No one ever comes out alive.
I glance at the young man beside me. Jorthâes, the eldest son of King Avänt—he’s my best friend. His set expression as he looks at the dark forest directly ahead of us tells me he’s thinking the same thing as me. We may not come out of the forest, alive or dead.
I only met Jorthâes two years ago, when somehow I led the Maraian army to victory against our enemies. After the battle, the king and his son arrived, and the others made sure they met me—a mere boy, the son of a poor farmer. At the meeting the Foreteller Thâesekk said I, Daevêd, would be the next king. Yeah, right. I expected to return to my usual life, but before I left Jorthâes and I became friends, and the king was not happy. He had Jorthâes invite me to live with them supposedly for Jorthâes’s sake, but really so he could keep an eye on me, to make sure I won’t usurp his throne. As if that could ever happen. I have no desire to be king, even though Jorthâes is certain I will be.
King Avänt is almost everything a king should be. He is strong and powerful; our enemies pay respectful attention to us; we finally are able to live in peace without constant attack. But he has a vicious temper, and it soon became clear that it was directed mostly toward me, especially because of Thâesekk’s prophesy and my friendship with his son. Three months ago, he decided that, in order to make sure I could not take his or Jorthâes’s place as king, he would kill me. Jorthâes warned me first, though. I planned to run away alone, but he insisted on coming with me. “You are my brother,” he said. “How can I let you go alone?”
So we left in the middle of the night and have been running ever since.
Until last night.
We were in a tavern. The dark, crowded, noisy rooms offered a perfect setting to vary our routine of isolation from society, to hear news without being seen. Usually, it takes time to sort out the important information from the local gossip, but not last night. Every wagging tongue spoke exclusively about an attack by the Aimarines, our worst enemy, on Bethelkan. The king, it seems, was doing nothing about it because the Coarnomites, another one of our enemies, were attacking closer to his capitol.
Jorthâes and I looked at each other and he asked, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”
“Let’s go to Bethelkan,” I stated both our minds.
The problem was how to get there, since it is on the opposite side of the country. The easiest way would be by sea, but the king has everyone at the coast looking for us. Over land presents its own problems. Directly between us and Bethelkan is Teer, a vast forest—or at least a vast region surrounded by a forest. According to tradition, no one has ever come out of Teer, alive or dead. To get to Bethelkan, we could go around Teer to the east—a journey of at least a week—or to the west—which would take half the time, but bring us closer under King Avänt’s center of authority, increasing the risk of being caught.
Around by land or sea is not an option.
“Well, then. We’ll go through it,” Jorthâes stated, looking out the window at the outskirts of the forest this morning.
No one has survived the forest, true. But no Maraian has ever tried. And we are the people of Aia, the one true God. He can protect us from whatever devilry lies behind the trees.
That’s how we ended up here.
Jorthâes feels my gaze and gives me a quick smile. “Don’t be afraid. Aia will protect us.”
“I believe,” I assure him and myself. Its truth gives me more confidence right now than the sword hanging at my side.
We walk in silence, alert and absorbed in our own thoughts. The sounds of the woods are disturbing—it is silent except for the trees creaking and groaning, though there is no wind. Neither Maraian Talking Animals nor normal dumb animals make any sounds. Outside of the trees, the only sound is the crunch of leaves and twigs under our boots.
It was midmorning when we started. Instead of stopping for dinner at noon, we pull out some smoked meat and dried foot to munch on while we walk, not wanting to stop because of the eeriness of the forest.
A strange rustling overhead immediately draws my eyes upwards. Then suddenly, the ground under my feet crumbles and two screams, mine and Jorthâes’s, shatter the quiet. The trees flash by and are replaced by darkness and choking dust. Have we fallen into the door to the center of Orrök? I have time to wonder with terror before my fall comes to a jolting halt and I black out.
Throbbing pain greets me in my head. I slowly regain consciousness and begin to think around my headache. That is a mistake, because now I feel how much my knees hurt—I think I landed on them, and for all I know, they could very well be broken. Their pain does temper my fear at being unable to move. Thinking really hard, I feel irregular pressure around my body and realize I’m somehow upright. I realize my eyes are closed and open them.
Dim light shows Jorthâes is next to me. We’re bound, with what looks like thread but is much stronger, to trees in some sort of subterranean forest.
That’s when I notice eyes, hundreds of pairs of eyes, staring at us through the shadows. I focus on one pair and discover their source—what looks like a miniature human, about eighteen inches tall, crouching at the base of a tree. Then it’s like my eyes are opened. This strange place which I initially thought held only the two of us is jammed full of hundreds of tiny people, anywhere from six inches to two feet tall, clad in skirts, blouses, sweaters, trousers, and leggings the colors of the ground and trees.
Jorthâes groans, coming awake. I cough to signal him that we are in potential danger. Allowing him to recover, I speak out, “What do you want with us?”
The cavern erupts in movement and shrieks. Then they stop as suddenly as they started, and one of them, who has wings, hovers in front of us. He has on pants and a striped knit shirt under a coat, with a scarf around his neck, a crocheted cap on his head, and nondescript shoes on his feet. Curly hair springs untamed from his cap, and he has a funny, barely-noticeable beard and mustache. “Why are you here?” he demands of me.
“We’re on a journey and fell through the ground,” I say.
“Why were you in our forest? No one enters our forest!” he exclaims, holding a tiny sword to my face.
“We—we need to get somewhere fast.”
“Ha! Likely story. You were spying on us. Well, mister, we Airiens may be small, but we won’t let you giant humans trample us. No, sir! The penalty for your trespassing is death!”
The little people—Airiens—shriek again, surging forward with tiny bows, sling shots, and swords. I almost laugh. We eluded the king for months only to die at the hands of miniscule beings wielding even smaller weapons. But instead of laughing, Jorthâes and I look at each other. “Peace to you, brother,” he prays.
“And peace to you,” I pray. We lift our heads, ready to die bravely.
The Airiens are almost at our throats when I’m sure I’m hallucinating because the trees suddenly spring to life, grasping the tiny people and shouting for them to stop. Those not confined by the tree branches instantly freeze and raise their weapons over their heads.
“What is it, O kâtes?” the head Airien asks the trees. Kâtes—I remember stories of them, spirits who possess trees and water, sent by Aia to watch over humans. I almost faint. Clearly, they aren’t just stories.
“How dare you attack the future Maraian king and his best friend Jorthâes?” the trees roar. My heart skips a beat. There it is again. First the Foreteller, now the kâtes. It must be true. I really am going to be king. For the first time, I let myself accept it, accept my destiny. As soon as I claim my future as a king, something inside me changes. I don’t know what it is, but I’m different now.
“King?!” the head Airien exclaims, looking at me in shock. How he knew the trees were talking about me, I don’t know. “I can’t believe I didn’t see it before—he does have the mark of a king! O kâtes, forgive us. We didn’t know.”
A murmur passes among the Airiens, and then a dozen spring to action and unbind us. We fall down as soon as our bindings are removed, and my head starts spinning and pounding again. I look up to see all the Airiens bowing down to us.
“What is going on?” I beg, holding my head.
“Your majesty,” a tree says, “we are kâtes, sent by Aia to protect you.”
“And we are Airiens, at your service, your Highness,” the head Airien says.
Then it hits me: I just met my first subjects.
What do you think? Please give me your (constructive) criticism and advise!