Linelle never recovered from her experience in the woods. She spent a total of three days in bed, crying. When questions were asked of her, she couldn’t answer, for she’d been left mute. When paper was given her to write what she was feeling, she grew afraid, trembling and shaking her head so violently she needed to be restrained. A gloss, vacant look took to her eyes and her once radiant beauty faded into sad disarray. The worst part was, no one knew what had happened.
And in the tangled throes of a wedding, a funeral for the citizens who had perished in the accident, and the king’s return to Caramil, poor Linelle had been forgotten. By all except Elenaril.
“She will not eat.” Elenaril placed her thin hands on Omarion’s redwood desk. “Her body is gravely weakened. I’m afraid she’ll fall ill.”
He turned a page in a magical text and adjusted his spectacles. “Marinka will take good care of her. Better than the king would have allowed back in Caramil.”
“The poultices aren’t working. The healing spells aren’t restoring her mind or her speech. She’s been spooked and it seems her old self simply won’t return.”
“It’ll take time. Marinka knows what she’s doing.”
“Does she?” Elenaril paced. “I don’t believe it. All Linelle does is weep and sleep. She hasn’t enough strength to stand up on her own. Don’t you see she’s still quite young? A whole life ahead of her and now she’s useless.”
Omarion partially listened to her ranting. He’d sequestered himself in the study in order to research his magical texts on whatever the tar-like substance could be. Minutes into his study session, Elenaril had pounded on his door demanding his attention.
“Is there anything I can have ordered for her added comfort?” he asked.
“You’ve already requested the finest care for her.”
Elenaril drew closer to his desk, her skirt rustling and swaying with her elegant steps. “You promised to find out what happened.”
He looked up from the brim of his glasses. “I did.”
“We’re the only ones who care. Everyone has returned to their lives as if nothing ever happened but she’s my only friend, you see. She comforted me during the trials and hid me from Elu when he...when he—”
Elenaril placed a shaky hand to her lips, tears glistening.
Omarion closed the book. “Where do you propose I begin?”
Sniffling, she shrugged.
“She was heading to the bathhouse, was she not?”
Elenaril heaved a sob. “I’m a horrible friend.”
“But it wasn’t your fault. How many times must I remind you of that?”
“I should have gone with her. Mere hours after her arrival and now this?”
Her cries moved him. Perhaps it was because he, unlike anyone else on his staff, understood that guilt over having caused a loved one’s demise was toxic to the soul. He accredited the Almighty Styr for not having killed himself when he found out about Nala’s death at the human border. He had sent her there to lead a group of archers and she had, instead, entered into an ambush.
Omarion walked around from behind the desk. “These woods have long been safe. Our patrols are out day and night ensuring the well being of our citizens. It seems rather strange to me that wherever Linelle ended up there were no guards around to help her. She must have strayed far out of town.” He handed her a handkerchief from the folds of his tunic. She blew her nose.
“Because she was lost.” Elenaril’s voice cracked. “The poor thing.”
“I don’t know where you should look.” She tucked the handkerchief in her pocket. “It’s been impossible getting any sort of information out of her. All I can think of would be to retrace her steps from where the collapsed trees are to the bathhouse.”
A knock sounded at the door.
Omarion grumbled. “Enter.”
Inuril stepped respectfully inside the study. Elenaril’s expression hardened.
“Good afternoon,” Inuril said with a polite smile. “Ma’am.”
She cast her glance away.
“What is it, Inuril?” Omarion considered having a sign made for the door so no one would be tempted to disrupt his study time. The dying trees were the largest mystery of all and he needed to be left alone in order to figure out the problem. Then again, he hadn’t possessed the will or the heart to send Elenaril away when she’d come to him for help.
“Should we make a donation to the families affected by the tragedy?” Inuril studied the intricate weavings of silver on her dress and a faint smile spread across his lips.
“A generous one.” Omarion returned to his seat. “And make sure to let them know we’ll send them to Caramil for a fresh start as soon as the arrangements are made.”
“Caramil?” Inuril choked on his words. “But why?”
“Because it will be safer there.”
“They’re in no immediate danger now. I’m sorry, sir, but taking them away from their home and loved ones seems a bit needless, don’t you think?”
Elenaril hurried to the door. “I’ll take my leave.”
Her spine straightened and she gave Inruril a long, cool stare. “You’re right, husband. We were speaking of Linelle’s misfortunes and how imperative it is we find out what happened.”
“Does anyone even know?” Inuril asked.
“It’s what we’re trying to figure out,” Omarion responded, opening up the magic text once more. “Can you assist in this matter?”
“In what way, my lord?”
“By questioning the citizens,” Elenaril said. “They know you well. My Linelle...she...as a newcomer no one cares about what happened to her out there. It wasn’t one of them. To the elves of Rivenfell, a royal chambermaid is an overprivileged brat. She matters little when their home is falling apart.”
“I’m uncertain of what use it’ll do to question anyone when it’s clear she became lost,” Inuril stated nonchalantly. “Some folks go missing in the woods and they don’t come back for a multitude of reasons. She’s lucky.”
“She’s spooked,” Elenaril retorted. “Something terrible happened to her out there and we need to find out what it was before it happens to someone else.”
Omarion interjected. “Serah, take guards with you to town. Ask around in the neighborhood where she was found. Offer coin as an incentive.”
“But she was merely lost,” Inuril insisted. “Why spend valuable time and resources in trying to solve a problem that doesn’t need solving? Please, think of the trees. They’re dying. Our citizens are afraid of losing their homes. Shouldn’t that take priority over finding out what’s haunting the woods? If anything?”
“You’re afraid.” Elenaril crossed her arms and scoffed. “Serah is a coward.”
“Enough,” Omarion said to her, waving his hand to temper her rage. “He has a right to be afraid. If it’s so easy to be attacked right outside of town and turn mute, then what else lies in store for us?”
A hush fell in the room.
Inuril stirred uncomfortably in his stance, hands folded behind his back. “I’ll do as you wish, mistress.” And with a final glance at Omarion, he exited the study.
“Your steward leaves plenty to be desired,” she said, her nostrils flaring.
“Calm yourself. He’s only looking out for Rivenfell’s best interest.”
“How dare he cast blame on her? She may have gotten lost but something else took hold of her out there, I just know it.” Elenaril drew close to him and he could taste the sweetness of her perfume. “There’s something strange happening in this place.”
“But you can’t just insult my staff,” Omarion interrupted. “It’s uncalled for.”
She slowly pulled back from him, her jaw clenched.
“Where are you going?”
“Never you mind.”
“Come now, don’t anger with me.”
She turned back to look at him, worry thick in her voice. “He reminds me of Elu.”
* * *
Styr’s temples always brought peace to Elenaril’s restless soul. Under the cover of night, she traveled alone to the Almighty’s shrine on the outskirts of town. She had wanted to bring Linelle along but there was no way to lure her out of bed. The truth must be faced. The cheerful maiden she knew was gone.
She lowered the hood of her cloak before entering the temple. Constructed out of quarry stones and pinewood, its entrance was exposed to the outdoors. Ivy vines climbed and wrapped around the pillars, spreading inward towards the ceiling. Golden orbs bathed the wooden floors in a soft, romantic light. A relatively simple hall but she felt His presence in it just the same.
Elenaril knelt before the shrine, fighting to hold back the tears. She was here to pray and worship. The last thing she needed to think of was how much she missed home.
And Caramil could no longer be that for her. She was stuck in this awful forest with all its bad luck and strange occurrences. The carefree days of her live were over. And what was more, she had a choice to make.
For Linelle’s recovery. For strength to face her new life. For the trees to be healed.
Her voice croaked. “It’s no use.”
Why had Styr brought her to this? Why had she been birthed a royal with a useless life? All she’d ever known was Caramil and its enthralling mountains from the safety of her bedroom windows. She had been trapped by Elu’s whims and pointless rules. Now, she was married to an elf she hardly knew and who most certainly did not want to know her. She felt more like a burden to him with all her worries about separate rooms and chambermaids who couldn’t speak. She’d gone from one prison to the next, interchanged in the hands of two males who cared little to understand what she needed, what she yearned for the most.
She didn’t fit into this place. And she probably never would.
Oh, she noticed how the citizens looked at her, how the servants showed respect to her face and snickered behind her back. Elu had done a fine job of ruling as an idiot, one who had a reputation for lively parties and pretty whores. He’d done nothing when the conflict with the humans arose. From what she’d heard of the entire mess, many elves had been killed. Her people were supposed to be well protected by the finest mages and warriors in the land of Syth. No one trusted him anymore and now they didn’t trust her.
Prayerful whispers rolled off her tongue with fervent passion. If anyone could bring meaning to her life it was Styr, for she’d honored him all her life, and he was loyal.
No one wanted her here, not even her husband. This was clear in how they all ignored poor Linelle’s misfortune. If it had been her who’d fallen victim and prey to whatever it was that haunted the woods, they’d all carry on without her. Why? Because she wasn’t Nala. Not one of their own. The people must have loved Nala. And she could never be her.
But she was Elenaril of House Sylmarith, born to King Elander and Queen Sylmirie within the marble walls of the Crystal Palace. Just because she’d been tossed aside to be forgotten didn’t mean her story would end here. Styr wouldn’t allow it to be so.
And so she vowed to accept her fate, to never look back on what was and what could’ve been in her life. She was here now, and she would win her people’s love and respect. She would prove to Omarion that she was more than capable of tackling the problems Rivenfell faced.
Beginning with the trees.
The next morning, she arose before the servants even entered her room. Dawn painted the sky in a lively mixture of burnt orange and warm light.
She made her exit via the root system on the main floor Omarion had shown her. He’d taken her through it once and knew it led out to the stables. Her hand glazed over the handle of her ebony dagger, poisoned with Amanita extract should she come across any trouble.
The stable hand had graciously offered she ride the forest lord’s mare, a fine looking animal with glistening hide the color of rust.
“For your trouble,” she said, leaving a gold coin in his palm.
His eyes widened. “Thank you, madame. May your ride be pleasant.”
And it was. Sunlight broke through the canopy, filling the forest with warmth and waking the resident animals. She rode along the cliffs overlooking a grand river where elves bathed and washed their clothing. Rolling hills of green swept a picturesque view of a land foreign to her, yet from this distance the woods looked normal. It wasn’t until the trail disappeared into the trees once more that the scenery turned dark.
This part of the forest was dead. Naked trees leaned in a death pose, giving the area a feel which made goosebumps rise on her flesh. There were no animals here, none that she could hear, and no birds fluttered about or perched on branches. It was the saddest sight she’d seen besides Linelle’s helpless weeping.
She brought the mare to a stop near a patch of spruce and tied the reins to a trunk. “There, there,” she said to the horse, although the sound of her own voice was reassuring in the silence. “Don’t be spooked.”
Elenaril walked through the graveyard of trees, hoping with everything within her that Rivenfell would be spared a similar fate. She went up to the closest spruce with tar oozing from its wood. Unsheathed her dagger then remembered it was lathered with poison.
She bit down on her lip in thought. Pulled out an ivory pin from her hair. Carefully, her tongue sticking out a little, she scraped up the goo, managing to scoop a fingernail sized portion. Plenty to work with. Out of curiosity, she sniffed the sample. It reminded her of a waste bucket, except the consistency was like the wax Elu used to seal envelopes. A wrinkled nose later, she tucked the pin safely away in her satchel.
Had Omarion come out this far and seen this destruction? This death? She imagined so, for he’d told her of his struggles to solve the mystery of the dying trees for months.
Her hand traced the rough edges of the bark, sticking to the goo on the surface. She peered closer. The tar...it glistened...and in a glob of it she saw her reflection. She’d never seen any magic like this before either but something had to be done.
The horse neighed and startled her.
There was no wind in this part of the forest. No sign of life at all. It scared her and so she ran back to the mare. Untied the reins. And that’s when she saw them.
Through the trees, there was a group of them but she counted only three. They were figures dressed in cloaks, all in black, moving through the graveyard with torches in the clearing below her. Just passing through on their way to somewhere...but where? Had this been what Linelle had witnessed? One of them looked up at her.
But fear did not freeze her in place. She mounted the mare clicked her tongue.
The figures chased after her.
She encouraged the mare out of a trot but weaving through the trees made it difficult to go any faster.
Elenaril was too afraid to look back at their faces. Just when they reached the top of the hill she reached a clearing, and the mare broke into a gallop. She recognized the haughty voices of elves yelling at her but she did not stop until she arrived at the stables.