It rings of treason to speak of beauty greater than Shinvar’s. For she had no rival in my eyes.
Beauty lay in the eye of the beholder. But true beauty, when you find it, resides in the eyes of the beheld. Deeper, even. Sunlight on water may attract your admiration, but what stirs the heart is the irresistible draw of mystery beneath the lake. People – rare people – possessed an invisible radiance, perceptible to senses we don’t realise we have. Until they encounter the beauty they were meant to find.
That was why I registered the other faces and sights around me, as soon as I was freed from the blindfold, with mere glances while I sought out Shinvar right away. Above all, I had to know she was here with me.
She was there, sure enough, still on horseback.
She smiled. “You good there? You must be tired of riding in the dark,” she sympathised. “Sorry. Climb down, stretch your legs, enjoy the view. I won’t be long. I hope.”
“Long? Where are you going?”
I slid from the saddle, like a heavy dustcover falling from old furniture. Shinvar leaped down from her horse and handed the reins to one of the waiting Elves. There were more gathered here than had escorted us. One, an impossibly pretty slip of a girl with hair of mead and ginger wine, took my horse and the animals were led away.
“To address the council,” explained Shinvar. “To appeal for an audience with the Mountain Prince. To make our case and persuade him to commit his people to a war. Our war.” She offered up an unhappy grimace. Served with a roll of her eyes. “Come to think of it, I might be a while. These folks are big on ceremony and procedure.”
I nodded. She had the difficult task. I was not sure what I could contribute. Other than to wait and to accompany her back. At the head of an army, if her negotiations should prove successful. “Good luck,” I wished her.
The Elves fell in around and behind her and walked with her, away to a tree-lined staircase rising through garden terraces. Leaving me alone for now on this natural ledge, sculpted into an enormous balcony overlooking one of the most glorious views ever to grace my vision.
It stole my breath – and breathed renewed life back into my lungs. In the way some natural splendours can energise the eyes and the spirits.
Of course, this place, this oasis was not all natural. But the architecture and artifice involved in its creation had been in harmony with Nature. They had partnered and sung a duet from rock and water, from verdure and the mountain air. Bridges, terraces, buildings – all bore the contours, the fingerprints, of the elements having had some hand in their design.
From houses to palaces, all the buildings possessed the elegance and simplicity of beehives, curves sculpted from the rock. Some rose direct from the ground, colonising ledges like smooth barnacles. Others stood tall on spindle-thin stalagmites. While still others hung suspended beneath overhanging ledges, rooted to their natural ceilings by stalactites. More stalactites clustered under the linking bridges and walkways, arranged with precision like cathedral organ pipes. Several tributaries plunged and churned through the community and arbours and gardens adorned every shoulder of rock like epaulettes of green and red and gold.
I wandered up towards one of the gardens. The stairs I climbed were smoothed, sloping waves of stone. The Mountain Elves were not lovers of angles. They wanted your eyes sliding freely from one glorious sight to another.
This, I thought, was a beauty worth fighting for. Truly a world away from the grime and brick of the town that – if fortune could only favour them so far – men and women were still battling to defend. Could they have held out this long? I wondered – then doubted – then forbade myself further thought on the question. We would ride to their rescue, bringing with us an army like this same river, forged here between these tributaries, coursing down to the besieged town at the base of the mountains. If humans built their cities with a fraction of the beauty of this haven, then there could be no doubt. The Elves would lend their aid. And we did, didn’t we? I had visited some of our picturesque cities and towns. Humankind had crafted much that was worth saving.
That was a thought to stir the soul. Send it soaring, even, like an eagle out over the mountain vista before me.
My gaze travelled, I do not know how long, while I roamed. If, as was probable, I was to be blindfolded when I departed here, then I meant to drink deep of the views on offer.
The locals paid me little heed. Occasionally acknowledging me with curt bows of their heads at most. Their perfect smiles and sparkling eyes were part of the scenery. Beautiful and inspiring in their way.
But my heart leaped to another level as I turned to see Shinvar jogging up the path to meet me. I stilled the flutter and focused instead on the heart of the matter over matters of the heart.
“Do we have their answer?” I asked.
“They’re talking it over,” she said. “So now – we wait.”
We both understood the cost of that wait. We understood that cost may already have been paid in full.
The scenery went on being beautiful. But it had lost some measure of its power to inspire.
[To Be Continued…]