Storms over Kelerak, Part III - Page 3 - Myth-Weavers

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Storms over Kelerak, Part III

   
Absolutely, and I think that’s perfect. It’s an important role.

When she was satisfied there was no more that could be done, at least not by her, Isolde took a step back and admired her handiwork. If she was honest with herself, the expression on Aidan`s face alone was more than worth the time and effort spent adjusting the item for his use. Coupled with the fact that the ridiculous hat only appeared even more idiotic now than it had before...well, she could hardly be blamed for laughing quite so long and loud, could she?

"At the same time I can believe and cannot believe you kept this," Aidan said, in one of the most emotionless voices they had ever heard from him. "Von Lanburg and I have to fight off a personal army, Brokk nearly dies draining a necrotic artifact of its power, Embla suffers through a derro`s lechery, and you! You get to steal a magic hat."

"Hardly going to leave something like that just lying there!" she retorted. "Ugly as it is, magic is magic, and magic is valuable. And Brokk was too busy to tell me no, so...besides, it works. You look, well, you look like a real dulam."

The half-elf flinched unconsciously, hating the very word. Still, it was true. Though the magic of the hat clearly did not extend to itself, it had altered his appearance so that he seemed to be one of the dark elves, and as much as it pained him to adopt such a disguise, it was necessary for the plan that had been devised. It was a plan that had undergone many revisions since leaving Dragonspur, but the group were confident they could improve upon it no further.

None of them had reacted particularly well when they were told what was expected of them. Even Brokk had had some harsh words for Burcan the White upon learning that all of this had been part of his plan to avoid, or at least delay, civil war in Kelerak. However, they had reluctantly agreed to go along with it when the priest had made it abundantly clear that Kelerak would tear itself apart if they did not at least try.

Then the fun part had started: working out just how to accomplish their mission, and liberate a deathless baron from one of the most infamous and powerful liches on the continent. An assault on Dessingrove was out of the question. Stealth had been a favoured option, until Embla had simply stood up, and by her sheer size argued very convincingly that such a tactic would be unlikely to succeed.

However, she had then offered up one part of the possible solution: "Aidan, when you first came back from the memories of the dead, you spoke a new language. Can you still speak it?"

It turned out, much to the paladin`s disgust, that the understanding of the Dark Speech imparted by the memories of Tamarrik the Reaver had been seared into his mind. For some time he had shied away from admitting it, even to himself, loathing the very idea of speaking that vile language, but when Isolde had revealed that she had looted a Hat of Disguising from an enemy they had faced months earlier in Arden, the next part of the plan had made itself clear to them.

Since then, Aidan had been reluctantly practising to give himself a Mordularian accent in the Dark Speech, so that whilst wearing it, he could present himself as a drow. The real difficulty came from not being familiar enough with what Mordularian sounded like to know what sort of accent to adopt, and even Isolde, who had been apprenticed to a half-drow back in Zel City, had never heard it spoken in conversation. Still, the pair worked on it until they were satisfied, whilst the other two members of the party worked on their own scheme.

Early on, it had become clear that there was no way they could effectively hide Embla, even if they forwent any other kind of stealth. So, a little hesitantly, Brokk had devised the notion of portraying her as a mobility slave, a mount to be ridden upon in the manner of the hulking beasts of the deep underground by troglodytes and their kin. A full palanquin was not reasonable, but perhaps a simple platform upon which the controlling wizard - in other words, his own relatively light self - might sit imposingly or stand threateningly as the need arose?

To everyone`s surprise, Embla agreed at once. She had even seemed excited by the prospect of carrying Brokk around in that way, which had confused them even further, but the reasons why were allowed to remain mysterious for the time being. It was still too soon after the slaughter at the Eaglesreach for them to be entirely comfortable around her, knowing what they now did, and prying into her past and beliefs was simply too dangerous when on such an important mission.

The only major flaw in their plan, when all was said and done, was Isolde. The hat`s magic could make Aidan seem drow, Embla was more than capable of appearing a mindless brute, and Brokk`s withered body made him seem less true dwarf and more duergar or derro...but there was no disguising that Isolde was a halfling. At least not, as Brokk explained glumly, without wrapping her in the same kind of illusory magic as would be shielding Aidan, and would probably stand out as a concerning quantity of active magical energy to any watchful spell-wards at their destination.

"One man with drawn sword and whetstone may simply be a weapons-conscientious warrior," he had said. "A dozen of the same are clearly hiding something. If I hide Isolde behind more illusions, we run the risk of something noticing we are hiding something behind illusions. But she did convince the traitor Siegfried of Arden that she was an agent of the East. I have faith that she can convince the lich`s minions that she is much the same."

Aidan and Embla echoed this sentiment. No less reluctantly than Aidan had practised his unpleasant knowledge of the Dark Speech, Isolde practised the mannerisms of the servants of Sin. As a former gutter runner of Zel City, slipping unnoticed through the filth of street and society alike, she had had plenty of opportunities to observe the cruel masters of the Occupied Kingdoms. It went about as well as Aidan`s linguistics, but there were no other practical choices.

All that remained now was to wait until dusk and make their next move.

Oh boy, this “plan” has me scared... lol.

Overseer Gevan glared at the messenger goblin that had dared to disturb him, and was not mollified in the least to see the filthy little beast shrink away from him. The message itself was not doing anything for his mood either, but he knew better than to ignore it, or worse still, delegate. That was how the previous overseer had failed in his duty, letting Gevan replace him one night.

Such simple mistakes were never going to be made by Gevan, he had assured his new workforce, watching their faces carefully as he hung his predecessor on the gibbet, and noting which of them he would need to have his loyalists purge. There would be no opportunities given to the faithless or the ambitious to see him brought low in their lord's estimation.

So as he stood now, on the edge of the garrison camp that kept Dessingrove under control, watching the strange four who had emerged out of the twilit east, Gevan made absolutely sure to keep his archers where he could see them - and sent forward silver-tongued and shifty-eyed Reinhardt as his mouthpiece.

Gevan told himself he would have taken such precautions no matter who approached. It was mostly true. The real oddity in those he had to deal with was the halfling. The others looked as though they made some sort of sense. Especially the dark elf, for all that he wore a feathered hat that was truly ridiculous, and was thus obviously magical.

There was also a pale hunched creature of dwarf-ilk, perhaps one of the gray dwarves to judge by its hairlessness, and a mage to judge by its robes. This was perched atop a study palanquin on the back and shoulders of a true beast. Gevan had never seen its like, but could tell it was from a far more distant realm than the others. Battle-smart, to judge from the glitter of its eyes in torchlight, sizing up everything as possible foe. Ah, but Gevan could see the ropes binding the huge sword to its wrist, making the weapon more of a bludgeon than a carving tool - he knew some trolls that had needed the same precaution to stop them from dropping their weapons out of sheer stupidity, even in the midst of battle.

But that halfling...it was she who had him most suspicious. The brave face she was putting on did not surprise Gevan in the slightest, for by reputation he knew the race to be remarkably courageous for their size and weakness. What did surprise him was the cold arrogance she exuded, more palpably than even the drow.

Reinhardt, a turncoat captain of Wyvernia still useful to Gevan only because of his gift of tongues, stood before the silent quartet at last. He took a moment to decide which of them was the leader - the dark dwarf, clearly, mounted atop his ogre-human warbeast - and which of them was the mouthpiece of the same. He decided on the drow, and bowed to him with only a hint of mocking.

After that, things happened almost too quickly for Gevan to follow. Reinhardt began to speak, obviously, in passable Mordularian. The halfling had laughed horribly, deep in her throat. For a moment the drow had stood as if carved from stone, face a blank slate upon which to fashion any expression the mason pleased. Then his left hand closed upon Reinhardt's throat and began to squeeze.

The treacherous Kelerite struggled as he was fully lifted from the ground, his entire weight hanging from his neck, but to no avail. This drow was deceptively strong, and Gevan noted the handle of a heavy weapon peeking out from his back. It looked like it belonged to a warhammer, or some similarly weighty tool of death. An uncommon weapon for one of the dark elves, but it spoke volumes as to the brutality of its owner. Or perhaps, the usual resilience of its victims.

In the Dark Tongue, not Mordularian, the drow growled with uttermost loathing: "You do not speak in that language to me. Sully my ears with one more word and I shall see you live."

Gevan was almost entirely convinced. Drow were notoriously proud folk. This one spoke the Dark Tongue with just the barest hint of an accent, as he would have expected, and Reinhardt's bulging eyes and purpling tongue proved that the man's grasp of their twisted speech was not so great as he had believed. The sincere threat of keeping him alive, no doubt in the exquisite agony that only a drow torturer could devise, further served to persuade Gevan as to the genuineness of what he was seeing.

Still, this was no reason to lose a useful interpreter. He raised his arm, signalling the archers. Forty arrowheads and thirty bolts shifted their gaze to the four intruders. The dark dwarf murmured in warning as his mount trembled in anticipation of bloodshed, subduing it with his command. Gevan noted that none of them seemed even to notice death staring them down. Then the halfling woman, seeming so very ordinary but for that coldness, looked straight at him.

"Do not waste your ammunition," she said, speaking in Kelevan, and in the cultured tones of nobility, for the obvious benefit of the garrison troops. "This one will be allowed to die before the night is young."

Gevan frowned, started to protest the loss of his man, when the halfling imperiously, dismissively, waved a hand at him: "I am not accustomed to repeating myself. Never to the living." Gevan considered this for a moment, then slowly lowered his arm. His archers lowered their weapons. A short while later, Reinhardt's corpse was lowered to the ground.

"My girl can dispose of that if you prefer," the dark dwarf spoke up now, and his mount rumbled agreeably beneath him.

Gevan resisted the urge to shudder. He believed the implication absolutely, and knew that he would need to show himself, if not the equal of these horrors, then at least not so far beneath them that they might entertain themselves with him before leaving. They were obviously here to speak with his lord. Arrangements would need to be made. But first...

"I will have it thrown to the worgs," Overseer Gevan stated in his best commanding voice. "After it has hung above their pens for a few days. Animals are more amusing when kept hungry."

The dark dwarf smiled knowingly, and patted his own humanoid mount with distant affection. Gevan swallowed hard.

Love it. You really bring the World of Farland to life.

It was difficult to hide his nerves. Adventurers were one thing any military man knew to be wary of - and in Gevan's time he had encountered more than his fair share of those impulsive and unpredictable destroyers seeking to upset the balance in Dessingrove - but these four were of the east, and thus even more terrible.

There was also the matter of his, quite reasonable really, armed precautions upon their arrival. He needed to ingratiate himself with them lest they hold too much of a grudge. His own tent was scarcely a palace, but it was far more comfortable than anywhere else in the garrison, and after any length of journey, a good host made sure his guests were treated and fed well. The second of these things was already underway as Gevan saw them settle into his cushioned chairs - with the exception of the dark dwarf's mount, which stood facing outwards, watching for threats to its (no, Gevan reminded himself, her, for this was a female) master.

"If I may be so bold," he started to ask, hesitating as the drow's eyes flickered over to him for a moment. "But from which of the realms do you hail? There has been little word out of the east for many years now and I must confess to ignorance regarding its affairs."

An uncomfortable silence, before the drow shifted slightly in his seat. "Orland," he stated simply, as if daring Gevan to question him further.

The halfling woman answered next, her tone dripping with the suggestion that the overseer ought to know this already: "Zeland."

The dark dwarf, by far the most amiable, gave his own answer: "Farland."

Gevan shivered as all three, moving and speaking as one, inclined their heads to the last of their party. "Beyond."

It was a word replete with horrific implication, for beyond Farland there was only the Wintervale, and its slave-nations collared to its whims. Gevan considered himself respectably sturdy of spirit, but the mere mention of that dreaded land was enough to freeze the blood of any right-thinking creature. He was not one of the few privy to the secret knowledge that his lich master only paid lip-service to the Wintervale, and indeed hoped to supplant it one day. If he had been, Gevan would have been at even less ease.

The tension in the air was relaxed slightly as his goblins wheeled in a respectable meal, steaming deliciously and smelling of fine spices. Though they were not especially good at it, the goblins knew enough protocol to serve the guests first, and Gevan second. When everything was arranged just so, they bowed their most servile bow and backed out of sight.

Gevan tried to smile, introducing the dishes and adding, "From my own personal supply, of course. The chains of commanding are sometimes lightened, though less oft...forgive me, is there something amiss?"

For the first time he had seen thus far, drow and halfling both wore their own smiles. Their right hands hovered over the food, its steam wrapping around their fingers, coiling through the simple iron ring that each wore. Suddenly Gevan felt extremely vulnerable.

"Popular among the goblins, are we?" the drow asked, dangerously lightly, his smile stretching to either ear, and even the woman-mount turned her colossal head a fraction at his gentle tone.

Gevan stared blankly for a moment. Then he leapt to his feet with a cry of horrified understanding, dashing the plates to the floor, spilling their contents. He cursed himself for his stupidity, for of course the cowardly, deceitful, ungrateful goblins would have sought to kill off both him and his illustrious guests all at once. But with poison, in food? No drow could be caught out by poison, less still a halfling deceived by impure food! The rings they wore must merely be minor magical tools to confirm their suspicions.

"Mayhaps you should restore order in your house, overseer," the halfling stated as she stood up. "It would not do for your lord to be disturbed by this."

Gevan nodded frantically, then more slowly, with growing determination. This was a chance to prove himself, earn some measure of recognition for his steady and authoritative judgement. Sternly, he called his goblins back and glared at their wondering, false innocence at their wasted culinary efforts. Before they could come to their senses, he drew his sword and cut down the first of them with a single blow. The others gaped at him in shock, then fled terrorstruck into the night, shrieking that he had gone mad. Vengeful, hateful, the overseer pursued, bellowing to all those loyal to him to rise up and scour the traitors from life.

But even when Gevan had gone, and they were left alone, the four friends did not breathe any sigh of relief, less still show any outward sign of being anything other than what they had claimed to be. Until they were actually far from Dessingrove, they were not who they truly were. Still, the first two parts of their plan had been successfully enacted. They had infiltrated the garrison, and now were able to leave it in shambles, tearing itself apart. The simple implication of poison had been enough. Whether it was true or not was irrelevant.

Next though, was the far more daunting task of entering Carn Marrot, the lair of the lich himself.

There plan is coming together... and quite the daring plan. Excellent installment.

"You do not understand. I do not obey you. I am no plaything to be made to submit to your will. You have no invitation. My gate stays closed. You stay there and wait, or leave. Can you understand that, sewer elf?"

His ultimatum issued, Sheddai ignored the other three, especially the arrogant hositan wench that thought her distant manner intimidating, in favor of glaring at the lowest of the filth beyond his gate. The drow, for his part, scarcely looked him up and down before dismissing the watchman and his protests. From other exits to the keep and adjoining barracks, officers led their troops out to quell the chaos that had suddenly erupted in the garrison below.

A few might have paused to inspect the newcomers, but for the knowledge that any delay would bring them to the attention of their lord's esteemed guest, who had personally flown ahead to take command. It was left to the least of them, watchmen and gatekeepers such as Sheddai, to ensure nobody unwanted gained entry to Carn Marrot.

"Open the doors, boy, before we do," the halfling instructed him coldly. "We have business with your master and shall brook no further delays due to the incompetence of the minions of his lackeys. I am unaccustomed to repeating myself to the living, yet here we are."

Sheddai continued to ignore her, keeping his hate focused on the drow, who at last deigned to speak: "I should say that we are this restrained only out of courtesy to your true father."

This was a new thing, and Sheddai blinked in confusion, trying to work out the meaning behind the statement. His befuddlement was too obvious to miss, and the halfling barked a harsh, derisive laugh at the expression he wore. She spoke a word that Sheddai did not know, but clearly meant to refer to him, and the drow sighed impatiently.

"The tone of your skin, the angle of your eyes, the shine of your hair, the curve of your ears," he listed rapidly, and Sheddai knew that he could not hide his nature from this one. "You are dultan, seeded by drow. Not in the last generation, or the previous, for your pure features are too slight. Three generations back, however, that would do it. Your true father, a pure drow, sired your now-diluted bloodline. You would be dead already for this insolence if you had any less of his gloried self in you."

"And no, your ancestor could not be a woman. Not even the most delightfully twisted of my sisters would birth a half-breed. Such is the purpose of the lesser races. This said, I am becoming, hmm, what emotion is most apt - bored, shall we say? - of your limited education. Will you show some intellect and allow your superior passage? Or shall I distract myself with your flesh for a while?"

Sheddai glowered back: "Fine, I admit it. I am drow-blooded, and you think this makes me less than you. You do not understand that this has made me stronger than you, better than you. I belong to no people save my own, and what is given to you freely, I had to fight for. I say again, and more clearly now. Begone, or rot where you stand."

The drow looked at him blankly. The air grew thick with imminent violence. Even the sounds of fighting, dying, cursing, burning from the garrison seemed to fade away. Then there came a faint pattering of feet from behind Sheddai, overlaying a swish-scrape-swish-scrape of something being dragged along the floor. Unexpectedly, and not a little disturbingly, the huge humanoid being used as a mobile platform by the dwarf made an excited, high-pitched cooing noise; and Sheddai felt his sleeve being picked at by a tiny hand.

Familiar with this scenario from his training, Sheddai kept his eyes on the four and half-knelt so that the messenger kobold at his side could whisper its message to him. Instead, he felt a sharp coldness slip between the gap in his armor and his armpit, the small but deadly blade avoiding the ribs perfectly to sever the major arteries and puncture his lung so that he could not even call for help.

He collapsed, the life draining from him quickly, and the startled gasps of the four outside told him at least that this was not part of any plan to infiltrate or assault Carn Marrot. In this regard, at least, he had not failed in his duty. When he saw the gate he was charged to watch over swing open, and the kobold traitor flee back into the keep's interior, Sheddai made one final effort to heave himself upright and protect the sanctuary of his master.

He fell back, too weak. Shadowy figures passed by him, though one lingered for a while. His vision failing as quickly as his heart, it took some seconds for the figure to resolve itself into that of the drow. Sheddai fancied he saw a measure of pity in those eyes, but even he knew that was impossible. No drow could feel pity, or remorse, or love, and he hated them more than ever, and this one most of all for mocking his death in such a way.

"You...do not...you...still..." Sheddai managed to gasp, the last of his life ebbing away.

"Oh but I do," whispered the drow too softly for any other to hear. "I understand you full well, shadow-cousin."

It's getting better and better.

EIGHTH INTERLUDE

Aidan was quite sure that if he lived to be a thousand, he could never get used to the sound he heard once again at his door. Gently, but firmly, he extricated himself from Mariana's arms, paying no heed to her indignant surprise. Steeling himself for what he knew was coming, he opened the door. The two dark-haired maidens outside at once rushed in to embrace him, tears streaming from their eyes.

"He just brought another home, smiling and laughing all the while," the smaller of them sobbed into his bare chest.

"It`s not even been a month yet!" the taller added between miserable sniffs.

Sitting up on the bed, incensed by what she thought she was seeing, Mariana hurled an accusatory shriek at Aidan`s back, so angry that her outrage was almost wordless. She knew that she was just a crofter`s daughter, no great beauty to be swooned over, but she had enough of the old pride of Orland in her blood still to resent being treated this way. To be cast aside so readily for a pair of pale-skinned waifs, chattering in that strange elven tongue! When her nearly-paramour did not respond, Mariana followed up by demanding an immediate and extremely good explanation.

"My sisters are in pain!" Aidan snapped over his shoulder. "This is a family matter, Mariana."

She stiffened, insulted. "They look nothing like you. Do you call all elves family, then, or just the ones in wispish cloths that are eager to cling to you? And here I thought you were better than the rest, but no! I see you are just the same, helpless when any bitch in heat knocks on-"

His face darkening with an anger that chilled her to silence, Aidan interrupted savagely: "Mariana, for all that I think I love you, I want nothing more at this moment than your silence. If you cannot give me that, leave. Between my feelings for you and my duty to my sisters, I will choose the latter. Without hesitation."

Mariana hid her hurt beneath her anger well, even when she stormed out, looking Aidan in the eye as she cursed him for his fickleness. Her parents had been right to warn her off his charming facade. All elves, they had said, were the same when you came right down to it. Some were dark of skin and silver of hair and ruled from the cities they had enslaved, others were pale and fair and hid from their greater kin, but in spirit they were identical. Opposite sides of the same coin, but struck from the same material.

Though just as hurt by her decision, Aidan did not watch her go. He had made his choice too, and it was more important to give comfort to those in need of it than to dwell on what could have been. Years past he too had been in the same position as his weeping younger sisters, and it had been the duty of his elder siblings to comfort him then.

For some minutes, the three held each other, and Aidan lent the others his strength, so that they might grieve freely and emerge on the other side of sorrow. In time, he had no doubt, they would need to do the same and so carry on this sad tradition of their family. With the loving tenderness of one who had suffered as they now did, he kissed their brows and wiped their cheeks dry until their breaths at last slowed to some measure of calm.

"I am always honest with you, aren`t I?" Aidan asked softly, and they nodded up at him, bravely trying to smile. "It will always hurt. Remember what I said? Pain fades until good memories are most of what remains. If even humans can manage this, then surely we can too, right? Right. Now, shall we go and speak to him? It may work this time."

*****

It would definitely not work this time. This, Aidan could surmise the instant he spotted the decanter. It held eylafion, the Ranarim Swanswine, or rather had held it. Now it was empty, meaning that both had imbibed enough to render moral thought a fantasy. They were in such high spirits that they had not even noticed they were being watched. Nevertheless, Aidan tried his best, as was part of their sad tradition.

"Not going to introduce her to us, da?" he asked as lightly as he could. "I`m a little upset by that. And Saoirse and Siobhan are very, very upset."

Their father looked up from the ample bosom he had been nuzzling into, grinning widely and unashamedly. The woman stopped her delighted giggles, wondering why he had stopped, and belatedly coming to the realization. Neither made any concerted, or effective, effort at covering themselves. Aidan felt his jaw tighten involuntarily as the lecherous old man - and he was old now, for all that he did not seem to be by human standards - sat upright, though a bit unsteadily.

"Aidan! Ha, my boy, I thought you were with...that fishergirl. No? Not a fishergirl, a huntress? Crofter, maybe? Fine young thing anyway, shame you saw her before me. What? Oh, yes. Of course, introtudions. Introdashish. Wait, I know this one. In-tro-duc-tions. That`s the, the thing, that I said I knew that I did."

The intoxicated pair laughed merrily, collapsing into each other. Aidan`s face was as stone, but somehow he kept his temper and waited, though less than patiently.

"This lovely little lass is Aurelia, which is almost like the Orland version of mine," his father, Aurthelin, finally managed to slur out. "That there is my boy, Aidan. He likes that name, no really, he does. I prefer the old way of saying it, but he`s grown now so he gets to pick for himself. See the resemblance, do you? He`ll be a real heart-breaker once he settles down. His mother`s hair, but he got my strong chin, flashing eyes. Maybe something else the girls love too, ha!"

"Girls. Girls? Wait, Aidan, did you say something about - oh, there they are. Hiding behind you. Aurelia, those are my girls. Beautiful, aren`t they? The taller one, with that cute little snub nose is Siobhan. You`d like her, she has an eye for embroidery like you. And Saoirse is the younger. Voice to charm the birds out of trees, but never uses it, even if I ask nicely. You`ll love them, Aurelia. Get to know them better still after I marry you like I promised."

Aidan, bridling beyond his self-restraint, began to rant: "Saoirse is the taller and older, da. She no longer sings because the sickness that nearly killed her also robbed her of that gift. Yes, Siobhan has an eye for embroidery, but only because their mother took it up after she was born. You do remember their mother Livia, da, don`t you?"

Somehow he resisted the urge to struck their father when he saw the absence of any recollection in his eyes.

"Livia? Livia who you barely saw in the last fifteen years because she grew grey and wrinkled and you did not. Livia who we buried scarce three weeks gone, and you nowhere to be seen. Off wooing this replacement, or perhaps several, knowing you. As you did with my mother Caitlin before her, and Martina before her, and Carys before her. Those are just the ones I know of, lady Aurelia. He married them all and mourned each with a new girl, didn`t you, da? Easier to forget a human love than an elven one."

Aurthelin looked at his stone-faced son and red-eyed daughters blankly. Half next to and half beneath him, the pretty and buxom Aurelia almost managed a frown, before reaching around and tweaking the tips of his ears playfully. With a salacious grin, Aurthelin dived back into her chest, his children already forgotten.

Aidan turned his head away, defeated, himself near to tears. He put his arms around his sisters to escort them away. He spoke for all of them as he whispered, "I still love you, da, but Heshtail forgive me, you make it so difficult."

*****

Six sombre faces stared at the untouched food laid out on the table. Two others, identical in shape as well as expression, gazed out of the window across the treetops, taking in the rich summer smell of the Luvam. For all that they were merely half-elven, born of Aurthelin`s many dalliances with human women over the decades, the Luvam invigorated them as much as any true elf.

Even the Dark Conquest had barely touched the interior of this forest, still shielded from outside evils by the ancestral wards laid down by the first elves to isolate themselves here; long before they became known as ranarim, the Sunder Elves, a splinter race that had grown so insular and xenophobic that it had even cast out Aurthelin, one of its own, to the very boundary of the Luvam when his preference for humans was discovered.

For his children, this had meant a lifetime growing up with a succession of different wives and little contact with anyone else, save for a few Orlander villagers who subsisted on the edges of the forest. It was a miracle that any of them had turned out as well as they had. Now, once again, the time had come for some to leave the family house and move into the family home.

"We can take all three of you," said the oldest of them, Aisling, repeated. "We added on four rooms in readiness when you were born, Aidan, just in case. It is not a question of room. You don`t have to go a-wandering in search of the secret temples."

The twins, Riordan and Carwyn, laughed mirthlessly from their seats by the window. Aisling gave each a sharp clout in warning, which they duly ignored. They knew as well as anyone that there was no point in trying to persuade Aidan otherwise, and their cynical sense of humor did not allow them to keep entirely silent about that. The fact that even they, self-admitted cowards at heart, had not been able to resist leaving the Luvam meant that there was not much in the way of an argument that Aidan could.

"Aidan, if you won`t listen to me, no matter how much you ought to," Aisling tried a new tactic. "Then will you listen to Aoife? She`s spent longer out there than the rest of us combined. She reached the outskirts of the Summervale itself, for love of the Swan! She knows more than-"

"More than you do as well, sister," Aoife interrupted, to grudging acknowledgement. "I shall give to Aidan what you did for Breifne, and what he did for me. Maps, advice, and my love. Those, along with our faith in the gods, are all that we can trust in to see him through. It has been enough for us so far, hasn`t it? We have all returned who left the Luvam."

Nonetheless, they all cast surreptitious glances at the last of their siblings, the heavily scarred and utterly silent Breifne. He had gone east, unlike the others, and what struggles he had faced there had nearly ended him, body and mind. Even so, when he had crawled back into the protection of the forest, barely clinging onto life, his eyes had blazed with a surety of purpose that had inspired others to see for themselves what had become of the wider world and how they might change it for the better.

"Besides, it is high time that Aidan went on his own pilgrimage," Aoife continued. "Saoirse and Siobhan are barely past twenty, far too young to leave. You are too young, sisters, and pouting like that does not help your case. Aidan is twice your age and, just barely, mature enough. If he can avoid climbing trees for the fun of it, that is."

"My balance has improved since last year," Aidan protested weakly, over the closest thing to genuine laughter his brothers and sisters could muster. "And I already know where I will go. Aisling, you said that those clerics you escorted into Zeland knew of a place to establish their hidden temple? I will start there. And by our mothers, I will return to you. After all, you can`t just miss me out when you meet our newest friend. Da has probably already made them with his new wife."

The seven, even Breifne, shook their heads at that, in mingled acceptance and disappointment. Then they stood, surrounding their dear youngest brother, and held him close. Tears were shed. When the last of them fell, and the huddle was broken, it was understood that it would be many years hence before they were all together again.

They sat back down, and one more time, broke bread together.







 

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