The Solitary Arrow Ch. 13bymack_the_knife©
Harlen put his arm under Hyandai's ribs and helped her stay on her feet. She felt wasted and thin, like she had spent months in a dark cell. He looked over the carnage in the room that Hyandai had wrought alone. Body parts lay strewn about, and whole bodies, cloven in two, heads, arms, and legs.
She shuddered as she saw it too, as for the first time. "No wonder they called me a witch." She muttered.
Harlen started to move them forward again, toward the shattered doorway. "You were magnificent." He said, kissing her hair. "You looked like a warrior goddess from the old tales from Syriss."
She looked at the ehladrel in his hand. "It was the weapon." She said. "There is a reason the orcs fear it. And my people seek its return.
They came to the fallen body of Letharon. Hyandai looked at his still-shocked face. "He was one of our greatest warriors, Harlen." She said, her voice heavy with sadness.
"Why did he do this?" He asked.
"Some elven folk believe it a mistake to work closely with the humans, a minority, but a increasingly radical minority. The losses of the battles in the Windy Isles have caused them to begin a campaign to subvert the people away from the crown's will and turn us back inwards, like our Starre Island cousins." She shook her head. "There are dark elves among them, as well, being as they share some goals."
Harlen muttered. "The enemy of my enemy is my friend."
She knelt and closed Letharon's eyes, needing the huntsman's help to regain her feet. "I wish it were not so, but they see it that way, indeed." She looked back at Lotharon as Harlen guided her out the doorway. "He was a hero once, and now has died defying the will of his people, the ones he swore to protect, it pains me to see him in such ignoble company upon a field of death."
Harlen nodded. "He chose the wrong path." He said. "Becoming that which you hate to destroy another which you hate gains you nothing. I learned that the hard way." He gave her a wry smile.
She kissed him on the cheek. "Forgive yourself now, beloved." She said.
They cautiously approached the stairs, but there was no movement in any of the side chambers. All the orcs, it seemed, had truly fled in terror at the wroth of the 'witch queen.' Harlen could not blame them; he was more than a little frightened of the small woman who now leaned on him for support.
As they descended the stairs, Harlen said. "I thought you had to have a willing person to perform your spiritual leap into them."
She shook her head. "Only if you wish them to survive it." She looked at him with sad eyes. "I was not concerned if the orcs' minds were destroyed at my coming into them. She again looked at the ehladrel. I was not concerned for much, except defeating those that would stand in my way to freedom. It is a terrible weapon you hold, Harlen. It does not care who it destroys, so long as an elf wields it and believes in what he is doing."
"Isn't it that way with all weapons?" He replied as he looked into the corridor toward the exit of the tower.
She sighed and said. "Yes, I guess it is." Again, there was nothing moving in the tower. The orcs had fled far from this place of terror for their kind. There may have been several hundreds in the fortress, but the word of the witch queen broke their will, and none of their kind would stand for being simply slaughtered. Harlen envied orcs their very selfish attitude, though it is also why they have achieved little in the world. He grinned realizing that selfishness gains an individual, and selflessness gains a people.
They emerged into the darkness of early night. Hyandai scanned the surrounding hillocks and rock piles. "There is nothing moving, save small animals." She pronounced. "Was I truly so terrifying?" She asked, looking at Harlen with large eyes.
He nodded sadly. "Yes." He said simply.
She touched his cheek. "Even for you?"
He looked away from her, breaking the contact with those green, luminous eyes. "Yes." He said. "To know my lover can destroy a man's mind with but a glance, or his body with a simple flick of her wrist." He looked back at her. "How is a man to react to such terrifying power?"
She shrugged, a habit she had been increasingly using as she spent time with the man she loved. "How am I to react to a man who could snap my neck like kindling?" She said quietly. "Or break my heart with a few little words." She added, her eyes dropping. "You may not know it, but when I first met you, the very first human I had actually spoken to, and one of the first I had seen, I was terrified of you. You were so big and powerful, and moved like an animal, a bear stalking his wood." She smiled. "But I needed to trust you, so I bit that back and trusted you."
He smiled at the memory of their meeting, seemingly so long ago, but only, in reality, perhaps two weeks. "You're saying I should trust you now?"
She nodded. "Please." Her eyes implored him. This was very important to her, and she knew if he could not trust her, their love was doomed. "My power will never be used to hurt you, and you know that."
He considered this as they descended the steps that led to the mouth of the fortress, both keeping wary eyes out on the field and surrounding environs. "I guess that I do." He finally said. "As I suppose you do, as well."
She smiled and kissed his shoulder. "With my very life." She whispered. They finally reached the first outlying rock piles and did their best to blend into them, and move quietly between the formations and small hills, leading back to the high pass to his home.
Hyandai could not climb the steep path up to the pass this night, and they sought out some secluded location to pitch their blankets for a night's sleep. Harlen finally declared a spot somewhat suitable and they unfurled their beds. She immediately sought his touch as they lay down and he embraced her, knowing that to make her feel, even in the least, unwanted, would hurt her greatly. He soon realized he was drawing as much comfort from her as she was from him, and smiled into her cinnamon-scented hair as they both drifted into uneasy sleep.
In the morning, Hyandai seemed much recovered, though there was still a noticeable darkening around her eyes. She awoke Harlen with a passionate kiss, they both smiled at the bright morning that greeted them as they moved from the shadows of the cleft they had chosen for a shelter. He sought out a vantage point and used his spyglass to peer back down at the fortress.
"Our friends didn't stay scared for too long." He said, with a sour expression on his face. "They're back, and in force."
She nodded. "We must be cautious, then." She murmured as he clambered down the rocks he had stood upon. "They will not tarry with us again, they will try to kill us, and may even have gifted among them now, their own magicians."
The two ate quickly of their nearly depleted stores of food, and rolled their beds up and tossed them into their packs. Hyandai took possession of the ehladrel and strapped it to her back, as Harlen remembered her brother wearing his. "I will only use it if I must, beloved." She said as he looked on her with worried eyes while she tied it over her shoulder. He seemed satisfied with that, and nodded curtly as he took several of his arrows and refilled Hyandai's now empty quiver.
They set off to climb the steep path, and managed to finish their ascent by noon, though Hyandai was completely spent at the finish, and Harlen had to nearly carry her. They peered down at the fortress. Bands of the orcs were fanning out from it, and he pulled forth his spyglass again.
Two groups of over a dozen of the foul creatures were pressing toward the pass they had ascended. He examined them as best he could at this distance. They seemed to be searching as they went, meaning they had not already spotted the two of them. Hyandai sat upon a stone, leaning on a larger one next to it. "They pursue us?" She said quietly.
Harlen said. "Yes, and two groups seem to be coming this way." He looked again. "Perhaps thirty in total."
She sighed. "I cannot fight off that many again, betrothed." Said quietly. "It would kill me."
He looked at her a long moment. "I know." He said. "Can you walk farther?"
She nodded, but it had no emphasis to it. "A ways, but not far." She said.
"Then come, we will leave the pass and hide to let you regain your strength." He said, taking her hand and guiding her northward. They explored up high onto the side of the mountain, peering into its crevasses and under its stone-littered sides. Harlen was cautious the whole time to mask the signs of their passing. Finally, he found a small hollow under a large boulder, and they took shelter within. It was barely large enough for the two of them to lie flat and side by side, but neither seemed to mind.
Harlen stacked stones in his best guess of the look of random rubble outside the entrance to mask it from all but the closest scrutiny. They then laid within and rested, and spoke softly, at the times when they were both wakeful.
Hyandai was very concerned that there may be more elves of minds akin to Lotharon's. She did not relish returning the ehladrel to her folk, only to have it again seized by zealots.
Harlen shrugged at that. "I don't see how it can be protected absolutely." He said. "You need it, but are afraid to use it. Not a pleasant dilemma."
She agreed. "The dichotomy of power, I guess." She murmured into his neck. She began kissing his exposed throat.
Touching her bare spine beneath her half top, Harlen smiled and said. "You seem to be recovering your energy. We should probably go in the morning."
She responded to his gentle touch by pressing herself against him more firmly. "Would that I had the energy for a night of love." She said wistfully, kissing his neck again.
Harlen smiled and stroked her hair and back. "I do to." He whispered into her pointed ear.
They both dozed fitfully through the night, and finally the sky began to brighten with the coming of the sun. Before the orb of fire could clear the near horizon, they were moving among the rocks of the pass, keeping to cover as much as they could, and warily scanning the paths before them. Hyandai heard the tread of heavily booted feet first, and pulled Harlen into a small cleft between two stones, turning her back to the outside and flipping up her hood. A group of half a dozen orcs moved past, led by one of the big brutes. They seemed engrossed in discussing what they would do to the human and elf witch if they caught them. What the orcs lacked in imagination, they made up for in cruelty.
After the group had passed out of hearing, the couple slipped onto the path again, and by mid afternoon had reached the top of the steep descent to the valley between the ranges of jagged-edged peaks.
Harlen scanned the valley floor for any sign of motion and found four groups of under a dozen orcs were down there, but none near the pass at the moment. The couple descended as fast as they dared risk, several times falling for a short distance and hurting an arm or leg, but nothing serious. They finally reached the bottom just after full dark, with Hyandai gently guiding Harlen by the arm and whispered verbal directions. She led them from the bottom of the path and out into the broken stone piles and crevasses.
They found a good-looking spot and made camp for the night. The last of their food was used then, and they also emptied their water skins. Harlen said. "We can refill the bottles once out of the mountains, for certain. And I can hunt us some game when we get to the forest."
She nodded as she ate her bread and hard tack. Suddenly, she leapt to her feet, grabbing at the ehladrel with both hands. Her eyes adopted the cold look again, and her face set with determination. Then she was gone, Harlen blinking at her sudden disappearance. He drew his sword out, but did not see far in the moonless overcast sky.
There were sounds in the rocks, the singing of steel on steel then grunts of pain or surprise. A few moments after it started, it stopped. An eerie dead silence fell on the area, and Harlen could hear his own heartbeat. Pounding hard and fast in his chest as he breathed shallow and fast, as well, worried for his lover as much for the danger she represented as that which she was exposing herself too.
A minute or two later, she reappeared near him. "Why did you not say something?" He demanded as he made out her shape nearing him.
"I could not, Harlen." She said. "There was no time, the orcs had to be dealt with." Her eyes were still cold and hard as ice.
He looked at her with wide eyes. She squatted beside him and put the heirloom down. "Please, Harlen, do not hold the actions I take while holding that thing against me." She whispered, with tears in her eyes.
He shrugged. "It seems you elven folk have a lot of times that you can act without wanting to be held accountable." His face showed a bit of anger, and resentment. "Do you never take credit for your own actions?"
She could not meet his eye. "I ask much of you, I know." She said. "But I would not ask for your forgiveness for them if I felt I was not worthy of it." He could see tears running down her cheeks. "I am trying to get both of us out of this alive, betrothed." She said, now looking at him. "For I wish to spend many, many more days with you, and would not have them cut short."
Harlen's expression softened somewhat. "I know, Hyandai." He said. "But I am a grown man, please stop behaving as if I cannot be part of our protection."
She nodded. "I will try." She said. "But, that weapon was crafted before man was forging metals and tilling fields." She looked at him sidelong. "It does not realize that man is a race that stands proud this day, and does not need looking after, as they did in those times."
He tried to think of time in such a scale, but could not; he had no frame of reference. It was widely known that elves had the first real civilization in Feldare, and that they taught many secrets to men who lived lives as little better than animals. That was even in the Book of the One, which called elves the angelis feldaris, or the angels of the land. They were exempted from the Church, unless they sought it out, and were not to be proselytized to, as the Book requires devotees to do to other men, for they were already blessed by the One.
He thought about her words. "I'm sorry, angel." He said, recalling that term from the Book. Then looked at her lovely face, with its tears. "I wish I could stop making you cry." He murmured and kissed her on the forehead.
She smiled. "My fears make me cry, not you." She said, touching his arms. "I fear you ultimately finding me too alien to love." Her eyes were earnest, and she seemed to be examining him in the darkness. "I sometimes feel that I am, that all elves are."
Harlen laughed at that, a bit more loudly than was probably a good idea, given their circumstance, but it raised Hyandai's hopes, nonetheless. "You think yourself too alien to love?" He asked. "I fear you will find that I am not a worthy vessel for yours, being only a human."
They laid upon the blanket, touching each other gently in the darkness. "There is nothing about being a human to be called only, my betrothed." She said. "Despite your short lives, you accomplish, with ease, things that elves spend more than a lifetime of man trying to master." She touched his arm. "Did you know our generals in time of war are often humans?"
He shook his head. "I did not." He said. "Why is that?"
She smiled. "We are horrible strategists." She said, giggling. "We can do fine in small fights, but when it comes to the art of making real war, humans are, without contest, the masters."
Harlen gave a small smile. "A dubious honor, I concede." He looked up at the low-flying clouds.
She said. "Perhaps. But there are other ways in which you of the third race make us nearly livid with envy." She cast her mind back. "Your children, for example, and your ability to live nearly anywhere in Feldare, and thrive. How blessed would be the lives of the elder race if we could dwell, like man, in the hills, and on the plains, and even in the mountains."
Harlen blinked, the idea of Elven folk being jealous of humanity was quite surprising. "Do your people really feel that way?" He asked.
She nodded. "Some so much so they wish us to stop dealing with men altogether." She said. "And I do not believe in their rhetoric that the elder race is superior. The two simply have differing survival strategies." She nuzzled into his neck and kissed his chin. "I believe if you cannot defeat them, then you should embrace them."
This brought a chuckle to Harlen, though a kernel of what she said resonated true. What would become of the elves if they intermingled with humanity too much? There were half elven men, naturally, but what of elven culture and society? Such thoughts were beyond the huntsman. It was his place only to worry for the times and situations he found himself within in his days. He stroked Hyandai's soft hair and breathed deep her cinnamon scent.
"If the elves pass into history, it will be a sore loss." Harlen finally said.
Hyandai rose to her elbows. "As a race, we are still strong Harlen." She whispered. "I should not have burdened you with our woes as a species." Then she frowned into the darkness. "Certainly not when I am, perhaps, furthering those woes." This last came out as less than a whisper.
"You should not heed the words of a traitor to your own people." The huntsman said, a twinge of worry in his voice. "He spoke words that would cause you to doubt yourself. Don't even give him that much victory."
She nodded. "I shall try, betrothed." She said and lowered herself to nuzzle his neck again. After a short while both drifted off to sleep.
Harlen awoke first, for a change, and slipped from the small crevasse they were sheltering in. After a few minutes of exploring and climbing, he found a reasonably good vantage point and scanned the valley he could see with his spyglass. By the time he had satisfied himself that there were no orcs within some distance of them, Hyandai had crawled from their little shelter. "Anything?" She asked, peering up at him on top of a small mound of stones.
"Nothing for as far as I can see from here." Harlen replied. "I can only see a short ways, though. If we wish to move, we should be cautious, and move north first." He began climbing down the steep, treacherous side of the rock pile.
As they packed their gear, Harlen asked. "Why is it you say that Letharon had an accomplice within the elven community?"
"He knew of my coming." She said. "And from what I can remember, he left our village about the same time the ehladrel went missing. I did not leave until almost six months had passed."
"So someone from the village must have told him?" Harlen ventured.
The elf nodded. Slipping her blanket into her small pack. "And I worry that we may encounter this person, or maybe persons, on our way back." Her face grew somber. "There is also the matter of who it may be. I dread knowing, for it will surely be someone I knew and trusted." She locked her emerald eyes upon Harlen. "It will break my heart if and when I discover who it may be."
Pondering the weight of that thought, Harlen finished his packing and they began moving northward. They moved slowly among the large formations of stones, often they were forced to backtrack as a potential path turned out to be a dead end. Progress northward was painfully slow, but they were not pressed yet for time. Their supplies would last them five more days, or more if they were cautious. Water might become an issue, but the rains were plentiful this season, and the small ponds they ran across were potable, if not palatable. As the sun passed beyond the western peaks, early in the evening, as the sunset always is in this narrow cleft between ranges, they sought out shelter amid a tiny copse of stunted trees.