Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Seventeen)
Brokenbranch sighed heavily. Since the defeat of Brambleheart, he had sought his long lost love, torn from his side when Harsov had summoned him. All to no avail. It was pure torture to have found her at long last, only to lose her once more. True, she had seemed distant, hesitant...yet he could not fault her, after all she had endured.
A nagging feeling told him he should return to the realm of flesh, to see how Lorash and his grandson fared. He had left them prior to their clash with an invading force of ice demons. Here in the spirit realm, time was meaningless. Had he been gone an hour? Perhaps a day? Surely it could not be longer than that? Regardless, he had obligations he could not ignore. He had indulged his own selfish desires long enough.
Focusing his will, the great shaman pierced the veil twixt the realm of spirit and flesh. What he saw there stunned him, and sent his poor heart reeling. Adriana was alive!
How could this be? He had been torn from her spirit when Harsov had summoned him, she claimed to have been imprisoned since the Great War! How came she here? Yet his heart sang within him, proclaiming what his mind refused to accept. Adriana, the woman he loved and had sought for a century, was alive!
Surely this must be some mockery, no human could survive so long, this much they had both known from the moment they met. Yet their love for one another had been so deep and strong, they had been willing to share what little time together life allowed them, rather than mating with another. Sadly, even that short time had been snatched away from them by the Great Betrayal.
He, the mighty warrior Ironwood, she the lovely and caring Adriana...it had seemed a perfect match. Then the War had cleft them apart, he as a leader of men, she as an advisor and healer. The moment of their parting, their last kiss, was indelibly ingrained on his memory.
Knowing her lost to him in life, he had become a shaman, seeking out her spirit, that they might at least be reunited there. All the long, wasted years of searching, seeking, while around him life went on. His daughter becoming an adult, with precious little interaction with him. Marrying, giving birth...his grandson becoming an adult, mocked and scorned by those around him, while still he, Ironbark, the great warrior and hero, wasted his time searching for his lost love.
Now, beyond all reason, he had found her. Though he knew not the how and why, he could not doubt his senses, nor the evidence of his heart. It soared and leapt within him, joyously shouting, "She lives! Adriana lives!"
With a shock, Brokenbranch came to a harsh realization. Yes, somehow, miraculously, Adriana lived. He, however, did NOT. He could sense her spirit, glowing brightly. She would not be able to see his.
His physical body had died, from the trap Brambleheart had set. He could not reanimate it, at best it would be no better than a zombie. His love had little mystic aptitude, she would never be able to see or communicate with him in his astral form.
Lorash! He could see and communicate, serve as an interpreter of sorts...questing, he could sense his spirit. Yet it was far away, beyond the Elven Forest! Perhaps through the medallion he had given young Harsov...but no, that had been shattered during the summoning.
There MUST be some way, to come this close yet be unable to touch or even speak to her was torturous. Llewelyn, the dryad queen, she had mystic ability and power to spare! She would easily be able to...in shock, Brokenbranch realized her spirit no longer resided in the realm of flesh.
This was a nightmare! What had transpired in the short time he was gone? It had been a short time, surely? An hour, perhaps two at most? A sinking feeling of dread crept over him. Time in the spirit realm often differed greatly from time in the realm of flesh. An hour on the spirit realm could be days or weeks here...or no time at all. There was no predicting the correlation between them. Just how long had he been gone?
Adriana glanced askance at the elves in her party. This was definitely the Elven Forest, yet even the trees seemed...different. Was it just due to their long absence? How long had they been gone? There were marks of fire on some trees, so it could not have been so very long since the Great Betrayal.
"Starseeker, my friend, do you sense something...different about the forest? I see marks of fire yet, so we could not have been gone so very long after all, correct?"
The elf so addressed gave her a haunted look. "The fire was recent, yes, but it was not from the battle we know of. I cannot say for certain how long we have been gone, but it has been years, dear lady. Many years."
"If that is so, would not the trees have healed by now, new ones grown to replace those damaged? And where are the dryads? The Guardians? By now, we should have encountered both!"
Starseeker nodded slowly, glancing around. "True lady, we should have. Yet we do not even know if our people still reside here! Perhaps the humans and their allies were victorious, and the Greenfolk no longer call this forest home."
Adriana glanced nervously around. "That would explain the creepy feeling I'm getting. I feel the presence of unseen eyes, and the thrill of impending danger...as if we were approaching an ambush."
It was dusk, and Starseeker glanced around at the darkening woods. "I know what you mean, little flower, this is the first time I have ever felt unwelcome within this forest. Still, let us proceed on. We are nearing the center, if the greenfolk still dwell here, we should encounter them soon."
Even as the words were uttered, a new voice rang out. "Halt where you are, and be recognized!" The voice belonged to an elf garbed in well fitting ironwood armor, two longswords crisscrossed on his back. "Who are you to approach thus unannounced?"
Starseeker stepped forward, holding up one empty hand in a gesture of peace. "We did not know we needed to announce ourselves, as this is our home." Slowly he glanced around. "At least, it WAS our home."
"Your home? I have lived here all my life, and I do not recall seeing any of you. Why then do you call this your home? If you are a demon, you will need a better story than that to fool the Guardians!"
Starseeker took a step back, then gave a joyful cry. "A fellow Guardian! Brothers, sisters, we are home!"
In a blurring motion, Bladesong drew both swords. "Lower your arms now, all of you. If you truly are elves, and not demons, you would be most welcome here. If you prove otherwise, I swear you will wish you had joined your frozen master in his banishment!"
Tension rose as Elf glared at Elf, both sides unwilling to yield. Adriana chose this moment to speak. "Look, I do not recognize you, nor do you seem to recognize us. Perhaps you have newly joined the Guardians? Regardless, surely you know my husband, Ironwood. If you will just summon him, I am sure he will vouch for us."
Bladesong's eyes fairly glowed with suppressed anger. "Ironwood?!?! Aye, I know the name well. He was my mentor, and my best friend. The loss of his wife in the Great War shattered him! He took the name Brokenbranch, and became a great shaman! Now you show up here, after his death, claiming to be his wife!?!?! You sully his name and insult his memory demon! Flee while still you may! When the dryad queen hears of your desecration, there will be no place in the forest you can hide!"
Adriana stood stunned. Dropping her weapons, she stumbled forward, tears streaming down her face. "Gods, no! Tell me it isn't true!" Raising her voice, she wailed in misery. "Ironwood! It is me, Adriana! My love, where are you?!?!"
There was movement behind Bladesong, then a female form stepped hesitantly forward, nursing a newborn child. She opened and closed her mouth twice, before words came out. Even then, she could find voice for but a single word, yet it spoke volumes. "Mother?"
Above this tableau floated another presence, invisible to normal sight. Gathered below him, Brokenbranch saw his best friend, his wife, his daughter, and his newborn grandson. If a spirit could weep, this one would.
Brambleheart rose from her crouch, and began pacing. This form was becoming more and more untenable. It possessed much inherent power, but there were restrictions. All dryads must remain near "their" tree, or slowly wither away. Periodically, they must merge with their tree to renew themselves. This she could not allow, for her possession of Elorna required her to remain in this body. Merging with her tree would require dissolving this body, and with it Brambleheart's hold on her.
The child had much power. Had it not been for the unique set of circumstances existing at the time, it was questionable if possession would have been possible. Yet the gamut of emotions Elorna had experienced, first the joy of her bonding, then losing her mother and several of her sisters had deeply impacted her spirit. Trying to strengthen and renew the forest against the ice demon's attack had further depleted her reserves.
Even so she had lashed out furiously when the banishment edict against Harsov and Lorash had been issued. It had been all Brambleheart could do to retain possession. Yet those two, above all others, had to go. They would have been the first to notice the...changes. Even so, she had not been able to order their death, as she would have preferred. The lass had savagely resisted that. Time enough later, when her position was more secure. Those two were marked for death, even as they had slain her.
For them, there would be no second chance, no return to life...at least, not as they had known it. She did have plans in mind. Plans in which they figured prominently. During her enforced captivity, she had practiced and refined her skills, expanding her knowledge of the necromantic arts. They would make fine undead minions, after a few alterations, of course.
The lovely lips of Elorna opened, and a hideous cackle of gloating laughter pealed forth. Oh she had plans. Such fine, lovely plans!
Brambleheart glanced down at the carefully preserved body of Ironwood. Oh yes, fine plans indeed!
Lorash glowered wrathfully at Adam. "Are you an absolute moron, boy? What possessed you to pick a rare cave bear to hunt? Why would you sneak up and shoot it point blank? Not to mention taking an ancient artifact like Ravensfeast hunting in the first place! You aren't even attuned to it, by all rights you should be dead as that poor bear now!"
"It would have gone far better if you hadn't decided to get your jollies by loosing your pet crows on me! And you're the one who sent me "hunting" with the "ancient artifact" as my only ranged weapon! What options did I have?"
Once more Harsov stepped between the two. "Shouting not help. Danger over now, yes? Ravensfeast now found, yes? Be that not good thing, Lorash? We should thank Adam, not yell at him. Adam, Lorash not send birds after you. Ravensfeast be weapon's name for reason! You must be in tune with weapon, to use properly. Lorash teach you this."
Lorash spluttered in indignation. "Teach this dandy how to attune Ravensfeast? Certainly not! It must be returned to the Greenfolk, not in the hands of some perverted fop!"
Adam's eyes glowed wrathfully. "Dandy, am I? Perverted fop? That's it! Let's have this out right now, you and I!" Callously tossing the crossbow aside, Adam drew sword and dagger.
Contemptuously Lorash gestured, and Adam found himself battling just to remain standing. Tree limbs battered him, wild grass twined around his feet, and swirling dust stung his eyes. Lorash lowered his staff to point at the struggling elf. A wave of force swept out, hurling Adam backwards. "You can't fight me, boy," he intoned as he stepped forward. "Fighting me is like fighting the land itself."
Reaching down, Lorash said, "I'll just take Ravensfeast, so you no longer have that temptation..." Even as he reached for the weapon, a fat blue spark leapt from it, shocking him. "Ouch! What the hell did you do to it, you twisted little pervert!"
Adam picked himself up, readying his dagger. "Cowardly scum! I did you the honor of offering you a fair fight, and this is how you respond? I can fight dirty too, you arrogant pompous buffoon!"
Again Harsov intervened. "Whoa, whoa, STOP! Adam, Lorash very powerful magic man. Him could kill you in instant! Lorash, Adam is good man, just not have learning you have. Think! Adam bring Ravensfeast to us. You not know where it BE until him show you! You say he part of OUR tribe, noble like you. Treat him like it!"
Lorash lowered his staff, though he still glared at Adam. Adam slowly straightened and sheathed his dagger, though he returned Lorash's glare in full measure. "This isn't over, "god learner" he hissed. Not by a long shot!"
Lorash took a deep breath to calm himself. "Right. At least listen to me on this, and understand. Ravensfeast walks the world once more, in "elven" hands." The contemptuous glance he gave Adam let all know exactly what he thought of him. "While that is a marvelous thing, announcing its return in such a blatant fashion was foolish in the extreme. Kingdoms have perished for less. Adam here just painted a huge target on our backs. We need to move, and move quickly. Adam and I are immune to scrying or long range targeting by human mages, but Harsov here is not. For some reason Ravensfeast is reacting poorly to me, which makes no sense. Perhaps the humans placed some sort of magic trap on it. Regardless of the reason, Adam seems able to carry it, so he can do so." Pausing to stare directly at him, Lorash repeated, "CARRY it. Not use it."
Adam glared daggers back at him. "Oh, now I have your permission, since you can't handle it? Guess the bow just has higher standards that you don't measure up to. Just so you know, I would have taken it anyway, even if it meant prying it from your cold dead fingers."
"My, you boys are volatile as my subjects," breathed the elemental ruler. "You afford me considerable amusement. I have much to do on my own plane, so I am leaving for now, but I will be watching." Turning to Lorash she winked, and said, "As for you Wayshower, you still owe me for my aid. I will return to collect later."
In a puff of smoke, she vanished. Harsov looked at Lorash curiously. "Just who was that anyway? I had totally forgotten she was there."
Adam grinned lecherously. "A gal that looks like THAT and you "forgot she was there?!?! Boy, you need to get out more! Why, just stick with me ! There's some places I could take you..."
Lorash interrupted coldly. "We need to MOVE. Now, this very instant. No time for joking or telling stories. Between Ravensfeast's activation, my summoning a ruler of the elemental air, and that blasted fire globe Adam put up, we must have the attention of every mage within a day's travel in every direction."
Harsov opened his mouth to protest, but Adam quickly silenced him. "Come on buddy, we got to get moving. Like the man said, we got a target on our backs." Grinning, he scooped up the crossbow and proclaimed "Alright, I'm all packed. You slow pokes ready to move?"
Harsov grinned ruefully. It appeared Adam was a man of mercurial moods. Life was sure to be interesting while in his company.
Adam was uppermost in the mind of Lorash as well. Who was this fellow? Elven youth were notoriously daring and lacking in common sense. Now he had been saddled with two of them. Why had Adam been able to touch Ravensfeast without evoking a reaction, while it had shocked him when he sought to touch it?
He feared he knew the answer to that. The attunement process had already begun, and no other would be able to touch the weapon so long as the person attuning it lived. Glancing speculatively at Adam, Lorash gave a mental shrug. The lad was even more headstrong and foolish than young Harsov. All he had to do was sit back and let nature take it's course. Odds were high the fool boy would be dead within a few days.
Lorash led the little party, and noticed Harsov glancing curiously at him. The lad was improving. He had noticed the distance warping magic he was employing. It wasn't flashy like a mage's teleport, but it was also less obvious. They had already expended so much magical energy, it should cover the signature from this lesser magic.
Harsov approached closer. "Lorash, I was wondering if you might be able to cast an endurance spell on Adam. He has speed enough in short bursts, but he does not have the stamina for extended running."
The elven priest cast a quick glance at Adam, noting he was beginning to fall behind. "I could do that, yes. But magical energy has to come from somewhere, and I need to hoard what reserves I have, in case we have true need of it later. I could draw upon Adam's own reserves, but eventually it would hit him."
Harsov shrugged. "Then use mine, if that is possible. I never use magic anyway, and have enough physical endurance to spare some."
Cocking his head to one side, Lorash thought. "I suppose I could do that. The physical drain will not effect you immediately, but you will likely be exhausted come nightfall."
Harsov nodded, "I am fine with that. I could use a good night's sleep. And Silver will be a better night guard than me anyway."
Lorash smiled slightly. The lad was becoming a man. Thinking of the future, weighing his actions, sacrificing of himself to aid the group. With a shock, he realized he felt proud of Harsov. And why shouldn't he? Was Harsov not his brother, and the grandson of the greatest hero of the tribe? No matter his outward appearance, and despite his exile, Harsov was an elf in every way that should matter. Adam, on the other hand...
Lorash's lip curled in disgust at the thought. Adam was more "human" than Harsov would likely ever be. Which brought up the matter of his birth again. He wore a ring of heartwood, indicating tribal nobility. Yet the Greenfolk were quite protective of those rings. Difficult to make firstly, and should humans gain one they might be able to duplicate, or worse, find a means to override their protection. They had become family heirlooms, passed down through generations. Perhaps he should examine the ring later, try to deduce exactly where it came from. Most such rings had some sort of heraldic design worked into the ring, to identify the family and aid in focusing the protective quallities.
Adam gritted his teeth. Never had he run so much! First with Harsov from the guards, then from the bear and crows, and now this. He had only Lorash's word that mages would seek out the magical disruptions, and that he did not trust at all. One thing for certain, he would collapse from exhaustion before he admitted to not being able to keep pace with them. Actually, it seemed easier now. His stamina must be increasing already! Huh! He knew it was only a matter of time until he could match, if not exceed, anything the other two were capable of.
Catching Lorash glancing back at him, he gave a smirk and closed the gap between them. The haughty elf returned his smirk with a knowing smile. Now what was THAT about? Acting as if he had some secret, superior knowledge... Grudgingly, Adam admitted to himself that was a possibility. It was obvious the priest, if that fur draped buffoon truly was one, had a fair amount of mystical knowledge. The only question was, how much? Likely a good amount was pretense, a show to cover the extent of his meager abilities. Adam had encountered more than one such charlatan in the past.
On the other hand, that casual burst of force from his staff was no trick. Likewise that delectable air elemental he had summoned. So he did have ability...or at least, his staff did. Perhaps all of his powers were centered on the staff. It might be informative to put that to the test.
Silvershadow loped along beside Harsov. He did not trust Elfwolf. Though he had been but a cub, he well remembered Elfwolf slaughtering the pack. Now there was something odd happening with the land. Trees and hills that had been nearby but a moment ago suddenly vanished, replaced by others. Smells that had been fullsome and tantalizing disappearing abruptly. He did not trust Elfwolf, nor the looks he gave. Nor did he like Stinkelf, the one who dressed all in dark colors and smelled like overripe fruit. Brother Harsov was too simple and trusting. He must be alert and protect them both, until they were free of the other two, and could roam the land once more.
As Brokenbranch listened to the conversation below him, he caught something significant. Bladesong had mentioned a Dryad queen! There had not been a true Dryad queen since the Great Betrayal! Surely any dryad with enough power to be accepted as queen would be able to see him! Who knows, perhaps together they could even devise a means to grow him another body! He must seek her out, immediately!
Reaching out, Brokenbranch could feel her nearby. Yet something was wrong. The power was there, undeniably. But the feel was...wrong. As if it were somehow warped; twisted. As if it were merged with something dark and evil.
There had been a demon invasion, true. Could their inherent evil have somehow corrupted the dryads? A hideous thought, to be certain. He must be wary. His astral form retained certain abilities, yet without his host body his connection to this plane was tenuous, and his reserves quickly depleted.
Alone in his astral form, he was no match for a demon. Not here, in the mortal realm. Could he somehow lure it to the astral plane, the situation would be reversed. That thought seemed unlikely, however.
He must know more. He could form no coherent plan of action until he knew who this dryad was, and what her abilities were. Yet before he departed, he would attempt one thing more.
Drifting closer, he reached out, placing his hand on the shoulder of Bladesong. "Bladesong, my friend, can you hear my words," he asked.
The Guardian spun in a circle. "Brokenbranch? Is that you?" he querried delightedly. "I should have known death could not hold your spirit!"
"Bladesong, listen closely. The dryad queen is tainted, I sense great evil within her. I do not yet know details, but beware of her. And please, dear friend, keep my wife and daughter safe from harm. I entrust their safety to you. If I am right, the fate of our entire tribe might well hinge on your actions."
Bladesong felt a chill snake up his spine. "Tainted by evil? Elorna? She has acted oddly, exiling Lorash and young Harsov, yet I know little of dryads and their ways, and had never met her before the invasion."
The other elves gathered around, staring oddly at Bladesong. He appeared to be conversing with the air. Whisperwillow caught her breath, in shock and awe. She alone made the immediate connection, when she heard Bladesong call out the name Brokenbranch. Stepping closer, she spoke to Adriana.
"He speaks to father! His spirit must be here now." Her mother's tears dried in an instant. "He is here? Now? But I do not see him!"
"His spirit only, mother. He died months ago, from a magical trap Brambleheart set for my son Harsov. Yet father was a mighty shaman, who often walked the spirit realm, searching for...you. How can you be here now, looking as young as when the Great War ravaged these forests a century ago?"
"A CENTURY ago?!?! We have been gone a hundred years!?!? Oh daughter, I am so sorry! Wait, you mentioned your son Harsov? I met him, shortly after we escaped from the moon enchanted woods! In fact, he aided us. He's grown into such a fine, handsome lad. You must be very proud of him."
"I suppose so, mother. Honestly, things have been happening so fast, I have seldom thought of him. After...after his father died in the ice demon invasion, and his bride Elorna exiled him and Lorash from the forest..."
"Whoa, daughter, slow down! An ice demon invasion? Yet the trees show signs of fire, not ice! And your son Harsov married? Yet you said his wife exiled him! Only the dryad queen could do such a thing...wait, he married a dryad? What did he do to warrant exile? Lorash I could well imagine, that young scamp was always in trouble!"