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Crowsinger

  • 2022-01-05 16:31

Chapter 17

 

The wolf named Sunlight Sparkling in the Grass stood watching the city from a tall hill in the Plains. From here she could see little of the chaos within and without the city. It was quieter here under gray clouds far from the noise of people.

The wind blew through her fur—the only caress she had felt in a long time, with her elf so far away. He came out from time to time to run through the tall grass with her, to lie along the ground and watch the clouds move above them. Last time he visited her, she heard his voice in her head saying he was on his way. She caught and killed three small animals to give him, and he thanked her and took them back to the city.

Now she looked down and wondered how much longer it would be before the elves would leave that place. To the wolf’s eyes, it seemed there were as many people outside the city, with their dwellings splayed against the walls, as there were inside.

The light dimmed, and she look up to see another cloud covering the sun. Too much watching. She was bored.

She turned and began to run with the wind behind her. Faster she ran through the flower-haunted grass, until everything passed in a blur. She felt herself shift then, as she always did. When she was going fast enough, the feel of wind in fur would fade, and she became a thing of light and spirit, a flash amongst the grasses, a glint of blue light glimpsed but a moment by frightened things glad to see it gone.

She wondered if she would become the wind itself if she moved any faster. But she would rather remain a wolf, if only she could be by her elf’s side.

It had been too long.

 

* * * * *

 

Crowdancer stood on the roof and watched people from a dozen species pass by on the street below. From all over the Plains they had come, seeking refuge in the city of Sarnishar. But as the moons waxed and waned over and again, what had seemed a sanctuary slowly became a prison. Crops and trade were failing from east to west, and what few scraps made their way into the city—under guard by gleaming soldiers—went straight to the tower for the king and his court.

She looked toward the tower now, a spire of white stone built and abandoned long before the Sarn had claimed this land. It stood at the center of the city, surrounded by buildings of two or three stories painted in a hundred colors.

She closed her eyes and listened. At times she missed what listening had felt like in her youth. She would hear sounds of voices around her, sounds of the forest and all its life, sounds of the sky.

Listening was different now. Everything had changed one spring in Faerthale. She had tried to describe what happened to her comrades, but there was nothing in the words of elves that could encompass what she felt, what she heard, what she saw. Sound was no longer voice and clatter and thump, thunder and whisper and cry. She heard the shapes of wind soughing through the streets, around the corners of buildings, wending between the people. She need not look to see where she was going when she could hear the wind turn against a wall, see the shapes of city and crowd by how sound wove through them. She need not judge emotion from expression—something she had never been good at anyway—when she could hear the murmuring of passion and intent in the sound of a person’s voice, their shiftings and fidgetings, waves of something she could not describe washing against her like surf along a shore.

Somewhere along the way, she realized she could sculpt the sound of her voice or an instrument into waves against someone else’s shore. Sounds that moved through a city, wending between the buildings and through the rooms, were currents of a great river that split and rejoined countless times—and she could divert that stream, change its course, its mood.

Now she heard something that shocked her out of reverie: a curse in Elvish. She opened her eyes and looked around but saw no elves in the streets two stories below.

She scrambled down a stairway along the south wall of the building and tried to sift among the currents of sound until she found what she sought. Then she ran, breaking through gatherings of people who shouted after her as she passed.

In a square called Shin Umber Well, the people crowded around the well, fighting over who could be next to get water. It was always this way.

But to her right she saw an elf standing very still, his expression grim. He turned and saw her, and his expression changed.

They met near the corner of a food market that had long since run out of food—people slept there now—and spoke rapidly over one another.

When she stopped, he said, “Are there other elves here?”

“Only my companions. Come, meet them.”

She led him between rows of buildings painted in every hue from forest green to rust, until they reached the quiet room that Isonis had acquired. She led the new elf up an outside stair to the roof, where they saw Isonis and Aovyn, speaking in low tones.

They were shocked to see the newcomer.

“By the light of the Tree, hail!” said the stranger.

“We are far from the light of the Tree, my friend,” said Aovyn, “but you are a welcome sight.”

“Come downstairs,” said Isonis. “We have little to offer but dried and salted game meat.”

In their dwelling, they offered him food in the elvish way.

“What do you in Sarnishar?” asked Isonis.

“Scouting,” said Arvaillen. “Myself and two others from my iskele.”

“You swore the oaths as well?” asked Aovyn.

Arvaillen looked at them. “Yes, we have. And you?”

“We formed an iskele years ago. We follow Arebon Shalebrook, who is currently… what?” Aovyn frowned, for something had registered in Arvaillen’s face.

“Arebon Shalebrook,” he said, and he looked at them sadly. “Then you are one of the groups that Isek has lost.”

As she did whenever she remembered, Crowdancer felt a sinking feeling in her chest.

“What do you know of us?” said Isonis. “We followed Arebon into exile when we were unfairly wronged by the council, accused of something we did not do. Someone sent warriors to bring us down! Even then Arebon still spoke with Isek. Then he discovered what Isek intended for us… “

“I was there,” said Aovyn. “I saw the heart go out of him.”

“We were already apart from the elven people when we were exiled. I grew up in a splinter town wishing I could join my people. I trained hoping I could be one of the elves of Faerthale… but they had no intention of allowing us to join them.”

Arvaillen stared at him a long moment. Then he said, “I can sense your anger. You feel betrayed.”

“We do,” said Crowdancer quietly.

“But you were not betrayed. Can you not see this? You had a choice, as all of us did. You made your choice, and I will not judge you for it. But why are you still angry?”

Isonis looked as if he would say regrettable things if he opened his mouth. Aovyn sat very still with his eyes closed.

“We were given two choices,” said Crowdancer. “Neither choice was to become part of the elven people. We began outcast, outside. And then a man offered us lodgings with other outsiders not far from the City. We were allowed to see the Tree. We mingled with other elves. Can you not see that it seemed we had been given false hope?”

“I can see that,” said Arvaillen, “because I too was splinter.” He looked now at Isonis. “I too was outcast. But when the time for decision came, our leader Tarkindel went into the forest. We later found him standing waist deep in a river. He was looking up at the trees. Then hearing us approach, he turned to us and said, “I will fight for the elves, if it means my death. Any who do not wish to follow me will not lose my esteem.”

After a moment of silence, he continued, “None of us left him there. So you see, we faced the same moment. Our decision was different. But I do not begrudge you whatever you feel for the Council. You were wronged in the name of Councilor Sharowsul Iskosia, who has since repented his ways.”

“We killed warriors who attacked us,” said Isonis is a low voice. "Elves."

“I do not begrudge you survival, either. But I would say one more thing before I withdraw from this issue.”

“What is that?”

“You are elves.” Arvaillen looked at each of them in turn. “Whether you mingle with those in the City or not, you are yet elves. Whatever you do in the next few years, I hope you will remember that.”

Aovyn opened his eyes. “And we welcome those words.”

“Is Arebon Shalebrook with you?”

“He is on a quest,” said Isonis, “in search of an answer to whither next we go. We three are waiting to meet them here in Sarnishar.”

Arvaillen looked troubled. “I can tell you that this will not be a place of safety for long.”

“What have you seen?”

“Outside the city walls, the guards are turning people away. Refugee camps the size of cities are all around you, wagons circled or tents erected, and markets springing up on every side… for what little they have to sell.”

“How did you get in?”

“The same way many of the refugees have entered. Over the worst parts of the wall. The same way an army will enter this city one day.”

“How distant do you believe that day to be?”

“I have seen what food is available in the streets,” said Arvaillen, “if you would call it such. The people wait for more to arrive. It will not.”

“What?” Aovyn leaned forward. “There must be more food for this city.”

“Whence would it come? The Army of Night and Rage has taken what they want and burned the remains. They have leveled fields across the Plains, killed farmers and traveling merchants. Revenant lie in wait upon trade routes. Do you not see?”

“He is weakening Sarnishar,” said Crowdancer.

“And isolating the city as well,” said Isonis.

“This is but a taste of what will one day be done to Havensong,” said Arvaillen. “And Faerthale City. Why bring his army against the strongest opponent, when he can fight the weak and the starving?”

“When will he strike?”

“I do not know. How much longer can this city survive with such food as I am seeing in the streets? I saw people fighting children for scraps.”

“So have we.”

“Is it only Revenant that we face?” asked Aovyn. “We have heard stories…”

“Some species have joined Ossari, either by force or by desire.”

“What desire?” asked Crowdancer.

Arvaillen shook his head. “Centuries of grievances, old bitterness and hate, and here are agents of a god knocking on their doors and saying, ‘Now is your time, now you can make things right’. Not everyone who joins Ossari does so out of fear, or because they are evil to the core. Some join because they scent the justice, the world that they have sought, and believe that world is at hand.”

“And so his forces grow,” said Isonis quietly, “and people attack their neighbors, or fellow townsfolk, or a former ally…”

“And every trade network has collapsed. And people begin to starve. And then the next agent of Ossari comes to them and says, ‘We can feed you. Our armies eat well.’”

“There is an emissary of Ossari in this city,” said Aovyn.

Arvaillen’s eyes widened. “What do you know?”

“Her name is Safranin Alizar, a wizard of the humans,” said Isonis. “She invited us to dinner.”

“What did she want?”

“Our help in persuading the sarnish king to surrender to Ossari.”

Arvaillen blinked slowly. “How did you respond?”

“How does one respond to a cheerfully genocidal madwoman of unknown magical power? We said that we would consider her offer.” Isonis grunted. “He is a god of rage. Where is this rage? Shouldn’t he be attacking out of senseless rage instead of sending negotiators? Shouldn’t Revenant be climbing the walls of this city and slashing at anyone in their way?”

“The fallen god has generals and captains in his army,” said Arvaillen. “Whether they plan by his will or with his sufferance, I do not know. I believe that some of his loyal servants are free to pursue their own… dreams and cravings… in his name.”

“How long?” said Crowdancer. She cleared her throat, her voice rough. “How long before he comes for Sarnishar?”

Arvaillen said, “The city is already starving. If the emissary of the lord of rage is here, I fear it may not be long before the god himself comes.”

 

* * * * *

 

Arvaillen and his people left Sarnishar to carry news to the north. The following day, Safranin appeared at their door, unaccompanied by her guards. Crowdancer found the wizard’s blithe confidence disquieting.

“Are you ready?” she said cheerfully. “It is time to see the king. You said that you would come along.”

“Of course,” said Isonis. “Allow us a moment to ready ourselves.”

“Yes, though they will take your weapons at the door.”

“Of course.”

Soon they were walking toward the spire where dwelt the king and his court. Along the sides of buildings they passed, people slouched against the walls, some with barely enough strength to sit up straight.

“Have you eaten lately?”

“Not well,” said Aovyn.

Safranin frowned. “I should have invited you to dinner again. Alas.”

“Can I ask you something?” said Aovyn.

“Is it information you seek?” Her smile turned impish. “Ask.”

“If Ossari is a god of rage, why is his war conducted so…”

“Wisely? Judiciously?”

“Those words will do, yes.”

“You underestimate my Lord. He has advisors, tacticians, generals. We know what he wants and help him get it.” She leaned closer to the elves. “Between us, it pleases my Lord as much to destroy slowly as quickly. Perhaps even more. The desperate clinging to hope until the last possible moment.” She chuckled.

“I see.”

She looked thoughtful. “Do you know what a wickerwend is?”

“The word is unfamiliar to me,” said Isonis.

“I am not surprised an elf wouldn’t know. They seldom go near Faerthale, I would think. They tend to prey upon smaller villages and the like.”

“What are they?”

“Once, long ago, a group of necromancers tried to create a creature that would go out and gather parts for their experiments. It makes sense, does it not? They require a resource: body parts. So, in the way of necromancers, they wanted a minion to gather that resource for them.”

“Well, that is charming,” said Isonis. “Did they succeed?”

“I would say they did,” said Safranin. “The creatures began by gathering parts from the necromancers themselves—not, I believe, part of their plan—and then began to roam the world. The parts they gathered became a part of their… bodies, I suppose you would say. Hidden within a wreath of magical fog.”

“Do they live forever, then?”

“You might say they do. When a part is too decomposed to be of use, they replace it from another victim.”

“I have difficulty believing that elves know nothing of these things.”

“Perhaps your scholars do. But among villages and farms of peoples less powerful than the elves, they are legends to frighten children.” Safranin shrugged. “In any case, they also hibernate for long periods. Until Ossari woke them.”

She smiled at him. “All of them.”

“They serve in his armies?”

“Think of them as sheep dogs, only what they herd is Revenant.”

They were nearing the steps into the spire. Safranin turned and looked at them expectantly. “What choice have you made?”

Aovyn said, “Is there hope for Sarnishar?”

Something resembling a smirk flashed across her face, then was gone. “I suppose that depends on how this meeting goes, though I have my doubts.”

“And Havensong?”

She laughed. “Will be alone and hungry when my lord comes to judge them all with Thrash and Profane.”

Safranin walked ahead and greeted the guards, who seemed to know her.

“I would like to kill her,” said Crowdancer.

“Perhaps we shall,” said Isonis.

 

* * * * *

 

The floor of the royal court was brilliant mosaic with rugs in the sarnish style scattered about. Columns of silver with rust-red gems encrusted in the silver rose along the sides of the central walkway, leaving plenty of room for courtiers gathered in alcoves to whisper at the elves who walked toward the king, led by a single human.

Most of them wore the heavy jewelry in their oddly shaped ears, dragging lobes into even odder shapes.

A man hidden in shadows on the left played quavering notes by scraping a bow across three strings and fretting notes with his left hand. The instrument sat in his lap, and its neck rose above his left shoulder.

Crowdancer watched him closely, and she listened. Waves of notes joined hand in hand slithered through the cloth-wrapped bodies of courtiers, a mournful minor key with hints of playfulness. But underneath, a pulsing of some darker intent, thick and watchful, in time with the tapping of one foot. She could feel the rhythm in the muscles of her arms and legs. A phrase, testing. A chord defining the limits of the next moments.

Softly she began to sing along, first forming her voice to the melody, verse and chorus repeating. She shifted the sway and strength of it like two feet sliding over stone, a pulse of her own countering the waves and troughs of the Sarn bard’s music.

By the time the guards lowered spears before the elves, stopping them, several people had noticed that she hummed along.

She glanced at the Sarnish bard, who glowered at her.

“We recognize the Emissary of Ossari,” said a man who stood beside the king. He wore richly woven robes in many colors. He swept his gaze across the elves. “Is one of you an emissary from Faerthale?”

“We are not,” said Isonis. “We are mere scouts sent to learn the movements of the enemy and assist those who are planning a defense.”

“The enemy,” said the man. “What sort of enemy are you observing?”

“The Revenant who come to join Ossari. And the others who join him. They threaten all of—”

“The elves, certainly,” said the man. “But surely this has nothing to do with us.”

“My vizier,” said the king, smiling slightly, “is a suspicious man. Surely you understand that you newcomers to our world have brought your gods and your conflicts, and we would prefer that you not trouble those of us who belong here.”

Aovyn spoke. “But elves have been in Faerthale for over 450 years, O King. We brought no gods who started wars. We only wish to help the peace…”

“The peace,” said the vizier. He raised his arm and pointed a long finger at Aovyn. “Let me ask you this, elf. You have seen the walls around Sarnishar. The elves have the most skilled stonemasons in these lands, yet they have never offered their services to us.”

“We try to keep to ourselves unless someone negotiates for our aid. If you wanted elves to work on your city wall— “

“Keep to yourselves, you say. And yet our own scouts have seen elven troops moving near the Roan Mountains. Some escort caravans of well-concealed goods, while others just roam in groups of one or two hundred soldiers.”

What is this about? Crowdancer wondered. She glanced at Safranin and saw that the human was watching Aovyn and smiling.

Aovyn said, “You must understand, O King, that we have been away from Faerthale for years, scouting other parts of the continent. I am not privy to what the Council might be doing. We only know that war is imminent.”

“War between a human god and a human king, and perhaps the elves have involved themselves. Colonists who invaded our world, brought by an unseen hand. And yet we have here an Emissary from this enemy of which you speak. Who should we believe?”

“It is the end of an age, O King of Sarnishar.”

“The age came to an end,” responded the vizier, “when the dragons went away and you came.”

“If there are sides in a conflict,” said the king, “it is wise to hear from both.”

“Ossari wants nothing but destruction,” said Aovyn. “The Ravaging Lord wants to bring an Endless Night to this world! What is there to hear?”

“Elves know nothing but their own ways,” said the vizier. “You have no tolerance for the views of others. This Emissary,” he gestured toward Safranin with a smile, “has been both charming and accommodating.”

“She speaks not of destruction,” said the king, “but of justice. The scales of this world have never been fair.”

“Yes, we see that in the city outside this tower,” said Isonis dryly.

Safranin chuckled, and Aovyn sent Isonis a warning glance.

The vizier glared. “Naturally an elf, a peacemaker, would trespass in our court and insist we must feed all the indigent migrants in the Plains to meet with his approval.”

“You must not blame them for being elves,” said Safranin. “They believe themselves above all of this. But I tell you, when the time comes for Ossari to deal with Havensong, you need not be in his path. All you must do is swear fealty to my Lord, and—“

“Fealty!” At this, the king’s composure broke.

Safranin nodded. "Fealty. To my Lord."

“Before, you spoke of alliance, a movement of the scales toward justice. You said nothing of fealty.”

Safranin held the king’s gaze for a long moment, smiling. She was savoring this moment. “My Lord does not bestow gifts to those beneath him.”

“Beneath him,” breathed the vizier. “And tell us, Emissary, how would your lord respond if we refused to swear fealty to a foreign god?”

“My Lord’s armies,” said Safranin, “are as numerous as the grasses of the Plains. Yet he always welcomes new soldiers into his ranks.”

“We will not fight for your god!” The king was angry now. “Remove this human from my court!”

Safranin’s smile never wavered as guards approached. The elves backed away.

When the guards were nearly upon her, Safranin raised a be-ringed hand, palm down—and closed her fingers into a fist.

Some great force knocked Crowdancer off her feet and pressed her into the rugs on the floor. She looked around and saw that everyone else in the room was immobile on the floor as well.

Everyone except Safranin, who stood upright, triumphant.

“That was, of course, the answer I waited for, the refusal I longed to hear. For though I have enjoyed our game, the time for play is over. The time of my Lord is at hand.”

She looked down upon the elves on the floor. “Farewell. I give you now a gift of truth: Faerthale might very well burn before Havensong, for my Lord wants Havensong alone in this land when its time comes.”

With that, Safranin turned and left the royal court.

It was a long time before the pressure eased, and they were able to stand once more.