Authors: T.O. Munro
Master of the Planes
T. O. Munro
For her patience
Marvenna heard the footfall, the crushing of a blade of grass by someone trying with a modicum of success to move silently through the forest. The steward waited a moment, her sharp eyed and sharp eared senses focussed on the distant intruder. Only one person had ever been able to approach Marvenna undetected and he was gone now, fifty years gone. The sounds her kin made as they moved through the woods were as distinct to Marvenna’s ear as their voices, from the telegraphing of Captain Soren’s slight limp in every step he made to the imperious perfection of Lady Kychelle’s strolling between the trees. But this was no elf of the Silverwood, at least none known to Marvenna, and yet it was not human either.
There had been a rise in the number of blundering humans, thinking that Lord Andril’s wards and protections might have weakened in the decades since his departure. Marvenna was well used to the cacophony, as subtle as a lion’s roar, which accompanied those mayflies’ vain attempts to penetrate the Silverwood’s veil of secrecy. They had all found that Andril’s protection endured as strong as ever, before succumbing to the distressed slumber of the hopelessly lost. And when they woke a mile or more beyond the forest boundary, all memory of their adventure was gone save a deep sense of foreboding and an earnest desire to never return to Andril’s realm.
The distant newcomer was trying, with some success, to move silently. The imperfect lightness of their tread marked them out as some clumsy elf, far more than human. Marvenna frowned, absently running a hand through her blond hair. Could it be an emissary from Hershwood?
Feyril’s people had had few enough dealings with Andril’s in the seven and a half centuries since Maelgrum had been vanquished. The divergent paths, policies and even faiths of the two realms had been growing barriers to the natural ties and alliances of a shared elven race. Perhaps, at last, with Andril gone, there might be some rapprochement to be made.
Another sharp sound, a leaf crumpling beneath a heel, and Marvenna dismissed the idea of an ambassador of Feyril. No elf kingdom would send a representative so unskilled in woodcraft. Aye, a herald of Feyril’s might choose to announce himself through a loud arrival, but this was the noise of someone trying to be silent and failing.
Marvenna slipped from her perch in the tree top and dropped in silent steps to the forest floor. She crept effortlessly close to the source of the disturbance. It was a cowled figure walking with studied care through the undergrowth. Marvenna followed in the other’s footsteps a mere ten yards behind, studying this strange creature.
The cloak was a fine woven cloth with an intricate design picked out in gold thread. It hung to the wearer’s knees and beyond its lower edge protruded the scabbard of a thin straight rapier. The boots, treading not quite lightly enough through her domain were of soft dark leather. The attire, indubitably the work of human craftsmen, hung on a figure of a little below average height for elf if not for man. Yet the stranger walked with a grace unknown in the people of the Salved Kingdom.
Her quarry made a fractionally heavier footfall at the end of a shorter stride and Marvenna anticipated and mirrored the intruder’s action in coming to a sudden halt. They stood a moment thus, elven steward and unknown trespasser. The latter remained oblivious to the former’s presence though Marvenna could hear the soft intake of breath a tiny sigh of disappointment.
Suddenly the cowl was flung back and, bareheaded, the newcomer looked to left and right infront of her. Marvenna’s gasp was stifled in her throat at the sight of the long silver hair tumbling over the rich cloth. Hair which caught and bent the rays of sunlight into myriad rainbow colours. Hair which could not hide the dark complexioned but sharply accented ears that spoke of a shared ancestry with the steward.
In that instant Marvenna knew exactly who stood before her and why. Someone she had not seen in fifty years, someone she had hoped never to see again. She struggled to keep a flood of thoughts and emotions at bay as old memories shook off the chains with which she had bound them. One word alone escaped her lips, the softest utterance, yet still enough to send the newcomer spinning round hand reaching for the hilt of the ornate sword. “Quintala!” Marvenna said.
The stranger’s face betrayed a confusion as deep as the steward’s. Alarm vied with a timid hopefulness in a bid to control her expression. Marvenna stood in easy stillness watching as the other reigned in her emotions and returned the steward’s watchful scrutiny in kind. Eyes flicked back and forth taking in the bow across Marvenna’s shoulder, the dappled greens and browns of her forest garb, the sweep of her blond hair back behind ears no less sharply pointed than the newcomer’s.
The hand that had hovered over the hilt of the sword opened, fingers splaying in a gesture of peace as she brought her arm across her chest and bowed low, knee bent in humble supplication.
“You are Quintala.” Marvenna repeated.
“Seneschal Quintala,” the other corrected as she straightened. “My father Seneschal Quintor died three months ago. The title and duties of seneschal have fallen to me.”
“You are a long way from King Gregor’s side.” Marvenna stepped closer scanning the seneschal’s face for a feature she might recognise, a glimpse that her dearest soulmate had left some living mark upon the Petred Isle.
Quintala’s lips bent into an uncertain smile. “King Gregor the second of that name, has given me leave to attend to some matters of family, following my father’s death. He still has advisors enough to keep him well counselled, all of them drawn from the Eastern Lands of his birth.”
“What matters of family?” Marvenna kept her tone firm on the brink of coldness. “You’ll not find your father’s kin in the Silverwood.”
“My father had no kin, save me,” Quintala replied before adding, softly hopeful, “it is my mother’s family that I seek.”
The words struck Marvenna no less forcefully for having been anticipated, feared even, for half a century. The two people whose love and approbation she had most yearned for had extracted from her a conflicting pair of vows before they passed together across the sea to the blessed realm of elves. And now, in this moment, was a time when she must choose whether to honour Liessa or Andril with her actions.
Quintala shifted slightly in the silence of Marvenna’s confusion. She swallowed hard and hesitated twice before asking, “You have the advantage of me, my lady, in that you know my name. May I ask which of the silver elves I have the honour of addressing. I am most anxious to speak to those who knew my mother well.”
“I am Marvenna, Steward Marvenna.” She flung out the words, like a gauntlet cast on the ground, her gaze fixed on Quintala’s face to read the tiniest detail in her reaction.
The seneschal hid it well but not well enough. Marvenna saw the flare of anger, a bright white heat, which her name triggered. It was an unelven fury that was quickly quenched as Quintala broke into a smile, eyes twinkling and dropped into another bow which hid her expression from view.
“Steward Marvenna,” she said. “I am honoured. My father spoke of you.”
“I am sure he did.” There was much of Quintor in this half-breed. The rich taste in clothes and the shallow well of human emotion, so thin and transparent. “He must have hated me.”
Quintala chose her words with care. “He was always grateful that you gave him back his memories of my mother, and that you brought me to him to help those memories live as long as he did.”
“You are nothing like your mother.” Behind the cold words, Marvenna reflected that, of all the elves of the Silverwood, the one Quintala had most in common with was the Lady Kychelle. It was not a comparison that would have pleased Liessa’s strident mother.
“You knew my mother well?” Quintala skirted round the steward’s rudeness.
“She was my cousin. We lived a thousand years in each other’s company, save only these last fifty years and a few bare decades before that.” Marvenna drew in an involuntary breath as the old ache of a companionship lost seized her all anew.
“What was she like?”
“Your father will have told you.”
“He only knew her for a few scattered days. He told me all he knew. He told me all she told him. It isn’t enough. He is gone now. I lit his funeral pyre myself and I am alone. I want to know more. Did she care for me? Did she weep to give me up? I must know. Who was she Marvenna? and who am I?”
“You have your human kind for company.”
Quintala shrugged. “They shun me. They may cast a thin veil of courtesy about their fear and dislike but they will never forgive the fact that I am not human.”
“Nor are you elven. You are a half-breed like your brother.” A fragment of an old argument forced its way past Marvenna’s lips, the last argument she’d had with Quintala’s mother. “Neither of you were ever meant to be.”
“My father loved my mother, and she him! He always said I was born out of love.”
“You were born out of a sickness, a sickness which consumed your mother, which devoured the girl I knew, the best friend an elf ever had. A curse was laid upon her long ago and you and your brother are its offspring.”
“That is not true!” Quintala’s hand twitched towards the hilt of her sword. Marvenna merely sniffed at the seneschal’s ill kept temper. Quintala relaxed her stance and, in more measured tones insisted, “If you loved my mother as you say you did, you would not speak with so little grace to her daughter.”
“I don’t see Liessa’s daughter standing before me, I see the cause of her absence. The final leaf that tipped the scales of Andril’s patience, the reason why he took her away untimely to the blessed realm and inflicted upon me a separation that must endure for many centuries to come. Had your father never lain with your mother, had his seed never quickened to form you, then she would abide here still with me. The days have had little lustre in her absence and it is you that stole that light and dimmed the shinning Silverwood.”
“I was a babe in arms.” Spots of colour flared within the seneschal’s dark complexion, but her lips were trembling as she spoke.
“I know. I took you from your mother when you were but three months old. And aye she wept for that parting. I carried you to your father and I have dreaded this day of reunion ever since. Would seeing you kindle in me the same love your misguided mother felt for you, or would it re-ignite the flames of anguish at the evil of your birth.”
“No birth is evil.”
“Some are. Those that are conceived in darkness, bringing forth twisted and unnatural shapes that the gods never meant to exist.”
“You speak as though I shared my origins with orcs and trolls, or other ogres. Creatures conjured by an evil mind in mockery of true living things.”
“Oh, but Quintala that is exactly what you are.”
“Human and elf blood? There is no evil in that. How can two such lines give birth to evil?”
“You know what was done to your mother, where she was kept prisoner.”
“She told my father she had spent some decades confined in a place without the sight of the stars. She slept always where she could see them after that.”
“She was a prisoner of the Dark Lord, Maelgrum. Andril was deceived into offering his only daughter as an honoured hostage in exchange for peace and security, but it was a ruse. Maelgrum had no need of hostages or even of peace. He wanted an elf lady, two in fact, within his power. She would not tell me what exactly passed, what it was she was subjected to. But she came back changed, consumed by unnatural passions ever seeking out human dalliances. In the seven centuries that followed her release I had to cast spells of forgetting on two score different human lovers. Only your father and your uncle were spared the amnesia, and only then because they each were left a child to raise.”
“Men and elves? Is a half-elf so unnatural that you must blame their existence on the curse of a long dead lich?”
“Even your half-human wits must concede the compelling argument seneschal. No other elf has ever sought a human lover, no other liaison has ever borne fruit. Quintor was your father and Liessa was your mother, but Maelgrum was your midwife!”
“You lie.” The rapier was drawn with a speed that the steward had not anticipated and, had Quintala’s aim not been clouded by the tears in her eyes, she might even have landed a blow.
Marvenna danced out of the half-elf’s reach, unslinging her bow and stringing an arrow in one sinuous movement. As Quintala lunged after her the steward moved backwards faster than the seneschal could move forwards. The half-elf raised the sword high for a blow of pure fury and in the gap that opened up between them, Marvenna loosed a silver arrow. The shaft shot with precision into the intricate loops and whirls of the contraguard, the steel head hitting the grip with a blow as fierce as any blacksmith’s hammer, wrenching the weapon from the half-elf’s hand.
Quintala’s face was a mask of rage. Without a glance after her lost weapon she dropped to her knees, fingers twisting in intricate predigistation. A spread of flaming bolts fanned out from the half-elf’s hand towards Marvenna, and then evaporated into wisps of smoke before they had covered half the distance between them.
Marvenna strung another arrow and aimed it at Quintala’s throat. The half-elf at last was still. “Do not think to cast a hostile spell within these confines, half-breed. The wards that Andril laid still hold true. Now, for the love I bore your mother, I will refrain from putting an arrow through you, even though you have laid bare your nature and done so in this place of all places.”