It was awhile before the mountain could be seen fully through the trees. The sky was black; no moon lent its light to the scene. The only reason Alfimir could see the outline of the mountain was because it was a deeper black than the star-strewn sky overhead. That, and the fact that he knew where it was, for he had been there before, long ago.
Alfimir sat atop his horse now, observing the mountain silently. A thin sword hung at his hip, and a dark cloak was draped over him, its hood pulled over his head, throwing his pale features into shadow. His eyes glinted as he gazed at where he knew the path lay, now invisible in the darkness.
He had walked on that path once, eager like those around him to learn what Eltuthar had found. That is, at least until he had discovered the truth. Whatever the council might think, he knew Eltuthar the Black was not the power-hungry fiend they portrayed him as. He genuinely believed he would help the elves by showing them what they were capable of, but Alfimir knew better what would follow. There was only one thing that great power ever brought for sure: Trouble. It may come disguised, or it may come with many blessings, but it was always there, always waiting to be unleashed. And Alfimir feared what would happen if the elves gained all that Eltuthar had found.
Alfimir had done deeds that he regretted. He had not wanted to hunt down Eltuthar’s line like common animals, he had not wanted to slay them all without question, but he had had to. What he had done, he had done not for himself, but for the good of his people. The council had been confused why he had attacked Dilmir right outside the main gates, in plain view. He was to have provoked him into action, not attacked him himself. But Alfimir knew that time had been of the essence then, as it was now. He knew that sooner or later, Dilmir’s control over his power would break, and he might become Eltuthar all over again, discovering things about magic that no elf should know, at least not yet.
Alfimir sighed. His horse pawed the ground nervously. If he had slain Dilmir that night, however detestable the job might have been, the mess that he was now in would never have arisen. The last of Eltuthar’s line would have been gone.
But Dilmir had somehow escaped. And now, he was with Eltuthar, learning forbidden secrets, and the council had been forced to act. A shadow of a smile flickered for a moment on Alfimir’s face. The council may be delusional and over-reactive, but they had their uses. They were the reason Alfimir now found himself at the head of their army. Banished or not, they knew, or thought they knew, where his loyalties lay. Besides, amongst all of the soldiers, he was the only one who had been this way before.
Alfimir turned his horse behind him. The small force watching him from their own steeds had been surprisingly willing to accept his command. He sighed again, knowing what must be done. He signaled to the elves to dismount. They did so, their horses snorting. The horses had never been this far into the forest, and the lack of elven-tamed trees was beginning to frighten them. With murmurs of “Asir im asriim,” the soldiers sent them cantering back through the woods, heading for the nearest elven encampment. They would surely be devoured by wolves if they stayed here. Alfimir turned to the elves. The time had come.
“I need not tell you why we are here,” he said, raising his voice so that the entire company might hear him, “or offer any incentive to complete the task that must be done. You know what resides at the top of this rock above us; you know what they can do. Kill them all. Kill them all, for none can escape. Do your duty.”
Alfimir lowered his voice somewhat and continued. “Prior to setting out, each and every one of you had an enchantment placed on him. This magic is foreign, Eltuthar’s brand, but very precise. It will shield you from their sight, for without it, they would know of our presence the moment we set foot upon the mountain. Be clear that this enchantment will not make you invisible, only shield you from magical detection.
“Be silent in your approach, and enter quietly. I wish to spill no more blood than necessary. If Eltuthar or his followers are woken, fighting will likely break out – something which I wish to avoid. These elves are more powerful than you know.”
The soldiers nodded, a few of them drawing their swords.
“You can put those away,” said Alfimir, noting this. “The path is long, and I would not have your blades covered with perspiration before we get there.”
After noting that all was in order, he nodded and motioned them forward. The elves moved silently, single file, into the small clearing. Alfimir raised his hand, silencing the guard at the foot of the path, and he was quickly dispatched by the nearest soldier’s blade. Then, one by one, the elves crept up the steep climb, circling the mountain, their breath baited.
It was, as Alfimir had said, a long path. Many of the elves were breathing heavily before Eltuthar’s abode came into sight. Alfimir raised his hand, scanning the ledge over which the plateau high above looked. Sure enough, a lone guard stood there, his eyes cast over the forest, in the direction of Eld’rin. Alfimir pointed him out to an archer, who, taking careful aim, dropped him silently with an arrow imbedded in his throat. The party moved on.
At the gate, two guards stood vigilant. Alfimir silenced them both, then, before they could act, the archer felled them with two swift shafts. Stealthily, the elves crept to the door. Here, Alfimir paused. What if his entrance alerted those within? Thinking quickly, he cast the same enchantment on the door, silencing it, and then opened it with a touch of his palm. No sound was heard, and one by one, the elves crept into the building.
Ilrin glanced out of her window. A guard stood on the grassy plateau, silently surveying the forest. She turned and paced the length of her room, her stomach rumbling uncomfortably. She had eaten only once all day. She had traveled all of the previous night and most of the morning, and had only woken from her rest at Arath Imil an hour before sundown. Eltuthar had pressed a large dinner upon her, but she was still hungry from her lack of other meals. However, it was not hunger that was on her mind.
The full meaning of what she was doing was beginning to sink in. She was betraying Eld’rin and its king; she was actually committing an act of treason. No one who knew her would believe it of her, she knew, but she doubted the council would think twice about banishing her if they knew where she was. Or, perhaps more likely, they would hold her, and question her about Eltuthar. She shivered, though not entirely from the cold. She didn’t care much for what she had heard of their interrogation methods.
She had to go back to Eld’rin, though. Her parents would be worried by now. She doubted she could even think up a plausible excuse for her absence. She had done her duty, however, she had warned Eltuthar. She couldn’t go with him when he tried to escape the elves, as she was sure he would do, regardless of whether or not Dilmir went with him. Eld’rin was her home, she belonged there.
She paced back to the window, absently noting the guard still standing there, unmoved. Then a dreadful thought came to her. What if Eltuthar meant to stay, meant to defend his home, to fight the elves? He had Dilmir now, and if appearances meant anything, he was just as powerful as Eltuthar had been at his age. But would he fight who he had grown up with?
Ilrin pondered, turning away from the window. No one at Eld’rin had ever treated him kindly; he owed them very little, if anything. She was the only friend he had there. And then an even worse thought occurred to her. What would she do? If she were here when the elves attacked, they would find her, and if they didn’t kill her as a Dark Elf, surely they would keep her locked somewhere where they could watch her. And if she left before they came? What then? Dilmir may be powerful, but she doubted not that they could still easily kill him. She couldn’t let that happen, yet if she tried to protect him, they would turn on both of them. She closed her eyes and pressed her hands to her head. The situation was hopelessly knotted.
After a moment, she came to a decision. Dilmir was powerful. Doubtless, Eltuthar knew what he was capable of more than she did, he would know if he could survive an attack or if they should flee. She hoped he did not over-estimate him, because it might mean his death if he did.
Moving quickly and quietly, she grabbed up her cloak, sword, bow, and quiver. All of her weapons had been returned to her room while she slept, for which she was thankful. She did not much fancy trying to find them in the dark.
She sighed, and threw the cloak over her, securing her bow over it, and making sure the hilt of her sword was unobstructed. Dilmir would understand why she had to flee, she was sure. She turned for a last look out the window, and was about to leave her room, when something caught her attention. The guard no longer stood vigilant. He lay, sprawled face first on the ground, a black arrow protruding from his neck.
They’re already here, thought Ilrin with horror.
“Stay quiet,” hissed Alfimir as the elves filed past him. “And make sure those you find do likewise.”
Only a faint green glow light the insides of the living walls, everything else was shrouded in shadows. The ghostly green lights flickered on the sharply defined roots of the many trees, casting great wells of darkness against the center tree, which Alfimir knew led to the higher levels.
He looked about the place with interest. It had been years since he had seen it, and it had been full of young elves then. Now, with it so empty and quiet, it seemed unreal, out of place. He raised a hand to touch the wall, but quickly drew away as a soldier passed by. Not many knew that he had once been captivated by Eltuthar’s powers, and it would not do for them to find out now.
No elves were to be found in any of the rooms, though the archer dragged the elf he had shot from the path onto the balcony to shield him from the windows above. Alfimir nodded and pointed towards the great tree. One by one, the elves, blades drawn now, crept up the living stairs, their feet making nary a sound.
The stairs carried on to a third level, but the elves left at the second. Five rooms, larger than those below, were here, one in each corner, and one which Alfimir had not seen before, planted suspiciously in the middle of the floor. He tried to open it, but could not. Glancing about, he saw a door set against a far wall. He motioned an elf towards it, as the rest hastened to the third level, where the elves were surely sleeping. Satisfied that all would be over soon, Alfimir crept silently back down the stairs.
Moving with an odd eagerness that surprised even him, he made his way to what he had noted earlier as the library. It would be awkward, to say the least, if any elf were to find him here, but there was nothing else stopping him from discovering what other dark secrets Eltuthar had uncovered, if only to stop the elves from finding them themselves.
This door was different. The elf Alfimir had sent to investigate it paused, puzzled. He placed his hand again on the door, as he had with all the others, but nothing happened. Reaching for the steady flow of magic, he whispered the words, “Fiser’terenim, ekcer.” After a short pause, the tendrils of the door began to unweave themselves and parted to let him in. He stepped across the threshold. Perhaps this was a vault where Eltuthar kept his secrets. There were only so many reasons the door would have to be opened by magic.
However, all that he saw in the darkness was the outline of a long bed with a sleeping elf on it. Disappointed that nothing more was in the room, he made his way forward, and raised his sword, ready to strike the elves through the heart.
In an instant, he had been knocked to the ground and relieved of his sword. In another moment, the hilt of the blade crashed against his head, and he fell to the floor, unconscious.
Eltuthar released the sword and grabbed it again by the hilt. His enchantments on the door had worked perfectly, waking him when they were opened by force. He had not expected the elves to come so soon. He had hoped to get his followers out before it happened, but it was too late for that now. He stepped over the elf’s lifeless body, sword held ready, and crossed the deserted floor to the center tree. Here, he placed his hand on the rough bark. In a moment, the wood glowed green beneath his palm, and then faded. Eltuthar grimaced to himself as he turned into the tree, stealthily climbing the steps. His elves would waken any moment.
She could stay here no longer. Ilrin had to get out before the elves found her here. She faltered as she reached for the door though. What about Dilmir? She paused, her mind frozen in an eternal battle, but all thought ceased as she heard muffled sounds outside her door. The sounds were quiet, as if their owners were trying to remain undetected. She tried to identify them, but could not think what they could be. A faint swishing, a soft thud; that was all she heard. And then it came to her. The council’s army was right outside her door.
She froze, her heart beating faster and faster in the darkness. She had turned off the lights in preparation of leaving, as they seemed to obey her slightest thought. She heard the door next to hers open with a soft rustle. Quietly, she pressed her ear to the wall. At first, she heard nothing, but then a dull crack and a muffled cry came to her. She drew back, her hand going to the hilt of her sword. She drew it, even as her own door glowed faintly as it was touched outside by an elf. Slowly, it began to unfurl, revealing the waiting dark edge of a blade. Something sinister dripped from its tip. Ilrin shrank back against the wall, hoping the darkness would hide her. She was skilled with the blade, it was true, but if this was the council’s army, they were likely trained soldiers, proficient in both swordsmanship and magic. Ilrin had her doubts about winning a duel with one of them.
Her door fully unfurled, and the blade entered her room, seeking towards the shadows, quickly followed by an elf. Ilrin saw him glance towards her bed, and could almost hear him noting that it had been slept in recently.
She dared not move. She was pressed against the same wall as the door was set in to, and she was so close to the elf that she could have touched him. If she moved now, he would surely sense it. Just as she reached this conclusion, he turned, and saw her.