Chapter Twenty-One – Approach

Birds twittered overhead, spreading their happiness through the leaves. Faint rays of new daylight filtered down to the forest floor from overhead, painting it in dappled colors. All was peaceful as the sun rose over the Great Forest.

Ilrin walked, half asleep, leading her horse behind her. Her feet found the faint path that she followed, but she was aware of little else. Only her constant motion kept her awake – she would have fallen asleep long ago if she had remained in the saddle.

The Great Forest was split in two by a mighty river, the Ans Aras, which widened to nearly a mile across at certain points. It curved, like a bent bow, pointed towards the East, and the unknown lands that lay there. Within its curve, the elves had made several villages. Most were within the bounds of the trees, though two, to the far north and south, were in the fields next to the forest.

Leading out of the farthest east of these villages was a rough path, leading to a bridge, grown from the roots of two trees. The path continued on the other side, and was said to lead to where Eltuthar resided. Having crossed the bridge, it was on this path that Ilrin now slowly plodded, trying to stay awake.

She forced herself to open her eyes yet again. She had to stay alert. She couldn’t delay, not only because the council’s army could have set out already, but also because if she stopped, the wolves were bound to find her instantly.

Few elves ventured this deep into the forest, for beyond the Ans Aras was the wolves’ domain. Try as they might, the elves could not eradicate them, and they roamed the woods, ready and all too willing to capture or kill any elf that came to them.

Ilrin shuddered at the thought of what they might do if they found her. It was said that the wolves, masters of the trees and keepers of the forest, knew of a plant, that when brewed properly, could drain an elf of his power, leaving him weakened and unable to use magic. Magic was the one thing that the wolves feared, and without it, an elf had little hope against them.

When an elf was captured, the wolves would usually drug him with the brew, and then take him back to their village. There, he might wait for months until a young wolf was ready to join the pack on a hunt. Then, to prove himself, the wolf would slay the elf in combat. There were rumors of worse things the wolves had done though, things that it frightened Ilrin just to think about.

A faint hiss, a soft rustling behind her, caused her to turn, bringing her horse to a stop. She scrutinized the foliage behind her, but the only thing that moved was a small leaf, stirring gently, as if in a breeze. However, Ilrin felt no breath of wind on her cheek.

The forest was still; even the birds had stopped their happy singing. Ilrin frowned. That was never a good sign.

Uncertain, she drew her sword and took a tentative step towards the tall bush from which the sound had come. Nothing met her eyes. She took another step forward, and peered around the trunk of a tree which grew close to the bush, scanning the forest beyond for signs of life. A squirrel dashed away up a tree, but nothing else moved.

Then she felt it. Hot breath materialized on the back of her neck, and she felt more than anything something large, something shaggy, behind her. Without a second thought, she somersaulted forwards, just as the wolf’s teeth clenched down on where she had stood.

Ilrin whipped about, turning to face the wolf. He was at least a good foot taller than she, standing on two legs, and strongly built. His rough dark brown fur was flecked with streaks of black, and his red eyes glinted evilly at her. His mouth formed a snarl, and in an instant, he leapt after her, claws outstretched, mouth open, eager.

Ilrin had time only to duck as the wolf came crashing down. She struck out with her sword at him, and thought she felt it meet flesh, but was unsure. “Eser, cirith imil!” she cried to her horse, which had backed away at the sight of the wolf. No one knew why, but all creatures seemed to understand the ancient elven speech. It was odd, but came in handy. Her horse turned and bolted away down the path.

Ilrin arose, kicking the wolf back down as he struggled to do the same. This was no easy task, as he was far heavier than she was, and she felt a twinge in her foot as it struck the wolf.

Though she knew it would pain her foot further, she then dashed after her horse, willing herself to go faster. The horse slowed ever so slightly as she approached, and she leapt lightly into its saddle, flattening herself against its neck. Her left foot throbbed painfully, but she ignored it as she felt the wind race past her.

She could hear the wolf crashing after her, persuing her with bloodlust in its eyes, but she dared not look behind her. She had heard far too often of an elf subdued by an ambush from the front when he looked back. Wolves were masters of subtly, and it was never wise to underestimate them.

Her horse turned past a thick tree, and Ilrin had barely a moment to see a small clearing ahead. The path led through the clearing, and then up a steep outcropping of rock, high into the mountains. It was not this that drew her gaze, however.

Standing at the head of the clearing, guarding the path, stood an elf. He raised his head as Ilrin thundered down upon him, his eyes widening, and rolled out of the way just in time.

Snorting, Ilrin’s horse came to halt upon the mountain path, eyes wide with fright. Ilrin turned in her saddle just in time to see the wolf dashing, not after her, but in the opposite direction, his tail between his legs. One look at the elf was enough to see why.

She could see, as he got back up and faced her, the red emblem etched onto his armor. He was a Dark Elf.

Neither Eltuthar nor his followers permitted the elves of Eld’rin to come to their sanctuary, though it happened in reverse often enough. The penalty for trespassing was usually a barrage of spells to chase the elf out, unless he brought a message.

Ilrin swiftly slid from her horse as the Dark Elf approached her, blade drawn and glinting in the sun.

“What business have you here?” he said, his voice sharp and rough.

Ilrin looked up at the elf; he was nearly as tall as the wolf had been. “I must speak with Eltuthar,” she said, willing her voice to remain steady. “I bring him word from Felnir.”

The elf scrutinized her for a few painful seconds. Then, sheathing his sword, though his look was still dark, he said, “Very well. Follow me. But I warn you, if you attempt anything that you should not…” he left the sentence hanging, fingering the hilt of his sword. “You have been warned,” he said, shortly. “Mount.”

Ilrin did as she was told, and the Dark Elf, grabbing a hold of her horse’s reigns, led her up the steep path.

As it turned out, the path circled the sheer cliff face, going up gradually, until Ilrin could no longer see where it began. Only then did her eyes pick out, far above, a grand building, grown from living wood, placed high overhead on a small plateau. The path led to it, curving back and forth to avoid going straight up, and soon, her horse was cantering between the large rocks straight towards two massive doors, set into the side of the building. They were set between two columns, flowing smoothly from the ground, and a flight of smooth steps led up to them.

The elf stopped. “Dismount here,” he said, holding the horse’s reigns still.

Ilrin obeyed.

“You will need to leave your weapons with your horse. Both will be returned to you when you leave.”

Ilrin nodded and pulled her bow and quiver over her head, strapping them to the horse’s side. Then, very reluctantly, she unbelted her sword, and placed it with her bow. Despite the fact that she could use magic, she felt nearly defenseless without her blade at her side.

“Now,” said the elf, turning his stern gaze upon her, “follow me directly, and speak to no one save Eltuthar.”

Ilrin nodded mutely. Only her knowledge of what at this very moment sped through the forest kept her from turning and running back down the path as fast as she possibly could.

The Dark Elf ascended the smooth steps, Ilrin close behind, and placed his hand on the two doors. The vines that covered them snaked back, and then folded inwards. Following silently, Ilrin stepped into the sanctuary of Eltuthar the Black.

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