Chapter III: Stories and Suspicions
The next morning, all of us awoke around the seventh hour at the Vagabond's Inn. We washed, dressed, inspected our armor for vermin and the usual wear and tear, and then went down to breakfast in the common area. Fried eggs, bacon, and fresh-baked bread were our fare, along with weak ale for Borneblade and Haldiros and water for Yradne and me. We had a long day ahead of us, and it was better to start out early for the Woodlands of Zelyon so we'd reach them before dark. If we were lucky, we'd venture into their outskirts by mid-afternoon and could set up camp before nightfall.
"The Woodlands of Zelyon are reported to be haunted," I said. "I don't truly believe in ghosts, but with the goings-on in the wastelands of Hrauk, it doesn't pay for me to take any chances. Yradne?" I asked, figuring she might know something about the rumors surrounding this forest. "What have you heard about Zelyon, or about the suspicions of it?"
"The rumors are only that--rumors," replied Yradne, "although I first heard them long before this new business arose. I would be on your guard anyway, Secundant,
even though we probably won't see any apparitions."
"Really?" laughed Bryan Borneblade, taking a swig of his ale. "I
could have told you that! What's in that forest, anyway, that people think it's infested with all manner of spooks? So the wind blows through the trees and people get scared. That doesn't mean there are ghosts around. The shadows of their branches in the moonlight turn into snatching claws and zombies' hands! People are so superstitious these days, and some people turn anything they fear into an object of dread that is larger than life. Like the followers of Corvanus. The people in Ilthuul'xtat got afraid, mainly of all their previous despots, and they made a god out of their fear. Sheer stupidity!"
I sucked in my breath. I had long had such suspicions about Corvanus and his true nature, but I dared not say so out loud. Ilthuul'xtat was founded upon the Nameless Dread and his principles of fear and control. My Emperor himself, or I should say my former
Emperor, followed Corvanus. I sincerely hoped that Bryan Borneblade's mouth would have a tight rein on it if we happened to meet any of Corvanus' devotees on our journey.
"Let's move out," said Haldiros, clearly annoyed with this 'lighthearted' chatter. I agreed, and so we picked up our satchels and rucksacks and left the Inn. Before we did so completely, however, I rummaged through a dry rubbish pile outside and found two rusty, dull, and utterly unbalanced swords. I had no weapons, and so even though I'd normally forsake these and leave them to the scavengers, I was a scavenger myself now. Haldiros smirked wryly, although not unkindly, at my choice of blades and promised he'd help me sharpen them. I was grateful for his assistance as we moved on. There was no telling what kind of creatures, hostile animals, or hostile people we'd meet as we made our way to the Woodlands of Zelyon, haunted or no!
As we trudged through the dry fields and farmlands outside of Ilthuul'xtat, we all shared our collective stories, or at least some of them. Haldiros, the first one I'd met on this mission of ours, had been born to Ebon Elven refugees who had fled Ir'xtat thirty years ago in the midst of a great plague. True, Ilthuul'xtat, the City of Fear, had not offered them a warm welcome, but at least it was better than the City of Hate, a festering underground labyrinth where the Dwarves lived and dug and increased their riches and malice. As for Bryan Borneblade, he was a local sword-for-hire who was raised on one of the very farms that we passed. His homestead, however, was nothing more than the skeletal remains of a shack and barn. Borneblade shrugged, not seeming to care, but I knew better. "Home is where you start," he said as he plucked a brown blade of grass and put it between his teeth, "but it's where you end up that matters." He spat on the ground as we walked on, earning a grimace from Haldiros and a blink from me. Soon we were all laughing, however, because Yradne, our resident Wizard, had started off her career as a jester in a traveling troupe of entertainers. It was there that she had learned stage magic, and from there it was a natural (if secret) progression to the real. She had been practicing for nigh on five years now, I learned.
"Can you get us out of an impossible situation?" asked Haldiros, his eyes shining merrily. "Can ye make us disappear, or something like that?" Yradne shook her head, chuckling, and told us that the magic she could
do was for doing harm to foes, not making allies vanish in the blink of an eye! Borneblade and I both thought that would be helpful if we ran into some rabid wolves, charging bulls, or other beasties out here on the open plains. As for now, they seemed very much deserted except for serfs in the distance, cutting grain with their long scythes. We slowly trekked through the harvest-mown plots of land, this being early Novyabr, the ninth month of our year.
As we predicted, the day wore on and we grew closer to the very edge of the Woodlands of Zelyon. At noon we refreshed ourselves with some water from a nearby creek, its streams flowing clear as crystal, and some bread that we'd saved from breakfast. Yes, it was a long journey and would continue to be that way, but as long as we had things like this and each other's company, it needed not be a burden. Haldiros turned to me as we sat on the creek-bank, pointing toward the east, where the 'haunted' Woodlands lay: "That way lies Zelyon, since we're intent on going there. However, I must warn you that--the Forest Elves--may not appreciate us traveling unannounced through one of the vestiges of their homeland. As their name suggests, they consider all forests sacred ground, and they do not take kindly to poachers or hunters who ply their trade without their permission."
"I see," I said, furrowing an eyebrow. "Where would we find a Forest Elf, assuming they're not already waiting at the entrance to the Woodlands?"
"More likely than not, they'll find us," said Haldiros matter-of-factly. "The Forest Elf menfolk, or so I've heard, serve as scouts that patrol the forest while the maidens practice healing and other arts in the hidden hamlets that they themselves have helped to construct out of the branches that shelter them. If we enter the Woodlands, we should definitely be on our guard."
The rest of us nodded. As we finished our meal and stood up, I couldn't help but wonder if Haldiros had met any Forest Elves, since all Elves had once been kin and lived in one quilt of trees or another. What had caused this rift, if there were any, and what could possibly be a way to mend it? This I asked my Ebon Elf benefactor as we wandered our way towards Zelyon. He said: "It is true that all Elves share common ancestors, and it is also true that all of us made the woods our home. Our sacred duty as Elves, said our elders, was to protect Nature and see that it did not wither in the face of the warborn advancements of Men and expansion of Dwarves underground. The majority of us, of Elves, vowed to fulfill this duty as best we could. Others of us, the ancestors of the Ebon Elves, grew to hate the forest and that we were bound to it. We grew to despise primal Nature and all that it stood for. We wanted the cities of Men, the riches of Dwarves, and the glory of gods! Some of us--in fact, our Mother and Father--turned to black arts in order to bring plague, wildfires, death and destruction to our virgin woodland home. This is why our skin has darkened to this shade, and we are now Ebon Elves.
"We are cursed, say the Forest Elves. We are abominations, say Men. We are gods among mortals, say we, and this is what almost all of my brethren believe." Haldiros smiled bitterly. "And I? I am but a soul lost in this dark land, longing for justice when there is none to be had! If it had not been for our Secundant
and her betrayal of Ilthuul, I might have lost all hope. As it stands..."
"As it stands," said Bryan Borneblade, smiling, "we have arrived in Zelyon."
By Vysoldat! He was right! We ventured into the Woodlands, leaves crunching underfoot, and--was that a shadow, a lithe figure, crouching nearby?