Last Chapter: https://www.theonering.com/docs/16536.html
Jack pocketed the letter – a script from the general he knew and trusted most, General Roan. Normally he shared things that he could with Rowen, when he got to see her. Today, however, he was fatigued from the earlier conference and all that had been going on in the Seerganash world (it could not truly be called a “city” for it was too widespread, but neither was it really an empire, though once and awhile it was referred to as such). Not now, not yet; Jack simply did not have the energy to deal with this just yet. Physical strain took barely any toll on his trimmed, muscular body, for Jack was a Raen elf – a wanderer – and had been for most of his life. It was the mental exertion that cornered him now as it had never done before.
Jack’s brother Castamir had run his government very well, but he had been leading the Seerganash down a path that had been chosen for them long ago by their ancestors. Once an elite part of the Lothlorien border guard, the Seerganash had become sundered from the rest of their kin through disagreement. When disagreement led to murder, they had vowed revenge. Still the Seerganash worked with the constant goal of vengeance, but under Jack’s father, Cathrandar, and Jack’s brother, Castamir, the goal had intensified, no longer reverting back to its origin. The Seerganash, now a formidable nation of people under the mountains of the Iron Hills, unconsciously had contorted their minds from simple revenge to domination. Over centuries this change had subtly occurred, so none truly realized it. Jack and Rowen were only beginning to see the strength of the potential army of Seerganash, and they knew that only disaster could result if such a force ever laid siege to any city.
A small tremor shuddered through the ground. Rowen and Jack habitually squatted down for a moment as the ground forcefully shook, sending dust thick into the air. Construction had begun on the halls, massive construction. The colossal labyrinth of Seerganash halls was giving way to halls much more grand. Tunnel horses could only be used in the lowest halls, but new construction would enable great stallions and mares to run comfortably through the winding maze.
Speaking of which, two such black horses, elegant and well bred, approached out of the gloom. All of the bred Seerganash tunnel horses were black, but these two tall, noble steeds had white stripe on each of their faces, running from the ear, down the side of the nose, and to the lip. They were perfect mirror images of each other, one having white on the left, the other having white on the right. Their names as well were mirrors, Gáladmor and Mórgalad – named for their duel colors. The mare, Jack’s horse, was Mórgalad, but her nickname was Dragon. Rowen’s horse had not been truly hers at all. The stallion Gáladmor, also known as Kaytar, had been Castamir’s horse. After Castamir’s death, Kaytar had taken on Rowen as his master, by his own choosing. The horses were brother and sister, just as Jack and Castamir had been brothers. The two steeds, after being reunited three years ago, had been since inseparable.
The mare and stallion approached their masters, each with a loving nod of the head. Jack looked over to Kaytar and noticed something blue sticking out of his saddle.
“Roe, what’s that in Kaytar’s saddle? The blue things.”
Rowen smiled. “I must have forgotten to unload the saddle from my last excursion into the forest.” She threw back the blanket that covered Kaytar’s saddle. There lay Rowen’s stout bow, a sturdy but twisted arc of some knotted, gnarled red wood. Beside it was attached Rowen’s quiver, made of tough leather. In the quiver rested what had caught Jack’s eye: the protruding feathers of Rowen’s arrows. They must have been dyed with some indigo plant or other; their brilliant darkish blue indicated their deadliness.
“I finished making some new arrows… I was getting tired of Seerganash archery. Perhaps, Jack, you should do something about the poor quality of your empire’s weaponry,” Rowen said loftily, pulling out an arrow and balancing it on her finger. Jack knew that Seerganash weapons were of the highest quality, but he had yet to see an arrow that matched Rowen’s. Unlike her bow, the arrow’s wood was smoothed and scorched to absolute hardness and strength. The tip, however, was what made the arrow. Using the dragon bands on her wrists, Rowen could mold the metal of her choosing into a sharper point that any other metalsmith. Some of her arrows, Jack had discovered long ago, held a poison of which he knew not the origin. He could never tell which was which, but Rowen simply seemed to know when she shot a poison arrow or a regular one.
Rowen flicked the arrow up into the air with her finger and grabbed it out of the air, smirking in a self-satisfied sort of way. Jack rolled his eyes and jumped up on Dragon. “Care to see how the construction of the halls is coming?” He asked Rowen.
“Sure,” she replied, fixing her quiver and bow on her back before hoisting herself up on Kaytar. The horse, however, moved as she was trying to get up, spilling Rowen onto the floor. Kaytar snorted in amusement and shook his mane. Jack laughed and walked his horse up in front of Rowen as she sat on the floor, scowling.
“Cute face,” Jack snorted through laughter. Rowen stuck her tongue out at him, causing Jack to laugh even harder. He leaned down his arm to help her up, but Rowen pushed it away and got up herself. Kaytar complied to let her mount, and the two broke into a canter.
It’s good to see Roe once and awhile – she’s good for my mental health Jack thought with a smile, forgetting the burdens of being Lord of the Seerganash for a little while in his laughter.
After a half hour of riding, a strange glow began to appear ahead. Both Rowen and Jack squinted as their eyes, so used to torchlight, entered a ray of sunlight as it poured liquid brightness and warmth onto the chilled stone. The only openings into Seerganash halls laid on the side of the mountain that faced the inner ring of the Iron Hills, causing the outside of the mountain to stay a sheer defense of rock.
Immediately several men swarmed around Jack. Being Master of the Seerganash, Jack had many responsibilities, both to learn and to instruct. The elven men addressed him as “Master Raen,” a title they had procured from Jack’s previous title – a Raen elf, a wanderer, like the rain the falls in the vales and mountains and rivers, never having a true home.
Jack greeted the general of the Seerganash army, who happened to be at the scene. General Roan he was called, a rather large, thick man. His face was darkly tanned from living in the constant face of the dragon fire that ran eternally through the forges. He was a decent general, intelligent and strong, and always with his men – never aloof. His face was so dark because he spent so much time down in the forges, inspecting the weapons and the process by which they were made. Roan was a smart man; he did not wish to have a single defect in any of his forces’ weapons. His constant vigilance was one factor in the legendary quality, strength, and precision of Seerganash weaponry.
General Roan launched into a direct line of instruction about processes and questions on Jack’s opinion for certain projects. Jack listened intently, but a flicker caught his eye. He watched Rowen wander into the sunlight and blink up at it, then wander over to the wall, brushing her tough fingers over the soft, smooth stone that was being carved into designs by the artisans. She picked up a dulled chisel that had been abandoned on the ground and ran her thumb and index finger over the blade repeatedly. When she set it back down, the sunlight sparked off a precisely sharp blade.
“Jack? Which tunnel do you think would be well for that?” Jack flicked his eyes back to the green eyes of the general, who was waiting for a response.
“Sorry, my mind was elsewhere. Could you repeat the question?”
The general did so, though afterwards he too became distracted by Rowen. The wheels of his mind shifted into another gear as he watched her sharpen dull tools. Rowen’s strange characteristics were somehwat of a mystery to most men, as few knew the story of her life. The general himself had never asked her, but he had come to learn that the bands of gold upon her wrists were forged by a dragon especially for Rowen so that she would be able to live with other dragons and have a form of protection. He remembered Jack mentioning that they only worked well here, in the Seerganash caves, where dragons were close. When far from dragon fire, the bands became almost nothing but ornate. They could be used in contact heating at times, but then only sparingly and with much energy.
General Roan saw how easily she sharpened the tools. He excused himself from conversation with Jack and walked over, picking up one of the tools. It’s blade shone like new in the ray of sunlight. When put to rock, it cut through with amazing smoothness and accuracy.
“Rowen!” He called. She, a little ways down the tunnel, turned. “If you can sharpen these blades so, could you do the same on larger ones?”
“Surely, though how large do your chisels get?”
“Not chisels, my lady, swords! Any sword sharpened like that would be deadly – even to its holder! We would be superior. No sword could match – forged by dragon fire by a wielder herself!” The general’s green eyes were bright with prospect and excitement, but they faltered upon meeting a cold steady stare from Rowen’s yellow eyes.
“I will not advance your method of killing with a skill not meant for humans, mortal or immortal, to wield. You have superiority. Do not ask me to improve your chances of winning a battle by making the enemy easier to slaughter. And do not address me as “lady” again.”
With that last biting remark the temper-strung Raugím turned on heel and left. General Roan was left abashed where he stood – of all answers, he least expected one so vehement as that.
A sole rider rode down a dark, small, unused corridor of the deep. Hesitantly, the rider passed over a narrow bridge. Dark water rushed beneath, eternally sloshing in and around rocks. Blue-flamed torches warned any other rider to turn back, as did deep pitfalls that littered the dark floor. The rider wove around these by habit. The tunnel divided into nine smaller tunnels; the rider took none of these but climbed a tiny, barely one-foot-wide shelf that ran almost invisibly along the wall, steeply climbing up the tall ceiling that preceded the junction below. The tunnel horse that bore the rider followed the trail methodically. Near the top, the horse jumped up to another shelf that opened up into a tunnel. Warm air blasted through this tunnel. The rider rode down the slopping tunnel and into a larger chamber. Guards stopped the rider here for a moment, then let her pass. The rider dismounted and pulled its black Seerganash cloak tight about itself before walking onward. The guards at the entrance shielded their eyes as columns of flame erupted when the rider passed a certain point, but the rider came out unharmed inside her Seerganash cloak. A single arm withdrew out of the cloak, its thick gold band gleaming by its own light. The hand rested on an ancient stone door of sorts for a moment, red light appearing at its edges. The symbol on the door was suddenly apparent: the skeletal dragon wing of the Seerganash. The red light reflected in Rowen’s yellow eyes as she shook off her hood and walked into the door as it opened. A wave of heat greeted her, and she smiled in welcome as the searing air blurred her frame to any other’s eye. The door closed slowly behind her, the red light of its inscription fading back to dim stone.
“Lily – what are you doing?”
“Woah… come here and look at this bow.”
Having figured out that Rowen disappeared every so often for long spans of time, Larenteth and Lily decided to check out her legendary bow and quiver, which she always left behind. They were at least smart enough to not go near the blue-feathered arrows. It seemed like too childish a game for adults, over twenty years old in elf years, and many more in human years. But nevertheless they found it interesting when there was little to do. Lily, fearless as she was, thrust out her hand and grabbed the knotted red wood of Rowen’s twisted bow. Almost instantly she dropped in and yelped in pain.
“It stings!!! Ouch!” She whimpered, nursing her hand. Larenteth took a closer look at the bow and discovered the wood seemed to grow find little hairs that seemed to be tiny stinging thorns. Rowen’s hands were much tougher than Lily’s, so it must not affect Rowen. The bow was worn smooth and polished at the middle where Rowen’s hand would go when in use, but the ends of the bow had these tiny thorns growing up in the knots of the wood.
“Lily, you’re just dumb,” Larenteth said, shaking his head. Lily scowled at him. “Come on, let’s go. I’m starving.”
“You’re always hungry!” Lily replied, rolling her eyes.
“Well, so are you, my dear sister,” Larenteth pointed out.
“True,” Lily said with a shrug. “I’m coming.”
Larenteth walked out of the room to find his tunnel horse, Tom, who usually wandered about whenever he was left alone. Lily began to follow him, but hesitated when something caught her eye. She went over to a table where a small leather bag lay. Beside it was a bowl of blue dye from some sort of plant; this bag and bowl were from Rowen’s excursions outside. The blue dye was what she used to dye her arrow feathers. The leather pouch beside it, however, was what had caught Lily’s eye. A corner of some necklace was spilling out of the bag, its gems sparkling. Lily carefully removed the necklace from the bag and looked at it full view, her jaw dropping. It was a circular pendant on a purple velvet strap. Near the pendent, the strap was clinched in with a small bead of silver laced with tiny purple and blue jewels. The pendent itself was a ring of silver beaded with the tiny purple and blue gems. Miniscule pearls adorned swirls of fine silver that interlaced the outer ring of silver. In the middle was a four-pointed frame of silver with a purple gem in the center. All of this was surrounded by the tiny pink, purple, and blue jewels set in silver that sparkled magnificently off the torchlight. Lily wondered how gorgeous it would look in the sun.
But… what would Rowen be doing with such a necklace? She never wore jewelry; in fact she greatly disliked it. Especially something so fragile as this. With all her work with dragons, the silver would melt and distort, the velvet band would burn.
“Lily?” Larenteth was looking for her. She should just put the necklace down like she had found it. She should just leave it. But the fractured light from its many-facetted face filled her eyes, and Lily’s hand closed in around it. What am I doing? She asked as she shoved the necklace in her pocket. She ran out of the room, found Larenteth, and left Rowen’s room behind. The necklace jingled in her tunic.
The treasures and finds of Rowen were frequent. Her work in the Seerganash halls was much. Her appreciation of jewelry craft was minimal, if present at all.
The necklace would not be missed.
Coming to their room, Larenteth suddenly slowed Tom to a stop and dismounted, Lily behind him. “I almost forgot… I have something for you, Lily.” Lily watched as Larenteth pulled out a small glass jar. Inside was a fresh stargazer lily – this one with soft hues of purple and blue. “I figured you needed a new one,” Larenteth said. He pulled the old lily, one of bright orange and yellow, out of her hair, and replaced it with the new one. Ever since Larenteth had given her a name, Lily always wore a fresh stargazer lily tucked behind her ear. Since barely anything grew in dragon-run mountain ring, Lily had no idea where he got the flowers. Whenever she asked, Larenteth would smile and refuse to reply. Lily had a funny idea that it had something to do with that little green sphinx, Jaclyn.
Lily noticed a small group of older elves passing by. With a wink at Larenteth, Lily said with the innocence of a little girl, “Why thank you kind sir. What, no kiss farewell?” Larenteth kissed her on her cheek like a shy little boy. Lily pretended to blush and giggle.
“Wait, my love! Return to me!” Larenteth said, with a sort of mock-chivalry, complete with extravagant arm gestures. He was trying very, very hard to keep a straight face as both him and Lily could feel the affronted eyes of the older elves upon them. Larenteth reached for Lily’s wrist and pulled her into a dip, kissing her. In that split second, he also stole the room key from her belt. Finally bursting out with the laughter he had been holding, Larenteth pushed Lily to the ground and ran into the room, locking it.
“Let me in!” she yelled fruitlessly at the shut door. Muffled laughter mocked her from inside. “Yuck,” she said, wiping her mouth, then louder, “Larenteth, you are so going to pay for that stunt.”
“Just as soon as you figure out how to get into the room, right?”
“Are you, are you awake?”
“Yeah, come on in Jack.”
“…Rowen, I’m standing right next to you.”
Rowen looked up, blinking with heavy eyes. In the dim light, the first thing that greeted her was the eerie green glow of Jack’s eyes. The green eyes…Castamir’s eyes….
Rowen jumped up with a gasp, her yellow eyes dilating rapidly. Jack closed his eyes and laid a hand on her wrist. A shock of brief pain touched Jack’s skin; he could feel the silkily smooth, seamless texture of the dragon-forged gold radiating a growing heat from the shock in Rowen’s mind. She breathed for a second, refocusing and waking up. Jack waited, his eyes closed and his hand clasped fast on Rowen’s wrist. After a moment, the gold beneath his fingers cooled and Jack felt Rowen’s fingers on his eyelids. He opened his eyes, but Rowen’s were turned away.
“Sorry,” she mumbled, tracing her fingers over the self-burned designs on her skin – a nervous habit of Rowen. And this was not the first time Rowen had reacted to Jack in such a way. She greatly missed his rich brown eyes.
“Rowen, what have you been doing?” Jack inquired, his piercing gaze the same no matter what color his eyes were. He had come upon her, head down on a desk as if she had fallen asleep as she worked. Lately she had seemed very different… exhausted all the time, falling into listless stupor every so often.
“I’m just exhausted, I’ve been working all over the halls and trying to fix the dragon problem as usual. The Mist isn’t easy to make dissipate! I just over-worked myself as usual.”
“Jack!” Came a call from somewhere down the corridor. As the call continued from far off, Jack’s horse Dragon poked her head in the room, snorting to him. Jack signed and walked to the door. He looked back at the nodding Rowen. She caught the look in his emerald gaze and shot him a look back.
“What?” She said defiantly. She thought she caught a look of concern flashing across the green eyes before they closed and disappeared.
Rowen let out a long sigh. She hated lying to Jack.