Blizzard and Belendale

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Part Four

By R. Krommydas

CCO.

Though nothing compared to the splendors of Gloralion, the great gardens of Therolan were nonetheless wondrous to those who had never seen such things in the culture-starved lands outside of the Summervale. Flowers of the most vivid hues bloomed even in these winter months. Songbirds trilled among leaves of trees that elsewhere would have shed them. The earth was warm and soft, and though a few paths of smooth stone had been placed down, for the most part guests willingly walked barefoot across the loam.

Overwhelmingly, the guests at the Salpheran Winter Solstice Ball were galan nobility and altarim aides. Seeing the stereotypically haughty 'high' elves in positions of subservience was especially disconcerting to Aidan, who had grown up with tales of their exploits in the early ages of the world. Yet, when he truthfully considered the names of those involved, most were of the Houses which had dwelt in Gloralion itself since before the reckoning of time - the precursors of the true glimmer elves alive today.

Watching them all perform the delicate steps of this social dance, and seeing the way Arlgand, technically one of their exalted own, was deliberately spurned by one and all, Aidan found it strange to think of the divisions between elvenkind. To most, they were so subtle that only prolonged company with an elf would allow someone to tell them apart easily. He wondered how humans managed to cope with all of their different races, said to be so much more varied than those of any other people.

True, he had not personally met a typical example from each of the human nations and could not be sure, but even accounting for exaggeration, the stories suggested a dizzying variation. Seemingly every combination of physical features, down to food tolerance, was possible in a human. His own mixed ancestry supported that, with his red hair apparently inherited from an ancestor three generations distant on his mother`s side, to say nothing of the strange ears that were common to all half-elves, neither rounded nor pointed.

Perhaps it is their ability to breed with very nearly anything on two legs, he thought, catching a glimpse of Embla towering over a group of worried-looking bodyguards. And quite a few things with a different number. Change comes so easily to them. I doubt humans can even notice the differences between them. Ha! Between them and dragons, come to think of it, it`s a wonder there are any pure races left in the world at all.

His musings were interrupted by the sudden movement of Arlgand, leaving his shameful position at the far end of the gardens in a futile attempt to intercept Isolde on her way to one especially important-looking galan lady. The halfling had cleaned up very nicely indeed - though even three rooms distant, Aidan had heard her cursing her bath - and wore the dress he had bought her with obvious joy. It had needed a fair bit of adjusting, since even though it was a child`s dress and Isolde had bemoaned her unfeminine figure, she had not quite fit into it perfectly in certain places.

Under Brokk`s instruction, the tailor had carefully made it so that the dress accentuated her childish appearance. It was not quite infantile, but the man had seemed particularly loathe to make those adjustments. The cunning wizard had said this would make Isolde appear all the more innocent, or perhaps outright naive, and therefore enable her to mingle more effectively with those who would think the less of her for it.

That logic seemed backwards to Aidan, but thus far it had worked wonders. Though a grown woman, Isolde had been practically coddled by a great many guests, male and female alike, and had listened in to more of their conversations than she otherwise would have been able to. The others had been vastly less successful in their efforts. Embla and Brokk had mostly been stuck speaking with the equally uninfluential bodyguards and scribes respectively, whilst Aidan was relegated to wandering near to the full-blooded ranarim invitees, but not with them.

Quite why Arlgand was trying to interfere now, after nearly three hours in this joyless gathering, was initially beyond Aidan. Then he heard the noblewoman introduce herself, and very nearly swore aloud. It was not that he didn`t trust Isolde, far from it. He trusted her to do exactly the worst possible thing in this scenario. And when he saw their host, Jerroth Salpheran himself, break away from his conversation to join this new one, Aidan mentally soiled himself.

♢♢♢♢♢

Despite her cheeks not having been torn open, Isolde wore a grin to rival any of Embla`s. With each passing moment, her heart thundered ever more joyously to the words of the galan noblewoman. Carefully polite elven faces, neutral at worst, surrounded the pair. Some had worked out what Isolde intended, but there was no way to call her out on it without being horribly impolite themselves. Angry mutterings reached her ears as the two spoilsports who would try to intervene strove to reach her, but it was already too late.

This is perhaps the best moment of my life, Isolde thought privately, but aloud asked: "And are the tales of the wonders of Gloralion, my Lady Vawwa- ahem, Varwow- oh dearie me I`m too silly for such a beautiful name! Are they all true, my Lady?"

"Indeed young hahfwing, evewy wondwous stowy you heah, fwom heah to Fawwand, is absowutewy twue," answered the Lady Valaromra, whose speech impediment was possibly the most famous non-subject ever avoided in the Summervale. "We who wiv in bwiwwiant Gwowawion ah wightfuwwy wespected foh ouh many cuwtuwah and pwacticah devewopments, wanging fwom phiwosophy and engineewing, to alwchemy and sowcewy."

I could marry a Stalwart and drop a half dozen half-bred children on a boat and still die happy after today, Isolde exulted, disguising her obvious glee as being awestruck. By the time Aidan and Arlgand finally reached her, those around them falling back in disgust at the latter daring to show himself at this gathering, she had successfully enticed Valaromra into her trap. It was pure improvisation, of course, as was so often the case with her.

Isolde had not known the nature of this particular galan, but after hearing those spectacular noises, she had immediately given up on trying to recruit allies and instead sought out entertainment. She felt compelled to do so, despite - or perhaps especially because of - the self-righteous anger that Aidan would heap upon her for it. Passing up a chance to safely mock a supposed great of the world was a thing that Isolde would never do. Elves, in her opinion, needed humiliating more than any other race not of the Dark Folk, and she was eternally ready to deliver a humbling.

"I grew up in a city in the Occupied Kingdoms, among the poor and the filthy," Isolde continued mercilessly. "I never even saw green, or birds, until I escaped. It is all so much to take in. I must seem so ignorant to you. The simplest things I just don`t know. Like, um, what is that songbird called?"

Valaromra smiled serenely down at the halfling, oblivious and willing to educate this unfortuate creature. "That one is the bwue-cwested wawbwah. He wikes to hide among the weaves and sing to attwact many wadies to the bwanch his nest is westing on. When one appwoves and shows intewest, she wiw twiw an answewing cwy to awewt him..."

At this point, despite Valaromra being nearly incomprehensible, the sheer delight of this display was what Isolde was invested in. This was better than she could have hoped for, and seeing the audience become aware of what this rhotically-challenged mark was being made to do to herself, Isolde congratulated herself on a job perfectly executed.

Almost perfectly executed, she corrected herself, looking at a newcomer to the scene. From that face, I think maybe one of these knife-ears is not so restrained as the rest of them.

With practised grace, Lord Jerroth Salpheran slipped between the conversations, distracting Valaromra with a sweeping bow and kiss to the hand, and then smiled at Isolde. It was the type of smile that implied murder. From her days as a gutter runner to assassins and thieves, Isolde knew it all too well. To see it on the face of a nobleman was no surprise. To see it on the face of a glimmer elf, no less a defender of the Summervale itself, was slightly more worrisome.

♢♢♢♢♢

Lady Shadria Iluo'Vantaiss could see the efforts of the adventurers as well as any altarim or galan, but found herself sympathetic to their cause. They were no less foreign to this land than herself, for all that the Gray-Child was a native. They would be seeking allies before trying to hunt down that vile beast-thing assassin which lurked in Belendale. It was not their job to do this, but they would do it anyway, because that was exactly the sort of thing that adventurers did, no matter how inconvenient it might make life for everybody else. She was tempted to offer them some clandestine aid herself, seeing as how she had been the target of that attack, but the risk of being found out and losing her chance to secure her own allies was too great. That was what she kept telling herself, but something in that argument felt cowardly. True, the fanatic monster was the sort of distinctly long-term problem that elvenkind excelled in dealing with, but for now they had a shared goal in the destruction of the Wintervale. That threat could be put aside. Similarly so with the accursed Gray-Child, for he was clearly but a temporary companion and could therefore be tolerated in the name of reason. Of the dwarf and halfling there was nothing to be concerned with, for her people had no quarrel with either race. Ultimately, it was the last of them who kept drawing her attention back and raising the question of help.

It is one of his children, it must be, Shadria thought. A half-blood of the Luvam, with that offensively red hair and a name of the Diathun derivation? Who else could he be except one of Aurtherlin`s get? I must find out for certain before winter`s end.

With this thought in mind, Shadria stayed closer than was needed to the adventurers as they roamed ineffectually from group to group. She had centuries yet to achieve her goals, so diverting some of her focus from them for this one year was not especially onerous. Anoldor disapproved, of course, as he did of everything that was not perfectly planned for her success and safety, but she had been able to divert him close to that horrible savage and give her some breathing room.

Then, like everyone else who realised what was happening, Shadria held her breath in horror as the halfling engaged Valaromra Tanriel in conversation. The sheer audacity of the insult was something unheard-of, even among the most bitter feuds, and no onlooker could fully hide their shock as the mockery continued. That the ball`s host, a pompous High Warden if there ever had been one, was wearing such a chilling expression as he interrupted was only to be expected.

I must admit though, it is strangely satisfying to watch, Shadria admitted. If ever someone accuses the hositan of lacking courage, I must tell them of this incident. Making fun of a lady of the galan in the Summervale itself! Grossly impolite, of course, but...our stubborn kin do need some lessons in humility before we are reunited. If some of these can be taught by the other races also, that may even make my quest simpler!

It was certainly something to consider, and Shadria joined the growing crowd to see what happened next. She was as surprised as the rest of them when Salpheran was goaded into making his own underhanded remarks as opposed to merely diverting the conversation along a different route. That a mere halfling could so irritate a nobleman of Belendale into open rudeness! This evening was turning out to have quite the series of revelations in store for her. The last of them, however, were not any that she could ever have foreseen.

♢♢♢♢♢

Like so much else in this part of the world, this ball was something of a disappointment to Embla. Risarvinnae competed with each other in order to strengthen all the tribes, by selecting the strongest and wiliest chieftains, the best hunters and crafters, and spotting the early signs of one who could work the Clever Craft. Lives, on occasion, were lost in these brutal competitions, but the intent behind them was always open and honest.

Here, however, Embla saw only the same petty hungerings for influence and control that had infested the hearts of the human nations she had travelled through. It was more hidden here, out of some foolish conceit that doing so was a way to elevate these ambitious wretches above their ostensible inferiors, but its presence was obvious nonetheless. She had expected better of the aelfarrir.

She had also expected to be treated better, but that was apparently beyond them as well. When she had requested a wetnurse for the orphan baby, the clerks had first looked offended at the suggestion, then horrified when Embla brought her out for a feeding right in the administrative office. When she had enquired after von Lanburg and the other humans of Daven, she had been told they were currently under observation owing to the necromantic troubles of their country and no further information was permitted.

Most insultingly of all, Embla had been required to leave her magnificent new sword behind in order to attend this wretched event on the pretext that no weapons were permitted. Except that, as she was quite able to see, all the elven bodyguards wore theirs. This was something she fully intended to tell her sword when she returned and devise a suitable punishment for the deliberate insult.

Her thoughts on this matter were interrupted by raised voices coming from the direction Isolde had gone in, and when Embla looked over, she saw the host of this tiresome charade was involved. She brought to mind his name - Jerroth Salpheran - and decided she was unsurprised by this happening, given what little she knew about him and what much she knew about Isolde. Embla hurried over in time to catch enough of the tail end of the exchange.

"...and naturally the understanding of such itinerants as yourselves far outclasses that of the finest scholars in the world," Jerroth Salpheran said condescendingly. "You see only a monolithic problem instead of the intricate array of pieces that are connected to form this greater whole. A typical view of such short-lived creatures. You ought be reminded that we of Gloralion, firstborn and transcendent, may see the world for what it is where such as you cannot."

Most of the elves nodded or murmured agreement at this. Embla noted only a very few that did not, including one who stood just behind Salpheran in the dark garb of a working underling, his robes emblazoned with the same sigil that Lord Jerroth himself wore. That one so trusted to stand at his back, even apparently unarmed, did not agree with his master was a fascinating discovery, but one that Embla could see had been overlooked by the rest - their eyes were on Salpheran, not his squire.

"This is just how things are," Salpheran continued, warming to his derision. "No matter how you may strive to approach our wisdom, valiant though your futile efforts may appear, you will forever be beneath us. After all, our fair lands were never lost to the darkness as were yours, and it is only through our skill that any of them are being returned to you. But then, your kind have such limited memories. Ours are as immortal as our bodies."

"I have killed immortals before now," Isolde retorted in a deadly soft voice, eyes colder than ice. "And I don`t doubt I shall kill more again."

Embla was so proud. That was exactly the sort of threat she might have made herself, at least in her younger days before she was a full Aslaug. Perhaps it was just a failing of these crude languages, but she felt there might have been a cleaner way to deliver those words. But even so, the undeniable ring of truth could be heard in Isolde`s voice, and Embla thrilled to think of the possibilities it implied. Whatever the specifics of that history, only Isolde knew...

♢♢♢♢♢

FIFTH INTERLUDE

Whatever madness inherent to Stalwarts made them fond of water was thankfully not contagious. Sensible people, like Hairfoots, did not go in for that wading and splashing about and submersing of themselves. Isolde found herself distressingly close to the Colfin on that fateful day because she had agreed to keep a lookout for Daisy Tenner, one of the few Stalwart halflings in Zel City and at thirteen, the only one near her age. Had the two chosen any other day, or even gone to the other side of the city for Daisy to swim in the Dimrune, much would have changed.

Like most halflings in the Occupied Kingdoms, Daisy rarely went outside during the day, and her head was shaven so that she appeared little more than a common human child. It was a clever survival strategy, since for the most part even the Dark Folk knew better than to kill the children of their enslaved populations. Not because they had any trouble putting down the resultant riots and petty rebellions, but because the loss of productivity afterwards led to the Hoths being punished, and so in turn their underlings.

Not all who passed through the city were so restrained at its locals, however. As bad luck would have it, four very unusual individuals were out for a walk, making sinister conversation among themselves. The militia patrols swerved to avoid them, and even had they not, nobody would have been so stupid as to bar their path. These were dark elves, and worse still, ones strolling calmly under the bright morning sun. Copper badges of a stylised half-eclipse marked them out as cadets freshly graduated.

Isolde was taken completely by surprise. The dark elves had made so little noise that the normal sounds of the city had drowned them out, and even when she saw them, she had not understood until it was too late. Even then, there might have been a chance, but Isolde was still too inexperienced to know her error. Silence and stillness would have been the better option by far. Instead, she screamed a warning and fled to the nearest alley, awakening the predatory instinct of those who might otherwise have passed them by.

With the smell of fear in their nostrils, the dark elves rushed forward. Isolde was saved only because she knew these streets, and had scrambled off them up onto the rooftops where none would seek a ground-loving hositan. But Daisy was not so lucky. Even as she turned to brave the deeper waters, and swim to the opposite bank, the noose whistled through the air and wrapped around her neck. Before she could master her surprise and attempt to drown herself, she was hauled ashore.

Three of the dark elves seemed uncertain as to how to proceed now that they had actually caught their prey. They knew the theory, but had only recently left their dens, and by elven standards were still little more than children themselves. The fourth, however, was more experienced and explained it to them. He seemed almost bored by the whole thing, and sat down on the riverbank to watch the others practice. From her perch overhead, Isolde choked back screams and vomit as the horror unfolded.

It was madness to think of revenge. Isolde decided that madness was the way forward. She forced herself to watch whenever it was safe to do so. She forced herself to memorise the faces of the monsters, their voices and their walks. Everything and anything that would give her an edge in the future. And there was a future, perhaps, if she was careful about it. The Association was expecting a visitor from Orland soon, a master looking for potential recruits to fill out the ranks of criminal underworld.

Isolde had not intended to be one of those presented as a potential new gutter runner. But if she proved herself, and learned well, then she just might be able to use the skills to avenge Daisy. It would be beyond hard, almost impossible in truth. Dark elves were no joke even when they were mere cadets, even when they were not among the elite of the Wintervale... when they were not soldiers of the Blacksun Legion.

♢♢♢♢♢

Leigdaith was not impressed by Corpsman Sattiuvaan. Had he the choice to report the man to his corporal, he had no doubt that Sattiuvaan would fail to impress there as well. The Blacksun Legion was no place for the histrionic or the impulsive. Leigdaith would know, for his dark elven father had been one of them, and had claimed his Farlandish mother by right of conquest during the Quelling of Loria. Their little family had not been happy, as such, but Leigdaith knew it might have been much worse.

As Sattiuvaan continued to rant about his murdered comrades, Leigdaith sipped at his wine with growing impatience. It was so tiring to listen to this whelp blather on about nothing of consequence. The sun was rising higher in the sky and it was becoming increasingly bothersome. A supposed perk of his status, both among the Association and the official forces of Wintervale, was that he could move freely through the Occupied Kingdoms, and commandeer any business or residence on a whim. The view from this rundown tavern was less gratifying than other pleasures. At last, the remains of his patience evaporated.

"They were worthless and were killed for it, Corpsman. Only an idiot could fail to see that for a single Legionnaire to be assassinated indicates their incompetence. Only the heir to the kingdom of idiots would fail to see that when it happens to four! Now your deranged little vendetta is damaging more than just my business here, and I expect you to abandon it immediately. Before your company moves out again, are we understood?"

Sattiuvaan froze mid-rant, glaring at Leigdaith. "You dare to threaten a Blacksun Legionnaire, half-blood? I could have you skinned, here and now, and nobody would question or intervene. One less filthy drunkard to trip over."

That was even more depressing to hear. A true Legionnaire would have simply killed him instead of making a threat, especially not one worded in such a way. Sattiuvaan had in fact made it clear that he could not kill Leigdaith so easily, and was merely trying to intimidate him. This particular batch of cadets were clearly well below the usual standard. Leigdaith finished his wine and waved at the serving boy for more.

"Perhaps you do not understand the situation here in Zeland," he begun whilst his drink was being refilled. "There are ways to gain information regarding the lost west, if experts like myself are allowed to complete their work. The Wintervale is blind beyond the Twin Kingdoms without the spy network I and others are setting up. It would be an unnecessary waste of resources to plunge blindly into Daven and Kelerak when the time comes to retake them. Speaking of resources, lad, a touch more of the wine, I have quite the thirst today. And you, Corpsman, through your ignorance, are hindering the future war effort. Once more, I must insist that you abandon these futile efforts."

"And why would I do that?" Sattiuvaan asked mockingly, snatching the refilled mug out of the serving boy`s hands and draining its contents.

"Because I have asked you to," Leigdaith said calmly. "And because your loyalty to the advancement of the Wintervale should be greater than your personal offence at lost cadets. And...because I poisoned that wine."

Sattiuvaan started in shock, before looking hastily at the plain iron ring on his middle left finger. The simple magic in it was not active, and knowing that it had detected no poison in the drink, Sattiuvaan sneered at the petty thief. His smirk faded at the cold certainty he saw in the half-blood`s eyes.

"There is much that the wise can learn from their enemies, such as the gluttunous hositan," Leigdaith spoke now with a terrifying softness. "For instance, a certain poison which they discovered during their gastronomic studies. It comes in two parts, each quite harmless by itself, but when combined...oh, quite lethal. The first part lingers in the stomach and intestines, sometimes for up to a decade. Silent. Patient. Waiting. When the second part enters your body, the two meet up for some fun. They have a little dance in your heart, your arteries, your veins. And suddenly, Corpsman, you are dead."

"You just drank the first part of the poison. If you do not give up this foolishness, and leave Zeland to those who know it, I will have someone introduce you to the second part. Perhaps in trail rations, or soaked into your waterskin, or in the spit or blood of some luckless whore. You will not know. Until the two parts are together, they are not a true poison, and no magic will detect them. Will you go to your commanding officer and beg of a curative spell to rid you of the first part? Will you let him know how easily you were humbled? I think not."

Sattiuvaan tried to think of something to say. This was impossible, obviously. But his courage failed him when he sought to challenge this certainty. The half-blood did not smile at him, or speak again, but merely stared. Silent. Patient. Waiting. Like the poison. The poison he had tricked a Legionnaire into drinking. This could never get out. If Sattiuvaan was exposed, he would be killed for his incompetence.

Yes, like the incompetence of those failed cadets, he convinced himself, suddenly seeing his way out to life. Why am I wasting my time with this foolishness? This is not worth my time or my energy. I will leave this wretched place. It is not deserving of a Legionnaire! We are too grand for such a primitive place!

Leigdaith watched the grand soldier, a new elite of the Wintervale, scurry out of the tavern with a suspicious air of fear. He sipped at his wine again, frowned up at the sun, and decided to leave as well. He had some business which needed attending to now, and that was something he was not looking forward to. As always of late, when he left, the serving boy did also.

♢♢♢♢♢

"I hear some soldiers have been suffering with cramps," Isolde commented impassively when Leigdaith appeared at the spire later that evening.

Oh, so this is how we are going to do this? the half-drow thought to himself, noting the way his apprentice was standing just a half-step closer to the knife wall than usual. He would be almost sorry if he had to kill this one. She had been perhaps his finest work, and a few more years to mold her thoughts properly might even allow him to dispatch her into the so-called 'Liberated' Kingdoms on extended missions for the benefit of the Wintervale, and his own pocket.

"Indeed, I understand that four of them had very severe stomach pains," Leigdaith answered obliquely. "A fifth seemed to avoid the same symptoms. Must have been something in the wine. Their unit is leaving in a few days. I doubt they shall return. Other people should not be returning to certain places as well, after this."

Isolde looked over at him, and Leigdaith felt a combined sense of pride and disquiet at the masterpiece he had created in her. Other halflings were lazy and indolent, skittish and sullen, but not this one. He had teased out the potential deep within, weaned her off weakness, and honed her to a perfect killing edge. She had even learned to kill without weapons. That was why he had done what he had.

"My evenings will be a little less free than usual this month," Leigdaith continued. "Our sessions will be fewer. I expect your initiative to be used appropriately. It has been demonstrably improved of late. Though that is not to say measures cannot be taken to curb it and others."

Isolde inclined her head the merest fraction, acknowledging the compliment, and walked away. Her back was turned to him. The insolence nearly caused Leigdaith to take out his blade, but he granted that she had bested him in no small part due to his own teachings. This discretion could be overlooked. Besides, the two had agreed to this understanding. Should Leigdaith was pressured again, he would destroy Isolde and her family before his crime was punished. And speaking of his crime...

He entered his bedchambers, closing and sealing the doors behind him as always. It would no longer matter, for Isolde had clearly shown herself able to bypass the combinations and traps set upon the locks, but appearances had to be maintained. It was not the beautiful figure beneath his sheets that had doomed Leigdaith to aid her childhood thirst for vengeance, but the words Isolde had heard him speak to the boy. 'Boy' was perhaps not even the right word. When Leigdaith chose him, he had already been nearly a man, for humans grew so much more swiftly than elvenkind.

Leigdaith was only half-drow. He had not actually served in the Blacksun Legion himself. The same expectations as had ruled his father were not Leigdaith`s own chains. Yet his father had been executed because, over time, he had fallen short of those expectations. Leigdaith himself could feel the same weakness in his heart, the same vulnerability that his masters sought to root out of their servants. He was proud of it - as, he suspected, were all those who shared it. He lay down next to the serving boy. He kissed him gently on the forehead. They smiled at each other, despite knowing this was their death if discovered.

No servant of the Wintervale was permitted to love.

♢♢♢♢♢

The brief exchanging of barbed insinuations could not have lasted much longer in any case. Perhaps it was Isolde`s threat. Perhaps it was Arlgand`s mere presence. Perhaps it was the long-awaited release of ancient tensions. Whatever was the final straw, the illusions of courtesy fell away when Jerroth Salpheran stepped closer to Isolde, teeth bared in a feral snarl, and when Aidan immediately blocked his path, his arm instinctively raised to strike at the offending man.

"Attack my friend and I will break you," Aidan said before he knew it. "I repeat, attack my friend and I will break you."

For several seconds, nobody moved out of shock at this blatant hostility. Embla noted that the ostensible bodyguards were no more responsive than their wards. When the first of them broke out of their surprise and looked ready to lunge at Aidan, she blocked their path and smiled the horrific Risarvinni smile, the smile that was so terrible precisely because it contained no malice, the smile that promised agony with the same impersonal certainty as the rising of the sun.

Arlgand hastily spoke up. "Can we not fight now of all times? This is meant to be a peaceful-"

"Still your black tongue lest I have it cut out, Filthblood!" Salpheran roared to a worryingly strong murmur of approval. "A curse upon you for this insult! Not only have you sullied our history, but now our present as well. You bring enemies into our midst and speak of peace? How dare you even show your face beneath the stars? Naught but treachery and suffering has come from your House since the birth of Nurion! We true elves ought to have driven you all out, you and all those who defended you thereafter."

Arlgand almost retreated under the crushing pressure of hate surrounding him. Then he caught Brokk`s eye, and the curious faces the dwarf was making. It took Arlgand a moment to interpret it as a howling dog...or maybe a wolf. He knew then what he had to do. Beneath his skin, a power older than mortalkind roiled, and erupted in incandescent glory. Wings of starlight soared above his head and the elves of both Gloralion and Luvam fell back in awe. For the few seconds that he could sustain this display, Arlgand had their complete attention.

He needed sing only the first verse to hold it thereafter:

In Alustel there lived of old
Beneath the boughs awash with light
An elven maid with hair of gold
Where stars shone day and night

Surprising even themselves, it was the ranarim who took up the second, joining their voices to his:

No beauty grander ever graced
The lissome form of elf or man
The good reflected in her face
She spread throughout the land

Hesitantly, a fair number of the altarim, and even a few galan, allowed themselves to sing also:

The daughter of Balanuil
Wise patron of Al-Dustriel
Elfhouses great and greater
still T'were none in Alustel

"Thou art at risk of treason, Salpheran!" he spoke now in an archaic dialect, his rebuke all the more potent for the informal, disrespectful mode of his speech. "Thy childish squalling doth insult the throne. And so too do I chastise thee all! Hath thy minds been so fattened by indolence that the exertion of shame is beyond them? Accursed are mine dark cousins, descended of traitors indeed, but before them was a greater glory than any petty bloodline of thine could hope to boast."

Salpheran attempted to reclaim the advantage, but Arlgand could not be stopped.

"For now tis thy tongue`s turn to be still," he pushed on relentlessly. "Thou hast been presumptuous aplenty till now, skulking behind the battlements of thine insignificance, yet no longer shalt I tolerate such grievance. Mark me well, for I am the Lord Al-Dustriel, Hierarch of fallen Alustel, Guardian of Sarumvest-That-Was, and henceforth thou wilt show the respect I am deserving, princeling. And Salpheran! By mine inherited right, I demand redress for thy many prattlings. Wilt thou submit in humility? Or must we witness more Salpheran wisdom?"

Salpheran stiffened, his pride struck one too many times. "It is your humbling that shall be witnessed. I accept your challenge, Graysoul. I shall personally see to it. Nobody else can approach me in skill, and nobody else could crush you nearly as satisfyingly."

But foreseeing this, Arlgand had one last trick up his sleeve: "Being a priest of Tal-Allustiel, t'would be unseemly for myself, as a member of the church, to partake in such a dispute. I reserve the right to select a champion from among mine allies. It shall be Aidan of Zel."

♢♢♢♢♢

The setting for the duel on the following day was very different. The serious, almost sombre atmosphere of the garden ball was replaced by a palpable air of excitement in the great domed hall of Jerroth Salpheran`s personal residence. A large assembly of half-trained bards, which Isolde dimly recalled was called an 'orchestra', had even been brought in to provide background music.

Elves of all backgrounds mingled more freely here, eagerly exchanging opinions and even bets on the outcome. New and firmer alliances were forged, or old ones discarded, in the light of this unexpected event. Even the ranarim were no longer shunned, but welcomed into the fold for their unique outside perspective on this. For the first time since arriving in Belendale, Isolde felt comfortable with this honest political subterfuge.

"I still think you could win," she said to Arlgand. "You can use your magic. Yes, I`m sure there`s all sorts of rules you`re supposed to follow, but do you really think Jerroth will obey them?"

"Which is yet another reason why Aidan needed to be the one to face him," Arlgand explained. "Remember, Aidan is actually used to the thrill and speed of competition. I spent seventy of my best years cloistered in an abbey praying for my family, and Jerroth inherited his authority rather than earning it. Aidan can improvise and adapt upon the steps as he needs, but Jerroth and I only know the theory. It will also be more humiliating for him when Aidan beats him. He will have no choice but to join his entire strength to ours afterwards, which will make our presentation to His Majesty Baranwë all the more potent."

"Fair points, but I still think one of us should have gone with Aidan," Isolde half-acquiesced. "Jerroth and Wady Wah-Wah are no mere fair-weather allies based on what you told us. Isn`t that why Jerroth came over to us when I was having my fun?"

"Lady Valaromra is of House Tarniel," Arlgand said sharply. "When my ancestors crawled back - yes, crawled, on their bellies like snakes - crawled back to beg forgiveness for their sin, only three Houses did not call for their blood. Gloran, Cirana, and Tarniel. Were it not for their influence, we would not be having this conversation now. Her Ladyship will see to it that Aidan is suitably prepared, no matter what Jerroth might dream of daring."

Isolde was not especially mollified, but had accepted that she was not going to win this argument. Besides, that morning she had seen Brokk use a spell that even Isolde was wary of crossing. Anyone who sought to ambush Aidan would get an extremely nasty surprise. Based on what she had seen thus far, it would mean certain death to all but a very few, whilst Aidan himself would remain totally unharmed.

She had suspected Brokk of being strong enough to wield magic so potent as that, ever since he had ended the brawl at the du Rentes estate. Hints of his true power had been revealed earlier, but only then had Isolde really understood what Brokk might be capable of if he girded himself for war. Most of his magic these days was spent on interpretation spells, allowing them all to communicate properly with the Summervale elves. Before then, he had kept a reserve of 'basic utility spells' that apparently never needed casting.

Yet if Brokk decided to walk the path of the destroyer, Isolde had no doubt he could tear down a small city by himself in a day or two. Perhaps not one of the capitals, such as Elder Daven or Dragonspur City, wherein enough masters of the art dwelt to stop him, but many others would have little to defend themselves. It was a chilling thought. Small wonder Embla treated Brokk with such unfailing respect and courtesy.

Isolde`s thoughts were interrupted by the sudden quieting of the chamber. Audience and orchestra alike fell silent, and the former dividing, so as to witness the entrance of the duellists. As challenger, Aidan entered from the west, symbolic of anger and hatred barring the way to Faerie and peace; whilst Jerroth Salpheran entered from the east, symbolic of the pure and the virtuous rising to meet the obstacle on the path to enlightenment.

They wore opposing formal dress of a loose tunic with flowing ruffles and tight breeches decorated with loose cloth strips from belt to ankle. Aidan`s were colored a muted blend of greens and browns - perhaps a subtle insult in suggestion of his ranarim heritage - and Jerroth`s a brilliant white and gold with sunrise-red trim. Each had a pair of hard-soled black boots that just covered their shins, and had a symbol painted upon their cheeks. Aidan had naturally chosen the holy symbol of Heshtail the Merciful, his patron god, but curiously, Jerroth bore a mark that belonged to no god. Isolde noticed something particularly strange, however.

"Why are they unarmed?" she asked Arlgand.

He looked down at her in surprise. "Unarmed? They have their heels, don`t they? Oh. Wait, you thought-? Oh dear. Um, Isolde...I don`t know, ah, well, how to tell-"

Suddenly, the orchestra began to play. The strings wailed and the woodwinds howled, evoking a feeling of growing competition and struggle. In time to it, the duellists stamped their feet, the hardened soles of their boots against the floor making their own percussive tune as they approached each other. With elven grace, they then spun away, whirling madly as if forced apart by some mighty external force. When she realised what was happening, Isolde`s violently obscene outburst of confusion and shock was thankfully masked by the swelling music.

♢♢♢♢♢

The villtri cannot sing, but at the least he can fight, Embla thought approvingly as she watched the dance. His footwork is incredible. The way his hands moved there - ah, exceptional! For a moment it was as if his hammer was held in them. Not even the cat-lovers can match the elegance of aelfarrir in competition.

She turned her head slightly to the left, taking in Isolde, spluttering furiously to herself, and held back a laugh. That would have been entertainment enough even if Aidan had failed to impress, but as yet he had not only kept up with the full-blooded aelfarrir, but was actually drawing appreciative murmurs from the crowd. Despite their ignorance of the way of bloodletting, Embla could sense they had a faint grasp of it still, veiled behind the dance.

Aidan had the advantage of endurance, of course. He had walked in the darkness of the Occupied Kingdoms. He had fought the Flayer at Mavarra, and the plague horror of the Ruin Wood, and both the Unwolf and the Manyskin at Fisherman`s Solace. He had resisted submitting to the lich`s corruption in Dessingrove even as its spell skinned him alive.

But the other aelfarrir, Salpheran, had centuries on his side. Embla could see from his footwork that, unlike the others, he had done more than merely learn the steps and move on to something else. His poise was perfect, his ripostes irreproachable. The very first encounter between the two had given him insight into Aidan`s ability, and now he fought with speed and accuracy, abandoning the pressure of an aggressive advance in favor of inflicting countless immaterial wounds that would eventually cripple his opponent.

Embla could already see the ingenuity of this defensive strategy. Whilst Aidan hurled himself fully into each rearing swing, delivering each kick and pull with utmost passion, Salpheran countered with delicate steps that showcased his superior agility. Whenever Aidan moved such as to suggest a striking blow, Salpheran was already a step ahead of him at his exposed flank, forcing an indelicate retreat that even Aidan`s genuine battle experience could barely salvage. The impression was that of a powerful soldier simply being outsped by a more dexterous one.

Even the music was shifting in favor of Salpheran. At first, Embla had heard the strings predominate as Aidan impressed with the mere fact of his ability, but now the woodwinds were claiming seniority. Worse, more and more of the audience were stamping their feet in time with Salpheran`s own, empowering his tune at the expense of Aidan`s. Reinforcements were an ugly risk of any fight, and Embla knew there was only one way to even these odds.

She looked around for a very specific face in the crowd. When she spotted them, they flinched back, but understood the message, and disappeared from view. Before that aid could come, however, Embla would need to give Aidan a way to survive long enough to benefit from it. Considering her own combat experience, she decided the most effective thing to do would be to remind of a certain fact. It was not the most correct thing to do in the situation, and many looked at her angrily for ruining the harmony, but that was not her problem.

"I made you a replacement weapon, villtri!" she called out. "You bore another before we met."

Aidan carried on with the dance for several more steps before he understood. He laughed when the memory came back to him, and spun away from his opponent to adopt a curious stance - perhaps similar to ducking behind the cover of a tree or wall to gain a precious moment of breathing time. With a formal, stylised movement, he mimicked throwing aside the clumsy warhammer or greatsword that had been his weapon thus far...and extended his hands to Embla. She obliged, 'throwing' him the shield and mace that he needed, that had been shattered by the wild goblins of the eastern Zelish hills.

Salpheran was not the fool he appeared. As soon as Aidan had begun to divest himself of his clumsy weapon, the galan lord had rushed forward to maintain the advantage he was on the verge of losing. His chasse was the merest moment too late, and he hastily retreated to avoid a forcible dosado that would expose his back for longer than his enemy`s. Now, unfortunately, the two were practically evenly matched. That would simply not do.

You want help from your allies, do you? Salpheran thought, giving a certain look to specific parts of the audience as he spun around. Very well, then. I shall have to reciprocate in kind...

♢♢♢♢♢

The galan closed in from all sides, keen to please their representative in this contest. The only glimmer of these elves was the predatory look in their eyes, growing ever more eager as the music swelled to reflect their mastery. Several altarim joined in hesitantly, clearly feeling pressured by their employers taking to the floor. A thunder of clapping hands and stamping heels, despite not all of which having been made for this, rose up around Aidan, and he soon fell back into a purely defensive stance as the disorientating medley took its toll.

Salpheran could not resist a dismissive sneer at his faltering adversary, and spun about to share it with the others who had presumed to challenge him. To his dismay, they did not seem remotely concerned by their impeding defeat, and the immense savage who had forced all of these hated outsiders past the road Wardens was even looking outright smug about something.

That was when the harmonies of the orchestra collapsed into cacophony, and new shapes flitted among the dancers, eliciting cries of shock and fear as they passed by. A frightful ululation sounded from all around, and Salpheran could feel the formation breaking apart under this surprise onslaught. It took him precious seconds to see what had happened, and by then it was too late.

Whirling about Aidan, bullying back any who approached with gleeful whoops and reckless leaps, were his fellow ranarim. They were not entirely dressed for war, having shed their true armor in favor of more simple raiment, yet as a result, the impression they gave was now that of their primitive, almost barbarous, stereotype. Faces and limbs were garishly dyed, and trilled battle-cries only added to the effect.

No orderly dance for these children of the Luvam, but only a chaotic frenzy that told of centuries of watch along the borders of their forest. Some danced as if they were loosing arrows, their hands lashing too close to eyes and ears for comfort. Some paired up to harass individual dancers, hopping to and fro in a lethal asynchronicity that could not be defended against by any conventional step.

Not all of them shared the triumphant glee of the majority. Some were visibly fighting the urge to roll their eyes at this display, not least the severe blademaster of the ranarim ambassador. But as the Lady Shadria herself had spearheaded this attack, the rest were forced to follow. Though unhappy about Embla`s suggestion, delivered to her the night prior, she had nevertheless shared the same misgivings as to Salpheran honor - and had readied her escort to join the dance if Aidan required it.

For about a minute, they remained outnumbered, maintaining the advantage of surprise through sheer inertia. Then the orchestra began to reassemble. Its notes indicated uncertainty as to which faction was actually ascendant, but this matter was decided when the remaining altarim abandoned neutrality. One and all, they began to support Aidan and the ranarim, and a moment of discord with Jerroth Salpheran`s furious roar was the last, and failed, chance his side had.

Acknowledging his defeat, the humbled lord ceded the floor, but the dance continued without him. A madness had gripped the elves and they competed now for the sheer joy of it. For the first time in nearly fourteen thousand years, the three elven peoples of the light had come together in a true unity. Neither as individuals nor by chance, but as representatives of their nations and by choice.

Of all those watching, Arlgand was the most awestruck. His champion, his friend, a half-elf of the long-lost Sunder Elves, had bested a Lord of a Great House of the Summervale. That in itself was almost impossible to believe, yet to think of which Great House had been so bested, out of all those possible, was even more so. With this, in some small measure, House Al-Dustriel had paid recompense for its ancient sin...

♢♢♢♢♢

SIXTH INTERLUDE

Alustel, circa 3100 ER

Balanuil, patriarch of the Oldhouse Al-Dustriel, finished his customary evensong to the brightening stars. For a short while after, until the last of the echoing notes faded into the background noise of the forest, he remained kneeling on the grass, breathing in the scents of the deepening night. It was his personal ritual, rather than one of the many that were being developed by the priesthood, but that made it all the more important to him.

It was not that he had a dislike of this 'day' phenomenon, or its patron blazing Tanarus the Sun, but his heart belonged to soothing Sulis the Moon, and her countless star wards. He wondered what the younger generations thought of the Firstborn such as himself, who had witnessed the first sunrise. To them, it was part of the natural order, but Balanuil and others remembered the eternal twilight before.

Ah, my omniscient lord Tal-Allustiel, he half-prayed, half-thought. As was then, as shall always be, even the most extreme of surprises are but your way of teaching us to be prepared for greater changes to come. I thank you for this benevolence. I shall strive to be worthy of it.

He rose at last, and walked back to his home through the trees. Balanuil knew each one by name, and counted them as friends as dear to him as any of his fellow elhil. All life this close to his home was his responsibility. Not once, since before the gift of speech, had he strayed from this duty. The world was a big place, and the elhil had yet to settle it all, but from what he was seeing already, Balanuil doubted if the younger generations who went out to find new homes would share this dedication as much as the Firstborn.

By the time he emerged from the trees, Balanuil had resolved to speak to Arefor about it, knowing the gregarious man had remarkable insight regarding the minds of the young. As he began to ascend the gentle incline that was the last part of his return, he could see two people waiting for him at the top. One he knew and loved well, but the other standing a short way behind her was unknown to him. Balanuil did not begrudge such visitors as many a father did, though he would never deny feeling underwhelmed by the presentation most gave.

"Welcome back, my wiseling," he greeted his daughter warmly, pulling her into a tight embrace. "I trust your studies were fruitful? Excellent. I am happy for you. I cannot even begin to understand half of the mastery you show. You will leave us all far behind. And, speaking of behind, how worried must I be?"

"Oh he is just a friend, father," Talkana laughed happily, and the stars shone all the brighter for her merriment. "He might be one of the more promising suitors though, I will say that much. With some patient tuition, I suspect he will come to rival me. Come and say hello then!"

Blushing furiously, the mage stepped forward and bowed low. Balanuil smiled at this odd new custom which had recently begun to appear among the younger generations. It was obscurely pleasing to have courtesy so visibly shown. He reached over, lifting the man`s chin so that he could look into his eyes as the Firstborn did. Knowing no better and thinking it a mere trick of the light, he did not question the silvery flash that crossed behind the pupils.

"How are you called, young baliahir?" he asked. "I would know the House of he who might one day share my own."

"Eltamuel is my name," was the answer. "Though I am of no House. We are but simple folk, born from the third generation. You would not know us, or pay us any heed even if we were of Alustel. My forebears followed some beasts out to study, and kept travelling thereafter. I am the first to return."

Talkana smiled at him, then at her father. "I have chosen Eltamuel to be one of my embassy. Aside from his capable artistry, he is more familiar with the wider world than anyone else I can find in Alustel. I think those new short people in Liferock will respond well to him. In fact, I`m certain the eleven of us can establish proper relations in no time."

♢♢♢♢♢

Liferock, circa 3800 ER

"I am reminded of her with every caravan that passes through those gates," Balanuil said softly.

The ancient elf averted his gaze, feeling the familiar ache in his heart. The hand that gripped his shoulder spoke more than any words could of the great and lasting friendship he had with the other, and he smiled gratefully at Eltamuel. He had been spared whatever unknown disaster had struck the embassy by purest chance, for he had offered to escort a representative of the nuwagolm, the 'little people', back to Alustel to declare the friendship between races. But wondrous Talkana, and all nine of her companions, had vanished not long thereafter.

Had it not been for King Walin Oathmaker, the pact between elf and dwarf might have crumbled under suspicion of treachery then and there. Yet the First King of Liferock had brought the terrible news himself, entering Alustel alone and calling upon each of the gods by name to bear witness. With each god invoked, Walin carved a wound into his arms, vowing upon his own blood never to stop searching for an answer to this mystery, or to fail again in protecting guests from any ill.

His actions had been witnessed and his sacrifice accepted. As Walin spoke the last name, demanding Khuldul to give him the strength to carry out this promise, the wounds closed up. There were no scars, but instead glowing bands of light to mark the king thereafter. With such clear sign of divine approval, none would ever question his integrity or dutifulness.

Small comfort to Balanuil and the other nine families, however, for nothing yet had been unearthed. As the years wore on, they grew increasingly sure that nothing ever would be. As this conviction had waxed, the sympathy of elf and dwarf alike had waned. For few of the Firstborn had not yet made the enticing journey to Faerie, and being mortal, the memories of the dwarves had not lasted a tenth as long as their architecture.

Eltamuel alone still showed the same anger and dismay as he had on first hearing the news. He seemed to take the loss as a personal insult of sorts. It served to confirm Balanuil`s suspicions as to the nature of the friendship between Eltamuel and his beloved Talkana, and the tragedy bound them together more tightly than any bond of blood could.

"The truth will be learned, you must keeping believing that," Eltamuel insisted. "The secret will slough off its mysteries and bask in the glory of revelation. Those responsible, whoever is responsible, whatever is responsible, will be made to pay. Not just because it is necessary, but for daring to take her away from us."

Balanuil sighed. "I keep coming back here," he waved expansively at the magnificence of Liferock`s chambers. "I keep hurting myself with the memories. I don`t know why. But as much as it hurts, seeing what she accomplished...helps. I think. What with everything else going on in the world, I need...or maybe I want...no, I need to do this. I must remember that there is good, and hope, and life, and beauty yet to strive to protect."

"There will come a time when everything is in its proper place," Eltamuel assured him with grim certainty. "And we must all work hard to accomplish that. For my part, I have decided to take your advice. Yes indeed, my good friend. There is a very promising House from the western enclaves that I will provide my services to. Strange accent, but that is no consequence. I believe their name is properly pronounced 'Salpheran', unless I am much mistaken. Al-Dustriel needs more allies in these trying times."

♢♢♢♢♢

Talas, 5556 ER

Only a very few of the Great Houses could compete with the quality that House Salpheran provided, and Al-Dustriel was the envy of even those for the monopoly they had. Under the guidance of the sage Eltamuel, the tiny family had grown to become one of the finest producers of arms and armor in the world. Countless artisans and adepts had been drawn into their service, perfecting the art of imbuing war magic into items.

It was whispered in certain circles that Queen Celewen was debating in council whether or not to grant them the status of Great House, or even that the only delay was the ongoing war. In other circles, notably those of House Tarniel, there were no polite whisperings, but open commentary on such matters. As House Tarniel had only recently been elevated in status itself, this potential discourtesy was overlooked.

The union of Salpheran skill and Al-Dustriel might was especially important in these times. A decisive blow was ready to be delivered to the very heart of the massing Dark Folk, and the entire strategy hinged on this alliance coming through when it was needed. If it did not, the casualties incurred would be unconscionable, no matter how necessary to save the elven and dwarven peoples as a whole.

General Tavallar Al-Dustriel moved through the ranks, inspecting the assembled with clear pride. His discipline on the practise grounds had ensured this impeccable display. Row after row of perfect Al-Dustriel soldiers were awaiting his orders, outfitted with the very finest equipment that Salpheran could provide. The full military of that useful House was also present as an auxiliary force, though it was vastly outnumbered and expected to be needed only as reserves. As he walked among them, the general made sure to announce his pride in the soldiers and his certainty in their forthcoming triumph.

Here, at the hidden outpost of Talas, the unified armies of two hugely influential Houses awaited their time. It had all been orchestrated by wise Eltamuel, who was even present to witness the fulfilment of his plans. All those centuries, millennia in truth, he had spent in exhaustive labor to birth this glorious moment in history would not have been in vain.

If he had to name a downside, it was so awfully dull having to listen to these grandiose speeches instead of simply getting on with it all. He had needed to sit, or stand, through nearly a dozen just today from various commanders from Al-Dustriel alone. Over the course of the years spent working to this end, the count must have reached into the triple digits, and Eltamuel was getting ever more bored with them. As General Tavallar came to stand at the podium beside him, he braced himself for one last time.

Regrettably, the general proved his fears accurate with a long-winded and bombastic expulsion, before finally facing the architect of this event to speak more privately. "I am more than a little disappointed in cousin Dardenia, you know. She would have been much more useful here than hiding in that pass. If we do everything correctly, as we must, then nobody will actually reach her ambush. I cannot help but feel she is not taking our position seriously enough..."

Eltamuel yawned, clearly as bored by this tangent as by everything else the general had said until now. "I think perhaps now," he commented. "I swear you are even worse than old Balanuil for this sort of time-wasting. Do not forget that you still need to deal with him after..."

"Yes, yes, I know," General Tavallar interrupted testily, then loudly addressed the troops: "As you were ordered! In three, two, and begin!"

The slaughter of the Salpheran contingent commenced immediately. Taken by surprise, surrounded by the least likely of enemies, even these capable soldiers were barely able to defend themselves. Not one in every fifty managed to escape the treacherous Al-Dustriel. Some who looked over their shoulders as they fled fancied they saw a change occur to Eltamuel. Within the year, those of their number who had not died in battle willingly fell on their blades to end the nightmares.

♢♢♢♢♢

Arlgand and Jerroth, Lords of their respective Houses, stepped aside from the continuing dance. The former had Brokk at his side, the latter was accompanied by his squire Tommal. There was an uneasy silence between them for almost too long, and only millennia of a very singular shared history kept one or the other from walking away again. It was Jerroth Salpheran who spoke first.

"An Al-Dustriel victory again," he said bitterly. "Must Salpheran always fall to you?"

"Neither were siblings nor lovers closer than were our Houses," Arlgand replied. "If I am to inherit the sin of my ancestors, then you must inherit the ignorance of yours. Our victory came at the end of your blades."

"Nobody would shun me for spilling your blood this very instant," Jerroth mused. "But I would not so taint my fair Summervale by betraying an ally."

Arlgand nodded, recognising the point being made. Having lost the fight to Aidan, Jerroth had also lost face among the other nobility. The implications were far more profound than just that, however. Aidan was not merely of the Sundered, but a mortal half-breed. His victory over none other than the Lord of a Great House had outright humiliated the elite of the Summervale. If Jerroth refused to accept the result, his entire House would be shamed even more.

Once more, Al-Dustriel and Salpheran were allies, albeit unwillingly. This time, Salpheran brought with it all the power and influence it had managed to accrue in the thousands of years since it was betrayed, and Al-Dustriel was the weaker of the two. The specifics did not matter as such. The mere fact of the alliance would be enough to give tremendous weight to any argument Arlgand made before the throne.

Please, Tal-Allustiel, all-knowing one, my maker, Arlgand prayed now. Let this last enough to save whatever we can. As the Oathmaker once swore, so again shall I, that if by the spilling of my blood may some good come, that it must do so.

But aloud, he said, "You of course know there is a danger not of my House that haunts Gloralion."

Jerroth snorted. "Murders. A thing virtually unheard-of until this very year. We are covering them up as best we can, so there has not been any panic. Iorannor is showing his typical incompetence with a complete lack of suspects or even evidence. Were it not for his cousin personally appointing him to this task, I would be calling for his resignation. What do you have to say about them?"

Arlgand looked the question over to Brokk, who stepped forward. "I am, shall we say, a specialist in certain matters. As is my opposite among the gnomes, the currently-indisposed Sag Zammaz. We were invited here by his majesty to apply our expertise to this problem. The first murder took place before the invitations were dispatched, correct? Ah, by your face I see that is true."

"I do not know why the two human delegations have also come," he continued. "But I can theorise as to the ranarim. What is happening here will affect your Sundered kin soon enough, if it has not already, and Baranwë hopes for unity to save as many of both nations as possible. Perhaps he fears that divided, you will both be easier prey for that which hunts you."

Jerroth did not look impressed by that. "Our king should be concerned exclusively with his people, not those who abandoned us because they lacked the stomach to do what was necessary. If they are too weak to protect themselves, then our energy should not be wasted, but instead used to safeguard ourselves."

"I sincerely hope we shall not need to test that perspective," Brokk said carefully. "Because the fact remains that I have an idea as to what is happening and why, and only through working with us do you have a chance to protect the Summervale."

Jerroth grumbled under his breath, but knew he had no choice but to acquiesce to this further humiliation. He wondered what other insults would be coming his way in the near future.

♢♢♢♢♢

"...and given those breasts and hips, I remain absolutely convinced that Raunniel, old windbag Jerroth`s daughter you remember, had a little human in her. I know for a fact she had a very impressive human in her, but that is a different matter she is never going to forget. Neither will I. Quite possibly also the neighbors."

"What in the name of all that is holy is wrong with you?" Hamling asked Gareth. "Do you have no ability to understand how little I want to hear of your sordid escapades? Heavens above and Hells below, is the word 'privacy' foreign to you? Have you some incubal compulsion to speak relentless on matters that should be kept between those involved?"

"I can only assume elves are thin in every respect given how loud she became," Gareth persevered heedlessly.

Hamling gagged, shaking his head violently. "Bunga damn you to unfinished meals, I did not want that image in my head! Tybalt, Tybalt! I beg you, with all my heart, to try to sharpen this crudity with your axes. Tybalt! Hey, I`m trying to help us all here."

But the tiefling was deliberately not listening. He had known Gareth du Rentes the longest, and had learned quickly that much of what the peculiar human said was merely noise and should be treated as such. One of his sisters had a similar problem, and it was pleasant to be reminded of her through the meaningless babble. Privately, Tybalt suspected that Hamling was just missing his conversations with Arlgand. They were a strange pair, Proudfellow hositan and galan elflord, but Tybalt envied them their easy friendship.

He did not envy the friendship, if that is what is was, between Gareth and the last member of their group. Thinking of her now, Tybalt resisted the urge to look over, and felt a cold shiver starting that had nothing to do with the chill winter breeze. It was ridiculous. He was the Horned Khan, matricidal son of a cambion broodmother, whose hellish axes he still carried into battle, brother-captain of every tiefling born in the Wild Lands.

So why do I fear She so? he did not wonder, for he knew well enough.

Two horses to his left, as far away from him as possible, rode the infamous Farlandish bard Malevoxa. She had neither the raw magical might of Arlgand, nor the unique martial prowess of each of the other three men, but what she did have was enough. Try as he might, Tybalt could think of no other alive who had the personal enmity of the Lord of Wrath himself. That was frightening enough, but then there was also a certain other matter he rarely had the courage to face, for it was a matter of gods and belief.

He had been bred with intent to serve one very particular deity, the Darkest God, the Walker-in-Darkness himself. He had narrowly avoided this fate through an act of murder, that led to a rampage which killed many innocents in his hunt for others of evil persuasion to slay. Associating with evil was something he was desperate to avoid. And now Tybalt was riding into Belendale, the Summervale itself, at the behest of its king...alongside a woman he was certain offered more than mere lip service to the Death God Grlaarsh, but who ranked high in its depleted ecclesiarchy.

Tybalt knew that he knew very little. That was one of the main reasons he had left his siblings back in the Wild Lands to join Gareth. The chance to learn about what good was in the world was too alluring to resist, and the distant hope that he could bring some of those lessons back was what drove him ever onward. He had to hope, had to believe against all reason, that good could be performed by a lesser evil against a greater one.

If Malevoxa was a heartfelt servant of Grlaarsh, but fought against the greater evil of the Walker-in-Darkness, perhaps the wiser servants of good would be willing to overlook some of her excesses. If that was the case, perhaps Tybalt`s past would not count against him or his siblings. Perhaps redemption for his actions was still possible. He had to believe that.

If I cannot, what is the point of anything? Tybalt asked himself, and had no answer.

He continued to remain silent as they passed deeper into the Summervale. They were two days out from the city of Therolan, and would pass straight through to Gloralion. There, perhaps Tybalt would get his answer at last.

♢♢♢♢♢

If any beyond that chamber knew of its existence, less still who was within it, their confidence in their king would have plummeted. Baranwë accepted the risk, for some things were important enough to warrant that and more besides. He had met here with fewer than a dozen individuals over the course of his reign, but the time was swiftly approaching for this secret to become more widely known.

Of them all, it was his cousin Iorannor who was the weakest link in the chain. Even now, he fidgeted and squirmed in his seat, uncomfortable with this revelation. Baranwë would need to bind him with a oath to ensure his silence for a few days yet. It broke his heart, but it was necessary. The Anarian, impressively, had accepted the nature of this room without hesitation or surprise.

"I will do all I can," Tapio of the Seal tribe promised. "The four tribes have recently needed to renew themselves after an unfortunate truth. The demoniac Niklaus may have wounded our honor, but it lives in us yet. Short may be the memories of mere men, but eternal are the vows of the Anar."

Iorannor winced to see the king of Belendale, bow in thanks to a human. In turn, Baranwë was saddened to see this prejudice in his own cousin. He doubted that Iorannor even realised it was there, for he had expended so much time and effort in trying to rid himself of condescension towards altarim that anything more was perhaps beyond him, at least for now. Time enough to rectify that problem, if all went well.

'If' again, always an 'if' in the way, Baranwë bewailed this grim truth.

Yet there was no alternative. He had spent decades searching for one to no avail. Before then, he had wasted centuries seeking other solutions to the threat from the east, and been too late to send any aid. The Dark Occupation had swept over the kingdoms of men, cut off Belendale and Luvam from the outside world entirely, and plunged civilisation into four hundred years of despair. Baranwë did not know if it would have made a difference, but he blamed his indecision anyway. He was the Swan King, anointed by Tal-Allustiel to uphold the values of the First Days. There was nobody else higher than he to pass responsibility onto.

Baranwë knew the risks of acting hastily. He also knew the certainties of not acting at all until it was too late. Perhaps it was already too late. He had to believe it was not so, that with one desperate counterattack he could halt and even reverse this insidious assault on his people. He had no choices left to him that he was willing to take. So he had reached out to those people best suited to help him, and in doing so help themselves. People like this Anarian, Tapio, would be instrumental in saving the elves.

With the clandestine meeting at its end, Tapio turned - and again Iorannor made a face at the salt-smelling human showing his back to the Swan King - and spoke the words he had been told. The circle of symbols at his feet glowed softly, the air around him shimmered, and he was gone. The others were left in silence, contemplating what was to come and trying to come to terms with their roles in it all.

"Gird yourself for horrors, dear cousin," Baranwë said at last. "If it is to survive, the Summervale must obey the turning of the seasons, and for a time relinquish its title. A blizzard must enter Belendale. We shall endure. We shall be stronger for it. We shall weep tears enough to burst the Faerie River. On them we shall sail into the future."

TO BE CONTINUED