IT WAS ONCE THE PLACE where all races could cohabitate openly and in peace. The wide cobble-stone highways that led there stretched out in every direction like roots from a massive tree. They welcomed the dwarven merchants to venture down from their mountain mines, and even tempted the elvish hypothecaries out from their dense hidden forests. All races were free to travel to that place, to ply their wares in the hopes of earning honest coin from the newly-rich human explorers. The castle’s colorful flag-draped spires, constructed centuries earlier with the help of the elder races, reached majestically towards the endless sky, to where only the gods themselves could look beyond. Back then, the holy places were blessed by all the gods – for inclusion was something offered to all the benign faiths. This openness was borne out of respect for their diverse origins, and as a means to acquire the wisdom and knowledge from every corner of the known world. But most importantly, it was the way to unite all peoples and all races as one against the ubiquitous threat of the evil-doers.
But that was many years ago, long before the last giant war, and the subsequent elvish rebellion that forced me into hiding. That was a time when humankind was still considered the young, ‘learner’ race – and its place among all other races was still new, almost childlike. Back then, this mighty castle on the hill, and the burgeoning villages that surrounded its protective walls, was home to The Order of The Sacred Fire, wherein gathered the greatest of fighters, mages and clerics – ordained as the keepers of truth and justice. The Order and their ancient impregnable stone castle once provided hope to all - that there was always someplace to turn when injustice plagued the meek, and betrayed alliances between rival lordships threatened the peace. It was a beacon of shining light in the void that was the old west, before the massive human migration that came after. That righteous place that once existed is no more. It is now replaced with a massive human city whose inhabitants are guided only by avarice and fear. The virtue of that place, and The Order itself, is gone forever. Only its name now remains - Vosse.
When I first came to know Marcek Dabbot and Sherman Pines, they were young and impressionable acolytes within The Church of The Great Seer – formerly known as The All Gods Church, in the new city-state of Vosse. They were both very talented artists and scribes, but spent most of their long days copying deteriorated texts, page by page for preservation within the Church Library. Occasionally, they were tasked with more contemporary subject matters; such as recording the Governor’s business accounts, or documenting his dictated legal findings. This made them both outstanding stenographers, and quite learned about the history of Vosse, now the largest and most influential city in the western world. They were both avid historians as well, yet found most of the subject matter they transcribed was laced with contradiction. They would debate with each other for hours on top of days about many things. They shared their impassioned opinions over what they believed had actually happened, and which stories they discredited. This made them both genuinely curious to know the truth from the fiction. As they recalled the tales, they dreamed of living out these fantastic adventures, and of encountering the magical creatures described in the legends of days long past.
Early one morning, the quiet focus of their scriptorium was broken by the sudden appearance of a messenger from the Palace of the Overlord. His conversation with the abbot was hard to overhear, but soon after the messenger’s appearance, the abbot called out to the boys.
“Dabbot, Pines!” The abbot’s voice echoed across the small stone room. When they stood to answer, the abbot simply motioned for them to follow the messenger. The two young scribes figured it was likely to be another long day of pain-staking stenography. They followed the messenger, who walked very quickly and didn’t speak at all about the governor’s business with them. When they reached the foyer outside the governor’s office, they were met by one of his underlings.
“These are the them? The scribes?” He asked of the messenger. The reticent messenger nodded and was then handed a single coin for his efforts. The over-fed and unkept minister, as usual, portrayed himself as much busier than he truly was. The boys approached dutifully, anxious not to make a mistake in protocol.
“Marcek Dabbot sir, and this is Sherman.”
“Yes, fine.” The minister waved off the pleasantries. “Do you both understand the southern dialects; the speech and customs of The Ostrum and the Torbanese?”
“Yes sir. I spent four years abroad in The Crown Bay… as a child.” Sherman chimed in proudly.
“Still look like a child to me, boy.” The grey and balding minister flung back at him. “How about languages of the any other sub-races… say elvish?”
“Elvish, sir?” They both looked stupefied at the notion.
“Yes. Elvish. The language of the elves.” He said with heavy condescension. The two looked at each other for a logical response, but only shook their heads nervously, uncertain how to answer such a question. The minister broke the silence. “That’s all right, the common tongue should do.” The very mention of elves made the boys quite nervous about this unexpected assignment. Elves, like all other non-humans, now commonly referred to as ‘sub-races’, were deemed heretics and outlaws by the current governor. “I was told you two are our best stenographers.” The minister stared them down, and after a pregnant pause, handed them a scroll containing a map and letter bearing the governor’s stamp. Before they could digest the import of the scrolls, he handed them a satchel containing a modest amount of coin. “Take this, in case you cross any of the Earl’s men, or any other robber-knights for that matter. I’ve arranged a carriage and a horse for you to take. You two boys are to go to the forest northeast of the Ostrum. Follow the map, if you hurry, you should be able to reach the destination before nightfall.”
“We’re to leave Vosse? And go… into the forest, sir?” Asked Sherman, quite vexed.
“Yes. The Governor himself approved this assignment. Your abbot was notified.” The boys were speechless, and seemed petrified at the notion of leaving the safety of the castle dormitory on their own. “You can read a map, can’t you?” The minister snatched the map from Sherman’s hands. “It’s not that complicated. There’s an old woman who lives… there.” He said pointing to the generic ‘x’, quite far off of the main road, and in the middle of what appeared to be an uninhabited forest. “Her name is Tia… Ari-man. Our Lord has been informed she might have some valuable information to share with us, concerning the history of The Old Order.”
“She’s… in the forest, sir?”
“Yes. Follow the map. She’s an older woman. I’m told she knows quite a bit of our history and of the old ways. We’re contracting a new tome… for the history of The Old Order. Talk to her. See what she says. Find out if she has anything… interesting to add. Vet it… as best you can, make your report, and return it here afterwards. Take whatever time you require. That’ll be all.” The minister said, waving them away. The two boys stepped back and then turned to look for clarification from the messenger, but only then noticed he had already left for other duties. The two young acolytes stood there, among the bustling chatter in the large, echoey Hall of Governance, looking at the vague map, holding the small bag of coin meekly. The minister turned back and yelled to them. “Go now you fools, before the day is lost!”
The carriage had been loaded with very few survivalists’ supplies, but hundreds of empty pages of parchment within several transcription books, and plenty of ink for their quills.
“How much do they actually expect this ‘Ariman’ lady to tell us?” Marcek wondered.
After the shock of this most unexpected assignment had run its course, the boys were now feeling excited to finally be able to leave the safety of their small abbey. For many uninterrupted months, the sanctum beside the Church of The Great Seer was their whole universe. Now, it was just the two of them, entrusted with a horse drawn carriage they could drive themselves, and with money they could spend as they chose. Their young bodies were riddled with nervous energy and eagerness for wherever this assignment might take them.
“By the All-Father, I haven’t been outside the walls of Vosse in over a year.” Sherman called out energetically as the carriage passed through the last city gatehouse.
“I know brother. I had started to forget there was such a thing as a world outside.” Marcek smiled. “I can’t believe Abbot Stole-crin allowed us to leave.”
“This old lady must have some story to tell.” Sherman replied. “But shouldn’t we have some…protection, considering where we’re going?”
“Our lives are worth far less than the salary of any fighting man.” Marcek replied. “Besides, you heard him, we could be away for several days. Or more.” He smiled mischievously.
The late spring sun broke from the once cloudy morning sky and beamed down upon them. It was becoming very warm, so they both elected to remove the bulky clerical garb for the lighter tunics they wore underneath. The newly stone-paved highway from Vosse was filled with many merchants and travelers, who all gave the boys strange looks. Even in daylight, these roads were pretty rough. They were clearly out of place.
When they passed the village of Bol, the stone highway they had followed southeast met another lower dirt road, built many years earlier to circumvent the forest entirely. They took that pass for several miles to the southwest until it reached the new road, which was cut straight through the dense forest. This was the most recently constructed roadway. This was an unpaved highway, but it was popular among the merchants, for it offered a direct route to the town of Harda on the other side of the dense forest. They followed that road for several more hours until they reached a point where they had calculated they should have made a turn off to a road much less travelled. But there was no road there to be found. They doubled back, and then stopped, arguing over the map.
“How can that be where this old woman’s house is? There’s nothing there. Which road is it that would take us there? No. This can’t be right!” Sherman proclaimed nervously. The afternoon sun had now descended, and despite their youthful exuberance, they did not want to be stuck on these barren trade roads alone at night. This forest lane was notorious as a hideout for brigands, and those types of miscreants who don’t want to be found. People like me. The description they had read of the woman they were seeking, did not match what they knew of this area. “This can’t be right.” Sherman called out to Marcek again, who was peeing into the forest. “There is no road leading to this place. I counted our wheel clicks precisely since we entered the forest. I’m certain of it.”
“Well, perhaps we could take this path.” Marcek said, as he re-buckled his pants. He reached up to a tree branch, and pulled it to the side revealing a narrow and almost invisible forest trail. “This seems to be heading in that general direction.”
“You cannot be serious.” Sherman replied, as he leapt down from the carriage to get a closer look. “That’s not a road brother, it’s a… hiking trail.”
“Its heading north. Come, lets see where it goes.” He said heading back towards the carriage. “What do you say Dolly?” Marcek asked the horse as he patted the crest of her mane. The horse responded inexplicably by moving past him, through the tree-line. She began following the narrow path on her own. Sherman and Marcek chased after her and leapt back onto the carriage as it started on its bumpy journey along the shady wooded trail. Because the path was rocky and filled with exposed tree roots, they proceeded much more slowly, but despite the added resistance, Dolly seemed content that she could continue on this route.
As they made their way further under the canopy of the dense forest, the temperature dropped considerably. This prompted the boys to put back on the thick, religious garb they had removed in the heat of the direct sunlight. The afternoon sun had descended into the horizon, and they found themselves stopped in the middle of an increasingly dark, cold, and hard to see forest path.
“Now you’ve done it. We’ll never get out of here.” Sherman complained to his closest friend, as the sounds of the forest wildlife came to life. Marcek was busy trying to re-read the letter and interpret the map.
“We should be here.” He said.
“We should. But we’re not. We’re nowhere. Come brother, let’s head back towards the highway. We might be able to reach Bol before its too late.” Sherman pleaded as Marcek looked over his shoulder.
“Look at that.” Marcek said, pointing to what looked like a large thicket of thorn-bushes.
“Look at what?” Sherman asked anxiously, turning his head behind him.
“There.” Marcek said, pointing to what looked like smoke emanating from atop the thicket of bushes within. In the dusk light of the forest it was hard to make out, but once noticed, it was unmistakable. The two got off the carriage. The chirping of the birds in the canopy above had reached an early-evening crescendo. The two boys stepped towards what seemed like an apparition of heat, moving through the air, until they noticed the source was indeed a small stone chimney hidden within the brush. They stepped closer and then over to the other side of the brush when Sherman noticed a small door to a tiny house.
“Is…this… it?” Sherman asked incredulously.
“Let’s see.” Marcek said. “There’s a fire burning. So… someone’s home.” Marcek breathed into his cold hands and then stepped up to the door that seemed made for a little person. Light was visible through the blurry glass in the triple-slat ornament atop the door. Marcel hunched down as he looked through the small window but could not see anything within. He then knocked as Sherman urged him not to, and before he could grasp his arm to prevent him from doing so. After he knocked, Sherman winced at his decision. There was no response. Then he knocked again. They looked at each other. Sherman looked up to the darkening sky.
“Dearest All-Father, we’re going to die.”
I certainly wasn’t expecting any company that evening, so I armed myself. I listened behind my front door for a moment while the boys prattled on, squabbling with each other. I used a magic divination, but detected no malice within them, so I unlocked the door. My face was mostly hidden beneath a dark cloak as I peered through the cracked door. Portions of my long reddish hair, greyed by age, protruded out of my bonnet.
“Who goes?” I asked with a gruff voice. The two boys ceased their squabbling. They were silent until one of them managed to spew out an answer.
“My lady. We are from Vosse City… we were sent by the governor there.” His innocent face offered politely through the door slat.
“I have no business anymore with Vosse… or its governor.” I said with disdain. To them I was hard to see, hidden in the silhouette of the warm firelight beyond the doorway. I looked at both of the boys closely, but did not recognize them. They were very young. How did they find me? I wondered. They might be a diversion. I slammed the wooden door abruptly upon their shaken faces. Marcek looked to Sherman, who then approached the door with added urgency. He knocked even harder on the door this time. There was no answer. The boys both knocked again desperately as they called out to me. As their fists continued to beat on the small wooden door, their anxious eyes looked to each other in desperation. Then my voice was heard behind them.
“Who are you and what do you want?”
“Ahhh!” The boys both hollered in surprise. Then Marcek noticed it was I behind them, the same lady who had just been on the other side of the door.
“My god woman. I nearly shit myself! How and why did you sneak up on us like that?” The boys cried out clutching their palpitating hearts.
“You are the ones who showed up at my home unannounced, beating on my door like madmen.” I said in a cold defensive tone. “Now who the hell are you, and what do you want?” The chirping of birds was now starting to be replaced by the intense hum of crickets that created a chorus of sound echoing in the darkening forest around us. Beyond the canopy of trees, the sky was without any sun. The distant stars and the two moons Corla and Illisia were beginning to creep back into sight. The boys had noticed by now that I was armed. The base of a scabbard containing my short sword protruded beneath my heavy cloak.
“So sorry to cause offense mam. We mean you no harm.” Sherman said. “We’re not brigands.”
“I’ve deduced that much.” I said confidently. Just then, a small bird flew out of the canopy of birdsong. It dashed towards me like a dart until it landed on my hand, chirping at me. The boys looked astonished. I then lowered my face to the small bird, whispering thanks in an ancient elvish dialect, and the small bird then flew away. I had confirmed - these boys were indeed here alone.
“We’re scribes madam… from Vosse.” Sherman said motioning to his horse and the books of empty pages on the carriage. He then fumbled out the map and letter from his waist pocket. “We were asked to find a… Tia Arimen somewhere near here…in these forests. To discuss the history of The Order of The Sacred Fire…for the record. Do you, do you… know her?”
“Aermine (Ayer-mine)”. I corrected them.
“What’s that?” asked Marcek.
“If you’re going to speak my name. Then say it right.” I said.
“Then… you are her. Oh, thank the prophets!” Sherman said, looking up to the star-filled sky.
“Ms. Ayer… uh, Ms. Tia.” Marcek asked meekly.
“That will do.”
“Right. We did not expect for this, for your home… that is, to be so hard to find.”
“I’m amazed you found it.”
“Well, we expected to pitch tent nearby, wherever it was that we might find you, for the duration of our time here. Not to impose…but its already quite late in the evening. We have yet to even start a fire, let alone prepare a tent… or a meal.”
“Right.” I said. I then reached over and grasped the lead of the horse’s tack, and started to pull it towards the other side of my homestead. The boys followed behind cautiously. “You boys can stay here, inside with me. But let’s see this beautiful horse be shown some proper shelter, yes?” They looked at me incredulously as I removed the illusion of thorn-filled bushes and revealed my small barn in its place. I opened the double doors and led the carriage in. “Come.”
“What is…how did you do that?” asked Marcek. I then created light in the barn magically. Both of the boys were confused by the intensity of the light, and the lack of a discernible source.
“Things aren’t always what they might first appear to be.” I said, lowering my cloak, and revealing my half-elven ears. The boys looked at each other with eyes ready to explode from their sockets. An actual elf? They thought, unable to believe what their own eyes were showing them. I approached the horse and whispered assurances to her. I then turned to the boys. “Well then. Grab your things. This might take a while. There’s much I have to tell, and it’s about time I did.” The boys followed me into my ‘little hovel’. They were required to duck their heads a bit to enter, but when they did, they noticed the space inside was far greater than the image I made visible betrayed to the outside world. I showed them to a room with two separate beds. “I had this room built for my… guests. Trouble is, I haven’t had any.” I said sadly. The boys seemed ecstatic to have their own beds, likely better accommodations than they had back at the abbey. They were thrilled that they need not rest on the cold, wet floor under the wooded canopy. I fed them and then offered them some of my favorite dwarven brandy. They told me it was their first drink, outside of sacramental sips of wine. After they digested my cooking, and settled in, I suggested they grab their quills. “So, what do you want to know?”
“The um, Order of The Sacred Fire… are we to assume you were… alive to see, or know any of its members… alive that is?” asked Marcek.
“Yes.” I answered. They both looked at me quizzically, unsure what sort of follow up question to ask, so I helped them out of pity. “I am the last thread. I am the only living member of The Order.” The boys looked at me for clarification.
“Ms. Tia. There has been no Order for over a hundred years.” Sherman asked dubiously.
“That’s right.” I said. “One hundred and one years, to be exact.” I answered. The boys were unsure of how I might know that for sure, or what it meant to be mixed race, or the carrier of elvish blood. In my case, it meant a life expectancy of up to five hundred years. Yes, by their standards, I was very old.
“Well, just how old… are you?” asked Sherman meekly.
“I have lived… three hundred and twenty-eight years. I don’t look so bad, for such an old lady, huh?” I asked Marcek with a wink and a smile.
“No mam.” He responded with a smile of his own. Marcek then attempted to break the awkward silence with his best suggestion yet. “Perhaps, you should start from the beginning. Tell us what you know about those times? About the age of The Giant Killers?”
I sipped carefully on my hot tea and then breathed in deeply to prepare my answer. I had waited many years to get this mare off my chest - to tell the truth about a critical time that most humans had already forgotten. The young scribes readied their quills in anticipation, so I began my story. What follows herein is what I told them; the truth. They listened silently and attentively. They wrote until their fingers blistered and continued until they bled. They spent many long days with me, until all of their many blank pages had been filled.