There were no cheers. There was no victory celebration. There was more a sense of mourning. And recrimination in the eyes that bothered to glance our way as we rode in through the pass.
On this, our return to the Elven city, I could have wished for the blindfold. Not to protect me from the glares – I deserved them. Guilty by association with the deceased Knight-Captain Meister. Had he meant to bring war here? I did not know for sure and yet I judged him and judged myself. Shame hung heavy on my shoulders.
But the shame was the lightest of burdens compared to the gloom and ruin that met us as we rode up the broken terraces and wrecked paths. Fissured and cratered gardens, fallen bridges, collapsed caverns, palaces and humbler abodes no longer distinguishable as they lay about in rubble. Smoke rose from blackened flowerbeds. And even the misty spray from the crashing falls could not season the scene with any sparkle.
Fortunately, there looked to be few Elves among the dead. There were a number of wounded being nursed and tended, but even the heaped Orkan corpses that littered the mountainside outside did not mitigate the cost to these people.
I mourned with them and silently invited their accusations. I did not have to wait long for them to be voiced.
Our small party was met, our path barred, by a group of what I assumed must be nobles and councillors. They wore majestic robes of multiple layers and glorious natural colours and appeared unblemished. Whether they had taken no part in the hostilities or simply changed quickly in its aftermath, I could not tell. One had a stony-eyed handsomeness, as though he had been carved from finest marble, and he wore a crown of flinty stalagmites atop his mane of golden hair. I reasoned him to be the Prince. And although we faced him on horseback he was able to look down on us.
“Our hearts weigh heavy at the prospect of further loss,” he said, “but we must request your immediate departure.”
Shinvar guided Surefire a few steps forward. Her horse’s muzzle came close to kissing the Prince’s flawless face. The Prince seemed to take the proximity like a slap on the cheek.
“Hear me out, Prince,” said Shinvar. And it sang more of command than request.
“Speak then.” The Prince waved a hand as ungraciously as he could while still appearing princely.
“Whether through carelessness or intent, Knight-Captain Meister brought this war to your door. And he was wrong to do so. I condemn his action and I wish we could have saved more than we did. This came upon us before I heard your decision. I don’t know whether this has changed your mind or merely reinforced a mind already made up. But consider something further. The war goes on, down at the foot of these mountains. Whatever contempt you have for humans right now, would you prefer a world of Orkans for your neighbours? Think on the future. A leader – a Prince – stands taller than his people so he should see further.” Shinvar bowed in her saddle. “And now I’ll go. Although I’d like to ask – would you ride with me, Your Highness? There is a view I would like to show you and I think you will find it the equal of your town.”
The lightest tug on the reins turned Surefire around and Shinvar rode back through the crowd. I steered my horse to follow.
We left the Mountain Elves behind.
We rode for barely half an hour together, Shinvar and I, before we were joined by a column of Elven warriors. The Prince and other nobles rode at their head and they trotted up to travel side by side with us.
The day and the landscape journeyed by without much conversation between us. There was some further speculation on the matter of the Knight-Captain’s motives and Shinvar’s answer was short. “What was in his head, we can’t guess. But what was in his heart, I don’t doubt for a minute he believed right. Where he was wrong lay in giving you no choice. Choice is what I aim to give you.”
And she did.
Nearly two days’ ride from the realm of the Mountain Elves, Shinvar presented the Prince and his escort with the view she had promised.
From a promontory above Royal Hill we looked out over rubble and ruin. Shells of buildings that might have been homes or palaces, for all that I knew many had been factories. Crumbled chimneys could once have been regal towers. Fires burned here and there amid the ruins and the bulk of the Orkan army camped in the wasteland of their making.
“This?” The Prince stared, as though mortally offended by the scene. “This is what you wished to show me?”
“This.” Shinvar nodded. Her gaze roamed the devastation slowly, as though studying every broken brick. “It was a beautiful town once.”
“Not according to the tales I have heard.”
“No, Prince. Not according to any tales.” Shinvar smiled a gradual smile, like a budding flower. “But a beautiful town and an ugly town are hard to tell apart once war has paid a visit. The only beauty left lies in what can be imagined, what might be rebuilt. Before we get that far, we have to fight. Not for what was, but what could be. Your people and our people – ” Shinvar gestured to include me “ – we have that much in common. This. We have this, what you see before you, in common.”
She left the Prince to contemplate and trotted over to side with me. We sat in silence a longish while. I recalled the last time we had shared such a silence and this time I would not break it. Not for the world.
“I have to go,” she announced. “Return to my Order and help raise a new army. You have to find all the stragglers and collect together a fighting force locally. Harry the enemy where you can. Keep them occupied. Keep them here. And work with the Elves.”
I frowned. The Prince and his cohorts seemed just as trapped in indecision as ever. “Will they work with us?”
“Elves will fight for something beautiful. Humans will fight for anything. I’m not sure which is worse. But here and now, the possibility of beauty will be enough. They’ll commit their forces.”
I nodded. “The possibility of beauty…” I repeated the phrase because I could not help myself. I looked upon Shinvar and she understood where my thoughts strayed.
“Attraction,” she assured me, “is a powerful thing. You think I’m beautiful – and I’m flattered. But do you know why?”
“Why you’re beautiful, do you mean?”
She nodded. “Mm hmm. In your eyes, in your heart, it feels like destiny. Like we belong together. But really, it’s just because my mum and dad were good looking. Mostly my mum. Although people tell me I have my father’s jaw.” She shrugged. “That’s all. And the reason we don’t belong together is not because it’s not fated or not meant to be. And it’s not because you aren’t good enough. It’s only – all it is, is that I don’t feel it the same. You’re a good guy. A good knight. A good friend.”
The smile she gave me then was heavenly to behold and cut deeper than the Orkan axe that had dented my armour and, in effect, introduced us.
She turned Surefire and rode away and I watched her go.
Knowing it would hurt again when I next saw her. But, I could hope, a little less with each time.
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all our readers! Here’s to more adventures in 2017!