In a candle-mark, the troops arrived at the gates of the Forest Lords Citadel. The column stopped, barred by a lowered silver portcullis and silver gates at least three men high. They gleamed in the setting sun. Four Forest Lords stood guard, two to either side. White marble walls held a rosy orange blush as the sun sank lower. Flags flew from the peaks of the towers along and within the walls.
Owen let his head fall back as he marveled at the beauty of the Citadel. I’ve always thought Red Dragon’s Keep was wonderful, but this, this is gorgeous. He’d kept his shields very tight since the Agni. He didn’t want anything leaking out. He felt HeartStriker chuckle through their bond.
Navar stood next to him, his head held high, looking expectantly at the gates. Aeden sat her horse on his other side, crossed arms resting on the horn of her saddle. Saleth stood talking with the guards. The Agni had arrived well before them, obviously telling tales.
A groan deep in the walls and the clashing of links of chain on a windlass sounded as the portcullis slowly began to rise. The gates began to swing out, revealing the courtyard beyond. As soon as the portcullis was raised high enough, Saleth motioned for them to follow him.
Owen took note of the murder holes in the short passage that led from the gate to the courtyard.
The view of the courtyard opened up before them. It was layered with crushed white marble chips. On the far right, walls of white marble veined with broad blue rivers of stone rose into slender towers on either side of wide, high doors sweeping to an elegant peak at their center. More walls spread to the left and right, forming an arc around the courtyard.
Broad marble stairs threaded with gold descended from the entrance to an apron of rose marble. Intricately carved wooden brackets held globes of mage-fire around the perimeter of the court. That perimeter was lined with tall Forest Lords, both men and women, most armed with spears and bows, quivers filled with arrows slung over their shoulders.
Saleth leaned on his staff at the edge of the apron. Samanach sat at his side, ears swiveled forward and flicked back.
“Dismount,” murmured Owen.
Sergeant Jory heard him and gave the signal. Everyone dismounted as if they had rehearsed the move. The men stepped forward and held their horse’s reins next to the bit. Navar moved up to stand on Owen’s left side. Aeden joined him on his right.
As she did, the doors of the tower slowly swept open to the left and right.
Within their embrace, a tall, broad figure stood, dressed in a light green robe, covered with a forest green tabard picked out with golden thread highlighting unending loops and swirls. The edges were bordered with blood red thread gleaming like the liquid itself. Black sandals studded with jewels protected his feet. Long thick white hair flowed from the top of his head to midway down his chest, swept behind his pointed elf ears.
His hands were clasped at his waist. Glittering gold and silver rings rode every finger and silver filigree circled up his bare arms to his shoulders. A thin crown set with every color of beryl circled his brow. Yellow, green, blue, red and clear flashed in the light. A slender silver sword depended from a silver chain hanging from his waist.
He seemed to glide down the stairs to the apron. Guards with bows, arrows and tall wickedly tri-pointed spears followed him. Each took a place on the stairs, ranging in a wedge behind their ruler.
Saleth stepped forward onto the apron. “My King, I bring to you the Second Son, Owen Arach, as you ordered.” He gave a short bow. He straightened and, with a sweep of his arm, motioned to his right. “I also bring honored guests, Lady Aeden, The Red Dragon.” He gestured to the left. “Navar, WindRunner of the Great Plain.”
A quiet whispering, as of leaves in a breeze, circled the courtyard. The High King’s deep amethyst eyes, set at an oblique angle above sharp, chiseled cheeks, flicked over Owen and settled on Aeden and Navar. Without expression, he nodded his head to them.
His deep voice filled the enclosure. “Welcome, Owen Arach, second son of the Lord of Ard Ri. Welcome, daughter of the Black King. Welcome, Navar. Welcome indeed. Join me.” He turned his head slightly. “See to their men.” He turned and ascended the stairway, not once looking back to see if they followed.
Owen and Aeden glanced at each other and at Navar. They handed the reins of their horses to Sergeant Jory. The three stepped forward onto the rose marble apron. HeartStriker began to vibrate but said nothing. A deep bell tolled. Indrawn breath susurrated around the enclosure. Murmurs whispered.
Saleth drew in his breath and looked at them with wide eyes. “The Bell has not tolled for a millennium,” he told them in a low voice.
The High King hesitated on the stairs as if he wanted to turn, but continued into the tower. Saleth nodded at Owen, Aeden, and Navar. “Come. He awaits you.”
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