The next morning dawned frosty. Finola woke tired and stiff. She pulled on the clothes from yesterday, simply because she had nothing else to wear, and went into the hall. Oriel and Ali sat at the table, eating a hasty breakfast. The other Night Riders seemed ready to go. Finola helped herself to some food and waited. Ali and Oriel soon left the hall. Oriel made a short speech, and turned the running of the house over to his adopted son, a young elf orphan that Oriel had found, after the death of his two children. He hugged the boy farewell and went out. Tolmim lead the way. At a certain point he turned to the other Night Riders.
“Ride onto Kalmonder friends, we will join you there, for we take a different route. I pray for your good speed and health in later years. May Alator be with you always.”
“Hail Tolmim Night Rider.” They all responded, their faces sad as they saluted him. “May we meet again in the other lands.” They said, turned, took the spare horses and cantered off. Tolmim lead Oriel, Ali and Finola up into the mountains and then down into a gully where a single huge tree stood. He slipped into it through a hidden entrance and the others followed him down into the hollow tree and along the passages Cullun had taken so many years before when he raced to Kalmonder to end the Demon Wars. Ali took careful note of where they were, just in case this was useful again, and in two days of solid and quick travelling they reached Kalmonder and Tolmim let them out into the base of Cullun’s tower.
“Hail King of Airlessee. Hail Oriel the Great. Hail Lady Finola, and farewell. Alator be with you.”
“And with you friend.” Ali said. Oriel reached out and touched Tolmim’s shoulder.
“We will meet again soon. God speed to you Tolmim on your journey.” And Tolmim backed into the wall and vanished.
“Where is he going father?”
“He will go to Port Royal, meet with Cullun there for one last time, and then, if I know Tolmim, he will fly out over the forest he loves so dear and he will die.”
“Die?” Finola’s voice was weak.
“He is very old Finola, much older than he seems, he will go peacefully. Now come, let us greet your mother.” The last words were uttered though a tight jaw, and he marched away, Finola retreated to her rooms, washed and changed into her dresses before going down into the hall. Her mother was sat, stone faced on Ali’s left hand side while Oriel sat at his right. Her brother Rhodry was also there, sat next to Oriel. Finola took her seat next to her mother. No one said anything.
Cullun’s ship pulled into port early the next morning, and Cullun gave a Night Rider orders to take the new trainees into the castle and give them rooms for a night. He went inside and up to his tower. At the base, sat on a step, Tolmim sat waiting. He looked very old.
“Old friend.” Cullun greeted him, and the pair embraced.
“Young one, I must leave you now. I am very old and tired. I pray you good speed and health. And I bid you a fondest farewell.”
“And I to you, most loyal friend off all.” He gripped the old elf’s shoulder. “Shall we fly once more together?” he offered. Cullun had grown a little more, up into about 6 ft 4 now, and was now somewhere in his late fifties, even though he still looked twenty. His hair was brown and tied back, his eyes were brown and honest. At his hip the sword of the dragon lord seemed to share his sadness.
“Let us fly once more.” And then two hawks, one red, the other blue, took off through the small window. The red one flapped slowly, while the blue called out his love of life and the air. The red echoed it. The blue at last did a perfect dive to land on the top of his tower, and when he looked up, Tolmim was gone, and a single red tail feather fell close to him. He snatched it out of the air with a hand and pulled his mind away from Tolmim’s. His oldest friend of the Night Riders was dead, dead from his very old age. He took the feather down into his tower and gave a low keen. The Night Riders all around the world echoed it once more. Never more would he hear Tolmim’s lilting speech, or hear his wisdom on a difficult subject, he would never ride out in the defence of his country with Tolmim at his right hand side, they would never share a jest over ale, never again. And the Night Riders mourned with their leader, the passing of a great elf.
Far away Finola felt a sudden sadness sweep over her and she had a longing to call out. Ali turned his eyes on her and shook his head slightly, his own shoulders were bowed, and he raised his glass as if to salute someone only he could see. She understood and kept her tongue behind her teeth. They had sat silently. After the meal Ali stood and said only a handful of quiet words to his wife and then he marched away, taking Oriel and Rhodry with them. On an impulse, Finola got up and followed. She caught up with Rhodry and hugged her brother. They were the closest of the family. Rhodry was an elf to the core, yellow golden hair with bright blue eyes and a happy face. Rhodry turned and hugged her back before racing after his father, not inviting her along as she had hoped. Those two had always been close. The black mood descended on Finola, and she hated her father for it. She stormed back to her rooms and flung herself on the bed, and because she was still very tired and she ached, she fell into sleep.
Your being very childish about all this you know. The dry voice informed her while she slept. She felt drawn to it somehow. Then she saw a young man with no features sat on a stretch of grass, leaning against a single tree, holding a red feather.
"Why have you brought me here? Let me go back!"
I did not call you. You came yourself. The featureless man looked at her with colourless eyes. There was a deep sadness behind him. Now go, leave me. We will meet I am sure, and soon, now go, leave me. And he raised his hand as Finola started to protest, and pushed her back. She fell on her bed and jumped up, a startled scream on her lips. Breathing hard she got up, it was late afternoon. She combed out her hair and dressed for dinner. In the hall it was quiet once more. Her mother and father did not speak. Father kept talking quietly to Oriel, who was sat looking at his plate with a longing in his eyes. He wants to die! Finola saw suddenly. He really wants to. She pleaded a headache and went to bed early. Once there she could not sleep. She tossed and turned in her huge bed, but could not sleep. She threw back the covers late that night, when all the keep was abed and sleeping. She slipped on her slippers, took a candle and marched along the corridors. Her feet took her to the tower room where they had climbed out of the passage way that day. She had not asked any questions while they travelled long and hard under the ground, just followed, and when she tried to speak her tongue was thick in her mouth, so no words would leave her mouth. She pushed open the door to the tower and almost screamed. Her father was sat on a chair next to the painting. He turned and saw her, a short sword at his side half drawn. He grunted and pushed it back in.
“Father!” she hissed, suddenly annoyed that he should be here.
“Hush Finola, I’m trying to listen.” He muttered back, then leant back against the wall.
“What are you doing here?”
“I should be asking you the same thing, it’s my keep I can go where ever I want in it, whenever I want. And I was called here, just as you were.”
“I was not called!” Finola said, a little louder than she meant it.
“You were if you are here, now shut up!” and Ali put his head back to the wall. Finola blustered a while before sitting herself down on a step. She frowned at her father for a while, wondering why she hated him so. It was maybe half an hour or more in silence before she heard a slight sound, of rusty metal, before the painting swung forward on it’s creaking hinges. Finola gasped and moved a few more steps up. Out stepped a man. He was tall as he straightened from his cramped position behind the painting. Almost as tall as her father. He had a mass of dark hair pulled back in a tie that once might have been red, his brown eyes were empty of feeling. His face was a calm mask under the hood of his black cloak. He was wearing black half boots with a pair of black leggings and a black shirt. About his waist was a long sword with a dragon curled about the hilt, it’s red eye gleaming in the candle light. He stood up tall and embraced Ali. They did not speak at first, only a grave recognition passed between. Then Cullun broke the silence first.
“Ali, dear friend. I am glad you came to met me here.”
“You called Cullun, I could not but answer.” And they gripped each others shoulders. Then Cullun turned sharply to Finola, who jumped.
“Who is this?”
“You have been gone many years Cullun, this is my youngest daughter Finola. Finola, this is Cullun Night Rider.” The daughter of Ali dropped the Night Rider a curtsy.
“Finola? Why, she is a young lady now! How many years Ali?”
“She will be sixteen summers the next season.”
“That long? Why, I held her last in my arms as a newborn! I have been gone a long time. How fairs Kalmonder? And Port Royal, and Airlessee?”
“All well, I do have a matter to talk with you about though, it’s confused me. But a question first,” and he dropped back into ancient Elvish, a language Finola did not understand. “Why call my daughter to meet with you?”
“I did not call her.” Cullun answered in the same tongue, while Finola looked confused. “I reached only to you. Has she showed any talent yet?”
“A little, but she is an absolute monster at times Cullun, if you take her you will have your hands full.”
“But I must, and the next fall too, women I have found, are harder to break to the Night Riders than men, because there are so few female Night Riders, they seem to hold it against men for some reason. I will take her when I go to the castle in the spring.” Ali nodded, smiling, and then went back to his normal tongue.
“I am glad that is settled, come, we must see Oriel, I worry about him Cullun, he’s not getting on well.” Ali turned and marched out of the tower. Cullun shut the painting and hurried after him. Finola jumped up and went too. “He misses her. It’s a melancholy so deep it’s almost hard to pick up. He’s close to the end of his time Cullun, and we shall at last be able to lay him to rest.”
“He has been a good king Ali, he stood tall when Airlessee was about to fall. I feel as if I was there at the time, strange, for that was well before my years. I will talk alone with him a while, for there are still some things he has to do.” And he looked at Ali, a strange look, one full of sorrow. “He must do them, and soon.” Cullun marched to the rooms, knowing where they were. Outside he looked up at Ali again. “We will talk more later.” He glanced at Finola before turning away.
Oriel was awake and sat on the side of his bed, holding three green stones in his palm. Cullun shut the door and Ali turned to Finola.
“Who is he?”
“He’s Cullun. Now go to bed.” Finola went, just as Ali went to his bed chamber, but did not sleep. In the room they best left behind Cullun talked with Oriel, quickly, until the old elf agreed. Then Cullun too went to catch a few hours sleep.
The next time Finola saw him was when he marched in the hall for breakfast. He was looking stunning in blue leggings and tunic with his half boots and sword and cloak. Behind him walked Oriel, wearing deep green, his sword also at his side. Cullun sat down on a seat two to Ali’s right. On his other side was Rhodry, while the empty seat would belong to Oriel. The old king cleared his throat and the hall silenced. There were still elves in the war band who had fought with him at the War of the Races, they were veterans now, of two wars, and getting on in years. Oriel turned to his old throne, which he had remade to make it easier to use.
“Your highness King Ali La Do, my grandson. In the light of my recent tragedy, I will be taking a long road back to the other lands. But first I have one last thing to give.” He drew his great sword, with the three green stones fixed in the hilt. “This sword I give to your youngest son Rhodry. May he use it well.” Rhodry stood and took the sword, a look of wonder on his young face. Oriel smiled at him and gripped his shoulder, like a man did to another man, and Rhodry returned the gesture. “I bid you a fond farewell, to all of you, but my time has come.” And he turned to Cullun. “Release me now Cullun, I long for this life no more” Cullun nodded. Oriel turned, looked once at his grandson and great grandson and slowly walked out of the hall. He went outside, mounted a horse, rode out of Kalmonder and down towards the wood elves. In a few days the horse returned. And no more was ever heard of the Great Oriel. Ali felt another deep sadness in his heart, and knew that one day, everyone older than him would die, and this deep sadness was a grief never over. Only Cullun, who was a hundred years or so his junior, might outlive him. At this point Cullun stood up.
“Hail Rhodry, wielder of the Green Flame.” And as he said it, he felt a click in his mind, this had to happen. The hall repeated the call. Rhodry held the sword, point down in his hand, before giving it a swing. He glanced at his father.
“After breakfast son, we may go out and have a few spars with each other.” And Rhodry grinned he tucked the sword away in the scabbard Oriel had left him and hooked it onto his belt, before sitting down to wolf down the rest of his meal. He sat waiting for Ali to finish before going outside onto the court. Finola followed with her ladies in waiting. She sat on the stands around the arena to watch. She suddenly felt like she wanted to be out there, to have her father teach her sword craft. Her eyes drifted to Cullun. He was so strange, yet daunting. She wished she knew more about him. She turned to her oldest lady in waiting, a sombre elf maid who had cared for all the royal children.
“Who is this Cullun?” she asked.
“Well Lady Finola, that be Cullun Night Rider, he be king of all them folk, and he be the Lord of Port Royal as well.” The nurse told her
“A man of noble blood then?” Finola asked, her curiosity aroused.
“Oh no me lady, he be as common as old shoes, or so the folk say, but he got the gift of the gods that’s for sure, and him and your father the King my Lady, have always been close.”
“That claim does to have to Port Royal then?”
“Your father gave it to him, rumour has it on his birthday, as a gift! Imagine!”
“But he is not a man of noble blood? Or of Airlessee?”
“No my Lady, he be from Eglessanty he is.” And so Finola lost interest in him. He was a nice enough looking man, but not one of noble blood, so she could not possibly convey her attentions onto this commoner, no matter if he was a Night Rider. Ali and Rhodry started to spar in the main yard. They were both fine swordsmen, and Ali had more experience. They went slowly at first, until Ali quickened the pace. They changed steely blows for some minutes until they dropped apart panting. Cullun stepped in, and with a nod from Ali turned to face the young elf, who looked a little daunted.
“No fears lad, just try your best, that’s all anyone can ask.” And Rhodry swung at him. Cullun fought him off, the Sword of the Dragon Lord sliding over Green Flame. Rhodry dropped away, sweating hard and panting. Cullun saluted the young elf. “You are indeed promising in the sword, but don’t let it dull your wits.” Cullun told him quietly. Rhodry nodded, grinning at praise from the legend, and the whole court went back inside again. Winter was closing in. Cullun and Ali went away then into the chamber behind the throne room. Finola went back to the women’s hall to finish some sewing that she had to do, suddenly feeling that all this business with men and Night Riders and riding was all to much for her.
Ali and Cullun sat themselves down near the fire and started to talk. Cullun explained a little about what he would be doing this winter.
“It seems a powerful force is again on the move, but I’m not sure what it’s going to do, and I’d rather not have all winter to dwell on it. I’ll head out now I think, find Beth and the lore, maybe visit the trusters, and then try to track down that wolf. I’ll stop by home to tell them a few things and go straight out. I can’t afford to waste time. The Death Vision one of my crew members had was very specific, he lived just long enough to tell me about it, and the first one did not come true, and the world almost fell apart in my hands, I want the conditions in this one to be met. I am sorry I could not stay longer, but I will be back to pick up Finola in the spring, and hand out the swords.”
“Any idea why the swords have got to be in my family?” Cullun shook his head.
“What worries me is that I only know of three, and you have 4 children.”
“Well, I wish you well in your journey, and it was good to see you again. Farewell Cullun, and I shall see you in the spring.” Cullun nodded and went to one of the walls. He ran his hands over it and pushed. The wall swung in. “Your going to have to teach me all about them one day.”
“Have it from my mind.”
“You are guarding it tightly at the moment, it’s impossible to get through sometimes.”
“Sorry.” Cullun said. “You had better get the painting in the tower oiled through, it’s starting to creak.” And he vanished into the wall. Ali got up and went about his daily tasks of running a kingdom. And after all that, he had forgotten to ask about the letter from the king in Membial. He just wants to get more out of you for less, say no, keep the trade as it always was. Cullun advised him in his mind. Ali reached out too, thanking him as Cullun raced down the passages towards Port Royal. He also took a map of the passages under Kalmonder and where they went. There were a lot, and Cullun only knew were half of them went. The passages had always been part of Kalmonder, intended as bolt holes should the keep fall in the unstable land, but after the Demon Wars, when the very world had shifted and groaned under the pressure, more caves and passages had formed, and Cullun had spent several years going through them, they were a fast way to get to many of the main cities in Airlessee, and he used them to his full advantage. Ali sighed and went on his way.
Finola was bored with her sewing. She wanted to go out, and she had a whole winter of tedium to deal with now, and she was already bored, before even the first snows had started to fall. Winter passed slowly. Young men tried to court her, but she was not in the mood for breaking hearts. Her father had little time for her, and her mother was in such a foul mood it was not worth it going to talk to her. Towards the end of winter, Cullun returned.
Ali leapt to his feet and rushed to help his friend. Cullun leant heavily on his king as Ali dragged him to a table. He was exhausted. His legs shook, his whole body seemed to shake. He had not shaved all winter, and his beard was long, his was dirty and sore, with many cuts on his hands.
“Cullun, Cullun, answer me!”
“How long till the last snows go?”
“About two days.”
“Thank the gods.” And he slipped into sleep. Ali had him taken to his rooms and let someone shave him. Cullun did not look good in a beard. His friend was pitifully thin and there were deep circles under his eyes. He slept for a full fifteen hours before jerking himself awake. He was still deeply tired, but the wolf built into him said it was only a little problem. He was at his den now, and could rest up here. Cullun groaned and rolled out of his bed. A small panic ran over him. The boys! Would they have come back to Kalmonder? He flung out his mind and found them, in Kalmonder. He relaxed and rubbed his eyes. He changed slowly into his black leggings and tunic. He wrapped his bundle in an old blanket, pulled on his own sword and cloak and wondered down to the hall. It was about midday and he was very hungry. But he had something to do first. The three sons of Ali were sat in the hall, together next to the fire with their sister and father. They were all talking earnestly to each other. Cullun drifted over. Ali saw him and pulled his friend down into a chair.
“What have you been doing to yourself? You look have starved!” he said.
“That’s what happens to you when you run all around the land in winter!” Cullun muttered. He looked at each of the boys.
Rhodry, he already knew. The oldest, Earl was lightly set and looked much like the elf he was named after. The next was Tethra, a thick set elf with long horse tail hair. He was not the brightest, but his honour and loyalty were never under doubt.
“You must have something to eat.”
“Wait, I have to do this first.” Cullun turned to Earl. “You’ve grown lad. Here, it’s a bit late, but it’s yours. Cullun handed him a small pouch of 3 blue stones. “You will have to have a sword forged to fit them, or a bow carved, depending on your talents.” He turned to Tethra. “To you, second son, I give the Flaming Sword of Beth Silvertips.” And he handed it over. “And you Rhodry, third son of a third son, have the third sword. Raise the stones to the light boys.” They all stood up and marched out into the centre of the hall and held the swords and stones up. Light fell through the open window and shone on the three boys. A spirit of sort swept down, calling out in joy, she was shimmering in the light, her gown of fire flying around her. A wrench tore at Cullun’s heart. Why? Why did she always come back to him? She looked intently at each of the three young men before dropping a bow to Ali, who nodded back. Then she turned to Cullun, and said in a tongue men had long forgotten.
“We have much to do Cullun of the Night Riders, please, lay aside thy grief for me and be happy once more in the land of men and elves and dwarfs.”
“My heart cannot rejoice knowing that you are beyond my reach.” Cullun answered in the same tongue, that of the Fire Demons.
“My kind will rise again my dear lord Cullun. Your task has only just started, you have returned the stones to the line of Oriel
the Great, no you must teach the daughter of Kalmonder her place in the Night Riders. Keep her by your side, teach her, she must be ready for her Dressing in two years. Time is short. I bid thee to lay aside thy grief and step fully back into the world that holds you so dear. Truly, please my dear, for me.”
“For you.” Cullun breathed. She reached out to touch his cheek, and realising that her presence was causing Cullun a physical pain, she vanished. Cullun gave a deep shuddering breath and looked down at his hands, they looked so old before him. He calmed himself and was almost back under control when Rhodry asked the question he was dreading.
“Who was she?” his eyes were bright and eager. “She was the most beautiful…”
“She is a fire demon, and a dead one at that.” Cullun spat back at him, and Rhodry recoiled from the bitterness in his voice. “No man may have her where she rests now, she has seen to that. Keep your new weapons well my Lords, one day this summer I may call on thee and we may talk further about them.” He bowed to Ali and left.
Finola watched him go, frowning. He had puplicaly shunned her! He had come back from his travels, given gifts to each of her brothers and ignored her. It was not to be tolerated. He was of no noble blood, no family lines, yet he seemed to be on an equal footing with her father. It was not right. He had not even greeted her as her rank said he must. She turned to look at her father, how was looking at his sons as they looked at their gifts of stones. She stalked away to find out what she could of this Cullun, who had so calmly ignored the daughter of Kalmonder. The next morning Cullun entered the hall and talked quickly with Ali, who nodded. A while later, Ali called Finola to him.
“Father.” She answered him.
“It is time for you to leave Kalmonder and follow a different path. You have the gift of the Inner Self and Cullun has requested that I release you from court to carry on in these studies. You will be leaving as soon as Lord Cullun gets himself ready. I suggest you pack lightly.” Finola gasped at him.
“Father!” she shrieked at him, instantly angry that he had made choices without her. “You would hand me over to a commoner? No matter what titles he has! And to be a Night Rider! The nerve! How dare you!”
“Finola!” Ali stood up and his daughter shrank away in front of those eyes. “You will be going with Cullun. You have no choice in the matter. The Inner Self calls to you as it has called to many. You have no choice. Goodbye daughter. I wish you well in your journey.” And he dismissed her. Finola ran to her room and wept on her bed.
Your being childish again the dry voice informed her. You have to go with him
No I don’t! Finola cried out in the depths of her mind. I don’t want to so I wont!
He’s not going to hurt you, you silly goose! Get up, clean yourself up and ride away proud! Be a lady! Not some spoilt child! That got Finola’s attention. She got up, fixed her hair, packed two dresses, a posh one and an old one to take with the one she was wearing and a few personal possessions. She put them all in a sack and marched out into the hall, where Cullun was waiting, a tankard in his hand, talking with another bunch of Night Riders who had just arrived. They were all dressed in black and looking at Cullun with a deep respect in their eyes. She went over to him, chin held high. Her father looked on, a strange look in his eyes, almost like a distant pain, but with admiration that she was going. Cullun nodded to her and went outside. There were two horses waiting. A big black for Cullun and a smaller white pony for Finola, with a funny saddle. Cullun boosted her on and she sat to the side, her long legs curling round the horse. Cullun raised his hand to Ali, and he waved back, and looked once more at Finola, smiled, a proud smile, making Finola sit up straight and smile back. Her mother was looking like a thunder cloud. Cullun lead them out and down the cliffs and along the road to Port Royal.