Midnight to Daybreak
Sam looked out over the glittering ocean from his place by the fore rail. The deck of the graceful schooner rocked gently beneath him. They had left the land behind three days ago. Winter was still in the air and every once in a while the ocean spray would sting against his face. .
Ithican came up from below decks. The thick fox fur lined cloak that he now wore kept him safe from the chill of the ocean breeze. Now that they were far from shores of Nueyark he wore the hood back without fear. The crew didn’t mind having the Elf on board. His money was as good as anyone else’s, and they quickly found that he had plenty of it.
Silently joining Sam at the rail Ithican gazed at dark blue waters as well. Looking over Sam studied his friend for a moment. It had only been a week since the terrible ordeal in the Temple, but Ithican had already regained most of his former strength. Outwardly the inch wide blaze of white hair at his right temple was the only mark left. Inwardly Sam felt that there was damage that couldn’t be healed. He could only guess as to how many years had been taken off the young Elf’s life.
“How deep to you suppose the water is out here?” Sam asked suddenly.
“Enough to drown in.”
“I heard the Captain saying that we’d be passing over the Auratus Trench for the next three days. Its depths are guessed to be at least several miles, no one knows for sure.”
Sam reached into a deep inner pocket and withdrew a black velvet pouch. He worked at the draw string for a moment and finally gained access to the contents. The large blue diamond glittered brightly, seemingly rejoicing in being in the sun once again. Sam heard the hiss of Ithican taking a sharp breath as he caught site of the Eye of the Unicorn.
“You should have sold that thing along with the ruby.” Ithican said bitterly.
“No.” Sam replied softly. “I wouldn’t sell it for all the money in Nuearth.”
“That doesn’t sound like you.” Ithican muttered turning his eyes back to the sea. “Please put it away, I can’t bare to look at it.”
With almost a casual motion Sam tossed the stone over the side of the Singing Siren. The cold diamond flashed once before plunging into the deep unexplored ocean. Ithican started in surprise as he saw the last dying gleam of the magnificent stone before it was swallowed by the salty sea.
“I couldn’t let it get into anyone’s hands.” Sam said quietly, more to himself than anyone else. “It will be safe on the ocean floor.”
“What if someone else discovered the power the stone hides beneath its gleam? It’s too dangerous. My greed almost got you killed, I won’t make the same mistake twice.”
“Sam,” Ithican said warmly “your ‘greed’ may have saved my entire race, and all the other non-Human races of Nuearth. If we hadn’t tried to steal it we wouldn’t have learnt of its power until perhaps too late.” Ithican shrugged. “Anyway, none of that is important anymore. It’s over. What’s important is where we go from here.”
“If you say so.”
“By the way, where are we going?”
“Ramandas.” Sam brightened at the change of subject. “I don’t know much about it. In fact I don’t know anything about it.”
“Then why are we going there?”
“This was the only ship I could find that was traveling South, where the weather is warmer. I’ve had enough of winter.”
“Sounds like paradise.”
“We can only hope.”
“You know something doesn’t seem quite right.” Sam said looking at the harbor the Singing Siren was slipping into. It had taken them three weeks to get here.
“There are no boats.” Ithican pointed out.
“That can’t be a good thing. I mean harbors should have boats, right?”
“And people.” Ithican added. “I don’t see a soul.”
As the two remarked on the odd coastal town the ship suddenly came about. The sails went slack as they lost the wind. They slowly started to billow again and began to drag the ship through the heavy waters on its new coarse. The Captain came down on the fore deck and joined the pair.
“What’s happening?” Sam asked.
“We are turning around.” The Captain answered. “The crew refuses to stay here.”
“We’ve never seen this port empty. Granted not very many ships sail here, but now it is barren, even the fishing boats are gone.”
“Where are we going?”
“We’re returning to Nueyark.”
Sam and Ithican exchanged a panicked glance.
“I can’t go back there.” Ithican said quickly.
“I understand your trepidation, Elf. But it is the closest harbor and we’re tight on supplies as it is.” The Captain replied. “That’s why I came to talk with you. You’ve made some friends here, Ithican. One of the crew has volunteered to row you two ashore if you wish to stay here. Although, personally I think you should travel back with us. I know the threat it poses to your kind, but better to face a known danger than an unknown one.”
“How do you know there is danger here?” Sam asked.
“Trust me, this Old Sea Dog knows when a port is in trouble. And none of the crew likes the smell of this place. They never really liked coming here, due to its inhabitants, and this is the last straw. We’re going back to Nueyark, the only question is: are you coming?”
Ithican looked at the strangely deserted docks and sighed. He knew that this decision was going to be his to make, after all he’d be the only on in danger back in Nueyark. “We’ll go back with you.”
“No, wait.” Sam interjected. “I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t stay here.”
“No, we were both lucky to get out of that city. I don’t want to go back anymore than you do.”
“Are you sure?”
“Okay then, we’ll stay.” Ithican conceded.
“You’re both crazy.” The Captain laughed. “But your fate is yours to chose.”
“Is it?” Ithican wasn’t so sure.
Ithican watched the ship leave the harbor and head back to sea. He wasn’t sure if he was sorry to see it go or not. On the one hand the ship was heading to the last place on Nuearth he ever wanted to find himself again. Then again he was standing on the deserted dock at Sam’s request, and the last time he listened to Sam...
“I think the Captain is an alarmist.” Sam said brightly. “This seems like a charming, if oddly constructed, little town.”
“If it is so charming, why isn’t there anyone here?”
“Maybe it’s a holiday.”
Ithican noticed that despite his causal attitude Sam kept one hand on his sword hilt. Ithican sighed. He never remembered sighing so much when he lived in Evergladrida, but now he was getting very good at it.
“Come on,” Sam said walking towards the inner streets “let’s see if we can find a pub. Now that we’re back on dry land I can finally keep something down.”
“What do you suppose the Captain meant when he said that the crew didn’t like to come here ‘due to its inhabitants’?”
Sam shrugged. “You know sea-folk, very superstitious. Don’t worry about it.”
Ithican smiled, it would seem that whatever change had taken place to Sam in the Temple had sunken to the bottom of the sea along with the stone. He was just as brazen and foolhardy as ever. Ithican was not going to be so quick to trust his luck again.
As they walked further into town the odd architecture became more and more pronounced. It was like walking around a place that had been built for someone a foot or two shorter than the average man. It wasn’t something that one noticed right away. It was in the little things. Door knobs were slightly lower, the large windows nearly touched the ground, and other small adjustments.
After a quarter hour of walking around they still hadn’t seen anyone. It had an odd feeling of having been hastily abandoned. Every once in a while they even came across a burnt building or two. There was also a slight sent in the air that Ithican’s sharp senses could detect, but couldn’t identify.
“Smells like Goblins.” Sam stated.
“You can smell that too?”
“Oh, I can *always* tell when a Goblin has been around.” Sam said darkly. “And this place reeks of them.”
“I’ve never met a Goblin before. I’ve heard some vague stories, that’s about it.”
“Count yourself lucky.” Sam growled.
Sam held out his wrist, showing off a set of white bracelet scars along with a few others. Ithican had noticed the strange scars before, but he had never asked how Sam got them.
“Savage creatures.” Sam spat.
“Creatures? They are an intelligent race on Nuearth like any other.” Ithican said defensively.
“No, not like any other. You don’t know them.” Sam paused. “I...I came across a clan of them in the woods one day. They held me for three days before I was able to get away.”
“Three days? If they’re so savage why didn’t they just kill you?”
“Their hate of the Humans runs too deep to simply kill one if they catch it.” Sam shook his head like he was shaking off a bad dream. “Anyway, I’ll bet that’s why this place is in ruins. They probably came and killed everyone.”
Ithican didn’t quiet believe either story. For a thief Sam was a miserable liar. However the tone of pure hate was definitely genuine.
“If they raided this town, they could still be here.” Ithican noted.
“I doubt it, they’re nomadic.”
“That doesn’t mea...”
The pair had been so busy talking that they hadn’t noticed that they were being followed until it was too late. Sam was struck so violently that he found himself in the dust with his vision slightly blurred. Ithican had seen the shadows of their attackers seconds before and was able to duck before he was felled.
Ithican whipped around to face his enemy, ready to fight. However, he froze in a defensive position when he locked eyes with the man. The pair stared at each other in shock for a moment. The man wore his dark hair short and spiky, but the colour of Ithican’s eyes was reflected perfectly in the stranger’s gaze.
“Elven?” Both question simultaneously.
“Varick, wait a second.” The newcomer said to his partner who was about to hit Sam again. “This one’s Elven.”
“This one isn’t.” Varick stopped to snarl at Narigard.
The delay gave Sam enough time to get to his feet and jump at his attacker. Varick was caught off guard and they both fell to the ground in a fighting heap.
“Stop it!” Ithican snapped. “Both of you!”
Narigard pulled Varick off of Sam while Ithican pulled Sam off of Varick. The pair glared hatefully at one another, but they both allowed themselves to be restrained peacefully. Which Ithican was thankful for, he could never hold Sam back if he didn’t want to be stopped. Varick shrugged Narigard off angrily and wiped the blood from his lips.
“Dirty Human!” Varick spat venomously.
“Only cowards attack from behind!” Sam retorted hotly.
“Sam...” Ithican warned. He looked to Narigard for support to keep them from fighting again. Narigard was obviously older than any of them and hopefully more level headed.
Narigard smiled and put his hand on Varick’s shoulder once more. “Now, now, Varick, play nice. The Human has a point. I apologize.” Narigard bowed deeply. “These have not been easy months, and we are wary of strangers. Particularly when no one has been able to get into or out of this town for a long time.”
“How did you get in here?” Varick asked suspiciously.
“That’s none of your business.” Sam growled.
“Easy, Sam.” Ithican stepped in front of his friend. These two were as bad as dogs in a ring. “We came by sea, the ship wouldn’t stay. They felt that there was trouble here, I guess they were right.”
“Why did you stay?” Narigard asked.
“It was returning to...” Ithican hesitated, but he had been asked a direct question by an Elder. He couldn’t refuse. “Nueyark.”
“Returning?” Narigard raised an eyebrow. “You’ve been to Nueyark?”
“Impossible.” Varick hissed.
“I’ve been there.” Ithican confirmed, he swallowed hard. “This, this Human helped me. I...I owe him my life.” Ithican could feel Sam’s shock at being called ‘Human’ by his friend, but he didn’t understand Elven society.
“I see.” Narigard said as if he suddenly understood. “Well, I am Narigard of Lightland, this is Varick also of Lightland.”
Ithican didn’t reply at first. Sam shifted his weight uncomfortably. Something was going on here, but like Ithican had noted before, he didn’t understand Elven society.
“Ithican of Evergladrida.”
Varick made a noise of derision. “I should have known. Narigard we shouldn’t waste anymore time on a Human and a Swamp Rat.” Varick sneered.
Ithican had to grab a fist full of Sam’s shirt to keep him from attacking again.
“That’s enough Varick. Have some respect for our Wetland kin, they can be fierce fighters when cornered.” Narigard said sternly. “We may still need their help yet. Our fight isn’t over, another strong arm and good bow could tip the balance. Please, be our guests for the night, Zari will explain everything to you in the morning.”
Sam was about to refuse when Ithican turned pleading eyes on him. Whatever retort he was going to give the new Elves was instantly lost. He hadn’t seen Ithican so miserable since he’d picked him up out of the snow outside Unibar. What was he so ashamed of? Then Sam remembered. ‘Lightland’, he knew that name. These were Forest Elves, and everyone knew that they considered themselves better than anyone.
Including Swamp Rats.
“Consider yourself lucky, Human, that one of us owes you a favor.” Varick said mockingly as he showed them the room in the inn that they were to stay at for the night.
Sam made a threatening move toward Varick. He was pleased to see the Elf flinch away in fear. Varick quickly composed himself and calmly turned around and left.
“That Elf gets under my skin like a rash!” Sam growled. “’Consider yourself lucky’.” He mimicked in a high pitched voice. “What is he talking about, Ith?”
“It’s nothing, it doesn’t mean the same thing to me, not anymore.”
“I don’t understand.”
Ithican walked over to the grime covered window and started out. Once Varick ducked into a building the streets were like the inn: empty. There wasn’t even a staff. The rest of the Elves were staying in the houses across the street.
“Traditionally when someone saves an Elf’s life that Elf is indebted to that person, no matter what race. He...he has to stay with him until he had repaid that debt.”
“I see.” Sam said slowly. “So that’s why you came with me to the Nueyark, to repay me in riches if you couldn’t do it in blood. In that case you can consider the score even, feel free to leave.”
Sam regretted the words as soon as he’d said them.
“I didn’t follow you to repay you. I said that to the Elves because now they can’t hurt you. They believe that I’m bound by honor to stay with you until I return the favor, and they are bound by the same honor to let you live until I have a chance to do so. But I don’t believe in that system, I’m just using it to help you.”
“So why did you come with me?”
“I can’t fight the world on my own.”
Sam looked around uncomfortably. He’d never been in the company of so many Elves before. He and Ithican were standing by the far wall in what once had probably been a dance hall, and now looked like a War Room. Most of the Elves refused to even acknowledge him. No one had asked his name, and no one cared. He would be called ‘Human’ as long as he stayed here.
He was angered to see that Ithican was hardly treated any better. No wonder the races fight between one another, they fight with each other just as bitterly. Sam thought to himself resentfully. The numbers of Humans and Elves on Nuearth was about equal. One side could easily wage war on the other, if they could unite among themselves long enough to do it.
Sam tensed as Narigard approached them with Varick close on his heels. Those two are as thick as thieves. Sam caught himself thinking. He almost laughed out loud at his own thought. After all, as far as he knew he was the only true thief here.
“Zari can see you two now.” Narigard said. “He’ll explain what’s happening.”
“The mere fact that we are asking for your help should tell you how desperate our situation has become.” Varick added.
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” Sam smiled. He was pleased to see Varick’s face flush with anger.
“Come on, Zari is waiting.” Narigard interjected before Varick could retort.
Sam looked to Ithican. Ithican merely shrugged. What choice do we have? Was the clear unspoken message. So Sam peacefully followed the two Forest Elves. They went to a back room that had once been some form of larder, but now it held no food. Which Sam was quite disappointed about, he hadn’t eaten since they’d left the ship.
A table had been brought into the room and the largest Elf Sam had ever seen was pouring over some maps that were laid out on it. His Elven features were very pronounced and his ears had been sheered to sharp thin points. The Elf’s forearms bore many scars and had the fine muscling of a lifelong fighter. The slight sliver cast to his short cropped black hair showed that he was probably approaching two hundred, maybe older.
“Zari,” Narigard announced “I present you with Ithican of Evergladrida, and Sam Human.”
“Samaricus.” Sam corrected coldly, giving his formal name.
Zari looked up, at first seemingly annoyed at the intrusion. He didn’t even give Sam a second glance. He regarded Ithican for a moment and smiled.
“Evergladrida, eh? How are the Wetlands?”
“Beautiful as ever, Sir.” Ithican replied automatically. “And the Forests?”
“Still growing tall.” Zari replied with a grin. The traditional greeting between Elven kin had been over looked when they had first met Narigard and Varick. “I hear you’ve been to Nueyark.”
“The Wetland Elves don’t usually get wander lust, especially one so young. And then to travel to Nueyark? Very odd.”
“He followed me.” Sam interrupted. He feared that he knew what the Elf was driving at. “He owes me a favour.” He added callously.
“So I’ve heard.” Zari remarked. “Well, perhaps you’ll get your chance to repay him now, Ithican of Evergladrida. We could use a few more bodies. You see we are under siege.”
“Siege?” Sam repeated. “That’s an act of War, who would be so bold in these times of peace?”
“There is no peace in Nuearth, the Humans just aren’t actively fighting or enslaving anyone right now.” Varick snapped.
“Sadly Varick is right.” Zari continued. “We are at odds with the Goblins right now.”
“Goblins, I should have known.”
“Yes, the Goblins are no friends of Humans either.” Narigard agreed.
“Wait,” Ithican interjected “Goblins attacked this town?”
“That is correct.” Zari answered after a slight pause.
“This is an Elven town? I didn’t think any of the Elves lived by the East Sea.”
“How old are you, Ithican?” Zari asked suddenly.
“Still a whelp.” Zari scoffed. “What do you know of the world outside the Wetlands?”
Ithican flushed. “Forgive me.”
“It’s okay to question.” Zari replied.
“Just don’t be so quick to show your ignorance.” Varick added.
Before Varick had even finished the insult Ithican had wrapped his hand around Sam’s wrist in a painfully tight grip. Ithican had been right to do so, Sam had been about to go for the Forest Elf’s throat.
“Petty bickering aside, will you help us?” Zari asked.
“What choice do we have?” Sam snapped angrily.
“You are correct, Samaricus.” Zari replied coolly. “We are at the point where it’s Us or Them. We haven’t been able to get into or out of this town for months. They sank all the ships in the harbor, so that we can’t get out and any other ship coming here turns away. Our supply lines have been cut. They lurk in the forest outside the town walls, everyone who has tried to get through has been killed.”
“In other words.” Varick interrupted. “If we don’t act soon we’ll all die without the Goblins laying a single hand on us.”
“What?” Ithican asked.
“We’re all going to starve to death.”
Varick had insisted on taking them back to the inn even though they were perfectly capable of making their own way. Sam could feel the tension the Forest Elf radiated and he kept on alert for trouble. He’d like nothing more than a legitimate excuse to ring his neck.
When Varick reached the top of the stairs he whipped around faster than a snake. He grabbed Ithican’s shirt with both hands. Yanking him closer Varick forced Ithican around and slammed him back first into the wall. Sam roared in anger and went to jump at Varick, glad for the chance.
“Stop!” Ithican commanded. “Stay out of this Sam!”
Sam already had his hands on Varick’s shoulders. Varick remained calm and sure of himself. Sam was about to disregard Ithican’s orders when he caught the lighting quick wink that Ithican flashed him. Confused Sam backed away.
Ithican took a deep breath and smiled brightly. “Is there something I can help you with, Varick of Lightland?” He asked calmly.
It had the desired effect. Varick was so choked with rage that at first he couldn’t even bring himself to speak. He growled with pent up frustration as he increased his grip on Ithican’s shirt.
“I just wanted to make sure that you keep out of our way!” Varick finally spat. “As far as I’m concerned you and your Human are just two more mouths we can’t afford to feed! You Swamp Rats are a disgrace to Elven kind. And I have a burning suspicion that you’re a disgrace even to your diseased swamp homeland.” At the word ‘burning’ Varick dug his fingernails into the spot on Ithican’s shirt that hid his scar. “When we attack the Goblins tomorrow, watch your back, and make sure your arrows are pointed in the right direction!”
Ithican looked around as if disinterested. “Are you through?” He asked after Varick was silent for a moment.
Varick bristled with fury and he hissed sharply at Ithican’s dismissive words. He drew his hand back preparing to backhand his captive viciously. Ithican turned his face to the side slightly to give Varick a clearer shot.
Panting from the effort to rein himself in Varick slowly put his hand down. He’d already pressed his honor to the limit. He could not strike Ithican if he wasn’t going to fight back. Snarling like an animal he turned away. Pushing past Sam he stormed from the inn.
When he heard the door slam Ithican let out the breath he’d been holding. He closed his eyes and leaned his head back against the wall for support. For a moment he did nothing but breath, trying to mental slow his racing pulse.
“What the Hell was that?” Sam demanded. “Why do you let him push you around like that? You need to fight for yourself once in a while.”
Ithican opened his eyes lazily and looked at Sam. He shook his head in a mix of sorrow and mirth. “Sam, you don’t understand...”
“The Hell I don’t! You’ve sold out to the idea that they are better than you are. It’s sick.”
“Funny, I thought by not fighting Varick I proved that I was better.” Ithican paused. “Sam, think about it. He wants me to fight him, he wants to spill our blood so badly he can taste it. But I’m not even going to give him that chance. He can’t, by honor, challenge me unless I either challenge him first or mortally insult him.”
“You keep goading him on like this and he’s going to forget his ‘honor’ in a rage and you’ll find your belly slit open before you can blink.” Sam replied darkly. “You’re a fool to trust them.”
“What makes you think that I do?”
Sam balked at the unexpected question. “Well, I thought... I mean... After all they are...”
“Elves?” Ithican finished for him. He narrowed his emerald eyes. “Do you trust all Humans, because they are your kin?”
“Of course not, I don’t trust them any further than I can throw them. Maybe not even that far.”
“So why should I trust the Forest Elves?” Ithican growled. “Why should I trust anyone?!”
Ithican pushed himself away from the wall and walked off. Sam flinched as Ithican slammed the room door behind him. Sam sighed. He had misjudged the situation -badly. After all why should Ithican trust him? He’d only caused the Elf trouble.
Sam walked back down the stairs. He had to get out, he need some fresh air. He stepped out into the cool night and breathed in deeply. Without looking back Sam wandered down the main street. He didn’t know where he was going, he just wanted to put some distance between himself and his problems. Unfortunately his problems had an uncanny way of following him.
Something wasn’t right here. He tried to tell himself that he had let his personal hate of Varick taint his view of the other Forest Elves. However it was more than that. But try as he might Sam couldn’t figure out what was amiss. The truth evaded his grasp like a tendril of smoke.
Walking aimlessly through the streets Sam quickly found himself outside the section of town that the Elves had hold themselves up in. This area was more residential. The houses all had the empty feel of abandonment. Some of them even had the doors open, dust and leaves allowed to blow in.
Sam’s fingers twitched at the sight of so many unguarded houses. Deep down he knew that this was neither the time, nor the place for these thoughts. More than that he’d gotten enough riches from the ruby to last half a lifetime. However Sam had been living as a thief for almost sixty years now. It had been hard at first, but now it was second nature.
After a quick glance around to make sure he was alone Sam walked up the steps of one of the houses who’s door had been left swinging open. It certainly wasn’t a rich house, in fact the place was a mess. It wasn’t the kind of mess that happens in a mad dash to escape. It was a kind of clutter and disrepair that takes years of general neglect to achieve.
Walking into the kitchen Sam found dirty dishes and rotting meat strewn about. The stinking leg of a cow was hanging from the ceiling. It almost looked like the owner had originally planed to let the meat decay before consuming it.
Sam paused at that thought. Going over to the kitchen window he looked down at the ground beneath the sill. On the ground outside was a large pile of stripped and cracked bones. The backyard held a pig pen and a chicken coop. All of the animals had long since died of starvation. Sam furrowed his brow.
He suddenly recalled a scene back in Nueyark. It had seemed of little importance at the time, but now...
“You have to try some of this hen, Ithican.” Sam had said with relish. “I don’t know what Marina does to it, but it’s amazing.”
“No thanks.” Ithican smiled. “I only eat meat that I’ve killed myself. I must admit it’s a matter of pride. The Elves don’t raise animals, they never have. If we are living in harmony with our surroundings Nature will provide us with all we need.”
“Your loss.” Sam laughed.
Sam played the scene over in his head a few times. Everything was slowly coming together. The odd architecture, the sea Captain’s comment about the inhabitants, the lack of any Elven women or children...
“’The Elves don’t raise animals, they never have’.” Sam muttered to himself. “’It’s a matter of pride’...” That’s when the truth struck him. The Elves weren’t protecting this town. They were occupying it.
Ramandas belonged to the Goblins!
It took Sam three hours to find his way back to the inn. It wasn’t that he’d lost his way, he simply needed more time to think. Eventually he got the feeling that no amount of time in the world was going to help him come to a decision.
He was also having trouble keeping his mind on the present. It kept wandering back to the past. A time that seemed like a whole different world. Had he ever been that young? That weak? Apparently so.
“No, my decision is final!” The words of Sam’s long since dead father came to him. “Stop your whimpering woman!” He had snapped at Sam’s mother. “We’re going out there, tonight!”
Sam rubbed his bracelet scared wrists as if they were freshly cut. He shook his head violently. He was not going to get bogged down in reliving the past. He always complained about Ithican’s tendency to leave old wounds open, he was not going to be guilty of it himself.
He stood on the front step of the inn for almost ten minutes. There was no way to deny why he hesitated. When he finally entered the inn he failed to notice the shadow across the street that watched him.
Ithican should have been sleeping, after all he had agreed to participate in the attack in the morning. Sam found him sitting on one of the beds staring so intently at the small table in the room that he didn’t even seem to notice Sam enter. After a moment Ithican looked over at Sam. He smiled meekly and then returned his gaze to the table.
“The table isn’t even level.” Ithican commented.
“Look at it.”
Sam gave the table a brief look. Ithican was right, two of the legs were noticeably longer than the other two. But why that should matter escaped Sam.
“You were right, Sam. I had no right to get angry. I’ve been fooling myself. I did want to trust the Elves, I want so much to be let back into that world. Where things made sense and I didn’t have to deal with the hate and violence of the real world. Us Swamp Rats have been isolated for so long that we’ve forgotten...”
“You should really try and get some sleep, Ith. There is no sense worrying about this. Tomorrow the Elves will attack, and for better or for worse it will be over. And afterward we can slip out of here in the confusion.”
“Yes,” Ithican whispered “of course, the attack.” He turned his stare on Sam. “But will my arrows be ‘facing the right direction’?”
“What are you talking about?”
Ithican jumped off the bed like he had wings. Walking over to the dust covered window he threw it open. “Look at it! Just look at this shabby coastal town!” He turned to the table and with a single blow it broke beneath his hand. “Don’t you get it, Sam? No Elven hand crafted this town, I knew it the second we found the Elves here, I knew they didn’t belong. The Elves have far too much pride, far too much arrogance to build something like this. They’ve taken it from the Goblins. We’re not fighting for the right side.”
“No, Ith, listen. This time it’s you who doesn’t understand. Anyone fighting against the Goblins is fighting on the right side. They are evil!”
Ithican froze and for a long while he just stared coldly at Sam.
“The High Priest would be so proud of you.” Ithican finally growled. “What does it matter if it’s Humans killing off the Elves or the Elves killing off the Goblins?”
Sam couldn’t reply. He didn’t dare. Ithican’s eyes had suddenly become very dark and dangerous. When Sam didn’t speak Ithican walked over to the quiver Zari had given him and took a single arrow. When he headed for the door Sam stopped him.
“Where are you going?”
“I have to know, I have to know if I’m right. I’m going to talk to Zari.”
“Are you crazy? I know he acted all polite, but trust me Zari doesn’t like you anymore than Varick does. He’s just smarter about it. Accuse him of a hostile take over, even if it is true, he will kill you in seconds.”
Ithican thought about this for a moment. “All right then. I won’t ask Zari.”
“I’ll talk to the Goblins instead.”
For a moment Sam was beyond speech. He searched Ithican’s expression, hoping to find a hint of mirth, something to tell him it was joke. But Ithican was dead serious.
“Did I say ‘crazy’?” Sam finally asked rhetorically. “I guess I meant insane! You might as well try and reason with a Dragon.”
Ithican broke the arrow he held. Sam knew the ancient Elven symbol of a wish to negotiate -a term Goblins don’t understand.
“That isn’t going to protect you from the Goblins anymore than it would have protected you from the Nueyarkers. Trust me on this one.”
“Sam I know that you were hurt in the past, but those were nomadic Goblins, rouges. These people have build a home for themselves...” Ithican stopped.
“That’s not what happened.” Sam paused. “They were nomads, but I didn’t just run into them one day, they ran into us.”
Sam was quiet for a long time. The only thing that made him carry on with the painful story was the hope that it would talk some sense into the young Elf. He had no idea what he would be getting himself into if he went out in those woods.
“They had come to our woods to make a temporary home. But those forests were our hunting grounds. Goblins are famous for slaughtering wild animals without control and then they would come for our livestock. Times were hard then and there wasn’t going to be enough for both races, and my father knew that.
I...I was young, twenty, barely twenty. I wanted to go with my father and the ten men that were going to go talk to the Goblins. Of course I was ordered to stay home, and of course I snuck out and followed them. I stayed in the shadows, so I never heard what went on between the two parties. But I saw...”
The heat that had been burning Ithican’s blood turned to chill as he listened attentively to Sam’s story. He didn’t realize how deep Sam’s hate and fear of the Goblins ran.
“I could see that they were staring to lose their tempers, both sides. However when it came to blood shed my father and his men were grievously out numbered. They fought bravely, but there was no chance. When the rest were dead and my father saw that they Goblins sought to capture him instead of kill he drove a dagger into his own heart.” Here Sam stopped and closed his eyes against the memory.
Sam pulled away when Ithican put his hand on his shoulder.
“I wasn’t so lucky. I had cried out and was quickly captured. They of course wanted details about our town, they wanted to know what they were up against. It was three days before the town realized that my father wasn’t coming back and set up an organized attack. The longest three days of my life. I never told them anything, not a word...Even after being rescued it took nearly five years before I was able to bring myself to speak at all.”
For a long time nothing was said.
“I’m sorry, Sam. I didn’t know.” Ithican paused and looked around. “But tell me truthfully, do you honestly think that this is the same situation? It’s obvious that at lest these Goblins have given up their nomadic ways, they weren’t hurting anyone here. All the Elves here look like Forest Elves, and their homelands are far from here.”
“So why would they bother coming here and taking over, unless the Goblins threatened them first.”
“I don’t think this has anything to do with Goblins.”
“I think that the Elves are trying to take over the Southern lands. I think this is the first step in a long and bloody war.”
“Yes. A war between the Elves and the Humans.”
“I guess that makes some sense. They would want this port, it’s the closest one to the South of Nueyark.” Sam said, catching on. “However if that’s true, if the Elves are planning a war, there is nothing we can do.”
“Yes there is. If the Elves lose this town to the Goblins, whom they have already clearly underestimated, they will spend years licking their wounds. They will think twice about taking on the Humans. We must go warn the Goblins, that way they’ll have at least half a chance.”
“Are you even listening to yourself? Say we did want to help the Goblins, we wouldn’t make it twenty feet into those woods before the Goblins capture us.”
“I’m counting on that fact.”
“This is a bad idea.”
“I told you that you didn’t have to come.”
“Right.” Sam said bitterly. “How long after you didn’t return do you think the Forest Elves would let me live? No way. I’m not going to give Varick the satisfaction of being the one to kill me.”
“Think about it this way: if the Elves win they won’t need us anymore and they’ll probably kill us just to keep this a secret anyway.” Ithican shrugged. “We don’t have much to lose either way.”
“I thought the Elves were more honorable than that.” Sam said sarcastically.
“Until recently, so did I.”
Despite himself Ithican’s heart was racing by the time they left the safety of the town walls. The warm air of the South that had once been inviting now felt oppressive. It was nearly midnight, and the woods around the town were thick and dark. The largest of the three moons was nearly full, giving off a cold golden light.
The light was enough to let Sam find his way, but he couldn’t see into the shadows the way Ithican could. Sam didn’t like walking around at night with Ithican. The Elf’s eyes caught the light every once in a while and it caused them to glow reflectively like an animal’s. It was creepy, and he was (as much as he hated to admit it) frightened enough as it was.
They tried to keep out of the shadows as much as possible. They wanted to be found without surprising a nervous enemy. If the Goblins thought that they had the upper hand they were less likely to do anything rash. If they could manage to be taken peacefully, they’d have a chance to talk to someone in command. That was the plan.
It almost worked.
The first birdlike call came from their right. The next came from somewhere in the woods behind them. Although admittedly unnerved the pair continued walking as if nothing was wrong. They wanted the Goblins to make the first move. Ithican reasoned that things were working as well as could be expected, after all if the Goblins were going to kill them without question they’d already have arrows in their chests.
When they came to a small clearing the shrill notes that had been following them suddenly sang out from all directions. The Goblins were smart, they had been herding their prey into the open where their superior numbers could work to their advantage.
The edges of the clearing became a sea of glowing eyes, much like Ithican’s only red. Suspicious that the trap they’d set may spring in the wrong direction they approached very slowly. They were smaller than the average man. In fact none of them had the kind of build that would lend towards a fighting race. These were no longer warriors, they’d been living in their little city too long.
Still they had been pushed to the extreme and were ready to fight for what they’d worked for. When they stepped out into the light of the moon Ithican suddenly understood why it would be hard for their race to gain acceptance. Their skin had a sickly green cast to it, and the perverse contrast of their purple hair made them look unnatural. As they got closer their reflective red eyes proved to actually be orange with slited pupils. Ithican stood still waiting patiently, swallowing his panic whenever it tried to tell him to run.
It wasn’t until the Goblins were only a few feet away that he noticed how ragged Sam’s breathing had become. Ithican had been concentrating on staying calm himself, it hadn’t even occurred to him that Sam might not be able to do the same.
A Goblin had grabbed at Sam from behind and he had instinctively whipped around and struck. At that point in time chaos broke out. Blinded by a fear that had been cultivated over the years Sam lashed out randomly at the swarm of Goblins that had crowded the small clearing.
Ithican went to stop his friend when a hot hand wrapped itself around his wrist. Not knowing that Goblins have a highly elevated body temperature Ithican cried out in horror and pulled away. He forgot about Sam as he felt a wash of panic from the multitude of hot hands that tried to restrain him. He hadn’t realized that there was going to be this many of them.
It felt like being pulled under water as a number of Goblins forced him down on his knees. It was hard to breath in the body induced heat from the Goblin pack. The plan had been to not offer the Goblins any resistance, but it was impossible not to. He could hear Sam still fighting and roaring like a cornered bear. If Ithican had known it was going to be like this he would have never allowed Sam to come.
“Sam!” Ithican gasped. “Calm down!” He said the words more to keep himself under control.
Ithican wasn’t sure if Sam even heard him, his attention was immediately consumed by another force. The cool contact of steel at the back of his neck was almost a welcoming feeling. It chilled his increasingly feverish blood. He was surprised when the blade slice harmlessly through his shirt and not his skin.
Working as an amazingly efficient team the Goblins striped Ithican of his shirt. They tore it into two strips. Within seconds Ithican found himself blindfolded with his hands restrained tightly behind his back. The Goblins left him to deal with the raging Human. For a moment Ithican just enjoyed the release from their unnatural heat.
It was only a few minutes before he felt Sam pushed down next to him. He didn’t need his sight to tell him it was his friend, Sam’s laughter was unmistakable. Ithican feared for a moment that the struggle had driven him right over the edge. However the good natured laugh didn’t have the strain of hysteria in it, it seemed genuine.
“Everything is still going according to plan, right?” Sam asked brightly.
“As if it was scripted.” Ithican replied dryly.
“That’s comforting. I can’t wait for scene two.”
“The one where my plan finally gets us both killed?”
“That’s the one.”
“What? Calm down, you’re jabbering. Say it slowly, and it better be good.”
“We caught an Elf, out in the woods.”
“You’re kidding, at this time of night? Was anyone hurt?”
“No, they didn’t give us much of a fight.”
“’They’? I thought you said that there was just one.”
“Well, one Elf. We got the Human he was with as well.”
“Human? Are you sure? At times those races can look a like.”
“Trust me Marwyrn, he’s Human all right. Blue eyes, blonde hair. These two are like day and night, I’ll sleep with a Werewolf if I’m wrong.”
“Those are brave words my friend.” Marwyrn smiled weakly. He ran his long fingers through his deep purple hair. “Damn. The last thing we need is a union between those two. No. No, I don’t believe it. There must be more to that story. Those two races are just waiting to slit each other’s throats. ”
“Let them. Maybe then we’ll find some peace.”
“Don’t be naive, Ortic. One race would come out on top and then it would be our turn. The only thing that keeps races like us alive is the fact that the Humans and Elves are too worried about each other to worry about us.”
“What should we do?” Ortic asked.
Marwyrn sighed. He was getting too old to be Chief. He was just about to retire when the Elves descended upon them like a plague. All he really wanted was to go back to bed, despite the fact that it was nothing more than a heap of blankets in a worn tent.
“Just kill them.”
Ortic started to leave.
“No,” Marwyrn said wearily “come back here, I didn’t mean that. We came here to better ourselves, didn’t we?”
“For all the good it did us.”
“Never the less. I’ll see them.”
Ortic lead Marwyrn over to were he had left the captives. It was dark but Marwyrn could see even better than the Elves, as could all Goblins. He noted that the mismatched pair were unusually calm. Despite being bound and blind they knelt in the dirt without struggling. In fact Ortic had told the other Goblins to go keep an eye on the edge of the camp, leaving them unguarded.
Before announcing his presents Marwyrn studied the pair. Ortic had been right: day and night knelt at his feet. The Elf’s pale skin and midnight hair marred by a white moon beam contrasted perfectly with the Human’s sun worshiping tan and daybreak yellow hair. Marwyrn suspected that these physical differences were just the beginning of a long list. It was hard to believe that these two were friends.
There’s one way to find out. Marwyrn thought to himself.
He tapped Ortic’s shoulder to get his attention. He winked and shook his head. Ortic looked at him disapprovingly for a second, but he shrugged and nodded. Marwyrn smiled and then cleared his throat to get the pair’s attention. He pulled his dagger out of its sheath making sure that it rubbed noisily against its metal case.
“Kill the Elf.” He ordered to no one.
“No!” The Human cried.
Marwyrn’s hot skin painfully flashed to ice. His reaction had nothing to do with the heartfelt cry. When the Human had though his friend was in trouble he had started to fight fiercely against the cloth that held him. When he did so he moved out from under a deep shadow that had been hiding a mark on his upper arm.
A mark that Marwyrn had carved there himself, nearly eighty years ago.
Sam pulled against the bindings hard enough to make the twisted cloth bit into his scared wrists. He nervously anticipated the sick back splash of Ithican’s blood, furious that he couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t even see what they were doing to him.
They had done this to him before, kept him blind so that he could only concentrate on what they were saying and the pain they were inflicting. But back then he only had to fear for his own skin, he’d had only his own life to lose.
It was Ithican’s voice, smooth as the surface of a frozen lake.
“Sam, it’s all right, it was just a test.”
“Test?” Sam growled, but he calmed a bit.
“Yes,” Marwyrn agreed “I wanted to know if you were friends.”
“You could have just asked.” Sam replied darkly.
“’Ask’?” Marwyrn repeated. “I didn’t figure that would work. I remember a time when I used to ask you a lot of questions. I didn’t get any answers then.”
“I should have known that you’d come back to haunt me, come back a powerful enemy!” Marwyrn yelled harshly.
Sam’s growing anger and fear was suddenly replaced by confusion. He felt the Goblin’s warmth as he came to stand in front of him.
“I’m surprised that you don’t recognize my voice, although you were awfully young.”
Sam’s sudden cry of rage struck Ithican’s sensitive ears painfully.
“Sam! What’s happening?”
“You killed my father!” Sam snarled.
“And you’ve lead to the destruction of my entire race!” Marwyrn snapped back.
“My town would not have attacked your people if you hadn’t attacked us first! They wouldn’t have come if they didn’t have to avenge my father and his friends! They wouldn’t have attacked if they didn’t have to rescue me!”
Now it was Marwyrn’s turn to be confused. “Avenge? Rescue?” He calmed a bit. “Is that what they told you? That’s not what happened. No one came to rescue you.”
“Your father and the ten men who joined him were the only ones to challenge us, they were the only ones in your town with a brave bone in their bodies. When they didn’t return the gates to the town were shut tight and they huddled in fear behind their walls.”
“Lies! I wouldn’t be alive.”
“You’re alive because I brought you to those gates. Even then, when I offered to return you, they refused to open their defenses. They were cowards! Even though I came alone they made me leave you outside in the dirt. You probably don’t remember, after all you were...”
“Half dead?!” Sam supplied.
“More than that, I’m afraid. But don’t think that I haven’t had nightmares about it ever since! I started out with the best intentions...”
“’Best intentions’?!” Sam repeated incredulously. “You tortured me for three days, and then left me for dead!”
“No! Well...yes.” Marwyrn flushed. He got down on his knees in front of Sam and pulled off the blindfold. “But you taught me, you taught me.”
“What could I have possibly taught you, other than the fact that your heart was cold even to the screams of a child.”
“Yes!” Marwyrn cried in triumph. “That is exactly what I learnt! When I started I truly felt that if we didn’t strike the Human town first and destroy it that we would be slaughtered. I was desperate to save my people. But you proved to be amazingly brave, too brave for your own good. And on that last day...” Marwyrn paused. “I finally lost my temper, when I slashed those lash marks into your back I did it out of a loathing for Humans. Not to save my people, but to hurt you. Do you remember what you did afterwards?”
“I try to remember as little about those days as I can.”
“I don’t blame you. But after I had beaten you to within half a breath of your life you snarled at me like a wild animal, defiant to the last. The look of pure hate in your eyes before you passed out showed me what a monster I’d become. All my life I had accused the Humans of hating the Goblins for no reason. But the reason was dying at my feet in a pool of blood that I had split.”
“You should have just killed me. You claim to have returned me, but you didn’t, not completely. I became an outcast, everyone was ashamed of me and this mark you carved into my arm kept that feeling towards me alive until the day I left.”
“No! They were ashamed of themselves, not of you! You painfully reminded them everyday that you and your father had been brave while they had been cowards! I put that there as a badge of honor, it is the Goblin symbol of bravery.”
“It ruined my life.”
“Then consider the score even.”
Sam furrowed his brow.
“We came here, to this abandoned town, we rebuilt it as our own, we gave up our nomadic land raping ways, because of you! I led my people here to better our race, and it has lead to our destruction! Why do you think my people were nomadic in the first place? Because none of the other races ever let us settle down, we had to stay on the move or we’d be slaughtered. And now that we’ve settled our worst fears have come true. The Elves have come from seemingly nowhere to destroy us!”
“I won’t take the blame for that.”
“No?” Marwyrn reached over and yanked Ithican’s head back by his hair.
Sam had the brief thought that Ithican should seriously consider cutting his hair to keep people from being able to do that.
“If you won’t take the blame, then what about your dirty Elven friend?!”
“You haven’t learnt anything!” Sam spat. “You’re still judging people by race, just as they judge you! Ithican was the one who convinced me to come here, into the heart of a Goblin camp in the first place. Do you honestly think that we were just strolling around in the woods at night?! No, he wanted us captured. Even after I told him that we would only be killed or worse.”
“To try and save you, save you even though it meant betraying his own race. He risked our lives to warn you.”
“Warn us? Of what?”
Marwyrn suddenly heard the call of alarm ring out through the camp. The Elves were attacking!
“A trap!” Marwyrn snarled. “You led them here!”
“That doesn’t make any sense!” Sam growled. “The Elves already knew you were out here. If anything they would have caught you sleeping, because of us they’ve caught you on guard.”
“But why bother attacking?! We’re already dying in these woods away from our livestock and the sea, we no longer have the ability to live off the forests and we have nowhere to go. We can’t fight them, we have to get out of here! We’re half-starved!”
“So are the Elves.” Sam retorted. “There can’t be more than a hundred of them left, I’ve seen your numbers you’ve got them five to one. You have to stay!”
“Gentlemen.” Ithican interrupted. They’d almost forgotten him. “I hate to be the one to bring this up, but we really don’t have time to discuss this. Besides, it is too late for anyone to run. Let us help you.”
Ithican’s point was made as the sounds of clashing steel and panicked yells came closer. The Elves were out numbered, but the Goblins were out classed. Narigard had been right, one more strong arm could push this in either direction.
Marwyrn was having the exact same thought. But to trust a Human and an Elf? The increasing cries of alarm drove Marwyrn to a hasty decision. He released the pair figuring that he didn’t have much to lose or gain either way. This was going to be a hopeless battle.
“I have to go.” Marwyrn said. Ortic had already left to fight, and despite his age Marwyrn went to be at his side.
Sam rubbed his wrists. “That was my best shirt.” He lamented.
“I would be more worried about my skin if I were you.”
“Good point. I would like to point out that it was your idea to place us in the middle of a minor war without weapons.”
Ithican reached down and pulled what looked to Sam like a thick handled dagger with a double edged curved blade from a sheath hidden down at his ankle.
“A dagger?” Sam said doubtfully. “I doubt that’s going to do much good.”
A tight smile touched Ithican’s lips. He held the dagger away from his body. With a motion too quick for the eye he flipped a catch and the weapon changed as if by magic. The sharp end of the dagger had telescoped so that it was about four feet long with the wide curved blade now at the tip. The blunt end had done the same, extending the weapon another two feet in that direction like a sharp quarter staff. It looked thin and delicate, but in the right hands it could deflect a blow from any weapon.
“What the Hell is that?” Sam asked, no more impressed than he had been when it had been just a dagger.
“It’s a gentleman’s weapon, a Tarrin. Any well bred Elf has one, only our Magi know how to make them and it takes Elven reflexes to use one.”
“Have you ever fought with it?” Sam looked at the weapon doubtfully.
“I’m... classically trained.”
“It means we fight, but not to the death. It’s a game.” Ithican shrugged. “Like I said, it’s a gentleman’s weapon.”
Sam looked up as a group of Goblins stumbled across them. Their red glowing eyes caught sight of them and they approached with weapons drawn. He suddenly had the thought that he and Ithican weren’t officially on anyone’s side -which made them everyone’s enemy.
“Well you’d better put your gentleman’s rules aside for now.”
Ithican turned to face the Goblins and brought the Tarrin into fighting position so that it was more an extension of his hand with the dull end pressed up under his forearm to steady the thin blade.
“Easy, White Blaze, we know what side you’re on.” The lead Goblin announced. “We’re here to help.”
Sam laughed. “They must be talking to you, Ith.”
Ithican flushed and ran his free hand through his streaked hair. “If you want to help, give my friend a weapon.”
The Goblins fight two handed so the leader handed Sam his left sword. Sam took the curved blade and weighed it out in his hand, trying to get a feel for the unusual sword. A distant bird call came from off to the North. All of the Goblins in the small band whistled a reply in unison.
“This way.” The lead Goblin said as he took off towards the call.
Ithican went to follow when Sam stopped him.
“Stay here, Ithican.” Sam ordered.
“You’re not my Master.” Ithican replied with a voice as sharp as the Tarrin blade.
“No, I’m your friend. And I don’t want to see you killed, you’re not a fighter. Promise me you’ll stay here.”
Ithican said nothing, he just pushed past Sam. Sam sighed and with the heavy handle of his new sword he struck Ithican in the back of the head. Ithican fell to the leaf littered ground like a polled horse.
“I’m sorry, Ith, but you’ll be safer here.” Sam mumbled and then took off after the Goblins.
Ithican didn’t hear him, his world had suddenly become very dark and quiet.
Ithican groaned and got up on his hands and knees. Sam had hesitated and hadn’t hit him too hard, so it wasn’t long before he woke. He shook his head to try and clear his thoughts and vision. He reached back and felt the spot where Sam had hit him. It was sore, but there wasn’t any blood.
“Thanks for trying to save me from myself, ‘Friend’.” Ithican muttered bitterly.
He got to his feet and when he was sure of his balance once more he ran in the direction the Goblins had last been heading. It didn’t take long for him to come across evidence of the battle that was raging in the woods. With a flick he collapsed the Tarrin and slowly walked to the figure on the ground.
A lone Goblin was laying on his back with his hands clutching his stomach. As Ithican approached him he cried out and tried blindly to find his fallen swords. Ithican knelt beside the injured Goblin. When his long hair came untucked from behind his pointed ears and fell forward he was surprised to see the Goblin instantly relaxed. Ithican couldn’t believe how quick the Goblins were to trust him at the mere word of their Chief. After all, he could never escape the fact that he was Elven.
“That’s right, I’m not going to hurt you.” Ithican said softly. “Let me see.”
Ithican pulled the Goblins heated hands away from his stomach. A long gash ran across his abdomen, however it didn’t look very deep and the bleeding was already slowing.
“Hey, it’s not so bad.” He forced a smile. “You’ll be fine. Just stay calm.”
The Goblin said nothing but he did try to smile back.
Ithican cast about for a second and found what he was looking for. It was a common weed, it grew practically everywhere, and when crushed it helped clot blood. He was pressing the herb against the hot flow when the cold touch of steel pressed against his bare back.
“Kill that *thing*,” a voice spat “or I’ll kill you, Ithican of Evergladrida.”
It was Varick.
Sam felt terrible for leaving Ithican behind, but at the same time there was no way he was going to survive this with that silly weapon. And although he hated to admit it, he didn’t think that Ithican would be able to kill his own kind. Sam knew that his friend wanted to fight for what was right, but at the same time he didn’t know the horror of spilling blood for the first time.
Shaking his head to rid himself of thoughts about the unconscious Elf Sam concentrated on the problem at hand. He had caught up with the short strided Goblins easily and now they were creeping around the out skirts of the main battle. They were looking for a way to flank the Elves and take full advantage of their superior numbers, keep the Elves fighting on every side.
He had learnt that the lead Goblin’s name was Partho and they now communicated silently with hand signals. Sam indicated that he thought they should keep circling until they were behind the main force of the Elves. It would be dangerous, if the Elves had thought to attack in two waves they’d be trapped in the middle. Partho didn’t hesitate for a second over the suggestion. With a low series of whistles Partho alerted his companions of the plan.
Sam was surprised to find that the other Goblins nodded in agreement and he was down right shocked to see several of them actually wink at him. They not only trusted him as one of their own, but they were willing to follow him.
He would have smiled, but this was not the time nor the place. He didn’t want to kill Elves anymore than he wanted to kill Humans or even Goblins for that matter. Despite trusting him these Goblins were obviously thirsty to spill Elven blood. It was why Sam had knocked Ithican out. Just because this set of Goblins knew him as White Blaze didn’t mean that they all knew the difference.
In the heat of this battle an Elf would be an Elf. However, it never even occurred to him that anyone without green skin would be considered Elven as well -war has little room for such tiny distinctions.
When they came to the other side of the fighting Sam was dismayed to find that the clash was even more chaotic than he had thought. The standing were already tripping over the fallen. For every Elven body that lay in a puddle of blood there seemed to be ten Goblins in a pool. His companions saw this and forgot their restraint. Crying in rage they all rushed off into the fray.
“This is hopeless!” Sam growled. “There isn’t going to be a living soul by morning.”
He was about to turn around and go get Ithican so that they could get as far from here as possible when a desperate cry stopped him. Off to his left one of the Elves had separated one of the Goblins from the rest. They were locked in merciless combat. However, Sam quickly saw that the Elf was just playing with his weaker prey. Any lone Goblin was at a disadvantage, but Marwyrn was also over two hundred and fifty years old.
Sam didn’t stop to think his options over, he rushed at the fighting pair. His curved blade entered the fight just as the Elf was about to deal the fatal blow. The Elf started with surprise as his blade hit metal instead of bone. When he turned his green eyes on Sam he cried out with such fury that he blinded himself.
Or at least that’s how it seemed to Sam as he easily ducked the Elf’s clumsy attack. The Elf quickly recovered and started to fight with the grace and fierceness that his race was renowned for.
This was not Sam’s first fight, the life of a thief is full of blood. However, he had never fought with an Elf before. He quickly discovered why it took ten Goblins to bring one down. Sam was holding his own, but at the same time he was fighting purely defensively. The Elf’s quicker reflexes parried every one of Sam’s moves almost before he’d made them. He couldn’t seem to even get a chance at making an offensive move, and that could only lead to one thing: a mistake on his part, a deadly one.
That mistake occurred when Sam realized too late that the Elf had been trying to maneuver him up against a tree. When Sam found his available directions of movement cut down by one he knew the battle was lost for him.
A cruel smile spread across the Elf’s delicate features, he saw his triumph as well. He raised his long sword over his head knowing that Sam couldn’t back away from the blow. Sam didn’t even have time to flinch.
In mid swing the Elf’s expression suddenly flashed from elation to pain. He froze, dropping the weapon. The blood dripping from his parted lips was his only motion for a horrifying second that seemed to last hours. Sam instinctively reached out to catch the falling Elf. As he had started to collapsed to his knees the Elf’s normally cold dark eyes had flashed him a desperate look. Sam held onto his dying opponent and broke his fall to the ground. By the time they’d finished the short journey the Elf was dead.
Sam looked up only to find Marwyrn standing there with two blood soaked swords. Sam had completely forgotten about the Goblin he’d saved. Apparently the Elf had forgotten as well. If it hadn’t been for Marwyrn he would have been dead, twice. There was no way he could have fought the Elf alone. Their nerves were lightning quick, and their hate drove them to insane levels.
Looking down at his fallen opponent Sam shuddered to think of how a fight between two Elves would play out.
Ithican didn’t answer Varick. The fear had flooded back into the injured Goblin’s expression. He held onto Ithican’s hands with a feverish grip. Ithican smiled sadly. The wane smile vanished as Varick started to trace aimless patterns on his back with the tip of the blade. He wasn’t pressing hard enough to break the skin, but his intentions were clear.
Remaining motionless Ithican absent mindedly wondered when Varick would find what his sword was searching for. How long would it take for him to find the perfect spot to strike? He tried to relax; tried not to imagine the sharp steel lancing into his back -might as well enjoy breathing while he still could.
However, Varick was having too much fun to ruin the moment. Keeping the icy blade in constant contact with Ithican’s exposed skin he walked slowly around to stand in front of the Swamp Elf and the fear choked Goblin. He drew an imaginary line up Ithican’s throat and tilted his head back by pushing the sword tip against his jaw. Ithican tried to resist looking at Varick causing a small trickle of blood to slip down the clean blade. Eventually he looked up into Varick’s dark green eyes. However, he didn’t see the smug expression he expected to encounter.
“What is wrong with you?” Varick asked in a serious tone. “Running around with Humans, helping Goblins. I don’t understand. You’re part of the greatest race on Nuearth and you deny it to the last. Why are you kneeling in the dirt when you should be standing by our side and helping us?”
“I’m not a murder.”
“Oh yes you are.” Varick snarled. He flicked the sword away from Ithican’s jaw and pressed the point into his chest. “You weren’t born with that mark. But I’m willing to forget the past if you help us now.”
“I’m not going to help you slaughter this race and then start a War with the Humans. It’s senseless.”
“Start a War?!” Varick screeched. “We started nothing! The Humans attacked first!”
“They started it when they started to keep our kind in cages and work us like beast of burden!”
“That was two thousand years ago!”
“It could happen again, tomorrow perhaps, if we don’t strike first. And erasing the Goblins is the first step.”
Varick put his heavy boot down on the Goblin’s throat and with a quick jerk he crushed it. The hands that held Ithican’s tightened convulsively and then relaxed as death set in. Varick smiled, but the smug expression vanished when Ithican looked up at him. For the first time he saw the Swamp Rat angry.
Varick balked for only a second. Ithican used the inch of leeway to clap his palms over either side of the blade digging into his skin. Within seconds he had twisted the sword from Varick’s hand. Ithican dropped the weapon, he did not know how to use a sword, and grabbed the Tarrin that was still laying beside the Goblin. With a flash of bright steel the curved tip of the Tarrin rested at the base of Varick’s throat.
Varick’s eyes widened with shock at the sudden turn of events. He noted with a racing heart that he should be dead. He had only been standing three feet from Ithican and the blade could extend to four. Ithican had full control over the Tarrin however. He had been one of the Games greatest players in his other life among his people. He had purposely stopped the weapon’s expansion just shy of its mark.
Ithican held the sharp tip at Varick’s throat with an undisguised expression of loathing. Varick realized that only thing standing between himself and Death was Ithican’s self restraint, which was proving to be a powerful force. Varick’s lips parted in a wide smile and his cold laughter rung painfully in Ithican’s ears.
“I’ve been waiting for this.” Varick said coolly. “You’ve been so calm, I wanted more than anything to see your pretty green eyes stained with blood lust. You’re not half as innocent or righteous as you pretend to be.”
Ithican ripped his eyes away from Varick’s penetrating stare. Varick saw his chance and he was quick as a rattlesnake. Ithican thought he’d disarmed Varick, but he should have known better. He’d said it himself: ‘every well bred Elf has one’. Varick lashed out with a Tarrin of his own, going for Ithican’s face.
Ithican jerked backwards, losing his balance but keeping his eyesight. Anticipating Varick’s next move he rolled to the right and leapt up on his feet. Already committed to his course of action Varick’s Tarrin blade dug into the dirt where Ithican had been laying. With Varick’s blade momentarily stuck it would have been the perfect opportunity for Ithican to kill. However, gentleman’s rules forbid it and before he remembered he was fighting for his life the opportunity was over.
Varick laughed as he lunged at his opponent, he had known that his guard was down. He now knew what kind of enemy he faced. Ithican was quicker and skill wise more experienced than Varick, however Varick was stronger and far more experienced in drawing blood.
They found themselves perfectly matched.
The thin Tarrin blades whipped and clashed in unison. Ithican always managed to stay an inch to the left of Varick’s swiping blade, and Varick always managed to keep an inch to the right of Ithican’s attack. The rest of the Elven/Goblin battle was taking several hundred yards to the North so there were no witnesses to the deadly choreography. For over half an hour the pair danced around the forest to the tune of ringing steel.
They had made one mistake each. The proof of which lay in the red line across Varick left cheek and in the oozing cut that ran the length of Ithican’s right forearm. Both wounds however were superficial and neither had even blinked when they’d received them. Varick growled with growing frustration and took the upper hand for a moment driving Ithican back.
When they came to a clearing in the thick woods they parted for a moment and circled one another like roosters in a ring. Both were dripping with sweat that stung their eyes with salt. Although the blinding effect of the salt made little difference. By this point they had been fighting long enough together to know each other’s moves without sight, almost without thought.
Now that they were resting Ithican had to force his muscles not to tremble. It had been two days since he’d eaten and he wasn’t sure how much longer his body would obey him. Although it had been a month since Varick had eaten properly himself his rage helped fuel him. However, the grueling fight was taking its toll on him. As they circled he panted noisily and spat continuously. At this point he was beyond speech. Varick hissed and growled like a rabid animal, but didn’t attack. He just kept on his guard.
Thinking that they had both silently agreed to rest for a moment Ithican let the Tarrin tip fall. He paid for it with a painful slash to his left shoulder. Motivated by the flash of pain Ithican renewed his attack. Varick was ready and managed to keep Ithican from drawing any more of his blood.
The Elves actively went for one another’s throats again. This time the blades didn’t collide with the same force that they had when the fight had first started. A Tarrin duel was supposed to be a fight of form and skill, now it was turning to a battle of sheer endurance. Ithican had even stumbled once. Which should have been a fatal move, but Varick had been unable to take the advantage of the opening. So they continued to search for a victor.
Ithican wasn’t sure how long they’d been fighting at this point -all their lives it seemed. When he finally scored a hit on Varick’s thigh he had been unable to pull the blade down, which would have slashed deeply into Varick’s femoral artery. As it was Ithican was barely able to retrieve the weapon from his opponents soft flesh. Varick didn’t even cry out as he sunk to his knees using the Tarrin for support.
Grateful that he didn’t have to keep on his guard Ithican also sunk to the earth. The cool night air lanced through his steaming lungs like acid. He wretched violently from the excursion, and was suddenly glad that he had nothing in his stomach. Ithican brought a shaky hand up to his face to wipe the sweat away. When he brought his hand back down he stared at it in surprise having found it covered with bright red blood.
He looked up and saw that Varick had the same problem, blood poured from his nose and dripped off his chin. Neither had been struck there. Their blood pressure had simply been elevated so long that it had broken the thin blood vessels. Varick was trembling and pale, yet still determined to get back on his feet.
We’re both going to die out here. Ithican thought resentfully.
Trying to get back to his feet Varick lost his balance and fell back. For a moment the whole world seemed to hold its breath. When Varick didn’t get up Ithican struggled to his feet and walked over. The last drop of adrenaline was fading out of his system fast.
Varick looked up at him and smiled weakly. “You’ve proven yourself a more formidable enemy than I thought possible.”
Ithican wasn’t sure what to say. Varick gripped his Tarrin and converting it to a dagger he let it go. Under gentleman’s rules that signified surrender. Grateful that he didn’t have to kill Ithican dropped his own weapon. The fight was over at last.
“I don’t want to be anyone’s enemy.” Ithican replied.
“We all have enemies!”
With strength he’d been hiding Varick jumped to his feet. In the same fluid motion he had retrieved his dagger Tarrin. Thrusting it into Ithican’s chest he flicked the catch, knocking his opponent to the ground. Ithican put his hand to his aching chest expecting to find a gaping hole, only to discover that there was nothing worse there than a bruise.
Slowly sitting up Ithican looked around. At his feet Varick lay on his back with his own Tarrin sticking grotesquely out of his ruined chest. Ithican stared at the dead man uncomprehendingly.
It took Ithican’s battle weary mind a few minutes to see what had happened. Varick’s hand was still clutched to the weapon handle. In his haste to deceive he had grabbed the weapon in the wrong direction. Ithican had been struck by the blunt end while the dagger tip had pierced Varick’s heart. Painfully pressing his hand against his injured shoulder to slow the bleeding Ithican couldn’t help but remember how the High Priest had also been killed by his own weapon.
“Someone must be looking out for me.”
Sam pressed his hand against the slash in his arm. It wasn’t bad. He could still use the arm so it had to be a superficial wound. He had fought with several Elves since Marwyrn had rescued him from his rescue. Even now there was another dead Elf at his feet. He didn’t look down. He simply tried to make his way, once more, through the forest towards the main battle.
Despite the dead Elf that he’d left behind Sam had yet to wrench the life away from any of the Elves directly. This didn’t mean that his hands or soul were clean. Far from it. The Elves came to him like a magnet to an iron bar. Sam was the only one there that they felt was a true enemy. The Goblins were just animals in the Elves’ eyes.
So while Sam fought defensively against whichever Elf was after his blood the Goblins took the opportunity to strike just as Marwyrn had. The first time it had happened Sam had thought it was just coincidence. Then he found that the Goblins were actually leading Elves to him. It had the same affect without fail. The Elf would catch sight of him and would completely forget about the Goblins and attack him.
It was a dirty trick. The Goblins were playing one side against the other and stabbing the Elves in the back. Sam had been trying to find Zari to talk some sense into him. However every twenty feet or so the Goblins would bring another Elf to him. They had trapped over a dozen Elves this way.
Looking to his right he saw that they were doing it again now.
A group of eight Goblins had separated a young Elf from the rest. He couldn’t be more than half of Ithican’s age. Despite being out numbered and separated he fought like a cornered tiger. He even managed to seriously injured two of his attackers. Although it was clear that even without Sam as a distraction they would be able to bring this one down. He was too young to have the skill needed to win.
Sam growled in anger, he hated being used like this. The young Elf turned and saw the Human. Sam gritted his teeth and prepared to defend himself, knowing that the Goblins would allow the Elf to come to him. As with the others the Elf momentarily forgot about the Goblins and ran to Sam.
Unlike the others he smiled and put his free hand on Sam’s bare shoulder like they were brothers.
“Friend!” He gasped, truly grateful to see Sam. “Help me!”
Sam hesitated. He had not expected this, he didn’t know what to make of it. The Goblins had hesitated for a moment as well, but now they were closing in. When Sam didn’t move the Elf’s relieved expression slowly started to turn to horror.
Sam wasn’t even sure if the young Elf even noticed when a Goblin sword pierced through his lower back only to come out his front. The run through Elf was searching Sam’s eyes so intently that he seemed obviously to the pain for a moment. When he found what he was looking for he dropped his weapon and grasped the sword point coming out of his stomach with a cry. Not a cry of pain to Sam’s ears, but one of betrayal.
The Goblin retrieved his weapon, slicing open the Elf’s hand as well. Staring down at his bleeding hand he still seemed confused. When he started to fall Sam caught him. Sam had broken the fall of every Elf the Goblins had lead to him. The others had all died before they’d reached the ground or shortly there after because the Goblins usually struck into the lungs.
This one wasn’t going to die so cleanly. The weapon hadn’t pierced anything vital, he’d bleed internally, maybe for hours. Sam laid him down and looked to the Goblins to finish what they’d started. However the Goblins had left already. They knew that the injury was fatal, it didn’t matter if that meant that death came in seconds or days.
“I sa..,” the dying Elf stuttered “I saw you... I’ve seen you with that Elf, with the white hair.”
“Keep quiet, stay calm.” Sam whispered. He didn’t even try to get the Elf to take his hands away from the wound as Ithican had with the Goblin. There was no point.
“I...I thought you were...” The Elf’s breathing was become shallower. As the adrenaline left his system the pain rushed in. “On our side...”
Sam’s stomach twisted into a knot. This one hadn’t known, he hadn’t been told that he and Ithican were traitors, so to speak. For all Sam knew the young man hadn’t even been told that they were killing the Goblins just to get a clearer shot at the Humans. He had looked past Sam’s race, he had trusted him.
The Elf whimpered and panted in agony. He looked pleadingly at Sam with tear filled emerald eyes.
There is nothing I can do for you. Sam thought. No...no, that’s not true...
Sam took the dagger Tarrin that he knew the Elf would carry at his ankle. He gripped the weapon so hard that he cut off the circulation to his fingers. Acting before he had time to talk himself out of it Sam slashed deeply into the suffering Elf’s throat.
The young Elf arched his back convulsively and then relaxed in death. Sam dropped the blood soaked weapon. He welded his eyes shut against the gruesome sight before him. Sam started screaming, unable to do anything else, unable to keep one emotion at a time, unable to keep a firm grip on his sanity.
“This shouldn’t be happening!”
“But it is.”
Sam snapped opened his eyes and found Marwyrn standing calmly in front of him.
“That was noble of you. I know he must remind you of your friend.” Marwyrn stated. “But it was the right thing to do, he would have suffered for a long time.”
“Because of your people!” Sam leapt up and was on the Goblin in seconds. He pinned Marwyrn to a tree.
“Us?!” Marwyrn spat, not even trying to free himself from Sam’s grip. “Don’t forget who started this! You better decided which side you are on, because only one race is getting out of this alive!”
“That doesn’t give you the right to stab them in the back and then leave them to die slowly! Have the decency to finish what you start!”
“We didn’t start anything! And I know you haven’t made it out to the main battle yet, but there are hundreds of Goblins writhing on the blood soaked ground. I haven’t seen a single Elf go a hair’s breadth out of his way to end their suffering!” Marwyrn paused and collected himself. “It’s almost over, stay with us. Don’t make me kill you now.”
Sam suddenly realized he’d made the same mistake that the Elves had. He was used to dealing with one enemy at a time. However the Goblins never fight alone. Two sword points pressed against his back.
“How many are left?” Sam growled releasing Marwyrn.
“Elves? Ten, maybe fifteen. Our numbers are around three hundred.”
“Then the fight is lost to them, allow the Elves to surrender.”
“It doesn’t work that way, Sam Human. The fight will not be over till the last Elf here is dead!”
“It doesn’t have to be that way!”
“Trust me, it does.”
The forest suddenly came alive with whistling and bird calls. Marwyrn closed his eyes and sighed sadly. He suddenly looked all of his two hundred and fifty-three years. He pushed past Sam and started to walk towards the source of the noise. Sam thought it was probably a call to let all the Goblins know that they’d cornered the last of the enemy and all that needed to be done now was to slit their stomachs open. Sam debated about not going, but he had to try and stop this.
Sam ran after the Goblins and quickly found himself in the clearing where the main battle had taken place. Marwyrn was right: the half-dead were everywhere. Sam ran a shaky hand through his blood and sweat soaked hair, he couldn’t believe the scene. The sun was just about the break over the horizon and shed light on the circle of destruction. In the space between midnight and daybreak hundreds had lost their lives. In the center of the carnage was the last of the standing Elves:
Zari and Narigard.
“Back!” Marwyrn commanded. The Goblins pulled away from the Forest Elves. He gave Sam a brief glance before addressing them. “You are the last. Surrender.”
It happened so quickly that it took Sam a moment to figure out what had taken place. At first all he knew was that Zari and Narigard were dead. They had turned to one another and had fallen to the blood soaked soil as one. Marwyrn stepped out of Sam’s line of sight and he saw now what had happened.
The Elves had murdered one another.
Ithican jerked awake with a heart rendering cry. His shoulder and arm seared with the pain of infection that his fever was desperately fighting. As icy hands tried to restrain him Ithican arched his back to try and free himself. It took all the strength he had left. Panting heavily he laid back down and rolled his eyes towards his attacker, expecting the nightmare to continue.
“Good morning, Sunshine.”
“It’s all right, Ith. It’s over.”
“In fact,” a new voice chimed in “it’s been over for days.”
Ithican sat up slowly and looked around. He was back in the inn at Ramandas. Marwyrn had just stepped in with a bowl in his hands. Sam was sitting next to the bed. He reached out and easily forced Ithican back down. Ithican closed his eyes and took a deep breath.
“What happened?” He finally asked.
“The Elves fought to the last, Ith. I’m sorry.” Sam replied. “As for you, you almost fought to the last as well. We found you passed out in a field next to Varick’s body.”
“Looked like a Hell of a fight.” Marwyrn added with a grin.
“That was five days ago.”
“I don’t think Sam slept until your fever broke. You’ve got a loyal friend, Ithican.”
“I know.” Ithican smiled. “I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay him.”
“Just pulling though this will be payment enough.” Sam sighed. “Varick must have been using a ‘dirty’ blade, the cuts aren’t deep but we didn’t think you’d make it past the fever caused by the infection.”
“I’ll be fine.” Ithican muttered.
“Not if you don’t eat.” Marwyrn brought the bowl over. It smelt like horse, and Ithican feared that that was exactly what it was.
“No.” Ithican turned away.
“Ith, you have to eat something. You’re going to starve.”
“I don’t care. I never want to taste blood again.”
Marwyrn nodded. “I understand.”
“I don’t!” Sam protested.
“The fight took every last drop of strength I had. I was so close to death, I had to...” Ithican stopped.
“What?” Sam asked.
“Our young friend here took advantage of a dangerous meal. That’s no fever that racks his system.” Marwyrn explained. “Some think it’s a wives tale, and maybe it is, but it will keep Ithican alive for a few more days. By then we can find something he can eat. I just hope that it doesn’t have lasting consequences.”
“Wives tales? Consequences? What are you talking about?!” Sam demanded.
“I drank Varick’s blood, and now it runs through my veins.”
“Along with his spirit.” Marwyrn added.
“Don’t be insane.” Sam growled. “That’s just superstition.”
“No,” Ithican said sadly “no, it’s true. I know something that only Varick knew.”
“Ith, you’re still sick you don’t know what you’re talking about. The battle is over, the Goblins stopped the Elves.”
“No, they didn’t, not like we thought they would. Even in death Varick still had triumph in his heart.”
“The War is still coming.”