Any reasonable man would have called the battle a disaster.
The citizens of Harcourt lay straggled about the city. The dead and the dying were buried all the same, and the severed heads that the enemy Lord Joiry of the Greatersteel had catapulted over the city walls had yet to even be touched.
Yet in Harcourt’s highest tower, called the Hawk’s Eye, King Dyvian Mesh overlooked the fortification effort with straight-backed pride. “Lord Joiry of the Greatersteel flees before us,” he said to the other occupant in the room. “See how Vane the Conjuror’s Champion flees like a whipped dog back to his dark master.
“He’s only left to resupply, my Lord,” said the other occupant, garbed head to toe in rippling Elvish armor. He had at his side a sword named Folly, to which the pommel bore the selfsame likeness of the wolf emblazoned on his surcoat.
King Mesh turned to the Elf, all rippling wolfskins and afurrowed brow. “My Lord?” he echoed, “Warden of the East you may be, but you will address me by my proper title, Halfelven.” He spat out the half like a curse.
“My apologies, your Majesty,” the Elf murmured. “You know how I’ve taken leave of myself of late.”
The King pursed his lips. “Indeed. You’re forgiven, Berilac. It is to be expected, after your servant died to bring you here. What was his name?”
“Theor, yes. Still, while we are on the topic of Dead Elves, I must ask you to grant me this one request.”
“What would you ask of me?”
King Mesh moved close enough so that the temple sweat staining his circlet was clear. “You know of Gorloth, yes?”
“The city beneath the land where the Dead Elves lie.”
“And you know of the rumors that surround this city?”
The Elf nodded. “I’m afraid I can’t confirm them.”
“But you have heard of them? How only one of Elvish blood may enter? And how he may call forth the Dead Elves of Gorloth to assist if his needs are dire?”
“That is so. But even if these rumors are true–”
King Mesh seized the gauntlet of Berilac Halfelven at the wrist, sweat staining the metal. His eyes darted from side to side as if checking for spies. “Not–rumors,” he rasped. “Lord Joiry has yet done me one favor: his catapults have toppled my towers, but in doing so he has granted me access to what I believe to be one of the entrances to the underground city. I have seen it myself. And you, Berilac, you are among the last of Elf-kind. And though you have Man’s blood, too, I do believe you are well suited to this task. I would have you call forth the Dead Elves of Gorloth.” He pleaded into the depths of the Elf’s visor. “Please. We will not survive a second assault. And Lord Joiry will not stay his hand for long.”
A silence hang between them, and something beneath Berilac’s greathelm seemed to understand the kind of desperation that brings Kings as low as common beggars. “I am sworn to protect the East against all manner of dark perils and perversions. I will grant you your request. If you would just show me the entrance to this tunnel.”
And thus King Mesh brought the Elf down from the Hawk’s Eye, and led him through the streets where the defenders avoided the King’s gaze as they busied themselves setting up fortifications and finding their dead.
The rains in Harcourt were known to last for days. Thick showers and light sprays in succession. A clear day was rare in this city, “This is twice I must thank you,” King Mesh said, “Your arrival lifted the hearts of my citizens, and without the morale your arrival brought forth, it is doubtless Lord Joiry would have taken the city by now.”
“Doubtless,” the Elf echoed.
“I saw the speed of your mount,” King Mesh said, “How did you wright such speeds?”
“It is a form of ancient Elvish metallurgy I used in making my mount’s horseshoes. It brings upon it swift travel. Yet such metallurgy only lasts minutes before the metal is worn down to nothing.”
“It lasted long enough to bring you within my walls. That is all that matters,” King Mesh said. “Is it, by chance, the same work of Elvish metallurgy that went into the arms and armor of Lord Joiry the Greatersteel?”
“Little and less,” replied the Elf. “Lord Joiry’s arms and armor and Elvish made, yet spell-forged. Naught can break his armor, even after its thousand-year use by him and his forefathers. Doubtless he will prove troublesome on the battlefield.”
“Will prove?” King Mesh said, “He already has. But we have the Warden of the East on our side,” the King said, “And I know you will not fail us.” So saying, he drew his cloak inward, and, as if unveiling a curtain, a black pit could be seen on the ground his cloak had made opaque. “Beware the Three Wards of Gorloth,” King Mesh said. And as Berilac stood on the precipice of the pit, he extended his arm to the King. “May we meet again under clearer skies.”
King Mesh clasped his hand about the Elf’s forearm. “May we meet again under clearer skies.”
The Elf turned his attention to the pit, which was black and blacker. The first step in the descent was only just visible through the mist that belched out of the tunnel.
And, wordlessly, the Elf began his descent. The darkness wreathed him as he left daylight behind. And all at once he came to level ground so suddenly that he nearly stumbled to the ground as is befitting of a man who expects an extra step at the bottom of a stairway.
The Elf clutched the wall for support. His shoulders rose and fell with every breath. “I am foolish to call myself Warden of the East,” he muttered. Despite this, he continued forward. The mist weaved about him like dancing specters.
He turned a corner, and was met by a deep-voiced scream. The Elf reached for the wolf-sword named Folly and ripped it from his scabbard. “W-well met,” he called, hoping to himself that the owner of such a voice might be a friend.
Such thoughts were quelled at the sight of what looked to be a battering ram of smoke and ash screaming straight for him. The scream sounded human, and as it collided with his breastplate, the Elf toppled as the smoke passed all about him, and he hit his head on a nearby wall, saved only by his greathelm.
As the screaming mist darted down the corner, he caught the words, “Stay away!”
The Elf rose into a sitting position against the wall and tore off the helmet of Berilac Halfelven. His eyes allowed him better sight than mortal men, and he saw his reflection in the greathelm.
The face reflected back at him was one fairer than that of even a half-Elf. Raven black hair would have framed his face were it not matted down with sweat. This was not the face of Berilac Halfelven.
“I cannot use a sword,” the Elf said. “I’ve trained three thousand years in archery. Berilac, my love, I can’t do this.”
The Elf was named Theor Stormcrow. He was of pure-Elvish blood, had spent the past thousand years in service to Berilac Halfelven, took care of him both in battlefield and bed, and presently could not stop thinking of his kisses.
“You kissed me,” Theor said to himself. “You kissed me as you lay dying.” Berilac had been felled by one of Lord Joiry’s scouts, armed with a poison-tipped arrow. Theor had felled the scout in turn, yet too late all the same.
“The Warden of the East cannot fall,” Berilac had told him as he lay dying. “Take my armor, for we are of a size. Wear it like a secret and I promise that you will be safe. Remove my helmet, Theor.”
“I cannot–” he’d protested. “–My last sight of you must be in life, not death.”
“Remove it!” Berilac had said with such will that Theor did so as if spellstruck into obedience. “Theor Stormcrow,” Berilac had said. “I name you Warden of the East.” He had grabbed his head by either side and pulled their lips together for one final kiss. “And that is so you will remember it,” he’d said. He no longer had the strength to speak, but had mouthed the words I love you.
Theor had soon decided that Berilac seemed a better name for a Warden, and though his lover had named him his successor, he doubted the defenders of Harcourt were like to receive him with the same enthusiasm.
He needed to be Berilac. He saw no other choices.
“What would you do?” Theor asked his lover’s memory. So saying, he strapped his helm upon his head and started forward. For what he guessed was hours, he fumbled forward through stone and darkness, and time became naught but the next footstep.
Then Theor rounded a corner and came upon light so swiftly that for a span of three heartbeats, it blinded him. He unsheathed Folly, prepared for the second ward, but nothing came.
As his eyes adjusted, he saw affixed to the walls the ancient wraith-lanterns, which stoppered his breath. The memories of such devices lay distant in his mind, for they had not been used since the Elf-Kingdoms of old fell to ruin. But he excavated the memories and felt a pang of pity as he followed the lights. Wraith-lanterns were made to be the punishment for the most vile of spirits, barred from the Greater Worlds. Elven-kind’s most hated criminals were to remain confined in such contraptions, providing a source of eternal light.
He sheathed Folly and placed a hand on the lip of the archway. “Berilac,” he marveled, “If you could see this…” The Elvish architecture was as wondrous at the gate as it looked to be within Gorloth’s walls. The archway had neither brick nor mortar, simply one smooth, black surface that shone against the wraith-light. And, turning his attention to the city within, he saw what remained of the same, architecture spiraling across the ruin of a city, all carved from a single stone.
He entered Gorloth.
There was neither soul nor sound throughout the city. Even Theor’s own footsteps gave off no echo. It was as though some vile force had wrung Creation at the neck, and turned to undo every evidence of life the moment it noised itself.
He came upon a palace, smooth as a sheet of steel wrought into the visage of a tower. He climbed the steps toward the double doors, and put a hand to the base of the palace just beneath the wraith-lanterns.
Then he yelped and drew back. White pain seared his hand and his mind, and all at once he knew the truth of Gorloth.
“The rumors are false,” he said to himself. Theor became acutely aware of his own trembling. “Designed to cover up a truth far worse.” The Elf sensed that this place had long ago been removed from Order by Chaos in a time when such concepts walked as bare across the land as he himself. “Stones will fall, waters will run, and all will turn to ash. But always Gorloth will stand, its Dead Elves ready to assist in aid that will never be needed again.”
There came a sound, and Theor started. He swiveled to look and saw a rider coming down an adjacent street towards him. “Well met!” He called, for he could think of nothing else to say. But as the rider came closer and Theor saw them more clearly, he grew thankful for his helm, and the muted shock it hid.
The rider’s mount was a dead thing, dragging its own intestines along the street and painting a single bloody line. The rider herself was missing half of her face, so that Theor could see which muscles loosened and constricted as she smiled at him. The death-blow looked fresh on her face, for there were rivulets of blood running down her cheek and neck, though she did not seem to notice it.
“Well met!” The mutilated rider returned the greeting, and she swung down from her horse. As she came nearer, Theor fell back so that he was flat against the palace door. The Elf’s eyes were black and shining with the hellspecks of starstuff. “Come,” she said, “You are a stranger to Gorloth, if I’m not mistaken. What is your purpose, that I may assist you?”
Theor only stared, groping inwardly for words.
“Come, stranger, I bid you speak freely.”
His next words tumbled out of his mouth before he could stop them. “I–I–if you’ll pardon me my Lady–are you well?”
“Why?” The woman hissed. Her smile had not vanished, yet her hand had gone to her sword.
“I am?” A muscle in her temple throbbed, sending a fresh red line down her cheek.
“I can bandage you, if you need hel–”
The Elf rose off the ground as she flaked into smoke, traveling up the stairs toward Theor. “Defiled! Desecrated! Elf-kind may set foot in our city, but to call our deaths to attention–to take away our only respite? Unforgivable!”
As she came forward, Theor tore a wraith lantern off the wall and unlatched its opening. The smoke that compromised her body sloughed off itself, whorling into the lantern with such force that he fell back through the palace doors and landed on his arse.
He closed the lantern, which flickered with wraith-light, and then winked out. He came to his feet in utter darkness. “Two wards passed. But where is the last?” He drew Folly in preparation.
“It will do you no good,” came a voice from the darkness.
Theor cut with Folly at the direction of the voice, yet nothing came of it, save the emergence of two red eyes through the darkness.
“If you remain incorporeal, I will pass through you. If you take form, I will dismember you.” Theor roared. The echo of his own voice was cut short before it had a chance to form. “Make your choice!”
Despite his bravado, Theor’s hand trembled around Folly.
“Have you ever wondered, Elf-Man,” said the voice, “How yours became the House of Wolves?”
“What?” Theor asked, before he remembered whose armor he wore. This Third Ward was asking after Berilac.
“You know what I said!” The voice was almost a boom, yet at the last he seemed to yield from raising his voice, and Theor could not pin a quality to it. It was neither gravelly nor smooth, neither deep nor high, angry or joyous. It had all the distinctiveness of a thought.
But upon the Third Ward’s words, the wraith lanterns momentarily flared. The beast was a black canine, red eyed and waiting on the other end of the palace. The darkness came again and the ceiling shook beneath the wolf’s voice. Dust trembled from above, trailing down into the blackness. Still the red eyes bored into Theor.
“Your forefather slew mine, Halfelven,” the wolf said. “You are Warden of the East, so me and mine have sought to oppose you. My name is Gamork of the Black Wolves.” Gamork’s words cracked the floor and made the wraith-lanterns go dark to dim. “I serve Chaos–the emptiness that’s left in cities like these. The despair in the dark places between the stars. These Elves are mine, and they have been the property of the Black Wolves for ages long past.”
Theor struggled to keep his balance, and though Gamork did not raise his voice, jagged pieces of ceiling rained down, and the ground split at the seams. His voice alone seemed an attempt to force him back, yet Theor struggled forward, every muscle in his body burning with the exertion of fighting against Gamork’s every breath blowing like a wind forcing him back.
“In this place, the servants of Chaos have power. In this place, I am King.”
Theor cut through the debris in his path, cleaving his way toward Gamork. “King of the Dead Elves of Gorloth! Not a one of them may depart for the Greater Worlds without my command. And you, Halfelven, will not take them from me.”
Theor dove out of the way of a falling pillar and sprang to his feet, Folly at the ready. “I can try.”
“Me and mine have waited for you, Berilac. Even in Chaos some things are known–among them that one of Elf blood would come to Gorloth at the time of Lord Joiry of Greatersteel’s siege. And that the siege would lead to the doom of Berilac Halfelven.”
A jagged spike of floor flew up at him upon the utterance of his lover’s doom, striking him back, though he kept his footing; and through the darkness he could see Gamork had not moved, for the rubble had fallen around him, forming a makeshift cave. “Who are you?” Theor asked. “Who are you, truly?”
Those red eyes pierced like daggers, glowing brighter than wraith-lanterns. “I have told you truly,” he said, and flames shot up from the ground. Theor’s sidelong leap was all that saved his life. “Lord Joiry is not the only Champion of Vane the Conjuror. And should you think the Conjuror serves nothing greater than himself I would mark you for a fool.”
Gamork’s accusation almost took Theor off his feet, but he dug his heels into the ground and proceeded forward. “Servant of Chaos, you call yourself? I call you Nothing! I call you naught but what will soon be food for maggots and flies and carrion crows! Face me, servant of Chaos, or return to your Dark Master like the whipped pup you truly are!”
There was a great cry, made eerie with its lack of an echo, and the wraith-lanterns flared to life in time for Theor to see the wolf’s red eyes growing bigger and bigger–and he realized Gamork was coming closer; leaping toward him.
As his jaw opened impossibly wide. He lifted the point of Folly too late for the wolf to yield, and Gamork threw himself down upon its point. Both wolf and Elf fell in a pile of flesh and blood and debris.
Theor rose to his feet and pulled Folly free of the beast’s chest; and it let out a cry. Blood wound through the Elf’s ringed mail where the beast’s claws had caught him. But Gamork’s wound was not fatal.
And though the worse blow, neither was his.
The wolf lay on the ground, looking little more than a pelt inflating and deflating with every breath. He whined as Theor came closer. “I know you yet live,” he told the wolf. “Call forth the Dead Elves of Gorloth, and I shall give you a swift end.”
“I…was destined to slay Berilac Halfelven…I don’t understand…” Gamork gasped.
“I’m not asking you to. I order you to call forth the Dead Elves.”
“I do not answer to the heir to the House of the Wolf,” Gamork spat. His red tongue flicked out as if it were some obscene gesture.
Theor drove his boot down on Gamork’s neck. “Then perhaps you will answer to me! I am Theor, servant of Berilac Halfelven and full-blooded Elf!” He drove Folly into Gamork’s back, and he cried out without an echo. “And I charge you to call forth the Dead Elves of Gorloth, in the name of the Warden of the East!”
He stabbed once more, and this time the servant of Chaos let out a howl that echoed through the palace, and, Theor guessed, all of Gorloth. This final howl turned death-screech as it peaked, and the life left Gamork of the Black Wolves.
The wraith lanterns about both palace and city shivered, trembled and then burst, and the wraiths swirled about the sky in celebration, and returned to the ground in the form of the Dead Elves. Their wounds were still fresh, slit throats pouring blood down gorgets and cloven heads and helms leaving cowlicks of hair covering up bare skulls.
“Elves of Gorloth,” Theor said, gesturing to the dead wolf as his feet, “What lies before you is the servant of Chaos that has bound barred you from the Greater Worlds. Those who wish to may depart, but I must warn you all that agents of Chaos wreak havoc on the surface. In the name of your duty, will you serve one of Elf-blood to see these same dark forces that have tormented you thrown back? Will you aid one of Elf-blood one last time?”
A great cry rose among the Dead Elves, and Theor led their charge. “Forth, Elves of Gorloth,” he called. And they emerged from the ruined city, through the dark tunnels and up, up into Harcourt. There were scattered cries among Harcourt’s defenders of “Berilac,” and “The Halfelven!” Theor led the Dead Elves of Gorloth through the gates of Harcourt and led their sortie against Lord Joiry of Greatersteel on the plains before the city.
What Theor lacked in the bladed skill of his lover he tried to make up for with Elvish speed. He handled Folly well enough with a sort of awkward grace. The steel vibrated in his hands with every parry and blow that he met and delivered.
And then he heard the name of his lover. “Berilac!” A deep voice shouted, “Berilac Halfelven!”
Theor turned in the direction of the owner of said voice: Lord Joiry of Greatersteel. “Face me, coward! Fight the Champion of Vane the Conjuror!” As Lord Joiry advanced on Theor, he smote a mortal Man who was himself engaged against an opponent, and his warhammer slipped from his hands as he hit the ground, dead. “I challenge you to single combat!”
Lord Joiry advanced, garbed head to toe in his own rippling Elvish armor, yet his was spell-forged, and stronger than any other piece of metalwork yet known.
Theor leapt forward and lay a cut upon Lord Joiry’s neck, but Folly glanced without even a scratch to mark the strike. He bore upon him many cuts, yet none could pierce the spell-forged cage Lord Joiry wore about himself.
Then Lord Joiry began to force each cut aside as soon as Folly came towards him. “Vane the Conjuror gifted this armor to my forefathers,” he said. “My title is not the Greatersteel for nothing.” And Lord Joiry parried Folly and brought his own blade down. But Theor put Folly between the blade and his skull, and danced back from the laceration Lord Joiry tried to lay upon him.
“Come! You are Warden of the East! Your name and skill reaches the farthest flung corners of the land! Fight me!” He deflected Folly with one hand and struck again, to show his ease. “Fight, Berilac!” So saying, Lord Joiry slipped inside Folly’s reach and drove his elbow into Theor’s chin.
Theor gave him ground, his chinstrap dangling from one side of his helm. And he tried to strike as Lord Joiry advanced, but his opponent caught Folly’s flat with his own blade and twisted it so that it was ripped from his hands.
Theor backed away, and tripped over something–or someone, for he did not wish to look, and tumbled to the ground, losing his greathelm in the tumble.
And as Lord Joiry came upon him the shock of the face about to receive the killing stroke stayed him momentarily from the death-blow. “And who is this? Berilac’s servant? Have you taken up his raiment to save your master?” He put his boot to the Elf’s neck.
Theor felt the hilt of what he had tripped over. It was some weapon he dared not look upon lying a finger’s breadth away from his hand.
“–Or has your master been slain? It matters not. The East will fall to Chaos–”
Theor closed his fingers around the hilt and scythed it at Lord Joiry’s legs, seeing he held a warhammer in the same motion.
The Greatersteel toppled as Theor rose in turn. “My name is Theor! He shouted. “I am the Warden of the East and successor to Berilac, my lover!” He put his boot to Lord Joiry’s neck.
“You cannot kill me,” the Greatersteel laughed. “My armor is unbreakable.”
“I don’t need to break it.” So saying, Theor lifted the warhammer overhead.
He brought it down with a sickening crunch. Lord Joiry’s helm caved inward; he spasmed once and did not move again.
Theor dropped the weapon and stooped to retrieve Folly. He was distantly aware of the battle all about him and the Dead Elves running down what few stragglers remained to champion Vane the Conjuror. As the victor of the battle became clear, a great cheer rose up among the defenders of Harcourt.
Theor retrieved his greathelm and donned it once again. He returned to Harcourt with the city’s survivors, as the Dead Elves flaked into smoke and then vanished entirely.
The Warden of the East led the survivors through the gates of Harcourt.
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.