The fire was dying as Haldirian rolled onto his back and tried not to think of his large soft bed back in Tirithawáe. His men slept deeply in their bed rolls, but he was restless despite the exhaustion leaking into his bones. He had agreed, been eager even, to come on the ranging trip to inspect the far borders of his kingdom. It had taken only four days for the novelty to wear off. Maybe you are getting too soft and spoilt princeling, his brother Eeilos' voice echoed his mind. Eeilos, the warrior, and heir to Tirithawáe was a massive man bound with muscle and heroism. He wouldn't be thinking of a soft bed; he would be sleeping as deeply as everyone else.
Haldirian's ears pricked up as a snap of footsteps disturbed the forest floor around them. Maybe a curious animal, Haldirian thought until he saw a shadow move near the horses. His hand crept slowly to the hunting knife he kept under his cloak. Through the small crack in his eyelids, he watched the hooded figure step between the rangers. Haldirian's heart gave a surprised jolt as the man turned toward the fire. He saw the dark skin and eyes hidden under the hood. Easterner.
Haldirian was on his feet in a heartbeat, his knife raised. The Easterner blocked his blow, pivoting and ducking around Haldirian's strikes and kicks. The other rangers were up and causing enough of a distraction so that Haldirian could pin the stranger to the ground.
"Who are you?" Haldirian demanded in Aloré. The stranger looked up at him blankly, not a flicker of recognition in his black eyes. Haldirian repeated the question in the common dialect used by the Men all over Elindor, but there was no response.
"What shall we do with him, my prince?" Zir asked, his spear pointed at the prisoner's back. Haldirian felt a flicker of unease; to his knowledge, an Easterner hadn't been seen in Elindor for over a hundred years. He could be an innocent traveler...but then why would he sneak about a camp?
"We take him back to Tirithawáe and learn what his intentions are. If he's innocent, we will cut him loose, if he's a spy than my father can deal with him."
Chapter One - The Messenger
Haldirian gazed blank-eyed at the mural in Elithador's study. It was a magnificent sailing ship crammed full of Aloré fleeing their homeland, the glorious and doomed Lorianath sinking into the sea. Behind him Elithador, King of Tirithawáe, muttered and paced, his long white fingers massaging his throbbing temples.
It had been two weeks since Haldirian had captured the Easterner and they were no closer to discovering his true intentions. They had uncovered a thick wad of documents in their prisoner's satchel but no one in the city could decipher the Eastern script.
"I'm going to call a High Council," Elithador stated suddenly. "We're well overdue for one and I'll need the other lord's to help me get to the bottom of this. If he is a spy, it concerns all of us, and I won't charge a man to hang because of the color of his skin. Who knows? Perhaps one of the lord's will be able to get him to talk. Mirithadûn would have information on the East; Kalonera spent enough time there when she was alive."
Haldirian listened to his father spout ideas and theories as he walked out onto the balcony. The crisp autumn air cleared his mind as he breathed slowly. Elithador joined him, handing him another goblet of wine.
"I want you to go to Mirithadûn and convince him to come to the council," he said, the edge of a command to his voice. Mirithadûn was king of Silandáe, an Aloréan kingdom in the south and at least a fortnight's journey away.
"Father, I've only just got back. Isn't this why we have messengers?" The thought of more cold nights on the trail wasn't a comforting one. Elithador gave him a stern glance, and Haldirian squirmed as he tried to hold it.
"It will do you good. Mirithadûn hasn't seen you since you became a man and he will appreciate the visit. I'm worried about how antisocial you are becoming. Your mother agrees with me that a trip away will help clear your mind."
"You're worried about me being antisocial, so you are sending me into the wilderness alone?"
"It's not only you I'm worried about, Haldirian. Nothing good has ever come out of the East. I am going to be very careful who I trust to deliver the messages. I don't want people to become fearful over something just because it's different."
Haldirian drained his wine before getting to his feet, "Fine, fine. I'll leave at dawn."
"Pack warm; there will be snow on the Alcifin Ranges already."
"Great," Haldirian said unenthusiastically before bidding his father goodnight.
Haldirian hurried through the marble passageways of the palace hoping to avoid any council members or courtiers who were curious about the prisoner. They had kept the knowledge of the Easterner's appearance to a tight circle in order not to inflame speculation. Naturally, the whole palace knew.
"Haldirian!" a feminine voice called out to him. He stopped and let the tall, beautiful woman catch up to him. Blessed with the long lifespans of the Aloré his mother barely looked forty years of age, despite being over a century old. Her long black hair fell in ringlets to her waist, the gold stitching on her plum gown sparkled in the lamp lights and her deep aquamarine eyes were brimming with motherly concern.
"What can I do for you mother?" he asked.
"Walk with me, Haldirian," she said, linking her arm tightly around his, making escape impossible. She directed him silently out of the palace walls and into the gardens. Below them, the city around them had settled down for the night, the lamps filling the streets with a soft glow.
"Your father has told me that you plan on leaving tomorrow," Aldaneán commented.
"Already? It sounds as if you had a hand in its organization to me. Plant the idea in his head, did you?"
"Of course I did! You need to leave this city before you drive me mad with your moods," she replied sharply. "You haven't left our borders since your Rites Ceremony two years ago."
Haldirian had remembered the celebration, the day he had officially become a man under Aloréan Law. The Aloréan's were not considered adults until their fiftieth year; by Man's standards, it would have been equivalent to an eighteenth birthday. Haldirian knew this because King Renath from the country of Baitriona had told him how strange it was to be honoring a prince's Rites Day when the 'boy' was older than he was. Haldirian had been happy that day, filled with a nervous anticipation of what the future held. Two years later he knew it held more of the same; weapons training, kingship training (even if he wasn't heir) and his studies of whatever he chose. The only thing that had changed was his mother's eagerness to find him a wife.
"I want you to take Zir and some of the other rangers with you. You will need the company on such a long trip," Aldaneán said and sat down on a stone bench. Haldirian left her side to sit under a tirith perial tree.
"Zir is needed here to keep patrolling the borders in case this Easterner wasn't alone. I don't want any company; I'll travel faster by myself."
"Haldirian, I'm worried about you. You haven't been yourself for months. You are becoming more distant every day."
"I'm well enough," Haldirian said firmly.
"Just tell me what is wrong, I can fix it if you let-"
"I want to be left alone! Is that a crime now?" he said, a groan of exasperation escaping from his lips.
Aldaneán got to her feet, her face cold. "I hope you work out whatever is troubling you and soon. I want my son back."
"Mother, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to shout. I'm exhausted and worried, and it's worn my nerves raw," Haldirian apologized, hating seeing her so upset.
"Let's hope this trip gives you the space you need," Aldaneán sighed. "Aláenor had her Rites Ceremony last spring. I feel awful for not being there. Kalonera would have been so proud of her." Kalonera, the wife to Mirithadûn, had been his mother's best friend until the day of her death. Aláenor was the only Aloréan princess Haldirian had never met.
"Is that so," Haldirian commented, shredding a leaf between his fingers.
"Now she is a woman she is of marriageable age," Aldaneán added. Ah, so this was the reason he was being sent as a messenger.
"I have no want of a wife."
"Did I suggest that? I would not concern yourself. If Mirithadûn's letters are anything to go by she's been rejecting suitors since the spring. I have often lamented to him about my own son's being just as difficult. I don't think there is a woman in all of Elindor that would reject you or Eeilos."
"Except Aláenor obviously."
"I would be wary of her if I were you. It sounds as if she has grown wild and formidable without a mother to guide her."
"How dangerous can a royal madam be? What is she going to do? Gossip me to death? Stab me with her embroidery needle?" Haldirian laughed but his mother's frown only deepened.
"I hope she does stab you if you speak like that when you arrive."
Haldirian got to his feet and bent down to kiss his mother's pale cheek.
"I have to go and pack. Don't worry; I'll be home soon," he said. "Make sure father get's some sleep."
Back in his chambers, Haldirian packed his gear into black leather saddle bags. He checked that both his sword and hunting knife were razor sharp; their cold steel shone with delicate tracings and the insignia of Tirithawáe, the silver leaf of a tirith perial tree surrounded by three sapphire stars. He sheathed them on their leather baldric and placed them on top of his other gear. He hoped he wouldn't need them but the business with the Easterner made worry fill the pit of his stomach.
Haldirian went into the bathing room and turned on the silver taps, watching the hot water fill the large tub. Many years ago the Aloréan engineers of Tirithawáe had learned how to pump water from the river into heated copper braziers. The braziers connected to a maze of pipework that ensured they could turn the hot and cold water on and off with ease. It still baffled humans when they came to stay. They often made large accusations of magic, even though the Aloré had turned their back on magic a thousand years beforehand. Magic had not been able to save Lorianath, so the art was forgotten when they resettled in Elindor, the sacred knowledge left to be consumed by the waves.
Haldirian stripped off his clothes and settled in the steaming water, luxuriating in the warmth while he still could. He ran his hands through his thick black curls. He didn't want to go to Silandáe but the thought of watching Elithador fret for the next few weeks wasn't a tempting prospect either. It would be so much easier if Eeilos had been there instead of away in the northern Aloréan city of Sashnára. Rumours leaked down occasionally that Eeilos had been sent to fight barbarian raiders in the north but apart from the tales Haldirian had received no word from him in a year.
Haldirian waited for the water to turn cold before he dried off and climbed wearily into bed to dream of burning cities.
Haldirian was up before the sunrise. With bleary eyes, he saddled Blán, his dappled gray stallion, and led him out to the palace gates. He was surprised to see Elithador waiting for him. He must be more worried than what he seems, Haldirian thought. His father had never seen him off on a ranging trip before.
"I knew you would skip breakfast," Elithador said, handing him a bundle of warm bread and fruit. "That's no way to begin a journey."
"I have supplies in my saddlebags," Haldirian replied, feeling like a boy again.
"Good luck down there. Please try not to antagonize Aláenor. She doesn't get to meet too many royals."
"Half her luck," Haldirian replied, swinging himself up into the saddle. "Are you going to try and convince me to marry her like Mother did?"
"Gods above, no!" Elithador chuckled, patting Blán's neck. "She wouldn't have you, and you would just embarrass yourself. Give them our greetings."
"I will father. Make sure the rangers are doing rotating patrols and send word if you need me."
After Elithador's assurances and goodbyes, Haldirian rode quickly through the waking streets and into the southern forest beyond.
Five long days saw Haldirian to the end of the Mindala Forest. He had never been so far south, but it wasn't hard to find the two elaborately carved pillars that marked the entrance to the mountain passes. They stood out like great white beacons in a land of autumn trees. As he drew nearer to them, he took the time to study the circles of story carved into them. Elithador said it was a retelling of the Battle of Kin. You already know the story, you are wasting time, Eeilos' voice dredged up in the back of his mind. His brother had always teased him about his love of reading. Haldirian pushed it out of his mind and continued riding passed the pillars.
Misty rain fell steadily, making the stone roads through the Alcifin Range slippery and treacherous. Haldirian took to leading Blán rather than risk them both toppling down into the Náde River below. The only respite from the cold and rain were the caves made by the Aloréan's to provide shelter to travelers. For a brief few hours, Haldirian could be dry before the next day drenched him once more.
Haldirian couldn't remember a more welcome sight than the pillars marking the exit to the range. He felt like damp death. Once back in the saddle and under the golden leaves of the silan trees, he began to wonder what kind of reception he would receive. He had never met Mirithadûn or his troublesome (but of marriageable age) daughter. At dusk he stopped at a small waterfall to rest Blán before he pushed on. He would be close to the city and as he remounted Blán the thought of being clean and dry filled him with a renewed energy.
There was a rustle in the branches above him, and Haldirian only had enough time to cover his head as cloaked figure dropped on him, knocking him out of the saddle. He landed hard on the ground; the air knocked out of his lungs as his assailant cut the strap of his baldric and flung it out of his reach.
Haldirian swung out at his attacker and hit air as they wrestled on the wet ground. Haldirian brought his knee up, wedging it between them and used the leverage to flip them over onto their back. Haldirian pinned his attacker to the ground as the golden hood fell back, sea green eyes glared up at him.
"You're a woman?" he exclaimed.
She smiled sweetly before she struck him hard in the sternum with heel of palm. He fell off her, gasping on all fours and trying not to vomit.
The woman was on her feet in a flash, her boot shoving his shoulder so he fell over onto his back. The tip of a cold blade touched his throat putting her heavy, muddy boot on his heaving chest. She watched him carefully as she put gloved fingers to her mouth and whistled.
Four people dressed in mahogany and golden yellow cloaks dropped from the trees around them. They blended in so well with the colors of the silan trees he had failed to spot them entirely.
Idiot Haldirian! Of course, their borders were protected; he cursed inwardly. A tall Aloréan with platinum hair was bent double with laughter as the other three jeered.
"You couldn't help yourself could you Flower?" the platinum man said.
"You owe me, Lindon. Pay up," she held out an expectant hand. Coins were dropped into it, and other debts were settled between the group. Her attentions flickered back to a red faced Haldirian.
"Who are you?"
"A messenger," he said as his breath started to return, "from Elithador of Tirithawáe." She gave him a hard stare before finally removing her boot, leaving sticky mud and leaf litter behind. Haldirian climbed to his feet, and she sheathed her sword.
"Lindon, escort him to the palace. Take him through down the main roads," she instructed before whistling again. A black horse trotted through the trees, and she climbed onto its back. "I'll debrief the king; he will want to know we have a stranger."
"Don't do anything stupid now," Lindon said with a grin.
"Never," she smiled brilliantly before rearing the horse and taking off at a breakneck speed into the dark forest. Haldirian gazed stupidly after her. Lindon chuckled, giving him a friendly slap on the back.
"Don't worry not everyone in Silandáe greets newcomers that way."
"So no more violent surprises?" Haldirian asked as he bent to pick up his sliced baldric and strapped it to his saddle.
"It all depends on whether you are bringing good or bad news," teased Lindon. "Come on; we have a few hours riding to go if we aren't taking you the back way."
Lindon and the others were good company, managing light conversation without prying into the purpose of Haldirian's errand. He told them about Tirithawáe, and they competitively boasted about the beauty city that was Silandáe.
They crossed a stone bridge and stopped in front of the locked city gates.
"Gelian!" Lindon called, "Open the gate, I have urgent business in the city tonight."
A dark head appeared over the battlements, "They only business you have ever considered urgent is quenching your thirst."
"Hurry up! Look! I have a messenger and everything," Lindon complained. Gelian eyed Haldirian skeptically before signally below. The gates opened with a groan. "Meet Flower did he?" he smirked as they rode through. Haldirian blushed brightly as they entered the city.
The buildings had been constructed with the same yellow stone as the bridge, making Silandáe glow gold in the lamplight. They rode under sweeping arches over the city streets, lush hanging gardens and silan trees growing wherever he looked. It didn't take long for them to reach the high golden gates of the palace. Lindon chatted happily with the guards who let them in without a second glance at Haldirian.
"Welcome to Ellowen," said Lindon as the palace came into view. It was a city within a city with its elevated, sprawling walkways half hidden by gardens and the tallest silan tree's Haldirian had ever seen. "Try not to sleep walk if you don't want to plummet off one of the bridges."
"I'll keep that in mind," Haldirian grinned as they gave their horses to the stable hands. Haldirian carried his sword and hunting knife awkwardly in his ruined baldric. It was definitely not the way he wanted to meet the king for the first time.
Their companions departed, leaving Lindon to guide Haldirian through the myriad of staircases and walkways in search of the king. Guards opened a pair of gold laced doors and Haldirian was led into a magnificent hall. A high roof was held up by dark beams of silan wood, great tapestries hung from the walls as well as and the standard of the House of Ruel; an elaborate golden sun on a red background. A tall, broad man sat on a throne carved with dizzying sun designs and inlaid with gold. Lindon and Haldirian bowed low.
"Welcome Prince Haldirian of Tirithawáe," the king exclaimed in a deep voice that seemed to echo from his broad chest.
"King Mirithadûn, how did you know it was me when we have never met before?" Haldirian asked as he stood tall once more.
Mirithadûn laughed, "Haldirian, you look so much like your parents it would be impossible to mistake you for anyone else."
Beside him, Haldirian heard Lindon mutter a few curse words. He was staring at Haldirian with a new found interest.
"Thank you Lindon, that will all."
Lindon bowed and all but ran from the hall. Mirithadûn turned his intense gaze back to Haldirian. He was every inch the Golden King. He had a red gold moustache, and long blonde fell over his shoulders. His pale blue eyes settled back on his face. "What has happened Haldirian? I know Elithador wouldn't spare you for a social visit."
"We have had trouble in Tirithawáe and Elithador is calling a High Council," Haldirian answered, doing his best not to show how intimidated he was. "We need your help."
"I can see you have traveled hard to get here, so perhaps the bad news can wait until morning?" Mirithadûn got to his feet and came to stand beside him. Haldirian was six foot six and the King of Silandáe towered over him. He patted him on the shoulder affectionately, "How is it that Elithador managed to breed such big handsome sons?"
"It was combined effort," Haldirian said and was rewarded with Mirithadûn's booming laughter.
"Indeed! The beautiful Aldaneán. She would be the grace and dark hair but your gray eyes are all Elithador."
The door to the hall opened, breaking their friendly discussion and a woman strode in. She wore a soft green gown, her hair falling in a thick golden braid over her shoulder.
"Excellent, you are here," Mirithadûn gestured to her, "Aláenor may I introduce Prince Haldirian of Tirithawáe."
Haldirian's heart dropped to his stomach as he once again faced the angry sea green eyes of his attacker.
Chapter Two- Lady of the Forest
Mirithadûn's words hit Aláenor with a jolt. For a moment she wondered if Haldirian would recognize her. The disbelief burning in his eyes confirmed he did. Aláenor's shock was replaced with a fierce pride. She couldn't wait to tell Lindon that she had beaten a prince to a pulp.
Haldirian bowed low, "My lady, how nice to see you again."
"You've already met?"
"We had the brief pleasure of making our acquaintance at the northern border's earlier this evening."
"I see," Mirithadûn frowned at her and she squirmed inwardly.
"She greeted as warmly and politely as any queen, you would've been proud," he added and Aláenor's palms itched with the urge to hit him.
"It's good to see she remembered her manners," the king replied unconvincingly before gesturing to his steward. "I'm sure you're fatigued from your journey Haldirian. Follow Halba, and he'll see you to your chambers. We can talk business in the morning."
"Thank you, your majesty, Lady Aláenor," Haldirian bowed again before giving Aláenor a sideways grin that only she could see, and following Halba from the hall.
"What a polite young man," Mirithadûn commented, "He had a fascinating mark on his chest, did you notice?" She shook her head innocently.
"The boy has been traveling for weeks he was one whole dirty mark," she replied.
"It was a boot print," Mirithadûn stated flatly, "and about your size. You met him on the borders, do I need to give you a lecture about attacking royalty?"
"I didn't know he was royalty did I?"
Mirithadûn grinned despite himself, "My daughter defeating Elithador's son...I'll never let him forget it."
"I should hope not. What does he want anyway?" she asked, dreading the reply. Please don't be a suitor, please don't be a suitor.
"There is going to be a High Council in Tirithawáe. He hasn't come for a bride. You needn't look so worried."
"I'm not worried," Aláenor said, "If he were a suitor I would be sending his worthless hide back to Tirithawáe."
"I don't know why you are so set against marriage. I was the happiest when I was married to your mother," he replied. He didn't sound convincing.
"I've only just had my Rites Day! I am hardly a spinster and besides I have no want or need of a husband."
Mirithadûn held up his hands in defeat, "I don't want to fight with you. Go and get some sleep, I want you in my meeting with Haldirian tomorrow." He kissed her forehead, his eyes sad. He looked at her more like that the older she became. She knew it had something to do with her mother, so she tried her best to ignore it.
"Good night father," she mumbled.
Back in her apartments Aláenor kicked off her shoes and pulled off her green dress. Servants had cleaned up the muddy clothes she had left in the bathing room and the lamps had been lit. Aláenor climbed into bed, creating a fort of pillows around her and stared up at the ceiling.
Why was Haldirian here? Surely if it was only for a High Council they could've sent a messenger...something had to be wrong.
Aláenor tossed and turned for another hour before she kicked back her blankets and got up. She pulled on a pair of boots under her night dress, wrapped a fur-lined robe around her before walking down the steps from her balcony and out into the gardens.
Aláenor breathed deeply as she wandered through the trees slowly making her way to her favorite thinking place. She paused by a statue of embracing lovers. It had been carved by Kalonera, her mother, and it was nicer to visit it than her grave.
Aláenor brushed it with her hand in silent greeting as she passed it, heading for a large boulder half hidden in the faint lamplight. It had a curved sloping basin that Aláenor liked to lie in. She slid down into it watching the stars flick through the trees above her. A branch snapped and she sat up, angry and alert.
"We need to stop meeting like this," a voice said and the shadow next to a silan moved to join her.
"If it isn't the little messenger boy," she sneered as he approached her. Haldirian had washed and dressed in clean clothes. The week's old stubble had been shaved, making him look younger. Dark curls had been pushed back from his face and intelligent gray eyes watched her cautiously.
Aláenor wasn't interested in a husband but even she would grudgingly admit he was handsome. He probably has an ego to match it too.
"Tell me wild ranger, do you always attack people you have never met?"
"Only royalty," she admitted, "although you weren't much of a fight."
"I assure you that if we were ever to meet in battle again, you would be the one on your back," Haldirian retorted.
"I should warn you, I am a dangerous person to challenge."
"And why is that?"
"I never lose," she replied with conviction.
"It's easy to be confident when you are jumping out of trees onto unsuspecting travelers."
"I'd still defeat you even if I was standing on the ground."
Haldirian smiled and it was brilliant and open, "We'll see."
Aláenor pulled her coat tighter around herself, trying to think of something to say. She was terrible at small talk unless it was with Lindon. She didn't know where to start with a stranger. Haldirian must've thought she was cold because he untied his cloak and unexpectedly dropped it around her.
"Thank you," she said awkwardly and to return the kind gesture she moved over and allowed him to sit down beside her.
"Here I thought it wasn't only the weather that's chilly in Silandáe," he joked.
"Why are you here? You aren't another suitor are you?" Aláenor blurted out and then blushed fiercely. To her surprise, Haldirian burst out laughing.
"Gods no! A wife is the last thing I need."
"Oh good," she sighed with relief.
"That's right, I've heard how you treat suitors."
"Which rumor was it? Do I chase them out of Silandáe or live in a cave and eat them one by one?" Aláenor was almost as tired of rumors as she was of suitors.
"Nothing so vicious, I've only heard that you have rejected them all. But after meeting you in person, I need to ask...do you eat them?"
"Not recently," she grinned before adding, "I may live far in the south but don't think I haven't heard the rumors about you."
"Rumors spread by my mother's correspondence with Mirithadûn no doubt. Please, enlighten me."
"You are illusive, introverted, anti-social and refuse to marry much to her dismay."
"I’m not the heir to the throne. I hardly need to marry to secure an alliance, or marry at all for that matter," Haldirian replied, running a hand through his hair; a nervous tick she was surprised she'd noticed, usually she ignored people completely. "My father would have started the antisocial rumor."
"Is that why they sent you to Silandáe instead of a messenger?"
"Partly," Haldirian replied cautiously, "I have a private matter to discuss with Mirithadûn that Elithador didn't trust to anyone else."
"I see," Aláenor replied. "You'd best wait and tell us both tomorrow."
"Can I ask you a personal question?"
"If you must."
"Why does Lindon call you Flower? You don't strike me as flower-like. That's a name associated with delicate royal maidens. Not ones that like to jump out of trees to kill people she doesn't know."
Aláenor slid from the rock and started searching through the gardens. Haldirian followed her until she stopped and picked a small white flower.
"This is the aláen flower, I was named after it," she explained placing it into his large brown hand. "That is why Lindon calls me Flower. He also knows I hate it and likes to provoke me."
"He does seem to be the teasing type," Haldirian said, twirling the bloom between his fingers. "I suppose it's my fault you attacked me."
"My mother warned me about you and I laughed at her."
"She must have the wisdom of the family."
"Without a doubt."
"Unfortunately for Mirithadûn I didn't turn out to be the lady he hoped for. I find that kind of life boring and always have. Life is full of lots of things more interesting than being a royal madam," Aláenor stated. "He wanted a boy. He raised me as a boy. I had my Rites Day and all of a sudden he is surprised I am more interested in ranging than getting married." She bit her lip wondering why she'd told him something so personal. She would have to watch her mouth in his easy company.
"If it makes you feel better I'm not good at being a royal madam and I like ranging as well," Haldirian said seriously. She laughed as the palace coming back into view and she handed him back his cloak.
"Thank you for the company," she said and hesitated, "I haven't had the chance to talk to someone new for a long time."
"My pleasure, princess. Thank you for not eating me."
Aláenor snorted, "Don't call me, princess. Aláenor will suffice or I might change my mind and eat you after all." She watched the smile twist around the corners of his lips and she found herself grinning back before hurrying away, desperate for him to not see the blush spreading across her face.
Aláenor woke late the next morning, stretching lazily in the sunshine that shone on her bed. She was exhausted from a week ranging followed by talking all night with Haldirian. She tried to hide her smile. He had been good company and it had been the first night in weeks that she hadn't had nightmares.
Aláenor had spent the last months dreaming of a great city rising from the ocean, dripping with blood. She would be in a different section of the city every night but it always ended the same way; she would burst into flames and would wake frightened, the smell of smoke and burning flesh in her nose.
Getting out of bed she washed her face and braided her golden hair. She dressed in her ranger's official uniform; knee high black boots, firm fitting mahogany trousers and tunic with a dark golden yellow undershirt. Haldirian already knew that she was not the kind of woman to parade about in dresses and despite his presence, she was determined to treat it like any other day. She grabbed an apple from the fruit bowl on her dining table before strapping her sword about her waist. She needed to train, needed to feel her muscles burn and for the fog in her head to clear away.
The hall was empty and Aláenor worried for a moment that she hadn't been invited to the meeting with Haldirian and Mirithadûn. She pushed the thought from her mind, she had attended all of Mirithadûn’s meetings for years. She took her place at the end of the hall and pulled her sword from its scabbard.
It had been a gift for her Rites Day from Mirithadûn. It was a perfectly balanced blade, the hilt made from silan wood and carved with the sun insignia of the House of Ruel. The king knew his daughter well; there were no fancy designs or flourishes or gold inlays. It was a simple and deadly, made for her hand alone.
On the floor of the hall was a large mosaic of concentric circles, making up a large sun motif. The Warrior's Sun it was called, each circle representing a different, more complicated drill. Aláenor positioned herself in the largest sun, determined to wind her way through to the centre at least twice before Mirithadûn summoned her. She gripped her hilt and began, each movement smooth and precise. Aláenor dismissed all thoughts from her mind, allowing the world to drop away. Only the action mattered, the positioning, everything else melted in the burn of her muscles.
Aláenor was in the third circle when the shadow of a figure moved behind a pillar. She'd been so focused that she hadn’t heard them enter. Sloppy, she chastised herself. She said nothing, letting them believe that she had not noticed them.
In the fourth circle, she turned sharply to look directly at them. As they hid out of sight, she ducked around the nearest pillar. She heard their footsteps moving along the marble tiles as they searched for her. Aláenor moved slowly from pillar to pillar, keeping out of sight. The figure made to turn around and found the tip of her sword pointed at his chest.
"Don't you have anything better to do than stalk me?" she questioned. Haldirian's smile was confident as he leaned back against the pillar.
"I wasn't stalking you. I came looking for Mirithadûn and found you instead."
"You could've said good morning."