“Goodbye, Annael,” Ashlyn waved her mentor farewell. “I’ll see you in a few months.”
Beside her, Damien was pacing in step as they approached the city stables. Damien glanced at the tall elf lady standing behind him. Annael’s hands were tucked into her sleeves and she said nothing as they walked off.
“She doesn’t look happy to see you go,” he observed.
“I’ll say,” Ashlyn muttered. As they moved further away from the King’s palace, the city of Tauros became more of a wondrous spectacle.
They came to a stable that was designed to perimeter the palace grounds. It sat like a gigantic hexagon, though one would never know it from the ground. A stable master was there to greet them and presented two young horses.
Ashlyn took hold of her steed, and she gestured to the other steed. “Damien, that one is yours.”
“You mean I get to ride a horse?”
“Yes. Did you think that we would walk all the way to Gumber?”
Damien smiled while gripping his horse by the reins. Once they were both mounted, the stable master bowed to bid them farewell.
“Safe journey, my young Lady,” he said. “Do come back to us.”
“Goodbye,” Ashlyn acknowledged him before trotting off.
Damien was keeping up well behind her. The day was ideal for travel. The air was cool without being chilly, the sun was warm without casting sweltering heat. She and Damien did not speak much until they had rode past the city lines. A wide, golden gate now sat behind them, and the city was shrinking into the distance.
“So,” Ashlyn started, “how does it feel to be free?”
“If I’m being honest, it doesn’t really feel like I’m free,” Damien answered. “I got out of Eolnir, but now you’re here telling me that I can’t go anywhere I want.”
“That’s understandable,” she said. “For what it’s worth, I believe that you’ll be very comfortable in Gumber.”
“You think I belong with a bunch of elves? It doesn’t sound very comfortable to me.”
“I never said that you belong there, I just said they would take care of you.”
Damien glanced over at her. “So, how does a human girl like you wind up in a place like Gumber?”
“Oh,” Ashlyn avoided making eye contact. “I suppose you’ll understand soon enough.”
Not far outside of Tauros began the vast woodland realm of Gumber, a place dotted with the occasional wooden house. Damien not only found himself entrapped by endless, ancient trees, the way the wood felt was…magical. The pure air clung to his skin like a dew, and the smell of drifting leaves was like a balm in his throat. He breathed in, tasting the forest air for the first time.
“This is soothing,” he closed his eyes. Beside him, Ashlyn was smiling.
“Yes, it’s very calm here.”
“Hey,” he pegged her giddy mood, “what are you so happy about?”
“It’s just nice to be back here."
She led him through the woods until the land had spread out a wider clearing. Upon first glance, it was difficult for Damien to see the village that sat alone among the trees. The structures and houses blended in perfectly with the motif of the forest, but there it sat, the village that the Lor elves called home.
Ashlyn was growing ecstatic now as they entered the village and rode along a winding dirt path. She brought Damien to the very end of that twisting road, until a seemly cottage cut them off. To the side, there was a stable fit to hold a handful of horses. Ashlyn got off her mount and boarded the horses inside.
Damien worried as Ashlyn cared for their horses. “Do they even know we’re here? What if they don’t like people showing up on their doorstep?”
“Damien, you need to relax. This is my mother’s house.”
Upon knocking at the door, Ashlyn’s adoptive mother, Calda, stepped out to greet them.
“Ashlyn,” Calda drew the girl in for a hug. “Se amyatúrë, I hope you are well.”
“I am well,” Ashlyn greeted. “Se amyatúrë, mother. I’d like you to meet Damien. He’s a new friend of mine.”
“A new friend,” Calda smiled while taking the boy’s hands. Right away, she noticed the black markings along his forearms. “Do you need to have that looked at?”
“Uh, no,” Damien put his arms down. “So, am I allowed to come in?”
“Of course,” Calda chuckled while stepping aside. After closing the door behind them, she led Ashlyn and Damien over to her living area. It was outfitted with a few plush chairs and an elegant sofa. A stone fireplace surrounded the hearth, and a bookcase sat beside it. “Can I get you some tea?” Calda offered.
“I would love some tea,” Ashlyn was quick to answer. “A ten hour trip most definitely calls for it.”
“So, you came from Tauros, then?” Calda asked while pacing over to her kitchen. “The mages must have you traveling a lot now that you’re in your sixth year.”
“Actually, yes,” Ashlyn nodded. “We were in Githal nearly two weeks ago, helping the injured and the fugitives. That’s where I found Damien. We brought him back to Tauros with us so he could make a full recovery.”
“Oh, look at you,” Calda crooned, “my little girl being a healer to people.”
“Annael was the one who healed him. She had the skill for it.”
“And how is Annael? Are you enjoying studying under her?”
“Yes,” Ashlyn shrugged. “She is kind to me.”
“And what about you, Damien?” Calda turned to him. “Are you from Githal?”
“Uh, no,” Damien strained to speak.
“Mother,” Ashlyn came in, “the reason I brought Damien here is because he was a prisoner in Eolnir. He has no family.”
“A prisoner?” Calda questioned. “For how long?”
“Ten years, I think,” Damien said.
“Forgive me, but if you were a prisoner then why were you in Githal?”
“He, uh, doesn’t remember much,” Ashlyn answered for him. “His injuries came with a bit of amnesia. I expect he’ll snap out of it soon.”
“People’s minds don’t go snap, Ashlyn. Like the body, they heal over time. Damien, I can take a look at you if you’d like.”
“You want to look at me?” Damien asked, confused.
“My mother is a healer,” Ashlyn explained.
“I just got done with healing.”
Calda laughed. “I suppose it doesn’t have to be right away.” She turned to Ashlyn. “Did the Academy give you leave to be here?”
“They didn’t exactly give me leave,” Ashlyn admitted. “I promised to go back in a few months.”
“A few months,” Calda objected. “What exactly do you plan to do here for that long?”
“I want to help Damien get settled. With the pace at which the Tribunal works, I figured it would take several weeks.”
“The Tribunal,” Calda rubbed her forehead. “Couldn’t you take your friend before the King of Tauros instead?”
“Mother,” Ashlyn groaned, “the King doesn’t treat orphans like they’re important. He just sends them off to Nuremas to be farmers. Damien deserves better than that. So, you know, I thought the Tribunal might help him.”
“I hope they do indeed,” Calda flattened her blond eyebrows. “You cannot expect me to keep him here until they decide.”
“Oh, please, mother?” Ashlyn begged. “Please let him stay. I’ll take care of him. You won’t have to worry about giving him anything.”
“Except a place to sleep, apparently.”
“I was hoping you would say yes.”
Calda folded her arms. “You came all the way here to dump an orphan into my hands? The last time someone dumped an orphan into my hands, I nearly lost all my sanity.” She sighed.
“Mother,” Ashlyn spoke after a moment, "if you won’t let him stay, then I’ll find another place for him.”
“Oh, I was worried you would say that.” Calda bent to Ashlyn’s level. “Ashlyn, watching over a person is not easy. You have to put yourself last. Even for someone as self-sufficient as Damien, here, it’ll take a lot of focus. Frankly, you need to be focusing on your studies. I won’t let you give up your own tasks for this boy.”
“But I want him to have a home. I…can’t leave him until that happens.”
“The life of a single person is more important to you than your future?”
“Of course it is,” Ashlyn said. “Please, can he stay here just until the Tribunal decides?”
Calda sighed again. “You need to have a plan in place, Ashlyn. I won’t keep him here indefinitely.”
“That sounds fair,” Ashlyn conceded.
#When Damien had settled into his guest room for the night, he sat in bed peering out the window. Outside, he could see a tree nearly shed of its leaves. The stars and moon were hidden in the sky that night, casting a deep shade of black over the twisting branches. Damien would have liked to see the tree in full bloom, not just feathered.
A tap on his bedroom door sent him flinching. “Is it you, Ashlyn?”
“Yes, it’s me,” Ashlyn said from the other side of the door. “I just came to say goodnight.”
“Who says goodnight to each other? I thought you were in bed already.”
Then his door opened. Ashlyn looked at him with a tender gaze as she stepped in. “Are you comfortable? How are your sheets?”
Damien chuckled, his dark eyes gleaming with chagrin. “My sheets are fine. I may have been a prisoner in Eolnir, but at least I had my own bed.” He stared at her, waiting for the moment when she would leave. “And I got to sleep alone.”
Despite his hint, Ashlyn came over and sat at the edge of his bed. “Remember what my mother said about people’s minds healing over time? It’s been a few days, do you remember anything?”
“About Githal? Uh, I think it’s better that I don’t remember. Whatever brought me there, it can’t be good. Please, can I go to sleep now?”
After a moment, she looked away and said, “yes, of course. Sleep well, Damien.”
Before she shut the door, however, Damien asked, “are you happy I remembered your name?”
Ashlyn gave him a youthful smile before turning. “Good night.”