Over the weeks, more people arrived. Tara-lin was introduced to human ladies, and she found their company exasperating, for the most part.
It was not long before Lìrulin came to them. When Earnrìl had come back from the sea, she had borrowed her horse and ridden to them. It was now certain that she was pregnant. She stopped arguing with her parents about how she was going to go with her father.
One day, Tara-lin observed her mother and her father embracing. “I’d go with you, Eldor, no matter what, if I weren’t pregnant again… You must not die! You must not leave me with our second child an infant who’s never seen you.”
Tara-lin stood still, feeling horrible.
“I don’t intend to die,” said Sir Eldor. “We don’t know what this will be like, or what my role in it will be. But, if you don’t want that, we will have to make sure you don’t get pregnant again.”
“I love you,” said Lìrulin.
Tara-lin walked away. Just earlier that day, she had met a girl who did not irritate her as much as the other women – or men – around. Her name was Alis Luela, and though she spoke little she was definitely interested in what Tara-lin had to say about the animals and plants of the Elethrian forests. She was quieter than the other girls, and spoke little about herself and the other things interesting to them, and when she did ask Tara-lin a question it was about something in which Tara-lin herself had some interest.
It took Tara-lin about half an hour to find Alis. When she did she came up to the girl and, finding a pause in the conversation, said to her, “Would you like to come to my room and talk?”
Alis’ face visibly brightened at Tara-lin’s suggestion. “Yes!” she said. To the other young women she said, “We’ll talk more later. It was nice enough.”
Several minutes later, both were sitting on the furs that would have been Tara-lin’s bed except that she slept in the same room as her parents. They were silent for a few moments, then Alis said, “How I would love your life, Tara-lin! I’d love to hear an owl hoot flying over my head as I sleep in a hammock high in the trees! I’d love to look over the edge and see a herd of deer go running by! I love to have hours to just sit still and let the rabbits get used enough to me to sniff my hands!”
“It’s really nice,” said Tara-lin. “Do you know how to ride a horse?”
“Alas, no,” said Alis. “I groom them. I tack them up. I lead them. But learning how to ride? To really ride, so you can fly with the horse like the wind and soar over obstacles? No. After all, I can’t be a knight, can I? It would just be a waste to teach me, I’m told, and distract me from my real life. It was hard enough for me to be allowed to learn how to care for them!”
“I’m so sorry,” said Tara-lin. “Maybe, when this whole thing about Anakrim is over, I can take you back with me to Elethri, and you can get to do all those things. I’ll teach you how to ride my very own horse by my very own self!”
“Oh, that would be so fun,” said Alis wistfully, “but I can’t.”
“Why not?” asked Tara-lin.
“My parents wouldn’t allow it.”
“Are you that young?”
“I don’t know what that question means,” said Alis. “I’m sixteen. Are you allowed to just run away and do whatever you want?”
“Well, there are some things I’m not allowed to do, but it’s more that there are things I’m not allowed to do, and I’m going to do one of them anyways!” said Tara-lin. “I can go down to the sea with Earnrìl whenever I want to. I could do other things, too, and my parents wouldn’t like it, but I might be able to get their permission to completely go off. Either way, I’m half-elf. But someday I’ll be allowed to do as I like. I think I could, now. So that’s why I asked if you were that young.”
“Well,” said Alis, “I’m old enough my parents want me to be married.”
“What are you talking about?” asked Tara-lin.
“My parents want me to marry, and I don’t want to,” said Alis. “I love the idea of being able to, well, do as I like. Kind of like a man.” At this point, she giggled nervously. “Not having someone I have to answer to, about everything.”
“Well, can you promise not to tell anyone something for me?”
“Umm, sure,” said Alis.
“Okay. I’m going to run away and do something I’m not allowed to. My parents don’t want me going with my father on his mission, but I’m half-elf and I’m going to live for centuries, and he’s human, and may not live another forty years, if all goes well. So, I’m going to follow him. If you want, I’ll take you with me,” said Tara-lin.
“Sure,” said Alis, then, “Can I ask you a question, Tara-lin?”
“How do elven women marry?”
“They marry whomever they want to marry, whenever they want to marry!” said Tara-lin. “That’s how Dad and Mom got married.”
“Tell me about it,” said Alis.
So Tara-lin did so. Before long, she felt a lump in her throat.
Eventually, Alis said, “You don’t have to tell me if you don’t like.”
“It’s not that,” said Tara-lin, and went on.
Finally, Alis said, “That is one terror of a story! Are you sure I want to come with you chasing your father on some mission to do something about a Prince Anakrim who wants to make himself a wizard? It sounds like it could get very nasty.”
“Well, umm, do you have a better idea for how you want to run away?”
“How could I?” asked Alis. “I know precious little. I’ll be looked for. I wouldn’t know where to go. I wouldn’t know who would take care of me and not turn me in. But, Tara-lin, will you also keep a secret for me?”
“Yes,” said Tara-lin.
“I will not marry. I won’t.” Alis’ voice grew low and her manner heated. “Right now, my family orders me around, but I never consented to it. I never made myself their child. I never promised to be their child. I will not make the marriage vows. I won’t! I’ll die first.”
“Would it really come to that?” asked Tara-lin.
“I don’t know,” said Alis.
“Well, then, how much worse can it be to run away with me? After all, I can even do things. I don’t know very much about them yet, but I’m not completely helpless,” said Tara-lin.
“What kind of things?” asked Alis.
“It would be hard to describe them. You’ll just have to see,” answered Tara-lin.
Alis smiled. “That I would love to do,” she said. After a long moment, she added, “Of course, though my father would hate it, he could not forbid it, so I could always take the service of one of the gods, and that way not have to marry, but it would be just as bad. I would be at least as bound.”
“What’s that like?” asked Tara-lin.
“I don’t really know,” said Alis. “The girls who do it don’t get to interact much or play with the rest of us. Some who don’t want to marry take that route, but I won’t. I will not give control of myself and my life to someone else. They can take it; I won’t give it. I want to see the sea. I want to ride a horse. I want to watch owls and deer. I won’t voluntarily give that up.”
“You shall have it,” said Tara-lin. “You will come with me, and you shall have it. Even before the mission is over and we return home, you shall begin to have it. You will see all kinds of trees and bushes, you will see deer and foxes and owls and eagles and wolves!”
“That sounds so fun,” said Alis. “If you figure out how, I really will run away with you.”
Tara-lin laughed. “Thanks, Alis. But I think we should go to bed now.”
“Probably,” agreed Alis.
A week later, after Sir Eldor and his company had left Astri, using the power of her elven cloak, Tara-lin sneaked into the portion of the Valor Hall where the clothing and weapons of war were kept. After finding what she considered suitable camouflaging clothes for her friend, she walked across the room and stood before a table on which were arranged many swords. All had two edges and were of a metal which shone with a faint bluish tinge. Tara-lin tapped one of them upon the blade with her finger, and for a moment a wavering green flame sprang up from the blade around her finger.
She stepped back with a gasp. Ancient elven swords, the art of whose making was among the many things her people had lost. She knew, however, that of these swords some would flash a green fire, others a purple fire, or a blue one, or a yellow one, or yet a red one.
Tara-lin took one of the scabbards lying near, belted it around her waist, and sheathed in it a sword on the table which looked and felt to be the right weight for her. Then, trusting to her Elethrian cloak to conceal her theft, she left the room.
That evening, she invited Alis into her room after dinner, as they were wont to do. From under the furs, she pulled out a man’s camouflage tunic, pants, and war cape which she had somehow filched.
“I’m sorry I can’t get another Elethrian cloak for you,” said Tara-lin to Alis, “but these will have to do.”
“They’re too big!” said Alis.
“Yes, I know, I’ve thought about that,” said Tara-lin. “This tunic will hang over your shoulders. You can tie the cape as tight as you need it. The hood’ll go over your head quite nicely. These pants will cinch tight enough they don’t fall off. To keep from tripping in them, put the bottoms into your boots. It’ll look funny, but it’ll work. You’re about the same size as I am.”
“All right,” said Alis. “I’ll change.”
When she had done so, she laughed. “This is so funny, and I’m sure I look as funny as I feel,” she said.
Tara-lin shrugged. “I don’t know. It’s not important to me. You’ll probably get to hear owls tonight.”
Alis grinned, then said, “What about your mom? Won’t she worry?”
“I hope not,” said Tara-lin. “I quit arguing with Dad about how I’m going to go some days before she got here. I’m going to leave her a note that says that I’m going to go explore the area around here. Unless Dad told her, she’ll have no reason to guess what kind of exploring I’m really doing.”
“Uh-huh,” said Alis. “So, umm, when do we go? Where? How?”
“I have, here,” said Tara-lin, “two pouches which we can wear under our capes. The food in them should last us a couple of days. I have a little bit of Elethrian currency. But I should be able to find food for us. It’ll be fine.”
Alis nodded. “But when?”
“We wait a couple hours,” said Tara-lin. “Then, when there’s not too many people about, but it’s not so late they’ll wonder what we’re doing, we go out… take a walk… and run!”
“Ah!” said Alis. “Sounds exciting. But what if we’re caught?”
“If you have a better idea, share it. And, you don’t have to come with me. Unless you have a better idea, I’m leaving tonight, whether you come with me or not,” said Tara-lin.
“Yeah, I’ll come,” said Alis. “Of course, I’ll come.”
The two girls passed the time talking about various things. At one point, Alis said, “Is there a way we can get horses? I would love to get to ride one!”
“I doubt there’s a way for us to get horses tonight,” said Tara-lin, “but I might be able to figure it out sometime.”
“So, something to do with your strange powers which you don’t fully understand but which you’ve assured me you have?” asked Alis. “Can’t you tell me something about them? What are they?”
“I’m half-elven,” said Tara-lin. “Elves have… abilities that… well, it takes us centuries to really understand them, and it would be very hard to describe them to someone who has never experienced or seen them.”
Alis rolled her eyes. “You sure you have them?” she asked.
“As certain as I am that I have an Elethrian cloak that will make me almost invisible in the wild, and it will hide me quite well even if I’m not in the wild,” said Tara-lin.
“But I haven’t seen that,” said Alis.
“You will see it tonight,” said Tara-lin.
The two were silent for a while, then Tara-lin said, “I think it’s time.”
Tara-lin pulled out her note and left it on her furs. Then, she and Alis went to the door and opened it. Tara-lin led the way, using her elven senses to lead them down passages where they would not encounter the few people still walking about. While a chance glance from the distance would not ruin their plan, she did not want them to be seen too closely. Alis, dressed in her camouflaging too-large men’s clothes, would certainly wake suspicion.
Soon, they were in the Valor Hall gardens, completely abandoned at this time of day. With less caution – not only would no one be around, but Alis’ garments would now camouflage her instead of making her look suspicious – they moved quickly through the gardens and to the garden wall.
“How will we get over that?” asked Alis in a hushed, scared tone of voice.
“This way,” said Tara-lin. “You aren’t as nimble as I am, but this should work. See that? I’m going to push you up, you will grab the top, and pull yourself up. Okay?”
“Okay,” said Alis. She sounded uncertain.
Tara-lin grabbed her around the waist and began to push her up. “Help me,” said Tara-lin. “Use your legs and hands to help me. Here! Now! Grab it!”
Alis scrambled to the top of the wall, then looked at Tara-lin. “I’m scratched. And how will you get up?”
“Your scratch will heal, Alis,” said Tara-lin. “When you live in the wild, it happens. As for how I will get up, don’t ask stupid questions so often.”
Tara-lin turned, found a tree the branches of which grew near to the wall, and rapidly climbed it. She stood perilously on a branch that waved under her weight, gauged the distance between her and the wall, and leapt. She landed on the wall, several paces from Alis, who crouched in a fearful huddle.
“Now, how do we get down?” asked Alis.
“Easy,” said Tara-lin, and swung herself over the wall, landing lightly on the cobblestone street below it.
“What about me? I’m not an elf!” said Alis in a hushed squeal.
“Come over here. I’ll help you,” said Tara-lin.
Alis scooted over.
“Now, sit with your legs dangling over the edge.”
Alis did so.
“Now, slowly, start to slide down. I’ll make sure you don’t come down too quickly.”
Alis did so, and Tara-lin helped her.
“Now, we’re in the middle of the city,” she said, beginning to sob. “My father says it’s downright dangerous in the city at night for a girl like me. Maybe it isn’t for a half-elf like you, but I’m human.”
“Sshh,” said Tara-lin. “We’ll be fine, and we aren’t in the middle of the city. I can feel which way the forest of the foothills of Malaitha are, and I climbed up the tower of the Valor Hall this morning to watch Dad and his company ride out. I know which way to take us.”
“All right,” said Alis, clinging to Tara-lin.
“If we had two Elethrian cloaks,” said Tara-lin, as she began to lead Alis along, “there would be no concern or worry at all. My parents got into Nightshade Castle with Elethrian cloaks, and this isn’t Nightshade Castle.”
“So, you really think we’ll be fine?” asked Alis.
“Yes, I really think we’ll be fine.”
Perhaps an hour later, Alis said to Tara-lin, “This city is big. And what about the gates? I remember hearing that the gates are always closed at night.”
“That’s no problem.”
“It isn’t? I wouldn’t want to climb a wall like that again, and the city walls are a lot taller than the Valor Hall walls. They’re more than three times as tall as I am, not just under twice as tall.”
“It’ll be no issue getting to the top, at least. That part’s easy.”
“What about to the bottom?” asked Alis.
“Look, I really have an idea,” said Tara-lin.
“All right.” Alis sounded more skeptical than ever.
About half an hour later, she pointed. “That’s the wall!” she said.
“That’s the wall,” said Tara-lin. “Let’s get closer.”
“And what about those guard towers?” asked Alis.
“They won’t be watching for two girls creeping over the walls,” said Tara-lin.
Several minutes later, Tara-lin said, “Look at this house?”
“Yes,” said Alis.
“We’re going up on the roof. This time I’ll get up first, then help you up.”
Alis nodded. Tara-lin grabbed the overhang and jumped up. Leaning back down, she said, “All right. Give me your hands, and jump for it.”
They walked along the roofs, climbing when necessary, until they stood on one next to the wall, which rose another seven feet above them. “This should be easy,” said Tara-lin.
“None of this is easy,” said Alis.
“Well, you’re free,” said Tara-lin. “No one will ever consider you property again. I’ll go up first again.”
Tara-lin sprang for the wall and pulled herself up. This time, she scratched some of the skin off of her hands. Then she scrambled back around to help Alis up.
Motioning to indicate the wall, she said to Alis, “This isn’t so bad. It’s pretty thick, so even you should feel pretty comfortable up here.”
“I guess I do,” said Alis, giving Tara-lin a smile in the moonlight. “But how do we get back down?”
Tara-lin smiled, then called, a low, whistling note that rose and fell gently and smoothly. Alis watched, entranced, wondering what was about to happen.
Before long, they saw a large shape coming towards them. Tara-lin continued to whistle. Alis sat down and drew herself together, shivering a little.
When the beast was near to them, Alis leapt up. “A gryphon!” she exclaimed. Turning to Tara-lin, she said, “I didn’t know you were a gryphon rider.”
Tara-lin was silent for a few moments, as the beast landed beside them. Then she turned to Alis. “I’m not. This is a wild gryphon. But I’ve called animals before, in the Elethrian forests, and I’ve seen enough gryphons, I thought I could call one, and here he is.”
She turned back to the gryphon, and stroked his shoulders and mane. She thought he was a dark brown one, though she could not be sure in the lighting. After a few minutes, she said to Alis, “Normally, two don’t ride a gryphon this size, but I’m only asking him to bring us down a short ways, so here. I will help you up.”
The gryphon flinched a little as Tara-lin helped Alis seat herself on his shoulders. Then Tara-lin climbed up, behind Alis, and putting her arms around the human girl’s waist, gripped the gryphon’s body tightly between her legs.
Tara-lin whistled again, softly, and the gryphon turned and spread his wings. He glided down from the wall and landed, heavily Tara-lin thought. He shook himself, and both she and Alis fell off. A moment later he was in the sky again.
Standing up, Alis said, “I’ve reconsidered my request. You don’t have to find me a horse. I will be more than happy if you can get me a gryphon.”
“That’s as hard a task,” said Tara-lin. “That gryphon is wild. He will stay with his pack which lives in the Malaitha Mountains. Now, sometime, when I don’t have my Dad to follow, and it’s the right time of year, maybe I’ll take you and we can try to see if we can find any young gryphons. You have to find them as hatchlings, or they won’t bond to you, and gryphons are usually very protective of their eggs and young. It’s hard for even an elf to get close to them.”
“What about the tamed gryphons?” asked Alis.
“Their eggs won’t be given to us,” said Tara-lin. “Let’s go, now.”
Alis followed, much happier now. “I never thought I’d get to ride a gryphon!” she repeated over and over again. “I certainly never dreamed of riding a wild gryphon!”
As they climbed up towards the mountains, through wilder and wilder land every minute, Tara-lin said to Alis, “I’ve never ridden a gryphon myself, until today.”
“You were right you could do things though,” said Alis. “Did you know it would work?”
“I wasn’t certain,” said Tara-lin. “If it hadn’t, I would have had to reconsider, maybe get down from the wall and find another way.”
Alis shook her head. “The stakes are a lot higher for me,” she said.
“I guess that’s true,” said Tara-lin. “And you have a lot less experience with stuff. I’ll try to be more considerate.”
Alis laughed. “More considerate? You’re doing a lot for me.”
“You’ve only made this barely harder, so far,” said Tara-lin.
“Not for that gryphon!” said Alis.
“That gryphon isn’t me. Besides, he only did a little bit. It wasn’t that hard for him anyways. You should see him hunt if you think that was hard!”
“I guess I don’t know anything about anything,” said Alis, “which reminds me: aren’t the woods and mountains supposed to be dangerous at night?”
“Yes,” said Tara-lin. “Even for me, this isn’t exactly safe. But there’s two of us. That counts for something. And, what safe way of running away from a life of subjugation to others’ wishes can you think of, Alis? It’s a lot safer than other things which might meet us following my Dad on his mission.”
“Sometimes,” said Alis, “I don’t know why I let you talk me into running away with you. Then I remember seeing that gryphon fly in, and I know why. You told me I’d probably get to hear owls tonight. I rode a wild gryphon. How much better is that?” She laughed gaily. “I mean, how many people have gotten to ride wild gryphons?”
“I don’t know,” said Tara-lin.
Hours later, Alis said, “It’s getting lighter.”
“Yes,” said Tara-lin. “If the Malaitha Mountains weren’t between us and the dawn, we’d see the sun soon. As it is, how about we find a place to eat and nap a few hours before going on?”
“Are we going to go the whole way like this, sleeping several hours in the morning, and walking all night and most of the day?” asked Alis. “You might be able to, but I’m full human and I won’t last that way.”
“No,” said Tara-lin, “just for now. We’ll find a good place to sleep tomorrow night. Then –”
“What is that?” asked Alis.
“The morning cry of a hawk?” suggested Tara-lin.
Tired as she was, Alis jumped up and down. “So, in one night, I’ve ridden a wild gryphon, and heard both hawks and owls?”
“Yes!” said Tara-lin, smiling at her.
“Thank you so much, Tara-lin,” said Alis. She embraced her friend.
“Well,” said Tara-lin, after she had let her go, “I am both hungry and tired and thirsty, and so are you, I’m sure. Let’s find a place to rest, and then we’ll drink from the water bottles we have, eat a little, and sleep a few hours. Then, we’ll get up, and look for a better place to spend the next night.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” said Alis.
Excerpted from Children of the Dryads, Copyright © 2021 Raina Nightingale
Release date June 3rd, 2021