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Wrasseldown, Spring 1008 ACby Lost Woodrake
It took a while to realize something was different. The skyline. Where once huge trees dominated the horizon, Raol could now simply see light blue skies, with barely a cloud in sight. Just prior to Darokin City, the caravan turned right on the road to Dolos, and Raol hopped off at Wrasseldown.
Once on the ground, he paused to take a look around: the familiar fields and houses of the place he used to call home, but without the looming presence of the Canolbarth. It was an eerie feeling, uncanny and unsettling. Secluded in the forests of the south, learning the ways of the Druids, Raol had heard rumors that something horrid had happened to the elves’ forest, but they were all too strange to fathom, and he assumed they were grossly exaggerated if not utterly false. But now, he dreaded that reality was even worse than whatever reached him back in the south.
The Wretched Wyvern was his first stop. He needed a place to stay for the night before getting settled back in town, and the well-loved tavern harbored fond memories. And indeed, once he opened the door and entered, several heads turned and quickly a welcoming roar filled the wooden room. “Raol!”, “Look, it’s Raol, Edger’s son!”; “Look at you, quite a grown man you’ve become!” Neggie, the Wyvern’s proprietor, made her way forward through the crowded room and slapped Raol on the back. Her once-red hair was now almost entirely grey, but she was still smiling and robust. Dragging the young man towards an empty table, she sat him down and poured ale without even asking if he wanted any. From a distance, Raol spotted one of the waitresses waving at him with a reserved smile. Her black hair was tightly braided, and her green eyes as fierce as he remembered them. He waved back.
“Never imagined we’ll see you here again,” said Neggie.
“Why not?” Raol responded with a cheerful tone. It sounded phony to his ears. “It’s home, after all.”
“You know your uncle sold the farm after your mother passed away,” the innkeeper replied. “If you need a place to stay –“
Raol nodded. “I know, thank you.” He then quickly changed the topic to what he was anxious to learn more of. “What happened to the forest?”
By now, a small crowd had gathered around him, old acquaintances and friends of his parents. He recognized most faces. There was an awkward silence. He noticed the waitress from a distance perking her ear, looking attentively.
“It got cursed,” Neggie finally answered. “Dreadful matter, really.”
A burly figure who sat behind him replied. “Trees got all twisted and dark, the elves had to leave. Some squeaky pale elves drove them out. Weird creatures they are.”
Raol looked at him incredulously. “All the elves left?! Where to?”
Kavin Vinstrump, the woodcutter, answered: “Somewhere to the north, beyond the horse-rider tribes. I talked to one of them, she said there is another elven kingdom there. Never heard of such.”
The burly figure, whom Raol now recognized as former town councilor Jaek Ollvin scoffed. “A tale of fairies. There is no secret elven kingdom. They will all be killed in Ethengar. One by one.” Kavin shrugged.
“You seem quite aloof about the matter,” Raol retorted. He was tired of the journey and couldn’t conceal his irritation.
Jaek mirrored Kavin’s shrug. “It is unfortunate, to be sure.” From the corner of his eye, Raol noticed that the waitress had stopped serving tables and was just standing there, following the conversation. Others were listening as well.
“But… didn’t Darokin fight these squeaky pale elves and helped Alfheim?” This did not make sense to Raol. “These were our neighbors after all!”
Neggie said, “It wasn’t our war to fight,” and Jaek repeated: “It is unfortunate, to be sure.”
“Seriously? Darokin simply did nothing?! They were our allies!” Raol exclaimed.
“For a while,” Jaek concurred. “We have new neighbors now. They will also require our trade.”
“They are less pleasant than the former ones,” Neggie admitted. “I feel sorry for the elves, really. It was sad to see them leave. Those long lines of refugees, it wasn’t easy to see. But you must agree they were quite a snobby lot. It’s not like their forest was ever hospitable for folks like us, was it?”
Raol and the waitress locked eyes, as shared memories flickered. Others, however, nodded as they were eating.
“They were never truly local, anyways, those elves,” Kavin added. And Mirle, the laundress who sat next to him followed suit: “Quite so, we should remember they too were foreigners from the very beginning. We were kind enough to host them as long as we did. And now we should host the others as kindly.”
The waitress broke her silence: “The Canolbarth is now all corrupted. It’s unnatural,” she spoke angrily, the pain evident in her voice.
“It is the Canolbarth that was unnatural,” replied a man Raol did not recognize, wearing foreign-looking clothes. There was a subtle stir among the patrons. “It’s true. Those trees were not natural. I met a Ylari merchant in Selenica who told me that their Garden became a Desert because of that elven forest. It stole all their rain, he said.” There were gasps of shock throughout the crowd. “All this elven nature-loving? Just a show, that’s all I’m saying.”
Murmurs spread across the Wretched Wyvern. “Maybe those squeaky pale elves came here to restore the balance,” Mirle suggested.
“That’s rubbish,” the waitress snapped.
“Our Nasha is easily offended,” cried a young man from the corner of the tavern. Raol recognized him and remembered he never liked him. “She was always fond of elven lads. I always wondered, Nasha, are elven ears as pointed as their -”
“Shut up, Horv!” Nasha, the waitress, turned to him, blistering with rage, but it was a stern look from Neggie that convinced Horv to be silent.
“It is unfortunate, to be sure,” concluded Jaek and sipped more of his ale. Folks returned to their food and drinks and conversations.
Nasha was now close to Raol’s table, and he could see the crimson of anger and the veins visible from fury. In the pretense of cleaning his table, she leaned forward and said: “Meet me at midnight, by the glade.”
Someone who was not acquainted with Raol and Nasha would have assumed that meeting the tavern wench at midnight by the glade means only one thing. But Nasha was not the tavern wench. She simply worked at the tavern. She and Raol had been childhood friends, and the glade was where they used to meet in order to launch into “adventures” inside the Canolbarth. They never ventured very deeply in the woods, but they sure liked to imagine they had. Later, they grew up. Raol left for the South to learn the ways of the Druids, and Nasha had to provide for her aging parents and started working at the Wretched Wyvern.
When Raol approached the glade he realized how small it was; much smaller than he had remembered. And so was the pool and the cave at the edge near the woods – the cave was their fort and the pool was the Large Lake of Dreams.
And the woods – they were huge and green and full of promised secrets.
Nasha was already sitting on a rock, staring at the lake and the full moon reflected in it. Raol sat next to her. There was a long moment of silence.
“You feel it too, right?” She spoke softly. “I miss it so much. I can’t bear it.”
Raol nodded, saying nothing.
“Once, we lived next to this unimaginable vibrancy; as if the heart of Life itself was here.” She continued. “Now, my home is near this huge graveyard, taunting me. Sometimes I feel it drives me mad by its very presence. No-one understands me.”
He put his hand in hers. “I understand you.”
Nasha turned to him. “Why did you return? I thought you left for good.”
Raol considered his words. “I believed the forest calls me back,” he finally said, slowly. “But I am not so sure now.”
Nasha stood up. “Come, I have something to show you.” She started walking towards the cave, their fort. Raol entered after her. They both had to crouch where once they stood tall. In the back of the cave he noticed some vines he did not remember there.
“When the elves left, I found in between the trees two elven children – a boy and a girl – they lost their parent in the great escape, left behind, terrified that the pale elves will kill them. I took them here, hid them in this cave for a couple of weeks, brought them food, toys. Played with them.”
Raol looked around. “Where are they now?”
Nasha walked towards the vines and moved them aside. An opening in the cavern wall appeared.
“I don’t remember this,” Raol muttered.
“It wasn’t here to remember,” Nasha smiled wearily. “It appeared overnight, and the children were gone.”
Raol walked slowly and touched the vines, gently, as if inspecting them. “Where does it lead?”
“I don’t know,” Nasha shrugged. “I never dared enter. Not until now. But I’d like to believe it leads to that Elven kingdom in the North. That the elves took care to retrieve their young ones left behind.”
“Or to some goblin lair,” Raol whispered, alarmed. “To their deaths.”
“It could very well be. But the simple truth is I cannot stay here any longer,” Nasha stepped through the vines and into the dark tunnel behind them. “I do not know what called you back, Raol, but you’re here now. And I’d be happy if you join me.”
And she held the vines aside, her arm slightly stretched forward in invitation.