Naia trudged just behind Kylan, following Tavra through the Dark Woods. She internally grumbled at every twig she snapped under foot or little rock she accidentally kicked. Her steps were always heavy, but usually also soft. Still adjusting to shoes and dry ground Naia felt like a clumsy stomper, lumbering and crunching her way through the woods.
Besting Naia's strained efforts, Kylan moved nimbly albeit squirrely, head turning, ears pivoting to every little creak, growl, and chirp the forest made. Ahead, Tavra was practically soundless, gliding through the woods like a pale spectre.
Despite the first Brother rising, it remained dark under the trees, everything in Naia's vicinity veiled and obscured. With his black cloak and hair Kylan was only just visible despite being within arms reach. The Silverling was hardly more perceptible despite her brighter hair and garb.
Raising her hand to them, the princess stopped to listen and scan the area. She gestured to Naia and Kylan to stay put as she stepped aside to a clearer patch of earth and, to Naia's confusion, lay her ear against it. After half a minute Naia would have pondered if the princess had chosen a ridiculous time, place, and position for a nap had Kylan had not shown investment. Tavra raised her head, face not showing her thoughts. She nodded to them and continued their awry course.
Kylan quickened his pace a smidge to whisper to Tavra, "What were you listening for?"
Naia pricked her ears to catch the Silverling's words. "Castle guards. We're close enough to the Castle that we risk crossing their patrols." In the dark Naia could perceive Kylan give a small nod of understanding then fall back in pace alongside her.
Letting Tavra go just a little further without losing sight of her Naia asked, "Is that what the ground thing was – listening?"
Kylan gave a confirming nod. "I guess the Drenchen don't do that in Sog, with all the water and mud, huh?"
Naia puckered her face. "We have ways of feeling and hearing things underwater… but no. We don't have practice with dry ground. Do other gelfling do it?"
Contemplative uncertainty crossed Kylan's face. "I can't speak for all the clans. I don't think the Sifa would practice it since they spend their lives at sea, and I doubt the Dousan's desert is suitable for it either. I know it mostly among the Stonewood, since the forest can be obstructive and," Kylan gesticulated uneasily to the air about them, "dark. Some podlings back in Sami Thicket are impressive at it, but I've heard the Grottans were absolutely incredible. It was like a magic in their own right."
Naia mulled it over till the sound of snapping twigs whipped her into alert. She heard herself and Kylan give a cold gasp when Tavra was abruptly gone – like a shaft of moonlight blotted by a cloud. Enveloped in darkness, she felt Kylan press against her as something audibly and heavily shuffled around a small way off to her left. Something snuffled then gave a low grunt. Heavy footsteps sounded, seemingly leading away. Keeping pressed to the shaking Kylan, Naia lay one hand on her dagger's hilt and waited, uselessly peering through the dark. The woods lived to its name. Kylan gasped again and Naia nearly drew her dagger out as Tavra abruptly reappeared at their side as if she had always been there, or had stepped out of the either.
"Just a forest horner," she reported quietly, apathetic. "It must have been sleeping and we spooked it." Tavra's tone did not imply anything but Naia sensed her eyes flickering to her on the word 'we'.
Oh, and you didn't spook us? Naia grously thought. Standing close now, Tavra seemed bright and difficult to miss among all the shades of dark green and black, giving Naia another thing to puzzle over. How did she just disappear like that?
"Let's go. We're almost there," Tavra said, leading on. Keeping closely in tow, Naia and Kylan peered round uselessly, wondering what else may be lurking in the shadows. Naia redoubled her efforts to not spook anything, also watching in case the Silverling pulled another vanishing act. Not looking back at them Tavra focused on listening as she navigated them through the darkness, a couple more times stopping to listen to the ground.
"We're here," Tavra lowly announced as they came to an abrupt clearing in the trees. Stepping up alongside Kylan, Naia beheld a lake, its surface painted in purple hues of dawn. Standing in its centre, silhouetted against the pale sky and peppered with lighted windows, daunting and impressive, was the castle.
"Well," Kylan said like a lump developed in his throat, "...there it is."
It was Naia's first time beholding it with her own eyes. Maybe due to all her recent learning of the skeksis, Naia's first impression was that it had an evil look; how could any benevolent god-figure call that place home?
And now Gurjin is imprisoned there.
Not only it looked cruel, the structure appeared impossibly secure. Scanning the lake's perimeter, a distant bridge arcing over the moat was the only deliberate entrance, and every window and balcony was high above the water level.
Her ears turned back at the prospect that she was without a backup plan for gaining entrance. Her original intent was using Rian as both an entry ticket and bargain counter for Gurjin's freedom. The only upturn in her fortune since letting Rian go was she had gained a second helper in her endeavor. She side-glanced at Kylan who shared a daunted look, then over to the silent Vapran who kept her steady gaze on the dark fortress.
"How do you normally get in?" Naia asked in as even a tone she could muster, bracing herself. She half expected the Vapran to answer with a haughty or disdainful air for not having a ready plan since this was Naia's endeavor in the first place. And Naia had not yet forgotten the way the princess told her to 'go back to your swamp'.
Instead, the Silvering looked over to her with a thoughtful countenance, albeit a bit dour. "I have only ever entered through the front gates. I admit, I don't know of any alternative."
"I take it the front door isn't open to us," Naia muttered.
"Not without concocting a good story for our coming," Tavra answered coolly, returning her eyes to the castle. "But fortresses usually have a backdoor of some kind."
"I've heard songs about ways into the castle," Kylan piped up.
Of course he has, Naia wrly thought. She questioned him with a raised brow. Tavra appraised him with softly crossed arms.
After a fidget under the sudden spotlight Kylan said, "One song speaks of deep cave systems under the castle, branching far under the Dark Wood, almost like a younger sister to the Breath of Thra. From one of the access points in the forest we may find a route into the castle."
"The catacombs," Tavra mused, holding her chin. "They are a labyrinth. Without experience navigating them, it would be too easy to get lost. Plus, they have long been infested with arathim. I think we should consider it as a last resort; for getting in or out." Kylan did not exactly wear a look of dashed hopes, but it was apparent having his first suggestion shut down did not raise his spirits.
"What other castle songs?" Naia asked. As she did so she felt a nibble of guilt for maybe putting too much expectation on the song-teller.
Kylan sighed resignedly. "Well... besides one about an air shaft in a chamber leading to the fiery bowels of Thra, and a couple about entering through the front gates; elaborations on the artistic architecture, walls adorned with amazing astronomical etches, grandiose of the Lords..."
Adopting a dour look, he straightened out like a student rehearsing in class.
"Should surface of the moat, reach a flat note
And the lake die from a drouth, you would find a demon's mouth.
Then though the sewer, as hero or wrongdoer
A villain or his counterpart would reach the planet's heart
But if you dare embark on a trail through the dark
and steal though the castle's bowel, hear out this avowal
A fearsome entrance is only a pastiche to the gruesome frown of the Teeth of Skreesh."
Despite Kylan's normally kind voice, his recital poured an ominous chill down Naia's spine. Tavra tilted her head apathetically. "Translation?"
Kylan's song telling posture disappeared and his ears swerved. "Well, uh. It suggests there is an underwater entrance into the castle's basements. Not under the moat but through it."
Tavra uttered a soft huff. "Well there is no drought. That may be a fine for a Sogling, but what about you or I? How deep and far is this supposed entrance?"
"The song does not elaborate," Kylan admitted. Fidgeting, he blushed and side-glanced to Naia. "More songs say of how Drenchen can share their breath with other gelfling. Underwater, I mean." Naia felt her face buzz. Her eyes oscillated between Kylan and Tavra.
"How…?" Tavra asked with a guessing frown. Her eyes also flickered to Naia.
Redder, Kylan muttered, "Mouth to mouth."
Naia forced her face straight, crossing her arms and tilting her chin back. "If snogging you two will save my brother, then pucker up."
Frown deepening, Tavra's pale face tinged pink. Her eyes intently scanned the moat for a few seconds, then she walked off a couple paces and sat cross-legged under the trees' shade. Removing her leather helmet and laying it beside her, she drummed her fingers over her knees in contemplation. Running his palm across his face, Kylan gave Naia a shrug then followed. Naia looked over the deep dark water then joined them, forming a triangle.
Tavra asked Kylan, "How sure are we of this entrance's existence?"
Still red, Kylan answered, "We're not. We – or Naia – would have to check for it."
Tavra remained pensive. From where she sat she studied the castle's high towers gilded in the morning light and then asked Naia, "How good a flier are you?"
Naia's dark skin mitigated her blush. Trying not to sound evasive – like soft talk – she said, "Not really a flier at all. Drenchen swim. And our women can glide. If you're thinking we fly up there, you'd be by yourself." She neglected to add her wings had not yet fully developed for even gliding despite her age. Gazing up to the tall towers, she wondered with a tinge of envy if other gelfling actually flew that height.
"Before anyone asks, I'm not much of a climber," Kylan blathered out.
Naia chewed her lip. "What if you fly your way in, Kylan and I find our own way, and then we regroup within the castle?"
"I don't like the idea of us splitting up before we need to," Kylan interjected. "If we're really going to help each other out in this, we need to be doing it together." Looking at Tavra again, he asked, "Is there any authority as daughter of the All-Maudra that would grant you entrance? Claim you request an audience with the skeksis as an emissary and then steal away to the dungeons once inside?" Kylan gestured to himself and Naia. "Perhaps we could play as your royal retainers!" Naia wrinkled her nose at the last bit.
The whites of Kylan's eyes showed as he placatingly said, "OR… representatives of other clans." Kylan straightened again like he was reciting for a story, his hands gesturing. "You are reporting on Rian's evade of capture, and perhaps provide false leads to his whereabouts. Naia has come to appeal for her brother in the stead of Maudra Laesid, and I volunteered to Maudra Fara to formally beg pardon on behalf of the Stonewood clan for Rian's crime and maintain good relations with the Lords."
"But are you not Spriton?" Tavra questioned.
Kylan's small enthusiasm withered, his hands falling to his sides like wilted flowers. Addressing the piece of grass under Tavra's boot he answered, "I am half; Spriton mother, Stonewood father, though I suppose I'm more recognizable through my mother's side."
He hunched his thin shoulders as Tavra's head tilted with intrigue. "A gelfling of mixed parentage… And from rivalling clans at that. Very little of that is seen beyond the Sifa these days."
"How do you know that about the Sifa? You frequent them?" Naia asked, mostly for the sake of taking attention away from her shying friend. She was bemused when a pink tinge returned to Tavra's cheeks.
Straightening as though affronted Tavra coolly replied, "I have been to every gelfling clan, save Drenchen and Grottan." Tavra jumped the topic back. "Kylan's idea of entering through the front door with pretense of report and representation is feasible, and were we to try it before Rian's accusation it probably would have sufficed. But suspicions are high now, of everyone, and this approach risks being unable to shake off an escort to the skeksis, especially if the escort is skeksis. We'd surrender ourselves to chance and give away our presence from the beginning. We are better stealing in without trace." Crossing her arms, Tavra leaned back, pensive again.
As Kylan dipped his head Naia felt her frustration with the princess rising, even if Tavra was making sense. She ran through her own head possible ways in. Would a local – perhaps a Stonewood – know routes through the catacombs?
May the gate guards be bribed for a quiet entrance? She and Kylan had nothing of particular worth but maybe the princess carried some shiny trinket.
Could Tavra possibly fly them all into the Castle? Naia had no doubt the princess's wings could carry Kylan. Would she be too heavy for the princess? Undoubtedly she would slow Tavra's ascent and mobility, and there were countless windows for watching eyes to spot them on the way up. Unless they waited till next nightfall? That would take too long – Gurjin may not have that much time! Besides, the idea of asking for a lift was nearly insufferable.
"If it exists, I think the Teeth of Skreesh is our best hope for rescuing Gurjin." Naia and Kylan looked at Tavra in near disbelief but the princess looked serious – and rather dour again. "If Naia agrees, she will scout ahead to confirm it." She gave Naia a scrutinizing look. "Can you share your breath? Can you reliably breathe for all three of us?"
Forcing a straight face through her irritation and fluster, Naia nodded. Kylan covered his face. Between splayed fingers his quivering eyes asked 'Are we actually going to do this?'
Contemplating it, Naia bit the inside of her cheek, a little undignified to be led by the princess on Kylan's idea, but then raised to her feet and kicked off her shoes. "I'll go ahead."
Kylan started. "What? Right now?"
Naia clenched her fists and her toes curled into the dirt. "Gurjin is in trouble. I will not let him waste any longer in that pit." Throwing off her cloak, she marched off towards the moat then paused, stuck by a thought. She rotated to Tavra with a demeanor practiced with her mother in Maudra training. "Before we go any further together, I want to know one thing: why do you volunteer to help save my brother?"
Tavra, annoyingly, remained apathetic at the inquiry. "Rian has shown that the skeksis are keeping secrets from us. Ordon is right that we must rally against them, possibly in full rebellion. We need to know what other secrets and maybe weapons they have been harbouring from us."
Naia cocked her head, dreadlocks flicking. "That's it? Infiltration? Tactical knowledge for impending war?" She attempted an air of nonchalance, but felt her voice betray disappointment. "Any other reason?"
"You asked for one thing, and I gave one reason," Tavra replied. Naia huffed through her nose.
"I would also like to ask you one thing," Kylan said, a twinkle in his eye. Tavra hesitated, scrutinizing him, then slowly nodded. Kylan raised a finger. "ONE MORE reason you are helping us." His eyes flickered to Naia and both felt the edges of their lips curl.
Tavra narrowed her eyes. Letting out a deflating breath, her mein unexpectedly softened. Looking at Naia, the veil of ice behind her lavender eyes briefly melted away, though they retained a glimmer of steel. "You want to save your brother. Were either of my sisters in his place, I would do anything to save them from torment and death. Even storm the Crystal Castle."
Naia blinked at the sincerity in Tavra's eyes before they froze over, leaving an aloof Vapran again. With reconsideration, Naia nodded to the Silvering with a hint of respect, and then again more cordially to Kylan and strode down to the moat.
Within the cover of the trees, the soldier and song teller waited for Naia's return. The first Brother climbed higher, the second lighting the horizon. Tavra remained seated with her hands rested on her knees, eyes closed. She was still, but Kylan doubted she was idle. To distract himself, Kylan took out his tablet and began adding new notes and accounts on a scroll – in particular, about the dreamfast with Rian and the dream-etch they had created. He was curious about that symbol and how Tavra's sister came across it; he would have to interview either of them at some point. He froze upon becoming aware of Tavra quietly watching him.
"Are you a scholar?" She sounded neither presumptive or doubtful.
Half-looking up, Kylan gave a small shrug. "I'm just a song teller. I read whatever I come across and record any precious knowledge and memories I find." He returned to his notes, pretending to re-read them. He felt Tavra still looking at him.
"I'm sorry if questioning your heritage was insensitive of me."
Kylan halted his act. Keeping his gaze down he replied, "I'm not ashamed of who my mother and father were. It's just..."
Face straight, Tavra leaned forward, head tilted in attention. Kylan compressed his lips. "The short story is I lost them at a young age. And ever since, I lived in Sami Thicket where despite basically being native, I never quite fit in my own culture. Beyond dream-stitching, I couldn't live up to what it means to be a Spriton." The admittance made something bitter bleed his heart. He risked looking up again. Tavra looked sympathetic but fortunately not inclined to press the topic, her lavender eyes expressing enough condolences. His own eyes returned to his scroll. A little more time passed without exchange. Kylan as usual felt out of place, whereas Tavra exuded a centred aura.
"I think it's my turn to ask something," Tavra said.
"Think you just did, about my ...occupation," Kylan replied, feeling his lips curl though he also figured it was bold to risk teasing the Silverling princess again without Naia to back him up (or preferably, him backing Naia up).
Tavra's mouth remained a flat line but her lower eyelids raised in soft cheeriness. "This one would be for Naia, but you can answer for her: how did you two become friends?"
Simultaneously, warmth welled in his chest and depression holed in his gut. His head hummed, understanding the curiosity: what would anyone, let alone a strong Drenchen in line to be Maudra, see in him as a worthy companion? He looked anywhere but those steady eyes. "Well, we have not yet known each other for that long... We met when she was passing through Sami Thicket, and then shortly again when we were both heading North to the Dark Wood. Naia was looking for Rian to exchange to the skeksis for her brother. And I was…" Kylan opened and closed his mouth, his tongue woodening as he uttered the rest. "I was running away..."
Tavra listened with quiet, intense investment. "Naia stood up for me on my way out when other Spritons were teasing me." He let out a small snort. "Though it may be more accurate to say she was putting them in their place – she's an amazing bola thrower," Kylan did a mini motion of throwing an imaginary bola, complimenting it with a small hwooh! sound. The edge of Tavra's lip twitched.
"She was a bit reluctant at first to have me tag along; didn't want to have to bother protecting me from ruffnaws and fizzgigs." He imitated chomping teeth with his hands. Tava's face remained flat but Kylan could sense her imagination playing behind her eyes – probably depicting a scenario where he was cowering behind the fierce Drenchen, her dagger drawn and fending off a couple ferocious barking balls of fur and teeth. "I convinced her I would not be a hindrance, and maybe could even provide some cooking and entertainment. Got her to laugh at the song of Jarra Jen and the fizzgig king."
Tavra let out a ghost of a chuckle and Kylan's lips tugged into a smile. He felt his song telling tongue loosen as he went on. "I originally was only going to accompany her as far as Stone-in-the-Wood – try and find roots in my father's home clan, but... plans changed. In the Dark Wood, we crossed a farmer family going the other way. They warned us that they had seen Rian in the woods." Kylan considered he may be over-elaborating but Tavra's attention showed no signs of wavering. "Naturally, Naia made for the part of the woods the family depicted, and I tagged along; all the way to Naia tracking him to that podling pub."
"For what reason?" Tavra's brow softly knitted with renewed consideration. "Why accompany her on a business that would likely entail danger?"
Kylan gave a shrug, forgiving the additional question. "Perhaps I was wanting truth, or at least Rian's side of the story. I couldn't help wonder: if Rian was a mad murderer on the run, how did an unarmed family with a childling and trading goods escape him unscathed? What else about Rian could have made him such a concern for even the skeksis?" Kylan leaned on his knees, cupping his chin in his hands. "Even if Rian did turn out a villain, I had faith in Naia to handle him, but I... kind of wanted to be there for her. Just in case..."
Also," Kylan felt his spirit brighten, "Naia said that if I did not find what I was looking for in Stone-in-the-Wood... I could come back with her to Great Smerth if I wished. They don't have song tellers there apparently. I could validate the tales of the smells of Smerth!" He gave a dry chuckle and dared look at Tavra again. Features softened, she looked touched. He waited in case she had something to say: she seemed to yet simultaneously not inclined to voice her mind. Kylan pursed his lips and let out a cathartic breath. "So, you make many friends in your travels?"
It was Tavra's turn to lower her gaze, though she remained poised. "It's difficult to consort with non-Vapran's without drawing rebuke in my clan."
Kylan's lips mouthed a dejected Oh. "I suppose... being maudren then puts particular expectations on you," he said awkwardly. "And the company you keep." Closing her eyes, Tavra's smooth features tightened in soft grimace, conveying confirmation. Perhaps the Silvering would accept him and Naia as allies but nothing further. Kylan found himself sorry to have only that kind of relation. After the shared dreamfast in the tavern, he had hoped for something more; with her as well as Rian and Ordon. The way the father and son embraced awoke an unidentified longing in him.
With a daring he had not known before meeting Naia, Kylan offered, "Well, IF you ever wished... you may be able to find a friend in a particular, stubborn Drenchen and a misfit song teller. I promise I won't squeal." He was not sure she heard him, for Tavra reopened her eyes and immediately turned her head to the lake. Kylan then heard it too: sodden tromping and huffing. Naia had just returned, still dripping wet.
Wide eyed, she was on the border of mystified when she told them, "I found it… the underwater entrance. A demon's mouth."