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Crowsinger

  • 2022-03-17 16:41

Part Four

 

Chapter 20

 

And so the cities fell. Sarnishar was the first large city devoured by the Army of Night and Rage, but they were not the last. After 477, Ossari seemed to retreat back into his lair to rest, perhaps to brood and writhe in the ecstasy of so much pain and death created in his name.

Trade in the Plains was already in shambles, and for the next two years there was famine from east to west. Yet slowly they rebuilt. Peoples and nations who knew what had happened to Sarnishar were now reluctant to band together in one place, believing that Ossari might consider such a place a tempting target.

Some made alliances with one another. Others closed their gates and guarded their fields with battalions in armor, jealously holding on to whatever they had as if they alone would survive.

Other than smaller skirmishes, this tense stillness held until 481, when Ossari emerged again with his army, ready to begin a relentless war against humans and elves.

But in the in-between years, the elven people held our breath, moving on with our lives with muscles tense and spirits frail, as stone by stone the Sanctum grew… slowly… so slowly over the years.

And none knew which would come first: word of the Sanctum's completion, or word of Revenant in Faerthale Forest.

 

— from the journal of Kaolyen Greyborne, Faerthale, 486 I.H.

 

* * * * *

 

Faerthale City, 479 I.H.

 

The man slouched against the wall of his cell, idly tracing patterns in the stonework. His fingers were never still, moving along slight imperfections in the wall, caressing, sometimes singing to them.

“I know that you are there,” said the man. “I can feel your presence, the reek of elf, the hint of ash in the air. You cannot hide from me no matter how stealthy you believe yourself to be.”

“You don’t really know,” said Rekeskir. “You simply speculate aloud to determine if you are truly alone.”

The man in the cell jumped and made a sound when Rekeskir spoke.

I was right, thought Rekeskir.

The man stood up and moved to the bars, ran grimy fingers lightly up and down the iron.

“I can see you,” he said, and his voice oozed with smugness. “I could see you the whole time, just as I saw the last elf who paid me a visit and tried to blend into the shadows. But shadows, you see, are my friend,” he chuckled, “my ever companions.”

“Do you love nothing more than the sound of your voice, Carathost?”

The human lowered his gaze in the torchlight so that his eyes sank into shadows. “I love my Lord Ossari, bringer of rage and vengeance and the satisfaction of watching my enemies burn. My Lord will come for me in time.”

“In time?” Rekeskir stood up and approached the bars. Not too close, for the human seldom bathed with the water they brought him. “You have been in this cell for four years, human, and I see no fallen god.”

He looked one way, then another, then shrugged. “Perhaps Ossari is more concerned with matters of rage and vengeance than with a priest who failed in his mission.”

“Failed?” Carathost raised his gaze and scowled. Long lank hair draped across his face, but the hate in his eyes was visible now. “In what way did I fail, elf? I killed the wife and son of a member of your Council of Nine Branches! I destroyed some of your sacred stone buildings!”

You did not kill Sharowsul’s son.”

“My agent Rhydian accomplished the deed, but he was under my orders.”

“And as for the other, you or your associate did destroy several buildings in Faerthale City with magical devices. Which had the effect of rallying the elven people and our ruling council to begin preparations for war. Surely a slumbering people would have been better prey? Do you know the size of our army now?”

“Many thousands, I suspect.”

“And in light of these,” Rekeskir smiled, “accomplishments, your god has left you here to moulder in anger and filth.”

“Four years of gathering information about the tree-worshipping elves and how easily their stone falls to the ground.” His voice rose. “My Lord will come for me and reward me as one rewards a trusted and faithful servant!”

“In the meantime,” said Rekeskir, and turned to leave, “enjoy the room he has left you in.”

 

* * * * *

 

Carathost awoke in the night, retching. He ate because he must, but this elf gruel they left for him was unpalatable. What did they put in it? Something to control him, perhaps, to keep him weak. He feared the same of the water but had little choice but to drink.

How far he had fallen. Surely Lord Ossari enjoyed the game his servant had played in this horrid land. Yet Ossari had not come to save his faithful priest.

“He expects more of me,” mumbled Carathost. “I am not worthy to be his if I cannot solve this simple problem.” 

Yet he had been stymied for so long. Fools and wastrels these elves might be, crawling at the roots of their Tree that glowed like a waiting demon, muttering their prayers to nothing… yet the lock of his cell had so far eluded all of his skill.

A thief he had been once. Not particularly gifted, but he had known friends, or such as would do a job with him and sometimes not rob him of his share. Perhaps ‘friends’ was an ill-chosen word, for none could he trust. But he had scrounged a living, and now and then a heist went well beyond his imaginings. Those that involved killing someone—stranger, vague acquaintance, erstwhile companion—could be especially profitable, at least from his perspective.

So many plans and schemes, dreams and visions.

Now that he thought about it, this cell was about the same size as his hovel in the old city, in the old world. But he had seen nothing but this shadowy space for years, no chance to breathe the outside air or feel the sun on his face.

His Lord Ossari would burn this city to the ground and reduce their precious Tree to ash and mud. And the bones of his oppressors—or their ears—would become his trophies.

The elves had taken his rings, of course. He still had some of the clerical powers revealed to him by his lord, but nothing that would get him out of this cell.

Even his ring of speech, that enabled him to speak and understand any language, had been stolen. Such as Rekeskir had learned the language of humans, but the guards who tended him knew nothing, and only joked among themselves—in his hearing—in words he could not understand.

Yes, they would burn, and he would watch.

He was hungry again. He crawled over to the tray upon which squatted his bowl of half-finished gruel . Dipping his fingers into the bowl, he scooped some of the wretched liquid into his mouth. What are these roots? He spit them out. He began to scoop again, running his fingers along the bottom of the bowl, when he touched something odd. Another root. No, this was hard, and far too straight.

He lifted it out dripping with gruel and saw a length of metal, small but firm, with a point on one end. I could have choked on this, the fools.

In the fading lantern light, he stared. This little thing could be useful. Yes, the little twist, right where he might flip a tumbler in the lock…

Who?

This was no accident. Someone had provided him a tool whose use he knew well.

He rose from the hay-strewn floor and knelt before the lock. A few minutes later he had it open, and his mind reeled trying to understand.

Rhydian.

The thought came to him suddenly. Long ago he had thought himself abandoned by his accomplice, who should have tried to rescue him. After all, I am Our Lord’s beloved priest.

He could imagine it now. Through great adversity, Rhydian had somehow smuggled this into his bowl.

I must remember to ask Our Lord to bestow a gift upon the boy.

No time for that now. He must find his way out of this city, and out of elven lands.

That should be no trouble. After so long, and so far from the world of his birth, Carathost was still a thief at heart.

 

* * * * *

 

Yonai leaned against a tree and watched the meeting taking place before her. Arebon sat on the ground with his back to her. Across the fire from him sat an elf named Arvaillen, whom Isonis had met in Sarnishar before the fall. His iskele stood behind him, mirroring Arebon’s.

Yonai glanced over at Isonis now. He sat leaning against a tree, arms resting on raised knees, and glared down at the ground. He had spoken little since Sarnishar. He blamed himself for the loss of one of their own, no matter what anyone said to him. She feared he always would.

She shifted her back against the tree, scratching an itch, and wondered why she always felt weary of late.

“We lost Tarkindel,” said Arvaillen. “The others chose me to lead, though I did not wish it.”

“I did not ask to be a leader myself,” replied Arebon.

“Well, here we are. This is what I have been given, and I shall do the best I can.”

“What are your plans? Do you have orders?”

Arvaillen shook his head. “We are on our own now. Isek has let us know that there will be no orders.”

“Then what do you intend?”

Arvaillen looked thoughtful. “We don’t know how many groups Isek put together over the last ten to twenty years. Based on an exchange of information between groups, there are at least three hundred of us.”

Yonai pushed herself away from the tree and took a step forward. “Three hundred elves?” She scoffed. “Where did he find so many outcasts and ne’er-do-wells to recruit?”

“Well however he did it, I believe the number was higher. But as you might expect, many found out their purpose and disappeared.” He paused and glanced around at Arebon’s people. “As you did.”

“But you must be speaking with one another,” said Arebon. “Is each group on their own? That seems like a way to accomplish nothing.”

“Even if we were all together,” said Kymeret hesitantly, “Three hundred against the forces we have seen…”

“There will be no direct battles,” said Arvaillen, “at least none that we intend. We are not an army, going head to head with another army in an open field. We are skirmishers, hunters and prey. That is what Isek wanted.”

“Have you seen Revenant this close to Faerthale?” asked Yonai.

“No. And from what we hear, the fallen god has gone to ground. Perhaps he is satisfied for now. He destroyed the Plains as a man would destroy a game by swiping all of the pieces from the board onto the floor. But he has not yet engaged an army in the open field. When at last he does, that is when we shall know the end is near.”

“And the elves?” Yonai stepped toward the fire. “What is their plan?”

Arvaillen looked around at them again. “I would have your oaths first.”

“We are elves,” said Arebon.

“You are elves who ran.” Arvaillen cast a merciless gaze upon Arebon. “No matter your motives, no matter what you have accomplished, you turned your backs on Faerthale for years. We must know that you now stand with us.”

“Whatever meaning of ‘with’ applies,” muttered Kymeret.

“We will take whatever oaths you require,” said Arebon. “Survive or not, we intend, every one of us, to fight this enemy to our last breaths. I swear it in the names of Aellos, Dythiir, and the sacred Lucent.”

 

* * * * *

 

Rekeskir crept through the grasslands after his quarry. Carathost was easy to follow—a ragged human with hair like long-dead seaweed, a man who stumbled along the road congratulating himself on his clever escape and audibly dreaming up increasingly dire punishments for all his enemies.

Now and then the man whispered the name of his god, but only as a sort of charm to ensure he is allowed his vengeance. “When My Lord comes, those filthy elves will” and similar ramblings scattered in his wake.

Rekeskir tracked him for weeks across the Plains. Evading discovery was not difficult, though the boredom and irritation vexed him. He had difficulty imagining that this man had ever fooled the Council into believing that he was the new ambassador from Havensong. Then again, at the time Carathost possessed several magic rings and was bathing regularly.

And clearly the man had some experience as a con artist, one who enjoyed the game. But after the last four years in a cell, he no longer carried the air of self-important confidence.

A day came when Carathost began to laugh with unbridled glee. For before him lay a small force of Revenant left behind when Ossari returned to his place of seclusion. And shepherding them—yes, that must be a wickerwend.

Rekeskir stayed low in the grass. If Carathost was allowed to return into the welcome arms of his god, then Rekeskir must be very careful to follow without discovery. And if his luck held, he might gain some insight into the current whereabouts of Ossari’s forces.

It was rumored—though none seemed to know whence this information had come—that the fallen god resided in an ancient underground city called Nen Sorshegweth. Rekeskir’s mission was to confirm this.

Carathost now ran shouting toward the wickerwend. Rekeskir could not discern his words, though the human’s voice carried a tone of command.

Carathost slowed before the wickerwend, hands on hips, and waited. Glowing wisps in the fog watched him for a moment, and then the fog approached.

Whiplike tentacles flew from the fog and gathered the thief-priest’s limbs, then pulled him apart. One tentacle tossed the head into the grass to one side while the creature methodically examined a leg.

My mission appears to be over, thought Rekeskir. Carefully he crept away from the enemy and began to make his way home.

 

* * * * *

 

In the violet dawn as the sun yawned behind the far mountains, Arebon led his people on a path through the southern Roans. They rode elks, traveling light to the north around shadowed peaks before turning eastward. Their territory would be far from Faerthale, in the mountains overlooking the Plains. There were already hidden caches waiting for them.

Isonis rode at the tail of their procession with his hands gripping the reins. He had spoken to no one in days, and precious little before that. By the time the sun rose above the far mountains, they were in the half-dark of the deep woods. The tongues of trees tasted the air above, rustling, but there was otherwise very little sound apart from the thump of elk hooves along the ground. 

Always churning, memories of the woman he had allowed to die repeated over and again. The times he had mocked her music as a waste of time when she should be getting better at the sword. The days he began to realize that her voice was a powerful instrument that could coax the stars from the sky, or force fire itself to bend and listen.

And that last beautiful song, beckoning the army of rage and night to come to her and rip her into pieces. She had saved his life, and he hated her for it. No… that was not true. He hated himself far more. He had sworn an oath to protect her, and failed.

Years of the slow simmer of war brooding in the corners of the world. They were supposed to be safe in Sarnishar. Hundreds of thousands were supposed to be safe there.

They were not. The Revenant like loosed dogs overran the city and devoured those who had taken refuge there.

When the elven people were moved to action, did they build an army to defeat the lord of rage? To clash with the Revenant and prevent other cities from meeting the fate of Sarnishar?

No. Instead they built a hidden fortress, a Sanctum intended to save two entire species, so that elves and humans could hide away during the war while the native civilizations of Terminus fell beneath Ossari’s axes.

Arebon and his iskele had been chastised by the others for abandoning the fight, and why? Was that not what Isek and the rest of the Council intended for all of their people? To hide away behind walls of stone and allow the world outside to fall?

And what of the gods hiding in the dark? Arebon claimed that Aellos came to him in a dream to try to urge him to action.

Gods were hypocrites. Where were the gods now? Where did they cower while scolding elves for not fighting a demigod?

The elks descended a slope into the rustling gloom of a deeper forest. The soft glow of their horns swayed as they moved. Isonis looked at the elves riding a head of him, their shadows against the indistinct leaves. His remaining family: six elves and a wolf. 

If the gods will not act, Isonis thought, then I will.

Elves riding through the mountains at dawn

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Benonai

  • 5 days ago (Sat 21 05:12)

The tongues of trees tasted the air above, rustling, but there was otherwise very little sound apart from the thump of elk hooves along the ground.

Usually not much on flowery scene setting, but this was pretty nice writing.  Wouldn't change a thing in that line.