This snippet post is a quote from the second book in the series of four that Naitachal stars in.
It should give you a fairly good idea of what the Nitathil are like.
Similar to the drow, these Dark Elves may have different mannerisms and completely different views on music, ornamentation and many of the other pleasures of life... but they have an amazingly similar view of the surface world.. as something to raid and crush for their pleasure.
In The Realm Of Darkness
The cavern was dark and chill, far below the world's surface as it was, lit here and there with the dim, smokeless, sorcerous blue flames that were all the light the Dark Elves, the Nithathili, needed. No ornaments marred the smoothness of the stone walls, no noise marred the heavy quiet. Servants moved with silent, careful grace through the dimness like so many black-robed shadows. These were men and women of the lowest castes, coldly beautiful as their betters but expendable, subject to regal whim or sacrifice. They glanced warily at the regal figure slumped on the obsidian throne as they passed him, sensing the dark waves of his thoughts, not daring to disturb him, not daring to do anything at all that might rouse his interest in them.
Another had no such fears. Tanarchal strode boldly forward, black cloak swirling dramatically about him. He stopped at the proper Distance of Respect, which was technically just out of reach of thrown weapon or spell, and granted the enthroned figure the Ninefold Dignities bow, not quite showing respect, not quite showing contempt. "Greetings, my Lord Haralachan."
Haralachan, lord of the Nightblood Clan, was tall, ageless and elegant in a hard-edged, chill, predatory way, as all his kin. His skin was dark as his silky robes, his hair a startling mass of silver; his sharply slanted blue eyes, fully adapted to the darkness, glinted with reddish light. He did not stir at Tanarchal's greeting; to have straightened would have shown too much respect to this arrogant creature.
This ambitious creature, Haralachan thought. Walk warily, Tanarchal.
Tanarchal showed no such inclination. "My lord, I was wondering when you were planning to hold a new hunt."
"When it pleases me," Haralachan murmured.
"Ah, of course. But I—and I speak for many of the clan in this—I was wondering when one specific hunt would be held. A hunt for the traitor, for Naitachal."
Haralachan betrayed nothing of his inner start. 'That will come."
"But when, my lord? You are far too wise and cunning to let the traitor escape vengeance. Your kinsman," Tanarchal added delicately, "though he is."
Now Haralachan did straighten on his obsidian throne, casting chill waves of menace at the nobleman, seeing him flinch ever so slightly. "Vengeance will be taken," the Dark Elf lord said flatly. "Do you doubt me?'
"I? Not I, my lord." But the glint in the slanted eyes said otherwise, and Haralachan added coolly, "Do you not? Do you not, indeed?"
Haralachan rose, drawing Power about him in a swirl of Darkness. "Do you challenge me, Tanarchal? Do you dare?"
He felt the other give way before the display of greater Power. "No, my lord," Tanarchal murmured, and it wasn't quite a snarl. "Of course not."
"Wise." Haralachan settled back in his throne. "Be assured that treason shall be punished. All treason, Tanarchal."
Tanarchal's bow of submission was perfect and precise. "Of course, my lord. I never did doubt it." But as he left, the nobleman added one final sally: "And may the day of vengeance come soon."
Haralachan slumped, losing himself in brooding once more, only vaguely aware of the wary servants. No, they were nothing, hardly worth a thought. Even Tanarchal was barely of importance; he could always meet with a quiet accident should the need arise, or be tricked into outright treason. It was the true traitor who held Haralachan's attention once more, the traitor Naitachal, he who had been of such a high caste that treason—particularly of such a disgusting, formerly unthinkable form—had seemed impossible. After all, had any Nithathil ever considered, even for the slightest moment of softness, turning from the Darkness that was his proper heritage?
There was worse than the existence of a traitor, Haralachan thought bitterly. As Tanarchal had so graciously reminded him, as many a Nithathili nobleman had been reminding him all along—as if he'd ever thought to forget—Naitachal was his clansman, his kinsman. To be kin to such a one was to come perilously close to weakness. While Tanarchal had, of course, not dared risk a challenge, knowing Haralachan to be so much the more Powerful, he'd issued a very clear warning: even the mightiest of lords could be overthrown were that treacherous kinsman not punished.
Always assuming, of course, that the traitor could actually be located and captured. In all the days since the betrayal of his people, not one trace of Naitachal had been found.
Haralachan straightened with a hiss. Enough of this useless brooding! "You."
His hand stabbed out at one servant. The chosen one froze in such wide-eyed, total terror that for a cruelly delicious moment the Dark Elf lord toyed with the thought of saving this one for the hunt.
No. Not yet.
First let the creature serve a more current use as messenger. "Bring Rualath to me."
No Nithathil trusted another; such a weakness as trust was the essence of stupidity. But of course as clan lord he had his consort: Rualath, chosen as much for her sorceries as for her caste—almost as high as his own—and her potential fertility, so important in a predominantly infertile race. Rualath specialized in strange, experimental magics. Sometimes they failed in most bizarre ways, but just as often those magics resulted in new, deliciously twisted forms of Power: Power which of course she shared with her lord in exchange for the political pride of place he deigned give her.
The servant cringed even further. "B-but, lord, your lady consort is in the midst of her sorceries...."
Aaah, yes, this one would make fine hunting prey. "I have given a command," Haralachan said with deceptive mildness. "Obey it."
Slumped on his obsidian throne, he watched with half-lidded, predatory eyes as the terrified servant scurried to obey.
The room was small and dank, further below the surface even than the audience cavern; the thin drafts of air that stole their way within smelled strongly of ancient rock and older sorceries. There were no furnishings save for heavy, unornamented chests full of sorcerous scrolls and artifacts, sealed tightly against damp and possible spies. The only light was cast by three dull red flames from candles of black wax set in a carefully spaced triangle on the bare stone floor.
Tall and coldly lovely, Rualath stood precisely in the center of the triangle, her dark skin and robes a darker mass in the dimness, her long, straight fall of silver hair tinged as red as her eyes by the candle flames; she smiled thinly in satisfaction. Before her, a book lay open to a page marked in convoluted sorcerous equations in her own handwriting, and a little ground squirrel squealed in terror in her hand as she stroked it absently.
Yes, and yes... the spell had all the ingredients it needed, or so her experiments had revealed so far, all the ingredients save one, and the small creature she held would provide that.
Rualath took a deep, steadying breath, cold blue eyes shutting for a moment as she focused her Power, then began her chant. The twisting, ugly syllables whispered and echoed through the chamber as the magic grew... grew. Without slowing her chant, she drew a knife of black obsidian, caught the squirrel in a firmer grip and—
"My lady! My lady Rualath!"
Her concentration shattered. The channelled magic spilled away and was lost. The squirrel twisted in her hand, sinking sharp little fangs into her thumb, and Rualath snarled in frustration, hurling the animal aside so hard it broke against a wall. She whirled on the servant, who sank to his knees in abject surrender.
"What? Speak, fool, or you take that beast's place now! What do you want?"
Head bent to the stone floor, not daring to so much as look up at her fury, the servant stammered out, "Th-the Lord Haralachan bids you c-come to him."
Rualath glanced about her sorcery room impatiently. That he should call her now, when he knew she was in the midst of her experiments, and call her as if she was some erring subject! And yet, and yet... was this, she wondered warily, a trap? Rualath never considered that he might have tired of her; there had never been anything like the soft stupidity of love (she thought the word with distaste) between them. No, no, just as Haralachan needed her sorceries, so much greater in their way than his own, so he had his uses. Power, Rualath thought, and for once didn't mean sorcerous strength.
Ah well. Haralachan's summons was inconvenient at best and a marginal insult at worst, but she would answer his summons for the sake of that power. With a glance at the shuddering servant to fix his face in her mind for future use (how much stronger the life force of even such an inferior Nithathil than a mere animal), Rualath swept from the chamber, which neatly locked and sealed itself away as she left. The corridors of the Nightblood Clan realm were as blank of any wasteful ornamentation as the audience cavern, barely lighted since any who belonged here knew every trap and every safe way. Any who did not—such fools never regretted their mistakes for long.
Rualath entered the audience cavern with every sorcerous sense alert.
There sat Haralachan on his black throne. Her own throne, ever so slightly smaller, stood empty beside it. As Rualath entered, feeling his wary sorcery sweeping over her, hunting for spells, weapons—even as she, equally wary, was doing the same to him—he gestured to her to sit. So. He had no intention of replacing her. If he had, another would have already held that seat. Rualath sank with conscious grace to die smooth, cold hardness of the obsidian, smoothing her skirts about her slender form. "What troubles you, my lord?"
"Thoughts of a traitor."
"One particular traitor." Haralachan paused deliberately, then continued, "One who is-—was—of our clan, our caste."
Rualath smiled without humor. The nobles have been after you again, my lord, have they? "A waste, that. He had shown signs of being one of the mightiest Necromancers our clan had ever known."
Haralachan glared at her, eyes like blue ice. "More than a waste! Do you not realize what his loss means to us? With all that Power at his call, he willfully betrayed us, his blood-kin, his people! He deprived us of that Power and the chance to use it against the humans and those soft, light-loving White Elves."
"Yes. There is that, of course." Rualath winced delicately in distaste. "Why did he do it?" she wondered softly. "What appeal could the weak, garish light possibly hold for him? And this... music." She used the human word, since the Dark Elves had no word for something that was unknown to them; they alone of all the elven folk had no music. "How could he take pleasure, and to such an unseemly extent, in—in mere sound?'
"You wander from the track." Haralachan's voice was chill. "He betrayed us. He stole Power from us. He turned from his clan and honor to the soft, foolish forces of light—and by all the Ways of Darkness, we must see that he pays for his treason."
"Oh, indeed. But how?" Rualath paused, considering. "Naitachal is skilled enough in magic to have kept us from tracking his aura all this while, and by now it has become hopelessly entangled with that of the humans with whom he consorts."
"That," Haralachan said coldly, "is your concern. Your sorceries are stronger than his." He glanced her way, elegant silver brow raised. "They are, are they not?"
Rualath met that suddenly speculative glance with a firm, chilly stare. "Of course they are. What would you have me do?"
"Snare him, bring him to us, I care not how. Only do it."
Oh, so easily said, my dear lord, Rualath told him silently. As if you didn't know I have already tried, and failed, to catch the traitor. Yes, my lord, snap your fingers and watch the trained animal run through its paces. If I did not need you, my lord...
But she did, for now. The nobles would follow Haralachan till they found some weakness in him. And neither they nor she had found that weakness yet, so: "I accept the challenge, my lord," Rualath said, carefully putting into her voice not the servant's humility but the hunter's eagerness. "I shall bring Naitachal before you."
Oh, yes. I shall. Somehow.
Naitachal and Eliathanis certainly didn't. The King, Oberon, and his Queen, Titania, apparently rule over two courts, and Naitachal finds both of them supremely intimidating. They practically ooze power, and the way Titania gives Naitachal interested looks, disturbs the dark elf more than he can say. He tries to give as little information as possible, because of this, but apparently they have truth spells. Really strong truth spells.
Naitachal is very not pleased with this. His tactful declaration that he's hardly worthy of her interest does soothe the Queen's feathers, and he thanks his ancestors that she doesn't seem too interested in pushing him, or Eli, into bed with her.
Particularly not when her husband was looking at them so speculatively too. Who knew iron-resistance was so valuable? Naitachal didn't. That's why he's currently trying to fend off an elven mage who wants to draw his blood and Eli's for experimentation.
Although, if it would gain them something.. Perhaps he should look into this further. Just a bit. After all, he doesn't want to be empty handed, does he? And this magic that they use, that makes things real, out of thin air is utterly fascinating. Perhaps.. a trade of information?
Naitachal is displeased to find out that the same things that make him insensitive to iron, are the same things that mean he will never be able to duplicate their matter-construction deeds by himself. This means he has to find other ways to, it seems, earn a living. So far, he's found himself getting along with some of these 'sidhe' so as to speak, and he's getting even better at Bardic magic, which is in his view, scant consolation for his inability to master the conjuration skill. Sure, it impresses these elves, and especially the ladies, but it's not as practical as say, being able to make clothes appear from the air, as these people can, right down to what he's been told are their adolescents.
And another thing that drives him around the bend is, that he's apparently so much younger than they. Like a baby, apparently, on the relativity. So is Eli, really. He's not sure if he's pleased to be called a prodigy, pleased to be chased after by women, or frustrated to be indulged and cossetted like a child.
No, wait, even the latter has positive attributes. He didn't exactly get a good childhood before, anyway. Well, as long as they don't start baby talking him, they should be just fine. It's gotten to the point that, as he swaps song after song from way back home, he's showered with things whenever he uses his magic to entertain an audience.
The appreciation from pale skinned elves, when he's more used to being their scapegoat and the thing that flaps in the night, is fascinating and rather.. addictive, though that way of thinking is something that he feels sheepish about.
At least the food is good, the people are nice enough to make a lot of it for him, he's got a nice place to live, permanent hot water, clothing is plentiful, and more importantly to his peace of mind, he and Eli are treated with respect.
Eli's enjoying himself putting pedophiles out of their misery with this 'Wild Hunt' they keep talking about.. Odd that he's the one who's doing the nonviolent vocation nowadays while Eli is showing .. unusual glee in the hamstringing of cruel humans.
All in all, he'd be perfectly happy here.. If he only knew what had happened back there, after they left.
Oh, and if Titania would only stop giving him those interested glances. She's gorgeous, but so inhuman and so unearthly that it's giving him what he's reasonably sure are 'the creeps'.
The White Elf had never noticed, or seemingly remembered his own demise, guarding Naitachal's back during the attack from those humans that the traitorous princess had instigated, after pretending to be the niece of a count. A count, who, it turned out, was also the traitor, who'd aided her in her attempt to turn the nonhuman races and humans against each other..
Spirit or not, the dark elf refused to let go of his friend's hand.
He could not forget the sight of Eliathanis' corpse on the funeral pyre. For all that Eliathanis was solid, in his heart, Naitachal feared that if he let go, he would lose him again, and now, with the Bar gone, it would likely be permanent.
No. Not again. He'd had to pick up the pieces once before. This time, where Eli would go, he would go too.
The first indication that they were no longer in their own world was that the sky was a sunless glowing twilight, and all around them, a forest-turned-city grew. Their approach was registered by four guards at this city's gate, armored fantastically in silver.
"Sanctuary, please." The dark elf necromancer surrendered his pride and begged, pushed beyond his limits, and frightened, faced by the unknown at every corner, and knowing, with the spell they threw over him to discern his nature, that he did not belong here in this dimension. True, his magic resonated, stronger than ever before, drinking in the ambient magic in the vicinity like a drug. True, he felt stronger already. True, Eliathanis seemed more solid, which was a godsend.. but this was not his realm, he couldn't give them an appropriate response to their query of who goes there, and he didn't want to turn back. Back was the tunnel and an uncertain fate. He wasn't risking that. Wasn't risking going anywhere else, either. Not without Eli.
"Our home is lost. We have no way back. I beg for sanctuary."
Eliathanis had been worried for Naitachal when he'd first registered the other elf's convulsive grip on his hand or wrist. He'd never been willing to let go, not once, and from Naitachal, who was normally flippant and independent, this behavior worried the pale elf. He'd tried to calm him down, allowing him to hold hands, or remaining in constant contact with him, to try to reassure him with a touch that things would be fine, but it hadn't seemed to work as well as it had the first time.
And Naitachal stubbornly, steadfastly refused to even explain it. Any mention of it caused the dark elf's brow to furrow and his grip, which loosened to a comfortable level at times, would tighten until it almost hurt. Almost.
Eliathanis was made of sterner stuff than that. He wasn't one to panic, and trusted in the gods' decisions. He knew he was a goodly elf, and by his beliefs, this meant he had nothing to fear; by those same beliefs, he knew Naitachal would meet him again one way or the other.
Naitachal may have been flippant, annoying, obnoxious and too sure that he was intimidating for his own good, but the dark elf meant well, and Eli loved him, in his own way.
This world was strange to him, and he instinctively knew it wasn't his, not really, but it seemed fair, even if it had no true sky. He could see perfectly well and the buildings he saw, half -tree, half stained glass or carved wooden panels, were lovely. The streams and meadows that intermixed with the grove buildings looked fair to him as well. He hoped it was hospitable, but he wasn't as badly off as Nait thought him to be, and he was more worried for his frightened friend than he was for himself.
The gate guards looked them over curiously, inching backwards from them as if hey had a plague, which worried Naitachal further. And then the call was sent out to bring the news to their King and Queen, Oberon and Titania.
These newcomers didn't wear anything any elf they'd ever seen, wore, for they wore iron on them and though this... Eliathanis looked much like them, his holding iron in the form of ornamented steel...Well, it pretty much said neither of them was the traditional elf. It also meant they couldn't use Gates.. which were the teleporting means normally used by the inhabitants of this realm.
Which meant they'd have to meet the king and queen after being relieved of the death-metal, the guards informed them, asking that they shuck off their iron weapons, ornaments and in some parts, reinforced-armor.
...That was a lot of iron, the guards had been shivering and avoiding. A lot. Iron was death-metal to the people here; merely touching it would burn them, which was why Eliathanis and Naitachal had to disarm themselves, as the four armored guards, taller and stronger than they, had moved away from them, surreptitiously avoiding the aura their iron armor and weapons gave them until those artifacts were removed and wrapped heavily in cloth. Lots of cloth.
Each of the two had been fully armed and armored; and they ended up putting them in sealed wooden, silk-lined chest, bound with spells, before they were approached by the now less traumatized guards, who, in gratitude for their willing disarming, offered them a place to sleep, a small tree-home that they could stay in, until the king and queen returned to Elfhame Logres.
Naitachal was stunned to see the elves conjuring up food and drinks, fresh clean clothes, and what amounted, in his mind, to a lovely piece of habitation. A bit heavily ornamented and in plant and animal patterns rather than the skulls he was used to, but nevertheless, Naitachal decided, as he and Eliathanis began to explore the new house given to them, this was a most intriguing use of magic. He wanted it. Wanted it a lot. It was.. never-endingly useful.
He would have to ask if they could settle in, and then, perhaps he could ask if he and Eli could live here. And learn. And for once, being able to learn magic wouldn't involve death, dead people, or musical notes.
Sometime later, they were questioned by a pair of healers, here to ascertain their own health. The healers were stunned to realize that not only could these two elves both handle iron; but the black skinned one was both a necromancer.. a horrible vocation... as well as an accomplished Bard. That was unprecedented. Bards, true Bards, could make magic with their music; and their testing Naitachal proved him to be quite.. adept at both.
Stunning and frightening. Naitachal's bearing and clothing didn't exactly lead to a comforting impression, though, from the way he held on to the white skinned elf, as if the white elf was the most precious thing in the world to him, the healers would have guessed they were lovers.
Or perhaps that was just their wishful thinking.
Kevin squirmed uncomfortably in the saddle of the riding mule, trying to get the yards and yards of gauzy, gaudy skirts to spread out properly, grimly trying to ignore the pretty chiming of little silver bells every time he moved.
"Don't squirm, dear," Lydia cooed. "It tears threads."
Kevin glared at her. The warrior was a sugar-sweet confection, her tanned face softened with powder and paint, her lithe, muscular form disguised by a frilly bodice and layer after layer of gauzy skirts in a dozen shades of pink. A silky cloak of dusty rose shot through with gold threads was thrown over the whole thing, her black curls—and Tich'ki—hidden under its cowl. Yes, but at least she's a woman! I feel like an idiot.
What made it worse was that he knew he looked rather alarmingly like a girl in all this frippery: a slightly scrawny one, perhaps, a bit too athletic even for a dancer, but a girl nevertheless. The bardling rubbed a reflexive hand over his chin, not sure whether to be discouraged or glad right now that at almost sixteen he still didn't need to shave very often. Smooth cheeks would help the illusion.
If only the illusion wasn't quite so good!
Eliathanis, riding beside Naitachal, was plainly feeling the same way, sitting his mule in silent misery. Kevin bit back a laugh. What a pretty girl the White Elf made!
Both elves were, of course, slim and beardless as all their kind, and despite Eliathanis' martial calling, their long, silky hair and elegant, fine-boned faces made it quite easy for them to pass as women. Naitachal's dark skin had been lightened to a more nondescript tan with judicious use of powder, making him look more like a half-elven hybrid than a perilous Dark Elf. Unlike the unhappy Eliathanis, he seemed to be having a wonderful time.
After all, Kevin mused, how often does a necromancer get a chance to act silly?
It had been Eliathanis' dancing girls, of course, who had lent them all this gear, with the understanding that it would be left for the dancers to gather up again outside the walls. The dancers, the bardling decided, were definitely getting the better of the deal, winding up with what was left of Lydia's not quite honestly gained coins as well as getting their gear back.
Well, actually, it was Councilman Selden who was paying for the whole thing. In a manner of speaking, anyhow.
Kevin censed suddenly. There to one side stood Empty Eyes, the elven leader of the street gang.
"Gently," Naitachal murmured. "You're a harmless dancing girl, that's all you are." The Dark Elf straightened slightly, startled, then chuckled. "Well now, what do you know?" he continued softly. "Our disguises really do work! Did you feel that slight tingling just now?"
"That dissipated shame of an elf tried casting a Dispel Magic spell on us!"
Naitachal leaned sideways in the saddle to give Empty Eyes a flirtatious wink and a blown kiss—Kevin exploded into laughter, just in time managing to turn it into girlish titterings.
"L-look at his face! He—he—he doesn't know what hit him!"
Naitachal swept back his silky hair with a toss of his head. "Too skinny for my taste!" he declared in a light tenor so unlike his usual baritone that Kevin burst into laughter all over again.
Eliathanis shot the Dark Elf a dour glance. "Stop that! Show some—some self-control!"
Naitachal grinned. "Loosen up, dear! You look ravishing."
"Leave me alone, will you? Or are you really enjoying this?"
The Dark Elf's grin widened. "Of course I am! Come now, cousin-elf, where's the harm in it? It's rather fun to play pretend!"
Eliathanis only growled. Kevin wiped his eyes, trying not to smear his makeup, hearing Tich'ki, there in Lydia's hair, tittering so hard she was having trouble catching her breath.
"Straighten up, dears," Lydia cooed. "Here are the guards. Look pretty, now!"
Kevin tensed all over again, seeing the men's grimfaced competence, the weapons never far from their hands, hearing the guards muttering something about "Selden" and "Those thieves aren't going to get past us." Sure, their disguise had been good enough to fool Empty Eyes, who had probably been drunk or half-drugged anyhow. But these were sharp-eyed professionals. Could it possibly fool them as well?
Apparently it could. "Look at the girl in pink," one said, nudging another. "Bet she'd warm a cold night!"
"Warm it, hell, she'd set it on fire!"
"The one next to her's not bad, either." Mortified, Kevin realized they were discussing him now.
"Awfully stringy," someone muttered.
"But there's something to be said for those acrobatic types!" The guard who'd first spoken leered up at the bardling. "Come on, sweetie, give us a kiss for the road."
Feeling tike a prize idiot, Kevin managed to work his lips into what he hoped was a flirtatious smile. To his horror, the guard reached up, trying to pull his head down. Before the bardling could panic, Naitachal leaned down to whisper conspiratorially:
"You don't want to kiss her."
"Oh, I don't, do I?"
"Heavens, no! The last man she kissed got so hot and worked up he followed her for days. We finally had to throw him in a lake to cool him off. You would not have believed the steam!"
All the guards laughed. "Bet you could raise some steam," one of them shouted.
"Oh, darling, you wouldn't believe what 1 can do!" Naitachal gave them all a dazzling smile—"My, my, my, what handsome fellows you all are! What a shame we have to leave just now." The very essence of a delighted dancing girl, the Dark Elf laughed and simpered and blew kisses at them all—Only Kevin caught the faint hint of contempt flickering in the kohl-rimmed blue eyes. "Now, we really must say good-bye," Naitachal said, pretending to pout—"We have such a long way to go!"
"Stay here, then!"
"Oh, darlings, I'd adore that. But ..." He waved a helpless hand. "What would the troop do without me? They would be simply lost, the poor dears. Ta-ta, darlings!"
Fun was fun, but once they were safely out of sight of the city walls, the party was of one mind, searching until they'd found a small pool screened by a grove of trees. Kevin practically threw himself from his mule and gladly stripped off his girlish finery, scrubbing and scrubbing till he'd washed every last trace of paint and powder from his face.
"Ugh. Can't see how women can stand wearing all that stuff."
"Frankly, neither can I!" Lydia straightened, shaking out her damp black hair and tousling the curls dry with her hands. "I mean, I like looking nice as much as any other woman." She winked at Kevin. "You should see me when I dress up pretty! But all that stuff I was wearing just now made me feel like I was carrying a prison around with me!"
In the middle of strapping on her sword, she paused, looking out over the lake, eyebrows raised. "My, isn't that a pleasant sight!"
Naitachal, some distance away, had stripped to the waist to wash off the last of the disguising powder. His body was inhumanly slim and graceful but undeniably male, smooth muscles rippling and dark skin gleaming with every move. Realizing the others were watching him, he disappeared into the bushes, emerging shrouded once more in his black cloak. And now every trace of frivolity was gone.
It's almost as though he was drunk before, and now he's sober again, Kevin thought.
Maybe that wasn't so bizarre an idea. After all, for a Dark Elf, a necromancer used to a grim world of sorcery and death, being suddenly thrown into the middle of so much vibrant, busy life really must have been intoxicating!
As the bardling retrieved his lute from the pile of dancing girls' gear, he heard Naitachal mutter:
"Powers, I'm glad that's over."
"I thought you were enjoying yourself." Eliathanis' voice was cool with disapproval.
Naitachal glanced sharply at the White Elf—"Up to a point. One moment more, though, and I think I would have thrown up."
"From fright?" Kevin asked in disbelief.
"Hardly!" The Dark Elf gave him a fierce little grin. "From a surfeit of sugar!"
"Uh, fellows?" the bardling cut in. "I know you're enjoying this bickering, but can we please leave it for some other time? We've had a rather busy day, agreed?"
"Oh, agreed." Naitachal raised an eyebrow. "I think we'd best keep watch tonight. If Eliathanis and I could climb up here, so could someone else."
"Empty Eyes?" Kevin asked. "Ah, I mean, that elf, the leader of the gang." The bardling paused. "Whatever he is."
"Empty Eyes," Naitachal echoed darkly. "Well put, Kevin. Empty, he most surely is. I don't know what his problems might be, what he's doing here, why he's an exile from his clan—Oh, don't give me that haughty stare, White Elf, you know I'm right about that. And frankly, I don't care about those problems. I felt Death hovering over him. Between drugs and alcohol and botched attempts at sorcery, he hasn't much longer to live."
The Dark Elf shrugged. "You've seen my conjured blade. His should have been just as impressive. But it was as dull and nearly dead as the fading life force within him." Naitachal shrugged. "Enough about him."
"I'd just like to know who hired him," Kevin cut in.
Eliathanis glanced at the bardling in respect. "The swords those thugs were carrying bothered you, too? Swords are expensive things; most brigands just can't afford them, or the time needed to learn how to use them."
"Great," Lydia muttered. "Just what we need: another enemy. The sooner we get out of here, the better we're going to sleep,"
"Exactly. And," Kevin added sternly, "that's why we can't waste any more time. We have to start working on exactly how we're going to manage to escape."
"Bossy human," Tich'ki ceased, but for once there wasn't much sting in her voice. "Ai-yi, I'm getting pretty tired of Westerin myself," she confessed. "Too many touchy guards for my taste. Let's see, now ... I can not control every blasted guard that's going to be watching the city gates. Anyone else here able to work invisibility spells?"
"I guess not," the fairy said with a sigh.
"What about illusions, though?" Lydia asked. "What if we cast some really terrifying illusion, something that would scare the guards away from one of the gates—"
"By ‘we' you mean me, I take it?" Naitachal said drily. He shook his head. "Oh, I probably could work up something to frighten a human mind, even if illusion-casting is a bit outside the scope of my ... art But these are trained warriors, not children. Some of them might run, yes—but the rest would almost certainly attack. I don't care to test my body against their spears."
"We need something more tangible than illusion," Kevin mused. "Shape-shifting ... except only one of us can shape-shift." He glanced at the Dark Elf. "What about disguising us by magic?"
Naitachal held up a helpless hand. "Now that really is out of the scope of my sorcery. Anyone else?"
"Hey, don't look at me!" Tich'ki said. "I can't change anyone but myself."
"I have no such talent," Eliathanis admitted.
"Well, I certainly don't!" Lydia added. "Besides, I've heard those spells are just as easy to break as illusions. The last thing we'd want is to suddenly change back right in the middle of the guards—And you know. Fate being the fickle lady she is, that's just what would happen! No, we need some more mundane disguises. Something that doesn't depend on magic ... Naw, any ordinary disguises would be too easy to penetrate."
"Would they?" Kevin wondered—"Go on, Lydia. What of roid physical disguises?"
She gave him a doubtful glance, but continued, "Well, let's see ... By now both the gang and the guards know they're looking for three men and a woman: two humans and two elves, one Dark, one White. Don't have to worry about disguising Tich'ki."
The fairy stretched her wings. "Right. I can always shrink and hide in your hair, the way we did when we were getting out of Smithian."
"But it's hard to hide elves ...."
"Not too easy to disguise such a ... charmingly endowed woman, either," Naitachal added gallantly.
Lydia raised a brow. "Flattery from a Dark Elf?"
His smile was wry. "It does happen."
""Yes, yes, I know you're full of surprises," Kevin interrupted. "But can we please get back to the subject?"
‘Jealous?" Tich'ki prodded.
"No! I just don't want to spend the rest of my life in a Westerin prison. Or a Westerin graveyard, either'"
"Right." Lydia returned to her musing. "All right. We agree that it's hard to disguise elves."
Naitachal held up a hand. "To disguise male elves ..." he corrected slowly. "Particularly serious, combative types." He turned to look at Eliathanis, who narrowed his eyes.
"I don't think I like what you're thinking."
Naitachal shrugged. "You're the one who was .. interrogating the dancing girls. I'm sure they'd be happy to help their dear elfy-welty."
"They didn't call me that! And I can't—I won't ..."
The Dark Elf smiled alarmingly. "You can. You will. They did. Listen to me, my friends. I think we're about to find a way out of Westerin!"
Kevin licked his dry lips, thinking feverishly. Maybe he hadn't acted like a leader up to now. Maybe that was because he had been trying too hard to imitate the leaders in the heroic songs, those miracles of bravery who were gifted with unfailing charisma. Well, that was nonsense! The boy who had left Bracklin might never have accepted it, but he was no longer so naive. Such marvelous, infallible heroes like that could never have existed—but those like Master Aidan most certainly did. Master Aidan and those other good, sensible, down-to-earth people who'd saved King Amber. People who tried to understand those they were supposed to lead, who brought them together and got them to concentrate only on their goal.
"All right," Kevin began.
"I said right!"
As the others turned to him, he added sternly, "Aren't you ashamed of yourselves? Did you really mean to rob Count Volmar?"
Ha, that made them start. "What do you mean?" Eliathanis asked coldly. "I am not a thief."
"No? You certainly aren't earning your keep! You were hired to rescue the Lady Charina—not to fight with each other! But bickering seems to be all you can do!"
"Now, Kevin," Lydia began, "that's hardly fair—"
"Let me finish!" He glared at them all. "You, Eliathanis and you, Naitachal: I know there are long hatreds between White and Dark Elves. 1 know those hatreds go back for generations. I don't expect either one of you to settle such ancient grudges overnight. I don't even ask you to try! But I don't think elves of either race had anything to do with the kidnapping and if you really mean to show your peoples' innocence the way you boasted, you had better stop fighting and show some of that famous elvish self-control! Or is that just a myth to make humans respect you?"
"It's not," Naitachal said shortly. "And you do have a point, bardling."
Tich'ki snickered. "Such a daring boy—"
"And you," Kevin's finger stabbed at her with such fervor that she flinched. "You've done nothing so far but snipe at everyone else—I don't care about your background, I don't care what unhappiness you're trying to hide—"
"I'm not!" she protested.
"—but I ‘m beginning to wonder if you're in the pay of the enemy!"
The fairy froze in mid-air. "I most certainly am not!"
"Then stop acting like it!"
Lydia cleared her throat. "Don't you think that's going a bit far, kid?"
Kevin whirled to her. "And as for you, Lydia: look, I know I'm young, I know that compared to you I'm as ignorant of the world as they come. But one thing I am not is an idiot!"
"Oh, I never said—"
"But you think it. And as long as you go on thinking it, you're not letting me do my job."
"The same as all of us: freeing Charina!"
They were getting restless. These weren't naughty children, after all. If he didn't change his tone, Kevin realized, he was going to lose them.
"Listen to me." The bardling pitched his voice as smoothly as ever he'd been taught. "Lydia and I learned something truly alarming, something that makes all our quarrelling the petty thing it is. Carlotta is alive."
"The sorceress?" Eliathanis exclaimed. "But that's impossible! Everyone knows she died years ago!"
"So we were led to think. Carlotta, I repeat, is very much alive. And you and I know there is nothing she would like better than to discredit King Amber's reign." Kevin look a deep breath, stalling, trying to figure out what he was going to say next. "Look you, we all know there's always been an undercurrent of uneasiness, of mistrust, between the different races in the realm. That's not so surprising. It may not be logical, but elf or human, we fear the unknown. And if that unknown takes the form of someone with a different shade of skin "—he glanced at Naitachal—" or a different way of life—" this time his glance took in Lydia "—well, it's all too easy to let fear turn to hate."
"True enough," muttered the Dark Elf, and Eliathanis nodded.
"But for thirty years," the bardling continued, "those different races have managed to live in peace. And why is that? Because King Amber has been such a just, impartial ruler."
This time it was Lydia who nodded—
"Well, Carlotta doesn't like that!" Kevin said. "The more popular a ruler her brother becomes, the more difficult it's going to be for her to replace him. She tried to kill him once before. We all know that. We also know how she failed. But Carlotta has had thirty years to think things over. I guess she's decided to be more devious."
The bardling paused to catch his breath, glancing at the others. They were watching him quite seriously; even Tich'ki showed no sign of her usual mockery.
"Carlotta has to know exactly how things stand between the races," Kevin continued. "What better way for her to destroy King Amber's reign than to use a kidnapping to stir up all that latent hatred? Once the land is torn by strife, what better way for her to seize control?"
"Could be," Tich'ki muttered.
"Not ‘could be,' " Kevin corrected. "Will be, if we don't do something to stop her."
"Why us?" Lydia asked.
Why, indeed? He couldn't blame the woman—who, after all was a mercenary, not a subject of the king for asking. But before Kevin could find a good argument, Naitachal said thoughtfully, "I believe I can guess why Carlotta would choose Count Volmar's niece to kidnap. His father was a true diplomat"
"He was," Eliathanis agreed. "Someone who tried his best to reconcile grievances among the races."
"But Count Volmar," the Dark Elf continued, "is ... shall we say, a bit less friendly towards both our races."
The White Elf nodded wryly.
"That's just it!" Kevin exclaimed. "Carlotta knows about him, she must! That's why she kidnapped Charina, and that's why she made it look as if elves were to blame. Ha, yes, and she probably plans to plant hints in the count's ear—you know, that his handpicked team isn't having any success because the elves in the party are deliberately hindering the hunt, because they don't really want to find Charina!"
‘‘Yes," Lydia agreed. "But you're still not giving me a good reason to risk my neck. These aren't my people or my land, after all."
"No," Kevin admitted. "But if Carlotta wins here, do you think she's really going to stop with one realm? She's a sorceress, Lydia, who can muster the forces of Darkness to her side."
"But why us, Kevin? How can we possibly make a difference?"
"Ah. Well. Because of the manuscript." I'm sorry, Master Aidan, but I don't dare keep it a secret any longer. Hastily, Kevin told the others the reason he'd come to Count Volmar's castle—and what he'd learned about that manuscript
"You mean Carlotta is part fairy'?" Tich'ki yelped. "Her mother mated with a human'?"
"So it seems."
"B-but that's disgusting!"
"Thank you." Lydia gave the fairy a sarcastic bow. "Kevin, go on. Tell us more about this manuscript."
"My Master must have realized Carlotta had returned."
"Then why didn't he go straight to the king?"
"He didn't dare!" Thinking it out as he spoke, Kevin added, "Not while Carlotta had her full powers, anyhow. No, that would be putting King Amber in direct danger. So he sent me after the spell."
"You being expendable, eh?" Naitachal asked.
"Uh, well, I wouldn't put it quite that way, but the king's life is more important."
"Of course," Eliathanis agreed, a little more emphatically than Kevin would have liked. "Kevin, what do you want us to do?"
What—Hey, they're listening to me! They really are! I've won!
Sure, but what was he going to do about it? "I think we're going to have to return to Count Volmar's castle," the bardling said slowly. "We have to retrieve that manuscript. If Carlotta's people really do have Charina, they might be willing to trade her for it"
"What! No!" the White Elf cried. "That's insane!"
"I'm not going to give them the real manuscript! No, no, I'll work up a forgery."
"They'll surely know the difference," Naitachal argued.
"They won't. You see, I had already started copying the manuscript before Charina was kidnapped. I'll put a few pages of the real copy in with the fake, and only Carlotta will be able to tell the difference. But by the time she learns the truth, Charina will be free! Yes, and while we're in the castle, we can tell Count Volmar what we've learned. Who knows? It just might force him to rethink how he feels about elves!"
"Sooner force a stone to walk," the Dark Elf murmured. "But it's worth the attempt."
"I agree," Eliathanis said—
Lydia shrugged. "Me, too—Hey, Tich'ki, you in?"
The fairy shrugged. "Why not? Now all we have to do is get out of the city—Easy. There's only one gang out to get us, and guards watching for us at every gate." She grinned sharply. "If we can escape all that, why, anything else will be a laugh!"
"Ha," Lydia said dourly.
"Huh!" Tich'ki said indignantly. "You were the one who kept asking me questions!"
"And you were the one who wouldn't answer any of them." Naitachal grinned. "I confess; Tich'ki kept after me till she'd roused my curiosity."
"I'm sure," Lydia murmured.
Kevin nearly choked. But then the urge to laugh faded as he realized: "I guess my song didn't work."
"Oh, it did!" an angry voice snapped, and the bardling shot to his feet. "It did, indeed!"
"You just would not stop pulling at my mind! I was in the middle of learning some important information, and you—''
"What's this?" Tich'ki wondered, fluttering around the White Elf. "You're such a fair-haired fellow. What are red hairs doing on your shoulder?"
"Never mind that!" Eliathanis hastily brushed them from him.
"Mmm, and what's this?'' She sniffed audibly. "You taken to wearing perfume, elf?"
"No!" His fair skin reddened. "It—I—"
"Oh, you were learning something, all right!" the fairy taunted. "And I'm sure it was pretty important, too! Maybe nothing to do with the stolen girl, but—"
"I was talking to a troop of dancing girls," the White Elf said with immense dignity. Struggling to ignore Lydia's delighted whoop, he continued, "They travel all over the country. I thought they might know Charina's whereabouts."
"And they really hated talking to such a pretty fellow," Tich'ki teased, then darted sideways in the air as Eliathanis, his face a fiery red by now, took a swipe at her. "You never will catch me like that, elf," she mocked.
"Can't you be serious for even a moment?"
"Now, now. Eliathanis." Naitachal's voice was studiously serious, but his eyes glinted under the black hood. "Seems to me you're hardly the one to accuse anyone else of frivolity. Tsk, should have known there was something warmer than ice under that grim facade."
"Don't you dare criticize me, necromancer!"
"Never even noticed the cards were marked, eh?" Lydia murmured wryly. "And don't give me that ‘innocent little me' look, either, my dear. I know you far too well! Let's get out of here before we wind up in prison."
If anything, the crowds seemed to have gotten worse as the day progressed. Kevin, one hand on his new sword, the other on his purse, struggled his way along, beginning to long for the nice, peaceful, open countryside.
All at once, a particularly rough body barreled into him.
"Hey!" the bardling yelled. "Why don't you watch where—"
A second man hurtled into him, nearly sending the bardling sprawling. For one horrifying moment he was sure he was going to go down, and be trampled by the heedless crowd, but then Naitachal's hand closed about his arm, pulling him back to his feet. The Dark Elf gestured the whole party into an alcove where they could be out of the stream of traffic.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes, I—" Kevin broke off abruptly. Something didn't feel quite right ... "Wait a minute." Oh no, oh no, this couldn't be! The bardling searched himself frantically, then cried in panic, "It's gone! The purse Count Volmar gave me is gone!"
"Oh hell," Lydia muttered. "I knew this was going to happen."
"That man—" Kevin gasped out, "the one who jostled me—he must have stolen my money! We have to—"
"Have to what? Do you see him anywhere?"
"No, but the guard—"
"Did you see his face? No? Can you tell them anything about what he looks like?"
Lydia let out her breath in a gusty sigh. "Give it up, boy. The money's gone."
"But ..." Kevin struggled to keep his voice from shaking from sheer panic.
All about him, the city continued its busy life, not caring whether he lived or died, and he had nothing left but the few small coins in his own purse. They weren't enough to let him survive, let alone bribe anyone. He'd failed the count. Worse, he'd failed Charina!
Hopelessly the bardling asked, "What are we going to do?"
"Well, we can't do anything without money, that's for sure," Lydia said brusquely.
"Then it's foolish to remain here." Eliathanis pulled his cloak about himself, adjusting his hood with fastidious care. "I said we should never have come to Westerin."
"We've wasted enough time, I am going to do what I should have done from the start, and explore on my own."
"No!" Kevin cried. "You can't abandon—" But the White Elf had already vanished into the crowds. "the team," the bardling finished helplessly. "Naitachal! You can't leave, too!"
"No?" The Dark Elf's eyes glinted from beneath his hood, cool and unreadable as blue ice. "‘There is more to be learned here if I'm not burdened with ... anyone else."
"But—wait—'' Kevin whirled to Lydia. " I suppose you're going to go off on your own, too!"
"Hell, no. I don't abandon the helpless, remember?" All at once she grinned. "Hey, cheer up, kid. It's not so bad."
"Not so bad! We don't have any money!"
"I've been stuck penniless in cities before, some of them a lot nastier to strangers than this one, and I've always managed to land on my feet. Let me think a minute ... Ha, yes. Tich'ki, what do you think of this?"
She murmured in the fairy's ear—Tich'ki laughed and yanked a lock of the woman's hair—"Ah yes, of course!"
"All right, then. Come on, Kevin."
"Where are we going?"
She didn't answer. Kevin, struggling to keep up with the woman, who was knifing her way skillfully through the crowd, hardly noticed the buzz of fairy wings in his ear. But he did notice tough little fingers snatching the pouch holding his last few coins.
"Hey! Tich'ki, give that back!"
The fairy ignored him, dropping the pouch into Lydia's hands. Kevin hurried after her.
"Lydia! Come back here' Where are you going? What are you—Lydia!"
It didn't help uncertain tempers to realize that they were almost out of supplies for people and horses both. Granted, the animals would probably be able to find enough forage to keep them going, but it wasn't going to be much fun hunting for game in this weather.
At least, Kevin thought, struggling for any sign of good humor, the drizzle did seem to be letting up. Who knew? Maybe the sun would even deign to put in an appearance and dry everybody off.
But even as the first feeble rays did at last break through the clouds, Lydia threw up her hands in disgust "That does it"
"I take it the rain washed away the tracks?" Naitachal asked.
"Hell, no! They aren't washed away, they simply disappear, just like that! As though horse and rider, up and vanished into the air." Lydia let out her breath in an angry hiss. "I've had trails go cold on me before, but I've never had one just—stop!"
"Wonderful," Tich'ki said flatly. "Now what?"
What, indeed? After a moment, Kevin began, "I think—"
"We're going to have to go on to Westerin," Lydia said, just as if he wasn't there.
Eliathanis shook his head. "There's no evidence they rode that way."
"There's no evidence they didn't! Besides, the horses need grain, and a hot meal and a bath wouldn't hurt any of us, either."
"Ah, I think—" Kevin began again, but Naitachal cut in:
"Lydia has a point. We would be more likely to learn something important in a city than out here in the middle of open country."
"That's a human city!" Eliathanis snapped. "How willingly do you think they're going to admit a Dark Elf?"
Naitachal shrugged. "About as willingly as they would a White Elf in these uncertain days. But our cloaks are hooded, after all. No one need know our races, as long as we're careful."
"Huh! No one's going to bother a fairy!" Tich'ki boasted.
"No one's going to bother with a fairy!" Lydia corrected with a grin. "Not a little thing like you!"
"Little, is it?" Tich'ki pinched Lydia so hard the woman jumped. "Little, is it?"
"Well, you sore little—Aie, stop that! I apologize!"
"Hey. remember me?" the bardling asked. "I've got some say in this, too, and I—"
"This is nonsense." Eliathanis shook his head again, stubbornly. "I think we should continue to search out here."
"Search what?" Lydia exploded. "I tell you, there isn't the slightest due. There isn't even the slightest trace of a clue! In the city, it'll be a different matter. Give ‘em enough money, and we'll be able to bribe nearly anyone to tell us whatever we need to know."
The White Elf straightened, staring at her as though she'd uttered an obscenity. "Humans lie," he said shortly." How much truth do you think you will get out of anyone who can be bought?"
"He's scared," Tich'ki taunted. "Poor elf is scared the humans will throw things at him. Dirty his pretty face."
Eliathanis took a furious swipe at her, but the fairy, fluttering heavily because of her still-damp wings, soil managed to evade him, mocking him with, "Temper, temper!"
"Stop that, Tich'ki!" Lydia caught one small foot and pulled the fairy back down behind her on the horse. "I say we go to Westerin."
"And I," Naitachal voted.
"Me, too." Tich'ki grinned sharply. "I like human cities. So many folks careless with their belongings. So many ... opportunities."
"Huh," Lydia muttered. "Just don't get us thrown into prison."
"Have I ever?"
The fairy ruffled her wings. "Thought you'd forgotten all about that—It wasn't my fault the gems fell into your pouch!"
"Oh no. The pouch just happened to come open at just the right time,"
"Well ... it might have had a little help ..."
"And it's not going to have any more help! If I find your fingers anywhere near that pouch, Tich'ki, I swear I'll cut ‘cm off!"
"I sure hope so! What about you, Eliathanis? Are you with us or not?"
After a reluctant moment, the White Elf nodded. "Not that it will do any good."
"Hey!" Kevin shouted with all his breath, and the others stared at him as though seeing him for the first time—"Remember me? I get some say in this, too!"
"All right, Kevin," Lydia said, a little too cheerfully. As though she's humoring a child! Kevin fumed. "What do you say?"
What could he say? No matter what Count Volmar had said, Kevin knew he certainly wasn't the leader of this group! "I say," the bardling grumbled, "we go to Westerin."
Kevin reined in his horse without even being aware he'd done it, staring in sheer wonder.
"Westerin," he breathed.
Oh, he had been taught his geography as a child. He knew that the walled city lay at the junction of two trading routes, on a wide, fertile plain fed by a tranquil river. But hearing about it and actually seeing it were two very different things! Westerin was a beautifully picturesque sight beneath the dramatically cloudy sky, the thick, crenellated wall that girded it broken at regular intervals by pointed towers topped in bronze that gleamed like gold in the shifting rays of sunlight.
The city was also much larger than the bardling had ever imagined—no, no, he thought, it wasn't merely large, it was enormous!
Particularly, Kevin added wryly to himself, compared to quiet little Bracklin.
The others were riding on. The bardling urged his horse after them. trying to ignore Tich'ki's mocking, "Boy acts like he's never seen a city before."
Well, all right, maybe he hadn't! What of it?
With an indignant sniff, Kevin straightened in the saddle, doing his best to pretend there was nothing at all amazing about those thick stone walls towering over them as they approached, nothing at all amazing about the mass of buildings he glimpsed through the open gates.
But for all his attempts at keeping calm, the bardling's heart had begun pounding wildly.
Why, the very name rang with adventure!
For two full days they had been riding through forest so dense Kevin thought that any one of them could have followed the track—The trail had been so overgrown a horse's body could hardly have kept from breaking telltale branches; there had been no way for the kidnapper to avoid leaving a track, let alone to leave the trail. But the forest had been thinning for some time as the land grew increasingly more rocky.
And now they had broken out of forest altogether. The trail melted into a series of paths and one true road winding their way through a limestone wilderness, a time-eroded maze of tall, gray-white stone walls.
"Are we out of luck?" Kevin asked.
Lydia shrugged. "Can't follow a trace over solid rock! Still, it's not all rock ...."
She dismounted, searching with her face so close to the ground that the bardling was reminded of a hunting hound searching for an elusive scent.
"Yes ..." the woman said at last. "This way. I think."
They rode on, following the road, the only sounds the creak of saddle leather and the dick of their horses' hoofs against stone. Kevin glanced at Lydia, not at all happy about the uncertainty he saw on her face.
The walls of the gorge towered over them as they rode, weighing down his spirit. Staring up at the narrow slash of sky, Kevin couldn't shake the sense of being a very small, insignificant creature in the middle of a very small, insignificant party—Now that he wasn't so overwhelmed by the mere thought of adventure, he had to admit that five ... ah ... beings hardly seemed a big enough group to have any hope of success. Yet if the count had sent out any larger expeditions, the bardling hadn't seen any sign of them.
I don't understand that. 1 don't understand any of that! We don't even know for sure that whoever we're following actually has Charina!
Kevin sighed. None of his doubts were going to matter if he couldn't hold his team together long enough to accomplish something.
Team, ha! The last thing they were was a team. Oh, everyone was nicely polite to each other—if you ignored the subtle snipings of White and Dark Elf at each other, or the jibes of Lydia at these silly males, or the nasty little jokes of the fairy.
The bardling gritted his teeth. Tich'ki seemed to have decided he was the best butt for her humor she'd ever seen. She never said anything out-and-out hostile. Oh no, that would have been too simple! Instead, the fairy would wait till he'd finished practicing a particularly difficult melody on his lute, then ask innocently, "Are you going to actually play something now?" Or worse:
"When are you going to work some Bardic Magic?" knowing he was too scared of failure to risk trying another spell—
Or perhaps she would simply wonder aloud what it was like co be a leader when he hadn't really had a chance to be one.
Anything, Kevin thought, to undermine what little self-confidence he had left!
The only two who did seem to be getting along were Naitachal and Tich'ki. After that first night, Kevin was still keeping a wary eye on those two, but so far they hadn't done anything even remotely suspicious.
Except ... last night, there had been that bizarre whatever-it-had-been. Kevin frowned, remembering how he had caught the Dark Elf and the fairy huddling together mysteriously, so involved in what they were doing they hadn't even noticed him. The bardling had gotten close enough to hear Tich'ki urge, "Try it again." And Naitachal had actually responded with, "Pick a card, any card."
At that moment, they'd spotted him. The Dark Elf had suddenly straightened, looking important and mysterious, but Kevin could have sworn Naitachal was embarrassed. And hadn't he caught a glimpse of Tich'ki hastily hiding a fairy-size deck of cards?
Card tricks? A necromancer learning card tricks?
It made about as much sense as anything else so far.
"We're not still on Count Volmar's lands, are we?" Kevin asked warily—
"Hardly." Lydia glanced up at the sky, judging direction. "I'm pretty sure we're on the outskirts of crown lands. If we keep riding east like this, we'll probably wind up in the city of Westerin."
"If we get that far." Eliathanis glanced up at the steep, brooding walls on either side, his usually unreadable eyes glittering with uneasiness." I don't like this place. Anyone could be lurking up there."
"Claustrophobic elf!" Tich'ki taunted. "Scared of the shadows in his mind!"
The White Elf glared at her. "I'm not imagining things! Westerin is an important trading city, is it not? Thanks to the rocks, this must surely be one of the only roads available for anyone who wishes to reach the city from the west. What better place for an ambush?"
"Don't say something like that!" Lydia snapped. "It's bad—"
A savage shout from overhead cut into her words.
"—luck," she finished ironically, whipping out her sword.
Kevin didn't have a chance to act, to think, before a heavy body hurtled into him, hurting him from his horse.
The bardling twisted frantically sideways to save it as he fell, by luck slamming into earth rather than rock, mail shirt bruising his ribs. Aching and breathless, Kevin struggled to draw his sword, handicapped by the lute case's strap. The bandit's face leered into his own, foul-smelling and ugly as an ogre—and as deadly. Kevin saw the man raise the dub that was going to bash out his brains, but he couldn't get the stupid sword free—
So the bardling did the only thing he could, smashing his fist up into the ugly face.
He hadn't been able to get much force into the blow, not tying sprawled on the ground, but it was enough to send pain flaming up his arm, because he'd connected with the man's battered helmet, not his face. The bandit grunted in surprise, falling back just enough for the bardling to wriggle free. He squirmed out of the lute case, leaving the instrument safe—please, let it be safe! —behind a rock.
As Kevin frantically tugged at the hilt of his sword, the weapon came free of its scabbard so suddenly he nearly dropped it Hearing the bandit rushing him, the bardling whirled—and the man impaled himself on the blade.
For what seemed like an eternity Kevin stared helplessly into his foe's disbelieving eyes, too horrified to move. Then those eyes glazed and the bandit slowly sagged, nearly dragging the sword from Kevin's hand. The bardling swallowed hard and pulled the blade free, trying not to look at the blood darkening it, trying not to think about how dreadfully easily metal had slid into flesh. His hand still throbbed with pain, and part of his mind was yammering, It's broken, it has to be broken! But it wasn't, not if he could grip the Sword hilt so tightly, and there wasn't any time to worry about what other damage he might have done.
Panting, Kevin glanced wildly about. For one confused moment he was reminded of a dog pack dragging down its prey. But these dogs were armed with clubs, knives, and homemade spears—and this prey was fighting back. Lydia, swearing fiercely, sword Hashing, still sat her horse, caking advantage of its greater height, or trying to: the confused, frightened animal, unused to battle, was more of a hindrance than a help. At least its frantic whirling and kicking kept anyone from closing with the woman—Tich'ki, her wings a blur, darted in and out of the battle with waspish speed, her spear jabbing savagely at bandit eyes. The two elves had given up their mounts and stood fighting back to back. White and Dark forgetting their differences for the moment—Eliathanis' blade shone dear silver, mere human blood unable to stain it, while Naitachal—
Kevin stared. Naitachal was wielding a night-black sword that seemed to swallow up the light and that laughed softly every time it struck a foe. After the first few blows, the bandits, understandably, cringed away, putting themselves within Lydia's reach.
He didn't have that sword before, I know he didn‘t!
But the sight of that eerie sorcery reminded the bardling that he, too, had some combat magic. Granted, the song-spell wasn't strong enough to hurt anyone. All it could do was confuse a foe's attack. But surely that would help—if the magic would only work for him—
No, no, there wasn't time to doubt! Kevin dove for his lute, for a moment terrified that his bruised hand wasn't going to let him play. Forcing his stiff fingers over the strings, he started at full speed into the opening bars. His voice was almost too dry for song, rasping out desperately, and he knew that even if he did summon his Bardic Magic, it wasn't going to last long. It didn't even seem to be coming out right! But something was happening, because the whole battle was beginning to glow a faint but very real blue.
Oh, great. All I'm doing is making pretty colors!
"Damned sorcerer!" a voice muttered. Before Kevin could turn, a harsh arm was about his throat, choking him. The bardling lost his grip on the lute, heard it hit the ground—
Please, please, don't let it break!
He kicked back and felt his boot hit bone. The bandit swore, losing his strangling grip. Kevin felt a jolt against his already sore ribs as the man tried to stab him but hit the mail shirt instead. The bardling pulled free, lunging for his sword, then cried out in pain as the bandit kicked it viciously away, tearing the hilt from Kevin's aching hand. The sword came to rest wedged between two rocks. Kevin and the bandit both scuffled after it, but the bandit got there first, stomping down hard. Tb the bardling's horror, the sword snapped halfway up the blade.
For a moment. Kevin and his foe stared at each other, frozen. Then the bandit slowly grinned, revealing a mouthful of ugly teeth.
"Too bad, boy. I win, you lose!"
With that, the man leaped at him. Kevin scrambled to his feet, looking frantically about for another weapon. Out of the corner of his eye, the bardling saw the bandit's knife flash again, this time aimed at his unprotected neck. He twisted about, just barely managing to catch the man's wrist in time.
But I... can't ... hold him ... he's just ...too strong ...
The bandit continued to grin. Slowly he began bending the bardling's wrists back and back ... Kevin gasped as renewed pain shot through his bruised hand, and lost his grip. The knife began its plunge—
But then the bandit froze as a dark-skinned hand closed on his neck. The man's eyes widened, gaping in sudden blind horror. As Kevin stared in sheer disbelief, he saw the man's hair fade from black to gray to white. The leathery skin sagged, wrinkled. The bandit let the bardling go so suddenly Kevin fell, dragging himself frantically away as what had been a living man a moment before crumbled to ancient dust.
Naitachal stood revealed, eyes still blazing red from the force of his spell. But in those eerie eyes, Kevin saw such bitter despair that for a moment the bardling could do nothing but stare in helpless fascination. Then, with a quick flip of his wrist, me Dark Elf pulled up the hood of his black cloak, hiding his face.
Only then did Kevin realize what was happening around them. That last horrific sorcery had been coo much for what was left of the bandit gang. Yelling in terror, they fled back down the gorge. Lydia started to knee her horse after them, then reined the animal in again.
"Nah," she muttered. "Not worth it. Everyone all right?"
Tich'ki fluttered to a landing behind Lydia. Cleaning her spear with a scrap of cloth from a bandit's tunic, she grinned fiercely. "No problems here."
"I am unhurt." Eliathanis was disheveled, golden hair wild, cloak gashed and elven mail darkly stained, but his voice was as calmly formal as ever.
"And I," added Naitachal softly. "What of you, Kevin?"
The bardling snatched up his fallen lute, examining it carefully, then let out a sigh of relief. "It's only scratched a little."
"Yes, bardling, but what of you? I saw how carefully you moved your hand."
Reaction set in, as abruptly as though the words had been a spell. Kevin clutched the lute to him. trying to hide his sudden trembling, realizing only now how narrowly he'd escaped permanently damaging his fingers. Powers, oh Powers, Master Aidan had been right to warn him. He'd come so close to ending his Bardic career before it had started ....
"It's nothing," the bardling said gruffly. ‘Just a bruise." He retrieved what was left of his sword, glancing ruefully at the fragments, then slipping them back into their scabbard. "C-come on, let's get out of here before the bandits recover."
"They're not going to recover so quickly!" Tich'ki jeered, pointing with her spear at crumpled bodies. "But the boy's right. Let's go."
"Wait," Eliathanis said softly, approaching the Dark Elf. Naitachal stiffened, murmuring something in the elvish tongue that was plainly a wary question, but the White Elf shook his head. "No. Let the humans understand this as well. Naitachal, I have always believed that the Nithathil, the Dark Elves, hated life, that they cared nothing for any but themselves."
"You had no need to risk yourself guarding my back. Yet you did. You had no need to risk yourself saving the bardling. Yet you did."
"What are you trying to say, Eliathanis?"
"Just that I..." The fair skin reddened. "I may have been too hasty in judging you."
He held out a hand. The Dark Elf hesitated for a long moment, then raised his own hand. As they pressed palm to palm in the elvish version of a handshake, Tich'ki snickered.
"Touching," she said. "Now. can we please get going?"
A lilting call in the elvish language coaxed the strayed horses back to them. As they rode off, Kevin resolutely refused to look at the dissipating mound of dust that had been a living man.
To the bardling's relief, the gorge widened again after a short time of uneasy riding, the stone walls dropping off into a tangle of greenery. Dazed by shock and exhaustion, he sank into a weary stupor, clinging blindly to the saddle, barely aware of the world around him.
"Hey, Kevin! Kevin!"
Lydia was calling him. The bardling roused himself, realizing with a start that night had stolen up on them. They were stopped in the middle of a small meadow, their horses grabbing greedily at the lush weeds and grass. "We're stopping for the night?"
"I think that's a good idea, boy, don't you?"
Oh, he did, indeed.
Lydia, experienced traveler and adventurer that she was, carried a pouch of healing herbs with which she treated everyone's cuts and bruises, including the bardling's sore hand.
"Now let's try to get some sleep," she ordered after they'd finished a brief meal of cold rabbit and stale bread. "It's been one hell of a tiring day!"
But for all his weariness, Kevin couldn't sleep. He kept seeing death, and blood, and a man dying on the point of his sword, another man withering to dust .... At last he moved away from the others to sit wrapped in darkness without and within.
After a time a shadow stirred: Naitachal, moving silently to join him.
"What's wrong, Kevin?" the Dark Elf asked softly.
"Nothing. I just can't sleep."
"You're still thinking of the battle, aren't you?"
"No—Yes—" The bardling broke off with a choked little gasp. "Naitachal, t-this isn't going to mean much to you, I mean you're a Dark Elf and a necromancer, you're used to death and all that, but I... killed a man today."
"So you did."
Kevin stiffened at the casual reply. "That really doesn't mean anything to you, does it?"
"Oh, it does." It was the barest whisper. " I cannot remember the first time I was forced to take a life. But 1 have never totally forgotten the horror of it"
"You c-can't remember? How could you not remember—"
"Kevin, I don't know how much you know of my people. Humans tell some truly bizarre stories about the Nithathil, those you call the Dark Elves. But one thing they say of us is quite true: we are indeed raised without love, without anything that might weaken us. I was singled out early in my childhood as one who held sorcerous promise. That means only one thing to the Nithathil. For all the years of my life I have studied dark magic, the magic of death. Necromancy, as you call it. But ... ah. Powers, I am so very weary of it!"
Kevin glanced at the Dark Elfin surprise. "Then I was right, wasn't I? You were every bit as horrified as I was when that bandit died from—from age."
"When I killed him, you mean? That life-draining spell is called Archahai Necrawch, Spectre Touch in your language." Naitachal shuddered, ever so faintly. "It is a very dark thing, indeed. But there wasn't much time to act, not with that knife about to slay you, and I couldn't think of any other way to save you."
"You had a ... sword."
"A Death Sword, Kevin, a temporary thing drawn from sorcery's heart. You heard its joy in taking life, did you not? That soft and empty laughter? I couldn't run the risk of even scratching you with it."
Hearing the bitter self-loathing in the Dark Elf's voice, the bardling cried, "I don't understand! If you don't want to work death-spells, why do it? Why not try something else?"
"There is nothing else, not for one of my kind. Not yet, at any rate," the Dark Elf added softly. "I meant it when I told you 1 intended to prove my people had nothing to do with the stealing of Count Volmar's niece—Love or hate, they are my people. But I have no intention of ever returning to them."
"What will you do?"
"Aye, bardling! I don't know, not yet." Naitachal paused. "You don't know how I envy you."
"You know what you want from life. You have the joy that is your music, and with it, the promise of bright, happy, living magic."
"I don't understand! Surely your people have music, too? I mean, they're elves, and I thought all elves—"
"We are not like the other elven races. We alone have no music."
"No music! B-but that's terrible!"
"Oh, it is. Listening to your songs, bardling, has been untold delight for me." The Dark Elf gave a soft, rueful laugh. "Ay me. Here I try to help you, and end up telling you my problems instead!"
Kevin blinked, all at once realizing that somewhere during this strange conversation, the specter of the bandit he'd killed had ceased to haunt him. "You have helped."
"Misery loving company, eh?" Whatever else he might be, Naitachal was still Dark Elf enough to be ashamed of showing weakness. "Ah, enough of this!" he said abruptly, getting to his feet. "The night is late, boy. Go get some sleep."
But then Naitachal paused, teeth flashing in a sudden grin. "And if you tell anyone about this conversation," he said, a touch too lightly, "I shall deny it all!"
"I think." he murmured, "I will be able to help you with looking for the trail this evening."
"I thought you said you had no light spells?" The bardling asked, confused.
Naitachal simply showed him the first glowstick and demonstrated its use.
The boy seemed delighted but somewhat suspicious. "You had these all this time?"
"No." Naitachal admitted. "I traded for them with someone who I met earlier. I have only recently... " he emphasized the last word, before he continued his explanation, "...acquired several others." He added and then began emptying his pickets and saddlebags of the glowsticks.
The second and third nights' searches were far more efficient. They did cut into the time Naitachal had intended to use to learn card games, though.
Naitachal made his way back from the Bar, glad he'd taken a few days off, to find himself in the forest right where.. and when… he'd left it. He made his way close to the fire with the lighting supplies, seating himself down, right outside the ring of firelight. The White elf, Eliathanis by name, had begun pointedly polishing his blade again, glancing at him every so often.
Naitachal ignored him, silently looking through the things he'd brought with him. Kevin, the bardling, had begun playing music. It seemed to be rather repetitive, as if he was looking for something, though he seemed badly startled whenever the Fairy sneered at him.
Naitachal used his own abilities for a few moments, to see if there was a threat.. no. There were no living creatures around that were big enough to be a threat to them.
"Nothing lurks out there." Naitachal murmured in response. The others were clearly badly startled. Had they thought him to be a statue? He stifled a laugh, before he continued. "Nothing living."
With superb timing, the Dark Elf waited till the others had a chance to imagine undead horrors, before adding lightly, "Except, of course for the small, normal creatures of the forest."
"Oh, thank you." The warrior woman muttered, clearly sarcastic.
Naitachal's lips curled up in a smile as he glanced up at her and generously, he ventured a peace offering.
"There is a rather large skeleton under the leaves to your left. It was a wolf, I believe, and it is still in fairly good condition. If you wish,
The woman gave him a look of sheer horror. "Uh, no, that won't be necessary. I-"
And then the blasted White Elf's sword was in his hand, and he snapped at Naitachal," We will have none of your foul sorceries!"
Naitachal held his anger in by sheer force of will. Hat the hells was this elf’s problem anyway? Naitachal had offered them a favor; A rather useful one… It hardly deserved this sort of response!
"You melodramatic fool." Naitachal's voice was quietly deadly. "Don't ever point a weapon at me. Not unless you intend to use it."
"Push me too far, Dark Elf, and I will." Eliathanis hissed back and Naitachal felt his control over that rage undone. He purred a provocation right back.
"Go ahead, White Elf…Try."
"Stop that!" The bardling snapped, and both elves turned to him in surprise. "You sound like little boys daring each other to fight! Look, I know you two don't like each other, but we're stuck with each other. For the sake of our mission, can't you declare a truce?"
Eliathanis frowned sternly.” It is not in elf natures to lie."
Naitachal raised an eyebrow at the bardling, his wrath checked and smoothing over as he gazed at the way the boy then shifted straight into a lecture, as if they were children who needed to be scolded.
"Well then at least pretend! And you,
There was startled silence.
Naitachal stared in surprise at bardling even as he wrapped himself in a blanket, turned away, and curled up to sleep. The Nitathil could not help but smile wryly, and shook his head. The bardling was full of surprises, it seems, but at least.. At least he was more practical about these things than the blasted White Elf.
He’d have to find someway to repay the boy.
Perhaps.. once he was finished sorting out these glowsticks and putting them into varying places in his pockets and saddlebags, he might show the boy these. It couldn’t hurt.
An hour later, after the boy had finally fallen asleep, the Fairy engaged him in conversation. Naitachal couldn’t help but find the verbal sparring (in Elvish, no less!) quite stimulating, and the conversation shifted from one thing to another, finally ending up in an impromptu game of cards.
The bardling woke, disoriented, somewhere in the small hours of the night
There, just barely visible in the darkness, were Naitachal and Tich'ki, talking softly together in the elvish tongue as though they were old friends.
When they felt the bardling watching them, they turned as one—Two pairs of alien eyes, glowing eerily, looked at him.
Naitachal noticed the boy seemed to be startled, frightened. Feeling somewhat responsible for the boy’s lost rest, Naitachal murmured, "Go back to sleep, Kevin.”
The Bardling drifted off to sleep.
But there is no stab forthcoming.
Instead, he is quickly pinned to a wall, and endues this patiently, meeting the other elf eye to eye.