96. A Bloody Mark
A Bloody Mark
Two youths, not too old to be called children, travelled across northern Adalrik. The food they had brought with them from camp had been devoured after a few days. Instead, they foraged for berries and wild fruit, mushrooms and even roots on occasion when hunger was worst.
“Egil, we’re far from camp now, and we haven’t seen any soldiers,” Kate said, walking alongside him. “Don’t you think we should go east? And then we can turn south.”
“Not yet.” They were between three and four weeks north of Middanhal. Ahead of them for many miles lay only pastures for sheep, oxen, and horses until grass eventually gave way to wood. “We need to go further.”
“Are you sure we’re not just walking in circles?”
Egil made a gesture with his head upwards. “The sun is to our left. It’s late afternoon. That means north is straight ahead.”
Kate drank from the container they had managed to bring along from camp. “We’ll need more water soon.”
“There’s bound to be a stream somewhere,” Egil considered. “If it runs in the right direction, we can just follow it, and we’ll have enough water.”
“Until we have to turn east. Right?”
The next day, fortune smiled upon them. It was Kate who was alerted to the sound of a brook; they followed her ear and came upon a stream of water, allowing them to drink their fill.
“There we are,” Egil remarked. “There’s probably things to eat that grow around here too.”
“We’ll keep our eyes open,” Kate nodded. “I’d give a year’s pay for an hour inside the orchard in the Citadel,” she added with a whining tone. “Apples, pears, plums –”
“Stop! You’re making me hungry,” Egil grumbled.
“You better keep your eyes open, then,” she teased. “Make sure you find enough for two!” He did not reply but started walking instead, following the stream. “Egil?” Kate said as she caught up to him. “Is something wrong?”
“We’re running for our lives,” he pointed out.
“We were,” she corrected him. “Nobody’s chasing us. Nobody’s got cause to. I think we’re safe.”
“Still, let’s be alert.”
“Of course. You just seem in a troubled mood.”
“I’ll be fine once we get further away from camp.” He increased his pace, and they continued in silence.
“Egil, we should turn back.” Kate had repeated this point throughout the day, receiving varying responses. It was more than a week after they had fled the camp.
“We’ve come all this way. We might as well continue,” Egil mumbled, sounding weary.
“Where to? I’ve seen the maps, there is nothing this far north!” Kate stopped and stared at him. “There’s nothing here!” They stood in lands near barren except for brown-coloured grass.
“There is the forest,” he pointed out, nodding ahead. In the far distance could be seen the rising trees of the Alfskog.
“So I am going there,” Egil told her and began walking again.
“Are you mad?” Kate ran up to stand in front of him. “You can’t enter the forest!”
“Well, that’s what I intend to.” He moved around her.
“But you’ll die! Nobody enters the northern woods and returns,” Kate nearly yelled, catching up to walk by his side.
“I’ve done it before,” Egil declared.
“You never told me that.”
“I was asked not to tell anyone.”
“I’m not anyone,” she told him with a sour voice.
“Well, I am going there.”
“Egil, that’s stupid. We should turn around and go back to Middanhal. Find a way to help Master Quill.”
“Kate!” He stopped to look at her. “I can’t explain because I don’t know how. I wouldn’t understand if someone tried to tell me. So you’ll just have to trust me. You can wait by the treeline, and I’ll come back for you.”
“No, that’s not the way we play.” Kate raised a finger to put him in his place. “You keep trying to leave me behind. If you’re going inside to die, so am I.”
“With that attitude, what could go wrong,” Egil mumbled, but he began walking again as did she.
It was nightfall when they reached the edge of the forest. With the sun setting, the wood was pitch black, and nothing could be spied past the first trees. “So?” Kate asked. “What now?”
“We enter the forest,” Egil told her. Taking a deep breath, Kate began to walk forward. “Wait!” he called out. “We’re not ready yet.” He took out the small knife in his belt.
“What do you mean?”
“We need protection,” he told her, rolling up his sleeve.
“From whom.” He squinted in the darkness, looking at his arm.
“Shut up and tell me.”
“That contradicts itself.” He touched his skin with the tip of his knife gently.
“Just tell me what you’re doing!”
“The forest has protectors. I need to make sure they won’t attack us.” He inhaled, exhaled, and cut into his own skin.
“It’s fine,” he gasped. “I know what I am doing.” He traced a strange pattern with the knife, frowning in concentration. “There. Done.”
“What does this mean?”
“Apparently it means I’m not to be killed.” Egil cleaned his knife, sheathed it, and wiped the blood from his arm with his hand. “Blood is disgusting,” he remarked. “I’m glad I’m not a warrior.” He made sure the sleeve would not come loose and fall down to conceal the bloody rune.
“How does this work?”
“You’ll see. Let’s go,” he told her, and together, they entered the Alfskog.
They had to walk slowly; there were no paths for walking other than what the animals might have trodden by chance. Roots occasionally rose from the ground, causing them to trip, and they soon held on to each other tightly for support. Owls could be heard, performing the hunt; likewise their prey, such as swift little forest mice, could be noticed rustling through the undergrowth.
A squirrel passed by not far from them, giving them a curious gaze before hurrying onwards. As they approached a clearing with a small lake illuminated by moonlight, they spotted several deer drinking; as the pair came closer, the animals fled.
The boy and girl walked over to drink greedily from the water and fill their skins. Standing up and turning around, they saw an archer pointed a nocked arrow at them.
It took a moment for them to realise the threat; even in the moonlight, the Elf was in near complete concealment with the forest behind him. Had he not stepped forward into the clearing, they would never have seen him. His eyes, strange in colour and without pupils, stared at them intensely. The arrow on his bow looked sharp.
“Here!” it burst from Egil, who held his arm forward. “Elf-friend, I am an Elf-friend!” By his side, Kate stood paralysed from shock or fear. “Ælfwine,” he added, “do you understand me? Ælfwine, like the old tongue!”
The scout scowled and shouted something in his own speech. Another scout appeared as from thin air; she also had an arrow at the ready and pointed at the pair.
“Do you know Ælfwine? The word or the man?” Egil asked.
One of the Elves yelled at him, and the boy stopped. The woman lowered her bow, but her disposition did not grow gentler. She kicked Egil behind the kneecap, making him fall to his knees and keeping him immobile. Grabbing his wounded arm, she examined it briefly and exchanged further angry words with the other Elf.
With little consideration, she pulled him up to stand. The man gestured for them to move, adding a string of sounds like a thunderous waterfall. With dread in their eyes, Kate and Egil began to walk, followed closely by their captors.
They walked through the night. The sun could be felt faintly through the foliage, but it did little to disperse the cold that lingered in the forest or the fear evident in Kate and Egil’s demeanour. Whenever they attempted to speak, the Elves silenced them, either with words or a smack of the bow staff on their heads. They soon learned to remain quiet and focus on the difficult march through the thick woods.
It was finally starting to feel warmer when the Elves halted the pair; one scout kept them under guard while the other disappeared. Words were still forbidden, as the children quickly learned when they tried to speak; there was nothing to do but wait. Eventually, the other scout returned with several other Elves. The others were clad in the same manner, carrying the same weapons, and a heated argument erupted between them. More than once, Egil’s arm was examined with little regard for his comfort. Each time he tried to interject or say a word, he was silenced with a slap.
Finally, the Elves seemed to reach a decision. Rope was collected from somewhere and used to bind Kate and Egil’s wrists; appearing thin, almost frail, the twine nonetheless held them tight. Kate pulled on her hands a few times to no avail, and a smack on top of her head taught her to stop.
With a push, the two captives were told to start moving. No less than four scouts accompanied them, leading them through the forest while keeping a sharp watch on both the children. They walked at a quick pace through the rough terrain; with their balance impaired from having their hands tied, the prisoners stumbled more than once. Every time, one of the Elves was close by to grab hold and keep them standing up, pushing them onwards. On occasion, the scouts allowed for a brief rest, giving Egil and Kate some water; they only received food at the end of the day. As they had not slept the previous night, both children fell asleep immediately once given the chance. When they woke next morning, food and water was provided once more; soon after, another day’s journey began. In this manner, they travelled for nearly a week through the Alfskog.
Both the youths were exhausted after seven days of journeying through the forest. They received only enough provisions and rest to keep them on their feet; if the keen eyes and sharp arrows of the Elves were not enough to dissuade attempts of flight, the sheer exertion forced upon them banished any thoughts of escape.
Their pace only lessened when they reached some kind of larger clearing, where the landscape sloped upwards ahead of them. One scout kicked both the prisoners behind the knees to make them fall down. With further motions and words conveying the impression that they better not move, three scouts remained behind to watch while the last disappeared swiftly.
Time passed while they had their faces against the forest floor. The only sounds were the trickling of a stream in the distance, the wind rustling the leaves, and a bird chirping about its territory. Their watchers, standing behind them, could neither be seen nor heard.
At length, there was movement ahead. Both children raised their heads as best they could. The one scout was returning, accompanied by another. He was also an Elf, yet he seemed nothing like his brethren. It was not due to anything apparent, such as their individual heights, which were near even. Nor was it because of how they were clothed; their leather armour and his woven tunic of linen were both the attire to be expected of people living in a forest village. It was his very presence that stood in contrast to the scouts. Speed was in their every movement to the point where they seemed as skittish as the deer that roamed the woods; their eyes constantly darted in every direction, and their fingers fiddled with the smoothened wood of their bow or the soft feathers upon their arrows.
The other Elf was nothing like this. He walked with dignified steps, careful in each movement whether it was done by his feet, his hands, or his head. He breathed deeply, and the rising of his chest could be seen each time. He was dressed like a simple villager, yet exuded command like a prince. He gave his attention to the surroundings as he pleased, while both the scouts and the children found their eyes drawn to him at all times. He bore no weapons, not even a small knife in his belt to cut thread or meat, and he seemed average of build; nonetheless, a sense of danger surrounded him as it would a lion who feared nothing and gave all others cause for dread.
“Rise,” he commanded briefly as he reached Kate and Egil. He spoke the Mearcspeech with strange pronunciation, but it was understandable. They quickly did as he told them. “Show.” He pointed at Egil’s bloodied arm. Egil complied. With a strong grip, the Elf took hold of Egil’s arm to look closer. Anger began to cloud his delicate features. “You make mockery of symbols dear to us,” he proclaimed with an irate voice. “There has not been Elf-friend for a thousand years. With ignorance you paint yourself,” he sneered, pushing Egil’s arm back against the boy. “You have gone too far. As with all your kind, death is your fate.”
“Please!” Egil begged. “It wasn’t me who did this, it was Ælfwine! He’s like you!”
“We haven’t done anything,” Kate protested, her voice breaking. “You can’t do this to us!”
“Silence,” the Elf commanded. “Your borrowed words and false attempts to gain our trust will not avail you.”
“I swear to you, Ælfwine gave me this mark! He’s an Elf like you! Please listen!” Egil implored them. One of the scouts responded with a backhanded slap across Egil’s face that made him tumble backwards. Some of the scouts grabbed each of the youths and began dragging them away while their lord turned to leave. “Ælfwine, he is a friend of Godfrey, you must know him!”
The stately Elf stopped dead in his tracks. He shot an angry look over his shoulder at Egil before giving a brief command in the Elven tongue. The scouts dropped their captives, who fell to the ground yet again. The other Elf stalked away with forceful steps, leaving Kate and Egil to exchange mystified glances.
Moment after moment passed in anguish for the pair; as before, each time they spoke, one of their guards interfered with a harsh response. There was nothing they could do but wait.
Eventually, the Elf returned, but not alone. By his side and engaged in a fierce argument with him walked Ælfwine. Egil gave a deep sigh of relief and sent a cautious smile to Kate. What Ælfwine and his companion discussed, they could not understand. It was evidently a tense conversation that ended with Ælfwine remaining and the other Elf departing in anger.
Walking up to the children, Ælfwine sent them an annoyed look. He dismissed the scouts curtly with a brief word; they bowed deeply and disappeared. “You,” Ælfwine simply spoke as Kate and Egil stood up, managing to pack a good amount of disdain into the word.
“Ælfwine, it’s me! Egil!” the boy exclaimed happily.
“I am not an imbecile,” the Elf retorted. “I can see that. I do question your intelligence, as you have decided to stroll into the dragon’s den and beg to be devoured.”
“Egil, what’s going on?” asked Kate.
“I made the mark!” Egil defended himself. He held out his arm. “Like you did!”
A sneer went across the Elf’s face. “Those ragged lines are closer to an insult than anything else. No wonder my cousin was incensed.”
“That’s your cousin?”
“Egil, who is this?”
“Enough,” Ælfwine declared. “Your lives are spared. Leave immediately and never return.”
“We can’t,” Egil claimed. “We’re hundreds of miles from Middanhal. The two of us crossing the realm on our own? We won’t make it.”
“That is hardly my problem,” the Elf replied dismissively.
“But how am I to help Godfrey as the King’s Quill if I am dead?” Egil asked slyly.
Ælfwine stared at him. “You little fiend,” he finally declared. He let out a sigh. “Wait here. I mean that. Do not move one single step.” He turned around and left with speed.
“Egil!” Kate stamped her foot in the ground. “Will you tell me what’s going on?”
“That was Ælfwine. He is an Elf, as you can see. Well, if you know how Elves look. I guess few people do,” Egil rambled.
“How in Hel’s name do you know an Elf?”
“Remember last year when I went to Heohlond on an assignment for Master Quill? Ælfwine was the reason I left.”
“I thought Elves lived in marshes, stealing babies or waylaying travellers,” Kate frowned.
“I don’t know about elsewhere, but the Elves in the Alfskog just kill anyone who enters the forest,” Egil explained happily.
Kate stared at him; then she punched him on the shoulder. “You dimwit! You knew they were going to treat us this way?”
Egil let out a cry of pain. “I didn’t! They were supposed to treat us like friends. That’s what the mark was for. Ælfwine gave it to me, and it means that other Elves look on me as a friend.”
“Is this how they treat their friends?” Kate asked incredulously. “No wonder they don’t get visitors.”
“Maybe I drew it wrong,” Egil considered, examining his arm.
“So this is why we walked for weeks? So we could get threatened and dragged around with arrows pointed in our face? What a plan, Egil.”
“It was good thinking,” he defended himself. “Ælfwine is an Elven warrior! We’ll be safe all the way back to Middanhal now. It wasn’t part of the plan for them to threaten to kill us,” he admitted, “but it all worked out!” Kate simply sent him a disbelieving stare.
When Ælfwine returned, he was clad for travelling with thick garments and a heavy cloak. A sword was strapped around his waist, and he had various other items packed away. As he reached his companions, he sent Egil an angry glance, grabbing his hurt arm. “You did not even clean this properly,” he muttered, pouring some water over the skin and cleaning the dried blood away, followed by a quick bandage. “Time to leave,” he declared. “You will walk at the pace I set. We will not rest until I decide. You will not complain about weariness, hunger, or anything else. In fact, you will be silent throughout the entire trip. Do you understand?” They nodded. “Good.” He began walking with the boy and girl right behind him like a pair of dogs.
“Master Ælfwine, are you really an Elf?”
“Of course he is, I told you as much.”
“Gods help me.”