Heading to All Tomorrows

by Charles Matthias

Andares must have been dreaming, for he had no idea how he had come into the Lothanasi temple. The chanting of the priests and acolytes seemed a distant haze in his ears, and the colors in the tapestries and stained glass windows was bright and vibrant, but also diffuse and confusing. Each hue elided one into another as if the glass and the weave were not stationary, but a living mass breathing and waving in welcome to all of the Light who had come to worship and offer supplication.

Andares blinked and lowered his head, letting the cowl fall back in place over his cheeks. The floor at least, smooth and gray, the only variation the slight discoloration in each of the stones, remained fixed like a lodestone. Keeping his eyes to the floor, Andares was also able to focus his thoughts. How had he come to the Lothanasi Temple? Where had he been so far that day?

Judging by the prayers, it, if this were anything but a dream, would have been mid-morning. The sacrifice had already been completed and burned, as no blood showed forth on the altar to speak of the ceremonial death of the birds that took place each morning. One prayer tumbled into the next so smoothly that if it wasn't for the occasional use of the name of their gods, it would have been impossible to tell that they prayed to more than one.

After a time though, even his mind could not focus on the question of how he had come there. Was there ever a sensible explanation in a dream? This he reminded himself as he allowed his dream to play out. Yet, if he hoped to learn anything of significance, there seemed little to offer. After finishing his prayers in the Temple, he returned to the Lake's Head Inn, avoiding the steely gaze of the soldiers, where he gathered his things and bid Benlan Rais a fond farewell. The Innkeeper was distraught that he was leaving, but expressed his fondest wish to see Andares again soon.

The Eastern gate was guarded by just as many soldiers and knights as the western gate, but they allowed the Åelf passage without comment or inspection. Or at least, if they did inspect him, he couldn't recall it. Dark clouds brewed above him as he set out on the road. By the time the lake bent away to the south and he entered the rolling hill country leading toward Linduin, dotted as it was with frequent copses of trees and vast fields of crops, the sky opened and a downpour washed everything in gray. The rain smeared the very air, cool but not chilling. Everything blended together until there was nothing but streaks of light and darkness like a play with shadow puppets.

As was his custom, Andares woke before the rising of the sun. After a short prayer of thanksgiving to the gods, he donned his traveling gear, his ivory-handled blade, and his money pouch. He left the small room over the kitchen as he found it, leaving the windows open so they could enjoy the brisk Spring air blowing in off the lake. He then enjoyed a breakfast of eggs and fatty meat and washed it down with juice from a fruit he did not know. But all the while he ate, he saw no sign of the scholar.

The Åelf did find Benlan Rais shortly after one of the Nessë had come to clean his table. The Innkeeper looked haggard as if he had not slept very well, though his expression brightened considerably when he saw his enigmatic guest, though when he saw that Andares was dressed for a long journey, his countenance fell again. "Good morning, Velelya. You have decided to continue on your way?"

"I must hearken to my people, Heru Rais. But your fears will not be left behind. I take them with me and will consider what can be done. If you would do me the honor of passing this message along to Heru Anefistar, I would be in your debt."

Benlan Rais grimaced, but then nodded and forced a smile to cross his wide lips. "It will be as you say, Velelya. May the gods watch over you on your journey. You will always have a room here when you next visit Bozojo."

And at that, Andares returned the smile, though his was genuine and full of affection for this short-lived mortal. "It would bring me great pleasure to enjoy your hospitality again, Heru Rais. May the gods bless your home and your city." They bowed their heads toward each other, and then with one last look back, Andares left the Lake's Head Inn and made his way toward the merchant district of Bozojo to gather supplies for the next leg of his journey.

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.

He toured the few stalls that were open so early that day, before finally buying a few fruits that would keep for a week, as well as dried and salted meats with several small loaves of bread. That 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 were respectful and quite deferential to him, though they kept their conversation focused upon their wares. When soldiers passed bearing the falcon crest of Salinon, or the piscine crest of their liege, they doffed their hats and offered salutations with grateful smiles.

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 even recognized a few of the melodies as reasonable facsimiles of those his Elf cousins used in Quenardya. 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. But at no time did these people crowd him, but always they afforded him a respectable distance, as if they recognized that he was something altogether different. Few referred to him in either speaking to him or in whispering about him as they slipped past as anything other than "Velelya" and he made no move to correct them.

He reached the Eastern gate of Bozojo a short while later, and just as when he had entered the city, the soldiers there paid him little mind, preferring to inspect the other travelers coming and going from the city on the roads the wound around the lake, or headed even further eastward into Dûn Fennas proper and the country of Linduin. Those self-same travelers also gave him a wide berth, as if he were an upthrust rock that the waves divided around, flowing past with all their vivacity but unable to otherwise touch.

The stream of travelers on the outskirts of the city, as well as the numerous fisherman and laborers heading from job to job, dwindled after two candlemarks, many of them fleeing to their homes as the sky darkened overhead. Andares noted it carefully, observing as the clouds poured in from the west, rippling through the sky like billows of smoke through a tight flume. A stiff breeze kept the scent of fish in the air even after the city walls disappeared behind the rolling hills northeast of the lake. The castle and temple towers remained in sight hovering over the lake, while the waters rippled in broad strokes, waves rising with each passing minute.

By the time the lake bent away to the south and he lost sight of the towers in the midst of the high rolling hills wending toward Linduin, he saw no one else on the road, and felt the first drops of rain. Even if he turned back he would not reach the city in time. Andares noted the small copses of trees dotting the hills between the crop fields, but saw nothing that would shelter him and keep him dry.

He pulled his cloak more tightly around his chest, and tugged the edges of his cowl more firmly over his head and ears. The puddles swelled in the road, and the patter that had at first been a gentle massage now became a thousand little fists rattling across his head and back. Andares picked up his pace, rushing down the road, spray climbing his boots with each step. His cloak kept the rain out, but with a torrent as strong and as sudden as this, it would still soak through every nook and opening.

The air was a smear of gray, yellow, and green, all shrouded in a darkness that moved like a mass where the rain tightened. On a small rise he saw a large array of willows, their long branches brushing across the ground as the wind dragged them toward the east. Andares turned up the low hillside, rushing beneath the willow branches. He pushed through to one of the willows in the middle where the wind wasn't blowing as strongly The ground beneath was still dry and he smiled lightly as he rested his hands against the tough bark.

"Thank you, friends," he murmured as he slipped down to his haunches, back pressed against the tree. The storm was intense, but it would not last more than an hour. A short respite beneath the willows would see him through it.

Andares spent a little time in meditation, listening to the booming rumble of the storm and the hammering blows of the rain, before another sound intruded upon his peaceful repose. Another traveler was climbing the hillside to seek shelter just as he had done. Andares opened his eyes and sat cross-legged awaiting his guest.

He was both surprised and felt a sense of rightness when he saw that the heavy-set traveler pushing his way through the long willow branches fresh with spring blossoms like a dream interrupted was the foreign scholar Anefistar. The man's white hair was soaked at the ends that had slipped from his traveling cloak, and his fingers slipped along the knotty walking staff he carried. His haggard face blossomed in bewilderment when he saw the Åelf sitting patiently and dry at the center of the inmost willow.

"Yára Velelya!" he exclaimed in shock, and then his lips lifted into a smile and he laughed a deep belly laugh, pressing through the last of the willows and dripping all over the soft loam like a wet dog. "I suppose I should feel some bit of pride that I possess as much wisdom as one of your kind."

"When it comes to storms, my kind is no wiser than your own. We all know to seek shelter." Andares gestured to the dry ground, and then stood to help the man find a place to sit and rest. "What brings you here? Your surprise makes it plain that you were not following me."

"Hoping to convince you to change your mind? No, I was not following you. I have been journeying between Linduin and Delavia these last few years; I came as far as Bozoo because I merely wished to see Dûn Fennas's latest holdings. Our meeting there was serendipity. Heru Rais told me that you decided to first return to your people."

"Yes, I have."

Anefistar nodded, then drew his long beard from out of his tunic and began wringing it. He squeezed only a few drops free before shoving it back beneath his tunic to protect it. "Will you be going all the way Delavia? Your road must pass through Linduin country; there's no other way with the dread Elderwood so close."

"I will not be passing through Delavia," Andares replied as he thought of the many fields and crags lining the road south of the Elderwood. It was a long road, one that was always tinged by an air of fear that rose from the cursed wood. "I will be taking the northern road toward Frondham instead."

"Of course."

They sat and listened to the rain for several minutes more, neither speaking though their eyes did occasionally chance to meet. Andares allowed very little to be seen in his expression, and while Anefistar revealed very little, there was some measure of calculation and want therein. In his travels with the Metamorians, Andares had well learned that when a human wants something, it is only a matter of a brief span, like the beat of a dragonfly's wings, before the desire has danced from their heart to their lips and into the world.

So too it was with his guest beneath the willows as the storm continued its pounding beyond. "Yára Velelya, we are both traveling by the same road. Even if you will not journey with me to Salinon, at least allow me the great honor of accompanying you to the place where our ways must part."

Andares smiled, suspecting that his friend would make such a request. He tilted his head back and let the cowl fall down to his neck, revealing his long, pointed ears, angular cheeks, gray-toned skin, black hair, and eyes brimming with a golden blue light. "Ishtyar, there is much that you know, and much that you wish to learn, is there not?"

"When else will I have the chance to learn from your kind, Yára Velelya?" Anefistar spread his sun-darkened hands wide, and lowered his eyes to them. "I have journeyed farther with my own legs than most of my race ever will. And yet, in all those travels, you are the first of the ancient ones I have ever met. I desire greatly to travel with you, even if only for so short a time as the road to Delavia."

Andares considered briefly before his smile stretched even further up his high-boned cheeks. "I would be grateful for your honorable company, Ishtyar. You may tell me more of your travels, and of the Fennasi people. I would greatly like to hear of them and of all that you have learned of the many human kingdoms of this world."

Anefistar breathed a heavy sigh of relief. "I am more grateful than I have ever been in my life to hear those words, Yára Velelya. Thank you. I am your humble servant and will be obedient in all ways to you."

Andares nodded and then returned to listening for the end of the storm. Anefistar kept quiet as well, moving in closer and holding his cloak tight to keep in the warmth. The rain began to drip along the bark and the branches even so deep within the willows, and so Andares pulled his cowl back up. He could not help but hope the storm ended soon; there was a strange restlessness welling up in his heart.

He wasn't quite sure how long he'd been walking when he reached the bridge across the river, but it was in the middle of the day, and all suggestion of rain had long passed. The air was warm but not humid, with a crisp scent from the river, as well as the pungent offal of a human village with livestock milling wherever they so chose. A forest had once lined the river, this the eastern arm of the Marchbourne that fed Lake Bozojo, but they had all been cut down centuries ago to make way for pastures and farms.

And also a garrison. This stood on a rise overlooking the river and the wide bridge that crossed it, and from its towers snapped the flags of Bozojo and Salinon. From the ramparts archers could decimate any army attempting to seize the bridge, though on that day, with the warmth making the air shimmer as he glided along the winding road with its close fitting stones, they stood at their posts with as much animation as the gargoyles decorating the walls of Midlander castles and cathedrals.

The village was nestled behind another ring of walls. These at times seemed to be fashioned from stone, and others from wood, and this moved back and forth so smoothly, that Andares wasn't sure if he was gazing at a moment in the present, or one from the distant past when the humans had first settled this favorable bend in the river. Even his feet seemed to float above the road, rising up higher and higher as he neared the bridge.

He could hear others speaking to him, and words seemed to pass from his lips though he couldn't remember them once they left his tongue. The strangers around him, some travelers, some villagers, and some soldiers stationed to keep watch over the road and the river, were all unfamiliar with a blend of faces that resolved into only the most general of human countenances. They were neither short nor tall, fat nor thin, with neither blond hair nor black hair, blue eyes or brown eyes. They were all these things and none of them at the same time.

Andares skipped through the air, born aloft on the bright blue sky, settling back to earth only when he'd finally left the lands of Bozojo behind, his boots touching down in Linduin. And the rest of that bright day was a smear of light, field, and forest.

April 4, 708 CR

In the week since Andares and Anefistar had decided to journey together beneath the willow's sheltering boughs, they'd met with good weather along the road with bright sunny days and warm breezes that suggested Summer without bringing it. Despite the scholar's age, he had no trouble in keeping pace with the Åelf, and so after two days of walking they crossed the bridge over the Marchbourne and were soon in the country of Linduin.

While the soldiers bearing the fish heraldry of Bozojo were left behind at the bridge, they still saw a large number of soldiers stationed in each village they passed. But the villagers themselves were always friendly and willing to put them up for the night once the sun had set. They were greeted each night by good food, warm blankets, and a soft if lumpy pillow. With the dawn they would set out again, and while Andares would wonder at his dreams which seemed unusual in both their clarity and their disjointedness. These he kept to himself, but during their day's walk he and Anefistar would share stories of their journeys, the gods, and also thoughts on the precarious state of many of the kingdoms of man.

To Andares's relief, Anefistar, as asked, never brought up the situation in Dûn Fennas that he had once asked the Åelf to intervene in. The scholar seemed resigned to the fact that Andares would be parting ways with him once they reached the fork in another few days, and while there were moments when they were lost in their own thoughts that the human began to brood with heavy brows and darkened countenance, those fears never spilled over his tongue.

But after a week of journeying together, never had they seen anything that stilled their tongues completely until that day. The road took a turn toward the southeast, but for a moment as they came around the bend, the hills flattened out and in the distance to the northeast they could see a long gray line that bled over the horizon. Nothing else stood at the periphery of the forest, all was blighted for a mile around as if life itself refused to prosper in the shadow of that ancient and dark wood.

Anefistar stopped in his tracks, eyes wide and one hand lifted to ward off evil. Andares also paused in his steps, eyes narrowed, one hand resting upon the ivory pommel of his sword. He couldn't even hear any birds singing as they struggled to make their feet take that next step. The road continued down into a slight depression where a line of hills would shield them from sight of that cursed place, but it would take them a minute to reach that seeming safety.

This was not the only place along the northernmost road through Marigund country that one could see Elderwood; in fact, there were other places where the road came much closer to the baleful woods. And never before in his journeys had Andares felt such a peculiar sensation, an inkling that brushed up across his back and through his long, black hair like the curling tendrils of smoldering myrrh. This was no mere pious caution in the face of an evil imprisoned, for such an evil could never strike beyond the reach of its chain, or from beyond the borders of its cage.

Andares stared at the Elderwood as if somebody had unlocked its chain and unbarred its cage.

The air, for a moment as still as they, turned against them, bringing a chill that lanced through their traveling cloaks, as well as the festering scent of mushrooms and choked foliage. Anefistar finally lifted one hand to brush across his nose and he stumbled a pace backward.

That one motion broke the Åelf's paralysis. He swept his free arm out and grasped the scholar by the shoulder, steadying him. "It is best to move quickly here. Something is not right. Keep close to me."

Anefistar nodded, and the two of them walked stiffly down the bend in the road. Andares kept his free hand on the hilt of his blade as step by step the Elderwood passed out of sight. He listened intently but the only thing he could hear was the nervous breathing of his companion and his clumsy footfalls. The air felt crisp, with the sweet scent of blossom and new grass fading beneath a veneer of empty wind. Even the sky, so bright a blue, seemed somehow utterly remote as if that vibrant color had been bleached onto the heavens instead of born there.

They kept close together for several minutes, their anxiety pulsing in their hearts with each step they took. The road kept behind a line of hills for several miles so that they could not see the edge of the Elderwood as it lurked off to their left. The sun shone bright on their right but did not seem to warm them any. The wind tried to resume a gentle breeze but failed ere it had begun, leaving all a calm that came not from peace but from patience, as of a watcher waiting to see what would come to pass.

Into that world of muted sense a sudden grumbling like two stones rubbing against one another erupting from the stones behind them made Andares draw his blade. The hiss of steel seemed a beast's reply to the threat, of a snake rising up to strike back at the one who'd nearly trod upon him. Both Anefistar and Andares spun on their heels to see what threat had begun to follow them, but the road was empty and the hills barren of all but grass, scrub, and a few miserly trees.

They waited a moment in that place, but the sound never returned, and once their hearts slowed enough that they could breath normally, they resumed their quick pace along the road. Andares did not sheathe his sword for several minutes, but eventually he did, and while he kept his hand upon the pommel, for several hours he had no reason to draw it. The sound did not return in all that time as they moved across the miles. At a few junctures the road lifted along the hills until they could see the Elderwood again stretching across the northwest, but the sense of dread it had instilled in them at their first sight now became muted, as if whatever beast had been prowling in that cage had gone to lie down, convinced that its bars truly did confine it.

By the time the sun was nearing the horizon, their road began to descend further toward a wide valley in which a narrow river coursed and along whose banks a village clustered. Fields were given to pastureland on the western bank, while the eastern was divided into several small farms. The road passed through the valley lengthwise, but first it diverted around several piles of rock upthrust from the ground in an earlier age. The sides of the rock had been gouged by weapons of some sort; the marks were regularly spaced in sets of three on the northern flank, a curious fact that gave Andares, exhausted by their hearty pace that day, some pause.

"Bless be the gods!" Anefistar exclaimed, the first words either had spoken since they'd first seen the cursed woods. "A village! I am all for staying in a good tavern tonight, with fresh ale and some stew to fill my belly."

"As am I," Andares admitted, his tongue moving only to form the words, which escaped his lips in a sibilant whisper.

They lost sight of the village as they began to move around the cairn. The northern hills also flattened out so that they had one last view of the Elderwood. Though still lurking on the horizon, the trees appeared taller, their line shifting like a wave at sea, pulsing as of a giant's breath, while the ground between them seemed to teem with a million ants. Andares stopped and stared in both wonder and horror, but whatever those ants were, they all seemed to flee the blighted lands to vanish back beneath the doomed boughs like children scurrying beneath the hem of their mother's dress.

Just as the last of those little dots disappeared, the groaning rumble they had heard once before sounded again. Only this time it did not follow them like a jackal pursuing a rabbit on the Steppe; this time it challenged them from along the road ahead of them.

Anefistar who had been standing at Andares's side as they watched the strange dark shapes flee into the forest, now gasped in fright, coughing and clutching his throat as his eyes bulged from his face. Andares drew his blade and turned back down the road, tensing as some dark shadow slipped out from behind the cairn before them.

The creature was nothing that Andares has ever seen before. It possessed a bulky mass with no discernible head but four arms radiating out at equal intervals from its bulbous main body. Each arm ended in a paw with three long claws like the talons of a hawk. It strode upon four legs splayed out beneath its arms, each one striking the ground with a crunch of stone. The skin, now that it was visible in the last rays of the sun, was leathery in texture, covered in a blend of scales and patches of a dark downy fur. It was not completely black in hue, for the scales themselves had a deep green luster that shimmered as it moved. The main body had between each set of arms what could only be a mouth, with broad flat teeth that ground together like a mill crushing flour.

"Go back to the shadows!" Andares declared in a powerful voice as he raised his bright, silver blade, etched with runes that glimmered with power. Anna-ithil-årda trained upon the beast, and though it had no eyes they could see, a pair of arms turned toward them, and one of the mouths opened in hunger. "You do not belong here!"

The four-legged, four-armed, and four-mouthed beast did not seem to agree as it began to lumber toward them both, long arms stretching outward, sickle-like claws waving up and down. Andares pushed Anefistar behind him with one hand, and with the other turned the blade to one side and then slashed across at the nearest arm. The flesh parted easily and the grinding sound intensified as the flat teeth pressed deeply against one another. The end of the monster's hand dangled limply, held to the arm by only a shred of skin and sinew.

Anefistar stumbled back several more paces, while Andares held his ground. He felt an intense urging to turn and follow the human in retreat, but he marshaled his heart with the quiet reserve that the patience of long years had built in him. He slashed a second time, the bright silver of his blade nearly severing a second arm. The creature wailed with its ponderous voice as it flailed its two wounded arms back and forth.

It lunged one more time at Andares, but this time he nicked it along the side of its bulbous form between two of the mouths. A foul smelling ichorous pus oozed from the wound, and with a scream that sounded like sheet rock sliding across each other, the beast turned back to the north and retreated through the hillocks. Andares brandished Anna-ithil-årda over his head, catching the last of the sun's gleam as he dared the creature to come for him one more time. But its flight was true and it made with great haste for the sheltering canopy of the Elderwood in the distance.

"Is it gone?" Anefistar asked as he came back around the side of the cairn, his breath ragged in his chest, one hand clutching the end of his beard as if it were a startled dog trying to scramble into his arms.

"Aye, it is gone," Andares sheathed his blade and glanced at his attire, but saw no stain of that ichor. Little piles of it had been left where the creature ran off. The grass shriveled beneath it. "But it is not dead. We had best move quickly."

In silence they proceeded at a brisk pace down into the valley where the high hills shielded them from the sight of the Elderwood. The village nestled along a small river and they had erected wooden stakes all along the hillside to the north, as well as a dozen watchtowers in roughly equal sections. Similar fortifications graced the southern hills, but these were not nearly as extensive.

They passed by several young men with spears, bows, and swords as the road wound down between the first set of buildings; these were fashioned with stone foundations and wooden upper floors with high windows to give them a good view of the valley entrance. The young soldiers accosted them briefly and listened with grim faces as Andares described the beast that they fought only minutes before.

"We've seen three of those things in the last two weeks," the eldest of the soldiers admitted. He spat on the ground and nodded his head with a heavy sigh. "Thank you, Velelya, for your assistance."

"Have you seen them before?" Anefistar asked.

"Not in my lifetime, but there are stories of them. And other things..." two of the other soldiers made signs to ward off evil.

"What other things?" Andares asked.

"Nothing we've seen yet," the soldier replied with a sudden firm set to his lips. His eyes narrowed and he cast a quick glance to the north. "We can handle these four-armed things. But if anything else comes..." He turned back to the two travelers and gestured over his shoulder with a thumb. "Best you Velelya be finding a place to sleep for the night. The Inn's a dancing deer. You'll see it."

"Thank you, maethor," Anefistar bobbed his head to them, before stumbling along at Andares's side down the road between the homes and shops. Few townsfolk were about that evening, and what few that did walk the streets moved quickly and paid them little heed if any heed at all. A brief glance at most before they rushed along.

"They're frightened," Andares noted with a heavy sigh. It ached his heart to see the people so distraught. The few times before he had passed through this village it had been a bright place full of laughter and... children. He saw no children on those streets, only grown men and a few women escorted by men.

"Three of those things in two weeks? And nary a foul thing for years before, they have cause to be frightened. What could have led those beasts to leave the forest and attack these simple folk?"

The Åelf shook his head, and then drawing his cowl more firmly over his raven-black hair and pointed ears. "I do not know what it could be, but it cannot be left alone."

"And why only these few soldiers? Do not the princes of Dûn Fennas know what transpires on their most treacherous border?"

Andares's frown deepened, but he said nothing. Nor did Anefistar press his questions further. Together they brooded as they walked down the street to find the Dancing Deer Inn, where they both expected to sleep lightly and without any peace.

A bright blue sky overhead blended with streaks of clouds until it seemed to roil like an ocean churning through rocks. His steps glided along the old road, while the smell of wood, farms, and pastureland inundated him from all sides, blending into a bouquet of simple charm. Intermittent copses of trees dotted the stone road, hoping back and forth all the way up to cluster of homes and buildings that comprised the small town that had sprung up at the road's fork. Beyond this a larger wood spread outward from which lumber and game could be found. This too seemed to stretch into the sky and blend as if all of the colors in the world were made from fresh paint being sprinkled with raindrops.

Andares felt a presence at his side, but was surprised to discover that it was a man in his middle ages, with only the first glimmers of gray framing his ears and tingling his scraggly beard. He was draped in a faded green cloak and walked with a staff fashioned from a fallen branch, now smoothed so many times by repeated attention that it was almost glossy. And yet, though Andares could not remember meeting this man before, it seemed as if they had been talking for a long time.

"Ah, there, Nenuin. You will find lodging there for the night," the man said while gesturing with the tip of his walking staff at the town up the road.

Could one even sleep in a dream, he wondered? Yet when was the last time he recalled carrying on a discourse with anyone in a dream, let alone a forester and seeming mystic, perhaps even a disciple of Artela herself?

"Thank you for your kind assistance. And where shall you be sleeping?"

"I?" His smile was gentle as his eyes trailed past the town to the forest beyond. "I shall return to my home."

"You live in the woods."

"Aye," the stranger replied with a warm sigh. "I live there, and they have accepted me as a friend, even if I remain a stranger to those places."

"And these woods have welcomed you?"

"They are wild, simpler than the wood of your home, but wild nevertheless. Artela has a special fondness for even such small forests as that which blossoms at Nenuin's borders."

Andares felt a bit of delight in talking with this stranger. His entire body seemed to glow with joy as he spoke of the forest and his eyes burnished with the trees and their verdant boughs as his gaze fixed upon them. "You are her disciple then?"

"Aye, I serve her faithfully. Nothing in these woods would bring harm to Nenuin, and no man in Nenuin would bring harm to these woods."

"But what of other woods," Andares asked. "What of the Elderwood? It lays on your borders too."

"Not as close," the disciple replied with a gentle wag of one finger. The skin on his face drew taut as his gaze swept northward toward the dark green line in the distance. It seemed to Andares as if the very air congealed in that moment, and they had to struggle to continue on their way down the road, thrashing arms back and forth for several seconds before they broke free. "But... thankfully quiet for many years now. It has been a long time since we have had to fear the northern hills."

"Truly? You have seen nothing then?"

"Not even the birds fear the north; I watch them and listen to their songs. They fear each other more than any monsters from that cursed place." The disciple turned his head slightly to regard Andares with a worried expression. "Have you seen something? I have always known your kind could sense things mine cannot. It is a great privilege to meet you and share the road with you so short a way. I will believe whatever you tell me."

"Perhaps one day you may yet meet another of my kind," Andares offered. He cast his eyes back to the north and frowned. The sky seemed so bright it almost felt like a barren blue, bereft of even a simple consoling cloud. "As to what I have seen, I..."

April 11, 708 CR

Andares stirred when he felt a hand touch his shoulder. He curled his fingers around the ivory handle of Anna-ithil-årda, but in the bleak morning sky he could still discern the outline of Anefistar. In a quiet whisper, Andares asked, "What is it?"

The scholar gingerly stepped back from the lean-to and cast a wary glance across the remnants of their fire from the night before. The dawn had come, but a leaden pallor spread across the sky from horizon to horizon. A cold breeze rushed down across the top of the lean-to, but they could feel its clawing touch at the edges of their sleeping pallets. "I heard their cries again," Anefistar replied in a hoarse whisper. "I..."

Andares noted that his companion was already dressed in his robes and, even as he shifted out from beneath his cloaks and reached for his day-time tunics, saw that the hem of his robes were wet with dew. "What have you been doing? I warned you not to wander without my aid."

"I only relieved myself, then came straight back. Your choose a very good spot to sleep. I can see for miles in every direction."

"Did you see anything?"

"Nothing. But..." Anefistar shuddered, one hand gripping the end of his beard and pulling. "I heard it again."

In the week since they had first sighted the Elderwood, they had traveled as swiftly as they could, spending each night if possible in a village where there would be some protection from the monsters that were ranging more freely than they had in generations. Twice more they had stumbled upon one of the four-armed, four-legged beasts, but their mindless attacks were predictable and easily thwarted. But at night, they could often hear the cries of things that reminded Andares very strongly of another dark time.

While they had journeyed through the jungles of Marzac, every night had surrounded them by horrible noises, of beasts croaking and crying, hissing and snarling, and then some screaming and some gorging. No matter how calm he'd kept his exterior in those trying days, he'd never been able to sleep soundly. How could they when the strange noises seemed ready to topple into their tent and attempt to make a meal of them?

Yet even in the comparable safety of the villages they had begun to hear horrible cries, especially of livestock milling, frightened and ready to break. Something ponderous, something merciless would lurk nearby, its aural shadow a menace to the senses, forcing his heart to pound more quickly, shifting always with such deliberate purpose that Andares found it difficult not to leap up and try to brace the terrible mysteries that kept out of sight.

Those terrible mysteries always left a splatter of blood and trails of foul smelling residue from where they had feasted on some cow or sheep the night before. The villagers cowered in fear at the sight of it, what soldiery they possessed begged Andares to lend them his arm for but one night more.

But haste drove him, and his sleep kept him from their aid. Still, with such things moving in the mists of night, Andares did not dare sleep out in the open.

Until last night when they found no village within reach. He had erected traps in a wide range about their small lean-to, each triggered by minor enchantments, but also by little sticks or fishing line that either he or Anefistar had brought with them. He had not intended to sleep, and for several hours he had kept watch from beneath the lean-to, feeding the fire to keep their enemies at bay. Even there he made use of his enchantments to make that fire particularly bright in every direction except toward the lean-to. He saw nothing come within the wide circle of light that stretched for over a hundred yards in each direction. But still he had heard the sound of things moving around them, large heavy things that gouged at the earth and dragged corpuscular appendages through the long grasses and shrubs dotting the roadside.

And yet, despite all of his precautions, at some point, his exhaustion must have gotten the better of him. "How long have you been awake?" he asked Anefistar as he quickly began changing into a fresh set of clothes.

"Not long after you fell asleep I believe," Anefistar admitted with a grimace. "Dawn only just came."

"Then we should keep moving. We do not want to spend another night on this road."

"Of course, Velelya."

They packed their gear quickly, and then Andares carefully removed his traps, noting with some dismay that not a single one of them had been tripped. He'd hoped for some sign of what their nightly haunts looked like, but all he could satisfy himself with was a faint, acrid miasma in the air. Unlike the night, the day arose quiescent with only the wind bending the grasses to vibrate his ears. A few hillocks showed signs of passage by some fetid thing, but there were no profusions of blood splattered and smeared as they had arisen to discover in each of the villages.

Once their gear was collected, they ate a small bit of bread and salted jerky on the way, their pace insistent and unremitting. Anefistar panted for breath after only a few hours, and as they had seen no other sign of the vile Elderwood beasts, they rested for a few minutes before continuing on their way. And while the sun never broke through the sepulchral canopy of clouds, they were able to continue in this manner until sometime in the afternoon.

The road began to descend from a ridge overlooking the low plain that swept down to the first fingers of the Elderwood feasting up along the rivulets of streams gorged from snow melt and rains toward rolling terrain with its own slender copses of trees and in the distance a town much larger than the villages they had passed by. Beyond it lay a forest whose lush boughs were pregnant with health and sanguine vitality. The contrast was a welcome one and it gave renewed energy to their steps.

And then, as they continued down the ridge, the Elderwood lost to sight, they passed between a long line of trees on either side and Andares unsheathed his ivory-handled blade. As the last of the metal left the scabbard with a wordless hiss, a bilious wretch leaped from one of the trees, arms spread so thin that they were nearly wings, while its faceless head writhed with short tentacles.

Anefistar screamed and ducked low, while the Åelf met this new enemy with a wide slash, cleaving one of its wings in a spray of yellowed mucous. The beast, its scream throaty and strident like glass scratching glass, continued toward Andares, idiotic tentacles grasping at his tunic and toward his neck. Andares ducked beneath their putrid grasp, and slashed again, this time catching the creature in its middle, flinging it to the ground. It gibbered as it lashed all of its varied incoherent limbs, struggling with a hellish fury to right itself and reach out for the two travelers.

Its backside blossomed with a pair of arrows and it screamed in fury, though neither Andares nor Anefistar could see any mouth with which to scream. From out of the copse of trees to the south thundered a fully armored knight on horseback. Iron hooves stopped just before the beast, and the knight drove a long lance through its black body, fixing it to the ground where it continued to helplessly writhe. A trio of riders, two bowmen, and a man in a long blue cloak, came out of the woods only a moment later.

Anefistar clutched at the edges of Andares's cloak as they watched the archers fire a pair of arrows into its head. The creature convulsed a moment more, then collapsed on the ground, its mindless rage spent in death.

"Thank you, maethor!" Anefistar gasped in relief. "We are in your debt."

The knight yanked his lance free from the beast's chest, and then drove the tip into the earth to clean it. "What Velelya would wander these roads with such vile monsters about?"

"I am Anefistar, a scholar of Dûn Fennas, and this is my companion and protector, Andares-es-sebashou."

The knight regarded them from beneath his visor while the blue cloaked man climbed off his steed and began sprinkling a sulfurous powder over the corpse. The two archers kept a wary eye on the other trees. "I see. A scholar and one of the fair folk. You are most welcome in Nenuin. I fear that we do not have much time to spare for Velelya. But we will escort you there. These lands are no longer safe. I am Sir Pieter Nephenhir, Justicar of Dokorath and protector of the lands of Nenuin. Step clear, Velelya, and let my friend tend to his duty."

Both Anefistar and Andares stepped around the dead thing while the blue robed man smiled to them beneath a close-cropped beard a bright mahogany in hue. "Murias," he said with a wave of one hand, returning his pouch of unguents to its place at his side. "It is a great honor to meet you both."

"As we are honored to make your acquaintance," Andares replied with silvery tones that seemed to die at the edges of the woods on either side of the road. "What are you doing to that foul thing, Heru Murias?"

"Burning it, or I will be in a moment, Velelya. If we leave it here like this, the scent will attract more of their kind. That's the last thing we need!"

"Then continue," Andares urged even as he turned to face the knight. "Sir Nephenhir, how long have these Elderwood beasts been haunting your land?"

The knight lifted his visor to reveal a face hardened and stern with deep blue eyes, wide cheekbones, and a crisp short mustache of black hair. "Three weeks now they have pressed at our borders, killing our herds and attacking our farmers and shepherds. I have pressed many into service defending our lands, but there are only so many hands to wield a weapon."

"Has no other land sent relief?" Anefistar asked in surprise.

"None," Nephenhir ground his teeth together. "And the monsters only grow bolder."

A sudden whoomp behind them made them jump a pace and turn. The body was now wreathed in flames, licking and rising up its surface in a triangular spire of yellowish-orange light. Murias rubbed his hands together for a moment, and then warmed them in the face of that conflagration. It only took a few seconds before the body charred and shriveled, revealing nothing beneath its flaccid skin, not even bone.

"Well," Murias said as he backed away from the quickly diminishing fire, "shall we go home?"

The hamlet of Nenuin nestled on all sides of the road, which forked at its central square which was a marketplace filled more with soldiers than with merchants. The northern fork would eventually bring a weary traveler to Frondham even as it gradually left the Elderwood in the west. The southern fork would bring them to Delavia, sometimes called Rhuivir, and eventually to Salinon if they so chose. In the smaller roads between the homes and shops they had erected pens for livestock and they bleated and lowed their displeasure and fear without pausing no matter how much the shepherds and farmers tried to console them.

Beyond the hamlet, the brighter more welcoming wood loomed, but it too, on closer inspection, seemed melancholy, dreamy and brooding, branches wilting and flinching from that inescapable other to the northeast. Of all the eyes in the central square, only one other cast their forlorn gaze at that wood. Andares saw a middle aged man with the first glimmers of gray framing his ears and tingling his scraggly beard gazing with a miserable ache at that wood. One hand clenched at the faded green cloak draped over his shoulders while the other clutched a staff fashioned from a fallen branch, now smoothed so many times by repeated attention that is was almost glossy.

"Rothrir!" Sir Nephenhir called and the cloaked man spun on his heels. "Come show these Velelya where they can spend the night. They helped us fell another beast on the western road."

"Another?" the forester's voice asked in such a plaintive ache that Andares felt his heart throb in shared misery. "Will the gods not aid us? Will our own people not come to our aid, but only two Velelya?" He sighed and stepped closer, rapping the end of his staff on the ground. "Forgive my words of acid, but I have seen so much of Artela's land desecrated by these hell-spat beasts. Especially you, Yára Velelya." He bowed his head toward Andares and nearly came down to one knee. "That you have come among us now, is a sign that our prayers may yet be answered."

Andares felt deeply touched by this gesture, and by the hardships these people were facing. "I will do what I can to aid you. I have... I have slain such evils before."

"You will again if you stay here," Sir Nephenhir said as he dismounted and clasped Andares on the shoulder with a mailed hand. "But Velelya should not stay here. Now go with Rothrir. He will find you something to sate your hunger and a place to rest your heads."

"Will you not come and dine with us?" Anefistar asked.

"I have patrols to make and men to see. Tell Rothrir your plans and he shall make sure I am informed. You will be protected as long as you are in the lands of Nenuin."

"We are in your debt, maethor," Andares replied, before turning to follow after the disciple of Artela. Rothrir tapped his staff on the close-packed smooth stones of the street, his cheeks twitching at each glance of person, dog, or horse milling around the square. He led the two travelers through their midst down the southern fork until they came to an well-kept Inn with a blue-antlered stag's head painted onto the sign above the wide oaken door. The inside was warm but the common area was mostly empty apart from a pair of nessë trying to keep things clean in between trying to bludgeon each other with their brooms.

"Nessë!" Rothrir said with a clap of his hands, staff nestled in the crook of his elbow. "These two Velelya need rooms and food. Prepare both."

The boys rushed off through a door to the back after making perfunctory genuflections toward the travelers. Rothrir sighed and settled onto a bench at a long table near the door. He gestured for them to do the same. Anefistar settled opposite him, forcing Andares to take the seat next to the disciple.

"Have the foul beasts entered the wood to your east?" Andares asked gently, one hand on the hilt of his blade to steady it and keep it from scraping against the wood floor.

Rothrir sighed, rheumy eyes brightening for a moment, but only a moment. "Nae, they have not ventured into Nan Tavas. Not yet anyway. But many of Artela's charges have fled anyway. It is..." he closed his eyes and swallowed, a visible tremor passing through his face. "It is so quiet there now."

"Not even birds?" Anefistar asked in a soft voice as he leaned forward, pinching his beard between his chest and the table.

"They were the first to flee," Rothrir replied even as his fingers curled more tightly about his walking staff. "Not even the owls remained. The deer followed them a day later, as did the wolves, and I have seen neither otters playing in the streams nor heard frogs serenading the night for a week now. We have been abandoned here by our own kind and now by my great Lady's!" He took a deep breath and then shook his head from side to side. He lifted his gaze to Andares, an unspoken request creasing every line and disturbing every strand of hair. "Forgive my foul words. But our cause is desperate and my hope is strained."

"Justicar Nephenhir is ably leading the people of Nenuin," Andares pointed out, though the heaviness in his heart could not bring him to claim anything greater than that. "Will no one come to your aid, or the aid of those living near Elderwood? Do you not have mages in Marigund experienced in driving back monsters? Are there no armies in Dûn Fennas who can march these roads and slaughter these beasts?"

"Mages in Marigund, aye, there are such mages. All of them still in Marigund!" Rothrir replied, his voice first filled with a barely concealed anger which quickly melted into a hopeless resignation. "Armies are aplenty in our land. All to the south and to the west!"

Aneifstar narrowed his eyes as he leaned in closer. "Have you not sent messages to Salinon seeking aid? It is two weeks to reach the city, less by horse."

"We have, but neither they, nor Delvaia, nor Vineta have sent us aid. We do not know if our messages have reached them."

Andares and Anefistar exchanged a long glance, the scholar's gaunt expression bearing a request once made, but now renewed. Andares curled his fingers about the smooth hilt of Anna-ithil-årda. How could he leave them alone? "I will speak with my people. We will aid where your own have not."

"It will take over a month for you to reach your people," Rothrir pointed with a faint, but empty smile. "And well more than that to bring them here. Will there be anyone to rescue then? Will there be any forests left not drenched in their evil?"

"My path leads me to Salinon," Anefistar offered. "I am not unknown in that city; I can certainly carry a message of your plight there. Justicar Nephenhir seems quite capable of holding these monsters at bay for a few weeks more. That would be long enough, if Duke Otakar agrees to come to your aid."

"If!" Rothrir heaved a sigh and tapped the side of the staff against the table, his eyes peering into its depths but seeing none of it. "He will not listen to a mere scholar."

"I am willing to try," Anefistar said with a renewed fire. "I have seen the road and seen these Elderwood beasts myself."

Andares lowered his gaze, and then uncurled his fingers from the hilt of his ivory-handled blade. He rested those fingers on Rothrir's sagging shoulder and pulled him away from his ligneous contemplation. "You are right. A scholar alone will not be enough to convince the Duke to send his armies. If you believe your people can hold out a few weeks more, and if you can spare two horses, then that scholar will not be alone. I will go to Salinon and I will lend my voice to your cause."

Rothrir turned and stared at him with ravenous hope. Even Anefistar brightened, his smile full of relief. "You would go there and leave aside your quest for our sake?"

"Delay it only, but yes, I will help," Andares replied. "But we will need horses if we are to make the journey as quickly as possible."

"Oh, Yára Velelya, you honor us! We are ever in your debt!" Rothrir leaped to his feet, and after pressing his hand to Andares's back and nearly touching the long braid of black hair, he rushed from the chamber, shouting behind him, "I will find your horses now! Wait here!"

Anefistar chuckled under his breath, before heaving a sigh of vast relief, as if he'd held it within his chest for weeks. The scholar regarded Andares with a warm smile, and a gentle nod of his head. No words passed between them as they reclined in the old Inn waiting for their food. Andares hated putting aside the needs of his people, but he could no longer do nothing. He just prayed that they would be in time to save Nenuin and defeat whatever evil seeped from Elderwood.

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