The Alnhome Carvesh
Following Taaru, Carvesh and his companions left the Kingsway behind and pressed into the dense forest that stretched southward. The giant man moved with surprising grace, slipping between trees and beneath branches with an ease that belied his bulk. Carvesh come next, moving slowly and carefully, while Lord Carwell followed several strides behind. Madik and Winter brought up the rear. The darkness was fuller amid the trees—so full that Carvesh found himself following Taaru as much by the sound of his passing as by sight. He did not want walk into a tree or trip over a branch while carrying Quelana in his arms.
He counted and measured her every breath, and while they came with measured regularity, they seemed just to quiet and frequent. Her eyes twitched back and forth beneath closed lids, and even in the darkness that surrounded them, Carvesh could tell that her face had grown pale from loss of blood.
She shouldn’t have been here, he thought, grinding his teeth in frustration. The healer had come with them because she had thought that Dane might be hurt and in need of her skills. Now it was she who was injured, cut down by an a creature that none of them could have imagined encountering. Will she survive? If she does, will she ever be the same? I should have made her stay in the village. I should have done something.
In his heart, Carvesh knew there was nothing he could have done or said—the healer was as stubborn as an ox when she set her mind to something—but that knowledge did little ease his guilt.
Hang on, he begged silently, trying lend her strength by the sheer force of his will. You have to hang on.
“We’ll descend into the ravine here,” said Taaru, alerting Carvesh to their halt only a moment before he walked into the other man’s broad back. “There are roots stretching across the stone that you can use as handholds if you need them. You’re still able to carry her?”
“Then let’s move on. I will go first. Wait for the span of ten breaths before following me. Proceed slowly and carefully until you are able to see clearly again.”
“We’ll be here until morning if we wait for that,” muttered Madik from somewhere over Carvesh’s shoulder.
“I think you might be surprised,” said Taaru before vanishing into the darkness.
“What do you think that means?” asked Carwell.
“I have no idea,” responded Carvesh as he counted the span of his first breath. “Maybe he’s going to light a fire.”
“Perhaps… How’s she doing?”
“Seems to be sleeping soundly.” Three. Four. Five.
“You did well back there,” whispered Carwell.
“Pardon me?” Six.
“Striking down the demon the way you did. Your father would have been proud.”
“Thanks. I think I just got lucky though.” Nine.
“Merek always believed that we make our own luck. Hopefully we can make some now. Shall we go?”
Carvesh nodded. Taking one cautious step, he placed his foot between two thick, gnarled roots, testing them carefully before committing his entire weight to the foothold. Then he repeated the process, again and again, bracing himself against a tree trunk whenever he could. Soon his arms began to tremble under the strain of holding Quelana so tightly against his chest. He tried loosening his grip, but he was so afraid of dropping her that his muscles would not corporate. A strange weariness was coming over him, and he was just started to wonder how much longer he could maintain his grip when he suddenly stepped into the light.
Except that it was not light. With the depth of the darkness that he had just been walking through, the abrupt appearance of light would have been like an assault on his eyes. It would have caused him to squint against the brightness, like stepping from the dimness of his barn into the harsh noon sun of a clear summer day. This was different. There was no sudden sense of illumination, no sharp pain or momentary blindness.
Instead, he simply found that he could see.
They were standing at the very base of the ravine, which was walled in by tall, red pines reaching for the heavens. The ground beneath his feet was stony, but matted with years of fallen needles. Several yards from where Carvesh stood, a single outcropping of rock marked the entrance to what appeared to be a deep cave. Taaru knelt there, still cowled and stacking several logs onto what appeared to be a recently used fire pit. A bedroll, several large packs and a massive crossbow were piled neatly a bit deeper into the cave, suggesting that the mysterious swordsman had been making this place his camp.
“By the Stranger’s Feet,” muttered Madik, looking around with the same bewildered expression that Carvesh could only assume that was also painted across his own face at the moment.
“Welcome, friends,” said Taaru. “We are safe here. Come, Carvesh of the Great Oak, lay your friend down. I shall build a fire to warm her.”
“Won’t that just attract the shadowbeasts?” asked Carvesh as he lowered Quelana tenderly to the ground.
“No. None that stand beyond the borders of this place can see us here, any more than they can enter it.”
“Then how did we enter it?”
“You were invited,” replied Taaru, as if those simple words explained everything.
“There is olde magic here,” whispered Carwell in astonishment.
“Yes, though I must say, I’m surprised you would recognize it.”
“I’ve seen a place like this, many years ago, when I was much younger. I never thought to see another.”
“Indeed. This was once an Alnhome, many centuries ago, before they abandoned these lands. There is little of it left now, but some of its power still lingers. Such places have long been known to my people, at least those that lay near the Stonewall.”
“That raises a question that’s been bothering me,” pressed Carvesh. “Just who are your people?”
“We are the Guardians, as I have said.”
“That means nothing to us.”
“It was never meant to, Carvesh of the Great Oak. So long as the Remnant was held at bay, humans had no need to know of us. But all that has changed now.”
“What is the Remnant?” asked Carwell.
“She is darkness,” growled Taaru. “She is the enemy.”
“Enemy? To whom?”
“To everyone. To all that live and breath. She is one who would see the life crushed mercilessly from every human that walks this world. But enough questions. Answers will come with the sun’s light. For now, you must all rest.”
“Now wait just a minute!” snapped Carwell. “If you know something about a danger to my people, I demand to know…”
“Such knowledge will only trouble your mind. Sleep now, good warrior. Regain your strength, for I fear that your fight is only beginning.”
“Come to think of it, I am feeling a bit sleepy,” yawned Madik.
“No!” snapped Carwell. “No magic! I demand… I…” His voice sounded distant and his eyelids were already dropping. Soon, the Lord of Sharenden sank to his knees and collapsed into the bed of needles. Madik was already snoring and Winter—who seemed unaffected by whatever enchantment was lulling the humans into slumber—laid down beside her master, allowing the hunter to rest his head comfortably on her haunch.
“What did you do to them?” Carvesh demanded.
“Nothing but ask the magic of this place to give them the rest that they so sorely need. Their slumber will be dreamless and restful. It is strange, however, that you remain unaffected—very nearly as strange as a human slaying one of the Sjataki. How is it that you resist the call of the Alnhome, Carvesh of the Great Oak?”
“I… I don’t know.”
The deep hush of late summer had fallen over the ravine. As Taaru watched from beneath the shadow of his hood, Carvesh could feel the mysterious stranger’s stare, weighing, measuring and considering. It made him want to turn away, to retreat into the comfort of his own solitude, but somehow he knew that to do so would be a unwise, an admission of weakness. Although he could not see Taaru’s eyes, Carvesh forced himself to hold the other’s gaze. He stood as still and unmoving as a statue until the stranger finally broke the silence.
“There is a great strength in you,” Taaru growled, his deep, gravely voice rumbling like distant thunder. “There is an old proverb among my people. There are two paths for the strong. One leads to victory; the other leads to death. Let us hope, Carvesh of the Great Oak, for the sake of your friends, and all your people, that you are walking down the right path.
“But come, let us see first to your friend’s injuries. Then I too shall slumber. I suggest that you do the same.”