ALDROM



ALDROM, by Matthew Wuertz:

The sun pulled away from me like a warm blanket as men led me up the wide steps.  Someone’s cough echoed in the vast interior of wherever we were, and though curious, I left my blindfold in place.  We walked a short distance and then descended a staircase that spiraled into the unknown.  Summer was forgotten in the cool subterranean, and I wondered if I were to be sequestered in nasty accommodations harkening back to my first days under arrest.

When we finally reached the bottom, Galen asked, “Are you ready for your next assignment, Thadryn?”  He no longer added threats to the end of such questions; dire consequences to my refusal were implied.

“What would you have me do?”

“Interrogate a prisoner of war,” he replied.  I cocked my head.  All humans were under the flag of Trissilair, so I was uncertain as to whom the kingdom could be at war with. Perhaps there had been a rebellion.

I no longer considered myself a citizen of Trissilair.  My allegiance to the kingdom had been shattered when my foolish attempt at fitting in among the humans had failed.  Galen had made my purpose and position quite clear.

“What information do you seek?” I asked.

“Details of what has already befallen, future battle plans and the like.  He’s the only one we captured alive; the rest fled, probably to strategize their next attack.  Report on all you learn, and when you have extracted all of this, the prisoner will be of no further use to us.  If you wish to experiment upon his mind in the deprave manner you so often employ, so be it. But spare me the repulsive details in your report.”

My fingers twitched at the idea of using my powers to their full extent.  It was a pleasure I hadn’t found in anything else, and I longed to experience it again.

“I understand,” I said.  “Where is my staff?”

“You will find it in the prisoner’s cell,” Galen said.

I heard a door groan, so I moved toward the sound.  I was about to ask if I was inside when the door closed and latched behind me.

I pulled the fabric from my eyes and found myself in a room that was ten feet in width and depth, but the ceiling barely cleared the top of my head.  A torch rested in a sconce next to the door, and I had to turn aside from its brilliance.

During the unpleasant journey from my prior imprisonment in the north, I had ridden in the back of an open wagon, blindfolded, bound, and gagged.  But now inside this fortress, my captors apparently did not fear for my escape — nor my employ of magic against them — and so Galen ordered my treatment as in interrogations past: blindfold only so as to obscure the location of my staff, Ornithìln. So now, as my eyes adjusted to seeing for the first time in many days, I noticed a boy standing at the far side of the room.  His hands were shackled to a short chain that was anchored to the wall, preventing him from moving more than a step in any direction.

I dared to look toward the light again, and I was rewarded for the risk.  Ornithìln was propped in a near corner.  Thadryn, it called to me, whispering in my mind.

My breath seized in my chest as I took the wooden staff.  Its crooks and bends were so familiar; I delighted in its fey qualities.  “We should not part for so long,” I said.

Even when we are separated, our bond remains, Ornithìln replied in the usual manner, communicating directly with my mind so that only I was privy to our conversation.

After an immeasurable moment, I looked over at the boy.  “Why is someone so young in chains?” I asked him.

“Et nâ dìsom torâ dìsodemà,” he replied.

I walked toward him, searching his face, noticing his elongated, tipped ears for the first time.  This, combined with his stature and language, brought sudden clarity to me.  “You’re one of the ilvà,” I said.  He looked at me cautiously, perhaps surprised that I would correctly pronounce the name of his race when humans commonly referred to them as elves.

With a grunt, I sat down on the cold stones.  In times past, I would exercise my talent while standing, but it was so taxing that I would always find myself in a heap on the ground, sometimes injured from the fall.  Now I practiced my art with my legs folded beneath me.  Ornithìln lay diagonal across my lap, and I gripped it firmly.

I used to feel regret for such invasions — exposing someone’s memories, regardless of how personal they might be — but I didn’t attempt an apology to the prisoner.  “Nàssâ,” he said.  “Nàssâ!”  He didn’t understand that it wasn’t even in my will to stop at this point.  When I let myself become one with Ornithìln, there was no other way.

* * *

The elf from the dungeon stood upon a wooden deck, steadying himself against the bulwark as the ship bounced upon dark waves.  The stars and moon lit Gàolmìl Sea, the natural border between the lands of humans and elves.  They traveled north, toward Trissilair, following the celestial compass.

There were other ships like theirs all around, sailing on a strong wind as though Onarre himself was urging them on.  The elf lost count at thirty.  He wondered if they had brought enough warriors for this mission.

“What are your thoughts, Hâlàis?”  Ìsol stood to his right; he was younger than Hâlàis — the prisoner I was interrogating — by a decade.

His words were spoken in Ìloâ, but I understood them as clearly as if they had been spoken in Trissil — the language of humans which so many of us had been forced to learn beneath their rule.

“My main thought is: What if we fail?” Hâlàis at length responded.

“We won’t.”

The latter were empty words spoken by one who was too young to understand the risks ahead of them.  Not that Hâlàis understood much more than Ìsol — only enough to be afraid.

It’s been ages since I’ve encountered the ilvà, Ornithìln said, and the scene faded into absolute darkness.  The creaking of the ship changed into an ominous groaning, like the wood was taking congested breaths.

They present themselves as an incorruptible race of the highest integrity, Ornithìln continued, but I know their true nature.  It was the ilvà who named me ‘rotten wood’ not long after discovering my presence in their forest, uttering their contempt for me while more than a few gathered beneath my boughs for their own rotten deeds.  Wretched hypocrites!  I enjoyed leading them astray with whispers of evil delights.

My staff had once been a branch of that tree, and though I called it by the same name, I hadn’t realized how connected the two remained; it was as though the staff and the tree were one.

I was thankful that Ornithìln did not elaborate further.  I struggled enough in keeping my thoughts clear of the stories it had already told me.  Instead, the ship returned to view, accompanied once more by the serene rocking sounds it had produced before Ornithìln’s interjection.

* * *

We skipped over the prisoner’s recollections of traveling through the next day.  The only noteworthy event was that the elves reduced their sails so as not to make landfall until late in the evening.

Well after midnight, someone shook Hâlàis while saying, “It’s time,” rousing him from the semi-sleep state that elves sometimes enter in place of true slumber.  His anxieties hadn’t allowed him to enter a deeper rest.

He pulled scale mail over his body and sheathed a pair of knives on his belt.  Some of the others took bows and quivers, but Hâlàis didn’t trust his hands well enough for archery; they would sometimes shake uncontrollably, an oscillation that only increased under the strain of a drawn bow.

Within the hour, the elves used lightweight rafts to disembark, and then quietly rowed to shore.

“I hope Aldrom sleeps well,” Ìsol said.

He spoke of a city in Trissilair.  I knew it had significance, but my mind was merging with Hâlàis to the degree that I had difficulty separating my own thoughts from those in his memory.  To ponder too much on the idea might break me from the elf’s mind, and I wouldn’t risk such a thing — especially as I felt my power surging.

Ìsol drew closer to Hâlàis.  “You don’t seem sure of yourself.”

“None of us should be.  Pride has often been our bane.”

 

 The waxing moon glared upon them, and Hâlàis wondered if Onarre approved of what they were doing.  He imagined Onarre’s face in the sky, watching them carefully.  Had any of them prayed for guidance before this endeavor?

This seemed like a replay of my own life, in a way, of how I sometimes questioned my path, yet I no longer sought Onarre at all.  And now . . .

And now, what? Ornithìln asked, appearing now in the form of a shadowy tree standing to the left of Hâlàis, its branches scratching together like an old man wringing his skeletal hands.

Now my life was about finding pleasure through the pain of others.  If I wasn’t carving through someone’s mind, I was ruminating about what Ornithìln and I would do to the next soul that crossed our path.  I’d lost all hope, all peace, all morality — trading them for fleeting thrills at the call of the same rotten wood that had ruined the lives of elves ages past.

My life was in perdition because of Ornithìln.

Before Ornithìln could prod me further, I said, “It is of no importance.”

Then continue the interrogation, Ornithìln said.

Ìsol took Hâlàis’ arm and said, “Let’s go.”

Elves move at astounding speeds, though they think nothing of it.  Hâlàis’ feet lightly tapped the ground with each stride, despite the weight of his armor.  Perhaps he would have flown if he were clad in linen instead of mail.

They followed a worn highway that wound its way north through the open countryside.  Aldrom lay in a valley, its small houses huddled together like eggs in a basket. Behind the town, a wall surrounded a square of open field, and each corner was capped with a tower.

Orders circulated throughout their ranks.  Ìsol repeated them as though Hâlàis hadn’t heard for himself.  “Kill all the men.  The women and children are harmless.”

Hundreds of elves descended into the valley, but their approach was inaudible.  Had any occupant of Aldrom chanced to look to the south that night, they might have perceived a fog rolling in.

Hâlàis and Ìsol were among the first to reach the houses.  Hâlàis shouldered past Ìsol to pry open a door. Inside, a weak fire crackled in a hearth.  Two people lay near it, cuddled together beneath a fur.

Ìsol whispered, “Which is the man, and which is the woman?”

Hâlàis couldn’t tell them apart either, and the only way he could know for sure would have disturbed them from slumber.  Then he pulled his blade and whispered, “Slay them both.”

Hâlàis felt a rush of excitement with his killing stroke.  No, that wasn’t it.  He felt a cold satisfaction.  They deserved this; it was an act of justice.

The fatally wounded human thrashed about, stirring the other, but he or she responded sluggishly.  Hâlàis motioned for Ìsol to kill the other human, but he just stood there.  With a curt nod, Hâlàis carried out his own order; he hadn’t expected much different from the younger elf, despite Ìsol’s determined words on the ship.

The elves moved through Aldrom like a spirit of death, claiming whomever they wished.  Hâlàis heard no opposition, only occasional wails of the survivors.

Within moments, they stood before the wall.  Archers fired into the corner towers, killing the sentries who stood watch there.  One of these men blasted a few notes on a horn before perishing; a futile gesture, Hâlàis thought, since they had already slain the city’s primary defenders.

A sizeable bolt secured the gate, and it took five elves to wrench it free.  Inside, gaunt men and women stared back; their lifeless faces seemed like morbid masks.  “Who are you?” one of them asked in Trissil.

“We are your liberators,” Ìsol said, carefully enunciating the words in Trissil.

And then I remembered.  Aldrom was where magiceras were sent after being captured, at least those who survived prosecution.  These malnourished, decrepit beings were no different from me.  Had I not become useful to my captors, I might have been among them.

The sound of more horns broke the momentary stillness.  Men were coming from the north.  There must have been an outpost or garrison on the other side of the valley.

“Protect the prisoners!” an elf commander ordered.  “We must see them away safely.”

Hâlàis went into the compound, urging those within to flee for their lives.  Those near the front obeyed, but the deeper inside Hâlàis went, the worse he found the prisoners.  Some lay on the earth, unable to walk on their own.

The air stank with waste, and it was only by careful movement that Hâlàis avoided stepping into anything undesirable.  Tattered animal skins and scraps of wood made crude shelters that were only a few feet high.  Inside one, he found a naked child, who was perhaps two years old.

Upon seeing him, I thought about the daughter I’d never met.  She was nearly that age herself.

Stay with the elf’s memories, Ornithìln said.

“We can’t get them all out,” Ìsol said.  Hâlàis hadn’t noticed that Ìsol had followed him.

The boy whined and clung to Hâlàis.  “Do what you can,” he said as he slung the child over his shoulder.

There wasn’t much more Hâlàis could do either.  Not by himself.  He couldn’t take anyone else out with him, and he knew words of encouragement wouldn’t help, even if the magiceras could understand him.

From the north side of the compound came the shouts of men who had entered through a second gate.  Horsemen with spears impaled any magiceras or elves they came across.

Hâlàis jogged much slower under the weight of the boy, and it didn’t help that the youngster cried and flailed about.  They kept near the western wall, so close that the boy would slap at it.  When Hâlàis dared glances to his left, he saw increasing numbers of horsemen, and his brothers at arms did little to slow their progress.

When they at last came to the south gate, Hâlàis released the child into the custody of a magicera who seemed less sickly than most.  “I’ll take him out of here,” the magicera said in Ìloâ.  “I know a city where some of his relatives live.”

“Be safe,” Hâlàis told him as the magicera scooped up the boy and ran.

Hâlàis drew his knives and said to Ìsol, “You’ll want yours in hand as well.”

No sooner had Hâlàis spoken than the elves who had infiltrated the compound fell back to their positions, pressed by the horsemen.  The gate provided some assistance because it broke the horsemen’s front into groups of four or five.  Archers fired into them, killing dozens of horses and men, but still they came.

One of the horsemen charged and thrust his spear down at Hâlàis.  He knocked the shaft aside with his left blade and plunged his right into one of the horse’s legs.  There was an awful cry from the beast, and it threw its rider.

The unhorsed man regained his senses and came at Hâlàis with a mace.  He swung lethargically, and it didn’t help his cause that he had to stoop a bit to get close.

“Hâlàis!” someone shouted, and Hâlàis turned his eyes for a moment.

I was unnerved by the dread that fell upon me; I had allowed myself to get too close to these memories, to feel like they were actually my own.  I saw Ìsol standing at an awkward angle, held in place by a horseman’s spear.  He looked back in disbelief, and I shared Hâlàis’s guilt for taking him to the front lines.

Then Hâlàis felt a crash to his head, which felt to Thadryn more like a heavy sound that swallowed the entire world.

* * *

The chill of the prison stones had crept into my legs, but I was too tired to move them just yet.  I loosened my grip on Ornithìln, and it clattered to the ground.

Hâlàis looked up.  “Can you understand my words?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said, though I didn’t entirely understand how I had become fluent in Ìloâ from experiencing his memories.

“You know there aren’t any others of my kind coming, right?  We reached our objective, though I don’t know how well we succeeded.  Perhaps everyone died.”

“No. I was told that you were the only elf who was captured.  The others escaped.”

“Thank Onarre,” he said.

“Why did you free the magiceras?”

“Because the rest of them are too scattered and afraid to do anything against Trissilair; they’re just trying to stay alive, hiding where they can.  We left this part of the world partly out of fear of humans, knowing they could one day turn against us because of our differences.  What’s happening to the magiceras could be happening to us, and we felt obligated to do something.  I wonder if we should have done more.”

Hâlàis shut his eyes and sighed.

After a moment, he asked: “What will you do to me now?”

Ornithìln whispered about the exciting and horrific things I could do to the elf’s mind, promising an enjoyable intoxication.  The temptation, however, could not overcome my sorrow, which I suffered now both from what I’d experienced through Hâlàis, and the realization of who I was: ostracized from Trissilair, separated from my wife and daughter, and bound to a corrupt staff that guided my descent into depravity.  “I will do nothing,” I answered.

He nodded.  “I know they’ll kill me even if you won’t.”

“Yes, just as they will kill me one day,” I said.

He frowned.  “Perhaps you could escape.”

My shaking hands found Ornithìln, and I used it to push myself off the ground.  Thadryn, it said, don’t waste this opportunity for us. Unwind his thoughts, incinerate him from within.  Let me show you what we are capable of!  We can destroy this loathsome elf in a manner that in comparison will render benign what we inflicted upon others — you will feel like you’re soaring up to the stars. I knew that once my sadness had subsided, I would be unable to refuse the staff’s call — but I hoped to be returned to my prison by then.

“I might be able to escape from the humans,” I said, rapping upon the door.  “But they aren’t the ones who have me enslaved.”

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Matthew Wuertz is a software developer by day and fiction writer by night.  His stories have appeared in The Sword Review, MindFlights and Aoife’s Kiss.  Matthew resides in Indianapolis, Indiana with his wife, daughter, son and three amusing cats.  To learn more about Matthew, please visit his website: www.matthewwuertz.com
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