Chapter I: Secret Mission, Secret Ally
It is strange, how time seems to slow to a crawl as you approach your final moments. I was not quite there, even being chained to a stake that would soon burn, yet I could feel the seconds of my life linger like Mother's kiss upon my cheek. I missed her, as I missed all of my family. I considered it a blessing that fever had taken them long before Ilthuul could.
Why did I survive, only to be lit ablaze in a matter of four precious minutes?
Something was amiss. I could feel a soft wind fluttering behind my back, even around the wood of the stake. Where was it coming from? My chains creaked and rattled eerily, as if they were being adjusted by a ghost! Sheer terror overcame me, for I did not see any of the guards moving to make sure they were securely fastened. For the first time since I had been bound to the pole, I felt my lungs belt out a wail that even the dead must have heard! The crowd roared at my distress, and my blood ran cold as I felt--a hand
--place itself gently across my mouth, though there was no hand to be seen. What was this, this dark apparition that had come to torment me?
said the apparition as it continued to rattle my heavy chains. I remained perfectly still, pungent sweat pouring down my greased body. The flames were edging ever closer, as the steps up to my pyre were almost completely consumed by them. Silently, I closed my eyes and prayed to the Warlord. If this was Vysoldat come to rescue me, so be it, but if it was some infernal spirit from the place all mortals feared to go, woe indeed was me!
Slowly, slowly, the spirit wrestled with my chains and then--unfastened them! Was I dreaming? Was I being set free? Of course I was, for the irons that had once encircled my body fell to the ground as if they were made of paper. "Vysoldat!"
I shrieked. "Ya znala, chto eta byli vy! Spasibo tysyachu raz!"
To those who do not know my native tongue--and hardly anyone did in Ilthuul'xtat save a paltry few people--this meant, "Vysoldat! I knew that it was you! Thank you, one thousand times!" Luckily, the guards who suddenly dashed toward me knew none of what I said. Such words were only meant for the one I served, the Consummate Warlord, Mighty in Battle.
"What is this jest?!" sneered one of the guards, raising his sword. "Ah!"
Something--or rather someone
--magically appeared, or to be more accurate, I should say he appeared
as if by magic. The guard who had brandished his weapon had torn through the black fabric of an Apparition's Cloak, revealing a tall and stately Elf. His dark hair was tied back in a queue that reached his broad shoulders, and he carried his own sword and bow. He did not appear to be a Ranger, however, for he was an Ebon Elf, his skin soft and midnight-blue like the sky at early dawn. The guard pressed his own blade to the Elf's throat. I froze, fearing that if I moved, I would collapse.
"Give me one good reason why I shouldn't slit your throat and throw you to the dogs!"
"I know the condemned," replied the Ebon Elf without a trace of fear. "This one spared my life when you thugs raided the tavern at which I was having an ale, threatening to slaughter everyone and doing a fine job of it until she emerged from the sleeping rooms in the back! Do you not remember me, Secundant?"
asked the Elf, as the wood near my stake began to burn. As I stammered and tried to blink back tears, the Elf continued, "No matter. I am Haldiros, born of Ebon Elven refugees in this craven city of Ilthuul'xtat."
The guard shoved his long blade up to the small of the Elf's back. "Move!" He signaled for another guard to guide me away from the stake at swordpoint. My execution platform had another set of stairs, one for the guards to climb, and it was down this stairway that we were both led as my tall stake finally began to ignite. Luckily for me (or, should I say, praise Vysoldat!), the angry crowd did not notice that I was not bound to it. We were headed, perhaps, toward a death even more torturous. The Emperor himself would see us now. We were brought before Ilthuul, Haldiros without benefit of his cloak and I without benefit of my proper clothes. I reeked of smoke, sweat and grease, and ashes flecked Haldiros' hair. The Emperor himself did not look pleased. "Wash her," he snarled to his guards. "As for the Elf, bind his woman's hands."
The Emperor's Guard--the loyal members of it, that is--soon brought buckets of hot water and two bars of soap. Three times was I lathered and rinsed as Ilthuul stared, seeing me in all my shame! I was glad to be clean at last, clad in an old set of leather garments, but I wished I had my chain armor and two balanced blades. I would have emptied the Keep, had I only the chance! As for Haldiros, he was struggling against his captors, but to very little avail. After I was washed and clothed, Ilthuul strode boldly toward both of us. "I know you, Secundant,
" he began darkly. "As for you, Elf, your life is forfeit, as you will soon be bound with Vtorym to the stake. Who are you, anyway, that you so boldly come to save the life of a traitor?"
"I am Haldiros," he said, "and my motives are none of your concern. Wretch."
Ilthuul brandished Strakh, his sword, and prepared to impale the Elf, but I threw myself in front of him. "My lord!" I cried, meaning it this time, though only out of fear and not true devotion. "Let me pay for my treason through living, not dying! I will burn soon enough. I'll be of use to you, and this Elf as well. He is my rescuer, as I rescued him once. We are your slaves, your thralls!" The Emperor seemed to like the sound of that, and he stood down. That does not mean, however, that he set us free. Quite the contrary...
"There is a mission," drawled the one Lord of Umbraltide. "The one your comrade failed, Secundant.
I had sent him to investigate some dark disturbances to the east, in the wastelands of Hrauk--reports of bones that roam and the dead who walk. He returned and had found nothing, saying that there was aught in the wastelands save snakes and scorpions, but I knew that he was hiding something. For his lies, I killed him--ran him through." Ilthuul smiled. "I assume you will not be so foolish as to do the same?"
My throat was as parched as the wastelands themselves. "No...my lord."
"Take this Elf with you," said Ilthuul, "this bony servant of War, if I guess correctly. He shall be your guide as you venture to the wastelands, exiled on pain of death if you return before the rumors are either disproven or quite
proven. I suspect I know what you will find, but I'll leave you to find it. Guards!" He summoned his men, and Haldiros and I were escorted out of the Keep via the servants' entrance, where scullery maids washed the steps.
"Why did you do that?" snarled Haldiros. "Exiled? How could you, wench?"
"I'm sorry..." I moaned, wiping my tears away. "Please, in Vysoldat's name, forgive me! I knew of no better way to repay you for saving my life!"
"I follow no god," said the Ebon Elf a bit more gently, "save justice, if justice has a name. As I said, Haldiros is mine, and I was born a refugee in this dark City of Men. As a child, I was kicked, beaten, and spat upon, and I expect no better from anyone that I meet. I'm surprised that you treat me with such kindness, although I expect no better from one I've rescued." He smirked.
Ah, a hint of wit and--dare I say, humanity--in this one?
I smiled back. "I suppose we had better set off for Hrauk," I replied, "though it will take us many moons to reach it. As for me--call me...Secundant.
Haldiros nodded sternly, and we wandered off together into endless night.