Chapter One – Tidings from the South

Raelin had never wanted so badly to disagree with someone. Normally it would have been an easy decision, something she had always wanted. But now… now…

Raelin couldn’t stand it. She had to see again, to understand, to try to resolve the battle within her. She rolled over.

The bed she lay on was large enough for two. Facing her, her breathing steady with sleep, was Kelda. Her face was creased with a frown, and her eyes tight shut, as if she hoped to escape into sleep.

Escape what, Kelda? Raelin thought. Fate? You can’t escape fate. I’ve known this would come for a long time. I wanted it to come. Ever since…

Raelin closed her eyes, trying to purge the thought from her mind. If she could forget it, she wouldn’t have to face it. She opened them again. There was Kelda, still clutching the sheet in her slackened grip, curled up, her face still wearing that same expression. It filled Raelin with sympathy just looking at her. Raelin wanted so much to wake Kelda, to hug her, to comfort her, to tell her everything would be all right. But what would she say? She wasn’t like Kelda. She wanted this to happen. She had for years.

Raelin slid softly from the bed, her feet making no noise as they struck the soft earth floor. She dressed quickly, silently, and then turned to face Kelda once more. She still slept. Her mouth twitched downwards, her frown deepening in some fold of a dream.

The covers had become tangled in the night. Raelin crept softly around to the other side of the bed, and gently smoothed them back over Kelda. Kelda sighed in her sleep, the sound soft, delicate; but her saddened frown remained. Raelin could look at the expression no longer. She turned, and silently left the room.

Raelin’s home was small and simple. It was a place to eat at, sleep in, and stay warm during the winter, and not much else. And neither did it need to be. Kyrie were creatures of the air; they were not made to stay inside.

It was a short drop from the bedrooms to the larger main room below. Raelin opened her wings just enough to slow her descent slightly, and leapt gracefully from the hallway, landing with her legs bent. Such a thing as stairs were rarely seen or needed in kyrie homes.

Raelin could practically feel the fresh air calling to her from beyond the door, and furled her wings a bit too fast. The tip of one knocked something hard. Raelin managed to catch the object before it struck the floor, and squinted at it in the half light.

A blue glimmer caught her eye. She felt smooth wood beneath her fingers, gold filigree dancing and swaying along it. Thin strips of metal decorated the shaft, flowing up it, until they whirled and finally ended in the rough-hewn head of a spear. The Spear of Gerda.

Raelin cradled the ancient heirloom, and reverently replaced it on the wall. The spear had been in her family for six generations, and had once belonged to the great healer Gerda, head of her line. It was nothing more than an ornate spear, but Raelin liked to think that something of Gerda resided in it, and that she was watching over them, night and day.

Being more careful, Raelin turned and eased open the door, drinking in the fresh spring air that washed over her. It smelled of damp earth, young sunlight, and rippling waters. A smile stole onto Raelin’s face, and she stepped into the first rays of dawn, closing the door behind her.

The village was small, and it was but a short distance to the gate. The entire village was walled in with wooden posts, but the gate was the most formidable of all. Taller than the wall, and hewn from rough, thorny tree trunks, it stood black and threatening against the dancing rays of the new sun. Raelin eased the smaller gate within it open, and squirmed through, her slight frame aiding her endeavor. She sighed as she closed the small gate. There had been a time when the village was open to the new day, and walls were far from imagination or need.

Raelin put the gate behind her and tried to focus on the greenness before her. Grass and trees burst with verdant color, outlined against the deep, still somewhat dark blue of the sky, studded with the occasional high wisp of a cloud. Raelin breathed in the clean air, allowing the newness of the day to fill her, and started down the gradual slope.

A cool breeze played in the trees, dancing among the boughs of firs, but more often threading its way through birches and young maples. Raelin wound her way around the trees until the slope dipped, and suddenly gave way to a stream.

Raelin knelt at the bank and dipped her hand in the stream, letting the water rush by her fingers. The ‘stream’ was actually more of a small river, for it widened out further north; but here it was thinner, deep enough to allow swimming, and too shallow to afford any danger of drowning. (It must be said that while kyrie enjoyed swimming, they were not the best at it. Try swimming with wings and you’ll see why.)

Raelin looked up. The air beckoned to her, already alive with birds, growing lighter by the minute. The sun had already broken the horizon, but here, under the trees, it was still quite dark.

Raelin stood, her wings unfurling as she did so. Kyrie could actually make their wings quite small, but they rarely had occasion to. Raelin’s wings were things of beauty, flowing from her shoulders to gracefully arc above her head. The joints softly curved, and then the rest of the wing swept down, nearly to the ground, its silver-white feathers almost gleaming in the half darkness. They shifted and shivered as if alive themselves, ready to stretch, ready to sweep the air before them.

Raelin turned her face upwards, gathered her legs beneath her, and jumped. Kyrie being far lighter than what might be expected, she soared right up to the tops of the trees and a little beyond, and then her wings exploded outwards, snapping to their full length. In one sudden downward push, the air beneath them was forced away, and Raelin shot upwards, laughing as the air rushed past her face.

Raelin tilted, turning sharply, and then gave the air about her another powerful downward stroke. She gained more altitude, the sun striking her wings. For all their glossiness, the feathers did not reflect the sunlight. They soaked it up, spreading its warmth throughout Raelin, warming her far more effectively than any fire could.

Raelin banked sharply and soared out over the river. The air slipped by her easily, the sensation causing her to laugh again with enjoyment. All kyrie loved to fly, but to Raelin, it seemed the best thing in the world. What would life be without flight?

Raelin looked down for a brief moment. The river shimmered below her, and her reflection raced along far below, striving to keep up. A flash of blue, a blur of light golden that was her hair, all else was lost in the white-blue of the water. Raelin flipped over and drove her wings downwards again.

She turned slowly as she ascended, and soon found herself facing the village. It seemed dark, full of browns and grays against the life about it. The wall stood out like an ugly scar against the green of the fields. It had not always been so. Raelin turned away, the sunlight quickly chasing away the image.

She flipped over again, and dived straight down into the river, cutting into the water smoothly, with far too little splash. The current caught her, and she let it, allowing her wings to angle into it. What was water but another form of air?

Kyrie children loved to play in the river, floating and diving, laughing as they splashed about. It shimmered with a white radiance, its waters clear and clean, and it was this that had given it the name of the White River.

Raelin’s feathers didn’t soak up the water, but rather resisted it, so that when she burst from the river again, the droplets slid from them and fell to the ground like so many snowflakes, glistening and glimmering in the sunlight.

Raelin spun, the air drying her off easily, and then sped off to the right, angling downwards. Fields of tall grass rose up to meet her, their stalks lazily beckoning her. She flew right into them, smoothly cushioning her fall with her wings. She came to a slow stop, facing upwards, feeling refreshed and flushed with happiness.

She lay still for a few minutes, staring into the vastness of the blue sky, watching the occasional cloud pass by overhead, and listening to the gentle whispering of the grass about her. She could stay here for hours, resting, enjoying the day. She breathed a deep, contented sigh, and closed her eyes, relishing the smell of the grass about her.

A moment later, she opened them very suddenly. Something was coming – no, running – through the grass. She could hear it rushing blindly through the stalks, snapping and trampling them as it ran. There was something else though. While the creature was definitely running, the steps seemed calculated, controlled. Almost as if the runner was trying to remain hidden, while still moving quickly.

Raelin held still, though she crouched, ready to spring to the air in an instant. A moment later, she caught a glimpse of the creature as it ran by her, separated by barely three yards of grass. The grass was tall enough to entirely hide the creature, but one glimpse was enough. It was no creature.

The kyrie stumbled and turned when Raelin landed softly beside him. He seemed to relax when he saw her, though he still breathed heavily, and twitched at the slightest noise. He was older than Raelin had thought at first, nearly old enough to be her father.

“Why are you running through the grass?” asked Raelin, trying and failing to keep a slight edge from her voice. The grass was grown and cultivated to be tall, not to be trampled down in haste.

The kyrie glanced about him. “I must crave your pardon,” he said, his voice rasping out from under his yellow beard. “I dare not fly.”

Raelin watched the kyrie uncertainly. There was definitely something wrong with him. His eyes had a wild look in them, as if he hadn’t slept for several days, and his skin was oddly red in places, as if from a rash. “What happened to you?” she asked, motioning at the redness.

“This?” said the kyrie, waving it off dismissively. “It is no trouble. Is there a village nearby?” he asked, changing the subject abruptly. “I have news. Dire tidings. Might your parents be close by?”

Raelin breathed in sharply, but banished the thought from her mind before it could fully form. “They’re… not here,” she managed. “My village is just beyond this field.”

“Good,” said the kyrie, a little bit too quickly, Raelin thought. “I should be grateful if you could show me the way. No, don’t fly!” he said as Raelin spread her wings. “We must not fly. Show me your village quickly, I pray you, but do not fly.”

Raelin ran a critical eye over the kyrie. There was something off about him, and it wasn’t his apparent nervousness or his strange desire to not fly. It was the armor.

The kyrie was covered with armor from head to toe. In addition, a thick sword was strapped to his leg, and a dagger was sheathed across his worn breastplate.

“One must be prepared,” the kyrie said quietly, noting Raelin’s gaze. “These have been dark days of late.”

Raelin tore her eyes from the weapons. “Follow me,” she said shortly. “The village is this way. It is but a short distance.”

“Forgive me,” said the kyrie as he walked behind her, “I failed to hear your name.”

Raelin glanced behind her. “I’m Raelin, daughter of Niela” she said. “May I ask yours?”

The kyrie glanced up. “My name? Why, my name would be Thormun.”

“They’ve overrun my own village of Taeleron. Half the buildings were burning when I made it out. They’ll come here next.”

“I pray you, keep your voice down.”

Raelin exchanged a glance with her older brother. Mallidon motioned her to remain silent, and bent his head, struggling to catch the next words.

“Forgive me. I haven’t slept for at least a day.”

“How did you escape?”

Raelin heard Thormun cough. “Barely. A band of the minions found me and I had to break cover. I wouldn’t be alive at all if I hadn’t made it to a nearby cave. There were six of them, and I was wounded, but I managed to squirm into a small passage and block it. They couldn’t get in. I would have bled out soon enough if I hadn’t found the pool.”

“The pool?”

“It was deep in the cave. Its waters had some magic in them; I could sense it. I was wary of them at first, but after a time my thirst became too great. I drank, and within the minute I found myself healed. I came here as fast as I could.”

“This pool you found would be valuable – the hordes cannot be allowed to find it.”

“It is well hidden, and besides, there is little we can do at this time. The army is massing at Taeleron. They mean to strike at Jandar, I know it, and you lie directly in their path!”

“Come. You must bring this news to the elders. I’ll show you the way.”

A door shut and opened, and silence fell. Raelin and Mallidon looked at each other.

They were supposed to be eating breakfast. However, barely a bite had been consumed as Thormun related to their father what had happened, hidden from them in an adjoining room. Mallidon and Raelin were both eager for any news of the war, and had strained to catch every word of the whispered conversation.

Now Mallidon turned to Raelin, an excited gleam in his dark blue eyes. “Maybe this will convince father to let me join,” he said. “Utgar is on our very doorstep! He can’t expect me to sit still while he goes to war. I’m eighteen. I’m plenty old enough to fight for my land. Plenty old enough to bring my enemies pain.”

Raelin glanced at Mallidon. She, too, wished she could fight, but she knew it would never be allowed. It was said that Jandar let women fight in his army, but she knew her father would never let her anywhere near a battle. She couldn’t entirely blame him, but that didn’t stop her from wanting to fight.

“I almost wish the minions would attack,” said Mallidon. “I’d kill any who crossed me! Then I would have to join the army. I’d give almost anything to face them. Wouldn’t you, Raelin?”

Raelin would have agreed. She would have given almost anything, and maybe a little more, to face the minions. But as she opened her mouth to say so, a small figure dropped from the landing and alighted on the floor.

Kelda observed them, a slight frown upon her face, her hair still disheveled with sleep.

Raelin closed her mouth. She would not let Kelda hear those words pass her lips.

Kelda was young. She was only fifteen, and looked younger. She was quiet and delicate, but she had the heart of ten. Any who knew her couldn’t help but love her.

Mallidon turned and saw her as well. The gleam of war faded from his eyes, and Raelin saw him unclench his fists. They both loved Kelda, and they both knew how she felt about the war. Neither of them wanted to cause her grief.

The day seemed to pass slowly. There were some efforts made to evacuate the village, but no one really believed the army would come. Jandar had a garrison between them and Taeleron. If Utgar meant to attack, he would likely circle around. The danger was small.

Raelin spent the day battling back and forth in her mind. Kelda’s expression as she slept had not left her, and the guilt she felt from wanting to agree with Mallidon about fighting doubled every time she remembered it. However, it was dark before she finally made up her mind. She knew what she had to do.

Kelda and Mallidon were both already asleep; Mallidon out of excited anticipation of a possible attack, and Kelda out of fear for the same. The house was quiet, save for the crackling of the fire, as Raelin leapt softly down to the main room.

Kelda’s father, Raknar by name, sat before the fire, slowly sharpening his massive sword. He was a large kyrie, powerfully built, and he was a respected seer within the village. However, his first duty was, and always had been, to his family.

Raelin crept up to him, allowing the firelight to illuminate one side of her face, leaving the other half in shadow. “Father?” she asked. Raknar was not her true father. He had adopted her when her true father had… become absent. He treated her like his own daughter, however, and she replied in kind.

Raknar looked up and saw her. “The hour grows late, Raelin. You should sleep.”

“I will,” said Raelin, “but I have something to ask of you first.”

Raknar put his sword down and faced her.

Raelin swallowed. She tried not to think of the words. “Don’t go.”

Raknar looked at her blankly for a moment. “Why?” he asked, after a pause.

“Mallidon and Kelda need you,” Raelin said. She had been prepared for that question.

“I won’t be away for long, Raelin. This battle, it’s really just a small matter. It will probably be cleared up before I even arrive. Kelda and Mallidon will be fine with you in charge. I’ll be back before you know it.”

Raelin said nothing. She didn’t trust herself to speak. She wanted him to fight. She wanted to fight herself. And here she was, trying to stop him from going. “Kelda needs you,” she finally breathed. “She won’t say a word against your leaving, because she knows how I and Mallidon feel about it, but I’ve seen her when she thinks I’m not watching. She thinks you won’t return. She thinks… she thinks she’ll be alone.” Raelin swallowed. She had said more than she had meant to.

Raknar watched her, the look in his eyes a little too understanding. “It’s all right, Raelin. I know what this is about.”

“No!” Raelin blurted. “It’s not. It’s about Kelda. I can’t stand the way she looks at you. She cries herself to sleep every night since you told her you were leaving. I love her too much to see her in pain. It’s not about me. It’s about her.”

Raknar looked down. The edge of his sword gleamed in the firelight, the blade flickering as if it too were made of flame. “I have to go, Raelin. You know that. I love you. I love Kelda. I love Mallidon. I would feel I had dishonored you if I did not fight to protect you from such a threat as now looms above us. I go to end this war. I go so that others will not have to. Do not ask me to stay, while others fight for what is theirs.”

Raelin couldn’t convince him. She had known she would fail, but she had needed to try. He was right. He had to go. She would have fully agreed with him, if it weren’t for Kelda.

It took Raelin a long time to get to sleep that night. Lying beside Kelda, she thought of what had been said. “It’s all right, Raelin. I know what this is about.” Raelin could very easily want him to stay herself, even without Kelda. She had every reason to.

War had raged on Valhalla for years. It had started so long ago that no one now remembered what it was about. It could be about anything. The southern kyrie – red-skinned, grotesque, foul smelling fanatical fiends – had long ago waged war against the rest of Valhalla. They had been laughed at when it started. They were but a small number. But more and more of their legions had poured out of the unexplored Volcarren Wasteland, until their armies had spilled forth and laid waste to Kinsland and most of southern Valhalla.

Jandar, ruler of Nastralund, had formed an alliance with his long-time friend and ruler of Ekstrom, Ullar, and had assembled his forces to stop the Volcarren kyrie. Long had he protected his borders, and many kyrie considered the war as good as won. And then Utgar had come.

Burning with blood-lust and wielding a cursed axe of flame, the archkyrie had marshalled the legions of his minions and swept northwards, surging through Bleakwood and striking the alliance at its home. He had been defeated, but just barely. He returned to the south to gather his strength, and there he had remained for many years.

The alliance had been shocked at Utgar’s rapid advance through Bleakwood. As he drew near, they had pulled more and more kyrie into the army from every village and city they could find. Raelin’s father had been enlisted. She had only been seven.

Her father had died. He had been killed in a great battle, and it had been said he died well, with many a dead foe about him. But he had died. Raelin’s mother had never recovered from the news, and died herself barely a month later. Kelda’s father, a good friend of Raelin’s family, had taken her and her brother Mallidon in. Over the years, however, a burning hatred had grown within her, a terrible desire to revenge her dead father and to slay Utgar, the one, it was said, who was responsible for her father’s death. That was why she yearned to fight. That was why she was secretly pleased every time another kyrie went to war.

Kelda stirred in her sleep. Raelin was jolted back to the present. She turned over and watched Kelda. Tears stained her face. Before the anger, before the hatred, she had felt grief. She had been alone, her parents taken by the war. It was a feeling she forever struggled to forget.

If Raknar left, and if he was slain… Kelda would feel that same grief. She would feel alone, and she would be alone. Raelin had covered up her grief with hate, but Kelda… Kelda had no shred of hate within her. She would simply wilt under the weight until she faded away.

Raelin took a long look at Kelda’s face. It was so pure, so loving… Raelin knew the pain the world held, the hurt, the suffering… and she could never let that darkness touch her.

Raelin rolled back over. Kelda’s father wouldn’t leave for two days yet. She still had time to convince him.

The night was silent, calm, peaceful. It seemed enchanted. No war could invade this. No war could reach them here. Raelin would convince Raknar to stay tomorrow.

However, tomorrow would come far sooner than she expected.

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