Dusk found Dan and the others gathered in front of the main gate of Hyleran, waiting for Gideon’s signal to move out. Dan hadn’t slept much; the things Bern had told him still circled in his head, excited thought chasing excited thought.
Gideon had gotten them up half an hour before sunset for another quick meal, and then rushed them to the gate, where they were currently waiting while he and Francois tracked down the rest of the knights. Kaori’s ninjas, fourteen in total, were already present, lined up and watching silently against one wall.
The endless streams of people clogging Hyleran’s streets had lessened somewhat, though no street was completely empty. Everywhere Dan looked, there was still at least one column of soldiers moving purposefully between the houses.
The houses had changed though. Most were small, built out of simple materials, but in the dusk and shadow settling over Hyleran, they had taken on a completely new look. Warm light spilled from their windows and under their doors, either dancing as the flames of a fire, or constant as the light of a soulborg lamp. Soft yellows, warm oranges, and muted reds combined to bathe Hyleran’s streets in a light which Dan could only describe with one word: home.
Dan sighed. Heleer, Hyleran; the two seemed to go together. Dan knew Heleer would much prefer this side of the city to the busy scene it had been a few short hours ago. No matter. There was something for both of them. And if he was honest with himself, Dan liked the peace and quiet. It was a change.
He leaned against the rough wall of Hyleran, smiling in the darkness, watching the warm light from the houses flicker across the thinning lines of soldiers. Heleer would be here, watching this with him, soon enough.
Too soon, Dan was ousted from his reverie by Gideon. The knights had joined them, and they soon were lined up and filing out of Hyleran’s main gate, into the black night beyond. The knights went out first led by Francois, and Kaori and her ninjas brought up the rear. Dan and the others kept between the two.
Gideon had said they would be traveling on foot, because Ghidan were apparently easily frightened, and could easily give them away if wolves were nearby. Dan was fine with that. He moved to the side of the group, where he could easily see every tree they passed.
There had been trees by Llynar, but Dan had been unable to reach them, since he was confined within the walls. Here he could see the trees clearly. He could walk right up to them and feel their rough bark. If he paused long enough, he could see insects roving along their surfaces. Their roots seemed to hide endless holes, doubtless the homes of small forest creatures. The trees even had a smell which was new to Dan, something soft and solid at the same time, oddly sharp, but overwhelmingly earthy. It was the complete opposite of the scents of metal and smoke Dan had grown up smelling. He moved from tree to tree, completely absorbed in how different they were from each other. Just as the faces he had seen, no two trees were the same.
Behind Dan, Hyleran quickly descended into shadow, the warm lights of the homes cut off by dark walls. But Dan did not look back. Not once did he pause and turn, remembering how he had imagined Heleer by his side. She was with him now in his imagination, but she was exploring the trees by his side, touching their bark with her soft hands, and laughing at their feel and smell. As the forest swallowed Dan and the others, Hyleran was blotted from his memory.
Dan jumped at the sudden voice behind him. It was Gideon.
“Are you keeping an eye out?”
Dan had forgotten he was the scout. He hastily put on his helmet, placing the goggles over his eyes. Their edges stuck to his skin, but he supposed they were designed that way. He found the night vision switch on the helmet, and flipped it on.
Everything instantly went green. It was still dark, but now Dan could make out the shapes of trees and bushes, and even the glittering eyes of some small forest creature, which dashed away as they approached. He gave Gideon the thumbs up.
Gideon nodded and moved off towards Ana, who was talking with Trela as they walked.
Dan looked around. He still couldn’t make out the details of the trees very well, so that would have to wait until morning. But at least now he could see. He glanced over his shoulder and got another shock: Laelia had appeared out of nowhere.
She had the posture of someone trying to avoid company. Dan was sure she had drifted close to him by accident, for her eyes were fixed on Ana, who was now talking quietly to Gideon. Through the green surrounding him, Dan could see her expression quite clearly. It went beyond dislike. He would have almost called it hatred and disgust rolled into one.
Partially because there wasn’t much else to do, and partially because he found Laelia’s murderous gaze behind him disturbing, Dan finally decided to find out what was between the two. He slowed his pace slightly and drew level with Laelia without her noticing.
“What’s going on?” he asked.
Laelia startled as he spoke, and scowled when she saw him. “What do you mean?” she asked harshly.
“Between you and Ana,” Dan said, completely unphased by her tone (one benefit from SR). “You’ve looked like you want to murder her ever since we met.”
Laelia rolled her eyes in disgust. “It’s none of your business,” she said.
“We’re in this together,” Dan said. “Like Kaori said: we can’t afford to have secrets if we’re going to succeed.” Unbidden, the memory of the secret he was carrying surfaced, but Dan forced it to the back of his mind. That was different.
Laelia was silent.
“I really hate people like you,” she said finally, although some of the venom had gone from her voice. “The priers. The curious. You always have to know everything. And you don’t let up, either. Fine, I’ll tell you, just to shut you up.”
Dan waited calmly.
“I met Ana a few times when I was younger, and thought of her as a friend. Recently though, I found out something about her. She isn’t what she pretends to be. She’s a Mordril.”
Dan looked at her blankly. “What’s a Mordril?” he asked.
“A traitor,” Laelia said, her face darkening for a moment. “On Toril, they are an elf or human who forsakes their own kind for the darkness of the drow. They are hated on Toril, and rightly so. They’re the worst kind of traitors, betraying not just one person or one country, but an entire race, and everything they stand for. And Ana Karithon was born as one.”
Dan watched Ana. She was talking with Trela again, laughing at something, and looking very much at home.
“She doesn’t look like a traitor,” Dan observed. “And she is helping us fight the drow, after all.”
“She can pretend,” Laelia said. “She might even lie to herself about who she is, but that changes nothing. Once a Mordril, always a Mordril.”
Dan watched Ana a moment longer. In the green light of his night vision, her long red hair looked pale, fanned out down her back, and her skin looked pure white. “I can’t see her betraying a whole race,” he said to Laelia. “She’s too…”
“Small?” supplied Laelia. “She doesn’t look like she has it in her. But then neither did Caius. He’s not from Toril, but he’s a Mordril all the same. He betrayed Einar for the drow, and Ana’s the same way. I hate them both equally.”
Dan looked back at Ana. Just looking at her made him doubt Laelia’s words. She was small, with pale skin and a smiling face. Since he had met her, he couldn’t recall her speaking more than twice. How could she be a drow sympathizer? Then again, he knew virtually nothing about her. Maybe it was a deception, as Laelia suggested. Maybe Ana was even deceiving herself. Dan couldn’t pass judgement on her though, not yet. He resolved to get to know her better, and then form his own opinion.
“How did you find out she was Mordril?” he asked Laelia.
Laelia scowled. “That really isn’t your business,” she said. “Enough questions.” She moved away from Dan, cutting through the column of knights to the other side.
“Making friends?” someone asked, a hint of sarcasm in their voice.
Dan turned. Gideon was back.
“More likely enemies,” Dan replied drily.
“Give her time,” Gideon said. “Laelia’s… an acquired taste.”
“Has she told you what she thinks of Ana?”
Gideon nodded unconcernedly. “She has. But I’m not worried. She’s very loyal to Einar, and Einar trusts Ana. Laelia can be harsh in her judgements, but she knows what’s at stake here. She’s not about to do anything rash, if that’s what you’re concerned about.”
‘The thought had crossed my mind,’ Dan thought to himself.
They continued on in silence for a time. The trees only grew thicker as they went. Soon the crickets went silent, leaving only the faint rustling of small animals and the occasional hooting of an owl. Soon, Gideon said that they had crossed the border. They were now in Valkrill’s lands.
Nothing much changed, except that the dirt path they had been on all but disappeared. Now they were forced to pick their way across giant roots, leap over small brooks, and try to find their footing on uneven ground hidden by leaves and small bushes.
Gideon said there was very little chance of scouts or wolves being in the woods, so they still spoke, albeit in quieter voices. As the night wore on, Dan decided to learn more about the Valkyrie who had forced him onto this mission. He asked Gideon what he thought of Vydar.
“How do I see him?” Gideon echoed, thinking. “I guess ‘misunderstood’ might be a good word. Most of the alliance sees him as cold and hard-hearted, but he’s really the complete opposite. He’s said many times that he owes the people of Anund a debt he can never repay, and he protects them accordingly. Not that anyone has the slightest idea what that debt might be, mind you. It’s one of the many mysteries surrounding him.”
“Doesn’t it bother you?” Dan asked. “Serving someone whose past you know nothing about? How can you know who he really is?”
“His actions are enough for me,” Gideon said simply. “He holds to his promises and shows every indication of putting his subjects before all else. He’s never changed once during the war, so his past matters little to me. I mean, sure, I’d like to know, but… I’m fine with not knowing. I trust him. It’s as simple as that.”
“Not all of his subjects trust him,” Dan noted.
“You mean those Kelad fools?” Gideon said. “That’s to be expected. Every leader has his enemies, no matter who he is or what he does.”
“I met one,” Dan said. “She told me some things Vydar did.” He mainly wanted to see what Gideon’s reaction would be.
“What things?” Gideon laughed. “He’s done plenty; almost all of it can be taken the wrong way.”
“She did mention that he planned on killing hundreds of prisoners at one point,” Dan said.
“They’re still talking about that one?” Gideon said, shaking his head. “Well, that was one of Vydar’s darker moments, I’ll give them that. Vydar’s a strange case. He’ll do anything to protect his people, but at the same time, it’s like he doesn’t care how many lives it takes to do it. If there’s one thing about him I disagree with, it’s that. But, at the same time, every costly choice he’s ever made has been when he has literally no other option. If it’s a simple choice between his people and someone else’s, he’ll choose us. Some see it as harsh. Others see it as necessary.”
“So that’s what happened with the prisoners?” Dan guessed. “It was either them or Vydar’s people?”
“Essentially,” Gideon said. “It was way back when Vydar was still on Utgar’s side. Tensions had always been high between Vydar and Ullar – still are, come to think of it – and they were reaching a peak. The alliance – which at that time was just Ullar and Jandar – were moving on Vydar fast, conquering his territories one by one. His army was still small, and Utgar’s marro horde refused to help – probably because Utgar wanted Vydar weakened so that he could get the wellspring for himself.
“Anyway, Vydar was in dire straits. He was losing ground and men, food and supplies were going down fast, and morale was dropping. He needed to do something to stop Ullar’s advance, so that he could regroup, rebuild, and strike back. Every attack he made was defeated though, so he turned to the only avenue he had left.
“He had captured a whole regiment of Ullar’s soldiers at a previous battle. There were a good number of important leaders among them; their loss would have been a big blow to Ullar’s army. Vydar knew outright executing them would just make his situation worse, so he decided to use them as a bargaining chip. He decided to send word to Ullar that he would execute every last one of the prisoners if he didn’t withdraw immediately.
“He almost did it,” Gideon said. “He had given the message to a courier and everything. Certainly a lot of his subjects thought he would go through with the threat. He never did, though, and good thing too, because otherwise we’d likely still be at war with the alliance, instead of on their side.”
“What changed his mind?” Dan asked.
“Have you heard of the one they call Aer Ilisyna?” Gideon asked.
Dan nodded. He remembered the recruits talking about her back in Llynar, the strange kyrie woman who had been seen with Vydar, but never identified.
“It was her,” Gideon said. “Or so the rumor goes. It’s said that she stopped him from sending the message to Ullar, and changed his mind. Talked him out of it completely. Next thing we knew, he had let the prisoners go, and escorted them straight to the border. Every last one of them.”
“He just… let them go?” Dan repeated.
Gideon nodded. “That’s the part Vydar’s enemies like to forget,” he added. “We’ll never really know what happened, but Ullar stopped his advance. Just sat across from Vydar’s border, his whole army spread out in pitched tents. Vydar got Anund stabilized, food and supplies distributed, and a few months later, he turned on Utgar and joined the alliance. People still say that if it wasn’t for Aer Ilisyna, that never would have happened. Ullar would have marched right into Anund, crushed our armies, taken the wellspring, and divided Anund up with Jandar.”
Dan thought a moment. “Why didn’t he just surrender?” he asked. “Vydar, I mean. When he was cornered, why didn’t he just try to work out some sort of deal with Ullar?”
Gideon shook his head. “That’s one thing he won’t do,” he said. “In fact, it was Ullar who tried to strike a deal. He even said Vydar could stay in charge of Anund if he surrendered the wellspring. But he wanted Anund to become part of Ekstrom. He wanted its people to become his subjects, and Vydar one of his governors. That’s what Vydar can’t stand. He can’t answer to anyone, or let anyone control who he is. I’ve learned that much about him. Some say it’s because he’s proud, and maybe he is, but I always felt like there was something else at work. Some reason why he has to be free.” Gideon paused, thinking.
Dan wasn’t sure what he thought of Gideon’s words. Gideon obviously trusted Vydar, as did many others, but to Dan, Vydar still seemed extreme. Dan couldn’t decide if he was a good leader who was misunderstood, or an extremist who had somehow tricked his subjects into trusting him. Could he be both at once?
“Anyway,” Gideon said, coming out of his thoughts, “I’m glad he didn’t take the offer, otherwise we’d all be serving with elves.”
Dan glanced at him.
“It would be downright horrible,” Gideon whispered in a tone of confidentiality, although a grin was on his face. “Trust me.”