It was afternoon, and the Swords of Hope were once again gathered beneath the sheltering boughs of the Grandfather Tree, taking tea with Luagga. Rrayu was also in attendance in her role as maidservant; one which she excelled. The Druid was in a better mood, but also veritably glowed with power. It was clear the favor of the Goddess lay about his shoulders like a cloak.
Rrayu had poured tea for half of them and then hefted the pot, “Would anyone else like tea? I’m afraid I did not make enough.” She glanced around, locking eyes with Reed for a moment.
“I would like some. That pot looks heavy, let me help you.” Reed said, rising and following her a short distance away to where a small cooking stove sat.
“I know you don’t really want to … help … but I don’t think you just wanted to get away from them either.” She took the pot from him and rinsed it with hot water from the stove, “So… what do you need now?”
Reed’s brows furrowed in mild confusion, “Hmm, I’m sorry. I thought you wanted to speak to me. I seem to be misreading everything as of late. My apologies.”
“Why do you apologize to me? It’s not like you’ve insulted me past the point where any normal person would even stand to be within twenty feet of you.” She tossed a handful of tea leaves into the pot and added more boiling water from the stove. “You reserve that for ancient Elven lords.”
Reed’s voice began to rise in anger, “I am done defending my actions. If there is burden to bare I will, but my actions were needed”
“Who was asking you to defend yourself?” Rrayu began stirring the tea, "I just don’t want to die, and since you insist that I am to stay here when you leave, I was hoping that perhaps you wouldn’t ensure that every single elf hates humans with a passion that borders on fanatical. You are strong enough to defend yourself against them… after all, it’s not like even the current Lord of the Forest can force you to leave… as is evidenced by the fact that you stay when he asked you to go… but the rest of us? We will be sorely outmatched when you go.
“If he finds what you carry however…” She glanced around furtively, “If he sees the thing you just invited to join you, he will absolutely do everything within his power to kill you and all who came with you. That is a dangerous play… but one that could, if handled properly, bring you much power.”
Rrayu looked at him, sizing up his mood before continuing, “I have seen you move stealthily Reed, you need to learn how to take that physical practice and apply it to your social interaction. Subtlety.”
Reed leaned in closer, dropping his voice, "So my ears didn’t deceive me, what do you know? How do you know of it?”
“You did this… without even knowing what it was?” She backed away from him slightly, “What did you offer? What did you bargain? What are you getting in return? What protection did you negotiate?”
“I haven’t yet negotiated with it. I offered life. I worry that everyone will react the same, but you are not acting like the rest of them.” He bit his fingernail and regarded her with a nervous expression, “I need the risk for the reward but how do you know of this?”
“Foolish boy, the bargain is made when the offer is accepted. If you did not make a pact when you made your offering…” She shook her head, “I don’t know what will happen to you, but if you gave it your life then you are likely in a lot of trouble.”
“How do I know if these things?” She diped the tea leaves out of the pot with a strainer. “I learned of power… of bargains… and I can recognize things that resonate with them.”
Reed could sense that she was leaving out important details, and sought to earn her trust. He told her exactly how he had come to possess the tainted dagger from the strange clearing. “I am not precisely sure what may have passed but, it is weak.”
Rrayu laughed, “Weak? You say it had control over dozens or more Willow the Wisps… that does not sound weak to me.”
“I don’t know.” Reed countered, “Was it control or were they attracted to the chaos?”
“It might owe you a small favor for bringing it out of that shrine but since you didn’t designate what you would get in return that means the choice is up to it, not up to you. If they led you to the shrine…” She shrugged, “You mentioned something about hearing them tell you to follow them and then something about hearing them demand your blood? I think it’s safe to assume they were being controlled by it. You don’t happen to have its name do you?”
“No.” Reed frowned and began worrying at his fingernail again.
“You don’t know anyone who might know its name?” She shook her head again, “No, I suppose that’s too much to ask.”
“Well I might be able to get it from Kain, but then what? My idea with this is … well … there is a group of Goblins outside of Loudwater. Since we’re heading there anyway, I figure maybe I can bring this thing close to the … followers it needs to survive. Anything is better than letting another God die right? I know it is crazy but we need all hands on deck here.”
“My knowledge of these things comes from some of the interactions my Mistress had with the Count and Countess Adbar.” Rrayu paused, gauging whether or not the name meant anything to him. Seeing no reaction, she continued, “From what their spies were able to learn, the Count made some sort of pact with a dark power in order to provide himself with certain… unsavory amusements. He erected a gladiator arena for the glory of this dark power and dedicated every death to it. I’m not privy to all the details, but apparently when the slaves escaped it violated his pact and his body and soul were forfeit. I don’t know what would happen with such an open ended arrangement. At least knowing its alignment so you know if you can trust any bargain would be helpful… but you gave it your blood. Be wary.”
“What of the others? Do you think I should share this information, would any of the other Swords understand?”
She looks at him, incredulity painted clearly across her face, “Surely you aren’t that foolish?”
“Bah, I feel so uneven.” Reed ran a hand through the tangle of his hair, “This whole day has been a mess. I assure you I will clean this mess up. We should get back before they question our absence, or at least before the tea gets cold.”
“I honestly…” She trails off and looks down for a moment. Reed realizes that the face of calm she always shows is a complete falsehood as stark fear paints her features. “The only times I’ve felt safe around Kain and Connor are when you’re there. The only time I slept solidly through the night was when you saved me. They just don’t understand us Reed. We’re survivors. We need to stick together.”
Reed nodded and after putting a hand on her shoulder for a moment, he made his way back to the others. As he walked, a harsh voice shattered his calm and intruded on his mind.
“Loudwater? Surely… you are not going to assist those… fools who saw fit to throw you to the slavering jaws of the Abyss…” The voice was low and chill, the dagger vibrated against his thigh as though it were not a sheathed blade but a hive of bees that was stirred with a stick.
Looking around to see if anyone is paying any particular attention, he ducked behind a tree for some privacy. He spoke in a whisper, “I was wondering when we would speak. My name is Reed.”
“Yes, I know.” The gravely voice said mockingly, “Your blood is what brought me from that place. In my world, blood is knowledge and power. I taste the sweetness of the Fey in your vitae… strangely mingled with the bitter flame of the mortal human.”
“I have been warned that I should be cautious when working with you, but seeing as you know who I am you are aware of my intentions and trepidation.” Reed said.
“Foolish words spoken by foolish mortals. I feel the burning need to survive above all else within you. In that we are one and the same.”
“Then you understand the peril I put myself in just to give you the opportunity to survive, do you not?”
“Peril? As I said… foolishness. They might chastise you for your behavior, but they would hardly remove you from your mortal coil.”
“My comrades possibly, but others who do not know who I am or what I trying to do would likely judge without thinking, and that would likely lead to trouble.”
“Of course the Elves were hostile and angry toward you already.” The voice grated, “And that was hardly my doing… but for all their supposed wisdom, I find the Fey to be a haughty, angry and judgmental folk.”
“As you know I agree.” Reed said, “You do have me on a disadvantage as you know who I am, but I do not know who you are.”
“This is true.” The God’s laugh sent shiver trembling down the boy’s spine, “You will learn more of me in time.”
“Well time is a rare resource as of late, we should at least come to some type of an accord at least for both of our survival.”
“I know you think you can bargain…. but that should have been negotiated before you gave me your life essence.” The same laugh rattled Reed’s calm again, “I am under no duress to fulfill any request that you may have. You are… for me to deal with as I see fit. I must admit, you do amuse me with your aspirations however. Perhaps I shall be lenient and grant some small request.”
“I think you may have misunderstood the agreement.” Reed said, allowing some of his anger to slide into his words, “I agreed to save your existence, in order to keep the opportunity alive. But I am not yours to command, my blood was an offering to keep you alive, not to give you control.”
“Think what you may. It is clear to me that your fourteen years of age have not educated you about pacts with powers.” The God said coldly, “Blood, the very vitae that flows and nourishes your body was freely given. I do not take more than my due… yet… but do not presume to bargain after the offering is made. I do not believe you wish me to know what I know about you. That should, in some measure, suffice to explain exactly how much control over this situation you have.”
“I am not going to be a puppet to your whim.” Reed said scornfully, “We both have your interest in mind here, but if you make any unwarranted move or threaten to act through me without permission, my pact with you, as you can call it, can be ended just as quickly as it was made. I do not need you, but you damn well realize you need me.”
“Do not press me.” Blood began to flow from the cut Reed had made before the altar, “You are not willing to do what is needed to break this bargain.”
An oppressive pressure seemed to grip his body and he felt weak for just an instant, before it slackened and Reed could breathe again. “But enough of this antagonistic talk, I see no reason we cannot cohabit amicably enough. You seem like a reasonable enough, if terribly disrespectful and rash, youth.”
“Well it seems I have more than one disadvantage.” Reed took a moment to gather himself, “Well you know what my plan is. What do you think?”
“What do I think of your plan to reunite me with a group of Goblins outside Loudwater?” The voice chuckled ruefully, “It is a humble beginning, but it has potential. I would honestly be surprised if many of them survived the Cleansing, but perhaps some of the very strong or very weak managed to make it through. You don’t precisely understand what you did do you? You’re thinking of … leaving me there?”
Reed hesitated before responding, "Well … yes … to build their strength with yours.”
“No. Build OUR strength with THEIRS.” The God’s voice rasped with anger, “I am not a passenger. We are bound by blood and sacrifice… you are not going to be rid of me as easily as you seem to imagine.”
“That was not the agreement I had in mind.” Reed protested, “I will aid you with regaining your strength, but that is all. We are not one and the same.”
The God began to laugh and it spread. Reed smiled before he could think about it. “I am a God of Blood. I gave you commands and you complied, without even the slightest hesitation, even going against the will of your companions. Deny it all you wish. You gave your blood to me, you accepted my sacrificial soil. Ignorance is not a defense any but the foolish hide behind.”
“A god of blood?” Reed cursed under his breath, “Looking back I can see the folly of my actions, but if I didn’t make such a rash decision, who knows what state you would be in?”
“How fortuitous for me indeed.” The voice rasped, still sounding amused.
“I think we both can coexist for mutual gain, but you need to understand that the line I walk is precarious, but working together we can succeed.” Said Reed.
“I believe you are far too young and inexperienced to even begin to imagine what risk, loss and gain are.” The God said bitterly, “You are afraid. You should be… but the world is much more dangerous to you than I am currently. Restrain your foolish impulses in the future lest you put us both at risk.”
“I think that lesson has come and gone, but I fear I will continue to learn it.”
“I will ensure that you learn it much more rapidly.” The voice said. The promise it contained made the boy shudder.
Kain approached the clearing that the young Elf had pointed him to. He squared his shoulders and fingered the pouch that held the diamond the size of his thumbnail in it. Walking into the clearing, he saw Xangeon leaning low toward a small figure.
“Know that this is a two way gift Mogget. With this pearl you may summon me. I will see your situation clearly and know exactly why you have asked me to join you… but also know I will be able to summon you in the same way.”
“You’re telling me if I accept your gift that I give you the same in return?” Mogget’s voice was like a handful of gravel being thrown down a granite cliff. “Why would I accept such a gift?”
“Because it has been offered in good faith.” The dragon responded, “I understood that you were looking to make a new life here young-“
“Yes.” Mogget interrupted, “I am looking for a fresh start. Very well Dragon. I acknowledge your debt to me and I accept your gift, even with the strings that are attached.” He leaned down and took something small and white from the dragon’s claws, and swallowed it.
“Lord Riddlebane, I… I owe you an apology.” Kain said, “I have treated you as one beneath the stature your station demands.”
“Yes.” The dragon stared at him with eyes the size of wagon wheels, “I will consider your request Kain Raal.”
“Maybe this will influence your decision?” Kain withdrew a large diamond from his belt pouch and offered it. Xangeon plucked it deftly from his palm with claws that could have torn him in two.
“This is a reasonable gemstone. Carved by a Dwarven jeweler if I am not mistaken.” He gestured and the jewel seemed to disappear from his hand, “I was merely thanking Mogget before taking my leave. I must return to my people before they are lost. Best of luck in your endeavor for your gods.”
Unsettled by the sound of pity that resonated in the dragon’s voice, Kain settled for a respectful bow instead of a vocal reply. He did not straighten from the bow until the whirling downdraft of Xangeon’s wingbeats had faded to light breezes. Taking a deep, shaking breath, he let it out slowly.
“That was… interesting.” Mogget said, casually washing a paw.
Kain ignored him, frowning at the angle of the sun. “I guess we won’t be leaving today after all.” He turned to go and saw the slender form of an Elf in Ranger garb standing at a respectful distance. Kain approached him warily, knowing that he and his friends weren’t exactly in the best graces with the Elven leaders at this point.
“I am Elric, current leader of our guard.” The Elf said by way of greeting, “I was moving to pass on invitations to some of my guard captains personally; we will be having a Revel tonight to celebrate the life that our fallen brothers and sisters sacrificed for our survival after committing their remains to the Mother.”
Kain hesitated, then understood that he meant there was going to be a party after a funeral.
“I am sorry for your loss Lord Elric.” He said, inclining his head.
The Elf laughed softly, “Nay Sir Raal, I am no Lord, I work for a living.” He held up his callused hands as though they were proof positive. “Speaking of, I would like to extend an invitation to you as well. You and your folk have extended themselves to assist mine, likely saving all of our lives. Although I know the opinion is not widely shared, but I wish to express my thanks for the… fortifications you helped to erect. They shall greatly increase our ability to defend the Grandfather.”
“I am not a ‘Sir’ Elric, as I hold no claim to titles, however you are correct that your opinion is in the minority.” Kain said with a wry smile, “I appreciate your candor, and I’m pleased to accept your invitation.”
“Excellent. I shall see you after the last of the sun’s rays fade.” Elric said, clasping forearms with the man. “Be well Kain.”
As the sun began to set, the Swords gathered with the men and women who had accompanied them from Secomber for an evening meal. The invitation that Elric had extended was a popular topic of conversation among most of them. Kain felt he needed to address them and waited until they had all quieted down with full plates to call for their attention.
“Companions, a moment of your time please.” He said, his voice loud enough to carry over the assembled people, “We have been afforded a unique opportunity, and it is something that we should be thankful for. Let us remember that the Elves are a reserved folk, please try and act accordingly.”
Even as he finished speaking, a low and mournful song that spoke of terrible hurt and loss seemed to come from all around them. The Elves were keening their dead and many of the assembled people began to weep, even though they could not understand the words.
“Elves live for a very long time.” Holt said softly, “They have few children, and losses such as they have suffered cause such pain that it must be released together lest the grief tear their spirits asunder. I have never heard a gathering this large sing the dying song together before.”
The haunting melody continued for several minutes, then the song blended into a wordless wail before falling into a rhythmic chant that faded slowly away into silence. A moment later, every voice of every Elf was raised in a defiant shout that drove the pall of depression and sadness from the hearts of all who could hear. The dead were gone, but they would not be forgotten and their sacrifice would not be in vain.
The men had followed the scent of burning wood and the sound of voices to a place just out of view of the Trickster’s Pipe and found a large group of Elves in Ranger garb efficiently skinning and butchering a deer and a wild boar. One of them had gone to the base of the tree where Connor’s strange building was currently sitting and was attempting to figure out how to get inside. He had seen provisions there before and thought that perhaps he might procure some kegs of ale or casks of wine but as of yet had not been able to get inside. A group of his fellows were standing nearby, calling out suggestions in loud bawdy voices.
“Will you quiet the hells down?” A window opened high on the side of the building and a strange face with goggles askew and hair singed glared down at them. “What is all the god rotting racket?”
The hecklers quieted and the man below squared his shoulders under the gaze of his companions, “We just wanted to see if Connor would see fit to provide us with drink for the celebration.” He said, attempting to make his voice authoritative, but instead sounding like an orphan asking for a crust of bread.
“What? You lookin for booze?” The figure asked incredulously, “If I give you some drink you’ll go away and be silent?”
“Yeah, we’ll go away for sure.” He replied, and before he could say anything else the window slammed shut. A few moments later, the sound of clattering and banging could be heard from inside the Pipe. The lift descended to a cacophony of clacking gears and creaking cable. It was loaded with barrels, cases of wine and a dusty crate filled with a variety of mugs and goblets.
The men pulled them off the platform, struggling under the weight but managing to acquit themselves fairly well once they heard the sloshing sounds from inside. Most were labeled ‘ale’ but a few said ‘grog’ and others simply ‘potable’. None of the wine was labeled and dust lay thickly on the bottles. Once the last one was removed, the lift shrieked and squealed its way back up. Within a quarter hour, they had managed to bring the libations to the fire where the Elves had the animals roasting over a bed of coals along with a variety of tubers and mushrooms on long spits.
The first keg was broached, the mugs passed around and the revelry began. Some of the men pulled small instruments, mostly drums and whistles along with a lute and a guitar and began playing a lively jig. Some of the Elves joined in, the words they sang were alien to the humans but they sounded almost as loud and bawdy as the ones they spoke in the Common tongue.
There was a pause after a few songs and a bright contralto voice cut through the chatter of voices. “You call that a dance tune? My grandmother plays livelier songs! Follow me in this one if you have the skill.” The humans and elves turned as one to see Rrayu standing on top of an ale barrel with a slender silver whistle in her hands.
She began to play and the tune was as infectious as the delighted laughter of a child watching a clever conjuring trick. Some of the drummers joined in and Holt borrowed a lute from one of the Elven musicians. Without warning everyone was dancing. Even the musicians were moving as much as their instruments allowed, their feet moving in a complex jig. Laugher issued from each throat and every face was smiling.
The song drew to a close and Kain saw to his surprise that even Luagga had joined in the dance. “My Lord, we should speak privately. There are some things that need to be discussed before our departure on the morrow.”
“As you wish Kain.” The Elven Lord said, looking at him with a twinkle of happiness still in his eye. “I have not danced like that in ages. The lass has quite a number of gifts I see.”
“Yes.” Kain said looking at the laughing woman as she accepted and drained a tankard from one of the soldiers, “She is full of surprises.”
They walked back to the small alcove in the shade of the Grandfather Tree and sat. Luagga had purloined a bottle and a pair of goblets and he removed the cork, pouring them each a glass. Kain accepted it and took a sip, it was rich, fruity and had a lingering earthy aftertaste that was quite pleasing.
“Ahhh, it is Dwarvish plum wine.” Luagga said in satisfaction, “I thought I recognized the stamp on the cork. Now then, what did you wish to discuss?”
“We leave tomorrow as I said, but we plan to leave the majority of our force here to assist you in protecting the Grandfather Tree.” Said Kain, sampling the wine again.
“I understand that you might wish to protect what you’ve built here.” Luagga said, a sour note creeping into his voice, “However, you must understand that this is my domain and any who stay here must be subject to the laws of my people.”
Kain considered this for a moment before answering, “I will be appointing a likely man from the contingent of soldiers to captain them and a woman to handle the civilians in my stead. I believe that Jared Conway and Rrayu…” He trailed off realizing that he did not even know Rrayu’s surname.
“Yes, those two I have met and I find them to be honest and just.” Luagga paused and swirled the wine in his goblet, “However, they will still be subject to our laws when they are here. They must be under my command or under the command of Elric, my guard captain. I will not have chaos with two sets of rules that may or may not overlap properly.”
“I can understand your hesitation my Lord, but I know they will behave themselves without any undo application of –“
“No. I will not accept anything other than an answer in the affirmative here Kain.” Luagga interrupted, “If they stay beneath my branches they follow our rule.” The newly regained power pulsed behind his words. The Elven Lord was no longer powerless to defend his people or enforce his will and it was palpable.
“Fine. I will inform my subordinates of their responsibilities, and I expect that my people will be treated as equals under your law. Also I would request that you have a formal introduction of your rules and a list of punishments given to both my leaders that they may instruct their people properly.” Kain said.
“Of course, I will endeavor to deal fairly with your folk. They have shown themselves by and large to be honorable and truthful. You will be taking that… thing out of my tree when you go?” At Kain’s nod he nodded in satisfaction, “Excellent. I thank you for what you’ve done for us. Most of it anyway. May we prosper together.” He drained his goblet and Kain did the same.
“I had best return to the fire so as to inform Jared and Rrayu of their status. Thank you for the wine.” Kain said, and with that he returned to the festivities.