Year 3633, the Sixth Age, the thirty-forth day of Spring
“Are you feeling alright Bel’eak?” Valianna asked as they were packing camp and getting ready to depart. “You look a bit pale.”
“I’m fine.” Bel’eak gave the young Varrintine girl a curious look.
“Cold like as not,” Kōrrin huffed, “All ‘o ye got thin skins. Not like a dwarf.”
“I’m not cold,” the Nevārancien replied flatly. “I feel fine, truly.”
Vhindr regarded Bel’eak curiously, for the man’s features did seem slightly pale. But aside from that he looked in perfect health. Although Vhindr had no real knowledge of the fact, he reasoned it was likely due to Bel’eak’s meditation within the clouds of Fog a few days earlier when they were still inside the ancient tomb.
Trying not to think much more on it Vhindr climbed into his saddle, and looking to his companions to see if they were ready, he encouraged his horse onward.
They had left the downs of Ard Thengr yesterday and now the flat tundra reached out before them with the lone peak of Frostback on the horizon. The day was clear and warm in comparison to previous days, although snow still lay on the frozen ground and grey clouds lingered far overhead.
“The thaw is late this year,” Rhalin remarked as she rode alongside Vhindr.
“I am grateful for that,” Vhindr replied, “We will not have to deal with the bogs and muddy sinkholes.”
“Just lingering cold,” Rhalin said with a slight smile.
“It is a good thing these horses we bought are used to the freezing temperatures,” Vhindr said as he looked to his companion.
“We breed our brumbies hardy.” Rhalin smiled back.
Vhindr returned the smile, “I see you are enjoying being back in Gaianaus.”
Rhalin’s brow furled as she gave him a perplexed look.
“In Port Na’brath and on most of the journey you have kept mostly to yourself,” Vhindr explained light-heartedly.
“Perhaps I have simply got to know you all better.” Rhalin looked away and shrugged.
“Whatever the cause, I am glad I can talk to you with ease now,” Vhindr smiled, and drew Rhalin’s blue eyes back to his. “I was certain you detested me when we first met.”
“I did.” Rhalin stated and she kicked her horse on faster before Vhindr could reply.
Vhindr let out a deep breath and his brow creased as he watched Rhalin moved ahead.
“Exactly,” Kōrrin said loudly, “Finally ye follow what I’m sayin’.”
“So the best strategy would be to force a draw in the first round and destroy the opponent in the second?” Valianna asked curiously.
“There are plenty ‘o different ways of going about it,” Kōrrin replied, “But a good bront player will adapt to each hand. Sure you can ‘ave a set game plan to begin with, but ye gotta allow for variables.”
“Can we play again tonight?” Valianna asked cheerfully.
“Sure.” Agreed Kōrrin with a chuckle, “I’ll beat ye again.”
“Not this time.” Vhindr’s sister was quick to rise to the challenge.
“How ‘bout we put a little money on the table then?” Kōrrin suggested.
“Do not teach my sister to gamble please, Kōrrin,” Vhindr called over his shoulder.
“I shall take that bet Kōrrin,” Valianna said, and Vhindr shook his head subtly in irritation.
Vhindr turned his attention from their conversation to the empty plains of snow around him. The land was vast, so desolate, he would have likened it to the Plains of Kalladen south of Crydon, or the Morrow Plains in Norrendōrel. But those two regions were filled with life, here there was nothing, just flat ground as far as the eye could see. Occasionally he would see the shimmer of a still pool of cold water, but there were no trees around them or shrubbery that would be typical of a body of water.
The wind moaned across the snow and ice, cutting through Vhindr’s cloak and making him shiver. He did know several spells that would warm him up, but constantly casting them would sap his strength too much. Thankfully he had other means of warming his cold bones. Sticking his hand deep into his extra-dimensional pouch Vhindr pulled out a metal flask heavily encrusted with runes that kept whatever liquid was inside at a constant warm temperature.
Steam wafted out as Vhindr unscrewed the lid and he took a long swallow.
“Got some brandy there Vhindr?” Kōrrin inquired, “Give us a swig.”
“It is Centure tea, actually,” Vhindr replied, “And you are welcome to a drink.”
“Tea?” Kōrrin exclaimed in distaste, “I’ll be right. ‘Less ye do have some brandy in that deep pocket ‘o yours?”
“Actually,” Vhindr said thoughtfully and reached into his rune etched pouch again, “Yes, here we are. ‘Torpin’s Gebrande Wijn’, how does that sound?”
Kōrrin chuckled happily as Vhindr tossed him the dark brown bottle. Uncorking the bottle Kōrrin sniffed deep the scent and a wide grin came to his face.
“Ye Varrintine’s sure know how to drink the best stuff,” Kōrrin said with a smile, “Torpin’s good, especially their black ale, but ye gotta try Dwarven Blood Brandy. Now that’s some well-aged liquor. Ye can even get some that’s over a century old. ‘Course ye’ll pay an arm and a leg for it, but by Melenduil’s tits it’s downright magnificent.”
“I shall be sure to find some once the Scarred Mountains start trading with Port Na’brath,” Vhindr replied sincerely.
The morning continued on in dull monotony, pleasant conversation, cold winds, and unchanged scenery. They stopped briefly for lunch but were soon on the trail again. As usual Legin and Bel’eak ran ahead, scouting the tundra and keeping an eye out for monsters. But it seemed that all manner of beasts were giving them a wide berth and they came across no adversaries.
“That mountain looks no closer than it did this morning,” Valianna grumbled loudly as they trotted along. “How much further Rhalin?”
“It is hard to say,” replied the woman from Gaianaus, “The Northern Waste plays on the eyes, causing things to appear further away or closer than they are. But from experience I would estimate that we shall be at the foothills of Frostback by this evening.”
“You have been there before?” Valianna inquired curiously.
“Yes,” nodded Rhalin, “During that period when the Elder Races had banded together as the Dun Kār and were posing lots of trouble to the lords of Gaianaus, some others and I came to Frostback.”
“To strike at their headquarters?” Kōrrin asked, a slight bitterness in his voice.
“No,” Rhalin was quick to reply, “To negotiate with them to desist hostilities.”
“How was their response?” queried Vhindr.
“Surprisingly positive,” Rhalin replied, “But Baron Ellengar had a way with words and people. Not to mention he offered complete equality.”
“Ellengar went to the negotiations?” Vhindr asked in surprise, “That was brave of him.”
“He believed on leading from the front,” Rhalin said distantly, “He used to say that ‘you should never ask another to do something you would not’.”
“Ye knew him well ay?” Kōrrin probed and Rhalin nodded.
“He was like a father to me,” Rhalin said softly.
Respecting Rhalin’s privacy they all left the conversation there and all that was left was the mournful sound of the wind and the slurp of the horse’s hooves through the mud. The single mountain still sat on the horizon, annoyingly still seeming as far away as it had done that morning. Then by mid-afternoon Frostback sudden drew closer, looming high into the sky, its rocky foothills clearly visible to them. Around its base the shimmering still waters of a lake glowed like a mirror in the fiery light.
It was not long before they reached the edge of the placid waters where Legin and Bel’eak waited for them as they sat comfortably on some flat stones, eating a meal.
“Looks like the moat goes all around,” Legin remarked as Vhindr looked across the lake.
“A good defensive position,” Bel’eak added, “If your assassin is holding up here it will be a hard task to reach her.”
“There is nothing for it,” Vhindr said determinedly and turned to Rhalin, “How do we traverse this moat?”
“There is a ford to the south, follow me.” Rhalin replied, her expression just as determined as Vhindrs’.
Legin and Bel’eak were quick to their feet as Rhalin took the lead and headed off and at canter. They followed the edge of the water to the south following a subtle trail around the rocks by the lake. They came soon to a more obvious path that was paved with rocks as it reached out across the mirrored surface. Puddles splashed as the horses thundered across the ford. Vhindr was once again thankful for the late thaw and the level of the lake was below the stone crossing allowing them to traverse it without getting wet.
On the other side of the lake the path wound up into the foothills and they slowed to a trot to move along the loose stone paths safely. Riding along, Vhindr looked to the snow covered peak of the mountain high above them, wondering if they would have to climb all the way to the top to meet with the snow elves who called Frostback their home.
The path leveled out and Rhalin slowed her horse to a walk as she cautiously glanced around at the rocks that covered the mountain side.
“We are close,” Rhalin remarked to Vhindr, “I expected to come across sentries by no-”
“Halt and be known.” A snow elf demanded as he appeared atop a rock, his readied bow aimed in their direction.
“I am Rhalin Raganarr,” said Rhalin loudly, “I am known to your leader, Meil’hiel.”
The elf did not reply and he narrowed his green eyes suspiciously.
“You are also known to me,” another elf said as she came from behind a boulder ahead of them. “Greetings Rhalin. Who is it you ride with?”
“Nien, it is good to see you well,” Rhalin replied politely before she introduced the others. “We need to speak with Meil’hiel on a matter of great importance.”
The snow elf studied them all closely, her short blue-white hair flicking about in the cold winds. But this elf, and the others who appeared from the terrain, did not seem to notice the cold as each of them wore simple and light clothing of grey linen lined with furs.
“You will dismount and follow me,” Nien commanded and those atop horses dropped from their saddles.
The snow elf motioned them to follow with a gesture as she turned and walked along the path.
“Not fond of outsiders it seems,” Vhindr remarked to Rhalin as he led his mount.
“Have you ever met a clan of Elves or Dwarves who are?” Rhalin asked in reply.
“In fact I have,” Vhindr was quick to say, “The clan of wood elves in Elmnest are very friendly.”
“An exception that proves the rule,” Rhalin dismissed his response and Vhindr chuckled.
“Please keep up.” Nien called over her shoulder, causing them to increase their pace.
Following behind the tall snow elf Vhindr glanced to the hillside and to the many elves that moved agilely over the rocks, their green eyes watching them closely and the bows close at the ready. The path continued along the plateau for many minutes over narrow stone bridges where chilled waters gushed underneath. After another bridge the path cut back long a dip in the steep hillside before coming to a stop at the foot of a large grey stone.
Without slowing Nein walked up to the rock face and drew a sign in the air with her hand. Vhindr caught the sound of some mumbled words before the rock disintegrated in veins of pale blue revealing a large tunnel stretching into the mountain.
“Your horses and weapons will remain here,” Nien said as several elves came from the tunnel.
Vhindr handed the reins to the elf without dispute, as did the others. Rhalin easily surrendered her sword, but Bel’eak was far more hesitant and of course Kōrrin could not.
“It’s attached to me arm ye blind git,” Kōrrin snapped and waved his axe hand to the snow elf.
“Nien, see this,” the elf called to his comrade, “The metal is grafted into the very flesh of his arm.”
“How did you do this?” Nien asked curiously.
“Dwarven secrets,” Kōrrin replied simply.
“You cannot enter, if you cannot remove the blade,” Nien stated and Kōrrin grumbled under his breath.
“What if I show ye this?” Kōrrin asked softly and pulled something out of his pocket.
Vhindr could not see what Kōrrin showed them but the elves looked quickly to each other in surprise.
“Very well, you may go in,” Nien decided, “But we will keep a close eye on you.”
Kōrrin nodded and returned the object to his pocket.
“Your sword Nevārancien,” demanded another elf and held out his hand to Bel’eak who was slowly undoing belted his weapon.
“Be sure you take great care with my saber,” Bel’eak said seriously and wrapped his belt around the sheath. “A Wynar’s sword is his life. I don’t expect you to understand, but I do demand your respect.”
The snow elf nodded and Bel’eak hesitantly handed his saber over.
“Good, let’s get going,” Legin said happily.
“With me,” Nien said seriously and again gestured for them follow.
Filled with curiosity Vhindr followed close behind and as they moved into the tunnel pale crystals began to glow along the carved walls.
“Carve this tunnel yeself?” Kōrrin asked one of the elves that walked with them.
The tall elf replied in his native language of which Vhindr did not understand, but of course Kōrrin did and they proceeded to have a conversation in Elder Speech.
Vhindr continued to look about in wonder at the dimly lit murals that were carved or painted along the tunnel wall, each depicting an elfin hero or historical event that he had no knowledge about.
The passage was not long and bright light lit up the exit. As they drew closer Vhindr could feel the warmth in the air and wondered if this place was built on hot springs like Issia was. But all his wondering did not prepare him for the glorious sight as they emerged from the tunnel into the heart of the mountain.
Vhindr’s mouth fell open and his eyes widened as he looked into an immense cavern and to the green plants and lush trees that grew vibrantly throughout. High above his head a bright light shone, its beams filtering down past the many tiers and into the concave area. Before him the path led downwards through the grass and streams where many flowers were blooming and many animals could be seen rustling through the foliage. At the bottom of the hill stood a large tree in the middle of an island where a stream ran around it, gushing from a waterfall at one end of the cavern and into a steaming pool at the opposite side.
“Welcome to Bel’dōr’raine,” Nien said politely.
“Fire’s Paradise?” Vhindr wondered aloud and gave the elf a curious look.
“You know some elfin,” Nien nodded in appreciation, “Our home is what remains of a long extinct volcano.”
The snow elf indicated for them follow with a gesture of her head and headed down the narrow path. Vhindr was quick to move after her as he continued to look around at the wondrous sight. Trees branches arched over the stone paved track that meandered downwards, occasionally branching off on other paths heading to the higher tiers of the grove.
“This place is incredible,” Vhindr heard Legin say as they moved over a small bridge that forded a stream that broke away from the main watercourse.
A few more turns through the sweet smelling plants and they came to another bridge that arched gently across the warm waters that flowed swiftly through the cavern. On the other side beneath the tree at an old stone table sat a male elf quietly reading a book.
Nien held up her hand to stop Vhindr and his companions as she approached the elf. Vhindr waited patiently as Nien and the elf exchanged words and his eyes again wandered around the immense cavern. He spotted several elves looking down from the heights, curiously talking among themselves and pointing in his direction.
The home of the snow elves was a peaceful place, too peaceful to be home to the assassin he was tracking.
“Greetings Rhalin Ragnarr,” the male elf beside Nien called pleasantly.
“And to you, Meil’hiel,” Rhalin replied respectfully before she introduced Vhindr and the others.
Meil’hiel nodded to each of them in turn, his green eyes sparkling with such wisdom and age that even Vhindr felt slightly intimidated by the elf.
“So to what do we owe the pleasure, Rhalin?” Meil’hiel asked seriously, “Have you come to persuade us to take up arms again, not for the Dun Kār but instead for your Baron?”
“No,” Rhalin was quick to reply, “We come on another matter, a matter much more grave.”
“Dun Hyic.” Vhindr said before Meil’hiel could respond.
The old elf and Nien exchanged quick glances, their eyes sharing an unspoken word.
“You know of whom we speak.” Vhindr stated, “Where is she?”
“Vhindr,” Rhalin said harshly, “Show some respect please, Meil’hiel is leader of the snow elves here, and the oldest among them.”
“If you do not tell me, know that you are harboring the assassin who murdered Baron Ellengar,” Vhindr continued undeterred. “An assassin who has also breached the laws of the use of Void magicks.”
“Vhindr.” Rhalin growled again.
“Spare me your threats and ignorance of magicks, son of House Varrintine,” Meil’hiel replied calmly, “The one you call Dun Hyic is not among us. Haylien, for that is her name, left Bel’dōr’raine some time ago and went to live among constructs of stone and iron, and on the streets of Men.”
“Curse it,” Vhindr grumbled, “I was wrong, we should have gone straight to Issia.”
“We were both wrong,” Rhalin added, before turning back to the old elf, “Can you tell us of Haylien?”
Meil’hiel gave a slight nod to Nien who departed the island before he motioned for Vhindr and company to join him under the tree.
Vhindr and the others were quick to follow and they joined the elf at the table covered in leaves and moss.
“Haylien’s tale is a sad one and each time I recall it I am reminded of my failures,” Meil’hiel sighed heavily. “She was but a child when she joined her brother and father on a hunt. We know not what tragedy befell them only that Haylien returned alone three days later covered in dried blood. No longer was she the cheerful girl, quick to smile and to laugh. Whatever had happened changed her for the worse, and with her mother already passed there were none to care or her. I should have taken it upon myself, and I did try, but none could reach her. As she grew older hate filled her thoughts and when we answered the call of the Dun Kār those years ago Haylien readily took up arms. What few raids we performed Haylien executed with gusto and outstanding proficiency. Her talents in magicks surpassing perhaps even my own. During this time she began to seem her old self, smiling more often and happy to sit and talk with an old elf such as myself.
“But then one day Baron Ellengar came to us to negotiate a peace. As you know Rhalin, we accepted his offer. What you may not have known was that Haylien was adamantly against it and during those discussions with the Baron she became lost in her anger once again.
“Not long after we stopped fighting as Dun Kār she left,” Meil’hiel finished, “I have heard naught of her since.”
“But isn’t that a flag of the Dun Kār?” Legin spoke up and pointed to the satin flag hanging among the branches of the wide tree.
“A remnant,” Meil’hiel shrugged as he glanced up to the branches.
“Did you ever learn what happened on the hunt with her father and brother?” Rhalin asked curiously.
“Not entirely,” the old elf looked to the patterns of algae on the stone table, “I sent a trio of hunters out not long after she returned, but they did not learn much. Monsters had eaten most of the bodies but it was clear that they had been killed by blades. Her father seemed to have died by a stab to the chest, where her older brother looked as if he had nearly been cleaved in two.”
“Haylien killed them?” Vhindr inquired, drawing a shocked look from the elf.
“No,” Meil’hiel said seriously, “Haylien would not have done that. They were all the family she had. She loved them. Loves them still.”
“Bandits than?” Bel’eak offered.
“My hunters could not tell,” Meil’hiel replied, “Although they were certain that there had been a third body that had been taken from the scene.”
Vhindr stroked his chin pensively, his eyes absently following the lines of moss across the table top.
“Did your hunters discern what killed them?” asked Vhindr, his eyes meeting the light green orbs of the elf.
“It was hard to tell from the damage the feeding monsters had caused,” replied the old elf, “But they seemed to think that it had been a spear that killed Haylien’s father, and perhaps a heavy weapon like an axe that felled her brother.”
“How did Haylien live?” Rhalin asked.
“Hid in the growth? I cannot say for certain,” Meil’hiel said as he ran a hand through his long blue-white hair. “But I am certain she saw it all. Alas I cannot be any further help than that, I am truly sorry I could not aid her. If she really was the one to kill Baron Ellengar then I pray your search will not end in her death, yet I am fearful it will.”
Everyone around the table fell quiet as Meil’hiel finished and the rush of the waterfall and song of the stream drifted around them.
“Thank you for sharing that with us Meil’hiel,” Rhalin finally said and the old elf smiled in response.
“But we came ‘ere for nothin’,” Kōrrin remarked gruffly.
“Looks like our destination lies in Issia,” Bel’eak nodded in agreement with the dwarf.
“Perhaps not,” the leader of the snow elves said, “Haylien knows the tundra and foothills like no other, and she could live out on the cold plains for days.”
“Well that’s encouraging,” Legin remarked and sighed despondently.
“Though I do agree that Issia is where you should look,” Meil’hiel said confidently.
“Thank you again,” Rhalin smiled, “We shall depart at once.”
“Night is almost upon us,” the old elf shook his head, “You will depart on tomorrow’s dawn and rest here for the night.”
“You are too kind,” Rhalin exclaimed and inclined her head respectfully.
“I shall have food and drink brought to you here,” the elf stood up as he spoke.
“One more thing before you go,” Vhindr implored and the elf indicated for him to continue. “You stated that I was ignorant in magicks.”
“I meant no offense,” Meil’hiel was quick to say, “I was simply stating a fact.”
“A fact?” Vhindr narrowed his eyes slightly, “Would you care to elaborate?”
“Do you ask from a place of pride?” Meil’hiel asked with a bemused smile.
“No,” Vhindr replied sincerely, “I am curious as to why you said it considering Void magicks have been an outlawed practice for centuries.”
The old elf nodded slowly, his eyes sparkled in the fairy lights that had begun to fire up throughout the cavern.
“Would that all your kind had a similar desire for knowledge,” Meil’hiel smiled wide and took up his seat again. “What you call Void magicks is just simply magick in its rawest form. It is the essence of life manifested from the Fog. Upon studying it Magi have found ways to change it, to manipulate it into spells and incantations. As that developed through the Ages magicks moved further away from its beginnings and people forgot. The natural forms of magicks were branded as void magicks and considered outside the law.”
“The reason it is called Void magicks is because no other spells will work in their vicinity,” Vhindr replied.
“Not so,” said Meil’hiel, “Like I said, magicks is the essence of existence. The reason no spells, as such, have no effect is because your adversaries have created an essence of negativity. The like that reduces all magicks in its area of influence to its base form. Thus spells of a Magi do not work, but magicks still do.”
“I’m confused.” Legin spoke up before Vhindr could reply.
“You have a very strong connection to the Fog, Legin, I can tell,” Meil’hiel stated, “And you use what you people call Void magicks. But in truth what you are doing is unleashing life’s essence through the Fog.”
“What do you mean by ‘life’s essence’?” Bel’eak cocked his head to the side.
“Such traits like speed and power.” Meil’hiel explained, “It also relates to elements like fire, ice, wind and earth.”
“Now you are talking about elementalism,” Valianna said, her interest obvious, “I have always been good with water based spells, like you Vhindr.”
“All types of magicks tie back to what I am explaining, what you call Void magicks,” replied the old elf, “If you wish to refer it to elementalism then you, Legin, have an affinity with wind, like Bel’eak is with ice.”
“What?” the Nevārancien asked in surprise. “I can’t use magicks, though I have tried, even did some meditation in Fog clouds in Ard Thengr.”
“Curious,” Meil’hiel raised an eyebrow, “I am usually not mistaken in these matters, perhaps you can use magicks yet simple have not worked out how.”
“Let us return to the initial topic, please,” Vhindr interrupted, “Meil’hiel, you are saying that all magicks, spells and otherwise, reduce back to this manifestation of life’s essence.”
The elf nodded.
“Which means, anyone can learn Void magicks?” Vhindr inquired.
“What of hexes and runes?” Rhalin looked to the elf intently.
“Runes are dwarven,” Kōrrin said before the elf could, and Meil’hiel nodded.
“What you call hexes, are in fact elfin signs,” the snow elf explained, “Our answer to runes, if you will. They are magickal symbols that use the Fog to create or meet a certain ends.”
“Like possessing grinlocks?” Vhindr asked and Meil’hiel regarded him in confusion. “Haylien set a horde of alpha grinlocks upon us. They had each a hex, or sign, burned into their flesh.”
“Signs can be used for these ends,” the elf nodded, “Though it is not the general practice.”
“Hence why they too have been outlawed,” Vhindr stated and the snow elf’s eyes narrowed.
“Have there not been Magi who tested the limits of what is morally acceptable?” Meil’hiel asked seriously, “Even with what you people consider legal?”
“That’s true,” Legin agreed, his eyes growing distant, “I’m a living example of that.”
“There will always be those who use magicks for evil ends,” Meil’hiel continued, “Does that render the wielder or the magicks as evil? Does a sword kill, or does a person kill?”
Vhindr conceded the elf’s wisdom and did not reply.
“Shall I have some food brought to you all?” the leader of the snow elves asked as he stood up.
“Yes please,” Legin exclaimed happily and Kōrrin was quick to sound his agreement.
“Very well,” Meil’hiel smiled, “If you wish to talk more you will find me to the western side of the cavern.”
With that the wise elf left them and headed through the trees. A couple of elves arrived shortly baring food and drink, placing it on the table and departing without a word.
“Hey, Kōrrin?” Legin spoke up with a mouthful of food, “What did you show that elf at the entrance to let you in without a fuss?”
“It was nothin’,” Kōrrin dismissed the question as he gulped down some sliced meat.
“Clearly it was something,” Bel’eak added, giving the dwarf a curious look.
“Jus’ somethin’ me an’ him would understand,” Kōrrin said gruffly.
“A symbol of the Dun Kār by chance?” Vhindr asked and Kōrrin shot him a glare.
“You were one of The Ravens?” Legin exclaimed, “Were you at Gun Dürin when all that happened?”
“Yeah I was there,” Kōrrin sighed, “What of it?”
“I was just curious,” Legin rolled his eyes and went back to eating.
Little else was said as they finished their meal and rested back in the stone chairs. The heat from the stream and pool at the far end kept the temperature inside the cavern pleasantly warm and Vhindr moved to lie down in the grass at the streams edge, his eyes gazing up through the tiers of Bel’dōr’raine.
“Who’s up for a game ‘o bront?” Kōrrin asked loudly and Valianna was quick to take him up on the offer.
Legin and Bel’eak moved to the side and similarly sat down in the thick grass as they talked quietly.
As Vhindr rested his eyes became heavy and the fairy lights throughout the grove blurred. He did not notice that he was drifting off to sleep and before he knew it he was in a deep restful slumber.