Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Sixteen)
Harsov pondered, uncertain how to proceed. Should he attempt to track Lorash, and tell him of the elves expelled through the portal? Should he observe the elves, including the human who claimed to be his grandmother? Should he try one more time to enter human lands? Perhaps he had erred in some way in his last visit, offended them by being unaware of their odd customs? It was a puzzle, to be certain. He needed advice, and knew of only one source. Lorash.
He could not return to the elven forest. He could not enter human lands, until he understood them better. He could not brace the newly arrived elves, as they far outnumbered him. Although Lorash was no friend, he at least was no enemy, and might well have insight on these matters. Sighing deeply, Harsov set out to track Lorash. Out of habit, he told Silvershadow his plan as well.
The wolf looked askance at him, then howled loudly. Harsov nodded in agreement. "I know Silver, Lorash is not one of my favorite people either. But he is far older than either of us, and has had more interaction with humans. He surely has some insight into their odd ways. I must say they are a peculiar people. No wonder the tribe wanted nothing to do with me."
Silvershadow uttered a barely audible rumbling growl, but offered no other protest. Harsov smirked, reflecting that the dire wolf was certainly developing quite a personality.
Lorash ran until he began to feel winded, which in wolf form took some time. Slowing to a walk, he glanced behind him, and felt the first twinge of guilt. Perhaps she would have simply allowed him to leave, had he asked. Unlikely, to be sure, yet he had not even attempted it. He had felt no massive jolt in magical energy, so most likely she, or they, had managed to deal with the barrier in some fashion.
Then he thought of Harsov. Damn the boy! Why had he gotten involved? Certainly it was not due to any strong feeling of friendship. It seemed he was a veritable magnet for trouble, often of the dangerous kind. Again came the gnawing feeling of guilt. Harsov had aided him to escape, and then he had run and left the boy behind. Granted, he had shouted at him to run, but humans were notoriously dull witted.
One thing he was not going to do was turn back to look for the boy.
Then he would be just as foolish as any human. Again came the jolt of guilt. Harsov was not just a human. By elven law, he was his brother. The thought sparked a memory, and now he had a free moment to pursue it.
During the bonding ceremony he had performed, the vines binding the two together not only stayed green, but flowered. This was the very best of omens, showing true love existed on both sides. Yet if this was the case, why had Elorna rejected Harsov immediately after the battle? He knew his little sister well, and while she had moments of temper, she would never have exiled her mate from her side for all time, not when she truly loved him. So how then...
Lorash froze in place. What if that had not BEEN his little sister? Demons were well known shape shifters. In the hectic aftermath of the battle, could not a demon have taken his sister's place...perhaps kidnapping or even slaying her in the process? Yet that would not explain the control over the forest she had shown...no demon could have faked that. So what then was the explanation? He must ponder this.
Harsov found tracking Lorash incredibly simple. He was running in wolf form, making no attempt to cover or disguise his tracks. To avoid falling too far behind, he followed at a steady jog. Silvershadow ranged far out, hunting and exploring.
As the sky began to darken, Harsov examined the terrain more closely, looking for a decent spot to camp for the night. He was becoming increasingly adept at this, after long weeks of wandering. Eventually he settled on a spot. It was near a stream of clear water, but not so near that it would attract wildlife. There were a few trees nearby, to supply shelter, and he could use fallen branches for fire. Unlike most elves he preferred to roast his meat, and vegetables as well.
In the distance, the youth could see the twinkling glow of another fire, and it comforted him to know another shared this vast land with him. Another besides Lorash, that is. He knew there would be no fire from the elf. Like most of the tribe, Lorash disliked fire, and had little use for it. No great surprise the greenfolk had reacted so harshly to the Lava Lord, as fire was a traditional enemy of theirs. Which brought up a memory...
Laying beside the small fire, which he kept carefully banked, Harsov considered the events which transpired earlier that day. Specifically, he ruminated on his sword, and what had occurred when he shouted the Lava Lord's name. A great wall of flame had erupted from the ground. Would such a thing happen every time he said those words, or was this a one time occurrence? Another matter to discuss with Lorash, when he tracked him down. Silvershadow curled up next to him, resting his head upon Harsov's chest. Sighing in contentment, the youth and wolf drifted off to sleep.
Harsov awakened to a low rumbling growl from Silvershadow. Slowly he rolled to a crouching position, allowing his senses to reach out. Dimly he heard sounds of movement, as he attached the sword sheath to his back. He always slept with weapons at hand, but no man slept armed and armored. A night or two so spent would leave a man exhausted and easy prey for any foe. As quietly as he could he slipped on his boots.
Whatever prowled this wilderness was no normal beast, or Silver would not have awakened him. A faint rustling reached his keen ears, and a few murmured words. This was no beast at all, this was man.
Glancing at his fire, Harsov saw it had died down to just a few coals. Nearly dawn then. What type of men prowled the wilderness before dawn? An individual hunter might do so, but not a group. This must be raiders, or perhaps bandits.
Slowly rising to his feet, the youth placed a tree at his back, loosening his blade in the scabbard. Keeping an eye on Silvershadow, he noticed the wolf staring intently into the distance, but no longer growling. It seemed the group was not intent on approaching his camp. But if he were not their target, then who? Perhaps the other campfire he had noticed?
As it appeared the raiders or bandits either had not noticed his camp, or were not interested in a single traveler, he should be safe enough remaining where he was. Yet could he remain safe while allowing other travelers to be attacked? As a Guardian, exiled or not, he knew that was not an option. Quickly he sheathed his sword and strung his bow.
Normally the bow would not be his weapon of choice, in the darkness. Yet dawn was approaching soon, and if the raiders were silhouetted against a campfire, he might well make his mark on several targets.
Crouching down, he quickly whispered his plan to Silvershadow, wondering why even as he did so. No wolf could truly understand elven speech, he knew. Yet by speaking his thoughts outloud, it helped him organize and examine them. Ruffling the wolf's fur, he set out towards the campfire he had seen earlier. Trailing the raiders would be too slow, and nearly impossible in the darkness. Yet if the camp was their target, his woodcraft skills should be sufficient for him to narrow the lead they had.
Varagos the Vile spat into the darkness. With the recent crackdown on thievery in the city, the guild had decided to let matters cool down a bit. Yet he was city born and bred, this camping in the wilderness was entirely too rustic for his liking. Besides, there were precious few marks here. A traveling caravan or two, perhaps.
Varagos sighed in disgust. It would be demeaning to lower their standards to common banditry, but a thief had to make a living somehow.
Varagos smirked as he glanced at Adam. In many ways the most daring of their lot, Adam delighted in the flashy, riskiest jobs. He would gladly accept the most dangerous of tasks. Indeed, he often sought them out. All guild members had a codename or title they had earned. His was Belladonna.
The reasons for such a name were many. First, hanging around him was like imbibing a drink laced with Belladonna. Sweet and exhilerating at first, but deadly in large doses. Secondly, belladonna was not only poisonous, it could be found growing wild in the forest. This was fitting, as Adam was one of the forest devils, and more than a little wild himself. Thirdly, Belladonna, or rather the shortened form, Bella, was a feminine name. Adam, with his slender frame and delicate features could be mistaken at first glance for a female. In fact, more than one lecherous lout had made that mistake. None had been so foolish as to make the mistake twice, for Adam's temper was mercurial, and he was deadly swift as any serpent.
Thinking of Adam brought up thoughts of their prize. When the guild had decided things in the city were getting dicey, they had made one last score. Since they were leaving the city environs anyway, the decision had been made to leave in style, with a truly memorable heist. Adam had been the obvious choice for such a theft. Slipping into the palace, he had stolen the most zealously guarded object...Ravensfeast.
Ravensfeast was a marvelously crafted bow, of a deep rich wood like mahogany, though darker in color. Intricate runes had been carved into it, and precious jewels adorned the grip. Just in artistic value alone, it was worth a fortune. Yet if tales were right, to the forest devils it would be priceless.
Varagos tensed, as dry twigs snapped nearby. Before making camp, he and his fellow thieves had ringed the area with dry broken branches and twigs. A skilled footpad could have navigated such without sound, it was indeed a common training tool. Yet no unskilled person, or animal, could cross such an area without alerting them. Uttering a loud hiss, he unsheathed his daggers.
In an instant, a dozen pairs of eyes flashed open. Someone, or several someones, were approaching the camp...or rather, the dummy camp. The campfire had been built a short distance off from the actual camp, just for this possibility. Quickly and quietly each guild member armed themselves.
Adam drew his shortsword and dagger, ready to thumb the little switch in the dagger's hollow handle, which contained a paralyzing poison. Once depressed, the virulent poison would flow from the handle onto the blade. It was an item he had paid well for, and he had learned to craft the poison himself.
As an elf, Adam's night vision was superior to his fellow guild members. Starlight provided quite sufficient illumination for him to see what approached. "Soldiers!" he hissed. The thieves exchanged quick glances, then Varagos gave the signal to scatter.
Harsov neared the campfire. Glancing down, he quickly spotted the thick ring of dried brush and twigs circling the camp. So, the people camping here were not entirely devoid of caution. That was well...even as this thought crossed his mind, he heard the crackle and snap of brush near him.
In the shadowy predawn, Harsov caught a glimpse of movement. In a flash he drew an arrow and loosed. He was immediately rewarded with a screech of pain. Dropping to one knee, he sought other targets, while half a score of arrows crisscrossed the air above him.
Adam glanced over his shoulder as he bolted from the camp. A scream of pain had come from the guards closing in, and he saw one collapsing with an arrow in his chest. What's more, there was a human youth in ragged clothing crouched in the midst of the guards, aiming and loosing more rapidly than he had ever seen. He did not recognize the person, perhaps some bandit loosely affiliated with the guild. Regardless, he was provided a wonderful diversion! Tucking the prized bow under one arm, he angled his path towards the youth.
Stealthily Harsov backed away from the camp, still crouching low. Shouts and curses filled the predawn air, as the bandits or rogues hurled spears and loosed arrows and crossbow bolts. New cries of pain rang out as the hastily loosed missile fire encountered yielding flesh. Harsov grimaced as a spear grazed his back, slicing through his leather jerkin.
Adam grinned appreciatively as he saw the guards peppering their own ranks with missile fire. Wonderful strategy, though risky as hell. Infiltrating the guards, then striking one in the darkness and ducking down. It was, in fact, a tactic he might have used himself. Ducking low, he hissed to the boy in thieves cant, knowing the guards would not understand. Abruptly he froze at a low growl behind him. Turning slowly, he saw the largest dog he had ever seen, staring at him.
"Umm...nice doggy, good boy, run along and play now..." Adam abruptly ceased as the dog stalked closer, with a low, rumbling growl. "Oh, this is not good. Bad dog! Sit! Stay!" Adam readied his dagger as the dog continued to advance. Up close it was even larger than he had thought.
Behind him he heard some strange words hissed, and the dog immediately crouched down. Turning warily, Adam leaped nimbly aside as a spear nearly impaled him.
In a flash, the bandit youth in the ragged clothing was beside him, saying strange words in an angry voice. Well, he was rather annoyed himself! If he hadn't turned when he did, he'd have a spear growing out of his chest!
"What is this strange jargon you're speaking," Adam asked testily. "Is this your dog? Why didn't you warn me about the spear?" Aburptly he felt a powerful hand clamp on his arm like a vise, pulling him away from the guards. Well, that certainly made sense, it was past time for them to get the hell out of here. Discussion could wait till later...but there would be a discussion!
As Harsov led Adam away from the guards, he tried to puzzle out the riddle of this odd elf. First, he was not dressed in traditional elven garb. He wore some sort of fibrous material, rather than good bark armor, and it was all dark blues and blacks, rather than hues of green and brown, such as most elves wore. He did not carry a longsword or spear, but rather shortsword and dagger. Good enough for close in fighting, or to eat with, but nearly useless against sword and shield. He did carry a bow, and a very ornate one at that. Not unusual for an elf, many of the tribe had beautifully carved and polished bows. His, however, was unstrung, and he carried no quiver.
Most disconcerting of all, he had been jabbering in some strange language which made no sense at all. Perhaps it was some local human tongue, one which the elf had thought he, as a human, would know. Yet that would not explain his apparent unfamiliarity with the elven tongue! Even if he were not of the tribe, he should have known the basic language! They had much to talk about, once there was time and freedom to do so.
Pointing ahead and making a sweeping gesture, Harsov motioned Silvershadow to scout ahead. Whatever group of raiders or bandits lay behind them, there might be more ahead. It would not be well to blunder into a group of them in the half light of early dawn.
Adam's mind raced as he watched the youth. His movements were fluid, as one would expect of a guild member. Yet he knew of no branch specializing in trained animal companions, albeit certainly he could see the advantages. And the clothing he wore....were those made of plant fibers?
That language he had spoken...the liquid flow of it had seemed vaguely familiar, but he could not place it. And that bow he held so naturally...it was beautifully crafted, in a style very similar to the one he had stolen. No jewels adorned the handle, no intricate carvings...but alike in every other way. The more he studied this fellow, the more questions were raised.