March 26, CR 708
The gray-cloaked figure strode along the main road overlooking Lake Bozojo and its many ships with an almost palpable ring of emptiness surrounding him. Though the roads were crowded so close to the city, merchants, soldiers, missionaries, pilgrims, and other travelers alike skirted around the enigmatic figure whose cowl enveloped his angular face within shadow. The tip of a jeweled scabbard was visible beneath the hem of his cloak, while a well-worn traveling pack adorned his back. He did not use any staff to aid his steps, even over the rough terrain along the Marchbourne's northern flank, but walked as steadily and as purposefully as a monk at daily prayer.
As if in a dream, Andares-es-sebashou passed through the opening made before him as the other travelers all parted around him like a wave around a stone. His return to Bozojo, a city overlooking a vast lake whose far side could not be glimpsed, was one that he'd long looked forward to. Though it had been well over a year since his previous visit, it felt only yesterday that he'd trod upon the Suielman stone road upon the incline toward the city's western gates. A small smile played at the edges of his lips, and his nose delicately sampled the intense odors of fish, wharves, offal, sweat, livestock, perfume, and spices that mingled together to create a fragrant chord that could only answer to the name civilization of man.
What did differ, that Andares noted with a mixture of approval and also a tender anxiety, was the new banners flying atop the city gates and also the castle and the wharves. Gone were the once familiar wolf's head that spoke of the city's former allegiance to the duchy of Kelewair to the south. In their place were depictions of a falcon whose feathers, beak, and talons were of such delicacy and familiarity that it buoyed Andares with reminisces of his woodland home – these were the touches of his Elvish kin in Quenardya, passed down amongst the Fennasi in gratitude for the centuries of benevolent rule only slowly given into the hands of men.
But it had been centuries more since such arts had been seen flying from the battlements of Bozojo which had been conquered by Suielman armies long before Andares's birth. How had the falcon chased out the wolf? How had the Fennasi of Salinon come to rule in one of the most important trading cities of the Southern Midlands?
He had recollected hearing the stories in his travels from Metamor, though only in the last week as he had left Elarial behind had they been more than just whispers, grunts, and fearful questions of war. Now he had come face to face with the reality. Bozojo was no longer a city of the Southern Midlands, but the newest daughter of the Outer Midlands and the westernmost port of Dûn Fennas.
The wharves of Bozojo passed by on his right as he continued toward the massive western gates. Shouts, laughter, and song echoed up from the gently creaking wood as sails snapped in a firm easterly breeze. Armed guards and compliments of soldiers moved along the stone piers inspecting wares and accosting foreign merchants from time to time. They also patrolled the roads leading west and north in large numbers. Knights and other horsemen were visible as they ranged in the rolling fields, pastures and farms to the northwest of the city. Along the battlements Andares spied archers and crossbowmen. The blue and green fish livery of the Calladar family was brightly visible against the darker pennants of the Otakar family.
The western gatehouse was wide enough to allow two wagons to pass side by side, with three massive portcullises one after another, providing ample opportunity for those archers to skewer an army foolish enough to besiege the city. The gatehouse passage was so long that torches had to be lit every twenty paces to keep it bright enough to see the way. Laughter echoed through the passage, and Andares's slight smile broadened. His light step made no noise even in the still cold puddles where the tight-packed stones had worn down over the centuries.
Beyond the gatehouse he found a wide courtyard lined with warehouses and Inns to welcome the weary traveler and the anxious merchant. One of the warehouses had been turned into a set of barracks while a second had been converted into an extensive network of stables. The sound of several blacksmith hammers resonated from beyond the interwoven complex on his left. The blue and green fish banner dotted the buildings, always beneath the black falcon crest of Salinon.
Despite the almost universal presence of soldiers, the populace that Andares saw seemed generally content, busily pursuing their lives without concern of bullying or braggadocio from the militia. Nor did any of those soldiers come to accost him about his business; they gave him a wide berth, as if sensing his foreign nature came from more that just a different nationality. But with his cowl, and his mostly human stature, he doubted that any would have guessed that he was one of the Åelf of Ava-shavåis.
Bozojo was organized like an onion with the innermost ring on a rise to the northeast where the Calladar family castle and Lothanasi temple towered over everything else. Beyond that a ring where the wealthy and notable citizens made their homes as well as the establishments of the most prosperous of merchants. The outermost ring in which Andares walked was filled with laborers, fishermen, sailors, soldiers, and the rest of the merchant class. And it was to a modest Inn that his feet carried him, one overlooking the wharves and wide harbor that provided the city with its lucrative trade.
Lake's Head Inn was announced with a wooden sign painted with a picture of the harbor, the lake a deep blue beneath a bright summer sky. The exterior walls were fashioned from a coarse gray stone plastered over and then fixed with wooden supports recently painted a rich mahogany, with wide windows in front, all opened a crack to let in the cool early Spring air. The second floor also featured opened windows, and a tall pointed roof that permitted a few wealthier tenants privacy. Hanging from a long gutter was another of the black falcon banners.
Andares noted the familiar as well as the new with some relief. He stepped through the door and was greeted with a quiet commons. The candelabra were lit and with the open windows both on the main level and in the loft to one side, it brought a diffuse orange glow to nearly every corner. This early in the afternoon the only patrons within the commons were a trio of merchants discussing their plans over a bit of wine and cheese. A few youths on the cusp of manhood busied themselves cleaning tables, floors, and any other surface that needed it. The merchants glanced at him briefly before returning to their grumbled argument, but one of the boys, a lanky boy with a mop of blond hair and a veritable mask of freckles, rushed up to him and bowed his head. "Good afternoon, Velelya. Have you traveled far? Are you in need of refreshment?"
Andares marveled at the Fennasi word, derived from the Quenardya words for a traveler of distinction and honor, so dutifully pronounced by this youth, his pronunciation forced but passable. He had never heard it spoken in this city before, though it seemed so familiar as if it were an echo of a previous encounter. His lips and angular cheeks betrayed his delight.
"Thank you, Nessë. And I will require lodgings. Tell your Heru Benlan Rais that I would appreciate his attendance to some personal matters."
His silken voice made not only the other youths but also the merchants lift their heads and regard him with curiosity. His use of more of the Fennasi dialect bewildered the mop-haired youth who clearly was not comfortable with the ancient language. Seeing the boy's confusion, he repeated in the more familiar terms. "Thank you, young man. I have traveled far, and I welcome your offer of refreshment. I will also need lodgings, and I require the attendance of your Master Benlan Rais to see to some personal affairs."
The boy's face brightened and he bowed his head again, hands wrapped tightly about a broom handle. "Of course, Velelya." He then half-turned and led Andares toward a secluded table beneath the stairs leading to the loft. "What can I bring for you... Heru?" Andares nodded to assure the youth that he'd spoken properly.
"Whatever you have ready at this hour will suffice, Nessë."
The boy frowned, his freckles seeming to multiply in his embarrassment. "We don't have much at this early hour. The evening meals won't be prepared for another two hours."
Andares smiled as he settled against the wall, gloved hands resting on the table before him. "It will suffice for now. Just pass my message along to Heru Rais."
The freckled boy nodded, and carrying the broom with him, ran off into a back room behind the wide counter at the far end of the commons. Andares listened to a bird singing just outside one of the windows and noting the enthusiasm of its melody while he waited.
A few minutes later, the merchants having returned to their private discourse and the lonely bird continuing its plaintive cry, a short, balding man that was nevertheless no older than either Charles or Lindsey emerged carrying a small plate with bread, a small bowl of honey, and slices of cheese. These he set before Andares with a light tilt to his head, eyes appraising him with warm regard. "It is a great honor to have you in my home again, Master Sebashou. I apologize that I cannot provide you with more than this, but I will have a hearty meal ready for your tastes this evening."
"Master Rais," Andares replied, using the terms he had come to expect from the people of Galendor to show respect. "I am delighted by whatever you could provide. Can you join me for a few moments?"
Benlan Rais, proprietor of the Lake's Head Inn nodded his head and drew another chair close by, sitting down with one leg crossed under the other. "I have a few minutes for such a distinguished Velelya as yourself. It has been some time since we have seen you here. I trust all is well?"
"All is well," Andares replied as he sampled the bread and honey. It was sweet with a subtle tang he did not recognize. "At least all is well with myself. But what of you and your city? How came you under the banner of Salinon? And why have you been using the old language left to the Fennasi by the Elves?"
That Andares-es-sebashou was one of the Åelf was a secret known only to a few on his travels – Benlan Rais was one such man. On their first meeting, Andares had been forced to disarm a drunken knight who'd tried to strike him. Benlan had seen his strange appearance and guessed that we was of the ancient fair ones, and so Andares had felt no compunction about revealing even more, though he had never stated his mission in any terms that Benlan could reveal. Still, this young man, this hard-working and good man, was one that he trusted and whose confidence he treasured.
"Baron Calladar has wisely chosen to ally with the house of Otakar in Salinon. Duke Verdane demanded tribute, taxes, and our soldiers. But he was a man who could not defend his people. Duke Otakar can, and with his protection has flowed many goods and peoples." Benlan laughed lightly and leaned closer. "And with the new merchants and the many dignitaries come to pay court here in the last six months, our wealthier citizens have flocked to their culture and ways, and so even we humbler men have found them favorably upon our tongue." He laughed again, more boisterously this time, and shook his head, the few strands of hair he had left above his ears falling forward to brush over his eyebrows. More quietly he added, "Those few words we know at least. So they do indeed come from your people?"
"My brothers and sisters did live amongst the Fennasi for many centuries, teaching them and building up leaders and institutions for them. But it has been centuries since these words were ever spoken in this city." He smiled and added, "This minassë."
Benlan leaned back a moment and then lowered his eyes. "I will have to ask you to teach me more, Velelya. Will you be staying long?"
"A few days," Andares replied. "A private room with a view of the lake would be my preference, but if none are available, I will accept whatever you can provide."
"Have you business then in our... minassë?" Benlan paused and spoke the unfamiliar Elvish word carefully so that he might not leave out the slightest inflection.
"To gather supplies for the next portion of my journey. I head east into Dûn Fennas and beyond." A fluttering echoed in his heart. "I wish I could stay longer of course, but I have my responsibilities."
Benlan Rais nodded, frowning for the first time. "Tomorrow, there is a man I will introduce you to. After seeing all that we have in the last few months, I think you will be very interested in what he has to say."
"I will not be difficult to find," Andares assured him with a smile. "I would be delighted to meet your nildo... your friend."
Benlan nodded, before standing and putting the chair back in its place beneath the nearby table. "Then I shall go prepare your room, Velelya Sebashou. Welcome back to Bozojo." And with that Benlan Rais departed through the back room, leaving Andares to eat his bread and cheese with only the chirping of the lonely bird for company.
Lake's Head Inn saw a steady stream of patrons begin to come only an hour later. Many were foreign merchants, some Fennasi, others from the Ellcaran coast, and even a few from Giftum and other cities sworn to Metamor. Many others were laborers searching for a good, warm meal to end their day. A minstrel, a lindalnér as he called himself, arrived with dusk and he entertained everyone with several ballads in the ancient tongue. Andares had to resist the temptation to correct both his pronunciations, which were passable most of the time but atrocious in several key places, and his melodies, which lacked the aetherial grace and bittersweet sorrow that should have left all in tears even before the words had begun to glide from his tongue.
Unsurprisingly, the evening meal proved to be perch, but seasoned with a delicate blend of cumin, curry, and mint. Thin noodles complemented the fish and a rather tart wine washed it down. Andares savored the taste, all the while pondering what intricacies of flavor, what tales the meal could tell, what intimacies and secrets it could share, if but these ingredients were handled by one of his brother Åelf. There were suggestions of the art his brothers in Quenardya had left behind amongst the Fennasi, but it seemed only that, a suggestion whispered at the edge of wakefulness.
He did not have another chance to speak with Benlan Rais, but he was able to listen to men as they gathered, their voices rife with business, trade, and delight in their new eastern friends. He heard whispers of the the latest haul of fish, how rich the forests had become with game, and the good health in all their livestock, all of it sweet and grateful bounty from the pantheon for their faithfulness. There were a few unpleasant words in the mix, but they were complaints not of ill-treatment from the many soldiers or of any strange order coming from Salinon, but of a subtle dissatisfaction that they sensed but could not name. Times were prosperous in Bozojo, but prosperity wasn't enough.
Andares could not help but wonder what it was they lacked, but could not name an answer. He dwelt on the question from the time it first came to him until all the lindalnér had finally quit the stage and all of the laborers who had come only for a meal finally departed for their homes. All that remained were those deep into their cups, and even these seemed subdued, brooding despite their otherwise garrulous manner.
Shortly before the small clock atop the mantle and beneath the stag's head struck midnight, Andares retired to his chambers. As he'd requested, they overlooked the lake, and were set all the way at the end of the hall past several empty rooms. The accommodations were not palatial, but neither were they modest. A wide canopied and curtained bed occupied the wall furthest from the two windows. One window with a bench seat overlooked the lake, shining bright with a waxing moon whose reflection made the gentle waters appear as silvery as a mirror. The other window opened over the kitchen and so the rich scent of his meal and the many others cooked that day percolated outside, and were carried within when the breeze shifted. A large bureau was positioned between the door and the second window, while a writing desk with lion's paws for feet awaited the writing of correspondence between both windows where the writer could choose between a vista of the lake or the delectable aroma of a well-staffed kitchen.
Andares took the time to unpack his belongings and put his clothes and toiletries in the bureau. His sleeping cloaks he briefly considered dangling from one window to let them air out, but decided it was still too cold at night to risk; instead he refolded them and placed them in the bureau with the rest of his things.
Satisfied, he sat upon the bedside and rested in his lap the ivory-handled blade Anna-ithil-årda. He ran one finger along the length of its silver tang, noting the notch near the tip that it had suffered in Marzac. It would take a decade to repair, but repair him, this blade of his ancestors, he would.
After singing a soft hymn of his people, a lament for Qan-af-årael and then one for the lost lands in which he now trod, he sheathed the blade, and then retired for the night. He cast one last glance through the window at the moon before drawing the curtains about the bed tight. It was time to surrender to dream.
Andares awoke to his first full day in Bozojo just before the rise of the sun. After his rising prayers of thanksgiving, he donned his traveling gear, his ivory-handled blade, and his money pouch. He enjoyed a simple breakfast of eggs and a fatty meat, washed it down with juice from a fruit he did not know, and then left to wander the merchant district to find the familiar shops and stalls he would need.
There were several squares in the city where merchants gathered to sell meats, cloths, fruits, perfumes, cheap jewelry, and of course fish. The fish markets were particularly loathsome in odor, and so he kept clear of them, preferring those he could find within the second bailey where the richer families made their home. The streets were quiet at that hour despite the number of merchants already at their businesses and beckoning to all who passed by; apart from the soldiers going about their duties, there weren't that many walking the streets yet.
Like the outer sections of the city, he saw numerous falcon banners thrust upon the roofs and windows of homes and storefronts. One thing he didn't see that he expected was the Ecclesia church that had nestled near the gatehouse to the outer district. Where the church should have been was an empty pile of bricks, some tumbled, other fresh. It was as if someone were in the midst of tearing it down and starting to build something else in its place. A handful of soldiers lingered nearby dressed in the blue and green fish crest of Calladar and they gave Andares suspicious glares.
He moved past there, noting that some of the homes near the remains of the church were left empty as if the previous tenants had simply never come home from the market. Plants withered in their plots outside the dark windows, while cobwebs were visible within. Andares wondered what could have happened to make those people leave so suddenly. Had they been loyalists to the Verdane house? The changing of rulers was never easy, and he had long heard stories of humans punishing their enemies mercilessly if they thought they could do it.
Still, he tried not to let what he saw upset him. He continued on his way until he came to the markets selling the sort of food he could easily store for a trip. He bought a few fruits that would keep for a week, but mostly dried and salted meats as well as small loaves of bread which would last him at least three weeks, more than long enough to bring him to the last human city before he crossed the plains of Yerebey.
The merchants appeared uninterested in talk of anything other than their wares, and so Andares did not press them to learn why the church had been destroyed, or why there were a handful of empty homes in a city that clearly was full of people. They made no note of the presence of the soldiers, as if they were some exotic animal caged in a corner of their home whose novelty had worn off.
It took a few hours to find all that he would need, and after he had done so, his purse was somewhat lighter and his pack was much heavier. By mid-morning the streets were filled with people tending their daily business. He could hear Lothanasi hymns chanted in little shrines dotting the district, most to Wvelkim and Artela. He could also hear musicians practicing lute and lyre as he passed beneath the high loft windows of well-to-do homes. He could hear the clop of horse hooves in every direction, and the creak of wagon wheels followed quickly behind. Voices conversing in laughter, whispers, and shouts surrounded him. Several times he was pressed at on either side as he wove through particularly tight roads on his way from shop to shop. Even the soldiers, begrudging in their duty early in the morning, now saw to their tasks with verve and sometimes lighthearted smiles.
Andares felt somewhat comforted by this, and so listened to what he could hear of the Lothanasi chant on his way back to the outer district. By the time he passed through the gatehouse he couldn't hear the melody anymore, and so hummed one of the chants of his own people under his breath. He reached the fourth stanza by the time he returned to Lake's Head Inn and lingered outside in the cool Spring air until he had finished all nine stanzas.
Within he found the boys sweeping the floors and readying the commons for another evening. This time he saw Benlan Rais directing a pair of lads, and he caught the balding man's gaze. Rais smiled to him and nodded toward the table beneath the loft stairs. What few times Andares had been in Bozojo, Benlan always seemed content to seat him at that table.
The Innkeeper stood in front of the table with his hands on his hips and smiled, "What may I do for you today, Master Sebashou? Did you find all that you need for your journey?"
"I believe that I have. The markets here are diverse and seem to be well stocked even so soon after the end of Winter."
"Don't say that," Benlan warned him with a slight laugh. "We've been known to get a few storms even this late. If the wind sweeps off the Barrier, then we can get a foot of snow, even in April!"
"Then we must trust that Dvalin will keep the winds blowing east instead."
"Aye, for that we always hope! So are you leaving tomorrow?"
"I do not wish to leave so soon. There is much to see in Bozojo. I hope to see the great Temple ere I depart at the very least. I have never had the time when I came through before."
Benlan nodded and sucked on his lower lip for a moment. "It is magnificent, though I'm sure you have seen far greater temples than our own."
"Each has its own beauty. One of the lessons my people teach is to see the beauty in even the simple wild flowers that blossom without any to tend them. Some are allotted to be roses, exquisite, fragile, with a scent equally as delicate. But many are wildflowers, and their beauty is always a surprise and a delight."
Benlan laughed lightly at that. "I like how you put that, Master Sebashou."
"I do have a few questions for you if you have the time, Master Benlan. There are some things I saw in your city that caught my eye today."
Benlan grimaced and leaned in more closely. "What sort of things?"
Sensing a need for discretion, Andares whispered of what he'd seen, the church that had been torn down, the homes nearby that were empty, and the withering gazes of the soldiers when he'd come too close. Benlan listened with a careful expression, before nodding his head and whispering back. "The church was torn down the week after Otakar's banners were raised. There were never many Patildor here, but the wolf Duke insisted a church be built. The homes you saw..."
"They fled as soon as they could. Some say they were spies for the wolf Duke. Others say they were Patildor afraid of the soldiers. No one is exactly sure, but flee they did."
"So why leave the homes empty?"
"They haven't been," Benlan replied with a shrug, and a smile that only touched one side of his face. "Many have been sold and filled by merchants and well-to-do families from Linduin. Some came to stay a few weeks, then returned home to their city." Benlan grimaced and then let out a long sigh. "We are still learning what it means to be Outlanders here in Bozojo."
Andares wasn't quite sure what to make of it, but tilted his head in surprise. "You mean Fennasi?"
His host chuckled. "That too."
"What else can you tell me of the many changes taking place? I see many soldiers on the streets and in the fields surrounding your home."
"Lord Calladar is doing all he can to protect Bozojo and the many merchants and travelers come to our city." Benlan's half smile creased his face again as he leaned forward and whispered, "And to make sure we people stay loyal. Not everyone is happy with being Outlandish... Fennasi... what have you. Salinon has sent advisors to Lord Calladar and rumor has it that they have taken to managing the daily affairs of the city."
"Why would they do that?"
Benlan leaned closer, though not so close out of respect for his Åelvish friend. "To bring us into Out... Fennasi society more completely. We here are their newest and westernmost province. Their goods have flowed through our markets and across our lake for centuries now; this is but one more import. But the rumors – Ah the rumors! – they say that the advisers are here to insure Salinon's control in case something foul should befall our noble liege!"
"From the Wolf Duke?"
Benlan stood back up and shrugged his shoulders with a wide exaggerated posture. "Ah, who can say such things! I am but a humble Innkeeper and would not know of them."
"Then neither will I speak of such things," Andares replied, a sense of disappointment filling him. Why did men have to play at such intrigue all the time? Were not their short lives miserable enough without heaping more misery on themselves through constant squabbling for position, prestige, and honors which were no more lasting than grass and straw?
He lifted a pearl-gray finger and beckoned the retreating Innkeeper closer. "There is one thing I must know, if you know. How did this changing of the banners come to pass? Surely the wolf Duke would have come here with his armies if there were not some terrible cost."
Benlan's frown turned into a nervous scowl, and he rubbed one hand over his bald head. "They have the wolf's whelp... hostage."
Benlan swallowed heavily, and he shut his eyes tight, not daring to look over his shoulder, half afraid he would find somebody listening to his words. Andares asked again, more gently. "Please, it is important that I know."
In the faintest of whispers, but one that his pointed ears could hear, Benlan breathed, "Salinon."
Andares nodded slowly, eyes sweeping quickly across the commons behind the Innkeeper. The young boys continued to run about their errands, cleaning tables, chairs, and the floor, as well as managing the handful of merchants who had come for something to eat and to rest their legs. One of the merchants kept looking at the Innkeeper, but his expression was more of impatience than of curiosity.
He was grateful that the door did not open just then. A loud noise or even a blast of cold air would have startled the good Innkeeper out of his wits. The Åelf stood from his table and bowed his head low, replying in a measured voice, one loud enough that any who might have been trying to listen would certainly hear. "Thank you, Master Rais, for you have set my concerns at ease. To know that the road ahead is safe and well protected by Bozojo's knights and soldiers, as well as those of Linduin, comforts me greatly."
Benlan nodded exuberantly, smiling wide and slapping his thigh once. "And I as well, Master Sebashou. I dearly hope to see you grace my humble establishment with your presence again."
"It is my fondest hope. I think I shall retire to my quarters now. But I will be supping here again this evening."
"I will personally see to the cooking tonight knowing that you will sup from my table. May the gods bless you and yours, Master Sebashou."
Andares bowed ever so slightly, then left the commons without another word. He kept his cowl up as he glided up the stairs to the long hall that led off in either direction. His rooms were at the far end, perched over the kitchens with a view of the lake. They were modest and private, exactly as he wished.
He closed the curtains over both sets of windows, then doffed his cloak across the bed. He unsheathed the ivory-handled blade, and standing in the middle of the room, he began to practice the ancient techniques of his people, moving slowly, so slowly that it took all of his concentration to fix in place each of his muscles and each strand of black hair trailing down his neck like a stallion's vibrant mane. And all the while, he pondered what could be done, if anything, about the ruling house of the Fennasi, one that had wandered far from the good earth his brothers and sisters had planted only a few centuries ago.
As he planned, Andares-es-sebashou journeyed to the Lothanasi temple in the inner district the next morning. Dawn rose with a warm orange blossom on the east that never quite managed to turn red. Clouds drifted eastward through the sky, cauliflowers and dandelions of white that thickened the further west they went. Though they promised a coming gloom, the first rays of the sun glistened in the dew that coated all of the walls, the streets, and the banners, making the proud Fennasi falcon seem to shimmer as if he were flapping his wings. For one brief moment, Andares almost thought he'd wandered into a dream instead of another dawn.
The streets were not empty, but so early, only the most industrious were out preparing for the new day that had just arrived. Soldiers still watched over the street, and they observed Andares with a respectful and dutiful curious stare. With his cowl up and his hands hidden with his voluminous gray sleeves, he could hardly blame them for taking an interest in him. He was a stranger in a city adjusting to many changes and with many enemies opposed to those changes.
Despite their scrutiny, they seemed to sense he meant none of Bozojo's citizens any harm. Those guards standing watch over the gates into the innermost ring of the city parted when they glimpsed him. Two of the twelve struck their breasts lightly with their fists as he passed, eyes solemn as if they sensed some of his Åelvish grace.
The innermost bailey was built into an incline, which would force any attacker to contend against a superior position. Vats of boiling oil could easily render the ramp slick and impossible to climb, not to mention sizzling hot. Beyond arrayed a wide courtyard with the Lothanasi temple to the right facing the eastern wall. At the rear of the courtyard stood the squat castle atop whose towers snapped the piscine flag beneath the grasping talons of the falcon; and with the wind gripping both, at times it almost seemed as if that falcon would snatch the fish up and fly away.
Barracks and stables lined the northern curtain wall and these featured both banners from every surface that could be found; unlike many that he had seen in the poorer parts of the city, these were kept pristine and spotless from all muck and mire. Doubtless they were freshly cleaned each day.
A broad garden lay in exuberant blossom, with a profusion of pinks, violets, lavenders, blues, indigos, yellows, and oranges arrayed in carefully cultivated rows and columns. Slender cherry trees lined the middle of the garden, their blossoms bright and the scent of them sweet and heady. Andares smiled to himself as he appreciated the simple beauty of the courtyard, a place of peace even in the midst of the unease in the countryside.
A quartet of blue-liveried soldiers with the double bladed cross of the Lothanasi on their chests stood on either side of the temple doors. The doors were wrought bronze, inlaid with the symbols of the Pantheon stretching fifteen feet high and six feet across, arched with a rounded point typical of Suielman construction. The doors were open halfway, wide enough for people to come and go, but not so wide that the guards within couldn't push the doors shut at the first sign of trouble.
Andares stepped past the guards with a quick nod of his cowled head. Beyond the door was a small greeting place with smaller doors on either side, before the temple area itself opened almost all the way to the vaulted ceiling. Bright stained glass windows line either side, the eastern half permitting the brilliant morning sun to bathe them all in a warm light that glistened on the gold and silver inlay around marble blocks, statues of the gods, and tapestries depicting their aid to man. Andares was not surprised that there were no scenes where the gods aided the Åelf or any of the other intelligent races living in Galendor, but he did miss it.
The morning sacrifices had just been completed, and so while the Lothanas and a pair of initiates chanted in prayer before the altar at the far end, a few dozen acolytes all genuflected on bended knee, their voices echoing the prayers in a solemn ostinato. Andares clasped his hands in prayer, joining his quest voice to theirs, heart lifting to give his thanks to the gods for all of their care and protection on the many long months of their journeys. He brought the names and faces of his friends to his mind and lifted them up in prayer, seeking their protection from the great evil that still gnawed away at their hearts.
And there he stayed, knees bent on a hard stone floor, gray cloak drawn tightly around him so that nothing was visible on his flesh, not his pointed ears, not his pearl-gray hands, and not his angular face. He could hear the priestly incantations to one god after another begin, reach a climax, and then decrescendo into thanksgiving before the circle would start again. Within each invocation his friends found their place, especially his dearest mentor, teacher, and master Qan-af-årael. On that venerable Åelf who had given his life freely to defeat Marzac and confound Yajakali's plans so monstrous that no word existed which could convey their severity, he dwelt most of the time, wondering and wishing they could have had more time together, but most especially, that his master's life and the lives of his own people had not been so filled with sorrow for so many centuries.
He was there long after the time when the Lothanas left to attend to more mundane affairs, while the acolytes busied themselves with their many duties. Andares watched them between his own prayers, noting the way they laughed and smiled as they went about their affairs, cleaning the temple, the altar, replacing candles that had burned low, as well as donning guard uniforms and going to take their turn watching over the holy places.
Others of the Light also came to worship and pray, eyes drawn reverently to the altar with its double bladed cross and lit candles. The stone altar was inscribed with the scene of the pantheon's first revelation of themselves to mankind; Andares remembered the moment from his studies, for it was a time when his brother Elf lived with man and taught him, rearing him with gentleness and wisdom.
By the time the sunlight through the windows fell on him, Andares finally decided it was time to return to the Inn. It would be best to see if Heru Benlan Rais had any messages for him. He could gather supplies for his journey that afternoon.
The walk back to the Lake's Head Inn was uneventful. The air was festive with talk of Spring, and all of the new merchants and pilgrims flocking their streets now that winter's last gasps had been replaced by brisk easterly winds and a warmer sun. The clouds in the sky had not thickened as much as he'd feared that morning, though the east was overcast; the storm, if it came, would not come until night. Especially in the seller's districts, his ears were tickled by borrowed words from his people, some of which were even pronounced correctly.
It was midday by the time he returned to the Inn and he found the commons half-filled with patrons. Some were tenants like him come down for a warm meal, while others were laborers seeking some rest and repast. Most of the young boys ran about seeing to the needs of the patrons, while a few busied themselves with cleaning the unused tables and floors. Andares turned toward his usual table, but was surprised to see an older gentlemen dressed in a white cloak over a light gray bisht, with a bright blue sash that hung down between the folds of the cloak. His white-bearded face was weathered with the sun as if he'd come from the southern lands along the coast. Before him was a plate of cheese and bread topped with a mix of vegetables and sauce. He drank lightly from a small goblet of light wine.
Curious, Andares approached the man in the foreign garb, but paused before he was halfway to the table and considered finding another place to sit. But the white-cloaked elder caught his gaze and beckoned him closer with one hand, while the other dabbed his thick lips with a kerchief. The Åelf, uncertain but unafraid, approached the table but waited at the edge just beneath the stairs. "Greetings, Velelya," he said with a slight incline to his head, the words gliding with a musical air from his tongue. "I think you have traveled from a land farther from here than I."
The man lowered the kerchief and then stroked the end of his long beard with one callused hand. "Yára Velelya," he swept the hand out to the empty seat. "You bless me with your company. If you choose to sit with me, I shall be the one who is honored. Heru Rais spoke of you, and my heart has yearned to meet you."
"Then you must be the one to whom he promised to introduce me. I am Andares-es-sebashou. And you, Velelya, how shall I address you?"
He smiled, weathered face crinkling with folds around his eyes and cheeks. "Anefistar. I am, as you say, a Velelya who has come from a far land. Please, join me. One of Heru Rais's nessë shall bring you some apsa in a moment."
Andares slid into the table across from Anefistar, relaxing and feeling a warmth fill him. This man spoke the words bequeathed to the Fennasi with a fluidity and suppleness that betrayed a sensitive tongue. Though they had only just met, the Åelf knew that this one had studied for a very long time. Did he speak so to impress Andares, was this some conceit of his to reveal his learning, or was it something else entirely?
"Where are you from, Anefistar? I do not recognize that name; it is not of the humans of Galendor."
"No," Anefistar agreed, "it is not. I was born in Sonngefilde in the deserts of Sondeshara far to the south. My love of history and studies have carried me from one library to the next through that land, and then into this land so far from my own. And no, I am no Sondeckis. They are a good intentioned people who bear such a terrible burden of power and responsibility. But I am not of them."
"So your studies and love of history have brought you to Bozojo?"
"In a way. I have been in Dûn Fennas for the last ten years of my life; the fifteen before it were spent in Sathmore and Pyralis as I learned the long history of Galendor. I am sure that you, Heru Sebashou, could tell me much more, and about lands I have never been able to enter."
Andares narrowed his gaze lightly as he watched the white-bearded man eat a bit of cheese. His words were measured, but so delicate that no hint of his unease came through as he said, "Are you seeking entrance to a new land?"
"It would be a delight to my heart if I could, but no, I am not seeking it. I am not worthy of it, but I hope by sharing the fruits of my studies I can help heal some of the wounds that exist between the people in this land." He lowered his eyes, brows furrowing like a bull frog. "What good is the knowledge and wisdom I have gained if I hoard it all for myself?"
"Indeed," Andares agreed with a faint relaxing of his tension. He wasn't quite sure what to make of Anefistar quite yet, but his manner was genuine and his speech pleasing. And if Benlan Rais trusted him, as he obviously must to have seated him at Andares's preferred table, then he would do well to spend some time conversing to better learn who this southerner really was, and what he was doing in Bozojo.
"Then tell me," the Åelf said, proffering a gentle invitation with one gray-skinned hand, "what have you learned in your journeys?"
Anefistar smiled broadly and leaned back in his seat, stuffing the end of his beard within the folds of his white robe with one hand. "To make this a fair exchange, I ask only that you tell me one tale of your travels. Just one from one so venerable, Yára Velelya, as you, and I shall be satisfied."
He could not hide the smile the stretched his angular cheeks. "I do have one tale I can tell. But first tell me how you have come to know the Fennasi as well as you do."
"Any chance to speak of the Fennasi gives me pleasure. Thank you, Yára!"
As promised, one of the nessë brought Andares a small plate of fruit, cheese, and bread. He savored the clutch of strawberries and the sweet dipping sauce, as well as the hard bread filled with an assortment of nuts. The cheese made for the perfect compliment to both strawberries and conversation. He and Anefistar spoke for some hours. He regaled the elderly scholar with their venture to the Chateau Marzac and its ultimate destruction, to which his companion remarked in wonder and delight.
Anefistar for his part described his travels through the many human kingdoms and empires dotting the land, as well as his curiosity for the tales of the ancient ones that had led him inexorably to Dûn Fennas. There he spent as much time as he could in Salinon and Marigund, though the last few years had been spent passing between Delavia and Linduin and finding true contentment amongst those hardy people who well remembered the tales of their Elven masters who had guided them and guarded them against their enemies for generations before retreating from the world. It was there that Anefistar had finally moved beyond his practical agnosticism and fully adopted the Lothanasi ways, seeing a wisdom, simplicity, and humility in the Light that he had never seen elsewhere.
"Oh, I have met many fine Patildor in my travels, Yára Velelya. As I can see you have. But the Pantheon came to us men while we were still living with your kind, and in that I can see a greater truth and humility."
Andares had accepted these words for he knew their truth. As the hours passed, he saw the patrons come and go, the nessë run to and fro cleaning tables, carrying satchels for some, stinking of horse and fish whenever they returned from errands, as well as Heru Benlan Rais tending to his many patrons, and even a few of the Lindalnér returning for another performance of ballads and love songs. Through it all he continued to converse with his new companion. The scholar was well versed in many subjects and had spent much of his time in Dûn Fennas learning of their history and culture, mastering its intricacies and even restoring some of what had once been common to the Fennasi people but had been lost in the three centuries since the Elf had left them. Andares never had to correct his pronunciation except for those few words which he felt obliged to introduce him to. Even more than the people of Bozojo, Anefistar adored the ancient and radiant tongue of the Elvish people. It was not quite the same tongue as the Åelves who had held themselves even more aloof than their brethren of Quenardya, but it too was cherished as only a reliquary handed down from one generation to the next could be.
Their conversation continued into the evening before Benlan Rais was able to break away from his duties long enough to join them at their table. "Forgive me, Velelya, for not introducing you to nildo Anefistar as I promised."
"The Lake's Head Inn is busy," Andares replied with a smile touching the corners of his lips. "You are not expected to neglect your business for my sake. We have found each other."
"That I can see," Benaln admitted with a relieved laugh. He then leaned in closer and looking to the scholar asked, "Have you asked him yet?"
"No," Anefistar replied.
Curious, Andares laid one pearl-gray hand atop the other, drawing further back within his cloak. "What is it you wish to ask me?"
The white-bearded southerner sighed and lowered his eyes to the table. "Dûn Fennas may seem to be rising with this latest star in their constellation. But in truth, she is falling into a terrible darkness. It is not a darkness that springs from ill-omened Elderwood, nor one that stretches down out of the mountains. It does not even come from her ancestral enemies to the west, all of whom are too weak to even scare Fennasi children. No, this darkness, Yára Velelya, comes from within her own heart, a heart that has grown comfortable and rapacious like all the other lands through which I have wandered."
Andares felt certain he knew to what Anefistar referred, but if dark words were to be said, he would rather them be said so there could be no doubt as to what the shadows were. "Riddles and puzzles I have a great love for, and I would dearly enjoy a month, a year e'en, spent pondering and proposing them with you, Ishtyar. But now it is time to speak plainly; let there be no distance between our thoughts. What darkness has come over the Fennasi?"
Anefistar nodded, then leaned across the table. Both Benlan Rais and Andares leaned toward him. In a soft whisper, one so quiet that he couldn't even feel the rush of breath, nor see the slightest disturbance in his beard when the words slipped past his lips, he said, "The Ard-Rí has taken the heir of Kelewair captive; they hold him in Salinon, so this place can be held safe."
In a voice equally as quiet, consonants punctuating the air like the drop of a pin, he replied, "I have heard. What do you mean to ask of me?"
"Your aid. The Fennasi have not seen one of your kind in a few generations, but your stature in their society has grown no less. If you accompany me to Salinon, together we can persuade the Ard-Rí to set his prisoner free."
"And bring war upon this town?"
"You have seen the soldiers, Yára Velelya. War is coming one day or another. But if the son is returned unharmed, and unexpectedly... such a magnanimous gesture may avert a full scale war. Please, come with me and aid me in this. I cannot do it without your help. I do not have... your grace, nor your power."
"I have responsibilities to my own people that I must consider. A sacred trust has been given to me by my late master and that I cannot disobey."
Benlan grimaced and shook his head, "Your people live so long... Salinon is not far off your course."
The Innkeeper spoke the truth, and he had already delayed his departure from Metamor a week longer than he should have out of a desire to remain with his new and sadly short-lived friends. Andares felt a deep longing in his heart for the trees and spires of his home, but at the same time he felt a vague sense of responsibility to help these people. His brothers had diligently watched over the Fennasi for centuries. If they were beginning to err and he could do something to right them, shouldn't he do so?
Andares took a deep breath and lowered his head, the cowl obscuring all but his chin. "I will think on these words. Do not speak to me of this again until I speak of it to you." He shifted in his seat, standing and sliding free from the table. "I must gather supplies in the morning, and then I mean to leave. Find me before then, and if my mind has changed, I will tell you. Good night, Heru Rais. Good night, Velelya Anefistar."
"May your sleep be restful, Yára Velelya," Anefistar said as he rose from the table and bowed, palms spread out before him in a gesture of respect to an elder that the Fennasi had learned many centuries ago. Benlan Rais also rose and bowed, his words similar, full of respect, hope, and confidence.
He met no other on his way to his rooms. And with the sound of the lake and the city, and the scents of cooked bread, meat, and fish drifting in through his windows, he lay awake in bed wondering for a very long time before sleep finally, blissfully came.