The village was unremarkable in every way, except for the harbor which was haven to more fish than her people could ever catch. Built at the delta of the River Taris, the village consisted of two score thatched huts, a row of dunes and a white beach. Two escarpments jutted into the sea to form the harbor. A small hill crowned with sycamores rose behind the western one.
Raena woke before dawn, her favorite part of the day. She loved coming to the beach and watching the morning battle for the Suns. Most girls her age were happy stringing nets, weaving baskets, and waving to the men when they set out for the day’s catch. Such a mundane existence could never content her.
Just past her sixteenth birthday, she should have a husband by now, but she didn’t want any of the men in the village. She could swim, sail, clean and gut a fish, read the winds and tides, and patch a broken hull better than any of them. Several had asked for her hand and no matter how much she begged her father not to, he would say yes to one soon.
She climbed the dunes in the moonlight and sat on a large flat rock facing the sea. A strong wind whipped her short, sun-bleached hair. She sat cross-legged, quiet amidst wind, wave and gulls, while light won the dawn. Long ago, the elders taught, Edda, Imma and Olla had shone eternally and the world did not know night, but now light and dark fought each dawn and dusk.
Generations ago, the Elf Lord of Pel Aesylle had come to the village and shared legends from the Elder Days, when gods had walked the world with the Elder Races. She grew up feasting on those tales and liked to pretend she’d been born back then. She’d have given anything to see the Elven kingdoms of old or many-halled Caradar where the Forge Folk had delved. Though she only knew scraps of the Elf Lord’s tale of ages, her imagination filled the gaps.
A sudden whistle from above broke her daydream. Something was hurtling down, looming closer with each passing second. Solare burn her if it wasn’t a man passing overhead!
He crashed near the beach. A rush of wind and a thundering boom followed, like a Giant clapping its hands. The earth shook so much she thought the Gates of Heaven had been torn asunder. She fell to her knees and then, curious, crawled to the edge of the new crater sloping down at a modest angle. The center was flat and smooth as glass and the man lay there, motionless on his side, knees drawn up against his chest. She scrambled down to him.
He couldn’t possibly have survived, yet she saw no sign of injury. There was no blood, no bruises, no bones, but his eyes were closed. Handsomely chiseled, with muscles and broad shoulders, his thick auburn hair was wavy and he wore a beard knitted with seashells. He was naked and wore a silver medallion shaped like a lightning bolt around his neck. Bending over his still form, she held her hand under his nose. Cool breath, slow and steady.
Only a few years older than her, his face was finely chiseled and handsome with a strong chin and broad jaw. She wondered who he was, wondered what sort of person falls from the sky. She cradled his head in her arms. He smelled of surf and foam.
Behind the dunes, she heard her people squawking like gulls snapping at whitecaps until the elder rallied them. Then they headed her way and she became desperate. She was not here by accident; she’d been meant to find him. She had to wake him before they got here.
She slapped his face and he remained deep in slumber. She slapped again, harder, and this time he blinked. She slapped him a third time and he grabbed her wrist. Though his hand was rough and calloused, his grip was warm and gentle. Strength flowed from him into her and her heart swelled. He opened his eyes and his smile was a long lost friend, warm and comfortable. His eyes were blue and inviolable, like soldiers guarding secrets, and when she met his gaze, he turned his pikes aside to let her see within.
He was new and innocent, like a babe, yet his soul was old and wise. He was the glory and wonder of the Elder Days, the fulfillment of her dreams. Had her need been so great that she conjured him?
His merest glance opened the door to her heart. She melted and could not, would not, resist him, yet he waited politely for her invite. She beckoned, sure and unafraid. ‘Come to me,’ she said without speaking, knowing that he would hear. ‘Be with me. Know me.’
He pressed her hand against his face and his gaze swallowed her. He was her other half, the part she hadn’t known was missing. Like a crackling fire on a long, wintry night, he completed her.
“Do you have a name?” she asked.
The man shook his head.
“I shall call you Thar. In my tongue, that means stranger.” He nodded. She bent her head to his lips.
Hungrily, he returned her kiss. Stranger she may have named him, but he was no stranger in any way that mattered. He knew her and she knew him. They were one and would never be apart. She did not care where he’d come from. He was here now and he was hers, as she was his. They had found one another, like Zuras and Majestrix in the Void. By the Flame, no god or man would tear them asunder.
She became lost in Thar’s embrace. She was Ollare, dancing with the Explorer among the stars. She was Spollnar, frolicking with Garruth the Laughing God. She was Ylindelay, ancient queen of the Fair Folk. And then, shouts from her people drew her back.
Thar stepped back to drink from her eyes. His tender gaze offered love and asked nothing in return. “Who are you?” he asked, speaking for the first time. His voice rippled like whale song.
After a long journey from Sangrithar, as her home was now called, they neared the summit, where the Elf Lord lived with his queen. The slope was too steep for the wagon, so Raena carried little Gwynna in the crook of her arm and Thar carried her twin, Averanda. Gwynna had inherited Thar’s reddish-brown curls and fair skin. Averanda had taken after her, with sea-green eyes and the olive skin common to her people. The girls were irrepressible and chattered incessantly in a language only they knew.
Coming here had been her idea. Thar’s origins were still a mystery ten years later. They wedded right away. The village elder had stood aside for him within the first year. By then, Thar’s reputation had spread up and down the coast and the village was prospering. They’d held off on children until now. Even as infants, it was obvious the girls had inherited her husband’s gifts. Like any mother, she needed to know more. If anyone could help, it was the Elf Lord.
An Elf maiden wearing a garment of colored veils stepped out from behind a majestic oak that might have taken root when the world was young. Alabaster skin, a soft aura of light and almost white hair even shorter than hers lent her unearthly beauty. She seemed no older than when she’d found Thar, but with the Fair Folk appearances could be deceiving. Only the old ones had auras.
The Elf bid them follow. More skipping than walking, she led them on a journey silent save for the girls’ private chattering. The summit was a forested meadow where Fair Folk watched from the balconies of orange streaked obsidian towers. A granite fortress rose from the center of the meadow. The massive doors swung open, revealing a well-lit marbled hallway. “Kandol awaits,” said their guide, her first words. She sounded like a song.
When they stepped inside, the girls grew quiet. The hallway ended in a pair of large double doors carved with the likeness of an Elven lord and lady caught in a kiss. They opened to a room simple in design yet more elegant than any in Sangrithar, with treasures stuffed into every corner and bookcases jammed with tomes, paintings, sculptures and jeweled works of art. As the wife of a chieftain, she had received many gifts, but the Elf Lord’s plainest pieces were more precious than her finest. To her, just seeing these ancient treasures was a great gift.
Two leather chairs, a small round table and a well-used leather couch occupied a clear area in the center of the cluttered room lit by a crystal chandelier. A large mahogany desk covered with scrolls, books and loose papers took up the far end of the room. A dragon head lamp on one corner burned cedar-scented oil. Sitting on the desk was a small rabbit, tan with white spots and long, floppy ears. Behind it, in a straight-backed chair, sat the Elf Lord.
The figure captivated Raena. Kandol Elf Lord, hero of the Elder Days and High King of the Fair Folk. Their guide had named him simply Kandol, as if his other titles, and there were many, were superfluous.
“Good Imma, friends, and welcome to Tar-Vydael,” he said. His voice was deep and rich. “I am Kandol. Long have I awaited your coming.”
Tall and majestic, the Elf Lord reeked of power. A glowing aura surrounded him, like their guide’s, but many times brighter. A gold headband kept his silver hair in place and he sported a finely manicured goatee, the only beard she’d seen. His eyes were between hazel and amber and flickered like embattled Suns. He wore a loose fitting tunic the color of Esel on a clear day under a silver and white cloak trimmed with lavender orchids.
What struck her most were the Elf Lord’s features. Elves possessed an ageless beauty, like prisoners in cages of eternal youth, but his face was not so innocent or so young. So many lines creased his face that he looked older than her father. The Fair Folk were supposed to be immune to the ravages of time. What could have aged him so?
His crackling eyes spoke not just of power, but of kindness and wisdom born from long centuries of life. This was someone who had met Sorrow and held off despair. Someone who had wrestled fate and emerged victorious yet wore his accomplishment with the humility of one who’d overcome ambition.
She and Thar sat in the chairs across from Kandol and their guide on the couch. The rabbit hopped onto Kandol’s lap. The girls squirmed free and ran over to pet it.
“You’ve already met my wife, Velora, and this little fellow is Ren.”
Raena lay in bed, staring at the ceiling. Thar was sound asleep with his arms around their daughters. Three days had proven Kandol quite the conundrum. He knew more about her husband than he let on. When she pressed, he dodged her more pointed questions with impressive sounding answers that said little of substance.
Kandol was more human than she’d thought possible. She’d seen worry, guilt and sadness, but not regret, in his inhuman eyes. She hadn’t thought the Fair Folk subject to Mankind’s frailties, but the price of his choices was etched into his face. His was a gentle soul, stained by Sorrow and tempered with learned caution. He was well intentioned, but could not escape his nature. To him, the truth was a weapon with which he fenced tirelessly, feinting and parrying without ever letting down his guard. He wore an armor of secrets for defense.
For all his human-like failings, Kandol remained distinctly otherworldly. There was no denying his power, but the more time she spent with him, the stronger her first impression grew. She had met many men of so-called power since marrying Thar. Most were haughty and arrogant. She could easily tell those with true power apart from the fakers. Kandol had power aplenty, yet he held himself equal to, not above, others. Long ago he may have suffered vanity, but not after all his legendary trials. They transformed him into a humble servant of fate, to whom pride was anathema. His soul was gentle and she knew he would never harm Mankind, though he might harm a man.
In the morning, she and Thar joined Kandol and Velora in the library. Her husband carried the sleeping girls in a cradle. Kandol’s creases were deeper and his eyes troubled. “I must tell you of the Balance.”
She was suddenly afraid. Kandol’s was the voice of ages and there was no escaping his doom.
“So little remains from the Elder days. Now listen carefully, there is much you need to know.” He squeezed Velora’s hand for reassurance. “All that is, exists within the Girdle. Beyond the Girdle is naught but the Void, yet greater than the Girdle, greater than the Void, is the Balance, which is supreme above all else. It is more powerful than the gods, more powerful than even the Primals. Serving the Balance are the Prophecies of the Ages, which tell of three heroes – the Warrior, Prince and Priestess. They have saved Sangrar from the Dark Lord’s schemes more times than you could know …”
His face grew heavy and he walked to the cradle. He took the girls in his arms and his aura grew. “The smoldering of prophecy lies within your daughters. They are Prince and the Priestess, heroes for the Age of Mankind. For them and their heirs, I see great futures.”
His robes ruffled, though there was no breeze, and his eyes bristled with amber intensity. “Gwynna shall be Priestess and Averanda Prince, ruling as Sangrithar’s queen after Thar, and their power shall keep the world safe from the Dark Lord. Bring Gwynna to me on her eighteenth birthday,” he commanded, “and I will teach her the ancient lore. Through her, the Maiden shall prosper again and when the Prophecies have need, the Priestess shall protect the world from Sorrow.”
His aura grew even brighter. “In exchange, I swear by the Flame your daughters and their heirs will never be far from my watchful eye!”
The chandelier flickered as if giving his oath sustenance. The Flame was the legendary source of all life the Primals had found in the Void. An oath made to the Flame was sacred and inviolable until the end of time.
Velora’s pale skin turned white and she shuddered. “Kandol, what have you done?”