Fate, the counterpart of fortune, is often confused with destiny. But destiny, as I will elaborate in my next chapter, is a potential, a possibility. Fate, on the other hand, is inevitable, unavoidable, irreversible. When people hear a prophecy, they think of fate. But prophecy rarely speaks of the inevitable, unless it is self-fulfilling. Few outcomes are truly set in stone.
However, the fall of the kingdom of Terrálh was. When such incredible wealth has been accumulated, little can still be gained, only lost. Wealth and power breed decadence and corruption, and as they spread, the threads of destiny converged into a knot so convoluted that it could no longer be disentangled. The only escape was disintegration, ensuring that the fated fall would happen sooner or later. As for me? I simply gave Fate a helping hand.
Morning came far too early. Avarron’s had not slept much after the fight with Nariain. Concern for the Fae and his own worries occupied his mind. As the sun’s rays forced him to wake up, he let out a guttural sound of discomfort and pulled himself up from the grass.
Eleana was lying right next to him. She too, had difficulty waking up. Avarron headed over to the backpack, which was still lying where Nariain had left it, on the other side of the now cold campfire. Rummaging through it, he made a quick inventory of the supplies left. Enough for three days. Four if rationed, he estimated. Taking out some breakfast, he returned to Eleana.
“Now that we’ve lost our guide again, where do we go?” she asked.
Avarron had pondered that question too, but the answer was relatively simple: “North. We just keep going north until we reach civilization. Or the sea.”
Eleana nodded and they ate their breakfast in silence. Then, Avarron pulled the backpack on his shoulders and they started walking to his best estimation of the north.
The forest, while not nearly as dark as the Witchwood, was endless. Just trees, trees and more trees. After walking for an hour or two, Avarron found that only the rising sun gave any indication of passing time. As the morning approached noon, Avarron found that they were steadily going downhill.
As they descended down a unusually steep slope, a soft rumbling filled the back of his mind. Only after he assisted Eleana down the tricky slope, he recognized it as sound. “Water!” he said excitedly.
Eleana gave him a quizzical look, but he was certain now: “There’s a river up ahead.”
He was so excited to finally have found a landmark that he only realized the problem after blue glimpses became visible through the trees: it was no small, easily crossed stream. Still, he continued straight for it, Eleana in tow. He only stopped once he reached the banks of the river. It was much wider than he’d have guessed, or hoped. There was no way to cross it.
“So, do we go left or right?” Eleana asked him.
Avarron thought about that for a long moment. “Downstream,” he said decisively as he would rather walk towards the coast than the mountains.
They followed the river around a large bend. Avarron kept a sharp eye on the other side, hoping to see some sign of other people. A fisherman, or perhaps a hunter filling his water skin. As they completed the bend, he found much more: the top of a tower, in grey stone, rose slightly above the treetops.
Eleana had seen it too. “A keep. But how do we get across?” she wondered.
“They must have a boat that they use to cross the river,” Avarron replied optimistically.
“If it is indeed inhabited.”
Avarron nodded. “Let’s hope that it is. And by more hospitable folk than the previous one,” he added cheerfully.
They started to follow the river to come as close as they could to the distant keep. It became slightly more visible as they approached, but there was no way to cross the river.
Avarron peered to the other side. “Looks like they don’t have a boat,” he concluded disappointed.
“Perhaps it is hidden,” Eleana said hopefully.
If there was indeed a boat, they still needed it to cross the river. “If there’s anyone in there, they’ll need to see us before they can ferry us across,” he thought out load as he started to gather firewood.
“Excellent idea, dear knight,” Eleana complimented him and assisted him. “But what if no response comes?”
That was a difficult question. As low on supplies as they were, they couldn’t waste time hanging around to wait for a ferry that might not even come. On the other hand, the keep was the only sign of civilization around. There were no roads or even ships on the river. “Regardless, we need to rest. This is a perfect moment to do so,” he decided.
Eleana nodded approvingly as she lit the fire. Avarron looked at it for a moment. It was a small, clean fire. Excellent as campfire, but hardly the beacon that they needed. “Smoke. We need more smoke,” he realized and started to pick up leaves from the ground and throw them into the fire.
“Again, good thinking,” Eleana said with a smile and cast some of her spark-dust onto the fire.
A sudden burst of flame rose up high into the sky. Avarron glanced at the sorceress in wonder. The twinkle in her eye told him more than enough.
“If anyone’s home, this should draw their attention,” she said.
Avarron agreed. The cloud of smoke was impossible to miss. “So now we wait,” he said and made himself comfortable upwind of the fire.
Eleana sat down beside him and leaned onto his shoulder. “I feel so lost,” she sighed.
Avarron felt exactly the same way. He put his arm around her and said: “We’ll find the way home. I promise.”
They sat like that in silence for a while. Avarron didn’t know how much time had passed when he heard footsteps splashing in the water. He jumped up as a man pulled a small rowing boat ashore, while another eyed them suspiciously. Both wore chain-mail armour with a brown overcoat, and a sword in scabbard was strapped to their waists. They wore no crests or other marks of affiliation. “You don’t look like bandits. Who are you and what is your business here?” the one eyeing them asked.
“We are not. I am…” Avarron paused. Defenders of a keep should not go without a lord.
Eleana immediately picked up on his hesitation: “We are travelling to the city of Kynnard, but got hopelessly lost. To be honest, we have no idea where we are. Can you help us?”
The warrior was joined by his companion, who stated: “This is the river Sohann, southern border of the kingdom of Altraom.”
Avarron’s jaw fell open in shock. “But that… that means we’re…”
The man nodded. “In the fallen kingdom. Imagine our surprise at finding an Altraomian knight and Nevarran lady here.”
Avarron certainly could imagine that. He could barely believe it, himself. Trying to wrap his mind around their location, he completely missed the comment about their origins.
Eleana did not. “You’re more perceptive than the average border guard,” She said sweetly. “Might I ask which lord has such talented guards in his employ?”
“We serve no lords but those in the sky,” the man replied cryptically, but it was a bigger hint than Avarron needed.
“You’re Ardaithe?” he asked. It would almost be too good to be true.
“Indeed. Yet we still don’t know who you are.”
“I am Sir Avarron and this is Lady Eleana Mantione,” he quickly responded, his mistrust gone.
It was the Ardaithe’s turn to be shocked. They looked genuinely speechless, but eventually one of them managed to say: “Well, that explains something,” and invited them into the keep.
Avarron and Eleana happily obliged, and the two Inquisitors rowed them back to the keep. Avarron could now see that the keep had a small water gate. He silently scolded himself for missing it, though it was small and easily overlooked.
Not much later, they rowed into the castle and were surrounded by more Ardaithe, though none wore the spiralled emblem. As the two rowers moored the boat, Avarron helped Eleana ashore.
A silver-eyed man approached and said: Welcome to Riverside Keep, Sir knight. I am Sir Geraln, commander of this fort. What assistance can I offer?”
Avarron bowed politely. “Thank you, Sir Geraln. Any assistance you could offer to get Lady Mantione and I to Kynnard as quickly as possible would be much appreciated.”
Avarron felt the awestruck stares of all the men surrounding them while both Geraln’s eyebrows went up “Ambassador Mantione?”
Eleana bowed formally. “A pleasure to meet you, Sir Ardaithe. As my dear guardian said, your help would be appreciated.”
“Do you realize that the entire kingdom is out looking for you?” The Ardaithe asked.
Eleana nodded. “I feared as much. Can you point us in the right direction?”
Gerraln turned to one of the others and said: “Send a message to Lord Adian. Immediately.”
The addressed man quickly rushed into the keep and the keep commander turned back to Avarron and Eleana. “If you don’t mind me saying, the two of you look terrible. I’d suggest that you stay for the night. I can offer you a bath and a hot meal. In the morning, I’ll have two horses ready for you.”
Eleana lit up in excitement. “That sounds wonderful, kind sir.”
The Ardaithe led them through the keep to a pair of rooms. They were sober and simple, as could be expected of Ardaithe quarters, but there was a bed and bathtub. The Inquisitor apologized that no maids were available to assist Lady Eleana, but she dismissed that, claiming to be more than capable of bathing herself. With those words, she closed the door and the Ardaithe appointed the other room to Avarron.
He hadn’t felt as much need to bathe as Eleana but as he removed his armour, he found himself covered in grime, dirt and blood. He undressed and started to scrub it all off. Half an hour later, as he laid on the bed, feeling clean and refreshed, there was a knock on the door. “Sir Avarron? Dinner is ready,” a voice on the other side said.
“Already?” Avarron muttered to himself and quickly put his boots on. Surely the man had meant to say ‘lunch’. Then he opened the door and followed the Ardaithe to the dining room. Gerraln and Eleana were waiting for him.
“Sit down and eat, Sir Avarron. Lady Mantione has already enlightened me with the story of your journey while you slept,” Gerraln said.
“I…,” Avarron muttered and looked out the window. A few red streaks of early dusk coloured the sky. It had been noon when they came to the keep. “I guess I’ve been out for a while, then?” he asked apologetic.
“Don’t apologize,” the Ardaithe said. “You looked absolutely exhausted when you arrived, and I now understand why.”
Gratefully, Avarron took place besides Eleana. The food on the table smelled delicious, though he had to admit that Nariain hadn’t done worse. He wondered where the Fae now was, but it was probably best not to discuss that. He didn’t know what Eleana had told Gerraln about their adventure. Luckily, the Ardaithe focused his curiosity on the lands farther south.
Avarron traced back their steps in his description of hills, forests and fields, eventually coming to the strange city.
As soon as he mentioned it, Eleana visibly shivered. “I can’t explain it, but I have a very bad feeling about that place,” she explained, and Avarron decided to avoid that topic, focusing on landscape and distances instead.
It was odd to Avarron to talk about the fallen kingdom of Terrálh in terms of the basic lay of the land. It was rarely spoken of in more than hushed tones. Nobody knew much about the collapse or what happened since. Only that the Ardaithe kept the madness contained and suppressed.
Gerraln recorded Avarron’s descriptions on paper in great detail. He wanted to know everything that the knight had seen. It made Avarron wonder: “Are there no maps of the area?”
He shook his head. “Not since the whole kingdom fell into chaos. I can’t go into details, but we don’t know nearly as much as we’d like about it. It pains me to admit it, but your knowledge is extremely valuable,” Gerraln sighed. He suddenly looked very tired. “Few people realise how dire our situation here is. There is a hole in the barrier we have constructed around the fallen kingdom, just south of here. All our attempts to mend it have failed and the demons keep coming through. Despite our best efforts, they are untraceable in the forests, so anything you can tell me of the lands to the south may help our work to close the hole.
‘A hole in the veil,’ the words of Panos Xeneon echoed through Avarron’s mind. He briefly contemplated telling him about the Witchwood and all its strange inhabitants but decided against it. Those weren’t demons. “I’ve told you everything there is to say,” he said and suppressed a yawn.
Eleana softly squeezed in his hand and said: “We should get some sleep.”
Despite having just slept for hours, Avarron was still tired. He willingly let Eleana lead him back to their rooms. Before she entered her room, she pulled him close for a quick kiss and whispered: “sweet dreams, dear knight.”