CHAPTER FIFTY ONE
Kythorn 30, 1277, Year of the Beholder, the Great Forest of Tethyr
King Errilam tightened his grip on the shaft of the heavy spear – the roughly carved wood dug into his callused palm, giving him all the needed reassurance of his mastery in the impending bloody game.
In his preparation for the hunt, Yurick had done an extraordinary job. After discarding a number of elven spears and javelins as being too light for his liege’s hand, the young serviceman had hobbled into the forest around Suldanessellar, cut down some half dozen living saplings of ash and hawthorn, (firmly ignoring the disapproving stares of his elven hosts), and carved a number of well-balanced, heavy poles. Next, he had grumblingly agreed to fit them with elven spearheads, made of bright, light-weight metal. (Yurick had dearly missed the store of heavy iron ones that he had left behind in Ithmong – the elves seemed to dislike black iron, preferring to, whenever possible, replace it with lighter alloys, and the balance of a spear was not quite the same without a heavy iron tip.)
Still, the resulting weapons had turned out to be excellent hunting gear: heavy and springy enough, with many crisscrossing notches cut into the green bark for a better grip, and sturdy wooden cross-guards, nailed two to three feet above each head, both for balance and to prevent the beast from running up the spear. As always, the very touch of rough wood in Errilam’s hand triggered the memories of many a noble adventure – uncounted boars, wildcats, stags, bears, and mountain lions had found their demise at the tip of the King’s spear – and a tremor of hot, tantalizing excitement ran down Errilam’s spine. A brief wolfish grin flashed across the King’s handsome features, even as his hand raised the weapon for the first powerful thrust.
Sensing his resolve, the elven hounds, already disheartened by the loss of one of their pack, gave way, scattering before Izolda’s pounding hooves like a flock of mottled grey sparrows that, startled by a falling stone, abandons a heavily pecked lump of bread. Alas, the object of their harassment was somewhat more perilous than a hunk of baked dough.
Freed from its tormenters, and faced with a new, more dangerous enemy, the monster rose to its full height, opening the heavy beak, festooned with bloodied canine innards, and uttered a loud hiss, both bizarre and menacing. Sharp, dagger-like claws sprang from the enormous paws; in this new position the owlbear looked even more horrifying than while crouched on the ground. Its huge, round face appeared to be a weird caricature of the giant owl’s – with grayish-brown ear-tufts fluttering above huge, ragged ears, and round, orange-yellow orbs, the size of small soup tureens, gleaming madly on either side of the monstrous beak. But instead of the mesmerizing gaze of cold, calculated fury, with which even the most irritated owl would try to stare down its adversary, the owlbear’s eyes radiated madness, and a sense of gleeful aggression – open, boundless, and passionate.
Izolda covered the distance between the King and his prey in a single bound, swiftly finding her footing and positioning herself at an angle that provided her rider with the best opportunity for attack; Errilam’s spear whistled through the air, striking its target in just the right spot – the hollow between the massive neck and what passed for the owlbear’s shoulder. The beast roared, as a fountain of hot blood gushed up the wooden shaft, driven deep into its feathered flesh. For a moment, it seemed that the human had crippled his quarry with a single masterful stroke, and to further his success, Errilam continued to press on the spear driving its head deeper into the monster’s flesh almost to the cross guard, trying to reach its heart, even as Izolda reared up, rising on her hind legs, and giving him the perfect leverage.
However, with amazing alacrity astonishing in a creature so large, the owlbear turned its head sidewise and bit at the wooden pole embedded in its shoulder, breaking it in two halves like a mere toothpick, and filling the air with splinters of crushed wood. Then, almost too fast for the eye to follow, its feathered head whipped around, gouging at the horse’s flank and leaving a bloody gash across Izolda’s pearly-white side, just as the paw, heavy as two bushels of rock, closely missed connecting with the King’s skull. Errilam swore in a rather un-kingly manner, but Izolda span around sharply and leapt into the air, graceful and adroit as a ballet dancer, and took her rider out of the monster’s reach. The King’s hand already clutched at his second spear, even as he yelled at Yurick to keep out of harm’s way.
But Errilam barely had enough time to turn around and raise his weapon, before he had to react again, as instead of trying to retreat or stand its ground, the owlbear bounded across the clearing at a speed that was beyond human comprehension. If that enormous mass of rock-hard muscle, fur, and feathers had connected with the rider and his horse at full momentum, they would have had no chance. But Izolda had been schooled by the best horse trainers of the land, and one more time Errilam was saved by the intelligence and the quick reactions of his mount. Instead of hitting the King, the chestnut-brown hulk crashed into the thick of the thorny bush that grew around the clearing, hooted loudly in senseless anger, and turned around for a new attack. That was when the second spear flew through the air, thrown from a distance, but by a hand skilled enough to direct the heavy wooden pole with its tip of elven steel right into one of the beast’s brightly sparkling eyes.
By all that was holy, it should have connected! However, incredibly, the owlbear’s motion condensed into a near blur, as the monster snatched the flying missile from the air, chomping Errilam’s second spear into a clutter of splintered wood.
“Get out of the way, Heruamin!” called a high-pitched voice from the King’s left.
“Rima ten'ta! It is too fast for you!” Yelled another.
“We cannot shoot while you are in the arrows’ path, Amad’Edan!”
All around the clearing, the elven archers were drawing their bows and notching their arrows. At that very moment, the graceful figure of an elven woman dressed in naught but a few strips of fur and leather, but painted with artful exuberance and bedecked with exquisite silver jewelry, come into sight at the very edge of the forest. Her wealth of raven locks was bound into a luxuriant tail at the crown of her head, in a style both practical and unique; her slim, pale hands carried twin javelins with wickedly jagged blades. A Goddess of Hunt in the flesh? Errilam sucked in his breath – now he could not have given up even if he wanted.
“Hold your bowmen, Astalder – I want to finish the monster myself!”
But even as Izolda sprinted past the owlbear to the far side of the clearing, where Yurick waited anxiously with the reserve spears, several things occurred at once, turning the rest of the hunt into an impossible mess of events that flowed too fast to be recalled in any sort of logical order.
A single arrow flashed across the clearing, streaking towards the massive bulk of the owlbear, which by then had turned around and bounded after the white horse and her rider. Most likely, one of the elven archers had broken under pressure, and fired a stray shot. Yurick wanted to cry out in protest but his throat spasmed and contracted; his eyes flew open in mute horror. The arrow changed direction in mid-flight, turning at an impossible angle, its path clearly altered by some invisible force. Then, the frantic neighing of the fatally injured horse tore through the air, even as the crimson stain flowered on the silver-white curve of the mare’s neck.
Izolda’s knees folded, and the horse plowed into the ground, rolling over her rider, (whose boot were hopelessly trapped in his stirrups), and crushing him between the muddy forest soil and her dying bulk. When the owlbear reached the tangle of shattered bodies, the mare’s feet were still twitching. The beast’s claws, sharp as razors, tore through the warm flesh, making no distinction between human and equine. Its lethal beak plunged into the helpless prey, puncturing the horse’s bladder and spraying the scarred ground with streams of blood and urine. Instantly, the air buzzed with elven arrows – there were so many of them in the air at the same time that it felt as if the small forest clearing was overwhelmed by a cloud of humming bees or locusts. Most of the missiles hit their target, but so thick was the monster’s shaggy coat of fur and feathers that while many of the arrows hit, leaving the owlbear’s hide bristling with their shafts and making it look like a monstrous hedgehog. However, none had penetrated deeply enough to cause the beast serious harm, serving merely to enrage it.
The sharp, bird-like cry of a woman pierced Yurick’s ears, breaking his stupor and sending a cold shiver down his spine. At the same time his mount reared up, kicking, neighing, and spraying flecks of foam from its opened mouth and flaring nostrils. Even as the young man fought with his horse, cursing, yelping, and trying to overcome the animal’s bout of panic, he was stunned to see Errilam’s bride-to-be sprinting across the trampled, blood covered turf, blithely ignoring both the danger of being torn apart by the frenzied owlbear, and that of being hit by an elven arrow.
“Tira ten' rashwe!” Someone cried at her back. “Morko caele nae asca!” Yet no one else seemed to be willing to join her in her assault on the monster.
“Nadorhuanrim!” She yelled back without turning her head. “Manke naa essa coraea? I’otso nae vestae var i'edan!”
In a few incredible leaps that could have easily won her the first prize at any major athletic competition, Bodhi was upon the beast. With one swift, dance-like motion of her graceful body both of her javelins were driven into the owlbear’s back, already decorated by many elven arrows, and were standing out like a pair of bizarre, skeletal wings. The huntress had chosen the spot well – right between the beast’s massive shoulder blades and its spine, and had managed to push her weapons through the layers of feathers and skin, thrusting the razor-sharp blades deep into the owlbear’s flesh.
Still, even Bodhi’s fantastic luck and vitality, magnified and focused by her geas and her divine patroness’ gifts, were not sufficient to damage any of the monster’s vital organs. As her javelins bit into its back muscles, the owlbear howled and hissed, abandoning its bloody feast and swinging around to face the new attacker. It towered over the elf’s frail and visibly helpless figure like a hungry hen over a cricket. Bodhi twisted and spun, leaping away from the murderous beak just in time to avoid being torn to pieces. As her feet landed, and she fought to keep her balance on the slippery grass drenched with horse urine and human blood, the huntress’ sword hand whipped out the darkly gleaming blade of her rapier, while her other hand flung the ornate, silver-studded scabbard to one side – it would only hinder her in the upcoming dance with death.
By then, the cooshees, torn between their fright and their sense of duty, had crept back one by one, and were trying to harass the owlbear from the flanks, distracting the beast from its elven target. The dark blobs of the beast’s dilated pupils floated inside the virulently orange orbs ten feet above the ground, while the top of Bodhi’s head barely reached above the creature’s midsection. However, the huntress’ compact size provided her with at least one small advantage – the owlbear’s beak had a long time coming down to her height. Bodhi ducked and spun, looking for an opening, and finally seeing one, made an energetic thrust at the beast’s groin area, hoping to pierce a major blood vessel. Yet, for all her skillful maneuvering, the elven huntress had very little doubt about the final outcome of the battle.
King Errilam was still alive, that much she could guess from the dull throbbing of her geas, whose pull on her will was as unstoppable as that of an ocean tide. Eventually, she would fail to counter the monster’s moves; one successful strike of the owlbear’s beak or swat of its paw would be enough to send her stunned and broken body flying across the clearing. By the time Astalder and his archers could finish the beast off with their arrows, Bodhi would be turned into a pile of bloody shreds of meat, and shattered bone shards. She would be fortunate indeed if Errilam expired of his wounds before the owlbear was done with her, the bitter thought flickered through her perplexed mind, but judging by her present luck, the chance of that was as likely as a snowstorm in burning Hell!
Bodhi sharply tugged at her rapier, withdrawing it from the beast. Its slim, double-edged blade came out gleaming burgundy-red. Instantly, a jet of dark, venous blood gushed from the wound. The monster cawed and swung a heavy paw, nearly crushing her skull. Bodhi rolled under it, narrowly avoiding a collision with the leader of the cooshee pack. The dog yelped and got out of her way. Yes, she was done for, the huntress thought furiously, even as her feet once again left the ground, as she tumbled acrobatically over the next blow to land behind the beast. Bodhi’s abundant draw on the Kiaransalee’s divine magic before the charge, had boosted her natural abilities to an almost supernatural level, but even the goddess’ blessing could only get her so far.
Most likely, her luck had run out when she had tried to manipulate her viper of a brother, Bodhi decided petulantly. Bloody bastard! At this point in time, the huntress’ main regret was that she could not take Joneleth with her. Truly fate was a bitch. However, Bodhi had only herself to blame for her lack of finesse in handling Jon and his royal lover. For a brief moment, before her feet connected with the ground and it was time for another attack, the huntress wondered whether Kiaransalee would bother to raise her as undead, or if her body would be so badly broken that the Goddess would let it be cremated, as was the custom for the People who had met a violent death. Bodhi knew she would be barred from entering Arvandor, yet, for some reason the notion did not bother her at all. Her only grief was her failure to fulfill her aspirations.
One more time she stabbed with her blade, and had her rapier deflected by the beast’s feathers. A bloodied paw, with claws like a fine collection of sharp stilettos, tried to tear open her abdomen, and again Bodhi barely managed to get away. This time however, she did not escape unscathed, as a bright streak of red flared against the creamy-white surface of her skin, sending the first crimson rivulet down her leg. Then the air above her head blurred and solidified into the dark outline of a body. An iron-strong hand grabbed her hair, whisking her up and away, right from under the owlbear’s descending beak. She barely had time to see the enraged beast turning its attention back to its bloody meal, and the small group of green-clad elven warriors rushing it, before her head was roughly yanked up, denying her any further sight of the proceeding events.
“Perhaps the next time you feel like dancing, sister ‘dear’, you will choose a somewhat more polished partner,” Joneleth’s voice suggested mockingly. “Frankly, you stink like a piece of freshly skinned carrion.”
He heaved her up by the hair, pinning her to his breast with one hand, while prying the rapier from her grasp with the other. They struggled over the blade for a few moments before she was forced to relinquish it, and the silver streak of her sword plummeted down towards the quickly receding treetops. They were gaining height, levitating high above the ground, and the bloody drama that was now entering its final stage.
“Why are you doing this?” Bodhi screamed at Jon, writhing in his hands like a maddened snake, trying to bite and scratch him with all her remaining energy. Her head was nearly exploding from the pressure building inside her skull, which was rising with every inch that separated them from the owlbear and its half-dead prey. “I was supposed to die today, because of your horrid geas!”
“Oh hush, I’m trying to concentrate.” Her brother replied dismissively, clutching her even more tightly, and steering them away from the spot of the ill-fated hunt. “It was your idea in the first place, if I am not mistaken. Astalder told me that it was you who suggested hunting the owlbear.”
Something snapped inside Bodhi’s head just then. All of a sudden, the pressure was gone, leaving her weak, and empty as a punctured balloon. “Errilam is dead now,” she sobbed quietly, immediately ending her struggles, and snuggling against her brother’s warm, solid chest. “How was I supposed to know that on top of being a lumbering oaf, the human was also a complete lunatic? He bragged at being an experienced hunter.”
“You should count yourself incredibly lucky for having been under that geas,” Jon replied coldly. “This, perhaps, will be the deciding factor that will save your hide in the upcoming investigation. Because of it, I am inclined to believe that the whole thing was indeed an accident. And you should pray that I manage to convince the Queen.”
“But of course,” Bodhi replied in a short while. “I will always support your version of the events, and testify on your behalf, whatever the circumstance.” Her voice was sweet, and full of sisterly concern.
Bodhi’s ear was pressed against her brother’s chest, with only a thin layer of fabric in between, and the huntress could feel his heart’s steady beat under her cheek. His pulse rate had not changed, not even for a moment, she asserted silently, even though it must have been hard work to maintain the magic needed to keep them afloat, while fighting to control her.
“Still, I wish you were a little more subtle sometimes,” she continued chidingly. “Turning the arrow in mid-flight... how are you going to convince all those witnesses to forget what they saw?”
“The fool!” Mirriam was no longer able to control her feelings, “the bloody, bumbling, arrogant fool! When one is planning a murder, she should leave all her emotions at home, along with old clothes and other irrelevant baggage. There is nothing more pathetic than an assassin at work suddenly overtaken by rage or pity – at least that’s what my old teacher used to say!”
Upon finishing this energetic tirade, the girl stopped and blushed, finally recalling her own situation. At present moment, she was pacing back and forth across a small patch of clear space, amid the dense growth of craggy, pale trees. All around her knotty silver-white branches jutted out at bizarre angles, forming a complicated mesh that looked like the insides of a giant snowflake.
While she had been giving all her attention to Rielev and his story, the sky above her head had turned a bright azure, with a fine spray of wispy, feather-like clouds swimming across the clear, blue heavens at leisurely speed. Mirri could feel the breath of fresh wind tugging at the loose strands of her hair, cooling her suddenly warm cheeks.
The sensation was as out of place here, as was the spicy smell of resin coming from the silvery boles of the mysterious trees. Yet there was nothing she could do. Her silent, bleak, gray world had been changed into something different – most likely, with the help of her own memories that refused to die. Unsettled by her discoveries, Mirriam looked herself over and noticed that she was no longer nude, but was instead wearing her favorite suit of tight-fitting assassin leathers: the chocolate-brown pants and sleeveless hauberk, over a shirt of tan silk. The deep wounds on her wrists were gone, replaced by faint scars that looked fairly aged.
The half-elf Rielev stared at her from his seat in the knot of twisted white branches. His expression was unreadable, except for a tiny smile tugging at the corners of his mouth which, she realized quickly, must have been caused by her surprise at the changes around them, not by her heated diatribe.
“One could argue that, in the long run, a murder, even committed in cold blood, deals the perpetrator more injury than benefit, regardless of the circumstances,” Rielev muttered. His face turned sad and wistful. “But of course, moral principles differ from individual to individual. On one point however, I agree with you – a dispassionate murderer is always a more efficient one.” The half-elf gave her a thoughtful look as if hesitating what to say next. “Child, it is remarkable that you instantly took my misguided friend’s side, yet refused to see the obvious,” he spoke finally. “With all his many failings, and complete lack of good sense, Joneleth was never guilty of that particular crime.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me!” Mirriam grinned, flashing a row of small, white teeth, behind petulant lips the color of dusty rose. “All the clues in your story point towards Jon. Not that I blame him,” she wrinkled her pretty nose. “The king was an obnoxious jerk; and that holier-than-thou vixen of a queen was simply…”
“Please spare me the discussion of Queen Ellesime’s virtues!” Rielev’s dark eyes sparkled with amusement, although tinged with some small whiff of irritation. “I have heard – and seen! - too many of them in my lifetime, and I assure you – you know nothing of the burden that befalls the ruler of a nation; even a small and insignificant one, such as Suldanessellar. Somehow, I had already expected you to form a low opinion of Her Majesty’s character. But regardless of the emotional and cultural abyss that separates the two of you… You, my dear, made the same error in judgment as did our fair Queen. Jon had nothing to do with Errilam’s killing.”
“What about that arrow?”
“It was not he who altered the arrow’s trajectory. Neither did he creep ahead of the hunt to enhance the beast’s agility with magic, rendering it almost invincible. That was the work of an entirely different individual.”
“Then who was it?” Mirri gave him an incredulous look. “And how do you know it was not Jon? Did he tell you so himself? And you… believed him without a doubt?” She sounded more pleased than concerned with Rielev’s faith in Jon.
“Shortly after the incident, Queen Ellesime asked me to help clear the Archmage’s name.” Rielev sighed, visibly distressed by his memories. “Even though in her heart she was convinced of his guilt, she nonetheless appointed an impartial commission of mages to investigate the accident. We could prove nothing definite. The place reeked of residual magic, but of course, Jon had used teleportation and levitation spells directly above the spot of the killing. Still, there was something artificial about the whole affair... Joneleth was never too subtle with his magic, but to change an arrow’s path in plain view was too careless, even for him.”
“As if an assassin, renowned for his skill with blade and garrote, was accused of using his granddad’s hammer to crack someone’s skull, and of leaving the weapon to be found on the crime site?”
Rielev winced then nodded, in indication of his understanding of her analogy. “Not the most pleasant of images, but yes, rather like that. While perfectly possible, it was a little too out of character – such a blatant gaffe simply wasn’t his style.”
“Curse you, Zyr,” Dueilil Wintersquall of the Suldusk clan, known amongst his peers and associates as Dueilil ‘the Shrew’, wheezed and panted, barely able to speak through the heavy fit of coughing. “You know I cannot keep up with you at this pace! We’ve already made it half way to the Argent Spring, and of course there will be no pursuit. No one can ever suspect us, since I’ve used my best confusion spells to avert their eyes. Surely, after all my hard work, I deserve a short break! We’ve run far enough – even someone as paranoid as you, has to see that.”
The mage looked pale and exhausted, his breath coming out in short, painful gasps through lips as dry and cracked as a piece of old leather. The hem of his short green-and-black robe was liberally splattered with mud and frayed in many places. The Shrew’s ash blonde tresses, usually stylishly trimmed and well groomed, had matted into a dirty, felt-like mass, strewn with twigs and pine needles. His companion, a dark-haired, handsome elven warrior with a longbow strapped to his back and a short sword at his hip, made a sound halfway between a snarl and a grunt, but did not slow down or bother to give the distressed mage a second glance.
After the disastrous hunt and the Archmage’s sudden appearance, Zyruil had bolted, overcame by the desire to get as far away from the spot of the killing as possible. Dueilil had had little other option but to follow on his partner’s heels. The pair of them had been running through the woods without a break ever since. However, after a half-day and a near whole night of running, close to the wee hours of the morning, the Shrew felt justified in finally giving in to his exhaustion.
Dueilil was no stranger to long, arduous treks through the wilderness. Every member of the Green Spears had been selected on the basis of his or her effectiveness; and endurance was always the most important criterion in mistress Bodhi's eyes, overcoming every other consideration. Being one of her two lieutenants, equal in power and authority only to her other favorite – Zyruil Grasswrack, Dueilil was judged to be one of the best. Even so, never before had the mage been reduced to a state of such complete mental and physical exhaustion. Normally, he would have been able to help his body along with a few clever enchantments. Yet, prior to their madcap flight, the Shrew’s magic had been depleted on tasks vital to their mission, leaving him with no remedy against fatigue.
Zyruil’s long legs seemed attached to an emotionless automaton rather than a living creature. The archer kept covering mile after mile of the impenetrable Wealdath heartland with the ease and grace of a wild stag. For the last few miles of their travel, Zyruil had fallen silent, utterly ignoring the Shrew’s pleas and complaints. This blatant neglect finally pushed the mage from distress to anger.
“I am not taking another step until I have rested!”
The Shrew stomped his foot, shod with tanned deerskin against the sphagnum-covered ground under a leafy maple tree, and winced. Even on the spongy patch of moss, the impact sent a jolt of pain up his tortured limb. The spot looked inviting enough, so Dueilil plopped down on the green carpet of moss, removed his backpack, extended his tired feet and bent forward to massage his hurting joints.
The forest was swathed in the cold, grey curtain of pre-dawn. Here, deep in the heart of Wealdath, among the mighty trunks of the centuries-old, gnarled veterans of Nature’s realm, even the Shrew’s sensitive elven eyes barely allowed him to see more than a few feet away in any direction from his resting place; all else was lost in the shadows. The mage shuddered, overcome by a bout of melancholy. He yearned for the warm flood of sunlight that would banish the shadows and revive his cold and tired body, wiping away the aches and exhaustion of the last day. Truly, it felt as if the morning would never come. But perhaps, the shadows could be put to work to his advantage? The moment was as good as any other, the Shrew decided silently, and Zyr thoroughly deserved what was coming his way. So the mage pulled his backpack closer, and untied the drawstrings.
“Would you care to share a bite with me?” Dueilil addressed the empty forest around him. He was certain that Zyruil was close by, most likely skulking in the shadows just out of the Shrew’s eyesight. They had worked together many times before, and in the end, the archer had always come to see the mage’s point of view, even though it usually took some effort to persuade him. “There must be a spring nearby, for I can hear the trickling of water.” Dueilil informed the shadows. The silence was overwhelming, so he raised his voice a notch. “Zyr, what do you think possessed i'Val'istar to follow the hunt? I say, whatever his sins against Lirimaerea, his intervention was timely. She could have been seriously hurt or even killed. And I am glad we did not have to blow our cover and rescue her ourselves…” His voice trailed. “Bloody Hell, do you know how annoying it is to speak without receiving an answer?”
Something shifted in the shadow of the big tree he was sitting under, and in two silent leaps Zyruil was upon him. The warrior’s left hand grabbed a fistful of the stunned mage’s hair, pulling Dueilil’s head back like that of a wounded deer primed for slaying, while the blade in Zyruil’s other hand slashed the Shrew’s throat open in one quick and efficient stroke. The mage did not have time to scream, or to move his fingers in a futile attempt to cast a spell. The half opened bag of supplies fell from his hands rolling off his knees, and then his life force gushed out of the deep wound in a hot, red wave, splashing over his robes and onto the emerald-green carpet of moss under his feet. Dueilil’s mouth opened very wide, like that of a speared fish, but his vocal cords were cut and his lips emitted only a muffled gurgle. His hands groped convulsively at the itchy, hot wetness on his neck for a few moments, and then he died, with a look of utter disbelief forever frozen in his glassed-over eyes.
“Was that the answer you were looking for, Shrew?” Zyruil rasped, cleaning his hunting knife on an unsoiled corner of his dead companion’s robes. “I was tired of your inane whining, and of having to share Lirimaerea’s affections with a beetleheaded milksop, who, in all fairness, should have been unworthy of her second glance.” The archer sulked for a moment, then sheathed his now spotless blade. The dead mage’s eyes continued to stare at him with the same stunned expression. “Trust me, Shrew, you will be much happier in Arvandor,” Zyruil sighed, closing the corpse’s stubborn eyelids with his long, strong fingers. “And should they catch us, without your testimony it would be so much harder for them to prove that it was I who fired that arrow. You have outlived your utility, Shrew, and that is why you are dead.”
As if angry with himself for having said too much, the elven warrior snapped his mouth shut and bent over to examine the body. Quickly and efficiently, he stripped the corpse of every useful possession, taking off the amulets and the few rings before the fingers began to stiffen. The one item he did not touch though, was a small silver band set with a tiny, red gemstone. It was wedged too tightly to be removed without cutting off the digit, and besides, the ring was Bodhi’s recent gift to the dead one, and ruthless though he was, Zyruil deemed himself possessing some scruples. “Don’t worry, I will not take this from you,” he comforted his former ally’s corpse. “No need to steal your gifts. I would rather have my own.”
He knew that even covered with a few inches of forest soil, the corpse would be a fair game for predators and omnivorous carrion-eaters. Left to them, the Shrew would soon be turned into a pile of clean, white bones. Of course, that would matter little to the mage’s spirit, which, hopefully, was now headed straight to the plane of elven paradise. However, before covering the body with a thin layer of rotting leaves and black humus, Zyruil decided to take a break. He was not much troubled by the killing – if anything, murdering his rival had brought him into a slightly elated mood. But the excited rush of blood through his spry, muscular body made the archer hungry.
Content with his victory, Zyruil picked up the dead mage’s backpack, and sank to the ground, deciding to check out Dueilil’s private stash of supplies. The bag was untied, as the mage had been fumbling inside it right before he died, most likely looking for a snack. Among the few Green Spears officers, Dueilil had been renowned for both his bitching, (his nickname had been justly earned), and his ravenous appetite. Thus it was reasonable to assume that even preparing for a short expedition the ever-hungry Shrew had stuffed his knapsack with a variety of delectable foods. Zyruil’s right hand slipped inside, unhurriedly exploring the pack’s contents. Then suddenly it shot out, as the warrior yelped in pain and threw the bag away, cursing and shaking his limb in a vain attempt to dislodge a small dark shape coiled around his hand.
“What is this?” he cried out in anger and frustration. The jet-black, narrow band around his wrist looked like a pleated bracelet... except that it had a delicate, triangular head, with a pair of tiny, bead-like eyes, and a slim, forked tongue, flicking in and out of its angrily hissing mouth. Vaguely, Zyruil recalled the mage bragging about finally obtaining a familiar. He had never bothered to find out what manner of a creature the Shrew had picked to share his mind with.
The archer snarled, giving his hand a last violent shake. The tiny snake let go of his wrist and flew through the air, tumbling lightly onto the ground, before swiftly sliding away into the undergrowth and rotting, last-year leaves.
Now seriously frightened, the warrior snatched his own pack with his good hand. Swiftly, he emptied it under his feet, desperately scanning the contents for any trace of his ample supply of medical salves and potions. They were all gone. Suddenly, he remembered leaving the backpack under the mage’s supervision earlier, while he searched for the trail.
A jolt of pain, sharp as an electric shock, ran through Zyruil’s arm, shooting through his shoulder, and leaving him weak and trembling as if from a sudden fever. The sensation didn't fade, instead it slowly became a deep throbbing that settled in his arm, in a few minutes turning his sword hand below elbow into a hot, swollen stump, incapable of holding a weapon.
“Curse you, Shrew!”
Zyruil grabbed for the dead mage’s bag, holding it with his teeth, and slashed the stained suede with his dagger that he had to hold in his left hand. The gutted pack fell to his feet, spilling out multiple packages of nuts, biscuits, and a tin of honeycakes, along with jars of hand cream, some suspicious looking herbal pills, and various magical knick-knacks. Yet, there was no time to try the contents of every small bottle or box, and he quickly rummaged through them, desperately searching for something he recognized. However, none of the items even remotely looked like his medicines, and not knowing what these components were, he had no way of using them to his salvation.
The light began to fade from the archer’s eyes. Overwhelmed by the poison, Zyruil dropped to his knees, panting, sweating, and shaking like a leaf. He could no longer feel his right hand, but could hear his own pulse hammering in his temples. Right before he fainted into the final oblivion, his eyes fell back on the dead mage’s body. The Shrew lay on his side, his left hand extended towards his murderer in a last gesture of salutation. On his small finger, Zyruil’s failing eyes spotted a bright red spark – the gemstone of the ring given to his rival by Bodhi during their last assignation. As he curled his good hand into a fist around the amulet at his neck, the archer could sense the hot touch of a similar stone.
Strangely, his last thought was of her eyes – so sapphirine blue and beautiful, yet with a small, red sparkle at the bottom.
Heruamin – (elv.) lord
Rima ten'ta! – (elv.) run for it!
Amad’Edan – (elv.) foolish human
Tira ten' rashwe! Morko caele nae asca! – (elv.) Be careful! The beast had been tempered with, its speed is not natural!
Nadorhuanrim – (elv.) cowards
Manke naa essa coraea? – (elv.) where are your leaders?
I'otso nae vestae var'edan! – (elv.) the Seven were supposed to protect the human!
Lirimaerea – (elv.) lovely one
i'Val'istar – (elv.) the Archmage
Sapphirine – Resembling sapphire; made of sapphire; having the color, or any quality of sapphire.