CHAPTER ONE - TIME IS A RIVER
A single drop of blood pattered down on the paper Elven King Aethaden Undriel held. He swiftly brushed one long fingered hand over the perfect crimson circle. It smeared across the pure white paper and stained his skin. He quickly brought the document close to his chest with one hand while discretely pressing the other against his nose to stop any more blood from flowing.
Perhaps no one had seen him bleeding. Perhaps, even if they had, they would think it was because the season had been remarkably dry. It wasn’t weakness. It wasn’t the start of the Black Sleep. He was perfectly fine even though his 1000th year had passed, the year when he should have been bound to his Blade, but was not.
Because there are no Blades left.
The mere thought of his missing Blade had the Mark on his shoulder and neck throb like a severed limb. The Mark had been a blessing and a curse since it had appeared at his birth and spread over the years, becoming what looked like a tattoo to most eyes in soft blues and purples. The Mark told him that he had a Blade, a preternaturally strong and gifted Elven warrior who would match his magic with steel and who would bear the same Mark. The Mark meant that a Blade existed somewhere that was his. He just had to find him before it was too late.
Aethaden slammed down that thought process. He would not despair. That was simply not useful. He drew his fingers from his nose. On the back of his pointer finger was a faint trace of blood, but it was already drying. Nothing to worry about. His purple-eyed gaze swept the circular Council table to check if any of his Counselors was looking at him. Lord Tisik Parn was droning on about expected crop yields as if he did not even find it exciting. But to Parn, crops were a passion. It was just his reading voice that made it sound like he was in pain. Most of the rest of his Council were desperately trying to stay awake. Their heads were bobbing like heavy blooms on slender stems as Parn detailed how well the cern was growing or the stamen fruit.
All except for two.
The first of these was his best friend, Lord Halleden Morgana. Halleden was not seated at the Council table as he was not one of the twelve official Counselors from the largest Houses of the Valore Elven clans. Halleden’s House was a minor one, but that had never mattered to Aethaden. They were age mates and had, upon first meeting on accident in an orchard – both of them avoiding their studies - been inseparable. Some had thought it a love match, and had hoped – though Morgana’s family held no Blade blood – that somehow he would be able to hold off the Black Sleep from taking Aethaden like it had his parents and every other Undriel. But theirs had always been a friendship at the core, not a romance, and Halleden – for all his strength, courage and nobility – was no Blade. But he knew Aethaden down to his bones and was as protective as a Blade could ever have been.
Halleden clearly had seen the blood and his best friend didn’t think it was from the weather. Aethaden could see that he was about to call the meeting to a close so that Aethaden could rest. Though he normally resisted giving any quarter to the weakness that plagued him almost daily now, he would welcome sleep at that moment. He was so very tired. His bones ached. His eyes burned from exhaustion. Even the long, platinum hair on his head felt too heavy to be born. He just wanted to lie down and let unconsciousness take him into her embrace.
But he could not show even the slightest hint of these feelings, because of the second person in the room who had noticed the blood. While Halleden watched him out of concern, Lady Lethe Noor watched him to find an advantage.
Their eyes met. Her green to his purple. She dropped her gaze to the stained paper, half crumbled in his left hand. A hand that he had not realized was trembling with strain. He stilled that movement, but it was too late. When she looked up into his eyes again, there was triumph on her face.
She spoke then, interrupting Parn with her incisive, crisp voice, “King Aethaden, I would like to discuss your research in bringing back the Blades and freeing your relatives from the Black Sleep. This Council has heard little and even less of that was definite.”
Parn’s mouth paused in mid-syllable. Heads that had been going towards resting on the table jerked up. Halleden’s golden eyes narrowed and his mouth thinned in anger. Aethaden held himself very still.
“My research is … coming along,” he answered her stiffly. It wasn’t coming along. It was at a complete standstill. But he would never tell her this.
“Are you any forwarder in finding out where the Blades disappeared to? Whose magic took them all at once? Who could make them disappear without a trace? The Riven?” The Counsellors stirred uneasily at the name of the beings that had been their ancient enemy for so long. To speak their name was to risk them hearing you and coming. She leaned forward, elbows on the table. Her green eyes were fixed upon him. “And even if we assume it was them – for who else hates us so much and has enough power to accomplish this – why would they simply whisk the Blades away to a place they can be recovered from? Why not just kill them all?”
Parn shuffled his papers, opening and closing his mouth, clearly wanting to read the rest of his report despite the drama in the room. The others’ gazes were darting between him and Lethe. Halleden opened his mouth to call her to order, but Aethaden made a slight movement that silenced his friend. If he did not defend himself it would be a weakness in Lethe’s eyes. Her kin valued strength above all things. They were gifted warriors, nothing like the Blades, but still, the ones they had relied upon since all the Blades had vanished just after his birth.
“If the Blades were dead then the Undriels would not simply be asleep. They would die, too. You know this, Lady Noor,” he pointed out. “In the past, when a Blade has died, so has the Undriel he or she protected.”
She nodded. “Quite right. So perhaps it is not the Riven who have done this. Killing all of the Undriels is their goal so it makes no sense that they would hold back.”
It was the bucolic Lord Raditch Sern who blustered out, “What is the point of speaking of this now, Lady Noor? There have been no attacks by the Riven in an age! They might be the ones dead and gone for all we know. Or uninterested in having the Guardian turn them to ash yet again in their futile quest to take over our lands!”
Raditch gave her a condescending smile, which, if Aethaden hadn’t loathed Lethe, would have had him reprimanding the Elf for his rudeness. Lethe, though, did not even flicker an eyelash. She did not directly address Raditch either. Her gaze was upon Aethaden alone.
“Your 1000th year has passed, King Aethaden,” she said, her voice low.
Aethaden placed his right hand below the table, out of eyesight, and dug his fingernails into the soft skin of his palm. It helped him focus and not rise to the bait of her words.
“Yes.” He gave her a tight smile. “All of the Valore celebrated it with me so I’m well aware of my age.”
Or lack thereof, which is your point.
He’d held the throne since his 500th year when his parents had finally succumbed to the Black Sleep and had to be placed into the white stone sarcophagi that protected their still alive – but seeming lifeless – bodies. He was the youngest king to ever hold the throne of the Valore. He only did so because he was the last Undriel. There had been unrest at the thought of one so very young and untested ruling them at first.
But the Undriels have ruled the Valore since time immemorial. It was unthinkable to do anything else, but crown me.
Yet Lethe had made sure that every moment of every day of every month, year, decade and century that had passed that she did not believed that his was a valid reign. He was only there because of his last name, because he, alone, could summon the Guardian to protect the Valore if the Riven invaded them again, which was galling, because he did not consider the kingship a prize.
In his mind, his father was king and his mother was queen forever. Once he woke them – and he would find a way – he would cede all control to them again. As it should be. He longed to study magic and lose himself in the forests and fields of Valore. But that was not to be. Instead he was burdened with a kingdom after having watched those who mattered most to him fall asleep and never wake. He was granted power he had not sought, but had taken it on himself because of duty, because of that last name Lethe seemed to think gave him unearned favors, while he saw it as only giving him burdens.
Lethe shifted in her chair. She wore the green and silver armor of her House, which matched her eyes. Her red hair was cut short so that when she donned her helmet, it did not get in her way. A scar – long and white and thin – crossed over her right eyebrow and cheek. Not even the natural quick healing of the Elves or their skilled healers had been able to completely put her back together again. A Gnarl had caught her with one of its poison-tipped claws before she had disemboweled it. She’d saved many Valore that day with her bravery. He tried not to wish she had died doing it.
“You should have been bonded to your Blade seven years ago,” she reminded him as if he did not count the minutes since it should have happened himself.
Halleden’s lips writhed back from his teeth and this time, no warning look from Aethaden could stop him from speaking, “King Aethaden’s parents lasted over five hundred years before they succumbed to the Black Sleep! You think a mere seven something to worry about? That is your point, is it not, Lethe?”
Halleden was not going to use her title. His older brother, Rion, had faced Lethe in the Warrior’s Circle. They had been evenly skilled, but she was willing to do anything to win. She had been on her back. Rion was standing over her triumphant. He had reached down to help her up, having won the match, but just before the judge called it, she had swept his legs out from under him and used his proffered helping hand to get him on his back and placed a blade to his throat. She was called the winner. But many thought she simply had no honor. So Halleden had reasons outside her present behavior towards him to hate her.
But again Lethe’s gaze remained, unmoving from him. He felt another drop of blood forming in his nose. He knew it would start to fall any moment. He used a thin stream of magic to keep it from doing so.
“Our beloved Firathia and Syrthavel were Elves of long years,” her speaking his parent’s names was almost an agony for his ears. “They had built up stores of strength from the eons they had spent with their Blades. In contrast, until King Aethaden, no Undriel has ever gone a day beyond their 1000th year without being bonded. If that age truly meant nothing then why would it be enforced so firmly?”
She was right, of course. The moment that his 1000th year had passed, he had started to weaken. His magic did not come as quickly to him as it had before and he was exhausted after having performed the simplest spells. And then the general tiredness had started, sapping his limbs of strength, making it so that he could no longer take long rides in the woods that he loved, or swim in the lake under the silvery moons. Slowly, but surely, he had been reduced to staying the palace and moving between his bed and his workroom. He hid this all from the Counselors, from his people, but, evidently, it had not escaped Lethe’s keen observational skills.
“Are you suggesting that our king is weak?” Halleden slammed a hand down on the table.
She lowered her head. “Of course not. I recognize how valiant our king has been and is. He has taken on tasks that an Elf much older than himself would be daunted by. I am merely suggesting that, perhaps, he needs some assistance –”
“Every scholar and mage in the land is working on this problem of the Blades with me,” Aethaden responded mildly. “Are you offering some kind of additional assistance?”
She placed a hand on the center of her armored chest. “I am no scholar. I would put myself in a false position to pretend to be so. I was merely offering to assist in the defense of the realm.”
“How would you do this more than you already are?” he asked.
“That House Noor would be named Protector and House Etoren take over the running of the Council and other day to day matters of the kingdom.” She inclined her head towards Lord Ares Etoren who sat opposite her.
Aethaden’s gaze swung towards Ares and he realized that three people had been very aware of him during the Council meeting and not just two. He felt a stabbing pain over his heart. It was not a physical pain, but a mental one. Ares had been his father’s best friend. He had played the role that Halleden did for Aethaden.
“You wish to be king, Ares?” he asked, his voice sounding thin and strained to his own ears. He used not honorifics, because Ares was like an uncle to him. And now, Ares might have just betrayed him. One might have heard a pin drop in the silence of the room after his words.
Ares was a powerful figure. He stood several inches taller than Aethaden. His jet black hair and eyes were an unusual combination in the Valore. Some of the uneducated had whispered he had Riven blood, but that was absurd. He folded his hands on the table.
“No, Aethaden. I do not. But I do want to help you. More than anything,” he answered. His voice was low and cool. “Time is not an unending river for an Undriel who is not bound to his Blade. You need to concentrate on finding yours, on finding the answer to where the other Blades went. Anything that distracts you from this task should be taken on by another who can.”
Every word was like a dagger in his heart. Not because what Ares was saying was incorrect, but that he was finally saying what many must have been thinking. What Aethaden was thinking when he didn’t school his thoughts. But why hadn’t Ares come to him in private? Why wait to a Council meeting to broach this? But then his thoughts went back to the weeks and months preceding this meeting. Ares had tried to broach it, but had backed off every time he had reacted negatively. Aethaden felt the tickle of blood in his nose and panic seized him. Ares had seen the blood and knew what it meant.
“You alone can find the Blades. Let Ares run the kingdom and House Noor defend it while you focus on that task,” Lethe said.
Theirs was either treason or a truly meant offer. His reaction would determine how it was taken. If he showed anger, if he showed himself affronted by their offer, he would look weak. At the same time, if he did not rebuke them, he would also look weak. They had put him in a trick box. His gaze met Ares’. Those black eyes looked into his with only sadness.
“I remember similar offers being made to me before I took the crown,” he said, his voice smooth and even, showing none of the strain or anger or betrayal he felt. The hand he clenched in his lap was going numb. “I turned all of them down then when my parents’ loss was fresh in my heart.”
“Yes.” An eager light appeared in Lethe’s eyes and she leaned yet further towards him. “But then you were intent on proving your worth to the Undriel name. And you have done that! But time is growing short to finding an answer to the disappearance of the Blades. The Riven –”
“Have not appeared in an age!” Raditch rumbled again, angry that his earlier statement had seemingly been ignored.
“Indeed, you are correct,” she said with a nod of her head. “Which means that others can defend our people while the king spends his precious time looking into the matter of the Blades.”
“Once the Undriels are restored, Aethaden,” Ares said, his voice still comforting despite what he was saying, “The throne will be theirs again. I do not want it for me. I want it for you.”
The silence that fell in the Council chamber was deafening. Halleden looked ready to lunge for Lethe or Ares’ throats while the other Council members merely looked perturbed.
“What you say makes sense on some level,” Aethaden found himself saying. He almost sounded amused. This caused a sharp intake of breath to come from one of the Counselors, but he did not bother to check who had done it. Lethe’s eyes gleamed as if she couldn’t believe her luck. “But it would be wrong move.”
That had Lethe jerking back in her chair. Ares merely lowered his head and stared at the table as if he had expected Aethaden to say nothing less.
Aethaden continued, “The Riven are not gone. They merely bide their time. I can feel them beyond the mountains. Whether or not they are behind the loss of the Blades is irrelevant. They know what it means that there is only one Undriel left.” He was the one to lean forward now. He knew his eyes were glowing with power. He willed them to. He would pay for using his strength so wildly like this. But it had to be done. “If I were to cede even an ounce of power to you or anyone else, Lady Noor or Lord Etoren, the Riven would know. And they would come again bringing plague, death, and darkness in their wake. That would be a greater distraction to me than the running of the country. That would ensure I could not spend my other precious time on finding an answer to the Blades’ disappearance.”
Every one at that table was very still.
“The Undriels rule the Valore for a reason, Lady Noor, Lord Etoren. We are the only ones that can keep the Riven at bay. So your offer – no matter how generously or selflessly given – cannot be accepted.” Even if I needed your help. He stood up, firming his legs beneath him, even as they wanted to go out, and gave her a thin, sliver of a smile. “Now I have my research to attend to. Lord Parn, excellent report.”
Parn jerked and crumpled his precious report. “Oh, yes, thank you, King Aethaden! I’m so glad you – ah, you enjoyed it.”
Without a further word, Aethaden turned on his heel and headed into the private areas of the palace. He should go to his bedroom and rest. That show of power and the thin trickle of magic he was using to stem the tide of blood in his nose had drained him down to the dregs. It was pitiful. It was more than that. It was dangerous for him to be so weak. Yet, on shaking legs, he headed instead into the crypt where his family lay in eternal slumber unless he could bring back the Blades from wherever they had disappeared to.
He stumbled down the white stone staircase that curled like petals around a central stem. His feet found their way of their own accord to the twin sarcophagi that held his parents. The sarcophagi were also of pure white stone. The crypt was eternally illuminated by pure, clean light from an ever glow crystal. The light was similar to that of sunlight. A sun that would never set on the Undriels.
His parents, Firathia and Syrthavel Undriel, had ruled for longer than any Undriels before them. They had beaten back the Riven and ushered in an era of peace unheard of for the Valore. During their rule, it had seemed like everything was possible.
Or so he had heard.
He had been born after the Blades had vanished. One night, the Blades had been there and the next they were simply gone. Not every Blade and Undriel were love mates – as his parents showed – but they were closer than kin to each Undriel.
He laid his shaking hands on their sarcophagi, one on each lid, and closed his eyes.
“How I miss you,” he whispered to them. “You’ve no idea how heavy each day is without your voices, your smiles, and your love. I try to do right by our people, but I … I fear …” His throat seized around the words. “I fear I am failing.”
“You are not failing, my king,” Halleden’s noble voice broke over him.
Aethaden attempted to turn to look at his best friend, but his legs simply gave out beneath him.
“Aethaden!” Halleden caught him around the waist and lowered him gently to the ground with his back resting against his mother’s sarcophagus. “Let me get a healer. Do not move.”
“No!” Aethaden grasped his best friend’s arm with surprising strength. He was desperate for no one else to see this show of extreme weakness.
“But, Aethaden –”
“A healer will not help, my dearest friend,” Aethaden got out. He tasted blood flowing down his throat. Since had not allowed it to flow out of his nose, it went the other direction. The sweet, coppery taste of it filled his mouth and he felt sick.
Halleden’s expression was anguished. His skin white as chalk, his lips parted in an ‘O’ of empathetic pain, and his whole body was rigid with the desire to move, to do something, anything, to help Aethaden. But he could not. There was nothing he could do.
“I must do something!” Halleden cried, echoing what his body language had already told Aethaden so eloquently.
Aethaden smiled genuinely. “Sit with me. Stay with me a moment.”
“I will stay with you forever.”
But it was only with reluctance that Halleden settled down on the ground, but not before he took off his long coat and put it over Aethaden’s more slender form. The warmth and scent of him flowed over the Elven king. He let his eyelids flutter shut for a moment, relishing the sense of love and safety this brought him.
“Ares and Lethe are right,” Aethaden said after a moment.
“What?! No! You are the one who is right! What you said about the Riven attacking if you were to back down from your duties is true!” Halleden cried. “I cannot believe that Lord Etoren suggested it at all. Lethe is always looking for a way to win, but him? It is madness. You must remain our king in all ways.”
“Ares and Lethe are correct in that time is running out for me,” Aethaden admitted. Strangely, saying the words was almost freeing. “I am falling. I feel it. The Black Sleep reaches for me with lover’s arms to drag me down into darkness forever.”
Halleden made a wounded sound. “No! That’s not – you can’t – we have to do something! The Mark shows your Blade exists! The Mark is proof that your Blade is waiting for you! Searching for you!”
“I think so, too” Aethaden agreed. “And I … I have a lead on where my Blade may be and why he has not found his way here yet.”
His heart thumped faster in his chest. Adrenaline gave him slightly more strength. Speaking of his Blade always made him excited. He remembered when he was growing up how he had chafed at the idea of being tied to some warrior. A warrior that would not even be his choice. Of course, he believed that just like his parents, his Blade would not be his love mate. If this person was to be sprung upon him, he would keep the Blade at arm's length or further. But when his parents fell into the Black Sleep, even though Halleden was by his side, he felt that something was missing. It was almost as if he were reaching out, expecting to feel a hand clasp him, only instead finding air. Since that day, he had felt that loss. His search had become more than just to save his own life and bring back his clan, but ... to find that missing hand. The one that should be in his.
Halleden’s golden eyes widened. “Where?! Tell me and I will go immediately –”
“You cannot go. Only I can go and return with my Blade,” Aethaden interrupted him. He frowned for a moment, because he thought he saw a shadow on the stairs to the crypt. He sent his magical senses outward, but they came back with nothing. The shadow was gone. Perhaps a trick of the light or his tired eyes. His heart though thumped harder as he considered what he was about to tell Halleden. He was going to finally do something active. He was going after his Blade. No matter what the cost.
What cost is there any longer? I cannot serve my people like this. I doubt I could call the Guardian in this condition. I am doing the only thing I can by leaving.
“I do not understand. There is no realm where … wait … you are not suggesting going to the human realm?” The look of disgust and fear that crossed Halleden’s face was not unexpected.
“It is ironic that the realm we sent our exiles to is the realm that may hold our salvation now,” Aethaden said with a thin smile. “My researches tell me that at least one Blade was sent there after the initial compact between the Undriels and the Blades.”
“You think your Blade is an Exile? One who betrayed us so badly as to deserve such punishment as to go to the human realm? But I thought living there would drain away our immortality anyways?” Halleden objected. That look as if he smelled something very bad was on his face.
“In the beginning, the idea of bonding with the Undriels was considered enslavement to some of the Blades. I can understand this. I felt it myself. We were enemies after all. To bind their lives with ours must have seemed … intolerable,” Aethaden reminded him. There were many rumors about the human realm and humans. If even half of what was said was true about that humans it would be a terrible realm indeed. In some ways he admired the Blades who had gone there. Even in his youngest days when he hated the ideas of Blades, he would never have had the courage to actually reject the bonding and go to Earth. He regarded these early exiled Blades – not as traitors or criminals – but as proud warriors who would not bend, no matter the consequences. “As to whether their immortality would fade, Blades have such unique gifts, we truly do not know if the human realm would affect them as it would us.”
Halleden shook his head. “No, I am sorry, but no. I think your lead cannot be true. You could not be bound to such a being as would defy his own kith and kin. His duty. His honor. I refuse to believe it. The thought of how corrupted they must be by living amongst the humans, too … the thought of such a person near you is intolerable.”
Aethaden had thought of this, too. Would his Blade have been corrupted by the humans? It was said that humans were so attracted to Elves that they had even resorted to eating them in order to devour the Elves and make them a part of themselves. Humans were uncouth, without knowledge or art or culture. They were savages that raped, pillaged and murdered. The Blades though were unparalelled warriors. They could have fought off the humans and then secreted themselves away from them. That had to be what happened. But not matter whether his Blade was corrupted or not, Aethaden needed him. Perhaps even if his Blade was affected, simply bonding with Aethaden and returning home would fix it. They would have forever to rehabilitate this once noble warrior. No matter what he might find it was the only viable lead. And, he sensed, he had no time left.
He said as much to his best friend, “There are no other choices left to me, Halleden.”
Halleden looked like someone had stabbed him in the heart. “My king …”
Aethaden squeezed his best friend’s shoulder. “I know, Halleden. But I must go. I must go to the human realm and look for my Blade there … or all is lost.”