It was a chilly Wednesday twilight in the town of Merigold long, long ago, in which our author was born and collected the manuscripts for the tale that follows, when a princess sang beneath the moon. Her dance was a flail as if tied to the strings of a nameless god.
And on the other side of the hill lay none other than the Raven-hall of Caer Parvalend. Within the hig-bricked tower there sat the Raven Queen named Saija, much–bedecked with pearls and jewels. And from her tower she heard her daughter, whose name was Lydia, her ululations echoing across the field.
The Elf of Huntendroc, nobly born,
That came upon carrack,
To Vane he went, with ill intent,
By name of Berilac.
And upon the utterance of that name the Raven Queen shivered and to herself spoke, “This will not do. This will not do. Where has she been, that she may find such songs riddled with such names?”So saying, the Raven Queen threw her morph-cloak about her shoulders–the scrap of magic’d cloth was dark enough so as to look most like the night sky itself had gone shimmering about her shoulders, and as it settled she sank into it, the cloak turning to feathers, and she flew out the window in raven form, crossing the field to where her daughter danced.
She perched atop a great oak tree and thus spoke, “Lydia, I must have words.”
“Have words?”Lydia echoed, looking up at the tree and recognizing the raven as her mother.
“It seems to me you have a great many words.”
“You speak truly?”
“Then you should know these are not the words I would have with you.”
“Don’t pretend not to know it.”
“Then what would you say?”
“I would ask where you heard such songs.”
“Is that all?”
“And who taught it to you,”said the Raven Queen. And she descended from her perch. She spread her wings wide so that they formed a crescent that shut out the moon, and the night seemed to swirl as her wings stretched into her cloak, and from her cloak sprang forth the Raven Queen herself.
“Why must you know?”Lydia asked.
“My reasons are my own.”
“Then it seems I’m left with little reason to tell you,”Lydia groused, and folded her arms under her breasts.
“You’ve quothed the name of Berilac,”said the Raven Queen, “And worse yet–the Conjurer Vane.”
“Where is the problem in a name?”
“Names hold power.”
Lydia rose a solitary eyebrow tight as a bowstring drawn taut. “What power?”
“Power enough to snuff the light from your eyes even in the vastness of our own lands.”
“Very well,”Lydia acquiesced. “I learned the song in a cave far off in the forest, in which the water glows bright as the moon that flows through its cracked ceiling, and the pooled water flows thick as molasses.”
“You speak of the Midnight Cave.”
“If that is it’s name, then I speak of it.”
“And the name of your teacher?”
“I know it not.”
“I beg your pardon!”
“It is given,”said Lydia.
To that, the Raven Queen started forward, and her morph-cloak trailed behind her ascension, flowing so as to draw her visage into a formless shape that seemed thrice her size. And her daughter cowered beneath the sight, threw up her hands and spoke the truth.
“It was a shadow-traveler!”
“Yes. Those That Live Mens’ Shadows, I believe.”
“I saw him first at the Council, last autumn Put steel to my throat, mother, should you think me false, but I swear under the moon and in sight of ravens that I know nothing more.”
The Raven Queen straightened her morph-cloak and her back, and seemed suddenly more regal. “Did he tell you the truth behind the names of the Halfelven and the Conjurer?”
“Who are they?”
“Are you saying no?”
Lydia nodded. “What difference does it make? If the shadow=traveler can utter such names, why not I?”
“Because shadow-travelers can have no fear of such drivel. They are craven creatures trapped between light and dark. They pose little more than a passing thought to one’s so strong as the Halfelven or the Conjuror. But you, my daughter–I must urge you be cautious. All those in such high places as you must fear the name of Berilac Halfelven–and the Conjuror more still.”She shuddered at the idea of even saying the Conjurer’s name, black and vile as he was. “You will learn to be cautious.”And with those words the Raven Queen bore her daughter in her arms, and a breath of wind drew back her morph-cloak. “Watch the will of the weave, dear daughter,”the Raven Queen said, “This is a magic you must master, in time. I call the wind, beneath the moon, and it in turn calls power to the morph-cloak, turning cloth to feathers, and all else follows.”And it did, for within seconds the Raven Queen and her daughter had fallen into her cloak and come out flying.
“And to where are we flying, dear Mother?”Lydia asked.
“The Midnight Cave.”
When both mother and daughter were inside the cave, the air itself seemed to shimmer as though lacerated, and the two walked, rather than flew, to the pool in the center of the cave. “Do not disturb the waters, child.”
“I musn’t?”Lydia asked.
“You cannot, You must see yourself reflected, in the beginning. Then the truth of your valley-songs will be revealed to you. Act quickly! While the fingers of moonlight still touch the water.”
Lydia followed her mother’s commands, stooping over the pool to see her own reflection in the preternatural moon-glow of the pool.
“What do you see?”asked the Raven Queen.
The moon-glow turned brighter, yet she saw her face all the same. But in the next instant, it was not her face. “What am I seeing, mother?”Lydia asked. “There is a city beneath these waters. Yet its towers are unnatural. They reach higher than anything the hands of Man can build, yet I see neither brick nor mortar. Just black shine as if the stone were sculpted perfectly smooth. I feel…this feels ancient. This city existed long ago. Far from here. Hundreds of years in the past.”
“Thousands,”her mother corrected.
“Yet what is this? I feel centuries pass, and one tower has spires reaching taller than all others. And on its double doors is emblazoned a wolf.”
“The House of the Wolf. An ancient Elvish House–”
“–Long forgotten,”Lydia finished. “I see it reflected in the water. The House crumbles, and only one man remains. Was he the reason for their fall?”
“Yes,”the Queen said, “And no. The Elves prided themselves on their heritage. And these were the early days of man. Half-Breeds were rare in that time.”
“This man is not so tall as the other Elves.”
“Nor fair,”Lydia echoed. “Yet he is taller than most Men, and fairer still, too. Yet the Elves still make him into a pariah, save one. Who is this, mother?”
“His name is Theor Stormcrow, his servant and lover.”
“Through hundreds of years he comes bereft of lands and titles…and Stormcrow follows him. They’re wandering. How long did they wander, mother?”
“Hundreds of years, my daughter.”
“First they sail, then they plunders, then Berilac builds and then breaks. Then he heals, then makes war. He turns to stonemasonry and woodcarving, then fire-wrighting and then blacksmithing. I ask you, mother, how many tasks can one man undertake?”
“Much and more,”was her only answer.
“Much and more,”Lydia echoed. “And see here. The two go to soldiery. His arms and armor are speckled with rust, yet he cleaves through the enemy with the strength of ten men. What are those things he fights, mother? Bats? Some spawn of ancient western machinations?”
“Fell beasts, and that is all you need know. We will speak of it no more.”
“He’s winning. He’s leading the Elf Theor through the battle, close to him as if he himself were the Elf’s shield. Their Lieutenant is dead, yet he has taken up command in his place. He rallies the men to victory against these things. But who was he fighting?”
“Do not ask such things of me!”The Raven Queen rasped, “Not yet. Give it time. Tell me what else you see.”
“A parade through the streets. The Halfelven has been given new arms and armor, glittering brighter than–than anything. I’ve never seen finer metalwork.”
“Nor will you,”her mother said, “The technique that forged such arms and armor was lost to time long ago. The Halfelven alone knows its make.”
‘The women throw flowers at his feet, so glorious was his victory,”Lydia gave no indication that she heard her mother. “So dire a threat has been averted. He looks a good man.”
“With a good sword.”
“Yes,”Lydia agreed “It looks a mighty boon for his deeds on the battlefield. It reaches down to the tops of his boots. And the pommel–its visage is that of a wolf.”
“It is a two handed feat of craftsmanship. He named it Folly.”
“Folly,”said Lydia, “seems an odd name for a sword.”
And as the parade vanished, ripples appeared in the water. Lydia caught faint glimmers of Berilac Halfelven’s travels. “He’s still alive, isn’t he, mother?”
“That is so.”
“And he made enemies on that battlefield.”
Lydia’s face flushed red, though it did not feel of her own making. To her, it seemed that something below the pool’s surface burned with an anger hot enough to bubble up in the form of the ripples she was now seeing. “For centuries the Halfelven is entangled with such forces. Those bats–the fell beasts. Always he is fighting them.”The truth of this was spread throughout the ripples in the glowing pool–fractured images of battles and skirmishes between Berilac Halfelven and the fell beasts made themselves known to her. “But mother, what of the other? The name I must be wary of above all else? What of the Conjurer?”
The Raven Queen pulled a finger to her lips. “Sssssshhh…”As she silenced her daughter, the final fingers of moonlight filtered out of the Midnight Cave. And yet the pool still glowed both bright and brighter with moon-power.
Thence came an old man, hooded and cloaked, with hands that looked as though the flesh was made of old leather. And in those old leather hands there was clutched a rock, carved to a point with white knuckles around it. The figure turned the rock over in his hands and Lydia realized that is was so thin that as he turned it on its side it seemed wink out of existence itself.
The figure lowered the rock-dagger, and the pool followed the point to an exposed belly. Lydia saw no face, and heard neither voice nor screams–just a torso struggling against bonds. They had been lashed to a slab of rock, struggling uselessly.
Every instinct within the princess told her she must look away, yet she could not find the mental faculties to do so. Her neck seemed to resist the pull of her head with such force that she thought if she were successful in freeing her gaze she might wring her neck as a result. “Mother,”she cried. “Mother! What is that thing?”
“That thing is the enemy of the Halfelven. That thing is the master of fell beasts you have seen slaughtered on the battlefield. He is the Conjurer, but I shall not speak his name. You have done that already. He is a dark thing. And I yet ascertain that he is hardly a he anymore…if he ever was. He is waiting, my daughter. Always he is waiting and watching…and listening. The Conjurer is patient. He waits in a place beyond time, in the deep places between the stars, where there is no light that can touch him. The nothing between all worlds is his home. And he waits for one who would speak his name in the right moment, as stars align and the black curtain of his world is drawn back for only a moment–but a moment is all he needs. And in that moment, he would return, and find his way back to the altar where he first wrought such fell beasts and brought nightmares into the waking world. See it as it was then, when all things vile and black and base danced about the altar to make ready. Such things would come again, if he heard his name at the right time.”
“Mother…I cannot watch.”
Lydia’s breath cinched someplace deep within her, so that she could not breathe no matter how much she wanted to. A great wrongness spread through her veins, and now she possessed not even the faculties to form a coherent thought. She could only watch as a bead of sweat, glistening against the glow of the pool, fell from her forehead and struck the water below.
And in that ripple stood Berilac Halfelven, charging atop a mighty mount, his sword Folly at the ready. And the closer the ripple came to the visage of the Conjurer, so too did Berilac.
Yet the Conjurer seemed to sense this, and his form twisted, serpentine, and rose from the pool, rising and stretching like a candle caught in a breeze. Lydia saw no face beneath his hood, yet she could feel the crescent of his smile, like a curved blade.
The princess then craned her neck to look upon the Conjurer, and saw the ratty leathered hand holding the dagger as he had before the altar. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her–or on him, implacable as a stone wall.
The hand that held the stone dagger raised it high, glowing with the same moon-power as the pool. Yet as he prepared to bring it down, another hand came forth–this one younger, fairer and beautiful. It seized the Conjurer’s wrist and pulled back. And though the Conjurer had no face, his hood itself seemed to stretch, as if prepared to form some voiceless scream.
The thick water slapped down back into the pool, and all images had been driven from its surface.
Lydia’s breaths came as heavy as he who is prepared to retch. Through curt, shallow breaths, she said, “I can see no more.”The moon-glow faded, and the pool began to quickly dim.
“I can’t, mother!”
Still the Raven Queen was implacable. “Do not mistake me, daughter. I’m not asking.”
“There’s nothing but my reflection.”
“There is one last lesson, my daughter.”
“And what is that?”
“I cannot tell.”
“You must discover it.”
Lydia thought about this for the span of three heartbeats, and then said, “Are the stars aligned?”
“No.”The Raven Queen’s response was clipped.
Lydia vaulted to her feet, lines of anger marking an age on her face that was not there. “Then why have you shown me this? If curtain of his world has yet to draw back, I see not why I cannot use the name of Vane the Conjurer!”
Yet as she spoke those words, her answer came to her. It came in the form of the pool’s regained glow, and the thing that rose from its depths.
It was a black thing, glowing red as fresh from the forge fires deep in Caer Parvalend. It was wrapped within its own morph-cloak, folded and drawn over itself, tight as the wings of a bat. It floated just above the pool, taking in shallow breaths. It did not seem to see them. Yet.
“What is it?”Lydia gasped; and she clutched a hand to her chest.
“It,”the Raven Queen said, “Has heard you.”She swept over her daughter, wrapping her morph-cloak about her. “Back!”She cried, “Begone, foul wraith! Under the moon and in sight of ravens I compel you, begone!”
The thing hissed, but did not heed her.
The Raven Queen instinctively drew back. “This is why I have told you that you must tread carefully. Be wary of words. Always, the Conjurer is listening for his name, and always he sends his agents to those foolhardy enough to offer it, having learned its meaning.”
But there was another name echoing within the vestiges of the princess’s mind. Fear had taken hold of her such that all other names and indeed all other thoughts had been driven from her mind until this very moment.
As the black evil glowed red-hot in front of her, a new name came to her mind, and with a mental effort she pushed it past her lips.
The thing in front of her shuddered and drew back, throwing its morph-cloak to either side as if ready to take flight.
The name all but stopped the beast in mid-movement, for it folded its morph-cloak against its body and shrieked. Then it crouched–black, red-glowing thighs corded and coiled, prepared to leap the distance between them. Yet as an icy hand made a fist over Lydia’s heart, she cried out once more.
Then the Halfelven apparition emerged from the pool, his sword that was named Folly held in one hand. And as the Conjurer’s beast prepared to take action, he threw one mighty arm around its neck. The point of Folly came through the beast’s chest, and both it and the form of Berilac Halfelven sank back into the depths of the pool with twisting limbs and bitter cries.
The cave went black as a moonless night, and the jewels all about the Raven Queen shone with their moon-glow. “The Conjuror is not the only one listening,”she said. “It is good that you came to this realization on your own, yet it should not be possible. Swear to me you will never again utter such names.”
“I will never utter such names again mother, save if the Conjurer comes and I am left with no alternatives.”
“And how am I to know it?”
“I swear it. Under the moon and in sight of ravens I swear it.”
“Good. Swear it again.”
“Under the moon and in sight of ravens I swear it. Yet how, mother, how is this impossible?”
“The only way the Halfelven could have been listening was if he were not in our world. His aid now lies beyond the ken of mortal men.”
“You mean to say he’s–”
“He’s dead,”the Raven Queen said. “Which might mean peril for us all, should there been no Warden of the East to supplant him. Come, it is late, and this is dire news. We must away to the fastness of our keep.”
So saying, she wreathed her child in her morph-cloak, and two ravens sailed back to Caer Parvalend; in the chilly Wednesday twilight in the town of Merigold. Long, long ago.
A very heartfelt thank you to my patrons. You make this writing possible. Special thanks to Saija Rantala, Lydia Raya, Abbey Newman, and Temi Olatinwo.