I met my mother’s gaze and tried not to roll my eyes.
She let out a sigh.
“Oh, don’t you give me that look.
You’re too young…”
Forcing what I hoped was an understanding but slightly incredulous smile, I said, “Mom, you can’t seriously think we’ll be safer if we just hide down here and let others fight for us than if we join them? The council needs every soldier they can get—”
“Ellie,” she said in her mother-knows-best voice, “we’ve done our fighting, and we’ve paid our price.
Your father…Arthur…” Tears welled up in her eyes, but she didn’t wipe them away.
“Down here, we have some semblance of peace, and we have more time together.
That’s all I want…time with you.”
This wasn’t about me, I knew.
It was about Arthur.
He’d never been home, never been around.
Our parents had so little time with him, not that it was entirely his fault.
He hadn’t asked to be stuck in the elven kingdom for years, though it had been his choice to run away and become an adventurer almost as soon as he’d returned.
It had been his choice to join the academy and live on his own, and he’d agreed to go off with that Windsom guy, disappearing again just when we—his family—needed him the most.
When he came back from the land of the deities, he became a Lance and fought a war.
Then he was gone.
“Life down here is barely a life at all, Mom.
It just feels like we’re stuck in that moment when an enemy’s sword is at your neck and your whole life flashes by.”
My mother smiled ruefully and looked away.
“You’ve been spending too much time with Tessia.”
“Kathyln’s words, actually,” I said, wrapping my arms around my mother and resting my head on her shoulder.
“She’s pretty poetic—when you can get her to talk.”
We stayed like that for a while, my mother’s hand running through my hair.
When I pulled away, there was a hesitation on her part, as if she didn’t want to let me go.
But then, I supposed she didn’t.
“It’s just a council meeting, Mom.” I gave her a serious look.
“You should be going to them, too.”
My mother shook her head and walked to the little table where we ate our dinners.
Then she sat at the table and ran her hand across it, almost like she was petting an animal.
I think it made her feel more normal to do something as everyday as sitting at the dinner table and arguing with her daughter.
“I just don’t understand why they need you there,” she said, circling back around to where our argument had started.
“Surely Virion and Bairon can handle making decisions without the input of a thirteen year old girl.”
I held back a sigh, knowing I was treading on thin ice to get her to agree.
“Like I said, Tessia has asked for me to tag along.”
“I guess I’ll need to have a word with Princess Tessia about spending so much time with you.” I opened my mouth to beg her not to embarrass me, but she held up a hand, cutting me off.
“I just…you know how I feel about her…”
“Mom, I know Arthur died to save her,” I snapped, fists clenched.
I’d had the same argument with myself so many times I couldn’t bear to have it again with her.
“But have you thought that maybe Arthur would’ve died in Elshire Forest when he was four years old if he hadn’t met her and Commander Virion?”
A look of anger flashed across my mother’s face before her lips quivered in one of sorrow.
We stared at each other for several long seconds, both unable to form out next words, but our standoff was interrupted by a snort from Boo, who had a bed in the downstairs landing of our little two-story shelter.
“Tessia must be here.
I’m going.” I turned, crossed the dining room, and headed down the stairs.
I could feel my mother’s eyes burning into my back, and a sense of guilt bubbled up within my stomach for snapping at her.
I stopped and turned, still just able to see her over the railing.
“I’m sorry, Mom.
I love you.”
She took a deep breath, smiled sadly, and said, “I love you too, El.”
“Are you sure about this?” I was embarrassed by how timid and childlike my own voice sounded, but I couldn’t overcome my nervousness.
Maybe Mom was right, I thought.
You are Eleanor Leywin,” Tessia answered firmly.
We were winding through the occupied area of our little town toward the large central complex we’d started referring to as City Hall.
“Your parents are heroes, your brother was a general—and I’m a princess.
Even if they wouldn’t normally let you attend the council meetings, Grandpa won’t kick you out if I’ve asked for you.”
I bit my lip to keep from saying anything else, following Tessia in silence.
Since our fight by the stream, Tessia and I had been spending a lot of time together.
I wasn’t sure how to feel about it at first; a part of me still wanted to be mad at her, to hate her even, but I was starting to understand why Arthur had loved her.
It wasn’t just the way Tessia looked or how she was so refined.
She had this quiet strength to her that I couldn’t really describe.
Whenever we passed anyone in the streets, Tessia would meet their eyes and greet them warmly, whether they looked at her like she was a princess or a traitor.
She treated them all like they were important.
I watched her face out of the corner of my eye, noticing how she always kept her chin up, her eyes forward.
She was beautiful andregal.
Her looks were probably another reason Arthur fell for her, I thought, running the tips of my fingers over my cheek, wondering if anyone thought I was beautiful.
Then a human soldier stepped out into the road in front of us, forcing us to stop.
The man had horrible burn scars all across his face and up into his hairline.
He glared at Tessia, then spit onto the ground and walked past.
Though Tessia didn’t even flinch, my nervousness returned, bubbling in the pit of my stomach and making my heartbeat flutter.
“I wish I could have brought Boo,” I said under my breath.
“Showing up at the council meeting with a giant bear might make more of a statement than we’re shooting for today, Ellie.”
We fell into silence as we walked, and I gazed around the underground town for the hundredth time.
The buildings looked like they’d been molded instead of built, reminding me of a little clay dollhouse the Helsteas had given me when I was a girl.
Most were made from the same gray and red stone of the cavern, with highlights of petrified wood and a dull, copper colored metal.
Each building was a little different than the rest, and they were all beautiful.
Elder Rinia had told me she thought the ancient mages had shaped them using lost aether arts, literally molding the stone and wood like clay.
She had moved into a little cave in the tunnels outside of town, because some of the other refugees we’d brought in didn’t like her, but I still went to visit her sometimes.
I liked to try and tease news of her visions out of her, but she’d gone pretty quiet after Arthur disappeared.
I was sure she knew more than she’d say, but I don’t think most of the survivors would have listened to her anyway.
Once rumor spread that she had known what was going to happen, people turned against her.
I didn’t care what they said though.
Rinia had saved Tessia, my mother, and me.
Without her, we’d have all been dragged to Alacrya and probably tortured and killed.
Whatever her reasons for keeping her visions to herself, I trusted the old seer.
“You ready?” Tessia asked, drawing me out of my thoughts.
We were standing at the steps of City Hall.
I nodded, then followed her through the heavy leather drape that covered the doorway.
Two elven soldiers stood guard inside.
While I didn’t know them well, I’ve heard of Albold’s and Lenna’s contributions in the war.
They bowed to Tessia, keeping their eyes on the ground as we walked past.
The few elves that had made it to the refuge still treated her like a princess from what I’d seen.
Kathyln didn’t get quite the same royal treatment from the humans, but it didn’t seem to bother her.
Tessia led me down the entry hall and through a large, arched doorway.
The square room took up half of City Hall’s first floor, and was dominated by a huge, round table made of petrified wood.
A rough map of Dicathen had been laid out on the table and covered with little figures that I could only guess represented Alacryan soldiers.
The rest of the room was cold and lifeless, for the same reason our hidden refuge didn’t even have a name: we were afraid to get comfortable.
We didn’t want to get comfortable, because that meant giving up.
Several people, all powerful or important—or both—were already gathered around the modest table, which took up only a small portion of the large stone room.
Virion sat directly across from the door, watching us carefully as we walked in.
During my time in the castle, I had seen the old elf many times, though I hadn’t gotten to know him very well.
He’d always seemed jolly and sort of above everything, like a figure of out myth, but now he just looked tired.
General Bairon sat to Virion’s left.
He was saying something to the commander, but his gaze followed me coldly as I stepped into the room.
To Virion’s right, Kathyln’s brother, Curtis, was exactly the opposite of General Bairon’s stiff posture.
Prince Curtis sat back comfortably in his chair, a slightly bored look on his face as he listened to the general speak.
He beamed at Tessia when he saw us, then shot me a welcoming smile.
He’d let his mahogany hair grow out so that it framed his strong, handsome face.
I blushed and looked away.
Kathyln sat next to her brother, her intense eyes on the map, so focused that she didn’t seem to notice our arrival.
Across from her, Madam Astera was also listening to whatever General Bairon was saying.
Her face was wrinkled into a look of concern.
Finally, Helen leaned against the wall behind Madam Astera, her focus entirely on Bairon.
She wore a similarly worried look, but when she glanced up and caught my eye, she smiled.
“Oh, just what we need,” she said, throwing her hands up and rolling her eyes theatrically before shooting me a teasing wink.
“Another princess on the council.”
I flushed even deeper as everyone turned to look at me.
Not everyone looked happy to see me.
Virion stared at Tessia, his eyes flicking to me for an instant.
She nodded in return.
He then turned his gaze on me, but his expression was unreadable.
I wasn’t sure what unspoken conversation they’d just had, but I could guess that Tessia hadn’t told anyone she was bringing me.
“This, then, would be everyone called for this meeting,” Virion said gruffly, and the room fell instantly silent.
“Please, sit down, and we’ll begin.”
Chairs scraped across the stone floor as everyone took their places.
Curtis even took his feet off the table, gazing seriously at Virion.
Helen squeezed my shoulder as she took a seat next to me.
Bairon was the first to speak, and though he leaned toward Virion as though his words were for the commander’s ears only, he spoke loud enough for all of us to hear.
“Even with her lineage, are you sure we should be including a twelve year old girl, who is largely untested in battle, in this council’s deliberations?”
I opened my mouth to say that I was almost fourteen, but the Lance kept speaking, now turning to face the rest of the group.
“Though we live in a time when all must involve themselves in our daily survival, I do not think it is sensible to start bringing children to council meetings.” The general met my eye, and I did my best not to look away or to let him know how uncomfortable I was, though I found myself wishing again that I had Boo behind me to give me courage.
“The Leywins don’t have anything else to prove in this war, and it is beyond reason to expect Eleanor to shoulder her brother’s burdens.”
I couldn’t tell if he was being dismissive or kind.
Arthur had always hated Bairon, but the Lance seemed almost guilty when he mentioned my brother.
“Ellie is here at my request,” Tessia said firmly, her cool gaze unflinching as she met the Lance’s eye.
“Enough.” Virion, who had closed his eyes while Bairon spoke, suddenly slammed his hand on the table, making me jump in my seat.
“We aren’t here to deliberate who gets to be in the room.”
The commander waited until it was clear there would be no more interruptions, then leaned forward, his palms pressed into the table hard enough that his knuckles went white.
“We’ve received news from Elenoir.”
Beside me, Tessia tensed.
I reached out and squeezed her hand under the table.
“We finally have some understanding of what the Alacryans intend for the elven kingdom, and for the elves that have been captured there.
“Elenoir is apparently being carved up into holds and gifted to noble Alacryan houses, or ‘bloods’, to use their own term.
The captured elves are being…” Virion trailed off, glaring down at Elenoir as represented on the map.
When he began speaking again, there was a deathly chill in his voice that gave me goosebumps on my arms and the back of my neck.
“The surviving elves in Elenoir are being enslaved and gifted to the Alacryan nobles to provide grunt labor for the Alacryan war effort.
Elshire is to be harvested and burned as fuel for the Alacryans’ forges.”
The table was silent for quite awhile after Virion’s words.
Tessia was still as a statue.
I felt like the rest of the council was somehow intruding on a private moment.
“This,” Virion continued, “leads me to the purpose of today’s council meeting.
Our scouts in Elshire have also discovered that several dozen elven prisoners are going to be transported from Zestier to the southern holds in the next few days.
“It is my intention that we send an assault force to waylay the prisoner caravan, free the captured elves, and bring them back here.”
Virion’s words hung heavily in the air.
The old elf peered around the table, meeting each of our eyes in turn, even mine.
He didn’t talk loudly or emotionally, but his words shook my very bones.
So this is the power of absolute authority,I thought.
“I’ll lead the assault force,” Tessia said suddenly, her voice nearly as sharp and heavy with authority as Virion’s.
My breath caught in my chest as a physical pressure washed out of the elven princess, pressing down on me like the heavy air before a storm.
Bairon flinched ever-so-slightly in surprise before he shook his head, leaning forward over the table as he said, “No disrespect, Lady Tessia, but I think this mission requires a more experienced leader.
We’ll only get one shot at this, and there won’t be anyone to back up our assault force if things go badly.”
Despite keeping her expression firm, I noticed Tessia blushing slightly and the pressure she emitted lessened as well.
“General Bairon, you may be a Lance, but you’re also human, and you can’t navigate the forest the way an elf can.
No disrespect, of course.” Bairon scowled, but leaned back in his chair and let her continue.
“No one here knows the area like I do, except for Grandpa Virion, and we can’t risk him in the field.
This is my home, these are my people.
I will lead the assault force.”
Virion nodded firmly.
“Thank you, Tessia.
I had hoped you would consent to leading the mission.” Next to me, Tessia seemed momentarily caught off guard by her grandfather’s words, but she was quick to hide her surprise.
One of the things Tessia and I had in common was that we both felt like we were treated like fragile things people were afraid might break.
She hadn’t been allowed to leave the underground town since she’d ran away to find her parents.
I couldn’t help but wonder why Virion was suddenly sending her out now.
The pressure lifted like someone had pulled a blanket off my face.
I could tell the others had felt it too, as the whole room seemed to take a breath all at once.
“That’s decided then.
Now, let’s talk details.”
What followed was nearly three hours of discussion regarding the mission to rescue the elven prisoners.
I mostly kept quiet during the conversation, but it was fascinating and intimidating to listen to these experienced soldiers and leaders discuss strategy.
I imagined Arthur would have had a lot to say if he were there in my place.
But he’s not, so I’ll do my best, I thought with a nod to myself.
It was halfway through the meeting before I had the courage to stand up and tell the council that I wanted to join the mission.
“Well of course you’re coming,” Tessia had said, “that’s why I brought you.”
“Are you sure about this?” Curtis asked, his chocolate brown eyes searching my face.
Suddenly my stomach was full of butterflies.
Why does he have to be so damn handsome…
I steeled my nerves and returned Curtis’s penetrating gaze, trying to sound mature and brave as I said, “I’ve had private training from some of the best warriors and mages in Dicathen and I fought at the Wall when the horde attacked.
I’m ready to help!”
Kathyln stared at me with that unreadable expression she always had.
Madam Astera was inspecting me with a disarming, almost silly grin plastered on her face.
Helen gave me a matronly smile.
Virion only nodded, looking, if anything, even more tired than when the meeting started.
“So be it then.
But you’re telling your mother.”
The rest of the meeting passed quickly, while I did my best to keep up with the conversation.
They decided who would be a part of the assault force—Tessia, Kathyln, Curtis, Helen, and about a dozen other hand-picked soldiers—and started planning a strategy for a trap to catch the Alacryan soldiers escorting the prisoners off guard.
Near the end of the council meeting, Kathyln, who had been nearly as quiet as I had, spoke up.
“Commander Virion, perhaps I’ve missed something, but even if we’re able to flawlessly execute this plan, I don’t see how we’re going to bring this many refugees back at once.”
Virion leaned back, regarding Kathyln critically.
“We’ve been…investigating the medallions, trying to expand their potential, and I believe we’ve discovered…” Virion trailed off, uncharacteristically hesitant.
“Well, we haven’t verified anything yet, but by the time the prisoners are moved, you’ll have a way to bring them back.
I promise it.”
When the meeting was over, I stood up from the table to leave, but Virion waved me back.
“Ellie, a word please.”
I stared at him, unsure how to respond.
What could he want from me? The others seemed equally caught off guard.
General Bairon froze halfway from his seat and looked to Virion, but the old elf only responded with a subtle shake of his head, and Bairon stood stiffly and busied himself with helping Madam Astera out of her own seat.
Helen patted me on the shoulder as she walked by, beaming at me pridefully.
“We should delve into the tunnels and hunt cave rats before you leave.
It’d be good practice.”
I smiled nervously and nodded.
“Want me to wait for you outside?” Tessia asked.
Curtis was lingering behind her unnoticed, as if he wanted to speak to her.
“No,” I answered, “thanks, I’ll be fine.”
Not sure whether I should sit back down or stay standing, I leaned awkwardly against the table, pretending to study the map of Dicathen while the rest of the council made their slow way out of the room.
Virion waited until we were alone.
He opened his mouth as if to start issuing orders, but then he looked at me, really looked at me, and his expression softened.
“You handled yourself well today.
Your brother would be proud of the strong young woman you’ve become.”
I fidgeted awkwardly, not sure what to say.
“I’m also glad to see you and Tessia together.
It’s good, you know, having someone who understands what you’re going through.”
When I still didn’t respond, he coughed and said, “Right, thank you for your assistance with this matter.
It’s somewhat sensitive, but I believe you’re uniquely suited to the task.”
He looked at me expectantly, so I said, “Yes, of course.
Whatever you need, Commander Virion.”
Virion sighed, and it was like someone had let the air out of him as he shrank in his chair.
“I would like you to go to Rinia.
See what she has to say about our mission.
No need to be subtle, she’ll know why you’re there.”
I was aware that Virion and Rinia had fallen out since moving into the underground shelter.
She’d told me so, though she hadn’t been specific about it.
Is—is there anything specific you want me to ask?”
“Just see what she has to say.
That’ll be all.” The commander dismissed me with a wave of his hand, turning his gaze back to the tactical map.
I left the room and headed back down the hall toward the exit, but the male elf standing guard stepped toward me, forcing me to stop.
“Uh, can I help you?” I asked defensively, though I wasn’t sure why he made me nervous.
My brain felt like mush after listening to planning and strategy for hours on end.
The elf, Albold, raised his hands, making it clear he meant me no harm.
I know we’ve never really talked, but I just wanted to give you my condolences.
I’ve met and even talked to him before back when he was…” Albold ran a hand through his hair and smiled awkwardly.
“I’m sorry, this is difficult.”
The anger flared within me.
I tried to smother it, but after Virion’s attempt at grandfatherly kindness, my feelings were a little raw.
“Thank you,” I said stiffly, not meeting Albold’s eyes.
Brushing past the elf, I shoved aside the leather hanging and practically ran down the handful of steps that led into the City Hall.
Gritting my teeth, I started to run through the narrow streets, taking the quickest path back to our shelter.
Why does everyone think I want to hear their stupid condolences,I thought.
I knew that they meant well and that it was childish to push away their kindness—of course I knew that—but at this point, it just felt like they were picking at my scab, not letting it heal.
Then I thought about the elves being held prisoner in Elenoir, and wondered how many of them were Albold’s family and friends.
Had he lost siblings in the war? A father? I didn’t know, because instead of listening to him, I’d acted like a little kid and ran away.
You’re not a little kid anymore, Ellie.
You don’t get to act like one.
I forced myself to slow to a walk and rubbed the tears from my eyes.
I would calmly walk home, get Boo, and head out into the tunnels to Rinia’s.
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