Terra Incognita—Chapter 8

Chapter 8

Honeysuckle . . .

The sweet scent in his nose stirred Marcus gently in his sleep. He did not open his eyes, only breathing in the air and smiling as happy memories from his past played in his mind like a movie. He was twelve again, running between buildings of gray stone, beautiful buildings covered with fragrant honeysuckle that bloomed all year, saturating the air with its scent. His feet, much smaller then, were pounding the narrow cobblestone lanes as he ran. Dashing past adult elves going about their own business, he muttered a steady chant of apologies. This time he knew he was going to win, after so many losses, and he sprinted even harder as he made the last turn around the corner of a tall building lined with columns and entered a wide grassy field.

A fountain stood in the center of the field, its jet of water erupting high into the cloudless sky before falling in a glittering shower into the basin below. The grass ahead of him swayed in the light wind, rippling toward the fountain as thought it would pick him up and carry him along. He tried to outrun even the waves of grass as he pelted toward the fountain, growing larger and larger in eyes as he pelted toward it. A great feeling of triumph began to fill him. His legs pumped wildly and the stitch in his side exploded with pain, but he ignored it as the thrill of victory blocked out all discomfort.

Then, his heart sank.

He heard light feet behind him running through the grass, quickly growing louder as they approached him. He kept his eyes fixed on his destination, but now the fountain appeared as unreachable as the stars. Still he ran, but his pace seemed to slow despite his efforts to hold the inevitable at bay.

A figure flew past him, like a dark green comet with an auburn tail. The lithe form of the elven girl, using her long legs to take the lead, passed him as though he was standing still. Her long red hair trailed in a straight line behind her and Marcus briefly attained ideas of grabbing it before it passed beyond his arm’s reach. He knew she would never race again if he cheated in such a disgusting manner, though that mattered little right now as he watched her turn around in mid-stride, waving to him as she increased her lead running backwards.

When he reached the fountain, completely winded, he found Lorelei sitting on the edge of the basin absently splashing with water with her bare feet. He collapsed against the ornate stone carvings and tipped his head down in the water. When he raised up just above the surface, gulping air, a small foot appeared below him and splashed a fresh spout of water into his face. He wiped the water from his eyes and snorted it from his nose as giggles overcame the girl beside him.

“I won again,” Lorelei said.

Marcus nodded, still too out of breath to speak.

She drew her feet out of the water, turning to face him and pulling her knees up to her chest. “You almost won that time, though,” she said, her tone almost believable.

Marcus pulled his exhausted body up to lie on the side of the basin and rested his head back between her feet. He looked up at the mist drifting off the fountain’s spray and regained his breath as he watched the kaleidoscope of colors produced as the sun’s light shone through it. He felt thin fingers begin to run through his wet hair, massaging his scalp and relaxing him. His pulse, sounding like a drum roll in his own ears a few moments before, regained its normal rhythm and he sighed deeply.

“I only stopped once,” the elf said. “I ran into a friend of mine and she was telling me all about this boy she likes, going on and on, and I told her that I was racing you to the fountain and after I won, I might have time to come back to talk some more.”

Marcus could hear the smile on her face without having to see it. Marcus, who had not stopped at all, only shook his head, enjoying the feeling of her fingertips as they moved side to side. “Well,” he said at last. “If you’re so interested in what she has to say, you shouldn’t keep her waiting.”

Lorelei’s fingers extricated themselves from his wet hair and Marcus felt a pang of regret at his words, a product of his bruised ego more than anything else. He wanted her to stay by the fountain with him all afternoon, preferably rubbing his scalp the whole time, but he knew that she wanted to stay just as much. He heard her moving behind him and then her face appeared by his, her head resting in her delicate hand and she leaned on her elbow.

Their faces were very close now and Marcus could smell the sweetness of her breath as she studied his face. He felt the intense scrutiny and had to exert every ounce of willpower to keep his eyes focused on the flecks of colored light floating out from the fountain. His gaze seemed drawn like an iron filing to a magnet to her brilliant green eyes, but he fought the urge, though as ultimately unsuccessfully as the iron filing fights the magnet.

He dared a quick glance, then forced his eyes to return to their upward view. “I think we need to find something I can actually compete in,” he said. “I don’t think you can give me any more of a head start unless you let me just wait for you here.”

Lorelei did not answer, though Marcus could still feel her intense eyes upon him. A long while passed, filled only by the sound of thousands of droplets of water splashing into the basin. Finally, curious beyond endurance as to the source of the delay, he turned to look at her fully.

As was becoming a more and more frequent occurrence, his breath was stolen away momentarily by her beauty. They had been friends for as long as Marcus had been visiting the elven kingdom, but only in recent months had he come to realize the his playmate was, in fact, a girl. The skinny tomboy he had met those years before, her red hair always tied back to keep it out of her way as she wrestled in the grass with the boys, was gone now and in her place was a young woman, her vibrant tresses cascading down her forearm and framing her pale face. The emerald eyes he had seen narrowed so often that he had only paid heed to their true color within the last year now seemed large and luminous, shining with their own internal light.

Marcus felt his head swim and wondered if the exertion from the race had been too much for him. Lorelei appeared to be moving closer to him, her face closing the space between them at an almost imperceptible pace. Marcus tried to move, feeling extraordinarily uncomfortable and wildly excited at the same time, but found himself paralyzed, caught in her eyes like the prey of a snake. His pulse, so recently returned to normal, resumed it frantic beating until Marcus thought it might leap out of his chest.

The eyes moved closer and now he noticed the lips, more red than he could ever remember seeing them, slightly parted and on a direct course for his own. Panic rose in him like the water spraying up from the fountain and finally overcame his paralysis. With a sudden jerk, he pulled himself away just as their lips touched and found himself falling. He splashed into the water, feeling its chill close around him as he sank to the shallow bottom. He rose up quickly, coughing and sputtering, and started to apologize to Lorelei. Then, he stopped.

Lorelei was no longer by the fountain.

Marcus saw her running fast back across the field, her auburn hair again streaking behind her in shining waves. He thought he heard a deep sob issue from her, carried to him by the wind still rippling the grass before him, and wondered what he had done to make her so upset. He figured that when he righted himself from his comic fall, she would be there roaring with laughter. Instead, he rose to find her running away from him at top speed, leaving him confused and worried.

In a matter of seconds, the red locks disappeared between the columns of the last building he had passed before charging onto the field. Marcus stood alone in the sparkling shower from the fountain and pondered the immense complexity it took to be a girl.

“Lorelei . . . “ Marcus said in his sleep. His hand reached out into the air above where he lay upon the soft bed and Heather gave him a look of irritation. She sat beside the bed, but not so close that she would be mistaken for someone who cared about the outcome of his unconsciousness. Only when he began muttering in his sleep, some elven name, did she even look up at him, expressing her displeasure with a sour look.

“Oh, shut up,” she said to him, careful not to speak loud enough to wake him up. The elven healer had told her that Marcus needed to rest as long as was necessary to regain his strength and, despite her feelings toward their relationship, she was appreciative enough of his saving her life to follow those instructions, even if he was the one who put her life in jeopardy in the first place.

Marcus lowered his hand slowly back to the bed and began to breath deeply again. Heather looked back at him and her eyes lingered there for a long moment before she forced them to resume gazing out the window. Rain fell hard outside, its rhythmic pounding on the roof accompanied by an occasional roll of distant thunder. Through the curtains of gray moving across the land, she could make out a few of the buildings, plain gray structures covered with what looked like ivy. She had read of the beauty of elven lands in Tolkien and had seen such in numerous movies, and was sorely disappointed by the simple, Spartan designs of Glenfold. The room in which she and Marcus now where reminded her of those in an Amish community she had visited on a school field trip, furnished by plain furniture and heated by a wood fire from the red brick fireplace.

She sat back in her chair, an uncomfortable piece woven from thin strips of wood tied around an ash frame with leather strings, and he wet hair pressed against her back, soaking slightly through the fresh clothes she had been given. Sighing, she stood and walked to the fire, turning her back to let the heat dry her off. She looked at the sleeping form of Marcus and began replaying the scene at the river again in her mind. She had been through it several times, but still had trouble convincing herself of what she had seen.

As she stood on the riverbank, too terrified to follow Marcus and Wilkey, she tried desperately to disbelieve everything that was happening. Up to that point, Heather had decided that the whole journey from Sylvia’s house was an elaborate dream that she was having and that her best option would be to just go with the flow. She believed in the power of dreams to tell the dreamer something that he or she may have missed in their everyday life if the dream was translated correctly.

She had no idea what dreaming about centaurs and knife-wielding halflings told her about herself or her life, but she guessed that would come in time.

Standing next the Misteld, parted like in some scene from a biblical movie, her disbelief began to wane. She had experienced many nightmares over the years, although not nearly as many since she began sharing her bed with Marcus, but none of them contained the terror she experienced staring at the obsidian path leading between two roaring walls of water. Feeling her body reacting to her fear, Heather finally began to suspect that she was not, after all, dreaming and started to think instead that she was losing her mind. No dream could combine all the stimuli she faced standing at the river—the sound of the water, the mist floating off its surface to land in cooling patches across her face, the smell of river water carried on the stiff breeze.

She stood paralyzed with fear when she saw Marcus sprinting back across the riverbed in her direction and found herself wanting to run out to meet him, afraid to be left alone across the water from him. Her legs would not move, though, remaining planted as firmly to the stony bank as if she had grown roots there. She stared through streaming tears as Marcus charged up the black way toward her and took her in his arms. He led her down, nearly dragging her at first, before she regained some control of her legs and began stumbling along, escorted by his strong arms.

When they had reached the bottom, however, the true terror began. They stood between the two banks, both seeming as far away as distant galaxies, as the walls of water collapsed around them. Without even the breath to scream, Heather watched with resigned wonder as the gray light of the clouds above was blocked out by the crashing waves. She clutched at Marcus, dimly aware that he was there, and took a large gulp of air before being swept away by the strong current.

Then, her breath stopped altogether. A light had formed around the two of them, shielding them from the Misteld’s fury. Water flowed all around them, but they seemed to be encased in a bubble of light, its edges shifting and bending with the force of the river like an amoeba. Beside her, she could feel Marcus growing very hot, as though burning with fever. She looked at him and smiled, recalling their visit to Chattanooga in her shock. He looked up at her and she thought she could see him faintly glowing, matching the barrier protecting them from being swept away. Waves of energy pulsed out from him and Heather was shocked to see him weakening before her eyes at the effort. His eyes bulged slightly as he observed the glowing bubble around them, then his eyelids drooped dangerously as though he would collapse from exhaustion. Without a word, he urged her forward, pressing the small of her back in the direction of the obsidian lane still visible under their feet.

As they scaled the riverbed, spouts of water began to shoot into their sanctuary, making the smooth black stone slick and difficult to navigate. Marcus pressed her relentlessly onward, but Heather could feel the pressure he was applying to her back lessen quickly as they neared the surface. She began to see light above them in addition to the collapsing shield around them. Soon, she thought she could make out the faint outline of Wilkey standing on the bank ahead and Marcus redoubled his efforts, pushing her hard ahead of him. She broke the surface of the river and immediately felt hands clutch her blouse, pulling her up and out of the cold water.

Many voices surrounded her, hurriedly calling out commands and shouting for assistance. She collapsed onto the stony surface of the bank, gulping in air to her appease her burning lungs and looked around. Wilkey sat next to her, staring at the river intently as other forms, lithe and graceful, dashed around at the water’s edge.

“He’s being swept away,” Wilkey said quietly, as though he was commentating on some sporting event. “They’re trying to reach him, but he’s caught in the current.”

Heather tried to sit up to see what the halfling was talking about, but could not find the strength in her limbs to hold her up. She lay down again, tears once again falling down her cheeks, when she felt Wilkey start next to her.

“They caught him,” he exclaimed. “They flung out a rope with a hook on it and caught his robes just like a fish.”

Heather felt relief sweep over her just as they water had done in the river as the magical divide had collapsed. Her tears came faster, but she realized that Marcus may be dead already despite the efforts to rescue him.

With supreme effort, she forced herself to rise to a sitting position. She looked downstream and saw a cluster of elves about fifty yards down the bank, surrounding a red and black form that lay on the ground at their feet. Groaning, she rolled forward and tried to stand before a strong hand rested on her shoulder, forcing her back down into a sitting position.

“It’s okay,” a female voice said from over her head. “He’s alive, but just barely. We will take him to the healers. In the meantime, you must rest.”

Heather looked up, the movement of her head making her dizzy as she did. Standing above her, staring into the rain, was an elven woman, her long red hair falling down around her shoulders like flames. She wore an expression of grave concern as she watched the elves preparing to carry Marcus to receive the necessary care. After a few moments, she pried her eyes away from the scene down the river and looked down at Heather. Her face softened, and Heather was hypnotized by the elven maiden’s eyes, brilliant circles of emerald glittering beneath long lashes. Heather had never been attracted to another woman before, finding that she liked men far too much to entertain such thoughts, but she found herself entranced by the preternatural beauty of the woman standing above her.

The elven woman called to a group of elven men that emerged from the trees behind them and instructed them to assist Heather and Wilkey in following those who had borne away Marcus. She then turned without another word and disappeared into the trees, her graceful strides carrying her quickly into the shadows.

The elven men had helped Heather gingerly to her feet and asked her if she had suffered any injury. She assured them that she had not, but they lifted her up anyway, hoisting her lightly between them as they followed the auburn-haired female.

“Thanks for asking about me,” she heard Wilkey say as they entered the woods. “Glad to see how concerned you are about my health.”

When no one responded to the halfling, Heather turned her head awkwardly to see him trotting along just behind her, scowling. She noticed Wilkey glancing around frequently, taking in all the elves that for now paid no attention to him. This behavior gave her the impression that he felt remarkably uncomfortable around the elves and she found herself wondering if the two rubies had been all he had stolen from them.

After a long trek through the woods, they reached the city, Heather still being carried by the two elven males. She thought at first they had come to some cemetery as she looked upon the weathered gray buildings scattered across the large clearing, but soon saw that the buildings were not places to house the dead, but houses for the living. She saw a few elves walking hurriedly through the streets, hardly giving their strange party a glance as they passed into the heart of the city. Heather felt a high degree of tension among the residents of Glenfold, made all the more evident in the firm set of the mouths of those she saw. She had always pictured elves as a merry people, dancing and singing in the moonlight before a roaring fire. Here she saw a grim-faced people, beset by war and sacrifice.

The buildings around them reflected the demeanor of their inhabitants. They were once beautiful marvels of architecture, she knew, but the withered vines that covered their cracked facades described a dying culture, derelict and void of the grandeur that it once held. She was forcefully reminded of pictures she had seen of ruins from the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, sad monuments of former greatness.

The caravan moved up a hill toward a building in the center of the city, a massive stone structure dominating the smaller buildings surrounding it like courtiers bowing to the king. Through the steady rain, she could make out ornate frescoes lining the upper reaches of the walls depicting great battles with ferocious-looking beasts of what she hoped was a long ago age. The rain ceased to drench he as their party passed between two great columns into a sheltered courtyard and through a large pair of oaken doors, opening wide with a faint metallic squeal.

Within the building, she found the interior in pleasant opposition to the exterior. The halls were warmly decorated and filled with light from several glass spheres which hovered near the ceiling at intervals down the corridor. The elves moved quickly onward, the ones bearing Marcus in the lead and those carrying Heather a short distance behind. When they reached a crossway, however, Marcus was taken down the left hall, while those directing Heather took a right turn. She tried to pull free of their grasp, but the elves held her tight as she squirmed.

“It is necessary,” one of them said simply. “You will be reunited soon.”

Heather had no idea what they were talking about, but she hoped it turned out better than they were making it sound.

She was led into a spacious room with wide windows looking out upon the elven city as far as the rain, falling harder now in the growing wind, would allow. She waited there for some time, hours by her reckoning, before the door opened again and Marcus was carried in on a stretcher. For one nauseating moment, Heather thought that he had died before the elves could do anything to help him, or that they had not been able to do anything to save him. She felt hot tears spring into her eyes as she started forward. Then, Marcus gave a small groan, rolling his head from one side to the other and Heather stopped cold. Her tears dried up in anger and she spun on her heels, striding to the other side of the room to be as far from him as she could while keeping him still within her sight. She was furious at him for making her believe he was dead, relieve that he was not, and more furious because of the complicated blend of the two emotions.

The elves set the stretcher down easily and slid Marcus onto a bed beneath a large bay window. They both glanced curiously at Heather, then at each other, and left the room without so much as a word to the human female.

Heather watched Marcus sleeping for some time before moving slowly toward him again, as though he would jump up and try to frighten her, laughing heartily as she nearly jumped out of her skin. He loved a good practical joke, but as she moved closer, she saw that Marcus was in no condition to perform any pranks. His face was more pale than she had ever seen it, even more so than it had been during the weeklong episode of the flu he had suffered the previous year right before his store’s annual inventory. He had worked nearly eighty hours with a high fever and never once considered taking a day off to get well. By the end of that week, he was severely dehydrated and spent the two days following in the hospital being chastised for how stupid it was to abuse himself in such a fashion.

As he lay in the hospital, too exhausted to acknowledge her presence, she sat stolidly beside him, alternating between reading a Dan Brown novel and wiping the sweat pouring from him. Now, she found herself in similar circumstances, but the nature of their relationship had changed from those happier times, so she sat staring out the window, feeling both defiant and guilty for not attempting to comfort the man she had, and maybe still, loved.

She remained in the room for the rest of the day and no one else entered except for a young female elf bearing a tray of food. She bowed slightly as she entered and placed the tray on a table near the door before backing out again with another bow. Heather felt a strong urge to go to the door and throw the tray outside it to express her anger at being left alone with her confused thoughts about Marcus, but as she approached the aroma of meat and bread filled her nostrils, reminding her that she had not eaten for some time. She sat down and immediately began to eat with rapid enjoyment, savoring each bit of the succulent meal. When she had finished, she wiped a bit of grease from her lips and looked over her shoulder at the sleeping Marcus, half-concealed in shadows cast from the mysterious orbs of light illuminating the room. Her sense of guilt chimed in again, telling her that she should not have been so selfish as to devour the whole meal herself, but consoled herself by believing that Marcus would probably remain asleep the rest of the night and that she would be more than happy to request a meal for him should he wake by morning.

Heather returned to her chair by the window and stared out into the darkness. Night had fallen suddenly, aided in its descent by the dark clouds that still dumped torrents of rain onto Glenfold. Through the gloom, she thought she could seen other sources of light where she had been able to see buildings earlier in the day. Gradually, weariness overcame her and she fell asleep, leaning back in her chair and propped against the window as the rain continued to beat out its steady rhythm.

Marcus awoke early the next morning, feeling ravenous and dizzy. He tried unsuccessfully to sit up, feeling his head spin as he tried to determine where he was, they lay back down a while before attempting another go. The room seemed familiar to him, though he could not recall ever having been there as a child. He suspected that he would know the room from the outside, though, knowing from the stark gray walls that he was now within the borders of Glenfold.

He tried to remember how he had come to be in that room and drew a complete blank. His last memory consisted of pushing Heather forward through the Misteld as the magical barrier protecting them from certain death disintegrated. Turning, he saw Heather asleep in a chair a few feet away, looking quite uncomfortable as her face pressed against the window pane. A small line of drool stretched from her lower lip in a slight arc to the glass and he had to suppress a laugh to keep from waking her.

Slowly, he attempted to rise again and found the dizziness lessened as he did so. The smell of cooked meat and bread filled his nostrils and his stomach growled audibly. He looked by the door and saw the remains of Heather’s meal from the previous night and wished he had been awake to enjoy it with her, although he doubted it would have been as enjoyable as he would have liked in light of their recent troubles.

He lowered his legs to the stone floor, feeling his strength returning in minute increments. The disorientation was very mild as he stood and pushed off from the bed to support his own weight and he took a tentative step to see how his body would react. Satisfied, he quietly moved to the door and let himself out into the corridor.

Memory flooded back to him as he looked up and down the hall, finding himself in the king’s residence that he had visited several times as a child. Everything seemed much smaller, as places of childhood often do to adults when they go back, and he felt a sweet sense of nostalgia as he started in the direction that he knew would take him to the main hall. He saw no one, no servants milling about performing their daily duties and this fact made him slightly uneasy as he continued on. In days past, the corridors would have been filled with various members of the royal household each pursuing his or her own personal service to the king.

At last, Marcus reached the gilded doors leading to the king’s audience chamber. He glanced around for the chamberlain, who by protocol would announce him before he would be allowed to enter, but still saw no one. Trying the door, he found it unlocked and it swung open easily as he pulled the handle.

Stepping in, Marcus finally saw someone. An elven man, stooped with age, sat upon an ornate throne at the far end of the room. Gray hair fell from around around his shoulders as he leaned back into the wood back with eyes closed. He appeared to be sleeping, his thin lips parted slightly, but as Marcus walked to the center of the room, he spoke.

“I see you have recovered, Marcus,” the elf said, eyes still closed. “The healers told me they doubted whether you would survive the night.”

“You know me, Your Highness,” Marcus returned, bowing slightly. “Always fighting the odds.”

The old elf opened his eyes at last and Marcus looked into the steel gray orbs. The last time he had seen King Lanian of Glenfold had been just following the incident at the fountain. He had come to tell the king farewell, knowing that he would probably never return to his borders. Now, he had returned and could feel the same warmth and compassion from the old monarch that he had sensed as a young boy, but now the feeling was tempered with another fact that Marcus knew instinctively.

King Lanian was dying.

Lanian had been old through all the years that Marcus could remember them, but before he still seemed to radiate a vitality that surpassed most in the prime of their lives. He was wildly popular among the elves and he wondered how his approaching death would be handled by the population of Glenfold.

The king studied Marcus shrewdly for a long moment before speaking again. “Yes, always fighting something,” he said, a soft chuckle shaking his chest before he gave in to a fit of harsh, wracking coughs that caused him to nearly collapse from the throne, holding its arms tightly for support with his white, bony hands.

Marcus rushed in to aid Lanian, forgetting protocol that required him to remain a certain distance from the king to ensure his safety. He lifted the king back to a sitting position and wiped away the blood that appeared on his lips with the hem of his robes. Taking the frail hand in his own, Marcus kneeled down beside the throne and looked at Lanian.

“What has happened to you, father?” Calling the king such made him tremble slightly. He had not thought of saying that, the word taking him totally by surprise, but as he thought back over his childhood, he recognized that Lanian had been the closest person to a father that he had ever known and felt the word surprisingly appropriate.

If the king had noticed what Marcus had called him, he paid no attention. “As all living things must die, so do elves when their time comes,” he said. “But to answer your question, it is this war. The Necromancer presses us on all sides and I’m afraid the borders may not hold much longer. It has taken considerable strength to hold them this long, but that strength is fading, Marcus.”

“That’s why I’ve come,” Marcus said, his voice barely a whisper. “I’ve come to stop him.”

“You may find that harder than you ever imagined,” Lanian said. “He is more powerful than anything I have seen in my long, long life.”

Marcus squeezed the old elf’s hand slightly. “I will find a way, but that is one of the reasons I’ve come back to Glenfold.”

“Yes, I am aware of why you have returned,” Lanian said, smiling slightly. “The halfling proved to be a very informative source once we pardoned him for his crimes. We did give him quite a scare, though. Put him in chains, even.”

Marcus could not help but laugh. He had always admired the elven king’s sense of humor and now, even as he waited on the threshold of death, Lanian allowed himself to appreciate a good joke. Turning to sit on the step directly in front of the throne, Marcus looked across the empty throne room. He had never known it to be so empty before, absent of the courtiers and advisors and petitioners that had always caused the place to be a chaotic dance of politics. He decided to take advantage of the solitude rather than question it, approaching the main cause for his visit.

“I have returned to fight him, like I said . . . “Marcus began. He found confiding the truth to the king to be oddly difficult considering his affection for the old elf. Worry filled him that Lanian would decide it was some fault of his own that had caused his struggled to connect with the power he now knew from the episode at the river that he still possessed. He felt ashamed for not returning to see the elven monarch as his health declined, guilty for not being there, and he wondered deep down if his magical difficulties were a penance for not being here earlier in Lanian’s time of need. The logical portion of his mind told him that his theory was a silly notion, but he clung to it nonetheless.

Lanian saved him the trouble of completing his sentence. “You have come to ask if we know why your power seems to have waned,” he said sagely. Leaning back into the cushions of the throne, he closed his eyes again. “You think you have done something wrong to drive away your talents, despite the tremendous strength it took to save yourself and your female companion from the Misteld, and you wish to know how to get them back.”

Marcus stared in amazement at the old elven king, shocked by his insight. He knew that one who had lived as long as Lanian and had seen as much as he should be able to read others with a fair amount of accuracy, but Marcus found his precision uncanny and unnerving.

The wise old elf also mentioned the power Marcus had used at the river, but that incident only further confused the situation. If all he could do any other time was produce a tiny flame, how had he produced the enormous magical energy necessary to keep the river at bay. Also, why had the effort drained him nearly to the point of death? Did he have to be in mortal peril to use his abilities. Yes, he thought, he had reached that well of power, but doing so only created more questions that he could not answer.

“Yes,” Marcus said, the only response he could muster.

Lanian leaned forward again and Marcus turned to make sure the elf did not topple forth from his throne. Instead, Lanian placed his hand upon his shoulder and smiled again, a sad smile that line his wrinkled face even more than it had been.

“I do not know why you cannot reach your power, Marcus, nor do any of the other elders,” the king said, his voice shaking. “I wish with all my wisdom that I did, but your troubles are beyond my experience and understanding. I realize that our fate, the fate of Glenfold and all the lands around it, may hinge on discovering the solution to this question, but I am sorry to say that I do not know the answer.”

Marcus slumped in absolute misery. To this point, he had not been excessively worried about not being able to duplicate the power he possessed as a boy, knowing the elves would be able to solve the riddle and prepare him for the battle with the Necromancer on even footing, magic against magic. Now, with this revelation, he felt small and helpless, doomed to a grisly end that would take Heather and all the inhabitants of these lands with him. Staring at the floor, he thought of Heather, leaning awkwardly against the window a few rooms away. He cursed himself for bringing her and wondered what compulsion had insisted that she accompany him on such a hopeless mission.

He felt the thin hand squeeze his shoulder, still showing surprising strength in its grip. Marcus looked up, trying unsuccessfully to fight the tears of frustration that rimmed his eyes. He looked at Lanian and immediately the tears dried, the light in the old king’s own eyes filling Marcus with a new sense of hope.

“There may be one who does know how to help you,” the king told him. “One who has seen more than me and who knows more about the ways of the land than I, but I hesitate to mention her name, for it will be one you will hear with great trepidation.”

Marcus did not care. He trusted Lanian beyond measure and if the elven king knew of one possibility that could extricate them from utter destruction, then he wanted to know as soon as possible. Time for them all was short, but for Lanian, time could be measured in days or even hours. Marcus felt he must defeat the Necromancer somehow by the time the elven king died or Glenfold would fall and, with it, all hope.

However, Marcus was not prepared for the name Lanian gave him and only after some minutes of staring at the king in mute shock did he finally nod his head and leave the king to begin this new leg of his quest.

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