1 – In the Beginning
"All stories have to start somewhere."
Pickaxes echoed on stone. I wiped sweat from my face with my sleeve and heaved another shovel full of rocks over my shoulder. Building a castle is miserable, backbreaking work. Too many hours in the sun had made my skin like old leather and bleached my usually blond hair white. The nights were turning cold as autumn neared, but midday still felt like the beginning of July.
Looking up from the bottom of my hole, I saw nothing but a mound of rubble. The air was thick with dust. Even the watchtower that loomed over the valley was obscured by it. As tired as I was, I didn't dare rest. Anyone sitting down would attract attention, and dealing with the baron's soldiers was worse than digging his moat.
"Lazy damned fey! Never done a day's honest labor, the lot of you! If you were proper men, this'd be done already!" Old Gerard ranted. "The Baron's coming! Look busy!"
I glanced up and caught sight of the camp overseer staring down at me.
As his name suggested, "Old Gerard" was a man with a face like a wrinkled walnut, deep sunken eyes, and more than a few missing teeth. He limped slightly when he walked, and looked harmless enough, but I knew from experience that he could still swing his hickory club hard enough to knock a man unconscious with one blow.
"Got a problem, Elf?" Old Gerard demanded. Obviously, he thought I was either deaf or stupid.
"No, sir," I smiled slightly, averting my eyes. Old Gerard snorted and took a long drink from the black bottle he always carried under his arm.
I'm not an Elf, but I was pleased that he mistook me for one. I've been told that my hair can almost pass for Elven gold, but my eyes are a watery gray color. I was adopted as a child by a Priest of Fyeris, so I've spent most of my life amongst the Elves. As young as I had been when I was found, I couldn't tell my new family where I'd come from or what had happened to my kin. All I knew for certain was that my name was Teyame.
It's an unusual name. In an ancient tongue called Siulbaht, Tayah Mey means "Lightning Bringer". Because I have always been even-tempered and quiet, my Elven sister usually calls me Tey Nami... which means "Lightning Mouse".
"You're the one they call Tee-nammi, ain't you?" Old Gerard eyed me suspiciously.
"Tay-yah-may," I corrected.
For a moment, Old Gerard looked like he might try to repeat what I'd just said, but then he snorted. "Bloody elf talk!" he declared, taking a swig from his bottle.
The human kingdom of Alucad has been at war with the Elves since the last of the Mages moved west centuries ago. How the war started, no one knows. It continues because the Alucadins cut down quite a lot of trees, and the Elves don't like that..
Old Gerard grinned slightly, showing a mouthful of black-stained teeth. "Mebbe I'll call you Tom. How's about that?"
I twitched slightly. I've always been particular about my name. It's the only thing I've ever had that really belongs to me.
"Get back to work, Tom," Old Gerard spit on my head.
I focused on digging. Being a lone human in a city of Elves who were much faster and more coordinated than I was, I'd been taught to avoid fights whenever I could. Still, enduring the abuse of Old Gerard was beginning to wear on me. Not far away, I could hear the baron's soldiers marching back and forth.
"For the King!" Their commander shouted. He was a very large man with a red face and a puffed-up chest, sporting a collection of medals and ribbons. All of his men stopped and awkwardly drew their blades. Most of them were green recruits from the hill country, not yet accustomed to wearing shoes, let alone wielding swords.
"For Alucad!" They shouted back.
I started whistling. While I wasn't exactly in the mood for "Golden Summer Afternoon" I had to drown out the noise somehow.
"For the King!" The commander waved his bare blade in the air.
"For Alucad!" The soldiers echoed, doing the same stupid thing.
I began to whistle a little louder… and from somewhere nearby, I heard another digger picking up my tune. Soon a dozen voices had joined me in my little insurrection.
"And I met my love in a daisy field upon one golden summer afternoon!" A familiar voice sang out, loud enough that the baron's commander sheathed his sword and scowled at Old Gerard.
"Gerard!" The commander snapped. "Your charges are interrupting my drill!"
"That's enough!" Old Gerard growled. "This ain't a daisy field, this is Alucad!"
Cursing under his breath, he stomped away… oblivious to the little white flowers that sprung up out of his footprints, conjured with a graceful bit of magic. More than a few people laughed, but the moment Old Gerard turned to see what was so funny… the delicate blossoms melted into nothingness. He stormed off in the direction of the castle.
Someone started whistling "The Ragged Prince of Kalyzar".
More white flowers sprung from the ground near my feet. They immediately turned to water in the insufferable heat, but I felt much cooler. While I have no gift for magic myself, I did grow up surrounded by it. The spell was called Snow Blossoms, and it was one of my sister's favorites.
Elven magic is not like the craft of the Kalyzar Mages. It's subtle and slow, but it can be very powerful. For this reason, all Elven wizards and priests vow never to cause harm with their magic.
"Sitri?" I smiled slightly.
My sister was standing behind me, her hands on her hips. Her simple white dress was covered in soot and her long, golden hair was braided tightly down her back, making her almond-shaped green eyes and pointed ears very obvious.
Although our captors did not know it, Sitri was training to become a Priestess of Fyeris and had recently started learning magic. With her spells, she could easily have escaped our captivity. However, she refused to go without me.
"That horrible old cook is looking for me again," Sitri sighed. "I burned some bread and she tried to hit me with a fire iron."
"So what did you do?" I wondered.
"I made it look like a snake," She smiled slightly. "She'll be convinced that it was sorcery, but I doubt anyone will believe her. Fyeris knows she drinks far too much!"
"I see," I smiled slightly. "So you need to hide here for a little while?"
"Nami, I'm never setting foot in that kitchen again!" Sitri sighed. "Oh, I wish I could spirit us both out of here!"
"I wish you'd go without me," I said.
"You know I can't do that," she replied. "Either we go together or we don't go at all!" Sitri recited. It was something our father always said, and just hearing that familiar phrase made me smile.
"Eh'pyaa," A voice muttered from another hole very close to mine. A shovel came through the wall of dirt, and a familiar face peered at us from the other side.
Red was the one who'd belted out the chorus of "Golden Summer Afternoon". He was very big man with a square jaw and huge, hooked nose. His hair was coal black, straight and glossy and his skin was deeply tanned. His nose and his ears were pierced with tiny gold rings, and his eyes looked like a storm at night, sometimes deep blue and sometimes black flecked with gold. An ignorant person might have called him "human", but Sitri and I knew better. Red was a Kalyzar Mage.
Sitri and I were well-acquainted with Red, and not just from the time we'd been imprisoned. The Mage often came to visit Sidrufen, selling to the Elves horses he had "purchased" in human lands. Though we knew his animals were stolen, we usually bought them anyway. Unlike Sitri and myself, who had only mistakenly crossed the Alucadin border, Red was an unrepentant scoundrel. As I understood it, he traveled from kingdom to kingdom and had a bounty on his head everywhere he went.
"You still haven't set the baron's castle on fire, Red," I teased. "Three days ago you said you'd burn it to the ground."
"I'll do it tomorrow," Red snorted. He spoke good Elvish, but had a strong accent and usually talked too fast. "After breakfast," he added with a wink. "Slavery is preferable to starvation, Teyame meyamma."
What he meant to say was mei ime, which in Elvish means "my friend", but he'd slurred those two words into something indistinguishable.
"Back to work!" An all-too familiar voice roared. Red immediately leapt for his shovel. It wasn't Old Gerard who'd come to spit on us, but the Baron himself.
Baron Helsig was a priggish man in his late forties with bad temper and an impressive girth. He was panting from the very little exertion of riding his poor, swaybacked horse, and a servant scurried along in his shadow carrying a cloth he used to dab the sweat from his face.
The baron stopped above our hole.
"There you are," he observed, staring down at Sitri. "What have you done to my cook, witch?"
My sister turned very slowly, realizing that she had been caught.
"My cook says you used magic on her. She heard you muttering to your demon gods," Baron Helsig paused.
Like most Alucadins, Baron Helsig was a follower of Arion, the God of the Sun. But instead of acknowledging the other gods and giving them the respect they were due, he spoke of them as if they were monsters. According to the Baron's priests, my sister's patron, Fyeris, was a demon disguised as an Elf who drank the blood of children and did other horrible things.
The other diggers watched the two of us warily, perhaps waiting to see if my sister would use magic on the Baron after he insulted her God. I knew she'd never do such a thing. Fyeris helped those who deserved his graces, and a Priestess could not abuse her gifts.
"I suppose it doesn't matter. The senile old bitch wants you out of her kitchen. You'd best find yourself a shovel, little witch… you'll be digging with the others from now on," Baron Helsig finished. With an arrogant snort, the baron turned his horse away from the edge of the pit and trotted off. Red imitated the mincing gait of the overburdened animal, made a face that was a fair copy of the baron's most serious expression. Old Gerard brought Sitri a shovel, and stabbed it into the dirt at her feet.
"You could have stayed in the kitchen," I told her. "It's terrible out here."
"It's terrible in there," Sitri replied. "I would rather be with you."
The day wore on until I almost couldn't keep standing. Sunset was a welcome relief. In Sidrufen we usually woke late, or at least late in comparison to Alucadin standards. The best part of the day was considered to be early evening. I missed sitting and having a quiet meal at twilight in our garden, listening to a lilting flute somewhere in the far distance and watching the stars come out. I couldn't wait to go home, and only hoped that Sitri and I would find some way to escape soon. Together, of course.
I took my rations from the cook's helper, who made a point not to feed Sitri. One of the other diggers gave her his bread, and I had every intention of sharing my plate once we were out of sight. Sitri and I headed in the direction of Red's bright green campfire, which was as close to the edge of the forest as any of us could get. The baron's soldiers watched the fire nervously. They were under orders to kill anyone who tried to escape, but it was obvious that they didn't want to take their chances with Red.
Although he was the one person who could probably fight his way to freedom, Red was notably disinclined to go anywhere.
"Hey! Hey!" A familiar little voice hissed from a nearby bush. "Sitri-su! Nami! Mouse is come back!"
I turned. All I could see in the bush were two large, luminous eyes. Tree Rats are forest spirits At first glance they look very much like human children... but they also have tiny, useless wings, furry striped tails, and very sharp teeth. Although not known for being clever, Tree-Rats are ridiculously fast and much stronger than their size would suggest. They are fiercely protective of their forests, and are known to attack anyone they catch cutting down trees. As they should be, most Alucadins are terrified of Tree Rats.
"You shouldn't be here!" Sitri reprimanded Mouse. "The guards will shoot you!" She whispered.
"No!" Mouse protested. "Guards shoot air! Mouse too fast!"
"Oh Mouse!" Sitri sighed heavily.
The guards didn't seem concerned by the fact that my sister was talking to a bush. They watched her from a safe distance away, whispering to one another... probably about the business that had taken place in the kitchen earlier.
I went to talk to Red. He poked at his fire, whispering some little words to the green flames.
"Hungry?" Red offered, waving a chunk of meat in my direction. In addition to being a first-rate thief and Mage, he was something of a miracle trapper. He could catch game even when there was none. I wasn't sure what he was cooking over his magic flames, but it looked like rabbit and smelled like charcoal.
"I'm fine. So you're blasting us out of here tomorrow, are you?" I pressed. The conversation about how and when we would escape become routine between us. Truthfully, I suspected that Red was probably incapable or unwilling to follow through with most of the plans that he proposed.
"Nope. Tomorrow's too soon. End of the month," Red replied. He searched his meager possessions for a nearly empty bottle of foul-smelling liquor and finished it off. He belched very loudly. A few days ago Red had made a bargain with one of the Baron's soldiers who wanted a magic charm to please a lady, and he'd earned himself two bottles of strong alcohol. I couldn't believe that he'd finished drinking both of them already.
"Fyeris," I shook my head. "It can't be healthy to drink like that."
"I learned from the best. My momma once out-drank a goddess!" Red grinned, twirling his empty bottle. Tossing it into the air, he shot it down with a quick burst of fire from his fingertips. "The stuff these daynes drink is garbage." He informed me. "The next time I come down to Sidrufen, I'm gonna bring you a bottle of my sister Tasha's brew. She calls it "Demon's Piss". Now that… that'll curl the toes of your boots!"
Red liked to tell stories about his family. Most anyone would have been shocked to see women behave as Red claimed his mother and sisters did, drinking, fighting, cursing and bringing dozens of men into their beds. In the great Mage stronghold of Kalyzar, women ran every part of society, something that caused the human kingdoms of Alucad and Valfar to condemn their neighbors as lunatics. The Elves were more tolerant of cultural differences, but some of Red's tales were still shocking. If even half of his stories were true, then Kalyzar was a city of vice like none other!
"I can only imagine," I sighed and closed my eyes. Hours out in the sun had taken their toll on me. I vaguely remember Sitri covering me with a blanket, and Red mumbling something about being out of liquor again. Listening to the usual evening sounds of the camp, I drifted off to sleep.
I did not sleep well. I dreamt that I was being chased along a rocky beach by a swarm of mechanical wasps. I locked myself in an old temple where the walls were covered in tally marks. The fading sun illuminated thousands and thousands of marks, each one counting something... I didn't know what.
I heard the sound of metal grinding on stone and realized that I was not alone. Something the size of a man was staggering towards me. It was wrapped head-to-toe in chains of immortal steel. The legendary metal was as beautiful as the stories said, black as the night sky and reflecting all of the stars of the heavens even in broad daylight.
"Wake up!" the man in chains ordered, speaking with my voice. "Don't let them get away with this!"