It was said that the Tharne’s water had never gone dry, even though the land was known as Saun’s Desolation. No more than a hundred feet off the river, the ground was dried and cracked, and even the most stubborn bushes barely reached one foot. They were thorny and twisted things, their roots reaching desperately for the nearby river and feeding off the ever-flowing water – or at least, from what they could get from their competing neighbours. With every step closer to the Tharne’s, the vegetation became taller and stronger, until actual trees had managed to grow. In a way, the Tharne created a long stripe of life in the otherwise deserted waste that was Saun’s Desolation. It also provided a nice shade for the dwarves to rest under.
Even with the snaking river as a guide and life-giver, crossing Saun’s Desolation had been long and tiring. The caravan was exhausted and its members’ nerves stretched to the last. Tomorrow they would reach the city and civilization, and Terhan knew his flock would be glad for it. They could rest for a few days, drink their hearts out and slowly prepare for the next trip. Their spirits would be at ease and ready to once more support him as he sought to finish his tome. Terhan wished he wouldn’t ruin their hopes again: he had been stuck on the same page for months now, with no good story to get him writing and moving forward.
Instead he spent his days as he did now, sitting under a tree and watching Darrum work – as if the carpenter could suddenly inspire him. The dwarf’s skin glistened under the sun’s glare, covered in sweat. He was removing stripes of wood from the piece he worked. Tehran had no idea what was that piece and hardly cared: he was no good with manual work and had stopped trying to understand long ago. Darrum’s smooth movements – back and forth, back and forth, exactly like the river’s waters on the shore – were his fascination. It calmed him and soothed the stress from his lack of progress. Sometimes he wondered if talking to the carpenter would help too, but he’d never dared.
Terhan let out a heavy sigh, clearing Darrum out of his mind. He glanced down at the tome’s soft but empty pages and let his quill hover above for a moment, trying to summon the right words. He was not comfortably seated but Terhan had learned long ago to write even in the weirdest situations: no matter how chaotic the road was, his letters remained perfectly square and easily readable. Writing was an art he had mastered long ago... or so he’d thought. He still hadn’t put a word down today.
It was not a lack of story that stalled Terhan’s work. He had jotted down notes about their guide, a ranger who’d lost an eye and multiple fingers to the wild tribes that roamed Saun’s Devastation. The man’s determination was commendable: most would find a safer line of work once maimed multiple times but he had trained days and nights to better himself before accepting new jobs. Today, he openly declared that no wildling could take him unaware and with the skill he had shown, Terhan was inclined to believe him. Still, his tome already included a merchant’s account of the dangers of this region, and the ranger’s story added nothing new.
The same was true for the blacksmith’s wife, the caravan guard and the farmer: all of them were good folks with interesting stories, but they brought nothing special to his book. At times, Terhan wondered if he had not found everything he could. Perhaps he was only being picky, but his instinct told him there was something missing to his work. He wanted to make it as perfect as he could: if the Head Archivist liked it, he was more likely to be given important facts to chronicle afterwards.
He had no time to make his tome a piece of art, however. Twenty-odd dwarves were counting on him to finish this book to go home, to Alghan and the Great Library. His kin were stout and stubborn folks, but after years roaming these inhospitable lands, he could not blame them to be eager for a month of respite. At times, he was afraid they’d resent him for every extra day they had to spend around Saun’s Desolation. Looking at Darrum – who was working his wood in silence and paying him no heed – reassured him somewhat. The carpenter had never paid him attention and Terhan half-expected him to be the first to show bitterness at the length of their journey, but Darrum had yet to show a hint of anger.
Terhan looked at his empty pages once more, determined to finish it. He stared long and hard, hoping once more for the right words, but nothing came. Enraged, he slammed the book shut and threw it a few feet away. Darrum did not look up. He continued to work restlessly – back and forth, back and forth, exactly like the river’s waters on the shore – and Terhan took a deep breath. He picked up one of his note scrollcases and took out the many parchments stored inside. Slowly, he unfurled them and began to read. He knew the words by heart, but perhaps this time would be the good one. Perhaps he would finally find something to write.
Saun glared angrily on the bleak city, its searing rays heating every pale brick and stone that made up the walls and streets of Tellona. The day was hot and humid; what little water the ground contained rose in the air and the world looked wavy and blurred. The shades were gone as the sun stood at its zenith: it was noon, and in Tellona, nobody was out at noon. Everyone knew it was better to keep to their basements, resting in the cool until the sun was nearly set. In the few hours before and after dusk, the city would become alive and bustling. Until then, however, only the brave and the fool ventured into the heat.
Alezia was neither of those, yet she walked the street at a leisurely pace. A red bandana tied around her head kept Saun from hitting her head directly and her tanned skin had never burnt under its continuous attacks. Although not entire comfortable in the stifling heat, she felt safe in the sun – and she needed to be alone anyhow. Let the Tellonians hide in their houses while she went about her business; she would be sitting in front of a cool ale soon enough.
The lithe woman picked her pace at the thought of a refreshing drink and her strides grew longer as she walked between the rows of small and squat buildings. Architecture here was not a priority: things were built to absorb as little heat as possible and last for a long time. All made of white or beige stones, the buildings rarely had more than two levels: the rest was underground, where the outside heat barely reached. Alezia hadn’t been in the city for long, but she already understood that the richer someone was, the more basements he had. The wealthy neighbourhood even had a network of underground tunnels.
Would that I was walking there instead,
Alezia thought bitterly. She could finally see the city gates ahead, but she’d been snaking her way through the streets for half an hour already, and she was tiring. She hoped her orders would be important: she’d never been one to waste energy over a trifle. Admittedly, she could’ve waited, but Alezia had never been one for that either. Good thing the green box was clearly visible up ahead, because any other delays might have made her insane.
With a knowing grin, she walked up to the strange metallic container and ran her hand under it. The surface was hot from the sun but otherwise smooth – except for three button-like bumps set in a triangle shape. The code was the same everywhere: she tugged on the left one before pushing the middle, leaving the third entirely alone. The metal box made a soft humming song only she could hear and Alezia took a step back. She now held a tiny paper, no bigger than the tip of her finger.
I’ve got mail,
she told herself, chuckling at her joke. The green boxes were two-part containers used every day by lettermen to store the city’s letters: half for those meant to be distributed inside Tellona’s walls and the other half for those that were outbound. Every city, town, village or hamlet had a green letterbox, although they varied in size according to the population. All of them were also part of the Legacy’s information network, but no letterman had ever noticed before. Alezia doubted they ever would – or that they’d survive such a discovery. In the current state of the world, the Legacy of the Mind must remain secret to survive.
That was also why there were only two words on her paper, scribbled down in such tiny and scrawny letters that Alezia had to stare at them long and hard before they made sense. Ellistrie Samorral. She closed her eyes and silently repeated the words, opening her mind to the message.
A face appeared. It was thin and ragged from days a meal; dirtied from days without a bath. A tangled heap of black hair framed a long nose, prominent cheekbones and clear blue eyes. They were not long enough to hide the long and pointed ears, but a hood soon covered them: the rest of the body had appeared. The elf’s clothes were ragged and torn and dirty, far beyond the point where one would normally replace his garb. A tattered cloak hung behind him, showing years – if not entire decades – of use.
The word rang clearly through her mind and Alezia scowled. This Ellistrie didn’t look like much, so why was she sent after him? True, silver elves sometimes showed a small gift for the psionics, but retrieving recruits had rarely been part of her duties. She was used to missions demanding subtlety, skill, subterfuge and power – all of which she possessed beyond the normal ken. Finding this Ellistrie was a newcomer’s job, but the Legacy seldom made mistakes. Its resources were too meagre and spread out to allow any waste.
“Incoming caravan! Clear out the way!”
The deep voice interrupted her musings and Alezia realised she was standing fairly close to the road, holding a blank piece of paper and probably looking a bit on the strange side of things. Clacking her tongue, she jumped backward and watched as a line of wagons went past her. All passengers were dwarves, their shoulders hunched from weariness and their heads bent to escape the sun’s glare. They looked beaten – each and every one of them – and Alezia’s walk suddenly seemed almost pleasant.
Besides, she would finish this particular mission quickly and perhaps enjoy a few days off.
“Pull down your hood.”
There it was: the words he had dreaded for the past fifteen minutes. The words that spelled his doom, that crushed his hope, that sent his heart diving down into deep and dark waters and drowning. He should be used to it by now – it was the same every time – but Ellistrie had never given up. One day it would work: one day, an employer would accept him for whom and what he was and take him in. He reached for the dirty hood, his long and slender fingers shaking slightly. When he hesitated, the baker repeated himself. “Pull down your hood.”
Ellistrie heaved out a sigh. He had no doubt the man was a good fellow, an honest worker who had his priorities right. He’d shown interest in his skills and passion already and had been willing to give work to a street denizen if he thought he could trust him. And that was the problem: once the hood was lowered, the burly man’s trust would disperse as dust thrown in the wind. His chances would be burnt down to a mere pile of ashes – and not the kind from which phoenix rose.
Nonetheless, he pulled down the hood as asked, his eyes set firmly on a spot of dried paste on the ground. He heard the gasp of surprise as his ears perked through the tangle of black hair and felt the heat rise to his cheeks.
“You – you’re an...”
“Elf, yes.” He cut off the baker’s stuttering and met his gaze with cool blue eyes. This was it – make or break, as humans said. The baker swept his hands on his apron to remove the sweat and shifted uneasily. Break, Ellistrie guessed.
“I’m sorry. I can’t. An elf...” His voice shook. He was scared. Ellistrie had been nothing but warm and open, yet he was scared. They always were, even though there was no reason to. It was a visceral reaction, born from years of fear and hatred. “It’s the customers, you see...”
“No, it’s not.” It was all Ellistrie could do not to stamp his foot in anger, or cry out in rage. “I understand. I’ll see myself out,” he added, and this time it was his voice that shook.
Not bothering to pull his hood back up, Ellistrie whirled around and made for the doors. Pride kept him from pleading. He had done nothing wrong and would not act as if he needed forgiveness. What he needed was work: an honest and socially acceptable income to keep him alive. Anger lengthened his strides as he rushed out; hunger made his belly rumble as he caught a whiff of freshly baked bread.
He had to leave quickly before tears found their way to his eyes and stung them. Ellistrie walked on, paying no heed to his surroundings. Keep moving, he told himself, and perhaps the pain would recede somewhat.
This was the last of Tellona’s shop he would see himself out of – he had tried them all. He had been rejected by all. Someone – somewhere – would be willing to accept him, but this someone was not in the pale city. Only, he was stuck here: Saun’s Desolation awaited him and the silver elf knew he would not survive it. He had no strength left, physically or mentally. He was drained, beaten, desperate.
Ellistrie slumped against a wall. It was a beige wall, covered in runic patterns and shadowed by an awning, but he never noticed. It was a random wall to him, the closest he’d found when he could no longer carried with him. He let his back rest against it, wondering what use would be best for his last copper piece. Should he have an old piece of bread or fresh water to fight the heat?
That was the sad truth of his life: pointed ears had condemned him to either eat or drink. To him, the two were most often mutually exclusive.
Terhan Longquill had come to the conclusion that he could not force the words out: he had to wait for them. And if he was to wait, he might as well take some time to relax thoroughly and clear his mind. While the other dwarves settled down into an almost-empty inn, Terhan had erred through the blessed underground streets of Tellona. He had come across many of the colourful residents of the city: as one of the rare flourishing center in Saun’s Desolation, Tellona drew all sorts of people inside its walls.
With time Terhan felt stiff by the lack of sky. Although dwarves had once dwelt deep into mountains, they had been living a caravanning life for centuries now, and that was all he’d ever known. The shade had been a nice respite from the sun, but he soon felt the need for fresh air. When he emerged from the spiralling staircase into the unrelenting sun, Terhan let out a sigh. He wouldn’t be comfortable outside for long either, he knew. He was starting to be annoyed: nothing worked out today. He couldn’t write and he couldn’t relax.
At least I can still eat
, Terhan thought as he noticed a small bakery. He’d always had a thing for fresh bread or pastries. He loved the warm smell and the feeling of bread almost melting on his tongue. It was the best way to start a day, but it was a luxury for someone always on the road. Well, now he wasn’t, and he was going to treat himself.
Just as he reached for the handle, the bakery’s door flew open and slammed into his forehead. Surprise sent him sprawling on his ass and pain blocked his view for a moment. Things just weren’t getting any better – and that included his mood. As the black spots began to clear, he scanned the street to see who’d hit him and give him a piece of his mind. He saw a tattered cloak flapping behind someone, a tangle of black hair and, most importantly, long pointed ears.
An elf! For the second time in barely a minute, his breath went out. Elves hid themselves and avoided contact out of fear of hunter. They were shunned and hated and knew it. Some lived in hidden settlements while others had established an outsider’s place in Keithari society. Never had he encountered one in human lands. Terhan scrambled to his feet, fighting for the breath. His short legs were nowhere as fast as the elf, but he knew he couldn’t lose sight of him. He’d found his story. He needed to talk to him.
The elf did not seem like he would stop or even slow down. When Terhan’s lungs began to ache, he called out. His voice carried clearly through the deserted streets, but the elf did not seem to hear. He continued on. Terhan was hot and sweaty. He had light clothes on yet felt like he’d been put in a furnace. The elf had a heavy black cloak but barely tired. His shoulders were hunched, but Terhan could tell the weight bending them was not physical tiredness.
Except when the thought crossed his mind, the elf slumped against a wall. Panting, Terhan ran up to him and collapsed to his knees, right next to his feet.