1284 years ago
Calderaas was the center of the world.
To the south lay the fertile and densely inhabited Tira Valley, a broad, lush region through which its namesake river wound on its journey from Viridill to the sea, and widely considered the center of human civilization. Ancient city-states such as Madouris, Anteraas and Leineth traded, plotted and warred against one another, as they had since time immemorial, establishing the pattern for which humanity was known: ambition, aggression, adaptability. At the valley’s southernmost edge was the chilly sea, where, on the shorn-off mountain which stood amid the Tira Falls—long considered a sacred and untouchable place—the followers of all gods of the Pantheon had lately begun building temples and establishing a free and open center of worship, commerce and diplomacy.
North, the forests and plains around the Eternal City eventually yielded to the unmarked borders of the wood elves, who suffered no mortal trespassers in their lands, but were not much resented by the human nations, for they formed a bulwark protecting the southlands from the tribes of centaurs and savage plains elves who wandered the northern prairies. Further beyond that lay the rumored Golden Sea, a fabulous land of monstrosities and wonders, and farther still the under-kingdoms of the dwarves, who occasionally ventured south to trade, but were widely disinclined to share the details of their own rich societies with plunder-hungry mankind.
West, the forests rose quickly into the mountains of Viridill, ancient bastion of Avei’s worship in the north, and stretched out south of that into the dense, frigid pine forests of Athan’Khar, home to the mystical and warlike orcs. This was a region of brutal conflicts, where the forces of Avei and Khar met at the dark gates of Tar’naris, and three civilizations constantly clashed, struggling for resources and power. Still beyond those lands, past even the treacherous Wyrnrange, lay the mysterious kingdoms of the wild West, home to humans of a totally different breed who sometimes trafficked through Viridill to the Tira Valley civilizations, and vice versa. So hazardous was the journey that these two distinct groups of humans had limited interaction, and thought one another nearly as alien as the elves.
East, the hazards were more human in nature, where the hardy Stalweiss barbarians dwelt up in the Stalrange mountains. Their wild god, Shaath, constantly sent his Huntsmen to prowl the softer lands below, seeking any sign of weakness, and carrying off livestock, gold and women wherever they found it. Every so often the barbarians came boiling forth in greater numbers, having to be driven back only at great cost. There was little land east of the Stalrange, virtually all of it occupied by the seafaring Punaji, who had taught even the Stalweiss to step politely when visiting their enclaves.
But in the center of this, where plains, forests and mountains met, there was a broad expanse of hilly territory, less lush than the Tira Valley but still gentle, and in the center of this rose a lone mountain, out of sight of any of its neighboring ranges. In eons ancient beyond memory even in the time of the Elder Gods, it must have been a towering wonder, but this mountain was old even as mountains went, now a hill whose greatest dimensions were horizontal, never too steep to comfortably climb afoot. Its peak had long since collapsed inward, forming a colossal caldera, and in this was built the Eternal City, Calderaas.
The Sultanate of Calderaas was the uncontested center of learning, of trade, and of the arts of war, where all of humankind came to enrich either their minds or their purses—rarely both. Its borders were harried often by orcs, drow and the Stalweiss, but all of these were fighters accustomed to forests or mountains, and were crushed time and again by the famous Calderaan cavalry. Occasionally even the human nations to the south sent war parties up to test the might of the Sultanate, which had never ended in anything but humiliation for them. In addition to its own armies, the Eternal City was a great center of Avenist worship, ruled for centuries by a matriarchal line and home to both the Silver Legions and secular military academies both private and in the service of the Sultanate. Adventurers from all corners of the continent—and even beyond—congregated here to trade tactics, magics, weapons, true tales and outrageous lies. It was a city that defended itself without notable exertion.
This day, though, was not only peaceful, but festive. Sultana Aliia had declared a fortnight of celebration and feasting in honor of the birth of her first daughter, future heir to the throne of Calderaas. In towns and farm villages throughout the Sultanate, and from the highest halls of power to the most average middle-class neighborhoods (despite what the bards like to claim, the truly poor rarely shared in the joy of the powerful), banners waved, buildings were decorated with prayer flags and evergreen boughs for good luck, and people seized upon the opportunity to eat and party rather than do anything constructive. Nowhere was the grandeur more grand than in the palace which stood at the very heart of the city.
It was somewhat more subdued, despite being closest to the source of all this joy, but the rich and well-bred had appearances to keep up, after all. Lines of aristocrats, priestesses, ranking soldiers and powerful merchants snaked across the palace’s terraces, watched carefully by royal guards, all enduring the midday sun for the opportunity to be seen offering their felicitations and lavish gifts to the infant Princess and her royal parents.
In the towering throne room at the heart of the palace, it was the fifth hour of this presentation, and the Sultana was still beaming with pride and pleasure, being not only immensely pleased with herself but accustomed to such long events of state. The others occupying the royal dais were starting to wilt, but valiantly keeping up appearances. The royal guards remained alert as ever, of course. Aliia’s three favored priestesses stood attendance nearby, mostly still alert, though the youngest of the trio was beginning to look slightly sleepy. Jaqim, the Prince Consort, stood watch over the cradle in which lay his infant daughter, as was proper. Behind him, and the jeweled crib, stood the new throne commissioned especially for the Princess to assume when it was her time, currently only an item of display. It was worth seeing, carved of a single enormous piece of dark wood that had been the trunk of an ancient tree, and inlaid with garnets and patterns of silver.
Princess Talia, oblivious to all the fuss in her honor, was fast asleep. It was universally felt that this was for the best.
The day crept on, the hoard of gifts laid around the base of the dais growing constantly. Courtiers and honored guests came and went in turn, their mostly formulaic benedictions blending into a repetitive drone. The sun slowly moved, its rays piercing the throne room through strategically placed windows, causing the mirrored tiles forming its opulent mosaics to slowly glitter, a gently scintillating marker of the passing hours.
A shadow flickered across the room.
The ornately dressed master of a merchant house currently wishing long life and health upon the Princess paused, glancing uncertainly up at the windows; the three priestesses attending the Sultana did as well, the eldest of them frowning slightly. It was only a passing shadow, most likely a little wisp of cloud, but for some reason, it held a weight felt by all those present.
Just as they mostly succeeded in dismissing it from their minds, another shadow came. This one stayed, and had form.
Its hoarse croaking a harsh counterpoint to the wealth and beauty of its surroundings, a single crow winged into the throne room from above, drifting in a slow spiral toward the center of the chamber.
Sultana Aliia leaned forward, gripping the arms of her throne, her eyes fixed on the bird. The merchant gaped up at it, edging backward as it descended toward the spot where he stood. It was just a bird, yet it commanded silence, and the attention of the entire crowd.
The crow settled to the floor. It ruffled its feathers, then spread its wings and bobbed its head toward the throne in an unmistakable bow.
“Your Excellency,” she said, straightening up, and a single gasp ripped through the crowd, as if the room itself had sharply inhaled, followed by a flurry of whispers.
She ignored this, wearing a faint, knowing smile. She was a slender woman, tall and regal, and with sharply pointed ears rising up through her mane of glossy black hair. In contrast to the opulent attire of the other guests, she wore a simple green dress of soft leather, with a mantle seemingly woven of ragged black feathers draped over her shoulders and trailing down her back. In her left hand was a gnarled staff of dark hardwood.
“A most impressive display of solidarity, Sultana,” the Crow said calmly. “The wealthy, the powerful, even a smattering of…the humble.” She smiled pointedly at the three clerics of Avei, who narrowed their eyes in unison. “All gathered to pay homage to their young Princess. It seems every person of the slightest significance in your domain has been called here to present their compliments.” Her smile widened the merest fraction. “I shall assume the messenger sent with my invitation was…waylaid.”
“You honor my poor and humble house with your presence, Lady Crow,” the Sultana said, her well-trained poise shining through her unease. “It shames me that we were unable to deliver to you our personal wishes to see your revered person here. It is difficult to know where you are to be found at a given time, and of course, we do not presume to be kept informed of your business.” She managed a gracious smile. “Such is not for the unworthy likes of us to know, surely.”
“Well stated,” the Crow said, still with that unnervingly calm smile. “I have always appreciated the manners of the house of Alderasi. I was here to greet your earliest ancestors when they first came to these lands, farther back in time than you have even written memory. Yours is truly an ancient line, as humans reckon such things. Your forebears were most courteous in asking the aid of my people when settling here, fleeing the persecution of their enemies in their own homes. They were courteous in turn in their alliance with us, and it was as one that we drove the orcs back beyond the rivers that border their own lands. The elves were glad to share this spacious country with such valiant and gracious neighbors.”
“Of course,” Aliia said, nodding her head deeply in what was nearly a bow. “It is truly—”
“They were courteous when together we broke the back of the drow incursion, preventing Tar’naris from gaining a foothold on the surface.” No other living person in the palace—or the city—would have dared interrupt the Sultana, but the Crow’s voice echoed throughout the chamber, commanding silence. “Courteous as their numbers swelled and the terms of our sharing of the land constantly shifted. Courteous over the long years as friendship gave way to mere tolerance. The excuses of Calderaan functionaries for the various depredations of the last millennium have never been less than effusive and polite. Always there come protestations of respect and friendship in the aftermath of one more incursion into lands that have always been acknowledged ours.”
She stepped forward once, then a second time, the staff striking the marble floor like a tolling bell with each step. “Bit by bit, the lands of the elves have shrunk before the swelling tide of your people, till all but a mere handful have fled to the north, and those who remain in their last groves live in fear of the inevitable day when the Calderaan come with spears, and axes, and exceedingly polite apologies.”
The Crow stopped her advance, her face now chillingly expressionless. The Sultana opened her mouth to speak, but was again cut off.
“In one of the last sacred groves, there stands a tree planted ages ago, in ceremony pledging the friendship between our two peoples. We have watched over and tended it ever since, honoring the agreement of old. Ah, but I misspoke. There stood such a tree… Until this very year, when it was cut down. It was a beautiful tree, a rare breed not common anywhere, and found nowhere else on this continent. Obviously, only such could be carved into a suitable cradle, and throne, for the new Princess of the House of Aldarasi.” She pointed her staff accusingly at the crib in which lay the sleeping child, and the ornate chair beyond it.
“Your Excellency,” Sultana Aliia said in a strained whisper, her face all but bloodless, “if my house has in any way offended you—”
“Your house has in countless ways offended me,” the Crow said coldly. “And over countless years, I have indulged this as the behavior of a race still in its infancy. The thousand and one injuries of Calderaas I have borne with good humor, but upon this insult, I finally deem your family, and your nation, beyond hope or worth of redemption. It seems to me I have waited far too long.”
The Sultana of Calderaas stood abruptly, and bowed deeply, likely the first time she had ever done so. “Lady,” she said in a quavering voice, “please tell me how I may offer restitution for the wrongs you have suffered at the hands of me and mine.”
“None is possible,” the Crow said, and her tone, now, was weary. “It has been far too long, and I have been far too tolerant. This, too, I shall forgive. My pardon does not change the need to teach your people humility… But know that this brings me no pleasure. None at all.”
She shifted her piercing eyes to the cradle. “I have yet to offer my gift to the Princess.”
“No!” Prince Jaqim shouted, in defiance of all decorum, placing himself in front of his daughter’s crib.
The great chamber boomed as the Crow slammed the butt of her staff against the floor.
“Hear this, all assembled!” she demanded, her voice ringing off the walls. As she spoke, the sunlight faded from the room, as though thunderheads were forming directly over the palace itself. “I wish all possible health and happiness upon the Princess Talia. May she live in joy for every day of her life—this is my blessing, granted with all the power at my command. It is the only kindness I can offer, for the days of all mortals have their number.”
The crowds were pressing backward, now, with the exception of the royal guards, who had begun edging toward the Crow, hands straying toward weapons. Faint, disturbing echoes sounded at the edge of hearing, and shadows flickered across the mosaic tiles, looking for all the world like the bare branches of winter trees.
“You are far too generous,” Aliia said breathlessly.
The Crow struck her staff against the floor again. “But.”
“No,” Jaqim whispered, stretching out his arms as if he could shield the Princess with his own body.
“These days of joy shall be the last of the Aldarasi line,” the Crow declared, her voice rising in volume. The shadow-trees upon the walls danced, the dry sound of their branches scraping one another now echoing throughout the throne room. Dead leaves swirled upon the wind that sprang up, weaving chaotic spirals around the elf as she spoke. “Before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the thorn of a poison tree—”
“No!” Aliia shrieked, lunging at her.
The Crow slammed her staff down again, and a blast of wind roared through the throne room, hurling the Sultana backward and sending the Prince spinning helplessly away, but not even rocking the cradle. Her voice rose to a near shriek as she pronounced the final words of her curse.
The horrified cries of both royal parents were all but drowned by the howling gale, carrying with it the barely-heard accusations of a thousand elvish voices. The winds, the leaves, the very shadows leaped forward, lunging into a cyclone that stabbed directly at the crib.
Sapphire light blazed through the throne room, reflecting brilliantly off the mirrored mosaics. The Crow’s curse struck an invisible barrier surrounding the crib, marked by an elaborate runed circle that had sprung into being on the floor around it, glowing a nearly blinding blue-white. Shrieking in fury, the wind-borne spirits rebounded, then regrouped, lashing forward again and again. Each time they tried to reach the Princess, the circle flared brighter and they were flung back, until finally the cyclone shattered completely. Winds subsided, shadows faded, and dried leaves were scattered, to drift harmlessly to the ground.
In the deafening silence which followed, another slender figure appeared from behind the royal throne, pacing forward with a measured step. She was an eerie twin to the Crow—tall, slender, with upward-pointing ears and sharp green eyes, but dressed in a richly brocaded and midriff-baring blouse of azure silk, and with hair like spun gold.
The Crow lowered her staff, letting the butt rest gently on the floor, and narrowed her eyes at the other elf. “What are you doing here?”
“You ask me that?” the blonde replied, raising an eyebrow. She padded silently forward, placing herself between the Crow and the Princess; behind her, the circle of protection still glowed, but more dimly now that it was no longer under assault. “I’m supposed to be here. You have the honor of addressing the Lady Arachne Tellwyrn, court sorceress to her Excellency Sultana Aliia Demora Aldarasi, may she reign forever in peace.”
Arachne folded her hands together and bowed, wearing a mocking smile. “And as you have just declared war on the Sultanate of Calderaas, I suppose I ought to be destroying you rather than bandying pleasantries, yes?”
“Yes!” the Sultana cried, her poise faltering into a near shriek. She raced across the dais, placing herself protectively over her daughter’s crib. “Slay this monster before she has a chance to harm my child!”
Arachne gave her liege lady a calm look over her shoulder. “If that is your Excellency’s command—”
“I wasn’t finished,” the sorceress said with an edge to her tone. It was probably the sharpest the Sultana had ever been spoken to before that day. “Your Excellency should be in possession of all the facts before rendering a verdict.” She returned her stare to the Crow, who was watching her in silence through narrowed eyes. “I say without boasting that there are fewer living mages of greater power than I than I have fingers on my right hand… But this one was ancient when I first set foot upon the world. I truly do not know what the outcome of that contest would be… Except that it would leave this palace, and very likely most of the city, in ruins.”
The onlookers, stunned into silence, burst into a muted clamor of fear at that.
“Your Excellency,” Arachne said in a calm tone, eyes still locked with the Crow’s, “may I respectfully suggest that this chamber be cleared for the time being?”
“Yes,” Aliia said tersely, then raised her voice. “Leave us! Guards, clear and seal the throne room!”
Eager as the pampered nobility were to get far away from a potential clash between two arch-spellcasters, removing that many people from a room that had only so many exits was a somewhat involved process. While guards ushered the crowds out, an impromptu defensive perimeter formed around the still-sleeping Princess, her parents hovering over her crib, and the three priestesses positioning themselves around them. Only one carried a sword, but it was now bared in her hand; all three glared with the promise of murder at the Crow.
The Crow, for her part, totally ignored them. While the room was being cleared, Tellwyrn stepped down from the dais, joining her rival on the floor, and began circling her like a shark. Not one to passively be threatened, the Crow matched her rotation. The two women paced in a single ring, their gazes locked; occasionally, there came the faintest flicker of green or blue in the air between them, as hints of some silent magical contest broke through into reality.
When the doors finally boomed shut, the eight of them were left alone in the suddenly cavernous throne room, even the guards having departed at Aliia’s orders.
Arachne finally stopped in her pacing, and calmly turned her back on the Crow, bowing to the Sultana.
“If I may offer my analysis, the situation is this. The Crow is more than capable of obliterating this realm on her own, without making any such dramatic gestures. A simple drought, a disease, a blight upon crops and livestock… All these are the province of life and death, the realm in which her fae magic is at its strongest. I and all the priestesses would be hard pressed to beat that back. The arcane is ill-suited to such measures, and the divine can heal only so much at a time.” She glanced back at the Crow, who was still watching her in silence. “She evinces a desire to effect political solutions without unnecessary destruction or loss of life.”
“The murder of an innocent child is unnecessary?” the middle priestess snapped, lifting her sword.
“For the tree’s growth to be shaped,” the Crow said in perfect calm, “sometimes a healthy branch must be cut.”
“You are a monster,” Prince Jaqim growled.
“If I engage her in battle,” Tellwyrn continued, “all of you here are likely to be the first casualties.”
“If the outcome is foregone,” the Crow said mildly, “perhaps it would behoove you to withdraw?”
Tellwyrn whirled, her calm facade suddenly shattering, and bared her teeth in a snarl. “Had I nothing but two sticks and my sharp tongue, you bitch, I would make you earn my death before I let you swagger in here and fling curses at those under my protection.”
The Crow raised her eyebrows slightly.
“What is it you suggest?” the Sultana demanded tightly.
“I suggest we try talking to her,” Arachne replied, still glaring at the other elf. “There may be a middle ground that can be reached before everything is left in ruins.”
“One way or another,” the Crow said flatly, “I am putting an end to the destruction constantly wrought by your people. However,” she added in a more thoughtful tone, “it may be that I was too hasty in deeming you beyond salvation. If your line is not to be destroyed… Perhaps it can be taught?”
“Say what you mean,” Jaqim snapped.
The Crow tilted her head back, looking down her nose at them. “I would accept a ruler who has been taught to respect my kind, and truly honor our ancient friendship. Give the child to me to raise—”
The outcry that interrupted her rose simultaneously from every throat except Talia’s. The girl truly was a heavy sleeper. Unsurprisingly, it was Tellwyrn’s voice which pierced the babble.
“Absolutely not! Give you the child whose life you just threatened? I will have your ears first!”
“I have stated my offer,” the Crow said, thunking her staff on the floor for emphasis. “These are the alternatives: the Aldarasi line will learn or it will perish. If you cannot bear to grant me sole custody…” She tilted her head, smiling faintly. “I am amenable to discussing a compromise.”
The cottage was cozy, which was a word meaning “cramped and cheap.” It was, however, about as far from civilization as a person could get and still be within the patrolled and protected boundaries of the Sultanate. Deep in the northwestern forest, it had the benefit of occupying the safest quadrant of the realm, the nearest neighbors being the reclusive but peaceable wood elves to the north and the Avenist settlements of Viridill to the west. On the downside, there was nothing even leading toward it but a faint game trail. The long-ago woodcutter whose home this had been had clearly not enjoyed company.
Half-concealed in the trees at the edge of the glade in which the cottage stood, Arachne watched the three priestesses of Avei unload their wagon, pausing to coo at the baby or express dismay at the state of the house. At bare minimum, it was going to need to be re-thatched. It had fresh water, though, in the form of a spring-fed stream that trickled right past its door. There was a walled space that had once been a garden and could be again with some work, and the forest itself provided ample forage and game for those who knew how to get it.
It was doubtful whether the three did, but they, or at least the child, would soon have an education in the ways of the woods. That was the whole point.
With a soft caw, the crow settled to rest on a branch next to the sorceress.
“They don’t even live a hundred years, you know,” she said quietly. “And the first two decades are formative…precious. Depriving parents of this time in their child’s life is cruel.”
The Crow tilted her head, seated on the thin branch without any apparent difficulty balancing. “You, of course, are the expert on a mother’s tender feelings.”
“We have an agreed truce now,” Arachne said icily. “In sixteen years, however, that girl will have another birthday, and then everything will change. Keep that in mind when you speak to me, Kuriwa.”
The Crow smiled faintly. “It is a painful thing to ask, yes. But such is the burden of leadership. This is a sad necessity, if we are all to continue sharing this land.”
“Well, you’ve certainly arranged everything to your liking, haven’t you?”
She shrugged. “It is not ideal, but as compromises go…”
“We’re going to get along much better if you don’t insult me,” Tellwyrn snapped, her eyes still on the group settling in below. “You really want to pitch me the idea that you barged into that palace not knowing I was there? Or that you’re naïve enough to think you can break the back of a kingdom simply by removing the heir to the throne? You can’t be ignorant enough of human politics to believe a succession crisis means civilization-ending anarchy.” She glanced at her silent companion briefly, quickly returning her gaze to the priestesses and their infant charge. “So the girl is brought up as a commoner by three ‘aunts,’ no doubt absorbing a great deal of Avei’s teachings. Her tutelage in the form of two mysterious forest-dwelling elves will prepare her for the world of mortal politics and the ways of the elves. She’ll grow up a blend of humble and savvy that the royalty hasn’t seen in generations, and hopefully improve everyone’s lot when she finally takes the throne. And all it costs is the grief of two parents.” Arachne shook her head, scowling. “This is exactly what you intended, clever girl.”
The Crow shrugged, still smiling. “It is, as I say, a compromise. I cannot claim I am one of Avei’s devout, but I’ve never found argument with her. All things considered, it is preferable to killing the child. I have performed painful duties before, but such as that is always a bitter one. Those are memories that carry into eternity. I’m just as glad to avoid them.”
“Well, since we’re putting everything out in the open,” Tellwyrn said, turning to face her directly. “On that subject, allow me to be blunt. If you find yourself dissatisfied with the girl’s education as the deadline approaches, I suggest you think carefully before invoking that clause of the agreement. I think you know the nature of my interest in the House of Aldarasi. If you end my line, Kuriwa, I will end yours.”
The Crow stared at her, all amusement gone from her face. “How many human generations has it been, Arachne? That girl is no more kin to you than she is to virtually any random human. The elven blood you gave that family petered out long ago. You, however, are talking about my child. It’s hardly a reasonable comparison.”
“Reasonable?” Tellwyrn stretched her lips in a grin that was anything but amused. “Really, Kuriwa. Exactly how reasonable do you expect me to be about this?”
They stared at once another in silence for an infinite moment.
Then the Crow sighed and hopped down from the branch. “Your position is noted, Arachne. We have sixteen years, then. One hopes we can learn, in that time, to speak without resorting to threats of murder.”
She flapped away on black wings, cawing irritably. Arachne stood and watched the bird vanish into the forest canopy, until it was too far for even an elf’s senses to detect, then sighed heavily and turned back to study the cottage. Two of the priestesses had gone inside, leaving the youngest by the door with the baby. Apparently there was some question whether the old ruin was safe for an infant.
“Sixteen years,” she muttered, then scowled. “I really don’t like kids.”