Rowen picked Réllika’s sword from the ground and sheathed it – she would discuss that with the girl later. The girl had not heard what Rowen had said about her father’s identity, and Rowen made no move to tell her just yet. Rowen recalled how Réllika had reacted around the subject of Castamir, and wondered if there was any chance that the woman had some feeling in her life. Just then Larenteth came over, helping Lee. Leeriel was a little dizzy still, but was recovering fast; all Seerganash women were used to beatings or lashes in such a manner and quickly recovered.
“Does she know who her father is?” Larenteth asked hopefully.
“No,” Jack answered quickly, not really concentrating on Larenteth.
“I guess he’ll remain a mystery forever then. Maybe Larenteth can dig something up in the vaults,” Lee volunteered with a sigh.
“Mm,” was Jack’s only reply. Rowen looked over at his glazed face. His green eyes glanced briefly back – only a fleeting glance – that told Rowen not to say a word. Rowen gave a slight nod of acknowledgment before darting her glance back to the ground. She idly fingered the blood-encrusted lettering on Réllika’s sword. She had to remember to wash that off.
After Jack’s meager response the company lapsed into an uneasy silence. Larenteth broke the discomfort suddenly, as only the boyishly young Larenteth could do.
“Excellent!!!” He said suddenly, clapping his hands together in a nervous, lighthearted laugh and smile that brought the eyes of everyone, even the young woman elf, up to his face, “I’m not the youngest anymore!”
The woman looked at him strangely, her head tilted to one side in an almost amused way. But she knew no amusement; no sound of laughter had she heard before. Even Larenteth’s light chuckle was a strange noise to her. She stared at Larenteth’s smiling face – a bright beacon, it seemed to her… her that lived in a place were happiness was an aspect of life not introduced… her that had been raised by Nirah.
“I am Larenteth,” he said, a simple slight smile still played across his boyish face, “And you….”
“Have no name,” she finished sadly, for this girl did not even have a number. She would have been given a name and not a number, being Réllika’s daughter, but nothing had she yet. Yet even as she gave the reply, the small green baby Natarinturnan jumped out of nowhere. It leapt up Larenteth’s back, clawing up his cloak, and ran down his arm. Larenteth outstretched his arm slightly, bending at the elbow, as the miniature sphinx slowly made its way towards his hand. The jade sphinx placed its tiny little nose in the middle of Larenteth’s upturned palm and its eyes began to glow from black to bright green. The elf’s palm glowed with green light and something began to grow. When the green light faded, a beautiful violet lily flower lay in Larenteth’s palm. When it was done, without moving its body, the young sphinx slowly lifted its green-eyed head straight at the young woman.
“Lily…” Larenteth whispered, and then louder he spoke, “And you… you are named Lily,” he finished with a small smile.
The young maiden took the lily from Larenteth’s outstretched hand, taking her name with her first touch of a living plant. It seemed to almost glow softly for a moment at her touch. “Lily,” she repeated, tasting a real name on her tongue – her own name… her own beautiful name. Rowen, Jack, and Lee smiled at the interaction between the two, and the gift of a name.
“Now then,” Larenteth said lightly, putting his arm around Lily’s shoulders, “You have certain responsibilities as the youngest elf in this place….”
Rowen, Jack, and Lee watched the two elves walk off, Larenteth with her arm around Lily and, with his other hand, gesturing as he spoke. The two looked nothing so much as a big brother showing the ropes to his little sister. The girl of course was bewildered beyond anything – so much that she could not hide it as she was trained to do.
“Should I go get her before she takes advantage of Larenteth’s advice?” Lee offered with a twitch of her eyebrow and a smirk. “You would not know, or perhaps you can tell – Larenteth has quite the reputation for mischief. In all forms.”
“Naw, leave them be,” Jack replied with a lopsided smile of his own. “Larenteth will be good for the humor-starved girl. And what about you?” Jack said suddenly, turning to Lee. She, after all, was a woman Seerganash. “How did you get some sarcasm in you?”
“Me? Aw, I’m of the …uh… lower, divisions. And after a few assignments working with that boy,” she indicated Larenteth’s disappearing figure as he walked away, “I learned a lesson or two. Fortunately I was out of training by then – the lowest divisions aren’t so rigorously trained.” There was a hint of hurt to pride every time Lee mentioned being part of the “lower” divisions.
Rowen slapped the strong woman on the back, a woman probably much older than Rowen, even though she did not look it. “Lee… I have been meaning to ask you…. Why do the guards want Jack alive? What is going to happen now to the Seerganash?”
After the three left, following the path of Larenteth and Lily in deep conversation, a dull clank and clink was heard. Soft at first, and then louder and louder. At its loudest, however, it was still a soft noise. It was steady and careful. This continued for some time, about an hour. Then, in the dark, dim light – for slight light it was, as only one torch burned, and that burned low – leapt up something tall, shiny, and slick. Her green eyes burned with confusion and anger. They thought she was gone? Ha, as if I would jump into oblivion! I know my keep, my halls.
…What was that?
Something moved… one of the girls? Good, she needed to take her wrath out on someone to clear her head. With her swift slick pace, hips swaying gently in balance, the lithe leather figure walked toward the flicker of movement. Ah, she saw her target. One of the girls, huddled in a ball. She called the “girls,” but in truth these were women elves of a considerable age. She walked over and gripped the huddled cloak — there was nothing beneath it.
No….no….NO! Not possible…. Inconceivable! Bars… and she, she of all elves, trapped between them…..Caged.
A face appeared at the bars, one not so familiar but still somewhere in memory. The dark face stared stonily and proudly through the bars, gazing at the capture. No! Captured? Me? No can capture me! No one would dare….
“I knew you weren’t gone, Nirah.” The steady voice of Lee was layered thickly with pride, joy, and fear. Terrible fear. “I’ve got you, yes, me, Number 39. The low 39. Now I have a name. Just like you. My name is Leeriel. I have name. I am equal to you.”
“Mistress Nirah, to you. Don’t fool yourself, riddled in idealistic dreams! Your comments are satire to me. I am Nirah; none surpass me. Least of all you.”
“I may not, but the former is not true. You are not unsurpassable. There are two that beat you in all games of this world. His name is Jack. Her name is Rowen. And I, I love them more than my name. I own nothing to you. I would give my life for them.”
“Why? Why follow them? I have more power than they could ever have, and more skill than they can dream of. Why them? What have they done, other than to cause complete pandemonium and disrupt everything we have ever worked for?”
“They gave me a name.” And with that, Lee walked away. Heavy guards replaced her presence. Nirah sat down in the shadow of her dungeon, out of sight from the soldiers in humility. How the strong have fallen….
A little while later, at Larenteth’s urging, Rowen and Jack returned to the great domed tree of the Vantranack. They passed under its grand sprawling roots, under the great canopy of hollowness, and sat down on the enormous twisted root that protruded in the center. The interior of this hollow tree was brightly lit with phosphates of all kinds, uttering a cascade of radiant, natural color. The glow effect was slightly eerie, but beautiful all the same. Larenteth had instructed the two wait there, though he had stubbornly refused to answer their urgent questions. He seemed to know what was going on with the Seerganash guards, but refused to give out any information.
Rowen and Jack sat back-to-back, leaning on each other. Jack had his legs stretched out on the root, and Rowen held one knee to her chest. Now that things were calmed down, the two seemed not to know what to say to each other.
“So…” Jack began, tracing the twisted root bark with a finger, “tell me. How does it feel now, after your personal training with our very on warden to the maidens, to be a real, graceful woman?”
Rowen shoved him off the tree.
Jack got up, laughing – his laughter echoed up the heights of the tree. Rowen’s laughter joined his. “Get up here and let me show you some of my skills,” Rowen said, twisting onto her stomach. Jack climbed back up and grasped Rowen’s outstretched hand. Her strong grip instantly pushed against his muscle, and slowly Jack’s hand was forced closer and closer down. As their heads bent together, Jack’s suddenly jerked up and kissed Rowen’s forehead, startling her. In that moment of confusion, Jack pushed her hand backwards and forced her to the root.
“Why you dirty cheating little….” Rowen did not finish her thought, for at that moment she pounced at Jack. The two rolled down the root and onto the Vantranack floor, wrestling. Rowen finally managed to pin Jack down, both laughing madly for the first time in a while. He pushed himself back up and the two sat on the floor, fist fighting.
Both looked up, arms halfway twisted between blocking punches, to see the vast Seerganash guard filtering into the tree base. They looked around in wonder at the huge tree – one, because of its enormity and bizarre lit state; two, because most had not seen a tree before. The voice had been Larenteth’s, who was standing with Lily in front of the horde. His amused eyes matched the twitch of a grin he was suppressing. The guard captains peered strangely at the two, their eyes mostly focused on Jack. Jack got up and stepped forward.
“Guard, I present Master Jack, the last surviving son of Cathrandar.”
The guard stared at him. One large one in particular, who looked to be a General among them, stepped forward, boldly up to Jack. Jack was tall, but this man was thick as he was tall. He looked like a man who could crush solid rock if he ever wanted to. This elf stood boldly up to Jack and stared into his green eyes. Rowen, behind Jack, discretely placed her finger, glowing with heat, on the small of Jack’s back – a deep fire flared momentarily, impressively, in Jack’s eyes. The general stepped back.
“You have Castamir’s eyes,” he stated calmly. Jack waited for further comment – none came. Instead, the giant man went down to one knee and back up. “Command us justly and my guard will follow you.”
“What?” Jack said, taken aback. This time Larenteth stepped forward, skirting around the large general.
“You see Jack, the Singor were rallied together by Cathrandar in the beginning. They have been led by him ever step of the way, and then by Castamir. Both father and the first son gradually bore harder into revenge, and the Seerganash followed them. By choosing you, the other son of Cathrandar, the Seerganash are showing their intelligence. They are not hungry for rule – their appetite is for revenge. By choosing you, they avoid having to quarrel over a leader. They have flourished, if down an evil road but flourished nonetheless, under Cathrandar and Castamir. They know you possess the intelligence and strength, so they have decidedly chosen you as the leader.”
“But… I don’t….”
Larenteth cut him off. “You do not have a say. They have chosen you. If you refuse, they will either force you or kill you. Jack,” Larenteth looked straight into his eyes, now pleadingly, “Jack, please. Don’t refuse. Stay, lead. Please lead us… I am afriad to think what disaster will bloom in the absence of Cathrandar’s blood. Cathrandar and Castamir led us greatly – will not you do the same?”
Jack looked back at Larenteth with curiosity. He was referring to the Seerganash as “we”. He is bound here…. He would not leave….
Jack looked back for Rowen. She was leaning against the root, captivating the eyes of many Seerganash men by lazily snapping her fingers, making a flame appear from that spark, and then closing the fire back into her hand. She looked up at their watchful eyes, blinked as she noticed their stares, and bared her teeth slightly in their direction. A few men averted their green eyes once they met her yellow ones. Rowen smiled smugly to herself. She did not notice Jack’s pleading look.
Finally Jack forced himself to look back at the questioning eyes of the Seerganash, and the pleading ones of Larenteth. Beside Larenteth, Lily awaited with equally pleading eyes. The entire inside of the tree was packed with hundreds of the glittering green eyes, and thousands more waited in the rest of the halls.
“I’m a Raen elf. I am nothing of Cathrandar or Castamir. He named me Jack to show the thought nothing would become of me. I know nothing about rule. I know next to nothing of the Seerganash. How can I be your choice?!” Jack finished almost angrily.
Larenteth looked at Jack, knowing he was stubborn. “Jack, do you want to know if you are qualified for this job?”
“I’m not,” Jack threw back vehemently, but instantly regretted snapping at Larenteth.
“Take off your shirt.”
“What?” Jack said, looking incredulously at Larenteth. But the boyish face was serious.
“Take off your shirt. You know why.” Now Larenteth narrowed his eyes, all boyishness disappearing from his young face. Jack stared at him for a moment. “Jack,” Larenteth insisted, his voice full of serious intent and a hint of pleading, “Show them who you are, Jack.” At the end of this statement, Larenteth’s eyes went wide in a large hint.
Jack knew what Larenteth was talking about. He hated it, but something in Larenteth’s eyes told him he had better do this. Unsure of the consequences if he did not prove himself, Jack took off his shirt and slowly turned around.
The only gasp heard was Rowen’s. The rest seemed to ease slightly in acknowledgment. On Jack’s left shoulder blade was burned, like a brand, the symbol of the Seerganash: the skeletal dragon wing. Most Seerganash men had that tattooed on themselves on the side of their left wrist, but Cathrandar always had to be different.
“Master Raen, if you prefer,” the general said suddenly, turning around as if the whole matter had just been settled.
“But -” Jack began, but he was interrupted by a strange phenomenon occurring in the Vantranack. The general had stopped dead in his tracks as the Vantranack between him and his numerous guard began to glow a soft white. Out of the glassy stone, sitting placidly still as she slowly rose to the surface, was the glamorously white Natarinturnan. The guard looked positively startled at seeing her, but her glowing white eyes were fixed on Larenteth. For a moment, everything was silent as the white sphinx sat, flicking her tail in agitation, and staring at Larenteth.
“You have something of ours.” The men looked around in awe at the resounding, gorgeous, sweet voice that resonated around the hollow tree. It was hard to tell the source was the sphinx.
Everyone stared at Larenteth. For a minute, he looked surprised, but then a guilty complexion gathered around his face. He twitched his shoulder once, and something stirred in his cloak hood. The tiny little green sphinx peeped her head over his shoulder, blinking with its glowing green eyes. Those big jade eyes pulled down at the sides in a pouting look of sadness, and slowly it hopped down and went obediently to the white sphinx. It looked back and waved a paw a Larenteth as its grandmother put her paw protectively around it.
“Wait!” Larenteth cried, “Would it be alright… alright if I named her?”
The dazzling Natarinturnan contemplated for a moment, then gave a graceful nod of her shimmering head.
“Her name is Jaclyn, then,” Larenteth concluded happily, then threw an apprehensive look at Jaclyn’s grandmother. The white sphinx, to his surprise, smiled slighting and gave another graceful nod. The sphinxes began to sink slowly back into the enveloping Vantranack. The little green Jaclyn gave another wave of her paw and a slight wink it seemed, as if to say she would be back. “Goodbye Little Jac!” Larenteth called as they disappeared from sight. A slight mew ensued, muffled promptly as the two disappeared.
“Little Jac?” Jack inquired with a lopsided grin at Larenteth.
“Displaying my affection for you, kind sir,” the mischievous elf replied with an extravagant bow.
Larenteth, while still in a bow, cast a glance backwards at the waiting Seerganash guard, then up at Jack. He stared up with his bright green eyes at Jack, gratitude shining sincerely from their depths. With a small grin he repeated the words of the general, “Master Raen, then.”
“What the hell did I just get myself into?” Jack muttered inaudibly, shaking his head.
Rowen left her position by the root and came up behind Jack. She passed a finger over the black burn, tracing the spine of the wing. Jack felt a strange sensation before Rowen came around to his shoulder, not looking at him but at the crowd that waited before them.
“Dragon fire,” she said with a nod of her head, still looking ahead at the Seerganash.
“What?” Jack replied out of the corner of his mouth.
“Your brand. Castamir used dragon fire. That’s why its black and not raw red.”
“Okay… thanks for that bit of information….” Jack replied uneasily. Rowen looked back at his somewhat reproachfully, as if he wasn’t grasping something. “What?” He head, turning to look at her. She opened her mouth to reply, but the guard began to stir.
“Master Raen,” the general addressed formally, approaching Jack and drawing a sword. Jack looked at the enormously, more-than-aptly-muscled general apprehensively, but the general presented the hilt of the sword. Jack looked at the general, then back to Rowen. Rowen looked at him, then looked at the sword as if she too was waiting for him to take the initiative. Finally, Jack grasped the sword in a powerful hand. As soon as it was in his hand, the tree was suddenly lit brilliantly with an array of searing fire that leapt up the tree trunk, but did not catch nor blacken the tree. The guard was awed and immediately went to a knee – an entire hall rippled as every man bowed his head to Jack. To him, this was complete insanity. Jack looked over his shoulder to see Rowen smiling smugly to herself. Obviously the ostentatious show of fire was her doing, though Jack wondered how she had set that one up. She never ceased to amaze him.
Jack finally turned his attention back to the sword; the general had not taken it back. It was one of the finest swords Jack had ever seen, and if felt oddly familiar. The black hilt felt different in one aspect – something was engraved on it. Jack looked down at the sword in his right hand and held it up. Jack was engraved upon the handle. Surprised, Jack reached for his own sword – it was not there. Bewildered, he looked up at Rowen.
“Compliments of the Seerganash women. You are the only guy to ever have your name on the hilt. Congratulations, Jack,” Rowen added sarcastically. “Oh, yes, they stole that from you when you were resting your eyes. I would have done it, just to get a laugh, but I’m not `graceful enough.'” Rowen rolled her eyes. “And no, I don’t know how it is physically possible to weld that fast, so don’t ask me.”
A lesser guard came up to Rowen. “Lady Rowen,” he began, but Rowen slapped him before he could finish. She didn’t slap him hard, but the elf looked positively astounded.
“Don’t you ever call me `lady’ again or it will be a lot worse than a slap,” Rowen said lightly. Some of the guard laughed heartily at the confused elf in front of Rowen, and Rowen herself ginned a little. The elf looked somewhat affronted, but smiled somewhat just the same.
“Mistress Raen, then,” he said, and walked away before he could get slapped.
“I am not a mistress, and I am not a Raen! I am not even an elf!” Rowen called after him.
Jack came up at her shoulder. “Technicality,” he said lightly, leaning his arm on Rowen’s shoulder. “So, Mistress, would you care to help this poor elf be Lord of the Seerganash?”
Rowen grinned at him, noticing the hint of seriousness and sincerity of the question behind Jack’s joking visage. “Do you think I have anything better to do?” Rowen replied, smiled widely at the relief in Jack’s face. Jack abruptly brought Rowen into a hug, muttering Thank you thank you in her ear.
“Now, what are we going to do about all this chaos?” Rowen asked him. The guard was scattered, unsure of what to do; the women were without a warden and a leader; many halls were destroyed because of the many events that had transpired lately; and the dragons still were fighting for domain – now without even a master – and the Mist prevailed.
“Un-chaos it,” Jack replied, flipping his sword to his left hand before finally sheathing it and walking out into the mass of Seerganash that awaited him.
From the author…
Yes, slow in coming I know, though this is a little longer than usual I do not know when the next chapter will be up, but there may be only one or two more chapters before the end. I hope you enjoy the rest,