Elspeth stumbled on weary legs, her toes catching a tree root. She pulled the edges of her cloak together more tightly. Her stomach growled, but there was nothing left in the small pouch she carried.
The leaves rustled overhead as the wind rocked the branches. Elspeth could see storm clouds gathering. "I have to find shelter," she whispered. "It will be dark soon. Oh, King Arnon, please help me."
After walking for several more minutes, Elspeth finally stopped to rest her aching legs. "I wonder how far Iíve walked since this morning," she thought, watching the trees warily. "Iím so tired."
As she sat, resting against a gnarled oak tree, her weary eyelids began to droop. The warm smiling face of Hannah, her fatherís housekeeper, filled her thoughts. Hannah was always ready with a hug or a kind word. She had been a mother to Elspeth for as long as she could remember. From Hannah, Elspeth had learned sewing, cooking and how to care for the small garden behind the house. Hannah had also taught her to read, especially stories from an old, tattered book about King Arnon. Although her father had many beautiful books in his study, Hannahís storybook was Elspethís favorite.
Elspeth sighed softly. Hannahís wonderful book was lost to her now, along with everything else in her fatherís house. Her mind went over the events of the past few months, tears welling up in her eyes. Everything had seemed so perfect -
For some time now, Elspethís father, a successful merchant, had been keeping company with a young man named Rolfe. He was often at their house for dinner and traveled frequently with Elspethís father on his many business trips. Although he was ten years her senior, it became clear that Rolfe enjoyed Elspethís company. He was always courteous and thoughtful, making Elspeth feel like a princess. She could see her father was considering Rolfe as a possible husband for her and she did not object when he asked her to marry him. The wedding date was set and preparations were begun. Elspeth found herself looking forward to her coming wedding.
Then, late one night, two weeks before the wedding, Hannah crept upstairs to Elspethís bedroom. "Elspeth, darling, you must wake up!"
"What is it?" she had asked.
"Dress quickly and come with me," Hannah whispered. "Do not make a sound."
Elspeth pulled on some clothes and a pair of soft leather boots. She pulled her hair into a quick braid and grabbed her cloak. Then she followed Hannah downstairs, moving quietly so as not to wake anyone else.
The two women passed through the kitchen into the garden. From there they followed a narrow path away from the house. They traveled along side streets and between houses until they reached the eastern edge of the village.
Hannah made signs to Elspeth, warning her to be silent and watchful. Then Hannah led the way through an overgrown hedge to a dilapidated cottage. The two women crept up to a window and peered inside.
The room they saw was lit by candles set in three twisted candelabras. Three men stood around a table, their faces distorted by the flickering light. The man at the head of the table wore a silver chain around his neck bearing a medallion marked by a crimson serpent Ė the symbol of Kazabís followers.
Just then, Elspethís eyes grew wide. She put her hand to her mouth to stifle a gasp. The man at the leaderís right was Rolfe!
Stunned and shaking, Elspeth allowed Hannah to lead her home. Her mind whirled in confusion. Rolfe Ė one of Kazabís secret followers? Even though Kazab had been banished by King Arnon, there were still those who followed his evil ways in secret.
When they were safely back in Elspethís room, she clung to Hannah, weeping. "What can I do?" she cried. "I can never marry Rolfe now!"
Hannah held her close. "King Arnon gives wisdom to those who ask," she whispered. "He will show you what to do."
Silently, the two women called to the One who could hear their hearts. As she listened with her spirit, Elspeth knew what she had to do. Giving Hannah a final embrace, she crawled into bed and snuggled beneath the covers.
The following morning, Elspeth nervously approached her father as he sat at the breakfast table. "Father," she began, "I learned something terrible last night, about Rolfe."
"What?" her father asked, looking up from his plate.
"He is a follower of Kazab," Elspeth said quietly. "I saw him at one of their meetings."
"Sorcery Ė what nonsense," her father snorted. "A head for business Ė thatís what really matters." He studied his daughter intently. "I may not approve of young Rolfeís hobbies, but he is a promising businessman. Iím sure heíll make a fine husband."
"But, Father," Elspeth protested, trying to keep her voice calm, "if he is studying sorcery, he is breaking King Arnonís commands. I cannot marry a man who does not serve King Arnon faithfully."
"King Arnon is isolated in his palace. He has lost touch with the real world," her father said. "Here in Lynden we live by a different set of rules. We arenít slaves to outdated ways of thinking. We have learned to be open-minded, even with the practices of those who think differently that we do. As long as Rolfe doesnít neglect his business affairs because of his late night sorcery sessions, Iím happy." He smiled at Elspeth. "Donít be so hard on the boy. Learn to be more accepting."
"I cannot marry a man who is training to be a wizard," Elspeth stated firmly.
Her father fixed his eyes on his daughterís face. "You will marry Rolfe and thatís final. Everything has been arranged." Without another word, her father left the room. The conversation was clearly over.
The two weeks leading up to the wedding were tense. Elspeth spent most of her time in her room, under her fatherís watchful eye. He made sure she was not left alone, for he suspected she might run away if given the chance. Hannah carried food upstairs when Elspeth refused to some down to the table. "Hold tight to what you know is right and true," she said, placing her tattered book in Elspethís hands. "King Arnon will show you what to do."
As the wedding drew nearer, Elspethís father and her betrothed tried numerous arguments to change her mind. "Sorcery isnít really evil," Rolfe explained, raising his voice just enough so Elspeth could hear him through her closed bedroom door. "Iím just learning to use the powers that are within me. I would never use them to do bad things."
"King Arnon says all sorcery is evil because it draws its power from a source other than him," Elspeth insisted. "The man I marry must follow King Arnonís commands."
"If you would just read this book," Rolfe said, sliding it under the door. "It explains that wizards are simply using the gifts they have been given to do great things. Read this and youíll see that what Iím doing is truly in line with King Arnonís laws." But Elspeth took the book and promptly dropped it in the fireplace.
At last, the morning of the wedding arrived. Elspeth was awakened at dawn by Hannah. "Your father is very angry," Hannah whispered. "You must make a very difficult decision."
Elspeth nodded. "I know what to do." She handed the storybook to Hannah. "Thank you," she whispered. After a tearful embrace, Elspeth dressed in her warmest clothes, pulling on her boots. Then she walked downstairs, her head held high.
Her father stood in the living room. A beautiful gown, purchased months before, hung over a chair. Elspethís eyes filled with tears as she looked at the dress she would never wear. Hanging over another chair was Elspethís travel cloak. "Make your choice," her father said sternly. "Obey me, as King Arnon commands, and marry Rolfe or leave my house forever."
Elspeth took a deep breath. "You ask me to marry a sorcerer. I cannot do that."
"Then leave, at once, and never return!" Elspethís father grabbed the cloak and threw it at her. Then he stormed out of the room.
Trembling, Elspeth pulled the cloak over her shoulders. Hannah crept into the room. "Take this," she said, pressing a small pouch of food into Elspethís hands. "Iíd like to give you more, but your father would notice and be angry with me."
Elspeth hugged Hannah fiercely. "Will I ever see you again?"
"I hope so, someday," Hannah answered. "But now, you must hurry. Rolfe is on his way to make you his bride by force. You must go now."
"Should I take Lady?" Elspeth asked, referring to her horse.
"Your father has forbidden it. You may only take what you are wearing."
Elspeth nodded, embraced Hannah a final time and hurried out of the house. She headed east, not really caring where she went. As she traveled, her ears were open for sound of pursuit. Rolfe might still want her as his bride. If he found her, he would find a way to force her to marry him.
"King Arnon, please help me," she whispered as she left the town of Lynden and began traveling through the forest of Anashim.
A flash of lightning nearby and a crack of thunder brought Elspeth back to the present. She felt a few raindrops on her face as the winds began to toss the branches above her wildly. Pulling the hood over her head, Elspeth continued her way through the trees, desperately looking for shelter.
Phillip rode wearily through the trees, his eyes on the approaching storm. His horse nickered nervously as the wind picked up. "Easy boy," Phillip said, patting his companionís neck. "Weíll find a place to stop soon. There must be a village nearby where we can find lodging for the night."
Phillip shifted slightly in the saddle. He had been traveling throughout Kyr for the past three days. His quest was both simple and seemingly impossible Ė find a young woman to be his wife.
"We want you to marry someone who loves King Arnon and follows his ways," his father had said.
"But time is running out," his mother added. "By the laws of Devon, you must marry before your 21st birthday. Otherwise, your uncle Gaston will take over the estate."
Phillip knew that his uncle was a cruel and selfish man. If he inherited the estate, all those serving under him would suffer. "Then I must find someone to marry by the end of this month."
"We could have a fest and invite all the young women from Devon," his mother suggested.
"We could send out invitations to Weld and Callisto as well," his father added. "Surely you could find someone to be your wife from among all those young ladies."
Phillip nodded. "Plan the fest," he said. "But, until then, I would like to travel through Kyr. Perhaps King Arnon will lead me to someone in my travels."
"A good idea," his father said. "We will ask King Arnon to find a very special woman for you."
"Where do you think Iíll find a bride?" Phillip asked his horse as they moved through the trees. Just then, the horse shook its head, dancing sideways. "Easy," Phillip said, pulling gently on the reins. "What is it?"
A ball of light the size of Phillipís fist floated between the trees on the path before him. "What is that?" he asked quietly. His horse stamped uncertainly.
The ball of light drew nearer. Now Phillip could see a furry creature with antennae and brightly colored wings. "An Ursa fairy," Phillip said in wonder.
"That is correct!" came a tiny voice. "I am Mykal. King Arnon has asked me to lead you to our valley so you will be sheltered from the storm."
Phillip smiled. "I have heard many stories of the valley where the Ursa fairies live. Lead the way, my friend. I will follow." He chirruped to his horse who stamped once and then followed their glowing guide.
Elspeth kept her head down, watching the path for tree roots that seemed to grab at her feet. The wind was blowing harder now, sometimes ripping her hood off her head. Nervously, she scanned the dark sky as another lightning bolt tore through the clouds.
"In Hannahís book, it tells stories of people who follow King Arnonís commands, even when it is hard," she said to herself. "In those stories, King Arnon always takes care of those who obey him." She looked at the storm around her. "Where are you, King Arnon? Have you forgotten me?"
Just then, a strange ball of light caught her eyes. "Whoís there?" she called, watching the light come closer.
"Greetings!" came a small voice. A winged creature flew into view. Light seemed to come for its furry body and wings. "I am an Ursa fairy. My name is Jessie. King Arnon has asked me to lead you to our valley. You can stay there until the storm is over."
Elspeth smiled at the Ursa fairyís words. "Thank you, King Arnon," she whispered. "You didnít forget me after all." Then, pulling her cloak tighter against the wind as she followed Jessie as raindrops began to fall.
At first, the clouds released only a sprinkle of droplets. But then the wind picked up speed, bringing with it walls of water. Poor Jessie could no longer fly because of the wind and driving rain. Elspeth tucked the bedraggled Ursa fairy into her cloak. Jessie clung to Elspethís neck, calling out directions.
They had just reached a steep, rocky slope covered with intertwined vines when Elspeth heard the sound of hooves along the path. At first she stiffened, ready to run. Had Rolfe found her? Then a flash of lightning lit up the forest and she could see the approaching horse. It was not one she had ever seen before.
A second flash of lightning caused the rider to look up. He lifted a soggy hand. "Greetings," he called. "I am Phillip of Devon. Would you like a ride?" He smiled warmly.
Elspeth returned his smile. "Yes, that would be nice. Iím heading to the Ursa fairyís valley."
Phillip laughed. "So am I." He helped her up onto the horse in front of him. Then he spoke into his pocket. "Where do we go now?" he asked Mykal.
"Behind the vines is a tunnel," Mykal answered. "Follow it and youíll find our valley."
Phillip urged his horse forward, reaching out toward the vines. As his hand touched them, they moved aside, revealing a dark tunnel. Mykal and Jessie flew into the tunnel, lighting the way. The horseís hooves echoed on the rocky floor.
Moments later, the travelers heard the roar of a great waterfall. They stepped out from behind it into the valley where the Ursa fairies lived. A golden tent had been set up on the grass. And, standing by the open tent flap, was a man wearing a cloak and a shining crown.
"Phillip of Devon, Elspeth of Lynden, welcome!" King Arnon called, lifting his voice to be heard over the wind.
Phillip dismounted and then helped Elspeth from the saddle. He shyly took her hand as they walked forward to meet the King. Phillipís horse whinnied merrily as if greeting an old friend.
"Come in and find shelter from the storm," King Arnon said, lifting the front tent flap. The travelers followed him inside and then stopped in amazement.
"How can this be?" Elspeth asked in wonder.
From the outside, the tent had appeared quite roomy and comfortable. But, now that they were inside, it seemed much larger. Instead of canvas flaps dividing the tent into rooms, there were walls like those in a house or palace. There was a living room, a kitchen, a study with a writing table and numerous books and a hallway leading to several bedrooms. There was even a stable for Phillipís horse. A hot supper sat on the kitchen table for both human and Ursa fairy guests.
"I will take care of your horse," King Arnon said, taking the reins. "There are dry clothes for you both in the bedrooms. Change and then join me for supper."
Elspeth and Phillip moved toward the bedrooms. They were astonished to find a gold plaque on each door with their name clearly written. Wordlessly they each opened the door to their bedroom and stepped inside.
Elspethís room was warm and cozy, lit by a crackling fire. Candles burned cheerily on top of a dressing table. A beautiful dress lay waiting, draped over the dressing table chair. She took off her wet cloak, hanging it on a nearby rack. Then she shyly touched the dress, running her fingers over the smooth fabric.
"This is a dress for a princess," she murmured.
Deep within her heart, a warm voice whispered, "Those who follow my commands are my sons and daughters." Smiling at this thought, Elspeth slipped out of her travel clothes and into the beautiful gown. She brushed her hair, rebraided it and clipped it back with the jeweled barrette she found on the dressing table. As she dressed, she felt as if her heart was being embraced by loving arms. With a smile in the mirror, she opened the door and stepped into the hallway.
Phillip and King Arnon were waiting at the table when she entered the kitchen. King Arnon greeted her with a hug and seated her beside Phillip. The three gave thanks and the meal began.
"Elspeth," King Arnon said as they passed the food around, "what is the greatest desire of your heart?"
Elspeth sat quietly, thinking over all that had happened in the past few weeks. A month earlier, her answer to the question would have been simple Ė to marry Rolfe. She had imagined herself living in Lynden, near her father and Hannah, living a contented life raising a family while her husband managed his business concerns.
But all that had changed when she learned Rolfe was a secret follower of Kazab. Her dreams were suddenly shattered. She sat at the table, blinking back tears as she thought of her fatherís angry face. "My heartís desire," she answered slowly, "is to follow your commands."
"Wherever they may lead you?" King Arnon asked quietly.
"And you, Phillip? What is your heartís desire?"
Phillip looked at the King and then at Elspeth who was looking down at her plate. "I seek a bride who follows your ways and will help me manage the family estate according to your commands."
King Arnon smiled. "You have both answered well," he said, then stopped. Elspeth was staring at the table, tears in her eyes. "Speak your thoughts, my child," King Arnon said.
Elspeth swallowed her tears and looked at the King. "My father told me that I had to obey him and marry Rolfe. He said that if I didnít obey him, I wasnít obeying your commands."
"Your father is right that children should obey their parents," King Arnon said. "But, your father was asking you to marry a man who is in training to become a wizard. Sorcery is clearly against my laws. Therefore, you had to make a choice between obeying your father or me. You made the right choice, my child." He smiled warmly and Elspeth felt peace dry her tears.
"And now," the King continued, "I will explain why I brought the two of you here. Phillip, you and your parents asked for my guidance in your search for a bride. Will you marry the woman I have chosen for you? Will you trust me in this?"
Phillip looked at King Arnonís eyes and saw the love and wisdom there. He nodded slowly. "I will marry whoever you choose as my bride."
"She is here before you," the King said, nodding toward Elspeth. "I give you to each other, to help each other in living my commands."
Elspeth looked up, wonderingly. Phillip left his chair to kneel beside her. Taking her hand, he asked, "Elspeth of Lynden, will you marry me?í
"Yes," she replied, blinking back tears of wonder and joy.
"Then let the feast be prepared!" King Arnon called to the listening Ursa fairies. "The wedding will take place tomorrow at sunrise."
"But what of my father and Rolfe?" Elspeth asked uncertainly.
"I am still working," King Arnon answered. "Hannah serves me in your fatherís house. I can accomplish much in his life through her loving example. Leave them all in my hands."
Early the next morning, Elspeth and Phillip were married by King Arnonís command. The Ursa fairies prepared a great feast for the couple. Stories were told, songs sung and great joy filled the valley as two lives were blended into one.
And so, the Ursa fairies learned that following King Arnonís commands can be difficult and even costly. Yet, those who obey, seeking to serve King Arnon no matter what, will find the desires of their heart.