| Queen Ellana’s tent,
once entered, revealed itself as a palace in miniature to Dargelblad’s
marvel. In spite of his hurry, he feasted his eyes on the interior. The
ground was covered with several layers of thin and soft carpets of multicoloured
designs. A large tapestry divided the inner space into a kind of lounge
with obviously private quarters at its back. The furniture, simple and
functional in its composition, was made from precious wood where no metal
fittings or hinges were visible. The Silver Dragon sensed such skill and
patience used in its creation as he caressed the surface of a low table
with his long fingers. The cushions on the folding stools were covered
with a very fine shiny cloth he could not help test in his hands.
-“Queen Ellana, pray forgive my rough manners as you mentioned before. It appears I still have a lot to learn about your people. What are the fabrics of their cushion made of?”
-“Yes. Silk is made from the cocoons of the silkworms. We raise the worms on mulberry trees until they make their cocoons before changing into moths. This is when we throw the cocoons into hot water to kill and dispose of the worms. Next we unravel the threads from the cocoons and weave them into the fabric you hold in your hands.”
-“ Actual animal fibers processed into cloth! Incredible! Do you make a lot of it?”
-“Quite a lot as elves are so fond of silk for ornamental clothes. But I am keeping you standing! Do please sit down! Have you eaten?”
-“Come to think of it, I am actually ravenous! May I presume on your hospitality, Queen Ellana?”
-“You may!” the beautiful elf replied with a soft laugh.
She clapped her hands a couple of times and three maids came in with trays of food, decanters of wine, cutlery and goblets.
Dargelblad noticed that all the utensils brought onto their table were made of the finest silver. He found their variety unusual. Knives and spoons, he recognized, but the forks had three tines instead of the usual two, and the two silver sticks with their points resting on a small agate puzzled him no end.
-“I must deserve the epithet uncouth, I’m afraid. What are those sticks for, Queen Ellana?”
-“This is a private meeting, Wilfred. Would it be too much to ask you to call me Ellana? These sticks are called chopsticks and are used to pick food you cannot scoop or stab. Let me show you.”
She spent the next few minutes teaching him how to hold the chopsticks properly and use them to bring food to his mouth. She also explained that the fork, having three tines, could also be used not only to stab, but also to scoop. The spoon was no problem but the idea of using forks and knives at the same time took him a while to grasp. The Silver Dragon slowly understood that all those utensils simply existed for the purpose of enjoying your food at a leisurely pace and to allow conversation instead of wolfing down whatever was offered to you. He appreciated these manners new to him and was taking a thorough pleasure in his meal under the scrutinizing eyes of the Queen who was finding a strange enjoyment teaching this male elf whose mind barriers she could not break. Wilfred was swiftly becoming a challenge for the lady bored by her adoring court and its intricate politics. An Elf Queen had no interest or fear for these internecine wrangles. Moreover, a stiff consort and fawning courtesans had certainly washed the glamour off her position a long time ago. Her long solitary life was proving dreary.
Wilfred was sipping a heady red wine from his silver goblet when he stirred her out of her reverie.
-“Ellana, have you ever thought of trading your silk or silverware?”
-“Wilfred, are you trying to tell me that you came all that way, in such a hurry, if I remember well, to talk about such a trivial matter as trade?”
-“I concede this might sound confusing, but it does have bearing, however distant, with what I wanted to discuss with you. At least for the moment.”
-“Is it not about time you started, then?”
-“Fair enough. First of all, I must reveal, and I shall never say it often enough for your ears only, that I am not what I seem. But you probably have guessed as much already since you have not been able to read my mind. While your warriors kept chasing me, at least as long as I let them think so, I discovered some unsettling evidence. A foreign presence has invaded your Realm without your knowledge. Why do I know of this? Because I possess senses beyond your comprehension. Be assured at least that I am your friend. Even more, you are my people. Do you grasp the meaning of that last statement?”
-“Do you mean you consider yourself our superior, or even worse, our liege?”
Dargelblad could not help laugh at Ellana’s misguided assumption.
-“Come, Ellana! What would I achieve by coming among you and proclaiming myself your King or anything of the kind? What better way of antagonizing all the Elves of the Woods? No, believe me, this is not and never will be my purpose! By saying you are my people simply signifies that I am bound by oath and duty to help and protect you in whatever manner or situation!”
-“Tell me, Wilfred: where do you come from? How old are you? What is your real name? Where…”
Dargelblad rose his right hand to stem the Queen’s questions.
-“My Lady, I am willing to answer some of you questions and shall we leave it at that for the moment? To start with, I am both older and younger than you are. Know I was born twice. The first time was eons ago even before Elves had come to this world. The second time was only a few years ago. I have come from very far beyond the Iron crags. Lastly I cannot utter my name because I would give away my life by revealing it to you. Ellana, you are a woman, if I may call a female Elf as such, of great, probably unsurpassed power among your kind. May I presume you have guessed what or who I am?”
The Queen kept staring at Dargelblad’s incredibly handsome face. The Silver Dragon was the first being to arouse unknown feelings inside her. She had too much experience, knowledge and intelligence to let any one subjugate her with good looks, wits or exoticism. The more she observed the elf facing her, the more she sensed a different being, totally alien to her species, or whatever creature known to her on Alymndes. Slowly an impossible realization crept into her mind.
-“You are not!”
Dargelblad just kept his eyes locked on her.
-“That cannot be! Your kind is only a source of legend!”
-“Ellana, you are not the first inhabitants of this world. Many people, many civilizations have come to existence and left without a trace, others with legends before humans, elves, dwarves and other species were born. In those times, your kind also was a source of legend. Times went when magic was unknown. Other times came when elves were not what you are presently. You must accept that your kind is, was or will not be the only one. Now, shall we go back to more pressing matters?”
The queen kept mute, having little control on her feelings and frustration.
Dargelblad had no time for a woman’s tantrums, however beautiful she might be. In better times he might think again and would probably have been tempted to please her in a more intimate manner, but right now he had a task to care of.
-“How well guarded is your border along the Mountains of Fire?”
Ellana, realizing her own questions were put aside reluctantly retorted,
-“What borders do you speak of? What could come out of those mountains? They rise to impossible heights out of nowhere along the last trees of our forests. The only landscape you will find is an endless succession of belching volcanoes, crevasses filled with poisonous fumes, lakes of boiling mud and barren land constantly wracked by fearsome earthquakes!”
-“This is where you are wrong, Ellana. All that time, your people have believed the Mountains of Fire to stand as your best guard on your southern frontiers. But you have never bothered to check what lay beyond those hell-hidden lands. A world exists over there, very far I admit, but an evil one bound on breaking any barriers, however formidable, to reach and enslave our world. Know that at least one of their agents has crossed over and is among us. I have felt its presence all the time I have spent in your woods and I shall uncover and destroy it! The earlier, the better, believe me!”
-“How could I not find it myself?”
-“I do not know, but it just shows how powerful our enemies are. When I say our enemies, I mean that all the lands and inhabitants of Alymndes are concerned. Therefore we also urgently need to create durable bonds between all of us!”
-“Now I see why you mentioned trade! Silk we already trade, but what could we trade our silver for?”
-“Ellana, Ellana! How can you hold so much power and at the same time ignore essentials!” the Silver Dragon chided. “What are you drinking now? Wine from Beaucastel, right? But have you ever realized that the wine traded to you, although of good quality, is not the best that can be found. I may go as far as saying that your own traders are not working hard enough to obtain the best deals for you! I noticed that you drink only red wine. But did you know there are also white, rose and amber wines? Have you ever heard of the beauty of a great sparkling wine?”
Ellana suddenly felt very rustic and provincial in spite of all the vaunted exquisite refinements of the Elves. She came to understand that her race had been confined to the Forests too long.
-“That is fine for Beaucastel, but what of the other lands and their people?”
-“You are becoming interested, aren’t you?” Dargelblad could not help tease her interlocutor as he had caught her full attention. “The Free Tribes of the Steppes have unsurpassed animal skins tanned to very thin and soft material you can either wear for everyday use or for formal occasions as they can be dyed and embroidered. I can already see boots of soft leather becoming the rage among your vain retinue! Their cattle can also provide you with exceptional cured meat in many forms and they produce succulent cheeses! The Races of the Desert and the Sea have unlimited access to fish, shellfish and fruit for your food as well as shells, pearls and coral for your craftsmen and rich ladies! Finally, up in the Iron Crags, the Dwarves…”
-“Dwarves! But they are a legend, too!”
-“Well, I must admit they have been very proficient at hiding themselves for ages, but like you, they shall have to come out of their isolation for the common good as well as their own! These dwarves in particular have a lot to offer in glass, crystal and tools. As their hands cannot possibly reach the skills of your own craftsmen when it comes to silver, they will be more than willing to trade. Your two peoples could actually put their heads together and come up with new artifacts that would be most appreciated by other races!”
-Wilfred, something bothers me no end: how do you know so much about the other Races?”
-“Did you really think I was the only one of my kind? Ellana, think about what we have just discussed. While you do that, I shall mingle with your people!”
Dargelblad stood up and left the tent immediately, leaving the Queen deep in her thoughts. She did not notice the young dragon’s last breach of etiquette. When she reflected about his attitude and manners later, she did not feel like bothering or even mentioning it. She had to organize quite a few meetings and projects with her retainers right away. She also wished to know why they had not cared to inform her better about the world outside. Some people, for whatever reasons, did not want her to discover what lay beyond the rim of the Forests.
Ekan was quickly settling down in his new life. There was certainly no dearth of work. He was up each morning before everybody, except Turgas, the innkeeper. His first task consisted of making sure enough fuel and wood was ready for the kitchen. Dunlago had no cold weather to speak of but cooking still consumed many logs to cut. He then shared his morning meal with Turgas, his family, all the other hands and Mareeva around the big table installed in the commons before participating to the general cleaning. His master proved to be quite demanding on that particular point and the Black Dragon approved. In itself, it became a good education for his small adopted daughter who was coming out of her shell a little more every day. The staff were kind to her without spoiling her. Ekan made sure she kept out of people’s way and she was quite content to sit on a fence, on a windowsill or on a stool and observe the ever-busy adults around her. At other times she would suddenly find her own attention captivated by concerns only children could comprehend.
Mareeva was an inquisitive girl and the waif could be seen looking and poking in corners and nooks, looking at the servants doing the laundry, cleaning the rooms and baths or any other daily chore. But her favourite place was the garden at the back of the commons. There, Turgas cultivated all kinds of greens, herbs and vegetables to accompany the usual fare of meats, fish and cheese offered at the tables of his inn. A small orchard provided fruit of all kinds depending on the season. Mareeva spent hours cleaning the rows and conversing with the gardener. The old man was a wizard with plants and a teacher with inexhaustible patience for the little girl’s incessant questions. Ekan was extremely grateful for Claudius’ care of his daughter that allowed him to concentrate on his own tasks. While helping with the kitchen, he kept a sharp eye on the cooking. The preparation of food captivated him no end. The cooks were quite happy to let the big man taste the spices they added to the different sauces or to explain the process of making and baking bread.
Lunchtime did not mean too much work as guests essentially came for a meal, or trade talks. The evenings and nights witnessed a totally different scene. At such times, Ekan fulfilled many duties: waiter, doorman and in some cases, trouble shooter. Usually, the sight of the giant black man was sufficient to keep order and prevail on the customers’ good manners. But sometimes, rowdy crews came to town. Ekan had the knack (nobody had any inkling of his other senses) to prevent trouble from coming inside the Blue Mermaid. As a matter of course a few quiet words at the entrance and a gentle suggestion to visit the neighbouring inns and taverns were enough to fend off any misbehaviour. Turgas had quickly learned to leave the job to Jonas. On exceptional occasions the Black Dragon had to resort to force, but even so, was careful enough not to break bones or inflict durable injuries. The immediate result of this policy was an enhanced reputation for the establishment. Better-off customers soon came to patronize Turgas’ tavern as the word spread that the good food was supplemented with order at any time of the day and night. Unfortunately, the sudden prosperity was making nearby businesses’ owners somewhat envious.
At the end of the day, Ekan went back to his quarters he shared with the gardener since the old man had taken to Mareeva so easily. Claudius actually felt grateful for Jonas’ company, however late it was. The two of them had a lot of talk and lore to share while the little girl slept in peace. The gardener was an inexhaustible source of information on the country’s history and customs for the dragon. Even Turgas sometimes joined in for a night’s cap and a last relaxing chat before hitting bed.
Dargelblad had not stayed too long ‘mingling’ with Ellana’s courtiers. He found their company slightly stifling and he had other things to do. The few days he had spent among them convinced him he had better keep away from the Queen’s entourage for a while to let them get used to his existence. There was little point in rushing changes into eons of tradition. Moreover, Ellana’s attentions towards his person were growing heavier by the day. He suspected her of slowly falling in love with him. Although complimented by her feelings, a dragon of his age had no experience to fall back upon when it came to dealing with a female’s passions. The fact he was a dragon and that she was a long-lived elf complicated the situation. Not least of the problems involved, elves, like humans, had this quaint urge to betroth for life. They would have to find some kind of compromise if the two of them were looking for some form of harmony. So one night, coming down from the lodge he occupied inside the bole of a giant tree, he walked away from the Elves’ Forest City unseen and silent.
As soon as he felt safe away from any unwanted eyes, he changed back into his original body and took off in a majestic leap. If an elf had seen him as a dragon, such a witness would have never accepted that his wings, as big as they were, could have lifted his imposing body from the ground so easily. The laws of physics would certainly not have accepted a dragon to fly unless each wing was at least twice the length of his body. Even so, such appendages would have prevented any Wyrm from taking off flat ground and condemned him to live in mountains or eyries. The difference between ability and impossibility was magic. After all, Glamrun had told them that dragons in different ages and lands had not bothered with wings and were capable to soar in the sky like tornadoes. Dargelblad did not worry much being seen in his dragon’s body, but he certainly abhorred the idea of other creatures discovering his true identity. Ellana had already guessed his real nature, thanks to his own cooperation, but some people, although the fewer the better, would still have to be confided in if he wanted to influence future events.
The more he thought about the Mountains of Fire, the more he grew convinced they were not the perfect border that many complacent people wanted to believe. He opted to fly westwards first to survey the whole chain of volcanoes. He actually spotted a couple of areas where a determined force might be able to breach but only with a large reserve of food and water for at least two or three weeks and provided no eruption or earthquake occurred on the way. He quickly discarded these possibilities for the good reason that a slow moving enemy would have been instantly marked by the sharp-eyed elves. The only really weak point on the western half of the continent lay on the shore. There, the line of mountains petered out and the configuration of the land changed into wide barren lava plateaus right into the sea. The Elf Forest finished at a point about fifty miles away from the coast where the Steppes took over. If an army or a single individual managed to cross the lava plateau in spite of more mountains behind it, or circumvent it by boat, they might be able to extract sustenance out of the heather-covered hills and the grassy valleys, although these lay far behind high dunes bordering the sea. A large invading force, or even a small squad, would however be intercepted by the fierce Free Tribes of the Steppes in no time, and word would have already reached the other Races. But one lone intruder could definitely have come through and if he had somehow managed to evade the elves’ attention; that would explain the presence he had felt inside the Elves Forest.
As there was little he could do about it, he turned back to his starting point and flew eastwards. It proved a long flight indeed and he had to rest and feed often. He made a point of flying at night only. He certainly did not want to become the source of a new legend too quickly. As feeding was proportional to his size, his elf body could easily be looked after. Sleeping concealed in the forest in daytime was no hard task for him to perform. His dragon’s vision and senses were more than adequate to survey the land in the dark. Eastwards, the mountains of Fire were truly impassable, except for the large pass south of Beaulieu Realm. The slopes of the mountains had collapsed into a wide gap flanked by incredibly high and steep walls. Glamrun had told them that a cataclysm of fearsome proportions, perhaps an earthquake, had created this break across the Mountains of Fire. Though the land beyond lay in an impenetrable mist, it bode of darkness and evil. They would have to block that access very soon. That surely would take time, skill and a large amount of labour he did not care to consider. But the sooner they took care of that task, the safer Alymndes would become. Farther eastwards, the chain of volcanoes stretched to the very ocean wherever so often lava poured into the sea, scalding vapours exploding from the suddenly boiling water. Unfortunately the sea itself would have to be guarded in the future, too. Judging from the relatively lack of any natural barrier comparable to the northern line of rocks prolonging the Iron Crags, a large and well-organized fleet would be needed to bar the route to the western shore of Alymndes.
At least some good work had been done. Not only had he surveyed the whole southern border, but he had also stored all the landmarks in his memory. That should prove extremely resourceful knowledge for all the dragons when they should need to teleport or move from place to pace in an emergency.
But first of all, he would have to contact Glamrun as soon as he would have finished a more pressing matter back in the City of the Forest.
-“Hammerblow, your craftsmen have already made good progress with learning their new skills. They have started producing lenses for spectacles and telescopes in good quantity and varieties. They have attained great quality with their transparent glass and since they have also mastered flashing with different colours, they know how to make such useful and ornamental objects as wine glasses, decanters and vases in two or three-toned crystal they can grind or chisel into different patterns. I also have taught them how to make mirrors of various sizes and shapes they can mount on wrought metal frames they are so proficient at. So I think the time is ripe to venture out of your mountains and start making a name for your goods and crafts!”
-“Here comes the moment I had been dreading all the time. You should realize I just cannot leave my Realm at least for the moment until my mule-headed subjects understand the full extent and usefulness to open their doors and travel abroad! Who is going to guide them, counsel them and also keep an iron grip on that fractious lot, lest they misbehave!”
-“Well, since I came here to bring the outside world to you, am I not the best qualified dwarf to take and lead your subjects as far as business and foreign diplomacy are concerned? Mark me, this trade concept we have been speaking of at length will lead to bigger affairs. Therefore, we shall go out not only for the financial benefit of your community, but also to break ground for profitable relations between the Realm Under The Mountains and the other lands and countries of Alymndes. That is when yourself as King Under The Mountain will have to leave your underground world and embark on a long and exhaustive tour of the Continent!”
Hammerblow could not help let a deep groan of worry at the pile of work, explanations and troublesome meetings waiting for him.
Brighteyes, his feared wife, with a rare smile breaking all over her face, tried to reassure him:
-“My dear husband and King, you are worrying too much. After all, you shall have me to share the work and responsibilities!”
Hammerblow’s second groan was even deeper and longer than the first one.
-“Apprentice, how many Free Tribes are there all over the Steppes?” Umatar asked the young man, as they were sorting the herbs they had picked that day to dry and preserve.
-“I doubt anybody knows, She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons. In good times, I mean years when the weather is relatively clement and when grass is plentiful, quite a few Tribes might break up into new ones, taking their herds of cattle, sheep and goats with them to whatever land their elected Shaman chooses. The only time they would meet then would be at times of festivals, trade and wife-bartering.”
-“Yes. However free the different Tribes want to be, history and nature has proven that inbreeding among their herds as well as among themselves humans is nefarious. So they have to find new blood regularly.”
-“If I understand well, wives and cattle amount to the same in your people’s minds. Am I right?”
” Probably, I must concede. Frankly speaking, I am not very happy about the present state of affairs myself, but traditions and Shamen’s laws are hard to break. Moreover, mixing religion with politics can only lead to oppression of some kind. I have heard that in other lands humans are certainly freer and more private with their beliefs!”
-“So they say. But I wouldn’t be surprised if we found some exceptions. Especially when men want an additional reason or excuse to oppress women, they usually come up with a practical religious rule to achieve their goals.”
-“Do you hope to break our women’s shackles someday?”
-“I wonder if the problem is that simple when you consider Boy’s predicament and the attitude of your warriors. Unless some kind of natural cause helps me, I shall probably have to break a few bones!”
-“She-Who-Talks-To-Dragons, such language surely does not befit a physician!”
-“Apprentice, what would you do if you had to treat a patient with gangrene in his arm?”
-“Severe the sick arm well above the gangrene to save the rest of his body. You do not mean to eradicate a part of our race, do you?”
-“No, just their way of thinking.”
Dargelblad came back to the City in the Forest one evening just before dusk. Quite a few elf courtesans jumped in surprise when he suddenly appeared out of the trees unannounced. A large group of them were conferring not far from Queen Ellana’s tent and the Silver Dragon had no choice but to go through the coterie in order to reach the Elf Queen’s quarters. Realizing that nobody showed the slightest willingness to move aside, he steeled himself and walked to the group without hesitation, keeping a little smile on his perfect face.
-“Good evening, gentle people of the City in the Forest! Pray forgive me for not forewarning you of my return! I must confess I have been very busy for the last two weeks. Since I have pressing news for your all, I have just come back in a hurry! But maybe you also have some news for me? Whatever happened during my absence?”
Icy mute stares were the only answer he managed to get out of them for a while. He was about to force his way through regardless of some nasty consequences when a strange personage burst out of the group.
-“Wilfred! You are back at last! To think I missed you last time you graced us with your presence!”
The elf addressing Dargelblad was certainly not an ordinary one. He had heard of effeminate male representatives of the human races, but a foppish elf must have rated as a discovery. The creature in front of his eyes was practically dressed like a woman. With the only difference that the robe he was wearing opened in the front, from the waist down, to reveal stockinged legs and long boots of extremely good quality leather, but totally unfit for life in the forests. His hair flowed down over his shoulders in long curls, probably unnatural, and his hands, ears and neck gleamed with jewels of gold, silver and precious stones. The Silver Dragon had to admit that his interlocutor was not handsome but beautiful, if such an epithet could be applied to any male member of the Elf Race.
-“Sir, I beg your pardon. Whom do I have the pleasure to meet?”
-“Lout! This is Allaert, Prince of the Noble House of the Forest, Brother of our Queen Ellana! How can you be such an ignorant peasant! You ought to be flogged!” One of the courtiers menacingly shouted.
-“Why don’t you try yourself, sycophant?” the dragon retorted in a cold dangerous tone.
-“Sycophant! How dare you! You, you…”
-“Come Sieghel, come! Would you be kind enough as to leave this matter to me!” The noble elf chided his follower. “After all, nobody had the good manners to introduce us to each other in the first place! I had to come out of my way to greet Wilfred here. Now, tell me, who has been remiss in his duties, my dear servant?”
Whatever his quaint ways, Allaert seemed to have an unchallenged authority over his entourage as the courtesan backed down quickly under the insistent glare of his liege. For all his smiles, Allaert emanated a strange aura to Dargelblad. Something was wrong with his eyes. They seemed vacant. But nobody showed any concern. Perhaps the dragon’s senses had become aware of a fact carefully hidden. Well, Allaert would have to be investigated, Dargelblad decided. And how come nobody had mentioned the existence of a brother to the Queen?
-“I see you have finally met my dear brother, Wilfred! Welcome back! You have been away a long time indeed. I hope you have news for us!”
Queen Ellana had emerged from her tent at the perfect time to give Dargelblad a way out of a potentially embarrassing situation. A bit too perfect, actually. Well, he shall see.
-“Greetings, Queen Ellana! I do have some pressing tidings, but Prince Allaert was so kind as to condescend to introduce himself to my insignificant person that I could not possibly pass the opportunity to feel honoured making his acquaintance!”
-We shall see how long you will be pleased with my dear brother and his ways. But come to my tent right away!”
-“Sister, but I have only just met our dear friend Wilfred, and you are already stealing him! How could you do this to me?” Allaert cried mockingly but with a genuine touch of envy.
-“Do not worry, my dear brother, you shall have Wilfred all for yourself after I have finished with him, although I very much doubt he is of your kind!”
Without a further word, Ellana turned around and made for her tent. Dargelblad followed, but not until he had sent a wink to Allaert. The Prince was a bit taken aback by the pert familiarity but could not hide his pleasure to the utter dismay of his followers.
Queen Ellana was certainly not in a gentle mood when the Silver Dragon finally penetrated her tent.
-“Wilfred, you could have warned me of your coming! I am pretty sure you could have managed to send me a message if you had wished to!”
-And given you a proof of what I may be or may do in the vicinity of unwanted ears. Ellana, I have already told you danger is lurking among us right now. I would have expected more restraint and circumspection form an elf magician!”
The Elf Queen fell back into her seat with a long sigh.
-“Wilfred, why does it seem that life has changed since you showed up? Why can’t I keep a cool head as I have always done?”
Definitely feeling trapped on a slippery ground, Dargelblad chose to ignore the Queen’s dilemma and pressed on:
-“Ellana, that is for you to sort out!” he callously replied. “Now, we have to deal with the safety of you Realm’s borders. I have found three weak areas along the Mountains of Fire and one concerns you directly and the two others indirectly. You have to start your move!”
-“Isn’t our southern borders along the Mountains of Fire safe?”
-“Yes, they are, relatively. At least, danger there would be discovered quickly enough if it occurred. That is why your people have become complacent and negligent. Danger will come directly to your doors at the western extremity of the Elf Forest. If you do not organize yourselves and conduct common security with the Free Tribes of the Steppes in haste, it will be too late to stem an invasion once it has got a strong foothold on the western shore!”
Dargelblad went on to explain the topography of the land west of the Elf Forest and how they could best defend the coastal lands.
-“With the Free Tribes mounted on horses, you shall have mobility and intelligence advantage on an eventual enemy’s movements. Since they will most likely have to come by boat, they will only have a limited number of mounts. Elves could conduct fast attacks and retreats thanks to their prowess with the bow and other throwing weapons. Your first task is to insure that the whole length of the Forest is planted with sentinels and to build a fighting force to move at once to the western end of the Forest and make ready to intervene at any time!”
-How am I going to convince the Elves to move out of their forests and join forces with races they despise? And who is going to lead them in their fighting?”
-“We might need drastic measures to convince them, although your word as the Queen should be enough. As for leading them into war, I shall take care of that. In any case, the farther away I am from the City in the Forest, the better for your petty politics! As for joining forces with the other Races, I have told you I am not the only one of my kind and that we are all working towards the same cause. I can assure you all the Races will realize they have to unite very soon. On a more practical and basic point, you should encourage trade and some of the notions we have already entertained to give your people a good enough reason to defend themselves and preserve their new prosperity!”
-“And what are the other two areas in the southern border you have mentioned?”
-“That can wait, although I have a premonition the hammer will strike the anvil hardest in those two particular areas of common concern to all the Races of Alymndes!”
-“Why don’t we discuss it over dinner? You haven’t eaten yet, have you?”
-“Sorry, Ellana, but I wish to meet your dear brother Allaert. I’m sure he has a lot of information for me!”
-“Of what kind? Allaert has only concern for his looks and pleasures. I do not believe he will be of any utility to you? Or is it his person you are so interested in?”
-“Ellana, I’m afraid you assume too much. In any case I do not think we can afford wasting our energies on personal matters. I have good reasons to want to meet your brother and I certainly do not feel the need to justify my decisions!”
The Silver Dragon stood up and swiftly left leaving a miffed Queen in his wake.
Queen Ellana felt confused. Why did she feel like throwing the nearest object at hand at the back of that strange creature?
Dargelblad had not walked more than three paces outside, when already Allaert was all over him. The elf obviously had been waiting for him.
-“Now Wilfred, I shall not let you escape from me this time! I have been waiting long enough! Why don’t you come and join us?”
-“Prince Allaert, who said I wished to escape from you?” The dragon ingenuously replied, provoking a blush on the elf’s face.
-“Tell me, my dear friend, have you dined yet?”
-“To tell you the truth, no. Now that you mention it, I have not eaten anything for a whole day because of my haste. I do feel ravenous!”
-“Why, I say this is most appropriate! I happened to have dinner ready in my tent. Would you care sharing it with me?”
-“That certainly would be a great pleasure. But what of your friends?”
-“My friends? Pah! Sycophants they are as you aptly called them. Although I am pretty sure many of them will never know the meaning of the word! Just ignore them! We two have so much more important topics to discuss than their usual senseless babble! Come! Come!”
Dargelblad let himself be led by the Prince who took his arm with a sudden familiarity that made his courtiers green with envy.
Allaert’s tent appeared even richer than Ellana’s. Dargelblad had doubts about the necessity of such extravagance. Everything inside Allaert’s abode smacked of vanity, pompousness and futility. The Prince bid him to sit by his side and to partake with food at the low table served with a succulent-looking repast. The noble elf served his guest wine from a silver pitcher and proceeded to describe the food the Silver Dragon was bringing to his mouth. The Prince did not eat but was starting to drink heavily, as if he wanted to lose his control on purpose. Soon, he started to babble and lean on Dargelblad’s shoulder who understood what was coming and prepared himself. The dragon still could not figure out why nobody had noticed the strangeness in Allaert’s eyes. He seemed to be two persons at the same time. One was the effeminate elf with clearly warped tastes, and the other hidden far inside his body with his eyes as the sole window on the outside world.
Dargelblad finally got tired of the game and as Allaert leaned once again on his shoulder he knocked him cold with a quick jab to his chin. Catching the Prince on his way to the ground, he laid him down gently onto the carpeted floor and stood up. He began a methodical search of the tent, but soon enough had to give up as he could not find or sense anything untoward. He came back to the unconscious elf and kneeled down behind his head. His prone creature’s eyelids were closed. The dragon slowly pulled them open with his thumbs. The eyes were vacant as usual, although this time it could have been explained by the treatment their owner had just received against his will.
Using his dragon’s sight, Dargelblad attempted to penetrate the elf’s mind through his eyes. To do so, he had to commit a great part of himself, more than he wished to. He had to proceed forward with the utmost care. His precautions were rewarded, however, when he fell into a black void inside what had been Allaert’s former true self. The Prince’s own will and soul had apparently disappeared a long time ago, devoured by an alien presence that suddenly attacked the young dragon with incredible violence and hatred. Dargelblad barely had time to escape from the former elf’s mind before he could be harmed. How could anyone take over somebody’s mind and still keep his or her victim’s personality intact as if nothing had happened? Only Dargelblad’s dragon skills had allowed him to escape from the dire perils at hand.
Coming to a decision, he took a sword from the panoply and dragged Allaert’s unconscious body by his coat outside the tent.
If he had wanted to shock the whole elf community, he could not have found a better way. Within minutes, all the inhabitants of the City in the Forest were surrounding him, most of them swords drawn or arrows cocked in taut bows. The sword Dargelblad held flat on Allaert’s throat was the only reason for hell not to break loose.
Queen Ellana burst out of her tent when she heard the din outside. She had a hard time to realize that the cause of all the ruckus was Dargelblad, and more indirectly her brother. She soon became horrified at the picture of the strange elf holding an unconscious Allaert by his collar and applying a sword on his victim’s throat.
Then she heard a voice in her head.
-“Ellana, can you hear me? This is Wilfred. I’m mind speaking to you! Just nod your head if you receive me!”
Ellana numbly nodded in acquiescence.
-“Now, listen carefully to me and do not interrupt me! We are in dire straits. Allaert has been taken over by an alien evil. Your brother has been lost for a long time already. I’m sorry, but what I am going to do is bound to shock and pain you no end. Be strong and fast. When the demon or whatever creature comes out of Allaert, you must project all your strength and magic to contain and annihilate it. I shall help you, but we must not let your people know or guess what or who I am! So make it obvious! Is it agreed?”
Queen Ellana nodded again.
-“Alright, start and make a show of it!”
The Elf Queen raised her arms over her head and began chanting. Slowly a halo of light appeared between her outstretched hands to become a bright ball of fire. Lowering her arms, she brought the incandescent sphere to her breast level and moved it slowly in the direction of the two elves.
When the burning magical apparition stopped close to Dargelblad, the Silver Dragon grasped the Prince’s hair and cut swiftly in a single movement across the exposed neck. A cry of horror came out of the assistance, but it quickly became screams of fear when a black miasma curled out of Allaert’s slashed throat. But before the evil emanation could coalesce into any kind of form, the ball of fire hit it in an eruption of sparks.
Dargelblad had been preparing for the opportunity.
Before the dark entity could mount any sort of retaliation, he concentrated all his powers on attacking it with a savage will to destroy it. Soon it was writhing in obvious pain and distress as it futilely tried to escape from the dragon who continued his assault. The demon, or what it might have been, attempted a last time to flee from the double magical onslaught bent on its destruction and emitted a shrill cry of pain and panic:
But the black miasma suddenly winked out of existence.
Dargelblad and Ellana’s apparently had been sufficient to fend it off, although the effort had taken a hard toll. Both the Queen and the Dragon had fallen on their knees dazed and exhausted.
The crowd around them had been shocked in motionless silence. Dargelblad was the first to come back to his senses. He gently laid down the body of the Elf Prince on the grass. No blood was coming out of his slashed neck. The evil thing that had occupied Allaert had probably dried up the body when it came out. Dargelblad silently left the scene, leaving the grieved elves to take care of the Prince, feeling he had better be discreet for a while whatever his role had been in saving the community from an immediate grave peril.
Long after he had come back to the giant tree bole that was his abode in the City in the Forest, he heard somebody come and stop at entrance.
-“Come in Ellana, I know it’s you.”
An immensely sad and humble Queen hesitatingly entered. She stood for a long time silent and lost for words. Dargelblad finally stood up and walked to her. He took her hand and guided her to the canopy where he had her sitting at his side. Putting his arm around her shoulder, he gently brought her head to rest against it. After a while he sensed Ellana’s body relax as silent tears began to flow on her wan cheeks. She cried for a long time, her frame sometimes wracked by violent sobs, other times her face hiding in the nook of the dragon’s shoulder, her cries almost silent. The pain and sadness struck Dargelblad as new feelings he had not imagined. Pain he could understand, but sadness left him at a loss.
Some time before dawn, Ellana awakened from the fitful sleep she had fallen into with the help of Dargelblad’s soothing presence. She explained that before she had come to the dragon’s tree, the Elves had conducted a quick funeral ceremony and had laid Allaert’s body on a pyre to be lit in the morning before all the Citizens of the Forest.
-“Will you come, Wilfred?”
-“If you think it is absolutely necessary. But do you honestly think your people will accept someone who after all has brought grief and discord in their midst?”
-“We might seem a strange and fractious lot to you, but elves’ long lives have given them wisdom and reason. For all their pettiness, they know when times of reflection and counsel have come. Allaert might have had his own weird, sometimes unpalatable ways, but he was of the Noble House of the Forest and my brother, and as such commended devotion and love. He will be sorely missed for a long time. But my people will have to put their personal matters aside for a long while as they have realized the world outside has finally reached the sanctity of their Forests!”
As soon as Ellana had left, the Silver Dragon contacted Glamrun and related all that occurred during the last five weeks. His father was not very happy for the long silence and did not hide his displeasure, but he did not pursue the issue as the news greatly disturbed him.
A while later, as the two of them were walking alone the deserted shore, he turned to the Wolf:
-“Tell me, Wise One. Does the word or name “Sacrach” strike a chord to you?”
The Wolf just kept walking along, unusually silent and morose. Glamrun looked askance at his friend but could not get any better answer than a low growl.
Chapter 10: Amrel