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The Changeling of Par'Lamer

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CHAPTER ONE
The Fair Kings

The city of Par'Lamer shone dull white under the rays of the late Summer sun.  Dust rose from the streets as children squealed and chased one another in pursuit of their whimsical games, dodging around the ankles of far-less carefree adults.  The low cry of gulls rose up from the docks at the eastern border of the thriving fishing locale.  Lazy donkeys plodded up and down, carrying carts full of wares and travelers behind them.  Traders cried out from stalls in the city center, adding to the noise and bustle that flowed through Par'Lamer like a throbbing heartbeat, vital and ever-present.

This city was a flourishing trade-hub to the Human lands of Pausalis.  It sat right upon the very edge of the Bahar, the Great Sea, and so received the life of its waters as well as the boon of its imports.  Yes, naturally it had it's poorer folk and its richer folk as all cities of Men are wont to do, but the gulf between the two was not quite so pronounced as it was in other parts of the realm.  For the most part, its citizens enjoyed a level of peace and prosperity by the lull of the waves, their lands lush and bountiful and graced with the presence of all the world's pilgrims. 

Indeed, people of all kinds made Par'Lamer a prominent stop during their journeys for there they could find fine smiths, comfortable inns and all the goods they should need.  Dwarves from all the Kingdom of Gojjell came through in search of pelts and woodworks that could not be found in their cavern citadels.  Animal Folk of the Wildekinde Tribe trekked all the way from their untamed homes on the Whispering Plains and even the elusive Elves of the Amsinai Kingdom deigned to stop in blessed Par'Lamer when it suited them (though their visits were rare indeed).  The darker races of the world kept their distance, a fact which didn't do much to hurt anyone's feelings.

Near the western border of Par'Lamer, just by the grand city gates, there was a humble inn by the name of the Blue Maiden.  It had stood in the same spot nigh on unchanged for the last 60 years, run by a very old man named Pasha and his equally elderly wife named Bryony.  They had acquired the inn together when they had moved into the city, running it with such warmth and fairness that it continued to be a favoured spot despite larger and less-humble inns springing up nearer to the eastern edge of town.  Any weary traveler could find good food and a warm bed at the Blue Maiden, no matter the hour or the fullness of the inn and it was said that the owners were happy to negotiate prices for even the poorest of wayfarers. 

The kindness and energy of Pasha and Bryony was very nearly legendary.

It was nearing the third hour of the afternoon when Bryony looked up from polishing glasses at the bar, drawn by the sound of hoofbeats outside the door.  She was no younger than 80, yes, but her ears were as sharp and keen as they had been in her girlhood.  She was never one to keep visitors waiting and so shuffled out from behind the smooth oaken counter to see to the new guests they were surely going to have.  A hot breeze caught her whispy white braid and tossed it gently as she opened the door, peering out to see who had come that she might greet them appropriately.  She was most surprised by what she saw.

Beyond the door of the Blue Maiden waited a small host of willowy beings, pale as starlight and regal as kings astride slender-legged steeds of chestnut, silver and white.  They wore sleek riding leathers, half in deep greens and browns and mottled grays, the other half in soft blues and fawns and silvers.  Their eyes were bright as moons and sharp as daggers, almond shaped and sat beneath cool brows.  Their ears were the shapes of new Spring leaves, tucked beneath falls of silken hair and ornate braids.  Two among their number wore woven circlets upon their brows as delicate looking as sapling vines.

Elves had come to the Blue Maiden.

Now, it was true that the Elves came to Par'Lamer when the occasion suited them.  However, occasion had not suited the fair children of Amsinai for nearly a century.  Elves were secretive, you see, and chose not to leave their hidden homes often and to creatures as long-lived as these, a century was but a twinkling.  That Elves came to Par'Lamer was more a known fact than an experienced thing by those currently living within her boundaries.  Still, despite her shock and awe, Bryony nodded her head politely.

She said, "Good Masters, can I be of service?"

One of the two wearing coronets, one of the Elves in blue and silver with hair as black as deepest night swung down from his horse.  Two hunting knives hung from his belt, but his eyes were very kind as he replied in the Common Dialect (though musically accented).

"Grandmother," he replied, "My company and I wish to know if there is room at this inn to house us for a day or two.  We have need of supplies and to have our weapons seen to."

Bryony smiled, "Oh, I am no grandmother, but room can be found for you all just the same.  There will even be room in the stables for your horses and perhaps if my son returns in due time he can see to your weapons.  He has some skill as a Smith."

The dark-haired Elf touched a hand to his brow in gratitude, "We shall see our horses to the stable, then.  Might we have food and drink inside?"

"Of course, of course," she said in a way that suggested he was silly even to ask and that it was a given.

Bryony watched long enough to be sure her guests found the way to the stable attached to the back of the Inn before bustling inside as fast as her knobbly knees could carry her.  She tottered back into the kitchen where Pasha was working away and informed him of the strange happenings.  The wreathe of kindness that had been upon her face dropped into deep worry.

"Pasha, we have guests.  They ask for food and drink to be prepared.  There were six riders in all," she said, her voice thick with concern.

Pasha, a jolly old man full of wrinkles and cheer, flapped his hands at her, "Bryony, my mountain flower, you would think an entire army of Rock Goblins had descended upon us by looking at that face.  What troubles you? Six is not such a hardship."

"They are Elves, Pasha.  I've never seen the like!" his wife said.

Silence fell for a few heartbeats, heavy and thick.

The old man swallowed deeply before he spoke again, "Are you sure, my love? Truly?"

"As sure as I still have eyes in this old head, I know what I saw," she held a hand up in a demonstration of her honesty.

Her silvery-haired husband rubbed at his chin, "Well, there's nothing for it.  We shall simply treat them as any other guest.  Go and see that they're settled whilst I prepare food and drink for their company."

"But what of - " she began, but did not finish, silenced by a look from Pasha.

"That is a bridge we shall cross if ever the time comes.  Now then, we've work to do!"

And that was that.


~~~


Outside in the stables, the two Elf leaders watered their horses, conversing lightly in their own tongue which leapt and danced like water in their mouths.
The taller of the two with hair as pale as the dawn and eyes of jade marveled, ~How very wizened she was! I almost mistook her for a Trow when first I saw her.  How peculiar human aging is.~

The other, the one with the kind eyes and black hair rebuffed him good-naturedly, ~Be not unkind, Amrunil.  She is accomodating.~

~Perhaps so, but I fear any help we may get from her son.  Why, the woman is so old that any child of hers must be well into his dotage by now as well.  I doubt his hands would lack the skill required to see to Elfish weaponry,~ replied Amrunil flippantly.

~And yet we are left with little choice but to see whether his skill is worth our time lest we continue the journey on to Miskas with damaged arms.  While I know well the pride you carry in the defense of your own realm, I trust not the roads leading to it.  Our way has already been fraught with hardship,~ the ebony haired Elf chided.

The pale king's lips thinned, ~Never would I dare suggest a journey un-armed.~

~With good reason!~ Morloth replied in their birdlike tongue, ~Already we have been attacked as we departed Isbali...I do not recall the Goblins being nearly so bold even a century ago when last we made this journey.~

~You speak true when you say their boldness has grown...but their cruelty is the same as ever I recall,~ stern Amrunil said, his eyes distant, ~More the reason to have worthy hands repair our weapons for the final leg.~

Morloth's refined brow creased in memory of his friend's long-remembered pain, ~Truly, you would know best the wickedness of the untamed beasts of the road.~

His companion banished the topic with a sharp gesture, falling back into the flippant arrogance he was accustomed to, ~This is not a conversation I wish to have.  Besides, we have left the Trow woman and her ancient family waiting.  I am giddy to see what doddering mess she foists off on us as some great smith.~

His companion very nearly rolled his eyes, though he was admittedly relieved at the much-lightened mood, ~Will it truly be such a trial to endure humanity but for the brief span of days before we set out for your Kingdom once again?~

~Morloth, sarcasm is unbecoming one of your regal nature,~ snipped Amrunil in reply.

~As is whining yours,~ the dark-haired Elf returned, black eyes twinkling with mirth.

Amrunil snorted and tossed his bright hair like an irritated horse at being caught out so by the other King.  It only drew a soft laugh from the other, who bade him come away from the stables and into the Inn itself where they might continue their banter in more comfortable surroundings.  They were joined by two warriors of their respective cities, a small honour guard as was proper when nobility went journeying out beyond their borders.  Though Morloth and Amrunil were warriors in their own right, notably so, it was always safer in numbers.


~~~~~


The inside of the Blue Maiden was not lavish nor fit for royalty, but the host of Elves was pleased to note that it was more than enough for weary travelers.  It was homely within, rough hewn from old wood with white-washed walls and great oaken beams spanning the ceiling above their heads.  The floor in front of the bar was dotted here and there with sturdy tables and sturdier chairs, many of which were drawn up to the dwindling embers of a comfortable fire.  While it was the tail end of a glorious Summer, the evenings still grew chill on the coast and so such warmth was welcome.  Food and drink was provided, simple but hearty and the air was filled with the mixed voices of Men, rough-hewn Dwarves and soft-singing Elves.  Scent, song and the last vestiges of the day's heat drifted up towards the ceiling, radiating calm and welcome.

Many of the Men gathered in the Inn to drink found themselves sneaking surreptitious glances at the Elves.  Men and Elves had ever been allies, true, but so elusive were the Fair Children that not many of the shorter lived race of Men ever laid eyes upon them.  The Dwarves were less inclined to gaze, for their trade with their bright cousins was more frequent and their lives longer than Men by far.  The Elves pretended not to notice as was their way, though in honesty they noticed everything (as was even more their way).

Bryony gazed on them with Rheumy eyes, seeming lost in her thoughts while Pasha worked away behind the bar.  Even as the shadows of evening drew long, she marvelled at the light that seemed to cling to their unmarked skin.  She watched the final fingers of the day's radiance sift through their hair and glint in their eyes.  Her mind wandered while she looked on, lingering on one who was not present at this merry gathering. 

Her own distraction and the lusty strains of a Dwarvish drinking catch masked the approach of the dark-haired Elf king as he descended from the rooms above.  He stood behind her left shoulder, still as a shadow.

"You are lost in your thoughts," Morloth said, his voice like velvet over silver bells.

The frail old woman started and placed a hand over her fluttering heart, "Goodness, your lordship.  You gave this old heart a fright!"

His smile was yet small, "Forgive me, for it was not my intent.  Be at peace.  I only observed that you seem to be somewhere other than here."

The laugh lines around Bryony's eyes crinkled as she acknowledged him, "I suppose you are right.  I find that my thoughts often wander to my son when he is not at home."

"He is very late in returning," Morloth said as he looked at the gathering dark beyond the windows, "And it is unsafe to travel these roads when the sun sleeps.  I understand your concern."

"Ah, but he is a willful boy.  He will arrive when he chooses and not a moment sooner.  He is like wind," the old woman said fondly, "But please, do not concern yourself overmuch, your lordship.  I do promise that he shall return in due time to oversee your repairs."

"Peace.  One day more or less matters little to our kind.  I only wonder at the imprudence of traveling after dark," the Elf King expressed.

"He is a reckless boy at times, acting as though he will live forever," Bryony said before she seemed to notice the words she spoke and who she spoke them to. 
She immediately looked chastised.

Morloth was reminded once again how very much like children all humans seemed even when they were reaching the end of their life and his fair face softened.  He had always felt a great deal kinder towards the mortal races of the world than Amrunil.  He sought to reassure their host.

"I take no offense, madame.  I pray that your son returns safely.  For now, I beg your pardon," he half-bowed to her and excused himself to stand over by his kin.

He could not shake a sense of oddness from his thoughts.  He understood parental concern, especially the fierce sort that came in the mortal folk, of course.  It was not that which baffled him.  It was the way the elder Bryony spoke of her son.  There was a ring to her words as though he were still a very young man...still a wayward youth.  He lingered on it but a little before banishing it from his thoughts.

Ah, the peculiarities of Man.


~~~~~


Soon the lengthening shadows of evening became the full darkness of a near-starless night.  Even the moon hid her face, peeping out only very little towards the sea.  A scant breeze blew down the quiet streets, rustling the dust softly.  The hour was late and it seemed that even the buildings of Par'Lamer had lapsed into the land of dreams.  Even the rowdiest guests of the Blue Maiden had either gone up  to their beds or continued on their way.  The windows were dark and the only living thing on the street was perhaps a stray cat or a night watchman.

Imagine then how the sharp clapping of a horse's hooves echoed over the roads of the drowsing city.  They began at the gates and bellied down the avenue towards the Blue Maiden itself.  They came quick and urgent, each hoofbeat a swift tattoo shattering the quiet.

To the more drunk and less aware of the Inn's guests it was not a sounds worth rousing for.  Indeed, they barely heard it in the fume of deepest sleep, merely rolling in their beds or shifting their heads with a bare furrow in their brows.  Only the Elves, the lightest of sleepers to begin with, woke.  Morloth and Amrunil rose swiftly when the horse's noisy path clattered towards the Inn, both regarding each other with quiet concern.  The Pale King slipped from his bed and withdrew his bow from where it rested near the door before going over to the window.

Amrunil had no need to squint in the darkness, for an Elf's vision was clear for quite a distance so long as even a scrap of moonlight graced the skies.  He watched as a great, fluffy-fetlocked farm-horse rounded towards the stables bearing a dark-cloaked rider.

Morloth spoke, soft as rustling grass, ~What do you see?~

~A lone rider in black.  The steed has gone to the stables.~

~A late guest, do you suppose? Or perhaps the son of our host and hostess making his promised return?~

Amrunil snorted, derision thick in his tone, ~Foolish, either way, to make such a din after sundown on the road.  If we heard the beast's hooves, it is sure others did.~

~Yet I hear no others,~ Morloth reminded his fellow king.

Still watchful, Amrunil merely muttered, ~Then luck was with the foolish thing.~

His pale green eyes stayed on the stable until the cloaked rider emerged, whistling of all things, and walked into the Inn proper.  His leaf-shaped ears twitched as he sought the sound of the rider's footsteps down below.  He was almost surprised to find that for all the racket their new arrival made, there were no footsteps to be heard.  Amrunil watched Morloth's ears cock, seeking the same sounds he did and he noted the look of surprise on the other's face when he came to the same conclusion.  The whistling from below became the first soft notes of plaintive song, masculine in tone, yet sweet.

The Pale King remained unimpressed, ~If the fool's tongue were as quiet as his feet, I might venture to be impressed.~

Morloth raised a brow at his friend, watching as Amrunil set his bow aside in its original place.  The Black King could only smirk faintly and shake his head as his fellow ventured downstairs, likely to give the foolish young rider a proper tongue-lashing for being disturbed so.  Though the Lord of Isbali was called 'Black', it was his equal who had the dark temperment...often to his amusement. 


~~~~~


Amrunil went down the old staircase that led from the guest rooms to the tavern on silent feet, an arch expression on his face.  The rider had shed his cloak and settled himself down in a creaking chair before the low-smouldering embers still in the fireplace, legs stretched out and crossed at the ankle.  He had shed his cloak and it was clear to see that he was a lean thing, lithe as a cat and not overly tall either.  He had long, elegant fingers that were currently endeavouring to light a pipe.  There was no more that the Pale King could see at the moment, for the rider had his back to the Elf.

His voice was full of consternation as he addressed the newcomer in flat tones, "I am sure the landlord of this establishment would be displeased with the lateness of the hour at which new guests choose to invite themselves in and disturb the rest of others."

The rider jumped as though shot and he turned quickly, the light song he had been in the middle of ending abruptly. 

Amrunil's brow furrowed even more deeply when he got a close look at the youth's face, for surely it was a youth.  His face was fine-boned and sculpted, smooth as an egg and pale.  Beneath slim brows sat a pair of twinkling sapphire eyes, wide with surprise, yet clearly taking everything in, missing nothing.  He wore a rough woolen cap atop his head, but strands of short-shorn golden hair escaped from beneath its brim.  His lips were pale as late Winter roses and there was...something more.

The boy stared in awe and the Pale King was forced to remind himself that few humans had first-hand memory of his kind.

"Well?" he prompted, aloof and regal.

"Begging your pardon, sir.  I did not mean to rouse you," the youth said, his voice a smooth, light tenor.

"And yet you have done just that," Amrunil said loftily.

Continuing to stare, the boy tried to explain his failing, "Forgive me sir, I am unused to the sensitivity of...you are an Elf, aren't you?"

"Well, you have eyes and at least half of a mind.  What is your NAME, boy?"

"Ber Tarwe, son of Pasha and Bryony Tarwe.  My parents own this Inn and I do apologize for waking you, but I have only just returned from a journey," the golden-haired boy explained, taking great care to speak in hushed tones now.

The Elf took care to hide his surprise behind a bland mask of cool superiority.  This was the child of the elderly inkeepers?

He sniffed and turned to venture back upstairs, "With the din you make, you are lucky you did not bring half the fell monsters of Pausalis behind you."

The boy had the nerve to look affronted at the insult, his blue eyes gone fiery, "I have more care than that."

 "Well, exercise that care and do not waken me again," warned the King and disappeared upstairs.

This was an unexpected development indeed.


~~~~~


Amrunil spoke nothing of his discovery to Morloth, instead choosing to mull over the information himself through the night.  The next day, the Black King and three of their number disappeared into the city to seek provisions for the last leg of their journey, leaving the Pale King to his own devices and to see to the weaponry.  While his fellow decided on finding breakfast in the city that day, the Lord of Miskas opted instead to eat in the tavern with Limhen, his old friend and the Captain of his Guard.  They sat in a corner and spoke in the uncanny, soft voices of the Elves, so faint that only they could hear what was said. 

~You say the boy was young and fair, my lord?~ inquired Limhen, his head bent to keep their conversation private despite speaking in a tongue none outside of Elfkind knew.

~Aye, not even in his first whiskers.  It is so,~ replied Amrunil.

~Yet those who are supposed to have given him life are firmly in twilight,~ added Limhen, but continued, ~Still, it matters little.  The strange affairs of mortals have never interested you before.~

~True, old friend,~ the Pale King conceded, ~Yet it is a conundrum and there is still the issue of our arms.  The boy is but a sapling and a fiery, reckless one at that.  How are we to trust him with our weapons?~

Limhen put a hand to his chin and considered it for a moment before offering, ~There is naught to say I could not inspect his work, my lord.  I know much of weapons though I have not the skill to repair them myself.~

Amrunil inclined his platinum head, ~Do so.~

His friend rose gracefully from the table and bowed politely to his lord before departing.  It was not hard to find the smithy where the boy supposedly worked, merely a simple matter of walking out the front door and following the billow of black smoke that belched into the air from the back of the Inn.  It made sense that the lad would not work far from home, for smithing would bring in more business, so Limhen had reasoned very quickly that he would not have to search far.  From the clanging that filled the breeze, it seemed that the boy had gotten an early start and was already ahead of him by at least an hour.  Singing filled the air in counterpoint to the harsh tune of metal and fire and Limhen cocked an ear to it, following.

The smithy itself was nothing impressive, really.  It was an over-large shack placed on the small lawn behind the Blue Maiden, open at one end to allow the heat and smoke to escape while its occupant worked away.  A humble bellows encouraged flame and smoke for a pot-bellied forge near the back wall and an anvil stood not five feet from it.  Upon the anvil was a sword with sparks flying from its white-hot blade as a young man worked upon it.

It was the lad from the night before, though Limhen had not seen him.  It was hard to mistake.  He was narrow, but vital of frame with deceptively strong muscles hidden in his willowy arms and rabbit-thin chest.  He wore a homespun shirt with the sleeves rolled up and smudged trousers tucked into heavy boots, all besmirched with soot.   Sweat rolled down his ruddy brow from beneath the cap he still wore tucked atop his head.  His lips moved absently in bracing song even as he swung the hammer again.

Limhen cleared his throat and stood at attention, waiting for the smith to see him.

The boy turned his sapphire eyes upon the Captain of the Guard and blinked.

"Lord Elf," he said, his hammer's rhythm failing and stopping.

The warden dipped his head in polite greeting (though not so deeply as he would for one of his kin), "My King bade me seek the smith who works here."

"I am he," said the boy, smiling but a little though his eyes were still fixed and full of wonder, "I am Ber.  What service can I offer?"

"A chance to see one of your weapons that I may judge the level of your skill," said the Warden, "We find our own in need of repair, but my King will permit no novice hand upon his arms."

High spots of colour formed in the boy's cheeks and Limhen was secretly amused to note the rising pique in the mortal's expression.  Apparently the lad took his prudent concern as an affront.  Ah, the pride of the Small Flames.

"Here, look you to this and see that I am no novice," snapped Ber with heat, stomping over to a corner and withdrawing a sheathed weapon from the rack.

Limhen was intrigued to note that, even when angered, the boy's feet were quiet as a deer in snow.

He found the blade pushed into his hands while Ber stood before him, arms folded, his face a mask of proud indignation and challenge.  Stifling a haughty smirk at the childishness of Men, Limhen withdrew the sword from its scabbard and immediately found his humour quelled.  What he held in his hands was no neophyte effort.  The sword was elegant and sparkled like the sun on an icy river.  Its edges were razor keen and straight as the raven flies.  Its weight in his hand was like coming home, the balance sure as he spun it in a lazy moulinet.  This was a work of love and care that spoke of a skill beyond this child's meager years.

The Captain looked upon him with a weathered eye.

"Say you to me that you have made this blade?" He asked with suspicion, noting the glint of smug satisfaction in Ber's face.

Ber nodded, a dimple marking his cheek, "Aye.  Three Summers gone."

Limhen re-sheathed the sword crisply, "I would claim falsehood from you."

Ah, and the fire returned to Ber's young face, rising like an inferno.  Here was no suggested insult as before.  This was an outright attack to his honour.

"Arrogance!" the youth spat, "You are so lofty as to think a mere Man could not have made it?"

"I am so wise as to know that no green boy could have crafted something so fine," Limhen retorted calmly.

"I am no child!" barked Ber.

Suspicion rising in his breast, the Captain challenged, "Then how many Summers are you, Ber?"

Both of his aristocratic eyebrows rose high when the youth drew back quickly, his lips slamming shut faster than a Goblin trap.  His eyes were guarded and his back was ramrod straight.  The Captain of the Miskas Guard had an inkling, a strange one, and one that he sought to satisfy with a little test.

~How many Summers, Ber?~ he inquired in the silvery tongue of the Elves.

The fire of inquisition was dimmed, but not smothered when a look of honest confusion passed over the Man's face. 

"I am afraid I speak not your tongue," Ber said slowly, "but the years I have passed matter little.  I say to you I have made that sword and that I have the skill to repair your arms.  You may not take me at my word, but I am no liar."

At last, Limhen relented, "Peace, Master Smith, peace.  I will take you at your word.  I see in your eyes the pride of an abused craftsman, not a dishonest youngster.  I will deliver what needs repair by the eventide.  How long will you require to work?"

Pacified, but still wary, the pale boy took back his sword and replied, "If the damage is not grave, it should take me no more than the span of a day or two."

"Very well then," Limhen said with a bow before turning to go, "That is acceptable."

He did not need to see the look of open suspicion Ber cast upon his turned back as he departed.  He had his own notions which needed seeing to and much to do before he would report back to his King at the evening meal.  Ber was a riddle that he had not counted on and he prided himself on his canny way with such things. 


~~~~~


Once the weapons had been delivered and another merry din was up in the tavern, Limhen found himself once again in the secluded corner with his King.  Morloth was away on an evening stroll by the waterfront, not one to enjoy confinement for too long and the rest of their party looked to the horses.  It gave Amrunil and his Captain a degree of privacy which both of the more withdrawn Elves enjoyed.  It was well known that those Fair Children of Miskas were the most reclusive by far (at least by those who yet knew anything of Elves in this day and age).

~Well, does the boy have the skill?~ asked Amrunil, watching his Captain intently.

Limhen nodded, his gaze distant as he wandered the paths of deep thought, ~Aye, and what skill it is.  I have delivered our weapons to have new edges put upon them and the damage removed.~

~You are pensive.  Speak.~

The Captain turned his focus more fully upon his King, ~It is that very skill which perplexes me.  Ber is but an infant, but I have seen aged smiths of our folk produce work which rival his own.  His face is young, yet his hands are much aged.~

~There is yet more.~

~You are ever perceptive, Lord.  Yes, I suspected perhaps he might be of our kind...perhaps some exile hiding in human lands.  I spoke to him in our tongue perhaps to lure him out.  He quite honestly understood nothing.~

Amrunil offered a wry smirk to his friend, ~Twas a canny guess, though a pity it was incorrect, Limhen.~

The other Elf shook his head, causing his delicate braids to shift against the fall of his mane, ~There is something about him.  His feet are quiet and his skill surpasses his years.  Years, I feel compelled to add, that he is wary of sharing.  Yet he has the temper of a Man...and the manners of one.~

~Settle your brain, old friend.  Even amongst a race so common and predictable as Man, there are yet aberrations to be found.  Perhaps simply a prodigy, then?~

~Aye,~ Limhen conceded.

~Best to leave the lad to fix the weapons and then we can be on our way home all the faster,~ The Pale King counseled, turning his gaze into the light of the fire.

~Wise as ever, my King.  My eyes do sorely wish to gaze upon the Sentinels of Miskas once more,~ Limhen turned his gaze to match his Lords and the two lapsed into silence.


~~~~~


Two more halcyon Summer days passed in Par'Lamer, marked only by the crash of the sea and the piercing call of the gulls overhead.  Come the next dawn, it would be time for the Elven Company to depart (so Ber had explained using Bryony as an intermediary).  Then would King Morloth the Black and King Amrunil the Pale venture back onto the Great Jaunt together til it split, one road to the North and one to the South.  Then would the Kings part ways for their own kingdoms of Miskas in the Eternal Glen beyond the Singing Falls and Isbali in the Fanged Forest, their diplomatic mission over for another Generation of Men. 

Once again this evening Morloth chose to take the air, for there was naught else to do and the moon was high.  The others had already gone abed, the tavern was quiet and he found himself needing little sleep (as was common for his folk) so he thought to see to the horses in the stables.  As he stepped out, he could still hear the ringing of a hammer and the low singing he had come to learn was from Ber, the son of their hosts.  Peculiar that the child could work so hard for so long and still be labouring this far after sundown.  The Black King altered his course for the smithy to investigate. 

He approached the entrance quietly, feeling the heat roll out from within.  Ber stood at the forge, just laying his hammer to rest on the anvil by a horse shoe he had been working on.  Sweat dripped from him and his skin was pink from exertion, though he didn't look winded as a Man might after so much work.  Interest overtook Morloth as the lad, shirtless, reached out for a small rag and mopped his brow of the dewy perspiration.  Believing himself alone, the youth reached up and removed the hat which he always wore and what was there nearly stole the Black King's breath which was no small feat.

Nestled there beneath the golden strands of hair was the unmistakeable curve of a leaf-shaped ear which no Man in all the world possessed. 

Ber was no Man.  Indeed, he never had been.

Wide-eyed, Morloth stepped intot he light of the smithy, "Child..."

The youth turned on his heel at the breathy exclamation and let out a low cry when he saw who had joined him, reaching to tug his hat back on.  The Elf King was at his side in a flash, gripping his wrist and impeding him, still looking with wonder upon the ears he had fought to conceal.  He studied every inch of the boy's face while the other struggled against him.

"Unhand me!" Ber demanded with a note of panic in his fair voice.

"Why hide this? Why, child?" the King asked, floored by confusion, "You are my kinsman!"

"I will not ask you again to release me, Lord! I have no wish to strike you, but I will do so if you do not let me go!" the boy's voice rang out clear.

"Be calm, child! I do not mean to hurt you!" Morloth tried to reassure even as he heard footsteps rushing towards the smithy.

Both heads turned when Amrunil appeared with fleet steps, flanked at his left shoulder by Limhen and their guards.  All had their weapons drawn, though they were halted when the Pale King raised a hand, taking in the scene with narrowed eyes.  It took him no longer than a twinkling to see what had so stunned Morloth and his face turned tempestuous.  Beside him, Limhen's brows rose at what he saw.  So the riddle chose to unriddle itself on the eve before their departure.

Amrunil approached with deadly calm and took hold of Ber's chin in his steely fingers.

When he spoke, his voice was deadly calm and full of grim authority, "Explain this."

Ber regarded him with deep blue eyes full of dread and panic, his tongue locked behind his teeth though his struggles had stilled.

"I commanded you to speak, child! Do you deny a King? Or have you something more to hide? How came an Elf to hide even from his own kin? Are you an exile? A traitor?" the Pale King prompted sharply, giving Ber's chin a small shake.

~Amrunil, he is frightened,~ Morloth tried to counsel.

~He may yet have cause to be, depending on his answer,~ the other king rumbled before returning to a Common tongue, "I will not tell you again, boy."

"I am no traitor!" cried Ber, "I am a Smith and I have ever been so!"

"Where do you hail from?" Amrunil asked in a way that was more of a demand.

"I know not! I have only known the care of my mother and father," the youth exclaimed.

The Pale King pushed him until he was seated upon a cool section of his anvil before turning to Limhen, ~Fetch the Innkeepers.  I would have done with this mystery.~

His Captain bowed deeply and returned the way he came to collect Bryony and Pasha.  It took him no time at all to gather them and reappeared in a twinkling with the elderly humans.  They were clad in their sleeping clothes and their faces grew pale with alarm as they took in the scene before them.  Amrunil turned a baleful gaze upon them even while Morloth laid his long hands over Ber's shoulders to soothe him in the face of his friend's wrath. 

"Who is this boy? I see he is no true son of yours," Amrunil wasted no time with pleasantries, his voice like a death knell.

Bryony let out a soft sound and tried to go to Ber, but she was blocked by Limhen.  Pasha reached for his wife to comfort her, tucking her head against his collarbone.

He answered the King's query in a quavering voice, "He is as true a son as any man may have.  We have raised him from infancy, my lord."

The pale Elf's face was dangerous, "How came you upon him?"

"When my wife and I were but newly wed, we left our village in search of better fortunes.  We stopped to camp one eve before reaching the Great Jaunt and found us there a scene of carnage.  We were greatly a-feared and would have left that fell place had not we heard a cry.  My wife has been a tender woman since e'er I knew her and braved the wreckage to find a poor bairn hidden beneath a fallen corpse.  We pitied the babe and took him in," Pasha explained.

"You took an Elfling for your own?!" Amrunil raged.

Pasha stumbled back a step and held up a hand, "What were we to do? All his kin were slain and we knew not where to find an Elvish city...for Elvish cities will not be found unless they wish to be...and where else were we to find another who might take him? There was no other choice."

"Surely someone in this fool city would see how slowly he aged, for you are no young newlyweds any longer.  How has he been kept secret all this time?" Limhen ventured, curiosity eating at him.

Bryony raised her head to answer this time, "Our first home was in Chrisanthis, not here.  We only came to Par'Lamer when we saw how our boy would not age nigh on 30 years past.  We journeyed here to spend the rest of our days after that time.  Ber is 60 Summers now."

Something weighed heavily on Morloth's mind even while Amrunil stewed in his anger, "You say you discovered him in the wreckage of a battle 60 years ago.  What village did you travel from before you came upon the Great Jaunt?"

"Why, from Wisterin in the foothills of the White Teeth, my Lord," Pasha said, his rheumy eyes locked on his son who's face had gone blank with dread.

Amrunil straightened up as if a shock had passed through him, "What is the boy's TRUE name? Speak it!"

"Ber IS my true name!" the Elfling in question protested.

He found pale green eyes full of impatience leveled on him, "You will not speak out of turn, Elfling." 

"We know not, great King.  There were none alive to speak it to us.  The only thing he had in the world were the blanket in which he was swaddled and a small trinket on a thong about his little neck," Pasha's rickety wife said a trifle desperately, seeing the anger the Elf King directed at her son.

"Trinket?!" The Pale King said sharply.

"Aye, a long bead carved of yellow diamond and gold.  A most peculiar flower was etched into it."

Morloth's head jerked to stare at his friend's rigid back and then to the youth still sat upon the anvil, "It cannot be..."

Amrunil's voice had gone low again, "You will produce this bead."

"I...I have it..."

Ber found every pair of eyes in the room turned upon him after he spoke.  It froze him for a moment even as the Black King gave him an encouraging look.  The boy reached into the pocket of his trousers and rummaged for a minute until he withdrew one pale fist.  He hesitated, his knuckles going white.  He only released his grip when Morloth reached over and gently coaxed his hand open, gasping silently at what he saw there. 

The bead lay nestled in his palm, polished from years of absent handling, but undiminished in its beauty.

Morloth studied it and asked kindly, "Boy, know you what this is?"

"Nay..."

"It is a Betrothal Token.  The flower upon it is the Moon Lily...the sigil of my house...and the only one given in an age was to the infant son of King Berethel of Filirunde, the Lost City of the Western Elves.  The child and his family were lost when a tribe of Mountain Trolls attacked their caravan while they journeyed to seek shelter in my Kingdom.  His name was Faenthia and he was to be raised in my household, trained and cared for until he came of marriagable age," Amrunil said, looking upon the boy with new consideration.

Ber looked stricken by this information, the bead tumbling from his hand.  It would have hit the floor had not Morloth caught it and pressed it back into his palm.

The pale Elf's green gaze was full of hidden emotion, "Long have I thought you dead."

Bryony and Pasha looked worried where they stood amongst the royal guard of the kings and even now Ber's eyes turned to them.  For all that he was not their blood, they had raised him and now he sought their comfort as the world slipped from beneath his feet.  They looked upon their boy helplessly, knowing they were all at the mercy of the Pale King now.

Pasha, his noble father, was the first to venture the question that weighed heavily on their minds, "...What shall happen now?"

"Faenthia shall return to Miskas where he has always belonged and been long absent from.  He shall depart with us on the morrow and his people shall celebrate his return for they shall have a Prince...and a Smith of no small account," Amrunil replied matter-of-factly.

Ber shot up from his seat and took a daring step forward, eyes wide, "Nay! I shall not go! This is my home and what is more, I shall not abandon my parents."
Morloth spoke this time and his voice was remorseful, but firm, "I am afraid it cannot be so, little one.  Promises were made long ago and as your lifegivers do not live to sever them, it falls to you to honour them."

Hard as steel came the Pale King's voice, "Go and collect your things, Faenthia.  You will ride with us on the morrow whether willing or no.  Human lands are no place for you any longer.  Go now."

With a flick of his hand, he dismissed the Elfling and his parents to go and prepare as they needed, sending also his guards with them to ensure that they did not flee. 

The boy's heart sank down below the earth and he feared it would never rise again.


~~~~~


As dawn began to whisper of arrival over the sea, Ber and his human guardians sat upon his bed together.  He had packed with a heavy heart and the help of his parents, but now he could not find the will to carry on and so he simply sat.  He basked in the presence of the two who had raised him with such care, seeing their advanced age and knowing he would never see them again.    Desperation clawed at his throat like a feral animal.  He did not wish to go, especially not to marriage with grim King Amrunil amongst a people he did not know.

"I could slip from the window and flee until they left," he said, looking dolefully at his mother.

She clasped his hand within her withered one and shook her aged head, "Nay, my ray of sunshine, it is of no use.  Elven warriors are swift and sure.  You would be caught."

"What shall I do?" the boy lamented.

"Go down the path that has been set before you, my dearest one," his mother said while Pasha sat as a silent source of warmth.

Ber-now-Faenthia shook his head, lips trembling, "I cannot leave you."

"Yet the time is fast coming when we would be forced to part from you anyway, my child.  You would have had to choose a new path soon enough, hard though it be to accept.  We have been all too lucky as it is, to have you at our sides for 60 long years.  Most parents are forced to give their children up to marriage far sooner...and our hearts are comforted knowing you shall be cared for."

"Cared for?!" Faenthia scoffed, head jerking back upon his swan-slender neck, "by the fell King of the Elves? I shall be a slave."

"If what he says is true, you were a Prince before we found you and so a Prince you must be again...and if you are a Prince then truly no Man or Elf can make you a slave.  Hold high your head, my sunbeam," Bryony said, holding her son's cheeks and lifting his head for him.

Her old eyes softened when she spied regality in his sculpted face as she sometimes did, "You, dear child, are destined for better things than this, but you must be strong and fight against the rising current.  I wish for you to promise me this.  Do it quickly, for the sun now peers over the waves."

Fighting the burning in his eyes and the thickness in his chest, the golden-haired Elfling nodded his assent.  He did not trust his voice.  He nearly let out a sob when he heard a soft knock upon the door as the Elf Guards summoned him to go.  It was a polite knock, but to his ears it sounded like a key turning in the lock.  It was the blow of a headsman's axe.  He felt despair settle like led on his heart even as his mother and father coaxed him up and led him to the door.

"Fear not," Bryony whispered in a voice like spiderwebs, "We are at peace, our lives have been worth something.  Think fondly on us."

With that, she embraced him, followed by Pasha, and sent him out to the Guards.  They would not watch him go.  It would be easier for him to sever the ties now than to linger over the coming losses and regrets.  His oceanic blue eyes followed them as long as they could until he was whisked downstairs and out to the waiting horses.  He had not even been permitted to dress in his own clothes for the ride, instead given a set of green and grey riding leathers in the livery of his fiance.  He had never looked more like an Elf and never felt less like himself.

He ducked his head as his new Lord looked upon him with distant fondness, reaching up to run slender fingers over his shorn hair, "Ai, but this pains me.  You will be radiant as your name when it grows long again and you can wear proper braids."

Faenthia turned his head away from the touch and mounted up on his charger with one last forlorn look into the uppermost window of the Inn.
Morloth's more nimble steed cantered up to his side, the Dark King upon its back.  The blue-clad Elf in his circlet of silver gave the youth a reassuring glance before urging the other riders on.  The time had come and the Elves were leaving Par'Lamer for their own lands.  Golden-haired Faethian with all of his sadness was swept up in their tide.

He was never to see his mother and father again.