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Crowsinger

  • 2021-08-31 01:01

Chapter Nine

 

South Saol, 474 IH, late summer

 

They stood on moss-covered banks where the stream gurgled past from the village of Brond Falloe. Willow twigs and a spray of leaves were strewn on the ground around them, leavings from last night’s storm. But this day was clear, and the last trailing clouds flew above them, chasing after the racing storm.

“Why can’t we just take the road?”

Zill sniffed the air and glanced right. The road to Brond Falloe was some hundred yards away across the field. Exposed.

“Mind, I don’t mind the smell of the willows after a rain. It just seems like we’re taking the leisurely way.”

“We’re taking the quiet way.”

Edsin frowned. “You don’t want to be seen. What do you think is wrong?”

“I have no idea what is wrong,” said Zill. “Just that two days of missed deliveries means something is wrong.”

“Okay. Okay.”

Zill watch Edsin grip his bow tightly. The boy was still a bit green for a job like this, but maybe he might learn something.

They began to move upstream toward the village. West of the river, Zill could see outlying farms, but no sign of anyone working them. The closest field looked ready to harvest.

As they moved closer to the village, they saw a field that had been trampled as if by a herd of wild oxen. Every stalk was bent to the ground and stamped into dirt now soaked from the rain.

“Down,” said Zill, and Edsin knelt behind a willow.

Brond Falloe was just ahead, but they could see no sign of people doing chores. Wagons stood empty near the road. Except for crows and vultures, there were no animal sounds.

This is not good.

“Slowly now,” said Zill. “Into the tall grass on the right, then we creep toward the village.”

Zill had hunted in fields like this. Larger animals moving through would make the grasses move in a particular way, but you had to be looking for it. There was enough breeze blowing through the field to make the stalks sway on their own.

The ground was still a bit wet from the rain, though the summer sun would dry it out, and the soil here was good.

They slowed as they neared the edge of the field. Zill peered through the stalks into the empty streets of Brond Falloe.

No, not empty. Something was crouched in the street. A strange creature—two arms, two legs, but unrecognizable. Feral.

“You know what that is?” whispered Edsin.

“No.”

Another of the creatures appeared. This one was dragging a body.

Now that Zill was seeing the street more clearly, he saw several bodies scattered on the ground. Some were in pieces.

He could hear Edsin trying not to throw up.

“I think we need to get out of here,” said Zill quietly, “and get reinforcements.”

Motion to the left. A cloud of fog the size of a person drifted out of a house. Interwoven twigs draped beneath the creature, and something similar above. Cold, cold eyes glowed near the top.

“Wickerwend,” breathed Zill. “Gods.”

The cold eyes turned and looked toward where the two scouts were crouched in the tall grass just outside the village.

Run.”

Zill and Edsin leapt up and began to run back the way they came.

“Make for the willows by the stream,” said Zill. Edsin slowed a bit to let Zill catch up. The boy was fast.

“No, run!” said Zill. “Run as fast as you can.”

Edsin picked up speed.

Green grasses flew by around them, waist high. Ahead was the line of willows that marked the stream. The sky was blue as only a southern summer sky can be. Zill could smell harvest time on the wind.

Then Zill glanced back and almost tripped.

The wickerwend was only a couple of yards behind him now. Darker shapes pulsed within the mist of its body, but things like vines and twigs reached out from the mist. The cold eyes were fixed upon its quarry.

Then vines underneath tripped Zill, and he landed in the soft grass.

The mist descended upon him and began to open.

* * * * *

 

Faerthale City, 474 IH

 

Isek tried to focus on the pages before him—scattered books and scrolls, and pages of random notes—but they eluded him. Ink letters in elvish seemed in his weariness to be random curves and scratches on parchment.

“You look tired.”

Isek looked up and saw Kaolyen Greyborne, a familiar face in the archives.

“Exhausted,” he said.

“You should rest.” Kaolyen took a seat across from him and his gaze flitted across the pages.

“I know. But I have received word…” He suppressed a yawn.

“From one of your many scouts, I assume.”

“From Arebon Shalebrook.” When Kaolyen’s eyes widened, Isek said, “You remember the name.”

“How could I not? Sharowsul became a different man when his son died, and I know that he always blamed Arebon Shalebrook and his people… and you.”

“I know. And they have been out of contact for the most part. But a couple of years ago I received word by message crystal that they had joined with a group of the Ginto Remnant.”

“The Ginto!” Kaolyen shook his head. “You keep your secrets too close, my friend. You always have.”

“Perhaps I am wrong to do so. But after what happened with Sharowsul, and,” he looked around the archive and lowered his voice, “the attack on Arebon by a group of elven soldiers, I decided that perhaps it is time for secrecy.”

Kaolyen looked sad. “This division between us could destroy the elven people, I fear.”

“I do not know what to believe. In any case, I went home yesterday and found a message from Arebon. His first in months. They have been scouting, Kaolyen. Wandering this continent looking for signs and evidence of the movements of the Enemy’s forces.”

“I assume they found some.”

“Bits and pieces. Attacks on villages, trade caravans destroyed and looted, fields of crops razed to the ground.”

“Do they know who is doing these things?”

“Sometimes it is difficult to sort brigands and cultists from those who actually follow Ossari.”

“I would imagine that there is some overlap between them all.”

“True. But they have also encountered small groups of Revenant.”

Kaolyen drew a breath. “Revenant. Here?

“They are coming in from the sea and from wizard stones by groups and looting the countryside on their way to their general.”

“You must bring this to the council.”

“I will be calling a war council within a day or two, but I have been trying to correlate Arebon’s report with places in our records before then.”

Kaolyen nodded. “And then?”

“And then we continue to prepare for war.”

* * * * *

 

The Map Chamber in the Archive of the Land was an eight-sided room with a large table in the center. Four walls were home to shelves on which maps were carefully stacked and organized. Most were rolled up into parchment scrolls, but some of the older ones were painted upon lengths of wood tied into thick scrolls.

The other four walls were covered with large maps unrolled and stretched across the stone. On one wall, a detailed map of Faerthale with elevations in different colors, paths and villages inked in, and important landmarks noted.  On another wall, a map of the Silent Plains and the various tribes and towns with which the elves traded. The map had been taken down several years before, and the location of the human city of Havensong added with fresh ink.

The other two walls held maps of other lands that bordered Faerthale.

But in the center of room, a stone table some three yards across. Woodcarvers had painstakingly sculpted the topography of their entire continent in intricate detail. Then artisan painters had gone over the sculpted map adding colors for forests, rivers, dangers, and points of interest.

The Council of Nine branches stood around this table now and looked down upon the landscape of all the world this side of the oceans. In the north, the Roan Mountains rose above the rest of the landscape in stone reds and ice whites. The Silent Plains, the colors of wheat and purple flowers with the odd thorns characteristic of some areas detailed in tiny relief.

As yet no one had added Havensong to this map, for all agreed that this was a work of elven art, and some questioned if any lived in this day who could be allowed to alter the map without risk of damaging a single detail. Sharowsul Iskosia vehemently argued that there were such artisans alive today, and he could produce sculptors and painters who could do the work. But as yet several on the council remained reluctant.

On this day they were gathered for a council of war—though some were hesitant to call it such.

 Naftali Oakweaver spoke. “We have reports from several tribes of orcs moving through the plains, and even the fringes of Faerthale itself. They all move westward, though to what destination we know not.”

“Has communication been attempted?” asked another councilor.

“Every attempt has resulted in battle,” said another. “I suggest we leave them alone unless they attack elves or attempt to raze a settlement or village.”

“Agreed,” said Naftali.

“And the Revenant?” The Mediator turned to Isek Riverdusk. “You have said that your agents have reported seeing Revenant prowling the continent.”

Sharowsul’s expression darkened, but Isek ignored him. He opened a notebook, then began taking cloth-wrapped tokens from his pocket. Each tiny token was shaped as an arrowhead, and as he set each one down on the large map, he set the arrow to point in a specific direction. As he worked, murmuring began around the table, and one councilor gasped.

“Are you certain of this?” asked Kaolyen Greyborne.

“These are just the groups that my people have seen or encountered,” said Isek, “along with their direction of movement. We have no way of knowing how many groups of Revenant are moving through these lands of which we have no reported sightings. And also…” he closed his notes and removed his glasses, “as we have already discussed, there could be other groups making their way toward Ossari that we have not identified. There is a lot of movement, more than I have ever seen, in various populations of the western half of the continent.”

Every eye could see that many of the arrows were pointing in the general direction of lands to the east.

“Does this mean,” murmured Kaolyen, “that Ossari is currently in the eastern plains?”

“Where is your human friend,” said Naftali, “what is his name…”

“Castigue,” said Kaolyen. “Narian Castigue.” He shook his head. “I do not know. He has been journeying long, and I haven’t received a letter in some time. I have worries…”

“Have we shared this information with the human ambassador?” asked Niraifa’len.

Isek glanced at Sharowsul, but the man was silent.

“Let us wait,” said the Mediator. “Perhaps we can ask of the humans if they have seen movements of dangerous forces in the plains.”

“I do not trust that man,” said Naftali. “His elvish is impeccable, but his speech is such unctuous waste…“

“I agree with the Mediator,” said Isek. “We should wait and decide how much to share.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sharowsul nod.

* * * * *

 

On the north coast of South Saol, late afternoon

 

Arebon lay at the cliff’s edge and looked down upon the lone ship. People moved around the small village, some moving crates and sacks by mule-drawn wagon toward the ship. It was a small craft, not built for the deep ocean. It probably ran the same route between South Saol and the coast of the Silent Plains over and over. Eighteen yards long, with three masts carrying battened lateen sails for beating into the wind.

Sairi crept up beside him and looked down at the village for a long time.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“Doesn’t look like a smuggler base.”

“No, but rumor says it is. I only hope the rest is true.”

“That they carry passengers instead of killing and looting them?”

“Yes, that.”

They backed away from the cliff and returned to the group waiting in the woods. Aovyn and the Ginto Ekistei were having a deep conversation about something. Everyone looked up as Arebon returned.

“There’s a ship,” he said. “I think it will do if they don’t turn on us.”

“It would be an unusually good day for us if they don’t,” said Kymeret.

“Will you need assistance?” asked Ekistei.

“No, I think we will be all right. It would probably be best if they don’t see you.” Arebon looked around at the gathered Ginto Remnant. “You have helped and guided us for over two years, and we are stronger for it. Perhaps even ready for what is to come. There are no words to express our gratitude.”

“No words are needed. You helped us scout your continent. Now your people and ours have knowledge to prepare for what we must do.”

Arebon bowed low, and others with him. When he rose, he saw that the Ginto had bowed as well.

“Fight well,” said Ekistei, “and may your people survive.”

“Fight well,” Arebon echoed, “and may your people survive.”

Her eyes did not dim, but she nodded sadly. “We must kill our god first.”

“May you find peace,” said Aovyn.

She nodded, then turned and began to walk away toward the west. The elves watched them go.

Arebon felt a long breath leave him. Then he said, “Let’s go hire some smugglers.”

They moved east through the forest until they came to the narrow wagon road leading down toward the village. When they were still some distance from the village, there was a sound to their left.

“Hold!” said a voice on the right.

“Arebon Shalebrook, elf of Faerthale. I and my companions seek passage north to the Plains.”

For a long moment nothing happened. Arebon couldn’t blame them for being on guard. A group of eight elves in fairly respectable armor that could inspire either fear or greed, Aovyn with his staff, and a wolf companion. Arebon didn’t want to fight a whole village of smugglers—and none of his people knew how to sail a ship even if they did—but some small part of him was curious if they could pull it off.

Soon they might find out.

A bird call on the right. Then someone on the left fled through the woods, no doubt to alert the village.

“You may pass,” said the voice on the right.

“You have my thanks,” said Arebon. He motioned his people forward and resumed descending the hill.

When the road emerged from the forest, they saw the village clustered near the docks. There were several rough buildings and an obvious warehouse—and a dozen armed smugglers lined up before them. Arebon had no doubt there were archers he couldn’t see.

“Good afternoon,” he said cheerily in the southern trade language. “We seek passage to the Plains.”

A large man in the front looked them over. He leaned on an enormous hammer almost as tall as Aovyn’s staff, and he appeared quite capable of using it.

“I don’t suppose,” said the man, “you would consider handing over your weapons?”

“I’m afraid we cannot do that. You understand that trust has been scarce lately. But I think we can make a deal that the captain would like.”

The big man stared. Then he said, “What do you think, captain? Would you make a deal with these stalwart heroes?”

A couple of his companions laughed, but one woman stepped forward. She was a head shorter than Sairi, though clearly not a dwarf. Medium dark skin and the characteristic hair of a Rishagi tribeswoman. At her sides she wore twin long knives in beaten scabbards, and Arebon had little doubt she would be as fast as Rishagi were said to be.

“Elves are usually good for it,” she said at last. “If they’re not, their gear looks fine enough.”

More laughter. The big man stood up straighter and gestured, inviting them into the village.

“That went well,” muttered Kymeret.

“We shall see,” said Yonai in her ‘a good fight would be sweet about now’ voice.

They were escorted into the middle of the village. Other than the big man with his hammer, no one had a weapon visibly bared. And there were still the hidden archers Arebon was sure were there.

The captain stood about four yards away and looked him over. Both of her hands rested on knife hilts. Arebon’s hands rested upon the hilts of sword and dagger.

“What have you got?” she said.

“Crowdancer,” he said.

Crowdancer stepped forward and took from her shoulders a strap from which hung two heavy bags. She stepped forward and dropped the bags on the ground between Arebon and the captain. Isonis tensed until she stepped back into his shadow.

A man in rough clothing knelt and opened one leather bag, turning it over to spill coins of gold, platinum, and coldark onto the ground.

Audible gasps rose from the smugglers around them, and the man with the hammer grunted.

The captain wore an odd smile. “Where does a person come by such a fortune?”

“The Halls of Heradorn,” said Arebon.

The big man seemed on the verge of objecting, but then he looked again at the fortune on the ground, and the second bag unopened, and reconsidered.

Another man leaning on a sheathed greatsword said, “How does a group of, forgive me, fine looking elves defeat the Five Spirits and the Screeching King?”

“We have a way with spirits,” said Isonis.

“The screeching was a problem,” acknowledged Kymeret.

“He screeches no more,” said Arebon.

He spied more respect in the eyes of the smugglers than before.

“And why,” said the captain, “would you go to all that trouble only to lay the treasure at my feet?”

Arebon glanced at Crowdancer, who shrugged. “It was heavy.”

The smugglers laughed again, and the captain said, “Lucky for you, several shipments we expected have disappeared in the last two weeks. I need to leave before dusk, but we have,” she swept her arm toward her ship, “a lot of room that should have been filled with cargo. Welcome aboard.”

She turned toward the ship, then paused. “Don’t overestimate my tithe to the village, Bekrin.”

Greatsword Man chuckled and said, “I promise you won’t notice.”

“I notice everything,” she said as she strode toward the ship.

“Shall we?” said Arebon to his people.

* * * * *

 

Faerthale City, late afternoon

 

The Hall of Senshel was a hallway connecting parts of the Archive. In later years, a larger wing was constructed on the other side of the grounds, making it easier to move between parts of the Archive without using the Hall of Senshel. And so, the Hall was rather empty of materials that had been moved to the new wing.

For this reason, it was a quiet place seldom traveled. Dust would collect on the floor over a period of weeks, or even months, until someone remembered the Hall existed.

But some few enjoyed the walk for this reason. Sharowsul was one of them. As he turned a corner, the sunlight of a late summer afternoon raked across the city and cast a glow along the hallway.

“I thought I would find you here,” said a familiar, hated voice.

Sharowsul turned. Carathost walked behind him silently in his red robes, wearing the emblem of his station on a length of chain around his neck. His hands were clasped before him.

“Were you looking for me, ‘ambassador’?”

A slight smile. “Yes I was. Councilor. It seems there have been meetings, important meetings held privately away from the council chamber. I had hoped, based upon our fond connection in the past, that you might vouchsafe some hint of what transpires in the Council of Nine Branches.”

“Mmm.” Sharowsul watched him as one watches a two-headed river asp. “I’m afraid that outsiders are not privy to the notes of private Council meetings.”

Carathost took a step closer. “Come, Sharowsul, let us be honest. You have kept your Council closer in recent months.”

“Yes, finding that one’s wife has become a devout cultist of a fallen human god can often sour one’s own faith.”

“Faith.” Carathost smiled. “What need of faith, when Ossari breathes and walks this world? When his priests,” he raised a ringed hand, “are available for consultation, confession, or conspiracy?”

“What do you really intend for my people, Carathost?”

“Have you forgotten your son?”

Sharowsul felt a familiar tightness in his chest, a lambent fury. “I have not forgotten my son for a single hour of the last several years, yet you find it necessary to remind me when you want something.”

He took the human by his robes and pulled him close, stared into those eyes. “What do you intend? The truth!”

Cold, sharp. There was no pain at first, not until Carathost twisted the blade of the dagger he had plunged into Sharowsul’s stomach. Sharowsul tried to draw a breath and found it difficult, as if his lungs did not want to move.

Carathost shoved him and he fell. Sharowsul pulled along the floor, slowly, hand by hand until he leaned against the wall. Then he put one hand against his stomach and tried to slow the blood. His eyes watched the dagger held loosely in the human’s hand as he walked slowly closer.

“Do you really want to know the truth? Ah, my friend, I have savored it. A truth held close to the heart, especially a dangerous truth, is sweet.” Carathost dropped to his knees and leaned in, holding Sharowsul’s gaze. “But revelation is even sweeter. Do you want to know? I shall tell you several truths.

“The greatest truth—I should begin with this—the greatest, most wonderful truth, is that I lied about my god. Did you really believe that Ossari cares about your grief and rage over your son?” He chuckled. “Your wife believes even now, believes that the great god of rage cares about her pain, loves her because of her desire for revenge.”

Carathost leaned in closer. “Ossari. Doesn’t. Care.” He laughed. “He doesn’t care about a single emotion in his follower’s hearts as long as they serve his needs. He doesn’t even care about me, his most loyal priest, if I might so name myself. He hates you all. He hates me. He hates humans more than elves, of course, and Amensol most of all, but believe me when I say that Faerthale will burn, and your filthy Tree will turn to ash.”

He chuckled again. “Which is ironic, of course, though I doubt he sees that. Not one for irony, my god, but be that as it may. There will be nothing left of your city, your forests, your shrines, your people.”

Sharowsul coughed, still trying to pull in enough breath to speak.

“Another truth,” crooned the priest. “Isek’s people did not kill your son.” His voice thinned into a near whisper filled with laughter. “My associate did. Not my plan, but I approved, and rewarded him, because it brought you to me.

“Always offer the mark something he wants within the dark depths of his heart,” said the priest. “Encourage him to feel that any action he might take now is justified, for after all, something was taken from him… and now he must,” closes his hand upon nothing, “take it back.”

His head was spinning, muddled in fog and loss of blood.

“Oh, Sharowsul, so many cons have I run, but something about this one delighted me. The long con. Help bring down two whole civilizations! I never dreamed so big on Vas Demith.”

“You…”

“But alas, our time has ended. Your usefulness was, I fear, less than the enjoyment I gained toying with you, though you did allow me some legitimacy with the Council.”

“…no…”

“My associate has left devices scattered around your City. Devices, yes, of magical nature. Arcane crystals based on some knowledge Ossari brought with him when he descended. They will soon… ignite. And then we shall see what remains of your City.

“But now it is time for you to join your wife. I must tell you that I found her eyes most lovely as she lost her life. But she won’t be alone now.”

Carathost laughed again. His arm moved.

Then he yelped and his eyes widened. The priest was pulled away by his hair and thrown to the floor, and a guard lowered a sword to sever the priest’s right hand that held the dagger.

Carathost screamed.

Isek was there, leaning down to Sharowsul and holding a length of cloth against the wound. “Fetch a healer!” he shouted. “Now!”

Sharowsul felt tears on his cheeks, though he did not know when they began. “Isek,” he whispered.

“Try not to speak, my old friend. Help is coming.”

“Priest…” Sharowsul coughed, “of Ossari.”

Isek’s eyes widened. “The ambassador?”

He coughed again and felt consciousness recede. He tried to reach up and take Isek’s shoulder. “Devices in the city,” he breathed. “Arcane. Destroy.”

“Where are they?”

Sharowsul heard voices, saw a white fox appear before him.

“Forgive me.”

He hoped he had spoken aloud. And then everything faded.

* * * * *

 

Redgrove, night

 

Under a cloudless night sky with the countless stars watching, the City changed. Musicians and other street performers fled with the others as wardens led them outside the city gates and into the Redgrove. They gathered under the trees in groups of families and friends and colleagues, numb with shock and worry. From under the whispering leaves, they watched the city walls.

Wardens, archivists, and wizards prowled the streets, searching for any sign of the devices Councilor Sharowsul had spoken of. With no way of knowing what to look for, they had to trust to means other than sight. Magic warding the City from harm was strengthened, and wizards slowly walked the streets and paths with eyes half-open, trying to sense a magic that did not belong. Some brought crystals they had designed for sensing such things.

For all that the mood was frantic and somber, it seemed that all the cheery lights of Faerthale City were ablaze—street lanterns along every path, paper lanterns hanging from the trees, brazier fires in public squares.

The Council of Nine Branches had been moved to a safe place in Redgrove. Messengers ran to them from the City gates with updates on the situation within the walls.

Three devices had been found that did not belong, each said to radiate an aura of lurking darkness. A crystal, it was said, that pulsed with amber light, contained in a housing of bronze like a lantern of some kind. One was near the Council chamber, as expected. Another waited in a closet in the Archive.

“Go to the Lucent,” said Councilor Naftali at one point. “If someone wanted to strike at the heart and spirit and morale of the elven people, they would strike there.”

Straightaway went three wardens and a wizard toward the Tree in its sacred place.

Isek stood near the pallet where Sharowsul lay, being tended by healers. The man muttered to himself, and Isek heard some of what he spoke. Recrimination and regret. It would be hard for the Council in the next few days.

No. He knew in his heart that the hard times had only begun.

Even as he thought about that, there was a sound like nothing he had ever heard, as if the drum of sky sounded for war, as if something tore apart—and then two more.

Deep within the City, three stone buildings, the best of elven artistry and strength, were crushed beneath their own weight in moments, until there was nothing left but dust.

* * * * *

 

Faerthale Forest

 

On a hill to the east, hidden among the trees, Rhydian stood with his eyes fixed on the distant City of the Elves. After the first three, he waited for the sounds of the other four.

They never came.

“Three?” He stamped his feet in frustration and cursed. “There should have been seven.”

He sighed and looked toward the east where Lord Ossari hid and waited for his time to come. “You promised me I could watch it all burn and collapse into the ground,” he whispered, “and I will hold you to that.”

Cursing again, he mounted the horse that waited deeper in the trees.

Maybe one of those devices had blasted the chamber where all their councilors talked about—whatever elves thought important. The thought cheered him up for a moment.

Then he kicked the horse into motion. It would not do to be found within Faerthale this night.

Staying away from the road, he made for the border.

* * * * *

 

Faerthale, near the Lucent Tree

 

There had always been two wardens at the entrance to the sacred place where Lucent grew and breathed. So Isek remembered it had always been.

Now things were different. Soldiers were thick near the City and the Lucent. A squad of Faerthale’s best-trained stood guard near the entrance to the clearing, gleaming in silver and steel.

Inside, the clearing was full. In all his life, he had never seen so many elves in this place at once.

Naftali came to greet him, his face covered in ash. “It is good to see you here, my friend.”

“I had to come,” Isek responded. Whispering a blessing, he dipped both hands in the silvered bowl that contained ash for those who came. He spread it upon his face, still whispering until his face was white and gray.

“Look,” said Naftali, and pointed. Toward the front nearest the Tree, Sharowsul Iskosia sat with his face ashen.

“I have never seen him wear the ash,” said Naftali.

“Nor I,” said Isek. “But it isn’t just the darkness that has entered Faerthale. He has lost his wife and son.”

“Yes.” Naftali shook his head. “I have clung to a hope that all of this will not lead to what you fear. But now I wonder if you are right. Since that night I have barely slept.”

“Nor I. And I take no pleasure in finding that my fears may very well come to pass.”

“No one calls you mad or reckless anymore.” Naftali shook his head. “Will it really come to that? Must we run again?”

“Our people have run before,” said Isek. “We have been hunted before, nearly to extinction. Yet we have always survived.”

“By the Tree, I am weary.”

“And I as well. But take heart, my friend. I believe that there are those who will help us when the time comes.”

“Your troops of irregulars, your Adrian Rangers. You really believe that if it comes to that, they will throw themselves in the path of our enemy to keep our species alive?”

“They are elves,” said Isek. “They will not run when their people need them.”

* * * * *

 

On the sea between South Saol and Silent Plains

 

Arebon watched the sun set over the sea. The coast was too far away to see, so the water seemed to reach into the uttermost west beyond all lands and touch the weary sun.

He wondered if there were dragons beneath him. The dragons of sea were long dead, or so the stories told, but who knew the ways of dragons? Who knew where they hid in these mortal ages?

He drew his coat closer around him. The last few days of summer were yet to come, but here on the sea, a cold wind raked the waters. The smuggler ship sliced the waves, beating the wind back and forth with all sails hauled close. Now and then they would turn to take the wind from the other side, and the passengers had scuttled into a cabin after the first time the boom swung across the deck and nearly knocked someone into the water.

They did not belong here—but it was better than traveling through Vae Wood again.

Arebon decided he had had enough of lying against the... the side of the ship, whatever they called it. He looked up to be sure the boom overhead wasn’t moving, then moved toward the doorway into the stern cabin.

The others were inside. Some held onto something to pull against the heaving of the ship forward and backward, though no one had lost their dinner since the first two days. He looked around in the lantern light.

“Arebon,” said Aovyn. The man nodded toward a soft blue light pulsing within Arebon’s pack.

Arebon’s heart quickened. A message from Isek. It had been four months since their mentor had last contacted them.

“I’ll go below,” he said, and pulling the message crystal from his pack, he took it with him into the tiny hallway and then down a ladder.

He looked around and saw no one in the stern hold. He closed the door and found himself in a darkness lit only by the blue crystal.

“Rangers in the wild,” he said to the crystal, “far from home, but home is in our hearts.”

The pulsing softened into a steady glow. After a moment, he heard Isek’s voice.

 

Arebon. I hope that you are well. I cannot express how much your information has helped us. We now have a much clearer understanding of the movements of our enemy. Now the Council must act. We will have time to prepare ourselves, to protect our people.

I cannot imagine how hard the last four years have been for you. It is good to hear that your people have learned much from the Ginto, and I know that you have become seasoned fighters. There are no words in the language of elves that can encompass the measure of our gratitude.

At the end of your last message, you asked—not for the first time—why I trained you all. For what reason did I gather hundreds of elves from the fringes of Faerthale society, lost and seeking purpose, and have them trained to fight?

I do not know if you remember the tale of Ardria of S’iolaen. Without the actions of her and her brave companions, the elves would no longer be a species, or even a memory. For she formed groups of skirmishers out of rangers desperate to protect their people. They slowed the advance of the Tohr’mentirii so that the elven people could flee from the flames of Lumos and be safe for a time.

 

Arebon held his breath.

 

It is because I feared that we would soon find ourselves on the run again, hunted and seeking refuge, that I raised my own force of Ardrian Rangers. And unfortunately, my fears have come to pass. A terrible enemy is raising armies so like the Tohr’mentirii that all of Faerthale City is singing of that flight from their home.

I am not a captain, or a general. I gave you your new lives freely. What you do with your lives from here on is yours to choose. You are not giants, or demigods, or dragons. You are a band of sworn brothers and sisters, an iskele as in the old tales.

But when the day comes that the elven people once again find our civilization, our species, in danger of extinction… on that day I hope that you will gather and fight like Ardria of Old.

And that, my friend, is all I wanted to tell you. Stay safe and contact me soon.

For now, goodbye.

 

A long time passed in total darkness after the light from the crystal faded. Arebon sat very still, barely breathing.

Late in the night, someone opened the hatch and descended the ladder. Aovyn carrying a lantern. Arebon squinted against the light.

Aovyn sat down on a crate and said, “The others were worried, so I said that I would check on you.” Then Aovyn looked fully into Arebon’s face. “What happened?”

Arebon reached up a hand and found the tears on his face. He tried to speak, but the sound he made held no words.

Aovyn leaned over laid a hand on his shoulder. “Tell me, my brother. What has happened? What can we do?”

“Ardria,” Arebon choked out.

“Yes, I remember the story. What of it?”

Arebon cleared his throat and said, “That is why Isek trained us. Why he gathered us in and gave us a home and made us believe.” He could hear the anger in his voice, could feel himself shaking. “So that we could be like Ardria for this generation.”

Aovyn stared, shaking his head slowly. “But Ardria’s people died. All of them. They gave their lives so that the elven people could escape from those who burned the Tree. And so our people survived to make it to Terminus, and a new home.”

“Yes. And that is what Isek intended for us from the beginning.”

“No.”

“Would you like to hear the message?”

Arebon spoke louder than he meant to. He lowered his head. For a long time, there was no sound but their breathing, and then he heard Aovyn swallow.

“Four years,” said Arebon when he could speak again. “Four years I took charge of this iskele. I bound us in blood and oaths and swore that we would one day make it home. I swore that Isek, our mentor, who took us in and gave us hope, would bring us home to Faerthale and we would all be elves at last living among our people.”

He barely noticed when Aovyn came over to sit next to him on the crate.

“I held out that hope before you all. And I could see the light in your eyes. I could see Isonis change and become someone who believed. I watched Sairi as the hope took hold. You all believed because I believed.”

He felt tears on his face again, but he ignored them. Aovyn put an arm around his shoulders.

“It was all a lie, Aovyn. Isek lied to us all, made us believe. And I lied to all of you,” his voice was almost gone, “and gave you hope. But all of that hope was ash.”

For a long time, Aovyn said nothing, just held Arebon as he felt his faith drain into the ocean beneath the ship and lose itself in the endless dark.

There was a thump at the other end of the back hold, and the yip of a wolf who landed hard on her feet. Then she padded over and laid her head upon Arebon’s lap.

At last, the shaman spoke. “Listen to me, my brother. Sometimes you have come to me for guidance, for council. You have come to me for support when your hope or your confidence was difficult to hold. I don’t know if I can say what you need in this moment. All I can do is say what I believe is true.

“You did not lie, brother. You told us a truth that you believed and held next to your heart. You did not lead us astray; you led us on the only path you knew. You did not give us false hope; you shared your own hope freely. And now that you have lost your belief, we must share this burden with you. I do not know what you will decide to do. But I can tell you that we will walk with you wherever you look for light.”

Arebon took a deep breath. His hand was scratching the wolf behind her ears, and he found it calmed him.

“What will you do?”

Arebon laughed without humor. Then he stood up and opened the bulkhead between the stern and central holds. In the lantern light he walked toward the ramp that led to the deck. Aovyn and the wolf followed him.

Hauna was up, a gibbous moon gazing across the water.

Arebon unclenched his hand and looked down at the now silent crystal, dark in the moonlight. Without a thought he moved his arm. He didn’t hear the splash when the crystal hit the water, lost amidst the sound of the hull crashing against the waves. He looked up at the moon and laid his hand once more upon the wolf’s head.

“I know that you wanted to go home,” said Aovyn.

Arebon watched the moonlight dancing on the waves.

“Where is home?” he said.