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Introduction:

This contains all the chapters
Chapter one

Earning my weapons

My father had been a ranger and his and his. I had trained all my life to follow them and as soon as my twentieth year came I left the large fortress in Blue Pass. Many went north through the pass to earn their place, I went west along the mountains. I traveled with only my pack and slept high in trees each night.

It was a month before I reached the area known as the Haunting. The forest was thick and had a hunting parties of orcs that came through. I slept in a huge tree in the very crown. I dozed and woke twice for patrols and then my eyes snapped open to the shaking of the tree. There was not much of a moon but I saw the two trolls.

They stomped as they returned carrying the bodies of dead orcs. I climbed down when the sun came up and started to follow the tracks. The stench told me I was close to the troll lair long before I found it. The lair was carved into the stone cliff far below the ruins of the ancient elven fortress Glimmer. I looked around before beginning to set my traps.

The trolls would not come out until the sun had set so I took my time. When I was ready I climbed into a huge tree and waited. They would smell me but I had made a lot of tracks before using a cover scent and climbing the tree. The sun was barely down before the huge trolls emerged.

There were four of them and they sniffed the air and grunted and growled to each other. One strode out as it continued to sniff and stepped into the first trap. The hole was not really that deep but it was only meant to hold the monster briefly. The bottom dropped and the sides snapped up and into its ankle.

It roared and struggled but the foot was caught. A moment later a thick branch swung around with force and slammed into its chest. The others were moving towards it as it tried to stagger back but fell since the one foot was stuck. I pulled a cord that released another trigger and a tree groaned.

It whipped up and over and a sharp iron spear point was slammed through the troll’s guts. It was yanked out as the tree came up and back but the barbs ripped guts out. The troll screamed and roared as it continued to struggle. The others shifted around as they watched the other one dying.

Somehow it did not surprise me when one bent and started pulling its guts out. They squatted as it jerked and began reaching into it and tearing it open and pulling out organs and eating. I shuddered as I watched them begin to eat the other troll before it was even dead. It was a long night as they tore it apart and gorged themselves.

They went into their lair early but I waited until the sun was well up before climbing down. I went to remove the ropes and set up another trap before checking bird snares. I cooked the two chuckers I caught and went back to work on the next trap. I had to drag a dead tree trunk a few hundred paces using a block and tackle.

I moved the remains of the troll after using a saw to cut off the head. I made a few checks before climbing into the tree I was using and resting. I woke to the sunset and shifted before laying still to watch. The trolls were sluggish and came out late. They were looking for the remains from last night and hesitated when they reached the spot.

A moment later they started for where I had moved the remains and one tripped the trap. The huge tree trunk I had lifted and prepared snapped forward and began its arc. Four thick fire sharpen stakes were on the end. It caught the one on the right in the lower chest and stomach. Without the force of the tree, the stakes would never have penetrated.

They did and the end of the tree slammed into it and threw it back. The other two were knocked aside and stared at the troll struggling on the end of the tree trunk as it continued to swing. One walked to it and yanked it back and it screamed and roared as it came off the stakes. I had cut barbs into the stakes so guts were torn out.

This time the two left unhurt waited a long time before they began tearing and ripping the wounded one apart. They were very sluggish when they returned to the lair. The next morning I began climbing the cliff above the lair entrance. I used ropes and started setting up the next trap. I went out foraging and ate before going back to work.

The hard part was using the block and tackle to lift the dead tree up the cliff. I was very tired when it began to get dark and climbed to my nest in the tree. The trolls did not come out although I did glimpse one in the lair opening as it looked out. I slept once the sun was up and woke in the early afternoon.

I went out foraging and used the saw to remove the second dead troll’s head. I was back in my tree early and napped until I heard the snap of the trap. I twisted and saw the dead fall drop down the cliff as the troll fell just outside the lair entrance. The stakes in the trees slammed through its back as it roared. The tree fell to one side and yanked the troll onto its side.

The other troll came to the entrance a minute later but waited until it was completely dark before moving to free the other one and then drag it into the lair. That was the last I saw of it for the night. The next day I foraged and ate before setting another trap. The troll did not come out that night or the next or the one after that.

It was just after sunset when it emerged and looked around. It sniffed the air before moving towards the area where I had left the rotting bodies of the first two trolls. It moved almost cautiously and I pulled the trigger when it entered the trap. The grate made of thick branches snapped around.

It hit the troll and slammed it back as another grate slammed into it from the other direction. The spear point I had used before was on a thick branch and I released the trigger. It was like a huge bow or sling and shot into the troll and impaled it between the grates. It roared and thrashed around, ripping the two grates apart before yanking the spear point out.

It staggered back and turned to stumble towards its lair. I released a last trigger and a moment later the troll stepped into the noose. The tree shook as it snapped up with the troll’s leg. It roared and fought but could not reach up to free its foot. Its head and shoulders were still on the ground as it tried to get free.

It was a long night but once the sun was up I climbed down. The troll was still alive as I moved to the tree beside it and bent a thick branch back. I used a loop to catch one wrist and released the trigger on the branch. The arm was yanked to the side as I went to the other side and repeated it.

It struggled and fought but could not free itself. I used the barbed spear point to pull out the troll’s guts and when it finally stilled I used the saw to remove the head. I wrapped a rag around my mouth and nose before taking my small chemical lantern and entering the lair. Once around the first turn I mixed the chemicals and opened the front of the lantern.

The stench was almost over powering as I went deeper and turned another corner. The cave opened out into a large cavern with piles of bones everywhere. Across the huge cavern was a doorway filled with remains and to one side was an old chest and split open bags of gold coins. First I went to the remains of the other troll and sawed the head off.
After I was done I began exploring and looking at the treasure. I found elven bones still in star silver chain or scale and many old swords. One was half under a pile of bones and when I pulled it out of the sheath I knew it was for me. It was like the swords of the desert mixed with swords made in the far east.

From the makers mark I knew it was from the first millennium. The blade was curved with runes engraved down the length. The two handed hilt was studded with dark blue sapphires and wrapped in thin star silver chain. It almost had no weight in my hand and I spun it around my hand before replacing it in the old wooden sheath.

I began dragging the heavy chest outside and to a small clearing. After the chest I started on the gold and then the weapons and armor. I found the twin short swords together against the wall of the cavern. They were like the long sword, curved but with a double edged point and made of star silver. The hilts were ivory or if I believed the runes, a dragon’s tooth.

The dragon armor was hidden under another pile I almost missed. It was black dragon scales attached to star silver chain. The sleeve scales were star silver unlike the body. From the size of the metal like scales they must have come from the dragon’s tail. I left with the treasure, the sword, the twin short swords, two straight long knives and a ebony hilted dagger.

I also piled the star silver armor and weapons onto a make shift two wheeled cart with the treasure. I had carried the wheels attached to my pack and now used branches to make a cart. The next morning I started back towards the Blue Pass pulling the cart. Early the morning after that I woke to orcs below at the cart.

I rolled off the branch as I pulled the two short swords and sliced out to each side when I landed in a crouch. I came to my feet and plunged one into an orc’s gut as I started moving. I ripped the blade out and slashed the other sword through a throat. I stabbed the right sword into another’s throat as I went past the cart.

I brought the left sword down and took an arm as I brought my right sword around and sliced a belly open. I deflected a crude blade with my left sword and turned to cut a throat with the right. I turned to stab an orc rushing towards me and shouldered him to one side as it screamed.

I spun and stepped towards another charging orc and brought a sword around and down on its neck. I looked around and walked to the one screaming as blood gushed from the stump of his arm. I cut its throat and then looked around before cleaning my weapons. I retrieved my pack before lifting the handles and starting to walk.

I trapped rabbits and snared birds but the orcs were a constant and for over a month I killed them almost every day. When I struggled into the Blue Pass people turned to stare. I was filthy but it was the four troll heads on the cart that made people look. I walked over the drawbridge and into the fortress.

I crossed the bailey and went through the portal and entered the town. I went to the central square and stopped beside what looked like a tavern and the two men and one elf. I smiled, “is four trolls enough or would you like more?”

The men snorted but the elf laughed, “it is enough to earn you weapons.”

I reached up and pulled the long sword and held it up, “I found my own.”

He hissed, “that is Reaper.”

I looked at the sword in my hand and smiled, “it sure is.”

He smiled and reached out, “no. It is one of the great weapons made in the first age and lost.”

He caressed the silver blue bright blade, “foes that face this blade will die.”

I grinned, “so far they have.”

I turned and nodded to the cart, “there were other weapons and armor.”

Chapter two

Hunting Worgs

I glanced at the Elf as we walked out of the fortress and headed into the pass. He was tall like most elves but wore a single white feather braided behind his left ear. He was one of the few elven rangers and my mentor for this trip. Besides my swords and knives I carried a new elven made bow. It was made from a tree that was extremely hard.

They called the wood from it green wood because of the pale green color. I had two dozen yard long arrows in a quiver at my left hip and another fifty bundled together on the side of my pack. I glanced at Gilbert and cleared my throat, “you did not say where we were going.”

He smiled as his eyes flickered around, “east along the mountains to Delf.”

I nodded, Delf was a long abandoned elf fortress. The last I had heard the orcs still had not found a way into it. I looked at him, “tell me, why have your people abandoned so many places?”

He snorted, “we breed slowly and our numbers have declined.”

I smiled, “sounds like you need to begin a campaign to have more children.”

He chuckled, “I will let my wife know when I see her next.”

I grinned and then we were quiet as we left the few fields and entered the forest. Crossing creeks we followed the growing stream. We crossed in a shallow spot before continuing north. It took over a month to reach Delf and we found a small army of orcs camped a few leagues away. I was squatting beside Gilbert as we looked off the cliff at the few fires from the orcs.

He shifted when the worg and rider came out of the trees below us. I looked at the huge horse size wolf, the dark brothers had bred them especially for the orcs. I glanced around before slowly standing and turning. I had learned to always carry an arrow nocked. I pulled, aimed and fired as the worg trotted out of the trees behind us.

The arrow struck high in the neck and the animal dropped and spilled the rider who was lifting a horn. It never made it to his lips as another arrow from Gilbert slammed into his throat. I moved forward as I pulled one of the short swords and cut the beast’s throat before doing the same thing to the orc.

I pulled out the arrows while Gilbert kept watch. I smiled, “think they would follow us?”

He snorted as he accepted his arrows, “the problem is to keep them from following.”

I cleaned the arrows as I began to walk, “let see how long it takes them to quit.”

He followed me, “what did you have in mind?”

I laughed softly, “snares and traps.”

He laughed and we looked ahead as we walked and started planning and setting traps. We were ten leagues away when we heard one of the worgs scream. We were almost to a fast moving stream that went up the steep sided valley below Delf. I pulled out a large pouch as Gilbert looked around.

I turned and gestured to him, “walk straight into the water.”

He snorted, “they can still follow.”

He did as I asked though and I began sprinkling a very fine reddish powder back and forth. I held my breath and walked backwards to the stream before closing the pouch. I grinned as I put it away and started walking in the water and heading up stream. Gilbert chuckled, “Demon peppers?”

I nodded, “dried and ground into a fine powder.”

The peppers were so hot only a fool or dwarf would eat them. A single pinch in a large pot of stew would make the whole thing blister the mouth when it was eaten. We knew when the worgs reached the stream behind us. They howled and screamed as they inhaled the powder. It would be days or even a week before they would be able to track us by scent.

The fortress was above us when we came to the huge stone outcropping. It looked natural but one look at the water running through the tunnel and I knew it was made. We walked into the tunnel and I looked around and then up before stopping, “Gilbert?”

He looked at me when he turned and then followed my look, “a drainage tunnel from Delf.”

I nodded and glanced back down the stream and pulled my pack off and around, “think it could get us into the fortress?”

He shifted, “the ways were sealed.”

I looked at him and he grinned, “but this way may be open.”

I pulled the small grapple and light elven made rope out. I glanced up as I put the pack back on and hefted the grapple before throwing. It went up and into the hole and I pulled it back slowly until it caught. I checked it before starting to climb. Once in the hole it was a lot bigger than I thought.

I secured the rope and waited for Gilbert. A few moments and he was beside me and pulling the rope up. I put it away as we heard something coming up the stream. We moved back and waited as worgs and orcs went past and then turned and looked up the tunnel behind us. The left side had narrow stairs while the right had a channel where a trickle of water ran.

Gilbert pulled a small chemical lantern and led the way up. A thousand steps later we stood looking up at a stone grate with a ladder carved into the wall. The grate moved easily and we climbed out into a set of tunnels that spread out. I grinned, “these are the collection tunnels.”

He nodded before leading me down one and then up another ladder. We climbed out of another stone grate and into a stone practice yard. I looked around and frowned at the white stone footsteps in the dark grey stones, creating a pattern, “what is that?”

Gilbert followed my look and smiled, “the steps to learn our martial skills.”

I followed them with my eye until he pulled me after him, “come.”
We climbed to the northern wall and looked out and down into the distance. He touched a large crystal orb and I watched as the area far away and below appeared in it. He moved his finger and we watched as we found where we had killed the worg and rider. He followed our trail and we smiled when we saw the dozen worg bodies our traps had left.
We explored and I blinked when we found the armory and it was still full of elven weapons. The storeroom next door is where we found the arrows. They were in bundles and solid white and I knelt to feel them. I looked at Gilbert, “the shafts almost feel like stone but they are very light.”

He knelt to feel and smiled, “time has changed them.”

The huge dragon kites left in another room is what gave me the idea. We were eating in a high room and looking out a window, “have you ever seen the kite riders from down south?”

He smiled, “yes.”

I looked at him, “those dragon kites are in very good shape.”

Gilbert grinned, “you thinking of becoming a kite rider?”

I grinned back, “it would let us come and go. We could leave as the sun begins to come up and land on those cliff to the west. Hunt worgs and orcs and then use the kites to vanish and return here.”

He looked thoughtful before nodding, “hunting worgs sounds good.”

That afternoon we set up two of the kites on one of the southern walls. There was a breeze that kept trying to lift the kite. I watched as Gilbert fashioned a harness and showed me what to do. The first time I slowly lifted the front, the kite began to rise and lifted me as I tried to balance. Slowly I shifted my feet back and onto the rear brace.

I floated above the wall for several minutes before putting my feet down and landing, Gilbert grinned as I laughed. I watched him lift and a moment later he tilted the wings and slipped over the wall. I gasped but a moment later he rose up and began to circle before coming back and landing.

For an hour we tested the kites and learned before collapsing them. When we walked through the practice yard I saw the footprints again as they seemed to glow and a ghost began moving as if in a dance. Gilbert watched with me, “that is the practice spell to teach beginners.”

I smiled as I watched the graceful shade glide over the steps and moved to the first ones. To say I was awkward and clumsy would be polite but the ghost returned each time to guide me when I started over. When I slept that night the steps and martial dance almost glowed behind my eyes.

We were up early and left our packs. Gilbert returned with two large quivers of the white arrows. We lifted from the wall just as the hint of the sun appeared. I followed Gilbert and he followed ridges where he said warm air would keep us flying. It was cool but I loved the feel of flying from the first moment I took off.

It would have taken us at least a half day if not longer to reach the cliffs, we made it in an hour. We spiraled down and landed beside each other. After collapsing the kites we strung our bows and headed around and down into the forest below. It was several hours before I saw the worg moving through the trees.

I aimed and put an arrow through the side of its head. Gilbert killed the orc riding it and then gesture, “skin it.”

I looked at him before nodding and moving to the dying animal. I skinned it and rolled up the hide and thought before taking a canine tooth and carrying it back. We moved into another position and waited and it was not long before another worg came as it followed the scent of the first.

Gilbert killed it and I killed the orc and then stood watch as Gilbert went to skin the worg. We killed twenty before Gilbert headed towards me, “time to go.”

I had heard the distant howls and nodded as I lifted the hide. We moved up to the cliff before opening the kites and letting the air lift us. I followed him again as he used the ridges to fly into the mountains. The kites were a little sluggish and took a little more work but we landing on the fortress wall safely.

We began cleaning the hides as we ate rations and then I went to the practice area. I followed the steps with the ghostly image leading me. It was very dark when I stopped and stretched. I felt strangely refreshed as I returned to the room.

Gilbert only smiled as he sat looking out the window, “soon the summer storms will come and we will not be able to use the kites.”

I nodded as I went back to cleaning and stretching the hide, “the orcs will not move around much during the first few.”

He laughed, “no.”

We looked at each other and then grinned. I spoke my thought out loud, “if it is at night we could enter their camp and attack the large central tent with their leader.”

He nodded, “it has a door at each end.”

We planned what to do as I worked on the hide. When I slept that night I dreamed of the ghostly image as I moved through the steps but this time I held two curved long knives. We were up early and packed more of the arrows before putting the kites together. This time we went further to the east and landed on a cliff before moving down to set up another ambush.

It was a week and we had killed over a hundred worgs and another hundred orcs. We were to the west this time and something just felt different. We had already killed a dozen beasts and orcs when Gilbert straightened, “more come.”

I glanced around as I got ready and then the hoard of worgs came rushing through the trees. I pulled and fired and reached for another arrow. When I ran out I tossed my bow and reached over my shoulder for my sword. I pulled it and slipped to the side as I swung and took the throat out of the worg as it leaped.

Now it was a dance as I plunged the sword through an orc’s belly and ripped it out. I sliced and turned and shifted while cutting and then spinning to stab. I heard Gilbert yell to run but there was no way I could get free. Then the huge black worg leaped over several bodies. A very large orc rode it and the sword it carried shone bluish silver.

There was also a bright sparkling bluish gleam from its chest. I slid aside as I spun and sliced up and around through the beast’s throat. I brought the blade around and then down behind the ear of another worg lunging in as I yelled, “REAPER!”

There was a surging thrill that went through me as the sword cleaved the head from the body. I continued to turn and bring the sword around. The large orc had slipped off his dying worg and leaping towards me with the sword raised. I took the arm and then turned to move the other way as I brought the sword back to take the shocked orc’s head.

I shifted aside and brought the sword down on another orc rushing me. It cleaved through the neck and shoulder and came out the hip as the orc was split. I looked around at the carnage as the orcs fled. I knelt and wiped my sword clean before putting it away. I looked at the dead orc that had carried the star silver sword.

I knelt and pulled a knife to cut the crude belt. I took the sheath and hesitated when I saw the two curved long knives. The hilts was a pale blue stone and carved. It was curved down while the blade was curved up towards the spine like my swords. I took them both and tucked them in my belt.

I looked at the huge fist sized blueish diamond like stone on its chest and broke the chains and put it in my shirt. I grabbed his fallen sword and slipped it into the sheath before finding my bow and the worg hide. I trotted towards the cliff where we had left the kites. Gilbert’s was gone so I knew he had made it out.

I put mine together and tucked the extra sword in my belt before balancing on the cliff until the air lifted me. I used it to go higher and turned to head into the mountains and headed back to Delf. He was still on the wall looking out as I slowed and landed. He looked at me for several moments before shaking his head, “I thought you gone.”

I grinned as I began collapsing the kite, “just a small brawl.”

He laughed as he turned to his kite. Back in the room we were using I showed him the stone and he hissed, “that is the Farintine Heart.”

He looked at me and sighed, “long ago. Before the first millennium my people used a mountain to make a home like the dwarves do now. In the very center we found the heart. The Farintine Heart, and one of our brothers took it. The mountain shook and cracked and many died as we fled. Since that day we have lived above ground.”

I looked at the stone and tossed it, “you and your people should have it.”

He caught it and looked at it carefully before nodding and tucking it away. I set the sword I had taken from the orc on the table and then began examining the knives. He chuckled, “the sword was one given to a king long, long ago. Those knives were made by an elven swordsmith for a human in the third Millennium. The human found a rare blue jade and carved the hilts.”

I looked at them and smiled as I removed the straight long knives on my thighs and replaced them. I went out to the practice area and started following the footprints. This time I held the knives as I moved through the pattern. By the time I finished the second time it almost felt as if I were moving inside the ghostly image.

I started working on the new hide and glanced out at the dark clouds. I looked at Gilbert as he stared out the window, “it looks like a storm coming in.”

He nodded and then turned and smiled, “they will not expect us tonight.”

I shook my head and rolled up the hide, “we can not use the kites.”

He shook his head, “and we can not use the other way in.”

He stood, “we will use a rope and climb down the southern wall.”

The crash of thunder was enough warning and we left the bows and headed for the wall with a rope. We tied it to a crenel before climbing down. As it began to rain we started down the stream and then moved to one side as it rose. It was not long before it was pouring and dark. I let Gilbert lead and followed close just to keep him in sight.
The rain did not stop or slacken as it poured down. It was hours before we reached the edge of the large camp. The worgs on the outer edge did not even move as we walked in. In each shelter we passed, groups of orcs were huddled together. When we reached the large tent Gilbert looked at me, “see you in the center.”

I nodded as I pulled Reaper and turned to head to the other end of the tent. I did not even slow as I walked in and slashed across to kill an orc. I chopped down and the other way as I moved and almost took another’s head. I stabbed into one’s gut and twisted and yanked as I slashed the other way to cut through two orcs bellies.

They were screaming and more screams were coming from the other end of the tent. I spun and slashed down and brought the sword back to take the arm and head of a dark brother. Between heart beats I stepped into the image from the practice area. I slipped the sword into another orc and slid aside as I turned to slice open two more orcs trying to get around me.

I spun back as I stepped and brought the sword down to cut a dark brother from shoulder to hip. I moved back and forth in a dance that had blood spraying the inside walls of the tent. The big orc came out of the crowd with a huge long sword, it was as long as I was tall. I was spinning as it raised the sword and lashed out to take the arm.

I turned to step in as I flipped my sword and shoved the blade through its throat. The huge sword landed point first in the ground and my left hand caught it. I slashed the other way and cut the throat of another dark brother as I brought huge but strangely light sword up and around. I cut an orc in half as I continued to step in the dance and kill those around me.

I extending the huge sword to impale a dark brother facing Gilbert. I sliced to the side and cut the throat of the last orc standing. I looked around as I straightened, “well that was fun.”

Gilbert laughed, “you are crazy.”

I walked to the side where the large chair of human bones stood. Beside it was an open chest full of gold coins and dazzling jewelry. There was a star silver crown sitting on top. I frowned before kneeling and grabbing a rag. I scooped the gold and jewelry into the rag before closing it and wrapping a string around it.

Gilbert snorted, “leave the treasure and lets go.”

I stood and tied the large rag pouch onto my belt, “actually I was taking the wandering king’s crown.”

I grabbed the huge sheath and wiped my sword and then the large one before putting both away. I looked at the dark brothers before going to each to take the throwing spikes in multi sheaths on their chests. I stood and headed for the far door, “we can wash on the way back.”
Gilbert chuckled, “unless we drown.”

It took longer to return and find the rope we had left. The sun was coming up as we climbed the wall and slipped over. The rain lessened as we coiled the rope and returned to the room we were using. We stripped and twisted our clothes to get most of the water out. After that we were drying weapons.

We leaned sheaths against the wall to get the water out and to let them dry. I had to dry my chain and dragon scale shirt and finally I opened the rag and looked at the star silver crown. Gilbert looked from across the table while trying to dry a long knife, “I think you were right. Star silver crown with Emeralds.”

I nodded and shook my head, “well we know why he never returned now.”

I looked at the huge sword and Gilbert grinned, “that is the largest sword my people ever made. It was for a noble that stood almost eight feet tall.”

I grinned, “and still very light.”

He nodded, “they must have found his tomb.”

I set it down and reached for the spikes, “these were interesting.”

He sighed, “my cousins sometimes use poison so be careful.”

I used candle flame to burn any poison off and cleaned and oiled the iron spikes. It looked like they had started with an iron rod and then hammered and stretched each end into an elongated diamond. Each of the end sides were sharpened all the way to the tip. When I finished I started back on the worg hide, “think they will keep looking for us?”

Gilbert chuckled, “we will see.”

It rained for three days before stopping and we took flight and saw the camp abandoned and returned. We used a make shift sled and left that day. I followed Gilbert through the mountains using an ancient trail. When we walked into the fortress in Blue Pass people stared at the rolled up worg hides.

Chapter three

The Frost Fortress

I finished packing and slipped the pack on before looking around the room. I left and walked down the narrow stairs and started across the quiet room. I glanced at the corner when a man cleared his throat. He leaned forward, “watch for the dark brothers. They are gathering in the Frost mountains.”

I nodded and continued to the door. This time I was going north through the pass and then all the way across the north plains to the far Frost mountain range. I was going to look over what the elves had once called the Frost Fortress. Unlike Delf the dark brothers had occupied the Frost Fortress as if it had always been theirs.

I was striding through the northern gate when a tall grey haired man joined me, “about time.”

I smiled, “I am early and you were supposed to meet me at the crossing.”

He chuckled, “I was talking to Gilbert until late.”

I glanced at him, “he still heading home?”

He nodded, “he said something about a campaign against or with his wife.”

I laughed and then smiled as I stepped out with long strides, “I wish him luck.”

Samson had come to the rangers a little late but was a very good stalker. We walked out of the pass and started across the northern plains. It was nothing but rolling hills and stunted trees with regular and constant patrols of foul ones. I wore worg hide moccasins like Samson to cover our scent. We moved mostly during the day and stayed to the low ground.

The closer we came to the Frost mountains the fewer patrols we saw. The ones that were here had twice the number of the other patrols. We had just reached the mountains and made camp in a tiny hidden spot when the patrol of dark brothers came. Samson was in a tree to one side and I turned at the hint of sound.

The six dark brothers came through the brush quietly. I knew it was to late to hide and pulled two throwing spikes and threw. I had been practicing and each one took a brother in the throat. The other four rushed me as I pulled my long knives and stepped into the pattern I had come to know well.

I slipped past one as he lunged and cut his throat while slicing another’s stomach open. I shifted and turned as I changed to another pattern and stabbed a wrist holding a sword. I twisted and ripped it apart as I moved forward and around him to slip my other knife into his side and heart.

The last one dove towards me and I turned and stepped to the side as I brought a knife down. The blade went into the back of the neck and I yanked it out as he fell. Samson had come out of the tree and moved to the ones choking on their own blood. He used his sword to kill both as I looked around.

I knelt to clean my knives while he slipped out to see if there had been any others. I took the frost diamond each wore at their throat and broke their knives and swords. I cleaned my throwing spikes before returning them to their sheaths. Samson returned, “they were alone.”

I nodded, “we will move at night from now on.”

I glanced to the west, “Frost fortress is only a few days from here.”
He grinned, “think we could sneak in?”

I shrugged as I went to grab my pack, “normally I would say no but I have an idea or two.”

We moved deeper into the mountains before turning west. It was harder going but we saw fewer patrols. Three nights later we came to a wide fast moving stream. It was icy cold and I knew it came from a glacier to the north. We followed it south and moved slower until we saw the huge fortress.

The stream turned to follow a cliff with the fortress high above. I was careful as I removed my moccasins and moved into the freezing water. It did not take long before our feet were numb but we finally came to a large narrow tunnel emptying out into the stream. I climbed in and Samson followed before we sat and dried our feet and put our warm moccasins back on.

The long climb up the narrow steps was tricky since it was very slippery. Like with Delf there was a system of collection tunnels under the fortress. The practice yard we climbed out into was long abandoned and coated in refuge. I moved towards a side door with Samson following. I pulled the black hilted dagger and quietly opened the door and slipped in.

We could hear the sound of a lot of voices coming from the front hallways. I found a set of stairs up and we moved towards the voices. We stayed in the shadows in an upper galley to watch the thousands of dark brothers in the entrance hall as they talked. I touched Samson and we moved away and back.

It was the hint of sound that made me move quickly. Two dark brothers came around the corner ahead and I crashed into one and stabbed up through his throat and into his brain. I pulled my left hand knife and lashed out in a jab, it took the other brother under the ear. I let him fall as I held the first and looked around.

Samson grabbed the other and we pulled them down the hall and into a side niche. I took the frost diamonds from each and broke their weapons as Samson stood watch. I cleaned my weapons and put the knife away but kept the dagger out. It was another hour before we found a hidden spot to look into the throne room.

An arrogant looking dark brother sat listening to others argue. I moved back, “they are talking about gathering an army to attack Blue Pass.”

Samson nodded and I gestured, “lets see if we can get around behind the throne.”

That was easier said than done, the narrow stairs we found had several dark brothers in it as they talked. We stood just outside in a small alcove as they talked about one of the king’s daughters. She had disgraced him by renouncing the dark path and trying to escape south to the elves. She was locked in a small room above us and at the back of the fortress.

She was to be sold and bred by one of the senior brothers. They finally split up and we slipped into the stairs and down. I checked the hallway before we stepped out and heading back. We moved into another alcove at the sound of feet and watched as a dozen dwarf prisoners were led past, I moved out and up behind the last guard.

I yanked him back as I covered his mouth and shoved the dagger into his brain. I pulled it out and lowered him as the last dwarf looked at me. I started for the front as Samson caught up. There were only two brothers as guards since the dwarves were chained. A few murmured and the dark brother turned right before I reached him.

He jerked back but it was to late, I covered his mouth and I stabbed up and into his heart. I took him to the floor and searched him before finding a key on a chain. I glanced at Samson, “that alcove.”
He nodded as he spun and hissed, “come with us if you wish to live.”

I started pulling the dark brother as he spasmed and once I had him in the alcove I stood. I held out the key to one of the dwarves, “once you are free strip him and take his weapons.”

Samson pulled the other dead guard in and I nodded to the dwarves, “stay with them and I will return.”

He hesitated before nodding and I slipped out. I moved towards the corner and peeked around before moving. Four dark brothers were entering a doorway and I caught up as it closed. I pulled both long knives as I caught the door and followed them in. The last one turned and I shoved my right knife through his neck and up into his brain.

I yanked it out as I went past him and slashed out and to the left with my other knife and cut the next one’s throat. The front two turned and I was stepping into the pattern and stabbed one through his open mouth and the other through the back of his neck as he turned to flee. The room was a small anti chamber and I pulled them to the side where cloaks were hung.

I stripped them before heading towards the inner door and listening. I heard feet just inside the door and opened it and started through. Two brothers were on each side of the door and one died as my knife stabbed under his ear and the other as I stabbed him through the eye. I pulled them both out and stripped them before slipping back into the hall.

I returned to Samson and the dwarves and handed all the clothing and weapons before leaving again. I returned to the inner chamber and glanced at a small ornate chest on the desk and moved to open it. Inside were hundreds of large cut frost diamonds. I cut a piece of hanging curtain on the wall and made a large pouch.

I emptied the chest into the pouch and put it in my pack. I looked at the huge fist sized ruby on the wall to the throne room. I crossed and stared at it before reaching up and pulling as I grabbed it. The world froze and became still, I could hear the loud racing beat of my heart. Pain hit me as if my blood were boiling and my body freezing at the same time.

An eternity later I was just standing there holding the huge stone in my hand and slowly tucked it into my shirt. I went to listen at the other door and could hear the voices in the throne room. They argued about heading south to take Blue Pass and skirmishing south into the human lands. It was several minutes before I heard voices just on the other side of the door.

One was telling another to go take someone call Aveline. I moved to the side so when the door was opened and the four walked in I was behind the door. It was closed and I began moving. I cut the guard’s throat that had closed the door and stabbed the next in the neck as I reached him and went past.

I ripped the knife out and sliced to the right as the third dark brother turned. He staggered and clasped his spurting throat as the fourth spun and started to pull a sword. My left knife came down through the wrist and the right up under the chin and into his brain. I yanked both out and looked around before kneeling by the last one.

He wore a huge frost diamond choker and the two long knives had moon stones hilts. The sword he had tried to pull had dozens of frost diamonds studding the hilt. I took everything and stripped him before stripping the others. I pulled the bodies out and into the entranceway with the others before returning to Samson.

I gave him the clothes and weapons but kept the two long knives with moon stones and the diamond hilted sword. I left and headed towards the stairs with a sense of urgency. Three floors above I heard voices in the hall. A door closed and I peeked out before reaching for the dark brother standing with his back to me.
I caught his head and twisted before letting him fall. I took a couple of steps as the other turned from looking at the closed door. He was startled and reacted to late as I grabbed and twisted in the pattern dance. There was a pop as his neck snapped and I let him fall. I went to pull the other dark brother to the door before hesitating and opening it.

I stepped in and a well dressed and bejeweled dark brother turned and snarled. He died as I struck into his throat and turned him before twisting his head. I let him fall and moved towards the bed as the dark brother fighting silently to rape the woman finally glanced back. He jumped off the bed and spun to face me as he pulled a ebony hilted sword.

I had both long knives out but he suddenly stiffened and I slid in and brushed the sword blade aside. I jabbed up under his right ear and yanked it out as he fell and I saw the stunning woman that had been behind him. She was holding a bloody long knife and glaring at the body. I glanced around before relaxing and looking at her, “you renounced the dark path?”

She looked up and at me before nodding and I gestured, “strip him of weapons.”

I turned and went to pull the other two dead guards in and started stripping them. I tossed the clothes of the first towards her, “get dressed.”

She barely hesitated before starting to put one of the dead guards clothes on. I went to the next and then the one that had watched as the last had tried to rape her. I made a pack out of a shirt and shoved the other clothes in. I glanced around and moved to a huge worg skin rug. I folded and rolled it up before tying it to the pack.

I looked at the woman and gestured for her to come and helped her put the pack on. I moved to the door and looked out before opening it and stepping out. I led her to the stairs and then down before checking the hall. I stopped at the alcove, “time to go.”

Samson stepped out and looked at the woman before glancing at me, “I hope you know what you are doing.”

I smiled, “we go out the way we came in.”

He nodded and I headed down the hall towards the other set of stairs. We went up and moved towards the front of the fortress and past the loud entrance hall where dark brothers still argued loudly. The woman stayed close as I moved and went down and then to the door into the practice area. I glanced in and gestured to the others and they moved in quickly.

Samson led them across to the open grate down into the collection tunnels. I followed and closed the grate behind us. He had already pulled out the lantern and I moved past him and led the way to the drainage tunnel. It was a lot easier going down than up and when we reached the stream I stopped.

I sat and gestured, “shoes and socks off.”

The woman did not say anything as she followed my example but the dwarves grumbled before one growled, “shut the hell up!”

They went silent and I finished and stood to wait for them. We stepped into the icy water and I led the way up stream and stayed close to the cliff. As soon as we could we got out and dried our feet before replacing socks and boots. It was a few hours before I turned and headed east and pulled out a sling and slipped a stone into it.
With this many people we would need game. The woman touched my arm and gestured and I hesitated before giving the sling to her and the pouch of stones. I was surprised when she killed the first rabbit. When there was enough for each person I stopped in an overhang. The dwarves had collected dry wood as we cleaned and skinned the rabbits.

We made a smokeless fire and one dwarf used a sword to roast the rabbits. After everyone had eaten we put the fire out and started walking again. When the sun began to set I found a narrow cleft and we made camp. The dwarves spoke in quiet grumbles as I laid out the worg skin the woman had struggled to carry.

She laid down and I opened her pack and pulled out a couple of cloaks and covered her, “sleep.”

She looked at me and smiled before closing her eyes. I gestured to Samson and he grinned as he sat and leaned back before closing his eyes. I watched out the cleft as the night deepened and thought. The dark brothers might head south right away to attack Blue Pass or they might wait until they had a new clan leader.

It was after midnight when Samson stretched and I glanced at him, “go back to sleep.”

He looked at me, “worried?”

I nodded, “they could head south without waiting.”

He snorted, “think I did not see that fancy sword on your pack? It will be awhile before they have a new leader.”

I shrugged, “maybe.”

He gestured, “sleep.”

I sighed and nodded before glancing at the woman and laying on the edge of her fur. I woke when she snuggled against me before closing my eyes. I woke to the false dawn and glanced at the woman before I sat up. Samson glanced at me before smiling as I stood and moved into the back of the cleft.

I came back and found her standing and looking around and pulled her in and stood watch while she relieved herself. When we returned to the fur I knelt and cut it in half and rolled both up. I added one half to my pack and the other to hers. We woke the grumbling dwarves and waited as the sun began to rise to start moving again.

Three days later we turned south and the dwarves were following Aveline like she was their angel. She not only used the sling to kill rabbits but grouse or other game birds. She also taught them to clean and tan the rabbit skins and sewed them together for them. When we reached Blue Pass they had several rabbit fur blankets.

Of course everyone stared when we reached the fort and walked in. Other scouts came back not long after us to report the dark brothers fighting each other.

Chapter four

Green Heart

I had not expected Aveline to continue to follow me and stay with me but she did. She was not clinging, she was just there. She seemed to enjoy the pattern of steps I began to teach her. The dwarves adjusted and fitted one of the star silver chains shirts for her. I gave her the two moon stone hilted long knives and a set of curved short swords from the ranger armory.

She also began to practice with a smaller bow. It was winter when we started south and west to the Green Heart. I shifted my pack and glanced at Aveline as she took a deep breath. I smiled and turned to move off the road and head into the forest. She mostly kept her bow over a shoulder and walked with her sling out and ready.

It was a week later when we turned to the southwest. We were skirting a meadow in the early afternoon. We both had our bows ready since Aveline had already killed a few birds for our dinner. I slowed beside a tree and looked to the right across the meadow. She followed my look and I slipped my pack off and nocked an arrow after hearing guttural voices.

The pack of orcs walked out and headed towards us and I shot the leader in the chest. There was a roar as the whole pack began moving. Aveline was shooting and killing orcs beside me. We killed at least a dozen apiece before I tossed my bow into a bush. I pulled my short swords and stepped into the pattern dance as Aveline called it.

I took a wrist off and stabbed another orc before killing the first and moving on. She was fighting with her short swords and following the pattern as she slashed and cut her way through the orcs. We moved apart and came together to block and kill those facing the other. I took an orc’s head as it tried to move past me and then we were moving apart again.

I let a sword slid along mine as I deflected it and cut open the orc’s belly and kept moving. I killed the last one facing me with two strokes, one to take his arm and the other his head. I looked across at Aveline and she was looking around at all the bodies between us. I knelt to use the snow and a rag from a dead orc to clean my weapons.

We pulled our arrows out and broke any weapon we found on the orcs before leaving. I headed for the ruins of an ancient elven fortress abandoned late in the first millennium. Most of the walls were broken and the roofs had fallen in. I moved through it and towards where the practice area should be.

In one corner the roof still covered part of a walkway. We set our pack down and the bows and quivers before I moved out and began scrapping snow and debris away from the barely visible foot prints. We cleared the entire pattern before I nodded to Aveline. She smiled as she pulled her long knifes and stepped onto the first print.

We were both surprised when the ghostly image appeared and started moving through the pattern. Aveline followed it smoothly and I sighed before turning and going to explore. The armory had been broken into long ago but I was just exploring. I was in what was left of the master’s chambers when I noticed a long crack in the wall.

I had been in the room on the other side and there was no crack. I moved around the large hole in the floor and looked through the crack. I could see what looked like a chest and stepped back to look at the wall. I jumped and climbed up and looked over and down into a narrow room. I climbed over and down and moved carefully to the chest and looked it over.
I could tell it was old, the wood had turned to stone and I slowly lifted the lid. Inside was two short swords made of star silver with green enameled hilts. There was also a choker type of necklace made from star silver that sparkled with emeralds. I took the swords and the necklace before looking around, “thank you.”

I climbed out and made my way back to the practice area. Aveline had finished and laid out our sleeping furs and the light but insulated blankets. I caught her and she looked at me in surprise as I put the choker on. I turned her as she touched it and pulled the two swords out of my belt. Her eyes widened as I removed her swords and replaced them.

I smiled as I went to place her old swords on my pack and then start making dinner. I woke in the middle of the night. I shifted out of the bed before pulling Reaper as I moved to an open spot in one wall. I stood to one side as I looked out and down to see another band of orcs. They were not following us but were headed to the east.

When they were gone I returned to bed and slowly relaxed. The next two days were spent moving through thick falling snow. We avoided a couple of large bands of orcs and I was ready to set up camp until it stopped snowing or at least lessened enough to see. That was when we walked out of the storm and up against the wooden palisades of a town.

We moved around to the gate and banged until it was opened. There was only one tavern and it was crowded. I set our packs to one side and ordered two large bread bowls of stew. While we ate I listened to the talk of a band of rogues and brigands on the road to the west. That was the direction we were headed so I asked how large this band was.

No one seemed to know, it varied from a dozen to a hundred. We slept in the common room after warm baths. It actually felt comfortably and warm and I know Aveline slept through the night. The storm had passed by morning and we had large bowls of warm porridge before leaving.

It was noon and we were struggling through deep snow on the road when I stopped and glanced around, “men watching the road ahead from the right.”

Aveline nodded, “a few are on the other side too.”

I removed my pack and pulled an arrow out. She copied me, “think these are the bandits they talked about?”

I nodded as I continued to watch and wait. Men yelled as they charged out of the brush and ran towards us through the snow. I put an arrow in the one leading as Aveline picked off those on the other side of the road charging us. As deep as the snow was they were struggling and I killed a dozen before they decided to run away.

Of course by then it was to late and I continued to put arrows in them until the last fell. I glanced at Aveline, “get your arrows and I will watch.”

When she returned she gestured and I put the arrow in my bow away as I headed into the deep snow. The weapons the men had were old and rusty so it was easy to break them. When I returned to the road we put our packs on and I began breaking the trail through the snow on the road again.

It was six weeks before we walked into the thick stone walls of Saladen’s Keep. This was a town on the edge of the Green Heart. We stopped at the tavern and I paid for a room. We soaked for an hour in a tub of hot water. After we got out we had a large bowl of hot soup and slices of bread, cheese and roast venison.

We slept in a small room with a fire burning to keep us warm. We were up early and had toasted bread with thick slices of cheese before leaving. The road out of the town and through a gate was watched by a few elves in thick winter coats. As we approached the gate they moved out and blocked our way.

One looked us over, “your business?”

I pushed the hood back on my cloak, “is mine.”

He snorted, “humans are not always welcome...”

Another put his hand on his shoulder, “remove your hood woman.”

Aveline reached up and pushed it back and they hissed and one touched his sword. I growled, “pull it and you will die.”

They looked at me and another laughed suddenly, “look at the hilt of his sword.”

I glanced at him as the others frowned. He moved forward, “think. Green bow, two short swords, twin long knives with blue hilts. Blue sapphires in the two handed hilt of his sword.”

He grinned, “Gilbert’s mate will wish to... speak to him.”

They laughed and I grinned, “he made it back?”

He nodded, “and has began his campaign.”

I laughed and looked at Aveline before I sighed, “Aveline has renounced the dark path and I am taking her into the Green Heart to your people.”

They looked at her and one took a step closer before moving the edge of her cloak to see the long knife, “I recognize those.”

I smiled, “her father’s and I gave them to her after I killed him.”

They stiffened and the one next to her cleared his throat, “are you sure?”

I snorted as I started walking, “I put a long knife through his throat and into his brain before I ripped his throat out.”

Aveline followed as I walked out and headed towards the forest. The way narrowed as the trees closed in on the road. I glanced at her, “sorry.”

She glanced at me and smiled, “I wish I could have killed him.”

I reached for her hand and gave it a squeeze before letting go, “lets see if you can find a few birds for our supper.”

She laughed and glanced at me, “a challenge?”

I grinned, “you have won the last thirty.”

She looked around before shouldering her bow. It was a couple of days later and we were under thick drooping branches of an evergreen tree. I had started the fire to cook our dinner when I heard baying. I glanced around as I reached for my bow, “get your bow.”

I moved out and away from the tree as I watched the forest around us. I nocked an arrow as Aveline joined me and barely a moment later a worg howled and another burst out of a bush. I put my arrow through its chest and then orcs and worgs were pouring out and rushing towards us. Worgs surged ahead and died as our arrows met them.

Time slowed as I emptied my quiver before tossing my bow and reaching for Reaper. I brought it around and down into the neck of a leaping worg, “REAPER!”

There was a shock wave that flowed out and into the rushing orcs as I took the head of the beast. I brought the sword back and up to rip through the throat of another worg. I stepped into the pattern as Aveline pulled her two short swords and followed. I almost cut an orc in half and took the arm from another as I turned and moved to the left.

Aveline went right and killed two as she flowed like water through the orcs. I slashed under the arm of another orc and the blade came out the far shoulder in a shower of blood and gore as I spun. I stabbed into the head of a worg and twisted as I began to moving to the right. Aveline slipped behind and past me a few moments later.

She killed the last worg and the orc rider as a horn blew and arrows slashed through the air and into the orcs. I cut open one and turned to lunge and impale another attacking Aveline. She slid aside as one sword absently flicked out to cut the orc’s throat. The orcs turned to flee as more arrows slashed into them.

I looked around to see the bloody battlefield and the fleeing orcs before I knelt and began cleaning my sword. A couple of dozen of elves ran out of the trees to chase after the orcs. Another group walked out and started towards us. I checked my sword, “you okay?”

Aveline nodded as she finished cleaning her swords. I stood and rolled the sword over and around my wrist before bring it up and over my shoulder. I slipped it into the sheath and turned and moved to the closest worg. I pulled a folding knife from a slit pocket and snapped it open as I knelt.

An elf cleared his throat and I glanced at him before starting to skin the worg, “yes?”

He coughed, “we were worried you would not leave any orcs for us.”

I glanced at him as Aveline joined me and began helping, “your help was welcome.”

He gestured, “what are you doing?”

I went back to skinning the worg, “skinning it.”

I squatted, “why?”

I looked at him and raised an eyebrow and he blushed, “never mind.”

He looked at Aveline, “why have you and this... dark sister come to the Green Heart?”

I shifted and gestured to Aveline before rolling the worg onto its other side, “she renounced the dark path.”

He was quiet as we finished and rolled up the hide. I gestured to Aveline, “our supper has probably burned.”

She turned, “I will find our bows and salvage what I can.”

I watched her head towards the trees and moved to the next worg. The elf followed and began to help, “what is your name human?”

I glanced at him, “the other rangers call me Blade.”

He looked at me and then laughed, “Gilbert’s kite flyer.”

I smiled, “they were fun.”

It took an hour with the other elves helping skin the worgs. Aveline had managed to save our dinner and the elves not only returned our arrows but traveled with us. It was another week before we walked into the strange and beautiful forest city in the center of the Green Heart. The two dozen worg hides had been cleaned and tanned along the way.

I grinned when I saw Gilbert with a tall slim elf lady. I let the rope go for the sled and strode forward, “Gilbert!”

He smiled, “Blade.”

I hugged him and stepped back to look at the woman, “how is your campaign going?”

He laughed as the woman grinned, “we are still negotiating.”

I bowed and turned as Aveline approached, “I need to see the king.”

Gilbert sighed, “he and the queen are waiting.”

He slapped my shoulder, “I will take the hides home. You will stay with us.”

I nodded and he gestured, “Silver will take you to see his majesty.”

I turned and went to the sled and grabbed my pack before following. Aveline had a set look and I caught her hand, “breathe and follow the steps.”

She glanced at me before squeezing my hand. There were a hundred elves lining the walls as we walked towards the two high backed seats. I stopped a few feet away and nodded, “I am Blade, a ranger from the north. I was in the Frost fortress and heard your dark brothers speaking. They talked of their king’s daughter renouncing the dark path and attempting to escape.”

I looked at Aveline as she looked down, “she was held prisoner and given to a clan leader. I killed the clan leader when I freed her and she helped bring a dozen dwarf prisoners south to freedom.”

I waited and the queen stood and took two steps and lifted Aveline’s face to look into her eyes. She smiled, “welcome home sister.”

Aveline took a deep breath before kneeling. I nodded and looked at the king as I removed my pack. I took the sword and sheath off of the side and unwound the wrappings from the hilt. I heard the murmurs as the hilt was revealed and I slid it out of the sheath. I glanced at the king before holding it out, “he will not need this anymore.”

He stood and walked to me and accepted the sword before putting the blade back in the sheath. I opened and reached into the pack and pulled out a wrapped cloth. I unfolded it to show the huge frost diamond choker. The king sighed and folded the cloth and took it and I hesitated. I pulled a pouch out of the pack and opened the pouch.

I poured the huge ruby into my hand and there was a gasp that was echoed. I looked at the queen when she pulled a cloth and covered the stone, “when I took it from the wall in the Frost Fortress it did something to me.”

She took the stone carefully, “this is one of the lost Elf Stones. This one is the Elf’s Heart. If you touched it with your bare hands...”

She looked at the king, “he was changed.”

The king nodded and she looked at me, “When we first came to this world we brought five ancient stones given to us at the beginning of time. They were Elf’s Heart, Elf’s mind, Elf’s Strength, Elf’s Vision and Elf’s Spirit. A ruby, sapphire, emerald, diamond and white jade.”

As she spoke I saw and felt a line going from the ruby and away in different directions.

Chapter five

Battle mounds

Two weeks later I gave Silver a kiss goodbye and slapped Gilbert’s shoulder, “good luck with the children.”

We left all the worg pelts with them to use on the floors. We walked north through the forest wearing long white rabbit fur cloaks. I was a little surprised Aveline was returning with me but I was not going to complain. She had walked the pattern in Green Heart everyday and seemed to have more poise and grace.

They had been a little surprised when I walked the pattern and stayed inside and with the ghostly image. During the two weeks we learned that not only were orcs raiding into the Green Heart but a few dark brother raiding parties. I had not told anyone that I could still see and feel the lines to the other elf stones.

I was following one now, the feel was green. It was a week before I paused and caught Aveline and looked around. I lifted my bow as I shrugged my pack off and Aveline hissed, “goblins.”

They came out of the bushes and rushed towards us as I put an arrow into one. They were short and a greenish color with large bat like ears. Their mouths were very large with sharp pointed teeth. The snow was not deep so they were moving rapidly. I killed four before I tossed my bow and pulled the two short swords.

I cut across to kill one as I stepped forward into the pattern. I was mostly flicking the blades out in stabs or piercing lunges to sink the swords into the almost mindless goblins. My steps went back and forth as Aveline moved behind me in a scissor like dance. I cut the throat of one while stabbing another in the stomach and ripping it out.

I moved towards Aveline as the last few seemed to crowd her. She whirled and her swords kept lashing out until the last goblin fell. I looked around before kneeling to clean my swords, “they were hunting.”

She nodded as she knelt to clean her swords. I stood and went to get my bow and pack, “we sleep in trees.”

She sighed, “to bad, you are a good bed warmer.”

I grinned as I put the pack on and started walking. She joined me and we moved carefully until we stopped for dinner and then we moved again to find a tree to climb and sleep in. During the night another large band of goblins went passed. I frowned as we watched, if goblins were in these numbers I hoped the elves would be aware and moving this way.

As the sun began to rise another band went past headed in the direction we would be going. We climbed down and followed in the wide path they left. We would be leaving the Green Heart later that day for the wide elven highlands. That was a place called the Battle mounds, during the first millennium a great battle had been fought here.

There had been so many dead they had been piled together in earth and stone mounds. Since that time other battles have been fought almost every millennium and the mounds had grown in number. We walked out of the forest and started across the ancient battle grounds before entering the snow swept area between the rows of mounds.

The ground was trampled and covered with thousands of tracks coming and going into the Green Heart. We were in the middle of the mounds when I heard the goblins. I looked around before shrugging out of my pack. There was nowhere to hide or run so I nocked an arrow and got ready. It was not long before the goblins appeared and yelled as they rushed towards us.

I put my arrows into the chest of those in the led and so did Aveline. I finally threw my bow and pulled the short swords as I stepped into the pattern. I cut across into the throat of one while stabbing another and ripping its guts out. I stepped and slashed or stabbed and flicked a sword out to slap an arrow away.

I continued to follow the pattern as three dark brothers joined the goblins. I knocked another arrow away and killed another goblin as two more bands attacked. The first dark brother to reach me blocked my sword and stabbed through the pattern and I barely knocked it down. The point went into my right thigh and I slashed across as I changed the pattern.

I lunged out but the dark brother brushed it aside and his other short sword slammed into my arm. If I had not been wearing star silver scale sleeves it would have taken my arm. I shifted as I growled and slashed across to the left and then the right before lunging. I was not following the pattern and the dark brother had managed to block the first two strikes.

He missed the lunge and the point of my right sword slipped into his neck before I ripped it out and to the side. I stepped into the pattern as I ignored the pain to cut the throats of two goblins before another of the other dark brothers attacked. Again I slashed and my sword was blocked before he stabbed, I knocked it away before slashing out.

I followed it with the other as I stepped out of the pattern and his eyes widened. I lunged with my right sword and the blade slipped into his gut before I ripped it out the side. I moved after the third who had been closing with Aveline. He turned to push his way out and screamed as the claws of a goblin ripped his stomach open and others pulled him down.

I slashed out and stabbed another goblin while stepping back into the pattern. The dark brothers had taught me a lesson and if I survived I would make a change. I slid around Aveline and began to circle her as she continued to move and kill the goblins. I sliced and stabbed as I became a counter to her and it became a living rhythm until the last dozen turned to flee.

I watched before kneeling and cleaning my weapons, “rabid things.”

She snorted as she looked at me, “one of the dark ones stabbed you.”

I nodded, “he moved in a counter to the pattern.”

She looked at me and frowned as I stood and walked through the bodies to my pack. I pulled out a shirt as I sat and began trying to stanch the flow of blood. Aveline knelt, “stubborn man.”

I grinned as she carefully cut my pants before wiping the blood away. She poured a tiny vial that stung on the wound and sprinkled it with a powder and then covered it with the sleeve of the shirt. She carefully cut the shirt into strips before securing the sleeve. She helped me up and I pulled my pack on before accepting my bow.

I limped towards the three dark brothers and broke their weapons and took the throwing spikes. I looked at Aveline before turning slightly and following the green line only I could see or feel. It went to the east side of the mounds and I finally stood looking at a larger and older mound. I slipped my pack off and set my bow and quiver with it.

I pulled out a tiny candle and lit it before moving to the heavy door. It took a lot to force it open before I stepped in. Aveline followed me and I could feel a presence. I handed the candle to her as I pulled my long knives. There was one narrow isle with stacks of bones and old bodies on each side. I was halfway down the isle when the cold wind began.

I shifted slightly but kept moving slowly. The huge rainbow serpent hissed as it began emerging out of the bones and bodies on the right side. I growled and moved even as it started to coil. I lunged and brought a knife up and the other down. Both plunged into the head and it whipped around as I tried to roll away and move back while pulling my short swords.

The Basilisk continued to thrash and wrap coils around itself. I stood and watched as it convulsed and slowly died. I took a deep breath and glanced at a white faced Aveline. We backed out and waited awhile before going back in. The creature was still as I approached and checked it. I used a short sword and hacked the head off before pulling the forty foot body out.

I returned and worked my long knives out of the head and tossed it out. I looked towards the dark end and began moving again. I stopped in front of two ancient chests before ignoring them and looking to the left. I knelt and started shifting bodies and bones. The leather pouch crumble under my touch and the large emerald sparkled with a life of its own.

It was as long as my hand and as thick as three fingers. I hesitated before reaching out to pick it up, I stiffened and tried to scream. The world seemed to stop as every muscle in my body tore and stretched and changed. It seemed to go on and on and then it a was over and I was holding the glowing stone in my hand as I knelt.

Aveline cleared her throat, “are you okay?”

I glanced at her before slipping the stone into my shirt. I turned to look at the ancient chests and knew if I tried to move them they would fall apart. I lifted the lid on the one on top and looked in at the glittering of gold and jewelry. I shook my head and moved to let Aveline look. We went out and returned with rags we made into pouches.

We emptied the top chest and I moved it before opening the bottom. This one was almost empty and only held a small folded chain and scale shirt that was star silver but shown brightly in the dark. It was almost as if it had a power of its own. I pulled it out and unfolded it before holding it up to Aveline, “it looks like it would fit.”

She nodded and glanced around before we moved everything out. I began skinning the Basilisk and rolled the skin when I finished. Aveline made a sled from a long shield she had found and we piled everything on it and that was when the elves arrived. There were a hundred of them and they appeared out of the forest.

They walked through the mounds as if they owned the world. Aveline had seen them first as I checked my leg wound. I straightened as several turned and headed towards us. One glanced towards the huge party of dead goblins through the mounds before looking at us. I smiled, “we are rangers.”

They grinned and I glanced at the sled before sighing, “but I need you to return something to your queen.”

I knelt and opened my pack to find my last undershirt. I was careful as I removed the emerald and wrapped it. I stood and held it out, “it is to be protected at all costs. Tell her majesty it is the Elf’s Strength.”

They gasped and one knelt and carefully slipped it into his coat and tunic. He looked at me and bowed when he stood, “I will protect it with my life.”
I glanced at the sun high in the sky before shouldering my pack, “we have a little time before we need to stop.”

Two elves moved forward and took arrows from their own quivers to replace the ones we had used. I took the cord and start pulling the shield as we start walking. We crossed the highlands and the wide highland pass before heading east. We went passed the ruined elf fortress of Glimmer a week later.

It was further back in the mountains with a winding road that led towards it. Nothing had traveled that road for many decades. The forest thickened as we continued moving, each afternoon we ate before moving to sleep in a tree or some other hidden spot. It was a month before we reached Blue Pass.

The snow was melting, making travel even more uncomfortable. Few people were out when we walked into the fortress and came home.

Chapter six

Return to Dawn

It was spring and new life was everywhere. I glanced at the three elves as I walked, they were here to make a trip to what their people called Dawn’s step. It was an ancient city at least two months to the far northeast where they had first stepped out onto this world. It was long abandoned and almost forgotten by man.

Aveline and I were going along with them. I watched as one lifted his sling for a fat grouse and a stone from Aveline’s struck it. I grinned as he shifted and grumbled while the others laughed softly. We had been gone from Blue Pass for a week and none had been able to best her with a sling.

I stopped grinning and held up a hand at the change in the forest around us. I lifted my bow and notched an arrow, a moment later the worg and rider leaped out from between trees. My arrow sank into the animals throat, another arrow took the orc in the chest as he lifted a horn. They crashed to the ground as I looked around before moving to them.

I pulled a large canine and then began to skin the worg. I rolled the hide as the elves looked around nervously. I smiled and opened a pouch and sprinkled a fine powder around the body. Aveline snorted and then smiled as I shouldered my pack and the rolled pelt. I started walking again and they fell in beside me.

One elf hissed, “did you have to take the hide?”

I smiled, “yes. They fear us now more then ever.”

They looked at each other before shaking their heads. It was the first worg we killed and after I cleaned the hide I cut it into a bed roll before tanning it and giving it to one of the elves. Two weeks later we all had new worg fur bed rolls and my collection of teeth was growing. I was tempted to stop when we went by Delf but we continued east.

A week after Delf we turned north to cross the plains. We followed a wide valley that spanned the plains where trees grew tall. Orcs patrolled the valley but did not linger. Once we reached the frost mountains we turned east once more. They were more like large rolling hills than mountains.

A couple of weeks and we came to the Green Marsh and the elves began to lead. The orcs and other foul ones would not venture into this marsh, when they did they never came out. We moved single file through ways that looked like no one could pass. Each evening we slept up in a tree and listened to strange sounds and sometimes screams.

There were lights that floated on the air and under the water. Sometimes when we walked I could see faces of elves in the water. The elves and even Aveline were silent as they walked. She had taken to holding me while we slept in the tress and more than once I heard her quiet sobs. When we walked out of the marsh it was into a forest of huge tall trees.

They stretched so high and spread out so far it was like I was as small as an insect. It felt as if eyes watched us as we walked through the trees but the watcher remained hidden. It was almost dark when we came to the first building. That was when they attacked, rushing out of cover silently with short curved swords.

They walked the pattern but it was different and I pulled my short swords. I slashed and blocked a lunging sword from another before taking the hand and then cutting his throat. They never made a sound while we fought and another took the fallen one’s place. I blocked and slipped swords away.

I slid my right sword around and across towards the other one as my left sank into him under his arm. He fell as I yanked my sword out and blocked a sword with my right and then the left. I parried and suddenly stepped through the pattern to slash open his stomach. I moved towards Aveline who was struggling to keep three from killing her.

One slipped his sword through and stabbed into her chest. She staggered back as I brought one sword down on the back of the neck of one and lunged into the side of another. They fell and the third spun towards me which left him open to Aveline. She took his arm and then stabbed into his neck before rippling her sword free.

I glanced at her, “you okay?”

She nodded and I turned to go help the others, “remember what I told you about the pattern and fighting through it.”

I lunged and stabbed one in the back as she attacked another. I twisted and blocked a sword and slid another aside before he stiffed as an elf plunged his sword into his back. I moved towards the last two fighting one elf and one turned and swung. I moved aside and deflected his sword before stabbing the point of my other sword through his arm and twisting.

He shifted and opened his mouth but there was no noise. I brought my other sword across and cut his throat before looking around to see them all dead or dying. I knelt to clean my weapons, “dark brothers?”

The elf close to me shook his head, “lost ones. After we arrived here they lost their sanity.”

I looked at him and then the others before I finished cleaning my weapons. I went to each and removed the sheathes and star silver short swords. We move camp inside the building and I pushed Aveline’s hands away while I checked her. The faintly glowing scale shirt had stopped the sword but she would have a bruise.

When I was satisfied she would be okay I turned to help with dinner, “insane people do not work together like they did.”

The elves looked at me and then each other before returning to the task of making the old building into someplace we could defend. I slept lightly with Aveline against my back. I was up before the sun and went outside to watch it rise. Aveline slipped up next to me and sighed, “it is strange but it is almost feels peaceful.”

I gestured to the bodies we had pulled away, “it is a false feeling.”

She nodded and leaned against me until the sun was up. It took two more days before we walked into the large empty city. The wide street was paved with cut stone that led to the other end where there was a huge circle of columns. Inside was grass and a single white stone. Halfway down on the left was a large smooth area with white foot prints.

It was the pattern but more, there were at least four times as many steps. I glanced at the elves as I removed my pack, “I will wait here.”

They looked away from the distant circle of columns and one nodded before they started walking. Aveline headed towards the pattern as she set her pack and bow down. She dropped her quiver and pulled her long knives as I smiled and began gathering her things and making camp to one side.

My second time through I was surprised when the pattern shifted. I used my long knives with the first and the short swords with the second. When I tried it with Reaper for a third time it changed again but Reaper was almost glowing and seemed to have a life of its own. We walked the pattern in the morning, afternoon and evening.

Each time I did it three times and Aveline twice. It was almost two weeks before things changed. We had explored other buildings and hunted each day. It was just before noon when I heard the worg howl. I snatched up my bow and moved into the street with Aveline. It was not long before the riderless worgs appeared and ran down the street towards us.

I put my first arrow into the leader and Aveline took the next. After that we killed those that were in the lead. When I ran out of arrows I tossed my bow and pulled Reaper before moving forward. I slashed up and through a worg’s neck as I slid to the left and brought the blade around and down into the neck of another as it lunged.

The pattern was clear as I followed the steps and swung the sword. Lost ones appeared and ran towards us as I spun and lunged to stab the sword in behind a worg’s shoulder. I twisted as I yanked the blade out and moved back and aside while slashing up and back to cut the throat of another worg.

As the last worg fell I moved to the right and sliced low and cut open a lost one’s stomach. I shifted steps in the pattern as I twisted and spun to take the arm of another. I continued towards Aveline and slipped the sword into the chest of one more. Aveline was moving smoothly as she constantly changed the pattern and the way she struck with her swords.

I twisted and slashed and moved aside before returning as I brought the sword back to kill another. Suddenly arrows from behind us began taking the lost ones. They kept coming but there was a familiar roar from the other end of the street where they had come from. I moved back as the last of the lost ones died and the huge form of a troll walked into sight.

It was like nothing I had ever seen. It had solid black skin and carried what looked like a huge bar in its right hand. I moved forward into a clear space and watched it come closer. It slowed and suddenly jabbed the bar towards me and I slid aside and brushed it away with Reaper. The shock and feel was unpleasant and I knew the bar held dark magic.

I shifted as I moved in and began to swing my sword, “REAPER!”

The troll started to move back and to the side but was to slow. It felt like I had just swung into a tree. Only the last foot of blade hit but it cut through the troll’s belly and came out as I moved to the side and turned. I brought the blade up and around as I stepped back in and swung down. This time I hit its arm at the wrist as it was straightening.

It was like hitting stone but the sword cut through the thick bone and I moved in. I stabbed up as the troll roared and the blade pushed through the cut I had made in the stomach. It went through the troll guts and up into the chest before I twisted and yanked it down and out. I moved back as the troll went to its knees before falling.

It grabbed at the stones with its one hand and writhed around. I looked around as the elves approached and then moved to the bar that was still glowing black. I glanced at a white faced Aveline, “cut me a piece of worg hide.”

I was thinking of the ancient forge we had found. It had four doors, one on each of the four sides. It also had a large bin of coal and was large enough to put the bar in completely. When Aveline returned my sword was clean and I carefully wrapped the piece of hide around the bar. I stood and started for the forge and felt stick to my stomach.
By the time I reached the forge I was more than ready to drop the bar. Instead I lifted it and pushed through one of the doors. I made sure it was all the way in before I moved to the coal bin. I worked quickly and Aveline helped me. Once the forge was ready I started it and closed the doors. We returned to the street and found the elves pulling the bodies towards the far end.

I nodded to Aveline and we began to help and retrieve our arrows. I also took a tooth from each worg and when we were down to the troll I hesitated before we used rope to drag it away. I glanced at Aveline as we walked back towards our camp, “we leave tomorrow.”

She nodded and the elves headed down the street towards the columns. I changed and went to check the forge to find a black shimmering cloud hovering around it. I made sure it did not touch me and opened one door and used star silver tongs to shift the bar and look at it. It was glowing white and I pulled it out and to a large block.

I used a heavy hammer and chisel to notch and then bend the bar before putting it back into the forge. I moved away and the dark cloud started to follow before finally fading away. I bent the bar into a useless piece of metal before leaving it in flowing water. Early the next morning we packed up and the elves joined us as we headed south out of the ancient ruins.

More than once I felt something watching and saw the darkness. When we reached the narrow Green Marsh to the south the dark cloud left. Two days later we crossed a shallow river that was green. Another two days and we came out onto the northern plains. Fall was just beginning when we walked back into Blue Pass.

Chapter seven

The Dark Keep

Another ranger came in as Aveline and I warmed ourselves beside the fire. Josiah squatted and held out his hands, “it looks like the orcs are returning to the Dark Keep.”

Aveline looked at him as I thought about his words. Dark Keep had been built before the first millennium, even before the dark brothers split with their cousins. The dark brothers seldom used it now and it was almost in ruins. I looked at Aveline and sighed, “I think we are going for a long walk.”

She nodded, “the dark brothers will not allow them to stay in the keep.”

I was also thinking of following one of the lines to an elf stone since it went in that direction. I stood and turned to head towards the kitchen to speak with the cook. When we walked out into the pass we were wearing worg skin clothing and carrying packs. We moved easily over the hard crust of the snow and before we left the pass we were back into a routine.

There were fewer patrols on the plains as we crossed and headed west. When we passed the Frost fortress it was almost deserted. We walked using hidden game trails and slept together each night for warmth. Almost two months after we set out I looked into the distance at the elven made mountain that was the Dark Keep.

We turned to head north and around to avoid most of the patrols. A major river ran into and through it from the north and I had an idea to use it since it was frozen. There were several orc patrols we avoided each day and watched more each night. What drew my attention was the dark brothers that snuck past.

They were in large groups and they seemed to avoid the orc patrols too. There was a gap above the frozen river as it went into the mountain. We slipped in during the mid morning and moved deeper before pulling out a chemical lantern. It was a couple of hours before we came to what had once been a dock.

There were a dozen skeletons of elven boats on the dock. As we moved off the frozen river the stench struck me. I looked around before pulling Reaper and handing my bow to Aveline. As we moved closer to the stairs we found the piles of bones. I looked around again and gestured to her to move back and follow.

The stairs turned to the right and began climbing and came to a landing with a wide doorway to the left. The right side of the landing went straight down to the frozen river below. I heard something from the doorway before there was a roar and a troll emerged. It stomped towards me as I shifted and moved away from Aveline.

It reached for me and I jabbed with the sword into his hand. It pulled it back and yelled as it stomped closer and I slid back and swung as it reached out again. This time the blade took the tip of one finger and it roared and rushed me. I slid aside but jabbed into its left knee. It swiped at me as it turned and took a step back.

It glanced back when the back half of the foot went over the edge of the landing. I lunged and stabbing into its belly and it jerked back. The blade did not penetrate but the troll waved its arms as its body leaned back and then it fell. I moved to look down as it hit the frozen river and blinked as the ice cracked and broke.

The troll tried to grab at the edge of the broken ice but missed and vanish in the water below. I looked at Aveline as she came to look down, “trolls do not swim very well.”

She smiled, “maybe he is going to hold his breath and walk out.”

I grinned as I turned and went to look into the room it had come from. In one corner was a pile of gold, silver and jewels. Bones were scattered around and piled everywhere. I turned to the left and saw another set of stairs heading up. I gestured to Aveline and took my bow back after wiping my sword and putting it away.

We followed the stairs up a long way as they twisted back and forth. The thick door we came to was barred on the other side. We could see through several wide cracks in the door and I pulled a long knife. I shouldered my bow and slipped the knife blade through close to one side. I tried to lift the bar but it did not move.

Aveline gestured, “try to slid it.”

I nodded and went back to work. It moved a little so I kept it up and finally we saw the end. I grinned as I moved towards the rusty hinges and put the knife blade through another crack. It took a long time before the wooden bar tilted and fell. I winced at the sound it made and we slowly pulled and forced the door open.

We looked in and saw a dark hallway in what had been a large dungeon. We slipped in and started moving and peering into empty cells. There were skeletons in almost every cell, most were human. The huge dungeon had more than one level and when we went up I glanced at Aveline.

There were sounds of orcs and I moved down the corridor and glanced into a cell. Three orcs were eating a fourth and I pulled back. I pulled my short swords before moving around the corner and though the open cell door. I stabbed through the neck of one orc and cut another’s throat before lunging to killed the last with a stab down into its chest.

I moved back as they spasmed and died and cleaned my swords. When we went to the next cell there was more orcs feeding and Aveline pulled her swords before we both moved in. We moved back and forth down the hall, sometimes moving into cells across from each other. By the time we reached the stairs almost fifty orcs were dead behind us.

This time we found an open door at the top of the stairs. There was a wide hallway beyond as I peeked out. We slipped out and moved silently towards the center area of the Keep. I was still trying to follow the line to the elf stone. We climbed another set of stairs and went past what had once been a huge throne room.

Orcs were camped in it and the throne had been replaced with one of bone. That was when the screams began and I glanced at Aveline before moving quickly. I pulled her around a corner and down to a door. It was locked and I frowned since orcs would not lock a door. I used a knife between the frame to work the bolt back into the door before pulling it open.

Aveline pushed me in and shut the door as we heard more fighting. We were in an anti room and I moved to the other door as she made sure the outer door was locked again. It took a few minutes to move the locking latch back before I pulled the door open. I stepping into a large room much like the one behind the throne room at Frost fortress.

A chest of gems was open on the rear desk and the tapestry around the room was in tatters. I looked at the back desk again before looking at the far wall. Just above eye level was a bright glittering orb. I walked to it and was almost afraid of what would happen. I reached up with both hands and pulled it from the small niche it was in.

It flared and I stiffened as stabbing pain lanced into and through my eyes. The world went dark and it felt like my eyes were being torn out and then stretched and shoved back in. I went to my knees as light and sight returned. It was different, sharper with more detail. Aveline touched me, “are you okay?”

I slipped my pack off and tucked the Elf’s Sight into my shirt. I moved to the chest of gems and made a large pouch before filling it. The screams and sounds of fighting drew closer to the throne room door and Aveline made a pouch and added more gems. There was a loud bang and the room shook.

I pulled Aveline up and we put our packs on. I moved to the throne room door and looked through a crack. I glanced at Aveline, “a giant and it looks pissed.”

She smiled, “how can you tell?”

I jerked back and away from the door as an orc was slammed into it, “it is ripping the orcs apart and using them to beat others to death.”

I moved to the other door and unlocked it before slipping out. I listened at the other door before pulling my short swords and opening it. I stabbed a dark brother as he spun and slashed out to the side to cut another’s throat. I went right as Aveline joined me and stepped into the pattern as I sliced the gut of an orc open.

I slid to the left as Aveline went right and stabbed one of her swords into the side of another orc. We left the hallway behind us littered with dead as we fought back towards the dungeon. The few dark brothers were fighting and killing orcs. We had just reached the dungeon door when the huge giant appeared.

He was throwing orcs and beating others with a dead one as he lumbered down the hall. I pushed Aveline in the door and stabbed an orc before slamming the door. I turned and followed her down as the door shook. Aveline stabbed an orc as she stepped off the stairs and I moved around her to lead the way.

I took an orc’s arm as it thrust an old rusty sword at me and then cut his stomach open before I continued to move. I glanced back as the door burst in and stuck both swords into an orc as the rest fled. I pulled my bow off as the giant bellowed and ducked to come through the door. I nocked an arrow and aimed before releasing as I pulled another.

The first hit his head and he looked up just as I fired again. This one struck his left eye and vanished as I pulled a third. The giant fell and began to spasm and jerk and I hesitated before replacing the arrow in the quiver and shouldering my bow. I pulled out both my swords and Aveline chuckled as we headed down the empty cell hallway.

We reached the other stairway and started down and there was no sign of orcs. After we went through the thick door on that level I closed it. When we reached the room the troll had been in Aveline caught my arm, “we can take the treasure.”

I looked at it and snorted but she was already moving. She used large pieces of rotten cloth to make bags and packs. We pulled everything out and down to the dock where I was ready to leave it. She grinned and moved to the boat ruins and returned with boards and ribs. She pulled elven rope from her pack and began putting everything together.

An hour and she had a sled with two runners and a small platform large enough for the treasure and our packs. I moved it to the river and we loaded it before I used rope from my pack and started pulling the sled up river the way we had come in. After we came out Aveline led us away using low ground and cover.

We went east and then straight south across the plains. This time there were few patrols as the orcs that survived the dark brothers fled. We were across the north plains and heading towards the elven highlands when we saw the patrol. Aveline hissed and we squatted behind a large bush but I grinned a moment later and stood, “Gilbert!”

The elves spun and lifted bows before one laughed as he strode towards us, “what are you doing here?”

I laughed, “Giant hunting in the Dark Keep.”

He caught me in a hug before pushing me back and looking into my eyes, “what... something happened to you.”

I frowned and glanced at the others as they walked closer, “you are returning to the highlands?”

He nodded as the others stopped, “we were hunting the last of the goblins.”

I looked at Aveline, “did her majesty get the second stone?”

He glanced at the others and nodded and I pulled out the large diamond that I had wrapped in a rabbit skin. I held it out, “she needs this one. It is the Elf’s Sight.”

He sucked in a breath, “another?”

Aveline cleared her throat and I glanced at her and she gestured, “we need to go.”

Gilbert took the stone, “I will make sure she gets it.”

I slapped his shoulder, “you should be with your lady.”

He grinned, “she chased me out and said I was bothering her and the baby to much.”

The other elves laughed and looked around, “stay safe.”

I went to grab the rope and started pulling the sled as Aveline led us away. It was a long way back to Blue Pass and I was not surprised to find elves waiting when we got there.

Chapter eight

Wyvern

The three elves were constantly around and Aveline thought it was funny. They wanted to know how I found the elf stones and where the others were. Rumors were coming in about a dragon in the far west. It was a small party of dwarves that brought the real story. I had managed to get two very large dragon kites like the one I had used in Delf but twice as large.

I was sipping cider outside with Aveline while telling her how to control the kite. The dwarves were at another table beside us while they tried to talk the ranger commander into sending all the rangers to fight the wyvern that was sieging their mountain home to the far west and south.

It was beyond the elven forest of Green Heart and the elves would not send their armies to help. I finally looked at the commander, “want us to go look it over?”

The dwarves went quiet as he looked at me and then Aveline and smiled, “are you bored?”

Aveline snorted and I grinned, “since it is spring I would not mind a long trip.”

He chuckled, “okay but do not do anything dumb.”

Aveline stood as she laughed, “like pushing poor trolls into frozen rivers? Or killing giants that are reducing the number of orcs?”

Other rangers sitting around us laughed as I stood, “well the troll could have walked out.”

She laughed again as she headed into the tavern and up to our room, “not while breathing water.”

I grinned as I followed her, “you are jealous because you did not push him first.”

I had an idea on how to travel quickly and we packed light before carrying the two long bundles and our packs to the Keep and up into the tall tower. We put the two kites together and I shouldered my bow after binding the arrows in my quiver. I secured the pack to the upper center brace and looked at Aveline after fitting the body harness.

I stood holding the lower cross brace of the kite and angled it over the side of the tower. The wind caught it and I lifted slowly and moved my feet back and onto the rear brace. I lifted higher as Aveline watched and then grinned as she lifted her kite and moved to the edge. A minute and she was slowly rising beside me and I turned to move away and go higher.

It was strange because unlike the last time I could see the shimmer in the air where the warmer air pushed up. I finally turned and began soaring and headed south out of the pass and began to go higher. It was still early as Aveline followed and we turned to go west along the mountains.

A couple of hours later I descended and landed on a high ridge so we could stretch and take a break. In the two hours we had come more than a day on foot. We landed before it got dark and killed a couple of rabbits for dinner. I smiled as I laid back that night, the thrill of soaring like a bird in my head when I fell asleep.

A week later I saw the ruins of Glimmer and turned to head for it. I landed on one of the high walls and settled the kite to the wall before Aveline landed. I explored the ruins with her and told her about the stairs below in the troll cave. We camped in the ruins that night and left in the morning.
It was a couple of days before we reached the elven highlands and I was worried we might have to land and walk across. I did not have to worry, there was a wind that we rode all the way across in one long day. After we were across we had to turn south towards the mid plains. We had to land twice on the way across and barely managed to take off each time.

Once we reached the Quiet mountains we continued west. Two weeks and we saw Finagore, the dwarven city was beneath the mountain. I looked around before slowly going lower and around to land on a lower ridge. I moved away from the kite as Aveline followed me down. We walked to the crest and looked over and I used a distance glass.

I handed it to Aveline, “look at the plains out in front of the gates.”

She hissed when she saw the huge wyvern eating what looked like a horse. I looked around, “we will leave the kites here and go on foot.”

We collapsed the kites and hid them before shouldering our packs and starting down. The few large animals that we saw, like deer were extremely skittish and frightened easily. We stayed in thicker trees and brush as we went around the plains and started up a ridge onto Finagore. It was almost dark when we stepped off the narrow cliff ledge and slipped onto a balcony.

A dozen dwarf warriors spun when I led Aveline through the open door. I grinned, “the wyvern is still feeding.”

One dwarf growled as it stomped towards us, “who be you!”

I smiled as I waited for him, “Blade and my partner is Aveline. We are from the rangers.”

He stopped and glared up at me, “did you bring more?”

I shook my head, “we came to see if there was anything we could do.”

He snorted and spun, “useless then.”

I laughed as I strode after him, “we have a few ideas dwarf. Now is there any chance of a hot meal and a bath?”

They grumbled but led us out and down to a huge hall where hundreds of dwarves were eating. After that we had a nice long soak before meeting the tall dwarf king. Each clan had their own king and this one was both grumpy and rude. We were up early and left the way we had come in.

The wyvern was on one of the ridges digging at an opening. We managed to sneak up to within fifty paces and watched it carefully. I finally touched Aveline and we silently slipped back and away. Once we were a distance from the huge beast I stopped and looked back, “an arrow would never penetrate. Even if it did it would never go in far enough the kill.”

She nodded, “it would be to big to trap.”

I grinned, “we could blind it with arrows.”

She snorted, “it would still take weeks to die and wyverns tend to regenerate.”

I frowned and looked around, “we could keep putting arrows into its eyes.”
Aveline shook her head, “it is the best plan we have.”

The wyvern had abandoned its digging and flown back down to the edge of the plains. Two hours later we were watching it from bushes after hiding our packs. We had made a plan but like all plans things go wrong. The wyvern was ripping another animal apart and it was not because it was hungry.

It stopped and lifted its head and I pulled the string back on my bow. The snap of the string was not loud but its gaze went straight to me. The arrow hit and vanished into the eye and it roared and twisted before suddenly charging us much faster than we expected it to. Aveline released her arrow but it shattered when the wyvern closed the eyelid.

We spun and began running into the forest dodging trees to make the huge beast turn and slow. It worked better than we expected when it slammed into a tree and tumbled. We slipped away while it ripped everything up around it and continued to roar and bellow. Several minutes later it was in the air above us and searching.

When it screamed and dove we spilt up as it hit the trees and crashed through. I caught up to Aveline a few minutes later as the wyvern searched behind us. When we heard it in the air again we used a couple of large trees to keep it from seeing us. Several hours later it returned to the plains and we sat to relax and catch our breath.

We finally stood and began stalking back towards the plains and the wyvern. We watched from hiding and could tell it was still watching and waiting. It was starting to get dark when it surged towards us. I aimed towards its remaining eye with Aveline and fired. She fired a moment later and I watched as I started to turn.

The wyvern closed its eyelid and my arrow hit it and bounced away and it opened its eye. Aveline’s arrow vanished into it remaining eye and it roared and twisted. It crashed to the ground and rolled as it bellowed and thrashed around. We turned and started moving towards where we had left our packs.

We were shouldering the packs when we heard the beast go quiet. I looked at Aveline before looking in the direction we had come from. We could hear the wyvern moving through the forest, it was hitting trees and crashing through brush. I followed the sound as the last light began to fade.

I straightened, “it is following our scent.”

Aveline nodded and I turned and started trotting. She followed as I led her into the forest, each time we stopped and listened we could still hear it behind us. I tried sprinkling demon powder over our trail but the wyvern was not even bothered. We kept moving all night and as the sun came up we were climbing a shoulder of Finagore.

We had crisscrossed back and forth as we climbed and stood looking down from a small cliff. Our back trail was below and we could hear the wyvern coming. It came out of some brush and stopped to twist its head to listen and that was when I saw it in the morning light. At the base of the skull where it met the neck there was a fresh cut.

It looked as if it had thrashed around and manage to rip or cut itself. I held my bow out to Aveline as I shrugged out of my pack. She hissed but took the bow while I set my pack down and pulled Reaper. The back of the wyvern would pass a dozen paces below us so I had to time my leap. It started moving again with it nose close to the ground as it followed our scent.

As it went past I jumped and whispered, “Reaper do not fail me.”

I spread out and shoved the sword into the cut just before I hit. It was a jarring impact but the sword slammed through the hide and then the spine. I rolled right and yanked the blade that way to sever the spinel cord as the huge wyvern collapsed. I rolled the other way as I yanked the sword up and tried to pull it out.

I rolled off and fell but the sword was free and still in my hand. I twisted and landed on my feet but went over backwards. I rolled before I came to my feet facing the wyvern as it spasmed and thrashed around. I waited and then looked up the cliff to see Aveline staring at me. I grinned and yelled, “bring my pack!”

It took her several minutes to climb back down and the wyvern was still twitching. I took my pack and dug into it before pulling out a slim saw blade, “this may take awhile.”

She shook her head, “you are crazy.”

I moved to the wyvern’s neck, “I saw the cut in the skin at the back of its head. It was a chance and I did not have a lot of time to explain.”

She took her pack off, “and what are you doing now?”

I started using the saw and slowly cutting back and forth, “I hope it is dead but if I cut the head off I know it will be.”

She laughed as she took the saw and pushed me towards a large rock, “sit. You are shaking to much to cut in a straight line.”

It took three hours to cut the head off and we were both sore, bruised and covered in blood and gore. Several hours later we walked up to the massive main door into Finagore. I pounded on it for a half hour before a small side door was opened. A dwarf peeked out with a lantern, “go away.”

I shook my head, “the wyvern is dead. Open the damn doors.”

He looked at us for several moments, “dead?”

I sighed, “we need several baths and a night’s rest.”

He disappeared and a minute later the huge doors began to open. It took six baths to remove the smell of wyvern blood. We left the next morning with our packs full of gifts. When we reached the place we had hidden the kites Aveline sighed and stretched, “this part I like.”

I grinned as we began putting the kites together for the trip back.

Chapter nine

Scarlet Mountain

It was later summer and we were headed east, far to the east. We were not going north into the plains, we were headed all the way to Red Pass and possibly Scarlet mountain. They were having a lot of orcs raiding out of the mountain and the rangers in the Red Pass had sent word. There were eight of us going but Aveline and I were not going to stay.

Scarlet mountain had once been a dwarf city that had fallen. The two month trip had us encountering orcs many times but with eight of us they died quickly each time. The closer we came to Red Pass the more frequently we fought orcs. None of the outlying farms or settlements had people living in them.

People stared when we walked through the snowy fields closest to the fortress blocking the northern pass. The few rangers looked tired and worn as we stopped. We sat and listened as they talked and I looked at Aveline. She smiled, “we are going into the Scarlet mountain.”

The others looked at us as I nodded, “someone is sending them out and I would bet they are coming all the way through the mountain from the north plains.”

The other rangers looked at each other and I grinned, “perhaps a few ambushes on those leaving the mountain would help.”

They laughed and began talking as I sat thinking. I could feel the pull on another elf stone, this one blue so it was the Elf’s Mind. It was a couple of hours later and we were eating when a dozen dwarves came in. They looked around before crossing to Aveline and I. We were eating alone in a semi dark corner and I glanced at the dwarves as they walked up.

One cleared his throat, “you are going into the mountain?”

I nodded and he gestured, “we will go with you.”

I looked at Aveline and she smiled and nodded, “perhaps you would know how to seal the northern door.”

The dwarf nodded, “aye, all of them.”

I looked at the others, “you take orders from us. No going off on your own.”

They looked at each other before accepting and I nodded, “return here at first light.”

After they left I looked at Aveline, “think we could use them to pick off the orcs and reduce the numbers to something manageable?”

She grinned, “yeah.”

We left our bows in the ranger armory that night and were waiting with light packs in the morning. We met the dwarves outside at the hint of dawn. They were carrying twin axes in their belts with what looked like small repeating crossbows. Scarlet mountain was a week away and I started off by walking into the brush.

We heard orcs and several groups went past but none came close. When Scarlet mountain began to loom over us one of the dwarves led us away from the main doors. We climbed a ridge and then walked out on a narrow ledge. It went around a corner with a sheer drop and then we were walking into a sheltered area like a porch.

I did not see the door until one touched the stone wall and drew a rune. A stone door appeared and I pulled my short swords and nodded for him to open it. The room beyond was empty and I waited as the door was closed and sealed. I let one of the dwarves lead and I followed as another held a small black chemical lantern.

We were going all the way to the north door using side passages. The first group of orcs came an hour after we entered. We heard them before we reached the room they were in. A glance showed a dozen and I nodded before we moved suddenly. I threw a spike that struck an orc in the throat.

Aveline was following me and threw another spike and then it was the dwarves with crossbows. Six filled the door and knelt as the other six stood behind them. By the time I had thrown the second spike all the orcs were down and dying. I pulled a long knife as I walked into the room and made sure the orcs were dead.

I pulled them into another dark room and we left after cleaning our weapons. We killed a dozen groups before the dwarves led us up a level and into a room. We ate dried rations and I slept with Aveline leaning against me. Our first ambush came the next morning. We were moving through a wide hallway when Aveline touched my shoulder, “someone comes this way.”

I stopped and the dwarves looked around. I pointed to four wide doorways on each side of the hall. We split up and hid in the rooms and waited. There had to be at least fifty orcs in the group and I waited until the leader was between two doorways. I threw a spike and then another and another. Aveline was throwing spikes and the dwarves were firing their crossbows.

After the third spike I pulled my short swords and stepped out only to look around as the last ones fell. I moved through them and made sure they were all dead. We removed bolts and spikes and pulled them into a room before continuing. By the time we were ready to stop and rest we had ambushed two more large groups and another four in rooms.

If we had fought all of the orcs together we would be dead but this way we had a chance. The next morning started with an ambush and then we were peeking down into the huge entrance room for the north door. There were easily a couple of hundred orcs moving around. I watched how they moved and whispered to Aveline, “watch the south corners.”

She nodded and several minutes later grinned, “we could take them as they go to the bathroom.”

I nodded, “as long as we do it quick and quiet.”

I pointed to one orc in the center of the room, “look at that one.”

She hissed, “it is wearing star silver armor and carrying an elven sword.”

I glanced at the dwarves before gesturing as I moved back. Six went with Aveline to the west and six went with me to the east. There was a dark hallway beside where the orc were relieving themselves. I waited for one and moved out and behind it. I used my dagger and stabbed up into the back of the neck.

It dropped and I bent to grab it and pull it after me and into the dark hallway. I watched as a dwarf followed another orc a couple of minutes later and he brought an axe down on its head. When he pulled it into the dark hallway he made sure it was dead before stacking it with the first. Six hours later a large party of orcs came in the door.
Half of those in the hall went with them when they left. It was another couple of hours before I touched a dwarf, “I think we can take them now.”

He moved out and across to the far corner as we stalked closer to the orcs. We stopped behind three pillars to wait for Aveline and the other dwarves. Once they we even with us I pulled a couple of spikes and turned to move out from behind the pillar. My first spike caught an orc only a few paces away.

The dwarves began firing and I threw another spike. The orc wearing the armor rushed towards the dwarves and I pulled my short swords as I stepped into the pattern and moved to intercept it. I slid his sword aside when he swung and turned as my right sword stabbed past his face. He shifted and pulled his sword back to swing again.

I slid in as I pulled the sword back and cut his throat. He jerked and swung as I moved to the side and brought my left sword over his arm and through his mouth. I yanked it back as he fell and moved towards the few orcs screaming on the floor. The dwarves ran to the huge doors and two began moving centuries of dirt that kept the doors from closing.

I stripped the orc with the armor and took the sword. Aveline and I stood watch as slowly the doors were closed. The boom echoed loudly and then one dwarf did something and the doors vanished and it looked like a stone wall stood in its place. We moved to the dark east hallway and used the strange black chemical lantern.

We went to each and every door out of the north side of the mountain and the dwarves sealed it. As we moved back to the south we followed the main halls closely. We ambushed several small parties of orcs and always pulled the bodies into dark places. The pull of the elf stone seemed to tug at me the closer we came to the center hall.

When we first looked out and into it we saw hundreds of orcs in make shift camps. What drew my eye was the huge pile of treasure behind the throne and the dozen orcs in star silver armor. I glanced at Aveline, “we work around the edges. A day or two and then we need to slip out to resupply.”

She nodded and we headed down to the hall level. We used the shadows like at the north entrance hall and caught those that moved away from the others. The first orc in chain armor was later and I came out of the dark shadows to follow. I did not bother with knives as I came closer and reached out to twist and snap its neck.

I pulled it into the darkness and stripped it of the star silver armor and sword. An hour later the orcs around the throne began yelling and the others stirred and broke into groups. They started to head for the side hallways and tunnels and we moved to the side as one came our way. There were the eleven armored orcs remaining, I grinned at the dwarves as I whispered a plan.

We moved closer and Aveline and I slipped around to approach from behind them. Once we were in position the dwarves suddenly fired and bolts streaked out and into the face of each orc. We moved forward quickly as they went down and made sure they were dead before we stripped them.

I turned when we were done and moved towards the treasure. The pull of the elf stone was strong and I followed it to a thick stone chest. I struggled to open it and shift the gold coins and gems before seeing the large round multi faceted sapphire. I glanced at Aveline and the others as they moved the bodies and reached for the stone.

When my hand touched it was like my mind expanded and shrank. Tearing, stabbing pain that felt like my head was being ripped open tore at me. I blinked when the pain suddenly stopped and found myself kneeling. I tucked the stone into my shirt before filled a pouch with gold. I returned to the others and gestured back to the shadows.

We climbed using an almost hidden set of stairs before heading south. It was another day before we slipped out into a clear night. A week later we walked into Red Pass fortress. Some of the others were there and grinned when they saw us. After hot baths and a hot meal we talked to the others and the ambushes had taken a serious toll on the orcs.

I made arrangements for supplies and we went to bed early. It was snowing the next morning as we packed rations and left. The whole week it took us to return to the mountain it snowed. Once we sealed the door behind us we started moving to others and sealing them. The last was the south entrance hall.

There was easily three hundred in the hall when we began taking those that moved away. A day and those left were jumping at shadows since over half their numbers had vanished. They finally rushed out the doors and into the snowy night. We moved quickly to scrape and shovel the dirt away from the doors as we began to close them.

It was thirty minutes before the doors banged close. The one dwarf caressed them and they shifted until they looked like just another stone wall. We moved towards what had once been the throne room and ambushed a few groups of orcs. The closer we came the more I could feel something waiting.

When we reached it, there was maybe fifty orcs in the huge hall. What drew my attention was a huge dark shadow that seemed to move around the hall. We waited like before and started to take those that moved into the darkness. Half were left when the dark shadow struck. A dwarf killed an orc with a blow from an axe and the hall shook with a huge roar.

I drew Reaper and moved to stand between the dwarf and the shadow. I slashed as it struck and the blade seemed to hit something. There was a scream of rage and pain as I slid into darkness and lunged. I felt the shock of the sword hitting something and pulled back and slashed out. There was another scream and a huge figure appeared in front of me as I moved to the side.

A dark blade crashed down where I had been and I snapped Reaper down where the arm was. I felt the shock of hitting something as the dark blade started to rise and then it fell and I stepped and sliced across. Thousands of wiggling snake like maggots splashed out and onto the floor. I kept moving as the huge shadow monster staggered back with a roar of pain.

I lunged and stabbed up into the chest before spinning and dropping to a crouch as something half seen flashed over where my head had been. I cut out and across as I came to my feet and then brought the sword back and down. There were two shocks like I had hit something and suddenly the shadow monster was falling.

It shattered when it hit the floor and a huge mass of wiggling snakes took its place. Aveline was suddenly there throwing lantern oil and tossing a match. The floor wooshed and exploded in flame and there was a scream as the snakes were burned. I stepped back and looked for the orcs only to see them dead with bolts in them.

I used the sword blade to sweep any snakes or whatever they were into the flames. I glanced at the dwarves and they grinned as they moved forward to make sure the orcs were dead. We left the hall as soon as the fire died and returned to the south. When we returned to Red Pass the dwarves were already planing their return to the mountain.

We stayed another few weeks patrolling the south end of the pass. We left before the snow began to melt and headed back to Blue Pass and home.

Chapter ten

The king’s court

The start of summer brought word that the king wished a ranger at his court for the summer conclave. I looked at Aveline as I finished with the two large saddle bags and the large sleeping roll. She pet the horse and looked at me before climbing into the saddle. She was not comfortable riding a horse but neither was I.

I swung up and turned to start for the south gate. We were using horses because we needed to reach the king’s court quickly. If we had walked it would take at least a couple of months. Riding we could reach Killingham in a month. Once we were clear of the fortress we picked up the pace and the horses began trotting.

Even riding a horse Aveline had little trouble using her sling to kill our dinner. We bought new horses to use as spares three days later when we reached the walled town of Crossing. We did not see any orcs or bandits as we continued to south into King’s Pass. It was a very wide pass with a tall wall stretching all the way across it.

We rode into the fortress with everyone staring as if we were strange. We spent the night in the fortress tavern and after that we would reach a tavern each night. Since we had each brought a large pouch of gold coins we did not have to worry about money. Once past King’s Pass the way opened up with large farms and small towns.

The closer to Killingham the larger the towns and the more people stared. We rode into the huge city and climbed down to walk as we gawked at the people and buildings. The huge area we went to was on the other side of the city. There was a very large fortress with soldiers in fancy dress. When we reached the main gates a soldier walked out, “your business?”

I looked him over, “We are from the rangers in the north and we were asked to attend the summer conclave.”

He snorted as he looked at my clothes, “you look like a mercenary.”

I smiled, “and you look like a useless peacock.”

He stiffened before gesturing, “inside on the left is the stables. Use the servants entrance around back.”

I looked him over again, “tell you what, you let his majesty know we are returning to the north.”

I turned with Aveline and started away. I had seen a large inn with a stable yard and we stopped there. We carried everything up after we paid for the night. Aveline smiled as she collected a clean set of clothes and headed towards the baths. I sat outside the inn on a large raised porch and sipped cider as I watched the street and the people rushing around.

It was awhile before I saw the two elves walking with a soldier in a fancy set of clothes and a long colorful feather in his helmet. The elves glanced at me and slowed before looking at each other and climbing the steps to the porch. The soldier followed as they stopped beside my table.

One elf bowed, “I am Ashton and unless I am mistaken you are a ranger.”

I nodded and he gestured to the other chairs, “may we join you?”
I gestured and they sat and Ashton leaned towards me, “riders have been sent out to find and ask you to return to the conclave.”
I shrugged, “I am no man’s servant. That pompous ass on the gate wanted us to use the servants entrance.”

The soldier growled and I glanced at him before looking at Ashton, “you are here for the conclave?”

He nodded and turned to smile at the serving girl, “cider.”

He looked at me, “and bring word to the Green Heart.”

I sat back and sipped my cider before glancing around, “do know what the Elf’s Mind is?”

He straightened, “you are Blade.”

I smiled and nodded and he glanced around, “you found another stone?”

I glanced at the others, “it was in Scarlet mountain.”

The man sat up and hissed, “that is occupied by orcs.”

I grinned, “actually the dwarves have sealed the doors and most of the orcs have been killed and the rest are being hunted.”

The elves looked at each other as the man looked at them. I turned as Aveline walked out and grinned, “a record. I thought you would be soaking for another candle mark at least.”

She smiled as she joined me, “one candle mark was enough.”

She looked at the elves and nodded her head. They returned her nod and Ashton murmured, “lady Aveline.”

We sat and talked for a couple of hours before having dinner and retiring. We were up early and dressed and walked out to a messenger from the king. We broke our fast and walked to the Keep and the fancy soldiers were quick to let us pass. We were early and had time and went around to the large practice yard.

I grinned when I saw a set of footprints to one side. I looked at Aveline before I pulled my short swords and stepped into the pattern. Only I walked the whole pattern and she followed and when I finished six elves were watching. Ashton stepped forward, “you know the whole pattern?”

I smiled as I watched Aveline finish, “we learned at the Dawn’s Step.”

He straightened before bowing with the others. We walked it again but this time with the elves following. When we finished we walked into the Keep together and into the huge entrance hall. We were seated between the elves and a dozen dwarves. One stood as we approached and bowed to Aveline and I grinned when I recognized him.

The king started with talks of where trouble was and how many soldiers he was using. He looked at us, “Rangers?”
I stood, “yes?”

He gestured to all the nobles around the table, “we would like to know why we continue to have orcs and other foul creatures pushing and attacking our borders.”

I looked around, “you speak of armies guarding places. Just one of your armies is more than all the rangers combined. We face and kill foul ones on both sides of the north mountains, from the far west coast to the far east coast. You want to know why the foul ones continue to attack your borders? We can not be everywhere.”

He frowned as the nobles murmured and one leaned forward, “perhaps it is because you do not seek them out.”

I smiled, “do not seek them out? I have faced goblin, orcs, trolls, a giant and other creatures you only have nightmares about.”

I looked around at the fancy nobles, “I did not see you on the northern plains when only two of us faced a small army of worgs and orcs. I did not see you when we entered Frost fortress and killed the dark brother clan leader. I did not see you when we faced a wyvern. You were not with us when we went into Scarlet mountain to hunt orcs and kill the dark shadow that ruled.”

I shook my head, “that was only the things I have done. Rangers face foul ones alone or in pairs. We do not have armies to attack or defend.”

Another noble stood, “maybe if you used serviceable weapons and not those fancy ones...”

I growled as I leaned on the table, “fancy? You are a fool. My sword is called Reaper and that is what it is. I took it and the short swords after killing four trolls. I took the two long knives from the dead body of an orc commander.”

I touched the spikes, “the spikes are from the dead bodies of dark brothers.”

I looked around at the nobles, “if you are looking for excuses, look at each other.”

I straightened and gestured to Aveline, “you asked for rangers to point fingers at and blame. We have enough to do just to stay alive. Rangers go out everyday and many times they never return. You can piss in the wind for all we care.”

I spun and started for the door with Aveline beside me. Talking broke out and then there was shouting as we left. When we returned to the inn I was ready to leave but Aveline said to wait. We had a small lunch and I went into the courtyard. I stretched and began stepping and following the pattern.

I saw the elves and dwarves but continued to follow the pattern until I was finished. Like each time I always felt refreshed and stretched before turning to face the elves and dwarves. Ashton cleared his throat, “we wish to speak with you.”

I gestured to the inn, “perhaps over cold cider.”

He smiled as the others agreed and they followed me in and to the common room. We pulled and moved tables and I tossed the innkeeper a gold coin, “kept the cider coming and let me know if you need more.”

He grinned and turned to yell for the serving girls. I sat and Ashton cleared his throat, “since we are here we would like to find a way to help each other.”

I nodded, “I can tell you ways to help. The great valley between the King’s mountains and the north range needs to be patrolled...”

I glanced at the door as the king and several nobles entered, “I would say no more than a month out from your respected lands or Keeps. If need we can provide a ranger to led each patrol.”

The nobles sat and kept quiet as I continued, “the key is not to have a large force and to pick your fights. Use bows or like we did in Scarlet mountain the smaller dwarven repeating crossbows. Ambush the foul ones and keep moving. If you use a large force and try to defend they will just go around and not attack or gather and overwhelm you.”

I glanced at Aveline as she sat beside me, “use your wits. A normal arrow will not penetrate a troll deep enough to cause it real harm. If you know they are there try to use a trap or snare to hold them.”

I sat and took a drink as a dwarf stood, “we know Blade and Aveline well since they came to our aid and killed the wyvern at our mountain. If they have sealed the doors of Scarlet our people will return. He is right, small groups of dwarves with our crossbows send the foul ones running when they come close. If we patrol and ambush from a distance we should be able to kill all the foul ones.”

I sighed as I stood, “the valley has many ways to the north plains that have been left open. The Red and Blue pass are only two wider ways. The elves patrol the Highlands but there are trails they use.”

The king cleared his throat, “can we not block or seal those ways?”

I shook my head, “as fast as we could put up a fortress or Keep they would overwhelm any force. The best we could do would be to set up ambushes on the ways that we find. The rangers already do this but again one or two rangers is no match for a thousand foul ones.”

Ashton stood, “our people are not as many as we once were although a few have began a campaign to increase our numbers.”

He grinned at me as the other elves laughed. He sighed, “like the rangers we can provide guides but with the way open through the Highlands we have our cousins and other foul ones that come straight down from the plains.”

The king cleared his throat again, “so we have to patrol outside our lands?”

I saw the way the nobles looked at each other and shook my head, “is not the land between the King’s mountains and the north mountains already yours? Do you not tax the people that brave the foul ones?”

He blinked and then grinned, “yes.”

He looked at the sour faced nobles, “something I had forgotten.”

Aveline stood, “we can not and will not tell you how to protect your borders. The rangers scout the north plains and take the foul ones when we can. We also send rangers through the kingdom valley but according to the records that has never been our responsibility. There are six abandoned or destroyed elven fortresses in the northern mountain range. They could be used by men to patrol the valley.”

I looked at her and then grinned, “many of the ruins could be repaired with less chance of foul ones attacking.”

It was several hours before we broke up and I stretched as the elves spoke with Aveline. I followed the king and his nobles out to get fresh air. The dark cloaks I saw up and down the street made me hesitate, “your majesty?”
He turned from speaking to a noble and I moved quickly as the men started for us. I caught him and yanked him behind me as I pulled a short sword, “FOES!”

What had made me act was the glint of a naked sword blade. Dozens of men yelled and charged as I pulled my other short sword. I slid aside at the last moment and deflected a descending blade while slicing over it. The man fell back but another was moving to replace him. I stepped into the pattern and lashed out to take a hand wielding a sword and block another.

Suddenly the elves were there slashing with bright star silver swords and then the dwarves with their axes. More of the black cloaked men appeared as others fell. We formed a wall as we fought and killed the silent men. I slid aside suddenly as a long sword lunged into where I had been.

As I started to stab the man an arrow from an upper window slammed into his chest. More began taking the men and I deflected another sword and cut the man’s throat. I glanced around as the last few black cloaked men turned to flee. A couple of the nobles and one elf and one dwarf were down with wounds but luckily no one had been killed.

I knelt and used a black cloak to clean my weapons as I scanned the empty street. I stood and looked at the king, “I think you have enemies right here.”

He was grim but nodded before looking towards soldiers rushing towards us, “I think we will need to find one of them alive and question them.”

I turned one over and knelt to pull the hood of the cloak back. Ashton hissed and bent to yank a gold chain from around the throat of the dead man, “assassins from the Dark Men.”

The Dark Men were a cult that worshiped and followed the ways of the dark elves who gave them gold and weapons to cause strife and discord in the kingdoms. I stood and moved back, “if they are here in numbers they will try again and not just against the king.”

I looked at Ashton and then at the dwarves who nodded. The elves grinned and Ashton gestured towards the Keep, “perhaps it would be better if we met in the Keep.”

The king nodded as he watched the soldiers checking and pulling the dark cloaked men away. An hour and we were settling into a room in the Keep. It was cold and not as comfortable as the inn. I glanced at Aveline as I thought of the drainage tunnels under the other fortresses, “I think we should check out the Keep drainage system.”

She looked at me and then straightened before following. The first few entry spots had not been touched in a long time. We had Ashton and a couple of dwarves following when we looked into the Keep garden. The small crowd in one back corner turned and suddenly rushed towards us.

I pulled my short swords and moved out as Aveline and the others spread out by the wide door. I brushed a lunging sword aside with one sword while the other sliced over his reaching arm and cut his throat. I shoved him into the others as I moved to the side and deflected another sword. I rolled the blade around mine and threw it away as I lunged with the other.

I turned as I yanked it out of the man’s chest and stepped back while brushed two reaching swords away. I brought one sword around and down to take a hand as I stepped back. Arrows began raining down and into the men. More were still coming out of the drainage tunnels and more soldiers and people arrived to fight.

I sliced one man’s gut open while deflecting another sword. The crowd with Aveline and the others had pushed out from the door and were killing the men faster than they were coming out. I was finally in the clear with only a few dark men still fighting. I dropped my swords and pulled throwing spikes and started throwing them.

A minute later and it was quiet except for a few moans from the dying men. I knelt and began cleaning my swords before going to retrieve my spikes. We went to each opening into the drainage tunnels and sealed them.

It was three days before we rode out and headed back to Blue Pass. I had given the Elf’s Mind to Ashton to return to the Green Heart. A lot of changes were coming not that it was going to spread as far as Blue Pass or Red.

Chapter eleven

Under Siege

We had left the horses in Crossing and continued on foot. Summer was almost over even if it was still warm. We were a half day away from Blue Pass when the first large hunting party of orcs almost walked into us. We had dropped packs and were waiting with our bows. I think we caught them completely by surprise because we were able to empty our quivers.

I tossed my bow aside and pulled my short swords before moving to the left. Aveline was moving right as I slid an old rusted sword aside and used my other sword to slice open the orc’s belly. Three came at me at once as I tried to step back. I blocked two but the rusty sword the third swung slammed into my side.

I grunted as I brought my arm down to trap it and jabbed into the orc’s throat. I blocked another sword and parried a second before lunging to stab one. I yanked the blade out and kept moving as a sword slashed into my back and I stabbed into the last one in front of me. I spun and brushed another sword away before slashing across the throat of the last orc close to me.

I moved towards Aveline as she faced the last two. She cut one open and took the arm of the other. I arrived and cut its throat before I looked around. We knelt together and cleaned our weapons before going to pull arrows out and kill any orc still alive. We broke all the weapons and cleaned arrows before shouldering our packs.

There were signs of large orc hunting parties everywhere. We watched another party several hours later. It was going out from the empty and harvested fields that were around Blue Pass fortress. I had a bad feeling as we moved to the edge of the forest and looked out at the army of orcs camped around the fortress.

We moved back and I gestured to the east side of the pass. We moved around staying in the forest until we were directly to the east of the fortress. I headed towards a ridge and glanced around when I came to what looked like a rock wall. I took my pack off and held it and stepped into a niche and turned to edge around to the left into a narrow opening.

It turned back to the right and into a dark cave. I opened my pack and pulled out a small candle and lit it. I looked around and carried my pack to the back where a shelf had been carved into the rock. Aveline had followed and set her pack beside mine, “what are we going to do?”

I grinned as I pulled my dark cloak out and started for the opening, “kill orcs and break the siege.”

She snorted but followed with her cloak. After I blew the candle out I set it on a tiny ledge above my head in the niche. I listened before stepping out and headed towards the fields, “most of the orcs are going to be asleep. I want to try sneaking into one of the command tents and cutting a few throats.”

We moved through the forest to the edge of the fields before watching the orc camp. We moved to a dry watering ditch and slipped out and into the field and started crawling. When we reached the edge of the camp I stood slowly and started walking with my cloak around me. We reached the large central tent and I glanced around and pulled my long knives.

We could hear loud snoring from inside and looked at each other before ducking in. A dozen orcs were scattered around the tent and we split up. I stabbed into the first behind his ear and into his brain. It jerked and spasmed but did not make a lot of noise as it died. Less than two minutes and they were all dead.

I looked at Aveline and grinned as I moved the commander’s bed to one side. I began digging where it had been until I had a large enough hole. I moved the orc clan treasure chest before covering it with dirt and moving the bed back. I used a candle wick and lit it before we left. We moved north through the camp and into the next.

Again we entered the large central tent and killed all the orcs silently before burying their treasure. We were walking away when the first tent burst into flames. We were crawling through the fields towards the forest before the camps awoke and rushed to the burning tent. By the time we slipped into the forest the second was on fire and burning.

We moved all the way around to the north side and looked at better made tents. Aveline whispered in my ear, “dark brothers.”

I gestured to the standard and she shrugged, “Frost mountain.”

I nodded and stepped out and started walking. I walked up behind a dark brother between the tents watching the other camps and the burning tents. One hand went around to his chin and the other to the back of his head before I grabbed and twisted. His neck popped and he dropped to the ground and I looked around before pulling him behind a tent.

I peeked into one tent and gestured to Aveline who followed as I went in. I used short swords as I moved through the tent killing dark brothers with Aveline beside me. We slipped out and moved back to the forest. We moved back to the east and to the cave. We drank water and rested and I thought of other things we could do.

It was dark when we came out and headed back towards the fortress. We walked across the fields, the orcs were on the far side in ranks facing the fortress. The large command tent we entered had two guards. We killed them quietly as they looked towards the fortress and the other orcs. Inside I moved the bed and we dug a hole and put the clan treasure chest in it.

We buried it and spread the dirt before moving the bed back. Like before we set a fuse to start a fire before leaving. We moved through the camps to another command tent to repeat what we had done. As the orcs attacked the fortress we ended up in the dark brother camp. It was easy to slip up on the few left to guard their tents.

Unlike the orcs who carried their clan treasure the dark brothers only brought what they needed. We set a fuze burning in each tent before leaving. We were in the darkness at the back of the camps when the fires were noticed and the orcs broke off the attack. At first they were confused and those inside the walls killed a lot as they milled around.

They did not attack again during the night and we slipped away and across the fields. I knew the dark brothers would try to track and find us but we needed to eat. In the forest we set snares and traps. It was after the sun came up before we made our way back to the cave. We ate cold rations and slept for a few hours.

It was noon before we came out and headed back to the camp. The orcs had not learned, they only had a few guards and most of those were asleep. This time we headed towards the largest orc command tent. We were watching and before we reached the tent I pointed out several dark brothers.

They were watching as they hid among the smaller shelters. We split up and silently stalked them and killed them quietly with long knives. When it was clear we moved to the large tent and I snapped the neck of both guards. We peeked before entering the tent and moved to each orc.

A knife into the brain killed them quietly and then we buried the treasure before setting a fuze burning. We managed three tents before the first burst into flame and we headed for the forest. We had just reached it when the large party of dark brothers attacked. I pulled my short swords and stepped into the pattern.

I crossed in front of Aveline and sliced the belly of the first one open as I slid his blade away with my other sword. I continued to move as I deflected swords and stabbed another through the arm and twisted as I yanked the sword free. Aveline moved smoothly and had taken two brothers that had rushed in.

I moved back to the left and she crossed in front of me. I slashed the throat of a brother that was focused on her and blocked another’s sword before taking his hand. They had yelled when they first attacked and I was afraid the orcs would come. The orcs were yelling as they watched the three tents burn so none heard the dark brothers.

I killed another with a stab under his arm and into his heart as he turned to lunge towards Aveline. I moved back and crossed in front of her after she had killed two more and wounded two others. Only four remained and they were trying to escape but were to close. I blocked two swords as one fell with Aveline’s sword in his chest.

The other one facing her attacked since one of her swords had been pulled away. She pulled a long knife as she slid his sword aside and moved in to cut his throat. The two facing me spun to flee. I plunged a sword through a back and the other sword into the neck of the other. I looked around and knelt to clean my weapons.

Aveline retrieved her sword and cleaned her weapons. We took a few minutes to break weapons before leaving. I sprinkled demon pepper dust around as we carefully moved away from the cave. We went north through the pass and then across to the west side before going back to the south.

The camps on this side had not been touched and had guards out now. I was thinking of something different and we slipped into the camps and to the supplies before sprinkling demon pepper powder over everything.

After we returned to the forest we moved back to the dark brother camp. We watched for a couple of hours before I saw something that made me move. The leader of the dark brothers wore a frost diamond studded choker. I saw him walk to the area they were using as a bathroom. I moved quickly but quietly and went around and came up behind him.

He snarled when I approached and started to turn his head. I reached around and caught the chin as my other hand grabbed the back of his head. I twisted and his neck popped as it snapped and he dropped. I knelt and stripped the choker off and took the star silver sword he wore before breaking his other weapons.

I moved away and back to Aveline who grinned as we moved back into the forest and started around to the east. Before the sun set both the orcs and the dark brothers were fighting each other. Once it was dark we moved in and began killing orcs that strayed into the dark. We stalked the edges of the camp and made several complete circles.

We were to the north when I heard the worgs howling. I glanced at Aveline before moving to the trail and pulling Reaper. There had to be at least a couple of dozen in the pack that trotted up the trail. We were wearing dark cloaks and they were not expecting us to be enemy. As the first pair reached us I stepped into the pattern, “Reaper!”

I swung up and to the side and cut the throat of the first worg and turned to bring the blade down and through the neck of another. I moved into the pack and Aveline followed to kill the orcs I left alive. I stabbed into the huge chest of another worg as it lunged and yanked out the blade. I slashed to the side and into another worgs neck before moving the other way.
I plunged the sword through a worg neck and ripped it out and swung as I kept moving. The night around us seemed to move in slow motion as we killed worgs and orcs. I brought my blade around and down into the side of the last worg and twisted as I pulled it out. I slashed across into the orc’s throat that staggered to his feet.

I looked around at the bloody battlefield before looking at Aveline who looked calm as she knelt to clean her swords. I grinned as I knelt to clean mine and then stood and started towards the forest on the west side of the trail. Aveline joined me as we entered the darker shadows, “that was fun.”

I smiled and kept moving and began to head south. When the sun began to rise we were once more watching from behind bushes. The army was moving north in groups and small fights and battles continued to flare up. Once they were gone we went to retrieve our packs and weapons and walked back to the fortress.

It was several minutes of us banging on the south gate before it was opened. Samson snorted when we walked in, “I knew it was you.”

I tossed the dark brother choker and sword, “wake us in the morning.”

Chapter twelve

Soaring with eagles

I stretched with the pack on and glanced at Aveline as she sighed. I had not told her how we were traveling yet and grinned as I headed for the Keep. She looked at me and then grinned as we headed for the tower. I had checked the two huge dragon kites the night before so all we had to do was put them together.

We secured the packs and bows before moving to the edge of the tower. The late spring wind lifted us and I turned to head south. We were heading to the west, past the Highlands and Finagore to an area of thick forest and few people. No ranger had been that far in a decade and it was past time we paid it a visit.

Once out of the pass I turned to the west and Aveline moved up beside me. Our trip seemed to have the weather on our side. After we went past Finagore it was another couple of days before we reached the ancient forest. Very few men had ever ventured into the forest. Elves sometimes came and spent time but one good thing was most of the foul ones did not enter.

The huge forest bears or saber lions were uncanny in the way they stalked and killed them. There were many other beasts in the forest that would trap and kill if they were threatened. I glanced at Aveline as we circled the edge of the forest and then a giant eagle leaped into the air. I was worried it would attack but it beat its wings to go higher and then circled us.

Several minutes later it drifted closer to Aveline and I shifted and moved to get between them. It slid away but I stayed with Aveline and it came back. It turned its head to look at me and I could see how intelligent it was. It began shifting and turning as if to herd us and I hesitated before looking at Aveline and calling out, “it wants us to follow.”

She nodded as the huge eagle looked at me before screaming and nodding. We drifted over the forest and an hour later I saw the outcrop of rock sticking up above the trees. The eagle guided us around it as a dozen more eagles leaped into the air. Soon they were all around and forcing us down.

I let Aveline go first and she landed on the northern edge. I flared my kite as I settled beside her and she was already shedding the harness. I glanced around as one of the eagles landed not to far away. I climbed out of the harness and settled the kite to the ground before turning to walk towards the eagle.

It was easily taller and larger than me, even standing and I stopped when it shifted, “you want us here?”

It bobbed its head and turned to look towards the center of the outcropping where I saw several huge nests. I nodded and returned to my kite to get my pack and bow before collapsing the kite. Aveline walked with me and whispered, “the tales say the Sky Eagles are very smart.”

I glanced at her, “they have saved a ranger or two in the past.”

Another eagle on the first nest lifted a wing as if pointing the way and we kept going and climbed higher. We went past a few more nests until we reached the highest one where a huge female shifted as she stood. She moved away from a huge chick and I looked at it before removing my pack.

The baby had an arrow through a wing and another in its shoulder. Aveline slipped her pack off, “what are you going to do?”

I glanced at her as I pulled a soft rag out, “help.”

I gestured back the way we had come, “I need a fire and hot water.”

She nodded and turned to start searching. I looked at the female eagle, “we will need a rabbit.”

It bobbed its head and looked up before screaming and one in the sky above us answered. I moved into the nest and the baby cried out as it shifted. I knelt and gently lifted the wing to look at the arrow before folding it. I was careful as I pulled my folding knife and held the tip of the arrow. I cut into the arrow a couple of times before snapping it.

I shifted the baby as it cried out and pulled the arrow out. I lifted and extended the wing as I looked very close at the wound. I sighed and glanced at the mother as she leaned forward, “it did not hit bone or the tendon.”

I turned to pull out a cream the elves use to treat wounds and applied it before cutting my shirt into strips and binding the wing. I looked at the other arrow which was more serious and held the point as I cut it and broke it off. I checked the baby and rubbed the side of its head, “just a little more.”

I held its shoulder and pulled the arrow shaft out and tossed it away as the baby sagged. I turned as Aveline knelt beside me, “the water is almost hot.”

I nodded, “we need to keep it aware so the shock does not hurt it.”

She nodded as I moved out of the nest. Aveline had made a small fire and used our only pan to heat the water. I dipped the rag in the water before returning, “if one of the eagles does not bring a rabbit you will need to go hunting.”

She nodded again and I glanced at her, “be careful. The arrows were dark brother arrows.”

I turned to clean the entry and exit wounds. I used the cream on both wounds before looking at Aveline as she brought one of her shirts. I took it and carefully cut it and used it to wrapped the shoulder and other wing. I moved as the mother bent over to touch her baby and another eagle walked to the nest and dropped a rabbit.

Aveline took it and moved to the fire before cleaning it and cutting the meat up into tiny pieces. I kept talking and caressing the young eagle as it laid in the nest. Finally we had to filter the warm slightly cooked meat and dice it fine before trying to help it eat. I knew the baby needed the warmth to fight shock.

When we finished I looked at the mother, “she needs warmth and rest.”

She nodded and shifted as she moved onto the nest and over her baby. I moved out and to my pack before looking at another of the eagles, “where is the one that did this?”

It turned to look towards the north and I reached for my bow, “time to kill...”

The eagle lifted and stood and I looked at it. It lifted and opened a large foot and I looked up into its face, “you can carry me?”

It nodded and I looked at Aveline, “the bandages need to be checked in a few hours.”

She nodded and I checked my quiver before moving to the eagle. It was careful as it grabbed me and crouched before leaping into the air. I held my bow tight with one hand and one of the huge eagles clawed toes in the other. It flew higher and others joined us as it turned and started north. I watched the forest below and saw the smoke before we got close.
I pointed with my bow, “can you put me down there?”

I had to speak loud but the eagle must have heard because it tilted its wings and began dropping. As much time as I had spent flying the dragon kite it was like walking compared to running. The spot I picked was the site of an old fire so it was partially clear. Just before we reached the ground the eagle let me go and I dropped.

I twisted and landed in a crouch as the eagle beat its wings to fly back into the sky. I watched before checking myself and fixing the strap on my quiver. I pulled an arrow and started towards the smoke. I moved through the forest silently until I was looking at a large camp of dark brothers. I put the arrow away before hiding the bow.

I moved around and slipped into the camp and pulled my short swords. I waited and finally stepped into the pattern. I stabbed one brother in the spine as I slashed out and down into the back of another’s neck. I moved past them smoothly and turned to reach out and cut the throat of one that was turning towards me.

I stuck the other sword into a brother’s throat and ripped it out as he opened his mouth. The rest of the camp came alive but I was already in with them. I stepped and slashed and turned and stabbed and slid aside and cut. Some seemed to know the dance but not all the steps. I had killed more than half before they began running.

I moved through the camp and made sure those here were dead. I broke their weapons and threw their bows and arrows into the fire. I pulled their camp apart and finally put the fire out. I went to get my bow and turned to start back towards the distant ridge. It took a couple of hours and I managed to kill a couple of rabbits along the way.

When I climbed the ridge most of the eagles seemed to be on their nests. I set everything beside the small camp Aveline had made, “how is she?”

Aveline turned to look at the eagle with her baby tucked under a wing, “the wounds are closing and I applied more cream.”

I nodded and looked at the mother, “we will need to cut up another rabbit for her.”

She bowed her head and I turned and moved to start. Aveline had laid out our bedroll and started making our dinner. I had to dice the meat and finally moved to the nest. We checked the baby several times through the night and in the morning I changed the bandage. When I was done I stretched and looked at the mother, “we will return.”

I glanced at Aveline as I reached for my bow and quiver, “time to fly and see if we can find where those that escaped went.”

She smiled and followed as I returned to our kites. I did not expect most of the eagles to fly with us but they did. There was a light breeze that helped as I drifted over where the camp had been. One of the eagles screamed and I turned to follow it north. Several hours later we came to the northern edge of the forest.

There were more trees going north but the thick forest ended here. We were soaring high above so I saw the dark brothers easily. Only a dozen were there and they were moving slowly. I turned to the east and the eagles followed as I started going around and looking for a ridge ahead of our enemy.

I dropped down and Aveline followed as we drifted down to a ridge and I tilted the kite and set my feet down. We collapsed the kites and started making our way down and out. We kept an eye on the eagles soaring high above and I knew they were over the dark brothers. It was an hour before we were in front of them and waiting.

We were on a rise and they came over the southern side together in one group. Aveline waited until they reached the crest before firing. My arrow followed hers and struck another brother in the chest. There was a scream and one after another the eagles slashed across the crest. They each snatched a brother and began beating to go higher.

I killed another kneeling while nocking an arrow and Aveline killed one holding a bare sword. A minute later those taken were dropped by the eagles. We moved forward and checked the four we had killed before breaking weapons. We returned to the ridge and our kites before taking off.

Again the eagles joined us and we soared high above the forest as we returned to the nests. Each day we soared with the eagles for a few hours and watched the forest. Each afternoon we patrolled around the stony ridge and out into the forest. We met the bears and a saber lion who seemed to know we were not there to hunt their forest.

We stayed for two weeks and the baby was much stronger and recovering. I sighed early the morning of the last day as I finished packing. I looked at Aveline, “come with me.”

The whole time we had been here I had felt the strength on the line to the last elf stone. I followed it to the southern edge of what we now called the ridge rookery rock. There was a long finger that extended out and over a drop with an old nest. The sticks that made up the nest had long since gone white with age.

Three sides of the nest extended over the edge of the finger and I stepped into it carefully. Unless you knew what you were looking for you would never see it. I knelt and hesitated before reaching for the fist size stone. It was white like a cloud and when I touched it the world seemed to stop.

Everything around me changed and became almost ghostlike. There was a tearing pain in my whole body and I tried to scream as I saw an ghostly image of myself emerge. It turned to look at me and smile as it shimmered and stretched before sinking back into my body. I fell as the world returned to normal and lay face down while my whole body tingled.

Aveline was suddenly turning me over, “Blade?”

I smiled as I looked at her and realized I could still see the ghostly image inside her, “you are beautiful.”

She snorted and pulled me up, “you must have hit your head.”

I looked down at the milky white jade stone in my hand, “lets just say I had a change of spirit.”

She shook her head, “keep playing with those stones and the gods will punish you by giving you more.”

I grinned as I followed her and kept quiet about the new golden line that had appeared. The eagles soared a half day to the east before returning to their home as we continued. We had a breeze when we reached the Highlands and turned to head south and into the Green Heart.

Chapter thirteen

The river east

The world seemed brighter, even with the new fallen snow. We had returned to Blue Pass before leaving a few days later for Red Pass. The kingdoms to the south had begun sending patrols north of the King’s mountains and into the great valley. I glanced at Aveline when I heard the faint sound through the falling snow.

She nodded and gestured and I slipped my pack off as I pulled my short swords. We were only a day away from Red Pass but knew orcs or other foul creatures could be here. Two rangers walked out of the falling snow and stopped to look at Aveline and then me. One grinned as he let his sword go, “Blade and Aveline?”

She nodded and he gestured, “there is a large pine with drooping branches a few paces behind us.”

We picked up our packs and followed them back and under the tree where they had made a small camp. We set our packs down as they went back to starting a fire. We rolled out our bedroll and turned to add the two rabbits to the pot for dinner. I squatted across from the other two rangers, “how did you know we were coming?”

The two rangers were Brett and Josh and Brett snorted, “the elves brought relay stones.”

I blinked because they had not brought anything to Blue Pass before we left. Josh grinned, “they sent parties to each place so the stones would arrive around the same time.”

I nodded and went back to helping Aveline. We put the fire out after dinner and laid back in our sleeping furs. Brett shifted, “word is that the Serpent river has foul ones or bandits.”

I glanced back at Aveline as she hugged me for warmth, “no one has gone to check?”

Josh sighed, “We are just now getting kingdom patrols in the valley. The dwarves from Scarlet mountain have helped with patrols between us but further east there are still a lot of foul ones.”

Aveline sighed too, “they must be coming down through the coastal hills.”

I thought about the river most of the night and woke to silence. I moved out of the bedroll after shaking Aveline. We dressed quickly as the other two rangers rose. I waited before slipping out from under the branches and looked around. The snow had stopped falling and everything was white.

I nocked an arrow when I heard something moving through the snow. The stag that walked out was calm as it continued to browse. I turned and moved back into our camp with the others and Aveline smiled, “well that was refreshing.”

We packed up and followed the other two as we made our way to Red Pass. That night we slept in the ranger hall but I stayed awake to stare into the fire. Aveline came down after midnight and sat beside me, “what is it?”

I glanced at her, “the river.”

She nodded, “once long ago we used the river. We went from Motis down river to the elven city of Gossemer.”

I looked at her, “Motis was abandoned?”
She nodded, “and Gossemer is but a small town behind the old walls.”

I looked into the fire, “the river is freezing over.”

She snorted, “The tales say they used sleds with runners and sails in the winter.”

I shook my head, “sails in the river?”

Aveline rubbed my shoulder, “like a spinnaker.”

I looked at her and she smiled, “like a kite?”

I grinned, “that I understood.”

She stood and pulled me up, “come to bed and tomorrow we will leave and go to Motis.”

The temperature dropped during the night as it began to snow again. The two rangers that had met us, Brett and Josh decided to join us as we left. Motis was only two weeks to the east but we fought the cold and falling snow all the way and it took us almost three. The morning we reached the old fortress we saw orcs, lots of orcs.

They were trying to get into the fortress as we watched. Aveline hissed, “we need to go onto the river and under to get in.”

I looked at the snow covered river and was afraid it might not have a thick enough layer of ice. I looked at Brett and Josh and they nodded so I moved back and we slipped down onto the river. We stayed close to the bank until we reached the high walls and then went out and into the tunnel above the ice covered river.

Halfway through we came to a set of docks and climbed off the ice. There was a wide gate but I moved to the upriver side of the dock where a narrow drain came out of the fortress wall. This time it went straight into the collection tunnels and we came out in a snow covered courtyard.

We moved towards the gate carefully and climbed the stairs to look down at the small army of orcs. I set my pack down and glanced at the others as I nocked an arrow. The orcs were trying to burn the gate but it looked like the thick wood had turned to stone. I aimed at one orc that was yelling at the others and the arrow took it in the chest.

We started firing into the orcs and they milled around for several moments before they panicked. They started to run away but the snow had deep drifts that slowed them and they were to dumb to follow the single broken trail to the gate. We ran out of arrows before they reached safety. I looked at the others and turned to head into the fortress.

Like at Delf I found the armory intact and the storeroom still held supplies. Most of the supplies were not useable but the bundles of arrows were. I carried several back to the wall and found Aveline, Brett and Josh watching the orcs gathering just out of bow range.

They grinned and took the bundles and I leaned against the wall, “why after all these years are they trying to occupy the fortress?”

They shook their heads and Aveline gestured, “they will try again.”

I nodded, “we need to watch the drainage system. Sooner or later they will learn and come in that way.”
Brett nodded as he shifted away from the wall, “we can have the dwarves put a grate in place later or one of their doors.”

He started to move away and the orcs began moving through the snow. They tried four times to attack before quitting. It was three days before Brett left heading back to Scarlet mountain while Aveline and I found and prepared a sled we found. It was inside the river entrance doors.

It had two metal runners on what looked like a flat bottom boat, the sled was only a pace and a half wide. The kite like sail connected to the front with two strong elven cords. The third went to the back where a man stood. All three cords went through pulleys and could be adjusted. We put our packs on the sled and Aveline sat in the middle as I stood on the runners.

We were out in the middle of the frozen river and Aveline tossed the kite like sail into the air. The wind caught it and I let it out before it began to pull us and we started to move. The rear of the sled runners had two angled blades I could step on to turn and guide the sled. It was not long before we were almost flying down the river.

I tried to watch the sail, the sled, the river and the banks. Aveline laughed and glanced back, “just watch the sail and the river. I can watch the banks and let you know if I see anything.”

I nodded but it still was not easy. The river had a lot more bumps than I expected but the sled did not have a problem unless it was to follow the river and not the sail. Before an hour was up I had the hang of steering. I kept to the center of the river where the wind swept the ice clear of snow.

Every twenty leagues we went past tall carved pillars on both sides of the river. It was close to noon when we rounded a turn in the river and Aveline hissed, “the north shore has orcs.”

I glanced at them as we continued to move and they began charging onto the ice. I hissed and turned to stay close to the south bank. I heard the loud crack of breaking ice and cursed until the entire center shattered and the orcs dropped into the freezing water. Aveline laughed as more than a hundred orcs vanished.

The rest turned to flee only to have more of the ice break. We went past them swiftly, the sled bouncing a little over the few cracks that reached the south side of the river. Once past them I waited before moving back to the center of the river. Barely a league down the river we came to an army of orcs.

They were on both sides of the river and as we went straight between them they charged out and after us. Like before their weight and the vibrations of their feet on the ice caused it to break. More and more of the orc army went past but they still tried to attack or chase us. Then it happened, the ice shattered under the sled.

I was surprised at what happened but the kite sail continued to pull us down the river. The front of the sled tilted up because of my weight on the back which kept the runners up and clear of the water. It was several tense minutes before we hit the ice on the down river side and the sled came out of the water.

A minute later we were clear of the army and I glanced back to see half of them in the freezing water before we began going around a bend. Aveline grinned at me and then laughed as I glanced down at my wet feet and legs. By the time I stopped a few leagues down river my legs were very cold and starting to go numb.

We pulled the sled up onto the southern bank and while Aveline began to make camp I stripped and changed into my other pants. We made camp in tall bushes behind a boulder. I helped collect sticks and we started a fire next to the boulder. It took a little while for my legs to warm and then it grew dark.

I sighed as we put the fire out and slipped into the sleeping furs. Several times during the night we saw small groups of orcs passing on the river. We were up early and back on the river heading east. Gradually the river began to widen and I kept to the southern side. It was mid day when the river widened even more as it emptied into a lake.

I kept to the southern edge but Aveline hissed and pointed to orcs spread out on the northern edge. It was not long before we heard them yell and charge onto the frozen lake. I shook my head as I kept going, “the ice in the middle is going to be very thin.”

Aveline chuckled, “yeah.”

I was right, before they had even gotten a few hundred paces onto the ice it broke. We were starting down the river when it grew dark. I managed to bring us to the south bank where an ancient set of ruins were. We pulled the sled through an empty doorway before making camp. When I walked outside in the morning I saw the falls down river.

I looked at Aveline as she joined me and she smiled, “I am glad we did not go over that.”

I grinned but was thinking of a way around it. She bumped me and gestured, “there is a trail.”

I moved around between a couple of ruined buildings and scrapped snow off cobblestone. We pulled the sled after us and down the cobblestone trail. It went back and forth as it dropped until we came to another set of ruins beside the river. We moved out onto the snow covered ice before I managed to raise the kite sail.

The river was narrower with snow covering the ice which worried me. An hour later we came around a bend in the river and Aveline hissed as she lifted her bow. On the edge of the river was a party of orcs and she began shooting. They yelled and charged but she continued to kill those in front as we rushed closer.

I had my hands full with the sail and when we reached the orcs the sled flew into them and through. It had tossed a couple aside, knocked one onto Aveline in the sled who stabbed it and shoved it off. The others were knocked away as we kept going and I glanced back to see the orcs standing around confused.

Aveline chuckled and then started laughing and I grinned and shook my head. It was in the late afternoon when I saw the walls on the edge of the river. I also saw water and not ice as I turned to head for the river’s edge. We pulled the sled behind us towards the wall and followed it to a gate that opened as we approached.

Two blue cloaked elves closed the gate after we walked through.

Chapter fourteen

Ghouls in the marsh

The elves killed orcs from the wall all winter and word came from Red Pass that rangers had occupied Motis. When the river ice melted hundreds of orc bodies appeared to float past on the way out to sea. Every time Aveline saw one she would smirk. I finally decided it was time to go and Aveline pointed north through the coastal hills.

We shouldered our packs and walked out to a fresh breeze. We stayed close to the ocean as we headed north into the hills. The hills were covered with short evergreen trees and lots of thick spiny bushes. It was two days before we walked out of the hills. A wide salt marsh stretched to the north and back to the west.

The hills to the west became steep so we finally had to go into the marsh. The first night we got a glimpse of things to come. We were walking on a solid piece of ground and I used my bow to shoot one of the large fish that was following us. It was close to the bank and I grabbed the arrow and pulled it out.

One look and we knew we would not be eating it. It was large and bloated with white dead eyes. It smelled like it had been dead for days and I tossed it back into the water. The other fish went crazy as they went into a feeding frenzy and tore it apart. I looked at Aveline and she shook her head, “we are not wading with them in the water.”

I grinned and turned to start walking, there were few animals and they were all very skittish. We made camp that night but as soon as we ate we put out the fire and climbed into a tree. Before the night was over we had a dozen strange slow moving animals around the base. There were rabbits and small water rodents and even a deer.

What they all had in common was the stench of death and white undead eyes. That kept us up as we expected some to climb the tree. They did not but kept moving around the tree as if looking for a way up. When the sun began to rise we used our bows and killed them. When we climbed down we cut their heads off before removing arrows.

That day it was like we were being forced or directed deeper into the marsh. We killed dozens of the ghoulish creatures as we walked. The deeper into the marsh the more ghouls we saw. After eating dried rations we climbed another tree but this time I sent Aveline higher as I took the first watch.

Again ghoulish animals came to surround the tree and slowly walk around it. In the middle of the night Aveline moved down and I climbed up and leaned against the tree to rest and sleep. In the morning she started using her sling before we used our bows since there were so many ghouls.

After beheading the creatures we started moving. It was noon when we reached an area that was flat with large black twisted trees. We were killing ghouls constantly as we walked. We came out of the twisted trees and into a small clearing. There was a rough hewn stone building like a small temple.

In front of it was what looked like a fire pit except the fire was burning black and reached up a couple of paces into the air. All around the clearing were more ghouls and they all began moving towards us. A ghoulish orc was holding a squirming rabbit as it moved to the fire and dropped it.

We had our swords out and began killing ghouls but I saw the rabbit come out of the fire. It had changed and its eyes were white and looked dead. I stabbed and slashed and kicked with Aveline but stayed beside her as we fought. More creatures came out of the temple and into the clearing, many were ghoulish orcs with a few goblins.
I took the head of a coyote and turned to lunge and stab an orc. That was when I saw the black crystal around its neck. They just kept coming and I finally bumped Aveline, “back.”

She slid back smoothly and I followed as we continued to fight and kill ghouls. We moved back until we backed onto a narrow piece of ground with water on each side. Each time a ghoul tried to go around the fish attacked. It did not hurt them much but it did cause them to fall. When another orc with a black crystal around its neck approached I swung my sword and hit it.

The crystal shattered and the orc collapsed along with several other ghouls that were close. Aveline pulled on me and I turned and followed as she moved quickly. I was thinking of the fire and those crystals, “we need to return to clearing and that fire.”

She glanced at me and I looked back, “somehow it is doing this and those crystals are helping.”

She nodded and turned to leap across a watery gap onto another piece of ground. The ghouls still followed slowly as we found another way back to the building and the clearing. Only a few ghouls were in the clearing and three were orcs with crystals around their necks. I moved towards one and stabbed into a reaching arm before turning with the sword and moving.

The ghoul turned with the sword before I shifted and caught the hand and yanked as I continued to turn. It stumbled into the fire and all the ghouls seemed to pause as the fire erupted in a tall pillar. The edge of the flames turned red and orange as the ghoul turned to ash and the fire died.

Half the ghouls in the clearing dropped to the ground and stopped moving. I went after another orc as Aveline followed and killed the other ghouls. This time I stabbed the orc in the gut and turned it before backing it to the fire and then pushing. It fell back and again the fire erupted into a pillar with more red and orange flames around the edge.

I went after the last orc while all the ghouls seemed to be frozen and caught a hand and spun before releasing it. As the orc stumbled into the fire it was consumed like the other ones. The pillar brightened as more red and orange flames appeared. We looked around as all the ghouls fell to the ground.

I looked at Aveline who grinned, “so we just keep throwing orcs with crystals into the fire to kill the others.”

I went to look into the stone building before hesitating and going in. On what looked like an old stone alter was a pile of black crystals on rusty chains. I grabbed the chains and felt a tingling in my arm as I quickly left. I tossed the crystals into the fire before I got to close and it exploded and seemed to reach out.

A lot more red was in the flames when it returned to normal and I noticed the chard edge of the wood in the pit. It was not long before ghouls appeared and moved into the clearing. We moved back and around until we saw the orc with the crystal. We moved quickly and I stabbed into its side and turned and pushed it back until it fell back into the fire.

I moved away as the fire exploded into a pillar once more. We were moving as the ghouls in the clearing fell. Another group slowly moved into the clearing and Aveline moved one way while I went the other to distract the ghouls. She caught the orc’s arm when it stumbled into the clearing and turned and pulled before letting it go.

It went with the momentum but fell before it reached the fire. Its head fell into the fire but the body was outside. The fire flared and reached out before exploding into the pillar again. This time it was outside the fire pit and more than half the flames were an angry red color. They seemed to reach for any ghouls that were near and pulled them in.

Slowly one group at a time we managed to put the orcs with crystals into the fire. By the time the last orc reached the clearing the fire was a lot smaller and almost all red and orange. It was Aveline’s turn to distract the ghouls while I moved around. I came up behind the stumbling orc and stabbed it in the back and started pushing as I turned it.

I yanked my sword out as it staggered into the fire. The pillar of fire was different as it consumed the orc. It flared an ugly purple color and a huge roar shook the clearing. A huge cloven hoofed beast stepped out of the flames like they were a curtain. It had arms and hands and held a black whip.

The head was large and it had sharp spike like teeth and two black horns rising from its forehead. I dropped my short swords as I backed away and pulled Reaper. The monster swung the whip and I knelt and ducked as it sliced the air over my head. I came to my feet and moved forward as it brought the whip around and up before snapping it down.

It moved very fast but I had expect it when I saw the whip going up behind it. I slid aside and held Reaper in both hands as I brought it down. There was a huge shock and everything went black as I stepped towards where the monster had been and brought the sword around. It did not hit it and I kept going as my sight returned.

I twisted and side stepped as the monster lunged with the hilt of the whip. I lashed out and down and almost screamed when the sword hit the monster’s arm. It felt as if my whole body was on fire and being ripped apart. I staggered back as the monster roared in pain and rage. I shook my head and gestured Aveline back, “do not touch it!”

She hesitated as I began circling the monster. The arm on the ground was smoking and black flames flickered from the stump of the monster’s arm. It roared and charged me and I slid aside and swung my sword around. When it hit the middle of the monster I screamed as once more I felt like I was burning as my body was torn asunder.

Aveline was suddenly there pulling me back as my sight returned and I saw the monster on the ground. It was writhing around with its guts spilling out. I groaned as I knelt, “we need to get the body back into the fire.”

I looked at Reaper and relaxed when I saw it was not damaged. I stood slowly and glanced around, “no more ghouls?”

Aveline shook her head as she pulled her pack off, “not yet.”

She pulled rope out of her pack and made a loop before tossing it. I hissed but nothing happened when it fell around the monster’s head. She shifted and pulled and I went to help her pull and drag the body into the fire. We had to go around and then pull it through. The fire flared red as it exploded into a huge pillar that began to consume the monster.

I moved quickly and hesitated before using the tip of Reaper to toss the whip into the fire. There was the shock and blackness but my sight returned quickly. I took a breath before using the sword to toss the piece of arm after the whip. I screamed and fell as the whole clearing seemed to explode in red flames.

I opened my eyes and looked up at the blue sky before realizing I was on a litter and being dragged. I groaned and shifted and the litter stopped and was set down. Aveline knelt beside me, “it has been two days.”

I slowly sat up, “the fire?”

She shook her head, “after the monster was burned up it went out and only ash remained.”

I nodded as I tried to stand, “the temple?”

She helped me up, “collapsed and I have not seen any more ghouls.”

I pulled Reaper and looked at the blade and sighed before putting it away, “that thing was a demon.”

Aveline nodded and lifted my pack to help me.

Chapter fifteen

Lost realm

A couple of days and I was feeling better. I had a feeling, almost like something was pulling me north towards Dawn’s Step. Aveline did not say anything when we turned north as soon as we were out of the marsh. We crossed the north plains without seeing any foul ones. I hesitated when we reached the river and the marsh around Dawn’s Step.

I let Aveline lead even though I could see the way now. Unlike the other marsh I could see the images of dead elves under the water. I could not see the wounds and it almost looked like they were asleep. Each of the two nights we slept in the trees. I should say rested because I did not sleep. The rest of the way after we came out of the marsh was silent, as if something was waiting.

By the time we reached the city the pull I felt was stronger. The bodies we had left before were only bones now. When Aveline slowed and started to go towards where we had camped I reached out and caught her arm. I was looking towards the pillars and the glowing golden line and pulled on her, “hold my arm and whatever happens do not let go.”

She slipped her arm through mine, “what do you feel?”

I started for the pillars, “something is pulling me.”

I shouldered my bow as we got closer to the pillars. When we stepped between the pillars it felt as if a storm was near. Our hair stood up and a shimmer appeared behind us between the pillars. I hesitated before moving towards the white rock in the center of the grassy area. As we got close a whirl of white sprang up and then cleared to show someplace else.

Aveline hissed as I slowly moved closer, “that is...”

Suddenly it felt as if we were spinning and the world around us vanished. I squeezed my arm against my side to keep Aveline’s arm on me. I staggered a moment later and clutched her hand as she let go and went to her knees. I looked around us and saw a huge grassy area with a set of large pillars.

The golden line was gone as if it had never been. We had stepped out from between the pillars and the pull I had felt was gone. I pulled Aveline up and started walking towards the distant trees, “you know where we are?”

She whispered, “our home.”

I looked at her as she looked around, “Elvenhome.”

I hesitated before removing my bow, “we were brought here for a reason.”

She looked at me before nodding and taking her bow off her shoulder. When we reached the trees on the edge of the grassy area I saw the tracks and stopped, “that is a troll.”

Aveline growled as she followed the direction of the tracks. I looked around before I began to follow the tracks, “we find the lair and then set traps.”

The smaller trees gave way to huge trees like those around Dawn’s Step, only when I look up into the trees I saw houses. It was an hour before the tracks were very fresh. I knew the troll would be close and stopped to look around. While the huge trees were in rows the brush around us was overgrown.

I could see where one of the huge trees had fallen and the tracks went in that direction. I gestured to another tree, “lets climb up and see if we can see it.”

Aveline walked towards the tree and shouldered her bow. She slowly walked around the trunk before caressing a spot. She pulled and a section of the bark opened to show a narrow set of stairs. I blinked and followed as she stepped in. I turned and pulled the bark door closed before starting up the stairs after her.

The landing we stepped out onto was white with age. I moved past Aveline and tested every step as I made my way through the large tree house. I stepped out onto an elegant porch and looked over the rail. I saw where the troll was hiding right away. The tree that had fallen was broken into many pieces.

Something, maybe even the troll had built a large shelter where the tree house had shattered. Aveline stopped beside me and whispered, “none have been here in over ten millennium.”

I nodded and pointed, “if we can find the cord we can use two large saplings.”

She looked and nodded before looking at the sky, “it will be night soon.”

We stayed on the porch and sat to eat rations. Once it was night and the two moons rose I stood and looked down and saw the troll emerge. If anything it was slimmer and larger than any I had seen before. The features were different, more refined and it even moved differently. It headed away towards a faint glow I could see in the distance through the trees.

I hesitated before turning and walking towards the stairs. Aveline walked after me, “you are not going to wait until morning?”

I started down, “the pull is back and I think it is coming from that glow.”

When we emerged I waited for Aveline to close the door before heading towards the glow. It almost seemed to be more urgent and I began to move faster. I nocked an arrow as Aveline trotted beside me and we broke out into a large stone covered area. In the center were two blackened pillars with a bright swirling mass between them.

Large orcs were all around and in front of what I realized was the swirling gate to another world and there was a huge cage. Inside were a dozen white snarling wolves. I did not hesitate and began aiming and firing into the orcs with Aveline. There were easily a couple of hundred and they milled around in confusion before charging.

We emptied our quivers and tossed the bows and our packs before I pulled Reaper. I glanced to one side as the huge troll suddenly charged out not to far away. It held a huge tree limb and began swinging at orcs as I stepped into the pattern. I brought my sword around and down at an angle and slashed through an orc from shoulder to opposite hip.

I brought it back and across to almost slice another in half. I wove across Aveline’s pattern and stabbed an orc in the throat. We continued to move and kill orcs and I had to wish the huge troll had the giant sword I had taken from the orc commander. I cut out and to the side when I saw an orc with some type of ancient spear.

The tip of Reaper sliced through the back of the orc’s neck and it dropped as the troll spun. I continued to move and stabbed another orc in the side as it charge the troll with a sword over its head. I moved back across Aveline and took the arm of an orc thrusting a spear towards her. I shifted and spun as I realized how far we had come.

I reached out to slice down and through the ropes holding the cage door. I slid aside as I staggered from a spear in my back. The cage door burst open and the wolves attacked past me and into the orcs. I moved back towards Aveline as I realized both the wolves and the troll were only attacking orcs.

The pull was still there but I also felt something for the troll and the wolves. Finally the last few orcs turned to flee and I straightened as I looked around. I ignored the troll and wolves as I turned to look at the swirling gate and then the pillars. Somehow I knew I did not want to travel to whatever world was on the other side of the gate.

I moved towards one of the pillars and a wolf suddenly caught my sleeve as the troll growl, “no.”

I looked from the wolf to the troll before gesturing, “we need to close this.”

Aveline shifted, “Blade?”

I smiled, “they are okay.”

She looked at the troll doubtfully but nodded. I knelt to wipe my sword and then turned back to the pillars and started moving around as I looked at the ground under the open gate. I ignored the troll as it moved closer and followed. I went all the way around to the back before I saw the cracks.

I grinded and looked around, “I need one of the spears.”

The troll held up the huge sword and I paused since I recognized it, “I think someone wants you to keep using that.”

He nodded and Aveline tossed a spear. I had to shift to one side and move closer than I liked but I was finally able to reach the cracks with the spear. I pushed and pried and pieces of stones began to move and fall up and into the gate. As the hole I was making grew the swirling gate started shifting and moving.

When I saw the first crack in the pillar next to us I stopped. I moved back behind the pillar and looked at the troll, “stand here and hit the pillar hard with your shoulder. Be careful if it moves, you do not want to go through.”

He nodded and moved to take my place. He suddenly lunged and the earth shook as he stuck the pillar and there was a loud crack. I grabbed one of his huge hands and yanked him back as the pillar tilted and started to fall. I continued to pull the troll back as the gate flared and twisted before the pillar was sucked in.

There was a huge flash of light as I tried to pull the troll down, “get down!”

It was barely a moment before I was thrown away as another flash of light and heat exploded from where the gate had been. I crashed to the ground and rolled as the troll fell beside me. I rolled and came to my feet and looked back to see the area around the gate blackened. The troll stood and shook itself, “finally. Now we can hunt the damn orcs.”

I looked at him, “we?”

He was looking around, “my people. The pests have been hunting us forever.”

I looked at Aveline as she walked to us with all the wolves following, “where are your people?”
The troll pointed towards the west, “the closest farms are a few days that way.”

He looked at me and frowned, “you are small like the orcs but I will protect you.”

I grinned and then laughed and grinned again as I shook my head. “We need to find our way home.”

Aveline hesitated before she bowed, “it is good to see not all who followed my people are foul.”

The troll smiled which almost made me step back, “you are from the tree people?”

She smile, “once.”

He nodded, “if you ever wish to visit tell anyone Trock the hunter is your friend and you will be safe.”

He looked around in the moonlight and sighed, “I miss the daylight but these nasty creatures only come out at night.”

He sighed again and started walking and I looked after him before looking at Aveline and the wolves. She shook herself and turned to the closest wolf, “we are returning to the leave taking field.”

The wolves looked at each other and one half knelt before standing. Aveline blinked and nodded, “they wish to come with us.”

I looked at the wolves and thought of the Green Heart before nodding. I went to get my pack and bow and slung it over my shoulder. I waited for Aveline as the wolves slipped into the dark forest brush. One stayed beside her and I looked at its swollen belly and realized she was pregnant. It was a few hours before we walked out onto the large grassy area.

I looked at the white pillars out in the middle and glanced at the wolves as they came out of the woods. I reached for Aveline’s hand and began walking towards the golden line I felt. This time when we approached nothing happen for several moments. Suddenly a shaft of pure white swept down from above and hit the ground in front of us.

From nothing appeared a golden crystal and I heard a whisper. I stepped forward and knelt before reaching for the crystal. The world around me shrank and seemed ethereal as I saw faint connecting lines going to everything. Slowly the world became more solid but if I concentrated I could still see the glow from everything and the connecting lines.

I looked at Aveline and she glowing as bright as daylight. She reached down and pulled me up, “are you okay?”

I nodded as the area between the pillars was suddenly filled with a swirl of white. Through it I could see what looked like Green Heart. I looked at the wolves and gestured and they moved together before running and leaping. I held Aveline’s hand in mine and walked into the swirling gate. We spun and then stepped forward out of the swirl as it vanished.

The wolves were sitting around us and elves were running towards us from all directions. Many held bows and I held up my hand with the golden crystal called Elf’s Magic.

Chapter sixteen

Battling Giants

I glanced at the two wolves as they walked beside us. The wolves had been accepted by all the elves quickly. They were surprised when we told of the strange troll living in their home but shook their heads and smiled when they spoke of trolls farming. The new elf stone had been put with the others where all could see.

When we left a couple of weeks later Thorn and Bramble came with us. I was still learning to understand them. Bramble was the female and practical while Thorn was male and prone to tricks. We made the long walk back to Blue Pass where everyone was surprised to see us alive.

We heard a tale from a ranger just back from the north. He said he had seen several giants gathering in what was known as the Quick. It was an area alive with hot boiling geysers and everything grew large year round. We left the next day and went north out of the pass and then north across the northern plains.

A day out of the pass we were moving through tall shrubs when Bramble trotted out and turned while letting out a soft growl. Aveline hissed, “orcs.”

I followed Bramble with Aveline as she put her sling away and got her bow ready. Bramble stopped at the edge of a clearing with a trail going through it. She looked at me and tossed her head to one side before slipping away. I grinned as I slipped my pack off and got ready.

A few minutes later orcs trotted into the clearing behind Thorn who was limping and staggering just out of their reach. He was almost across when I put my first arrow into the last orc coming into the clearing. Aveline took the next and then I shot another. Before all the orcs got across they realized something was wrong.

We had killed a dozen before they saw us and charged. While we put arrows into those in front the two wolves were suddenly attacking from the rear. After another three arrows I tossed my bow and pulled my short swords. I stepped into the pattern with Aveline moving away. I slid a rusty sword away as my other sword sliced open an orc and I twisted and turned.

I stabbed one sword into the arm of another orc slashing at Aveline and twisted the blade as I yanked it out. I continued to step and cut and another orc screamed as its guts spilled out. Aveline moved behind me as I turned and stabbed the orc following her almost blindly while she sliced the one attacking me.

I looked around before moving to each orc and making sure it was dead. We cleaned our swords before removing and cleaning arrows. Throne and Bramble slipped away when we began walking again. That was the only time we saw orcs as we crossed the north plains. On the other side of the plains I saw a lot of signs of giants.

We were still a few days south of the Quick but carnage was everywhere. We found the remains of several orc patrols that a giant or three had ripped apart. We began to sleep at night and only move during the day. When we peeked into the huge valley that was the Quick it was to see giants everywhere.

There was a pen out in the center of the valley and it looked like a couple of dozen orcs were inside. I glanced at Aveline, “you touched the Elf’s Magic.”

She glanced at me and frowned, “yes.”

I looked out into the valley, “do you see all the lines?”

She shifted and I looked at her, “how do you kill a troll?”

She looked at me, “by using a trap or snare.”

I nodded and looked back into the valley, “and a giant is larger so how are we going to kill them?”

She laughed softly and hit my shoulder, “by traps or snares.”

I pointed across the valley, “see all the heat coming from those geyser pools. We use a trap or snare to position or cause a giant to fall in.”

I moved back before standing and moving down as she followed. I gestured to Bramble and Thorn and began sneaking into the valley. I found the perfect place for our first trap, it was close to a boiling geyser pool. Several large rocks and boulders had left a narrow space on one edge. I gestured to a tree on the far side of the pool and we went around.

The two wolves watched while we bent a tree and set a catch. We ran the rope from the tree top around the pool before pulling it out and into the water. I made the trap and set the trigger before gesturing Aveline back to the brush on the other side. She held the cord that would release the catch and the tree while Thorn and Bramble scouted for me.

The giant I found was sitting on a boulder pulling limbs off a dead orc and eating it. I looked around and the two wolves let me know it was clear. I stood in the clear and lifted my bow and fired an arrow across and into the giant’s chest. It bellowed as it stood and started towards me and I turned to jog towards our trap.

Every minute or two I would turn and wait or taunt the giant. I was careful as I moved over the trap and kept going. I turned and yelled as the giant continue lumbering after me. It stepped into the trap and the cord snapped around its foot. Aveline released the catch and the tree swept up and the giant stumbled as it was pulled to the side.

It swung its arms and bellowed before falling. I was running as Aveline came out to watch the giant sinking as it continued to struggle. We watched it struggle before it drown and the huge bloated body rose to the surface. The heat from the boiling water was already having an effect and I moved to pull the body closer to the edge.

The rope was to hot to hold and untie so I cut it before pushing the foot and the giant back out into the middle. We moved away and packed up before moving to another pool. There was a fallen tree to one side and two large evergreens close to the pool. I thought we could move the dead tree between the other two and lift it before pulling it back.

We tried to be quiet as we cut the limbs off the dead tree and then used rope and limbs as levers to move it. We had to stop several times when either Thorn or Bramble warned us a giant was near. It was dark when we finished and moved into thick brush to make camp. Thorn and Bramble had caught and eaten dinner and left a couple of rabbits for us.

We made a hole before starting the fire in it. After we cooked dinner we put it out and stretched out under the brush. Unlike trolls who were active at night, giants slept which gave us a break. We were up with dawn and washed in a warm stream before the giants even began to wake or stir.

It was several hours before a giant came close and I stepped out and put an arrow into its belly. It roared and started after me and then I heard another. I continued to taunt the one I had shot and lead it towards our trap as another giant lumbered into sight. The pool we had chosen was not only boiling but was producing a lot of steam.

I was careful when I jumped over the trip wire and turned to back away. The second giant had almost caught up to the first when it hit the trip wire. The dead tree was released and dropped and swung in a arc as the giant turned. It slammed into it and it staggered back while grabbing at the dead tree.

It threw the tree up as it waved its arms and fell back and into the scalding water. While it floundered and screamed I ducked into the brush with Aveline and the wolves. That was when the second giant arrived and looked at the one in the pool. The dead tree had dropped on the rope and swung back and now it returned to slam into the hip and side of the giant.

It staggered and stepped and tilted and yelled as it too fell into the water. The first had stopped struggling and lay floating on the water as the second began to thrash and fight to stand while screaming. When it fell back into deeper water it grabbing the dead giant to try to climb onto it. It was several minutes before the second died and we pulled both bodies out.

We struggled to pull them away and then reset the trap. Just after noon I lured another giant in and then one more in the evening. This one almost got out but I ran to the edge with my bow and from only a couple of paces put an arrow into its eye. It screamed and fell back but was answered by several giants.

We had to hide and watch as a six came to see what was happening. After the giants left we retrieved our rope from the dead tree and went back to our camp. The next day we set another trap beside a pool that smelled of sulfur and the whole bottom glowed red as the surface boiled hard and fast.

We bent a huge thick branch and set the trip wire before I went to look for a giant. It was eating another orc while sitting. I moved closer and stepped out and aimed an arrow. I let it go as the giant looked up and the arrow hit just right and vanished in it right eye. It jerked its head back and fell straight back and began to spasm and convulse.

I stared in surprise as Thorn slipped out of the brush beside me and looked at the dying giant. He barked and then grinned at me before trotting closer to pee on the giant. We returned to Aveline who shook her head and grinned as Bramble growled and gave her mate a nip. I hid while Aveline went with the two wolves to find another giant.

She was grinning when she returned a few hours later. She had found a giant sleeping and stood on a boulder beside its head and when it opened its eyes she put an arrow through and into its brain. I grinned and that was when the giant came from behind. Bramble warned us with a growl and we spun and started backing away as it stomped through the brush.

I gestured Aveline back as I continued to move back and towards our trap. While she ran I began to taunt the giant and pick up sticks to throw at it. It finally roared and started a slow run. I spun and ran and jumped over the trip wire. The giant followed and hit the trip wire. The branch swung around and hit the giant but it did not catch it fully.

The giant staggered to the side and waved his arms and I turned and ran back. I leaped and twisted so that my feet struck first and I flexed my knees. I leaped away and shoved with my feet as the giant grabbed at me. He went over backwards as I hit the ground and rolled to my feet. Aveline ran towards me as I came to my feet and turned to watch the giant.

The flesh went red and started peeling off even before it died. I shuddered as I was pulled away and we returned to our camp. The next morning the giants left and we did not follow as they climbed the mountains and headed west. When we returned to Blue Pass I was ready for something else.
Thorn and Bramble were returning to their pack with a small group of elves. I was thinking about Aveline and the giants and thought it was time we went back to Dawn’s Step to forge a sword.

Chapter seventeen

Farintine

We were sitting outside after a late morning storm. Winter was coming and it was beginning to get cooler. We had looked but no raw star silver could be had short of Scarlet mountain or Finagore. Dusty, a new elven ranger cleared his throat, “since you are thinking of going to Dawn’s Step to forge the sword you could go to Farintine.”

I looked at him as Aveine frowned, “I thought Farintine was destroyed?”

He shook his head, “there was a lot that was destroyed but not all. Those that took the Farintine Heart back said most of the galleys are intact.”

I nodded and looked at Aveline, “it would have star silver ore?”

She nodded, “we would have to go through the galleys and deep into the mountain but star silver is there.”

I sat back to think and looked at her, “you do not want to go?”

She smiled, “it is not that I do not want to go. We left there for a reason.”

I smiled, “your people left there.”

I looked across the square before sighing, “it would be closer to Dawn’s Step.”

I looked at Aveline, “you need a proper sword.”

We had talked of this and she smiled, “and you think you can make a great weapon.”

I thought of the magic inside me and nodded, “I can make a sword.”

She nodded, “tomorrow morning.”

When we left in the morning it was overcast and windy. We could both smell the rain in the air. Before we were out of the pass it was pouring and it did not stop as we went across the north plains. By the time we reached the marsh before Dawn’s Step it had been snowing for a week. It made traveling through the marsh much harder.

I could feel a change as we moved through the giant trees. There was a sense of something not right and the forest was a lot quieter. We were almost to the city when we found the orcs. It was a small group and they were frightened. It looked like they had come from the north and were escaping from something.

We waited until they were close before using our bows. Unlike other times they did not even try to fight and only fled to the south faster. Aveline was frowning as I returned from making sure those we had hit were dead, “they did not act right.”

I agreed and looked after those that had continued to flee. We walked into the empty city and could see a few signs of something large that had been here. We checked the large forge and the bins of coal before making camp. Aveline drew a map while we huddled and Farintine was only three days to the north.

When we left it was once more snowing and we could barely see ten paces in front of us. The first couple of days there was thick forest in the mountains with smaller game. The last day we kept seeing burnt trees or scorch marks. I thought of lightning but it still seemed strange. When we saw the huge elegant doors of Farintine it was mid afternoon.

We looked in and put our things to one side in what looked like a guard room. We went out to hunt for dinner and brought back a couple of rabbits. We cooked dinner in the guard room using an ancient fireplace and then rolled out our bedroll beside the fire. There was plenty of wood someone had left, probable those that had returned the Farintine Heart.

We had closed the ancient door but could hear if anything moved beyond. We were up early and had to wait for the sun to rise before leaving. We used an ancient star silver lantern from the guards room and added chemicals. Moving through the long abandoned halls and galleys had us trying to be silent.

There were huge crystal chandeliers with intricate chemical lanterns. Faded tapestries hung from the ceilings and walls. Star silver weapons hung on walls and tempted us. It was not long before we were in narrower halls that led deeper into the mountain. Several hours later we came to caverns that had collapsed and began to hunt for ways through.

After that we would find ways collapsed or blocked. We made camp in a tiny area beside an underground stream. When we woke it was more of the same for what felt like most of the day as we went deeper into the mountain. We were moving through a collapsed cavern when one wall dropped and the floor seemed to shatter.

Aveline dove right and caught a huge rock and hung on. I leaped for a huge rock and landed as it suddenly dropped through the floor. I tried to ride it as it fell and then slid but when it began to tumble I jumped. The next moments had me bouncing from one sliding boulder to another. It was after I had fallen from a long drop that I hit and everything stopped.

It was dark and I hurt everywhere as I slowly began checking myself. I heard Aveline yelling above and a long ways away. I yelled and searched in my pack by feel for a tiny piece of candle. It took a minute to light it and then I started looking around. Everything around me was sparkling and I saw thick veins of star silver ore.

I turned around and stopped moving when I saw the black orb that seemed to pull at me and push at the same time. I felt a chill pass through me as I kept looking at it. I put the candle on a rock and moved a little closer to see the orb better. The rock it was on tilted and it rolled and fell. I reached out to catch it and froze when my hand caught it.

The world exploded and it felt as if I went with it. All I felt was searing pain and I thought of Elvenhome and the gods as I screamed and kept screaming. Suddenly the pain was gone, or rather put aside. I was someplace that glowed like the inside of thick fog. I heard murmuring voices and looked around as more of the fog peeled back.

Standing above me were huge tall figures that would make a giant seem small. One turned and looked down and my mind screamed as it was filled with a thought, “you should not be here.”

The others focuses on me and I screamed at the sudden pain. It vanished as quickly as it came and a women was suddenly in front of me, “how did you...”

She looked at the stone and hissed before reaching for it. She hesitated, “a price for a price.”

I looked at her as her thoughts filled my head and thought of Aveline. She smiled but I cleared my throat, “help me make her a sword.”

She nodded and lifted the stone out of my hands. Suddenly the dark was back and I struggled and my eyes snapped open. In the flickering light from the candle Aveline was bent over me. I sighed as my head pounded and she gave my cheek a pat, “quit sleeping.”

I smiled and struggled to my feet. I looked around but the black orb was gone. Aveline hissed and I looked at her as she held up my bow. Even in the dim light I could see the crack. I shook my head and gestured for her to leave it. We pulled out another tiny lantern and mixed chemicals before I began breaking off chunks of ore.

I filled my pack with as much as I thought we needed before we left and started searching for the way out. We slept twice, the last time in a room carved into the side of a hall. I was beginning to worry when we walked into a large galley with racks of old weapons. Aveline hissed and I glanced at her, “what?”

She was looking around, “this is the royal guard armory.”

I looked around and headed to one side towards a closed door. I set my pack to one side and we opened the door and peeked in. Aveline pulled a star silver lantern and mixed chemicals still in its base. When she returned the lantern to the wall bright light filled the room from mirrors in the ceiling.

I looked at all the weapons in the racks before moving to one rack holding bows. One stood out, it was solid white with vines and leaves carved into it. I was afraid it would snap when bent but it held. I looked for string and grinned when I found one made of star silver. I slipped the string into a pocket and took the bow.

I stopped beside the door and looked back before reaching for a white spear. The shaft was a little taller than me with the blade and point another pace long. Aveline hissed as she looked out into the galley. I followed her out and listened as she walked towards the center. She spun with her eyes wide and looked at me before turning to run.

A roar seemed to shake the galley as what I first thought was a wyvern charged out and after her. I dropped the bow and shifted my grip on the spear and my mind spun. I lifted it and turned as I pulled it back. I knew I would not be able to kill the huge creature but I had to stop it and give Aveline time to escape.

I aimed behind and just below the ear and threw with everything I had. I felt my magic as it seemed to surge and then I fell. I struggled to stand as the creature crashed to the galley floor. It began thrashing around and convulsing as it died. I pulled Reaper as I moved towards it, “AVELINE!”

I was careful as I moved around to the head. I blinked when I saw the head in the dim light. It was not a wyvern but by the description I realized it was a small dragon with unformed wings. The spear I had thrown was buried behind the jaw and angled into the skull, there was barely a hand span of the shaft showing.

I moved back and sat before falling over as my head began pounding. When I opened my eyes Aveline was sitting beside me and a bright lantern lit the galley. She looked at me and shook her head, “how did you do that and why?”

I moved the blanket she had put over me and sat up with a groan, “I do not know how. I just put everything into throwing the spear.”

I stood and looked across the galley floor at the huge creature. I shook my head, “I am tired of being underground.”

She grinned and turned to tuck the blanket into her pack. She lifted the lantern and I checked the new bow she had tied to my pack before putting it on. The halls were carved with reliefs of trees and animals. It was an hour before Aveline stopped in another tapestry filled galley. I followed her look to a set of elegant door, “what is it?”

She grinned, “the workshop of the jewelers.”

I grinned as I crossed to open the door and lift the lantern. Sparkling colors shone from benches and shelves and display cases. I looked at what looked like a small ivory carved chest and reached out to touch it. Aveline chuckled, “carved from a single dragon tooth.”

I grinned, “I left a few behind.”

I looked around and then set the lantern down and began to collect jewelry from displays and cases and shelves. Aveline helped and we put everything into the chest and once it was full I closed the lid and lifted it. We closed the door and left and a little later found a set of stairs leading down. It was not long before we reached the huge entrance galley and the main doors.

It was dark out so we returned to the guard room and started a fire. I slipped out to hunt for rabbits and when I returned Aveline was taking one of the huge crystal chandeliers apart. She grinned as I shook my head and went to start dinner. In the morning I used two ancient shields to make a sled before we put packs and our treasure on it and left.

Chapter eighteen

Forging a sword

The snow began the moment we stepped out of the mountain and came down so thick we could barely see. Before the sun set several feet of snow had fallen and it was still coming down. We made camp under the drooping branches of a pine. A huge fallen tree was close and we took time to break off as much as we could.

The area under the tree was clear of snow but I dug a pit and we lined it with stones for a fire. With the falling snow the branches over us were like a thick blanket with a wall just outside. The tiny fire quickly warmed the space and we relaxed. By morning the snow had risen to almost seal us in.

One look out was enough to know we would not be going far. I tied a rope to my waist and struggled back to the dead tree for more wood. We ate dried and smoked rabbit and drank melted snow for water. Three days later the snow stopped and we were able to leave. We had spent the time making snow shoes and once we left we needed them.

At least it made pulling our sled easier. I strung the new bow with the braided star silver string and tried to look for game. Of course Aveline was quicker with her sling and killed several birds before noon. We spent the night under another tree with a fire to warm us while we roasted the birds.

When we reached Dawn’s Step the next afternoon we were greeted by a dozen elves returning from a hunt. They looked at us strangely as we struggled through the snow. Once in the city we were greeted by even more that were here for a pilgrimage and tents filled the main street. I pulled the sled to the smithy and Aveline helped me set up camp inside.

I put coal in the forge before I began pulling the raw ore out of my pack. Several elves walked in and watched as I broke the dross and rock off the ore while the forge heated up. I turned Aveline and measured from her index fingertip to the center of her chest as well as the size of her hand.

I stripped out of my shirt and weapons before washing the ore and then putting some into the forge. Something seemed to whisper to me as I added a couple more pieces and closed the doors. It was awhile before I pulled out a glowing red piece and used tongs to move it to the anvil. I used a heavy hammer as I began hitting it to flatten it.

I began pushing the magic inside me into the glowing metal ore. After a little while I put it back and took out another piece. It was slow work but several hours later I was putting all the pieces together and hammering and folding them. Aveline pushed me towards our bed after I put the pieces back in the forge and added more coal.

It was a long night but strangely I did not feel tired. The next day the elves returned and brought food while I worked and Aveline watched. Almost every hour I was pulling the glowing bar of metal out and hammering it flat before bending it and putting it back. I do not know where the coal came from but the bin was full whenever I looked.

The four doors to the forge glowed a red color as the forge slowly got hotter. The bar of metal stretched and grew longer and thinner and it almost seemed like something was missing. It was three days before the gate opened. I was taking a break and walking when I heard the yells. I ran towards the columns with everyone else.

I slowed when I saw the troll by the white stone and then grinned and started walking, “Trock!”

He spun from facing the group of elves with the giant sword in his hand. His eyes narrowed before he straightened, “I came to find you.”

I gestured the elves back as I looked up into his face, “the gate is not back is it?”

He shook his head and pulled a small sack off his shoulder. He held it out, “I... something told me to come here and bring this.”

I looked at the sack before reaching for it. I looked inside at the chunks of white ore. I looked at him and he grinned, “this place is cold.”

I nodded and glanced at the swirling gate as it appeared, “thank you Trock. Good hunting.”

He glanced back before nodding and turning to walk into the gate. It closed after him and I turned with a frown as I began walking back towards the forge. The elves fell in and one cleared his throat, “who was that?”

I smiled as I looked at him, “did you think the gods would allow your world to remain empty? That was Trock the hunter. His people are farmers but he hunts the orcs that have invaded your world.”

He looked back, “but...”

He looked at me, “it was a troll.”

I grinned, “perhaps long ago but not now.”

I left them to talk as I entered the smithy. I dumped the sack onto a bench and began to look at what Trock had brought. I looked at the forge as I heard a woman’s whisper and gathered the ore. I used tongs to put it into the forge and took out the sword and used a hammer and chisel to fold it once more.

When I was done I checked the other ore before I brought it out. Like the star silver I flattened each piece and put them together. I waited until the sword and those pieces were once more glowing red and started pounding them together while pushing my magic into them. Aveline returned from the practice steps and glanced over my shoulder.

She grinned, “now you might have enough for a proper sword.”

I smiled as I kept working, “get one of the other hammers.”

She returned and stood on the other side, “what do I do?”

I glanced at her before returning to the rhythm, “hit where I hit in a counter rhythm and push the magic you feel inside into each blow.”

After that each time I removed the metal she was there helping. It was a few more days, I folded it several hundred times until the white ore and the star silver actually became one. The sword almost shimmered with power even though it was not complete. I turned from added more coal and a large pile of wet clay was on the workbench.

I looked at Aveline and then listened to the whisper. I pulled the sword out and used a chisel to create runes along the blade while totally focusing my magic on each rune. I used a small paddle to apply the clay to the spine from the hilt to the point. Aveline frowned as I returned the sword to the forge and moved to the bellows.

I kept it up until the doors were glowing a solid white. I opened the door and had to cover my face as I used tongs to pull the sword out. I turned and dropped it into the water trough and it exploded in stream that filled the smithy. While the water boiled I moved to the dragon tooth chest.

I pulled out a long star silver chain and turned to find a set of white ivory handles carved in the shape of a dragon with a star silver hilt and cap. I grinned and set the chain back in the chest before crossing to the bench. When I pulled the sword out of the water the elves watching gasped. The blade was polished and the runes glowed with their own power.

I was careful as I put the hilt on and fastened the two handles before finally putting the cap on. I looked at it carefully before turning to Aveline and holding it out, “I need to make a scabbard but...”

She was smiling with bright eyes as she accepted the sword. She moved it around as she turned and absently walked out and headed to the practice steps. I smiled as I watched her and the elves murmured. I shook myself and looked around before going to get a drink of clean water. I looked towards the steps and whispered to myself, “thank you great lady.”

There was a breeze and I smiled as I got dressed. I went to watch Aveline as she started through the pattern again. I pulled Reaper and started the pattern after her. I was just finishing when there was a shout and then several more. Aveline moved out into the street and I followed. It was several moments before the orcs began rushing down the street.

The elves tried to move together between the tents and we started for the front of the rushing orcs. Aveline slid into the pattern with the new sword as if she had been doing it all her life. I followed and was amazed the first time she sliced and cut a rushing orc in half. She moved aside smoothly and brought the sword around and then down.

It hit the shoulder of another orc and cut straight through and came out the opposite hip. I moved away to deflect a sword and brought Reaper back to take the orc’s head. I slid forward in a lunge that put half the blade into the next one’s chest. Aveline moved forward and across and took another’s arms.

I went the other way as we continued to move forward into the orcs. The few times I saw Aveline strike another sword it broke. She moved smoothly as if made of air and water. I kept moving back and forth as we sliced and cut and moved into the orcs. More were still pouring into the street as the elves we passed fell in and moved with us.

It was not long before the orcs were turning to fight back into those behind them. They died as we cut through the ones in front of us. I stabbed one in the spine as Aveline cut another from shoulder to crotch. The orcs panicked and started trying to climb over or around the others. We slowed as they began to kill each other to get away.

That only made them panic more until a dozen huge orcs appeared behind them. They had flails and kept whipping those in back to keep them moving. These were easily a half pace taller than the other orcs. The elves had gotten together finally and began to use their bows so the orcs began to fall faster.

I moved across and in front of Aveline while bringing my sword down through an orc. She went the other way and brought her sword across to almost slice it in half. She was the first to reach the huge orcs and one pulled a dull long sword and lunged to jab towards her. She turned and slid aside while cutting up, out and back.

The orc fell back as its head separated and I shoved Reaper into the one beside it. I ripped the blade to the side to slid another dull blade away as Aveline took the hand of another and then a leg at the knee. One lashed out with the flail and cut down with the sword. I turned and swung back to deflect the sword.

Aveline slid in and cut up through its side and out the other shoulder. I slashed out and back as another moved in and sliced through its belly. Suddenly the elves were moving past us and slashing into the orcs before continuing. I stopped and looked around as only the few orcs left alive fled.

I shook my head as I knelt to start cleaning Reaper, “somehow I do not think there should be this many orcs.”

Aveline looked at me as she cleaned her new sword, “there has always been a lot.”

I snorted, “with as many that have been killed in the last few years?”

She stood and turned as I joined her, “what are you thinking?”

I sighed as I put Reaper away, “I think we have an open gate.”

I looked at her checking her sword and grinned, “so how do you like your sword?”

Chapter nineteen

Rebuilding Glimmer

We returned to Blue Pass with all the elves but they continued on, they were returning to Green Heart. Surprisingly only two had been killed but several had been wounded. Aveline and I patrolled south several times to guide soldiers from King’s Pass. It was almost spring and we had returned for a bit of rest.

I glanced at the commander when he and another came to our table. Aveline glanced at them when they sat and I leaned back, “we just returned.”

The commander nodded, “I know. The king is sending men to Glimmer. Both to rebuild it and to start running patrols.”

I glanced at Aveline, “the way south from Glimmer is not easy unless they plan to use the hidden stair and the old troll cave.”

He smiled, “which is why I thought of you. You have been in the cave and seen the stairs. Is the cave large enough to make it into a stable or barracks?”

I thought about it and nodded, “I would say yes to a barracks. You could put a stable there but keeping supplies to feed them, especially in the winter would not work.”

He nodded and looked at the other man, “This is engineer Allison. He was thinking the same but they still want to look at Glimmer and maybe try to rebuild it.”

I looked at Aveline and she smiled, “it might be fun.”

I snorted but nodded to the commander, “we could escort them and spend a little time there.”

He stood, “good. Take Mr Allison to Crossing where his men are waiting.”

The trip to Crossing was easy but leading his men who had wagons was not. We had to scout the way ahead while watching for orcs. The month to Glimmer took six weeks with the wagons. I walked into the area in front of the troll cave and sniffed but the smell was old. Aveline grinned as she headed for the cave and I went after her.

She was very quiet when she saw all the bones. I turned when Allison came in and his face went white. I took my pack off and pulled out a lantern before crossing to the stairs. I set my pack aside and started up with Aveline and Allison following. The stairs went in and began going back and forth as they climbed what had once been a crack.

Most of the stairs were made from cut stone. Fifteen hundred steps later we came to where the stairs were blocked by fallen stones. Allison moved closer to look before snorting, “these are loose and will be easy to clear.”

I smiled, “it will be the climb up the men will not like.”

He nodded and we turned to climb down. The men were already moving the skeletons out and two large pits had been dug a little way from the cave. One for the foul ones and another for the elves or men. We began to do patrols while the men cleared the cavern and then the stairs. Once the stairs were clear we move up into the ruins and began patrolling to the north.
It was a few weeks before we saw the party of dark brothers. They were scouting the edge of the mountains to the west with a lot more following. Aveline whispered in my ear, “they are migrating.”

I nodded as I watched the dark brothers but when one slipped out of the brush and pointed back towards Glimmer I stiffened. Aveline hissed as I nocked an arrow and aimed before releasing. She was right behind me and her arrow took the scout leader while mine took the one that had come out of the brush.

We kept shooting as the dark brothers scattered. We moved forward and after them and killed those we found. We finally turned and headed straight back to Glimmer to give the men a warning. If dark brothers knew they might attack but more than likely they would bring orcs. It was two days before we reached the fortress.

The outer walls were the first they had started working on and they had done away with the gates. A rope ladder hung down on one side and we climbed up before pulling it over the wall. While we had been out two more parties of men had arrived with supplies to help. Most were up here while a few were cutting trees below.

They were building a wall around the cave entrance and the area they kept the horses. I found Allison and told him and he nodded, “we have been expecting it.”

He turned to call another man and they started keeping sentries on the wall. I slipped out with Aveline and moved into the brush as we headed north again. When we reached the foothills we began to search. We moved slowly and stayed in the brush and finally found the dark elf watchers. There were four and hidden in two trees, we moved closer and killed them.

We moved out further and found the clan of dark brothers a couple of days away. They were camped beside a stream and by the look they were getting ready for a fight. We were on a low rise a few hundred paces away. We stayed for another two days before we saw the first orc army and turned to head back to Glimmer.

We moved quickly and walked day and night and made it in just two days. Allison had sent riders with spare horses to both the elves at Saladen’s Keep and another to King’s Pass. We slept for a half day before going out and to the north. We made a blind to keep watch a day from Glimmer and settled down to wait.

We were up on one of the mountains and hidden with a view that extended for leagues to the north. It was a week before I shifted and reached out to wake Aveline, “they are coming.”

She sat up and came to kneel beside me. In the distance we could see a larger army of orcs. I smiled, “I do not see the dark brothers.”

Aveline snorted, “they might not come. They might continue to the east. They will let the orcs do their work.”

I glanced at her and turned to grab my pack, “time to go.”

We ran most of the way back and pulled up the rope ladder. The fortress was full of men and we looked at each other as Allison came towards us with two men and two elves. After we told them about the orcs they began to plan. I glanced at Aveline, “want to bet they send someone around to the cave?”

She thought about it before nodding. I sighed as we headed towards the stairs and started down. The area behind the walls was filled with horses and wagons. The walls were not even close to being tall enough to stop a force attacking it. Aveline shook her head as we pushed through and went out the gate.

They had cut trees down outside the walls which made me winch. I had thought about it and there was a rugged narrow pass to the west. We walked into the forest on the other side of the clearing and continued to the west. We reached the mouth of the pass and that was where we found the camp of dark brothers.

There were at least fifty and they were wearing chain shirts. I looked at Aveline and she shook her head as she took her quiver off. We hid our bows and quivers before pulling our short swords and starting around one side to come in behind them. One dark brother stepped out from behind a bush and I lunged and stabbed up under his chin and into his head.

He jerked and spasmed as I lowered him to the ground. I glanced towards the camp but they had not heard. Once we were in place I glanced at Aveline and nodded before walking out of the brush and into the camp. I stabbed into the throat of one and slashed around and down into the back of another’s neck.

Aveline had stepped into the pattern and killed two more as I yanked my blades free and shifted and stepped while bringing one around. I cut a throat and stabbed into another’s thigh before ripping the blade out and cutting the arteries. I stepped and turned and slid a sword away and into another dark brother as my other sword took a hand.

I spun and moved forward and right towards Aveline and stabbed a dark brother in the back of his neck. I ripped the blade out as I stepped and deflected another sword to the side and down on another dark brother. I stabbed into the exposed groin of one that turned from Aveline and put my sword through the forearm and wrist of another.

I twisted and yanked both free as I continued to follow the steps. I crossed in front of Aveline who attacked those following me while I went after those attacking her. I stabbed my right sword through one’s mouth and it was ripped away when he turned and fell. I slid my left sword towards another as I pulled my long knife.

I impaled the wrist of a dark brother and twisted. I brought my sword around to strike into his throat as I turned and stepped back towards Aveline. It was only moments before she lost one of her swords in a dark brother. I lunged and left my knife in the throat of another trying to throw a spike.

I deflected another sword and buried my sword in his groin as I reached up and back to pull Reaper. I moved to the side and turned as I brought it around and down. The blade sliced into a neck as I turned and brought it back and brushed a sword away. I continued to move and step as I brought it back and up into the inner thigh of a dark brother.

Blood fountained out as I brought Reaper back and lunged to sink the point into another’s throat. I twisted and slashed to the side to deflect another sword as I reached Aveline. I crossed in front of her as she turned and lunged into one of the dark brothers following me. That was enough for them because they turned to flee back into the pass.

I looked around before we moved through the ones on the ground and made sure they were dead. We took their weapons and the chain shirts they wore and hid everything. We cleaned our weapons before going to get our bows and quivers. We headed into the pass and stopped a few hours in, both sides were steep with loose shale rock.

I grinned and nodded up and to the left and Aveline snorted as she began to climb. We only went up about forty paces and stopped between two very large boulders. We took our packs off and sat to wait for the dark brothers to return. It was a few hours before we heard something and stood with our bows ready.

Tall orcs like we had seen in elvenhome marched in the front. In the moonlight we could see they were not wearing armor. They were carrying the ancient spears and I looked at Aveline before I pulled the string back. Once they were below us we fired and I pulled another arrow. We had fired six each before the orcs saw us and tried to attack.

Of course it was up a steep sloop with sliding shale and we emptied our quivers before they got close. I pulled my throwing spikes and threw and Aveline copied me until we ran out. I tossed my bow behind us and pulled Reaper since it had a longer reach. Once they got closer we began to push the spears aside and lunge down and into their throats.

Before long orc bodies were underfoot or rolling down the steep slope. Finally they turned to run and we followed. Once they reached the very narrow and jagged trail they went back into the pass. We cleaned our swords and began pulling out arrows and then spikes. I looked at the white spears and grinned before I started picking them up.

Aveline looked at me before picking up more. We moved deeper into the pass and crossed to climb the steep side and move into several large boulders. I put the armful of spears down and we began to wait. It was not long before more orcs appeared but they were watching the other side with several files scrambling along the slope.

When they came into range I put an arrow into the chest of the one leading. Like before we emptied our quivers long before they could reach us. Once I ran out of arrows I set my bow aside and began to throw spears. Aveline laughed as she joined me and when we ran out we used throwing spikes.

The orcs turned and fled before we ran out. Once they were gone we started picking up spears and pulling arrows and spears out of bodies. We went a little deeper into the pass before climbing back on the side we had started on. This time we were in a crack in a cliff. When they came again it was with a dozen trolls in front.

Aveline groaned but I grinned and lifted my bow and shot one. She hissed but I only waited with another arrow nocked, “when they climb the sloop aim at an eye.”

She laughed and began jeering as the trolls started up the slope with the orcs following. They were within a few paces when Aveline put an arrow through the eye of one troll. It rocked back and fell into those following and two went down. They rolled into the orcs as the body of the troll spasmed and slid.

I shot another from two paces and it roared before Aveline put another arrow through the other eye and it fell. We shot two more and then I set my bow aside and grabbed a spear. When Aveline put an arrow in the next it bellowed and I lunged and stabbed the spear into the open mouth and into its skull.

We killed eight before the trolls turned to leave and smashed through the milling orcs. That was when I went back to using my bow and then we threw spears. Once they were gone we collected the arrows that were not broken and the spears. We started into the pass and the orcs continued to flee.

The sun was up when we turned back to the west and climbed towards Glimmer. The whole area in front of the walls was littered with dead orcs and a dozen chard bodies of trolls. I grinned and we turned to head back to the pass. When we walked up to the gates in the wall it was dark and we had our arms full of weapons and chain shirts.

We stayed another month doing patrols to the north before returning to Blue Pass.

Chapter twenty

Winter campaign

Blue Pass was full of men and several dozen new rangers from a dozen different countries. Snow had come early and we headed out and to the northeast. A day out of the pass a small band of orcs led by one of the large ones almost stumbled into our camp. We had heard them coming and stood with short swords.

As they pushed through the thick bushes I sliced the first one’s throat. It fell as I moved back and the next stumbled over the first only to have Aveline stab through its throat and rip her blade free. We killed six, one right after another before they all started pushing through together. We moved apart to stab and slice.

I slid a stabbing spear aside as the large orc lunged through the brush. My other sword slipped over the spear and cut back and across its throat. I looked around before kneeling to start cleaning my swords and then making sure all the orcs were dead and breaking their weapons. Aveline was packing up our camp and I took my pack when I finished and followed her out.

It was still snowing as we headed east along the northern mountain foothills. We both had our bows slung as we moved and after a few hours Aveline stopped. I heard the voices and we looked around as we tried to find where they were coming from. It was the grunting guttered voices of orcs but the falling snow made it impossible to hear where they were coming from.

One moved out of the snow and I pulled my sword and lunged in one move. The point took it in the throat as it opened its mouth to yell and I ripped it out. Aveline had dropped her pack but I gestured and moved to pull the spasming orc to the side and kick snow over it. We turned to move to the left and moved into the falling snow slowly.

When I almost walked into the side of the large tent I stopped and glanced around before looking at Aveline. She pulled her short swords and gestured to the right. I slipped my pack off as I began to move and set it against the tent before pulling my swords. No one was guarding the door on the end and it was closed.

I nodded to Aveline and swept it open as I moved in and stabbed an orc in the belly. I sliced out and to the side to cut another’s throat. Aveline moved to the left as she entered and killed two more. I brought my sword down and into the neck of another as it lunged to its feet and stabbed past it and into a dark brother as he rushed me.

I tore both blades free and slashed to the side as I continued to step and kill orcs. We moved through the tent slowly before stopping and starting to go back and kill those still alive. That was when I found the lost one bound and tied. I looked at Aveline and she shook her head. I squatted in front of him and he only stared straight ahead as if waiting.

What came to me then was the elf stones. If I wanted I could feel each as if I still held them. I leaned closer and looked straight into his eyes as I placed my hands on the side of his head. I took a deep breath and pulled using the magic within that connected me to the stones. I tried to pull the feel of the stones and push it into the lost one through my hands and eyes.

He stiffened and his mouth dropped opened as if in a scream. He jerked and spasmed as I continued to hold him and finally he sagged and fainted. I let him go and looked at Aveline who looked at me strangely. I shrugged and looked around before going to grab a large fur. I laid the lost one on it and wrapped him before I pulled him out.

I went to get my pack and Aveline shook her head as we left and I pulled the fur. We found and moved around the few smaller shelters until we were out of the orc camp. It was several hours before we staggered into a small group of evergreens. I dug a tunnel down and under the branches of one before we pulled the lost one in with our packs.

I had collected branches while walking and dug a hole and started the fire. We melted snow for water and ate rations and glanced at the lost one when he shifted. I opened the fur and he looked at me and swallowed several times, “water?”

I blinked and looked at Aveline before pulling a water skin out and helping him drink. He looked at us when he was done, “what year is it?”

I shrugged, “by whose count?”

He smiled but continued to look at Aveline who sighed, “the leave taking was ten millennium ago.”

He nodded and relaxed, “how many became lost like me?”

Aveline moved closer, “over a thousand. Many have died and many have joined with those of darkness or chaos.”

He frowned, “and how many have come back?”

She shook her head, “none until now.”

He looked at me, “what did you do?”

I smiled as I brought dried beef to him and untied his hands, “let you see and feel all the elf stones.”

He nodded and shivered, “I can still feel them.”

I looked at him and he shook his head as he began to eat slowly. I went out a couple of times to find and bring back dead wood for the fire. Aveline spent most of the night talking to Elvandar and drew a map to the Green Heart for him. In the morning we packed up and he hesitated before leaving.

I looked after him, he had told us he was going to find the other lost ones and try to bring them back. I shook my head and turned to head to the west, “how about a nice walk to the Highland to spend the winter on the edge of the Green Heart?”

Aveline chuckled as she let me break trail, “lead on.”

We went around the camp of orcs when we reached it and continued to the west. Once more it began to snow and I stopped and we used a few rabbit skins and branches to make a sled. It snowed every other day for over six weeks. We managed to catch a lot of rabbits and had enough for long white winter coats.

Crossing the Highland had us looking everywhere because of all the orc sign. We walked under the trees of the Green Heart and took a deep breath. I spun at a chuckle and two elves stepped out of a blind with a young white wolf. I relaxed, “you startled us.”

One crossed to us as I glanced around, “I am Decker and our friend has been smelling you for the last hour.”

I smiled as the wolf grinned and Aveline chuckled, “as soon as we warm up some water it will not be so bad.”

The camp he led us to was large with almost a hundred elves and all six of the young wolves from a spring litter. We made a shelter on the edge and left our packs to return to the central fire. The elf in command was Doran, he wore his hair in a braid with feathers. He smiled, “Blade and Aveline.”

I had only met him a few times and he had been okay. He glanced at a few of the others, “why are you here?”

I shrugged, “the east was going to have a lot of rangers and quiet so we came west. I thought we would spend the winter here in the highlands.”

He nodded as Aveline absently pet a wolf bitch that leaned against her, “we have been having many more orcs that normal. They have larger ones that weld flails and long swords.”

I nodded, “and those ancient seeming spears.”

He nodded again and shook his head, “our cousins the dark brothers have been scarce. We have had many return over the summer.”

I blinked and looked at Aveline, “dark brothers are returning?”

He nodded, “thirty over the summer. We thought it was a trick at first but now we think something else is happening. They say many of the dark brother clan leaders have been killed.”

Aveline nodded, “that will make for a lot of fighting in the clans.”

He nodded again, “and less true leadership.”

I glanced around at the others, “where do you need us?”

He grinned, “we could use scouts?”

We grinned and accepted and talked for a little before going to melt snow and wash and then make dinner. We sat talking with a few of the elves after and then went to sleep. We left early the next morning and moved through the battle mounds and all the way to the other side of the highlands.

We moved to the far western edge and made camp as it began to get dark. It was two days before we saw the small army of orcs coming from the northwest. They were trotting with larger ones using whips to keep them moving. We knew they would try to go south and into the Green Heart.

We turned and started jogging, every hour we walked and caught our breath. One of the young wolves slipped out of the battle mounds when we were halfway through. Aveline hissed as she slowed to a walk, “an army comes. Warn the others.”

The wolf spun and howled before it began running. In the distance we heard another howl and then one even further away. We went back to our slow run and when we came out of the battle mounds we saw an elf waiting. We moved towards him and followed into the trees. Doran smiled, “when you catch your breath grab an extra quiver and find a spot.”

We nodded and walked past him to where dozens of large full quivers lay. We grabbed two and turned to head back to the edge of the tree line. It was hours before the wolves ran out of the battle mounds to warn us the orcs were coming. We had to shift a little before the small army came into sight.

The big ones were still whipping the smaller ones to keep them moving. We fired from extreme range and the orcs began falling in whole ranks. Before they got close two thirds were down and most of the those left in front were fighting to get away. I finally tossed my bow aside as I pulled my short swords and moved forward.

The other elves were moving out and I sliced and stabbed into two orcs. I stepped and cut and slid a curved sword away. It was a pattern we followed and the orcs could not keep up. We stepped and shifted one way as we stabbed and cut and sliced and then began to step and move the other way.

By the time we reached the larger orcs the smaller ones that were left had surged past them and were running away. I brushed a long sword away as I stabbed into the large orc’s throat. Aveline had killed another and the other elves had finished them. We looked around and only four elves had been hurt but not bad.

Now we had to move through the orcs on the ground and make sure they were dead and their weapons broken. We pulled them out and into a long pile before returning to camp to wash and rest. The next morning Aveline and I headed north through the battle mounds. It was late afternoon when we saw the army of orcs and turned to start back.

The orcs were like the first army, large ones were in back whipping the smaller to keep them running. It was past midnight when we reached the trees and the elves. Once more the wolves went out into the mounds as we set up inside the trees. The orcs did not come until a few hours after the sun was up.

They spread out when the first arrows began killing them. Again they died in large groups but continued attacking while the large orcs whipped them on. One of the injured elves had an idea and climbed a trees. While we killed the orcs in the front ranks he made long shots that began killing the larger ones in back.

Just as we were ready to toss our bows aside and use swords they broke and fled. All the larger orcs were dead or dying as we went out to make sure and move the bodies. We were back in the trees at the camp when one of the wolves howled and we looked at each other. I grabbed a full quiver of arrows and my bow and stood to move back into position.

The wolves came out of the mounds a little later and ran through our ranks. It was not long before another small army of orcs appeared. They spread out as they charged and we began to fire arrows. They fell in whole ranks as we fired arrow after arrow. Finally those in the trees began killing the larger orcs and the charge slowed and finally fell apart.

As they ran away I slowly moved forward to help pull the bodies away. I glanced at Doran as we walked back to the camp, “you might want to send a runner for more supplies.”

He nodded as we started the fire again to warm up and melt snow. I barely ate before laying beside Aveline who snuggled against me. I woke six hours later to another wolf howling and struggled up. It was dark as I dressed and then grabbed my bow and another quiver of arrows.

The moon was up when we got into position and it was easy to see across and into the mounds. Again a small army charged out of the mounds and we met them with arrows. Five days later another hundred elves arrived with fresh supplies. We washed and ate and then slept, until another army of orcs got there.

They stopped coming a month later and by then we had five hundred elves on the edge of the battle mounds. Several new mounds would be added as soon as it warmed up. I was more than tired as I slept holding Aveline against me. I was thinking of the direction the orcs had come from and the number and about a world gate.

Chapter twenty one

Going home

I glanced at Aveline as we walked out of the highlands and headed northwest. She had been quiet for several days as we recovered. I finally reached over to touch her shoulder, “talk to me.”

She did not smiled as she looked around and then at me, “I tire of killing.”

I nodded as I looked at the north plains awakening from their winter, “I am tired of fighting and always moving.”

She smiled and moved a little closer, “perhaps it is time to start a different campaign.”

I looked at her as she looked everywhere but at me. She was blushing and I finally understood and blushed too, “I am a man.”

She looked at me before smiling softly, “have you looked at yourself? You have touched all the elfstones and your spirit holds them still. You were born a man but you are an elf now.”

I thought about her words as we walked and perhaps she was right. Once across the plains we headed west. Aveline had once told me of an ancient city that had been here before the elves had come. It was mostly ruins and rubble beside the cold western sea. The closer to the ruins the more orcs we saw, there was also the feeling of someone watching us or following.

It was almost a month after leaving the highlands that we saw the edge of the ruins. Orcs were everywhere and as it became night there was a glow like we had seen in elvenhome. It took a long time to work our way around and into the ruins without being seen. We crawled along the top of a tall wall until we were looking out at a huge arch filled with a swirling gate.

Aveline hissed and nodded to one side and I stared. A huge black dragon lay on a large scattered pile of gold and orc bones. It was sleeping now and all the orcs walking from the gate and going past the dragon were trying to be very quiet. I kept looking at the arch and finally touched Aveline before moving back.

It seemed to take forever before we were out of the ruins and clear of the orcs. We were kneeling in a shallow gully and I looked at Aveline, “there is a crack in one of the arch pillars holding the gate.”

She snorted, “with all the orcs and that dragon we would never get close.”

I grinned, “the way that dragon sleeps I could put a spear through its ear to distract it.”

She grinned, “it would eat you.”

I turned at a chuckle and Elvandar slipped out of a bush, “or any and all the orcs that were close.”

Aveline shifted, “what are you doing here?”

He knelt beside us, “we were heading west and south when I saw you.”

I looked at him, “we?”

He smiled, “the other lost ones.”
I looked at Aveline, “lost ones?”

He put his hand on my shoulder, “the feel of the stones was enough to bring them back.”

Aveline smiled, “you should have gone to Green Heart.”

He shook his head, “we have a debt to pay.”

I looked at him for several moments, “I think the only ones that think that are you.”

He shrugged before gesturing, “what are you going to do?”

I looked at Aveline as I thought of both the gate and the dragon and sighed, “you go around and when you see the distraction move to the western arch pillar. Find something to break the crack and make it wider.”

I looked down as I thought, “I will slip around to the west and find a spear to use on the dragon.”

Elvandar cleared his throat, “and us?”

I looked from him to Aveline before smiling, “keep watch and attack any orcs trying to escape.”

I touched Aveline’s hand, “be careful. I do not want to have to hunt you in another realm.”

She grinned and gave my hand a squeeze before turning to slip away. I watched her go before looking at Elvandar and then silently moving away. I had to dodge and move around through the ruins until I was to the west and between the dragon and a cliff. Below were rocks and the western ocean.

I looked over the edge carefully to see a narrow tiny ledge going to the north. I looked at the sleeping dragon and the pile of bones and gold before I saw one of the ancient long spears. It was in and under the bones and I crawled closer and slowly pulled it out as I kept looking towards the dragon’s head.

I checked it carefully before looking towards the gate as another large group of orcs came through. I waited until they began moving past the dragon on his other side and moved towards its head. The head was turned and I looked at the huge ear that was angled. I shifted my grip and changed my stance as I pulled the spear back.

Like in Farintine I thought of my magic and threw with everything I had. I staggered and went to my knees as the spear vanished in the huge ear. The dragon jerked and spasmed and began thrashing as its tail lashed out. I rolled towards the cliff and went over as I caught the edge. I hung and looked down and preyed I could stand.

I dropped the half pace onto the narrow ledge. I swayed but stayed on my feet before I began moving to the north. I could hear shouts and screams and I thought I heard the clashing of swords. That made me think of Aveline and start looking for a way to climb up. I finally managed to use a few rocks and climbed up to look over.

The dragon was still jerking a little but there was a battle between the orcs and the lost ones who were moving through them easily. I pulled myself up as I looked for Aveline and found her hitting the arch pillar with a large heavy battle axe. I grinned as I moved towards her quickly. She glanced at me and grinned, “dumb luck.”

I looked back at the dragon before looking at the crack in the stone arch. I took the axe and gestured her back. I swung it back and then brought it around to strike the stone as hard as I could. I heard a pop and looked at the stone as I shook my hand. I took another hard swing and there was another loud pop.

Suddenly orcs were coming out of the gate and I dropped the axe and pulled Reaper. We moved back as they were trying to look around and then they saw us and attacked. I stepped into the pattern and brought my sword around to cut through an orc from shoulder to hip. Aveline cut another in half as I whirled and lunged to bury a foot of the blade in a big orc’s chest.

I twisted and stepped as I ripped it free and spun. I brought the sword around and took the hands and arms of two orcs stabbing at me with short swords. I moved across in front of Aveline as she spun and sliced a orc following me from neck to crotch. I took the head of one orc and ripped the throat out of another.

The pattern shifted as something dark stepped through the gate. It was huge like a troll but black and had horns like the demon. It roared and ran towards us and we split apart. I lunged to shove my sword into an orc’s belly and grabbed the wrist of another one. I spun and shoved the wrist and sword towards the huge monster.

I moved back as the monster ignored the orc stumbling towards it and it screamed as the sword hit. The monster froze with a look of surprise when the sword vanished in its belly. I grinned as I lashed out and to the side to take the head of an orc. I pulled a spike and threw it and it vanished in the monster’s left eye.

It roared and began shaking as all the orcs around us dropped to the ground and tried to crawl away. I pulled another spike as Aveline threw one that struck the monster’s throat. I threw and mine slammed into the throat beside hers. The monster roared and took a step towards me as it brought a glowing black mace back.

It staggered a moment later and turned and I saw the spear in its back. I looked around and bent to grab another and shifted my sword before I pulled the spear back and threw. It slammed through the back of the neck and the monster fell forward and into the arch. There was a loud crack and then the monster began slipping around and was sucked through the gate.

There was another crack and then one more as the arch began to twist and lean. I started for Aveline and caught her before pulling her after me as I ran. There was a roar that seemed to fill the world and I glanced back to see the gate leaning back and swiveling. I pushed Aveline down and covered her with my body before there was a ripping sound and then an explosion.

Rocks ripped through the air and fire and heat rushed out and over us before debris began to fall. I looked back and pulled Aveline to her feet as I rose. She looked around at the dazed orcs and slashed out to take one’s head. That seemed to wake them up and they turned to flee. The lost ones were slowly standing as all the orcs ran away.

I looked around before looking at Aveline as I knelt to clean my sword, “so...”

She looked at me as she knelt to clean her sword, “So?”

I grinned, “we return to Blue Pass.”

She opened her mouth but I cut her off, “we may have to go to Crossing to get a wagon or wagons. After we load all our things we go to Green Heart.”

She looked at me and then at Elvandar as he approached, “we could go to Green Heart.”

I smiled as I stood and put Reaper away, “then we need to head further south in the Green Heart to the southern edge.”

She looked at me, “southern edge?”

I nodded as I moved towards the still dragon, “to find a place and build our home.”

She followed, “our home?”

I looked at the huge dragon, “then you can start your campaign.”

She bumped my shoulder, “my campaign?”

I grinned, “to start our own family of rangers.”

She laughed and slapped my arm. On the way back to Blue Pass we stopped to introduce Elvandar to those elves guarding the highlands. While the lost ones headed into the Green Heart we went east. It was a couple of months before we returned with three wagons. When we reached the center of Green Heart I had a sense of something waiting.

Gilbert and his wife had been happy to see us and we stayed with them. Aveline was pregnant and glowed as the elf stones pulled at me. I slipped out in the middle of the night and went to see the stones. When I stood in the center of the pedestals a shimmer appeared and I heard whispers in the wind that brushed my face.

I hesitated when a shape reached out and touched my face. The world became still and I felt strange as a peace came to me. A lady’s whisper seemed to reach me as if from a distance, “you are home now and with your own people.”

Decades have passed and Aveline and I have many children, some who will one day return to the north to become rangers.

The end
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