I try to stay up past that, but my body is exhausted from all the stress I’ve been through lately, and at some point my eyes close and I fall asleep. When Faladel shakes me awake, it must be nearly dawn. The moon is gone, and the stars are starting to fade. I start to ask what’s going on, but Faladel instantly hushes me.
The only sound is the wind rustling the trees, and Briareth muttering something near the opposite wall. His back is turned towards me, so I can’t see what he’s doing. But it’s evidently something. I shoot a questioning look at Faladel, longing to ask exactly what Briareth is doing. But, before I can get a word off, he pulls me over to Briareth’s side, and I see it for myself.
As he finishes the spell, blue light pulses gently between his fingers and then silently hurls itself into the ground beneath us. Lurching slightly, we rise into the air, dirt and all. I flinch, and not just at the fact that we’re floating upwards with only a thin layer of dirt between us and the pit floor.
I’ve heard of Elvish sorcerers. We have Clerics from the Church in the army to help nullify their dark arts, but they are few and far between. An Elvish sorcerer, without a cleric to defend the dwarven soldiers, is able to cause a lot of chaos. They can kill over a hundred dwarves with a few words. Every other soldier I’d ever met has heard some tale of horror of a sorcerer’s attack, but rarely have I heard a tale straight from a survivor though.
Always, those were the most horrifying. Spells designed purely to decimate raining down. Clerics desperately casting bloodwards. Death and blood and screaming everywhere. Elves closing in. No escape. Only a miracle saving the storyteller.
There’s no time to consider the implications though, we’ve reached the top of the pit. I swear, I can almost feel the sorcery radiating off the three pit guard’s slumbering bodies as we sneak past them. Briareth first leads us to a supplies tent, retrieving a few of our packs and weapons after spelling the lone guard. Next we head to the horses, where he quickly wakes and calms Myrddin. He frowns slightly considering the other horses the group of bandits have, and then glancing back at the two of us.
Is he planning to steal some?
Gesturing for us to come over, he helps me mount –Faladel doesn’t need any help– and then silently leads us on Myrddin over to the edge of the camp, spelling another guard on the way. Once we get there though, instead of continuing on with us, he stops.
“Where are you going?” Faladel hisses as he turns Myrddin back towards the camp.
“Just to cause a little chaos, lay a false trail.” Briareth grins at him naughtily. “Meet me at the river docks in-” he glances at the sky “Five hours?” He rides off– no longer trying to be quiet, –without waiting for an answer.
“BRIARETH!” Faladel hisses again, clearly upset. Then with a worried look around for more guards turns his horse as if to follow Briareth back into camp.
“Faladel what are you doing?” I quietly demand, “He said to head to the river!”
“We can’t let him just go back in there by himself!” Faladel retorts.
“What’s the point in laying a false trail if we all go down it? He said he’d meet back up with us. If we head after him now, we ruin his plan and quite possibly get all of us caught. Think Faladel!” I whisper, desperately trying to appeal to his practicality. Faladel hesitates, and for a second, I think he’s going to charge back into the camp after Briareth anyways. But then he grimaces, as if leaving Briareth behind causes him physical pain, and rides out into the forest. I follow, nervously trying to guide my horse. Behind us I hear pandemonium erupt.
Briareth’s shouting something, but I can’t make it out. There is a brief thundering of hooves, and then alarmed shouts break out all over the campsite. Over it all, I swear I can hear Briareth’s delighted cackling echoing through all the chaos.
We eventually reach the riverside docks around sunrise. It wasn’t supposed to be a difficult journey, Faladel’s arm might be injured, but he was still capable of guiding his horse. Briareth’s distraction, whatever it was, meant we weren’t followed. However I suck at working with animals, and it’d been a while since I’d ridden a horse. Mainly those were reserved for officers or cavalrymen in the army; I was just a common footsoldier, so I hadn’t practiced since I’d ridden my Dad’s mule back on the farm.
This horse was much larger than a mule, and not used to such a short, inept passenger. He disliked having to go where I attempted to direct him, and I’m pretty sure he headed the opposite way a few times just out of spite. Once Faladel realized I was having difficulties, he was able to lead my horse with his own. This slowed us down a bit, and by the time we arrived at the docks, Briareth was already there.
“What took you so long?” Briareth greets us, “Nevermind, now that you’re here we can cross.” He continues nattering on about something as he helps us unload our packs and put them on a raft. I watched him, slightly confused.
During the long ride, I’d had time to think more about Briareth’s sorcery. He doesn’t seem like a mass murderer, and I’ve already nearly misjudged Faladel because of my assumptions, so I should definitely think this through before I say anything. I don’t want to accuse him of something he’s never done. Perhaps his sorcery is too weak to be used in the warfront? Or maybe I’m just making excuses for him because I don’t want to think of him as a slaughterer of hundreds.
He could truly be innocent though. From the little I’ve seen of clerics, most harnessing of major sorcery requires sacrifices. The church tries to keep everything hush-hush, but it’s rather obvious what goes into a bloodward. Briareth’s sorcery, strangely enough, didn’t appear to harm Faladel or I. It could be that the cost wasn’t that large, so none of us noticed it. Or it could be that he took the burden of the casting onto himself, which most clerics would never do. Despite my fear of his power, I find myself worrying for Briareth. He seems like the type to take all the burden and then hide it under a smile.
I jolt upright realizing that somehow in the midst of this misadventure, I’ve ended up caring for him and trusting him. I don’t want him to get hurt. Heck, I’d be willing to shed a bit of blood if it means the idiot doesn’t hurt himself trying to get us out of trouble.
However, I still have a lot of questions, and while Faladel is poling the first load of supplies and Myrddin across the river, I try to find a way to steer Briareth’s chatter in that direction. But politicking isn’t my strong suit, so after listening to Briareth yammer on about miscellaneous details of his life, I eventually just dive right into it.
“Are elvish sorcerers clerics, Briareth?”
“What’s a cleric?” Briareth asks immediately.
I hesitate. I was expecting a few different responses, but confusion wasn’t one of them. “You know, someone who learned to harness sorcery from the church? Normally they use their powers in battle? I saw you doing sorcery to get us out of the pit, so I thought…” I trailed off. Maybe it wasn’t sorcery? But how else could he have gotten us out of that pit?
“Sorcery? Do you mean magic? Well, I did learn it, but it was in school, nothing to do with religion really.” Briareth shrugs. “I’m surprised you didn’t pick it up, Balderk, but elves don’t really have any religious institutions. I know it’s this huge thing in dwarven culture, but the closest thing we have to it is a bunch of kooks out in the woods reading molding books and sprouting what the general public believes to be nonsense.”
I’m stunned. No church? But that’s, like, the third most powerful force in the Empire right behind the imperial army! They create clerics to defend the army, they run almost all the schools, even the major noble houses think twice before getting on their bad side! Everyone goes to church, even non-believers have to go on the major holidays. It’s literally a part of who we are. How can the Elves not have that? “If you have no church,” I ask incredulously, ”then what do you believe in? How do you think you ended up here? What is an elf’s reason for living?”
“Um…” Briareth says, clearly not expecting this strong a reaction. “I’ve never really thought about it. We’re just kinda here I suppose. No big secret, just trying to live good, fun lives with no regrets. I’m more surprised though that dwarves have a concept of magic– I mean, sorcery. That is what you called it, right?”
I nod, still dumbfounded.
“Seriously, if you guys have magic,” Briareth continues, “how come none of us have ever seen it? I get all these briefings, go on top secret undercover missions, and never even notice—! And it’s not just me, no one’s ever realized you have magic! If you have all this sorcery, why do you do all that weird stuff with bombs and coal and whatnot when you could just fireball us in return? Using magic, or sorcery if you like, makes both fighting and regular life so much easier.”
“Well it’s not that simple.” I try to explain to him “Very few people are blessed with the ability to harness sorcery, and the training is really difficult. If you cast a spell wrong, you’re dead.”
Briareth looked at me, agast, “Dead?! What sort of spells do they make you practice?”
“I don’t practice anything.” I say, “I was just a simple farm brat. All I know is that far more noble kids go into cleric training with the church than ever get put on the field And it’s not because they’re dropping out.”
“Wait, are only nobles allowed to study magic in dwarven territory?” Briareth asks.
“Not technically, but they’ve been basically breeding for clerical potential for generations, so lots of them have it, and it’s just too expensive for almost everyone else to get checked for sorcery harness-ability” I shrug.
“A little help here would be appreciated!” Faladel shouts over. I stand up and dust myself off, feeling more than a little guiltily. While Briareth and I were talking, he’d already arrived back and halfway loaded the rest of our supplies.
“Sorry about that Faladel!” Briareth shouts as we hurry over to help. “Balderk and I were just having a super interesting conversation. Apparently, only dwarven nobles study magic. Isn’t that insane?!”
“Wait, Dwarves have magic?” Faladel, who was previously looking grumpy because we’d left him to do most of the work, looks shocked “Since when?”
“I know, right? Apparently they call it sorcery, and the people who harness it are clerics.” Briareth chatters excitedly.
“Are you one of these clerics, Balderk?” Faladel looks at me, confused.
“No! Didn’t you hear what I just said Faladel, these clerical types are all nobles. Balderk’s family were farmers.” Briareth responds, answering Faladel’s question before I could, and grabbing one of the horses to lead her onto the raft. I lead the other stolen horse onto it, and Briareth offers to pole the raft to the other side so that Faladel can stay behind this time and take a break. I don’t protest; the less work I have to do the better.
“How come only your nobles are clerics?” Is Faladel’s first of many questions. After I explain to him as much as I can– which isn’t really a lot –about how sorcery works, I ask if it’s really that different for elves.
“Let me put it this way. If you meet an elf, the likelihood that they have some sort of magical potential is 99%, and if they’re a noble, it’s 99.99%. It used to be 100% for the nobles, but then I was born with basically no magic. If the same percentage of dwarves were magic wielders, you would have probably won the war centuries ago, even if you still only use it for defence, which, by the way, is rather ridiculous.”
My mind is thoroughly boggled at this point. “99%? What do you use for all your sacrifices?” After continuing the discussion with him, I realize that elven magic is probably very different from dwarven sorcery. According to Faladel, who is a self-proclaimed expert on magical theory, sacrifices are more than a little rare in elven magic. The closest thing they have, Necromancy, apparently uses something similar that transfers life forces, but it’s completely forbidden. When I mentioned how the dwarven army uses bloodwards he seemed disgusted.
“Erghh… Clerics use their blood to power spells?”
“Their blood, or others.” I confirm “Oftentimes in the midst of battle it ends up being a bit of both. They draw blood from the wounded soldiers to strengthen the shields to protect from incoming elf spells.”
“Won’t the wounded soldiers die without that blood though?” He asks, skeptical.
“Sacrifice a few for the sake of the many. It might not be perfect, but it’s the best solution we have.” I explain.
Faladel visibly shudders. “I suppose.” he says, but doesn’t look convinced.
Seeing how uncomfortable he is with the topic, I attempt to change it a little. “If elven magic doesn’t cost anything, why didn’t we escape sooner? Or fight the bandits off from the beginning?”
Faladel turns to look at me. “One mildly proficient mage and two swordsmen, all caught off guard, versus over ten armed and ready men with arrows pointing at their throats. Even assuming none of the bandits were magical, that would basically be suicide Balderk. Beyond that,” He hesitates, turning back around “I don’t know why Briareth chose to escape after we’d all been questioned. I honestly had no clue what his plan was, I didn’t even realize he had the sleep spell in his repertoire. It could have been he didn’t think up the plan till then, it could have been that the guards were just too alert earlier, or he wanted to see if he could get any more information on the bandit group to report back to my parents. Despite how close we seem, I can’t read Briareth’s thoughts, and he doesn’t tell me everything.”
We travel via horseback for five days after crossing the river. More conversations take place comparing small things that are different in Elvish and Dwarven cultures. We move on from larger things like magic, religion, and politics, to smaller cultural things like holidays and celebrations, different funeral and wedding traditions, etcetera.
I thought I was surprised by elven magic but what’s more surprising to me, and more intriguing to Faladel, is how a lot of the older cultural practices in rural areas are the same. Things that nobody does anymore, like naming their firstborn child after the first person they saw after the child was born.
Another thing that surprised me was how much of an influence women have on things. Elves don’t regulate women to a backseat, allowing them to have major positions in government and other important fields. At first, I didn’t know how to feel about this, but after thinking about it and remembering all the clever women in my life and just how capable they all seemed, I realized the elves might have a point there. Apparently nothing absolutely terrible had happened after women started running family businesses and participating in elven politics, and the women were probably happier about the change. My mother, for example, would be delighted to be able to sell the products of our farm instead of having to go through our neighbor, who, from what I heard in her last letter when I was in the army, is probably cheating her and demands a ridiculous tax on our profits. Because of current ownership laws, she hasn’t been allowed to sell them without going through him ever since I was pressed into the army, and because of that, she and my sisters have given up more than a few comforts.
However, I also realize that most dwarves probably would never feel the same. Any religious dwarf would be horrified by most of the things Faladel and Briareth speak of, and the major political players would be hard pressed to go against them. Even the King would find difficulty ensuring equality, because although he can change the law, he can’t change people’s hearts.
Shortly after noon on the sixth day of riding, we reach a second river, Faladel leads the group downstream and to another small dock. This one has long, rather narrow boats instead of rafts, and there isn’t enough room for more than one horse with the three of us and our packs. Faladel and I let our horses loose, and I’m a little sad about the parting. He and I weren’t best friends, but I, at least, had grown fond of him over the past few days.
The next four days are spent peacefully traveling downstream. There was a close call with a bear and leftover food, a short argument with a fisherman who wanted us to pay a toll to pass through ‘his’ section of the river, but only small things like that. Nothing Faladel and Briareth can’t handle with a little effort. However, by the time we reach the mountains, I’m more than ready to take a break from traveling. Faladel doesn’t share the sentiment however, so we push on, and a week later, finally arrive at the Librarian’s hut.