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The Messenger (Chapter Three)

Author: 
Mandos (Bill Marcellino)
Old Vault Category: 
fanfiction
Old Vault ID: 
126

We were not too far from the gutte folks of Nuestead when I became aware of him. He was woodwise, patient, and very quiet. But not for nothing am I NFR. I was not worried; Old Boy was near and in no way distressed, and I just knew I had nothing to fear. Finally tired of the quiet pacing I turned to the rhododendron on the switchback above and behind me and said, "So, how goes it today friend?" I paused in my hike to look directly at where he was.

"I do well, son of men." He stepped lightly out of the shadows, and then swung down to the trail from an overhead root as easy as kiss my hand. He made almost no noise as he landed. He was tall, slender, with gray eyes and black hair unbound. A cloak of earth hues was about his shoulders, somewhere between gray, green and brown, it blended in with the terrain; outstanding camouflage. He looked at me directly with lively, intelligent eyes. The light gray was startlingly clear; his glance gimlet eyed as he looked me over. He bowed, a fluid and gracious movement. "I am Albereth. May the peace of Corellen be between us." Ah. Alfar equals elf. Got it. I bowed as well, and wished him

"That it indeed be so. I owe you my life then sir, for if I do not miss my mark you are the alfar the people of that stead spoke of." His face suddenly lost its gravity and a merry smile chased his lips. "The people of this vale are immigrants. In the language of their father's fathers, my folk are called Alfar, or alternatively Ljossalfar, 'Light Elves.' Our dark brethren they name 'Dokkalfar.'" Here his smile faded somewhat. "Still, fascinating to watch, over time, the variance of language. Ljossalfar to Alfar to Aelve and Elf, all related, all branches on the great tree of words." Here his eyes flicked to Old Boy, who came to roost on a tree branch near us, slightly higher than our head level. "Lucky are you, among mortal men. You have a faithful companion; it is not to me that your life is owed."

"Still, you are the one who healed me, the one who asked the Nuestead people to watch over me. I am grateful." I looked at Old Boy and smiled, "Grateful to both of you." He made a sign with his right hand, and spoke briefly. His voice was mellifluous; I cannot recall the words (I have no ear for language) but they were sweet, more like singing than speaking.

"I respect the lady Melikki, and those who she favors." Again he bowed to me. "Come, let us walk together for some time on the trail. It would be pleasant to speak to you for a piece."

So we turned, and walked the trail for a while companionably. We did not speak constantly, rather he might point to a plant, or occasionally a beast from time to time and ask its name. In particular he wanted to know alternate names or aliases for the things we saw. It was wild ginger, red tail squirrel, gilead bulbs, queen-of-the-meadow and, "Ahh�,� "I see�,� and most frequently, "Fascinating!" said in a tone of genuine enthusiasm. Though the questions were not constant, as the hours wore on my voice, unused to such exercise, began to strain. Albereth seemed to sense this, and lapsed into quiet.

As the shadows lengthened, we looked for camp. A decent open spot, near a tiny creek seemed good. I rooted about for about an hour, and came up with wild onions, sage and thyme. I pulled out some of the hog Mutti Bluma had given me, along with two small, dried red potatoes. I decided the thyme would be too strong, and forbore its use. In not too long a time I had a decent stew up. I gestured to Albereth across the fire from me, leaning back at his ease, but he demurred to take of my food. He pulled from his pack a thin cake of bread, and ate it quietly after we had said a quiet blessing.

After some time, when the gloaming had spread, and we were sated, I asked him,

"I have heard a lot about the elven folk, but I reckon you are the first I have ever met. What are you doing here, I mean when you are not saving stray Rangers?" He nodded, and spoke.

"Three generations ago, the people of the stead you just left emigrated from the far northlands, an area now under the Zhent. They were not welcome in the Dalelands, and ended up settling in the vale. I have watched them for most of that time. Fascinating of course; the very stuff of language transmuting before your eyes!"

"Language? You mean you have been there that whole time listening to their speech?"

"Of course! I am a linguist, this is fieldwork, and I might add, good work. I have come to grow very fond of these people, and mortal men in general, though they be interlopers here." I thought about that for a moment.

"Can I ask where you are from?" He did not answer right away, but stared into the fire. He looked up though, and his stare was far from that place.

"I come from a land far away, and perhaps to that distant shore I will return. Until that time I pass the days among mortal men. I study, I learn, and I record. For now, that is enough." He smiled at me, almost shyly, and I couldn't help but smile right back. I had noticed how at ease Old Boy was around this fae creature, and I had learned to trust Old Boy pretty good.

"Sorry for all the questions." He shrugged.

"A poor companion I would be, were I mute and sullen. I care about you! I went to some trouble to see your skin, somewhat scruffy I might add, safe."

"What did happen to me? I took fever awful sudden. To tell you the truth, I don�t remember a lot of that night. I was pretty sick." My glance flicked over to Old Boy, on a fallen branch next to us. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask "So�uhh� did the raven, you know, talk to you?" but something held back my tongue.

Albereth gestured towards my water skin, I threw it to him and he drank deeply. This is what he told me.

"The lands we walk through now are the footlands of what was a great and mighty dwarven nation. The sons of men, when they were young as a race, invaded these lands, not in war, but in the teeming fecundity that is your nature. One of the fruits of that happening was war between dwarf and men, and later man and elf. A bitter fruit indeed. Perhaps I should not say war, for it was not the complete conflagration that men now know between themselves, but where conflict came it was bitter.

The dwarves could not be dislodged from their halls of stone, and besides, men wanted the low lands, the valleys, river basins and the forest, forest most of all! Wood to build from, fields to clear and farm. But I wander.

The men of this land learned to fear the axes of the dwarves, but later in peace learned at their feet. Great is the craft of the dwarves; of forging and smithying none may exceed them. The dwarves of this land were driven out eventually, though not by the hands of men, rather, they wrought their own destruction in the endless goblin wars they fought. Mighty though the sons of earth were, orcs and goblins breed faster than any race save men, and two nations foundered under the roots of those peaks above us (here he pointed behind us to the range I had crossed).

In the age since then, the men of the lowlands remembered the glory and majesty of the dwarven lords. Their mightiest warriors and kings they buried in hidden tombs among these hills, in imitation of the stone houses of the dead the dwarves made.

Men do not always rest easy in their graves; their spirits may be raised by those versed in the darkest arts. An evil I do not know, and will not name in ignorance, has despoiled four tombs that I know of. Elder Hackett of yon stead was but a babe in arms when I first knew of this; since then fell beasts have appeared now and again. They are not beasts, but dire beasts, and I believe, the shades of corrupted men clothed in animal flesh."

Here he rose, and crossed around the fire to me. He knelt, and gently turned my head to one side and ran his hand on the scabbed wounds on my neck and cheek. "I have slain four such as gave you this wound; I smelt and knew the stench on you from twenty paces away. The sickness you suffered was more of the spirit than the body, though it manifested upon the body. Two from Nuestead died, and I could not save them. I am glad that I learned enough to save you. But I will not claim great lore in this matter. The fire of life burns strong in you. To the far south of this land, among the people that predate Mulhorand, they would have said you had Zo�. Zo� is strong in you. That is why you lived.

"So you have been doing more here then studying, haven't you? You protect the people of Nuestead." He looked me in the eyes, raised his eyebrows and grinned saying nothing. "We do that. My Ranger company does that, I guess. There are a lot of folks outside the reach of the law, folks between the cracks so to speak. That is why I joined, errr, at least I think.� I pondered that for a moment. Why did I join the North Free Rangers? As I formed the question Albereth shot back

�You guess? You think? Clouded are the minds men I deem; how little they know of their own hearts.� . He grinned at me though, and there was no sting in his words. I struggled for a moment to articulate to myself what I meant.

�Ummm. I guess you change over time. If I was honest, and I mostly am, I reckon, I joined because it seemed exciting, different, and most of all tough. I think a lot of young men join the Dragon Army because they are looking to test themselves. I wanted more than that. I wanted to be the toughest, baddest man walking the land.� My mind flashed back to the goblin who had frozen me, to panic and fire and my interior blubbering, my dreadful fear of dying alone in some strange place. �I guess one of the first things the NFR knocks out of you is wanting to be a tough guy. Too busy, I reckon. Training, forced marches, patrolling. I remember in the first year of my form I don�t think I had a spare thought in my head other than eating, sleeping, and wishing I wasn�t so hot or so cold. But the last year or so, I have been on what we call long range patrols, I have gotten a chance to see what we really do, what the heart of the matter is. There�s a lotta folks, wouldn�t be alive if some Ranger hadn�t been there. I guess too, by the time you start to get tough, to be the bad whoreson you wanted to be, you don�t care to be it. So I guess I am saying I understand and respect what it looks like you are doing.� Albereth stood up, gravely bowed, and said,

�Thank you for validating me, oh child of twenty five summers,� and came up cackling in laughter. I couldn�t get mad at that, and just smiled and shook my head.

We shot the bull for much of the early evening. I don�t think he slept that night. When I settled down to sleep he still sat there, staring into the embers of the fire. My last image that night was his face starkly shadowed in orange light, the stars behind over a silhouette of mountains.



 

The next five days were among the best I have ever had on the trail. We settled into a companionable schedule, talking at times, silent while hiking at others, with beautiful weather and easy terrain heading down south.

We were now in the settled lands of Northern Cormyr. Several times we past settlements; each time by unspoken mutual consent we avoided them. I knew Albereth had no desire to mix among men in their masses, but rather by consent as he did now with me. There were still great stretches of empty land where only beasts roamed, but soon I knew we would be in Cormyr proper. I was sure then that Albereth would go his way, as I would continue on mine. For all I knew, even now a ranger, a friend even, had been taken and turned to dark service. While the sun shone and we smoked and joked I could forget, but when the fire died I saw a place of terror, where none of my kind dared tread, even for love of brother.

The seventh day we journeyed together broke cloudy, cool and dark. Ole Boy had been gone now for two days. As we got further into settled lands he disappeared for longer and longer stretches. Maybe he didn�t like people. Go figure. The wind blew strongly from the south, and it was an unpleasant day of hiking. The wind was often strong enough to make my exposed skin raw and red; when we stopped to rest I for one was freezing. Fudge. All it takes is a few days of good weather to spoil you, make you get all bothered by a little wind and rain.

Rain

Oh fudge me, it had started to rain. Fat splashes that turned into a torrent in seconds. The deluge soaked us to the skin; there was no pretense of getting under some shelter. Soon the pouring stopped to be replaced by a cold, wet drizzle.

Albereth and I stopped by mutual consent to readjust our gear. My poncho came out, stinking with a month of musty storage, and muffled me into a world of cold crinkling.

Shan talks about the �cocoon-like existence,� where soldiers who are miserable, especially in cold weather conditions, generally shut down from the outside world. They get so focused on their misery and interior dialogue they turn all their attention inward; they may go through the motions, but their mind is somewhere else.

So I don�t know how long a gap there was between when the first arrow hit Albereth and I lifted my head from the trail. Suddenly the noises I heard from my right resolved themselves to the twang of a bow at short range and the hoarse shouts of an ambuscade.



 

Get out of the Kill Zone.



 

Get OUT of the Kill Zone.

There was no room for any other thought; I was dimly aware that Albereth was down but my legs churned on their own. How many times had I been drilled in immediate action? Action flowed without thought as I ran low and fast into the brush off the trail and came along what I thought was the flank of the ambush.

I rolled up their side and came face to face with one: like a goblin only bigger, bigger than me. He held a short bow in his long ape arms. My sword whipped out from the sheath faster than he could draw his long knife; backhand across his forearm as he howled in pain, reverse to strike back across his head, cracking bone and splattering us both with gore as the screaming stopped suddenly.

I looked up to see another fifteen feet from me, arrow knocked and ready to stick me like a fish in a barrel when I heard Albereth�s voice to my right. In a dreadful voice that was his, but like nothing I had heard before from him he spoke three short, harsh syllables in a language I did not know. The orc turned his head to look for a split second, and in that time two brilliant stars of light streaked into him, burning and knocking him to his knees.

I closed the distance with my heart racing; he did not look up as I cut him down and then opened his gut.

I brought out my knife as a third one burst through the brush screen in front of me. He held a long sword in his hand, and leapt at me with a shout over his shoulder. I caught �Ullan� in his words, but had little time to think as he rushed forward.

Fear seized me. His first rush bowled me back, and I knew that there were more of them coming; panic threatened to turn my guts to water. Thoughts of Albereth filled my mind though, and with renewed fury I fought back, slash slash slash, backhand and forehand in a flurry of blows that took him to the brink. His offhand hit me then, a hamfist that blurred my sight and staggered me. My �bell was rung,� and I tried drunkenly to get my limbs to work, defend myself. The deathblow never came.

He fell to one knee howling in pain; black fletched shaft protruding from his side as gods awful quantities of blood poured out. The orc that has shot him looked dumb with amazement as I stepped past his victim.

As I went past my knife came up, under his chin, and I pulled forward then up freeing he blade. My breath came in ragged gasps, but I ran forward anyway, legs starting to shake from exhaustion and fear.

The one before me, smaller, much smaller than the rest, dropped his bow and ran like a hind. Fudge. I should stay here, take care of Albereth, I was too tired, it might be dangerous.

No follow through boy. All show and no substance. With great gasps I started out after him.



 

Before you join a form you go through indoc, and part of indoc, your last physical event, is a thing called the Endurance Run. As part of physical training you run at times an obstacle course, a long (1 mile) obstacle course called �The Conditioner,� and plenty of long distance runs. Well, that ole Endurance Run is all three combined. Run the obstacle course, drop off the rope and sling your kit on. Then high step it out on a three mile run, and finish by running the Conditioner. It is the watermark of endurance in my mind; the greatest physical challenge I have ever faced (but of course it is really therefore a moral challenge: Will you quit when it hurts, boy?).

I put those three hundred yards after that orc in the same league. The blood and my breathing thundered in my ears, and I truly, truly felt my heart might burst. He pulled away from me, out of sight but easy to follow as he crashed through the brush. I came within an inch of quitting it hurt that much, but in some deep well I found the resolve to push through, and ran him down like an animal.



 

It was doubly hard then to head back after I finished the brute, but a dreadful knowledge that Albereth would die in seconds and I might be too late drove my tired limbs.

I couldn�t find him.

I found the bodies of our foes, and combed the ground where I thought Albereth had fallen. Back and forth I looked, tortured by that cloak of earthen hues he wore. Was he hidden in plain site and my eyes deceived?

I ran back along the trail, trying to recreate in my mind�s eye where we both where when the ambush was sprung.

I ran back to where I had killed the second orc, and tried to backtrack to where the streaks of burning light Albereth had summoned came from.

I realized I was panicking.



 

I stopped then, sat down, and stilled my breathing. I sat as still as I could, and tried to let go of it all. Then I heard it. I heard his rattling breathing. He had gone to ground under thick brush and prickers; his cloak had hid him better than my eyes could see.

Gently, gently with infinite tenderness I pulled him clear. As his cloak came back I hissed in dismay. An arrow through his bicep, but also one in his chest, broken off near his skin. Pink froth bubbled up around the wound, and I knew his life hung in the balance.

I checked the arrow in his arm, and was amazed to see it was not barbed. Iron tipped and wide enough to cause a nasty wound, but not truly barbed.

I cut my extra shirt into long strips and a compression bandage, then turned to on my poncho. It was more rain resistant than waterproof, but it might be good enough, especially in layers. The pink bubbles of blood around the arrow told me his lung had been punctured, and something needed to be airtight over the hole.

He did not wake when I pulled the arrow from his chest, and that worried me further. Immediately a great sucking sound came from the wound and his breath rattled in his chest. At the bottom of the exhale I clamped the oilskin material to his chest, and applied a pressure bandage over it. Holding so tight my arm trembled I rolled him back and forth, getting strip of cloth under him. I tied the whole thing down as tight as I dared, and noticed with relief that his breathing had already improved. I elevated his feet to get the blood in his upper body, and covered him to keep him as warm as I could.

As time went on he stayed alive, but was almost blue with cold. Heck, I was freezing, and I had gotten a fire going. I moved him as close to the fire as I dared, carefully putting him on his wounded side so that the blood would not flow to and choke his healthy lung. A deep breath then and I got under the oilskin and snuggled up close. I had done this once before, when a formmate went down with cold on a patrol; I wasn�t to keen on man to man snuggling and man to elf left a lot to be desired as well. It was like hugging an ice brick to my stomach and chest, an excruciatingly unpleasant sensation. It took all my will power to clasp him to me.

Gradually (way too gradually) he warmed up, and I fell into a fitful sleep. I woke maybe twenty times that night, feeling for his breathing and for the weapon by my head.

It seemed longer than any one night should be before dawn broke.

 

The Messenger Chapter 3 © Mandos (Bill Marcellino)

Migrate Wizard: 
First Release: 
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