A Raven's Dance (Part Three)
It’s almost time. We’ll be leaving this land soon.
Talyn turned his head, looking at Lief over his shoulder. He wasn’t saying much, but for now, it was best not to push him. Lief needed to simmer. To let his thoughts carry them on whatever wind was appropriate.
I wonder what you will think of the world beyond this wretched wasteland?
Talyn closed his eyes, drawing upon his power. As always nausea, wasn’t far behind whenever he did. The connection was faint, but the power was in the direction of Ygsidd. Slep shook his head, shaking the snow from his mane and interrupting his concentration. The shapeshifter sighed, steadying himself, as he clutched the horse’s mane in his talons.
Stupid animal. He lifted his eyes to the sky, smirking to himself at how much the stars had changed as time had passed. Save for the more educated, most of these mortal simpletons had no idea about the scope of things. If they did, most might simply roll over and die.
“You still haven’t asked me, Leif,” he said.
“Asked you what, Talyn."
“It’s been days now and as per your usual rounds, you have been wandering from village to village on our roundabout way to Yggsid. Yet in all that time, since discovering it in Rauld, you never once asked me how it is you can see in the dark.”
He sighed, apathy was written all over his face. “Does it matter? Because of you, I can see in the dark. It’s that simple and it’s useful.”
Talyn tightened his grip on Slep’s mane. Useful he says!
“Why are you so angry?” Lief asked. “Are you wanting to play another game?”
Talyn shook his head. “No, I just wanted to talk.”
“Then talk, bird,” Leif replied. “I’ll just listen. It seems that’s all you want anyway.”
Talyn stared at him. “You were right,” he said. “I was lonely.”
Lief narrowed his eyes, his suspicion showing and pulling back on Slep’s reins. “What is this?” he asked.
“This is me answering your questions,” Talyn replied. “What do you think it is?”
“A ploy, or a trick, maybe something you do for your own amusement?” he said. “You lie or say enough to sound convincing. You do this as easily as a man breathes.”
“Wouldn’t you after so many years on your own?” Talyn asked. “Being alone changes you, Leif.”
Leif leaned forward in the saddle, distrust showing in his eyes. “How long have you been alone Talyn,” he asked. His was tone flat and empty. It was obvious that he expecting some embellished answer or flowery response.
“Since The Fall,” Talyn answered. “Around the time when Dakren’s hold on this world shattered under the weight of their ambitions.”
Leif leaned back in the saddle and shook his head. “How is that possible?” he asked. “That would make you…”
“Ancient, by your standards, or two to three Shaylin lifetimes, by elven measurement,” Talyn commented. “Though, that may be a bit inaccurate.”
Leif grew quiet; his expression reflective. It was interesting to see his reaction. All suspicion had vanished. Even his shoulders were more relaxed.
“What are you Talyn?” he abruptly asked.
Inwardly, Talyn smirked. “Something that should not be.” He tensed up again, his expression souring. Leif was about to close himself off. “Did you know magic has rules? That it follows a strict ‘code’ as it were.”
“I’ve heard the druids speak of The Cycle,” Leif replied.
Talyn sighed, then turned to the smattering of trees a few yards away. “Take me there,” he said.
Lief frowned, but reluctantly agreed, tugging on Slep’s reins, and urging him toward the pines. Talyn hopped off once they were close enough, then transformed into a snow leopard. He stalked closer to one of the pines and leaned back on his hind legs, resting his front paws on its trunk.
“This will do. Go ahead and dismount Leif, then draw one of your swords.”
Lief dismounted and drew one of his swords. He appeared curious but skeptical.
“Hit the tree,” Talyn said. “Hit it as often as you like.”
Talyn stood back and Lief struck the tree, but after the first strike, it was like something inside snapped, and he didn’t stop. The ranger kept striking it over and over until at last, the shortblade fell from his grasp. He cried out at the top of his lungs, banging his fist against it. Lief fell to his knees, tears in his eyes and on his cheeks.
Talyn crept closer. “Feel better?”
Leif rested his forehead against the pine tree and shook his head. “It’s not fair, you know,” he said. “Brenja could have had so much more.”
“Everyone has the opportunity to become something, Lief. To have more.” Talyn replied. “But not everyone gets the chance to seize it.”
“So you simply let them die or end their lives?” he asked.
“Mercy comes in many forms, Leif, and death is most often the kindest thing you can offer anyone,” Talyn answered. “Life is often a torturous prison. For some, it’s a punishment.”
“Is that what you think?” Leif asked. “That your longevity is a prison?”
“I think my existence serves as an example to foolish mortals who desire to bend or break the rules.”
His curiosity was peaked. Even with bloodshot eyes, you could see it. “What are you Talyn?” he asked.
“You see this pine,” Talyn replied. “Before you struck it, it was whole and complete. Now, after you maimed it, with the sap bleeding through in places, it has scars.”
“So what you’re telling me is that you are the result of this scarring and bleeding?”
“Simply put, yes, and not of my own will,” Talyn said.
“So during the game, which story was true?” Leif asked.
Talyn grinned, his incisors showing. “Perhaps one of them was true, or perhaps all of them were lies…”
“Or perhaps a bit of the truth was hidden in each one,” Leif countered.
Talyn let a feral grin slip. “Perhaps indeed, Lief. You see, this is why I like you so much.”
His face broke into a partial frown. “You’re still dancing around the full answer.”
“Maybe, but you know more now than you did before.” The answer didn’t appear very satisfying to him. But at least, by his expression, Leif was less melancholy.
“It really was too much to hope for,” he said.
Talyn grinned. “Some answers Leif, aren’t as obscured as you think.”
Leif regarded him quizzically, then turned to the tree. By his own admission, Talyn may have been right. It felt like a large part of the answer was here. He touched the gash marks with his left hand. He could feel them through the rough leather of his gloves.
What he was before is not what is he now…
Of all the misdirections Talyn had spoken and words he had offered, perhaps this was the largest part of the puzzle after all. He had let it slip that he was old on several occasions, pretended to rant or show perceived anger. In the end, it was hard to know what was an act, and what was truth. Still, his slight smile over the comment about bits of the truth being revealed spoke volumes.
You little bastard.
“Leif, why are you smiling?” Talyn asked.
Lief grabbed his shortblade and sheathed it. “Because lonely people do curious things, Talyn.”
Talyn nodded. “They do, don’t they?” he replied with a slight grin. “So you have you found your answer?”
“Perhaps I have, but time will tell.”
Talyn smirked. “You sound like me,” he purred.
“It’s hard not to with you prattling on in my ears,” Leif said.
Talyn shifted, then resumed his perch on top of Slep’s head. “Leif, it just dawned on me,” he said. “I haven’t asked how old you are. It’s hard to tell with you humans unless you start showing gray in your hair.”
Leif grinned. “I’m ten percent of twice that of a young Shaylin who is considered a full-fledged adult in winters, plus five.”
Talyn narrowed his eyes. “You been paying too much attention, Leif,” he grumbled.
“I had a good teacher of intrigue and wordplay.”
“I’ll have to reprimand this teacher of yours for his carelessness.”
He was trying to veil it in his tone, but Talyn was amused. Leif smiled and shook his head, mounted Slep and reined him toward Ygsidd.
I suppose that in time I will get a better grasp of the Kings Board. For now, I’ll take what victories I can garner.
“You’re twenty-five winters,” Talyn blurted out at the village gate.
Lief grinned. “Maybe,” he said, dismounting and walking past the gate with Slep in tow. “Or maybe, I’m older.”
Talyn narrowed his eyes. He’s smarter than I gave him credit for. Either way, the math doesn’t lie. “What are we doing here Leif?”
“Alif is the last stop before Yggsid,” he replied. “It’s my job to take contracts and report in to Huntsman Shuet. I have no reason to be at Yggsid, especially since it’s considered part of Huntsman Wulf’s governance.”
“So you’re taking contracts along to way to show that you are fulfilling your duties.”
“It’s more than that,” he replied. “I don’t have permissions who wander as I please, not without a contract. I get my contracts directly from Huntsman Shuet and his Skegs.”
“So all these stops you’ve been making is under pretense?
“More or less,” he replied. “Small villages don’t always have the means to afford us, so aiding them for free or reaching an amicable agreement, helps both parties. Free lodging and food for a Ranger passing through is typical fare, but not longer than for two days.”
Smart indeed. The Sokoran Rangers were interesting and are more organized than it appeared. It was likely they were a linchpin keeping some semblance of order in this cursed land.
“So you’re telling your Huntsman that you are making rounds in the outlying areas because they are so often overlooked?” he asked.
“Essentially,” Leif replied. “I can’t go further than Yggsid however, only Huntsman Wulf and Eirik’s Rangers are allowed near Savar’s territory. Huntsman Shuet hates the man.”
“So he refuses the help Savar’s people out of some personal grudge?”
Lief winced. “More like he prefers letting Eirik or Wulf deal with such a difficult man. Eirik especially, most of the Thran are afraid of him.”
The politics were interesting. The Rangers were very similar to the Knights of the Shield in Baneese. The knights exist to protect the people, regardless of the barons' borders. However, they had to adhere to the laws of each region. “So who’s governance lies where?”
“Huntsman Shuet is responsible for the town of Svaren, plus Illhiem’s, and Grenden’s territories. Huntsman Wulf is in charge of contracts in the eastern territories along the border controlled by Dag, Thulm, and Henrik. Henrik rarely asks for aid, however. Yggsid is also Wulf’s responsibility because of his wife. I hear she is a force to be reckoned with.
Eirik handles Viktor, Savar and Jormund’s territories. Shuet helps him manage Jormund since Svaren is in the Thran’s territory.”
It was interesting. On the outside, they appeared to be mercenaries, but peel the layers and there was more to see. Perhaps the Rangers were worth investing in. Talyn studied Leif for a moment, then dismissed the thought.
No, it will be time to leave soon.
“Talyn?” Leif asked. “Something bothering you?
Talyn blinked and looked around. They had pushed way past the gate and were deep in the village’s interior. “Just lost in thought, Leif.” The ranger shrugged and began tying Slep’s reins to a post in front of a large building.
The village was quaint, but the buildings weren’t much. Most were small but built as two levels, like all Sokoran structures. The first floor was dug into the ground with stairs leading down into it. It was meant for storage during the winter and for living in the summer. It all depended on how bad the snows were year after year. Most used it for storage year-round.
“I’m going to talk to the village elder and see if they require anything,” he said. “We can find a place to stay afterward. If they have nothing we can leave for Yggsid in the morning.”
Night or day was irrelevant, only the colors changed. At night, the ‘light’ was there, creating a twilight illumination. Thankfully Leif had fallen asleep after meeting with Alif’s elder. He seemed better now that he had let go of Brenja’s death.
Talyn scanned the ruins and shook his head, in a way they were a tragedy. What little remained of at one time had been a large city were barely noticeable. Most of the stone had eroded with the ravages of time, sunken into the earth or as Leif had once explained, been carted off by Sokoran’s for building materials. Mortals never seemed to have enough, except for Leif. He lived his life without such desires or so it appeared.
“You dark elves and your ceaseless slaughter,” he sighed. He closed his eyes, reaching out with his senses. They were there, deep in the snows below the earth. Entombed and trapped. “I bet you’re outraged, Keeper, at such a curse.”
Memories surfaced. Talyn fought to discard them, refusing to allow them a moment to dredge of emotions best left buried. Coming to these lands was a mistake, but there had been no choice.
He looked up at the sky. As usual, the cloud cover had returned, obscuring the stars. “I miss the fact I don’t get to see you often in this stupid country.” He took one last look at the ruins, buried under mounds of snow and forest. “After tomorrow I’ll be seeing the stars once again.”
Yggsid was strangely reminiscent of Daeshal. But unlike The Shadow Wood, the trees had been shaped and woven together to create the dense canopy. It wasn’t a natural occurrence. The branches of the evergreens the grove primarily consisted of, gave an appearance similar large natural mound covering several acres. But whether by optical illusion or some other reason, it blended well with the rest of the forest.
Leif seemed to be in better spirits. After Alif, it didn’t feel like there was much to say. The silence wasn’t awkward which was nice. The village’s elder did have a request and had been overjoyed that a Ranger had been passing through.
Alif was in need of medicine and poultices that only Yggsid could provide. Lief happily agreed and thankfully, it gave them a better reason for being here. He had said that working their fields to barter for them would serve as payment.
Slep snorted as Lief pulled him to a stop at the grove’s entrance. Two Shaylin stepped through the woven entrance moments later and bowed, crossing their arms across their chests. One was male and the other female. They were dressed in heavy furs.
“Greetings, Ranger,” the female said. “You don’t appear to be one of Huntsman Wulf’s.”
“I was touring the smaller villages to see if they had any specific needs. I stopped in Alif yesterday. The elder asked me to acquire medicines and poultices from you.”
The female nodded, “Are you planning to work the fields as payment?” she asked. “Elder Kala has little use for shards.”
“I was and expected no less,” Lief replied politely.
“Then if you dismount and follow me,” she said. “Somasa will tend you your horse,” she added gesturing to the Shaylin beside her.
Talyn froze for a moment, a strange sensation overtaking him. He glanced over the two elves. There was a feeling as if he were being watched, but neither appeared to notice him. ‘Somasa’, as the female had addressed him, was focused on Lief or seemed to be. The female was the same.
Inwardly, he cringed, and tilted his head as a precaution, behaving more like a raven ought. Somasa’s eyes shifted as he approached to take Slep’s reins. The druid appeared concerned.
Is he aware of me?
The feeling grew after passing across the grove’s entrance. Talyn gripped the tufts of Slep’s mane between his talons. Something about this place was different. He could feel in his spirit. The groves in Daeshal weren’t like this.
We may need to leave more quickly. I may not have the time Leif needs to complete his contract.
The female led Leif away and while he tried to appear casual about it, Talyn could tell he was curious as to why they weren’t staying together. He shifted his attention, observing Ygsidd’s interior as the elf led Slep through the grove.
The grove’s canopy reinforced the sense you were in a cave in the same way the great trees of Daeshal did. The evergreens were smaller, however, and their scent on the air was more pleasant. Some of the druid’s homes had been built around or shaped with the evergreen trees. The design was rather beautiful and poetic.
Paths were shaped with a natural aesthetic in mind, using stones of various sizes. Sun orbs were placed along the paths for lighting, each was woven into the trees, but set so they could easily be replaced if necessary. Like in Daeshal, their illumination had been enchanted in time with the rotation of the sun. Despite his nausea, Talyn smiled inwardly. There was a sense of peace here.
After a while, Somasa came to a penned-in area where the druids kept some of their livestock. He led Slep to a row of stalls, stopping at the largest on the end where he began removing the horse’s saddle and barding. With his height, it took some time and was a bit comical to watch.
The druid was only about five and a half feet tall. Slep was twenty hands from ground to shoulder. Still, Somasa handled the task stoically. Once he was finished, Somasa organized all the tack and barding in a chest by the stall. Through the entire dance, the elf’s behavior was odd, he seemed tense though he gave no indication that he had seen raven perched on Slep’s head.
Talyn resisted the urge to sigh, though it was difficult. But grew concerned when the druid placed his hand on the doorway of the stall, after closing the gate, and began chanting softy. He traced his finger in a peculiar pattern and Talyn felt a wave of nausea wash over him. Somasa had just placed a ward.
Inwardly, Talyn felt his anger rising. Impudent flea!
Somasa looked about the stall, then walked away.
Talyn closed his eyes, letting his senses feel out the barrier. The magic was weak and could easily be sundered like parchment. He reached out, testing its bonds, then paused.
This is a trap. It’s not a matter of if I can break, but rather a matter of when I break it. Talyn extended his senses further, pressing his awareness against the stall. The ward only covered the entrance, not the breaks between the planks making up the stall itself.
He sighed and glided toward the wall. “I hate snakes,” he mumbled softly. Tapping into his power, Talyn’s nausea grew. He felt his feathers peeling away, the cold air brushing against his skin as they shifted to scales. If snakes could vomit, he would have as his tongue tasted the air during the transformation.
He could feel lethargy setting in as he slithered across the cold ground and sparse snow and through the break in the wall. Once through Talyn shifted forms, becoming a raven. “Kin Selo,” he whispered. Try to sense me now, elf.
Talyn stretched his awareness, searching the grove as far as they could extend. He felt a ping and took flight homing in on its source. Whatever the creature was, it was close.
It didn’t take long to find it, but the poor thing was human and a child at that. She was small and very young, between four or five years old. At least if he were to guess.
There were other children present. Some were human, others were Shaylin. They playing in a small clearing, chasing after one another. A few to gathered clumps of snow that had slipped through the canopy and tossed them at each other. The little girl, however, was content to sit off to the side and watch. Sometimes she would laugh at them.
“Naya!” He heard someone shout. Talyn turned his head in the direction of the voice. The woman it belonged to was human. Her hair was blonde, making her Sokoran. She was older though.
The little girl’s name was apparently Naya, because, at the sound of the woman’s voice, she jumped up and ran toward her. The two embraced. It was almost endearing. The woman then held her hand out and Naya took it. The pair turned toward one of the houses.
Talyn flew closer, moving from perch to perch as he followed them. Being this close to the child he felt her power. She had the potential and that made her dangerous and a threat. He would covet her if He ever awoke. Only those with her spark had that ability to do that.
“You poor human,” Talyn whispered. “From the day you were born, you were cursed. I, however, will be merciful and keep you from His grasp. In my kindness, I will rob you of this innate spark gifted to you. Only then will you beyond my former master’s grasp.”