First Chapter: https://www.hackedonline.com/docs/16536.html
Previous Chapter: https://www.theonering.com/docs/16746.html
Rowen was soon joined by a Seerganash woman, Mahrian, as she walked down the hall. “Hello Rowen,” she said stiffly, as Seerganash will do when they are rushed to get to another subject on their mind. “Tell me something …what did you do to Lily’s eyes?”
Rowen managed to keep walking as normal, but mentally she stopped dead in her tracks. “What do you mean?”
“Well, I used to be in charge partially of Lily. Her eyes used to have the eeriest green quality like no other Seerganash’s, right after Castamir died. I swore they even had a faint glow to them. Now her eyes are dimmed down to even a little less than normal for Seerganash eyes. They are simply green. Ever since she met Larenteth. Now why is that? What explanation can you offer?” Mahrian’s voice seemed rather cold and shrewd, almost as if she was trying to pick a fight.
Rowen sputtered around her mind for an answer to give Mahrian. They had changed Lily’s eyes so she would not so obviously resemble her late father, just in case someone noticed. Not even Lily knew her father; after learning of her mother, she had never yet spoken a word or question in relation to her parents. “Well, perhaps it is because of all the laughter that her eyes have dimmed,” Rowen settled on replying, then somewhat bitterly added, “You know why you have the green eyes… and perhaps the less green Seerganash eyes become, the better off they will be.”
Mahrian scowled at the answer. “We are Seerganash. Our eyes are part of us. It seems that you, Lady Rowen, are the only elf under these mountains with different eyes – and I hardly think golden fire eyes are anything to be proud of.”
Her pride getting the better of her, Rowen spat back, “I’m not an elf and I’m not a lady, though I don’t think you have the right to call yourself a lady either. Not with that whip at your hip.”
Mahrian fumed. “Not an elf! That’s right, I forgot. You’re a Raugrím. Well, I guess we own you something then, you know, seeing as we wiped out your entire race.” Mahrian turned to leave, but abruptly turned back around. “Well, almost. We missed one.” Mahrian quickly turned to leave again, but found herself right up against Leeriel. Lee glowered down at Mahrian with her darkest glare. Her dark-skinned face gave the look an even more menacing quality. But Mahrian wasn’t fazed much; Lee had been far, far below her in stature and in training.
“Don’t you ever say that to your Mistress,” Lee said slowly and menacingly.
“I would beat you in combat and you know it,” Mahrian replied softly. But Lee didn’t back down.
“I do know it. But you have no right to battle me on such a ground. Without Rowen, you would probably been down a dragon’s throat right now because we would be overrun.”
“I’m not afraid of you,” Mahrian sneered.
“I didn’t expect you would be. But I answer to what you do fear.” Lee flicked her eyes to behind Mahrian. Mahrian turned around slowly.
Next to Rowen now towered a strong form. His green eyes gleamed in the dim light, the same green eyes that Castamir had had. Mahrian lost her confidence as Jack stepped forward. She slipped to a bow and muttered, “My Lord.“
Jack stared down at her with disgust and cooled anger. Normally he would have been much calmer in dealing with such a matter, but green fury blazed in his eyes now. “I believe it was I who created the plans that would result in the destruction of the Raugrím, so you had best take the “we” out of your insult.” Jack turned away from her. “Let’s go, Larenteth,” he said with a softer tone. Larenteth rejoined him and they walked back down the hall on their former route. Mahrian gasped and bolted from the scene like she had been whipped. Lee departed swiftly after her. Marian would be reported to the council of the wardens and demoted from her stature. Most likely she would be working in the forges now.
Rowen shook her head after the woman. That is why she refused to let Lily be trained.
She harbored even more anger too at Mahrian for reviving in Jack the memory that she had. Jack had in fact engineered the plans that upset the Shanendoic Dragons and had resulted in the destruction of Rowen’s race. Unknowingly, yes, but it was hard for him to bear that fact, especially having Rowen, the sole survivor of that race, as a constant reminder of what he had done.
It also unnerved Rowen how easily such disputes could inflame in these halls. She had to reencounter the fact that the Seerganash were not something to be truly controlled. There were still a dangerous many among them… well, literally speaking, they were rather all dangerous, but the minds of some were certainly more frightening to others. It surprised Rowen most of the time, but Jack never seemed surprised or phased by any occurrence. He did not enjoy being chosen as Lord of the Seerganash, nor did he enjoy the truth of his family. But there was something under that, something in his blood that gave him a sort of passion for the Seerganash that he refused to recognize.
Rowen pondered these things and more and she strode down the halls. She caught her reflection in a pool of water and noticed how exhausted her bright, fiery eyes looked. With a sigh, the Raugrím pushed back the fried hair from her face and walked into the stables. Kaytar stomped and swished his tail at her sight, but she passed him by with only a swift stroke on the nose. Instead, she pulled out a tunnel horse that greeted her habitually. Kaytar snorted in annoyance and whinnied at Rowen. She hushed him and told him that he would not want to go where she was going, nor would he fit. The horse dramatically turned his back to her and Rowen left with the tunnel horse. With lonely eyes the beautiful stallion unhitched his stable door and wandered out after her. He watched Rowen turn down a small tunnel. He knew she would be gone for a long time. She went down there all the time. Always by herself. Again Kaytar snorted and turned to find his sister, Dragon, who was probably off with Jack somewhere.
Jack and Larenteth reached the vaults and began to go though a long chain of doors, rooms, great halls and room that were barely closets, trapdoors and winding passages – the labyrinth that was the system of vaults. The first few sets required different keys that were around, but the inner, deeper, more hidden vaults required the use of the Master Key in several different spots. Once in a vault named Lilith 23, the two elves began their work. After several hours, both began to go numb from stagay at volumes of manuscripts. They were already tired from the trek into this; Lilith 23 was one of the inner vaults. Without Larenteth, Jack would never find his way out. Even if Larenteth had tried to teach Jack the way around the vaults, it would be impossible. Such intrinsic knowledge was half-hereditary in Larenteth, plus the teachings of his grandfather Larenteth could not replicate. Not even Lily dared venture into the inner vaults.
“It’s hopeless, Jack. We’ll never find anything more about that period in history. Every lead comes up to a dead end.” Larenteth signed in defeat, his young but tired eyes half-closed in the dim torchlight.
“But it keeps mentioning something about a Sinthuarc. What is the Sinthuarc? It seems to be slang for another name, the way they put it in context,” Jack replied, refusing to recognize the waning amount of oil left in the lamps or the sputtering condition of the torches. He squinted at the strange language, half mixed with common speech, that was scrawled across the enormous yellowed page.
“That’s the odd thing. I have no idea. My grandfather must have died before he could mention it.”
“Maybe it’s the name of a vault.”
“Yes, I think it is, but what lies inside it I know not.”
“You don’t think it’s just not another vault of books?”
“I know it’s not – believe me… its something I can just feel…. Look, I can’t explain it, but the way the word is written, the sound of it, the feel of it – I know it’s not just another vault of paper. There’s something else in it. And it’s enormous.”
“We have to find it then!”
“Sorry Jack, but that’s impossible. `Du i durn kaith.’ That is an old expression. Literally translated, it doesn’t make sense. I can the confusion in your eyes because you cannot grasp the meaning. Well, that is an expression that means the way is lost. That vault is lost. We’re not going to find it by just looking.”
“What do you mean, lost? How can you loose something you say is huge?”
“Look, some things just… disappear, in these mountains, once they’re lost. If we ever found a map or instructions, or something – then maybe we could find it. But I tell you Jack, there is really no way of stumbling on something.”
“Let me ask you this, Jack. If I were to leave you here right now, would you be able to get out before you starved to death?”
Jack, taken aback, stuttered, “Well, eventually….” Larenteth looked at him. Jack sighed in understanding. “No, your right.”
“I don’t know what it is, maybe its because the Iron Hills are so overrun with dragons, but its just not possible.”
“It seems to be mentioning tunnels a lot….” Jack tried feebly.
Larenteth looked at him with raised eyebrows. “…Jack? We. Are. Under. A. Mountain.”
“Fine, fine. But I’m not going to stop looking for it.”
Larenteth and Jack returned from the vaults much later, both with growling stomachs and tired eyes. Jack found Dragon and Kaytar nipping at each other in one of the tunnels. “Where’s Rowen?” Jack would ask Kaytar, but the horse would never know.
Then again, it was Rowen; she could be in a million different places for reasons no one would ever quite understand. Maybe tomorrow she would emerge.
* Two days later
Rowen brushed the soot off her clothes best she could, but she could not get the black ash from her face. She spotted a nearby fountain and ran to it. Grimacing as she touched the water, Rowen frantically tried to rub it from her face, but to no avail. With a sigh of disgust, Rowen rubbed her hands against her tough leather in effort to dry them and then broke into a run. She only had three minutes before Jack would be gone again, and she wanted to ask him a question. Being as busy as he was, she hardly ever got the chance to talk to him.
Rowen broke into a sprint, dashing as fast as she could. Horses blocked the tunnel ahead; she vaulted the first one and slid under the second. Thirty seconds….
Panting, Rowen turned the corner to see Jack leaving his study – the room that had been Cathrandar’s and then Castamir’s before him. Already Rowen could hear the punctual Seerganash about to arrive themselves to take Jack on some errand or another. Hopefully her question wouldn’t take long too explain… Rowen’s curiosity had sprung up recently, and she did not feel like waiting another moon to find Jack.
Jack, coming out of the study, turned around just as Rowen skidded to a halt in front of him. He hastily closed and locked the door behind him, almost shutting his cloak in the door. Rowen, panting, sputtered out her question.
“Jack, how did Lily’s eyes dim? What did you do to hide her father’s eyes in hers?”
“I employed the use of Larenteth’s little friend… the sphinx Jaclyn,” Jack replied, someone surprised by the randomness of the question.
“Oh. But Larenteth doesn’t know, does he?” Rowen said suddenly, her eyes widening. Jack laid a calming hand on her shoulder.
“Don’t worry, he has no idea. Jaclyn is the green sphinx, so somehow she managed to create a natural-looking green sort of… screen, I guess, over the evidence of Castamir’s eyes. We didn’t get rid the eeriness in Lily’s eyes, we only covered it up. It is fortunate that we were able to do that – now that I have Castamir’s eyes, many Seerganash would probably think that Lily is my child, which would create a fair amount of issues,” Jack added. Rowen nodded and looked up to the approaching team of Seerganash men and women. “Well, I shall see you…well, sometime. Anacér, Roe,” Jack finished in the traditional Seerganash manner.
The groups of Seerganash acknowledged Rowen with a bow of their heads and then were off. Jack mounted Dragon, who had come with the men. Dragon stood the tallest of all the horses, the rest being stout tunnel breeds. Jack looked over his shoulder as they departed, giving Rowen a calm half-smile before turning back. Rowen smiled. “Goodbye, Jack,” she said softly and departed on her own errands.
Jack trotted along, his mind falling into itself as it often did when he rode with the Seerganash men. Their lectures fused through his skin, absorbed into his body in an instant. He remembered everything they told him. He always remembered.
It was what he could not remember that scared him.
Those long years before he left the Seerganash, and the memory-less years of childhood when he was still a newborn. Jack often wondered what woman could mother such children as he and Castamir; he wondered more what woman could conceive with the man who fathered them. Cathrandar’s haunting, echoing laugh paced through Jack’s mind eternally. Being the son of that evil man cursed Jack to no end. And Jack’s brother… he had been no better. Castamir had been, in Jack’s mind, as vile as their father.
The group passed into a corridor that ran alongside the chamber of the Vantranack. The Vantranack’s deep, twisted pool of liquid stone had been the dwelling of Cathrandar. The Master Dragon had banished him to that immortal, living stone. Now a tree grew there, rooted in the glassy clear-black stone. The tree twisted as it grew, straight up through the almost fathomless rooftop. It was hollow with an enormous gap in the roots that led to the strange opening underneath, lit from inside with the bioluminescent interior bark and fungi. Not many of the Seerganash spent time near the Vantranack. It was the location for the greatest of meetings, but otherwise it was mostly undisturbed. Larenteth was the one elf who frequented this place, though indeed he seemed to be everywhere. Tom had become one of the fastest tunnel horses under the mountains; in fact, Larenteth himself was not far behind in that category of fast running, aided by his long figure.
As the group passed by the Vantranack, they heard a low, moaning creak filter through the walls. Often the tree did this, pushed at its top by the wind. Its willow-like branches were ever in calm, tranquil motion as if caught in the smooth current of a mountain brook.
The tree echoed through the halls. Louder than usual.
And more frequent as well.
The men did not notice, but Jack made sure to. He pulled Dragon to a halt by the entrance to the massive chamber that was the Vantranack. True enough, the great tree moaned incessantly and its topmost branches fluttered. The sky that peaked through the hole in the roof was dark and clouded.
“Master Jack?” Called one of the guards, riding back beside him.
“I’m… coming,” Jack replied after a second, and put Dragon back in motion. He would have to ask Rowen later if anything was happening with the dragons that could cause this.
Dragon snuffed though at something beneath the great domed root of the tree and Jack made out Lily and Larenteth sitting there, looking through some book or another. Lily got up when she saw Jack and Dragon and began to run towards them to give Dragon a sugar cube that she loved so much. Jack turned to tell the guards he would be right there, when suddenly pain beyond pain erupted from his back, cutting through him like a white-hot blade, straight through from mid-back to just below his ribcage. Dragon reared as Jack clutched at her neck, sending Jack rolling to the ground. His insides writhed with pain and his vision went white.
As soon as it had started, everything stopped. Jack was on the floor of the Vantranack. Fog covered the glassy floor, wrapping around the massive tree roots and floating from beneath the great dome under the tree. Where was everyone?
A figure appeared from under the tree, shadowed by the fog. Larenteth? It was tall enough… but it looked like a woman. It wasn’t Lily; Lily was far to short and had wavier hair.
The figure cleared the last set of gnarled roots. Behind it, the great tree suddenly sprang into fire. Rowen? Is it you, Rowen? No, not Rowen. Not her at all. The fire was so hot and so blinding. The figure was lost in its blur. It seemed so familiar. Who was it?
“Jack!” The voice seemed so far away. The heat was so intense. Jack rolled over onto his stomach, trying to escape it. But then, some other fire jolted through him, a different kind of fire – his left shoulder blade was alive with it! With a yell Jack flipped onto his back and tore open his eyes. There were shadows all around him, and they all jumped back. He blinked.
The fire was gone. The tree was still there. Sweat dripped of Jack’s face, and his shoulder blade still burned.
The guards were standing in a circle around him. Sitting on her heels in front of him was an alarmed Rowen. A draft hit his back – his shirt was torn through with a knife. The knife sat in Rowen’s hands. Jack reached behind him, feeling the ragged edge of his shirt. The black-burned dragon wing on his left shoulder felt still as if it was on fire, and it was wet… not with sweat, but blood.
“You were bleeding before I touched you.” Rowen’s voice floated through Jack’s swimming mind. It was her he had felt on his back, her fire through him. But why had he been bleeding?
“He’s burning hot,” One of the guards remarked, looking uneasily at Rowen. Rowen flashed her gold eyes to the speaker.
“That was not my doing.”
Sweat rolled off Jack’s forehead as he got to his feet. The guards, though alarmed (despite the face that their faces only betrayed it mildly), immediately remounted as soon as Jack was steadily on his feet. Jack pulled his cloak back on, masking he torn shirt and bleeding scar, before mounting Dragon. The horse was a little bit skittery, but remained calm for the sake of her passenger and old friend.
Rowen got up and with a quick, worried glance at Jack, began to walk away. There was no use talking about strange occurrences when there was a schedule to keep. Lily, on the other hand, was looking with disgust at the demanding guards and was about to put in her say, as she often did, but Larenteth kept a firm grip on her.
Once Jack and the guards were out of site, Lily spun around. “What in Middle Earth was that?! I’m just walking towards him and all the sudden Jack just starts screaming and falls off his horse? I have never heard Jack scream, ever. I have never seen pain in his eyes. Did you see his eyes? They burned so brightly green I thought…. I don’t know! Larenteth, what happened?! Jack scared me,” she finished, biting her lip and eyeing the spot where he fell. Larenteth was very quiet for a moment.
“That’s not the first time something somewhat like that has happened, though I’ve never seen it like that” he said at last.
“There was another time, in the vaults. About a year ago. When we first came across the name Sinthuarc. He shut his eyes and clenched his teeth suddenly as if death itself was clawing at him. And Jack is not one to dramatize. I went to touch his shoulder to see if he was alright, but the moment I did his whole body seized up. Something about that scar of his. Though it wasn’t as bad as today. Not at all. I think he’s curious, but at the same time has something inside that makes him not want to know.”
“Well, what is going to be done about this?”
“Nothing, Lily, nothing. You’ve lived here long enough to know that. You treat Jack like you uncle or something and forget that he is Master of the Seerganash! He is what Castamir was! Do not pretend you do not remember Castamir.”
Lily flinched and said no more. She flinched more because Castamir reminded her of Réllika and even worse of Nirah. She put a hand to her hair and fingered the wavy locks, remembering how frightening she had been when Réllika so ruthlessly chopped them off so long ago. With a sword, too. And Nirah… well, nothing needed to be said about Nirah. No one memory could display a lifetime of horror that had radiated from that woman.
“You’re thinking about Nirah, aren’t you,” Larenteth said softly. Lily stiffened and nodded slightly.
“She always paid more attention to me. She worked me harder, she beat me harder. All I can ever think is why me? I never behaved badly. I practiced hard. Every year I dreaded getting closer and closer to the age at which I would start training. That would have been… this year.” Lily shrank her head into her shoulders.
After letting Lily have a moment of silence to herself, Larenteth spoke again. “Well, are you going to enter training?” Lily looked up; that was not at all what she would expect Larenteth to say. “Well,” Larenteth continued, “if Nirah is in chains, what is there to fear about training? Well, I guess there is still a lot… but you’ll learn the ways of the Seerganash women. Captain Morgan is now head of the Warden.”
“But… But… Larenteth, if I start training, I’ll never be able to see you! I won’t get any time to myself.”
“I know, I’ll miss you too, but after training we can spend as many hours as we like roaming the halls and you will be equipped with the knowledge of the most deadly women trainers probably in Middle Earth. This about it, Lily.”
“Alright… I’ll… do it. But if I do this, you have to do something too.”
Lily pulled up Larenteth’s shirt sleeve and punched his arm. “You need to get some muscle and some skill with weaponry as well. If you get fit, I’ll get fit. Deal?”
Larenteth looked indignantly as his arm, strong but not muscular, then sighed in consent. “Deal.”
“Who are you going to go to for help?” Lily asked, for Seerganash men trained independently from youth.
“Jack,” Larenteth replied. “I’d be too scared to ask anyone else, and you know the General. Nice guy, but a little bit scary with his bulk. Jack has just gotten some time in his busy day because construction in that shifty hall in the north face has just been completed.”
“Aren’t you asking a bit much of Jack? With all that he does I think he deserves some time to himself,” Lily said.
“That’s just the thing – if it is free time, someone else will fill it for him. Training me would be a lot better than some of the other things they’ll have him do,” Larenteth replied. Lily agreed. “All right then,” Larenteth continued, “Let’s go. You go see Captain Morgan, I’ll go find Jack.”
“Right… right now?” Lily said, abashed.
“Of course right now! Now or never. I’ll see you when we go to bed. Anacér, Lily.”
Larenteth turned down one hall and Lily the other. Lily nervously played with her hands and pursed her lips repeatedly. She took the old route down to the women’s main quarters. As she neared, the halls were silent as the stone that surrounded them. Lily supposed training must be going on… though she half expected someone to jump out of a shadow and confront her about being in these halls. Lily felt as if she didn’t belong now, as if she should be thrown out.
“Lily?” Came a familiar voice, so abruptly in the silence that Lily jumped. Lee’s black face appeared next to her. “What are you doing here?”
“I… I… I’ve come to start training,” Lily stuttered out.
Lee was surprised. “Really? Well, then you’ll want to see -“
“Captain Morgan?” Lily finished for her.
“Yes, exactly. Well, goodluck.” Lee turned to leave.
“Wait!” Cried Lily. “Where do I find her? I don’t remember if I ever met Captain Morgan.”
“No problem, I’ll take you. Just make sure to act like we really don’t know each other well, because I’m not supposed to be all that friendly during training”
Lily gulped and nodded. She followed Lee through a series of tunnels until they reached a large shelved room full of weaponry. Lily bit her lip as they walked in through a narrow arch framed in sword points and continued into the room. It was vast, but still Lily felt as if she should try to move as little as possible, lest some piece of weaponry fall or poke into her.
On one side of the room stood four women shifting through arrows. Lee went immediately to the one at the center, swiftly went down on one knee and back up. “Captain Morgan,” she addressed the woman, who turned around.
Morgan was somewhat tall and extremely lithe and fit. She had a long sort of appearance and a melancholy, calm, subdued, fairly emotionless but beautiful face. Her hair was tied in a loose knot at the nape of her long neck. Her outfit was of tan leather and black cloth with cross stitches at every inch or so down each of the seams. Her shirt was v-necked with a line of black fabric attached by a series of x-shaped cross-stitching, followed by the shirt of tan leather. Black fabric extended from the leather to cover her stomach. Her pants were skin fitting leather that slimmed down to tight boots with a wide brim. A bow and quiver of arrows rested in her back.
“Yes?” she replied in her calm, subdued voice.
“Lily would like to begin training, Madame,” Lee spoke, not looking at anything in particular as if at full attention. Morgan turned her smooth face to Lily, who cowered slightly behind Lee.
“Ah, yes, Lily. I remember you well. Nirah had begun your pre-training, did she not? Well, alright, come here so I can see you better.” Lily stepped forward, nervous, and Morgan studied her. “Active, but not entirely fit. Naturally beautiful, love for food – we shall continue to feed you as much as you are used to eating. Fiery, not accustomed to obeying command…” Lily bit her lip as the accurate assessment of her life continued. “Love of competition, obstinate, willing to prove yourself, riddled by old memories when they are brought up, wild, not always using your head, has a temper, has power in laughing. Well, you have potential, and we shall deal with your qualities. I will train you as often as I can. For the rest of the time, you shall be placed with a series of different trainers and take into account every aspect of each skill they possess. You may still return to your original room at night, but if you do not wish to make the trek at any time we have accommodations for you. There will be time when it will be mandatory that you remain here. For now, you must go obtain permission from Rowen, provided you can find her. If she wishes to know, tell her I will be training you. Your style of clothing is fine, but you will be ordered to recreate them with new leather, fabric, and under the supervision of one of the stitch-masters. And yes, you may keep the belt, though it does remind me of Nirah. Perhaps that is a good thing, for she was wiser than all of us in terms of battle. What do you have for a weapon?”
Lily, who was absorbing all of this, took a second to answer. “Just this,” she said, pulling out her dagger.
Morgan pulled it out of her hand, barely glazed her eye over it, and then threw it into a pile of rusting weapons to the side. She pulled out one of her own daggers, slick and shiny and strong, and handed it to Lily. “Use that one instead. Keep better care of your weapons, no matter how small you think they are.”
“Yes ma’am,” Lily replied. Morgan began to continue her conversation with the three other women. Lee tapped Lily on the shoulder and motioned for her to leave. Now Lily would have to go find Rowen.