Jed rapidly drew his sword as he turned in the direction of a wolf howl from somewhere beyond the vast ridgeline. Gripping the handle with one hand, he instinctively grabbed Kara and placed her behind him. The unearthly exclamations poured over the slopes as they ascended the organ pipes-like peaks.

“What are those?” he asked.

Kara placed a reassuring hand on his arm. “Mountain spirits singing hymns to the gods.”

Not ready to believe her, Jed waited until no creature appeared before sheathing his blade and resuming their hike upward to join Telman and the others.

Her explanation failed to soothe his nerves, still recovering from the time he and Vern had encountered a pack of wolves on a hunting trip. Each time another wail appeared, his hand automatically touched the hilt and remained there until he was satisfied.

Noticing the pair had fallen back, Telman turned around and waited for them with a concerned demeanor. “What happened?”

“He mistook the mountain spirits for a beast or something,” Kara said. “It’s certainly what I would have thought if I hadn’t read the manuscripts.”

Telman listened to the faint melodious voices before shaking his head. “I was wondering what they were, too. Even so, we should stay on our guard. They might be harmless…there could be other dangerous things.”

“There are no creatures of any kind in these mountains except for the spirits,” Kara insisted. “They are no threat if we do not desecrate the mountains.”

“How can you be so sure?”

“The manuscripts.”

“Are you sure we can trust them?” a Varexian said.

Kara was bewildered. “How could we not?”

“How many years has it been since they were written? At least a thousand, right?”

Her chin rose worriedly. “Would Forena have allowed such an error?”

“Things could have changed in that time.”

“The texts have not.”

The Varexian pointed at Jed. “Then what is he doing in the mountains?”

Everyone looked at Jed, but he refused to take a side by answering. It wasn’t his quarrel.

“I imagine you don’t live here, right?” Telman said.

Jed nodded.

“Then where did he come from?” the Varexian said.

“I don’t know,” Telman said before Jed could answer. “I just know he’s not one of Grancaliga’s spies or assassins.”

He then addressed Kara, giving Jed a subtle, reassuring grin. “Speaking of which, I think it’s time to consult that map of yours once again.” He motioned to the Varexians. “Let’s keep following this path until we confirm we’re on the right route. I’d rather lead Grancaliga the wrong way than stand here and wait for him to show up.”

Pressing hard up as the rising ridgeline, Kara walked closely alongside Telman as she reached into her cloak. Jed took the rear, still maintaining a vigilant watch of the voices. He then joined the two as Kara brought out a faded parchment with a map drawn on it. Telman held a part of his cloak over her head to keep it dry. Whatever language it was, the words were too small for Jed to see through the snowfall.

Her studious eyes roaming across the map, Kara’s fingers delicately touched the parchment’s surface as they followed a line drawn through a collection of illustrated mountain peaks.

Inhaling hard, she put the map away and spoke in a hushed voice to Telman. Hesitant at first, he then called to the Varexians again. “We turn north here.”

The Varexians appeared incredulous. The one who had spoken before broke from the group and confronted Telman. “There’s no way through.”

“The map says there will be a passageway somewhere.”

“And if not?”

“The map says it’s there,” Kara said.

The Varexian stared at her. “What you say.”

“There’s no point in arguing. I’m the only person who can read this map…or anything else, for that matter.”

The Varexian didn’t move. Nor did the other soldiers.

“All our hope is in you,” he said to Kara. “Hope that you read that map correctly, hope that you know how to read at all…that you aren’t just making this up because you can’t accept that there is no hope.”

“I believe her,” Jed said.

“Why? You don’t even know her. You don’t even know where you are.”

Jed pointed at Telman. “I know he’s somebody to be trusted. If he believes her, so do I. So should you.”

Readjusting the shield on his back, the soldier nodded to the other Varexians, and they returned to Telman.

“We head north, yes?” the Varexian said.

Kara nodded. “The passageway will be there.”

“I hope you’re right.”

Acting as though the argument hadn’t occurred, Telman once more took over leading the group. Kara smiled at Jed as if pleasantly surprised, then selectively stepped into the deep snow prints left in front of them by Telman. They then turned left toward what seemed to be an impregnably wall of ice-clad rock that eventually separated into spike-like peaks and disappeared into the shadowy mist.

Looking back at Jed, Telman waved an invitation to join him at the front. When he did, Telman patted him on the shoulder and spoke in his ear. “Once more, you impress me.”

***

“Can we stop and eat?” Kara asked. “We haven’t had a meal since we left.”

“Eat all you want, but we don’t stop,” Telman called back to her from the front. He then noticed how Jed had perked up at the mention of food. “Get something. We won’t eat again until nightfall.”

Jed walked back to where Kara took out a small bag tied to her trouser belt. From it, she produced some type of brownish gold bread that, once cracked, seemed to break apart on its own.

“Try some,” she said. “It’s my recipe.”

Jed took a bite. It tasted sweeter than Southern iced tea. Yet the richness didn’t overwhelm him.

“It’s good, isn’t it?” Kara said as she offered more. He ate all she gave, then took a drink from her canteen. The water was equally sweet. Within minutes, he felt as though waking from a sound night’s sleep.

“It has magical properties,” she said as she saw his eyes widen. “You put a potion in it while you make. Something ordinary Forenians can learn. Tell me, can you read your language?”

Jed nodded.

“It is so fascinating to think of such a place,” Kara said, her eyes wandering off. “I’m the only one in the entire kingdom who reads ancient Forenian.”

When Jed looked at her with skepticism, she smiled with such pride that a touch of rouge red appeared on her white cheeks. “I come from a scribe family. They were the only people able to read and study our religious and historical texts. When the last king died without an heir, two rivals fought for the throne. One of them sought to kill all the scribes who had sided against them. Only my ancestor survived the purge. He destroyed all his writing material, then used a potion to conceal himself as an ordinary blacksmith. Later, he managed to regain residence inside the royal castle after the Truce of Belead. Since then, we’ve kept the knowledge a secret within the family and the castle as our home…until today.”

She took a final bite of bread and then put the bag away. She glanced at Jed nervously as if trying to hold something back. He didn’t press her.

She sighed heavily. “I can’t tell the others this, but I have to admit I’m afraid I’ll never see home again. I know I shouldn’t think about it, but I can’t help it. It’s the only home I’ve ever known, I know nothing else will replace it. Please tell me: are you afraid of that, too?”

With his eyes fixed ahead, Jed stirred his head slightly. “I have no idea how I got here. So how can I get back home?”

“I understand,” she said. “You’re like me. You want to go home, but can’t. For now.”

She held her small hands together in prayer, listening reverently to the hymns of the mountain spirits. The once-fearsome strains had transformed into delicate chants evoking memories of Jed’s church choir. It had a soothing effect on him, and his relaxed hand drifted away from his sword hilt.

“We’ll get back home, both of us,” Kara said as she ended her prayer. “I promise.”

***

The long column of soldiers stretched back across the ridgeline and down the slope as they pushed speedily through the snow. Grancaliga stood off to the side at the midway point where he could be seen by all, accompanied by his standard-bearer. The bright grand flag of the Guardian Army flew steadily as it flapped violently in the wind.

He observed his soldiers with admiration. They had done a forced march since Merce Haelle. Yet their backs were still straight, saluting him as they passed as though in parade formation. They seemed deaf to the apparent voices bellowing from the mountains.

Up ahead, a messenger ran back from the front toward Grancaliga. Spotting him, the colonels joined the general and eagerly waited until the messenger arrived.

“We spotted them headed north,” the messenger said.

“Why?” a colonel asked in disbelief. “There’s nothing but the mountain wall. They can’t possibly climb it.”

“We don’t need to know,” Grancaliga said. “They’re headed there. We follow.”

He retrieved a map from his satchel and studied it. Unlike Kara’s, there were only illustrations on it with lines and ink spots.

“We’re beyond any known territory,” he said as he put the map away. His amber eyes narrowed cunningly as he turned to the messenger. “How was the ground there?”

“Open. Nearer to the mountain wall the ridge becomes narrow.”

“We must get to them before they reach that point. How far before they get there?”

“Half a day’s journey.”

Grancaliga gazed at the faint glow of Forenia’s three suns behind the layered veil of snowfall. He then spoke to the colonels. “Find Arthema.”

The colonels left together along the column. They finally stopped and ordered a man out. He saluted them and approached Grancaliga. The tall, lanky man had a thin white longbow slung over his back, along with a long wide quiver stuffed with multicolored arrows. His hair was cut short like Grancaliga’s, two arrow-like scars on both cheeks.

“Take your best bowmen and head north, but once you encounter footprints, move northwest. They’ll camp for the night somewhere near the rocks for shelter. Wait until the morning, then attack. If any of them somehow survive, they’ll head south toward the wall. We will cut them off.”

Arthema saluted in high reverence. “It will be done.”

Grancaliga’s voice was emphatic. “The girl is not to be harmed. I want the manuscripts she has intact as well. Your punishment should you fail…will be to live.”

Arthema’s eyes wavered for an instant as if a horrid memory returned to him. He saluted again and ran off. With a quick gesture, four fellow bowman broke ranks and followed him closely. Grancaliga watched in delight as they shrank on the horizon, easily outpacing the sentinels placed at the column’s front.

“I almost feel cheated,” Grancaliga said. “It’s too easy.”

***

Telman watched curiously as Jed sat on a rock while running a sharpening stone against his sword. In front of them, the campfire had reduced to glowing embers. All the Varexians slept except for a lookout on a large boulder behind Jed.

Kara slumbered near the fire, her head nestled against her pack. She has gone to bed shortly following their arrival, but not before reciting something from the manuscript she said would protect them. While she did so, Jed had inspected his sword and found the blade’s edge somewhat dull. Noting the sharpening stone near Telman’s pack, he had taken it and worked the edges.

Now that the fire had dimmed, he could hardly see his hands. He placed the stone near Telman as he held the sword up near the fire, delicately touching the edge with his fingertips.

“Your father’s a soldier,” Telman said.

Jed looked at him with surprise.

“I can tell,” Telman said with a chuckle. “You handle a blade like you’ve seen one before. Your father a swordsman?”

“He knows knives.”

“Is soldering a family thing?”

Jed smiled. “Like Kara and reading.”

The remark left Telman even more enthralled. He stood up, drawing his sword. “Preferably you’re as skilled in your family profession as hers.”

Jed raised his eyebrows, gesturing at Kara and the Varexians. “Won’t they hear us?”

“Don’t worry, they all took her sleeping potions,” Telman said as he walked into a patch of thinly layered snow.

Shrugging, Jed stood and held his blade with his right hand. Telman called to the Varexian so he wouldn’t be surprised by the noise.

Jed let Telman make the first move, a swing from up high down to the left. Jed blocked it and used his weight to push Telman to the side. However, Telman maintained his balance with a low stance and swiftly pulled his sword back, then thrust it forward toward Jed’s chest. Barely blocking it, Jed again tried to push Telman off balance. Despite his swift movements, the older man held steady. Telman feigned struggle for a moment before he disengaged by pulling his sword away. Then, with a flick of his wrist, he brought the tip to Jed’s chest. Just barely missing it in time, the boy lowered his sword in concession. He felt embarrassed; he could easily field dress a deer with his hunting knife, but swordplay felt totally alien to him.

Telman exchanged swords with him, and they continued sparring. Though his blade’s length was greater, Jed was still unable to work around the older man’s guard. Using his armor-clad elbow, he slid Jed’s blade to the side as he held the short sword against his chest.

“You give away your movements,” Telman said. “Hold your blade so you can strike quickly.”

Jed tried to copy Telman’s example, then attacked. This time, he managed to corner Telman against the boulder. When they crossed swords, Telman rotated his blade so Jed’s sword locked into his hilt guard. He then spun Jed around and pushed him against the boulder.

Telman seemed pleased. “Your skills could improve. But you’re brave. That’s far more important.”

Leading him by the arm, they returned to their place by the fire. Jed checked his blade and briefly worked the sharpening stone again.

“You don’t have the Spark of Forena,” Telman said. “Yet you might as well.”

“I assume that’s a compliment.”

“Kara says it’s in the manuscripts,” Telman said as he pointed at his glowing eyes. “Forena first created our people in the Hercerla Forest. According to the legends, his spirit was so great that it consumed his eyes. They burned fire, as ours do. With that fire, he fashioned the divine sword, Impora.”

He looked over at Kara as she slept silently with a peaceful smile. “She and I still believe a king will again rule us. Since the Truce of Belead, Forenia has been divided into small enclaves ever since the king’s descendants went into hiding. Several years ago, a military tyrant named Grancaliga raised an army of handpicked men and declared himself Supreme Guardian over all Forenia. His strength and power grew as he conquered each territory, until only Merce Haelle was left to fall.”

Telman brought his head down. “His campaign started the same time my father died, and I succeeded him as youngest member ever on the Elder Council. Not much older than you. I had such aspirations. But I found for all the councilmembers’ talk of resisting Grancaliga, everything they did was as if his rule was inevitable. My talk of victory was one-sided. I finally realized what was it; they were too scared to fight, but too afraid to give up. It was as if I were the true enemy.”

Jed nodded intently. Telman was starting to sound like his father after returning home from work.

Motioning at the Varexian lookout above, Telman lowered his voice. “These men know what happened. Their hope was weak…until they saw the same thing in you I do.”

Jed smiled humbly as Telman drew close. “Our position is desperate. Yet I’d rather have a stranger like you with me than ten thousand Forenians. Grancaliga’s sword is stained with much innocent blood, but he hopes as dearly as we. His passion inspires not just his men to fight, but myself to resist. My people have done nothing but discourage and betray…save for Kara.

The two men looked at her. She stirred slightly, then was still again. Telman approached her quietly and brought her blanket up over her shoulders.

“For centuries, all we had were the claims of generations long dead that the throne would be reclaimed through Impora,” he said. “It’s hard to believe in mere stories. But Kara says that’s exactly what’s written in the manuscripts. We’re after the sword. But if Grancaliga gets her first, the throne remains empty forever—if it remains at all.”

He uttered a short laugh under his breath. “Perhaps, for once, he’ll fail.”

“How so?” Jed asked.

“He’s finally encountered those who want to win.”

***

Arthema gazed out at the obscured encampment in the distance. There was no smoke or silhouettes from campfire flames. He raised his head and took a deep, long breath through his nose, smiling as he opened his eyes.

He grabbed one of his bowmen and brought him close. “We move at dawn. Remember, the girl can’t be harmed. Pick your targets well. Don’t shoot if you are uncertain.”

The bowman nodded and returned to inform the others. Arthema sat atop the heavy boulder, where his gear was laid out neatly. He picked up his bow, covered with scores of short notches. With a knife in hand, he toyed with preemptively carving out more before placing it down.

He chuckled. “Telman’s head will make a better trophy.”

***

For all installments from The Legend of Forenia: The Twilight Kingdom, click here.

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1