CHAPTER FIFTY FOUR
Flamerule 1, 1277, Year of the Beholder, the Great Forest of Tethyr
Higher and higher they climbed, rising far above the undulating waves of the infinite ocean of trees. Down below, the silver band of Suldanesse twisted around the green hills and jagged granite cliffs, running east, towards the forest edge and its eventual confluence with the Sulduskoon. Once Adalon had lifted Joneleth from his rocky prison, the mage had tried to put the cold miserable hours of self-torment spent on the slippery rock out of his mind and seek elation in the present moment alone. However his efforts had been rewarded with only minute success.
Revived by the flow of fresh wind, he sat perched on the dragon’s rippled back, his feet twined around Adalon’s neck, his hands clutching at the long, flexible strands of the mane-like frill which decorated her shoulders. The streams of cold air fluttered the mage’s robes, and made his own silver-white tresses mix with the dragon’s pale frill in a strange display of alikeness. To the outside observer, the dragoness and her elven rider would have appeared a magnificent pair: two magical beings of an awe-inspiring beauty working together to advance their common goal, yet the mindsets and the current dispositions of the two could not have been more different.
Adalon had outdone herself to provide her friend and mentor with a comfortable ride: after some grumbling and shuddering on Joneleth’s part, she had even lowered her back-spines and shifted the metal-hard scales on her neck and shoulders. Still, she had only been able to do so much, and a dragon’s back was never meant to be a rider’s seat.
Yet regardless of the dragoness’ gentle thoughtfulness, the Achmage’s mood had been only soured by his dependence on Adalon’s goodwill. Being reliant on the help of any creature - even one as mighty and loyal as the dragoness - went against his nature. Regrettably, in his current situation, he possessed no other means of completing his task, and had been forced to cooperate with his gallant ally. And so there he was - firmly settled on the dragon’s back and reluctantly grateful for the ride.
The great Forest of Wealdath stretched beneath Joneleth’s feet, like an ancient beast immersed in an aeons-long slumber; and somewhere at the center of this living and breathing vastness, at the very heart of the continent-wide power-web of life, stood the Tree of Life, the recumbent sylvan demigod, whose only reason to exist was to sustain the magical shell of Suldanessellar’s mythal. It seemed unfair somehow that all of that tremendous power was wasted on the precarious task of shielding the fragile nation, which was, allegedly, not capable of surviving on its own.
But was the mythal really a crutch for a cripple - Joneleth mused sardonically, even as his eyes scanned the swaying mass of treetops below - or a harness that hindered a relatively healthy entity from developing muscles and re-learning to walk by itself? Was Ellesime the divine Protectress devoted to the wellbeing of her People, or a petty tyrant bent on preserving her power over the fading fragment of a once mighty civilization? The mage had no answer to this question. Joneleth’s life-long devotion to the Queen had prevented him from posing it before, yet his current state of vexation and bitter disappointment with his lover had stripped her image of the aura of perfection. Most of all he wanted to secure his consort’s fidelity, yet condemning her, even in his mind, caused him a strange painful pleasure.
These rebellious ideas flickered at the edge of the Archmage’s tumultuous mind. The time would come for the right answers - of that he was sure - but currently he was preoccupied with a different kind of dilemma. The need to locate and capture Errilam’s murderers weighted heavily on him, and his desire to clear his name had been further magnified by the secret acknowledgement of one very important fact: he had come hair-close to actually committing the deed himself.
“My scrying detects no intelligent life in the area,” the dragon’s voice boomed in his ears after the first half an hour of their reconnoissance flight, “and there is no sign of your fugitives on the animal trails. What would you have me do - descend to the level of the tops and look for the felons in the thickets alongside the river?” Even as she spoke, Adalon’s massive head, crowned with a pair of saber-like horns, swept from side to side as she scanned the ground below, so far without any success.
“There is no sense in following the river,” the mage called back, barely overcoming the screeching of the wind. “I inspected the Suldanesse’s flow thoroughly last night, and they were nowhere in sight. We should turn south, and fly towards the mountains!”
“As you wish, Mighty One,” was the dragon’s polite response, swiftly followed by a change of course.
In but a few beats of her enormous wings, Adalon made a turn in the air and glided south, never loosing a fraction of her original speed. And indeed, that choice proved to be the right one, although not for the reasons that Joneleth would have wanted: in less than an hour of low, zigzagging flight, even before they reached the outskirts of the Starspire Mountains, they spotted half a dozen black, winged shapes which made slow, narrowing circles above a minor recess in the thick canopy of oak and maple trees.
“Let me pass, my lords and ladies! Let me pass! My Queen, I have the most urgent news requiring your attention!” Captain Aduo’on pushed through the throng of Elders, clan leaders, higher clerics, and courtiers, which by now filled the Queen’s throne room almost to the point of bursting. The main crowd parted, but the sizeable group of nobles and priests assembled around the tall white-haired general, dressed entirely in black and gold, refused to disperse.
The Emergency Council, which had opened with the bang of Yurick’s ultimatum, had descended into a full-scale battle of wills between the opposing parties. Furthermore, the Council, which had started as a private gathering of the clan Elders and High priests, had been transformed into a full-scale assembly: the rumors of the ongoing scandal had spread through the city, and the emissaries of all Suldanessellar’s noble Houses had trickled to the Palace.
The majority of courtiers and clan-chiefs supported the Queen in her adamant refusal to condemn the Archmage in his absence. However Duke Goldfeather’s uncompromising stance had gained him support among many younger officers and nobles. Even more unexpectedly, the high priestess of Sehanine Moonbow had taken the lord Constable’s side. The Council of Elders was firmly split in the middle, with roughly half of the honorable Elders favoring each faction.
Among the clergy, the elderly high priest of Corellon Larethian had supported the Queen, and now the balance firmly hang on Demin the Brighteyes, the quick-tempered Keeper of the House of the Leaflord, who was also the youngest of the high clerics and the Queen’s personal friend. However, all through the frenzied debate, and in spite of Ellesime’s best expectations, the young priestess had remained silent, frowning at the worst outbreaks of emotional discourse from her shadowed spot behind the Queen’s throne.
Over the matter of two hours, which had passed since their sojourn, the warring parties had stated their respective positions in full detail, with Ellesime first making a short and lusterless plea in support of her missing consort, and her rebellious field marshal delivering the heated harangue, in which he had nearly accused the Queen of negligence and cover-up, and had asked for the Archmage’s crime to be admitted by the Council. Ellesime’s allies had deflected his first attack, but without a clear majority on either side, the discussion was threatening to descend into utter chaos.
It would have been wise to quietly bury the matter by promising the delayed action, but the Queen herself seemed to be in full disarray, and that allowed the disastrous Council to go on and on, without any progress in finding a consensus. What was worse, the whole embarrassing spectacle had been played out in front of the human boy who had caused it in the first place. Yurick stood in the middle of the throng, pale and motionless as a statue, with his hands clenched into tight fists, seemingly oblivious to the commotion. He understood not a word of spoken Elven, but drank in the intense and controversial emotional discharge emanating from the crowd of normally composed elves. It was his hour of revenge over the treacherous witch-queen, and watching Ellesime’s perfect face quiver in pain and frustration had been a balm to his gravely wounded spirit.
“Stop your pointless bickering, fools!” Demin’s angry hiss was like a bucket of cold water poured over the hot coals of discord, “let the Captain of the Queen’s Guard speak - it is obvious that he has urgent news to report!”
So great was the effect of her shrill, high-pitched voice, that even Duke Goldfeather’s staunchest supporters ceased their wrangling, and the brave Captain was finally able to reach his goal.
“My Queen,” he reported breathlessly, touching his forehead, then his heart in a quick gesture of deference, “Lord Ithilnien is here, and he is requesting a private audience with your Majesty.”
“He has returned!” in one quick motion, smooth as the unfolding of a new leaf, Ellesime sprang to her feet. “Yes, of course, I want to see him right away! Captain, direct the Archmage to my private audience chamber.”
Aduo’on bowed his head, in silent acknowledgement of the order, and bounded for the doors. Yet he only had time to make two steps before the Lord Constable’s refined voice interrupted his retreat.
“Would not it be wiser to interview the Lord Ithilnien here, in the presence of all these witnesses?” the general’s proposition was delivered in a slightly accented but perfectly understandable Common.
Ellesime flinched, instantly spotting the trap. Alas, it was already too late to stop the Duke’s diversion.
“I demand justice!” Yurick’s face twisted into a grimace of intense hatred. His shoulders slumped, and the end of his proclamation was smothered by a low, shuddering sob. “And I want it now,” he persisted bravely, wiping away streams of tears that once again began to roll down his freckled cheeks. “The murderous beast slinks back into his den, but our soldiers will drag him out of his hiding hole to hang at the Royal gallows, even if they have to burn your entire stinking forest to get to him!” The young man’s voice broke again, but the elves seemed stunned by his fury - no one tried to stop him or challenge his words. “I warn you, Queen Ellesime,” the human continued shakily, “don’t even think of protecting your lover from our justice, or your puny nation will have to fight alone against the entire Kingdom of Tethyr!”
“Silence, dog!” the door of the throne room crashed open with the reverberating noise of a minor magical explosion. Several bystanders sprang away from the doorway, as a tall figure wrapped in a grey cloak walked into the hall. “How dare you threaten the kind Mistress, who has granted you the warmth of her hospitality, and do it so boldly - at the hearth of her own house?” The Archmage spoke in Common, and his low, powerful voice rolled across the palace floors, instantly silencing the quiet rumble of the courtiers’ chatter. “Cowards!” Joneleth spat at the recoiling crowd. “Is that is how you protect your Queen? By letting this vermin-child mistreat her at the very Heart of her Realm?”
The expression on the Archmage’s face was frightening enough, but when he lifted his hands, bared to the elbows and stained in dark crimson, all eyes turned to a long, unwieldy bundle swathed in drab cloth that floated into the room after him.
“What is this?!” the wave of half-hushed whispers reeled across the chamber.
“What have you done, my love?!” the Queen cried out with the voice of a wounded bird. “Why have you robbed the temple of Errilam’s body?”
“I should have known that you are all in league with each other!” Yurick shrieked loudly, lashing out in the general direction of Ellesime’s chair. “I shall not allow any vile necromantic tricks with my liege’s remains! Not now, not ever!”
This time two muscular guards, perhaps brought to shame by the Archmage’s accusation of neglect, caught him by the hands, and gently pushed him away from the Queen. The young man continued to struggle, but at this point more soldiers sprang to the Queen’s defense, and the young human was overpowered easily. At the first sight of trouble, Demin rushed to their aid: her lips were moving, even as her fingers worked their way through the complex ritual of a spell.
“Alas, this is not the unfortunate fool who got himself killed the other day,” the Archmage replied coldly, instantly switching to Elven and pointing to the guards to remove the young human from the room. Miraculously, they obeyed his command. “These are your murderers, A'maelamin,” Joneleth continued after Yurick had been dragged away - not without help given by the high priestess, “the scoundrels were brought to justice by their own hand.”
At this point, the mage raised his hands once again, and the cloth rolled away from the grisly package that was floating in the air, baring two battered bodies entwined in a grotesque parody of the lovers’ embrace.
“Mercy, my Queen!” a woman’s shriek pierced the ears of the spectators, already spooked by the row of the disturbing events that were unfolding too fast for anybody’s comfort. “I am the one who is to blame for the whole disaster, great Mistress! Punish me - but spare my gallant brother. Joneleth is innocent of any wrongdoing!”
“What is the meaning of this?” Ellesime looked at her lover’s sibling, sprawled on the floor at Queen’s feet.
For once, the huntress wore none of her usual frivolous attire. Today she was dressed in a stark priestess’ garb and a pair of plain sandals. As if sensing the Queen’s stare, Bodhi lifted her head. The lovely maiden’s eyes were full of tears; her pale arms were folded pleadingly across her modestly covered bosom, while her wealth of luxurious hair fanned around her like a cascade of dark water.
Ellesime’s gaze shifted back to the bloodstained corpses floating in the air. Although badly damaged, their slight builds and pointed ears indicated that both cadavers were unquestionably those of elves, not humans. In place of eyes both had empty sockets, oozing bloody gore. One of the bodies was blue-and-black and bloated as a balloon, with a face contracted into an expression of horrible torment; the other - a yellowish blonde with a pinched face - looked almost serene, but possessed a bloody gash in place of a throat.
“Incidentally,” Kiransalee giggled at her initiate’s confused expression, “all you have to do to get rid of the human is find some fool, whom you once have bedded, and who still desires you badly enough, and tell him of your geas - before the enchantment has you completely in its grasp. Don’t ask him to murder the King for you - not directly - or you will be compelled to kill that person afterwards. But if you have brains in this pretty head of yours, you will put it in beautifully, and without trapping yourself. Act quickly, my pet, for your brother has made a fatal mistake by pointing out the exact condition that will trigger your curse. You still have a few hours - until the Queen finishes her bargaining with the human King.”
Bright red dots lit up inside Bodhi’s blue eyes, a slow, knowing smile spread over the elven maiden’s lovely face. “Yes, great Mistress, the huntress whispered slyly, “I know a few such men… indeed, two might work better than one.”
“Who are these dead ones?” Ellesime asked sternly, “and what did they have to do with King Errilam’s murder?” The Queen appeared unruffled, if slightly too pale. Only her fingers, tugging and pulling at the diaphanous fabric of her ashen mantle betrayed her true state of mind.
“They used to be my sister’s most trusted lieutenants,” her consort replied coolly. His eyes, cold and icy-blue as two chunks of frozen glacier, resisted the Queen’s fiery stare with deceptive ease. To an outside observer, each of them seemed oblivious to the other’s mood, but the tension in the room rose sharply with every word that Joneleth uttered. “I have reason to believe,” the Archmage continued in the same toneless voice, “that, in the end, they took it upon themselves to free my sister of her hasty promise to Your Majesty. King Errilam’s horse was slain by an arrow shot from the bow belonging to this man,” he nodded at the dark-haired cadaver, “while the other was the mage who redirected its flight.”
The hall exploded in a tidal wave of whispered rumors and guesswork. A slender, silver-haired woman in green-grey robes, surrounded by a reverential circle of solitude, moaned and swayed on her feet, and was quickly supported by a young pregnant female, and a bitter-eyed, dark-haired soldier, sporting the tattoos of House Elmbow. (Compared to her elder siblings, the youngest sister looked like a pale shadow, her face having little of their bright, arrogant beauty. Yet, as she fussed over the fainting Lady Nyonin, Yave’s features displayed tenderness and concern – emotions that were conspicuously alien to both Bodhi and Joneleth.)
“Brother!” Bodhi wailed from her prostrate position at Queen’s feet. “I rely on you to reveal the whole truth! You know I could not have harmed the human even if I wanted to!”
Joneleth threw Bodhi a bitter look, but quickly averted his gaze, visibly distressed by his sister’s tear-stricken face. “I can state with confidence that Bodhi herself was not involved in any way,” he said finally. “I would rather not speak of it in public,” he gave the crowd of onlookers - which by now was in a sort of frenzy, eagerly awaiting his every word - a cold stare, “but if requested, I am prepared to testify before the Council.”
Bodhi smiled through her tears, and unclenched her fists. A plain silver band gleamed dully on the middle finger of her right hand; in strong contrast to her face, her hands appeared remarkably steady and relaxed.
After her brother’s last words any further speech was drowned by a hubbub of wild speculations. Even the Council of Elders - a stolid group of grey-haired patriarchs and elderly matrons, each dressed in the colors of their Clan, and encircled by a small group of followers - seemed stunned by the Archmage’s revelations. The names of the two dead elves were traded from mouth to ear, for, indeed, many had recognized the two as the Green Spears’ top lieutenants. In moments, every person in the hall had concocted their own theory of the whole intrigue.
“Bravo, my Lord Ithilnien,” Duke Menerlim, still surrounded by a crowd of sycophants, albeit a much smaller one then minutes before, clapped his dry, sword-callused palms in mock applause. “It appears that you and your sister have thought of everything in advance. But, perhaps, a somewhat more detailed report is in order. Have you any proof of your words? To begin with, how did you happen to ‘stumble across’ their bodies?”
The Archmage looked in the direction of the Queen, but Ellesime averted her gaze, as if refusing to step in as an ultimate arbiter.
“My Lord Goldfeather,” Joneleth’s scowl, although disguised as a smile, was as humorless as his stare, “your curiosity knows no bounds.” He inclined his head in the slightest of bows, and the Duke returned the favor. Their eyes met, nearly causing a firework of sparks - of the kind that appear when flint strikes steel.
“Alas, for a while it is doomed to remain unsatisfied.” Joneleth continued in the same chilly, sarcastic tone. “Too many details - of a rather sensitive nature - have already been made public due to your unrestrained meddling. Now I wish that I had exercised more restraint, and not divulged so much of the truth – and certainly not in front of the human whelp! Regrettably, you left me no other choice. Do you even realize that your ambition has put this city on the brink of an unwinnable war?”
“Do not try to shift the blame onto me, my Lord Ithilnien! Suldanessellar will be secure, provided you agree to stand trial at the human city. Where is the proof, I ask again, that it was not your depravity, coupled with your sister’s lack of restraint - that brought us to the current disastrous situation?”
“Oh, I have proof enough to satisfy an entire troop of prosecutors - including an arrogant fool who appointed himself my judge, without ever being given the proper authority.” The Archmage threw the Queen another sharp look, but seeing her anguished face, grimaced and turned back to his opponent. “Enough of this mockery! If you want me to present the evidence, let us clear the room of bystanders and convene the Council.”
“You are forgetting yourself, my lord Ithilnien!” this time Duke Menerlim’s voice sounded a little less self-assured, “you have been called before this Council to explain your actions, not to take command!”
“Shame on both of you!” priestess Demin, who had just returned to the main hall from her self-appointed task of ensuring that the half-conscious Yurick was subdued and safely delivered to the infirmary, stepped between the two rivals. “All you can think of is your over-bloated egos – and this in the moment of such great crisis!”
“Again, I request that the bystanders be removed from the Council Hall before I deliver my testimony,” the Archmage interrupted her coldly. “We have stirred up enough trouble already. There is no need to agitate them any further.”
“Do you have so much to hide from Suldanessellar and her People?” Duke Menerlim’s eyebrows shot up in mock surprise, "or do you think the Council will never find the real cause of these men's demise?"
"If the Honorable Council wishes to learn how the bodies were found, I am ready to testify." Adalon, who had wisely used the time at her disposal to transform back into the elven form, and don her most formal attire, had finally managed to clear herself a path through the crowd.
The dragon looked a little angry but, as always, firm and resolute as a piece of rock. Almost instantaneously, her declaration resulted in a tremendous release of tension: the crowd seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief, and the remaining group of Duke Menerlim's supporters began to melt like a patch of snow under the hot sun.
“Father…” Astalder, who had remained at the Duke’s side through the entire argument, stepped forward, putting the palm of his right hand on his father’s shoulder.
“Be quiet, boy, it is not your turn to speak!” Lord Menerlim snapped, brushing away the offending limb without turning his head.
“No more than yours, my lord,” The Archmage’s voice became harsher and deadlier in tone. “Unlike yourself, your son is remarkably clear-headed for his age and station. Can you not fathom that your game is already lost? For the third time, I demand a break in the proceedings.”
“Demin is right,” Ellesime’s voice finally interrupted the stand-off. She sounded tired, and her eyes were full of a barely-concealed pain. “I am to blame for letting things go this far. I therefore order an end to this discussion. The Council will reconvene in two hours - in proper numbers. In the meantime, Captain Aduo’on shall make a list of witnesses to be questioned along with lord Ithilnien.”
The Queen hesitated, as if uncertain what to say next, but quickly recovered her wits, finally turning towards the patiently awaiting dragoness. “My dear Adalon, I thank your for your timely, and invaluable intervention. Your presence and your testimony will be vital to the investigation and, with the Seldarine's help, we shall soon establish the truth. In the mean time, I declare the Leaflord’s Truce - under the fear of being marked as the violator of peace, and by my divine father’s all-seeing will, no one, save at the Council's behest, shall draw a weapon or utter a word of power, until the end of the emergency Council. My Lord Ithilnien - I personally forbid you to leave my presence until the matter is resolved."
The Archmage's eyes sparkled under the hooded eyelids, but he silently bowed his head in submission to his royal lover's will.
“One can only wonder if the Queen has lost the last remains of her sanity to her shameless lust for my brother,” Bodhi smirked to herself. “But regardless of the cause – she is doing half of my job for me.”
Like a giant fish escaping from a loosely woven-net, the blood-red orb of the evening sun freed itself from the mesh of the Old Man's crown and rolled behind Suldanessellar's green hills – as it had done every night since the beginning of time. Darkness’ soft mantle settled over the Tree-City, bringing with it the long-awaited peace of a fragrant summer night. The Tree had mostly ignored the ongoing commotion: over the centuries of his silent watch over Suldanessellar, the city had lived through enough conflicts and political intrigue. Despite their generally peaceful nature and amazing longevity, the Children were as prone to power struggles as their shorter-lived human cousins. Yet the nature of the Elven Spirit and the quieting influence of the Queen’s divine heritage had always prevailed over runaway tempers.
The Old Man could sense snippets of angry thoughts and contentious emotions emanating from the familiar mind, but even his favorite pet could not hold the Tree’s attention for long – far too many minor but essential tasks required his continuous awareness, most notably those relating to the eternal cycle of life and death within the borders of the Great Forest of Wealdath. And so, the Sylvan demigod slipped back into his Dream, unruffled by what appeared to be just another minor squabble between the Queen and her consort.
The shadows that stole forth from the dark ravines and thickets had finally coalesced into a velvet blanket of darkness; the sunset had painted the sky in the warm tones of apricot, honey, and blood. As always, in his moments of great anxiety, Joneleth’s feet brought him to the roots of the Tree of Life. On his way up the hill, he had tried to commune with the immortal mind inside the Sylvan giant, but tonight, the demigod’s mind had gently pushed him away, rebuffing all his attempts at contact. After the third attempt, the mage had given up, and simply settled on the grass at the foot of the Tree.
“Would you mind my joining you tonight, brother of mine?” Bodhi's voice floated eerily out of the shadows, before she stepped forth and knelt beside him in one graceful motion, worthy of a big hunting cat.
This time Joneleth felt too tired to chase her away, and besides, she had earned his gratitude, if not his respect. So, he simply nodded wearily and lay back.
“I am glad we have finally smoothed things out between the two of us,” his sister purred after a short period of silence. “I was worried sick about you, Bright One, but my fears were unfounded – you were magnificent tonight at the Council Hall – as you always are!”
Once again, Joneleth felt too weary to rebuff her crude flattery. And what was the point of putting Bodhi down, he thought lazily – she could live a thousand years and never learn to be subtle. So, instead of arguing he grumbled something unintelligible.
His sister’s voice was not so annoying when it was not being used against him, and where, in truth, was the harm in listening to someone who actually thought that he deserved deference and admiration, rather than yet another harsh scolding? Today, Ellesime had outdone herself in making her lover doubt his own worthiness, only to eventually surrender to his will under the barrage of his advanced arguments. His mind was so much superior to any of her advisors’ – or even to Ellesime’s own, sharp but impatient, and unbalanced intellect.
They should not have wasted my time on that petty squabble – the mage thought bitterly. What was the point of outsmarting that arrogant fool of a Duke and sending him into a trap of his own making? Truly, it was a waste of energy, and of a good soldier. What would happen if the old fox Goldfeather could not convince the humans that Errilam’s death was an accident? How much of the desired memory alterations would Demin be able to impress on the human boy’s mind? Suldanessellar was not ready for war – at least not for the kind that a marauding human army might unleash on the Forest of Wealdath.
“It was so much fun listening to you persuading them to send Goldfeather and his whelps to the human city in your place – to deliver the unfortunate King’s body with all proper military honors,” Bodhi laughed softly. “Too bad the injured one was left behind, but one should not be too greedy with her revenge. Without his sire and elder brothers, Elhan will do little harm. Still, that moment alone was worth a thousand in gold. You were so logical in convincing them; that old vulture never had a chance against you. You are a strategic genius, brother dear!”
“That I might very well be,” he said finally, giving her an appraising look. Tonight, his sister wore her hunting leathers, having abandoned both the costly velures, and the priestly linen. These clothes suited her best – and he suddenly felt sympathy for Bodhi’s resourcefulness and unwavering panache. “But without that ritual of interrogating the spirits of the dead, all my arguments might have been easily overturned by an experienced legist,” he continued smoothly. “As it stands, all praise for my acquittal should go to Demin, and to you, for convincing her to try out the ritual. I have to admit – I was surprised at your courage. What was in it for you, Brash One?”
“I was happy for simply being there, at your side,” Bodhi replied lightly. “Seeing one of my blood prevail over his foes was a great satisfaction in itself. But if you were a little less grouchy and more cooperative, I am sure we could achieve a great deal more together, brother of mine. For starters, your ruddy vixen of a Queen…”
“Do not anger me, ever again, by sullying Ellesime’s name with that dirty tongue of yours,” he warned her softly. “There are limits to our newly found truce, and the Queen’s good name is one of them.”
“You are right of course, Bright One,” Bodhi replied after the briefest of pauses, “your private affairs are off limits, I guess… but are you absolutely sure you don’t want to hear what she told me in private, when you were not in the room?”
“Speak,” Joneleth said in a voice too neutral to be authentic, “but speak with care, for I shall know a lie when I hear one.”
“Well, well, well,” Bodhi said laughingly, pretending to inspect her well-manicured nails. “That was some encouragement, and all because of what? My sincere desire to help? Oh fine!” The huntress exclaimed sensing his growing annoyance. “Ellesime told me that she wants to make it up to you. She thinks she treated you unfairly, but was not sure what would be the best way to earn your good graces once again. So, ha, you still have power over the Queen, brother mine, and you had better use it before one or another of that troupe of sycophants that always boils around her turns her against you once again.” She expected him to bombard her with questions, yet, for a very long time, Joneleth remained silent as a stone.
“We shall see, sister mine, we shall see,” he uttered finally, turning away from her and stretching out on the soft carpet of grass and fallen leaves that covered the ground under the Old Man’s roots.
Disappointed at her brother’s carefree tone, Bodhi bit into her lower lip, then stole a furtive glance in his direction. The elven mage lay on his back, with his face turned up to the darkening sky, hardly visible between the Tree of Life’s whispering branches. The last, wine-red ray of the fading sun lit up his face, casting his pale features in the color of fresh blood. Joneleth’s eyes were half-closed; and a mysterious smile of contentment played on his lips, but under the fringe of thick lashes, his eyes were sharp and focused like a hawk’s.
“Don’t tell me that he fell under her influence, after that tear-squeezing performance loaded with musty tricks and outright lies!” Mirriam cried out hotly. “That whole episode was so crude – I can’t believe anybody could have fallen for that, and he had the advantage of knowing her true face!”
Their respective positions had changed little throughout the last leg of their hours-long conversation: her visitor still sat on the forked trunk of the silver-white tree, with his feet barely touching the ground; but the white cat had tired of wandering around, and by now had firmly settled on Mirriam’s lap, compelling her to sit still and occasionally scratch him behind the ears. Mirri had little time to further observe her environs, else she would have noticed the final drastic shift in the surrounding landscape, which by then had lost its original grey bleakness, and now dazzled the eye with all the colors of an earthly spring desert. Even the silvery grove had sprouted leaves and tiny yellow flowers, tinting the air with the green-and-yellow froth of new life.
“Well, it did not happen at once,” Rielev sighed, shaking his head. A few ringlets of his dark, bouncy hair fell over his brow, getting into his eyes, and he blew them away in a gesture so childish, it nearly made Mirriam smile. “Not even in a month. There were many more subtle lies and poisoned whispers. For the entire summer, through the golden months of autumn, and until the very first frost singed the grass, bringing with it the news of the trial of Duke Goldfeather and his sons, and their subsequent execution by the humans – Joneleth visited the Tree every evening, and sometimes spent entire nights down there. And his sister was there too, talking to him, attentively catching his every word, and listening – always listening to his complaints, blurring his consciousness with the slow poison of her praise. Still, Bodhi would have never succeeded, if Jon was not ready to surrender. He opened the gates of his inner stronghold to her of his own volition, lowering the bridges over the trenches of his caution, so that his sister’s lies marched into the bastion of his mind without a fight. By the time the war with humans had begun in earnest, he was ready to ‘take the burden of harsh and unpopular decisions upon himself’’, and ‘relieve the Queen of responsibilities that were too heavy for her shoulders’. Yet, I would rather cut my tale short at this point – for you do not have long left, and what remains is too painful for me to tell, even after so many decades.” Rielev looked sad, yet behind his eyes lurked a sense of resolution.
“Wait, wait, wait!” Mirriam exclaimed in frustration, mixed with astonishment. “You cannot stop now. You have just come to the most interesting part. Didn’t you say the Duke and all his sons were executed by the humans? But… how on Toril did they get captured? And what happened next?”
“Not all of them,” Rielev corrected her gently, “the youngest one was left behind, and so survived. But the rest of the men from the Goldfeather clan were sent to Ithmong with King Errilam’s body, and were later accused of regicide. Demin could not alter the human boy’s memories deeply enough – the only way to accomplish that would have been to wipe out Errilam’s entire visit to Suldanessellar, and that would have been too suspicious. So, on Joneleth’s advice, the Queen played a dangerous gamble and lost: the cosmetic alterations that Demin applied were not convincing enough. Have no doubt – the humans could never prove that their King was murdered. Yet the nation’s grief was too profound, as Errilam was greatly loved by his subjects, and the heir to the throne of Tethyr was forced to find a scapegoat quickly – if only to keep his people from looking towards him. The elves acted suspiciously, and were too easy a target. Errilam’s supposed liaison with the elven Queen had always been a favorite piece of gossip among his courtiers; and after his death Ellesime was blamed for everything. So, Errilam’s nephew, King Alemander III, later named The Elfslayer, assumed the throne. His first order was to convict and hang the entire elven delegation sent to settle the matter and offer reparations. Immediately after that, he declared war on the elves, which lasted nearly a century and cost thousands of lives on both sides. In the Year of the Beholder – which would be 1277 by Dalereckoning, the human army marched on Wealdath. The elves rebuffed the first onslaught, but the forests burned, and the cries of many dead rose to the sky. And a year later, in the year of 1278 – the Year of Many Bones – Suldanessellar was nearly wiped from the face of Toril.” Rielev paused, age-old pain showing in his eyes. “But that would be a different story indeed – one of pain, blood, death, despair, and betrayal. It would take too long, and I am not sure that you are ready to hear it.”
Having said that, he slowly stood up, brushing his robes free of sand and taking a step towards her. Mirriam started to protest, but at that moment the light fell straight onto the half-elf’s face, and for the first time since the moment of his arrival she noticed the long, curving scar running down from his left cheek and along his jawbone.
“Indeed, it is time for you to make a choice, Child of the Desert Winds,” Rielev continued gently. “While listening to me, you have recovered enough of your strength to return to your mortal body. Linger here a little longer, however, and your path to Toril will be closed forever.”
“You cannot do this to me!” Mirri cried out, jumping to her feet at once, and dislodging the cat from its place in her lap. “Too much has been left unsaid – what am I supposed to do when I see him again? What path should I take?”
Rielev gave her a look of deep sympathy, but then shook his head in resolve. “These questions you can only answer for yourself, my dear. And there is simply not enough time, I am afraid. Not nearly enough,” he concluded wretchedly, quickly averting his eyes and turning away from her.
Not nearly convinced, Mirriam tried to reach for him, but yelped in surprise, feeling a strange chill about her ankles. The white cat, in falling to the ground had landed heavily on all fours, producing a cloud of dusk-grey sand that puffed into the air. However, rather than settling back to the ground again, the sand had begun to swirl around, much as if Mirriam was in the center of a small sandstorm. It quickly rose around her body, buzzing as a swarm of bees, and as she stepped back out of it, Mirri tripped over the cat, and ended up lying on the ground with the cloud of sand swirling all around her. Not surprisingly, she sneezed and shut her eyes, protecting them from dirt; but when she opened them again, to her bewilderment, the trees, the desert, and the sky were all gone, together with her visitor, and all she could hear in the suddenly fallen grayness was the loud meowing of a cat coming from all directions at once.