As Erün laid back and looked up at the starry sky, he realised that there was more to life than what was currently going on in his own. He wanted more than this… this bliss, for want of a better word. He knew that he should be capable of doing whatever he wanted, but seemed to lack the enthusiasm to go out and do it. A great sadness drew around Erün, enveloping him like a dark cloud covering the sun. He knew his life was being wasted away, hunting, fishing, living in a dream. Everything in The Glen was perfect but lacked the one thing Erün had come to realise he needed. Fulfilment. This haven was, whilst wholly real in a physical sense, completely false in ways he couldn’t describe. This feeling of emptiness had been growing for some time, but had been pushed to the back of Erün’s mind as a way of masking the truth. He needed to leave Marala, to make something of himself. Become a great warrior, be remembered in Elf lore. Anything but exist in this façade. With the heather now becoming increasingly uncomfortable, and the feeling of unrest pitted heavily in his gut, Erün rose silently, a black silhouette against the moon. He moved like the wind blowing gently through grass to the borders of Marala. And left.
A dark presence lurks in the mountains.
Chapter 1 / extended prologue
“Bliss.” This was the only thing that could describe Tongla’s feelings. Sun shining, blue skies, the sleeping body of his bride-to-be in his arms… what more could a man want? A movement in the corner of his eye told him that their dinner was about to be caught. Placing his rucksack under Elnar’s head, Tongla shuffled over to the fishing rod and gave a sharp tug. Reeling in, slowly, inch by inch the trout was pulled to its doom.
Elnar awoke to the smell of cooking fish. Stretching out the stiffness in her neck and back she sat up and looked around for Tongla, only to find nothing but a fish cooking over the open fire. Puzzled by this she rose and glanced around the clearing. A feeling of unease stole across Elnar, night was drawing in and the shadows were lengthening. The sound of a twig snapping alerted Elnar to the presence of… something. Tongla would never be so careless with his footing, and no animal would dare venture this close to a fire. Not daring to turn round Elnar managed to stutter “who’s there?” Silence was the answer. The ever growing darkness seemed to encircle her and squeeze the life-force out of her petite body. Elnar turned slowly, eyes closed, not wanting to see the horrors that awaited her.
Nothing happened. Elnar opened her eyes slightly. There was nothing there. Breathing a sigh of relief Elnar began to turn back towards the fire. A dark whisper by her ear froze her, mid-turn.
“The dark isn’t anything to be afraid of, what lives off of it… now that’s a different matter.” These were the last words that Elnar heard.
“Elnar?” Tongla called out as he approached the clearing, carrying the great stack of wood for the fire with ease. Setting the firewood down by a tree Tongla scanned the clearing in search of his beloved. Everything appeared normal and yet a heavy feeling of unease rooted itself in the pit of his stomach. Elnar’s disappearances were not uncommon to Tongla. Often Elnar would vanish for an hour or two and emerge with fresh fruit as if nothing had happened. Tongla had long since feigned not caring, though deep down he still worried immensely. This feeling he had was different though. The air around the clearing seemed almost suffocating and the light from the fire didn’t seem quite right.
“Elnar?” he called out again. The world around the Tongla seemed to stop and take a deep breath. Nothing. Suddenly, all at once the sounds of the evening exploded into the air, leaving him slightly deafened. Everything returned to normal, apart from the apprehensive feeling within him. Tongla sat… and waited.
Dawn was breaking and Erün hadn’t slept since he left Marala. Walking with no place to go had not gotten him very far, barely 50 hefna from his homeland. For about half and hour he’d been concentrating on a building in the distance. From what he could make out it appeared to be an inn, out in the middle of nowhere. He could offer his services in exchange for a bed and food, and get his bearings from the landlord. It was getting on towards midday; surely there would be the lunch time rush. He could only hope, so onwards he trekked.
Erün’s heart fell as he neared the Dragon Keeper Inn. There was one, possibly two people in there. He could smell no food nor see any kind of smoke from a fire. The shutters on the windows were fastened tight, making him think that the place may even be shut. Reaching his gloved hand out, he lifted the latch to the front door and pushed lightly. The door opened silently and Erün stepped into the warmth of Inn. His senses had deceived him. Not only was there a roaring fire and the smell of a roasting hog, but the Inn was practically full to overflowing. How could he have been so wrong? He had sensed no magic and his Elvin eyes and ears had never betrayed him before. Erün eyed the room suspiciously as he walked over to the bar. His hand laid, seemingly casual, on the hilt of his sword, his preferred weapon would have been his long bow, but in a place this crowded he would stand no chance of even drawing back the bow, let alone being able to pull out a quill. He looked to the bar to see the barman, maid, staring directly at him.
“There’s no need for weapons in this place, sir”.
The words had appeared in his head, the barmaids lips had not moved at all, yet he knew, somehow, that it was her voice. Feeling troubled he moved over to the bar, without touching anyone. His path seemed to open up in front of him, but this was not visibly done. He just seemed to mix in and found gaps through the horde of people.
“To what do we owe the honour of the company of an elf in these parts?” the barmaid said, this time her lips did move.
“What magic is this? Outside there was barely any sign of life in here, my senses never lie, however here I am surrounded by people, some of whom are unknown of origin to me. What trickery have I stumbled upon?” Erün retorted.
“Magic? Trickery? Neither of these are present in this humble inn. People here are not detected because they do not wish to be detected. The name above the door says ‘Dragon Keeper’. Do you think that this is just a name? Not every inn you come across is just a breeding ground for loathes and drunkards. These folks have sacred duties, which not even elves are privy too. These matters may be spoken about openly within these four walls but if uttered outside, then terrible things will befall the orator and the whole of this realm.”
Erün, for once in his life, had nothing to say. He had always been so sure of himself, and the superiority of elves, that he had never dreamed that anyone would speak to him in this fashion. Anger rose up from inside him but before he could utter a single syllable the barmaid interrupted.
“Young elf, things in this world are not always sun and laughter. I apologise if I have offended you in any way with my manner but, you see, this is how the world works. In this place you are not above everyone, if you don’t like this then maybe you should go back to Marala.”
“How do you know of Marala?” Erün shot back in amazement, “My homeland is not known in the world of man, dwarf or even the High Ones. How can you voice its name like it is common knowledge?”
With a slight smile the barmaid replied, “You Elves believe that you are above all races, save the High Ones, you believe that you are the wisest yet you have the arrogance of men and the contempt of dwarfs. Nothing can touch you whilst you are in your hiding places in the trees, but you are not in your tree, my friend. You are a long way from home and this world is not the place you once thought it was. The Council of Elves tell you that the world outside the borders of Marala is dangerous and heathen. By comparison they may as well tell you that a bear is bigger than a child. What they have failed to mention is that the bear has teeth and claws and has vengeance against men on its mind.”
Stunned by this outburst Erün looked curiously at the woman. The look that was returned was one that reminded him of a time when he was young and he’d been caught playing with the fire by his mother. It was not a look of anger or contempt, but more a look of disappointment and frustration. It immediately made him feel foolish, something he had not felt since he had performed the rituals and mastered the Teachings to become a true Elf.
Taking a moment to think Erün said, “My apologies, good woman, my manners have been non-existent. I am Erün of the land of Marala. I have come here to seek food and shelter, in exchange I offer my services for whatever you see fit.”
“Well now young Elf, it would appear that the mannerisms that Elves are renowned for are finally showing through.”
Erün said nothing but bowed his head slightly.
“Normally I would ask if you could cook, but Elf cooking is notorious in these parts, perhaps I could use you after all, follow me to the kitchen.” Without waiting for an answer, the barmaid turned and walked through a door at the back of the bar. It was only now that Erün noticed the hatch in the bar itself was open.
“But…” he started, then shook his head and moved through the hatch to follow the curious woman. He had an uncomfortable feeling that she had found out a lot more about him than he had of her.
Stepping through the door, Erün was greeted by almost pitch back in comparison to the brightly lit room not a foot behind him, which his elf eyes adjusted to almost immediately. Scanning the room he saw that the fireplace in here had not been used in some time and there was an overwhelming dank and musty smell. The walls were lined with soot and the remains of what could loosely be called kitchen equipment, although all of it had seen much better days. Sunlight trickled through the small, filthy window and the backdoor was blocked by old sacks and… armour? The huge kitchen table, in the centre of the room, was littered with crumbling papers, rusted knives and derelict pots and pans. The barmaid was quickly scurrying around the table and snatching the papers up and muttering “far too young, even for an elf.” These murmurs would have gone undetected had it not been for Erün’s sensitive hearing. In her haste to rid the table of papers the barmaid failed to see murmur murmur murmur and there was a dank musty smell a piece fall away and under the table. Saying nothing Erün entered further into the room and acted as if he has only just been able to see properly.
“Ah there you are good woman; I was momentarily blinded by the darkness.” Stepping closer to the table, Erün saw the woman turn her back on him and head towards the fireplace. “Forgive my rudeness but I failed to hear your name. If I am to be working here then I cannot keep calling you woman.” He continued.
“What? Sorry, yes of course, my name. Cleyandra, just Cleyandra.” She called over her shoulder. Reaching the fireplace she threw the papers in, along with some kindling and took out a tinderbox and proceeded to strike the two pieces of flint together. Almost immediately the dry paper and kindling caught alight. “There we are”, Cleyandra said, turning back to Erün “Can’t have a kitchen without a fire.” Her eyes flickered briefly back to the fire before she moved over to stand on the opposite side of the table to Erün. “Welcome to your new working quarters. Everything you see here you may use, some of it may be… outdated but it’s nothing a good clean and sharpen won’t fix.” Erün smiled at the flustered barmaid. “This room will be most adequate. I presume that you have a cellar where you store the food?”
“Of course we do.” Cleyandra replied, “It is just under your feet.” Looking down Erün saw a trapdoor which looked as if it hadn’t been opened in years. Stepping to one side he reached down and pulled the metal ring out from its indentation. It gave some screeches of protest but eventually came out far enough for Erün to fully grasp it. The trapdoor moved inch by inch but he had to pull with all his strength. Suddenly the trapdoor gave in and flew open, almost sending Erün with it. Regaining his balance, he knelt down and, not really to his surprise, saw that the cellar looked brand new, fully stocked with fresh vegetables, meats and grains. Smiling to himself he turned back to face Cleyandra. “Just as I’d hoped.” Before standing up, his hand reached out and grasped the fallen paper from the dusty floor, which immediately disappeared up his sleeve. Rising from his knees he noticed that Cleyandra wasn’t paying attention to him, but was looking over toward the sacks which blocked the back door. “Don’t trouble yourself with those; I’ll move them when I clean this place out.”
Looking back at him, distractedly, she said “Yes, I’m sure you will. Just remember… curiosity is a terrible trait to possess, especially in this Inn.”
“But of course.” he replied, smiling, “I wouldn’t dream of spying on what is not mine.”
Regarding him with some suspicion Cleyandra snapped back “Indeed. I will leave you now. Anything you wish to dispose of just put outside the back door and I will sort it from there, otherwise, good luck.”
“Thank you, I will call if I need any assistance.” Erün replied, still smiling. With that Cleyandra strode out of the room, closing the door behind her. As soon as she was out of the room, the scrap of paper appeared in Erün’s hands. His heart beat faster as he read the fading ink.
found nothing to suggest th
Heruvem must be stopped b
is evil beyond all reas
bring you luck i
[Imagine the above on a torn piece of paper]
“Curious.” He said, half to himself. Folding and pushing the scrap of paper into the pocket of his cloak, Erün turned to the fire. By now all of the dry parchments had caught light and were eradicating their contents from the world. Erün moved silently over to the fire and carefully placed some of the bigger pieces of wood on top of the kindling, moving one piece at a time very slightly to an almost identical position. Anyone watching would have been puzzled by this display but would simply put it down to trying to spread the heat around so that cooking would be easier. When he was, apparently, satisfied with the positioning of the wood, Erün said a few, quiet, Elfish words. The fire flickered briefly, as if it had been blown by a gust of wind and then returned to normal. Erün stood up straight and turned to survey his domain with, had someone been watching, what could only be described as a knowing smile on his face. If someone had been watching.
Dawn was breaking and all around him was the sound of the forest carrying on as usual. Tongla’s head hurt. Moving his massive frame to an upright position he placed a hand on the large mound that was now, presumably, the back of his head. He could remember sitting up staring into the fire, waiting for Elnar to return. A twig had snapped behind him but before he could even think about turning round, he’d woken up and it was daylight. The fire had long since died out and all that was left was a few smouldering embers. Tongla sat in silence for a few moments as he replayed the last scene he could remember, over and over in his head. The shadows had seemed to lengthen and the air had closed in around him. He’d heard the twig and then, darkness. “Curious” he thought to himself. All of his belongings were right where he’d left them, so nothing had been taken. His hand flew to his chest to grasp the locket that hung there constantly. It had gone. That locket had been an engagement present from Elnar. She’d said that as long as he never took it off, he had no fear of her being drawn back to him. Tongla was normally a very peaceable man, but losing the one thing that bound him to Elnar infuriated him. Anger rose from the depths of his soul and he let out a hellacious roar which shook the ground and startled a squirrel that had been harvesting nuts from branches just above his head. A few nuts fell to the ground beside Tongla. His eyes flickered towards the movement and opened wide as his jumbled mind made sense of what he was seeing. The nuts had fallen beside some of his belongings and, with help from a piece of rope and a tin mug, had formed The Sign. He had only heard of The Sign in legends and seen it only once, hastily drawn by a drunkard and quickly burned, but there it was, as plain as daylight.
[picture of "The Sign" here]
Hardly daring to breath, Tongla slowly stretched out his arm and brushed The Sign apart. Once it was gone, he slumped back against the tree; however the symbol of hatred burned deep within his brain and would never be forgotten for as long as he lived. Without any clue as to where to go from here, Tongla closed his eyes in an attempt to hold back the flood that was, against all probability for a man of his size, rapidly beginning to build up. Despite having been unconscious for the better part of 7 hours, he started to drift off into an uneasy sleep, with dreams being plagued by demons, ghouls and the never-ending symbol of darkness.
Having spent the afternoon cleaning, sharpening and tidying the cooking utensils and kitchen until he deemed them usable, Erün decided to meet the locals. He stepped out of the kitchen and looked around the bustling Inn. No one paid him any attention whatsoever. Cleyandra looked up from the far end of the bar, where she was currently drawing beer into a clean yet battered pint glass. Her eyes met his and he knew at once that she wanted some help. He set about familiarising himself with the layout of the bar before offering his services to a man who was impatiently, yet very quickly, trying to forget all that he had seen, heard and done.
“I could die of thirst with you behind there, Elf.” The man slurred slightly as he spoke and gave the impression that he was concentrating intensely on holding the bar upright.
“I do apologise, sir, I am new and unfamiliar with this area.” Erün replied, “What can I get for you?”
“Well I would dearly love a new life but failing that I will settle for a pint.” The man retorted with the emphasised care of a drunkard.
“But of course, sir, right away.” Erün moved swiftly and the pint appeared before the man before he could count to ten, if indeed that was possible for him to count at all. Erün looked up at Cleyandra before asking for payment. A little shake of her head told him all he needed to know.
“Who’s next please?”
The rest of the evening was spent in this fashion, serving the customers and keeping the bar free from spillages. He was soon on good talking terms with a lot of the locals, but none of them would trust him with their tasks. Whilst being disappointed by this, Erün accepted that it would be a long time before he would truly be acknowledged as a friend rather than a stranger. As the night wound down, his thoughts began turning towards the future and, surprisingly, it all seemed to involve this peculiar Inn. Smiling to himself, and then to the final customer, he started wiping down the bar and collecting the stray glasses. Erün moved his way round to where Cleyandra was stacking clean glasses back onto the shelf underneath the bar.
“Cleyandra, I must thank you for the hospitality you have shown me today. I never once thought that my journey would bring me to a place such as this, and in such a short period of time, but I am happy that such fortune has been bestowed upon me. I have learned much of the ways of man in my brief time here, and hope that you have found my services to be useful.”
Cleyandra looked up from her chore.
“You have indeed shown your worth young Elf. I didn’t think that elves were keen on manual labour or serving people other than themselves. I must say that I am very impressed. At first I was certain that you would tire and leave before sunset, now I see that you are as much at home here, than you would be within your own forest. You are not like any other Elf I have ever met, you intrigue me. How long do you think you will be likely to stay for?”
A funny feeling came across Erün as he stood there, looking at this woman who he had known only a few hours. The way she smiled made him feel happy and content, her blue eyes sparkled in the dim lighting, yet if he looked closer he could see that they were also filled with trouble and concern.
“Well, ma’am, with you permission I will gladly stay until I find my purpose or until I exhaust my welcome.”
“Somehow I knew you say that. I also think that your purpose will be made known to you long before your presence here is worn through. We’ll finish tidying down here, then I will show you to your bed. It’s not much, but we don’t often get guests here.”
“Ah yes, when is it that I will properly meet your son?”
Looking surprised for only a brief moment, Cleyandra smiled.
“Your powers of observation really are amazing. Lareem is notoriously good at going un-noticed. You must be really good if you managed to see him spying on you… when did you see him?”
“When I was banking the fire, just after you left me earlier on. He was hiding in the pile of old sacks by the door. I didn’t want to say anything earlier because it was busy.”
“Yes, he does like to play hide and seek I’m afraid. He means no harm at all, he’s just curious of outsiders. You’ll meet him tomorrow morning.”
Erün smiled. “That is no trouble whatsoever, I was actually glad of his company. I look forward to meeting him.” He finished wiping the last glass and set it down with the rest. “Looks like we are finished here.”
“It would certainly appear that way; I’ll show you to your room.” Cleyandra moved round to the side of the bar and went through a door that Erün had failed to notice earlier. He looked around the bar one more time. The fire was dying down, the bolts were drawn securely across the door and everything was clean and tidy. With a contented sigh he followed Cleyandra through the door to what was sure to be an interesting stay.
Tongla awoke. His head was thumping and stiffness had taken hold of his limbs, making it painful to move. How long he had slept he had no idea. All he knew was that he had to find her. He had no idea how, but he would spend every last breath searching for her. Fighting through the laborious task of movement, he got up and went to the lake to drink and wash the tiredness from his eyes. After quenching his thirst he felt, strangely, much better. His mind became clearer and somehow he knew where he needed to go. His eyes turned northwards, to the Undrällë Mountains. They seemed to loom towards Tongla, as if they could sense his eyes staring at them. The hatred burned within his eyes with such fury that the mountains actually appeared to, after several moments, quail under his gaze. Feeling satisfied at his defiance of the cursed mountain range, Tongla slowly and methodically, not rushing in any way, began to pack away his gear. As he did so he his mind wandered back to the song his mother had used to sing him when he was scared as a little boy. Under his breath the words began to escape his mouth.
Dry your eyes, little one,
When you can’t seem to get it right,
Keep yourself strong within,
You can do anything you like,
When you believe you can, you will,
When you know you must, you shall,
Dreams can help you in the darkest night,
Hold on to your hopes,
They’ll guide you through the storm,
Keep moving on, wherever you go,
Don’t ever stop to mourn,
You’ll make it through, whatever the cost,
I know that this is true,
You are my son, forever know,
How much I love you
A solitary tear fell down his cheek in memory of his mother. The day she had been taken from him was the worst in his existence, save, possibly, this day. He had been little over 10 years of age when the barbarians had raided his village. His mother had hastily hidden him within a cupboard as soon as the alarm bells had rung out. Moments afterwards they had burst through the door. From his hiding place he had been able to watch all that was happening through the crack between the doors. He saw three of the barbarians rape and kill his mother whilst he has sat, paralysed with fear. He had stayed in that cupboard until the leader of the village had come in to survey the damage. He had rushed out into the chieftain’s arms and stood, staring at his mothers broken and ravaged body thinking only of revenge. He had quickly been removed from the house and that was the last time he had seen his mother’s body. Tongla had not been allowed to attend the burial of his mother; this was a right only reserved for the elders. He had, however, seen the column of smoke rising off of the funeral pyre from the comforting arms of a village maid, who subsequently came to care for Tongla until it was deemed he was ready to fend for himself. All through his time in the care of Selmac, the village maid, he did what was asked of him and became strong and a good worker. His desire for revenge dwindled, there were the crops to harvest, the fields to till and fruit to gather for the winter. Whilst it dwindled it did not fade completely, until he had met Elnar. Her peaceable nature had quelled any longing for revenge.