The Mask of Night

Ismail. Farrow. Laila. Kaelan. Four people. Four tales. Before we are done, their stories will be irrevocably twisted together. Ismail is a secretive mage, hailing from the far reaches of the North. Though a formidable fighter, when the bodies pile up and the only enemy left is himself, the truth must emerge. Farrow, a talented demon hunter trying to piece together the fragments of his past, finds himself the centre of a manhunt. Laila, the thirteen year old firstborn heir to the Emperor's throne, must flee from a deadly conspiracy. And Kaelan. A ranger of some skill, he grows tired of his life among the forest. When the Forest Druids decide to help the Northern rebels, Kaelan joins them, and events rapidly spiral out of his control...

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10. Intervention

Striding through the forest, Farrow unsheathed his blade. His knives were perfect for enclosed spaces, but he didn’t intend to face the vampire unless it was in a clearing – he wanted some space to move around. Bjorn followed close behind him, his giant form surprisingly quiet.

“When did Venice fall?” asked Farrow.

“Three months ago. The rebels moved down, gathering Italians as they went. They recruited farmers, stable hands… barely anyone who could wield a blade, but it didn’t matter, that’s how many of them there were.”

“A hundred thousand professional soldiers, taken down by peasants,” murmured Farrow.

“It’s fairly awe-inspiring, eh lad?”

“Terrifying, I would say. The thought that Venice, beautiful Venice fell not by the hands of soldiers, but of mere farmers… Do you never think that it is too powerful? That you have created a force you cannot control?” Bjorn shook his head sadly.

“Nay. Though it was farmers who took Venice, and farmers who killed her soldiers, it was the rebels that armed them. It was the rebels that roused them from their homes and sleepy little villages. And it is the rebels who hold their hearts.”

“Maybe.”

 

They walked on in silence, until they heard the distant ring of metal on metal. Another hundred metres or so, and they saw a clearing. In it stood the vampire, holding by the throat a hooded, cloaked man. Two more figures lay prone in the bushes, leaning against the base of a tree. Without even thinking, Farrow acted. Sprinting forward, he swung his sword, cutting through the vampire’s neck with a fleshy, satisfying whumph. The head fell slowly to the ground, lifeless black eyes staring into nothingness.

 

He realised the man the vampire had held was lying, unconscious, on the floor.

“Check the other two,” he ordered Bjorn.

“An elf,” he called, “And what looks like a Wanderer. What do you want me to do?” Farrow paused, wondering whether to leave the three passed out on the forest floor. He had caught the vampire, he reasoned. There was no reason to stay. But there was something else telling him to stay, an inborn instinct. He had been raised with the beliefs of the elves, and whilst they might not have a set of deities, they believed strongly in the powers of fate, and the importance of signs.

“Gather firewood,” he commanded, “We’ll need boiling water for bandages and food.”

 

Over the next hour, they built a fire, Bjorn gathering only dead wood – it would not be wise to disturb the denizens of the forest. Farrow boiled bandages and wrapped the man’s head. Whilst the scratch wasn’t particularly deep, it was long, and Farrow didn’t want it to get infected. He’d checked over the elf and the Wanderer, but neither seemed to be badly injured.

 

Later on, Bjorn returned, bearing two small rabbits and a miniature deer. After gutting and skinning the animals, Farrow fashioned a spit from a long stave, and speared the deer on it. The rabbits he lay on a large flat rock, heated until too hot to touch. The man regained consciousness to the sound of sizzling meat, and the scent of venison.

 

As a ranger, Kaelan’s sense of smell was better than that of most peoples, so the mouth-watering smell of venison practically drove him into a stupor. Before the bearded youth across the fire saw he had woken, he staggered to his feet and grabbed the deer’s leg. It hurt. The deer had been held over the fire for an hour, and such was its heat that it scalded Kaelan’s hand.

 

“Careful!” exclaimed the youth, springing up from his rock. “Sit down,” he told Kaelan. “I’ll cut you off some in a minute. What’s your name?”

“I’m Kaelan.” Normally Kaelan would be reserved about handing his name to strangers, but his hunger overrode all his other instincts.

“Farrow.” Farrow pulled a hunting knife from his boot, wondering about his situation. Obviously he couldn’t stay here, and going to the elves wasn’t an option either. But something told him that these three were important. He sliced through to the middle of the deer with his knife, just to make sure it wasn’t raw. Once satisfied that it was cooked, he cut off a piece of the leg for Kaelan. “Who are they then?” Farrow pointed to the other two.

“That’s Alvar,” said Kaelan, pointing at the elf. “And that’s Aesa. Why are you here? The elves don’t usually allow humans in this part of the forest.”

“Probably a good thing we aren’t human then.”

“We?” At this point Bjorn stepped out into the glade, his hulking form carrying more firewood over his shoulders.

“They woke?”
“Only one. Kaelan, he says his name is. This is Bjorn by the way.”

“Good to meet you.” Bjorn held out his hand, but Kaelan ignored it and continued eating.

“He’s hungry,” explained Farrow.

 

Alvar awoke to voices; a deep, rough one and another, lighter one. Not high-pitched, exactly, but smoother, more pleasant. It reminded him of the voices of the elves, though theirs were higher still. He blinked open his eyes and sat up, taking in the three people sat around the fire. First was the enormous, broad shouldered beast of a man, his thick black beard encircling his entire head. Then there was the youngling, barely old enough to grow a beard. Finally, Kaelan sat hunched, ripping flesh off the leg of a deer.

 

Farrow watched the elf with curiosity – despite his parentage, his mother had been disowned when she had married his father, so he knew relatively little about elven culture. As Bjorn had carried the elf over, his hood had fallen down, revealing blue eyes, like Farrow’s, and white blond hair. Pointed ears were angular, and sharp, like his jaw. Farrow’s ears were equally as sharp, but he had a wider, stronger jaw – the elf’s was slim. Farrow’s hair was a different colour too, dark brown instead of blonde, but his mother had hailed from the south, and elves had different hair there. The elf sat up, and Farrow offered him a waterskin.  The elf took it, drinking deeply before passing it back.

“What’s your name?” Farrow asked. When the elf replied, his voice was pleasant and melodious.

“Alvar. But I have no doubt that my companion has already told you as much.”

“He has,” Farrow admitted, “But I would prefer to give you the opportunity to introduce yourself. I’m Farrow,” he added. “May your roads be long and may the stars live in your heart.” The traditional elven greeting took Alvar by surprise, and he raised his eyebrows.

“Only an Aelfthryth would know that greeting. Much care has been taken that it was not recorded.”

"Aelfthryth?" interrupted Bjorn.

"Elf friend," answered both Alvar and Farrow at the same time.

“An elf would know it,” continued Farrow, returning to the greeting. He was going to enjoy this. He had told Bjorn on the way over, he had been remarkably unsurprised.

“Please,” snorted Alvar, “You are no elf.”

“No,” he agreed. “But I am half of one.” Farrow pulled down his hood, revealing elven ears and eyes.

 

“Halfling…” breathed Alvar, his eyes widening. “I have not seen one of your kind for at least a century.”

“That,” Farrow interjected curtly, “Is because we are not welcome in your forests. If you had left your leafy haven in the last century, you would know we are a lot more common than you think.” Farrow wasn’t sure why, but he suddenly found himself short tempered and angry where not thirty seconds before he had been good natured and humorous.

 

“Anyway,” he said, forcing himself to be more polite. “We can’t stay here for long. This is where our paths split.

“Who’s paths?” The third person had finally woken up, and was glaring disapprovingly at the deer, still cooking. “Who the hell are you?”

 “Farrow. It’s nice to meet you too. And you guys are all welcome for you know, us saving your lives. And our paths are splitting. You have to get on with whatever the hell you guys were doing, and I need to go kill a necromancer.”

“A necromancer?” Kaelan had finished devouring his deer leg, and was ready to partake in conversation once more.

“Probably the same one who summoned your vampire.”

“I’m in.” Kaelan stood to his full height, and Farrow got a good look at him for the first time – the elves had perfected ways to judge people based on what they looked like.

 

He was strong, and muscled, but lean and slim at the same time – you had to be slim to be a ranger. His dark hair fell down to is shoulders, and a stubbly beard coated his chin, showing he was unconcerned with appearances. Or he just didn’t know it looked stupid. His jaw was strong and wide, which could indicate fierceness, but his pale grey eyes spoke of intelligence. His hands were unscarred, so he was either very good at fighting close quarters or he was unblooded. Farrow’d seen the bodies in the clearing, and knew enough to know it wasn’t the second one. Kaelan was tall, around six foot, and had long legs – he’d probably be able to keep up on a hike.

“You’ll do.”

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