“Hope is the worst of evils, for it prolongs the torments of man.”
They’d come with furs and skins and salves, but she hadn’t come with the knowledge of what it was to be cold. Elpis was in the middle of the troupe, wrapped up in so many layers she looked three times her actual size. She shrank beneath those furs, shaking constantly. They were all freezing, but it would be unlikely to hear any of them complain about it. Worse had befallen them.
Their guide, Herm, was in front. He was also the shortest, being an unfortunate with a hump on his back to dwarf him. This man could see a white wolf in a snowstorm an hour away, however, and by far had proven his worth by averting trouble on their pilgrimage time and time again. Next was Potho, eyes vigilant, face grim, bow and arrow nocked. Behind her was their key, small and bundled as she was. Elpis was lacking in useful skills, but that she carried the late king’s child made her the centre of their concern, the sole purpose behind their quest. Behind her was Doctor Lys, who had the personality of piss yet the patience of a loving father. No one in the group could stand interacting with him for long, but when it came to Elpis he never treated her poorly, or was in any way short with her. It was hard to dislike him for that, but most still disrespected him, nonetheless. Finally Bial stood at the end of the line. He was as tall as four Herms standing on each other’s shoulders and as wide as the rest of the group standing side by side. His appetite was rivalled only by his ability with morning stars, maces, hammers, and the like. Anything that had crossed their path seeking to bring harm often met a sudden, brutal end at his hands.
Each of them would give you a different time span for how long they’d been trudging through the snow. Herm may have believed only an hour had passed, where Bial would claim a day had gone by since he last saw a meal. For Elpis, time had lost meaning. She didn’t know what it was to have time. She was existing while others continued around her. Every day she hoped time would come to a stop so that she might spend the rest of her life lying next to him, to have his breath on her neck and his sweat on her body. She had lost much since then.
“Where can we stop next?” Lys barked. He had the voice of an old man who’d spent his life yelling, though he had barely seen thirty years.
“Another half hour and we’ll reach the Green Fields,” was Herm’s reply.
“We’re not going into the forest.”
Herm stopped and faced Potho. “Why not?”
“Risking a pregnant girl in elven country?”
“It’s the dead of winter. They will be in hibernation; we will not face trouble.”
“I say no.” Potho continued walking past him.
“Hold,” Bial boomed. “If we don’t stop in the woods, we freeze. We need rest. Food.”
Potho made a point of not turning back. “And the forest will offer none of those things.”
“My point being,” Lys added sharply, “Elpis cannot continue on like this. We have pushed her too long and too far. We must stop.”
“Where is the next place we might break?”
Despite being as quiet as a mouse, Elpis was heard by every one of them. Even Potho paused.
“After nightfall, like,” Herm replied carefully.
They all looked to Elpis, and she tried to hide from them by retreating under her furs. “I don’t know if I can make it that far.”
“The forest it is,” Lys declared. Everyone but Potho held a little relief in his or her eye. All the ranger saw was doom.
They continued on in silence, each lost in their respective pasts, each as hurtful as the last.
It wasn’t always that Lys had treated others with contempt, disdain, and sometimes hostility. He couldn’t remember exactly who had cast the first stone at him, but shortly after his thirteenth birthday, he’d been met with nothing but hardship and hate from everyone around him. Even his father’s love had begun to die out, first withering before becoming a rotting corpse, leaving Lys to be subject to beatings and other abuses. How long had it been since he’d placed trust in someone? Perhaps Elpis was to be his first in so long.
And Herm—Herm had met the same growing up as well, but he had always been a hunchback; he knew the source from which the insults and pointed stares came. Only his mother showed him love, taught him empathy. He had learned early on to see from everyone else’s eyes and try to teach them to see through his. He met little success, but never ceased to look. His entire life had been spent looking.
Bial couldn’t remember the last time he spied his own manhood. For at least two decades he’d been so large that he’d had to sleep on two beds pushed together, that he’d had to eat a meal for two or three, that he was forced to sponge bathe, for no tub would hold his girth. It had been even longer since he’d had a woman willing. He would have given up mercenary work and everything he’d known the day a girl looked at him like he was the only man who could make her happy.
Elpis had loved King Cobin. He was more than three times her age, with grizzled grey hair and a rounded gut from years of too much ale and cakes. Not a handsome man by any means, no. But no one had ever shared so much of himself with her. It was only a few short months they had together, but it was enough to fill a lifetime. If you were to have a conversation with a mason, or a farmer, milkmaid, baker, shopkeeper, whoever, he or she would talk until they were blue in the face of all the reasons they disliked King Cobin as a leader. He was incompetent, prudish, insipid, weak, unflattering—the list went on. At night, however, when Elpis lay in his arms, he would tell her of all the things he tried and failed to do, with heavy heart. He tried to accept as a child that he would lead one day, then tried to love the woman he’d been married to, then tried to understand the politics and bureaucracy behind ruling a vast land full of so many different people. He had struggled, he had lost, and he was tired. She still believed the greatest king that would ever live was murdered that day, six months ago. Nothing that her companions would do for her or the future of the country would ever fill the hole that had been torn into her when the arrow ripped his heart in half.
Potho held no pain. She had buried it long ago. No one would ever know.
The Green Lands were within sight. It was neither green in the winter, nor had it ever been just a land. The trees were impossibly tall. Gnarled. Ancient. Humans rarely ventured here. Those that did likely never returned. Those who returned were lucky enough to not have caught the notice of an elf. The elves were one with the trees, and anyone who posed even the vaguest of threats to their kindred was not given the chance to scream for help.
Potho’s grip on her bow tightened with each step they took, and she raised it as the treeline drew nearer, ready to swallow them whole.
“If an elf does attack,” Bial said, “then I’ll bludgeon it to death and eat it raw.”
Elpis laughed; a light, feathery sound that tickled the ears pleasantly. This inevitably drew smiles out of the men.
Potho took control with grim determination. “Bial, you hold the back. Lys, Herm, take the sides.”
All lighthearted feelings were short lived. They followed her into the thick of trees with careful steps. The air seemed to change once they crossed the threshold; tight and empty at the same time, cold but comforting. If the trip had been quiet through the snowy field, the forest was dead silent. None of them had entered a forest before, but all were starting to understand why it was such a feared place.
“What was that?” Elpis looked about and the others followed suit. Had she heard singing? It sounded far-off and ethereal.
Lys was always the first to attend her, always with concern. “What? What did you see?”
“The singing…did you hear it?”
They all held their breath. The silence reigned. Then—
“No one is singing, Elpis,” Potho said. There was an edge to her voice—fear?
“I hear it too.”
“As do I.”
Potho looked at them. Hairs on her neck stood on end. “Tricks are being played on us. Be cautious.”
“Where is it coming from?” Elpis asked.
“It’s…above?” Herm said. Everyone but Potho peered up. “No.”
“Back out. We need to go.” Potho became a cornered animal, full of apprehension and fight. She herded Elpis backwards, and in turn the men. “We should not have entered this place!”
The ground beneath them shifted—Bial cursed—they all slipped backwards and fell, fell, fell….
As soon as the screaming began, it stopped. Had all of them screamed? Or was it something else?
It was black, wherever they were. Singing surrounded them.
When Elpis moved, she gasped; a horrid, painful tug kept her pinned to the ground. Something was wrong. “Lys? Lys! Lys!”
“I’m here, I’m here.” As he cooed, the cavern—for it looked like a cavern—lit up. A soft, dim purple glow outlined his head.
“I can’t sit up. My legs feel….”
He hushed her, furiously working at her furs to uncover her and assess how horrible the damage might be.
“Is she all right?” Potho asked as she approached. Her eyes were everywhere on the cavern, trying to discern reality from fantasy. The eerie purple glow seemed to come from everywhere, like the walls themselves were awake and glowing. They stood on a great precipice; tall protrusions stood in the distance of an expansive still lake; there was a golden hue to everything, but the purple…it shimmered, bubbled, swirled, rippled. And the singing.
“What is this place?” Bial asked, his breathing laboured.
“I don’t know,” answered Herm. If Herm did not know, no one knew. “I can’t see where we fell from.”
“Is she all right?” Potho repeated with urgency.
Elpis’s furs had been soaked with water. “No,” the doctor admitted, voice wavering. Elpis began to hyperventilate. He hushed her again. “I mean nothing wrong by it. You and the baby are well. But he is coming now.”
“What? What?” Elpis cut herself off and screeched when she tried to sit up. Even in the dark, they could all see the look that crossed Lys’s face.
“Just stay still. Relax. Hush, now.” He held her hand. She began to weep.
“We need to find a way out,” Herm said.
Lys went from soothing to snarling. “She’s not going anywhere. We do not know where we are. If we separate, we run the risk of losing each other. I need you all here with me to help with delivery.”
“If we don’t find out where we are, we risk many things,” Potho snapped. “We go one at a time. Each man retraces his steps and comes back here. Doctor, you will remain with Elpis.”
Potho stopped to glare at Bial through the dark. “What?”
“Let me go first. If there’s an enemy out there, I’ll kill it. I’m no use here.”
“She needs protection.”
“I need to kill something.”
Potho squeezed her bow. “Fine. Come back quickly. One of us will come for you after an hour.”
“It’s warm here,” Elpis said in breaths. “Did you notice?”
Bial stopped to stare down at Elpis. Beautiful, small, fragile Elpis, the kindest creature in the world, lying swollen, broken, wet and naked underneath the most dangerous place in the world.
Potho grabbed his massive arm. “Hurry.”
And then he was embraced by the dark.