Thea woke three hours before dawn. She busied herself readying a pack of essentials; food, water, healing herbs and salves. Though she would be traveling, she dressed in her best crimson tunic, with a black leather corset and black leather breeches and boots. She tied a hard leather brace to each forearm, and belted her favorite hunting knife to her right thigh. She fashioned her hair into a braid, and wrapped a thick leather thong around her forehead to keep the loose strands out of her eyes. The only jewelry she wore was the necklace her mother had given her.
Thea took one last look in the mirror; her amber eyes shone bright with intensity. Though her reflection would not change much over the coming weeks and months, she knew she would never look at herself the same again. Thea turned away, grabbed her pack and bow, and proceeded down stairs. Again, she was met by her father and brother. They left their home to meet the traveling party on the outskirts of the village.
Thea bade her father and Liekii farewell, and then mounted her steel-grey charger. Ferin led the group away from Therinfole just as the pale rays of the sun signaled the beginning of a new day. It would take the group two weeks to reach Gyllene-Lov by horse back; it rested in he center of their country. They would follow the Manstrale River, which flowed from the Lysande-Vattenfall and through Dalen Mansken, the Valley of Moonlight. The valley was a week across alone; when they reached its edge they would proceed into the Hart-Traslag Forest. The elves capital was a week from the forest's border, and spanned to either side of the Manstrale River. Thea only knew this much because her father had detailed the journey to her and Bjorn the night before.
They rode in silence for the first half of the day. When they broke to water the horses and take a quick lunch, Thea went to sit at the river's edge. Bjorn joined her and, to her surprise, so did Sigrid and Gabriel. Not keen on the uncomfortable silence resting between them, Thea struck up conversation.
"So, Sigrid, how are you feeling about our adventure," Thea asked cautiously. The girl stayed quiet for a moment, seeming to be caught in a trance by her sky-grey eyed and platinum blond reflection. When she spoke, her voice was light and melodic.
"I am taking this journey because I believe that the Riders should not all be of royal blood." Thea , confused, went to ask what she meant. Before she could utter a word, Sigrid cut her off. "You may not believe yourselves royal, Thea Ragnvald. But, as the daughter of a Rider, you are afforded all of the luxuries of being of royal blood. After all, the Riders are seen in the same light as the royalty among the human and elf race. You have never wanted for anything. And, from what I have come to notice through stories of the Riders, they were all former princes or princesses, or of some other royal title."
Thea now noticed the bitterness in Sigrid's voice. She was jealous, and it made Thea wonder who else felt as Sigrid did. There were stories of Riders who came from non-royal families, but many of them had. Thea could not risk being at odds with Thea, who she may have to trust in battle one day to watch her back. However, she knew not how to smooth over her feelings. "I am sorry you feel this way, Sigrid. I do hope that we can put such things behind us, and begin anew with comradery," Thea said. Sigrid cast a side glance her way, then stood and strode back to the horses.
"Don't mind her," Gabriel said. Thea had forgotten he was there through her conversation with Sigrid. Thea had only met Gabriel a few times; he was their blacksmiths son. With shaggy black hair, emerald eyes and an athletic build, he was easy on the eyes.
"I hadn't realized there were people in our village who felt as she did," Thea replied, feeling a sense of guilt for not realizing there were people like Sigrid.
"She and I have been friends since she came to our village. Of our people, she was the only one I knew that felt that way. Your father has been a great and loving leader. So what if we do not have jewels of fancy clothes? If you ask me, they really have no worth anyway. They are just a decoration, and greatly impractical." Thea laughed with him at his conclusion. Gabriel smiled at her, then stood and walked after Sigrid.
Thea stared into the crystal depths of the river then, watching the fish within swim by. She had enjoyed talking with Gabriel, but she reminded herself that she must not become attached to anyone until after their trials in Gyllene-Lov. "I think we are readying to leave," Bjorn said from behind her. She turned to look up at him. She had kept her mind open to him through her conversation with Gabriel, so he knew what she was feeling and thinking. "You are wise not to get too close to him, sister. It would not do for personal affairs to interfere with training," he said with a small smile. She nodded her agreement, then stood and walked with him to the horses.
They did not stop again until dusk began to creep upon the land. They camped in the shadow of a stone formation, one of the many scattered across the valley. As they sat and ate, Ferin adressed the group.
"Today you began the journey leading to a new life; for some or all of you," Ferin said in an even tone. "Though your testing shall not commence till we reach the capital, I suggest that you practice through our travels. From tonight on, you shall spar one another and we shall help your technique as best we can. You may ask us any questions you may have at this point, and we shall answer to the best of our ability."
"Why is this valley called the Valley of Moonlight," Bjorn asked almost immediately. "We have never really been outside our villages boundaries," he added, excusing his ignorance.
Ferin nodded to one of the golden-haired elves; his voice when he spoke was smooth as satin. Introducing himself, he said, "I am Erlathan. And, to answer your question, this valley is called Dalen Mansken, the Valley of Moonlight, because the rock formations that are scattered throughout its expanse are laced with veins of moonstone. When the moonlight hits these veins, the moonstone glows. Even this one," he said, pointing to the cropping sheltering them, "has these veins." Thea and the rest stared at the rocks as the moon rose, and its light shone down. When it hit the rocks surface, bright web-like veins lit up and sparkled delightfully.
"It's lovely," Thea said. She then looked to the east side of their camp, where the river softly rushed by them. It too, seemed to be aglow in the moonlight. She inquired about this. The other golden-haired elf, Lurilan, answered her.
"That is because its bed is littered with fragments of moonstone," he said. "It is told that long ago, before our races came to this place, that this land was covered by mountains of ice. As the ice melted with the warming climate, it carved out the rivers. It would make sense then, that the one which carved this river held the remains of what was once a moonstone filled mountain."
"How could you know that," asked Gabriel.
"We know only what the dragons have seen fit to tell us. They are the only ones who could answer your question in full." Before they could ask anything more of the elves, Ferin stood and bade them all to rise.
"Before the night becomes too old, let us taste your combat skills," Ferin said. "Then we may sleep. Thea, you shall spar with Sigrid; Bjorn with Gabriel. Shield your sword-edge and begin."
They did as they were told, Gabriel and Sigrid having to get their swords shielded by Erlathan, and squared off. The moon provided enough light so that they would not fall and trip over objects on the ground. Sigrid began to circle Thea; Thea only stood in a ready stance, as her father had told her not to initiate attack unless necessary. It was not long before Sigrid lunged at her, sword swinging towards Thea's hip. Thea deflected it, and they engaged in a heated duel. Everyone in their village had been taught how to handle a blade and bow, in case they should ever need to defend their homes. Sigrid fought hard, and proved equally skilled as Thea was even though she had been taught from her father.
By the end of their duel, both carried an array of bruises and cuts caused by fierce blows. In turns, each bathed in the river. After they had all been cleansed, the elves took watch so that the candidates may stay rested for the oncoming journey and trials. Thea lay on her back, staring at the stars and moon. Her body hurt, though she was not unaccustomed to sore muscles. She contemplated her duel with Sigrid, and concluded that she may want to get close to her even before they reached their destination. She would prove a terrible enemy should things ever go a-rye. With that thought, she let the song Lurilan was playing on his reed flute lull her to sleep.
The first week when by without incident. The candidates dueled each other every night, even switching partners every now and then. On the seventh night, they camped on the edge of Hart-Traslag Forest. Ferin had decided that night to be one of rest; so Thea pulled out her journal and ink and wrote down all she know of the elf language.
After a short while, to her surprise, Sigrid came to sit next to her. She watched Thea for a while, seeming to pay much attention to the flowing script on the paper. Thea finished the last word of her sentence, and closed her journal. Sigrid jerked as if she had been woken from a trance.
"Another thing you have never had to struggle with," Sigrid said bitterly, "is the use of magic. How can we, we of pure human blood, ever hope to come to wield magic?"
"There are many who can wield magic, Sigrid," Thea said gently.
"None around where our home lies," Sigrid replied. She went to stand, but Thea stopped her with her hand on her shoulder. Thea could not help but feel there was more to Sigrid's bitterness than she was letting on.
"Sigrid, what else is bothering you? I can't help but feel this hostility is a result of something more than just your feeling towards my family. Please, you can tell me." Thea held her arm gently, willing her to talk. Sigrid's face seemed to soften a bit in the firelight. But, just as the softness came it left. Thea felt her stiffen, and then Sigrid jerked her arm free and walked away. As Thea watched her, Gabriel caught her eye. He seemed to pass a look of condolence at her, and then he rose from his blanket and walked after Sigrid.
Thea, frustrated, stood and walked away from the camp and river. She needed to clear her head. She walked far enough away so that the voices of her company were but whispers in the night, but not too far as to not be able to see the light of their fire. She found a rock formation and climbed to its top. There she sat, closed her eyes, and opened her senses to the world around her. The world lit up with the auras of all the life within the valley. The primal thoughts of the insects and night dwellers buzzed through her mind. Their thoughts overwhelmed her own, pushing away her troubles.
When Thea finally felt at peace, she climbed down from the rocks and started back towards the camp. She had barely gone two steps when awareness prickled her neck. Slowly she turned, simultaneously going for her hunting knife. She dropped into a slight crouch, searching the darkness for the threat. As the clouds passed over the moon, its light shown down on a two-legged beast that was reminiscent of a dragon. How could I not sense something THAT big? She berated herself mentally. The beast stood at least ten foot tall. Its wings were more than twice its height, and it used them like arms to steady its self as it stood before her. It had eyes of red; they glowed fiercely.
"What are you, beast?" Thea asked venomously. It took a step towards her, hissing through its beak. Thea opened her mind and warned Bjorn. She felt him rush to gather everyone. Proceed with caution, brother. I do not want to scare this thing into attacking, Thea warned him. She shut her mind to the world once more, not knowing what kind of abilities this creature might have. Before she could attempt to find out more, a figure stepped from behind its massive back leg.
"You are quite brave to stand before the wyvern," a deep, steely voice said. When its source walked into the moonlight, Thea thought she stood before a demon. He was tall, standing at approximately seven foot; perhaps more. Black horns erupted from a head that was framed by dark hair. The rest of his features, besides his bulky appearance, were similar to an elf's; angled and sharp. His skin was ghostly white, even in the dark.
"Who are you, where did you come from," Thea asked. She could feel her brother in the dark behind her, hidden from view. The others were also there, though she could sense a feeling of longing from Sigrid. Ignoring Sigrid's thoughts, Thea turned her attention back to the figure before her.
He watched her for a moment, and then his face erupted into a smile. "I am the bringer of death for this land. We drove you from your lands as we drove the gryphons from theirs. Our race will rule this world, and all those of lesser blood shall perish; unless, they come under our command, willingly or not." He started towards her; it was then her company erupted from the shadows to confront him. He stopped short, laughed, and ran back to the wyvern and jumped onto its back. Before they could pursue him, the wyvern buffeted them with its powerful wings and launched itself skyward, angled south.
Thea asked Ferin about what had just occurred when they reached camp. He stared into the fire for a long while, and then looked at her. When he spoke, his voice was full of anger. "What you have just encountered was a member of one of the foulest races of this earth. He was Demoni-Kutemaan, a race of humanoids that live in the darkest reaches of the ancient world. They were here when our people, the elves, came to this land. At that time, they were at war with the dragons, killing them for their hides, horns and blood. That was when the elves and dragons first made the pact to join forces.
"What made them return here?" asked Bjorn. "And why have we never herd of them?"
It was Lurilan who responded. "They live off the blood of others. Animals are not enough to sustain them, so they seek out humans, elf-kind, and other magical races. They would seek out the dwarves, but they have remained hidden from the world for many years now. We had won the war against them, and drove them from these lands long ago. The only reason they can have returned is for either revenge, or they have worn out the resources of whatever accursed land they had fled to."
"If the dragons were at war with them," Gabriel asked, "how did they get one of them to carry their ilk?"
"Their steeds are not dragons," answered Erlathan. "They are wyverns, which are a sort of cousin to the dragons. Though just as large and strong as dragons, they have only two legs. Their massive wings double as front legs. When in the light, they resemble large, reptilian birds. Their skin is like a snakes, more leather-like than scaly; but it is just as strong as a dragons hide. They also differ from the dragons in that they cannot breathe fire, and have no magical qualities. They are beasts, though intelligent to a point. They understand the language of the dragons and elves, but that is as far as their intellectual capacities go."
Thea stood quiet, staring into the fire. She looked up to see Sigrid smirking at her. "What about this do you find so entertaining, Sigrid," Thea asked.
"Oh, nothing at all; just that it is convenient none of you have ever heard of the Demoni-kutemaan," Sigrid said.
"And you have?" Bjorn asked, his gaze lay upon Sigrid with suspicion.
She glanced at him, then back to Thea. "Remember, I was not from your village, Thea. My mother came with me from another. And, in my village, stories and legends of the Demoni were well known. I only wonder why you never herd of them, as your father was one who helped wipe out the last of their existence here."
"I thought they were eradicated years ago, Ferin," Bjorn said. Ferin was watching Sigrid closely at that instant; it was hard to tell if he had even herd Bjorn. After a moment, he looked at the rest of them.
"We thought we had, but came to discover that a few of their kin had escaped our grasp," Ferin said. "It wasn't until twenty years past that we were sure we had fully eradicated them. Though now it seems we have not. And that one arriving on the back of a wyvern shows they did not go so far from our land as we had thought. We must get to the capital as soon as possible."
"Can you all travel," asked Lurilan, a hard edge to his melodic voice. Thea nodded, as well as the others. "Then we must leave tonight, and travel with haste."