A Dance in Shadows - SE tale

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    • A Dance in Shadows - SE tale

      A song of duty and of freedom, and what purpose can be found in between.

      Chapter I – Play at Responsibility

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      Her bare feet struck hard on undergrowth and moss-covered roots. Her breaths came fast and ragged, rending her throat and squeezing her stomach as the forest blurred by her. The effort dug sharply into her shoulder, yet she pumped her legs harder. This time she would make it.

      She drew closer to the finish line. So many times she had bruised and battered herself on the lichen-softened rocks of the little ravine that hid the brook trickling into the white-foamed roar of the Nyir. The beat of her heart grew tight in her throat as she heard the Thundergleam, the great waterfall beside her home. Her belly came alive with flutters as the trees beyond began to part for her grande finale, the last challenge of her great obstacle course that was the forest itself.

      A few more paces of thrilling terror and Sarna thrust her right foot down with all the might of her young, sinewy body on the last bit of firm ground before the green-clad abyss. She took to the air, her breath caught in her chest as her leap arced high above the rushing water. The distant rumble of the Thundergleam echoed in the back of her mind as she began to fall. She flailed with her limbs as if she could beat the air like a bird. It would be close, she had time to realize.

      Her foot found ground, which crumbled away immediately. Her left shin caught on firmer soil, and she managed to roll clear of the ravine. For long moments of exhilaration she but lay there, reveling in her achievement.

      The walk back was much longer than the aching swims she had taken in her previous attempts. Her left knee stung with each step, but it was nothing. A smug smirk twisted her face as she climbed the great, familiar limbs of an elm that peeked over the high walls of her home.

      The Cascade Hall would have been an impressive sight but for its familiarity. The stonework of red granite was glowing copper in the afternoon sun, the many pillars of the mansion’s façade carved in the likeness of leafless trees. The uneven ground of the wild garden inside the walls had hidden waters trickling out of sight, audible even over the droning thunder of the great waterfall behind the manse, snaking somewhere beneath the meandering avenues of cobbled flagstones.

      Father’s Kinwatchers leaned on their poleaxes their hooded heads bent low, pretending not to be watching her as she skipped along towards the tall doors. She was a child no longer though far from adulthood still, and the men couldn’t hide their intrigue, however much they respected and feared Father. Sarna wasn’t sure what to make of their poorly hidden attention, but there were times when it felt nice just to be noticed.

      Only the progeny of the Allwarden could pass through the Door of Leaping Water so unkempt. Sweaty and bruised, twigs and needles in her almost white blonde hair, clad in weary leather trousers and a simple tunic repaired too many times to be presentable despite the quality of materials and expert craftsmanship that had gone into its making.

      Sarna glided along corridors she knew by heart, her bare feet making no sound on the polished stone floor. It was a skill she had mastered young, lending well to her general disposition towards mischief. She preferred climbing the pillars mimicking trees to taking the elegant spiral stairs when moving between floors, and often pretended the staff were evil spies whose notice she had to avoid. She ran, leapt, vaulted and crept towards the kitchens to do something about the hollow feeling a day’s worth of running and acrobatics in the forest had left inside her.

      That’s when she ran into the single greatest obstacle between her and the freedom to do what whatever she pleased: her tutor, Kalara. She was an elf so ancient that age had actually began to take its claws to her face, carving deep creases to the corners of her eyes and mouth and slashing her auburn head with streaks of dull silver. Sarna suspected her to be at least four hundred years old.

      Sarna rounded about on the spot, taking a huge leap to run up an elegantly curving stone ash tree that reached over a grand hall opening beside and under them. This time she would outrun the hag. Her young feet were a blur under her, landing in perfect balance upon the ever narrowing branches intertwined high above the stone floor.

      She prepared to jump to the ash’s twin arcing over the space from the opposing side of the hall when she felt her momentum forcibly shifted into a violent acceleration towards her right, back to the ledge where she had come from. Kalara’s grip was iron as she held Sarna under her arm, squeezing the air out of the girl’s lungs.

      “Ever the child”, she uttered in the motherly tones Sarna was so used to as she set the girl on her feet. “Next time, granny”, Sarna said, trying to hide her disappointment behind a mischievous grin. Kalara but stared, and Sarna felt like her deep green eyes could reach right through the deception. She kept it up anyway, there was no way the tutor could truly know her insecurity. “You’re growing slow in your dotage. Won’t be long now.”, Sarna said in between sharp breaths.

      Kalara’s face remained still, but there was an amused glint in the corner of the old elf’s eye. Sarna felt deflated. “Your lord father has need of you, child”, the tutor announced and turned around, making for the Hall of the Protector. Sarna felt defiance well in the pit of her gut again; surely the tutor couldn’t catch her if she bolted now in the other direction. A quick moment of consideration left her with a resolution to go after the cloaked back, growing more distant in a brisk pace. She would let the hag have this one, she thought.

      The commotion could be heard through the impressive double doors above which hung the famous skull and antlers of the Great Hart of myth, Ylgon. Father was holding court. “We can’t go in there now!”, Sarna protested. Kalara didn’t look at her or break her pace. “You should have minded that when you decided to skip your lessons where you could have been called upon at a more convenient time, my child”.

      Sarna stopped in her tracks. “Look at me!”, she screamed, pointing at the braided mess that served as her hair. Kalara turned around slowly. Peculiarly, her face softened as she spoke. “I know, darling. But this is more important than etiquette. We cannot make your father wait any longer.” The tutor gave Sarna a quick smile and kissed her forehead, dragging her into the Hall by her wrist.

      Father was strewn on his throne, his forehead resting on the palm of his hand, a dangerous tightness on his mouth. His ice green eyes flicked on Sarna and the tension smoothed away from his face, leaving it an unreadable mask. Sarna’s knees almost buckled; Father was truly mad at her. Father’s back straightened, and the Hall grew quiet. Everyone standing on the dais of the throne turned to look at the arrivals: Father’s advisors and leaders of major Houses of Anthalac Athon.

      All turned except one. Sarathil, Sarna’s older brother, kept his gaze fixed upon Father, who gave him a quick sideways glance before speaking. “You were summoned three hours ago! Did she skip her lesson again?” With the question Father’s eyes moved from Sarna to Kalara. “I had excused her for the morning, my Lord. My apologies.”

      Fear began to truly grip Sarna’s innards. If Kalara was prepared to lie for her to the Allwarden, something truly exceptional was going on. Father grimaced and turned back to Brother, “You’ll want to hear this, girl. Your brother has decided to abandon his duty and his family.”

      Sarathil had ever been Sarna’s coconspirator when they were younger, but between the two of them, he was always the first one to draw the line on their trickery when there was danger of going too far. If he was anything Sarathil was loyal almost to a fault, so this news sounded impossible to believe.

      “What have you to say for yourself, boy?” Father’s tones were wounded. “I abandon nothing save succession of lordship, Father. Not my country, not my kin.” Sarathil was clearly awkward, he always was uncomfortable addressing crowds and now all of the court’s eyes were on him, gathered in the shade of intertwining stone branches of the circle of eight pillar trees upholding the domed roof the Hall. Suddenly Father rose from his seat. “Your duty lies with the lordship! You are the crown prince of Epheltilion!”

      Sarna had never heard Father yell before. Sarathil flinched at every word, and his voice sounded broken as he continued. “I was never meant for that, Father. All that is too big for me. My place is in the fens.” Father closed his eyes and sat back down, defeated. He had the same look on his face when Sarathirya, Sarna’s eldest sister, had announced her engagement to the crown prince of the neighbouring province. Suddenly Sarna could imagine this was what he must have looked like when Sarangil had left for the deepwood courts as well, though she was too young to remember much of her eldest brother.

      Long moments passed in chilling silence as everyone awaited the Lord Protector’s answer. Finally the Allwarden’s back grew straight and eyes regained the sharp focus Sarna was used to seeing. “Go then, Waywatcher. There is nothing for you here.” Sarathil bowed and left without even looking at Sarna as he passed.

      Kalara’s eyes were wide as she stared at her ward. It made Sarna nervous. Then, as Father began speaking, Sarna understood what Kalara had already realized. “Daughter, you are now next in line. It is time you started acting accordingly.” Father arose. “All hail Sarna of House Saronn, the Crown Princess of Epheltilion and heir to the Throne of the Protector!”

      Only the Allwarden and Sarna remained standing in the Hall as the court kneeled to her. To her, even though Father was right there by his throne. By the throne that she someday would have to sit. The room was spinning around the back of her head. It was difficult to breathe. She would one day be responsible for all these people. She felt nauseous.

      “My people”, she thought, and passed out.
      "You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?" -Death
      Phae's Pointy-Ear Blog: Elves in a Corner
    • Chapter II - A Glimpse at the Shadow
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      Some three weeks later there was to be a feast in celebration of the announcement of the new heir. Sarathil had left the city the day following the one that had changed Sarna’s life forever, making for the hidden halls of the border guard in the deep fens. Father had departed a few days later, somewhat less discreetly, with the calling of hunting horns and baying of hounds to bring back a catch worthy of the coming feast. Father always went hunting when he was upset.

      Sarna’s days were spent in a frozen panic. Duty weighed heavily upon the young elf, and she didn’t miss a single lesson. Kalara seemed worried, but her efforts at hiding her concern were amendable. It seemed overwhelming how fast Sarna had shot up to first-in-line for the throne, being the fourth child.

      The fifth of the Allwarden’s children repeated his question to his sister a third time, growing impatient. “Will you come eat with us today?” Sarna gave her brother a distracted smile, “Maybe, ‘Thas. I have much to learn today.” Sarthas inclined his head menacingly, bunching his lips in a disappointed pout. His raven locks fell over his face, the ice green eyes of their father peering out of the tiny face. “You have much to learn every day!” The smile died on Sarna’s lips, and she turned to her scrolls, ignoring her little brother, who retreated for the door after a few more moments of brooding.

      The day of the feast turned out to be a rainy one. Dignitaries had been streaming into the palace for days, and everyone who were anyone in Anthalac Athon would be there this night.

      Of course, some guests came from beyond the city walls as well. Lord Saronrath, Father’s brother known as the Cloudlord and the Keeper of Sight, came as a representative of the Skywatcher falconers of the Nan-Gaidhnir, the Cloudbrow Fells to the south. Lady Hashadhwen Starkeye, the Keeper of Paths and commander of the Waywatchers, was on her way from beyond the river Euphoron in the east.

      Lord Thaldain, Keeper of Peace and leader of all Kinwatchers of the realm, couldn’t make it but Sarna suspected her mother had no small part in it; Princess Ildirya had retreated to the Winter Palace in the south as the time of her giving birth neared, but Sarna knew she was planning some campaign in the near future and probably wanted all of her commanders near at hand. Sarna felt that lately Mother had spent more time away than with her. The captain of the capital guard, Lady Ghorwaen, would be there in Lord Thaldain’s stead.

      Local dignitaries would be expected to attend. Lord Commander Toar was naturally obliged to be present as the head of the Ranger Knights who rode at the Lord Protector’s side at times of war. Also there were the commanders in charge of training and mustering the Sentinels of Anthalac Athon: Lady Chideira of the Claw Sentinels, Lord Tamaldir of the Weald Sentinels and Lord Sorgonn Breezemane of the Wind Sentinels.

      The Merchant Lords and Ladies had representation in Lord Fumacrion Bone-Keeper, Lord Sarranoc, Lady Rileilana, Lady Dia the Flayer, Lady Ethriel and Lord Golgovann of the Scales, among a plethora of less well known names. The head of the Artisans’ Kin-Guilds, Lady Hathra Steelhand, was to make an appearance, but harvest season was running wild so the figureheads of the modest agricultural community could not attend.

      These and a vast number of old wealth nobles as well as quick money climbers were invited. The social event of the decade was at hand.

      One name, however, would not go unnoticed among even all this glamour: Princess Vildaara Rainmaker was making the journey all the way from Singing Winds’ Hollow in the north. She was the commander of every war dancer in all of Epheltilion, and the absolute ruler of her city, answerable only to the Allwarden and his wife.

      She was rumored to have come to power by illicit means, for War Dancers had a poor reputation in Epheltilion. Their reckless ways and intimidating tattoos were one thing in a realm as conservative as Mossenhome, but it was undeniable that the war dancer kindreds were wealthy beyond common sense, and many shady dealings seemed to be tied to their organization.

      And they were everywhere, having guild halls in all major settlements of Epheltilion. Alas, their service during times of war were vital to the defence of many parts of the land, so not much could be done about the rumors so long as they remained just that.

      The banquet was a tedious ordeal for Sarna, the main attraction of the event, who had to greet an endless stream of people she didn’t know and blush anew at every courtesy she received, which she counted to number around four different niceties, worded a little differently each time.

      No sign of her old, wild and mischievous self was present now. Her white hair was braided intricately with silver pins keeping the flowing locks in check, she wore a silk gown the colour of the night sky and had around her neck the diamonds her mother had left for her when she last saw her. She had silver torques on her arms that chaffed, she had had her ears pierced for the occasion and they throbbed with agony under the weight of pearls too big for her to wear. She wanted to be anywhere but here.

      Father sat beside her at the high table on a dais at the centre of the great hall, the very same vast room that had the stone ash trees high above their heads. Sarna poked at her food with her silver dagger. The sash around her waist was wound so tight she felt she couldn’t breathe if she were to add to the pressure by putting food in her belly.

      So she drank. Epheltilian wine was excellent, and there were also some Aecilian imports that she sampled. The humans were crude in many ways but surprisingly adequate winers, and their exotically rich and full reds made the kinds the elves preferred seem almost watery. Her eyes scanned the room lazily, her lids growing heavier with every goblet she drained. She could feel her father’s disapproving eyes on the side of her neck but dared not look. She felt trapped in this new life that had been thrust upon her.

      A gong sounded in the dim light of the copper lamps. The hall quieted down as lithe figures strode in carrying paper lanterns on the ends of curved staves. They wore heavy hooded cloaks but their gliding movements were so effortless that all knew immediately that these were dancer bards, and gave their attention judging this planned-for entertainment.

      Before the dais there was space reserved for dancing, and the hooded bards settled in a ring into which strode six more of their like, carrying not lamps but spears. The Kinwatchers at the foot of the dais gripped their weapons nervously, but the Allwarden gave no sign that they should intervene.

      Five of the dancers in the ring formed a smaller circle around the sixth bard on the floor, and cast aside their cloaks. Their clothing was skimpy, revealing their tattooed flesh. The entire left side of each one’s body was covered in intricate, snaking designs, the hallmark symbols of the Evenwind’s Whisper, Princess Vildaara’s own kinband of war dancers.

      The five dancers in the ring started a wild, swirling dance, with dangerous stabs of their spears rhythming the action as they weaved, dodged and leapt to avoid the blades. The lampbearers hummed a low, menacing tune, stamping a beat with their feet as the dancers sang in clear voices, retelling the Battle of the Wrong Moon of yore. Their acrobatic body language was hypnotic, and the entire hall watched the performance without blinking.

      That’s when the central figure let her cloak fall to the ground, revealing a lean body of a woman tattooed on the left side and covered in jewelry. She wore a silken skirt that reached her ankles but was cut in quarters so that her shapely legs could be admired. Her top left her stomach bare, and her silver hair was shaved from the left side to show the tattoos on her scalp. She wore a silver mask in the semblance of an elvish woman without expression.

      As the cloak fell there were several beats of utter silence in the song, and the dancers all stopped to point their spears at the masked woman. She began a slow, seductive dance, snaking her arms up at the ceiling, carrying no weapon. She began to sing with a voice unlike anything Sarna had ever heard.

      There was nothing but the voice of the masked woman in the hall. The harps were still, no clatter of cutlery upon plate, no chewing or swallowing, not even a single breath could be heard. Only the intoxicating song enslaving the attentions of all present. With giddy amusement Sarna realized she had lost the meaning of the words in the song, there was only the soft cradle of the sound of the voice itself.

      Suddenly a single word struck home to her consciousness: “End!”

      The beating of feet and humming of violent rhythms began with new vigour. The five dancers had lost their spears, but jolted into motion without delay, throwing kicks and punches towards the central masked figure that managed to weave out the way of each attack in an effortless grace.

      The masked woman then went on the offensive, and in five beats she had thrown elegant strikes all about her, resulting in the five dancers leaping high into the air to crash motionless on the floors, signifying mortal injury.

      With that, the display was over, and Princess Vildaara removed her mask and bowed. She received a standing ovation and a seat at the Lord Protector’s high table. Later, when Sarna had asked one of the dancers about their spears, he had just smiled and pointed at the ceiling where they jutted in a perfect circle. None of the feasters could say how they had gotten there.

      Father seemed less than pleased with the presence of the Princess of the Singing Winds’ Hollow. He spoke courteously yet briefly when addressing her, and Sarna could notice the tension at the corners of Father’s lips that became apparent when he was uncomfortable or irritated.

      His crown of antlers leafed over with silver seemed almost crude compared to Vildaara’s circlet of interlocking gold swirls that matched the designs inked on her body. Sarna wore a silver tiara adorned with owl feathers, the heirloom signifying her as the heir of the title of Protector, and felt she had no place among the lofty lords and ladies, princes and princesses dining at the high table.

      Sarna’s mind began to wander. The titles of wood elven nobility felt natural to her before they started to mean something at a personal level, and lately she had been pondering about them. The loftiest one was of course the title of a prince, reserved to the eldest of a Great House’s generation, or whichever would be named the heir. Lord Saronrath was Father’s elder brother, but was a prince no more after the succession was passed to Father after his deeds at the Battle of the Fork.

      Blood meant everything to the elves, and younger Houses had to constantly strive to prove themselves worthy of their elevation. Not many noble Houses were worthy of a princedom, however, and all their members were simply referred to as lords and ladies. Some of the more self-involved rulers of these Houses took to calling themselves High Lords and Ladies to differentiate themselves from their siblings, but the custom was disputed and many considered it flashy and bourgeois.

      Sarna’s attention drifted to a handsome bard striding confidently towards the dais. The dancing had begun, and he moved with ease through the seething masses of dancing elves, eyes locked upon Sarna. Princess Vildaara smiled in a satisfied manner, but Sarna did not see it. She had eyes only for the golden-haired youth approaching calmly, a lop-sided little grin tugging on his full lips.

      The rest of Sarna’s night swept by in a flash. Tarandael the dancer bard of the Evenwind’s Whisper was everything that would make a young girl swoon: mystery and danger wrapped in a dashing shell, spewing wit and charm about him. And could the man dance!

      Later Sarna would realize that this was her first peek into the realm of shadows, the shadows that dance in the hearts of all.

      (Damn it's difficult to write from the perspective of a teenage girl.)
      "You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?" -Death
      Phae's Pointy-Ear Blog: Elves in a Corner
    • Chapter III - The Call of the Night
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      The next morning came with blistering brightness that threatened to sear through Sarna’s aching skull. Dragging her worn limbs through the day was a chore. She had her breakfast in the Ashen Hall, watching servants scurry through and fro, picking up after yesternight’s throwing down. Father was nowhere to be seen. Hunting, probably, as he ever was after letting loose even in the slightest. What little Sarna remembered of the wee hours had a few glimpses of her sire actually enjoying himself with relatives and friends, which meant that some bizarre guilt now surely gripped the man.

      A strange thing, guilt. Sarna felt the bite of it, too, even having done nothing particularly shameful that she could recall. It had to be that damned dancer. Tarandael! Oh, still the heart would flutter at the thought of his lithe form. Surely, no thing could be so sweet without a bitterness to follow?

      Sarna probed her meal a while longer with the tip of her dagger, scarcely a piece finding its way into her dry mouth. She downed the watered wine willingly, alas. Excusing herself from the empty table she made for her obstacle course in the forest, relishing the thought that she was in no condition to make the final jump. Some scrapes and bruises would be just the ointment in demand for her weary heart.

      The impressive front door of the Cascade Hall took some effort to push open. The Kinwatchers on duty gave Sarna the quickest of glimpses as she pushed her way past them.

      There he was! Sarna froze, her limbs stiff and breath caught in her chest. Tarandael’s eyes slided lazily from the other two blade dancers towards Sarna. With recognition of her a slight smirk would tug the corners of the young man’s mouth in the most infuriatingly intoxicating way. It took all she had not to start fixing her messy hair, of the state of which she was acutely aware of all of a sudden.

      “Lo, ‘tis a fine morning, My Lady!”, Tarandael called with his sonorous singer’s voice. “Not entirely so”, Sarna managed with an awkward smile. Tarandael laughed. “Ah, no debt goes uncollected when Aghwyl is due.” With a coy chuckle Sarna replied, “The god of grapes is indeed meticulous when it comes to the strange economy of merriment.” The dancer laughed again, and even though Sarna knew her jape wasn’t at all clever, the flattery warmed her regardless. “Will you walk with me, My Lady?”

      The day was stolen away. Wandering about the capital and in the nearby woods, talking all the while, they would spend the hours that seemed to fly by as the kestrel plunges from the high fells. The firm grip of the young war dancer was but a memory on the skin of Sarna’s hand as she walked back home with the setting sun, but the fire of his kiss warmed her lips, if possible, even more now than the moment it happened. Her mood was one of glee and excitement, the anguish of responsibility as well as the irrational guilt of excess of wine washed away by what could only be described as a perfect day.

      “How good of you to finally grace us with your presence, My Lady!” Kalara was fuming, her arms crossed tightly on her chest, a dangerous edge on her gaze. “What now?”, Sarna inquired defensively. Guilt began inching back inside her. Disappointment twisted Kalara’s face in a horrible way, fighting with the tension of anger already therein. “Have I taught you nothing, girl? You really thought all these nobles travelled all across the realm just to toast you and eat off our table?”

      Of course Sarna knew they hadn’t, now that it was pointed out to her. There were surely meetings arranged all through the day where she would spend some time getting to know the nobility of the land that one day would be hers. With a single lapse of judgment she had insulted every lord and lady who were anyone in Epheltilion.

      She wanted to cry, but what good would that do? She could no longer be a little girl, more was expected of the heir. She wanted to apologize to Kalara, but she knew that wasn’t what would restore her in her tutor’s eyes. She swallowed at the lump in her throat, finally managing to speak. “You are right, of course. I will meet on the morrow with such nobles as are still willing to, and write letters to apologize for my indiscretion to those that have departed or will not meet for other reasons.”

      There were telltale signs of mellowing on Kalara’s stern face as she nodded her approval. “Rest, child. The coming day shall be a long one.” Sarna nodded, starting for the kitchens for a bite before bed. Kalara called after her, in hard tones, “And no wine!” Sarna swallowed her pride and refrained from retort. Of course she wouldn’t drink, and Kalara knew it well. In the end, she probably deserved the spite.

      Meetings were held, letters were written. Sarna played the role of remorseful child admirably, and no greater harm should fall on her House’s reputation was what the sages deemed after the guests had departed. Those who had enmities would reinforce their positions at any opportunity in any case, and friendlier Houses were quick to forgive the thoughtlessness of youth. The gnawing feeling of inadequacy would not loosen its grip, however, and Sarna felt crushed beneath the weight of her duty.

      She saw little of her father and her mother not at all. The fall rolled on, and two long hunting trips and one visit south to meet his wife filled the Allwarden’s schedule. Sarna spent her time mostly with Kalara and the councilors of House Saronn, who did their best of preparing her for the duties of the Heir. The dusty chambers of the wiry silk-wrapped fountains of political subtleties became Sarna’s prison as the weeks marched on.

      Tarandael wrote to her on occasion. The only thing she actually looked forward to were the eloquent writings of the warrior bard, painting a picture of a life of adventure and freedom she couldn’t stop fantasizing about. It was of course not at all unpleasant to read the lines describing her beauty in the dancer’s eyes, written with a hand of a passionate poet. She began to love Tarandael for his letters, which were the only thing giving her joy in those arduous days.

      The only thing besides her brother. Sarthas enjoyed spending time with his older sister, and even if it felt tedious at times to dote on the prattling boy, Sarna couldn’t help but love the ever optimistic raven-headed youth who fought off trolls and dragons with his sword of wood. She could see in the boy’s movements the training he had begun, but his boastful warcries were those of a romantic child.

      With the first snow Sarthaengil Gladevenger, the Lord of Mossenhome rode into the capital with his retinue of stag-riding Ranger Knights, named the Bronze Riders for their breastplates. The Great Hart Caor snorted under the Allwarden as he called it to a halt before the gates of the Cascade Hall. He handed his spear, Vigilance, to Sarthas’s hands trembling with excitement as he dismounted. He wouldn’t embrace his son in front of the court, but ruffled his hair as he took back Vigilance from the boy’s eager grip.

      Sarna stood on the palace steps with the councilors to welcome Father home. As Sarthaengil walked towards the doors he called to his side a silver-haired little boy, who could barely walk. There was something hauntingly familiar in the toddler’s features.

      “Sarna, my daughter and heir!”, Father called as he began to ascend the steps. “Meet your brother, Sargael, who has travelled to spend the winter home with us!” The boy wouldn’t look at Sarna as she tried to greet him, opting to stare awkwardly at the flagstones at his feet. She didn’t put much weight on the child’s reaction then, but later she would learn that her brother had something broken about his mind that made all social interaction difficult, to say the least.

      “Where is Mother?”, Sarna asked impatiently. Her heart leaped at the smug little smile that twisted her father’s mouth at the question. As if in response, Sarna heard like a thunder in the distance the shattering roar of Aru, reverberating over the booming din of the Thundergleam. A few moments of anticipation passed before the dragon flew into view. It came in low, and its presence seemed to fill the horizon as it spread its wings to slow down for descent.

      With grace uncanny for its size, the beast came to the ground among some beech trees in the courtyard, carefully avoiding harming them with its massive bulk. It made surprisingly little sound as it touched down, letting loose a satisfied growl that Sarna more felt in her chest than actually heard. With a couple of strides Aru came out of the copse of beech trees, and Sarna saw her mother leap down from the dragon’s back.

      Princess Ildirya had many names. Nightglow. Star-Bearer. The Fey Queen. She was almost a mythical figure in the capital, believed by many to be more of a forest spirit than an elf. There was a tale all in Epheltilion knew about how Sarthaengil in his youth had wandered out alone into the deep fens to seek council with the great Woodmothers in a desperate attempt to gain their allegiance against the troll hordes of Gnashjaw the Giant. He had returned years later a changed man, with Ildirya by his side, and scores of dryads at his back, winning the war against the trolls in a single fell swoop.

      Indeed, there was something otherworldly about the Princess of Mossenhome. Her hair was a deep, rich brown close to black in hue, and her eyes were a striking amber colour, a sharp contrast to her husband’s cold green eyes. She smiled a lot, talked a lot, was quick to anger and quicker still to forgive, yet for the brief while it burned her wrath could do untold damage.

      Ildirya embraced her daughter for the longest while, having almost run up the steps to meet her. “My, you have grown, Sarna. And what a beauty you have become, let the young princes guard closely their hearts from now on!” Sarna laughed warmly. She had missed her mother’s life-infusing presence sorely.

      Mother’s coming eased Sarna’s mind a bit, but more through distraction than support. Ildirya had always had a disdain for politics, which was one of the main reasons she spent so much of her time away from the capital. Possibly the most important one was her strained marriage.

      In their youth there were no social hindrances to the passion of the someday rulers of Epheltilion. There was war and Saronrath was still the heir, so much less attention was given to the younger noble’s affairs during his journeys. With the title of Allwarden came unexpected burdens of maintaining appearances for other noble Houses, which ill suited Ildirya’s flashfire temper and utter boredom in the face of nicety.

      Sarthaengil was enveloped in his duties, and Ildirya felt increasingly abandoned and alone. This aggravated her disgust at the court, and increasing outbursts led to heated arguments in the royal bedchamber. Her deep spiritualism lent her an outlet as she engrossed herself with the druids to study the mysteries of the forest’s spirits. In the end this led her to the south to seek the fabled spirit known as the First-Born of the Forest. This excursion also led to her discovering Aru in the Birch Towers highlands.

      It had been years since she had last left the city of Winterstone for any other reason than to seek out communion with the forest and its spirits, and Sarna wanted to simply enjoy her mother’s company, so she avoided topics she knew would frustrate her.

      Thusly, she felt even more alone when in the spring Ildirya decided to return south to Winterstone. She took Sargael with her, along with Sariya, The youngest of her daughters. Sarthas stayed in the capital, while Sarathil spent every excuse he could muster to avoid returning to civilization. He visited Mother, from whom he had inherited his amber eyes, once during the winter, causing an intense shouting match between his parents when Ildirya refused to hold his forfeiting the title against him as Father had.

      That’s when a letter came from the city of Singin Winds’ Hollow, from a certain handsome blade dancer after months of silence. Feeling miserable at Mother’s departure that had made Father more distant than ever, a decision formed in Sarna’s anguished mind that would shape the rest of her life. She wrote a short letter of farewell, tears smudging the ink, and left it on Kalara’s door. It was addressed to Father but meant more for her, whom she felt she was betraying the most.

      Sarna snuck out of the Cascade Hall on a clear spring night, frost crunching under her heels as she felt her heart leap at her newfound freedom. Finally she could just run, and not turn back.
      "You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?" -Death
      Phae's Pointy-Ear Blog: Elves in a Corner

      The post was edited 3 times, last by Phaeoron ().

    • Chapter IV - The Whispers of Winter

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      Sarna stirred from her sleep in soreness and ache. Her fur-lined bed roll was well made, and a lean-to provided shelter against the breeze, but as all her kin she was loathe to build fires and the autumn cold had deft fingers with which to squeeze the warmth from a body still with slumber.

      She cracked her cold neck as she roused, packing up her modest camp swiftly. She made her way northeast gnawing at a piece of dried fruit. Moving was good, the work of her muscles soon warming her lithe form.

      She glanced time and again at the most valuable thing she had brought with her from the palace. It was rune-carved cup of bedrock she had filled to the brim with water from a forest spring ere departing her camp site. A single dried birch leaf floated on the clear surface, holding up a minute needle of iron. If she would let it sit undisturbed, it would always turn to point towards the north.

      Navigating the deep fens without one of these priceless artifacts was almost impossible, as the trees had a mind more often than not to wander about at their own, slow pace, changing the course of streams and dragging boulders and other landmarks with them. Indeed, let a season pass without a visit to a stretch of forest and you could find it unrecognizable.

      Of no help were the spirits of the land either, playing their fickle games with the shadows under the eaves. Not the sun nor the stars could ever be fully trusted in the heartland, but with the druids’ way needles the spirits could not tamper because of warding enchantments that were among the most tightly guarded secrets of the druidic kindreds. Only in song were the secrets passed on from master to apprentice, to put the spells in writing was at the pain of death.

      So Sarna made her lonely way towards the Singing Winds’ Hollow, Gan Neidh Gawahd by the Epheltilian tongue. She was well versed in the ways of the forest, for every child of Mossenhome needed dearly this knowledge should they ever find themselves out of sight of a settlement. Sarna survived on a diet of mushrooms, berries and sling-slain birds. She had not brought a bow, for they were cumbersome to carry and bound to run out of arrows sooner than she was likely to reach her destination.

      She encountered several spirits on her journey, even some dryads, but luckily enough they were nearing their winter slumber and she eluded their stiff-limbed pursuit easily enough. Timber wolves were only heard of at night to Sarna’s great fortune, and the single bear she saw was from ways off and entirely uninterested in her existence.

      Not a week had passed when the weather took a sharp turn towards the icy, and Sarna was forced into keeping a fire going at night. Fire would keep wolves and lynxes at bay, but would drive any dryads into a blind rage should they smell it, regardless of season. It made for better eating in any case, tea and cooked meat being available.

      She was two days away from the City in the Roots by her reckoning when she was set upon by an enraged dryad, leaping through her small fire pit as it lunged. Without warning the wood-clad spirit leaped into a shrieking frenzy, its wooden talons outstretched and deadly.

      In a panic Sarna scrambled to a crouch, gathering her feet beneath just in time for a roll towards her left, just evading impalement. She took a few running steps to put the scattered fire between her and her assailant before unsheathing her paired shortswords to defend herself. Running wasn’t an option; all the while the dryad screamed, more of her like were being roused into a vengeful rage. Sarna would have to end this quickly.

      Sarna leaped over the smouldering fire pit, contorting her body into a violent twirl mid air. As she knew it would, the dryad extended its splayed claw to catch Sarna’s supple flesh in a death grip as she came falling through the darkness surrounding the campsite. So Sarna shot out her arms at the last second before the gruesome embrace, her blades whistling as they ripped the dryad’s claw to splinters. The spirit screamed with renewed fervor, stabbing wildly with her other claw.

      Sarna raised a sword to meet the attack, but her arm nearly buckled under the weight of the assault. The blade was stuck halfway through the wooden palm when Sarna reversed her grip on her free sword and crashed it through the dryad’s forehead, ceasing its shrieking immediately. With sharp convulsions the spirit’s form crumpled and bent, leaving behind a gnarly shrub of juniper as its fading scream seemed to take flight over the canopy.

      Sarna covered the embers with soil and ran the rest of the way to the Singing Winds’ Hollow without rest.

      At the Hidden Gate Sarna was greeted by a curt command to halt. As a chill crawling upon her skin she could feel the murderous intent of the archers unseen behind the knotted iron roots that made up the gate. Panting heavily, Sarna raised up a hand to steal a moment to catch her breath. Explaining that she had come from the capital and needed refuge from dryads granted her the permission to approach.

      Her form was disheveled, which of course was to be expected after such a journey even of nobility, but the fact that she was alone would be harder to credibly justify. Besides, she was determined to travel incognito.

      “Who be you, daughter of Jewelroof Halls?”, asked a masked kinwatcher from between the tightly intertwined iron roots of the gate, where at face height was a small section wound loosely enough to catch glimpses of the person on the other side. Similar gaps were there to shoot through, though much higher.

      Sarna bit her lip, thinking. “My name is Alda, a hunter”, she lied. The guard looked her up and down twice, the nodded somewhere above him to admit her. The great doors swung acrack soundlessly.

      Warm amber light from sparsely spaced lanterns lit Sarna’s way down a steep, cobbled slope of a tunnel roofed with earth and great roots. The hubbub of civilization echoed from far below; it was hours from dawn but the sylvan rhythms of life were irregular and intertwining as the stringy roots of fungi amidst the forest floor.

      She landed to a small square ringed with doors and, more immediately, with market stalls, mostly abandoned; two still had vendors napping within. Four tunnels branched from there. Sarna made her way down the widest one, plunging deeper amidst the ancient tree’s roots.

      Sarna couldn’t help but notice that many a passer-by here sported tattoos on their faces. This was almost unheard of in the capital, an immediate sign of a war dancer; a brand most shunned where she was from. She felt timid and lost.

      She wore a brave face nonetheless, this wasn’t by any means the first time she had felt out of place. She forced a swagger into her step as she trudged along the cobbled tunnel, passing many cavernous squares and avoiding the tight-squeezing avenues.

      As she caught sight of the gilded gate beyond which the palace of princess Vildaara lie, her bluster finally failed her as her fatigue caught up with her. She stood there a while, gazing at the impressive portal from a distance as a yawn overtook her. Remembering little of it the next morning, she stumbled to an inn at the mouth of the cave that made up the square before the gate, and fell face first into the furs of her newly bought bed for the day.
      "You need to believe in things that aren't true. How else can they become?" -Death
      Phae's Pointy-Ear Blog: Elves in a Corner