"Damn, damn, damn," was the murmured effusion that the young woman made to herself, as her eyes scouted the pages of the book that lay open before her. How long would she have to search, how many disappointment would she have to endure, before she would begin to find a clue to the answer she sought? She had absolutely no idea, and this fact frustrated her most.
She pushed her long hair from her face, wishing for the hundredth time that she could cut it. She knew she could not. Girls of noble birth could not cut their hair; so tradition dictated.
"Damn tradition," she murmured.
Well, at least it's pretty, she thought, twining the honey-hued strands around her fingers and gazing at them. Still, she thought with austere practicality, it would have been much more comfortable when cut.
Another half-hour of futile searching passed. The young woman straightened herself, shutting the volume with disgust. She had been wasting her time. This book had none of the answers she sought.
Iryna passed slender fingers through her long hair again. She was a nobleman's daughter, a very pretty girl in a trim sort of fashion, with the customary gentility of pale skin and delicately-set features. Her large eyes were sky-hued, serious and stern. These she now fixed upon a large glove that lay on the desk in front of her. This glove was the object of her curiosity, her fascination and her frustration.
She glared at it for several moments, half entranced, half disdainful, as if she sought to fathom the secret it harbored by boring through it with her searching eyes. Would it, she thought, that it had its history written across its surface and below it, like the rings of a tree.
She pursed her lips and lifted the glove between her palms gingerly, wary of the finely-honed, flesh-ripping talons. Fixing her keen, appraising gaze on the object in her hand, she slid her fingers across its leathery surface. The cruel metal claws glittered even in the scarce light, and she glimpsed a vague image of her own features inside the polished surface.
Iryna turned the glove around and gazed at the leather. Once again, she marveled at its impeccable condition, at the smooth, beautifully finished lines. It was a little worn in the edges, but the tight, flawless seams divulged the excellent craftsmanship by which it was made. She shifted her gaze to the scrawl on the wrist-border of the glove, one that was repeated inside. It was a simple enough mark, consisting of perhaps three or four figures, and she wondered to herself, again, what it meant.
This had been what she was looking for-- the language that possessed the key to unravel the secret. Like the rings of a tree. The comparison seemed logical enough; but this was no lengthy narrative, but a simple mark, perhaps a name. And if she could apprehend that name, and its meaning, she was sure there was something of considerable significance she would shed light upon.
She had once asked her father about the glove, but he dismissed her curiosity. Her father had no more patience with her scholastic tendencies than anybody else in town-- indeed, he had less. Given that this was such an old weapon, one that passed through several generation in their family, she thought that he SHOULD know of the glove and its meaning. To display it like an old relic seemed to her intolerable. So she took it down, defying her father, and kept in to herself.
A dour smile rose to Iryna's lips at these thoughts. Me and father never got on very well, especially since mother died. And now he had become more irritable than ever, becoming almost impossible. He sees fit to command me about, and never listens to me. If I was a man, now. Then he would pay attention. But I am only seventeen, and only his daughter.
It was useless to dwell on such thoughts. She shook her head and raised her eyes upwards, concentrating. Would it that she could go out again, to practice with the glove a little. She had taken up practicing with the glove in secret, and was progressing with startling quickness. Her slim, agile body possessed innate abilities that she was only starting to discover. Soon, very soon, she would be as skilled a fighter as any of the boys in town.
It is a remarkable glove, thought Iryna. There is a secret I needed to divulge, from somewhere in its past. And I will.
The newly-appointed captain of the Royal Guard adjusted his sword in its finely-gilded sheath and surveyed himself in the mirror critically. Dyluck knew that first impressions were very important, and he wasn't about to spoil his first day as the captain. He meant to show the people waiting outside what they wanted to see.
In Pandora, Dyluck was a relative newcomer. He had come from a rather obscure little town, seeking his fortune in the glittering capital. He quickly distinguished himself in the king's service, and his promotion was not unexpected. Dyluck smiled at the thought. Yes, not at all unexpected, but there was more to it than just services well-rendered. There were various ways to get on in life, and he, for one, was not averse to stooping to a little protection when necessary. He knew himself fit for the job, so why not? It was much better than hanging around the guard for years, languishing in hope of getting due attention, while your superior's nephew was appointed as your new commander. No, this was not the way to do it.
Dyluck had a smooth, quick and proper tongue, was handsome, and made friends easily. Most importantly, he made friends in high places. Miss D'Arian was his most significant alley, but there were others.
Still, Dyluck admitted to himself, it was Lord D'Arian who had recommended him, at his daughter's urging. He was rather surprised that the old man had done it. The relationship between the D'Arians was strained at best, as Dyluck had quickly perceived. Around the nobleman he acted as serious and proper as he can, careful to shield his ambitions.
Of course, he had not counted on Iryna's falling in love with him. It was an extra.
Dyluck did not take this matter too deeply to heart. Iryna was too serious for him, much too serious, and he was not sure of her notions. Where he took care to please people, she was careless in offending. Their natures were as dissimilar as their ranks in life. He got on suavely despite his ordinary origin, she was regarded with suspicion despite her noble rank. Still, she was quite a lovely creature; smart, too, and talented in healing. Not an everyday combination.
Dyluck contemplated all this for one earnest moment. Marriage? Perhaps. But he had a suspicion that her father won't like it, and who was he to oppose a nobleman? It was not in his blood. Dyluck enjoyed a little knavery, but he knew how to keep his head on, and that was the important thing. He never took matters too far. If he thought the road would be clear and things would roll along smoothly, he would no doubt go for it. But as it was, he was not sure that it was worth the trouble. Not even Iryna, with her money and beauty and rank.
Dyluck shrugged to himself. He liked Iryna, and he owed her a lot, but that was about it, as far as he made it to be. As for her falling in love with him, she'll get over it, like all girls. He pushed the thought away, not believing she was seriously affected; as was usual for him, he chose not to think too much of matters that inconvenienced him. She'll get off it in due course, he thought, and all will be well for him, as always. He got what he wanted.
Dyluck trusted his luck; it never failed him before. Setting all thoughts of the matter aside, he made a last adjustment to his appearance. He tossed his handsome head, the blond mane well-smoothed in the fashion of soldiers, and put on his helmet. Satisfied, he strode out of the room. A new, better future was in store for him.
He was never as wrong in his life.
Iryna crouched in the deep meadows, the tall grasses nearly obscuring her vision, yet providing the concealment she sought. The sun burned the morning clouds away in a perfect, luminous skies, and the purple forms of the hills rose in the distance, rolling onwards until they vanished from view. It was one of those days that seemed especially created for travelers in the wilderness.
She adjusted her glove carefully, taking precaution with the powerful weapon. A misuse meant injury to herself, and laid her open to the mercy of her enemies in her lonely travels. She had been apprehensive in setting alone on her mission, but she had little choice. The grim sense of her purpose had overpowered her misgivings.
In her travels alone, Iryna had an advantage of being a trained healer. She discovered that not only it aided herself, it put injured enemies in her mercy, even her pity. It was a strange, a new experience, a sense of newly-found power. But stranger still the freedom she tasted in her travels, which to her was a drought of exhilaration. She finally got out of the city and began to understand what it meant to be alive, despite all the dangers.
It was the thought of Dyluck that egged her on, the thought of him lying at the witch's mercy. Iryna knew she could find him, if she got far enough. Only she knew she won't get far. She must be looked for by now and, if unlucky, she will be found and retrieved like a wayward child within a few days' time. Well, this moment might come, but she shall delay it as much as she can.
She continue to pass silently through the meadows, nearing the shadowy hills. Her progress was slow, but slowness was necessary for safety. At least she would not be rushing head-on into the arms of danger.
A sudden sound, like a shout, made her raise her gaze sharply, surprised and alarmed. She paused and listened in tensed concentration. Her ears detected a faint, rhythmical sound, as of drums beating. The goblins in the shadowy hill were performing their ritual dance, preparing to devour some beast they had caught. These were dangerous critters, and she preferred to stay away. However, the human shout had disturbed her. Suppose, she thought, that they had caught a man-- or a child?
Sliding her fingers along the leather glove, Iryna progressed onwards, determined to find out.
The figure of a boy, perhaps sixteen years of age, lay in the shadow of the tree, to which he was fastened with thick ropes. He lay very still; Iryna, who watched him from the depth of the grasses, wondered if he was conscious. She approached him silently and laid her hand on his shoulder. The boy, with a sudden lurch, raised his head.
"Lie still!" she whispered quickly; the boy, startled, obeyed.
A single slash with the sharp-taloned glove sufficed; the ropes were torn, and he was free. He rubbed his sore muscles, and the girl's voice whispered urgently in his ears:
"Don't make a single sound. I'll get you out of here. Get up, NOW!"
Quickly obeying, the boy got up to his feet. Iryna turned to go, laying her hand on his arm and guiding him through the hills.
In the meadows, the boy turned to her. "Thank you," he began. "I--"
"I must go now," she whispered. "Go there-- to the road-- it's much safer. Tell no one you've seen me. Goodbye!"
The puzzled boy remained looking after the vanishing figure of the girl. He unsheathed a large, rusty sword from its hilt. Turning it in his hand, he whispered:
"She didn't even tell me her name..."
She found it.
She had little doubt that this was the evidence she had looked for. A sufficient proof that her conjectures had been true all along, despite all the lies she had been told, by the king, by her father...
Yes, she knew: as the head of a state, or a powerful knight, it was deemed necessary to engage in falsehood on such touchy subjects for the sake of the general good, or at least what was assumed was the general good. So they dared to lie to her and, even worse, they dared to presume she did not see through their pathetic efforts at concealment. She was a girl-- that is, just a little, inexperienced fool.
Iryna smiled, and her smile was angry. That she was NOT. Too bad for them; she had found out the truth.
Gingerly, she lifted the discriminating evidence between finger and thumb. It was a shard of cloth, torn off what seemed to have been a first-rate fabric tunic. The former ivory hues were marred by the discolored patches of old blood. She pondered this briefly. Ten days old, she decided, probably not more than that. The tracks were fresher than ever now, and here was exactly the evidence that she had been looking for. Now all she needed was courage-- the courage to follow the tracks into the dangerous mists of the forbidden forest.
At this thought, Iryna raised her serious blue eyes to the indefinable darkness of the woods that loomed just at the borders of her vision. It was not an inviting sight by all means.
"What are you looking for, young woman?"
The voice took her by surprise, so occupied she had been in her concentration. She spun around, raising her clawed arm. The glove's extraordinarily sharp talons glittered menacingly in the strong sunlight.
The old man who had spoken fell back cautiously at this sight. Obviously this was not any ordinary young woman, as he had supposed when he first saw the slim form stooping in the meadow. The look in her eyes was defensive, suspicious and fierce. He returned her gaze with equal suspicion, linking his brown, wiry hands together.
The young woman-- not more than eighteen, decided the old man, his eyes scanning the pale, elegant face-- lowered her hand slightly, but her posture was still defensive.
"Who are you?" she demanded in a tone that seemed used to get answers as soon as asked. The old man smiled, but his smile was thin. "I think, young lady, this is the question you should be answering at the moment," he said.
"I owe you no answers, and I have no fear of you-- or anybody else," she replied sharply. "I think I best be on my way now."
She turned towards the forest, but the man's voice stopped her: "Wait!"
Despite herself, she turned around. The old man remained standing, and somehow she found this sight angering.
"Don't go into the forest, young lady," he said.
"You know nothing of it!" she said, reddening.
The old man approached her with a few steps. "I know what is on your mind," he said. "You mean to go to the forest, don't you? Don't do it. It's a feat beyond many. I've lived here a long time: I know. Just nine days ago the men of the Imperial guard marched in here, and they never returned."
"The-- Imperial-- " she said quickly, her eyes kindling. "It's the truth, then, the truth!"
The old man watched her puzzledly as the young woman stood murmuring to herself.
"It's the truth!" she said aloud, directing her gaze at him. "Now I know for sure." A bitter smile flitted across her lips.
"Only they won't ever admit it."
Iryna stood in front of an oval mirror and assessed herself critically. She slid her hand along the silken white dress, especially measured and prepared for the occasion. The dress fitted her beautifully, and the feel of the cold silk was lovely on her skin. Her long, honey-hued hair had been elaborately braided and coiled, and pinned to her head with a brooch studded with red gems. A sprig of jasmine at the velvet on her shoulder diffused a pleasant scent.
The only thought that flitted across Iryna's mind at the moment was.... "Phanna will enjoy this banquet. Not I."
Phanna, who had entered the chamber just as this thought was finished, let out a delighted exclamation. "You look lovely, Iryna!"
Hurrying to her friend's side, she turned her around with an expert hand. "That seamstress really outdid herself this time," she said. " I envy you. This must have cost a fortune."
"I look like a million, don't I?" said Iryna with quiet sarcasm.
Phanna sighed, her dark eyes momentarily clouding. "Do try to enjoy this, Iryna. And don't fuss."
Iryna shrugged her off with an angry gesture. "Won't I?" she said. "I feel like a stolen doll about to be sold off to the highest bidder, because the real owner isn't around."
"If you mean Dyluck..." Phanna began.
Iryna turned on her. "I DON'T," she said. "Nobody owns me. Apparently, however, my father thinks of it this way. How dare he force this on me?"
As she continued, Phanna's expression darkened, and she fixed her eyes on her friend sadly. "The King's party; the King's nephew. My father schemed it with him, I know that. How I hate them both!"
Phanna said, quietly, "But nobody FORCES you..."
Iryna turned away, laughing a short, bitter laugh. "I wish it was that simple, Phanna. It isn't. I live in my father's house; I must abide by his rules. I he tells me to go, I have to at least go. Of course he won't force me to marry; but the humiliation of it is what jars me!"
Taking a deep breath in an apparent effort to calm herself down, she continued: "Of course my father does not see it that way. He considers my attachment to Dyluck a passing fancy, that he could dissipate with the lure of well-born, wealthy men. Do I seem that shallow to him, that lacking of judgment, that childish?"
Phanna said nothing at this. She was waiting in patience for Iryna's outburst to consume itself. Iryna, glancing at her, realized this. Her lips were tinged with a smile.
"I am all right now," she said, extending her hand to the dark-haired girl. "I will come to the banquet, and try to enjoy myself. I am sorry for dumping this on you."
"You are just over-sensitive," said Phanna, gently.
Iryna lowered her eyes. "I suppose I am," she said quietly. "I will see how much more I can take of all this. I promise you: not much more."
The wish to escape, which had seethed inside her for so long, surfaced in Iryna with redoubled force. If she only had the means to. If only someone would come her way, with whom she could travel, and continue her search for Dyluck. She would join without a second thought.
"What is that boy doing here?" Phanna whispered, pointing. Iryna turned the way she had pointed, not with any interest. What she saw made her frown in concentration.
The boy's appearance was singular, in that that he did not seem a denizen of the town. He was obviously a wanderer, to judge by the large knapsack fastened to his back, and the large sword hanging at his side. The clothes were simple and coarse, peasantlike. He was looking about rather hesitantly, seeming out of place in the Palace court.
A man, whom he questioned, pointed. Iryna's frown deepened, because the man had pointed at her. The boy turned around and approached them with a quick step. He paused before the two girls, perhaps unsure of what to say.
"What is it?" Phanna prompted gently, with a slight smile. The boy coughed, but his voice was quite steady and serious, free of embarrassment. "I was told that you are Miss D'Arian," he explained, looking at Iryna. "I have met Dyluck ten days ago, in the forest. He told me that you might help me in town. I am just passing through," he added, half-apologetically.
Iryna stared hard at him. "I know you from somewhere," she said. But from where? she thought to herself. He is so familiar...
Phanna looked up, chuckling. "You have the strangest friends, Iryna," she remarked.
Iryna ignored her. "I think I remember now.." she said, slowly.
"You do?" said Phanna, apparently finding the situation very amusing.
"Quiet, Phanna," said Iryna. She turned to the boy. "Where exactly did you meet Dyluck?" she questioned. The boy, meanwhile, was gazing at her thoughtfully. "I think I know you, too," he said slowly.
"Later about it." said Iryna, her impatience rising. "Where did you meet Dyluck?"
"In the forest," he replied. "By the Water Palace. As I told you, that was ten days ago."
Phanna breathed in sharply. "He must be at the witch's right now!" she murmured.
"Yes," said Iryna. Phanna did not know, as she did, that Dyluck had been captured by the witch. "Well," she continued, looking at the boy, "and why are you here? You said you need lodging. I can supply you with lodging." She was unsure of what her father would say, but she didn't care at the moment. Already a plan was forming in her mind. "I need to have a few words with you first," she added. "Phanna, cover for me."
Phanna stared at the boy, then at Iryna. "Will you be at the party tonight?" she asked.
"Perhaps," said Iryna, her eyes pleading at her friend. "Phanna, this is important," she said in a low voice. "I'll tell you later about it, all right?"
Phanna signed. "All right. I'll cover for you."
Iryna turned to the boy. "Let's go," she said.
The boy followed Iryna's brisk step as she walked across the Palace gardens. Iryna retrieved her cloak from the waiting-room. Wrapping it around herself, she turned to the boy a grave expression. "What is your name?" she questioned him in a low voice.
"Renn," he replied. "And you are..."
"I am Iryna."
The boy said nothing as he followed her into the Palace corridors. He gazed around, seeming rather distracted and thoughtful.
Presently, Iryna stopped before a room at the end of one of the innumerous palace galleries. "Here, follow me," she said to the boy with a low voice. He followed her silently.
Iryna entered the room, locking the door. Then she turned to face Renn.
"All right," she said briskly. "We won't be disturbed here. Now we must talk."
The boy gazed at her, smiling slightly, and the girl's gaze turned cold. "What's on your mind?" she demanded.
He shrugged, taking a seat. "Just that you've saved my life about a week ago, at the goblin hills," he remarked. "I owe you a lot."
"I hope you will keep that in mind," she said. "I will now ask you for a lot."
He gazed at her dubiously, his expression showing he was unsure of what to expect. Iryna smiled caustically, noticing his look. "Perhaps nothing much. Where are you heading?"
"Gaia's Navel," he promptly replied.
Iryna took a seat likewise, facing him with a serious expression.
"Listen!" she said. "Dyluck's in the witch's clutches. Don't ask how I know, I just do. I was tracing his footsteps that day that I rescued you. If I had an idea that you met him I would have asked to join you. I am asking you now."
The boy frowned a little, edging back. "I don't know..." he began. Iryna raised her hand, silencing him.
"Look," she said. "I'll be straight with you. You are a traveler. It seems you are a swordsman as well. I need a companion on my travels, and I can be useful to you on directive, because I am very familiar with the area. I can defend myself very well, too. And I am skilled in healing. All these are to your advantage. I want to go to the forest and help Dyluck. There are rumors that he had been captured by the witch. Even Phanna doesn't know, but I KNOW. I am going to save Dyluck, and you'll help me, because I have saved your life once."
"I'll be glad to help you," said the boy, slowly. "But... I'm going to Gaia's Navel."
Iryna gestured impatiently. "Is your mission as important as mine? Hardly so, in all probability! I need your help-- as you once needed mine."
He seemed to be swayed by her words. At last, reluctantly, he said:
"You can come with me, then."
"Good, then, that's settled," said Iryna, rising and unlocking the door. "You can sleep over at my house tonight, at the guest room. I shall prepare my things. We set off tomorrow at dawn. Mind you, breath no word of this to my people, or I shall be in trouble."
"They probably won't believe me anyway," the boy remarked with an amused smile, staring at the girl with interest.
"Oh, they will, of ME," Iryna said, curtly. "And they'll be glad to tell you stranger things about me before they throw you out. Come on."
The boy followed, his smile lingering.