Friends Old and New

“I've seen something like this before,” Jeke said, examining Horo.

“No you haven't,” Reise said emphatically. “Believe me, you've never seen anything like this.”

Jeke turned to them, not listening. “King's Foil... Athelás if you know the elven word."

“Orla, do you know elf?” Reise asked her.

“I am an elf,” she whispered.

“No matter. I know elf too and got what you're looking for right here,” Reise replied, pulling some dead leaves out of his pack.

“That's wolfsbane,” Orla corrected. “And you should be careful handling it...”

Seeing they were of no help, Jeke pulled out his own vial, the last one of his own medicine. With an indication to the others, they propped up Horo as he tilted the simple concoction into his mouth. A pinching of his nose and closing of mouth allowed it to be swallowed easily.

“You're a man of many talents, hero man,” Reise said. “I want to be you when I grow up.”

Horo drank the medicine and then lost consciousness.

“Don’t let him die, he’s very special to us,” Reise said, he and Orla kneeling down next to the sickly man.

“He won’t die. Not on my watch,” Jeke replied stalwartly.

“Thank you, Jeke. Horo means everything to me,” Orla said, tenderly brushing a lock of grey hair off Horo’s forehead.

The Weapon’s Master gave her an understanding nod. He carried Horo over to his horse and strapped the ill man to the side of Barrel on the opposite side of Joseph, and they then all left the mountain valley. Along the way, as they galloped beneath the growing twilight, turning the cloud-ridden sky to a dark lavender, Horo disappeared from the fastenings that held him, even as Joseph continued to thrash and speak aloud his grim chant, but none seemed to take notice...

Sitting side-saddle, wrapped in a warm, woolen blanket and lolling back comfortably against Reise, Orla slept the sleep of exhaustion due to the trials of the previous day. And in the midst of her peaceful, restive slumber, she heard a haunting voice magically calling out to her from across the Astral Plane. She slipped down from the horse, saw that she was home in the Mithilnir Deepwood at the heart of the Skeldergate Forest, and finally understood that this was all a strange dream she was having. Turning around, she observed herself lying fast asleep, Reise's arms securely supporting her swaddled form even as he held the reins in his hands and rode alongside Jeke, Horo never having been strapped to the horse for real.

Again Orla heard the voice calling to her, a ring of insistence in its imperious tone, and she followed the direction it was coming from. The dense foliage and overhanging vines moved aside of their own accord, respectfully making a welcoming path for the petite blonde woodsprite. It was dark, but shafts of moonlight filtered through the drapery of leaves and branches above, illuminating the rich vegetation that carpeted every surface of the spectral forest. Colourful blooms festooned the undergrowth that was a multitude of different shades of green depending where the eerie light fell.

Beneath gargantuan trees, Orla hopped and skipped easily over familiar moss-laden logs and between the low boughs, wide ferns, and prickly briars, until the emerald curtains of the Deepwood parted to yield to a vast, incongruous desert that stretched out to the night's horizon. She somehow knew this was the Sea of Ash, a largely lifeless region that spanned the entirety of the Sultanate of Zatar. Standing on its edge looking out over its bleak expanse, she glimpsed an apparition drifting across the endless, sandy dunes, and focusing her keen eyes, saw it was a beautiful night elf woman, wearing an ancient crown of cold iron. The latter gave her pause, but not enough to resist the magical telepathic call.

Orla was stepping forward to meet the Iron Queen when an arm moved out in front of her, barring her path. She turned and her eyes moved up the arm to a face she'd wondered if she'd ever see again. Avara Xaulder, the Avatar of the goddess Fernoia; a mentor, teacher, and friend who had been the centre of her world for most of her life — someone beloved and worshipped by her ancestors for untold generations, the spiritual guide to all the Skeldergate woodkin, the very personification of their patron deity.

Avara stood in a soft green dress with pink roses woven into her long, niveous hair, the moonlight radiantly bathing her in its ghostly halo. “You would do well to stay clear of that one,” she said, nodding toward the approaching elven warlord. “By all accounts the Iron Queen is an appallingly disturbed individual.”

“Miss Xaulder!” Orla exclaimed in amazed delight. “Are you really here... or is this but a dream?”

Avara smiled back paternally. “You are dreaming, Orla. The Iron Queen has been appearing to all the elves of Aeran in their dreams. She is attracting flocks of followers, those who thirst for revenge and payback for the crimes of mankind; she is seducing them with fantasies that the world can be turned back again to a bygone age when elves ruled supreme over all. You are attuned to the ancient magic that is at work, and at the same time less susceptible to it due to certain pacts and agreements made aeons ago between the divinities.”

“But I still hear the magical call of her voice...”

“Of course you do. All are called, but most will not heed her siren call when they awaken, for most elves are on a whole, kindly souls, with no hate in their hearts even for those who may have badly hurt and done them wrong.”

“How can she call all the elves?” Orla questioned. “Where does such powerful magic come from?”

The Iron Queen was striding out of the moon-lit desert coming directly toward them now and Avara regarded her with disapproval. “Let's just say that this woman is a pawn of terrible powers better left forgotten in the dim and distant past. She does not serve the cause of Chaos and Life, but is rather an instrument of the forces of War and Death, akin to a spreading forest fire, burning everything in its path until it is spent. She will undoubtedly cause a great amount of suffering before she is stopped.”

“Are we to stop her then?” Orla asked.

Avara frowned slightly. “As I have said, you would be wise to stay clear of her. 'Twould please me if you and Horo found someplace to go far away from the war. It is not your battle. Let others deal with her.”

“How is Horo? Will he be alright?”

“I hope so, but I cannot say. I am not really the Avatar, Orla.”

Orla blinked and frowned. “You're not? Then who are you?”

“Mayhap I am a mere figment of your imagination, a memory given momentary life by the Astral Plane.”

“You're more than that, surely?”

“I am afraid that I am in all likelihood only the part of me that still resides in you. But... perhaps that is enough.” Avara moved in front of Orla, and as the Iron Queen reached them, made a mystical gesture with her right hand that caused the ruthless night elf to instantly dissolve into nothingness. “I have severed her mystical connection to you. It would not be a good thing for her to become fully aware of your existence. Now that the others and I are gone you must trust in Horo more than ever; he is savvy in the ways of the world, highly resourceful, and devotedly loyal. I could not have chosen a better protector for you.”

“Where did you all go? Are you still alive? Will I see you again?”

“I cannot answer those questions either, but you are still quite young, with a long life ahead of you. It should prove ample time to learn the truth, and discover a great deal more besides. Waken now, child of Fernoia, for Master Kerron has found a place to make camp for the night.”

Orla awoke feeling slightly groggy mentally and not a little confused. Had she experienced a divinely inspired vision or was it naught but the product of her own mind as the vision itself had claimed? She had been raised to heed visions, particularly those in the form of her goddess. She opened her eyes and found herself back swaddled in the warmth of the blanket and Reise's body alongside her. She noted the crackling of a fire, and the strong odour of lathered horseflesh.

“Did you have pleasant dreams?” Reise asked, seeing she was awake.

“They were interesting ones,” Orla replied thoughtfully. She sat up and craned her neck to look around. “Speaking of dreams, how is that man Jeke has bound to his horse?”

“You mean The—Age—of—Man—has—Ended guy?”

“Yes, him.”

“He finally shut up and Jeke put him over there under a tree. Did he tell you the one about the shadows of revenge?”

“He may have mentioned it a time or two.”

“From Shadows of Revenge, those suffering by the might of Man shall return and put Man back in his place,” Reise repeated in a comically grave tone before chuckling. “He really needs to get some new material; it's beginning to get a little stale.”

“Those are the deathly words of the Iron Queen.”

“Then she needs to get some new material.”

Orla shook her head. Had Joseph's repetitive chant caused her to dream what she had? “Since he's not an elf I don't understand why he is reciting her words.”

“Maybe he's just a big fan?”

“You shouldn't poke fun at him; I sense he's in considerable pain.”

“He's not the only one,” Reise replied, shifting in the saddle. “I'm not used to riding a horse and my backside feels like one big bruise.”

“Oh, I'm so sorry...” Orla winced sympathetically. “I've only ridden horseback a few times. But I myself am uninjured.”

“That's because you've been mostly sitting on my lap. Being the noble hero deep down that I am, I bravely bear the discomfort, which is not pleasant at all,” he added, with a straight face.

She slanted her fey eyes at him. “Shall we trade places?”

“No,” Reise said, turning serious. “If you were behind me you might fall off and break your neck. For my peace of mind I prefer to keep you where I can see you, but it's good that you're so short as I can also see where we're going over the top of your head.”

“The life story of short girls with tall friends,” Orla remarked with mock ruefulness.

“You're not only short, but small and delicate. Too much so to ride a big knight's horse. A pony would be more your size.”

“I should prefer to travel under my own power.”

“Me too,” he replied, lowering his voice. “But even more I'd prefer to blend in with everyone. It's a good skill to have and nobody will give us a second glance on a horse once we reach Karavoss.”

“I wonder what Severos will think of you,” Orla said idly.

“Severos?” Reise said. “Is that the wizard friend of yours? I can't wait to meet a real live wizard! Does he do magic tricks?”

She shook her head again and laughed merrily. It was a very pleasing, musical laugh, clear and bell-like, but dangerously revealing her inhuman nature. “Severos is a mage adept, and oh, he's a brilliant lad. His magical skills are quite sophisticated for one so young, and despite my advantage in years, he's far more powerful than I am.”

“Wait, you know magic too?” Reise asked.

“I have been known to have my magical moments,” Orla said self-effacingly.

He whispered, “Better keep that on the down low, at least until we’re away from Sarnia and other intolerant places.”

Reise dismounted at the campsite and helped Orla down from the horse, gently setting her to the ground as though she were the most precious work of art, a fragile treasure that might break easily. He turned to Jeke and now eyed him with more respect. “I thank you for your gallant service to us. I don't think we were ever properly introduced. My lovely companion is Orlaith Carling of the Carlingwood Carlings of Verden. And I, sir, am Reise Hund. In the common tongue, my name translates to Wandering Dog. In my own language I am known as... something else.”

“Pleased to meet you both, and helping those in need is part of my code,” Jeke explained before walking over to Sunder by the fire.


"That man is wanted, you said," Jeke went on, with a motion to Joseph. He pulled out his wine skin and took a swig, continuing, "Varland is rather far from here... Even for him. What murders was he accused of?" he asked, offering the warm wine to the other Weapons Master.

“I do not imbibe,” Sunder said and raised a dismissive hand to politely refuse the wine. “There was a spate of anti-human hate crimes believed to be inspired by the Iron Queen. Men were killed. Local elves were suspected of being behind the attacks, but on three separate occasions Lithwick was known to be in the vicinity and acting strangely. There was another witness that saw him trying to enter the Church of the Fair Lady and being repelled at the door as if by some unseen force. That Church is open and accepting of everyone yet he could not enter it. The Mother asked me to look into the matter, but it has drawn me away from my... other work... for far too long and I must get back soon.”

(Co-written with LSP)

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