Chapter 16
The Burrow Folk

Southern Norland, Pendragon

Just when things had relaxed among them, the distance and tension returned. It had been three days since the Orc attacked them and in all that time, Cassandra could barely bring herself to face Rafael. He was consumed with the desire to know what she had seen but he restrained himself from asking her before she was ready. At least he never uttered the question with his lips, but his inner voice was a different story. The questions repeated over and over again, wearing mightily of Cassandra's reserve. If she did not fear the great harm it might do for him to learn the truth about his origins, she would have told him by then. Instead she continued to bear the onslaught of unasked questions.
"Ya feelin' alright, Cassandra?" he asked her. "You're not lookin' so good. I mean, ya look good, don't get me wrong, but what I'm sayin' is--"
Cassandra held up a hand to stop him.
"I am fine," she said, "just a little tired."
"Ya wanna rest? We been keepin' a pretty hard pace, ya know."
Cassandra shook her head.
"We are not far from our destination. We just need to go a little further."
"Alright, if ya say so," Rafael said. "Jus' don't push yourself too hard, okay?"
Cassandra nodded.
"Cassy, I wouldn't mind restin' myself," Sammy said.
"Yeah, we can rest a bit," Tammy added.
"Thank you for your concern," Cassandra said, "but I want to reach our destination before sunset."
"Aw, we ain't in no hurry," Sammy said.
"You two have had your adventure," Cassandra told him, "and now I am returning you home as I promised."
"But we wanna stay with you," Sammy whined.
"Where I am going is much too dangerous. I have let you see more of the world than most of your kind ever will. Is that not enough?"
"Well, if it's so dangerous, ya oughtn't be alone."
"She's got Raffy," Tammy said, "right?"
Cassandra did not answer her. Neither Rafael nor the Barnlings would accept it if she said she intended to go on alone. She had to keep her purpose to herself as long as she could.
"Come along," she said. "We still have some distance to go."
Rafael seemed to play along with her deflection, asking the Barnlings, "So where's home for you two runts?"
"We ain't s'pposed ta be tellin' Bigguns," Sammy said. "An' don't be callin' us runts!"
"He's gonna find out anyway," Tammy said. "It won't make no diff'rence."
Sammy frowned at this, tilted his head as he rolled the idea around, then finally nodded in assent with his sister's logic.
"I guess so," he said. "Well, ya better not tell any other Bigguns. Ya gotta pinky-swear."
Sammy held up his hand with his pinky finger extended. Rafael gave him a look. It took a moment for the Barnling to realize his error.
"Oh..."
Sammy's face got a little red, but then he quickly plowed through his embarrassment.
"Well, anyway, no tellin' any other Bigguns, alright?"
"I don't plan on it," Rafael said.
"Ya promise?"
"Yeah, yeah, I ain't tellin' no one. It ain't like ya live in a city a' gold or nothin'."
"You don't know!"
"Do ya?"
"No..."
"It's called Underhill," Tammy said.
"'Cause it's unner the hills," Sammy added.
"Lotta 'magination with you lot, huh?"
"Aw, shut it."
"So y'all live in burras like rabbits?"
"We gotta," Sammy said. "Look at us. Ya can't do much bein' this lil'."
"Ya can't do much bein' big neither," Rafael noted. "There's a reason there ain't Giants 'bout no more."
Sammy kicked the ground, grumbling, "Bigguns destroy ever'thin'..."
"All races have a destructive nature," Cassandra said, "not just the humans. It only seems worse because there are so many of them."
"That true a' you Alfar too?" Rafael asked.
Cassandra nodded.
"Deny it as we might, as much as we may strive to live in harmony with Nature and all living things, much destruction has been wrought by our hands. I wonder at times, if we were as many as you humans and the candle of our lives burned as briefly, would we be so different?"
"Ya'd look better doin' it," Rafael said.
Cassandra could not help but chuckle at his comment.
"You certainly know how to spoil a serious topic, Rafael."
"Bein' too serious'd jus' give ya wrinkles."
"By the standards of your kind, a few wrinkles would not be so unusual on a woman of my age."
"By the standards a' my kind, at your age ya'd be nothin' but wrinkles."
And so they continued like this until it was nearly sunset. They were drawing close to the Barnlings' home, but Cassandra said nothing, leaving them to reveal it themselves. Or rather, that was her intent until she sensed that they were trying to deceive her into extending the journey. She did not let them get away with it for long.
"We have already passed the entrance," she said. "Did you think you could hide it from me?"
"I told you it wasn't gonna work," Tammy whispered to her brother, punching him in the arm.
"Ow~w. Durnit, Sis..."
Sammy gave his sister a sour look while rubbing his arm.
"Alright," he said, "let's go..."
Cassandra felt sorry for them being as dejected as they were, but far greater sorrows would await them if they accompanied her any farther.
The entrance to Underhill was in the middle of a small grove of trees removed from the main forest. In the center of the grove was the ruin of a centuries-old yew tree that appeared to have been struck by lightning. Excepting several of the pines more common to the region, the other trees of the grove seemed to be the children of this long-dead yew. Beneath its thick gnarled roots was a hollow just large enough for a Barnling to pass through. The casual observer would likely dismiss it as a common animal den, such as that of a rather large badger.
"This is farewell, my little ones," Cassandra said.
"Hold up, Cassy," Sammy said. "Ya done a lot for us. Me an' Sis'd be dead if it weren't for you. Let us thank ya proper-like an' then ya can go."
While Cassandra appreciated the sentiment, the longer it took for them to part, the more difficult it would be.
"No one outside your people is permitted in, am I right?" she said.
"Lemme worry 'bout that," Sammy said. "Jus' gimme a minute."
Against her better judgment, Cassandra agreed.
"Very well."
"Don't run off now," the Barnling said as he went into the hollow with his sister after him.
While they were waiting, Rafael told Cassandra, "Jus' so ya know, I ain't got a hole for ya ta drop me in 'less ya dig one."
"I may yet do so," she replied teasingly, but inwardly she cursed herself for speaking too close to her purpose.
Rafael was gracious enough to change the topic.
"I can't imagine what it mus' be like livin' your whole life unnergroun' like that. No wonner those two kids were itchin' ta see the world."
"In all insular societies, there are those wanting to get out."
"Speakin' from experience?"
"It is more peaceful in my people's forest, yes, but there is a stultifying air about it. Only after I left did I truly come to understand. Not all of my days among the humans have been happy ones, far from it, but so much more has happened in the past twenty years than the nearly three centuries that came before it."
"I can't even begin ta imagine it."
"You may yet," she said.
Again she was being careless in her speech. She was usually much more controlled. Was it the weight of her mission or was it something else? Her lapse did not go unnoticed and Rafael did not fail to comment on it.
"So ya know, do ya?"
"Pardon?"
"Don't gimme that. I'm six an' thirty an' don't look a day over twenny. There's somethin' 'bout me. I don't age like normal people. It's part a' the reason I'm always movin' 'round so much, so people don't notice. What is it? Am I part Alf or somethin'?"
Cassandra had to tread lightly. She could not deceive him by denying anything, but revealing even a little might serve only to whet his appetite rather than sate it. With his voracious sense of curiosity, the former was highly likely, but she had to tell him something.
"Yes," she admitted, "the blood of my people flows in your veins, but more than that I cannot say."
"Ya know more, you're jus' not gonna tell me."
"Now is not the time. The burden is too heavy."
"Shouldn't I get ta decide that?"
"So long as I am the one holding the knowledge, no."
Rafael went quiet for a moment before speaking up again.
"I see stuff sometimes, ya know. Remember. Only it ain't me. It ain't my life I'm seein'. I can't make sense of it. I can speak tongues I never heard, see places I never been. It's why I knew my name was Rafael even though all I ever been called was Finn. It's how I can throw knives like this."
He drew one of his knives and threw it so fast that even Cassandra nearly missed it. The point stuck neatly in a knot in the tree's trunk.
"An' I didn't even need ta practice. All my life I been wond'rin' an' now I foun' someone who can tell me. Jus' what the hell am I?"
"It would seem that you can glimpse into your ancestral memories," Cassandra said. "It is rare for even my own people to have such a strong link, but it is dangerous. If you dig too deeply into the past, you may lose yourself."
"Ya tellin' me that 'cause it's true or jus' 'cause ya don't want me knowin' whatever it is ya know 'bout me?"
Cassandra said nothing and Rafael gave her a dismissive wave of his hand.
"Ah, ya think you're doin' somethin' good for me, so we'll leave it at that. Ya tole me more'n I knew before, so I guess that's somethin'."
"Thank you for understanding, Rafael."
"I ain't givin' up. I wanna know, but I'll let it sit for now."
Sammy's head popped up from the hollow and he said, "C'mon, c'mon. Ever'one wants ta meet ya."
"How're we gonna fit in there?" Rafael asked.
"Sorry, Raffy," Sammy said, "no Bigguns."
Rafael looked at Cassandra and said, "She's a Biggun too, ain't she?"
"It's diff'rent for a Tree-talker. Nobody's ever seen one before."
"Rafael..."
Before Cassandra could make her plea to him, he held up his hand to stop her.
"Alright, alright, I'll wait out here. Keep watch or somethin'."
"Maybe not so close ta the durn hole," Sammy suggested.
"Fine. I'll wait somewhere not so close ta the durn hole."
"I will not be long," Cassandra said.
"Jus' don't leave me out here if they go an' make ya their queen or anythin', alright?"
Cassandra grinned.
"My first royal decree will be to grant you a special dispensation as an honorary Barnling."
"Yeah, jus' what I always wanted."
"C'mon, you two," Sammy interrupted. "Daylight's burnin'."
"What difference does that make?" Rafael asked. "You're in a hole in the ground."
"It makes a diff'rence!"
"Come now, enough," Cassandra said. "Lead the way, Samhain."
"Right this way, Cassy."
Though she was not particularly eager to get down on her hands and knees and crawl around in the dirt, she would not scorn the Barnlings' offer of hospitality. There were times that she envied the more voluptuous figures of some human women, but at this moment she was thankful for her slender Elven frame or else she would never have fit inside the hollow.
The tunnel that followed was large enough for a Barnling to walk upright, but if it were any smaller, rather than crawl on her hands and knees, she would have to resort to wriggling about on her belly like a snake. That would have proven a little too much for her dignity to bear.
It was not the custom of the Elves to venture underground except for the sacred grotto beneath the roots of El-Simil and so Cassandra found herself rather uncomfortable the further they went. She recalled the hidden underground temple in the High City and the catacombs where her mother rested. Uncomfortable though she was, she did not complain as they continued further. The light of the sun had long since left them, but Sammy moved confidently along, so rather than risk disturbing him with a light spell, Cassandra simply continued to follow the sound of him softly padding along.
When he made a turn, he said to her, "Stay close, Cassy. We got tunnels dug all through here like a maze in case somethin' tries ta get in. The secret's two rights, two lefts an' then straight on."
Cassandra did not tell him that it was not a particularly complex maze, but at least from what she had observed from Sammy and Tammy, the Barnlings did not seem to be a particularly complex people. There was no fault in that, though. Complexity was not necessarily a virtue. It was for the sake of such a simple people, that they might live out their days in peace, that was why she was doing this. It was not for the sake of the cosmic battle between Light and Dark, Order and Chaos, but for simple, ordinary lives that they might not be touched by that battle.
"Here we are," Sammy said.
Cassandra touched one of her eyes to enchant it that she might actually see what 'here' was. They had come to a rather well-crafted door little bigger than Sammy. He knocked on the door twice, paused, then knocked two more times. From the other side of the door, there were three knocks, to which Sammy replied in the same fashion as the first time.
"If ya knock three times back, it means there's trouble," Sammy explained.
"I see."
She could hear the sound of the bar being removed and the door opened to reveal a stout, grim-faced Barnling who eyed Cassandra suspiciously.
"What kinda face is that ta show a guest, Bemmy-man?" Sammy said.
The grim-faced Barnling scowled and replied, "We don't 'ave guests 'ere."
"Well, we do t'day," Sammy said, "so put your smile on."
If he did indeed put his smile on, it was indistinguishable from his frown. Or perhaps she missed it because she was preoccupied with breaking the enchantment on her eyes as she was nearly blinded by the unexpected light that filled the tunnel once the door was opened.
Indeed, Cassandra had sensed a magical presence before they had even entered the grove, but she did not know what to make of it. As they passed through the door, the tunnel opened up into a large chamber at least twenty fathoms across with a domed ceiling high enough for Cassandra to stand up even at its lowest point. At the center of the dome was the source of the magical energy she sensed, a rough-hewn crystal that shone brightly.
"We call it the Lil' Sun," Sammy said. "Merry the Wise made it sev'ral hunnerd years ago. Ever' time anyone tells it, they add a hunnerd years. Las' time I think they was up ta thirty-seven hunnerd. They say the Lil' Sun's got a twin somewhere an' when the twin catches the light a' the sun by day an' the moon by night, the Lil' Sun reflects it here." He then lowered his voice and admitted, "I don't unnerstan' it myself. That's jus' what we was taught."
"I understand the principle," Cassandra said. "We use something similar to light the inside of our great tree palace."
"Oh, so we got it from the Tree-talkers?" Sammy asked, sounding a little crestfallen that his people's great achievement might not be their own.
"I do not think so," Cassandra said. "By the cut of the crystal, as near as I can see, it does not appear to be the work of our crystalsmiths. Your Merry the Wise was quite clever. Though I am not so certain I believe he did his work over three millennia ago."
Sammy laughed.
"No one else does neither. All our stories get taller with the tellin'."
"Most stories do."
Around that time, Tammy emerged from one of many holes in the walls that appeared to lead to the Barnlings' dwellings. She was followed by an older Barnling and his household, some twenty in all. She carried two sticks that she struck together as some sort of call to summon the others from their holes. No family was quite so large as the first, the smallest being one or two and the largest around twelve or thirteen. There were yet many holes that appeared to be empty. In total, over two hundred Barnlings assembled around Cassandra.
It was the head of the largest family who was first to speak.
"Greetin's an' welcome," he said. "We don't normally have outsiders for guests, but what lil' we got is yours. I'm Danny Om-Dom, the mayor a' Unnerhill. The Kol-Bols broke our laws wand'rin' so far out, but they're all that's left a' their clan, so we're obliged ta ya for mindin' 'em an' bringin' 'em home."
Cassandra pulled back her hood, eliciting some awed muttering from among the Barnlings. She placed her hand over her heart and bowed, saying, "Peace and blessings upon you all. I am Kalina, daughter of Amrenia, called Cassandra. I ask nothing of you but your friendship."
"We got plenny a' that, Cassy!" Sammy said proudly.
Mayor Om-Dom gave Sammy a severe look before looking back to Cassandra and saying, "Allow us ta at leas' hole a feas' in your honor, m'lady. We can't offer much, but we'll give ya our bes'."
Cassandra bowed again.
"I humbly accept your most gracious hospitality."
Quieter this time to draw less of the mayor's attention, Sammy asked her, "Raffy won't be mad, ya don't think?"
"Perhaps if you save him a portion, he will have less cause to complain," she said.
While preparations for the feast were underway, Cassandra found herself the unwitting source of entertainment despite being the guest. Sammy and Tammy had talked up her storytelling ability and the Barnlings were a people with a great love for storytelling. While Sammy had intimated that a popular pastime was telling familiar stories with progressively larger embellishments each time, the prospect of new stories drew the rapt attention of young and old alike.
The inspiration for her choice of a story was a child who asked her, "Are all Tree-talkers like you?"
The story was actually something of a taboo among her people, told only once or twice to the young for their instruction, yet she was not among her people and chose to tell the Barnlings of the Great Schism that rent Elfkind apart.
"Now we Elves are called forest folk by many," she began, "and it is true that we are a people who dwell in the forests and love trees, but among ourselves, only a portion is known as the Forest Tribe. When El-Naia our mother first gave us life, we were one tribe, as one body, it was said. Now we are four: The Forest Tribe, the Wind Tribe, the Light Tribe such as myself... and the Dark Tribe."
The emphasis on the Dark Tribe was partially for dramatic effect and succeeded in drawing some oohs from the audience, but it was also because the very mention of them was so bitter. Personally, she had never encountered an Elf of the Dark Tribe, yet she could still feel the hatred that burned in the hearts of the teachers who instructed her when she was a child. Normally, negative emotions were to be tightly controlled and suppressed, but this subject seemed to be the exception.
She continued, "The Elves lived in five great tree palaces across the world: El-Simil, El-Alar, El-Sidar, El-Okur, and El-Haman. Each of these palaces was ruled by a High Council in those days. There were no kings or queens. All were equal, but the councilors were deemed the wisest of our people and none was deemed wiser than Hazil of El-Haman in the South.
"It came about in those days that the great Lord of Shadow struck the land with a mighty hand. It seemed the whole world would fall to Darkness, Death and Decay, for these are what the Lords of Shadow wreak upon the land whenever they appear."
Some of the children quailed at this and even many of the adults seemed discomfitted. If only they knew the true terror of the Lords of Shadow...
She continued, "Hazil vowed to confront this Lord of Shadow and a thousand valiant souls flocked to his call. The other councilors called it folly, but they could not dissuade him or any of those pledged to him. He went forth, eastward to the Lord of Shadow's stronghold. He and his company were mourned as dead from the moment they left. Four moons passed and then it happened."
"What happened?" a young Barnling asked.
"As I said, we were as one body in those days, but then it was as if we were no closer to each other than any of you are to the moon. Not only our connection to each other but to the spirits and the æther about us we became as strangers. We were greatly diminished from our former glory, but how did this come to be?"
"That 'Azil got 'imself kilt," an older Barnling said.
"I am afraid it was even worse than that," Cassandra said gravely. "Hazil and his thousand returned to El-Haman, but they were changed, fallen to the Darkness."
"The Dark Tribe..."
Cassandra nodded.
"Yes. Seeing that he could not prevail against the Lord of Shadow, Hazil instead submitted to him."
As she spoke the words, her heart skipped a beat. Recovering herself, quickly, she continued, "In exchange for his submission, Hazil asked the Lord of Shadow for a boon..."
It happened again. She was not so quick to recover this time.
"The gift of Darkness..."
And again. This time Cassandra clutched at her chest.
"Cassy, what's wrong?" Sammy asked.
And again. It was a magical pulse of some kind and a powerful one. Where was it coming from? What did it mean to do?
Again. Cassandra fell to her knees. Sammy and Tammy rushed to her side.
"Cassy!"
Again. She could feel the presence moving through her veins.
Again. The Little Sun started to dim, washed in shade as the sun during an eclipse. Frightened cries erupted from among the Barnlings. Even without any sensitivity to magic, they knew something was terribly wrong.
"Run..." she said weakly.
"What?"
Again.
"RUN!!"
Again. And after that, she could remember nothing.

* * *

Rafael did not know what happened. He only knew something was not right, something that filled him with an inexplicable dread. Throwing caution to the wind, he bolted into the hollow and furiously wormed his way through the dark and narrow tunnels. This was not unlike the time he had to escape the High City through the sewers, only this time it did not smell quite as bad.
There were branches in the tunnel, but he had a natural knack for finding his way and there was the noise of a great clamor to follow besides. He reached some sort of door and when it did not open, he had to quickly backtrack to the nearest fork to turn himself around, then go back feet-first. He savagely kicked at the door until it was torn loose from its hinges.
He found himself in a large chamber lit dimly by a black crystal hanging from the ceiling. Some two dozen Barnlings armed with spears and bows were circling around Cassandra, but none of them dared to get any closer. Tendrils of light were streaming off her body and her eyes had turned an eerie black. Several Barnlings lay fallen on the ground.
"Cassandra!"
Rafael ran toward her, but she stretched out her hand and a beam of light struck him full in the chest, throwing him back. A hole was scorched in his tunic, but he was little worse for wear. Surely that was not her full power. Whatever was happening to her, a part of her was holding back. There was still hope.
The black crystal in the ceiling seemed to be the most likely culprit, so he drew out one of his heavier knives and threw it, upsetting the crystal in its fixture. A second knife succeeded in dislodging it. The crystal fell to ground and shattered into countless pieces.
"No!" several of the Barnlings cried.
The crystal was broken, but whatever had a hold on Cassandra remained.
The ring, Rafael! The ring!
Cassandra's voice echoed in his head. He then recalled the beryl ring on her hand. It was fairly simple but of good craftsmanship and could likely fetch a decent price. A thief--a treasure hunter, that is--tends to notice such things.
As he ran to Cassandra again, he had to dodge the spear thrusts and a couple arrows from the Barnlings.
"Dammit, knock it off!" he shouted angrily. "Can't ya seem I'm tryin' ta help!?"
Cassandra tried to attack him with a beam of light again, but he was ready for it this time and succeeded in dodging it. He closed the distance and took hold of her wrist. The tendrils about her lashed out with a vengeance, piercing him all over, yet it was not the flesh they harmed but something deeper. Nevertheless, his body responded with wave upon wave of excruciating pain. He shook as one with a fit of the falling sickness, yet he stood firm and reached for the ring on her finger.
The ring did not wish to be parted from her, though. It burned like fire. Rafael cried out in pain, but he did not let go. Once the ring was loose, it stopped burning and felt like a leaden weight. The tendrils vanished, relieving Rafael of the pain that was racking him from head to toe, and Cassandra's eyes returned to normal. He tossed the ring aside to catch her as she slumped into his arms. The fragments of the black crystal cleared and began to glow with a gentle yellow light.
"Thank you, Rafael," Cassandra said weakly. "I had no control over myself..."
"What were ya doin' with somethin' dangerous as that?" he asked her.
Before she could answer, her head jerked back as a spearhead burst through her stomach.
"Cassandra, no!"

* * *

Princess Aurelia sat holding a crystal orb. A beryl ring was on her hand and her eyes were black as beads of polished onyx. Her mother the Queen stood behind her, holding her by the shoulders.
In walked Linhua, saying, "Princess, I--"
The Queen shot her a severe look.
"Know your place, foreigner. Do you come into the Princess' chamber unannounced?"
Linhua dropped to her knees bowed low.
"Forgive me, Your Majesty. Your maidservant forgot herself."
"Go," the Queen said. "Whatever your business, it can await our good pleasure."
"As Your Majesty commands."
Linhua withdrew, but by then the light had faded from the crystal orb and the Princess' eyes were once again their natural color. She looked to the crystal in confusion, then saw the hands on her shoulder and looked up to the Queen.
"Mother, what--?"
"It is nothing, my child," the Queen replied. "I needed your help disposing of a nuisance. It is over now."