By Hannah Williams
The silver call of a horn rolled across Raytelvis, its sibilance stirring each leave and blade of grass. The white deer grazing beside sparkling stream, raised their dripping muzzles, cupping their ears forward.
In the southern forests of Raytelvis, a mighty horse paused and looked north to the city where the horn blew. The horse’s rider reached down and stroked its dappled neck.
“That would be the arrivals from Kalar,” the girl said. With a sigh, she looked back into the deeper forest, the blowing branches seeming to beckon her, the breeze pulling her white hair towards it. Beyond the forest there was a horizon she could never quite reach. “Next time,” she whispered. Turning her horse with a tap of her heel, she wove her fingers into its black mane and cried, “Fly, Azazel!” Trumpeting, the stallion launched forward, leaping over the logs and streams that barred his way. They raced through the forest, following the horn’s call that trailed over the trees, across the green meadows, ringing from the five spires of the great white city, Tyven.
Excitement shivered through the air as the youths gathered in a garden courtyard, talking incessantly to the young man newly arrived. One young woman did not join in the cluster, but walked to a garden bench and sat down, watching and listening with interest.
“You don’t come nearly, enough, Tev. How are things in Kelar?”
“Is that your badge? Look at the light inside it!”
“First step to becoming general, eh, Tev?”
“Think no one can best you now?”
The young man receiving all the attention laughed and spread out his arms as if to ward off the firing questions. “One at a time,” he said. “Yes, Kelar, is doing well, though you should know that already. Yes, this is my badge. Yes, that is the Hollowed Light shining within. I would like to be General one day, but that’s getting a little far ahead, don’t you think?”
The girl sitting alone on the bench looked up with a slight smile. “What about the last question?” she said. “Do you think no one can best you now?”
There were several chuckles, and many eagers eyes turned to Tev for the answer. “First of all, I greet you, Lady Sildarius,” he said, with a bow. “As for your question, I believe your famed sister might find me a greater challenge now. I’m not what I was.”
“Neither is she,” Sildarius answered, arising more giggles.
And at that moment, the thunder of approaching hooves shook the stones. Over the eight foot wall separating the gardens, a horse leapt, clearing the top with ease, and landing with a clatter amongst the youths.
Tev rolled his eyes. “On the contrary, she seems exactly the same.”
A girl swung down from the horse, patting its flank affectionately. “I’m here, you can begin the revelry,” she said with grin.
“A curse upon us if we started without you,” one boy laughed.
“Go to the stables, Azazel,” the girl commanded, and the stallion trotted off down a passage at once. Flicking one of her braids over her shoulder, the girl approached her friends, an eager smirk turning up her lip.
“Lieutenant Tev now, is it?” she said. “In this time of peace, the commanders recruit anyone it seems. Why, you haven’t changed a bit in the last three years.”
Tev grinned at the teasing, as he had indeed changed significantly in aging from fourteen to seventeen. “You have though,” he replied.
And she had. Though she still wore the same apparel—a sleeveless blue tunic over grey leggings—and though her white hair still fell behind her back save for the two braids that fell in front of each shoulder, she was no longer the girl he remembered, but a young woman his age. It rather startled him, though he knew it was silly of him to have pictured her forever fourteen.
Furthermore, she’d improved. The muscles in her arms and shoulders were even more defined and the glint in her eye shone deadlier than ever.
He hoped her assessment of him was much the same behind her apparent indifference.
“You’ve grown into a lovely young woman, Dareseel,” he said, with another bow.
She scowled. “If you resort to flattery, I’ll hurt you,” she snapped. “Becoming an officer better not have ruined you. I liked your rivalry much better.”
Laughing, he combed his white hair out of his eyes and stepped back, his other hand coming to rest on his sword. “Don’t fear that. I didn’t become a Lieutenant for nothing. Not to boast, but my skill has improved tremendously. I’ve never forgotten the humiliation of being beat by you and I promised it wouldn’t happen again. I’ve trained extensively these past three years.”
“Whereas I have done nothing but stich tapestries and sing sonnets,” Dareseel replied loftily.
Nearly bursting with anticipation, the youths watching them formed a circle around the courtyard, giving the two plenty of room on the cobble-stoned ground. Dareseel and Tev instinctively began circling each other, though neither of them had drawn their swords.
“Remember,” Tev said, his bright eyes turning serious for a moment, “if I push too hard, just tell me.”
“Because your masculine strength gives you such an advantage.”
Dareseel tossed her head. “The panther kills the ox.”
She stepped forward, drawing her foot along a straight line in the stones. Her eyebrow raised in challenge.
He groaned. “You going to make me strike first again, are you?” With a resigned sigh, he began to pull out his sword, saying the introductory, “Begin…”—
--and Dareseel leapt, one of her own swords sweeping from behind her back and slashing through his belt. His sheath dropped to the ground, carrying his partially drawn sword with it, and forcing him to duck down to keep hold of it, while nearly tripping on the belt around his feet. In the second that he regained control of his sword, he swung around and caught her blade descending towards his back. He’d known better than to expect her to still be in front of him.
“You snake!” he gasped, half with laughter, half with frustration.
Her eyes gleamed as she pressed harder, forcing him to one knee while he was still unbalanced. “I’ll take that as a compliment,” she said. She boosted off the tension in their blades, her feet skimming the ground, her body crouched and her elbows pulled back, coiled for the next strike.
Tev regained his footing, eyeing her warily. “You won’t get a chance to that again.”
“You’re right,” she agreed. “Unless you were wearing another belt.”
He leapt forward, and she slid back, dodging every thrust and slice he gave her way. “Careful,” she taunted, as his strikes became more frustrated. “Don’t lose control and eviscerate me.”
He drew back, glowering. “Would it be so hard to just give me a decent dual?”
“Oh, I’m sorry, am I annoying you?”
“Forgive me if I don’t enjoy slashing at nothing until I’m disarmed by some cunning trick.”
“So you admit my style is more effective?”
There was silence. The audience looked back and forth at the competitors.
Tev heaved a breath. “Unless I was seriously trying to kill you, yes, you have the advantage over me.”
She nodded, prompting him to continue.
“So I challenge you to a dual of blows,” he said. “An exchange of skill.”
Twisting her lips to the side, she nodded reluctantly, tossed aside one sword, and positioned her remaining one.
What followed was a dizzying display of flashing blades, sweeping and arching like scarves, clashing together with piercing ringing. Faster and faster they sped, retreating and advancing around the circle. Their audience watched in breathless pleasure, as a dual appearing this deadly while in control required sword-masters of the highest caliber.
Tev, locked in the concentration of controlling his own blade and hers, had no time for coherent thought, but the knowledge did brush his mind that female though she was, she took his blows with unusual strength. In one brief moment of retreat on both sides, he noted that her expression was one of irritation and displeasure. A flicker of delight and remorse rushed through him at once. Perhaps he was besting her after all! But then was that anything to be proud of since it was only natural that he should be better than her when it came to a battle of strength and—
His fingers stung as his sword was wrenched out of his grasp. He winced at the blinding light reflecting off his blade spinning up in the air. And he watched as it fell back down and clattered on the ground.
With complete calm, Dareseel brought her sword up through its disarming arc and set the tip at Tev’s chest. “Satisfied, Lieutenant?”
No one spoke or moved, still recovering from the result perhaps, or fearing the consequences.
But after a stunned moment, Tev blinked and laughed. “You are amazing!” he exclaimed.
Laughter and good-hearted cheers rose from around, and for the fleetest moment, Dareseel’s cool expression melted into one of relief, pleasure, and genuine gratitude. She stepped back and bowed, flipping her other sword to hand with her toe. “Thank you, Lieutenant Tev. Your competition was even more challenging than last time. I will be very sore after this, I am certain. Your strength has assuredly improved.”
“Don’t try to console me,” he chided, shaking his head as he took his sword offered by a friend. “I can accept defeat, even at my own game.” He bent to collect his severed belt and eyed it ruefully. “I suppose I’ll just have to drag my sheath around as a sign of my humiliation.”
“If I was one of those pretty girls with a sash, I’d offer it to you as a substitute,” Dareseel said loudly, causing quite a commotion from the admiring young ladies.
Blushing ever so slightly, Tev accepted the nearest sash offered to him and looped his sheath through it. “So Dareseel,” he said, as he tightened the sash around his waist. “Surely you aren’t going to let all your skill just sit and stagnate. When are you applying to be an officer? I know women haven’t been accepted before, but they can’t possibly turn you down.”
“I’m not going to be an officer,” she replied airily.
Shocked, he stared to be sure she was serious. “They’ve rejected you? How insane! How idiotic—”
“Before you offend your superiors and find yourself demoted, let me inform you that I have never applied,” Dareseel said.
“But why? Surely, it’s what you want?”
“You are quite mistaken.” She stepped back and drew in a deep breath, her eyes gleaming. “When I come of age, I am leaving.”
Blinking, he considered her words and the fact that no one seemed surprised by the announcement, though some of the joy seemed to slip away, like a cloud passing over the sun. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw the girl, Sildarius, frown.
“Beyond the Saulation Mountains and west for a start! And after that, who knows?” An excited laugh bubbled out of her, and as he looked into her glowing eyes he recognized an emotion he’d never seen in her before—delight. He was used to seeing it when girls got a new dress or were paid a pretty compliment. She was so different.
He found himself a little caught up in her exhilaration. “So you’ll be leaving in a year? Who are you traveling with?”
“That’s it? But what do your parents think?”
“They’ve given their blessing.”
“By the Light, you are crazy, Dareseel! A girl like you traveling alone—” He paused.
“Yes?” she prompted wickedly. “A girl like me?”
He shook his head. “Never mind. I suppose you’ll do very well.”
“Indeed.” She brushed back her hair and gestured away. “Shall we go for some refreshments to celebrate my victory?”
“I think it would have been much more exciting to celebrate mine,” he said with a sigh.
“Because it would have been unexpected? I agree.”
That night, all the young friends dined together in the great feasting hall. The hall, wide and long, stretched high overhead and stairs spiraled up the magnificent pillars leading to the leaf-like floors that branched from it with the tables set upon them. Lush vines and flowers forested the walls and stairs, filling the chamber with a sweet fragrance.
Sildarius was unusually silent amongst the gaiety, only joining in merry conversations to smile when there was laughter. But that night, her attention was fixed solely on her sister Dareseel. Her brow furrowed once or twice as she studied her, till even her sweetheart, Aron, crown prince of the city, leaned in to whisper if she was all right.
“Of course, I am,” Sildarius answered with another sweet smile that seemed to satisfy him. And she was. But she knew Dareseel wasn’t.
As soon as the conversation had switched from adventures and swords, Sildarius had watched Dareseel’s interest wane away as it always did. Her eyes would glass over, a sure sign that her mind was far, far away. In the past few years, as they had all grown up, Dareseel had grown apart from them, as the young men had become shy of sparring with her, and the young women had taken interest in things that Dareseel considered boring. Today had been so close to perfect—Tev, never afraid of fighting Dareseel since his humiliation, had brought back out the pride and love they all had for her, and she had seemed to be a part of them again. But then she’d had to spoil it by expressing her desire to be gone. Off in some unknown part of the world.
Sildarius frowned, throttling her linen napkin under the table. Why, oh why, couldn’t her sister just be content with all the beauty and love that surrounded her? Quietly and smoothly, to attract as little attention as possible, Sildarius stood, patting Aron’s hand to ward off his surprise and curiosity.
Slipping to her sister’s side, she bent down and whispered in her ear. “Dareseel, I’d like to speak with you.”
Dareseel’s glazed eyes swam back into focus, and she quirked an eyebrow at her. “Now?”
“Really,” Sildarius said softly.
“Oh, very well.” Dareseel pushed back from the table and followed her sister down stairs.
Sildarius led the way out to the outer wall. Up the outer paths she walked, leaves from nearby trees swirling about in the high breeze. She looked back to see Dareseel giving her a skeptical look and she grabbed her hand, pulling her up the last few steps, before an objection could be made. At last, they stood at the foot of the center spire.
Sighing deeply, Sildarius let go of her sister’s hand and leaned against the railing. The sun was beginning to set behind the Saulation Mountains, and the sky was fading to soft lavender. “Look, Dareseel,” she said. “Will you just look at it?”
Obediently, Dareseel came forward and gazed out upon the land.
“There is no more beautiful place than here,” Sildarius said. “Rivers, forests, and meadows lace this realm, bordered by the Saulation Mountains in the west, the Blethian cliffs, with all their splendid waterfalls, to the north--the thick wood, to the south--the light of the KING’s garden to the east. Here we dwell. Our four great cities mark west, east, south, and north, the Hollowed Light shining within.” Taking a deep breath, she turned her back to the view and stared her sister in the eye. “So why, why, Dareseel, would you ever want to leave?” Her black eyes begin to gleam with tears. “What isn’t good enough for you here?”
Shoulders sagging, Dareseel placed a hand on each of her sister’s shoulders. “Oh, Sil.” She sighed heavily. “This isn’t about what Raytalvis is missing. It’s perfect in every way. It’s what I’m missing. I’m missing my purpose.”
“Your purpose is here, with your family!” Sildarius blinked back her tears, regaining her composure. “If you want to some great warrior, why don’t you become an officer like Tev?”
“An officer living in quiet peace and luxury, the only combat coming from a spar with a friend. Training for what? For a war that might never come.” Seeing Sildarius’s indignant expression, Dareseel held up a hand. “Now, now, you know I never want war to come here. And it is good for us to have an army, better still if we never have to use it. But to stay here all my days, Sil? No, that isn’t it, not for me.”
When Sildarius turned away, the set of her body still implying offense, Dareseel gently took her sister by the shoulders and turned her back to the sunset. “Now, may I show you what I see?” she whispered.
Sildarius gave an indifferent shrug, refusing to make eye contact.
Inhaling deep, Dareseel leaned out over the rail. “I see a horizon,” she said. “I see a world ahead, a life of adventure and peril and progress. I see a reason to push forward, to find what I’m missing, to aid a shattered world. I see possibilities, endless and forever reaching. And I hear—I hear a voice calling my name. I feel—a pull straight from my heart.”
Her voice, though calm, was so full of longing and wistfulness that Sildarius’s heart was pierced with a moment of understanding. She stared out at the bright glow edging the mountains, promising great things beyond. For that moment, her breath was suddenly taken away.
The next second, it was gone, and she drew back with a shiver. “You’ll die,” she whimpered. “If you go out in that dreadful world, you’ll die.”
“No, I won’t,” Dareseel said confidently. “This is the KING’s calling for me. I am the Adaile, the greatest warrior that will ever live.”
“You are vain and stubborn!” Sildarius snapped, not noticing how her grown-up superiority brought a smile to her older sister’s face. “How can you possibly know you’re the Adaile?”
Dramatically, Dareseel leaned back against the rail and pressed a hand to her heart. “I can feel it here. It’s my destiny.” When there was stunned silence, she rolled her eyes to the side and grinned teasingly at Sildarius, pulling out a smile from her, albeit still annoyed. “Seriously though, I do believe it. And I will prove it.”
After a long moment of silence, Sildarius sighed and hugged her sister tight. “I love you so,” she whispered. “I don’t want you to leave me.”
Face softening into a tender expression that was rare to see, Dareseel wrapped her arms around her little sister and kissed the top of her head. “Ah, Sil,” she said. “Don’t be afraid.”
Sniffing back tears and trying to smile, Sildarius said, “I’ll trust in the KING.”
“And so will I,” Dareseel replied. “Wherever He shall lead me. Over the horizon and home again.”