brought them to some of the outer shacks where ailing people had lost fear of all save their desperation.
Somehow, even knowing the knights character did nothing to diminish the amazement she’d feel when she watched how tenderly Akilun could wash a frail grandmother’s face or Etanun bandage a child’s scraped knee.
Both of the brothers she came to admire and adore, almost as if they were brothers of her own, except—
She had to be careful that her thoughts were never unnecessary about Etanun. In her opinion, he was more handsome than anyone had a right to be, and his glowing nobility only illuminated it. No matter how often she spoke with him, she could still become tongue-tied in his presence. It was foolish. He was a Faerie knight, and she was a mortal girl. She had to remember that.
One morning Akilun had been called off on a mission of his own, so Etanun had accompanied Klara on her calls himself. After a morning in a house full of grubby children and wailing babies, they agreed to take the longer path home through the idyllic forest. The path was pillared by gracille aspens, every flower seeming to tilt its head towards the pair in curiosity. The blooms’ bright scent kept a spring in their step, and soft sunbeams twirled down through the leaves to dance on the ground before their feet.
“How many Knights of Farthesthore are there anyway?” Klara was in the midst of asking. “I have only ever heard of you and Akilun.”
“Verily. There are no others.”
“None?” She blinked in surprise. “I would have thought the Far World is more in tune with the Lumil Eliasul. Is his touch not even more well-known there?”
His lips turned down in a scowl. “Most faeries become so caught up in their own grandness, they learn to ignore the call of their Master. It seems like more and more of the Faerie are forsaking the Sphere Songs and setting upon the mortals in jealousy. I must always be on the alert to stop them.”
“That must be difficult,” she said, her eyes turning to watch a bee skim past her nose into a clump of heather.
“No, not really.”
She halted in surprise. “But it must be. Killing them…sending them to the Netherworld…it does not bother you?”
“No,” he replied. “They’ve turned into vicious animals set on becoming their own gods. They deserve to die.”
“That may be so,” she admitted, continuing her pace slower. “But nevertheless, don’t you wonder what brought them to their state? Whether it was just arrogant pride or some bitter hurt?”
“That is more of Akilun’s business,” Etanun said with a laugh. “I rarely bother myself with it.”
“It should bother you!” she snapped and her tone brought him to a pause this time. Taking a deep breath, she forced her voice to calm. “It’s just…the Lumil Eliasul strikes with justice, yes, but he is a Prince of mercy and compassion. He wishes these monsters to be what they were meant for. You cannot brush aside that incredible love…if ever one day comes in which you need as much grace as the monsters you slay.”
The shadows of leaves flickered across his face, but could not dim the sparkle in his eye. “Klara,” he said with a smile. “You are the sweetest creature ever born in this world.”
It was her turn to scowl. She hadn’t been fishing for compliments. Picking up stride, she pulled away. “Did you even hear me or do I just amuse you—”
He sprang after her and caught her arm, saying, “Klara, be still!”
Wrenching her arm back, she snapped, “Don’t tell me to—”
“No, I mean it,” he hissed, raising a finger to his lips. “Another faerie is nearby.”
She froze, instinctively drawing closer to him. “Hostile?” she whispered, but he didn’t respond. He stared into the trees, his eyes intense enough to burn down the forest. And then a moment later, his fierce expression faded, replaced by an amused smile.
“I see you in there,” he called. “Come out this instant!”
A childish giggle chimed through the air, and the bushes next to them rustled. Out of the branches tumbled a child, her mass of brown hair tossing every which way. “I scared you!” she exclaimed, throwing back her head to reveal a chubby-cheeked face alive with zest and satisfaction.
“I don’t scare, I react,” Etanun replied, his smile turning into a smirk.
She sniffed, rolling back on her haunches. “That’s what you always say.”
Klara, releasing her reflexive grip on the knight’s arm, stared in amazement at the faerie before her. The girl only appeared to be about eight years old, and she was covered in dirt from head to toe, though that didn’t hide the green of her outfit or the crumbled flowers in her ringlets. “Who is this?” she asked.
The child, in the midst of tackling Etanun’s knee in some futile attempt to push him over, paused and spun around to stare bright-eyed at Klara. Despite her seeming youth, there was that terrifying potency in her eyes that bespoke her kind.
“This is Spring Sprig,” Etanun introduced. “Spring Sprig, this is Klara.”
The child padded over to her, continuing to stare. When she’d stopped with her toes a few inches from the Klara’s own, she suddenly burst out, “You’re pretty!”
Laughing in surprise, Klara curtsied. “That is an honor coming from one such as you.” The compliment was most sincere, for despite her grubbiness, beauty lit the little girl. Who had ever heard of a female faerie calling a mortal woman pretty? They were notorious for vanity. Clearly, this vision of innocence had no such qualms.
As quick as a hummingbird, Spring Sprig darted back over to Etanun, tugging on his hands. “Don’t you think she’s pretty?” she demanded.
At her insistent pull, he scooped her up to perch in one arm. “I’d be a fool if I thought not!” he said with a chuckle.
“Do you love her?” The child quirked her head to the side, delight quivering through her small body.
Klara’s heart thudded to a stop. Oh dear. It seemed faerie children were just as embarrassingly inquisitive as mortals. She waited for him to deny it.
He only said, “Oh, Spring, always thinking about love this time of year, aren’t you?”
She reached up, planted her hands on either of his cheeks, and swiveled his head around to face her. “You’re blushing, Etanun Ashiun,” she said, smugness in every syllable.
With another laugh, he kissed her lightly on her button nose, and she squirmed, squealing in glee. “So are you,” he bantered.
She wiggled back down to the ground and raced back over to Klara, grabbing her hand and tugging her forward. “Come, come,” she prattled. “You must meet Ferdinand!”
“Who—oh my.” Her query after this unknown was swiftly answered as the enormous head of a great green frog rose out of the bushes and regarded her with bulbous yellow eyes. Swinging astride the frog’s back, Spring happily patted its head. “This is Ferdinand. Ferdinand, this is Klara.”
“It’s very nice to meet you, sir,” Klara said, unable to be certain whether it understood her not, but wise enough not to take chances. Its head bobbed forward and up under her hand, obviously asking for attention. At Spring’s urging, she scratched him between the eyes, laughing as his wide face wrinkled with pleasure. Smiling, she glanced up at Etanun and he returned it, but he seemed to be caught up in his own thoughts as he gazed upon them. Only Spring, glancing slyly at him amongst her prattle to Klara, knew the truth.
* * *
Within the Wood Between there are perils beyond the fancy of nightmares for foul things wander underneath the boughs, dangerous gates hunker in waiting for their prey, and the very Wood itself ensnares and enslaves, twisting all thought into madness. Through this wood many Paths twine, and though most lead to jeopardy, there are those lain down by the power of the Farthestshore, and while they might lead through danger, they never fail.
At the crossroads of these Paths, there rose a dwelling neither forest nor building but both—a Haven, crafted by the Brothers Ashiun. In that breath of time, there were many such Havens throughout the Between, offering shelter and rest from the shadow of the Wood. And when not questing through the mortal realm, the Brothers Ashiun abided there.
Akilun paused in writing to glance up again at Etanun as his brother continued to herald him with every detail of the latest visit with Klara. He pondered the sparkle in Etanun’s eyes and the unusual hesitations in his speech. As the elder brother, Akilun was the only person in the worlds that could look upon the mighty knight with the fondness one might look upon a child.
When there was a moment of silence, Akilun decided to broach the subject he knew must come. “You know that as soon as we are finished with the House of Lights in Gaheris we will move onto another part of the this world…perhaps even as far as Corrilond.”
With a heavy sigh, Etanun sat down beside his brother. “I know. I have mentioned as much to her. But we will surely come back time to time.”
Taking a deep breath, Akilun began, “Etanun, I know your interest in her well-being and work is sincere, but do I have to once again remind you how she might take your interest? Your innocent attentions may cause more harm than good.” He didn’t need to bring up the last time Etanun’s chivalry had accidently won a heart—a faerie queen’s heart at that. His brother’s wince showed he remembered all too well.
“Klara’s not like Ytotia,” Etanun replied, but before he could be reminded that the individual woman was not the issue, he continued, “And my interest in Klara is not just in that of a damsel under our guard…I…I…” He looked down, his fingers whitening as he clenched his sword hilt.
It was as he suspected. “You have feelings for her?” Akilun prodded gently.
Blue eyes bright with something akin to anxiety, Etanun tried to explain. “She’s special, Akilun. In all our travels, I’ve never met anyone so in love with our Lord. She is a true knight if there ever was one! I know the time we’ve spent has been small, but her heart is so clear…Akilun…I love her.”
Before he could even began to respond, a shrill squeal of glee followed by a hearty croak broke the silence. Akilun closed his eyes in resignation. “Oh no,” Etanun said with a little sigh. “She did it again.”
“I knew it!” Spring Sprig yelped as she burst from the bushes and hurtled onto Etanun’s lap. “I knew you were in love with her!”
“Really, Spring,” Akilun chided, not even trying to hide the smile on his face. “You
must cease eavesdropping on conversations.”
Giggling uncontrollably, she rocked back and forth, her face alight. “Did I really hear you right?” she demanded.
“Yes, yes,” Etanun said, ruffling her curls.
“When’s the wedding?” she demanded. “I can come, yes? Say I can!”
“Lumé’s crown, Spring Sprig,” he gasped, only able to laugh. “Your mind leaps as far as Ferdinand. I haven’t even spoken to her yet, and I’m still not sure if I even should…”
“You must. You two were made for each other,” she assured, throwing her arms wide then hugging them tight.
“We’ll see,” Etanun replied.
She rolled out of his lap and darted back into the bushes, where her head soon rose from the leaves as she mounted her frog.
“Already off?” Akilun inquired.
“I must!” Her smile stretched from ear to ear. “I’ve had a bet with ChuMana, and Nidawi, and Vartera, and the Mer-maids, and ever so many as to whether or not Etanun would ever fall in love! I must collect my dues! Oh, wait until I see their faces!”
“Stars save us,” Etanun groaned as she leapt joyfully away. With a sigh, he leaned back against a tree and retreated into a thoughtful quiet. After the sprite’s boundless energy, the forest seemed perfectly still.
“Perhaps we should have told her to keep quiet about you and Klara for now,” Akilun said suddenly.
“Let the Far World gossip,” his brother replied in irritation. “I hardly care.”
“Even so,” Akilun stared off into the distance, a perturbed crease in his brow. “Even so I have never felt a shadow of foreboding around Spring Sprig before.”
“Akilun, she is harmless and innocent as they come,” he said in exasperation.
“There is no doubt of that,” the other mused. “Whatever may come, she is certainly innocent.”
Rarely had the Wood Between tingled with more excitement. The trees themselves were rather indifferent to the whole affair besides deep-rooted wishes of malice as was in their nature. But upon the wind itself, or rather by the wind (for there is little sylphs love more than gossip), the news of Etanun’s love flew through the Wood and into other worlds. There was no corner that did not know.
So it was that this news blew into Etapalli and touched the ears of a Faerie Queen. Still fresh was the pain of the rejection of her love. And the whispers she overheard burned like fire in her heart.
“Where are we going?” Klara asked again, her words stumbling over her laughter. She followed Etanun deeper into the wood, arching her eyebrows as they continued past the waterfall in the stream, the glade bursting with flowers—all their favorite areas to talk and all of which he was passing.
At last he paused and turned to face her, his eyes dancing with some delightful secret and the nervousness that usually accompanies one. “As you know, my brother and I are nearly finished with the House of Lights in Gaheris.”
She nodded, trying to ignore the stab of pain at the inevitable.
“My brother and I wanted to thank you for your friendship and comradery. I thought perhaps…you might like to see one of our Havens?”
Breath left her. “In the Between?” she whispered, color draining from her face.
Concern sprang into his eyes at her reaction. “If you are afraid, you do not have to come, but I swear no harm will befall us on the Path I take you.”
“No, you misunderstand,” she gasped. “I just never dreamed, never imagined…I would love to see it, Etanun!”
His smile returned, and gently taking her hand he took a few steps closer towards a small patch of ground riddled with rocks. “It will feel strange at first, even threatening, for the Wood is no friend of mortals. But you will be safe.”
“I know.” She took the last few steps with him, her fingers entwining a little more tightly as they stepped onto the bare earth.
The world changed.
Vibrant light wove around them, and when the colors from her vision cleared, she found herself standing in a forest flawless with perfection, no rot or death marring its eerie beauty. But even as she stared in admiration, she felt the uncomfortable headiness one feels when they are surrounded by superiors looking down their nose at them, which the trees were very close to doing if they had noses. Let them glare, she thought defiantly. I am a child of the Lumil Eliasul. Taking a deep breath, she felt the seizing fear slide away, and she turned to Etanun with a smile.
His admiration was so undisguised, she had to look away. “Never have I seen a mortal enter the Between for the first time with such confidence,” he told her.
“You must remember I’ve had preparation. I didn’t react nearly so well to you at our first meeting.”
He chuckled and offered his arm. A Path appeared before them, almost sweeping aside the shadowing trees. If the branches reached out to snag them or if things whispered amongst the leaves or if the wind concealed prying hands, none of it dared cross the Path or the knight who walked on it.
As they traveled, the world blurring around them, the daylight grew steadily cooler, fading to hues of lavender and indigo. “I thought I heard there was no Time in the Wood Between,” Klara said in surprise.
“Time is not dependable here,” Etanun replied. “It does what it wants. And it seems as if it wants to be evening.” He paused abruptly, and the world and sound went perfectly still.
Klara stepped softly forward, her heart rising in the thrill of anticipation. The trees around them rose like pillars, long vines trailing throughout. A slight wind stirred the branches, petals of starflowers flickering in its wake. Before her eyes the forest glade transformed, the bark of the trees turning smooth, windows and walls melting into view. All around her the Haven ascended, always present but not always seen. Built of brick and wood it was not, for it was the forest while it was a room. Her lips parting, she slipped her hand out of Etanun’s and stepped further in, staring overhead at the high roof, so like arching branches of trees and so like painted marble. The tiles of the floor, or perhaps the texture of the moss, told stories she did not yet know. A subtle sweetness hung on the air, the aroma of the trailing starflowers perhaps, but also something beyond the sense of mortals. As the light continued to fade from the outside Wood, the starflowers, still rosy from the last daylight, turned pure white, glowing with light like Asha, twinkling like stars around the chamber.
“Oh, Etanun,” she breathed, unable to say more. She turned to see him beside her, and her smile could not express enough her enchantment, so her eyes told the rest. Her fingers traced over script scrolled around the pillars, watching as the faerie words transformed before her eyes into the lyrics of the Sphere Songs. “Do mortals gladly lose themselves in the Between if it means refuge here?” she asked, a teasing turn to her lips.
He laughed, but didn’t answer as he drew into room where a spring bubbled up from lush heather. As she dipped her hands in the water, the coolness caressing her entire body at the mere touch of her fingertips, a thought suddenly occurred to her. “Is Akilun not here?” She glanced around curiously, wondering how far the Haven spanned.
“Ah, he called himself elsewhere,” Etanun replied, glad the gathering shadows hid the slight color in his cheeks as he recalled his awkward request if perhaps he could have the Haven alone with Klara and Akilun’s knowing smile in response. He had spoken with the Lumil Eliasul many times about her, and whether or not he should even acknowledge his feelings. Any answer was neither yes or no, but a subconscious reminder of everything he already knew, both the consequences and rewards. It seemed the decision was entirely up to him, and there wouldn’t be some great revelation.
Or perhaps the revelation was now. For looking at Klara, illuminated by the beauty of Faerie, it seemed there was no other answer. How could he hope to hide his heart? No, he had to tell her and leave the rest to her. Strange that he who faced savage battle with monsters and realms without tremor should now be so paralyzed.
Klara settled herself in the grass, leaning back on her hands to gaze up at the stars peering through the entwined branches. “I can almost see them as they really are,” she murmured. “Children, creatures…not just spheres of light. Their singing is so clear here. They’re dancing. Almost as if they’re coming closer.”
Sitting beside her, he followed her gaze. Then slowly his eyes widened. She was right, they were coming closer. Whether she realized it yet or not, Hymlumé’s children were spiraling further down, as curious of her as she was of them. But had they ever shown themselves to a mortal before? Would she be able to bear their staggering presence? But as they drew nearer, he saw that they presented themselves small, so small three could have fit on his hand.
Klara inhaled sharply as she watched several float in front of the dark branches of the trees. Her breath still held, she watched as one capered closer. Though the sphere of light in which it danced should have been too bright for her eyes, she saw a creature similar to a horse but far more delicate with little feathers coming from its chin and hooves. Its mane and tail flicked like fire, and a horn thin as a needle rose from its head. It hovered before her, its dark eyes deeps as wells gazing into her own. It flickered up, joining its siblings in their dance around the Haven.
“Klara.” Her whispered name drew her attention back to Etanun, and she was startled to see such intensity shining in his eyes. “Klara, I love you.”
All sound faded from her hearing at those words. She stared, unable to move, unable to believe what she had heard. But as his gaze did not waver, she was compelled to respond. “I don’t understand…we are of the Lumil Eliasul…you speak of the love all in him have for each other?”
“No…yes, of course…but no…” He closed his eyes and took a deep breath as his fingers wrapped around hers. “I’ve never met a woman who loves my Lord so dearly, whose desires parallel my own or balance them with such perfection. I am not one to be swayed by appearances, but as that light grows in your eyes day by day, you are the loveliest maid to have drawn breath.”
There was nothing to say. Nothing she could say. She could only stare into his eyes. And as she watched, the deep intensity there wavered in her silence. His fingers loosened, and his gaze lowered. “But…I speak selfishly…forgive me for—“
“Wait.” The word gasped out, breaking the other barriers like water burst from a dam. “But Etanun, what about your work and quests?”
He nodded slowly. “Yes, I have considered that many times. You are right, it would be wrong for me to expect you face the perils of my calling. You would not be able to come to many of the demesnes where I’m called. Your life…is in the mortal world…and I shouldn’t have…” His hand slipped away, and he made as if to stand up.
In that moment, she darted forward and caught his straying hand. “I could bear it,” she gasped.
Startled, he sat back down, his eyes widening. “But you do not understand. I would be gone for long periods, and for you to lead such a lonely life—”
“Lonely?” She laughed. “The Lumil Eliasul is my life, and the inn is the service he has given me. But for our hearts and lives to be one would complete my joy…for…I never could love any other man but you.”
His eyes shone brighter than the stars, but she would not look away. “Then you would be my wife?” he asked, his voice low and hushed.
“Yes,” she breathed. “Lights above, yes.”
His other hand gently cupped the back of her head and drew forward as he gifted her with a light kiss on the cheek. She rested her brow on his shoulder, barely able to keep shivering from delight.
How could this be? How could she, Klara, mere farmer’s daughter, have the won the love of the most renowned and honored faeries, the heroic Knight of Farthest Shore? Grace, she knew to be the answer. Grace through the love of He Who Names Them. That he should have given her this was beyond her understanding.
For a long while more, though Time is unmeasured in the Wood Between, they spoke of their future and plans, as yet not intimidated by the mysterious unknown. They only knew that had chosen each other, and that their love was eternal.
The morning began like any other.
It was some time after their betrothal, but the bliss of it still shone fresh in Klara’s heart. Soft dirt crusted her fingers as she dug in the garden outside her cabin, a cool grey sky resting over the green land below. No one was at the inn this morning, but she refused to pine away in wish of company, namely Etanun’s company. After all she was not lonely! Song breathed through all of creation. As time had passed, she had become so in tune with the Sphere Songs, she could compose songs of her own in reverent reflection. She sang one now, her voice as vibrant as the songbirds around her. So caught up she was in her singing that she didn’t notice when the birds stilled their voices or that even the trees ceased rustling.
Finally as she paused for breath, she noticed the uneasy tension in the air. Leaning back on her heels, she brushed the braid out of her face to glance around. Instantly, her gaze fixed on the lone figure standing amongst the shadows in the trees not too far away. That was odd. It looked like she had come from the forest, not the road by the inn.
“Klara,” the stranger said.
Klara’s breath hitched. A Faerie. She was surprised she hadn’t recognized its presence at once. It appeared to be a woman, but it was shrouded in a heavy cloak. How had it come across her name? Perhaps Etanun had sent it? “Good morrow! Do I know you?” she asked, keeping her voice friendly.
“No,” it said. Something was strange about its voice. Raspy. Burnt.
“May I help you? Are you lost?” She pushed back the feelings of unease which she knew any faerie could smell as she walked closer. Something hot glowed in the faerie’s eyes, and her face was stretched taunt across her bones. Her beauty was haunting and tragic as if it knew that its time was fleeting. Pity filled Klara’s heart. Poor thing. Although she’d never hosted a faerie at her inn before, there was no time like the present. “I will share my supper and give you a place to lay your head, for you look weary…”
She paused as she watched the stranger’s eyes flare orange. Her heart stopped, and her mind breathed one word. Etanun.
Then fire exploded from the stranger’s mouth, engulfing the woods, engulfing the farm, engulfing everything. There was no time for pain. There was barely time for realization.
And then there was darkness.
But darkness is not an entity; it is an absence, a void, the removal of light. In the same way, death is the departure of life. With both, light and life can be restored. And the light that shone in Klara’s opening eyes was everlasting.
Rays of light flickered like glass before her eyes, a wavering starburst above her. A coolness surrounded her body, bathing her in a weightless sensation. She was floating; no, she was being pulled forward. Either way she was in water, such an opposite and thrilling relief after the heat of the inferno. She felt herself rushing up towards the surface, and as her head broke clear, she gasped in air as if it was new to her. Perhaps it was. She had never breathed in air so pristine.
Almost with a gentle hand, the river pushed her to the shallows where she scrambled upright, water cascading from her. She stared in disbelief at the lone figure waiting for her on the shore. Her Wood Thrush. But also a Hound. The Prince. And many things she saw all at once in a way she never could have with mortal eyes. She was eternal now. She could see him clearly. The Song Giver.
And they stood upon the Farthest Shore.
There are some things that cannot be expressed in this world. Paper runs out. Ink fades. Words are limited, unable to catch some things that even the mind cannot understand.
It is suffice to say that the Farthestshore fulfilled all of Klara’s being. Not just her wishes or desires, but everything she was made to be. Here she found her father and her mother and legends of whom she had heard, and made friends with those she had never known.
Here the Songs lived, not only in the gardens of the moon and the vistas of the sun, but in every breath of eternity.
Still, there was something yet missing. She wondered if she was foolish to feel this slight pain when she was so surrounded by perfection and beauty. But when she inquired of this to the Prince, he assured her that the loss she felt was right. “I too feel it,” he told her. “For now my people are yet sundered. My heart is always with them; so if they are far, there I am also.” He cupped her cheek, smiling into her eyes. “As it is the same for you.”
She blushed, and afterwards felt no shame in her longing for Etanun’s time to join her.
But it was Akilun who arrived first.
He told her of all that had transpired.
The Lumil Eliasul found her at the shore of the Final Water, crying as if her heart would break. She felt her fears wash away in the empathy of his embrace. “Will he be redeemed? Please tell me he’s coming back!” she begged.
“The poison within him was withdrawn with Akilun’s love and the light of Asha, my child. He has already seen how the Dragon corrupted him and repented.”
“But he is alone now! And how will he deal with the pain and loss? He told me himself, he never lost anyone he truly loved; and for both of us to be gone and his brother at his own hand, how can he bear it? And—”
“Klara.” Her rambling ceased at the sight of his smile. “Never alone.”
So she waited. Waited for the day that he would return.
Ever flowed the Final Water. In its currents it carried the dead to where they belonged, whether in restored life or living death. Two it carried now, one of which it gently pulled from the arms of the other and into darkness; for the soul of that one had rejected grace and chosen itself. But the other drifted on into a land of light.
Klara felt him as soon as he arrived. Dropping the trail of vines she was weaving into a tapestry, she scrambled down the branches onto the ground. Swiftly, she raced through the gardens and beyond, making straight for the shore of the Final Water. As she crested the last hill obscuring her view, she paused.
Etanun and Akilun embraced in the midst of the river. Her heart melted to see how ragged and worn he was, to see how he feared facing his brother whom he had betrayed at the last. And she saw how all his fears and failures were washed away.
As they stepped from the water and began hurrying up the hills, arm in arm, Klara began to step back, knowing how deep the brothers’ love ran for each other. Perhaps she shouldn’t intrude on their reunion. Though it ached, surely she could wait just a little longer.
The Wood Thrush’s voice whispered in her ear. Go to him.
She flew down the slope, slipping through trees and skipping across streams, the final distance seeming longer than any before.
Akilun saw her coming first and tilted Etanun’s chin in the right direction. Immediately Etanun’s eyes widened with joy, and he sprang forward as she reached him, catching her up in his arms and spinning her around. When he paused, she caught his face between her hands and stared there in wonderment. Every person she had once known that she met here, she saw complete and perfected. But he, whom she had once ignorantly thought perfect, surpassed them all in his restoration.
And he loved her. As she loved him. As they were loved by the Lumil Elisaul.Forever beyond a time…they lived.