by Aiden Sawyer
Copyright © 2011 by Dex Briggs, Rogue Publications.
All rights reserved.
Cover and Book design by Dex Briggs, Rogue Publications
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ePublished in the
First Release: May 2011
Honor has been a labor of love, but it would never have come to fruition
without the contributions of more than a few close friends and family members.
To Keith, Joe,
Table of Contents
Tellion Steele, a peasant Elf by birth, was typically naďve and optimistic in his formative years and, without regard to the disparity between their stations, surrendered his young heart impulsively and completely to Lynless Allystriel, the Elven princess of Celestar. Yet, Tellion was anything but a typical Elf. Even in his youth he had faced demons, and he held secrets. . . secrets that eventually landed him in trouble with the Elven aristocracy.
Banished from his homeland, the only honor Tellion Steele came to know was that of the sword and the shadows. Bereft of family and forsaken by Lynless, the outcast Elf learned to make his way in life as a thief and a mercenary. Now, the world is seized by the machinations of conspiracy and war, and the Elven princess is somehow caught up in the workings. Against his better judgment, Tellion finds he must return to the land of his exile to protect the beautiful princess from the forces of evil that threaten her. But when a conflicted Lynless refuses his aid, Tellion is forced to play a dangerous game fraught with peril and intrigue as he walks the fine line between honor and treachery, deceiving both friend and foe alike to pull off the gambit of his life – to liberate the unwilling princess from the fortress of the Elf-king.
Demons of the Past
Moonlight filtered through the window, bathing the Elven princess in a soft white light as she slept peacefully upon a bed of down. Her unblemished face glowed serenely in the illumination, delicate features finely outlined by the soft, supple shadows of twilight as the cool night air flowed through the chamber, wafting the diaphanous curtains placidly against the frame of the window. Like a veil, her auburn hair fell across a flawless face, fanning out over satin shoulders as pure as ivory. Unconsciously, she brushed a strand of hair from her parted lips and nuzzled her ivory cheek into a fluffy, white pillow, her chest rising and falling gently in a slow, steady rhythm under a gossamer blanket. With a tranquil sigh, the princess settled back into a deep sleep, unaware of the ominous shadow that crawled silently through the open window as the ethereal drapery fluttered on the cool breeze. Stepping into the darkness at the side of the portal where the moonlight did not fall, the shadow crouched like a predator, motionless and ready to spring on its prey. For long moments the sinister figure waited, watching the restful beauty from the shadows, its eyes concealed within a deep and impenetrable hood.
The princess was undisturbed by the soft, noiseless footfalls of the predator as it moved like a dark spirit across the room. It was not distracted by the finely crafted chiffonnier against the wall, or by the small, silver dirk resting on the nightstand next to the bed. Neither did the black void at the opening of the figure's hood turn to gaze upon the ornate jewelry laid with obvious care atop the dresser. Without detour the predator advanced on the bed, a blade glinting momentarily within the folds of a long cloak as the figure passed through the moonlight in front of the window. Nearer it drew to the bed, and the princess shifted in her sleep, sighing again as one delicately-pointed ear was exposed from under the tangle of her untamed hair. The predator became completely still, waiting.
For long moments, the predator remained motionless until the princess' breathing had resumed its peaceful, steady rhythm. Then, the figure advanced menacingly, raising a long, curved dagger high over the defenseless beauty. The dagger glowed wickedly in the soft white light as the predator's hood fell back from its head, revealing a gaunt face with sunken eyes under a hairless scalp. An almost inaudible hiss escaped through slender, purplish lips stretched in an evil grin as he held the dagger aloft. The blade seemed to capture all of the light within the room, and it shone brilliantly as it stood poised for an instant above the unprotected chest of the princess. Then, with a flash, the dagger plummeted downward on its deadly errand.
Tellion Steele sat bolt upright, startled from his sleep by the clarity of the dream. Moonlight filtered weakly through a curtained window, but his slanted eyes could see well enough in the dark to find his gear. A leather pack rested at the foot of the bed next to a pair of low-cut boots that appeared to have seen many leagues of travel. Steele pushed off the covers and rolled so that he could reach the pack over the edge of the bed. He was covered with a thin sheen of sweat, and his heart pounded audibly in his head as he rummaged through the contents of the pack, pulling forth a flint and steel with a satisfied smile. He breathed deeply as he peered through the darkness around the small room, locating a candle upon an aged nightstand. With a skilled hand, he struck up a flame on the candle.
Shadows sprang up around the room and danced upon the walls as Steele walked over to the window. He was slender and moved with a grace that betrayed his Elven heritage, but he was taller than most Elves, standing a head over five feet. His pointed ears too were a distinguishing feature that marked him as Elven, protruding from under the mop of sandy-brown hair that fell in a tangled mess to his neck. At a distance, or even at a glance, he could pass for a young Human, but the ruse would not stand up to a closer, more detailed scrutiny. His eyes were indisputably un-Human; dark soul-piercing grey and as keenly angled as any full-blooded Elf. Yet, the trace of Human blood that flowed within his veins was not without manifestation. Muscles, strong and well toned from years of soldiering, played beneath his linen nightshirt as he pulled the drapes aside and peered out the window. It was a cloudy night, threatening rain, and dawn was still hours away.
Steele returned to his bed and sat staring into the flame of the candle as if searching for the answer to a soul-burdening question. The dream had returned for the fourth time in almost as many nights, and he could not shake the feelings with which it left him each time. He had believed many of those feelings were long dead; it had been years since he had allowed himself to reflect upon the Elven princess. Even the image of her that he had once carried in his mind had become distant and faded. That had been for the best, he thought. He had learned to be happy. But that had all changed recently when he had learned of an assassination plot against the princess.
Now, memories flooded back into his head in a tremendous rush, and a twinge of fear stabbed at his heart. He had already used his influence and contacts, cashing in on some long-standing favors, in order to discern more about the plot. And, he had arranged for the threat to be eliminated. That had brought him mild satisfaction, though he would have preferred to perform the task himself. Unfortunately, he had been dodging his own assassins, and until recently, had been forced into hiding while he tried to discover who was trying to kill him. There were a number of suspects who the mercenary deemed of a mind to have him killed, but few seemed in a position to retain assassins for such a time as these had been dogging him. Most of Tellion Steele’s enemies who still lived had been either impoverished or imprisoned at his own hand or at the hands of his brigade of mercenaries. Now, the mystery seemed a moot question, for he had managed to elude the assassins, at least for the present.
Musingly, he wondered if their employer had run out of funds, a prospect that did not bode well when dealing with hired killers. But Steele did not dwell long on the riddle. His mind was preoccupied by more mundane thoughts, and by more pleasant memories of days long past. Still, it troubled him that he had not been able to recapture the image of the princess in the same light in which he had once held it. Not until the dreams started.
With a deep sigh, Steele moved to the corner of the small room and retrieved a heavy cloak from a hook on the wall, gazing momentarily at the coat of mail and the short sword that had been concealed beneath. His eyes shifted as he pulled on the cloak and reached for an unstrung longbow leaning against the wall in the corner. He stroked the flexible wood reflectively for a moment, tenderly caressing the smooth contours. Then, he placed it back gently and returned again to the pack at the foot of the bed, taking a few rolls of parchment and writing materials from one of its pockets and setting them upon the nightstand in front of the candle. He shook the small container of ink vigorously and twisted off the stopper, setting it to the right of the stand.
After a moment of silent reflection, Tellion Steele unrolled the parchment and meticulously composed several messages with a feather-quill. Then, folding each message up neatly, he took a bar of black wax and held it in the candle flame above each document so that the melted wax dripped upon the seal. While the wax was still hot, the Elf pulled a small signet ring from inside his shirt where it was fastened upon a leather lanyard and pressed it into the wax so that it formed the symbol of two crossed daggers across each seal. After the wax had cooled, he set the documents loosely inside his pack to give to his messenger agents upon the coming of dawn. With a slight nod to himself and an almost imperceptible smile of satisfaction across his lips, he set his cloak on a chair and settled back into the bed with thoughts of the Arbourwood running through his mind.
The forest had been his childhood home, and many memories of that place had been triggered by his recent dreams. As a young Elfling, he had loved the woodland, and many a fond memory had been born there. Yet, not all he recalled was cheerful. There were also some very sad and remorseful memories that Tellion had buried deep within himself, events he had hoped to forget. Such were the memories that assailed the Elf now, and sleep did not come swiftly. When sleep finally did take him, it was fraught with dreams.
* * * * * * *
It was a cool autumn afternoon in the Arbourwood. Multi-colored leaves drifted in spiral patterns on their descent from the high boughs of the giant Roan trees and landed softly on the evergreen turf that spread between the massive trunks. The Roans were ancient trees indigenous only to the fair Arbourwood region. They grew to incredible heights, their massive trunks supporting wide boughs that reached out and intermingled like giant canopies, keeping the turf below in a comfortable shade. They were said to have been seeded by the gods at the beginning of time, but to the youths of the region, they were but perfect objects upon which to climb and behind which to hide.
"I like this not, Tellysierion," said an Elven youth. His slanted grey eyes darted warily about the woods while his pointed ears strained for any sound that seemed out of place. "It is too quiet. Mayhap we should go back."
"Aye," agreed a second Elven youth, nervously. There were five Elflings, all told, gathered behind a gnarled old Roanwood tree that stood a solitary watch near the edge of a little clearing in the woods.
At the center of the clearing was a decrepit shack that was the object of the Elflings' attention. The shack had been constructed against a particularly large Roan, using the tree as a fourth wall. It was a low structure with uneven walls and a thatched roof that did not appear capable of keeping out the infrequent rain. But the most forbidding feature of the shack was the dark portals that served as windows on two opposing walls. Nothing but blackness could be seen through the dark holes from without, but they were like sinister eyes on constant vigil against approach. All of the Elflings bobbed their heads at the mention of leaving, all except one.
"No," countered Tellysierion. He was not like the others. He was younger by perhaps a score of years yet physically more mature. For Elves were long lived, and it took many decades for their youth to reach adulthood, but Tellysierion had Human ancestry that caused him to develop far more swiftly than the other Elves. Because of this, he lacked the wisdom and good sense common to his peers and tended to be rash and unruly, oft-times finding himself in trouble with the village elders for minor infringements upon village law. He meant no evil, but his spirit was wild and untamed. Some said his unruly behavior was fired by the Human ancestry which tainted his Elven blood, and others claimed it was the disappearance of his father while Tellysierion was yet unborn. Both circumstances set the young Elf apart from the other Elflings and sometimes put him at odds with them. The woods were his only true friend. He loved to wander its expanse and explore its hidden secrets, all too often finding himself out after sunset against village ordinance. Whatever the source of Tellysierion's irrationalities, they made him bold and decisive, and that made him a natural leader among the young Elves.
"Something is very wrong here," continued Tellysierion in a whisper. "Mayhap the old hermit is ill. We had best investigate."
An ornery old hermit lived in the shack. Normally, no matter how quiet the young Elves were, he would lumber out of the shack flailing about with a crooked staff and chase them away before they had even entered the little clearing surrounding the shack. The old Man actually liked the little Elves, but he was not one to spoil the youths' fun. So, he would put on the countenance of a grumpy old coot and chase them away with a stream of half-curses. Afterwards, he would smile and chuckle to himself at the terror he had instilled in them. The little exercise also served to keep him from growing idle and to keep his skills from becoming dull with disuse.
On this day however, the hermit did not come out to scurry the Elflings away. They had reached the last of the trees at the edge of the clearing and still no one stirred within. The young Elves became nervous, sensing, even in their youthfulness, that something was amiss.
"I'm not going near that hut," returned the first Elf. "Cerenes says that the old Man is a Wizard, and he'll turn you into a Dwarf if he catches you."
"Cerenes is an Orc-brained coward," countered Tellysierion, shooting a cold gaze at the other. His eyes were soul-piercing grey, dark as deep water, and the other Elf turned from that gaze. "If you are afraid, Tirian, you don't have to go. And that goes for the rest of you too."
The other Elves lowered their eyes so as to avoid his stare of disgust. They too were afraid.
"Fine," huffed Tellysierion. "I'll go myself." With that, he pushed away from the tree and started for the shack, hoping that the others could not see his knees wobbling in his stride.
He became immensely aware of his own fear as he crept low and quiet towards the wall of the shack, but he could not turn back now. He reached the wall and paused to listen for any sound of movement that might be heard from within, but he could hear only his own ragged breathing. Slowly, he made his way to a hole in the wall that served as a window. Each step now seemed immensely loud in his own ears as the green turf was crushed beneath his feet, but he convinced himself that it was only fear playing on his mind. He moved onward, even more cautiously, pausing between each step to listen for any sounds from the shack--any noise that might warn him that he had been detected.
A twig snapped, almost inaudibly, beneath his foot as he reached the dark portal, and he froze involuntarily. He could hear his heart pounding like a war drum, and an icy layer of sweat sent a shiver down his spine. He was almost overwhelmed by a sudden urge to run as a surge of panic rushed over him, but he steeled himself against the fear and held his ground. The others were watching him, he knew, all eyes locked on his every move. He could not turn back now, not because of the simple snapping of a twig. They would not even have heard the sound from where they hid behind the tree, he realized as he attempted to will his heart-rate down. He tried to take a deep breath only then discovering he had been holding it.
Slowly, Tellysierion let the trapped air escape from his lungs, unconsciously clinching his hands into fists and then relaxing them. He inhaled deeply and noticed a sickly-sweet odor in the air. He sniffed towards the window and determined that the odor was venting from within. It took a great deal of will, but he forced himself to peer into the hole. The interior was cast in darkness and even his Elven vision detected nothing, but he heard breathing within. The sound was faint and unsteady, but it was unmistakable. He leaned closer to the window and the odor became much stronger, almost overpowering. It was vaguely familiar and struck a discordant note within him.
Tellysierion moved more urgently from the window to the door, dispensing with any attempt at stealth. Up close, it became obvious that the door had been forced in. The crude locking mechanism was twisted beyond repair and the door swung easily inward at Tellysierion's touch, casting an eerie light into the interior. What the young Elf beheld was ghastly and haunting. The hermit lay face up in the center of the sparsely furnished shack. In each of his hands was clutched half of a gnarled staff that had been cloven in twain, and there was a gaping wound in the center of his chest. Blood spread onto the floor from the wound, as the hermit tried to sit up. He gasped and opened his mouth as if to speak, but blood trickled down his chin. He dropped the head of his staff as the young Elf approached, and it landed heavily upon the ground with a thump as Tellysierion knelt. Then, Tellysierion saw it, the most terrifying sight he had ever seen. Within the blood was a pair of giant boot prints. They were easily twice and half again the size of Tellysierion's own feet, which were considered large by Elven standard.
A chill came over Tellysierion suddenly, and he started to
back slowly away from the hermit, but the old man grabbed him by the arm and
pulled him close with surprising strength. Tellysierion felt warm, sticky blood
from the hermit's hand as it soaked through his long sleeve. He felt nauseous
and tried to pull away, but the hermit's grip was too firm. Blood splattered on
the young Elf's face, warm and wet, as the hermit spoke, and the smell of
soured blood knotted his stomach as he listened to the gasping
The hermit reached into the collar of his worn shirt with a crimson hand and pulled forth a small pendant of silver. It was smeared with the hermit's blood, but it captured Tellysierion's attention and held his eyes, driving away the sickness that threatened to overcome him. Tiny stones of emerald shown through the dark crimson pooling in the finely crafted symbols inscribed upon it. Tellysierion had never seen such markings before, and he could not read them, but they held his eyes as if by some strange magic. The old man forced the pendant into the Elf's palm, covering his hand with wet blood as he closed his fingers around it. "Keep this safe upon you. I place it in your charge. Keep it next to your heart always. You must swear it."
Tellysierion stared blankly at his fist that enclosed the amulet, the strange markings still visible in his mind. He could not think nor speak as the hermit clutched his arm in a death grip. What do they mean?
"Swear it." The hermit's words were urgent and compelling as he struggled against his fate. His fingers dug into the Elf's arm as his life drained away and the inscription faded from Tellysierion's mind. "Swear it!"
The young Elf turned to the old Man and saw only death within his eyes. He was already dead, Tellysierion thought. Only his will keeps him going now. "I swear it," he said softly. "I will keep it next to my heart."
The hermit's grip loosened as his last breath gurgled from his lips with a mouthful of blood, and his eyes continued to stare blankly even after he was gone. Tellysierion had to force himself to back away. Each step away was a struggle as if he were pulling against some invisible force which locked his gaze upon the carnage. Each breath seemed to come up short, and his vision began to blur and swirl until he thought he would lose consciousness.
"What is it?" called out one of the youths behind him. The voice brought Tellysierion back to himself. "What is in there?"
Still clutching the amulet in his fist, Tellysierion wrenched his eyes from the carnage, free of its unnatural fascination, and spun around towards the others. The amulet seemed to tremble as he shoved it into a pocket. There was something very wrong here, something more horrible than death or murder. He felt it in the air and sensed it lurking just beyond sight and hearing. It was watching and waiting. And it was evil.
Tellysierion sprang out of the hermit’s shack and raced for the trees. The others saw the blood fresh upon him and needed no urging to run towards their village. They ran at a panic stricken pace, fueled by adrenaline and fear, until they could run no more. Just within sight of their village, they collapsed on the soft turf, gasping for breath and wiping the tears from their faces.
It was quite some time before any of them spoke, but finally Tirian asked, "What was it, Tellysierion? Did the hermit attack you and try to turn you into a Dwarf?"
"Yes, tell us," pressed the others, eager to hear his tale.
Tellysierion looked about him into the eager faces of his companions and knew they had no idea what he had seen. He wondered what effect the sight would have had on each of them first hand and knew how little impact his story would have on their lives now. But Tellysierion was not like them. He had Human blood within his veins and was aging faster than they. Although he would live a long time by Human standards, he would not live as long as they. And some day he would die. The death of the hermit in his arms, the first hand exposure to the passing of a life, had forever burned within him the inevitability of his own mortality, and he now accepted the sureness of his own death. But the Elflings had no concept of death; they did not think about it, nor would they for centuries to come. How could they understand the passing of a life? To them, it was a distant call not yet heard.
"The old man is dead," he said at last. "He died clutching my arm and babbling madness. He was feeble-minded from blood loss, I think. He said he banished his murderer, but I saw only his broken staff and a set of tracks left in the blood. They were the tracks of a giant."
The young Elves were quiet for a moment as if fathoming the implications of the hermit's death. Then, Lyndfas chimed out excitedly, "A giant? What kind of giant do you think it was, Tellysierion?"
Tellysierion stood up in disgust and started towards the village. "Go ask the hermit," he spat over his shoulder. As he strode away, the young Elf pulled the amulet from his pocket, slipped the leather thong over his head and let the medallion fall inside of his shirt where the metal tingled slightly against his skin as it warmed to his body temperature. He would honor his vow to the old man, even if he was crazy. After all, it had been his dying request.
Back in the village Tellysierion told the village elders what he had seen, and a group of Elves was sent to investigate the story. The group returned just before evening fell and confirmed everything that Tellysierion had said, even the giant's prints. The Elves put the hermit's body in the ground, as was the nature of the Humans in the region, and attempted to track the murderer to no avail. The giant seemed to have appeared at the door of the shack and vanished within.
After hearing the report, the elders sent messengers out to the surrounding communities. Night sentries were posted for the first time that Tellysierion could remember, and the woods beyond the village were prohibited to the children. Tellysierion was not well pleased with this particular development, but it did not dissuade him from slipping out by himself a few days later to prowl about his favorite vales. So it came, because of his transgression, that Tellysierion happened upon one of the Elven messengers returning from within the Arbourwood with a rugged and grim looking Woodsman. A longbow was strapped to the Human's back alongside a quiver full of arrows, and a broad sword slapped against his side as he walked. The Woodsman spotted Tellysierion immediately where he was crouched behind a fallen tree.
"I would have the young confined to the village,"
said the Woodsman, indicating the youth. "A few of our lads have already
been murdered." The Woodsmen who inhabited the inner reaches of the woods
were a fair and hardy people. They had long since driven the dark creatures
from their home and kept a constant vigil against the marauding spawn that
teemed in the Torrwood just across the
Tellysierion heard the Human's words and came forth from his hiding place.
"That would be Tellysierion," said the messenger as the youth approached. "It would appear that he doesn't consider himself subject to the rules of our village. Unless, of course, the elders have lifted the curfew since I left." The Elf gave Tellysierion a stern look.
"I can take care of myself alright," returned Tellysierion indignantly.
"Ah, a bold Elven lad," chuckled the Woodsman. "That is rare indeed." he ruffled the youth's hair and said, "Wilfred of Arbour, at your service." But his cheerfulness subsided directly and he added, "Old Henry the Hermit could take care of himself alright too. Seen him myself take down a Cave Troll with that crooked old staff of his. But now he's four feet under the turf. No, I would not want to face alone whatever sort of creature it was that got Old Henry."
"It was a giant," said Tellysierion.
The Woodsman looked questioningly at the Elf-messenger.
"Tellysierion here was the youth who reported Old Henry's untimely death," explained the Elf.
The Woodsman looked at Tellysierion with renewed wonder then laughed as he tousled the youth's hair once again. "Well, lad," he said. "There are many kinds of giants, and this one. . . Well, it ain't like any of them. It's intelligent and elusive so that the best of our trackers cannot find its trail. No, boy. This isn't a giant at all, if you ask me."
"Then what is it?" asked Tellysierion.
The Elf-messenger glared disapprovingly at the Woodsman, but Wilfred answered all the same, giving the messenger a wink. "It's a demon."
Tellysierion stopped in mid-stride, remembering the awful chill and the presence he had sensed at the shack. Unconsciously, he put his hand over his chest where the hermit's medallion hung. It tingled slightly at his touch. But the Woodsman and the messenger broke out in laughter at the jest, and he felt a bit foolish. Still, he could not forget the feeling of being watched and knew that not all of what the Human had said was in jest.
The rest of the messengers started returning that day, each with similar reports of murder and of an elusive predator. Some horrible and powerful creature had invaded their woods it seemed, and none of the villages had been spared its vile deeds. Children had been slaughtered while at play in the typically peaceful woods, and stalwart Men had been killed seemingly without effort by the evil entity. And in each instance, not a trace of the predator could be found, with the exception of the bloody print that Tellysierion had discovered.
The discovery prompted a convergence of Woodsmen upon the Elven village. Rough looking rangers and bounty hunters came and set out into the surrounding woods in groups of four and five. They were the most experienced trackers and hunters the region could offer, and each was a staunch warrior, seasoned from repelling the periodic raids of spawn from across the Torrwood. They carried vicious but effective weaponry of all types. Tellysierion saw massive battle-axes and wickedly curved swords, barbed pikes and jagged-edged spears. Some carried heavy crossbows with poison-tipped bolts, and others had great longbows strapped to their backs along side cloth-yard shafts with iron points designed to pierce thick hide or even armor. They appeared to be prepared for anything they might meet.
But only a few days later, as evening fell over the woodland, a group of bounty hunters ran wildly into the village calling frantically for reinforcements. They began setting up defensive positions in a panic, looking always into the darkening woods as if expecting to be assailed at any moment. Soon, after a frenetic account by the bounty hunters, the village was consumed by their apprehension. Every able-bodied male was armed with whatever could be used as a weapon, and the infirm and young were gathered in central safe houses. Bright fires were built around the perimeter of the village at equal intervals, and sentries were posted in groups of tens at each fire. Roving patrols were organized to serve as communication links between the sentry stations and to insure that nothing slipped through the already tight perimeter.
As all of this happened, the bounty hunters' tale spread through the village. Tellysierion overheard the story from a treetop where he had concealed himself near one of the perimeter fires. As the story went, the bounty hunters were encamped on their second night of searching the woods when they had heard distant screams of pain and terror rip through the silence of the night. They hurriedly put torches to their campfire, collected their weapons, and started in the direction of the screams. But the cries had been silenced almost as suddenly as they had come, pitching the woods into an unnatural quiet. Undaunted, the bounty hunters pressed on in the direction from which the screams had come. By torchlight they combed the woods in search of the source of the horrible cries, their weapons were drawn and ready to meet whatever terror the woods offered. But they were not prepared for the gruesome vision that awaited them.
They wandered into the camp of another group of hunters, the apparent source of the unholy screams. The scene was a nightmare of blood and gore, and there no way to identify the victims. Indeed, the bounty hunters could not even say for certain how many had been slain, for the camp was strewn with their ripped and shredded extremities. Blood was everywhere, dripping from unrecognizable bodies hanging from branches where they had been tossed after their arms or legs had been torn off at the sockets. But perhaps the most unsettling discovery was that these Men had not been caught off guard. After a brief but grisly search of the camp, the bounty hunters had not found one weapon unsheathed, and they had even found several arrows lodged in the trunks of trees around the camp. Whether they had managed to wound the creature seemed impossible to determine as the blood on the drawn weapons appeared as likely to be a result of their own slaughter.
The bounty hunters were understandably unsettled by what they beheld, and their resolve had surely been tested. But even then, their courage had not yet failed them and they had been determined to discover the trail of whatever creature had caused such carnage. Then suddenly, they had been overcome by a feeling of dread so overpowering that each of them had instantly broken into a panic stricken rout out of the camp. It was amazing that any of them had been able to maintain enough sense of mind to stay together. Even so, they fled through the woods for the remainder of the night and all through the next day until they had come into the village. There, the sense of dread had suddenly subsided, but not the memory of the gruesome slaughter in the woods. The only token of that slaughter they had managed to hang onto was a massive, blood-covered broad sword, and of the massacred Men, the bounty hunters could provide neither names nor numbers.
Perched up in his hiding place, Tellysierion knew who at least one of the Men had been. He recognized the massive broad sword and knew that Wilfred of Arbour had met the creature with hardy companions and had still fared no better than Old Henry. Unconsciously, the young Elf fingered the amulet through his shirt, unmindful of the small tremor it emitted from within as a cold feeling crept over his heart, and he was certain that the creature was out there watching...waiting. It was not afraid, just savoring the anticipation of the kill. The villagers did not stand a chance against it. Their weapons could not harm it. All the strength they could bring to bear against it could not restrain it. It was out there, and it was going to kill them all.
Silently, Tellysierion climbed down from his perch. The night was cooling, and the chill in his heart bade him seek the warmth of the fires near the center of the village. Soon, he thought, the village would be cast into chaos and death, and an urgent feeling was rising within him, compelling him to flee from the place into the darkness of the woods. There were places he knew where he could hide in the surrounding woodlands; places where even the rangers would not find him. But the thought of being alone in the darkness was not comforting at the moment.
Tellysierion crossed through the darkness between the perimeter and central fires lost in thought. His eyes followed an unseen path upon the smooth ground as he turned the situation over in his young mind. He was so preoccupied with his thoughts that he did not see the Woodsman carrying an armload of timber for one of the outer watch fires. As the Woodsman emerged from the shadows of an overturned wagon, Tellyserion crashed into him and was knocked off his feet, wood falling all about him on the ground.
"Well hello there, little fellow," said the tall Woodsman in surprise but without annoyance. He was slender but well muscled, with a longbow strapped to his back and a long sword at his side along with the usual trappings of a woodland ranger. "You're a bit young to be lurking out here in the darkness?"
"I can take care of myself," said Tellysierion defensively.
"I'm certain of it," said the Woodsman, extending a hand to help the youngster to his feet. The Woodsman had dark hair and a rugged face and looked upon the youth with kind eyes. Tellysierion took the Woodsman's offered hand, and the Man pulled the young Elf easily to his feet. "I am Treffayne," he said.
"My name is Tellysierion." The young Elf knelt to help pick up the fallen timber. "The fires will not stop the Demon," he said, not looking up as he gathered the wood.
Treffayne looked at him curiously. "What makes you think it is a Demon?"
Tellysierion stood with a small armload of wood. "I have felt it. I felt it at the hermit's shack, and I can feel it now. It is out there...waiting."
Treffayne looked carefully at the young Elf, intently studying him with serious eyes. After a moment, he said, "So, you are the bold Elfling of whom I have heard tale. For both our sakes, and that of your village, let us hope you are wrong."
Tellysierion helped Treffayne carry the timber to one of the perimeter fires. He was somehow comforted by the casual manner of the Woodsman. He felt almost safe in his presence. They dumped the wood upon a dwindling pile and turned to fetch another load, but Tellysierion caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye just outside of the fire's light. His hand went instinctively to his chest, resting over the amulet, as he turned to get a better look, feeling the chill rise within his heart. But whatever it had been was already gone. He peered into the darkness, unconsciously taking a step backwards, oblivious to the growing tremor of the amulet against his chest. Was it there; or had he imagined it? Tellysierion was not sure, and no one else seemed to have seen anything.
"What is it, lad?" asked Treffayne, following the Elf's eyes into the darkness. He could see naught but the trees at the edge of the firelight. All was still and quiet. "Is it out there? Can you feel it?"
If Tellysierion had been unsure, the Woodsman's confidence in the young Elf's perception made him certain. "It's coming," he said softly.
The watch fire nearest the pair flared up suddenly, blazing with such intensity that everyone averted their eyes from its brightness. Those who had been looking in the direction of the fire were temporarily blinded, and almost everyone had their vision impaired to some degree. But those who were nearest the fire were singed, and one bounty hunter caught flame and dropped to the ground with shrieks of pain and terror. All around, the watchmen were thrown into disarray, as the fire exploded in a shower of sparks. Flaming brands flew in every direction, felling watchmen and setting small blazes about the area. Treffayne was struck upon the back of the head by a large brand as he instinctively reached for his longbow. His eyes glazed over, and he fell heavily to the ground face down and unmoving at Tellysierion's feet.
Tellysierion collapsed to his knees, tears caused by the flash of light flowing down his face as Men and Elves ran in all directions around him. He rubbed his eyes with both hands and tried to blink away the spots that marred his sight. But the effort was in vain. He wiped the tears from his cheeks with his sleeves as he tried to arouse the fallen Woodsman, but Treffayne did not respond. Tellysierion shook him more vigorously to no avail as renewed screams of terror filled the night.
A thunderous roar ripped through the din of chaos, chilling the young Elf to the core. He could not see, did not have to see, to know what creature sounded such a battle cry; and he was filled with fear. Tellysierion ran blindly through the dark, and the village became a whirl of half-seen activity as he raced through the night. Men and Elves ran in confusion in all directions as the terror spread like fire through the village. Everything seemed to be happening in slow-motion, and Tellysierion could not think clearly. Even the shouts seemed distant and somehow unreal, like he was running in a nightmare, unable to wake. It was an eerie and unnerving sensation, inducing a feeling of helplessness, which was only intensified by his impaired vision. He had to get control of himself before he wandered straight into danger. He had to stop and clear his mind.
Tellysierion leaned against the wall of a building, holding his head in his hands. He did not know which building he was leaning against, nor did he remember how he got there. The panic had lessened, but it was still fresh in his mind and left a sour taste in his mouth. Looking around, he saw a familiar tree standing solitary between a storage shed and the village inn. It was an old tree, one he had always loved to climb and swing from onto the roof of the inn. He used to spy on travelers who passed through the village, but that was a rare occurrence, and more often Tellysierion had climbed onto the inn to hide when he did not want to be found. He had spent more than one evening sleeping against the chimney-stack.
Tellysierion climbed the tree and swung up onto the inn. As he made his way across the rooftop to his favorite hiding place, screams ripped through the night only to be cut abruptly short by brutal death. There were short moments of silence between the screams now as the victims were hunted down. He tried to shut out the sporadic screams as victims were pulled from hiding places and their lives torn from their bodies, tried not to ponder whether or not he recognized a terror filled wail or whether or not his mother had been found yet. Paralyzed with fear, Tellysierion huddled against the chimney-stack, cringing at every screech that broke the repose, and shook uncontrollably in terror. The Demon was out there hunting, and he knew that it would not stop killing until everyone in the village was dead. His time would be soon, and then the Demon would rip his heart out of his chest as it had the hermit's. There was no stopping it.
Another cry broke the short silence. It was closer to Tellysierion's location than the last, and he barely controlled the urge to cry out in terror. Then the silence returned as the Demon hunted. Shivering against the smokeless stack, the young Elf listened to the night, hearing only his own rasping breath and the pounding of his heart as he unconsciously flexed the fingers of his right hand, opening and closing it into a fist as his left hand rested thoughtlessly over the vague quivering sensation against his chest. He knew he could not hide from the Demon, knew that it would eventually find him, but he seemed strangely content to wait for death to come. It was easier that way, to hide in the dark, unmoving until the shadow fell upon him. If he closed his eyes, he would never even see it coming. Like the others, his cry would sound only shortly through the night, and it would all be over. It would be much easier that way, to wait unseeing rather than to face the Demon and see death rush in upon him. Much easier.
Tellysierion leaned his head back against the cold chimney stone and felt strangely relaxed. He could almost make himself comfortable if only the leather thong around his neck did not chafe at his skin and the amulet did not tremble coldly against his chest. The sensation recalled the memory of the dying hermit, and the image of the expiring man sprang freshly into his head. It prevented him from relaxing and settling back as the scene recounted itself in his mind, unfolding unnaturally with explicit and painstaking clarity. The memory was intense, rekindling all of the emotions that had flooded over him that day, and he was once again instilled with the sureness of his mortality. But that sureness was not paralyzing, and it cut the bonds of fear that had held him to that point. Suddenly, he was freed from the spell that had held him without hope. He could look death in the face and meet its gaze as long as there was some hope of escaping it, but he would not sit idly and wait for it to take him.
Tellysierion peered into the darkness around him, but he could see nothing. Then, he heard sounds of scraping from beneath the eve of the inn as something climbed the wall. His heart skipped a beat, and he involuntarily stopped breathing as he broke into a cold sweat. It had found him and was coming to get him. The young Elf forced his lungs to take in air as he pushed himself away from the chimney and ran for the far end of the roof. He heard heavy footfalls not far behind him as he neared the edge, but he did not turn to see what pursued him. Instead, Tellysierion closed his eyes and leaped from the roof with reckless abandon. It seemed like he fell forever, and he was not prepared when he finally landed heavily upon the ground, buckling and rolling to a stop, his shirt torn open down the front. Miraculously, the young Elf was not injured and he sprang to his feet and sprinted for the trees, feeling a presence closing in behind him. The amulet bounced haphazardly on the lanyard against his chest as he ran, the tiny emerald gems sparkling in the fire and moonlight with unnatural brilliance. Fear drove him past his physical limitations, and he ran blindly through the village past shattered defense structures, ignoring the bodies strewn upon the ground as he maneuvered around the wreckage. He did not look back, but sensed the presence gaining on him, grabbing at him with outstretched claws. He forced himself to run faster as he neared the perimeter of the village, pushing himself to the edge of his endurance.
In his recklessness, Tellysierion nearly ran headlong into the overturned wagon where he had bumped into Treffayne earlier. He swerved to avoid it, but the amulet’s lanyard caught on a protruding plank, the force digging the lanyard into his skin and spinning the young Elf around before the lanyard gave way. Off balance, Tellysierion stumbled and tripped over the scattered firewood, toppling backward towards the turf. Arms flailing against the air as he fell, Tellysierion saw the Demon closing in upon him. It stood over ten feet tall with eyes of fire and claws the size of daggers, and its booted feet slammed against the turf under legs the size of tree trunks. Tellysierion hit the ground hard, thrashing his head back and knocking the air out of his lungs. He bounced, gasping for air, and saw the amulet flash in the moonlight as it fell to the ground just out of reach.
Instinctively, Tellysierion stretched to recover the amulet, and a shadow fell over him. He looked up expecting death in the form of vicious claws and teeth, but instead, he saw Treffayne standing over him with a long sword drawn against the approaching Demon. The Woodsman's hair was matted with dried blood, and his face was ashen, but his eyes were clear and resolute. Like a child clinging to his father, the young Elf wrapped one arm around the Woodsman's booted foot, his other hand stretching uselessly for the amulet. As the Demon bore down upon them, he felt the cool silver tingle in the palm of his hand as his finger closed around the amulet. Its surface now felt as cold as ice and the trembling was undeniable; and Tellysierion knew death was near.
Yet, brave Treffayne stood his ground defiantly, sword held before him ready to strike a last futile blow. The Demon did not pause to measure its opponent but rushed in, slashing with its long claws, a wicked cry of triumph springing from its mouth. Just then, Treffayne lashed out with his sword, and there was a blinding flash of light that rendered both Woodsman and Elf sightless. An acrid smell filled the air, burning their nostrils as if lightning had just struck close at hand. A cool gust rushed by them, ruffling their hair and clothing and driving the acrid air from their noses. When their sight had returned, the Demon was gone, its massive boot prints ending where Treffayne had delivered the momentous blow. No other trace of it could be found.
* * * * * * *
In the dim predawn light, the mercenary’s room appeared tidy. Tellion Steele had awoken from his troubled sleep well before the coming of morning and began preparing for a long journey. The candle rested atop the otherwise bare nightstand, the writing paraphernalia stowed away in the pack. Even the floor was no longer cluttered by the boots that the Elf presently wore, nor by the pack which had been placed neatly upon the lone chair by the window. The armor was nowhere to be seen, but the sword hung naturally from his waist. Only the heavy cloak draped over the back of the chair and the bow leaning near by remained unstowed.
Dressed in sturdy travelling attire, Steele pulled the sealed dispatches from his pack and moved to the window. It was raining again, and the day promised to be grey and dreary. The thought of riding all day in sodden raiment did not inspire Steele, but he pulled on the heavy travelling cloak and called for the sentry stationed outside of his door.
Almost immediately, the door opened and a young soldier presented himself to Steele with a fist across his chest in salute.
"At ease, Thuril," said Steele. "I have dispatches to go out as soon as riders can be readied." He handed over the sealed parchments. "And have my horse prepared also. I would depart as soon as possible."
"Aye, Captain," said the soldier, snapping to attention. His right foot lifted as he prepared to about-face, but Steele stayed him with a hand upon the soldier's shoulder.
"There is more, eager one," said the mercenary captain tractably, but the young soldier's face colored with degradation. Steele pressed on. "Notify Luinar in the encampment that the brigade is to strike camp and make for the Arbourwood. I have other business to attend and will rendezvous with the brigade there."
The soldier lingered self-consciously at attention to ensure that no further orders were to follow, then he performed a stiff about-face and started for the door.
"And Thuril," called Steele, prompting the soldier to pause within the doorway. "Your enthusiasm is noted and valued."
As the young soldier sped off to attend his duties, Steele gathered up his pack and bow and returned his mind to the task at hand. He had a long, wet ride ahead of him and a task that portended serious ramifications.
Welleran paced the forecastle deck impatiently as the sleek frigate slid quietly into port under the darkening sky. He was a tall figure clad in a worn traveling cloak with the hood pulled up so that his face was hidden in shadow, and a long sword slapped against his side as he strode restlessly across the gently rolling deck. He had the bearing and trappings of a warrior, but his gait was easy on the slightly pitching deck, marking him as one not unaccustomed to journeying by sea. In fact, in his younger adventuring days, Welleran had sailed most of the charted oceans and even into a few that appeared upon no maps. Now, in the mid of his life, he was the king of a prosperous seafaring people, and his sailing was usually limited to ceremonial fleet inspections or short voyages to the neighboring island kingdoms for affairs of state. But by the simple, rugged attire of the seafaring warrior, this was no such occasion. Pausing at the bow railing, his anxious gaze swept the wharf, observing the growing number of golden flickers popping up like tiny stars around the bay as lamps and candles were lit in the port district. Already the lighting of the street lanterns was well under way, he noted, and the evening meal would soon be laid upon the board as the sunset glow gradually slipped into the deepening grey of dusk.
As if taking queue from the shoreline, a sailor hung a lit lantern upon a hook on the foremast, casting long shadows over the deck. The small ship’s crew was active in the rigging and the decks below, but they gave their anxious passenger a wide berth as they went about their duties. None of the crew, save the captain, knew his identity, and Welleran was wont to keep it that way. He had remained cloistered in a private cabin for most of the first leg of the voyage, only coming out of seclusion to take his meals with the captain or to pace the deck of the forecastle when the weather permitted. And now, the first leg of their voyage was coming to an end.
Pulling a folded sheet of parchment from within the breast pocket of his cloak, Welleran strode to the foremast and unfolded the parchment under the light of the swaying lantern. His sapient eyes scanned the message he had already read countless times, and he cursed under his breath as his gaze lingered upon the date that had been hastily scribed by the author. The message had taken overly long to reach him, Welleran brooded irritably as he labored to put significance to the vague missive. He considered the source and read it again.
My friend, it is with the utmost urgency that this message is dispatched. I am in great need of your services. Make all haste to the Arbourwood. You know the place.
P.S. If all my dispatches find their destination, you will find traveling companions upon the road.
The message was intentionally unspecific, Welleran knew. It contained nothing that could be used against the intended recipient lest the dispatch should fall into the wrong hands. The mercenary was cautious if nothing else, thought the warrior-king. Only his associates would be able to make any use of the message, and that gave Welleran some comfort. Still the message was already nigh three weeks old when it reached him, and though it had only taken him a day to put his state in order and secure passage aboard the frigate, he feared that he may have missed the associates with whom he was supposed to rendezvous. Or worse.
“We will be at the docks shortly, m’ lord,” said the captain as he approached Welleran from behind. He was an aged man, his tanned face lined from many years of exposure to the harsh sun and salt water, but his back was straight and his eyes clear and sharp. “How long do you reckon it will take you to collect your cargo?” he asked as the cloaked warrior turned to face him. “I’ll have to put a detail ashore to procure supplies for crossing the Deeps.”
Welleran nodded thoughtfully. “Have your detail make haste. My cargo, if indeed it is still here, will have been awaiting my arrival for some time. In any event, I want to set sail with the ebbing tide.”
“Aye, sir,” replied the captain crisply. “We’ll be ready with the tide, sure as the sun.” His crew would not take the news as evenly as he had, but the captain knew they were loyal subjects to the king; and though they did not know Welleran’s true identity, they knew he was important to their sovereign. “Will you be needing an escort, m’ lord?” the captain continued. “The port district is a rough quarter after sunset.”
Welleran shook his head slowly without looking at the old sea dog. “I’m familiar with this port,” he said casually. “Besides, I’ll make better time by myself. You just have your ship and crew ready to castoff when the tide turns.”
“Aye, m’ lord”, replied the captain curtly. Without another word, he withdrew and began barking orders at his crew.
Welleran moved purposefully down the darkening portside lane, his wary eyes surveying the shadows ahead while his hand rested upon the hilt of the sword concealed beneath his long travelling cloak. During the day, the lane was typically teeming with wagons and pedestrians as the ships that filled the harbor unloaded their cargo and took on new loads destined for distant lands. Vendors peddled excess goods to merchants who flocked to the harbor to get the best prices on the latest commodities, and everywhere there was activity and coin changing hands. But after dark, when the vendors had packed up their carts and the merchants had returned to their shops and homes and the sailors had returned to their ships or been given liberty to go ashore, the portside lane took on an entirely different aspect, a dark and sinister face where only the brave or foolish trod alone. Gone were the teeming multitudes, replaced by the occasional drunken sailor and the inconspicuous but far more insidious black-market racketeer.
It didn’t take Welleran long to find the place for which he was looking. It was a busy tavern at the end of the harborside lane, an establishment popular among the sailors who had coin to spend, but not so much to waste on the niceties or finery one might find at an upscale establishment away from the smell of fish and the sea. The Rusty Anchor was not a fancy place by any account, but you know what your coin paid for when you laid it upon the bar. Strong ales and spirits is what brought most of its patrons through the doors, but one could also find more clandestine pleasures within the dark chambers and back rooms of the Rusty Anchor. Gambling, contraband, and pleasures of the skin, all these could be had at the Rusty Anchor…for a price.
Welleran heard the raucous din of his destination even before he could distinguish the bulky structure of the tavern amongst the warehouse buildings in the gloom of the waning twilight. He eyed two staggering sailors suspiciously as he crossed the intersecting lanes to the landing of the tavern and pushed through the front doors into the smoky commons where the jovial singing of drunken sailors contested with the boisterous embellishments of the even more intoxicated patrons cloistered at overcrowded tables. A doorman approached Welleran immediately to check any weapons the traveler might have upon him, but Welleran dismissed him with a casual wave and an inaudible word. The doorman seemed suddenly to have forgotten about the traveler, and stared blankly at the door as Welleran stepped around him.
No one openly observed the lone traveler, but Welleran could sense the shadowed eyes upon him as he wove through the throng and made his way toward the back commons from whence emitted the growing tumult of cheers and jeers that was beginning to overpower the general racket of the commons. Welleran cursed under his breath as he shouldered aside an oblivious sailor who seemed unnaturally transfixed by the bottom of his empty tankard. The tall warrior didn’t bother to pardon himself as his stride became urgent, and the ruckus had reached a fevered pitch when Welleran squeezed through the press at the entryway to the rear commons.
A muscular young man was standing bare-chested in the center of the great room, his hands balled into fists as he stared down two swarthy looking sailors shuffling cautiously just out of the young warrior’s reach. A third sailor struggled to extract himself from the wreckage of a broken table while a forth groaned in a barely conscious state at the young man’s feet.
“Take it back!” shouted the muscle-bound warrior at the two sailors still on their feet. “Take it back, or by my honor, I’ll beat an apology out of you and make you beg for her highness’ forgiveness.”
The two sailors glanced momentarily at each other and then opted for the lesser part of discretion. Without warning, they charged the young man in a flurry of swinging fists. The result was sudden and decisive, as in one fluid motion the young warrior landed a left hook on the jaw of the sailor on his right, and spinning on his follow-through, connected with a backhanded blow to the temple of his comrade. Both sailors went down in a heap and did not move as several other patrons, mostly sailors, began to crowd in toward the young soldier.
Steel flashed suddenly in the smoky lantern light as Welleran swept forth his great, war sword. “That will be enough brawling for tonight,” Welleran shouted above the commotion. “This young man was just leaving.”
The patrons met Welleran’s pale eyes with cold stares, but none of them moved against him.
“You heard me,” Welleran commanded the young man. “Collect your belongings and get out.”
The young man frowned with juvenile innocence as he gathered his pack and cloak and followed Welleran through the press. At the front doors, the young man retrieved a great sword and a dagger from the doorman who displayed a mixture of annoyance and bewilderment at having somehow missed collecting Welleran’s sword when he came in.
“That was inconspicuous, Ardonis,” said Welleran when they were upon the darkened lane and he was certain no one was following them. “Why didn’t you just tell the whole tavern who you are?” he followed, letting his annoyance fill his words.
“It was a matter of family honor,” replied Ardonis. “I could not just let it go.”
“What weight can the opinions of a few crocked sailors have about your family?” asked Welleran. “I doubt many sailors have even heard of your homeland since it is not exactly near the sea.”
“But it was not my family they dishonored,” returned Ardonis with a disarming smile. “It was your wife’s reputation that they impugned.”
Welleran stopped and shook his head in astonishment. “Well, that makes all the difference in the world,” he said, but he could not maintain the pretence of annoyance entirely. Despite the foolish risk of exposing his identity, Welleran was touched by the gesture of loyalty that Ardonis had shown, even if it had been an overreaction to what was, in all likelihood, a sailor’s crude joke.
“Come on,” Welleran finally said, giving Ardonis a friendly shove. “We’ve got a ship to catch before the local authority hauls you in for disorderly conduct. Or for indecent exposure,” Welleran laughed. “How came you to be shirtless, anyway?”
“That’s a long story,” laughed Ardonis as the two faded into the darkness.
A cool morning breeze stirred the leaves around the small clearing as a lone figure inspected the markings upon the ground. He put his hand to the moist turf and pinched the soil between his thumb and fingers letting it fall from his grasp as he looked about the woods. He smiled then at the grandeur of the mighty Roans, and his somber visage became suddenly youthful, lines of worry and concern fading from his rugged face as he brushed away the markings in the turf. Returning to his feet, he let out a deep sigh of satisfaction. This was his homeland, and he had been gone far too long. He was a tall Man, cloaked in grey such that his stature was concealed, but it was not hard to perceive that he was a warrior. A longbow was slung upon his back and a long sword hung from his waist, its unadorned hilt protruding through the opening at the front of his cloak. Even his face with its youthful smile divulged a serious deportment born of many perilous trials; trials that had taken him across the expanse of the continent and beyond. And now, they had brought him back to the Arbourwood.
The warrior's smile vanished suddenly as he whistled a peculiar set of notes and waited silently, listening to the peaceful sounds of the forest. Though it had been many years since he had walked these woods, he could still identify the calls of each of the many indigenous creatures that resided within its expanse, and he could track the majority of them too. He was no simple soldier, it was clear, but neither did the classification of ranger encompass the extent of his abilities. Over the years of wandering, he had seen and learned much, fought in many perilous wars and navigated as a monarch around still more. But now, the intrigue of nations was seething on the brink of catastrophe, and his fair Arbourwood was at the center of affairs. The thought brought a sudden frown to his pleasant face, and he repeated the whistle into the surrounding woods.
Short moments passed before his revery was interrupted by the peculiar notes that were returned from within the woods. The Woodsman cocked his ear toward the reply, scanning the surrounding trees as the call was repeated from another location and yet again from a third. He heard a slight rustle of leaves and turned as a dark-haired Man emerged from the trees, calling out in greeting, "Hail, Ayelborne. We did not expect you for some time yet." He was a tall ranger clad not unlike Ayelborne in a heavy traveling cloak with weapons strapped, but he was many years younger and his carefree countenance was yet unetched by lines of stress or anxiety. A smile played across his lips and did not appear out of place upon his face. Indeed, it seemed as if this youthful ranger was always smiling from some private joke. It was a curious trait, but not one that brooked offense. He was a cheerful sort, and his humor was infectious.
"Well met, good Balinar," returned Ayelborne. "Fell news, I am afraid, is the master of my errand. I was already upon the road when Steele's message caught up with me. How fares the Black Brigade?"
"Well," answered a third figure entering the clearing. He stood a full head shorter than the others and walked with a grace that complimented his lithe form. He, too, appeared many years younger than the aging Woodsman, but he was Elven and more than his equal in years. Unlike the Men, this Elf was clad in a short mantle, a light coat of chain mail evident beneath, with the crossed-daggers insignia of the Black Brigade embroidered over the left breast. A short sword was strapped to his side, and he carried a long bow casually in his left hand. "We are camped within a vale but a bow's reach from here."
"Greetings, Lieutenant Luinar," said Ayelborne, nodding his head to the slender Elf.
As the three exchanged greetings, a forth figure approached like a shadow from behind Ayelborne, slipping up without sound. Like Luinar, he was Elven and wore the mantle of the Black Brigade, but no armor was apparent under his mantle, and two daggers hung easily at his waist, the only weapons visible upon his personage. The slinking Elf reached with a delicate hand for a pouch that hung at Ayelborne's side, but a strong hand caught the thief's wrist and held it fast even before his fingers touched the leather draw string.
"Hail, Lant," said Ayelborne, holding the thief's wrist in a crushing grip that belied his advancing years. "Practicing again, are we?"
"Wouldn't want to become rusty," explained Lant with a disarming if not childlike smile which was emphasized by his short stature. He, too, stood a full head shorter than the Men. "What news?"
"There is a stirring within the Torr. Rumors speak of a
horde mustering to invade the fair Arbourwood," replied Ayelborne in a
suddenly serious tone. "But that is only the first of it. Dormelon is
reallocating its forces to the southern border which has the
“What of the Sword?” asked Lant. “Has Dormelon enlisted the forces of his age-old ally against Myridia?”
“The Province of the Sword has been held in check by
Myridia’s strong alliance with the
Luinar frowned. “With the
“The most foul,” said Balinar."That Demon-Lord would not hesitate to drive his horde of screaming fiends right through the heart of Myridia if there was a prize to be won."
“Could the Demon-Lords of Torr and Dormelon have forged some new alliance?” asked Lant. “If they managed to join their hordes somewhere in the middle, it could be worse than Emerald Meadows.”
Ayelborne’s eyes lowered at the mention of that fell battle, for he had lost more than comrades at arms in the vanquishing of the evil that had risen there. Many had perished upon that field, and still many more would have if not for the herb-lore and healing skill Ayelborne had employed after the battle had been decided. But many leagues away, Ayelborne’s parents were slain upon the road by brigands while their eldest son fought for a foreign army in distant lands. The Woodsman never forgave himself the loss of his parents.
“I feared as much,” explained Ayelborne, burrying his
anquish. “But Torr and Dormelon are two Demon-Lords with
little liking for each other. Yet, there are still more players in this
game. In the
"The Brotherhood?" mused Luinar with another frown. "They've been quiet for too long. I would not doubt if they had a hand in every trouble spot that flared up upon the continent. But the Empire has enough to deal with on its own borders to keep them out of this region."
"It is unlikely indeed,” said Ayelborne, “that the Empire has any connection with the trouble brewing here, but even they should not be written off entirely. The Emperor has fairly stripped his southern border legions, all but conceding the disputed lands to the Bronze Alliance. The Prelate of Aldor fears the fleet is but a clever decoy and that the Empire will push north into Aldor. But the Emperor is a frugal Man, and I do not believe he would diminish his treasury by procurring ships he did not intend to use. I am certain his goal is more distant than the lands that border the Empire.”
Ayelborne paused a moment to let his tidings sink in. “So, there you have it. The four most prominent forces for evil all mustering toward unknown, and conceivably unrelated, goals. What this all amounts to, though it is certainly not good, is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps the reason for Steele's summons will shed some light upon things. Where is he?"
The others looked confused and exchanged worried glances.
Then, the lieutenant spoke. "He left on an errand of some import shortly after sending the order to move out. His dispatch to me indicated that he was going to meet you at the Green Buck and rendezvous here in your company."
"He never showed," informed Ayelborne.
"That is fell news," muttered Balinar, and the familiar smile was no longer upon his face. "It is not like the captain to stand up a rendezvous."
"Something urgent must have come up," assured Ayelborne, dismissing any thought of misfortune. "He will arrive soon enough. Who else is here?"
Lant fingered a dagger. "You are the first from the east to arrive. We had thought Welleran would be travelling with you as well."
"But for my errand, he should have," agreed Ayelborne. Then a rare smile of mirth crossed his face. "But he shall, no doubt, have more entertaining company. Unless he detoured around Crystalium, Welleran will have rendezvoused with Ardonis."
"Then we should expect them in the next day or so," said Lant.
"I do not envy Welleran that sea voyage," said Balinar. "No doubt the talkative prince has built up a supply of new tales to bolster his already numerous collection. Poor Welleran will have nowhere to escape."
"I only hope that Welleran hasn't permanently plugged his ears by the time they arrive," laughed Lant.
"Good," said Ayelborne. "Now, what is behind this summons? Certainly, it is of some gravity that he should assemble the fellowship in such haste."
The others again exchanged looks of anxiety and confusion.
"He gave no such details in my dispatch," said Lant.
Balinar shook his head. "Urgent. Come in haste. Nothing more."
Their eyes fell questioningly upon Luinar who stood quietly to the side. There was no suspicion or accusation in their piercing eyes, but still the lieutenant felt uncomfortable under such scrutiny. He knew no more than the others, but his close association with the mercenary captain suggested that he would be better informed. They expected an answer.
"I wish I could tell you more," Luinar said sincerely. "But the captain did not inform me as to the reasons behind this reunion. He can be very secretive when he is so inclined."
The others nodded their heads knowingly, and Ayelborne said, "Well then, we shall just have to wait until Steele returns. Luinar, take us to the camp."
Luinar nodded once and turned anxiously into the woods. He was no stranger to the three companions who had come at his captain's summons, but neither was he a close comrade. As second in command of the Black Brigade, he had had occasion to serve alongside each of them on various campaigns, and he had come to know each of them quite well. Yet, he felt somehow aloof from their fellowship, which had grown under the weight of many perilous adventures. The bonds of friendship ran deep and strong within such a company, and their circle seemed almost unbreachable to one such as Luinar who had witnessed the strength of its fiber. Anyone of them had and would again put his life at risk for any of the others.
And would they for me? thought Luinar as he wound through the dense woodland. It was a daunting revelation for someone in such company, and it was no small wonder that Luinar felt not quite equal to their stature. And yet, they showed him every respect due a colleague, and they never slighted his presence. He mused if such would be the case if he did not serve Tellion Steele. A twinge of concern crossed his face at the thought of his captain, and he wondered where Steele had gone.
A full moon rose over the
The thieving hour, thought Tellion Steele as his gaze intently scanned the long shadows of the garden grounds and then lifted to the window above. A veteran of more than a few night excursions, the mercenary knew the ideal conditions for stealthy infiltration. The dead of a moonless night was the preferred time of many common thieves. Those witless practitioners would inevitably end up dangling from the gallows, mused the mercenary. Too dark. Under such conditions it was impossible to see where to put your own feet let alone survey the location of sentries and other possible dangers. The night of a half-moon was better, Steele surmised, but he favored the full moon just as it crested the sky-line. Then, the shadows within the darkness were at their longest, and within the inviting blackness one could still scan the proximity. Yes, this was the thieving hour, he concluded with a wry smile. And the hour of Assassins.
Suddenly, the dark eyes of the mercenary shifted, drawn across the enshrouded courtyard by some barely perceivable motion. Peering into the darkness across the gardens, he saw nothing out of place, and he became unsure of his perception. For long moments, he stared into that black patch of nothingness until it seemed to be writhing with its own life. Closing his eyes momentarily against the mirage, the mercenary cursed silently. Why am I here? he questioned himself with disdain. My emotions are clouding my judgment. How often had the mercenary captain pounded that lesson into the thick heads of his recruits? To lose objectivity was death, he recalled his own stark words with dour clarity. And yet, for three nights he had watched diligently over the window of the Elven princess to no avail. He could have sent a subordinate to perform this mundane task, and he knew he should have, considering the source of his information. Tidings out of the Elven nation of Celestar had to be filtered with a fine comb where the mercenary was concerned. Indeed, more than once, Steele had nearly been lured into a trap by the clever designs of those Elven nobles who wished to see him hang...or worse. But something in this circumstance had compelled the mercenary to disregard his own tenets of caution, to journey alone into a nation that had called for his blood. It was a reckless decision, he admitted, but he had no power to rescind it. It had been the dreams, he knew, that had rekindled a flame which he had thought long since extinguished, a flame blown out many years ago by his own rash and foolish behavior.
Suddenly, his keen eyes discerned two vague shapes moving slowly within the shadows towards the main structure of the palace. Steele shrank back into the depths of the niche and watched the shapes progress through the gardens on a course that would take them very near his own hiding place. Then, the shapes stopped, and the mercenary frowned as he lost sight of them even as his eyes were rooted upon their location. He became very self-conscious, wondering if they had detected him, but the sound of footfalls drifting to his pointed ears, warned him of the approaching patrol and suggested otherwise. He remained perfectly still, controlling his breathing with very slow intakes and long, silent exhalations. It was a mundane exercise, but it was effective in keeping his heart-rate down at times when he felt his blood racing through his veins. Not only that, but Steele had discovered that his concentration and other perceptions were heightened by the practice, and he could remain completely still and soundless for long durations. From mere feet away, he would appear to be nothing other than part of the shadows, even under close scrutiny.
Seconds later, a squad of palace guards marched within feet of the hidden shapes, passing without suspicion. With amazement, Steele watched as the sounds of the patrol faded into the darkness, and he was astonished to see the shadows twist until the mysterious shapes were once again evident to his keen eyes. They moved steadily and without sound as the mercenary spied upon them, impressed by their deftness and somewhat concerned. Obviously, these were no vulgar street-skulkers but veterans of the night. The mercenary knew of perhaps a handful of persons in the region with the skill and the insolence to even attempt such an intrusion, but he did not suspect any of them. A frown crossed his face as he considered the implications of that thought. Perhaps his source had been correct.
With cautious eyes, Steele gauged the progress of the shapes, searching for any mistake that might gain him a better advantage. Already, he had the benefit of concealment which gave him a slight edge over even two opponents, but that was a tenuous edge at best against experienced assassins, especially if his suspicions were correct. They might detect his presence at any moment, if indeed they had not already done so. Long ago, the mercenary had learned the value of perception, and the dangers; for the perceived advantage could easily be turned to disadvantage by a subtle adversary. Taking that to heart, Steele watched as the shapes drew nigh, becoming ever more discernible to the mercenary's intense gaze. Still beyond the range of his Elven night vision, they appeared to be nothing more than black-cloaks floating on the air. Their motions were fluid and graceful, but Steele was surprised to note that the figures were slightly taller than himself. With such graceful movements, he had assumed that the intruders were of Elven heritage, fearing that they were Drow Elves, but their height all but eliminated that possibility. He was himself counted very tall for an Elf, and he had never met any of his people taller. This revelation both relieved and disturbed the mercenary, for he did not relish any confrontation with the deadly Elven cousins of the underworld, but at least he knew their tactics. The Drow were formidable opponents in an open fight, but in clandestine affairs such as these, they were unsurpassed. The only thing worse than fighting Drow in the dark, contemplated the mercenary, was fighting unknown forces in the dark.
As the cloaked figures passed near the mercenary, Steele sensed danger almost tangibly in the dark air around him. Feeling his hands tighten around the pommels of his blades, he fought down the urge to leap upon the seemingly unsuspecting pair. A slight tremor shivered down his spine, and he could not shake the foreboding sensation that came over him. There was something about these intruders that triggered his subconscious awareness and warned him to be wary, almost as if he recognized them from some past encounter. But he could not place them in his conscious thought. Their cloaks were nondescript black with no outward insignias, and their features were concealed within the deep hoods that were drawn up over their heads. Such attire was common enough amongst the craftsmen of the subtle arts, he knew, yet there was something about the way they moved that did not sit well with the mercenary. Be wary, he thought to himself as he fell in step not more than a score of paces behind them.
The cloaked figures moved swiftly, almost too swiftly for the stealth they achieved, and Steele found it difficult to keep pace without jeopardizing his anonymity. Peering out of the dark shadow of a tall hedge, he watched as the intruders crossed the wide walk to the wall beneath the princess' balcony without apparent concern for roving patrols. Not much time, thought the mercenary, and suddenly he became very concerned. By vigilant observation, Steele had come to know the routine of the palace guards, and he knew that a patrol would be approaching within minutes. With a silent curse, he understood the reason for the rapid pace with which the cloaked figures had crossed the gardens. They, too, must have ascertained the schedule of patrols, either by their own vigilance or from an agent within the palace. Neither prospect forebode well for the mercenary, for it increased the likelihood that they were aware of his presence. If they had been watching the palace long enough to assess the guards' routine, it was conceivable that they had observed the mercenary as well. On the other hand, if their information came from within the palace, this entire scenario was probably a trap.
Slowly, Steele loosened his blades within their sheathes as he watched the cloaked figures scale the stone wall with almost casual ease. If it was a trap, escape would not be likely unless he turned aside now. But, if it was not a trap, the princess was in extreme danger. I cannot take that chance, he decided with grim resolution. He swept his blades silently from their sheathes and prepared to leap from the shadows.
Suddenly, the sounds of approaching guards drifted to his ears, and he froze instantly. For a paralyzing moment, he suspected a trap, but a quick survey quelled that fear as a patrol of guards marched casually into view. They're early, thought the mercenary with a brief smile. But his mirth quickly vanished as he watched the cloaked figures become indiscernible upon the stone wall. Damn, they're good, he thought as he edged back into the shadows of the hedge, sliding his blades back into place.
The guards marched unsuspectingly by, and even before they had passed completely from Steele's sight, the cloaked figures were shimmying up the wall. The first was atop the balcony before the mercenary deemed it safe to leave his hiding place, and the second was only seconds behind. With urgency, Steele leaped from the shadows of the hedge and sped to the wall where the cloaked figures had climbed. The stone was not without defects with which to purchase holds, but it was by no means an easy climb. Yet, the black-cloaks had made it seem effortless, he thought as he silently eased one of his daggers from a sheath at his belt and placed the sharp blade delicately between his lips. Biting down upon the blade, he pressed his body against the wall and edged slowling up the smooth stone. Strong muscles and a slender build aided his ascent, but the climb was exhausting and he could not forget how exposed he was to attack as he inched upward. But urgency compelled him, and he could not relent. With almost reckless abandon he scrambled up the wall, driven by dark images of a murdered princess. Somehow, he felt he was responsible; that he should have assailed the intruders before they had reached the royal quarters. Even as the patrol had passed under the hidden black-cloaks, he could have disclosed himself in order to expose them. Yet, he had done nothing for fear of compromising himself. If anything happens, he cursed. But he did not complete the thought. I will not allow it.
Atop the balcony, one of the intruders entered the princess' chambers, slithering through the shimmering white curtains, while the other took up a sentry position just outside the window. The chamber was quiet except for the gentle sounds of the sleeping princess who had been undisturbed by the silent invasion of her bed-chamber. Quietly, the intruder scanned the dark chamber as if searching for some unidentified object. He moved gracefully to a chest of drawers and sifted through an assortment of jewelry and trinkets with hidden eyes. A white hand with long, delicate fingers skillfully opened a small box without the slightest of sounds, revealing gems of unimaginable value sparkling in the dim moonlight that filtered through the diaphanous curtains. Yet, the hand strayed from the box without interest as the intruder moved to a small writing desk near the bed. Skillful hands probed the drawers of the desk, passing over each object quickly and without satisfaction. Turning, the shadow beneath its hood again surveyed the entire room slowly and methodically, finally coming to rest upon the form of the sleeping princess. Slowly, he started towards the bed.
Pressing on, Steele's fingertips finally reached the edge of the balcony. For a second, he paused, listening for any sound that might warn him of danger. He would be vulnerable as he climbed onto the balcony, he knew, and if the black-cloaks had not heard his hurried ascent up the wall, he did not want to alert them of his presence until he had time to draw his sword. But as he shifted his weight upon the precarious foot-holds, he heard sudden movement atop the balcony and looked up in time to see a gleaming blade flash in the moonlight. Only his quick reflexes enabled him to avoid a wickedly curved dagger as he let go of the balcony with one hand and twisted upon the face of the wall, his own dagger falling from his opened mouth as he gasped in surprise. The assassin’s blade skipped off the smooth stone and showered the dangling mercenary with sparks as Steele grabbed the wrist of the black-cloak with his free hand and pulled the off-balanced intruder over the low wall of the balcony. Tumbling head-over-heels in the darkness, the assassin followed the mercenary’s dagger to the cobble-stone walk below, the heavy crack of his body only barely discernible under the distinct peel of the dagger clanging against the cobble-stone.
Inside, the intruder looked up suddenly from the sleeping princess, pulling a long dagger from under his dark cloak. He was bent over the Elven beauty with a shriveled hand extended towards her heaving bosom as if reaching for her heart. Her slumber interrupted by the disturbence without, the princess came suddenly awake and saw the ghostly figure hovering over her, and a night-shattering scream rent the air.
"Assassin," cried the princess as she rolled away from the poised dagger. Just then, the mercenary burst through the window, slicing the gossimer curtains with two flashing blades. The black-cloak was frozen for a split second, indecisive with whom to be more concerned -- the startled and quite vocal princess or the charging mercenary. The hesitation proved to be costly.
Concentrating his attention upon the flashing blades of the mercenary, the black-cloak raised his curved dagger to meet the charge as the princess snatched a small dirk that rested upon her night stand. Intent upon the mercenary, the intruder did not see the tiny dagger until it ripped into his arm, eliciting a sharp hiss from unseen lips. Instinctively, the assassin turned, striking out with his elbow, and knocked the princess to the ground with a solid blow to her chest. Lynless went down hard, the breath forced from her lungs, as the black-cloak spun into the center of the chamber.
Steele gasped involuntarily as he saw the lithe form of the princess crumple and fall lifelessly to the cold floor. His placid face paled from the frightful image, and his composure broke into an angry glare as he leveled his eyes upon the vile murderer. But his eyes strayed too long upon the still form of the princess, allowing the assassin a brief opening in the mercenary's defenses. The curved dagger flashed in the dim light, just enough warning for the swift mercenary to react. Reflexes finely honed from years of soldiering saved the Elf from a swift end as his short sword swept the wicked blade to the side; but not before it had knicked his ear beneath the hood. Blood flowed from that wound down the side of the mercenary's face, and the assassin hissed with delight. A premature celebration, thought Steele as he edged forward behind his cold blades, closing upon the black-cloak for the kill. But his vision blurred momentarily, swimming with veritgo, and he understood instantly the elation of the assassin. Poison. The wound was insignificant, but the blade had been tainted. Steele should have expected as much. He had dealt with their kind enough in the past to anticipate their tactics. But he had been blinded by concern for the princess. The princess, he thought through the haze of the poison. He had failed her again.
Shaking off the mind-fogging affects of the poison, the mercenary leveled the point of his sword at the dancing assassin and began to advance. The poison was fast-acting, but it would not get him before he ended the miserable existance of this foul being. At once, the black-cloak perceived the intent of the mercenary and became serious.
"You may yet save yourself, Elf," said the assassin. His voice was thin, floating from the blackness within the cloak like a disembodied hiss. "But only if you forsake the princess. It's a profound choice."
Steele was unable to restrain his concern for the fallen damsel, unsure if she yet lived after the brutal blow. He stole a glance at the stricken princess, and his eyes were arrested by what he beheld. To the mercenary's relief and utter amazement, the princess stared back at him with cold grey eyes, the bloodied dagger still clutched defensively in her trembling hand as she sat up. The distraction was enough to allow the intruder to escape out the window. Suddenly, Steele was aware that the black-cloak had fled, but he could not will himself to give chase.
"Who are you?" demanded the princess in a tone that would have been commanding had her faltering voice not betrayed her fear. Still, the mercenary did not move.
Such mettle concealed within the dainty beauty of the princess had always bewildered Tellion Steele, but now she was more resplendent than even he had remembered. Suppressing a pang of trepidation, he peered back at her from beneath his deep mantle. She was frightened, he could see, yet she did not panic. A steady blade even in an unskilled hand would give pause to the most experienced of assassins, he mused. But it would not keep her alive long. She did, however, appear determined to resist until the end. The observation brought an imperceptible smile to his slender lips and reminded him that the danger still existed. For a moment, he hovered over her, his own blades gleaming in the pale light. He was unsure of his next move. The princess would obviously survive the brutal blow she had received from the black-cloak, but he was reluctant to leave her alone though he would die of the assassin's poison. The vile cut-throat was still about, and who could say if he would return. Stepping back cautiously, Steele watched the princess with curiosity. To the mercenary in past years, she had been the most exquisite being alive; and the years had only increased her beauty. He inclined his head to further conceal his visage from her, fearing to be recognized even beneath the dark shadow of his hood. Through the strengthening effects of the poison, he wondered, Where are the guards?
As if in answer, the sound of booted feet and metal armor heralded the approach of the palace guards. Tellion Steele nodded slightly to the princess as he edged towards the window. He felt a compelling urge to look back at the princess as he parted the thin curtains, but his sense of urgency prevailed. With a swift pivot, the mercenary sprang onto the balcony, his cloak streaming in his wake.
Lighting upon the balcony, Steele heard the din of activity in the gardens below as squads of guards reacted to the call of the princess. General quarters, thought the mercenary as he scanned the balcony for the black-cloak who had fled. He was alone. Sheathing his gleaming blades beneath his dark cloak, he gazed with keen eyes over the churning shadows of the courtyards. Below, the shattered body of the fallen black-cloak still lay undiscovered by the guards. They would find it soon enough, he thought with a frown. Then, suppressing a bout of dizziness, he leaned into the shadows against the cold wall and breathed deeply. Leaving the palace was not going to be as easy as entering. He had a deadly poison coursing through his veins and an assassin still to find. Quickly, almost frantically, the mercenary fished a small, sealed packet from within his belt pouch. With trembling fingers, he unfolded the packet within the shadows as the heavy feet of Elven guards rushed into the chambers of the princess. He did not have much time.
A white powder spilled from the packet into the mercenary's shaking hands as he struggled against the effects of the fast-acting poison. The powder was an antedote of sorts, meant to slow the spread and impact of poisons that attacked the nervous system. He had carried such an antedote on his person since a near fatal incident in years past when he had been careless in opening a locked chest that had been set with a trap. It was intended to be deluted in liquid and taken as such, but Steele was not accustomed to carrying a water-skin on such operations. He would have to make due. Holding the packet to his mouth, the mercenary tilted his head back and let the chalky powder pour into his open mouth. It tasted like the trodden dust of a busy thoroughfare, and he had to stifle a choking cough, but he managed to get most of it down his throat. He hoped it would work, but if the poison did not get him, the guards still might. He was out of time.
"Assassins," said the princess in a voice that trembled with emotion. "Out on the balcony." She still held the dirk tightly in her little fist, but she was uncertain why her hands still shook. Waking beneath the curved blade of the black-cloak had been sufficient to chill her blood and give her night-mares for months to come, but the second intruder had unsettled her in an entirely different fashion. There was a familiar aspect to his shrouded visage, and though he had frightened her, she was not sure what his intentions had been. Certainly, he could have killed her if he had come at her with his sharp blades. Had her tiny dagger daunted him? It was unlikely, she thought, but her rumination was interrupted by a reverberating clatter from without the window.
Immediately, the Elven guards swarmed to the balcony with drawn swords. Spreading out along the rail, they gazed with intent eyes over the courtyards and gardens below.
"Down there," said one of the keen-eyed Elves, pointing to an object glinting upon the walkway below the balcony. The cool blade of a dagger gleamed in the pale moonlight like a beacon against the dark cobble-stone walk. Close at hand, the twisted form of the fallen black-cloak lay motionless in a pool of his own blood. "He must have fallen as he climbed down."
"Be on your toes," replied another guard with an air of command. "There might be others."
As if to confirm his suspicion, shouts rang out over the royal gardens as the roving palace guards discovered an intruder. The leader of the guards atop the balcony, quickly assessed the situation and gave quick orders to the Elves under his command, assigning two to stand guard over the princess while he and the others hurried to the gardens to aid in apprehending the intruder. Within seconds, they were gone from the balcony, and a shadow stirred within the darkness just below the upper level balcony. Tellion Steele landed lightly upon the princess' balcony and slid silently over the side. Once upon the ground, he swiftly vanished within the shadows of the thick hedges and listened intently for several moments as his keen eyes searched the walk in vain for his fallen dagger. The curved blade of the assassin was visible, gleaming in the moonlight, he noted with a frown, but his straight blade was nowhoere to be seen.
When the mercenary was satisfied that no one was approaching, he edged onto the walk and knelt over the fallen black-cloak, his hands probing delicately under the broken body for his missing dagger as his eyes surveyed the body itself. As he had deduced, the intruder was Human, though of an unidentifiable ethnicity. He had short dark hair, and his shattered face was slender with angular cheek bones and an aquiline nose. Whether he would be considered handsome or not was no longer discernable, but the dark blank eyes still possessed a mien that struck the mercenary as icy and sinister. That the intruder was not from these parts, was an easy assessment, for his attire was of a strange fashion. Giving up on his search for his dagger, the mercenary began to rifle through the dead Man's personal affects, marveling at the make and feel of the unfamiliar fabric. Tough yet soft to the touch, it was smooth and surprisingly light; and its movement was as silent as Sarikian silk. It must have cost a fortune where-ever he was from, mused Steele as he pulled a medallion from around the dead Man's neck. Two tiny emeralds set in the eyes of a coiled silver snake sparkled in the moonlight at the mercenary. It was a strange design, thought the mercenary, and it struck him as vaguely diabolical. Slipping the medallion into his belt pouch, Steele dumped the contents of the intruders small purse into his hand without expectation. Professionals rarely carried anything that might be used to trace back to their employers, he knew. But there was no harm in trying.
To his surprise, he found a folded parchment amongst the few pieces of common currency. The intruder was not rich, but he was by no means poor, thought the mercenary as he pocketed the coins. Then, he carefully unfolded the parchment. In the pale light of the moon, the thin black scribble was difficult to read but not impossible for those with keen sight. With a growing smile, Steele read:
The Golden Eagle Tavern.
It might not be a true lead, Steele knew, but it was better than nothing. Besides, he was heading that direction anyway, if he survived long enough. Licking his dry lips, he could still taste the foul, chalky powder. Apparently, it was working; but he was now beginning to feel nauseous. Stuffing the paper into his pouch as his eyes scanned the surroundings one last time for his dagger, he rose to his feet and returned silently to the shadows of the hedge, silently cursing the misfortunate bounce that had sent the blade into hiding. Then, after a momentary fit of heaving, he began to work his way towards the perimeter wall wondering if he had lost any of the benefit of the powder with the contents of his stomach behind the hedge.
The Elven guards stepped back from the fallen black-cloak and snapped to attention as a tall Elf entered their circle with a confident stride. He, too, was a soldier, though his bearing was more graceful, and he moved with an air of tangible nobility under the deep green mantle of the King's Watch. A contemptuous smile crossed his face as he looked down upon the dead Man in black, and he roughly rolled the body over with the toe of his boot.
"The other?" he asked of a guard opposite him.
Hesitantly, the guard responded. "Escaped, your lordship."
"What have you learned?" asked the noble Elf.
"There were two intruders, Lord Aarylon," answered the guard with evident reservations. "Apparently, one of them fell from the balcony after we chased them from the princess' chambers. The other eluded our pursuit." All of the guards seemed uneasy in the presence of the noble Elf, and it was not only the venerated uniform of the Elf-king's personal guard that set them on edge. Lord Aarylon had a reputation for rigid regiment and for a quick temper if unsatisfied with performance. Exactly why the newly appointed Captain of the King's Watch had journeyed from his post in Silvaria where the Elf-king maintained his advance court was somewhat of a thorn in the side of the Palace Guard. Rumor had it that Lord Aarylon had been sent by the king himself because of his dissatisfaction with their handling of the recent assassination attempts upon the princess. Still, no official statement had been issued, and the princess had not actually been harmed.
"What of their origin?" asked Aarylon.
"Unknown," replied the guard stiffly. "We found only these." He handed two daggers over to the noble Elf.
Aarylon inspected the weapons with curiosity, for one was a long, curved dagger and the other was straight and two edged. Interesting, he thought as he turned them over in his hands. The curved dagger was of excellent make, but was devoid of any markings that might disclose its origin. Its kind could be purchased in almost any nation on the continent, but it was the preferred weapon of the desert dwelling Westerners. The second dagger on the other hand, also of exceptional quality, was more common among hunters and soldiers of the East. That one assassin should employ both was peculiar and captured the Elf's curiosity.
Looking more closely at the straight dagger, a barely perceptible smile crossed his thin lips. Upon the blade just below the cross-guard, a small, faded insignia was dimly etched into the steel so that it was only visible at certain angles. "Did anyone get a look at the second assassin?" he asked casually.
"He was cloaked much the same as this one," answered the guard. "But that is all that can be reported."
The Elf lord looked again at the faded insignia upon the dagger and mused silently. He knew the crossed-dagger design well enough, and the revelation both troubled and elated him. There was a mystery here. Keeping his thoughts well concealed, he returned the weapons to the guard and said, "Very well. I must speak with the princess now."
With that, Lord Aarylon strode away, and the guards relaxed visibly with his parting.
Luinar looked across the fire at the three companions. Balinar sat with his back against a tree, his eyes closed and a pleasant smile upon his lips. Nothing seemed to disturb his calm demeanor, not even the unexpected absence of the mercenary captain. Lant, on the other hand, hid his apprehension with the pretense of whittling at a piece of wood. It did not matter that his project never took on any form; the activity itself was enough to keep his mind occupied. Ayelborne was a mystery to the Elven lieutenant. Beneath the stoic exterior, the woodsman was a furnace of deliberation. Luinar could see it in the Man's clear, wise orbs as he looked deeply into the fire. If the others had detected this latent brooding, they said naught of it, but it was apparent that more than Steele's absence was pressing upon the mind of the noble Ayelborne.
Presently, Ayelborne looked up, and a smile erased the signs of concern upon his face. It was an unaffected smile of genuine gladness, and it took years from the Woodsman's visage observed the Elf. Curiously, he followed Ayelborne's gaze across the fire to see what had so lightened the Woodsman's mood, and he saw the familiar silhouette of an approaching figure. The others looked up as well, as Tellion Steele strode to the side of the camp fire and took a seat on a log beside Ayelborne. His face was pale and drawn, and dark rings circled his haunted eyes. But his lips spread in a glad smile as he gazed upon the companions.
"Well met, good Tellion," greeted Ayelborne with cheer. "But you look as if you’ve been dragged through the vats of a goodly vintage."
"Well met, indeed, good friends," said the mercenary captain in a voice strained with fatigue. "I apologize for my tardiness, but there were important matters that demanded my attention. And much news I was able to glean in the process."
"What was her name?" asked Balinar with a rakish smile.
"How old was she?" chimed in Lant.
Steele held up his hands in innocence, but his own lascivious smile did little to dispute his reputation. "I cannot compromise my sources," he returned in jest.
Ayelborne laughed heartily at the raillery, and it was the first real cheer any of them had heard from the Woodsman since their rendezvous. But alas, there were grave tidings to be exchanged, and the mercenary quelled the jovial mood with a serious look about the fire-side.
"I need your help," said Tellion Steele.
"As always, you shall have it," returned Ayelborne. "But what is going on? What have you learned?"
"Much you already know," began the mercenary. "Still more I will not speak of until I am certain of its truth. This only I know without doubt. The Torrwood is seething with unrest, and a new element of corruption has crept into its dark expanse. A shadow of evil is growing within the twisted woods, and it becomes greater and bolder with each passing day. It is there that we must strike, and we must not hesitate."
"Mayhap we should at least wait until the others arrive," suggested Ayelborne. "Welleran and Ardonis are expected any day now, and Stryker always seems to pop up when least expected."
"Indeed," said Steele with a smile. "They have already begun preparation. They will meet us on the morrow."
"You have seen them?" asked Ayelborne with surprise.
Steele nodded silently.
"Where are they?" asked Balinar curiously.
"No doubt the prince is wearing Welleran's ears thin over a mug or two at the Golden Eagle," replied Steele. "I bade them await Stryker, who is about an errand which suited his talents amicably."
"You know more than you are saying, Tellion," noted Ayelborne good naturedly.
"I merely suspect," corrected the mercenary. "There is still much to be learned."
"As enigmatic as always," laughed Lant from across the fire. "Cut to the chase, Tellion. What is our mission?"
Steele smiled at the thief with a nod. "Thought you'd never ask," he said. "There is a hidden stronghold within the Torr of which I have only recently learned. It is from there I believe the trouble emanates."
"And you want us to eliminate the threat," interjected Balinar with enthusiasm.
"I doubt not your ability, Balinar," returned Steele. "But even our stout fellowship is not up to such a task. No, this is primarily an information-gathering mission."
Balinar frowned. "Did anyone explain that to our over-zealous prince?"
Again, the mercenary's smile broadened. "I promised him, should the occasion arise, we would take out the source of this new disturbance."
"That's good enough for me," affirmed Balinar.
"So, how do we find this stronghold?" asked Lant.
"That, I imagine," replied Ayelborne before Steele could respond, "is what Stryker is up to." Tellion nodded in confirmation. "Then, I suggest we get a good night's sleep. Tomorrow promises to be interesting."
"That is not unusual when Steele is involved," commented Balinar with a smile.
Before the mercenary could retort, a slender figure cloaked in grey entered the light of the fire and stood at attention just at the edge. It seemed to be an Elf by the slight stature apparent beneath the shrouding cloak, but there was nothing by which to identify him. The companions fell suddenly silent and looked curiously at the figure.
"Pardon me, good friends," said Steele as he stood. "Affairs of command." With that, he strode over to the mysterious figure and exchanged brief words in hushed whispers. And as they spoke, it was evident even in the flicker at the edge of the fire's light that Steele was disturbed by what the figure said. He stroked the thin scruff upon his chin as he listened intently, and his eyes seemed to gaze past the figure into the dark night.
"A new scout?" questioned Ayelborne with interest, for he had campaigned with the Black Brigade on more than one occasion. But he did not recognize this figure.
"An agent from Celestar," answered Luinar quietly.
"It would seem the captain is not pleased with his tidings," observed Balinar.
"Of late, no news out of Celestar has been pleasant for the captain," averred Luinar, and Lant nodded in knowing agreement.
Then, Steele dismissed the agent and returned to the side of the fire, his concern carefully masked behind a casual mien. But he did not sit, and all could tell that he was deeply troubled by the tidings he had received. Still, no one spoke, and a long silence passed with only the sound of the crackling fire to fill their ears. Though none of them had heard what had been said by the agent, each of the companions felt deeply the apprehension that had overcome the mercenary. They had been through much together, and there was little which affected one that did not affect the others. Finally, Steele broke the silence.
"There is much to which I must see," he said in way of excusing himself from the companions. "And you would all do well to get some sleep. Luinar will see to your provisions." With that, the mercenary captain strode away toward the dwindling fires of the Black Brigade's encampment.
Rising, Luinar said, "Excuse me gentlemen but I, too, have responsibilities to the Brigade that I have put off too long. Your provisions shall be ready in the morning. Now, I must bid you all good night."
"Oh come, lieutenant," said Balinar cheerfully. "Surely, Lyam and the captain can manage the Brigade a few more hours without you. Sit a while longer by the fire and relax. I have a skin of fair vintage to pass around, and perhaps good Ayelborne can be convinced to read from his precious journal."
"Would that I were able," said Luinar with genuine regret. "But Lyam will have my hide if I fail to relieve him at the end of his watch. Perhaps another time."
"Indeed," said Ayelborne heartily. "Mayhap Prince Ardonis will be here to spin a tale or two in my stead."
"Then," suggested Lant, "we should all find responsibilities to occupy us." At that, the companions laughed, and Luinar bade them a final good night and hurried away to relieve Lieutenant Lyam as duty officer. The others watched him fade into the night, and Balinar, true to his promise, passed a skin of wine to the companions around the fire. It was of fair quality and eased their minds of the troubling events which were unfolding about them. For a short time, they forgot about political schemes and sinister designs as Ayelborne read an old tale which he had transcribed into his journal many years back. It was an ancient story, one that they had heard many times before, but it was still entertaining to hear the Woodsman recount it in his steady, gentle manner as if he were recalling it from his own experiences. In this manner, they passed a few hours, and then they, too, began to turn in one by one.
Ayelborne, as was his habit, was the last of the companions to retire to his bed-roll, staying up late into the night until the fire had burned very low. He was accustomed to turning in late and rising early, but on this night he had more reason than habit for remaining awake far into the darkest hours of the night. Though his apprehension was alleviated by the return of Tellion Steele, his mind was still largely unsettled. Events were transpiring too fast, and as usual it seemed inevitable that the companions would become unavoidably swept into the midst of the raging tide of circumstance without really knowing what was going on. Steele at least seemed to know more than he was willing to say, or at least he suspected more, thought the Woodsman. That in itself was disturbing to Ayelborne; for though he trusted the mercenary, he realized it was a trust based mostly upon his association with the mercenary when he had been but an innocent Elfling caught up in the affairs of the time. That had been many years ago, and their association had been short lived. Only recently had Ayelborne been reacquainted with the older and much changed Tellion Steele. The world, apparently, had not been easy on the Elfling, as evidenced by the oft cynical nature of the once innocent youth. But, mused the woodsman, their recent association had demonstrated the Elf to be reliable in character if unorthodox in manner. Yet, there was much he did not know concerning the roguish mercenary. Could he be depended upon now?
Ayelborne did not find comfort in sleep that night. Instead, the Woodsman sought the warmth of the fire while he summarized the events of the day in his leather-bound journal. Silently, he reflected upon the mysterious agent and the unheard exchange that had caused an undeniable ripple of consternation beneath the mercenary captain’s typical mask of assuredness. Something was going on that the mercenary did not wish to confide, thought the Woodsman, and a wry smile crossed his somber lips. Even in his youth, Tellion Steele seemed to be intrinsically involved in every scandal that transpired in the tranquil woodland region. "There is more to this Elf than can be discerned by the eye," his father, Treffayne, had once told him. Over the years, Ayelborne had come to know this first hand about Tellion, and as he reflected on the current situation, he could not help but recall the first time he had met the Elf many years before. Staring into the dancing flames, memories of that time filled the Woodsman’s thoughts, his father's account and his own recollections interweaving as his consciousness drifted back to those long ago years.
* * * * * * *
Treffayne had taken Tellysierion back to his village after the banishing of the Demon. The Woodsman was intrigued by the young Elf and the circumstances which brought about the Demon's defeat. While Treffayne counted himself a fair swordsman and his blade was said to have been forged by ancient Elves skilled in their craft, he was known better for his mastery of the longbow. It was conceivable that the Woodsman had pierced the defenses of the Demon at a moment of weakness with a lucky stroke, but even Treffayne, a mere peddler of his wares, doubted very much that he alone had been responsible for the Demon's demise. The little Elf who had clung to his leg in fear had to be somehow involved in what had happened, he surmised. The Woodsman could not fathom the connection, but there were people near his village who knew more of such things. Tellysierion himself might have possessed the answers to some of the riddles running through Treffayne's head, but the Woodsman did not know what questions to ask. Perhaps his eldest son, Ayelborne, who was away studying in Celestar, would be able to shed some light on the mystery. Ayelborne was sure to return from his studies once news of the massacre spread through the Elven nation, and he would be much better suited for the task.
But to answer questions was not the only reason Treffayne had brought the young Elf to his home. Necessity had dictated that the Woodsman provide protection for the Elfling, for there had been no other survivors of the village massacre. Every male, female, and child had been slaughtered, including Tellysierion's mother. The young Elf had helped the Woodsman build the funeral pyres and burn the dead after the fashion of the Elves in that region. He had not shed a tear, even when he had set his own mother upon the pyre. Treffayne ached for the Elfling. His own tears had been plentiful, but the Woodsman did not know how to comfort the orphaned Elfling who showed no outward signs of grief. He could see the pain in the Elf's young eyes, and he knew that, in time, Tellysierion would deal with his loss. But for now, the young Elf locked his sorrow deep inside himself and would not let it out.
Tellysierion was a strong willed youth, and Treffayne had found him to be of very unusual character for a High Elf. There was something wild and free about his nature, more attuned to that of a Wild Elf or even some Humans that Treffayne knew from the Bad Lands. But Treffayne saw also in him a love of the woods and a deep appreciation of its beauty. Such love and appreciation, the Woodsman and the Elfling held in common, and Treffayne began to teach Tellysierion wood lore as they traveled.
Three days saw the pair to Treffayne's cottage in a small village within the Arbour. The pain had subsided within Tellysierion somewhat, but the memory of the massacre lurked just beyond his conscious thought, threatening to surface at any time. On occasion, Tellysierion's grey eyes grew moist only to be replaced an instant later with a look of cold steel. Treffayne was aware of the internal struggle going on within the Elfling, and at such times the Woodsman allowed Tellysierion space to reflect. But sometimes Tellysierion would laugh and for a time cheer would return to his all too somber visage. Most often, this would occur when he and Treffayne's younger son, Galin, played together in the woodlands surrounding their cottage. Though Galin was younger by a number of years, they were physically equal and had become almost instant friends. They had taken to playing woodland games that tested their skills at wood lore against one another. Tellysierion was Elven and by nature possessed of more aptitude for wood lore, but Galin was better schooled and more skilled in the art. Galin showed the Elfling everything that Treffayne had taught him, and Treffayne also took time when he was able to teach them both more of the woods and its wonders. Tellysierion had a quick mind and learned swiftly, and soon the youths were evenly matched in ability.
Tellysierion grew fond of the Woodsman and his family, as well as the others of the village. Treffayne's wife, Ilonwe, had welcomed him warmly into her home and dispelled any uneasiness the Elfling might have felt coming into a strange place. She was a regal Woman, graceful in her daily toil and noble in manner. She appeared slightly more aged than did Treffayne, though the Woodsman was actually a number of years older, but she possessed a youthful heart and an irrepressible smile. Her laughter and pleasant singing filled the cottage around meal times and was a cheerful contrast to Treffayne's stoic manner. Tellysierion could not help but feel gladdened by her song and laughter, and he slept better at night after she had tucked him into bed and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
Weeks passed before Tellysierion was asked to attend a council with the village elders to disclose all he knew of the incident with the Demon. The young Elf began with the frenzied arrival of the bounty hunters and the turmoil into which it had thrown his village. The elders listened attentively to the young Elf’s account, often interrupting to asked questions upon points they found of particular interest. Tellysierion answered all of the questions as best he could, not always understanding their significance; but when asked to explain the unnerving paralysis he had experienced as he hid atop the village inn during the massacre, his answer was slow in coming and his words spoken softly. Recalling the screams of terror in the night, he told them of the intense fear and how he had wanted to give into feelings of despair as he huddled coldly against the chimney stack, unable to move. The young Elf almost allowed his inner pain to finally overtake him as the account evoked the anguished notion that he must have heard his mother’s last tormented scream as he sat unmoving upon the rooftop. But Tellysierion managed to suppress his feelings again before they could overwhelm him, and when he stopped speaking the elders looked upon him silently with great sadness in their eyes.
The elders could not bring themselves to press the young Elf after that, and Tellysierion’s voice fell into a monotone cadence as he related the rest of his tale in a cursory fashion. In his desire to be done with the account and put the past behind him, the young Elf omitted many details that seemed inconsequential to him. Thus, he made no mention of the amulet, nor indeed did his tale begin early enough to include the oath the hermit had exacted from him.
Treffayne, too, was asked to report to the council, and while the Woodsman recounted his tale, Tellysierion was excused and walked out of the council hall on tremulous legs, trying to once again forget the terror of his recent past.
Galin was waiting for the young Elf outside of the hall and took him to where the village children had gathered to play games. Tellysierion was thankful for the distraction from his thoughts, and eagerly accompanied the young woodlander. There were no other Elven children in the village, but they were not unaccustomed to Elves and welcomed Tellysierion to their game with enthusiasm.
Tellysierion played with Galin and the other village children for the rest of the afternoon. Galin excelled at the games and was chosen to be one of the captains. A flame-haired older boy everyone called Red was chosen to be the opposing captain. Galin chose Tellysierion as his first pick, and the teams were quickly assembled. Then, the games were on. But all too soon, the council was adjourned, and the games ended. With friendly farewells, the other children departed with their fathers, and Tellysierion set off with Galin and Treffayne, never to play in the village games again.
News of the village massacre had already reached Ayelborne in Celestar, and just a few days later the young woodlander ambled into the little village where Treffayne dwelled. Treffayne and Ilonwe welcomed their son home with an emotional show of affection which denoted his long absence, and after they had reacquainted themselves, Ayelborne asked about the massacre. Treffayne informed him of the young Elfling who they had taken in and explained the circumstances that brought Tellysierion to their house. The Woodsman was eager to hear what his son had to say concerning the encounter with the Demon, and Ayelborne seemed perplexed by his father's account. His interest had been piqued, so the younger Woodsman sought out the Elfling in the woods where he was playing with Galin. Galin greeted his brother with less emotion than did his parents, but Galin's respect for Ayelborne was evident even to Tellysierion.
After dispensing with the formalities of introductions, Ayelborne took the young Elf off a ways into the woods where they were completely alone. Tellysierion felt quickly at ease with the young Woodsman’s stoic yet gentle manner as they engaged in idle chatter. They sat under a tree where the turf was long and soft, and Ayelborne began to delve into the Elfling's role in the village massacre and the events leading up to it. Tellysierion launched into the same story that he had given to the village council, and like the elders, the young Woodsman interrupted the Elf with many questions. But Ayelborne asked about details for which the elders had shown little interest, and he subtly navigated around aspects of the story that were upsetting to the young Elf. In this manner, Ayelborne deftly uncovered the existence of the amulet and its connection to Henry the Hermit.
"May I see it?" asked Ayelborne after Tellysierion had disclosed the charge to which the mad hermit had bound him. With a twinge of apprehension, Tellysierion produced the medallion from around his neck, and allowed the Woodsman to inspect it.
"Very unusual," he said with great interest. "These markings are unfamiliar to me, but perhaps my instructor in Celestar can decipher them." Ayelborne pulled forth a leather bound notebook from his pack and quickly copied the likeness of the symbols onto its pages.
When he had completed his sketches and returned the notebook to his pack, Ayelborne sat in silence for long moments, pondering all the Elfling had said. Finally, he rose and motioned Tellysierion to follow him back to the cottage where Ilonwe was preparing the evening meal. At supper, Treffayne was his usual stoic self, but his gaze constantly shifted to his eldest son as if expecting a pronouncement of some kind from him. But Ayelborne was silent while he broke his sup, and when he had finished and cleared his place, he retired to the porch where he produced a pipe and sweet tobacco from his tunic. He struck up the leaf and sat upon the porch blowing bluish smoke rings across the yard. It was a cool and pleasant evening, and before long Treffayne had joined his son with a pipe of his own.
Ayelborne handed the tobacco pouch to his father. "From Celestar," he said. "Lindar spoils me with the finest leaf in the region. I'm afraid I am becoming quite accustomed to it."
"How fares Old Lindar Gelwing?" asked Treffayne. "And how go your studies?"
"Lindar is eccentric as always," his son answered with a smile. "But he is healthy and has much to teach, though lately he has taken to encouraging me to leave Celestari to experience the world for myself, or so he says. Mayhap I will take his advice, after another season or two." Ayelborne paused for a long moment, puffing on his pipe and staring at the smoke rings drifting across the yard. Then he said abruptly, "I think Tellysierion should accompany me back to Celestar." Treffayne seemed about to reply, but Ayelborne continued before he could be interrupted. "He bears a strange amulet which Old Henry the Hermit gave to him upon his death throws. I would have Lindar inspect it first hand, though I would not ask the Elfling to take leave of it, for Henry made him swear oath to wear it next to his heart always. Mayhap the medallion is charmed to protect against Demons. I have heard tale of such amulets, and though they are very rare, it would explain a great deal."
"Poor Old Harry," mused Treffayne as he considered his son's words. He breathed deeply of the forest air and let out a long sigh. Then he said, "Celestar is a very different place than the Arbour. It is full of many strange and curious inhabitants. The Elves there are full of self-righteous honor and code, and their society is stifling in its social hierarchy. They look down upon all that are not High Elven, as you well know.”
Ayelborne opened his mouth to object, but Treffayne stayed his protest with a raised hand. “No need to argue. I know well your fondness toward the Elves, and I admit not all among them are as conceited as I paint them. Gelwing has done right by you, and if all the talk be true, the Elf-queen looks not down upon outsiders, least of all you, my son.” Ayelborne’s face colored at the mention of the Elf-queen’s fondness for him, though it was an honorable affection for one who had done service to her country. Indeed, Ayelborne and his sturdy long bow had accounted themselves well standing alongside the Elves against the enemies of Celestari. His loyal service and deadly accuracy had gained him the respect of not just a few among the Elven nobility. And yet, Ayelborne knew to what point his father was heading.
“You do not believe the Elves will accept Tellysierion as their own,” Ayelborne said.
Treffayne nodded solemnly. “You know this as well as I. If he goes, he will not be treated as brethren.”
“And if he stays, he shall know no brethren though he is treated as such,” mused Ayelborne.
The porch was quiet for a moment as the Woodsmen thought upon what each had said. Only the peaceful sounds of the forest filled the air as they weighed the benefits to the Elfling of each course they might decide for him. It was no light matter, each knew, to determine the fate of the young Elfling, and neither wished to rush to any decision. Finally, Treffayne broke the silence. “Tellysierion is young and filled with the love of the woods and of nature, and I would not begrudge him that. Yet, there is more to him than can be discerned by the eye, and I think he will never truly find his place in the world living amongst Humans if that is all he knows. Though the Elves may make him an outcast, I believe such an experience might help him find his place. What say you, my son?”
“I believe it is best,” said Ayelborne.
“Do you plan to visit a while before you leave,” asked Treffayne. “Or are your studies pressing?"
"We will stay yet a few days more," said Ayelborne with a smile. "I too find that the city grows tiresome after a bit." Treffayne chuckled softly, and father and son sat upon the porch blowing smoke rings across the yard until the light faded.
Tellysierion woke suddenly from a disturbing dream to find
Ayelborne watching over their camp by the fire's side. They had camped within a
small copse of trees two days out of the Arbour, and Ayelborne expected to
reach the Elven city of
The talk in which Treffayne had alluded to the Elf-queen’s fondness for his son centered around Ayelborne’s adeptness at archery. He was a deadly force with a bow and had come to rival even the best of the Elven archers. When the Woodsman had stood alongside the Elves against their enemies, he had accounted himself well enough in the eyes of all Celestari and had even captured the attention of Her Fey Majesty, Elissandra Galen Allystriel, Queen of Celestari. But these past nights had been peaceful and naught had disturbed their camp. Ayelborne had kept vigil every night while the Elfling slept soundly. Only occasionally did he let himself slumber for minutes at a time, giving himself just enough rest to get him through the days to follow. But this night was different as Tellysierion tossed and turned in his sleep and was unable to settle down. Ayelborne hoped the restlessness would pass, but finally the Elf awoke and sat up within his bedroll, his left hand coming up to rest upon his chest, thumb and forefinger absently tracing the edges of the amulet hidden beneath his shirt.
"What assails you so in your sleep?" he asked kindly.
As if slowly coming out of a trance, Tellysierion rubbed his eyes and sat silently for a few moments clearing his head. Finally, he said in an unsettled voice, "I was being followed by something that I could not see,” the young Elf said softly, once again caressing the amulet under his shirt without thought as he continued. “I ran. But it came after me, and I could not escape. Then I fell, worn from running, and I shook with exhaustion upon the ground and could not stand. I sensed something approaching, but I dared not turn to look. I felt it draw near and anticipated its touch. And then I awoke." Tellysierion looked about the copse and their camp as if he expected something to jump at him from out of the darkness, but there was nothing.
"You are safe now," assured Ayelborne, setting aside his notebook. "It was but a dream."
"I still feel it," insisted the Elf. The metal of the amulet was cold against his chest and seemed to tremble as he absentmindedly stroked it. He shivered and inched closer to the fire. "Something is out there," he said, indicating the darkness back in the direction from which they had traveled.
"The Demon?" asked Ayelborne. He reached for his bow and strung it with a casual manner. Then, he sat opposite Tellysierion looking over the flames with the bow across his lap. "Do you sense the Demon?"
The Elf stared out into the darkness silently. Then he replied. "No. I do not believe so. I do not feel the fear, just a feeling of being watched."
The night passed uneventfully as Tellysierion kept watch the last few hour, and Ayelborne slept at the Elf's insistence. But the Woodsman was unsettled during their travels the next day. He woke earlier than usual and struck camp before sunrise, and as they marched across the exposed plains he could not shake the feeling of being followed. Perhaps the feeling was due to the Elf's dream, but still his eyes constantly drifted to the horizon from which they had come, the trees of the Arbour left far behind. Yet he saw nothing each time he looked over his shoulder and felt foolish for getting paranoid for no good cause. The Elf had woken fresh from a dream and no doubt its effects had lingered over his mind even after he had awoke. It seemed a logical explanation to the Woodsman, but Ayelborne remembered his father's words about the Elf and cautioned himself to be wary. He would continue to check their backside, lest pursuit should take them unaware. In this way, they passed the day, and they found another copse to camp within for the night.
The next night saw Tellysierion again fraught with nightmares, and the day found Ayelborne faithfully scanning their track. At one point, as the day began to grow old, the Woodsman thought he saw a dark speck on the horizon where they had been just a few hours previously. But the speck quickly vanished below the horizon, and he was not sure if he had actually seen it at all. Still, Ayelborne decided to keep moving after sunset as a precautionary measure. They were within a day’s march of Celestar, and he was becoming anxious for the security of his own quarters within Lindar's abode. They continued at a fast pace half-way through the night until the night became too cold, and finally the Woodsman decided to give Tellysierion a rest.
Making a quick camp nestled in a small dale between two low hills, Ayelborne struck up a fire to warm them. Tellysierion collected wood for the fire from the ground about their camp while Ayelborne moved beyond the light of the fire also collecting fuel, and before long, they had amassed enough wood to last the night. The Woodsman once again pulled forth his notebook and began to write, occasionally glancing across the fire at the young Elf who lay staring into the darkness. Ayelborne knew the Elf’s dreams would come again this night and knew that Tellysierion dreaded them. Setting aside his quill, the Woodsman flipped through the pages of his notebook. There were many pages filled with odd sketches, heroic stories and daring experiences, and after a moment he found the page for which he sought.
"Have you ever been to the sea, Tellysierion?" asked Ayelborne softly. The Elf looked over and shook his head. "Ever hear of its shimmering expanse or of its mighty power?"
"No," said the young Elf with interest. "Have you?"
Ayelborne shook his head, but he smiled and said, "But I have the account of one who has seen much of the mighty oceans. He was the captain of a tall ship of war, and he was a pirate."
Ayelborne began to read from his notebook a story he had once been told. He did not know if it were a true tale or not; but it was a tale of great adventure, and it captivated the young Elf. When he had finished the story, more than an hour had passed. Tellysierion stretched and yawned, a smile across his face, and soon he was asleep. Ayelborne, too, smiled as he watched his young companion's peaceful face, then suddenly the Elf's countenance changed and his eyes came at once open.
"They're coming," said Tellysierion with a gasp, both hands clasped to his chest, one over the other. The amulet was cold and still against his chest, but he was certain that it had shivered for an instant just as he had slipped into slumber.
Ayelborne kicked sand upon the fire, dousing it instantly. He spread it out with his boots and then began gathering his things as Tellysierion pulled his pack together. Within minutes they were scrambling through the darkness towards Celestar, Ayelborne with his bow strung and his quiver of arrows slung across his back. He had seen the certainty in the young Elf's eyes when he had woken and did not need convincing that danger was close at hand.
After several minutes of running in the dark, Ayelborne grabbed Tellysierion by the arm and turned their course at a right angle. He led the Elf silently to a stand of trees not far off their original path and pulled him to the ground at its edge. They waited there in silence for many minutes, the Woodsman with an arrow set to his bow string, before there was any sign of pursuit. Tellysierion sighted them first, just at the edge of his Elven night vision, and pointed them out to Ayelborne. There were five of them, humanoid in size, and all but one with a distinctive lumber in its stride which betrayed their race.
"Orcs," whispered the Woodsman with vehemence as he bent his bow. He loosed the arrow with a twang which startled the five, but they could not react before one of the Orcs fell solidly to the turf without even a grunt. Ayelborne set another shaft to his string and had bent his bow yet again before the remaining four had moved from the spot. An Orcish command rang out through the night, though Ayelborne distinguished the voice to be other than that of an Orc. You'll not run far this night, thought the Woodsman as his second arrow pierced an Orc through the lower back. The Orc screamed out in pain, but no one turned to aid him. Ayelborne brought down a third Orc before they had all vanished into the darkness. Then, he slung his bow and unsheathed his sword to finish the Orcs he had downed.
"That should give them reason to think twice about seeking game in Celestari," said the Woodsman when he had returned to the trees. Tellysierion had remained hidden as Ayelborne administered death to those Orcs who had survived the arrows. "We will camp here. They will not return this night." With that, they made a quick camp amongst the trees without a fire and huddled close within their blankets against the chill of night.
Ayelborne seemed confident that they would be pursued no further, and even Tellysierion felt more settled. The young Elf slept soundly that night for the first time in many nights. The soundness of Tellysierion's sleep pleased Ayelborne as he scribbled in his notebook. His young companion had displayed another interesting curiosity. Could the Elf actually sense danger, or was it only chance that Tellysierion's nightmares coincided with the potential threat that had been tracking them? That made two instances that Ayelborne knew of in which Tellysierion had demonstrated such ability, and he could not recall a time when the Elf had made warnings without cause. He was certainly not taken to paranoia, and yet he did not acknowledge the ability to sense danger. It was as if Tellysierion were unaware of his talent, or at least did not consider it unusual. Ayelborne noted the observation in his book and made a mental note to talk to the Elf on the subject. Then, the Woodsman leaned back pulling his cloak about him as he settled into a light sleep for what was left of the night.
The city of
As the day grew older, the land changed from an endless sea of wild grasses to tilled and irrigated fields. The travelers began to pass farm houses, and before long they came to the city gate. Elven guards stood to either side of a wide thoroughfare passing through a high wall. As the pair approached, the guards saluted Ayelborne and admitted them into the city with a friendly greeting. The Woodsman led his young companion through the busy fairways at a steady pace, weaving through the city’s inhabitants who were going about their daily tasks.
Tellysierion looked about him with wonder as he tried to keep up with the long legged Human. Ayelborne appeared to be somewhat in a hurry, and Tellysierion found himself bumping into other pedestrians as his eyes tried to take in everything around him. More than once Ayelborne had to reach back and drag the Elf by the arm as Tellysierion stopped in awe at one sight or another. He had never seen buildings so tall or so closely constructed, and the crowds of Elves were intimidating at times. Never-the-less, Ayelborne managed to get them without incident to Lindar Gelwing's abode. Gelwing resided in an estate within a stand of ancient Elms at the far edge of the city. It was a large structure with two wings that angled around a clear pool fed by a waterfall from a flowing stream. A porch overlooked the cascade of silver water, and upon the porch sat an ancient Elf whose years appeared to be beyond reckoning. The Elf stood and descended from the porch to meet them as they approached.
"Greetings, young Ayelborne," said the Elf, extending his hand towards the Woodsman. They clasped hands, and the Elf looked on Tellysierion with a kind smile and a nod. "Your stay in the Arbour was quite short. How fare your parents and young Galin?" His eyes lingered upon Tellysierion meaningfully.
"They are well," replied Ayelborne. "I've brought a guest from the Arbourwood. May I introduce Tellysierion Anduillyan. He is from the village which was massacred by the Demon and has been staying with my family. Tellysierion, this is my instructor, Lindar Gelwing."
After the formalities of introductions, Lindar led them into
a sitting room within the residence and bade them sit while he prepared a pot
of tea and brought out some cheeses. Ayelborne stowed their gear away as Lindar
spoke to him from the kitchen, telling of the growing turmoil in the
"May I examine the amulet?" asked the ancient Elf in a pleasant manner which Tellysierion, though he loathed to remove the amulet from over his heart, could not deny. His oath to the old hermit had taken a firm hold upon him of late, and the longer he wore the amulet the less comfortable he felt taking it off.
Gelwing looked at the amulet curiously. He turned it within his hands several times, running delicate fingers over the cryptic runes as if he could discern their significance by touch. "I have not researched relics in many years," he said after a moment. "But I can tell you these markings are ancient, and it seems to bear an enchantment of some sort. Other than that, I can tell you nothing without research. There are sketches and writings on such talismans in some of the tomes in the Hall of Lore. They might prove helpful. But the documents are old and many, and if I researched every lead, it could take months before we found out anything. We'll have to narrow it down some, but until then it should be safe enough to wear according to your oath." The ancient Elf returned the amulet to Tellysierion. "Now, tell me of this hermit. Old Henry, was it?"
"Old Henry the Hermit," began Ayelborne. "He had lived in that decrepit shack since I can remember. My father called him Harry Drakeslayer on occasion. Apparently, Old Henry had been an adventurer of some repute in his younger days. I'm afraid I don't know any details of his adventures, though. He was very long lived, even more so than my father but not so much as an Elf. His adventuring days had long since been over when my father met him."
"Perhaps then, Harry Drakeslayer procured such an artifact during one of his adventures," mused Gelwing. "It does not give me much to go on, but if Old Harry is in fact a Dragonslayer, there may be an account of his exploits in the Hall. I'll explore that possibility tomorrow. Your studies will have to be put aside for a time, I am afraid. Perhaps you could use the time to instruct young Tellysierion on the rudimentary skills of herb lore." Gelwing turned to the young Elf. "Ayelborne has become quite the adept in the art."
Ayelborne spent the next several days in the woods at the edge of the city showing Tellysierion which of the various plants and roots that grew there could be used for healing purposes. There were many, and they could heal a variety of ailments, but each had to be prepared in a specific fashion. There were even some which had to be so exact in their preparation else they could become as deadly as they were beneficial. The Moonsilver was such a plant that grew in the woods around Gelwing's cottage. It was a flower of exotic beauty from which the nectar could be extracted and used in the preparation of an elixir of a healing nature or of an extremely poisonous nature. The Moonsilver was exceptionally rare, resulting from its inability to be cultivated. In fact, no transplant had ever been successful, nor had a seed ever produced a flower in a controlled environment.
Ayelborne was familiar with all of the roots and plants in the woods around Celestar and knew the medicinal value of each. Tellysierion was overwhelmed with the Woodsman's knowledge on the subject of healing, and he was captivated by Ayelborne's instruction, especially when it came to those concoctions which could cause ailment or death. Such mixtures held an element of danger which appealed to Tellysierion's sense of excitement, and he remembered most of what was said of them.
One morning, the Woodsman roused the young Elf quite early and bade him dress in a new outfit that he had laid over the foot-board of Tellysierion’s bed. Curiously, Tellysierion donned the new attire as Ayelborne busied himself in another chamber. Unlike his usual rustic though sturdy woodland garb, the outfit the Woodsman had given him was of finer cloth and keener craftsmanship. The shirt was soft and thin with many fastenings that took the young Elf some time to figure out, and the light material of the loose fitting trousers would never withstand the rigors of woodland life. Certainly, Ayelborne did not expect him to wear such garments for his lessons, thought Tellysierion as he pulled on a pair of soft boots.
When Tellysierion presented himself to Ayelborne, the Woodsman nodded with satisfaction and smiled upon the young Elf saying, “Who is this dashing young aristocrat before me?” Then, seeing the confusion upon Tellysierion’s face, he added, “Come, my young friend. We have a big day before us and we had best be setting out.” With that, the Woodsman started for the door beckoning Tellysierion to follow.
Noting that Ayelborne was similarly attired and not carrying the long bow that seemed to be his constant companion, Tellysierion was certain they would not be going into the woods that morning. Thus, it was no surprise to the young Elf when the Woodsman’s course took them into the busy streets of the Elven capitol. Despite his previous exposure to the bustling population, Tellysierion’s fascination was renewed as he strode along the active thoroughfares at the side of the tall Woodsman. His keen eyes darted here and there, taking in the unfamiliar sights of city existence as they made their way to the heart of Celestari.
Eventually the pair turned onto a wide lane, and the teeming populous fell suddenly away as Ayelborne led them toward a gate in a high wall that was guarded on either side by an Elven soldier bearing a long spear. The wall stood over ten feet tall, but beyond it the upper half of an elegant structure rose majestically into view. Tellysierion peered in awe at the grand edifice as Ayelborne started toward the gate, but as they approached, the guards briskly crossed the tips of their spears in front of the entrance, barring their path. Tellysierion tensed as the unreceptive motion of the guards drew his attention from the lofty balconies, but Ayelborne strode casually forward, his gentle hand resting easily upon the young Elf’s shoulder to guide him.
As the pair neared the gate, the soldiers snapped back to their former positions at either side of the entrance, and one of them addressed the Woodsman. “Noble Ayelborne,” he said curtly. “You are expected.”
Ayelborne nodded wordless to the soldier as he led Tellysierion through the gate.
Upon the other side of the high wall was a spacious courtyard that ended in a wide flight of steps up to a landing upon which two rows of stone columns led to a magnificent doorway into what could only be described as a palace. Ayelborne felt Tellysierion begin to tremble slightly under his guiding hand as a young Elven page met them upon the landing and escorted them into a small waiting chamber just within the main door.
“Do not be nervous, young Tellysierion,” the Woodsman said after the page had left them alone.
“This is the
“Indeed,” said Ayelborne patting him softly upon the shoulder. “But we are here merely for an audience with two Elves who are very interested in meeting you. It is as simple as that.”
Then the page returned and motioned silently for them to follow.
Ayelborne and Tellysierion followed the page down a wide corridor that ended in a set of double doors. As they approached, two attendants opened the doors and admitted them into a large chamber dominated by a dais atop which sat a stately Elven couple, watching intently as Ayelborne and Tellysierion approached, leaving the page at the door. Each of the Elves wore a crown upon their head, and Tellysierion knew these were not just any Elves. Nervously, the young Elf strode toward the dais at Ayelborne’s side, flinching slightly at the sound of the doors closing behind them. At the foot of the dais, the Woodsman knelt and inclined his head reverently. The young Elf, taking his cues from Ayelborne, imitated the Woodsman’s actions, kneeling awkwardly before the stately couple seated above them.
“Rise, Noble Ayelborne,” said the Elf-king. “Though you have always been a staunch ally and done service to this nation, I hold no sovereignty over the Woodsmen of the Arbourwood. Rise and be welcome.”
Tellysierion heard Ayelborne rise from his knee, but instinctively the young Elf remained suppliant before the King and Queen of Celestar, his eyes rooted to the smooth stone floor.
“This then must be the young Elf of whom we have heard report,” said the Elf-king curiously. “Rise, young Tellysierion, and accept the sincere condolences of our court for the loss you have suffered within the woodlands.”
Tellysierion rose, but his head remained inclined deferentially as he said, “Thank you, kind majesties.”
The Elf-king gazed with scrutiny upon the young Elf, and his eyes narrowed and glanced questioningly at Ayelborne momentarily. “There is Human blood in him,” the Elf-king said pointedly.
“So it had been rumored in his village,” concurred Ayelborne.
“’Tis of no great import,” interjected the Elf-queen firmly. “Tragically, Tellysierion has lost all blood relations, and we must provide a place for him.”
The Elf-king frowned. “It will not go easily for him in Celestari,” he said softly. “Not alone. Have you any intentions for the lad, good Ayelborne?”
“He has proven a quick-witted student,” said Ayelborne quickly. “Were he given the right to choose, I would gladly offer to take him as my apprentice.”
The Elf-queen smiled fondly at the Woodsman and laid her hand upon the Elf-king’s with a gentle squeeze.
“Very well,” said the Elf-king. “What say you, young Tellysierion? Would you choose to take this noble Woodsman as your master?”
Tellysierion nodded silently, sensing that his fate had been unknowingly in question and unsure just what may have been in his future if it had been determined otherwise.
“So be it,” proclaimed the Elf-king. “Serve your master well, young Tellysierion. And learn your lessons well. Not all paths are open to one of your station, but certainly you could have done much worse.”
With that, Ayelborne bowed and withdrew from the audience chamber, gently pulling the young Elf with him as he backed away from the throne.
Over the next few days, Ayelborne resumed his instructions on herb lore and also improved upon what his father had taught the young Elf of wood lore. Tellysierion was already quite proficient in stealth and concealment, and his tracking was fair, but of his hunting and weapons skills there was still much to be learned. Tellysierion was yet too small to wield a sword, and he lacked the strength of limb to pull back the long bow with any effectiveness. Still, Ayelborne instructed the Elf in the proper techniques used with these weapons and showed him how to defend himself with a dagger. Tellysierion was quick and agile, and the lessons were progressing quite well when Lindar Gelwing interrupted them late one afternoon. The ancient Elf had become so involved in his research that they had not seen him in several days. Thus, they were quite surprised to see him walking into the vale they had chosen for their lessons.
"I thought I would find you here," said the ancient Gelwing. "As I had hoped, there is a record concerning a Sir Henry Welsley the Dragonslayer, who I believe to be our Old Henry the Hermit. It would seem that not only did Harry Drakeslayer lead an impulsive life, but he had a particular interest in Demon-Lore. The record is quite detailed upon his adventures, and I have discovered several possible leads. But there is a test I must perform before I can go on. Come now from the wilderness. We have much preparation, and I would tell you some of what I have discovered.”
The three walked hurriedly back to Gelwing’s dwelling, the young Elf anxious to hear the sage’s tale. As they walked, Gelwing told them of ancient days, when the gods strode the earth and contested for its domination. He explained how their efforts shaped the land much as it is known today, and how the powers unleashed in those most ancient of battles had threatened to rip the world asunder. Yet, there had been a contingent among the gods who realized the destructive potential of the powers they manipulated in the wars they waged. It was for this reason that they had conspired, joining their powers to enact the Ritual of Ascension, which banished them and all their kind to the heavenly planes whence they had come. Of the armies they had created, some of them were left upon the land, ever to continue the struggle which the gods had set into motion; but the more powerful and destructive beings were consigned to the planes of hell, there to dwell for eternity, never again to walk the land in their mighty bodies of power. A millennia passed, and the gods were content to watch the events of their contest unfold, using their influences as they could to aid their favored peoples and champions. But the Demons and Devils that had been consigned to Hell were not so satisfied with their lot, and they worked their dark arts to reach out across the planes to Earth. They touched the minds of those who were most easily swayed to their will, and they taught such creatures the ways of their black magic. To those who sought power beyond their natural lot, it seemed that the Demons were but tools to be used to gain the desired power. In actuality, the Demons were ever manipulating such fools in an effort to regain their place upon the land. Ever they strove to this end until finally their means were fulfilled. There came to be a priest of the Adar people who was so enthralled with his quest for power that he paid no heed to the dangers of black magic and demon-dealing. This priest, whose name has been blotted out of the pages of history, had discovered a way to open a gate from the planes of Hell to Earth in such a way that the Demons could walk the land in their full and awesome might. The priest bargained with the Demons, intending to use them as his minions in conquering all of Earth. So blind was he in his power-lust that he did not hear the treachery in their promises, and when he had opened the gate they rushed into his black tower and ripped him limb from limb and devoured his soul. Thus, the Demons were set free upon the world, and they began to ravage the land. A great struggle ensued, and the peoples of the lands were hard pressed to rid their world of the scourge. Many talismans of power were created during this age to defend against the might of the Demons and to aid in their defeat. But only after great loss and sacrifice were they able to purge Earth of the Hellspawn and drive them back to the Planes of Hell. Even to this day, the Demons plot and scheme to escape and once again wreak havoc across the land.
Gelwing spun his tale during the entire walk to his cottage, and he had not yet come to the end when they entered his workshop. Pausing only momentarily to retrieve the amulet from Tellysierion, he continued to relate the history as he prepared the amulet for an arcane test. He suspended it by its leather laces within the golden frame of a small pyramid frame resting upon a table. Tellysierion watched the amulet begin to spin upon its laces as he listened to Lindar's voice, wondering how the ancient Elf made the medallion spin. He had not touched it, nor was there a breeze which could have moved the disc. And yet, the amulet had begun to spin as if of its own volition. Tellysierion looked over his shoulder to where Gelwing was mixing liquids from many different colored vials, then he looked back to the amulet with renewed awe. The pyramid must be enchanted, he decided, for Gelwing had not even appeared conscious of the amulet's movement.
Ayelborne became aware of the young Elf's attention and moved to look upon the pyramid. He had seen its use on various occasions when his instructor had needed his assistance, but never before had he witnessed such activity within its zone. Indeed, as he understood it, the pyramid acted as a shield which kept magical influences from affecting such tests. Ayelborne reached into the frame and stopped the movement of the amulet with his finger and untwisted its laces. The amulet itself seemed to be vibrating, and when he released the medallion it began to spin again.
"Something is amiss," he muttered half to himself. With growing suspicion, he turned to Lindar who had stopped his recount of history to measure a precise amount of fine crystal powder into a vial. Ayelborne paused momentarily so as not to disturb his instructor, but a glimpse of motion out of the corner of his eye drew his attention to the pool and waterfall outside. Looking out the tall window he noted nothing out of the ordinary. The only movement was that of the cascading water as it fell into the clear pool capturing the reflection of the setting sun. Usually, it was a pleasant and relaxing view, but Ayelborne was unsettled and the visage gave him no comfort. Instead, the Woodsman looked to his longbow of yew leaning in the corner by the door where he had set his gear. He started across the room to retrieve it when he saw the door latch move slightly. Before Ayelborne could react, the door flew open and several darkly cloaked figures rushed into the room brandishing long, curved daggers. The first two set their eyes upon Tellysierion standing in front of the pyramid and charged straight for him.
"Assassins," cried out Ayelborne as he moved to intercept the two bearing down on the young Elf. He was unarmed, but he charged the assassins without hesitation, kicking a heavy stool into the path of the assailants as he went. The first assassin jumped the stool, clearing it easily, but his partner did not see it coming and toppled headlong to the floor. The remaining assassin thrust his dagger at the Woodsman. Ayelborne caught his wrist, twisting his arm, and in one motion snapped it at the elbow with a sickening crack. The assassin screamed, but Ayelborne reversed his grip on the assassin's wrist and drove the curved dagger into his diaphragm, silencing his cry.
Shoving the assassin's body aside, Ayelborne retained the bloodied dagger as he kicked the floored assailant square in the face before he could regain his feet. The force of the kick snapped the assassin’s head back and sent him sprawling to the floor again, either dead or unconscious.
More assassins entered the chamber, and Lindar Gelwing stood before them chanting mystical lyrics, moving his hands in arcane patterns through the air. Two assassins already lay at his feet, writhing in agony as sporadic charges of energy bolted intermittently across their skin. Ayelborne sprang for his bow, letting the recovered dagger fly at one of the assassin bearing down on Gelwing. The assassin easily dodged the curved knife, which sailed awkwardly through the air, but he failed to notice a glowing wall of energy that appeared in front of Gelwing. The assassin ran full force into it, and an expression of shock spread over his face as he straightened and slumped to the ground unconscious.
More assassins came through the door, besetting Ayelborne on three sides as he retrieved his bow. In close quarters, the Woodsman wielded the bow as if it were a quarter staff, striking one of his assailants across the jaw with one solid end and driving the other end low, sweeping the legs out from under the stunned assassin. The two remaining assailants retreated out of the reach of the unstrung bow to measure up their opponent, but Ayelborne followed hard upon them and they could not stand against him.
Suddenly, windows shattered, showering the occupants of the chamber with tiny shards of glass as four assassins crashed through the portals. Ayelborne shouted a warning as two landed behind Lindar, but the ancient Elf was not quick enough to defend himself. Lindar Gelwing's eyes opened wide with pain and surprise as a crimson streak spread down the front of his tunic where a dagger blade protruded from his chest. The assassin holding the dagger in Gelwing's back ripped the blade free violently and pushed Gelwing's limp form to the ground with indifference. He then turned his cold eyes upon Tellysierion who stood motionless in front of the pyramid.
The assassins began to converge on the young Elf.
"Under the table," shouted Ayelborne. He had dispatched his assailants and quickly strung his bow and set an arrow to the string. He let the arrow fly, and it took the nearest assassin full in the chest. The force of the shaft carried the assassin a stride backwards and toppled him out of the broken window frame. The remaining assassins rushed Ayelborne, but the Woodsman had already set another shaft to string and let it fly.
Tellysierion grabbed the amulet from the pyramid frame and rolled under the table and out the other side. From his low vantage he could see the ashen face of the ancient Elf laying motionless on the floor as the dark-clad shapes rushed toward Ayelborne. There were too many, thought the young Elf. Ayelborne could not protect him from so many and defend himself. With that thought, Tellysierion jumped through the broken window and fled as Ayelborne's second arrow ripped through the heart of another assassin and sent him skidding across the floor. The remaining assassins continued their charge, but another fell to Ayelborne's shafts before they could close to melee, leaving only one assassin to face the hardy Woodsman. Ayelborne side-stepped as the assassin charged and brought his bow around in a high arching sweep that struck the cutthroat in the temple with a dull crack. The assassin stood dumbstruck for an instant, swaying from side to side before his eyes rolled back and he collapsed to the floor.
Ayelborne looked at the carnage around him, and his eyes settled upon the still form of his instructor. Tears streamed down the Woodsman's face as he knelt down and took the ancient Elf in his arms. Lindar's eyes were blank, and blood trickled out of the side of his mouth as Ayelborne felt for a pulse at his instructor's neck.
He was alive.
"You can't leave me," choked Ayelborne through his sobs as he quickly began to minister to the Elf's wound. He ripped the tunic away from the puncture and gasped. The knife had pierced the right side of Gelwing's chest, collapsing his lung and causing severe bleeding, but it had passed cleanly through the rib cage and had missed the heart. It looked bad, but with the Woodsman's knowledge of healing there was still hope. Slight as that hope was, Ayelborne latched onto it and continued his ministrations.
"I am not finished with my studies," he said to his unconscious instructor as he worked. "I'm not ready. There is still so much to be learned here with you. The world can wait one more year. You can wait another year. Just don't leave me, Lindar. I promise I'll set out on my own as you've urged. I promise. Just don't die on me."
As Ayelborne worked, he became suddenly aware that he was alone. The Woodsman knew that there was only so much he could do, and that if his instructor were to live he would need a Healer. He needed to send for help, but the young Elf was no longer under the table nor anywhere in the chamber. There were only the dead and dying assassins. Ayelborne stopped the flow of blood as well as he could and gently laid Lindar back on the floor. He whispered a solemn prayer as he leaned over him. Then, he rose and went for help.
As Ayelborne crossed the room, one of the assassins stirred upon the floor, and the Woodsman ended his life with contempt. He had many questions which needed answering, but he did not have time to spare for binding prisoners, not while his instructor was dying on the floor. He quickly dispatched the surviving assassins and did a cursory search of the area to ensure that Tellysierion was not there and that there were no other assassins lurking in the shadows. But he found no trace of the Elf nor of living assassins.
Ayelborne cursed the circumstances which did not allow him to take a prisoner as he set out to get help. He blamed himself for having been careless. He had taken the situation all too lightly; disregarded the Orcs which had trailed them across the plains of Celestari. He should have read the warning signs. He should have been prepared. Now, Gelwing was dying and the young Elf was gone.
Ayelborne raced to the nearest temple and petitioned the clergy for aid. He had only to name his instructor and his condition, and the two most skilled Healers were immediately dispatched to Gelwing's cottage. Ayelborne escorted the Healers, but he did not need to implore for haste. The Healers rushed in Ayelborne's wake as if their own High Priest was dying, and they arrived at the cottage in good time. They found Gelwing on the floor as Ayelborne had left him, and the Healers performed a rapid examination of his condition. He was alive, but he had lost much blood.
The Healers each breathed a quiet prayer as they leaned over the ancient Elf with grave faces. Their fingers probed the bloody puncture, and almost immediately the blood ceased to flow from the cut. The Healers worked with deft hands over the wound for hours as Ayelborne watched on with trepidation. Their brows knotted with tension as they operated, and Ayelborne was called on to assist them on a number of occasions. Finally, Gelwing's chest seemed to expand, and color returned to his face. Yet still, the Healers continued to minister to the wound.
Finally, the Healers looked up from the ancient Elf and announced that he would live. "He is out of immediate peril," said one. "But he will need constant attention and weeks of bed rest before he will be completely out of danger. We would take him to our temple where we can best care for him."
Ayelborne breathed a sigh of relief and a silent prayer as he nodded acquiescence.
"We will send for a stretcher and bearers," said the other.
Several days passed and Ayelborne found no trace of Tellysierion. Nor did he find out anything useful about the assassins. They appeared to be foreigners neither from the Bad Lands in the near east nor from the frontiers to the north and west. All he really knew about them was that their cloaks were of a cloth never before encountered in Celestari, and each wore a strange amulet about his neck crafted in the likeness of a black serpent with tiny green emerald eyes. But whence they had come or by whom they were employed, none could say. He kept one of the serpent amulets wrapped inside his pack so that he would never forget its likeness, and he sketched it within his notebook so that he might show it during his inquiries; for Ayelborne intended to leave the Elven city just as his ancient instructor had urged. He had boarded up the cottage, as Gelwing had no relations in the region, and arranged for it to be watched until Gelwing became well enough to return to the estate.
Ayelborne made one last attempt to find Tellysierion, searching throughout the city and the surrounding woods, but he could not find one hint or rumor as to the whereabouts of the young Elf. He inquired in the streets and at the gates, but no one claimed to have seen the Elfling. It was as if Tellysierion had vanished in the same manner as the assassins had appeared. The thought disturbed the Woodsman, and he feared that the assassins had succeeded in their mission after all. Ayelborne left Celestar after his final unsuccessful search and set out for the Arbourwood to visit his family before striking out for Myridia and the northern frontier. It had been Lindar's wish that Ayelborne set out and make something more of himself in the world. With that in mind, the Woodsman, with aid from the Elven Queen, had made arrangements to join an archer brigade in the northern frontier. It seemed as good a place as any to begin his search for those who were responsible for the attack upon his instructor.
An Ill-fated Venture
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Friends of Low Station
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To Catch a Thief
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Choices and Chance
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The Darkness of Deception
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Duel in the Woods
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Paths Not Chosen
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Weathering the Storm
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The Beaten Path
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Conflict at the Buck
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The Crow’s Hymn
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