The opulence of the castle’s interior held its radiance as I trailed the wizard’s quiet steps. White walls shot into the sky of its insides, far outside the scope of my vision. I could not help but feel out of place here in these halls; my level of comfort had long been part of the body that was the forest, the trees, and the spirits within them. Although I was the guest here, my body was not right.
The echoes which drifted back to us were those of our footfalls, and they were more whispers than anything else – almost phantasms of sound playing games with my Elvin sense of reality. They existed only if I seemed to imagine them, and when they were not, I questioned whether I imagined them at all.
Upon my travels through the towns of men, I had learned of the word ‘chandelier’ – an arrangement of lights hanging from somewhere above. I did not know the reason for this ceremony, nor why the arrangement of the lights never followed any sort of specific pattern. At first sight, I remember feeling almost afraid. The only reason for such a gathering of luminescence in the High Forest was generally a fire, and one that bright was cause for alarm. Yet those in the world below were mere flickers of a candle compared to those hanging above us as we walked the halls in this place of sorcery. I looked upon them at first with awe in their arrangement. Stagnant glimmering things, they reminded me of the fireflies of my home – giddy spirits of flight and whimsy, which hummed through environments of positivity and celebration. But these were all clustered together, and they changed color, dimming from hue to hue in a progress I could not follow.
But they were floating. The lights were not made in the cities of man, but from some other ethereal material. They were simply hovering fountains of flowing light – and I was there as audience, captivated by their glimmer, their changing color, and their glittered mystical showers.
“My friend.” Heinekin was smiling in the glow of his long untarnished robe. I noticed I had stopped following him and had been led astray by the show of lights off to one of the two sides. Heiniken stood at the other side of a small stone bridge, under which flowed a calming white stream, the extremities I did not attempt to discover. I shook myself away and made my way across the bridge, rejoining my guide.
Several turns and archways later, we entered a room occupied by four others. “Here we are,” Heiniken said, stopping and turning to welcome me to pass him on the way inside. He gestured to an open seat at a short table made of red oak. The light caught the surface and it glimmered as I approached. I noticed the others standing in my periphery. They had risen as we came in. I made cursory eye contact, and brought my eyes back to the glitter-clad stone floor. I took my seat before I allowed my head to swivel in surveying of those seated around me.
“You sure that’s your seat?”
I looked up to the gentle growl of a voice. A swirl of fright rolled through me. Sitting across from me was a ~
“Dragon!” I yelled and the lightening of my reactions thrust me backwards. My seat dropped and my body slammed upon the unforgiving stone. I rose in a flash to my feet, the string of my bow pulled, but my hands shaking with the unsure arrow. Three trials later, just as I had the bow and arrow placed at the ready, they flung from my hands. They moved through the air, separated and lay lightly upon the oaken surface of the communal table.
“It’s not often that guests break my furniture during their first day here,” Heiniken said.
I looked up at him. His demeanor was wizardly – calm, implacable, and I was unsure as to how to read it. Some chuckles came from the table, then I looked down to find the wooden chair now in small jagged wooden pieces across the stone.
“Oh great Mielikki, dear, I’m so very ~”
He chuckled and I watched then each piece, great and small, reform and connect, and the chair in seconds was again standing just as I had found it when I walked in. “Now, shall we try again?” he asked. “Kira, since you’ve already initiated contact, perhaps you should begin.”
The dragon thing cleared its throat and stood. Its frame actually lowered as it stood erect. It’s scaly skin was a beautiful reddish orange, and its eyes were of the same color, but richer and clear.
“I’m Kira, and you needn’t fear me devouring you whole. I am a dragon, yes, but not a full dragon. Not exactly,” she said. “I’m Dragonborn. It should be enough for now that I tell you this much – that I won’t kill you. I’m new here as well.” She gestured to everyone around the table with a nod. “Everyone is.” There was a pause then and I wasn’t sure if she sighed then or was unsure as to what to say to me next. “I am pleased to make your acquaintance,” she said. She grunted and sat back down in her seat. It seemed that it was more the case that she sat ‘up’ in her seat, but perhaps it was a strange ritual of her culture to which I was simply unfamiliar. I was weary of such things; I have never seen those of this creature’s features. The others were human-looking and I felt more accommodated to their ways, but I took my time looking at the draonborn, not knowing what at all to expect from her.
The others went around the table introducing themselves. From the dragonborn there was Tom Cullen, a younger nondescript human. He seemed to me like a farm worker, one closer to nature, from the way he dressed. But it was his behavior that was the most unnerving. I have only found humans to be those I am unable to read. I’ve gotten better with my experience, although most of it has been at a distance. My interaction with them has not always been the most intentional. But this one made my insides strange, turning, different.
He spoke quietly with his eyes down, not to any one of us directly. efusing to focus on those who would listen to his words. His hands fidgeted with something as he spoke. I spotted it instantly as currency, human coin. His hand twirled it back and forth across his knuckles. But the coin moved seemingly without his conscious effort. He looked up and met my eyes once. He made a quick assessment of my face as his fingers allowed quick tickling of the round ounce of silver. He brought his knuckles together and the coin flipped back and forth from one hand to the next.
He straightened then, and smirked. He brought his hands up to his face, begging my eyes to watch. “Did you know that the skin,” he whispered. “Makes the best of masks.” In a fluttering of his fingers, he turned his hands back to me, showing palm and his hand’s obverse. The coin was gone.
“Malcer,” said the man next to him. His voice was grumpy and sounded like the grinding roots of dying elms. A wilted denim hat sat plopped upon the silver tufts which hung upon a young man’s face. His drab traveling robe in need of a good river wash spoke of a man who had known more of the road away from the city of man than the city itself.
“Faëryn of the High Forest,” I said. My voice low with my slight bow.
He grunted. “Been around there a few times in the last hundred years or so. I remember sharing a cup of cinnamon oak wine with your kind once. I was young then, helped out an Elvin friend with some issues with the leaves of the Grandfather Tree.”
I heard my home on this man’s lips and placed my hands together in an Elvin butterfly salute. “Your travels warm the land of my home,” I nodded slightly in the respectful gesture of this man I had never met.
He grunted again, “Cute little fella’” he said. “I was sorry to hear about what happened to your home. And your father.”
Fire grew within me.
“And I don’t think you had a chance to get out of it, if that makes any sense. You or your family.”
“How do you speak of my father like you knew him?” My reaction was swift, but caused by something that still played me like an elm flute.
The man shook his head and looked around the table briefly. “Heineken, I have reason to believe that not all present are understanding of the workings of a wizard.”
The wizard of the castle addressed me then, calmly. “No need to be so hasty for answers, my dear Sylvan. All in good time.” He handed the voice over to the last member of the table other than me, a burly tree of a man who greeted me only with the smiles of the sun. A light from above shone upon him, taking my focus off Malcer, his denim hat falling into the shadows. Heineken’s house was an animal under its master’s control.
“Blessings young traveler,” he said, his arms opening as he leaned in. Without the slightest hesitation his oaken arms crunched me into him and I was clung to his body with force. I yelped a bit and the pressure vanished as he pulled back and held me by the shoulders. “Oh Sweet Lathander, are you all right?! What’s wrong?”
“Elves,” Heineken cut in, “Mr. Thresh, are not accustomed to the necessities of physical touch as you are.”
The man turned back to me and guffawed. “Ha! Well, you have my apologies, young friend. I am Dolan Thresh.” He held a hand out, realizing it would be more accommodating greeting for my kind. Abashedly, I bowed my head and offered the butterfly greeting of my people with my introduction.
“It is by the grace of Lathander the Bright that we have shared this path. You have my sword, my blood, and my heart.”
There was an exhaustive sigh across the table. “Can we sort of push things along, please.” Tom Cullen was looking at Heineken pleadingly.
“Wizards, Mr. Cullen, are often want to enjoy a bit of human spirit,” said our host, graceful. “But yes,” he addressed the party as a whole, “we may continue after we hear from you, Faëryn.”
My words were few, but I stuck to the topic that I knew, wanting only to give the basics of who I was and the story of my arrival.
“And now that you all are here, here is my task for you. Collectively, I’d like you to ensure the safe journey of a particular caravan. There is a family of royalty who needs to make their destination. They happen to be passing through some lands that are rather dangerous.” He looked around the table. “Their survival is something I am asking you to protect.”
“We were brought to you great castle in the sky so that you could tell us to protect people down below to get from one point to another?” Kira’s voice expressed another flavor of dissatisfaction. “I’m sorry,” she said, getting up from the table, the height of her form dropping a bit when she stood. “If you don’t mind, I’d rather just be on my way. Forgive me if I was expecting something a bit more of an adventure.”
“Please,” the great wizard said, raising his hand to her. Kira’s body lifted and was reset into her seat at the table. “Do sit down.”
When she was seated again, Malcer’s voice came through, his head shaking a bit. “The ways of the wizard; they never understand.”
“I beg you all to be patient,” Heineken said. “I am not finished addressing you.
“Let us begin here,” he said. He made another slight motion with both of his hands and, together, we were wrapped with beautiful green traveling capes clasped in front of us with a shiny golden broach – a serpentine beast eating its own tail. The end of its tail carried three small red stones, a deep velvet green one sparked in its eyes. It clasped in front, and each of us, I noticed, felt them, touched them, wanted to understand them.
“You are henceforth to be known as the Clan of the Mist, an explanation to which I am cannot now reveal. This broach is your symbol of unity, your safe ground, your bastion of community and trust. The caravan is your current task, not the full adventure to which I am asking you to commit. I am sending you forth, in no uncertain terms, into an unknowable future of both glory and misery. You will find yourselves risking all in search of your own personal glories, and with great reward, as natural law has it, comes the greatest of risks. From outside the circles of these trials, this very adventure own vision, both Death and Eternity will be watching. I have selected you for a grand and thematic journey, and it has taken me a good deal of strain upon my patience. But I am quite confident that I have chosen with an adequate degree of sapience.”
He looked over to Kira and gestured with an open hand. “Yes, my dear Dragonborn. Should you choose to leave now, and return the sanctity of your mundane life of prize fighting for survival, I will allow you to do so. You’ll not be asked for anything further, you will return to your life, and you will not hear from me again. This I leave as your choice.”
Heineken stopped then and waited, looking at her.
Kira said nothing.
“But should you choose to say,” he looked then at all of us. “I will accept this as your final formal declaration of acceptance, and there will no longer be an option to turn back…ever.”
None of us said anything.
“Well then!” Heineken smiled and opened his palms. There was a renewed light which shone then upon the entire table. “It pleases me to have you! Let this be your welcome from me and the entirety of my cloud home. You will stay for the evening and your entertainment and meal will be grand. You will leave at first light, and it will be as a party in whole.”
We dined, and some of us even laughed, we got to know each other a bit. There were words spoken, and in our own ways, we were still ourselves, yet we also knew that we had given ourselves to Heineken and this party. And the next day we would find out a small part of what that meant.