Yáramar had once been an ancient Elven city.
It didn’t take a scholar to see this – everything within the gently molded form of the forest glade spoke of an Elven touch. And though Cecil knew very little about the Elven culture, he could still sense the stirring mystic feeling that clung to the decadent structures at the base of the great trees.
I didn’t know that any of the trees in the Troian forest had grown so tall…
‘Tall’ was an understatement. Though the clearing was large enough to house a full city, every inch of the area was sheltered by the branches of the four enormous trees that grew in the center. It felt as if the entire forest had bowed back in respect, for no wayward bush or sapling dared to set its roots inside the guarded area.
How did they manage to build something like this?
Very little of the actual city had been built upon the ground — only a few small sentry stations and the entrance to the rest of the settlement. A settlement that seemed to have been directly sculpted into the living wood of the giant trees.
Winding stairs cascaded in vast arcs over the face of the brazen bark. What appeared to be vertical lifts also dotted the structure. Once having been operated through the use of magic, they now sat dormant and unmoving. Structures that could be best classified as “rooms” somehow stretched naturally between the boughs and vines of the canopy high above. Though pale from the passage of time, the leaves still appeared to give off some sort of illumination.
As if this place is waiting… for its people to return someday.
“Odin’s Blade!” Golbez gasped from somewhere not too far behind.
Cecil turned his head at the sound, only to find his brother staring upwards in child-like wonder. An expression that was almost exactly mirrored on the faces of Chase and Porom as they both remained clutching the hem of the Master Wizard’s cloak.
“So pretty!” the White Mage whispered, a soft sound of breath between her lips.
Somehow, despite the horrors of the airship crash and the battle in the forest, all the dark images were gently washed away in the glow that shifted down from above. Even Cecil could feel it — a safe, restorative warmth that soothed the troubles of his heart. And just for a moment, it put his mind at ease.
“But this place is abandoned?” Cecil heard his voice say. It seemed to come from over a great distance.
“Yes,” Deric’s voice was somber. “My people were forced to leave this place at the beginning of the Great Exile.”
“Exile?” Golbez’s eyes focused upon the Half-Elf intensely. As if the word roused something very deeply rooted within him.
“That is correct,” the Ranger turned to observe the Master Wizard’s reaction. Then he continued, “During one of the ancient battles, there was a curse placed upon the Elves by the Daear because the Elves chose to side with the Humans’ plight. It said that we should be cast from our homeland for as long as the Daear spirit remains dominant to the Blue Planet.”
“But how is it that you’re here in the city?” the Half-Lunar mused thoughtfully.
Deric replied, “I believe it is my Half-Elf heritage. The Elf blood allows me to manipulate the wards to enter the city. The human blood keeps me from being bound by the curse.”
“So… the human half has actual benefits?” Golbez seemed surprised. By the glint in his eyes, he seemed to be searching for information that he could apply to his own human half.
“As far as I have determined,” came the patient answer, “Both sides are of equal value. I am as I was meant to be.”
The Master Wizard fell silent, the motion of thoughts churning behind his deep eyes. Cecil could only join in the feeling from a distance. Admitting to his own half-heritage was not something that the Paladin openly did. It was odd to hear someone else speak so positively of such a thing.
He seems to believe being of mixed blood is something to be proud of. Almost something of great worth.
Further thoughts were cut short by the hazy image of a group of people approaching them from across the clearing. It didn’t take Cecil long to decipher the colors enameled onto burnished plates of armor – Troian troops, without a doubt.
And… is it… a Red Wing?
The Paladin squinted at the single out-of-place figure, clad in the red and gold of the Baronian air troops. His memory sputtered sporadically, finally making sense of the appearance of one of his own soldiers there amongst the Troian group.
That’s right. The ship I sent to Troia to transport the Clerics to the Meeting of Nations. It never reported back… and we wondered if it was just late in arrival.
From the look of the young Red Wing’s armor, he had been through the same battles as his Troian counterparts. The expression under the golden helm shifted into instant surprise as the soldier recognized his king among the newcomers to the Elven city.
I wonder if that means that the ship I deployed is still located somewhere nearby?
Straightening, the young Red Wing threw up a salute, “Your Majesty, King Cecil!”
The Troian guards stopped and turned. They were eyeing the Baronian with a look that plainly accused him of eating the wrong kind of mushroom earlier that day.
And who could blame them… this is the last place that anyone would expect me to turn up.
Cecil saluted in return, face grim as he murmured, “At ease.”
Golbez was watching the whole exchange with a wrinkled brow. Something that looked like distaste.
The Troians stared at each other, seeming uncertain as to what they should do in response. Finally, one turned to Cecil, inquiring, “You are King Cecil of Baron?”
“That is correct,” the Paladin nodded slowly. “We have come to aid Troia in battle.”
A hopeful expression shifted across the faces of the troops. “Then, you have brought an army with you?”
Er… uh… crud.
Deciding not to answer one way or the other, Cecil looked the soldier in the eyes, “I wish to request council with the High Clerics in order to discuss means of defense and possible reclamation of your city.”
An excited murmur broke out between the soldiers. He could see that the idea of retaking Troia was one that was met with approval by this particular set of troops.
Chances are, they represent the feeling of the majority of the Troians, then.
“Absolutely, Your Majesty,” one of the Troians finally replied, bowing deeply. She turned with a military step. “Please follow, this way.”
I think with the right tactics employed, we should be able to win back ground relatively quickly. Especially with troops so willing to take up arms.
The Red Wing had already claimed his station, standing next to the Paladin King as escort. They made their way further under the spreading branches of the huge trees, a strange rag-tag party of kings, mages, captains and sailors. As they strode among the roots, the first signs of other people could be seen.
How long have they been here, I wonder?
The peasants of the city had found places of residence among the wooden structures at the base of the trees. Eyes peered curiously at the martial parade as it strode past, faces drawn with the distress of having lost all home and comfort. Faces that watched them, pleading that the ones chosen for protection might have the strength to right all wrongs in the world.
That the people might claim their city once again.
Before long, they had made their way into an area of the root-structure that looked to have once been used as a gathering spot for a large number of people. The branches swept low here and were hung with thick, iridescent vines. A small silver pool reflected the soft light that shimmered down from the leaves. The effect cast a gentle glow over the whole area from above and below.
The troops paused at the arched entrance, turning to look to the Paladin for further instruction. One of the Troians spoke up, “Shall I announce your arrival, Your Majesty?”
“Yes,” Cecil nodded. “As long as it is an acceptable time for the Clerics.”
“I doubt that they would turn Your Majesty away, no matter the time of day,” she replied. Then with a heel-pivot, she marched through the arch to carry out her duty.
Cecil peered around, eyes focusing on the blur of faces around him. There were still a lot of wounded and frightened men in Silver’s group – no doubt something needed to be done for them. But asking after aid and refuge, rather than assuming it, was only polite.
And if I remember correctly, the Clerics are big on etiquette.
“Edge, Captain Silver… Golbez…” the Paladin said in a quiet voice, “You will accompany me in the audience with the Clerics.”
“Me?” his brother’s eyes widened slightly in response. As if Golbez had not expected to be singled out to join in such an assembly. And he wasn’t too sure if it was a good thing to have been invited.
“Yes… just remember to mind your manners,” Cecil found himself warning in a brotherly voice. As if he was the eldest, rather than the other way around.
I’m not sure how they’re going to feel about Golbez being part of our group.
The Master Wizard nodded slowly, looking slightly nervous at the prospect.
“And you, sir,” Cecil turned towards the Red Wing that had remained at his side.
The soldier straightened with a stiff look.
“What is your name?” Knowing the names of his men had always been important to him.
“Redford, Your Majesty,” he replied quickly.
“A newer recruit?” Cecil asked. Anyone he needed to ask about their name had not been a part of the Red Wings very long. He knew all the older men… he had served with many of them during his days as Captain of the Red Wings. There had been a time he had known them all.
Am I really getting that far behind?
“Near to six months in service of the Red Wings, sir,” Redford said, unflinching under the eyes of his king.
“I see,” the Paladin nodded, looking him over one last time. “Redford, you will also accompany us into the meeting.”
I’d like to hear first-hand what happened with my ship and men, if nothing else…
“Y-yes, Your Majesty!” Redford seemed surprised by the order. Straightening, he gave a salute and remained at attention close to the Paladin’s side.
Finally, the Troian soldier reappeared from between the rises of the arch. With a low nod, she motioned for the group to enter through. Striding forward with the illusion of a sure step, the Paladin King led the way. Redford paced at his side, just slightly behind. Deric, Edge, Silver and Golbez followed in a silent procession.
They were met in the middle of the ring by a group of shrouded figures. Long violet robes swathed their bodies, blooming sleeves spilling down from around their delicate hands. Hoods veiled across their white foreheads, held in place by a single gem at the peak. Only the quiet, pale faces shown from within the folds of the cloth, each holding a sense of timelessness.
The High Clerics of Troia…
“Honored Matrons,” Cecil stepped forward, pausing before giving a low military bow. He could feel the motion behind him as the others followed his example.
The solemn air was broken by the soft sound of a giggle. And a shifting of the draped women from in front.
Managing to make a glance behind him, Cecil could see that Golbez had become the object of attention. The Master Wizard’s face was flushed bright red as he up righted himself from where he had just attempted – and obviously failed – at performing a proper bow of his own.
Ugh… didn’t they teach him proper forms of respect in Zot?
As the Paladin straightened from his bow, he could see the faces of the Clerics reflected with mild amusement, almost sympathy, at his brother’s stumbling. The one who had giggled openly had a hand over her mouth, violet eyes shimmering in mirth.
“King Cecil… King Edge…” the eldest of the Clerics was the first to regain her composure. “And companions. We welcome you to our humble outpost… wishing we could greet you upon better circumstances.”
“Yes,” the young king nodded. “Your nation has my deepest regrets for all that it has endured as of late. If I had been aware of your situation, I would have brought aid sooner…”
“Then you have brought troops to aid in our plight?”
“Truthfully,” Cecil swallowed the lump in his throat. “I didn’t know that your city had been taken until I reached the forest. I only have a ship’s crew and a few men under my lead. Our ship crashed during an attack and a number of our own men were wounded…”
“So there are… no troops…?” another Cleric asked, her voice wavering.
“I’m afraid not…” the Paladin blanched slightly.
I guess they just assumed if I was here… so was my army…
A wave of disappointment swept over the hooded faces. Soft disheartened murmurs began to pass through the group of women, brows furrowed in pressured concern.
“But you do have troops of your own that are still in fighting condition, yes?” Cecil struggled to regain some sense of morale through the rise of distress.
“Yes,” the first Cleric answered softly. “Yes, but we have lost many. And we have been unable to effectively fight the enemy thus far… for magical shields are keeping the Daear protected against common means of attack. We would not risk more lives in a losing battle. The troops are already frightened enough as it is.”
“What if I told you that I believe we know a way of pulling down the Daear shields?” the Paladin intoned calmly.
“You do?” asked another Cleric in surprise. The one with violet eyes.
Cecil turned to peer back over his shoulder, taking a deep breath.
Now or never…
“This is my brother, the Master Wizard Golbez Ya,” the Paladin informed them.
It was the first time. The first time Cecil had ever really admitted it to a group of other people using his own words. A wave of anxiety pounded against the back of his head… almost making him ill.
How will they respond?
As the women’s first startled murmurs broke the air, Cecil could make out the tortured expression on his brother’s face. Golbez’s eyes were locked upon the ground, his hands nervously working open-then-closed at his sides.
“The Golbez?” the eldest Cleric finally found her voice. Sharp-hawk eyes pierced the down-turned face of the Master Wizard.
“Yes. He is the one that discovered the way to break through the shielding,” Cecil answered in his brother’s stead. “He has offered to give his aid against the troops of the Daear.”
The Paladin’s eyes shifted towards Golbez, holding his breath. He knew that no such aid had been formally offered… and he could only hope that the Master Wizard was prudent enough not to object in front of the Clerics.
Please… don’t blow it, Golbez… not now.
Much to Cecil’s relief, his brother remained unmoving, eyes fixed on the ground. He seemed almost humble, standing there with the presence of the High Clerics of Troia bearing down upon him. If humility could be possible from someone like Golbez.
“I see,” the Cleric replied. Then she followed it up with the single-most important question, “How do you know he can be trusted?”
Golbez’s face blanched. As if someone had just stabbed him straight through the chest.
And now that the question stood there between them, Cecil found himself floundering for an answer.
Honestly… I… don’t really know… but…
The Paladin lifted his chin, no trace of his internal confusion showing. “I will vouch for Golbez… on my personal honor.”
All eyes fell upon Cecil in that long, uncomfortable moment. He didn’t need to turn around to know that Golbez’s astounded stare was among them.
Finally, the eldest Cleric stirred from within the silence. Her voice was steady as she replied, “We will need to call a council to discuss this turn of events.”
Cecil felt a mix of emotion with the answer. Relieved that it was not an outright “no”. But also chafed at the thought that faster action was not being decided upon.
This is… their people… and their kingdom. There is not much I can do without their consent. Though we could really use the help of the Troian army for this…
The Paladin gave a low bow to offer his respect on their choice of the matter, “As you say, Honored Matron.”
Still, we cannot stay here very long… no matter if the Daear are out there. We don’t have much time. The Crystal of Troia has been destroyed… there are still the Crystals of Fabul and Damcyan left to strike at.
The eldest Cleric was giving the Troian solider orders to secure Silver’s men and to find the kingly guests a place to rest and recover. But all the words seemed to bleed through the air, then straight out of Cecil’s mind.
So much hinged upon the choice of so few….
The Clerics were leaving. His bow came automatically.
As the Troian solider motioned for their group to follow, Cecil found himself striding through the arched door next to his brother. The Master Wizard’s deep eyes lingered upon him from above, leaving a trail of prickles across his skin.
“Thank you, Cecil,” Golbez’s words were simple, yet heartfelt.
Staring at the dark shape by his side, Cecil couldn’t tell if it had been an actual voice speaking. Or if it had been nothing more than a tickle in the back of his mind.
Either way, the Paladin felt a hint of a smile on his face.