For the time after Jack accepted being “Master Raen” (though he still tried to refuse that title), the Seerganash proved their intelligence in the manner they chose their leader. For the most part they all addressed him as master or at least held in higher standing, yet at the same time they taught him and watched him closely. The Seerganash would take orders from him, but kept him in line, making sure he did not break any major traditions.
So the Seerganash worked on Jack in mostly subtle yet maneuvering ways, yet at the same time Jack began to slowly mold them away from their goal of revenge. It would take a long time, and probably never adjust the minds of some, but the work was beginning.
Now concerning Rowen…. Most men took an instant liking to her, some were intimidated by her strange ability to conjure fire seemingly without tools; but none of them took no interest to her. Whether it was interest in her personality or her ability they each had an interest. Rowen would, like she always used to, get a gathering of soldiers together for a night and wrestle, engage in drinking contests (which Rowen usually won), and other such games. At first a few did not wish to wrestle with her, having a fear of the unknown – her strange heat power. But Rowen always put up a fair fight and never scorched a man, which earned the trust of many. Rowen was surprised to find out how honest and moral these men were. None of them tried anything with her – all fought fair and treated her with respect.
Busy for the first few weeks, Rowen and Jack never had a chance to talk. Finally, two and a half weeks after Jack procured the title “Master of the Seerganash,” Jack walked into the room where Rowen sat fixing a tear in her leather skirt with a crude needle. Jack smiled as he watched her viciously jabbing the skirt, still on her, with little more skill than the basic principle of sewing. He grinned again as he thought of the reaction the Seerganash women would have to such a disastrous crime of work. Rowen’s fingers were pricked many times from her work, splotching her crooked stitch with tiny specs of blood. As always, her tangled mess of rough black hair hung down over her face as she bend over her task.
“I believe that stitch would be considered a crime to most Seerganash women, my dear Mistress. You had better watch you back if they should see it.”
Rowen, without looking up, replied lightly, “And you should watch yours if you ever call me “Mistress” again.”
Jack laughed. When his smile finally subsided, he got down to why he had come. “Rowen, I need you ask you something.”
“What, you didn’t just depart you work for the mere enjoyment of my company?” Rowen interrupted without looking up. Still Jack could detect the playful grin that played across her down-turned face.
“A few weeks ago, you told me that this was made from dragon fire. Why is that so important?”
Rowen finally looked up. She realized that Jack, standing in front of her, had no shirt on. His right arm was bent over his shoulder, his hand resting over the black skeletal dragon wing that was burned into his left shoulder blade. His eerie green eyes had a look of inquisitiveness. Rowen sighed and put her bent needle to the side.
“Cathrandar burned that with dragon fire. How did he get dragon fire? Well, you can attempt to catch it by lighting something when a dragon has spit fire. Flaw: if you are that close you don’t get out alive. Flaw: dragon fire does not burn anything when used by another hand. Only dragons themselves have the ability to light objects. Conclusion: Cathrandar had some use of a live dragon.” Rowen put in an emphatic pause, but Jack still stared, not putting pieces together. Rowen continued. “Dragons are highly independent. So why do we have what is called the Master Dragon? He is by far the most powerful of them all, but no dragons are servants to him. Dragons have no true “master”; each is a master unto his own. But still having the “Master Dragon” binds them all together. When the need arises, all dragons will flock to the Master if it is in their own interests. They protect the dragons as specie when they do this. It has been called many things, but in dragon tongue it is Ra***hach Thahaesss. Oddly enough, directly translated into common tongue, it literally means “Return to the Mist” or “Return of the Mist.” Anyway, the question is, how do they have such a bond? Would not some dragons refuse to answer such a call, not share loyalty? If this were true, far more battle and destruction would occur for hierarchy than does now. The earth would be a wasteland of dragon warfare. There is a factor that holds all they dragons in common lordship. It has to do with fire, though I am not exactly sure how it works.” Rowen paused again to see if Jack was grasping the concept.
“So…” Jack began slowly.
“So why are the Seerganash loyal to you?” Rowen went on, “Despite their intelligence in not wanting to quarrel over leaders, what keeps one of them from challenging you? Would not at least a handful vie for the title you now have?
“The answer, Jack, is in the brand on your back. Cathrandar used dragon fire. He had the use of a dragon at one point, minimal in standing as it might have been, he had the use of one. He used it to brand himself, you, and Castamir with the fire of a dragon. Have you noticed all the Seerganash have that common symbol? Tattooed on their left wrist? Yet the bloodline of Cathrandar has it burned with dragon fire.”
“Cathrandar bound the Seerganash to the leadership of his bloodline.” Jack realized aloud. Rowen nodded.
“He was not so selfish as your tone indicates. What Larenteth said is true: this way they have no civil wars and keep full strength at all times. They are not so bound to you that they have blind devotion. Just like the dragons – they only see you as the figurehead. That is why the men are teaching you and not letting you do some things. Their loyalty only goes as far as sticking you at the head of a line. If you do not lead where they wish to go, you will be left.”
Jack nodded in understanding. There were several minutes of silent brooding on his part. After a bit he put all the pieces in place and abruptly switched to other matters of importance.
“How is Nirah?”
Rowen shuddered at the mention of the name. “The guards do not like that post; I see it in their eyes. But they guard her dutifully. She does strange things to keep her perfect physique. Constant vigilance is needed – she is a master of all trades, including escape. It is hard enough for the guards to not be seduced by her. Some other very prominent women, though no match for Nirah, help guard to keep everything in line. Even in them I can see the terror when they catch the green glint of Nirah’s eyes. It surprised me that Castamir would not go for such a powerful woman, rather than Réllika.”
Jack answered that for her. “Nirah was is much older than Castamir was. Nirah was my father’s time.”
Rowen cast a sharp glance at Jack. “Please tell me she is not your mother.”
Jack was taken aback. “I know nothing of my mother, but I truly think not. No, I do not think Seerganash women such as Nirah would suffer having one male child, never mind two. Though it would be an interesting fate to see if Nirah was mother to Réllika.”
Rowen pondered it a bit, but trying to make a bunch of connections made her head spin. She laid back on the rock, staring at the decoratively arched ceiling above her, wondering the skill of the elf that made it, how much time it could have taken, and all such random floating questions. Her head hurt. Closing her eyes, Rowen rubbed her forehead with her knuckles. There was so much work to be done, and so much she had already finished, and yet what a small portion it was to what had to be accomplished. Working on little sleep and already completely worn down from the events of the last month, Rowen had made herself sick. Her body shivered and yet her head burned. There was no comfort.
Abruptly she felt Jack’s cool hand on her head. He had sat down beside her on the rock. Rowen wondered how his hand could feel so perfectly cool just then. Jack, on the other hand, was used to Rowen’s slightly higher body temperature, but even then he could tell her head burned.
“Rowen, your head is burning hot. Why haven’t you asked for aid? The Seerganash can help that.”
“Not necessary. I need to keep working.”
“I asked you to help me, not die trying. I hereby order you, as Master, to sleep for an entire day, from moonlight to moonlight.”
“We cannot see the moon in here.”
“That is being fixed.”
Rowen looked up at him, wondering what plans he was conjuring. Thinking made her head hurt, so she laid back down. The cool stone was no consolation to her cold body. Jack noticed her shivering and lit more torches. Suddenly overcome with weariness, Rowen let her head drop to the stone and made no effort to even become comfortable. Half asleep, she felt Jack pick her up and carry her out of the cold room. His strong arms were warm and instantly lulled her to deep sleep.
Larenteth walked into the now-expanded Vantranack, stepping walking under the enormous root-arch and into the hollow tree. The blue phosphates in the tree bark glowed softly, sparkling in a dream-like peacefulness. Inside, it was pleasantly warm – almost too warm for comfort, but it was a basking heat that felt like being bathed in sunlight. The tree-base was one of the most comfortably hot places in the Seerganash tunnels, and peaceful – unlike the loud clatter of the hot forging caverns. Off to one side of the interior, a single torch glittered. Larenteth walked softly over, his flat boots hardly making a noise on the glassy stone floor.
The huddled form of Jack, wrapped in the tradition black Seerganash cloak, sat beside a sleeping Rowen. When Jack had been busy, Larenteth watched over her, but Jack had sent him to find documents in the lower vaults.
Rowen lay against the warm bark, a heavy Seerganash cloak draped over her. She had been sick and slept, so far, a straight three days. Jack stoked her forehead with his thumb, softly singing the haunting song that he sang at times – the very song he had sung was caught in the Vantranack so many weeks ago, which even chilled the spine of Cathrandar. No one knew what it meant, and no one asked. Not even Rowen knew it. Larenteth watched her smile softly in her sleep as Jack sang.
“Jack, here are the documents you wanted to see,” Larenteth said quietly as Jack’s song had died away. Jack looked up, a little surprised, but then took the deteriorating papers and began to read them carefully. He nodded as he saw the truth in Larenteth’s story.
“You were right Larenteth… and now it makes sense.”
Rowen groaned softly and began to stir. She blinked several times and looked up at Jack with bleary eyes. “Is the moon out yet?”
“Yes, it is… now three moons later.”
“What?!” Rowen said, trying to jump up. Her stiff limbs protested and she failed to get up. “Why did you not wake me?”
“You needed beauty sleep,” Larenteth volunteered. Rowen threw her blanket at him.
“No really, Rowen, I was concerned the Seerganash women might hunt you down and give you a makeover if they saw you like you were. The only thing keeping them from that now if several retraining orders issued by me,” Jack said, his serious face suppressing laughter.
Rowen scowled. “Pity I have nothing more to throw at you. Just wait until I can feel my legs again. Both of you better be ready to run.”
Jack suddenly looked around, looked at Larenteth, then looked around again. “Where is Lily?” He asked, still searching the gloom for Larenteth’s familiar companion. He paused and then peered hard with narrowed eyes at the boyish elf. “What did you do to her?”
“Nothing! Nothing!” Larenteth protested. Jack eyed him suspiciously, then accusingly.
“LARENTETH!!!! GET ME DOWN!” Came a female voice, echoing from somewhere in the tunnels.
Larenteth looked innocently around. “Well, I wonder who that could be,” he said, then scurried quickly out of the Vantranack, suppressing a great amount of laughter.
“I really can’t believe that is the elf that we trust with the key to everything,” Jack said, shaking his head. He began to turn around when Rowen pounced on him, knocking the wind out of him. She pinned him to the floor.
“That was for the earlier comments,” she said triumphantly. Jack suddenly pushed her off and rolled back on top of her.
“That was for being Rowen,” he replied.
“Get off! You’re heavy!” Rowen grunted, attempting to push him off.
“No, I think I’ll stay here. Rather…comfy, I should say,” Jack said lightly, laying across her stomach.
“Owww! Get off you lummox! You’re no featherweight!”
“Yeah, it’s all muscle,” he replied smugly.
Jack suddenly felt something very hot on his foot – his shoe was on fire. He quickly jumped up and stamped it out, only to find he was soon attacked from the back by Rowen.
“This is for being full of yourself!”
The two struggled together for some time, fighting back and forth. Finally the elf and the Raugrím, both gasping for breath, subsided their wresting in a fit of laughter. Both lay flat on the smooth floor of the Vantranack, their chests rising and falling with heavy breath. Jack, for the last word in the fight, rolled over on top of Rowen.
“Look who’s on top now,” he said, still breathing hard from their mock fight. Rowen laughed and didn’t push him off. Jack rolled off laughing again, and his hand hit the paper documents Larenteth had brought up. Pulled back to reality, he sat up, pulling Rowen with him.
“Rowen, I know how the Vantranack was created.”
Jack took a deep breath. “Well, sort of. How it came to be; I don’t know exactly how it got this strange stone. Larenteth told me,” Rowen nodded, remember that the boyish elf had known and almost told her by accident, “and I have confirmed it by reading this document.
“Remember how you told me that Cathrandar had the use of a dragon? Well, apparently it was tired of being used. The dragon must have been weak to be used in such a manner, but it gained strength and was greatly ashamed at being the weak link in dragon independence. Dragons have pride beyond anything – you have shown me that,” he added hint of a grin. “They do note demote themselves willingly. I don’t know how Cathrandar got the dragon in the first place, but I’m thinking it got fed up at being used. Other dragons, more powerful, came to its aid – maybe even the Master Dragon himself – and used combined fire to melt a huge hole right down to the water below. What they did to the stone to make it the way it is now this document does not say – but at the time Cathrandar had been in the middle of that room. I’m guessing that is how he died and became part of the Vantranack. The dragons did something to keep him there in spirit to torment him in eternity; perhaps that is how he was still… alive, in a sense, when we found him.”
Rowen gave her acknowledgment that this sounded true and logical. “So this giant cavern, lookout and all, must have been Cathrandar’s quarters, full of grandeur and riches and splendor I am guessing. That would explain the various things we saw in the Vantranack. Some of the dragons must have given their lives as well in such a task; there were small dragon skeletons down there.”
Just then Lee came running in. She seemed to glow with a new title and position, no longer a nobody among the women. Her black braids flew out behind her as she ran and skidded to a stop beside Rowen and Jack.
“Mistress Rowen, glad to see you are well,” Lee said, a hint of sarcasm in her formal tone of voice.
“You are hereby spared a slap as I am too exhausted to do anything,” Rowen replied.
Lee looked at her and then scoldingly at Jack. “You weren’t supposed to be wrestling with her before she gained her strength back.”
“Believe me, its back,” Jack replied to the classic Seerganash-woman tone that Lee adopted at times. Lee frowned but shook it off, somewhat miffed that her advice had fallen on unhearing ears.
Abruptly Tom, Larenteth’s horse, came trotting in his prance-like way (which seemed to have intensified ever since the horse sensed the change taking place), his overly long hair draping in front of his long face. The horse could not have looked more like its master in its bright, animated eyes, its boyish face, long hair, and carefree manner. As he came closer, Rowen, Jack, and Lee noticed he held a small piece of paper, clenched in his teeth. He carried it dutifully with a great deal of pomp.
Lee snorted. “I don’t know where he keeps getting these things, or who is writing them.”
The paper was dropped before Jack. Jack picked it up and unwrinkled it, reading: “‘Dragon and Kaytar are feeling neglected. Sugar and a brushing requested.‘ Well, talk about a reminder,” Jack commented as he rolled up the paper. “I guess we had better go see them.”
Tom looked confused for a moment, as if thinking, and then suddenly snorted and reached his head around to his back, nuzzling a pocket on the blanket that was draped there. Rowen, taking the hint, took from the pocket another letter, from Larenteth. She read it over and looked up. “Larenteth wants to talk with us while we’re down there.”
Down at the stable area, Rowen and Jack were greeted with great glee from Dragon and Kaytar. The brother and sister horses, mirror images of each other, greeted their masters in the exact same way. Rowen had been cautious at first with Kaytar, him having had Castamir as a master, but the horse did everything in his power to make her realize he recognized her as his new master. Lee had gone off shortly before on her own business.
Tom ran straight over though a small door in the back of the stable. Realizing he was probably running to Larenteth, Rowen and Jack began to follow. Sadly, the two larger horses could not go through the small door that the tunnel horse had gone through, and dejectedly stayed behind.
Neither Rowen nor Jack had been through this small passage. It was not well used, and the various scatterings of ancient straw suggested that it was once a tunnel to the storage of food. Ahead, the straw-muted clopping of Tom echoed down the hall. At last they reached the door to the old straw lodging. Jack hesitated a moment and turned to Rowen.
“Roe? Could you… wait outside for a minute? Please?”
“Okay,” Rowen replied, a little confused.
Jack walked through the door, just as Tom walked out. Tom looked sadly at the door as it closed after him, then looked over to Rowen. Seeing a matching expression of question on her face, the horse brightened and trotted over beside her. To her surprise, he readily laid down beside her as she sat, like a tame dog. It was strange behavior for a horse, but then again these were bred tunnel horses and had different qualities.
For a little while through the stone wall all Rowen could hear was soft conversation. Then Jack seemed to become a little louder in voice, and a small argument ensued. Rowen pressed her ear to the wall and finally pieced together the general idea of the conversation. Larenteth had seen Jack begin to despair under the pressure put on him. She had had no idea – she had been busy with the men. Now that she thought about it, she had not been doing as much hard straight out work as Jack must have been. The Seerganash men were not forgiving and constantly pushed him to get things right. Jack could almost feel Cathrandar laughing at him. Larenteth was pushing Jack to stand up and show authority while still taking their advice. Finally a shout came through the stone: “HOW COULD YOU HAVE ASKED ME TO DO THIS?”
Silence followed. Rowen took the opportunity to walk in. Larenteth sat without expression, looking at his hands, and Jack was breathing heavily, regretting having shouted at Larenteth. Neither acknowledged her presence. Jack said softly, “You knew they were beginning to brew the war. Now you ask me to contain it?”
Larenteth said nothing.
“You took the position. You agreed to it. It is your responsibility. Not his. It is yours. But not yours alone. I agreed to help you and that I shall. No matter what odds.” Both elves looked startled to hear Rowen’s voice. She spoke with calm intent.
“How do we change the minds of an entire empire?” Jack said, shaking his head. Rowen has never seen him in such a state, and wondered what the Seerganash men were putting him though. What the weight of his brother’s calamity was doing to him.
Larenteth suddenly looked up. “Don’t you see? Do you not understand?
“All the world is made up of individuals who are created or destroyed by their most intimate feelings. Those who can manipulate others’ feelings have the ability to control life itself. Revenge is a feeling that is about to destroy these people – that has destroyed many of them already. Determination is a feeling that can lead them out of the dark or deeper into it. Do not underestimate the subtle workings of your own mind over these elves. One move can change the course of a life. Lee’s devoted her life to you because you threw her a name, not thinking it meant anything. That single name changed one entire life. What makes you think other reasons cannot change the lives of others? All you have to do if find the core of desire, of love, and most importantly of hate. You find what each individual hates and you find them. People create themselves of their hate. But for every thing in this world there is something equally opposite. You find their hate and you find their soul. You crush that hate and you bring out their life. Do not underestimate what one being can do.
You have saved us, in my eyes. You have saved me more than you know.” His eyes shone with water.
“I watched Castamir feed the one I loved to dragons. I watched Austel walk calmly to the most gruesome death I can bear to behold. I stood there, not being able to show any emotion, not being able to throw myself over the ledge as I so wanted to, beyond all of my hearts desire. And yet that accursed bond kept me in fear more of Castamir, and I am ashamed beyond anything you could ever bear that I stood there, doing nothing, saving myself while I watched the thing I cared most about in this world become a treat for the accursed dragons that ruled over my life!
I walked away, listening to the beasts ripping apart the very thing that saved me from an eternity of revenge. I walked away. Nothing, nothing can ever give me reconciliation after going through that. And I never told her… I never told her I loved her. All that time, every time she came on some errand or another, I held her horse, I walked with her, I escorted her around the halls.
I never told her.
Now I will never get the chance.”
He turned his face away.
The young elf looked up, tears running down his face. “You saved me from the fate of eternal revenge. When Austel died I had no purpose but to be a servant to hate. Now I have a purpose. I have another life.” He smiled weakly at Rowen and Jack, blinking the tears from his eyes as some ran down his face. “I h-have friends now too.”
Rowen walked forward and brought Larenteth into an embrace as he began to cry. He hugged her back, strongly, as if gripping onto life itself. Jack looked on, amazed to see such a gesture from Rowen, such an act of compassion and knowing exactly what to do. He supposed she had never walked up to someone and done such a thing in her entire life, to comfort someone in such a way. In that one gesture, it seemed as if all of the world would change.
The young elf cried with his head on Rowen’s shoulder as the two rocked back and forth. Jack could see tears running down Rowen’s face as well, running over her rough black burns.
In the whole of the earth, no one but Jack would see something so small in its appearance and yet so vastly enormous its effect would be. The great tales of suffering and loss, despair and determination, the quests and defeats and the great deeds of such small things, all were encased in the vast myths of the Seerganash. No elf nor man nor beast would know, no great king or lord would take notice – only the Master of the Seerganash witnessed the great turning of an empire that would soon be noticed, after being so long forgotten, by the rest of the world. The Mist was still spreading, the dragons still arguing for dominion, the woods around them dying in the choking smoke.
And yet amid the chaos and loss, the last Raugrím sat on a dusty stone floor, cradling one young elf that had been so close to dying inside of himself. An empire of lost souls was beginning to turn the tide from revenge.
“To the North, the North we go
Following the Mist we know
Changing the course of death and dark
Upon our wrists we bear our mark
Elves of this earth – turn your eyes to the north!
For change beyond compare we have brought forth.”
From the Author….
Well, that is it. After a long time it seems… I sincerely thank all of you who commented and participated in this story. I have a few confessions to make concerning the writing of this…
I posted this once chapter at a time, not being able to edit previous chapters. This was frustrating at times, obviously. I must say when I started this, I had no clue about the Seerganash. The chapter where you met Castamir was a whim I decided to add in, and eventually became Jack’s brother and such. Jack wasn’t going to have any connection to the Seerganash. So much was decided as I wrote this, while other things I had planned for months and months before I got to write them. Reading your comments inspired many things too to add in, and thank you again for commenting. There was nothing better than to read people’s thoughts on my story. I understand it is a bit confusing… things said in earlier chapters not always matching up with later chapters and such.
Now for the good news…
I have started writing a sequel!
ah, it is not the end after all. I am unsure what this will be called… it will have “A Sequel to Rogue Stranger” written somewhere in the subtitle. That should start coming out in a few months.
Apparently, I have not learned my lesson in writing chapter by chapter, as I shall be doing it once more. But then again, I know if I had written it all first before posting, it would be very different. You people made a big difference.
Thanks again for all your support… I have already starting planning the course of the next story. Trillnahnere to all of you, I hope you have enjoyed The Mist.