PROLOGUE - YESTERDAY
She was too far away from the river.
Ninuie knew this because she could barely feel the connection to Yantra-hai, the great river of Avalyne. If she were closer, she would be able to defend herself; but the enemy was wily, barring her from it. The river was her place of power, and as long as they remained separated she was diminished. Since the pursuit began, every effort to escape the forest and reach the shore had been in vain. The enemy was there at every turn.
With no choice but to retreat into the shadows of Iolan’s ancient woods, Ninuie could feel her withering link to the river, and it made her heart sink with dismay. Like a thread being pulled tighter and tighter, she knew it would not be long before it snapped completely and she would be defenceless. It was a stark contrast to the growing menace overpowering her senses as the enemy closed in on her. Their paws thundered across the ground until she could feel the vibration against the soles of her bare feet.
They were experienced pack hunters and they outflanked her from the river and the forest, keeping her trapped between them. Helpless to escape, she knew with anguish they were converging on her position, and that when each group met there would be no place left to run. She would be helpless to stop them from taking her.
In a moment of desperation, she considered returning to the Man, but sense prevailed. She refused to let her fear endanger him or their child. The enemy would not hesitate to kill them both to gain her subservience. She would not risk them for anything. The Man was an able warrior but he was no match for the servants of the Aeth, and she no longer possessed the ability to protect him.
Near her breaking point, Ninuie continued her desperate flight across the woods while the midnight moon gazed upon her aloofly, indifferent to her plight. Branches clawed at her as she ran past the thick trees and tall shrubs. Around her, the pounding footsteps of the enemy were like a drumbeat in her ears, growing louder with their relentless persistence. Her terror was almost complete now, just like the screaming danger she could feel in every part of her soul.
They were almost upon her, sooner, if her strength gave out first.
Please help me, Water Wife! I am sorry for abandoning you and my sisters! For turning away from the river!
The Celestial goddess chose not to answer. Ninuie uttered a frustrated cry of misery, but desperation made fools of everyone. For the love of the Man, she abandoned everything she knew—her goddess, her sisters and her covenant with Yantra-hai. They did not forget nor forgive the slight.
Ironically, she left home this night to go to the river. Ninuie intended to find her sisters and put her affairs in order. She was going to tell them she was leaving with the Man and the Child. She was travelling with him to his land in the east to become his wife and to die a mortal, surrendering her place among their pantheon. It was the proper form so the goddess could appoint another in her place.
The Aeth Lord’s servants put an end to her good intentions.
She knew of him of course, the seraf of the dark Celestial Mael, who broke the rules of the Five Realms by entering the Aeth where only the dead resided for all time. Straddling that terrible afterlife and the living world, Balfure harnessed the dark energies of one to become a god in the other. Why he wanted her, she did not know, but fear of his evil kept her from returning home to the Man and Child.
She would risk no harm to them, whatever the cost to herself. She could no longer feel the river or its life pulsing through her and Ninuie knew that Yantra-hai had abandoned her at last. The void it left behind was so absolute that her fear of capture paled in comparison. She wept openly at the loss.
Slowing down, she trudged across the blanket of rotting leaves, surrounded by thick, ancient trees, their branches reaching towards the sky in silent worship. Their leaves created a shroud of darkness Ninuie took comfort in, hoping it would keep her concealed. At least long enough for her to catch her breath.
Despair and exhaustion broke her will to evade and when she reached a clearing, she raised her eyes to the moon and sank to her knees. She shuddered a little when her skin made contact with the damp foliage and the tears on her cheeks glistened beneath the moonlight. She could hear the Enemy closing in on her, hear their paws crush the leaves underfoot as they circled.
Let them come, she thought to herself, let them take me.
The Man and the Child are safe. Nothing else mattered.
Chapter One - Chains Of Duty
The message came to him on the day of the elven new year.
Nothing in it should have surprised him, but Prince Aeron of Eden Halas was nonetheless affected by its contents. He didn’t realise until he read the message how much he dreaded what it would say, and he wished very much for a stay of execution. Reading it over and over again did nothing to lessen its impact and, finally, like a man beaten into exhaustion, he surrendered to his fate.
It was time for him to go home.
In truth, Aeron was surprised the demand to return took as long as it did to come. He expected its arrival following Balfure’s defeat and the delay allowed him to become complacent. Of course, it was always inevitable he would have to return home. His father saw no reason for his continued absence from Halas now that the war was done and Aeron had no excuse to remain.
Despite missing his mother and the woods he grew up in, Aeron never felt as bound to Eden Halas as his father or his brothers. Eighteen years ago, he was more than happy to leave his home to help Dare vanquish Balfure from Avalyne. He was closer to Dare than he was to his own brothers and travelling with the exiled heir of Carleon seemed like fate. Once away from the woods, Aeron discovered he enjoyed travelling to new lands and meeting its people, something his brothers and father would never understand.
After the Aeth War, he remained with Dare, making only the occasional visit home to see his mother. Using the excuse he was needed to help Dare with hunting the remnants of Balfure’s forces, Aeron was able to avoid his father’s request to return permanently. It was always going to be a temporary salve and now it seemed his time in Carleon was done. Aeron knew if he returned to Eden Halas, as requested, it would be to stay.
While he would be happy for a time, reunited with his family, Aeron knew it would not last. After eighteen years away from Eden Halas, he no longer fit in with life there. Isolation was not for him and he would be trapped by the Veil and his father’s insistence on keeping the world away from Eden Halas. Everything he had experienced these past years proved he enjoyed being in the world instead of being sequestered from it.
From the first, there was no denying Aeron was cut from a different cloth than his father and sibling. When Dare was brought to Eden Halas, Aeron accepted him with little difficulty, while his older brothers, Hadros and Syannon, took time to warm to the child. His father remained aloof until the day Dare left Halas, and never understood Aeron’s decision to accompany him. Being away from home blunted the differences between father and son, but if Aeron remained in Halas permanently, they would become acute. Aeron had no wish to see his mother in pain because of their conflict.
Still, it was more than just the demand to return home that bothered Aeron.
Dare was now a king with a wife and an heir. He had a kingdom to consolidate and strengthen. Kyou, head of Clan Atrayo, had recently wedded his long-time love Hanae in the Jagged Mountains. When the Master Builder completed his work fortifying Sandrine, he would return home to Iridia to begin his life with his bride. Celene was now the Lady of Gislaine and, as wife to Ronen, would be expected to bear him children for their own house. The mage Tamsyn was travelling Avalyne, seeking out acolytes to restore the Order of Enphilim.
And what was he doing? Nothing.
He was doing nothing, and if he returned to Eden Halas he would continue to do nothing. As Aeron walked the sculpted gardens of Sandrine Keep, this bothered him a great deal. Adventuring and fighting Balfure had given Aeron purpose, but those days were now past. His friends were settling down, preparing to live the rest of their lives. Aeron had no such plans. Being immortal, he had no need of them and, until now, did not realise how hollow that felt.
There had to be some purpose to immortality beyond growing stagnant with time.
“Aeron,” Dare’s sudden call broke him free of his thoughts. “There you are.”
The prince glanced briefly at the sky above and was somewhat surprised to see the sun had crested overhead and was beginning its evening descent. It was early afternoon when the message from his father had arrived and he had retreated into the gardens to read it. Now he realised the day had slipped by him without notice.
“I am sorry. I did not mean to be away for so long.”
“There is nothing to be sorry for. I merely wondered where you were. I was told that there was a message from your father.” Dare stood beside Aeron before one of the ornate fountains in the garden. This one was constructed from blue marble with the likeness of the Water Wife perched up high in the centre.
“Yes,” Aeron frowned, clearly implying it was not good news.
“Is it what you feared?”
Although Aeron never spoke to Dare of his anxieties regarding his father, the king suspected Aeron feared that his responsibilities at home would soon draw him back to Eden Halas.
“More or less,” Aeron shrugged, not bothering to hide his discontent from his old friend. “My father would like me home as soon as possible.”
“And you mean to go,” Dare was unable to hide the disappointment from his voice because he could not imagine Aeron being absent from his life. Not only was Aeron family, but they had been constant companions for almost two decades. Dare did not relish the thought of losing his best friend even though it had always been inevitable that they would someday have to part company.
“I do not see that I have any other choice; he is the king after all,” Aeron reminded.
“And you are his son, not his possession,” Dare pointed out.
“I have responsibilities at home,” Aeron countered, but he knew argument was weak. His older brothers Hadros and Syannon were of more use to his father than he. The only reason Halion wished Aeron at home was because he disapproved of his son living a life beyond the Veil. During Balfure’s reign it was a necessary evil, but now the Aeth Lord was no more, there was no longer any reason for his continued absence from home.
“You have responsibilities to yourself first,” Dare stated firmly, conscious of the fact that while Aeron was more than 950 years older than him, the elf spent very little of that time actually living. As much as Dare loved the elves, he felt their immortality was more a burden than it was a gift from the Celestial Gods. Time was no one’s friend when you had too much of it.
“Do you know what your trouble is, elf?”
Aeron stiffened, for Dare did not refer to him that way unless he was about to impart some uncomfortable insight Aeron probably would not wish to hear. Even if he needed to.
“You are more like us that you care to admit. You want more from life than just hiding behind the Veil. You want to experience life, not hide from it.”
Aeron flinched uncomfortably because, as always, Dare’s observations were not only astute but utterly correct. He was a different elf than the one who left Eden Halas so many years ago. Like the rest of his friends in the Circle, he wanted to accomplish something. It was probably the first time he actually admitted to himself he wanted more out of life than what was expected of him by his father and by his people.
“Even if you are right,” the prince conceded, “one does not simply go and tell the king of Eden Halas his son wishes to abandon the kingdom for a different life.”
“Life is what you will it to be, not what someone else decides for you. If you feel chained by it then defy the conventions keeping you captive. Do not be chained to duty, Aeron. It will break the spirit far quicker than time.”
As much as Dare loathed the idea of Aeron returning to Eden Halas, he would like it even less if the elf resigned himself to an unhappy fate when it could be avoided.
“I do not know what to do,” Aeron sighed heavily. “I know you are right, but if I do not return to Eden Halas then what awaits me? You have your own life to live now and I cannot remain here indefinitely. Since leaving Eden Halas, you and I have journeyed from one place or another to rid the world of Balfure. You have stopped running because you have a place to stop. I do not.”
Dare would have begged to differ but there was some truth to Aeron’s words. Dare would have him remain at Carleon for good but it was not the purpose the elf sought.
“Only because you never considered your existence beyond Halas,” Dare countered. “Take some time, Aeron. Think about what you really want. You took the first step by leaving Halas with me, and look at what we accomplished together. While I may have my responsibilities to Carleon, there is much you and I can still do together and you will always have a home here.”
“Thank you,” Aeron replied, touched by the king’s offer. They were more than friends and, while not bound in blood, they were still family. Perhaps it was such an in-between that made their bond so strong. “I will do as you suggest; I will give this matter some thought.”
“Good,” Dare grinned and gestured Aeron to follow him out of the garden, “now come on, we should join the others.”
“Yes,” Aeron replied, still surprised the time slipped by him so completely.