Chentelle hurried through the forest. Her elven eyes had no trouble following the narrow path in the faint red glow of first-light. She saw the forest’s edge in the distance and picked up speed, hoping to be out of Lone Valley before truedawn. But as she passed the final line of trees, a branch reached down and snared her arm.
“And where do you think you are going?”
Chentelle started to scream, but cut it off when she recognized the rough, womanly voice. She twisted her arm free of the branch, struggling to regain her calm.
“Willow,” she said, keeping her voice to a loud whisper. “You scared me.”
Willow leaned her trunk closer to Chentelle. Her hollow eyes glowered discouragingly from beneath an axehacked frown.
“Answer the question, little one,” She said. “Why are you sneaking out of the forest this early in the morning?”
The dendrifaun reached out a limb and brushed the pack slung over Chentelle’s shoulder. “Taking a trip, I see.”
The sight of the open plains danced tantalizingly between Willow’s branches. Chentelle was so close! But already Deneob was fully risen over the eastern hills; Ellistar would not be far behind. She saw that the dendrifaun’s roots were still firmly buried; it was too early for the living tree to be fully active. Chentelle could run for it, but Willow would only rouse the elders and tell them where Chentelle was headed. She had to convince the dendrifaun to let her pass.
“Please, old one,” she said, adopting the formal mode of address. “You have to let me by. I’ve told you about the dream, the one that has come to me every night since I saw that falling star. Well, it came again last night. Only, it was different this time. It was telling me something, leading me somewhere. I can’t explain it, but I know I have to follow it.”
“Have you spoken of this to the elders?” Willow asked.
“No,” Chentelle said, “You know what would happen if I did, They would debate the matter for several weeks and ponder it for a few more. Then Mother would convince the others that I am too young, too precious, too important to be allowed to go. Ever since—ever since Father died, she’s been afraid to let me out of her sight. But I have to go, and I can’t afford to wait.”
Chentelle shifted guiltily in the silence. Her mother would be so worried when she found the note pinned to her child’s bed. But it had to be this way; the dream demanded it.
Willow reached out and brushed her leaves across Chentelle’s hair. “Mothers worry. It is their nature. Besides, you are a special child, and not just for your golden hair.”
“I know, I know.” The elf girl deepened her voice until it mimicked her mother’s rich tone. “You are an enchantress, Chentelle, the first born in Lone Valley for five generations. You have a responsibility to yourself and to the village.”
“Exactly,” Willow agreed without mockery.
“But don’t you see?” Chentelle said returning to her normal voice. “I do have a responsibility. I have to find out what the dream means. And I’m not a child. I’m nearly two hundred.”
Willow’s branches swayed with amusement. “You are one hundred and sixty-three, and I have told you stories and watched you grow through each of those years. Tell me, did I ever share with you the story of Fizzfaldt the Wanderer?”
“Yes, old one, many times,”
“Hmmph, well, then you see my point. Fizzfaldt, too, felt the need to leave the forest, to taste the soil of other lands. But he never returned. His stories are lost to us.”
“Yes. That is too bad.” Chentelle did feel the loss, for the stories of the dendrifauns were good ones. But she mistrusted Willow’s point in this case.
“I will let you go, little one, for I sense that you are caught in the middle of a great tale. When your mother comes to me, full of worry, I will try to comfort her. And when she asks where you are, I will conceal the direction of your travel. But you must be careful, Chentelle. And when your story is done, you must promise to return here and share it with the forest. It would be a sad thing for us to lose another story.”
Chentelle threw her arms around the old dendrifaun’s trunk. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ll bring back a special story just for you. I promise.” Then she turned and sprinted out of the forest.
“My dear,” Willow murmured to her retreating from, “I am sure you will.”
* * *
Chentelle paused once she reached the open plain. Gently rolling hills glowed like copper in Deneob’s soft light, stretching into the horizon. The emerald wall of the forest, with all of its seclusion, all of its protection, lay behind her. Far to the east, the first glow of truedawn heralded the rise of Ellistar, the Golden Sun. This was the point of no return.
Deliberately, Chentelle pulled off her pack and undid its ties. She reached inside and pulled out the dove. The bird slept comfortably, still reassured by the spell she had placed upon it last night. She unrolled the note and read it one last time.
* * *
Wizard A’mond, find the apprentice to A’pon Boemarre. Bring the staff to the Holy City.
* * *
It was signed with the seal of Marcus Alanda, High Bishop of the Holy Order.
Again, Chentelle pondered the message, and again she felt the twinge of an old sadness. A’mond had been wizard to the elves of Lone Valley for centuries, one of the few wizards to escape death at the Desecration Fault. The High Bishop had no way of knowing that A’mond had been killed in a freak accident last winter. So the dove had come to Chentelle, drawn by her magic. It was up to her to find this apprentice of A’pon Boemarre.
A’pon Boemarre! That was a name well known to every inhabitant of the Realm: Boemarre the Mighty, greatest of wizards; Boemarre the Hero, champion of the Wizard’s War, slayer of the Dark One; Boemarre the Genocide, whose Desecration Fault swallowed entire races of giants and trolls.
A’pon Boemarre—oh, yes, Chentelle knew that name The man who had saved the Realm by unleashing death on thousands, numbers that included Chentelle’s own father
Chentelle fought back tears at the memory. It was the first time her Gift had manifested. She had felt the dreadful power shaking under the roots of the forest, the echo of the world’s pain when that force was unleashed. And she had felt the terrible emptiness of her father’s death.
Chentelle shook her head, trying to clear the memory She flipped the note over and scrawled a quick reply across its back.
* * *
Wizard A’mond has died, but your wishes will be carried through.
* * *
She signed the note and wrapped it back around the dove’s leg. Then she softly stroked its head, waking it from the slumber she had induced. “Time to fly, little one,” she said, tossing the bird into the air.
As the messenger dove disappeared to the south, Chentelle regarded the plain ahead. It stretched two score leagues between here and the Quiet Sea. A long way to travel to the beach she had seen in her dream. She would need help to get there.
She closed her eyes and inhaled slowly. As the air of the plain filled her lungs, the spirit of the land touched her soul. She felt the quiet rhythm of the grass, the rich life of the soil, the soft power of the wind. She felt the passionate harmony of nature and understood her own place within it.
When the reality of the plain was complete within her, she sang. Her voice was music and magic. Her song captured perfectly the harmony she sensed. Her voice radiated across the plain, a surge of peace and joy begging to be shared. This was Chentelle’s Gift.
Slowly, she altered her song. She began to sing not only of what was, but of what she wished to be. Her voice shaped an emptiness in the plain, and she filled that void with her desire, with her need, but most of all with her love. She crafted a song of beckoning and backed it with the full force of her Gift, letting it flow beyond the world of men and into the Realm of Dream and Fairy.
Chentelle ended her song and waited. With her Gift, she could still hear her tune echo in the Fairy Realm. Soon, it was joined by another song. The empty places in Chentelle’s call were being filled. But where her song was one of harmony and melody, the new music was one of rhythm and percussion and driving, unrelenting beat.
Chentelle snapped open her eyes, letting go of her Gift. Her face lit with a smile of undiluted happiness as she saw the unicorn herd charging across the plain.
They ran as if it were their sole purpose in existence. They flowed across the land with a speed no ordinary steed could match. In moments they were surrounding Chentelle, prancing playfully and nodding their heads in greeting.
As always, Chentelle was awed by the unicorns’ appearance. She admired their graceful white bodies, their flowing manes, the ivory horns that spiraled outward from their foreheads. They were beyond words of beauty.
She stepped forward, careful to keep her movements slow and smooth. She knew that unicorns became nervous around mortal creatures.
The herd parted at her advance, creating a channel through which one beast approached and bowed deeply. Chentelle immediately recognized Kah, the stallion of this herd and her friend. She returned his bow and then continued her walk. She hummed softly as she moved, reassuring Kah with the melody of her voice.
The stallion tensed as she came near, but he did not run. Chentelle delicately caressed the unicorn’s cheek and mane. Then she ran her fingers down his horn, sensing the pure magic contained within. “I am glad you came,” she said. “It is a joy to see you again.”
Kah danced away from her, nodding broadly. Then he stepped forward and laid his horn softly on her shoulder.
“Your trust honors me,” Chentelle said. “I need to travel far and fast. Will you carry me to the Quiet Sea?”
The stallion backed away from her, nodding once again. Then he knelt in the grass, indicating with his horn that Chentelle should mount. She slid smoothly onto his back; then he rose easily, accepting her weight as if it were of no concern. She got a good grip on his flaring mane, knowing what was coming.
Kah trotted gently until they were beyond the circle of the herd. Then he neighed loudly and reared, pawing the air with his hooves. He was telling them to remain here. The other unicorns neighed in response and began grazing on the tender spring shoots. Kah spun eastward and took off with a surge of speed that stole Chentelle’s breath. She loved the sensation.
The unicorn glided tirelessly through the rushing wind. Chentelle huddled close against the beast’s broad back, riding the music of his stride. She buried her face in his rich mane and reveled in the smooth rhythm beneath her. Kah used his horn to draw strength from the Dream Realm. He could run for days without stopping, but she was only mortal.
A scent of wild strawberries in the wind forced Chentelle to recognize her hunger. She whispered into Kah’s ear, and the fairy beast pulled to a stop. Quickly, she gathered the berries, still wet with dew. But she couldn’t bring herself to rush the meal; the tangy-sweet morsels deserved to be savored. She satisfied her hunger and then picked a few more handfuls, adding them to her pack for later.
Then she climbed a second time on Kah’s back, and they were on their way again. The leagues passed rapidly beneath the unicorn’s thundering hooves. Chentelle was forced to call occasional stops to ease her tired muscles or sate her appetite, but they still made steady progress.
By the time Deneob disappeared into the west, Chentelle could smell salt in the air. Buoyed by the scent, she started to sing softly, matching her song to Kah’s beat. In response, the unicorn ran even faster. Soon, grassy plains disappeared into sandy hills. As Ellistar dipped below the horizon, they crested one final hill and looked out on the wide, calm waters of the Quiet Sea.
As Kah slowed to a walk, Chentelle reached out with her Gift. She felt the shifting spirit of the sand and the sharp awareness of the birds. And she felt the sea: vast, patient, incredibly powerful, and teeming with life. So much life! She felt fish and crabs and creatures whose names she did not know, all locked in an immense dance of survival.
And she heard a song, an intricate, beautiful theme weaving its way through the waves: whalesong, she realized. But there was something wrong. The song was full of fear and distress. Chentelle tried to sense the cause of the fear, but it was too distant.
“The water,” she said. “I have to get to the water, Kah.”
With a fierce snort the unicorn galloped ahead. He ran headlong across the beach and pulled up just at the water’s edge.
Chentelle vaulted from his back and ran into the sea. When the waves reached her waist she took a deep breath and plunged her head into the water. The whalesong rang in her ears, and she answered it with her Gift. She poured her emotions into her song: her caring, her concern, her hope.
The whales answered. They sang of wrongness and of fear. They sang of something in the waters to the north, something that did not belong in the sea, something evil.
Chentelle pulled her head above water and gasped for breath. The threat she felt in the whalesong was so wrong, so unnatural. She had to do something.
She pushed herself back toward the beach and reached for Kah. “Something terrible is happening,” she said. “It’s just north of here. We have to hurry.”
The unicorn reared powerfully and took off, hugging the coastline. He left the wind behind. Even so, Chentelle begged Kah to hurry. She sensed that someone or something was in great danger. In response to her words, the stallion raced even faster, yet Chentelle still worried.
“I fear we may be too late,” she said. “We must get there now, Kah.”
The unicorn neighed in response and summoned his magic. The color drained from his horn as the ivory became first translucent and then transparent. There was a sudden flash of light, and they were no longer on the beach.
They floated through a void of light. A dreamlike silence suffused her, as if she were on the edge of sleep. The possible danger ahead seemed unimportant; the urgency of her quest, an illusion. Kah’s magic transported them through the Realm of Dreams, where concerns of the physical world had little weight. A moment of eternity passed; then the beach reappeared around them.
The unicorn skidded to an abrupt halt, weakened from the exertion. Chentelle, still disoriented from the transition, was nearly thrown. Only a firm grip on the stallion’s mane saved her. She struggled for a moment to regain her senses.
They stood just beyond the waves on a wide stretch of sandy beach. Jagged rocks jutted out into the water before and behind them, forming natural jetties. Just past the rocks, moonlight illuminated a vision out of nightmare.
A hideous creature lay partially submerged in the dark sea. Its mouth was a great circular maw surrounded by curved fangs. Thick tentacles protruded from either side of the head, flailing about like tendrils of living vine. The body was covered with smooth armor plating, and the lobsterlike tail churned the shallow water as the creature chased a small sailboat. The foulness of the creature screamed at Chentelle’s senses, and she knew that this was an Ill-creature, a spirit of evil summoned from the Abyss.
The monster quickly closed on the small craft and latched several of its tentacles onto the stern. The boat shuddered, caught between the pull of the wind and the creature’s grip. More tentacles emerged from the water, reaching for the lone figure standing on deck.
Helpless, Chentelle watched while the man drew a sword and slashed at the attacking tentacles. But it was no use. The blade bounced harmlessly off the monster’s flesh. It was a magical creature—only a magical weapon could harm it.
The Ill-creature tugged furiously at the boat, trying to pull it underwater. The man wedged his sword under a tentacle and pried it off of the boat. Then he started to work on the others. But whenever he succeeded in levering a tendril loose, the creature tried to reattach it. The man wielded his sword with a desperate frenzy. When he wasn’t prying a tentacle from the boat, he was slashing at one trying to gain purchase. He couldn’t hurt the creature, but he could push the tentacles away from their targets.
Finally he managed to pry the last tendril loose. The boat shot forward on the sea wind. But there was no control. Without steering, the boat raced toward the rocky shoreline. It crashed into the rocks, throwing the man into the water. The wind and the waves continued to drive the craft forward until its hull splintered against the stone.
The Ill-creature was momentarily confused, and continued to attack the remains of the boat. The man took advantage of his respite to swim toward shore, but on this particular stretch of beach the Quiet Sea gave the lie to its name. The wind-driven waves crashed and swirled around rocky outcroppings, punishing the man for every stroke. He was still a dozen cubits from the sand when the creature turned from the wreckage and lunged after its prey.
Kah reared in alarm at the monster’s charge. Chentelle tried to calm him, but the unicorn backed skittishly away from the abomination
Chentelle could feel the unicorn’s terror. She knew he overcame the instinct to run only because of her urging. But she couldn’t leave the man to die. She sang to Kah softly, using her Gift to calm his fear. Finally, she was able to guide him back toward the water, but what she saw there made the song catch in her throat.
The monster was balked, unable to move its bulk through the shallow water, and only this was saving the man’s life. The beast had grabbed hold of the man with several tentacles and battled to pull him into deeper water. Somehow the man had reached a jagged spar of rock, and he clung desperately to it.
The intensity of his struggle struck Chentelle as if it were a physical force. She felt his anger, his determination, his indomitable will. His entire beings was focused into the effort of his chest and hands and arms, into the extraordinary contest between human muscle and Ill-creature might. But it was hopeless. The monster was too large, too powerful. Slowly, inevitably, the man’s hands slid across the surface of the rock.
Chentelle jumped from Kah’s back and raced to the edge of the water. She had no idea how to help the man, but she felt she had to do something. Her Gift was one of harmony and understanding, not combat, but it was the only thing she had. So she sang.
She gathered the magic around her and cast it outward to the Ill-creature. She bombarded it with images of peace and tranquillity. She showed the creature the harmony of nature and the joy of life. She sang—and the creature screamed.
The monster thrashed the water in agony. It released its grip on the human and whipped its tentacles wildly in the air. The purity of Chentelle’s magic was more than it could cope with, and it retreated quickly into deeper waters.
She ended her song and stared at the churning water where the beast had been. “Thank you, Creator,” she said.
She ran to the human. He had sunk beneath the waves as soon as the creature released him, but his hands still clung to the rock. Chentelle dropped her pack and jumped into the water. She tried to pull the man to shore, but his hands would not release their grip. She had to brace her legs against the rock and push with her whole body to pry them loose.
Without the support of the rock, the man’s weight pulled Chentelle under the water. He massed far more than she did; even with the buoyancy of the water, he was hard to handle. She struggled to regain her footing, but the current were too strong. She groped about wildly. Then her hand came to rest on something solid.
Kah! She recognized him through her Gift, and wrapped her arm tightly around the unicorn’s leg. She wound her other hand in the human’s hair and held on firmly while Kah pulled them out of the water.
Once on shore, Chentelle let go of the stallion and gasped for breath. She had been close to drowning herself, she realized belatedly. “Thank you, friend!”
Kah whinnied in response and danced back away from the water. He would not have approached it without compelling reason.
Chentelle turned to check on the human. He wasn’t breathing. Quickly, she placed a hand on chest, reaching out with her Gift. A swirl of emotions assaulted her senses, but she pushed through them, concentrating on his physical being. She felt a potent vitality about the man, but it was fading quickly, sinking under the weight of the seawater in his lungs.
Chentelle concentrated on her sense of the human’s body and started to sing. She shaped her song in the image of the man, but without the intrusion of water. Then she reached out to the sea and took hold of its wholeness. She balanced her song of the man with a rhythm of water, ever moving but always returning to its proper place.
Her song took hold of the man, and he convulsed. Water jetted from his mouth and ran in thick rivulets back to the sea. He coughed spasmodically and collapsed, breathing heavily but evenly.
Chentelle also collapsed, exhausted. She lay facedown in the sand, sobbing. Her magic was good, but it put a physical strain on her.
A nudge from Kah’s muzzle brought her back to awareness. There was a surge of anxiety coming from the unicorn stallion. She shouldn’t have left him in doubt, thinking only of herself. “It’s all right,” she said. “He’ll live. We’ll both live, thanks to you.”
The unicorn nodded his head in response, but continued to shift about nervously.
“I understand,” Chentelle said. “You’ve been away from your herd for too long. I apologize for imposing on you. Go in peace, friend. I’ll be fine, now.”
Kah reared once in salute, and then raced into the west.
Chentelle examined the man more closely. She winced as she saw the bloody gashes left on his chest and arms by the jagged stone. He was partially bare, his shirt and boots having been lost during the battle. His face was broad and flat, but not unhandsome. His jet-black hair was matted and tangled, but she could see that it normally hung straight to his shoulders. He was much larger than an elf, at least four cubits tall, and seemed to be covered everywhere in lean, hard muscle. He slept soundly, but was shivering in the cool wind.
Chentelle could do something about that. she was cold herself. She set about gathering material for a fire. She found driftwood on abundance, much of it from the man’s ruined sailboat. She found an area sheltered from the wind and piled her wood carefully. Then she spoke to it, using the words of power entrusted to all elves. The words took life in the center of the wood and filled it with warmth. The warmth turned to heat and then to flame. Soon Chentelle sat before a strong fire.
She went back to where the human lay and fought to pull him to the fire. Without the buoyancy of the water, she could barely move him. He must weigh more than twice her six stone. She had to do it piecemeal, hauling his legs forward, then moving his upper section. It was slow and clumsy and surely not kind to his sleeping dignity, but she did make progress. After much effort, she managed to get him close enough to benefit from the fire’s warmth. Worn out again, she collapsed on the sand next to him.
“Blessed Creator,” she gasped, “did you have to make humans so heavy?”
Blood pooled in the sand next to her. The man’s arm wounds had been reopened by the drag across the beach. She chided herself for not realizing that this would happen. She shifted his arms so she could examine the cuts—and froze.
On the inside of the man’s right forearm was a tattoo: a dragon, black as midnight. And it was moving.
Chentelle felt dizzy. Her stomach churned and bile burned the back of her throat. This was no trick of the light; the dragon was moving, shifting sinuously around the man’s arm. And the hatred that it radiated pounded against her senses.
Chentelle scurried away from the man. Could it be? Was the one she had saved as evil as the creature that chased him? But if so, why hadn’t she sensed it before, when she kept him from drowning? He didn’t look evil. But the tattoo, that was evil. The malice it generated was unmistakable.
Cautiously, Chentelle crawled back to the human. There was only one way to be sure. She took a deep breath and laid her hand on the man’s left arm, the one without the tattoo.
The evil hit her immediately. It pervaded the man’s being, stretching to every corner of his soul. But there was more. Chentelle sensed passion, loyalty, trust, honor, need, compassion, anger, pain, resignation: a tumult of emotion surrounding a basic core of goodness. This was the man. The evil came from the tattoo; it was in the man but not of the man.
The complexity of the man’s spirit was fascinating. Deep inside the furor of his surface emotions was a center of absolute calm. And within that center were secrets and wonders that glittered like gems at the bottom of a still pool. Chentelle extended her Gift to that core of tranquillity and—
She snatched her hand away, breaking the contact. She had no right delving into the man’s innermost secrets. He was not evil. That was all she needed to know.
Chentelle took a cloth and water pouch from her pack and began cleaning the caked blood and sand from the man’s wounds. When she passed it across the tattoo she felt the malignant heat of that region; the dragon didn’t like being touched. Not by the likes of her. It snapped at her finger, but she jerked her hand away. The action roused the man momentarily, and he moaned softly before losing consciousness again.
“My sword,” he said, speaking in the Tengarian tongue. “My—”
His sword. Chentelle brushed her fingers along his right palm, keeping a sharp eye on the tattoo. Of course the Black Dragon couldn’t actually reach her; it was only a drawing. But she feared it anyway; malignant magic was not limited to the physical plane.
On the skin of his hand she found the trace of a thick-bladed black sword. Then she turned to the sea, searching. The image of the sword pulled her awareness under the surface, near the rocks, deeper, there. The sword lay safely on the sea floor.
She turned back to the man. The language he spoke gave away his origin, Tengarian. She should have guessed from his appearance. But the Tengarians were a mountain people, who remained isolated by their rigid codes of behavior. She had never heard of one sailing alone on a lowland sea. In fact, she had never heard of a Tengarian leaving his rugged homeland for any reason other than to fight a war or settle territorial disputes with the dwarves.
She finished cleaning the man’s wounds and covered him with her bedroll. Then she examined her own condition. She was exhausted and filthy, and her gown was soaked, and her boots were filled with seawater. But otherwise she felt adequate.
With a sigh, she pulled off her boots and poured the water out of them. They were made from leatherbark and fully waterproof, but there were limits. Then she stripped off her gown and washed it in the sea. The dirt and blood rinsed easily off the spidersilk threads, and she laid it by the fire. Once dry, it would glisten as sublimely as on the day her mother wove it.
A muffled groan warned her that the human was awake again. He raised himself onto his elbows and glanced furtively around. Finally his eyes rested on Chentelle. He started at her, unblinking, and Chentelle could feel the tension in his gaze. Slowly, never taking his eyes off her, he slid from under the blanket and got to his feet. Despite his obvious fatigue and disorientation, there was a certain professional competence to his actions
Chantelle knew that humans had difficulty seeing in the dark, so she stepped into the firelight. She wanted him to understand that she posed no threat to him.
“You are elven,” he said.
“My name is Chantelle,” she answered, using his own tongue. “You are safe. The Ill-creature is gone.”
The Tengarian’s hand twitched at his side, but still his gaze never shifted. It was the mark of a warrior, never to take his eyes from a potential enemy. His hand was questing for his sword, but she knew that he could dispatch her quite readily without it. But she also knew he wouldn’t, because he was a man of honor. She had not had to explore his inner being at all deeply to learn that. All he needed was reassurance.
“Your sword is in the water,” she said, pointing. “It will wait until morning.”
He reacted with horror. He turned to walk in the direction she pointed. He managed two trembling steps before he overbalanced and fell to his knees. The jolt caused one of his cuts to start bleeding again, and Chentelle could hear his sharp inhalation.
“Your sword is safe,” she said. “I can feel it. I know where it is. Now, please come back to the fire. Your wounds need care.”
He looked all around again, then back at her, assessing the situation. He nodded.
Chentelle moved forward and took his arm to help him stand, but he shrugged her off. Without help, he pressed himself upright and staggered back to the fire. Chentelle stayed close, ready to lend assistance, but the Tengarian shrank away from her touch. He managed to make it back to the blankets before falling to the ground once more.
“Water,” he said. “I need water.”
She handed him the leatherbark pouch and he drank from it in large gulps. Then he poured some water on his wounds.
“Save some,” Chentelle said. “I have some herbs which will speed your healing, but they have to be mixed with water.”
The Tengarian nodded and handed her back the pouch, but now he kept his eyes turned carefully away from her. Suddenly she understood. Humans almost always wore clothes when in groups, and her gown was still drying by the fire. For reasons she did not fathom, they seemed to feel that nudity was socially indiscreet. She pulled the travel cloak out of her pack and wrapped it around her shoulders. Then she mixed her herbs with water, using a seashell and her fingers as a mortar and pestle.
“This will heal your wounds quickly,” she said. “But you have to let me touch you to apply it.”
The Tengarian said nothing, but nodded once to show his assent.
“The herbs sting at first,” she said, “but they will soon bring comfort and healing.”
She sat beside him and rubbed the medicine lightly into his wounds. His pain was obvious to her Gift. She could feel the deep ache of his injuries and the sharp sting of the herbs. But he made no outward sign beyond a tensing of the muscles where she touched.
“How does it feel?” she asked and received a nod in reply. “Do you feel well enough to eat?”
Again, the Tengarian made one nod in response.
Chentelle took out the rest of her food and divided it with him. It was a meager supper for two: two hard rolls, some cheese, an apple, and a few of the wild strawberries. “I am sorry that I do not have more to offer,” she said. “I did not expect to have a guest.”
Wordlessly, he accepted his share. They ate in silence. It was infuriating.
“Look,” Chentelle said, exasperated, “will you at least tell me your name?”
“I am Sulmar,” he said.
“And you are from Tengar,” she said. “I come from Lone Valley forty leagues to the west. Will you tell me about your homeland and your people?”
“I no longer have a homeland,” he said, “or a people.”
Chentelle felt the bitterness behind his words. No people; he was an outcast. She tried to imagine being cut off from her community, but the thought was too horrible. She understood, now, the source of the pain she had felt in his heart. “I am sorry,” she said. “What happened?”
The Tengarian didn’t answer. Chentelle felt the anger and sorrow boiling inside him. The feelings were dauntingly powerful, but Sulmar’s expression was unchanged. He locked his emotions behind an iron wall of discipline.
Then, slowly, he raised his arm, displaying his tattoo. The dark scar shifted eerily on the firelight. “This is the mark of the Black Dragon. It is a curse, an invitation for the powers of evil to consume my soul. So long as I wear it I am corrupted. I have no rank, no clan, no identity. To return to Tengar would mean my death.”
“But why?” Chentelle asked. “What could make your people treat you so cruelly?”
“No,” he said, “it was not the people. It was—” Sulmar’s voice faltered and he lowered his head. “It does not matter. There is no returning.”
He raised a hand, cutting off Chentelle’s reply. “Do not ask. I will speak of this no more.”
She nodded. It was no more right to pry with questions than with her Gift, when the matter was truly private.
The Tengarian stood and shuffled to the far side of the fire. “See to your own comfort, girl,” he said, pointing at the bedroll. “I will sleep uncovered.”
The man’s manner left no room for debate. Chentelle settled herself on the blankets and closed her eyes, listening to the crackle of the fire and the steady rhythm of the waves. Almost immediately the excitement of the day yielded to exhaustion, and she fell asleep.
* * *
The dream did not come. That was the first thing Chentelle realized when she woke. The second thing was that Sulmar was not by the fire. She jumped up quickly, trying to ignore the pain in her legs and back. Ellistar was already rising over the water, and she squinted into the glare. There he was, standing near the shattered remains of his sailboat, staring at the waves. The tide was higher than it had been last night, but the waves crashed against the rocks with no less force.
Chantelle reached for her dress, then reconsidered. She wrapped the cloak around her body and walked down to join the Tengarian. “Good morning,” she said, “How are your wounds?”
“Nearly healed.” But Chentelle could see that rough scabs remained on his hands and arms.
She rested a hand on his shoulder and touched him with her Gift. Sulmar tensed, then relaxed. He was healing quickly, and there was no infection, but the cuts had been deep. It would be days before he recovered completely, and he would have to be careful lest he reopen the wounds. “You still need rest,” She said.
“I must retrieve my sword.”
“In your condition? Do you think I would let you drown again, or contaminate your wounds with salt water? I will get your precious sword.”
Sulmar glanced at the pounding surf. “Girl, I cannot let you—”
“What?” She said. “You cannot let me face the perilous waves? Who do you think saved you from the Ill-creature last night? Speaking of which, you might at least say ‘Thank you.’” She pulled the cloak off her shoulder and thrust it into his arms. “Now stand back.”
The Tengarian stepped backward, eyes widening. Then he regained his composure and bowed smoothly from the waist. “I must ask your forgiveness.”
“Oh, must you,” Chentelle retorted.
Sulmar snapped stiffly back to attention.
Chentelle realized she had made a mistake. It was the first sign of openness he had shown, and she had punished him for it. She laid a hand on his arm.
“Now I must ask for your forgiveness,” she said. “I understand what you meant, and I have felt the goodness and honor in your heart. I would like to call you friend.”
Sulmar did not answer, but she could feel the softening of his ire. He was clearly not accustomed to independent or assertive women, and she surely resembled a child in his eyes, despite her maturity of body. He had thought of her first as a potential enemy, then as a helpless creature. Now, perhaps, he was ready to accept her as the elf she was.
She turned back to the sea. “Now I will get your sword.” This time Sulmar did not protest.
Chentelle reached out with her Gift and started to sing. Her song reached out, spreading peace and harmony. Violent waves subsided to gentle swells and then stillness. For as far as her voice carried the Quite Sea lived up to its name. Without stopping her song she stepped easily into the placid water.
She altered her serenade slightly, adding a note of playful beckoning. Almost immediately, her call was answered. A pod of dolphins danced over the water, joining in her song. Their clicks and whistles blended seamlessly with her melody. Chentelle spoke to them with her Gift, sharing her need.
The dolphins disappeared under the surface. Soon one of them reappeared with Sulmar’s sword gripped between its teeth. Others followed bearing boots, a short knife, a scabbard hanging from a frayed belt, and a burlap sack filled with spoiled food. They deposited the items in Chentelle’s arms, then rejoined their fellows.
She heard a splash behind her as Sulmar rushed forward. “Be careful,” she said, letting her song fade. “Don’t get your cuts wet.”
“How is this possible?” he asked, taking the sword and setting it carefully on a rock at the shore. Then he took the other things from her hands and waded back and forth to set them on the dry beach.
Chentelle smiled. “It is my Gift,” She said, absently patting one of the dolphins. “I am an enchantress. The magic of nature touches me deeply. It speaks to me, and when I sing, I can speak to it.”
“I have heard legends of such people,” he said. “It is said that only one is born in each millennium.”
“I’m not sure whether that’s true. There has not been another in Lone Valley for five generations, but one may have been born elsewhere.”
A dolphin surfaced next to Sulmar, carrying a seashell in its mouth.
“How sweet,” Chentelle said, “She’s giving you a gift.”
Sulmar shrugged and accepted the shell. The he nearly lost his balance when the dolphins bumped into his legs. “What is she doing?” he asked.
“She wants you to pet her,” Chentelle explained. “They are very affectionate creatures. She also wants you to know that she is the one who found your sword.”
Sulmar ran his hand tentatively down the dolphin’s side. She whistled happily and spit water into his face. Then she rolled away and splashed water at him with her tail.
“Watch out,” Chentelle cried, laughing. “Don’t get your cuts—” Then she became aware of something else. “Oh, no! Hurry, get out of the water.”
Sulmar bolted into action. Before she even realized he was moving, the Tengarian snatched her into his arms. He carried her to shore in a half-dozen powerful strides and dropped her protectively behind him. He whirled to face the sea, sweeping his sword from its rock, raising it, and dropping into a balanced crouch.
“No Sulmar,” she said, gasping for breath. “It’s not that kind of threat.”
She pointed to the water splashing with renewed vigor against the rocky shore. “It’s just the sea. Without my song to hold it back, the waves will become agitated again. I didn’t want your wounds to get wet.”
She felt the tension ease once more from the Tengarian. He even smiled when he reached down to help her stand. “I apologize for overreacting. I am not yet accustomed to—”
“I understand. I thank you for the gesture.” For had the danger been to her, and immediate, he might well have saved her life. His action had indicated a readiness to do just that. Now, however, he was steadying himself, evidently having used more energy than was wise in his present state.
Chentelle called a brief farewell to the dolphins, then returned to the campsite.
She retrieved her cloak and used it to dry herself, conscious of the man’s careful aversion of gaze. Would he have done that if he really saw her as a child? Then she dressed and put on her boots.
She saw that Sulmar had discarded the ruined food and laid the rest of his belongings by the fire to dry. He turned and met her eyes. “My lady, thank you for returning my sword. And—thank you for saving my life.”
She smiled. “was happy to help. But I am on an urgent errand, and I am afraid I must leave you now.” she was privately pleased, however, that he was no longer calling her “girl.”
“If I may ask—where is it that you go, my lady?”
She paused. Her Gift had shown her that the man could be trusted, but the dream had convinced her that secrecy was vital. “I am—seeking someone.”
“Is it possible that you would need a companion?”
Chentelle started to decline, but Sulmar interrupted her. “My lady, I have lived all of my years according to the Oath of Discipline and the teachings of the Noble Path, but in the days of my suffering I lost even that. My anger and my bitterness threatened to consume me, and I wandered with no true destiny. My life was finished, my soul destined for the Abyss. But you intervened.
“There is a law within the Oath of Discipline that demands repayment for the gift of a life. You may demand any service from me that you wish. You may also choose your reward from among my lands, my offices, or my marriageable children. Alas, your options there are few.”
Sulmar knelt before her. “My lady,” he said. “I offer you my service. I beg you to make me your liegeman. I am without destiny. If you do not accept, my disgrace will be complete.”
“You don’t understand,” Chentelle said, taken aback. The man had swung from helplessness to seeming contempt, and now to—what? “I can’t ask you to do this. There may be great dangers involved.”
“Then you have more reason to accept my vow,” the Tengarian said. “I am a warrior. Once I have sworn my loyalty, no danger will reach you without overcoming my sword. I beg you, my lady, accept my service.”
Chentelle’s Gift showed her the depth of his sincerity, of his determination, of his need. How could she accept such service? The man had no way of knowing the terrors they might face. But how could she refuse the longing she sensed in his plea? It was true that as he mended, he could become a formidable protector. And it would be good to have the company. “All right,” she said. “I accept you as my liegeman, but only until I finish my journey.”
Sulmar touched his head to the sand. “I swear myself to your service,” he said. “You are my liege, and I will accept no other duty until you release me from my vow.”
Chentelle reached down and helped him to his feet. “Fine,” she said, “but nor more bowing. I just want someone to travel with me.”
“Until the journey’s end,” he said.
“Until the journey’s end,” she repeated, feeling a strange power within the words.
He smiled. “But I hope any formidable threats have the grace to wait a few days, as I regain my strength. I wouldn’t want you to be obliged to rescue me again.”
She laughed. “I hope so, too.” Then she reconsidered her decision not to tell him her mission. Surely he needed to know it, to best serve her welfare. “I seek the apprentice of the wizard A’pon Boemarre,” she said. “We must locate him and deliver a message from the High Bishop of Norivika. We will find him south of here, along a rocky coast.”
Sulmar nodded. “Allow me a moment to prepare.”
He sifted through the wreckage of his boat, salvaging some canvas from the sail and a length of rope. He used his knife to shape the canvas into a rough tunic, using the rope to secure the waist. He sheathed his sword and secured the scabbard and the small knife to his makeshift belt. Then he pulled on his still-soggy boots and kicked sand over the fire. He lifted his burlap sack over one shoulder and her pack over the other.
“Very creative, liegeman,” Chentelle teased. “It may be that you will become a tailor in your later years.”
“This will be adequate for now,” he said flatly.
* * *
They walked through the day, taking only brief stops to share the last of Chentelle’s drinking water. Luckily, the day was pleasant and the sea breeze kept them cool. As they moved south, the coast became a thin strip bordering a rocky cliff dotted with small caves. They investigated these but found no sign of human presence.
As evening approached, Chentelle began to worry. The sky to the south was filled with storm clouds, and there was still no sign of the wizard’s apprentice. Sulmar was bearing up well, but she knew he needed to get a good night’s rest so that his healing could proceed. As it was, only the healing of her Gift had made him able to travel without soon tiring. Also, she was hungry. Sulmar could always catch some fish or crabs once they stopped, but the rocky coast offered little forage for an elven appetite.
There was a rumble of thunder in the distance, and something else. “Did you hear that?” Chentelle asked.
“Yes, lady. We should find shelter before the storm hits.”
“No, not the thunder. I thought I hears rooster crow. Did you hear it?”
“No, lady. But they say elven ears are more keen than human.”
“If it was a yardbird, then there should be people nearby.” She looked back at the storm front. “We should hurry.”
As they continued south, Chentelle kept her ears alert She heard the rooster again, and this time Sulmar hear it, too. They picked up their pace, all but running over the uneven shore. Soon, they sighted a small flock of chickens grazing on the sparse greenery that clung to the cliffs. A narrow crevice ran between two large slabs of rock, leading into the cliff’s face.
They slid through the crevice and into a gap surrounded by gray rock. The dark mouth of a cave opening beckoned from the far side of the clearing. Chentelle started across, but stopped at the touch of Sulmar’s hand.
“Be wary, my lady,” he said, sliding in front of her. “There may be danger.”
There might indeed be danger. Her awareness was mixed. Cautiously, they worked their way toward the cave.
“Be off with you!” called a harsh voice from deep within the cave.
Had they found him? “My name is Chentelle,” she called back. “I am looking for—”
A blinding flash cut off her words. A billowing sphere of flame erupted from the cave. Sulmar grabbed her and pulled her into the shelter of some rocks as the fireball struck the boulder behind them. There was a deafening explosion, and a cascade of rock fragments showered down on them. Chentelle pressed her hands to her ears, trying to shut out the echoes of the blast.
“I want none of your talk,” said the voice. “I said be off!”
The presence of such magic suggested that they were getting close to their objective. “Please,” Chentelle said. “You have to help me find the apprentice of A’pon Boemarre.”
There was no reply.
Chentelle waited. The silence stretched out interminably. Finally she had enough. She stood and brushed the dust from her dress. “You don’t have to be so rude!” she said indignantly.
Sulmar jumped to his feet beside her, sword poised, though it would surely be useless against the kind of magic they had just seen. “My lady! Do not expose yourself!”
She set her little jaw. “I must accomplish my mission.”
“Why do you seek the wizard’s apprentice?” the voice called. It was closer, now, just beyond the mouth of the cave.
“I carry a message for him,” Chentelle said, “from the High Bishop of Norivika.”
A figure detached itself from the darkness of the cave. The man, if it was a man, was covered completely in a dark gray cloak. The face was shadowed by a deep cowl. Even the hands were concealed by voluminous sleeves. A thin wooden rod extended from one of the sleeves. It was a mandril wand, used to focus the powers of Wood Lore, and it was aimed directly at Chentelle and her liegeman. The figure halted a half-dozen paces away.
“Speak your message,” it said.
“How can we,r; Chentelle demanded, “until we know to whom we speak? I will not risk delivering it to a minion of evil.”
“Lady,” Sulmar breathed, as if in pain. He clearly feared that her sharp tongue was about to get them both blasted by fire.
The wand wavered slightly, then dropped to the figure’s side. A hand came up and pulled back the cowl, revealing a lean, unhandsome countenance: the face she had seen in her dream. The man was tall, taller even than Sulmar, but thin to the point of gauntness. He stared back at her with eyes full of bitterness and sorrow.
“I am A’stoc,” he said, “onetime apprentice to the Great Destroyer.”
Copyright © 1998 by Piers Anthony Jacob, James Richey Goolsby, and Alan Riggs