Blizzard and Belendale
By R. Krommydas
Though the day was clouded over and heavy with the promise of rain, starlight glimmered among the trees as elegant figures, gliding along paths laid down before the birth of mortal races, made their way to the sacred grove. The altar at its heart was illuminated as if by some inner light, marked with a depression wherein had once lain that egg out of which the Holy Swan had then hatched.
One figure, hurrying more than the rest, approached those already gathered at the altar, their deceptively simple hoods and robes doing nothing to disguise the nobility in their poise and face. A heritage dating back to the very dawn of the world, before the first rising of the sun and the end of the eternal twilight in which their people had once lived. They made way for him with the courtesy due to an equal, offering him a seat among their number.
Carefully, he sat down, wincing as he did so. Lips curled up in amusement, and knowing looks exchanged at his expense. He ignored them. His predicament was far too distracting to bother with them. With an irritated growl, he rested a leg on the most sacred of altars and, pausing only to cough up a prodigious glob of phlegm, plunged a hand under his robe to scratch vigorously at his groin.
"You must get that seen to, brother," sneered another waiting here. "The royal court is not so relaxed as to permit that kind of behavior."
He ignored the derisive laughter. His was far from the worst condition here, but his house was one of the poorest. Unlike the rest of them, the resources available to him were too limited to be spent on such frivolities. Not that he understood their obsession with maintaining the illusion here, of all places. No other society would intrude on them during this meeting, so as to ensure their own privacy. Their secrets could be displayed openly between themselves.
After all, he thought to himself. We are not our blackened cousins. We are refined and civilised folk.
Something soft gave under his fingers and, with a huge sigh of relief, he withdrew his sticky fingers. Without thinking about it, he wiped away the bloody pus on the altar. No comment was made. Talk instead turned to other topics, topics of actual import and consequence. For just under an hour longer, the discussions continued among the assembled until the last and most important of their number arrived. Silence fell as this one strode into the ranks.
Their leader had not been chosen for his looks or his riches, but for his power. Outside of the royal family, none held so much influence in Belendale as he. By extension then, his reach extended across the so-called Liberated Kingdoms and even beyond. Mysteries forbidden even to the others here were his right, and none would gainsay him or his underlings in any matter.
Finally, the words they had been waiting for: "They all come. Our patron bids us be ready."
As if now summoned, the first drops of winter's rain started to fall.
At some point, the whistling finally got to him as well, and he wearily looked over at his diminutive companion on the other pony. Though his great age was not entirely natural, he had already lived many decades beyond the norm for his race, and his experience with the world was considerable. In Brokk's studied opinion, nothing good had ever come of a cheerful halfling first thing in the morning. Isolde, however, continued to whistle merrily much as she had done for the last three days - when not humming or singing a wordless song to herself.
And, now that he thought about it, Brokk realized that she was still drinking some kind of herbal tea with every meal, and often between them as well. They had journeyed together from within the Occupied Kingdom of Orland, across Daven and Kelerak and now even Kale, but it was only in the last few weeks that this habit had shown itself. His curiosity finally got the better of him.
"Why are you so happy?" Brokk grumbled.
Isolde just grinned at him, and beyond to where Aidan and the radiant Arlgand were riding. The elflord had won, or perhaps lost depending on your point of view, the honor of escorting the four friends into the Belendale. That they carried with them a personal invitation from its king was no guarantee of safe passage, of course - the Summervale had not escaped conquest by the armies of the Darkest God by having weak borders. As a noble of that fair realm, Arlgand's mere presence provided a measure of safer passage into this secretive land. The invitation had extended to more than just the professional adventurers, but of their temporary hosts, only Arlgand had been immediately free to join them. Gareth du Rentes had needed to return to Kale City to extricate himself from a long-standing argument with King Milon, taking with him the Proudfellow horsemaster Hamling. They, along with the tiefling warlord Tybalt, and the talented but legendarily volatile bard Malevoxa, intended to join the others at a later date - always assuming, as Arlgand had admitted, that King Milon did not simply execute Gareth this time and rid the continent of the irrepressible rake.
The odds are about eight to one, the elflord had said. In favor of Gareth's head being cut off, that is. So, better than usual.
Now, however, Arlgand was saying nothing, not even to continue his conversation with Aidan, and was doing his best to ignore Isolde as she returned to her whistling. Brokk, on the other hand, was not dissuaded. "No, really. Isolde, you have been in insufferably good spirits since we left the Du Rentes Estate. You stole something, I know it."
Isolde gasped theatrically, but an even wider, somehow sillier, smile grew out of her mock outrage, and exclaimed: "You made that accusation yesterday, and placed me under a magical injunction against lying - which was very rude and untrusting! I promise you again, I took nothing that wasn't very freely offered and I gave plenty in exchange."
"She speaks the truth, Brokk, as well you know."
Brokk half-turned as Embla strode up alongside him, easily keeping pace with the mounts and clearly enjoying the exercise it gave her. This was no challenge to her constitution. Not a month had passed since she had run, without pause and with only a slight magical increasing of her speed, across half the width of the country. That had been, Brokk recalled, before she had bonded to that abomination whose hilt he could see peeking up over her shoulder.
This close to her, the wizard could actually feel the magical power of the sword. He could not be sure, but he had the suspicion that the damned thing was growing each day, becoming larger to suit her size. That alone would have made him incredibly uneasy. However, Brokk also knew that it spoke to Embla, encouraging her to violence and bloodshed - as if the towering berserker needed any encouragement!
Seeing a tiny hand emerge and then retreat back under the swaddlings keeping her to Embla's chest was another thing that made Brokk nervous. The baby that she and Isolde had, by way of desperate medical intervention, saved from dying in the womb, should have been left behind in the company of other humans. Superstition prevented such, however, so now the adventurers were without a choice in the matter. Those were all troubles for another time, however, for there was a more pressing concern.
"And I suppose you have a better understanding of Isolde's mood?" he finally retorted, trying and failing to avoid sarcasm.
"Are you serious?" Embla laughed, clearly surprised. "I thought it was obvious. Isolde is enjoying some time to herself after sleeping with Hamling for the past two months."
Isolde shrieked as though she had just been stung. It was the most genuine sound Brokk had ever heard from her. Except perhaps for the retchings during their mutually diseased distress after the battle under the Ruin Woods. Those would have been too unpleasant to fake for two hours, never mind two weeks.
Lady Shadria Illuo'Vantaiss drew herself up to her fullest height, ears pricked in the most severe manner - the wooden hoops piercing them, each grown from a different Consul Tree, clinking against each other softly in wordless censure - and gazed commandingly at the spearmen blocking her path. None of them seemed even remotely perturbed by the display. Their captain decided that he may as well continue being polite for a few more minutes.
"Again, milady," he said, louder and more slowly this time. "I am unable to authorize you to do anything beyond going back the way you came. Permission for passage must be considered, confirmed, ratified, and dispatched by approval of no fewer than five of the seven Wardens who bear responsibility for this region."
Lady Shadria fixed the captain with a withering stare, one related to that which famously reduced a captive Hoth of Wrath to a quivering and compliant mess. The captain calmly adjusted his helm, his expression kept neutral, using the motion to disguise a deliberate yawn. His patience was evidently coming to its end. Sensing the shift in his mood, the other guards subtly shifted their stance in readiness for a fight they hoped would not come - but which they knew they would win. Even the youngest of them had been in training for some two hundred years, and they were not alone here. A multitude of arrowheads glistened among the leaves overhead, where a moment earlier none had been before.
"Last time, milady," the captain said coldly. "Sit down and wait like the rest. You don't get special treatment, at least not the sort you want, with a few angry looks. We're Gate Guardians of Therolan. We've danced in starlight to the music of Gloralion since before the Bleak-Night descended on the realms of mortalkind. We're quite able to resist you. Only once, and if, your invitation is validated, you may pass."
Lady Shadria tipped her head the slightest fraction, acknowledging the noble history and duty of these obstructions. It had not been entirely plausible that her usual tactics would work here, on the very doorstep of the Summervale, but if her reputation had reached this far, she owed it to all those who had served to build her reputation up to test it. As things stood, however, she would need to try something a little more direct. Indeed, there was only one viable option, one taught to every ambassador and envoy and warden of the elven peoples for nearly ten thousand years.
She spoke in one of the few fragments of the ritualized language that had survived the transition into Modern Elhil - and even its eventual division into the Altarian and Rhunsdhain languages - but which was itself descended from the proto-Elhil speech spoken at the dawning of the world. They were all remarkably similar, by comparison to the languages which developed later on in the world's history, for the immortality of elves meant that thousands of years would regularly pass before changes were introduced by their later generations.
Unlike the chaotic speech of mortals, mutating beyond all recognition as their hasty generations hurtled past in a matter of centuries, the Elhil languages took millennia to evolve. Even then, the process was excruciatingly slow, and met with considerable resistance from the earlier generations - many of whom still lived, though departed from this world and residing now in the blessed realm of Faerie, and could commune with their descendants. And Lady Shadria now began to intone some of the few words which were recognizable across every generation of elf, living and departed alike:
"Hear me well, for I do claim passage, as granted by the Right of Representation-"
"-which was specifically given to the mortals," the captain interrupted bluntly, disdainfully. "As a reward for their aid in the Expurgation of Morclaenthaur. It was the last order His Returned Glory Fingalion ever gave, if you discount his rallying cry of 'Let's wipe the black bastards out'. You may be Sundered, milady, but you remain elf. Immortal, Swan-touched, and above those who may claim that right you attempt to invoke. Sit, wait. Or leave. Choose."
Lady Shadria tipped her head again, with a flicker of downcast eyes this time, and retreated gracefully. This was a defeat, yes, but not one that would matter in the long term. A single skirmish could not determine the war. She had gauged the strength of her enemy and learned much from this brief engagement. Her ultimate goal remained the same, but now she had some greater understanding of what it would take to accomplish this - and perhaps more importantly, what would not avail her.
She was invited to the royal court. And the Dark Walker himself could not stop her.
"But what of the risks?" Aidan asked incredulously. "Isolde, we were already carrying a baby with us! It can't have just slipped your mind."
Isolde smirked, reached into her saddlebags, and waved a cutting of an unfamiliar bloom at him. Aidan frowned at it, not making the connection at first. The shape was similar to that of several rare fennels, which to his knowledge were almost entirely limited to the private terraces of the Luvam herbalists. Inadvertently, many such plants had very nearly been wiped out by the Dark Conquest, as flame and poison consumed much of the war-torn kingdoms and reduced their natural habitat to ash. Then sudden, impossible realization struck.
"Silphium?" he exclaimed in true shock. "That plant has been thought extinct since before the founding of Laithostar! Three and a half thousand years ago. This is no laughing matter, Isolde, this is nearly four millennia of elven medicinal lore suddenly disproved."
Isolde, however, was all but falling from her pony, doubled over in hysterics. She just barely managed to control herself long enough to squeak out: "You all make the same assumptions. Everyone always says, 'Go to the elves for answers.' But nobody ever asks we hositan what we do. We've been growing this since before we left the dwarfholds! Oh Bunga, that's so funny - ow, my sides hurt."
Brokk nodded slowly, beginning to understand. "I have not heard of this 'silphium' before, but I can guess its use. It's been brewed into your tea, Isolde. The one you've been drinking daily since arriving at the Du Rentes Estate. It's a contraceptive. You wanted to be absolutely sure you wouldn't fall pregnant by Hamling."
The halfling smiled back at him, acknowledging his accuracy. A little of the good humor seemed to have left her face, however. It almost vanished entirely when she glanced over at Embla, and at her chest where a tiny shape was held. Now that was an unpleasant memory. The exhausted refugee of a raid on her village, hugely overdue, held aloft by Embla. The crown of a head, retreating slowly from view as strength finally failed them both. The knife in Isolde's hand, doing what needed to be done, and warm crimson rain.
Isolde forced herself to smile as widely as she had been before when Embla caught her looking, but the other woman was not fooled in the least. That had been an expression both had seen in their time, though it was the first time that Isolde had been caught wearing it. And Embla, obeying no social conventions save for her own, was not willing to let it go unmentioned.
"You might have taken the chance to retire," she said to Isolde, who became visibly more horrified with each word. "Hamling obviously enjoyed you as much as you did he. Your family has an escape route from Zeland to Kelerak. You might have joined them in time, or they come to you. Why not take this opportunity to settle down?"
Isolde glared at her, scarcely able to believe that Embla could not see the truth. Enough of Isolde understood that the others did not, but it still hurt to be asked such a question. When their faces turned to her, curious and guileless, it hurt even more. Their ignorance and acceptance of her hurt. And when Embla repeated her question, more insistently, twenty years of frustration and fury finally broke free.
"Haven't you ever seen me?" screamed Isolde. "What I look like, what I am, what I can and can't do? Damn you. Damn you all for making me say it aloud. I'm a worthless excuse for a hositan. I volunteered when the masters came round, chose to serve a gutter runner of Zel City. Little Daisy might have been taken otherwise, I thought. Well she died anyway, unable even to scream except when they let her!"
"And I was an incredible thief for them, even so. The best you'd never see because if you did then my blade was in your throat! I liked being incredible. I adored the praise when it came. What kind of hositan enjoys being rewarded for surviving stupid risks? What kind of hositan pleads with her parents to fight back against the masters before crawling back to them like a beaten dog? My kind, apparently! If I can be called hositan at all."
Raging, crying, she turned on Embla. "Where are my hips, Embla? Do you see them? Because I can't! And what of my breasts? If I stood before you bare-chested, hair covered, you'd think me a man! How am I supposed to birth or feed even one child? Yet I am aunt to dozens." "My mother was beautiful, is beautiful still, maybe more so now she is aged; my brothers are married to wonderful women, full-bodied and soft as a proper hositan should be. I am nothing but muscle and sinew. And they all cook, oh they all cook so thrice-be-damned well! I struggled to tell apart apples and potatoes until I was nine - what kind of wife can't manage that?" She could see Arlgand look away, not wishing to be involved in this outburst. It angered her. It made her wish she knew more about their friendship so that her words could hurt him all the better. Isolde would regret this later, but as her temper flared still higher, she found herself able to say the darkest of her thoughts.
"You think Hamling would want me for longer than a few weeks? Or, for that matter, that I would want him? He's a Proudfellow, by Bunga! A backwater savage with an elven education, now Arlgand don't you deny it! I'm Hairfoot. I might as well find myself a gnome to mate with and have our clans end up like those in monstrous Yrjune. You don't mix oil and water and expect a refreshing drink. You get a crossbreed abomination that even the Walker-in-Darkness wiped from this world rather than enslave. Even...even the Walker-in-Darkness...hated Yrjune. Vile...hateful place."
Isolde's energy gave out and she slumped in her saddle, weeping to herself. "My family is so disappointed in me. Becoming an adventurer on top of everything else! But I hate myself more. I'm not hositan. I'm the shadow of one. All that's left after four hundred years of slavery and death. I'll never be hositan. I wanted to be. I still want to be. So very much. And it'll never happen."
Years had passed, but the sun still hurt Ikit's eyes and the wind still whistled down Ikit's ears. He was almost fond of the discomfort, though. It reminded him, on those days when he started to forget who he should be, that this was not the Path. He was uncertain how he had strayed so far from the Path, yet here he was once more, digging himself ever deeper into this nightmare.
Still, he had at least found a master to serve. He had been given orders, odious though they were. He knew himself able to carry them out, and would do so. It pained him to be in this sickening realm of open sky, without the comfort of strong earthen walls around him, but if anything, the stresses he had endured had made him stronger. Few like him had ever achieved a tenth of his potential. Ikit tried not to think about what had been necessary for him to succeed where others had failed. That was more painful than this environment could ever be.
He would not have to wait long now. The elf above him stank. The polluted stench slipped into the soil itself, sinking deeper into the earth with each passing second. Its source was unhealthy, diseased, blighted within. Ikit was unsure if the elf knew this, or if it simply did not care. He hoped it was the latter, for that would make his task here more palatable. He had no choice in the matter, of course. Ikit had his orders. That was all he had left of his past. It was all he had left of the Path.
Oh Bringer of Gifts, he thought in prayer. You who blessed and cursed me with this skill. See my obedience, O Lord. See my sin, O Lord. Know that I hide not from Your All-Seeing Self. Though I am worthless, I still serve as best I am able. I ask not for forgiveness. I ask instead for intervention, that I may be stopped, if it is Your Holy Intent.
A footfall directly overhead and a weight pressing upon his chest. The elf paused, sensing the unstable ground underfoot. Ikit burst out of hiding, knocking the elf off its feet, the thin layer of soil under which he had been lying spraying into the elf's eyes to blind it for a few critical seconds. In complete silence, Ikit fell upon the stricken elf, blades flashing in the sun.
It gurgled for an instant as one dagger severed both artery and trachea. A fainter bubbling wheeze came from its chest where another had pierced through to the lung. Red streams briefly began to flow away from its arms and legs when the radial and femoral arteries were cut into. For good measure, Ikit opened up the abdomen, wrinkling his nose at the pungent odor of decay within. This had, at least, confirmed the suspicions of his master.
The elf died almost instantly. Ikit cleaned his daggers and slipped away into the trees. The body would be found, needed to be found, and the first fears would start to spread. Tears would fall like rain - a curious expression he had learned in his exile, but one that was remarkably apt - and Ikit would not spare himself from witnessing this grief. He owed as much to those ignorant of the true nature of his victims. It was right and just, he believed, that none would shed tears for him when Lord Neltak finally claimed him for his sins. And there were more which needed to be committed.
This was truly a horrendous task that had been set, but Ikit would obey his orders exactly as they had been given. Such was the nature of the Path. As far as he had fallen from it, Ikit would abide by the Path as much as possible even now. The next to die was, according to his memorized list, currently inside the city itself. This was vaguely annoying, for Ikit did not like having to sneak into Gloralion. That was breaking the law, and he would be doing enough of that as it was with his murders.
At least he would not need to enter the palace. Even Ikit had nearly been caught the last time.
The mood at the camp that evening was understandably subdued. Isolde was visibly shaken by her earlier outburst, having clearly shocked herself by the admissions she had not dared speak aloud until now. Doing so made them so much more real than her thoughts had been, solidifying them into an absolute truth where previously they had just been possibly true. Even Arlgand, who had known her for only a few weeks, felt more than just a deep sympathy.
Aidan was especially contrite. "I shouldn't have questioned your decisions - absolutely not when it comes to your personal life. You had everything in control, and I ought to have trusted in that. As glad, or shocked, or whatever, I am to learn that silphium still exists, that was not the way to go about learning that. You are absolutely right that so many of us, even those who should know better, overlook your people in many different ways. For that too, I am sorry. As guilty of this same crime as I am, I can but offer a promise to do better in the future."
"For my part, I apologise too," added Embla sincerely. "I let my curiosity speak, when it should have stayed quiet. As quiet as this little one, hmm?"
She smiled softly down at the baby nestled at her breast, though not the frightening smile of the Risarvinnae she normally used. After all this time, Aidan was still not used to seeing Embla nursing the orphan. It was almost surreal, like something out of a folk tale. Nobody as terrifying and brutal as Embla could be had any right to also be so gentle with something so vulnerable. It brought to mind stories of lost children being raised by the beasts and monsters of the wilds - stories which even the druids and rangers of those same wilds said were grossly exaggerated. This strangeness was even disregarding how her body had just started to produce milk overnight, evidently in response to the hungry cries of their new-born charge.
Aidan knew this was something to do with her inhuman heritage, a trait her people apparently shared with the giant races. The one time he had dared broach the subject, however, the look Embla gave him was plainer than any spoken warning or threat. Ultimately, that was not an actual problem. Until a few years ago, he had not even known of the Risarvinnae people who lived apart from the world, high in the Erunian Greatwall Mountains beyond the edge of the civilized world. He could live with a bit of mystery and uncertainty, and if Embla didn't want to reveal everything about them at once, that was her right. That said, two things above the others did still bother him.
"You still haven't given her a name," he said. "We've each helped out with her in our own ways, but you're the one who's feeding her. As far as my people would be concerned, you have the mother's right."
Though the others nodded, Embla shook her head, stern-faced. "My greatest difficulty as Aslaug has always been in the giving of names. A birth-name, to us, is the most important of all, and cannot be given lightly. I was myself unnamed for seven months. I shall not name it."
And there was the second thing. Aidan knew that Embla's command of both Kingdom Common and Kelevan were at least as good as, if not better, than his own. Part of that skill was a natural talent for languages, part was owed to the vocabulary lessons Brokk gave her, and part of it was constant dedication to learning. Aidan knew that Embla was aware of the gendered pronouns existing in each language, but nonetheless, she continued to refer to the baby girl as 'it'.
Aidan had the distinct impression that Embla's nurturing was born of necessity rather than affection. Without her to nurse, the baby would die. In fact, Embla had seemed reluctant to take her back upon their return from their battle in the Kale Heights, and had only done so after being told that none of the local wet-nurses were willing to give suck out for some superstitious reason or another.
As he thought on it, the only conflict in the last month, at least until the earlier outburst, that Aidan had seen between Embla and Isolde had been over the former's distant attitude towards the baby. Now he understood exactly why Isolde had been so invested in winning that argument, where normally she would have settled for a draw and the odd friendly jibe against each other for the next few days.
This is exactly the rest we need, Aidan thought to himself. We have been under such pressures for so long. How often have we nearly died in the last year alone? There is nowhere so peaceful in this world as the Summervale. It will be good for us to have nothing to worry about for a change.
The mood at the grove that evening was understandably subdued. This was a thing unheard-of, and yet not a one doubted that it had happened. Nervous huddles, paranoid whispers, furtive glances. The reek of fear was strong, as they all knew - or at the least, suspected - why it had been one of their own who had been murdered on the road to Therolan. His blood had still been warm when the patrol found his eviscerated corpse.
"If they had absolute proof, they would have made him talk," one of the newer, more optimistic fools dared to opine. "Then they would have come for the rest of us, one by one. None would dare to assault us when we are gathered together. Since they did not, that must mean we are undiscovered. What other option is there?"
At that question, an open palm descended onto his face, once, twice, three times. Wisely, he submitted to the punishment in silence, though blood dripped freely from his split lips. The others shook their heads, more out of contempt at than pity of his ignorance. The most senior of the group, presenting her bloodied hand to a subordinate to lick clean, decided to grant the fool a small measure of enlightenment.
"If you wish to do more than just survive a battle," she sneered. "You must assume the enemy knows of your mundane stratagems. You must be able to divest yourself of what they can perceive, and adopt those mental forms which are beyond deduction. Only by being imperceptible can you truly be victorious without fail."
To his miniscule credit, he considered this and seemed to understand. It was a blindingly obvious truth, of course, but their small number showed that so few had the wit to grasp it. Just because they were still meeting here did not mean that the enemy were unaware of them, or that they had not been devising plans of their own. The key to overcoming such an obstacle lay with convincing the enemy that their own schemes were still undiscerned, so as to allow your new plans to reach fruition.
New whispers started up, as an extremely unexpected figure entered the grove at a brisk pace. He was not due to attend the meeting until it was nearly over, a tradition ensuring the disparate groups could relieve some of their tensions before they had to behave themselves in his presence. This did not bode well, and several of the more fearful nearly fled the grove - only the certainty that this would guarantee their deaths kept them steady.
"I hear much in the way of debate," their leader declared without preamble. "There is one question, however, that I am displeased no other thought to ask. Who killed our brother? Well? Do any of you have an idea, or must I educate you in this as well?"
Murmurs, uncertain and worried, spread through them as they tried to come up with an answer. Their expressions told of how unsatisfied their conclusions were even to themselves, and the disappointed glower from their leader only made them more unsettled. In a moment of staggering generosity, he gave them a single syllable to extrapolate from, and smirked to see shock on their faces.
"Disbelief is exactly what our enemy wishes of us," he declared. "For it is through our disbelief that the blade can pierce our defence. Believe in this obvious falsehood, my brethren, and you shall be guarded against the sudden doom which has befallen two of ours already."
"Yes, indeed," he continued, speaking louder now to quiet the exclamations of surprise and fear. "Two. Not ten minutes past, I received word of the death, and, in sudden understanding of what threatens us, hastened to warn you. Our patron, too, has procured a tool for our use in defending ourselves against this threat. It is a lowly thing, to be sure, but our enemy has a habit of overlooking the lowly. Meet Marchosias."
He extended his arm, thick black smoke pouring from his hand, and coalescing into a dishevelled crow. Somehow, the bird appeared to have a resigned expression on its avian face, and many of the onlookers could have sworn they saw a keen but weary intelligence in its eyes.
As the group broke their fast the following morning, Isolde seemed somewhat recovered from her slump. She was no longer unnaturally cheery, but neither did she show any signs of her former low mood. Her friends knew her better than to assume she was back to normal - or if 'normal' was the wrong word, then what was usual for her - but Isolde carried herself now as if a huge weight had been lifted from her.
She listened to the others as they spoke of what they intended over the next few months. Brokk was eager to spend some time among the scholars of Gloralion. Arlgand, due to some confusing historical mishap with his family that she wasn't entirely clear about, hoped to avoid notice. Aidan and Embla were simply content with visiting the country and learning more about it. And when the subject arose again, she fully agreed with them that their sojourn into the Summervale was an ideal chance for some well-deserved rest, safe from the horrors of the outside world.
"After all," she commented with a smile. "Remember what happened the last time we thought to stop for a while? The fishing village in Kelerak? A rabid demon-wolf biting Embla. That crazy soothsayer soothsaying crazily. Aidan getting sent upstairs to bed a doppelganger undoubtedly sent to murder him. In hindsight, actually, that last one was quite funny. I've never heard a man protest so much, let alone for it to actually be a threat to his life!"
"And at the risk of sounding hypocritical," Isolde continued, a little more seriously. "We really need to do something about that. Celibacy is not healthy, Aidan, that's why all those monks go crazy and mumble about the sublime oneness of existence and the bleakness of absurdity or whatever they're always on about. Anyway, we'll deal with that in Gloralion. It's a city, it'll have whores, that's just how society works, and you all know it. Brokk can buy you a woman."
The wizard scoffed. "And why do I get volunteered for spending my money on that?"
Isolde smiled sweetly at him. "Because Embla agrees with me and you can take it out of her share, since she apparently doesn't care for coins and gives you everything to carry."
"Don't I get a say in this?" protested Aidan, but nobody barring the sympathetic Arlgand was listening to him.
"Oooh, and there's one particular advantage to buying whilst we're here!" Isolde exclaimed. "We won't need to spend extra on getting a high-class girl. They'll all already be elf-shorn. Since, you know, they're all elves."
A confused silence followed her words. Isolde shook her head, most of all at Brokk's ignorance, wondering at how these people had ever managed to cope in a city if they didn't know the simplest things. Still, there was an opportunity here. After all, they had been the cause of some embarrassment last night - even if inadvertently - and so it was only fair for her to return the favor. So she explained:
"You all know how elves only have hair on their heads? Well, for every other race, lice in particular are a much bigger problem. The classier brothels can afford to shave their girls from neck to toe to keep them healthy and clean. Thus, elf-shorn. Must be a real pain to keep maintained though. Like a man with his beard, except all over their body. If it wasn't for the money, I can't imagine anyone doing that by choice."
To her amusement, whilst Embla looked merely interested in the lesson, all three of the men were visibly discomfited, and Brokk in particular looked outright nauseated. Isolde suspected this was to do with the natural hairiness of dwarf women - she had known some with beards to make many a youth envious. The thought of one with nothing more to hold onto than her curves must have been especially repellent to Brokk.
Well, he's always spent too much time thinking for that to be healthy either, Isolde decided mischievously. It can only be good for him to stop that for a while.
Anoldor Tamsafar, blademaster-general of the seventh octant, meditated upon the reflection he had seen in his sword. Whilst his charge, the Lady Shadria, plotted the means of swifter progression deeper into the Summervale despite being stymied by the Therolan wardens, he stood in serene contemplation of that half-formed impression. What might it mean, if it was no mere fantasy?
In this gentle realm, as back home in the Luvam, his sword took on a jade hue as it was polished, drawing in the richness of the surrounding foliage. For an instant, however, as cloth passed over steel, Anoldor had seen a flash of darker shades on the metal. Such a thing could have made sense in the dangerous lands beyond, where all manner of evil lurked even in the skies, but not here in the Summervale.
Anoldor had immediately looked upwards, of course, ready to leap to one side should anything plunge from above with harmful intent - how many promising warriors had he seen fall to such dangers, unused to the very idea of being wary of unseen things overhead? - but there had been nothing save for a stubborn patch of morning fog, finally being dispersed by the wind. He watched the edges of this patch keenly, just in case, but when nothing emerged from hiding, his gaze dropped back down.
None of his fellows had noticed anything, of course. If even Anoldor had failed to see a thing clearly, then it would not be fair to blame them for a lack of attention. That did not mean there was no danger to be seen, of course. It merely meant that there was a chance of a danger so great that even the finest of the Ranarim could barely sense it. And, if this was the case, it also meant that their distant cousins here were ignorant of the danger too.
He cast his mind back to that instant, reminding himself of every little detail. If he had been sitting just so - and in his mind's eye he saw that this was true - then his blade would have been angled just so. The impression he had gotten was of movement, to be sure, in such a direction that the earlier positions indicated...what did they indicate? Anoldor turned his head to take in the road to Therolan, and beyond that, Gloralion.
Yes, it would have been going that way, he confirmed to himself.
That was even more worrying, if he was not imagining anything. For that would mean whatever had briefly shown itself on his sword had headed directly towards the Therolan wardens. Those on the ground might have missed something in the trees, it was true - yet at her challenge, Lady Shadria had revealed arboreal guards aplenty who, by any reasonable standard, should have noticed any interloper on an approach. Even assuming that their mundane senses were not up to the task, it made no sense for this route to lack defensive divinations to cover such any such deficiency.
As the Luvam has these protections and survived the Dark Conquest, Anoldor theorized logically. It cannot be that Belendale, of all places, is devoid of similar or superior protections.
A slight commotion at the edge of the clearing briefly stole away his attention, narrowing his mind into a paltry two trails of thought as he examined this commotion for any immediate threat to his charge. A group of humans, dressed in the dismal military garb of Daven, had arrived and taken up position at this checkpoint too. The Anarians had been surprising enough, to say nothing of the gnomish delegation in their earthy aroma, but this made the third group to join the growing number here. And all claimed to bear an invitation from the royal court.
This was a perplexity in itself. For a moment, he was tempted to begin considering this enigma. However, the fact that it was not something he needed to know about - and if he did, the Lady Shadria would inform him when necessary - kept him from splitting his thoughts further. He had a different issue to consider first and foremost.
Anoldor again divided his mind into four distinct trails of thought, a simple task for any blademaster. On one desperate occasion, he was sure he had managed to divide it into a total of nine - but he hoped that such times would never come again. Two of these thoughts kept perfect track of each member of his party and the movements of everyone else, and a third continued to focus on polishing his sword. The last returned to the matter of the curious reflection.
We are all expendable, so long as our Lady survives, Anoldor reminded himself, strengthening his resolve with this stark admission. If what I think I saw should prove to be a threat to her, we must do no less than die in her defence. May Tal-Allustiel look kindly upon our sacrifice and safeguard our charge, should we prove inadequate.
The sound of metal striking flesh was one that, regrettably, they mostly all very used to by now. Only Arlgand had heard it the least, but he knew himself to be the outlier in this group. Further, nobody with a history as bloody and varied as those of his current travelling companions ever emerged unscathed from their experiences. The occasional quirk and oddity was only to be expected. If nobody else was going to say anything, it was not his place to do so. Or so he told himself the first four times it happened.
"You know, I am a cleric of Tal-Allustiel," Arlgand tried to say, grimacing at the sight. "If you'd told me, I could simply heal the-"
Wearing an expression of intense concentration, Embla angled the hilt of her sword and, for the fifth time, slammed it with remarkable precision into her cheek. For a split second, two shimmering waves of green once again flowed along the weapon, one from hilt to tip, one from tip to hilt, fighting each other for rite of passage. She grunted with satisfaction, then spat out a shattered molar. The tooth was rot-speckled, and the roots had clearly been infected.
"Never mind. You can just, um, carry on being self-reliant. Is that self-reliance? I don't know."
Embla's cheek rippled as she explored her gums with her tongue. Then she smiled broadly, and let her jaw drop open to show Arlgand what she had just proven. The offending molar had already been replaced, and the slight bruising on her cheek was already fading. She patted the sword, a little smugly, and resecured it to her back once more.
Brokk shivered. "Embla, you are toying with two vastly different magics that were never supposed to be merged together. The rejuvenating powers of the fey are one thing, and I'm sure they are very confused to find themselves bound to you given their previous host. Theirs is supposed to be the magic of a keystone location tied to a champion of the land, not a wandering thrill-seeker! And that sword belonged to a vampire matriarch of the ancient world - who knows what enchantments were placed on it?"
Embla shrugged, entirely unperturbed. "Vampire spells, obviously. I hit someone, it steals their life and heals my own. I hit myself, it heals myself. That tooth was bothering me. Now I have a new one. A better one. Not having my old sword was bothering me. Now..."
Perhaps sensing she had already made her point, she paused, cocking her head as if listening to a voice only she could hear. Arlgand swallowed hard, sharing a look with Brokk, knowing this to be the truth. Whether or not the sword had been self-aware or had a true personality of its own before Embla took it up, that was certainly the case now. It spoke directly to Embla's thoughts, and as such was even more dangerous than it might have been otherwise - for if only Embla knew what it said, nobody else could argue against whatever it hoped to influence her to do.
"My sword says it has only eaten vampires," explained Embla after a few moments. "Though it would very much like to taste something new and wonders if we could find something new and interesting. What was that? Oh, it does know a little about how I taste, but it's weird because it's my sword, so tasting me is like tasting itself. This is boring. I agree. I should go and find something else to kill."
Arlgand stole a glance at the others, but Brokk motioned that this was an expected Embla thing to say. It did not make him feel much better about the thought of a savage barbarian warrior carrying a possessed bloodthirsty sword into the heart of Belendale. That weapon was far too reminiscent of the Astral Harmony for his liking. That accursed harp, again sealed in its vault, also drove the one who bore it into a murderous frenzy, eager and entirely able to mete out horrific punishment for the slightest of infractions, before finally driving them to destroy themselves.
The last time the Astral Harmony had been wielded, it had been a matter of days before its foul influence became evident on his friend Malevoxa. By willingly taking it up, albeit for a good cause, in full knowledge of what it could do to her, she had opened herself to its curse and barely been able to resist; though when it had first come to her, she had lasted over a year before succumbing to its darkest urgings.
Arlgand could practically feel the same destructive hunger pressing now on Embla. If it was no mere paranoia, her only hope was to have himself and Brokk combine their magic to sever her attunement to the blade and break whatever curse it was placing her under. The only alternative was one that both cleric and wizard considered extremely unlikely: that the conflicting powers of the vampiric sword and the fey energies would feed off each other to a point where both were greatly weakened.
This was all nearly too much to consider. By tomorrow evening, they would officially pass beyond the outermost reach of Kale and arrive at the first Therolan checkpoints. There they would need to present their case for further admittance into Belendale. Arlgand did not want to think about how many things could go wrong at such a sensitive location.
The deathly spirits following him, mindlessly hateful of and eternally hungering after his living warmth, knew better than to come too close to Ikit. They flinched away if he acknowledged them, lurked with impatient impotence as he slept, and outright fled for a time when his temper broke and he moved to confront them. Ikit appreciated the design of this protection at the same time that he hated it for safeguarding him.
Under any other contract, Ikit would have been able to refuse such a protection. As things stood now, however, he had not been given the choice. His chest ached more with each passing day, as the spirits of those he had killed yearned to avenge themselves, but were again repelled by his unwanted shield. Of late he could not even bring himself to look down, and the feel of the implanted lattices made him shudder as he washed himself. That morning, after confirming his third target, he fancied he could even feel the magic pulsing through the metal, responding to the new lost soul he had created. This was a ridiculous thought, of course, he knew that. It was just further evidence of how far he had fallen from the Path if this was the madness to afflict him. Ikit longed for the simplicity he had once envisioned to be truth, and for his current situation to be just a falsehood brought about from his weakness. The foolishness of the unweaned pup, perhaps, but the closest thing to hope he retained.
If the world was truly so cruel as to be inherently this way, then what did any effort to improve it matter? Once he had dismissed such a defeatist argument, even lent his voice to those calling for struggle regardless of inevitability. Now, Ikit was no longer sure of his position. Far too often he found himself agreeing with those he had previously mocked. There was no point to any of this.
And yet, Ikit was troubled by those he had seen gathered at the Therolan checkpoints. He knew them all by reputation or instruction, for one among them was on his list, and it was wise to know the companions of those you were sent to kill. These were people of no shared background, uniting - though perhaps they had yet to realize this - in the face of a common enemy. This foe was far too powerful for any one of them individually, and even together they had little hope of victory. Nonetheless, they came in response to a rallying cry for help, and would give their lives in pursuit of their shared goal.
Ikit asked himself which option was the better one. Was dying in futile battle, hoping against hope, the greater of the two? It was certainly the nobler path to take, and so small wonder Ikit shied away from this now that he had fallen from the Path. His own bondage suggested Ikit himself preferred servitude over martyrdom - but this too was difficult for him to accept. If the Path was truly lost to him, why did either option seem to touch upon what the Path offered?
He was not so honored as to be a Shade of the deeps, giving up his freedoms for the good of others, but was not that the same rhetoric which had swayed him to accept his current monstrous assignment? His victims, supposedly, were parts of a great and terrible threat that had to be expunged without yet being revealed. His actions were both vile and necessary, if the justifications were to be believed. In a way, was Ikit not still following the Path?
He slapped himself the moment this blasphemy entered his mind, frantically trying to beat the heresy from him. This was too far even for one so befouled as he had become. Ikit refused to insult Neltak further by trying to offer up some abominable logic like that in his own defence, even for a moment. Instead, he fled his lair to seek out the next name on his list. His punishment would come all the sooner if he applied himself fully to his dreadful task. Within the hour, he had crested the walls of Gloralion and returned to the trees beyond the city.
Predominantly the shields, but a few other pieces of armor, were all but glowing with an inner light that had nothing to do with the spells placed upon them. Intimidated as he was now, Arlgand had been dubious of this scheme to start with, when Gareth spoke of harvesting the valuable shells of the bizarre flail snails, and exporting them to the border guards of the Summervale. It had not helped his case when he admitted that the normal tariffs on such goods, and the further income taxes on those which by right should be claimed by King Milon of Kale, would not actually be something that was ever officially declared.
"It is not smuggling exactly, " Gareth had once argued. "The wording specifically details the various kinds of artificially magical item, and flail snail shells are merely intrinsically magical, so..."
Unsurprisingly, that had not swayed Arlgand any more than it had anybody else. That was, in fact, probably the biggest reason that Gareth was not on this journey with them now. King Milon himself had practically been lying in ambush at the estate upon their return, and strongly implied many horrible fates lay in wait for his errant marquis if this continued. It had been a good run, but it had fallen apart when the summons to the royal court had been delivered by Gareth's own partner in this endeavor.
Speaking of which, where is Warden Iorannor? Arlgand wondered nervously. Therolan is the closer city to Kale, but he came all the way from Medel-Ivrin in the north. If his remit extends to all the border guards, nationwide, he must be more than a common lord. That is the sort of influence given to members of the royal family itself. If he had made this journey with us, we wouldn't be in this position now.
Arlgand tried not to let his concern show as the multitude of lesser wardens barred their path deeper into Belendale, their expressions uncharacteristically hostile. Their captain actually had a hand raised, fingers forked in readiness to begin casting some spell or another, and arrowheads peered out from the leaves overhead. The royal invitation had been barely examined, and almost immediately dismissed. For a short time, the others had been ignorant of the reason, believing themselves to be the cause. Aidan of Zel, being half-elven and more knowledgeable in these matters, had understood the truth first.
It was at Arlgand himself, a full-blood altarim born in frost-scented Tinindal, a citizen of Belendale, that those charged with defending the realm were staring with such loathing and revulsion. He did not blame them. His ancestors had committed an act of treason so abominable that it stained the history of the world with blood over ten thousand years later. He could not even tell himself that, if he had been alive at that time, he would have chosen to oppose that deed.
The consequences for the few members of the family that yet remained in Belendale had not abated over the many centuries. Even Aidan, a paladin of the God of Mercy, had spat hatred at him within a day of their meeting. Granted, Aidan had been poisoned by a hideous curse devised by the lich Afej the Black, aiming to corrupt him into a tool of the powers of evil...but even that magic could only work with what was already there. Aidan had some of the disgust and hatred of Arlgand's bloodline in his soul already.
"Begone, Graysoul," the guard captain finally said. "No matter how we may wish otherwise, you may walk this road. May Tal-Allustiel turn his face from you, and instead smile upon those who follow you. Perhaps they shall be welcome here. You shall never be so honored."
Arlgand bowed deeply, gratefully, uncaring that much of that venomous speech was not the usual warning. The tone, if not the exact meaning, was picked up on by the others - though only Aidan knew enough of the language to have any real idea of what being said, and this was reflected in his shocked expression - and they instinctively moved in closer to Arlgand. In a way, they were shielding him from the hostility so obviously displayed towards him, or showing that this was not enough to make them keep their distance.
They had fought and bled alongside him, and had their wounds healed by his magic. The bonds of fellowship that could so rapidly form between such as they, to Arlgand's mind, were unfamiliar and slightly terrifying, but curiously welcome. Only ever outside of his own homeland, with Hamling and to an extent Gareth, had he felt this sort of kinship before.
This passage was, unfortunately, less dangerous than it had been at previous times when Gareth was along...
The guards parted to make way for the towering elflord that had watched their arrival with a face like thunder. Arlgand whispered a hasty explanation of the sigils inscribed on his armor, and the medals displayed on his chest, indicating that this was one of most senior military commanders of the entire region. There could be no ordinary reason for such a soldier to be on the actual borders like this. It suggested some imminent invasion, or another equally terrible danger that could only end in bloodshed.
Gareth nodded sagely. "He'll be wanting you, Arlgand. Be a good fellow and ride ahead of me about one bowshot's length, would you?"
The elflord glared at the approaching pair, having clearly heard the remarks. "I am Lord Jerroth Salpheran, First High Captain of the Therolan Wardens. I am also not here for the Graysoul. I am here for you, human, specifically you. The newly ennobled Marquis Gareth du Rentes."
"Well, I see my fantastical and gloried reputation has preceded me here after all!" exclaimed Gareth, elbowing Arlgand aside. "So, how can someone as amazing as my humble self be of service to a fine and deep-pocketed lord such as yourself?"
Lord Jerroth scowled. "You are to answer for fair Vellentia, a fine woman whose-"
"But good sir, I object most strenuously to such an accusation!" Gareth interrupted at once. "Whatever hideous falsehoods may have raced past me to reach your eyes first, they are wholly hideous and false. Upon my word, as a fair and heroic gentleman of Kale, I promise that I have never so much as met your sister, let alone stolen her innocence!"
Lord Jerroth merely smiled the cold smile of a viper about to strike. "I did not say," he hissed dangerously. "Either that sweet Vellentia was my sister, nor made mention of her innocence."
Arlgand's groan was muffled, for his face was already buried in his hands. Gareth considered this for some seconds, reviewing the conversation in his mind. His distant expression only served to anger Jerroth further, and the elflord seemed to swell in his armor with outrage. Several of the checkpoint guards carefully repositioned themselves a few feet further away.
"Oh yes, I see now," Gareth said in a slow, conversational tone, as if wholly unaware of the danger he was in. "That was a dead giveaway, wasn't it? Now see, I know this looks bad and probably doesn't sound much better, but if you give me about..."
He trailed off, his eyes staring into nothing as he considered the matter. "Ten? Yes, let's say ten. If you give me about ten minutes to come up with a rational excuse for this, then something water and bridges something something forget all about it? Uh, do you know you've gone the color of a plum? I think one of my housemaids had a remedy for that, but oh look I left it back in Rentes I'll just go get it haveagooddayfarewell!"
A dozen arrows instantly pierced the ground behind Gareth, leaving no doubt as to what his fate would be if he attempted to flee. He sighed heavily, but his shoulders did not slump, nor did his eyes drop as he turned back to face Lord Jerroth. Not for the first time, Arlgand wondered exactly how inherently deranged humans were. Every indication suggested that there was some deep-seated madness in the species which occasionally made them totally oblivious to and uncaring of their impeding brutal death. For all his foibles and quirks, Gareth was not even the most extreme example of this that Arlgand had ever seen.
"So, I don't suppose we can talk this out?" Gareth asked, and the elflord drew his sword in response. "It was just a thought. I know elves have lots of those. Some are very violent, aren't they? But you are such civilized and refined people that you wouldn't ever act on those. He's walking up to me, Arlgand, open your eyes and be of help. You know, if I'm being totally honest, I was actually the victim. It's a surprise to me too, actually."
"It was just after the reception at the palace, as you must know. We'd all had a fair bit to drink and the dancing was so tedious because all the good musicians had been eaten by the vampires. Still, she approached me afterwards to say she thought I'd danced very well anyway. Arlgand, he's getting closer, do something, quickly now. Then she said it was a surprise to find her reflection in this stone desert. I don't know what she thought she meant by that, but then we were very drunk as I think I said. Arlgand, he's stopped. Why has he stopped? Not that I don't want him to not have stopped. Wait, how many negatives was that?"
Lord Jerroth had indeed halted in his advance, a look of profound confusion warring with moral outrage for control of his face. "My little sister said what? My sweet Vellentia found her...oh Faerie, no, not this. Not this as well."
Eyes closed, wishing himself to be almost anywhere other than here, Arlgand leaned towards Gareth and whispered: "I think in your ramblings you revealed that his sister spoke her doom-name to you. That's a mark of trust which he won't dare defy. Congratulations, this one won't cut you to pieces. Not today at least."
This was perhaps the most unsettling meeting that Arlgand had ever attended, for just by their posture he could tell that the two other elflords in the room were among the most important in this part of the Summervale - and yet, despite his own presence there, a Graysoul shunned and abhorred by the rest of his society, there were no guards or aides of any kind.
Jerroth then introduced the other elflord as one Iorannor of Medel-Ivrin. Though he hid it well, by his accent Iorannor revealed himself to be of the Medel half of the city, the ancient aristocratic townships on the hilltops which had later absorbed the Ivrin valley settlements below. This made Arlgand even more nervous, for historically the Medeli had strong ties - both political and marital - to the greatest houses of Gloralion. Had his ancestors not committed their terrible sin, Arlgand would have been such an ally to the Medeli himself.
Why, he wondered, of all those responsible for the wardens of Belendale, were two such mighty personages alone in a room with a Graysoul and a human? It made no sense, especially when done so openly. Politically speaking, the rumors that would begin to spread of this could only damage the reputations of those involved. That should be something to avoid. Yet, here the four of them were. Having a calm discussion about smuggling, of all things.
"House Salpheran, I believe, still has the writs of seventeen enchanters of the third tier and above?" questioned Iorannor at one point. "With such resources to hand, actually bringing out the inherent magic of the shells should be no problem, as I understand it."
Jerroth, still scowling disbelievingly over at Gareth from time to time, nodded. "You provide the investment capital, Iorannor, and I will have the mages do their job. Once I outfit a unit with their new shields, a simple wargame can prove their effectiveness to the other High Captains. Provided that the quality of the material is as promised..."
The elflords looked over at him, not Gareth, for an answer. Of course, that was how it had to be. Gareth had the supply but he also had a reputation, and besides that, he was only a human. Even the word of another elf would be considered suspect in this matter. Arlgand, however, was still legally acknowledged as being of a Great House, no matter how far it had fallen. That was why he was here. It was his word which mattered. So he thought on what to say, and how to say it, for several minutes.
"My companion is many things," Arlgand said at last. "Including a liar and a cheat. However, he has what he claims as he claims it. I vouch for the quality of his goods, and beseech Tal-Allustiel to bear witness that this is true, if my own word is not enough."
Jerroth did not look particularly satisfied by this answer. Iorannor, however, nodded. And that was that. An illicit trade route between Kale and Belendale had, in every way that mattered, just been agreed upon.
Finally, after waiting until nearly noon for Gareth to arrive, the man strolled up with the biggest grin on his face, and gave Arlgand a knowing wink. By the lateness of the hour, the state of his clothing and hair, and the smell of perfume that hung around him, it was obvious where he had disappeared to the previous night and most of the morning.
Arlgand frowned. "Is this really the sort of behavior you think you should be engaging in? I feel like I should chastise you or something. I am a priest after all. That sort of thing falls under my clerical remit."
"The church of Tal-Allustiel has no scripture forbidding love, or at least a night of exhausting sweaty passion," Gareth chuckled salaciously. "And it especially says nothing about nearly bruising your eyes when you go in for a nibble. I'm not entirely sure she was entirely elven, honestly: you people aren't exactly known for that shape."
Shaking his head despairingly, yet knowing there was nothing else that could be done, Arlgand gave up on trying to talk sense into this strange man who was almost, but not quite, his friend. One thought, however, did occur to him as they were being waved through the border checkpoint - the glowers of the guards once more a heavy weight on Arlgand's back as they wished that he never returned.
"Tell me you were at least subtle about it this time," Arlgand said to Gareth. "You didn't just grab a bottle of wine and start flirting in public, on the very streets of all places. Oh gods, you did, didn't you? I can tell."
"I suppose some people will talk, throw the word 'cradle-robber' around like they do," Gareth said dismissively. "Not that it is any of their business anyway! 'Oh, what is that quintennial maiden doing with that thirty-something man? How disgusting, how exploitative!' Outright charming, I call it. Gives hope to youths everywhere that they too can snag a fine figure of a woman like that, if only for a few minutes. A fine, fine figure with lovely bits to snag onto, if you get my meaning."
"And besides, there are other advantages to such an age gap. You really do get some wonderful pillow-talk when your squeeze is five hundred years older than you, you know. Quite remarkable. Did you know that Therolan has the largest ratio of dye makers to tailors in Belendale? Or that her Wiseman used to stutter until he was past seventy? Can you imagine that overripe plum Jerroth stuttering? What an image."
"Are you serious?" Arlgand asked, too shocked to even sound surprised. "You barely avoided getting killed for sleeping with your smuggling partner's sister, and you just went and seduced his daughter as well? !"
"Who has a daughter now?" Gareth blinked, confused. "I said nothing about any- wait. Oh. Oh I see, 'Wiseman' must be some elven social family metaphor thing I didn't pick up on. So bouncy buxom Raunniel is Jerroth's daughter. Huh. She must take after her mother. Lucky girl."
Arlgand stared at him in mounting horror, stunned beyond words. For once, it took Gareth very little time to come to the same conclusion. He looked at Arlgand with a similar expression in his eyes. Without a word, he dug his heels into his horse's flanks and clung on for dear life as the pair fled the Summervale to the relative safety of Kale.
With the return of the somehow-fond memories of his last exit from the Summervale, came that familiar depression back to Arlgand. It must have shown in his face, or in the set of his shoulders, for soon enough Brokk had urged his pony to a greater speed and was now riding close by. Aidan and Isolde broke away at once, perhaps sensing that this was a conversation they were not entirely welcome to join.
Before it began, however, Arlgand looked over at Brokk thoughtfully. Arlgand knew enough about this strange wizard to be intensely respectful of him, and of the terrible burden he carried. Even if you discounted everything else, he was very powerful, certainly a match for some of the legendary arcanists of bygone eras by Arlgand's estimation. Yet this was only the half of it. By all rights, Arlgand knew, Brokk should not exist. He, and other seekers of primordial knowledge, had interfered with a relic of the gods, hoping to unlock the secrets of creation itself. At the cusp of their triumph, in response to their hubris, the tablet had excised them and his entire dwarfhold from history, as a surgeon's knife might remove an unsightly wart.
By some unparalleled miracle of mercy, Brokk had been partially spared, granted a chance to redeem himself - but punished with the compounded age of all those whose lives were erased. His were a body and a mind subjected to the unimaginable pressures of time as experienced by the immortals of the Outer Planes, but not permitted to succumb to them as even the undying elves eventually did.
And still he carried with him and studied that stone tablet which had brought about such a punishment, searching for a way to earn its least mysteries and perhaps, a measure of forgiveness. Arlgand had touched it, briefly, and felt his entire being revolt at the sensation. The strength of spirit needed to endure its constant presence was beyond his comprehension. So when Brokk chose to speak to him, Arlgand listened, and listened well.
"I remember reading of a very particular poem during my literature studies," Brokk said. "At most penned a century before the founding of Wawmar. Almost entirely lost now. But it was important enough historically to be referenced many times over the following centuries. Apparently it told of the first time the elves saw a wolf lie down by the fire, drive deer towards the waiting hunters, stand guard over the women and children of the tribe. They feared some new magic had come into the world, a magic that they had not taught, and which had somehow been claimed by the speechless brutes that were humans of that age."
Being a cleric - admittedly, as a servant of Tal-Allustiel, not one with any particular inclination towards missionary work - Arlgand knew a parable when he heard one, but for the moment, could not see exactly where Brokk was going with this.
"Here was one of the great beasts of the wild, the elves thought," continued Brokk. "Somehow tamed. Impossibly tamed. How could such a creature become shackled to the will of another animal? There must be magic involved, and if not, this is a thing doubly impossible. Surely the wolf knows what it is and cannot choose to be different. Yet today, who thinks twice to see a faithful hound by his master's side? Who doubts that the wolf and the dog are enemies, where once they were the same?"
Arlgand started to understand. If this was the meaning that Brokk intended, it was a wonderful and glorious hope. It was also utterly impossible, in real terms. There could be no doubt that the world itself would end before the sin of his forebears was forgiven, and such a thing could certainly never be forgotten. He almost shook his head, ready to correct this misconception. Then he saw the intense look in Brokk's eyes and his courage failed him.
"Whatever happened to turn your family into the wolves, Arlgand," the wizard said sternly. "It does not mean you cannot one day become dogs. Even if the whole world believes you to be wolves, you will only remain so if you believe them."
Centuries of personal belief, and millennia of familial conviction, fought against these paltry seconds of outsider's certainty. To his utter astonishment, Arlgand found himself agreeing with Brokk. This was an impossibility, an absurdity. Perhaps one no less extreme than seeing the first tamed wolf, Arlgand realized with a gasp, putting it all together.
It was a thing that could not be...and yet, unequivocally, it was. It was a thing that might be, if given the chance. He looked over at Brokk, smiling gratefully, uncertain of what to say next. Brokk's stern expression promptly shifted to a more mischievous one.
"Now be a good puppy and bark for me," the wizard grinned.
For a moment, Arlgand tried to be offended at the remark. Then, despite himself, he laughed. He laughed the way he had not laughed since he was a child, still ignorant of his inherited sin. He laughed as no adult of his family had laughed in the Summervale for nearly fifteen thousand years, and perhaps as none of them would again for just as long. An insidious darkness fell away from his soul, and in its place blazed the implacable brilliance of the stars, seeping out from his skin to illuminate the elflord in a halo of joy and hope and limitless possibility.
He reflexively split his thoughts further as the sudden nearby laughter broke out, but Anoldor did not combine them again on seeing the source as it arrived at the checkpoint. Whilst the four mortals accompanying it were of tangential interest, the elflord responsible for the laughter was by far the most important of them - and not wholly due to rank, but due to the implications of said rank.
A Gray-Child returning home after leaving it, Anoldor mused, disgust tinging his recognition. This changes the situation. If my Lady offers no information freely, I must demand it.
With that portion of his thoughts still tracking the other visitors to Belendale, he noticed the Davonian group break away from the whole and move to intercept the newcomers. Their commander, an appallingly young victim of nepotism no doubt, was alternating indecisively between a salute and a wave. He called out a greeting that Anoldor, being unpractised with the crude speech of humans, shamefully took nearly two entire seconds to translate.
And to which of them is 'Welcome, Knight of God' intended? Anoldor wondered. Ah, the half-breed with the hammer too big for him, of course. A paladin then. And it seems as the Gray-Child is ignorant of this human, but the others have a history. Adventurers meeting old employers, perhaps.
His hearing was keen, but not enough so to catch the whole of the conversation which followed. Fragments reached him, and other parts were deducible by expression and posture. Some triumph had occurred in Daven. Some undead evil had been vanquished, perhaps. It had come at a high cost, but a decisive blow had nevertheless been struck against the corruption left behind by the Dark Occupation. Anoldor resolved to investigate this further at the first opportunity - current analyses of the Davonian situation had assumed a nigh-perpetual infestation by undead. It was part of his duty to report back any new information on such matters that he came across.
Then Anoldor sensed the Anarian delegation approach the group, slightly more hesitantly. His heart beat faster as his suspicions grew, a keen instinct for danger alerting him to the fact that there was absolutely no coincidence at play here. Outwardly, he remained utterly calm, keeping himself steady so that his peers would take courage from his own. Inwardly, he pushed down on the rising concern that could do nothing but hamstring him at a critical moment.
One of the Anarians, clearly blessed with more brawn than brain, grunted something to the immense bronze-skinned brute, perhaps a young giant or some ogre-bred whelp, that had walked here instead of riding. This one made a similar insensible response that sounded like a bear with a stomachache, and the barbarians broke out in laughter.
By the pitch of that laugh, that giant is a woman, Anoldor decided. Not Anarian. From a related tribe in the Wild Lands, perhaps, but not a true Anarian. All four tribes were represented here already before she came. There is some other link between them too, that I cannot quite discern.
His enforced calm was almost broken when the gnomes too started to move, and one of their number - a particularly wizened individual with ink-stained fingers, wearing the strange accessory their kind called a 'monocle' - hesitantly walked over as well. His apparent opposite among the adventurers, a gnome himself to judge by the size and lack of any hair, was gently helped off his pony by a halfling woman. Theirs was an even more hushed exchange that gave nothing away, save perhaps that it was not a particularly friendly exchange. It was built upon, at best, the strained courtesy of professional rivals.
I have clearly erred in my assumptions here, realized Anoldor with increasing concern. There is more than politics at work here. This is an especially deliberate gathering from across the continent. Oh my Lady, do not- oh damnation.
Gesturing pre-emptively at him to remain where he stood, Lady Shadria Illuo'Vantaiss strode straight past Anoldor up to this curious assemblage and, as bluntly and inelegantly as was possible for her, injected herself into its midst. She looked the abhorrent Gray-Child in the eyes. Everyone fell silent, shocked by the intrusion, and the Gray-Child himself hastily (and wisely) dismounted so as not to look down at her.
"The influence of your House had best not be so limited as I have heard it to be," she declared stiffly. "I am invited to the royal court. This, as you can see, is not the royal court. As an envoy of your Sundered kindred, I formally request you get me past these troll-brained buffoons blocking my way. Today, whether or not you please."
To see a familiar face here, of all places, was perhaps the most surprising part of their journey so far. Embla had even attempted to anticipate what they might encounter, and upon hearing a warm greeting in Davenian - Kelevan, actually, but these people have that stupid national pride of theirs, she reminded herself with some irritation - she accepted that probability had turned against all reason. Simply put, there was no point in trying to guess what was to come. So when Karl von Lanburg, the Driddaren knight who had accompanied them for a short time, turned out to be the speaker, Embla just nodded politely at him as if his presence here was completely understandable.
She thought she recognized a face or two among his escort, thinking that perhaps they had been at the feast in Elder Daven - the same one, in fact, where Embla had promised to rip a certain treacherous gnome apart - but they were all clearly too much in awe of her and her friends to do more than stare unprofessionally. Embla listened as Aidan and von Lanburg exchanged brief pleasantries, and recalled how they had nearly died fighting back to back against a traitor to the kingdom, before the really important detail at last came out.
"Daven is no longer a hostage to a hidden danger," von Lanburg said proudly. "It cost many more lives, but finally a ragtag team of dysfunctional miscreants was able to locate and triumph over the last of those necrotic devices beneath our homes. Thanks to you showing the way, the eternal recurrence of undead in my country has actually become limited! One day, be it years from now, the last walking corpse will be put back into the earth for good."
It sounded like a good story, one that Embla would certainly like to hear from the group who had finished what they - no, what Brokk - had started nearly a year past. However, there came a new diversion in the form of a second group of humans, these dressed in the simple leathers and furs of a far more primitive and martial society. By the subtle differences in their clothing and physical appearance, no doubt imperceptible to all those supposedly 'civilized' people without the sense of a child, Embla could tell that they were actually from four separate tribes. One of them, clearly blessed with more brawn than brain, grunted at her in broken Kelevan.
"Vijolmar I, I being brother-son to the Sunpeak Brigid, she being daughter of Bear People. Brigid say me to have say you she want fight two out of three."
Embla smiled, but only in the harmless way of humans, and replied in kind: "Brigid, she wife to the white-hair mad-jarl? No see I we had fight one time. I be think she had tickle I. If Bear-daughter grow to not little girl be, I to fight her, yes."
The Anarians howled gleefully at the boast, feeling an immediate kinship with this strange woman. This was a language they could understand no matter what words were actually spoken. As they did so, movement to her right provided a brief distraction. Her attention was not held by it for long. By the look of the gnome that had approached them and was now speaking to Brokk, it was a matter for those who practiced the Clever Craft. The affairs of wizards were not ones she was stupid enough to meddle in, and so she shut her ears to their conversation.
However, the next to come up to them was an elf woman who smelled of a dozen different trees, despite the strong scent of travel overlaid on top. Something about the way she carried herself reminded Embla of the Aslaug. This was a very interesting person to find in these unenlightened lands. When the elf opened her mouth and demanded fealty of Arlgand, Embla knew that she had encountered an equal - not in body, certainly, but in authority.
Arlgand objected to her demand, of course, because these people were not what they ought to be. As he did so, Embla was impressed by the she-elf's self-control at this defiance, marking her out as more than a common elven equivalent to the Aslaug. Embla herself had passed her fifteenth winter before learning this same self-control, where many of her generation had never mastered it at all. No, the punishment for this disobedience was going to be long in coming and far more expertly delivered than a simple beating.
"There are laws forbidding such flagrant abuse of my authority, Madam Ambassador," Arlgand tried in vain to protest. "And besides, I have others to consider. My hositan companion, for instance, is from Zel City and such wonders as are to found here are wholly new experiences."
Isolde looked away from scowling at the gnome long enough to object: "I came along because our choices were between blizzard and Belendale, Arlgand, not because I wanted to take the scenic route. And because Brokk apparently is not allowed to just teleport us into the country despite knowing how because of some stupid legal thing." "So if you can speed this up, I'd really appreciate it enough to give back your golden priestly symbol of Tal-Allustiel. Which I don't have, obviously, because I don't steal from my friends. Oh your face was priceless. Dammit Aidan, don't look at me like that wasn't funny. My wit is wasted on you, I swear..."
As Arlgand began to splutter his protests again, attempting to be diplomatic and failing, Embla shook her head despairingly and marched out of the group towards the elven guards. If nobody else had the brains to get them moving on the road again, then Embla would just have to do it herself.
Oooh, are we killing elves today? an eager voice piped up in her mind.
"No," Embla answered bluntly, and a sense of resigned disappointment filtered back to her from her sword. "Well, not unless they attack us first. Then we can kill as many of them as we like. Yes, I did think you would like that. Now shut up a minute or there really will be death."