! This week's excerpt is from Fire-Heart, the second installment in the Elfhunter Trilogy by author C. S. Marks. Hope you enjoy!
If I can do this, it will all have been worthwhile. Gaelen carefully placed her left foot among the
rotting leaves and moss, easing her body forward, mindful of every twig and leaf. A leather visor covered her large, bright, useless eyes. Rogond was not far away—she could hear him breathing if she concentrated hard enough—but she would have to navigate through the understory of the forest without alerting him.
They had played this game every day for several weeks now. Actually, it was Rogond who had suggested it when Gaelen had grown bored and weary of confinement. She had taken to sneaking up on people as a method of entertainment.
“Could you do that in the forest, I wonder?” he had asked.
“I would love to try,” said Gaelen, “but the healers won’t let me leave the Elven-hold until I can see again.”
Rogond chuckled at her. “Since when do you do as you’re told, anyway?”
“Since I promised Fima. He made me swear to behave myself and do whatever the healers asked.” She sighed, twisting her restless hands in her lap. “I cannot deny the advantages of being blind. I have used this time to hone my other senses...it’s amazing what you miss when you can see. The sounds, the smells, and you learn to truly feel things, too. I’ll bet I can tell you what color your tunic is, just by feeling it. In fact, I might not even need to feel it. Let me try now.”
She concentrated, her brow furrowing, her expression deadly serious. “I sense...I sense the color of the sea at sundown,” she said at last, smirking a little. All of Rogond’s tunics were blue-grey.
“Impressive,” said Rogond. “Perhaps we should try tomorrow. I’ll borrow one of Galador’s.”
“Good idea, as long as it’s a blue one.”
Neither she nor Rogond could shake the idea of Gaelen’s going out into the forest, and after a few days he had come to her with a very special gift. “I designed this with Fima’s help,” he said. “I call it a stealth suit. Here—let me help you put it on.”
Gaelen was soon attired in close-fitting garments of soft dark leather. Stiff leather “feelers” projected from both shoulders, both knees, the back of the gloves, and the top and sides of the leather head-covering. A leather visor concealed and protected her eyes. Gaelen was delighted. “Just like the whiskers on a cat!”
“Exactly. Now let’s go and try it out. Fima has given his blessing.” Rogond had taken her out into the forest, very near the Elven-hold, and placed her among the brush and trees. Then he had gone a distance away—only about thirty feet—and called to her to come and find him. Her task was to circle around and approach him without his being aware of it. He had obligingly blindfolded himself, as well.
At first, things had not gone well. Gaelen had some difficulty adjusting to the “feelers” and she made quite a bit of noise. All would be silent for a while as she eased her way through the thick foliage, then the rustling and snapping as she blundered into something, then the muffled cursing. But she rapidly became quite formidable, though he had always managed to detect her...until now.
Twenty feet of undergrowth stood between Gaelen and her goal. She waited for the breeze to pick up, rattling the aspen leaves, before she let out another long breath. That’s cheating. You should act as though you’re trying to do this on a calm day. She approached Rogond from downwind, taking in the scent of him, which had been forever etched in her mind. He smelled musky, as did all men, but it was not unpleasant. She thought of it as earthy, especially when combined with the shaving-soap he used, which was heavy with juniper berries and wild mint. Another foot down, and a few more inches’ advance. He doesn’t hear me. I’m really going to do it this time...
Rogond had promised to remain alert, but it was late spring, the moss was warm, the smells of the forest were soothing, and he was drowsy. A thrush called in the deep wood, answered by another. The aspen leaves quaked, the pine boughs sighed in the wind, and he still did not hear Gaelen.
He owed it to her to be vigilant. He took off his blindfold, rose to his feet, stretched his arms and legs, and walked a small circle around the tree he had been resting against. She will take advantage of that—I’ll bet she advanced several steps while I was walking around. He moved to the opposite side of the tree-trunk and sat down again upon the soft moss, drawing forth the flask from his belt. He had taken a long swallow of mead, and was rummaging for some dried venison to go with it, when Gaelen’s booted legs appeared right next to his left knee. She startled him, and he jumped a little. He had heard nothing.
She laughed—a free, musical sound filled with delight—as he rose to embrace her. “You did it! You truly startled me, Gaelen. I hereby promote you to hunter-scout first class!”
“I would say blind hunter-scout supreme,” she said. “I was already a first-class hunter-scout.”
He took her in his arms, stroking her hair. He was extremely proud of her. Blindness would have depressed him, but she had turned it into a challenge.
“Now, if I can only do it on a dead calm day,” she said. Rogond smiled and shook his head. Leave it to Gaelen to immediately raise the level of effort required.
“Let’s just relax and enjoy the rest of this warm afternoon,” he suggested, reaching up to remove her head-covering and visor. As always, she started back from his hand—Gaelen did not like
having her head touched. “Easy, now...I just want to see your pretty face,” he said, gently lifting the visor from her eyes, which were still clouded by an odd, silvery film, almost like mirrors.
The healers had said this would lift and fade away, but it was rather eerie at the moment. Soon Rogond had drained his flask of mead and eaten all of his dried venison and fruit. The warm sun made him sleepy, and he stretched out on the carpet of moss with Gaelen beside him. We are quite safe here, so close to the Elven-hold. The woods are crawling with hunter- scouts. A wee nap won’t hurt... Soon, he was snoring softly.
Gaelen, who was still healing and, therefore, would actually sleep at times, preferred a quieter resting-place. She made her way carefully to a nice, comfortable spot some twenty feet away, where the rustling leaves would mask the regular, deep rumble emanating from her beloved Aridan. There she drifted, her eyes open but unseeing, as her thoughts strayed into the realm of dreams.
At first all was fair and pleasant, and her visions gladdened her heart. She walked alone in the stony forests above Mountain-home, hearkening to the sound of the wild waters cascading from tall peaks, breathing in the rich scent of pines and spruces as the sky gave way to a field of brilliant stars. Gaelen had not seen the stars save in her dreams for a long time, and they took her breath for a moment, but as she continued to gaze at them her vision blurred and her head swam. She could not take her eyes from the wheeling stars that turned with dizzying speed above her, until her vision went dark and she fell from the pinnacle of rock upon which she had been standing.
She came to herself almost at once, but she was now in a place she had never been before, even in dreams. Still, it looked familiar. No...wait! I have seen it...in fact I stood in this very spot before, though it had looked very different in the Stone of Léir. It was the Battle-plain surrounding the Dark Fortress in the northern waste, where Lord Wrothgar had been defeated long ago. When last she had seen it, this landscape had been filled with countless warriors of two great armies, engaged in a deadly struggle. In the center of all, Wrothgar himself strove with the High King Ri-Elathan—Gaelen’s beloved life-mate, whom she called “Rain.” Wrothgar had ultimately defeated him, burning him slowly to death in a nightmare of black flame, and the sight of it had horrified Gaelen almost beyond return.
She saw no fearsome Flame Lord now. Only one warrior did she see, lying alone upon the desolate, rocky plain. She ran to his side even as he lay dead before her, longing to contact him one last time, to tell him that he had not failed. Rain...Rain, Wrothgar was defeated that day, though you did not live to see it. But as she knelt beside him, suffering the heat of his ruined body long enough to turn his face to hers, she beheld a sight that froze her blood and nearly stopped her heart.
Ri-Elathan’s eyes were closed, not open as she had seen them in the Stone. What remained of his once-handsome face broke into a familiar twisted, evil smile, and a cold voice rang in her horrified mind. I am not yet vanquished, Gaelen Taldin, my sworn enemy. I will come for you and everything you love. Be ready, for this time I will stand before an army greater than any you have seen. When the time comes I will deal with you, and you will be alone...utterly alone! I will take your spirit with me into the Darkness, and there will be no returning from it.
Malicious laughter assaulted her then as she tried to move away, tried to protect herself from what she knew must follow. He would open his eyes now, and she would not be able to bear it. She had to break free of him! As though sensing her desire, Gorgon gripped Gaelen’s arms with Rain’s hands, the heat still strong enough to burn her as she cried in pain and terror.
Look at me, Elf, for I would speak my piece. Your beloved has failed. The Black Flame grows again, and nothing the Elves can do will stand against it. I have escaped their pathetic attempts to destroy me, and will gather strength. When I have done so, I will come first for you! If you still abide in the Greatwood, I will sweep through as a great fire that withers all before it. None shall withstand my wrath. I will kill every Elf I encounter, even as I am searching for you. Their
deaths—their pain—will be on your hands.
Gaelen longed to defy him, to speak of his defeat, but she could not. Her vision would not give way, and she was powerless. Ri-Ela- than’s eyelids opened, and she cried in revulsion as Gorgon stared at her, his cold, pale grey eyes filled with malice.
Now her right arm was free, for Gorgon held her, and he had no left hand. She wrenched her other arm from his iron grip, crying again, as her vision blurred and swirled and changed. Now she stood upon the plateau in the Barrens, where she and the Elves of the Greatwood had met and defeated Gorgon’s army. The dead lay scattered around her—but not Gorgon. She had failed. The monster still lived, and he was gathering strength. When he was ready he would come for them all!
She turned and ran headlong, for she knew that she could not prevail, not in this place. Gorgon’s horrid, oily laughter stung her ears as she fled in the dark, trying to escape her fate. Her eyes burned with tears of pain and revulsion as she careened into an unknown destiny, wishing only to escape the lingering sight of her beloved Rain’s ruined face twisting into that of her mortal enemy. She ran as a terrified, blind deer through the Greatwood, and when she finally exhausted herself and fell senseless beneath the black canopy, no light would reach her sightless eyes.
When she awakened she would remember nothing for a time, not even her own name, until at last she heard the voice of Rogond. It drew her from her bewilderment, and she called out to him, clinging as a drowning person clings to the last rope in the world.