Shadow of Hope XXIII

Erellia materialized from around the flank of one of the beefier steeds that Kurn was inspecting for the journey ahead.  Not even a silent whisper marked her approach.  An involuntary gasp from Haron was clear indication that he was startled by the sudden appearance of the mysterious Elf.

“Haron, I would like to speak with Kurn alone for a few moments,” she said in a pleasing tone, though Kurn sensed she fully expected to be obeyed, “Why don’t you spend a few minutes out of the rain near the fire to warm yourself?”

The boy stammered an affirmation, and after looking briefly at Kurn, headed toward the impromptu camp, his head unknowingly scanning for any sign of Katarina.  Once the young man has reached the shelter, Erellia spoke.

“I wished to emphasize the nature of your services a little more clearly so that there would be little room for discrepancy in the future,” she began in a very business like tone, “There are three key factors to the task with which I would burden you.  First, the woman you are to protect is to remain unaware of your role as guardian.  Were she to discover that you were serving in such a capacity, difficulties would arise that would best be left dormant.  This may require that you allow her to leave your sight from time to time.  There is no way around this, and you will not be held accountable should ill winds befall her in those instances.”

Erellia paused at that, seeming to take account of what she had said before she continued, “Second, it may come to pass that you must defend her from some of us who presently form this company.  Do so…without hesitation.”  The implication of her words was not lost on Kurn, and he saw that she knew this.

“Finally and most importantly, her survival is paramount.  I do not know what key she possesses along our journey, but it is unique, such that her loss would be catastrophic.  Your life, my life, all of our lives seem to hinge upon that single piece of knowledge.  I will do what I can to aid you in your task, but it is your task.  It is what drew me to you from the start.  A sense that you alone could prevail in what I ask.”

A few heartbeats passed in silence.

“Are you clear in your duty?”

“No,” Kurn replied bluntly.

“Who is this woman,” he asked first, for he was guessing it was neither herself nor Katarina by Erellia’s choice of phrase, “And what is our full purpose?”

Impatience put an edge in his voice, even speaking to Erellia, though he metered his volume to match the confidentiality she wished for this exchange.  He had gathered as bid and without hesitation, even if his expectation on ready acceptance had initially been to guard Erellia, before her mysterious letter had clarified she needed him for another. Yet, here, no answers were yet forthcoming and all were dispatched to menial tasks without knowing the objective, and he knew nothing of the one he was supposed to guard.  Tortured experience told him this was far too close to history repeating itself, and he would not be so complicit a second time.  He was suddenly acutely aware that he was vulnerable to manipulation by this Elven woman, in the way she had first appeared to him; in his physical and emotional turmoil, her face, her softness, her words were burned in his memory as if an angel had spoken to him.  The nature of the episode in the inn had removed a veil of mystique from her.  Now, here, he saw her as a person.  Someone with her own motivations and needs, and a gift for insight — natural, divine, or arcane, he knew fully not — but a person nonetheless, and none the more.

Something dangerous flickered across Erellia’s eyes.  For an instant, the hardness of Kurn’s gaze was returned to him many fold, and a sudden realization dawned upon him.  Though he has endured lengthy hardship that has scarred him until the end of days, this mature woman, this petite Elven specimen, carried her own suffering and had likely done so for centuries.

But the moment passed with fleeting clarity, and Erellia’s features softened, and her gaze dropped downward as a wan smile formed on her lips.

“The two of you are so alike,” she chuckled softly, again raising her calm gaze to meet yours, “It is why I believe you are ideal for this role.”

She paused pensively, coming to a mental crossroads.

“But I have been unfair.  I thought it would be easier for you, if you were simply given orders, Kurn.  A man such as you functions more efficiently when the waters are less muddied.  A clear and concise set of guidelines which you could embrace without question seemed the most opportune way to proceed,” she wryly smiled from one corner of her mouth
as she continued, “As you can see, even I am capable of misjudgment.  Or perhaps, it is that you are not the man you once were.”

“Still, if you wish answers, I will give them to you, for I believe that you are as integral a part to this journey as any other, albeit an impatient one,” the delicate smile which was on her lips at this last remark faded into a solemn mask, “War is coming to the lands.”

“I don’t mean the tired droves of beasts from the north.  They are being managed as we speak.  There is a more sinister force on the horizon, a darkness which I have yet been unable to name.  This is our purpose, our goal, to seek out the vanguard of this approaching enemy and to find out what it is that we must face in the dark years to come,” she said firmly and potently.

“Your purpose however is unchanged,” she emphasized, her gaze holding his firmly, “You have been chosen to protect one other, at all costs, for she is unique and likely holds the key to success on our journey ahead.  I would have you save her life over mine.”

Erellia’s head cocked to the side slightly as if she had heard something unusual, and her eyes widened somewhat in surprise.  Kurn detected nothing untoward.

“This woman knows nothing of what she is, and it must remain so for her own safety, and yours.  She descends from royal bloodlines and has the will and spirit to match, though I suspect you will discover that all too readily.  You wish to meet the one you have been chosen to protect?” Erellia said in a mildly mocking tone, “I believe this is Zulian coming

Only once Erellia concluded did Kurn respond, and as he spoke, he did so with rare and soft emotion.  Kurn’s wall came down for the moment, knowing this woman had glimpsed inside him already, denying it a futile task.  “I am not the man I once was, or Jolephar would be only burned homes today.  You ask a great thing, to declare allegiance to an unknown, to kill others to protect it.  I will never again do so without knowing my own heart and purpose, nor I believe would you, for I understand from your gaze the barest hint of the pained experiences you may carry from your own past.”

“I will meet Zulian, and I will hear you out, Erellia, for I believe you are a force for good in this.  Your sincerity and trust, now, holds me; I will travel with you.  In time, as I understand the importance of what you speak, I will be able to fully do as you ask, to any end and to any measure.  Until that time I will trust you and your purpose and act accordingly.  I only ask you not equate the wrenching void of purpose within me to a soul-less sword that can be wielded, or truly I am nothing.”

Kurn lowered his eyes and bowed his head slightly, granting Erellia the greater respect in this exchange and the upper hand in the conversation, which she had held since Jolephar.  “It is a strange thing, Erellia, to be present with the woman whose angelic visage and compassion have come to remind and represent to me each available choice to do what is right for its own sake.”  Those words were as true and as eloquent as Kurn could express his respect for her, his loyalty to her, and perhaps the way the memory of her haunted him.


Shadow of Hope XXIV

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