Return to the Mist - Chapter 3 - Horses, Dreams, and the Green Sphinx
Previous Chapter: http://www.theonering.com/docs/16682.html
Lily ran through the stone maze, skidding around corner after corner with habitual direction. It was an impossible conjuncture of paths, unless you knew the way. Being Larenteth's shadow, Lily knew the place pretty well, for this was Larenteth's "home" in a sense. The maze covered the large floor single, high-ceilinged, vast room in the vaults, which he controlled, being the only person who held the Master Key. Anyone who fell into the maze could easily find his or her way out - the path was simple. But if one attempted to venture into the maze... escape was almost impossible. Thus no Seerganash bothered to pass near it, and did not need to. Only Larenteth entered it frequently, sometimes for solitude. He was one of the smartest elves of the Seerganash, and despite his mischievous, humorous nature, Larenteth loved to come here and pour over old writings and workings of ancient times. Perhaps he of all the Seerganash knew the most of the history of the halls and the stories behind them.
Lily came upon him, near the center of the maze, his face glued to old manuscripts. This was his favorite place, here in this middle. The warm glow of gold and copper lanterns lit the otherwise damp, dripping, dank caves. Mountains of soft hay conformed to any position one could desire while reading. The stout tunnel-horse Tom munched on some fresher hay, laying down in it like a dog, as Seerganash tunnel horses will. Larenteth looked up at Lily as she strode in. Immediately his eyes flung to the wide belt that draped off her hips - something she had never worn before. It was made of thick leather and was about three inches wide. It hung so loosely that it fell at an angle. The silver buckle gleamed in the torchlight.
"You like?" She said, twirling about.
"Why on earth would you ever need that? Obviously its not for holding your pants up so I am not seeing the purpose here," Larenteth replied, raising his eyebrows.
Lily scowled. "Its perfectly logical. It's beautifully crafted leather. Can't you take things for their artistic value, Mr. Intellectual? Plus it carries my dagger."
"Oh, yes, I forgot, they don't trust you with a sword yet, little sister." Larenteth's amused face bit back laughter as Lily huffed up and searched her mind for a good comeback. Failing, she sat down with her nose in the air.
"Well, if we were actually blood relatives, I would have had the brains of the family."
"Sure Lily. Right."
Abandoning argument, Lily hopped down and put her chin on Larenteth's shoulder. "What are you reading about today? Any more fun stories?"
Larenteth sighed. He wouldn't get much more reading done today, but he also loved relating what he read to Lily. Even at twenty-one years old she adored listening to his tales, and he never tired of telling them. "Well, you know that fifth hall? In the west wing?" She nodded earnestly, her green eyes shining with curiosity. "They say that it was made so large and smooth by the constant pounding of wild horses." Lily gasped in delight, her face showing the interest of an eager four-year-old. Larenteth smiled and continued. "You see, in the early days of the Seerganash, right when the halls were being carved, many horses were need to help the work. So horses were taken from all over by Seerganash messengers in secret. They bred horses over and over to create the tunnel horses we have today." Tom snorted and shook his mane. Lily reached over and ruffled his forelock. "Speed. Agility. Short, stocky stature to fit in all tunnels. Strength to pull the weight we needed. Hooves for traction, speed, and precision. Confidence. Lack of fear. Disregard for close proximity of fire. Heat resistant coats. Senses to cut through darkness, dim light, to avoid holes and such. They bred them to perfection for the task, all black like their ancestors. Controlled breeding didn't multiply fast enough, so Marin, the stable-boy years ago, released many of the best horses into the growing vastness of halls. In the harsh habitat, the horses that bred were of the best quality; only the best survived. They grew wild, as wild as free horses, and the Seerganash let them. When a new horse was needed, they wrangled it and tamed it. The horses had no fear; they were perfect. Ever since they had been multiplying, running the endless spans of tunnel. Not many are seen any more; when the lower west halls collapsed the horses were trapped on the other side. Sometimes a herd rides through the halls still, but no one has yet discovered where they pass through. It is a thunderous noise to hear and feel them gallop wildly. They can go weeks without food. Their hooves are harder than steel from picking up the sediments in the rock. You see, much of the stone of these mountains is rich with minerals. They lick the rock for minerals. For substance, they say there are whole crops of grass or some sort of plant that grows only on the rock... plants that are consumers, not producers. Without sunlight, the plants feed off the rock mineral. No one has found this grass yet, though some in these books claim to have seen it. They even suggest here that some of the horses may have evolved to be carnivorous, though that was never proven. And, the lower west wing was said to have an entrance to the interior of the mountains. Now the dragon wars rage... but before it was a place of hardy grasses and trees. They say the horses used to graze there. What has happened now, no one really knows. Not many bother, though we still capture horses from wild herds in the tunnels from time to time. And once caught, the horse is loyal to its owner. Tom here was just a colt when he was given to me. Left behind from the herd - his leg was caught in a fissure, so he was abandoned. Normally he would have died, especially in such a secluded tunnel, but I had been walking by at the time with... with Austel, a-and s-she spotted him." Larenteth cleared his throat. "I took him and raised him, and he's been with me ever since. He wouldn't even survive out there now." Tom snorted indignantly and raised his nose high in the air. Lily giggled.
"So, why don't you short-crop his mane and tail like all the other horses?" Lily asked. Larenteth smiled and took the leather cord out of his hair. His hair, already long, had grown in the past three years down his back. It was longer than Lily's, and mostly straight. He picked up a black lock of hair and held it out.
"Oh I don't know, I guess I just have a thing for long hair."
"Yeah, I see. Well, brother, someday you're going to have to cut it."
"Uh uh. Nooooo way. You stay away from my hair, little girl."
"Hey! I'm only a year younger than you, so I wouldn't be talking."
"Yeah, but I was only the youngest elf for a year. For the rest of the twenty-one years you, my dear sister, were the youngest."
Lily made a face and pulled his hair. "HA! See, maybe you really shouldn't cut your hair; then I wouldn't be able to do this!" She pulled it again.
"I'll tell mommy!" Larenteth laughed. His laughter died when he saw the look on Lily's face. Her mother was dead. Larenteth searched for something to say to fill the silence, but Lily did it for him.
"Even if we had the same mother, or father, I would be the favorite!" She giggled. Her smile was back, but it wasn't the same as a moment ago.
Larenteth joined in the laughter, still a little uncomfortable.
"Hey, lets go get something to eat!" Lily exclaimed.
"You always want something to eat," Larenteth whined, putting down his book.
"Well, so do you!"
"True, true. I am hungry," Larenteth admitted, slowly stretching and getting up.
Becoming impatient, Lily suddenly called, "I'll race you!" And jumped on Tom. The horse neighed with excitement and bolted off, leaving Larenteth behind. Lily laughed and Tom neighed happily, but suddenly Larenteth jumped out of another maze entrance and landed on his horse behind Lily. Both Tom and Lily gasped. Larenteth leaned his head on Lily's shoulder and kissed her cheek.
"Eww!!!! Cooties!" She called back to him, and he laughed. He always knew how to annoy her. Lily wiped off her cheek, then wiped her hand on Larenteth's pant leg.
"Dang straight little sister! But all right, fine, you can drive," he told her. She tightened her grip on the reigns, Larenteth knowingly tightened his grip on her, and off went Tom galloping with the wild glee of his riders.
Later that night, after being scolded for something or other, Lily retired to her chambers. Lily used to sleep with all the other women in their own ward, but Rowen had pestered the Wards to let Lily have chamber where she chose. Lily was not quite sure why, but she was only happy enough to immediately run to Larenteth when the decision was made. The Wards of the women were reacted to this with extremely subdued annoyance. One of their maidens sleeping in the same room with a male elf was not at all in their tradition - but the most powerful Warden of the Maidens lay in a prison, and the substitute wards could not enforce their say. It was more pride that kept them so huffed; Seerganash women are not elves to be challenged. But, nevertheless, they could not deny the fact that Larenteth and Lily were, in essence, brother and sister and reserved the right to camp in the same room if they so wished.
Both Larenteth and Lily had completely ignored the process of the whole argument and had already begun drawing lines, stealing each other's things, and having hay fights. "We're the youngest in the Seerganash - we are acting our age!" They would claim. That had been three years ago. And still, no one can deny that although not blood related, they are brother and sister to themselves and everyone who knows them.
Lily sleepily crawled into her bed. Her legs ached from riding Tom so much that day. Tom himself lay snoring in the corner. Normally he would go to the stables, but every so often he would follow Larenteth to his room. The tunnel horse simply lopped over on his side like a dog and had fallen instantly to sleep, his hooves twitching from time to time with some dream or other.
Larenteth came in a little while later, yawning. He fell onto his bed with large yawn and almost instantly began to drift. Just as the fields of sweet sleep began to greet him, Larenteth was pulled back by a noise in his room. He blinked in the dark and looked around for the source: it was Lily. She was twitching in her sleep, murmuring something. Funny, Larenteth thought, she never dreams. The murmurs rose to a frightened pitch and Lily began to toss and turn. Larenteth jumped out of bed and began to shake her.
"Lily! Lily wake up!" She did, slowly, and looked with confused eyes at Larenteth.
"Whassa matter?" She sleepily asked, with obvious puzzlement.
"You... you were dreaming. I think it was a nightmare. You were murmuring and tossing and turning...." He trailed off at the remaining puzzled look on Lily's face. "You don't remember?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about," Lily answered, still looking confused.
"Alright, but you were dreaming. And making a heck of a lot of noise doing it. Goodnight."
"Mmm, okay. 'Night."
Larenteth settled back down to sleep. Before he blew out the candle he had lit, he looked at Lily's hand as it hung off of her bed. Her palm was indented as if she had been holding something tightly.
The veil of sleep draped too heavy for Larenteth to fight, so he dismissed all thought and gave in. For the rest of the night, Lily was as silent and sound as always.
The next morning, Larenteth awoke at his usual early time. He loved the time before all the daily activities commenced. Sure there were always workers around - for night and day had been of little distinction until recently - but it was relatively quiet. The noise of the forges was at its minimum and the artisans slept. Despite the encompassing gray stone, the setting seemed serene.
That is, except for the loud snoring of the nearby Lily, who, even in sleep, managed to disturb peace and quiet. Larenteth smiled at his little "sister" and turned her over on her back. The snoring subsided slightly, and Lily continued to sleep like she would never wake again. Again, the young male elf smiled at her and then pulled on his boots. The large, heavy Master Key lay comfortingly against his chest inside his shirt, warm with his body heat. The worn but strong black cord that held it there was soft against the curve of his neck. He turned to get his horse Tom - only to discover the tunnel horse lying on its back, snoring just like Lily. Apparently, Larenteth would be walking today. He was up early enough; he could take the scenic route. But he would have to make sure to meet Jack on time, just in case Jack got lost. Larenteth smiled, like he did every time, at the thought of the Master of the Seerganash being lost in his own halls. After three years, the joke was still not old.
The halls outside were peacefully quiet. Larenteth's boots were well worn from trekking endless miles of tunnel and thus were as quiet the flickering torches that lined the walls. At a fork in the tunnel, Larenteth felt a cool breeze and immediately followed it into the tunnel to his left, which ascended rapidly. Left, right, right, right again, left, middle, right, middle, left. Larenteth knew the tunnels by heart. His ears ached slightly from the rapid ascension, and his muscles whimpered somewhat in protest at the early hour. No stopping now, not today. Need to be on time for this. Finally he had the right corridor; it abruptly leveled out. Far ahead, starlight and dying moonlight streamed into the path as the tunnel opened up into grand, hollow arches. The arches were crafted so delicately, yet were superiorly strong in their engineering, supported by the thick mountain rock. Standing on tiptoe, the tall, lanky Larenteth could almost reach his hand up to the ledge where the rock opened, but he was short by six inches. No matter. Larenteth walked into a strip of tunnel where the arches ceased and no skylight entered. To his immediate left, exactly where he knew it would be, was a small keyhole, hidden in the stone. No door could be seen around it. After checking left and right, Larenteth took the Master Key from his shirt and inserted the dragon-wing shape into the hole. A subtle click betrayed entrance, and the door creaked open. Inside was a set of sharply ascending stairs, just wide enough for one person. With light foot the young elf leapt up these stairs and climbed up through the dusty trapdoor that was at their peak.
Larenteth was at the top of a mountain.
One of the lesser ones, yes, but still grand just the same. To the east, the sky had begun to glow pink. He could see it above the Mist. The sky overhead was filled with dying stars, all blinking benignly down upon him, winking their farewells as the thin line of morning sun peaked over the far hills. Below, the black Mist from the dragon wars seeped and oozed out like lava around the bases of the mountains. The smallest mountains had been completely overtaken, but Larenteth was safely high above on this peak. No birds chirped in the Mist-choked forest, no sounds echoed. Only the silent whisper of passing Mist could be heard. Listen long enough and it would lull you into a stupor. The border guard elves that almost lived in that Mist had long ago adapted to it. It no longer stung their eyes and lungs, nor coated their skin - though the trees of that forest were thick with layers of ash.
Deep in though, Larenteth jumped when the first ray of warm sunlight struck his face. When he jumped, he felt something next to him. Looking down, Larenteth caught sight of a deep evergreen flash of hair and gold. Something giggled near him.
"Well, well, well, Jaclyn, long time no see."
He felt a small nose press into his back, followed by a purr.
"Little Jac, come out where I can see you," Larenteth said to the morning air. She jumped out and sat next to Larenteth. The elf looked at her and raised his eyebrows. "Jac, you have grown quite a lot."
She was two and half feet high while sitting. A woman-like face( or in this case, girl-like face) peered out of dark evergreen hair, only the nose and bottom half of the face jutted out like a cat's. The eyes were completely a dark green with only a hint of actual pupil. Its kin had no white or pupil, and all glowed in the dark with brilliance. Her eyes were lined it seemed, with heavy black that encircled the bright eyes and stretched out at the corners. No human ears could be seen - only two black-furred cat ears that stretched out of the hair. The body was lithe, starting with a relatively long neck that was stacked with four round gold bands, and the rest was smoothly furred in dark-tan with gold bands around its wrists that ended in paws. The bottom half of the body was purely cat.
Jaclyn was one of the Natarinturnan - a race of sphinx that lived far down in the stone, farther than the tunnel of the Seerganash. There were traditional bronze and black sphinxes with gold eyes that worked the stone, but there were some few amount of red sphinxes, then other blue sphinxes. They dealt with fire, lava, and water, corresponding to their color. But there was only one green sphinx, and that was Jaclyn. Normally the Natarinturnan did not have names, but the White Sphinx, oldest and most mystic of them all, allowed Larenteth to name this one when she was a little kitten. That little kitten had been responsible for growing the largest tree seen in Middle Earth, right in the halls of the Seerganash. In fact, Larenteth could see its crown from here at the peak of the highest mountain.
Jac's appearance differed slightly from the norm of her kin because of her unusual type, and her adoration of Larenteth - whom she frequently followed. This was much to the distress of her kin, for they dwelled in secret, not interacting with any other beings. They always knew what was going on, however, and an elf never knew when he or she could be being watched by eyes in the walls. The superior claws of the Natarinturnan cut through the hardest of stone as if it were simply compact, hardened mud. Their tunnels that remained hidden in the walls of the Seerganash tunnels were few, and most were blocked up. It was the ones that no one knew about that could cause uneasiness, but Larenteth never feared their echoing scratches on stone. His life had been saved by these creatures, apparently due to the fact that his great grandfather had done them a favor or some sort.
"Jac, what are you doing out here?"
The sphinx squinted in the sunlight, her eyes ill-made for such brightness.
"See? You shouldn't be up here. If Nintura ever found out, she would kill me. Outside! Spninxes never go outside." Jac just looked at him with a smile. "Oh, I suppose, you can, miss green cat. But still, don't tell your mother. I don't fancy being haunted by my own walls - I'll never sleep if Nintura scratches at them. Why are you up here anyhow?"
Jaclyn nodded to an opening in the mountain twenty yards away, an opening where a tunnel had a skylight. The sun was just pouring into it. Larenteth suddenly looked at the sun, then at the tunnel again.
"Ah! I didn't realize how late it was! Jack's waiting for me!" Larenteth cried out, jumping down across the mountain, not bothering to take the stairs back into the tunnel. His step was light and strong from years of trekking tunnel. Little Jac followed in suit, leaping after Larenteth. With one final jump, Larenteth slithered in through the skylight of the tunnel and dropped ten feet to the ground below. He felt a lump in his cloak as he pulled himself up; Jaclyn's was in her favorite hiding spot - his hood.
Around the corner Jack stood patiently, caressing the mane of his horse. Without turning around, he spoke, "Good morning Larenteth."
The young elf, breathing heavily, sputtered, "Good...Morning, Master Raen."
"Stop calling me that or I'll have to rob you of that key!" Jack replied with a laugh, turning around. For a moment, Larenteth's hand flew to his chest, where the Master Key lay under his shirt. He eased a split second later, laughing uncomfortably.
"What have you been doing?" Jack remarked, eyeing Larenteth incredulously. The elf looked down at himself to discover his clothes were plastered with dust. "No, don't even tell me, I probably wouldn't want to know," Jack added, smiling. Larenteth smiled back.
"Now then, I believe you have requested my service, and I am terribly busy, as you know, but I have managed to squeeze in this time. So, shall we go?" Larenteth said cordially. Jack stared at him a moment before bursting out laughing. Watching Larenteth keep a straight face only made him laugh harder. Finally, Larenteth gave in and doubled up with laughter as well. The two elves, still suppressing laughter, began to make their way down to the vaults.
On their way, a figure appeared out of the gloom ahead. Jack and Larenteth had passed many elves as the morning wore on, but Jack instantly recognized the strut of Rowen, her ragged and tangled hair blowing out behind her as she walked with fast pace. As she neared, Jack noticed her normal thick, worn, heavy brown-leather boots were gone. In their place were black boots, of similar make to her former ones, but covered or made of some sort cloth.
Rowen noticed the direction of the two elves' eyes and smiled with self-satisfaction. "Aren't they nice?"
"Why'd you make new ones?" Larenteth asked. He used the word "make" knowingly - the crude but efficient and sturdy stitch of Rowen's handiwork was plainly evident.
Again Rowen smiled and took the torch from Jack's hand. She let it roll down her leg and settle next to her boot. The crimson flames licked and saturated the black boot, but the cloth-like material did not catch fire. Satisfied her point had been made, Rowen edged her toe under the torch and flipped it upwards, caught it, and handed it back to Jack. "Tis the same material your cloak is made of," Rowen explained. The heavy Seerganash cloaks were engineered to resist fire damage.
"Very nice. Would you care to join us down to the vaults?"
"No thanks, I'm off to my own business. Have fun. Going to a new vault today?"
"Yes, actually. Larenteth discovered a door to a new one."
"Well, don't kill yourself or something."
"Right. We'll be sure to watch out for vicious manuscripts and paper cuts. They can be so lethal you know," Larenteth put in innocently, then added, "Please don't hurt me!" as Rowen turned to him with a scowl. The trio laughed and departed, Jack and Larenteth to the vaults and Rowen on her own way.