Night had fallen, and the spirits of Nornid and his companions with it. They were enjoying the comfort of the gracious hospitality given them by Hrost and the Nostean dwarves, but their captivity by the Apians had taken up a day of their quest. Since it was evening and, in this particular area, too dark to travel any more, the entire ordeal was costing them two days. And they did not have very many days to spare.

In the dining hall of a massive marble palace, eight figures sat at a long stone table, each feasting on some of the finest food the dwarves had to offer. Nornid, Jeyra, and Kristopher sat on one side of the table; facing them were Hrost, Yoriff, Vawdrey, and Piers. At the head of the table sat another dwarf, about the same height as Hrost and with similar features, but older, deeper, and only slightly more wizened. This dwarf had long gray hair with a thick beard of the same hue, retaining only a hint of the youthful crimson color that had once covered it. Instead of the plain brown robe which Hrost had changed into, this dwarf was clothed in a rich, royal azure, with a crown made of gold and embedded with a variety of jewels and precious stones. This was King Hurnost, the ruler of Noste, and Hrost's father.

"We thank you once again, King Hurnost and Captain Horst of Noste, for the food and shelter you have most generously provided us tonight," Jeyra remarked after downing a piece of choice meat with a glass of cordial.

King Hurnost chuckled, a deep and merry laugh. "There is no need to be so formal, Jeyra, when you are among friends and comrades! Please, do not mention it! Have I not already said this? To give you these things is no burden to us, and indeed is among your natural rights. What sort of a king would I be if I did not offer such kindness to visitors from neighborly kingdoms?"

"Unfortunately, a common one," Nornid pointed out. "Many rulers throughout history and in all the diverse regions of Terres have been known to be ruthless and skeptical of visitors. Indeed, Queen Apia and her servants gave us a treatment quite the opposite of this sort of hospitality. If I may say so, your highness, your generosity very much distinguishes you from many other rulers I have known, excluding my father. We truly do appreciate all of this."

Hurnost smiled back at Nornid. "And I, of course, appreciate your compliment, Nornid," he said. "Indeed, I have never agreed with the philosophy of tyranny and such harsh, cold rule. A king's rule should be firm and strong, certainly, but he should rule justly and with the best interests of the people in mind. Something for you to take to heart, perhaps, as I am told you are next in line for the kingship of your nation." He paused briefly to bite off a piece of meat, and then added, "Besides, any enemy of those foul bees is a friend to the people of Noste."

Hrost turned to Nornid and spoke. "If you grow to know my father better, you will realize that he is by no means usual and does not readily conform to the common trends. However, I believe you will come to enjoy his company."

"Actually, I am quite enjoying it already, thank you," Nornid answered. "And I daresay the same for all of us."

"I certainly agree," Yoriff commented. "This food is most excellent, and the furnishings of your palace extraordinary."

"Indeed, it is quite nice to have a house, much less a palace of such comfort and splendor, for even one night," Vawdrey agreed.

"Your hospitality shall be most enjoyed," Piers told the king, unaccustomed to the formalities of being among royalty but trying to appear polite and finely cultured.

Kristopher had finished his meal already and had been silent up to this point. "King Hurnost," he said. "How goes the war with Kelama?"

Hrost and the king both appeared slightly perturbed by this question. After regaining his composure the king answered. "Kelama? I should ask how you know of our dealings with Kelama, but I suppose that news travels naturally through the civilized world. In truth, we are not at war with Kelama as of yet. However, tensions are rising, and though I wish quite the opposite, I fear that it may soon come to a war." He took a sip of ale and continued. "But why are we talking of such things during this pleasant meal? I shall inform you more thoroughly of the situation later, if you must know. But come; I wish to hear of your quest. How is it that you have come from Laem-Sujer, capital city of Lesira, all the way to Noste?"

"It is a complicated story," Nornid answered. "And I fear it may be of a mood similar to that of your war."

"This is sad news, if indeed the situations are similar," Hurnost replied. "But even so, please tell me of your quest. I would wish to know why you come."

"As would I," Hrost said. "You began to tell me when we were escaping from the hive, but at that point we had no time for the exchange of tales. Since then, however, I have been curious as to the nature of your quest."

"Very well, you shall have our story," said Nornid. "Or at least, the story as well as I understand it. Kristopher is much wiser than I, and I may need him to elaborate on some details which are still unclear to me."

"That is fine," Hurnost said. "Please, tell your story."

Nornid began speaking. "Well, your highness, it—"

"Nornid, please do not call me 'your highness'!" the king interrupted. "As I have said, we are in an informal setting of friends and companions. Besides, you and I are both of royalty; are we not on the same level of highness? But I am sorry for interrupting; do go on."

Nornid still considered the king to be of a higher level than himself, but he appreciated the humble attitude and would not argue with it. "Very well then, sir," he said, still not comfortable to address the king only by his name. "Our quest began merely days ago, at our kingdom's Millennial Reign ceremony. As the people were feasting and all were going about their normal ways, we were suddenly attacked by a band of monsters."

"Monsters?" the king inquired.

"They are commonly known as the Shadow Beasts," Kristopher explained. "Shral'kiri, in the ancient tongue. Dark spirits, both in physical appearance and in their very nature. They are the servants of Reclifu himself."

"Reclifu," King Hurnost mused. "I have heard the name spoken in legends and tales. So his servants attacked your city? I do hope the damage was minimal."

"The damage was great, but not as great as it could have been," Jeyra put in.

"Many lost their lives," Yoriff lamented.

"There was indeed," Nornid acknowledged. "Though I am thankful that my close friends and family were safe, and that, to my knowledge, no one I knew personally was killed."

"The Shadow Beasts are extremely destructive and cannot be stopped by mere force or strength," Kristopher stated. "I used the power that has been entrusted to me to entrap the horrible creatures in a place from which they cannot escape."

It was unclear whether King Hurnost was skeptical or intrigued by all the talk of spirits and power. "Am I to understand that you hold command over these spirits?" he asked Kristopher.

"I have only limited command over them," Kristopher answered. "There is one far greater than I who holds supreme command over all."

"Are you, then, a wizard?"

"Certainly not!" Kristopher interjected. "Wizardry, too, is a tool of Reclifu. It would not work against his own servants, and I would not wield it even if it did."

"I see," King Hurnost lied, still confused. "But I still do not see why, if Lesira is now safe from the Shadow Beasts, you did take up this quest, or where your destination is."

"The Shadow Beasts are not permanently imprisoned," Nornid tried to explain. "The trap will wear off in a matter of time." He looked toward Kristopher, as if unsure of the accuracy of what he had said. "Is this correct, Kristopher?"

"Essentially so," the old sage replied. "In less than a fortnight, the trap will naturally undo itself, and the Shadow Beasts will be free once more. We quest to find a more permanent solution to their impending threat."

"And what sort of solution would this be?" the king asked.

"The only way to destroy the Shadow Beasts is with the power of EL," Kristopher explained. "And so we go to the Place of EL, in the country of Rugal and on the continent of Piri, to seek out EL's help in the salvation of our country."

"El!" Hrost exclaimed, suddenly intrigued by the conversation. "Do you speak of EL, who is called the Great King and the Undying Light?"

"The same," Kristopher answered.

King Hurnost turned to his son, surprised. "How do you know of this, my son?"

"I have heard mention of EL in my studies of the archives of the palace library," the younger dwarf answered. "Throughout all the scrolls of the history of Terres, he is almost always mentioned in conjunction with Lesira's history."

"This is what I have found as well," Nornid told Hrost. "I have heard much of EL from living in Lesira. Though, strangely, it seems he is mentioned only in historical records, rather than in present day life."

"This is because the people of Lesira have turned away from EL," Kristopher stated with a tone of sadness.

"I should like to learn more of this subject, if your time here allows for such," Hrost told his guests. "The historical records have been somewhat vague in describing his nature, though from what I have read, it seems he was quite an outstanding elf."

"Elf?" Kristopher repeated. "Nay, EL is no elf. And his true nature cannot be known by any mortal inhabitant of Terres."

Nornid could see that their dwarven hosts were somewhat confused by Kristopher's comments and not sure what to make of them. Apparently, spirits and powers were indeed beyond the dwarves' area of familiarity. "Kristopher is very wise," Nornid tried to explain tactfully, "And he speaks of many things that are beyond my knowledge. Beyond the knowledge of many others."

"I see," the king said once again. "Well then, it seems that your quest is indeed a good and noble one for the protection of your kingdom. I do sincerely hope that it all works out well for you and your people. Is there anything that Noste could do to aid you?"

Hrost seemed like he was about to speak up, but Nornid did not notice and spoke instead. "Nothing comes to mind at the time," said the elvish prince. "But your offer is greatly appreciated, and we shall let you know if we come to be in dire need of anything later on."

"Of course," Hurnost answered. He glanced around the table at all of his guests. "I see that everyone has finished their meal. If no one is still hungry, then come with me, and I shall show you all to your quarters for the night." He stood, joined by his son Hrost, and soon the six travelers had risen as well to follow them out. Nornid noticed that each of the six of them towered over both of the naturally shorter dwarves.

"Your quarters are this way," the king said, stepping into a nearby corridor. The walls and floor and ceiling were stone, as was the entire palace.

"Your majesty!" a voice called out, accompanied by the sound of rapid footsteps. Everyone stopped where they were and turned to see the cause of the noise. It was another dwarf, younger than the king, probably about Hrost's age. He was clad similarly to Hrost, with a plain tunic and small silver cap, but his beard was a light brown and not as thick.

"Yes, soldier?" the King responded, looking uncertain. The dwarf's tone sounded urgent, and probably not in a good way.

"What is it, Gralf?" Hrost asked.

Gralf stopped running, caught his breath, and stood facing the king. He seemed to eye the group of outlandish visitors for a moment, but quickly returned to the matter at hand. "Forgive my intrusion, your majesty—"

"Intrusion forgiven! But if your news is as bad as your tone makes it sound, then there is no time for such formalities. What is it?"

"The news is not terrible," Gralf began, "But nor is it especially pleasant. You see, some of our soldiers have encountered a group of Equill soldiers, and the groups are having conflicts and rivalries once again."

King Hurnost groaned audibly. "Can our two peoples never live in peace? I suppose not. Well then, what is to be done? Does King Steedmare know of this?"

"Yes, your highness," Gralf answered. "Actually, his highness King Steedmare has requested a brief council with you to resolve the matter. He wishes permission to meet you here, and asks for two of his best soldiers, Rampstone and Goldwell, to be allowed as well."

"Why must he even ask? King Steedmare knows that he is welcome here. Thank you for your message, first officer Gralf, and please tell King Steedmare that he and his soldiers may come hither at their convenience."

"Thank you, your majesty," Gralf answered, running off to deliver the message.

"What was that all about?" Piers whispered to Nornid, perplexed but not wanting to sound rude.

"The Equill have been our closest neighbors for centuries," King Hurnost told him, overhearing but not offended. "Early on, in ages long past, the Nosteans and the Equill were the best of friends and powerful allies to each other. This is still my wish for our two kingdoms today, but it seems it is growing increasingly more difficult all the time."

"Why? What is happening?" Jeyra inquired.

"I cannot say for sure," the king answered. "It seems that, over time, our two cities have gradually grown less accepting and more skeptical of each other. Conflicts have risen over which of our peoples shares the land between our cities, and on several occasions, various peoples of Noste and Equill both have been accused of trespassing in the other's territory. In recent months, such conflicts have seemed to escalate to a new level. At times I have feared a war between us."

"But what does it matter whose land it is?" Vawdrey asked. "Why not just agree to share the land and be done with it?"

"Indeed, this is my wish," Hurnost said. "But many of our soldiers do not seem to understand that, and I am not sure that King Steedmare does either. However, I truly hope that he and I will be able to work out an agreement and that our kingdoms may coexist in peace."

"A divided kingdom will not stand," Kristopher wisely informed the king. "If you are battling your ally, then you both will fall when a common enemy, such as Kelama, comes."

The king looked up at him. "This is true," he acknowledged after considering for a moment. "Your counsel is wise indeed."

----------

"All hail his majesty, King Steedmare!"

As soon as Nornid heard Gralf speak these words, he looked to the palace courtyard where three figures, appearing quite similar upon first glance, all stood together. It was clear from the elaborate crown on his head that the one in the middle was King Steedmare. His face and upper body looked completely human; the king had chestnut brown hair that flowed neatly down his shoulders and a beard that hung just barely off the edge of his chin. His shoulders bore a cape of royal purple, and his muscular torso was bare except for the silver chest plate bearing the Equill coat of arms. The king's lower body, however, differentiated him quite distinctly from any human, mainly because of the four thin, hairy legs that descended from a horse-like stomach and culminated in strong, sturdy hooves.

"I thank you for welcoming us here, King Hurnost," the centaur ruler spoke. "It is an honor to be invited to your palace." Steedmare's upper body bowed slightly in coordination with a noticeable bend in his equine knees.

"And I am honored that you have come," Hurnost answered, returning the bow. "But who are these two you have brought with you?"

King Steedmare gestured to the two centaurs on either side of him. "These are Rampstone and Goldwell, brothers, and two of my best fighters, both in skill and in bravery." The two brothers appeared to be younger than the king; their features were not as distinguished and their fur was a richer color. They were similar in facial structure and could almost be mistaken for one another except for that Rampstone had a thick russet mane around his head and Goldwell's hair was blond. They, too, bowed as courtesy to King Hurnost.

"I see that you also have guests," King Steedmare said, indicating Nornid and his friends. "And a rather diverse group, at that. May I ask who they are and from whence they come?"

Hurnost stretched out a hand toward the group, indicating for them to introduce themselves. Nornid stepped forward and bowed politely. "Your highness, I am Nornid, heir to the Lesiran throne."

Yoriff came up behind him. "And I am Yoriff, his brother."

"I am Jeyra, also of Lesira, a close friend and Nornid's betrothed."

"I am Vawdrey, and this is my brother Piers."

"Usually of the Lesiran forest," Piers added with a bow.

"And I am Kristopher, their guide," the old one said, coming forward in turn. "I come from a place far beyond Lesira."

"It is a pleasure to meet all of you," King Steedmare told them. "But, if I may inquire further of you, what has brought you all together, and to what purpose have you traveled all the way to this area?"

The assembled companions once again collectively relayed the story of the attack on Lesira and their quest to rescue it, this time including a brief explanation of how Piers and Vawdrey had joined them. Kristopher finished off by emphasizing that they sought the help of EL the Undying Light for Lesira's salvation.

"What a tale!" Steedmare mused when they were finished. "I offer my condolences for those of your people who perished by the Shadow Beasts, yet I commend the six of you for having the courage to take up this noble quest. Such altruistic concern for one's own people as you have shown in facing dangers in order to save others is rarely seen anymore." He paused thoughtfully before asking one more thing. "And you said you seek a being called the Undying Light?"

"Aye," Nornid answered.

"The Undying Light is the only power which will overcome Reclifu's servants of shadow." Kristopher added.

"Why do you ask?" said Yoriff. "Do you know of such a being?"

"I know very little of this being, but I have heard of him, yes," the centaur answered. "He has oft been spoken of in the history of Lesira and in the mythology of the early days of Terres. In reading and hearing these stories, I have never been quite certain whether the accounts of him were truth or myth. For your sake, since you seek him, I do hope they are true."

"Indeed they are," Kristopher put in.

"If you believe so, then by all means, it is well for you. Continue your search and do as you will. But, enough prattle; we must get to the matter at hand. King Hurnost and I must discuss the conflicts that have come between our peoples and find a way to remedy them."

Hurnost had shown his guests their quarters for the night before Steedmare had arrived. "Nornid, Yoriff, Jeyra, Vawdrey, Piers and Kristopher—you are dismissed from this council. You may go to your quarters, or you are free to roam the palace grounds, but I request that you not depart from them during your stay here," the dwarven king told them.

Nornid bowed once more before the king. "Thank you, King Hurnost."

They began the short trip to their quarters, but further words from King Steedmare stopped them. "By the way," he called. "I know not how long the six of you will be staying here, but if you have time before you leave the area, I extend to you an open invitation to my palace in the nearby city of Equill. I am sure King Hurnost has already made you plenty welcome here, but if you wish to see the Equill as well, we will be glad to entertain you."

"Thank you, your highness," Nornid called back. "I do hope we'll have the time to take you up on your offer." He and the others retreated to their quarters, leaving the two kings, Hrost, Rampstone, and Goldwell to their political council.

----------

It was unfamiliar, to say the least. Dwarves and centaurs, palaces and talk of spirits—it was a very different culture from the one in which Piers had grown up. He had always been used to living as a human among a diversity of civilized species, but all of this was still hard for him to grasp, especially since he and Vawdrey had joined the elves and Kristopher on their journey. The palace furnishings were much finer than anything he was familiar with. Apparently there were multiple guest rooms; he, Nornid, and Yoriff had been given a large suite fit for three people, Vawdrey and Jeyra had been assigned to one that was only slightly smaller, and Kristopher, having requested to have a room of his own if at all possible, had been placed in a one-person guest room so elaborate and ornate that it could have just as easily been the king's own quarters. To have such a place as one's permanent home…the thought intrigued him.

Piers found that his bed was well beyond comfortable, in keeping with the overall style of their entire accommodations. It was ineffably refreshing to feel the weariness and pain from not only their journey, but the many homeless nights he had spent sleeping on the hard forest ground, fade away as he relished the soft and warm sensation of the mattress beneath him. Were it not for the dire nature of their quest, Piers would not have minded staying exactly where he was, perfectly still and in sleep's comforting grasp, for several days to come. Yet, tired as he felt in body, sleep did not find him immediately; his mental faculties were still quite alert, pondering over the events of just the last three days in which his life had changed so much.

Yoriff had taken advantage of the permission King Hurnost had granted them to roam the palace grounds, and was getting in some archery practice outside before the evening was fully consumed by night. Nornid had stepped into their room just a few moments ago and was sitting quietly on his bed as well.

"Are you all right, Piers?"

Piers sat up quizzically, his thoughts returning from where they had wandered. "Hm? Oh. Yes, I am fine, thank you. In fact, I believe I am feeling better than I have in quite a while." He stopped, preparing to lie back down, and then considered that it might be rude not to continue the conversation. "How are you?"

"Me?" Nornid said. "I…I am unsure. I am certainly grateful that we have been welcomed here—not only here, but to the palace of Equill as well. It is relieving to have this dual haven of safety in the midst of our quest. And yet, the quest itself weighs more heavily upon me each day. I am concerned for the safety of the people of Lesira, most of all my parents, back home. It is unnerving to think that they might be in danger."

Piers realized that Nornid had just opened up, at least a little bit, to him. That, too, was quite unfamiliar. Before meeting Nornid, the only friend or companion he had had for quite some time had been Vawdrey, his sister, and even with her he was sometimes reluctant to open up and express his true feelings. It felt awkward whenever he did, and the silence between them felt awkward right now. Why had he brought this upon himself by continuing the conversation? Would he be expected to share his own feelings as well? Should he try to be compassionate and make his best effort to comfort Nornid? This thought passed through his mind, but he actually came to say what he was truly thinking.

"But you are a prince, soon to be a king," Piers said with some difficulty. "You are an able fighter and a brave warrior. How is it that you are frightened so?"

Nornid smiled wryly. "Do not be fooled, Piers," he said. "I may be or strive to be all these things, but the essence of my being is no different from yours. Perhaps my actions have created the illusion of total confidence, but in truth, I am quite often uncertain of myself, or fearful for what is to come next."

It was startling to hear Nornid admit all of this. Does this mean that Nornid trusted him and was reaching out to him with friendship? Did the elvish prince not realize that he was speaking to the same man who had fought and tried to rob him merely days ago?

"Of course," Piers said, acting as if this was nothing new or uncomfortable to him. "You cannot be expected to be above the natural feelings and emotions that govern every civilized being."

"None of us can," Nornid consented. "I imagine this must be very difficult and unusual for you as well."

"Aye, 'tis," Piers conceded.

"It is not your usual custom to travel in the company of elves, is it?" Nornid asked jestingly.

Piers smiled. "No, I must admit that this is the first time. Though I am certainly glad for the opportunity to do so."

"As I am glad to offer you that opportunity," Nornid remarked.

Piers paused, momentarily unsure of how to continue. "I do hope that we have resolved all hostile feelings from our first encounter," he eventually stated. "I did-- "

"There is no need for further apology, Piers," Nornid assured him. "All is forgiven, and your accompanying us on our quest has more than made up for whatever offense was earlier committed."

"Your readiness to forgive is comforting," Piers replied. "I do sincerely regret my actions—not just when I ambushed you, but numerous thefts and other sins over several years. I shall not waste this new opportunity you have given me."

"You have had a hard life, it seems," Nornid pointed out. "Though your actions were still wrong, it is understandable that one would commit them. I am just trying to offer you a better life and a chance at making something more of yourself."

"And that is a chance that I shall not miss," Piers said sincerely, with a new determination to redeem himself from his past mistakes and a fresh sense of companionship towards Nornid and the others. No, not just companionship, but friendship. Something he had not felt in this capacity for quite a while. Perhaps it would not be such a bad thing to open up to this kindest of elves.

"Actually, my life was not always as hard as it has been most recently, and nor was I always a common thief," he began.

Nornid looked towards him, interested. "No?"

"No," Piers assured. "In my younger days, Vawdrey and I lived a good life, with kind and just parents who cared for us quite well. My parents were, in a sense, warriors who fought for the good of their kingdom, just like we are doing now. And actually, with them and another group of allies, this is not exactly the first quest I have ever been on."

"It is not?" Nornid inquired.

Piers had the appearance of someone who had just spoken too quickly and revealed something which they had not wished to reveal. "It is not," he said.

It was made clear by a moment of silence between them that Piers did not wish to say any more about that particular subject, so Nornid refrained from asking him anything else about his alleged quest. Trying to determine the best way to continue, he said, "What brought you and Vawdrey…eh, I mean, what happened to--"

"What changed the good life we had?" Piers suggested.

"Yes…if you don't mind sharing."

"Our parents died," he said, his voice wavering. "Vawdrey and I ended up around where you met us, in the forest outside of Lesira. We were barely out of childhood. We tried to study various professions, find some way to make an honest living for ourselves, but nothing worked out. So we wandered the forest, and did whatever was necessary to get by…even resorting to petty thievery."

"I'm sorry," Nornid said sympathetically. "Though, if it is any consolation, if we succeed in this quest and make it back to Lesira, you and Vawdrey will be more than welcome to stay and live among our people."

Piers nodded in acknowledgement, his face contorting into an uncomfortable grimace. "If you'll excuse me, I find myself still hungry. I think I'll go back to the dining hall and get something before I sleep…"

Before Nornid could say anything else, Piers had darted hurriedly out of the room.

Nornid sat on his bed, pondering the conversation that had just taken place. He was trying to reach out to Piers, to help him come to terms with his past and to help him to feel comfortable and at ease among their group of travelers. He seemed to be getting somewhere, at least—what he had learned was probably more than Piers had ever told anyone but Vawdrey. Even if the other man was still ashamed to let anyone see him cry, he felt like progress had been made.

He thought about going outside to converse with Yoriff, but remained in his quarters when he heard a knock at the door. Only mildly surprised and sincerely doubting that the knock would be from anyone other than his trusted group of friends, he welcomed it gladly. "Come in," he called.

The door opened. It was Jeyra.

"Jeyra," Nornid said, glad to see her but concerned as to the nature of her visit. "Please, come in. Sit down. Is everything all right?"

Gratefully, she sat down next to him on the bed. "Yes, Nornid, everything is fine." She did not meet his gaze.

Nornid knew Jeyra, and even though she tended to be quiet and introverted at times, he was easily able to tell that everything was not fine. He edged closer to her. "Come now, Jeyra, you can tell me. Is something the matter?"

This time she faced him. "Nornid, I only wanted to say good night to you before we all went off to bed."

"Oh," Nornid said. He sensed that there was more, but did not wish to press her. He didn't know what was the right thing to say to such a comment. "And I wish you the same good night as well," he told her. "Yes…I trust that it will be a good night." They sounded to him at the time like the most foolish and awkward words he had ever spoken.

"Indeed, it will," Jeyra said, resting her head against his shoulder. For a short while, neither of them spoke. "Well, good night, then," she said eventually, getting up to leave.

"Yes…good night, my love," Nornid said, reluctant to see her go.

She did not leave, but lingered at the doorway for a moment. "Do you love me, Nornid?" She turned around, her back to the door.

The question caught him off guard, and he stood to face her. "Why, of course I love you, Jeyra," he said, trying to sound sincere. He had examined his motives and his feelings for Jeyra on multiple past occasions, and had come to the conclusion that he truly did love her. "I am committed to you, and I love you, and--"

"Do you miss home?" she asked him.

Ah. So this was what it had all been about. "I do," Nornid confirmed. "Every moment we are out here, so far away from it. It is nice enough here, but the people back home…mother and father…" She wasn't responding, but staring off away from him. "What are you thinking about?" he asked.

"My father," she whispered, holding back tears. Nornid winced at the reminder. Jeyra's father Jeralgo had been in the Lesiran army, and had died when she was very young. What a terrible coincidence, he thought to himself. It seemed that there were as many orphans in their band of travelers as not.

"I cannot understand your loss," he admitted. "I…I could not imagine life without my mother and father both to guide me."

"Nornid," she said. "I cannot lose anyone else. We are on this dangerous quest, and our families back home are in peril as well, but I cannot lose my mother, or you, or…" Her voice faded away and was consumed by the tears that now flowed freely from her eyes. Nornid enveloped her in his comforting embrace, feeling the warmth of her trembling body against his own. Jeyra's fear was reasonable. He had no words to assuage it, only his presence and care.

"Promise me that we will return home safely and everyone will be fine," she intoned softly.

"I wish I could make such a promise," he told her, feeling the same desperate hope with which she spoke. "I want to live happily ever after just as much as you do. But I can make no such promise. I can make no guarantee that all will be well…" He faltered for words until the right ones revealed themselves to him. "But somehow I feel that if we obtain favor from the Undying Light, as we seek, then everything will be good in the end. Even if the journey is painful and we are forced to wrestle with fear and sorrow and despair along the way, even if we suffer great and terrible loss, all things will work together for good."

Jeyra was still letting out a few tears. She was not the only one.

"Thank you, Nornid," she said at length. "Your words mean much to me." She stopped crying and gently broke away from his embrace.

"Will you be all right for the night?" he asked.

"Yes," Jeyra said, regaining her composure. "I will be all right. I must retreat to my quarters now."

"And I was going to visit Yoriff before going to bed," Nornid said, heading for the doorway as well. "Good night, Jeyra. I love you."

The emotional love he had sometimes felt was easily dwarfed by the deeper sense of commitment and compassion, a longing to be available for Jeyra and to dedicate his being to the purpose of her welfare, which now overflowed from his heart.

----------

Piers sat in the dining hall, but he was not hungry. He had said he was hungry, but only as an excuse to leave the room and come somewhere alone. Nornid had probably realized that, but the elf seemed to be unusually compassionate and thoughtful; he would understand.

Habitually, Piers had taken the same seat he had had during their meal, even though there was no one else in the darkening room to occupy the other seats at the table. His head lay flat against the thin cloth that covered the table, pulsing gently in rhythm with the tears that trickled regularly down his face. He did not specifically remember the last time he had cried; it had probably been soon after his parents' death and close to the beginning of his and Vawdrey's life on their own. He had thought he was over that. He missed them, yes, but he had long ago learned to accept the fact that they were gone. And yet, here and now, remembering them, thinking of what his life had turned into and what horrible things he had stooped to just to survive, the horrible person he had gradually become, feeling an indefinable mixture of shameful sorrow and joy at the hope of being taken in by Nornid and the others…He felt once again like a small child, and the tears refused to be held back.

"Piers?"

He had not heard anyone else approach the dining hall. Who was it? It was not Nornid; the voice alone made that clear. Reluctantly, he looked up and glanced back towards the door, where Hrost stood with a torch in his hand and a look of confusion on his face.

"Hrost," Piers said, simultaneously willing the tears to stop but unable to manage more.

"Piers, what is wrong? Is there something unsatisfactory with your accommodations? Have we offended you in some way, or--"

Piers cut him off. "No, Hrost, it is nothing of that sort. You and your father have been most gracious hosts to us, and everything you have given us is superb. I was merely dealing with a personal problem…Remembering my parents."

"Your parents?"

"Yes. They died when I was a boy."

"I am most saddened to hear this, Piers," Hrost said. "Is there anything I could do for you?"

Piers smiled. These people—all the new people he had met recently—were always eager to please and had continuously gone out of their way to see to his comfort and welfare. "No thank you, Hrost. I'll just return to my quarters and retire for the night."

"Very good. May your dreams bring you comfort."

"The same to you," Piers told him. He exited the dining hall and walked back toward his quarters, Hrost's torch illuminating the otherwise shadowy corridor. His recent reminiscence with the past and struggle with his emotions had made him temporarily forget his weariness, but now that it was over, he was reminded of just how tired he was. Turning the corner that led to his room, he relished the thought of surrendering his consciousness over to sleep. He did not expect to be kept up a few moments longer.

"Oh, Jeyra," he greeted her. She appeared to be walking out the door to his room just as he was walking in.

"Hello, Piers," she said softly.

One more awkward situation to deal with, he thought. "What are you doing here?"

"I was just speaking with Nornid for a little while before going to bed."

"Ah." He studied her face. Her features were nothing short of beautiful, almost entrancing, but something was slightly off. Her eyes gave it away. "You have been crying," he noted casually.

"It appears that you have been doing the same," she answered. "Are you distressed for the same reasons that Nornid and I are?"

"Not entirely," Piers responded. "If you are referring to concern for the success of the quest, then that is part of it. But I was also remembering things. Things of the past…of my parents…"

"Your parents. They are…no longer with you?"

"They died when I was younger," he said, thinking back to how he had just had this same conversation with Hrost mere moments ago.

"My heart goes out to you, Piers," Jeyra said compassionately. "My own father was killed in battle when I was a child. I was crying for fear of losing anyone else."

He smiled kindly and met her eyes. "Fear not, Jeyra. When this quest is over and you return home, all will be well."

"This is what I hope for, but no, it is not a sure thing," she pointed out. "There is no guarantee that everything will be fine. But somehow I feel that if we are granted the favor that we seek from EL the Undying Light, then everything will be good in the end. Even if the journey is painful and we must wrestle with fear and sorrow along the way, even if we suffer terrible loss, all things will work together for good."

Piers was slightly taken aback. "Your wisdom and eloquence are outstanding," he complimented her, hoping to gain her favor. Gently, he placed what he hoped would feel like a consoling hand on her shoulder. "Where did you come across such optimistic words all of a sudden?"

"I must have heard them somewhere," she answered. Then, to Piers' dismay, "Please take your hand away."

"Forgive me, Jeyra." He obeyed and took a step away from her, but kept his gaze in her direction, transfixed by her features.

"Piers, I am betrothed to Nornid," Jeyra reminded him.

Piers felt foolish, embarrassed, and ashamed. "Of course you are. Forgive my ignorance. I must be getting off to bed now…"

"Good night, Piers," Jeyra called back as she walked off.

And it was a good night. He received the refreshing sleep that his body had long thirsted for, and his dreams did indeed bring him comfort, as Hrost had wished. Instead of haunting memories of his past, his subconscious brought him thoughts of his companions and the friends who actually cared for him. Nornid, Hrost…Jeyra…

----------

On the opposite end of the palace, Nornid prepared to exit the building and find Yoriff wherever he was outside, when he realized that he wouldn't have to. Yoriff had already come inside on his own, and was talking with Hrost near the palace's front entrance.

"Ah, Nornid," his brother greeted him upon noticing his presence. "I would have thought you would be in bed already."

"Soon, brother," Nornid replied. "I just wished to come and see how you were doing before I retired." He looked toward Hrost. "It appears you have found some company. How do you do, Hrost?"

"I am well," the dwarf informed him. "Yoriff and I were merely taking an informal tour of the palace and growing more closely acquainted with each other."

"I am becoming well versed in the knowledge of Nostean culture and history," Yoriff said with a grin.

"I would be glad to join the two of you on your tour, if we would be traveling in the direction of our quarters for the night."

"We will indeed," Hrost confirmed. "Come with us." The three of them navigated slowly through the myriad corridors of the palace. Nornid had already noticed that stone was a prominent element in the dwarves' lives and in many things of their construct; this hall was no exception, being both carved of marble and filled with a variety of stone sculptures and statues, probably representing heroes of Nostean history and mythology.

"So, Hrost," Nornid addressed him. "If I may ask, how went the council between your father and King Steedmare earlier today?"

"The council, I think, went well," Hrost answered him. "An agreement has been made, at least for now. A boundary has been set up, equidistant between the two cities, indicating which land belongs to Equill and which land belongs to Noste."

"This is good to hear," Yoriff commented. "Though I have only just met your father and do not yet know him well, he seems like he would be fairly shrewd in such matters, and quite capable of settling such a dispute."

"Aye," Hrost said. "Indeed, I have seen my father to possess many qualities useful to a king. Qualities that I hope I am able to replicate one day, when I take his place."

"This is a hope that I have for myself as well," Nornid said. "I have only recently learned that I will be succeeding my own father as king, and have often wondered whether I will be capable to carry on his legacy and to rule the kingdom with the same wisdom and integrity with which he has."

"At least you will have the chance to try," Yoriff muttered quietly, the smallest hint of contempt in his voice.

Nornid did not respond, and Hrost did not even hear the comment. "It seems that this is a natural concern for many in this position, Nornid," Hrost told him. "You and I may have more in common than we realize."

"Yes, we may," Nornid agreed. He would not have minded carrying on the conversation of their future kingship and the concerns which came with it, but he could not at present think of anything further to say about it. Instead, he asked about something that he had noticed earlier, and which had since aroused his curiosity. "Hrost, answer me a question, if you will."

"Certainly, Nornid. Ask what you will."

"I have noticed that you and your father and other royalty wear plain and nondescript tunics, just like the common people do. And yet your father's crown is inset with many fine and precious stones. Is there a reason for this sort of dress?"

"I noticed this as well," Yoriff added.

Hrost chuckled slightly. Probably the answer was obvious to everyone in his society, and he rarely had to explain it to anyone. "You see, Nornid," Hrost answered him. "Our people have some interest, but not a great one, in art or aesthetic beauty. Our society is primarily work and military based, so there has rarely been a desire for a king to have a finely embroidered robe or garment of any sort. A plain tunic and a throne of simple stone satisfy us just as well as these same things would were they fancy or elaborate."

"But what of the jewels in the crown?"

"Ah," said Hrost. "Merely the product of one of our chief industries. As you have already noticed, our society revolves around stone and earth. Many dwarves are miners, digging and mining through the earth whenever a pathway needs to be cleared or something new needs to be built. And since many of these jewels and stones and minerals are discovered in the process, they are actually fairly common to us. Occasionally they are used for barter, but since we have them in such plenty and do not wish them to go to waste, I suppose those jewels you see are one of a very few exceptions to our aesthetic indifference."

"Fascinating," Nornid remarked, truly intrigued. "Many nations would be willing to pay a great deal to have these sorts of gems in such abundance."

Yoriff glanced around them, at the statues and sculptures that still lined the hall. "And what of these figures you have created?" he asked. "Another of the few exceptions?"

"Their primary purpose is to honor the memory of our ancestors and those who heroes of the past who have won prominent military victories for Noste," Hrost explained. "The statues, in a sense, relate the events of our history to anyone who looks upon them in present day."

Nornid studied the various statues. Most were clearly of dwarves, either wielding axes or merely standing and looking regal. There were two, however, that did not appear to be of dwarves. Nornid could not tell what they were, but they were much larger than the others and each had many limbs and completely featureless faces. One of them held a hammer in each of its several hands, and the other one dug its many feet into the soft earth beneath. Nornid doubted that they were depictions of real creatures, but they did even look remotely like anything he had heard of in mythologies or legends.

"What are these two?" he asked curiously.

"I said before that I have had little knowledge of spirits or otherworldly powers," Hrost said. "But what little I know comes from these two. This is Ontes, the spirit of stone, and Thrae, the spirit of earth. Millennia ago, when Terres was young, Ontes and Thrae stepped down from the unreachable skies and built the city of Noste. We believe that they also took dirt and stone and sculpted it into the first dwarf, giving rise to our entire people."

For some reason, this explanation gave Nornid an uneasy feeling. Apparently, Yoriff felt something as well. "But how can you know this is true?" the elder elf asked.

"It is what we believe and have been taught for ages," Hrost said simply. "I understand that you may not agree. Lesira honors EL of the Undying Light, do they not?"

"We once did," Nornid said. "But honestly, I, too, know little of such spirits. I am not entirely sure what to believe in."

"Perhaps when you find the Undying Light himself, you will know," Hrost said with a slight sense of longing.

"Yes, perhaps," Nornid replied. They kept walking, but no one spoke. Soon they arrived at the guest room where Nornid and Yoriff would sleep.

"I suppose we must now part ways," Yoriff said to Hrost. "But we shall see you again in the morning."

"Yes, you will," the dwarf answered. "And, I know that you are on a journey of great importance, but I wonder if you and your companions would be interested in visiting Equill with me on your way out. Rampstone and Goldwell are good friends of mine; King Steedmare, too, has already welcomed you, and all three would be glad to have such prestigious visitors and to know someone from Lesira."

"Your offer is kind," Nornid said. "I know not what hour we shall be leaving, but I hope that we will be able to accept it."

"I hope so as well," Hrost said. "But until then, a good night to you both. May your dreams bring you peace."

"Thank you, Hrost. And the same to you."

Both elves fell asleep nearly as soon as their bodies met their beds, weary from their travels but satisfied with the pleasant and productive events of the day.

Next: Battle Without, Crisis Within