Harsov the Harsh (Chapter Nineteen)
Brokenbranch slowly drifted nearer. He felt the miasma of evil which tainted the very air. There was something...familiar about it. He knew Elorna, of course. He remembered her well from the bonding ceremony. Her aura was there, but covered somehow, tainted. He had the mental picture of someone infested with a hideous parasite.
Mentally, he cursed. Of course, a parasite! A spiritual parasite, some sort of possession! Yet what could have been powerful enough, or insidious enough, to possess such a powerful Dryad? He must get closer, learn more. Perhaps he could cleanse her, purge her of this infestation he sensed.
Yet he was a seasoned warrior, as well as shaman. He could sense not only the evil, but the power. There was no guarantee, especially in his disembodied condition, that he would be the victor in this struggle. Contingencies should be arranged. With a mental sigh he retreated. He must contact Lorash. Of those who yet resided in this realm, he was the only one he knew with sufficient power and knowledge to deal with this threat, should it be greater than his own ability could handle.
In spirit form, physical distances were meaningless. In a flash he floated above the Sylvannus priest, noting Harsov and another elf he did not recognize nearby. Gently he reached out, laying his hand on his friend.
Lorash spun around, glancing up, then relaxed. "Ah Brokenbranch, good to see you old friend," he said. "Harsov and I have been wondering how you fared, and what was keeping you. It has been months since the battle against the ice demons, and we were concerned."
Brokenbranch gave a brief nod. "And you had a right to be, my friend. I have much news to share with you, some more urgent than others. I will be brief, for I am needed elsewhere. First, my wife is alive! She is in Elmwood, and had been frozen in some sort of timestop spell. She and a few others are with Bladesong and our daughter now."
Lorash stood stunned. "But, you said you had found her spirt when last we saw you? How could she be alive after all these years...wait, did you say timestop? I met a Moon Priestess a days journey from Elmwood, who had so enchanted her section of the forest. We had a...disagreement, and the spell was shattered. Had I known your wife was one of those imprisoned there..."
Brokenbranch shook his head, "Not your fault, my friend. Had I known she was so close, I could have rescued her years ago. Perhaps if I had spent more time on the mundane physical plane, rather than scouring the spiritual one, many things might have been far different. I place no blame on anyone other than myself. Yet that, joyous news though it is, affects only a few. The other news I bear relates to you personally, and my daughter's son, and all of Elmwood."
Pausing just a moment, Brokenbranch continued. "It concerns your sister Elorna, Harsov's bonded. I sense a great evil from her, as if some hideous presence cloaked her. I heard the two of you were exiled from Elmwood by her. Can you tell me why? Do you have any clue of who, or what, might be influencing her?"
Lorash's mouth dropped open as he stood stunned. "Elorna is possessed? We were fighting an entire army of ice demons, including Brambleheart's father. Demons are spirit beings, as you are well aware, I'm sure. Yet it would take a powerful spirit indeed to take over my willful sister. Damn! I should have suspected something when she exiled Harsov and I from the forest. It was totally unlike her, yet I thought the shock of losing our mother, and so many of her sisters..."
Lorash shook his head in frustration as he stalked back and forth. "I should have known, should have suspected. If I had confronted her then, perhaps..."
"Perhaps we would both be dead," said Harsov. "Sorry Lorash, when I saw you talking to the air and walking back and forth, I became curious. Unfortunately I am only hearing your side of the conversation, but it was enough. You ARE speaking of Elorna, I am guessing?"
Lorash gave a lopsided grin. "Sorry lad, I should have included you in the conversation as well. Yes, I was speaking with your grandfather here. He says he can sense some sort of evil presence from, or around, Elorna."
Harsov nodded slowly, glancing back towards Elmwood. "She needs me. I must go to her, try to free her..."
Lorash shook his head in negation. "Your words do you honor my friend, but you would be powerless against whatever this is. Ironwood has the best chance among us, and even he is uncertain what he is facing. That is why he is here, to warn us in case he fails." Turning to glance upward, Lorash smiled grimly. "That IS why you are here, is it not, my old friend?"
Brokenbranch returned the smile with one just as grim. "Indeed, that is precisely right. Without a corporeal form to tie my spirit to this plane of existence, my abilities are limited here. The fact that she exiled both of you leads me to believe whatever is influencing or controlling her wanted those closest to Elorna out of the way. It must plan on interacting in some way with the tribe, and wanted no interference. This argues intelligent design, not merely some cursed item."
Lorash nodded. "Sound reasoning. When the Lava Lord and Gorgorab the Ice Demon Prince clashed, the ice demon disappeared. We thought him destroyed, or banished. Yet perhaps he merely took shelter in Elorna's form."
Adam had drifted over, unable to understand the conversation, and obviously annoyed. "What are the two of you going on about, and why do you keep glancing up in the air? What's so interesting?"
Brokenbranch's eyes widened, and he bowed reverently. "My lord," he husked, dropping to one knee. "Can it be? Lorash, why did you not tell me you had found the heir to the throne?"
Lorash's eyes widened in shock, followed quickly by a scowl. "Impossible. There is no heir. My aunt's child died with her. This guttersnipe was sold to a thieves guild, raised among humans. Why, he cannot even understand our language!"
Brokenbranch shook his head in negation. "The queen was heavy with child when the battle began, all knew that. All those with her that day died, save for one old retainer, who was never found. I tell you old friend, THIS is that child. Why, by blood he is your own..."
"Don't SAY it," Lorash spit out. "He is no relation to me! The fact that he bears Ravensfeast is the only thing which has kept him alive this long. He is reckless, headstrong, boastful..."
Brokenbranch smiled kindly, "All the things YOU were at his age? You may rail against the truth all you wish, my friend, yet in the end it speaks louder than all your vain protests. Wait, did you say Ravensfeast? He bears the sacred symbol of kings? And still you deny him?"
While the two spoke, Harsov was translating Lorash's words to Adam. "Heir?" Adam ejaculated. "Heir to what? And this invisible spirit is saying I am related to that blustering bag of wind Lorash?"
Harsov nodded. "That how you have elven ring of nobility. Your mother be Lorash's mother's sister. The last true dryad queen. But, that would mean Ravensfeast yours by right! You not steal it, you reclaimed what already belong you!"
A thoughtful look crossed Adam's countenance. "Didn't steal? But..." the thoughtful look transformed to one of outrage. "All that we went through to get this, and it was already mine? That would mean...THEY stole it from me?!?! Oh, there will be payback for this!"
Harsov chuckled in response. "Lorash not happy with Grandfather telling him you heir, and related to him. He not happy at all."
A slow smile crept across Adams face. "Oh, I bet he isn't! So if this is true, Lorash is my cousin?" Adam doubled over in laughter. "Oh, this is rich! I'm going to have fun with this!"
Harsov joined in the laughter, then put his hand on Adam's shoulder. "This mean you no longer man without family. You have family, Lorash. Me as well. I bonded to Elorna, Lorash's sister and cousin to you, like he is. We all three family together."
Adam glanced away to hide the sudden tear in his eye. "That...had not occurred to me. You are a true friend, Harsov. Perhaps in time, we could all go to Elmwood together? You could maybe introduce me to others there?"
Harsov sadly shook his head in negation. "No can do, friend. Lorash and I, we both in exile. But you...you MUST go Elmwood. You noble... rightful ruler! Ravensfeast prove that! Our people NEED you!"
Adam scowled in return. "Well, they can just go on needing me. They have ignored me this long, now I will ignore them. They exile my only real friend, they had best hope I DO ignore them. If I go there, it will not be a happy reunion, I assure you! Adam Belladonna might not have much to be proud of, but he does NOT abandon friends. Granted, I've never really HAD a friend before...but that doesn't matter!"
Harsov smiled in return. "You like me. I not have friend either, before I meet you. You good friend. You ever need help, you ask. I help. Always."
Lorash smiled up at Brokenbranch. "I appreciate your warning, my friend. Without it, I would have been walking blind into who knows what kind of trouble when I returned to Elmwood. And I will return, just as soon as I discharge an obligation to mother. Something she asked me to do, right before she died. That has to take top priority, much as I might wish otherwise."
Brokenbranch smiled slightly. "Good to know you have your priorities straight, my friend. Promises should not be lightly broken. Bonds either." As he finished speaking, Brokenbranch motioned towards Harsov. "Does he know? You know Elorna far better than I, but it is my thought she would never have exiled or rejected either of you, were she in control of her own actions."
Lorash sighed heavily. "Likely quite correct, my old friend. You were at the bonding, you saw the blooms. Love like that cannot be faked, nor so easily cast aside. She truly loved that big galoot, and after traveling with him a bit, I begin to see why. He is loyal, self sacrificing, honorable, and strong. Much like yourself. It appears the seedling did not fall far from the oak, eh? Yet I think it best NOT to tell him right away, or there will be no holding him. He will immediately return to Elmwood, and short of physical restraint, nothing would keep him from it."
Brokenbranch smiled proudly. "I am proud to call him my grandson. I just wish I had been there for him when he was young. Growing up human in Elmwood after the war could not have been an easy experience. I was an inconsiderate fool to place my own wants and desires above the happiness of everyone around me, even my own family. Yet now, perhaps, in some small way I can make amends. If I can free Elorna, purge her of this possession..."
Lorash smiled. "Such a service would not only benefit your grandson, but would be a great favor to me as well. Whether you succeed or no, I will not forget your aid, my friend."
Lorash turned to find Adam grinning smugly at him. "So, cousin," began the youth, "Where to now?" Lorash groaned inwardly, doing his best to keep his features smooth and serene. "Ironwood is a great man, and a valued friend," he replied. "However, even good men acting under the best of intentions can make mistakes. Clearly, this is one of those times. My mother's sister died on the battlefield, and her unborn child died as well. Whoever you might be, you are not he. Nevertheless, Ironwood did bring another matter to mind.
Ravensfeast is the greatest artifact our people ever produced. It has clearly chosen you as wielder, as tragic and misguided as that choice might have been. So long as you continue to wield it, unattuned, you endanger us all. Therefore, at the earliest opportunity, we will begin the attunement process. At the moment, however, another matter is even more pressing. We must MOVE. Right now, this moment, before your reckless behavior calls down an assault on us that we cannot handle."
Adam grinned back at him. "Why cousin, I didn't know you cared. So reassuring to know I can depend on you to have my best interest at heart."
Harsov chuckled as he listened to the exchange between the two. At least he need no longer be concerned about true hostility erupting between them. Lorash would not do permanent harm to one who might be the heir, regardless of whether he publicly accepted him as such. Nor would Adam do serious injury to his new found "cousin". Verbal attacks, on the other hand, might well intensify, and both men had volatile personalities.
Brokenbranch smiled wanly as he watched the interaction. Both young men had far too much pride, but at heart they both possessed honor. In time they would settle their differences, he was certain. He was more concerned with his grandson. His spirit had been badly bruised by Elorna's seeming rejection. It must have been a considerable shock to go from the joy of bonding your true love to thinking she never wished to see you again, all in the same day.
The lad had dealt with far more than his share of adversity in life. Nor was it likely to end anytime soon, even if he were successful in curing Elorna. She was now the acknowledged Dryad Queen, the first in a century to bear that title. Lorash had discovered the heir, whether either of them acknowledged this or not. By law, the two must mate, to produce the next heir. Pressure would be intense to see this done immediately, to secure the succession. How would young Harsov react to his only friend becoming intimate with his bonded? Not well, he feared, though in truth none of them had a choice in the matter.
With an inward sigh, Brokenbranch departed. Loath though he was to confront whatever possessed Elorna, he too had no choice in the matter. He was the logical one to face this unknown foe. It did not matter that he longed to fly to his beloved, never to leave her side again. It did not matter that he had already risked his life, and more than life, countless times. All that mattered was duty, and it's harsh, unyielding demand.
Bladesong paced restlessly. He had thought after the battle against the demons there would be peace, a time of healing. Yet it seemed any peace was transitory indeed.. Ironwood had returned, to proclaim Elorna as evil. His wife Adriana and several other elves, apparently Guardians from the past, had returned to Elmwood.
Not that he could not use the aid of seasoned Guardians. With all their recent losses, trained Guardians were in short supply indeed. Yet these newcomers were unknown to him. Would they accept his leadership? And what of Adriana?
She had been known and loved among the Greenfolk before the war. Now with the war over long since, and racial antipathy well established, would she still receive that same acceptance? Or with many of her contemporaries slain, would she be rejected and reviled as Harsov was?
Burning Ash steepled his fingers as he considered. His son and followers had easily dealt with a single, powerful foe. One possessed of great strength and hardiness. One capable of tracking a foe through nearly any terrain or circumstance. So, perhaps a more...varied approach would be in order. Multiple opponents, perhaps with less brute force but capable of planning and strategy.
Of course, there was the little matter of his "son's" mystic ability, not to mention that of Ravensfeast. Whatever pawn he sent next to test them must of necessity have some sort of mystic ability as well. So...multiple opponents, mystic power, capable of rational thought. A grim smile played across his lips. He believed he had just the right tool. This should prove...educational.
Starseeker stared at the predawn sky, familiarizing himself with their positioning. So familiar, and yet, not the same. Like this forest. Some of these trees were the very ones he recalled, yet they had grown greatly from his time. Others had not even been seedlings when last he walked these woods.
He, and the few companions with him, had quite literally been transplanted. Plucked up from the time and place they were familiar with, and placed here, a full century later. It was more than a little disturbing. What of the people he knew and left behind? The greenfolk were a long lived people, it was conceivable some of them yet lived.
Perhaps they too had changed, like the stars overhead. Similar, yet with just the slightest difference. He shivered at the thought.
Adriana smiled as she gazed down at the newborn babe. Heartsthorne, what a perfect name. Whisperwillow had named him so at the mingled joy and pain he brought. Joy that her bonded had left this part of himself behind. Pain that he would not be there to aid in raising him, to teach him all the things a father shares with his son.
Picking the newborn up from his leafy cradle, she began to croon a wordless tune, rocking him gently in her arms. Just so she had held Whisperwillow, not so very long ago. Not so long ago for her, but a hundred years for her daughter.
In what had literally been the blink of an eye for her, she had lost so much. Watching her daughter grow up to be the strong, capable woman she was. Seeing her bonded, having her first child. A human, like herself. Ironwood, her brave warrior, becoming a shaman and daring the spirit world, in hopes of finding her.
He had died, trying to protect Harsov, this grandson she had met so briefly. She struggled to keep the anger and resentment under control. If only he had not chosen to be bonded at that time. Just a few more moons, and she would have been here. Could have...done something. Anything, to save her love. Damn him for taking away her only chance for happiness! She knew it was unreasonable, she knew she was being thoughtless and cruel to think such thoughts, but still it was there!
Heartsthorne began to cry, and Adriana forced herself to rock him gently. Choking back her own tears, she focused on the present, pushing away all thoughts of the past, and what might have been. For now.
THUS ENDS CHAPTER 19. WATCH FOR CHAPTER 20, SOON TO COME.