It was a long, boring day – even more boring than the days Lórannon had previously spent in the chapel, which was quite an achievement. For once he would have been glad to have Master Athelwych up at the head of the aisle, droning away, or perhaps Master Oweyn, lecturing in that amusingly high voice of his.
The other Paladin-Initiates looked similarly bored. Midday came and went with no improvement on their condition. The two brothers, Brann and Huwd, were now staging a mock-fight with mops and bucket-shields; Aobyn and Thelyd were both asleep on neighbouring pews; Llias, Osfaddyn and Gwyll were playing some kind of sight-and-name game down by the Elementals' murals. Rian sat on the pew just behind Lórannon, working knots out of his long, brown topknot.
"Do you think one runner could carry enough lunch for nine?" Lórannon asked him.
"Leave it alone, Lórannon."
The Wood Elf stretched out on his pew in resignation, only to find himself staring directly at the whorls of the wood-grain in front of his face. And just like that, one of the most painful thoughts he'd been trying to stave off for weeks leaped right into his mind: the thought, the knowledge, that he would never see his soultree again.
~Ha! Sapless little squirrel!~
Lórannon pulled his arm up so he could press his face against it, spilling the first tears silently. He'd heard that voice and felt that presence every day of his life. Funny that he'd managed to avoid thinking of it until now ...
~Watch how you climb! Don't pinch!~
"Don't be a sapling. I'd feel it if it really hurt."
~Have you come for a dried fish picnic with me again?~
"I can't eat them now. They're provisions. For my journey."
~Oh, I see.~
There had been a grove – the
grove – where all the soultrees of Kurailést grew, the hoary old and the seedling new, making way for each other to feel the sun's rays and reach roots towards the creek running through. And down towards one end of the creek, a slender young evergreen with a crooked lower limb had proudly reached up towards the sun with the rest ...
~That's a lot of fish.~
"Oh, all right. But I can't eat too many. Maybe just one."
~Drop the bones at my roots, please.~
Lórannon's grey Paladin-Initiate sleeve was becoming hot and wet with his tears, but he couldn't lift his face. This was a grief that couldn't be resented or snorted at for comfort. It was far, far too important.
~I saw strange things on the far side of the river today, squirrel.~
~Fleshlings. Dozens and dozens of them, thick as bracken.~
"One of their towns? That's a long way away. Wow, you're starting to merge with the Wood really well, aren't you?"
~I think so.~
"Next you'll be tattling me out to Father with all the other trees."
Restless movement came from the pew behind Lórannon. "Hey, you lot, why don't we do something instead of sit and chew fingernails?" Rian's amiable voice called out. "I'm dying of boredom. Let's sit and tell stories or something."
None of these boys knew about the stories that the soultrees could carry, real
stories from the heart and the fringes of the Great Woods, marvels throughout the East ...
~Fleshlings are strange creatures. They have big, dark bug-eyes, like possums.~
"Yeah, I know. There's one in the village right now, remember? I met him yesterday ..."
"What's there to tell stories about, Rian?" asked Llias blearily, interrupting his game with Osfaddyn and Gwyll.
"I don't know. Anything." A finger reached over Lórannon's pew and poked him in the shoulder. "Wake up, Lórannon. Come tell a story."
"I don't want to tell a story," Lórannon replied, as distinctly and clearly as he could with an arm over his face, forcing his voice not to quiver. "You can all talk. I will listen."
"Don't be like that." Rian's finger poked at Lórannon's shoulder a little longer, but the Elf stoically ignored it until Rian sighed and finally gave up, moving away to wake Thelyd and Aobyn.
Lórannon closed his eyes tighter than they already were and tried to chase down some sleep, wishing that the memories of his soultree's cheery, carefree voice would get out of his head now that he couldn't hear the voice itself.
Evening came. The light faded from the small, high-set glass windows of the chapel, forcing the initiates to move around and light candles. No-one really wanted to sit in the dark without the Paladins there.
"I'm starving," Thelyd groaned. "Suppose there's food left in one of the masters' offices? We could go right through the robing-room door there and into the back rooms to check. We wouldn't even have to go outside."
"No-one leaves the chapel, Thelyd," said Llias, steady. "The masters will be back soon."
I bet you wish you'd listened to me now,
Lórannon thought listlessly, but couldn't feel any real satisfaction over Thelyd's gnawing belly.
The other initiates muttered for a while – Brann and Huwd's tangled, unlikely story about their Paladin grandfather's exploits had long since fallen in a heap – and kicked their heels for a bit longer.
Several heads were starting to nod sleepily when a sudden, sharp thump came at the chapel door. Everyone jerked awake, and Lórannon sat up sharply from his pew with his heart thumping hard, until a dim voice called to them from outside – "Boys! Let me in!"
Llias and Rian hurried over to admit the weary-looking figure of Master Trebeld. Relief seemed to wash around the room like a cool breeze as the Paladin walked in and sat down on the closest pew, instantly surrounded by the full pack of initiates.
"Where are Master Athelwych and Master Oweyn, sir?" asked Llias anxiously.
"They'll be coming," Master Trebeld replied, squeezing the boy's arm. "All here? Good. You've all done well."
"Did you find out anything more about the Dark Elves, sir?" Rian prompted.
Master Trebeld didn't answer at once. The candlelight outlined dark hollows in his pinched face, and his hawkish nose cast half of his features into outright shadow. "Boys ... I should tell you this. We didn't go to find information. We went for help."
"Help, sir?" The fear in Rian's voice was reflected in eight other pairs of initiate eyes, but Master Trebeld quickly raised his hands as if trying to physically forestall it.
"Nothing has changed, Rian, and nothing else that we told you was a lie. The chapel is the highest of holy ground – pure and sanctified, anathema to Darkness. Setting foot in here would be agony for any Dark Elf, noble or common. The grounds of the chapter are also blessed, if not so powerfully – no demons can cross them freely if a Paladin brings his will to bear."
None of Lórannon's fellow initiates seemed mollified by that explanation, given the obvious question which Llias finally raised – "So why send for help, sir?"
"Because, Llias," replied Master Trebeld unhappily, "we can't stay in the chapel forever."
"Not without food," Thelyd sighed.
"I'm sorry, boys. You may be staying hungry for quite some time. Athelwych, Oweyn and I set out in different directions and tried to call to Paladins in neighbouring townships. We expect both the relay of our messages and the help itself to take some time to arrive – up to three days, perhaps."
"Sir," said Lórannon in a careful voice, begging the Elementals to prove him mistaken, "did you say you tried
to call to other Paladins?"
Master Trebeld didn't immediately respond. That was a full answer in itself.
had no luck, Lórannon," he clarified at last, firm and calm. "I rode out a few hours south of Lyffes and tried to form a link, but there were either no Paladins within reach of my call, or there were no Paladins able to respond. That's understandable. The townships to the south are much further away."
"We'll be trying again tomorrow, Lórannon. Besides, Athelwych and Oweyn may have already had more luck than I did."
So saying, Master Trebeld waved away the other questions that the initiates tried to press him with. "I know you're anxious, boys – that's why we didn't want to worry you when we left you to yourselves. But you mustn't work yourselves up over this. There's to be no more discussion until Athelwych and Oweyn come back."
They did not have long to wait. The candles had sunk by only the slightest fraction by the time another pounding at the door heralded Master Oweyn's return, and Master Athelwych followed very soon after that. Lórannon's ears were sharper than the other initiates', and he heard the outcome of their whispered discussions in the corner easily enough: the other two Paladins had found no more luck than Master Trebeld. There was no help coming yet.
"I hate this," said Rian, again in the pew behind Lórannon's. "I really do."
Lórannon didn't answer. He was trying to keep wood-grain out of his thoughts.
Gwyll, who had climbed up one of the propped window-cleaning ladders some time ago to stare outside, let out a sudden, startled cry and dropped right back down off the rungs where he'd perched. "Eyes! Eyes!" he shouted as he staggered and stooped to rub at his ankles, his voice echoing in the chapel with a clear mix of fright and excitement.
Skinny Master Oweyn vaulted two pews to stop eager Aobyn from climbing up for a look, and it was just as well; no sooner had the Paladin turned to scold the boy than a sharp, silvery crash and a light hail of glass shards came showering down from above, raining upon the pair as they shielded their faces. The flying stone that had shattered the window scattered several candles before striking the floor; one twirling candle even managed to light a corner of Gwyll's grey robe before he stomped it out.
"Ielei ynaian dhei, kuikuith!
" called a thin, cold voice from outside, colder than the night air whistling through the broken window, and laughter joined it.
Without any prompting, all of the initiates and the three Paladins drew away from the windows. "Gwyll, how many? How many?" several called, but the normally effervescent youngest now seemed too stunned to reply.
Master Trebeld put an arm across Llias's shoulder and drew him up as the oldest boy began to shake and sink down on his knees. "I'm sorry, sir, but this is how it was, this is just how it was," Llias said, in tears, visibly trying to hold them in as the cold voices continued their scornful cries. "It was just one night and so many people died ..."
"Hey, Lórannon!" exclaimed Rian suddenly, startled, but the Wood Elf had already set a simmering course, dashing down the aisle to the fallen rock and turning to hurl it right back through the window. Luckily for his furious gesture, the rock did just manage to make it through.
"Ya shí, guarrir délachir!
" Lórannon yelled after the missile as Rian ran down the aisle and started hauling him back towards the others. "I hope that breaks your head!"
The three Paladins quickly shepherded all the boys towards the better shelter of the Elementals' murals, where the surrounding five pillars of the Elementals could offer a little more cover. There, they sat in relative silence – the Dark Elves outside had gone curiously silent after Lórannon's stone – while Master Trebeld continued to try to comfort Llias.
"Why didn't they attack us last night, sir?" asked Rian thoughtfully, glancing over his shoulder at the broken window.
"Last night we saw them off early, Rian," Master Athelwych replied in his monotone. "We recognised their presence before they could slip into the chapter."
"Lórannon's late escape was a blessing in disguise," said Master Oweyn, dry. "I doubt we'd have had such warning if we hadn't already been out searching every nearby bush for our Wood Elf."
Master Athelwych's thick brows arched in that way
again. "Tonight is different," he went on. "Tonight the Dark Elves can see that we're hiding from them. And they've seen, after all our movements today, that there are very few Paladins here. We aren't a threat to them. We can hold them back on blessed ground – as we did last night – but we aren't truly a threat."
"Get Goldenlocks to throw a few more rocks," suggested Thelyd.
"Why are the Dark Elves here, sir?" Lórannon asked directly, ignoring the last remark. "Who is the noble? You know her. I have heard you talking about her."
The masters shared grim, tired looks. "She's a very old enemy," Master Oweyn said at last. "The lady of a Dark Elven household ... a minor family, certainly not among the truly powerful, but dangerous all the same. Her name is Maiya Alyrrith."
"We thought we'd seen her last five years ago," added Master Athelwych, "but it appears her grudge goes too deep for her to forget."
"Her grudge?" asked Gwyll eagerly. Several of the other boys rolled their eyes, irritated or amused by Gwyll's constant legend-hunting. It was commonly believed that he'd signed on to join the Paladins just for a chance to swing a glowing sword.
This time it was Master Trebeld who spoke up, looking unhappier than ever. "Yes, Gwyll, a grudge. I killed her son in a Dark Elven raid seven years ago, far, far away from here, while I still lived in a Northern chapter called Almir."
"Killed her son?" echoed Llias bitterly. "What do Dark Elves care for family?"
"Nothing in the sense that we do, Llias," replied Master Trebeld, "but the son that I killed was Maiya Alyrrith's only heir, and she is too old for more children. Her family is finished, and for that alone I think she'll hunt vengeance forever."
"Four years ago, after the events in Almir, Trebeld was sent to our former chapter in Braddyn," Master Oweyn put in, wrapping his skinny frame more tightly in his broad white cloak. "It was leagues away from Lyffes and Almir both. But she came for him there, too. Her household was larger then; our whole chapter had to fight her. And after the battle was done, the three of us were sent all the way out here to Lyffes."
It was hardly a fulsome explanation. Lórannon made a private, uneasy guess about the fate of the rest of the chapter of Braddyn, knowing better than to risk everyone's nerves and ask a direct question.
"So will you all fight her again, sir?" Gwyll asked in the same hero-seeking voice. "When the other Paladins arrive?"
"We'll do whatever we have to, Gwyll," Master Athelwych responded. "It all depends how many Paladins answer our call."
"And now it is becoming late. Get warm if you can, boys, and try to sleep. The morning will bring better things."
'Getting warm' was easier said than done on the cold chapel floor – even more so than the uncomfortable pews had been. Following the three masters' example, all the initiates reluctantly huddled together under the murals of the Elementals, curling up in their robes as best they could, listening to the light, cold Elven voices that had struck up again outside.
The day's stresses did claim most of the boys after a while, but Lórannon simply couldn't sleep. Thelyd and Huwe – and Master Oweyn, as it turned out – were all horrible snorers. And even without their snorting chorus at Lórannon's ear, he simply felt too wakeful. He'd slept all night last night and napped a little in the day; for any Elf, that was more than adequate for two or three days.
So finally, after a few hours of aggravation, Lórannon fought free of Aobyn's outflung arm and crawled out of the press.
Drowsing Master Athelwych snapped to attention, looking up at Lórannon from his seat against Elemental Water's blue pillar. "Sit down," the master cautioned, though not angrily. "No wandering tonight."
"I won't go near the windows, sir," promised Lórannon, also keeping his voice down for the others. "I'll stay close to the front of the chapel. I just need to move around a little."
Master Athelwych looked at him for a moment, keenly, but finally gave a short nod and went back to keeping his weary watch. Lórannon stepped away from the others, pacing around the gentle arc of the mural wall, finding a new place to stand on his own. For once he couldn't resent the clumsy boots they always forced him to wear – his feet were by far the warmest part of his body.
The Wood Elf sighed out a little plume of steam, chafing at his arms through the grey robes, and turned his back on his fellows to idly study the mural. Two candles had been left to burn in their settings within the wall, providing just a little light.
The main icons of the Elementals themselves were further around the curvature of the wall; here Lórannon could only look at the borderwork on holy Siannath's right. The artist had chosen to surround the five holies with renderings of each Elemental's work, each in their signature colour, so Siannath's border was predictable – a sun painted in her crimson, crimson stars, a crimson human man and woman, some crimson tongues of flame ...
He could already feel his mind trying to make the obvious jump back to the bleaker thoughts that fire provided. For as long as he could he fought it off – Idiot! What are you, a child? Get a hold of yourself!
Then his mind responded with a memory-echoed voice, a deep, authoritative voice resonating with frustration. Ai-ya, the trees never gave a truer name! Get a hold of that burning temper for just one instant, Lórannon, and apologise!
I want to, Father, I want to, I want to ...
Lórannon's last attempt at manly resolve failed him, and he found himself crying again, half-grieving, half-angry. He managed to do it silently, his face turned away from all the others in the chapel. It would all be different if you'd let me back. I'd try harder, I'd do as you say, I'd behave just like the other boys ...
His tears doubled. He knew it wasn't true. And he knew, in a deeper, frightened layer of his thoughts, that even an ordeal like this – even such a terrible longing for loved ones and familiar, comfortable spaces – wouldn't really make him happy to go back to his old life. He would get restless and angry and resentful all over again. The soultrees themselves had given him his birth-name, Fire-Heart, as if to tell him so.
There was no place for fire in the Great Woods.
Looking at the candlelit, crimson blur of Siannath's mural was doing Lórannon's state of mind no favours. He whirled around before his temper could tempt blasphemy, abandoning the mural wall altogether for the dark corner where the less remarkable walls of the chapel began, and curled up there to furiously try to fend off more tears. Stop whining! I hope the Dark Elves give you something real to whine about!
"Nice to stretch," sighed a sudden voice from nearby.
"Shh, you'll wake everyone," someone else admonished.
It was Llias and Rian. Lórannon looked up sharply from his hunched study of his lap to see that the two young Easterners stood only a few feet away from his corner, cast in dark shadows by the candlelight. They were facing the empty chapel pews rather than Lórannon himself, who was huddled away to their right; evidently they were set on an idle chat to pass the icy hours.
"Sorry," Llias whispered, stretching his arms up over his head. He truly was prodigiously tall for an Easterner – even gangly-tall Master Oweyn had to look up to speak to him. "Yah, what I wouldn't give for my blankets in the dormitory, patches and all! Uw fŕddyn glávna, na ...
"We should probably speak Common, Llias," whispered Rian, predicably. "I mean, we're not in schooling at just this moment, but it's all good practice."
"You're such an Elemental angel, my boy," Llias quietly chuckled back. "If this weren't a school for Paladins, I'd probably have to tie your sleeves together while you slept."
"The other boys back home used to fill my boots with mud and set fire to my topknot," came the dry reply. "I'm glad all my brother Paladin-Initiates are too virtuous and pious for that."
"Yeah, well, keep an eye on Lórannon. I'm pretty sure he's the topknot-singeing type."
The two boys laughed, without malice. Lórannon smiled to himself, just a little, ignoring the taste of the tears that seeped into his mouth. He did like the other boys. Their culture was utterly bizarre, they were clumsy as newborns and noisy as birthing brush-pigs, but they were warm, genuine. They were also more mature than Wood Elves their age tended to be; autonomy was not, after all, expected of a young Wood Elf until his eightieth year.
It might have been nice to have been born a human. Then he could be standing there laughing with the two other boys, rather than looking on from the outskirts with such frightening, despicable loneliness ...
There was a sigh from Llias. "It's good to stretch and
laugh a little. I'm scared out of my wits right now, and I don't mind saying it."
"We're all scared."
"That's what I mean! The masters – they're scared too. Even Master Athelwych. You can see it in all of them. If they can't reach any other Paladins ..."
"'Don't mind if
until it's when,
'" interrupted Rian gravely. "My dad used to say that a lot. Then again, he also used to say that standing under a full moon would kill bedbugs."
Llias laughed again. "You're pure iron, Angelbritches. You'll be bawling at the Dark Elves with Goldenlocks next."
Lórannon wondered with some unease if he usually figured so prominently in the other initiates' conversations, and whether it was always in a positive sense or not.
"From behind a stone wall, maybe," snorted Rian. "Wouldn't catch me doing it to a Dark Elf's face, though."
"I couldn't even do it from here, Rian." Llias's face wasn't visible at the moment, but Lórannon could hear
its pallor simply by his voice. The sound of it was faint, eroded by a black, long-abiding fear. "Not even from here."
"Llias," Rian replied, instantly, "I don't think there'd be one man in ten thousand who'd try to join the Paladins after seeing a real Dark Elven noble. If that's cowardice you're hinting at, I can only refer you to a famous saying of the philosopher Thelyd."
"Oh, here we go. Thelyd the Philosopher?"
"Surely you have heard his teachings from the mountain. Oft has he said, 'Spare me, you bloody halfwit.'"
Llias laughed, doubling a little in the middle so he could do it more quietly. "I thought 'What're you whining about now, you great grandmamma?' was ofter."
"The wisdom of Thelyd applies to every man, halfwit and grandmamma, my child. Some receive it more bountifully than others."
"Which reminds me – where is
"Good question. He was the one who elbowed me in the head and woke me up. I should really have words."
I don't know how any humankind survive the night-time when they can't see an inch past their noses,
thought Lórannon, but for once he was glad of their shortcomings. He certainly didn't want them to see him hunched up and teary-cheeked in a corner. Hopefully they'd just get cold and go back to 'bed', for want of a better word, rather than rouse Master Athelwych to look for him ...
It was a voice from outside.
"Trebeld Irwenhove. You answer.
All those wakeful in the chapel froze, sitting up straight to attention, and Lórannon saw Llias catch briefly at Rian's arm as the two initiates whirled around. The voice was just audible through the moan of the wind through the broken window, as if the cold itself were speaking. Its imprecise Common was thin and sharp, slow but deliberate.
Master Trebeld rose, though the Dark Elf could not know it, and answered in a clear, firm tone. "Answer with my voice, or with another stone?"
"Lady Alyrrith say you this. Lady Alyrrith say she wait. You come out tshapel, Trebeld Irwenhove.
Everyone had woken or been shaken awake by now. Lórannon took the time to dry his face and blink away the last of his tears, still standing behind them all in his furthest corner.
"Trebeld Irwenhove is not leaving the chapel," called Master Athelwych, also standing, his toneless voice always loud enough when he wanted it to be. "Your Lady Alyrrith can keep waiting. You 'say her' that."
"She will, chminathi. She always wait Trebeld Irwenhove, hais vilest?
"Athelwych," said Master Trebeld in a low, hesitant voice.
Master Athelwych's dark silhouette swept out a hand as if fanning some ill air from his face. "Leave the thought unfinished, Trebeld. She'll show the rest of us no more and no less mercy – which is to say none – whether or not you surrender yourself. You know it."
"I do know, Athelwych ... but ..." Master Trebeld let out an explosive, angry sigh. "I can't stand the thought that her grudge will drag all our boys into this, undeserved ..."
"The blame for that is still hers, not yours. And we'll be all right in the end."
Master Trebeld growled as the icy voice from outside spoke again. "We have nothing more to discuss, demon!"
"Last say. You come out tshapel, you die. You stay tshapel, you die. Come out now, more soon finish.
"We're far from dead, you black snakes," Master Oweyn cast back flatly.
A splintering crash split the air as another window exploded inward, just as before, but this time followed by another and another and another ... all along the north wall of the chapel they disintegrated into hails of glass, the rocks that smashed them biting chips out of the chapel stone where they fell.
The Paladins and initiates huddled close amidst the cover of the pillars, waiting for the brutal rain to stop falling, and Lórannon pressed himself tighter into his corner. More cold air and more laughter poured into the chapel through the jagged frames as the voice returned.
"Next no stones. Soon get fire. Then you die.
Master Athelwych stood quickly again, turning towards Lórannon's corner – quite aware of where he was – and beckoning him, Llias and Rian back to join the others. For once Lórannon didn't argue, darting across the floor to rejoin their cramped huddle.
"You've got your work cut out for you with all these new stones, Goldenlocks," observed Thelyd, his voice accompanied by the faint, scattered notes of residual glass-shards falling.
"Let's all get one," muttered Rian.
"Hush now, boys," Master Oweyn said quietly. "Rest if you can't sleep. Tomorrow will be a very taxing day for us all."
Ielei ynaian dhei, kuikuith! - Come out, all you rodents!
Ya shí, guarrir délachir! - Get out of here, you filthy darklings!
Uw fŕddyn glávna, na ... - It's absolutely freezing, this ...
chminathi - Paladins
hais vilest? - doesn't she? isn't that so? (tag question)