Sons of Mir: Part I

The Sons of Mir

Book One of the Scions of Mir Series

Prelude: The Path of Legends I

It was near the end of the growing months of summer. Throughout the lands of Northern Mir the people were readying their fields for the coming harvest, everywhere that is but a lone-small corner within the kingless lands of fallen Jazzard where its greatest jewel, the grand city of Soulvalla still stood. Once the home and capital of the long lost Mountain Elves it still stood in all its near heavenly beauty. From its enchanted gardens alight with gems encrusted trees and roaming spheres of blue eldritch fire to the countless towering spires, the highest levels disappearing above the clouds. The grandest sight of all however was found at the upper most level of the mountain side city was the crystal domed Temple of Valla, the holiest of all places in Elven lore. There, beside it, the royal palace of the Mountain king was but a child’s toy.

Such marvels and riches were not enough to overcome the fears of the boldest of scavengers or even kings to claim the city or Jazzard as their own. More than the fame of once the greatest city in all of Mir, the tale the people of the Land would whisper at night were the legends of the horrors trapped within its mighty walls. While the Mountain Elves were no more and other Elven clans long gone into exile south of the Gordium Mountains, the tormented wraiths of the Elven dead still wandered the lit streets of Soulvalla trapped forever within the nightmares of their people’s final days.

In the first years after the nation of the Mountain Elves fells, both lone adventures and entire armies tried to gain lordship of Jazzard’s chaotic lands. Regardless of numbers, wisdom or strength they shared the same fate. Seeing for themselves the last days of Mountain Elves, all were driven to such a state of complete terror and madness most took their own lives, if only to escape visions of such horrors. Not even in death could free them however. By offending Lady Mir by rejecting the gift of life she granted them, she cursed them to share the fate of city’s former inhabitants, each additional soul strengthening the evil trapped within.

Only one thing kept the wraiths within the city’s walls contained. A magic far older than the gods themselves, the sacred Golden Grove, the first of all living things , encompassed the city, the life energy within its ancient trees a solid barrier the disturbed spirits of the Mountain Elves could not bridge across.

While very few among the mortal Huma or near immortal Elves dared to venture even within the Golden Woods, an unarmed man of middle years, was about to cross past the threshold. . There was not an hint apprehension within him, his lips curved to form a soft smile of the contentment of a long absent warrior, who, having seen and done much both great and terrible, was finally returning home..

Behind him was a sea of high golden stalks of wild wheat. Once the fields were known as the Sea of Bounty, but that was before the fall of Jazzard. According to legend bread from its grain could once be found on every table of every man, woman, and child throughout the Land, from Western Jazzard to the Eastern shores of the distant domains of the Gregorian Empire. .

The druid, for that was the man’s stock in trade, stood over six feet in height his skin as dark as roasted chestnuts. Covered in careworn brown leather, his frame was lean but powerful, possessing a strength and endurance that any common man would not be able to match. While the druid was known many names by both men and beasts, he was known as Ezekiel the Elected, a name given to him by the divine, unquestionable declaration of Lady Mir.

With long quick strides he entered the most sacred of all places in Druid lore. Like an arrow he made for the center of the grove, towards the first of all living things, the golden Tree of Amber where he and the other masters of the druidic arts had been summoned. Letting the tips of his long slender fingers brush against the petrified yet warm living bark of the jewel encrusted oaks his thoughts drifted back forty-eight seasons, the last time the master of the grove summoned his followers to attend a Druid’s Conclave. Now, near the end of the long trek he made down the spine of the Cathinian Mountains from his own grove far in the north, he was again making the journey with the same vigor and fortitude of his youth when Lady Mir first blessed him as her Elected, the sole one of her many worshipers given the duty to see to fulfillment of the ancient prophesy given into their care by the departing Elves over a millennium ago. A task that he, the goddess’s sole Elected, must see to completion regardless of the burdensome weight threatening to snap the extremely thin thread of his very soul.

Going to one of the trees, Ezekiel placed a palm on the warm bark, looking up at its slender branches, its bejeweled leaves glistening like emeralds. “To think all I have done over the last twenty years has led to this great and glorious day,” he whispered to himself, his face aglow with pride.

When a jeweled leaf landed on top on his fine neatly trimmed gray hair, his pointed ears pricked up with surprise. Examining the leaf he drew in a deep breath when he saw dull, rust red blotches marring what was once a perfect b sample of one of many of the Land’s wondrous creations.

Forcing his dark opal eyes not to avert from the horror above him he scrutinized other leaves along the same branch finding more leaves than not with the same crimson splotches of diseased. When he took a few steps closer to the blighted tree, there was a cracking and snapping below him. Piled around the base of the marble trunk a bloody pool of the dead rusty remains of countless leaves covered the forest floor.

Whipped forward by the stinging barbs of his growing fear he hurried without further delay deeper in the dying forest of branched stone monoliths, his eyes darting from branch to branch refusing to accept there could be only one possible explanation for why, a forest that had stood undying since before man or beast first ventured under its sacred branches, was, like many ancient wonders of the land facing was near its end, its doom coming in the form of the red dry rot of death.

Closing his eyes Ezekiel whispered to his goddess. “So the great enemy of the lands of Mir is already beginning to stir, my Lady. Let us pray she and her minions do not fall upon us before the proper time.” Reaching a circular glen at the very heart of the Stone Forest, he saw the other members of the Conclave already present, his fellows wearing grim expressions. In the center of the grove was the Tree of Amber, the first of all living things. Encased in golden crystallized sap it towered above all other trees, its trunk wider than that of the typical barn owned by a well-to-do farmer. Regardless of the fossilized sap, each summer the tree would grow a hand’s span height and a few inches thicker, as did the magic within that held the spirits of Soulvalla at bay.

Only one of their numbers needed to appear to before the meeting could begin. Grand Druid, Zane, Half Elven, was not only first among druid-kind. His royal title as the true king of the scattered remains of his people was known by only a slim few outside the Conclave. More than the commands of another god, beside the Lady, by an order from him carried but a little less authority then if given my Lady Mir, herself.

Stepping forward, a Druidess of high rank and Ezekiel’s greatest rival, Lain, broke all custom dropping the cowl of her green robes to reveal long locks of silky gray hair. Looking at the crude leathers Ezekiel smirked she smirked before addressing him. “So the exile has returned. It better be with good news this time. I would hate for our Lady to send you down a darker path than the one she set you down so long ago.” There was a hint of bitterness and a great deal of contempt in Lain’s voice.

Having seen the passing of more seasons than any of member of their order besides the Grand Druid himself, it was long assumed that Arch Druid Lain would be Zane’s successor. Even so, daring to start the Conclave without their master present caused many to shift their weight uncomfortably.

By speaking those few words, Lain could not hold any other member of the Conclave from giving voice to their opinion on whether Ezekiel was successfully fulfilling the will of their goddess. But as the Elected was the one the Archdruidess had dared to insult before the Conclave, all held back their tongues to hear Ezekiel’s retort.

Instead of replying with heated words most expected of a man his age, Ezekiel took on a rather stoic pose as he said calmly; “So long as I walk the path her Ladyship has given me I can never fail her. Your faith must be lacking if you, by your own words, are assuming that the goddess of the land would allow a single fork along the road I walk.” Just from the sour look on his rival’s face, his humble reply had delivered a more stinging slap to the woman’s tender pride than any venomous retort could have delivered.

Nearly twenty one years ago the Druids had gathered at this very spot to debate who among them would bear the heavy task and great honor of aiding fulfillment of the prophecy given to them by goddess. Since druids for the most part lived in seclusion, very few among them were skilled in the art of rhetoric or diplomacy. The end result had been an outright battle between the different factions that only the Grand Druid’s authority managed to end.

After long hours of heated debate it had come down to two candidates, Ezekiel the younger and Lain, who was the eldest of all of them but the Grand Druid himself. As fate would have it, the Conclave was equally divided between the two, with those who believed the honor belong to Lain due to her seniority and the ones who felt a much younger Druid more experienced in the ways of men stood a better chance at succeeding in this great task.

Not wishing further disunity between his people, Grand Druid Zane broke the tie and his neutrality, giving the great task to Ezekiel, declaring him the Chosen of Mir. To prevent any schism within the Conclave he selected Lain as his future successor.

Even though Lain would become first among equals, she never warmed toward Ezekiel. Even after she took over leading the Conclave Ezekiel’s being the Chosen of Mir would continue to present a constant threat to her absolute authority.

Reminding herself of all she stood to gain, she followed Ezekiel’s example. Responding in the same calm voice her rival had used and gave him a respectful bow. Later on she would make sure he and all the others remember all that which would soon be hers.

To stress her point she covered her face with her cowl, and stepped towards the very center of the grove where a tree of pure golden amber stood to the place reserved for her as Zane’s chosen successor.

Now with everyone in their proper place, each went down on one knee to await the arrival of their master. From out of the crystal trunk of the golden tree an ancient and weary old man slowly began to emerge. Once by Lain’s side he recited the words of the traditional greeting. “Blessed are those who humble themselves before the land.”

We humble ourselves before our Lady Mir from now until eternity,” the others replied as one.

Then rise sons and daughters of Mir and know that you have the land’s blessing.” Completing the greeting the Grand Druid waited for the others to rise and lower their cowls for as tradition dictated none could hide from the blessing or the wrath of Lady Mir, nor could any hide their face from their Zane as the Voice of Mir.

Seeing the Chosen of Mir standing at the edge of the Grove, the Grand Druid lifted his staff up and pointed it in Ezekiel’s s direction. “We have called you here, Son Ezekiel, so that all might hear of your years of labor.” Stopping for a breath Zane turned a warning gaze at Lain. He could see her standing aloof, doing her best to hide her jealousy. Her eyes were pointed towards the heavens rather than on the others, most certainly not the one whom Zane had asked to speak.

As now was not the time to deal with their rivalry he continued as if nothing was amiss, “I would like to remind all of you that this is not an inquisition. We have come here not as judges but to learn what we can of what the future holds for us all. So let Son Ezekiel tell us his tale but hold your tongues until all is told, for in this matter there is only one who has the right to weigh the actions of the Chosen of Mir and that is our Lady. So commanded, each druid bowed in turn. Lain being the last, only making a slight nod of her head, her eyes never looking in Ezekiel’s direction. Though Zane had asked all but Ezekiel to remain silence during this Conclave, she would have plenty of opportunities to discuss what her rival would say among her brothers and sisters. She would most certainly to put his works in the darkest light possible.

Stepping forward so Ezekiel now stood half way between the circle of his brothers and sisters and the Grand Druid, he bowed deeply to his master before speaking. “As I see new faces among the members of the Conclave and given the importance of what we are to discuss I shall start from the beginning on how the great gift was given into our care by our Lady Mir He first repeated all that most of the others already knew; of the coming of man to the shores of Mir, the mixing of human and Elven blood, the appearance of two of the last surviving gods of man, Saint Gregory of the Faith, and Vor of Limitless Desires. He went on explaining how the Moon Elves became Vor’s most fanatical followers, using the power of their blood magic for dark purposes forbidden by Mir. The threat the Moon Elves to the entire land eventually brought about the Great Crusade that united Elves and Man which, after much destruction and loss of life they achieved near total victory over Vor and his Darkling minions.

Only at the end of the Crusade did the true cost of the forces of good victory over evil was felt, bringing about the hundred year period that was still remembered as the Cataclysm. During that time the few surviving Moon Elves, now referred to as Dark Elves, were forever banished from greater Elfdom to the point that their portion of the Weave of Souls was torn away from the rest of the spiritual fabric but not before the Mountain Elves, rulers of Jazzard and the greatest among the Five Great Clans of Greater Elfdom, were struck down by Mir due to her outrage that they had defied her will by letting one of their own kind slay the dark god instead by the hand of the other god of man, the god of the Faith.

These twin blows led the rest of Elfdom to abandon their northern kingdoms to live in isolation in the wild lands of the Southern Frontier. Without their leadership the old kingdoms fell into Chaos until Saint Gregory, to his follow tried to restore order by invading what had once been the lands of the Elves. Faced with that threat the Half Elven descendents of Greater Elfdom ended their bickering and untied against their common foe.

Even so, all of Mir might have fallen under the sway of Saint Gregory and the rule of men if the gods of magic, Aza and Aura had not turned against their former friend and ally and with their combined might slew the last god of man at the cost of much of their own power.

The story of the Crusade and the resulting cataclysm had been passed from generation to generation throughout the lands of Mir. Yet in each kingdom the truth had become twisted by the political necessity of each nation’s need to justify their rule over their people. Ezekiel’s telling however had been without bias and came closer to the truth than any other rendition.

During his long speech, Lain forced herself to feigned boredom even as her impatient fueled temper grew with each word. Once her rival finished the tale she no longer could hold back from challenging him.

Is that all you have to say? How dare you waste the Grand Druid’s time and that of the Conclave preaching to us what we already know? Do you dare take us for dim witted fools?”

No I do not believe my brothers and sisters, let alone our Grand Druid does not know the history of the land. Some might know it even better than I do, What is clear to me Sister Lain is that you have completely ignored my reason for reminding the Conclave of the terrible horrors the land endured during those dark times.”

Ezekiel turned his attention away from his enraged rival, looking toward Zane, giving him another respectful bow before speaking. “Master, does the prophesy given to us by our Lady not state that after a thousand years the lands of our goddess would once again be at peril.”

Such were the words of her Ladyship.” Zane nodded as a smile formed on his face. He too had wondered why the Chosen of Mir had gone into such detail repeating what all already knew. Now he understood. Ezekiel’s purpose had not been to lecture his fellow brothers and sisters of the conclave but to remind them in the starkest way possible how terrible a future they will be forced to face if Mir’s prophesy was to be fulfilled. “Thank you Son Ezekiel. You have done us a great service. Yes we all know the histories well yet none of us can claim to have lived through them. By reminding us of the dark past you are helping to prepare us to face the new age of darkness that will soon come.”

Much to Lain’s disgust she saw even a few of her supporters nodding in agreement with Zane’s words of wisdom. “If wasting the time of the conclave is now seen as a virtue then the conclave has surely left the path Mir intends for us to follow,” she shouted before she had enough sense to stop herself.

At a speed much quicker than one would have expected for such advance age, Zane had Lain hooked by her neck with the crook of his staff. In the old druid’s eyes there was nothing but disdain for his future successor. “I commanded for silence and silence we shall have until Son Ezekiel has told us all he has to say.”

With this humiliation Lain felt her standing among her compatriots had fallen just as much as her temper was replace with fear. Push down to her knees by the Grand Druid’s staff she pleaded for forgiveness, her words meek and broken up as the crook continued to choke her. “Of course Grand Druid, I beg your pardon and that of the Conclave.”

Freeing her from his staff Zane made a snort. “Our pardon is given but beware, Sister Lain Just as our Lady can be a cruel mistress, I can be a cruel master should you leave the path our Lady has set for us again.”

Yes Father Zane, forgive me for my impudence. My concern and desire to see that the will of our Lady is being followed took over my better judgment.” Slowly getting back to her feet, Lain made sure to keep her face toward the ground to hide the rage that was seething in her.

Once satisfied that he would het not further trouble from her Zane nodded to Ezekiel to continue.

As you wish master. As Sister Lain pointed out all I have said has been known to you for quite some time. Now what I shall speak of will be of the gift.” Looking around the glen, Ezekiel knew he had every eye and ear focused on him. Taking a deep breath he continued. “First I will report that the gift remains safe, protected by the great veil put over it by our Lady Mir, herself. I am sure not even the all seeing Seers of Suronia know of the gift’s existence. Because of our alliance with the goddess, Aza, the town where the gift is hidden has also remained safe from slavers and bandits. As to the nature of the gift, I cannot say, for Mir’s veil even prevents me from even speaking its name.”

The Druid Dane, an outspoken ally of Lain who aspired to stand at her right side as her chosen successor one day, knew his benefactor would not dare to question Ezekiel again, not after Zane’s stern warning. So he spoke in her stead. “Is that all you have to report, the gift remains safe?”

That and that the gift also still remains ignorant of its true nature.”

But that tells us nothing. What is Lady Mir’s plan for this great gift and how will we benefit from it?”

On hearing such a selfish question Zane spoke up. “The gift was not given into our care for our personal gain but that of Lady Mir and the land itself. Is seeing to the safety and betterment of the land not reward enough?”

Seeing the others nod in agreement, including Lain, Dane bit his lip and took up Lain’s meek silent pose.

For a while there was silence until Cathay stepped out of the circle to speak. She was neither a follower of either faction nor did she have her own agenda outside seeing that the will of their goddess was obeyed. “Brother Ezekiel, we know of the enchantment that protects the gift but can you not tell us more?

I can try, Sister, but other than telling you it resides up in Northern Jazzard I cannot be more specific as to its name or location. The town is a small one of around five hundred people including those who live out in the fields farming the land. There is a nearby a magical ether spring that I have chosen as my grove not just to increase my own powers but that of the veil protecting the gift as well.”

The presence of such magical water presents a danger of its own, does it not?” Cathay asked.

Yes, it is dangerous. For the essence of pure magic is deadly for most people. The townsfolk do their upmost to avoid the place so it presents no real threat to them. That has not only helped hide my presence among them but also had aided me with my own labors.”

A different druid asked the next question. “Tell us of any people of importance in the town who could harm or help the gift in its quest?”

Most are not of any importance and there are less than a handful of those who might one day be able to be but only if fate deems it so. There is the town Headman who acts as a mediator; a blacksmith and a miller. All are highly respected given the services they provide the valley but none have any influence over the gift. As for the future, one young man in particular who is already quite popular regardless of his mischievous ways is the blacksmith’s apprentice. I fear however an unpleasant fate awaits that young man, one that will require that I send the gift south to the Dragon’s Maw where it will be better protected.”

Seeing a chance to humiliate Lain’s rival Dane dared to speak up again. “Did you not just tell us that the gift is safe? What is this danger that requires you take such drastic action before we are ready?”

The gift is safe and will remain so for quite some time. The issue with the young man in question is no real issue as it was always my intent to move the gift to the Maw before the end of this year. All one need do is look up at the trees of this grove to know that the time of the gods reawakening is at hand. If we are to keep the gift safe it must be moved to the Maw for only our ally Aza knows of the gift’s true importance.”

Now looking worried himself, Zane had a question of his own. “How soon will you send the gift to the Maw?”

After the Harvest Festival when the gift’s sudden disappearance will not be missed. That is all I can say on the matter.” Ezekiel spoke with such confidence that no one dared to question him further.

Very well. As the time of harvest is fast approaching anything still needs to be said must be said now. No… then I will call this conclave to an end and wish you all safe journey back to your homes.”

Knowing if even one wished to speak further with their compatriots their master would quickly silence them, none dared to speak. Covering their heads once more they bowed to the Grand Druid. “Just as Mir led us here, so shall we follow her home when she calls us to return to land which gave us life.” With that the conclave was at an end.

Soon only Zane, Ezekiel and Lain remained in the glen. Zane wanted further answers from the druid, while Lain wanted to hear everything that was said as she felt was her right. Knowing this, Zane gave her a dismissive wave of his hand. At the same time he honored Ezekiel by being the one to approach him instead of the other way around as tradition dictated. Lain however was not going to be gotten rid of so easily. “Pardon Father but may I ask Ezekiel some questions of my own?”

Zane didn’t even bother to turn back to look at her. “The Conclave is over as is the time for your questions. Rest assured, daughter, that Lady Mir will see to the needs of her people.”

Having been rebuked twice Lain dared not to increase her master’s anger towards her further. Giving the Grand Druid a bow, she left, making sure to take a path that would cross Ezekiel’s on his way out of the grove. “This is not over between us, brother,” she hissed as she passed him.

Ezekiel turned his back to his rival in a clear insult. “That is for her ladyship to decide.”

Once they were alone Zane embraced Ezekiel tightly. “It has been too long my son.”

I fear not long enough if Lain still carries such a heavy grudge against me.”

There I would have to agree but I do not regret my decision giving you the task. Even though it will one day mean Lain will lead the Conclave. In this I will trust in the Lady that she will see her voice amongst us will truly speak her will, if not through Lain, then through another. Now tell me; what real threat does this young blacksmith’s apprentice presents to the gift.”

No real threat, at least not before I see the gift safely to the Maw. The young do foolish unpredictable things. The fate of the poor young man was sealed by such foolishness.”

Do not talk circles with me, son of Mir. Tell me exactly what happened and why it has you so troubled”

As I said, there is a magical ether spring close to the town. Though any sensible person would stay far from it the youths of the town will often dare one another to go swimming in its poisonous waters. Ether crystals are still quite rare in this part of the world unlike in the lands to the east. Just retrieving one shard of those precious emerald crystals, and a young man can earn a good amount of silver from the merchants when they come to trade with the town. This young man was one who did such a thing and to my sorrow it almost cost him is life. It has only been made worse given the future he will now face.”

He took in too much of the ether within him then?”

Yes Father, I fear that is the case.”

Zane let out a weary sigh that bespoke of the heavy burdens of age and leadership he bore. “Then it might have been better if you had let him drown, to serve as a warning to others.”

“It was not I who saved him.”

The Grand Druid arched an eyebrow. “Then who did.” He waited for Ezekiel to give him an answer but just looking at the helpless expression on his face he knew better. “No, don’t tell me. The miracle of the young man’s survival was not by your hand or anyone from the town but by the gift’s merciful grace.”

Ezekiel opened his mouth as if he was about to speak but no words past his lips. Letting out a sigh he continued. “I cannot say either yes or no to that, master. The Veil around it forbids me from even given such a simple answer. As for the young man and his fate I now understand that it was not an accident that such came to pass. I believe, no, I know it was the will of her Ladyship at work.”

“I cannot say I understand what it is you are suggesting but that does not affect the trust I have in you to know what is best. If it is the will of Mir for that poor young man to face such a terrible fate then our faith leaves us no choice but to believe it is for the benefit of the land. I…” Zane was about to say more when her noticed a fly land on his shoulder. “With a flick of his finger he knocked the fly off his brown robes. “Be gone spying insect.”

“Do you think it heard everything we said?”

“It would be foolish to suspect otherwise. I fear I will have to do something about my successor before I am called back to the land to accept our Lady’s comforting embrace. .”

“If that is the will of the land I will not protest even though I will be the one her allies will blame if she does not get her way. Forgive me Father but I cannot see a way though this problem that will not result in the breaking of the Conclave.”

Zane patted Ezekiel on the back while giving him a pitying look. “That I understand fully, child of Mir.I will do what I can to calm their wrath. At the very least you do not have to fear being followed on your way back north. When you first left with the gift, Lain sent every servant of the land after you hoping to thwart you in your efforts.”

“Yes I know. Just as the veil protects the gift it also seems to protect me as well.”

“That is the nature of the veil. It protects not just the gift but the one chosen to protect it. Such was our Lady’s wisdom when she created it. Now go, child of Mir, and may you reach your destination safely. As for Lain, I think I shall speak to Cathay on the matter of my succession. Though I appointed Lain as my successor I did not give such an oath that binds me or the Conclave to see her claim our most sacred of groves for her own. Cathay is wise and even tempered but most importantly not a member of either opposing factions would. If it is our Lady’s will, I believe she would serve well as the next Grand Druid.”

Ezekiel let out a boisterous laugh. “How sly of you Master Zane, but I see your point. You promised to give Lain the position of your successor but you gave no oath promising to make her the next Grand Druid. If you were to step down before the land summons you home you would be free to raise Cathay directly to the position of Grand Druid, leaving Lain still in the position the chosen successor.”

“I am glad you see the wisdom of my thinking. Now you must truly go before Lain sends more of her servants to spy on us. I, on the other hand, have matters of my own that need seeing to. To think I would one day find myself using the same backhanded dealings found in the Elvendar Senate… How have we drifted so far from Mir’s path?”

Turning to leave, Ezekiel reached back and gave the Grand Druid’s hand a final squeeze. “It’s a sign of the times, not a failing of your leadership great one.”

That is for Her Ladyship to decide.” After giving their goodbyes Ezekiel disappeared back into the Stone Forest, out of sight. Zane turned his eyes northward toward the towering Cathinian Mountains where he could catch sight of the spirals and domes of the once great city of Soulvalla where a thousand years ago the Mountain Elves had met their terrible end as well as that of Jazzard. . While those in the Old Kingdoms still mourned Northern Mir’s loss of their Elven forefathers, in the Gregorian Empire they marked the end of the Cataclysm as the beginning of the Age of Man.

Closing his eyes Zane recalled the visions Lady Mir had given him, promising him that before he was called back to the land he would see what had been the most beautiful city in all of Mir filled with life once more. “May the day soon come, my Lady,” he prayed as he made his way back to the amber tree and disappeared behind its crystallized bark.

There was still much left to be done but nothing he could do until he had rested a bit. Such was the burden of his age and position. As he slept he dreamed he was held in his Lady’s gentle embrace.

Soon enough my loyal servant,” the goddess cooed into his ear as he fell into a deeper dreamless slumber.

Part I: Rain Shelter

Chapter One: Thrice Damned and Those Most Favored

Raising the hatchet over his head, Vorin Half Elven, the thrice damned of Weir Valley, Adding both pieces to the cord of wood resting at the side of his mistress’s hut he balanced another log on the dead stump. With the Harvest Festival fast approaching he would be spending much of his time cutting enough firewood to see that they survived the coming winter that was to

It was hard work but not without its simple pleasures. Each chop released a strong whiff of pine, the blade coated with sticky sap, a scent pleasant to the nose. It was also a mindless task, letting Vorin thoughts drift to more important matters. Not the least of which was the fate that awaited him come the next Harvest Festival.

For a thousand years the Elves had lived in Exile south of the Gordium Mountains. During the length of the millennium of man, the Half Elven Old Kingdoms never dared to claim the entirety of kingless Jazzard for their own. The unexplainable sudden appearance of Vorin Half Blood among the Worites was therefore taken as an ill omen, one they hoped to rid themselves of quite soon, this very autumn, the Lady willing.

Though the people of Weir despised and feared the magic of the Land along with those with the blood to wield it, the laws of the Lady could not be broken without suffering her wrath. Since Vorin appeared on the outskirts of Rain Shelter, stripped of clothes and memory, the people had no choice but offer him sanctuary among them. Though made the slave of cruel Old Cess, none, not even the witch dared to spill a single drop of his Half Elven blood. The term of their measly hospitality however was near its end.

Come the end of the approaching Harvest Festival, on the night of the Autumn Equinox, Vorin will have reached his twenty-fourth year living among the Wors. It also is the twenty-fourth Choosing he will have endured. It was to be his last. While no young maiden in the valley would dishonor their families by offering themselves to marry to the thrice damned half blood, this time, one would whether Vorin accepted the offer or not. The offer alone would remove his status as a guest under the protection of Lady’s hospitality as one of the many married free men of Weir.

As a wed free man of Weir he would be bound to their laws and customs. And has been the law for the last twenty years, none of Elven blood may live among them. That had been the case with the valley’s former rulers and so it would be for Vorin once he was freed from bonds of slavery.

All this Vorin learned over a two score seasons ago but the knowledge had never left any fear in his heart. He knew the valley’s elders planned to offer a woman born in slavery to be his wife, with the intent of casting them and the young woman’s family out that very winter, to die in the freezing wilderness, far from home and hearth. Unfortunately for most of the people of Wor, Vorin and those few who secretly befriending him knew of laws much older than those of even Jazzard’s former Elven rulers. Little did the valley’s Elders know but their plans were ruined on the night of the Spring Equinox several months ago. Well before the night of the Autumn Equinox and that year’s Choosing though they will become aware, and curse the thrice damned half blood’s name all the more after.

Regardless that he knew his life was in no danger, at least for a while, Vorin let his thoughts drift onto more troublesome matters even as he continued chopping away with the axe. Until Choosing he would continue to remain Old Cess’s slave, bound to be used in any manner she saw fit, or felt she could profit from.

While she found it more amusing tasking the half blood with laborious chores, what put more coin in her purse was a differ sort of labor, the only one most in the valley had any true use for. Being of Elven descent, he was born with the magic of the land within him. He therefore was immune to many of its effects, both good and ill.

While the people of Wor both feared and hated the magic of the lands of Mir, it did not mean they could not find a use for it. With this being the Age of Man where the people of Saint Gregory ruled half the known world, some of the magic of the land, if it could be harvested, could be sold to the merchant caravans at five times its weight in silver. In this particular valley the form of magic traders bartered with were emerald green crystals of concentrated Ether, one of the six known physical manifestations of the magic of Mir.

Such crystals were not easy to produce, nor was any risk involved obtaining that which was needed to produce them. There was in fact only one place in the valley, in all Northern Mir, and that was the Vale of the Ethereal Spring, a place more feared than Vorin was hated.

Vorin however, due to his half blood, was the only one who could venture to the Vale, without the magic contained within that small patch of earth from driving him to madness or worse. So when the witch did not have her slave busy with medial tasks she would loan him out to the Miller, who possessed the only means of transforming the collected vials of thick ethereal mist and saturated soil, into the precious crystals the Empire was willing to pay great sums for.

As he was immune to the madding magic of the Ether, Vorin was not troubled by his part in the task. What he detested and hoped one day to bring an end to was the Miller’s use of countless slaves in his ether-works factory. It was there, within the walls of the windowless brick and iron stacked building that the raw ether he would collect was processed and concentrated into its crystallized form. Unlike Vorin, Half Blood, the slaves had no form of protection against the power of the Ether, the green gases that fill the factory killing the old and weak while those strong enough to endure the poisonous mists fell into madness while the this potent form of the magic of the land tortuously transformed them from mere men and women of Huma into terrible monstrosities that had to be killed before becoming too dangerous to control.

That he had any part in the suffering of the indentured was the main source the self-loathing within him. He could not stop from wondering it would be if he ventured into the Vale and never return.

He did attempt to do so once, on a most tragic day. He arrived at the factory to find the corpse of a young girl being dragged out of the ether-works with a pair of meat hooks.

Regardless of the people’s fear of the Vale, the Miller possessed enough coin to hire Tallyman’s ruthless enforcers to bring Vorin back. Before they could reach him, another came upon the half blood and took Vorin away with him before Master Victor’s dogs could.

It was on that night the stranger swore to the half blood that one day he would put a stop to the goings on at Miller’s ether-works as well as the Tallyman trade. All he wanted from Vorin was not to put his life at risk again because of the crimes of another.

That man was Baron Regis von Weir, the last surviving member of the family that once ruled the lands that still bears their name. Though stripped of all possessions save those that could still be found within the walls of Wor Keep, the continuing survival of his blood line was a matter of great concern for those who now ruled.

Having never believed the rumors surrounding the tragic Baron, Vorin kept his word, hoping the Baron would one day as well. With the approach of the Harvest Festival a little over a hundred days away, time was running out for the Baron to keep his promise.

With the final chop of the last piece of wood, Vorin left the hatchet stuck in the old oak stump. While there was not yet enough fire wood to last through the long harsh winters of Northern Jazzard, his mistress had given him a long list of things he had to see to before the end of the day. The next was the most dreaded of tasks, journeying into the hills to the southwest to collect that day’s tally of misty green ether for the Miller’s small factory.

First however he needed to prepare himself which sent him back into the hut he shared with his mistress.

Not once did he seem to take notice of the two pair of eyes spying on him from behind a stack of rotten beams fifty yards off.


The two pair of eyes belonged to none other than to the valley’s most favored son and daughter, Jerome van Doren, the Tallyman’s son, and Vanessa Miller, daughter of ‘THE’ Miller, the wealthiest man in the valley. They were a popular yet notorious pair who happened to be more than a little fond of each other.

On this outing Jerome managed to talk his partner in crime to follow him to the trash heaps to the dreaded hovel of the witch and her half blood slave.

When they saw Vorin retreat behind the hide flaps of the hut, they broke their silence as they began conferring on what their next move would be.

Well my dear, what do you think of that?” Ignoring the rotting stench Jerome leaned against the decaying stack of logs, giving Vanessa a snickering look.

I could ask you the very same thing, though I’m sure your groin will be more honest to me than your words.” The Miller’s daughter quickly reached down and before Jerome could move, gave the front of the young man’s trousers a generous squeeze. Feeling a slight swelling of his groin, she returned her friend’s snicker with a more dastardly one. “Just as I thought. Men like you think more with this head, instead of the one you should.” She gave it a tighter squeeze.

If he had any way of retreating Jerome would have gladly taken it, but with his back already pressed against the slimy rotten logs there was no direction he could take but forward, so forward he went, right into the ample breasts of his cruel tormentor.

With their bodies pressed hard together. Jerome felt the slight swelling of the two orbs of flesh he knew all too well. “I might think below the belt my dear but at least I never need worry my bodice might burst.”

With two ginger fingers he gave a slight tug on the string holding Vanessa’s tight blouse closed. As expected she jumped away in fright, not only letting go of Jerome but undoing her bodice the rest of the way, all that was tightly contained within it spilling out.

With her rump on the garbage littered ground, she glared up at her companion, murder in her eyes. “How dare…”

Uh, uh, my dear, you know me better by now to believe there is anything I won’t dare to do. It’s a matter of fact the exact same thing can be said of you as well. That is why we are such a perfect pair regardless that neither one trusts the other.”

Showing her dimples with an innocent smile, the Miller’s daughter offered a raised wrist so her companion could help back on her feet.

Jerome did not move an inch. “Please my dear, we have gone through this enough times to know I won’t offer a finger to aid you.” He knew that once he helped her up, she would use her grip on his hand to pull him close enough to deck him. In his semi swollen state he was not about to let his friend get her usual revenge.

Seeing Jerome would offer her no help, Vanessa’s cute smile, melting into a sour expression as she began to pout, her small fists hitting the earth with each angry syllable that past her downward lips. “Are there no chivalrous men left in this world?”

Jerome did not reply at once. Instead he took up a pose as if in deep thought, a finger tapping against his chin. It was a peculiar sight to see given Jerome’s reputation of all brawns and no brain. Strange as it was, he remained alluring to behold.

It moment was completely ruined Jerome let out a boisterous guffaw.

And what is so funny?” Oh Vanessa knew what her lover found so amusing the very reason her face was beet red. Some things should not be laughed at, but Jerome let the forbidden restrain him. “My dear, you surely know why there’re has never been a knights to rescue you. Did not our families see to it that House of Weir fall shortly before the Lady blessed us with the gift of life?”

Vanessa let out an angry hiss. “Stop it Jerome! You know better than to speak of such things where others may hear.” Her eyes darted to the witch’s hut but no sound or sight of movement came from it.

My dear Vanessa, what I have said is no secret, at least among those old enough to remember the last Suronian raid so I don’t see why we should bother whispering about it.”

The Baron doesn’t know Jerome and he still has enough loyal followers to make some attempt at revenge.”

The Baron probably already knows or soon will. My father always intended that he find out at least.”

I’m not surprised. Your father is as sadistic as the dark god Vor himself.”

Now my dear, that is one secret that none but a handful know of and one which would cost you your life if not the very thread of your soul if any of the wrong sort hear you say such.”

Damn them all, Jerome. What are you going to do?”

Don’t you mean… what are we going to do my dear? My father’s plans for you are just as dark as the one as the path he is trying to force me down. But no matter, one day we might find a way of escaping the Gordium knot we’re tied to.”

A tear rolled down the distraught young woman’s dirt smudged cheek. “It better be soon, Jerome. We’re running out of time.”

Going down on one knee Jerome’ brushed the tear away with a thumb, all his previous smugness gone. “We will my dear. Is that not why we have come to their retched, foul place.”

Aye, the stink is foul but our purpose isn’t. That doesn’t mean I think your plan stands a chance at working. More than our fathers the half blood despises us.”

Because we are the ones he believes will benefit most from their past treachery. That is why my, dear Vanessa, we must agree, no matter the cost, we will pay the Lady’s price to take a different path than that our families have us take.”

Mayhaps Jerome… mayhaps, but we will never know the price if we keep on sulking here.”

All too true. He might hate us both but none have ever said he is cold hearted. You stay here my dear and keep a lookout for that old hag. The half blood might hate me more than most but that is exactly why I must be the one to talk to him first.”

With that, Jerome stood back up and made his way to the hide covered hut. That he made it to the flaps leading inside without a sound of alarm, or worse the old witch’s cackle, eased his fears that at least he might be able to speak with the half blood alone.

Knocking on a worm worn beam, he poked his head inside. “May I have the honor of being invited inside?”

He received no reply. Instead he was met by a billowing wave of smoke which filled his choking his lungs. Blind with his eyes burning and watering profusely and in a coughing fit his great strength could defend himself against the agile half elf and his quick use of a rope.

Only when a gust of wind blew into the circular interior of the hut, clearing away the smoke, did Jerome realize he was now a prisoner. Before, him, dressed all in green was the half blood, half his face and eyes cover by a pair of wide emerald goggles. “Vorin, Half Blood, I take it?”

Master Jerome van Doren,” the slave replied. Where Jerome had spoken in a jovial tone, Vorin’s was without any emotion beside a small ting of contempt.
He did not know why but the half blood looked ready to kill him if given an excuse to. In such a situation Jerome did the only thing he could do. “I invoke hospice.”

If Vorin’s eye were not covered Jerome was sure he would see the half blood glaring at him. By invoking the Lady’s law of hospitality Jerome put himself under the same protection that so far been keeping the half blood from ending up drawn and quartered.

For a moment there was nothing but silence as Vorin raised a single digit of his left hand and sliced it down the ropes binding the Tallyman’s son which quickly fell away.

This time it was not smoke that caused Jerome into a choking fit. It took one small show of magic to cause him into a fit of convulsions that did not stop until the half blood threw a cup of sour wine at his face, the taste and sting snapping him from his panic.

Don’t you dare do that to me again,” Jerome hissed once he recovered from his shock.

Do this?” Vorin threw a second cup at him.

No, damn it! Throw as many cups at me as you want so long as you don’t use that foul magic of yours against me.”

I did not use it ‘against’ you Master Jerome since the spell I used was to free you from these ropes.” Vorin picked up a double fist full of the cut strands. Dropping them he threw another cup of wine at Jerome’s gawking face.

Stop it. I changed my mind. Don’t throw anything at me either.”

As you command Master.” Stepping back until a fire pit stood between them, Vorin knelt down on both knees, bowing his head until it was pressed against the dirt.

Jerome knew better than to take Vorin’s sudden submissiveness seriously. “I’m not your master half blood but if you were my slave you certainly know better than to be so snide in my presence.”

As I know all too well, invoking hospice does not mean you will ever be treated like a true guest.”

Jerome let out a deep sigh. When he first told Vanessa of his intention of seeking the half blood’s support she had laughed at him. It seemed even this thrice damned slave could see the folly in it. “Master Vorin…” Before Jerome could say another word more he knew he made a serious mistake.

And what, Master Jerome van Doren, son of Master Victor van Doren, master of all slaves, am I master of?”

While Jerome stuttered while he sought a reply, a deeper voice came from just outside the hut. “He is a master unto himself. Is that not so, young Master Jerome?”

Before he could turn to see who was now behind him, Vanessa fell on top of him, tears running down her face, squealing in fright. “The Baron!”

While she shuddered against him, Jerome froze up, not moving even to breath. Baron Regis von Weir might be a lord without a fief but the loss of his hereditary lands had not lessened his skill with a sword. If the he so desired, the blade master could cut down the pair of them with the ease of a hot knife slicing through soft butter.

Your pardon, Lord Baron, but Jerome has already invoked the right of the Lady’s hospice.”

So be it. “With the hiss of steel against steel, Lord Weir sheathed his sword.

Jerome took in a sharp breath. Though Vorin was Old Cess’s slave; that he shared her hut was all that was needed to bind him to the code. If the Baron were to murder or harm the invoker, then Vorin would be as guilt of betraying the laws of Mir as his lordship.

Since he could not kill his rival, the best the Baron could do was ignore the presence of his rival. Stepping out from behind Jerome, the Baron looked all the part of a formidable noble. Though appearing not much older than Jerome, his hair had gone silver before Jerome and Vanessa were born. While Jerome easily towered over all others, the Baron was taller by the length of one of Jerome’s massive hands

Even with his great height, the Baron did not carry the same bulk that Jerome’s five years as the blacksmith’s apprentice had given him. His frame was quite similar to the half blood’s, broad in shoulders but with a narrow waist, his form fitting white and silver surcoat doing little to hide the hard strong sinew it covered.

It was his eyes however that were most striking, silver encompassed by gray, quite unlike the common white most of Huma blood see with. Whoever those orbs fell on could not help but look away, the person not able to withstand the power in the Baron’s gaze.

Jerome noticed, that unlike all others, Vorin Half Blood was not intimidated nor averting his eyes. There was a deep sadness in them but no fear.

Tossing a heavy purse on top of a pile of moth eaten furs, the last of the Weirs offered the half blood a white gloved hand. “I bartered with the hag again and paid her price. From now until sunset you are to be at my service.”

What of the Miller. He has paid my mistress for me to deliver twice the usual tally.”

Lord Regis pointed the finger of his extended hand at the fat coin purse he dropped. “There is enough in that pouch for her to unruffled that overstuff turkey’s feathers if he dares to protest. You at least should feel relieved that at least today those unfortunate wretches the Miller keeps prisoner in that foul factory of his will be able to rest this day.”

This time Vorin did look away, bowing his head in shame. “Aye your lordship, that is true but come tomorrow or the day after their nightmare will continue.”

Their doom is no fault of yours,” Lord Regis snapped, both Jerome and his companion to jump in fear.

That is what you have always claimed your lordship. But…”

Again the baron snapped at the slave until he was silent. He t veteran enough coin so she can unruffled that overstuffed turkey’s feathers. No disrespect meant to you, Mistress Vanessa.”

Just as her father was the richest man in the valley he was also its biggest glutton, a source of too many snide jokes for her taste. “I very much doubt the truth of that Lord Regis. It really doesn’t matter. You’ve paid the hag good coin for the half blood’s comforts so do not let us waste any of it.”

Truer words have never been spoken by your father so I thank you for them. You are wrong to assume however that I paid one hundred half silvers for the sort of comforts you believe them to be. The only comfort I desire from him is to see that he is not troubled by the likes of you two.”

Jerome ignored the insult as he was giddy with hope. So, old Cess was making a small fortune in silver selling out her slave to those with enough coin, coin which Jerome had plenty of thanks to his father. If the witch didn’t take issue dealing with the former baron then surely she would find van Doren silver even more appealing. “Yes, we should both go. By now Master Orson will be wondering where I have disappeared to.”

Seeing the Baron make a gesture of his head Vorin silently left the hut while Regis remain behind long enough to deliver a final warning. “That you should. Master Orson might be a kindly man as well as a master blacksmith but the thread of his soul comes from the same dark wool as both your fathers.”

Jerome didn’t bother to reply. If any other had accused good master blacksmith of being no different than his father and the Miller fists would have been thrown. He however knew all too well how closely woven the pair were regardless of their different temperaments.

Once they were alone together, Vanessa got back onto her feet, her body tense with indignation. “Who does he think trying to lord over us as if we are his measly serfs? Someone needs to remind him we are no longer his vassals. He will soon realize that when our people declare the van Dorens a ruling House and you the true baron.”

Roberto is the son of a slave, a rich son, yes, but still base born. My father might covet his land but not any grandchild of his blood. Now Vorin, half blood he might be, would produce daughter or son of such beauty that my heir will surely rival yours in the hearts of the people.”

Ah, my dear… that will only be true if not born with the tell-tale signs of his blood. For example, what will you tell the elders, let alone Roberto, if you were to bear a son with pointed ears?”

Oh Jerome… do not fear what Roberto might think. He is a rancher after all. He understands the use of good breeding. I have little fear the child will carry any of the marks of Elfdom and if he does… well as you know my dear Jerome such things can be hidden if one knows how to.”

The blacksmith let out a snort. “More magic… that’s the last things we need. Our people hate and fear it as much as they hate any of Elven blood. I think…”

Jerome was stopped from speaking further by a pair of gently and well placed pair of soft lips. “Not that either of us do, my dear. The magic of the land does have its uses after all. You and I would not stand to come into our great inheritance.

“Think of it my Jerome. In one year’s time the people will declare you their new Lord Baron. You will be master of Wor Keep as well as the Six. Once I deal with Roberto and you take care of Ann, we can be wed and rule Weir Valley together. If you are smart enough to heed my advice, one day all of Northern Jazzard will fall into your lap as well. Imagine it... if you can put aside the hate in you aside long enough, all this will come to pass.”

“And be a puppet lord with my father the puppeteer? Never Vanessa, never, you of all should know I will never agree to that. No, there is only one choice left to us to leave the shared path. For that you will need Roberto, while I must prove myself worthy of Master Orson’s Ann. It is by not seeking their murder that we will receive an honest inheritance.

That, more than anything, is why I’m pursuing Vorin like a hound. He must fall into my hands if the others are to be brought is well.” Though his words were passionate he kept them to a whisper.

“As you say. I will pray that you soon admit to me the true reason you follow after the half blood, not as a hound, but like a whimpering pup.” When she saw the heated rage in Jerome’s dark eyes, Vanessa raised her arms in fear to protect her precious face.

By force of will the blacksmith held back his clenching fists. There were some things Vanessa knew better than to mock. His obsession with the half blood was at the top of the list. Hooking a finger around the loops of a seven gold linked necklaces, he pulled her back to him. “Remember silly girl that an iron collar of a slave can easily replace these chains you’re so fond of.”

Tilting her head to the left, her lips held a cold grimace, not an ounce of fear in her. Taking hold of Jerome’s face on both sides, she lifted up on her toes to place her frigid lips on the opening of the blacksmith’s shirt.

Struck from behind by a mystical force, Jerome collapsed without a word of protest.

Stepping over him, Miller’s daughter looked down at her unconscious companion while her fingers busied themselves straightened out her dress. Once she looked all the part of the valley’s favorite rose she blew the blacksmith a parting kiss. She then lifted her skirt just below the knee, dashing from the trash pits back towards Rain Shelter.

Chapter Two: The Old Crone

Hobbling about with the aid of her gnarled walking stick that looks just as wrinkled and weathered as she did, Old Cess was slowly returning to her hut. Warning Vorin that she expected two cords of wood be cut before the end of the day, She had gone off in a cart which raced her out to one of the outlying farms. There she busied herself treating the broken bones of a farmer, who had suffered the misfortune of having a wagon full of potatoes roll over his foot. It was nothing serious, a few broken bones, nothing that wouldn’t heal over time. Still, as the town witch woman she had to make a show of her humble craft, waving her arms about wildly, guttering senseless gibberish, leaving her little time to see to the actually bandaging the foot. She knew that without such theatrics the farmer would not have promised to given her three geese instead of just one as payment.

She felt no guilt conning the man or everyone else for that matter. After all his son had not even offered to take her back to her home on the cart, forcing her to walk the entire fifteen miles back to the town. Compared to all the tribulations she had faced in her life the sharp pain from her joints was only a minor annoyance.

Having endured over a dozen Choosing, each of her offers of marriage rejected by the same men who now relied on her services as a healer, guilt was no longer an emotion that carried any weight with her.

Well past what had been a less than joyful prime, the old crone could only stand or walk hunched, her spine having become crocked after so many winters confined to her tiny hovel. Where she once had a full mouth of teeth there was only empty gaps or the left over fragments of blacken teeth that had mostly rotten away. On her left hand the her arthritic fingers were nothing more than useless gnarls stumps, capable of only giving her pain,

She indeed had lived a hard life that had left her stripped of most emotions expect for three. The first was the sadistic pleasure she gained on watching others suffer even if she was busying about attempting to lessen their pain. In the case of the farmer, she had made sure to make him as uncomfortable as possible while she bandaged him, making an extra effort to ensure that after the bones had healed, the man who had spurned her during a choosing, would never walk again without a taste of the same pain she had endured after being rejected a record twelve times during the Harvest Festival.

The second emotion she could still feel was that of her deep seated jealousy of all those in the town, including her lowly slave. She envied all the women who had husbands and children to fawn over her and see to all her needs. They lived like half Elven queens when she compared them to her years of hard labor and suffering. As for the men she resented the fact that they had the power to reject her offers of marriage. No woman, no matter how low born had stood through twelve Choosing ceremonies up before the entire town only to be ridiculed and chased away with stones and sticks back to the hovel of the previous witch woman of the valley, who, unlike Old Cess, had chosen to accept her role as the town’s most despised member

Most of all however she felt a near explosive resentment that she never would be capable of fully commanding even the tiny bit of magic she had been born with while her lowly half breed slave had more power and the inborn knowledge on how to use it then she had ever imagined could be possible for one so young and untrained. With each passing year she could feel Vorin growing stronger while she was left crawling on her belly toward her eventual grave.

Yet, even with her hatred for the half breed she did not let her anger lead her to causing Vorin any serious harm. Oh she had whipped him on occasion, plunged his hand into the stew pot when she caught him taking more than his limited share of the day’s meal. She had done many other cruel things but none reflected the terrible darkness in her own heart.

Only one thing had held her hand from killing the boy. The third and last thing she could still feel and that was fear. Not just that the witch boy might one day lash back at her with his potent command of his magic. No, the one she feared more than anyone was the one who had given her what little power she had, the Lady Mir, herself.

She didn’t any divine revelation to know that Vorin had been put in her dubious care because it had been the Lady’s will that it be so.

For many years she had expected to one day to be rewarded for her faithfulness to her goddess. Over time however, and Vorin grew in power, she came to realize that the only reward Mir ever intended to give her was to spare her the terrible punishment the goddess would unleash upon her if she failed to see the half breed reach maturity.

In four weeks time that day would come. Whatever happens after this year’s Choosing Vorin would be freed from serving her, a fact that was increasingly leaving her with an uncomfortable unsettled feeling in her gut. Soon she would no longer be able to claim the boy’s magic as her own.

During the heavy snows of winter, her sudden loss of power could be hidden but come next planting season when the farmers would turn to her to know which crops to plant she would not be able to draw such knowledge from the land. It would only take one bad harvest for the townsfolk to see she was nothing more than a charlatan. At the very least it would mean no more harvest offerings which she feared more than the townsfolk burning her as a Darkling? At least she would die relatively quickly compared to slowly starving to death.

On finally reaching her hut she saw that the piles of firewood that had been so neatly stacked had fallen over into a scattered mess. In amongst the pile of cut wood the Master Orson’s apprentice was flat on his ass, and in a stupor.

Suspicious, the witch sniffed the air around her, her still keen nose catching the scent of freshly cast magic in the air. So, even before he gained his freedom her slave thought he could use his magic however he saw fit. Where ever he had run off too she knew he would eventually come back. By the time he did she would have come up with a suitable punishment for him.

Turning her attention back on the dazed youth she approached Jerome from behind slammed her staff against his thick skull enough force to knock the young man over.

Once she placed her staff back down, she lashed out at the fool e with her very sharp tongue. “What, by the four moons, do you think you’re doing getting mixed up with my boy? Do you wish for all three of us to be barbequed this Harvest Festival?”

Bending down, she grabbed the moaning youth by the ear and pulled him painfully back onto his feet. “There, what do you have to say for yourself now, young fool?"

Like I am beholden to the likes of you? My love for Vorin is no concern of yours, old hag. Threaten me all you want. There’s not a spell you know that can change how I feel.”

Still dazed he could not Move quickly enough to defend himself from a teeth chatter bow to his lower jaw.

Fool, fool, fool, you’ll never get Vorin’s heart the way you’re going about it. If you had any brains in you, you would have come to me first. But, like any blacksmith, you’ve let the heat of your furnace cook your brains into a rancid stew.”

Glaring back at the old witch, Jerome rubbed his chin and felt the hot blood dripping from a deep gash there. “Then tell me old crone, since you claim to know, how should I go about winning Vorin’s heart without us both being burned as Darklings because of it.”

Cess’s half blind eyes darted about as if looking for any unseen listeners. She then pulled down on Jerome’s ear to whisper into it. “It’s a blood pact you want, isn’t it my boy?”

Such things were done turning the time of the Elves but I doubt you possess such knowledge let alone the magic.”

Let it be said that one should be careful what you wish for, boy, you might just get it.” Letting go of the young man, Cess cackled to herself in a dry harsh voice that sent a shiver down the blacksmith’s spine.

Like all in the valley, the blacksmith’s apprentice feared the old witch. If any other had dared to speak to him in such a manner, it would be they who would face a beating. From Vorin’s own tales he knew that the woman’s cruelty knew no bounds. Any act of revenge on his part was sure to be returned with an unimaginable reprisal. That is why, to hide the rage burning through him, he averted his gaze down to the fallen logs that surrounded both of them even as the crone looked upon him with her milky white eyes with a haughty and hideous, toothless sneer.

Though all feared the hag, the longer he stood there, the anger inside him gnawed away at his fear. Regardless of what the witch might do to him, his love for e Vorin was stronger. All he needed were the strength of his convictions and his right hand, to reach down and grab Old Cess by the throat, lifting the hunched woman up so he might stare directly at her. “Strike me or Vorin with that stick of yours again and I will make sure you will live just long enough to regret it.

Seeing the green ethereal fires burning in the man’s eyes, her sense of alarm was so great that she couldn’t summon the power of her own magic. She knew if she were to die by the hands of the people’s most favored son none would mourn the loss. That is why as she as her feet desperately tried to touch the ground, she begged for her life her pleas constantly being choked off before she could finish them. No matter what, she would not let herself die before seeing that one day the insolate youth would face the wrath of her revenge.

Though the blacksmith did not seem satisfied with her pleading, he cared little for being spat at while the woman choked. . Releasing his hold, the crone collapsed to the ground, her rear landing on an uneven pile of firewood.

As pain shot up through her spine she rolled onto her knees and kissed the worn leather of the blacksmith’s boots. “May Mir bless you master. One as so lowly as me should never have dared raise my staff against you. If it is within my power I will do whatever you command.”

While her groveling at Jerome’s feet was nothing more than mere mummery, her role as the lowest of the low in the valley was one she had become a master at portraying. Though the anger in the blacksmith’s eyes did not seem to abate by a flicker, he did not strike at her again.

Very well crone. There are many things I would have of you, the first being Vorin’s freedom.”

The very idea of surrendering her slave would have her exploding with rage in any other situation but as her life now hung by a thin thread, she pressed her forehead down on the dusty, dry soil in submission. “As you wish Master Jerome. The boy will be yours at the end of the Harvest Festival.

“I do not want him as a mere slave or pet. He is to finally be free of any obligation to you as of this very moment. Either you do so willingly or I will see it done through your death. The only reason I am give any option is to spare Vorin any guilt he might feel towards your death.”

The coldness in the man’s voice left the witch with little room to force a compromise. All it would take would be for him to pound one of his heavy boots down on her frail neck and that would be the end of her. As he said, one way or another Vorin would be his. Since in four weeks Cess’s hold over her slave would end anyway, to give up the boy a month sooner than she planned was an insignificant sacrifice, not when compared to losing her life. Still she was not quite finished with the boy. Though she was unsure if she could perform such a spell all she need was a day or two of preparation to attempt to steal a portion of the half elf’s magic for her own use.

“He is yours Master Jerome. Tomorrow you will guide me to the Headman and I will declare him free of service to me before the entire town if needs be. Just please spare this old foolish woman her life for once Vorin is gone it will be all I will have left.”

“Very well but as a proper parting for my beloved, you will teach him how to perform the magic of the blood bond. Only then will I set aside any ill will between us.”

Though the fool did not know it, he had just handed her the perfect tool for her revenge. Little did he know of the magic that had been performed by Vorin in order to save him from the poison of the Ether.

Within each and every living thing in Mir a soul thread could be found. At the moment of death the thread would return back to the place of its origin. For the Elves it was the Great Weave. In the case of mankind their threads rested in the waters of the Well of Souls. In each case the souls of the departed waited until the day when the person would be reborn.

That is why, with Jerome’s very soul in danger of being burned away by the ether Vorin had used his magic to reach in and draw the blacksmith’s soul into him, entwining it around his own thread. In doing so the half elf had changed both their lives for each now had the life energy and power of two potent magicians, Vorin with his Elven blood magic while Jerome, having survived now had the power of the ether flowing in his veins.

In both cases each had far greater magic than Cess had ever dreamed of possessing. If they ever joined their combined power in a single act of magic, such as the spell of the blood bond, the force unleashed could destroy them both if even the smallest mistake were made in its casting.

Not caring that she now wore a sinister sneer she rose to her feet, retrieving her staff in the process. “Very well master, I will teach you the spell but only after the end of the Harvest Festival when I am satisfied you are truly sincere in promising me you will do me no further harm.”

“Fair enough old hag but if after the Choosing you do not keep your word I swear your fate will be far worse compared to how far I was willing to go to ensure Vorin’s freedom. Now get on your way for I will have you before the town elders before sunset to denounce any claim over him.”

“As you wish kind master.” Letting out a horrific cackle she let the blacksmith guide her down the narrow five mile path that would lead them to the town during which she had plenty of time to design a spell flawed just enough that any with enough power who dare cast it would meet their doomed.

Chapter Three: The Baron

Circling around his opponent, Regis von Weir was the rim of a wheel and his dearest compatriot, Vorin Half Elven, the axis that joined them together. Surrounding them was a sea of still green stalks of wheat, forming rippling waves in the summer’s breeze. Regis, with his muscular broad fame and massive arms held a heavy two handed broadsword while his opponent was armed with a much lighter saber and a round iron banded shield.

While some pitied the lowly meek slave, Vorin fought with hint of timidity. Few in all the lands of Mir ever caught a glimpse of a master swordsman let alone witness him make use of his virtuous skill. A mere fraction of those who had ever watched the duel of these two masters given their unusual pedigree. Character

Vorin’s saber and sword arm could not match baron blow for powerful. While he could not best his opponent countered with well honed agility. He met each of the Baron’s attack with a parry, never using exhausting force needed to stop it fully. Instead he employed just enough strength to divert and slow the broadsword just enough to allow him to easily dodge out of its path. No matter length of blade or strength used against him, Vorin always recovered first, countering attacking with a riposte that always hit his target.

The sole privileged witness of the progressing match was a man of nineteen years far from the reach of the clashing swords. He was fair haired and more slender in frame than even half elf. While his blue eyes never left the pair, his fingers were far from still, moving rapidly along the length of flute playing a sharp fast frantic melody that matched the pace of the swordplay.

He name was Landis of the family Bran, a name he carried with pride. His mother and father still served Lord Weir as all his ancestors had done from a time so far in the past that none knew a time where they hadn’t. While only twenty six out of over three hundred of the named family continued to serve the Baron faithfully, he never showed any hatred towards those who did not. His Lordship was content with those servants he had, so he was as well. While he cherished and loved both his family and friends, nothing mattered more to him than the encouraging words and jovial chuckle of his master.

It was also of great comfort to him knowing the future purpose he would serve the Baron his by the time he was four. Just as his family had served the Baron beyond recorded history and the valley’s collective memories went so had been their profession. It was the tradition that the first born son and first born daughter taken up the professions of their fathers and mothers.

In that sense Landis felt especially lucky for his father was the Baron’s bard. Instead of learning the use plow or sword he was spending the years of his apprenticeship mastering music and poetry. Most of all, he was one of the few allowed enjoy the privilege to spend much of the hot summer months within the cool chambers of the manor’s extensive library.

In that way that this year’s Harvest Festival would be the best of all. He would turn twenty before the night of the Autumn Equinox allowing him stand in this year’s Choosing where he might find himself a wife. Come autumn he finally would be able to give his lord that they both valued most, his oath of fealty. Last of all, by the day of the first thaw of spring his apprenticeship would end so he could take his father’s place as the Baron’s new bard. Before the night of the Spring Equinox, the start of the New Year, everything he ever desired in life would be his. Well almost…

As clashing of swords became faster and louder, the bard watched with wonder and humility. He had some skill with a bow and arrow, but his was no warrior, not like these two and no amounts of mead would have him claim so. Vorin was the lowest of all slaves and his master a near landless lord. Such truths were of no consequence compared to the glorious nobility shining in each of them. At night the young bard might dream of a larger role but during these moments he knew how blessed he really was.

With his attention focused on these thoughts and more, Landis nearly chocked himself with his flute when out of nowhere Vorin’s saber flew down on him like an arrow shot from the sky. It would have skewer the young poor bard if it feel any closer. “By the Lady!”

Having failed to parry one of the Baron’s swings, Vorin’s blade was sent flying. He did not give up however, not without making it a challenge. He dodged, ducked, and jumped for a good while, he laughing at the Baron’s frustrated growl.

What once had been a fierce crossing of blades was now a playful game both did not want to end. Vorin could have chosen to yield and the Baron could have easily over power his opponent but neither did so. They were enjoying it too much.

Eventually though exhaustion got the better of both them. Having sent his sword flying to free his hands of their burden, Lord Regis did same with breastplate and chainmail as well. Vorin too was near exhausted. At least his legs were. He could no weave and dodge the Baron’s attempt to tackle him with the same speed and craftiness as he had in the beginning.

In the end the baron’s strength bested the half elf’s agility when Vorin let the other get so close that all Regis had to do was grab him with a bear’s embrace the bound pair collapsing together beneath the waves of the sea of wheat.

While Vorin struggled to recover his breath, his lordship looked at him with a sly grin, waiting for the half elf to speak.

Eventually he did. “You win… as always.”

I won? If you would properly tally the scores you made twice as many hits as I.” Gently he lowered his prize onto the thick bed of sheared wheat their duel had produced. He then lay next to the half elf, silently watching his amore with a pair of glittering silver eyes. When he could not fight temptation a moment longer, he sent both large calloused hands to work caressing half Elf’s soft fair cheeks.

Vorin did not protest the Baron’s acts of affection. It was what Regis paid his mistress so handsomely for. Closing his eyes, he focused completely on the touch of the man’s warm rough hands as they moved from his face down his next until they took hold of his waist and nearest thigh. Regis was dearest to him after all.

It wasn’t a perfect arrangement. There were issues as well, more complicated in nature then that of their shared love. The one Vorin chose to name was that of Regis’s former wife. “You miss her terribly, don’t you?” Vorin had never seen his wife with his own eyes but he had heard many describe her beauty. The rumor was a large portrait her could still be found over the fireplace in the Baron’s bed chamber. The worst part of the tale was that she too had been of Elven blood.

Aye, it would be a lie if I did not admit I miss her terribly. In here case at least I can sleep comfortably knowing she does no longer has to suffer the mindless hatred of the people. Since the night you arrive a score and four years ago my desire to see you safe has been my only concern.”

Vorin rolled away to hide the stiffness of his jaw. He could not let the Baron know his confessing words were more torturous than anything his mistress had inflicted on him. He knew the Baron loved him but for what reason… Did he love him for the character of his being or because of his mixed blood? There was no way to be sure.

Regis lifted to all fours and encaged his companions with his legs and arms, lowering himself on his most beloved, his body a heavy hot quilt encase Vorin. “I know what you’re thinking and it is partly true. You are of Elven blood and for better or worse none of the free people of Mir can forever fight the aura of allure that surrounds you. You are wrong to think though that you are so dear to be because my beloved wife was also of Elven blood. In neither case has the love I feel towards for you both is that simple.”

Much to the Baron’s relief Vorin responded to his words with a soft smile. “I know Lord Regis. At least my teacher has explained a few bits of it. Ezekiel has said that all three of us are here in this valley because it is the will of the Lady that it be so. His task has been to prepare me for what is to come. Mine is to do as the Lady commands. Your part in this dark tragic theater is to offer me what comfort the Lady will allow so I will not fall into despair.”

Regis let out a disgruntled grunt hearing mention of the Druid’s name. Regardless, he let Vorin have his say. Only when there was a period of silence did he start speaking. That is what ornery cub claims is constantly reminding us. His words do have a ring of truth in them but very little else.”

Vorin tried to insist otherwise but Regis managed to silence him with a long kiss. When it ended it the Baron continued and was not interrupted a second time. He understood why the Vorin’s tutor was so dear to him. He took care to point out however that Ezekiel was indeed a druid, the most fanatical of Lady Mir’s followers. The druid might believe all he was taught of the goddess power over the Land and all things living but she bold claims needed to be examined with a skeptical magnify glass.

Vorin admitted that one man’s truth could be viewed lie to another. He then went on claiming that it did not matter if the Lady was a false god. Such a belief would not lessen the undeniable fact that those who openly defied the will of the goddess would suffer the fury of her vengeance.

It was a point the Baron had to concede. While Weir Valley represented but a speck of the greater lands of Mir for most it was the only part that was real.

Though most Worites found comfort clinging tightly to such shortsightedness, not even they were ignorant of the history of Kingless Jazzard. Regis did not doubt there wasn’t a single man or woman who did not know how the Lady ruthlessly raped the kingdom of both its ruler and founding people for daring to defy her will. All the great books of history of both Elves and Men marked the start of the Great Cataclysm with the genocide of the Mountain Elves a hundred year period of chaos, plagues, wars, and madness among the god.

Though over a thousand years had passed since the Cataclysm ended the people still remembered. On the darkest night of the year, the night of the Winter Solstice, there wasn’t a nation in all Northern Mir where their people did not fast to morn and remember all that was lost when Jazzard and its ruler fell under the Lady’s curse, even among the pure blood sons and daughters of man, the present masters of Weir Valley.

It only took hinting of the tragedy for tears to form in Regis’s eyes. Among those born among the nobility of both pure blood and Half Elven, it was more common than not. It was rumored that in the capital city of Soulvalla of the Gregorian Imperium of Mankind, the members of the twelve ruling families would go into a bloody sacrificial frenzy, offering to surrender threads of their very souls to be given any chance to avenge the memory of the Mountain Elves by slaying the one who destroyed them.

After wiping the tears that had fallen on from his eyes onto Vorin’s face he apologized. “Forgive me Vorin. I should know better by now to speak of such painful events. It was never my intent to produce mere tears. What I wanted you to understand is that the Lady will seek to vindictively destroy those who defy her neither she nor any of the gods of Mir possess the power or foresight to send you down a path where you cannot choose to take another.”

The Half Elf cupped the left side of the Baron’s face with his slender fingers. “I know, I know my dear Baron. Given what is to come I have ‘chosen’ to take the Lady’s path… for now at least.”

More tears fell from Regis eye but clearly not out of sadness. As the tears fell he kissed and even tasted his beloved’s palm. “You are too sweet for this world. If I’d been made to endure that old crone of yours either she would not have lived so long.”

She is who she is. There is nothing you or I can do to change her nature.”

Killing her would.”

Only worsen her stench my Baron. I know what you want of me and I wish the same. But…”

But what Vorin? If you do feel the same then why not come to the manor and put an end to all the whispering and snicker. How dare they think you’re a whore? One day…”

If it is the will of the gods the rumor mongering will end but not with your sword, not for my sake. Enough blood will be shed before the coming of the next year.” Looking past Regis the half elf noticed the sun was fast approaching the horizon. “I must go.”

Regis did not budge. “Damn the time. I will not have you suffer under that hag’s care a heart beat longer.”

I must. I cannot leave the path the Lady prepared for me. Master van Doren…”

Which one… the bastard Tallyman or his lecherous son?”

Both, though it is Jerome you fear more. Do you think I don’t loath him? If the Lady did not demand this of me, do you believe I would endure that loathsome hedonist?

Hedonist...? A Gregorian priest will often use that word every High Day’s mass but I never thought you would use, let alone know it.” Getting off Vorin, he did his best to appear chivalrous.

Vorin sat up and shook his head deeply embarrassed. “Why? Is it because so many in the valley see you that way as well?


Don’t answer that was asinine of me to pose it as a question. My mistress might rent me out like a high price whore but at least it has kept the list short. You two scoundrels do so for free. I do not doubt there you already have a line of them eagerly waiting for you to return.”

There wouldn’t be if you…”

Vorin cut him off before he could say more. “Your fawning worshipers await while I... I must go.”

If you must but mark my words, Vorin Half Elven, during this year’s Choosing you will not be left unchosen.”

Vorin rose and brushed away all the green stalks that clung to him, walking away from his lordship, heading south towards Rain Shelter. Waving goodbye he gave these parting words; “I already know that my Baron. It would be interesting to see you enter town wearing a lady’s laced frock. Just don’t assume you’ll be the only one to call out my name.

The Baron called out to Vorin so he could explain further but half elf kept going. It was only then that he remembered Landis was with him. With the bard was still atop the nearby boulder, looking quite guilty for having listened in. The Baron stared at him until their eyes met. He gave Landis a curt nod and pointed in the direction of town. Landis quickly returned the nod and hurried off after Vorin. Regis was not certain but he thought he noticed a bit of a skip in the man’s stride.

This ends the first part of “The Sons of Mir”

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Take care folks!