The Elementi Series (Book One)

Chapter Two

By: Katie Runyon

For a minute Ryker just stood in the doorway. The bright sunlight glinted at his back. His eyes needed time to adjust to the drastic change in lighting. At least that is what he told himself.

Able to finally see in the dark, musty room, Ryker stepped inside. To fight off the deep shadows, he lit a few candles placed around the room. It had been too long since he had last visited his parents. As he stood before them, he wiped his hands on his pants and cleared his throat.

"I know I said I wouldn't be gone long, but things took an unexpected turn," he told them. Silence was their reply. "I've missed you guys."

Ryker knelt down and placed a hand on either sarcophagus. Their peaceful, stone faces stared up at the ceiling of their tomb. Light from the candles flickered across the stone surfaces.

"I met someone today," he informed them. "Saved her from some men Edan sent after her. I don't know why yet, but don't worry, she'll be safe here." Ryker smiled. "I remember how you always wished you could save the world—even if it was one person at a time. I'm doing my best to keep your dream alive."

Ryker stood and placed a bouquet of his mother's favorite flowers atop her stone hands. "The garden looks beautiful, mom." He cleared his throat again. "I can't stay long. I have to get ready for dinner. I think I'll show Kari your favorite spot tonight. I think she'd like it."

Ryker worked his way around the room, blowing out the candles as he went. When he arrived at the doorway, he turned around. "I love you guys. I promise not to be gone for so long next time." After one last look into the darkness, he stepped out into the sunlight and let its rays dry away the tears threatening to spill down his cheeks.

What am I doing here? Kari thought as she studied her reflection in the mirror. The blue dress she wore swirled around her feet as her body twisted and turned. She had never worn anything like it in her entire life. How does one go from living a simple, secluded life in the woods to having dinner with the royal family? The answer in her case did little to settle her nerves. No matter how nice the castle seemed Kari had to remind herself she was not in a fairytale. The fact remained that her life was in danger. Someone wanted her dead. But why?

And her father—his life was in danger as well. Kari hoped to any god that would listen that he would not come home early, or even on time. He would be safer that way. If anything happened to her father, she would never forgive herself.

An eerie quiet echoed through the room. In the castle she felt so alone. Thought she often liked it that way, Kari usually had Sylvain to keep her company. But he would not answer her calls, and she began to worry for him as well.

A light knock on the door caused her to jump. Kari gasped and her hand flew to her chest. "Come in," she called after taking a few seconds to calm herself.

Ryker stepped into the room. She could see him studying her from the doorway. "You look beautiful," he said as his eyes met hers in the mirror. "It's a good thing you're close in size to Tiana." He closed the door and moved to stand behind her. "Nervous?"

"Very," she answered, looking at his reflection. The feel of him standing so close set Kari's heart aflutter.

"Don't worry, they don't bite. They're just like you and me." Smiling, he strode out onto the balcony.

Kari watched in the mirror as he stood with his hands clasped behind his back. "But they're your family. I don't know them. This is all new to me," she said with a frown as she turned away from the mirror to look at him. She was starting to regret accepting his invitation to dinner. The fear of someone lurking in the shadows was preferable to the possibility of insulting a member of the royal family. But Kari just could not find it in her to refuse his request.

Ryker unclasped his hands and closed the distance between them in a few short seconds."My aunt may look like an Ogre, but she's really not all that threatening once she puts on a bit of rouge." He put his hands on her shoulders and smiled. Kari could not help but smile back. Pulling away, he nodded towards the door. "We should head down, wouldn't want to be late."

They walked the halls in silence. Kari's throat felt drier than a desert. In an attempt to calm her nerves, Kari thought of what Sylvain might say if he saw her now. But even that did not help as it usually did.

When they arrived at the dining room, two servants pulled open the large double doors. Inside a long cherry wood table sat in the center of the room. Gold leafing decorated the table top in a simple flowing pattern of lines and shapes. Even in there, a grand chandelier hung above the table, causing the silverware to shimmer.

Kari sucked in a deep breath, hoping to ease the butterflies in her stomach. Then Ryker led her around the room, introducing themselves to the newest group of dignitaries to venture to Sumara.

Looking up, her sight took in a pair of gray eyes, warmed by an easy smile.

"Cousin, it's great to see you again," said the prince. He greeted Ryker with an embrace. "So this is the girl that's caused whispers throughout the castle." He smiled over at Kari as their eyes met. She froze, a bit terrified being under the gaze of a prince.

"Damon, this is Kari Elade. Kari, this is my cousin Damon Ethyron." He motioned to each one in turn.

"The pleasure's all mine." With grace befitting a prince, Damon took Kari's hand and kissed her knuckles. His eyes peered up at her through tuffs of long blonde hair.

Kari could feel her cheeks redden as he stared at her. Dizziness threatened to overwhelm her. Just then, another person entered the room—the princess.

"Ryker!" Gleefully, Tiana threw her arms around him and her long blonde hair almost smacked him in the face. "It's so good to see you. It's been too long." Then the princess turned toward her and smiled. "And you must be Kari."

She curtsied, not knowing what was proper. "Yes, my lady."

"That's not necessary. And, as my cousin failed to mention, I am Tiana." The princess looked at her with bright blue eyes. "My, that dress looks better on you than it did on me."

Then, all at once, everyone turned around just as the king and queen entered, arm in arm. Like their children they both had blonde hair and wore some of the finest clothing Kari had ever seen. Red velvet and gold cord were not things Kari saw everyday in the Ashford Forest.

Damon and Tiana strode over to their parents greeting them with a kiss. A moment later, Ryker took Kari's hand and guided her over to meet them. Her knees grew week as they approached. Somehow, she managed to stay on her feet as Ryker greeted them, gently hugging the queen and clasping forearms with the king.

Ryker gave her a reassuring smile, and then guided her forward. "This is Kari Elade."

The queen's blue eyes smiled, even if her lips did not. "Hello, Kari. You are welcome here as long as you like. It is not often Ryker brings someone back with him."

Kari curtsied. "Thank you—Your Majesty." She felt very self conscious and wanted nothing more than to get through dinner without making a fool of herself.

"My wife is right, you are welcome here as long as you like. I have a feeling we will get along quite well. Who knows, maybe you'll be calling me Uncle Owen before long." The king gave a jolly laugh.

"Your Majesty?" Kari stammered.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to make you feel awkward by my jest. I guess sometimes my jokes are a bit unusual. 'Sire' will do just fine." He motioned towards the table. "Well, let's all sit down and begin dinner. I'm starving." His mouth opened into a big smile and his grey eyes glimmered like a child's.

Served on white plates with gold leafing, the food was grand and plentiful. Though anytime meat was served, Kari politely declined. Being able to communicate with creatures big and small made her feel ill at ease when she thought of eating the poor things. Then the questions started.

"Where are you from, dear?" a woman near the other end of the table asked her.

The answer was easy, still Kari stumbled underneath the powerful woman's gaze.

"Just west of here," Ryker answered, saving her just in time. Before they could hound her with any other questions, he continued, "She had the misfortune of twisting her ankle in the woods. Luckily I was taking the same shortcut and, being the gentleman my aunt raised me to be, I could not have just left her there."

There were a few smiles and mummers of agreement. All hope of a piece of juicy gossip gone, they changed the subject.

Kari turned to Ryker and mouthed the words "thank you". He smiled and bowed his head before returning his attention to the conversation.

Before long, laughter filled the room as they men shared stories and the women gossiped. Kari's nerves settled and she actually began to enjoy herself. Then, it was time for the royal family to retire. With dinner over, one by one, the others left the room. Soon, Kari and Ryker were alone.

"Come on, I want to show you something." Ryker took her hand and guided her through the castle.

After a few turns, he led her outside to a private garden. The sky twinkled as the stars began to appear in the dark sky. The moon, high and full, gave them just enough light to see by. The flowers had closed up for the night, but still gave off a sweet fragrance. Its beauty was staggering. Kari could not imagine how incredible it would be in the daytime, when all the flowers were open to the sun.

Ryker led her over to a bench and they sat. Kari could feel the warmth of his body as a mere inch separated them.

Kari turned to look at his face, a silhouette in the darkness. "It's beautiful."

"My mother used to love coming here when I was a little boy. She would sit here for hours just basking in the beauty."

She could hear a tinge of hurt in his voice and ached to comfort him. "Use to? Why doesn't she anymore?" She regretted the words as soon as they came out, but knew that it was too late to take back.

For a moment, Ryker remained silent. Then, after a deep breath, he spoke in little more than a hoarse whisper. "When I was twelve, my father fell ill. No one could identify what was making him so sick. No one could heal him. So my mother tended to him like any loving wife would. But she didn't want to risk me falling ill, so she sent me to stay here with my uncle. Then, my mother became sick. A week later, they were both dead. So, my aunt and uncle raised me, and this castle became my home."

"I'm so sorry." She put her hand over her mouth, ashamed of the terrible memories she had caused to surface. "I should have never asked. It was so stupid of me."

"Actually, I'm a little surprised at how easily it all came pouring out. I haven't talked about it in a long time." He turned his head and looked into her eyes. "If you want to make it up to me, you can always tell me something about yourself."

Even though he shared his pain with her, Kari knew she was not ready to tell that story to anyone. "There isn't much to tell." She avoided his gaze, trying to shy away from the subject. But he insisted. Kari shrugged. "Well…I've lived in the Ashford Forest all my life. With my father trading all over Maharan, I was often left on my own. Sylvain's my only real friend."

A noise echoed through the still night air. Seeing something move out of the corner of her eye, Kari jumped to her feet.

"It's only me, Kari," Sylvain said. He was perched on a tree not far away.

She let out her breath, not realizing she had been holding it in. "You scared me half to death, Sylvain. Where have you been? I was beginning to worry."

"I've been searching for food. I get hungry too you know."

"What is he saying?" Ryker asked. Even if she could understand him, Kari knew Sylvain's words were only squawks to him.

She gave Sylvain a sideways glance. "He said he was out gathering food."

"Has the warning to your father left yet?" Sylvain went on, ignoring her irritation as always.

Kari looked over at Ryker. "He asked if the note I wrote earlier for my father has left yet."

"Yes, it has," Ryker answered looking back and forth between Kari and Sylvain, as if he was not sure who to speak to. "Right after you finished I sent three men with it to make sure your father is okay when he arrives home."

Kari sighed with relief and relayed the answer to Sylvain. As usual, his reply was not pleasant.

"Only three?" Sylvain scoffed. "Guess you aren't important enough to warrant more."

"Sylvain!" Kari scolded.

Ryker looked at her, his brow raised, but she was not about to pass on his remark.

"Thank you. That's very generous of you," Kari said instead. "I'm really worried about him."

"Don't worry. He'll be safe with my uncle's men looking after him." After a minute of silence, Ryker changed the subject. "So I understand that you met Medwin earlier? He knows a great deal about magic. It might be a good idea to go see him sometime."

"Perhaps," she told him, not wanting to show her hesitation. While the man seemed nice enough, the strange sensation Kari felt as he healed her warned her to be cautious.

Kari didn't know how comfortable she was with this wizard. He may have healed her, but she did not know what to make of the strange feeling she sensed when around him.

Ryker looked up at the sky. "Well, it's getting late. And I'm sure you'd like to get some sleep after everything that's happened."

"Yes. It has been quite a day," Kari said, thought she was not sure she wanted it to end just yet. Still, she turned to look at her best friend. "Good night, Sylvain."

"'Night. I'll be just a call away if you need me." Spreading his wings, he fluttered away into the darkness.

Ryker escorted her back inside and walked Kari back to her room. They paused just outside her door.

Kari looked down at her hands, unsure of what to say. She could feel Ryker's eyes watching her. Finally, she looked up. "Do you think Edan's men will be able to find me here?"

Ryker came closer and put his hand beneath her chin before she could lower her eyes again. "You're safe here. I won't let them hurt you."

Kari nodded. "Goodnight, Ryker. And thank you for everything."

"Goodnight, Kari. I'll see you tomorrow," he said, but Ryker did not leave. Even as Kari closed the door behind her, he stood just on the other side, as if frozen in place.

With her back against the door, Kari listened. After a few shallow breathes, she heard his footsteps disappear down the hallway. It took her a few minutes before she could finally move away from the door. Feeling the full effects of her flight through the woods, Kari undressed and slipped into bed.

As she lay there, trying to fall asleep, she could not stop thinking about Ryker. His assuring voice. His warm smile. The way he handled her as if she was something precious. He stirred feelings inside her that she had never felt before. The very thought of him made her beam. His touch caused her skin to prickle with heat. But Kari knew she was just being silly. There was no way they could ever be together. He was the King's nephew, and she was just some peasant girl. It was nice to dream, but that's all it could ever be.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you would like to read the rest of the story, please check out my site: KatieRunyon .webs .com. Sorry for any inconvenience. Thanks for reading.