Chapter Sixteen

. . . Is Found Again

 

“I know she is one of the Allway’s holy children, but really. Is she always like this? So devoted to the life of an enemy?”

“That’s pretty much Elaine,” says Scarlet. Her scowl softens as she glances over at the young cleric, who remains kneeling before the corpse of the man, Jerrold. Hamfrd stands at Elaine’s side, one big hand resting on the cleric’s shoulder.

“You shouldn’t have done that,” Jake tells the elf. “He was defenseless. By the Gods, he was tied up! He should have been brought back to Gateway to face the judgement of the Peacekeepers.”

“Don’t be so naive, human. He said himself he is working with someone from inside the Keep. What makes you think he would face judgement. Because you believe he should? I did what had to be done.”

“That wasn’t right,” Jake mutters.

“Right. Wrong. You know nothing of that man’s sins. Who are you to say whether my actions are right or wrong?”

“Then tell us. Explain. You said you had a story to tell. And you say you want our help. After what you’ve just done, you still expect us to help you?”

“So dramatic, you humans. A few moments ago he was choking the life from your young cleric.” The elf sighs ostentatiously. “Very well. Listen, and I shall tell.”

Jake crosses his arms over his chest while Scarlet rolls her eyes and casually twirls one of her knives. Mathos, mindful of the possibility of more trolls approaching, has kept his sensitive tail to the ground; now he glances warily overhead, even more mindful of the fact that he can’t seem to sense the long-limbed trolls that move through the trees and it’s growing dark. Near the fallen tree trunk where the body of Jerrold sits upright, Hamfrd turns to hear the elf’s words. Elaine sniffles and wipes at her eyes, keeping her back to the elf, but she listens too.

* * *

“Many centuries in the past, Stolhme was one of the most prosperous cities on the whole of the Western Continent; only royal Cormar and the grand city of Seren could be said to be moreso. But mighty Stolhme had something that neither of those two great cities could boast — an alliance with elvenkind.

“Mind you, this was centuries ago, not millennia; and as everyone, even you lot, knows, elvenkind left this world behind thousands of years earlier, not hundreds. So how could this be? How could Stolhme have any sort of relationship at all with us elves?

“The answer is that elvenkind was not gone, not completely. We remained tethered to this world. Or more accurately, there yet remained a way to reach us, even there within that new world for which we had forsaken this one. A portal, which linked the two worlds, bound them together. An ancient portal, devised by neither man nor elf. Indestructible. Its creators unknown. Gods and Goddesses, perhaps? Perhaps.

“What is known is this — the portal existed. And it linked this world, which you know as Halvera, to our new home, which is called, Greensake. This link remained even after we elves left Halvera behind, never to return. Or so we thought.

“As the portal between the worlds was permanent and could be neither closed nor destroyed, and further, seemed even to resist efforts to block passage through it, elvenkind decided the most appropriate course of action was to make an arrangement with the rulers of the city of Stolhme. Prior to this, during the Age in which elvenkind lived on Halvera, the city of Stolhme had grown strong and vibrant under the benign leadership of both men and elves working and governing together. On the basis of that strong relationship, a deal was struck:

“We elves would leave this world behind for the world through the portal. In order to secure the portal, the humans rulers of Stolhme would keep its existence a secret from the rest of humanity. The portal would, after the passage of but a few human generations, be completely forgotten, or at least lost to legend. Only those few who ruled Stolhme would know of the portal’s existence, and in exchange for keeping their secret, we elves agreed to offer assistance and advisement on any difficult issues that might arise in the future. In this way, with the continued combined thinking and judgement of both humans and elves — albeit, now in secret — the city of Stolhme continued to prosper throughout the centuries like almost no other city in all of Halvera.

“Unfortunately, many centuries after we elves had left the world of Halvera behind, a powerful human wizard living near the city of Stolhme discovered the existence of the hidden portal. The wizard’s name was Randlestarius. He sought audience with the rulers of Stolhme and demanded access to the world that he had been able to detect on the other side of the portal.

“His request was denied on the advice of us elves, with whom the rulers of Stolhme had consulted. Furious, Randlestarius returned to his nearby tower and began to plot a way into Greensake by magical means instead. When at last he had devised a spell to transport himself to that other world and the preparations were made, the powerful wizard began his casting.

“We elves, sensing what the wizard was planning to do, weaved magic of our own, intent on keeping the human out. Randlestarius felt our efforts interfering with his magic, and so he increased the force of his own spell. Fueled by his fury at being rebuked, he drew upon more and more power until his spell grew so powerful, he lost control.

“The resulting magical explosion ironically did transport the mage to our world. It also transported his entire tower and acres of land surrounding the structure. However, after the mighty magical whirlwind finally dissipated, of the wizard himself, nothing remained. His essence had been burned away into pure magical energy during the conflagration.

“Of course, there was an opposite but equal consequence to such powerful magic. The appearance of so much mass into the world of Greensake and the void left behind in Halvera by its disappearance could only be balanced by a portion of our elven world being transported here to fill that empty space. A huge chunk of another world popped into existence in the spot where Randlestarius’s tower had stood.

“Ah, yes. The disaster that befell Stolhme.

“The resultant energy from the wizard’s magic clashing with our elven magic was so powerful, the earth itself shook, destroying much of the city. The waters of the gulf, upset by the shaking, receded. When they returned, great waves swept ashore, submerging the once great city. In a single afternoon, all of Stolhme and its many thousands of inhabitants were wiped from the face of the living world.

“The flood waters lingered. The land that once had been a part of Greensake and the myriad forms of new life that came with it into Halvera began to take hold. A subtle lingering magical miasma covered everything for miles around. Gradually, out of that vital soup of magic and vigourous life and the passing of time, the plants and trees and creatures of this ordinary wood grew to be not so ordinary.

“The Trollbriar was born.”

* * *

“Of course,” continues the elf, “the trolls came sometime later. Once the bog and the forest life grew lush and wild, and with no humans remaining in the area, the trolls moved in.

“Stolhme persists. Much of it was destroyed in the initial catastrophic event, but that which survived now rests mostly submerged in the boggy tangled marsh deeper into these woods. However . . .”

His dramatic pause lingers.

“However what?” asks Jake.

“The portal yet survives. It is, as I’ve said, indestructible.”

“A portal to another world,” Mathos says, rubbing his chin thoughtfully. “Amazing.”

“It is not for your kind,” the elf tells him. “With or without a tail. Only those who are invited may pass through the portal to Greensake.”

“What must one do to be invited?”

“It is not an honor given lightly. None since the last rulers of Stolhme. And now? After what has happened. Perhaps never again.”

“Alright,” says Jake mildly, “but you still haven’t explained what you need our help with. What did happen?”

“Somehow this one’s employer” — he points to Jerrold’s corpse — “has rediscovered Stolhme.”

“Madeline Le Campe of Gateway.”

“Yes. And even more upsetting, this Madeline Le Campe has learned of the existence of the portal to Greensake.”

“How do you know?”

“Because,” the elf says bitterly. “Her men entered our world.”

* * *

“It grows ever more late,” the elf says. “My eyes allow me to see in near complete darkness. Yours, on the other hand, I suspect, are beginning to struggle.”

Jake opens his mouth, but the elf senses the protest on his tongue.

“Whether you plan to leave me and the Trollbriar behind and return to your lives, or you agree to stay and help me, you won’t be travelling any farther today in the dark, not within the Trollbriar. Let us return to the road that these trespassers have created through the woods. It shall be easier to maintain watch through the night there. Once we are settled, I shall resume my tale and explain fully how you and yours might assist me. Agreed?”

Jake glances around at the other Companions, mouth twisted into a frown. “Very well,” he says at last.

Gripping her medallion in her hands, Elaine murmurs a few final words over the corpse of Jerrold. Hamfrd helps the young cleric to her feet.

Following the lead of the elf, the Companions trek back through the thick, groping vegetation. After a few minutes, they emerge onto the cleared path near the site of the battle with the trolls and the wrecked wagons.

“We should move some distance down the road.” The elf indicates with a pointed finger. He has replaced the hood on his head, covering much of his face in deep shadow. “The stink of the dead and their spilled blood may attract other trolls who come to feed.”

They begin walking along the trail in the direction the Companions had previously been heading, deeper into the Trollbriar.

A short distance from the site of the dead trolls and ruined wagons, they come across the group’s frightened horses, all nervously standing shoulder to shoulder with one another for comfort. At their approach, the horses swish their tails and whinny quietly. The elf goes to their side and whispers quietly to them. His soft words seem to soothe the animals’ nerves. The Companions lead the horses ahead, Hamfrd taking up the reins of both his own mount and the stallion that had belonged to Jerrold.

Soon they are walking through what seems to the five human adventurers like pitch darkness. The elf leads them on without issue, his footing sure. Mathos has brought into being two magical glowing orbs and these he keeps close among the group’s legs, skimming just above the ground, illuminating the road under their feet and revealing the potential tripping hazards of rocks and gnarled treeroots. The orb’s light casts an eerie glow on the looming walls of vegetation that threaten to swallow them from either side of the cleared road.

The ground grows softer and damp. The odor of plant decay, mellow at first, soon hangs thick in the air. Bugs buzz around their heads. Odd animal calls sound from the darkness of the forest beyond their meager light.

Eventually, the elf calls them to a stop. “Here shall suffice,” he tells them. “Nevertheless, we shall have to keep a careful watch throughout the night. I suggest two at a time.”

“Agreed,” says Jake. “And now the rest of your tale, if you please. Tell us what you need and why we should help.”

After the horses have been safely secured nearby, the Companions gather around to hear the elf’s words. Elaine, frowning, watches from the edge of the soft light provided by the single orb Mathos keeps lit. The orb lingers close to the ground in lieu of a fire, which the elf warns them against. “The smell of a fire and its flickering light are both likely to attract the trolls, or other nighttime things.”

“Such as?”

“Mmm, wouldn’t you like to know?” He giggles. “Let us just be content to sit around the mage’s light. It is much easier to conceal from unwanted eyes.”

“You were saying,” prompts Jake, annoyed. “Le Campe’s men entered your world.”

“Yes,” says the elf, his eyes suddenly far away. Any lingering mirth fades entirely from his features. “Elves died that day.”

* * *

“We elves live long lives. To humans such as yourselves, who won’t even live to see a single century pass, it is difficult to express how such an extended lifespan changes one’s attitudes towards life and death. Surrounded by death and dying, you don’t even realize how desensitized to it you’ve all become. With your big families and great numbers, it’s all around you, every day, always. There is not one among you who isn’t personally familiar with it. May it then suffice to say that when an elf does die, it is a noteworthy occasion, one marked by more than merely loved ones and friends. The entirety of elvenkind mourns. To lose several elves all at once, and violently — it would be akin to one of you losing an arm or a leg. All elves feel the pain as their own. Something great and fundamental goes suddenly missing.”

He falls silent then.

Hamfrd, staring deep into the glowing orb, bows his head. Elaine, seated beside the big man, clutches her medallion to her chest. Scarlet frowns uncomfortably. Jake bites his tongue to hold down the surging emotion still present from that day a decade and a half ago when he lost his parents, lost his entire world. Only Mathos seems unbothered by the conversation.

“It’s similar with the Artholloses and Boxwells,” says the mage, rubbing his chin. “They don’t agree on much, but veneration for our elders and a common respectful mourning period for the dead we do share. In fact, every year at the Arthollos-Boxwell family reunion, we–”

“I don’t know these people you speak of,” says the elf.

“Family,” says Mathos.

“Don’t ask,” says Jake.

But the elf is nodding in understanding. “Yes, you could say we elves are all one great family. All of us brothers and sisters. We are the children of Our Lady, Palmora, the Mother of Elvenkind.”

When he speaks next, his light voice has a bitter edge to it.

“This woman, Madeline Le Campe, and her men, they discovered Stolhme.”

“There have always been rumors,” Jake says. “About the Trollbriar. The lost city. Rumors of vast treasures waiting to be found deep within the woods. Most of us” — he indicates the other Companions — “have even come here before seeking after those stories. None has ever claimed to have found anything. But clearly . . .”

“Yes, clearly,” snaps the elf. “Not only did they discover Stolhme, they also found the Portal to Greensake. Its existence was a secret. They must have stumbled onto it by accident.” The elf shakes his head, mouth a tight line. “They entered our world, these armed men, and when confronted by the elves they encountered, when ordered to leave our world and return to this one, they attacked.” The elf grinds his teeth, remembering. “Seven elves were slain that day before the invading humans were all killed. All except that one,” he says, indicating with a nod of his head the direction they have just come from, the corpse they have left behind there. “Injured, but alive, that man fled. We followed. He escaped.”

* * *

“In Greensake, we held long discussions, hoping to reach agreement on a course of action. Surely, if the man survived, he would tell others and more humans would arrive in our world. On this, most agreed. Where we disagreed was on a proper response.

“A few wished to do nothing at all, believing that the humans wouldn’t dare return, willfully denying the very nature of humans. Of course they would be back.

“Most felt that guarding the portal on our side, the Greensake side, was the best course of action. Lookouts could be posted on the Halvera side of the portal to warn of any humans returning.

“A few, myself among them, believed that we must be more proactive. We devised a plan to come to Halvera in order to obscure the path to the portal, to make it so that the humans would never find it again. We fully intended to carry out this task, but in coming to Halvera our true aim would be revenge. We would strike down any and all humans we found anywhere near Stolhme and the portal.

“The ruins of Stolhme rest mostly beneath the bog, out of sight. True, much of the city is flooded or filled completely with mud and filth. But pockets of air remain; in some places, entire buildings lie covered by the muck, yet underneath, one can walk around through ancient rooms and hallways, still as they were centuries ago when the city was buried. And the portal itself, as I have mentioned, has a way of ensuring that it never becomes blocked — the creators imbued it with some manner of magic that resists such efforts. A field of energy surrounds it, maintaining yet another pocket of space free of the muck and mud.

“Acting without the support of our fellow elves, several of us came to Halvera. We flooded the route that the humans had previously taken to reach the portal, destroying an entrance to the preserved city of Stolhme beneath the bog. But not the only entrance. There are others. The portal yet remains open for us to come and go. But the humans — we didn’t know who or how many at the time — when they inevitably returned, would find the way they knew blocked. We were certain they would come back eventually. Humans always do. And they did.”

* * *

“The one called Jerrold. And there was another with him, a big man called Rock. Just as cruel and hateful as his partner. They led a small group of humans through the swamp to Stolhme.

“We had our first battle. Surprise was on our side. Most of the humans were killed, but Rock and Jerrold both survived. One elf, a youth, only two hundred and thirty, died that day. Injured first by a crossbow bolt, the human Jerrold then approached the wounded boy. And then he . . .”

The elf reaches up and tenderly rubs one pointed ear. Stares for a long moment into the greenish magical light of Mathos’s orb. The Companions wait quietly for the elf to continue.

“The next time they came, they knew we would be there waiting. They were prepared. Many armed men protected others who sought out the route that led to the portal. They found it blocked, flooded and impassable. They searched, found other areas of sunken Stolhme to explore, and took with them various pilfered items from that ancient grave. They kept us at bay with these hired warriors.

“This went on for months. They would return every few weeks. Guarded by a group of armed men, others would scavenge through the muck and the water in search of anything valuable they could steal away from the ruins of Stolhme. For the time being, they seemed mostly to have forgotten about the portal. Instead, they focused on looting the buried city. These workers, digging through the bog, were clearly prisoners or slaves of some sort. We would watch them being brought in, chained and shackled. After a long day of digging, or sometimes two, they would leave that same way. In chains.”

He clenches his teeth.

“They came again three days ago, the armed men and their chained workers. Only this time, rather than sitting back and protecting their slaves, they engaged us more directly. A group of them, led by the man, Rock. It is clear to me now that they had orders to do so. They attacked not with the intent to kill, but with a plan to capture one or more of us. During the fighting, they took . . . they . . .”

The elf lowers his head.

“Lynsandrasa.” He looks up, eyes quivering in the orb’s light. “Lyn. My dear sister. They took her and two others.”

He takes a deep breath.

“They cut short their search for artifacts, and hurriedly left in their wagons. Those of us who remained understood exactly their plan. They intended to torture those elves whom they had captured, hoping to learn of a new route to the portal. Without returning to Greensake for guidance, the few of us who remained here in this world decided that we couldn’t allow that to happen.

“Apparently they thought us unwilling or unable to leave the area around the ruins of Stolhme. In this, they underestimated us. Typical, arrogant humans.”

Frowning, Jake bites his tongue. Beside him, Scarlet’s eyes are dark, but she is not angered by the elf’s assessment of humanity; rather, she is ruminating on a similar shared sentiment, and also allowing the detailed exploits of Le Campe’s men to gradually fuel the rage burning with her.

In the ensuing silence, Hamfrd’s stomach growls loudly. “Sorry.” The big man grins bashfully, and digs through his bulging pack. The elf waves away the interruption, even laughs lightly, though without much of his usual mirth.

Hamfrd withdraws several slabs of jerky, offers them to the others. Suddenly feeling the hunger of the long day in their bellies, the other Companions gratefully accept. All but Elaine, who reaches into her own pack and brings out a dense brick of honey, nut paste, and oats. She nibbles on this as the others chew jerky.

The elf, his face cloudy with emotion, also declines Hamfrd’s offer. He produces a moist loaf of bread from his own bag. “An elven creation. Packed with nutrients. Meant to keep a traveller’s belly full on the road.” He breaks off a chunk for each of the Companions, passes them around.

Scarlet pulls a silver flask from her pack. “Also packed with nutrients,” she quips. Takes a long drink, and then hands the flask to Hamfrd. The Northerner gulps some down, wipes his lips.

Together, the group sits together around the soft magical orb light and share a humble dinner. Around them, the dark forest pulses with the endless sounds of life.

* * *

“They contributed to their own end,” the elf continues, “by following the road that they had cleared. This made it a simple thing to predict their route through the forest, and easy to hide out of sight, just off the road among the cover of the thick vegetation. We snuck ahead of their slow-moving caravan and set up an ambush.”

Hamfrd leans forward, eager to hear the details of battle.

“Our first strike brought down half of their armed men. The survivors took cover among the wagons. We came out of the forest and engaged them, intent on killing them all. Rescuing our people.”

“What happened?” asks Jake.

“Our fight was interrupted.”

“By what?”

“A third party, one with no interest in our dispute. Trolls.” His voice is bitter.

“The smashed up wagons,” says the swordarm, understanding.

“Trolls,” the elf says again, spitting out the word. “But not just any trolls. Rather, a group that may be unique among all others that exist here in this wood that bears their name. Intelligent trolls.”

Jake laughs. Stops himself when no one else joins in. “Oh, you’re being serious.”

“Very serious.”

“Intelligent trolls,” breathes Mathos, eyes wide.

“They came in numbers, quite possibly their entire tribe. They swept in among the chaos of our battle, swinging their crude weapons, killing and maiming. Man and elf alike.” He lowers his head, eyes staring long into the glowing magical orb. “It was a massacre. I was nearly knocked unconscious by a club blow to my head. I crawled in among the plants at the road’s edge and lay there, watching. Unlike their lesser troll brethren, they don’t seem to enjoy feeding on the freshly dead and dying. Having mastered the flame, they prefer to cook the flesh of their victims.”

“Gods,” mutters Scarlet, which earns her a frown from Elaine.

“I watched from where I lay, barely conscious, as these trolls smashed their way into the wagons, took the human slaves and the three elven prisoners. Horrified, I watched as they carried away my sister, Lynsandrasa, and my two other kin, as well as the exploited humans. Away into the deep forest they took them, along with many of the corpses of both man and elf, victims of the battle that had ended so abruptly.

“Alone, the sole survivor, I lay there for a time as my head slowly cleared. Eventually, I understood that I needed to be away from that place before other trolls, the more animal-like beasts, arrived for the few remaining corpses and the terrified horses that were still alive and hitched to the wrecked wagons.”

“So our help,” says Jake, with a tone of uncertainty. “You need us to . . .”

“Help me rescue my sister and the others.”

“Are you telling us they’re still alive?” asks the swordarm dubiously. “Intelligent or not, if these trolls took them–”

“I crept through the forest, followed this group of trolls back to their camp. It is not far from the ruins of Stolhme. We came upon these curious creatures once before, watched them from afar. Perhaps some lingering magic from the catastrophe caused by Randlestarius or a spark of life brought here from Greensake caused within the trolls some manner of evolution, changing them into what they are now. Intelligent monsters. These trolls keep their prisoners alive until they are to be eaten. Not all who were taken remain alive, but some do. My sister still lives. My kin. As of a day ago.”

He faces the Companions, takes a moment to go around their circle, looks each in the eyes. Hamfrd meets his gaze hungrily, cracking his knuckles, ready to do battle. Scarlet’s eyes, dark and menacing, hold the elf’s gaze. Her jaw is set firm, muscles below her ears tensing. Elaine frowns. The young cleric’s eyes retain some measure of anger at the elf over the killing of the defenseless man, Jerrold.

“I need your help,” he says. “I’m the only one left, and very soon, those who remain alive will surely meet their end. A gruesome, horrible end. I cannot save them on my own. Had you not come this day, had it been others more aligned with this Madeline Le Campe’s ideals, I don’t know what I would have done. Please, I beg you, humans. Assist me.”

“Organized trolls,” says Mathos, wonderingly, “wielding weapons?”

Elaine clears her throat. “If these are truly intelligent trolls as you say, then perhaps they can be reasoned with. Talked to. Maybe we can–”

“Do not confuse intelligence with goodness, holy child. These trolls are no less savage than their animal-like kin. Indeed, more savage, for their cruelty is sharpened with cunning and forethought.”

The young cleric’s brow wrinkles as she frowns. “I can’t believe that.”

“Whereas the ordinary troll kills because that is its nature and because it must to survive, these intelligent creatures are more wicked. They kill to survive, for sustenance, this is true. But they also kill for enjoyment. For pleasure.” The elf’s face twists with distaste. “We have watched them. Before now only ever killing their own simple brothers and sisters, but now . . . They keep their prisoners in crude cages, torment and torture them before finally killing and eating them. It is . . . not pleasant.”

Jake studies each of the Companions, sees in those faces their shared answer. He looks lastly to Elaine. The young cleric’s face is clouded with mixed emotions. Her eyes flick up, meet Jake’s.

“We must help,” she says, voice tight. Clears her throat. More firmly, to the elf, she says, “Obviously, we’ll help.”

 

<<<Chapter FifteenChapter Seventeen>>>

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