Chapter Seventeen: Into the West
Efkin stirred in his bed. Half awake, he glanced out the window and caught a glimmer of stars. His mind wandered with vague thoughts. His eyes closed and he saw shapes curling in a bright mist. A light flashed, and then he stood in a forest. He had barely taken a step in the wood when a fair being appeared.
“Seek the high cliff when the moon is full.”
He stared at the dryad, held by her sublime gaze for a moment. Then he awoke.
The light was fading when they reached the coast of Rynne. Efkin peered across the water and glimpsed a twilit harbor town through the haze. There were many ships moored here, most of them merchant vessels of Hlonan, though some were from Kel-Ri and other distant lands. Aboard one of the larger ships, a group of dwarves worked tirelessly, securing their cargo and unfurling the sail. They went swiftly about the deck, but their movements were precise, with no effort wasted. They did not speak or give signals, moving with oblivious haste, each occupied only with his own task. In appearance, they were alike, all bearded and wearing light mail over their clothes; they carried themselves with the same firmness so that it was hard to tell one from the other.
“Hail, friend!” Efkin called to one of them.
The dwarf turned to him. “Hail, elf.”
“You seem in a hurry.”
“We go to Yorresen to help our folk defend themselves against the men of Isnir.”
“Isnir?” Efkin said surprised.
“They have waited many years to attack us. Mor has supplied them with ships and powerful weapons. We fear they will equip other lands as well.”
“Can you defeat these men?”
“We will crush them soon, but a greater battle will follow. Mor has set Isnir against us only to test our strength. Have the elves seen much fighting in these days?”
“We met their raiders at sea some days ago,” Efkin said, “but Mor has not dared to attack us.”
The dwarf nodded. “I suspect Mor already knows the might of the elves and will not attack for some time. But the great war is almost upon us. Mor’s armies will spread over the world and none will be spared, not even your elven isle.”
Efkin fell silent and the dwarf saw his words weighed on him. His eyes were curious as he looked at the elf. “You are a long way from home, elfin friend.”
Efkin hesitated a moment. “We come to speak with someone.”
The dwarf grinned. “It must be someone of great importance. Elves are seldom seen in the lands of men.”
“The air is different here,” Efkin replied.
“Indeed it is,” the dwarf agreed. “Too much iron for your folk, I suppose. Though I see the elf-smiths are putting a bit of iron in their work.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your sword,” the dwarf said pointing at the blade. “It has iron.”
Efkin stared at the dwarf.
“You did not know? Is it not true that elves can perceive iron?”
“Yes, we can, but I do not sense any iron in this blade.”
The dwarf grunted. “It is more silver than iron, but there is certainly iron in the sword.”
Efkin was confused. Even a small amount of iron would not escape his awareness, yet he carried an iron blade at his side without knowing. But it was no ordinary blade. If it was the work of dryads, it might have been forged ages ago. Perhaps there was a time when iron was as innocuous as copper or any other metal. Had something tainted the iron? Had some corruptive force altered it? Efkin gasped.
“Can dwarves find iron that is buried deep in the earth?”
“Where is the iron?”
“It is somewhere in Mor.”
The dwarf grunted. “We could find the iron, but it would take some time. And we are assuming the lords of that dark land would permit us to begin the search. Dwarves are scarcely more welcome there than the elves.”
“Is there no way to find it faster?”
The dwarf paused to consider. “A gnome could find it swiftly, but getting one of those greedy rascals to aid you might take longer than having a dwarf find it for you.”
Efkin lowered his head.
“Good luck to you,” said the dwarf.
The dwarven ship was leaving the harbor as the last wooden chest was secured. Efkin held his gaze on the ship, watching it disappear into the haze. Then he stood for some moments staring at the rolling sea, his thoughts troubled.
A quiet night passed and the town awoke with the dawn as people stirred in the streets in the pale morning. There were few at the harbor. Those who saw the elven ship paused a moment, hoping to catch a glimpse of the wondrous beings who had come to their land. Before the sun crept out of the east, three figures stepped onto the wharf and came into their midst. Leading them was a coppery elf, slender and fair, wearing a scarlet cloak and a gold leaf on his shirt. They made their way across paved streets in the bright dawn. Except for a few startled glances, the two elves attracted little attention as they passed through the town, unnoticed by the hasty folk who busied themselves with all sorts of tasks. All around them there was movement as people spilled into the street, rising with the morning sun. They hurried about with smiles and laughter, taking up the chores of the day with a plain joy that surprised Efkin. He smiled as a passerby returned his startled glance, taken aback by the mystic elf.
There was a peace here in the West, where Mor’s shadow had not darkened the lands. As he passed through the town hearing a minstrel’s gentle tune in the crisp air, Efkin thought he could almost forget that all the world stood at the verge of war.
They followed a dirt road that overlooked the shore on their left and wound its way below mountains on their right. The path led them through fields and over hills, sloping at last into a clearing. There was not even a bent blade of grass to indicate that others had passed this way, only the sighing wind, sweeping across the barren plain.
“There is the high cliff,” Efkin said, pointing at the rock. “The dryad said to come here when the moon is full.”
“She has chosen a curious place to appear,” Ebin said. “Where are the trees?”
Efkin looked up at the sky. There was no moon. He glanced at the rock again, looking for a cave where a being might dwell, but the cliff was utterly sheer.
“Can a dryad survive without trees?” Ebin wondered.
Before Efkin could reply, they heard a splash and turned their gaze to the sea. Some distance away, they caught sight of a man wading out of the water onto the shore, shouting with clenched fist at a giant bird that flapped overhead. The bird spun around and perched itself on a rock. Then it fluttered down and landed in front of the man as he cursed the winged thing.
The three travelers approached the man. As they neared the water, they saw the bird was fitted with a saddle that it tried to shake loose, kicking and flapping in a flurry of agitation.
The man was still cursing the bird as they approached him.
“Foul creature!” he cried.
Efkin stepped toward the man. “Where did you find such a large bird?”
“It was imported from a distant land,” the man said without looking at the elf lord. “But this is none of my doing. Prince Corri has ordered us to raise and train these vile things for his new army which will be of such strength that Mor will not dare cross our lands, or so he has said.”
Efkin was surprised to learn that men prepared for war in this placid corner of the world.
“But I say these birds are wretched things!” the man ranted. “Foul creatures that no civilized man will tame!”
“Perhaps it would be more agreeable if its saddle were loosened.”
The man turned to Efkin, about to reply, and froze suddenly when he glanced the elven being beside him.
“Oh, this is a day of wonders!” he said excited. “The elves have come to Rynne to be greeted by a piteous man and his feathered monster!”
The bird was screeching. Ebin approached it, artfully dodging a swipe of its wing. He stood very still, staring into its eyes, then put a hand on its head and calmed the flustered creature with gentle strokes.
“I have not seen any who could still this beast as you have done,” said the man. “But I suppose you are not like any I have seen.”
“This is a fine bird,” Ebin said. “Though I hardly think it is suited for combat.”
“I quite agree,” the man said. “But the prince has convinced himself that we will groom these birds to guard our shores against invasion.”
“Has Mor threatened this land?” asked Efkin.
“Mor’s forces threaten all lands, elven one. We are a peaceable land, as yet untouched by war, but do not think we are unaware of what comes. We have heard of great terrors in the East that will threaten all the world.”
“Yet the people here seem free of such cares. I had hoped there was at least one place in the world that knew nothing of warfare.”
The man grinned. “I fear there is no such place left in the world. But if we seem at ease in this dark time, you must remember our borders have never been crossed by a foreign army. There has been no fighting in this country, so we have been spared the strife of war. Perhaps we have grown complacent, but we are not so isolated that word of what is happening in the world does not reach us. Unlike some of our neighbors in the north, we are not so foolish to think we are invulnerable to attack.”
The bird chirped and flapped its wings.
“Though I must question some of the measures we are taking,” the man said wryly.
“Where are the other birds?” asked Efkin.
At that moment, something splashed in the sea and they turned to find a man swearing at a creature in the sky as he swam to shore.
“One of them is harrying that poor fool yonder,” the man said, “and I expect some others will follow shortly.”
“Where do you keep them?” asked Efkin.
“They are kept in a large stable with room enough for them to fly.”
“How many are there?”
“A few dozen of these fully grown ones and more eggs than I can count.”
There was a splash and another hapless man floated and wailed in the sea.
“We train them over the water for obvious reasons,” the man said.
“Has no one mastered these creatures?” asked Colun.
The man shook his head. “The winged fiends will not be tamed.”
Overhead a bird swept past them and soared across the sky. It flew over the sea and then spun back toward them and, as it glided out of the air, its slender elfin rider was revealed.
The man was daunted by the sight, staring at the rider with eyes that were at once bewildered and bright with hope. “Extraordinary,” he gasped.
Ebin leapt off the bird, brushing some errant feathers away with a snap of his cape, and came toward them with a smile. “My lord, we must ask the prince where he finds these noble birds.”
The man was still staring at the fanciful elf, utterly astonished and without words to express the pure wonder he felt at that moment.
There was a splash and he regained himself, shaking his head as another man howled in the sea.
“It seems apparent,” said Ebin, “these riders are the ones who need training. The birds already know how to fly.”
“Perhaps you will help us master the beasts,” said the man. “We would welcome any instruction you are inclined to offer.”
“We are pursuing an urgent quest at the moment,” said Efkin.
The man frowned. “I see. But you must let me introduce you to the prince,” the man insisted. “He would not forgive me if I did not honor him with your presence.”
“There is no time.”
“I beseech you,” the man pleaded, “stay a while longer and meet the prince. Your quest will be waiting for you when we are finished.”
Efkin glanced up for a moment. There was still no moon in the sky. “Very well,” he said. “We will see the prince, but we cannot stay long.”
“Oh, yes, come quickly,” the man said. “This will take only a moment, I promise you. We would not keep the elves from their quest.”