“...if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.”
Romans 10:9 (ESV)
The sound of her voice filtered through the trees like sunlight, splashing everything with color and beauty. All seemed right in the world when she was singing, and Erik found himself wishing for the thousandth time that he could meet her.
But he would have to admit that he’d been listening to her sing for months now, and he had a feeling that she might not take kindly to that.
He tiptoed closer, making certain not to make a single noise. Finally, her white-clad form came into view, the bubbling brook beside her lending its own voice to her song. Erik stood transfixed, unable to tear his eyes away from her beauty. He knew that she was a mortal, but she seemed like a Faerie.
Her red hair fell down her back to her knees in waves that looked like fire under the golden wash of sunlight. Her voice rose louder, the sweet ringing filling his heart with contentment. She spread out her arms, the white fabric of her sleeves flowing down to the ground.
“I lift my voice to Him who hears,
Who lives and gives me grace.
I call upon His holy name,
And He will lift my face.”
Her voice faded and she stood still for several long moments. Then with movements so graceful that Erik nearly trembled, she knelt and dipped her hands in the flowing water of the brook. He watched her silhouette as she lifted the water to her lips and drank deeply. Then she stood and turned away, walking from the stream’s edge.
Her voice came to him again, softer now as she moved toward her home. Erik felt the tugging desire to follow her, to hear as much of her song as he could, but good sense stopped him. Something made him hesitate, despite the peace he always felt when she was near.
He turned and walked back through the woods, this time not bothering to mask his footsteps. Her voice echoed through his mind, as he knew it would for days. He’d heard her sing this song many times. He never grew tired of it.
His thoughts were interrupted by a crashing in the woods to his right. He stopped and listened as the sound grew nearer. The thought that perhaps he should hide had barely crossed his mind when a big ball of orange fur careened around the bend in the path. To Erik’s eyes it looked like a cat, his fur standing on end with fright, but he knew that this wasn’t just an ordinary feline.
The cat scrambled to a halt and sniffed the air while Erik studied him. His face was broad and his whiskers long, set in a thatch of fur. But something was missing.
He had no eyes.
“Eanrin, old boy, what seems to be the problem?” Erik asked, making his voice much more cheerful than he felt. “Are those old Dogs still chasing you after all this time?”
The Faerie growled. “Don’t even joke of such things,” he replied in a smooth, rich voice. “I merely happened to be running, that is all.”
Erik nodded in mock seriousness and knelt down in front of the cat, reaching out and scratching behind his ear. At first Erik thought the Faerie might bite his hand off, but Eanrin simply began to purr, loud and rhythmic.
After a moment, Erik pulled his hand away, and the cat began grooming with perfect indifference. Not even so much as a ‘thank you’, though Erik didn’t expect to receive one.
“To what do I owe the honor of this visit?” Erik asked.
Eanrin’s whiskers twitched as he muttered, “Mortals. Why must they think that the entire world revolves around them?” He stood, his tail twitching behind him. “I was passing this way and thought I should warn you. The Dragon has been sighted about three days’ travel from here. He never goes somewhere without a purpose.”
Erik’s mind went immediately to the young woman he’d been listening to just moments ago. He knew nothing about her, so he couldn’t help but wonder if she might have somehow drawn the Dragon’s attention. “Do you think he could be coming after her?” he asked the Faerie.
“It is entirely possible. I would keep a close eye on her if I were you.”
Erik ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t even know where she lives.”
The cat’s ears swiveled back and forth. “That is easily remedied.”
Erik stood, wishing he’d brought his bow and arrows with him. Even though the Dragon was still far away, he felt unprotected. He turned and walked along the path to home, not surprised that Eanrin happened to be heading in the same direction.
They walked in silence until they reached Erik’s house. Eanrin trotted up to the window and jumped up on the sill. Erik snickered to himself as he stepped into his small, one-room cabin and immediately grabbed his bow and quiver.
“I don’t know why you think that will protect you in any capacity against the wrath of the Dragon,” Eanrin said in between grooming. “Only the Prince can stop him.”
Erik ignored the cat as he strapped on his quiver and then buckled on his belt. He slid his three daggers into their places, and then secured a bit of food in the pouch on the left side. Eanrin sat with evident boredom, his tail twitching in time with some unheard rhythm.
“I’m going on a hunting trip,” Erik said to fill the silence. He saw the cat begin to speak, but he cut him off. “I know you don’t care.”
“That isn’t what I was going to say.” The underlying growl in Eanrin’s voice made Erik roll his eyes. “I was going to say, I’ll hang around here until you get back. Keep an eye on our songbird.”
Erik nodded, even though he knew that Eanrin couldn’t see the gesture, and walked out the door. He shut it behind him and turned to watch Eanrin jump down from the window.
“I’ll only be two days,” Erik said.
Eanrin seemed to ignore him as he loped off into the trees in the opposite direction that Erik was headed. He shook his head at the cat and began his journey.
The strings of the lyre danced beneath her hands as her voice matched each note to perfection. The sound made contentment pour through her, and she closed her eyes to enjoy it more fully. Everything could have been crumbling around her, but when she sang, she felt whole.
Her song ended softly, and she opened her eyes to look up at her Faerie mentor. Laeftir smiled from her position at the table, where she stood kneading bread. “That was lovely, Amonette,” she said, the sincerity in her smooth voice making Amonette smile.
“Thank you,” she said, laying her lyre aside and going to help Laeftir. Without a word, she floured the bread pans and helped Laeftir lower the dough inside. She put them in the oven, helped with the cleanup, and then lifted the vegetables for soup onto the table. They’d already been cleaned, so Amonette began peeling and chopping the carrots.
“How was your time alone today?” Laeftir asked as she set to work on the potatoes.
“It was fine,” Amonette replied. “Except...I kept having this feeling that someone was watching me.”
Laeftir looked up at her, a touch of concern in her wise blue eyes. “Did you see anyone?”
“No, but that isn’t the first time I’ve sensed a presence nearby.” Amonette didn’t want to worry her mentor, but she couldn’t disguise her discomfort. “I don’t like it, not knowing who might be out there.”
“I will take a look around and see if I can find any sign of the person,” Laeftir said. “In the meantime, perhaps you should stay a bit closer to home.”
“I will,” Amonette agreed, knowing that such precautions were necessary.
They worked on in silence, and once the soup was on to simmer, Amonette returned to her lyre. The strings came alive once again, and she added her voice to its song as Laeftir settled nearby with her knitting. For a long while the women sat, each absorbed in their own activities, until the peace was interrupted.
“Hullo in the house!” came a merry voice from outside. Amonette stilled the strings of her instrument as Laeftir rose to her feet. The wariness was clear in the Faerie’s eyes as she moved to the front window, and Amonette felt a pinch of worry. They rarely got visitors, and while they’d heard of no trouble in these part for years, Amonette couldn’t help remembering the night her parents had died.
Shaking away that thought with a jerk of her head, she set her lyre aside and joined her mentor at the window of their stacked-stone house. She peeked around Laeftir’s shoulder and saw a man standing about fifteen feet away from the house. He seemed content to wait, and Amonette took that opportunity to study him.
He was dressed in a costume of scarlet, over which he wore a cape trimmed in gold, and the matching hat upon his head didn’t conceal his thatch of golden hair. And yet, perhaps the strangest thing of all, his eyes appeared to be covered with silken patches.
“Dear Lady Laeftir, I know you’re there!” he called, and Laeftir gasped.
“What is it?” Amonette asked, but Laeftir was already opening the door and rushing outside.
“Why, Eanrin, is that you?” she cried in a happy voice.
Amonette stopped in the doorway and watched as the man bowed very deeply, removing his red cap with a flourish.
“Indeed it is the same,” he replied, righting himself and flipping the cap back on his head. “I didn’t expect you to remember me. It has been ever so many years.”
Laeftir laughed for the first time since Amonette could remember. “You know I never forget a face, especially yours. Do come in.” She ushered him toward the door, and Amonette stepped aside. She watched as the man approached, wondering if he could see through the coverings on his eyes. He stepped through the doorway and turned to her.
“And who is this?” he asked in a kindly tone.
“This is Amonette, my ward,” Laeftir said. “Amonette, meet the legendary Bard of Rudiobus, Eanrin the Poet.”
Amonette was barely aware when her mouth dropped open. It couldn’t possibly be the Eanrin, could it? And yet, she knew that her mentor would never lie to her. She tried to speak, but she couldn’t quit manage to make her lips move.
Eanrin laughed. “You don’t know what to say, hmm? I know it’s hard to believe, but you are truly seeing a legend. Perhaps if I sang you one of my songs you would believe?”
Did he know that that very thing had been one of her childhood dreams? “Would you?” she squeaked, and Eanrin gave another hearty laugh.
“Why don’t you sit down?” Eanrin pulled out her chair for her and assisted her as she sat at the table, while Laeftir went to the stove to tend to the soup. Eanrin stepped away from the table and cupped his chin in his hand, an overly thoughtful look on his face. “Let’s see, what shall I sing?” After a moment, he snapped his fingers. “Ah! Here we go.”
“Hers the voice, the look. Obey
And sing a humble, longing lay!
Within the Hall of Red and Green
Behold my sweet, my love, my queen.
With merry song and manic pleasures,
Light of foot in lyric measures,
First pursue and then retreat.
Bright upon their fiery feet,
Within the circling dancers’ meeting
In time to ancient drums a-beating
Solemn strains, her homage must declare.
Where falls her glance, the Graces honer pay.
I would behold the luster of her hair
And seek the arms of Lady Gleamdrene!”
Amonette laughed and clapped in delight as Eanrin gave another deep bow. The song could have been sung a dozen different ways, but it wouldn’t have come to life unless the Chief Poet of Iubdan had sung it.
“I composed that at a moment’s notice on Queen Bebo’s birthday,” Eanrin said. “I was supposed to be singing about the queen, but my heart would only allow me to sing of the one I loved.”
Amonette smiled. “It was very well done,” she said. “I have sung your songs for as long as I can remember. I shall have to learn this one as well.”
Eanrin seemed flattered, but he didn’t have time to respond as Laeftir set before him a steaming bowl of soup. “What brings you out this way after all this time?” she asked, and immediately Eanrin’s face turned solemn.
“I’m afraid I come with a warning,” he said. Amonette felt something silent pass between them. For a long moment all was silent, and then Eanrin spoke. “The Dragon is coming.”
Erik walked wearily under the burden of the young buck on his shoulders. It would provide him a month’s worth for meals once he’d gotten it butchered and smoked.
The sun was setting in the west, offering only a sparse bit of color to the sky as clouds covered its bright face. By the time Erik caught sight of his cabin, it was nearly dark. He wasn’t surprised to see that a light shone through his window and the door was slightly ajar. He lowered the buck to the ground just outside and pushed the door open.
The smell of stew reached his nose and he immediately saw Eanrin sitting on the edge of the table, licking his paws. He lifted his face when he heard Erik and twitched his whiskers. “I thought you would never get here,” the cat said. “I made stew.”
“I knew you were a Faerie, but I didn’t know that you could cook,” Erik replied.
Eanrin’s ears went back a notch. “Mortals,” he muttered. “Such dense creatures.” He jumped down from the table and trotted toward the door, his tail swishing. He left without a word, leaving Erik shaking his head. He washed up and helped himself to the small pot on the stove. Flaky biscuits sat on a plate nearby, and he quickly dug in to the delicious food. He ate in silence until Eanrin reappeared in the doorway and jumped back up onto the table.
“I’ll have to keep you around,” Erik said. “This is good.”
“Of course it is.” Eanrin’s ears were still back. “Anyway, I met our little songbird today.”
Erik’s tired mind snapped into focus at that. “Really?” he asked, aware that he sounded too eager.
“Indeed. She lives less than half a mile east of here, and her name is Amonette.”
“Amonette.” He let the name wash over him. It was as beautiful as its owner. “Does she live alone?”
“No. A Faerie has been assigned to her welfare. It seems the girl’s parents died when she was very young, and she has no other family. The Prince sent Laeftir to look after her, for the Dragon covets her beauty. We believe that is why the Dragon is here, and if that’s true, then Amonette is in grave danger.”
Erik thought over each word, processing it slowly. “What can we do?”
Eanrin didn’t answer, and Erik had the feeling that the Faerie didn’t know either. What if there wasn’t anything to be done? Erik was beginning to feel closed in, trapped, when the silver voice of a wood thrush sounded from the trees outside.
Erik was in the smokehouse the next morning when he heard Eanrin calling out to someone. Erik wiped his hands on a towel as he stepped out of the building. He immediately saw that a woman was walking toward the house. Eanrin was in his human form, going to meet the woman, who Erik assumed was Laeftir.
He walked to where the two Faeries stood, and Laeftir turned to watch him. Her light blue eyes were icy and piercing, and her blonde hair was pulled back in a long plait that draped over her shoulder. Her dress was dark green with a full-length skirt, and Erik saw the hilt of a sword protruding from its folds.
“Eanrin tells me you’re an honest man,” Laeftir said, her voice hard. “How brave are you?”
Erik stared at her for a moment, not certain how to answer such a question. “I would fight to protect the innocent,” he finally said.
Some of the fierceness drained from her eyes. “I need your help,” she whispered. “Amonette must be protected, but I’m all she has. I need you to promise me something.” She reached out and gripped his forearm with strong fingers. “If anything happens to me, you must protect her.”
Erik knew the answer before she’d even finished speaking. “I will,” he said, covering the Faerie’s hand with his own. “Even if I must give up my own life, I will protect her.”
Laeftir’s eyes moistened slightly. “Thank you,” she whispered. “She is very important to the Prince--and to me.”
“I know.” Erik released her hand and took a step back. “Eanrin will show me where you live so I will know in case of trouble.”
“Come over tomorrow morning,” Laeftir replied. “You can meet Amonette then.”
Erik nearly trembled at the prospect of meeting the young woman he had spend months listening to down by the stream. In a way, it seemed too good to be true. Eanrin had a knowing look on his face, and Erik sent a glare in return even though the poet couldn’t see it.
“Can I get you something to drink, Laeftir?” Erik asked the Faerie woman.
She shook her head. “No, thank you. I must return home before Amonette becomes concerned. I will see you again tomorrow.”
Erik nodded. Laeftir turned away, and, walking with quick strides, she disappeared into the trees. He waited until she was out of earshot before turning to Eanrin. “You may as well just tell me to my face that I’m pathetic instead of looking like that.”
“Well, Laeftir was present,” the poet replied, his expression perfectly serene. “I didn’t care to say such a thing in front of her, because she would have asked why, and I would have had to tell her.”
Erik shook his head at his friend’s reasoning. “You are the most confusing person I have ever met.”
“Ah.” Eanrin shook his finger. “That is your first problem. I am not just a person. I am many things--poet, bard, and steadfast lover--but never merely a person.”
Erik cast his gaze heavenward, wondering how he would ever survive this self-important Faerie. “I believe you have become vain in the time since I last saw you.”
When Erik lowered his gaze, the poet was a cat again, and he began to lick his paws. “It is not vain to understand the truth about oneself,” he replied.
Erik shook his head and returned to the smokehouse without another word.
Erik kept pace with Eanrin as they walked through the woods the next day. The sky was overcast, threatening rain, but even that couldn’t dampen Erik’s excitement--or his nerves.
“How much farther?” he asked.
“We’re very nearly there,” Eanrin replied. He was in his human form again, and he reminded Erik of a proud peacock in his scarlet clothing. They continued on in silence for several minutes before Eanrin pointed through the trees. “It’s just up there.”
Erik opened his mouth, but before he could reply, a scream rent the air.
He took off at a run toward the sound, his heart pounding in his chest. He had his bow and an arrow drawn in a heartbeat, but when he burst from the tree line, he stopped cold.
The man that stood gripping Laeftir’s arm was tall. His skin was stark white, his hair black, and Erik’s breath left his lungs when the man looked at him. His eyes were like onyx stones, but red fire shone from their unearthly depths. Erik’s blood chilled, for he knew who this was.
His pale lips tilted up in a mocking smile, revealing black fangs. “Ah, Erik,” he said in a deep voice, fell and terrible. “I was hoping we might meet.”
Erik jerked from his stupor, wondering how the beast knew his name. Lightning streaked the sky, followed almost instantly by a deafening clash of thunder. Hoping to take advantage of the distraction, Erik raised his nocked arrow, but the Dragon jerked Laeftir back against his chest, and held a black claw against her throat.
“Faeries have three lives, my boy,” the Dragon said. “Laeftir here is living her last. If I kill her now, she is dead forever.”
An anguished cry from the doorway of the stone house vied for Erik’s attention, and he spared a quick glance at Amonette. She was on her knees, arms wrapped around her stomach as if she were in great pain. “Please, let her go!” she cried.
The Dragon laughed, and Erik barely refrained from clutching his ears at the earsplitting sound. Thunder rumbled, and the heavens opened. Rain poured down in a torrent, as if a device of the Dragon to drown any hope they might have left.
“Laeftir is mine!” the Dragon exclaimed. The black cloak swirling about his ankles expanded, swelling into vast wings that stretched over the clearing. His talons lengthened, thickened, and gripped Laeftir tightly in his massive hand. He grew and towered over the cabin, tall as three stories, reptilian scales gleaming in the glow of the fire that spilled from his mouth.
Erik fell on his stomach under the wave of heat that shot toward him. He heard the crackle of flame as the tree behind him caught fire, and the Dragon’s laughter pierced the air. “You are all mine!” he roared. “No one can defy my will!”
Erik was powerless to move, feeling the Dragon’s gaze pressing on his back, holding him down. Time seemed to stretch. Finally, he lift was able to lift his head and meet the Dragon’s eye. The beast didn’t move, but Erik heard his voice in his head.
I will be back for her.
Erik shuddered, and his gaze slid down to meet Laeftir’s. He saw assurance in her eyes, and he knew that she was trusting him with Amonette’s life. He gave a nod, and a cringe that might have been a smile flickered across her face.
With a final roar, the Dragon beat his wings and lifted into the air. Amonette screamed again, and Erik lurched to his feet and ran to her as she dashed through the rain toward the Dragon, but Erik’s arm shot out and caught her around the waist, pulling her back from the Dragon’s flashing talons.
“I will be back for you, princess!” The fell voice shook the ground. Wind from the beat of his wings buffeted Erik and Amonette, tearing at their clothes. “I will return!”
His shadow lifted and disappeared over the tops of the trees. Amonette turned and buried her face in Erik’s chest, her fingers clenching fistfuls of his shirt. Her body shuddered with sobs, and he gently held her.
“It will be all right,” he whispered. “We’ll find a way to get Laeftir back. The Prince will help us.”
She lifted her tearstained face, and for the first time he studied her features. Her teal eyes were large and haunted, her skin pale but for the light sprinkle of freckles across her nose. She had high, angular cheekbones that lent to the angle of her jaw. Even with her hair wet and tangled, she was more beautiful than Erik had imagined.
“My name is Erik,” he said softly. “Laeftir asked me to take care of you. I think she knew that something would happen.”
“She always did hear things that I could not,” Amonette murmured, her voice pitched with grief. “We have to find her. I can’t leave her in the Dragon’s clutches.”
“I know,” Erik said soothingly. “We’ll find her. Let’s just go inside for now and calm down so we can think this through.”
She nodded and obeyed. He paused, remembering the burning tree, and saw that the pouring rain had quenched the fire. He ducked into the cabin and saw that Amonette had taken a seat in the living room. Eanrin appeared in the doorway, and Erik realized that he’d forgotten about the poet.
“The Dragon flew south,” Eanrin said. “I believe he’s been hiding out in a cave about ten miles away. If he leaves for a while, we may be able to break Laeftir free.”
Amonette buried her face in her hands. “There’s no way,” she whispered. “He’s too strong. There’s nothing we can do against him. Laeftir will die.”
Erik went and knelt in front of her. He reached out and gripped both her shoulders, squeezing tightly. She looked up in surprise. “Did the Dragon tell you that?” he demanded.
She opened her mouth, but no sound came. She stared at him for several long moments before tears filled her eyes again. “He did,” she rasped.
Erik moved his hands from her shoulders and cupped her face. “Then it isn’t true,” he said. “The Dragon would have you give up hope, but we have a higher power on our side. The Prince will not leave us to fight this alone.”
“I hope so,” she whispered, searching his eyes. He felt her gaze go deep into his heart, and when she smiled a little, he got the feeling that she’d found what she was looking for.
He released her and sat back. Her gaze turned to Eanrin. “Tell us all you know about the Dragon,” she said, new strength in her voice.
Erik walked slowly through the trees, the scant light of dawn casting the slightest glow to his path. Two weeks had come and gone since the Dragon had taken Laeftir, and for all their plotting and thinking, they still had not come up with a rescue plan that didn’t require having more man-power than was available.
He shook his head and smirked. Even if they did have more men, nothing could stop the Dragon from roasting them in a single breath. Only the Prince had the power to stop this enemy.
But the Prince doesn’t seem overly eager to help us, he thought.
“Patience,” a silvery voice called through the trees. He couldn’t say that he heard with his ears as much as with his heart. It was reprimanding, yet comforting at the same time.
Forgive me, my Prince. I should not doubt you. Please help me.
He reached his cabin as the sun’s first rays peeked over the horizon. It would be a little while yet before the sun crested the trees, and he would be back at Amonette’s place by then. He and Eanrin had stayed with her, sleeping in her lean-to, not leaving her alone since the Dragon came. She seemed to be grateful for the company and protection, but she was frustrated with their inability to rescue Laeftir.
He went into his cabin and changed his clothes, which were soiled from the trip he’d taken last night to see where the Dragon dwelled. Erik’s place was in order, and he headed to the smokehouse to retrieve some meat for their supper tonight.
A presence behind him pricked his senses, and he whirled around, shocked to see a hooded form less than four paces away. In an instant he had an arrow nocked, but the form held up a hand to stop him.
“Don’t shoot,” a feminine voice said. Two hands reached up and pushed the hood back, revealing the face of a beautiful young woman. Her skin was very pale, her eyes showing a wisdom that surpassed the age of her face. “My name is Iaras, and I bear a message from the Prince.”
Erik had never heard of her nor seen her before, but he knew from her surreal appearance that she was a Faerie. “From the Prince, you say?” he finally asked.
“Yes. He bade me to tell you that he wishes you to continue caring for Amonette as you have.” She paused and seemed to struggle with her next words. “And that when the Dragon returns, you must not interfere.”
Erik shook his head. Had he heard wrong? “What do you mean, not interfere?”
“This is Amonette’s test. She is very dear to the Prince, and the Dragon cannot touch her unless she succumbs to his wiles. She is very strong-willed, but she must rely on the Prince’s strength and no one else’s. If you are there, she will look to you for strength instead and will fall very quickly.”
Logic warred with love in his mind and he closed his eyes for a moment. “The Prince expects me to stand by and wait for Amonette to make this choice all alone?”
“Do you suppose you could help her make a choice like this?” Iaras’s eyes were sad. “You have many things to learn about the Prince, Erik. You cannot force anyone to choose him.”
“Then she does not believe in him?” Erik asked.
“She knows that he exists. Laeftir taught her that from when she was a very small child. But she has never taken him into her heart, nor has she given him hers. She doesn’t understand that she can’t be saved by her good deeds. That is why the Dragon wants her. He sensed the emptiness in her life and seeks to fill it with himself.”
Erik struggled to think through everything Iaras had said. It contradicted what he wanted and had thought was best, but finally he nodded. He couldn’t stand in the way of what the Prince commanded. “Very well,” he murmured.
Iaras’s lips ghosted a smile. “You are blessed,” she replied, and started to walk away
He took a step after her. “Should I tell Amonette any of this?” he asked.
She paused and looked at him over her shoulder. “You may tell her that the Prince will protect her as long as she resists the Dragon. Do not reveal the rest, and do not tell her about me.”
Erik nodded and watched her go. As she stepped into the forest, the sun crested the tops of the trees and washed his home in golden light. He turned his face into the warm rays, the first to appear since the Dragon’s visit. Urgency began to well in him, and he quickly retrieved the meat from the smokehouse before hurrying to Amonette’s house.
She stepped from the house as he approached and reached for the slab of venison. “Thank you,” she said with a small smile, and even that seemed radiant despite the slight circles under her eyes. For the first time, he noticed something empty in those beautiful eyes, and now he knew that it was the absence of the Prince.
“Of course,” Erik replied to her words, allowing his fingers to brush hers as she took the meat from him. Her eyes rose to meet his and her cheeks pinked before she turned and disappeared inside. He stepped into the doorway and called after her. “Do you know where Eanrin is?”
“He went for a walk,” she replied, and Erik stepped back outside. He saw Eanrin appear out of the trees across the clearing and walked to meet him.
“I had a visitor at my place,” Erik said as he drew near. “Her name is Iaras.”
Eanrin nodded. “I have made her acquaintance.”
Erik explained what the Faerie had told him, and the poet nodded gravely. “I feared as much. I pray that the Prince’s hold on her heart will be strong enough to keep her from the Dragon’s will.”
Erik turned and looked back at the cabin. He felt a stab in his chest when he thought of the Dragon with his hands on Amonette. My Prince, protect her, he prayed.
A wood thrush sang from the trees.
Amonette pulled the bucket of water from the depths of the well and poured it into a large jar. She cradled the jar against her side as she walked back toward the house. It had been nearly four weeks since Laeftir had been taken, yet Amonette still missed her as if it were yesterday.
Erik had taken good care of her. He brought her fresh meat and kept her woodpile stocked, much more easily than Laeftir or Amonette had ever done. He had been quiet since he’d given her that message about the Dragon, but Amonette knew that he was keeping something from her. She knew he probably thought it was best for her, but she couldn’t help but wish he would tell her everything.
Eanrin had come and gone every few days, floating in and back out without any apparent strain. Amonette couldn’t imagine where he might travel so often, but she didn’t bother to ask. If the Faerie wanted her to know, he would tell her.
Amonette stepped into the house and set her jar on the table. The roast in the oven made the cabin smell wonderful, and the potatoes simmering on the stove would be ready in half an hour. She looked out the window and saw Erik coming in from the trees, a string of fish dangling from his hand. She met him at the front door and smiled her thanks.
“Supper will be ready when you come back in,” she said as she took the fish. She would save them for the next day. Erik merely nodded in acknowledgement to what she’d said, but he smiled a little as he met her gaze.
Amonette felt herself blushing as he turned away. She shut the door and leaned back against it, holding her hand over her fluttering heart. She had seen the affection in Erik’s eyes every time he looked at her, and she wondered how he could care for her so much when they hardly knew each other.
Suddenly a memory came to her, from before Eanrin came with tidings of the Dragon. The last day she went to the spring to sing, she had felt someone watching her. She’d always had a niggling in the back of her mind, but that day it was so strong. She wondered if it could be Erik who’d been listening to her that whole time.
Remembering supper, she hurried to the stove and finished preparing the meal. She was just serving it up when Erik stepped through the door, his sleeves rolled up to his elbows and he hands scrubbed clean. He took a seat at the table, and Amonette placed his plate in front of him along with a cup of coffee.
“Thank you,” he said softly.
She nodded and served herself before sitting down. Silence reigned, though it wasn’t altogether uncomfortable. She’d gotten used to Erik’s quietness, but tonight she longed for conversation.
“Erik,” she said, and he looked up from his meal. “This may sound like a strange question, but did you ever...listen to me sing by the spring?”
He didn’t respond immediately, but then ducked his head and nodded. “Yes,” he said, sounding embarrassed. “I stumbled across you by accident one day when I was hunting. I returned to the same spot every day until you came again the next week, and then it became a habit to listen.”
Amonette smiled, relieved to have the mystery solved--and flattered that he’d enjoyed her singing so much as to return every week to listen. “I used those times to sing for the Prince,” she said. “Laeftir taught me many songs.”
Erik’s brow creased as if he was troubled, but as quickly as it came, it was gone. “Perhaps you would sing for me after supper?” he asked with a little hesitance.
She nodded. “I would like that very much.”
They finished the meal in silence, and Erik helped her clear the table and wash the dishes. When all the work was finished, Amonette retrieved her lyre and sat on a stool by the fire, cradling her instrument in her lap. She hadn’t played it since Laeftir was taken, so she carefully tuned it while Erik sat down in the chair a few feet away. She was aware of his eyes on her, and finally she looked up at him. The firelight glinted in his brown eyes, making them unreadable.
Gently, she ran her fingers over the strings, letting the music carry her away even as she kept her gaze locked on Erik’s. “This was written by Laeftir for her lover, many years ago,” she said softly. A melody soon emerged from her instrument, and she opened her mouth to sing.
“I knew who you were before we met.
I thought of you as the sun rose and set.
You are ever-present in heart and mind;
The love and the life that I shall soon find.
“The love I see in your sparkling eyes
Shatters all fears of darkness and lies.
When you are near, I feel secure;
What I feel for you is love so pure."
She let the song fade and lowered her gaze to her lyre. “Laeftir never saw him again,” she whispered. “She never knew what happened to him.” She wouldn’t mention that she hadn’t merely been singing her mentor’s song. She’d felt the truth of them with every word, and she wondered if Erik knew that she had been singing it for him.
“Thank you for singing,” he said, and when she looked up, a slight smile flickered across his lips. He stood and took a step back. “I will see you in the morning.” He turned and left, shutting the door softly behind him.
Amonette’s heart pattered an unsteady rhythm. She set her lyre on the floor beside her before propping her elbows on her knees and her chin in her hands. How could it be that she cared for him so much already? Perhaps it was his desire to protect her; perhaps it was that quiet strength that she sensed in him. She didn’t understand that strength, but she knew that she wanted it for herself.
The next morning, Erik walked slowly through the woods toward his place, still mulling over what had happened the night before. He had sensed that Amonette’s song was for him, and while his heart wanted to rejoice with the knowledge that she cared for him, he knew that she was looking to him as her savior because he’d been taking care of her.
He leaned against a tree and rubbed his throbbing temples, the result of a fruitless night of hunting. When the Dragon came, he knew that he would not be able to interfere. It went against everything in him that told him to protect the one he loved, but Erik knew that if it wasn’t the Prince’s will, he would have no power against the Dragon.
I won’t do Amonette any good if I’m dead, he thought, pushing away from the tree and continuing his walk. Amonette had to choose the Prince, and as long as Erik was present, he would be getting in the way of that. Just, please protect her, he prayed.
A wood thrush called out from the trees above him, and he looked up to see it flitting from branch to branch. Peace filled his heart, and he knew that all would be well.
He went to his cabin, changed into some clean clothes and shaved, and started toward Amonette’s house. The walk was peaceful, but when he neared her cabin, a dark presence alarmed him, and he hurried to the tree line.
His heart stood still when he saw the Dragon in his familiar human form standing outside Amonette’s cabin. She stood before him, clutching the handle of a water bucket in one hand. Her eyes jumped to Erik and begged him to help her.
No one spoke. Erik’s heart pounded in his chest. The moment stretched, tearing his heart, and Amonette’s eyes widened as she seemed to realize what was happening. Erik took one step back, the pain in Amonette’s gaze almost too much to bear.
“I’m sorry,” Erik mouthed, shaking his head. The space between them widened by another step, and he felt her withdrawing from him. The last thing he saw before he turned and walked away was the look of utter betrayal on her face.
Amonette’s heart seemed to die within her at the sight of Erik’s retreating form. She knew that he wasn’t going to get help or his weapon. He was leaving her here in the hands of the Dragon. He was betraying her.
The Beast’s menacing presence leeched back into her awareness, and he clicked his tongue. “Watch him go, Amonette,” the Dragon said. “If he loved you, he would never leave you alone here.” He began to circle her. “Poor little girl. Her lover has turned his back. You will never see him again.”
She watched him, expecting him to reach for her, but not so much as the hem of his cloak brushed her skirt as he took slow steps around her. She remembered what Erik had told her, that so long as she didn’t choose the Dragon, she would be protected. Somehow, this was not what she’d had in mind.
“Let me come inside the cabin.”
His voice seemed to soak into her mind, and for an instant she found herself opening her mouth to agree. The image of him at her table filled her mind, but she knew that it would be compromising. When he was no longer between her and the cabin, she swung her water bucket at him and dashed into the house. She slammed and locked the door, her entire body shaking.
The Dragon laughed from outside, his voice making her clutch her ears and sink to the ground. Tears streamed down her face even as her heart broke within her. “Oh, Erik,” she moaned. “Why did you leave me?”
Erik knew her heart was breaking, because his was as well. Cursed tears blinded him as he walked through the trees. The sound of water beckoned ahead of him, and he stumbled to a halt by the bubbling brook. He immediately recognized the place where Amonette used to sing, before the Dragon had come.
He fell to his knees, trying to keep his hands from shaking. My Prince, please help me! his mind cried. This is the hardest thing I have ever done! Please, show me that I did the right thing.
He remembered what he’d been thinking about just a little while ago, that he knew it wasn’t the Prince’s will that he interfere. He’d been so sure of it then. What had changed? He suddenly felt so weak, like this struggle had drained the strength from him. Please help me.
A warmth came upon his head, almost as if a hand were resting there. The heat spilled down over his shoulders and kept spreading until it filled his whole body. Peace once again returned to his heart, and he remembered something that Iaras had told him.
“You are blessed.”
It seemed like such a foreign notion, but in that moment, he soaked in its truth. Thank you, my Prince, he prayed. Show me how to pray. Please tell me I can do to help my beloved.
A hand, real this time, touched his shoulder, and he looked up into Eanrin’s golden eyes. “I tried to get here sooner,” he said.
Erik shook his head. “It doesn’t matter,” he whispered, his voice thick with emotion. “This is Amonette’s test. I had to turn my back.”
Eanrin nodded. “I know.” For several minutes, he seemed at a loss for words. It was something Erik had never witnessed in the poet.
Finally, Erik pushed to his feet and took a deep breath. “I should go home,” he said, and started into the trees toward his cabin. To his surprise, Eanrin fell in step beside him.
Time dragged on. Amonette knew the Dragon was outside. He did not try to come in, nor did he speak to her, but he didn’t have to. His very presence was a heavy weight on her heart, pulling her down, deep into darkness.
She sat at the table, her hand gripping the short sword that Laeftir kept in the cabin. Dusk fell, but she didn’t light a candle. She just stared into a black corner, replaying the same moment over in her mind.
Erik had left her.
She’d seen the change in his eyes. She saw the agony that he couldn’t quite conceal. But she didn’t understand. If it hurt him so much to leave, why would he? She closed her eyes and rested her forehead on the table. She wanted to cry, but all her tears were spent.
Her hand instinctively curled tighter around the hilt of her blade. What did she have left? Why did she resist the Dragon? He would give her a place of belonging. He would take her away from this terrible place, where Erik and all her fondest memories were--memories that were too painful to be reminded of every time she saw Laeftir’s knitting, saw the lyre sitting by the fireplace and thought of Erik. Her music was nothing to her anymore.
She lurched to her feet and hurled the sword away from her. The hilt slammed into a table and knocked it over before embedding the blade into the wood floor. It stood on end, quivering with the force of the blow. She stared at it for a long moment and then dropped her eyes to the small table. The drawer in the front had fallen open, and the Book that Laeftir had there lay face down on the floor.
Slowly, almost against her own will, she walked over and leaned down to lift the volume. She turned it over gently and sank down into the chair nearby. Strands of moonlight fell over the old, tattered pages, and she caressed them gently.
These were the Chronicles of the Prince, recording how he’d paid the price for the sins of all people. Laeftir had read them to her since she was a child, and she knew them nearly by heart, but something was missing. It didn’t touch her like it did Laeftir. She didn’t understand much of it, but suddenly she found that she wanted to.
She heard the Dragon outside, moving about her cabin. She looked up from the pages of the Book and saw his silhouette through the window. He pulled at her, so much so that she nearly stood and went to the door, but something kept her back. She felt as if she were being pulled mercilessly in two different directions, and she didn’t know which one to choose.
Hours stretched into days, marked only by the rising and setting of the sun. Amonette didn’t move, barely conscious as the battle over her soul became fiercer. Choosing would make it stop, but she couldn’t seem to make herself decide. What if she chose wrong?
The image of her mother’s face came to her mind. It had been so many years that the memory was faded, but she knew that she had only to look into the mirror to know what her mother looked like. She had been so beautiful. Amonette remembered very little of her parents except for the sound of them singing her to sleep at night.
Their voices had blended in perfect harmony, twining together until they were one. Amonette remembered feeling so safe, so happy when her parents were singing. She nearly smiled, almost hearing it again. But, as always, on the heels of the happy memories came the bad ones.
She remembered her mother’s scream, her father telling her to stay inside. Amonette had never seen the beasts that had taken her parents’ lives, but she remembered their feral growls and the sight of their footprints in the mud. That had been the only sign that they had been there at all--that and the absence of her only family.
She’d been four years old when it happened. She remembered coming out of the cellar and searching for them, terrified that the beasts would come back for her, yet even more afraid of being alone. That was when Laeftir had found her, hungry, dirty, and lost in the woods. She’d taken her home, cared for her, and rocked her to sleep.
Amonette never forgot her parents, but the pain had been dulled over the years. Laeftir had done her best to fill her parents’ places in her life, but there had always been that emptiness, an emptiness that Amonette had tried to fill with her music. It had helped, but it never sufficed.
Why? Why is all of this happening? Haven’t I suffered enough? Prince, don’t you love me anymore?
“Dear Amonette, the Prince loves you so much,” her mother had once said to her, so many years ago. “He wants you to be his forever.”
Amonette had always assumed that by acknowledging that he existed, she was saved. I have served you as best I can. I have lived believing that I was yours. What more is there?
“Ask me into your heart,” a soft voice whispered to her heart.
She became aware again of the Dragon, this time outside her door in the darkness of night.
“I’m here for you, Princess,” his voice said, horrible and beautiful at the same time. “Give me your heart, and I will make you a queen.”
Tears filled her eyes. She thought she might be torn in two, so great was this struggle. She buried her face in her hands. “I don’t know what to do,” she cried.
“I love you, Amonette. Believe in me."
“I’m here for you, Princess. Give me your heart.”
Pain throbbed through her head, making the room spin. Her heart pounded as if trying to escape her chest.
“Believe in me.”
“Give me your heart.”
She held her hands over her chest, as if that might stop the unbearable pain. She closed her eyes, and she was in a dark tunnel. There was light at the end, so pure and bright and full of hope. She ran toward it.
“I love you.”
In that instant, she made her decision.
Erik jerked upright in bed. His breaths came hard, but he didn’t waste time. He jumped up and dressed quickly. The sun had not quite risen, but he didn’t even stop to get his weapon before he rushed out of his cabin. Eanrin jumped down from his place on the windowsill and ran ahead through the woods toward Amonette’s house. Erik followed close behind.
His dream was vivid in his mind, leaving no doubt to what he should do. The Prince’s voice echoed through his thoughts, calming him even as it invigorated him.
“Go to her.”
The words had been so strong, yet so loving. Erik was afraid of what he might find at Amonette’s cabin, but he had to go.
My Prince, please help us.
My Prince, I ask you into my heart. I ask you to forgive my sins and make me clean. I want to serve you, my Lord, no matter what happens.
Peace flooded her being. Amonette set the Book aside and rose slowly. Her fingers curled around the hilt of her sword and she pulled it out of the floor. The leather beneath her hand was cool, and it felt good in her grip. She walked to the door and unbolted it, letting it swing open.
The Dragon stood in the middle of the yard, halfway between the cabin and the tree line. Not a breath of wind stirred the trees; not even the birds cried. The Dragon stared at her with lust in his eyes, unmoving.
Amonette took four steps toward him before she stopped. She held the sword up, laid out across her palms. Then, with a mighty heave, she threw it to the ground. It landed in the dust between them, reflecting the first rays of the morning sun.
“I choose the Prince!” she cried. “Dragon, you cannot have me!”
The stillness was shattered. The Dragon threw back his head and roared. She watched as the transformation began, but suddenly an arm clamped around her waist from behind and snatched her back into the cabin. The door slammed and the arm loosened, and she whirled around to see Erik with his back against the door, returning her gaze in the dim light.
She stared at him, seeing the uncertainty in his eyes. She knew now why he had left her, and she found that she wasn’t angry with him anymore. “Thank you,” she whispered.
He reached out and pulled her close, cradling her against his chest. He didn’t say anything for several long moments, and then lowered his head until his breath tickled her ear. “I love you.”
A tear escaped her eye. “I love you too.”
Another roar from outside shattered the moment, and suddenly heat poured around the door. Erik jerked away from it as the crackle of flames took hold on the outside. The stone walls protected them for the moment, but it wouldn’t last long under the heat of the Dragon’s fire.
Another blast of fire caught on the thatch roof of the cabin. Erik pulled her to the kitchen table and they both ducked under it as smoke began to fill the cabin. The windows shattered, spraying glass everywhere, and Erik pulled her close, shielding her with his own body.
Burning sections of the roof fell all around them, first bits of thatch and then the boards that supported it. Amonette heard the Dragon breathing, and she shuddered at the heat as the front wall of the cabin began to melt. The Dragon’s claws ripped down the wall. In one more breath, fire would come down on their refuge and consume everything inside the cabin. It seemed so hopeless.
Then, over the sound of the flames, came the cry of a wood thrush.
The Dragon wheeled around, his red eyes searching the edge of the clearing. The wall of the cabin had fallen so low that Amonette could see over the top of it. A lone figure stepped out of the trees. He seemed unassuming, almost ordinary, but power emanated from him. The Dragon snarled.
The Prince drew his mighty sword and held it high, the rising sun reflecting off it in a blinding gleam. The Dragon roared in pain, fire flickering between his teeth. He stumbled back, his head low.
“Go back from whence you came, beast!” the Prince said with such absolute authority that tears fell down Amonette’s cheeks. The Dragon screamed, backing away from the Prince. With faltering wings, he lifted into the air. As he moved away from the Prince, he seemed to gain strength, and with one last mighty roar, he shot off to the south.
“He’s gone,” Amonette gasped, and Erik hugged her fiercely for a long moment. Finally he let her go and they crawled out from under the table. Erik helped her over the razed wall and entwined his fingers with hers as they walked toward the Prince, who sheathed his sword and waited for them. They bowed before him, and Amonette felt her strength returning in the presence of the Prince.
He knelt down in front of them and lifted their faces. He leaned and kissed Erik’s forehead, and then Amonette’s. Tears fell from her eyes when he spoke, his voice so soothing, so healing.
“I love you.”
She closed her eyes as the deep wounds of her heart were knit back together with his love. It seemed like an eternity and yet just moments, but when she opened her eyes, the Prince was gone. She turned her gaze to Erik, and he looked just as cleansed as she felt.
The cry of an eagle overhead brought them to their feet, and Amonette watched as the powerful, brown bird circled down to land ten feet away. Amonette blinked, and suddenly Laeftir was standing before her. Amonette ran to her and hugged her tightly, laughing and crying.
After a long moment, Laeftir pulled back. “My dear, you’re quite a sight,” she said. Amonette saw that her white dress was streaked with soot and her hair was tangled, but she’d never felt better in her life.
“Oh, Laeftir, I have so much to tell you,” she said. They walked to the house. The front wall was gone, as was the roof. Smoking debris littered the floor and furniture, and Erik cleared what he could. The table was still serviceable, as were two of the chairs, so he cleaned them and set them a little away from the wreckage. Amonette told Laeftir all that had happened, and she was just finished when Erik approached, cradling something in his arms with great care.
Amonette immediately recognized the honey-colored wood of her lyre, completely unscathed. She took it into her lap and let her fingers strum the strings. The sound filled her heart with a new joy that she’d never felt before. The Prince had taken the shattered pieces of her heart and put them back together, forming them into a jewel for his crown.
She lifted up her voice in song, truly praising Him for the first time in her life. Laeftir’s smooth voice joined in, and Erik’s tenor reached her ears. Eanrin stepped into the cabin, his jolly tone nearly completing their circle.
The silver voice of a wood thrush sounded from the trees.
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