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 providing 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.
Lorash was becoming annoyed. He had spent hours watching his backtrail, waiting for Harsov. From the Guardian training the youth had received, he must know how to track. Granted, he had made the assumption the youth would WANT to follow him. With a wry grimace, he acknowledged the fact there was precious little reason to do so. He had never shown the lad much welcome.
With a scowl, Lorash examined his own recent actions. Harsov had aided him against Brambleheart, when many another would have fled. He had demanded to aid him against the demon invasion, when it must have caused him great pain just to hold a weapon. He had fought bravely and well against the demons, when many skilled elves had died. In the aftermath, the youth had even defended him from Elorna, his bride. Now, he had aided Lorash, pulling him free from the sundered time veil in the moon enchanted woods. In every way, he had proven himself a brave and dependable ally. Impetuous, to be sure, but that was simply youth.
Wincing, Lorash examined his own actions in return. True, he had aided Harsov against Brambleheart, but that battle would have happened regardless of whether the youth was there or not. He had abandoned the youth atop the largest air elemental he had ever conjured, after freeing it. He had been so surprised at Harsov's verbal defense of him, he had not even thought to thank him. Again, when the youth had leaped forward to aid him in breaking free of the time veil, he had uttered not a single word of thanks. And when the elves and demons charged towards them, and Harsov had bravely stood beside him, when most elves would have run for their lives, how had he repaid him? By abandoning him once more. Sighing heavily, Lorash faced reality. There was no reason for Harsov to follow him, and good reason to avoid him. The simple fact of the matter was, he had allowed his hatred of humans to dictate his actions towards the lad. The grandson of his best friend. The mate of his favorite sister. By elven law, his own brother. Honor demanded he at least determine the youth's fate, and avenge him if he had been slain. Scowling heavily, Lorash spat out, "Humans! Nothing but trouble!" Changing to wolf form once more, he began loping along his backtrail, alert for danger.
Adam glanced at the human lad, for he was clearly that. He ran smoothly, fluidly. Dropping back a little, he let the youth take the lead, as he seemed to have a destination in mind, and navigated the terrain effortlessly. Following in his steps was much easier than bucking the brush on his own. Matter of fact, keeping the pace he set was no simple task. Among the guild, he had been acknowledged the fleetest, but that was in short bursts of speed. Racing through city streets, dodging in and out of crowds and the like. Not charging through the woods in predawn, with a squad of angry guards behind you.
Harsov's mind slowly considered the problem, as he traveled. The elf seemed to be having some trouble keeping the pace he had first set, so he settled into a mile devouring lope. He could maintain this for hours. His companion, being an elf, could do so even longer. Yet this was clearly no member of his tribe. His clothing was not traditional, nor his weapons. He had not seemed to understand his speech...oh, of course! He must be from another tribe! From the stories told by his parents, it had been over a hundred years since contact had been made with another tribe! And the shock of hearing a "human" speak their language, after all this time, must have stunned him. Perhaps the few others who shared the camp had been all who remained of this tribe. From the stories of the great war he had heard, many tribes had been greatly weakened, some even destroyed.
Now he better understood the raiding party he had ambushed. Even now, a hundred years after the great war, the hatred between human and elf continued. Even a small band of elves, peacefully camping in their own woods, could be assaulted by humans. When they halted, he would ask the fellow the details, but he felt he understood the basic circumstances. It was well for them he had come along when he had.
Adam was beginning to breathe heavily. The lad was tireless! This was no marathon! They had been running at a good, steady pace for over an hour now, the sun was well up! Time to take a break, and talk things out. Like who this unknown youth was, where he had been trained, why he had attacked the guards, and why the hell he dressed in rags! A low snarl interrupted his thoughts, and Adam felt his blood chill as he realized the huge dog was running beside him, and was shooting him hungry looks.
Taking a deep breath, Adam shouted, "Boy! Can we stop now?" Harsov slowed, glancing behind him. "The guards are far behind us now, and running wild through the woods holds little appeal for me," Adam continued. Not knowing where the youth hailed from, he spoke the common tongue.
Harsov glanced around warily, then halted and turned to face him. "Who you?" he replied. "Not never seen elf look like you. You from near? Far away? Where people? Tribe? Why you speak this odd language? Not..." At which point the lad began uttering what were apparently words in a musical, sing song language. Oddly enough, they were tantalizingly familiar, as if he had heard them somewhere before. Though they made absolutely no sense, they were beautiful.
Bowing gracefully, Adam continued in the same common tongue. "Pardon, good sir, my name is Adam Belladonna. I do not live in a tribe, but rather a city. I speak the common tongue, because I do not know the dialect of your people, though from the sound of it they are a most refined group of...tribesmen. Now, your name? And why you chose to attack the guards? Your assistance was most welcome, although we could have dealt with them on our own. We are quite used to doing so, I assure you." Adam ended his speech with a rakish smile, while his thoughts raced. Who was this simpleton? Could this lout actually live here in the woods? It would explain his shabby clothing, but not that monstrous sword slung on his back.
Harsov's eyes arched in surprise, as he replied in the crude common tongue. "You not know elven language? Live in city, not tribe? Me thought all cities destroyed in great war! Why you carry bow unstrung? Where quiver? You want go back to your people? Silvershadow and me could travel with you. Help protect from humans."
Adam felt a thrill go through him at the youth's clumsy words. ELVEN language? So that was what the youth had spoken! Natural enough to suppose he understood it. Yet he had only the faintest memory of it, words spoken by his "mother" before she had sold him to the thieve's guild. Faint memories of her haunted him still. Who would take their infant child, barely able to toddle, and sell him? To a thieves guild no less? Absently he turned the wooden ring on his finger, the only memento he had from her. How had this youth spoken the language so fluently? His clothing...in the light of day, it was apparent that it was not cloth at all, but some sort of plant fiber. And those bits and pieces of armor he wore...were they made of tree bark? That bow he carried so naturally, so similar in style to the prize he held himself...and what had the youth said? "Why is your bow unstrung? Where is your quiver?"
Excitedly, words gushed forth. "Were you raised by elves? Is that an elven bow you are carrying? And your clothing...at first I thought it was just ragged cloth, but it isn't, is it? It's made from plants of some sort, just like your armor! But where did you get the big dog? I've never heard of elves having pets..." Adam stopped abruptly as the dog stalked forward, glaring viciously at him. "I don't think your dog likes me," he finished.
Harsov smiled in amusement. "Not dog. Dire wolf. Good puppy, not grown yet. Not pet. Friend. I Harsov. Yes, raised by elves. Both parents half elves. Born among tribe, trained with Guardians. Exiled from tribe after demon invasion. Elorna say...I too rash. I bring danger to tribe, like Lorash. Now I not welcome among tribe. They say me human. Humans no want me in city, say I elf. So me and Shadow, we live here now." In conclusion, Harsov swept his arm out, encompassing the land.
Adam felt a knot in his throat. He understood exactly what the youth meant. Not truly fitting in, not welcome anywhere. He had grown up among human society, but had not fit in, though he tried desperately. He had never sought the company of other elves, for his own mother had sold him. If she was an example of what her people were like, he wanted nothing to do with them. Impulsively reaching out, he grasped the youth's hand in his. "Harsov, I am most pleased to make your acquaintance. Let us travel together awhile then. I am in no hurry to return to the city, and confess I know precious little woodcraft. Maybe you could teach me a little about the forest devils, and I can tell you more about humans and their cities?"
Harsov smiled broadly in return, intrigued by this odd elf. "Good. Humans very odd. Live in cities, not tribes. Eat bugs, not meat or fruit. Greenfolk much easier to understand. Not like name "forest devil". Demons and devils old enemies. We fight/kill them. Ice demons we kill. Demon witch Brambleheart we kill. Lava Lord nice though. Him give me sword."
Adam chuckled at the youth's enthusiasm. Ice demons indeed. Yet he had heard tales of Brambleheart, thinking them mere folklore. And that sword...there was something odd about it. But a gift from a "Lava Lord", whatever that might be? Ridiculous. Still, the lad offered an interesting diversion from the tedious monotony of daily life. And when the time came, he could always slip away...maybe take that sword with him. He could likely fence it for a good bit of change.
"Great!" Adam enthused. "I have dwelt among humans for nearly a century, and am well aquainted with their ways, though they may seem odd to you. I know almost nothing of the forest de...*ahem* "Green folk" though. Never knew my father, and barely remember my mother. She left me when I was quite young." Unconsciously, Adam twirled and twisted the wooden ring on his hand while speaking.
Harsov noticed the ring, pointing at it. "You wear ring of nobility, like my tribe. If that be from family heirloom, you of noble blood! Many, many die in great war long ago, when humans betray the Green Folk. Many families, tribes all dead. No more. Maybe you last of your tribe?"
Adam stood in stunned amazement. The ring, the only momento he had left of his mother, marked him as nobility? HAD his tribe been destroyed? A tiny bit of the ice around his heart melted as he considered what life might have been like for his mother, were that true. All family and friends slain, alone in a strange land, among those who slew her kin. How would she survive? Perhaps she had been unable to provide for him, and thought selling him to the guild would offer him the best chance of survival? Swallowing hard, he clapped a hand on the youth's shoulder. "Harsov, you have given me a great gift, and much to think about. Let us continue, but at a slower pace please. All this charging about in the woods is tiring. Perhaps you have a camp nearby where we could retire and talk more?"
Harsov nodded briefly. City living must be hard on elves, the poor fellow was tired after what most would consider a light jog. Growing up among humans...how different his life must have been. Eating grubs, and the odd plants he had found earlier, living behind rock walls instead of among the forest. Why, it was as if the two of them were switched at birth! "I take you. You follow. I go slow. Not you fault weak. Living among humans, far from green. Make any elf weak."
Adam's eyes glittered dangerously. Weak? No one had ever called him that! Well, no one ALIVE had ever called him that. Just as he opened his mouth for an angry retort, the youth spun around and began running once more. Clamping his mouth shut, Adam raced after him. He would need all his wind for running, if past events were any indication. But he would remember this conversation, and continue it when they finally stopped. Hmph! Weak indeed!
Lorash caught a faint whiff of Harsov, but it was illusive. The boy must be on the move, but where? This was human land, not a place for an elf to be roaming about. Granted, Harsov was human, not elf. Yet how much did he know of the culture and speech? Humans spoke a coarse, rough language, fitting their brutish civilization. Harsov's father had been raised among them, but how much had he taught his son? For the first time, Lorash began to seriously consider what life had been like for the lad. He needed to find him, before the youth blundered into trouble, as was his wont.
This would delay his travel plans, but he saw no other recourse. He was the only tribe member nearby, the youth clearly needed guidance, and most of all...he owed him. Granted, he was developing a certain grudging respect for the boy as well. Suppose it wasn't the poor lad's fault he had been cursed at birth by being born human. He could just as easily have been a half elf like his parents, or even a full blood.
Swinging out in a wide circle, Lorash covered the ground in a wolfish lope. He was starting to pick up another odd scent, mingled with the lad's. It was most puzzling. Almost elven, yet spiced or perfumed in some fashion. It made his nose crinkle in disgust. Perhaps the boy was traveling with a female companion? No elf would have such a disgustingly offensive smell. Yet humans did odd things, and none could predict their actions. Perhaps the lad had found friendship among his own kind? That would remove a problem, to be certain. Yet he had to know for sure. Grumbling to himself, Lorash increased his pace. The perfume stink was growing stronger.
Harsov slowed his pace to a brisk walk, examining the area. They were approaching an overhanging cliff, with fallen rocks on one side almost forming a wall. A natural cistern provided water, and wild blackberries grew nearby. This was the most secure base he had found in the area, and he had stored a few supplies here. Even so he approached cautiously, scanning the area and examining the ground for tracks.
As he did, a voice rang out behind him. "Harsov, wait up boy. I need to talk to you for a moment..." the voice suddenly ceased mid sentence as the speaker came abreast of Adam. "Who in hell is this dandy," Lorash queried in a shocked tone. Indeed, the elven priest was most shocked indeed, as the perfumed scent which had puzzled and disgusted him came from an elf!
Harsov spun on his heels, landing in a crouch facing Lorash. "He is my friend, which is more than I can say for you. What do you want, Lorash? The gods know you didn't track me down just to ask how I am doing."
Adam glared at the newcomer, certain from his tone of voice and looks that he had insulted him, but uncertain in what way. The fellow was obviously one of the forest devils, and despite what Harsov had said, the familiar term fit him better than "Green Folk" ever would. He was tall and muscular, dressed in garments apparently made of wolf hide, with the skull forming the head piece. A chestpiece of laquered wood and greaves of similar material completed the ensemble. All of this Adam took in with a glance, for his eyes were drawn to the staff held in the young elf's hand.
It was clearly a mage's staff of power, with intricate runes carved into it. Moreover, it fairly hummed with power. Fledgling mage though he was, he could sense it's aura. Whoever this newcomer was, he was dangerous. That was for certain.
Making an effort, Lorash took a deep breath, then released it. "Look lad, I did not "track you down" to argue with you. I have been giving matters some thought, and it is possible I have been...somewhat harsh in my treatment of you. All things considered, you are not a bad person. You have shown honor, and bravery far exceeding my expectations. With Ironbark as your grandsire, I should have expected as much. I have allowed my dislike of humans to color my perception of you, and for that I am truly sorry."
Harsov was nonplussed. Of all the possibilities life held in store for him, an apology from Lorash had seemed one of the most unlikely. "I...thank you, Lorash," he replied. "Perhaps you are not the arrogant noble I took you for. Your actions and words had reminded me much of Snaptwig, and others of noble blood I had encountered. Which reminds me, please allow me to introduce my new friend, Adam Belladonna. As you can see, he too wears the ring of nobility."
Lorash's eyes widened in surprise. Elven nobility? Wearing foppish silks dyed to look like over ripe blackberries? And anointing himself with that disgustingly sweet scent? Yet his eyes did indeed catch the intricately carved wooden ring of nobility, before the youth concealed it. Again, very odd. What elf of noble rank would seek to conceal it, especially from a priest of Sylvannus?
Still, he should make some effort to be polite. With a brief nod, he greeted the young noble, even apologizing for his earlier rudeness. For Lorash, it was a considerable effort, but he managed to grit his teeth and say the words. The youth seemed unimpressed however, continuing to glower at him suspiciously.
"Um, Lorash, he does not understand the elven tongue," Harsov said. "He told me he was raised among humans, and has had no contact with other elves since early childhood."
Lorash's eyes widened in outrage. An elf raised among the hated humans? What blasphemy was that? A fine pair the two of them made! A human raised by elves, and an elf raised among humans! Trust Harsov to find the only other person around like himself!
In the brief pause which ensued, Adam spoke up, in common. "I don't know who you are, though it is apparent you are an elf, and seem to know Harsov here. From the looks you have given me and your tone of voice, I can tell you do not approve of me. That's fine, I don't approve of you either. Some half wild barbarian, prancing through the woods in wolf garb...if you are the sort of person Harsov had as an example, I can easily see why he is so confused. What right do you have to judge me or anyone else, for that matter, when you look like that?"
Harsov winced at the words, quickly stepping forward. Speaking in common, so both could understand him, he said, "Lorash, Adam not know you. Him not know elven ways. Like young babe, he need be taught. Yet him IS of noble elven blood. We must learn him good. You know much more than me. Can help, tell and show him things me not even know."
Turning to Adam, he said, "Lorash have quick temper, speak words before him think good. Yet him is good man, have much to learn you. He magic man. How you say...god learner? Of Silvannus. No one know more of the land, the plants, the beasts in it than he. He of noble blood also, have ring like yours."
Both Adam and Lorash relaxed a little at his words, though both viewed the other with suspicion. "Very well," Lorash replied. "I am willing to overlook your appearance and...smell. Growing up among humans, there is no telling what perversions you were taught."
Turning to Harsov, he continued "This is a good campsite you have selected. I have seen nothing better nearby. When we have a free moment, I need to know more of what happened at the barrier of the moon enchanted woods after I left. Adam? While Harsov and I discuss matters, can you round up something to eat? You DO know how to hunt, I hope?"
Adam glared daggers at Lorash. He had never been outside city walls until yesterday, and had no idea how to "hunt". But how hard could it be? Certainly he was not about to admit his lack of knowledge to that pompous buffoon. "Of course I know how to hunt," he replied in frosty tones. Marking the location of the camp in his mind, he turned aside and began looking for something to "hunt".
Harsov watched the interaction between the two, shaking his head. In elven once more, he said, "Lorash, you really need to learn how to speak to people. Or are you really trying to anger Adam? He's had a hard life...never knew his father. He lost his mother when he was quite young, and has survived in a human city since then. When I met him, a band of human brigands were attacking his camp. Silver and I rescued him. He said the ring is the only keepsake he has left from his mother."
Lorash nodded, and replied, "My anger is something I struggle with, particularly in regard to all things human. Perhaps I spoke more harshly than I should have. Now, this ring you mentioned...are you certain it was one of ours? Our tribe are the only ones who crafted such rings, to protect our nobles from human mages. It shields us from long range sensing or targeting spells."
Harsov paused a moment, remembering. "Yes, it looked just like yours. Maybe even a little more ornate. He said he was about a hundred years old, so he must have been born around the time of The Great Betrayal. I was not around then, but you were. Many elves, both noble and non, died or were lost then. His parents must have been among them."
Lorash did not reply, but his mind was working furiously. Indeed, many elves had died or been lost that day. Yet not so many of the aristocracy as young Harsov seemed to think...and he knew all of them. The King, of course, had been slain, and his weapon Ravensfeast lost for all time. The Queen also had died, under somewhat mysterious circumstances...some say on elven blades. She had been with child at the time with her firstborn, so her death deprived them both of Queen and heir. The bodies of both King and Queen he had seen with his own eyes. Among the minor nobles, there was only one he knew of unaccounted for...the Queen's handmaiden. Yet she had not been with child, so far as he knew. Pursing his lips, Lorash considered. Would he have known if she were? He was but a youth himself in those days, and had little contact with most other members of the nobility. Even then he preferred the company of his dryad siblings and wilderness creatures to other elves.
"By the way," Harsov continued, "how do you expect Adam to hunt without any arrows? The bow he holds does look superb, but he has no quiver. I suppose he might be able to throw his knife and bring something down, but he would need to be very close to his target, and his woodland stealth skills seem lacking. After all, he did grow up in a human city, not among others of our kind."
Momentarily lost in thought, Lorash glanced at Harsov, only half hearing what he said. Then words clicked into place. "He has a "superb" bow? Without arrows? What exactly did this bow look like?"
The intensity of his words startled Harsov. "Why, it looked just like any other elven bow, though his was ornately carved, and bejeweled. I have seen other elves with ornamentation or jewels set in their bow. Family heirlooms, mostly, passed on from father to son. I noticed his mainly due to it being unstrung, and his having no quiver, as I mentioned."
Lorash began to pace, working through things in his mind. "An elven bow, jeweled and engraved? And he is wearing an elven ring of nobility...could it be possible? Has Ravensfeast returned to the Green Folk at long last?"
Harsov jerked as if stung. "Ravensfeast? But I thought it was destroyed in the Great War? The King used it in the battle, and it has not been seen since..."
"Exactly!" enthused Lorash. "It has not been seen since. Lost, not broken. So powerful a weapon as that would have had massive magical disruptions if it were shattered. I, and any other of talent would have felt it immediately."
Nodding decisively, Lorash stared in the direction Adam had left. "We must find it, immediately. Your life, even mine, are as nothing compared to Ravensfeast." In dawning horror, he shot a quick glance at Harsov. "You do not think...surely the child would not try to use the bow? Granted, he would seem to be of noble blood, but without the attuning ritual..."
Harsov returned a dumb look. "Attuning ritual? What is that? I've never heard of any elf needing to "attune" a bow! And how could he use it? He has no arrows!"
Impatiently Lorash shot back "Ravensfeast is not a bow! Rather, it is not just a bow! It is the most powerful artifact our people ever created! Nothing else like it exists, nor could another ever be made! It was crafted from a branch of the Great Mother, the very first tree! The Great Mother was destroyed ages ago, and even if it still existed, no elven artisan lives who could channel its power! Even in the elder age, it took a score of the very finest mage artisans to craft it, and half of them died in the process!"
Harsov gave a soft whistle. "Oh...so that is why it was never replaced. I often wondered, but when I asked the answer was always the same. "There is only one Ravensfeast".
"Exactly," Lorash returned. "And if the lad does indeed hold Ravensfeast, he is in deadly peril, and perhaps all the land as well."
Adam crept through the woods, trying to be silent. It was not so very difficult. He had been trained well, and had much experience at stealthy operations. Granted, his training had all been within city walls, yet adapting to your environment was something every novice learned. It did take a bit more concentration than normal, but he was sure he would swiftly master his new surroundings. After all, he was the niblest, most sure footed sneak thief in the guild! Not to mention the swiftest, most deadly with a blade, most charming, handsome, and so forth.
Now all he needed was something to "hunt". His "mark" as the guild referred to it. And it should be something of size, to prove his worth to this "god learner", as Harsov called him. After all, he did have a reputation to uphold.
Apruptly Adam stumbled and nearly fell. Snarling, he glanced down at his "prize". The damn thing had nearly tripped him! Who could travel through woods stealthily, while lugging this big hunk of wood? A nagging voice in his mind reminded him Harsov had not seemed encumbered by a similar burden. With a silent snarl, Adam glared at the offending weapon. "Why couldn't you have been something useful, like a sniper's bow, instead of this ungainly thing?"
The air seemed to blur, and abruptly Adam found himself grasping a beautifully crafted light crossbow of ebony wood. "well, that's a useful trick," he happily enthused. Cocking it easily, he admired the weapons beauty. The wood was very dark, still retaining the intricate carvings he remembered. Jewels adorned the stock, but they did not seem quite so garish as he remembered. And though he sensed the deadly power inherent in the weapon, it had cocked smoothly and easily. Truly a masterfully crafted bow! "Now if only I had a few bolts to use..." he whispered. At his words, a shadowy quarrel formed in the crossbow's grooved slot.
"My my, aren't you just full of surprises," Adam chuckled. This was a wondrous weapon! And it was all his! Rather, it would be all his, once the guild had been properly compensated. True, he would have to make a substantial contribution to the guild to retain the weapon for his own use, but it would be worth it for appearance alone! A magical form changing weapon, that supplied its own ammunition at request? How amazing was that! With renewed confidence, Adam eagerly sought a good mark to try out his new toy.
Adam glanced down, and saw a large footprint...or rather paw print. A track, he thought hunters called it. Grinning proudly, Adam decided he was mastering this "hunting" thing quite quickly. Now all he needed to do was follow this footprint track thing, kill whatever it was, and drag it back to the camp. Should be simple enough.
Though on second thought, dragging a large creature back to camp did not sound overly appealing. A quick grin lit his features, as an idea occurred to Adam. Why not try the old "bait and chase" routine? It had worked quite well for him in the past. He could show himself to the mark, annoy it until it chased him, and lead it back to the camp. Then when the camp was nearby, he could kill it. That way the other two could do their fair share, and help him bring the meat back. This would have the added benefit of their seeing the full size of his mark, rather than his returning with just some hunks of meat sliced off from it. Butchering was messy business as well. If he did the hard part of "hunting" and slaying the mark, they could do the butchering and cooking.
Adam found following the tracks to be very easy indeed. Whatever had made it must be quite large, for it had crushed vegetation in a broad swath, even shattering small trees. So much the better. A large, powerful brute would be just the thing to prove his own prowess. Wouldn't that pompous buffoon Lorash be surprised! Did he know how to "hunt" indeed!
A low growling cough interrupted his mental reverie. Cautiously turning, Adam found himself nearly nose to nose with the largest creature he had ever seen. It was big, covered in shaggy brown fur, with an enormous head. Then it stood upright, on two massive treetrunk legs, and growled again.
"Right," Adam whispered. "Got your attention. Now to annoy you..." In a lightning quick movement, Adam raised the crossbow and fired pointblank. The dark quarrel sped the short distance between them, embedding itself in the beast's abdomen. A roar of anger and outrage burst forth, as the giant form crashed back down to all four paws, and charged.
Simultaneously, the crossbow in Adam's hand seemed to...shudder. The skies overhead ripped open wide, and a seeming horde of darkness descended. The air was rendered hideous with the strident cries of...crows?
Lorash turned to Harsov. "You should remain here, in case this "Adam" creature returns. It will be easier for me to locate him if you are not out roaming around the woods as well."
Harsov shrugged, "If you say so. Just remember, Adam does not seem to like or trust you much at present. And he does not understand Elven."
Lorash scowled bleakly. "An elf who thinks he's a human. A human who thinks he's an elf. Has all the world gone insane?" Stepping forward, Lorash walked into a tree and disappeared.
Having traveled through these woods recently, Lorash had a fair idea of how far Adam would have traveled. Stepping out of an oak, he was shocked to see the sky darken. He should have sensed any approaching storms...glancing up, he froze in shock. The sky was darkened, indeed...by hundreds of ravens! Exactly what he had feared...the idiot boy must have used Ravensfeast without attuning it first!
He could use air magic...perhaps sweep the ravens away. But air was a finicky elemental, it would take time. From the rate of the ravens' descent, Adam likely would not have that time. Shrugging, Lorash began his preparations. If the foolish boy died, so be it. The important thing was to locate Ravensfeast!
For any good thief, reaction time was critical. Despite his bravado, Adam was better than good. He was one of the best. For him, reaction was nearly instantaneous. Even as the bear charged, Adam leaped forward. Placing one hand on the outraged creature, he vaulted over its back. Landing nimbly on his feet, he took off at a dead run. He had no idea what was going on with the crows, but one thing he was certain of. Being directly beneath them as they dived seemed like a very bad idea.
The bear lashed out with one paw in a murderous rage, barely missing the vaulting elf. Ignoring the cascade of diving ravens, it wheeled and charged after Adam, paws gouging great furrows in the ground.
Cocking one eyebrow, Lorash observed Adam's actions. "Well, at least he moves like an elf," he pronounced. "Stay alive a little longer boy, and you might just manage to live through this. Maybe. If we're all lucky."
Holding his staff aloft in both hands, Lorash focused, coaxing the capricious air to his aid. He was more attuned to earth than air, yet as a living, breathing creature there was a connection. He had tneither the time nor mastery required to command such forces. He could, however, attract them and offer them diversion. Often, that was all that was required with this most playful of elements
In annoyance, Lorash scowled at the elf, bear, and ravens. He had to be within range for his spells to be effective. Grumbling to himself, he groused, "His smell probably annoyed the bear as well."
Racing through the woods, Adam summoned every ounce of speed he could muster. Still the shaggy brute gained on him. As for the crows...where the hell had THEY come from? Probably some joke that wild eyed "god learner" was practicing. Trying to frighten him. Damn if it wasn't working!
A nimble leap sideways as he ran, and the bear's lashing paw shattered a sapling to kindling. That could just as easily have been him. A broad grin spread across Adam's face. Danger, excitement, and a smattering of the unknown. This was fun! Now all he had to do was figure out some way to survive it.
What he needed to do first was to even the odds. Well, since those crazy crows must have been sent by the "god learner", it would be only fair to return them to him. Let him deal with his own little joke. As for Harsov, he looked pretty handy with that bow. Between the two of them, they should be able to take down this juggernaut of fur behind him. Problem solved. Now all he had to do was survive long enough to return to the camp!
Harsov glanced curiously in the direction Adam had departed. His new friend apparently had a very odd idea of what hunting entailed. Neither silence nor stealth seemed to apply. Crashing sounds and deep throated roars of rage were approaching.
Silver approached stiff legged, hackles raised. Whistling softly, Harsov drew the wavy bladed flamberge. "So, it's like that, huh boy," he softly murmured. "Sounds like our new friend might be bringing enough meat for everyone after all..." The youth's voice trailed off as the strident cry of ravens made a hideous din. Looking up, he saw a cloud of them, so dark they obscured the sun. Silver began to whine, crowding closer to Harsov in mute appeal.
A bow would be of little use against such a flock, as would most weapons. Yet perhaps there was another solution. Thoughtfully Harsov loosened the flamberge in its sheath. Would the fire magic in the sword answer his call once more? If so, could he control its shape?
Shrugging, Harsov drew the blade from its lacquered sheath, raising it slowly to guard position. Silver hunkered down at his feet, whining softly. Abruptly Adam burst through the tree line, pumping legs propelling him over the ground in prodigous leaps and bounds. Practically at his heels charged the largest bear Harsov had ever seen, while a swarm of ravens pecked at both, battering them with their wings.
Bracing himself, Harsov shouted, "Here, Adam, to me!" This would take precise timing, if it worked at all. Clearly in his mind, Harsov pictured what he wished. Adam neared, covering his face from the maddened birds. Holding the sword firmly, Harsov shouted "Adramaloch!"
(TO BE CONCLUDED)