By dabeagle - Chapter 9
King Corvan's army had landed like a hammer on a brittle piece of metal, splintering Orund's forces and scattering it to the four winds. Some were absorbed into the King's army, others ran and still others banded together and roved the countryside as brigands, as most had been lords or high up in the army and did not want to be captured. The battle had looked fierce from a distance, our home being a half a day's walk from the city, we could see what seemed to be lightning striking from the heavens and great pillars of earth fountaining into the air. Word had come that most of the city had been destroyed in the defeat, but the King's army had yet to completely secure the countryside surrounding the city, although it was widely held it was only a matter of time.
We were but simple farmers, no more than slaves to the crown Orund had held, now set free in word but living in fear of the shards of Orund's army. For us life had yet to change as we still toiled the earth and grew our crops, hoping that the new king would have need of our grain and pay a fair price for it. Rumors flew about the land, talk of powerful wizards which seemed to have some truth, considering the attack. Rumours had also begun of odd, misshapen creatures doing the Emperor's bidding down to the south, but surely they were just rumor, something to scare the little ones with.
"Father, do you think there is any truth to the talk of Wizards?" I asked as I wrapped my bundle of grain.
"My grandfather used to tell tales of wizards, but then he used to tell tales of Elves too. He told me his own grandfather told him those tales so he was never sure they had any truth to them. I guess wizards are as good a story as any for what we saw happen to the city," he finished as he stood and wiped the sweat from his brow.
"So if wizards do exist," I said, tying the twine about my bundle, "what then of elves?"
"Well, everyone knows elves are a thing of fantasy, imagine a creature capable of firing six arrows in a few breaths? We would have been overrun with them! They would rule the land if they existed!" he laughed as he tucked his cloth back into the band of his breeches.
At evening, after the meal and chores for the day had been done, my father would teach me the staff. He told me once, long ago he had been a part of the army that came before Orund and King Corvan, the army of the father of the two now warring. He had been a pike man on the field initially, but soon his true talents with the staff had come out. When the king died and the outer edges of the land had unraveled, my father had traveled home to his wife and to his infant son, me.
"You have to move your hands faster, like this, one over the other, and then lock your forearm as you jut one end into your opponent," my father insisted and I tried again. My favorite part about the staff was the sound of it whistling through the air as I spun harder and jabbed quickly and purposefully.
We toiled in the fields, preparing for the harvest on the day of the attack. It was three days past the fall of Orund, the City of Caralill having been captured and breaking his power, and some say, his life as well. I have no doubt, and my family did not mourn him, for we were to be valued as people under the new system, we had been told by traveling soldiers.
It happened on the third day after Caralill fell. They began as no more than dots on our horizon, barely discernable, but the hooves could be heard at a distance. They set fire to our fields and the dry wheat was a breeding ground for the greedy fire. It quickly consumed most of the field. They ran from the men on horseback, fleeing them and the flames that were spreading through the fields they had been tending in the hot sun. It was no more than chance that I survived after having just brought a bundle to the cart. I had picked up my staff and begun to move through the drills my father had taught me, turning the balanced wood hand over hand and listening to the wind it created with its speed.
My family never had a chance, dying in the fields as the flames whipped along, carrying their screams. Two horsemen appeared, moving quickly through a path in the wheat and brandishing their swords as they descended upon my position.
I can still hear my father scream to run, and run I did in cowardice and terror, staff clutched in my hand entirely forgotten.
The Caralill Forest was nearby, Orund's private reserve, but I didn't think he'd mind me running in mindless terror through the trees. I ran as fast as I could, the pounding of hooves hard in my ears and the cry of men who had nothing left to lose bearing down on me. I was into the trees, where they quickly began to thicken and I raced along a game trail. Huge trees, some eight feet or more across towered above me, filtered sunlight allowing the thick undergrowth to flourish on the forest floor. The riders had been slowed by the trees, but they were still gaining on me as I raced onward, over mossy rocks and fighting the stitch in my side. My breath becoming too ragged to continue, I ducked behind a large tree, covering my mouth and trying to become still. I was shaking with fear and aches screamed in my body as it thirsted for oxygen which I did not dare to take in great gulps lest I be found.
I could hear the riders talking to each other, slowing their pace and creeping forward.
"I am sure the little whelp ran this way, he can't be far, m'lord," one voice grated.
"Yet he must be found, word must not get back to the king of who is blackening the earth about the city, and all it takes in one peasant. The longer we stay invisible, the better our chances. Soon we will ride south to the emperor, Lord Cait has said, and then we shall have numbers to fight with instead of chasing peasant boys through trees," the other replied.
The stitch in my side had let up somewhat, and they were drawing ever closer by the sounds of their voices and the soft sounds of their horses' hooves on the forest floor, I realized I needed to run soon and gathered my breath to make what was probably my last run in my short life. My breath still ragged, I charged from the tree, running as fast as my pumping legs would carry me, soft leather shoes not giving me away immediately on the soft forest floor and hopefully the large tree blocking me from their view to give me a head start. My heart fell when I heard them cry out and the stomp of hooves begin in earnest. I sprinted for a rocky outcropping and slid down the other side, surprised to find it was a small gully with a stream running at its bottom. I stumbled down the embankment, racing and forging across the small stream. I heard the horses displacing stones as they struggled to stay upright on the embankment. As I reached the other bank the horses hit the water, splashing and whinnying as their riders urged them onward. The unmistakable sound of blades being unsheathed reached my ears as I scrambled up the other side desperately, fingers on one hand seeking purchase on the loose soil whilst the fingers of the other hand stubbornly held the staff. The horses could be heard drawing nearer and as my mind quietly settled on my fate, my body continued to attempt to flee and as I reached the top the horses reached me, thundering past me with their riders slumped in their seats, arrows pointing to the canopy above from their backs.
I fell to my knees in exhaustion, panting and dimly realizing that someone had saved me. But why? I was a peasant and had to beg for mercy from all who passed. I stood slowly and looked around me, seeing nothing but the towering trees and lush foliage. I sat and tried to regain my breath while I pondered who might have deemed me worthy of saving when it struck me that me being saved was probably an unintended effect of slaying the two knights. I cautiously made my way back down the embankment and along the path I had made through the trees, the smell of smoke to guide me although it didn't help much, truth be told. I kept watch, sometimes feeling eyes on me as you do sometimes, but turning and finding nothing. I finally emerged from the woods and made my way towards the smoke and bits of fire that still raged to the north. I knew I had to go back, had to help if I could.
The farm was gone, the house burned to a cinder as it sat in the middle of the fields. I trudged towards the house when my ears caught voices on the wind and realized that the remaining soldiers were still there, milling about and perhaps waiting for their comrades' return. I, of course, knew they would never return and I also realized I would have to retreat back through the forest as the road was blocked by them and nothing but scorched earth to hide behind, poor cover indeed. I was penniless and without food. My stomach grumbled as if to underscore the last thought. I stumbled back to the forest, heading deeper and deeper, not caring where I went as I watched for berries or anything else I might be able to find that was edible.
The light soon faded from the forest and I found myself still hungry and quite alone. Moonlight is usually weak, and under the cover of the forest almost nonexistent, so I was walking quite carefully when I suddenly stopped as I heard a snort. Quietly I listened for movement, and then sidled to the right, hoping to find a tree to melt into when a step could be heard, close by on my left. I jumped to the right, falling over a root and landed hard which was accompanied by another snort. I peered about wildly in the inky dark and then a small, musical voice that held more power than any I have ever heard spoke from the darkness.
"Be still, human, I mean you no harm," the voice said.
"Who, who are you?" I asked shakily. A light flared before a face, terrifying by the light set just below and forward of the chin.
"Tel Ja'sin," he replied, moving the light away from his face and kneeling, "Do you always trip over a well laid fire, human?" he asked with a small smile on his face. He knelt down gracefully and I realized the flame was on his palm, cradled as you would cup a drink of water in your hand. He poured the fire onto the spot I had tripped, a pile of twigs and small bits of wood that sprang to life with a glow that was warming to my bones to say the least.
"I am not used to the forest, Master Ranger," I managed as I shifted to my knees and bowed my head. I don't understand why he called me human, is that a new word for peasant or slave? The fire that he poured, that was great magic, how was it done? Would he do that to me?
"Ranger? I think not, little human, and praying to me won't do you much good," Tel Ja'sin said with an amused chuckle. I ventured a look up at him and noted his bow.
"My apologies, Master Archer, I didn't mean to trespass," I replied, head going back down. My nerves were shot and here I was in the woods with a stranger who obviously knew something about shooting things with arrows. I was calculating my chances of escape when my stomach registered food, which my nose confirmed.
"Well, I am a good Archer, to be sure, and have made holes in many a man that trespassed. Since you seem to have been chased in, the first time you crossed the stream, I thought I'd let you live," he smirked.
"I...I am in your debt, my lord," I said, barely above a whisper. He had shot my pursuers, and no doubt had tracked me on the way out as he also accounted for the presence I felt, the sense of being watched. I also knew I was now his, property as I had been under Orund's steel hand. I could not escape someone who could shoot like that and if he had spared me, I was indebted to him. He shifted about as I watched him, still on my knees as he took the large bow and ample sized quiver from his back and laid them against an enormous tree trunk. He stretched and regarded me in the light as he returned to the fire and the food that had drawn my attention, a large rabbit. He adjusted it on the spit and rested on his haunches as he regarded me.
"I am no lord, I have no lands nor kingdom that belongs to me, I am simply Tel Ja'sin, Centurion for the Realm," he replied.
"A what for the who, m'lord?"
He frowned at me, face wrinkling and I then realized how pretty a face it was. Perhaps he thought me stupid, not knowing what he was talking about, I should drop the subject, I thought to myself.
"May I move closer to the fire?" I asked timidly, shivering slightly.
"If you wish, human, I care not. In the morning you will leave the forest and return to your kind."
"But it is not safe, master..." and then it hit me. The light reflected on his face, a perfect face if there ever was one, hollows in his cheeks and light blond hair that flowed past his shoulders and down his back, a small braided rope of hair ran from just forward each ear and there was the issue. The ears were pointed, like an elf. But elves don't exist, they are fantasy made for the stuff of legend. Yet there he was, with his odd name and pointed ears and slight beauty, all the elves have been known for in tales told at the bedtime and fireside.
He stood and was liquid grace, stretching and was akin to a wild animal, rippling with unseen power, but power nonetheless.
"Why did you return to the forest? Your pursuers were dispatched, you have no reason to be here," he said suddenly.
"Master, my family was killed this day," the sadness in my heart was like a physical wound to me, "and the men that chased me were part of a larger squad, one that was waiting at the remains of my home. They block the way to Caralill. I have nowhere to go, and as the one who spared me, I belong to you, Master," I replied, head down once again.
"No, you don't belong to me, and I don't claim you. I release you from whatever debt you think you owe me, I was defending my land, not your person," he replied.
"As my lord says," I replied.
"Now stop that! I am no lord, that is your world, not mine!" he thundered and I cringed, tears trying to leak from the corners of my eyes and me trying to hold them back, to be a man in front of this creature whom I thought belonged to fantasy, and with whom I was finding a face that was unforgettable.
"Why would these people want you dead? Are you a thief?" he asked suddenly.
"No, my lord! They are the remnants of Orund's army, they wish to make the land unusable for King Corvan, so they are blackening the earth, burning crops in their fields. Only they don't want the King to know, so they are killing the peasants who work the fields as they go. I heard them say they are turning south to join with the Emperor's army soon," I said in a rush.
"The Emperor, you say? That is interesting, Corvan succeeded in taking Orund from the field?" he asked.
"Yes, Master, rumour says he died in Caralill, and that wizards helped to unseat him. Wizards with glowing eyes, some say."
"Glowing eyes..." Tel Ja'sin mused for a moment before speaking, "After a moment's thought I have changed my mind, human, you will travel with me for a night to bring this news. The shadows dance in the south and the Realm must be able to defend itself."
"Don't call me that," he snorted.
"How do you wish to be called, master?"
"Ja'sin will do, human. And how are you called?"
"Cyrix is my given name, Mast...Ja'sin," I hesitated before plunging on, "It is most unusual for a slave to address his master by his name..." I trailed weakly.
"You are no slave to me, human, simply another creature."
Ja'sin shared his dinner with me and we sat close to the fire for a small time, he deep in thought and me memorizing each part of his face in the fading firelight. His hair cascaded behind him, the small braid holding the uppermost portions of his mane in place, and the pointed ends of his ears protruding openly into the night air. Not a strand of hair covered his face, nor did any seem to grow upon his chin. Even so, his poise suggested more age than his physical form let on.
"You should rest, Cyrix, tomorrow will be a long journey if we are to reach Aldien by nightfall," Ja'sin told me as he began putting the fire out.
"What is Aldien?" I asked timidly.
"The capital of the Realm, Tel Dar'sant will want to hear your news," he replied.
"What will happen to me, Ja'sin?"
"You worry too much, Cyrix, are all humans this nervous?"
"Pardon, Lord, but I was taught that Elves were a thing of...fantasy. It's not everyday one meets something, or someone from myth and tall tales, is it?" I replied softly.
"Fantasy? Tall tales are told of my kind? What do they say, that we boil your eyes and smear them like butter on our food? That we steal your children because the flesh is tender? Tell me, what were you taught?" Ja'sin asked with an edge to his voice, but some interest and possibly humor as well.
"I was taught Elves were tiny, light on their feet, making them excellent foresters and," I hesitated, "thieves. I was also told of the mastery of Archery that Elves possess as well as their powerful magic."
"Well, we aren't tiny, we are light on our feet, and I suppose some of us are thieves. Archery is a prideful area as we have honed our skills for generations, and our magic is quite powerful. It appears you weren't lied to, you just didn't believe," he remarked.
"They were told as tales around a campfire," I shivered, "and sometimes to scare small children into not wandering into the woods for fear the Elves would make off with them."
"Well, I'll not make off with you, but you'll come with me nonetheless to make a report."
"What will you do with me then?" I asked.
"We'll have to see what the king says, won't we?" he replied as he pulled his blanket about him. "I don't suppose you have anything to sleep under, do you?" he asked with a sigh. I shook my head and he motioned for me to come closer.
"Come on, I won't bite you, just tuck in close to keep warm," he said impatiently and I laid next to him, back to his front and felt electric and alive, far too awake to sleep with the knowledge he was behind me with his perfect face and lithe body, deep dark eyes and...I had best stop, it wouldn't do to fall in love with your master, Elvin or not.
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