flames from the east - ch. 3
THE DARK LORD IS ADVANCING
“Aleksei you can’t!” Elowen exclaimed and watched how the young boy’s face did not change in its tranquillity. Aleksei glanced down at Elowen’s mug of tea and the dark spots on her olive green skirt from where it had spilled in her impassioned moment. Humour flickered across the boy’s face and he met Elowen’s intense eyes again.
“Elowen I must.” He spoke evenly and with such a pleasant disposition that it made Elowen want to pour out the contents of her entire mug on him. But out of respect for their host, the baker, she refrained. “We cannot sit here and argue any longer and as much as I would like, I cannot wait for you any longer. Our guardians have summoned, and I answer. And if I am alone, so be it.”
Elowen lowered her voice.
“Father says that news of the disappearances has made its way to Faireplace, to the very ear of the king. He has had word from his brothers on our northern borders that soldiers have been placed, given leave to kill any who passes the border into Timberland.”
Elowen thought this news might have a small effect on the boy, but still he remained unchanged in his expression.
“No amount of danger will make me hesitate, my friend. And besides, there is a heavy fog coming in from the west this very night. On my horse and in the darkness, I will be as a ghost even to the careful eye.”
Elowen bit her lip hard, just short of drawing blood, fighting every argument that rose to her mind with every bit of will power left in her. How dare her keep Aleksei from going? Her face grew hot with guilt. It should be her that was leaving and instead, she is shamed by a fourteen year old, braver and wiser than herself. The fools will be used to confound the wise. Elowen was sure she had read that somewhere. But Aleksei was no fool, and she was far from wise.
Elowen reached her home just as the sun dropped behind the hills. She entered through the front door singing a sombre song under her breath then picked up the calico kitten which scampered past. She smiled at her younger siblings at play in the commonroom and continued into her father’s study.
Jago Crowne read an ancient, dusty book at his desk under the light of many candles. It was open to a page covered in letters, ancient letters and his light hazel eyes were intense. He traced one of the black and jagged shapes with his finger and a few loose pieces of his dark, long hair fell into his face. He wore a worn yet still vibrant blue tunic tied at the waist with a leather belt. The tunic was tight on his broad shoulders that were a little hunched over so that the desk was nearer. Jago heard the humming of his daughter and was not startled. He looked up and gave a gentle smile.
“A fair evening for a fair face.” He remarked as Elowen approached and cuddled the kitten. Jago quickly shut his book and a cloud of dust flew through the air. He cleared his throat loudly while fanning the air. “Has all been well for you this day, my little elm?”
Elowen released the squirming kitten and dropped into the emerald colored, cushy velvet chair. She looked tired.
“No. Tell me about your day, Da, interesting as usual?”
Jago furrowed his brows and sat back in his seat.
“Uh uh, not ‘till you answer my question properly.” He corrected. “Some day or another you’ll learn to be long-winded.”
Elowen scrunched her nose in opposition to that idea. Her father let a small smile curl onto his lips.
“My daughter, your eyes are distant. Tell me what troubles you on this day of celebration. I will not have my kin be sorrowful at a feast of our Maker.”
Elowen exhaled heavily and pulled at the loose hairs at her neck just under the braids pinned to her head.
“Aleksei decided that he’s leaving tonight.” She spoke, only a little above a whisper. Her voice didn't seem to allow her to speak any louder. Jago shifted uncomfortably in his seat, uneasily glancing down at the book on his desk. Elowen was surprised to see that this news did not seem to be new to her father. “Did you know this already?” She asked.
Jago grunted an affirmation.
“I heard it from the tavern folk. I spoke with Tiek Leafniggle this afternoon, and though he didn’t speak specifically on the subject, he didn’t seem too pleased and was in a hurry to get home. . .” He paused mid-sentence and observed that his daughter was no longer listening to him. “Hey there, Elle, my sapling, I’ll have nothing kept from me; there’s something else troubling you.”
Elowen blinked long and an image of the ancient tree's solemn expression passed through her memory. She smirked a little, forgetting anything but the rumbling and peaceful tone of the Elm’s words. Without Elowen saying a word, Jago already knew what she held on her mind. Since the moment she had breathed the air of mankind, her father knew her eyes, ears, and mind saw deeper and quicker the hidden mysteries of the Maker. Although unaware of it herself, Elowen likened far more to the Dryads Jago had met than men.
After a long silence, Elowen answered.
“You know already, Da. I’ve heard from the Elm again.”
Her father’s eyes grew sad and passionate all at once.
“Yes. I have heard murmurs in my dreams. My rest has not been peaceful as of late. Aleksei feels in his heart the same things you know in your mind,” He said, bringing the conversation around. “He has taught himself to heed the spirit of the trees although his ears are deaf. I hope, my daughter, you will learn from this.”
“You dream of this, Da? Since when?” Elowen asked, her interest peaked. Jago stroked his beard and looked off somewhere behind his daughter.
“They are foggy dreams filled with old memories and murmurs of future terrors.” He shifted his gaze back to Elowen and looked serious. “My mind has been filled with fire and dragons since my youth. I travelled the world in search of this battle I felt was my destiny and never found anything. But I did not travel East and that is where he lies. East is my fate. But the East is my fear.” Jago’s chest heaved up and down quickly as in a rush of adrenaline. The skin of Elowen’s arms prickled. Her father was never afraid and yet these dreams made some frail ghost of a man come out of him. Elowen found herself gripping the arms of her chair mercilessly. She released them and concentrated on her father.
“Why didn’t the trees call you then? If it is your destiny to fight the dark lord, wouldn’t you be an asset to this battle?” She asked.
Jago Crowne didn’t respond. Seeming to be in a sort of daze he re-opened the large book on his desk and pointed to one of the Old Drelian letters.
“The trees are not the only ones building an army.” He said after a long silence. Elowen stood from her seat and leaned over the book on her father’s desk. She had learned Old Drelian from her youth and yet the one her father pointed out was foreign. Jago answered her question before she could speak it.
“This sign was forbidden ages ago while the Dryads still were the lawmakers of the land. It is both a letter and a word. A word of conjuring.”
Elowen didn’t notice anything especially strange about this letter. It simply looked like another of the Drelian letters, however, instead of the shape being curved, it was pointed, jagged almost. But why did her father have a book that contained this sign if the Dryads had forbidden it?
“What does it mean?” She asked quickly. Forcing herself to ask the question before she changed her mind on whether she wanted to know or not.
“With its utterance destruction comes. It has a meaning deeper than the tongues of man, but stranger than that of the Dryads. Wherever this mark is written, that man is a slave to flames.”
Elowen shuddered and leaned away from the book.
“Why would the Maker create this?”
“That is not a question we can ask and know fully the answer. However, we are assured of these things: the Almighty did make it, and therefore it pleased him. At some point, mankind decided to use a beautiful tool as a weapon, or more likely an authoritative power. So often the gifts of the Maker are abused by His creation in order to offset the inherent equality of being human. Of course, it never succeeds, but it is nonetheless a danger. This is how the Dryads came to forbid this sign.”
Elowen tapped her fingers on the solid oak desk and stared at the letter intently. At first, she saw just the black ink lines on the parchment, but the longer she gazed, the more the ink seemed to move. The ink rippled like ice melting under heat and began to flow, as water might, but within the boundaries of the sign. A second later and all the liquid ink burst into flame and flung heat at Elowen’s face. She gasped in surprise but didn’t, or couldn’t, move her eyes away from it. Jago was perplexed, unable to see anything of what Elowen saw. But as a bead of sweat dripped down his daughter’s motionless face, he knew something was amiss. Without hesitation, he slammed the great book closed and took his Elm’s shoulders.
Elowen gasped and panted as if emerging from swimming in deep waters. Jago gave her shoulders a hearty shake, just to be sure no enchantment still lay on her.
“Look at me, my little elm.” He said softly. She shifted her eyes to meet her father’s bright hazel eyes. Elowen’s were intense with fear, but the assuring gaze of Jago Crowne steadied her. Jago nodded and let her shoulders go. He then heaved the large red leather book back up into the small glass cabinet behind him. He shut the door and inserted a skeleton key to lock it. Turning back to Elowen, Jago placed his thumbs into his belt.
“So, young Leafniggle needs help getting past the border?”
Elowen straightened her back at the mention of Aleksei.
“Can you help him?” She wondered eagerly, though not without a twinge of guilt.
Jago scratched his head with one hand.
“It wouldn’t be the first time I snuck past Drelian watchmen.” He chuckled. “However,” His smile fell quickly. “With the festival tonight, ‘twill be difficult to not raise suspicion.” Jago paused for a moment, seeming to reflect on something of importance. When he spoke again, his voice was low and serious. “The number of watchers is growing with every day that passes. Time is shortening for those the trees have called.” He stared intently into Elowen’s eyes, as if reading her every emotion. Her chin quivered, but she held her tears back.
“Please just get Aleksei out safely, Da. Please? If he is caught or…or worse, I couldn’t bear another day on this earth.”
Jago Crowne smiled, but his eyes were heavy as he approached his daughter.
“Come, my child. We celebrate this evening. The darkness which closes in can never quench our spirits and most certainly not our thanksgiving to the Almighty.” He said, drawing her small frame into his chest. “All will be as our Creator intended. Do not let your longing slay your appetite for living.” He wrapped his strong arms around Elowen and held her tight. Elowen breathed in the musty and sweaty smell of her father’s tunic and relished the comfort of a father’s security. He released her, and kissed her forehead.
“Aye, Da.” Elowen replied submissively and swallowed back the emotion rising in her throat.
Sir Gryffn Penhale raised his arms as his squire, Torrel, fitted an orange tunic over his head. The boy finished dressing the knight by handing him a leather belt, and once tightly on, the gleaming sword of the Penhale line, Gram. The sword was ancient, yet it still gleamed surely as brightly as the day it was forged. The squire kneeled, bowing his head, and presented the sword on his palms. Gryffn thanked Torrel, receiving the sword, and excused him.
The knight glanced over at his desk and frowned at the small neat bundle of dried herbs: sage, lavender, and anise hyssop. He had managed to avoid the traditions of Lowen festivals in past years, but he knew that, now as a knight of Tindrel, he had a duty to dance with a maiden at the feast. He had a lady in mind, but only because he was now under obligation to said female. Gryffn took up the herbs and carefully placed the bunch in the small leather pouch on his belt. The sharp, medicinal odour clung to his fingers even after he vigorously rubbed his hands on his trousers and so he concluded his efforts to do so. He checked his hair in the small mirror which hung above the wash basin then took up his leather cloak. It would be a wet and cool evening.
In the stable, Sir Penhale was met by his mother, Sowena. He bowed his head in respect and she took up his hands, studying her son’s face intently. Her hands were warm and soft, like flatbread dough that had been rising in the sun for many hours.
“Son, you have carried such a look on every feast night since you were twelve.” She smiled, as if a laugh was near the edge of her tongue. The laugh did not come. Instead, her eyes quickly changed to compassion. “Fear not, my love,” She sort of gasped, as one does when they change thoughts, as if even they themselves weren’t expecting it. “You are a knight, you already have gained the respect of your brothers and the approval of your father. The townspeople admire you, and I, as well. You have made a mother very proud. Go now, and be at peace to celebrate this night.”
Gryffn tightened his jaw and pulled his hands away from his mother. Her words cut deep, a jagged blade into his restless heart. There would not be peace near his soul until this business with the trees was through. He lifted the saddle onto his tall white horse, fitting it in place, then looked back to his mother’s patient expression. He took her shoulders gently and kissed her cheek. He could not force a smile, but his mother did not seem to be bothered by that. She raised her hand over him, giving him her blessing, and left the stable without another word. The knight continued to tack his horse, but stopped after only a few moments, feeling suddenly overcome with sweltering heat. He wiped his forehead and closed his eyes for a moment. His head spun and his stomach was disturbed. Sir Penhale placed a hand on the thick wooden supporting beam near him to gain balance.
When he opened his eyes back up, a man clad in a black cloak stood before him, caressing the neck of his white coated mare. Sir Penhale, taking deep breaths, straightened himself to full height and placed a hand on his sword hilt.
“Name yourself.” Gryffn demanded. Had the heat not seemed to find its epicentre in the figure before him, Sir Penhale might have considered that this might be a messenger of the trees. The cloaked man pushed back his hood, revealing the young, sharp face of Ellis Ratheroat. The knight did not let his guard down in the least, but Ratheroat did not seem to mind. He appeared to be quite at ease, regardless of the fact that Gryffn was a trained fighter, and himself, merely a tavern keeper.
“Kres Gryffn.” Ellis greeted smoothly. “Be not so tense young lad, you look quite pale.” A smile flickered across the bar keeper’s face. “Do you feel well, knight?”
Gryffn advanced a step, asserting his dominance over the situation.
“What do you want, Ratheroat? You have not come to look after my health.”
“No, no. I’ve only come to warn you. Change is near, you know. I know you know. You are not ignorant like the fools in this drowsy town. You desire the right things Gryffn; comfort, a revered name, protection of those you love. So do I. You’re on the wrong side of the fight, lad, the trees are what made our country the way it is. Why would you want to go back to that? My master promises a new country, one that will conquer all others and establish an unchangeable dominion.” The air around Ellis began to ripple, the heat was growing stronger, and Gryffn, all the more sick. The young business owner pushed his left arm out of his cloak and held his wrist up for Sir Penhale to see. It was the jagged letter which Jago Crowne had warned him of. Ellis Ratheroat closed his eyes and shuddered as a deep tone overtook his own voice and the inscribed letter appeared as flames on his skin. Penhale’s horse began rearing and whining in great distress. “The days of the dragon are soon complete. Serve me. I will soothe the unrest in your soul, knight. I will bring heat to your cold heart. Flames, to the dry kindling in your bones.”
Gryffn could stand it no longer. He drew Gram from its sheath and held the broad sword before his face, yelling, over the thickness infiltrating the air.
“Dark lord of the East; I am called by He who refreshes by tree and water, and I will answer to Him alone. May your flames be gone from this place.”
But it did not take any words from the knight’s mouth for the man to retreat. At the very sight of the ancient sword Gram, the deep voice roared in horror and the man cowered in fear, sheltering his eyes with his arm. Then, with a shriek, the possessed man ran from the stable.
A moment later, all was quiet. A cool breeze swept through the stable door, thinning the air of the unnatural heat. The white steed ceased his bucking and trotted over to the knight. Gryffn dropped his sword in the hay and took short, rapid breaths, recovering from both adrenaline and shock. As his breathing slowed, he thanked the trees under his breath. It hadn’t taken more than a moment for him to realise that the sickness in his stomach had been a gift from the Dryads. A protection from an otherwise appealing offer. Gryffn felt sick again, but from an entirely different cause.
About the author
I write stories, because I live a story. No fantasy world will ever compare to the one we live in. I want to describe our world in a way that reveals the Creator's magic, and write fantasy world's in a way that illuminates our reality.