World of Ryyah

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Published Date:31-07-2017
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Chapter One The small village nestled on the banks of the Salmon River just south of the Wood Elven Forest was buzzing with excitement on that bright and sunny morning. It was the time of the salmon run Hun- dreds of thousands of red-bellied salmon had begun their arduous journey upstream to spawn in the calmer waters at the Twin Rivers Bend, and every able-bodied fisherman was on the river that day, hoping to fill their boats. Clusters of cheering children sent the men off, and every woman was preparing for the festivities and feasts that would go on deep into this first night of the salmon run. Of all the people in that village, few were more excited than twelve-year- old Donovan. Donovan’s father, a metalsmith who built and repaired tools for the villagers when not fishing, had been preparing for this morning for weeks, stocking his small boat, mending nets, and building the drying racks and smoker. Donovan had helped eagerly, sharpening his father’s knives and hooks and dreaming of the day when he, too, would join the triannual event. “This is the year that will make all of our efforts worthwhile,” his father had told Donovan and his mother that morning. “You’ll have fine cloth to make new clothes,” he promised his wife. “And perhaps we’ll have enough to send you to an apprentice school in one of the free towns so you can learn a better-paying trade,” he had said to Donovan. “The salmon will make all this pos- sible, and more. You’ll see. It’ll be our best year ever” Donovan’s family had moved from the free town of Benten, which lay about 100 leagues southeast of the village, when he was four years old and they had settled in the small village in order to be closer to the spawning grounds. The red-bellied salmon spawned in only one place on the whole planet of Ryyah, and only once every three years, making them one of the most valuable trade items to take to the free towns. A good catch would make living in this remote place—so far from other human activity—and all their other sacrifices worthwhile. Birth of the Half Elves When the boats moved out of sight, the children began to drift back toward the village. Donovan lingered at the riverbank until most were gone, then turned toward the forest. Immediately, his best friend, Akenji, was beside him. Akenji gazed in the direction of the departed boats and said, “In three years, when the salmon come again, we’ll be on the boats, and children will be cheering for us” Donovan grinned at him. “Not me,” he replied. “I’ll be a guard in the Grand Duke’s army, defending Benten from the Barbarians and the Wood Elves.” He brandished an invisible sword and slashed the air around his friend as they walked away from the river and headed toward the edge of the forest. Akenji laughed. “Sure you will You’ll be mending harnesses for the rich shopkeepers in some free town and charming all the ladies,” he teased. “Ah, I’m looking forward to going to one of the free towns,” said Donovan. He smiled as he thought of all the things they could buy there—new tools, colorful cloth for his mother, blankets, weap- ons… “And we can go to the carnival,” he added, his cheeks flushed with excitement. “Do they really have such a thing?” Akenji asked, a frown of doubt wrinkling his smooth, dark brow for a moment. “Yes, I remember it,” answered Donovan, although, in fact, he remembered very little about his life in the free town and mainly had pictures in his mind of the carnivals from the stories his father told him. “There is music, food, and games,” he told Akenji, ges- turing wide with his arms as though to show his friend all of these amazing things. “You can play the games and win things I will be the best in the archery game and win a real bow and arrow” This time, it was an invisible bow that he drew back and let fly an invisi- ble arrow high into the air. Both boys “watched” as the arrow arched and descended into the trees ahead of them. “I think you just killed a Wood Elf,” exclaimed Akenji, punch- ing Donovan’s arm. “Of course I did,” bragged Donovan, resisting the urge to rub the spot where Akenji had just punched him. Akenji was surpris- ingly strong for his age. “The Wood Elves fear the name Donovan and run before my bow and arrow” Akenji snorted and looked over at his friend with admiration. Donovan, a year older than Akenji, was already beginning to show 2A new start signs of manhood. His slender arms were beginning to thicken with muscle and his body moved with a natural coordination that made the younger boy, who was taller and more awkward, somewhat envious. Akenji tended to imitate Donovan and strove to keep up with his friend in all their many adventures. Now, he turned to face the forest and said, “I dare you to go into the forest to find the Elf and retrieve your arrow.” The confident smile faded slightly on Donovan’s face and he glanced sideways at Akenji. “I would,” he said, “but mother is wait- ing for me.” Both boys looked into the gloom of the forest, silently, and shivered slightly. “Ya,” whispered Akenji. “We should get back.” Just then, the sound of a high-pitched whistle reached them, and before they had taken ten more steps, they heard a scream. It was coming from the village. Then more and more screams—frantic, horrible screams. Both boys froze, terrified. What could be causing the women to scream like that? “Mother” yelled Donovan, snapping out of his daze. “Come on, we have to help them” he cried, taking off at a dead run. In the nearby forest, a Barbarian scout had been watching the villagers. As the fishermen drifted out of sight, he smiled and thought, So many pretty women, left all alone. They will fetch a good price at the slave markets. He stroked the feathers of his hawk and adjusted his pet onto his forearm. He tied a note to the hawk’s talons and threw the large bird into the air. Moments later, the bird flew down and landed on the thick fore- arm of the Barbarian leader, Boric the Knife. He removed the note from the hawk’s talons and read it quickly. Everything is in position, all clear, proceed with plans. Boric whistled and about fifty men began moving toward the village. By the time Donovan and Akenji reached the edge of the vil- lage, all hell had broken loose. Boric’s men had surrounded the perimeter of the village and were systematically moving toward the center, charging, yelling, and driving the children and womenfolk ahead of them. “It’s slavers,” whispered Donovan. He and Akenji were crouched behind a hut at the edge of the village. The screams and cries of the women put shivers up Donovan’s spine and he couldn’t 3Birth of the Half Elves stop the trembling that was taking over his whole body. He peeked around the edge of their hiding place, just as one of the Barbarians dragged an old man from a nearby hut, sliced his throat, and threw him aside. Donavan gasped and lurched back beside Akenji. “We have to get our fathers,” whimpered Akenji. “We have to go back.” They had barely stood, preparing to head back to the river to get help, when a man—the same man who has just killed the elder— rounded the side of the hut and grabbed them both. The boys strug- gled under the man’s iron grip, but they were soon being dragged along, helpless to defend themselves. As the man moved them toward the growing crowd of captured villagers, they saw many bodies strewn around like ragged, discarded toys. Anyone who offered a token of resistance was ruthlessly slaughtered. Donovan scanned the group of frantic women for his mother. When he finally spotted her, the terror in her eyes made it hard for him to breathe. She was like a wild, cornered animal and the keen- ing sound that arose from somewhere deep inside her when she spotted him brought tears to his eyes. Unashamed, he ran to her and for a moment they clung to each other, instinctively knowing that the worst was yet to come. “I won’t let them hurt you,” he promised her. “You’re only a child, Donovan. Do as they say or they’ll kill you. Keep yourself safe” The men began shouting for quiet and soon only whimpers and muffled moans could be heard throughout the crowd. The captives were pushed and prodded into the closest huts, with threats of death to any who dared to make a sound. The doors were barricaded and guarded. There was no hope of escape. Boric’s men quickly set up an ambush for the men who had left that morning, expecting to return to celebrations and a feast. In one of the huts, Donovan and his mother sat in a tense silence, praying for something, or someone, to help them. The fishing boats came into sight by midafternoon. The men were singing songs of the salmon and trips to the free towns as they drifted downstream and closer to the village. As they drew near the shore, their songs faded. No one was there to greet them and appre- hension spread through the group. “Where is everyone?” wondered one of the men. “It’s like a ghost town.” “Where are my boys?” shouted another man. “Come help haul 4A new start the fish, my sons” There was no response. No longer laughing and singing, but quiet now with a strange dread, the first of the men pulled their boats to shore and began to make their way toward the village in search of their loved ones. They never made it. Boric’s men attacked them and cut their throats before they even had a chance to cry out. Within seconds, the shore- line was flooded with Barbarians and the surprised fishermen were quickly cut down. Not one was spared during the bloody attack. The Barbarian warriors wasted even less time rifling through the dead fisherman’s pockets, searching for any valuables. In the village, Boric shouted orders to bring out the women and children. “Women and female children on this side,” he commanded. “Male children over here. Get rid of the infants.” Everything happened quickly then. Donovan’s mother dragged at him and screamed his name as the Barbarians forced them apart. Tears ran down his face, but he made no sound. All around him, children and mothers cried their anguish as families were torn apart. The worst was the sound of the mothers with infants. Donovan knew that the sound of their wails and desperate begging and screaming, as their babies were torn from their arms and slaughtered before their eyes, was a sound he would carry with him forever. He fought waves of nausea as the smell of blood filled the air, and the sight of the dead was almost more than he could bear. “Take these women and girls to the southernmost free town slave market and sell them off,” Boric ordered his second-in-com- mand. “Answer no questions. Keep it quiet and do it as quickly as you can.” A group of men were selected to escort and guard the distraught women and girls. As they began herding the females toward the riverbank, mothers tried to run back to their sons, snatch up their dead babies, or reach for their husbands as they passed the bodies of the fishermen. The guards ruthlessly beat the frantic women into submission and were finally able to get them into the fishing boats among the treasured salmon that had been caught that day. Donovan stood beside Akenji, numb and dazed, along with all the other boys left behind, listening as the wailing of the women gradually faded. He could feel his friend shaking and crying silently, but could not move to offer any comfort. The youngest boys cried openly for their mothers. Donovan looked at them as if from a dis- tance. He had never felt so helpless or lost. It was like an unimagi- 5Birth of the Half Elves nable nightmare. The boys fell into an uneasy silence as the leader of the slavers approached them, followed by some of his Barbarian warriors. “Who here is thirteen years or older?” Several boys glanced nervously around the group and slowly raised their hands. “Stand over here,” ordered Boric, pointing to where he wanted them to move. “If you are younger than eight years, join those boys,” barked the fierce leader. When the boys had finished sorting themselves, Boric looked over the remaining boys. He pulled a few boys out of the group and pushed them toward the cluster of older and younger boys. His eyes rested for a long moment on Donovan. “How old are you, boy?” he demanded. “Twelve, sir,” Donovan answered nervously. “And you?” Boric gestured to Akenji who, although a year younger than Donovan, was taller than him. “Eleven, sir,” said Akenji, his voice trembling with fear. The fierce looking man sized them up, seeming to try to decide about them. “You’ll be able to work hard,” he finally growled, moving on. When he had inspected each boy and seemed satisfied with the groups he had made, he swept his arm toward the boys who had been separated, and shouted, “Do it” The Barbarian warriors swiftly moved into the group and sliced the throats of every boy. Within minutes, not one boy from that group was alive. If Donovan had been numb before, now it seemed that all feeling had left his limbs. He struggled to remain standing and his heart raced in his chest. He felt Akenji, beside him, col- lapse to the ground, heard his sobs. He saw boys try to run, over- come with panic, only to be sliced down in their flight. His mind, deep in shock, couldn’t make sense of all that was happening. His mother, his father, his friends and neighbors…all gone. The blood, the screams, the horror of it all was too much for his young mind to comprehend. He slowly sank to the ground beside Akenji and sat there, staring straight ahead, just trying to breathe. He wouldn’t sit for long, however, as Boric called out to his men to tie the children’s hands together with rope and prepare to move them. “We’ll head southwest, following the river,” he ordered. It was a sorry-looking group of boys who were prodded and 6A new start pushed before Boric’s men that afternoon. Parched with thirst, exhausted, blood-splattered, bruised and battered, they stumbled along in a daze of shock, knowing nothing of where they were going or what was to become of them. The warriors showed no mercy, and were quick to land a harsh blow to any boy who lagged behind or fell. They marched along in this state until they came to a juncture where the river flowed directly south before curving around to flow southwest again. Here, they stopped and allowed the boys to drink from the river and rest while Boric decided their route. Boric calculated that he could cut several hours off their jour- ney if they left the river and cut through the forest. The river route was treacherous along this bend and would be slow and long. They could move through the forest with much greater ease and speed. His men shifted restlessly and eyed the forest with nervous glances and mistrustful frowns, although none dared to speak out against their leader’s idea. Sensing their unease, Boric added, “The Wood Elves are not likely to patrol this far south. If we move quickly, we will reach the other side before sundown and we can camp by the river on the other side for the night. Be on guard and do not linger. Let’s move” The men and their captive boys moved swiftly and silently through the forest, on alert to every snapping twig, rustling bush and whispering breeze. The boys had been raised to fear the forest and the Wood Elves who controlled it. Stories were told of disobedient children who ventured in, never to return, and of the fierceness and magic of the Elves. There was little that the villagers feared more, as the Elves were well known to have little tolerance for humans. Unlike the Barbarians, though, they did not openly engage in attacks against humans unless the humans invaded their territory. They marched on for hours with no sign of trouble and as they neared the end of the journey, fatigue and relief began to make Boric’s men complacent. They had less than four leagues to go, and their focus now was on keeping the exhausted boys moving. Little did they know that they had been being trailed by a Wood Elf scout for the last three leagues. The Elven scout whistled for one of the forest wolves, and tied a message around the beast’s shaggy neck. “To Alayna, on swift feet,” he requested. The wolf turned, without hesitation, and loped into the forest. The Barbarians urged the boys on, eager to leave the gloom and threat of the forest. Night was falling and they were only a few 7Birth of the Half Elves leagues away from a meal and rest. The sound of a long, low whistle brought them to a standstill. The warriors drew their weapons, alert and tense. The boys huddled together, terrified, and the men surrounded them, prepared to defend their prize. The forest revealed nothing, made no further sound, and finally Boric gave the signal to start moving again. Suddenly, arrows were whistling through the air, striking the warriors down where they stood. The Elven Rangers were deadly accurate, and within moments, not one man was alive. The children were huddled together, weeping and begging in a language unfa- miliar to the Elves. The Rangers notched their arrows and took aim, ready to complete their duty. “Stop” shouted a woman’s voice. Donovan’s eyes searched the forest in the direction that the voice had come from and then wid- ened as he watched a slender, beautiful Elven woman stride into their midst. “Lower your arrows,” she commanded, and the Rangers com- plied. “These are mere children,” she said, her brow furrowed with concern. Donovan, watching her, could not understand her words, but sensed that she was trying to protect them. All of the children were still, their anguished eyes riveted on her face. “Lord Aden has ordered us to kill any human trespassers,” one of the Rangers reminded the woman. “These children are human, which makes them a threat to our kind. You know the laws as well as we do” “The law was put in place to nullify direct threats. Look at these children. Do they seem threatening to you? What have we become, Shadow Elves? Killing children and spilling so much innocent blood are the actions of evil beings. Is that what we are? These children were forced here. They are no threat to us.” There was no reply and she knew she had won the argument. “I will take full responsibility,” the woman assured them. “As your leader, I order you not to harm these innocents.” “As you command, Alayna,” said one the Rangers. “Shall we leave them here, then?” asked another. “They would not survive the night,” Alayna replied, her eyes on the children. “We will set up camp here and attend to their needs tonight.” Murmurs of protest rippled through the Elven group, but stopped immediately when Alayna raised her hand for silence. Alayna pointed to one of the Rangers. “You, head back the way 8A new start they came and find their village. If there are survivors, we will lead the children back to their home.” She pointed to another. “You, take word to Lord Aden, explain- ing the situation. Request further orders about what he wishes us to do with the children.” To the group in general, she said, “We will need food, shelter, water, and fire. Make camp” Alayna turned her attention fully on the boys. A feeling of safety and relief swept over Donavan as he looked up into her deli- cate face. Her red-gold hair was pulled back in a ponytail, revealing long, slender ears that pointed at the tips, and her eyes were a deep turquoise. When those eyes rested on him, he sensed that she was sharing his sadness and was somehow connecting with his mind and with his heart. His eyes began to blur and tears fell onto his cheeks. She wrapped her arms around him and said, “Child, it will be okay. I can see that you have witnessed great horrors this day. You will not be harmed further.” He looked up at her, surprised to hear her speak human words. She smiled at him, looking more like an angel than a flesh and blood being. “I am Alayna, of the House of Dorandal. I am sorry for your loss,” she comforted. “Cry if you must. It is good to mourn those who have passed. I am here with you tonight.” True to her word, she sat with the traumatized youngsters all through the night, comforting those who cried out in their sleep, holding the ones for whom sleep would not come and watching over them all. None of them could know just how important this woman would become to them, or where their lives were heading. For now, all they knew was the soothing lull of her melodic voice as they struggled to get through this first long night as orphans. 9Chapter Two It would be a full month before Lord Aden sent his orders to the Elves regarding the human children. It was not entirely surprising that he had not made their dilemma a priority but, for most of the Elven Rangers, the wait was deeply annoying. Many an argument had been raged over that month. Some Rangers suggested taking the children to the outskirts of a human village, or one of the free towns, and leaving them to the mercy of their own kind, but others argued that they had already seen and heard too much. They were now a serious threat. Many were in favor of simply doing away with the little ones, as they should have from the start. Only a deep respect for their leader, Alayna, restrained them, as she had formed an unex- pectedly strong bond with the boys and refused to consider any option other than to protect them and wait for Lord Aden’s orders. During their long wait, the boys slowly regained their strength and natural curiosity, as only children can, even in the face of great tragedy. None of the boys would ever be the same. A seriousness had replaced their youthful playfulness of the past, and a few remained quiet and withdrawn. But the spirit of youth was on their side and they were soon exploring and helping with the daily running of the camp, eager to learn the ways of the Wood Elves. Alayna had become very fond of the children, especially Donovan. He was a quick thinker and a fast learner, very much like her youngest son whom she had recently lost in a minor border skirmish. She was a mother of nine children—four boys and five girls. Three of them were dead. The loss of each one had been a crushing blow, but her youngest had been the hardest to come to terms with. They had been very close; he had reminded her strongly of her bonded mate, who had died defend- ing the Wood Elven capital city from foreign invasion. He was a great man and she missed him, and her son, terribly. Alayna was about five hundred years old, give or take a hun- dred years. None of her fellow Rangers could ever pinpoint her exact age, and Alayna wasn’t planning to tell them anytime soon. All of her surviving children were grown and had bonded mates and children of their own. Having these boys around her made herBirth of the Half Elves realize how much she missed the young ones and how she wished she could have had more of her own. She was a fierce warrior and a highly respected Ranger, but her heart was that of a mother. As she watched the boys, one afternoon, struggle to solve the problem of building shelter as efficiently as they had seen the Rang- ers do it, she sighed, not for the first time, as she remembered her son’s first attempts at the skill. Hearing her sigh, Donovan looked up to see a sad, wistful expres- sion cross her face and he looked at her, quizzically, until she laughed and said, “No need to look so serious, young Donovan. I was just thinking about how much you remind me of my youngest son. He was quick to laugh, just like you, and he was intelligent—a skilled problem solver. When he died, he was on his way to becoming a great warrior. I believe, given enough time, he would have become one of the elite guards of the high lord. But, it was not to be.” “Elves can die?” Donovan questioned. He, like most humans, thought that the Wood Elves were immortal, with some kind of magic that prevented them from being killed, or a magic that brought them back to life if they were fatally wounded. Alayna looked puzzled, and then her face cleared with under- standing. “We were once immortal,” she explained. “In the times of the Elders, before the source stone exploded. Those powers died during the Time of Darkness. Although we do live very long lives, we can, alas, be killed.” A shadow of pain crossed her face as she spoke these final words and Donovan was surprised to learn that Elves also loved and missed their families, just as humans did. Before he had met Alayna, he had never imagined them as anything but fierce creatures to be feared. His sharp, adventure-loving mind was buzzing with questions about the Elders and the source stone and the Time of Darkness, but for now, as he looked into her sad, turquoise eyes, he held his ques- tions and said, “I’m sorry I upset you, Lady Alayna. You’ve been so kind to us. I didn’t know you had lost family, too. Is there any way I can make it better?” Alayna laughed and replied, “I am not a lady. That title is reserved for the nobility, and no, child, there is nothing you can do. I will carry this pain, as you will yours, for all of my life. We simply need to find ways to live as best we can and accept what life gives us to bear.” “That seems very hard,” answered Donovan thoughtfully. “When I think of the look in my mother’s eyes, and hear the screams in my sleep…” “It will get easier,” promised Alayna. 12A new start The orders, when they came, were far from satisfying. The Rangers had been expecting an order to leave the children and return to their usual duties, but instead, they were instructed to move the children to the Ranger’s base of operations, Weeping Tree Outpost, and await further orders there. They were pleased to be leaving this temporary camp, and looking forward to refreshing their supplies at the outpost, but most were disgruntled about having the burden of young children—and human children at that—slowing them down. It took over a month to reach the outpost, traveling northwest through the forest. The boys were quiet as they moved farther and farther from human settlements and from the life they had known. The days were long, and the nights less than comfortable as they made quick, rough camps to allow the children to rest. The young- est boys needed to stop far more often than the Rangers would have liked, but Alayna was insistent that the children’s needs be met. When they finally arrived, Donovan and the others were taken by surprise. They had been walking straight toward the outpost all day, but somehow hadn’t seen it until they were almost at the gates. The encampment was well camouflaged in the dense forest and surrounded on three sides by high wooden walls. Guards opened the gates for them, and Alayna led them past storage buildings and training yards where Elves were practicing with bows and arrows, to a large building at the center of the camp. Elves stopped their activi- ties to stare at the strange procession as they made their way to the large building and the boys huddled nervously, staying as close to Alayna as they could. They stopped outside the building and Alayna turned to them with a smile. “This is the officer’s quarters and this is where you will stay until we have word from high Lord Aden. I know you will quickly learn the ways of the Elves and show respect to those who are providing for you during your stay. I will help you, of course, and you will help each other.” She addressed the Rangers. “I thank you, my friends, for your assistance with this most unusual situation. I will require only a few of you to remain to help with the daily care of our charges. The rest will be free to return to your usual duties until we hear from the high lord. For tonight, though, I order you to rest, relax, and enjoy your first day back at the outpost” A small cheer arose from the group of Rangers and they had 13Birth of the Half Elves soon dispersed, more than happy to follow those orders. Alayna soon had the boys fed and settled and when, at last, she retired to her own quarters, she was deeply grateful for her bunk and the small moments of privacy that she hadn’t enjoyed for quite some time. Three months later, Alayna watched as the gates to the out- post were swung open to allow a large procession through. She was surprised to see the high lord’s standard flying above the heads of the guards. It could only mean that Lord Aden was amongst them, which would be a rare event indeed. As she made her way toward the procession, she saw the central guards part, and Lord Aden step forward, demanding to speak with the commander. Alayna walked up to him, gave the traditional salute and asked, “How may I serve you, high Lord?” Lord Aden studied her coldly for a long moment before speak- ing. “You are the commander of the Wood Elven Rangers?” he finally asked. “Yes, my Lord,” she replied. “I am Alayna, of the House of Dorandal.” “I wish to speak with you in private,” he said, and his tone made it clear that this was an order and not a polite request. Alayna led the way to her command office and invited Lord Aden inside. “We are not to be disturbed for any reason” she instructed the guards. There was a tense silence for a moment as Alayna waited to see if Lord Aden would speak first. He did not, but stood staring at her as if she were something most unpleasant. Finally, she offered, “Would you like any refreshments, my Lord?” “I highly doubt that you would have anything to my liking out here in this godforsaken wilderness,” he replied. Alayna took a deep breath and asked, “Well, my Lord, may I be so bold as to ask why you have made the journey so far from the capital?” The high lord’s eyes narrowed with anger as he answered, “It was not my wish to come this far out. But you have put me in a very difficult situation and since you do not seem capable of solving this problem in an appropriate manner, as I was hoping you would, my personal attention is now required. Where are these human children that you have allowed to live amongst us all these past months?” 14A new start “Some are currently in the barracks, sir, and a few are playing in the woods nearby. Some are fishing at the pond and…” “Yes, I’m sure they’re roaming all over the place as animals tend to do,” spat the high lord in a scathing tone. “Please explain to me why you did not simply leave these children where you found them, or disposed of them in the first place, as was your duty. It was not your responsibility to see to their care or their needs. You have created an enormous problem” “High Lord, with all due respect, sir, if I had left them there, they would have died.” “Human children are not our responsibility or our concern,” growled Lord Aden. “You don’t take baby animals home with you after killing their mother, do you?” “We did not kill their mothers, sir,” explained Alayna, barely concealing her impatience. “They were murdered and the children were in great distress…” “You will return these children to their village and leave them there. This cannot be recorded, which is why I speak to you in pri- vate, Commander, but this is a direct order and you will obey it I will not spend viable Elven resources on such useless life forms. It was a mistake for you to assist them in the first place. For all we know they could be spies sent by our enemies.” “These children are not spies, my Lord. They are innocent vic- tims of a horrible massacre. If we take them back and just leave them to their fate, we will be sentencing them to die a slow and painful death.” “That is not our concern. If you had done your duty and killed them when you first found them trespassing, this wouldn’t be a prob- lem now, would it? Besides, for every one that dies, a hundred more will take their place. The human population grows ever stronger.” Alayna was not ready to give up. In a determined voice, she said, “Sir, if I may offer an alternative solution that does not involve the murder of innocents.” “I don’t care for your insolent tone, but make your suggestion,” allowed Lord Aden. Alayna spoke carefully and with absolute respect. “My Lord, if your primary concern is the expense of raising these children to adulthood, then it might please you to know that they are about half grown already. As you likely know, humans reach maturity much faster than Elves—in less than twenty years, in fact. And, if you are correct in thinking they may be spies, then would it not be to our benefit to keep them close at hand and out of contact of the humans? 15Birth of the Half Elves Would it not be better to train them and use them as scouts for our own purposes? We could set up an outpost even further south than any we’ve had so far.” “Now you’re asking me to raise and train these children,” shouted the high lord, his face darkening with angry red splotches. Alayna went on quickly, before he could become too infuriated to listen. “Yes. Once they’re trained, they could prove very useful in areas where manpower is needed greatly, and if they die in battle, what’s the difference? No one will miss them and they would then be out of your hair.” Alayna paused, letting the idea sink in for a moment. She could see he was uncertain, that he might go either way, and this was her only shot. She needed another angle and quickly. Suddenly, she had an idea. “With all due respect, my Lord, this may also be a chance for you to silence some of your more vocal critics who say you lack compassion. What could be more compassionate than showing mercy to children? It would be certain to put you in a favorable light in the eyes of the Wood Elven people.” Lord Aden smiled slightly and said, “You are clever. I like the way your mind works, but who would we get to train them? I don’t want to spare precious Elven resources on something I consider to be a pointless endeavor.” “High Lord, if I may volunteer my services. I am a skilled trainer in both archery and the Elven sword tactics. I could teach them and form them into a fit command that any Elven commander would be proud of.” “I doubt that,” Lord Aden scoffed, “but I will grant your wish on the condition that you, and you alone, will perform this task. I will provide you with food, weapons, and supplies for thirty days and no longer. You will be responsible for building the outpost, and after the thirty days are up, you will be responsible for providing their food and training. Are these terms acceptable to you?” Alayna saluted and replied, “Yes, my Lord, I accept your terms most gratefully.” Lord Aden and his procession, eager to return to the capital, departed the very next day. Alayna spent most of that day compos- ing a letter to her family, telling them she would be away for a few years fulfilling a task for the high lord. She could not offer them any more details than that, but she promised to return safely when the task was completed and told them she would carry them in her heart until she could see them all again. Although she was excited for the task ahead, she sealed the letter with a heavy heart. 16A new start She spent several hours writing an inventory of all the supplies they would need, and then gave orders to several of her Rangers to organize the items for their journey. That evening, she gathered the children together. “You must rest well tonight,” she told them. “Tomorrow we will travel south once more—much farther south than before. We will be setting up a new outpost there, just for you.” “Are you going to leave us there?” asked one boy, his voice high and anxious. “I am going to stay there with you,” Alayna explained, and smiled as she watched relief wash over the boy’s face. “There will be much work for us to do, but I will teach you how to hunt and build and provide for yourselves, and later, I will train you in the fighting arts.” The boys all began to speak at once, excited by the prospect of being taught the Elven arts. Alayna raised her hand to quiet them and continued. “The high lord has decided that he could use your services when you are grown and trained. You should be honored and strive to become great soldiers. He has given you a chance to survive and go on to great things. I will do all I can to help you reach this goal.” Most of the boys were thrilled at the prospect of becoming war- riors and good-natured arguments soon began breaking out about which boys would be the greatest warriors. Alayna laughed at their exuberance, knowing that reality would set in soon enough. “I am sure that all of you will be very proficient scouts at the very least,” she assured them, “but to become a warrior is not an easy path. You must learn patience, concentration, and diligence. This will not come overnight and it will not be easy, but with my help, you will be as strong and skilled as you are able to be.” The boys were rounded up once more the next morning and, after a hearty breakfast, they split the load of goods amongst them and turned to the south. As Alayna said her goodbyes to the other Elves, she was questioned over and over about the wisdom of this task. Were a bunch of human boys worth being exiled to the far south? Why was she offering years of her life for these worthless children? Many wondered if she had lost her senses. One look at the group of youngsters, though, with their tousled hair, dirty faces and haunted eyes, and she knew she was not wasting her time. They needed her. They needed a chance, and she would give it to them. 17 Raid on EldergateChapter Three Ten Years Later In the small, northern town of Eldergate, the Elven folk were preparing for the celebration of a lifetime. The seventh and young- est princess of high Lord Aden and high Lady Alousia would be arriving in two day’s time to select one hundred lucky Elven maid- ens to be bound for life into her service during her coming-of-age ceremony. The town had never hosted such an elaborate occasion—in fact, few Elven towns had. Coming-of-age binding ceremonies were rarely performed outside of the capital city of Alderwood, and common Wood Elves were seldom selected to serve the roy- alty. The coveted positions were usually filled by the offspring of those already in service. However, Lord Aden had been unusually prolific by royal standards, and had out-bred his servants’ ability to provide suitable servants for all of his children, so the youngest had to choose her servants from among the lower classes. It was the opportunity of a lifetime for the maidens of Eldergate, a chance to bring honor and status to their families; and every eligible girl was preparing for the big day. Princess Brandela was far less excited. Not only was she being forced to travel into the wilderness, to some remote and unfamiliar town to “come of age,” but her mother, high Lady Alousia, would not be in attendance. The princess and her procession were traveling a hundred and eighty leagues southeast of Alderwood. The journey, which would have taken an Elven Ranger only a week to complete, was a tension-ridden forty day expedition requiring a large contin- gency of servants to travel ahead and have camp ready for the prin- cess’ arrival, dozens of guards and an obscene number of Elves to tote, fetch and care for Brandela’s every need and desire. By the time the princess reached camp on the final night of the excursion, she was not in a happy mood “We’re almost there, my Lady,” Brandela’s nursemaid, Nina, declared cheerfully.Birth of the Half Elves “Almost to the middle of nowhere,” Brandela retorted bitterly. “Oh, come now, cheer up. Think of this as an adventure. None of your siblings had the chance to select their own servants. This is a very special opportunity. You’ll be bringing new blood into the ser- vant lines—goodness knows we need it—and servants selected by your own hand will surely bond more strongly than normal.” “None of my siblings had their ceremony leagues from home without their mother there,” scowled Brandela. “It’s not fair” “My Lady, you know your mother would want to be with you for this occasion if she could. She’s very fond of you and very sorry that she couldn’t make the journey with you,” scolded Nina with a kind smile. Brandela knew Nina was right. It wasn’t her mother’s fault, but still…it hurt to know that her mother would not put aside her other duties to be with her for her coming-of-age ceremony. She had made an effort for all of the others. But then, none of the others had been forced to search for their bonded servants outside of Alderwood. “She could have come if she’d really wanted to,” Brandela sulked, not yet willing to give up feeling sorry for herself. “If I live to be 800 years old, like her, I’ll never treat any of my children— especially my youngest one—with such inconsideration.” Nina chuckled. “If you live to be 800 years old, like your mother, you’ll be wise enough to know that things don’t always go the way you want them to. You’ll forgive her then…or hopefully, sooner. You’ll be a high lady running a noble house by then. You won’t have time for all this self-pity.” Brandela blushed, knowing full well that Nina was right again. She was being pitiful and self-pity was not one of her strong points. She was the descendent of five Western Wood Elven high lords, she reminded herself. She had the blood of strong leaders and great Elves coursing through her veins, and they had dealt with much more serious issues than coming-of-age ceremonies. “I will be a wise and responsible ruler,” she said out loud, lifting her chin and straightening her back. “Thank you for reminding me, Nina.” She bestowed a quick kiss on the nursemaid’s cheek before climbing out of the palanquin. She was not happy with the situation, still, but she quickly fell into the natural rhythm that was so familiar to her, and was soon giving orders and organizing her procession. She was young, impatient, and perhaps a little spoiled, but Brandela was a born leader. The procession left early the next morning to ensure that the princess would arrive at Eldergate before nightfall. Scouts spotted 22

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