A Merchant’s Luck
by Michael R. Meyerhofer
|part 4 of 7|
For a while, despite the pain caused by walking over rough roads in just his thin slippers, Castor tried to be hopeful. The caravan rolled at a snail’s pace, leaving a trail so obvious that a child could follow. If Captain Therocles was lucky enough to find a border-party of Duke Meddo’s men, help could already be on its way!
Then more Dusk Elves appeared on horseback, melting out of the twisted darkness of Nelophi. They brought with them additional horses for Nightmare and his men. The horses themselves looked none too happy to be in the charge of such men, but they knew well enough not to protest.
Castor couldn’t believe his eyes.
All over the Halfrealms, people told stories of the Sundering’s aftermath, how Light and Dark Elves rode out — together, for once, blades crackling with wytchfire — to hunt down those responsible. Most said only a handful of Dusk Elves survived the ensuing war. But here, only a generation later, Castor saw more Dusk Elves than he would ever have thought possible!
Without a word, the Dusk Elves emptied the wagons and smashed the crates. Castor watched in horror as rough, blemished hands hauled his Miraculous Mouthbrushes from their water-tight containers and shoved them by fistfuls into dirty saddlebags.
The Elves worked fast. Within minutes, they were done. Smashed crates littered the road. The wagon horses restlessly pawed the ground. The Elves forced Castor onto a horse of his own. Surrounded on all sides, Castor knew escape would be impossible, even for an expert rider, which he was not.
The Dusk-Elves started off again. They rode in silence. Nightmare led them towards a break in the trees.
Castor tried to keep his own hopes alive. If Therocles can find a border patrol from Xozaria, they can still follow our trail. There’s still time! Then his hopes were dashed again.
Ahead, the forest broke into a massive, man-made clearing. Hundreds of trees had been cut down — and recently, judging by the great heaps of sawdust and woodchips quilting the earth. Endless piles of branches lay twisted and shattered in the distance.
A Roc waited at the center of the clearing.
“By the gods...”
Castor had always been strangely fascinated by the gigantic, lavender birds. Larger even than dragons, they could easily carry off a mammoth in each claw. But more often, it was their backs that bore the burden. Like every other roc Castor had seen, this one wore between its wings a gigantic cabin complete with row upon row of passenger seats and a cargo hold.
Bored-faced sorcerers dressed in the green, leaf-patterned robes of Tamers milled nearby. Unlike the sorcerers of the Wytch Guild, who lusted predominantly after power, those of the Bestiary Guild simply wanted profit. Tamers were known for offering their services to anyone who paid, sometimes serving both sides in a conflict. But the Elves had confiscated Castor’s money-purse, and he knew better than to ask Tamers to help him for free.
The Tamers watched indifferently as the Dusk Elves unloaded the saddlebags filled with Castor’s Miraculous Mouthbrushes and stowed them in the Roc’s massive cargo hold. Nightmare prodded Castor’s ribs with the butt of a sword, shaking the young merchant from his daze.
“As you can see, we’ve gone to great expense to haul you and your foolish wares to your next destination.” Nightmare neatly reversed the sword and tucked the tip under Castor’s chin. With his free hand, he gestured to the ramp that led to the cabin. “Kindly climb aboard.”
Castor fought back tears of frustration and obeyed.
Moments later, Nightmare nodded to the Tamers. As one, they closed their eyes and willed themselves into a trance. Unseen magic jolted the Roc from slumber. The shriek was deafening. Gigantic wings on either side of the passenger hold slowly lifted and stirred, fanning great clouds of sawdust and woodchips that clattered against glass windows. Then, unspeakably powerful muscles drove the Roc’s massive wings into a frenzy. Great, clawed feet tensed and leapt, propelling it from the earth like a gigantic, winged brick.
Castor’s stomach lurched. Despite his terror of the Dusk Elves, Roc takeoffs always thrilled him. The great bird shrieked again and climbed into the sky.
“May I join you?”
Castor turned. Nightmare flashed him a mocking smile, keeping his feet despite the terrific lurch as the Roc rose higher towards the heavens. “You said something back there that I’d like to discuss with you.” The Dusk Elf sat without being invited. “About our being responsible for the Sundering.
“You’re right. We defied the gods. And in their wrath, they punished all the realms, not just Nelophi. Whole kingdoms cleaved in two, rent like busted plates.” He feigned sadness. “Thousands dead. Cities ruined. I know words cannot suffice, but on behalf of my kind, I give you my deepest apologies.” He bowed.
Castor felt sick to his stomach. “Have you no shame?”
Nightmare chuckled. “If I did, there might still be only a dozen Dusk Elves left on this entire, cracked world!”
Castor did not know what he meant by this, nor did he want to.
“Still,” Nightmare continued soberly, “since we’re on the topic, do you not find it strange that everyone is so quick to blame us for the Sundering? Does it never occur to you to question whether the gods’ response was... disproportionate?”
When Castor did not reply, Nightmare continued. “We had our reasons, merchant. Even the vilest deeds are sometimes justified. I would not expect you to understand.” Castor had a heard time listening, his gaze drawn to the blemishes and festering sores that covered the Dusk Elf’s face.
Finally, sickened, he looked away.
Nightmare smirked. “You find us appalling. I don’t blame you. But believe it or not, my kind was once proud. Vain, even. Beautiful, even by Elfish standards! But the gods have a fondness for ironic punishments.” The Dusk Elf laughed softly. Something in his voice made Castor turn back.
The merchant was surprised. He saw genuine sadness in Nightmare’s eyes. And something else: a flash of the proud, regal man this Dusk Elf might once have been. Nightmare rose a moment later and walked away, boots stomping against the cabin floor.
Castor sighed. He looked out the window and saw the twisted forest fall away. Beyond the makeshift airfield, he saw the road toward Xozaria still littered with abandoned wagons and the smashed remnants of his water-tight crates.
I paid a fortune for those, he thought, and wanted to cry.
* * *
Copyright © 2009 by Michael R. Meyerhofer