As they ascended the stairs that were carved into the side of the willow, Thea could not help but keep her head on a swivel. The farther they went up, the more of Gyllene-Lov was revealed. The capital of the elves was so beautiful; it was hard for Thea to believe she was there. This place is magnificent, she thought to Bjorn. She felt his smile and excitement in response. She turned to see how the others were reacting. Gabriel seemed just as mesmerized as she and Bjorn; but Sigrid's face showed distaste, and her eyes malice. Before Thea could ask her what was troubling her, the group topped the stairway and came to face a tall, vine covered door. Two elf guards, a male and female, barred the entrance with spears.
Ferin walked up from the rear, and spoke to the guards in elvish, "Vi har kommit for att leverera kandidaterna; och fa allvarliga budskap fran den yttre varlden."
"What did he say," Gabriel whispered to Thea.
"We have come to deliver the candidates; and bring grave tidings from the outer world." After she had spoken, Lurilan directed a look of approval her way. Thea blushed, and faced front quickly so as to not embarrass herself.
After Ferin shared a few more short words with the guards, they uncrossed their spears; the door swung in as if by its own accord. Ferin motioned for them to follow him, and they entered a hall of polished bark. Flowers of all kinds sprouted from wherever there were cracks in the smooth walls. They came to another door, smaller than the first, and it too swung in at the urging of some unknown force. The chamber they stepped into was large and airy; large enough to fit all ten of the Rider Council, their dragons, and the queen.
Thea noticed though that there were two more dragons than there were riders. However, as Ferin instructed the candidates to line up Erlathan and Lurilan left their party; only to each stand next to one of the rider-less dragons. Lurilan's features changed then. His face became more human than elf, and as such became more masculine. His hair changed as well; the straight pale gold locks he had turned short, except for two braids that hung by his temples. His hair also became a darker gold, with highlights the color of honey.
The council was now made up of six men and six women; to Thea's eyes only Lurilan and one of the female councilors were of human origin. The council dragons were each at least as large as Liekii. Thea waited patiently for their introductions; though she really had no other choice.
Ferin was the first to speak. "My queen, Merialeth," he said in a loud voice, "and riders of the Council; it is my honor to introduce to you the candidates from Laurel. They are: Bjorn Ragnvald, son of Njord Ragnvald. Gabriel Nikolaos, son of Hebert Nikolaos. Sigrid Cordova, daughter of Sorani Cordova. And Thea Ragnvald, twin to Bjorn Ragnvald and daughter of Njord Ragnvald."
"Sigrid Cordova," one of the council members called; it was a she-elf with pale skin, bright emerald eyes, and burgundy hair. As she continued to address Sigrid, her gaze became one of scrutiny. "Were not you and your mother prisoners among the last villages of the Demoni-Kutemaan?"
Sigrid, who had adopted a look of childish innocence, replied, "We were among the Demoni for quite some time. My mother was there even before my birth. A recollection of the likes I sincerely doubt anyone would be interested in."
"Oh, contraire," the councilor said. "I believe we would all be interested in what your imprisonment was like. Though now is not the time; we shall visit it in the future, I am sure." Sigrid cast her eyes to the floor, hiding her emotions. After a slight pause, Ferin resumed speaking.
"I would introduce the council, your Grace," he said, "but I thought it might be better for them to introduce themselves." The queen nodded, and motioned for Lurilan to begin. He stepped forward, his dragon following suit. His dragon was golden scaled, and was one of the smaller present.
"As you know, my name is Lurilan. No, I am not an elf, only half. I am the youngest of the council, ageing forty and five years. If you are fortunate enough to join the rider's ranks, you may hear just how this came to be. For now, you will know me as your weapons instructor. My companion is Aurinko, and she will be your instructor for aerial combat."
After Lurilan sat back down, the female human rider rose and strode forward; at her side stood a large dragon with scales of forest green. The rider seemed to be about the same standing height of Thea, five-foot-five-inches. She had auburn hair that fell down her back in a waterfall of curls. When she spoke, Thea could tell she was from the mountain tribes who dwelled among the Is-Skarva mountain range. Even though her accent was thick, her voice was pleasant on the ears.
"My name is Isabel," she said, standing with an air of authority. "I am among the elder of the council. My companion is Metsa; he and I shall be your teachers in the healing arts."
The rest of the council followed suit. Not all were teachers; only five of the twelve were. When the introductions were finished, the queen stood up from her throne and walked to stand directly before Thea and her companions. She looked upon them as she would a strange mushroom in a bed of roses. Just as she inspected them, Thea subtlety inspected her. She was tall, taller than her by at least six inches. Her hair was pure white, and her eyes ice blue. She was old, Thea could tell; not from her physical appearance, but from the years of wisdom and mass amount of intelligence that shone through her eyes. When she spoke her voice, full of restrained power, sent shivers down Thea's spine.
"You stand before us in hopes of becoming riders. Little did you realize, that while you stood, your minds have been laid before us like a map." This surprised them all, and Thea caught a look of dread in Sigrid's eyes. There must be enchantments on the castle to prevent mind shielding, Thea thought to herself. The moment the thought came, the queen shifted her eyes to look directly at her.
You are very perceptive, Thea Ragnvald, the queen's voice spoke to her, cool and smooth like a mountain stream. However, had you been more weary, you have the strength to over come the enchantments. Take care to guard yourself better, so that your enemies may not know the extent of your formidability.
After a moment, the queen shifted her eyes to once more behold the whole of their group. "It is not within our power to declare you pure of heart, only the dragons may do that. here, it was our responsibility to discern if you were of the proper mindset to become a rider. Tonight, you will rest among the other candidates. Tomorrow, at dawn, you will journey to Adelsten-Berg. May you be found worthy."
The queen dismissed them, and as they left the chamber Thea felt her mind shields to make sure that they were built up to the max. When they had descended to the forest floor, Ferin gathered them together. "You are fortunate to have been found eligible," he said to them. "You are free for the rest of the evening to explore the capital. Your housing is a half mile south of here, hung among the branches of an oak tree. Take care to stay within the city boundaries, and to get enough rest. It is another five day's journey from here to the base of Adelsten-Berg. I caution you, if you are not standing with the others by dawn, you will not be permitted to leave and will be sent home. Am I clear?" They all nodded. "Good. If you need to contact me, I shall be in Willow Castle. I must now divulge to the queen and council the horror that has begun." With that said, he left them and climbed the stairs back to the castle.
"So," Gabriel said cheerfully, "who wants to see just what this city is made of?" Bjorn excused himself, saying her could use the much needed rest. Sigrid accepted the offer, and Thea declined.
At Gabriel's questioning, and semi-hurt look, Thea added, "This whole journey has been overwhelming as it is. Like my brother, I too could use a rest. I intend to find a spot along the river to meditate. I'll see you tonight at the barracks." Gabriel seemed a little less hurt by her words, and shrugged them off. He offered his arm to Sigrid, who took it with a smirk directed at Thea. Thea shook her head as she watched them leave and, true to her word, found the edge of the river and walked along the bath that had been worn into its shore. She had gone about half a mile when she spied a root wide and strong enough to support her weight. It reached over the water ten foot before dipping down below the water.
Thea sat, letting her legs hang so that her feet were just a foot above the rushing river. She let the sound of the gurgling water sooth her as she took in her surroundings. Even from here, she could see some of the tree-houses and shops of the elf city. It seemed that most of the dwellings rested on the right side of the river, and the shops on its left shore. Even there, above the shops, were tree-houses. Thea suspected that the shop owners liked to be near their goods. The capital was not how Thea had imagined it. She thought the place would be mostly barren of any materialistic goods. Even so, the capital had more of a peaceful feel than even her home village.
It was nearing sunset when Thea felt an unfamiliar pressure on her mind's walls. Her first reaction was to stab at the intrusion, and enter whoever's mind it was who was trying to breach her own. She was met by a wall of defenses even stronger than her own. She receded into her own mind; the pressure returned, but it was gentle and cautious. Curious, Thea lowered her shields a small amount. Thea, came a honeyed voice; familiar and yet not. She lowered her shields more, and was enveloped as by a warm fleece blanket.
Lurilan? Thea asked in disbelief.
He laughed lightly in her mind, the sound sending warmth skittering down her spine. It is I, he said gently. I was wondering if you would ever let me in. Your walls are strong, young huntress.
Am I even allowed to be speaking with you, she asked, scared that she might insult the elves or the council in doing so.
I understand your hesitance, Thea. Fear not, you will not have slighted anyone with this contact. Even so, it was I who initiated conversation. If anyone were to be at fault, it would be me. Also, I hope you will not think me too bold in doing so. You are right in a sense though; it is not entirely appropriate for a council member to speak with such informality to his student. However, I hope you will not be opposed to it.
Why would you wish to speak with me anyhow? As much as she knew she should sever the contact, Thea could not bring herself to do so.
You are young, and not yet a rider. Yet, through this journey, I have felt within you a kindred spirit. Perhaps it is the human curiosity inherent of my lineage, but I cannot help the feeling that we should get to know each other better; if you will allow it. It was a question presented to Thea. His voice held no malice, and she sensed a feeling of genuine interest radiating from his mind.
If we are to know each other better, Thea said, It would be better to do so face to face. The mind can be deceiving, no insult intended.
No insult is felt, and I was actually hoping you would find that agreeable. Follow the river till the worn path ends, you will find me there. With that, Lurilan severed the contact. Even so, Thea felt as if Lurilan's conscious still lingered within hers. Though hesitant to meet with him, she followed the path along the river till it was no more. At its end was a small glade with a silver stream running through its center, emptying into the river. Beneath the shelter of a maple tree lounged the dragon, Aurinko. At the head of the stream was a waterfall; and beside it, seated on a moonstone laced bolder, was Lurilan.