There are moments when we remain trapped between what we were and what we must become. A crucible in time offers us choices: Who are we, and who could we be? Is our past a strength or a hindrance?
Some live frozen within these moments until all choice is gone.
It is this way with individuals—and it is also this way with whole peoples, with civilizations and cultures.
In such a crucible did the elven people find ourselves in the years leading up to what we now call the Deicide War. It is ever the day and night of our history that safe haven is disturbed by reckless evil, until we flee and find a new safe haven, and the cycle repeats. Ash and light and ash… and ember.
— from the journal of Kaolyen Greyborne, Faerthale, 486 I.H.
* * * * *
Slumber awoke and opened his eyes. Dried grasses waved amber stalks between him and the sky. Clouds moved swiftly from the west, driving across the waking blue. For a moment he remembered a warm room in the City, a room he had shared with Kymeret for several years. His bed, a thin mattress unrolled over a hathrei—a structure of light porous stone beneath which hot bricks are placed before bedtime.
There was none of the warmth of a hathrei beneath his traveling bed, a simple cloth stuffed with padding and rolled out upon the ground.
He sat up, letting his blanket fall around him, and smelled the air. The sharp scent of early snow hung in air. To the north, darker clouds moved in over tall peaks.
He looked to his left and saw the wolf.
Smiling, he moved over to the wolf’s side and ran a hand through her fur. The wolf closed her eyes and moved her head, showing Slumber where to scratch.
Slumber felt a kinship with the wolf. Like him, the wolf could not speak in the language of elves. As a child, Slumber had tried, but words were things that skittered anxiously in the space behind his tongue. He knew them; he had some idea the words that he might say, and understood the words of others. But as if they were afraid of open air, his words hid in secret places within him and would not come out.
He no longer remembered who named him Slumber. As for the wolf, her companion Aovyn knew her name in the tongue of wolves, but no one else in the group could pronounce it.
Slumber called her Wolf in his thoughts. At times, the others seemed frustrated with his inability to make words speak for him, but Wolf never thought it odd. Without words, Wolf understood the language of his hand, his eyes, his joy, his fear.
And Slumber thought he heard the forest that Wolf heard. A click in the middle distance, and Wolf suddenly turned her head. A pattering in the grass, and Wolf crouched low to the ground, listening.
But now Wolf looked north, though Slumber heard nothing. Then Wolf darted away into the trees. In the distance, Aovyn stood up from a creek, capping a water sack that he had filled. Aovyn waved, and Slumber waved back.
Of course. Wolf always heard Aovyn call, even when the call was silent.
“They are a pair, are they not?”
Slumber looked up and saw Kymeret walking over. Slumber nodded good morning to him.
Kymeret raised a hand. A flame licked his fingers, dancing around his palm. Suddenly it grew larger, and candlewick eyes opened to look upon Slumber—blue behind wavering red and orange.
“They’re not like us, you know,” said Kymeret. “They don’t have eyes. Don’t need them. But I like to give them little features in our world. Makes me feel like I have a friend.”
Slumber laid a hand on Kymeret’s shoulder.
“Yes, I know I have elf friends. But I also have a fire friend.” Kymeret lifted his hand higher. “And this is your friend too.”
Slumber nodded and looked to the north. The two young men began to walk side by side, toward the creek. Slumber already knew that Kymeret enjoyed giving his arcamentals shapes and personalities. Kymeret liked talking about his work and studies, and Slumber liked to listen.
“I believe we are in for a hard winter, friend Slumber. I don’t know why, but the scent of trouble joins the perfume of young winter in this air this morning.”
* * * * *
“This is the part,” Carathost laid a finger upon the drawing that Sharowsul held in trembling hands, “that interests me the most. The other inconsistencies may have some explanations, but…”
“Not this.” Sharowsul allowed the pages to fall to the floor. “I knew. I knew that they were not telling the whole truth.”
The priest walked over to a candle and waved his hand above the flame, caught between feeling its warmth and tempting it to burn him. “Everyone at the inquest must have known.”
“My son was holding a human sword in one hand.” Sharowsul looked down at the drawing, one of several images someone had made in charcoal of the scene were five humans and an elf had died. “He was holding the same sword as the other humans.”
Carathost spread his arms. “The significance is clear: Your son was a guest of these humans when Isek’s brigands attacked.”
Sharowsul felt the fire burn within him. “Isek.”
“I am no elf,” said Carathost. “I am but a friendly and interested human visiting these lands. But if human nobles attempted to sweep the murder of a nobleman’s son beneath the rug, I can only imagine what that nobleman might feel.”
Sharowsul closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Why are you here, priest? Are you here to use my grief for your own ends? Spur me into some sort of action that might harm my people?”
In a low voice, Carathost said, “Would it surprise you to know that I myself have bowed beneath the weight of such grief it cannot be comprehended? I will not add to your burdens by sharing my own, but I lost so much in my own world to those who prey upon the weak, even before I was cast into the Silent Plains with nothing but ragged clothes and a knife. My soul was a wasted thing, shriveled and without hope, until my lord Ossari came to me and told me that I am only small when I allow myself to be used without answer, without justice.”
“Justice… or vengeance?”
“The line between the two is paper thin. I am but a servant and prophet of my god. I have no wish to lead you into actions that would harm the elven people, no. But,” Carathost cast an arm toward the floor, gesturing toward the papers, “as a priest of Ossari, I can tell you that one thing that is hateful to him is allowing grievance to fester and churn when it could be wielded like a sword.”
“So it would please your god if I acted against Isek and his rabble?”
Carathost took a step closer and steepled his fingers together. “Well, that depends. Would it please you?”
“I have no intention of letting Isek get away with this, no.”
“Then my purpose here is satisfied.” Carathost began to turn away. “Oh, did you notice the part about the door?”
“Yes, the door to the humans’ place of residence had been smashed in by something large. As if Isek’s people kicked the door in to get to their victims. I couldn’t help but notice that one of those impetuous youths has an acknowledged ability to summon arcamental beings. A large living rock, for example, might leave evidence such as this.”
Now Carathost started toward the door. “Strange that no one brought this up at the inquest.”
And then he was gone.
* * * * *
The cart was waiting for them in a quiet glade. Arebon looked around, but saw no one.
“Kymeret. Aovyn. Keep watch.”
They moved to watch the edges of the clearing while the others approached the cart. Arebon looked within and saw bags of grain and dried meat, crocks of pickled vegetables, blankets and furs, and a variety of tools and materials for repair of cloth, armor and weapons.
“So much,” said Sairi. “How can they spare all of this?”
Arebon lifted a scrap of parchment from among the goods left for them. We hope that you find these helpful for the winter, it read. More in the fullness of Lauta. Unsigned.
“It seems the people of Quelnarrin are grateful for our confrontation with the humans.”
“It is good that someone is grateful,” grumbled Isonis, “since we have been asked not to return to the City until things calm down.”
Slumber and Arebon unfurled two travois, and they all began to place goods on them for transport to their camp.
* * * * *
“I ask you,” said Sharowsul, “why it is reasonable that the inquest is over, when this,” he shook the pages at Naftali, “tells me that there is more to this incident than those youths admitted to.”
“We have testimonies from people of Quelnarrin. These humans, after accepting their hospitality, tortured and killed two of the young people of the town. The bodies were found. Did you examine those pages as well, Sharowsul?”
“My son would never involve himself with such people?”
“It pains me to share this with you, but others on the council are wondering at the character of your son, considering his association with these humans.”
With a disgusted sound, Sharowsul turned away. “Who are we, Naftali?” he asked. “Have you ever really thought about that?”
“Sometimes,” answered Naftali. “Yet I have the books of our people to remind me. Sepher S’iolaen reminds me who we were, and Sepher Terminus reminds me how we became who we are.”
“And who are we now? Not in some mythical past, not in distant ancestral memory, but now? I look at us, and I don’t know.”
“What is really on your mind?”
“My son, whom I knew better than any of you, is on my mind. The council, which has done nothing, is on my mind. And Isek Riverdusk and his band of poorly-trained brigands should be on everyone’s mind.”
“I do not think—“
“No, of course you don’t! Or you would have done something. Why were they cleared of any wrongdoing?”
“The bodies of two young elves were found in the woods behind the humans’ house. No more than two days dead. We have been over this—“
“My son was a good man! Does it not disturb you that both Isek and the council of Quelnarrin are both covering up what really happened?”
Naftali stared at him. “You are not seeing this clearly, my friend.”
“Friend.” Sharowsul let out a long breath. “If you don’t believe that anything needs to be done about Isek’s people, know that I do.”
He turned and walked away, leaving Naftali gaping.
“What do you intend to do?” he said, but Sharowsul didn’t answer.
* * * * *
Anarkish looked around the study as he waited for his mentor to appear. He saw statues of warriors and spirits carved from jade mined in the Roans; candelabras of black stone; carefully ordered books on history and philosophy. He saw no loose papers anywhere in evidence.
Along a mantel stood a rack displaying two scabbarded swords—one the curved dao favored by many elf warriors, and beneath it a straight two-edged sword with a narrow guard.
He turned at the sound of a door opening. Sharowsul Iskosia entered and gestured to a seat.
"Please, sit down."
Anarkish sat down and waited. Sharowsul observed how the man sat perfectly straight in his chair. He took a seat himself, relaxed, his legs crossed and leaning against one side of the chair.
"I am aware that you have questions. It is unusual for a council member to summon a squad leader directly. Indeed, I have been in many meetings with your superiors about our preparations. But I asked for recommendations for a detachment of warriors with long experience in the wilderness."
Sharowsul paused expectantly. Anarkish cleared his throat and said, "I was only told to report to you, councilor. I was not told why."
"Excellent. Because I have a task for you that requires particular discretion that I am told you possess. And you have spent some time patrolling the Roans."
“All of my team has, councilor."
"Good. Very good. How many in your squad currently?"
"Including myself, seven. And we have worked together for some time."
Sharowsul stood and moved over to a sideboard, where he poured two glasses of wine from a decanter. He set one of them on a small table beside Anarkish, then moved back to his chair.
After a slow sip of wine, Sharowsul said, "We have a problem. I cannot divulge to you the nature of the problem, but I need someone to deal with a… side effect."
"What is the nature of this side effect, councilor?"
"A band of lawless brigands are operating in the Roans with the cover and approval of a man of power. What they have done is unimportant. What matters is that they are brought to justice." Sharowsul took another sip and said, "Is there a tracker on your team?"
"There is, a good one."
"Good." Sharowsul picked up a folder from next to him and tossed it over to Anarkish. "I've gathered what information I can. Eight youths. Their leader is named Arebon, but he's not the most dangerous. They have someone who can summon arcamentals, a healer, an angry young man named Isonis from an old splinter clan, a hunter and tracker named Yonai Pareth… it's all in there."
"I shall study this information and find them. But what should I do when we catch up with them?"
* * * * *
At the edge of the crowd, Isek stood and watched a shadow play. Cut-out wooden figures danced behind a translucent screen, with red magic light shining behind them.
Shapes of Tohr’mentirii and their Beasts pursued the good elves of S’iolaen. The elves followed the larger-than-life figures of Aellos and Dythiir into the east.
Isek closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the light behind the shadow puppets had turned golden as the dawn, and the audience beheld the shape of a giant tree towering over even the gods: Lumos, whose light shined over them all. The music, rising from behind the screen, rose with the light in strings and flutes, duduk and merry drum.
“In the light of Lumos,” murmured the crowd from memory, “we found a home.”
And the elves danced in the light of the tree upon its slopes, and their gods danced with them.
Then red light crept over the scene from the west as the Tohr’mentirii found their blessed sanctuary, with shadows of tooth and claw and a baying from out of the darkness.
And a great hand lifted the remaining elves out of S’iolaen. When the elves were seen again behind the screen, a gentle green light shone behind them, and their silhouettes played in the fertile land they named Faerthale.
“In the light of Lucent,” murmured the crowd, “we found a home.”
Isek turned away and walked home, lost in thought. As he approached his door, he was surprised to find Naftali pacing the street before the house. Together they went inside.
“What brings you here, Naftali?” he asked when both had a glass of wine.
“I had a concerning conversation with Sharowsul yesterday, and his words have remained with me through the day.”
Isek sighed. “I know that he grieves.”
“He does more than grieve, Isek. He is consumed with rage. I believe he has thoughts of dealing with your people.”
Isek nodded and downed the glass. “I was afraid he might. I am more afraid that he is now in a position of some power over the gathering and organization of our soldiers.”
Naftali frowned. “Do you believe there is any chance of him using that power to harm your people?”
A long silence followed, and then Isek said, “I do not know.”
“You will have also heard,” said Naftali, closing his eyes, “the news from the far west.”
“I have. The Revenant, as the ravaging ginto are now called, have stormed and overwhelmed the watch the Remnant placed upon them. Now the Remnant are on the run.”
“Their god is on the move. How long until the humans’ fallen god also reappears?”
“We must be ready when he comes.”
“Isek…” Naftali set down his glass and leaned forward in his chair. “Everyone on the council knows that you have gathered people into a small mobile force. Not soldiers, but drifters, splinterfolk… Tell me, how many of these groups are there?”
Isek watched the candlelight flicker across a tapestry. “Many,” he said at last.
“There are people who wonder what you intend.”
“I know. And in all honesty, my friend, what I intend is that you and others like you can carry the flame of elven civilization and culture, the future of the elven people, through this darkness and beyond. I will do whatever is necessary to see that our people survive without losing yourselves.”
“Losing ourselves. And you?”
”If I lose myself, it is no of no consequence.”
Naftali shook his head. “How can you say that? What could you do that would cause you to lose yourself?”
Isek stood and poured himself more wine from a decanter. “I think of them as my Ardrian Rangers.”
Silence. He turned back and saw Naftali staring, his mouth open. At last Naftali spoke in a rough voice. “The tale of Ardria of S’iolaen.”
“Her story has been much on my mind of late.”
“You really believe that it will come to that.”
Slowly Naftali laid a hand on the arm of his chair. The hand trembled slightly. “Do they know? Your rangers?”
Isek shook his head. “No.”
Naftali was silent for a moment. Then he stood. “Until yesterday,” he said, “I thought I knew Sharowsul. Until today, I thought I knew you.”
Naftali bowed, then left Isek alone in the room.
Isek raised a hand to his lips and bowed his head. “In whose light,” he whispered, “will we find a home now?”
* * * * *
The first snow lay upon the ground, light enough that their boots sometimes found the earth beneath. Branches had shed their snow in the morning sun, and soon it would be melting from the ground.
Arebon led his people toward the drop location. The note implied there would be another cart of goods hidden in the woods on this day.
Then a sound of armor through the trees, and elven soldiers moved to surround them. He counted seven of them, six warriors with sword and shield, and one elf with sword and bow.
The soldiers drew swords, and one of them said, “Drop your weapons to the ground!”
Arebon held out his hands. "We are elves of Faerthale."
"Are you Arebon Shalebrook?"
"Then I have been ordered to take you," the soldier looked around, "and your companions in for questioning."
"For what purpose? We are out here on council business."
The soldier scoffed. "We are here on council business. You will slowly lay your weapons on the ground. And that one," he nodded toward Kymeret, "will dismiss his creature of fire."
Arebon looked around. Most of his people had weapons drawn and stood in a circle as they had practiced, facing outward. He looked around at the soldiers, saw their spacing, their readiness.
Then he turned back to the soldier. "I would like to know the purpose of this… questioning."
"You will find out when we return to the City. Now lay down your weapons now."
"We cannot," whispered Aovyn behind Arebon. "Something is wrong here. And that man…"
"At least tell me your name," said Arebon.
"I am called Anarkish of the House of Winnis, under special appointment from Councilor Sharowsul Iskosia."
"Of course you are," said Isonis.
"The longer you delay," said Anarkish, "the clearer your guilt."
"That is not how elven law works," said Kymeret. "I learned that long before I abandoned any pretense of study."
Anarkish raised his sword. "Ready!" he said.
"Last week in the hollow," said Isonis, loud enough for Arebon and the others to hear.
Arebon took a breath. "North!"
Arebon and Isonis led the way through a gap in the soldiers—but their enemies were moving fast. Large stones flew up between them and the soldiers, who furiously tried to dodge or block with shields.
Glancing behind, Arebon saw the stones reassembling into a large frowning head of rock with angry eyes, while Kymeret's fire arcamental spread into a sheet of flame to slow them down, before reassembling into a fiery spear that leapt toward the archer nocking an arrow to the side.
"Pay attention, Arebon," said Isonis.
A drum sounded as they ran, and he could feel the rhythm urging him on. For a moment he had an unpleasant thought that whatever magic Crowdancer summoned would affect their opponents as well—but there was no time to worry about that.
They dodged between trees, trying to present a difficult target. An arrow flew past Isonis spinning after it hit a vine.
Arebon wouldn't risk looking back again. He would probably trip and fall prey to their pursuers, or worse still, endure another lecture from Isonis.
"They're falling behind," said Sairi behind him.
"Kymeret," said Yonai, "could you ask your latest fiery friend to stop setting fire to branches as we pass and leaving a trail?"
"Fine," he answered. "I shall send my fiery friend to play with the soldiers. Farewell, friend."
They ran for a long time, somehow lifted into greater speed by the odd rhythm from the drum. There was a steady, syncopated beat in there among the flourishes. The air grew slightly warmer as they ran and what remained of the snow lay in patches. They picked their way carefully between them so as not to leave footprints.
Until at last they descended into the hollow they remembered from before.
"The rock," said Isonis, pointing, and they veered toward it. The rock was huge, sprawling across almost a dozen yards and reaching about two yards above ground at its highest.
On the lower side of the rock, hidden behind a clump of bushes, they found the hole they remembered. A few days before, Arebon's team had lost Isonis' team during a practice hunt by crawling into the hole.
Fortunately they had found no creatures living inside. Instead it opened out into a broader passage, until at last they crawled through and fell onto the ground a few feet below.
Water sang off to the left. When Kymeret emerged into the cave, he summoned a another fire arcamental to give light to the space around them.
"Where did you come out?" asked Yonai.
"It goes under another couple of hills before opening out into a tight group of trees," said Arebon.
"No wonder you lost us," said Isonis, looking around.
Arebon was still breathing hard. "We'll rest here a bit, catch our breath. Then we'll travel to the other end and find our latest camp, then start heading west."
"Why west?" asked Sairi.
Arebon leaned back against the stone wall and sighed. "Because right now, a member of the council with a grudge has set soldiers after us. Isek told us to wait in the woods until things calmed down, but I believe things just got worse.”
"What is your intention, Arebon?" asked Aovyn. His fingers moved through his wolf's fur.
"What did you sense back there," said Arebon, "when you said that to me? About that man?"
"If he has received orders from Councilor Sharowsul to hunt us down, he will do just that. He'll take us in, or kill us trying. And I do not believe he will care which way it goes.”
"How did this happen?" asked Sairi. "What did we do?"
Kymeret said, "We did the right thing, which is, alas, far too often the wrong thing to do."
Arebon stared at the fire arcamental dancing across Kymeret's fingers. Sometimes the being would form into a larger ball of fire, and searing eyes stared back at Arebon. Then it would fray, as if tossed by a strong breeze, and begin dancing across Kymeret's fingers again.
"All I know," he said, turning back to Sairi, "is that for now we need to put a lot of distance between us and those would seek to harm us.”
* * * * *
Anarkish crested another hill, breathing heavily, and said, "How did they do that?"
"Some kind of magic, commander," said one of his people.
Anarkish gave him a look. "Oh really?"
He surveyed the woods around them. They had guarded woods and hills much like these for months. This was a similar landscape, though they were more familiar with the foothills to the east. To the north, they rose into the Roan Mountains.
Their quarry could have gone anywhere.
Then he turned to his tracker and said, “They must have a camp somewhere. Can you find them?"
She nodded. "I can, sir. And I will.”
He looked back up toward the peaks to the north. “Good.”
* * * * *
Feeling helpless, Sairi sat down on a rock. She had gathered whatever supplies from their camp she thought she could carry. She looked over at the rack where a large skin was being tanned for leather. Sacks of grain, containers of pickled greens. So many goods they had gathered, or picked up from a cart from grateful people in Quelnarrin. There was no way they could take all of this with them.
Crowdancer sat beside her holding a backpack stuffed full of clothes and whatever else she could fit in there.
“Kymeret says we can use a stone arcamental to carry some things,” said Crowdancer. “It will just…” she motioned with her hand, “float along with sacks of food on it. I guess they don’t mind.”
“I can’t believe we have to just… run away from our own people.”
“I never felt particularly accepted in polite elven society,” said Crowdancer. “And Isonis comes from a splinterfolk family anyway, so I guess he’s used to it.”
“Still,” began Sairi, then looked over at Arebon. He was sitting on a rock gazing closely into the glowing blue crystal that Isek sometimes used to communicate with him.
Then Arebon stood up and looked around at the others.
“I don’t know why all of this happened,” he said. “But I do know that even now, when we are in hiding, Isek has been trying to take care of us.”
“Has he really?” asked Isonis. “I still don’t understand what we are to him.”
“A more important question is: What are we to ourselves.”
“What does that even mean?”
“It means we need to decide. Now.”
“We’re just waiting—”
“Not anymore!” Arebon said. “No more waiting. From now on we are living. Surviving. If Isek asks us to do something, we do it in return for all he has done. Until then, we live.”
“How?” asked Sairi.
“We have to disappear for a time. There are lands to the west that we could try.”
Sairi looked around. Kymeret stood near Slumber as usual. A large stone with a flat surface floated next to him, already loaded with some of their supplies. Slumber was sharpening the head of his spear. Isonis stood with his arms crossed, staring at the ground. Aovyn sat on the ground next to his wolf, tying a backpack closed. Yonai was wrapping dozens of arrows into a large leather sack and preparing to secure it.
“Look, we’ve known each other for years,” continued Arebon. “Thanks to Isek, we’ve all got skills for surviving together. We’ve been training together. I think we can survive whatever comes. And I feel like… like you know, in the stories of old, the way a group of elves would become sworn brethren who would guard each other’s lives. An iskele of rangers.”
He glanced at Isonis, who still didn’t look up. “None of you have to come along. Anyone who wants to quit now can stay and take their chances in Faerthale. Or anywhere. But if you come with me, maybe we can make an oath to watch each others’ backs and be an iskele.”
When no one said anything, Sairi said, “I’m going with Arebon.”
“Of course you are,” muttered Isonis. When the others looked at him, he raised his head and met Arebon’s eyes. “I’ll come,” he said. “I have nowhere else to go anyway.”
“So we’re outlaws now,” said Crowdancer.
“Outlaws to some,” said Aovyn. “Heroes to others.”
“We are elves,” said Arebon. “Elves should never be alone.”
* * * * *
In the sway of storms we rocked like branches, our leaves whipped away in gusts of time, until all that remained of us was the naked wood of winter trees.
We could not remember the blue of a clear sky, or the whisper of a calming breeze. For those of fortunate generations or fortunate birth, the world only shows them beauty and ease. But others walk a world of thunder and brittle darkness.
Who are we to be in such a time? What lies ahead that we were given chances that turned to thorns?
— from the known pages of the Oracle of Aovyn