Dilmir did not learn what fate had befallen Alfimir until the following morning. Elmir, breaking his usual code of silence, informed him that Alfimir had been sentenced life-long banishment from Eld’rin and the laws of the elves. He now had as much status among them as a beast of the forest, albeit a very powerful one. The news troubled Dilmir. He knew that Alfimir would not be permitted to set foot again in Eld’rin, but he still could not see why he had attacked him in the first place. Now that he was no longer subject to the laws of the elves, he could very easily attempt to kill him again.
“Focus, Dilmir,” said Elmir dryly. Dilmir wrenched his mind from his thoughts and turned them instead to the flame he was supposed to be conjuring. It was not proving as easy as Alfimir had made it look the night before. In order for the flame to last any amount of time, it needed something to burn. Nearly anything would suffice, as magic could easily ignite it. Once a flame was born, Dilmir was supposed to expand it and fling it at Elmir, who would block it. Getting the piece of earth he was using to ignite was proving troublesome however. The brown speck simply sat in his hand, a little warm, but far from bursting into flames. Dilmir automatically glanced sideways to see if Ilrin had mastered the spell yet, forgetting temporarily that she was not there.
She had met him in the morning as usual, only to hurriedly tell him that she had been called before the council to explain what had happened last night. She had been gone for nearly five hours already, and Dilmir couldn’t see what could be taking her so long.
Her absence was proving to have unexpected effects. Her trainer, a young elf woman by the name of Iliadin, was passing the time by watching Dilmir and Elmir train. She wasn’t the only one, either. News of last night seemed to have spread uncommonly fast, so that many elves were looking in Dilmir’s direction. Between that, and Alfimir’s ominous statement of the night before, he was finding it difficult to concentrate.
Just as he was beginning to think that Ilrin must have gone home, rather than pick up her training when it was almost finished, she appeared in the gateway, walking quickly towards Iliadin, who rose when she saw her. The two of them conversed for a moment, though Dilmir could not hear what was said, and then split apart, evidently preparing to train.
All thoughts were forced from Dilmir’s mind as the speck of dirt in his hand suddenly ignited, expanded, and exploded, throwing him off of his feet. Elmir did not so much as twitch a muscle, but remained looking on while Dilmir got back up, rubbing his signed hand.
“The trick,” said Elmir, “is to constrict the dirt with magic, and then feed it energy. Together, the two will ignite it, but not separately.”
Dilmir nodded, and plucked another grain of dirt from the ground. Focusing on it, he tried to place a sphere of magic around it. The magic proved slippery and hard to control; No matter how much he pushed, the magic always slipped out somewhere else. After several long minutes, Dilmir, growing frustrated, smashed down on the grain of dirt with all the power his mind could conjure. In an instant, it vanished. Confused, Dilmir released the pressure.
A gigantic fireball, much taller than Dilmir, exploded into existence. Elmir’s eyes widened and he backed away as it rapidly filled the small field where they practiced. Dilmir, stunned at what he had done, fell backwards.
In another instant, however, the fire had gone, its energy spent, nothing remaining for it to burn. A few smoldering pieces of grass were all that was left in its wake. Elmir climbed slowly back into the bowl of grass even as Dilmir got up. Both were considerably blacker.
Dilmir noticed, out of the corner of his eye, many elves watching him. His entire life at Eld’rin had been spent trying to make sure they took as little notice of him as possible. First he was attacked by Alfimir, and now he had nearly managed to blow himself up. Things were not going well.
Elmir silently scoured the soot first from himself, and then from Dilmir. “That was better,” he said when he had finished. “It often takes several weeks to perfect the spell. Try again.”
Given the circumstances, Dilmir doubted the safety of this suggestion, but obediently drew another piece of dirt from the ground at his feet and turned his thoughts towards it.
Nearly an hour later, and Dilmir, diligently keeping his power in check, had not managed to light the dirt on his palm again. Oddly, he was finding it more and more difficult to control his magic. It seemed to slip out of him at random moments, overdoing whatever spell he was trying to cast at the time. It took all his concentration just to keep it from bursting out of him in one giant wave of force. Afraid that he might trigger a reaction, he was using less and less magic each time, with the result that Elmir finally told him to move on to a different spell.
“Enough,” he had said. “You can continue your work tomorrow. For now, let us turn to something else. As you know, spells are based on speed. The more complex the spell, the longer it takes to form it. Creating a fireball, once you have the technique down, is relatively fast. Growing a tree, however, is not quite as easy.” Elmir held up between his fingers a small nut. “Cause this to grow to my height from where you stand, and then to fall back to this form.” He held up the nut so that Dilmir could see it clearly, and then placed it on the ground.
Dilmir did not move, but remained staring at the nut for a moment. He had not expected to be asked to grow trees until much later in his training. He had heard it was very complex, and very difficult.
Tentatively, he stretched his magic towards the nut, feeing its parts, the way it split apart as it grew, and where the roots came from. He then began formulating, one by one, an enchantment to cause each stage of the growth to occur quickly. He was careful to not miss anything, and went over it twice. Only when he was sure what the spell would do, did he begin to weave the enchantment.
So focused was he on the design of the spell, that he forgot to limit the amount of power he lent to it. Steadily, the stream of magic grew and grew, feeding into the spell. When the spell was fully wrought, Dilmir confidently let it pass from his hand, sure that had done everything correctly.
With a loud hiss, the spell, a glowing orb of green light bigger than Dilmir’s head, sped towards the nut, which it smote, leaving a small crater in the ground about it. In the next instant, the nut split apart, carried aloft by its own rapidly growing stem. Massive roots wounds themselves into the ground, bark feathered onto the green tendrils that soared skyward, and leaves sprouted seemingly from thin air. Taller and taller the tree grew, stretching rapidly for the sky, growing wider as it did so, until it finally slowed to a halt roughly fifty feet from the ground. Dilmir looked up. Where he had stood but moments before was now the center of a fine oak.
A sudden silence fell over the training field. Dilmir was painfully aware that even the master mages would have difficulty causing a tree to grow so large so fast. Looking about, he saw every last elf in the field staring at him. Their faces showed wonder, perhaps confusion, but behind all of their eyes was one thing in common: fear.
The one face Dilmir sought, however, was Ilrin. She stood a little ways away, looking at him like all the rest. There was no fear in her eyes, however, only a deep confusion.
Elmir stepped around the tree, gazing up at it. “Bring it down,” he said simply, glancing at Dilmir.
Dilmir obediently turned, and began to weave another spell. Unsure how a tree ungrew itself, since it never happened, he simply wove a spell that would undo everything his first one had done. He worked feverishly, aware of many eyes upon him, and released the spell a little too hastily.
Fortunately, it worked exactly as Dilmir had hoped it would. Quickly, the tree began to shrink, the leaves furling into its branches which sank into its trunk. The bark faded into a soft green vine, as the roots jerked back up through the earth, and tucked neatly into the nut. When the spell was finished, all that was left was a thin, wispy green tendril, just poking its head from the nut. The elves still watched him.
“Very well,” said Elmir, for the first time in the seven years Dilmir had known him, looking uneasy. “You are dismissed. Be back here tomorrow morning.”
“As ihr selenar imil, manithar,” said Dilmir, anxious to get away. Even though it was still a half hour until noon, when the training usually ended, most of the other elves soon left the field as well. Dilmir hurried to enter the gates before them.
Dilmir turned into a tree and skidded to a halt within its carven hall. In another moment, Ilrin came into view and ran up to him.
“How did you do that?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” said Dilmir, automatically.
“You cast the spell, but you don’t know how?” said Ilrin. “First you escape Alfimir by a magic that not even he appears to know, and now you’ve just made a tree grow fifty feet.” Her tone softened at Dilmir’s pained look. “What’s going on?” she asked, in a much quieter voice.
“I don’t know,” repeated Dilmir, though this time with a sigh. “I put too much magic in the spell just now, that I know; but I still have no idea how I escaped Alfimir.” He looked up. Her face showed only concern. “It’s getting harder to control, Ilrin,” he said quietly, glancing around to make sure no other elves could hear him. “My magic – I can’t keep it in.”
“But you did just fine yesterday,” she said. “Why would it be difficult now?”
Dilmir shook his head. “None of this makes any sense. It’s almost as if —”
He paused as the rest of the elves from the field surged into the tree, on their way to their homes. In the throng he was separated from Ilrin, and swept towards his own house, pondering what had occurred.
Dilmir looked at the trainer in surprise. He usually began the sessions with a long list of criticisms and pointers. Today, however, he looked drawn and uneasy. Had the news of Dilmir’s spell really traveled that fast? He had only cast it two hours ago.
When the trainer continued to say nothing, Dilmir and Ilrin drew their swords, and took up stances opposite each other. Ilrin assumed a particularly tricky stance, one which left her seemingly unguarded, though she could strike in an instant if attacked. Dilmir stayed with his usual defensive stance.
Slowly, Ilrin’s eyes moved up and down Dilmir, analyzing the way he stood, how he held his sword, and the ways he could defend himself. Dilmir waited, knowing that she would strike soon enough.
She struck sooner than he expected. Her eyes suddenly locked onto a point on his left side, and she lunged forwards. Dilmir smoothly slid out of the way, twisting away from her blade as it came darting forwards. He then snaked his own sword towards her, managed to get it under her guard, and could almost taste his victory when, in one deft movement, Ilrin whipped out of the way and rested her sword point against his throat.
They both drew back, swords at the ready once again. The afternoon wore on, and time and time again, Ilrin defeated Dilmir, though some bouts were very close indeed. The trainer said very little, choosing to stand aside and watch the two of them instead. Dilmir had the uncomfortable impression that he was watching him more than the duel. To add to Dilmir’s pressure, the same Dark Elf that had watched him train two days ago reappeared, his eyes fixed on Dilmir’s duels. He did nothing but stand by, watching intently, but after an hour or two, he was joined by another, and then a third elf. All wore the same black leather emblazoned with a flaming tree stitched in red – a mockery of the council’s insignia, and the symbol of Eltuthar the Black. Their dark eyes watched Dilmir and Ilrin steadily as they dueled.
After what seemed an eternity, the shadows began to lengthen, the sun fell with anguishing slowness to the horizon, painting the edges of the clouds with gold. The sky was overcast with dark blue, which was in heavy contrast with the brilliant sunset. As Dilmir was defeated for what seemed the millionth time, he saw, as he picked up his sword, the three Dark Elves turn, and melt into the shadows. An uneasy feeling settled over him, though he couldn’t say why. He turned to Ilrin.
Normally, she stood by while she waited for him to retrieve his sword, at ease and alert. Dilmir knew he must have improved, however, because she looked nearly as tired as he felt. Her face was flushed, and several stray strands of hair clung to her sweaty face. She kept shifting her sword between hands, as though it was growing heavy – something that she had never done before.
Dilmir took a moment to catch his breath, watching the sun as he did so. This would likely be the last duel of the day. He flicked his sword to his side, and waited for Ilrin to do the same. After a moment, she copied him. However, she seemed too tired to assume her normal scrutiny of his posture. After a pause, Dilmir began to search her stance for a weakness instead. He found one almost instantly, but, aware that Ilrin was watching him, moved on to different points. Then, without warning, he struck.
Ilrin backed away, but she wasn’t quite fast enough. Dilmir’s sword just nicked her in the arm as she drew back, but he could not hold her. She whipped around and brought her sword crashing down against his guard. Dilmir stumbled backwards against the blow, but kept his footing. He ducked as she swung at his head, and darted his sword under her guard, aiming for her exposed stomach.
By some miracle, she did not see him, and his blade struck. She let out a low hiss of pain as she leapt away from his sword, whirling her own to prevent him following her. Then, without waiting, she leapt at him. The small nick Dilmir had given her seemed to grant her new strength. Dilmir backed away rapidly, doing his best to avoid her blows, but he couldn’t keep them all back. At last, acting more out of desperation than anything else, he rolled deftly to the side, righted himself halfway through, and flicked his sword up to Ilrin’s neck.
Ilrin stopped, her blade quivering an inch too far away from his own throat. Then, very slowly, a smile began to creep across her tired face as the last rays of the sun struck it. “I knew you could beat me,” she said simply.