Chapter Nine: Harbinger
Efkin woke with the clatter of hoof beats. The sound faded until it was like a gentle rain sprinkling the earth, echoing in his thoughts as he drifted into a deep sleep.
He rode a horse into the hills on a misty morning. The light of the sun dimmed suddenly, and, glancing skyward, he saw a great beast with many heads, each wearing a jeweled crown.
He halted as the beast landed in front of him. It roared and its great claws slashed the air, and then the fearsome thing dissolved and was gone.
A million mice surrounded him, running in a wild frenzy, and he gripped his horse’s reins as it reared suddenly.
He saw the girl in the forest again. She screamed and the pain of her cry tore his soul, but she never feared for herself, she cried only for the wood. He saw the wraiths spinning around her, dashing through the trees in shadowy blurs and, an instant later, the girl and the forest were gone in a flash of light.
The scene changed and he saw a dark tower. From its height, a man looked down at a sundered land. He wore a great cloak that curled like smoke and the sword he bore flickered with a black radiance.
The man disappeared and Efkin stood overlooking a huge valley where armies clashed. He saw men and elves fighting the armies of Mor and its allies. Thousands of warriors fought in that great battle and powerful sorceries were unleashed. Both sides summoned supernatural forces to aid them. There were beings of fire and demons battling beneath a dwindling sun that seemed like it would burn out, as if the world were coming to its end and all the stars in the sky would collapse.
An emerald light swirled around him and formed a luminous passage that curled into infinity. Some distance away, he perceived a being who glowed with an otherworldly light and held a long branch like a staff.
He was back on his horse, riding through the forest. The horse trotted along at a steady pace and the sound of its hoof beats grew louder until he became aware of other horses riding beside him.
He awoke in his bed and looked out his window. Outside, four riders were returning to the palace after a night of chasing beasts out of the forest. A flash of blue flame swept across the evening sky and he knew Wyn and his warriors were guarding the woods.
He stayed awake listening to the forest for some moments before sleep took him once more.
It was early morning when Efkin and Ebin rode into the woods. They went north toward the edge of the forest where a group of warriors was keeping a wary eye on the hills.
There had been no fighting since last night and the warriors seemed a bit complacent and bored with their duties. They saw Efkin and Ebin coming and greeted them cheerfully. Efkin recognized some of them and received their salutations with a smile, somewhat surprised by their spirited welcome. He thought it was likely the warriors felt camaraderie with him because he possessed only an elementary knowledge of the mystic arts and still relied on his swordsmanship in battle.
“The beasts have scattered,” Wyn said, approaching them.
“They will return,” Efkin said with his gaze toward the hills.
“As surely as the sun rises,” the archer replied. “We will meet them with our silver when they do.” Wyn led his horse southward and the warriors followed the blonde archer back to the palace.
Efkin watched the warriors depart and stood staring into the woods for some moments after they had disappeared through the trees. He turned to Ebin and the two elves resumed their morning ride. The wind swept dew from the leaves to mist the air and, for a while, they forgot the cares of the day, surrounded by the sounds and movements of the forest.
They were turning back toward the palace when a humming sound pierced the air. They halted and Efkin placed his hand on Harbinger. He drew the sword out of its sheath and the blade sang in the air.
“Something stirs,” Ebin said.
Efkin paused, eyeing the blade. “Not here,” he said, leading his horse northward.
They came to the edge of the wood and searched the hills for movement, but no creatures were near. They waited there a moment, then Efkin urged his horse forward and Ebin followed close at his side. Harbinger was in its sheath, but its crooning had not ceased. They stood in the midst of that desolate place as the wind moaned between the hills, not knowing what menace lurked unseen.
A strange being emerged from a cave; a man-like thing with large black eyes set in an oversized head with webbed hands and feet, green as a troll and carrying a large sack. It rode an eight-legged creature that resembled a giant crab.
“A troglodyte,” Ebin said, recognizing the creature. “But what is it doing here?”
“There have never been troglodytes on this isle.”
The amphibious thing noticed them and fled, steering the crab back into the cave.
“It runs from us,” said Ebin.
“Harbinger would not warn us of a troglodyte, so we can be sure it carries some evil in that sack.”
The two rode their horses into the cave and pursued the creature into darkness. The crab was not swifter than the horses, but its smaller size allowed it to maneuver easily through the narrow cavern while Efkin and Ebin had difficulty negotiating the cramped space and were at last forced to dismount when their steeds could not carry them further.
They ran down sloping passages, chasing after the crab in a mad flight beneath the earth. They tried to keep the creature in sight as it scrambled over walls and ceilings. It raced away, but the two elves pursued the creature through every gap and crevice. Despite their stamina, they could not match the creature’s speed and the quick-footed crab dashed out of sight into the blackness of the cave.
“A curse on that beast and all its eight legs!” Ebin shouted.
“I have never seen its kind before,” Efkin said bewildered. “And I am certain troglodytes have never dwelt on this isle.”
“It is quite strange,” Ebin agreed.
“Since they are typically a clannish species, we can assume there are others.”
“What are they doing here? The amphibious folk dwell near the sea. There is nothing of interest for them in these hills.”
“Perhaps they serve the interests of others.”
They held their torches in front of them as they walked up a slanting tunnel. It led to a wide space with many large cracks. Efkin went to the largest opening. He lifted his torch high and its dim light revealed a vast tunnel. He could not determine the breadth of the opening, but Ebin brought his torch and they discovered it was an enormous hole spanning more than fifty feet across. They stared into the dark passage and wondered how far it spanned. Without words, they stepped into the tunnel. It was a peculiar space, perfectly curved and smooth, unlike any cavern they had ever seen. They strode down its length for some time and found the passage stretched for miles into darkness.
“What force of nature could carve this tunnel?” Efkin said daunted.
“A volcano, perhaps,” Ebin guessed, “or centuries of ocean tides sweeping through the cave.”
“And where does it end?”
Ebin looked at the floor and perceived a faint pattern that ran in all directions, spilling onto the walls and across the ceiling. “One finds the strangest things in the hills.”
They continued down the straight passage at a steady pace, hoping to find an exit, but the immutable tunnel seemed to have no end.
“It has occurred to me,” Efkin said, “that we have spent much time pursuing a curiosity that will lead us to nothing.”
“We are either very near the end of this tunnel or just very far from the beginning.”
“Precisely,” said Efkin. “The longer we proceed down this tunnel, the more we lengthen our journey back to where we started. Perhaps we should turn back before there are too many miles behind us.”
“Yes, we should go back,” Ebin agreed.
They stopped a moment to rest, lying down on the floor. They had intended only a brief pause, but both soon fell asleep. Shadows flickered and danced on the walls with the light of their torches as they slept.
Efkin stood on a mountain, overlooking a field where armies gathered. There were banners from the lands of men, and elves and dwarves were gathered. He saw the mice again, millions of them running everywhere. They were horribly emaciated and dying, and Efkin turned his gaze away from the sickly rodents.
In a dark tower, a man stared down at the scene. He wore a cloak that curled like black mist and a sword hung at his side.
The scene changed and Efkin was soaring in the clouds astride a griffin as Harbinger sang in his grasp. He plunged earthward into battle and was overcome by the sense of a great victory that would end all wars and banish all dire powers from the world.
He was in the emerald passage again. A glowing being appeared and led him down the curling tunnel of light. As he followed the bright spirit, he had the strange sense he had been here before.
He awoke suddenly, staring up at the ceiling where shadows twisted in strange shapes. He was still tired and was drifting back to sleep when he noticed something overhead. He stood up and found a crab creature hanging from the ceiling.
“Ebin, wake up.”
“What is it, my lord?”
“I have found something. Or perhaps it has found us.”
Ebin glanced up at the crab. “It is one of those eight-legged monstrosities,” he said with disgust.
“We might use it for our journey out of here.”
“Or we might continue forward,” Ebin suggested.
They approached the creature carefully, stepping slowly so they would not frighten it away, and one of its legs jumped suddenly as they came near. They stood beneath it and observed its pale, crustacean form. A shell covered its body and sheathed its triple-jointed legs that tensed as they approached.
“Do you think it was sleeping?” Ebin said curiously.
“I don’t know, but if it slumbered, we have awakened it.”
“How shall we compel it to come down?”
“I hoped you might have a notion,” Efkin said.
“Perhaps if we asked it politely, in a manner that does not threaten or offend it.”
Efkin shrugged, willing to consider any suggestions.
Ebin cleared his throat and, in the most pleasant voice he could muster, addressed the crab with deference.
“We have a great distance to cross and would be grateful if you would bear us on our way.”
The crab did not move.
“We are very tired and your kindness would spare us greater fatigue.”
It stayed motionless.
“I think a more urgent tone might have some effect,” Efkin counseled.
“Possibly, but we don’t want to appear snappish,” Ebin reasoned. “Any demands must be tempered with a measure of gentility.”
With startling speed, the creature suddenly crawled down the wall and placed itself in their midst, as if annoyed by their pleas and ready to send them on their way.
“You see,” Ebin said. “A little diplomacy is all that was needed.”
“I congratulate your good sense.”
“Shall we continue onward or leave this tunnel?”
Efkin pondered a moment. “I would like to proceed further and see if we are near the end of this passage.”
“I am also curious,” said Ebin. “And the creature points in that direction as well.”
They mounted the crab, sitting side by side atop its large shell, grasping the back of its head to secure themselves, and then waited for the creature to carry them forward.
“I suppose we must petition it to move,” Efkin said.
“It doesn’t know us very well and may not look kindly on strangers.”
“We’ve approached it respectfully, making our request without appearing crude or snappish.”
“Still, it was not expecting us and might be offended by our haste.”
At once, the crab sped away, shooting swiftly down the tunnel, and the two elves were pleased by this favorable turn, but did not know if it was motivated by a desire to aid them or end their debate.
They held onto its head tightly as it scurried into blackness, almost blowing out their torches with its celerity. The tunnel was a blur of shadows as they shot forward. They peered ahead, anxious to find a curve or slope, any sort of change, but perceived no alteration in its unusual symmetry. The dark passage seemed to stretch into infinity. There was no end in sight.
“I begin to wonder if we are trapped in some mystic circle that has no end,” Ebin mused.
“I have imagined the tunnel expands before us as we travel down its length,” Efkin admitted.
“We must turn back or I fear our hasty friend may perish and we will have to walk.”
“How shall we steer the creature?”
“I can’t be sure, but I suspect if we informed it of our intention to redirect our path, applying the same gentility which proved invaluable in our previous exchange, it would be swift to respond.”
Convinced Ebin’s verbose rationale was sound, Efkin was about to address the creature when he noticed something. “Look!”
Ahead of them, two large stalactites pierced the ceiling and they saw the rough rock walls of a cave beyond the tunnel. They entered the cavern and the crab halted. Its legs folded and its body sank so that the bottom of its shell touched the floor. The two elves hesitated before dismounting, fearing the crab might run away and leave them stranded. They waited for it to rise again, but it stayed motionless. Convinced that it slept, they slid off the creature’s back and explored the cave.
The rocks glistened around them and the scent of the sea was in the air. They were in a wide space that divided into four narrow passages that sloped upward.
“Should we pursue our curiosity further?” Efkin wondered.
“Considering the time and effort we’ve expended thus far, I think we have no other choice, but I have the unfortunate sense that we have traveled many miles to discover an empty cave.”
“I hope the crab will wait for us.” Efkin looked up at the stalactites that curved in perfect symmetry like two great scythes. He followed their lengths up toward the ceiling and paused a moment. “There is something strange here.”
He climbed some rocks to get a closer look at the stalactites. Then he held up his torch and gasped. In the flickering light, he found two enormous eyes.
“Those are not stalactites,” he said astonished. “They are teeth.”
“The fangs of a serpent,” Efkin said.
They stared in horror at the vile thing before them, in disbelief that such a creature could exist in the world and daunted by the forces that could make a tunnel from its petrified carcass.
“The portent,” Efkin said as he climbed down. “The snake that spits men and beasts from its mouth. We have found it.” He fell silent as he stared at the terrible beast. “What sorcery could conceive such a thing?”
“I can think of only one land whose dark arts are potent enough to achieve such things.”
“Can the men of Mor have such powers?”
“There is much we do not know about these men, but I fear they have dealt too long with dire powers.”
Harbinger was humming. They heard the sounds of feet slapping the wet floor and they blew out their torches and hid behind the rocks, aware that troglodytes could see in the darkness. The creatures poured into the cavern, scampering past them, and the sword’s crooning was lost in the clamor so that the beasts were oblivious to the two elves. The horde disappeared down a tunnel and Harbinger fell silent. Efkin unsheathed the sword.
“There is some foulness here,” he said eyeing the blade. He glanced at Ebin and paused a moment. Then he started down a narrow passage. At once, Harbinger was humming again. The crooning grew louder as he entered a small chamber. He held the blade with both hands, ready to receive any creatures that were coming. His gaze fell on the floor and he gasped as he discovered a score of crimson jewels scattered across the chamber. Ebin stood bewildered beside him. They stared at the demon stones that glowed with a faint light. Then they heard the sound of the sea echoing through the cavern.
They left the chamber and went up a sloping passage. The smell of the sea grew stronger and they perceived light ahead. Then they stepped onto a cliff overlooking the sea that crashed and rolled around them.
The two elves paused a moment. Then Efkin turned and stared with shock at their elven isle some miles across the sea.
“This island lies outside the range of our patrolling fleets,” said Ebin, “and serves the purposes of our enemy.”
Stunned, Efkin held his gaze on the elven isle, aghast that Mor had breached their borders. Employing the darkest sorceries men had tunneled their way into their bright isle and marred their lands with vile things. He felt a desperation welling in him and he wanted to destroy the evil these men had wrought and banish it forever from his elven isle.
“I suspect their ships have come from Gammod-Dhol where they have many allies,” Ebin said. “They have sent their wicked things aboard merchant vessels crossing the sea.”
“How can this be?”
“We knew this day would come, when men would seek to conquer our land. They have feared the might of the elves and by their arts they have constructed a hidden passage and supplied the trolls with sorcerous weapons to weaken the elves, and when they are stronger they plan to gather their armies and pass into our territories unseen.” Ebin glanced up at the giant serpent. “The dark lords must have spent years making this tunnel.”
Efkin stared at the sea. “Perhaps it was made by others.”
They stood a moment watching the waves.
There was movement behind them. They turned with swords drawn as troglodytes came out of the passage. With scarcely space to move on the ledge, the two elves received the beasts swiftly and severely, cutting them down as they came. When their numbers diminished, they went running down the twisting passage. More beasts assailed them in the darkness, swinging iron weapons with awkward strength. The elves slew these attackers and hurried down the winding passage, aware that other creatures were near. At last, they emerged into the chamber where the crab still slept under the pale teeth of the serpent’s mouth.
“A horde gathers!” Ebin cried.
They leapt onto the crab and tried to wake the creature, but it did not move. There was noise all around them as the troglodytes approached.
“Have you no kindly words you can speak to summon the creature from its sleep!”
“Noble crab!” Ebin shouted. “Deliver us back to our land so that we may save all crabs from the terrors of sorcery and men!”
The crab was motionless.
“Your swift stride is needed in this desperate hour!” Ebin persisted.
“Awaken, beast!” Efkin demanded. “A lord of the council compels you to rise!”
The two were hitting the creature on the head with the flat of their swords, but it would not move. The beasts were almost upon them. They jumped off the crab’s shell and started running down the serpent tunnel.
“If our pursuers ride crabs, we will not get far!” Ebin said.
“We must try!”
They ran down the great passage, knowing they could not maintain their stride for more than a few miles, but having no other course before them. They could hear the horde behind them, pouring into the serpent, chasing at their heels.
Suddenly, the crab ran past the two elves and halted a few feet in front of them.
“I think it likes us!” Ebin said.
“Or hates those behind us!”
The elves leapt onto the crab’s shell and gripped its head tightly as it shot down the tunnel at incredible speed. The horde followed them and many of the beasts were riding crabs. Spears flew over their heads and the crab instinctively crawled up the wall onto the ceiling. The elves were grateful for its evasive maneuvering, but wondered how long they could keep their hold on its head as it ran upside down.
More spears hit the ceiling and the crab scrambled back to the floor, then back to the ceiling, twisting round and round at a dizzying pace as the missiles whirred past them.
Efkin looked at his friend with tormented eyes, desperate to spare his bright isle the horrors that would come through that sorcerous tunnel.
“These beasts have brought wicked things upon us!” he said. “They must not cross into our lands!”
The crab was shuffling sideways toward the ceiling. Acting out of sudden inspiration or sheer madness, Efkin leapt off its shell. He tumbled onto the floor and drew Harbinger from its sheath.
“My lord!” Ebin cried, frantically trying to steer the crab back, but the creature stayed on its course.
The advancing host before him, Efkin held the sword high and felt its sentient power coursing through his arm.
“Harbinger, sunder this unholy passage and let no dark powers cross into our land!”
Efkin plunged the sword into the serpent’s hide. Water spurted from the gash as he raised the sword again. The beasts were almost upon him. He swung the sword with might, cutting the gap wider so that water came rushing in. The current knocked him off his feet. The serpent tunnel was falling apart, crumbling under the pressure of the sea. The horde retreated, dashing back to the cave as the passage collapsed behind them.
Efkin was drifting in the other direction, trying to keep his head above water. Suddenly, he felt a pair of hands on him. He saw the crab sticking to the wall as Ebin pulled him out of the water.
“It was a brave deed, my lord,” Ebin congratulated. “But I would have appreciated some advance notice.”
Efkin gripped the crab’s shell and then the creature was scrambling toward the elven isle.
“My apologies, Ebin, and many thanks for my timely rescue.”
“If not for this crab, we’d both be adrift in that raging water.”
“It has been quite useful,” Efkin agreed.
“Still, it is a temperamental creature, but I think with proper training it would make a splendid mount for exploring cavernous regions.”
The crab seemed to lurch a bit, as if it discerned their conversation and winced at the thought of being piloted by elves, clearly opposed to such notions.