by David C Lawrence
The travellers had nearly reached the top of the slope.
Laslingis stopped and peered through the dark into a thin patch
of woods. The hillock proved to be a rocky ledge that hung about
six feet above the forest floor and projected out another five.
The earth beneath it was still very firm, dry and flat, more than
ample for bedding. The old man walked in the hundred feet to the
shelter and called for the halflings to follow.
When they had all reached the hollow, the packs were unslung and they laid down some blankets. Next to the ledge they supported a large leather tarp between some trees and led the ponies under it. Laslingis and Crispin split up in search of wood while Pidge quietly set about preparing dinner. Crispin reappeared ten minutes after he had left, complaining about the absence of dry wood.
"Ah, well," said Pidge half-heartedly, "We won't be needing these then." He began repacking the ingredients he was going to use for a stew.
Laslingis stepped into the area a moment later with an armful of dry wood. "Good, Parlon, I am glad to see you are well-prepared and making ready for dinner."
"What?" asked Pidge as he looked up to see the old man with the dry wood. "Oh, right. I just have a few more things to take out." He began to re-unpack the food he was putting away.
Branwin sat at the edge of the dry area with his back against the smooth stone face. He stared out into the rain that dripped from the trees. Rivulets of water ran down the hillside, flowing in and between the roots of trees that were nearly as old as the mountains themselves. Laslingis looked over to the lonely halfling with a feeling of remorse in his heart and then set about making the fire.
Crispin also noticed Branwin's pensiveness and went to console him. "I'm sure the rain will stop soon, Branwin. I wouldn't let it get you down."
Branwin continued his silent watch. "It's not that," he finally said. "I have some thinking to do."
The curly headed halfling feigned a smile. "You know that I'm always here to listen," he said in a kind voice.
"Yes, I know," answered Branwin after a moment of wandering thoughts. "I would just like to think for now, though, and perhaps when I know my thoughts, you will know them, too."
"Okay," breathed Crispin as he got slowly up. He was thinking, too, as he laid the bedding for the night. Branwin stayed in his spot at the edge of the area beneath the ledge, thinking -- thinking back to the night that convinced him to make the impossible journey at all.
Halfling architecture is of a highly interesting nature. It takes the sturdy practicality of a dwarven home, the natural aesthetic beauty of an elven manor, and the low-level layout of a gnomish warden and combines them all into a surprisingly simple, but unique, design. A typical house often has a large garden all about the hill it was set into and a beautiful stone walk leading to an inviting door. Halflings are very fond of long, rounded shapes like the petals of a daisy or the leaves of a sycamore, and so their doors and windows tended to be shaped as such, lending gentle curves to generally boxish outer frames. The outside of the building was usually made of flat slats of hard wood, held together by a sap and honey sealer and covered with slightly pitched roof.
Inside this out-work was a receiving room where most entertaining was done. Many soft, comfortable chairs were placed around the room with large tables before them to hold plenty of snacks. A stone hearth dominated the room as a place to get warm during the temperate winters. The wide mantle piece was used to display those many items of which the owner was particularly proud.
At the back of the room, the building blended into the hill and became a cave -- a pleasant, paneled cave that only happened to be covered by a mound of dirt. It had a roof, walls, and floors and was a very warm place to be. At the back of the main room was a wide hall, and off of this hall all of the others rooms were located. First came the guest rooms on both sides, with large oval windows bored through the hill to great the outside world. Next came the pantries and butteries, always well-stocked, on the left and the kitchen, always well-used, on the right. The kitchen had a fireplace that shared the same chimney as the master bedroom, which was the next room down. Across from the bedroom was a bathroom which was a highly advanced part of halfling life, complete with a washtub and efficient plumbing.
Further down were storage rooms for clothes, of which their were many; items of little real worth, of which their were more; and tools, of which their were few but usually put to work often. Most better homes also had a library near the middle of the hill for the owner to relax in with his favourite books. That was where Branwin was when three sharp knocks at his door roused him from an unknowing slumber.
Branwin sat bolt upright as the knocks jarred him from a peaceful dream. `Now who should that be coming at this hour of the morning, I wonder,` he thought. After making a quick check as to the shortness of the tallow candles in the library, he added, `Evening. Dear me, I hope I haven't missed my dinner. Maybe my guest would enjoy a little something in his stomach, too.`
The knocks sounded rapidly again and the furry-footed halfling went hurrying down the hall to answer the door. `Impatient of sorts, though, isn't he? If it weren't for the time of day, I would think it were Tale, by that knock.` He reached the door and opened it as another knock fell on the hard wood. Branwin greeted his visitor with a smile which quickly became a look of astonishment. "Tale!"
Laslingis stood with his staff raised to eye level, for he had been using it to knock on the door. The tale-teller breezed swiftly past the startled halfling into the room, leaving Pidge panting with his hands on his knees and wondering why his uncle had said "Tale".
"You'd better get back on home, Pidge," Branwin told him. "I think Laslingis wants to discuss something with me that would not interest you."
"Let him stay," said the old man. "This discussion will interest him very much. You may be leaving very soon, and I would like him to fully understand why. I have to talk to you about something of urgent import that deals closely with both of you."
"Fine then. Come in and sit down, Pidge. From the looks of things, you could use some rest; and if this is going to take as long as I believe it will, I should like to make us all some dinner first." Branwin started off to the pantries as his newly arrived visitors moved into the receiving room.
"Be assured that it will take longer," said Laslingis, "so spare nothing you would serve if you had three guests more." The host smiled a content smile at the entirely appetizing idea and was thankful his larder had been completely restocked the day before.
The tale-teller stood by the fireplace and looked over Branwin's treasured belongings, while Pidge fell into a soft chair next to one of the windows. The two did not speak for the hour that Branwin bustled about in the kitchen, for the old man was deep in thought and the young halfling was very near deep in sleep.
The older halfling finally emerged a large tray burdened by smoked ham and fresh carrots. Salads, biscuits, potatoes and many other fine foods followed on the next tray. After setting things in order on the low, circular table in the center of the room, he scurried back to the kitchen to fetch two more equally well-endowed trays. A final trip produced two large mugs filled with fine brown ale that was enticing even if only to look at. The three sat down to a quiet, but satisfying, meal. When they had finished, near two hours past the sitting, Pidge and his uncle cleared the table while Laslingis sat brooding in the candle-lit room. Finally, their work was done. Pidge collapsed into the soft chair again, where Laslingis stood looking out the window. Branwin stood at the foot of the chair, wiping his hands on his skirt-apron.
"What is this all about, then, Tale?" he asked. He hung his apron on a peg behind the door and sat down on a sofa across the table from his nephew.
Laslingis sat in another sofa next to Pidge and grimly asked for the rod. The new Cordin pulled it from his pocket and handed it to the tale-teller. "This," he said, holding the rod delicately between his thumb and forefinger and gazing at it intently. "This is the object of our attention. Do you have any idea of what it really is?"
"It's only an odd little bit from some ancient wain-mule. Gorbodoc found it in a ditch by the side of the road nearly four hundred years ago. It's passed down the family among other baubles." Branwin felt a deep foreboding behind Laslingis' seemingly trivial question. He often got that feeling when he talked to the old man.
Laslingis smiled a distant smile and spoke slowly. "Yes. That is what Gorbodoc said he would tell the curious. He had a fear about telling them how he really acquired it; an indescribable feeling about the rod -- a feeling so strong he denied even the glory of a great deed."
"Why? For a simple simple wain-mule bit?" Pidge, unlike his uncle, didn't sense anything ominous at all and was having a difficult time trying to understand the whole point of the discussion.
"No. It isn't a simple wain-mule bit," said Laslingis. "Practises may change over the years, but take a close look at this rod...it's tapered. Unless it was made for a special mule with a very unusual mouth, a tapered bit is quite uncommon in any era. And it is in remarkably fine condition for something chomped on four hundred years ago and then left in a wayside ditch. The rod is a piece of something much more powerful than you can now possibly imagine, and the time is coming when it will be needed again. Gorbodoc was wise to remain quiet about it when he did, for if it was known where it had ended up, the world would be a far darker place than it is now.
"Stay quiet and try to follow. I will tell you the tale of the Sceptre of Saradacil ...
Many tens of hundreds of years ago, when people were fewer and trees were greater, a being of great evil appeared in the west of the world. Neither a man nor a god, he was a creation of evil to last through eternity. He came before people knew what good and evil were, and went among the races gaining their friendship and confidence. When he deemed that he was in control, he took advantage of people's natural desire to dominate and began to subtly pervert their thoughts; he put in motion his plan for world dominance.
"The Gnomes want the beauty of your gems," he told the Dwarves.
"The Men want your forests," he said to the Elves.
"The Thelion want you for slaves," he warned the Gnolls.
Many other lies he circulated amongst the people and tension mounted. With his aid, the races developed weapons of iron and steel; phantasmists and enchanters who had practised spells which provided, healed and entertained turned to magicks of war, hurt and absolute destruction. Men were the most susceptible to his deceit and many were ready to attack the high mountain nests of the Thelion, who were rumoured to be ready to descend upon the cities.
But King Belitain of Dardan admonished against a war. He advised to determine how much of a threat was actually present. The King was a popular Man and influential, yet a small band of Men which was well-learned in the schools of evil set out to destroy the Thelion.
Now Zethus, Lord of the Air-Lords, was ministered by the Dark One. He prepared to repel the human force. Quickly flew the Thelion down the mountains toward Caralith, the Heart of Dardan. The Men and the Thelion met in battle before the Elf manors. Long fought was the Battle of the Beginning and many lives were lost in chaotic combat. Even Elves, whom the Dark Minister could influence the least, died in valiant effort to stop the war.
Yes, it was the Battle of the Beginning -- the beginning of battles between the races -- the beginning of the grasp of evil on the land.
Elf messengers went before Zethus, only to die martyrs' deaths. They had carried desperate pleas to end a purposeless war, and were met with the uncaring blade of an obsessed king. More messengers were sent before King Belitain. Belitain saw the sorrow in their hearts and was grieved that any of his people should be involved in such a war. He assembled a group of the strongest workers of Caralith and blessed them as the Royal Forces. Belitain himself rode at the front as the contingent set out to aid the Air-lords. Zethus was impressed by the act and ceased fighting, and the band of Men was dumbstruck to see their own people against them. They fled the hills and returned to dark alley-ways to brood. Zethus banished the Dark Minister from his territory, as did Belitain, and word was sent to all the races to mend the hurts caused by the Evil, and to live together as allies.
The Minister fled to the Northwest where he entered into the Nimgeth, ever after called the Nimbelog, Mountains of Evil. Many years he spent there, hating then planning then building ... building new races, evil races, races in mockery of those that he despised. Thousands of orcs represented the packaged strength of the Dwarves; spikad roamed the skies gaining the far-seeing perspective of the Thelion; trolls with long, lanky limbs were Evil's answer to the Elves. For Men, he did not need to create -- he simply taught them in the Darkness, mutating their thoughts until they could only think of malevolent hurt and destruction.
Those Men, though, were a small percentage of the amount the Minister would have preferred. The human spirit basically was a good one, no matter how much Evil wished to deny the concept. And while his anger grew, so grew his strength. When his power had reached fearful heights, he loosed his minions unto the world such that the like of the ruin that was caused has not been seen since. Many were the heroes that emerged in those days and great were the deeds of valour. But those stories, though certainly more exciting than this history lesson, are of small import to us now. Our beginnings lie in the end, so from there is where I will continue.The old man stood and moved over to a window through which the soothing pale blue light of the stars shone. He stared out over the dimly illuminated fields that extended to the east as he gathered his thoughts.
"Dull history lesson?" Pidge exclaimed in disbelief. "Maybe to him, but I should say things of that sort don't come this way very often. The history made around here is found in herbal lore books and family trees."
Branwin had a concerned expression on his face as he reached to the table and picked up the rod. "Now, what could he mean by our beginnings?" he pondered aloud. "And where does this fit in?" He toyed with the short shaft in his stout halfling hands.
The room was still; Laslingis stayed by the window maintaining his tacit watch while the two halflings sat nervously glancing at each other, trying to determine whether it would be wise to address the tale-teller. Laslingis gave no clue as to what he was intent upon and neither Pidge nor his uncle dared to ask. Only the chirming of crickets near the window disturbed the absolute silence.
"Well," said Branwin at last, "I should think this would be a good time for some more ale." Grabbing the mugs that were left on the table, he shuffled off to the kitchen while Pidge continued to gaze at the old man's motionless form. Suddenly, the form did move as Laslingis leaned his weight on the sill and extended his head up the bored hole of a window, peering at the sky.
"Come, Branwin. We must finish this tale," he said in tones of urgency.
A thin voice floated from the kitchen, "Half a moment, if you please."
"Now," the old man responded in a firm, demanding voice that startled Pidge with a shudder. Branwin hurried out, wiping his mouth with his hands, and quickly settled in his seat.
Laslingis started even as Branwin emerged. He walked about the room with smooth, gliding steps as he spoke. The air became cooler than it had been, but a sense of immediacy filled the room that put Branwin ill-at-ease. The tale-teller's words glided as smoothly as his steps.
The Battle Grande had worn on near eighty years after the descent of Darkness from the Northwest and Belitain was in his one hundred twelfth year. He was already well beyond the normal span, and withered and frail, but with great age came great wisdom. As each day came, he crept nearer and nearer to his End.
Belitain summoned his speediest couriers to his side and commanded them the most important message they were ever to carry. "Dispatch with all haste to the leaders of the races and call them together to the Elven retreat high in the Resh Basion. In two moons hence we will begin the last council -- the last council which this horrid war will ever know."
The messengers set on their ways and soon brought the cryptic summoning to all of the races who were set against the minister. Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Thelion, Humans and more journeyed forth from their strongholds to hear the advice of the respected Belitain. In the two months which the king had allowed for the leaders to gather, eleven hundred people came to the beautiful valley of Namron Coipes. The King of the Elves proved a generous host for all of his guests, for he suspected what Belitain had to share and was glad. While most of the generals who directed the battles stayed in the war rooms of their strongholds to continue to wage war, many friendships were still renewed by warriors who had fought together in earlier campaigns. There was a peculiar rejoicing in the tranquil valley, where the familiar world of creeping oppression stayed at bay.
When the day for council had arrived, sixteen leaders of seven races gathered in a monumental chamber and sealed themselves away from treachery. Much food had been prepared and left with them in anticipation of many days of discussion. It proved unnecessary, as the words of the ruler of Dardan fell upon anxious ears. "We have been now engaged against the Black Minister for far too long," began his oration. "We fight together yet strangely apart. Our men stand side by side sharing the force of the hearts, minds and bodies, but missing something strangely indescribable. I have long pondered what that crucial element is and finally reached a conclusion. We have never been able to put the power of our spirits together -- one force to overwhelm the Darkness. As together as we act, as together as we feel, we still stand as seperate as trees in the forest. And I have determined a way to join us."
Laslingis allowed a dramatic pause. The chirming of the crickets once again floated throught the open window into the still, warm air of the living room.
"Tale?" ventured Pidge, eager to ask a question.
"Shh ... " Branwin quietly admonished. He had always believed it much safer to wait for the ending of a tale.
Laslingis smiled. The boldness of youth sitting beside the wisdom of age amused him. Both were good in their own way, and both would prove to be valuable. "Yes, dear Parlon. Ask your question."
Pidge, not really observing the hidden language of his elders before him, had a confusing thought tumbling inside of his head. "If they were sealed in that room, how do you know what the king said?"
That uncommon twinkle sparkled in the tale-teller's eye. He quickly decided that it was time for the two halflings to learn yet another uncommon thing about him. "I was there."
Branwin sat straight up as his eyes opened wide and his ears pulled slightly back. Pidge, never at a loss for words, slowly whispered, "You ... were ... there ... "
"Of course," said the old man, "and when I have finished with this tale, I will someday tell you a little more. Now be as wise as your uncle and don't interrupt again."
Belitain was building toward his idea. As he spoke, the same idea formed in many of the leaders' minds. "We have all worked, seperately, on the weapons which we thought could end the tyrannical onslaught of Evil. The gnomes developed magick which allowed a phantasmist to hurl a ball of fire hundreds of yards away. Men invented a machine which could launch a boulder into the midst of the enemy hordes. The powers of communication which the Elves share with Ai's creatures have been so perfected that an orc can hardly take a step without our knowledge. Our defence has been strengthened by Thelion alchemists who discovered a way to purify our troll-spoilt supplies. And the Dwarves have strengthened strongholds such that mountains envy their strength.
"We use the advances of each other and share with wonderful openness. Each new advance has been a triumph, giving renewed morale and more victories. Yet the hordes return, stronger than ever. We win the battles but are losing it all. My time for this world is not much more, but I cannot go without seeing the tide change. I know how we can overcome him -- how we can remove the Evil from our lands. We must join together in the creation of a new device -- one magnificent power to be wielded by one magnificent man with the force of all who fight for Good behind him."
The king's oration had become quite forceful and he stopped to let the leaders ponder his words. His stature had become remarkably young and strong and he seemed to still be the bold, young ruler of thirty years old as he stood with his fist upraised and a fire glowing in his eyes. The chamber still echoed with his booming voice as Avesta, King of the Elves, began to clap. In seconds the entire chamber was filled with a cacophony of applause and cheers. A smile barely parted the lips of Belitain as his heart warmed to the acceptance of his plan.
In time the applause died and the questions began. "What sort of device is it to be?" "Who will wield it?" "Who shall make it?"
"I do not know what sort of device to make," responded Belitain as the noise died to murmurs. "I can offer it nothing but my spirit. It shall be made by the finest craftsmen of all our races and will carry the blessing of Ai Himself. Who shall carry it?" he asked hypothetically. A peculiar look came to his face as though he dreamed of the being the one to deliver the people. "I do not know. Not I, that is for certain. There are many fine, young warriors in our forces and we shall have to find the best."
The discussion lasted only two days. It was intense at times as arguments arose over details and it ebbed at other times as creativity waned. When they finally broke the seals and reopened the chamber, all had agreed to tell to their people only what they needed to know to perform their tasks, lest treachery catch them. The general announcement was mas made that the war should end by year's end, if all went as planned, and their was rejoicing in Namron Coipes. One last great feast was had before the people returned to their lands and began the creation of the device.
They were set to make the Sceptre of Saradacil -- a majestic staff for the freedom of Good. The Dwarves delivered from their treasury to the Gnomes the greatest, most perfect diamond they had ever mined. The gnomes cut that diamond to a perfect sphere. Thelion, Gnomish and Human magi worked side by side in secret laboratories, developing special magicks and a way to give the power to wielder of the sceptre. The Elves began a rigourous selection and training process in Namron Coipes. Sixteen people, one chosen by each leader present at the Last Council, entered the programme and only one could be the wielder.
Each race had its own way to contribute to the sceptre, whether it was physically or mentally, and all contributed spiritually. It was eight months in the making and an incredible achievement. Its powers seemed limitless, allowing its wielder to speak with animals, cure disease, create light, gain a giant's strength, hurtle fire, turn invisible and petrify skin. Even all of that was not the limits of its powers. And it was a glorious thing to behold, appearing as a bundle of slender rods five feet long which tapered to a point and was topped by that beautiful diamond sphere in a three point grasp.
The sceptre was finished just before the one who would wield it was chosen. He was a Man and stood out among those who already stood out. While he was not as strong as a Thelion, or as trickey as a Gnome or as lithe as an Elf, he still possessed enough of all the best qualities of the races to make him the unanimous choice of all in the programme. His name was Lanthis and he was the classic hero of which legends so proudly tell. Born to a farmer in the southern town of Decrin, which lies beneath the Castle Karne, he grew to be a stout young man who fought valiantly against the Minister's hordes when the pressed across the Murus Weland. The King of Karne and Decrin noted his bravery and leadership and took him readily into the royal contingent. He quickly rose to be the youngest colonel in the force and commanded the respect of all who knew him. That was his position when the king sent him to the Elven valley to vie for the honour of being the carrier of the Sceptre of Saradacil.
When all was in readiness, a mass of warriors assembled and fought their way bravely to the Minister. These tales too are well worth the telling, but their outcome is of greater import. The sceptre was carried by Lanthis at the centre of the valiant assembly, but it was hidden on him, for he did not use it. For all of its might, he still needed surprise. When he met in combat with the Black Minister high on a plateau in the Nimbelog, it was a colossal battle which shook the earth. People below could see the fury of fire and lightning raging above them. When Lanthis finally got the better of his enemy, the weakness of the human was known. It was pity. As the Foe lay beneath the gleaming point of the silv'ry sceptre, about to die, Lanthis felt sorrow in his heart, hoping the blackness could turn to Good. He banished his beaten opponent from the land, never to return as Evil again. The Minister fled from the continent and was not seen again for many, many years. That decision made by Lanthis did not sit well with Belitain and other wise leaders, yet he died a happy death knowing that his people were free from the threat of the Black Minister.
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