Written by Caeruleus
Winnowill moved gracefully towards the doorway, her long hair and robes flowing behind her.
“Move!” Kureel growled, roughly pushing Strongbow forward into the black-robed elf’s wake. The Wolfrider’s legs trembled under his weight but he rejoiced at the fact that he no longer needed assistance to stand on his own.
Once healed, his two guards had happily released him, relieved that they no longer needed to touch him. Kureel had even flicked imaginary dirt off of himself, hissing nastily about “these disgusting savages.”
The archer glanced around as he followed Winnowill, noting that this room seemed to be a chamber for the birds. His pain-clouded mind missed those details earlier, but now he studied the lair of these new elves with wary interest. He realized, with a flash of guilt, that he didn’t even know which members of his traveling party had been captured.
Strongbow stopped just inside the doorway, turning to look behind him. Ignoring the expected expressions of anger that twisted his guard’s faces, he rapidly counted his tribemates. They seemed to have fared better then he had, sporting minor bruises and cuts, but with their arms bound behind them like his. His gaze lingered last on Moonshade, silently assuring her of his health just a moment before one of the bird riders harshly shoved him onward.
Still, he gained some measure of hope from the knowledge that some of the Wolfriders escaped the attack. Especially the young ones…
Twisting downwards, the seemingly endless steps carried them deeper and deeper into the depths of the caverns. Intermittent torches lit the passage, and occasionally illuminated elaborate shapes, often birds, coming out the walls.
As the group continued down the stairs, a sensation he had only barely noticed grew stronger; a tingling down his spine similar to what he felt around the Father Tree, or near Redlance’s grove in Sorrow’s End. He realized that this stonework had been shaped by elves in a similar manner and not carved like the tunnels of the trolls. In fact, the entire structure seemed larger than the troll caves.
Despite his distrust of the people, he felt a touch of awe at their accomplishment. Awe and fear. For their level of power put them closer to the High Ones of legend then even Savah’s.
How could the Wolfriders, or even the farmers of the Sun Folk, compare to these elves?
After some a short while, the stairwell opened up into a large and bright room. Strongbow stopped at the sight greeting him. Several tall elves floated around the room, as easily as Rayek once lifted small objects. Others gathered on the floor, turning to see the newcomers. Echoes of recent discussion fell to the floor, leaving the large room in brooding silence as the Wolfriders met unwelcoming the looks from these new elven people.
Sounds of wings flapping came from behind the archer, and, with a light gust of wind, a creature passed over the group flying into the room to land on the far side of the room. With his bat-like wings, clawed feet and swooping fin on his head, the creature seemed more alien than anything Strongbow had ever seen. However, large eyes set in a sharp boned face showed the elf-blood running in the strange being’s veins. Was he like Timmorn, but bird and not wolf?
Still, even the appearance of the flying elf paled next to the fantastic structure he landed near. A huge throne against the far wall, more massive and intricate than Greymung’s royal chair, quickly drew the archer’s full attention. The great white skeleton of an ancient bird stretched upwards above the seat. Its feathered plumage flowed from the wing bones, forever freezing the creature between life and death. Delicate stonework behind the bird formed an egg shape, as if to remind the viewer that once the massive animal been come from a small egg. A symbol of these elves’ reliance on their birds? Or of something else?
A slender, male elf with white hair watched them impassively from the throne. The prisoners knew they now looked upon Lord Voll, the ruler of these people.
Winnowill led guards and prisoners and guards closer, allowing Strongbow to see how ancient the elfin leader appeared. He must have lived many ages beyond Savah, the elf guessed.
Voll stared down at the Wolfriders, his eyes studying each one. “Winnowill, these are the killers of Kureel’s fledgling?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes, Lord Voll,” the black-robed elf answered, turning to smile at the prisoners, “these savages committed that deed.”
“Are they… elves?” her leader questioned, leaning forward in his seat, his face full of uncertainty.
“Barely,” she answered, contempt in her tone. “They are feral beasts who know nothing of what it means to an elf. They shot down the mount of a Chosen One, after all.” Her gaze settled on Strongbow, and her lips curled mockingly. Waving a hand at the captives, she continued, “The outside world shrunk their bodies, turning them into not much better then animals. I suspect they have very little of the gifts from their forefathers.”
The archer bristled at the insult, but simply lowered his as he glared at the elfin woman.
Voll frowned. “The outside was dangerous for our kind, I know.” He settled back into his seat, a hand on his chin as he peered at the prisoners. “I am surprised that any survived out there, as harsh as it was.” He fell silent, considering the Wolfriders.
“Did they know what they were doing when they killed the fledgling?” he asked, after a moment. A glimmer of curiosity, perhaps even compassion, flitted across his features.
“They should have,” Winnowill answered somewhat sharply. “After all, even the humans that live at the foot of our mountain know better then to attack our bond birds.”
“We didn’t even know you existed!” Treestump exclaimed, pushing forward towards the throne, until two of the Chosen landed in front of him. Strongbow attempted to send his agreement but found that the black-robed elf’s barrier remained in place. Gritting his teeth angrily, he stayed silent and watched the discussion warily.
“How could you not know of us?” Winnowill stared down at the stocky elf. “Where were you that you did not see our mountain?”
Treestump glowered at her, apparently deciding not to speak about Sorrow’s End. The elfin woman smiled at him triumphantly, then turned towards the throne. He simmered, baring his teeth. Then, eyes flashing, he asked, “How could we have known that bird was anything other than wild?”
“How indeed?” With a hiss of cloth on stone, she faced the Wolfrider elder again. “As a people who bond with wolves, shouldn’t you expect other elves to do similar things?”
“They also bond with animals?” Voll questioned, eyebrows raised in surprise. Black hair glistening, Winnow nodded. “Then the act was reprehensible,” the ancient elf commented, his expression tightening back into one of impassive disdain. “Punish them for their ignorance. Then, let them pay back what we’ve lost with their sweat. They will serve us like the animals they seem to be.” He waved his hand dismissively.
*No!* Strongbow sent furiously, only to grimace painfully as his thought slammed against the hidden barrier in his mind. Hands grasped his arms, and started to pull him away, but he yanked himself free, driven by angry desperation.
“No!” his hoarse shout echoed around the room, and both Winnowill and Voll turned their eyes on the archer; hers twinkling with amusement, while his narrowed with consternation.
“I killed the bird!” Strongbow exclaimed. “It was my idea and I, alone, executed it! They should not be punished for my folly! Let them go, and I will bear all of the punishment you decide is necessary.”
“Strongbow, no!” Moonshade gasped. His tribemates murmured their dismay from behind him, as Treestump threw him a reproving glare.
“Let them go,” the archer repeated, ignoring the other Wolfriders as he looked up at Lord Voll, his eyes pleading the ancient elf to see reason.
“Lord Voll—“ Winnowill cut in, but her ruler raised his hand, and she stopped.
Leaning forward in his seat again, the white haired elf studied the captive before him, a hint of respect in his gaze. “You would do this for your people?” he asked after a moment.
“Yes,” Strongbow answered simply.
Voll leaned back, his face once again impassive. “So be it. This one should be punished for his crime. The others…” he paused, turning towards Treestump, “Because they ate of the fledgling’s flesh, they must choose either to serve us, or be banished from Blue Mountain never to return.”
“I won’t leave my lifemate!” Moonshade called out.
“We won’t leave our own,” Treestump added gruffly.
“No!” Strongbow yelled again, spinning around to face Moonshade and the others. “Leave this place! You have to leave!” His eyes caught the violet ones of his beloved, and he silently implored her to obey him.
“Who speaks for your people?” Lord Voll queried, the authority in his tone silencing the prisoners.
“I do,” Treestump answered, straightening his back. “I am the tribal elder.” A smattering of quiet laughter from among the mountain elves brought color to his cheeks.
Amusement playing across her features, Winnowill clasped her hands in front of her, and addressed Treestump. “What is your choice?”
“We won’t leave our tribemate behind,” the stocky elf stated, squaring his shoulders.
Inclining her head, the elfin woman asked, her lips in a tight smirk, “Then you agree to be our slaves?”
Treestump bowed his golden head, “Yes.”
“No!” Strongbow cried out furiously, and started towards his friend, but arms grabbed him, and a hand covered his mouth. He jerked and twisted violently but to no avail.
Those strange eyes caught the archer again, and Winnowill commented with a smile, “You would do well to respect your elders.” She turned back to the throne. “We await your judgment, Lord Voll.”
“They have agreed to the terms,” the ancient elf announced, looking over the Wolfriders with disimpassioned finality. “Deliver these,” he waved a hand, “to wherever they can be put to use.”
“And the killer?” Winnowill asked expectantly. To Strongbow, she seemed almost eager.
“Do with him as you will.” The Lord of Blue Mountain pulled his gaze off of the prisoners, staring up at the twisting rock shapes on the ceiling, clearly dismissing all of them.
“He shall learn the error of his ways,” she said in almost a whisper, but just loud enough so that the Wolfriders could hear. Then she smiled at Strongbow, and he knew she intended to enjoy every moment of his punishment.