Blizzard and Belendale
By R. Krommydas
Feeling particularly rested, having spent the entire previous day in quiet meditation without leaving his lair, Ikit woke to the muffled sounds of urban excitement. This was only expected. The outlanders were due today, as were several other nobles from across Belendale, coming early to visit friends and family before the winter solstice celebrations. Ikit would doubtless be attending the most important events during this time, for all that solitude was what he most desired.
Unusually, he had little time to himself this morning. The ghosts of his murdered victims, bound to him yet kept at bay by the delicate lattice sewn into his chest, were gone. Scared off, for a time, by the far darker presence that had crawled its way from the depths. Ikit had no more fear of this creature than of anythindg else in this evil place, but that did not mean he needed to tolerate its closeness to him. It also had this irritating tendency to proposition him as though his soul was not already damned to the Hells.
"Selamat pagi, Ular-Penipu," Ikit said, almost politely, as he tried to excuse himself. "Saya mungkin tidak tinggal, karena saya sangat sibuk."
The not-elf laughed, seeing through his lie. "You are no more busy today than you were busy yesterday," he answered in flawless Kunese. "Unless you count feeling sorry for yourself, in which case I think you shall never rest again. Your skill with the Taropulauan speech is as good as ever. I remain very impressed by any who know it."
Ikit did not answer, but instead quickened his grooming. The languages he spoke were no business of a fiend`s, and he was especially averse to discussing that one. Nor was he so foolish as to be caught off-guard by a rapid change of subject. The fiend may gain nothing from learning about him, he reasoned, or it might gain something in the future. That was not a risk worth taking even if he had no personal reservations against discussing his private affairs.
After a few minutes of silence, Ikit finished his morning routine and left the chamber. Moving silently, he passed through the adjoining rooms - lesser servants at work here, too dull-witted to see beyond their tasks, had no idea of his presence - and down the winding stair to the level below. He knew the monster was following him. On those rare occasions when it emerged from the deepest pits of this ancient place, it would always hound him until at last he crossed the walls, or until it was called to some other duty.
Ikit knew perfectly well that it had no obligation to obey the summons of its ostensible master. That much had been easily discerned over the years he had spent here, but for whatever reason, it continued to act the part of a simple elf. As far as Ikit could tell, nobody else suspected a thing, not even the familiar which had recently appeared to the lord of this house. Whatever the goals of the fiend, it had no interest in deviating from them, not even to expose Ikit when he took up illicit residence within its territory.
The pair emerged from chill darkness into the bright sunshine of a fine Belendale morning. Even so close to midwinter, the air was warm, but not so much so that it did not refresh, and carried with it the smell of blooms and fruits. Truly, this was the land of unending summer. Knowing better, Ikit had already mourned its death, and now scaled the walls to look out at the corpse of a nation that did not realize its condition.
Next to him, among the branches of one of the garden`s many fine cherry trees, the fiend settled down to watch the passersby as well. It almost seemed to enjoy doing so, as if imagining sampling some exotic delicacy from their number. They were hidden from common view, but when Ikit saw one group turn the corner onto this street, he ducked back down at once. He decided to leave from a different wall today.
"I can feel the age of this part of Gloralion," Aidan commented uneasily. "This is the oldest, or maybe the second oldest, part in the whole city. The weight of millennia presses down on me. There is so much history here."
Arlgand patted his shoulder reassuringly. "It hits everyone a little differently the first time. Every elf can feel it. We are barely a mile from where Tal-Allustiel placed the first elf upon Núrion. Ten minutes, and several weeks to pass the royal guards, and we would stand on the shores of Melim. So it is said, anyway."
He looked over at the only other elflord in the company, who just barely was able to swallow a venomous remark. "I had the honor of making such a journey myself, a mere two centuries past," confirmed Jerroth Salpheran. "It was the time of my mother to make her Last Journey. She had been an esteemed advisor to the previous king. He wished to bid her farewell in person, and as her only child, I was allowed to accompany her into the palatial grounds as a familial witness."
His resolve faltered just slightly. "Of course, no such honor has been extended to all members of a Great House. Some have not seen those hallowed grounds for many thousands of years, nor ever will again if we of the just and righteous have our say."
He took a deep breath, clearly wanting to say more, but fighting the urge. Arlgand frowned for a moment, and the elflords looked away from each other so as not to exacerbate the hostility. Isolde let her fingers brush past a dagger, just to remind herself that she could bury it in a throat at any moment, but was simply choosing not to at this exact moment. She had not agreed to this idea, after all. In her considered opinion, it would have been far better to visit Arlgand`s family home first, and never go to their unwelcome ally`s at all.
Granted, this means I am a little closer to the really rich folks, Isolde consoled herself as they continued down the street. I can always pay those extremely charitable individuals a visit whilst I`m up this way.
At last, the group stood before the elegant gates, each emblazoned with an elaborate family crest, and watched over by half a dozen stern-faced altarim guards who promptly bowed low upon seeing their master. Out of habit, the adventurers appraised them as potential threats. To their complete lack of surprise, these guards seemed especially incapable. Four of the six were disturbingly pudgy for elves, and the other two were outright fat. Half the guards had a lazy eye. One actually had two lazy eyes, which combined with his pasty complexion to make him resemble some kind of fish.
Nonetheless, they each stared suspiciously at the adventurers - and outright glared at Arlgand on recognizing him - with all the arrogance towards the lesser races that they could muster. Foreigners, those stares said, were absolutely not welcome in this holiest of holy cities. Their presence of such was an offence to enlightened, superior sensibilities such as theirs.
"Welcome to my home," Lord Salpheran announced formally, but coldly. "Within its walls, I permit no aggression. Our mutual disagreements are suspended. You will be true guests. The truth of the matter will resume only after you leave."
With that, he led them through the gates into his gardens, and into the pleasant-scented shadow of cherry trees.
Baranwë, king of Belendale, noblest of elves, did not feel very wise as he reviewed his plans. There were so many moving parts required for this play, so many chances for a misstep or a misspoken line, that he feared failure more than ever before. All that remained was to wait until the grotesque performance currently underway in his beloved realm reached its climax, three nights hence, at midwinter.
"Defer all requests until after the solstice," he instructed, and officials scurried to and fro to make the necessary arrangements. "In particular those from our Sundered kin. Their embassy has been empty too long, and it must have life within it before any serious matter is discussed. Are my other guests being catered to appropriately? Elrath-wenher?"
After a few seconds, Grandmaster Elrath Dinan, Head of the Order of Historians and Archivist-General of Gloralion, gave a wearied sigh and answered in the sharp tones of a man who had far better things to be doing than speaking to one of the most revered and powerful rulers in the world. "The Sag Zammaz has been quartered in my Celoth as you requested. His coterie occupies some of our spare servitor rooms. I suggest you not presume to repeat such a request in future."
Baranwë nodded, ignoring the horrified gasps of the rest of his court at this rudeness. They were too young to know the value of such an ally, and he cherished this barbed input from one who long ago had taught him the very basics of literacy. Alone in the court, Elrath had the utmost confidence of his king, and was one of only three who knew all that Baranwë planned, including Baranwë himself.
"The sons of Daven have been seen too?" the king now asked of his other great friend, Lord Singol Birlithe.
The magelord hesitated but nodded. He looked distressed, and Baranwë let the uncomfortable silence stretch out until it was almost unbearable. He had extremely important reasons for all this, and it pained him to be unable to share all the details, but terrible decisions were necessary in these times.
"The humans are distracting guests," Singol admitted at last. "I was already sorting through reports of primitive and disruptive behaviors, particularly in the small hours, from the Anarian tribesfolk. Adding these southerners to my halls has caused no shortage of upset. My students have had their freedom of movement severely curtailed. My colleagues also formally protest the prohibition on divinatory exercises, and...and they 'request' an explanation."
For the first time, Baranwë grew stern, and the court quailed at the harshness of his voice. "Remind these inquisitives, Singol, precisely whose patronage reversed their ill fortune, and that requests are not healthy at this time."
"Would you speak so cruelly without Elebtale?" Singol dared, and Baranwë rose from the throne with something terrifyingly close to a snarl, his hand unconsciously going to the beautiful mithril crown he wore. "No. No, I had thought you would not. I will pass on your message, my king, in a way that is less hostile to our future."
The words seemed to mollify the king somewhat. He settled down with a pained grimace, lightly brushing a finger over his temples as if he wished to massage them but did not want to show more weakness than he already had. His eye caught that of Angallin Swankeeper, most senior of the priests responsible for maintaining the sacred pool and gardens beyond this mere palace. Angallin gave the slightest of nods, acknowledging the subtle but desperate cry for help. The frequency and severity of these events were increasing, and had been ever since Baranwë learned of the deadly threat hiding within the Summervale.
Angallin would perform a cleansing ritual later, in a more private setting, to strengthen the king and the connection to the crown he bore. As the unseen corruption spread, poisonous and hateful, so too had it touched upon the ruler of the kingdom it sought to cripple. A lesser man would have succumbed long ago, but Baranwë had endured this worsening torment now for nearly seventy years. The pain had focused his desires, sharpened his will, pushed him to overcome that terrible indecision which so often delayed his actions. Ironically, this assault on his spirit was what had encouraged Baranwë to so swiftly formulate a counter to its assault on his kingdom.
He knew needed to withstand another three days of this. That was all. After the solstice, it would no longer matter one way or another. Three days until he had to deliver the decisive counterstrike. Three days until all he had worked for would be resolved. Three days until the curse on the Summervale was lifted, or until he and Gloralion perished fighting it.
The Gloralion residence of Jerroth Salpheran, aside from being invaluable for the more important events in the Belendale calendar requiring his attendance, was also the permanent home of his closest family. Much like the man himself, they did not take kindly to the notion that their fortunes were once more entwined with those of a certain disgraced Great House whose very name was an unspoken curse.
"Of course I respect the wisdom of my beloved brother," grimaced Lady Vellentia Salpheran, nonetheless averting her eyes from the Graysoul polluting her home. "I am merely surprised at the extent of his generosity, and the speed of reaching such a point, to invite so many far-ranging guests all at once."
Lord Salpheran, pointedly ignoring her barbed use of the third person, explained succinctly: "The champion of Lord Al-Dustriel bested my footwork. Our banners again adorn the same pole."
Lady Vellentia flinched to hear that damned name spoken so openly, but understood there was no choice in the matter. Her attendants, less stoic than their mistress, gave little moans of disgust. The youngest galan, precisely as curvaceous as the impossible Marquis du Rentes had intimated, was ruder still - though not about the guests.
"You are becoming old and stupid like some mortal," scoffed Raunniel Salpheran, and her father growled a warning that she completely ignored. "You do realize I only publicly refer to you as 'Wiseman' now out of habit, rather than respect? I grow ever more certain that all your wisdom left on the ship with mother. She would never have put up with this nonsense if she had stayed."
Only the presence of the Graysoul and his mortal companions delayed Lord Salpheran`s wrath long enough for his squire Tommal to subdue it. With his characteristic model efficiency, the quiet little altarim suddenly appeared at his master`s side, intrusive enough to attract attention without becoming invasive. A small list, detailing various matters of sufficient import for this interruption, was quickly relayed. By its end, Lord Salpheran`s anger had cooled and the two ladies had managed to make perfunctory introductions to their curious guests.
With some hesitation, gradually disguised under the false courtesy so often practiced by the social elite, Lady Vellentia invited the guests out to the garden. It was understood that they would be lightly entertained there before the evening meal to which they were actually invited. It was also understood that whilst there, she would dissect their histories and even simple conversation for any hint of a pretext to expel them. When they were alone in the entrance hall, the lord and his squire turned their attention to one matter that had been left unspoken until now.
"Tommal," Lord Salpheran said coldly, and his squire listened with great care. "I am displeased for more reasons than our unwanted company. Where, exactly, has that blasted Barwael disappeared to again? I seem to recall his duties entail watching over my front doors. And yet on my return from Therolan, I find I have to open the doors myself. Worse still, they are unlocked and wholly unattended. Do I not pay the man for his services?"
"You do, my lord," Tommal confirmed. "Today I believe I last saw him wandering out into the garden. Not long before you arrived, in fact. He seemed distracted by something. Shall I begin an official inquiry into his conduct, in your name with all authority?"
Lord Salpheran nodded. "If you would, thank you Tommal. I want to know just what he is doing when he is supposed to be on duty. And who, if anyone, he is doing it with. I cannot afford any mistakes now. Not when I am so close."
The Salpheran dinner that evening was as strained as the introductions, though it soon became obvious that it was not the adventurers who made it so. Aidan was half-elven, and so was given much leeway for that alone. Brokk and Isolde both knew the customs of elven high dining, and so impressed greatly there. Embla struggled with this new etiquette, as well as undersized cutlery and furnishings by her standards, and was clearly a sufferance but only a minor one.
It was Arlgand, of course, that the Salpherans were barely able to tolerate at their table. After the first course was barely brought out without most of it dropping from the platters, the servants were immediately dismissed from the chamber. The indomitable Tommal brought the dishes in thereafter, apparently unfazed by the Al-Dustriel he was waiting on.
The normal flow of conversation was stilted and unnatural as well. It had not started well, with the Lady Vellentia`s enquiries into their past touching all too often on painful memories that none were comfortable discussing. Those of the adventurers were bad enough, but the ancient grudge between the Great Houses was by far the most palpable and unwelcome.
"Perhaps a more neutral discussion is in order?" Raunniel suggested cleverly, seeking to lower the ever-rising tensions. "Less about a past long behind us, and more about a future we have yet to reach. Such as your own, master Aidan. If it is not too private a matter, do you aim to return to the Luvam at some point? Even a paladin is entitled to retire and live out their allotted span in peace."
Aidan shifted uneasily in his seat. "I am conflicted. My family situation is a difficult one, and though I am always welcome, I do not always feel welcome. Besides, my lifestyle is not especially healthy. I have pains no medicine can touch, and no magic can heal. My burden to bear, but a reassuring one. Because of it, I know I did what I could to fight the evil that threatens us all."
"Paladins," snorted Isolde, though not wholly derisively. "Just surviving the Dark Occupation is hard enough without trying to fight it. I should know. The common folk, I`ll tell you all right now, no longer think about fighting it. They just want to outlast whatever horror is prowling around with their scent in its nostrils each day. And as soon as my family has smuggled everyone they can out of Zeland and into Kelerak, I fully intend to join them. I dishonor my race enough as it is."
"And yourself?" inquired Vellentia of Embla, increasingly annoyed that she had found no excuse to expel these guests all afternoon. "What great achievement do you work towards?"
"There is no achievement greater than serving my people," Embla said. "I am Aslaug. I live to protect the tribes, even from themselves. So long as the Risarvinnae endure and thrive after I am dead, mine will not have been a wasted life. On my travels, I have learned that they will have much to do in the years to come."
"Very well then, I will rephrase," Vellentia said snippily. "What is the point of your people? What is their purpose that you would die for them?"
Embla caught the tone in the woman`s voice, and did not care for it. However, giving none of this irritation away, she silently took another mouthful of whatever overly-flavored stew was the current course, considered her answer as she swallowed, and thought on what she knew of these weak creatures so far from her home. An old argument she had once had with Brokk, long before she had the vocabulary to win it, came back to her then. After it did, it was easy for Embla to decide to punish the disrespect by giving the most honest response she could.
"First, we are going to kill Vornoth."
The great oaken table split in half with the sound of a murdered forest. Food putrefied to mulch before it hit the floor. All warmth fled the room as fire and torches alike died, and a cloying darkness crowded in. A nausea, so intense it was kin to being stabbed, gripped those present. Most staggered back with a gasp or yelp as if burned. Isolde crumpled into a ball, moaning feebly, her chestnut-dark skin suddenly deathly pale. Embla blinked as the feeling struck her, surprised by this unexpected consequence.
Never before had the name of the Walker-in-Darkness been spoken in the Summervale. Not even at the very making of the world had such a thing been done, and now the Darkest God had gained the slightest foothold in one of the last realms unharmed by that evil. Then four lights challenged the approaching gloom, as the galan resisted. A combined cry sounded from their throats, calling upon Tal-Allustiel to give them strength, and the power shone forth from these heirs to the eldest age. The three faint glimmers of the Salpherans were extinguished almost at once.
"You were not invited!" roared Arlgand, and his light flared again, impossibly so and somehow brighter still. "You have no authority here, O Lightless One. Against you my House stands defiant. Whatever claim you presumed over us is lost. For my land and my kin and my friends, I reclaim my name from you. Behold, O Lowest of Gods! I, Ahathrim Dauglin Al-Dustriel, denounce you. Begone, trespasser!"
A churning despair descended on them, spiteful and condemning of the least thing, eating into their thoughts. Arlgand staggered under the force of the assault. Then a trembling hand, bony and spotted from age, reached up to take his. He looked down, and for a moment, the years had rolled away from the ancient dwarf offering him reassurance and support in this moment of need.
Brokk stood with straightened back and unlined eyes, broad of shoulder and arm, in toughened leathers designed for heavy labor but of no recognizable dwarven style, and the magnificent plaits of his beard were dark with the fire-retardant oils of an adept smith. A stone tablet, engraved with markings Arlgand did not wish to consider, was in his other hand. A sturdy headband held his hair in some check, a topaz glittering out from the thick curls, and runes of silver inlay worked expertly into the cloth.
"I am Brokkangalz Ashknarzglimmsun of Gabild û m," intoned Brokk solemnly, and his voice was that of a young man. "Gnostic and Foremost of Loremasters, timelost archmage, and accursed by greater gods than you. I stand with the Al-Dustriel against you now, and forevermore."
"Aodhaen, servant of Heshtail," Aidan joined in, resting his hand on Brokk`s shoulder. "Paladin. Son of Caitlin the Fair and Aurthelin zo Luvam. And it is not for my debt that I stand with the Al-Dustriel. I would stand against you at the side of my fiercest enemy."
From where she lay, Isolde waved feebly. "Fierce. Me. Stand. Grr."
The halfling was gently picked up by Embla and held close as the Erunian moved to Arlgand`s empty side and held him also. "Embla Aslaug. You know me. With your death shall my husband reclaim his crown. Until that day, you may fear, knowing that the Aslaug lead the hunt. Flee, False God."
The pressure continued to mount, for an eternity it seemed like, until suddenly it shattered. Arlgand`s light dimmed and went out as his energy was finally spent. The extinguished fires relit themselves, and warmth returned to the dining hall. Swiftly, the despair and nausea abated. More slowly, more hesitantly, all eyes turned to Arlgand and Embla, moving rapidly between the two their owners trying to decide which to question first.
It was, perhaps unsurprisingly, Isolde who recovered the quickest. "So do I still call you Arlgand, or are you this Halathala person or whatever now?"
From where he stood, peering through the doors at the confused scene before him, the excited and almost reverential look that Tommal wore went completely unnoticed. His lips moved in silent prayer. The epiphany was brought under control rapidly, but was absolutely not discarded. What he had seen had been enough to make a decision by. He would reach out at the appropriate time during the solstice.
"That name never did anything like that before now," protested Embla, as the others finally settled on starting with her.
"That name has never been spoken in this land before now," Aidan explained. "You risk bringing down the attention of the Walker-in-Darkness by invoking his name, and you decide to do so in Belendale where his influence does not yet reach. Had not yet reached. Inspired. Brilliant. Any other calamities you want to cause before the night is out?"
Embla shrugged. "Obviously your people lack the protections of mine. You are so far removed from Ylsmyr that he has forgotten you. I will do my best to remind him of you when I join him."
"What are you-?" Brokk began, then recalled the cosmological argument they had had many months earlier. "Wait, are you talking about your name? The second part, the 'Aslaug' word? The mortal counterpart of he who created all things. I thought you meant Dekk, at first, but your faith means a different god, one nobody else has heard of. I think it`s high time you gave us a proper explanation of this."
Embla looked visibly confused. "Did I not already say? After the derro in Arden, did I not tell you my status? Or did you forget?"
"Yes, yes, I remember you calling yourself a married woman," Isolde agreed. "But I thought was a ritualistic, ceremonial thing. I didn`t realize you meant it literally, Embla. Not that you actually believed you are married to a god, and not even a real one, but some kind of social delusion."
"We know the gods, Embla," she pressed on, ignoring the glare aimed at her. "The priests gain their magic from them. The paladins derive their strength from them. Even the arcanists can cast a spell to take us to their divine realm and speak directly to their celestial servants. If your Ylsmyr was a god, we would know about him. Where has he been hiding all this time if he is real?"
Calming down as she understood, Embla shook her head in despair at these ignorant fools. Even Brokk had not grasped the truth when last she tried to explain, but perhaps now that would change. She had grown used to the crude speech since then, and besides, was still under the effects of his linguistic magic. She could speak to them with perfect clarity in her native language, and the spell would translate so that they understood properly also. Embla felt very stupid that this simple solution had not occurred to her before now.
She sat back down at the shattered table, considering how best to educate these heathens. Few Aslaug ever gave much thought to exactly how the truth was to be spread among the ignorant peoples of the world, and Embla was no different. For the most part, it was simply assumed that explaining to them how the world actually worked would be enough to persuade the majority, and the heretics who argued could be suitably punished until they repented.
Embla had learned enough in her travels to understand that this assumption was severely underestimating the false faiths that Ylsmyr and his Aslaug would need to subdue. Indeed, this assumption was perhaps the least mistaken of all those the Risarvinnae held about the wider world. She was the first to journey so far from home, and though it shamed her to make this admission, Embla knew that her fellow Aslaug had severely misled the tribes in many ways.
And as she was still so far from home, she could not confer with the others to decide on the best way to change this. Embla would need to settle for her gut instinct, and it suggested an extremely unorthodox solution. She began to teach her friends, and incidentally their three Salpheran hosts, about reality. She did so as if they were Aslaug-to-be, children chosen to exemplify and safeguard the Risarvinni way, no matter the cost in blood. The same way as had been taught to her years ago.
Embla knew that it had to begin with the basics. There was no point trying to explain the all-encompassing core of reality and the intricate interplay of its outer selves without first covering the basics. She felt especially fortunate, as there was no guarantee that everything currently available to her as a teaching aid would have been there had she tried to explain at any other time.
She started by naming the seven pairings. "Light, dark. Heat, cold. Solid, air. Life, death. Sickness, health. Flesh, thought. Man, woman. You know what each of these things are. You understand them because they are paired. If you did not know one, you could not know the other. Opposition is necessary for anything to be."
As expected, she saw Brokk realize the paradox immediately. It took most Aslaug several years to scale that peak of understanding. None, to her knowledge, had done so before their twelfth year. Of course, Brokk had the advantage of many years and immense skill with the Clever Craft, but it was nevertheless gratifying for Embla to have her lesson learned so quickly. The others, she suspected, would need to be told it if she did not want to wait months for them to work it out.
Embla moved on. "All things are made of opposites in varying combination. Consider yourself. You are just flesh. Flesh in many combinations of opposites is necessary for you to be yourself. Bones must be hard, but a skull must be harder than a finger. Organs must be soft, but a heart must be stronger than an eye."
Now came the part many struggled with at first. It required a leap of logic that the younger Aslaug were not always able to make immediately, and had to take the unsatisfying route of accepting the explanation of the elders on faith. Later examination, however, and the occasional intelligent question as they grew older, would always reveal the underlying truth to them. Embla prided herself on being one of the very few in her generation of Aslaug to make the leap immediately. It had certainly elevated her in the eyes of her peers thereafter.
"This upended bowl will not right itself," she indicated the item in question. "I must choose to right it. I think, so my flesh acts, so the bowl is righted. Without thought, the bowl would remain upended. Without thought, the clay of the bowl would not have been quarried, or fired, or painted. Yet without flesh to act, the thought to do these things could have done none of them. All things that make up the world, every opposite in their infinite combination, change as they do because of thought acting on and through them. This thought-"
She held up a hand, forestalling the protest she could see rising in Aidan`s eyes. From her perspective, Aidan had the unique combination of temerity to interrupt her and education to do so worthily, but it was not appropriate to deprive the others of further enlightenment just yet. Besides, she was very nearly at the cusp of her lesson.
"This thought is Ylsmyr," she revealed to them. "Ylsmyr is the thought of all combinations that is the flesh of the world. When he thinks, the world changes in response. But Ylsmyr does not always think as he should. You see this with a sickness that leads to death, or a heat that ruins forge-metal, and in all else that is wrong but not right."
"That is why Ylsmyr thought of we Aslaug, the opposites to him. Because you remember that opposites are necessary, you will see why this was. Ylsmyr is one, we Aslaug are many. Ylsmyr is a man, we Aslaug are women. Ylsmyr is ever-living, we Aslaug are death-bound. Therefore, we Aslaug have a duty to the world as much as Ylsmyr does. When we think, we act, and the world changes in response to us. Just a little more slowly than to Ylsmyr."
Embla congratulated herself as she finished. There was more of course, so very much more that she wanted to teach them, especially Aidan and Arlgand. Not just because she pitied their ignorance, but because it would serve to prove that even the most ardent heathens could be converted to reason. As her students took in the lesson, she thought back on others that she might give them, and on those long-ago days when her eyes had been opened to these same cosmic truths.
When first the tiny girl looked up at Jhurro Aslaug, she bared her teeth. She received a split lip for this impudence. She also received a lesson never to make a threat she could not carry out. The lesson did not stick, for their second meeting begun the same way. Jhurro broke her nose on that occasion. On the third, the girl mumbled strangely throughout her long sleep, and did not wake at all until the onset of spring, when the first Aslaug who knew healing magic could actually reach the isolated tribe. She had been fed and watered through a hollow reed slid down her throat for two months.
The children of the tribe clustered around her afterwards each time, awed by this holy dedication. Though the deeper mysteries of the universe were, by tradition but not law, the provenance of Aslaug, they knew enough. Pain was a wrongdoing of Ylsmyr, one which the Aslaug would need to suffer through if they were to remake the world into what Ylsmyr intended. The adults instead praised the mother for birthing such a fine child, and in the same breath questioned her sanity at pushing her daughter towards such a trial.
Jhurro had ordered her movements to be restricted years earlier. A seer of the Blue Lichen Pit tribe had divined that the giant`s club had caused part of the skull to fragment internally, but being bereft of any healing magic, could not repair the damage. By the time the hunters returned with their kill, Jhurro had lost all speech and nearly all impulse control from the unrelenting pain. For the safety of all, she recused herself to the very edge of the tribe, only to be approached by other Aslaug or in the most extreme of emergencies.
Then Venas had her daughter, and saw that she had aptitude, and pushed her to learn from the most terrible of all living Aslaug. Such a decision could only be madness, but some strange brilliance lurked therein. The other Aslaug who often detoured to visit Jhurro, mostly to make sure she was still posing no threat to the tribe, found this need greatly reduced. Several stayed to observe the curious interactions, and were impressed by what they saw.
One morning, the girl vanished. For three days, there was no sign of her. Jhurro was at once questioned and found blameless by the other Aslaug. Then the girl returned as suddenly as she had left, now wholly exhausted, dragging a dead warhorn yearling behind her. The tribe gathered in silence, watching the struggle up the mountainside. None gave insult by offering help, for she had chosen this.
The hunted yearling must have been three times her weight, if not more, but at last she dropped it before her teacher and began to butcher the carcass, despite her weariness. Jhurro searched the onlookers for those that were needed. In the eyes of her fellow Aslaug, she saw understanding and acceptance and pride.
The most important of the three requirements had been met whilst the girl was with her, for in her unthinking rage she had beaten the girl to the very boundary of life and death, and in doing so been distracted from anything the rest of the tribe might have done to provoke her. Jhurro knew what she had to do. It hurt her more than anything else ever had, but all pain was temporary. If nothing else, that was something she had taught the girl.
Placing her hand on the girl`s head - who continued to butcher the warhorn as if nobody was there, as if she and the carcass were all that were in the world - and she named her, speaking aloud for the first time in nearly fifteen years. Jhurro fought through the pain tearing through her brain to make her speech clear, to honor this moment appropriately. The urge to crush the head beneath her hand rose up, and somehow she fought down the impulse, reclaiming mastery of her body one more time.
"You are worthy," she declared to the former girl. "I marry you to my husband Ylsmyr. You are Aslaug now. You are 'Prime Female' forevermore."
It was a very old name, a name that reached back almost as far as the memory of the tribes themselves. Few had ever borne it, and fewer still since the dawn of the Aslaug. They did not give such powerful names readily. Jhurro was perhaps the only living Aslaug who would even dare. Lesser languages might crudely translate it as 'woman'. To the Risarvinnae though, it was merely Embla.
When she was fifteen, Embla joined grim-faced Urdr, legendarily cold-souled even as a young child, to officiate the forming of a new tribe. Excavations along a useful lead seam bordering a ruined outpost had finally finished, and the condition of the ruins was deemed suitable for habitation. Each tribe within six months` journey had anywhere from three to five people selected for this, and the last of them were due to arrive in a few days.
Under normal circumstances, ten or more Aslaug would be needed to determine the qualities and heritage of the new tribe over the course of several months. This was as much to ensure it had the best possible chance of establishing itself permanently in a location as well as to reduce the impact of the lost members on their original tribes. Over the course of many hundreds of years, this had been proven many times over to be the best way of managing expansion.
Typically, Urdr had done it all by herself, without discussing the matter with anyone, and simply appearing before the chieftain of each tribe to instruct them as to which of their fellows was going to be sent where and when. Because it was Urdr, nobody questioned her. Everyone knew that she had already worked out all the necessary details quicker and better than any group could have. Over the course of nearly a full century as Aslaug, she had proven many times over to be better than the best ways normally used.
The chieftains knew there was the option to delay by insisting on their right to arbitration. They also knew that the Aslaug called in for this would take several months to come to the same conclusion as Urdr, at which point the terrible old woman would have every right to punish them all for defying her and wasting her time - including the other Aslaug. She intended for this to be her last contribution as Aslaug, and would not tolerate such petty inconveniences like dissension of opinion. Naturally, Embla had insisted she join Urdr for this.
For the most part, the occupation of the outpost went as well as expected. Water from a source above the lead mine was piped down to avoid contamination. A few walls that were not up to standard were torn down and replaced by more respectable granite blocks. An infestation of giant spiders was summarily harvested and their apparent lack of any local foodstuffs was commented on (from the following summer, the annual swarm of giant silverfish became a nice addition to the larder).
And long before anyone had settled into the area, never mind become familiar with it, Urdr started marrying them according to her pre-calculated system. There were the usual halfhearted grumbles here and there, mostly from the younger and more promiscuous individuals who were relatively new to this, but the importance of these early couplings was known and understood. Provided the first children were born to the proper pairings, the next few generations would be significantly safer from any risk of inbreeding.
Embla married a few couples here and there, as Urdr directed, but for the most part she wanted to watch and learn the intricacies of establishing a new tribe. She asked many questions that clearly irritated the more experienced Aslaug, not least because most of them required little more than confirmation of what Embla already knew. Nevertheless, Embla did not think she had made herself such a nuisance that she deserved any kind of punishment. Then Urdr made a particularly frightening decision.
"Embla Aslaug. You insisted on being here. Assume I am not."
And when Embla tried to protest that she was not ready for that kind of responsibility, Urdr cut her own throat. As a means of forcing the matter, it was possibly the most intense and effective that Embla had ever witnessed. Urdr died before the tribe was officially named, or before the men fought for the position of chieftain. Embla, left in charge of these immensely important affairs, had no choice but to finish what Urdr started without her guidance. The respect she gained for being entrusted with this duty nearly made up for the headaches she gave herself trying to complete them.
"And how would you know if any agreement was reached?" Embla asked, and flinched away from her mother`s raised hand.
"I held you for nine months and cut you loose myself, girl," warned Venas with a broad smile of teeth. "Aslaug older and wiser than you go to mothers to ask these questions, and they listen. It is how Ylsmyr ensures you remember your duty. Not that he always does the best job of it, but you cannot expect that from such a man, after all."
Embla clicked her tongue in irritation. "Do you have to denigrate my husband every time I visit? He works hard."
"And I have never claimed otherwise," Venas said smugly. "I, like most women, and perhaps even many men, would simply prefer him to be a little more consistent. If everyone went through this from the same age until the same age, and felt the same throughout their child-bearing years, you would not hear us complaining. There is no balance to it."
Embla was forced to agree. She had visited the Under Two Bridges tribe only the year before in order to deal with an ongoing marital dispute, and decreed that Thrar must finish raising at least the oldest four of her children before she had more. Marital pleasure was an important gift from Ylsmyr, but Borr had convincingly argued that his wife was more eager to partake in that than in helping him with the painful work of raising them properly. That Thrar was pregnant again in her sixth decade and Borr had lost an arm to ice wolves as a boy had helped his argument immensely.
For contrast, Embla needed only look to her mother. Venas had birthed five children, each to a different father she had sought out specifically for their achievements. She carefully spaced out the encounters, three years passing between each, to give herself an optimal timeframe for each child. Then, astonishingly early, barely after her thirtieth year, her blood had stopped coming. Venas said it was a reward from Ylsmyr for her hard work as a mother, and that she could now enjoy pleasure instead of considering duty.
The typical Risarvinni experience lay between these extremes, but there were certain rare outliers even so that had Embla question just what Ylsmyr intended with this whole affair. One of the defining characteristics of womanhood was the ability and right to bear children. Certainly the Aslaug had the restriction of chastity due to marital fidelity, and thus had to be mothers to the tribes instead of their own children, but for the most part a Risarvinni woman looked forward to the opportunity.
Their time was marked out clearly for them, and was deliberately made uncomfortable or even painful to be properly paired with the opposites that could accompany the whole process - from the pleasure of impregnation to the satisfaction of successful parenting. A very few women, interestingly nearly always Aslaug, never experienced this demarcation, however.
Is this another of Ylsmyr`s mistakes that we must correct? Embla had wondered. Or is this something he intends for a reason beyond my understanding?
She was three months from the next nearest Aslaug who might have an answer to this, and by happenstance had broached the topic to her mother before making the journey. To her surprise, Venas had not only confirmed that others had wondered the same thing, but that there was not actually an argument about it any longer. Embla had struggled to get any further details.
"If I apologize for getting upset with your constant criticism of my husband, will you please tell me?"
Venas let the question hang in the air for a while, idly enjoying the power she yet held over this fearsome daughter of hers. As it was not mean-spirited, and she still feared her mother`s quick hand as she never had Jhurro`s, Embla waited patiently. Then she realized what was required, and sighed in exasperation.
"I apologize for being upset with your criticism of my husband," she said.
"It is a gift of Ylsmyr," Venas answered her immediately. "One of the finest he gives. When Ylsmyr never gives the gift of blood to a woman, it is because he intends something far greater for her. He intends for her to be mother to something vastly more important. Of course, I need not say why this does not always come to pass."
Embla knew. An opposite pairing, again. Yet this time, it was the fallibility of mortals which was causing interference. Because they erred in their judgements, Ylsmyr`s plans never came to fruition as often as they should. She promised herself that she would not make such a mistake herself. But if Ylsmyr wished for Embla to have a greater importance than that of even other Aslaug, what might it be? Then it came to her.
The Threebows is staying with the Ashen Pillars this year, Embla thought to herself. His people have travelled north of the mountains. I will have him direct me to the lands of the Pretender. It is time we learned more about the lands beyond our own.
Jerroth Salpheran had never heard anything like it in his life, and did not care to be exposed to such madness again. He had listened carefully for the first few moments, then immediately dismissed the rampant stupidity of the heathens as a problem for another day. All that mattered could be summed up as such: his home had been attacked, his family needed defending, and an Al-Dustriel had stood where he had fallen. This demanded a response, and as much as it galled him to admit, there was only one reasonable response.
As the adventurers began to squabble with each other, he ushered Vellentia and Raunniel out, urging them to seek shelter in the shrine and instead send in the servants to clear up the mess. Raunniel, stubborn as she was, tried to argue at first. Thankfully, Vellentia dragged her out by the arm, hissing dire threats into her ear. When they were gone, Jerroth caught the Al-Dustriel`s eye, and stepped to one side.
Privately, he said what more publicly he would not. "You have my gratitude, if not my friendship. Once again you have showed that the old strength is still in you, and in your allies too."
The Al-Dustriel, looking a little sickly after his exertion, tried to smile. "I welcome your gratitude, Salpheran. Your friendship, of course, is a gift I do not expect to receive."
"Yes, well, I need not be your friend to extend a certain invitation," Jerroth said carefully. "A lesser man might pretend that he does not owe a favor for something like this. House Salpheran honors its debts. Will you accept this means of repaying it, at least in part?"
The Al-Dustriel frowned, somewhat confused. It was incredibly rare for the offer that Jerroth was making to actually be made, and almost unheard-of in this way, so he wasn`t surprised that the Al-Dustriel did not understand at first. Being granted an invitation to a closed assembly was something that typically took centuries to earn. Even members of a Great House had no real advantage.
"I am truly honored to accept this gracious offer," the Al-Dustriel answered, as Jerroth knew he would. "But my name will doubtless give your peers pause. That they will accept your word for this evening`s events will not matter if I cannot stay among them long enough for your word to be spread."
"That is taken into account," Jerroth admitted. "You were represented once before by a champion. If he agrees, will you send him in your stead, at least for the first assembly? We meet next tomorrow at dusk, so you should work on him quickly. You understand, of course, that they will see him as vulnerable, easy to exploit and pry for information, so will underestimate him and allow his presence."
The Al-Dustriel`s expression became coldly neutral, but both knew this was merely a prelude to acceptance.
"You want me to what?" Aidan exclaimed.
"Take my place tomorrow evening at a meeting of one of most prestigious secret societies of Gloralion," Arlgand answered smoothly. "Lord Salpheran will explain to the other members why he owes us, as represented by myself, so much and thus start securing more allies for whatever Brokk wants. But they will not accept me for long enough, so I need someone of elven blood who they will allow, no matter how low their opinion of that one is. Half-elven and Sundered though you are, they will still think more of you than they do of me."
Aidan spluttered, caught so off-guard by this ludicrous plan that words had abandoned him. He looked at the others for help and saw no help there. All three were nodding, approving of this madness. In their eyes, Aidan saw the belief that because this had basically worked the last time it was tried - for all that his duel against Salpheran had nearly ended in abject failure - there was no reason not to try it again.
Just because he could see their logic did not mean he had to share it however. Especially not when it was sprung on him in this way. Aidan had somehow just challenged the least fragment of the Darkest God`s awareness, forcing its way into the hallowed Summervale, and felt as though he needed a few years to recover from the shock. People thought that paladins did not feel fear. Nothing was further from the truth.
Indeed, they felt it more keenly than others, because they could not block it out. Fear is the mind-killer began one of the ancient creeds, and those gripped by gear could not act with intent or clarity, but merely flee or weep or beg or faint. Paladins had no choice but to feel every moment as though it was the first and most intense, and could not submit to the mind-numbing embrace of terror even if they wished to.
This entire situation was too surreal for Aidan to want to consider anyway. Here he was, a simple half-elf from the Luvam, a paladin of Heshtail walking along the streets of Gloralion itself with an Al-Dustriel he was somehow starting to consider a true friend. He had just heard one of his closest allies speak about killing the Walker-in-Darkness, about killing a god, as if it was no more difficult a task than clearing out a camp of bandits.
"You seriously cannot exp-" Aidan began, stopping short when the seven figures emerged from the darkness, blocking their path front and back. Their robes were utterly black and utterly unmarked, but for the suggestion of armor beneath the cloth, and their hands hovered warningly close to their blades. The tallest, face obscured by a deep hood, pointed straight at Aidan and beckoned.
"Follow," Arlgand urged him. "If we see one, there are ten more hidden. The Shadow Walkers are beholden to no House, Great or otherwise, and will not do this without extremely good reason."
Aidan groaned, waved his friends back - and then again when Isolde only sheathed one dagger, and waved the other threateningly in the direction of the tall Shadow Walker - and stepped forward as though going to his own execution. As one, the Shadow Walkers vanished back into the night, and the tallest of them swept Aidan up into a cloud of darkness that was deeper still in the brief moment before it vanished.
Afterwards, Aidan could never quite explain how he made the journey. Images of impossible structures and geography, dimly illuminated though all swaddled in concealing and disturbing mists, surrounded him. Every step he took seemed to take him many miles at once but place him right back where he started. Then he was thrown out of this strange shadowy realm and back into the world of life and light again.
He found himself standing in a small circular antechamber, not so much as a carpet or tapestry covering the very obvious magical runes carved over every visible surface, and torches burning with a flame that did not consume them. There was a heavy stone door at his back, already closing behind the Shadow Walker that had brought him here. But none of that was important next to who was standing in front of him now.
"Speak the three names of the Firstking, the Shipwright and the Returned, skipping every third syllable," ordered King Baranwë curtly, and, too bewildered to question further, Aidan obeyed.
His head swam, and Aidan struggled to keep his balance, for his surroundings had instantly changed. He had experienced something vaguely like this before, when using a teleportation circle back in Kale, but then the transition had been of a more muted, gentle kind. Here, he was violently thrust between locations with no regard for his mental safety, and by the time Aidan had collected his thoughts, the elven king had made the transition also and was pushing him forwards.
Aidan had a vague sensation of the chamber he was now in - spacious and empty, carved out of a single vast stone block with no apparent way in or way out, and marked throughout with the same incomprehensible sigils as the room he had arrived from. But where he was in relation to anything else in the world was beyond him, and he knew the purpose of this place was to be undetectable and impenetrable.
At the other end of the chamber stood a imposing elflord, curiously attired in the functional heavy cloths and leathers of a traveler. In front of him was a simple wooden bench, on which a longsword and a gorgeous silvered bracer were laid out. Aidan felt an appraising gaze rest on him, and then a powerful grip on his shoulder, pulling him around to look the king in the eye.
"Take the sword, wear the bracer," Baranwë ordered the befuddled Aidan. "You may fight to injure but not kill. After thirty seconds, the bracer will heat up immensely. End the fight. I will heal the burn personally. Do you understand me?"
Aidan managed a garbled acknowledgement, which was apparently enough for Baranwë, as the king stepped away to observe silently alongside the mysterious elflord. Aidan had barely slipped the bracer onto his arm, noting with discomfort the way it shrank to fit him, when another elf, this one a clear warrior in polished chainmail, came through the teleportation circle into the chamber.
"Senior Guardsman Drannith of House Cirana," King Baranwë announced, and the warrior drew his sword to salute Aidan. "Thank you for agreeing to this test. You may begin."
At once, Aidan found himself in another duel, but this time one of weapons instead of footwork. The first thrust from his opponent he parried and countered without even thinking, drawing a neat red line down the warrior`s sword-arm. Obviously surprised by the immediate injury, the warrior reeled back, neatly opening himself up to a bull-rush that Aidan threatened but did not perform. The king of Belendale had ordered him to last thirty seconds in this fight, not thirteen!
Instead, he sidestepped and swung the flat of his blade against the warrior`s legs, tripping him. As he moved back into position, Aidan parried a wild swing (more for effect than self-preservation, as it was clearly going nowhere near him), kicked the sword from the warrior`s hand, jabbed him lightly in the ribs to leave a bruise under the armor for good measure, and then began to scream as the bracer he wore started to burn.
Immediately, the elflord overseeing this bizarre fight called a halt, and went over to speak with the humiliated guardsman whilst, true to his word, King Baranwë cast a healing spell on Aidan the moment the bracer was off his arm. The paladin kicked the cursed thing away from him reflexively, biting back a vicious diatribe that would be unseemly in this setting.
"Another failure," the king said angrily. "Thank you, Senior Guardsman Drannith, you have helped with the defense of Belendale this night. House Cirana is blessed to have you. Now, go. Have those wounds seen to."
The guardsman stood up stiffly, picked up his sword - with a muttered grumble towards Aidan for disarming him so easily - and, bowing to the three, spoke the activation phrase and vanished. Aidan looked around him in confusion, even more perplexed by the madness around him than ever before. Now that it was just the three of them, the king looked even more upset.
"How long has that man been in service?" he demanded.
"Three hundred and seventeen years of active duty," the elflord answered serenely. "He has demonstrated flawless technique in every performance and has consistently excelled from the first day. I believe my father had him promoted in recognition of his skill...fifty and a few more years ago. Give or take a month. He will be eligible for the Swan Medal of Distinguished Aptitude if he wins two more competitions."
"Do you see the problem here, Aidan of Zel?" Baranwë turned his merciless interrogation around. "That warrior you bested so effortlessly ranked highly among the professional soldiery. I have an entire army far less skilled than he, and even all the Great Houses combined may boast only a hundred or so of equal ability. What am I supposed to do with that against the Wintervale?"
"There is still hope," the elflord objected. "We simply need to force an improvement. It can be done. Look at young Tharivol, for instance. He has come so far in so little time, the same as any mortal. Such as our half-blooded cousin here. Come, stand."
"My thanks," Aidan murmured, taking the elflord`s hand and rising unsteadily to his feet. "Uh, forgive me, but I am at a disadvantage here, my Lord...Cirana, I presume?"
"House Cirana is right, but forget the 'lord' business," came the response. "These days I am just Valanduil."
Aidan`s knees buckled and he went straight down to the floor again.
"Aidan, you know I take nothing you say seriously," Isolde said bluntly. "Let this be the exception that proves the rule. What in the Hells does this mean?"
"It means that His Majesty has perceived an unspoken secret," Brokk answered. "Exposing yourself to danger, struggling desperately to overcome it, knowing that at any moment your death could come, and that it is likely irrevocable...that strengthens a person more than any amount of mere practice. The odds are always against you. Gamble with your life, however, and you might win the experience of a dozen."
Arlgand shifted uncomfortably in his seat, sensing the truth of this, and hating it. He had suspected the person behind the Shadow Warriors coming for Aidan, but the reason had eluded his wildest speculations. Now Arlgand was wishing he had remained in ignorance, because this was horrific. And again, only furthering the weight of evidence against the general sanity of adventurers, the others were taking this in their stride! They were not even questioning some of the strangest aspects of the whole scenario.
"But why would the king make use of a cursed bracer to test this...hypothesis of his?" Arlgand asked, trying to resolve at least one of these in his head. "What would be the point of scalding someone in this way?"
Brokk shook his head. "That bracer was perfectly ordinary. Either the king or Valanduil used their magic to heat the metal to make it seem as though it was cursed. More specifically, to make it seem like a failed attempt at a very potent enchantment. That way, whoever they used to test Aidan`s sword-skill would not be upset by their defeat, since they would believe it to be the result of a temporary surge in ability provided by a defective magical item. It`s a simple spell and-"
"-and a much simpler deceit, as well," Isolde confirmed. "One of the easiest ways to trick a professional is to hit them very obviously in their pride and pretend that their competence was greater than yours. By the time they figure out what you actually aimed at, you are long gone."
Embla chuckled to herself, clearly amused by the whole thing. Aidan muttered something presumably foul under his breath, rubbing his arm again as if to console it for having been harmed earlier. Doubtless the memory of the pain was still fresh in his mind, Arlgand realized, and the shock of meeting two of the greatest living elves cannot have helped settle his nerves following the...event at the Salpheran residence.
"Which is another thing," Arlgand suddenly spoke aloud. "This cannot be a coincidence. It really cannot. There are too many things happening, too many people from all over involved in this. And the Shadow Warriors leave their patrol on a royal mission just after what happened? No, there is some deliberate intent behind all this."
"Several deliberate intents, myssloeg," Embla laughed at his incredulity. "That is why we are here. Brokk explained it all before, did you forget? Many schemers trying to play their games with each other, but never sure if it is even the same game. Looking forward to it?"
"First and foremost, what was that word you used?" Arlgand asked suspiciously.
"That shouldn`t be the foremost thing!" Aidan interrupted hastily, correctly assuming Argland would be displeased by an honest answer. "The foremost thing is what I am supposed to do now."
Arlgand frowned at Embla, who stared arrogantly back at him - or perhaps that was not arrogance, but the satisfied calm of one who has won a profound argument, he could not tell - and considered the matter carefully. To him, the most worrisome part of Aidan`s impromptu royal audience was what had been told to him after he had regained his footing. The reason why even the legendary Valanduil, who, at the climax of the Liberation of Kelerak, had cast the Lord of Lust back into the Abyss of Malor, had been recalled from whatever quest he had been engaged on. Finally, he gave his answer.
"Join Lord Jerroth tomorrow as planned, find out all you can, and get out alive. If there is indeed a link between the gruesome murders of influential elves, a secret society of Gloralion, and a potential regicidal usurper, this will be the best chance we have to find out more."
Aidan felt so horrendously out of place that it seemed a miracle nobody tried to haul him off as a fraud. Yet all that came his way were a few inquiring glances from the other white-robed figures moving along the same paths, and some brief hesitation from the guards as they inspected his writ of passage. And with no more than that letter and the poorly-fitted robes that Arlgand had somehow borrowed from another House, Aidan walked straight into the palace of Belendale and through to the sacred gardens beyond.
Isolde would have a fit if she knew how easy it is to penetrate the security here, he thought to himself. It would be a professional insult.
Whatever the truth of that, Aidan was even more shocked to find that, once he was in the glade with the other society members, they did not scorn him or speak solely amongst themselves. For nearly an hour, they mingled freely and openly, talking about matters great and small, without excluding the half-elf that moved among their number. There were some clear tensions, but nothing unexpected from galan and altarim many centuries old. If this was a ruse, it was the most complete one that Aidan had ever seen.
But eventually, the last and most important member of the society arrived - Lord Jerroth Salpheran himself, a proud and magnificent raven perched on his shoulder - and an expectant quiet descended. Officially, nothing that had been announced regarding the strange sensation of foreboding and malice that had swept across Belendale the night before. Unofficially, certain couriers had been dispatched with words of calm and promised explanation.
Without preamble, as his right as the head of this society, Salpheran began to speak. So it came to pass that this very select group learned of the recent events in full. From the rat-thing`s attempted murder of the ranarim envoy on the road to Therolan, to Salpheran`s humiliation once more by a champion of Al-Dustriel and his renewed alliance with that House, to the terrible truth of what had actually happened the night before; nothing was left out.
Aidan noticed that nobody challenged Salpheran on his words, though some flinched in disgust at the name Al-Dustriel, and most seemed to look at Aidan with genuine respect. As unfamiliar as he was with the machinations of Belendale, Aidan could not find himself believing that this was the secret society that King Baranwë suspected of being traitors. At least not at that moment.
Then Salpheran gave Aidan an explanation: "As the representative of House Al-Dustriel, I must task you with giving this message to its head. Our interest is in the reclamation of elven influence beyond Belendale. We are opposed to the isolationist policies that have left us stagnating here, when we ought be moving in the wider world, bringing light and learning to its backwards peoples."
"Indeed, I must confess that your experience in these matters exceeds our own. As you are not only a paladin, but one born in the Occupied Kingdoms, you have seen for yourself what horrors lie beyond our blessed borders. With your permission therefore, I will now ask for your perspective on some of the issues we have been discussing."
Aidan steeled himself, sensing the oncoming danger, though still unaware of how terrible it really was.
It felt exactly like what it was: an interrogation. But this was one which was aimed at the listeners, his interrogator merely using him as a medium. Aidan hated it with all his heart, and only years of training - and extraordinary pressures in the wider world - let him hide this, turn this loathing into discomfort.
Salpheran asked many questions about the Occupied Kingdoms, and in particular the atrocities that were inflicted upon their peoples. Aidan answered as honestly as he could, and so spurred Salpheran on. The goal was obvious, and for all Aidan agreed with it in principle, the means he foresaw being used to attain it were what galled him. Salpheran clearly intended to rile up the elves, starting with using his society to influence others across Gloralion.
From there, he could push to have the king declare open war on the Occupied Kingdoms, and marshal the armies of Belendale under one banner. There would be many candidates for high position, but of course only a Salpheran - only the Lord Jerroth himself - would be appointed as the supreme commander. His new allegiance to House Al-Dustriel would not be remembered long after such a war begun.
And with so many ancient grudges to repay and so much power suddenly gained, Aidan had to admit that assassins would swiftly find their way to Arlgand, his family, and his allies. Perhaps the humiliation of a public arrest but a secret trial would precede them, but all in the name of national security. No House, Great or otherwise, would care enough for due process to complain if it was denied to Al-Dustriel.
Politics such as these are what led to Sundering in the first place, Aidan thought to himself. Why not repeat the mistakes of the past when you already have a scapegoat to terrify dissenters into obedience?
He suspected that perhaps he had spent too much time around Isolde. During their travels in Kelerak, inspired by the potential civil war they had been asked to prevent, she had regaled their involuntary ears with many tales of intrigue from her past. Most of them were doubtless false or highly exaggerated, but Aidan was smart enough to spot common themes and patterns running through them. He could see those same patterns in what Salpheran was doing.
Aidan was tempted to lie in this interrogation, of course. He also knew himself to be a poor liar in general, and with Brokk`s magic still translating his words perfectly no matter what speech he used, there was no way of his hiding his intent behind a language barrier or simple misunderstanding. With honesty, possibly, he could try to prolong this long enough to get a few more details about what was being planned. And at last, the moment he dreaded came.
"Given that we have established the nature of the Dark Folk populations," Jerroth Salpheran began his final summary. "In particular, with regard to the majority not being legitimate military targets, an answer to this question of their post-defeat status must be sought. Obviously, we cannot permit their civilians to roam freely, as this would encourage a rise in vigilante reprisals from the formerly oppressed. Allowing such a stressor in a post-war society invites catastrophe."
"It is my considered opinion, therefore, that we relocate them to specialized regions for the betterment of all. There, segregated from the other lesser races, we may simultaneously earn reparations from them and ensure an improved future. It will be a hard life, though still immeasurably superior to anything they inflicted upon their former slaves, and their sins shall be repaid in time."
"As you have heard from our paladin`s testimony, the most spoken language, be that primary or secondary, across the currently- and soon-to-be-Liberated Kingdoms, is Kelevan. The motto of their new lives, of their resettlement camps, shall thus be in Kelevan that the Dark Folk understand that they may earn their liberty through labor. As I do not speak the language myself, how would we express that in simple terms, master paladin?"
Aidan cursed himself for being right. This was the worst possible scenario he had imagined, and accordingly he had dismissed it as a possibility. Isolde would never have done that, or thought up something much worse. More than anything, Aidan wished he could be somewhere else right now, or not so involved that he could just avoid talking to the monster in front of him. Sensing he had gone too far, he answered anyway.
"Kelevan can be a tricky language for such concepts. But for your needs, Arbeit Macht Frei suffices."
TO BE CONTINUED