My heart weeps. Caramil, I shall never forget you.
The jagged mountain ranges of Elenaril’s home had long faded from sight. An emptiness now resided in her, but there was no turning back. Future uncertain. Forests unknown. Her bed soon shared with a stranger. This was the fate of her Elven blood as ordained by her brother the king and she had no choice but to obey.
She steadied her thin, long fingers on the velvet cushion of her seat. Out of the carriage window, unfamiliar wilderness whisked past. Green of light and dark shades mixed with brown under a gray sky. They had no doubt increased in elevation, deep into the forest lord’s territory.
The lord who would soon be her husband.
King Elu sat across from her, adorned with silver fox furs and jewels over his rich purple tunic. The golden braids of his hair spilled into his lap and his face contorted in various twists while reading a novel.
He burst into laughter.
Elenaril soured. “Lovely to be in good spirits.”
“I’m enjoying this tale. Never read anything so funny in all my life.”
She cast a glance out the window again. The woods were so thick she could hardly see past the cluster of trees and shrubbery at the edge of the road. This place made her uneasy.
“How much longer until we arrive?” she asked, trying not to look at him.
“Shouldn’t be long now since we just passed the waterfalls.”
“Will you stay with me for a while or return to Caramil?”
Elu shut his book so loud it made her jump a little. “Sister, can you not respect the fact that I’m trying to read?”
“Yes, but, I only wanted to know if we’re close. The carriage is making me ill.”
“It’s the nerves, not the carriage.”
“Have you even ever met him?” She confronted him with narrowed eyes. “Or did you think to get rid of me as soon as I reached breeding age?”
Elu sighed. “We’ve gone over this multiple times. Omarion is a finely bred elf who will work on securing our peace at the human border. We need this, sister. You just have to accept it and do your share.”
Do her share. Always. Unfortunately, her half of the bargain included being loyal to an elf she didn’t care to know or love for the rest of her life. To say that she was afraid put it lightly.
“But a widower? How am I to start a life with someone who has a past?”
“His past matters little. Now, let me get back to my book. I’m dying to finish it.”
“Of course,” she quietly replied.
“You’ll love Rivenfell. I promise.”
Elu returned to his reading. She envied him. King, only because he had been born first. Ever since the death of their parents, she had been under his ward. And he wasn’t the kindest. Oh, no. If there was one positive about leaving Caramil it was that she no longer had to deal with Elu.
The carefree days of her childhood were long behind her, just like the Crystal Palace and its roaming hills, jagged cliffs, and breathtaking natural wonders. She had been the center beauty at the royal parties, capturing the attention of well-bred elves all vying for her hand in marriage. She could have had any of her choosing, but unfortunately, her destiny as a wife was under Elu’s command.
And the news of a match had come so quickly, hardly giving her enough time to make an escape. Not that she could, because, where would she have gone? No other House would have given her assylum for skipping out on her royal duties. There was not enough magic within her to adopt a new identity. Wherever she would have gone, Elu would have found her. Fleeing into the night was only a fantasy. Marrying a stranger was a reality.
The carriage came to a stop at the top of a steep hill. Dirt from underneath the wheels formed choking clouds of dust that made Elenaril’s eyes water. She coughed into a handkerchief.
“Are we there?” she asked, her voice muffled by the soft cotton cloth.
Elu’s eyebrows raised and he peeked out of the window. “This is it, yes.”
Haughty voices she did not recognize piqued her interest. The driver opened the door and bowed to let her out. His assistant opened the opposite door for Elu’s exit.
“Your Majesty,” said the young, dark-haired elf as he bowed in front of Elu. “The forest lord’s entourage awaits you at the gates.”
“Very well.” Elu shoved his book inside his leather tote. “I hope they have a meal ready. This hunger might kill me if I have to wait to satiate it any longer.”
Elenaril carefully stepped out of the carriage, her suede heels slipping and sinking into the soft ground. The air carried a stench of musk and rotting leaves. A chill nipped at her sensitive flesh through the thin layers of her embroidered silk tunic. She should have listened to the Ladies and worn fur, but it had been rather hot back in Caramil and her mind too preoccupied in order to think straight.
An older elf stood tall and towering at the wooden gates, a handful of servants around him. Fine lines showed in what had once been a strikingly handsome face. Strands of gray weaved in with blonde in a pair of tight braids. Well poised, he moved with grace and spoke gently.
“I am Inuril,” he said with a bow. “Welcome to our forest, my king.” He turned to Elenaril. “My lady, it is an honor to finally meet you. We’ve long heard of your beauty in these parts.”
“Thank you,” she said with a polite curtsy. “Your forest is lovely.”
“How was the journey?” Inuril asked Elu.
Elu ran his hand over the silver fur around his neck. “It was pleasant yet long.”
“Your Highness has traveled a great distance.” Inuril beckoned the servant boys over with his hand. “We have your accommodations set up in our finest rooms. They’ll take your bags there and you can follow me to Lord Omarion’s study, where he eagerly awaits your visit.”
“Will there be tea?” Elu said concernedly. “My throat is parched as well.”
“Yes, my king. There will be tea.”
Elenaril caught Inuril’s interested gaze as she followed him deeper into the woods. She recognized what such a look meant but did not allow her mind to linger there. He would not attempt anything with his lord’s wife. Of this she was certain.
Rivenfell swallowed them whole in a sea of vivid green. The trees extended so high the canopy was barely visible. Filtered sunlight cracked through the dense foliage, providing a need for the lanterns illuminating their way along the trail. Hollowed out trunks served as houses with windows stretching towards the heavens. Wooden walkways connected the numerous doors of neighboring trees as elves went about their daily business, stopping to bow to the royal procession passing by them.
The forest glowed and teemed with a way of life foreign to Elenaril. It filled her with a strange sense of wonder. Never, in all her seventy-five years of living had she even left the Crystal Palace and seen other elven lands. The peaks and valleys of Caramil had provided her only views, familiar and comforting, now only kept as treasure memories in her heart.
They came to a halt in a clearing inhabited by a single yet massive tree-house.
“The visitor’s quarters,” Inuril said, stretching his arm in an overdone presentation. “Your Highness, I ask that you please excuse the odd stench. There have been some issues of a technical nature affecting our trees lately and I’m afraid to admit the smell is not so pleasant.”
“But the trees look healthy to me,” Elenaril said, straining her neck with awe towards the sky.
“It’s an interior problem,” Inuril responded. “Please, come this way.”
Elu leaned into Elenaril and whispered, “I knew you’d like it here.”
The scent of honeyed mead clung to his breath and she turned her head. “We shall see if you’re right.”
But he didn’t hear her answer. Instead, he followed Inuril up the walkway, eagerness fueling his steps. Listening was not his strong suit, not even with his councilmen. She’d long ago grown accustomed to not being heard.
With a miserable sigh, Elenaril lifted the hem of her blue skirt and trudged along the walkway, annoyed that her fine heels were now ruined by the damp environment of Rivenfell Forest. She was not cut out for this sort of terrain, instead having been bred of fine blood to spend her days in luxury sewing and dancing and playing the lute inside palaces.
Alas, her duty to Caramil came at a heavy cost and her soul was now in deficit.
* * *
Omarion held the portrait of Nala, staring into the face of a once ravishing beauty with a kind heart. Dead for a year, she had been one of a kind and the only love he had ever experienced. But life had its cruel tricks to play and saw to their eternal separation. At times, it seemed he still struggled to move past the tragedy of losing her.
“I cannot forget you,” he whispered to the portrait, tracing the outline of auburn locks and pointy ears. “What could I have done differently?”
Upon hearing footsteps coming up the staircase to his study, Omarion slipped the tiny portrait back into the pocket of his tunic.
“Good day, my lord.” Inuril bowed his head and closed the door behind him. “His Majesty has arrived with Princess Elenaril. They are resting comfortably in the visitors’ quarters.”
“Very well.” Omarion turned a page in the magic textbook on his desk. “Are the arrangements for the evening meal being prepared?”
Inuril pulled a note from his sash. “Amaria is preparing a feast of oven roasted duck, mixed greens sauteed in herbs with a red wine sauce, leek soup, and for dessert she has prepared a chocolate torte. Is that suitable, my lord?”
Omarion nodded, although he wasn’t too keen on leek soup. “Suppose I should meet with King Elu first thing.”
“He’s fast asleep.” Inuril smirked. “Seems he drank a bit too much mead shortly after their arrival. Maybe a horse ride through the forest will suit you while he rests?”
“I like your idea.”
There was nothing more pleasant to Omarion than riding through the endless forests of Rivenfell to clear his mind. And choosing to remarry had come as a big decision and at the cost of defiling Nala’s memory. He needed to ease his head somehow.
“Then I shall have your mare readied,” Inuril said and gracefully made his way to the door. “Come to the stables in short time.”
When he was alone again, Omarion swept the book off the desk and returned it to its rightful place on the bookshelf. How would it be having a female around after all these months? Unable to pry himself away from the study, he gave into fear and paced the length of the room.
The trees in the forest were dying. His people’s livelihood was at stake. And everything in his personal life was about to change. Most would be on the verge of insanity under such pressures but his royal blood demanded more of him than the average elf. His gaze moved around the room, taking in the pieces of rotting wood on the walls, which did not match the luxurious fabric curtains, cushions, and lanterns decorating the study. Incense burned in fragrant floral fumes in the corner, masking the rank smell of decaying plant matter.
After all these months, he had not come any closer to finding a solution to Rivenfell’s problem, although the truth behind the issue had been uncovered. Magic. A dark, foul magic had entered his precious forests and begun to destroy the trees with an oily film that could not be washed off. Over a slow course of time the forests had become sicker. And in the midst of all this, Omarion had chosen to take on a new wife.
He exited the study and descended the spiral staircase leading down to his private quarters. The servants reorganized the room to make space for his new bride, having spread silk sheets on the bed and decorated the corners with fresh wildflowers from the apothecary. As he dressed in his riding outfit, a little voice in the back of his mind chastised him for wanting to remarry.
“Loneliness kills,” he said.
And he didn’t want to join Nala in the heavens either. Almighty Styr had a plan for him beyond waiting to die. He needed to take a spouse. Rivenfell required an heir and without a mate, there would be no one after him to rule when he passed to the next life. As it was, he could very well live hundreds of years and sire a single child given that his kind was not fertile like humans.
Muffled footsteps sounded upstairs where the maids cleaned and prepared for the wedding in two days time. Lucky for Omarion, a private passage under the roots of his treehouse provided a stealthy escape to the outside world. He was not a lord of conversations and pleasantries, preferring to keep to himself reading books and hunting game alone in the forest. Inuril always got on his case about such anti-social behavior but a prince’s ways were a prince’s ways, and that’s all there was to it.
In the cool depths of the tree’s root system, he adjusted his leather vest and considered which trail to take this time. Just yesterday he had visited the eastern part of the forest where the disease had become more virulent, spreading across the forest floor and making it unlivable. A month ago, the elves inhabiting this area had been moved to the southern village of Lieu. He fully intended on visiting there after his wedding to Princess Elenaril.
Briefly, she entered his mind.
King Elu was not the most pleasant of characters and therefore he did not expect the princess to be likeable either. It did him no good to think she would be conceited but Caramil’s royal families did not produce the kindest of souls. It was the reason why he had fallen in love with Nala, an archer from his Guard who had been born into a prestigious bloodline.
A queasy feeling swiveled in his stomach. He did not like dwelling on Nala’s memory. It was too painful and it upset him to think her death had come by way of his ineptitude.
But it had.
With a shake of his head, Omarion headed for the stables.