The morning, or at least it seemed to be morning, that came to him was cloaked in mists and a sweet but unpleasant smelling fog. Shapes that he could not describe lurked in that haze as dark shadows that almost shifted as he walked past. His pace was measured, slow, almost lugubrious like thick molasses being threaded through a sluice. Everything was quiet and still, his boots not even disturbing the long grasses with their heavy stalks as he made his passage through the abandoned land.
The road only came to the dead city because it had been built by his people many centuries past, and their work did not diminish easily. But there it stopped and what had once been close fitting stones now stood ruin. The shadows that did approach and reveal themselves to him were often parts of some wall, crumbling and covered in ivy and moss. There were fountains cracked through and dry, now suffused with greenery instead of the once crystal blue waters that had shimmered with light. The wind circling through the still standing structures echoed like a song first evoked hundreds of years ago that had been trapped within the walls; it could only repeat itself, and endlessly swirling melody of such delicacy and such sorrow that Andares felt his heart ache and his eyes begin to weep.
"So it is with all the works of the ancient ones..." a voice whispered in his ears as he pressed on through the ruins. He turned as he wiped the tears from his face, but saw nothing but ruin, shadow, mist, and the ever suffocating fog. Not even a glimmer of light from the sun brightened that choked landscape.
Andares kept one hand on his sword as he moved past the caverns of song, the remnants of old buildings passing by on either side with greater frequency. He saw what had once been old homes fashioned from the stone with taught wires connecting the various pieces together, each thrumming with a single note like a constant buzz that pierced the crisp air. There were amphitheaters where the songs had once been sung, and even remnants from old metallic instruments, the magic binding them having failed finally, leading them all to give in to rust and decay.
"All your homes will be this way..."
In the midst of the ancient city he saw a small grove of trees. And though it was Spring and there was an abundance of moisture in the air, no leaves sprouted from any of the branches, nor did any blossoms bloom. In the midst of the copse he caught sight of an old stone plinth rising up from the heath. Andares turned toward this plinth, eyes arrested by its granite, riddled with faint vertical lines as if it had been weeping, but what Andares recognized only a moment later were grooves to suggest bark. There were scattered remnants of debris at the base of the plinth, but if that stone sculpture had once been fashioned into the likeness of a tree to stand at the center of the barren copse, then it had long since been cast to ruin.
"Cast to ruin... by men."
Andares felt himself turn to look for the source of the voice, but the mist was too thick and the timbre unrecognizable. His hand ready and waiting upon the blade, he steeled himself against the fresh horrors that would await him in this strange dream realm of lost Yerebey. He continued walking past the copse and past more tumbled buildings and empty homes that had once been bright with color, perfume, and music. But now all was leaden gray and miserable grass. He walked faster, boots striking little stones that had been chipped off walls, ceilings, or other plinths erected to proclaim a season or a hope.
"Retreat and you bring this with you... but that is all the ancient ones do."
Andares felt a sullen heat broiling in his chest as he began to weep bitter tears.
April 22, 708 CR
They rode hard for two days before reaching Delavia. There they were able to trade for fresh horses and continue for another three long days of riding to reach Vineta. And while Anefistar was sure to mention to everyone they saw in those cities of the danger coming from the Elderwood, the most anyone would offer them was fresh horses and the location of way stations along the main road to Salinon where they could refresh or trade their mounts.
This lack of concern for their neighbors to the northwest alarmed Anefistar visibly, and his normally placid southern face began purpling with indignation every time his stories elicited no more than a shrug. Andares found the lack of unity among the people of Dûn Fennas unsettling, and also a reason for sadness. His cousins had ruled this land for many generations of humans, and had deliberately set about training their leaders to carry on their traditions before they retreated into the woods at long last. The Fennasi spoke many words of Quenardya, but was that all that remained of their influence, words?
They reached the capital city of Salinon shortly after noon on the eleventh day out from Nenuin. Three roads from the west all converged into two broad lanes that circled a brilliant blue lake to the white bluffs on the eastern side. One road came in from the south, another from the north, and a sixth ventured from the east, the very road the elvish people had taken when they left Salinon three centuries before. Atop the bluffs stood the many alabaster towers of the castle of the Duke, that fabled eyrie floating as if in a dream above the land, while the rest of the city flanked the eastern slope of the bluffs as they spread out into the heath and scattered farms and forests beyond. The northern slope of the bluffs were shallower and allowed easier passage to the castle – the southern face was almost as much a cliff as the lakeward view and required a series of locks and ladders to ascend – and so Andares and Anefistar followed the northern branch of the elvish road with as much haste as they dared with their exhausted horses.
The lake was surrounded by clusters of homes and businesses for fishermen as well as tradesmen too poor to live in the city itself and numerous farmers. None of them paid the two travelers any attention as they rushed past. The road moved away from the lake as they neared the bluffs that glimmered as a white as a tombstone in moonlight, before leading to a large gate complex. The gate stood atop a small rise of at least six cubits, offering defenders ample opportunity to slay any besieging armies. The gatehouse was open, although they were bid to slow down by the sentries dressed in the black livery of the falcon.
Beyond the gate the road branched through several districts, but the one that would lead them up to the castle was almost always the steepest. Despite the grade, they never needed to fear slipping as the elvish roads kept a firm grip when needed. The pair were allowed to pass through two higher gates that brought them to where they could gaze out in wonder across the broad plain of farms, irrigation, pastureland, and cultivated forests that stretched for miles in every direction like a vista from a heavenly dream before they were finally prevented from going any closer to the castle. A pentecount of soldiers dressed in breastplate with swords and maces waited for them at the next of the gates into the castle grounds, and they barred the way.
"I must see Duke Otakar Salinon on the matter of gravest urgency," Andares announced as he stepped off of his horse. He kept his cloak firmly around his shoulders and the cowl over his face as he walked toward them. Anefistar, dwelling on the Åelf's strength, dismounted and followed after him.
The head of the pentecount, a tall man with a black cape bearing the falcon heraldry in the middle, declared, "The Duke is not in audience today. If you are a messenger, then produce the seal of your sovereign and your message will be delivered."
"I must speak to him myself," Andares insisted as he drew within a few feet of the soldiers. The leader hefted his mace, while the others each drew their swords and took a step forward. "I do not bear any messenger's seal. For I myself am the seal of my kind, and it is my kind that makes this request; nay demand for an immediate audience." And with that, he reached up and drew back the cowl from his face, revealing his pointed ears, high cheek bones, and all the rest of his visage that marked him as one of the ancient race.
All five soldiers gasped in surprise, falling back a pace or two as they lowered their weapons. The leader stared in awe as his lips. "Yára Cáno! You have come back to lead us at last! I am Captain Raff. I will take you and your Ishtyar to him myself. Please follow me. Men, see to their horses."
Captain Raff led them through the inner gate and into the bailey just outside the castle itself. The wall running the length of the castle prevented them from seeing anything beyond the mighty towers and the bulking edifice at their base. To this Raff led them with a noted swiftness in his step. The falcon heraldry was everywhere visible both outside and inside the castle. They climbed two sets of narrow stairs before reaching a wide dining hall. Most of the tables toward the rear of the room were empty, but those nearest them were lavishly decorated with flowers and bouquets of feather. Seated at the table were several men feasting on mutton and wine.
"Captain Raff," a man of swarthy complexion, bearing a crown of gold laurel framing a bald spot in a head of otherwise straight black hair that rested atop his shoulders and reached down his back, "what is the meaning of this interruption? Who are our guests?" And then his eyes alighted on Andares and he gasped. "An elf! By all the gods, we have not seen your kind here in several generations! Captain, seat him here with me. Take his grace back to his place in the tower."
The man at his left side, strong and with bright red hair, rose, tipping the chair back so that it fell over as he stood. "Oh, my apologies for my clumsiness."
"None needed, Jaime. None needed," Otakar said with a laugh as he beckoned Andares closer. While Jaime stepped out of the way, Raff picked up the chair and gestured for Andares to sit within it. Raff then gestured for Jaime to follow him, and the red-haired man left the room with the soldier, his plate only half empty. Anefistar sat down at the end of the table and folded his hands in his lap as he waited with an anxious expression.
"I am, as you have undoubtedly guessed, Duke Kristov Otakar XII of Salinon. These are my sons." He gestured to the four others at the table with him ranging in age from an older boy on the cusp of his first manly growth to a fully grown man that looked the same age as Jaime. They all had the same dark hair and complexion as their father. "Whom am I welcoming at my table?"
"I am Andares-es-sebashou, and I come not on behalf of my own people, but of your own."
"What do you mean?"
"Monsters have been seen emerging from Elderwood. I and my companion Anefistar have killed several of them in our long journey. But we have been fortunate. The villages along the roads near the Elderwood have not been so fortunate as the monsters grow bolder and more numerous with each passing day. I saw their need and came here myself to beg you to send your armies north at once to counter this threat. Your very land depends on swift action, for there is no knowing how great this threat will build if you do nothing."
Otakar nodded sagely as his thick lips pressed tightly together. A ring-studded hand grasped a goblet of wine and he took a long swallow before speaking. "You bring grave news, Andares-es-sebashou. I will send my armies north to Nenuin and the Elderwood to crush these monsters."
Anefistar almost gasped in relief, but Otakar lifted that ring-studded hand to quell him to silence. "In return for my actions I do require your aid as well, Andares-es-sebashou. I bid you join me at the head of my armies. Once this threat from the Elderwood has been crushed, we will turn to the west and bring that dog in Kelewair to heel. And with him, all of the Midlands. Help me, Andares-es-sebashou, to bring all of that land beneath the Fennasi."
He said it so simply and with such ease that Andares felt himself repelled in horror. He shifted in his chair as far from the Duke as he could, and hissed through his teeth his reply. "I could never aid you in conquering other lands. I did not come here to bargain with you, Duke Otakar. I came here to compel you to action to save your own lands. Not to conquer others."
"I am Duke," Otakar replied to the amusement of his children. They smiled with knowing confidence in their father. "You are not. Elf you may be, but I am not going to order my army on your word."
"Your people are dying!"
"Then agree to my terms. I will not order my army to leave until you have done so."
"You would let your people die? You would let the evil of Elderwood run amock in your lands?"
"Indefinitely no. But if letting them run amock for a little time convinces you to aid me in conquering the west, then I consider it Fennasi lives well spent."
Andares stood from the table and took a step backward. "I will not help you. It was a mistake to come here and to hope in you."
"And you make a mistake if you think that you will leave here so easily. Guards!" A full dozen soldiers poured into the room, even as Otakar's sons all took weapons from beneath the table and trained them on Andares and Anefistar. Otakar grinned winsomely. "Please see our guests to the donjon. They may share quarters with Jaime Verdane for now. They need time to think and discuss where they won't be disturbed."
"You would take me prisoner?" Andares asked in a surprise that was more sorrowful than angry.
"Anyone who threatens my plans is an enemy of Dûn Fennas. You have accomplished this yourself." Otakar then sat back down at his table and resumed eating his mutton. The guards grabbed Andares and Anefistar by the arms and pushed them toward the far door. Anefistar struggled for a moment and was rewarded with a mailed fist tapping him on the head; not so hard as to render him unconscious, but hard enough that he could do nothing but hold his head and walk. Andares didn't bother to struggle; he walked where the guards pointed him.
They were led to a walled courtyard of pine and oak on either side of a small garden, and in a soft voice, the man next to Andares whispered, "Forgive us, Yára Cáno, but we cannot disobey his grace. You should never be held prisoner in this or any other tower."
"Do your duty," Andares replied in an equally soft whisper.
The man sucked on his lips, and then he and the other guards led them both through the garden and into a tall tower and up a long set of curving stairs. The stairs continued for at least a minute before they reached a landing with another door and a room beyond. Into this they were escorted. The door was locked behind them.
The room had a single bed, a writing desk, a set of chests for clothes and other belongings, a hearth and chimney, and a pair of barred windows that could be closed from the inside. The red-haired man known as Jaime Verdane was sitting at the writing table reading over a letter and turned to them with a look of genuine surprise.
"Our host's hospitality is growing less and less pleasant by the day it seems. Are you here to entertain me or to spy on me?"
Anefistar crawled over to the bed and sat down, cradling his head in his hands but made no answer. Andares stood, brushed himself off, and then stepped over to one of the windows and peered out across the countryside. "Neither. We have been detained because we would not do as the Duke wished. You are the heir to the Duchy of Kelewair are you not?"
"I am. I have been a prisoner here some months. I expect to be a prisoner for many years yet." Jaime set the letter aside and then rested his hands in his lap. "I suppose I should be grateful for the company, although I do not think we can all share the same bed."
"I will sleep on the floor; I have no need of the bed."
Jaime studied him, his eyes transfixed by the Åelf's strange features. "My wife told me of your kind; she'd never seen any of the ancient folk, but she knew the history of her land and the stewardship of your people over her own. You realize that every duke and every noble in the land of Dûn Fennas harkens back to those days and yearns for their renewal? Each duke, this one especially, thinks themselves the equal of your kind in wisdom and grace. I think you have seen how foolish that is." Jaime lowered his eyes and hit his knee with one fist. "My kind can never be the same."
Andares turned from the window and stepped toward the human. "No, we are not the same. We do not hold each other prisoner for land or wealth, or even power."
"Do you not have powers that will break the walls of this prison? I see they left you your sword."
But the Åelf could only frown. Something was wrong here, more than just the rapacious greed of the Duke. It nagged at him like an inch in the small of his back where he couldn't reach. "The walls are shielded in this tower against magical interference. And you know that the drop from these windows will kill any man who attempts it, including me. No, the only way out is through the door we came in, and the only way we shall leave it is if Duke Otakar decides to let us free."
"But your sword!" Jaime insisted.
"Is not for human blood; not in offense." Andares turned from the Midlander and sat next to Anefistar. "How is your head?"
"Bruised bad, but I'll be fine after a night's rest." Anefistar lowered his hands and then allowed the Åelf to lay him down on the bed. The only pillow was soft and draped in a very smooth wool, and this he positioned beneath the scholar's head. "Thank you, Yára Cáno."
In surprise, Andares narrowed his eyes, lips pulling taut to hide any emotion from his face. "Even you would call me that?"
"You have earned it more than that Duke. From henceforth I will follow no one but you, Yára Cáno."
Andares felt his hands tighten momentarily into fists, and then he stood up and walked back to the window. He tried to stare to the east, but there was nothing more to see except farms and fields. While Jaime returned to his letter and Anefistar took his rest, he stared, lost in the vista surrounding Salinon.
As if waking from a daze, Andares realized that he was walking through a very familiar forest. Towering trees surrounded him on every side, while an almost imperceptible track guided him through the lush underbrush. And though it was familiar to him, and he knew he should have been able to do more than to discern the trees and the track, he could not identify any details on his passage. He took a step and seemed to take thirty. He took a breath and another fifty would seem to pass. He noted a single tree and a hundred more like it slipped past.
Dreams had meanings did they not? So what did this passage through his homeland mean?
Andares could not answer that question as his pace kept him moving deeper and deeper into the woods until finally the opened out to reveal a broad array of ivory towers blended with the trees. Brilliant sunlight streamed through the boughs to bask them in a warm radiance that scintillated from each gossamer thread decorating and supporting those towers. A river wound through the crevice, and across this delicate bridges stooped.
Surrounding him on all sides at the proper distance and with the fixed decorum, were his fellow Åelf. Faces he recognized blended with more faces he recognized as they welcomed him back to Ava-shåvais. He felt the singing of songs echo through the air, while the branches thrummed with the ancient hymnody. Some spoke to him. He spoke back. The words made sense at the moment they were said, but he could not recall them a moment later. All that brought him to this point seemed to be swallowed in a fog, as if his very past were being devoured by some eldritch beast following him through time.
He dimly noted that he was conducted with great reverence and care to the central tower in which Qan-af-årael had once gazed at the stars and there he was divested of his garments and bathed with oils and fragrances. These scoured all scent of the road from him, leaving him as delicate to the nose as a fawn. When they finished he was attired, almost draped, in fresh robes of vibrant hues that shimmered in the light. The sword Anna-ithil-årda was placed back into his hands. Invocations were made and incense burned. The light shining through the trees tilted and swung through the sky as if a great deal of time had passed.
And then he was escorted by those same Åelf whom he knew but could not name into the tower and guided up its many long steps. Through the windows he caught flickers of the spider-silk thin weave of ivory that clung to the branches of the tree about which the tower had been built. He could almost feel it warm with vivacity as he continued upward.
The steps at times seemed to move slowly, and others they sped past as if time were tumbling down a hill while branches and brambles caught its cloak now and again halting its passage. But all things that fall had to reach bottom, and so all things that climbed steps must reach the top. Andares found himself in the top most tower room, a room decorated on every side by intricate drawings, each of them some hint to a past event that had once spoken of the future, a great story that his mentor had watched and observed and subtly guided. Beyond a small balcony had a clear view of the sky. The sky was bright and clear. There was nothing else to see nor anywhere else to go.
"Your new prison," a voice seemed to echo in his mind.
Andares gazed into the sky, but saw only a broad swath of blue.
April 29, 708 CR
Not only did Duke Otakar of Salinon not place Andares and Anefistar in a different prison, but they were provided no more bedding than had been made available to Jaime. The small circular room had enough floor space that both of the travelers could find a place to sleep, but the meager blankets that Jaime offered them from the bed along with their own traveling blankets did nothing to hide the hard stone beneath them. Jaime repeatedly offered his bed to Andares or Anefistar. Andares assured the human princeling that he could manage the stones better than any man, while Anefistar resolutely refused to sleep in any better accommodations than his Yára Cáno.
To make matters worse, according to Jaime, except for those times when the Duke wished to parade his prisoner before some distinguished guest in order to humiliate him, the food that they were provided amounted to no more than Jaime had been receiving when he'd had the donjon all to himself. They split the food amongst them with each insisting that the others take the larger share. Anefistar would not under any circumstances touch his food until his Yára Cáno had eaten his portion, professing himself no more than a servant and stubbornly refusing to let Andares behave otherwise.
As if the lack of food and the uncomfortable stones on which they slept were not enough to break their spirits, the Duke had the shutters for the windows removed so that they could do nothing to stop the constant cold wind that swept above the castle. Occasionally a warm gust of air would dispel the ever present Spring chill, but this was quickly swallowed by another frigid squall. The blankets they had and the traveling cloaks they wore protected them some, but only from the wind; the pervading chill sank into their bones and made their flesh numb.
One thing that confused Andares was that they were left their belongings without so much as an inspection by the guards (all of whom professed their indignation and sorrow at having to keep their Yára Cáno locked up as well). Nor was this because of any traitorous behavior toward the Duke; Otakar genuinely desired they keep their things which Jaime explained as the Duke's way of saying that he didn't believe there was anything they could do to escape his power.
And in his grasp Anna-ithil-årda glimmered and throbbed with a deep power that could not abide being trapped within that cold, lifeless, tower meant for another. It ached for Andares to carry it back to the Elderwood that it might aid in slaying those foul beasts.
"You cannot let this continue," Jaime said softly as he stared at the same letter he'd been pondering all week. He never spoke about its contents or for whom it was from or meant. But it was always there, and nearly always in the princeling's hands capturing his attention like a beloved dream. "I do not know what evil is coming from Elderwood, but I do know that a good man does not sit idly by while evil devours the innocent. If it were within my power, I would quit this place immediately to come to their aid."
"They are not your people," Andares pointed out as he stretched his sore limbs. He'd only had a few hours of sleep last night, the most he'd had all week, and that more from exhaustion than anything else.
"They are not," Jaime agreed, even as his eyes cast to the shivering form of the scholar. Anefistar lay huddled beneath a bundle of blankets with his beard wrapped around his neck to protect it. For a pillow he used his traveling pack, while he kept his back pressed against Jaime's lumpy mattress. Andares's traveling companion had his eyes closed but there was no question by the way he fidgeted that he was awake and listening. "But they were my wife's people and that is enough for me. I suppose that does not make me better than most men; I should care for them regardless of whose people they are."
Andares finished stretching his muscles and settled into a cross-legged position, hands resting upon his knees, the ivory-handled blade singing soft, angular words in his lap. "I am a prisoner here as you are. The Duke has promised his support in exchange for helping him slaughter and conquer the rest of the Midlands. Do you wish me to do that? The rest of your family would fall beneath the Duke's armies if I were to agree to his terms."
Jaime tensed and dropped the letter back on the desk and shook his head. "No, I do not wish that. But..." his lips continued to move for a moment but his tongue could find no more words to form. At last he shook his head, tousled his red hair with one hand, and then leaned back over the desk and grunted angrily. "Fine then. Do nothing. You'll outlive us all anyway. Are we nothing but ants to you?"
"Never," Andares retorted with indignation. His nerves were suffering from a strain beyond which he had even felt in the jungles of Marzac. He took a deep breath, even as an unpleasant breeze drifted through the donjon and further numbed his cheeks. "I have spent nearly the last year in the company of your kind and have deep fondness for your people. I would offer my life for my friends who traveled with me if they were in danger."
"So why," Anefistar asked in a voice filled with a forlorn pain, though he did not open his eyes nor turn his head in their direction, "do you not help us now?"
His tones grew hard and he felt a curl infect his lips. "My blade will not taste human blood; not even from a man as deserving as the Duke."
Jaime shook his head and sighed, muttering imprecations to himself under his breath. Anefistar took a long breath and remained huddled beneath his blankets, his once ruddy face pale and pinched. Andares lowered his gaze to the sword in his lap and ran one hand across the length of the finely wrought blade, tracing his fingers down the intricate scroll-work and characters of his people. The bearer of such a blade had a responsibility to serve the Lord of Colours. Qan-af-årael had a deep love for all the people's of the world, even those who had struck at the Åelf and drove them from their many homes across the world. How best was he to serve his former master? How was he to use this blade?
He pondered those questions for some time as the morning wore on with only the bleak gray sky outside which did not even churn or promise an invigorating rain to mirror their thoughts. A few birds alighted upon the windows, dancing between the bars as they chirped and quested after bread crumbs; but they had nothing left and so after a few minutes of begging they flew away and left them in a suffocating silence. Even the sounds of Salinon that climbed the walls felt as if they approached from a vast distance that no man could traverse even if they devoted their entire lifetime.
Noon came and passed with only a slight variation in their routine. Jaime stretched and did some exercises to keep his muscles limber; he even jogged in place for a good thirty minutes, and then hung by his hands from one of the support beams overhead, pulling himself up and down to strengthen his upper arms. He'd performed this routine every day that he wasn't being treated like a trained beast on a collar by the Duke, and just like each previous day, when he finished he returned to his desk and began reviewing the letter.
The scholar also finally emerged from his blanket cocoon to do his own stretches before he settled in a corner as far from the windows as he could with his traveling cloak draped over his shoulders and legs, and his pack before him. Anefistar had taken one of his journals and was reviewing notes he had scribed years past on the flora of Dûn Fennas for the sake of keeping his mind active. However, when he came to a section describing some of the beautiful wild flowers that bloomed along the road from Nenuin to Dûr Cirith, he broke down into tears and wailed as all of those blossoms in profusions of white, yellow, pink, blue, violet, orange, and a thousand other shades gentle and bold were now laid to waste by the evil of Elderwood stretching out its shadowy hands.
Andares glanced at his own pack and pondered digging through it to see what mysteries it held for him that might distract his mind for a time from his impossible predicament when they all heard the sound of booted feet climbing the tower stairs. Anefistar dried his tears and closed his journal, hastily shoving it back in his pack lest the soldiers claim it for their own. Jaime folded his letter and set his prayer book atop it to hide it. Andares let his fingers wrap about the ivory handle of Anna-ithil-årda for a moment before he remembered his vehemence against its use and deliberately returned it to his hip as he stood to welcome whoever had come to torment them.
To their surprise, the black-caped soldier who opened the door was none other than the very man who'd led them to Duke Otakar's presence a week ago. His expression was anxious and his brow, despite the Spring chill, was mopped with sweat. Behind him they could see several other soldiers under his command.
"Captain Raff," Andares greeted him as cordially as his strained nerves would allow. "Whom have you come to collect?"
Raff filed into the donjon chamber, followed by a full dozen soldiers. He struck his fist to his chest, and then lowered himself to one knee before Andares; his soldiers did the same. "Yára Cáno, we have come to bring all of you before Duke Otakar. His plans for you are a betrayal to the Fennasi people and the debt we owe to the Elves of Quenardya and to the Åelf of Ava-shåvais. We have come to pledge our loyalty to you, Yára Cáno, and we swear to you our very lives."
"To the Yára Cáno!" his men echoed with eager and solemn unity.
"No," Andares shook his head. "You have a sovereign."
"He has betrayed our people and yours," Raff said with a fierce anger in his words. "He is no longer our sovereign. We plead you to be the one to lead us and guide our people."
Anefistar rose from his contemplation and then knelt alongside the other soldiers. His weathered face gazed up at the Åelf whereas the soldiers all kept their eyes upon the floor. "The Fennasi have always been better when guided by your people. We have fallen so far... so far. Lead us again, we beg you, Yára Cáno. Please! Help us!"
"I will not draw human blood with Anna-ithil-årda."
"You will not have to," Raff counseled with a firm, sweet voice. "Merely assert your right as an Åelf to the throne of Salinon. It was given by your people to the Otakar family as a surety. You can take it back without ever drawing your holy blade. We are not alone in wishing for your return. Another two hundred wait in the castle to be at our side when we bring you to the Duke. His youngest sons can be trained in your ways and his eldest can learn meekness in time. Even his grace may learn it after staring out the windows of this tower he dared trap you within. And then, together, we can go to Nenuin and defeat the monsters coming from the Elderwood once and for all."
Raff's glance turned to Jaime who alone of all the humans remained standing. "We can free you as well, your grace, if you will forgive us for what the Duke has done."
"I cannot speak for my father," Jaime said after a moment's reflection, his eyes casting from Andares to the captain and his men, "but I will forgive the Fennasi for my imprisonment if I am set free." He turned to the Åelf and added, "I will pledge my loyalty to you as well, Andares-es-sebashou, if you will free us from this tower. If you and your people are as wise as my wife told me, then..." He took a deep breath and lowered his gaze, the red hair falling across his eyes but not hiding the tears. "If they are so wise as she said, then when I ascend the throne of Kelewair, I will invite your people to come and help my land as well. We have suffered war too long."
"I am not meant for this," Andares insisted, though his heart wavered at seeing the faces of devotion and need all on bent knee before him. He yearned to help them. Would it be such a terrible thing? He could travel their roads, rebuild their cities, and even see his friends again whenever he wished. What good would hiding in this or any other tower do him, his people, or theirs?
"You are meant to help others," Anefistar said with a gentle confidence. "You cannot do so in this tower."
"Not in this tower," Raff agreed.
"You can help no one in this tower," Jaime added in that same confident, reassuring voice.
"Break free from the tower," one of the soldiers added. "Break free, Yára Cáno."
"Break free, Yára Cáno."
"Break free from the tower."
"Leave the tower."
"Bear your sword for man."
Andares closed his eyes, no longer able to determine who it was who said anything at all. Those words pounded him, relentless, but also inviting and full of a dream-like verve. But if this were a dream, then how could he possibly wake from it?
There was no doubt in his mind that he had to make a decision now. The time had come to choose between his imprisonment or deposing the Duke and taking control of Dûn Fennas for the sake of its people. He knew that he could do much good for them and that Otakar was not worthy to be their sovereign. But was it his place to make that decision? What of his own people; what would they do in his absence?
It may not help, but there was one thing he could consult before he making his decision. There was one scrap that might shed some light on his predicament, something that he had not thought on in many weeks as there had seemed no need. Before his path was straight, but now it seemed to turn in a new direction and while his heart yearned to follow that new path because of the many things he knew he would delight in, it also feared that path for what it might force him to do.
Bending down, he opened his traveling pack and began to rifle through the contents, carefully sorting through his extra clothes until he found his own small journal that he had faithfully used to preserve the knowledge that he'd learned on their journey.
"What are you doing?" Anefistar asked.
"We dare not delay," Raff urged anxiously. "Otakar is expecting us to bring you to him! If we are late, he will send more soldiers, and I do not know if they will be amongst those who follow you."
"I must read an old letter I was given," Andares replied. "It will guide me on the right path." And yet, as he flipped through the pages of the journal, no fire-burned letter fell into his waiting hands. The letter written by the Felikaush was missing. He set his journal aside, and then took each item out of his pack one by one and made sure that it hadn't become tangled with anything else. No letter.
"How strange," Andares murmured to himself, even as the soldiers began to fidget on their knees. He flipped open the journal again until he found his entries from the beginning of the year. He'd copied down what words he could read from Habakkuk's letter after they'd rescued Lindsey from the last gasps of Marzac's evil. But to his great shock, the page on which he'd written those words was also missing.
"This is not right."
"You have to come with us now," Raff insisted. "Yára Cáno, please! We must leave this tower!"
Andares stood back up and then crossed over to the window, gesturing at the sky whose gray seemed not so much the presence of clouds as an oversight on the part of the gods that morning who had merely forgotten to paint the sky its proper colors. And then, with the chorus of voices begging him to come with them blending into a strange mass of sound and need, that gray sky began to break apart, a dark midnight revealed behind with the twinkling of stars slowly emerging overhead. How long had it been since he'd seen the night?
The Åelf turned around and saw that the donjon walls appeared to be coated with a variety of ornate pictures, script, and figures all jumbled together like a tale unfolding. He could smell the fragrance of the great forest drifting on warm currents through the windows, as well as a melodious and melancholy chant in voices as gentle as glass.
"Where am I really?" Andares asked, even as the twisting of the donjon seemed to stretch the very bodies of the soldiers. Where there had once been twelve soldiers kneeling behind Raff, now there seemed to be only six, and then only three. And then as the stone floor seemed to shimmer into the white ivory he knew was to be found in the Tower of Colour, the rest of the soldiers blended into the figure of Raff whose eyes lifted with an almost freakish fear.
"You have to flee the tower if you are to help any of us!" Raff cried. Anefistar echoed him, as did Jaime, even as they seemed to come closer and closer together.
Andares took a deep breath and gripped the hilt of his blade tightly. "Flee which tower? The Donjon of Salinon, or the Tower of Colour in Ava-shåvais?"
"Does it matter?" Anefistar said as his hands gripped his beard and pulled taut. "They are both prisons for you, Yára Cáno!"
"One is a prison," Andares retorted, his tongue as sharp as the blade. "Only one is a prison! Who are you? Show yourself?"
"I am Anefistar, Yára Cáno!"
"I am Jaime Verdane!"
Andares shook his head, and turned back to the sky, which seemed to bleed gray into the black of the night sky, and then break apart again into the starry void. "Nae! It cannot be both night and day at the same time."
"You are where you choose to be, Yára Cáno," Anefistar replied at last. "Choose to help us, please! Without you... we are lost!"
"Lost!" Raff echoed with the timbre of a dozen different voices.
With slow deliberation, Andares drew Anna-ithil-årda and held the blade before him, the light glinting off the its silvery tang. On the left side of the blade he could see the donjon with its cold, gray stone walls, lonely bed, and barren floor. But on the right he saw the familiar sanctum sanctorum in which his master Qan-af-årael had spent his many long years in contemplation.
Whatever was before him wasn't asking him to flee the donjon in Salinon. They wanted him to flee the place that his master had prepared for him.
Andares slashed his sword to the left, and that world, that fantasy in which he had been swallowed, vanished like a book slamming shut. The figures of Raff and Jaime withered and were drawn into the figure of Anefistar who remained on his knees a moment longer. His body seemed to draw down the darkness of the skies as if he feasted upon it. The face twisted oddly and in a way that Andares recognized though he had only seen it once before.
"You... you are Anef the First. Were you not freed from Marzac?" He turned the tip of his sword on the figure who rose slowly, iron white beard turning a smoldered black as if singed by fire.
"Marzac still holds me. It holds all of us. We must flee our prisons; you must flee the prison prepared for you. Go back to Salinon and leave this prison behind! Go back, Andares-es-sebashou, or you will be the prisoner of your people for all time. You will never see anything else again if you do not."
Andares gazed at the figure of Anef who he'd once thought his traveling companion and until a moment ago had been declaring his loyalty to the Åelf. Now this Anef offered him everything he'd ever wanted; and all of it meant staying in the human world. He felt his hand lowering the sword, one foot lifting to step closer to the shadowed figure that didn't quite seem able to exist in the Åelf tower.
And then his foot nudged the traveling pack still at his feet and the journal he'd left lying there. He glanced down, blinked at it, and the words that leaped from the page, words he'd written after a harrowing day when they had come face to face with an evil they had thought defeated, blistered in his mind.
"Your sword has been of inestimable use in our journeys, and will strike down an evil that seeks to destroy she whom I love. But it is also something that must be passed on to another. You will instead take up..."
Andares put his foot back down, glanced one time more at Anef who's eyes had also noted the journal, flaring with an incomprehensible hatred, before returning to the Åelf with an anguished plea. "You will only be free," Andares said as he angled the blade from his chest, "when Marzac is gone forever." He turned toward the balcony, even while Anef screamed after him. But Andares ignored the words, knowing now what he had to do. He stepped onto the balcony, lifted up the sword toward the heavens bright and filled with the warmth of the stars, and then began to sing a song that he knew more by instinct than by training. Anef's horrible screeching and protestations battered and tried to distract him from each cadence, but still Andares pursued his melody, his lungs squelching every last drop of air for each note, before filling again for the next.
From below him him, he could hear a thousand voices joining in the song. The answering chorus climbed the tower walls, filling his heart with a sense of peace that he could not recall ever having before. For a single moment, he felt as if Qan-af-årael were there at his side singing along with him. The rage of Anef, the Marzac beast that he truly was, dwindled into pitiful bawling and febrile mewling.
And then his song was done. Those thousand voices continued below him, though with each new moment they came closer and closer. He knew what it meant, even if in his lifetime he had never seen it happen. All of the Åelf were climbing the tower steps. He turned to face the top of the stairs, holding out the blade, laying it flat in both hands. Anef got back onto his knees and clutched at the hem of his robe, wailing and shaking his head.
"Don't give it up! You need it to free us!"
"It is no longer mine. Another shall wield it."
"We need you! We need you!"
But he listened no more, and said no more to that shadow that tugged lower and lower on the hem of his robe until the hands seemed so small and weak he could barely feel them anymore. The song of his people rose up to meet him and he bathed in the sonorous harmonies as if they were a warm afternoon rain. By the time he recognized Tilyå-nou at the head of the procession, Anef was only a little thing no taller than a rat, now all black and vicious; yet still its voice penetrated and called to his heart.
Andares held out the sword, even as Tilyå-nou, one of the most ancient of their race, held out a long cloak fashioned from weaves of thread in every color conceivable. The blend was of rainbow upon rainbow like ripples in a pond bouncing across each other. Andares lowered his head, and the elder Åelf draped the cloak over his neck and shoulders, its heavy embrace billowing around his sides and ankles, burying the shadow beneath its hem.
And then, Tilyå-nou took Anna-ithil-årda from his hands and he felt a sudden warmth fill him. The room filled with light, the shadows banished as if they had never been, and the voice of Anef as well as his very presence was silenced as if it had never been.
"Welcome home, Lord of Colours," Tilyå-nou intoned in unison with the remaining Åelf who stretched down the many tower steps.
"And here I shall stay, for all the tomorrows that will come, until the stars lead me to the heavens."
"Have they chosen the new bearer of He That Brings Moon to Earth?"
Andares cast his gaze back toward the stars. His master had spent his evenings studying the stars and listening to their story. Now it was his turn to continue that work. And whomever they chose would be his hand that reached out into the world beyond the forest. He sighed with a faint sense of loss, but one that in time would be the balm that would heal all his wounds.
"Not yet. But they will." He pulled the colorful cloak closer and cast one last glance at the blade now in Tilyå-nou's possession. He wondered how much of the dreams Anef had shown him were real and how much illusion to tempt him. "For there is much that I will need of his bearer. Care for it well until the stars have spoken their story."
Tilyå-nou inclined his head in a gesture of agreement, and then his voice intoned a delicate chant as he began to back down the steps, each of the other Åelf also backing down, their feet moving in unison with one another. Andares sung the reply that had once come from the lips of Qan-af-årael before any other Åelf currently living had even been born. When they were out of sight, Andares returned to the balcony, the cloak of many colors spreading around him as he moved gliding with sublime grace through that ancient tower. He tilted back his head and gazed upward at the stars, silver eyes filling with their pristine light.
And there he remained standing as he listened through the night to their story.
Velelya – Distinguished (Great) Traveler
Heru – Master
Nessë – Youth (young man)
Minassë – City with a citadel and central watch-tower.
Nildo – Literally male friend.
Lindalnér – Minstrel
Yára – Ancient
Apsa – Cooked food
Ishtyar – Scholar
Maethor – Warrior
Nan Tavas – Woodland (used for forest near Nenuin, the trading hamlet at the fork)
Cáno - Ruler