*** 1 ***
Grass, as they continued easterly, had become thicker, game easier to find and there were trees scattered over the land. Tubers were everywhere and there were newer kinds which they tested by watching what the animals ate then inspecting them before adding them to a meal.
Now Elden had his apprentice point out where they would stop at noon and nightfall but he still examined their resting places and sent fire into holes to remove anything unpleasant as she refused to learn any spells in War magic.
They were halfway through a morning when he stopped and she drew up behind him. Feeing his strain, she reached out as well. Before she could see clearly, she found herself pushed behind some scrub where he joined her.
“Something comes, and quickly. Not Rovers…they’re light and fast.”
“Not animals,” was her comment, “and no darkness.”
“No darkness, but disquiet, distress, fear?” Both could feel them closer now.
“They’ve stopped. They sense us and are uneasy?” Then, wonderingly, “Ǣlfain, the southern foresters!”
Elden pushed at her to stay down and, very slowly with hands spread, rose to his feet. When he was fully upright, a man stepped into the open perhaps five yards away armed with a bow. Elden caught his breath and motioned her upright. Like him, she rose slowly, leaving her bow in the dirt and holding out her arms. Two more of the men joined the first. Like Elden, she looked at them and marveled.
All three men were taller than Elden, slender and lithe. All three were wearing clothes that seemed to change color in the light, almost matching the vegetation around them. All three were alike in color as well, so matched that they could be brothers. Tanned skin with light hair. Eyes, as they came forward, of light green and grey and their ears came to slight points. All carried bows. They were men, but not men. Ǣlfec.
“Good folk,” said Elden, still holding his hands out to show that he was unarmed.
As one, three arrows pointed at his heart and he stopped. Beside him, he could feel Brillar freeze in her place.
“What good are empty hands if they are the hands of a mage,” one said; his voice was like frost.
Still not moving from his place, Elden replied, “Then point the arrows at my apprentice and I will not move or make any threat.”
Two of the archers shifted their targets.
Unused to being a target and finding herself one, Brillar spoke up tartly, “You are casual with my life, m’lord mage.”
As the archers startled, Elden closed his eyes and slumped a bit. “If, for once, you could hold your tongue…”
“I have searched them,” he was interrupted, “there is no darkness in them,” the same bowmen spoke up.
When he opened his eyes, Elden found the bows down and heaved a sigh.
“Good folk,” he began again, “for I am told that the Ǣlfain folk of the south are such, you are far from home.”
“Ǣlfain,” she breathed beside him in wonder. Boldly she took a step forward, “I am Brillar of Laurenfell. Well met, good folk.” And she bowed. “If I may?” she stepped back to the scrub and bent slowly to retrieve her bow, holding it by two fingers in an outstretched hand.
“Your courtesy pleases me,” replied the ǣlfe, “as I am sure it pleases us all. Our names, in our tongue, might be hard for yours. In towns I am called Uthalef. Those with me are Yarell and Wa’olle.” Each nodded in turn as his name was spoken. “Now your name, lord mage,” he said directing his eyes to Elden.
Elden recovered himself. “I am Garnelden, but called Elden by those who have not loosed arrows in my direction.”
“Elden, then,” said Uthalef, with a slight smile, “for we loosed none. What are men doing here in the south? Those further south do not go north across the dune sea to hunt here and none but Rovers have ever ventured this far south.”
“This is my doing,” Brillar spoke up, “I wanted to see the Wild and would have stumbled and dropped my first day without Elden at my side.”
Uthalef nodded. “And how does a mage come to know the Wild?”
“I was apprenticed to Brother Verian for three years. He made his home in the northern Wild.” Elden kept his speech courteous.
“We knew about Verian. Not many of us travel that far north, but some wander. One of my kin told stories about him, a solitary mage of great strength, highly skilled.” He glanced upward. “The sun is high. Shall we seek shade and share a meal?”
The group moved into the shade of one of the giant dome-shaped trees and sat down. Elden produced trail rations which the ǣlfec refused although they shared their small dried fruits.
“We do not rest long,” said Yarell, “we are on search.” Uthalef looked at him sharply. “There is no darkness in them and perhaps they have seen something useful.”
Brillar, to Elden’s relief, remained silent.
Uthalef looked at them both, searching.
“We are forest folk,” he began, “for there are great forests to the south and east. Our children are our joy and play freely under the trees and in them always under a watchful eye. Despite that, a child, just four years old, went missing from us three weeks ago and more. The watcher was not hurt but has no memory of what happened. Whoever took the child was well prepared as there were many trails left at the scene. All led into the Wild where they split into still more trails. We are just one of fifteen groups that hunt for him.”
“Do you know what took him or why he was taken?” Elden asked.
“There were orc signs and a sense of wights,” said Yarell, “murk blood to confuse the trail, other signs that seemed to appear and disappeared as if he was carried by birds.”
“As for the reason for his taking, we can only guess at that. Since there was great preparation for the taking, and wights were involved,” he looked at Uthalef who nodded, “most of us agree that he was taken by someone from the Order of the K’ish.”
Elden straightened and Brillar put in quietly, “This Order, I haven’t heard of it.”
“Potion makers,” Elden replied, then seeing her puzzled expression, “dark potions. Poisons, potions for seduction, control, death.” She had been poisoned by K’ish potions but no one had discussed it with her.
Uthalef nodded. “For the strongest of these potions, ǣlfain blood is required, a child’s blood, pure and innocent.” He watched them for their reaction.
Brillar began to speak, but Elden laid a hand on her leg for silence.
“Where do the trails lead?” he asked.
“Most lead to the northwest. We search here, but without much hope. You have seen and felt nothing?”
“Nothing. No orcs certainly no wights, but orcs often prefer mountains and we’ve not been through the mountains yet. We’re heading toward them now.”
“If the child was taken three weeks ago, are you certain he’s still alive?” asked Brillar quietly.
“We would, all of us, feel his death and we have felt nothing. If he was taken for potions,” he shook his head. “The taker would need his blood fresh for each potion. If the taker wishes to keep him alive he will have to be kept by trees and growing things. Without them he will fade quickly.” He looked at his ǣlfain brothers. “What we fear is that the K’ish who holds him will take too much blood before we find him. If too much is taken, if he is dying, he will be drained of the rest so that it can be dried and made into a powder.” Brillar shrank back. “Dead he would still have value.”
To prevent her from asking anything else, Elden put in, “If we can help you, we will. Our travels take us to the mountains. In the fields and forests you move quickly. In the mountains, we are all of the same in speed.”
The ǣlfec shared glances and Uthalef took something like a Ward but larger and in blues and greens from a belt pouch and handed it to Elden.
“If you should find signs, tap this three times; it will rise, mark its place, find us and lead us to you.” The ǣlfec stood and the pair joined them.
“You were well met,” said Yarell. “May the Light guide you.”
“Swift travels to you, go with hope,” Elden replied and the ǣlfec stepped out quickly and were quickly lost in the foliage.
“If you’re ready then?” Elden asked and she nodded her reply. “How shall we travel?”
“Quickly, and toward the mountains,” was her steady answer. This time, they went directly to the east and the mountains.
There were no sand worms in the south but they had to skirt gwinth and their chicks and some unhealthy areas where both sensed darkness. Both were now well seasoned and alternated a trot and a swift walk. They pushed through tall grass near streams at times following animal trails when they led in the right direction.
That night, when they camped and sat by the fire, Brillar was ready with the questions he had known were in her mind.
“There are things I didn’t understand about our meeting. We reached them with far-sight easily, saw no darkness and you stood to greet them. Yet it took time for them, we were in front of them and it took time for them to know we meant no harm.”
Elden nodded. “In the north, we only hear stories of ǣlfain. None I know of has ever visited the north. They keep to the great southern forests.” He stirred the fire sending sparks into the clear sky. “I have met some who actually knew ǣlfain in the south. Brother Verian also had information – not stories, but information – about them.”
He settled back against the trunk of the umbrella tree and gazed at its twisted branches fanning out over him.
“Ǣlfain, Verian told me, don’t study magic. There are no mages among them. They’re barely sensitive to mana but highly sensitive to life itself. How old would you say Uthalef was?”
“A little older than I am?” she answered, “perhaps thirty years old?”
He smiled into the night. “His true age is more likely closer to eight hundred years than thirty,” he chuckled.
She straightened, “Eight hundred?”
“Ǣlfain live to great age unless killed in an accident or battle, and ǣlfain have gone to battle to protect what is theirs, and sometimes to defend the innocent,” Elden said. “They can’t use mana, but all that lives supports them. But you asked about their inability to sense that we meant no harm. Far-sight is driven by mana as is the ability to separate Light from Darkness in what it finds. The one called Yarell had some of the gift to shift through us or we would probably be dead.”
“And these dark potions, the potion masters, what about them?”
“The Order of the K’ish is ancient, some say older than the Brotherhood. The members of the order sell their services, their products, to anyone with money enough to pay the price. Only a Master of the K’ish would attempt to use ǣlfi blood for such a purpose and only a Master would have orcs in his service. How he would manage wights, I don’t know.”
“I’ve never heard of wights.”
“Few outside the Wild have heard of them. They’re undead of great power, spell casters, spells of War and other spells that only they know and no one else wishes to learn. Flesh hangs on their bones and they can be scented on the wind.”
Repulsed, she sat a moment. “Uthalef talked about the child’s body and you interrupted before he could finish? What is it you didn’t want him to say?” She watched sparks flying up.
Elden stared into the fire. “The dead ǣlfi. The potion maker would remove his organs and his eyes to dry and use for potions or to sell to others.”
She stared at him horrified, overcome.
“No part would be unused,” he finished sadly. She stood hastily, hand on her stomach and left the fire to vomit out her meal then returned to rinse her mouth.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “I know you want complete answers.”
“If he’s in the mountains, we’ll help them find him. If he is not, then the ǣlfec will never stop searching and we will search with them.” She ate nothing else and her sleep was restless.
In the morning, they smothered the fire and began at once, eating and drinking as they loped and walked. The land rose up ahead of them and there were times when they splashed through small streams. Trees grew taller around them but were still low compared to northern trees. They continued to wear the claw necklaces but avoided the only small group of Rovers they found with far-sight.
Except for Elden’s instructions and questions, there was little to say.
“You’ve meet ǣlfain, what did you sense of them?” was his first question as they stopped briefly.
“They had a scent of green and forests, of things alive and growing. They felt…it sounds foolish. They felt like spring air.”
“Yes, I’ve heard that those who have met them have spoken of the same feeling. When we search, that is part of what will lead us to a hidden child, the ǣlfi. What else?”
“Such deep sadness and loss.” She shivered in the sun.
“The ǣlfi will feel something of the same.”
They spoke little more, only strained out with far-sense to find dangers to be avoided and any hint of an ǣlfi. They reached in the foothills that afternoon and began to climb.
“Far-sight is something I learned late but it’s stretched with your teaching and all this practice.” she remarked as they stopped briefly to shift small stones from boots. “In the scrub land it seemed to fly out. Here it seems foreshortened.”
“Far-sight is mana driven. Rock creates no mana and little here leaves its touch on rock or touches it so lightly that the mana quickly dissipates. As we climb, it will be harder to draw in mana for spells.” He glanced at the sky.
They climbed then headed north and west. Little grew on the rocky slopes and far-sight reached less far uphill than down. As they camped, there was more instruction.
“The day that we turn back to the south and east, we will mark in our minds the reach of far-sight and climb to that height. We don’t want to miss anything.”
The next morning, she stopped. “Elden, there are deer below us and our supplies are running low. If there were a mage about, I would ask him to call one to us? A long stalk will slow us.”
She could feel his concentration and a yearling buck came upslope with the same confused look as the irex.
“Am I to do everything?” Elden whispered; she had been so fascinated with the approach she had neglected her bow. Nocking an arrow, she let fly and the animal dropped. They took the meat they needed and left rest for scavengers.
They had only gone another mile when a large rock sailed down the slope at them. “The boulders, take cover,” Elden shouted pushing her ahead of him.
Another rock flew at them as they scrambled for safety.
“Orcs,” Elden breathed, as another rock smashed into the ground near them and bounced away.
She reached out, “Only one I think,” and he nodded as a rock smashed into their covering boulders sending debris down on them.
“Time the throws. I think he has a steady supply of rocks and only needs to bend to pick them up. We need to decide on the shortest time between throws.” More debris rained down. “We need to separate, make two targets,” and she nodded.
“The boulder to the right for you and see if you can spot him as you run.” More debris. “NOW!”
Brillar scrambled to the boulder he had indicated while Elden took that moment to move left and see uphill for their attacker.
“I see him,” she shouted across to Elden as a rock struck the ground near her showering her with dirt.
“I don’t. When I move to draw his attention” was the shouted reply, “you stand and fire.” He saw her nod.
Elden stepped to the left and waved his arms, shouting “HO THERE” and dove for cover as he saw a rock fly down at him and heard her bow twang.
“It fell,” she called to him, and both moved forward cautiously.
“That stench,” said Brillar as they reached it, “and this is the second ugliest thing I think I have ever seen.” At his questioning look she added, “The thing in the pool is still the first.”
In a dead heap, she could examine the orc easily as he kept watch. Its face was broad, the eyes small below a receding skull. The nose was wide and flaps of skin seemed to hang from its cheeks near nostril slits. Below the nose was a wide mouth with jutting teeth; its chin was thick and protruded. The rest of the body was broad and heavy with muscle. Standing on its short legs it would have been only slightly taller than Elden.
“They are foul. Remember the odor, it may help us notice them before they send rocks down on us. This one, I think,” he said, pushing at the corpse with his foot, “is only a scout. There will be more. I think we need to add one more command. Shout, ‘cover,’ if you think any more rocks are headed at us.”
“Are rocks all we’ll have from them?” She stared at the ugly corpse.
“Rocks from a distance. For close attacks they’ll use clubs. Orcs are too clumsy for bow work.” He looked at the sky. “Carrion eaters, we need to go.”
“Gladly,” she said, and they went back to the northwest along the hills.