is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
© 2016 by Sean Hinn.
All rights reserved.
Published in the United States of America by Bobdog Books.
First Electronic Edition
Tahr was on the brink of another major war as the tribal races had again united under an evil tyrant, this time lured by false promises from the King of Mor. Like most wars, the conflict had begun as the innocence and weakness of common people fell victim to the avarice of the powerful. In The War of Strife (as it is known today, three centuries later) a drought had taken hold in the kingdom of Mor and its surrounding lands, resulting in a crushing famine in the summer, and ultimately the spread of a new, terrible disease that winter.
By spring, the lung-eating Strife had spread to all the tribes and races of humanoids and fully a tenth of all the peoples of Greater Tahr had lost their lives to it. No race was fully spared. In the heart of the kingdom of Men lay the City of Mor; the king of that great capital had been Clem Jarrshin. He, his two sons, and much of his extended family had fallen dead to the disease in less than a cycle. A truly wicked man named Jons Halsen leveraged his political and family connections to secure control of the throne in the tumult that followed. Halsen had rallied the soldiery of the great city under the call of restoring order and finding a cure for the Strife, though his true ambition was little more than a thirst for personal power. As the disease ravenously tore through Mor and the surrounding lands like, Jons Halsen had been installed as King. His first political act was to convince the people of Mor that the Elves had found a cure for the Strife, and were withholding it from the other races to ensure that Thornwood would be the only kingdom left standing when the disease ran its course. The claim was of course a lie, but like all great lies it had roots in truth, for the elven people’s innate magic enabled them to sustain a higher survival rate against the dreadful lung-eating disease. The elves knew, as did Halsen, that no direct use of magic would help a victim of the Strife; it was the inherent life force of the individual that determined how successfully one’s body would combat the disease, and the elven spirit possessed a resilience that far surpassed that of the other races. Halsen had easily persuaded his hungry, dying people that the elves had the magic to fight the ailment, yet selfishly kept it to themselves.
Neral Evanti was a master sergeant in the elven Cavalry at the time, his son Banor a new recruit. The Evanti family was among the first of the elven families to contract the Strife; as the ruling family, they were the most traveled and subsequently the earliest exposed. Mercifully all survived, though the same could not be said for many of their subjects. As the illness spread among the elven people that first winter and spring, and rumors of the ascent of Halsen and his scapegoating of the elves reached a frenzied pitch, those among the elves who had already contracted and survived the disease led the preparations for a large scale defensive strategy. The omens all foretold that war would be coming, and soon.
These events put Neral and Banor in a position to advance quickly. Neral, who had never seen battle and, despite his family position, never desired to wear the epaulets of an officer, was soon and necessarily promoted to Captain, and Banor to Sergeant. They and the other leaders within the elven army erected fortifications, trained in combat incessantly, and readied Thornwood for war.
The least affected by the Strife were the gnomes and dwarves, their isolated existence allowing them to manage the spread of the disease and quickly quarantine sickened citizens, and while they were not oblivious to what had been happening outside their subterranean homes, the famine left them in no position to lend support to the elves. Meanwhile, the perpetually warmongering orc and troll tribes suffered incalculable losses from the Strife. So severe were their casualties that they eventually ceased battling one another and formed a disorganized alliance, choosing Mor as their shared target, for while Mor was suffering badly as well, at the very least they had still been producing small quantities of food, while the orcs and trolls faced total and complete famine.
The Mor army, decimated as it was, could have easily eradicated the orcs and tribes from the face of Tahr that summer, but Halsen saw a better use for their enemies. He called a parley with their generals, and persuaded the tribes to make common cause with Mor against the elves, promising food, weapons and gold in exchange for their cooperation. A caravan of wagons left through the Eastern Gate of Mor filled with grains and other foodstuffs, headed for the Maw to the few surviving orc and troll families that remained. Meanwhile the warriors of their tribes marched through the streets or Mor and out the Northern Gate, followed by the Army of Mor, and headed for Thornwood. In any other period of Mor history, such a sight would have been met with riots and civil war, but by this point, nearly half of the population of the city was either dead of the Strife, starving, or too ill to raise arms.
So it was that peoples of Greater Tahr took their positions in the War of the Strife, and by early autumn of the 1135th Year of Mor, the first swords clashed on the Praër of Thornwood.
The elven army was caught somewhat unawares that first morning, as the reports from the Rangers were all in agreement that the leading regiments of orcs and trolls were still at least a day away. The night before however, as the Mor army settled into camp, the tribal warriors carried out a forced double-time march through the night, slaughtering sentries along the way, reaching the bridge at the Trine a few hours past daybreak. It did not take long for the elven army to rally, but by the time they had, the crossing had been lost, and they found themselves unable to demolish the bridge as planned.
The fighting on the Praër of Thornwood, in the clearing between the Trine Crossing and the Pinestroke that morning, was beyond fierce. The maddened orcs attacked en masse as was their typical strategy, and the trolls acted as living trebuchets, launching boulders and stumps and even dead warriors into the ranks of the still disorganized elves. By midday, however, the elves had formed a defensive line, and the orcs were laid waste by the hundreds as they spent themselves against the pikes and bows of the defenders.
The elven Cavalry, three units of which were led by Neral, had been ordered to hold back until it appeared that either the defensive line would break or the attack would stall, leaving them in the tortured position of watching their brethren die in droves, waiting for their king’s command to either serve as the guard for the elves’ retreat to the Pinestroke or to charge the remnants of a devastated first wave. The Cavalry did not sit not idle however; their bows thrummed continuously as Neral and Banor’s company periodically raced along the Pinestroke to resupply the archers of the army with arrows.
Just before dusk, the Horns of Horse were sounded, splitting the air in three ominous bursts. The battle at the front lines appeared to be in a stalemate, a thousand orcs dead, but a thousand more still fighting, and the trolls had hardly suffered any losses at all. The elves, their losses numbering in the hundreds, had given no ground since midday, but nor had they driven the attackers back. Now however, the leading edge of the Army of Mor had been sighted on the far southern reaches of the Praër, and King Evanti quickly decided that the morale of his fighters was paramount. If they could accomplish a rout now, as the Mor army approached, they may just injure the confidence of their attackers while rallying the elves before nightfall.
Neral heard the horns, as did his Cavalry squads, and no order was needed to incite his elves to action. Three bursts, three companies were to ride. In perfectly coordinated unison, the center of the elven defensive line opened while a company of horse charged along the line from the west, and another from the east. Neral and Banor together led the third company, feinting east from behind the defensive line, hoping to lure the orcs in through the noose they had opened in the middle, then doubling back to score an easy sweep against the penetrating attackers.
The strategy worked perfectly, and two hundred orcs lay trampled on the field in seconds, before even the first of the Cavalry’s swords targeted orc flesh. Behind the lines, Neral and Banor’s company crushed the several dozen orcs that had taken the bait, riding the invaders into the soil effortlessly as infantry lines reformed, closing the noose. The eastern and western Cavalry companies crossed paths along the defensive line, and made way for the crossbows that had been supporting the front lines. The two units cut at angles into the throngs of quickly scattering orcs, slicing into the swarm, leaving puddles of gore, severed limbs and trampled bodies in their wake.
The Cavalry suffered casualties, but for every pair of horse and rider felled, more than a dozen orcs lay dead, a dozen more too wounded to continue to fight. The rout was on, and as the last of the front lines of orcs disintegrated and nightfall neared, Neral hoisted the Banner of Thornwood. His company took the field in the twilight to drive the remaining few pockets of orc resistance into the ground, Banor protecting his flank.
The trolls had retreated back beyond the crossing soon after the charge of horse began, their usefulness mitigated as they could no longer launch their missiles from behind the advancing hordes. They were not out of the fight however, Neral knew, for when the time came for hand-to-hand war, the Trolls would kill five elves for every troll lost. This was well known, and all but unavoidable.
As it became clear that the last of the orcs had retreated or been killed, the three units of Cavalry met at the center of the field of battle, Neral planting the Banner of Thornwood beside his son.
There was no celebration among the Cavalry, for despite the late rally the war had barely begun, and from their vantage point, Neral and Banor could clearly see that for every orc they had killed a dozen men approached from the south, perhaps more. Neral was surveying the land before them to the south, his eyes returning repeatedly to the Crossing, when his son spoke.
“Father. We must destroy the bridge. This may be our only opportunity to slow the advance.”
Neral regarded his son, the young man’s uniform splattered with blood, his beautiful, prideful, innocent toe-headed boy now a killer, now witness to the opening salvo in the greatest tragedy that had befallen the elven people in an age.
“Our orders were clear, Banor. Run the rout, and that was to be all.”
“And we have done so. Yet still they come. We have one opportunity. We must take it.” The elven lieutenants nearest Banor and Neral exchanged looks, clearly in agreement with the young man.
Neral Evanti was no coward. Yet as he sat upon his horse beside his son, he did not feel brave. He felt only relief, relief that he had survived to this point, and more acutely, relief that his boy did not lay among the dead. He did not wish to let go of that feeling, not now, not ever. Yet his son, this valorous young elf, and clearly his brethren as well, wished to charge the crossing and complete the task their engineers could not complete earlier that day. Those very same elves now lay riddled with arrows on that very bridge.
“Report casualties,” Neral demanded.
“Nine lost, Captain,” this from the lieutenant Amery, who had led the eastern charge.
“Eleven, Captain,” from Therias, the western squad leader.
“Four, Father.” His son.
Twenty-four dead of three hundred. Another three hundred in reserve. Night had fallen now, the Twins on the wane, and the advantage was with the elves. The Mor army was a thousand paces back from the crossing, apparently choosing to wait until dawn to leave the safety of the forest. Neral knew his son was right, of course. They must secure the bridge.
“Amery. You will lead your unit across the bridge and to the east, Silently as you cross, instruct your men to use the Bond. Once your company is over the bridge, remain Silent and make haste along the Trine for a half mile, then head north. Stay out of range of their crossbows, and do not release the Silence, even as you rake their flanks with your longbows. Remain mounted as you fire; accuracy is less important than effect. If you are cautious, you may be able to inflict considerable mayhem without risking an elf. Banor, stay on Amery’s rear across the bridge, and execute the same strategy, but to the west. It will not take long before they discover that your attack is but a diversion, and when they do, make all haste back to the bridge. Therias. Your unit will come with me, gather the mallets from the fallen engineers, and begin removing the pins beneath the bridge. I worked with Kalaris on the plans for demolition, I will show your unit what to do.”
“Father, if I may.” Banor spoke, his tone defiant.
Neral turned to his son. “Speak, Banor.”
“I know the demolition as well as you. You should not risk yourself when three hundred horse still need your leadership should we fail. Allow my elves and I to demolish the bridge.”
“I will not ask any elf to take a risk that I dare not take myself, Banor. You shame me.”
“Peace, Father. It is not a matter of daring. It is wisdom.”
Amery and Therias remained silent, knowing better than to add their opinions.
“Perhaps, Banor. Perhaps. Yet, ni hanna farhari.” My honor forbids it.
A pause, and Banor replied, his voice clear and strong. “Then at least allow me and my company to assist, Father. We have not suffered as many casualties in the day’s battle, and the demolition carries the most risk. I cannot allow my company to risk less than our brethren. Ni hanna farhari.”
Neral regarded his son, considering his reply, when Amery spoke.
“Nü glahr ni, Banor Evanti.” You honor us.
“Nü glahr ni,” echoed Therias, as did the dozen or so elves close enough to hear the exchange.
You are a fine, fine elf, thought Neral, and truly your mother’s son.
After a pause, he replied.
“Nü glahr ni, my son. As you would have it. Therias, your elves to the west then. On my signal. For the ‘Wood.”
“For the ‘Wood,” they replied as one, and the commanders immediately joined their respective companies, passing their orders down through the ranks of elves. Neral kept his thoughts on the mission, replaying in his mind what he had learned while working with Kalaris on the plans for demolition. When the talk settled and it was clear that his troops were ready, he rode down the line, banner of Thornwood held straight and high.
“Elves of Thornwood,” he spoke, only loudly enough to be heard. “You will not fail.” He repeated the simple call to action as he rode along the lines. “Elves of Thornwood, you will not fail. You will not fail.” The concise directive became a whispered chant, “We will not fail. We will not fail. We will not fail.”
As he reached the end of the line, Captain Evanti planted the banner in the soil, and softly whistled to signal the advance. Amery and Therias’ companies crossed the bridge in a total and complete hush, so quiet that one standing on the south side of the thirty-pace long bridge would not hear hooves on stone until the rider was within arm’s length. Once the last of the two companies had made it across, Banor signaled his men to dismount, and as one they rushed the bridge on foot, still Silent, beginning the grim task of collecting tools from the dead. It was Banor that found Kanaris’ body, small and feminine, mallet in hand, a pike still embedded cruelly in her side.
The distant, alarmed sounds of scrambling men and weapons reached Neral and Banor from the far sides of the field, and were soon replaced by screams. The elves at the bridge knew that the sand of the glass had begun to fall; they would have a few minutes, no more, to complete their task in the meager light of the waning Twins, and any mistake could be catastrophic. To remove the wrong pins in the wrong order would collapse the bridge prematurely, leaving two companies of elven Cavalry trapped on the wrong side of the bridge.
They completed their work quickly and without incident, only eight of nearly a hundred pins remaining to be hammered out to complete the demolition. The sound of racing Cavalry reached the elves on the bridge shortly before the trembling did, and Banor’s company quickly raced back across, returning to the northern bank, leaving a clear way for the homebound Cavalry companies to complete their circuits.
Too late, far too late, Neral realized his mistake. The sound…there should be no sound…it was not their own horse returning, but an entire company of Mor horsemen.
“THORNWOOOOOOD!” Neral cried from the south side of the bridge. He then deeply inhaled, his elven life force pouring into his limbs, sword flying from behind his back as he swung from beneath the bridge, the force and speed of his sword’s withdrawal nearly splitting the enchanted leather sheath in two. His mind cleared instantly and focused, all distraction gone, consciously aware of only two facts – the distance between himself and the leading rider, and the knowledge that his son was on foot with but three other elves in the center of the bridge. In a flurry of steel and leather, in the near blackness of night, the expertly trained elven Captain and father cut through the flesh of a half dozen horses and men, spinning and slicing with power, grace, and otherworldly precision, evading hoof and sword and boot, the leading ranks of Mor horsemen laid waste before a single still-mounted rider had managed to overtake his position.
Neral reversed the momentum of his defense, sliding under one charging horse, slitting its gut with a fluid one-handed slice, his other hand pulling a man from his horse by the spur, the flesh of his palm torn to shreds but beneath his notice as he flung the rider into the next rank of storming horse. His blade flashed, and cut, and carved, and a shower of blood rained down upon him as he continued his singlehanded assault against the rampaging steeds of war and their riders. Sixteen horses and as many horsemen lay dead or dying at his feet, and he had given less than three paces of ground. Neral slashed.
The Captain was only absently aware that he was no longer fighting alone, the realization dawning as two elven weapons scored through men on either side of him. The blade on his left he recognized as Peace, once his own sword, now belonging to his son. The charge of Mor’s cavalry had ceased as piles of death and puddles of bodily fluids quickly made the way too treacherous for horse to advance. The attacking men were dismounting now at speed, charging the bridge on foot, and dying for their efforts. Neral stood between his son and another elf, the three acting in concert as an impassable machine of whirling, jagged death. All three elves moved with grace and fluidity, the movement of Neral’s blade however was unspeakably fast, elegant, and precise. Thirty lay dead, and Captain Evanti’s fighting companions gave him a wide berth.
A bolt flew through the air, piercing Sergeant Banor Evanti’s heart, killing him instantly.
Neral did not see the bolt, nor hear it tear through the breast of his beloved only son, nor catch a glimpse of the heroic young elf as he fell upon the slick red stone of the bridge. He did not see the shooter, nor hear the soft click of the trigger. No normal sense of his flesh registered any evidence that this horror had come to pass, but as his son’s heart exploded within his chest, Neral Evanti knew he had outlived his brave Banor.
The next few moments were lost to Neral as his blade continued to fly and his heart continued to break. After a time, perhaps seconds, perhaps turns, he returned to himself, his first thought being, where are the two companies of horse I sent? He continued to fight, albeit at a more human pace, as his focus was violated by the loss of his son. As he fought, Neral sent a part of his consciousness into the night, seeking his lieutenants, or their men, listening with his bones. Only silence in return.
At this, anger.
Captain Neral Evanti had not been angry before this moment. He knew his enemy to be misled, and afraid, following the orders of a tyrannical autocrat. He did not pity them, but nor did he hate them. Until now. Neral knew that few, if any, of his command would survive this battle. If they had lain his two companies of Cavalry low so quickly, the men of Mor were prepared for his gambit, and he had taken the bait. That is what angered him, that he was baited by an enemy that he had the mercy to not despise, yet still they had taken his son from him, his elves from him, without mercy, and with so little effort. So little time passes, so many good elves dead, he thought bitterly.
Neral parried a strike meant for the elf beside him, and buried his blade in the nearest man to the hilt. A tactical mistake, for as he struggled to dislodge his blade, he took a bolt of his own in the thigh, though this time, he saw who wielded the crossbow.
Neral dislodged his blade from the man whose life he had just spilled and tore the bolt from his own thigh with a scream. A half dozen paces away stood a man in fine armor, certainly the Commander of this charge, light crossbow in one hand, hand axe in the other, expertly fighting off the elven defenders, retreating a few paces to sheathe his axe, loading and firing, then advancing to fight again with the axe. Neral barely had time to register the oddly effective fighting style before he had decided that while he would likely die here on this bridge, this man would die sooner.
“THE PINS, ELVES, NOW!” Neral Evanti’s voice resounded across the Praër, loud as a stormbolt, louder, enhanced by the power of his ancient race, multiplied by immeasurable sorrow, focused by grief, exploding the eardrums and shattering the teeth of the men who stood near. The ranks of surviving invaders before him cowered, coughing out bloody fragments of tooth and belatedly covering their leaking ears. The elven captain leveled his gaze at the commander of men whose life the elven father demanded in payment for his son.
“RISE, COWARD!” he bellowed at the dazed and deafened man, and the Commander met his gaze. Neral Evanti could see that the man recognized his own death approaching, could sense the fear and resignation in his eyes as he faced his call to absolute account. The captain closed the gap, slicing apart the men who stood between him and his victim, and waited in stillness with his arms at his sides for the man to raise his weapon. Instead, the man fell to his knees before Neral, raising his arms above his head, and for the briefest of moments, as Neral took measure of his trembling enemy, he believed that the man was preparing to drop his weapons of murder and surrender – until his axe swung low in a desperate, final act of violent deception, severing Neral Evanti’s foot at the ankle.
Neral hardly registered the pain, driving his sword into the man just as the bridge collapsed, the two falling into the rushing water below, together, in a bloody, murderous embrace.
Water. Pain. Rage. Anguish. Mercifully, blackness.
Neral Evanti awoke in a private room in the elven infirmary, his brother the king sitting beside him, reading a favorite story from their childhood about a war of mischief between fairies and pixies. Even they make war, thought Neral cynically, and he began to sob before he began to speak, memories of his son flooding his consciousness. The king reached for Neral’s hand and would not let him pull away.
“Peace, brother, it is I Brysen, your brother and king. I am here with you. Peace, brave brother.” The Captain and his king cried together for a time, until Neral could withstand no more.
“Tell of my elves, my king. You sit beside me, and do not lead our armies. Tell me why.”
King Brysen Evanti smiled ruefully at this. “My dear brother, of course you would not know. Your people are safe, for now. Your sacrifice on the Praër protected your people. The army of Mor has withdrawn.”
“Withdrawn, my king? No, this cannot be, you must reinforce the defenses! I saw-”
“Shh, easy brother. I saw what you saw. What you did not see was how your display of valor and rage cowed our enemies. After the bridge fell, the army withdrew, to a man. There was no further attack. This was a quarter cycle past, and our rangers have reported that they have retreated to several days’ march south of the Trine.”
Neral was confused for a moment, then terror set in. “They threaten the Grove then.”
“No, my brother, I fear the Grove has fallen. For now. But we will reclaim it, I vow that to you.”
The Grove. Fallen. His wife…
The king saw the question in his eyes. “She is safe, Neral. No physical harm has come to her. I fear though that she has withdrawn in her own way, the loss of her son and your injury has been a great burden to her, and her mind is in a fragile condition.”
Fragile, thought Neral. My Elisia is most assuredly shattered.
“I must see her.” Neral began to rise, only then remembering that he had but one foot remaining.
“No, not yet Neral. There is business first.”
“Business, my king? More pressing than my wife?”
“Not more pressing, no. But you will wish to know what I am about to tell you, before you leave this room.”
“Very well. I am listening.”
The king leaned in, lowering his voice. “You must be calm now, Neral. Tell me you will be calm.”
“I am not a child anymore, big brother. You may speak to me as your Captain.”
King Brysen Evanti regarded his brother, and sighed. “It is my gentle brother I wish to hear me now, not my fierce Captain.” The king waited for the nod from Neral, and continued. “When your son fell, you did something no elf has ever done. You used the Speech, well, as a weapon, one might say.”
“That was not my intent, brother.”
“I did not believe so, though I would not be angry with you in any case. Your fury was righteous, by all accounts. Yet what you could not know was that your Speech was heard not only in the Praër, but carried past the Morline, to the very city of Mor itself. Reports of this only arrived today, and I do not believe them to be exaggerations.”
Neral considered this, and the grave expression on his brother’s face. “How many did I kill, brother?”
“Kill? No, Neral, your Speech did not carry death with it. Terror, yes, but not death. The only harm caused was among the enemies immediately before you. But it is that which I wish to discuss. The man that took your foot.”
“The man that took my son.”
“Yes brother. That man is the son of King Halsen.”
His title meant less than nothing to Neral. “You mean was. My sword ended whatever he had been before.”
Silence from the king. A look between the brothers.
“Tell me he did not live, brother…tell me that foul COWARD OF A MAN DID NOT…”
The king stood and covered his brother’s mouth, his hand trembling. “You will be calm, brother, do you hear me?”
Neral saw the fear in his brother’s eyes, and blinked, puzzled. What does he fear? Neral nodded, slowly, eyes searching his brother’s face for some clue as to the cause of his distress. When the king finally released his hold, he saw relief…and Neral understood.
“Brother, I did not mean to frighten you.”
“I know, Neral. But you have woken a power within yourself that I fear you may not yet understand. How could you? No elf alive has any experience with such things. Now, will you hear me, in peace, as I continue?”
“Yes, my king. Please continue.” Neral seethed, certain of what was coming next, but remained silent.
“He lives, brother. Commander Kan Halsen, Prince of Mor, is in this very infirmary, and he lives. Do not speak, allow me to tell you all. He was rescued from the river along with you and many other elves and men. Some have lived, many have died. He is expected to recover, but he has completely lost his hearing in one ear, along with several teeth on the same side of his face. You will know of course how this came to pass. You would not know however that your strike of sword was clean, and missed the major arteries. the man was treated by our healers, and as I said, is expected to live.” The king paused then, allowing his brother to respond.
“You wish to say more,” said Neral.
“I do. Do you not, Neral?”
“Not yet. I will listen.”
“Very well. Then I will speak, and I will tell you that I leave his fate entirely in your hands. I grant you authority over this man’s life and death, as is my prerogative to do in such matters, and I only demand one thing of you, this part not as your brother, but as your king.” Neral’s face remained unreadable, and he did not respond. “I demand that you hear him first, if he has anything he wishes to say.”
Neral’s brow raised at this. “Surely you jest, brother. Surely.”
“I do not, Captain.”
Captain. “Very well, my king, then I would ask a condition of you.”
“You may ask.”
Neral sat up, albeit slowly, threw his legs over the side of the bed, and rose shakily on his remaining foot. “I would ask that you send for my sword, then send for this man immediately thereafter, so that I may listen to him before I remove his head. After this, I would ask you to assist me in visiting my wife, for as you can see, I am not quite as mobile as my former self, and I wish to inform her that her son’s killer is dead.”
King Evanti did not quite smile at this, but nearly, and reached behind his back, rising. “As you would have it, brother,” the king said, and handed Neral his son’s sword, Peace. “I had believed you would prefer this, brother. Sergeant! Now!”
Neral grasped the hilt of his son’s sword, and quickly yet clumsily made his way to the end of the bed, facing the door. He would not let his enemy watch him struggle to walk. No more words were exchanged, and within moments, two guards escorted the uniformed man into the room. This man is proud, thought Neral suddenly, not the same man who cowered before me on the Praër.
Commander Kan Halsen, Prince of Mor, stepped towards Neral and took to one knee, bowing his head silently. Neral was enraged by the gesture.
“You would speak to me,” Neral said icily, leaning on his sword.
“Though I have no right, good elf, I would.”
“Then speak, and be done with it.”
The dark haired, clean shaven young man rose, looked directly into Neral’s eyes, and spoke.
“I came to your kingdom at the behest of my father, though I will tell you truly that I would have come with or without his leave.” He paused. Neral did not speak. “I came to kill as many elves as I could, and to secure a cure to this Strife that has destroyed my kingdom.”
“In any particular order, Commander?” Neral asked, an edge rising in his voice.
“To kill first, Captain. To punish your people for withholding life from my own. You are not the only father to lose a son these past seasons. Consider that for a moment.”
Neral replied immediately. “There is nothing to consider. Our people did not murder your people, nor did we withhold relief from you. There is none to be had.”
“You speak true, Captain. Yet I would ask you to consider, if our roles were reversed, what would you have done?”
Neral scoffed at this. “I am not in a position to make such decisions, Commander. Though if I were, I would discover the truth of the matter before acting, not wage a campaign of murder against an innocent people! My king, must I listen to these justifications? There is nothing this man can say…”
“Let him speak his full piece, brother, then decide.”
Neral shook with hatred, but gritted his teeth and remained silent.
The commander continued. “My father told me that he had sent emissaries to the elven people, who returned with absolute evidence that you were withholding a cure from the peoples of Greater Tahr. He presented this evidence to me in the presence of no less than two dozen advisors.”
“Lies! No such evidence could exist.”
The prince sighed, and appeared ashamed. “I know that now to be true, Captain. I will tell you what I saw, but before I do, your king has informed me that the elven people have the power to Listen, as he calls it, and to know truth from falsehood. Do you possess this ability?”
Neral frowned. “I do. Though it is a power reserved for the rarest of circumstances.”
The prince nodded. “Your king told me as much, though I did not agree with his reasoning on the matter. In any case, I would ask that you employ this talent now. Will you?”
Neral was angered by the notion that his brother had spoken at such length with his son’s killer, but nodded his agreement. “I am Listening. Continue, though I would warn you that the patience of a grieving father has its limits.”
“I can only imagine, Captain. To continue then. The king’s own physician brought my nephew in to the throneroom, who was suffering and near death from the Strife. His lips were blue, he was unconscious, he was gasping for air, and he had but hours to live, of this I am certain. A soldier unknown to me then, at the direction of my father, retrieved a vial from his cloak, and poured it into my nephew’s throat. Within turns Captain, mere turns, my nephew was speaking again, and the color had returned to his face. My father then declared that he had personal knowledge that the vial had been secretly taken from your brother’s own stores during our ambassador’s visit to Thornwood. Tell me, Captain, do I speak the truth?”
Impossible, thought Neral. No cure could exist. The elven people had dedicated a year to finding a treatment, and none was viable, not to any degree. Yet, this man before him was not lying, of that he was certain.
“I did not come to murder your people, Captain, nor did my men. I will not deny that we came with anger in our hearts, and grief, not unlike that which you feel right now. We came to wage war, a just war, a war to fight for our people’s right to persist. I now know that our campaign was a lie.”
“How do you know this, Prince? How do you know we do not possess a cure, when you tell me you saw that very cure employed?”
“I have been in your infirmary for a week, Captain, and I have seen with my own eyes the suffering this Strife is causing among your people. Just this morning, I watched an elderly elven woman holding her husband’s head, trying vainly to will air into his lungs as he gasped and died. I have been watching that elf die for a week, Captain, and I suspect his widow will now die as well, if not soon from the Strife, then over time, from the grief. I hope for her sake it is the Strife that takes her. Your people do not possess a cure. Of that I am certain.”
Neral considered all the man had said, and his rage returned. “No, Prince Halsen, we do not. But your people do.” His grip flexed around the hilt of his sword, and King Evanti placed his hand on his brother’s shoulder.
“I believe we have discovered the answers to the questions you consider now, Neral. You know as well as I do that this disease is unlike anything we have ever seen. We cannot treat it, we cannot cure it, and there has never been an illness this impervious to elven medicine. We have come to the conclusion that it is not a magical disease, nor a poison, nor a natural disease. We believe that the Strife is a weapon, conceived by man, perhaps an existing disease that has somehow been altered.”
“Is such a thing possible, brother? I have never heard of the like, and I am not ignorant to matters of science and biology.”
The commander spoke. “I have never heard of an elf shattering men’s bones with a word, Captain. Yet I lack half my teeth.”
Neral eyed the Commander angrily. “Very well, perhaps this Strife is, as you suggest, somehow engineered. How can you know who created it, and who has the cure? And in any case, is not the more pressing matter that we have your army camped a week south of us, preparing to kill our people?”
The king interjected. “It is for that reason that I asked you to speak with the commander, Captain.”
Ah, so here we are, thought Neral.
“So then, Commander, I suppose now that you are to tell me that if I spare your life, and abandon justice for my son, that you will simply walk back to your army, and ask them all nicely to go home?” The Captain reversed his grip on his sword. “Please, speak those words, so that I may end this farce now and go to my wife with news of your death.”
The commander straightened at this, though he could not suppress a glance at Neral’s sword hand. “I will not beg for my life, Captain, and I would not deny you justice for your son. But I will ask you to use your powers of Listening, one last time. When I am finished speaking in a moment, you shall do as you please with me.”
“I most assuredly shall, Commander. You may speak, once more, but once more only, and I will Listen.”
“Very well. Captain Neral Evanti of Thornwood, I grieve for the loss of your son, and for the lives of all elves that have fallen in this travesty. I make you this vow. If you grant me leave to depart Thornwood today, I will not only withdraw the armies of Mor back south of the Morline, but I will return to Mor, expose and arrest my father, and instill a just ruler in his stead. I will then return to you once I have completed these tasks, with my father, and submit us both to justice by your blade, and your hand. If possible, I will also discover the source of the cure, and deliver it to your people. I swear that I shall do this or die in the effort. I do not wish to steal your vengeance from you, Captain, and I do not fear death at the hands of such an honorable soldier.”
Neral’s heart sank, the fuel of his rage spent. This is not the man who killed my son, he thought, as he looked into the Prince’s eyes. No, his father killed my son. This is an honorable man. After a long moment, the unsteady captain looked to his brother and king, who nodded faintly, and then spoke. My dear Elisia, you may never forgive me this, but I cannot condemn this man. Ni hanna farhari.
“Do you wish my forgiveness, Commander?”
The Prince stared hard at the Captain, the man whose son he slayed unjustly, tears flooding his cheeks, pride abandoned. “More than I could ever say, sir,” and he fell to his knees, sobbing.
Captain Neral Evanti placed his hand on the head of the man who killed his son.
“Ne abso du, Kan Halsen, Prince of Mor.”
The Commander felt the hand of Captain Neral Evanti on his scalp, at once both cool and warm, an unfamiliar energy flowing into his mind. A wave of serenity coursed through him to his heart, and inward, to a place of deepest self. He looked up, into the eyes of his former enemy, and knew that Neral’s forgiveness was beyond mere words, but a gift of grace that he would carry with him always. The Prince of Mor rose reverently, a great and terrible weight lifted from his soul, and embraced the merciful elf before him. Neral returned the embrace.
“My brother and king has placed your life in my hands,” Neral spoke softly. “I return it to you now. Go, depose your king, take your place on the throne, and deliver my people a cure to this abomination.”
King Evanti allowed the soldiers a moment, then spoke. “You shall not leave Thornwood today, Commander.”
Neral and the prince broke apart and looked to the king, awaiting explanation.
“You shall depart in the morning, with the might of the Elven Army at your back. You will not fail.”
We will not fail.
If you enjoyed Strife, please share it with others, and please read , the Amazon Kindle bestselling debut novel by Sean Hinn. In , you will learn more about Captain Neral Evanti and his people.
When famine and disease spread throughout Tahr, killing the royal family of Mor, a new and terrible ruler ascends the Throne of Men in the chaos that ensues. King Halsen unites the tribal orcs and trolls with the people of Mor through a common hatred, claiming the Elven people of Thornwood are withholding a cure to the Strife. Captain Neral Evanti leads a heroic charge of Cavalry in the ensuing war on the PraÃ«r of Thornwood as the peace of an age is broken. "Strife" is the backstory of Captain Evanti, a beloved character in "Tahr - The Days of Ash and Fury Volume One", a debut epic fantasy novel by Sean Hinn. "Tahr" broke the Top 20 in Dark Fantasy on its recent release day, July 25th 2016, and has received rave reviews from readers across the U.S. "Strife" is not an excerpt from Tahr, but rather a stand-alone short story.