The Beginning After The End - Chapter 320
“All right, Ellem?” Tedry asked .
I nodded .
“Guard duty for logging crew today,” he said conversationally . The thin, dark haired boy was sitting on his cot, pulling on a boot .
I nodded again .
“Been almost a week since we’ve been stationed here, Ellem, and I swear by the Vritra I don’t think I’ve heard you say more than three words . Why is that?” The Alacryan was looking at me with one thick eyebrow raised .
I just shrugged .
Tedry smirked . “You know, that’s why I like you, Ellem . You don’t interrupt me when I’m telling a good story . ”
Rolluf snorted from his cot . “No one has ever interrupted you telling a good story, Ted, ‘cause you’ve never told one!”
Tedry paused while he was slipping on his other boot and hurled the heavy footwear at Rolluf, hitting him right between the legs . Rolluf grunted in pain and tried to roll out of his cot but was tangled up in his blanket . The big Alacryan boy tumbled onto the ground, tipping the lightweight cot over .
Tedry laughed hysterically while Rolluf grumbled and disentangled himself from his blanket .
I was already dressed in the blue and silver uniform I’d been provided . I always made sure to be awake and dressed before the others, with my hair pulled up into a knot on the back of my head, disguising its length . It had seemed easy at first, to pretend I was a boy, but the longer I stayed in Eidelholm, the more difficult it became .
“Come on, you dolts,” I said, making my voice deeper . “We’re going to be late for breakfast . ”
After Tessia was captured I had thought about using the medallion to go back to the sanctuary . It’s probably what everyone, especially Tessia, would’ve told me to do . Then I had imagined stepping out of the portal, everyone’s expectant gazes turning to confusion when Tessia didn’t appear . I imagined the looks on their faces when I explained that Tessia had been captured in order to save me…and that I had run away .
Then, of course, they would’ve all told me it wasn’t my fault, that I couldn’t have done anything, that they understood and were just glad that I was alive . They’d be kind…just like how they always were . They’d feel bad for me, pity me .
They’d treat me like a child .
I didn’t have a plan, not at first, but I just knew I couldn’t go back to that . I’d seen Tessia after she got back without my brother . I’d been on the other end at that time, but now I knew how much Tessia was hurting, how lonely and helpless she had felt .
No . I couldn’t return to the sanctuary without at least trying to help Tessia . After all, I was the one that let her get caught . I should’ve just gone with Albold, but instead I had stayed to try and play the hero .
She’s my best friend, and she only got captured because of me . If I’d just focused on the prisoners, like Rinia warned, I wouldn’t have been taken hostage by Elijah, I admitted to myself . I have to at least try…
Eidelholm was busier than a kicked anthill for a couple of days after our assault . Using the first phase of my beast will, I spied from the cover of the trees, careful of anyone I saw using mana around town, since there was no way to tell whether they could see things from afar .
Several important looking people visited the village and dozens of new soldiers arrived to replace the men and women we’d killed . I saw Elijah once, meeting with the town’s visitors and showing them the site of the attack, but I didn’t see him or Tessia again .
It was a stroke of pure luck that I overheard Tedry and Rolluf talking near the edge of the treeline on the third day after Tessia was captured .
I found out that they were students from some Alacryan academy, part of a youth soldier training division . At first, their talk had mostly been about the attack . The leaders of the town were called the Milview blood . The two boys were joking about how the Milviews were cowards, how they had held half of their soldiers back to defend them instead of defending the town against the “Dicathian insurgents . ”
One of the older guards had smacked the back of Rolluf’s head and told him to watch his tongue . After that Tedry and Rolluf had moved off a little ways from the rest of the guards, making it even easier to listen in . I had nestled myself in a hollow under a leafy bush and got comfortable . Boo was keeping an eye on me from deeper in the forest .
The Alacryan boys spent a lot of time complaining about being sent to such a backwater hold, and talking about how their friends got to go to places like Zestier, where the real action was happening . It all sounded so…normal . They were just a couple of normal boys talking about stupid, normal boy things .
Then Tedry mentioned what a nightmare it had been for them when they arrived in Eidelholm . The man in charge of their program had been killed, so they were just being shuffled around between guard posts .
That’s what gave me the idea . A crazy, stupid idea…but still an idea .
Tedry and Rolluf followed me to the longhouse, where we each accepted a bowl of oats and milk, then took our normal seats at the end of one of the series of long tables .
“Some big event in a couple of days,” Rolluf mumbled through a mouthful of oats . “Heard one of the Shields talking about it . ”
Tedry rolled his eyes . “There’s always some ‘big event . ’ Probably just another highblood coming to scold the Milviews for letting all those elven slaves escape . ”
Rolluf shook his head, dribbling some oats on the table . “Nope, this is something big . Real big . ”
“As big as your head?” Tedry asked teasingly . Rolluf flicked a spoonful of oats across the table, splattering Tedry’s uniform . “Damnit, I’ll get a smack if I go to guard duty with an oat stain on my tunic, Roll!”
“Maybe should have thought about that before opening your big mouth, eh?” Rolluf teased, a big, stupid smirk on his tan face .
“Did this Shield say anything else about what’s happening?” I asked, my mind racing . I hadn’t seen Tessia since she’d been captured—since she traded herself to save me, I mean—but I knew Elijah was still in Eidelholm, or at least he had been, on and off, so I thought Tessia must be too . Maybe this big event had something to do with her…
“An announcement . Something to do with Elenire—”
“Elenoir?” I asked, cutting Rolluf off .
“Yeah, that . ”
Tedry feigned falling asleep in his bowl . “Don’t get excited, you two . You know they’ll make it up to be this big thing, then it’ll just be, ‘Congratulations to the whositswhatsits blood, they’re being given a hold in the ass end of Elnire—”
“Elenoir . ”
“—and we’re supposed to clap and cheer and pretend like we know who they are,” Tedry went on, ignoring the correction . Then his eyes lit up as something occurred to him . “Maybe it’ll be an execution! They could have caught the Dicathians that attacked the hold—”
Rolluf snorted, spitting flecks of oats on the table . “They beat one of the retainers, Tedry . No one in this little backwater could lay a finger on them—”
“He could,” Tedry said darkly, causing Rolluf to look down into his oats .
The table was quiet for a while .
This wasn’t the first time the Alacryan boys had mentioned Elijah, who they seemed to carry in high, but fearful, regard .
I’d been really careful not to ask too many questions to avoid tipping Tedry and Rolluf about my ignorance of Alacrya, which had limited my ability to dig for more information . If I was ever going to find out anything about Tessia, though, I knew I’d have to start taking more risks at some point .
“Think we’ll get to attend?” I asked, making sure to keep the deeper voice I’d used since sneaking into Eidelholm .
“Only if it’s boring,” Tedry complained . He was trying valiantly to rub the oatmeal off his uniform .
“Maybe, as the youth soldiers in Eidelholm, we could…give a presentation or something?” I asked hesitantly . The two boys didn’t like doing any extra work, so I knew they wouldn’t like the idea, but if it got me involved in this “big event,” then it’d be worth it . Hopefully .
The voice that responded came from behind me . “That’s a fine idea . ”
We all turned to look at our preceptor .
The man in charge of overseeing the youth soldiers in Eidelholm was a nervous mage named Murtaeg . He didn’t seem to have much time or interest in managing our affairs, though, and did little more tell us where to be every day and making sure our little house, which had once belonged to one of the elves, was kept in order .
Murtaeg had rusty red hair, a week’s worth of ruddy beard that didn’t grow in evenly, and watery eyes that quickly darted around the room .
“Hey, Murt,” Rolluf said, nodding to the preceptor .
Murtaeg glared at Rolluf . “My name, as I’m sure I’ve explained several times now, is not Murt . Nor is it Murty, Em, Teach, or any of the other silly bynames you keep calling me . Murtaeg . Remember it, Rolluf . ”
His ears turning red, Rolluf looked down at his empty bowl of oats and stayed silent .
“As I was saying,” Murtaeg went on, standing a little straighter, “I think young Ellem’s idea is a fine one . ” His wandering eyes stopped on me for only a second before darting around the room again . “I’ll stop by Milview Manor and arrange it with Silas Milview . ”
“Do you know what’s happening?” I asked before I thought better of it .
Murtaeg’s eyes snapped to me again, very briefly . “Since this is your idea, Ellem, why don’t you choreograph a short display for the event . I’ll let you three out of regular duties today and tomorrow to prepare . ”
The preceptor didn’t wait for a response, but turned on his heel and marched quickly out of the longhall .
Tedry and Rolluf were staring at me .
“What?” I asked defensively .
“I don’t know whether to be impressed or angry,” Tedry said, his brows turned down but his mouth quirked up in a wry smile .
Rolluf wore a deeply thoughtful expression, as if he were trying to do the mental math on whether he, too, was impressed or angry with me . “On the one hand, no duties for two whole days, which is a total score . ”
“On the other hand,” Tedry said, picking up Rolluf’s thought, “we have to plan, practice for, and then participate in a demonstration—to be performed in front of a bunch of fancy-pants named bloods—which totally sucks . ”
What’s the plan here? the voice that sounded like Arthur’s asked . If Tessia is here, all I have to do is get close to her, I answered .
“I suppose we better get to work,” I suggested .
“Hold up,” Rolluf grunted . “I’ve got something really important to say first . ”
Tedry and I watched him expectantly, both half out of our seats .
Rollof belched loudly, then blew the foul smelling gas across the table . Tedry kicked him hard in the shin, then bolted from the longhall, Rolluf, limping slightly, chasing just behind .
Boys, I thought, rolling my eyes and following after them .
Despite being surrounded by my enemies, people who would kill me in an instant if they found out my real identity, the next two days ended up being almost…fun .
Tedry and Rolluf weren’t mindless killing machines, as I’d told myself the Alacryans must be, particularly the guards that had died by my arrows . To them, the whole war was just a kind of game, a distant and romantic fantasy . They were charming and stupid and funny, and we enjoyed creating the short exhibition together .
Neither of them had marks yet—the tattoos that gave Alacryans their magic—so they weren’t at all surprised when I told them I couldn’t do magic either . I didn’t know nearly enough about Alacryan magic to explain my arrows to them, so it was safer to tell them that I had gotten archery lessons instead .
Tedry had the idea to borrow some training gear and stage a kind of mock battle, with me and my shooting skills taking the leading role .
By that afternoon, we had scripted the basics of our activity .
Standing in the middle of the clearing, Tedry rushed at me with a practice sword and shield . I rolled under his swing and brought the heavy Alacryan bow up to fire an arrow at his back .
The blunted practice arrow snapped dramatically in the exact spot where Tedry’s wooden sword would be as he spun and deflected my attack . After that, I would let loose another arrow that would hit him in his thick padded chestplate, causing him to fall backward, let out an overacted gasp and pretend to die .
Rolluf rushed past him, a dull spear held firmly in both hands . I jumped back when he thrust the spear at me, batting it aside with my bow . Using the butt end, he tried to sweep my leg, but I stepped over it, then rolled across the much larger boy’s back so that I ended up on his other side .
Letting myself fall backwards, I did a reverse somersault to put another few feet between us, then fired an arrow to his left . He spun and pretended to deflect the arrow . I shot another to his right, which he deflected as well .
Movement in the forest nearby caught my eye, and Tedry’s sparring blade hit me on the shoulder .
Tedry winced at me and held his sword up . “Damn, sorry Ellem, you were supposed to duck, remember?”
I rubbed my shoulder and turned away from the forest, hopeful that neither of the Alacryan boys had seen Boo poke his head out to check on me .
“Sorry, I…I forgot . Let’s go again . ”
Tedry shook his head as Rolluf grinned . “I expect that kind of thing from Roll, but Ellem, we’re going to be doing this in front of the whole town . You better not embarrass me . ”
I smirked at him and picked up the broken halves of the practice arrow . “Embarrass you? Tedry, I’m the only thing making you look competent . ”
Rolluf, whose face had slowly creased into a frown as he deciphered Tedry’s insult, laughed loudly and pushed the skinny boy, nearly knocking him over .
“What are you laughing at?” Tedry asked Rolluf . “If I’m merely competent, what do you think that makes you?”
“About half of that, by volume,” Rolluf quipped, slapping his belly .
I was surprised how nervous Tedry and Rolluf both were to perform, when the time came . I thought I should have been much more nervous than them, but a detached calm had settled over me since I took on the persona of “Ellem” and settled into a routine as just another Alacryan boy of middle birth . Besides, I didn’t really care about the performance . I just wanted to see what the big announcement was .
Our two days of preparation went quickly as we planned and practiced . News that something important was going to be revealed in Eidelholm had spread, and there had been a lot of chatter about it, even though no one seemed to know anything specific .
In fact, many of the other Alacryan soldiers had come to ask us what we knew, since we were participating in the event . We could only shrug and send them away without answers .
The village was much busier than usual the morning of the announcement . Carts were rolling in from the north packed with visitors, and the patrols by the town guard had been quadrupled .
We had our regular breakfast of milk and oats . Then, since we didn’t have any other duties to attend to, the three of us made our way to the Milview Manor and watched the workers rush to complete preparations .
The hardest thing about my time in Eidelholm had been the elves . Despite freeing over two hundred slaves, there had been dozens of other elves in the village, those who “belonged” to the Milview blood and would live, work, and die in the town as slaves .
My duties as a member of the youth soldier division hadn’t put me in contact with many of the elves, which I was thankful for, but I felt sick whenever I watched the elven laborers rush around under threat of whipping, or worse, from the guards who oversaw them .
Work was being done to a large manor at the heart of the town—now Milview Manor . A nearly-finished balcony was being added to a third-story room, and large patches of the roof had been replaced since whatever growing green material the elves used seemed to have died without their attention .
A small stage was also being built in the square leading to the house . I imagined it was where we would put on our show, though a part of me thought it also looked like the kind of stage executions could be performed on…
Two small sets of raised bleachers had been constructed around the stage . Probably somewhere for the higher ranking visitors to sit, I thought, growing angry and fearful as I took it all in .
At some point we must have sat still for too long, because a clerk from the Milview blood caught us and made us help hang silk tapestries around the Manor exterior . They were blue and silver, like our uniforms, and depicted silver trees with a winding trail of silver stars leading through them against the rich blue background .
Soon after, people began pouring in from every corner of town . The elves were herded in and forced to stand in front of the stage . There were more than I would have expected, and I wondered if more had been brought in just for this event . The higher-ranking soldiers, those not consigned to the increased patrols, stood around or behind the bleachers, while well dressed men and women began to fill the seats .
Because I had purposely limited my interaction apart from my little group, most of the faces in the crowd were unfamiliar .
Seeing so many non-soldiers was a first for me, and really highlighted the foreignness of the Alacryans . The way they dressed, the words they used, their social customs: it was all so different than what I was used to .
I tried to pay attention as Tedry and Rolluf humored themselves by pointing out prominent Alacryans and telling me more about their bloods, but my thoughts were somewhere else . I was starting to fear that I’d wasted my time and risked my life for nothing .
My simple plan—get close enough to Tessia to activate my medallion and teleport us both back to the sanctuary—now seemed naive and childish .
If she’s not at this event, I’ll leave tonight, I decided .
Rolluf nudged me with his elbow . I looked up at him, unsure what he wanted . His attention was on the balcony above us, where a man and a woman had just stepped out into the open . The crowd fell quiet in a sort of ripple as people slowly realized the couple was waiting .
They were both quite handsome . The man had short, honey-blond hair that shined in the sunlight, while the woman’s was closer to the color of fresh-cut straw . They were both wearing blue mage robes with silver lining . His was a more traditional battle-mage cut, while hers was almost like a gown .
They must be the Milviews .
The man set both hands on the rail around the balcony and leaned forward . “Welcome!” he said, his voice a confident boom that I was sure I could have heard from our house on the outskirts of town .
“For those of you whom we haven’t yet had the pleasure to meet, I am Silas Milview, and this is my beautiful wife Cerise . ” The man waited for a polite applause from the bleachers . I couldn’t help but notice most of the soldiers did not put their hands together for the lord and lady .
“As some of you may know, the Milviews come from humble roots . It is with the Vritra’s blessing that I address you today as a highblood, a most gracious reward from our lord the High Sovereign for an incredible act of courage by our late daughter, Cercei Milview!”
Silas waited again as a louder, more genuine applause burst from the audience . Both the Milviews beamed down over the crowd at this show of respect for their daughter .
So she was the one who breached Elshire, I thought glumly .
“That wench,” Tedry mumbled, though he was careful to keep his voice down so only Rolluf and I could hear him . “If she hadn’t done that, I’d still be back home in Alacrya kissing my girlfriend between classes…”
Rolluf snorted . “Don’t lie to Ellem, Ted . We both know the only girl you kiss is your mom . ”
Tedry went red around the neck and punched Rolluf in the arm, but both boys snapped to attention and quieted down at a glare from Murtaeg, who was standing nearby with a group of guards .
“—family’s achievements are not the reason we stand before you today,” Silas was saying . “Though we are honored that our humble new home has been chosen as the setting for this truly monumental occasion . ”
Silas Milview launched into a rambling speech about his family’s history, bragging about the feats of his daughter in the war and his son back at school in Alacrya, and describing the Milviews’ rise in unnecessary detail . It quickly became obvious that the crowd, especially the well dressed visitors, were not interested in what he had to say . Just behind him and to his left, Cerise Milview kept glancing at the back of his head, and though her smile never faltered, her eyes began to grow wide and panicky .
When a dark-haired man wearing a silky black robe coughed pointedly and knocked his onyx cane against the bleachers, Silas Milview seemed to snap out of a trance . He gazed around the crowd, his smile fading, then said, “Well…yes…thank you for—for your attention . ” The highblood Alacryan shot a glance to his wife, who just kept smiling, then turned back to the crowd .
“We did have some additional entertainment lined up for you today, but—well—I can see how anxious you all are to find out why we’re gathered here, so…um…why don’t we skip straight to the announcement, eh?”
In the utter silence that followed this statement, the only voice to be heard was Tedry’s as he cursed . A few of the guards glanced our way, some grinning, others scowling, but it was Murtaeg’s murderous glare that made Tedry turn white as a sheet .
“Without—without further adieu, it is my privilege and honor to introduce the mighty retainer, Nico, who has just returned after a trip back to Alacrya with Princess Tessia Eralith of Elenoir . ” The lord and lady Milview bowed and waved to the crowd, then stepped back out of view as two other figures walked out onto the balcony .
A cry went up from the elves standing in front of the stage as they saw Tessia .
She looked…stunning . Her silvery hair had been gathered up so that it fanned out behind her head like the tail of a peacock . Dark lines had been painted around her eyes and her lips were vibrantly red . She wore tight-fitting battle robes made of elegant silver plating and an emerald fabric that ran like liquid around her body and glinted like dragon scales .
Faintly glowing runic tattoos were visible on the back of her neck, and from the subtle glow of her arms under the battle robes, I guessed there were more there as well .
My mind felt blank and empty, my thoughts replaced by a swarm of buzzing fire wasps between my ears . I hadn’t really known what to expect, but seeing Tessia waving and smiling warmly down at her enslaved people, dressed like a warrior princess, certainly hadn’t been it .
And what were the tattoos? Something to suppress her mana, or control her somehow? I had no clue . I was having a hard time thinking at all…Should I rush toward the building and activate the medallion? I could take the elves and Tessia, but would I survive long enough to escape? Kathyln had somehow avoided teleporting Bilal with them, but was that intention or luck?
Now that I had her in sight, I realized I couldn’t hope to get away with her, at least not right there, surrounded by enemy mages…
Elijah—or Nico, as Silas Milview had called him—held up a hand, and the elves went quiet . The reaction from the Alacryans had been muted at best as they waited to hear what Elijah had to say .
“Today I speak to both my people of Alacrya and those of Dicathen . I speak to you as a child of both continents! Though I was born in the Central Dominion of Alacrya, I was raised and schooled in Dicathen alongside your people, including Princess Tessia Eralith of Elenoir, daughter of the late Alduin and Merial Eralith . ”
A whimper went through the elves as Elijah said the late king’s and queen’s names .
Tessia stepped up, and Elijah wrapped an arm around her waist, pulling her close .
I stared at Tessia in shock, expecting at least a smidgen of anger or disgust to leak onto her face . But what I saw was a worried—yet genuine—smile .
Elijah continued . “Today is a new day . The war is over, and our two continents are made one in service of the Vritra . The High Sovereign wishes only that we put aside the animosity of our past and unite together under a banner of peace . ”
A handful of polite applause came from the bleachers, but the elves were entirely silent . Most were staring at Tessia with the same confusion and betrayal I felt .
“Now, please give your attention to Princess Tessia . ”
Tessia stepped to the front of the balcony . Her steps seemed shaky, and she quickly steadied herself by grabbing the railing . Despite her beautiful clothes and makeup, I could see the dark shadows around her eyes, the sunken, sharp edges of her cheeks .
What happened, Tessia? What did he do to you?
“My—my people,” she said, her voice trembling slightly . She shot a quick glance back, but continued after an encouraging nod from Elijah . “I know you are frightened, but I want you to know that—that I will always, that I have always, stood between you and the darkness . Don’t lose hope . Please listen to my words .
“I stand before you today to announce that I…” She hesitated again, her eyes flickering through the audience .
This time Elijah moved closer to her and rested a hand on her back . She stood a little straighter . “I, Tessia Eralith, last remaining member of the royal family…have ceded the right to rulership of E-Elenoir”—gasps rose up from the huddled bunch of elves—“and sworn fealty to the High Sovereign of Alacrya . . . legally giving him supreme authority over all lands once belonging to—to the race of elves . ”
“No!” an elven slave called out .
“It can’t be true!” begged another .
“Traitor!” howled a third .
This outcry lasted several seconds before the guards stepped in and made threatening motions with their weapons, causing the elves to be silent .
Tessia seemed to lean into Elijah before continuing . “I have done this in exchange for your very lives . ” My friend, though I could barely recognize her as such, smiled weakly down on the crowd . “You will be released immediately…and sent from this place to search out your friends and family…wherever they may be . ”
Now it was the Alacryans who stirred while the elves stood silent and stunned .
“All elves will be freed and…and offered a place alongside the Alacryan people…as partners in a new world . ” Tessia stopped for a moment, and Elijah leaned forward to whisper something in her ear . “We will no longer be looked upon as a lesser race, a-afraid to travel our own borders . ”
I was shaking my head, unable to believe what I was hearing . The humans of Dicathen hadn’t always treated elves well, and some places in Sapin had still allowed slavery, but humans and elves weren’t at war . We hadn’t murdered the elven king and queen and put their corpses on display!
My fists were clenched as I glared up at Tessia, and for a brief moment, I swore I thought our eyes locked . There was no sign of recognition in her weary turquoise eyes .
She just didn’t recognize me in my disguise, I told myself through gritted teeth .
I almost wanted to rip off my hat and let loose my hair, but I didn’t budge .
No, I couldn’t…none of us could . Everyone present was frozen, eyes wide in fear as a pressure unlike anything I’d ever felt gripped every inch of my body .
Elijah and Tessia, along with some of the other Alacryan mages, were staring upwards, completely silent .
Something was coming .
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