The underground city of Thaeraine, the Ardennes, Year 1193
Shield on her back, mace and dagger on her belt, Sthirt, padded vest, leather jacket, chain mail tunic. Pantaloons, greaves and gloves. Her warrior's braid was holding together, forming a collar around her neck and what would be padding under her helmet. The helmet held tightly to her chest. She was afraid she'd drop it or forget it somewhere if she stopped thinking about it for a moment. She went through the list again. Shield, mace dagger... Her steps echoed though the caverns of Theraine. The streets they held were eerily quiet. It was almost as if the elves had won already. Clarimond shuddered.
The siege had gone on for almost a month now. It was getting hard to hold the gates, and food and supplies were running low. Since it had become impossible to go outside the mountain to hunt for for blood and the day walkers of Theraine had been obliged to donate their own very week, tensions had started to rise between them and the rest of the city. The day walkers were the first to shut themselves in their homes, but not the last. As more and more dead and wounded came from the gates, the caverns became more and more quiet. Clarimond knew this very well, because she walked through them every night. Every night when she was about to go on watch, she made the same rounds, just in case it was the last time. It was turning into something like a ritual, and it unsettled her. Clarimond half walked, half ran through the major tunnels into the main hall. She cast a longing glance up the wooden stairs spiralling up the East gate pillar and the rooms carved into it, thinking of her bed. But there was no time for it- hadn't been for more than a week now. She continued along the wall of the hall, up to the massive doors to the great library. They were hardly ever closed now, as people were going in and out of it constantly. She joined a stream rushing back and forth through a short, wood paneled corridor and up the stairs. She walked into another corridor branching out into smaller ones. The rooms they led to were full of frantic activity, scholars, priests and sorcerers talking, writing, opening book after book. The healthy scents of the herbs they used mingled with body odor and smoke. Their brightly colored robes were stained. Every now and then there was a ﬂash of light, a sizzle, bang. It was the same when she reached the room she was looking for.
Hugolin was in a deep discussion with a priest and two other sorcerers when she entered, and didn't notice her until the priest nudged him and pointed. For as long as she could remember her younger brother's obsession with magic had been a source of frustration for Clarimond and her family, but now she suddenly felt relieved. Elves in their stone armor might come rushing in at any moment but he was still the same old Hugolin, too busy to notice. What wasn't the same old was that Hugolin abandoned his colleagues immediately to rush over to her. Scrawny, slow and unwilling to do much else than study, he had been hopeless in combat training and more of a punching bag than a sparring partner for Clarimond. All in all she was thankful that he was sheltered in the library. But since she'd volunteered to the army, Hugolin had gotten an annoying habit of acting the concerned older sibling. He put an arm around her shoulders and took her to a reasonably deserted end of the corridor. She did her best to ignore his concern, and tried to divert his attention to his work. "How is the magic going?"
It worked. Hugolin's concerned expression melted away. He sighed, hanging his head as if the mere thought made exhausted him. "Badly. Aloys and her group are working on making the gates self repairing, but their method is too slow to be effective. Mine is trying for a way to improve their fundamental structure, but we don't know how to do it or if we even have the materials for it."
Clarimond knew better than to ask him what any of that meant, but the hopeless expression on his face made her panic. "You don't know how? Isn't it your job to figure that out? Are you going to let us all die because it's too hard not to?"
Hugolin glared at her "All I have to do is wave my hands, you mean? Don't be stupid."
This was how all of their longest arguments had started. The flash of panic was washed away by a wave of exhaustion. "That's not what I meant."
"I know." His glare had already faded into a more concerned frown. He looked her over. "I thought of something more. Give me your shield and your gloves."
Now it was Clarimond's turn to sigh. Another day, another ritual. "It's not right, Hugolin. Why should I get enchantments when no one else does?"
Hugolin's voice was as monotone as hers, reciting the same reply he'd given her all week. "Because this isn't a tournament you're going into. Those who ﬁght fair don't get prices, they die."
She nodded, as half-hearted as she had protested, and handed him what he wanted. As he started
to weave his enchantments over them, she was torn between the guilt of the advantage she was
given over her comrades and the fear that it wouldn't be enough. Only a slight movement in the gloves and a shimmer in the air above the shield indicated the change in them. When she'd gotten them back, the siblings stood in awkward silence. "And uh, the evacuation? How is that going?"
He scratched his neck. "The elves have sealed us up pretty tightly, but we're trying.” He stopped and looked her square in the eye, lowering his voice. ”There's some powerful magic at work here, which means they won't be pulling their punches on the battlefield either. Clarimond, promise me you'll stay out of it as much as you can."
Clarimond wasn't expecting the elves to pull their punches. This was the first siege in three hundred years, and her superiors had been very clear on how serious the situation was. "I can't save myself and let the others die."
Hugolin went quiet. There wasn't much he could say against it that wasn't selﬁsh. He pulled her into a hug. "I love you so much"
"I love you too." She pulled back with a half smile. "See you tomorrow."
He nodded. "See you tomorrow. Give my love to Auderic, Tristane and mom."
Down the stairs and out into the city again. She passed the library pillars, carved and wrapped in wooden stairs just like the East gate pillar, and went towards the water square. But she stopped a couple of streets before that. There was a grocery shop there, one among many carved into the base of the pillar and extended with a wooden facade. The door was open but once inside, one could be faulted for thinking that it had been shut down along with most of the other shops in the city. Almost all of the shelves were empty, and the two shopkeepers were nowhere to be seen.
A hatch on the ﬂoor opened and her cousin Tristane's dimpled face popped up."Oh, hi Clarimond. We're just down here taking inventory. Again. Why don't you join us?"
Down in the basement, Clarimond found her older brother Auderic who, just like Hugolin, dropped what he was doing and came over to hug her as soon as he saw her entering the room. While all the magic in the world couldn't still Clarimond's worries about her younger brother, Auderic still, after the ﬁfty seven years they'd known each other, had an air of invincibility about him. It helped that he shared Clarimond's heavy build and had a decent skill with the mace. The reassurance wasn't mutual, though. Just like Hugolin, Auderic looked her over with a concerned frown. These days it was an expression that seemed permanent on him. "Good to see you're all right. We've heard that soldiers are being shot at the gates."
Despite his worrying, Clarimond had to fight down a smirk at the idea of pitting an arena fighter against the elves' stone men when there were still trained warriors about. "Don't worry. They won't put me on the outside of the gate until they're really desperate. How are you doing?"
Tristane, who had been patiently sitting on a barrel behind them, piped up. "We're getting bored, believe it or not. No wares coming in and the customers have already picked up this week's rations, so we've had to ﬁnd ways to entertain ourselves." They gestured towards their skirt, which was cut off at the knees. "Or rather, planning ahead in case we do get invaded. Won't do to get tangled up in your clothes. We've set up traps too."
"And counted every crumb i here twenty times over.", Auderic added. His frown had faded as Tristane talked, but now it came back again. "I assume you're here for mom's supplies."
Clarimond frowned back at him. "Yes. And by your expression I'm assuming I'll end up disappointed."
Her cousin and brother nodded in unison. "Rations have been cut back again.”, said Auderic. “I can't let you leave with more than grain."
Clarimond winced. "You're joking. At this rate we'll be eating stone by the end of the week."
Tristane shrugged. "Don't blame us, it's the council who prepared us for the siege. I'm all for eating them if you want meat."
Auderic softened. "Well, we might be able to throw in a sack or two of peas if you like". He and Tristane shared a quick conspiratorial look.
Clarimond rolled her eyes. "I'll take them. No point in even asking about blood, I presume?"
"You presume correctly." Auderic heaved a sack of grains onto his back. "Come on, we'd better not keep them waiting."
With the help of her brother and cousin, Clarimond loaded a cart. It was a long way to go to the shelters, so Auderic came with and helped her pull it.
"So, we'll be starving to death if the elves don't get to us ﬁrst."
Auderic snorted. "You worry about your end, and I'll worry about mine."
"Easier said than done."
He sighed. "This is nothing. I was at Bergburg, you know. The council here might be useless, but we won't be eating our own clothes anytime soon. You'll drive the elves off before then."
Hugolin's warnings came back unbidden. This was the worst part of talking to someone who wasn't involved in the city's defense. She knew it wouldn't be that easy, but Auderic looked so conﬁdent that she forced a smile and kept quiet.
Auderic didn't pursue the issue further. "Anyway, you should join me and Tristane in the shop if you're sick of army life when this is over. Get a proper job for once."
Clarimond shook her head "When this is over, I'll go back to ﬁghting in the arena.” She winked at him. “And Hugolin will go back to being useless as well as incomprehensible. Don't worry, you'll be mom's favorite again in no time."
They went out of the main hall, through the impressive major tunnels and into smaller, minor ones. The shelters were deep underneath the main living quarters, and they were both tired when they got there. Their mother went out to meet them. Liliola Deru of clan Deru had shaved her head since last night, standing out in contrast to Clarimond's warrior's braid. That was precisely the purpose of the shave. It made her look harmless, but also oddly frail along with the crooked back and hands that centuries of hard work had given her. Clarimond was startled, but for once ignored as her mother inspected the delivery with raised eyebrows. "Is that it?"
Auderic wasn't used to being criticized. He bristled. "It's not my fault, mom. At least you got peas."
Liliola threw up her hands. "We've got a whole shelter full of children and sick and the best they can do is peas.” She stopped herself and put on a strained smile to her children. “Well, it was nice of you to bring them anyway." She picked up a sack and started towards the kitchens, motioning for them to follow. Clarimond and Auderic followed her lead. In contrast to the library, volunteers at the shelters were mostly idle, standing around in groups, talking and joking to each other. The two groups closest to them rushed out to get the rest of the ration, eager to make themselves useful. Having done their duty, Clarimond and Auderic sat down at a table next to a pair of shaved volunteers. Liliola brought them both porridge, which earned them dirty looks from the others. Their mother returned it with a protective hand on Clarimond's shoulder "Don't start. My daughter will be paying for our safety in blood. I think we can pay her back with some porridge."
Clarimond tried to catch Auderic's eye, but he looked away, shifting uncomfortably. Neither of them were used to their mother being proud of Clarimond. The dutiful son not being able to feed his customers made it all the harder. She decided to change the subject. "Speaking of, how are those soldiers coming along?"
The volunteers all smiled stifﬂy at her. Liliola squeezed her shoulder. "Fine. Well, for being shot anyway. Keep ﬁghting as well on their sick beds as they did beyond the gates." There were nervous giggles of agreement, then an uncomfortable silence.
Then suddenly came the horn. A rumbling, loud blast that echoed through the halls and the tunnels, vibrating through Clarimond. All activity ceased, everyone froze. It must have been a full minute before someone even reacted, and when they did, it was by looking around helplessly for guidance. Liliola blinked slowly, as if just waking up.
"Tristane is still out there." She and her children looked at each other in horror.
A nurse suddenly slammed their ﬁst into the table, making the whole kitchen jump in shock. "To your stations!"
Stations, yes. Clarimond had to get to the East gate. Absentmindedly, she checked her equipment again. Helmet, mace, shield... Liliola had turned to stare at her, also realizing what the blast meant for her daughter. Now she gripped her shoulder tightly and shook her. "You don't have to go out there. No one is going to hold it against you if you stay here, you can defend the shelter."
The move snapped Clarimond out of her daze. She looked at her mother, saw the fear in her eyes. Then she looked around, at the volunteers ﬁling out of the kitchens, some terriﬁed, some determined, some looking like they were sleep walking. And she shook her head. "The shelter won't need defending. I'll stop them before it gets that far."
She'd barely ﬁnished the sentence, before her mother held her in a crushing hug. "My little baby..." Her voice was barely audible.
Clarimond pulled back and managed what she hoped was a reassuring smile. "I'll be ﬁne, mom. I'll see you tomorrow."
Liliola just stared blankly and shook her head. Auderic rushed to his feet so quickly that his stool fell over. "I'll go with you. We can't abandon Tristane."
They both hugged their by now near catatonic mother. "See you tomorrow", said Auderic.
"See you tomorrow", Liliola whispered at last.
Auderic and Clarimod broke into a run as soon as they were out of the shelter. The tunnels that had been empty before were now full of people ﬂeeing for their lives. Somewhere in the crowd she lost Auderic, but she kept running, into the hall and along the walls of it. Finally she reached the East gate tunnel. It was long and narrow, ﬁlled with Thaeraine soldiers meant to create an impenetrable barrier between the gate and the major tunnels and the city beyond. From her end, Clarimond could barely make out the gate, but she saw that it was damaged. Sounds of fighting echoed through the tunnel. People were screaming, weapons and armor were smashing against each other and there was a faint smell of blood in the air. But as far as she could see, the soldiers ahead of her were perfectly still. She joined the ranks at the back, readying her weapon and shield. She took her place next to two soldiers she recognized from training. One was a grizzled Thaeraine born soldier called Eda, who had come home to defend the city, the other was a deceptively slim former city guard called Guarin. "What's going on?"
The older man started and glared at her. "Did you sleep through the briefing?"
Clarimond glared back. "I was on leave. What's happening?"
Eda remained cold, but Guarin took pity on her while keeping his eyes on the gate. "They've managed to ram themselves a hole. Not a big one, but the elves are dripping through."
Clarimond blinked. "Dripping through?"
"Squeezing through the hole one by one and they're not trying to expand their entrance or anything." Eda had kept his gaze on her, but his expression softened. "We're picking them off like carrots in a ﬁeld."
Clarimond shook her head slightly. "That's..."
"Exactly what I'm thinking.” He turned to Guarin. ”See, even the pit fighter can see that something's off."
Clarimond felt her face heating up, but held her tongue.
Guarin kept his gaze ﬁxed ahead of him. "It doesn't matter. What matters is that we have a bunch of stone armored elves over there who are going to kill us if you don't shut up and concentrate. Don't listen to him, Clarimond."
Eda huffed. Clarimond did as she was told, but with a growing sense of unease. There was nothing they could do where they were. They were too far away to take part in the battle at the gate, but they couldn't leave either. Clarimond was stuck where she was for what felt like hours, listening to the screams that sometimes punctuated the clatter of weapons and armor. She wanted to tell herself that they were battle cries, but there was no believing that when the primal shrieks came that sent shivers down her spine. Her hands were shaking. The sounds ahead were fading, eventually going quiet. An uneasy wave went through the ranks, as even the most disciplined exchanged puzzled, worried or hopeful looks. Clarimond looked at Guarin. "Did we win?"
He made a vague shaking motion with this head. "Would they put us under siege for a month just for this?"
He was right. Suddenly a commander started calling "retreat, retreat!" and the army left the gate in panic. Clarimond managed to follow Eda and Guarin and reformed the line at the mouth of a major tunnel. She felt the heat ﬁrst, as an unnaturally warm breeze. Then came the light. A blinding light that obliterated the gate and the warmth turned burning hot. For long moments, Clarimond couldn't see a thing, only hear the screams from stragglers who had been set aflame. Some cried for help, but no help came. From the hands groping at her, Clarimond could tell that her remaining comrades were as helpless as she was. As the fires died down enough to see, a massive head came in through the remains of the gate. A long neck and body and legs with lethal looking claws followed. They had even given given it wings. Dragon.
The stone men came in behind it and at its sides, protecting the dragon as it charged forward. It pushed through the ranks almost effortlessly, with every sword, axe or mace bouncing off its skin without leaving a mark. The elves were easier to ﬁght, but the dragon lashed out with its legs and wings at the soldiers and elves went underneath past their enemies, swatting off any strikes from Thaeraine's forces along the way. Where she was, off to the side, Clarimond was far from the action. The elves went in a tight ﬁle in the centre, completely uninterested in the soldiers that didn't attack them directly. As some of their own forces went towards the middle to ﬁght, Clarimond, Eda and Guarin were under orders to hold their positions. Eda ground his teeth. "They're are after the civilians. We have to go after them."
The possibility hit Clarimond like a kick in the gut. She looked along the endless stream of stone men marching through the burnt tunnel. Remembered the promise to her mother. "We have to stop them here! Wait to go after them until we get reinforcements."
"Yes, because we make such a difference here." Guarin twirled his unused axe.
Eda shook his shield at her in frustration. "They have a dragon! We're supposed to protect the people, not a damned gate."
At that moment, a portion of the elves broke away from their main column, pressing through the weakened formation at the opposing wall instead. Horriﬁed, Clarimond grounded herself and took a better hold of her shield and mace, but she barely had time to focus on the elves before she heard a grunt and something brushed against her side. Glancing sideways, she saw Eda elbowing his way out of the tunnel. She and Guarin watched him, absolutely stunned. Then they exchanged an uncertain look, a nod, and set off after him. They pushed their way through the troops. As Eda picked up the pace and started running towards the main hall, so did they. Clarimond was just about to call out to him when she she felt the heat from the main hall. She stopped dead, ﬁghting down an urge to turn and ﬂee. Eda and Guarin, who must have felt to too, only ran faster. She felt like a coward. Clarimond forced herself to get moving again, to run as she rounded the corner and went into the hall. The light was blinding. Great plumes licking at the pillars. The smoke in the air made it hard to breathe. Figures were rushing through the hall, kicking in doors on the bottom ﬂoors and along the walls.
Clarimond took a deep breath, closed her eyes for a moment, and tried to focus. She searched for Eda and Guarin, and with a jolt she saw them ﬁghting a group of stone men in a doorway at the base of the East gate pillar. She rushed over, pulling out her mace. Two two of the elves had their back to her when she came. She struck the neck of one with her mace and kicked the other at the back of their knee. The ﬁrst one reeled, the second went down with a grunt. By now the other two elves had noticed her, and she had to block a blow from the ﬁrst one with her shield. Guarin took care of the second. Her hands went numb from the impact. She took a tighter grip on her mace. She pushed the elf's arm aside with her shield in a quick motion, and struck at the weak point at their arm pit. The elf retreated a bit, but by now the first elf was coming back at her in full force. Not having time to get her shield up, Clarimond ducked away so that the blow only hit her armor, but the impact sent her reeling and a sharp pain spread from her shoulder. Eda stepped in and stopped the elf from taking advantage of her shock, giving Clarimond time to compose herself and use her shield to tackle the elf into the room beyond the doorway. But in doing so, she turned her back to the elf she'd fought right before. She realized it too late. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the elf standing over her, sword raised for an attack. She started bringing her shield up, knowing she wouldn't be able to block in time, and squeezed her eyes shut. The blow never came. Instead there was a crash, a rustle and a sickening wet sound. Clarimond opened her eyes to see the elf lying motionless in a pool of blood. Guarin stood over the elf, glaring at her. "You idiot! Did you think you could just block them until they give up?"
She opened her mouth and closed it again. Even if she'd known what to say, her voice wasn't cooperating.
Guarin went on, through gritted teeth. "They're elves. They're not here to duel, they're here to kill us! Do you understand that? They won't spare anyone here, so don't spare them!"
Guarin's eyes snapped to Eda where he was standing in the room behind Clarimond. He gave him a quick nod. He pushed past Clarimond to get inside and go after him. Clarimond was left standing just inside the doorway. There was no elves left to ﬁght. All of them were lying still on the ﬂoor around her, as if they were sacks thrown into a heap. Without her noticing, Guarin and Eda had murdered all of them, one by one. The realization that she was standing in a pile of corpses, made Clarimond's knees shake, and she struggled to remain upright. She felt tainted, as if their mere presence would turn her into a corpse too. On shaky legs, and feeling very disrespectful for doing so, she stepped over one of the dead bodies and went to join her comrades.
They'd stepped into someone's home. But the furniture was overturned, pottery smashed. Guarin and Eda were crouched over two of their own people lying on the ﬂoor. Civilian clothes, Clarimond noted absent mindedly. She shook her head violently, trying to think clearly. Civilians were lying on the ﬂoor. "We should call a healer."
Eda straightened slowly. He was smiling, but his brows were furrowed. "It's too late, Clarimond. They're gone."
She just stared blankly at him,
He came forward and put a hand on her shoulder. His voice was surprisingly gentle. "Are you alright?"
She nodded slowly. She had to pull herself together. They didn't have time for this. Involuntarily,
her eyes went to the bloody mess where the man's face had been. She closed them, took a deep breath and started back towards the door. "Come on, there are others who need-"
Suddenly, a low rumble shook the ground underneath them. Steadying herself against the wall, Clarimond looked back at the other two. They'd both gone very pale. Somehow, she'd almost managed to forget the dragon. The dragon that could easily wipe out Theraine on its own. The dragon with its magical wards that no ordinary warrior could break through.
No ordinary warrior, but she knew exactly who could.
"Come with me." Clarimond set off, stumbling over the dead elves and running towards the edge of the hall. She didn't look back, but from the rattle behind her, she knew that Guarin and Eda followed. The smoke was growing thick at the ceiling. The stairs around the pillars had turned them into torches, creating death traps for everyone inside. She realized that not all that was falling off of them was debris. People were jumping from the highest ﬂoors. She stopped dead in her tracks, causing Guarin to collide with her. Eda had seen it too. Suddenly, Clarimond forgot her plan. "We have to help them."
Guarin followed their gaze. "I'm afraid they're beyond help, falling from that height. We need to stop the dragon causing it." He gave Clarimond a shove. "Go on."
Clarimond wanted to punch him, but as Eda nodded and jerked his head in the direction they'd been going in, she realized she was defeated. Guarin shoved her again. "Don't look, just keep going. We won't help anyone this way."
She clenched her ﬁsts. She forced herself to get moving again, and they set off. She had been bracing herself for what the library might look like now, but when they reached it, it was actually unscathed. A guard of sorcerers stood outside it, but they didn't pay any attention to them as they passed through. Behind them was a larger group of sorcerers and priests, most of whom were in deep meditation. But one of them who wasn't broke off and went to meet them. She didn't bother asking why they were there. "Look for stone men who don't do anything and kill them. We have to get rid of the sorcerers before we can stop the dragon."
Guarin gave her a quick nod and turned to leave again. Clarimond didn't move. They had just been told to kill elves. She swallowed hard. "How do we know they're sorcerers?"
The sorcerer crossed her arms impatiently. "I just told you. Look for groups that aren't ﬁghting. They're too busy concentrating."
Or they could be retreating. Or hesitant to ﬁght. Clarimond looked over her shoulder at the burning pillars. But Guarin might be right, it was kill or be killed. The former guard growled and started moving. "People are dying while you're standing here weeping over gravel! Let's go!"
Maybe he was right. Shamefaced, Clarimond went after him, Eda right behind. They ran aimlessly along the wall at ﬁrst, squinting through the light of the ﬁre. Here and there were bodies on the ground. They were mostly civilians, but there was no time to stop. Every now and then came a hot draft. New eruptions of ﬁre from somewhere near the main fountain. The dragon was still on a rampage. Their search was fruitless. By now, most of the army had spilled into the halls to stop the elves, and the stone men were locked in combat with them. Finally, Eda pulled them to a stop in a secluded corner. "We can't waste time like this. If you were an elven sorcerer, where would you go?"
Guarin tilted his head to the side, as if the answer was obvious. "Out of danger, away from the ﬁghting."
Clarimond pursed her lips. "The spells would have to be active, or we wouldn't have to target the sorcerers at all. They have to see the dragon."
The three of them looked at each other. There were only a few places that allowed that kind of overview. They set off running again, into the minor tunnels. These must have been mostly forgotten by the bulk of their forces: free from the bloom of ﬁre and haze of smoke, Clarimond could see more corpses here, and broken doors and windows. She cast a glance at the others. Eda had clenched his jaw, and kept his eyes stubbornly ﬁxed on the road. Guarin only ran faster, eyes wide with fury.
The elves guilty of the massacre were nowhere to be seen. It wasn't until the trio passed through a side corridor leading out to a balcony overlooking the main fountain that they found them. Two of the elves stood motionless, while ﬁve others were positioned around them, protecting them. Two more who were on guard in the passageway leading to the balcony went to attack them. The tunnel was almost too narrow for two people to ﬁght side by side, never mind three. Clarimond stepped back. Eda and Guarin stepped forward, to ﬁght one elf each. Clarimond kept an eye out. Forced herself to concentrate. Behind them the passage was still empty. Turning her head, she saw that none of the elves out on the balcony had moved. Her, Guarin's and Eda's presence was unimportant to them. The combatants were struggling in the tunnel, weapons and shields scraping the walls. She could see every maddening mistake her companions made. Guarin didn't use his shield often enough, leaving too many openings for his attacker. Eda was too immobile, too stubborn change his position for a better one. The elves were quick, despite their armor. One fought and parried Eda with a two handed mace, the other darted back and forth with a dagger in each hand. Guarin did his best to dodge, but more and more he found himself escaping by a hair. Clarimond watched as the elf cut right through his chain mail. The dagger was enchanted. She saw the other dagger glinting in their hand, but it wasn't pointing at Guarin- it was meant for Eda. Eda had his full attention on his opponent. Guarin had his eyes ﬁxed on the elf's face. But the elf had made a mistake too, in ignoring Clarimond.
She didn't even have time to break out in cold sweat. In a second it would be too late. The elf started moving sideways. Clarimond leapt forward. Gripped her mace tightly. And just like she willed her ﬁngers to lock around it, her she felt the enchantment around the mace and sent her will through it too. The elf hadn't seen her. She came up from behind, swinging her arm in a wide arch. The mace vibrated slightly. There was a sudden draft in the tunnel. She brought her arm down. It felt as if a weight had been attached to it. The elf's helmet cracked like an egg shell. The elf fell. Clarimond looked up at Guarin. They locked eyes for a split second. Eda and his elf were still locked in battle. Guarin swung his axe. It went into his opponent's neck. Now they needed to act quickly. The elf had barely started to fall when Guarin whirled around, charging at the stone men on the balcony. Eda stepped over his fallen opponent and went after. So did Clarimond, after glancing at them, looking for movement from the downed elves- careful not to see their faces. In spite of everything, she couldn't shake the feeling that they would get up and attack from behind.
The other elven guards must have seen what happened,.But instead of coming to meet them, they had formed a wall around their sorcerers who were still deep in meditation. Five against three. They would have to move fast. Guarin charged right into them. Eda went to the right. The two of them ended up ﬁghting two elves each. Eda used his axe to parry as well as his shield. Guarin's swings became wider, his dodging more frantic. Clarimond set her sights on an elf on the side. The elf was skilled, attacking from all angles at lightning speed. Guarin was forced to block them as well with his armor. But the elf was tall and skinny. Clarimond charged past Guarin and slammed into the elf with all her weight. The elf brought up their weapon. Clarimond was having none of it. Shield up, she charged at them again. This time, they were brought against the railing. The railing was waist high and wooden and, Clarimond thought furiously, just like the stairs burning around the pillars. She made the mistake of looking at the elf's face. They'd realized what was happening, eyes wide with fear, mouth hanging open, arms grasping for purchase at her and the railing. Clarimond's heart clenched. But there was no time for hesitation, she had to save the others. Kick one, ruining the elf's balance. Kick two, legs up, shifting weight. And a ﬁnal shove send the elf over the edge with a blood curling scream. Clarimond turned around, mouthing silent apologies. She looked to the tunnel. No, the fallen elves wouldn't be getting up again.
Guarin was getting weaker, hunching over. Blood was oozing from a wound where his armor had been damaged, and the elves ﬁghting him were so conﬁdent that one of them was waiting to face Clarimond. But the scream from the falling elf alarmed the others. For a moment two of the elves froze. Eda took the opportunity. In one quick swing, he brought the axe down on his opponent's face. A scream of agony. Clarimond couldn't hold back a horriﬁed gasp. She wasn't alone. One of the sorcerers jolted awake. Looking down at their comrade's bleeding face, they went pale. The sorcerer looked around at them with wide, terriﬁed eyes, then suddenly pushed past and ran. The battle didn't last long after that. There were three guards left, but the ﬁght had gone out of them. Clarimond managed to hold her ground against both of her own and Guarin's opponents. Eda made use of the elves' lack of morale. He made quick work of his other opponent, and then one of the elves busy ﬁghting Clarimond and Guarin. Suddenly the last elf lunged at Clarimond. They shoved her, knocked her off balance and right into Guarin. She brought up her shield, waiting for the blow to come, but instead the elf used the confusion to run away. Eda swore. Quickly, they grabbed the last sorcerer to keep it from happening again. The sorcerer was trembling all over, unable to turn their eyes away from their three dead companions. They went down on their knees, speaking to them in a cracked voice. "Mercy! Please..."
It was too much to Clarimond to bear. "Can't we spare this one? They're not going to do any harm now."
Guarin stared wide eyed at her. "No harm? Have someone bashed your head in? Look behind you, Clarimond! This elf's been burning down the whole city while we were ﬁghting its guards!"
The elf burst into tears. "Please..."
Eda looked pained. "The sorcerer is too powerful to let go. It's one life against hundreds, we have to think of our own."
Clarimond shook her head. "Does this really look like someone who'll go back to hunting us when we turn our-"
Before the last words were out of her mouth, Guarin growled and kicked the elf to the ground. Clarimond didn't have time to react before he cut their head off. There was a stunned silence. Guarin was still fuming. He cast a disgusted look at each of them. "Are we going to stand here debating or are we going to defeat the gravel?"
Eda had taken a step back. Now he crossed his arms and brought his chin up. "I assume you know where to go from here then, since you're so eager?"
Clarimond turned away in disgust, looking anywhere but at Guarin or Eda. Something had changed in the hall. Along the walls, she could see other groups like hers, ﬁghting elves on balconies and ledges. To her surprise, she realized that most of them were winning. Theraine's soldiers swarmed the elves, shot arrows at them from nearby balconies, or pushed them off, just like Clarimond had done. The elves looked so helpless, she thought. Some of the balconies were empty now, or occupied by victorious soldiers. One of them spotted Clarimond and waved. She waved back. The soldier pointed down, towards the main square by the fountain. She forced herself to look down. A crowd had gathered at the edge of the square, moving towards the dragon. The dragon was still letting loose bursts of ﬁre, but it wasn't rampaging freely anymore. It was backed into a corner.
She forced herself to face Guarin and Eda. "They're taking down the dragon."
Without another word, they set off again. As they ran past the dead elves in the corridor, Clarimond looked at the face of the one she'd struck down. It was covered in blood. They ran through the tunnel, all three of them with their eyes ﬁrmly set on the path ahead. Halfway through, Eda nearly fell over as the ground shook underneath them. Clarimond and Guarin picked up the pace. Closer to the larger tunnels, Clarimond caught glimpses of corpses that hadn't been there before. Soldiers, both elven and their own. Coming into a major tunnel, the way was blocked by large battle. Dozens of Theraine soldiers fought dozens of stone men, but all semblance of formation had broken down.
Walking closely together, they put their shields up and started to push through. It was chaos. At ﬁrst Clarimond kept to blocking and parrying and dodging. Blows were coming from all sides, even from their allies who were packed tightly together and couldn't move freely. A low blow from someone's mace sent a sharp pain up her leg and sent her to the floor. She scrambled to her feet, but by now she was limping and the pain held her attention. She didn't see the elf swinging their sword at her from the side. Not until a Thaeraine soldier blocked it and knocked the elf down. They turned around violently and glared at Clarimond. "Stop daydreaming you little-"
Clarimond saw the elf getting up again, getting ready to attack her savior. She dashed forward to stop them, but it was too late. The elf's sword nearly took the soldier's head off. Clarimond screamed with helpless fury and went beating on the elf. The elf danced away. In her ire, she'd lost almost all sense of technique. The elf simply grabbed her arm and pulled her along, making her lose her balance. When Clarimond steadied herself again, the elf was gone. And so were Eda and Guarin. She started to ﬁght her way through the crowd, swinging her mace at all stone men she saw attacking someone from Thaeraine. But the close proximity was still an issue, and more than once she hit one of her own. Finally, she landed a serious hit on one of the soldiers. They staggered, giving three elves their chance. Clarimond had just been attacked herself, and could do nothing as the soldier was beaten to death. After fending off the stone men, Clarimond tucked her mace tightly to her side, held up her shield and ran. She plowed her way through the crowd, knocking allies and enemies alike off balance, but it seemed inevitable that she would do that no matter how hard she tried not to. Her leg protested and her arms, her back and her neck were beaten badly, but she kept running. Every now and then an elf would try to stop her. As if she must have been a green ﬁghter just because she was running. They underestimated her. She fended them off brutally and kept running. The crowed thinned out in the main hall. Clarimond stayed on course towards the square. Towards Hugolin, Auderic and Tristane. If she could do nothing else, she had to keep them safe. The ﬁre had started to go out now, leaving the pillars as burnt out husks, surrounded by ashes and corpses. Even now, the elves and the forces of Thaeraine were ﬁghting at every corner. It looked like they were clashing over every pile of debris in the city. Clarimond only saw them out of the corner of her eye. She kept her eyes ﬁxed on the street, focused on where she was going. But her eyes wandered more and more the closer she got to the shop.
Even after everything that had happened, she somehow still pictured it as untouched. The shop's pillar was as badly burned as all the others. Worse, as Clarimond fought her way inside, she saw that it had been sacked. The door was in splinters, shelves torn off the walls, and every cupboard opened. Slowly, she made her way to the cellar. The hatch was open. Clarimond sank to her knees, shaking, and peered inside. Barrels overturned, sacks of grain spilling their contents on the ﬂoor, and shelves a lot emptier than when she last saw them. There was only one body, an elf lying on the floor. They must have tripped over the string tied across the stairs. Tristane's idea, no doubt. There didn't seem to be any blood on the ﬂoor. One of the soldiers she'd fought alongside outside the shop came over to her."Are you alright?"
Clarimond looked up at them and braced herself for the question. "Have you seen the shopkeepers?"
The soldier shook their head. "I'm sorry. It was empty when we got here. We're just trying to defend the supplies."
Clarimond nodded and got up. Maybe Auderic had gotten them out after all. As she passed through the doorway, another soldier stopped her. Short and wiry, she noted, but the soldier's face was a worried mirror of her own. ”You trained with Mabel, didn't you? Mabel Ardennes of Arduinna? Have you seen him?
Mabel's sister, she realized. He'd had the same wiry build, the same purple eyes. Elven eyes. 'Abominations'. Targets. A lump was forming in her throat. Here she'd been worrying about her own family. The soldier looked pleadingly at her. Clarimond cleared her throat. "Mabel is one of the best ﬁghters I've ever seen. He'll be ﬁne." She forced a smile.
The soldier nodded, slowly. "If you see him, tell him you met Emeline. Tell him I'm ﬁne."
Clarimond bowed her head. "I will. Keep safe."
"Same to you."
Clarimond limped along towards the square. Another quake shook the hall, and she found herself looking up, wondering how much more the halls could take before the mountain collapsed over them all. Her eyes kept scanning the ground on their own volition. A street or so from the square, the smoke was getting thicker and sounds of a big battle reached her ears. But she caught sight of something that made her heart stop. It was a body, but an unusually large one. Brown hair, just like her own. She told herself that it could be anyone, even as she drew closer slowly, unwillingly. She recognized the clothes, but really, the clothes were pretty much standard. And it was hard to see the color of their tunic for all the blood. Whoever it was had been shot with arrows and stabbed in the back. Auderic wasn't this easy to kill anyway. He still defeated her in combat, and she'd been a ﬁghter all her life. She knelt by the body, ﬁnally getting a good look at his face. She'd know it anywhere. At ﬁrst she just stared, unable to comprehend what she was seeing. Then the realization knocked the air out of her lungs. She shook him, looked for his pulse, held him and tried to get some warmth into that cold body of his. Finally she just sat there, sobbing. She was still out in the open, still with the war raging around her, but she didn't care. None of it mattered.
She didn't know how long she'd been sitting there when reality reared its ugly head. Guarin was standing over her, frowning with concern rather than rage for once. "Are you hurt? Can you stand up?"
But she was exhausted, too tired to speak. Would she have to explain herself to him on top of everything else? Luckily, Guarin had put two and two together, looking from her to Auderic and back again. His voice softened. "I'm so sorry." Eda drew up beside him. He was all but twitching, eyes wide and constantly looking over his shoulder. "I'm sorry, but there is nothing we can do for him. We have to get moving."
Clarimond wasn't going anywhere. "Then go! Leave us alone!"
An uncomfortable silence followed. "I didn't mean.."
Guarin cut in. "Don't you want to avenge him? Let's make the gravel pay for this."
Nostrils ﬂaring and jaw clenched, there was no question that he meant it. Clarimond was tempted, but the rage couldn't quite break through the hopelessness she fas feeling. She didn't want more death, she wanted her brother back.
Eda took a softer approach. "Clarimond. Isn't there anyone left to protect?"
She looked up at him, but couldn't quite comprehend. Was there anyone else in the world that mattered? But slowly other faces appeared before her. Hugolin. Tristane. Her mother. Mabel.
"It's not too late. We can still save them."
Clarimond looked down at her brother. Her stomach turned at the thought of leaving him, but Eda was right. She untangled herself from Auderic very slowly, and gently put him down on the ground. She turned and started walking towards the main square without turning back. It felt like she'd never be able to leave otherwise. Eda and Guarin followed her out on the square.
The city's sorcerers had come out in full force. They stood in groups, surrounded by soldiers on both sides ﬁghting over them. The dragon was thrashing. Swords, daggers and spears had taken ﬂight and were ramming into it from all sides. The dragon was lashing out, but with less power than before. Its magical defences were gone. Blood was pouring out from the wounds covering it. It was a pitiful sight. As Guarin and Eda rushed past her to get at the elves, Clarimond slowed to a halt. The mace was growing heavy in her hand, her legs suddenly unable to move. She thought of Auderic's wounds, the deep bloody gashes in his back. How could she do that to someone else? At a loss for what to do, she looked out over the combatants, the dragon that only magic could kill and the sorcerers hard at work killing it. She wasn't needed here.
Off to the right, she suddenly spotted Hugolin, deep in concentration and surrounded by his own circle of crashing soldiers. She couldn't see any injuries, not even fear on him. Somehow he had gone through the invasion unscathed. It would be Clarimond who'd shatter him when she told him about Auderic. Or when he looked at her and saw that something was wrong. She couldn't face him. She told herself that he needed the focus more than he needed her. Instead, Clarimond set off toward the shelter, hoping to be of some use there. She went out into the minor tunnels going downwards. Something was off. More and more soldiers appeared, of both factions. More and more of them were ﬁghting each other the lower she got, almost like they had in the corridors going upwards towards the balconies. But the balconies had been where they'd kept their sorcerers. There was nothing down here except for the shelters. Clarimond quickened her step. Here and there she had to block and push through combatants blocking her path. The stone men were on her like leeches here. She couldn't bring herself to ﬁght back, so she kept her head down, trying to lose them in the general chaos, make someone else do the ﬁghting for her. She ended up on her back. Almost reﬂexively, she swung her leg out and nearly felled an elf. She got up and ran, but it wasn't long before she found out why the ﬁghting was so intense here. Only a little further down, the way was blocked by a huge pile of rocks where the wall and the ﬂoor beneath it had caved in. Right above the shelter. Clarimond rushed forward and started digging through it, but in seconds the elves were upon her. The same thing was happening all over the heap. Clarimond didn't think about what it all meant. She couldn't let herself, not after what happened to Auderic and not when she had to ﬁght for her life. The elves weren't going to stop, but it had to end. If only so they could save those under the rubble. Save her mother. Clarimond fought back with all she had, fought her way to the main hall again. The dragon was on its last leg now, covered in blood and making fainter and fainter attempts to stop its attackers. The elves were getting desperate, and the battle was brutal. Soldiers from both sides rushed towards the square now, and the formations had all but dissolved. But the sorcerers still needed protecting. Clarimond fought her way towards her brother and his group.
She was too late. The guard around his group had vanished in the general chaos and there he was, on the ground, with an ugly brown staining his red robes. The world was spinning. Clarimond couldn't breathe. But through it all came the sheer rage at herself. So struck by the loss of one brother that she'd let the other one die. When an elf came at her, she swung at them with a furious scream, putting all her force into the blow. The elf was dead in a heartbeat, but it didn't move her. Hugolin's body lay at the feet of living sorcerers, two of which she knew: Fatima, a young woman whose parents Clarimond had been neighbors with and who was still holding onto her wand as if her life depended on it, and Radovan, an older person known for doing light tricks for children. Clarimond wasn't going to let them die. And she wasn't going to let the stone men near her brother again. She spotted a few other Thaeraine soldiers, and yelled at them and pulled them into position around the sorcerers. That was the easy part. With most of the elves' forces now at the square, they were outnumbered, and pushed and pulled at in every direction to break the formation. Clarimond fought two or three on her own. She lashed out with full force, pushing them backwards, breaking every bone she could reach. There was no time to think about their pain or their fear anymore. The enchantments Hugolin had given her to protect her, she now used to protect what was left of him.
They didn't have to hold off on their own for long. Suddenly, an elf she was ﬁghting was felled from behind. Eda stepped over them and gave Clarimond a grim smile. "You have to stop running off like that."
Clarimond only snarled and pulled him and Guarin into position. They kept ﬁghting. Twice, the
dragon collapsed. The battle stopped for a few breathless seconds, but it managed to get up again. Each time, resistance weakened as elves gave up and ﬂed. Finally, the dragon went down and stayed there. Again, the hall seemed to hold its breath until the cries started: "The dragon is dead!" Clarimond watched the elves in front of her as their eyes widened in fear, as they looked to one another in confusion. A few turned and ran, but then came a shouted order from their ranks. It spread, and with it their conﬁdence returned. She found herself tackled by a renewed assault and had to be pulled up by Guarin. The sorcerers had broken their meditation and were now huddled together, ﬂinching away from the soldiers and staring at the corpses and burnt pillars as if they were seeing them from the ﬁrst time. Radovan was the quickest to composed themselves. "Can you get us closer to the edge of the square?"
"Are you out of your mind?" Came the response from one of the other soldiers.
Radovan groaned, "Fine, just keep them away and don't wander off. Fatima," the old sorcerer placed one hand on the side of her head and put their wands together with the other. "Follow my lead." Fatima nodded grimly. The other sorcerers reached out to touch Radovan as well, forming some magical way of communication that Hugolin would never get to explain.
Even before they'd closed their eyes to meditate again, Clarimond could feel a change in the air, a wind blowing through the caverns, and a sudden heat that grew hotter and hotter. The ﬁres were starting again around the pillars. She watched in horror as the ﬂames grew. In seconds the whole hall was ablaze again. But this time it was the intruders that burned. The ﬁre moved with precision towards the elves. As the ﬁrst of their troops caught ﬁre, they started screaming in a way that made all the soldiers in Clarimond's group wince. And the screaming only got worse as the ﬁre spread. Panic broke out. Elves were running away from the square, running towards the fountain or making a desperate attempt to stop the sorcerers. Thaeraine soldiers panicked as well, causing some of the ﬁres to go out. Clarimond and her comrades fought back the desperate stone men with all they had. The heat increased. "Focus!" Clarimond shouted, as sweat started ﬂowing and the metal in her armor started to burn. The ﬁre wasn't as bright as before, but they still had to close their eyes and ﬁght blindly. More than once, Clarimond heard a strangled cry from one of the others. She quietly wondered how many of them were still alive. But it didn't matter. It became more and more apparent that the ﬁre was going to swallow them all. The heat was becoming unbearable. Blisters were forming on her skin, the armor was burning into it, the air was getting to hot to breathe and the roar of the ﬁre was deafening. Then a sudden relief. The air cooled down around her, the sounds softened and the ﬁghting suddenly stopped. Clarimond opened her eyes, only to be met with a blazing inferno. Heart pounding, she closed them again. She inched backwards, coming shoulder to shoulder with the soldiers beside her. One of them, possibly Eda, held onto her arm for comfort. She didn't know how long they stood there. It could have been seconds just as well as hours. Finally, the light and the roar from the ﬁre faded. Clarimond waited a few moments more before she opened her eyes.
The elves they'd been ﬁghting had been burned to death, and so had most of the other elves as well. A sea of blackened bodies stretched out in front of her, broken up only by islands of their own soldiers and sorcerers who had miraculously been unscathed. Clarimond's stomach turned when she saw glints of metal among the dead stone men. Part of her wanted to think that they'd been dead to begin with. She looked at the people who were with her. Only about half a dozn were left aside from the sorcerers. They looked blankly at each other and stared at the corpses around them, but most of them didn't move. Someone sobbed. Clarimond looked down, and saw that it was Guarin clinging to her. Eda was lying in front of them. It must have been, judging from its position, but all they could see was a blackened corpse in metal. Guarin sobbed. "No, no..."
Clarimond patted his back awkwardly. She looked at Eda with what she realised must have been the same blank stare as the other soldiers had. The grief wouldn't come. Eda had saved her life so many times over and kept her close even through all this chaos, but all she could think about was taking care of Hugolin who was still at her feet, of Auderic, abandoned by the pillar and of ﬁnding her mother and Tristane.
In one stroke, the elves main forces had been defeated. The elves who had survived in the square ﬂed into the tunnels. In the respite that followed, Guarin and Clarimond took Hugolin's and Eda's bodies to the temple, where the corpses were already piling up. They also went to get Auderic, who thankfully hadn't gotten much more damage. But that respite didn't last long. The soldiers were called to an assembly where a man called Daw, who'd been nowhere near the higher command before, informed them that all the entrances to Thaeraine had been closed off. "We will take no prisoners. We will hunt down every last one of the elves like the rats they are. They are never going to touch us again!"
Guarin roared in approval, as did many others. Clarimond found herself unable to join in. She and Guarin fought side by side, defeating the forces of stone men in the tunnels. Clarimond had failed to protect Eda, but she protected Guarin as he let out his fury at the elves around them, chasing them as they tried to run, and killed them after they had dropped their weapons and begged for mercy. And more and more as the stone men's forces fell apart, their mission became a hunt for stray survivors hiding in the tunnels looking for a way out. She helped him murder far too many frightened and weakened elves before ﬁnally, she excused herself to go look for survivors in the rubble formed over the collapsed shelters. She walked through the city with her eyes ﬁxed on the ground right in front of her. When she looked up, all she saw was burnt out homes, debris and traces of the bodies that were still being carried off to the temple. But even in the midst of all this, there was one miracle waiting for her in the rubble over the shelter where her mother had been. For long moments, they just stared at each other. "Tristane?"
Tristane nodded. They started to move forward, but stopped. "Clarimond?"
She managed a quick nod before throwing herself at her cousin. It was impossible to tell how long they stood there, just hugging each other. They clung to each other as though the other would disappear forever of they let go. It took most of the night before they talked properly. Clarimond had a lump in her throat and Tristane's voice cracked every time they tried to say something. What words did come out were mostly apologies. "I looked over my shoulder and they'd... Cut him down." "I saw him and I just left him there..."
They stayed by the shelter until the ﬁrst bodies started to appear. Then Clarimond realized that she didn't want to be the one to ﬁnd her mother's corpse, and they retreated to the shop. There, they could almost forget the invasion, when cleaning up, taking stock and returning to business as usual, or at least as it had been during the siege. She became the honest worker her mother and older brother had always wanted her to be. With both of their homes burnt out, Clarimond and Tristane spent most of their time there, in their bubble of normalcy. But as soon as Clarimond stepped outside it, she was left to the destruction. Every inch of the city seemed to bring back echoes of the invasion. Even a week after the last elf had been killed, she couldn't bring herself to walk outside and not be fully armed. And even in the comfort of the shop, it loomed over them in the stories from their customers and the restless waiting for news of her mother and their friends. And every now and then, the bubble was invaded by Guarin. He would come by to chat, to ask and give favors, or take them out somewhere. Always kind to them, but his presence made Clarimond's skin crawl.
She tried giving it time, but after a month had passed, she felt more like a prisoner in the city than she had ever done during the siege. There was nothing for it. Up until the last moment, Clarimond had hoped that Tristane would come with her, but every time the subject came up they sighed and shook their head. "I've thought about it, I really have. I can't believe in it, Clarimond. I want to stay here and rebuild Thaeraine."
Tristane helped her pack. One day, when the streets were quiet, they snuck out together. They walked through the main hall, the major tunnels, the minor tunnels and the smaller passages. They stopped at the end of a deserted tunnel, by a wide crack in the wall. There they hugged each other tightly. "Be careful", Tristane whispered.
Slowly, Clarimond pulled back, still holding on to her cousin's hands. "Goodbye"
Then she let go, stepped through the crack and left Thaeraine. She never once looked back.