Chapter Three: The West Road
The king, it seemed, had set up camp in the outskirts of the town, and though he rode on horseback with his men he did not travel without comfort. A great tent had been erected, fit to house a battalion of soldiers, and within it was laid out what seemed almost to be a palace in miniature, resplendent in golds and reds, with a grand table in the center for dining. The many carriages it took to carry all of this were arranged in a crescent around the tent, with the opening facing the north.
It was to this tent that Elven was taken, following in Elỳn’s wake, who in turn followed in Tharom’s. A great fear began to crawl upon Elven’s shoulders, for he was to meet quite possibly the most powerful man in all of Thaeìn—perhaps all of Erâth—and it was to be judged. His worst thought was that the king would find no time or interest in someone so small as himself, and pass him off to Tharom’s own judgement.
There were guards at the tent’s entrance, and despite Tharom’s position as a knight of the fourth guard of the dragon, and Elỳn’s influence with the king, they were not permitted to pass before one of the guards had entered first and made their presence known. After a moment the guard returned, nodded curtly to Tharom, and drew back the canvas. Only then did they pass into the tent, and Elven was astonished at the splendor. Not only were there lavish hangings and draperies, but the table in the center was laid out for a feast, and here and there were set great candles on long posts, which to Elven seemed strikingly dangerous inside a canvas building. At the table stood Farathé, picking at the offerings, and he turned as Tharom and Elỳn entered.
“Elỳn!” he called out. “I am glad to see you; I wished to speak with you in private when you can.”
Elỳn nodded a deep bow. “Of course, your highness. There is another matter I would seek your attention on first, however.”
The king looked to Tharom and Elven, both of whom had bowed to one knee: Tharom by choice, Elven by force. “Does this business concern you, Tharom Hulòn?”
Without looking up, Tharom said, “It does, your majesty. And it concerns a traitor to this kingdom.”
“You may rise,” the king said, “both of you. Treason is a serious accusation, Tharom, and not one that is often brought before me. Would this not be a matter best suited to the courts?”
Elven stood along with Tharom, and looked up to see the king standing only a few paces away, Elỳn at his side. To his surprise, he thought he heard a note of embarrassment in Tharom’s voice when he next spoke.
“I apologize, your majesty. I would have dealt with this issue myself, but I was interrupted by the Illuèn. She claims—”
“Hold!” said the king. “Elỳn of the Illuèn is a guest of this kingdom and of my dwelling, and will not be spoken of so. You will address her by her name, or you will not address her at all.”
Elven’s nervousness began to fade somewhat at this, and he risked a glance at Elỳn. She smiled ever so slightly at him.
“I apologize again, your majesty,” Tharom said in a thick voice, and Elven could hear the insincerity this time. The king, however, appeared inclined to ignore it, and asked Tharom to continue. “Elỳn of the Illuèn claims this man is her friend, and would not have him punished for his misdeeds.”
“Your highness,” said Elỳn, “You know this man well, for I have spoken much of him. He is the friend of Brandyé Dui-Erâth: Elven Dottery.” Elven was surprised to hear these words, for he would not have thought Elỳn would have had reason to speak of him to someone such as the king of Erârün. “I will acknowledge that Tharom Hulòn knows more of his deeds among the casualties of the Rein, but I know him as someone of the fiercest loyalties: loyalty to his friends, above all others.”
Farathé seemed to consider this for a moment. “Loyalty to friends is admirable, and friendship is a strong bond. But loyalty to one’s king is unquestionable. What is his crime, Tharom?”
“He abandoned the fighting and fled like a coward into the mountains,” spat Tharom. “He followed in the footsteps of his coward of a friend, who I saw flee in mid-battle, leaving his fellows to die!”
“Is this true?” Farathé asked Elven.
“No!” protested Elven. “I’m not even a soldier—I’m a healer! I was never in the battles of the Rein. I stayed with the villagers, and when they fled to the mountain sanctuaries, I rode with them. I left only when I saw my friend in immediate danger from the army of Darkness, and would have returned if I could!” He very nearly spoke of his reason for wishing to return, but held his tongue at the last moment. “There were people I cared for among those refugees,” he said instead.
“This man speaks with compassion, Tharom,” Farathé said, “and if what he says is true, it is his friend, not he, who is guilty of treason. This Brandyé, he was enlisted as a soldier of the kingdom was he not?”
“He was, your majesty,” Tharom replied bitterly.
“Then it is he who held a duty to fight, not his friend. He can not be held guilty by association.”
Elven thought he could hear Tharom’s teeth grinding. “Yes, your majesty. I take it, then, he is not to be punished?”
“No!” said the king. “Your anger at his friend may be justified, but I think it is misplaced here. I appreciate your efforts in keeping my kingdom safe, Tharom—you have fought courageously and tirelessly against the enemy, and redeemed yourself in the eyes of the kingdom. Go, and take some rest; I know this is not the fate you wished for this man, but I will speak with him. Let me learn from him, and I will decide what is to be done with him.”
With what could have been a muttered curse, Tharom bowed again to the king, turned, and left the tent. Elven looked to the king and said, “Thank you—I am sure he would have—”
“I did not tell you to speak,” the king interrupted, “and you will address me as ‘your majesty’ when you do.”
Elven bit his tongue and nodded. “Yes, your majesty.”
The king smiled. “You can be polite, at least. That is a good start. Come—are you hungry?”
In fact Elven was ravenous, having run out of Jacob’s money the day before and been unable to pay for breakfast. He nodded, and the king gestured for him to sit at the great table in the center of the tent. He was tempted to dig in to the first chicken leg he saw, but he restrained himself; the king was expecting him to be polite, and surely it was not so to start before him.
It seemed he had made a sound decision, for the king looked upon him and smiled again before saying, “Please—start. And while you are eating, perhaps you can tell me in your own words of your travels.”
And so Elven did, with Elỳn by his side, and found a sudden and immense relief at being able to tell his tale to one who seemed eager to listen. He spoke to the king of his childhood in Consolation, of the greed of the Fortunaé, and how they had come to overthrow the other ruling houses and police the land with violence. He told how he and his family had left Consolation, and how they had been reunited with Brandyé in the woods of the Trestaé mountains. He spoke of their meeting with Elỳn, and their stay with the Illuèn, and he spoke of his awe at seeing Vira Weitor for the first time. “It is the grandest city I have ever laid eyes on,” Elven said, and the king smiled.
“It is my home,” he replied.
For some hours the king listened rapturously, speaking hardly a word, and by the time Elven had spoken of his parting with Brandyé and his travels through the Reinkrag mountains, he had come to respect this man all the more for his willingness to listen, and not speak.
When he was finished, the king was silent for a while, and when he spoke his voice was quiet but sturdy. “Consolation is a myth in my kingdom, but one I know of. I had never thought to meet someone who claims to be from there. There was a time when I would have thought your tale nothing but fanciful lies; there are but two kingdoms known to this day in Erâth: ours, and our neighbor Kiriün, to whom we now travel. These mountain folk, the Hochträe—we have no legends of them.”
“I assure you they are real, your majesty,” Elven said.
Farathé held up a finger. “I do not doubt you, but you must know why. There are many things in this world that are legend, and many that are unknown entirely. Until recently, I was not of the mind to believe legend, never mind what I could not see to exist. I know now that I was narrow-minded.
“It is your friend here that persuaded me. Her presence, and that of her kin, made me see that legend can be real. The Illuèn are real. And if so, then other things may be real also. She has spoken to me of your friend Brandyé at length, and of you. This alone is why I have entertained your tale; this alone is why you are not at Tharom’s mercy as we speak.”
Elven was uncertain what to say; more than ever, it seemed he owed his life to Elỳn; someone whose motives he still did not trust, and of whose friendship with Brandyé he was still jealous. “Why would Tharom want me punished?” asked Brandyé. “Your majesty,” he added at a withering look from the king.
“The laws of my kingdom are strict, and not lightly broken,” Farathé said. “If Brandyé was indeed amongst the soldiers of the Grim Watch, he betrayed his duty and his kingdom when he abandoned the fight.”
“Brandyé is not of your kingdom!”
Farathé glared at Elven. “I will not argue this point. An oath to me and my service is bound by my laws, whether you are born in Erârün or not. Should your friend return, justice will be done upon him.”
Elven had to quell the anger beginning to boil in his stomach, and his ears burned. “And what of me, your majesty? Am I free to go?”
Farathé shook his head. “The laws are clear: wanton travelers are not permitted in Erârün. Granted, this law was created when the wall between us and Kiriün was built—when the only travelers in this kingdom were of the enemy—but the law is the law, and as king I am bound to it as much as any of my people.”
“Then I am to be sent to the dungeons of Vira Weitor anyway?”
“That would be Tharom Hulòn’s wish, certainly. Is it yours?”
“Then you will remain with me. As king, I have the right to keep my prisoners where I see fit; out of respect to Elỳn of the Illuèn and her friendship with you, I will keep you by my side. You will have free reign of our camp, and you will have a horse; but if you try to flee, I will have my archers shoot you down.”
Elven was reminded of Brandyé’s tales of servitude to the Cosari, and knew this cage, gilded though it might seem. His thoughts went to Talya again, and his heart ached at the thought of her waiting for him in Vira Weitor—possibly forever. “There is a person I am seeking, your majesty,” he said with restraint.
“Someone other than your friend, Brandyé?”
Elven nodded. “I had hoped to find her in Vira Weitor. I … I told her I would meet her there.”
Farathé appeared to consider this. “Who is this person?”
Elven gritted his teeth for a moment. “Someone we traveled with; a friend.” He glanced toward Elỳn for a moment, who was staring intently at him. “She was lost during the battles of the Rein.”
The king’s face became softer then, and he said, “It is unlikely she would have returned. Tharom Hulòn and a handful of soldiers are all of the Grim Watch that survived.”
But Elven shook his head. “She was not of the Grim Watch. She was with the villagers.”
“We have heard nothing of the northern villages for six months; we have presumed them lost to the enemy. Had any of them returned to Vira Weitor, I would have known of it.”
All of Elven’s anger had subsided, replaced with a dull, numb despair. What if his fears were realized? What if this was the reason for Sonora’s inability to deliver his message to Talya? “I would still like the chance to return to Vira Weitor,” he said softly.
Farathé nodded. “And you will, I am sure. Do not despair—your friend may indeed still be alive. But—do not put all your faith in it either. That is the path to despair.”
And then his conference with the king was over, and Elven was escorted back outside the tent. It was growing dark by now, and Elven wondered at what he should do next. Elỳn was with him, and said, “I carry the voice of the king here; let us have you fitted in a soldier’s cloth. That will give you free reign to the inns and dining halls of the town until we leave.”
Elven turned to look up into Elỳn’s soft, glowing face. “I must thank you, Elỳn,” he said. “I owe you my life, it seems. And I … I am sorry if it seems I’ve mistrusted you in the past.”
Elỳn smiled gently. “You had every reason to; and I know how much your friendship with Brandyé means to you. I would not take that away from you, ever.”
“Where do you think Brandyé is now?”
Elỳn looked up and to the north, across the empty and dark plains. “He is far from here; more than that I can not say. His path is unclear to me.”
“Do you think he’s still alive?”
Elỳn returned her gaze to Elven, and smiled again. “It will take more than a small misfortune to end Brandyé. He is stronger than both of us.” She motion for him to move forward, and he followed her direction.
“What of Talya?” he whispered as they walked.
Elỳn placed a hand on his shoulder. “I will have my kin in Vira Weitor look for her. If she is there, they will find her. I will send a rider in the morning.”
And so Elven walked on into the night, uneasy and miserable, and resigned himself to his fate.
Elven and Elỳn spent that evening together in the town, and she took the time to speak to him of her actions since their parting the year before. She had spent much time, it seemed, as a courier between the Illuèn and the king and his ministers, and in the time that had passed, several other Illuèn had come to stay among the folk of Erârün. They were seen as creatures of myth among the people of Vira Weitor, and to Elỳn’s chagrin, treated as royalty themselves.
“I can hardly pass down a street without being called after for a word or touch,” she said. “The folk seem to have the idea that we have miraculous powers of healing and good fortune.”
“Your healing powers are beyond our own,” Elven pointed out. “You healed my leg with greater skill than any I possess. Without you, I might still be unable to walk.”
“Without our healers,” Elỳn laughed. “I am no healer. You would know more how to mend a broken bone or cure a flu than I would.”
“I wonder if your healers would have saved the men of the Hochträe.”
“I am sorry for what you went through,” Elỳn said with sudden sobriety. “For anyone, to watch a host of men around them lose their lives would be dreadful; I cannot imagine what it was like for someone trained to save lives.”
“What of the men themselves?” Elven said bitterly. “How do you feel about them?”
Elỳn took a deep breath. “I have seen men die also, Elven. Any untimely death is tragic, but it is those wrought by the Duithèn that are to be truly feared.”
“You think their deaths were the work of Darkness?”
“Never have I heard of such a fate, in all the lands of Erâth. For men, sleep is unavoidable, and you take it for granted that you will wake in the morning. I can’t imagine the fear they must have felt—that you must have felt—in closing their eyes. If there is a mark the Duithèn leave upon this world, it is that of fear.”
Elven shook his head. “Then why visit it upon only a few men in the wild? Surely it would be more fruitful to bring such fear to a great city, such as Vira Weitor.”
And then Elỳn turned on him a look of such intensity that he felt withered under her gaze. “How do we know they did not?”
Elven felt a shiver in his spine. “What do you mean?”
“How many people have you been in contact with since leaving the Üthervaye mountains?”
Elven frowned and thought. “I don’t know—a dozen, perhaps a little more?”
“And in all that time, did anyone show signs of the illness—coughing, sleepiness at unusual times of day?”
Elven shook his head. “No—no one. I’m certain I didn’t bring the illness with me.”
Elỳn pursed her lips. “Let us hope not.”
Elven drank too much with Elỳn that night, and was roused before dawn the following morning, and so it was with a heavy head that he started out from Farthing’s Bar on a horse of his own, trailing behind the many others that made the king’s entourage. The king, the black-clad knights and Elỳn stayed at the front of the caravan, but Elven was left to his own devices. He assumed Farathé had spread the word not to let Elven leave the party, for he felt the eyes of soldiers on him everywhere he went, and if he found himself on the outskirts of the circle of soldiers and horses and carts, he would be approached by someone and not left alone until he returned to their center.
It was some time before Elven’s head was clear enough to take account of his surroundings, and when finally he looked up it was to see an endless expanse of wooded moorland around them, gentle hills and vales rolling into the distance. They were upon a path, it seemed, yet every now and then they would leave it, make their way across open ground, only to rejoin it some miles further on. After the third such excursion, Elven brought his mount to Elỳn’s side and asked her of it.
“We are avoiding those places where the road passes under trees,” she explained.
“Why? Surely it would be more direct to stay on the road.”
“There are vagabonds that dwell in the forests here—folk outside the laws of this country. Few would risk an attack on a host of knights, but the king would pass them by anyway. He is not interested in battle before it must be done.”
“He sounds like a noble king,” Elven noted.
Elỳn nodded gently as her horse plodded on. “One of the nobler of his line. I fear sometimes, though, that his aversion to battle might lead to the doom of his kingdom; he has allowed the northern villages to fall with little defense.”
“There was defense!” protested Elven. “I was there! The Grim Watch—”
“The Grim Watch were a token, no more,” interrupted Elỳn. “Hundreds of knights and soldiers remained in Vira Weitor while your company fought and died defending the Rein.”
This was something new for Elven to consider, for he had always assumed the Grim Watch was all the king could spare. “What of our journey now?” he asked. “If Farathé isn’t interested in battle, why is he seeking alliances from Kiriün?”
Elỳn smiled grimly. “That would be my doing—and it took some convincing. Even now, Farathé believes he is traveling to Kiriün to renew trade with them—that their wealth and produce might be shared with him and his people.”
“You deceived him?” Elven was astonished.
But Elỳn shook her head. “Oh, no—what he seeks may well come to pass. My hope is that when he sees Kiriün is under the same threat as his own kingdom, he will see the use in aligning himself with their own soldiers. Against the coming force of the Duithèn, the kingdoms of Thaeìn must be united. This he does not see yet.”
“You speak as if you know of Kiriün’s fate,” Elven said.
“The fate of Kiriün will be the same as that of Erârün, and that of the Hochträe, though they likely do not see it. Of all the peoples of Erâth, only the Dragon Lords might have escaped the Duithèn’s doom, but they are no more.”
“And what is the Duithèn’s doom?”
Elỳn waved a hand to their surroundings. “Look around you—it has already begun. The fading, the darkening of the world. Their influence is everywhere. Our fortune is that they are yet weak, and the people and creatures of Darkness are leaderless. Their scattered attacks can be repelled—if Farathé finds the courage to stand.”
Elven recalled to mind the battles in the fields of the Rein, where Talya had been wounded, and many others had lost their lives. The forces of Darkness were formidable, he knew, even in their weakened state as Elỳn described them. They fought with fury and with hate, and the men of Erârün were, for all their ability, lacking in such passion. In this he thought he saw a glimpse of the Duithèn’s cunning; they would weaken their enemy’s spirit before crushing their bodies.
And then a memory came to him unbidden, a thing he had not thought of for an age. “Elỳn,” he said slowly, “there was Darkness in Consolation, before we left. I believe Brandyé saw it before anyone. It was there in the violence of the constabulary, and the shadow of the land. It was there in the fierundé that roamed free across the countryside. And there … there they were not leaderless.”
“Danâr,” Elỳn said grimly. “You have spoken of his deeds before. He killed his own father to take power of the land, if I rightly recall your tale.”
“So it seemed. Elỳn—what if he summoned to him the armies of Darkness? What would happen to my home?”
“That is a dangerous thought,” Elỳn said. “Do you remember the tale of Goroth?”
Elven cast his memory back to his first meeting with the Illuèn, and the woeful tales they had told. “In the War of Darkness,” he said, as much to himself as to Elỳn, “he commanded the forces of the Darkness. He had a terrible blade—the same that Brandyé told me he was looking for. But he was more than a man.”
But Elỳn shook her head. “Only by the powers of the Duithèn. Goroth was a king of Aélûr, the land that lies across the western seas. The Duithèn invested all their might and power in him, and he became the demon he was. But in his humble beginnings, he was no greater a man than Danâr.”
A chill swept through Elven. “What if the Duithèn were to do the same with him?”
For a moment Elỳn was silent. “That thought has not escaped me. There are several reasons I believe it may not come to pass. Danâr is lord of a small land, with few men and resources. The greater forces of Darkness lie still in Aélûr, separated by a sea of blackness, and the bridge between them and us remains broken. And the symbol of Darkness, the weapon of the demon lord, Namrâth—it is still lost. Without it, Danâr could not hope to command all the armies of Darkness.”
“What if it is found?”
For an age Elỳn looked upon Elven without speaking. Finally, she said, “That will depend on who finds it.”
For two days they progressed onward, and when Elven did not speak with Elỳn he remained silent and alone, torn between thoughts of Danâr and of Talya, distracted only by the soreness of riding for ten hours a day, something he was most unused to. Every time the road threatened to lead into a copse of woods they would part from it, and though Elven would glance with idle curiosity into the depths of the trees, he saw nothing threatening among the leaves and branches.
After a time he began to feel less the eyes of the soldiers upon him, and thought perhaps they were slowly trusting him not to stray from the caravan as it made its way steadily westward. They had little to worry about, he thought, for there was nothing here for him run to, and despite the pain in his back and the ache in his thighs, there was comfort to be had in the company of the king, and he found the cover of a tent and the warmth of a cooked meal luxuries after so long alone in the wilderness.
It was on the third day, not long after they had broken camp in the morning, that Elven saw smoke to the north. He was once more riding alone, somewhat to the rear of the men and carriages, and had in fact been searching the skies for signs that Sonora might be returning to him. As it was, the ever-clouded and gray skies were empty, and as he let his gaze wander over the tops of the nearby trees, he saw what he thought at first to be merely a darker sort of cloud.
Only after a few minutes of watching it drift in the wind did he come to recognize it for what it was, and a thrill of panic took him. In haste, he urged his steed forward to the nearest soldier and said, “Look—look to the north. Is that not smoke?”
But the soldier merely grunted and looked neither right nor left. Discouraged, Elven tried again: “There’s smoke, I tell you! Something’s burning!”
Still the soldier continued on as if Elven had not spoken, and with a cry of frustration, Elven urged his horse further forward into the crowd of men. “There’s smoke!” he called to any who would listen, but to his dismay not a one seemed willing to pay him heed. Finally, he set his sights on Elỳn, who he was certain would listen to him, but as he brought himself closer to the king’s consort, he was cut off abruptly by Tharom Hulòn, who rode up to him and blocked his path forward.
“Seeking an audience with the king, are ye?” Tharom spat at him.
“There’s smoke to the north, and no one will look!” said Elven desperately.
“Aye, what of it?” and Elven was appalled, for he saw Tharom knew of it, and would do nothing.
“There could be people in need of aid!”
“It’s a camp fire,” said Tharom dismissively.
“You know it’s not! Look—you must recognize the black smoke of a burning village!”
Elven thought he saw a muscle twitch in Tharom’s cheek, but the knight remained impassive as he said, “Rescue is not our mission.”
“You villain!” cried Elven. He kicked at his steed to urge it past Tharom, but Tharom was the better horseman and cut him off again.
“You will not pass to disturb the king,” Tharom growled, but Elven cried out anyway.
“King Farathé! Your majesty!”
At his words, Tharom began to draw forth his sword, but to Elven’s relief the king appeared to have heard his name called and looked back at them, though his eyes were narrowed. “Who calls my name?”
“It’s nothing, your majesty,” called Tharom. “The traitor is seeking to make a disturbance—”
“There is fire and smoke to the north!” interrupted Elven. “A village is burning!”
The king brought his horse close to Tharom and Elven, and Elven was relieved to see Elỳn close behind him. “I have seen the smoke,” he said calmly. “What would you have me do? If it is a village—which is not certain—we are no rescue party. We cannot carry wounded with us, and this mission is of a higher priority.”
“You would leave your own people to die?” Elven cried out, knowing even as he did he was inviting the king’s wrath.
As he expected, the king glared at him. “Careful with your words, lest I have my knight cut you down for slander.” Beside him, Tharom moved in his saddle and drew his sword further from its scabbard.
Elven bowed his head. “I apologize, your majesty. But as a healer, I cannot pass this by—”
“As my servant and prisoner, you will do as I command,” retorted the king.
But Elỳn reached out a hand and touched the king’s arm. “Your majesty—perhaps allow three or four of us to investigate? If aid is needed, word can be sent back to Farthing’s Bar. Your people should know that their king would see them protected.”
For a moment, Elven thought Farathé would argue with Elỳn, but with a sigh he turned back to Elven and Tharom. “Very well—I suppose you will want to go,” he said to Elven, and Elven nodded. “Do not seek to use this chance to escape; Tharom Hulòn will accompany you. Believe me that he will strike you down at the first sign of flight.”
To Elven, Tharom appeared only too eager to be sent alone with him, and would have spoken if Farathé had not also said, “Elỳn—would you also accompany them? And take with you one soldier, who may serve as a messenger should the need arise.”
And so only minutes later Elven, Elỳn, Tharom and the soldier whom Elven had first approached that day departed from the caravan, and set out across the fields to the north. The smoke by now was quite clear and made an unmistakable guide for them to follow. Elven found himself urging his horse onward at a gallop, despite the possibility that Tharom would see it as a sign of escape and send an arrow into his back as he rode. He need not have worried, though, for Tharom kept pace with him with ease, Elỳn just short of him and the soldier trailing behind.
At such a pace, it was no more than twenty minutes before they crested a low hill and came to a halt, for what lay before them was tragic, and Elven thought his heart might break at the sight. At the foot of the hill stood what had once been a small village—no larger than Burrowdown, Elven thought—spread from the hill to the stream that flowed half a mile to the north. From the midst of the village’s many homes rose thick, billowing black clouds of smoke, some houses still burning bright and others smoldering in the cold air.
At a glance, Elven thought he saw what had happened. The villagers had built their homes dreadfully close to each other, and it had taken only one of them to catch fire for the others to be sent up in flames also. As it stood now, there was scarce a building that was not alight or had already burned to the ground. Elven could but hope that the villagers themselves had been able to flee before the flames, but as they drew nearer to the village’s remains he saw that this was not the case.
As they approached the nearest building—one that had miraculously avoided the flames so far—Elven saw that it was no blacksmith’s accident that had set the town alight, for protruding from the wall were several arrows, and the glass of the windows was shattered in many places. His heart in his throat, Elven looked through the broken windows, but could see nothing in the gloom.
Onward they went, steering their horses away from the worst of the flames, and here and there Elven saw further signs of violence: arrows, scores in the wood and the walls, and to his horror, what he knew unmistakably to be blood on the earth. Yet for all the clues, there were nowhere to be seen injured or dead bodies, and Elven wondered sickly at this.
“Are ye happy now?” Tharom called to Elven over the roar of the flames. “Ye were right—it was a village. And as I said, there’s nought to be done.”
Elven could but stare around him in horror. “But what happened? We must know!”
Tharom waved a hand to encompass the destruction around them. “They were attacked! What else d’ye need to know?”
“I would know who attacked them,” said Elỳn softly.
“Vagabonds! Murderers! Outcasts!” cried Tharom. “Vile men exist in this country, Illuèn.”
But as they rode on around the village, Elven could not help noticing the deep gouges on the door frames and walls. “What if it was creatures of Darkness?”
Tharom sneered at him. “We’re hundreds of miles from the Rein. Their armies can’t be this far south.”
For an hour they circled the village then in silence, each contemplating their own thoughts on what had come to pass there. As they did the air grew colder and the clouds thickened, and soon the first few drops of rain began to fall. Before long they were drenched in a downpour, and they sat quietly astride their horses and watched the flames begin to sputter and hiss, and go out.
Finally, Tharom broke the silence. “Come—there’s nothing left here. The folk either died or fled, but there’s no aid to be given. Let us return.”
But against his words, Elven found himself dismounting from his steed, and slowly began walking into the village’s center, deep amid the smoldering beams and ruins. He heard Tharom and Elỳn calling after him, but their words passed him by. Something drew him to the village center, a sudden need to know the fate of the folk that had lived here. On either side passed embers and ash, driven to the earth in the rain, yet nowhere did he see signs of life, or even of death, apart from the few arrows that remained buried in the charred beams.
And then he was before the central crossroads, and the remains of an inn stood before him, the roof long gone and the walls crumbled, its sign tumbled to the ground and burned beyond reading. He peered through the gaping doorway, and inside all was dark save for the glowing embers in the corners, and it was some moments before his eyes recognized the horror that lay within.
A child’s shoe lay smoking on the doorstep, a token of the passing of a village of families, and Elven fell to his knees and wept, for he knew Tharom was right: there was no aid to be brought here. This village, whatever it had been named, was no more, and no more were the men and women and children who had dwelled here. The inn that had certainly seen laughter and friendship now marked their awful resting place, and a cry of rage escaped his lips to know there was nothing that could have been done.
After a moment he felt a pull on his shoulder, and Elỳn’s words in his ear: “Come—it is not safe here. Those responsible may still be near, and we must not linger.” Elven allowed himself to be pulled away from the scene, and she led him back to their horses, where Tharom and the soldier remained, the knight uncharacteristically quiet. Elven half expected a remark from Tharom on his weakness, but for the rest of that day Tharom did not speak a word.
Elỳn suggested they follow the river, for it led southwest and back toward the road that Farathé and his consort were following, and so they rode along it in the rain, the stream swollen from the rain and rushing past them swiftly. Before long night was upon them, and they ventured a short distance into nearby woods so that they might be sheltered from the worst of the rain.
When they had made a fire and eaten what little they had with them, Elven made to turn in when suddenly Tharom broke his silence, and his words were greatly surprising to Elven’s ears.
“Far from the mountains and golden halls,
“The children of men do suffer and fall,
“And the Duithèn cast their shade;
“Blood is shed and fear sown wide,
“’Til brave men cower against the tide
“Of Darkness that makes light fade.
“In flames men perish without a breath
“Of the coming of those who are known as Death,
“And all that grows is hate.
“And when we ask to those of old
“What end will come to meek and bold,
“We learn nothing of our fate.”
Elven stared at Tharom, astonished, but the knight would not look at him, and merely grunted and poked at the fire. Elỳn said nothing, and long into the night Elven heard his words, and thought he had never heard such beauty, nor such sadness.