Chapter 14
The Fierce

Southern Norland, Pendragon

A week had passed since Cassandra and her unlikely traveling companions left the High City. It was strange how circumstance brought them together, or perhaps it was Fate at work. She was not entirely convinced that a supernatural hand guided events in the mortal realm. The idea of Fate seemed to contradict free will, not that many Elves thought of it that way. The fact that she pondered the question at all was no doubt an inheritance from her mother's human upbringing.
Speaking of her mother, she did not know why she permitted Rafael and the Barnlings to witness her reunion. However, by sharing something so intimate, there was less tension now in their little group. They still had their secrets--Cassandra especially--, but not trying to conceal something so fundamental as the fact that she was an Elf made things much easier. She could once again tell stories, the myths and legends of her people, as she had done before they came across Rafael. The Barnlings sorely missed it and even Rafael seemed to enjoy the stories, though he tried to act as an aloof and distant listener.
Rafael, for his part, was less persistent with his questions and had almost entirely given up on lying about himself as bait to get information out of Cassandra or the Barnlings. He was smitten like any flighty young man at the sight of a pretty face, but beyond that, he also had a ravening sense of curiosity. It formed the larger part of the motivation for his claimed profession of treasure hunter. He was drawn to the unknown and the more you tried to keep something from him, the more eagerly he would pursue it.
Although he did not seem to realize it himself, he had a measure of Elven blood and that instinctively attracted him to her. Even when diluted, Elven blood calls to Elven blood. It was part of what drew him to her attention in the first place and part of the reason she continued to let him follow along on her journey.
She was not so certain she would allow him to follow through on his vow to see her journey to its end. He had no idea what that would mean and she had no intention of telling him, not now at least. The plan had gone awry and it may yet all be for naught. She had to press on, though. Even the slimmest chance of victory was worth casting everything aside. She regretted that Seth might never understand, but this was as much for his good as anything.
They were once again passing along the northern edge of the South Pendragon Forest, or the Goblin's Forest as it was formerly known. Even with the Goblins having been driven to point of extinction, she could not draw anywhere near the forest without it making her skin crawl. According to legend, her grandmother fell prey to the Goblins of the forest while heavy with child. Human woodcutters found her as she was dying and cut the child from her belly in a bid to save at least one life. That child was her mother. The woodcutters, knowing nothing of Elves, took her mother and grandmother for gods or demigods and so her infant mother was presented to the temple of Apollo in the High City.
When Cassandra left the tree palace of El-Simil in search of her mother, she nearly met with the same fate as her grandmother, only there would not have been a child to succeed her. Pursued by the vicious Red Caps, she was saved by a young Seth and pledged herself to him ever since. While she was thankful to the forest for the opportunity to meet Seth, she could never forget her fear and desperation that day and any time she was near the forest, she would relive that nightmare over and over again.
Rafael stopped dead in his tracks, holding out one hand to get the others to stop while reaching for his knife with the other.
"What is it?" Cassandra asked.
She barely finished the question when a hulking creature burst out of the treeline and charged straight for them. He was closing the distance surprisingly fast for as large as he was. How did she not notice him? She should have heard him coming, sensed his presence, felt the burning of his animalistic fury well before he was almost upon them. Was she truly so distracted?
There was no time to worry about that now. She had to do what she could to drive off the creature. Using her walking stick as a focus, she quickly channeled energy through it, causing the tip to erupt in a brilliant flash of light. The creature--which Cassandra now realized was the larger and more vicious breed of Goblin known as the Orc--held up an arm to shield its eyes from the light. Rafael threw one of his knives into that arm, which only served to make it angry.
It swung wildly with its monstrous club bristling with jagged spikes of metal, stone and bone fragments. Somehow, Tammy was able to overcome her fear at the sight of the Orc and loosed an arrow. The little arrow stuck in the Orc's stomach, but it did not seem to penetrate past the layers crude leather armor.
Cassandra would have to do more. She reached out and tried to take hold of the Orc's mind, but there was nothing there. It was as if it did not exist at all. Anything with life had a presence that could be sensed if you were attuned to it. Any creature with a mind could be grasped, at least by someone with her level of ability, but it was like trying to take hold of the empty air.
It was then that she realized the Orc was immune to the touch of the mind. No wonder she did not sense it coming. Such a creature was too dangerous to live. Though it was perilous for her to exert too much of her power, it was a lesser evil compared to letting an immune run loose. She could not draw on the full power of the sun because some clouds were interfering, but all that meant was that it would only take longer for her to summon the energy she needed.
She could not be hasty. She needed to be certain that she killed the Orc in a single blow. But as she was gathering energy, the Orc drew a throwing axe with its free hand and threw it at her.
"Watch out!" Rafael shouted, diving at her to knock her out of the way.
She may have been able to redirect enough energy to deflect the axe and perhaps not. She would not begrudge Rafael for trying to save her, but her concentration was broken and the energy she had drawn into herself was quickly slipping away.
"Rafael, I need you to distract it," she told him. "I only need a few moments."
"I see what I can do," Rafael replied. He sprang a short distance away from Cassandra, threw another knife into the Orc's forearm, then shouted, "Hey, ugly! Over here! Can't ya hit anythin' with that big stick a' yours?"
Rather than swing its club, the Orc threw another axe. Rafael tried to deflect it with his knife, not quite cleanly, though, as he cried out in pain. An opening, however brief, was all the Orc needed. It charged at Rafael, hoisting up its club to bring it down with all the creature's terrible strength.
There was no time to gather more energy. She took what she had and lashed out at the Orc with a beam of light. The beam struck the Orc, knocked it over, but did little more damage than searing a hole in its armor. It knew Cassandra was the greater threat and turned to her as it got back on its feet. Before it could charge again, though, an arrow struck it in the back of the shoulder. It was not one of Tammy's arrows. It was a full-length arrow of greater craftsmanship, striking with much more force that anything the Barnling and her little shortbow were capable of.
In the span of a single breath, another arrow sank into the Orc's shoulder so close to the first arrow that the two were nearly touching. The Orc did not tarry to meet the new attacker, but instead made a break for cover within the treeline, taking a third arrow to the leg as he fled.
Cassandra traced the path of the arrow back to its source and saw a ranger emerge from the forest. It was no human ranger, though, but an Elf of the Forest Tribe. It was a most unexpected sight. No one from El-Simil left their forest to the south, but Cassandra had heard stories of an exile ranging in the Goblin's Forest, though she had never met him before.
"El-Naia preserve you," he greeted her in their native tongue as he drew nearer. "Are you hurt?"
"We are unharmed, thanks to you," she replied. "The peace and blessings of El-Naia be with you."
She realized that Rafael had suffered some injury, but now was not the time to split hairs. She glanced over to him to ensure he was not hurt too badly and then turned her attention back to their rescuer.
"By what name are you called, brother?" she asked.
"I am Galenas," the ranger replied. "Galen as the humans call me."
Cassandra gave a slight bow and said, "I am Kalina, called Cassandra by the humans."
"I have heard the stories," Galenas said, "of the strange and beautiful temptress who has bewitched the king of the humans in these lands."
Cassandra frowned at this, but thought better than to meet insult with insult with the man who saved their lives.
"I am sure you are wise enough to see such idle gossip for what it is," she said.
"Stories are stories and nothing more," Galenas replied with a smile. "But how long have you walked among the humans?"
"Twenty winters, if I recall correctly."
"Then you cannot be her..." he said, appearing somewhat crestfallen.
"Who?" Cassandra asked.
"There are older stories of one of our kind who was raised among the humans. I thought you might be the one."
"Perhaps you speak of my mother," Cassandra said. "Amrenia, called Galatea by the humans."
"'She who came from afar'," Galenas said, interpreting the meaning of her mother's Elvish name. "She found her way back to El-Simil? Is she there now?"
"No," Cassandra said, averting her eyes a little. "She is dead."
Galenas was taken aback by the news.
"Dead? How? She was so young, not even four hundred years."
Cassandra placed her hand over her heart. Even after having helped her mother find her rest, the pain of her loss was not gone entirely and speaking of it again so soon was more difficult than she would have imagined.
"Though my mother was accepted into El-Simil, her heart yearned for the people who raised her. When she returned, though, they had forgotten her. In their fear and ignorance, they killed her. I myself left El-Simil to learn of her fate."
Galenas' gripped his bow so tightly you could hear him squeezing it.
"The humans and their ignorance..." he growled. "We and ours..."
"Ours?" Cassandra asked curiously.
"I am banished from El-Simil for polluting myself with the humans," Galenas said. "I knew your mother's mother. I was with her that day when the uzshu attacked us. Some of us were killed, some fled. I was badly wounded and left for dead when I was discovered by the humans. My Wylla, she nursed me back to health. We loved each other. I took her to wife, she bore me sons and daughters, and then she died.
"I tried to return to El-Simil after her death, but the Council rebuked me for mixing our blood with the humans and so I was banished to my dying day, cursed to never be received into El-Naia's embrace."
"The Council does not judge who El-Naia will or will not receive," Cassandra said. "Only El-Naia can decide that."
"I am marked for death should I ever set foot in our forest again," Galenas replied, "so whether or not El-Naia accepts me, our people never will."
"Why do you tell me all this?"
"Perhaps I believe my story should not die with me," Galenas said. "No, more than that, I wanted to believe Mizakara's child survived against all hope and I wanted her to know that though I failed her, it was not for lack of courage."
"You are no craven," Cassandra said, "that much is clear."
"You mean that beast?" Galenas asked. "He is called Ghúl. He has made himself the chieftain of the uzshu who still lurk in the forest after the humans' war. He is young but dangerous. I have been hunting him for two winters now. Our paths have crossed many times, but I have yet to succeed in killing him."
Cassandra had heard the stories that the Goblins were coming back in force to threaten the people living along the edges of the woods, but if this Ghúl was counted as a chieftain and had any great following, it was not likely that he would strike out alone as he did. Or would he?
"Be wary should you continue to travel so near to the edge of the forest," Galenas said. "I will not ask where you intend to go. I would accompany you at least until you are clear of the forest, but now that I have made Ghúl bleed, there is some hope of a trail to follow."
"He is a dangerous creature and must be stopped," Cassandra replied.
Galenas looked over to Rafael and the Barnlings and told her, "You should tend to your companion."
Cassandra nodded.
"Yes, I will. Thank you. May El-Naia's blessing be with you."
Galenas shook his head.
"I wonder how much blessing she has for a wayward child such as myself, but no matter. El-Naia's blessing be with you as well."
Galenas raised his bow as a form of salute, then turned and left them for the forest, seeming to pick up the Orc's blood trail. When Cassandra returned to Rafael, he was sitting in the grass holding his injured left hand.
"You are hurt," she said.
"It's jus' a scratch," Rafael replied. "What'd that Alf hafta say?"
"He was telling me about the creature that attacked us. Its name is Ghúl and it would seem to be the chieftain of the Goblins in this forest."
"Their chieftain attacks us all on his own?" Rafael asked. "That doesn't make much sense."
"Who can know what those creatures think? Now, come, let me see your hand."
"It's nothin', really."
"Even the nick of a razor can kill a mighty man," Cassandra said. "I can heal you. It will only take a moment."
Rafael pulled off his glove to reveal the small gash between his thumb and index finger, where the Orc's throwing axe grazed him. Cassandra's hand hovered over his, glowing slightly as she channeled energy from herself to him. The wound closed and soon it was as if he had never been cut in the first place.
The Barnlings were huddled up close, watching with rapt attention. While looking so closely, Sammy noticed something of interest.
"Hey, Raffy, what's wrong with your hand?" he asked.
Rafael held up his newly healed hand, which was missing the pinky finger.
"Oh, this?" he asked. "It's always been like that. I was born that way."
"Lemme see!" Sammy said excitedly, taking hold of the treasure hunter's hand with his stubby little fingers.
Tammy chimed in, "Me too, me too!"
Like two children, they clutched his hand, oohing and aahing over the curiosity of the tiny stump. Cassandra could sense that Rafael did not mind too much, but the two Barnlings needed to know the limits of polite behavior.
"That is quite enough, you two," she said.
She pulled their hands away, much to the twins' disappointment, but as she was doing so, her own hand brushed against Rafael's stump of a finger. It was entirely unintentional and would have gone unnoticed had Cassandra not been suddenly assailed by a violent rush of images. Her body froze as the psychic backlash swept over her.
Rafael had not been born that way. No, the finger had been cut off, and although he did not remember it, his body had never forgotten. She saw white snow streaked with blood, charred corpses, the light fading out of a woman's eyes, a flashing knife, and man with many wounds lying on the ground. The wounded man reached out with his left hand, bleeding from a severed finger, the same as Rafael. When the hand made contact, the man's feelings crossed over. His pain, his sadness... But there was something else... A part of the man's spirit died in that very moment. In its place swirled a dark, freezing vortex. All emotion withered away, leaving one thing and one thing only: revenge. No, it was more than revenge, something deeper, more profound. Judgment.
She knew this feeling. She had felt it before, years ago. The scattered pieces of Rafael's hidden past finally came together. She saw it all, understood it all. Her Elven reserve could not save her from the resonance of her sympathic powers. She felt the unbearable loss as keenly as if it were her own.
While her body remained frozen in place, tears streamed down her cheeks. Her companions could not help but notice.
"Cassy? What's wrong?"
She could not hear Sammy's voice or feel Tammy tugging at her tunic. She was beyond the reach of the conscious world. Her mind had been overwhelmed, paralyzed. She was being dragged into the vortex and she could do nothing to resist. It would take her all the way to the Abyss, and she would be lost forever.
The world came rushing back as suddenly as it had been swept away. Rafael was holding her by the shoulders and shaking her.
She knew what had just happened, but she could not believe it. It was impossible. How could he have possibly been able to bring her back? Then she remembered. Elven blood ran in his veins. The power sleeping within him was just strong enough to save her.
"Cassandra, what's wrong?" Rafael asked, probably not for the first time.
Cassandra was still disoriented from the experience, but quickly struggled to regain her composure. Wiping away her tears, she simply said, "Nothing, nothing at all."
Rafael did not let her go.
"Don't tell me nothin'," he said firmly. "Somethin' happened. Tell me."
She could not look him in the eyes. "Not here," she muttered, "not now. Ask me another time." She turned to face him. "Please..."
There rare display of vulnerability was enough for Rafael back off.
"Cassy, what happened?" Sammy asked.
"She doesn't wanna talk 'bout it," Rafael said. "Leave her be."
The treasure hunter shooed away the two Barnlings to give Cassandra some space while she got back in sorts. Though he could not be called pure-hearted, there was some nobility to him. He could be much more than he was. Perhaps that was part of the reason why she did not drive him away.
As she reflected on what she saw of Rafael's past, she found herself believing more and more that Fate may have brought them together after all. The threads were coming together and the tapestry was beginning to take shape. The only question that remained was what influence she had on tapestry. Could she play the part of the weaver or was she just another thread?