Vinegar and Honey
“We still don’t know where we are.”
“I don’t care.” Sam replied darkly. “I’m just glad to be out of that Godforsaken Kin-Rin forest.”
“And to think you had wanted me to stay there.”
“Yeah, well that was before the whole Voodoo cursing wildlife thing.”
Ithican smiled to himself. He hadn’t told Sam about how his encounter with the Kin-Rin had differed. Sam wouldn’t have believed him anyway. The Doe had been right there was no way that the Humans would accept the Kin-Rin as an intelligent race. Ithican still had a hard time accepting it himself.
“Well, it’s been three weeks and I’ve yet to have anymore ‘spells’ so I guess we’re safe.”
“Ha!” Sam barked. “Let’s find out where we are before we go making bold statements like that.”
“You know what I meant.”
It was midmorning when they came across the road that cut through the pine forest. It was refreshing to see signs of at least humanoid life once again. They followed the dirt path till it came to a crossroad with a fancy street sign.
“’Ethretch: one mile’. ‘Ethretch’?” Ithican read off the sign. “Who names a town ‘Ethretch’?”
“Whoever lives there, I guess.”
“Well, let’s not go there. ‘Cantras: twenty miles’, that sounds better at least.”
“Cantras?” Sam questioned, he had trouble reading the script letters.
“Yeah. Have you stayed there?”
“You could say that.” Sam looked around. “We can’t go there.”
Ithican sighed. “We’re running out of place on Nuearth that we can go.”
“Okay, I’ll rephrase. *I* can’t go there.”
“Very funny.” Ithican said drily. “All right, ‘Ethretch’ it is.”
“You should stay here, Ith.”
“It’s only a mile. Just let me slip into town and see what is going on. We must be in Human territory by now.”
“Most of the Midlands are mixed race. Which is probably where we are, we can’t be too far North.”
“That was before the Elves attacked Ramandas. If anyone found out about that there might be a War going on right now. We’ve been wandering in the woods playing with Kin-Rin for six weeks now. These lands might not be Elven friendly anymore.”
“Can’t take me anywhere, eh?” Ithican laughed. “All right, I’ll humor you.”
Ithican watched Sam leave and shrugged. “He’s more paranoid about me being Elven that I am.”
Walking off the path he sat down and leaned against a tree. He was not one to pass up the opportunity for a nap these days. Ithican pulled the hood of his cloak over his eyes and listened to the birds singing their hearts out.
The sound of pounding horse hooves came to his ears before the desperate cry for help. Ithican got up and step back onto the road. Coming from where he had Sam had been traveling a horse was galloping up the road, taking his terrified rider for a dangerous trip. It was a Human around Ithican’s own age, and he seemed to have snapped the reins and lost a hold of them. The long side of the broken rein flapped wildly from the side of the horse’s foaming mouth, but the young man was far too busy trying to hold on to grab at it.
Ithican kept his eyes trained on the horse’s broken halter while standing in the rampaging animal’s path. It didn’t take long for the large horse to bare down on him. Just before being trampled Ithican stepped to the side and snatched the lose rein. In one motion he wrapped it around his arm and yanked as hard as he could. The horse still managed to pull Ithican off his feet, but at the same time the animal made a sharp turn and came to a halt. The rider was thrown, but not with the kind of force that he would have been if the animal had still been going top speed.
Untangling his now bruised arm Ithican walked over to help the Human up out of the dust. The rider was a bit disoriented but he took the hand Ithican offered him.
“Thank you.” He panted. He tried to blink the dust out of his watering eyes. “I could have been killed.”
“Not a problem.”
The rider gasped at the sound of Ithican’s voice. He rubbed the remaining dirt from his eyes and stared at his rescuer. Without asking he reached out and pushed back Ithican’s cloak hood. Ithican pulled back, but it was too late, his shiny dark hair glinted in the sun.
“Damn it!” The Human swore. “I hope you have your Papers.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have any papers.” Ithican looked up the road and saw three more horsemen approaching. “Friends of yo...”
Ithican was interrupted by the Human springing at him with a dagger. He pinned Ithican to the nearest tree and kept the blade at his throat.
“What are you doing?!”
The Human gave him a pleading look. “I’m sorry.” He whispered
“What?” Ithican looked at the riders who were approaching and suddenly saw everything in their arrogant grins. He turned an accusing glare on his captor. “I saved your life.”
“That was your first mistake.” The Human said sadly. “Your last was not having your Papers.”
“There’s nothing I can do for you.”
The Human turned to his friends who had finally arrived and forced a laugh.
“I got one!”
Ethretch was just as its name implied. It was a diseased little town that looked about two rotten boards away from falling apart. Everyone Sam passed looked like a drifter or a deadbeat. No one belonged here, and no one questioned anyone else’s right to be here. Sam felt right at home.
Before going to get Ithican he decided he should see if anyone had any news of the outside world. The best place he could think of for that would be a local tavern. Besides it had been an alarming period of time since he’d had a drink. Looking around the shabby shop signs for a tavern or pub Sam didn’t even notice the person in his way until it was too late.
“Watch where you’re going, Human!” A gruff voice grumbled.
“I...uh..” Sam looked around for a second before looking down. “Oh. I’m sorry, Master Dwarf.”
“Huh! I bet you are.”
“Maybe you can help me.”
“Maybe... but I probably won’t.”
Sam smiled to himself and reached into one of his pockets. The Dwarf’s eyes grew a little wider at the sight of gold.
“Perhaps I was a bit hasty.” The Dwarf muttered. “What do you want?”
“Just some information.” Sam said politely. “I want to know if this area is Elven friendly.”
“Elves? What do you care, Human?”
“That’s none of your concern.”
The Dwarf glowered at Sam for a second and then shrugged. “Any race is as safe as any other in this town, provided that they have their Papers.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“Exactly what I said.” The Dwarf huffed. “Where have you been living for the past month, in a cave?”
“Sort of.” Sam admitted. “Please, just tell me what you mean by papers.”
The Dwarf sighed and rolled his dark brown eyes. He reached into a pouch and pulled out a mutli page document. “These are Papers, new Law in the Human territories. Any Non-Human traveling in Human territory needs them. Especially the Elves.”
“Yeah, well, no Human will ever admit it, but the Elves are why the Law was enacted in the first place. Anyone can see that the Humans are trying to restrict their movements.”
“They can’t do that!”
“Of course they can!” The Dwarf snapped. “And don’t think the Elves haven’t done the exact same thing. Any Non-Elven now needs Papers to travel the Southlands. Especially the Humans.”
“You two races are making life very difficult for the rest of us. I hope you both end up silting one another’s throats.” The Dwarf spat.
“Thanks.” Sam replied drily. “If one was an Elf where would he get such Papers?”
“They have to register with their birthplace and with the head office in Nueyark.”
“They’re making Non-Humans travel to Nueyark?!”
“Of course not! Huh! You wouldn’t catch any of us dead there, dirty city! They’ve set up couriers for this.”
“Just perfect.” Sam growled. Even if they did have couriers for Nueyark, Ithican was considered dead in Evergladrida. He gave the Dwarf a handful of gold coins for his trouble.
The Dwarf looked at the large amount of coins in astonishment. He studied Sam’s expression for a moment. “I, uh...” The Dwarf looked around quickly. “Come down here.”
Sam furrowed his brow, but he knelt down to the Dwarf’s level.
“If you were an Elf,” The Dwarf whispered “one without Papers that is, I could set you up with someone who could get false ones.” He winked.
“For the right price I could get Papers that proved that you’re a Goblin.” The Dwarf chuckled. “I take it you’re interested.”
“I am.” Sam brought out a few more coins.
“Right this way, Sir.” The Dwarf smiled.
Sam wasn’t even sure how much gold had exchanged hands by the time he left the company of the Dwarf and his counterfeiting friend. He really didn’t care. For a little extra he was able to get Papers that stated that Ithican was actually Aristat of Midlight. ‘Midlight’ meant that he was a Plains Elf, which were traditionally the most accepted among Humans because they lived close enough to Human territory to trade.
“’Aristat’.” Sam chuckled. “He’ll kill me for that.”
As Sam walked back towards the crossroads he read the documents. There was a complete description of Aristat (the forger had lifted an eyebrow at the idea of an Elf with black and white hair, but he hadn’t asked any questions) including detailed physical appearance, age, profession, martial statues, etc... It even had a list of allowable weapons that he could carry and an inventory of the ones that he did posses. Sam noted that Tarrins were specifically forbidden, no exceptions.
Aristat had free roam of the entire Human territories (which had also cost extra), but he had to register with any city that he wanted to stay in with a population over two thousand. The penalty for getting caught without being registered with that city was instant deportation back to Midlight. Which would cause a problem, due to the fact that Midlight would have never heard of him either.
Sam sighed. Things were getting worse. These restriction and paper work was a slap in the face to all Non-Human races. However, the Elves had to know that this was directed specifically at them. Ithican wasn’t going to take this well.
Speaking of which, where is he? Sam thought to himself. He was approaching the crossroads, and he knew that he shouldn’t be able to sneak up on the keen eared Elf.
There was no response. Sam folded the Papers up and hurried up to the intersection. There were deep gouges in the dirt road and horse tracks everywhere. Turning to face the street sign that denoted the two nearest towns Sam froze. The sign that had once read ‘Cantras: 20 miles’ now simply read ‘...tras: 20 miles’. The rest of the sign had been obscured by the Tarrin blade that was still embedded in it.
Aristat of Midlight had been caught without his Papers, which held a penalty far worse than deportation.
Tommy couldn’t sleep. He pulled his cloak closer around his shoulders and tried once more to get comfortable, but it wasn’t happening. Listening to his brothers snore only made him more irritable. They were sleeping like innocent children. They had ridden hard, but were still a good five miles from Cantras so they had stopped for the night. Tommy rolled over on his side and stared into the dying flame of the campfire until the guilt in his stomach made him physically uncomfortable.
Sitting up Tommy looked over at the other side of the camp fire. Just inside the ring of light was the Elf. He sat with his knees pulled up to his chest so that he could rest his chin on them. Despite being bound at the wrist his arms hugged his knees closer with his wrists resting on equally restrained ankles.
Tommy was struck by the fact that the Elf looked completely comfortable. He didn’t pull at the bindings or shift his weight. He seemed incredibly relaxed, considering the circumstances. Tommy also noted that he hadn’t eaten any of the deer that had been place next to him. When his eldest brother, Derek, had brought the doe to the campsite the Elf had looked at it like it was a slain family member.
Running a shaky hand through his short curly hair Tommy sighed heavily. He and his three older brothers had been bounty hunting Paperless Non-Humans since the Law had been enacted. It brought in pretty good money. However this was the first time they’d caught someone who wasn’t an obvious thief or murderer. It was also the first time they’d been ‘fortunate’ enough to catch an Elf. The cities had a high bounty out on Elves in particular.
Not that they hadn’t made enough money off of this one already. The Elf had a large sum of gold and small jewels on him. He was not the regular riffraff that they usually drug into the cities, most of whom were pleased to be arrested for the chance at a hot meal. Tommy looked over at where Derek was sleeping in the Elf’s thick fox fur lined cloak.
He’s probably freezing. Tommy thought to himself. After a moment’s indecision he got up and walked over to their captive. The Elf didn’t react to his approach, he kept staring forward. Walking around in front of him Tommy saw for the first time that the Elf’s eyes were rolled back making his open eyed stare truly sightless.
Fearing that they had somehow killed him Tommy reached out and touched the Elf’s forearm, which bore a fresh bruise from where he’d stopped Tommy’s horse and a long red scar from some previous incident. Much to his surprise the Elf’s skin was hot to the touch.
The Elf snapped back into reality and for a brief moment fear flashed across his features. He quickly composed himself and with only a slight tilt to his head he looked up at Tommy with reflective green eyes that made him look like an animal.
“Are you all right?” Tommy asked.
The Elf’s only response was a quick tight lipped smile.
“Sorry,” Tommy muttered “stupid question.” He looked around uncomfortably. “I, uh... My name’s Tommy. I...”
The Elf put his chin back down on his knees and stared at a random point in the dirt. Tommy sighed, he unclasped his cloak and threw it around the Elf’s shoulders. He turned to leave the Elf in peace.
“What?” Tommy asked turning back around.
“My name, it’s Ithican.”
“Oh, of course.” Tommy flushed. “I’m so sorry about all this, Ithican. I’d let you go, I would. But my brothers...”
Tommy didn’t know what to say. He hadn’t known what to expect when he came to talk to the Elf, but it certainly wasn’t this. “Why didn’t you have your Papers?”
“Didn’t know I needed any.”
“Oh, well, don’t worry. They’ll just deport you back to your birth territory.”
Ithican chuckled to himself.
“What?” Tommy came up and sat next to Ithican. “What’s so funny about that?”
Ithican studied the Human for a second. Wordlessly he uncurled so that he could bring his hands up to his shirt collar. Pulling the cloth down he defiantly displayed the red scar symbol.
“I don’t understand.” Tommy admitted. “What does that mean?”
“It means that as far as the Elves are concerned I’m already dead. If I return to my birth place they make sure that that’s true. I’ve been banished from the Elven territories.”
“But that means...”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“How can you be so calm?!” Tommy asked angrily, his guilt flaring.
Ithican just shrugged. He indicated that he no longer wished to chat by curling back up and resting his chin back on his knees. Tommy furrowed his brow. He was feeling worse as the seconds passed. He should release the Elf, and face his brothers in the morning. Although he suddenly wondered if the Elf would leave this spot even if he was set free. He had fought so bitterly when they’d gone to take him away, and now that fire was all but extinguished.
“I just have one more question.” Tommy swallowed hard. “That weapon you had, that was a Tarrin, right?”
“I saw how you handled that thing, you could have killed us all. Easily.”
“Maybe not easily, but yes, I could have.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“Let’s just say that at the time I was still an Idealist.”
“How the Hell did he do this?”
Sam pulled once again at the Tarrin which stubbornly remained embedded in the wooden sign. He knew Ithican was strong, but this was ridiculous. He was wasting time and he knew it. But he also knew that Ithican would want the Tarrin back, other than his blood the weapon was all that was left of his Elven heritage.
Suddenly thinking about the problem logically Sam reasoned that the blade would be easier to remove if it wasn’t extended. He played with the ebony handle for ten minutes before figuring out the catch. With a violent snapping sound the Tarrin collapsed, destroying half of the sturdy sign in the process.
“A ‘Gentleman’s weapon’?” Sam questioned as he hesitantly picked up the freed Tarrin dagger. “No wonder they want these things outlawed.”
Sam attached the weapon to his belt, hoping that it wouldn’t spring open unexpectedly. He was quite confidant that if he ever tried to use the thing that he’d only end up hurting, perhaps killing, himself.
Looking at the remains of the road sign Sam sighed. He knew why the Tarrin had been impaled into the word ‘Cantras’. Ithican was not one to make a mistake with the Elven weapon. He’d put that there because he knew that’s where he was being taken.
Despite his loathing for the ancient city Sam started up the road, following the heavy hoof prints. It never even occurred to him to simply go back to Ethretch. Somewhere along the line the naive Elf had become something that Sam had never had before -a true friend. In a world of hate and distrust it was something Sam found worth fighting for.
When night started to fall Sam was unwilling to stop for the night. He knew that even on horseback they wouldn’t make it into the city tonight. They had had a late start and the horses would have to rest if nothing else. So he might have a chance of catching up. However only the smallest of the three moons shone this night and when darkness came it fell over the forest like a blanket.
Practically blinded Sam was forced to stop and try to sleep. Sleep was harder to find than he thought. The once friendly pine forest now felt threatening, with deep shadows that might hide anything. He tossed and turned for a while and finally gave up. Sitting up Sam brought his knees up to his chest. Resting his head on his knees Sam waited glumly for sunrise.
He was completely unaware of the fact that further up the road Ithican was being force to do the same.
Tommy walked a few steps back from the rest as they made their way on foot through the city. Cantras was one of the most magical and advanced cities on Nuearth. They had things that that most town folk recoiled from and called Black Magic. Tommy didn’t really see any harm in the magic around him. There were doors that opened themselves and light sources that worked without flame, but none of it seemed particularly evil.
Watching Ithican he saw that the Elf did not feel the same way. Traditionally Elves shied away from magic, they saw it as an uncontrollable and destructive force. Their kind still had Magi, but they tended to restrict themselves to arts that didn’t require any electricity spell components. Ithican balked and jumped at every new display of the Magi’s talents. In the end the Elf had to be forcibly lead through the streets by Maury, Tommy’s second oldest brother.
Tommy suddenly wished that he wasn’t the youngest. Being over twenty years younger than the rest meant that he had no real say. His parents had never wanted a fourth child anyway, and since his mother had died giving him life he had been raised as more of a pet than anything else. He had never felt like he belonged with his brothers, but at the same time he knew he’d never be able to survive without their protection.
Lost in thought Tommy didn’t notice for quite sometime that they had entered a part of the city that he’d never been in before. The riches of the city had given way to wretched poverty. The signs of which could be seen in every broken and cracked stone building and in the broken glass that littered the dirty streets. The weak and diseased inhabitants scuttled out of their way, and the others simply ignored their passing. Tommy picked up his pace and caught up with his eldest brother.
“Where are we going, Derek?”
“Where else?” Derek said with a shrug. “We’re getting rid of the Elf.”
“This isn’t where the Immigration Office is.”
“We’re not going to Immigration.”
“Trust me, we’ll get a better price here. Ah, here we are.”
Tommy stopped dead as he looked up. They had come to a building with architecture so old that it looked grossly out of place in the modern city. It had its own set of stone walls to separate its evil from the rest of the city, although that hadn’t stopped the immediate area from decaying. The building within was a ugly mass of solid stone structures.
It had been left abandoned for thousands of years. Tommy could see where the years of weather had worn down the some of the stone. However now there was new life buzzing here. Far from being decrepit the building was serving man once more. Refurbishing it hadn’t taken much effort, it had been built to last forever. From the bright flags that now flapped above the walls Tommy realized that this was a Military establishment.
The Elf didn’t see any of this. All he saw were the archaic words that were still etched in the rust proof ultrasteel main gate. He was not as immune to fear as he’d like the world to believe. He tore himself away from Maury’s grip so violently that he lost his balance. With his wrists still bound he was unable to catch himself and he fell to the dust. Tommy was shocked to see the sudden change. The Elf had turned into a wild animal. It took all three older brothers to bring their captive back under control. Even then it was an impressive struggle to drag him through the gates.
“No!” Ithican cried desperately. “I’m not for sale!”
Tommy read the worn words on the gate and finally understood: this had once been an Elven Slave Market.
It took three days for Sam to reach the outskirts of Cantras. He stared at the high white walls of the giant city. He’d have to think of a way to get past the gate guards. Not just anyone was allowed into Cantras. Not anymore.
Walking up to the gates Sam feared that this was going to turn into a very short rescue mission. Sam had been to Cantras one other time. He’d stayed for exactly one week and six months. Which was the time it had taken for him to get caught for thievery and serve his time. Cantras had been the first place he’d traveled to when he’d left home.
He had not come here with the idea of becoming a thief. Sam had come to make a honest living. However he quickly discovered that there was nothing honest about the Magi city of Cantras. Thievery was not something that had come naturally to him, obviously, but he had been starving at the time.
That had been over four years ago. He had not only been forbidden to return to the city, but he had vowed never to do so on his own accord. Sam reasoned that the chances of anyone recognizing him in the populated city were slim and none. He just hoped that those odds held in his favour.
“State your business.” The gate guard said wearily.
“I’m a Courier.”
“From Nueyark.” Sam pulled out a few golden Nueyark coins and handed them to the guard. “I’m delivering Papers.”
The guard looked at him speculatively, he didn’t truly believe the story. Like Ithican had noted before: for a thief Sam was a terrible liar. However the guard just shrugged.
“Do you know where the Immigration Office is?”
“Yeah.” Sam lied.
Sam suppressed breathing a sigh of relief until he was several blocks away from the main gates. The city hadn’t changed. It was just as pretentious as Sam remembered. It was hard enough getting the time of day from these people, let alone directions. Which Sam suddenly realized he was going to need.
After being ignored by several people Sam decided to forget that approach. He almost kicked himself when he figured out that he could just buy a map from one of the local shops. Perhaps it had been too obvious a solution to try first. After all he was not used to things being anything less than complicated these days.
The map proved to be a God sent and a curse at the same time. He found the Immigration Office, at the same time he found the Prison that had taken a long six months out of his life. They were now one in the same.
“Of course.” Sam muttered.
Shrugging Sam climbed up the front steps and for the first time in his life willingly walked into a Prison. He wasn’t even sure what he’d be able to do even if Ithican was here. Sam seriously doubted that the Papers were going to be enough to free him. On the other hand he had no other ideas.
Sam balked when he walked inside and saw the thin man sitting behind the desk. Sam knew him well, the big question was going to be if the man remembered Sam. Taking a deep breath Sam walked up to the Head Clerk.
“What do you want?” The Clerk asked without looking up.
“I, um...I’m here delivering some Papers.”
The Clerk looked up with shrewd dark eyes. He looked Sam over for a second and then just held out his hand.
It took Sam a moment to realize that the Clerk wanted to see the Papers. Sam fished them out and stood uncomfortably while the Clerk read through them. The Clerk furrowed his brow and opened a large book. Four years ago the Clerk had written Sam’s name in a similar book, sealing his fate with a spot of ink.
“Remmy.” The Clerk called. “Come here for a second.”
Sam gasped and trained his eyes on the floor. Remmy was the Head Guard, if anyone was going to recognize him it would be Remmy. The big man came up the short hallway. He didn’t give Sam a second glance.
“Do we have an ‘Aristat’ here?”
“Aristat?” Sam asked before he knew what he was saying. He hadn’t thought of this, Ithican would not have known to give that name.
“Something wrong Courier?” The Clerk asked.
“No.” Sam muttered.
“The name doesn’t ring a bell.” The Head Guard said. “What does he look like?”
“He’s hard to miss.” Sam said automatically. “Black hair with a white streak, a scar running from the back of his hand to his elbow...”
“Black hair?” The Guard asked. “Elven?”
“Yes.” Sam felt silly for not mentioning that first.
“Of course he’s Elven Remmy, why else would he need Papers?” The Clerk snapped.
“My point was that I haven’t seen an Elf since they established the new Law.”
“You haven’t?” Sam asked, no longer fearing being recognized.
“Nope, the Elven traders cleared out of here so fast that it left whole sectors of the city abandoned. Probably feared being hunted for bounty.”
“There’s a bounty out on Elves?”
“There’s a bounty out on all Non-Humans without Papers.”
“Where would they be taken?”
“Then Ith...Aristat should be here.”
“Well, he isn’t.” The Guard said simply. “Trust me. I know everyone here.”
You don’t seem to remember me! Sam almost said in anger. If Ithican wasn’t here, he could be anywhere. “Where else would bounty hunters have taken an Elf?”
“The Slave Market?” The Clerk suggested.
The Head Guard laughed sharply.
Sam growled in disgust. The insult was almost more than his short temper could bare. He snatched the Papers back from the Clerk. Sam briefly considered decking the smug little son of a bitch. However that would just get him arrested. With one last noise of frustration he left.
It never occurred to Sam that they might not be joking.
Ithican flinched as the harsh clanging of the cell door shutting behind him stung his sensitive ears. He closed his eyes and breathed through his mouth to try and keep out the sight of stone and the stench of fear. However it was useless, there was too much of both to keep it from reaching him.
It had been nearly ten generation since any Elf had been held in this Market. Still, the blood of those who had died and the sweat of those who had been tortured here had soaked into the stone and had permeated it so deeply that after all these years it could still be felt. Ithican could almost hear the whispers of the captured sprits, unable to find freedom even in death.
In the end Ithican had brought the brothers a healthy sum. The Lieutenant that they had brought him to was as thirsty for war as the small band of Forest Elves that had attacked Ramandas. He had taken one look at the terrified battle scared Elf and saw instantly that this could be an excellent career move. He had paid Ithican’s bounty twice what it was worth with his own money without thinking twice about it.
Ithican reached up and pulled at the choke chain that he now wore like a dog. He cursed himself for showing the Humans how horrified he was at the thought of being bought and sold like his ancestors. Displaying that weakness was why he wore the collar now, it was a symbol of slavery as old as time.
He wasn’t actually a slave, things hadn’t gone that far. However he was now considered a political prisoner and the Lieutenant had no qualms about using the Elf’s fears against him if it would lead to more information in the future. Information was definitely the name of the game.
“You might as well kill me now, because I don’t know anything useful.” Ithican had said when the Lieutenant had taken him into one of the back rooms.
“I bet you’d be surprised how much you know, and my definition of ‘useful’ might be completely different.”
“You have no right to do this, I’m still a citizen of Nuearth. There are interracial law against this and you know it.”
The Lieutenant had laughed at that. It was what had given him the idea of digging the collar out of the archives. It had taken two more men and collectively about a pint of blood to get it secured around Ithican’s neck. Dragging him into the lower keep the now bloody nosed Lieutenant had told Ithican that he’d give him overnight to think about his new station in life, and to think of something ‘useful’ to say.
Ithican had immediately felt the fever that he thought he’d beaten return. At first he though that it was just his temper finally flaring. However that had been over an hour ago and the heat still plagued him. Moving for the first time since they’d left him in the dark cell Ithican laid down in the corner. He pressed his back against the cold stone in an attempt to chill his blood.
Although he tried to block it out the only thing going through his head was something that Varick had said to him before they had tried to kill one another. It seemed like just yesterday he had been arguing in the woods with the Forest Elf on behalf of the Humans, telling Varick that War was not the answer. He had told him to basically forgive and forget. The Humans hadn’t made slaves of the Elves in thousands of years. Varick’s response had been a simple one:
“’It could happen again, tomorrow perhaps...’”
“I didn’t order this.” Sam said pushing the plate of food away.
“I know, Hon,” the barmaid said “but if you are going to continue to drink like this, and I assume you are, then you’re going to have to eat something.”
“Thanks for the advice.”
“Take some more of it: go to bed.”
Sam sighed. “Just do me a favor and bring me some more of whatever it is I’m drinking.”
“And if it kills you?”
“Then I’ll owe you two favors.”
The barmaid gave Sam a doubtful look, but then went over to the bar to fetch the drink. It wasn’t her place to tell him to stop, and it was great for business. Sam stared at the plate of what smelt like boar’s meat without appetite. Ithican’s vegetarian ways hadn’t rubbed off on him yet, but he still knew he couldn’t eat this.
Sam looked up as four new comers entered the somewhat empty bar. The first three looked related, almost carbon copies. They also had the same manor. They laughed at some secret joke and insulted one another freely. The fourth man didn’t fit into the picture as well. He was younger, much younger. He had the same physical features as the others, same curly hair and dark eyes. However he looked absolutely miserable compared to his carefree and jovial brothers.
That’s what they must be, Sam thought to himself, a pack of brothers. Sam started looking suspiciously at the fox lined cloak that the eldest wore. However he quickly forgot about it when the barmaid returned with his drink. He had lost track of how many he’d had. It was a futile attempt to dull a pain that he didn’t quite understand. After all he hadn’t known Ithican for very long, and he’d never needed anyone’s company before.
“One more word about that miserable Elf and I’ll leave you to the wolves, understand?!”
The eldest of the new group had raised his voice in anger. Sam hadn’t been paying attention to them up until that point. However the outburst sobered him quicker than an ice bath. He pretended not to notice, but kept a keen eye on the small group. The youngest had fallen deadly silent and for a moment the others seemed reluctant to talk as well.
The barmaid came over to them and they used her as a diversion. They ordered the best the bar had to offer without concern. Sam noted that once again the youngest stood out by not ordering anything, he had just shaken his head.
Sam continued to scrutinize the group. They never even noticed him. Sam had been afraid when he had first entered the city that someone would recognize him. He had found that he wasn’t important enough to be noticed or remembered. Which worked out perfectly.
When the brothers got up to leave several hours later Sam had every intention of following them. However when he saw that the youngest had decided to stay alone for a while he rethought his plan. He smiled as the pack left, leaving the weakest behind.
After waiting a few minutes Sam got up and walked over to the table. Without asking he sat in the chair opposite to the young man. Startled he looked up at Sam with wide eyes. Sam motioned over the barmaid.
“Bring us a bottle of your strongest brandy.” Sam instructed.
“You already drank it.”
“Then bring us the next best thing.” Sam said in an exasperated tone.
The barmaid shrugged and went back into the kitchen. She returned with a large bottle of greenish liquid and two glasses. Sam took them from her and poured some of the near toxic liquid for himself and his new companion.
“What are you doing?” He asked Sam.
“I hate to drink alone.” Sam replied. “And you look like you’ve got some sorrows to drown as well.”
“Who are you?”
“Name’s Sam. And you?”
“Well then, to your health Tommy.”
Sam raised his glass, urging Tommy to do the same. He hesitated but did as Sam and knocked back the drink. Tommy coughed and sputtered as the alcohol burned its way down his throat and heated his stomach. Sam smacked his lips as if the liquid had been sweet.
“Damn!” Sam laughed. “I shouldn’t have been wasting my evening with that brandy.”
“That’s strong stuff!” Tommy gasped.
“Yes, yes it is.” Sam poured two more glasses. “Have some more. It will make you feel better, I guarantee it.”
Tommy stared at the green hard liquor. With a suddenly determined hand he knocked back this one as well.
“Ah, a man after my own heart.” Sam chuckled.
Three fourths of the bottle later they were best friends. The few customers that had remained were gone now. Even the barmaid had abandoned them so she could get the kitchen back in order. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had ended up sleeping on the bar floor. Tommy and Sam were sitting next to one another now and laughed drunkenly.
“Then what happened?” Tommy asked eagerly, caught up in the story Sam had been relating to him.
“Well, the next morning I found that it wasn’t her at all.”
“Was it her sister?”
“Worse, her mother.” Sam laughed.
“No.” Tommy chuckled and almost slipped out of his chair. “Did she ever find out?”
“Oh yeah.” Sam pushed back his hair and displayed a white scar. “That’s how I got this. A frying pan can be a mean weapon in the hands of an enraged woman.”
Tommy and Sam snorted and giggled like school girls. Sam attempted to pour the last of green spirit into one of the glasses, but failed miserably. Tommy didn’t even notice the liquid slipping off the table into his lap. He looked around blearily.
“What time is it?” Tommy asked.
“Past midnight probably.”
“Damn,” Tommy muttered “Listen, friend, it’s been fun, but I have to go. My brothers...”
Tommy tried to stand and eventually made it shakily to his feet. Sam watched him with suddenly clear and alert eyes. Tommy only made it about three feet before passing out and falling to dirty the bar room floor. Sam got up gracefully and walked over to the fallen lad. He reached down and picked him up like a rag doll.
“You’re not going anywhere, ‘Friend’.”
Ithican woke without opening his eyes. His heart turned to ice at the thought of looking at the bars that kept him here. There was something about being caged that he couldn’t handle. The fear of it seemed to be ingrained in his blood, something he’d been afraid of since birth. So he decided against looking, there was no point, he knew what he’d see.
That decision was quickly overturned when soft singing reached his ears. Ithican snapped his eyes open and gasped in shock. The walls, the bars, the stench of fear and pain...it had all vanished. They had been replaced by lush growth shrouded in a fine mist.
He was back in the Kin-Rin forest.
Confused Ithican got up and made his way through the plants towards the singing. It was a mournful tune, but sung with such heartfelt beauty that it became sweet. Pushing into a small glade Ithican found a woman with raven black hair in a blood red dress sitting on a large stone with her back turned to him. She continued with her song, her clear voice fluttering around like a lonesome sparrow.
Ithican was mesmerized by the notes and stood motionless listening. When she had finished she turned around and smiled. She didn’t seemed surprised in the slightest to find that she had an audience. Ithican on the other hand started and took a step back as he looked into her dark green eyes. She was an Elf!
“Back so soon?” She asked. “I told you not to leave in the first place.”
“What? Who are you?”
“I’m the Kin-Rin.”
“You don’t look like a Kin-Rin.”
The Elf maiden giggled. She stood and shook her head. In the time it took to blink the woman was gone and the deer/Dragon was in her place. The Doe clucked in amusement and changed back. Ithican rubbed his eyes, unable to believe what he’d just seen. He felt his seemingly ever present fever slowly start rise higher.
“I must be dreaming.”
“Not quite. You’re Trancing.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Since only your mind travels during a Trance I thought you’d like this form better.” The Elf maiden rubbed her hands down her curves that were barely hidden by the velvet red dress. “And this way I can talk to you.”
Ithican gave her another confused look.
“I told you that you could come back, whenever you wanted.” The Kin-Rin/Elf maiden explained. She walked up to him and placed a cool hand against his cheek. “If you ever found yourself in pain, I said I’d protect you.”
“I...” Ithican reached up to touch the chain at his throat, but it wasn’t there. “They haven’t hurt me...I’m just...”
“You don’t have to run a Tarrin blade through someone’s chest to break his heart.”
Ithican bowed his head, suddenly weary to the core. He could feel the refreshing iciness that hung on the Elf maiden like a cloak as it clashed up against the heat that he was radiating. She smiled sadly.
“Everyone that you’ve ever tried to help has turned on you.” The Elf maiden hissed. “You even saved the life of a Human. And look how he repaid you!”
Ithican cried out as the Elf maiden jerked on the chain that had suddenly wrapped itself around his neck again. She yanked on the choke collar once more and broke it. A burning hot hand clenched down on Ithican’s heart till he feared it would burst. The weight of betrayal finally forced Ithican to his knees and brought him to tears -the first true tears he’d shed since his wife had died in his arms.
The Elf maiden smiled to herself with a cold expression on her beautiful face. She ran a delicate hand through the silently weeping Elf’s long hair. She looked around for a moment just letting him cry. Eventually he calmed. The Elf maiden gently reached under Ithican’s jaw and tilted his head back. Ithican offered no resistance and stared at her like a lost child.
“Stay here.” She whispered.
“No.” Ithican pulled away from her cold touch causing his fever to spike once more. “I can’t hide in a dream or trace or whatever you want to call this.”
The Elf maiden narrowed her eyes in annoyance. She composed herself quickly. “Do you have any idea what the Humans are going to do to you?”
Ithican didn’t respond, but he could feel his stomach knot at the thought.
“The Humans are experts at torturing Elves.” She said softly in her musical voice. “They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. They know all our weaknesses. The very things that make us better can be used against us.” She traced the tips of his ears with a light touch and then brought her fingers up into the strip of white hair. “They’ll make you pray that you were back in the hands of the High Priest instead.”
As quickly as it had appeared the lush forest vanished. Ithican found himself back within the dark prison walls. He fought uselessly against the Human hands that suddenly restrained him. Their grip might as well have been made of steel. His heart started to race with panic as the acrid smell of hot iron stung his senses.
Looking up he saw a grotesquely large Human coming at him with a white hot iron. Ithican welded his eyes shut and ground his teeth in attempt to brace himself. The searing pain of branding was a sensation that he was intimately familiar with already. Despite himself Ithican cried out as something pressed against his skin.
But the touch was cool, soothing. Opening his eyes he found that it was the Elf maiden’s hand that rested harmlessly on his shoulder. He was back in the forest, it hadn’t been real, or this wasn’t real. It suddenly became impossible to tell.
“You’ll beg for death before they are halfway through with you.” She continued mercilessly. “And do you know why?”
“Because I was born Elven.” Ithican muttered bitterly, still shaken.
“No!” The Elf maiden snapped angrily. “No, it’s because you were born with green eyes and black hair!”
“If it wasn’t for that simple differences in physical appearance none of this would have ever happened! If you couldn’t tell an Elf from a Human just by looking at him there would be peace.”
“No!” Ithican cried. “It has to be something more than that!”
The Elf maiden shook her head and the midnight colour of her hair fell out leaving it a golden yellow. She blinked her eyes and they turned bright blue. Ithican stared at her in growing horror. Without changing a single feature other than colour she had transformed into a Human!
“No.” Ithican shook his head trying to shake off the affects of his fever so he could think clearly. “You’re wrong, even if we looked alike there would still be differences.”
“True.” The Elf/Human/Kin-Rin maiden said with a shrug. “However, back in the beginning no one would have thought to separate us out if we didn’t look different. We would have just been gifted Humans, not ‘Elves’. We would have become the Ruling Class instead of the Slave Race!”
Ithican couldn’t respond. He was grateful that he was already on his knees for his fever had hit a pitch that had caused him to start breathing quick and shallow. The Elf maiden watched him struggle for breath unconcerned. Kneeling down in front of Ithican she changed her eyes and hair back to their damning Elven shades.
“None of that matters. What’s done is done, and you can’t change it.” She whispered. “You’ve tasted enough Vinegar to last a lifetime. Why continue to suffer needlessly?”
As an answer to her own question she placed her hand over Ithican’s heart. He drew a sharp breath. Her touch, just as is it had when he’d actually been with the Doe, released him from both the fever and the painful grip that crushed his heart instantly. The relief washed over him like clean water.
Ithican closed his eyes and lost himself in the comforting sensation. Every deep breath cooled his fiery mind further. His racing heart slowed, and if it stopped completely he knew that he wouldn’t care. However it kept beating strong. The Elf maiden pushed Ithican back, easily forcing him to lie down. She laid down next to him never taking her hand away from his chest.
With sheer force of will the Elf maiden brought Ithican’s heart rate back up to racing. He gasped and fought for a moment. The sensation the Elf maiden had pressed into his chest was so intense that for a second he had mistaken it for pain. However, he quickly discovered that this was something entirely different. He laughed weakly as if drunk. She brought her cold body closer causing Ithican’s blood to boil at the pure ecstasy of her touch. She tangled her free hand in his long hair, tugging at it gently.
Struggling to remain silent Ithican bit down on his lip till it bled. The contrasting pain only brought the pleasure of the Elf maiden’s magical touch into sharper focus. Arching his back to get closer to the hand that rested on his heart he dug his fingers into the soft mossy earth. In response the Elf maiden increased the power she held over him.
Something in his heart broke, or snapped back into place, he couldn’t figure out which. Ithican sang out as he had at the hand of the High Priest, only this time the cry was not one of anguish, far from it. Pitched in the opposite direction the note was a song that could end a war if fell upon the right ears.
But the only one to hear it was deaf to its affects.
Knowing that she’d kill them both if she went any further the Elf maiden released him. Ithican relaxed immediately, laying back on the cool earth panting heavily. His ribs heaved and his whole frame trembled slightly in a strange afterglow. He had no idea what had just happened, but he’d remember it for the rest of his life.
Taking a deep breath to calm himself he slowly opened his eyes. The Elf maiden was staring at him so intensely that he felt he recognized her as a face from his past. He reached up and brushed her left cheek with a delicate touch, noticing the scar there for the first time.
“Who are you?” He whispered so quietly that he hardly heard the question himself.
“Your worst nightmare.” The Elf maiden hissed softly in his ear.
Ithican smiled and closed his eyes again. The Elf maiden ran her hand through his wet hair, but Ithican didn’t notice. He had finally let go and had slipped into a sleep that was closer to death than he’d ever been. If he could see the expression that had crept into the Elf maiden’s face he would not be able to sleep so soundly. However he was no longer aware of anything.
The Elf maiden stood up and looked down at Ithican. She smiled triumphantly as if she had just raped him and left him for dead. Her cold laughter rang out through the suddenly diseased and decaying forest. She reached down and at her touch a blood red chain snaked itself around the sleeping Elf’s neck.
Running her hands through her own hair the long strands magically turned short and spiky. Her whole frame shifted till an entirely different person stood in the sick forest. The only thing that remained the same were the cold green eyes and the scar that marred his left cheek. He smiled with cruel colorless lips. Taking a deep breath he just enjoyed his victory. He had accomplished what no Human torture would have ever achieved, and now life would be his once more! He looked down at Ithican and shook his head in mock pity.
“I guess it’s true what they say: you *can* catch more flies with Honey...”
Tommy resurfaced from a string of bizarre dreams. He instantly regretted joining the conscious world. His head was pounding with the after affects of whatever it was he had done the night before. The details of the previous evening were fuzzy at best and trying to remember them only made the throbbing hangover worse. He laid as still as he could on the soft bed (he had no idea how he’d gotten here, but he didn’t worry about it).
The next thing he noticed was that he mouth was so dry that it tasted like cotton. Trying to lick his lips Tommy discovered with a start that his mouth didn’t taste like cotton it actually was cotton. Biting down on the gag he snapped open his eyes causing a wave of nausea to sweep over him. The rush of adrenaline grew more intense when he found his wrists bound.
“Morning, sunshine.” A dark voice growled.
Tommy looked towards the voice and instantly recognized the man he’d spent the evening with in the bar. He was sitting next to a table that had a sharp curved dagger resting on it. Sam picked up the ebony handled weapon and turned it over in his hands. Tommy tried to remain calm, but his heart was beating like a frightened rabbit.
“Do you recognize this?”
Tommy was startled by the bizarre question and didn’t answer. He couldn’t even imagine what the lunatic wanted.
“I’ll refresh your memory.” Sam held the dagger as far from his body as he could. After a minute he clumsily flipped the catch. He jerked back when the weapon transformed. It was far more powerful that it looked.
Tommy’s heart skipped several beats, it was Ithican’s Tarrin dagger. His skin flashed to ice and he tried to say something in his defense. However his words were indecipherable.
“Ah, you do remember him, I knew you would.”
Tommy nodded slightly. He sucked for breath against the gag as his panic demanded more oxygen. He should have known that Ithican would have at least one close friend.
Sam was quiet for a while. “Did you kill him?”
Hesitating Tommy eventually shook his head with a tiny motion. Sam studied his captive and then turned his attention back to the Tarrin. He collapsed the blade after a few faulty tries. He looked up at Tommy with eyes bright from tears he refused to shed.
“But you sold him to someone who will, or has.”
It hadn’t been a question so Tommy didn’t answer. Turning away from Sam’s pained expression Tommy fought the sting of tears himself. The Elf had saved his life and in return he’d ruined two.
When he felt Sam come closer he didn’t even flinch. He almost prayed that the man would kill him, at least he could repay his debt with his own blood. The Tarrin dagger pressed against his cheek and he suddenly found him self free of the gag. In another second his wrists were free as well.
Confused he sat up. Sam had gathered up what little he owned and stood waiting. Tommy furrowed his brow. His hangover and the adrenaline were keeping him from thinking straight.
“Take me there.” Sam said simply.
“I thought they were joking.” Sam said to himself as he looked at the gates of the Slave Market from the shadow of a dying building.
“Never mind.” Sam growled. “All right, Kid, get out of here.”
“Go back to your brothers.”
“No, I...I want to help.”
“I think you’ve done enough damage already. You’ll just get underfoot and this is probably a suicide mission already.”
“It is, I’m sure of it. But...” Tommy hesitated, he sighed.
“But what?” Sam had the feeling he didn’t want to know the answer.
“Ithican saved my life. I owe him a favor.”
“He did what?!” Sam put his hand up to stop Tommy from explaining further. “You know, it doesn’t even surprise me.” He growled in frustration.
“So you’ll let me help?”
“They are going to recognize you in there if we’re spotted, the game will be over before it’s begun.”
“No, no I didn’t go inside.” Tommy shook his head. “I couldn’t bring myself to go through the gates, it was cowardly but I let him go alone.”
“What about your brothers?”
“I don’t consider them company.”
“That’s not what I meant, but point taken.” Sam looked around. “All right, I have a vague plan. Let’s go.”
“Shouldn’t we wait until nightfall, it’s seven in the morning on a very sunny day.”
“Ithican will be dead or dying by evening, if he isn’t already.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“I have.” Sam snarled.
“Then let’s go.” Tommy straightened his back and walked towards the gate. His advanced was arrested by Sam gabbing onto his shirt and yanking him back.
“Not through the front gate! I may be crazy, but I’m not insane.”
“Admit it, this was a good idea.” Tommy grinned.
“Besides the fact that impersonating a member of the military is a punishable crime within itself?”
“Yeah, besides that.”
“Then, yes, it’s a great idea.”
Sam had picked the lock to one of the side entrances and they had found their way into a supply room. The place was not heavily guarded or staffed. After all the war hadn’t started yet. However there were enough uniforms in the place for a small army should the people of Cantras decide to put on together.
“Let’s just hope no one recognizes us,” Sam smiled “or should I say fail to recognize us as one of them.”
“Okay, now what?”
“You’re asking me?” Sam looked around one last time to see if there was anything else useful around. “I guess we have to find Ithican and get out of here.”
“Sounds simple enough. Except for the fact that you could hide a small army in this place.”
“If I know typical military Humans, and unfortunately I do, they’ll keep him as far from fresh air as possible. Probably in the lower keep.”
“What make you so sure of that?”
“Psychological warfare. For the most part the Elves hate closed in spaces. Its why they live out in the forests, plains, wetlands, and such in lose towns and not in crowded cities. And they have a near pathological fear of being underground. They would keep him locked up below to make sure he was already half insane with fear before they asked any questions.”
“What if they’re already...” Tommy hesitated.
“Then we’ll follow the screams.” Sam snapped angrily. “For right now let’s just find some stairs that go down.”
“I saw some on our way here, back the way we came and to the right.”
Sam and Tommy made their way back to the stairs trying their hardest to look like they belonged there. Every step of the way Sam feared that he would hear a fevered cry of pain. He shuddered at the memory of the discordant notes his friend could sing. However the place remained eerily silent.
Sam still carried the Tarrin, unwilling to part with it, and he hoped that if they were spotted the unusual weapon would go unnoticed. Although it seemed like there was no one in this part of the building to challange them. The stairs twisted down one floor and then opened into a series of hallways.
It felt like it should have been dark as sin, however the building had been constructed with the help of the city’s Magi back when the electricity spells were at their strongest. The walls were pockmarked by alcoves that cast a soft glow. The light of the alcoves was oddly dimmed by the two thousand year build up of dust and dirt. The air wasn’t much cleaner than the walls.
“Well, you wanted to get away from the fresh air,” Tommy said nervously “I think this is as far as it gets short of Hell itself. But where do we go from here?”
“We need to find a passage way that’s been disturbed. The dust on the floor must be an inch thick, they would have had to walk through it and I doubt many people come down here for fun.”
“Good idea, we should tread carefully ourselves so we can find our way back and so we’ll know if we just come across our own tracks. I have the feeling that it’s easy to get lost down here.”
“I’m lost already and we haven’t gone anywhere.”
They wandered the hallways for what seemed like hours. The tomb like stillness allowed each to hear the heavy pounding of his own heart clearly. The fact that those hearts seemed to have relocated themselves into their throats didn’t help. The passages looped past endless cages and rooms.
Several times they had opened doors that lead to rooms filled with horrors that their minds refused to absorb. Sam had always known that the slave’s will had to be broken before they were of any use. He had just never realized what it took to break that spirit. Sam quickly shut the door on another such porthole to torment. His stomach twisted violently even though his mind was incapable of truly comprehending what he’d just seen.
“Did this really happen?” Tommy whispered, afraid to disturb the dead. “Were the Humans really this cruel?”
“Unfortunately, yes. I’m sure we can’t even begin to imagine half of what happened here all those years ago.”
“I don’t even want to try.” Tommy shuddered. “No wonder the Elves hate us.”
“I don’t think it’s hate, I used to think that, but now I think it’s actually fear that drives them. We burned this into their blood, and they’ll never be able to forget it.”
“Neither will I.”
Sam was about to respond when his eye caught something at the end of the hallway. He hurried down to the cross passage. On the far wall of the t-intersection was a blood stain. Touching his fingers to it he found it still sticky. Sam stood transfixed, he didn’t even hear Tommy catch up to him.
“My God...” Tommy breathed.
Slowly turning to look down the hall that they come across Sam caught his breath. The hall silently wore the scars of the violence that had recenly occurred there. The layer of dust on the floor was scuffed and gouged, several of the alcove lights had been reduced to shattered glass which darkened patches of the hall, every twenty feet or so more blood had been smeared on the walls.
They had found what they’d been searching for.
Sam saw a flash of the struggle. Ithican had not come down here peacefully. Far from it, they had dragged him down here fighting tooth and nail the whole way. Although Sam somehow got the feeling that little, if any, of the blood was Elven.
When Tommy touched his shoulder Sam nearly jumped out of his skin. He turned and saw that the young man was pale as death. Sam managed a sad smile -Tommy had enough heart to blame himself for this. Perhaps the Humans weren’t past saving after all.
“Come on, it can’t be far.” Sam said taking off down the devastated hall.
Indeed it wasn’t far. The hall turned and lead to a line of cells. The marks in the gray dust ended at a cell halfway down the hall. They probably hadn’t the strength to take him further Sam thought. He swallowed hard and walked up to the bars.
Ithican was on the other side. Before working on the lock Sam looked down at his friend. The Elf was curled up on his side in one of the back corners. He actually seemed to be sleeping comfortably. Dry blood was caked to his temple, and oddly fresh blood dripped from his lower lip. Sam growled at the sight of the chain collar Ithican wore.
“He’ll never be the same.” Sam hissed to himself.
It had taken Sam five minutes to work the lock free. Despite the noise Ithican hadn’t stirred. Sam knelt down next to him. He didn’t want to startle the sleeping Elf, but they had to get out of here. Tommy stayed out of the cell and nervously watched the hall.
“Ith?” Sam gently brushed at Ithican’s midnight hair.
Ithican snapped open sightless eyes. Sam hissed at the exposed whites. The Kin-Rin still has some sort of power over him. Or more likly they had simply done some sort of permanent neurological damage. When Ithican’s eyes rolled forward he cried out at the sight of the uniformed man over him. Leaping up he tried to back away, but only found himself trapped in a stone corner.
“Don’t touch me!” Ithican snarled.
“It’s all right, Ith.” Sam said putting his hands up in an attempt to look non threatening. “It’s me, it’s Sam.”
That fact didn’t seem to comfort the recoiling Elf. Ithican looked over at Tommy causing his long hair to fall into his peripheral vision. He jerked away from the dark strands. Sam watched helplessly as Ithican reacted like a frightened wild animal to his own shadow. Eventually he calmed.
Ithican raised his right arm so he could inspect the scar that ran down it. He traced the mark with a slender finger like he’d never noticed it before. Sam watched with growing confusion as Ithican stared at his own hands. Ithican reached up and pulled his white streak of hair in front of his eyes. Seeing the blaze he started to laugh.
“Sam,” Tommy interrupted “he is completely insane.”
“No,” Ithican shook his head “I’m fine, really. Just a little disoriented.” He placed his hand on Sam’s shoulder. “You understand, don’t you...friend?”
Sam jumped at Ithican’s touch. It was ice cold!
“Sam?” Ithican asked again.
“Yes, of course I understand. Come on, we ne...”
“What the Hell is going on here?!” A gravely voice roared suddenly.
Tommy looked up the passage and his eyes widened in shock. He took a step back and flashed a panicked look at Sam. Sam rushed over to the cell door and looked as well. A large man was standing at the entrance of the passage way. Sam cursed under his breath.
It was the Lieutenant coming for his prey.
“Who gave you two permission to come down here, Ensign?” He demanded of Tommy seeing his supposed rank from the stolen uniform.
“I...uh, we...” Tommy stuttered.
“Never mind, I could probably use the help.” The Lieutenant growled gingerly rubbing his recently broken nose. “Just grab the Elf and come with me. Be careful, he’s stronger than he looks.”
Sam looked to Ithican for permission to attack. He knew how much his friend hated bloodshed, but there was no choice. A cold smile spread across Ithican’s face. He licked the blood away from his lips and stepped closer to Sam.
Ithican moved so quickly that Sam barely felt the Tarrin being taken from his belt. The Lieutenant had turned his back on them, confidant that by this time the Elf would be paralyzed with fear. Ithican leapt up behind him and pressed the sharp tip of the dagger into the man’s lower back at a steep angle.
The Lieutenant gasped at the sudden pain and tried to pull away. However Ithican had already snaked his hand into the man’s medium length hair. Pulling the Lieutenant against him Ithican hissed words into his ear like a lover.
“I just wanted to thank you.” Ithican said quietly enough so that only his victim could hear. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
The Lieutenant cried out in a mix of shock and confusion as Ithican slowly drove the rest of the short blade into the man’s yielding flesh. He gripped the ebony handle tightly as the hot wash of blood flowed over his hand. The Lieutenant wailed and started to tremble as his knees gave way. Ithican waited until the man’s cries turned to whimpering before he flipped the catch on the Tarrin causing the long blade to slice up directly into the Human’s heart.
The whole scene had taken only a few minutes, but Sam had watched it in horrifying slow motion. Ithican held the man close until he was sure he was dead and then unceremoniously collapsed the Tarrin causing the corpse to drop to the floor. Ithican turned around and looked at Sam with his dark green eyes glittering with excitement.
“Shall we go?” Ithican asked.
“W...what the...” Sam couldn’t finish. Something was wrong, this was not the man he knew.
For his part Tommy was busy violently retching onto the dusty floor.
“Pull yourself together!” Ithican snapped at Tommy.
Ithican looked to Sam and saw his horrified expression. He sneered and then, as if remembering himself, he filled his eyes with mock sorrow. He stepped up to the shocked Sam and placed his icy hand on Sam’s shoulder once again. Blood ran down his scared arm and dripped off his elbow, but he didn’t seem to care.
“Sam,” he said slowly “you have no idea what that man did to me. Please understand, these have been difficult hours for me. You were going to kill him for me anyway, right?”
Sam just nodded. He was wrong to judge Ithican. He would have killed the Lieutenant himself, what right did he have to fault his friend for doing the same?
“Okay then,” Ithican said cheerily seeing the change in Sam’s eyes “let’s get out of here!”
“How?” Sam asked. “Someone one is bound to notice a blood soaked Elf running around.”
“Not if they think I’m dead.” Ithican winked. “You can just carry me right out the front gate.”
As they reached the top of the stairs Sam tried his hardest to look like he was carrying the corpse of some meaningless wretch and not his best friend. Ithican for his part was doing an excellent job at playing opossum. Soaked in the Lieutenant’s blood he relaxed almost to the point of passing out in Sam’s arms.
It was like a nightmare. Ithican’s skin was so cold and the blood so bright that Sam had to forcibly remind himself that it was just an act. Tommy stayed close to Sam’s heels doing his best not to look around. They found that it was impossible to follow their tracks back out the way they’d come. They had wandered down too many corridors.
The only clear path was the one that had been carved by Ithican and his captors. So when they came to the upper level they were unsure of where they were. Without consulting anyone Sam decided to just keep heading in one direction, eventually they’d come to an outer wall and find an exit.
They traveled for almost ten minutes before coming across someone. Sam stayed calm as the Colonel approached, knowing that panic would only give the game away. Ithican made no sign that he was even aware of the danger. The Colonel rushed up with wide eyes. He touched Ithican’s cheek and recoiled at the feel of the cold flesh.
“I don’t believe it!” He growled. “Fool! I’ll have that man’s hide for this!”
“Sir?” Sam asked, shocked by the anger in the man’s voice.
“I can’t believe they killed him already, I thought Lieutenant Ralgar was smarter than this. I should have never trusted him.”
“We didn’t kill the Elf, Sir.” Sam said quickly fearing that the man would get suspicious. The Colonel was right, Ralgar probably had the skill to keep someone alive in agony for weeks. “He...he was hiding a weapon and did this to himself in the night.”
“What does it matter who killed him? The outcome is still the same. I was going to have a hard enough time sorting this whole thing out.”
“What?” Sam asked, forgetting himself for a moment. “Sir.” He added hastily.
“I just found out this morning that Ralgar purchased this man, I was coming here to stop this. We’re so close to a war with the Elves, and if they found out that we had taken one of their kind and brought him *here*” he spat the word out “they would be fully justified to cut negotiations with us and declare a Nuearth wide war.” He made another noise of disgust. “They should have torn down this cursed structure thousands of years ago.”
“We’re negotiating with the Elves?”
“Day and night.”
“Then there’s hope.”
“Yes, but not much. At this point in time it will only take a spark.”
No one noticed the smiled that twitched at the corner the ‘dead’ Elf’s lips.
Ithican did not remember waking after his encounter with the Elf maiden. He simply found himself standing in the mystic forest. Ithican suddenly realized that he didn’t know how to snap out of the trance he’d fallen into.
“Kin-Rin?” Ithican called. “Kin-Rin, I have go home. I know you want to help, but I have to get back to the real world.”
At first there was no response, the forest echoed with emptiness. In the stillness Ithican noticed the sound of dripping water. Since it was the only noise he went to find its source. Pushing through the vegetation Ithican noticed a change as he drew closer to the dripping. The trees started to turn sickly and gray, the ground became softer. The air got so cold that his breath fogged in front of him.
Looking down Ithican found himself standing in a mucky stream of blood. It was flowing from between a thick hedge of slimy vines that hid a high wall. The blood dripping off the leaves was the sorce of the noise. Ithican reached out to clear the vines away. His body was radiating so much heat that the sick plants wilted and fell away at his touch. When the last of the vines had fallen away they revealed a flat stone wall.
Ithican stared at it with horror. The blood was oozing from a gory message that had been smeared onto the smooth surface. He saw the words without truly reading them:
‘One man can not stop a war, but he has the power to start it.’
Ithican reached up to his throat and found the red chain. He cried out in rage and fear. He had been tricked. Not by the Kin-Rin, he saw now that they had just been animals with a talent for hypnotism. He knew this because he knew now who the Doe had really been. His new captor had just taken advantage of the fact that his guard had been dropped by the Stag’s stare.
The Doe hadn’t talked to him, just as the Elf maiden had never touched him. None of that had ever happened, none of this was happening now, not really. Someone else had been trying to trap him, someone so close to his heart as to be in it. Ithican’s head swam with the shock of realization.
Feeling a need to run from the blood soaked wall Ithican backed away. He was quickly stopped by an unseen force. Turning around he found his path blocked by a set of cold steel bars. By the time he turned again the wall and the forest had been replaced by a dark prison cell. It was almost identical to the one that he lay in back in reality except for the fact that this cell had no door, the bars were continuous.
Ithican tried not to panic. It wasn’t real, but he was still trapped. Trapped in the prison of his own mind. And now someone else had control of his flesh. Ithican grabbed a hold of the bars, that felt as real as they had in the depths of the Slave Market.
The Goblin Chief had been right, there were consequences for Ithican’s past actions. Consequences that were going to lead to all of Nuearth being set on fire with the blaze of War. He cried out in blind fury to the one person he knew could hear him, the man responsible for this.