~:|:~ CHAPTER MINUS 2: AN AETERNIA AGO

— "Seest thou how the stars glisten, sister?" asked the Gnome with an outstretched arm above his head. The lines of his open hands were visible and his fingertips trembling as if ready to pluck the lowest hanging star straight from the midsummer sky as one does the ripest grape from a vine.

— "I see it," the younger of the two answered. "What makest thou of it?"

— "How romantic 'tis such sight to behold. What say you?" He addressed both Gnomes with him this time.

— "Hear, hear!" The third Gnome interjected, his words timed as if to speak for both he and the Gnome woman as he masterfully whittled away at a branch of wood with a short, stone knife.

— "Alas," began the first anew, "that is to question: what cause belingers thee here? Willst thou not partake to thy evening routine?" The first Gnome glanced over the low flame, which glowed amid the three, and eyed carefully his sister whose sole reply was to avoid his glance by hanging her small head.

The third Gnome, not at all clueless about the matter of the sibling's discussion, interrupted, dropping his stone knife beside him before inspecting his work. "Yea. We are charged this even nary an endeavor. And not a drop of mead betwixt us. So then—" The third Gnome rose to his feet and the other two paid close attention. He was elder than they, old enough to be their father in fact, but somehow, he felt more like a brother to them than what he was: their middle-aged uncle. With very few steps, the uncle closed the distance between himself and his niece and spoke sternly. "Tell it, girl: why thou stayest with us tonight? Why?"

— "This wilt be our third year in arms," she said as she fiddled compulsively with the leather pouches attached to her belt. "Many beasts of the night together we have overcome, and thou hast naught as yet mind my name, Uncle Lunor."

Though the slow dance of the fire threw his own shadow across her, Lunor was still able to make out the young woman's wide grin though it hid an air of guilt in her jest. "Be still, Ithyna. I only mean to inquire why thou art not with thy companion, the Aelf boy."

— "Thou pryest into affairs thou needst know not," Ithyna shot back instantaneously, hanging her head once more.

This time the brother rose to his feet, joining his kin on the other side of the fire. He interposed, "Nay. Uncle may this once have reason." The brother only hesitated a moment through their uncle's objections to the phrasing—"This once? Have at thee!"—and continued. "Come now, confess us thy mystery."

— "Davudos? Thou wouldst inquire me as well?" Ithyna looked around nervously and found solace in avoiding their gazes by looking over the tips of her naked fingers.

— "I hear rumors that—" Davudos began to say though his words were drowned out by the echoing of a whinny ricocheting from every corner of the night air.

In its unexpectedness and its alarmed pitch, the whinny sent chills down each of their spines. Ithyna jumped to her feet and looked around her. She watched as a few other Gnomes came into view, their bodies rounding the peripheries of the giant pumpkin and carrot and mushroom houses, and all the other produce, that the Gnomes called 'home,' their sandaled feet pushing up sand from the dried footpaths as they hurried to gather at the fire. She noted particularly an elderly Gnome with a sheathed sword at his waist and a Gnome, the same age as her brother Davudos—five years her senior—who was carrying a torch and appeared completely out of breath by the time he arrived at the small fire. No Gnome, however, came from the direction of the whinny whose origin laid somewhere in the wood down the hill just south of them. The wood itself was dark, deep, thick, and even in the night, teeming with the sounds of life. Even so, the intensity of the whinny was not by the least even marginally obscured by the noises of the animals therein or muffled by the trees and their healthy, lush canopies.

— "Wild horses, mayhaps?" Ithyna searched for an answer aloud.

— "No. Rest they adream in the night," Lunor's response was assured. "'Tis a Centaur's cry." The voices of the other men surrounding the fire chimed their agreement with a broken chorus.

Ithyna was not convinced, or maybe she did not want to be convinced. The elderly Gnome must have agreed, as he unsheathed and drew his sword and aimed it to slay his foe, the unsought noises of the night forest.

"What doth a Centaur so deep within the wood whence their night's oath be to safeguard the beaches?" Ithyna wondered.

The elderly Gnome looked over his shoulder and nodded, signaling to Ithyna and the men to stand their ground. Ithyna felt her muscles tightening, her heart beating, her blood flowing, but she was ready to face the night fearlessly whereas she remained unprepared to face Lunor and Davudos' line of questioning.

A time that felt far longer than what could have been passed and the torchbearer stumbled forward and broke the discomfiture of the silence.

"Commander," he spoke out to the elderly swordsman who only waved him off.

The night was suddenly still again; the crisp air became stagnant and the calls of the fauna silent once more. A second whinny swept through the air, splitting the night in part, as far as Ithyna could tell, from their tiny campfire as far as the hour-long trek required to arrive in the nearest neighboring hamlet. As quick as the whinny swept over them, hooved feet took to the stars above the Gnomes of the campfire. Their heads instinctively bowed and cowered as a Centaur arched over them.

— "Ah. It be only Drucosos." The Commander said attempting to calm the hearts of his kin, some who had fallen to their knees in fear, and he sheathed his sword once more. From their homes, Gnomes began to peek through small glass windows and creak open porch doors to get a glimpse of the goings-on at the campfire in the town courtyard.

Drucosos was circling his audience, their eyes fixed upon him. Alarm pierced through his otherwise weary eyes, and he rang out, in slight Centauric accent, at half volume of his whinny: "Awaken all thine brethren. Awaken them, Commander! Gather and heed mine warning, albeit belated."

One after another, the Gnomes who had peaked and creaked moments before began to file slowly from their pumpkins, and carrots, and mushrooms, and gathered to the campfire in the courtyard. As the men's voices picked back up repeating their broken chorus in hushed whispers, the newly gathered Gnomes joined theirs with choruses with a countermelody all their own: some of midnight intrigue, others of annoyance and exhaust. For only a moment, as Ithyna looked about the crowd, she thought she saw a head of golden-blonde hair in the fray, but the Commander's voice shook her of that thought.

— "Compose thyself, Drucosos," urged the Commander as the Centaur came to a halt between himself and the campfire group. "What troubles thee?"

— "The isles hath been breached!" Drucosos emphasized the final word, a kindle in his voice. "The foreign races be come upon your hamlet this very moment."

The hushed whispers grew and became a din of muddled murmurs. Some asked which races. Others asked who would seek out the Gnomes. Ithyna wanted to join the forum but as soon as her mind would lend her autonomy over her own voice, another voice from out of the crowd spoke up.

— "Look! 'Tis true." A pointed finger motioned Ithyna, the men, the townspeople, toward the sloping hill from which Drucosos had emerged only just before.

— "They come," Davudos announced.

Lunor picked up the stone knife from dirt floor and tossed the spear he had been whittling to Davudos. The two then followed the Commander toward the curvature of the hill, putting themselves between the foreigners and the Gnome civilians. A woman gasped and grabbed the hand of her husband at the sight of foreigners in the village. A man called out his demand that the foreigners return home, while an elderly lady with an exceptionally crooked nose scoffed and pushed her way heedlessly through the crowd. Mirroring the elderly woman's steps, a man's voice called out in search:

— "Ithyna? Davudos?"

Ithyna turned away from her father and gathered to the front of the crowd with the elderly woman and the Centaur Drucosos. She looked past her brother and uncle, their stances offensive, and past the Commander until her eyes set upon the foreigners.

The first of the foreigners stood before the Commander. She noticed that he was pale, staunch and ginger-haired. His beard was thick and scruffy; there was no indication that the man maintained it as it weaved itself in the layers of dark animal furs and sundried pelts he was wearing. From his belt hung on his left a sword in scabbard and on his right a meager mallet hammer. His eyes were icy and piercing as he gazed back over the crowd, taking each of its members in as carefully as they did he. What made Ithyna shudder was the coloration of the eyes. Where there should have been white around his blue irises, was nothing but black, like a deep and narrow abyss.

The second, standing before Lunor, was almost substantially tallest of the three. His clothing was, Ithyna thought, by comparison, primitive: only a tattered loin cloth, a necklace of animal bones, and a small wooden shield on his arm were the articles which covered his well-toned body. She would have thought him an Aelf with his long, pointed ears save he had bronze-red skin, and hinged out of his mouth his canine teeth protruded sharply. His hair and eyes too were unlike that of the Aelves; dark hair, cut shortly and dark eyes that looked much friendlier than the grimace he wore on his face suggested.

The third man had dark brown skin and a uniquely muscular build—even more so than the second man—which even through the layers of his plated armor showed through with great evidence in the frame of his physique. His arms however were armorless, sleeveless, but were instead covered with extravagant ink brandings, illustrations which told the history of his many victories in battle and his accomplishments of life. A light beard covered what was visible of his jawline for he wore a masked helmet shaped like the face of a bull. His eyes, through the sockets of the helmet, refracted as red as rubies, and two powerful, grey horns broke the night from either side of his skull, complimenting the great axe he held, the three beckoning a worthy opponent take him up on the offer.

Although she had never seen any—and she was certain none in the crowd had seen any before either to confirm her suspicions—she knew exactly what they were. They were respectively a Dwarf, an Ogre and a Minotaur in the presence of the Gnomes.

"You darest beseech the isles so late midst the night? You endeav'rest wake the slumbering masses?" The Commander's tone was rigid as he challenged the foreigners in the Commonish tongue, his Gnomadic accent thick and palatal. "What order have you here?"

"We haven't the time for this, Gnome," the Ogre said, stepping forward as if to pass through which made a few in the crowd jump.

– "I speak not the foul tongue," Drucosos' mouth was replete with disgust. "What dost thou think they say, Centurion?"

— "Ithyna learneth Commonish from her Aelf teacher. She shalt reveal us," the elderly woman with the crooked nose responded, hushing Drucosos. She slapped Ithyna forcefully on the back, nearly toppling the thin, young woman.

– "I shalt reveal ye," she agreed to it reluctantly rather than be slapped again.

"And be that to what end?" continued the Commander.

"We shalt not tarry an answer." The Dwarf proclaimed stepping as far forward as the Commander's blade would permit, allowing a moment for the Minotaur to place a hand on the shoulder of their comrade, the Ogre, and issue him a friendly advisory to back down. "Hear ye," the Dwarf announced, his voice resounding through the whole of the crowd. "We come to ye—Gnomes, Centaurs—" he hesitated "—Aelves of the isles—seeking aide of your soldiers of war."

The commander managed to confine a condescending laugh as Ithyna gasped out in Gnomadic: "A call to arms!"

The Commander almost immediately yelled out to the crowd behind his agreement with her translation. "Soldiers of war, they seeketh, my people."

The crowd murmured once more. "Hath he said soldiers of war?" "What thing about soldiers?"

The Commander carried on, his strong voice eliciting the attention of all present.

"Let each man amongst ye gaze his own eyes. Our cities lay unwalled, our citizens unarmed, our halls forged of earthfruit, our tunics of shorn sheep's wool. Learn we the Gnomes of these forested isles ne'er again your ways of war."

"We know thou hast no true authority o'er thine brethren, Commander." The Dwarf was undeterred by the Commander's proclamation of unpreparedness. "Thou speakest not for all Gnomes. Thou speakest even not for this town,"—the Ogre and Minotaur chuckled at this—"We come to entreat they all whom hath dominion over these lands. What be called the leaders of the isles? Centurion? Who be the Centurion of this hamlet, and of the next?"

"Nay!" The Commanders voice drowned out the scene. Standing shorter than all the foreigners, the power and volume in his voice startled all three. The onlookers waited patiently. "I shan't tell. None shalt help ye nor shalt any another soul awaken. None else here speaketh Commonish." The Commander waved his sword high and, for sake of his name, commanded finally in Gnomadic, "Shew an unified front unto the foreigners, brave men and women of Sibolio."

– "An unified front in what matter?" The voice of Ithyna's father was clear to her as the crowd burst into confused chatter once more. "What say they, Ithyna? Speak their tongue into ours."

Ithyna swung around hurriedly, her heartbeat now outpacing her mind. What did these foreigners want? The Gnomes, Centaurs and Aelves forsook the war and left for peace. "They cometh plead the Centurion entrust soldiers to their war," she informed those around her.

— "Then thou knowest what must be done." The elderly Centurion with the crooked nose spoke and crowd hushed, and even Drucosos turned his Centaur body to face her. This one commanded attention as well, but not in the fashion the Commander did. The attention she commanded was anything but the allure or fascination of a night's happening as was his, but it was the type of faith a people value in the wisemen and wisewomen they trust most. "Go now, Drucosos. Warn the Centaurs. Let he who lendeth ear be rested assured; the Gnomes wilt seek no part in the War of the Twelve. The Centurion of Sibolio—she standeth yet still for peace."

Although she were a Gnome and not of his kin, Drucosos did not hesitate to obey. He reared himself on his hind legs and whinnied once more before he took off galloping north through the town and deep into the forest again.

The Centurion looked around the crowd, eying each person to find if Ithyna were the best candidate or the only candidate. The Centurion looked at Ithyna, her eyes showed she was not in complete agreement with what she was preparing to say. "Go now, Ithyna." She said. "Hazard warning to the Aelves. Begin with their Commander."

— "The Aelven Commander? Forbade I not?" Her father questioned. Ithyna felt her adrenaline subside a moment, and a feeling of guilt resurged as she remembered the direction of Davudos and Lunor's previous line of questioning.

— "Enough," the Centurion uttered, her demeanor fatigued.

— "Forgiveness, my elder."

— "Be now not the time. She hath taken an oath to her people, ne'er her father alone." The Centurion's eyes shamed him over crooked nose for a brief moment. She grabbed the torch from the torchbearer before she turned back to Ithyna and handed it to her. "Go. Rest unseen, still quick. Thou art forbidden from magic which we have not practiced. Take guard: only the Twelve knoweth which perils lurk in the eventide."

Ithyna did not look to her father. She fiddled with her belt compulsively, ensuring her leather pouches were still attached. She broke into a sprint eastward, eager to get away. She was not sure how many pumpkin houses she passed before she finally arrived at a group of wooden buildings; the food stores, the stables and the armory. She approached the stables and a figure called out from the shadows within.

—"Ithyna. What goes there?"

She did not answer. She only ordered "A horse! Any! Quickly!"

He nodded his head to her and whistled and a woman appeared from inside, reigns in her hands. "We knew as soon as we heard a din in the night," she informed Ithyna. "Though, we art surprised she would sendeth thee."

Ithyna was alarmed by the speed at which it seemed the rumors were spreading through Sibolio. She tried to ignore the stablewoman's words. "Thank you both for preparing him."

— "Willst thou light the beacons?" The stableman asked.

— "Only those along the way. I haven't time."

The stableman looked peculiarly at Ithyna, puzzled by her. "Be thou not Gnome? A Gnome hath always time."

Ithyna wanted no more of the conversation so she climbed up onto the saddle, nodded another thanks, and fled alone into the eastern wood. In the distance she could hear the stablewoman ordain a blessing upon her as she disappeared into the trees.

— "Twelve Blessings upon thee, Ithyna."

The trotting of the horse's hooves seemed to beat in sync with her racing thoughts. How did it seem that everyone knew? Clop, clop. Lunor, Davudos, the stablehands? Clop, clop. And how much did they know? Clop. Ithyna grabbed her pouch again at this thought. Who had told them? Clop, clop. Who had found out? Clop, clop. Could it truly have been Father who informed them? Clop. He knew everything—all of it—after all. He found out only several hours ago. Ithyna could feel tears well up in her eyes as emotions overtook her. Fear. Guilt. Shame. Regret. She wiped the tears from her eyes and tried to shrug off her more difficult feelings.

The horse rounded a corner in the wood path and happened upon the first beacon. The beacon itself was a tall iron column with offset iron pegs for a ladder on either side of it. Its bowled crown which ascended above the tree canopy, was kept filled with dry wood, replenished hastefully after any fire or season of rain. From its peak, one could see across the whole of the Isle of Salemansia, which the Gnomes inhabited, and into the other isles of the small continent of Hyldia.

Ithyna dismounted the horse and, with her torch still ablaze, carefully began her climb to the top of the beacon. The horse below her became smaller and smaller though she was not afraid to look down; it rendered a sense, a measurement, of distance in her. She kept her focus on the horse until she felt as if the iron pegs ceased their pattern of equidistance. She looked up for a moment to ensure she would grapple the next peg and when she looked down again, a young boy—no, he was of age now and had been for several years—a young man in brown garb, stood petting the horse on his nose. The man's big blue eyes looked up into Ithyna's small dark ones. Her eyes on his startled him and his golden-blonde hair whipped as he dashed back into the forest heading toward the Aelven isle.

"Wait!" she called to the Aelf.

A new possibility struck in Ithyna's mind dumbfounding her: was it he who had been informing the Gnomes? With the thought in mind, Ithyna hastened her ascension up the iron ladder. He could not have said anything, could he? Did he even know? Upon reaching the top, Ithyna lit the dried wood without second thought. She looked out over the island forest and to the nearby Isle of Aelysia, the only of the isles which the Aelves inhabited, and waited for the beacon's reply. Minutes passed, or so she thought—in her impatience, it may have been only seconds—before she refused to wait any longer for the lighting of a reply beacon and she descended the iron ladder and mounted the horse once more.

She had to catch up to him. She had to be sure about what he knew. Or about what he had done. Or better yet, about what she had done. She pleaded with the horse, asking him to go as fast as he could, ushering him to speed up when she felt him slow as they approached the next beacon. She was not going to set another, she was going to catch the Aelf boy, no, the Aelf man. She passed one beacon, and then another, a third and then a fourth until the forest thicket began to thin out and soon she could hear the ocean waves as they gently splashed against the sandy shores down beneath the jagged cliffs upon which the forest was situated. Over the ravine, a bridge hung between the jagged cliffs of Isle Salemansia and Isle Aelysia, an ambassador of wood and rope with arms spread apart holding together the diplomacy of two different nations, two different peoples. Just past the center point of the bridge, a blonde-headed, brown-garbed figure was running.

— "That's it for you, boy." As the two of them came to halt, Ithyna patted and dismounted the horse again. The horse was too heavy for the old wooden bridge, and so she tied him to the nearby post the Gnomes had built for this such situation and sprinted across the bridge on her own two feet, attempting to catch the figure in the distance. She knew she was not going to make it to him before he reached the great village of Espridia. The village sat only a few steps into the forest on the opposite end of the bridge and this Aelf boy, this Aelf man, resided in a home on this side of the village edge. She watched helplessly as the Aelf stepped off the bridge and into the forest; she herself was only now approaching the bridge's center.

A loud crash sounded about over the ocean, originating in the distance. She had never heard anything quite like it; louder than waves, but not quite something that had a natural feel to it. The earth around her reverberated, winged creatures flew to the stars and out of sight, and the rope bridge began to sway. Ithyna worried not: her focus was still on this first Aelf, and her message to the second Aelf, the Commander. She slowed to a jog as she reached the opposite end of the bridge and walked onto Aelysian sands. Ithyna took a deep breath and held it, then stepped through the leafy foliage.

The Gnomes, on their island, lived in all manner of giant fruit or vegetable. It was true. But the Aelves built in wood their great metropolis of multi-story homes high within the canopies of the forest; they were a people lauded for the artfulness of the hanging gardens that was, and is even until this day, their capitol, Espridia.

Ithyna, even under only the dim light of the moonstar, even standing there scarcely at the boundary of Espridia, filled her eyes in awe and wonder at the Aelves' pride, as she had every time she visited the village metropolis.

"Didst thou hear it? That great din?" A kind voice asked in Commonish as eyes fell upon her as she consumed the village in wonder.

"I did," Ithyna answered and the golden-blonde haired man revealed himself from amongst the shadows. His eyes were bluer ever than they had been, and they competed fiercely with his voice in their kindness.

Without any sign of anger, it is impossible he knows then, she thought. Her heartbeat finally started to settle.

"The din resonated from the Isles of Arcadaeia, methinks," he conjectured, naming the country of the Centaurs. "Lest it be from thy Sibolio," he said, his voice shaking in fear that the sound had origin in her own town.

"Aschionedes? What thing exist which may cause such a thunder?"

"Let's see," Aschionedes circled her, his finger to his lips, his eyes rolling in his skull in contemplation. "A dragon, mayhaps. Or a grand fiend of the ocean floor—a hydra, by example. Or," he smiled meaningfully at this, "mine beating heart." He grabbed her free hand and put it to his chest. He held it there for a second so that she could feel the tangibility of his heartbeats, soft, warm, even, before he lifted her hand up and inspected it. "Where is it?"

Ithyna fumbled for the leather pouch, unlatched it, and searched its insides. From it she lifted her hand and revealed a small wooden ring, finely polished, and enthusiastically crafted.

"Place it upon thy finger. All thou must say is 'I do'."

Aschionedes lifted the front side of his hand to her, revealing his decorated fingers. Upon his middlest finger rested a brilliant, yet plain ring of what appeared to be pure gold—his totem—and on his smallest finger, rested a carved wooden ring, an Aelven ring of love's promise, counterpart to her own.

"Too much thou must know ere I speak thee those words."

Aschionedes furrowed his eyebrows and was taken aback in shock. She was certain now he knew nothing. The two stared at each other in silence for a while, neither knowing how to approach her previous words.

"Aschionundes!" Another voice broke the night silence. She called to him from the foot of a nearby treehome manor which contained the most elaborate of the hanging gardens above them. She called him, Ithyna noticed, Aschionundes, or 'Aschiones, my brother'—that was how the races of the isles spoke, with titles of who they are to the speaker or to society built into their very names—and so Ithyna knew exactly who was calling. A blonde-haired Aelf woman slightly younger than the Aelf man descended a wooden tree trunk ladder and came strutting from the foot of a treehome. She saw Ithyna and gave her a quick, disapproving look from head to toe. Decidedly, she continued in Commonish, forsaking her native Aelvic so that Ithyna could understand: "The din hath awaken Father who art furious that thou wert not aslumber." The Aelf girl's words flowed speedily and were direct. The girl's blue eyes narrowed dramatically, and her long ears twitched as she turned to Ithyna. "And I heard the rumors about thee—thou, thou, THOU…" Her face grew redder with each word though she trailed off as she failed to find the perfectly balanced insult.

"Rumors?" Aschionedes inquired.

"Never mind her," Ithyna deflected. "Thou wert at Sibolio. I saw thy golden hairs amongst the crowd. I saw thee again in the forest. Thou knowest I have come to see thy father commander. Bring me see him."

Aschionedes took Ithyna by the hand, his fingers intertwining with hers, and his younger sister trailed behind them, still swelling, trying to find her words. At the foot of the ladder, the boy called aloud "Father!" and after a second's wait, the two Aelves' father, the Aelven Commander, came barreling down the ladder of the treetop manor.

The Commander was nothing like his son the Aelf boy. Where Aschionedes was passive and tolerant, Brannondorion was extroverted and callous. Where Aschionedes was personable and pliable, Brannondorion rough and rigid. Where Aschionedes had entered and trekked the wood without as much as a dagger for defense, Brannondorion wore a bow and quiver although he was standing only before his own home. And Ithyna knew not how one had raised the other; how such a man raised such a boy or how such a boy could ever earn the title of 'man.'

"Foreign races come plead us their side for war."

"Which?"

"They wert three, an Ogre, a Dwarf, a Min…" Ithyna stopped herself rather than stumble over the word before her teacher. Despite talking this whole time, this was the first occasion where she could hear her own Gnomadic accent carry through her words in the Commonish tongue.

"Minotaur, she wantest say," Aschionedes helped her along. His command in the Commonish tongue was as effortless and natural as in his own Aelvic. Sometimes, as she sat in lecture with his father as her instructor in the tongue, she was certain the boy, in this very particular circumstance, had taught the man.

The Commander waved his children back into the treehouse. Aschionedes seemed to tiptoe past him, an attempt to avoid whatever reprimand was coming his way. But one never came. In place of it, a strange look was drawn across on his father's face. The daughter, the sister, went up the ladder first, but Aschionedes took his time ascending the ladder, keeping an eye on his desiree through every step. His eyes on her worried Ithyna.

"Ogre. This much ringeth sound in my ears. Aelves, Gnomes and Centaurs alike fought beside them in the War of the Twelve…" Brannondorion walked past Ithyna in thought. She waited for the man's son to leave out of sight before giving him her undivided attention. "That is," he went on, "fore our withdrawal. But Dwarves and Minotaur hold loyalties with the Theurges." The Commander put his finger to his lips in contemplation in nearly the same manner his son had done before, but somehow different. It was less boyish, more manly. "Didst thou bring thy horse?"

"Yes."

"Then we ride to Arcadaeia."

Brannondorion moved quickly through the forest's edge and into the clearing leaving the Gnome lagging behind him. Ithyna was busy tossing glances over her shoulder every few steps, watching as Aschionedes reemerged surreptitiously, calling out "Twelve Blessings upon ye" then disappearing again as the trees began to obscure the hanging gardens. As Ithyna set foot into the clearing, voices began to carry themselves over the sound of the ocean waves.

"Yes. We art the three foreigners." It was the Minotaur speaking, Ithyna saw. "Deson, I am. The Ogre, Owl Bear. The Dwarf be named Johannes."

"We of the isles have no need know your names. We refuse support either side of this war and we shalt let know the Centaurs where Aelf and Gnome stand." Brannondorion brushed passed the three foreigners and began stepping across the rope bridge. Ithyna followed suit. "The races of the isles wrote treaties of peace, signed by all ye nation states: Kahrim of the Minotaur, Vy Mirve of the Dwarves, Abbu of the Ogres. Your oaths wert simplest: 'ne'er again shalt we disturb the isles,' you said."

The three men turned from Aelysian shores and followed in pursuit, unmarred by Brannondorion's words, they began attempts to persuade the Commander.

"Thou shalt be convinced and all thy peoples as well," the Dwarf Johannes spoke. "The Theurges learneth new spells from their wicked totems. All be at stake lest all we other races conspire against them as one. Gnome too knoweth, don't you, girl?"

Brannondorian scoffed then chuckled. "She wert too young; seventeen years passed since then."

It was true. Ithyna did not know much about the goings-on outside of Hyldia, the continent of ocean isles. She knew that the island nations fought beside the Ogres, the Trolls, the Treants and Giants before abruptly pulling back all their forces and signing for peace with all other nations. She considered the reason why as Brannondorion mounted her horse. Ithyna untied the horse's reigns and the Commander then put forth a strong hand to pull her up with him.

The horse began to move slowly. Its trot was quick enough to lead the pack of the four men and woman, but slow enough to keep within speaking distance.

"Thou needst understand, Aelf—single Theurges knoweth now spells which eliminate whole armies. Knoweth ye of the isles what hast become of the Giants?"

"I do listen. Tell it, Minotaur."

"The Sage Sovereign himself hath decimated of theirs, all the ten grandest cities in a single day. And he rested for the night at noon." The Minotaur's words frightened Ithyna and she latched onto Brannondorion and buried her face.

The Ogre cut in and add, "Giants stand so tall as mountains, so proud as gryphons, and yet Treants hath not as yet found a single Giantman, Giantess or Giantling who breathes living breath." Ithyna strengthened her grip around Brannondorion's waist at this.

"They come for to destroy the isles next. With position of thy lands—and thy lands too, Gnome—they shalt have empireship over all the sea."

"I would not falter myself believe ye." The Commander's voice was blunted. Ithyna was not sure if he meant his words or if he were trying to convince her all would be well.

"Nor dare I believe ye," she tried to reassure the Commander of her trust in him and tightened her grip once more.

"Alas, there 'twas another Gnome who speaketh Commonish. The old one 'tis perjurer. Come, speak, girl."

Ithyna closed her mouth. She had forgotten her own Commander's words. The group remained silent for a while. Ithyna was certain that Brannondorion was mulling the foreigner's claim over in his head, and that the foreigners were as aware of this as she was herself. They traveled deep into the forest, passing the unlit beacons, retracing the horse's previous steps. Finally, at a fork, they broke off from the path and turned north toward Centaur lands. This part of the forest was thinnest; Centaurs required more spacious paths for travel, especially in groups, than did the Aelves or the Gnomes so they cleared their common paths more thoroughly. The longer they followed the path, the quieter the forest became until the hairs on Ithyna's neck stood on edge and the torch fire fought to stay alive.

Then Ithyna saw them, and the others did too; pairs eyes that glinted in the shadows of the trees. Ithyna would have called them the eyes of a cerberus or a myrmekes or some other forest creature, but she was more experienced than that. These eyes were small and red, unlike a myrmekes, and the pairs were not subject to sets of three, like a cerberus.

"What manner of beast is this?" Brannondorion asked. "Wait! Are they?"

The horse whinnied with a fearful shriek and threw the Gnome and Aelf from its back before running off back down the path in the direction from whence the group came. Just as abruptly as the eyes appeared, they winced shut simultaneously and vanished.

"Someone is here," Johannes stated. "Not just the eyes."

"Who goeth there?" Owl Bear, the Ogre demanded.

A man stepped forward. He appeared to have been traveling the same path, though the opposite direction of the small party. He was medium height—shorter in stature than a Giant, of course, or of even an Ogre, but taller than the average Dwarf or Gnome—the kind of height expected of an Aelf or Minotaur, or dare she compare, a Halfling. He wore no helmet—only his curly purple hair to protect his head—though he wore a silvery set of armor that was guilted in diamond-like crystals. Ithyna could not make out that he held any sort of melee weapon. No sword, nor axe, nor flail to be seen. Instead a book lay floating in midair before him—a large grimoire, massive, too bulky for any man his size to carry comfortably alone. This was the first time she had ever seen a Theurge's totem.

"Theurge!" Ithyna declared the obvious to the others.

"Stay back, Aelf. Thy magics be not fit for battle as be ours," the Ogre ordered, derision in his voice.

Deson lunged at the Theurge knight, the blade of his axe glinted against what remained of the torch flame and against the moonlight, and his tattoo brandings illuminated vividly, filling any space of darkness left vacant between. Deson jumped high, higher, still higher, higher than any Gnome, Ogre, Aelf or Dwarf could possibly be capable. He raised the axe high above his head and descended through the air. The levitating grimoire of the Theurge knight opened flat, as if on an invisible surface, and its pages turned rapidly of their own accord before stopping somewhere near the middle of a seemingly arbitrary passage. The Theurge read aloud, muttering something in his mother tongue as the Minotaur fell from sky above him, axe weighed down with all brutal might. The Theurge raised his hands as if to catch the axe by the blade and it was all Ithyna could do not to watch what she was sure was his imminent demise. He clapped his hands on either side of the blade, and the weapon glimmered and burst into bird feathers as the Minotaur landed on his feet, close, too close, almost face-to-face with his opponent. The Theurge read again, commanding the feathers, which pointed themselves as needles toward the Minotaur. Deson jumped again, backflipping in air and putting great distance between himself and the Theurge, as the feathers cut deep into the hard ground where he stood before, making sizable depressions in it. The Minotaur rebounded, sliding to a halt on a hand and both feet. Ithyna had heard tale of Minotaur magics of herculean physique.

"Help us, Gnome girl," Deson implored of Ithyna.

Johannes took out his tiny hammer, muttering to himself in his native tongue—"Synsireske. Asdettem. Wynme."—pounding his sword quickly and successively with the tiny hammer between each utterance. With each hit, the sword gleamed brilliantly. He then hurdled over his crouched ally, his sword handled learnedly before him—he had had reliable tutelage, Ithyna could tell already—and he attacked the purple-haired knight. The knight followed Johannes' previous preparation, the pages of his grimoire flipping back and forth at lightning speeds, and he too quickly began uttering words in his own native tongue again. Johannes cleaved his sword through the air aiming to cut down the man. The Theurge knight dodged and parried, never stopping his incantations. The Dwarf swiped the air with his sword leaving a trail of fire so blazingly infernal and torrid, Ithyna could feel it from where she stood. The Ogre, Minotaur and Aelf shielded their eyes with their hands the way people always do when a campfire is too well fed or the midday sunstar is too high and bright. The knight dodged left, muttering his incantations which changed the fire into harmless splashes of water. The Dwarven swordsman followed up, cutting through the night, and leaving a tall, pointed stalagmite of ice in his wake. The knight dodged right, narrowly evading the sharp, frozen construct, his counterspell lifting the large icicle high into the air. The sword's blade dimmed entirely black as onyx, and Johannes chopped the air left to right, missing the Theurge by a mere hair. The black liquid on his blade flung itself to the Theurge as if to cleave onto him, however the counterspell caused the liquid only to encircle the purple-haired man, never touching him, and so the Theurge was able to command the liquid away ,which shot off far from him onto the forest floor. All the plant life onto which the dark liquid fell bubbled, shriveled, and smoked before shattering to dust. The knight uttered something and smirked, and the icicle drove downward from the sky above Johannes, who covered his head and cowered. Ithyna had heard tale of Dwarven magics of object enchantments.

Owl Bear ran in, Deson beside him still goading Ithyna's aide. Owl Bear covered Johannes with his body, the icicle falling onto but not penetrating him. The icicle stood, balanced, on the back of the Ogre as he protected the Dwarf. Ithyna had heard tale of Ogre magics of spell invulnerabilities.

Deson somersaulted, his brandings glowing once more. He grabbed the icicle amid his flip as it stood on the Ogre's back, and he launched it at the Theurge as he landed. The pages of the grimoire cycled through again and the Theurge uttered something quickly as his eyes grew in anticipation of impact. The icicle pierced through his body, and the purple-haired man grabbed at it, the way any man grabs at the blade that ends his final battle as it rests mortally in his wounded flesh, and then the man simply vanished allowing the ice to fall to the ground and splinter into a thousand, thousand pieces.

Ithyna was too focused to begin to register whether they had won before she saw the purple-haired Theurge standing in the distance, quite a few steps behind where Deson had pierced his body a split second ago. The Theurge's grimoire, still levitating uninterrupted, zipped back to where he stood now and he began reciting a longer spell.

"Dwarven language is sister to theirs. Be this spell to thee intelligible?" Brannondorion asked, never removing his eyes from the purple-haired Theurge.

"Something… Mouth of lizard… Cough of serpent…?"

"Breath of dragon?" Ithyna tried to assist him.

"Dragonbreath." The Ogre announced. "Gather behind me."

Deson and Johannes did not need the order, they both put the Ogre between themselves and the Theurge as soon as he announced the translation of the incantation. Brannondorian grabbed Ithyna who was locked in place, dazzled, mystified, and entertained thus far by the open displays and mastery of magic in combat unfolding before her. He dragged her by the wrist and led her to huddle behind the other men.

"I may need thy help, Johannes."

The Dwarf, who was covering his head, reached out a solitary hand and tapped the Ogre's wooden shield with his tiny hammer, chanting his spell. The Theurge opened his mouth three, four, then five times its natural limit, and from it spewed burning green flames. Owl Bear called out to his shield with a plea, the words he said were, to Ithyna, muffled but audibly Commonish, and his wooden shield increased its size in reply. The Ogre dug his feet into the ground and leaned forward against the impact. Ithyna was unable to believe it. She had never seen green flames before, not even when she herself had come face to face with her own dragon, and so she attempted to inch her head around the bulk of the men though the Commander pulled her back in. The green flames subsided and the Theurge began speaking again.

Suddenly, the four of them—the Gnome, the Aelf, the Dwarf and the Minotaur—were launched into the air as a column of earth shot up from beneath their feet, though the Ogre remained unaffected. The Minotaur, again, landed on his feet, but Ithyna and Johannes landed on their backs on the grass floor, the torch she had been holding falling somewhere between herself and the Theurge. Brannondorion landed rolling to a slow halt.

"If thou art taking requests, bless mine arrows with routine blessing, Dwarf. Make them as fierce as Minotaur war cannons."

Ithyna turned over to see Johannes holding the Commander's quiver, slowly mouthing a dreadful enchantment before tapping the quiver with his hammer. The arrows flashed gold. The Commander rose to his feet, took aim, and shot his arrow. The arrow swished through the air and the Theurge simply sidestepped it and began to slowly approach the party.

"Thy enchantments work not, Dwarf."

"Thou must call upon the name of the enchanted to wield its power. Knowest ye of the isles any matter save thy own?"

Ithyna and Brannondorion both grunted after the insult.

"Arrows, I name you: Amiantra," he said while equipping another arrow. All the arrows flashed again though Ithyna looked shocked and perturbed at the choice of name.

"Now call upon Amiantra as you use her!"

"Amiantra!" Brannondorian yelled, letting his bow string snap forward, projecting the single glowing arrow forward in the night. He jumped back to take cover. Johannes and Deson mimicked his retreat, and Ithyna last after them. The Theurge tried to deflect the arrow back at the Commander with another incantation but Owl Bear was quick-witted, his invulnerability magics causing the arrow instantly to reflect once more back onto the Theurge, who, with explosive force, was blown over the trees and into the distance, his grimoire trailing behind him affixed to him by his own magic, fluttering through the wind as the tail of a kite.

"Dead. And it took but we four," Deson said.

"We one," Brannondorion credited solely himself, pleased.

"Two," Johannes corrected him. "My enchantment, thy arrow."

"Three, need I say?" The Ogre grunted.

"None. He remaineth yet undefeated, though what thrill that wast to watch."

As the only two with weapons left, Brannondorion and Johannes readied themselves first, the Dwarf gripping his sword before him as he had done before, and the Aelf preparing one of the five glowing arrows of which remained on the string of his bow.

A girl came into view. She wore elaborate robes of vibrant, almost clashing colors—violets, oranges, limes, and carnations. Her neck, ears and wrists were adorned, bedizened, with gold and pearl. Over her styled green hair rested a floating tiara of loose garnet, and emerald, and topaz, and of every manner of precious gem Ithyna had not yet imagined. She held one arm close to her chest, something wrapped tightly in satin cloths against her bosom; her other hand at her side, a grimoire closed in its grip.

"The royal green hair." Ithyna was surprised. So many things she had only been taught with words coming true tonight before her very own eyes.

"A Chartreuse," spat one of the foreigners.

"'Tis Princess Theurge sameself," said another.

"I say we kill her now whilst we have upper hand," advised the last.

"Imagine mine surprise in my arrival to these isles to find peoples more than its inhabitants. But my death? Such shalt be necessary not," the royal Theurge said. "I come in peace for to surrender."

This time, to Ithyna's surprise, Brannondorion chimed in. "Lies."

The Theurge princess grunted in disagreement. She raised her grimoire in hand to her bosom and Ithyna and the four men flinched. The princess then threw the grimoire far across the forest and it landed with a muted thud on the grassy forest floor. The five were at a momentary loss of words so the Theurge started before anyone could speak.

"Had ye spoken with mine knight-guard, ye wouldst know I come offer mine knowledge for to end the War of the Twelve. I shalt be mine own parents' undoing."

Johannes picked up the Theurge's grimoire and began to sift through it while Deson, Owl Bear and Brannondorion inched toward the Theurge princess cautiously, bows drawn, shields put forward, fists raised defensively.

"She for fools taketh us! Which faith should we have in offspring of such vile sorceress and warlock?" Owl Bear worded his mistrust.

"I shalt pin down the she-devil, the Aelf with me. And thou shalt stomp her head into oblivion, the Gnome with thee."

"No." The princess responded. She did neither budge nor let fear display in her voice despite the fact that three men, all larger than the thin girl, began to surround her menacingly. "I do have solitary request. After I have betrayed Theurge-kind, the same shalt come for the heads of all Chartreuse." She lowered her satin cloth, revealing an a fragile, sleeping infant—no, even much younger; a newborn. "I request mine youngest brother and only innocent kin be harbored safely away from Theurge lands."

Deson's brandings illuminated once more and he grabbed the princess' free wrist. She only winced in pain though Ithyna was aware she was writhing in it internally. Deson bended her arm behind her and ordered the Aelf to take the newborn, and he did, after returning the arrow into his quiver and hanging his bow upon it. Deson then grabbed her remaining hand and held the princess hostage.

"What sayest thou, Johannes?" Owl Bear implored an answer.

"This grimoire is authentic." The Dwarf looked up from the book, as he kept pounding on it with his tiny hammer to no avail. "This be not a trick. She is disarmed."

Deson gripped tighter and the Theurge princess let out a yelp. Johannes tossed Owl Bear his sword as Brannondorion backed away slowly. Owl Bear, with what seemed to be terrible, almost Minotaurean might, struck down the princess. Her levitating crown slipped from the place above her head, its many gems falling individually upon the ground, helter-skelter in all directions as she lumped onto the floor.

Ithyna gasped. It was a loud and desperate gasp. She could feel something in her stomach boil up and burn up to her throat, but she swallowed it and raised her trembling hands before her. By this time Brannondorion, still with newborn against his shoulder, was backing away, one hand out in front of Ithyna as if to ward her from impending danger.

"No stone unturned." Owl Bear was not one to hesitate. He turned to the retreating Aelf and Gnome, returning his Dwarven ally's blood-laden blade back to him with a light toss. The three men began to inch themselves cautiously toward Ithyna and Brannondorion but not in the same fashion they had inched themselves toward the princess. This time, there was a semblance of predetermined victory in their eyes. "That baby too."

"This child is innocent in all it. We can save him. He shan't become his father nor mother before him."

"And e'er he reacheth age of manhood, his head-hairs wilt begreen themselves as plain as grass beneath our feet. And then all world shalt know his lineage." Johannes drew is sword once more while Deson cracked the bones within his hands and neck, his brandings more luminous now than at any other time before.

"Ithyna. They wilt need more time for to choose the right path. Use thy magic that we may attain such opportunity."

Ithyna hesitated at the Aelf's command. The Centurion ordered that she not use magic they had not yet practiced, and they had not practiced any at all. It was, for Ithyna, a punishment of sorts and in this moment of danger, she had to come clean. "I have ne'er mine magic cast, Commander."

"Then thou learnest now."

The three foreigners lunged at Ithyna, Brannondorion and the newborn. Ithyna raised her sleeve, revealing a stone sundial strapped upon her wrist. She did not need incantations as did Dwarves or Theurges, or some other races. All she needed was a thought about a moment in time. She thought to Aschionedes, a simple boy, to what she had done against him, the crime he did not know. She thought she could change it. She thought about the future they were meant to have together. So, she spun the sundial on her wrist, punched a fist into the ground as hard as she could, and grasped tightly one of the Commander's legs as ley lines encircled beneath her feet. Ithyna witnessed the flat edge of the Dwarven blade falling quickly toward Brannondorion's face as to knock him unconscious. Everything around the three of them—the Gnome, the Aelf, the Theurge newborn—slowed, the foreigners coming to a halt, transfixed in a single moment of time. And then it happened. The Theurge princess, somehow, unrestricted by time, stood up, her grimoire returning to her hands, her eyes empty voids, as the blood spilled still from her body. The red eyes of the forest glared violently, and she vanished, seen no more. And then it was suddenly morning, and Ithyna, Brannondorion and the Theurge newborn were alone. The creatures of the forest zipped by faster than Ithyna could glimpse. Their speed was unnatural. And everything everywhere was blanketed in a fog of differing colors. The shadow on the sundial began to spin, slow at first, then faster, faster, and faster still until the world around them was a blur of interweaving hues.

Ithyna had heard tale of Gnome magics to manipulate time but she had never afore used them.