Suddenly, a thought pounded through River’s mind – her phone. Her phone might be working again. She had to call her mom and tell her to call the police. She had to tell her that some monsters has escaped from a zoo and that Caleb was missing and that a crazy person, no matter how beautiful, was living in the woods with delusions about being and elf and there being a king.
Quickly, River reached down and unbuttoned one of her two secure pockets on her cargo pants, then pulled her phone out of it. Her hands were shaking so hard it took her three tries to get the password right, but when she did, she stabbed the “contact” option and called her mom.
When the “no service” alert popped up, River stared wide-eyed at the phone, as if thinking the shock in her gaze might somehow change the message to show that it was calling her mom.
“No,” River whispered. “No, you have to work!” She closed out the contacts app and tried texting. That didn’t work either. She even tried contacting Caleb, but it didn’t work.
“No. No!” River stared at the phone, wanting to throw the stupid thing but not daring to, for fear of loosing her only possible connection to her mother and brother.
The sudden sound of a creaking rope alerted River to a returning Amára. Quickly, she slipped her phone back into her pocket. If the woman was mentally unstable, she might turn violent if she learned that River had tried to contact someone.
Almost an instant after she re-buttoned the pocket, Amára’s face appeared from over the edge of the platform.
“Follow me,” she said abruptly. “Íllandril has summoned you.”
River anxiously got up and walked over to the edge. Amára was making her way back down the rope, shimmying along rapidly. When she reached the ground a few moments later, she looked up at River and called, “Come. I will catch you if you fall.”
And with that comforting thought, River grabbed the rope and managed to swing down. As soon as her feet touched the rope though, she realized she was still barefoot. She started to clumsily climb back up, swinging back and forth and throwing one leg back onto the platform.
“What are you doing?” Amára called, sounding exasperated.
“Leave them!” Amára ordered impatiently. “There is no time.”
“Leave my shoes? Are you kidding?”
“Come!” Amára repeated, her voice reverberating with shocking power. River found herself meekly obeying, scuttling down the knotted rope like a spider on a thread. The next thing she knew, Amára was tightly grasping her wrist and pulling her along through the woods.
“Where are we going?” River asked, trying to shake off Amára’s iron grip.
“To see the king,” Amára answered shortly.
“I know that,” River snapped. “But where is the king?”
“The Palace of Twelve Trees,” Amára said.
“And where is that?” River pressed. Amára was silent for several minutes, and River quietly rejoiced at having burst the woman’s crazed bubble.
When Amára did speak though, after nearly ten more minutes, it was so unexpected that River jumped and took a second to register what had been said, and why.
River turned to look where Amára had gestured. Her jaw fell, and a strangled squeak escaped. Garbled words and sounds slipped past her lips, her mouth trying to ask twenty questions at once.
A few feet ahead, the ground fell away to a canyon miles deep. A river roared below, white and foaming. Spanning the distance of the gap was a stone bridge, carved with intricate images of long-haired men on thrones on one side, and beautiful and commanding women on the other. Strange letters were carved above each man and woman, ancient runes that River couldn’t read. The bridge stretched at least a mile in length, and even though it was stunning with its intricate carvings and embedded jewels, it was the sight at the end of it that stole River’s breath.
On a grass-covered plateau surrounded by the gorge, a tree rose into the air, so tall that River couldn’t see the top of it. Clouds hung around the higher portions of it, white tresses of tulle and chiffon amid a blue gown of sky. To say the tree dwarfed the famous California redwoods would be an understatement. River guessed the tree was at least the height of four empire state buildings stacked atop each other, and no less than three miles in width – she couldn’t even begin to imagine its diameter. But the size wasn’t the only thing that snatched the breath from the girl’s lungs. The branches of the tree had been turned into twisting, spiraling, curving pathways, and River could see tiny specks of black – people – moving along them. She could faintly see large structures built into the ends of the branches, but she couldn’t tell what they were.
But even more astonishing were the two branches, thicker than any of the others, that extended out from the tree like a halo. They were maybe a hundred feet from the ground, and possibly half a mile away from the twirling, twisting trunk. Small figures stood on them. It was impossible to tell whether they were people, statues, or something else.
Finally, River’s gaze fell to the foot of the awesome tree, where the bridge provided the only means of accessing the plateau. Two statues were there, carved from some sort of grey-blue stone, and even though she knew the statues were at least the height of the Statue of Liberty, they looked puny in comparison to the tree.
River felt her mind shutting down. It was too much. How could something so… so huge, so massive, so colossal even exist? It was like trying to imagine eternity. She knew it was true, that it was real, but how could it be when it just seemed so absurdly impossible?
“Numa Íllandril teno shtak, Amára. Nah bach tulio.”
The sudden voice snapped River back, and she let out a startled scream, whirling so fast her hair stung her cheeks. A man stood on her left, his armor different shades of silver and grey. His golden hair hung about his shoulders, but a silver helmet hid most of his face. All River could see were ice-blue eyes, filled with suspicion and curiosity as they looked at her. That, and the giant sword that hung at his waist.
“Who – what – how –” River stammered, yanking herself free of Amára’s hand and backing away in fright. She didn’t get more than two steps when she felt a heavy hand on her shoulder. The girl screamed again as she jerked away from a second armored and sword-bearing man and tried to bolt, only to have him grab her arms and keep her in place.
Terrified, River thrashed and writhed like a cornered beast, wiggling and kicking and shouting.
“Egán!” Amára cried, rushing towards the man who held River. She spoke rapidly in a strange, silky language, and after a moment, the man nodded and let go of River. The petrified girl lunged toward Amára and grabbed her arm, clinging to her in terror. Amára might be crazy, but River would rather have her than the strange swordsmen in silver.
“Víl tengal numa daro?” the first man asked from behind Amára. The woman turned on him, rage and shock rippling through the words of the strange language she spoke. She held River all the while, sometimes stroking her hair in a motherly fashion, and sometimes just keeping one hand on the girl in a protective fashion.
The man replied in the same language, then repeated his question: “Víl tengal numa daro?”
“Cah, tengal víl daraní.” Amára answered, her expression cold.
“Tarach. Nah kahl mëhr.” The men stepped back into the trees and disappeared.
Amára turned and continued on, though she cast a disdainful glare back toward the spot where the man who had grabbed River no longer stood.
“Who – what was that?” she squeaked, still trembling with fright.
“Naro, my cousin. He is one of the Lower Guards. The Guard who you struggled with was Dethán.”
“L-Lower Guards? I d-don’t get it. Why did –”
“All will be revealed in time,” Amára interrupted, and River fell silent, turning her attention to the engravings on the bridge’s balustrade.
One after another there were images of men and women on thrones, long hair draped over their shoulders, their crowns shining. The words above their heads seemed to be carved into the stone and filled with melted silver, glittering in the sun.
“Who are they?” River finally asked, her voice still quaking slightly.
“Who? The dënaka?”
“If that’s what you call them, yeah.”
“They are the kings and queens of old, beginning with the ancient lord Górovyyn, the first elf lord of our people.” As she was speaking, River noticed that the carvings suddenly stopped, even though there was still a long way to go to reach the edge of the bridge.
“H-hey, what happened?”
“The last king was carved. Íllandril, our current ruler, ends the line for now.”