His forest was dying. And he didn’t know how to save it.
Omarion surveyed the aftermath of the destroyed treehouses. The original tree had taken out the one next to it, barely gracing past a third just enough to leave it untouched. The devastation was nothing short of brutal with only three surviving citizens out of the nine involved in the accident. Tragic. It angered him that the day after his wedding, he would be attending a funeral.
He shoved a small log aside with his foot. The side of his boot stuck to the wood, glued onto it with a tarlike substance. It was sticky, and he scraped it off his heel with the tip of his dagger. He’d noticed the same goo on infected trees deeper into the forest.
“Can’t be,” he whispered, coming to a sickening realization. If the trees within Rivenfell’s perimeter were also afflicted, more of them would perish, leaving his people without homes. He could send more of them to Lieu, but first word would need to be sent there to determine if they possessed enough room to harbor extra citizens.
Female laughter distracted him from the gravity of his thoughts.
He noticed a flash of creamy silk between the trees with a touch of sky blue. A breeze carried the scent of roses over to him, teasing and pleasing his senses. Blonde hair tumbled on the grass. Carefree. Joyful. Incompassionate.
Omarion tore across the trail, anger fueling his steps. He stopped inches short of the train on Princess Elenaril’s dress. “What do you think you’re doing? Lives were lost here last night.”
Her body stiffened at the booming sound of his voice. A swallow. Calmly, she turned to her brunette companion and said, “Linelle, bow before your lord.”
The maiden did as she was told, her gaze firmly planted on the ground. “It is a pleasure to meet your acquaintance, gracious sir.”
Omarion felt like a brute. But the scope of the tragedy overwhelmed him. “You do well to note what is happening in this forest. Since you’ll soon be its mistress.”
The words came out with such coldness it scared even him. Linelle rose but kept her head low, a slow frown wrinkling her forehead.
“And what is it that you wish me to learn?” Elenaril asked, matching his gaze.
“That our trees are dying from an unknown magic. Neither the priests nor I can determine its cause. Or how to stop it.”
“Magic is not my specialty.”
“I gathered as much.”
Elenaril proudly lifted her head. “Caramil Valley is vast, surrounded by mountain ranges stretched farther than one can see. It’s a lush land of evergreen forests and rushing rivers teeming with trout and salmon. The soil is fertile, allowing for the growth of many crops throughout the spring and summer months. Winters are snowy and cold but the towns are well fortified and trade routes are maintained year round. Plenty of room for elves seeking a new home.”
For once, Omarion was left speechless. She continued.
“The king returns home the day after our union. In my place I will send Linelle, my favorite handmaiden and dear friend, to assist His Highness in preparing a place for those we will be sending to Caramil.”
“But I’ve only just gotten here, my lady,” Linelle protested.
Elenaril hushed her. “You’ll go where you’re needed.”
“What if the king objects?” Omarion said.
“He will not.” Elenaril sounded much too certain of the unknown but somehow, he trusted her. “My brother may be a drunk and a whoremonger but he’s loyal to the citizens of his kingdom. He would never deny them a home.”
“Suppose I could send Inuril along with your maiden here.”
Elenaril suspired, transferring a glance between him and Linelle. “It would be best if he were to remain in Rivenfell to assist with preparations.”
She squeezed Linelle’s hand.
Omarion scratched his chin. “Caramil is far. What of the children and females? It would be a long and exhausting journey.”
She was quiet for a moment. And after the pause, a softness came along with her tone. “We will send a small group of them with the king’s procession. The neediest ones.”
It was a better plan than either he or Inuril had been able to come up with thus far. And it impressed him.
“May I speak with your brother today?”
Elenaril smiled. “He’s in good spirits this morning. At the moment, he’s enjoying sweetcakes at the sauna. I’d go there now if I were you.”
* * *
Linelle trudged through the mud in her slouched leather boots, groaning at the soiled hem of her tunic. The mistress had been right about this place—inconvience accompanied its beauty. But she found the treehouses interesting and the residents endearing. She’d received nothing short of a warm welcome from the Forest Lord’s staff.
In her hand, she carried a message for King Elu sent by Lord Omarion requesting his presence at the dining hall. She was to escort His Highness there...but she had no idea where in the world she was going. It seemed unfair and rather rude to assume that she, an elven lord’s daughter from the esteemed village of Lieu (which meant high blood ran through her veins), should be treated as a common servant. And the most ridiculous fact was that she’d merely been in Rivenfell a matter of hours. She didn’t know her way from the bathhouse to the kitchen from her left or right pinky toes.
Furthermore, to add insult to injury, the princess had backed Lord Omarion’s outrageous request that she find the king. To remark her feelings were hurt was, unfortunately, a lost cause. Her Ladyship aimed to please and if she didn’t make this marriage contract work, there would be a heavy price to pay.
In a small way, Linelle considered herself an important tool in the success of her mistress’s marriage. But it still pained her to be lowered to the status of simple servanthood. She was a chamber maid, not a slave.
The main trail of the town came to a dead end.
She read Lord Omarion’s instructions once more. Down the main walkway...make a left...turn right at the small pine house...and...
Linelle looked up, confusion taking over as she surveyed the forest around her. She was outside the town, of this she was certain. The trees had filled in a good deal and there were no more lanterns on this side of the path. At some point, she must have passed the turn for the saunas. She bit her lip and scratched her head.
Well, she’d have to retrace her steps. Of all the luck!
As she began heading back up the trail, the sound of a male’s voice startled her. It was out of place this far out of town, and so she drew closer to it out of an inability to control her curiosity. She stepped lightly on the ground, wincing at the sound of her boots crunching dry leaves. Through the trees she could make out the silhouette of a cloaked individual leaning against a trunk, embracing it rather, chanting in a language she’d never heard in her life.
She hid behind a large fir, peering out from around its side.
There was something strangely familiar about the cloaked individual. His voice...she couldn’t...she couldn’t very well place it but she knew she’d heard it before.
Linelle realized she was shaking. In an attempt to steady her breath she squealed, drawing attention to herself from the cloaked figure. His head jolted to the left but not in time to witness her vanish flat against the trunk.
The chanting seized. All was still except the rustling of leaves in the canopy.
She squeezed her eyes shut as if to expel the entire predicament out of her existence.
Moments later, the chanting resumed.
Linelle’s greatest weakness, curiosity, returned.
With narrowed eyes she peered, with trembling hands she used the trunk for support. The cloaked figure was no one other than Inuril, going from tree to tree as he chanted. A black, tar-like substance emanated from his fingers, slithering down towards the roots of the birch he infected.
Fear pierced Linelle’s heart. She dropped the envelope. It fell to the ground, mixing with the leaves, carried towards Inuril with the stirring breeze, taking with it traces of her lavender perfume. Mouth gaped open, she took a step back.
He turned to her, his hands balling into fists.
“I—I’m sorry, sir.” In a moment of confusion and panic, she reached forward to grab the envelope. Then she scurried back.
The look in his eyes petrified her. It was a cold, deadly stare, which chilled her bones and froze her limbs.
“Does the lady require assistance?” he said.
“I—no.” Linelle managed to break a half-smile. “Lost, sir. Just—”
He closed in on her in one swift motion.
“Leave me alone,” she cried. “My mistress has warned me about you!”
“Has she now?” Inuril grabbed her by the back of the arm, his fingers digging deep into the tender place of her flesh.
“I mean you no harm. I’m merely lost. Promise...I promise not to tell a soul!”
He yanked her in close. “What has the princess told you?”
Linelle released the tears burning her eyes. “Please, good sir. This shall be our little secret. Not a word will I utter. I swear it on the Almighty Styr.”
Inuril squeezed her arm to a painful tolerance. “Do not swear on His Holy name.”
Linelle screamed, her voice piercing the quiet of the forest.
He let her break free of his grip.
She ran in the direction of the town, her lungs aching for air, but he caught up to her before she reached the edge of the lanterns.
Inuril threw Linelle to the ground. They tumbled together down a small slope, landing near a cluster of trees oozing with black tar. She attempted to fight him off when he climbed on top of her but it was no use. She was no match for his strength.
“Shut up,” he snarled, taking pleasure in squeezing her wrists so hard her peach flesh turned white. “You’re only making things worse.”
“Please...” she begged. “I’m a lord’s daughter.”
“I don’t care.”
“Sorcerer!” She spit in his face, the clump of phlegm dripping from his chin.
Inuril’s jaw clenched. “Does the princess love you?”
Linelle only cried.
He asked the question again, this time raising his voice.
“Yes!” She whined. “I’ve served her since the day my father gave me to the king’s service while still a girl. What will you do to me?”
He did not answer.
Linelle felt a suffocating sensation when he placed his hand over her mouth. Magic tingled and heated the inside of her cheeks, rippling through her teeth, igniting her tongue in such pain it seemed as if she would die.
And when it was all over she passed out, no longer able to speak.
* * *
Omarion stood in the doorway of the infirmary. “How is she?”
Marinka, his personal nurse, attended to Linelle sleeping on a cot near the hearth. “This peppermint poulstice should break her fever. Afterwards, she’ll require some rest.”
“May I inform the princess of her friend’s status then?”
Marinka wiped her hands on a damp rag. “Don’t give her false hopes. The girl may never be the same again.”
Omarion nodded and went out into the main room of the apothecary. There, crying on the couch was Elenaril being comforted by Elu. He cleared his throat. “Princess.”
She looked up at him, a pitiful picture of red eyes and tear-stained cheeks. “Will she live?”
He couldn’t stand it. “Of course. Marinka is the most talented nurse in all of House Sylmaril.”
Elu rubbed her knee. “It’ll be all right, sister. Think of your wedding tomorrow.”
“She was to be my first maiden.” Elenaril sobbed into a handkerchief. “It’s all my fault. I never should’ve sent her out there alone.”
“Linelle was always a bit dumb,” Elu mumbled.
“With all due respect, Your Highness, that seems a bit insensitive.” Omarion motioned Elenaril towards him. “Come. I’ll take you to see her.”
“But it’s true,” Elu insisted. “Had she followed your instructions to the letter, then we wouldn’t be in this mess.”
Elenaril whipped around with a snarl. “Go back to the bathhouse and find your whore.”
Elu stood, his face wrinkled with insult. “I beg your pardon? Who do you think you’re speaking to in such a fashion?”
“My fool of a brother.”
“Who has no less provided for you from the moment of your miserable birth.”
“Miserable indeed being related to a scoundrel such as yourself.”
Elu’s cheeks reddened with anger. He raised his hand to Elenaril, stopping just short of her face. Upon the realization of Omarion’s presence, he lowered it to his side. “Go.”
Elenaril stormed down the hallway.
Omarion caught up to her as her hand touched the infirmary door. “Wait.”
She spun around. “What do you want?”
He wanted to hold her. Reassure her. Tell her everything would be fine. But Marinka’s solemn words pulsed in his brain.
“I’m not your enemy,” he said instead.
She stiffened. “Not sure what you mean.”
“I’m sorry about Linelle.”
Those words provided him the in that he needed. In a second, she softened.
“It’s all my fault,” she cried, casting herself into his arms.
Her tears dampened the cotton fabric of his tunic. It had been so long since he’d held a female his hands didn’t know where to touch. First, he gave her back a gentle pat. Awkward, but it was something. More than Elu had been able to provide.
Her body’s warmth felt good in his embrace. Right.
“Quiet now,” he whispered. “You’ve no fault here.”
“She didn’t know the dangers residing in the forest.”
His fingers found their way to her nape, entangling in her silky hair. “There’s no way we could have known...no, my dearest. No.”
He brought her in close.
She smelled like a garden. The soft feel of her locks and the fragility of her soul struck a tender chord in his heart. He felt the sudden surge to protect and defend her. “I’ll find out what happened,” he said. “I promise.”
Elenaril tore away from his embrace, hand on the doorknob. “Punish whoever it was. Brutally.” And she entered the infirmary, slamming the door behind her.
* * *
In the mirror’s reflection, Elenaril saw a bride adorned with the finest of jewels, dressed in a gown hand-crafted from expensive eastern silks and embroidered with thread spun from gold. A pulsing ruby glowed at the center of her crown, a symbol of her royal lineage and association to the rulers of House Sylmarith. If Elu should ever die, she would be Caramil’s queen unless an heir was born to him. It was, perhaps, the sole reason why he’d sent her this far away into isolation, deep into the problems of Rivenfell and its people.
Diamonds dangled and sparkled from her ear lobes, touching her exposed collarbone. Charcoal lined the fine brims of her cat-like eyes, rouge reddened her cheeks and lips, fresh roses and sprigs of lavender added color and pleasant aromas to her long, blonde tresses. The gown, spun from magical silk brought in from the eastern plains, was the color of a peach geranium in full bloom. Its train spread vastly behind her, slowing her down when she walked. Daintily holding her feet was a new pair of sealskin heels from the southern province of Lamar along the ocean. But she did not at all feel special.
“You look radiant, my lady.” Mirie spoke with awe oozing in her words. “I’ve never seen a bride more lovely and trust me when I say that I have seen many.”
Sybil stepped forward and placed a hand on Elenaril’s shoulder. “A beauty you are indeed. The Forest Lord’s bride.”
They bowed their heads in respect.
Elenaril held her breath. It had never occurred to her that she may not want to marry after all. But there was no choice for her involved. She was Elu’s property. And now she would belong to Omarion. Of the two, the latter would make a better lord to serve.
“I’m ready,” she said, head held high. “Ready to marry my groom.”
It was night by the time they arrived at the great feast hall.
Elenaril had never seen so many lanterns in one place. The servants had done a fabulous job of decorating the pillars, wrapping glowing vines around the marble and hanging colorful orbs from the ceiling. Due to the summer’s warmth, it was possible to have the wedding outside, and so the seats were arranged under a luxurious canopy of ivy vines and tangling blossoms.
The guests dropped to one knee upon Elenaril’s appearance at the end of the aisle escorted by Elu, their gasps and sighs admiring the breathtaking beauty of her dress. At the end of the walkway, standing next to the priest was Omarion, dressed in a deep purple tunic. Instead of being adorned in jewels he wore leathers, expensive hand-crafted ones in rich earthen tones. Her heart fluttered a little at the sight of him.
“Move,” Elu growled impatiently in her ear.
And she realized her body was frozen in place. He pushed her forward and she began to walk towards her future, towards her fate.