Lee worked her way through the tunnel, both avoiding the guards and confusing the rest of the company to disguise the way to the women’s quarters. The guards and soldiers had been previously scattered when the Vantranack walls had begun crumbling. At last they reached a section of the immense halls that even Larenteth looked confused at seeing. His Master Key did not work here; evidently even in the beginnings of the Seerganash the women had their own master key to their chambers – the keeper being Larentor’s wife, or Larenteth’s great grandmother. Where that key was now, no one really knew.
Finally Lee pulled to a stop in front of a cavern door. She looked nervously at Rowen.
“Rowen… You have to go in alone. If Jack and Larenteth go in there, they’ll be dead in a second no matter what anyone could do. This is the training class, headed by the warden of the maidens. No man has ever been even in this wing before. To walk into that class unasked is death for you two elves.”
“You’re not coming with me?” Rowen asked Lee. She knew how tough Seerganash women were, and she could use Lee with her.
But Lee looked even more uncomfortable. “I… uh, I would hope never to… ah, see… her… a-again,” She staggered out.
Rowen sighed, slightly ill at ease. One could not but be nervous after seeing a Seerganash she-elf afraid to do anything at all. They feared nothing… or rather nothing except their trainers.
“And Rowen,” Lee warned, “when you get in there, don’t use fire on them. Ask for the warden immediately and say “Nirah”. They will let you to the warden if you do that.”
Rowen nodded determinedly. She took a deep breath, watching Lee back Larenteth and Jack up a safe distance, and put her hands on the door. With another deep breath, she barged open the doors, doing exactly as Lee had said.
“NIRAH!” Rowen yelled in conclusion. The women around her and their trainers betrayed no emotion, masking their faces; they were trained well. One of the trainers walked forward, swinging her ten-lashed whip threateningly in one hand.
“This way,” she said curtly. Rowen noticed as she went along that many women flanked her sides, both near and far. The women led her to a spiraling stairwell that led into a hole in the mountain stone. Rowen was led without any further words being said; only the soft swish of cloth was heard. Her footsteps echoed louder than all of the women Seerganash put together.
The stairway spiraled down for a few minutes, sinking steeply into the mountain stone. Layers of rock passed by. When the woman in front stopped, she whispered something in the language of the Seerganash to an ornate, gothic door. The door opened, but the woman did not go in. Instead, she pushed Rowen roughly inside. The stone door closed swiftly behind with an ominous dull clang.
“Come,” ordered a surprisingly silky voice. Rowen obeyed, walking from the anteroom into a larger chamber. There, leaning on her side seductively, propped up on her elbows, lay the most perfect creature ever seen. Her black hair, soft, thick, and shiny, cascaded down her back in lush, wavy ringlets. Two shorter pieces hung sophisticatedly in front and a small portion of hair on either side of her face was swooped back into a thin tie behind he head. Her face was lean with the bright green Seerganash eyes and dark red lips. Her incredibly lithe, strong body was coated with skin-tight black leather that gripped her every curve. It was practically seamless, one long piece of leather that gripped tightly down to her wrists and slimmed down to her ankles. The top cut down to a very low point in the front and draped out to the sides, hugging the sides of her shoulders. Her neck was graced with a tight black band of leather as well. In the back of her outfit, the fabric was pulled tight with crisscrossing string like a corset. A thick, lopsided belt draped smoothly around her waist, one side drooping low over her slender, curving hip. It held a long and three small daggers. Skin tight, almost knee-high boots, matching the color of her shiny black leather, coated her feet and were raised on very high, slender heels. They were tied tightly up the back, lacing from the heel to the top. Black leather gloves, cut off just below the knuckles, graced strong hands that ended in fairly long nails.
Rowen had thought no one could be more simultaneously beautiful and horrifically terrifying than Réllika. She had just been proved wrong.
The beautiful she-elf got gracefully up, resembling the strong flawless movement of a cat. Her highly impractical heels, matching her impractically styled hair, clicked slightly on the glassy floor. “For what reason do you grace my presence?” She said silkily, disdainfully eyeing Rowen’s rough appearance and tangled hair.
“Are you the warden of the maidens?” Rowen inquired.
“That would be so,” she replied darkly, suspicious. “I am Nirah. Now what is it you inquire of me?”
“Bring me Réllika’s daughter.”
All matter of formality dropped. Nirah’s smooth form went ridged and suddenly sharp. She marched rapidly and heavily toward Rowen, drawing her sword. Her sword, like Réllika’s, was engraved with her name.
“Who told you of that, pray tell?” She hissed.
“Réllika,” Rowen answered boldly, straining her neck to avoid Nirah’s advancing blade. The sword, however, moved closer as did Nirah, pushing the blade against Rowen’s neck and starting to cut into it.
“Liar,” Nirah his hissed again, more vehemently. Her green eyes glared viciously into Rowen’s yellow eyes.
Rowen glowered at Nirah and swiftly drew out Réllika’s sword. Nirah easily and rapidly blocked the sword from coming anywhere near her, but her eye also caught the likeness between the two swords. Nirah looked at the scarlet-crusted blade, her eyes roving slowly up to the handle where the name Réllika was engraved and ringed with further red. Nirah’s eyes widened considerably, turning slowly to stare at Rowen.
“Bring me Réllika’s daughter,” Rowen repeated slow and deliberately.
Nirah straightened and glared coldly at Rowen. “As you wish.” Her hand strayed momentarily to the side of her leather outfit as if checking something there, and then she walked out and to the stairway. Rowen followed quickly. Nirah ran smoothly up the stair, the muscles under her skin-tight leather flexing powerfully. At the top, Nirah was not even breathing hard, while Rowen was panting heavily. The warden walked through the vast training area; in her wake elves of every age scattered in fright. Seeing Nirah walk toward you was like seeing death, or worse.
Suddenly Nirah spun around to Rowen. “Tell the ones waiting outside to come in.”
Rowen was taken aback, but called to them anyhow. They all entered; Rowen noticed that they had found Larenteth a cloak. Lee was cowering nervously behind Jack and Larenteth: never before seen behavior by a Seerganash woman. Nirah saw her and gave her a look of complete disgust and abhorrence. She walked up, pulled Lee out from behind the men, and backhanded her ruthlessly across the face with a powerful arm. Lee went flying. Her face was already bleeding and bruised – Nirah’s gloves had metal inserts on the back. Lee sat cowering on the ground – it was no use now trying to show dignity or strength; she had led men to the women’s training quarters willingly. Lee would die a very painful death when this was over.
Nirah led them to a chamber where the maidens dwelled and began to lead them to one of the closets. She opened it and yanked out, by the hair, a girl. The girl looked to be about twenty were she a mortal woman, but was older being an elf. She peered nervously at the ground beside her, which abruptly cut off into a fathomless hole in the stone. It was perhaps a drainage hole, but doubled as a nasty end for misbehaving elves.
Instead of handing her over to Rowen, Nirah shoved the girl out of the way and suddenly flicked her wrist, sending five circular blades with razor-sharp spikes flying at Rowen. Rowen ducked just in time, a few of the throwing stars catching her hair, and blocked a few with her sword as she could. Nirah then flipped out her last one, straight at Rowen’s face. Rowen, who was kneeling on the ground, barely had time to look up as the silver disc came flying at her neck. She closed her eyes to prepare for the blow, but it didn’t come. Rowen blinked her eyes open again – Larenteth’s arm was stretched out in front of her. Before Rowen could think anymore, Jack pulled her to her feet. Nirah was charged at them, her long legs pumped hard and her thick hair flying behind her. Her personalized sword gleamed in front of her.
With a smooth movement, Nirah dodged around Jack’s sword and aimed for Rowen. Rowen caught her, using Réllika’s sword. Nirah then began sword fighting with Rowen, while simultaneously glancing off blows to keep Jack and Larenteth out of it.
“You’re men, you can’t fight with a woman,” Nirah called out behind her. Jack and Larenteth shared an incredulous look.
“Rowen’s a woman?” Jack called out with a tiny smirk as he aimed another blow at Nirah, which she easily countered. “That’s a new one.”
“I can hear you if you haven’t noticed,” Rowen called through sword swings. It was a good thing Nirah had Jack and Larenteth to deal with as well; Rowen was not well skilled with a sword, especially compared to Nirah.
“I see what you mean,” Nirah called back. “Rowen, where is your form? Where is your style? You have nothing. You swing that thing aimlessly around! If you are going to use that blood-earned sword, use it in a way that would do at least the smallest bit of justice to Réllika.” Nirah said all of this while still fighting all three. The swordplay rolled off so easy for her that she didn’t think about it at all. Her hips twisted with the graceful movement of her entire body. “You know why my hair is worn like this and does not look like your mess? I can move my entire body so that it is impossible to even catch my hair. Can you?” Nirah hacked off a lock of Rowen’s hair with a flick of her wrist. “Here, let me even that out for you.” She slashed off another lock on the other side. Rowen’s wide eyes took in her own hair on the ground. Nirah’s sword blade at her neck brought Rowen’s eyes back to the fight.
“Before I kill you,” Nirah said with raised eyebrows and a mocking smile, “You are going to learn a few things about fighting – things you wouldn’t learn from them,” Nirah finished, single-handedly turning away both Jack and Larenteth’s swords with one move. Nirah slowed her movements toward Rowen, still keeping those towards the two elven men rapid. With each deliberate move Nirah forced Rowen to twist her body in an almost graceful way. Rowen was strong, but her muscles still hurt from moving in new directions. Nirah grinned and quickened her attacks as Rowen became slightly more skilled. Now that she had done her job, Nirah was aiming to murder.
“Why are you trying to kill me?” Rowen broke out suddenly – for she knew not why Nirah had attacked in the first place.
Nirah turned suddenly very frightening. Her green eyes flared and her shadowed face darkened maliciously. Her blood-red lips twitched with rage and her voice was no longer silkily silvered.
“You. You destroyed the Master Dragon. You destroyed Castamir. Not just Castamir’s body, you destroyed his mind. You poisoned him; I watched it. He didn’t kill you when he should have. He let you get away with things. He killed very important should have been shrieking in pain, soldiers when they tried to convince him to torture you. He never hurt you when you begging for the end. And you. YOU KILLED RÉLLIKA. Worse than Castamir! You killed one of my women. One of my Seerganash. She was the most promising of them all, and you twisted her into some sick pitiful creature, twisted her until she gave you her sword. A Seerganash woman will suffer anything to keep others from her sword.”
“Sick? Twisted? Look in the mirror!” Rowen yelled, and then she remembered something else. “Look in the mirror, Nirah, just like Réllika did. Just like she did to discover you named her `A KILLER’.”
“Is that what’s bugging you? That I named her what she was?”
“Not what she was – what you made her into!” Rowen shouted back. She was done playing sword games. As Rowen’s white-knuckled hands gripped Réllika’s sword, the blade began to glow a faint red as it heated. She shoved it straight at Nirah.
Instead of blocking, Nirah twisted her sword so that Rowen’s was diverted off course – right at Larenteth. The elf had been in mid-swing, his cloak billowing as he raised his sword. Réllika’s sword, red-hot in Rowen’s hands, cut a singing hole into the cloak where Larenteth’s middle had been. It was so hot it seemed only to cut through air. Rowen gasped as Larenteth suddenly doubled up in pain.
Nirah began laughing hard and turned to finish of the stunned Rowen and the still-fighting Jack. Jack’s eyes began to smolder with red and he flipped his sword to his left hand. He marched toward Nirah with fatal intent, but suddenly her body jarred slightly as it tensed. Her head jerked back, pulled by her magnificent hair, and she went tumbling off the edge of the drainage hole, her sword falling on the ground but not over the edge. Larenteth had pulled Nirah off the edge while she thought he was dying. Rowen ran to the dark hole and looked over the edge. Nirah was hanging on by her strong fingers to a small foothold in the stone.
“Tell me about Réllika’s daughter,” Rowen ordered calmly, diverting conversation back to the original matter.
“No,” came the stern answer. Rowen twitched her brow in annoyance and turned around, picking up Nirah’s fallen sword. She showed Nirah what she had.
“Tell me about Réllika’s daughter,” Rowen repeated, “or your lovely sword shall become a trophy for me.” She knew that this was the most abject horror ever to torment one such as Nirah – to be disgraced even in death. Rowen dangled both Nirah’s and Réllika’s swords together. Now she had stuck a weakness. Nirah’s face contorted with anger. Never had a warden of the maidens been subject to such disrespect and belittlement.
“Réllika gave her to me in secret. She has no idea who her parents are or how old she is. We have been punishing her more so that she will turn into the perfect daughter of Réllika. No one except me knows she exists. Everything thinks she is just another maiden to be trained – they do not know how much younger she is than all of them. She was born a few years after Larenteth. Because she was raised by me, she began training from the time she was an infant – just like Réllika. Now give me my sword!” Nirah finished.
“Who is her father?” Rowen inquired, knowing that was a key part of information and Nirah was hiding it.
But instead of answering, Nirah used her powerful muscles to jackknife her body upwards, kicking her sword from Rowen’s grip. The sword fell down the black hole, and Nirah jumped down after it. The clattering clashes of her sword bouncing off the stone became softer and softer until they could be heard no more.
The fire went out of Jack’s eyes as he scrambled over. Larenteth was standing at the edge: while she thought he was dying, Larenteth had snuck up behind Nirah and pulled her by her hair over the edge.
“Larenteth!” Rowen cried, turning to him. “I’m so sorry,” she choked out, remembering the look on his face when she had shoved the white-hot sword through him. …But Larenteth didn’t look too much like he was in pain. He wiped a tear from her face and smiled.
“Did it feel like you actually hit me?” He asked.
“N-no, but it was a hot blade… I don’t know….”
Larenteth opened his singed cloak – his bare stomach was whole. “See? I only pretended to be hit so Nirah would leave me alone. It’s okay Rowen!” She had been choking back tears, but she looked relieved he was all right. However, Jack was looking at Larenteth’s arm and frowning.
“Larenteth, if you’re okay… then why are you bleeding?” Jack inquired, disturbed. He was right, a fair amount of blood was coating Larenteth’s arm. Something metallic glinted in it.
“Oh, well would you look at that,” Larenteth said lightly, pulling out a throwing star from his arm as if he hadn’t noticed it was there before. “Oh yeah, that’s when I blocked it from hitting you, Rowen.”
“Oh! I’m sorry Larenteth!” Rowen said, biting her lip. But he just cocked his head, blinking thoughtfully at the razor disc.
“You know, after being hit with a metal shaft through the back, you don’t really notice small things like this.”
Rowen and Jack peered at the elf with raised eyebrows. “Little” was a slight understatement.
After bandaging Larenteth’s arm, the trio returned to the spot where the young woman still stood, her eyes to the ground. Larenteth turned and went to take care of Lee, who still lay on the ground where Nirah had hit her. After a few failed attempts of trying to lift Lee up to inspect the back of her head where it had hit the stone, Larenteth called Jack over. Rowen, on the other hand, went forward to look at the girl. The girl did not look much younger than Rowen; rather, she looked about the same age as Larenteth. Nirah had said she was only a few years younger than him, but still that made her the youngest elf of the Seerganash.
“What is your name?” Rowen asked.
“I don’t have one,” came the answer. Rowen, on a sudden impulse, drew Réllika’s sword and threw it at the feet of the girl.
“That was your mother’s sword, and your mother’s blood.”
The woman bent down and looked at the sword, cautiously fingering the letters that spelled out Réllika in amazement. Her hand then went up to her hair, freshly chopped by the very same sword not long ago. Réllika… her mother? The young woman looked up at Rowen. Their eyes met.
Rowen, yet again, gasped suddenly and turned around, walking wide-eyed to Jack.
“I know who the father was,” she said suddenly, staring off at nothing.
“Who?” Jack asked. Rowen turned to look at him, her yellow eyes locking on his green ones.
The woman came forward at Rowen’s beckoning, her eyes locked on the ground. Jack went up to her and stared at her face, waiting for her to look up. When she did not, Jack put his hand under her chin and gently lifted her head until her eyes met his. Her haunting jade eyes exactly mirrored Jack’s – the unforgettable evocative green that seemed different than the other Seerganash eyes. Rowen was right. This was Castamir’s daughter, though Jack doubted Castamir had known.