He waited for Vandar’s tall frame to fade into the shadows of the forest then turned and made his way towards the stone stairs. It was easy going at first, tripping down the gently sloping steps as they stole down the side of the chasm. Ferns and lichen grew from fissures in the rock, brushing against his arms as he passed and sprinkling dew on the worn surface beneath his feet.
After descending only a dozen yards he was forced to check his pace. The stairs grew steadily steeper and slick with rain which hung in the air as a fine drizzle. Clouds of silver mist materialised in the canyon, lingering above the green canopy until Eldris couldn’t see a single tree. He was caught in a place between worlds. Above was a mass of grey cloud, hard walls of granite between and a floor of white haze below.
His mind reeled under a barrage of questions. Why did she send me here? Why didn’t Rothir choose me as his regent? What makes Vandar so angry? What secret do he and Rothir share? All of these uncertainties and more, but Eldris didn’t have the answer to any of them. He kept climbing down until his legs were sore, his feet were blistered and he was swallowed by the mist.
The climb ended abruptly. One moment he was sliding down the chiselled stairway, the next he was standing on moist, dark earth and looking up at the underside of the thick white fog. Shadows held court under the trees around him, unlike any other forest he had seen. This was no hunting wood, no sacred grove. It was primal, unchanged and ageless. Vivid green ivy quivered in the still air where it wrapped the trunks of yew and pine. Coarse shrubs of silverbell and snowberry spotted the undergrowth, phantom white berries bulging on every branch.
Eldris gasped when he saw her, seeming to materialise from the gloom ahead of him, a young woman dressed in a clean tunic of pale lavender cloth. She was beautiful, tall and shapely with a welcoming smile on her lips. He took an involuntary step away from her and felt something hard at his back. Strong arms wrapped around him, another pair of hands clamping over his eyes and mouth. Coarse sackcloth scratched at his face and the world became dark. The only sensations left to him were the fear clawing at his insides and the tight pinch of rope binding his hands behind his back.