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Hero's Song - Chapter Twenty-Three

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"Knight-Captain, there's a...tracker by the front gates that is asking to speak with you," said Kana, sticking her head in my "office." I sighed, and shoved the paperwork together into a...sort of...organized pile, and stood up, grateful to the hells, and the heavens, and anywhere else that would listen for the inturruption.

I walked through the keep, my booted heels making muffled echoes against the stone floors and walls. I started whistling a jaunty little tune to fill the void of silence that usually descended on the hallways, and nodded at the guards that snapped to attention as I walked by. I couldn't help but chuckle at that; what did they think, having to jump-to for an elven woman that barely reached their shoulders, who shoved her hands in her pockets and whistled while she walked? Aye, this keep was mine for the time being; but I chafed at the stone walls, and I had a feeling when the King of Shadows was defeated and this business was done with, I'd not be staying here much longer. The feel of the road again would be welcome; and a following at all the local taverns, come to listen to my music...

Or, I'd be dead, and it wouldn't matter at all.

With that cheerful thought, I stepped out into brilliant sunlight and made my way down towards the front gate, squinting...a slight figure stood in the shade of one of the many maple trees littering the courtyard, and I made my way over to it curiously. As I approached, the figure stepped out into the sunlight, and I nearly stumbled.

Daeghun nodded at me as I approached. "Amin darn i' teu naa ie llie n'alaquel. You look well, Harper."

I see the moon is at your back. A formal greeting; not surprising, coming from him. I was a little breathless; shocked, yes. Relieved? Well, yes, I suppose I was. "Father...when I saw West Harbor..." My gods, were those tears rising? Get a hold of yourself, girl. I stopped, cleared my throat, and made my voice as even as possible, but my heart was sick. "Where have you been?"

"The Mere has grown dark, and many villages needed help in leaving before it was too late. And I have sought the scent on the breeze, to learn of the dark hunter...this King of Shadows." His voice was formal, almost cold; a reprimand for questioning him. "I have discovered something and had to tell you, at once."

"Aye, tell me what, then?" I asked, crossing my arms (all right, childish, but it was an old habit when speaking with him), but before he could even open his mouth, Elanee was there, smiling in puzzlement.

"I heard one of the scouts was asking for me," she said, nodding to my father. "Well met - you must be Daeghun, yes? Your daughter has..."

"I am Daeghun, yes," he interjected, his voice shot with irritation. "And you are Elanee, of the Circle of the Mere?"

She arched a brow at him. "Once of the Circle, but no longer. What do you want with me?"

"This concerns you...both of you." He shut his eyes, pinching the bridge of his nose, and for the first time I noticed that he looked nearly exhausted. "As I was saying, I have been hounding the trail of the Dark Hunter and his minions, and have come across something I had thought lost. The druids of the Mere..." He looked at Elanee wearily. "...they live, still."

"Impossible." Elanee's retort came fast and cold. "I would have felt them."

"They are deep in the Claimed Lands, and as such, I feel they must have a ritual to sustain themselves." He shook his head at her. "I can only venture into the Mere for short periods of time, but I speak the truth on this matter."

"Elanee," I said gently, aware of her indignant expression. "If they are alive, we may need their help. It'd be worth the risk to try and find them."

She blinked as the thought struck her. "Yes, you're right. They may have even managed to restore some of the Mere, kept it safe from the shadows." She nodded at Daeghun. "Thank you for bringing us this information."

"Will you lead us through the Mere, father?"

"I cannot. I will mark the way for you, but there are other things I must do to prepare for this coming war." He handed me a parchment; a map, drawn carefully in his script. His eyes met mine; he was one of the few people I'd ever known who stood close to my heighth, and his gaze was always a powerful one, no looking up or gazing down. His expression softened somewhat. "Na llie varna, ent tul vand." Be you safe, and come home.

I couldn't help but smile, a little. "Ent llie, vee' eithel." I watched as he made his way out of the gate, a heaviness filling my heart.

Elanee arched a brow at me. "Your father isn't one for expressing strong emotion, is he?"

I snorted. "How'd you guess?" I watched him dissappear down the road leading from the Keep. "Aye, he's got a good heart; he just doesn't know what in the hells to do with it."

She smiled wryly. "I can't imagine how someone like him could have raised someone like..." she caught my expression, and seemed to change her line of thought. "Well, you."

"Thanks," I said dryly. "I think."

"And now we have to find the Circle..." she sighed, rubbing her forehead. "With only a map marker to guide us, I do not know how able I will be to guide you. The Mere is near a stranger to me, now."

"Ah... I thought I heard the cries of a damsel in distress." Bishop walked towards us, a smug smile on his face. "Trying to replace Shandra, are you, Elanee?"

"This doesn't concern you, Bishop, so stop spying on us." Elanee's voice was thick with anger, and I glanced at her in no small amount of surprise.

I eyed Bishop. "How much of that did you hear?"

"Enough to know you're going to need someone besides Maiden of the Swamp here to lead you." He snatched the map from my hands, eyeing it dubiously, frowning. "Hmph. Your 'father' knows what he's doing, I'll grant you that." His frown deepend, and a ghost of a look I couldn't begin to name filled his eyes.

I pulled the map down from his face slightly, my eyebrows up in question. "Can you get us there?"

His eyes met mine, dark and unreadable. "No." He looked away from me then, folding the map and sliding it into his belt. "But I can get you close enough."

o o o o o o

The dark miasma of the swamp must have been getting to me. I kept hearing things, seeing things...shadows slid between the trees, whispering, and it was more than once that I looked behind us as we trudged through the muck, my spine crawling. Finally, I pushed my way to the front of the line, where Bishop was leading.

"We're being followed," I whispered.

"I know," he hissed back, ducking below some hanging moss that crossed our almost invisible trail. "But they're not making a move to attack, and we're almost to where we're going, so shut up and trust me."

I snorted. "When you put it like that, how can I not?" I whispered scathingly...but I stayed with him, dogging his steps and matching his pace, until we spilled out into an open area; I nearly tripped, my foot caught on a rotten wooden fence that was covered in moss. The shadows seem to clear a bit, here; it looked to be the ruins of an old village, smoke-and fire stained and slowly losing it's battle with the surrounding wilderness, crumbling into the sawmp. "Where are we?"

"At the edge of the Mere, and as close to the Circle as I'm bringing you," Bishop said flatly. "The druidess can lead you from here, I expect?" He glanced at Elanee disdainfully.

She was staring around her in something akin to awe. "I recognize this place...Redfallow's Watch. I haven't been here in close to a century." She walked forward as if in a trance. "I heard the orcs took it, years ago..."

"It's just a worthless track of land, now," Bishop shot at her, angrily. He glanced at me, then looked away. "I'll wait for you here, to keep the way back clear; but you'd better hurry, before the shadows realize we're here and decide to recruit us."

I frowned at him quizzically...something wasn't right. "We don't know what's facing us, Bishop...we could use your help."

He chuckled coldly. "Bard, you need more help than you know." He looked at me from under his brows, and his voice was firm. "But I'm staying here. Not that I wouldn't love to run along and risk my life with the rest of you, but if someone doesn't keep an eye on the trail, we're stuck here." He arched a brow at me. "And...sorry, but there's no way in the hells that's happening."

I arched a brow at him. "Aye, well, if you think it's best. You're the tracker, after all." With a jerk of my head, I motioned to the others to follow me, and with Elanee at my side, we picked our way through the deserted town; Bishop stood silently at the edge of it, a shadowy silhouette against the dark tree-line, watching us dissappear.

My foot kicked something hard, and I stopped; it was wedged against a blackened, bent shield sticking halfway out of the ground. I heard Casavir swear quietly under his breath, "By the gods...", and I lifted my head, my stomach lurching at what was in front of me.

Shattered weapons, peices of armor, rotting boots, brass buckles bent and tarnished...and amidst it all, were the blackened, charred bones and grinning skulls, staring at the darkened sky. They lay scattered in the center of the town, in various poses of death, and I had to grit my teeth, smothering the dizzying sickness that swam over me. I bent, picking up the shield at my feet, brushing the dirt from it's face.

Qara peered over my shoulder. "Luskan," she said, her voice edgy. "Don't know what detachment, but they're probably soldiers. I recognize the shield from..." Here, she glanced at me, and seemed to change her mind... "...from someone my father knew." She sniffed in distaste. "What they were doing in this piss-pot village, I wouldn't know."

I looked at Elanee incredulously. "I thought you said this place was over-run by orcs?"

"I heard it was," she said, her voice troubled. "The ground here...I can hear the screams of this place. Someone razed it into nothing, and these..." here, she touched a nearby bone with her foot, "...these were in the midst of it." She shook her head, taking in the scene once more. "Whatever happened here, it could not have been orcs."

"As much as I feel for this poor little village, they are dead and gone; while we are yet alive. I would prefer to remain so." Ammon's voice ehoed coldly from behind me, and I nodded at Elanee, who took up the path once more.

As I walked swiftly behind her, I caught a glimpse of something that seemed...odd. A small group of headstones, roughly hewn and almost identical, were lined up at the edge of the village. I frowned as we passed them, my eyes drawn to their invariable orderliness. Who sacks a village and then buries all the bodies in neat little rows...?

o o o o o o

"Well, between the mud oozing through my boots and the stench of rotting foliage that by now surely saturates my clothing, I must say today has been a rather productive one," whispered Sand acidly.

"I'm sure you'll find a good use for the swamp muck you've collected; maybe mix it with the other hundred reagents you use to cast Mordekainan's Ethreal Chamber Maid?" Qara's voice was low and mocking, and I could just hear the intake of breath that Sand was preparing for a vicious retort...

Elanee held up her hand, hissing for silence. "We're here." She was staring intently into the forest, and I crouched next to her. "Something's happening," she whispered. "Daeghun was right...they're alive, I can see them, but..." here, her voice faltered. "Something is...different about them."

They were circled, around a tree; eight of them, all hooded. The tallest one stepped forward, and lowered his hood, calling out, "I feel more at peace with each passing day. I know you feel it as well, Naevan."

I couldn't tell who the druid was talking to, and nobody spoke. I glanced at Elanee; her expression was puzzled. "Naevan," she whispered. "But I don't see him anywhere..."

The elf called out again, "Will silence be your only answer?"

"Silence and contemplation are my only peace in this place. Have you forgotten that I am your captive, Vashne?" Vaguely I registered where the voice was coming from just as Elanee sucked in her breath in a horrified gasp next to me. When she looked at me, I could see the realization dawning in her eyes.

"They have him trapped, in the folds of the tree," she whispered. She rose quickly. "I must put a stop to this." She strode out through the brush and into the clearing before I could stop her, and I cursed vehemently under my breath, gesturing for the others to follow me.

"Elders!" She called out. They all turned, every hooded face pointed in our direction. "It is Elanee. Forgive me for not seeking you out Elder Naevan - "

"Who are these that follow you?" The one called Vashne pointed at me, his eyes blazing with quiet fury.

Elanee halted in her approach, her voice confused. "They are my allies; my friends. They helped me reach you."

Vashne sneered at me - us - in disgust. "They have the stench of civilization and war upon them." His eyes darted to Elanee's face, quick as a snake and glinting just as dangerous. "As do you."

"Elder Vashne, please listen," she said earnestly. "This is the one that I have been watching, from West Harbor..."

Immediately, we all knew she had said something wrong. All eyes snapped to me, and Vashne was looking at me in horrified recognition. One of the druids behind him said, incredulously, "You have...brought the Shard-Bearer? Here?"

"The one that the Dark Hunter warned of," whispered Vashne. He whirled on Elanee, his face furious. "You have brought death and war to us, Elanee! This one must be stopped!" His voice lowered; it was soft, compelling, almost seductive. "Join with us, Elanee; we must destory this Shard Bearer, else the Mere will be thrown into chaos, an the blanance we've striven for so tirelessly upset forever." His eyes were wild, gleaming, and I surreptitiously placed both hands on the hilts of my scimitars. This isn't going to end well.

"Elders...I..." she looked aghast. "You're wrong! This King of Shadows threatens us all, and this woman is the one who can save us! You must believe me. You must help us."

Vashne's eyes glittered, cold and angry. "I see you have been too long in human lands, Elanee. So be it." The other druids were moving towards us, menace in their step, and those glittering eyes fell on me once more.

Before he could even speak, my blades were drawn, and I could hear my companions behind me doing the same.

I stared at him coldly as he gathered his magic around him like a storm, and he intoned, as if reciting a prayer, "It is time, my brothers and sisters, to feed the land!"

"Oh yes," I said quietly. "You will."

o o o o o o

He felt a light touch on his shoulder, and turned; she was standing there, blood and mud on her armor, a resigned expression on her face. The others were trailing up behind her.

He smirked. "I'm assuming it didn't go well?"

"No, not well at all." She wiped her brow, and said, quietly, "Although it's good to see the shadows didn't eat you while I was gone."

He snorted in amusement. "I think you're the only one who enjoys the taste of me, bard," he growled.

He saw her mouth twitch in an involuntary half-smile, and grinned to himself as she whispered fiercely, "Surrounded by the dangers of the Mere, and that's all you can think of to say? For shame." She gave him a light kick against the back of his calf. "Lead us out of here, ranger. This ruin of a village makes my spine crawl."

If you only knew the half of it, he thought. He turned, starting down the path that had led them there, hearing the crashing and rustling of undergrowth that indicated the others were following. Oh, if you only knew.

Hero's Song - Chapter 23 © Avariel

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