By the next morning, they were already well within the depths of Hart-Traslag Forest. They were traveling fast as they could, though it was difficult for the horses to traverse the game trails they were forced to follow. There were no permanent paths into the north end of the forest. The group did not rest until the next morning; Ferin thought it best not to stop during the night, for fear of ambush. The elves had enchantments and spells defending their cities, but they did not cast their power too far from their boundaries. Even so, where they lacked in magic protection they made up for with the many elven outposts scattered throughout the forest. They stopped to rest at one such outpost.
Thea picketed their horses on the bank of the river, then took a moment to splash the clear, cool water over her face and arms. As she walked back to the campsite, which had been set below a small tree house, she saw Ferin and the other elves talking on the deck. She sat down on a rock next to Bjorn, who was preparing a small meal of venison stew. They sat in comfortable silence, while Thea scanned their surroundings. The small glade was richly green, with wildflowers scattered everywhere. In one of the surrounding trees Thea saw a woodpecker, searching for his next meal. She watched the bird for a while, until a heated discussion grabbed her attention.
It was Sigrid and Gabriel who were the source. Though they kept quiet, it was obvious their discussion was not going well. Thea reached out with her mind to glean what it might be about. As soon as she touched Gabriel's mind, he threw a wall up that was as thick as steel. Thea flinched with surprise; she had not expected him to be well adept at guarding his thoughts. Soon after, Sigrid stormed away from him. Shaking his head, he started towards where Thea and Bjorn sat. As he passed them, he gave Thea an angry, hurt look. Thea instantly regretted trying to spy on them. A man was only as safe as his thoughts were, and Thea almost violated his mental sanctuary. I must remember not to let curiosity get the better of me, she scolded herself.
She watched Gabriel as he sat alone on a rock, overlooking the river. Thea couldn't stand having bad feelings between them, so she rose and approached him to apologize. When she was but three feet from him, he looked over his shoulder and spoke, again surprising her. "It is not polite to delve in places you had not been welcomed to." His voice, though not unkind, made his upset clear. Cautiously, she walked up and sat beside him.
She waited, and after a few moments he looked at her. Feeling sheepish, she said, "I am sorry that I tried to read you. I should not have, and had no intention of causing you hurt." After a moment, his face softened and he nodded his forgiveness. Thea could not help but pry further though. "I only wish I knew what it is Sigrid is so guarded and bitter about. You are the only one she seems to speak to."
"She does not just speak to me," Gabriel said softly. Looking back at the river, he continued. "You should take care to pay more attention to your brother. Sigrid seems to be quite taken with Bjorn." Thea was shocked. How could she not notice such a thing? Thinking back on their trip, she did remember many a time where Bjorn and Sigrid talked throughout the night, when they were supposed to be sleeping. She had not given the talks much merit, until now.
"I thought that maybe, perhaps, you and her had something going on between you," Thea said, trying to keep the jealous tone out of her speech. Gabriel laughed a little, tossing a pebble he had being toying with into the water.
"As close as we are," he said, "there is nothing between us than a profound friendship. I was the first to welcome her, as a child, to our village; she clung to me after that. We share many things between us...more than I care to think about." Thea noticed the distaste in his voice when he spoke near the end. As curious as she was, Thea would not press the subject further. She did not want to push him any further away, and hoped that their own friendship might develop into one that would allow the sharing of secrets.
Thea sat with him in silence, absorbing the warmth of his company and the beautiful day, shadowed as it was when considering the circumstances. At noon day, Lurilan called them to the center of the glade. His handsome face was lined with worry, an emotion not seen amongst the elves very often.
"I know you are all tired," he said, "but we mustn't tarry here. You have till dusk to sleep, then we must push onward."
Thea lay her bedroll beside Bjorn's. Lying on her side so as to face him, she asked, "How long has Sigrid been smitten with you, brother?"
Bjorn seemed caught off guard. "She is not," he said, defensively.
"I have heard you whispering at night when the others are asleep. What have you learned from her? What does she hide?" Thea tried not to let a hard edge creep into her voice.
"She has told me nothing, Thea. Sure, we talk but of nothings."
"You warned me before not to get too involved with Gabriel," Thea said. "Now I warn you of Sigrid. She has been nothing but hostile towards me and earlier today she fought with Gabriel. She is hiding something, Bjorn. Take care of your heart, so as to protect it from what thorny vines Sigrid is weaving around it. Do not allow her to come between us."
Bjorn sighed, and reached for Thea's hand. "I heed your warning, sister. Fear not, it shall take more than thorny vines to come between us. You are my sister; my twin, and my blood. I shall never forsake you, Thea." Squeezing her hand lightly, Bjorn released her and settled to sleep.
Thea lay with her arm under her head. Despite Bjorn's reassuring words, the feeling of doom and foreboding would not leave her. They rolled through her mind like thunder through a storm. In an attempt to clear her mind, she conjured the melody of a ballad her people new it was a song of the seasons and nature, and the beginning and end of time. Soon, she had fell into a shallow slumber.
Thea was jostled awake by Bjorn. In her bleary state of mind, she could barely make out the roars of some giant creature. They became louder as her senses came to her. Like emerging from a mud-filled bog into a solid clearing, she became alert. She heard the elves shouting to each other, and a gusty wind seemed to have blown into the camp. When Thea looked up, she found the source.
Outlined by the setting sun was a red wyvern; on its back was another Demoni-kutemaan. Thea took off to where the horses were still picketed, though whinnying and tossing their heads with fear. She grabbed her bow and quiver, and ran to a spot within range of the wyvern. She knocked an arrow, and joined the other elves as they shot at the beast. Soon the arrows stuck the beast enough to cause it to raise its self just out of reach. With a high-pitch screech the wyvern turned, fleeing the glade.
Not believing it was truly gone, Thea ran to where the others had gathered around the base of the tree house.
"They must have followed us," Gabriel exclaimed.
Ferin counted their group, then tossed his head around wildly. "Where is Sigrid," he said. Though his voice was calm, his eyes betrayed anger and suspicion.
"I'm right here," Sigrid called, emerging from the forest beyond the glade.
"Where were you," he asked, accusingly.
Feigning ignorance, Thea suspected, Sigrid replied. "I had just left the clearing to clear my head. When I heard the commotion, I came running. I came too late it seems though."
Ferin gazed at Sigrid with malice, but the emotion was only there for ea split second; Thea doubted anyone had even noticed. Composing himself, Ferin said, "We must leave, now. I had not thought there were much more of their filth within a short distance from here. We cannot stop again till we reach Keltainen Lehti."
"Was that not the same one that attacked the other night," Gabriel asked.
Ferin shook his head, but it was Erlathan who answered him. "Though you are not yet trained to see all details, no matter the situation, this one was not male. It was a female of their race. Though there are half as many females as males from our calculations, the females are just as brutal and twice as fierce."
"We do not have the time to discuss such things," Thea said hotly. She berated herself for speaking out of line among the elves, though they seemed not to notice.
"You are right, Thea," Lurilan said to her. He seemed to give her a small smile of encouragement, but then it faded as he continued to speak. "None of you are prepared to face the Demoni, let alone a single one at the back of a wyvern. Ferin, let us not waste any more time." With that, they scattered to gather up their things, which had been thrown all over the glade by the wyvern's massive wings. Thea loosed the horses and handed off their reigns to their respective riders. They mounted, bidding the sentries farewell and fair-health. Then they set off at a slight gallop through the forest.
They rode through the forest swiftly; they came upon several more outposts on their journey, and relayed to each what ill events had been set in motion. As morning approached, Thea felt the hair on her neck stand on end. They had stopped briefly to water the horses, and as they stood by the river, stretching their legs, Thea kept her eyes on the surrounding forest. Twice she thought she glimpsed something, beast or man she could not tell, watching them.
She voiced her concerns to Lurilan, who said, "As well you should be concerned. There are many beasts and creatures that dwell within this forest. Not all are friendly to elf or man-kind; stay sharp. Though we may have outrun the Demoni there are things out here, just as sinister perhaps, that may seek to undo us." Thea thought she beheld a note of fondness when he spoke the last bit. Just as fast as it came, it faded, and he became all serious as he ordered the others to mount back up.
By sunset they had reached the outer boundaries of Keltainen Lehti. Ferin instructed them to dismount; they would walk the rest of the way into the elf city. They had not gone a hundred feet when Ferin stopped. He raised his hand and placed it on some invisible wall. He spoke a few words in elf language, and Thea saw the wall solidify. "You may enter," he said to them. Thea went first; she passed through the wall, it's touch sent an electric shiver through her body. She turned and watched the rest pass through, then Lurilan placed his hand on the veil, and it became and invisible wall once more.
Looking ahead, Thea saw what she had not seen just moments ago. Here, too, there were tree houses; they were a bit larger than that of the outposts. Upon further inspection, she noticed they now stood on a well worn path that bordered the river to their left. Ferin took the lead, and the group started forward. The trees there, though just as large as the rest in the forest, seemed to hum with life. Their consciousness' burned bright in Thea's mind as she reached out with it.
They had gone a mile before the forest developed into an intricate network of tree houses and bridges. They varied in shape and size, and in height up the trees. The bridges were composed of natural tree branches, and planks, and they crisscrossed the forest ceiling; they even spanned the river, which was a quarter mile wide where the city lay. It was not long before they came upon more elves.
The elves sang and danced around them. Their voices and the city made Thea feel warm and welcome, despite the trying journey they had thus far. "How are they so happy," she asked Lurilan, who walked next to her.
He smiled and said, "We elves know when the balance of the land is out of sorts. We can feel the impending doom. However, we cannot let fear and anger into our hearts. For if we do, it can consume us; and in doing so, will destroy us. We, like the dragons, feel emotions more intensely than the other races. The magic in our blood ties us to the land and nature intimately. So, instead of dwelling on darkness, they celebrate the coming of new riders."
They had gone another two miles before they entered what Thea could only think was the center of the city. They came to stand before a giant weeping willow; though it was only a little larger than the rest of the trees. Its top rose over a hundred feet above them. About half way to its top was nestled a castle-like structure; it looked like it was actually formed from the willow.
"You gaze upon the Piltrad-Slott," Ferin said, adoringly. "In your tongue, it is Willow Castle. This is the home of our beloved queen, Merialeth. It is here you shall meet the Rider Council."