The following is an excerpt from a story that takes place in Arah, the world described in The Érenyel. Actually, it is not correct to call it an excerpt, because this, so far, is all that is written of it. It is how stories come to me; I imagine a scene, and then I imagine the tale behind it. Then the scene is written, and the rest of the tale will follow some day. It is not how one should write a novel, and it is still a rough draft that needs a lot of work. Nonetheless, here is what I have. Let me know how it strikes you.
The late afternoon sun shown down cheerfully on the grass, and a gentle breeze ruffled the leaves of the trees beside the path. I sighed and stopped my slow walk for a moment, and listened to the serenading of the songbirds above me, as I had so many times before. But this time I didn’t sing with them. Everything around me was so bright, so happy. But inside my heart felt like it had sunk into the pit of my stomach. I was certain that I would never see this place again, and I grieved. All last night my fears forbade me to sleep; in the morning I had been kept busy with preparations, but now I had time to stew in my sadness, and my fear.
“I am no warrior.”
I paused my contemplations suddenly in surprise. Had I just said that aloud?
Ah, no matter. It was true. I was no warrior. I could not do this. Even though I had to, and I would, I knew I couldn’t. “That’s it. This is the end of me. I’m going to die.”
I turned my face up to heaven.
“Why, Áronyeh? Why did you bring these evil times upon us now – and upon me? Why have you not equipped me to meet them? Do you even know what you are doing?”
I then blushed with shame. How dare I speak to my Creator in such terms? I bowed my head. “Forgive me, Áronyeh. Forgive me. But please, help me!” I wanted to weep, but no tears would come. My insides ached too much to cry; besides, it was not right for a prince of Oren to weep over his weakness. It would be unmanly.
Manly. That was it. I must be a man. I took a deep breath and calmed myself. Then I squared my shoulders and strode forward across the estate, trying not to think of tomorrow.
Ah, the estate, the home of the royal family of Jema – this place was as much a home to me as my own home in Oren if not more so – the acres of green fields, the trees that laughed in the breeze, the brook that splashed between the reeds; in the middle of the estate stood not a castle, nor a grand palace, but rather a relaxed dwelling made of white stone, like the dwelling of a wealthy but unassuming merchant. This was how the King of Jema lived – simple and well. The place felt the same as it looked. Here there were no palace intrigues, no plotting nobles, no great disunity. Here the king’s sons were more like my own brothers than even my own kin. The King and Queen were as close to me as my own father and mother. They treated me as though I was one of them. That was why I came and dwelt here so many months of the year; here I felt safe. Here I did not have to dwell every minute on the men who hated my father, on the traitors that held sway in the Senate that had tied my father’s hands. Those same traitors who my brothers were sure were in league with the threatening armies of Galtor.
I stopped my stride again as feelings of guilt and shame took me. I had no stomach for fighting.
I was a coward.
Had I not been happy when my father sent me away from Oren permanently to keep me from the clutches of his enemies? Had I not felt a spirit of freedom the many times before when I had left my own country to visit Jema?
I thought of my brothers Renold and Hendrel. My younger brothers – my father could depend on them. They were content to stay by his side, doing all in their power to help him. They were strong. I was not.
And here I was again, feeling sorry for myself. I turned my face up to heaven once more. “Help me, Áronyeh,” I whispered.
I continued walking. Ahead of me was the brook, and the little foot-bridge and the willow tree that grew by it; and the two large stones that provided natural seats. It was my favorite place at the estate. My steps had taken me here almost without thought; it was where I often came when I felt I had to be alone.
But I was not to be alone today; Rowena was seated there strumming her lute. She looked up at me and smiled. “Edlen!” she said. “What brings you this way?”
“Nothing, really,” I said, recovering from my surprise to see her there. And why shouldn’t she be? She and her brothers frequented this place as much as I. “I was just walking,” I added. “Walking, and thinking.” I said no more; I did not want to bother the King’s youngest daughter with my troubles. I knew that underneath her cheerful façade, she must have her own troubles. She knew the future of the kingdom was grim. It had to be hard for her, she was so young – but no, not so young. These past years she had grown. She was no longer a child. In fact, she was nearly a woman. Only a few short years ago, she had been the little golden-haired girl that followed us around and wanted to be a part of everything her brothers and I did.
Rowena looked somber for a moment. “You have much to think on, I know,” she said. She set her lute down and gazed at me. I then realized I had been gazing at her, and looked down.
“I don’t suppose I have much more to think on than anyone else,” I said.
“Do you not?” Rowena was still gazing at me somberly. It unnerved me.
“I don’t see how I could – we all face the same uncertainties,” I said.
“But there is more on your mind, Edlen, than the war we face. Something else is bothering you. I can see it.”
Now she was prying. I thought for a moment – only a moment – to tell her not to be a silly child, but I knew that I couldn’t speak to her like that. Even when she had been a child, I had never dismissed her as silly, not even when her brothers had. In spite of our difference in age, she was my friend.
And besides, she wasn’t being silly. She could see right through me. I sighed in surrender.
“Am I that transparent, Rowena?”
“Mmm-hmm!” she said, brightening her face in a wide smile that was somehow both genuinely kind and slightly facetious. It was something that only she could do.
I sat down on the other rock, and found that I was actually relieved that I could tell her what was in my heart. “I am afraid, Rowena. This war has come upon us, and I cannot fight it. I am a musician, not a warrior! I cannot compare to your brothers in either skill or courage in battle. I was not made for this. I hate fighting! I am afraid of it. Often I deserted my father in his battle with the Senate of Oren – I, his oldest son! And that is not even a battle of swords, but of words and palace intrigues – what did I really have to fear? I left and I came here because I could not take it. How much less will I stand tomorrow on the field of death? A sword in my clumsy hand, and men at my command when I am incompetent to command them… I am a coward!” I stopped, afraid my voice would break. I realized in a near panic that I was on the verge of weeping – this was not acceptable for a prince. I was trembling all over.
And then Rowena reached her hand over and put it on mine. I chanced a look at her face, and saw sympathy in her eyes; in fact, she had tears – in all the years I’d known her I had never seen her with tears before.
“I’m sorry, Rowena,” I said, my own tears coming now. “I’m sorry you have to see me like this.”
“Don’t be,” she said. “I’m not. This is how you have been inside for a long time, and it has distressed me to see you so. You’ve been holding these thoughts in your head and telling no one for a long time. Now they are out and you can deal with them.” She sat back. “You are no coward, Edlen. Afraid, yes; so am I. But you’re not a coward. I know you aren’t a fighter; that’s something I’ve always liked about you. You’re a peace maker. Over and over I’ve seen you stopping my brothers from fighting with each other. And you aren’t always showing off your strength or your superiority in skill…”
“That’s because I have none,” I said.
“I don’t know about that,” said Rowena. “I mean, after all, you’re stronger than me!” She laughed.
“I’m not sure how I should take that,” I said.
“I’m sorry, Edlen. That probably wasn’t funny. Of course you’re stronger than me; you’re a man and I’m a maiden.”
“It’s all right,” I said. I sighed and shook my head. “I’m sorry, Rowena, for weeping over my own troubles like this; it’s not fitting for a man. Forgive me.”
Rowena shook her head. “There’s no need,” she said. “You’re discouraged. Here, I’ll encourage you. Listen.” I looked up at her, and she continued. “When I see you, Edlen, I don’t see a failure, or a coward. I see a man who loves peace and beauty, and a man who loves truth and hates falsehood. I see a man who stands up for the innocent and the oppressed, a man who can lead other men, and a man who treats maidens with courtesy and honor. I know you aren’t a fighter by nature – but I also know you will fight if you must. I would feel safe with you anywhere – if I was attacked and you had a sword in your hand, I know you would not hesitate to protect me. I see a man who is patient and gentle – remember all the music lessons you gave me, even while I was a slow learner? – I see a man who is compassionate, who wants to help those who are hurting. This is how I see you, Edlen. And I think this is also how Áronyeh sees you. And if you were to consider how your Maker sees you, then perhaps the cloud of gloom that has rested on your heart for so long will be lifted.”
I was taken aback. Every word she said was a ray of light that penetrated the gloom. Áronyeh had heard my cries and answered them through Rowena. I had never heard her speak so eloquently, or known that her words could lift a man’s spirits as they had mine. Was this the same little girl I had known all these years?
“Thank you, Rowena,” I finally managed to say. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” she said. She stood up and picked up her lute, and spoke again, her voice quiet and somber. “Edlen, tell me, do you think you will survive this war?”
“I – I don’t know.”
“I think you will,” she said, “But in case you don’t, this may be the last time I see you. Please,” she said, handing me her lute. “Play my favorite song.”
“Which one is your favorite?” I asked, taking her lute. I already knew what it was.
“Under the Willow.”
“How fitting,” I said, and smiled in spite of myself.
“But Edlen,” said Rowena, “You must sing the second verse, and you must join me in the fourth. Like when we did it at the feast last year.”
“As you wish,” I said.
She smiled back at me and sang the first verse:
“Down under the willow that rests by the river,
A place of contented green pleasance there be;
For there in its shade, I can think of the Giver:
Áronyeh, Creator, did plant it for me.
The days of my childhood I spent ’neath its singing,
The songs of the birds and the whispering leaves;
The beauty each day that Áronyeh was bringing,
I’d breathe ’neath the willow, when e’re there I’d be.”
Rowena hummed the interlude, and harmonized her humming as I sang the second verse:
“The sunset in evening, when creatures are leaving
To sleep in their dwellings while light fades away,
Then sunrise in morning, with dewdrops rejoining:
The grace of the Giver renews for each day.
I sit ’neath the willow and gather each moment,
My Maker’s great kindness in each one I see;
And if you should seek me, then know here you’ll find me:
The brook by the willow is where I will be.”
Then we sung the third verse together, and I almost lost my voice as its words hit home to all my fears.
“When like winter’s cold that with misery approaches,
And robs the green willow of comfort and love,
Despair takes my heart, as the brook’s ice encroaches,
I stand here and look through bare branches above:
The sun bears a promise of springtime tomorrow,
And in its gold rays, Áronyeh speaks to me;
When seeking His comfort, in times of great sorrow,
The snow ’round the willow is where I will be.”
I was then content to listen as Rowena sang the last verse.
“’Twas under the willow, as I grew in knowing,
I learned from each blessing I held in my hand,
To trust in the One who guards all He is sowing,
To keep and sustain me, and help me to stand:
For as He provides for the willow that grows here,
I know that He watches and takes care of me;
That’s why when I tell you I seek Him to come near,
’Tis under the willow you know I will be.”
The song was over. I handed the lute back to Rowena. “Thank you,” she said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and I gazed at her face. What a treasure this girl was to have as a friend; over the years she had listened to me, talked with me, laughed with me, and today she had wept with me. Her words of encouragement had done me much good, even as the words of another had done much harm.
I remembered back, and thought of the girl in Oren I had loved, but who had not loved me in return. She was now my brother’s wife – Hendrel, my brave bold younger brother. He was a fighter, and I was not. That was why she chose him. I remember the time she had derided me and called me a coward behind my back. I had been called a coward many times before by others, but when she had joined their chorus, my soul was crushed and my foolish dreams were shattered.
Now I felt the wounds in my soul truly begin to heal. And as I looked in Rowena’s face and thought of her friendship, a sudden realization came to me. Before I could stop myself, I blurted it out loud.
“Rowena, I love you.”
And at once I was both glad I had said it and wishing I had not; glad because it was true, and had been true for a long time, although I had been blind to it; glad because it was so refreshing after years of loving the wrong one; glad because, who else would I marry but a dear friend? It was as though I had been asleep and had just awoken to see the light of the sun.
But what was I thinking? I was going off to war; we were hopelessly outnumbered, and I was probably going to die. To tell a girl I love her, and then go off and die… it would have been better that she not know.
My face had turned crimson as I realized the awkwardness of the situation. “I’m sorry,” I mumbled.
“Edlen,” said Rowena. “Don’t be sorry. I am very glad you said that – I might not have ever heard it otherwise. If you are to die in battle, I will be glad that before you did, you told me those words.” She paused and turned red herself. “I love you too,” she said. “And I have for a very long time.”
She had love me for a very long time? I really had been blind! I suddenly felt as light as air. But then I thought of propriety, and I was brought down to earth again. "I should have told your father first. It’s only proper,” I said. “In fact, I’ll go tell him now… oh, but now is hardly the time. We’re going to war tomorrow!”
Rowena put her hand on my arm. “For propriety’s sake, you should have told him first,” she said. “But Edlen, I surmise that you did not realize you loved me until this very hour; perhaps if you had told my father first, on the eve of battle, I would have never known. Do not be sorry. The day grows short, and on the morrow you will be gone. Come. Tell my father; tell him today. If not today, then tomorrow, but tell him before the battle. If you should both die, I think he should know this from you while he still lives.”
“Alright then,” I said, decided. “I will seek him out immediately.”
As we walked back to the dwelling, Rowena said quietly, “Edlen, I am afraid. My hope is in Áronyeh, and I know that whatever happens He will be with me; but I am still afraid. I am afraid Galtor will conquer us; I am afraid you will all die in battle. I am afraid of my family being killed, and yet I survive, hunted by our enemies and alone in the world.”
I wanted to reach for her hand, and put my arm around her to comfort her, but I restrained myself; such a thing was not proper without her father’s approval. What could I do to comfort her? After an awkward silence I finally spoke. “What can I do for you, Rowena?”
Rowena took out of her pocket the scarf that she sometimes wore on her head. “Wear this in battle for me. Fight for the freedom of Jema.” She handed me the scarf, and I took it. Then she said in almost a whisper, “To the point where you remain faithful and retain your honor and the honor of our houses, Edlen, please survive this war and come back for me.” She looked down, and tears fell from her face. “And if not, then die well. You are in Áronyeh’s hands.”