A band of outlaws had been seen in the area to the east of the River Grey, deep in Maderel Wood. Dad and his knights had set off at dawn to flush them out, planning to be back by suppertime. I’d pleaded to go with them, but Mother said girls didn’t engage in such activities, especially not princesses. There was likely to be fighting. I was entranced by the prancing horses and gleaming swords, the promise of adventure and danger. I wanted to watch.
As soon as the party was out of sight amid the trees, I hurried to the stable, saddled my pony, and followed, my wooden practice sword through my belt. Steeped in the ballads sung by the bards on cold winters evenings in the Great Hall, when the flagstones were still warm from the heat of the day and my cheeks still sticky from supper, my head was filled with visions of bravery and heroism. No matter that I was only five; that my steed was a lethargic pony and my sword a stick with a leather-wrapped grip. I firmly believed that I was as invincible as the knights of legend.
Spot wasn’t good for much other than being led around the commons by a groom, but I coaxed him into a halfhearted gallop amid the trees. The party of knights, nearly a score of them, left such a wide trail that a blind man could have tracked them. They were following a deer trail, and their horses trampled the undergrowth and churned the mud, leaving tracks as clear as day. On Spot, I gave chase, through the woods, across the Grey Bridge, and on, through meadow and glen. It was one of those lazy August days, when the bees drone and the morning glory vines turn their white-flowered faces to the golden sunlight, when toadstools sprout up in the damp shadows and the trees creak and strain, their branches reaching for the sky like a band of children standing on their tiptoes to compare height. Brooks babbled and leaves rustled, squirrels chattered and larks twittered encouragement from branches high above.
The trail vanished on a pebbly bank next to a languid creek, in the shadow of a tall ridge. My eyes had been on the ground ahead and not on my surroundings. I looked up, and found that I was only paces from a group of men huddled about a campfire, over which a longear rabbit roasted on a spit. The men had, of course, all heard my approach from a long way off. They were waiting for me.
I had always pictured bandits to be burly giants of men, dressed in barbaric finery with rapiers through their belts, counting their gold whenever they were not busy robbing travelers on the roads. I didn’t fear the creatures in the bards’ tales. But the reality, the ragged, unshaven peasants with air in their pockets and desperation in their eyes, was far more frightening. These were not the boisterous drunkards I had expected, but hardened men who had run away from their fief lord, men who knew their lives were forfeit. Here, a lost little girl on her pony would find no mercy.
I tried to wheel Spot around and run, but Spot spied a clump of tasty flowers and bent down to nibble. Desperately I kicked the useless beast’s flanks, but Spot, being a stolid and unintelligent creature, feared neither my childish temper nor the gleaming steel a few paces away. When I drew my wooden sword and demanded that the bandits surrender in the name of the Royal House of Dar, they only watched blankly.
Soon, one of them decided that enough was enough. He rose from the campfire, drawing his own sword. I tried to call for help, but the immensity of Maderel swallowed my words.
He advanced. I swung my sword at his head, but the blunt wooden blade did little other than elicit a few creative curses from my would-be victim. He yanked it from my grasp and snapped it over his knee, then caught me by the back of my tunic, dragging me from the saddle.
At that moment, the tip of a sword – a real sword – emerged from his chest. He gurgled and collapsed, and there was Dad, standing behind him, his sword in his hands. The other knights had the bandits’ campfire surrounded, and the bandits threw down their weapons.
I expected Dad to be furious. I thought he would yell at me, or punish me, but he only sighed and ordered his men to return to the castle.
“Take the prisoners with you,” he said. “I’ll be along later to deal with them.”
The captured bandits were bound and led away, and soon it was only Dad and me, Spot and Dad’s battle horse. He mounted, and gestured for me to do the same. Then he gave his horse a nudge and crossed the creek.
The creek, that late in the summer, was low and sluggish, coming up only to Spot’s knees. We emerged on the other side and Dad led the way up the steep hill, its sides covered with eerily pale dead trees. The wind muttered uneasily through their upper canopies, making the brittle branches rattle. Their white, leafless crowns reminded me of skeleton fingers clawing at the cheerful blue sky.
I expected a scolding any minute, but when he spoke, it was only to explain that this ridge was called Tur Celadain by the ancients. The trees, he explained, had died in a blight. They were so dried out that they hadn’t rotted, and had stood for centuries.
The hillside grew steeper and steeper, until finally we were forced to leave the horses behind. We scrambled the rest of the way on foot. The trees ended, leading to a landscape of tumbled grey boulders and scree. I wasn’t afraid, because Dad was there, and he would catch me if I fell.
Finally we reached the top of the ridge, where the ground leveled into a small plateau. Dad climbed over the last few boulders and pulled me up after him. The sight made me gasp with delight, for a ruined tower stood in the center, its tall, narrow shadow striping the soft emerald grass. The tower had once been taller, judging by all the rough grey stones scattered about, disguised beneath layers of moss and fungi. The broken top of the tower was the highest point for miles around, and deep green ivy wrapped itself around the base, climbing the tower like a green sleeve. A spring-fed pool, clear and icy-cold, sparkled in the sunlight, surrounded by a ring of low stones.
In the forest below, it had been uncomfortably hot and still, but up here a breeze blew, brushing the curls from my eyes and making Mirificas clank lightly against Dad’s leg, loose in its poorly fitted scabbard. I wanted to drink from the pool, but Dad laughed when I suggested it.
“There’s an old legend surrounding that pool, Rena,” he’d said. “Many say it’s cursed.”
I giggled, and Dad gave me his water canteen instead. I guzzled most of its contents while he told me about the ruined tower.
Faeries built the tower, or so the legend went, he said. There were once towers like this all over Dar and Caledor, in the Dawn Age, before the coming of man. The faerie watched over the valley from its highest point, where they could see everything that went on below, and could protect the pool. They said the pool held a secret better kept hidden.
Then Men came, borne by longboats with square sails and rows of oars. They feared magic, and wanted to destroy it and every creature that used it. They tore down the towers and set fire to sacred woods, driving the faerie back into the wild Inoldir, the grey forest to the east, where no man dared follow. Only this tower held, on top of Tur Celadain.
“What did they do?” I asked eagerly. “Did they fight?”
Dad took my hand. “Come with me. I’ll show you.”
The inside of the tower was dim even though there was no roof, and the floor was covered with crumbled debris from the collapsed rafters. The wooden stairs, clinging to the side of the tower, still stood, though they were so rotted that they were crumbling and slick underfoot. They would take my weight, but Dad had to step carefully. Soon we emerged at the top. We sat on a relatively flat part of the broken wall, facing the valley below. The green treetops of Maderel covered Dar like a blanket, the castle keep and the town a stain at its center. The vista was stunning; it seemed as though I could see the entire kingdom from up here.
“Not every battle is won with swords, Rena,” Dad told me. His peppery red-brown hair was damp with sweat, and his royal velvets smudged with rock-powder from the uphill climb. “The faerie didn’t touch weapons, nor did they weave spells. They protected the pool with words.”
“How did they do that?” I asked, wrinkling my nose.
“They told stories,” he said. “Fear is a powerful thing. Imagination can be a weapon as sharp as a blade. The faeries put a word in the ear of an innkeeper here, a peasant there, and pretty soon, rumor had spread all across the kingdom of Dar that Tur Celadain was haunted.”
“Haunted?” I asked eagerly.
“Oh, yes,” he said. “They said the woods covering the ridge whispered with the voices of lost souls.”
“The whisperwood,” I breathed.
“Yes. And the tower was manned by shades…”
“What’s a shade?”
“A ghost,” he said. “Monsters stalked the woods, and dragons drank from the Dark Pool to quench their flame.”
“People are gullible,” I said.
“They are frightened by what they cannot understand,” he replied.
He fell silent for a moment, looking out over the woods, watching the patterns of light and shadow created by the movement of the clouds across the blue sky. When he spoke again, his voice had lost the lighthearted tone.
“Look at the horizon,” he said, pointing far to the left, to the low hills. I obeyed. He waved his arm in a half-circle, sweeping across the jagged purple mountaintops and finally pointing to the flatlands to the north, and the Bridel River where it wound off out of sight over the horizon.
“All of this belongs to the king, yes?” he asked.
“Yes,” I echoed.
“No,” he said, and I looked up at him, confused. “Look more closely. Look at the trees. Look at the roads, and the creeks, and the rivers. The king did not build the land. He did not plant the seeds that grew into oaks, or dig the beds the rivers would flow through. The mountains–do you know what they are?”
I was half expecting another trick question.
“The Deoran range?” I guessed hesitantly.
“Good,” he said with approval. “I see Master Undwell has managed to teach you something. No, a king does not own his kingdom. But he has a responsibility to it.”
I nodded, inwardly relieved that I had answered the mountain question correctly. I hadn’t been so sure.
“A king collects taxes,” Dad continued. “He listens to complaints and he tries to make things better. His subjects give him power and respect. In return, he keeps them safe. When danger arises, the king deals with it. A king is nothing without subjects to follow him. Every soldier in the king’s army is a man who volunteers to put his life on the line to protect others.”
I wasn’t sure what all this had to do with me, but I nodded again.
“A king can do anything he wants, yes?” he asked.
“No,” I said, this time anticipating the trick question.
“Good. Even a king must listen sometimes. Did you know, when I was just a little boy, I snuck out of the castle with just a wooden sword and my pony, to follow my father and his knights when they went hunting? There was a wild boar loose in the woods. Boar can be dangerous when they’re angry, and a charging boar can kill a man. My mother forbade me to go, but I went anyway.”
“What happened?” I asked eagerly.
“My father was no fool,” Dad said. “He knew perfectly well what I would try to do. He made sure his knights left an obvious trail for me to follow. They made straight for the boar den, but they were very quiet, and hid in the woods all around. When I cantered into the clearing on my pony, shouting and waving my toy sword, the boar came out and charged. I was terrified.”
I was rapt, captivated by the story.
“Father leapt out of hiding and killed the boar with his spear before it could hurt me,” he recalled. “I thought he would be furious. He sent his knights back to the castle with the boar carcass, and he stayed behind.”
“What did he do?” I asked.
“He brought me up here,” Dad said, putting his arm around my shoulders and hugging me. He smelled of damp velvet and horse, a comforting combination. “He told me about the faerie, and their towers. And he showed me the kingdom.”
I smiled, wrapping my arms around his waist and hugging him back. But the story wasn’t quite finished.
“Then he told me to turn around,” Dad said, and I automatically obeyed, peeking over his shoulder and looking to the east. I must have made some noise of surprise, because Dad laughed. “‘Your kingdom is there,’ my father said, pointing west across Maderel. ‘And that–’ he pointed east, across the strange forest with its monster trees and vines, ‘is the Inoldir, where no man rules. They say that’s where the faeries went, when their last tower fell.’ Can you hear it calling, Rena?”
The forest looked wild and threatening. There was something about the Inoldir, the savage beauty of the cliffs and the fog, the snakelike vines and the cascading creeks and waterfalls. I listened hard, and shivered as I realized that I could hear it.
“You’re destined for great things, Rena,” Dad said. “Don’t let anyone take that away from you.”
“Mother says I’m too wild,” I said, my eyes never leaving the grey lands.
“As wild as the Inoldir,” Dad said, but not unkindly. Rather, I got the feeling that he approved. Dad’s approval meant everything to me. He was my hero.
“Really?” I asked, snuggling closer. I was almost afraid that it was another trick. Would this turn into another lecture about being ladylike, such as I heard from Mother every day?
“Really,” he agreed.
“But…girls aren’t supposed to be wild. Everybody says so.”
Dad caught my chin, forcing me to look into his eyes. He had grey eyes, which held so many colors in their depths. They were the color of the storms that blew in from the sea, or those that swept down from the mountains. They held all the silver in the treasury, all the peace of the shade under an apple tree on a summer’s day. They were the solid reassurance of ancient stone and the unpredictable tumult of a rockslide. Most of all, now, they reminded me of the Inoldir, a thousand greys. They were solemn, but at the same time lively with that ever-present laughter.
“There are those who will always call you things. The price of order and peace is that people begin to mistrust all which is not familiar. They fear what is not like them. Magic…the Inoldir…they fear wild things.” He held me close, leaning down so that we were eye-to-eye. “In life, you will be called by many names. Lady, Princess, Highness…and sometimes, they will call you things they think you shouldn’t be. Tomboy. Wild. You can’t stop them from thinking such. Make it your defense. Remember the faeries, Rena. Words can be a weapon, as sure as a sword.”
It was cooling rapidly toward evenfall, and though my tunic and leggings did nothing to keep out the cool air, Dad’s arms were warm and comforting, wrapped around me, holding me close. Here, I felt safe.
“It’s getting late,” Dad said, noting the position of the sun and straightening. “And even a grown man with a sword hesitates at being out after dark this close to the edge of the Inoldir.” He got up and swung his legs over the wall, landing lightly on the top of the rotten stairs. Carefully, he made his way back down the steps, me following at his heels. We crossed the grass and began our descent, leaving the faerie tower and pool behind.
“Does this mean I’m not in trouble?” I asked hopefully as I clambered down the rocks after him, returning to the horses.
“When we get back to the castle, you’re at the mercy of your mother,” he said, though I thought I detected the hint of a smile.
“What did your mother do, when your father turned you over to her?” I asked. We reached the horses, and I climbed onto Spot’s back while Dad mounted his own horse.
He looked over at me, a twinkle of laughter in his eyes. “She paddled my backside so hard, I couldn’t sit down for a week,” he said. I giggled at the mental picture of a king being spanked, and together we returned to the castle.