Keelath set a hard pace, and he was happy to see that Evelos’ riding skills improved by the end of the journey, though that might have been through the exhaustion of their chargers as much as anything the boy learned. He insisted Evelos took care of the animal properly throughout, grooming it morning and night and rubbing ointment on the horse’s legs, shoulders, and back the first few days to prevent stiffness. The halter, bridle, and saddle also received daily upkeep, until Keelath could smell the boy coming a mile away from all the beeswax he had rubbed on the tooled leather. Nor did Keelath neglect the family tradition, quizzing the boy over the tenets of the Light and other knowledge pertinent to his hoped-for profession during their mealtimes and the quieter moments of their journey.
Evelos bore it all without complaint, for which Keelath was grimly pleased. The boy may not have liked it in the present, but Keelath hoped keeping him busy would teach him good habits, as well as keep him too exhausted to think hard about what awaited him in Silvermoon.
At last the gold and white spires of the elven city were visible over the treetops, almost blending in with the yellow autumn leaves of the Eversong Woods. Evelos seemed to wish his head was on a swivel, twisting this way and that in his saddle until Keelath admonished him for confusing his charger, who was trained to respond to knees and seat just as much as to its reins. Evelos grimaced at him, the break in etiquette revealing just how tumultuous his inner feelings were.
Keelath pursed his lips and directed Rosen to move up alongside his son’s horse. “Relax,” he advised. “Think of the sword exercise I taught you. It will give you something useful to concentrate on, at least.”
“I’m not that good at it,” Evelos said distractedly. “I can’t remember the fourth move—“
“You bring your sword up to the high guard position,” Keelath supplied, but he could tell Evelos wasn’t listening. He was goggling at the rows of stalls and tents now springing up along the road as they drew closer to the city. The fresh scent of produce wafted through the air, and several hawkers cried out to them to sample their wares.
“Don’t look at them,” Keelath growled. He detested salesmen. “Just look straight ahead and ride on through.”
“But that would be rude,” Evelos said.
It was too late. A woman selling copper jewelry lifted an arm in Evelos’ direction, her long sleeve trailing from her wrist like a flag. “A necklace for your beau?” she cried out.
“I-I don’t have one,” stammered Evelos.
“Oh, but what a catch you’ll make when you do find her–especially when you gift her this ring!” said the woman with a giggle. She kissed the ring and pretended to blow it toward him with a wink.
Evelos continued to stammer. Keelath leaned over in his saddle to tug the reins of Evelos’ charger sharply forward. Evelos almost lost his seat as the charger jumped into a trot. The woman burst into laughter, and Evelos’ face was as red as an apple when he turned back around.
Keelath scowled at him. “What did I tell you?”
Evelos murmured a response, but dutifully kept his head down and his mount’s nose directly behind Rosen’s rear the rest of the way through Silvermoon’s outskirts. The two horses knew each other, so neither were terribly bothered by the close quarters, which was probably a good thing, given the boy’s distraction.
“What did she mean, my beau?” Evelos asked as they left the vendor’s street and trotted along the wide bridge stretching up to the city’s front gates.
“The city folk marry much earlier than we do at home, Evelos.”
“I would have a wife by now?” Evelos shuddered, but Keelath couldn’t tell if was because of the thought or because they had just passed inside the city’s wards. The horses’ skin shivered as they passed through the magical membrane, itself like a kind of barely seen shimmer hanging in the air.
Keelath took in a breath. The wards made everyone inside the city safe from attack by the Amani trolls, but it always made him feel boxed in instead. “No, Evelos. You would be betrothed. Then on your coming of age, you would wed, and then, well…” He supposed the boy could figure the rest out. He smiled to himself as he watched the young elf’s face turn red again.
An apartment was waiting for them near the city’s magisterial district. The horses were led away by the inn’s grooms, and Keelath felt an odd itch in his palms as he watched them go. He knew the horses would be perfectly fine, but he couldn’t help thinking of his wife’s insistence to always look after her mounts herself. Evelos equally looked uneasy, so Keelath tapped him on the shoulder.
“Let’s go for a walk,” he suggested. Evelos agreed with an open-mouthed nod.
Keelath was careful to steer Evelos clear of any more vendors, but there were plenty of other sights to see. Many of the streets in the richer portion of the city were lined with fancifully sculpted topiaries. Keelath pointed out how the branches were guided by magic to naturally grow them in the strange shapes, rather than being trimmed or tied.
“Like Mother’s horses,” Evelos remarked.
Keelath nodded an affirmative and smiled, thinking of Mirium again.
“Normal horses don’t have horns like ours, do they?” Evelos asked, watching just such a horse trot past, pulling a trap with an aristocratic couple sitting inside it. The horse was lightly built, like Mirium’s stock, it’s coat a glossy copper, but it only had a white star on its forehead instead of a horn.
“Ours are normal,” said Keelath. “It is only a small difference in their breeding.
“So if you kept breeding those other horses, they would have horns too?”
“If you did it right, I suppose. You would have to ask your mother.”
The boy seemed to be calming as his natural curiosity got the better of him, and Keelath encouraged him on. Eventually they came to a plaza with an intricately tiled mosaic of the sun and several birds emblazoned across its floor. The sun was just beginning to go down, and its light reflecting off the gold inlays made the plaza seem brighter than it was.
“That’s like the crest Uncle Tyrdan wears,” said Evelos. He went to sit on the edge of the fountain in the center of the plaza. Like a foal exploring his limits, he had stopped following close to Keelath a couple hours ago, and Keelath was breathing easier for it.
“You know what the symbols stand for?” Keelath tested him.
“It’s the phoenix. Born of the sun, just like we elves are.”
“And when it dies, it rises again from the ashes to become something even greater.” Keelath sat beside Evelos, frowning at it. “Our kingdom has been at peace for years; I don’t believe any have seen this emblem riding to war since the last troll rebellion was put down, and the treaties were signed with the humans of Arathor, 50 years ago.”
“But Uncle still stays at the front.” Evelos looked up at his father. “But you left the war to have me.”
Keelath smiled. “A choice I have never once regretted.”
Evelos looked down at the firebirds. “Would you go back, if the trolls attacked again?”
“Of course. And you would be old enough to ride with me this time, you know.”
Evelos shivered. “No, no, I don’t think I’d much like a war.”
The sun had gone down past the buildings, casting the firebirds in shadow. Keelath sighed. “It is an honor to defend our people, Evelos. You would do well to remember that.”
“Is it also an honor to raise a son and have a happy family?” Evelos said it shyly Keelath almost didn’t recognize the counter..
He frowned at Evelos. “When that son grows up to follow in my footsteps, the honor is doubled.”
Evelos just looked away. Seeing the walk’s peaceful hold on him slipping, Keelath sprang back to his feet with an abrupt grunt.
“Come. The Trials are tomorrow, and you’d best be getting your rest.”
Yet Evelos didn’t move. “Father, did either you or Uncle take the Trials?”
“No. I knew my purpose already. Tyrdan took them, but they didn’t reveal anything we didn’t already know about him.”
“Did he do well?” Evelos asked.
“He had a…lively Trial. I think it only affirmed what he knew all along. He took his paladin oaths the next fall.”
Evelos was looking back down at the tiles, his expression was pensive.
“You’ll do fine,” Keelath urged.
“I’m not thinking of that,” Evelos said. “Just…if I didn’t become a paladin. If I became a magister, or a priest—“
“I’m sure your mother and I would still love you even if you became a ditch-digger,” Keelath said flatly, and was rewarded with a smile for the jest. ”It’s getting late, son.”
Evelos slipped off the lip of the fountain obediently. Keelath led the way, but still caught Evelos staring off into the distance now and then as they made their way back, curling and uncurling his fingers restively like a horse lipping the wood of its stall.
Keelath shook his head. Was it the lack of a life’s purpose bothering the boy? He wondered what that would be like but found himself struggling with the notion. Certainly the first time his father had put a sword in his hands and bid him swing it around a bit to get a feel for it, Keelath knew instantly he wanted to do it for the rest of his life. His brother had been less sure but had always been happy to glide along in Keelath’s wake as second sons were expected to do. Then there was Mirium. Though not a warrior, she had also seemed certain about her path since the day Keelath had met her. She had always loved horses and nurturing life to its fullest potential, and that’s what she had stuck to.
Was it that his blood and hers did not well mix so well after all? Keelath wondered. Like the coats of inbred chargers that began to go patchy, instead of wholly black, brown, or white? Tyrdan had always said so, but Keelath had always thought Tyrdan had been jealous of the years Keelath had spent away from the front to bring up his family.
Keelath shook his head. If the testing magistrate found anything awry in Evelos’ makeup, they would let him know during the Trials. He also supposed it was a common enough quandary for first-time fathers, not knowing what their sons would turn out to be. It was just something they would have to experience: a first for both of them.
“I am sure you will make us proud,” he told Evelos, speaking his thoughts aloud.
Evelos, for his part, didn’t say what he was thinking: he wasn’t sure his father could conceive of anything but that Evelos somehow did turn out like him. Yet Evelos sure could. They were not often talked about, the elves who slipped from honor after taking the Trials. They tended to just disappear into the woodwork, their families closing ranks around the gap and going on as if they had never even existed.
Evelos loved his family. He couldn’t bear to put them through that, or to never be able to see them again. He sped up again to walk at his father’s shoulder, earning an impatient look in the process.