Sentry at the Gate
By Amber E. Scott
Aminas knew his death stood at his shoulder, but his heart held no fear of that twilight shadow. Each drow before him seemed a reflection of the specter of death; their ebony skin blended into the night air, and blood dripped like ink off their blades. Aminas stood alone, surrounded by his enemies, and raised naithier, his battered wooden shield, as if with one gesture he could ward off the tide of death before him.
Every swing of his sword whispered thanks. Every drow that fell before him saw- as their last vision in life - his joyful expression. A sense of peace filled Aminas as he fought, muted the sounds of battle, and dulled the pain of his wounds, because his death was for his people. He would fall to ground here as an expression of his love for Gloralion.
The drow came for him in greater and greater numbers and he fought on and on, his strength untiring, will indomitable, and he fought his way through the heart of the mountain until his heart felt ready to burst and sweat poured from his skin and, finally, he came out of his reverie and back to full awareness, gasping in his seat.
Aminas took a few minutes to recall his surroundings and pick out the dim features of his resting chamber in the moonlight. Not until he had joined the Shadow Walkers did these meditation-visions trouble him. At first he thought himself possessed of star-sight, the gift of prophecy, but these visions all were of the past- exaggerated at times, but clearly events that he had already lived through.
The battle with the drow was the most common vision. At times the tableau was more brutal, even frightening, but Aminas preferred this joyful version.
Still, it disrupted his meditation. Aminas rested a moment longer, his gaze moving to naithier, battered and solid as ever, hanging on the wall next to his sword. Even in the darkness Aminas could make out the golden-barked tree emblazoned on the round shield. When his heart had calmed, Aminas stood and moved onto the balcony, taking deep breaths of the sweet night air.
It was near midnight, and the moon's silver face illuminated the valley of his village clearly. A thick ring of trees surrounded the central clearing; Aminas' bungalow stood near the center of the ring, affording him a clear view of an oval pond ringed with white stones and benches, and paths that twined around ever-blooming beds of snapdragons and narcissi, their buds now folded to points and turned away from the winks of light shimmering in the night sky.
The village was quiet save for the occasional low owl's song and the rustle of the wind gusting through leaves. A figure moved in the shadows below; Aminas' keen elven night vision picked out the form of his nephew, Thalian. His mother, Aminas' sister, and her husband were undoubtedly meditating in their bungalow, walking in the halls of memory. Thalian sat on one of the benches, a quill in one hand and parchment stretched out on his knees. As Aminas watched, his nephew set down the writing implements and wandered around the edge of the pond, often stooping to trail his fingers in the water.
Aminas retreated into his bungalow long enough to dress, then descended the spiral stairs that led to the clearing. Thalian looked up at his approach. "Moonlight greetings, uncle. I hope my untimely strides did not disturb your trance." He bowed.
Aminas returned the bow. "The stars shine brighter in your presence, nephew. Fear not; I am shamed to say I did not hear your passage. As Shadow Walker and protector of our village, my ears should stay alert even in reverie."
Thalian waved his hand as if brushing aside an insect. "Put away your guilt. Our village remains peaceful and still, warded as we are by Galadhel's artifice. What stirs you from your bungalow, then?"
Hands clasped behind his back, Aminas began a slow stroll around the pond. "Visions often trouble my meditation. I have not the gift of prophecy, but often reflect on the past with such vivid sight as to convince me I have returned to that moment. I beheld once more the drow forces we bested in the Stone Wall Mountains. The vision grew so real that the screams of dying drow shook me from my trance."
Thalian tried to repress his shudder, but Aminas was a warrior trained to notice even the slightest movement. "My apologies, nephew. It is a dark subject for such a beautiful night. Tell me, why do you wander here so late?"
The younger elf smiled, his eye focused on a shower of snapdragon petals floating on the pond. "The next line in my ode came to me as I meditated, and I felt stirred to rise and record it. As I wrote, I sought another word for 'lovely' as, no matter how I strive, I cannot find an adequate term with which to describe Eilanae's form."
Aminas recalled Eilanae, the child of a commendable house, fair of face and with an exceptionally clear, bright gaze. "I see. For how long have you worked on this piece?"
Thalian made the dismissive motion again, as if he could brush away time as easily as he brushed away Aminas' guilt. "Several years now, but time and effort are of no importance. My dedication to the piece - my desire to adequately express my vision of Eilanae - is what drives me."
A frown creased Aminas' ever-young face, but he strove to keep his tone light. "That is not your only driving force, is it? Our village is safe and peaceful this night, but the forces of darkness still threaten outside our borders. You have a lifetime to share your vision with Eilanae, but only so long as we defend ourselves against the stain that seeks to cover this world and blot out all light."
Thalian nodded, but his gaze remained distant. "Of course, it is very terrible. To think of your sacrifice, battling those cursed beings in the caves - it is a terrible thing. If only we had had the foresight to use the powers of Gonwe Dīm, you might have been spared that combat. Alas, our possession has only lasted these few seven hundred years; we have not adapted to its use yet. In another thousand years, we will never see the need for war or warriors again."
Aminas' frown deepened. "Not all combats can be solved with the Stone's power. Galadhel did not grant us the Stone so that we might hide behind it. It is a shield for us to bear into battle, a power to use in our quest to end the darkness."
Thalian dragged his gaze away from the flowers to look at Aminas as they spoke. "Galadhel crafted the Stone to end all war, to bring silence and peace where there is conflict. So long as we possess Gonwe Dīm, we are safe, and so long as we are safe, none can take it from us. In her wisdom, she granted our race safety everlasting."
A flash of white caught Aminas' eye - a pale rock half-hidden in the grass, illuminated by the moon's silver glow. Aminas caught it up and skipped it across the water. The unwieldy rock sank after the first skip. "And what if the Stone is lost, or broken? What if the time comes when we must attack with it to save ourselves, and we become bereft of its guidance? What if those who dwell in shadow craft an item to counter its effect? Gonwe Dīm does not give us license to wane in our defenses and spend all our time on poetry instead of warfare. Poetry is an art, yes, one deeply ingrained in our people and as valuable as moon. But warfare is not a distasteful deed to be done when necessary and shunned afterwards. It is an expression of love."
"Love!" Thalian's laugh skipped through the air like ripples on a pond. "Is it love to lie blood-stained and broken on the ground, staring eyes skyward but never seeing the stars? Is it love to take another life in your hand and crush it between your fingers? That is hate, not love."
"It is love to do these things for a worthy cause." Aminas tried to keep his voice even and low. "It is love to do these things because your people need you. One day when the dark forces draw nearer and you take up a blade and stand before Eilanae, you will understand."
Thalian's laugh trailed into silence. He shook his head, a smile playing on his lips. "I set down my sword for a quill years ago and shall never trade back. The combat drills were tedious and pointless, despite your pessimism. I do not deny that some think as you do, but as time passes and the shelter of Gonwe Dīm keeps us from the conflicts of the land, more will come to realize how little need there is to practice with the instruments of death - or love, as you say. When we recognize the utter safety of our lands, we will be able to relax and dedicate our lives to beauty, life, hope, and true love." He smiled. "And poetry, of course."
Aminas' smile was automatic, the parry to a feint. Inside he felt as stricken as if Thalian had grasped one of the instruments of death he had derided moments before and thrust it through Aminas' heart. He willed his legs to keep moving. Can he be right, Aminas questioned. After centuries of safety, will our people put down our blades and count on Gonwe Dīm to protect us?
"No watchtowers on the borderlands," he whispered. "No sentries at the gates."
Aminas started, then smiled. "It was nothing. A mere fragment of my vision come to haunt me. The night wanes; I shall return to my bungalow."
"Rest well. Thoughts of peace color your meditation."
Not a month had passed when orders arrived for Aminas. A new threat mustered near Elder Daven; red sails on the horizon and a black army marched across the plains. Aminas visited Eilanae before he left.
He had intended to speak with her, but found himself unable. Instead he watched her from a distance as she sat beneath the boughs of a spreading oak with her companions, like a copse of young, silver willows thriving in the shade of the mightier tree. He stood at a distance and watched them move and gesture, and listened to their laughter. In the end, he left without greeting.
Aminas also visited the Stone.
It stood on a pedestal of glass, in a bower atop the tallest tree in the forest. Arching branches overhead shadowed the bright sun that fell in ribbons across the room. Aminas trailed his fingers over the Stone's smooth curve. He knew Gonwe Dīm's inscription by heart, though it was only visible in newborn moonlight.
I, Galadhel the smith, shedding tears for the state of Núrion, have crafted this, Gonwe Dīm, to allay the ubiquitous wars. I hereby lay down the uses of this artifact. The Stone must be held to be used; its real power functions on a large scale. This ability is activated automatically under the right conditions, namely when an enemy host attacks the possessor and his host. Then the Stone will make the friendly host all but unconquerable. The Stone also has lesser abilities. It will automatically cause nearby aggressive enemy spell casters to be unable to do harm. Its user can remove fear by touch at will. It has other uses as well, which can be activated with a thought, but only once per rising of the sun. The Stone can create a radius of peaceful silence, the skin of its possessor can be turned to a stone-like substance to resist the blows of the enemy, the Stone can paralyze an enemy despite his magical defenses, and the user can turn the flesh of an enemy to stone, thereby preserving his opponent's life. But the Stone may never be used to attack, overtly or covertly, for it has a limited ability to sense the motives of its user and will flee his hand of its own accord, removing itself up to half a continent away in order to avoid being used for belligerence. Once the Stone has fled, no known means of scrying or divination may detect it. You have been apprised and warned of the uses of the Stone; utilize it for the purpose for which it was created.
"All but unconquerable," he whispered. "Not invulnerable. How can I make him see?"
"Is there something I can assist you with?"
Aminas turned and met the gaze of Keeper Lyruliel. Once they had served as Shadow Walkers together; a grievous injury had retired Lyruliel from the ranks. He had withdrawn to serve Gloralion in other capacities, and now watched over Gonwe Dīm.
"The clouds break and sun shines at your arrival, Lyruliel. My purpose here is to speak with you."
Lyruliel, still tall and fair of form despite his injury, leaned on his wooden crutch and raised one eyebrow. "This is a place of silence and peace. What cause does a warrior have to visit?"
"A warrior has more need of peace than any other, is it not so?" Aminas attempted a smile. "You've heard the news from Elder Daven?"
"I have. A large force, a desperate battle, but one suited to your skill. I hold a certainty in my heart that you will prevail."
Aminas touched the tear-shaped Stone a final time and let his hand drop. "I wish to bring Gonwe Dīm with me, to ensure our success."
Lyruliel frowned. He stepped closer, with no visible limp, so used now to his crutch that it moved with him as smoothly as a flesh and blood limb. "Such a request is not inconsiderable, Aminas. You know the warning of the Stone. It is not to be used as a weapon."
"I know that, well I know that. But I fear I will require its use in this battle - as an instrument of peace. To turn aside the tide of battle."
"The Lord of Gluttony seems a poor target for diplomacy. Do you intend to shut yourself away from the conflict and hope the enemy will lay down their blades and leave quietly? Gonwe Dīm has power, but I cannot see how it will bring an end to this conflict."
"Lyruliel," Aminas sighed. "Friend. You know me. You know my history. Is not my word enough that Gonwe Dīm will provide an advantage in this battle?"
Lyruliel snorted. "I know you well. I know you are a warrior. And there is no shame in that, but it shows in your every movement, gesture, and expression. It shows in every nick and cut in that misshapen slab of wood still fixed to your arm. Certainly since our last meeting you could have retired your shield with due honor and acquired one more pleasing to the eye."
Aminas smiled at that and trailed his fingers over naithier's edge. "When I die, Lyruliel, I wish to be interred with my eyes to the stars and naithier guarding my breast."
"It is your shield, your trusted companion. You are a warrior, Aminas, not a man of peace. Naithier shows me that as clearly as anything."
The smile faded from Aminas' face. "Do you recall the moment you dedicated yourself to the cause of Ardaranel's defense?"
"It was not a single moment for me, but a lifetime of small moments."
"I had not yet joined the Shadow Walkers," Aminas said. He paced around the glass pedestal as he spoke. "In the central clearing of my village stood an ancient oak. Its life was as long as an elf's stay in the Hinterlands, and none could remember a time when it did not stand.
"Our village was far from any wars or conflict, and while I trained for battle, I cared not for it in my heart. I participated in skirmishes, even killed an enemy, and I understood the need in my head but never felt it in my soul. My only goal was to live to return home and see my friends and family again."
He sighed. "One day I got my wish. I returned to the village to find that, during my absence, it had been assaulted. Vile orcs had torn into the village unexpectedly. The villagers retreated initially, mustered a defense, and then rallied. They drove off the orc invaders."
Lyruliel's gaze was heavy with sympathy. "Were your friends and family lost? I know your sister survived."
"I lost no one - no relative. One warrior died of his injuries, but most escaped unscathed. But the tree, the giant oak I spoke of - in their foul rage, the orcs tore it apart. Its branches lay broken and scattered on the ground, its trunk severed by the jagged axes of the dark folk.
"You must understand, I had lived next to that tree for hundreds of years. Myself, my mother and father, my sister, my ancestors, my friends - all had sat beneath its boughs, all had climbed its branches in youth. It sheltered my village - it was my village, to me. When I saw the dying wood scattered like the limbs of fallen soldiers, it was as if I had lost all my loved ones in one brutal attack. It could have been any of them, Lyruliel. I had thought them safe from harm and harm came unexpectedly, and I was not there to defend them. It was in that moment I swore never to lower my defenses again. I swore always to protect our lands and our people with every breath in my body. I have not feared death since that moment."
He touched the edge of his shield again. "Naithier reminds me of that moment, and what I learned. I would commit any act, no matter how foreign to my nature, to ensure the safety of these lands and these people. I am a warrior, but I am first and foremost a defender. It is the defense of this land which consumes my thoughts. It is the reason I request Gonwe Dīm for this conflict."
Lyruliel studied him for long moments, as if weighing the merit of his words. Aminas' insides trembled, a feeling he had not experience in some time. Though every word he spoke was truth, he feared Lyruliel would see beyond their surface truth into the heart of this matter.
I must protect us, he thought. I must man the watchtower on the border. I must be the sentry at the gate.
"You are a defender," Lyruliel conceded. "Take the Stone and use it wisely."
"I will," Aminas said. His heart fell to his stomach. "I will."
Aminas moved with the swiftness of the hart to reach Elder Daven, as if he had a hunter at his back. Using the magic of his order, he stepped into the barrier of shadow at the penumbra of the world and covered the long miles with magical speed. He had traveled through this strange, tenebrous place many times, yet the weight of Gonwe Dīm threw off his steps and slowed his passage.
As he traveled, Shadow Walkers gathered to him as clouds gather before a storm. Men and women, tall of form and fair of face, yet each bearing a sign - a scar never healed, a hint of a limp, a shadowed gaze - of their time fighting the evil that walked the earth, and lately, fighting the new Lords of Sin. They followed Aminas as they had followed him before, through the darkness, trusting that he would lead them to triumph over their enemies and into the sun once more.
It was no mean journey from Ardaranel to Elder Daven-nearly three hundred leagues-but Shadow Walkers knew the magical trick of moving in the Place of Shadow. They crossed the distance in little time, gathered more forces at the Shadow Walker outpost in the Southwood, and came to the port city as the fleet of enemy ships commenced their attacks.
The first assault was dreadful. The Shadow Walkers cut a long rent through the ranks of the Lord of Gluttony's forces. The dark folk and corrupt humans bore the taint of their master: bloated guts hung from beneath chain shirts, and pallid moon-faces shone beneath polished helmets. Yet their corpulence and overindulgence did not detract from their deadliness; what they lacked in skill they made up for in numbers, and the sickly dead-flesh stench of the rotgut drug hung over the battlefield. The poison allowed the dark ones to fight longer and ignore the pain of their wounds. Aminas kept his face as if carved from stone as he fought, but his stomach heaved with revulsion.
He could not bring himself to use the Stone the first day, nor the next. The enemies he fought were too hideous. How could I expose my people to these monstrosities? The prospect was too terrible to face. When the ships had pulled back and the forces retreated to secure their campsite, and the uneasy trough of peace settled between the tides of battle, Aminas went down to the field and settled on his haunches to study the corpses, too fetid and drug-ridden even for scavenger birds to peck at. He stared at the dead, picturing Thalian on the battlefield, sword in hand instead of quill, his ode to loveliness forgotten. Could he ever write a poem again after witnessing this? Could Eilanae's eyes ever reflect clear beauty again after the shadow had fallen across her sight?
"I cannot do this to them," he whispered. "I will not."
The battle dragged on for a week. The ships sailed close enough to launch ballistae and flaming balls of pitch at the shoreline, then retreated. At night the ships displayed bright lights and the sounds of carousing, as if flaunting their inhabitant's excesses in the faces of the soldiers. Aminas led a night raid on one ship, slaughtered its inhabitants, and burned it to the waterline. After that, the evening celebrations stopped.
The weariness of war settled in Aminas' bones. Every time he fought he wished it were over, but his loyalty to his people and his dedication to their guardianship kept him on his feet. He relished the weariness because it was right to despise slaughter; he was no monster.
I am no monster, he thought. I relish the ability to carry out my duty, not the act of killing. His blade cut through another foe and sent him screaming to the muddy ground. Aminas cut his throat with a quick, clean slash. He moved on to the next enemy.
In the midst of the second week, at sunset, he led a small force of Shadow Walkers along the coastline to ambush a retreating group of dark folk. The Shadow Walkers rose from behind kelp-strewn rocks and unleashed a barrage of arrows against their foes. The dark folk - mostly goblins from Aminas' practiced estimation, but also several orcs, and a few exceptionally ugly humans - roared and screamed and charged, and Aminas and his warriors dropped their bows, drew their swords, and met the onslaught.
Most of the enemies had died with arrows in their hearts, and it was a small matter to exterminate the remnants. One of the humans had survived. He came at Aminas with a wild cry, mace swinging through the air. Aminas raised naithier to ward off the blow.
Mace hit shield with a crack that seemed to split the air. Aminas actually closed his eyes as if to protect them from the rush of wind that must come with such a phenomenal blow. But there was no rush of wind, and when he opened his eyes a split-second later, it was naithier that had cracked, not the air.
His opponent also recoiled, as if taken aback by the ease at which he had sundered the shield. Acting on instinct, Aminas darted forward and drove his blade into the man's chest. Around him, the other Shadow Walkers dispatched the remaining enemies.
"Are you unharmed?" one asked.
Aminas stared at the dead man, seemingly unable to draw his gaze from the ground. When he finally lifted his gaze upward, it was to settle on the shattered bits of naithier still fixed to his arm.
"Let us retreat," he whispered.
He sat apart from the others that night, clutching his pack to his chest. The Stone seemed to beat against him like a hidden heart. He twined a splinter of wood through his fingers. It seemed that everything he valued had been destroyed when naithier had shattered. In the broken fragment of wood he saw his family and loved ones butchered and dying in the mud. He saw the villages of Ardaranel on fire, trees stretching pyres of flame to the sky.
"I cannot," he whispered. "But I must. I cannot doubt. I cannot break. I must ensure our future. No matter the cost."
He stood and left the camp, walking in darkness until he reached the beach. Dim lights glowed on the ships across the harbor. The stink of death assailed him. He crouched and looked across the battlefield. A crow, braver than the other scavengers, had landed to pick at a gobbet of flesh. Aminas watched the bird hop briskly about its business.
"A terrible business, is it not?" he asked the crow. "But one that must be done. Thalian cannot see it, but I am right. If we cannot learn to fight, we will shatter like naithier did. Thalian with sword in hand instead of quill is terrible, but Thalian and all our people everywhere destroyed is worse. I must do it now." He looked once more at the splinter of wood in his grasp. "I must do it now before I convince myself he is right."
Aminas reached into his pack and pulled out the Stone of Silence. It took all his will to lift it, to look over its smooth, black surface at the ships beyond. To look at the ships as enemies, as targets.
That was all it took. Gonwe Dīm sensed his intent. A ripple of power washed out from the tear-drop Stone and down the beach. The invisible wave collided with the swelling surf in an explosion of water that sprayed high enough to block the ships from his view. The power recoiled and knocked Aminas off his feet. His breath left him; his vision went dark.
When he came to his senses, the beach was quiet. There was no sign of the Stone.
The Shadow Walkers found him there at dawn. "Does something trouble you?" one asked.
Aminas shook his head slowly, his gaze on the rising sun. "No," he replied. "I am finally at peace."
They found his body on the beach after the day's fighting, his eyes skyward, the shard of naithier clasped to his breast.