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Chapter 10: Messages and departures

For me, walking through the woods by night has always been a surreal experience, for nothing looks as it should, and the near absence of light robs my eyes of the certainty I feel by daylight. You never appreciate how important vision is to human arrogance until you have to do without your sight for a time and rely on other, lesser senses. No matter how self-assured I grew over the years, there was always a strong sense that something lay just beyond what I could see, cloaked in the shadows. If I could hear that something or catch its scent, it was easy to give it a name and relax, or at least to take the necessary precautions should that name signify a predator.

But when you can neither see nor hear nor scent what accompanies you through the dark—then you must be vigilant. The older foresters often told tales of things that moved about the forest by night, and that kept to the deepest shadows, and warned us to never travel alone by dark—though we often did so from necessity despite those warnings. “After all,” we reassured ourselves, “no living man could claim to have seen any of those anonymous things that crept about in the dark.” With quiet voices that were far more disturbing than had they mocked us, the older foresters gave the same answer. “Yes, no living man.” So although we publicly mocked their warnings, privately we took care to avoid being caught alone in the woods by darkness unless it was truly necessary.

Our walk through the Southwood that night had a different feeling, one akin to what I imagined one would feel in a dream—if one were the sort to remember one’s dreams. I’d heard enough tales from those who did to recognize the strange distortions of time and distance as we walked. The forest was at once familiar, like any other forest I’d spent my days and nights traversing, yet at the same time unreal. The deeper we penetrated, the stranger things became. It was not that the shapes changed beyond recognition or anything so drastic; rather, everything took on a great clarity, the sort of crystalline focus one feels in the grip of a fever, and that despite the darkness and the thick shadows that gathered here and there. Indeed, the moonlight bathed me with a physicality beyond any poet’s metaphor, the stars shone brighter than I’d ever seen them shine before, bright enough to cast shadows, and there were many lights in that sky that were unfamiliar despite years spent gazing up at the constellations and memorizing as many as I could. Sounds rang in the still air with almost painful sharpness, and the smells of leaf mould and night-blooming flowers intensified.

Small though my guide was, he moved fast, and I was hard pressed to keep up with him despite my longer legs. The world continued changing as we walked, enough so that I was lost within minutes of our departure; the moon had changed position when we crossed over into Eald, and though the stars overhead remained familiar enough I could have set a course by them, the Elf set too rapid a pace for me to do so without running into a tree or other obstacle while my gaze was turned upwards. I consoled myself with the notion that I would either be escorted from the woods once I’d delivered my message, or would have no need to worry about ever finding my way home again.

Soon, the trees closed together overhead, though the light of the moon penetrated even so and lit our path as well as the sun would have done. As we walked, the forest became dominated by oaks, many broader than I was tall. I’d originally thought that given the light’s silvery hue, all illumination must have come from the moon, but now that the forest canopy obscured the moon, the light appeared different indeed—directionless almost. More animals than I’d expected moved about us: deer paid us no heed, browsing on acorns that should not have been on the ground this early in the year, rabbits hopped about as if they’d not a care in the world, and a huge boar rooted beneath a tree, seeking mushrooms. I tightened my grip on the axe, conscious of how poor a weapon it would prove against a boar, but after an unworried glance in our direction, it too ignored us. My guide ignored them all, striding along as if he had not a moment’s doubt where he was headed. Shaking my head, I followed in his wake, savoring the strangeness of the situation and abandoning any hope of understanding it.

We walked for long enough that my legs tired before we saw the first sign of our destination. That sign was the familiar and comforting warm glow of a fire lapping at leaf-shrouded pillars that soared upwards until they vanished to form a roof high as the night sky above us. As we drew nearer, I slowed my pace, not caring whether my guide outdistanced me, for I wanted to see what I was getting into. It was not so much that my caution would make any difference, for I’d already committed myself to this adventure; rather, it went against my nature to walk blindly into a situation without understanding it.

Despite my vigilance, two sentries emerged from the woods around me like moonbeams from behind a cloud: one moment, nobody was there, and the next, two Elves armed with bows had slipped into view, flanking me, but far enough behind for each to be outside the other’s arc of fire. Were it not for slight differences in their clothing, it would have been easy to mistake them for naught but two reflections of my guide. I acknowledged their sudden presence with a slow nod, but gave them no sign that their presence concerned me. Instead, I held my head high as I approached the fire.

As before, I took a long, slow breath, calming myself before stepping around a tree root as high as my knee and into the circle of firelight. My two escorts faded back into the night. In addition to my guide, three Elves awaited me, each enough alike to have been brothers or sisters. I’m sure I could have distinguished between them in better light, or with more time spent growing familiar with their individual differences, but in the strange light of Eald and with the dancing light from the fire that lay between us, the three seemed identical. Their inhuman gazes compounded the strangeness of that sight, and despite myself, I shivered.

Two of the three who awaited me were standing, each clasping a long, slender, silvery sword and garbed in shimmering chainmail of the same unfamiliar metal. The third, who had been sitting, rose, and with the firelight now limning her face, it was clear she was a woman. There were signs of age on her face and in the grey tinge that lent her golden hair the color of firelit pewter rather than the white gold of her guard.

“I bid thee welcome to our encampment, Modred, for though your race is not welcome here, yet would I not show discourtesy to one who bears a message from one as important as Orgrim.”

There was wariness in her voice despite the formal politeness, but allowing for that and the strangeness of those eyes, I found myself enjoying the ample evidence that she was female. I let my eyes range over her body, relishing the sight of her; yes, I would take such a one as a bed partner without a second thought should the opportunity present itself. Alarmed at these unwelcome thoughts, I bowed deep to conceal my discomfiture, and when I rose, I’d wiped away any trace.

“Forgive my intrusion, Lady. I come bearing a message from my master. Had it not been for his command, I would not have entered your woods of my own volition.”

She bowed her head graciously, though her gaze never left me, and she signed for me to be seated. I did so, savoring the sharp aroma of the burning wood and awaiting her next words as I glanced about the encampment. The two who’d been standing remained on guard, eyes roving over the forest around us, which struck me as odd given how plainly I was within their power and how impossible it was for any other human to have followed me here. I felt sure there were more of the Elves in the darkness about us, but it was a hunter’s instinct, not any sight, that told me this.

“Let me see what you have brought us.”

As before, I reached into my backpack and eased out the scroll, careful not to let it point at anyone. I held it before me, certain that it would be unwise to approach the old woman, and waited. My former guide stepped into my peripheral vision, and took the scroll from my outstretched hand.

Still making no sound, he moved around the fire to stand before the woman, holding the scroll silhouetted in the firelight. For a moment, all three pairs of eyes across the campfire attained that unfocused look I’d first seen in my escort’s eyes as they stared at the scroll, then the two guards resumed their appraisal of the surrounding woods. The old Elf’s gaze remained on the scroll for several moments longer, the snapping of the fire the only sound, then she sighed and her vision cleared once again.

“There is peril here, but nothing beyond my skill. Open it.”

The Elf who’d accompanied me thus far bowed, and with a flourish, ran his finger down the scroll until a fine nail snapped the seal’s green wax. Then in an instant, even before the first tiny crumbs of wax had begun their descent to the forest floor, the scroll unrolled itself violently and flung him backwards into the night. An oily black cloud burst forth from inside the scroll, even as I heard the Elf’s body strike the ground some distance from the fire, but I dared not look away to see what had happened to him, for my gaze had been snared by what was happening before me.

The scroll had fallen into the fire, where it smoldered, emitting a foul black smoke that rose to twine with the black cloud that grew thicker and less pleasant with every passing second. I heard gasping intakes of breath from the Elves—all save the old woman, face grim with concentration, who’d begun circling her arms, bent at the elbows, counter to each other in the air before her, passing outwards below her waist then up across the center of her torso. Several more Elves emerged from the shadows, bows strung or swords drawn, and interposed themselves between the woman and the apparition. Chill fear took hold in the pit of my stomach, and had it not been for the fact that my legs would disobey me—and the sure knowledge that I would have been slain instantly had I tried to run—I would have run into the night like a child fleeing a beating.

The darkness had by now solidified into a humanoid shape, but with muscles that would have been impossible on a human both for their size and for their alien configuration. The cool moonlight and warmer firelight seemed not to touch that figure, save for the pair of fiery red eyes that surveyed the encampment and caught the fire’s flames in their depths. Its laughter was the slow rumble of a rockslide, and I could see the fear of several Elves as the creature raised a heavy arm, palm forward and wicked black talons gleaming, in an incongruous gesture of appeasement.

The old Elf had not paused for an instant, and in the wake of her still-circling arms, arcs of light began to trace a path in the air before her; indeed, it was as if she were drawing moonbeams out of the night and wrapping them around her arms. As the creature raised its hand, the circling of her arms slowed, then stopped. A disk of light hovered before her, seeming no more solid than fine lace and a feeble barrier between her and the creature above the fire.

But the creature did not attack. Instead, it spoke in that same gravelly voice. “Hear you: I am the bearer of a message from my master, and am commanded to tell you that Orgrim has returned to your lands. Know you that you are in no peril so long as you choose not to interfere with his workings among the humans. But should you interfere, I am to warn you that I am but one of many who will be unleashed upon you for your temerity.”

Several of the Elves had taken a step back as the monster spoke, weapons raised, but the old Elf stood her ground. “We take your meaning, demon. Return to your master with our message: We care not at all what passes among the humans, and would have had no intention of interfering in human affairs even before hearing his message. But bear also this message with you: the Elves have no fear of such as you, and the manner of delivering your master’s message shall give us cause to reconsider our intentions.”

With that, she clapped her hands together, and the silvery shimmer in the air before her flew at the “demon”, wrapping itself about that mighty frame like a fisherman’s net. The demon laughed, mocking her, and shrugged its mighty shoulders, but found itself unable to move; then, the net of light began tightening, crushing the demon in upon itself and distorting its shape. But even as that foul blackness dwindled, the burning eyes that were all that remained recognizable of its head turned in my direction.

That gravelly laughter once again tainted the night, even as the blackness collapsed in upon itself. “Farewell, Brother. I hope you shall find it more comfortable in your new home than I find my current prison!”

Though I’d thought my voice paralyzed with horror, I felt the movement of my throat and recognized my own inadvertent laughter. “It is tolerable, Brother, made bearable by what I have been promised when all is done.” As one blackness waned and faded, leaving that mocking laughter in its wake, another blackness grew in me, and I collapsed to the soft ground.

The last thing I remember was the chill as that second voice spoke inside my head, a greasy caress upon my mind: “Yes, Morley, I have been promised much when all is done.”

***

I awoke to the touch of gentle fingers upon my temples, and an insistent pressure upon my mind. Unable to resist that pressure, I opened my eyes, and found myself gazing up at the old Elf. I still could not read what lay in those inhuman eyes, but there was what appeared to be wariness in the lines around them and their companions graven upon her face.

“I wake you, Man, against my better judgment. There are those among us who would have slain you as you slept.”

A sense of my body returned, revealing that I’d been staked to the ground, spreadeagled, but not tied so tight that I was in any pain. “I’m grateful for your mercy.”

She frowned. “Don’t be. It was fear of what your death might release that stayed our hands as much as any mercy—for though I have no doubt I could banish what lies within you, such spells open a gateway to somewhere perilous beyond your imagining, and there is no knowing what might come through that gateway. No, we are safer with you as you are now.”

I licked dry lips. “And what am I now?” I spoke that question as casually as I could manage, but at that moment, the answer was more important than anything else in my world.

“Know you not? How could that be, Man?”

Those strange eyes bored into mine, and I flinched away, not knowing how to meet her gaze. “I know you have no reason to believe me, but I’ll tell you my tale nonetheless in the hope it will explain how I came to be what I am.” I told her of my nightmare and my transformation, and watched her eyes widen with surprise. Then the wariness in her eased. “So you see,” I concluded, “until tonight I was convinced I’d merely dreamed what happened—for it was so far beyond my experience that it could be naught else but a dream.”

Her voice was more gentle now. “It was no dream, Man, as you now know.” She paused, and spoke back over her shoulder to the other Elf. “He is an unwilling servant in this, incomprehensible though it may seem. Killing him would have been not just unwise, but unjust.”

An unfamiliar voice replied. “So you say, Elder, and we must perforce believe you. And what shall we do with him now?”

“I see no alternative but to release him. We are not yet ready to face our ancient betrayer, and harming his messenger would precipitate a confrontation before we have had time to ponder our situation.” She got to her feet. “I’ve told them to release you. Though no friend of ours, you are largely innocent in this matter.”

Belatedly, I realized that the conversation I’d overheard had not been intended for my ears, and that I would have heard none of it had they known I understood their tongue. As I pondered that, ungentle hands pulled the stakes from the ground and released my limbs from the ropes that had bound me. I sat up, not wanting to tempt the Elves into reconsidering their decision. A wise choice, for I could now see the several bows trained on me, their owners pitiless and wary. At my feet, the fire had been extinguished, and it was clear the Elves were making ready to leave.

“Wait!” I cried. All eyes turned in my direction.

The old Elf spoke. “For what reason? You have delivered your message, and we must bear it to the council of Elders that they may debate our course of action. We bear you no more ill will than we bear the rest of your kind, but neither do we owe you our time.”

My words came out in a rush. “I had not presumed any such debt. Yet as one who would not be your enemy, I would benefit from your advice. Any knowledge you can give me of my present situation would be invaluable in helping rid myself of Orgrim’s control. Though I may never be your ally, it would nonetheless be better for you if I were not your enemy—not that I am a fearsome foe, but your true enemy would be weakened by my defection.” As I said this, I understood that it was true and that I’d been overlooking or perhaps willfully denying that I’d not been my own man these past weeks. I misliked what that said of me, but had no time now to ponder that further.

The Elves spoke among themselves, this time too quietly for me to hear. Then the largest part of their group faded into the woods, as if they’d never been present, leaving the old woman and (so far as I could tell), my former guide, whose bandaged head testified to the consequences of having opened the scroll. It was the woman who spoke.

“There is enough truth in what you say that I shall endeavor to answer your questions. Ask, Man.”

I took a deep breath to ease the tightening in my chest. “I asked you what I am...”

“You are who and what you were before your dream. But there is a demon within you that bides its time, and emerges when doing so serves its purpose.”

“That’s the second time you’ve used the word demon. The word is unknown to me.”

“And so should it be. Your race vowed to abandon magic when first you came to our lands, and as a consequence of that vow, you should know nothing of those foul creatures. And it would have been far better had that promise been kept; had we known it to be this badly broken, we would have refused you entry into Eald.” She shot a hard look at the other Elf, who turned his head away, shamed.

I thought of what I’d read in Ankur. “I’ve read something of what you say. But I sense another reason.”

She nodded gravely. “The second reason is one unknown to you, and one that cannot be known by any of your race.”

I thought of the unreadable words in the scroll, and comprehension began to dawn. “Cannot? Do you mean we are incapable of that knowledge as a result of some great spell?”

“You are astute. Yes, there was a great spell, and anything that I could tell you would be as our own sylvan tongue to your spellbound mind.” She paused, and frowned. “Also, there are depths here beyond what you imagine. That spell has implications even for the Elves, and we ignore them at our peril.”

“I will not ask you further, then.” In fact, I would have liked nothing more than to press her to reveal enough for me to understand. Instead, I forbore from pressing the point. “Can you tell me more of these things you called demons?”

My former guide’s eyes narrowed, and his knuckles whitened on his bow. “You have seen all you need to see to know the answer to that question.” I tried to meet his eyes and failed, for he avoided my gaze as if he now feared me. I noted the smear of dried blood that had run down his neck and stained the collar of his shirt, and the whiteness of his pursed lips, and my own recently healed head wound twinged. I reflected that he had good cause to fear me.

“For an Elf, that would be true enough. For me, it is not. You agreed to answer my questions, and if I am to help you—or at least to weaken our mutual enemy—it behooves you to speak more freely.”

The bowman was about to reply, but his companion cut him off. “He speaks truth.” She paused a moment in thought. “This is difficult, for I must speak in terms that you can understand, and the more important terms are forbidden to you. Very well, consider this: The demon you witnessed is a being not unlike yourself, but without a corporeal body and with the ability to wield certain powerful magics under the right conditions. Your Orgrim is one who can summon and control such creatures.” Her lips wrinkled as if she’d tasted something unpleasant. “From what you have said, I believe that he summoned one such and bound it deep within your body; in exchange for the freedom to act upon our world, the demon was to use its power to shape you into the giant you are today. Though your demon allows you a measure of freedom, it also exerts a measure of control over your will.”

“It mentioned a promised reward.” I felt a chill spreading through my breast.

“All such dark magics bear a terrible price, Man. If Orgrim is true to his old habits, it will be you who bears that price, for he’s too wise to let such things fall upon himself.”

I still didn’t understand what she was saying, and at that moment, did not want to know more. Ignoring the faint echo of laughter at the back of my mind and the painful knotting of my stomach, I pressed on with questions whose answers I did want to know. “You speak as if you know Orgrim.” Could she be that old?

“Yes, though I do not say it with pride. Your Orgrim was he who first made contact with us after your people had destroyed their own lands, and he who bargained with us for their right to come here in search of sanctuary. We accommodated his request, for we were a hospitable people in those days, but he concealed his true nature and then betrayed us. Your people convinced us they had abandoned all magic, our first condition for letting you come to our lands, but in time we discovered you had brought the worst of your old magics. Then you began destroying our forests to make room for your farms and cities. When we resisted, there was war, and we fared poorly at first; our magics are not those of war, and we needed to learn new tactics to fight foes armed with a terrible magic unknown to us and the metal that separates our race from Eald when it does not slay us outright. Eventually there was peace between our peoples, or at least an end to that war, but we have not forgotten. Nor have we forgiven.”

I bowed my head. “If what you say is true, I am ashamed for my race. Yet I would say to you that not all were involved. As you have said, magic was unknown to my people, and the sagas tell that most were seeking safety from some terrible cataclysm. I make no excuses for our leaders, but surely the people were guiltless?”

“As guiltless as you are for bringing two demons among us and destroying our peace.” She saw the look growing upon my face and spoke before I could defend myself. “I do not claim that you serve our ancient foe willingly, for you acted honorably to discharge what you saw as your debt. Yet the burden that lies heavy upon you was assumed of your own free will, and you must endure the consequences. Your crime lies in extending those consequences to us.”

“Forgive me.” I felt very small indeed, and there was a terrible weight upon my heart along with the simmering fear my new understanding had awoken. “I suspect my people will suffer as much as yours if what you’ve told me is true.”

“If that be the case, then Teah preserve us all.” There was sorrow mingled with apprehension in her voice.

“Teah?”

“She who gave us Eald, and many other fine things beside.” The Elf’s eyes sought the moon, obscured by the trees but whose light was all around us in the twilight of Eald. “But that is something of which I may not speak to you.”

There was something here I felt sure I should understand, but it eluded me, and the harder I tried, the more distant that understanding. I shook my head, trying to clear an intangible pressure on my thoughts. “I don’t want to abuse your patience, but I have one more question for you.” I paused, fear vying with hope for dominance. “What can I do to save myself?”

“There is nothing you can do to save yourself.”

The fear was winning. “You claimed you could banish the demon within me.”

“But not that I would, Man. You have no such call upon me, and even did you, I would not risk the consequences of that action.”

The fear acquired a tinge of despair. “Then you’re afraid to confront Orgrim?”

Her eyes flashed, but it was the bowman who responded. “Your temerity is inexcusable. If she refuses, it is neither from fear nor yet from enmity.”

“Indeed, neither would influence my choice. But there are depths I do not yet understand, and cannot explain, and until I have plumbed them, I shall act no further. You are on your own in this matter, Man.”

The old Elf turned to go, the bowman covering her departure. I fought down the wave of despair rising within me and realized I had another question. “Wait. There is another question I must now ask.” Before she could deny me, I swept on. “How can I return from Eald to my own world? Surely you would not strand me here and risk the consequences?”

“Consequences? You fear perhaps that your master would come to retrieve you?” I remained silent. “Fear not. Your race cannot remain in Eald other than in our presence. Once we have left, you will soon return to where you—” All of an instant, her head turned, paralleled by that of the bowman. I followed her gaze, and into the open space before me walked a large tomcat.

Grey did not have the look of a cat that had spent the night walking through deep forest; he did not limp, and neither burrs nor mud marred his sleek coat. And despite the fact I’d led him a long chase, he crossed towards me and tried to rub himself against my leg, purring his anticipation. I think I was more surprised than he was when he passed right through me, as if I were no more substantial than a morning mist. Unperturbed, he folded his hind legs beneath him and sat before me, watching me expectantly with his head cocked to one side.

The two Elves stared at the cat, wide-eyed with wonder. The bowman’s aim had shifted from me to the cat, then back again, but the sorceress approached and squatted before the cat to examine him. Her eyes took on that unfocused look the bowman’s eyes had held when he first examined the scroll, the net of wrinkles relaxing for a time, and when she arose, a look of astonishment had erased her tension.

“This is no ordinary animal you choose as your companion.”

This too was something I’d been denying, but I made no mention of that in hope I’d learn more from her reaction. “As it happens, he chose me. He’s clever for a cat I’ll grant you, but he’s just a cat.”

“He is far more than that.” She fixed me with her gaze and spat an unfamiliar word into the air. A heaviness came over my mind, then faded. “I speak this for your ears alone, Man. This cat bears within him that which is either your salvation or your doom. Keep that always in your thoughts and think twice before ever you abandon him again to fend for himself.”

As the last of the heaviness faded from my mind, I felt anger growing in its place. The Elf’s words had burdened me with fear, a crushing lack of comprehension, and little new understanding in compensation. I’d begun to resent that. “Could you be more specific?”

“I judge it unwise to do so. You will discover the truth in time, on your own, but were I to tell you now what I know, I would be doing you a grave disservice. Orgrim would learn of this as soon as he next met you, and that discovery would bode well for none of us.” She paused a moment and looked to the sky. When her gaze returned, it bore what I took to be humility. “I have no love for you or your race, Man, but I nonetheless wish Teah’s blessing upon you. I have a feeling you shall need it.”

With that she turned, and vanished into the forest with her escort, and overwhelmed by the whipsawing my emotions had been through that night, I stood, numb, and watched her leave.

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