Emily and the knights
"You have a proposition for us?"
The voice which broke into Darfle's brooding was soft and melodic, tinged faintly with an unfamiliar exotic accent. Despite living in Avalon his entire life, and spending much of it in Camelot itself, Darfle hadn't done business with many elves and still found them vaguely disturbing. Still, they had their uses and he wasn't going to let a little superstition get the better of him.
"I saw your performance yesterday evening and found it intriguing. Perhaps I can interest you in some work outside the boundaries outside the city limits?" In contrast, Darfle's voice was rumbling and ground as if he had swallowed a pound of gravel. He looked up into the faces of the two young women he had asked to join him and motioned them to seats. The shorter, the one who spoke, dropped gracefully onto a stool and faced him across the table, regarding him calmly with her big, almond-shaped brown eyes. The taller declined and took up a position standing close behind her, hands resting protectively on her shoulders. Darfle appraised them carefully. They were tall for elves, although both moved with the grace and confidence of their species. The shorter one wore her blonde hair loose and a little longer than her shoulders. Her face displayed the kind of simple, radiant beauty that could melt the heart of a weaker man. She was dressed in a voluminous black cloak over close-fitting black robes cut with a high neckline and, as far as he could see, unadorned with the symbols of rank or social standing. She wore remarkably little jewellery - what was there was intricately wrought of a fine silver. Darfle thought he recognised Ehlonna's symbol on a pendant around her neck and she wore an oddly human-looking signet ring.
The taller wore her long silver hair tied back with more of the silver jewellery. She watched him with piercing green eyes as he looked them over. She was no less beautiful, but her elven features were more strongly emphasised, giving her a more intimidating and predatory look. She yawned, and just for second it seemed instead of a row of perfect teeth she had a mouth full of sharp incisors. Darfle looked away quickly and the illusion vanished.
"My name is Rellion Darfle. I am in the employ of Sir Bordon Swanage. Perhaps you have heard of him?" The girls shook their heads. "My Lord is a Knight of the Realm belonging to Order of the Western Star. They were instrumental in the recovery of the Grail by His Majesty all those years ago." The girls leaned forward looked impressed and Darfle suppressed a smile. So the mention of the Grail could even capture the interest of elves. He was amazed at how much store was put in the relic - it had served its entire purpose by instructing Man in the ways of magic and now was more useful as a symbol of power than anything else. The Western Star had unlocked the magic available there - now there were other sources of power to master.
"I wish to hire you. We are planning a trip to Elacon in the Moonrise Hills to ask Lord Aringale for permission to access the ruined dwarven halls in his territory. There are rumoured to be many fragments of runemagic left behind which we hope to be able to study."
"Why do you need us?" The question had come from the sitting girl, rather than her standing protector as he'd expected. "Lord Aringale is something of a hermit. He hides in his mansion with little contact with the outside world - you'll have noticed he didn't attend the celebrations last night? However he does have a weakness for good dancers. After last night's performance I think you'll pique his interest enough for the negotiations to proceed smoothly."
"Just dancing?" This time it was the standing elf, wearing a faint look of disapproval. Darfle smiled at her. "Most definitely. My Lord is a man of honour and would not be asking you to offer anything else. However I should warn you that it is not an easy journey, nor a particularly safe one. You will be well paid, naturally." He named a figure high enough to generate a reaction from both girls.
"Thank you, I think we're probably fit enough." The sitting girl gave him a smile and turned to her companion, speaking in incomprehensible elvish but obviously discussing his offer. Darfle watched the conversation take place. Clearly both were intrigued and it seemed they were convincing each other that they should take him up on it. That was good. He wasn't worried about their ability to survive the journey either - they were more than fit. Beneath their cloaks Darfle knew both women to be lithe and athletic - he had seen them dance the previous night at the King's birthday celebrations. Briefly allowing himself a moment he recalled the previous night when he had attended a ball at the castle. Many baronies and fiefdoms had sent representatives to perform for the King's birthday so it was only natural to see a delegation from the elven kingdoms. Nevertheless it was a surprise when they did arrive and doubly so when they stood up to perform. The display of elven firedancing had been spectacular but the thing Darfle recalled with greatest clarity was the blonde girl sitting opposite him dancing barefoot in a black shirt and shorts. She had closed her eyes to the crowds representing the rulers of the civilised world and danced with her whirling chains of fire as if nobody had been watching - completely wrapped in the music, an expression of relaxed bliss on her face.
The discussion before him ended and the blonde leaned forwards. "We accept your terms. When do you wish to leave?"
"In the morning if that is convenient. The diplomatic parties will be engaged in debate for many days from now and my Lord would escape the world of politics sooner rather than later."
The blonde nodded. "So be it." She touched a hand to her breast. "Emilianya Larenisa".
Darfle paused a moment, lips moving as he attempted to repeat the name to himself.
She smiled. "Call me Emily." Then as Darfle looked questioningly towards her companion she added "And this is ... " she paused, reforming the name in advance "Erin. Until tomorrow." And the girls rose to leave.
Darfle watched them go. It was a shame they would never reach Lord Aringale. They were talented, both of them. Their dance last night had managed to touch something innocent within him that hadn't stirred in many many years, and the simple affection they showed for each other in the way they touched and the way they looked at each other was touching to say the least. But Emily had drawn the eye of Sir Swanage when she had helped one of her fellow dancers by lighting their chains with neither flint nor steel and thus demonstrated herself to be a mage - that rare thing to be seen anywhere outside of elven territories. With elfmagic in their grasp they would rise within the Western Star as quickly as the Order would rise within the kingdom. The side effects on a couple of elven dancers was insignificant.
The journey, Darfle reflected days later, wasn't going well. Sir Swanage was alternating between periods of dour silence during the day and bouts of forced high spirits coupled with overtly suggestive remarks in the evenings. There had been arguments. The atmosphere in the group had become brittle. Swanage had always been a little difficult around company - Darfle had found himself in his long term employ when the older man had formed a group to investigate the ruins of Kalador. Throughout the journey Darfle had played at peacekeeper between the knight and Trimble, the priest of the flame. After the expedition, during which Trimble nearly lost his head several times then actually lost his head once it became clear he was no longer needed, Sir Swanage decided that having a smooth-talking, like-minded thief as a colleague was useful and Darfle had become his voice, brokering deals to further their goals.
This time around, Darfle felt he was outdoing himself. He followed Sir Swanage on his black charger. Behind him the girls were sitting on a placid brown mare named Elizabeth chatting quietly in their fluid language. Suddenly Sir Swanage stopped in a recess and called a halt for the day. "This looks like a good spot. Quiet, sound wont carry - we wont be noticed here." Sensible precautions in the Moonrise Hills, but judging from the look he shot Darfle that wasn't what Swanage had in mind for this evening. His patience had clearly evaporated and after many days of gaining neither magic nor warmth from the girls he had decided to take what he sought. They had, Darfle realised with a start, not seen any further evidence of magic nor caught site of a spellbook through this time. A worrying thought swam briefly through his mind, quickly banished. They had seen elfmagic that first night.
The camp was quickly established and soon the evening meal was ready for cooking - it just needed a fire and appropriate wood had been hard to come by. Sir Swanage crouched low over the wood, swearing at his flint and steel, trying to get a light in the pathetic kindling. The atmosphere in the camp grew close as he grew more angry. Finally Swanage threw down his flint and rounded on the elves, standing a short distance away murmuring to each other in their own language. He gestured violently with the steel. "You could bloody well do something useful. Stop standing around taking up space!" The girls glanced at each other. "Our apologies" replied Emily as Erin more baldly stated "We've put up the tents and prepared the food; does that not satisfy you?" Swanage snarled at them. "I'd be happier in a civilized town away from your incessant prattling!"
There was a long silence. Finally Darfle broke in. "Perhaps you know of a way of starting the fire?" Another long silence before Emily, very carefully, said "I am afraid not. But I will attempt with a flint and steel if you desire." That did it for Swanage. "Flint and steel? I'll give you flint and steel. Use your elfmagic you stupid girl!"
Elves rarely discuss magic with non-elves. Most do not even admit to knowledge of the Art outside of their enclaves. Emily's eyes narrowed and became iron-hard. There was a subtle change in her stance and suddenly she looked less the helpless girl in the wilderness, and more like a great cat ready to defend itself. "I am no mage" she said to Swanage in a voice as cold as ice "And if I were, I would know better than to demonstrate the Art at the demands of one such as you." Swanage barked out a laugh. "You have a spellbook in your tent girl. Do not try to deny it." He drew his sword. "Fetch it out. Or perhaps you would like me to do it?" And he advanced on Emily - a fully grown fighting man dressed in armour with a heavy sword in his hand menacing a small girl in a thin cotton smock with a cloak wrapped round her.
Emily held her ground defiantly. "There is more to magic than a spellbook. Don't be a fool." Swanage snarled and stepped in quickly, aiming a blow to her legs. Suddenly she simply wasn't there, but a few feet around him slamming a blow into his kidney. The breastplate made a sound like a gong and Swanage threw a backhanded cut which would have split her in two had she not leapt back. "Stand still girl. This wont hurt. Much." He laughed - the maddened snarl of a dog let off the leash and scenting blood.
Darfle dived for his pack and dug out his small crossbow. He was just raising it when he felt the pressure of a knife at his throat and a soft melodic voice said "Put it down. We wouldn't want you to shoot the wrong person." Erin stood close behind him - unnoticed she had move round the camp whilst the others were arguing. Darfle froze.
Emily had retreated a little further and drawn the long, curved knife from her belt - the twin of the one currently holding Darfle immobilised. As Swanage stepped in close again she leapt inside his guard and ran the blade across his chest. The armour sparked but held and Swanage slammed his mailed fist into her chest. Emily gasped and staggered back. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth. Swanage advanced, swinging his sword in wide arcs, herding Emily back against a rock. Darfle felt Erin tense as Emily lost her footing on the loose ground and slipped backwards. She landed lightly and gracefully rolled to her feet, Swanage's arching blow missing her by millimetres and struck the stone with a crash. But now he had the advantage and was on her, pushing her back against the rock as she flailed desperately with her knife. Swanage paused for a heartbeat, savouring his victory, then struck - the overhead blow falling like an avalanche on the small girl, aiming to split her head in two. Emily raised her hand even as she ducked and spoke a few words rapidly. There was a bright flash of blue sparks as Swanage's sword encountered an invisible shield. He leaned in, trying to push through the barrier, his face contorted with the effort and with anger. Emily pushed upwards, straining to keep the barrier in place. Locked together, they stood for a long moment before Emily suddenly rolled out the way and lashed out with her knife. A lucky blow caught Swanage on his sword arm and he stepped back reflexively.
The small space was the lifeline Emily needed. She made a rapid, intricate gesture and spoke an unrecognisable word. The light in the little hollow dropped slightly; sucked to a point of darkness in Emily's empty hand. Fast as a cobra striking she leapt forward, pushed Swanage's sword blade aside with her knife, and slammed her hand hard into his chest. Again the armour rang like a gong, but this time Swanage staggered backwards gasping for breath. To Darfle's astonishment he suddenly looked very old and tired. Emily leapt towards him - Swanage's defensive blow was slower than before and she slipped past it with the grace of a dancer, running the knife across the tops of his legs, opening the leather padding. Blood streamed out and Swanage staggered backwards again before hurling himself bodily forwards, sword flashing, aiming to bear her to the ground by his greater weight. He crashed into Emily and they fell into a heap - Emily's empty hand grasping at his sword arm, keeping it outside of the scrum. They rolled across the floor for a moment before Swanage gave a sudden gasp, jerked wildly for a moment, then became very still. Behind him, Darfle felt Erin shift again and took his chance - driving his elbow into her chest he drove the air from her body. He grabbed his pack and fled into the night.
In the shadows Darfle paused. There was no sound of pursuit. Carefully he moved round the campsite. He still had his crossbow - perhaps he would have the chance for revenge. But there was none. Erin ran over and embraced Emily, stroking her hair, comforting her. Emily seemed to hover on the verge of tears for some time before pulling herself together. With a start Darfle realised it was probably the first time she had killed anyone - or at least anyone she had known and spoken with. Amazing someone should display such skill with a weapon without paying for it in blood. Finally Emily broke away and moved carefully over to Swanage's body. She rolled him over and Darfle saw that in the grapple Emily had somehow managed to drive the point of her knife upwards through Swanage's chin and into his skull. Darfle felt strangely numb. He had been with Swanage for many years now, and although they had always seen each other as a means of gathering power in the Order they had gotten used to each other. It had been an effective partnership. Now, with Swanage dead Darfle had to go it alone again. He considered swearing vengeance on the pair before him, but blood oaths were such a bind. However, they were now alone and lost in the wilderness - no reason why he shouldn't follow them and steal the book by himself. Darfle had never considered himself a man of honour. He didn't intend to start now.
The elves packed up their camp. When they turned back towards town and headed into the darkness by the light of a torch, Darfle followed.
The next morning dawned bright and clear. Darfle dismantled his little camp, stowing his bedroll and pans carefully. He had decided to take no action this night. The elves would likely be wide awake, looking for signs of him following them and Darfle felt it would be to his advantage to get some proper sleep the hit them in a few nights time when they had either relaxed or grown so weary they wouldn't notice him anyway. Finding their camp again was easy - he had marked the place the previous night. The elves had risen early and moved on. Darfle suspected they were heading for Camelot - it would be the sensible thing to do, although a long road to follow. He quickened his pace, tracking the elves easily through the brush.
By mid afternoon Darfle was almost on them. They had taken a wrong turning and gone the long way to ford a river. Darfle had simply cut the corner and gained several hours on them. He stalked round a stony outcrop bearing the broken and weathered remains of a statue from the Age of Camelot and came to an abrupt halt. Ahead, faintly, he could hear crashes and shouts - the unmistakable sounds of battle. He ran forwards, keeping low. Ahead the ground dropped away - Darfle remembered it was steep downhill into some gullies, then appeared some semblance of a path. Around here were the broken remains of a garrison building; abandoned long ago and probably now the refuge of bandits or worse. He threw himself down behind a rock outcrop and crawled forward until he could peer out over the edge. Below him, down the slope, were the elves. They had both taken to wearing swords and were looking down with interest at the scene some thirty feet straight below them at the bottom of the gully. Half a dozen goblins were attacking an unknown knight who was holding them at bay with sweeps of his sword. The knight was fighting bravely - around him lay the bodies of some half dozen more greenskins - but he was obviously tired and injured. Blood ran down one of his legs, escaping from under his armour and his sword swings were getting more clumsy by the moment. Off to the side of the gully stood a ranger, dressed in the flowing greens and browns of a seasoned traveller. He had a bow at his feet and was fending off two more goblins with his sword.
As Darfle watched, Emily climbed to her feet. Erin tried to pull her back into cover. "What are you doing?" she hissed "They'll see you!" "He's in trouble - I'm going to help." "Have you forgotten the last knight we met, Princess?" Emily gave her an exasperated look "You can 't judge their entire race by that one man. And I thought I asked you not to call me that." Gracefully Emily dropped off the ledge, drawing her sword as she fell. She plummeted downwards until, just above the ground, there was a flicker of blue around her and her fall suddenly slowed and she landed gently into the midst of the goblins. For a fraction of a second everyone froze. Emily smiled at the knight. "Hi" she said. Then it was as if the world suddenly jerked back to life - the goblins fell on her and she spun out of the way, parrying blows left and right before leaping over the thrust of a stubby shortsword and opening the throat of a goblin with a horizontal slash. She landed beside the fallen body and delivered a vicious backwards thrust into the guts of the goblin coming up behind before whipping the sword back in front of her to parry the new attacker before her then rolled her sword around his and chopped him down, allowing the momentum of her attack to take her past the falling greenskin and into a small clear patch in the midst of the melee.
A few seconds later it was over. Emily cut down another two of the surprised goblins whilst the knight finished off the last and helped the ranger with his opponents. They all stood in the gully catching their breath. Finally the knight broke the silence. "I could have handled them you know" he said reproachfully. Emily laughed - apparently killing goblins was easier to her than dealing with the betrayal of a companion. The ranger retrieved his bow and jumped lightly form his position in the rocks, strolling casually over to join them. "You were doing a good job of drowning them in your blood." he murmured to the knight. "Well met Miss Elf" he said, nodding to Emily then directed the knight to sit on a log whilst he looked at the wounds on his legs.
Emily stepped forwards to help, holding a cut closed whilst the ranger bound it carefully. "I'm Emily - Emilianya Larenisa." The two men nodded and introduced themselves. "It's a pleasure to meet you" intoned the knight formally, trying to rise then looking slightly ridiculous trying to bow from a seated position when the ranger tutted and shoved him back onto the log. He threw an annoyed look at the unrepentant ranger and went on to explain he had journeyed here at the behest of his Order to clear out the garrison. Having persuaded the resident bandits to move on they were on their way back to Camelot.
There was a clatter of rocks behind them and both men were instantly back on their feet, weapons in hand, looking for the danger. They seemed to automatically put themselves between Emily and the sound. At the foot of the slope Erin steadied herself and walked over. "I wish you wouldn't do that" she said reprovingly to Emily, stopping a short distance away. "It's not like I can fly." Emily smiled at her and it seemed to the watching Darfle that they were sharing a private joke. She pushed between the two men and walked over to Erin. Putting her arm round her, and turning to face the others she made the introductions. "Gentlemen, this is my companion, Eskerin Skydancer - Erin."
The men lowered their weapons. The knight gave a passable impression of a courtly bow, whilst the ranger simply nodded. Emily turned back to Erin, "Who's that?" Darfle squinted and he managed to make out the small bird Erin was cradling. It looked to be some kind of swallow if he was any judge, although usually his contact with birds was confined to shooting and eating them. Erin was speaking. "This is Twillio," she gently stroked the bird's head "and she bears a message from my parents." Erin looked at Emily. "They send you their regards Princess, and beg your leave. They want me to return."
There was a long silence. Darfle watched as Emily stood, obviously unsure what to say next. Finally she settled for something simple. "Why?" "They don't say - but they say it's of great importance to the family. I'm sorry, but it appears our time together has to end. I must depart immediately." Emily, looking stricken, gathered Erin into a tight hug. "I'm going to miss you." "And I, you. But don't worry - I will return. And I will of course escort you back to town before I leave." Emily smiled sadly. "Don't worry. These gentlemen are on their way back. The good knight here needs to return to his Order." "Order? Not another member of the Western Star?"
At this the ranger laughed and the knight again rose to his feet, his expression angry. "I would have nothing to do with that band of murders and cut throats. They seek only power for themselves and give nothing to the Realm. Their stench poisons us all."
The ranger spoke up. "What he means is, they are agents of Mordred - not people to be trusted." His mouth twisted sardonically. "It's not polite to accuse people of things like that."
Emily shook her head "We apologise and didn't mean to offer offence. But why are agents of the Kinslayer allowed to walk freely around Avalon? Surely Arthur hasn't made peace?"
The knight spoke up. "Of course not - but there is no proof that the Western Star is that way inclined. It's a carefully kept secret, which means to say everybody knows about it. Unfortunately they made themselves very useful during the Grail quest, providing information to the knights involved, and also more recently in the Quest for the Thorn. They know a lot and that keeps them useful so they haven't been summarily disbanded. Those who investigate too closely suffer... accidents. But - you're a Princess?"
Emily sighed. "Yes. My mother is Saison'arina Larenisa, also known as the Fey Queen."
"Wasn't she supposed to have ... tested ... the Fey Knight?" asked the ranger. Emily made a face. "That's a delicate way to put it. He's my father."
Darfle inhaled sharply. He'd had the daughter of the Fey Knight in his grasp and had never realised it. The daughter of a legend - although everyone knew of the Knight, nobody knew anything about him. He was reputed to have taken a vow of silence for a time and had entered the elven woods. There he had been tested in his devotion in many different ways including, as legend had it, being seduced by the Queen of the elves. And here was the result of that union. Darfle sighed - he'd forfeited his chance to capture her now, but she was worth a lot to him dead as well. The Western Star would no doubt find this proof of the existence of the fabled Fey Knight very interesting and once Emily was dead they could use necromancy to interrogate her spirit.
Below, Emily was explaining what she was doing out in the wilderness. "You were lucky to survive" the knight commented "And of course we will escort your Highness back to Camelot. But why are you even out of your own lands?"
Emily made a face "Please - just call me Emily. I don't usually care for titles." She sighed. "I'm out in the world because of my father, and his blood in my veins."
"Ah, wanderlust" said the knight, nodding gravely. "The hallmark of any great adventurer."
"No, the lifespan. Do you know how difficult it is to grow up around people who can spend five years working on a poem? I learnt everything my age allowed, but I'm not an adult so cannot choose further study. I wont be until I'm more than a hundred years old. That's half my life!"
In his hideout, Darfle nodded to himself. That made sense. He didn't understand why the Fey Knight's blood in Emily's veins would make her age and develop far more like a human than an elf, but he understood the sense of being trapped by the society in which she found herself. Below, Erin and Emily were exchanging a tearful farewell before Erin moved further into the gulley, apparently beginning a new journey towards her home. The knight put his hand on Emily's shoulder. "You're fond of her aren't you."
Emily sighed sadly. "Yes. She's been with me a long time. She appeared out of nowhere some ten years ago and presented herself as a gift from the rulers of mountains in the north to the daughter of the Queen of the elves. She's been my handmaiden ever since." Emily let out a laugh. "Well, technically. Neither of us have ever really thought about it that way."
The ranger looked intrigued. "The northern mountains? Isn't that dragon country?"
Emily was watching Erin disappear into the distance. "Is it?" She murmured. "Well there's a thing. Fancy that..."
Darfle watched from the shadows. Emily, apparently, was good at making friends. Only with them for a few hours and already there were signs of mutual respect. He wondered if they would let her take a watch that evening, It would be a ridiculous display of trust, but the big knight seemed more than capable of such a gesture. Darfle knew he could swoop in and disable Emily before she could raise the alarm then, with her spellbook in hand, he could retreat into the mountains and devour its secrets. Maybe even use the power he gained to hunt down the other elvish rat - a petty act of revenge, but perhaps a simple way to trial himself under pressure.
Evening wore on and the light failed. The knight turned in and deep snores soon began to emerge from his tent. Emily and the wildman sat up for another few hours talking, discussing the land. Darfle began to wonder if either of them actually slept - it occurred to him he had never seen either of the elves sleep earlier in the journey. They had retired into their tent as the light fell away, then the next morning they had simply reappeared - at no point had there been any evidence of sleep. Finally, however, the ranger retired leaving Emily watching the camp. Now was his chance. Darfle retreated into his cover and then a short distance away through the rocks. He had a particularly potent poison he could apply to a crossbow bolt. Emily would be dead before she noticed the strike.
Back at his crude camp Darfle sorted through his bottles. He looked up with a start at the clatter as a pebble slipped down the rocks nearby. Had the damned girl noticed him? It didn't seem possible but she had proved full of surprises so far. Darfle sat silently for a moment, fully alert, but there was no further sound. "Probably some sort of wildlife" he muttered, resuming his search. There it was - the little purple bottle looking innocent in the moonlight. Darfle carefully bent to applying the poison to the bolt in his hand crossbow.
There it was again. Something was definitely moving near his camp. Now was not the time to be interrupted, with a spellbook so nearly his and a virulent poison in his hand. Grimly Darfle decided to remove the inquisitive creature. He had enough poison for several shots. He crept into the darkness, hand crossbow at the ready, following the slight sounds of disturbance. As he looked behind a boulder he caught site of a flicker of movement. A snake? The tip of a silver tail? It vanished around the rock and as Darfle followed it occurred to him that if it was a large creature its front could be looping around the boulder behind him...
He whipped round, raising his crossbow - the crack of broken rock near his back only increasing the speed of his movement. With a twang the crossbow fired, the bolt bouncing off the silvered hide of the creature rearing up before him. It gave a low growling noise; then there was a flash of large, very sharp teeth; then pain; then darkness.