Wednesday, May 3, 2006

Epilogue

Elita tossed back and forth on her cot, her small legs stretching out beyond the covers and then coiling back in. Abruptly she bolted up, breathing heavily and drenched in sweat. In front of the fireplace on the rug was an ember. Elita hopped out of bed and grabbed the thongs and placed the ember back into the fire. Wiping her forehead she laid back down in her cot and this time she slept peacefully.
"Wake up sleepy head." Elita's mother, Kierna gently tapped her shoulder.
As a sleepy-eyed Elita dressed, Kierna stirred a mixture of dried oats and water on top of the stove for breakfast.
"This morning I will teach you to hunt," Kierna explained. Elita merely peered her head over her bowl at the bow hanging from the wall. She anxiously swung her feet, which didn't reach the floor, back and forth as she quickly slurped down the remainder of her breakfast.

On their trip to the woods Elita daydreamed about her glorious hunt where she would return back to the village and be greeted by her neighbors with pride over the enormous buck she had brought down. When they reached a dense area where the trail could no longer be seen Kierna set down her pack and un-slung her bow from her shoulder. She knelt down beside Elita and placed the bow in her hand and curled her fingers around the bow.
"Close one eye and stare down the shaft of the arrow." Kierna explained, "See that tree over there with the patch of bark missing? Pull back with your middle fingers on the arrow and aim at that spot, when you're ready let it loose."
Elita concentrated and looked down the shaft as she was told. Once she thought she had it lined up properly she pulled back and let loose. The arrow fell into the ground only a few feet in front of her. Kierna stepped forward and pulled it from the ground and placed it back in Elita's hands.
"Try again. This time pull it all the way back before you let it go," Kierna instructed.
As the sun climbed into the sky Elita practiced shooting at the tree even as she felt her fingers grow raw her mother insisted that she continue to hit the same spot. Just when Elita thought she couldn't do this any longer a white rabbit came into view.
"Now you'll have the chance to test your skills," Kierna whispered, "sight the rabbit down the shaft of the arrow just as you did the tree but note it's movement, follow it, learn it's rhythm and anticipate where it will be. Shoot ahead of your target but be very patient."
For what seemed like an eternity Elita followed the rabbit trying to anticipate it's next move finally she held her breath and let the arrow fly.
"You did it!" Kierna squeaked. Together the two of them walked over to the rabbit and Elita's heart sank. The rabbit was not dead the arrow pinned it to the ground through it's mid-section, it's breathing was rapid and it's eyes showed shear panic. Then her mother grasped the head and twisted it with a grotesque pop. Seeing the pale expression on her face Kierna sought to reassure her.
"This animal gave it's life so that we could eat. This is the way of nature, do not mourn but rejoice in your success. You are a very quick learner and you should be proud of your accomplishment today."
The sky had turned dark and rain was imminent. There was something about the calm before a storm that Elita loved, the strong breeze and it's stark contrast of the clouds against the trees that seemed to make them look greener. As they approached the village it became apparent that the storm had already come and gone here. The ground was muddy. As they entered the village Kierna pulled her hooded coat tightly around her. She held her skirt high enough so that it wouldn't drag through the mud but Elita found delight in pouncing in the largest puddle she could find. Taking a deep breath she held back the scolding remarks that were on the tip of her tongue.
"Eli come here please." She lifted her apron and wiped the child's face as clean as possible. "Now you'll have to fetch water from the well so I can clean you up formally."

Kierna stoutly avoided the gazes of onlookers. She heard whispers of "that poor child" and "womanly duties." Kierna despite her desire to keep her face hidden refused to hang her head low. As Elita down trodden stomped her way to the well the people parted to let her in. The bucket was almost more than she could manage but she did it anyway lowering the crank that she could barely reach and then bringing it back up. Now full with water she held it with both hands the water sloshing from side to side. Kierna and Elita marched in silence the remaining distance to their hut on the edge of the village. Once they were inside they shed their garments to slip into dry apparel which meant that they would have to wash tonight a chore that Elita loathed. The water was poured into a wash tub and she began scrubbing. Afterwards they placed them carefully on the mantle above the fireplace to dry. Kierna had already began preparations for their evening meal. She also put some aside to be dried. She made provisions generally carried by people who traveled often and didn't always have the chance to catch new game but even though Kierna was quite apt at hunting the males of the community frowned on it. Kierna abhorred the gossip mongers not because it hurt her sense of pride but for Elita's sake some of the tales those women spun would have her quite frightened or upset. Kierna had just began to cook the meat when the thundering sound of hooves shook the ground and moments later screams from the women on the other side of the village were heard and the angry shouts of the men trying to protect them, but these were farmers not warriors and deaths were quickly piling up.

Kierna braced the door with a chair she knew it wouldn't hold long but she didn't need much time. Quickly she grabbed a necklace that hung from a hook above the mantle. The trinket that dangled on the necklace seemed odd it was shaped like a hexagon and as thick as her thumb. She grasped the base of the hexagon and twisted the top, from the center an oval shaped object popped out. She lifted up the rug displaying the paneled floor beneath. Barely visible was a rectangular hatch and in the middle of one of the boards was a small knot. Such an imperfection in the wood was not uncommon and thus would normally go unnoticed. Kierna pressed the trinket into the knot and twisted it. From beneath the floor the clank of gears could be heard as the floor opened up.
"I know it's dark but you have to be strong and no matter what happens don't make a sound and do not come out unless I bring you out! Do you understand?" Elita nodded emphatically tears already streaming down her face. Kierna pressed her finger to Elita's lips and muttered "exsisto quietis," then she slung the necklace around Elita's neck and kissed her on the forehead. Kierna quickly pulled the panel closed and replaced the rug and turned around just in time to see her door smashed into many splinters. Three gruff men stood talking to Kierna, from under the planks Elita could see one of the men through a hole in one of the boards, the man stood wearing red plumes on his helmet and on their chest she was able to discern a symbol of a skull it's mouth open and it's eye red jewels were socketed that gleamed menacingly and to Elita appeared to be looking at her, and it was laughing! She covered her mouth the smother the gasp that she made at the dreadful sight but still she sat awaiting the outcome of her mother's fate. "Bind and Gag her!" Barked one of the men another said "Torch the house bring the wench with us." The man she had been looking at glance around the small room that served as her home and then casually threw a torch at the straw mat and then another onto the roof. Elita sat in shocked disbelief as her mother was dragged away. She new she couldn't come out now or they'd have her too. Smoke began to seep through the gaps in the flooring and she had to suppress a cough. She tore the apron from around her waist and held it over her mouth and nose but as the smoke crept closer she began to back up further and further until she his a wall. For a moment despair overwhelmed her she didn't want to die but she didn't know what to do! By now the house was in flames and she would not be able to escape it without serious burns and then there was still the risk of being caught and then she was reminded of the stern face on her mother and her composure when dealing with the marauders. Then it dawned on her that she had her back against wood even in the low light she realized that this was the only panel in the entire area the rest appeared to be nothing more than solidly packed dirt, save for the wooden columns supporting the structure of the house above. She turned around and tried to pull the wood away and fell back as she lost her grip. The wood panel remained in place. She ran her fingers along the edges and found caked dirt jammed into the hinges which she cleaned out as best she could this time when she pulled the panel came free and burst of fetid air came through. Despite the smell she knew this was her only hope. She had to get down on hands and knees to crawl through the opening which was probably not more than 3 feet high and 3 feet wide. The ground was moist and there were tangles of roots and spider webs hanging but she trudged on. After a short distance (four or five times the length of her body) she found another panel as Elita searched for the edges of the wood she couldn't find any in fact it now occurred to her that this was not wood at all but stone. With the other panel closed behind her the smoke had only just began to seep into the tunnel and she began to sob. She missed her mom and whenever she was sad her mother always sang to her and rocked her gently. Slowly she began to rock herself imagining she was in her arms and a song that her mother sang to her every night came to mind about a princess who was locked in a dungeon and
"The Key Will Set you Free, The key will set you free!" Then her mother would tuck her into bed and kiss her on her forehead, lean back a check the pendant that she wore around her neck. "You are my princess," she would say, "don't ever forget that." Then holding the pendant in her hand, "this is a family heirloom you must where it at all times but let no one in the village see it or they might become jealous." Thinking of her mother and her precious gift she held it in her hand and squeezed it as if it might somehow bring her mother back. A faint glow began to pulse in the door it was a round fist sized hole that appeared to be just large enough to hold her pendent. She wondered at the fact that her pendant had only four square extensions but the imprint on the door had 8. She put it into the hole and then used the cross ridges to turn the pendant. Gears clunked and then the door swung outwards. Elita jumped down out of the small corridor into what appeared to be a cave. Then she noticed the braziers lining the walls and the tracks on the ground. "A rail road!" Elita gasped. Judging the angle it seemed to her the direction to head was on the side that appeared to travel "upwards." Once she got to the edge of the railroad it dumped her into a sludge filled water. "Miners!" Elita spat the word as a curse for she knew that they dumped their unwanted wastes here at the edge of the river. The River! Now she knew where she was and where to go she had been here many times to bathe or to fish with her mother and new that up the steep slope to her right was a well traveled road.
Edgar sat on his warhorse wearing full plate armor, you never could be too cautious, he thought. His fellow knights wore much lighter armor but were battle ready as always. Edgar fumed about having been placed on border patrol especially in this area which was traveled by few and the towns had little if anything to be gained by them being ransacked. More often than not he was sent to chase after a little one that had strayed out of bed at night or to kill a pesky wolf which had eaten many of their chickens. "Why don't they just build a higher fence?" He muttered more to himself than anyone. "Hark!" one of his men bellowed calling their attention he pointed to the treetops of the forest many miles away. "Fire..." said another and they all mumbled their agreement. "From the size of it, looks as if we'd never get there in time to save anyone." droned Edgar. "Well you know the king will want a full report besides that's one of his finer crops. We should save what we can and report back whatever else we discover." Edgar disliked being ordered from an underling but couldn't dispute the points he made and so grudgingly he agreed. Just as the started to bring their horses to a canter, Edgar noticed a rustling in the bushes and what came to mind was an ambushed, with a gesture he quickly reined in his horse and bade the others to do the same. Dismounting his horse as quietly as he could in his clanky armor he walked to the edge of the road where he'd seen the movement and pointed his sword tip into the bush, in a booming voice he demanded, "Come out from there throw your weapons to the ground and show us your hands so we know there is no foul play afoot!" All of the soldiers let out an audible gasp of surprise at the figure standing before them, a lanky little girl who couldn't have been much more than 6 or 7 winters old. Edgar trying to hide his chagrin at having mistaken a child for a bandit crouched down to ask her, "My, my little one what's your name?" Elita stood there a couple moments not saying anything and the men began to shuffle their feet in wait of her response. After such an amount of time had passed that they believe that she was mute of some sort, she finally spoke up, "I am Elita, Elita Alberich." At the name Edgar stood up straight and the men all drew into a circle to mutter things that Elita couldn't hear. Her mother had always told her to never divulge her full name, unless it was an emergency and she wasn't there to help, and above all else determine that the people were noble and good (which expressly excluded anyone from their village.) In her moment of silence she had studied the armament of the men noting that they held the flag of Rasheman and that they wore and acted like knights to the king. Her musings were concluded when the largest most heavily armored of the three addressed her again, "I'm sorry about that, my dear, where are you from?" This she had no problem answering, "I am from Mulsetta, sir." The knight glanced over to the ever growing flames in the not too distant forest. "Where is your father?" At this Elita scowled and folded her arms across her chest, "I don't have a father." Edgar began to retort but instead clamped his mouth shut, "Okay your mother then?" Now the overwhelming despair took over her and she began to weep, "They took her!" Before Edgar could continue his stream of questions a group of riders were approaching from the direction of the fire. "Raiders?" Inquired one of the nights. "Possibly." Edgar responded, to Elita, "Go child into the brush again and hide well we will call when it is safe for you again." All three knights mounted their horses and prepared a battle ready stance. As the men approached and they were finally able to see their colors it became obvious that in fact these were friends not foes. "Hail," said the leader of the newcomers. "Hail brother, what news?" replied Edgar. "We were hunting down a pack of trolls from Mulptan when we saw the fire. We came as quickly as we could but there was no one left..." he trailed off obviously shaken by the scene. "No one? Are you certain?" Asked Edgar. "Unfortunately so." With a deep sigh Edgar asked the question that he found distasteful but if he was to give a full report to his king, he knew he must ask, "and of the crops is there anything left?" The soldier scoffed at this but realized the necessity, "no, everything was burnt to the ground."
Edgar nodded, "Perhaps we should travel back together, I'm sorry I forget my manners, what was your name?"
"James," the newcomer replied, then looking to his comrades, "well I don't suppose we'll be catching anymore trolls tonight anyhow. I shall follow."
Edgar having nearly forgotten about the girl suddenly realized she had to have overheard everything, "Little one..." he called and Elita stepped from behind the bushes. Briefly Edgar explained how they had found her and that she'd come from the burnt village. "Well then you can ride with me," James said with a look of sympathy on his face he bent down and hoisted her up into the saddle. Elita found James demeanor more comforting than Edgar's but she did not know why. The smell of his leather armor, the creak of the saddle, the whinny of the horse for a brief moment she allowed herself to relax she felt safe and with the strong arms of the soldier wrapped around her and the rocking of the horses steady gait, she quickly drifted off to sleep. When they arrived at the tower Elita woke up as James brought her off the horse. One of the other men had already gone inside to send for the High Mage and when they arrived she sat down on a plush couch that was far more luxorious than anything she could remember. The carpet a rich red and stained oak furniture along with shelves upon shelves of books and scrolls lining the walls. After a lengthy weight a thick tall man with a bushy beard and long hair entered the room, and he did not look at all pleased. "There better be good reason for waking me at this hour of the night!" James coughed and Elita squirmed as if trying to escape the penetrating glare of the man before her. "Sir Alberich, we bring sad news and a matter of great importance." After explaining about the village the mage still looked on the soldiers quite agitated, "Then there is nothing that can be done at the moment is there? This could have waited until the morning!" He turned to go and then Edgar spoke from the corner of the room, "Sir, the child..."
"What about her?" Alberich again looked at the little girl her tattered gown covered in mud, tangled hair, and her bare feet.
"Sir she says her name is Elita, Elita Alberich." Edgar spoke the name slowly letting the implication sink in.
Alberich snorted, "This filthy child kin to me? Who are your parents?" He spoke addressing Elita. She hesitated only slightly, "My mother's name is... was Kierna, I do not have a father." Alberich nodded as if he had expected this answer, "Well I'll not be raising the bastard child of my sister's I am a busy man and my work does not leave room for me to be chasing after some brat." His words were harsh and biting to Elita and anger built to the point where she thought he would explode. The mage sighed and took on a softer tone, "There is a family, relatives in another nearby village, I'm certain they would take the child in." The matter settled the soldiers began to rise. As an afterthought Alberich raised his hand and bade for Elita to come to him, reaching within his robe he pulled out a small pebble smooth and the color of sand, not much different from any other rock that Elita had seen in the stream beds from her home. "Hold this," Alberich said gesturing for Elita to take the stone she held it in her palm it felt slightly warm to the touch... then Alberich took the stone back and waved them away. Elita stared at him quite puzzled as James began to ease her towards the door. The soldiers began discussing who would bring the girl to her new home and the soldiers of Rashemen all agreed that it was something that could wait until morning after they got some rest. However, James was still disturbed by the images of the dead bodies, women and children alike. He announced that he would have no problem taking the girl right away and he knew that by the time he reached the town the sun would already be breaching the horizon. Since Mulsansir, like Elita's home town of Mulsetta was a farming community they would most likely be awake when he arrived.
Adele pushed her husbands shoulder all but shaking him, "Jurgen wake up the cows will not milk themselves!" Groaning he rolled to his back and stared up at his wife. "Just a little longer Adele..." he replied and tried to close his eyes again. Adele huffed and swung about an infant at her bosom and a toddler already sitting at the table anxiously awaiting his breakfast. "Papa will be here in a minute Tobias." Then a knock came at the door, "Jurgen!" She called to her still sleeping husband, "I'm coming Adele, by the gods!" Jurgen opened the door to find a soldier and little girl standing there. They nodded numbly as James explained the circumstances and though they could barely feed themselves they gladly welcomed the orphan with open arms. Elita small as she was fully understood the enormity of their graciousness, especially after her Uncle's gruff dismissal of her. After James left them (turning down the couples offer for breakfast.) Adele and Jurgen stood in silence looking over their new child. Realizing how awkward it must be for the little girl and not knowing what else to say, Adele began introductions, "This will be your sister Nadine and your brother Tobias, I suppose you can call me Aunt Adele or Ma...." Adele winced realizing that it was probably much too soon to expect her to call her such an affectionate name. Elita grasped her hand and asked, "Would Nana be ok?" Relieved Adele let out a sigh, "certainly dear."
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