Chapter Eleven: Abernaeth and His Knights
The last rays of sun were fading in the west as a group of riders made their way through the harbor town. The streets were often empty at this late hour, but a small crowd had gathered to see the strange beings who had come to their land. They rode past their houses with knights to lead them down the avenue. People stared in wonder, at once enchanted and afraid of the mysterious, magical elves. They were all wondrous beings, yet some onlookers noticed a scarlet one who seemed possessed of a singular wisdom and power, for he met their glances with the eyes of one schooled in the mystic arts.
Riding beside him, with brown curls upon his shoulders and a smile upon his face, an ebon-clad elf hailed the men and women of the harbor who saw in his emerald eyes a dauntless, casual strength beyond understanding.
The knights and elves hastened through the quiet town as dusk was upon them and the people watched them cross the road on their way to the king. Before they had passed out of the town, the scarlet elf turned a cheery glance into the crowd and his bright eyes found the boy who had hailed him at the harbor. He smiled at the boy and waved to his parents. The boy stared at him with widened eyes, stunned for a moment, then a smile crossed his face and he waved back at the elf lord before he disappeared into the night.
They followed a broken road into grasslands under a crescent moon. They could see fires curling in the breeze, glinting off shields and armor that moved along walls of stone. They neared the torch-lit castle, passing under the shadow of great towers as they crossed a drawbridge and went toward the outer gate where armed men waited. The gate was raised and knights and elves passed into the great stronghold in the moonlit night.
They dismounted in the outer court, then passed under another gate and entered the inner court where a group of knights received them and led them up a stair. They were stout men, but there was the sense of something amiss in their ranks. They carried themselves with pride, their gait was steady and sure, yet they seemed burdened somehow, as if some great doom were upon them.
The elves peered up at the battlements where armed men lined the walls. Many years had passed since the last great war when Abernaeth defeated the false kings, uniting the southern lands of Avenlor under one sovereign, yet it seemed war was still upon them. No armies gathered outside their walls, but they stood as if waiting for aggressors to assail them at any moment.
A fresh breeze blew from the west. The air was clean, but a trace of iron reminded the elves they were in the lands of men. Yet the poison was not enough to foul the air.
They came into a wide courtyard where vines of ivy spread over walls and clear water fell from a large fountain into a channel that ran gently down the length of the yard. The elves were surprised to find such eloquent beauty within these cold walls.
One of the knights noticed their surprise and smiled. “I did not think I would live to see elvish eyes widened by the arts of men,” he said amused.
The elves and knights laughed.
“Seeing elvish eyes is wonder enough for me!” another man said.
The first knight turned to the scarlet elf. “Lord Efkin, your company can wait in the courtyard while you speak with the king.”
The elf lord and his ebon companion followed the knight through a passage into a stony hall. A slight breeze was blowing through a narrow slit and the torch-lit chamber flickered with a warm glow. A long table stretched in the center of the room with oaken chairs around it.
“The king will join you shortly, Lord Efkin,” said the knight, and then he departed.
The two elves stood silent a moment, glancing around the room. On a wall, Efkin found two swords crossed over a great shield and felt a weight upon him, aware that his meeting with the king would influence the course of things to come. Their words this evening might change the very course of history. Many lives might be spared and the broken lands of men might reform under new rulers. He was pondering such things when shadows crossed the chamber and he heard footsteps near. He turned and saw four knights appear. Then the king emerged, tall and proud, his eyes upon the elves as he stepped into the glowing chamber.
The first knight came forward. “Lord Efkin of the Braey has come to speak with you, and beside him stands Ebin.”
The first knight departed.
The king greeted the elves. “Welcome, elven friends. We are grateful you have come.”
The king seated himself at one end of the table and Efkin took his place at the other end while Ebin and three knights sat at their sides. Abernaeth paused, eyeing the elf lord a moment before he spoke, and Efkin saw in his gaze a wisdom that seemed beyond other men. His pale blue eyes were strong and sure, without any hint of guile.
“It has been some time since elves have come into these lands,” said the king. “You have honored us this evening, my lord, for you have come as swiftly as the sea would bear you. The Braey are ever our most trusted and powerful allies, but I regret that we meet in such desperate times.”
“Perhaps we will change the times,” Efkin replied.
The king raised a brow and his lips curved with a slight smile. “Indeed, perhaps we will. We must try at least, or else lose what has taken years to build.” The king glanced at his knights and then leaned forward. “We have fought long and hard to bring order to this land, and while we are still working to unite our own territories, we must keep a wary eye abroad where our enemy is on the move, spreading its shadow over the world as it conquers neighboring lands. They are cunning fiends who set other lands against us while their own forces are still gathering strength. As we speak, pirates attack our ships in the south as they deliver needed rations to Gyuune, without which the people of that land would be forced to labor in Mor, forging weapons and building fortresses in exchange for food. And with half our fleet away in the south where we are resolving a conflict between feuding nations, we can send only a fraction of our ships to Gyuune while the rest guard our borders.”
The king paused.
“Lord Efkin, our ships must get through to Gyuune. I know the elves do not often interfere in the affairs of men, but I must ask their aid in this dark hour.”
“It is true we have tried to stay out of your conflicts,” Efkin said, “but we will stand with your knights against these raiders.”
The king smiled. “We knew the elves would not turn their backs on a land in need.”
“More than one land will need us,” Efkin replied.
The king stared at Efkin a moment, piercing him with his gaze, as if attempting to glean some knowledge from his elvish eyes. “What have the elves foreseen?”
“We have known that Mor would bring the lands of men to war, before they gathered armies or threatened any nations. Indeed, even before I was born, the Braey have watched events in the east, where men deal in sorceries, and foretold of the dark days upon us now.”
The king nodded. “The elves know more of the affairs of men than most men. They see many things that are hidden and their counsel is ever the wisest. Yet even their powers may not be enough to save us from the evil that gathers.”
“A foulness spreads over the world,” Efkin agreed, “but the allies are strong. The men of Hagron stand with us and there are other lands that will not fall under the shadow of Mor.”
“Some say Khazinth may side against us. The dark lords are tireless fiends, always at work. Scarcely a year has passed since the eastern lands fell and already they have become part of Mor’s empire, wholly absorbed and reformed. I dare not imagine how many more lands will fall.”
“The men of Mor will be dealt with,” Efkin said.
“It will be a small victory, for Mor does not seek to conquer Gyuune. The dark lords know our forces will act to defend Gyuune, and thus they will divide our fleet further and see how our knights fare at sea. Gyuune will play no great role in the war that is coming, but we must still spare its people the terrors of Mor.” The king fell silent. Then he turned to a knight at his right. “What tidings come from Dagur, Colun?”
“We have learned a band of mercenaries will seek to assail you on the morrow,” the knight replied. “They seem to believe you will be traveling abroad soon.”
The knights laughed.
The king smiled. “Forgive us, Lord Efkin, we laugh at the assassins.”
“Aye, the assassins,” Kaey said amused.
“Still, we must remember that one among us has fallen,” said Colun.
They fell silent. The king turned to Colun. “We will deal with the traitor, Colun, but know that none will destroy what we have built, for the lands we have united will stand against Mor and all its treachery. If a thousand armies swept onto our shores and razed this castle, still the people would fight our enemy, defending their lands against the fell powers of Mor.”
Abernaeth’s voice rose a bit and the elves found they were moved as he spoke, for his manner and tone were such that none could doubt his words.
“No man can conquer the people in their hearts,” said Colun, “but I fear the lands might be sundered if we are not careful.”
“We will be careful,” said the king. “Mor’s evil will not poison these lands.”
“I fear it already has,” said Colun. “In Dagur this evening, a mad swordsman assailed the citizens. He fought hard, but I subdued him at last with a blow to the head. Then I noticed his sword on the ground seemed to glow. I grasped the blade and found a gem in its pommel, flickering with a strange light. I knew it must be tainted with some sorcery.”
“Where is the sword now?” asked Efkin.
“It lies in our armory,” said Colun. “We are not familiar with such things and hoped the elves would counsel us in this matter.”
“I must see the sword,” Efkin said.
A knight rose and left the chamber to bring the foul sword from the armory. A moment later, he returned with the blade in its sheath and placed it on the table. Efkin looked at the crimson jewel, aglow in the dim chamber.
“None may wield this sword,” he said. “It is a sorcerous weapon that will corrupt those who use it.”
“You have seen such weapons elsewhere?” asked the king.
“We have seen these jewels,” Efkin said. “Demon stones.”
“Demon?” Kaey said surprised. “Is there a demon in this sword?”
“No demon dwells in this jewel, I think, though I sense it is tainted with sorcery. I must know how the man acquired the blade.”
“He is a merchant,” said Colun. “He may have found it abroad where our enemy borders other lands in the south.”
“He was wild with rage,” said Kaey. “We pierced his arms and legs and he did not weaken, attacking us with a strength that seemed not his own. I do not know what evil lies in this sword, but it is surely the direst weapon I have seen.”
The king looked at the sword across the table. “The war has not yet begun and already Mor’s evil works are upon us.” The king spoke as one who eyes a fierce beast, but there was no hint of fear in his voice, only a resolve to fight.
Efkin was still eyeing the blade. The hilt was brass and skillfully wrought, almost elegant. He stared at the red jewel, menacing with its wicked light.
“We will keep the sword locked in the armory,” said the king. “None shall wield it again.”
“No, we should take it from you,” Efkin said. “Such things are not for men to deal with.”
The king paused, a bit surprised. “Very well, if the elves counsel us to be rid of the sword, then so be it.”
A young squire entered the chamber, clad in a leather jerkin.
“Your Highness, I must speak with Colun.”
The king nodded and the hasty fellow crossed the room toward Colun and handed him a piece of paper. He whispered something as the knight read the note and his voice was so low not even the elves could hear what he said. Colun paused for a moment. He turned to Hursul, a tall knight who sat across from him, and the two eyed each other.
“What is it, Colun?” asked Hursul.
Colun looked at the note. “The king rides north at dawn,” he read.
There was a long silence as all eyes turned to Hursul who sat very still.
“Do you have something to tell us, Colun?”
“This evening, I led a group of knights into Dagur,” said Colun, “and was told by a thief that some brigands plotted to kill the king, believing he rides north on the morrow. We knew someone in our ranks had betrayed us and, upon our return to the castle, we gathered a group of knights and told them falsely that the king would set out earlier than he had planned, hoping the traitor would reveal himself. I placed some trusted knights outside the castle with archers watching every wall and, some time before our meeting this evening, they sighted a bird as it flew out a window. In the fading light of dusk, the archers pierced the bird and it fell.”
Colun turned to Hursul and eyed him for a moment. Then he rose out of his chair and drew his sword.
“There is one among us in league with our enemy.”
The knights murmured as Hursul held Colun’s gaze across the table. “Who is this traitor?” he asked, his voice calm and without hint of fear.
Colun flung the note at him. “Do you recognize this?”
Hursul looked at the note bewildered and shook his head. “I know nothing of this.”
“Then it is not the note you cast out your window this evening,” said Colun.
Hursul was silent for a moment. Then he leapt out of his chair and drew his sword.
At once, swords sang out of their sheaths and knights and elves stood ready.
Hursul eyed the stout company and kept a wary distance. He glanced at the elves a moment, as if to consider their role in this. Then he looked at Colun and smiled. He shouted and four knights swept into the chamber. Colun and Kaey met the assassins with flashing swords and Hursul leapt into the clash of steel. Efkin and Ebin were about to join the fight when their elvish eyes caught shadows moving on the walls. Turning round, they found two men with crossbows. Perceiving their targets, Efkin pushed Colun aside as the first bolt was loosed. The second shaft, aimed at the king, rang off Ebin’s blade with a spark.
Another shaft was loosed and the squire fell, pierced in his side. The king reached for his sword, but Kaey held him. “We cannot lose you.”
Kaey picked up a chair and halted a fourth shaft. He threw the chair at the attackers and knocked one of them down. Their crossbows spent, the assassins took up their swords and the melee ensued. Hursul broke away from the fight to seek the king. Colun stepped in his path. Hursel eyed the knight a moment and his gaze was filled with venom. There was a clash of metal as their swords met. Hursul slashed and thrust. Colun stood firm, his strokes swift and sure, artfully dodging and counterattacking. They were both excellent swordsmen, but one pierced the other in his side. Hursul fell dead.
Across the room, the elves dealt swift death to their opponents. Colun turned and found Kaey in combat with two assassins. He leapt into their midst and slew one of the attackers. Kaey thrust and the last corpse hit the floor.
The king went to the squire and saw that his wound was not serious. Then he stood over the dead and his eyes were grave as he looked at his attackers.
“Our enemy’s hand reaches far, for it had my knights in its grip.”
“There may be others,” said Colun.
The king paused. “We will be careful, but we must not let suspicions divide us.” He glanced at Hursul on the floor. “He served our enemy, but I must believe Hursul had a noble heart once, before the shadow of Mor darkened his soul. These are dire times, when knights have fallen.”
A throng of knights and elves burst into the chamber, surprised at the corpses they found.
“What happened here!” a knight asked. “We heard shouts and sounds of battle!”
“Eight traitors lay dead before you,” said the king. “Eight who were turned by our enemy. Look closely at these and remember, lest you should be tempted and fall beside them. And know also the elves have this night saved your king from those who would cut him down.” The king gazed at the bright company of men and elves and his spirit lifted. His voice rose above the din of surprise and terror; all who stood in that glowing chamber were moved by the power and strength of his words.
“A dire blow has been dealt by our enemy who gathers strength in the east, but take heart, for our union has not faltered. We have proven stronger than any guile or wickedness.” The king turned to Efkin and smiled. “Our alliance will hold against the shadow of Mor.”
His copper hair lit by moonlight, Efkin nodded. Then he glanced at the men he had slain and wished he would never raise his sword again.