The cart made its way southward. Behind it, secured to an iron ring in the footboard by about five yards of rope, a skinny little girl simmered with loathing as she trudged along and plotted revenge. "When the sun goes down the gorrok will come out and kill you!" This was the fourth time she'd said this since the elf had unceremoniously bound her.
A heavy bundle came flying at the girl. It was a black cloak of wolfskin. "No sense being cold."
Katarina wriggled into it, somewhat grateful but still angry. "They'll still kill you!"
"Maybe so. They certainly seem to have taken a liking to you, from what you say." He pulled his hood back over his head. "However, instead of making threats, perhaps you ought to be asking questions." He leaned back in the seat and looked up into the sky.
"For example," he continued, "why do the gorrok like you? Or who am I, and why am I so interested in you? Or did you think I happened upon you by chance?"
“One of the gorrok kept pointing at my hiding place and saying ‘machpalah.’ What does that mean?”
So they recognize the gift in her, as well.Very good. “The desire for knowledge, while certainly commendable, does not always indicate a readiness for its disclosure.” The elf looked upward. A dark shape came down from the sky and lit upon seat next to him.
It's the fat crow. It was following me before. "That's your crow? You had him spying on me!"
The elf laughed heartily. "Don't flatter yourself." The cart stopped. "I'd been studying land dragons for some years now, and when Kalanhu here told me he'd found one in the Border Kingdoms, I made haste to come. However, it would seem you stumbled upon the creature before I arrived. I used my last fire-seed to help you escape, and I'd like to think I made a good decision.
"And this is no more my crow than I am his elf. He comes and goes as he pleases, and he has been my friend for many years." He turned to face her. "Since you still have not asked, I will tell you my name. I am Oren Kellmire."
Katarina stared at him. She'd never heard this name before, but there was something in his tone that seemed to suggest more than a sense of self-importance. "So you are a magician."
Oren flicked the reins, and the mule resumed its halting gait. "Hardly. I know a few tricks, to be sure, but not enough to call myself a magician. What do you know of magic?"
Kat glared at the elf, but he was facing the road again. "I know that my weapons are magic, and some kind of magic protected me from the dragon's fire. And I know people say that magic used to be much more powerful."
Katarina could not see his face, but Oren's eyes grew wide. So that is how she did it. So young to be able to use her gift already. "Yes, magic was once very powerful, but that was long ago. Now it is rare indeed for anyone to be gifted beyond a capacity for minor cantrips, and spells of any significant power can take quite some time to prepare. I suspect that you may be one of those few gifted, although such gifts are almost unknown among the half-elven."
The elf sat up quickly. "What do you make of that cloud on the ridge?" Some ten miles to the south, the road climbed and disappeared beyond a steep morrain, where a faint grey cloud seemed to have settled upon it.
"Maybe a storm is coming." Katarina couldn't tell.
"Use your eyes, child! It's moving against the wind. It's dust, probably from a rider, or riders, on horseback. In a moment, he'll be visible, and soon enough we'll cross paths with him or them, for good or ill." Oren reached back into the wagon bed, and took out a large satchel. Kat had not noticed before. He set it down next to him, and the crow hopped onto the backrest.
The rider approached, leaving a billowing plume of dust in his wake. Oren remained silent, but he kept one hand in his satchel. Katarina squinted. There's just one. He rides as if pursued, but there's no one else on the road.
The stranger slowed to a trot, and then halted two hundred yards away. The cart stopped. Kat peered out from behind it and smirked. The horse is better dressed than he is.
The stallion was proud, lavishly tacked, well groomed, and wore a fine woven barding of supple leather. It snorted heavily and stomped as if it were in a hurry and not its master. Its rider, however, was of about average height, broad and muscular of build, and dressed in plain leather armor which looked as though it had been covered in ash. He wore an old, worn cloak the color of drying blood, and strapped to his back was an enormous broadsword. How can he use that sword? Even Marcus could not wield such a weapon. It looks like it was made for a giant. Kat's eyes went to the stranger's face. His features, which might have been called handsome by some, were weathered and his nose appeared to have been broken numerous times. He had the broad chin and full lips of the men of the South, and a mane of silvery hair fell to his shoulders, but it did not conceal his long, pointed ears. A half-elf! I've never seen any of our people look so fierce. His dark eyes smoldered, and it was then that Kat noticed that he was looking directly at her. She flinched, and stepped back behind the cart. Oren had not moved.
The half-elf came closer, easing his horse to the right, and stopped ten yards away. He dropped the reins onto the saddlehorn and grinned.
"Well, I see you've got yourself a new disciple."
"Yes, and as you can see our friendship is off to a promising start." Oren threw back his hood, and they both laughed.
Katarina scowled. They're friends! No use hoping for rescue. "I'm not his disciple! I'm his prisoner!" The cart started again, and the stranger turned about to ride alongside it.
"Is there any news from the south these days?" Oren set the satchel in the cart bed. His fingers moved close to his chest, weaving words in the Secret Speech of the elves. I've heard there's trouble on the coast.
"I did not come from the south." The half-elf moved his mount closer to the cart. "I've only just returned from the East and passed through Kellhollow six days ago." He made several gestures, tapped his elbow, and then made more gestures while looking all around him as he spoke. The Hollow has been abandoned, but the Empire does not know it. I've sent word to our friends. "I have some business to the north in Starwatch, but I turned aside to this road two days ago." I felt I would be needed.
Oren nodded. "You are well met, indeed, then. Would ride with us a short while and camp with us tonight, or must you press on?"
"Some business is perhaps best delayed." The half-elf leaned back in the saddle. "What brings you so far south in the winter, besides finding eager disciples?"
"Dragons. I've taken to studying them more closely for some time now." Something terrible has happened. They are falling ill with a madness. We must be certain of the girl before we speak of it openly.
The half-elf raised an eyebrow. "I take it your studies have been productive." Who is she?
"Not as much as I would like. The latest specimen I was going to study died rather suddenly. The little one here could explain that part to you. Her name is Katarina." Oren's voice took on a formal tone. "She is a Dragonslayer." He tapped his fingers against his thumbs. She has the gift. See what you make of it. He extended one of Katarina's short swords to his friend. "She had two of these. Do you recognize their workmanship?"
The half-elf nodded. "I'd have thought them to be a remnant from the Last Dominion, but the rune-work on the hilt is older." He handed the weapon back. "I suspect that they may have been forged at Bawarra Ridge before the Covenant." He touched his thumb to his sternum, then touched the fingers of his right hand to the knuckles of his left and blinked twice. Very powerful. They’ve been wielded by Pelethites.
Oren nodded. "Perhaps you should introduce yourself."
The rider slowed the horse until he was beside Katarina. He dismounted, and held the reins loosely as he walked. What does he want? Kat looked at him askance. His face looks young, but his hair is grey and his eyes are hard like the soldiers that came to Moonshadow. Katarina had edged away from him without realizing it, and then stopped herself. Don't show fear.
"Good day to you. I am Gladden Darkfell."
Kat blinked. The Dark Fells is where the ogres live. "What kind of name is that?"
"One which suits me, though it was laid on me long before it did."
The fat crow came and perched on horse's saddle. "Isn't the Dark Fells where the ogres come from?"
Gladden smiled, and for a moment his fierce countenance took on the appearance of youthful mirth. "They call themselves the Krog." His eyes returned to the road ahead. "I was adopted by the war-chief of the Darkfell Clan when I was barely older than you, and spent my youth among them as one of their own."
Kat forgot her unease and stared at the half-elf. The storytellers in Moonshadow used to say that the ogres ate elves and rechaizo. She walked on in puzzled silence until Gladden spoke again.
"So you're a Dragonslayer." His eyes brightened.
"Yes, I am." Kat scowled. Is he making fun of me?
"I do not mock you. However, in the future you may want to avoid calling yourself a dragonslayer openly." The fat crow flew in front of Gladden, then landed on the cart.
Katarina looked up at him. "Why? dragonslayers are always sung of as great heroes."
"Sometimes they are. Most have never killed anything bigger than a dog, and their boasting can attract trouble from thieves and murderers." Gladden's face darkened. "And the dragons of the Covenant have been known to take offense even when an evil dragon is killed by an outsider without their knowledge."
Kat swallowed hard. The dragons of the Covenant! I've heard stories of them, ancient and powerful. "Have you killed any of them?"
Gladden laughed. "No, I have not. Those who are of the Covenant are bound to justice by a sacred oath of such ancient power that only a few dragons have ever dared to break it."
Katarina suppressed a gasp. Somehow, Gladden had come right next to her without her noticing. He opened a gloved hand, and in it was a small violet flower with a scent that seemed to engulf her in an instant. He handed it to her, and for a moment, she forgot that her hands were still bound.
Oren pointed ahead. "As good a place as any to make camp."
Gladden nodded at the old elf. He adjusted the strap which held his scabbard, and it moved down to his waist. He'd been silent since giving Kat the flower, but as if sensing her question, he said, "One of the best times to ambush someone is when he is making camp." He gave a faint nod toward a tall pine. Several branches had been cut. "Not all eyes that watch roads are friendly."
A narrow path of broken stone led west from the road to a low hill. At its top slabs of grey stone stood in a circle more than ten yards across. Inside that circle was another ring of stones which held up a great slab. It has the same markings as the stones in the other clearing! Kat followed the cart into the circle and said nothing. Oren led the animals down to the river while Gladden started a fire in a small hollow under the stone roof. "That's a small fire," Katarina said.
"The stones will keep the wind out, for the most part, and so this fire will be sufficient. It will also not be visible from the road." The half-elf strode over to where Kat stood and untied her hands.
"Don't you think I'll try to escape?" Katarina bit her lip. "I mean--"
"You're welcome." Gladden smirked. "You could leave now if you wanted, but in this part of the forest there are worse things than shukhalu that hunt in the night."
He says it like it's a joke, but his eyes warn me. She grinned defiantly and said, "Maybe I will."
The half-elf smiled. "As you like, but at least stay long enough for supper."
When Oren returned they ate a quick meal of dried fruit and strips of salted meat. "I see you have not left us yet," the old elf said to Kat.
"You still have my weapons." Katarina scowled at him.
"We will speak no more of weapons here tonight. This a huacaniym, a holy place of the elder times." The look in Oren's eyes was distant, but as he spoke the veil of age seemed to fall away, and to Kat he looked like one of the elf-lords of old. "Even the most wicked creatures still fear such places, though they were abandoned during the Desolation."
"There was one far back this morning, but the stones had been knocked over," Katarina said.
Oren and Gladden looked at each other. "I must set my mind upon this," Oren said, and walked to the south end of the circle.
Katarina watched him for a while, and then saw that Gladden had put his saddle by the fire and sat against it. In his hands were a sheet of parchment and a writing brush. An open bottle of ink was at his side. She came closer, and saw that her swords hung from the saddle horn. She tried to hide a smile and came closer.
"What are you doing?" Katarina stopped a few feet away. I'll snatch them and jump away.
"Writing a letter." He smiled. "Forging one, actually." He returned to his writing, and Katarina watched with interest that she had meant to feign. When she was sure that Gladden was well into his letter, she pounced.
There was a sound like distant wind, and both the swords and Gladden were gone. Katarina stumbled, and landed on the saddle. Something warm trickled down her arm. It was ink.
"You're faster than you look, Katarina." The half-elf stood a few feet away, brush in one hand, the weapon belt in the other. Kat turned to face him.
"How-how did--" There was another blur of movement and Gladden was behind her. "--you do that?" Now there was a stroke of ink on her other arm. The half-elf dangled the swords. "Give me my weapons!"
"Oren will return them to you in due course."
She leaped for the swords.
Her hands caught air, and she struck the ground. Ink dripped from her nose, cheeks, and chin. Katarina sat up and clenched her fists. Gladden stood just out of reach, grinning.
"I've got plenty of ink."
Katarina laughed. The sound filled the hilltop, and Gladden threw back his head and laughed with her. For the first time in more than a year, she felt free.
"How did you move like that?" Katarina sat down next to Gladden by the fire. He laid his sword on his lap and began to oil the blade. It's twice as wide as any broadsword I've ever seen, but he lifts it easily. It's so plain though. Even the leather on the handle is old and worn.
"The elder Masters called it the Ghost Walk." He stared into the fire. "It is but one skill in the fighting art of kravada, and can be deadly once mastered."
"Could you teach me?" He could train me to be a great warrior, and we could go on adventures together. "Make Oren give me my token and weapons, and I could be your pupil."
"Kravada is an art which takes decades to learn, and it is best taught by a True Master."
"Surely you must be a master."
"I will admit my skill is considerable, but to call myself a master would be an arrogant presumption on my part."
Katarina raised an eyebrow. He can't be serious.
He turned toward her. "The wilderness to the south is very dangerous. You should stay with Oren. He can teach you a great deal."
"I don't like him! He's old and mean and he stole my swords!"
Gladden chuckled. "Oren Kellmire has been many things, but he has never been a thief." He sheathed his sword and leaned back. "He does nothing without purpose."
"I'd still rather go with you. Who is he, anyway?"
"Oren Kellmire is possibly the greatest True Master of kravada since the art has been taught. He was my master, and he does not lightly offer his instruction."
Katarina's eyes went wide. She looked up, and saw that Oren was approaching. The fire flickered in his eyes and painted deep shadows on his face.
"So, little one, have you made a decision?" He stood by the fire and warmed his hands.
"Yes." She looked at him in wonder. "I'll stay, for a while."
When she awoke, Gladden was gone. Oren finished hitching the mule to the cart and reached into its bed. "He felt it best to be on his way before dawn. We should get on the road as well, but first we must settle some business."
Katarina walked over to the old elf. He passed her weapon belt to her. She strapped it on, and bowed her thanks. She was about to draw the swords when Oren spoke.
"Those weapons are both ancient and powerful, and should never be drawn lightly. Gladden believes they may have been forged by the Elder Magisters."
Katarina gasped. The Elder Magisters! They were the most powerful magicians of the ancient world. Suddenly the swords at her waist seemed heavy.
His expression lightened. "Soon you will learn that you don't need this." Oren held out the brass life-token. Katarina took it, put it on her neck, and tucked it under her shirt. The elf looked down at her and took something from out his cloak. He knelt as he pressed a hard object into her hand and looked into her eyes. "This is a gift from Gladden. Do not wear this openly."
Katarina stared at the gift. It's beautiful. It was a wide, heavy bracelet of blood-red leather inlaid with silver and set with a flat red gem the size of a small egg. She strapped it on under her sleeve, and then Oren spoke.
"Gladden felt you were meant to have it. Though he is young, I trust his judgment." His voice had been quiet, but now it dropped to a whisper. "It is a relic of the Crimson Shadow, an ancient order of warrior priests who once defended the Elven Dominion."
Katarina nodded, but the questions that rose in her mind were kept at bay by Oren's tone.
The elf climbed onto the cart. "Come, we'd best be going. We can eat on the road. That is, if you still mean to join me."
Kat hopped up onto the wooden seat next to him. Oren flicked the reins, and they left the huacaniym in silence. It was nearly an hour later when Katarina spoke again.
"You said Gladden was young, but his hair was grey like an old man."
"And he would be old, if he were a man. But he is half-elven, and though most of the rechaizo do not live long, he is more than eighty years old. To one such as me, however, he is quite young, barely more than a child."
Katarina looked askance at the elf. How old could Oren be? The storytellers always said elves were immortal, but-
"Yes, child, I am very old." His lowered his voice."I am old enough to remember the Desolation, but we will not speak of that on the road."
Katarina looked at Oren in disbelief. The Desolation was more than thirteen thousand years ago. "Gladden said that you were his master."
"Yes, I was. He was perhaps my best student, though he was quite wild when I found him." Oren smiled, and said, "You took quite a chance, attacking him the way you did, but he liked you a good deal, so I felt it was safe enough to let you try."
"Who is he?"
"He is somewhat of a wanderer, and in these last few years he has worked as an assassin of the highest order, and so he rarely tells anyone his true name, and that speaks well of you." The elf leaned back in his seat. "Indeed, few who see him so openly live beyond the experience. He is more widely known as the Grey Ghost."
End of Chapter 3