The Elf-Maiden and Her Lords

Standing on the crenellated roof of the red brick fortress that dominated the ancient city of Nah-nathas, the elf-maiden Nerian and the stout young man they called Tem-Árath stopped at a spot different from their usual resting place. Normally, on their pre-dinner walks around the roof, they would pause to look out at the inlet between the cliff-like headlands just to the northwest of the walled city—and from that inlet out onto the great sea that bounded the rugged coastline.

On this day, however, they paused at a crenel overlooking the city’s western gate, the merlons framing the young-looking pair to those who could see up to the fortress roof. Beyond the wooded meadows and rolling hills ahead of them, the two watched the gradual descent of the sun now just lingering above the horizon, its last rays illuminating the road that led into the city from the west.

“That’s strange,” Tem-Árath said, almost to himself. “There is a Guard troop returning. They’re not riding in formation.”

“You can see that from here?” she asked.

“Well,” he said, hesitating, “who else would be on the road?”

“I’ve said it before, Árath,” she mused, still looking at the road beneath them, “You have elf-blood.”

“My grandmother is, was, elf.”

“So they say, my friend, but you seem at least half-elven . . .”

He smiled. “Just because I can see the shapes of horses and the pattern of their ride does not mean I have elf-sight. I have been a noble my whole life,” he explained, feigning confidence, “I know how Guard companies work, how they travel, such that when I see small figures . . .”

“There are two horses without riders,” she replied, pointing down. “One man is not wearing a Guard uniform. And. And. . . “ Her eyes opened wider as her mouth stopped working. With her left hand, she reached for her companion’s wrist as if to steady herself, pressing her right palm more firmly to the ancient stonework. He could hear her breath; it sounded as it sometimes did after she had climbed up to this rooftop.

“Yes?” the stout young man asked, following her line of sight. He studied the riders, now dismounting outside the gate and leading the horses.

“There are no. . . ” he started, then cut himself off.

“No women,” she cut in, completing his sentence. “And they come from the west?” she added hurriedly.

“Are you sure?” he asked somewhat nervously. “Look again. The Guard always travel with women—at least when coming from the west. Your eyes must be deceiving you, Nerian. They must have women with them.”

“You’re blushing,” she said, not turning to her companion. Her words described her coloring as much as his. For a moment, neither spoke as he watched the rise and fall of her chest. He lifted his eyes and studied her face, the reddening cheeks giving it new life. “I am looking,” she added absently, her eyes directed toward the company below. “There are no women.”

Tem-Árath quickly turned away and focused on the road, squinting as if he were trying to see something in the distance.

“But there have to be women,” he insisted, looking down. As he surveyed the troop of very young Guardsmen, his eyes suddenly met those of a young man looking up. He felt a thrill of recognition as his eyes met—and held—the gray ones on the face of the distant traveler, the dark hair of his first beard giving his countenance a soft but rugged masculinity. The man on the roof felt his heart starting to beat more rapidly. He was certain he had seen the youth before. And that young man was now aware of his gaze. He nodded his head, and smiled. Awkwardly, Árath smiled back.

He barely noticed as the youth below shifted his eyes just a tad, ending their visual connection. Even as he became aware that the man by the gate was no longer looking at him, the young lord felt a certain glow from the lingering memory of those eyes and that face, as if he had just caught sight of his closest childhood companion, a friend he had not seen since he was a boy.

When he turned to look at Nerian, he saw that her cheeks remained red, making her deep green eyes seem even more intense by the contrast.

“He is handsome,” she said to herself.

“Who?” Tem-Árath asked, regaining his composure.

“Uh, well, um,” she mumbled, turning her head away as if by force. “There’s, there’s a man down there, black hair, gray eyes, strong jaw, not in a Guard’s uniform.” Steadying herself against the merlon, she added quickly, “I think he saw me too. I’m, I’m sure of it.” She sounded out of breath.

“Nonsense,” the man replied, doubting his own dismissal, “nonsense, no man can see that far. Unless he was an . . .”

“He’s not elf, Árath, we know our own kind.”

He turned to look again at the gray-eyed young man, and then shifted his gaze slightly to see that his female companion was again looking in the same direction, her chest still rising and falling as if she had raced up the stairs. His friend was no longer paying attention to him—not blinking, nor reacting in any manner as he studied the outline of her face, framed as it was against the distant sea. From his perspective, the water appeared to fill one of the crenels behind her back, a frame to the beauty of her face. Everything seemed in perfect proportion, the nose protruding out just far enough to arrest the gradual descent of her forehead which separated the golden hair combed neatly on the crown of her head from the rounded eyebrows atop her green eyes. Her red lips flowed outward in harmony with the graceful curve of her jaw; they had stopped their outward thrust, as if in agreement with the nose, at a spot only slightly in front of her chin, but not even approaching the nasal extremity.

All the elements were in balance; nothing seemed measured.

Hers was a beauty that created no longing in him. He was content just to look at her—and grateful that she had come into his life when she had, her mere image reminding him of the time they had spent together and extinguishing, whenever she were near, the painful recollections of his lonely childhood. In her presence, that childhood seemed less a memory than a story someone else told about a friend whose existence he had all but forgotten.

She started when a horn sounded in the distance. He turned away. She tilted her head toward him.

“It is time for dinner,” he announced, extending his elbow to her.

“Yes,” she replied, fidgeting with a ring on her left hand, but otherwise remaining motionless, her eyes fixed on the world below her.

“Shall we head down?”

Without speaking a word, she put her arm through his, touching him for only the second time since their ascent to the fortress rooftop. They turned to see Stéaldis, a plump woman in a long dark dress, place her knitting in a bag and rise from a bench built flush against a small black structure, the only construction on the otherwise empty roof. Atop the structure, a red and black banner drooped against its pole.

The heavy woman surveyed them without smiling. The couple walked toward the northwestern extremity of the roof, where Árath paused to let Stéaldis pass him and step down onto a stair all but hidden against the red brick. She lifted her hand up to Nerian, who took it as he let go. After the two women descended a spiral staircase, the man followed closely behind.

The women waited at the bottom while Árath completed his descent, the heavier woman looking up at him, the elf-maiden looking away from him and into the building’s interior.

They stood in an empty vestibule, the gray stone of the floor beneath them in contrast to the wainscoted walls around them.   Six great arched windows interrupted the wood paneling on the broad curve of the wall. Nerian stepped forward to a great archway, flanked by two similar passageways, identical in shape, but smaller in size. The columns between the open entryways divided the vestibule from a large room in which the walls, ceiling, and floor were all painted white. There were six immense windows on each side, with a raised platform against a flat wall in the distance. The only thing breaking that barren wall was a square alcove nearly halfway between the platform and the curved ceiling. The stark lines of the flat back wall stood in contrast to the curves of the outside walls and the ceiling – and even to the platform beneath it, which extended into the room in a semi-circle.

A lone black figure broke the near-perfect whiteness—an old woman, her back toward them, leaning against a broom, slowly sweeping whatever dirt had managed to filter into this white wonderland.

“It’s such a shame,” Nerian sighed, “that we never use this room—so vast, so open, so full of light.” She drew in a breath and looked around. “This must be the largest room ever made.”

“So you have often said,” Árath smiled, approaching her and gazing at the room. Turning to their companion, he added, “Surely, Stéaldis, there are rooms larger than this in our great Lord and Guide’s Citadel. Are there not?”

She nodded her head.

“I shall soon find out,” Nerian said, smiling tightly, then looking down as that smile quickly faded. “I will miss this place,” she said.

“It will be many years,” he observed, “before you leave us.”

“And you’re not to go with me?” she asked, even though she knew the answer. This had not been the first time she had asked the question.

“Who knows?” he replied, offering the answer he always did. And looking over toward the other woman out of the corner of his eye, he continued, “You will have greater companionship there than you have here.”

“That is what you are supposed to say,” she retorted playfully, raising her eyebrows, but remaining otherwise expressionless.

“Come,” he smiled tightly, extending his elbow to her. “We must not be late for dinner.” She did not take his arm right away, but looked again into the room as if she might find there the answer to something she had long sought. She took a step toward the great arched entryway, her hands knotted together. As she pulled them apart, something fell from her finger, hitting the floor with a loud ping, and rolling into the room. The old woman quickly turned and looked up.

As the young man followed the object into the room, the old woman at the far end stooped uncomfortably into a curtsey, one knee to the floor, the other quivering, her eyes facing down.

“O, my young lord,” she said, “I did not know you were here.”

“It is fine, Lithíya, you are doing your job. You may rise.”

While the old woman struggled to get up, the young man bent down to pick up Nerian’s ring, a simple gold band set with a single red gem. It had rolled nearly halfway across the room, near to the feet of the aged servant. While he reached to scoop up the ring with his right hand, Lithíya struggled to rise, but had trouble maintaining her balance and fell back to her knees. He made a step forward as if to help her, then checked himself, pulling himself back and freezing in place, staring at the struggling woman.

“Help her, my friend,” said Nerian softly. “I give you permission.”

He extended his fleshy right hand toward the old woman. She took it in her withered left hand. He wrapped his free arm around her waist, helping guide her up.

“There, mother,” he said awkwardly. “You may resume your work.”

“Thank you, my young Lord. May the blessings of our great Lord and Guide be upon you.”

“And upon you,” he said, half-turning toward Nerian.

“You are a mother to all of us,” Nerian said, looking at her, “how hard you work to keep this room clean.”

“Thank you, my lady,” she said, returning the gaze. To Árath, it seemed that the old woman’s face was suddenly suffused with light; she smiled as if she were a young girl, hearing her father call her beautiful.

“We must not be in this room,” Stéaldis said sternly.

“Her ring had rolled here,” he protested.

“Rules are rules,” she began mechanically, her voice softening as Nerian turned toward her. “The hall servant is here,” the heavyset woman added somewhat awkwardly, “to pick up things that fall into this room.”

“Come, Árath,” Nerian said. “Stéaldis is right. We should leave this place.” Smiling at her female chaperone, the elf-maiden extended her arm toward her male companion. He extended his elbow to receive it. As they walked out of the room, he looked straight ahead, determined to exit, but felt her weight pulling him back. She was moving at a slower pace, surveying her surroundings, looking languidly behind, delighting in the contours of this forbidden room.

As they approached the balustrade heralding a great curved staircase on the southern side of the vestibule, he realized that he still clutched Nerian’s gold ring in the palm of his hand. About to return it to the elf-maiden, he caught sight of engraving inside the band. Curious about the markings, he dropped the ring into his side pocket so he might study it later, grateful that his valet Gafon had encouraged him to wear this royal blue doublet, one of the few he owned with such a pocket.

They followed this, the larger of two descending staircases, which flanked the vestibule, the smaller near to the one they had followed from the roof. Becoming wider lower down, it spilled out into the large dining room below. In a long, narrow room, its brick walls covered with tapestries illuminated by torches in sconces, sat a long triangular table set for fifteen, three seats at the head, six along each of the tapering sides, none at its rounded end. That night, as his valet had reminded Árath, there would not be just the household lords, but also a visiting noble and his party. Bródwan, Lord of Nah-nathas, would be entertaining his young counterpart from Feóra, a large estate in the hills a day’s ride southwest of this fortress city.

With the recent death of Cringen, late Lord of Feóra, the Great Lord and Guide had designated the old man’s nephew Calan, only recently elevated as a Guard captain, as the new Lord for the district. And Calan had then been ordered to meet the court at Nah-nathas, then, the largest city in the North.

When he arrived in the dining room, Árath recognized the young lord even though they had never previously met. Calan stood out among the familiar crowd, his small closely set black eyes almost in defiance of the short blond hair on his head. His black cape all but enveloped his red tunic such that it appeared less an item of clothing than a dash of color, like blood newly spurting from a recent wound. The guest was speaking with Bródwan’s three surviving nephews; Tem-Ioncar, Tem-Donacht, and Tem-Lúbair. Each man had lost his father, and none had seen a brother reach maturity.

Standing with the two women, Árath surveyed the crowd of young men just in front of him, each with a title similar to his own. And though he might once have sought their companionship, the past fourteen years had taught him that should he approach them, they would have little to discuss, their interests markedly different from his. They were concerned with court intrigue, he content to know the names of the various lords and their families as well as the locations and purposes of their estates.

At that moment, however, his mind was not on those lords. Instead, it turned to the man he had seen with the Guard company. Árath racked his brain, trying to figure out why that gray-eyed face seemed so familiar. So much did the captivating youth occupy his thoughts that he was barely aware of the beautiful woman beside him.

When he felt her arm fall, he turned and saw that she was gazing absently forward, her eyes directed at the servants in the distance yet apparently focused on a point no one could see.

“My lady,” he began. “Are you, uh, imagining perhaps how that great room upstairs might look were you to decorate it?” As he was speaking, out of the corner of his eye, he glimpsed Lord Calan turning toward them.

Nerian, however, was not aware of the visitor’s glance; she only took notice of the guest when he approached the three who had just descended.

“You must be the elf-maiden Nerian,” Lord Calan said, taking her hand and kissing it. “The tales do not do justice to your beauty.”

His words, or his touch, woke her from her reverie. She looked up. “And you must be Lord Calan,” she replied, a polite smile on her laps. “You are too kind. Welcome to Nah-nathas. I trust you had a pleasant journey.” Gesturing toward Árath, she continued, “This is my . . . ”

Before she could complete the introductions, Postúil, the head butler of the fortress, announced in a sepulchral voice that all guests were to take their places, as the Lord of the City was about to enter. Árath and Nerian may have heeded the bony servant’s instruction, but neither acknowledged him; his very presence sent a chill down each of their spines. His empty eyes were set in a pallid, colorless face, as if the natural hues of human flesh had been drained in the course of his service.

Árath led Nerian to the table; Calan followed, taking the chair to her left. Around the table, Árath saw, save for the two women, only men. He was flanked by those two—Stéaldis, having been displaced from her normal seat next to Nerian, sat to his right. The three nephews sat on the opposite side, each next to a very old man who must, he thought, belong to the court of Feóra; he could not recognize any of the elderly men on the opposite side of the table. Toward the rounded end of the table, he saw the leaders of the Guard, Bolsas and Dursas, sitting next to each other. Their physical contrast belied the similarity of their names; Bolsas was large and heavy; Dursas, small and tightly built. The latter’s severe shock of gray hair was in almost perfect balance with his lined face. His closely set black eyes were almost identical to those of Calan. Near them stood Garclif, the newly appointed Guard Captain of the city’s East Gate.

A trumpet sounded. All turned to the doorway at the far end of the room. Postúil and Iondel—another servant almost the twin of the head butler, yet carrying a little more weight than his senior counterpart–opened the broad double doors. A fat man dressed entirely in black and gold entered, his graying blond hair was puffed up in a wedge atop his head, as if to be in symmetry with his chin, which protruded outward.

A small woman accompanied the fat man, her vibrant blue dress and sparkling emerald necklace contrasted with her withered appearance. Her gray hair was tightly bound on top of her soft and wrinkled face. So tiny was this old lady that those on Lord Bródwan’s side of the room would only have seen her as a dash of color against his heavy darkness.

Either in order to keep pace with this old lady or because of the girth of his thighs, the lord moved slowly into the dining room, nodding, as he approached the table, at each person in turn. Each returned the nod, with Árath breathing a sign of relief at the brevity of the lord’s gesture. The heavy man did, however, let his eyes linger on Nerian.

He led the old lady to a small chair to the left of an immense, ornately carved throne-like seat at the head of the table. He pulled her chair out and waited until she sat before gently pushing it in. His head lowered, he walked slowly behind the ornate chair to a smaller seat to its right. Postúil had already pulled that one out for him.

When he sat, he seemed to shrink; the large chair rose above his well-coiffed head by at least the measure of his own height. While looking at the fat lord out of the corner of his eye, Árath studied (as was his wont) the ornate carving of the chair back. He caught a faint glint of blue light in the middle of a stylized sunburst itself inches above Bródwan’s head.

“I wonder if he’s watching tonight,” he thought, letting his eyes slowly drift back to Bródwan.

After the fat lord had sat down, Árath turned to Nerian, and saw that Calan was already behind her chair and studying her form as she slid gracefully into her seat. Watching Calan pushing Nerian in, his eyes lingering more on the maiden than the young lord, Bródwan warned his guest, “Careful, my young friend, she’s already spoken for.”

Nerian looked up at the empty chair, her eyes gliding past the sunburst as she nodded, but her head titled toward Árath. Neither spoke.

“Yes, my lord Bródwan, why then have you not yet wed?” Calan asked diplomatically.

“Me, wed? Me, marry?” he laughed, first looking over at the old woman to his left, then over at the young maids standing at the far end of the table. “No, my young friend, our Great Lord and Guide has determined that I am not to wed. I can better serve him, he says, without a wife. Is that not right, Mother?” He turned to the old woman.

“That is correct,” she said, in a grating voice that belied her graceful appearance.

“Is she,” Calan asked, gesturing at Árath, “then to be his bride?”

“He would like her to be,” scoffed Ioncar, “but she will not have him, preferring to wait for our Great Lord and Guide. Is that not so, Árath?”

“It is so,” said Árath, in a voice controlled yet strong. “He merits her more than do I, his humble servant.”

“Does he not already have a wife?” asked Calan.

“He is greater than we,” explained Árath, as if detailing the merits of a man about whom his companions knew little, “working hard every day for our happiness, living a life far longer than ours. And alas for him, each of his wives has aged far more rapidly than has he. He will love a woman, have a child with her”—he glanced quickly at Stéaldis—“only to see his consort grow old and die by his side. When his current wife, Lady Laeátana dies, we would not want him to be alone. That is why he has chosen Lady Nerian to be his next bride.”

“She may no longer be young when the time comes for him to wed again.”

“She is elf,” Árath explained. “Once an elf reaches maturity, he does not, she does not, age until she falls in love.” He closed his eyes and shook his head as he heard gasps around the table.

“You should not,” the old woman began in a harsh voice.

“Begging your pardon, Lady Cailleach,” interrupted Nerian in a strong but soft voice, “we are among friends here. Lord Calan is loyal to our Great Lord and Guide, just as we all are. The stories about elves are not like those stories we should not tell. Those are just stories; this one is true.”

“But this one,” the old woman hissed, looking not at Nerian, but at Árath, “seems to know more about elves than is allowed.”

“Oh, Mother,” interjected Bródwan, “leave the young man alone. His grandmother was elf. She brought him back to life when he was near death, having suffered blows for the sake of our Great Lord and Guide. And death has taken her this very month. Let him. . . oh, here’s the first course,” he exclaimed as Postúil set a plate with a steaming tart in front of him. “What is it today, Postúil?”

“Rabbit pie, my Lord,” the servant replied.

Soon each guest was served, and all were eating as the conversation turned to Calan and his recent ascension.

“This is most delicious,” Árath remarked, as he finished the first course.

“You’ve always loved rabbit pie.” Nerian smiled.

“And rabbit stew,” chided Donacht, “and anything cooked with those tasty little bunnies.”

“I don’t see you complaining,” Árath responded.

“We shall have to call in Aleanna,” said Bródwan. “It was a most delicious treat.”

“Once the meal is finished,” his mother admonished.

“Yes, Mother,” the lord replied as Postúil took away his plate. “Yes, Mother.” After the old woman was served her second course, but before the second course had been set before the other guests, the fat lord began to eat from the next dish placed before him.

Throughout the meal, occasionally glancing over to his mother, who rarely spoke, the fat lord controlled much of the conversation, basically instructing his young guest on the important points about governing a city or an estate, reminding him to heed the instructions and remember the beneficence of the Great Lord and Guide. “It is he we serve for the sake of the people; his will is theirs.”

“Would it that he willed we could dine one day in that great room above us,” sighed Nerian. “It has so much more light. As the days grow longer, we should eat in a room with windows. Lord Bródwan, can you not open that room?”

“My lady,” he began in a soft voice, “would it that. . . “

“He cannot,” snapped Lady Cailleach.

“A great room that you cannot use,” mused Calan. “We use all the rooms in our hall at Feóra.”

“That hall,” interjected Árath, “is not as big as this fortress.”

“This fortress is very old,” Bródwan explained. “It was built even before the kings who once used that. . . ”

“Do not speak that word, son,” Cailleach hissed.

Blushing, the fat Lord picked up his wine glass and drained it.

“Are even we nobles not to speak of the kings, my lady?” asked Calan.

“Did not your uncle tell you that it is forbidden to speak that word?”

“My father,” Calan replied, “said we needed to know about the never-ending battles in the time before our Great Lord and Guide brought peace to the land. He had said that the kings once ruled what they called, king-doms.” He spoke that last word as if it were two. “Our Great Lord and Guide rallied the people behind his banner so that we might live as one without war.”

“He told you well,” Cailleach conceded.

“My grandfather told me,” said Árath, looking at Lord Bródwan, “that after beheading a man for speaking the forbidden word, the Dark Sorcerer gave that title to his favorites so they could oppress the people—and that if we speak the word, it is as if we call for his return.”

“The Dark Sorcerer, Calan, lives in the mountain to the north of here,” intoned one of Calan’s old men in a sepulchral voice, “in the Forbidden Lands.”

“Yes, yes,” interjected Bródwan somewhat nervously, “now, then, Árath, you had wanted to offer praise to Aleanna?”

“Yes, my lord, her rabbit piece was most delicious.”

“Postúil, bring in the cook.”

“I to the kitchen, my lord?”

“We must honor Aleanna for her most delicious meal.”

“As you say, my lord,” he replied, stalking away from the table. He returned not long thereafter, followed by a large woman in late middle age, her gray hair tied in a bun behind her head and another far more slender woman, no older than twenty, whom he was dragging by the ear. She was far less pleased than her more heavy-set companion.

“I asked you to bring only the cook,” the lord snapped.

“When I went in to fetch the cook, this Cuichis here,” the butler said with a sneer, “this scullery maid, was sleeping on a bench.”

“I was just sitting, take a moment’s—“ she protested.

“Silence, Wench—we shall deal with you later,” Bródwan snapped. He tuned to the empty chair beside him and, looking at his mother beyond it, added, “Summon all the servants Postúil. We shall make an example of this maid.”

The butler let go of Cuichis’s ear and she fell to the ground, her eyes wide with fear, her lips trembling. Walking to a small table by the kitchen door, the gangly servant picked up a large bell, which he rang nine times, pausing after each third ring.

“Aleanna,” Bródwan said, when the ringing had ceased. “Our long-time guest here, Lord Tem-Árath, very much enjoyed your rabbit pie.”

“He always does love my rabbit dishes,” she said, curtseying, first toward the older man, then to the younger man. “Thank you, my lord,” she said.

“You’re welcome, Aleanna; your food has made my stay here a great delight,” Árath replied, smiling.

“I can see that, my lord.”

“He was as lean as Calan,” Bródwan laughed, “when we first took him in.”

As the lord joked, the household servants gradually came into the room, lining the walls as best they could. Árath looked up and saw Lithíya slowly enter the room; her step seemed a bit lighter than it had been when first they had found her sweeping. Next to her, the oldest servant in the fortress, stood one of the youngest, Gafon, the valet he shared with Tem-Lúbair. Whereas she had come to the fortress over sixty years previously to serve as a handmaiden to Bródwan’s grandmother, the youth, still in his teens, had arrived but six months previously, from the estate at Næsca.

Looking at his valet’s wide-eyed expression, Árath realized that this would be the first time the youth had seen a fellow servant punished at the fortress. His eyes met those of the young man; he shook the hanging sleeves of his doublet to indicate that he had made a good choice in suggesting this attire. Gafon had a much better eye for color than had Achwen, his previous valet, who had disappeared not long after he had misplaced Lúbair’s favorite riding jacket.

When the servants were assembled, Bródwan nodded at Postúil who, with great effort, pulled the lord’s chair back from the table. Offering his master an arm, the aged servant helped him rise.

“My servants,” the fat man began as he, with some effort, stood before them, leaning on the head butler’s arm. “You should know that we treat you well here, giving you the pleasure and privilege of living in this fortress. You do not have to toil in the fields or in the shops.” Gafon smiled nervously and nodded. “All we ask of you is that you do your jobs. But, this woman here, this Cuichis,” he pointed to the cowering figure. “This girl,” he continued, kicking her, “was sleeping on the job. How should we punish her?”

No servant spoke.

“You, boy,” he asked to a youth who could not have been much older than twelve, standing alone and covered in grime.

“Yes, my lord,” said the boy, stepping forward.

“Who are you?” he asked. “What do you do?”

“I am Eachlann, my lord, I, I work in the stables. I’m a, I’m a groom.”

“And do you fall asleep on the job?”

“I. . . I? No, my lord. I do not, no, my lord.”

“I was not sleeping,” whimpered Cuichis, now crying, “just sitting down for a moment’s . . . rest . . .”

“Did I ask you to speak?” glowered Bródwan, kicking her again and causing her to wail even louder. “Keep silent, Bitch. Do not interrupt my instruction.”

“My lord,” Nerian protested, “My lord, please, please do not . . .”

“Quiet, Lady Nerian,” interrupted Cailleach, “you do not have authority here.”

“My lady, she’s just a girl.”

Árath reached a hand over and whispered, “Please, my friend, you’ll only make it worse.” The elf brushed his hand away, focusing on the young servant, as if she wished to engrave the scene into her memory.

“I was talking to the stable-boy,” Bródwan said looking first at the scullery maid, then back at boy. “How do we train our horses?”

“How do you mean, my lord?”

“When we lords ride your horses, how do we control them, make them do as we bid?”

“With a bridle and whip, my lord?” he asked, as if uncertain of the correct answer.

“We don’t have any bridles which will fit this bitch, Eachlann.” He pointed at the servant Iondel. “Take him with you to the stables and give him your best whip. Then return to your duties.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Postúil,” he said, “undress the bitch and save her clothes for her replacement.”

At those words, she darted up and started to run. Calan quickly jumped up from his seat and ran after her, grabbing her and holding her as the old servant began slowly to undress her, pausing every so often to touch her increasingly exposed flesh. His eyes gleamed; she cringed. He had done this before.

Árath turned away. The nephews, having pushed their chairs slightly away from the table, watched. For the first time that night, Lady Cailleach smiled.

When the young woman was naked, Calan held her in place, pulling her arms behind her to prevent her from covering herself. She was sobbing. Nerian reached for Árath’s hand.

No one spoke as they waited for the old servant to return. When he did, he had a rope in one hand and a whip in the other.

Without a word, Iondel and Postúil took the woman and tied her hands, securing them on a bannister near the foot of the great staircase. Iondel handed the whip to Bródwan.

“You have done well, Lord Calan,” Bródwan proclaimed. “Would you like to have the honor of the first blow?”

“No, my lord, that is your duty. She has a fine figure. Perhaps. . . “

“Not yet,” Bródwan snapped. “First she must suffer her punishment before experiencing your pleasure.” He quickly pulled back the whip and struck her on the back.

“Please, my lord,” exclaimed Nerian, squeezing Árath’s hand so hard he could feel her fingers pressing against his bones, “she has suffered enough.”

“No, not enough,” he responded, squinting his eyes, his face becoming an increasingly red as its features disappeared into the fleshy mass.

He continued to whip her in a flurry of blows. As even the nephews began to turn away, Árath looked up and focused his eyes on the lord. He saw the sweat on the fat man’s brow and on his extremities. His thick hands glistened in the torchlight. The lord’s increasingly heavy breathing was punctuated only by the young woman’s screams. Tears rolled down Nerian’s face, but she did not utter a sound.

The whip suddenly fell from Bródwan’s hands. No one spoke. Bródwan walked slowly back to his chair. Postúil followed and wiped his forehead with a towel. Calan stooped down to the woman now slumped against the wall.

“She’s still alive,” he said.

“Then, I shall spare her,” Bródwan puffed, taking a sip of water. As the lord drank, Nerian let go of Árath’s hand and, quickly pushing back her chair, rose.

“Nerian, don’t,” cried Árath. Giving no indication that she heard her friend’s words, the elf-maiden hastened to the prostrate form and untied the maid’s hands, caressing them as they fell free of their fetters. Slowly, gracefully, the elf-maiden drew the sobbing servant to her chest and stroked her hair.

“Stop her, Bródwan,” shouted Cailleach. Her smile had faded.

“Lady Nerian,” he said in a somewhat softer tone, “she is a servant and beneath. . .”

“She is a girl, and she is suffering.”

“How else will I maintain discipline?” He retorted. His words having no effect, the fat lord turned to the head butler. “Postúil, give her an old shift and take her to the fortress gates.”

“But, my Lord,” protested Nerian, “how will she earn her keep?”

“She is young,” Bródwan said. “She is attractive.” He looked at Calan who was just then returning to his seat. “She’s not like this one over here,” he added, pointing to Lithíya. Árath noticed that the old woman was holding Gafon’s hand; he wondered who had been the first to reach for the other.

“The girl will find a way to work in the city,” Bródwan continued, gesturing toward Cuichis. “Won’t she, nephews?”

“Yes,” Ioncar and Donacht replied in unison, “yes, my lord and uncle.” Lúbair’s eyes were turned to the woman’s breasts.

“Good,” he said, “it is decided.” Looking up to the servants, he added, “you see once again what happens to those who don’t do their jobs. Take her away. No, Postúil, don’t take her to the gates. Not yet at least. First, see to Lord Calan’s comforts.” He winked at his blond guest.

“Yes, my lord.”

“On more thing, Postúil.”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Once you have taken her to her temporary quarters,” he commanded, pronouncing each syllable of the adjective temporary, “bring us some of that new wine from Cadros.”

“Yes, my lord,” he replied, signaling to a large male servant who hulked above his fellows. He joined the butler by the side of the naked girl. Nerian looked up at the large man, then whispered something to Cuichis and kissed her softly on the forehead before turning away. Postúil and his counterpart took the maid away. The elf-maiden returned to her seat.

Bródwan clapped his hands, then looked to the servants, “You may go now, but remember what you’ve seen; we may not be so lenient the next time this happens.” As the servants, filed out, he turned to Calan, “How long, young man, will we have the pleasure of your company?”

“My lord,” Postúil interjected.

“Ah, the wine, so quickly,” exclaimed the fat lord, looking up. When he saw that the butler’s hands were empty, he bellowed, “Where’s the wine? I told you to get the wine.”

“I’m sorry, my lord. We have a dispatch from the barracks for Bolsas, but seeing he was with you, my lord.”

“Well done, Postúil; well done,” the lord said first looking at his old servant, then at young guest, “bring the messenger in. And then the wine.”

“Yes, my lord,” the butler replied, clapping his hands twice. A moment later, Iondel entered, leading a tall, gray-haired man in the black and green uniform of the Guard.

“Methlan, Guard messenger of the West Gate,” Iondel announced.

“Good evening, my lords,” Methlan began. Turning to the captains, he added, “a troop of Guard has returned, Master Bolsas.”

“Yes,” snapped Bródwan, “and why should that interrupt our dinner? Guard troops return all the time.”

“They return, my lord,” he said turning to the head of the table, “without their captains, Fifa and Hithilic.”

“These are good men,” interjected Bolsas. “Why did they not return?”

“They were killed, my captain,” Methlan replied, turning to the city’s Captain of the Guard.

“Speak to me, Soldier,” bellowed Bródwan, “when I am present. Bolsas answers to me. As should you.”

“Who killed them? Where? Why?”

“No one knows, my Lord.   They found their bodies—and those of the women traveling with the troop—by a river. Their eyeballs had been removed.”

“Ne . . ” muttered Árath, checking himself before speaking the entire word. Lady Cailleach shot him a look. No one else seemed to have heard.

“Strange, strange,” mused the lord.

“Who leads them now?” asked Bolsas cautiously.

“Drefan, my captain,” Methlan replied.

“He’s not even twenty,” Dursas replied.

“They’re all young in that troop, my captain,” replied Methlan, making an effort to look at Bródwan.

“Why did you send out a troop so young?” asked Bródwan, turning to Bolsas.

“They were on a training mission, with two able and experienced captains . . .”

“Fifa and Hithlic,” interrupted Bródwan.

“Yes,” replied Bolsas.

“And what,” Bródwan asked, spitting out the words and accenting the dentals, “did this Drefan report?”

“He reported, my lord, that the night before they found their captains dead, a messenger from the estate at Bearna sought their assistance in tracking down a worker who had fled with his mother, neither having a Permission to travel.”

“The worker must have killed the captains. He must be found. Dursas here would be glad to show him how we treat those who shirk their duties.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Did he alert the Guard at Brenfréa?”

“They said there were no Guard at Brenfréa.”

“What? What? Where were they?”

“No one knows. They just weren’t there.”

“Who led the troop back?”

“Drefan, my lord.”

Everyone looked up. Árath bit his lower lip and kept his eyes fixed on his lap.

“Bring him to me. Bring him to me,” shouted Bródwan, banging a glass on the table and shattering it. “The wine! The wine!” Methlan turned to go.

When Methlan returned with Drefan, Bródwan was finishing his second cup of the new wine.

“My lord,” said Methlan, accompanied by Iondel and Drefan, “this is Drefan of the Guard.”

“Who killed your captains?” barked Bródwan.

“We do not know, my lord,” the young Guardsman replied, hanging his head.

“Look up at me, Boy,” he bellowed, spitting out red drops of wine onto the table in front of him and the guests around him.

“Yes, my lord.”

“So, you were in search of some worker escaped from the estate at Bearna?”

“Not yet, my lord. Fifa had said we should begin the search first thing in the morning; he would teach us how to hunt for and discipline enemies of our Great Lord and Guide.”

“A good man, your Fifa.”

“A good captain, my lord,” interjected Bolsas.

“Did I ask you to speak?   More wine, Postúil.” He gestured with his glass.

As soon as the words were spoken, the wine was poured.

Emptying his glass in one large gulp, Bródwan looked up at the young guardsman, “Now, now. What was the name of this young man?”

“I don’t know, my lord.”

“You don’t know?”

“Fifa didn’t tell us.”

After a long pause and in a more sedate manner, Bródwan turned to Bolsas and asked, “is that proper behavior?”

“That depends on the situation, my lord.”

“Depends on the situation, I see.” Bródwan nodded his head, “depends on the situation.”

“What happened to the messenger?”

“We don’t know; when we woke in the morning, awaiting orders, he was gone. He must have returned to the estate.”

“Did you not follow him?”

“He was gone in the morning and we did not know the way. The only road we knew was the road we had taken, the way we had come. We decided to return to Brenfréa and ask the Guard there. But there . . . .”

“. . . was no Guard at Brenfréa.”

“No, my lord.”

“And what else happened on this trip?”

“We picked up a young man and his grandmother travelling to Fritha. Beorgan, brother to their overseer from Dranda, was accompanying them. She became ill and could not travel by foot; Beorgan took her to a farm. We were going to take the young man to Brenfréa so he could get a Horse Permission and bring her to her people.”

“And they had their Permissions?”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Now that was well done.”

“Thank you, my lord.”

“And you couldn’t get the Horse Permission because there was no Guard there?”

“That is correct, my lord.”

“And what happened to the Guard?”

“No one knows, my lord.”

“Not even the innkeeper . . now what’s his name?”

“Reced, my lord. They call him Reced. He didn’t know either; he said that one morning he woke up, and found himself alone in the inn. His wife Hæsla was not by his side, nor in the kitchen. The cook had disappeared, and the troop was gone.”

Árath pressed his palms against his chair’s armrests, his knuckles whitening with the pressure. He wanted to ask if the cook were a woman; he was certain she was.

“Who was in charge of that troop, Bolsas?”

“Nithlaf, my lord.”

“Ah, a good man. Nithlaf would only go out on a mission for good reason. Bolsas, first thing in the morning, send a messenger. Send two. Dursas, you go. Find out what happened at Brenfréa. And you, Árath?”

“Yes, my lord? Do you want me to go as well?”

“You have a good memory. Remember all we hear tonight, and report it to our Great Lord and Guide. The room with the talking glass shall be yours at first light.”

“Should I not do that, my son?” Lady Cailleach asked, before Árath could offer his assent.

“Of course, mother.”

“Should I not go, then, my Lord?” Árath asked, looking up and releasing his hands.

“He shall have two reports.”

“Now,” Bródwan said, returning his gaze to Drefan, “now, tell me about this man you picked up.”

“We brought him here, my Lord. His permission said Fritha. The road to Fritha passes through Nah-nathas; we thought we might get a Horse Permission here, from Bolsas.”

“You brought him here. Good, good, good.”

“Yes, yes, and what is his name?

“Agon, my lord.”

Nerian looked up and mouthed the name. Árath thought he saw her hands quiver.

“Agon took to horse quite well,” Drefan continued, oblivious to the elf’s reaction. “The men like him; he is kin to a young Guardsman, Céogan, who is from Fritha. We brought him here, sir, so we might get a Horse Permission from Bolsas and return with it to fetch his grandmother.”

“Begging your leave, my lord,” ventured Dursas.

“Yes, what is it?” snapped Bródwan.

“Could this boy, this Agon, be perhaps the laborer who fled?”

“Drefan says the young man had a Permission.”

“I should like to see that Permission,” Dursas said.

“Do you have it, Drefan?”

“No, my Lord, Agon has it. Or had it. He lost it when riding.”

Finding his left hand on his chin, Árath quickly withdrew it.

“Lost it,” bellowed Bródwan. “Lost it? Why didn’t you take it from him? Don’t you know the rules?”

“Rules, sir, what rules? We are to ask for Permissions from all travelers not on estates. I asked for the Permission. I saw it, my Lord.”

Ignoring the young guardsman, Bródwan turned to Dursas.

“Dursas, my friend, what are the rules for those who travel with the Guard?”

“That they must surrender their Permissions to the Guard for as long as they shall travel in their company,” he recited, as if reading from a rulebook.

“I did not know, sir,” Drefan protested. “We had only just beg . . .”

“Well, you should have known,” bellowed the fat lord. “You should have known. Postúil,” he turned to the butler, “do we still have that whip?”

“Yes, my lord,” the man responded with the hint of a smile on his face, “Yes, my lord.”

“Iondel,” Bródwan commanded, “strip the boy.”

“But, my lord,” protested Nerian.

“He was only doing his duty, my lord, as best he saw it,” interjected Árath. Drefan looked up, his eyes briefly meeting those of the tem-lord.

“If we show leniency when he errs, how then will he learn?” Bródwan retorted. “He has made more work for us, Lord Tem-Árath. We must now send messengers to Dranda to confirm the Permissions. Dranda, as you well know, is one of the furthest estates from this city–past even Pengwir. And that city is a seven days’ ride. At least. We must find out what happened at Brenfréa, and keep enough Guard here in the city to protect the people.” As the lord spoke, Drefan pushed Iondel away when that servant tried to undress him, choosing instead to remove his own clothing. He stood naked at the foot of the table, his hands covering his genitals, a defiant look on his face.

“But, my Lord, we need to learn more about what happened to his captains. If we punish him . . .”

“He might talk more freely,” Bródwan interrupted. “He may be concealing something. And Bolsas . . .”

“Yes, my lord?”

“Keep a close watch on this man, this. . . ”

“Agon, my lord,” offered Árath.

“Keep this Agon close. We should send for his grandmother; she should still have her Permission. And this, this companion. Send for him, too.”

Drefan opened his mouth. Checking an impulse to speak, he ground his teeth.

“Iondel, tie the young Guardsman up,” Bródwan commanded. “You, Postúil, bring me the whip.”

“Please, my lord,” Nerian protested, looking down.

“I beg of you, Lord Bródwan, not twice in one meal,” implored Árath, his eyes suddenly riveted to the Guardsman who, without uttering a word of protest, defiantly followed Iondel to the wall where Cuichis had so recently suffered. He rubbed his left eyebrow with his fingertips, as if trying to smooth the hairs.

“You, Árath, you of all people. That you would protest this! You who killed your own cousins.”

“And his uncle,” volunteered Lúbair.

“And your uncle,” repeated Bródwan.

“This, this man,” said Calan, his small eyes widening, “killed his kin? There is more to him than I thought.”

“Tell him the story, Árath,” said Bródwan in a mocking tone as he took the whip from Postúil’s hands and rose. “Tell him how you came to be our guest here, these fourteen years. Tell him why they won’t have you back in Gléann na Méadann.”

“They would have me back, my lord. Only my grandmother thought my cousin Ahone should rule in our Great Lord and Guide’s name. As he did himself,” he said, gesturing at the empty chair, “After what happened.”

“Then, tell our guest, yes, tell our guest,” Bródwan ordered, extending his arm and bringing the whip down on Drefan’s back. “Tell our guest what happened.”

Those who could see the young Guardsman’s face observed that he had closed his eyes and gritted his teeth; he would bear his suffering in silence.

“My family, as you might guess from that introduction,” began Árath, turning toward Calan, “does not come from Nah-nathas. They say we are distant cousins, Lord Bródwan and I; his family is also from the South.”

“Just tell the story,” bellowed Bródwan, bringing down the whip again on the silent Guardsman.

“My father and my uncle Andoigh were twins.”

“Their mother was elf?” asked Calan.

“Yes. She would never say who was born first, but I believe my father was,” he said, as if reciting a passage from history. “When Uncle Andoigh claimed the right of the first born, I reminded him that there was no such right. Our Great Lord and Guide decides these things” He looked at Calan. “We—my father, my brothers and I, that is—began to suspect that my uncle had made alliance with the Dark Sorcerer.”

“Your uncle was working with him to overthrow our Great Lord and Guide?” Calan asked, astounded. “Is he not aware how our lord punishes those who deny him?”

“He should have been, “Árath replied. “He was naïve, my uncle was, trying to do what no man can do. And he paid for his folly. But not without causing many deaths. They say he killed my grandfather, his own father. Andoigh and his sons had planned to take over Gléann Na Méadann when, after my grandfather died, our great Guide declared my father lord.

“They launched a rebellion; some members of the Guard joined them, making their camp at an old hunting lodge near Broc Aylin, the forest just north of our valley. With the blessings of our Great Lord and Guide, we led a troop of Guard and surrounded the lodge.

“We were about to torch the place when their Guard Captain came out with a white flag, saying that Andoigh had betrayed them and sued for peace.

“You killed him, of course?” interjected Calan.

“Someone did. Someone must have. But not right then. We were charged to capture my uncle.   Our Great Lord and Guide should determine his fate. Not us. As we waited to storm the lodge, my oldest brother Ansmacht, in his well-intentioned folly, instructed us to ride toward the forest . . .”

“Us?”

“My brothers, that is. Ansmacht had not forgotten about the old tunnel that led out from the wine cellar and to the eaves of the forest. We rode there.”

“Did he not ask for your father’s leave?”

“No. He didn’t think we had time; he was certain we would capture our uncle; we sent a servant to tell father the plan.

“We rode to the spot, but our cousins were expecting us. An arrow felled Ansmacht. We charged them. I wrestled with my cousin Adhúil. I cut off his head.

“I rose and fought my other cousins, jabbing one in the stomach—or so they tell me—cutting off another’s legs, leaving him to bleed to death. I took my share of blows. I saw my uncle flee into the forest. I knew he would not go far. That forest is strange.”

“It is an elf-forest,” spoke Nerian softly. “One of the few left west of the Great Wood.”

“Legends, lies,” proclaimed Cailleach. “We know what happens to those who tell such stories.” She looked up at her son who again brought down the whip in the back of the young Guardsman.

“Begging your pardon, my lady,” said Nerian, looking up at the old woman, “I am elf. I know the powers of my people.”

“It is forbidden to speak these stories,” Cailleach hissed, looking over at the empty chair. “His command. Your intended’s law. For our own good.”

“We all here serve him,” replied Nerian, beginning with nervous hesitation, but continuing with calm determination, “no one here will let those less trusty hear these tales. They say that those who try to enter an elven forest without leave find themselves back at its gates. They can never go further than the first twelve trees. Or thereabouts. The forest always leads them out.”

“Have Árath continue his tale,” bellowed Bródwan, cracking the whip again. Drefan grimaced, but did not cry out.

“I found my uncle there, just inside the forest; I could still see the corpses on the battlefield; he was talking to his youngest son, my cousin Andar.”

“You fought and killed them both?” asked Calan, astonished.

“When they saw me coming, Andar fled into the forest. My uncle turned to face me. We fought. I tried not to kill him.”

“So you were not ruthless?” interrupted Calan.

“Did you not hear?” Árath shot back, his tone rising. “Our Great Lord and Guide wanted us to bring my uncle to him alive. I did my best to serve him, but I failed him, failed him. Perhaps, that is why I cannot be lord of Gléann Na Méadann.”

“How did you do it, then? How did you kill your uncle?”

“I don’t remember it all clearly. My uncle was running; I followed him. I heard the trumpet hailing my father. Uncle Andoigh threw his knife. They say it pierced my father in the eye.   I did not see him fall, only heard about it later. My grandmother told me. Because my uncle had slowed to throw the knife, I was able to catch up with him. I jumped on him, his sword ripping my flesh as I fell.” Árath patted his side. “They say that mine pierced his heart. I didn’t see it. I don’t remember. I only wanted to wound him, but the sword was in my hand when I fell on him.”

He turned to look at Nerian, whose eyes met his. He could not then read them. He closed his eyes, drew in a breath and saw again the eyes that had been peering at him from behind a tree in that forest when he found the corpse of Lord Andoigh. He shivered.

“I remember riding in the wagon back to our estate. I remember my grandmother nursing me back to health. My brothers were all dead. My father and uncle were dead. My cousins were dead. Our household Guard were dead. All those I knew,” he added in a wistful tone, “those with whom I had grown up, all dead, all gone.”

“This is what happens when a lord breaks faith with our Lord and Guard,” Bródwan declared, again striking Drefan with a whip.

“They did not make you Lord because you killed your uncle?” Calan asked.

“Our Great Lord and Guide, in his boundless mercy, thought I could serve him in other ways. My grandmother became aware that her niece had left the Great Wood and was seeking something in the North. She had asked our great Lord and Guide to have me join her.”

“Her niece?”

“I am her niece,” Nerian volunteered, “and his first cousin,” she added, nodding at Árath, “once removed. He is to be my chaperone until I wed, and then perhaps to serve as chamberlain to our Great Lord and Guide–if he is not then too old. Being only quarter-elf, he ages only a little bit more slowly than do most men.”

The story concluded, Bródwan ordered Dursas to lock Drefan in the dungeon in the fortress until they could retrieve Agon’s grandmother and her Permission. He regretted that there were not enough Guard in the city for him to send a troop to Brenfréa as well as a detachment to learn about the man who had fled from Bearna. He would decide in the morning what else they could do, insisting only that Dursas and his team depart at first light, granting them permission to use the fastest horses from the fortress stables. The last thing he did before retreating to his quarters was to order that Agon work in the Guard’s much humbler stable until his grandmother should join him and they could continue their journey to Fritha, as their Permissions allowed.

Soon after the fat lord and his mother took their leave, Árath, with Nerian on his arm and Stéaldis following slowly behind, made their way to the residences in the fortress.

As he left the elf-maiden outside the door to the apartments she shared with Stéaldis, she whispered to him, “I do not believe that story about you. I do not believe you fought your cousins, my cousins and killed your uncle, my first cousin.”

“You’ve said that before, my lady,” he replied, kissing her hand and turning away without meeting her glance.