“This land is no place for one so young and ripe. Go. Return to our kindred, find your doom among the Descendants, or wander the endless wastes alone. But go!”
The words still echoed in Valorin’s head some nights. His father’s voice, telling the hard truths that others might not want to face.
Facing hard truths was, in these dark days, second nature.. Truths like the fall of Arcas or the loss of his entire family to distance and disease.. The towering Elf drew his cloak tight against his body. Leaned against the hard tree trunk at his back as nigh-frozen hands fumbled for his pipe. The snowfall was light, drifts no more than a foot high.
Back in Arcas proper, snow this light, at this time of year, would be the sign of a warm and easy winter. Here, beyond all civilized peoples and their strongholds, they saw it a bit differently. He'd been away for uncounted days, and already he wondered if he was forgetting what it meant to be High Elven.
He'd crossed hundreds of miles of the Motherland, meeting all manner of individuals abroad and selling whatever service or counsel he could offer. Wandering through unruly humans, mediating among the Orcs of the desert, border disputes between impish halflings and primal Wood Elves that inevitably led to either a pumpkin-themed feast or a long night of pipe-smoking, storytelling and reminiscing.— none of it held much appeal now.
Greta. Khaeryr. Maenor. Aiera. Dele…
The list of names went on and on, perennially imprinted upon his aching heart.
So he crossed the barriers into lands now known and mapped. A carved staff supported his weight as he passed the borders into Norland, whence Ulfgrim came. And it came to pass he found most northern lands in turmoil and perturbed by death. Destruction unwarranted, pushing mortals to flee ever further, as his own sundered forefathers once wrote about in lands now lost.
His fire had been reduced to embers some time ago. Nearby, Barrelrider stood rigid beneath heavy layers of blankets. Tethered to the tree, the stallion’s breathing came in the rhythm of sleep. Valorin looked up to see the moon shining through the clouds. Still an hour until midnight. He shifted his position again, pulling blankets close, and tried to enter the Elven-dreams beyond the veil of the waking world.
A crackle in the snow made wary violet eyes dart frantically beneath their fleshy hoods. Not far away. Very faint, but there it was. Knife-ears pricked towards the woods he had come from. He cracked open an eyelid and saw something moving in the darkness. Man-shaped, creeping closer but not even his sharp sight he could gather anything through the murk.
Quiet. Disturbingly so. On a night like this, the snow would have formed an icy shell that cracked at the slightest pressure. Beneath the blankets, Valorin’s hand went to grip the hilt of Starlight.
"Take it," said his father. Old Oronir Celia’thiln, master of the Grey Library.
"Father, I cannot," Valorin protested in a quick spurt of Elvish. "You know that."
"I know what I know, child. Take the blade and the book."
"Father, Starlight and our arcana must go to Eluthienn. She is firstborn, your heir, she—"
"Your sister will inherit the Library and all of its knowledge and artifacts. My heir, as you say. But Starlight goes where I say it goes. Eluthienn is shrewd and will rule these dusty archives well. But she is not a fighter. Pick up the blade, Val."
The leather on the sword's grip was worn thin. Valorin felt the metal beneath, cool in his hand.
The shadow-shrouded figure reached Barrelrider. Valorin saw a glimmer of moonlight reflect in his hand.
"Careful," he said, without moving. "He bites."
The man started, cursing under his breath in the Common Tongue. As if in reply, Barrelrider snorted. A low rumbling sound of curious contempt.
"You're awake," the human said. His voice displayed youth and inexperience.
The scholar's interest was peaked but along came a tinge of bemusement. A boy.
"I am,” replied the Elf.
"That makes this... awkward."
"Ti," Valorin agreed, exhibiting none of his exasperated amusement.
The voice revealed concern. "Your accent— Elf?"
"Ti," he replied quietly.
"That means yes?"
"Ti." Valorin grinned mischievously.
"How did you hear me? I was quiet as a mouse."
"Perhaps," Valorin said. “Yet little escape the fair folk and even mice throughout the world make the same noises. Is it not the same here?”
The young man actually laughed at that. "They do," he agreed.
"Well then," Valorin said pointedly.
A moment of silence passed between them. Could have been a few seconds or an Elven Year whilst silence reigned supreme.
"I don't want to kill you," the man suddenly blurted out, breaking the stillness of the crystallized air. Between the idle fall of snowflakes and the wildlife's absence, the sound was as abrupt as an Inferi invasion.
"And I do not wish to kill you," Valorin said. "So let us go our own ways. There is no ill will here beyond that which you bring yourself.”
The man sighed. “Don't normally do this— robbing folks on the road. Especially Elves. But I'm here now, and I’m not leaving empty-handed," the man said. "Not tonight."
"If you are thinking to steal from me, is not what is inside your hands you should worry on," Valorin said. “Will you leave with hands? That is the question. In any case, I am but a wanderer and carry little with me beyond the useful items of travel.”
The Elven soldier and lore-keeper had relaxed since identifying the human’s age and lack of situational awareness. A fool he may have been but an an innocent fool, at that, and no fault could be laid on him.
Times were hard.
He still leaned against the tree, blankets and cloak covering most of his body. He heard a crunch in the snow, as the man slowly moved around Barrelrider. He wisely gave the rear of the horse a wide berth.
"Bold words," said the would-be thief. "Especially from some Elf hiding under the covers."
The man stepped forward, past the dead campfire. He studied Valorin, taking his measure as Valorin did the same. Man watched Elf and viceversa, tense as bowstrings. The fellow was small for his race. Valorin, despite looking hardly upwards from his seat on the ground, found it hard to believe he was much taller than five feet. His hair hung unevenly across his brow, filthy and matted. Clad in tattered wool and leathers, an unstrung bow tied over his back. An iron dagger gleamed in his hand.
Nothing more than a common thief.
Valorin kicked off the blankets, lurching to his feet and sliding Starlight free of its scabbard in one motion. He felt a bit of gratification and growing amusement, as the easy confidence drained from the man's eyes.
Valorin towered above him: passing six feet and moulded into a military-adept build. The heaviest pieces of his armor and the cloth that signaled his rank in the Weeping blades were stashed in Barrelrider’s saddlebags, but he still wore a shirt of mail over his woolen clothes. And then there was Starlight.
He gripped the sword in both hands, a confident stance he'd practiced a myriad times. Even in the pale moonlight the blade glimmered—pale, silvery metal, limned with dark ripples.
Inherited Elven-steel was a rarity in this day and age. And it was worth more than the horse, the mail, and every other item in Valorin’s possession. Perhaps the sole exception, albeit in a sentimental value, was his friends’ gifts.
Though Valorin protested, he held Starlight aloft, feeling the weight and perfect balance of the blade.
"I provide for my few children, Val," Oronir said. "Eluthienn will have our home, and the duties and privileges of a loremaster. To her children, I have given an introduction of the ways of the Mali’thill. They are nothing if not malleable, and I know they will do well in our enclave. You will walk a different path. You will walk it alone, and it will take you far from here. So you will take the Celia’thilln blade. You will wield it with honor, courage, and discipline. Do you understand?"
Valorin tightened his grip on the hilt of the sword. He caressed he leather on the ancient tome. He swallowed hard, met his father’s lilac eyes.
"Ti, Maln. I understand."
The would-be brigand eyed Valorin warily.
"That's a nice blade, that is,” he said.
"It is. You do not wish to see it closer, Valah”
The man nodded. "I believe you, Elf.”
"You meant to rob me," Valorin said. A statement, not a question.
"You had something I needed."
"Ti, I had something," Valorin replied. "Not yours. There are other ways to earn your Minas. Besides, we all have need of each other, now more than ever against the gathering dark."
The little man shrugged. "Earning's not exactly what I had in mind, pointy-ears.”
"So now, what your plan?" Valorin asked. “Surely, you wish not to end your life as a streak of crimson on frosted ground?”
The man seemed to consider this. "I start running. Then you hop on that big beast of yours and ride me down? No, thank you."
Valorin frowned. “Not foolish to think so but obviously you know me not. I would not do such a thing.”
"Uh huh," the man said, nodding. "Course not."
"I mean it. And of two of us, you hardly have the moral or literal high ground."
The man stood his ground, looking at the blue-robed Val up and down, scanning the uneven terrain and now realizing the full extent of his disadvantage.
Valorin scoffed and betrayed his frustration. "If you do not trust me, then what next? Fire rains from above and the tide turns against all our peoples. Foolish!”
"For now? I'm just admiring that beautiful blade. And trying to decide if you really know how to use it."
Valorin narrowed his eyes. "Do not test me, boy. I am not to be delayed.”
The man smiled a small, crooked smirk. Some of his confidence was returning. "Too late for that, fairy-eyes. I'm mostly done with my tests anyway. You're soft."
Valorin’s silver bushy brow shot up in surprise at his diagnosis yet no more words were offered. The man went on, unhindered.
"As a halfling’s bottom. I tried to steal your horse. I've threatened you, at least twice. And here I am, unarmored, with just a little purse-cutter at hand. You're bigger than me, dressed in mail, with a God-damned-beautiful sword that outreaches me by an arm-span.”
"You could've cut me down, or tried, but no. There you stand, tryin' to talk me into running away. Tryin' to avoid a fight. Because you're soft."
Valorin nodded his head. "Perhaps you are right, little man. I have slain some. In battle. Yet bloodshed holds little interest for me. You are, as you say, unarmored. Mostly unaarmed. Dirty, small, skinny. Hungry, I think. Cold, very much so.”
The man glared, already seeing where Valorin words would go.
"A sad little valah," Valorin continued. "What honor or glory would be for slaying you? It would be sad thing. I would shake my head over your corpse, offer a tsk my tongue, and leave you for crows. Is what you want? If so, I will grant this wish, however it may haunt me henceforth.”
Valorin shifted Starlight into a proper guard stance and spaced his feet apart on the icy ground. His voice turned from the flowing articulate to battle-speech.
"Make up your mind, thief. I give you one last chance. Flee and live. Fight and meet your doom earlier than your ancient Horen would care for.”
The man swallowed, his eyes narrowed hard, dark glints of jet in the moonlight. Val saw him tighten his grip on the dagger. His shoes, riddled with holes where one could clearly see pale skin through the leather, dug into the snow.
Then he promptly spun around and sprinted off beyond the treeline. His feet crunched in the ice, and the weary traveler watched as the boy ran for the lightly forested ground a quarter mile to the west.
Valorin couldn't help but laugh. His heart was pounding, his body having prepared for the possibility of a life-or-death struggle. Now that energy drained out of him in the form of deep, booming laughter. He did not rush to mount Barrelrider and ride the man down. That was not in him, a scholar-turned-warrior. Let him live. Perhaps he would rob someone else. Perhaps he would turn his life around. As a stranger here, it was not Valorin’s place to care.
He was not the Wandering Wizard, after all.
He sheathed his ancient sword and rolled up his blankets. He would find no rest here, not with the possibility that the man would come back later in the night. He packed up his meager little campsite, loaded his mount hastily, and jumped up to the saddle.
Valorin frowned when he handled his saddlebags. Several small side pouches had been slit open. He was missing a purse of Norland marks and a handful of useful but non-essential tools: flint, whetstone, oil, and his second pipe.
The little man. He must have done it while he stood beside the horse. While they spoke and bandied words. As annoyed as he felt, he couldn't deny that it was cleverly and quietly done. The man had quick hands, that much was clear.
Valorin went to mount his horse, and paused. He examined his equine companion’s saddle for a moment, unfettered slender fingers groping the leather in the twilight. There. A strap on the girth was cut. It might hold up at a walk, or a trot, but a hard gallop would put the whole saddle askew. And, most likely, send the Sillumiran face-first into the ground. If he were lucky. If luck was not with him, he would be tangled, dragged some distance as a bizarre marionette.
Very clever. If the Mali was the type of man this fellow seemed to think he was, he may well have broken every bone in his body and then some.
It took only a few moments to tie an extra length of leather to the strap. It wouldn't hold for too long, but the closest town was no more than an hour or two away. It would do well enough. He considered following the man's tracks in the snow but he did not know the woods here, and a man like that surely would. The man had carried a bow on his back and Valorin did not relish an ambush at range. Especially in the long dark of practically unfamiliar territory. Despite his wanderings, he did not claim to be a peerless pathfinder.
Replacing the goods would be a nuisance, but it was just coin in the end. He still had more coin, buried deeper in his bags. He cared very little for riches.
No, he concluded. It was not worth risking his life over. Barely worth killing over, if he was being honest with himself. He wondered if the little man's words were right. Was he soft? He had not thought so, back home. He trained as hard as anyone, wielded his weapons with skill and confidence. Studied the histories, wrote poetry second only to his friends’ pens, and was learned in herblore.
Never had he liked the killing. Not the way some of the others he'd served with had, when he sold his sword to the wild-peoples. If he defending his city or another was trying to kill him first, he wouldn’t hesitate. But he wouldn’t relish it. It was why he'd been reluctant to sell his sword-arm in the first place.
He put the thoughts out of mind and himself out of sight as he rode. The moon still shone, but it was dark enough that he ought to keep his focus on the road.
He had almost ridden through to Helena in the first place, but night fell with the city still out of reach. And one last night beneath the stars seemed nice. However, he didn't trust that the little man wasn't still out there. Watching, waiting for him to go back to sleep.
He rode hard until he saw the sparkling lights of whatever town rise into view. There was an inn with a stable on the outskirts of the town, outside the walls. It was a simple thing to wake the innkeeper and the stableboy. He dug payment out of the depths of his saddlebags. The innkeeper wrinkled his nose a little at the rarely-traded currency, a silver coin from the motherland. But coin was coin, be it Mina, Mark, or silver.
Barrelrider was given oats and a berth in the stable beside other such beasts while Valorin laid out his bedroll on the floor of the common room of a town he deemed unworthy of name-learning.
There were a few other men and a band of bearded Bortu scattered throughout the common, all fast asleep. A single halfling curled up near the hearth and his heart grew sorrowful at the thought of Miss Goodbarrel, his friend and companion. The air was warm, if a little stale. Most importantly, four walls and a roof reassured him that the little man from the road would not accost him a second time.
He pulled the blanket over him, feeling the weight of Starlight close against his body. His eyelids were heavy. When they closed, sleep claimed him immediately.
As he fell through the veil of unconsciousness, his mind turned to his beloved friends and he walked the dreamlands with them, as he could not yet do in the waking world. Not even the most foolish would fail to determine whom he saw beneath the whirling starry vault above white stone and banners of azure and argent. Out of the starlit horizon, silver light burst forth in the form of a brilliant orb, larger and brighter than the sun itself. A smile crept upon ageless lips, both in the dream and in the common room floor. He walked forth but he walked not alone.
As always, whatever the distance, Valorin walked with the Argent Sun.