Pyralis yawned as it grew dark on his fifth day outside of the walls. He was tired. Actually, he was more than tired, he was exhausted. His feet ached, his stomach was empty and his throat was dry.
Life outside the wall was no longer quite so enchanting. Leaves and flower petals ceased to cause him fascination, but had slipped into the mundane. He’d gotten used to them and now Pyralis was growing bored. Worse, Pyralis was getting lonely. If only he could find someone interesting to talk to, or better yet, the people he was looking for. Even if the Silent One didn’t talk back, traveling with her would at least be more fun than going alone.
As Pyralis trudged through the forest, his footfalls grew heavy and careless. He crunched on leaves and sticks, not worrying about how much noise he made until he distinctly heard a voice ask, “What was that?”
Pyralis froze. Another voice answered, “Dunno. Which direction?”
“That way, I think,” the first said. The sun was sinking, but there was still more than enough light to see by. There was certainly plenty of light for them spot Pyralis among the trees. He looked around frantically, diving behind a huge boulder with as little noise as he could make. There were footsteps to his right, so Pyralis pressed himself tighter against the rock. As if it would help, he squeezed his eyes shut.
The footsteps got closer, and then stopped. Pyralis counted to ten before cracking his eyelids open. He let out a breath of relief and then yelped, shocked to find a stocky, white clothed man peering at him from just a few feet away. He was standing on a patch of moss, which must have been what masked his footsteps. The man let out a rumbling laugh as Pyralis scrambled back.
“Ha!” He clutched his wide stomach. “Green and brown stood right ou’ against that rock, boy. Didn’ think that one through, did’ja?”
That was a very good point. His face flushing red, Pyralis masked his embarrassment by demanding, “Who are you?”
“Dippin’s the name,” he said, placing a large hand on his hip. He nodded to the slightly thinner man who came ambling up behind him. “That there is Jeremiah.”
Jeremiah’s face was scrunched up and, unfortunately for him, it looked to be permanent. His eyes seemed too close together, and the wrinkles on his forehead gave the impression that he was simultaneously squinting and scowling. When at last Pyralis got past his ugly face, he realized that Jeremiah held a dagger. He gulped.
“Um...I should go. Just passing through, you know,” Pyralis muttered, inching farther back.
Dippin laughed. “I don’ think so. This is White terr’tory. Whaddya think, Jer’miah? He’s an elf. You know who else is an elf? The Black Queen. Bet’cha that’s no coincidence.”
Pyralis almost pointed out that is was a coincidence. Surely she wasn’t the only other elf in the world; why would it be so weird to find another of the same race? Jeremiah’s eyes narrowed. Or maybe they were already narrowed. If it were possible, they would’ve narrowed further. “I bet he’s a Black spy.”
Pyralis had no idea what they were talking about, but he didn’t really feel the ned to ask. “I’m not wearing any black,” he pointed out helpfully.
“True, but if yer were a spy, you wouldn’ wear black would’ya? It’d give you ‘way.”
“I don’t even know what the Black Kingdom is,” Pyralis tried.
This time, they both laughed. “Nice try, kid,” Jeremiah said. “But playing dumb isn’t going to work. We’re taking you in. The White Queen rewards service like that. Rewards nicely, too.” Jeremiah smiled, making his expression even more grotesque. He raised his knife.
Pyralis took one look at it and spun, vaulting over the boulder and landing at a run. The two men growled and took off after him. Pyralis sprinted, and he was fast, but so was Jeremiah, and Jeremiah hadn’t been walking for the last five days. With each pounding step, Pyralis’s feet screamed out in ever increasing pain. Then, Pyralis made the mistake of looking back over his shoulder to see how close Jeremiah was. As he was turned away, his foot caught on a fallen branch, slamming him to a stop. Pyralis went down, his face smashing into the dirt.
Before he even knew what happened, there was a knee in the center of his back, pinning him down as his hands were tied with rope. Pyralis’s pack was ripped away, and his weapons were taken. Jeremiah spun him around and sat him up roughly. Pyralis’s head pounded and the world seemed to have gotten a little shaky in his orbit. His face stung and his ankle throbbed. He pulled weakly against the bonds, but there was no point. Pyralis had failed. He’d be taken somewhere, be accused of spying and be thrown in jail, or possibly killed. He would never find the Silent One or the other man and the Guardian would never be able to give her his weapon. Pyralis had failed.
After dragging Pyralis back to their camp, the men had made a fire. Judging by their supplies, they were out on a hunting trip, and, lucky them, had come across Pyralis. In all honesty, he was a far better catch than any animal. After all, it seemed that the White Queen would pay handsomely for the capture of a Black Kingdom spy. It also seemed unfortunate that Pyralis wasn’t a spy, but saying, “I’m not a spy” repeatedly didn’t seem to be having any effect.
The fire crackled, sending its light and warmth through the darkness. Jeremiah was roasting a small rabbit over the fire and the smell made Pyralis’s mouth water. He ignored it, however, in favor of watching Dippin dig through the pack that they had taken off of Pyralis. He pulled out a small pack of dried meat, then a little dagger. With a sharp crack, the fire spat sparks out of the ring, and Pyralis watched as a spark landed in front of his foot and then burned out.
“What’s this?” Dippin asked. Pyralis glanced back over to ind the charcoal sketches of the man and woman for whom the Guardian had sent him to look. “You really are a spy, aren’t ’cha?”
Pyralis tensed. “What do you mean?”
Dippin rolled his eyes. “You can stop the stupid act. You’ve got a drawing of Sir Cian right here.”
“Who?” Pyralis asked, his heart picking up speed. If he could find out who those pictures were of...
Dippin sighed, as if resigning himself to the fact that Pyralis was “pretending” not to know anything. “The White Queen’s right hand man. The one you don’ wanna go crossing. Really young, but they say he’s ruthless. Gotta have some guts to challenge him.”
Pyralis frowned. That wasn’t the type of person he was hoping it’d be. Dippin flipped the paper over and frowned. “Who’s she?”
“I don’t know.”
Dippin nodded skeptically. “Sure ya don’t.”
“No, I really don’t.”
Pyralis gave up. “Are you sure you don’t know?”
Dippin looked at the picture again. “Aren’ many elves in the White Kingdom. Jer’miah?”
Jeremiah took the paper when it was passed to him, but shook his head. “Don’t know her.” Dippin shoved the picture back into Pyralis’s pack. “You’d be a pretty poor spy if what you’re saying is true.”
Pyralis simply shrugged. Jeremiah took the rabbit off of the fire and ripped it apart with his fingers, passing part to Dippin. They didn’t give Pyralis any, and his stomach growled. He wished he had stopped to eat earlier. They were finished eating quickly, and scattered the fire, plunging the small camp into darkness.
“Best get some sleep,” Dippin told Pyralis with a smirk. “‘Morrow you’re gonna have an audience with the White Queen. You’ll wanna be awake for that one.”
Pyralis gulped as he laid his head on a patch of moss. Just for good measure, they had tied his feet to Jeremiah’s arm, so that all hopes of running off while they were sleeping were dashed. It seemed Pyralis had no choice but to brave the White Queen, which he was not looking forward to.
Pyralis was hot, hungry and tired. His hands were tied and his feet were hurting even more than they had been the night before. He shuffled along, annoyed at the markedly quicker pace of the hunters. The rope chaffed his wrists and yanked on his arms any time he tried to pause. Nevertheless, at his first sight of the White Kingdom, every thought of discomfort was pushed away.
It was the most magnificent thing Pyralis had ever seen in his entire life. It sat nestled in a green valley like a pearl, shimmering in the midday light. Where Esmira was dull, gray and sensible, the White Kingdom had spared no expense. Even though he should have been concerned that he was being led to his imminent imprisonment, torture, or death, Pyralis couldn’t help but marvel at the ornate buildings. It was surely paradise.
Unfortunately, he didn’t have much time to revel in the town’s beauty, but was promptly marched up to the castle - another matter in itself. It was all of the opulence of the town crammed into one huge building. Gold traced its way around every door and window, accenting every design carved into the milky white stone. The towers stretched to the clouds, then came to gentle points. The sun shone from behind them, casting long shadows over the grounds. Pyralis was speechless.
Two guards stood at the entrance, holding golden spears honed to deadly points. They were dressed, predictably, in white and gold uniforms, freshly pressed and had a serious look on their faces. “What is your business here?” the left on asked, stepping over to block their path.
“We’ve brought this elf we caught in the woods,” Jeremiah said, speaking of Pyralis like he was an animal. “We think he’s a spy for the Black Queen, so we brought him to the White Queen’s judgement.”
The guard looked Pyralis up and down before turning to the door. “Very well. Follow me. You can wait for an audience with Her Majesty.”
The gigantic doors swung open, and the guard stepped through. The hunters followed, and, with a yank of the rope, Pyralis was forced along as well. The inside of the palace was just as grand as expected, and they came to a stop before a magnificent golden door at the end of a long hallway. Two more guards flanked the door, standing still as stone. They didn’t even acknowledge the newcomers. A bench was pushed up against the wall, but it looked cold and uninviting. The guard who led them in nodded to it. “Wait here. Do not knock, do not disturb them. When the people in there finish, you will be allowed in. Do not go wandering.”
With one last narrow eyed look at them, the guard spun sharply on his heel and strode back down the hallway, his boots clicking with every step. Pyralis watched him go, and then the hall fell silent. Jeremiah and Dippin were taking up the entire bench, so Pyralis slumped to the floor, pressing his back against the cold stone. It felt good.
The minutes ticked by, but not with any speed. The hunters looked nervous, or perhaps anxious, and didn’t say a word. Pyralis wasn’t about to strike up a conversation. He let his gaze wander to the border around the ceiling. There was a mural painted there, something like a long scene that stretched its way down the hallway. At first glance, it was a pretty picture of men on majestic white horses riding among leafy trees. The closer he looked, however, Pyralis realized that the white people were hunting, and they weren’t hunting animals. Rather, they were subtly killing cowering men in black uniforms. The war between the white and the black, the light and the dark. It seemed as if the white had won. For some reason that didn’t give Pyralis any comfort.
He looked away from the mural and instead began counting the tiles on the floor. It seemed like hours before the door finally opened. Out stepped a tall man in gleaming white armor, which caused his choppy black hair to stand out in sharp relief. With a jolt, Pyralis stiffened. He had seen that hair before. He had seen those sharp cheekbones, the slightly slanted dark eyes and stern brow. That was the man from the picture. The man whom Dippin had called Sir Cian. Pyralis very nearly called out to him, but stopped himself at the last minute. That wouldn’t be a smart idea at all.
He held his tongue as Cian marched by, leading a group of shackled men. Their expressions looked grim, terrified and pale. That wasn’t a good sign. Two guards brought up the rear, prodding the last prisoners in the line with the tips of their spears. No one spared Pyralis or the hunters a glance. When the group had gone, another guard stepped out from the doorway.
“The White Queen will see you now.”
The hunters got up, pulling Pyralis along, and hurried into the room. The White Queen sat resplendent in a flowing white gown. Her crown of gold blended into her throne giving the impression that she was one with it. Pyralis was at a loss for words. She was certainly beautiful, but in an intimidating, sharp way. He bowed immediately.
“Your Majesty,” Jeremiah said obediently. He had been elected spokesperson.
“Get up,” she commanded. They got up without complaint, but kept their eyes downcast. “What is it?”
“Majesty, we found this elf in the woods not far outside of the city. We think he is a spy for the Black Kingdom.”
The White Queen raised a brow. “Him? Doubtful.”
“Your Majesty, we found this on him,” Jeremiah said, pulling the crumpled drawing from his pocket. One of the guards stepped forward and took it from him, delivering it to the Queen. There was a moment of tense silence. In a quiet voice, she asked, “Where did you get this?”
Pyralis didn’t respond. He couldn’t very well say that the Guardian gave it to him; they wouldn’t know who he was talking about. That would instantly brand him as a liar, trying to make up any story to save himself. Frantically trying to come up with something, he hesitated for a moment too long.
“WHERE DID YOU GET THIS?” the White Queen roared, standing up. Her face contorted in anger, and she no longer looked quite so pretty. Crumpling the picture up with one hand, she threw it to the ground at her feet. “Answer me!”
“Someone gave it to me,” Pyralis blurted.
“I don’t know.”
“What do you mean you ‘don’t’ know’?” the White Queen growled. The hunters looked terrified. Apparently this wasn’t what they had been expecting.
“I don’t know who he was.”
The White Queen sank back into her chair, closing her eyes. The effort with which she was trying to calm herself down was visible. Eventually, she opened her eyes once more, and they held the type of calm that was cold and calculating. “Maybe a cell will sharpen your memory,” she said. “And if it doesn’t, we’ll have to go with some more...extreme methods.” Examining her fingernails, the Queen paused. “You’re lucky I’m in a good mood. If not, we would be jumping straight to the torture.”
Pyralis felt the blood drain from his face. The White Queen let out a little laugh, suddenly not so angry. “Oh, did I say that out loud? Silly me. Guards, take him to the dungeons.”
Pyralis’s stomach felt like lead as they clamped chains on his hands and led him from the room. He tried to explain that he really wasn’t a spy, but his tongue seemed glued to the roof of his mouth. No words came; he was simply taken away. The hunters remained where they were, heads bowed as Pyralis was led to the door.
“Well?” he heard the White Queen ask of them. “Begone.”
With stammered thanks, the hunters hurried towards the door and out into the hallway after Pyralis. “What, no reward? We just turned in a spy!” Jeremiah said with a scowl after the door to the throne room had closed.
“I don’ wanna push her righ’ now. Or ever, really.” Dippin shook his head. “She sure is scary. I guess we outta let it go.”
And then Pyralis was pulled out of earshot. They descended a staircase to a lower level where the torches didn’t burn quite so bright and the grandeur was lacking. The walls were gray stone and the air stank with must.The hallway twisted and turned, leading to a room with a rows and rows of cells. They sat back to back like cages, all bars and no walls. Aisles cut a path through the cells and the doors of each were chained shut and held with huge, heavy locks. People lounged miserably in their cages, each given only a bucket and a thin, threadbare blanket. Pyralis’s stomach twisted with dread.
The guards marched him all the way to the end of the line, then came to a stop in front of the first empty cell. The one guard unwrapped the chains and pulled open the door while the other shoved Pyralis in. The door closed behind him with a loud clang, and he was trapped. The chains were wrapped around the bars once more, and then locked. The guards walked away, showing no remorse for abandoning Pyralis in a cold, barren cell.
Pyralis grabbed the bars, letting their chill seep into his bones and reflect the cold regret in his heart. He wanted to go home. He wanted to be back in his grove, chatting with Aethia. Heck, he even wanted to follow his father along and be mannerly and regal, learning the ways of the kingdom. He wanted to be anywhere but there, in that cell. Pyralis didn’t sign up for this. Less than a week in and his adventure had come to a grinding, uncomfortable halt.
He sank to the floor, still clutching the bars, and cried.