The streets of Lyewryn buzzed with energy. Elery could hear it from her room, where she sat in front of a large mirror. She folded her hands in her lap while two women stood working on her hair.
"I did not know I would be this nervous. Is it normal to feel this nervous?" Elery rubbed her hands together. "Surely not."
"Of course it is!" one of the women said as she carefully fashioned the hair around one of Elery's delicate silver horns. "The Aldramel will soon bond you and Dallyn together. This is a great moment in any woman's life. Being a Princess doesn't exempt you from that."
A sigh escaped the other woman as she worked on a set of braids. "You're so lucky, my lady. I cannot wait to find my bondmate."
Elery took a deep breath and gazed out the window. A few strands of her dusky-blonde hair fell over her face. The handmaidens gathered them again, securing them with a shimmering jeweled clip.
Tiny winged reptiles flew by the window. One settled on the sill to rest its feathered wings.
Elery watched it and smiled. "I wonder if we might find an Asteratrix to form a pact with. Legend says people in a pact with them can fly without wings, and control the wind."
"One thing at a time, my lady," one of her handmaidens said as she stepped away to retrieve a small, jeweled pot from the nearby vanity. "You'll form a spirit pact when you are queen."
"Princess!" A young woman ran in with a bundle of cloth in her arms. "Merchants of Andethayn have brought you a gift."
Elery stood and walked over. Half of her hair was still undone, and the silken strands that weren't bound together by glimmering ornaments fell over her left horn. She shifted the fabric in the young woman's arms; she turned it to briefly inspect the seam. After a moment's inspection, she gasped."Is this dragon hair?"
"The finest," the new woman said.
"My Lady, the king is coming." Yet another woman stopped in front of the door with a bundle of books in her arms.
"I'll have no rest today," Elery said. She took the dress and set it aside before stripping out of the one she was already wearing. She tried to avoid damaging what work had already been put into her hair as she changed; after some help from the others, she stood in a flowing silver dress like none she had ever seen. "It's breathtaking..." she whispered as she looked at herself in the mirror. "Dragon hair is so rare. This must have cost the weavers a fortune."
"Elery," a male voice spoke from the door. "Oh my darling girl, you've grown..."
She turned toward the aged man who stood staring at her. With a smile, she tucked her stray hair behind her horns. "Not without your help."
He walked over and hugged her, patting her on the back with a firm hand possessing strength untouched by age. "I used to worry you would not be ready for the world once this day came, but here you are." He pulled away and held her at arms length, then reached up to fuss with her hair. "I dare say the world is not ready for you."
She laughed. "Father, I'm performing a bonding ceremony. The world won't suffer for that."
"Tiny ripples my child, tiny ripples," he said as he let her go. "This event is the stone thrown into the boundless sea. Soon, your life will be a wave crashing over the shores." He sighed, then cupped her cheeks. Signs of age and battle showed in every scar and wrinkle, telling the story of his life without a need for words. His crystalline amber eyes held years of struggle, joy, pain, and hope that formed scars as visible to her as the ones on his face. "I could admire the beautiful woman you've become for ages."
"Then the ceremony would never start and Mother will never let you hear the end of it," Elery said, touching his hands. "Let me get ready, father. It will be bad form to keep the guests waiting."
"You are right, of course." He pulled away and turned, moving toward the door. "I have a gift for you, once the ceremony is done. See me before you run off." He turned back to give her a look that said, 'and I know you will run off' then smiled again.
"Of course, Father," she said, bowing. When he left, she turned back to the women. "Well, let us finish with my hair."
The altar stood in the middle of a massive white stone circle, shimmering in the sunlight. It was composed of crystal that refracted light into a brilliant rainbow that colored the stone and the thousands of people who'd come to witness the ceremony. Elery stood at her end of the altar with her gloved hands clasped in front of her. Dallyn stood at the opposite end, trying to ignore the dark red hair that fell over his forehead in defiance of the fixing spray that held most of it back. He shrugged a shoulder and gave her a half smile. She returned the smile and her heart squeezed tight.
The altar began to glow and water welled in the curved top until it spilled over the edge. Rather than fall to the ground, it lifted and spun, forming a serpentine creature that arced and curled through the air with no regard for gravity. The water changed to glimmering gold as the creature manifested. Delicate, gauzy wings fanned out from its head and tail, and blue eyes gleamed like gems on its smooth face.
"Seryn children." The creature spoke though it had no mouth. Hearing it speak was much like sitting beside the stream and hearing the water rush over the rocks. It was a vocal quality only a spirit could achieve. "I am the Aldramel, bond-former and bond-keeper. Speak, and show yourselves ready."
"Sacred Aldramel," Dallyn spoke as he took a knee. "We stand here before you to ask your boon. I pledge my life and loyalty to Elery. I wish to feel her pain and sorrow. I wish to know her hopes and fears. I desire that our minds become one, in harmony, until the end of our days."
Aldramel flapped both sets of wings, though it seemed they did nothing to actually keep it afloat. He didn't bob and weave as other winged creatures did. He remained stationary, dripping gold from his long body that splashed on the rock and reverted back to water. "And you, Princess Elery?"
She knelt as well. "I pledge my life and loyalty to Dallyn. I wish to feel his pain and sorrow. To know his hopes and fears. I desire that our minds become one, in harmony, until the end of our days."
"Take to your feet," Aldramel said. "Touch your palms together and raise your hands."
The two obeyed and Aldramel flew forward, coiling his body first round Elery's wrist, then around Dallyn's. Its body, though composed of water, felt solid, and warm like sunbeams. Far beyond what she'd expected. It began to slowly wind around their hands as the crowd looked on.
As Aldramel's wings brushed against their thumbs, an explosion drew screams from the crowd. Debris rained down, filling the area with dust.
Aldramel's body broke apart into water droplets and fell to the ground, leaving half-formed golden marks around the couple's wrists. Elery spun, a tremble spreading through her body as she watched the royal guard rush to the east as guests scattered and screamed.
"What is happening?" the Queen snapped, holding tight to the King's arm.
"Bethgardel soldiers!" A knight hurried to him and saluted with a fist pressed to his chest. "They have violated the treaty, M'lady. Come, to the castle."
Dallyn rested his hand on Elery's wrist. "Come. We must go."
She gathered the front of her dress and nodded, taking his hand and running as well as her dress would allow. They raced toward the castle, past guards streaming from the entrance. They bumped against guests who sought refuge within the castle and made their way to the armory where other knights were preparing their armor.
Elery took off the dress and lay it aside. She hoped it would stay safe through the commotion. "Where is the breach?" she asked as she grabbed a set of wygard chain armor.
"Northeast entrance, General!" a knight said as he strapped a sword to his side. "They use fire casters."
"Bring our water casters to that side. Send healers and runics to protect them." She grabbed her chest plate and made quick work of fastening the straps around her sides before moving on to leg armor. The gleaming silver metal reflected her image as she extended her legs to stretch. Her beautifully-set hair seemed untouched by the commotion so far. "Send geomancy casters to the breach to mend it."
"I fear that it is too late for that, M'lady. They've opened multiple holes," another knight said as he hobbled in. Blood seeped from under his armor, pooling on the floor under his left foot. "One hundred of our men have already fallen to the east. I hear word of more in the west."
"They've attacked when our detail was preoccupied by the ceremony," a young woman said, her silver brows knit tight.
"But to have killed so many so quickly?" a young man asked.
She clenched her teeth, grabbed her sword, and strapped it to her side with a sharp tug of the leather belt. "If the geomancy casters cannot seal the holes, then we will pile the enemies' bodies against the broken walls."
Dallyn stood and took her hands in his, then leaned in and pressed his forehead to hers. "Fight well, my love."
"And you." She squeezed his hands then pulled away, resting her hand on her sword.
As they rushed out to join the battle, the weight of the situation hit them. Two large Draggats stormed the battlefield, fire spilling from their wide mouths like saliva. They were stout beasts, with large fins on their arms and thick legs ending in a tangle of toes that looked like uprooted trees. Their crimson bodies burned everything they touched to ash, be it plant-life or the flesh of her fellow knights.
"Summon the Malcolea!" a knight cried as one of the Draggats barreled into him. His armor heated red in just seconds, and before he could scream in pain, his body vanished in a puff of smoke.
Elery turned to see a large green beast swoop from the sky. The Malcolea, her father's pact partner. Its great wings kicked up dust as it flapped and its slender body, much like the Aldramel's, coiled as it moved. Feathers that shook loose turned into drops of water which grew flowers and small trees everywhere they landed. Seeing it drew a moment of relief which faded quickly with the sounds of screaming all around her.
The field was overwhelmed by the enemy. Her own forces were paltry in number and struggled to fight against the hundreds of green-armored knights who remained close to the holes they'd made in their walls.
Elery fled the area, unable to contend with spirits without one of her own. She took to the outer edge of the battle, leaping the bodies of fallen soldiers from both armies to try and reach the nearest breach in the bastion.
She drove her blade into one man's side, then kicked him away to strike another from behind. The third spun and clashed his sword against hers, his silver eyes peering from inside his helmet to meet her own amber gaze.
An arrow flew in from behind him and slipped between the plating of his chest plate and the helmet, piercing his neck.
Archers lined the top of the castle, firing into the crowded battlefield with accuracy unmatched by any other kingdom.
Fire rained from the sky, striking the archers before they could fire another volley. The entire line was bathed in flames, though these were not as merciful as the flames of the Draggat. To suffer a touch of the Draggat was instant incineration. These flames clung to the archers flesh and ate them alive with slow agony. A dozen or more fell from the their perch. Others tried to put themselves out. Their efforts were wasted. Another burst of flames spilled down on them, re-igniting their flesh and clothes.
The scent of death filled the air quickly, as well as the faint stench of rot. The sour stink grew thicker as she neared the hole in the bastion, but she could see nothing outside. The fields that lay beyond held no sign of the corpses she could clearly smell, sparking dread in the deepest reaches of her being.
One after another, soldiers fell around her. For every enemy killed, five of her allies died. She turned her attention from the wall and leaped back into the fray. She struck weak points in their armor, stabbing through joints and gaps, coating her blade with a crimson sheen. She then noticed their curious behavior; something she never expected.
Each enemy who turned to her softened their blows. They avoided causing her harm. Anger swelled in her chest as they pulled away, blocking or parrying her blows but little else. Unlike the first, who actively struck out at her, these seemed determined to leave her unharmed. It was not a mercy she felt the desire to return.
As Elery pushed her way through the field, a burning pain crippled her hand and she dropped her sword. Her gaze lowered to her arm and her eyes widened. The gold mark upon her wrist began to darken.
"No..." She retook her sword with the other hand. "Fall back!" she yelled. Not many were left alive to hear her. As she looked around the battlefield, she could spot a pitiful few still moving.
The Malcolea fought one of the Draggats, spitting orbs of water that sizzled and burst into steam on contact. The areas it hit darkened and cooled, rendering the area brittle and open to sword strikes.
Just as their enemy was poised to land the killing blow, with all but a handful of the knights under her command still able to draw breath, the attacking force withdrew. As the Draggat collapsed and crumbled to dark rocks, the Bethgardel knights slid back through the fractured walls of her city.
Though short-lived, the attack left its mark on their land. Parts of the castle were damaged. Bodies and empty armor littered the battlefield. The Malcolea shrieked and folded its wings, vanishing in a spray of warm water.
Elery's heart squeezed tight as she came upon a corpse with a half-finished marriage bond, its golden light fading along with her own. She collapsed to her knees beside him and rested her hand on his chest, choking out a sob.
Two knights rushed to her side and she stood, taking off her helmet. "Start a pyre," she stated in a quivering voice. "I'm going to check on my father."
"Yes, M'lady." They picked Dallyn's body up and she reached out, taking his hand lightly. When it slipped away, she turned and bit back tears.
There was a time and a place to cry. Now was neither.
She ran to the castle and climbed through one of the broken walls. The stairway leading up to her mother and father's room smashed beyond use. The bodies of knights and castle maids lay scattered along the floor and Elery's stomach turned sour. With the stench of blood filling the air, invading her senses, she climbed over the shambles of her home in an effort to find someone—anyone—who might still be alive.
Servants lay on the floor, chests gouged open and throats cut. Those who were not dead lay against the wall, hands clasped to their wounds in a desperate attempt to slow the bleeding.
"Father?" she called. "Mother! Answer me!"
One of the servant's children shrieked over the corpse of her fallen mother, her tiny fingers clutching the woman's bloodstained tunic. Another servant, one who'd managed to avoid harm by the looks of him, lifted the child and tried to comfort her as Elery passed.
"Father!" The sourness in her stomach intensified, twisting a knot in her gut.
Footprints leading away from the throne room drew her attention and she stopped. There was no reason the royal guard would take them there. Not during an attack. Yet she felt drawn to it. A quivering hum filled her ears, delivering whispers she could not understand.
Her boots clicked as she she walked down the long hall, hesitant in her approach to the room she'd been in a thousand times before. A place she'd never felt unsafe.
A place that now, even with all her bravery, she dreaded to enter.
The whispers grew louder. For a moment, she paused.
The word pushed her back a step.
Come to me.
She clenched her fists, desperate to still her trembling fingers.
Mustering the last of her strength, she ran forward.
The room opened up before her and her heart shattered. Propped upon their thrones like dolls posed in a window sat her mother and father, blood staining their wedding attire. Her mother still had salt streaks down her face, evidence of the tears shed just moments before she was torn open by the enemy blade.
Her father's sword lay beside his throne, gleaming silver with strange lettering imprinted in the metal. It reflected the light filtering in through the window, casting a beam of its own toward the ceiling.
Elery stumbled forward over broken wood and stone, catching her foot briefly on the ripped carpet. She stumbled and fell to her knees at her father's feet.
How many times had she sat here as he told her stories of his travels?
How often had she held his hand as her mother sat in that very seat, braiding her hair?
She reached up and took his hand as two knights ran in, the metal armor clanking loudly in the empty, lifeless hall.
The knights gasped, but didn't speak. Elery was grateful for that. She pressed her forehead to her father's knuckles, letting a few tears fall before she reached beside his throne to take up his sword.
The lettering shimmered across the surface, glowing crimson. The hilt was warm, like grasping the hand of a living being. She lifted it and blinked away her tears, letting her fingers drift slowly along the corners and curves of the script in the blade.
"M'lady—" one of the knights started.
"Saddle Ishthemir," she murmured as she stood. The shimmer of the lettering dulled. As she turned toward the two, sword in hand, she said, "I will ride north, to the Dark Forest."
The knights collectively gasped and took a step back.
"You cannot!" one said as he took off his helm.
"Lady Elery, the Mad Dragon God lives in those forest," the other said.
"I know," Elery replied, raising the sword to press her forehead against the cool metal. "Upon my father's sword, I swear I will see Bethgardel fall. I will make them pay one hundred fold for their treachery."
The whisper spoke once again, and she opened her eyes. She needed no other assurance of her path.
"You can't be thinking to form a pact with that beast! He will never—"
She pulled the sword away and studied her reflection. Her hair was loose; many of the jeweled clips were lost in the battle. "I will leave him no choice."
Wind blew hard and the funeral pyre blazed. Thick smoke rose in the sky, carrying with it every foul word and curse against the Bethgardel kingdom Elery could think of. Her bondmate lay amongst the corpses at the center of the fire. The black coil around her wrist was the only physical reminder of the man she'd pledged her life to.
Ishthemir stood tethered some distance away, eating from a sack of arnea berries tied nearby. His hoofed feet pawed restlessly at the ground as he pulled his head back, violet feathers ruffling in the strong breeze. His kind, the molner, were a strange breed of beast. Feathered, yet flightless. Ishthemir was her father's steed.
Elery clenched her fists, then turned from the pyre.
"Lady Elery, please rethink this," A guard said. He tried to stand in her way.
She moved around him.
"That dragon is madness incarnate! You will—"
"I will what? Fail?" She spun to face him before squaring her shoulders. "What choice am I left with? What other pact spirit could hope to face against the armies of Bethgardel? Legend tells of a dragon king beyond the might and majesty of any other spirit in this world. Isandel, the Mad God, who steals the souls and hearts of men and women alike. I know his tale. I know it well. My father once told me of his venture into the Dark Forest. While the rest of the world knows only the legends stating the death of those who enter, I know the truth. One man has entered and left alive. That man was my father." She shoved the guard, her eyes blazing. "Perhaps because my father was a touch mad himself, who knows? Maybe it's rubbed off on me."
She turned and headed toward Ishthemir again, this time without interruption. He cooed and lowered his head to her, berries staining the downy feathers of his mouth blue, and she rubbed his snout. She unbound his tether and climbed into the saddle, gripping the reins tight. "I ride for Andethayn to speak to the Duke. I order the enactment of the Knight Council to oversee Lyewryn in my absence. With no one to spare to act as my guard, I will go alone. Protect our people with your lives until my return."
A slender woman with pinkish horns rushed over. "Please let me come with you, Elery."
"Cylphi, this will be dangerous."
"Which is why I should go," she said, balling her fists at her sides.
Elery sighed. "Go get your things."
Cylphi smiled and rushed off, her dark red hair bouncing with each step.
When she was out of sight, Elery tugged the reins and turned Ishthemir around. "Tell her I'm sorry."
With a snap of the reins the molner bolted forward, leaving the crowd to yell behind her.
The setting sun cast deep red and rich orange light across the land and sky. The smoke of the funeral pyre built a pillar to the upperworld, where the homeland gods dwelt. She rode north until the sun dipped past the horizon, surrendering its stage to the two moons destined to chase it. The howls of olvarays came from the east, and she rested a hand on her sword. Casting a wary glance to the thin forest, she saw their shadows and nothing more.
Another set of howls came from closer by, and she didn't have time to turn before she was knocked from Ishthemir's back. The molner shrieked and tossed his head and Elery struck the ground. The olvaray that had struck her tumbled and kicked its thick hind legs before righting itself to leap toward her.
She rolled to her feet, withdrawing her sword as she kicked the creature away. Olvarays stood in a loose circle around her, their smaller front legs tucked against their fat bellies while they sat on their more muscular hind legs. Their large eyes gleamed in the dying light and, as one opened its short maw, she could see scraps of its last kill wedged between its teeth.
Though they were only two feet tall at their largest, she knew better than to underestimate them. Their packs were large, and they possessed strength beyond that of the other wild beasts. A single knight stood little chance against the creatures once thought of pests, until their population became intolerably large. She realized too late that leaving Cylphi behind was a mistake.
"I am so mad at you!" a voice called through the darkness.
Elery stabbed her blade through one of the creatures when they all turned toward the sound of the voice, and a mixture of relief and annoyance flooded her. "Be that as it may, you can save the lecture until after we've dealt with these pests!"
Cylphi leaped from the back of her silver molner and clasped her hands together. Green light surrounded her, then rose, forming a tiny green ball of fluff in the air above her. It dove into the ground, then rose up and flew through each of the olvarays before they could run. A thick green vine formed, piercing each to form a grim wreath of dead monsters. The earth familiar turned back into energy and dispersed.
The few olvarays that remained gave sharp yelps and ran away as Cylphi opened her hands and summoned a fire familiar. Its flaming skin flared out as it leaped to the air, spreading leathery wings and bathing them in light.
"I can't believe you did that!" Cylphi stormed over, pounding a fist against Elery's chest plate. "You're so lucky one of the knights let me take their molner!"
"I thought I could outrun them," she said, catching her fist before she could hit her armor again. "This is my fight—"
"Lyewryn is my home too, Elery!" Cylphi's brown eyes moistened. "My father...died..."
With a frown, the Princess reached out and pulled Cylphi into a tight embrace. "Your father was a brave and honorable knight. You have every right to avenge him. I was selfish, and I am sorry.
The slender girl sobbed into her shoulder, and for a moment Elery wished she could allow herself that luxury as well. The bondmark on her wrist no longer hurt. It was numb; nothing but black scar tissue.
The fire familiar remained in the air, flying around the two as both molner drew closer to the light. The sun was gone. The blue moon hung high in the air, with it's sister moon, a smaller, pale silver orb, stayed just a little lower.
"We should make camp," Cylphi said, pulling away to wipe her eyes. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't—"
Elery shook her head. "Don't. I'm sorry to have left you behind like that." She turned and took Ishthemir by the reins, soothing her hand over the silky feathers of his forehead. "I'll tie down the steeds if you'll set up a shelter."
She nodded opened her pack, pulling a torch from the bundle and whistling. The familiar hurried over and perched on it briefly, then flew away as a small flame quickly consumed the bundled fabric at the top.
Elery took it and gripped the reins of both molners, leading them to a nearby tree and tying the leather straps around a low branch. She gathered wood and dry leaves, still able to see the occasional shadow of an olvaray deeper in the forest.
Setting a camp didn't take long. Cylphi seemed small and frail compared to Elery, but she'd spent her time learning the art of casting. When Elery came back with the wood and kindling, a small shelter made of stone braces wrapped in fresh veilspar vine greeted her.
Elery crouched a few feet from the shelter and handed the torch to Cylphi. "You're going to use up all your aura before we even get to Andethayn."
Cylphi laughed. "With little familiar castings? That's funny."
"Just don't overdo it, okay?" As Elery pushed a few sticks in the ground at an angle, forming a crude peak over the other sticks and leaves, she heard the deeper growls of another creature wandering the forest. "Sounds like a lycar scout." She grasped some nearby stones and formed a circle around the firewood, then held out her hand. "Torch."
"They won't come out here, will they?" Cylphi handed back the torch and rubbed her arms.
"Doubtful. Their tribal lands are deeper in the forest. One may spot us, but they have no reason to attack." Elery set the kindling ablaze and stood up, handing the torch back. "Just don't go into the woods."
"Father said they don't need a reason." Cylphi put the torch out and set it aside on a smooth stone to cool. "Savage warmongers."
At this, Elery narrowed her eyes at the smaller girl. "I imagine they say the same thing of us Seryns. They've never caused us harm. Be careful of the words you speak, they might bar us from future help one day."
Cylphi clenched her arms tight around herself, looking thoroughly rebuked, and looked away. "I'm sorry..."
Silence descended as the lone call of the lycar died out. Cylphi pulled some food from her pack and handed a piece to Elery, and both ate while the fire cracked and spat before them.
The sound of rain striking the tightly-woven leaves of their shelter greeted them before they had a chance to open their eyes. Elery crawled from the shelter and looked up, watching lightning race across the clouds. "Come on, Cylphi. We should hurry. The first bridge is close."
Cylphi crawled from the shelter moments later, then pulled her pack out after her. "Do you think the Duke will actually allow us into the Dark Forest?"
"You assume I'm leaving him a choice," she answered.
"We can't just go making enemies of everyone. You have to think of your position. What is the use of retaliating against one enemy if we end up making another?"
She walked to the two steeds and untied their reins. The molners shook rain from their feathers as they walked. "I know that. I don't intend on making an enemy of the Duke." She paused, then added, "Intentionally."
"There are other pacts," Cylphi said. "Why do you want this one?"
"Because he is the strongest." She checked the pack strapped to Ishthemir's side to make sure water didn't soil the goods inside, then tied it again. "Father said when he was in his presence, he held physical form on his own. He spoke of him as he spoke of the homeland gods."
"Why did he let your father live?" Cylphi rubbed her arm, quickly adding, "I-If you don't mind my asking?"
"I wish I knew. But I intend to follow in his footsteps. Only when I leave the forest, Isandel is coming with me." Elery climbed into her saddle and wrapped the reins around her hands.
Ishthemir pawed at the ground impatiently. The moment Cylphi got into her own saddle and Elery flicked the braided Delk-skin leather reins, he bolted off as if struck in the rear with a whip.
Delk and gerlins roamed the fields in herds, grazing on patches of silvery tangle hops and fiery red prancing duscle. The delk, muscular beasts with succulent meat, cleared out of the way as they drew close. Though horned, the delk were not adept at protecting themselves. Their thick legs carried them with surprising speed, and as one turned it's blunt head toward them, it bleated a low cry and staggered back with its horns brought low.
The gerlins were different. They were lean, with thin legs made for leaping. All six of them. They were small, able to vanish in the taller grass. Their meat, while prized, was much harder to get. Hunting them required skill only the most experienced hunters possessed.
Elery watched the little creatures hop away into tall clumps of mound brush, and briefly considered stopping to bag a few.
"Let's not stop," Cylphi said. "They're wily, it could take an hour to bag one."
"It was just a passing fancy," Elery said as she watched the few still visible. Their slender, lean bodies and rounded heads poked above the grass, while their legs remained hidden. "It would make a nice gift for the Duke, though."
"Fine, fine. We'll continue." She flicked the reins to urge her steed faster, comforted by the weight of her father's sword at her side. Gradually, the land narrowed. the grassy plains turned to sand as they reached the shore, and upon reaching the first bridge, they stopped.
Lywryn lay as the heart of a great ocean, cut off from the rest of the world. To reach Andethayn, a massive bridge was built long ago that spanned the distance between their island and the natural land-bridge jutting from the main landmass.
Elery approached the bridge, catching the eye of a nearby guard who immediately stepped in her way and held up his hand.
"The bridge is closed—" he paused. "Lady Elery. Forgive me," he said, taking a step back as quickly as he'd moved before her.
"Why is the bridge closed?" she asked as she stopped.
"Bethgardel soldiers slaughtered the last station guards as they made their escape across the bridge. We believe this is the route they used to attack Lywren. Since your mother and father..." he looked away. "Since we had no orders, we felt it prudent to close the bridge until you sent word."
"A good instinct. Keep the bridge closed unless it is to allow official business to or from Lywryn. I will ask the Duke of Andethayn to send aid."
He held his fist to his chest. "Safe travels, Lady Elery."
"Safety to you, too," she said, both she and Cylphi returning the salute before easing the molner onto the bridge.
The wooden structure spanned as far as she could see, and she knew it extended further still. At full speed, it would take a traveler long into the night before reaching the waypoint between the first and second bridges. She snapped the reins and once again Ishthemir took off, his hooves pounding against the dark wood.
"Will we get there before night?" Cylphi called over the raucous hoofbeats of their steeds.
"If we do, it will be just narrowly. We'll stay at the inn and start out again in the morning," Elery called back. "Unless you'd like to ride all night?"
"I'd rather not."
Elery nodded and fell silent. The sun flew through the sky at its leisurely pace, arcing high overhead before bowing out to make way for her nocturnal sisters. As the moons slid over the horizon, greeting the world to end yet another day, they spotted the small inn growing closer in the distance.
Both steeds collapsed beside the water trough and drank, dunking their mouths in the crystalline water to gulp the liquid down. Cylphi knelt beside them and gently petted them both on the neck. "We really pushed them."
"They're tough, they can handle it. By morning they'll be rested and ready to go again." Elery touched Ishthemir's head before walking to the inn beside the short road leading to the second bridge. The building took up a generous portion of the small island, though even that wasn't much. The spit of land was so tiny, Elery could see shoreline in each direction she looked.
The innkeeper, a gruff looking Seryn, chewed at something as he sat reading a paper. He looked up, then raised a thick eyebrow at Elery.
"Haven't seen you since you were a youngster," he said.
She tilted her head. "Do...I know you?"
"Doubtful you'd remember," he said, turning from his desk to pick up a thin crystal pane from the shelf behind him. Pictures flitted within its shimmering surface. Imprinted memories, kept as mementos. As she watched, images of her father, the innkeeper, and her younger self moved across the surface like liquid.
She was in her father's arms, smiling with mud streaked down her face. She was a tiny thing. Barely four summers, if she had to guess. The innkeeper had his arm around her father's shoulders, a smile spread over his sun-tanned face.
Elery took the crystal and gently touched her father's image. It ripped and dissipated for a moment, before taking shape again.
Her eyes stung and she set it on the desk. The images faded entirely. With no one hold it, no one to trigger the images to reveal themselves, it turned transparent and still. "I would like a room, sir," she said, willing the quiver from her voice.
"Aye," he said, taking the crystal and carefully setting it on the shelf once more. "My apologies, Lady Elery."
She shook her head. "No. You didn't..." She clenched her throat, took a moment, then lifted her head. "It is an honor to know my father was such a well known and respected man." She gulped, trying to choke back her tears.
Cylphi walked in with their belongings. She hurried to stand beside Elery. "I'm pretty sure if I threw a rock from one shoreline I would hit the opposite one," she said with a laugh. She looked at Elery and her humor fled. "Are you—"
The innkeeper held out a room key and Elery took it, biting the inside of her cheek a few times before speaking. "Thank you, sir. Though I don't remember you well, it is wonderful to see that you are still doing well. If there's ever anything you need, don't hesitate to call on Lywryn." She turned, a bit too abruptly for her liking, and hurried to the stairs. As calmly as she tried to climb them, she took the last few steps in a run, found her room, and fell onto the bed.
With her father's smiling face burned fresh in her mind, Elery curled into a tight ball on her side and let herself cry.