Kythorn 30, 1277, Year of the Beholder, the Great Forest of Tethyr
“You… you cannot be serious about this, A'maelamin, please tell me it was but an empty jest!” Angrily, he broke their embrace, pulling himself away from the warm, clinging hands of his lover.
The dawn was approaching swiftly, but the bedchamber was still drowned in blue shadows. In the lingering semi-darkness, the graceful silhouette of a woman against the silken sheets of a double bed appeared frail and almost ethereal. Surely, she was still here with him, in the intimate space they had shared together for many decades, yet for a split second it felt as if he was alone in an empty room covered in dust and cobwebs, and Ellesime was no more than a shadow… a fleeting ghost born of his inflamed imagination. Perhaps, their entire romance had been only a long, futile dream? He shook his head, chasing away the sudden spell of dizziness.
“Unquestionably, and with all my heart, I wish that I were jesting, Mela en' coiamin,” the Queen replied sadly, propping herself up to a sitting position, and hugging her smooth, golden knees. “Regrettably, it is not so.” The wealth of russet locks spilled over her bare back and shoulders, swathing her naked shape in a cape of faintly gleaming threads. “I gave King Errilam my word,” Ellesime continued in a solemn voice, “and this means we both will have to endure this brief separation, if only to prove that our love is strong enough to survive such a minor trial.”
Despite the steadiness of her voice, her lips trembled as she spoke – he was sure they did. Undoubtedly, they could not have stayed firm while pronouncing this most cruel of verdicts?!
The mage jumped to his feet, taking a few steps away from the bed and the exquisite form of his royal lover, and Ellesime’s eyes lingered on his lithe figure, as he stumbled through the room in search of his robes. Her consort was unusually tall for an elf, yet just now his shoulders slumped under the weight of his misery, suddenly making him look smaller and less important. His hands trembled as he blindly groped for his clothes, so carelessly discarded on the floor only a few hours ago. Inside his chest, a heavy lump of ice was forming slowly, making it hard to breathe, let alone speak. Fighting the rising tide of despair, he unclenched his teeth, and took a few sharp intakes of air, trying to clear his head.
“To whom are you trying to prove it, my Queen, yourself or someone else?” He demanded sharply. “And why does the strength of our love need be tested, all of a sudden?” A deep menacing growl rose from his throat, even as his lips pulled back in a sharp grimace of anguish that was quickly transformed into a sarcastic scowl. “Unless, of course, you are subtly trying to tell me that it is all over between us. If that is indeed the case, her Majesty should have been clearer with her wishes!”
“How can you be so stubborn and so cruel, my love?” Ellesime’s voice sounded nearly pleading now. “I never meant anything of the kind...”
“Cruel? I am cruel? You are sending me away. What other explanation can I arrive at?”
“Joneleth, I cannot go back on my word. This city’s future depends on it!”
“But of course!” Her lover bristled like an angry dog. “And I should be proud that my Queen has gone to such lengths to spare her court magician’s feelings!”
“Her Majesty should not have exerted herself – it would have been sufficient to tell me that my other services are no longer needed.” He had finished pulling on his robes, and was now fumbling with clasps and buttons, his hands shaking as badly as those of an old drunkard.
“Stop insulting me with your false, mean-spirited accusations!” Ellesime had to stop and quiet her own breath before she could continue. “How can you be so... so... petty? Jon, I told you, I love you as much as I ever loved anybody! In truth, I think I love you too much, both for my own good, and for that of Suldanessellar. Now, will you stop this madness and listen?”
“Listen to you, my Queen? To what end? Are you going to tell me that your proposal was a silly joke, designed to test my loyalty?” She could see his lips curl in a derisive smile that looked more like a spasm, and had to bite her lip to stifle a sob.
“No. But, Joneleth... you have to be reasonable!”
“How can you call me unreasonable, A'maelamin? I am not threatening to leave you; it is you who are trying to drive me away. Me – your best and only defense against any possible threat to this city! How did you come up with the idea?”
The crumbling mask of arrogance on his contorted face was painful to behold, and that expression nearly broke her heart. Above anything else the Queen wanted to rush to her lover’s side, take his haughty, beloved face into her hands, and wipe out his pained expression with fervent kisses. But she knew how this would end, and could not afford to break her resolve just now. It was enough that it had taken her the entire night to prepare for this conversation.
“Jon, your cooperation is crucial to the plan. If you refuse to pledge your allegiance to Errilam, follow him to his court in Ithmong, and to stay for at least the few years that would be needed to settle Bodhi as their new Queen, the whole marriage agreement will be off. I simply cannot go back on my word – it would be a political disaster on a scale no responsible leader could afford to ignore!”
“I cannot be convinced that this foolish pact is constructive, my Queen. Hence, I cannot be bound by it. Nor can I be commanded to follow the human. Not even by you, A'maelamin.” His tone was chill and steady again – too steady for her liking. Determinedly, he strode towards the bedchamber doors.
“Jon, you cannot walk away from me like this and try to pretend this talk has never happened! I am still your Queen, even if your feelings are too shallow to accept the necessity of the sacrifice.”
“Perhaps you are mistaking me for someone else, A'maelamin?” Was the cool reply. “I would never abandon you to your own devices. The problem has to be dealt with, and I find your solution both silly and dangerous. Therefore, I am forced to take the initiative into my own hands.”
“Jon! For Seldarine’s sake – what are you planning to do?”
“I am going to solve your problem, A'maelamin, in the way I see fit,” his eyes flashed with cold blue fire, “and fair.”
“All will be done in accordance with her Majesty’s wishes.” Captain Aduo'on’s face reflected little of his inner feelings. Neither surprise nor curiosity over his untimely summons to the Queen’s chambers distorted his features, which looked as if they had been cast out of dark bronze rather than shaped by the hand of Nature. From that stern, coppery visage, a pair of slanted eyes, the palest shade of aquamarine, looked at the Queen with an expression of habitual composure.
The Queen and the captain of her Royal Guard enjoyed a special relationship that went back decades, if not centuries. Ellesime had known Aduo’on Greenfyre from the cradle, and trusted him almost unconditionally, which made him the most influential member of the Greenfyre clan at the Royal Court of Suldanessellar, as well as the head of his noble House. With all her unchallenged powers as both a ruling monarch and the daughter of a great elven deity, Ellesime was grateful to have at least one man in her entire entourage, to whom she had never had to explain herself, but could simply give orders that would be obeyed unconditionally and followed to the letter. Even the members of the Queen’s private circle such as High Priestess Demin, or Duke Goldfeather, (not to mention Ellesime’s most fickle and unpredictable Arcane advisor), could not always be relied upon in certain sensitive matters. But she knew that ‘her’ captain would never question his Queen’s motives, or look for the hidden divine portents in the sudden changes to the Queen’s daily routine, (now that was Demin’s most annoying habit). Yes, when it came to unconditional loyalty and discretion, Aduo’on Greenfyre time and again had proven himself to be an irreplaceable asset.
Captain Aduo’on held the gaze of his oddly nervous Queen with an air of quiet confidence; however inside his head the first seed of worry had already taken root. This was certainly not his first hasty summons to her Majesty’s chambers. Staying true to her sylvan nature, Ellesime had never restricted her governance of the city to daylight hours; on the contrary, she often preferred the quiet hours of the night for the most important of her assignments. However, the Queen did not have the habit of improvisation, nor did she normally invite him to her bedroom in the small hours of the morning. The rumors of the latest argument between Her Royal Majesty and the Archmage had already spread through the Palace, yet at first Aduo’on had not paid it much attention. The arguments between Ellesime and her ill-tempered lover had provided Suldanessellar’s Court with gossip for decades, but had never resulted in a serious breakup. However, combined with the recent chain of events that had culminated in the hastily announced betrothal of Joneleth’s sister to King Errilam, the latest royal quarrel gave food to uncertainties that the good captain would normally have tried to suppress.
“My Queen should not worry about her guest’s safety,” he proclaimed after some period of silence, “all seven of the Lord Constable’s sons have been following on King Errilam’s heels since the first day of his arrival to the city. By prior arrangement, they keep me informed of all his movements. Try as I might, I could never provide him with better bodyguards.”
“They are a formidable bunch,” Ellesime agreed. “Even so, I would like you to post extra guards at the entrance to Errilam’s chambers.”
“I shall do my Queen’s bidding,” the captain replied cautiously, “although this would be unnecessary at the moment. I believe that both King Errilam and his young attendant left the city an hour before dawn.”
“Why would they leave secretly, and at such an ungodly hour?” The look of frightened astonishment on Ellesime’s face was telling: usually the Queen possessed much better control over her facial expressions.
“The King has promised his new bride the pelt of the dire owlbear that stalks the Suldanesse valley.” Auduo’on explained with some reluctance. “Today he is hunting the beast in the company of friends.”
“What dangerous nonsense! And why did not you report this to me beforehand?”
“Your Majesty seemed preoccupied with other problems,” Auduo’on pointed out reasonably, “so I took it upon myself to organize the entertainment. It seemed like an appropriate idea in the aftermath of the Great Hunt, allowing the human to prove his hunting prowess. Besides, both the King and lady Bodhi were eager to get away from the city and spend some time in each other’s company before the official betrothal ceremony. Of course, all seven of the Goldfeather brothers have accompanied them. Why is your Majesty so concerned? According to my sources, the human is an experienced hunter.”
“As King Errilam’s friend, I fear that he might need protection from something more dangerous than wild beasts and wandering monsters,” Ellesime replied vaguely, playing with the tassels of the wide sash that fastened her elegant wrap of bronze silk. Her unruly mass of golden-red hair was pinned at the crown of her head with half a dozen emerald-tipped pins that stuck out in all directions like the quills of an angry porcupine. “Errilam is a very influential figure in the land of Tethyr,” she continued uncertainly, pacing anxiously across the round, green-and-white carpet from the low double bed strewn with messed up sheets, to the small end table with remains of a meal served for two; the very air of the bedchamber felt saturated with the Queen’s tension. “And human politics is a very dangerous and unpredictable matter,” she concluded uncertainly, giving Aduo’on an intent stare of her luminous green eyes.
“Does my Queen suspect that human assassins have followed the King into the lands of the People?” It was the first time that the guard captain’s face showed the slightest hint of puzzlement. “Would not it be easier to attack the King when he returns to Tethyr? Her Majesty must not worry – no one in their right mind would dare to challenge all seven of the Goldfeather brothers. But even if someone did,” the shadow of a smile flickered across the captain’s thin lips, quickly fading away in the corners of his stern mouth. “I would not give them much chance of success. My Queen, the human is perfectly safe while the Seven are with him.”
“There might be dangers out there against which there is no shield,” Ellesime muttered, “but I shall pray that these remain only the shadows of my imagination. Send your best scouts to follow the hunt!” She demanded fiercely. “And reinforce the patrols that watch over the Starspire Range. We cannot take any chances with the drow or rogue giants.”
“It shall be done, my Queen.” the captain replied sternly. He was somewhat perplexed at the sudden bout of paranoia on the part of his usually rational and levelheaded sovereign, but he carefully kept his thoughts to himself, trusting in the daughter of Rillifane’s instinct.
“Act swiftly,” Ellesime’s voice became as neutral and remote as her face. “I shall be awaiting your report.” She nodded his dismissal, than stopped him with a brief flick of her index finger. “Send a runner to the temple of Rillifane, should you receive any news. I shall spend the morning in prayer and meditation, in the house of my divine Father.”
* * * * *
As the hunting party moved deeper into the green haze of pre-dawn forest, treading along the near-invisible line of the elven trail, a somber, nearly desperate mood descended upon King Errilam. It felt as if an invisible hand had taken hold of his heart, and was squeezing it bit by bit, with the undeniable intent of wringing it dry of all bright and noble feelings, leaving him to seethe in the twin agonies of jealousy and despair. Appalled at his own melancholy on a day when he was supposed to be demonstrating his vigor and hunting prowess, the King peered forward, straining to catch a glimpse of his elven friends and companions, but none were in sight.
All the elves who accompanied him today, including his bride-to-be, her friends, and a number of his own old acquaintances, had chosen to travel to the place of the hunt on foot, and were running in front of the two human riders or along the sides of the trail; noiseless and unseen amid the greenery, appearing only to steer humans’ mounts in the right direction with a silent nod or a graceful wave of a hand before vanishing once more into the undergrowth. It was a long-standing tradition that the People of Keltormir shared the ground with their animal companions rather than ride on them, yet his inability to follow suit, (the humans could not have kept up had they gone on foot), once again made Errilam feel alienated from his hosts.
The King recalled the loud chattering of the crowd of nobles that usually followed the progress of the Royal Hunt in the threadbare woods around Ithmong, and shrugged, suddenly realizing that he missed the usually annoying incompetence and noisiness of the human hunters. With all their habitual drunkenness and cheerful ignorance of Nature’s ways, the humans were his flesh and blood, every one of them ready to share with his King a hearty laugh, a sip of heartening liquor from his belt-flask, or a saucy bit of conversation; unlike the silent and enigmatic Tel’Quessir, who appeared mere shadows gliding through the tangled green maze of the equally impenetrable forest. It seemed that all his life Errilam had been chasing the mirage of unearthly perfection, but when it came to fulfilling his dream, he always felt too inept and alien to fit in with the elves. Perhaps, his pursuit of Ellesime had been an equally pointless folly?
The King shook his head, chasing away the harrowing thought – it was too late to change his course now. Abruptly, his horse neighed, shaking its head and prickling its ears, likely alerted by a motion in the nearby bushes. The green-clad figure of an elven runner waved its hand, pointing at the trail behind their backs, and melted back into the forest. The King leaned forward, patting his white mare on the neck and whispering reassurances, than swerved in his saddle to check on Yurick, who rode right behind him, and froze, taken aback by the magnificence of the suddenly opened view.
For the last half hour they had been climbing up the slope of a forested hill, traversing the tree-covered sides while keeping to a trail passable by their mounts. Most of the time the left-behind elven city had remained covered from view by the dense foliage. However at this particular spot, a giant tree had fallen, struck down by Nature’s fury, its trunk clearing a narrow opening in the solid phalanx of sylvan tree-soldiers. Before Errilam, in the midst of a misty river-valley, lay Suldanessellar in all her shining glory. Although the rose-colored rays of the coming morning were already creeping in from the east, the pre-dawn tree city was still ablaze with eldritch lights.
A thousand and one bright golden sparks flickered among immense green columns, outlining the silhouettes of ornately ethereal bridges, openwork balconies, and delicate staircases that spiraled around the giant tree trunks. High in the treetops, the gilded domes of the Seldarine’s temples and the frail pointed arches of civilian dwellings shone with a green-and-gold radiance. More light poured from the open doors and windows of individual buildings, each house adding a unique splash of color to the radiant palette of the shining city. And at the very top of the stand-alone copse of monstrous copper beeches, loomed the half-opened orchid blossom of Suldanessellar’s Royal Palace – an edifice as unique in its architecture, as it was indescribable by mere words.
In all his years of life upon Toril, King Errilam had traveled far and wide, and seen many unique and wonderful human cities, yet at that single moment on the hill above the awakening Suldanessellar, his heart skipped a beat, trembling on the verge of a fatal attack, as he was overcome by the sheer beauty of the vista before him. For a moment, the King simply sat in his saddle, fighting for breath, then hot tears flowed from his eyes, washing away his anxiety and hurt, and filling his chest with simmering feeling of tenderness and relief. Most certainly, his doubts and pangs of guilt were unjustified – it simply was not possible to go wrong by yearning after something as pure and beautiful as this shining city of light!
Yes, Ellesime’s consort would have to agree to accompany him to the human lands and then... either the Queen’s bond with her elven lover would be broken, and Errilam would have his chance, or, with the two of them dwelling in the same city, Ellesime would be forced to come to Ithmong, perhaps even move her court there permanently. Eventually her dream of steering the two noble races of Tethyr into a harmonious union would come together with his. Tethyr would become a rich and prosperous country, populated by elves and humans in equal measure and ruled by his royal daughters and sons – ethereally beautiful and forever young creatures of half-elven descent. Errilam of Tethyr would have his dream, even if the elven woman who would bear these children was not Ellesime. Eventually he would win over Ellesime’s love too, as well as her eternal friendship and companionship. For a fleeting second, the King felt a rising surge of worry – too many very real political calamities were riding on the heels of his fervent dreams – then shook it away with the stubborn obstinacy of a child retelling himself his favorite fable.
The quiet whoosh of a teleportation spell hummed in the air, ending with a subdued pop and a flash of magic light that scared the wits out of a spotted doe, which had been innocently grazing on a patch of grass close to the summit of the hill. The animal leaped almost vertically, then ran away, kicking its hind legs above its head and flashing the white underside of its short tail in warning. The scene was comical enough to almost make him smile – at least he would have done so under normal circumstances. Alas, in his current state of mind, the elven mage who had stepped through the briefly opened portal in the few brief seconds of its existence only shook his head in annoyance. Dour-faced and feeling the part, he quickly moved behind the nearest bush to escape notice by something more sinister than the deer, before he could conceal himself with an invisibility spell.
In one way though, the encounter was helpful – the presence of the doe most likely indicated that the hunt had gone the other way, leaving this particular mound a safe observation point. Apparently, after locating the owlbear’s empty lair, clearly marked by scattered piles of bloody goat and deer bones, the party had been forced to track their quarry through the forest. Joneleth had discovered this much whilst following the hunt for a couple of hours, after spending all morning on the frustrating task of establishing their final destination and than dealing with a few minor nuisances of a rather different nature. Luckily, he was somewhat familiar with the area – his restless nature often compelled him to take long hikes through the wilderness in search of the ever elusive peace of mind. Not that he had ever found it on his journeys... In the end, he had always been forced to return to the epicenter of his dreams and ambitions.
But today the focus of the mage’s passions lay away from the radiant palace amid the tree tops, or the divine sentinel on the green hill. Much to his ire, at the present moment his hopes for the future rested in the grubby hands of the human meddler. He could not truly blame his beloved – Ellesime was a hostage to her ambitions, thoroughly blinded by a misplaced sense of duty. But the human should have known better! The situation had to be resolved swiftly, and in a manner that left the interloper no hope of redress. The Queen’s disgruntled lover was now certain that King Errilam would not back off without dissuasion, and was ready to apply other means of convincing his opponent to abandon his suit if necessary.
However, in order to achieve his goals, the elf first had to confront the culprit, after making sure that their meeting could not be interrupted or spied upon. After storming out of Queen Ellesime’s bedroom, he had been angry enough to risk an open confrontation – yet, by the play of chance, the hastily organized owlbear hunt provided him with an opportunity of a somewhat different kind. For that alone Joneleth was almost ready to forgive his sister her latest indiscretion. Bodhi had been a fool to seek retaliation with a silly practical joke, but luckily for her, the harm was too minor to even bother to reprimand her.
Still, it had taken Jon almost half an hour to find Rielev and relay the arcane curse removal instructions to his quietly sweating apprentice. (It had been quite a challenge without having command of his tongue.) Placing into his writing desk a rune trapped with the twin spells of deafness and silence, and sealed with his true name no less, must have felt like the apotheosis of vengeance to Bodhi. After Rielev’s eventual success, Joneleth had sourly congratulated his sister on her sly revenge, and had resolved to seek a private meeting with her pet magician – at a later date.
“I have no time for such nonsense,” the mage spoke aloud, making his way up the hill to the rough circle of rocks at the summit. “It is annoying enough that I have to suspend my studies of the Planes and tackle the vermin-King! They had better corner the creature swiftly. I have no wish to waste another hour waiting for the fools to satisfy their bloodlust.”
As if in answer to his grumblings, the haunting note of a horn sounded in the distance, followed by the loud metallic barking of a dog. The fact that the leader of the cooshee pack was giving her masters a signal could indicate only one thing – the dogs had finally picked up the fresh scent of their prey. The mage prickled his invisible ears, leaning over the cold stone pillar, waiting for the sound to be repeated. After getting his wish, he smiled in grim satisfaction – now that the cooshees were steering the beast towards the hunting party, the finale was close at hand. His observation post at the summit of the hill was perfect for his needs. He would be able to trace them from above, and leisurely pick the spot of his destination – to which he would levitate, gliding above tree tops as a silent and invisible ghost.
Steering his mount with the peaks of his knees and clutching the reins with one hand, while the elbow of his other arm protected his eyes from the mad dance of tree branches flying into his face, Yurick crushed through yet another thicket of shabby evergreens. The pale rump of Errilam’s horse moved in and out of his sight, as the King’s purebred mare leaped over the moss-covered trunks of fallen trees and shallow ditches with sluggish brooks at the bottom, without missing a single hoof-beat. Izolda – the pride and beauty of the Ithmong Royal stables – had finally been given a free rein, and was now making up for the early-morning sluggish ride to the owlbear’s lair, and the even longer trot through the bushes behind the silent pack of elven dogs.
“My liege!” Yurick tried to call after his King, cursing his weakened condition and the bouts of dizziness that came over him with every lurch of his saddle.
Most of all he was afraid of being thrown off his horse and losing track of Errilam’s whereabouts. Not that he was of much use to his King, he thought bitterly. The damned elves had likely sabotaged his recovery, all to make sure that ‘he had learnt his lesson’. And the trice-arrogant Archmage! Yurick still cringed at the memories of that conversation. That bloody princeling had surely had a hand in Yurick’s fall, however hard Rielev had later tried to convince him of the opposite.
The grim, tattooed face of an elven hunter bounded across Yurick’s field of vision, as his horse lurched past an outcrop of young silver firs. An angry, dark eye squinted in concentration, a black-and-green-striped cheek next to the arc of a tightened longbow, the image hung in his mind after Yurick had ridden past, leaving him feeling uneasy. Something about the archer’s expression ticked him off, even as his horse carried him away from the spot of the encounter.
It was not in the elven nature to openly show their disdain. Usually, the faeries were more subtle with their arrogance, always polite and far too damned friendly – making you feel like an uncouth lout. Not that he could distinguish one native from another, they all looked the same to him, and this one was as heavily painted as the rest of them. It also appeared that another figure, cloaked and hooded to the eyes, lurked deeper in the shadows behind the bad-mannered elven archer. Yurick seethed and cussed through his teeth, but then his horse leaped forward, making him clutch at the pommel of his saddle, and he immediately forgot about the strange pair.
The urgent signal of a horn blew from behind, answered closely by an explosion of hollow barking of the elven hounds in the thicket in front of him – the same one into which the King had ridden, ahead of his young serviceman. For all their fantastic agility and resilience, even the elves could not outrun their dogs – compact, solidly built creatures with large, heavily clawed paws, tails curled up over their backs, and thick, greenish coats covered in large brown patches. It was likely that the cooshees had finally surrounded the owlbear, and were signaling to their elven masters to come and finish the beast, quickly turning the dreaded monster into a pincushion for their arrows, even as the pack would continue to harass him en masse.
However, today the well-thought-out scenario of the hunt was completely disrupted. Not only had the humans got to the cornered beast ahead of their elven hosts – the single advantage of riding on horseback had been their ability to attain a higher speed, at least over short distances, and for brief periods of time. Using that factor, Errilam had concocted a plan, which ensured that he would slaughter the beast single-handedly, proving once and for all that the sheer power of human muscles could bring victory as clean and impressive as the elven mastery with a bow, but without punching multiple holes in the beast’s valuable hide.
Thus, when Yurick’s bay gelding finally burst out of the barbed bush encircling a small clearing that bordered the swamp-land, the young man beheld a sight that would become forever etched into his tormented memories.
A monstrous, rust-colored beast, with the massive bulk and iron-clawed paws of a bear and the head of a great owl sat on its haunches, surrounded by a pack of madly barking elven dogs. Using their usual technique, the cooshees darted lightning-like away from its lethal paws and the giant, dark-yellow beak, then rushed back to harry its flanks, or pull at its tail and shaggy foot-feathers, while howling and barking at the peak of their metallic gullets and causing the creature maximum anger and confusion.
As Yurick watched the scene with the idle fascination of a detached passerby, the owlbear opened its beak, emitting a sound midway between the angry hoot of an owl, and the snorting of a wild boar. Its utterly mad, orange eyes shifted futilely from one of its multiple canine tormentors to another, rotating in their sockets like the wheels of an upturned cart. Suddenly, with a fluid-like motion that was too quick to follow – even for the amazing elven hounds – the beast stretched its feathered neck, pecking at the ground, rather like a grotesque chicken. When the monster’s head came back to its original position, its beak was stained carmine-red, and one of the cooshees thrashed on the muddy ground, its guts spilling out onto the stained grass.
A'maelamin – (elv.) Beloved
Mela en' coiamin – (elv.) Love of my life
cooshee – (elv.) elven dog