Jed walked behind Kara as she moved briskly through the passageway. The space was narrow, though wide enough for them to stand side by side if she had wished. The ceiling went high up, the icicles hanging from the top like bats. Jed watched them warily as they turned a corner, his new shield close to his side.

Every now and then Kara stopped for a while. Then she would sigh or glanced down at the manuscripts before heading off at an even faster pace. Her demeanor toward him gradually began to grow cold and aloof.

“I hope you keep up,” she said as if speaking to herself. “That shield is quite heavy. Telman could carry it, but he’s had to bear it since childhood. He’s a great warrior, though he’d never admit it. He feels like a failure, but he has no right to think that about himself.”

After a distance, they came to a place where the walls seemed to melt. Jed touched it and though frigid, it was as solid and dry as glass window. Kara resumed her hasty stride when Jed was about to pass her.

“We shouldn’t have anything to fear here,” she insisted. “The map says we pass through the mountain wall and then reach the Field of Baldae. We’ll have to go through it before we reach the Hercerla Forest, and then finally the Temple where…”

She went mute and glanced back at Jed, still walking. “I meant to say that we still have a long journey ahead of us. As I said, I hope you’re quite up to it.”

Jed offered a neutral expression. “I’m in good shape.”

She was about to speak, but the words fell apart on her lips. A minute later, she blurted out her thoughts. “Why are you helping me? I know I saved you, but you don’t owe me for it. Grancaliga isn’t interested in you. You don’t have to come with me if you don’t want to. He’ll let you go.”

“I promised Telman I’d look after you.”

“I just don’t understand how Telman could leave me like this. I don’t understand why he chose you to come instead. I…I just…”

Her words once more failed her, and she stomped a foot angrily as she turned back to face the passageway. When Jed caught up with her, she initially looked at him with displeasure. She sighed resignedly as she wiped her eyes again. It would have been easy to get offended by her remarks, but Jed didn’t feel anger from her. It was fear.

From there, the passageway became long and straight for several miles. The sky became grey. Dry snowflakes fell like tiny cotton balls. Their hoods back on, they kept going as the powerful wind tore at their clothes. When it subsided, Kara sat to take off her boots and rubbed her feet as she took small bite from a bread loaf in her pack.

“I made plenty of it,” she said, offering Jed some.

While she rested, Jed further examined Arthema’s bow. He was still amazed by its simple yet elegant design. The material was as smooth an elephant’s tusk, yet it could bend while maintaining a sturdy frame.

“At least you’re competent with that,” Kara said. “I hope it won’t be necessary, but you never know.”

Jed offered her his short sword.

“Thank you, but I’ll be quite alright,” she said. “I’m not a warrior. My power is reading and the occasional potion brewing. A few recipes are only found in the texts. It was so wonderful to be able to replicate it. To think the same potion someone made a thousand years ago still works. I was so excited when I first made one…I was so worried then about keeping it all a secret, until I found out how hard it was to convince someone who can’t read that you can. Only Telman believed.”

She touched Jed’s arm as she showed the bundle clasped to her belt. “If these texts are lost, it will be as if our history and our age of kings never happened. Grancaliga wants to destroy anything that reminds our people of the past.”

“Evil men seemed to be the same here as they are in my world.”

“The greatest symbol of that is the crown. It’s at the castle where I live, near the keep built into the mountain summit. But the ancient entrance to the mountaintop where it’s located is sealed by a powerful spell.”

She opened one of the texts and gently pointed at a page before closing it. “Only I know how to open the door. Not even the heir to the throne knows.”

“Where is he?” Jed asked. “Why hasn’t he joined you?”

“He’s in hiding.”

After thinking about it for a moment, Jed asked Kara, “Does Telman know where this heir is?”

“He does. But he’ll die before he tells Grancaliga…and that’s what frightens me.”

***

In the morning, they rose and continued through the passageway. By then, the sky had partially cleared and one of Forenia’s three pale moons was visible between the cracks in the mountain wall. Powdered snow slid off the walls and whirled around like sawdust as they turned a corner and felt a warmer breeze.

Kara earnestly ran ahead, with Jed trying to match her speed. It had nothing to do with endurance or stamina. He was used to heavy packs, but the weight of his equipment was uneven. He kept readjusting the belt on his tunic and shield on his back until it all felt more comfortable. He had his bow in hand, an arrow in the other as he got close to Kara as possible before her pace quickened.

Gradually the snow on the ground dried up as the last moon above brightened for a while and then faded out in the greying sky. Streaks of light shone down before vanishing entirely. Jed was at first hesitant to pass under them until Kara read one of the texts and marched through.

They turned around the bend, and then Kara immediately stopped. Looking over her shoulder, Jed saw ahead the mountain wall’s end, the exit a large tunnel-like shape. What lay beyond was obscured and vague.

Kara anxiously rushed toward it, while Jed proceeded with a vigilant glance to their sides. Standing beneath the exit, she put a hand to her mouth.

Jed reached her as she turned to him. “We’re here.”

Together, they left the mountain wall and stood on a ledge overlooking the Field of Baldae. As far as he could see in every direction were seamless prairies of withered golden grass. On the horizon, rolling black clouds noiselessly billowed as though caught in a tempest. Dotting the landscape in the distance were fortress-like boulder formations, while seared leafless trees stood like hollowed scarecrows with feeble blackened arm-length branches hanging over the grassland. All that could be heard was a faint windless wail like the sound of a seashell close to the ear. The lukewarm air held a strange aroma hinting of bittersweet memories. No animals or creatures of any kind could be seen.

Exhaling loudly, Kara consulted the map for a long time, ignoring Jed’s inquiring look.

“We must head west,” she said. “There’s no path or route. We just have to keep going.”

Tersely stuffing the map in her cloak, she climbed down the ledge. Jed scanned the vicinity, uneasy about the grass fields. There was no telling what could hide within and stalk them. He had no intention of walking into another ambush.

When they came to one of the trees, Kara peered at it curiously before turning to the texts. After reading a passage to herself, she wiped her eyes and resumed her pace as though nothing had happened. Jed took only a brief glance at it, hardly catching the indecipherable words carved into the trunk.

As they walked, Kara spoke abruptly to him. “I know you’re better with the bow, but you might consider conserving those arrows. We don’t know how long the journey will be. Or perhaps you can…oh, never mind.”

They came to another steep ledge. Taking the rope Telman had given him, Jed tied it to a firm edge and tested its trustworthiness before forming a knot around Kara’s belt. He handed her the rope and instructed her how to properly rappel down. When she was too timid to do so, Jed took it and demonstrated it himself. She insisted on holding onto him as he brought them down together. He did so, then climbed back up to retrieve the rope before scrambling to a spot where he could safely leap down.

Kara gasped in horror as he landed in front of her and dusted off his knees. “You shouldn’t take risks like that. We can’t have you hurt. I don’t know what I’d do. I suppose I’d…well, you just can’t get hurt.”

They waded through the grassland, passing by more barren trees with decayed bark and crumbled exterior offering an ominous appearance.

“Forenians once passed through here,” Kara said. “That was a long time ago.”

The sky offered no indication whether it was midday or evening. They rested by a rock formation as tall as a single-story house. Jed took out his short sword and practiced some of the techniques Telman had taught him, first without the shield and then later adding it to his training. Kara silently read from the texts, frequently pausing to watch him whenever he had his back turned to her. Later, they moved to one side of the rock when the air grew cold.

Listening to the distant wail, Kara stared blankly at the prairies before them.

“I don’t understand,” she said. “Why am I doing this?”

“Huh?”

“I meant why me. There were others who could have done something. The council, generals, thousands of others who had more power than I could ever dream. All gave up. So why me?”

“None of them could read,” he said.

Kara considered his words as he spread out their cloaks as beds and went to make a fire. While trying to start it, he realized he still had his pocketknife with him, which included a spark-magnesium igniter. When he sat down, Kara moved slightly to give him space beside her.

“I wondered what it was like when my people first crossed here,” she said. “Now I think I know. I’m proud and ashamed. Forenians then must have been very brave. What happened?”

She observed Jed as he balanced his sword in his hand, then planted it in front of him.

“Telman said you come from a military family,” she said.

Jed nodded.

“It seems you hope to continue that. What does your father think?”

For once, Jed was withdrawn.

“Your father doesn’t trust you?” she asked.

“He thinks I’m not ready. I’m going to prove I am.”

Kara rested her chin on her knees as she leaned forward. “I wasn’t meant to read or write. I had an older brother who was supposed to, but he died young. My father never taught me, but he didn’t stop me, either. Only males were scribes. Maybe that’s why nobody believed me, except Telman. I suppose that also kept my secret safe, too.”

The next day, they trekked across a small hillside and tried to travel as far as they could without rest. They found themselves sleeping that night on a hillside that looked no different. The next day, a similar situation occurred. Day after day, it was the same ledge, the same grassland and dead trees.

Kara made no comment on it at first. After the third day, she anxiously checked the map, then the texts. At night, she would reread the same passages to herself, recite the same verses and prayers.

“It can’t be like this forever,” she said. “There would be something here telling us about it. All it says is that Forenians first crossed the Field because they had a great faith in what they saw, though it’s not clear what that means.”

One evening, she didn’t read anything, her head in her hands as she stared into the campfire. A soft cry rustled through the prairie grass. Unlike the continuous wail they had grown accustomed to, it had a human-like quality.

Drawing his sword, Jed moved to the side of the hill and looked down.

“What is it?” Kara asked.

Jed didn’t move or speak. He couldn’t think of any words to describe what he saw.

Kara hesitantly approached him and turned her eyes to the scene below. A large winding line of specter-like creatures moved across the fields. In their cloaks, they appeared to be Forenians, but there was an uncanny aura around them. Their movements were fluid and smooth, as though the ground moved beneath their feet. The indiscernible cry did not seem to emanate from their lips.

“Who are they?” Kara said. “What are they doing here?”

Jed gently took her arm and led her back to the campfire. “I’ll keep watch,” he said to her as he gestured to her makeshift bed.

“What if they attack?”

He shrugged. “Having you awake won’t matter.”

Kara pressed her lips together. “I can’t fight with a sword, but I know the old prayers. You don’t think it’s what kept you safe when Arthema attacked?”

“I guess then you can pray if you want.”

With a scowl, Kara prepared to get in her bed, then with a sigh got up and offered a prayer of protection from the texts.

“I’ll skip the sleeping potion tonight,” she said as she pulled her cloak over her chest. “If I’m going to die, I’d rather be awake and prepare for it.”

Jed’s voice was firm. “You won’t die.”

“You’re quite confident in your abilities.”

“Would you prefer I not?”

Several minutes later, the campfire had died down so that Kara’s face was a mere silhouette. She spoke in a whisper.

“I miss Telman…but I’m glad you’re here.”

***

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

Previous installments:

  1. Prologue
  2. Chapter 1
  3. Chapter 2
  4. Chapter 3