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Crowsinger

  • 2021-09-30 22:18

Chapter 11

 

The Tale of Wind

 

Even long ago, those who dwelt here knew, if not in words.

Were it not Aevozul, would this have been mere soil and stream?

Were it not Nhystyrrok, would the great dragons have fought to rule it all?

Were it not Noa, would the Face of the Deep have inspired ages of devotion?

Were it not Terminus, would the outsiders have been brought here to dream with us?

It is not mere soil and stream. It is the fingers of willow that reach down to caress you.

It is the wind that sings to you.

It is the wind, furious.

It is the wind in your hair, a lover’s kiss.

What are you now in the dusk, that you crave with such longing the wind of dawn?

 

* * * * *

 

Somewhere beneath the silent gods

 

Arebon and Sairi passed the winter working as hunters and trappers for a trading town southeast of Havensong. Hunting in the plains was not like hunting in the forest. The creatures in this region were challenging to trap, and there were few places to hide in the bristly heath. The giant plains oxen were easily angered.

Even small predators always took a moment to size up the challenge before scurrying off. At times Sairi would spread her cloak as if she were a tall predatory bird and make screeching sounds until the animal decided she might be more challenge than it wanted.

With the coming of spring, voices arose in grasses long silent in the cold. The travelers moved from town to town, chasing any word or hint of the Night Market, and the great eyes watched. All they found were stories, legends, folk tales. Nothing they could grasp as they would a compass to point their way.

Sairi watched Arebon as they traveled. After the voyage from South Saol, he had been a man surrendered, the life gone out of him. Since beginning the search for the Night Market, a light had returned to his eyes. He was driven, full of the quest and where it would take them. He moved as if the wind carried the scent of dawn from hidden places in the world.

She would aid him in this quest, if it would return the Arebon of old.

The ground moved slowly by in fields of gorse and wild lavender, up hills and into gullies that hid them from the wild world. In the dusk they kept watch with lighted fires in the clefts of hills, to keep from being seen by unwanted eyes. Arebon took the feathers gathered from birds downed for food, and set about fletching and repairing arrows. Sairi checked and repacked the components that she used for traps.

One night as Sairi stirred coals in the fire, she thought to look at the coin again. The thin slice of copper was already worse for wear, but both faces were still visible. She turned from the symbol of the Night Market to look once again at what she had been calling the eyeball. One circle within another.

“I say we take a few days off hunting,” said Arebon.

“Sounds good. We brought enough meat to Senever yesterday; I would like a few days rest.”

Arebon leaned back on the grass and looked up at the sky.

“Maybe it’s an egg,” she said.

“A what?” Arebon looked up. “Oh, the coin.”

“You crack an egg in a hot skillet, you get this.”

“This is good. We can ask for help with the clue of the egg or the eyeball.”

“An island in the middle of a lake.”

“That at least sounds like a place.”

Sairi put away the coin and went back to stirring the coals, her gaze lost in the flames. “I wonder if it’s a place of the Hidden Folk.”

Arebon thought about this. “I suppose it’s possible. Not that I know who the Hidden Folk are, but as stories go, they would not feel out of place in the place we seek.”

They moved ever east across the world, long accustomed to each other’s sounds and silences. As another summer drew to an end, grains blew across the dusk in the wake of harvest fireflies.

And still no sign of their journey’s end.

 

* * * * *

 

Crossing the nameless river

 

The land lay still as windless wheat. The road they followed crossed a bridge over a nameless river, and then made straight for the city-state ahead. Other roads converged upon Sarnishar, and they saw isolated caravans in the distance moving slowly along the roads from west and east.

Isonis could see the spire, a silver spear of light rising above the plain. A relic of another age now claimed as the palace of a king. The rest of the city, buildings of no more than two floors, spread out from the spire. Around it all was a patchwork wall that appeared to be from several ages, some rich and some poor. A length of sturdy stone wall became a section of piled rocks, or even a palisade built of whatever wood could be found.

The buildings within were of many styles and shapes as well, most painted in rich dyes.

Here dwelt the Sarn, a species native to Terminus who had until recent centuries led a nomadic existence in the plains. Then they settled in the lands around the spire and built Sarnishar, City of Trade.

Aovyn knelt in the road, took his wolf’s face in both hands, and looked into her eyes.

“If you call me, I will hear. If you sleep, I will dream with you. If you are lonely, I will sing to you. You will never be truly alone.”

For a long moment Aovyn was silent, perhaps listening to the thoughts of the wolf that only he could hear. Then he said, “Yes, I shall visit often.”

For a few minutes they ran and rolled together in the wheatgrass, until Aovyn’s clothes were covered with dirt and stalks and a stray flower. At last he arose and watched her run from him. She ran west past a group of standing stones, and then was gone.

“How long must we be in that place?” asked Aovyn.

“I do not know,” said Isonis. “For a while, I think. We have no way of knowing when the others will come to join us there.”

“We should never have split up,” said Crowdancer. “What was Arebon thinking?”

“Arebon hasn’t been himself of late,” said Aovyn.

“When he is himself again, he will join us,” said Isonis. “Until then, this might be one of the safest places to be.”

They continued onward. As Isonis watched the city draw closer, he weighed in his mind how much they should risk. He did not know what status elves might have among the Sarn. He would try to find people interested in the information they brought, but protecting Crowdancer and Aovyn would take precedence. He would not risk their safety on some errand of diplomatic mercy. He would see Sarnishar fallen into dust before he let one of his companions be harmed.

“Aovyn, you will do most of the talking.”

“I understand,” said the shaman.

“Crowdancer…” He could feel her eyes on the back of his head. “We might have need of your abilities, but stay with us.”

“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t be going anywhere on my own in this place.”

“Good.”

As they rode closer to the city, they could see gatherings of tents outside the walls. Hundreds of people milled about the tents, and animals ran among them, though whether pets or wild things they could not tell.

As they drew closer to the gates, they joined a line of caravans and travelers already trying to enter the city.

The guards at the gate were Sarn. They looked more or less like elves or humans, though they grew very little hair upon their heads, so they tended to wear colorful head wrappings. Their ears were broad and scalloped like seashells, and heavy jewelry of iron and bronze draped from them, bending their lobes into other shapes.

“And who are you?” a guard asked in a bored voice.

“We are elves of Faerthale, and we—“

“Of course you are elves, and where else would you be ‘of’ if not Faerthale?”

“That’s a little complicated, but—“

“What is your business in Sarnishar?”

“We are scouts who have spent years gathering information about the movements of Revenant and other forces who might threaten the city.”

“So you… what… want to see the king?”

“I understand that that would be impossible,” said Isonis, “for we are merely scouts and traders of information. But perhaps someone in the city who is gathering such information…”

“Everyone in the city is trading information. You would have to have something valuable for anyone to even listen to you.” The guard looked at Aovyn’s staff. “Are you a wizard or something?”

“Oh no,” said Aovyn. “I am a traditional shaman of the elven people. I am a healer, and I can look into someone’s ancestry and—“

“A fortune teller,” said the guard. “You might make more money out here among the migrants than in the city.” He glanced at Crowdancer. “And a traveling bard could get some work.”

“I beseech you,” said Isonis, “to allow us passage into the city. Our information is, I promise you, valuable to those who protect this place.”

“Surprisingly that is only the third time I have heard that today.” The guard looked at Aovyn. “Okay, you. Look into my ancestry and tell me what I am.”

Aovyn looked at the man for a long moment. Then he said, “You are descended from some of the hardier warriors of the Sarn: the outriders, the vanguard. Your father, two of your grandparents, three of your great-grandparents, all born warriors. Though you have some constitutional weaknesses to certain foods and illnesses, and your ancestors mostly died young and never married into the noble line—“

“I think that’s enough, Aovyn,” said Isonis.

“Will I marry a hardy woman?” asked the guard. His fellow listened as well.

Aovyn blinked. “Almost certainly.”

The guard smiled and glanced at his companion. Then he waved the party into the city.

Will he marry a hardy woman?” asked Crowdancer.

“If he survives the next few years, anything is possible.”

Inside the walls they found chaos. There was nothing that could be called a street or a square as they understood things in Faerthale. Here buildings rose out of the dirt in many colors and shapes, and the buildings seemed to lean over the spaces between them as if poised to fall upon the people scurrying about with their pack animals and mounts and pets. Laundry lines stretched between the buildings, most of them in use.

All along these pathways the merchants and craftspeople worked alongside the jugglers and musicians, the visitors and the beggars. Children flew through the crowds trailing ribbons of green and gold and rust, screaming stories and challenges in Shar or Tradespeak until they were out of breath falling against the sides of buildings ragdoll still.

Many among the multitude were Shar, but there were other species: Rishagi and Human, Mindanyi, Gedymdeithon herders, a few ratkin lurking in a corner, and a number of figures of indeterminate species who were hooded and cloaked. Every language known in the plains, except perhaps Elvish, was being spoken around them.

And all the scents of people from everywhere mingled with the aromas of food roasted or fried in the open air.

“Is there anyone in charge,” Isonis said quietly, not really expecting an answer.

“Should I pick a corner and start singing?” said Crowdancer. “That might get their attention.”

“You would have to sing loudly for a chance at being heard,” said Aovyn.

“I could do that.”

Isonis said, “I think first we should find a place to stay. I don’t know what a Sarnish inn looks like, and we shall need one.”

Aovyn saw it first, the usual Trade symbol for an inn over the door of a two-story building on the right. Old blue dye faded and flaked on the wall, and a couple of Sarn sat leaning against the outside wall watching the crowd.

Isonis stood under the sign and looked over at them. A woman with ears weighed down with shapeless pieces of iron slowly stood and ambled over.

“One night, or stay for a while?” she said.

“We might be a while,” said Isonis.

“Kneshku mats are all we have, with privacy screens. We don’t serve food, but…” She waved around at rows of street food vendors in both directions.

After they agreed upon a price, Isonis led his people up the rickety stairway onto the second floor. The whole floor was one big room, covered with mats woven from graingrass stalks. Dividers made of the same mats hanging from frames could be set up between areas for privacy. Awnings of bright rough cloth were set leaning over the windows, but allowed breezes to find their way in.

The three elves found themselves rolling out their bedding onto the mats in one corner of the floor. Crowdancer set up dividers between them and the rest of the room. Two people were sleeping in other parts of the room, while a third was repairing a sandal. Otherwise they were alone.

“How do we find someone in the local information trade?” asked Aovyn quietly.

“I think this might be difficult. Aovyn, why do we appear to be the only elves in this city?”

“I was wondering that myself. We’re not that much farther from Faerthale than Havensong is. I know that elves are not as well traveled as others, but I am still surprised.”

Crowdancer sat with them and unwrapped her oud from its coverings. She began to tune it, grimacing.

“Are you going to play tonight?”

“I don’t know,” said Crowdancer, “but I should let it breathe the air of this city for a while.”

“You’re right, though,” said Isonis. “A performance might gain us audience enough to begin some conversations.”

“Tomorrow,” said Crowdancer. “Morning after some food.”

“I wish I knew how the others are doing,” said Aovyn.

Isonis leaned back against a wall. “So do I, but I’m more concerned about surviving here until we see them again.”

As the sun set over the western road, lights of many colors began to glow across Sarnishar.

 

* * * * *

 

East of Sarnishar

 

The flashing lights were the first sign that something was wrong.

“Does that look like a battle to you?” asked Yonai.

“It does,” said Kymeret. “There are wizards ahead. Should we hide in the tall grass?”

“I’m more inclined to keep walking and decide which side we’re on.”

“Very well then,” sighed Kymeret. “The wizards appear to be on both sides of a caravan, attacking the wagons.”

“I agree.

“Wait, there is a wizard in one of the wagons.”

“The Silent Plains will be on fire by nightfall,” mused Yonai.

“Are you certain we should not approach silently in the tall grass?”

Yonai wrinkled her nose. “I find skulking distasteful. I would rather they see three strangers with long shadowy cloaks approaching on the road without fear. And then I shoot them.”

“Traveling with you is always exciting, Yonai.”

“Thank you, brother.”

They walked a few paces further.

“Have you decided which side we are on?”

“Black robes with red symbols painted on them. Cultists?”

“Cultists tend to be fond of black, I find.”

One of the black-robed wizards attacking the wagons turned and saw the strangers approaching in the road. The wizard held out her hand and sent a bolt of fire toward them.

“Down,” said Yonai.

Kymeret and Slumber ducked into the grass.

Yonai watching the fire approach, then dodged left. As the fire passed, she drew an arrow, then sent it into the mage’s eye.

“We’ve picked a side,” she said. Bending low, she ran toward the wagon.

“Well then,” said Kymeret. He held out his dagger, and a creature of fire bloomed from the naked air and swept toward one of the wizards.

Kymeret heard Yonai yell something. He glanced over long enough to see a panthras colliding with a wizard, then turned back to his own quarry just in time to duck below an arcane bolt that missed his hair by inches.

He felt a tap on his arm, then Slumber moved ahead. Kymeret followed him, knowing that Slumber intended to be his shield.

A bolt of fire singed his shoulder as it passed. Wheat grasses around him were already catching flame in the south wind.

The wizard ahead was now fighting the arcamental, and Kymeret could see magic and arrows passing between the wagons and the attackers.

Kymeret spread his arms, and a group of ethereal daggers shimmered into the air before him.

“Fly,” he breathed, and the daggers leapt toward the wizard. Several pierced his flesh, and the man fell. Kymeret’s fury spread into a cloak of flame and covered him until the screams died.

Kymeret ducked back down into the grass and continued following Slumber. Yonai was laughing to his left.

She enjoys this too much, he thought. Perhaps I do as well.

 

* * * * *

 

In the pause after the battle, everyone looked at one another. Yonai saw that the man who had fought by her side was human. She raised her sword straight before her face, and he nodded.

“First,” said a voice, “you have our thanks.”

Yonai turned and saw a man in mail walking up to her. Behind him walked a wizard robed in gray.

“We are not unaccustomed to battle,” he continued, “but we were attacked by seven wizards hiding in the grass, and I don’t like those odds.”

Why did you help us?” said another human.

“I didn’t like the look of these wizards,” she said.

“And well you shouldn’t,” said the first man. He looked down and kicked one of the wizards on the ground. Upon his robe was the shape of two crossed axes in red. “I have seen this symbol of late. Devout of Ossari.”

The wind in the grass picked up, spreading the fire on both sides of the road. Carters were stumbling out of the two wagons and looking around for the horses.

“We released the horses first thing during the attack,” said the man in mail. “We might not be able to convince them to return.” He turned back to Yonai. “Might I know your name?”

“I am Yonai, of Pareth in Faerthale Forest.”

“I am Baran. We should get out of here.” He looked over at Kymeret. “Unless your friend there can calm the flames.”

“Alas,” said Kymeret, “my fury knows nothing of calm.”

Yonai set about retrieving arrows from the battlefield, including those broken or embedded in wizards.

Baran looked at Kymeret. “What is she going to do with half arrows?”

“Shoot them,” Kymeret said. “She is quite good at it.”

Several of Baran’s people were pulling goods out of the wagons, whatever they could carry.

“You would be welcome in our village,” said Baran. “We were bringing food and other supplies, but now I suppose we must carry as much as we can.”

“I have another companion who could help with that,” said Kymeret. He whispered a few words, and his fury was replaced by a titan of stone that quickly shaped itself into a floating stone table. Goods were piled onto it.

Above them all, a gray hawk sped away toward the east.

 

* * * * *

 

Slumber walked with the others through the whisper of graingrass and the faltering sky. Clouds moved in as they walked, bringing the scents of rain and dusk. Mounds of graingrass crouched in the plain ahead of them, but they saw nothing that looked like a destination.

Then someone stepped out of one of the mounds and waved at those who approached.

“Watchers for the village,” said Baran.

“Village,” said Kymeret, and then they saw that the ground opened up before them.

In a bowl-shaped hollow crouched a group of old ruins and tents hiding from the landscape around. Some of the ruins were too broken to be used, but others had been repaired with new construction of stone. Tents had been raised in open spaces surrounded by the ruins, and families with children and dogs mingled with people armed with sword and dagger and bow. The people below were of several species, including humans.

Baran sent someone ahead with word. Upon descending into the hollow, several people surrounded them with weapons.

“This is an odd welcome,” said Yonai, “after we helped you in battle.”

“We have no intention of harming you,” said Baran.

“Two swords and a dog are pointing at me,” said Kymeret. “What should I call this?”

“A meeting with the one who leads here,” said Baran. “Then we shall see.”

Slumber watched old spirits play around the ruins and wondered at their names. He focused as they were led into one of the repaired ruins, now a building of one long room. At the end of the hall, a man of dark complexion and dark hair sat easily in a broad chair covered in furs. He wore old robes and held an old and gnarled staff, and though Slumber knew little about how humans aged, the man looked to be around 30 years in this world.

“My name is Avaresk,” he said. “Allow me to begin by offering my thanks for your aid to my people.”

“It was our pleasure,” said Kymeret dryly.

“Your names are familiar to me.”

“Yonai,” said Baran. “Kymeret who summons fire and stone. And Slumber, who does not speak.”

“He speaks,” said Kymeret, “if you know how to listen.”

“What intrigues me,” continued Avaresk, “is that you were traveling with other companions before, and now they are not with you.”

“Forgive me,” said Kymeret. “How would you know of our companions?”

Slumber heard the words, but he was staring at a small creature near the ceiling. It was about two feet high with wide eyes, and he could see through it. He wasn’t sure anyone else could see it.

He lowered his eyes and saw Avaresk watching him. Avaresk smiled slightly, then turned to Kymeret.

“I think you underestimate your infamy,” said Avaresk.

“Our… what?” said Yonai.

“A group of eight elves were banished from Faerthale, or so the story has spread across the land. They formed an iskele, a group of elven fighters and wandering adventurers who have sworn oaths of family and brotherhood with one another. In my understanding, iskele are mostly confined to stories and legends in these times, but you are said to have taken these oaths.

“Then you joined with a group of Ginto Remnant and traveled the continent for a long time. You not only scouted and fought Revenant, but also,” he smiled, “righted wrongs, defended the weak, raided ancient tombs and forgotten places.

“And you made enemies.”

“Apparently we missed a few,” muttered Yonai.

“I saw you fight,” said Baran to Yonai. “You appear to be the sort of berserker who finds joy in combat.”

Kymeret held up a hand to forestall whatever Yonai was about to say. “She watches over us somewhat enthusiastically, I admit.”

Avaresk leaned forward in his seat and rested his chin on his fingers. “Do you enjoy violence, Yonai?”

“I enjoy combat,” she said. “I enjoy a good fight.”

Slumber could tell that Yonai was on the edge of anger now.

Avaresk only nodded. “So you don’t enjoy the suffering of others, their pain and fear.”

“No, I don’t. I do enjoy shooting them if they deserve it.”

“Some do enjoy cruelty and the spread of misery. Enough to sicken a world.” Avaresk leaned back. “What do the Ginto consider evil?”

“The Ravaging Lord and all his creations.”

“Why?”

Yonai looked at Kymeret in frustration. Kymeret said, “What does the Ravaging Lord want? Destruction and genocide. He wants to bring an endless Night to the world. His Revenant are different. They have no strategy, no conscience, and very little in the way of forethought. They enjoy pain and suffering in their victims.”

“Are you going somewhere with this?” asked Yonai.

Slumber looked up again and saw that the little creature was following the conversation intently.

“You have traveled with the Ginto,” continued Avaresk, “you have fought the Revenant, you have earned the admiration of smugglers. I wished to discern the sort of people we have allowed into our camp.”

“Have you come to a conclusion?” asked Kymeret.

The sound of sword leaving scabbard, and Kymeret found a sword pointed at him. A moment later, Yonai’s right-hand sword and Slumber’s short spear were both resting against the neck of the one who threatened Kymeret.

“My brother and sister,” continued Kymeret, “are very protective. I would not take it amiss.”

“Bren is also protective,” said Avaresk. “Your hand, summoner. Please lower it.”

Slumber looked down and saw that Kymeret’s hand was paused in the motion of beckoning his titan.

“Ah, I see,” said Kymeret, relaxing his hand. “You misinterpreted readiness for intent.”

“You have my word that you are not in danger here unless we feel that you are a threat.”

The man threatening Kymeret sheathed his sword.

Kymeret nodded, and both Yonai and Slumber withdrew their weapons.

Avaresk said, “So this is an iskele.”

Kymeret nodded. “It is. And we never forget.”

“I can see that, and I respect it. And now I must ask: Why are you here traveling without the others in your family?”

Kymeret drew himself up to his full height. “I am on a quest. I cannot stop until I have found that which I seek. As for the others…” his head lowered slightly, “I wish that we had not separated, but I hope we shall meet one another again before too long.”

“As you can see,” said Baran, “we are protecting refugees here. We were bringing food for them when we were attacked.

Slumber made a sound, and Kymeret and Yonai looked at him. Slumber made a motion with one hand in the air.

“There was a bird,” said Kymeret. “Though I hesitate to be suspicious of every stray animal  we come across, the Ginto were convinced that some animals are as the eyes of our enemy.”

“I have reason to believe that is true,” said Avaresk. The man stood and leaned upon his staff. “I give you two choices. You are free to continue on your quest at once, or stay and help us defend this place while we prepare to escort the refugees through the underground passages.”

Yonai looked at Kymeret. “This is your quest.”

“And,” Kymeret sighed, “as much as I long to reach our destination—wherever that turns out to be—I feel that we should stay long enough to assist.”

Avaresk smiled. “Good. After we are done here, the Hidden Folk will assist you however we can.”

“The…” Kymeret smiled. “I wondered if the Hidden Folk were a legend.”

“I suppose that depends upon who tells the story.”

“What do you expect to happen?” asked Yonai.

Avaresk paused in the act of moving toward the door. “The fallen god Ossari was brooding in the depths of Nen Sorshegweth while his forces gathered. Now, I believe, Ossari has left the darkness for lands under the sun.”

“Will he attack here?”

“His followers attacked the caravan. It is possible. Will he focus his army upon one point? Is he ready to attack Havensong itself, or will he split his forces for smaller conflicts? I do not know.”

With that, Avaresk left the hall.

“What have you committed us to, Kymeret?” muttered Yonai.

“Trouble, it seems.”

 

* * * * *

 

Dunsarrol beneath the ground

 

A traveler in the plains would see two buildings of solid stone shaped like narrow beehives, and carved with high windows to suggest that they were hollow. The traveler would not find a doorway, or any sign of entrance at ground level. Fields of jute to the south in ordered rows, and some livestock in fenced paddocks—but no village.

Some hundred yards to the north, a smaller stone beehive with a door. Here one might pass within, descend ramps and stairs, and find oneself in the underground village of Dunsarrol.

Ingenious stone passages carried smoke from fires toward the surface, though by the time it joined the air above, the smoke was nearly invisible. Vents carried fresh air down from the surface.

In the depths lived the tribe Dunsarrol. They farmed the lands above and traded with some of the surrounding peoples.

The streets and squares below were not dark and dull brown, but brightly lit from yellow crystals embedded in the stone around them. The walls of stone dwellings were painted in a wash of bright colors from chalks and dyes. The village sprawled across several levels, connected by narrow passages through the stone.

A broad street ran midway through the largest cavern, and along this street was the life and activity of the tribe.

In the center of the street stood a booth run by a visitor, a man who was teaching the townsfolk how to read in Tradespeak. People were invited to draw words in the sand with a stick, and he would correct mistakes, give them encouragement, and show them new words.

The alphabet used for Tradespeak in the plains was simple enough: 29 letters made entirely of straight lines for carving into wood or stone. It wasn’t perfect, and several sounds in Elvish had no equivalent in Trade. But it served its purpose as a method of communication between travelers from all over the plains and beyond.

The man was exchanging news with one of the townspeople. Arebon sat on the stool next to the tray of sand and picked up the stick. Without thinking, he wrote Night Market in Tradespeak. He sighed and scratched it out, stirring the sand. Then he drew a vendor’s booth like the one on the coin. He poked stars above it.

The man sat opposite him, watching the sand. Arebon wasn’t familiar with the man’s species or tribe, but thought he must be in his 50s, with graying hair around a face lined as a long traveler. His clothing had a sort of ragged formality that reminded Arebon of merchants on the edge of poverty dressing for business as well as their coin purse allows.

The man studied Arebon’s drawing and said, “Now what is that supposed to be?”

“Well,” he pointed at the square and circle, “this is a vendor’s booth with a vendor behind it.”

He had to admit it looked nothing like anything, really.

“Well that is a fine attempt, traveler,” said the man.

“And these are stars.”

“Stars in the night sky. Well, most vendors close up shop around dusk, don’t they? At least in tribal towns and villages.”

“I guess they do.” He drew scratches below the ‘booth’, writing Night Market once more. “Did I do that right?”

When the man said nothing, Arebon looked up and saw the man regarding him with a slight smile. “Yes,” he said, “I think you wrote that well. Though usually a street vendor would just use these three letters for ‘market’,” he demonstrated, “and maybe a plains owl for nighttime.”

“Mmm.” Arebon set the stick down in the sand and looked up again. “But what if the market was at night under the stars?”

The man drew a length of straight wood across the sand to erase Arebon’s work. “Well, why would someone do that? It doesn’t seem like good business.”

“I’ve been wondering that for months.” Arebon pulled the coin from his pouch and tossed it into the sand. “But then I have a mystery.”

“Not a very sturdy coin.”

“No, but I think it was a message.”

“What would an elf want to buy at a market under the night sky?”

“A reason,” he said, and shrugged. “Something that means something.”

The man was staring now. “Such a thing might already be close at hand, or priced higher than you would be willing to pay.”

“Well if it’s close at hand, I cannot see it.”

“I believe that’s normal.”

“Doesn’t help much.”

“Either way, I wish you luck in your quest.”

“You wouldn’t know where an elf might find such a market?”

The man produced a pipe from a pocket in his coat. He bent down and lit a scrap of paper on the coals of the brazier, then leaned back and lit his pipe. “Where, indeed. What makes you think there is such a place?”

“I don’t know. But I’ve been looking for it for months and…”

This is ridiculous. He picked up the stick again and wrote the Elvish word ieserefon.

“Wanderer without purpose,” the man translated. “Yes, I can see that you do have a problem. Not one that is common among elves, is it? I would imagine that ieserefon isn’t a thing elves want to be.”

Arebon threw the stick into the sand once more. “No, it isn’t.”

He was on the verge of getting up, when the man spoke again.

“You are thinking of this Night Market as a place, as a mundane stop along a road of this world. Have you not lived your life on Terminus?”

“Yes, where else would I have lived?”

“There were people here before the elves came. I’m not talking about the dragons of old, mind you. I speak of mortals the size of you and me. You came, you elves, and built a majestic, extraordinary civilization in the shadow of the Roans. People look to you with respect, with envy. And you trade with us natives, who have always been here, but have you every actually listened to us?”

Arebon was taken aback. “I know that all those who live on Terminus have their own stories, legends—“

“You are not even listening to me now. For over four hundred years we have tried to tell the elves that what you see and touch—the trees, the stone, the mud in a trader path, the dust that clings to old buildings—that all of this is the cover of a book that you are afraid to read.”

Arebon shook his head and watched several two-wheeled carts moving through the street. “And how would I try to read this book?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to describe to you how to open your eyes when you don’t even know that you have eyes. I don’t know how to describe to you the brilliant colors of this world when you won’t look up from the dust beneath your feet. What just brushed your hair?”

“The wind.”

A sly smile. “Are you sure?”

Arebon took a moment to remember that they were underground, then said, “I would love to see something more, do you understand? I would love to see something other than… than refugees on the road with all they have, people gibbering about monsters emerging from the ground. I would love to see something beautiful…” He stopped and took a long breath. “A war is coming, or maybe it is already here, and I don’t even want to look at that.”

“If there is a war coming, elf, then it is because you who were brought to this world brought your gods along with you, and they are as ill-suited to open their eyes and see this world than those humans who speak as if their king rules the Silent Plains when they haven’t even been in this world twenty years. They come, they crave, they Descend, they ravage.”

Arebon closed his eyes. “They are doing that now.”

“And you’re looking for a market to show you the way. You truly are lost.”

Arebon swallowed. “Thanks for the lesson.”

Then he stood up and walked away.

 

* * * * *

 

Sairi stepped out of a window and sat on the roof of the inn. Beneath her was a rug woven in zigzag patterns in the local style. For a long time she just sat and looked down, watching the street in front of the inn; people moving through the market, people moving goods with small two-wheeled carts.

She noticed a lot of carts hauling supplies from one end of the village to the other: crockery containing preserved foods, sacks of harvested grains, salted meat, some furs.

She leaned back against the roof and closed her eyes. She heard the chatter of any village in strange accents, wheels turning, the sound of a stringed instrument and tiny cymbals. She pulled her cloak around her. It was cool in the village, and she had been told that down here it was cool year round, but never cold.

She opened her eyes again and looked up to the village ceiling: rock and glowing crystals, and little else. I would miss the sky if I lived here, she thought. Above ground, Lauta would be to the left of Hauna. Smaller Lauta, red amidst the clouds, with a dark crack splitting it along the side that always turned toward Terminus. Yesterday, Lauta was moving toward half full. It would catch up, and eventually pass Hauna. They would both become full and then....

She sat up and stared at nothing, thinking. Then she crawled back through the window. Once within the room she looked around for the coin, but couldn’t find it.

Arebon opened the door and walked in, looking frustrated.

“Do you have the coin?” she asked.

“The c… oh, this.” He took it from his coin pouch and handed it to her. “Useless thing.”

She took a candle from beside the bed. On the reverse side of the coin, the twin circles, one larger than the other. She squinted and saw a tiny scratch in the smaller circle. In the candlelight it seemed to shift and move, as if were a stalk of wheat blown by a light wind on the copper surface.

“How often do Hauna and Lauta line up?”

Arebon looked up from where he was taking off his boots. “Um…” He ran a hand through his hair, “it doesn’t happen often. Aovyn told me once they follow slightly different paths, so usually Lauta just catches up and passes by Hauna’s side.”

“But they do meet sometimes, don’t they?”

“Rarely, I think. When they align, I think astrologers have a party.”

“Do they know? Can they predict when it will happen?”

He looked at her closely now and said, “Why is this important? What’s wrong?”

She moved over to his bed and sat down, handed him the coin. “Because I have a feeling we might find this Market when the moons align.”

He turned over the coin and looked at the side with the two circles.

“Moons,” he said. “Why didn’t I…”

“That might tell us when, we don’t know where.”

He wrapped his fingers around the coin and smiled. “At least this gives us something.”

He looked at her then, and his eyes were again the eyes of a hunter who has scented the forest at dawn and feels that this day is full of promise. She ran her fingers along his cheek, through the beard that was getting out of hand again.

“We will find it,” she said. “We are on the path.”

He leaned his cheek into her hand. “I don’t even know why I’m looking for this. I don’t know why it matters so much to me… with all that’s going on.”

“Because you are a man who needs purpose as much as food and water. To inspire hope, you must feel it yourself.”

He laughed silently and closed his eyes. “You know me.”

“I have known you for most of my life, and you are still as wondrous as the dawn.”

“Especially when I’m sober, I imagine.”

She laughed and drew away. “Yes, especially then.” She changed the subject. “Have you noticed that a lot of supplies are moving from one end of the village to the other?”

Arebon nodded. “From a trade warehouse to a longterm storage warehouse.”

“They’re laying in supplies. Digging in.”

“They know something is coming. Same as everyone else, they’re preparing for everything to fall apart.”

She sighed. “When do we leave?”

“First thing in the morning. I’ll go pick up some supplies from what’s his name, the vendor with all the preserved trail foods.”

“I don’t remember his name.”

He took her hand, then released it.

“I’ll be back.”

 

* * * * *

 

Arebon left the inn through a back door and walked down a side street toward the vendor he sought. The shop was a small alcove in the stone, open on the fourth side, with shelves piled high with the sort of supplies one might need for a long time on the ground above.

He felt excited again, a giddiness akin to that he felt when they first set out on the road. When they first began a Quest completely unrelated to the Council, to Isek, to Faerthale. It was theirs. He felt a freedom and hope that had been draining away for some time as they traveled with the Ginto.

The sound of a pebble behind him. Something moving in the dim light of the alley. He glimpsed fur and a knife.

Arebon kicked away from his attacker and drew the dagger from his boot, cursing himself for leaving his sword in the inn. The attacker grunted at the kick of Arebon’s boots.

The pad of feet, and he saw his attacker closing in. Ratkin

Movement. A sound at his feet as things fell from the bag at his belt. He smiled grimly. The knife had caught on the bag instead of his flesh.

Arebon had fought ratkin before. They could be fast and good with knives. This ratkin's eyes were mostly pupil in the half light, so he watched the hand with the knife.

Fur caught the light as it moved, and some of the hairs were gray. An older rat.

Arebon kept his dagger moving, keeping the ratkin at a distance. Watching.

The knife moved, and Arebon dodged, then drew a breath at pain near his neck.

A small throwing knife from the other paw. Arebon reached up, found a small knife just beneath his clavicle, and knocked it away. Three inch blade, but not too deep. Close.

He lunged and the rat drew back. Then he leapt forward, grabbed one furry arm, and plunged his knife into the rat’s stomach. Close, the smell of wet fur.

He fell onto the rat and felt another throwing knife jammed into his right shoulder from the rat’s free hand.

He threw himself off the ratkin and skittered away a few steps, catching his breath. The dagger was still in his hand.

The ratkin was clutching its belly with both hands.

“Not finished, elf,” said the ratkin in Tradespeak. Its breath rasped.

“You’re losing blood fast,” said Arebon.

“There will be others.”

“Why?”

The ratkin coughed, but didn’t answer. Then it was still.

“Shit,” said Arebon. He felt the wound near his neck, then the one on his arm. Then he stood and took another route back to the inn.

He ran into the room, closed the door, then leaned on it. Sairi’s eyes widened and she came to look at him.

“What happened?” she said.

“I was attacked by a ratkin.”

“Why?”

He laughed. “I would like to know. He said there would be others.”

“What have we done to anger them?”

“No idea.”

She helped him to the bed and began to dress his wounds. “You weren’t wearing armor.”

“Yes, I had reason to regret that.” He frowned. “Its fur was wet. I think it must be raining on the surface.”

“So a ratkin knew you were in Dunsarrol, descended into the underground village, and found you while its fur was still wet.”

“Maybe it, I don’t know, came down and asked if there were any elves in town.”

Sairi shrugged. “We are the only elves here.”

“We’re the only elves in most places we go.”

“And now just two of us.”

He looked at her, then looked away. “I know. Maybe splitting us up was a bad idea. It just seemed that everyone wanted something different.”

“We’ll see them again in Sarnishar.”

Arebon nodded. “Someday.”

 

* * * * *

 

In a camp of the Hidden Folk

 

For two days they helped at the Hidden Folk settlement. What food they had been able to save from the burning wagons was distributed among the refugees who would soon be leaving through the tunnels underneath the ruins.

Only one entrance to those tunnels was left unblocked, and that was beneath the floor of the longhouse on the north side of the settlement.

Kymeret’s titan, his arcamental of stone, helped bring the larger sacks of non-perishable food into a room in the tunnels. Yonai took shifts in one of the watch posts.

And late one afternoon, Slumber found himself eyeing the spirits that drifted among the oblivious residents.

“You see them,” said Avaresk.

Slumber nodded.

“Do you see such beings often?”

Slumber shrugged and shook his head.

“Yes, they seem brighter here. They don’t seem to mean us any harm, but…” Avaresk watched as several spirits paused and stared toward the southeast. “That’s odd.”

For a long moment the spirits stood very still. Then suddenly they moved north as one, and their movements seemed to carry a hint of fear.

Slumber took several steps to the southeast and looked up toward the watch post where Yonai had just gone. Just then she appeared at the edge of the bowl a few yards from the watch post. She crouched and gave a bird call.

“Trouble,” said Avaresk. He began to run toward the slope on the south side of the hollow, and Slumber followed. Several others of the Hidden Folk joined them.

They were soon out of the hollow and crept east toward Yonai’s position. Here in the open plains, a bitter wind blew across the grasses. A red sun was low in the west behind them, sinking into bands of crimson cloud.

As they approached, Slumber took in the look on Yonai’s face and looked down.

A man’s body lay in the grass. His head had been torn off, and his heart pulled out. A head and the heart lay beside him.

“Who is it?” said one man.

“Look at the coat,” said Baran, his face twisted into grief. “Avek.”

Slumber noticed that the head and heart laying beside the body appeared to be long decomposed, though the rest of the body seemed freshly killed.

“I don’t understand what I’m seeing,” said Yonai.

“Wickerwend,” breathed Avaresk. “I assume you have never encountered one.”

“I have never heard of them.” She looked at Slumber, who shook his head.

Several of the people nearby were scanning the landscape.

“To the camp,” said Avaresk. “Prepare for a siege!”

Yonai caught Avaresk’s arm as he passed. “What is a wickerwend?”

“All you need to know for now is that this thing is probably the lieutenant leading a group of Revenant. If you see fog with eyes, attack with fire. Whatever you do, don’t let it get close.”

With a last look at the remains in the grass, he turned and descended into the hollow.

Baran and others began to shepherd the refugees into the longhouse. It would take a while to get them all into the tunnels.

Kymeret joined Yonai and Slumber as they listened to Avaresk giving orders to his people. To those who remained around him, he said, “Take what you need up to the roof. If they come before everyone is below, we have to hold them off.”

 

* * * * *

 

Yonai pulled Kymeret aside and pointed to a crate over half full of dry beans. “Can your rock friend get that up to the roof for me?”

He gave her an odd look, then whispered his titan into existence beneath the create. Then it lifted, carrying the crate into the air and toward the roof of the longhouse.

Yonai noticed several of the Hidden Folk bringing sacks of graingrass and spreading it around the building along with what looked like gray dust. It wasn’t right up against the building, but formed an outline almost two yards away from the wall.

Baran stepped around a corner and said, “Avaresk?”

Avaresk emerged from the longhouse. “Are we ready?”

“Almost,” said Baran. “How long?”

“They’re moving too slowly and the opening is too small. It could even be half a watch.”

Yonai turned and looked toward the south.

Something seethed and roiled on top of the slope, surrounding the graingrass watch post. A patch of fog oozed slowly into the air, shaped in reverse like a drop of water beginning to fall from the roof of a cave. It coalesced into a tall oval mist. Shapes of reeds and grain stalks emerged from above, and several trailed below like vines slowly moving.

Two wisps of coldest blue began to shine from within it. A sound as of growls and laughter reached them from behind it.

“Into the longhouse, now!” Yonai pushed Kymeret inside.

Those who had been placing graingrass around the longhouse stopped and went inside. Yonai and Avaresk followed them, and Baran shut the door.

“They’re here,” she said. Several of the refugees crowding around the entrance into the tunnel looked up with wide eyes.

Baran ordered the door sealed and boards placed into slots on either side.

Yonai ran toward the corner where she kept a large roll of arrows, both long and short, bundled into leather. She carried the arrows and her weapons onto the roof.

She turned the leather on its side and allowed the arrows to fall into the box. The arrows stood upright among the dry beans where she could easily get to them. Then she pushed her swords into the box as well, hilts up.

Several cauldrons on the roof were filled with coals, and these were lit so that archers could easily light prepared arrows. Kymeret summoned his fury.

“Would you help me, my friend?” asked Avaresk.

“What do you need?” said Kymeret.

“Fire.”

Avaresk sent bolts of flame into the line of graingrass on the south side of the longhouse.

“I see.” Kymeret sent his fury to the ground, where it began to move along the line of graingrass that surrounded the longhouse, leaving flame it its path.

Yonai looked up and saw lines of Revenant along the rim of the hollow, forms half-lit in the twilight. Some slumped toward the wickerwend, waiting for whatever signal it would give. She selected an arrow ready for flame, lit it in a cauldron, then moved to the edge of the roof.

She drew the arrow and sighted. The fletching tickled her cheek, and she felt the familiar warmth of anticipation, the lust of battle.

A sound pealed from the wickerwend like tearing wings and the scream of dying fae.

Released, the Revenant came pouring down into the hollow.