She was falling.
Through tear-filled eyes and the numbing cloak of terror, which enveloped her whole being, she could see the castle walls streaking past her. The jet-black stone was a shadowy blur, interspersed by flashes of flickering torchlight emanating from the windows.
She flailed desperately with her hands, knowing that if she could only stretch her fingers just a little more that she could reach them. One inch, perhaps two and she could grab hold of a ledge, a balcony, a rail, something to stop her all-too-rapid descent. One inch, perhaps two and she would be saved.
She stretched and stretched but it was no use.
Cruel gravity and heartless winds conspired to pull her further and further away from salvation. She opened her mouth to scream her fear and anger but the wind snatched the sound from her lips and smothered it. Breaking the cardinal rule, she looked down. The ground rushed up to meet her gaze and her vision was filled with sharp grey rocks and the remains of torn and ravaged trees. She opened her mouth to scream again. This time she was successful.
The sound rose from the depths of her chest, hurtled with unstoppable force up through her throat and burst from between her clenched lips. Her mouth was forced wide open to accommodate all the shrieking panic that her body needed to release, and blood splattered her chin as her bone-dry lips split at the corners. The scream was long and loud, and reverberated throughout the valley below, sending up a flurry of startled night crows. It was terminated with extreme abruptness as ground and flesh met with devastating consequences.
Darkness exploded behind her eyes, followed by intermittent flashes of pure white light. There was a brief second of absolute agony and then there was only the darkness: cold, barren, lingering, darkness.
The travellers returned to Finlea after several weeks and when they arrived, the group was down to three. The witches had remained at Oulwer, taking it upon themselves to ensure that all twelve spheres of the U’Narai were returned to their rightful places. Mirialle and Feralin had ridden off together, their destination unclear even to themselves.
They had journeyed partway to Finlea with the elves before saying goodbye. Emkel had been sorry to see them go. He had only just begun to know them and had made them promise that they would not be strangers and would visit his home occasionally. The elves had waved them off until they were out of sight and then they resumed their travels, galloping towards Finlea with great eagerness.
On reaching its borders, they slowed and the horses cantered in single file across the Weeping Walkway. They sped up on approaching the Golden Mountains and thundered down the Iliarrn Pass, accompanied by the victory hails of the Rahar.
The mares burst from the shadows cast by the mountains and stormed into the honey-yellow light that shone in the valley. They reared up on their hind legs and pawed playfully at the grains of pollen swirling in the air. Their riders laughed delightedly. They too were glad to be home.
One by one, they dismounted and removed the horses’ saddles and bridles. Freed of their cumbersome weight the animals sprinted away, frolicking in the grass and neighing happily. The riders smiled at them and then turned away. They had to find King Lartow and inform him of their arrival, if the excited shouting of the Rahar had not already done so.
Walking swiftly, they made their way up to the palace and were greeted in the throne-room by Galador and Celkilor. As they were Lartow’s most trusted confidantes the three young elves were not surprised to be met by them rather than the king himself, but something in the older elves’ manner told them that something was wrong.
“Emkel.” Galador strode forward to greet him warmly. “We prayed to the gods for your safe return and happily our prayers were answered. Anya, Silrain.” He nodded in their direction. “You must be tired. We have prepared rooms and later there’ll be a victory feast in your honour.”
“Will the king be there?” asked Silrain, glancing around speculatively.
Galador shared a quick look with Celkilor. She nodded at him. “You must,” she said.
“Must what?” said Emkel. “Galador? What’s going on here?”
“The king, he…” Galador nervously rubbed his hands together.