Dilmir whirled around, and saw the shining edge of a blade descending rapidly towards his head. He frantically brought his sword up to meet it, but at the last moment, the blade twisted, as if alive, and snaked under his guard. Dilmir tried to duck under it and block it with his sword at the same time, lost his balance, and fell to the ground.
Every inch of Dilmir’s body ached. Bruises covered his arms and legs, and his muscles were sore from hours of combat. The training of an elf was rigorous, to say the least.
Dilmir took a moment to catch his breath, lying face down on the hard-packed earth of the training field. His sword arm felt as though it were encased in heavy metal, and the sword that he held felt equally heavy.
Placing his hands on the ground, Dilmir raised himself to his feet. He wiped some sweat from his eyes, and flicked his sword into a defensive position. He bent his knees slightly, ready to spring in any direction at a moment’s notice. Only then did he raise his eyes to his opponent.
She stood a short distance away, surveying him placidly through a face that conveyed nothing. But then, every elf was trained to hide their emotions behind such a mask. Ilrin was far more adept at it than Dilmir was, however.
Dilmir watched her, waiting for her to strike, hoping that his face conveyed as little as hers did. He had learned long ago that to attack Ilrin was a sure way to defeat, it was far better to let her strike first. Of course, Dilmir was sure she would win either way; Ilrin seemed to be a natural expert with the sword.
Without the slightest of warnings, Ilrin suddenly darted forward, her blade seeking an unprotected spot near Dilmir’s left shoulder. Dilmir spun towards his right quickly, hoping to avoid the blade, but at the last moment, Ilrin spun around so that her sword came at him from the other side. Dilmir stopped himself just before he collided with the thin blade of metal, but Ilrin was too fast. With a deft movement, she flicked her sword sideways and brought it to rest, quivering an inch from Dilmir’s throat.
Dilmir stepped back as Ilrin lowered her sword. The result was always the same, Ilrin always won; Dilmir was lucky if he managed to escape her first attack. Nonetheless, after a moment he raised his sword to a different position, and waited for her to attack again.
Before she could, however, a voice interrupted Dilmir’s concentration. “Dilmir,” it said, as its owner, a much older elf, stepped between them, “you are merely reacting to what Ilrin does. That’s why she always defeats you so easily. All she has to do is feint in one direction, and then attack in another. You have to stay out of her way, but you also have to watch every other angle. Don’t let her catch you by surprise.” The trainer’s voice was oddly harsh, unlike the normal speech of an elf, and his brow darkened as he spoke to Dilmir.
Dilmir nodded, though he did not turn his head, and brought his sword up again. Their trainer was right; once Ilrin attacked, Dilmir focused on getting away, leaving everything else unprotected. He fixed his eyes on Ilrin, waiting for her to attack, but she kept her sword lowered.
“You’re doing better though,” she said, speaking directly to Dilmir. “A few weeks ago I wouldn’t have needed to feint.” Dilmir smiled briefly to himself. That was Ilrin, always confident that he had improved since their last bout. “I know you can beat me,” continued Ilrin, “you already have once.”
“You know that was because I lost my balance and happened to fall in the right direction,” said Dilmir.
Ilrin chose to ignore this. “All you have to do is watch my sword,” she said. “It will tell you where it’s going to go next.”
Dilmir raised an eyebrow at her, but quickly saw that she was serious; she really did believe that he could beat her. He chose not to answer, but tightened his grip on his sword, keeping his eyes fixed on Ilrin’s blade. Ilrin flicked her own sword up and remained motionless, watching him, her eyes, which were a curious shade of brown, darting from place to place.
She took longer than usual, something that Dilmir could only interpret as a good sign, for it meant that she hadn’t yet found an unprotected point to attack. His grip was just beginning to relax slightly on his sword hilt, when she suddenly leapt forward, her eyes fixed on some place near Dilmir’s right arm.
Dilmir twitched out of the way, but kept his eyes on Ilrin’s sword. Just before it reached the place where he had been, he saw it twist slightly to the left. He ducked just in time; the sword went flying by where his head had been, and he thought he felt a few hairs detach themselves from his head.
He flipped half way over, trusting his feet to find their footing, and saw Ilrin’s sword slicing through the air towards him. A sudden idea occurring to Dilmir, he spun downwards so that his sword flipped up and blocked Ilrin’s. It seemed a good idea at first, but then Ilrin twisted her own blade about Dilmir’s, wrenching it from his grasp and sending it flying off to the right. A moment later, her sword tip found his unprotected neck once again.
Dilmir, still attempting to figure out what had happened, backed out of his awkward position and went to retrieve his sword. It had landed, as it turned out, near the feet of another pair of viciously dueling elves, their blades flashing in and out, their feet churning up small clouds of dust as they leapt and dodged in a mesmerizing dance.
Dilmir waited for them to stop – which they did as one defeated the other in a spectacular skyward leap and a downward jab of his blade – before approaching his sword. As he bent low to pick it up, the elf nearest him drew away as though he were something contagious, and turned his back on him. Dilmir grabbed the hilt of his blade, and, studiously ignoring the elf’s reaction to him, turned and walked back to where Ilrin stood waiting for him. A small bubble of resentment at the elf filled Dilmir as he walked, but he kept his face composed. He should be used to their reaction by now.
Ilrin frowned slightly at the elf as Dilmir approached, but soon smoothed her face and turned to Dilmir.
“I knew you could do it,” she said. “All you have to do is watch my sword.”
“She’s right,” said the trainer, coming between them once again. “Watch her sword, and strike when you see an opening. Perhaps you can defeat her yet.” His voice, however, was skeptical.
“Of course he can,” said Ilrin, a barely detectable tone of exasperation at the trainer coloring her voice for a moment.
Dilmir couldn’t help the smile that came to him, but quickly rearranged his face into something blanker, and faced Ilrin. They both raised their swords. To the right, the two elves next to them clashed once again, but Dilmir did not move. To lose his concentration was to lose the battle.
Ilrin struck quickly this time, so quickly that she caught Dilmir by surprise. He barely had enough time to get out of the way before she turned, and was coming at him again. Desperate to get away from her sword, he somersaulted backwards out of the way, coming up with his feet planted, and his sword ready to ward off any blow. She paused, and then took a step back, raising her own sword. Once again, her eyes darted all over Dilmir, seeking some way past his guard.
A moment later, she leapt forward, her blade gracefully slicing through the air towards him. Dilmir swerved to the right, but instead of falling back, leapt to one side, bringing his blade down towards Ilrin’s now unprotected back as she leapt past him.
She flipped over in midair so that she faced him, and met his sword much the same way he had met hers but a minute ago. Dilmir tried to disarm her the same way, but Ilrin released her sword and grabbed it with her other hand, the sudden loss of resistance causing Dilmir to lose his own sword. She then landed in front of him, her blade pointing, once again, at his throat.
This time, however, as Dilmir again drew away, he saw that she too was breathing heavily. That was definitely a first. Ilrin dropped her sword point to the ground, trying to catch her breath, though her face was still smoothly composed, and Dilmir turned around to collect his own blade, which had fallen behind him.
As he did so, he glanced towards the edge of the training field. Dark was falling quickly through the air. The sun had already slipped below the far distant mountains to the west, painting the horizon a vivid hue of orange, and lining the scattered clouds in pink. To the east, the sky was already a dark blue, though the first of the stars had yet to show themselves.
What drew Dilmir’s gaze, however, as he stooped to collect his sword, was a solitary figure standing on the border of the training field. He was dressed in black, save for his head, which was bare. His face, beneath his light brown hair, looked young; he couldn’t have been far past twenty. Though it was now impossible to discern in the gathering dusk, Dilmir knew what symbol was etched in red on the front of his leather armor, for he had stood there for half the day already.
The elf stood, as he had for the past few hours, arms folded, surveying the duelers silently through his dark eyes, the only part of him that moved. As Dilmir watched, catching his breath, he was sure that those eyes flickered towards him more than once.
He turned around just as the trainer glanced up at the sky, as if he had only just noticed its darkening hue. “I think that will be all for today,” he said. “You had both better go home. I’ll meet you here again tomorrow.”
Without another word, Ilrin and Dilmir sheathed their swords and turned towards the last vestiges of sunlight. The elf, still standing on the edge of the field, smoothly drew into the shadows when he saw them coming, his figure fading into the blackness. As they walked, Dilmir felt rather than saw Ilrin draw a little closer to him.
However, they passed the place where the elf had been without incident, and, turning a corner, continued on their way. “Don’t forget you’re invited to dinner, Ilrin,” said Dilmir as they walked. “My aunt would be furious if you were late.” Ilrin laughed. They both knew that Dilmir’s aunt, still young by elven standards, found it exceedingly difficult to be furious with anyone. “I can show you around the house before we eat, if you want,” added Dilmir.
Ilrin nodded. “Yes,” she said, “I’ve always wanted to see the inside of one of those houses. A comfortable silence fell between them, as Dilmir glanced up and saw a large full moon overhead, its perfect circle of light unblemished.
On their right rose a dark wall, a solid expanse of rough bark, rising smoothly from the ground in the rapidly falling darkness, despite the full moon. Several roots stuck out from the base of the giant tree, but they were worn to the ground where Ilrin and Dilmir had to pass.
This tree, as it so happened, was one of four, each capable of encompassing a dragon easily within their hollow innards. Their roots and branches, grown and twisted magically by the elves that lived between them, connected with each other, forming four long and immensely thick walls. The higher branches of the trees curved elegantly upward to meet in the middle, casting a shade of leaves over the great elven capital of Eld’rin, which was cradled beneath them.
The ground was fairly flat, and Dilmir and Ilrin soon reached the great gate into Eld’rin: a latticework of branches that, when closed, formed an impenetrable barrier. Only when they entered the long window of light pouring from the gate did they see that many of the other trainees had walked with them, unseen in the dark, towards the same destination.
Dilmir felt himself stiffen slightly as the other elves appeared around him, and quickened his pace, hurrying through the gate. Before him, an even greater throng of elves awaited, all milling about in the last minutes before the gate was closed. He instinctively turned right, heading into one of the giant trees that formed the corners of Eld’rin.
Behind him, Ilrin paused for a fraction of a second, looking between him and the multitude of elves, and then hastened to catch up with him. “Why do you do that, Dilmir?” she asked, falling into step beside him.
“What?” he asked, innocently enough, though he knew perfectly well what she meant.
“Why do you avoid them like that?”
Dilmir did not reply immediately, but continued walking. At last, he said, “You know I tried, Ilrin, but what use is there now? I can’t change what they think.”
Ilrin was silent for a moment, but then said, quietly, “I know how they treat you, but people change. You told me that yourself years ago. They won’t change their minds about you if give up now, though.”
“I’m not giving up,” said Dilmir, “I’m just…” He stopped. “I thought they would change too, Ilrin, but it isn’t working.”
It was true. Since the day he had come to Eld’rin, the elves had treated him as something to be avoided, a strange creature in their midst. He knew why they did so. When he was ten, he had been taken from his village to be trained here for nine years. On his way, they had spent one night in the forest, and on that one night, the camp had been set upon by wolves. Dilmir had lost count of the times he had wished that had never happened. If the wolves had left them alone, he would have never discovered the strange power that he possessed, that neither he nor any other elf could explain. But they had attacked, and before he knew fully what had happened, he had slain three of them, how, he knew not.
Though he had never used his power since, the elves had not forgotten that one night. The fact that he had power they did not alone meant nothing, but he knew the true reason they treated him as they did. Only Ilrin seemed to understand that he wanted nothing more than to be a normal elf.
“It will work,” said Ilrin simply. “I know it will. You just have to give them more time.”
Despite his thoughts, Dilmir smiled to himself. He knew she would never give up on him.
As the two of them walked through the hollow tree towards a forest of wide trunks, which were in reality the elves’ houses, darkness fell outside, beyond the walls of Eld’rin, casting everything into a great shadow.
In a moment, however, one of these shadows detached itself, and stared for a long while at the gate, as the branches slowly unfurled and wound themselves together, thorns sprouting along them to keep out intruders.
He had arrived too late. The elf drew back into the shadows. He was not the same elf that had watched Dilmir train; this one was far older, and wore a thin traveling cloak, dyed a mottled green to blend in with the forest. He couldn’t enter the city now, lest he be discovered. He would have to wait until morning. He must warn Dilmir.