The hunter knelt beside his friend in the spotted shade of the aspens, feeding the megatherium handfuls of leaves from the pile built up next to him. Haranim rested peacefully on the side of his fourteen-foot, nine-thousand-pound frame, muzzle cozied up against the elf’s left leg, and chewed on the bunches of aspen leaves with methodical laziness. While the giant sloth had entered into his fifth year of life recently, the elf had reached his thirtieth, and the latter now awaited a meeting with the King of Thorns. No nerves worried at him, for he knew the purpose of this summons and what to expect of the King’s words.
“Our Lord of the Forest’s Fury demands your presence,” Nomanti’s deep baritone required of him.
Without a word, the elf rose to the beckons and started for the clearing farther up the mountain. When the megatherium rolled his bulk over to follow, the hunter swept a hand out behind him in a calming gesture and stated, “Ndu, Haranim.”
His friend listened immediately, and slumped back down onto his belly . . . though the giant sloth did slowly creep forward enough to reach the pile of leaves before settling completely.
“What say you, creature?” the satyr inquired with a mocking grin, snatching the elf’s arm above the elbow as he passed. “Time for one more beating before my King throws you from the mountain?”
The hunter looked sidelong at his teacher, expressionless. “Our King waits for me.”
Nomanti shrugged as if it mattered not. “Your tardiness will reflect poorly on you. Do you believe I would be blamed? So far as the King of Thorns knows, you wasted time here shaking in fear of this meeting.”
This time it was the hunter’s turn to shrug. “Then do as you will, Master, that I might get on with the honor of my meeting with our King.”
The fey glared at him for a long moment before finally letting go with a disgusted shake of his head. “Go, filth. I grow tired of even beating you. How fortunate that I shall not have to see you much longer.”
The lowly servant merely nodded his agreement and continued forward up the mountain.
Behind them, Haranim lowered his head back to the foliage collected for him, the powerful muscles in his limbs relaxing.
As the elf progressed up the natural mountain path to the predetermine location of the audience, he cast a glance out over the aspen grove to the wide mountain range beyond. Pristine white snow crowned every tall peak above the snow line, and the highest of them wore a regal cloak of billowing cloud. Deciduous trees blanketed the valleys below in a rolling green carpet, while thick and pointed conifers clawed their way high up the mountainsides. From his current vantage, the elf spied half-a-dozen hawks drifting on the swirling air currents, their keen eyes searching for prey. This living landscape--so overwhelmingly beautiful and majestic--cleansed the deepest parts of him and reconciled the last battling vestiges of mortality and self-preservation within him.
He knew beyond doubt that he could--and would--die for it.
Minutes later, the hunter arrived upon the lonely ledge where his future would be determined. Standing at its very edge, looking out over a seven-thousand-foot drop, resided the King of Thorns. With armor crafted from the dagger-like thorns of the hawthorn tree, and a helm that featured the long, curving horns of a mountain ram, the King hardly needed to try at intimidation. The greatsword slung on his back appeared forged of the mountain stone, with elk horn bands used to fashion portions of the guard and grip. The pommel formed a snow-capped mountain, and a rivulet of water constantly flowed its own course like a glacial river along the length of the sword. Its name, Delve, was widely known, and widely feared, by all fey in the Mindspin Mountains. In virtually every way--save for the birdlike wings covered with the green leaves of Spring instead of feathers, and deep emerald eyes that showed irises instead of only a solid coloration--the erlking’s appearance resembled that of the elf. When studying the two from afar, one might mistake them for father and son. A grave mistake that would be, of course, as the Lord of the Forest’s Fury was indisputably fey, while the young hunter most assuredly was not.
The elf crossed the ledge until he closed to within thirty feet of the fey king, then dropped to one knee and bowed his head in deference. Silence followed. He knew better than to speak first, and the King of Thorns was renown for making his subjects remain kneeling for hours before saying his first word. Good fortune trailed him this day, for he had not to wait so long.
“You are weak,” the King said, examining the panorama before him.
“If it pleases the Fury to say so, then yes,” the elf replied in strong, dignified sylvan.
The King of Thorns swiveled his upper body a fraction to the left to peer at the mortal with eyes more ancient than the mountain they stood upon. “You would disagree,” he proclaimed--the erlking never asked--in a voice that sounded like wind eroding stone.
The elf remained bowed, never making eye contact. Without leave, such would get one thrown off the mountain. Perhaps that may well be his fate anyhow. “I am as the Fury dictates. Never could any creature be more.”
“Then you desire death.”
“Such is the destiny for all worthless beings,” the hunter answered stoically.
The erlking smiled. “I would grant you this desire, mortal.”
“If it pleases the Fury to do so, then yes.”
As the elf’s final word began, but before he finished speaking it, the King of Thorns stood over him with the blade of Delve drawing a thin bloody line across the back of his neck. The hunter remained perfectly still throughout. Had the erlking wanted him dead at that moment, nothing he could have done would have prevented it. Also, the fey king’s movement had been so quick, he had not even registered it until the line of pain flared up. To shift now could mean severing his own spinal column against that impossibly sharp blade! He only hoped the King of Thorns chose not to force him to maintain this position of absolute stillness and supplication for long, and, again, fortune favored him when he felt the mountainous sword lifted away.
“My Queen has taken a liking to your nurturing heart,” the fey king sneered. “She assures me you are a protector.”
“I am pleased to have found favor in the Cascading One’s eyes,” the elf replied, emotionless. Inside, the furious beating of his heart expressed a resounding appreciation for the Queen’s approval!
“I give you leave to be a protector, then” the King of Thorns declared, slinging Delve onto his back. “Rise,” the erlking ordered as he returned to his place on the edge at a more normal pace.
The hunter stood, but continued to keep his eyes downcast.
“Still, I grant you your desire,” the Lord of the Forest’s Fury revealed. “You are weak, and I despise weakness. If the inhabitants of the wilderness do not kill you, be assured your own sentimentality will. You are not long for this world, mortal.”
“The Fury is most wise,” the elf professed with a deep bow.
“From this day forward, you are my Queen’s creature,” the King of Thorns informed him. “If you should but utter my name in the wind, Delve will finish what it started. I desire no further words from you. Remove yourself.”
He obeyed the fey king’s command without delay.
“The Fury permitted you the slow descent?” Nomanti’s tongue lashed him upon entering the aspen grove. “That hardly seems fitting for the likes of you.”
The elf arched an eyebrow at the satyr as he approached. “Truly?” He stopped and graciously provided his former teacher with a clear avenue to the path ascending the mountainside. “If you believe an error in judgment has been committed, please, take it up with a higher authority than I.”
The fey’s face reddened with embarrassment, and he sputtered in an attempt to find something to say, but knew he had been trapped with his own words.
“I thought that to be the case,” the elf confided, then continued on beyond the satyr. “My thanks for the years of training. You have taught me much. I am the Queen’s creature now. Farewell, Nomanti.”
“Do you believe this to be the last we will see of each other, rodent?” Nomanti snapped at his back.
“Certainly not,” the elf admitted without slowing. “It almost certainly will be the last I see of you today, however, and that is enough.”
“You wretched, pathetic creature,” the fey growled, grabbing for his staff. His hand quickly shied away from the weapon when Haranim hoisted up onto all fours. The megatherium had a menacing look in his eyes that Nomanti could not miscomprehend!
The hunter held a hand up to stay his friend, then half-turned so as to meet the satyr’s eyes with his own. “The time for that has passed,” he said in earnest. “I am Adanedhel now.”
“As though that were any better,” the fey spat furiously.
The hunter offered a conciliatory nod. “Admittedly, it is not much,” he conceded, “but it is enough.” He turned his back on the satyr again and called for Haranim to follow him, which the megatherium promptly did.
“The Mindspin Mountains are not so large a place,” Nomanti growled, his words sounding very much a threat.
“Agreed,” the elf replied. “Should we meet again within its expansive confines, know that I shall look forward to hunting orcs with you.
The close-knit companions of Adanedhel and Haranim departed the fey’s company without another word spoken.