Conspiracy - The Fourth Age Shadow Wars
Chapter One: The Odd Couple
Thick mist blew upon the northeast breeze, winding and curling as dusk arrived upon the sodden grasslands of eastern Eldora. Five horses slowly emerged from the fog. One of them, a roan, bore two figures upon its bare back. The first was a tall Elf, his long, dark hair tied into a single tight queue that fell over his left shoulder. His dark traveling cloak was sodden with rain. Bright eyes in a pale face flickered back and forth through the gathering gloom, searching for the telltale motion of enemies amidst the damp grasses and low shrubs. But there was nothing. Birds, rabbits, even insects were absent. But for the low, mournful sound of the wind over the plains, he and his companion were alone. The Elf's perfect posture revealed no sign of fatigue or discomfort. He might have been riding in a forest glade on the first warm, dry day of spring rather than in a miserable savannah where bits of mud kicked up from his horse steadily spattered him with malodorous fragments.
The Elf's companion, who rode behind him, arms loosely looped about his waist, was nearly as wide as he was tall. Thick, wooly brown hair ran from his head into a large, thick beard that surrounded the dour face of a Dwarf. A big, straight nose jutted from a strong face in which prominent brown eyebrows gave way to a slightly sloped forehead. The Dwarf's stern face, strong in character, was set now in a resigned grimace of discomfort as he steadily sniffed the oncoming breeze, searching for any scents of creatures hiding in the thick blanket of gray vapor. Smelling nothing unusual, the Dwarf shook his head disdainfully. 'Not even an enemy to distract me from this bleak landscape,' he thought. 'This is truly misery curdled.'
It was two days since the Dwarf, whose name was Bruno, had met with Golbur, his lord, in an inn called the Fast Flow on the Isle of Innis Mallow. The inn was a place where traders of all races met freely and spoke with one another. Elves and Dwarves would not draw undue attention here.
Bruno had walked upstairs into a room where Golbur was seated in front of a crude table, pouring over maps. The Dwarf lord gestured for Bruno to sit in another chair in front of the table. Taking a seat, Bruno wondered why he had been summoned here. His questions were soon answered.
'I have a scouting mission for you,' said Golbur, 'one that requires you to go with an Elf and take him into the mines of Nerea. From there, you will have sealed orders as to your next step. If you refuse, you can return home to Edelhohle and no one will think the lesser of you. If you go on the mission, I will extend your time mining in the Fire Opal caves, regardless of your success or failure, by one month. Your time may be extended further depending upon how successful you are in this mission.' Golbur the proceeded to outline the mission briefly, ignoring the growing expression of disbelief on Bruno's face.
Bruno had dreamed of a year at Edelhohle, as all Dwarves did, but only those fortunate enough to rise to the notice of their Lords earned a year working in that small but fabulously wealthy mine. Edelhohle contained the only source of the fabulous Fire Opals: soft, beautiful stones that needed no polishing or cutting, perfect in every way in their luster and color. Bruno certainly wanted more time to mine these stones, but this mission Golbur had thrust upon him seemed doomed to failure from the start.
'Golbur, you can't seriously be asking me to take an Elf to the mines of Nerea, much less into them. He will be shot on sight, as I well might be!'
'No, he will not. There has been an unwritten but nonetheless actual ceasefire for years. Neither race will shoot or harm the other even if they trespass, unless they act in a violent manner. The presence of an Elf in your company will not be liked, but it will be tolerated—provided the Elf doesn't do anything stupid.'
'How difficult will it be for some fanatic adept of Parsifal to concoct a story that this Elf reached for his bow and they acted in self defense?'
'Here is your answer,' Golbur said, handing Bruno a scroll.
Unrolling it, Bruno saw an official request from Golbur to Tillo IV to receive the Elf in Bruno's company as a diplomat and extend him the full courtesy of the Dwarves. Among the Dwarves, official requests from one sovereign lord to another were not lightly countermanded or ignored. While the priests of Parsifal might still slay the Elf, they would risk the displeasure of Tillo and Golbur by doing so. As powerful as they were, they would think twice about incurring the enmity of Dwarf lords.
Retrieving the scroll, Golbur sealed it, imprinting his mark upon the molten wax.
'Fine,' Bruno said meanwhile. 'So I have to take an Elf to Nerea. Can I at least ask why?'
'No, you may not. You will have sealed orders that are not to be opened until after you are a day's ride from the river. This will ensure the secrecy of your mission. Well, do you accept or refuse?'
Thinking for a moment, Bruno asked, 'I accept, but I am afraid that while your scroll will protect me once we are in Nerea, those mad priests might find us and attack us both before we can be admitted to Nerea.'
'This will protect you,' Golbur said, producing a small metal case from his cloak. 'Turn around so that I may fasten this upon your neck.'
'What is it?' asked Bruno.
'A Circlet of Truth.'
Bruno was stunned. Such circlets were incredibly rare, and their use required ancient magical spells known only to a handful of Dwarves. He looked on in awe at the Circlet as Golbur opened the case. It was a close-fitting solid choke-style necklace comprised of two Platina semicircles that pivoted under a central chamber holding ground Fire Opals that glowed softly and permanently. Any Dwarf wearing a Circlet was protected utterly under Dwarven law, and their veracity in all matters held to be beyond reproach.
Lifting the Circlet from the case, Golbur fastened it around Bruno's neck, muttering words in archaic Dwarvish incomprehensible to Bruno. He felt a brief but searing pain as the necklace ends joined together.
'You will leave on the morrow after meeting with your traveling companion,' said Golbur. 'Good night and good travels.'
Sitting on the horse with the Elf, Bruno recalled his first meeting with him the day before, when they had met at the Fast Flow. Bruno had politely introduced himself. 'How are you, my good Elf? Bruno, son of Burkhard, at your service.'
'Lithir, son of Londir of the Great Forest; I am well, and you?'
Bruno replied, 'I am well.' He did not know what else to say, as he could not talk about the secret mission in public. An awkward silence ensued for the next half hour, and it was with relief that Bruno was able to take his leave of Lithir and return to his room above the bar, waiting for nightfall.
That night, Bruno and Lithir were taken by boat by masked and cloaked boatmen from Innis Mallow. They assembled on the north bank of the Aphon, and Bruno looked at the five spare horses uneasily, knowing that there would be little time for walking on this journey.
'My good Elf, have we been provided any decent food and drink?' he asked Lithir.
'That should not be your primary concern, but we have rations enough to see us through our mission,' Lithir replied. 'I am sure we will find enough water along the way.'
Sighing at what promised to be a miserable boring journey until they reached Nerea, Golbur was helped up to sit behind Lithir on the horse with no saddle, clutching at the waist of his companion.
'Not even time to pack decent food or ale,' Bruno thought disapprovingly, and his stomach rumbled in agreement
Returning to the present, Bruno said to his Elven companion, 'Lithir, can't I walk for a while? We Dwarves are not meant to ride upon horseback. I prefer my feet.'
Responding in a dry, ethereal voice, Lithir said, 'Bruno, my companion, if your legs were not so short, you would be welcome to walk. But if we want to complete our mission prior to winter, you must ride.'
Muttering in his own language, Bruno complained without true spirit. After all, when Lord Golbur had picked him for this mission, he had informed him that there would be horseback riding involved. Like all Dwarves, Bruno found the beasts both distasteful and fearsome, for he had no idea how to ride one and had to cling to Lithir to keep from falling.
Now, sitting on the wet back of a disgruntled horse, Bruno had no desire to try and speak with Lithir again until they made camp that night. As night begin to fall, the mist turned into a steady, chill rain that slowly intensified until all the land was obscured about them. 'Not that there was much to see by day,' thought Bruno. 'Just river on the right and scrub forest on the left.'
Sniffing the air, he smelled the soggy landscape and, faintly, distant scents of deer, rabbits, and birds. Most Dwarves were born with an ordinary sense of smell, which rapidly deteriorated as the fumes of metal working, forges, and dust particles filled their noses. But once in a while, a Dwarf was born with the ability to sniff out hidden pockets of gas: a most acute ability, as the gasses were nearly odorless. Where and how this sense came about was still a mystery to the Dwarves, but those children born with a “Deep Nose” were cherished and protected until they reached adulthood. Then they were routinely sent into the newest mining spaces to track down the deadly gasses before they could accumulate.
Bruno had been born with this ability, but also with a gift for languages and a desire to see other lands. These qualities, so rare among Dwarves, had resulted in his transfer out of the mines, into a five-year assignment with the Fellow Travelers, the Dwarven messenger corps. Once outside the mines, Bruno had found that he could sense many more things than deadly mine gasses. Animals were readily identifiable to his “Deep Nose,” as were Elves and Men. Bruno soon learned to identify many individuals by subtle distinctions of scent alone, so that he could pick them out at a distance, even in darkness and before they uttered a word.
Tonight, the second night of the mission, Bruno hoped his nose would give him some warning if there was anyone close to their path. Sniffing again, he tried to ignore the smell of his Elven companion, a thin, sharp body odor so different from the musky odor of Dwarves. Instead, he concentrated on smelling the vegetation, marshy ground, and the faint acrid tang of wood smoke accompanied by a whiff of cooking odors he judged to be about two miles distant.
Turning his focus away from his nose and back to his thoughts, he wondered again about the mission. Instead of using the great east road on the south shore of the river, they were riding across the vast scrub-lands between Eldora and Kozak.
Just before full dark, Bruno insisted that they dismount and make camp for the evening, as he was tired and hungry. Saying nothing, Lithir simply stopped their horse near a small freshet that ran down to the Aphon. Lithir tended to the horses, placing them on long pickets, as Bruno built a fire to heat dried rations and dry their wet clothes.
Sitting on a cloth folding stool, Lithir offered to share the Elven cakes he had packed in his own personal kit. Grunting, Bruno thanked him, accepting the cakes and offered some of the dried meat strips that Dwarves took on long journeys.
Smiling, Lithir declined and said, 'There are some fresh fruits, cheeses, and Elven bread in the gray canvas bag with the red straps. I think there is even some Dwarven ale on the horse with the blue baggage stripes.'
Startled for a moment, Bruno replied, 'You would have let me eat dried meat all the way to Nerea, wouldn't you, if you could have gotten away with it? Why did you insist that we eat only a wafer for lunch, and in the saddle to boot?'
Lithir replied, 'Because we didn't have time to stop and have a proper lunch. If it weren't for the fact that the horses and you need rest; I would have pressed on for several more days before I would be forced to rest.'
'How does that explain the bad food, stale water, and silence I received all afternoon? Tell me that, you poor excuse for an immortal,' growled Bruno.
'Poor excuse for an immortal, am I?' replied a bemused Lithir. 'Well, perhaps I am, but at least, O bearded one, I can see over the foliage without hopping up and down like a child.'
Lithir had caught Bruno doing that earlier in the day when they had dismounted for a few moments to relieve themselves.
Feeling a black mood about to come upon him, Bruno reached for his axe. But then he was struck by the thought that he must have made a comical sight at that, and, despite his sense of dignity—and unlike most of his fellow Dwarves—he was not so stiff-necked that he couldn't laugh at himself when warranted.
'Well and fairly struck, my lofty companion,' Bruno said with a chuckle. 'That makes one I owe you—and a Dwarf always pays his debts . . . with interest.'
'I am pleased to hear it,' said Lithir, raising one elegant eyebrow. 'Truly you are greatly in my debt. Few others of my kind would have agreed to this mission, much less to take a surly Dwarf along as companion.'
'Surly, am I?' said Bruno, feeling his temper rising. 'Perhaps I am, but at least I have red blood and not milk in my veins!'
'If I were you,' replied Lithir, 'I should be more worried about what you have in your hair.'
'My . . . ow!' Bruno raised a hand to his thick, tangled hair and exclaimed as a tiny bird zipped off into the night, bearing in its beak a clutch of newly plucked hair. 'Will you at least tell me what you know of our mission?'
'Certainly, do you know the route we will take to Nerea?'
'We will ride through these mostly empty grasslands until we are past the trading center of Nexus, where the Iron River joins the Aphon. There we will need to build a raft to cross the river, and then we will proceed along the south bank of the river to the Thumb, a sheer mountain peak that hems in the Aphon's south bank with steep cliffs, creating nearly impassable terrain. We will then travel up the valley formed by the Border stream separating the North Forest on the north bank from unclaimed land on the south side. My general instructions are to keep us as far from other peoples as possible, until we reach Nerea, so that rumor of our mission does not arrive in our realms before we do. This is as much a surprise inspection by my King as a fact-finding journey. He wants to see the status of the North Forest without disguise or pretense. Ferox has prevented Elves from the Great Forest from freely accessing his realm for the past fifty years. This attack in Eldora has given Albericus enough authority from the Elven Council to override Ferox' ancient individual rights to control access to his realm.
'Albericus has asked that you accompany me into the Northern Forest as an informal diplomat so that the Elves of the North Forest can see Dwarves as they really are, rather than the vicious monsters portrayed by our rumors and legends for more than a century. As I am the first Elf to visit your mines, and you are the first Dwarf to enter the North Forest, we will each have a unique perspective of the other's world.