The Scholar’s StoryPosted: 16 May 2012
The first question the people of this land ask of me is my name. They give freely of theirs, as if the free knowledge of it were not dangerous. They say this is the reason why the lands of Caledonia (of old our neighbour) became the barren and lawless wastelands upon which the monster and the slaver prowl, indistinguishable from one another.
If you must know my name, then I will give it: Sable. This is not my true name.
It is not the fear of magicians which imposes such secrecy; magic is not true knowledge and thus does not frighten a student of the Seeker. Mages and priests alike bleed and die when run through by the blades of murderers. I was barely a woman when the sea-borne raiders barged into our peaceful homes and laid them to waste; taking all they could find a use for and discarding the rest without care.
Much time has passed since then; but I have not been able to drive the memory of that evil day from my mind.
Our village was a haven to all upon the northern coast of Erin; many days’ hard riding from the city of Dublin. The elders who founded it a hundred years ago chose as the site a natural indentation in the landscape, which all but hid the buildings from unfriendly eyes. Indeed, we were so remote that few troubles of the south reached us. We were not poor, but the greatest of our riches was knowledge. Our library was a wondrous place, filled with philosophy, history, teachings and accounts of the natural world and lands far distant. Our healers travelled the world and brought back the herbs and plants which were made into cures for a myriad of illnesses. It was said that if you could not be cured there then neither god or man could help you!
Even in my youth I was taught the joys of learning. Many paths of study were laid before me and I was loath to choose; at that age all seemed possible and the reaches of time spread far upon my horizon. I was my parents’ only child, yet I was never without a companion. My mother, a reknowned healer, and my father, a well-respected priest and mayor of the village, doted upon me and gave me every freedom. We were a happy and peaceful people, who gave freely and welcomed all into our midst. Many strangers – man, elf, dwarf and urca – were willingly treated by our healers.
It is sobering to know that one of these visitors betrayed us. It began when a red elf arrived in the village, having wandered off course and wounded by a wild animal. He was barely alive when he came to us and yet our healers nursed him back to health. During this time he became enamoured of one of the apprentice healers, a young maiden who was already in love with another. She refused his advances but he was not assuaged. As his body healed he sought out more excuses to be with her, though she always gently turned him down. Eventually, he became angered by her refusals and assaulted her. For this he was thrown out of the village and bidden never to return.
Upon arrival in Dublin, the scorned elf was reunited with his comrades. On the return journey his wounds became blistered and sore. He tore off the dressings and scratched his skin, letting the wounds fester and burn with fever. By the time he reached the city he was hallucinating nightly, screaming about the true elf ‘witch’ who had poisoned his mind and body. It was freely known among the people of Erin and by those who visited us that our village was a settlement of true elves – those who refused the dominion of the elemental lords. It was a condition and act of courtesy that all we helped would keep this fact a secret among people who would do us harm. However, aching for vengence and with lust fuelling his fevered mind, the red elf revealed the secrets of our village to his companions.
Filled with anger, the red elves took a ship heading northwards and harboured upon the south-east coast of Caledonia. There they sought the services of mercenaries, extolling the riches which lay only a brief sea journey away and telling stories of the wicked true elves who harboured them. Many men were taken in by their promises of gold. Many of the horrors which now openly stalk the lands of the north also boarded that ship.
We were unprepared. Our men were learned and wise, but they had not foreseen battle. Even those who expected retaliation expected it to come from the south, where the stranger had headed. Therefore when the black ship reached our shore and belched forth its cargo of hatred and death, we were no match for them.
While the men raided our homes, the wolves and undead roamed the village, killing at will. Amongst the carnage, the mad elf searched for the elf maiden, blind to all else. He found her dead body, and the wolf who feasted upon the remains even as her blood still ran warm. Apopleptic with rage and loss, he turned upon the wolf and slaughtered it. Thus the invaders turned upon themselves until only the red elves and a handful of the Caledonian men remained.
While the battle raged and my father had gone to fight, my mother took me and other women and children and hid away with the wounded in the quiet depths of the morgue. I vividly remember the place, though it was the first time I had been allowed. I was terrified, though without cause; all the dead bodies were above ground in the village. I remember the look on my mother’s face. She was determined to continue tending to her charges; even at my age I could see that this was all that was keeping her from giving in to her fear.
When the doors finally burst open and the red elves marched in, the tension broke. We all believed we were saved, until we recognised the mad elf amongst them and understood who had brought this hell to our village. They handpicked a few of us; healers, the pretty ones, the strong-looking ones. The old women, the children and the wounded they kept in the morgue. I watched as my mother was shepherded back up into the rooms of healing; then my tears turned to horror as the elves turned on us.
I escaped only by the grace of my lord Seeker. In pure panic I threw myself to the ground, hiding my face until the screams had died away. Only then did they spot me among the bodies and hauled me up. I tried to fight them, knowing I would die. Instead of killing me they roared with laughter and carried me out of that place. I sat in the corner while my mother and the remaining healers tended to the injured elves and mercenaries. Then we were all forcibly marched through the village. On the way we saw many of our friends among the fallen. My father’s body was on the steps of the library, which they had burned to the ground. My mother sank to her knees in grief but was dragged away. They did not want to lose a good healer.
On the ship to Caledonia my mother held me close to her and whispered into my ear so that no one else could hear. She told me that the red elves thought I was one of their kin; my face and hands were covered with blood. Though I hated it, through the entire journey she used her own blood to keep my identity hidden.
When we reached Caledonia we were taken to a castle, a great building of grey stone which was to be both my home and my prison for the next eight years. Through all that time my mother and those of my village who remained took it in turns to keep up my disguise, with pigments and strange dyes. The taste of it never left my tongue, and as I grew I hated the constant reminder of the past. After time it became hard to wash the colour from my face. I hated looking like the demons who had killed my father and friends.
My mother continued to work as a healer in the castle and was not treated badly, as long as her patients survived. When they did not she was beaten. I worked by her side when I could, but my talent was never in healing. I was more often a hindrance than a help. They let me roam free and laughed at my antics. My mother told me to smile at them. Doing so violated my soul.
One day a man died under my mother’s care. A duel had gone badly and all she could do was ease his pain. The elves however did not believe her and beat her so badly that she became very ill and could no longer work. She died before the week was out. Her body was still warm when an elf guard came in. Mistaking my grief for fleeting attachment he laughed and pulled my arms away from my face; and finally my secret was revealed. He saw the smears upon my face which I had unwittingly made in my grief.
I killed him. I don’t know how I managed to do so, unarmed as I was. But I was quicker. He died with the surprise of it still etched upon his face. As his body lay there I knew that my flimsy disguise would no longer protect me. I hid his body in the cellars and took his weapons. I wished a brief farewell to my fellow villagers – those who still lived – and left that place.
My disguise served me long enough to give me unemcumbered passage though the castle gates. The guards did not remember the little girl who they had claimed those years ago. All they saw was a young elf woman, dressed in the black of mourning, and did not challenge me. Perhaps they suffered for their mistake. It was not long after that the body in the cellar was discovered and they were sent out to find me. But they did not find me. They searched for a young red elf with a bloodstained sword and did not mark the clean-faced woman who had washed at the nearest stream. I headed south, between the rising and the setting sun; when many days had passed, I came to the border of the lands of nightmare and arrived at last in the city of Durholme.
This account is written in case the duty my family’s honour charges me with ends in my death. I do not fear it. I do not relish it. The sword I carry by my side would never have been my choice in life. I will not leave my father unbidden to the mercy of the crows; not without the oath to make his killers pay dearly for taking his life, for the torture of my mother, the deaths of the innocents whose blood gave me the chance to live. As much as this scholar’s arm has will and strength, I will fight for them until their indemnification is won, or my unfulfilled soul leaves this tortured earth to join them.
Photograph by mike138.