The Sylvan Horn

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Chapter Twelve: Into the Sea

Efkin searched for ships in the darkness as the sea stirred with a howling breeze. There was no sign of the enemy fleet. He wondered how many would come and how many would die. These men looted and killed their own kind, but he knew they were pawns in this struggle, the unwitting servants of Mor. The Braey abhorred these wars. Men were a dangerous breed, but the elves took no pleasure in killing them. Once, long ago, they confronted the clans of men, but only when it seemed they must interfere or else watch men annihilate themselves with powers they could not hope to wield. It was ages ago, when the Braey were young and powerful. None remains who lived in that time at the dawn of the world, save the elementals and, some say, the dryads. Yet the lore of those days tells of great monstrous beings loosed upon the earth and heroic deeds; a time when the Braey could move the oceans and skies as their ancestors of old, speaking to spirits of air and sea, speaking to the earth itself.

Now, centuries later, when dark powers gathered in the east, the elves stood poised for war once more as Lord Efkin of the Braey leaned over the wide seas with dread.

****

The pirates’ ships shone dimly beneath the dawning rays. There were thirty galleys of war, decks crowded with warriors clad in crude furs and armor. The raiders came closer, ready with ropes and grappling hooks. They howled curses at the elves whose glorious forms angered and frightened them.

They heard the snap of catapults and suddenly balls of fire were hurling toward the elven flagship. Chaelos raised a glowing hand and sent a blast of flame into the sky. In a flash, the meteors were destroyed.

The barbarian ships thrust forward, slamming into the flagship. Hooks tore into the sails and arrows flew. A band of raiders won their way onto the elven galley and blades sang out of their sheaths as the elves met the pirates and the poison of iron fouled the air.

Swords rose and fell around Efkin who brandished Harbinger with skill, sparing those he could and dealing death to the rest. Near him, the deck was piled with men who’d fallen before Ebin’s flashing sword. With a quick glance, he saw his friend engage two brutes below. He caught their steel on his blade with an effortless calm and skill, turning their blows aside, almost dancing across the deck as he pressed them back.

Two swords swung at Efkin and he dodged a swift thrust and dropped low as a whistling blade swept over his head. He sliced upward and slew a man, then parried the other barbarian’s swipe. He pierced the man in his rib and, before his corpse hit the deck, a third barbarian sprang at him, bigger and stronger than the others, swinging a great broadsword. Efkin had never seen such a large man, with hands that could wrap around the ship’s mast. The barbarian lowered his sword as if to smote the elf lord in two and Efkin brought Harbinger up with both hands, anticipating the barbarian’s greater strength. He staggered, thrown off balance, barely deflecting another blow as he fell back.

“Elves do not fight in men’s battles!” the barbarian said with contempt. “You should not meddle in our affairs!”

“You should not kill your own kind.”

The man grunted and swung fiercely. “We are men, we will do as we will! This world is ours!”

“Then this world is doomed.”

The barbarian was furious, thrusting and swinging in a rage, daunted and dizzied by the elusive elf lord, smashing a rail with his broadsword as Efkin dodged the blow. Efkin swept at the barbarian’s head and the man leapt back. Efkin was thrusting and slicing, pressing forward with his attack before the man could recover. The raider wielded a cunning defense against the swifter elf and both fought hard, their swords clashing and ringing, whining through the air, twin winds of steel and silver singing like a fair breeze in the pale morning. The barbarian was swift and strong and few men could have withstood his deadly strokes, yet he was not fighting a man, and at last Efkin slipped through his agile defense and thrust into his stomach.

The barbarian fell forward then, hitting the deck with a crash. Efkin stood near the man as the din of battle raged around him, wishing he could put an end to all the killing. Before he turned away, he noticed the hilt of the man’s sword held a crimson jewel at the pommel.

Just then, one of the raiders’ ships swung hard into the flagship. Reeling from the impact, Efkin stumbled across the deck and fell over the larboard rail into the sea.

“Lord Efkin has fallen overboard!” someone shouted.

Chaelos was about to disengage from the battle, but then he saw Ebin dive into the water.

****

His head wet with blood where it hit the ship’s hull, Efkin sank unconscious, down the cold, black depths of the sea. A thousand reeds spread around him, swaying like branches. As he fell, one of the curling fingers brushed his tunic, loosing a gold leaf from his shirt. The pendant drifted into darkness. He descended deeper and deeper as fish scattered, breaking beneath him like a parting curtain as he dropped into their midst.

Something stirred then, a strange force in the sea, twisting in the water, as if some slumbering power awakened suddenly. The force was spinning and bending around Efkin, pressing the water away from the elf lord, shaping a pocket of air in the deep sea. Roused suddenly, Efkin awoke in a daze. He was barely aware of strange voices, echoing softly like the rush of waves on the shore.

He was struck with wonder as he found himself floating in the midst of a miraculous sphere, its glassy shell quivering around him, formed of the very sea. He reached out a gloved hand and touched the water as it coursed by, unable to comprehend what force could displace the sea in this manner. Then he heard a voice, louder than the others, echoing in his head.

“It has been many years since the Braey have summoned us.”

The crystal voice startled Efkin. It was a gentle sound like a soft whisper, yet he sensed the power of this being, aware he had been rescued by an elemental.

“I did not summon you,” he said.

The being did not reply. Efkin gazed at the clear water flowing around him. He tried to glimpse the spirit, almost in a trance, as he stared into a green light that was shimmering in the water. Whether the pulsing glow was the natural phosphorescence of the sea or some aspect of the entity he could not determine, but the elemental’s presence was keenly felt.

Efkin stared at the sea through the quivering shell that curved around him, wondering how many watery beings were near, pressing the sea away from him with their aqueous forms.

“Is there something else I can do for you?”

Efkin stared at the warships as he sped toward the surface, buoyed up by the mystic bubble, and suddenly had a notion.

“A battle is being fought,” he said. “Many will die before it is over.”

“You would end this battle,” the Sea Lord said empathically. “Very well, and do not worry, I will spare these foolish ones.”

Efkin was stunned, for this being was able to intuit his innermost thoughts. For an instant, it seemed he had known this being and other powerful entities in a time long ago, as if some vestige of his ancestors suddenly wakened in him.

He was shooting toward the surface, propelled by a mysterious force that had dwelt in the ocean for ages. He emerged, rising out of the sea upon a twisting column of water that sprang high into the air. Suddenly, massive tides swelled and fell crashing onto the barbarian fleet and the warships crumbled under the smashing blows of the sea. Knights and elves tumbled and slid across wet decks as the angry sea heaved around them, but strangely, none of their ships capsized. A few elves sensed an ancient power was spinning in the water. Men wondered why their ships were spared. But as they stood bracing themselves against the twirling sea, some of them glanced up at the watery pillar and caught sight of something they could not have glimpsed in their most outlandish dreams. High above, they saw two great eyes with brows of white foam staring down at their ships. It was a daunting visage formed of the very sea. The being eyed them for a moment, its mere glance enough to petrify men and elves alike, and some imagined they heard a voice in the rushing sea. Then it shimmered and vanished, dissolving in the twisting pillar of water.

The sea was calm as the tides fell away. Flotsam stirred in the water and the bodies of the slain were many, but none had drowned. Those not killed by a sword were carried across the sea, borne by a mystical current to a sandy shore. The Sea-Lord had kept his word and shown mercy.

A gentle wave curled toward the elven flagship. It bent over the larboard rail and lowered Efkin onto the deck without a splash. The watery swirl hung in the air a moment, glistening with an emerald light, before retreating into the sea.

Efkin stared at the rolling waves through a misty breeze. He turned away from the ocean and found a bewildered Chaelos. Before they could speak, Ebin appeared suddenly, dripping wet as he crossed the deck, and handed Efkin a gold leaf.

****

Many miles away in the northern part of Khazinth that borders the lands of Mor, an armored horseman rode across the plain toward a fortress that stood grey against the dawn. He entered the high-walled citadel, passing under the pointed teeth of an iron gate that lifted overhead.

The man leapt off his horse and hastened up a stair. He passed several guards and entered a pillared hall. Upon a balcony of gold, King Dinnisien peered across miles, staring at the black towers of Mor through a strange fog that hung over the realm of the dark lords. A bronze crown was on his head and his pale robes were laced with gold.

The armored man came toward the king. “There has been a battle at sea,” the man said. “An allied fleet of elves and men defeated the barbarian raiders who serve Mor.”

The king made no gesture as he stood staring into the fog that twisted over Mor. “So the elves have come at last.” He held his gaze across the miles a moment longer, then turned with a smile. “The great battle is nigh upon us, when elves and men will fight to rule the earth.”

The armored man appeared dismayed and the king laughed.

“I speak of things few others could know, Jir,” said the king. “Do not trouble yourself with such matters, but know that your king and his allies have foreseen the events unfolding before us and our course is sure and will not be steered by the elves. The barbarians are of little consequence, for their purpose was to impede not defeat them and, in so doing, assay their true strength. Let them have this battle, for the war remains, and our allies in Mor will surely crush them.”

“I fear even Mor has not foreseen the might of the elves,” said Jir. “The raiders’ fleet was almost wholly destroyed. Only a handful of ships remain; the rest lie at the bottom of the sea.”

“How can this be?”

“The fighting began some time after dawn when the raiders attacked the allied fleet, casting balls of flame with catapults that would have set many of their ships afire if not for the elves who met the blazing assault with fiery powers no men have seen, destroying the fireballs in the air so that none of their ships were harmed.”

“None of their ships?”

“Not one,” said Jir. “And there is more. The barbarians clashed swords with the elves and knights and they fought for some time, but then I am told, a very strange thing happened. The seas stirred suddenly and a great column of water sprang high above the battle, hanging in the air while fierce tides heaved up and crushed the barbarians’ ships, casting them into the spinning waters of the sea. Yet none of the allied ships were destroyed by the waters that raged around them, as if some power protected them.”

“The elves balked the storm with their powers,” the king said.

“I am not sure there was any storm,” said Jir. “Those who escaped say the very seas were turned against them by a power they dare not imagine. They say their fleet was destroyed by a spirit that dwells in the ocean and has sided with the elves.”

The king might have dismissed the notion of an angry sea spirit as the superstitious talk of crude barbarians who believed in such things no learned men would conceive, but he knew the elves were capable of wonders few could apprehend, and feared the legends told of their ancestors, who it is said spoke with beings of sea and air, were perhaps something more than fanciful rumors.

“And there are a few,” said Jir, “who swear a scarlet figure stood upon the watery pillar, and still others say that a face took shape within the swirling column and glared at them with fearsome eyes that sent them fleeing in terror, and no sailors who glimpsed the apparition are likely to sail the wide seas again.”

Astonished, the king fell silent. He eyed the man a moment, then he turned his gaze away and his eyes found the grey mists of Mor still curling outside his balcony. He stared into the fog, as if seeking solace in the billowing folds of smoke that twisted over towered cities some miles away.

“The elves are a mighty folk,” said the king. “Yet they will not match the sorceries of our allies in Mor.”

“I do not pretend to know of such things, lord, nor do I question your wisdom in these matters, but I must wonder if Mor’s lords are less mighty than they would have us believe.”

The king turned around and eyed the man sternly. “Do you say these men have beguiled me?”

“No, lord, I do not say that.”

The king laughed. “Forgive me; it is not often that I can speak like the fearsome kings of old. I know there are many who wonder as you do if I have erred in my judgment by siding with Mor and its sorceries. Indeed, there was a time not long ago when I might have done otherwise and dared to defy these men who will seek to conquer all the lands, but do not judge me too harshly. Remember the battles I fought in years past against armies that were stronger than any forces we could marshal, and never let it be said, that any lord bent my will toward his own designs, for I would not falter if a thousand armies were at my gates. Yet I have seen such things in these days that I dare not speak of, dire happenings that will change all the world and, while I might wish it otherwise, I can do naught except what must be done to spare us the dark storm that is coming.”

Jir stood looking at the king with bewildered eyes and the king met his confused stare with a slight smile. “I know you are troubled,” said the king. “You would rather take up arms against the men of Mor than side with them in this conflict, but you are mistaken if you think there is aught that can be done to challenge them.”

“But the elves, lord, they will challenge Mor and its allies. Surely they know more of what transpires than men can see.”

The king smiled and looked at the man as an elder looks at a child who speaks with innocence and lack of years. “If they have foreseen what has been revealed to me, they fight a battle they know they cannot win, for some time ago I stood in the shadowed halls of Mor, summoned by the lords of that land to a gathering of kings, and there I was shown what will become of our world in these days. They took all the kings down a tunnel deep beneath the earth, and, when we climbed out of that darkened passage into a stony plain, we stared aghast at the miles we had crossed. It seemed we had scarcely walked half a mile, yet the city stood far away in the distance, as if some sorcery in the tunnel bent time and space so that we spanned a great distance with a few steps. Then we were led into a dark tower that stood against the sky. We went up a curling stair and entered a chamber where a fearsome lord stood waiting for us; our eyes widened with fear as he stepped out of shadows, clad in a sorcerous mail that shifted in strange patterns. A great cloak hung over him like a shadow and a sword with a hilt dark as night hung at his side. He came before us and, beneath his hood, we saw the crown upon his head and stood in terror of his presence.”

Jir gasped. “You have seen Vahnd-Groth.”

“Yes, and I do not care to see him again,” said the king. “He is not horrible to behold, as some have said, and his words are kindly, yet to meet his gaze is to stare into a cold, confident power I dread to recall. He greeted us and told of great changes that will reshape the world. As he spoke, a strange mist swept around us, and through its billowing folds, we glimpsed vast armies marching over a broken earth, sweeping into the torn kingdoms of the West where thousands died from starvation and disease. There were earthquakes that splintered the earth so that whole nations were sundered and fell away into raging seas. Dragons beat their wings on storm winds with black riders saddled on their backs, loosing their terrible flames on those forces that remained to challenge the armies of Mor, and dire things no men have seen ravaged the lands. We stared aghast at what we beheld in that sorcerous smoke. It seemed all the world came to its end, and Vahnd-Groth sensed our fear and with his words tried to bend our will so that our lands would become allies under Mor and its lords. Though we stood in terror of the things we had seen, still none of us would yield, hoping the dire visions we had glimpsed were only the shadows of possible outcomes, fragments of truth meant to beguile us. Vahnd fell silent and his eyes burned with malice and we stood a moment in fear of what he might do. Though we have tended to dismiss the stories told of his sorceries, standing before him we felt the power of his presence upon us. But the hatred left him and he told us to step to the edge of the tower and look out across the land. We peered down from that great height and saw rivers of flame. What was revealed to us then, I dare not describe, for it is something few men should be burdened with, but know that all the kings who were gathered will side with Mor in the battles ahead.”

“I do not know what you have seen,” said Jir, “but if nothing can halt these lords of Mor, why do they hasten to absorb the territories at their borders, as if their plans might fail without them.”

“Their plans will not fail,” said the king. “Our course was plotted long ages ago, by powers greater than elves or men. There is naught we can do against what will be, we can only hope to survive the cataclysms that are coming.”

Jir stared at the king, confused by things he could not apprehend, and the king might have told more of what he had seen, but he knew he could not.

“These are strange days upon us,” said the king, “and it is sometimes difficult to understand the ways of kings. Be glad you are not a king who must decide what he will do in these times of chaos. Be assured that I have chosen a wise course that will spare us great suffering while all the world is changed around us.”

“We will fight the elves?”

The king paused and lowered his head as if a great weight were upon it. “We stand with Mor and its allies. We will do what must be done. There is nothing else for us.”

Jir was plainly opposed to the king’s plans and, while he might have held his tongue at any other time, hearing the anguish in the king’s voice, he spoke his thoughts aloud. “I know not what comes, but I am certain our dealings with Mor will prove more dire than whatever befalls us.”

The king lifted his head and his eyes were weary as he spoke. 典he times are foul, but we will survive them. A new age comes.

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