Chapter One: The Elves
It was early dawn when a wagon rumbled across the plain along the eastern part of Khazinth on its way toward a village that stood between the mountains and the sea. No other travelers passed this way. The jingle of harness and clatter of hooves were the only sounds that echoed through the hills. A slight wind blew out of the valley and clouds scattered in the sky as the morning grew brighter.
They went down the sloping landscape at a steady pace and, as they turned, they saw lanterns blinking dimly in the dawning light. The driver yawned and led the horses forward in the crisp air. It had been a tiresome journey across the plains and he might have fallen asleep, but the steady rhythm of hoof beats kept him awake.
He was staring ahead in a drowsy trance when something caught his attention. Some distance away, a large crack ran across their path in a jagged pattern. The gap was not wide, but it seemed to stretch for miles, running out of the northern plains and down into the hills. He slowed the horses and the wagon went over the crevasse with a slight jolt. Stirred awake, his two partners stuck their heads out and stared at the broken ground with surprise. They were about to say something when a flock of birds scattered overhead, racing frantically away.
Then they heard something. A faint noise seemed to come from the ground, as if something burrowed its way beneath the earth. The horses halted suddenly, frightened by something unseen. They stomped nervously and the man held them firmly while the land groaned around them.
There was a sound like a clap of thunder, and suddenly the ground split and cracked. The horses reared in a panic and the driver fought to hold them as the other two men came out of the wagon to help him. The ground crumbled and fell away in a great chasm that sundered the plain and glowed with molten matter that coursed down its length. It tore through the earth like a fiery knife, and the men stared into that blazing abyss with fear and confusion. Then one man gasped as he glimpsed something in the flames, a strange shape that was barely visible, a vague suggestion of form amidst the fire. It was only a flash of light and, in any other land, he might have dismissed it as his own imagining, but he knew they were not far from the walled cities of Mor and the lords of that land dealt in powerful sorceries.
The other men saw the flickering forms dancing in the flames and they all stood for a moment in terror of the glowing apparitions. The fiery beings crackled and leapt like tongues of flame, their sorcerous forms menacing the air, and then the things sank back into the burning matter, carried away by the river of flame that flowed through the sundered land.
In the sky above, a bird soared over the broken earth and then over the sea, riding the winds for miles, away from the lands of men.
In the west, a slender being made her way through bright halls hung with tapestries and sculpted forms carved with a craft beyond the arts of men. Her brown hair flowed beneath an emerald crown, curling down her back. She wore a hazel dress that split into several strands at her waist to form a short skirt.
She climbed a winding stair into a glowing chamber that overlooked the forest at its far end. With no wall between her and the swaying branches that rustled and spread into the chamber, she felt the wonder of the trees upon her.
The queen of the elves stood overlooking the forest. Her fair gaze stared into the wood as if she tried to glimpse something in the trees, something in the very air that seemed amiss.
A bird flew overhead. As it caught her eye, she saw the earth quaking and rivers of flame that sundered the land, as if she flew over the scene herself, seeing what the bird had spied.
Gabreu stood very still as the wind blew suddenly. The sighing breeze seemed to echo around her so that she almost imagined a voice in the whispering rush. For a moment, she wondered if the Kyre spoke to her, stirring the air with a breath. The mystical Kyre who, in a time, commanded the wind and seas. She might have recalled the tales of ancestors who had shaped the earth, but something troubled her as she stared into the wood. Something had changed. It seemed all the world was changing in these days when conflicts divided the lands and men gathered dire powers, unleashing sorceries no beings should wield. There were many among the Braey elves who had foreseen these events, but few could see what Gabreu perceived at this moment. In her eyes, every tree that swayed in the air, every bough that bent overhead, and every cloud in the sky seemed to move in a way that was apart from the natural order.
She glanced at the westering sun across the horizon. There would be wonders in the days ahead; a great power was stirring in the earth. But her visions were vague and tainted with a dark menace. She did not know if this power would heal the land or destroy it.
Something caught her eye suddenly, a faint glimmer of light in the trees. It flashed only for an instant, but she perceived it nonetheless. She held her gaze on the woods for a moment and, within the shade of trees, sensed a strand of blue light. It was barely visible in the sunlight, curling in the air like a luminous thread. Her heart leapt at the sight. “Can it be?” she wondered, staring at the faint light that seemed to glimmer with a bright promise.
She heard someone approach and found Jahan behind her, billowing in her yellow silk as she crossed the chamber. The High Priestess came beside Gabreu and stood with her at the edge of the chamber beneath a rustling tree.
“Lord Daras is dead,” Jahan said.
Gabreu lowered her head. The elder lord had been in her thoughts since his return from the lands of men, when he had fallen ill, but she hoped he would recover.
“I did not see this,” said Jahan. “I should have known it was his time.”
Gabreu shook her head. “You could not see it. It was not his time.”
“What do you mean?”
Gabreu hesitated. “He aged beyond his years, withering unnaturally before his time.”
“How can this be?”
“I sent him and some others into the east to seek the Runes and destroy them.”
“Almost a year ago,” Jahan recalled.
“I believe he came close to finding the Runes. Too close.”
“The poison of the Runes killed him?”
“The Runes weaken the earth and nothing is as it was before. The skies and seas are changing around us; the very air we breathe weakens us. A vile sorcery corrupts the earth and no elves can survive near its source.”
Jahan gasped. “How many others have sought the Runes?”
“More than half our lords,” said Gabreu. “Lord Daras was the last to go into the east and may have come closer to the Runes than any others.”
“Then we can hope no others will perish,” said Jahan.
“We all perish.” It was a harsh sentiment, but it was true. The elves were older than men, older than the hills, but no longer immortal, for the earth that sustained them was being poisoned by sorcery. The elder race that had been exempt from the doom of time was now fading from the earth with the numbered years of mortal men.
They fell silent, staring far away, past the rustling forest beneath them, away north where the jagged hills broke the horizon.
Night fell over the woods and shadows danced in the pale moonlight as Gabreu made her way among the trees, pursuing a faint light that shimmered in the darkness. The strange radiance flickered some distance ahead of her and she went quickly toward it. It was a dim radiance that few others could perceive, but she had seen this light before and longed to speak to the being at its source.
“Nemral?” she whispered, knowing her words and perhaps even her thoughts would be heard clearly. The light faded, but she held a waning hope that the druid was near. “Things are not as they were,” she said. “The world changes.”
A wind swept around her, then a ray of blue light flashed through the trees and suddenly the glowing being appeared.
“All change is not foul,” he said. “Good things come from change.” A blue radiance embraced his intangible form and his right hand held a great branch like a staff.
She met his bright gaze and smiled. “How long has it been?”
“Perhaps a year,” the druid replied.
“Terrible powers are gathering, Nemral. There is a poison in the lands of men. It killed Daras. It kills all the elves slowly.”
“Faster than you think.”
Gabreu stared at the druid a moment and then her eyes widened with fear. “The Runes are almost complete?”
The druid nodded. “But there is still time.”
“The Runes must be broken or all is lost.”
“Before the Runes are broken, the trees will fade and the dead will rise.”
“That is a foul doom.”
It was a grave portent and Gabreu might have felt despair, but she met the druid’s gaze and found solace in his bright eyes that glowed with a light that seemed to chase all darkness away.
The druid was fading as he spoke. “All is not lost. Things are not as they seem.” And then he was gone, vanishing in a shimmer of mist.
Gabreu stood a while in the moonlit gale, sensing the druid was still near. The woodland spirit was never far from the forest, but she felt his presence keenly for some moments after he disappeared, a lingering essence that hung in the air. A breeze swept past her and the sylvan spirit departed.
She took a breath of the crisp air and glanced at the moon. Then she made her way through the forest, back to the palace.
It was a short walk to the outer gate. A moment later, she had crossed the hall and reached the stair. Jahan appeared from a chamber, but before they could speak, there was a sudden clamor as Lord Chaelos and two warriors came rushing into the hall.
“Trolls have entered the forest,” said Chaelos. “They came at night to cut the trees and attacked an elf who surprised them.”
“Is he wounded?” asked Gabreu.
“He lives. We found him at the edge of the wood near the hills.”
Gabreu fell silent, aware that something had changed on their elven isle.
“I have gathered our lords to seek the trolls in their lairs,” said Chaelos. “We wait for your word.”
Gabreu paused a moment.
“There is no other course. Send them into the farthest mountains or slay them all.”
Chaelos nodded and turned with haste, departing with the two warriors at his heels.
Gabreu and Jahan looked at each other.
“The trolls are bold,” Jahan said. “They must have grown restless in their caves to enter the forest where our strength is greater.”
“Or they are driven by other powers,” said Gabreu. “I fear they do not dwell in the hills alone.”