Two well bred steeds were awaiting Cole and Malachai at the entrance of the castle. The woodsman was preparing equipment and gear for the journey as the king walked about, and he was staring up toward the stone fortress at one of its numerous windows; he guessed it was the chamber in which Ruby was residing. His concentration was broken when the woodsman shouted out "My liege - are you ready to proceed?"
Cole wandered over to the horses, and he attempted to mount one of the animals; a task that proved a troublesome undertaking. Malachai chuckled lightly at the sight of the king, until the young man finally sank into his saddle. The steeds slowly trotted off, but the animals were stopped to a halt when a lone and fair voice cried out.
Cole's heart sank into his stomach, and he assured himself that Ruby was irritated with the fact he was about to leave her behind. After a moment of dwelling on such a tormenting thought, he then perceived that his companion may have come to see him off. He dismounted from the saddle as a beautiful maiden approached, and he turned to greet Ruby with a smile, but his expression of delight slightly lessened when his eyes met that of Aira's.
The princess was already painted and dressed to entice appeal, and a hint of perfume lingered around the atmosphere she passed through. Her face was pouting, and after she had approached the young man, she took a moment to straighten out her dress, paying special attention to her partially exposed bust.
When she was satisfied with her appearance, she spoke in a soft and sweet tone, "My king, I have been searching the entire castle for you, and the Elder has recounted the heroic deed you endeavor to accomplish. You are so brave." She drew closer to Cole, and before he could react to her movements, the royal maiden planted a gentle and alluring kiss upon his cheek, directly over the scar.
Again Cole's heart fluttered, but this time because of the affection he had received. For a moment he stood petrified, and his skin burned as if some omnipotent being was watching him, like a child holding a magnifying glass over an ant. His eyes darted toward a castle window that was faint and distant, and he was uncertain about the feeling that brooded over him. His glance was pulled back to the princess when she leaned close and whispered in his ear, "I shall be awaiting your return, my king - my heart is with you."
Cole's face slightly reddened at the remark, and he all could say in his stupor was "Uh, thanks, I think."
Aira giggled behind a palm she placed over her mouth, and the king mounted his horse once more. In her mind were thoughts unknown to Cole and Ruby, and even to Malachai or the Council. As she waved good-bye to her king, she said to herself with certain confidence, "Soon you will be all mine."
The young man's horse speedily galloped alongside the woodsman's steed, and Cole placed a hand upon his cheek, then he caressed the scar around the area it had been kissed by the royal maiden. He could not explain the feeling that was entering his mind, but he felt a strange sensation when his thoughts were directed to Aira; the emotion could only be described, by Cole's understanding, as enchanting.
The pair of men traveled east of the kingdom, and the morning hours were spent riding over pleasant terrains and through agreeable climate. As the hooves of Cole's animal were stomping and stampeding along, the young man felt a new sense of purpose, and the freedom of the open air gave him a peace of mind. He was emboldened, and his courage soared as one of his hands rested itself upon the hilt of his sharped sabre.
His enjoyment was brief, and his tension returned once more, after Cole had noticed that the path they were taking was leading them into an eerie and desecrated looking forest. The bravery that beamed upon the young man's face grew faint, and his nerves wavered at the sight of the wooded terrain.
The trees were gnarled and twisted, and not a single leaf grew upon any of the dark and drooping branches. The boughs were dark, though they were not stained in the marring blackness left behind by dragon's fire. Bizarre cries and mysterious callings echoed throughout the forest, and the ground was shrouded in a heavy fog; the mist was so dense that the horses trotted cautiously, and more often than not, the animals had to be coerced into continuing onward.
The gloom of the woodland blotted out the sunlight, and the high spirited morning was consumed by the foreboding misery of the noon hours. Every moment the pair of men pressed onward, Cole's heart sank lower and lower, yet he found comfort in being escorted by such a mighty and knowledgeable guide; this luxury he was soon to be without, and this overwhelmed the king with panic and uncertainty.
"What do you mean this is where you take your leave?" Cole shouted at Malachai, and the horse under the king nearly reared up from the excitement.
"This trial is meant for the star-born king, and I am but a bounty hunter and protector of the kingdom. I shall make camp here, and await your return," the woodsman said as he dismounted his steed, and the burly man began to unpack his belongings. "If you are truly our king, then you need not concern yourself with the outcome of the trial."
"And if I am not this supposed 'star-born' king, what then?" Cole protested, and his panic was mixing with frustration; he felt as if he had been tricked by the sage and the woodsman, and he falsely perceived that Malachai would accompany him until the very end.
"If you are not the king, then please scream loudly when you perish, so that I am not waiting longer than I have to for your return." The woodsman was building a makeshift fire pit, and he spoke in a casual and apathetic tone.
The words were none too reassuring for the young man, but Cole knew that any further protest would not help him escape his fate. He drew a deep breath as he surveyed the despairing surroundings, and after a moment he sighed and shook his head, "Remind me exactly what I am supposed to do again," his voice sounded unenthusiastic.
"This forest is an ancient woodland," Malachai said as the dim glows of a virgin fire illuminated his face, "the eldest in all of the realm. Neither king nor overlord can conquer these trees, for they have their own master. A spirit resides within this place, a being we call 'the Keeper.' This entity will test your resolve as you progress further into the trees, and since you are a king, your trial will be the most difficult of them all; if you succeed, the Keeper shall bestow upon you a symbol of Avelen royalty, which will prove you are the star-born king. This trial may take hours, or even days. When you return to me, we shall depart this wretched forest and travel back to the kingdom. The denizens will most likely tolerate you more, and accept you as their new ruler. We must rekindle their hope! I have faith in you, my liege."
Cole listened once again to the vague and ambiguous explanation that was presented to him by the woodsman. He was baffled and confused, and more than ever he wished for Ruby's company, or at the very least, her ability to comprehend word games. Without another word, the king directed his horse onward, and the animal gradually wandered into the thickened fog of the unsettling woodland. The more distant Malachai's camp fire became, the more fear entered the young man's heart; yet he still strove deeper and deeper into the forest, the only thoughts that comforted him now were the memories of his childhood companion.
"I wonder how Ruby is getting along in the castle?" He whispered to himself, contemplating what he guessed would be her reaction to the news of his absence.