The elven boy’s windows stood wide open to allow the sounds of the night into his bedroom. The crickets and calls of nocturnal creatures of the forest had always been his favorite lullaby, but the anticipation that had taken root in him interfered with his attempts to fall asleep. Restlessness plagued the young elf and he rolled on the bed so he could look out into the peaceful night. But there was nothing peaceful about this night. The ambience that he had come to cherish had ceased. He heard a distant call of alarm pass through an entire flock of birds and his stomach twisted into an uncomfortable knot. Something had startled the wildlife, leaving the trees beneath the whistling wind alone with their creaking branches and sighing leaves. Ky’irael snagged his cloak from a chair and hurried out of his room. He found his mother gazing out the window in the kitchen, where she had been in the process of cleaning the dishes from dinner. She appeared frozen and when he approached from the side he realized that her skin had gone ghastly pale. Ky’irael could not remember ever seeing her look so frightened. She turned to him suddenly, letting a pair of plates fall from her hands to the wooden floor beneath them.
“Ky.” She said his name distantly as if unsure he was there. The bells of the village alarm rang clear and loud above the howl of the wind. Adrenaline jarred Ky’irael’s body, but it quailed under his mother’s intense gaze. He recalled that look all too well.
“No,” he pleaded. She firmly took hold of his shoulders.
“My duty is to defend my people,” she said gently. “I am the only one with the ability to fend them off long enough. You need to go to the caverns, my son.”
“No! I want to help, Mother. It is my duty to help you!”
“It is your duty to live, child,” she amended. Her gaze was gentle, but she could not hide her fear from her son. He protested no further, lest he breathe life to his fears by voicing them. She gave him an appreciative, but strained smile as she continued. “Remember what I have said, Ky’irael. The sins of the past are not the basis by which the present need be judged. Forgive them, Ky’irael. Humans need not be our enemy.”
Screams erupted from the other houses. Numbly he followed his mother’s direction and slipped into the trap door that stood veiled by magic in the center of their home. He entered a vast complex of tunnels that had been dug underneath the village. The air was dank and the earth beneath his feet gave under his weight. A draft stole through the tunnels and he shrugged his cloak over his shoulders in an attempt to ward the chill from his bones. His ears twitched at the subtle indications of movement around him. He was glad that others had managed to escape, but his heart was heavy. His mother had long been an advocate of peace, of striving to return the races of Camriiole to a more balanced coexistence. Her speeches had met with little support, but her resolve in her beliefs had never diminished. Despite everything that she had done to work toward harmony between the races, she had the strength of mind to stand forth and fight the humans who raided their home.
Others cast him hushed and relieved greetings, but he did not follow the direction of the trail of refugees. He thought he heard someone hiss his name in haste; he disregarded it and took his own path through the caverns. The battle above ground was fierce. He gazed up at the low dirt ceiling as if seeing the blasts of magic that shook the muddy walls around him. Twice, a section of the ground above collapsed, showering him with hard clods of rock and clay. The grime that worked its way into his eyes was not the cause of his tears. While he stood perfectly safe in the underpasses, his fighting spirit wondered at the battle above in the forest. Perhaps I can find a way to get back above.
He picked his way through the passages, eyes straining against the darkness to see the telltale signs of the ladders that led up to trap doors secreted in other houses. As he wandered, dread crept up his chest until it gripped his heart. He had circled back around through the tunnels, approaching the various hiding places that the other elves would have used to wait out the raid. But something suddenly went wrong. The screams of children echoed through the earthen corridors; voices young and old cried out all around him, their directions indistinguishable. Cold sweat created a sheen over his skin as he raced through the tunnels, searching. His lungs ached in response to the clammy, thin air of the underground. His muscles screamed in protest as he continued to push forward until he finally saw something that made his heart recoil. The humans had found their complex of passageways and even the children were placed to the sword. Dead littered the corridors, human and elf. While the raiding humans lacked the ability to withstand elven magic, they excelled with extraordinary numbers. The elves were overwhelmed.
His mother lay amongst the fallen. He knew immediately that she had pursued the humans as they had breached the hidden sanctuary. Bile rose in his throat and he gave away his position as he cried out in anguish. Human heads turned toward him. And then they came for him, eyes gleaming with centuries of hatred.
As he ran, crossbow bolts whistled past his ears. Shouts from the human raiders followed him, ringing through the dirt halls and hollow in sound. Fire leapt up his leg as a bolt grazed his thigh, but he did no more than stumble. Ky’irael’s eyes set into grim determination and he began to take any turn in the corridors that he encountered. As his blood rushed through his veins, his mother’s last words to him echoed, as if voiced from the earth which surrounded him.
“Forgive them, Ky’irael.”
He rounded another corner and nearly slammed into a muddy wall as he came to a stop, panting. The sounds of pursuit had not lessened, but he had reached a dead end. Frantically, he searched the walls with his hands. Panic began to settle over him as the humans drew nearer. They had spread out, covering multiple bends in the corridors in their determination to find him.
Finally his fingers felt the stiff rungs of a ladder nestled into the dirt wall. Relieved, he buried his fingers into the moist earth and pulled himself up. He had nearly made it to the trapdoor above when a human voice shouted beneath him. Light from a torch illuminated him and he screamed when a hand gripped his ankle. He twisted, releasing one hand from the ladder, and only narrowly avoided an axe which could have cut him in half. The axe sank deep into the cavern wall, which earned a grunt from the human below. Other humans would soon come. The sounds of their pursuit grew louder. Only the winding maze of tunnels allowed Ky’irael a semblance of a chance.
The young elf shoved his hand into his trouser pocket. The combat defense classes all the younglings had taken just a few years ago flooded his mind.
“Humans need not be our enemy.”
He pulled a short knife from his pocket as his human attacker finally freed his axe from the thick mud. To wait a moment longer was to surrender his life. Ky’irael fell on the human with a cry that was a mixture of rage and terror. He did not aim, so much as flailed his knife in the man’s general direction while turning his face away. He squeezed his eyes shut when the blade made purchase.
Blood spurted like lava from the human’s neck, bathing Ky’irael’s hands in the thick red substance. The young elf froze, horrified, as the human shrieked, and then gurgled. His young, green eyes widened into a stare. The human fell to his knees and weakly used both hands to try to stem the flow of blood. It was at once mesmerizing and mortifying. This man would die and the elven boy was torn between relief and remorse. But how many of his kin had this man killed? Did he truly deserve mercy, as his mother would insist if she were here? Perhaps this man had slain her…
Shouts from the other humans jolted Ky’irael from his stupor. He didn’t want to watch this human die. He couldn’t. Soon the others would find them and they would not gawk. They would tear him apart.
Tears streaked the elf’s dirty cheeks as he climbed the ladder again. His hands trembled, covered in sticky blood. The trapdoor above him gave easily, to his relief, but despair returned anew when he took a deep breath of air, now above ground. The scent of smoke filled his nostrils and he coughed in the cloudy room into which he had emerged. The roar of the wind outside had subsided little, but it seemed he was upwind from the blaze which now tore through his village.
The humans had resolved to burn down his home. Had anyone else survived? Was he alone?
Many other questions burned his thoughts as he raced outside through a splintered door. The path leading deeper into the heart of the village, toward the blaze, was impassable, littered with bodies of humans and elves alike. Fissures marred the earth and trees, signs of the elves’ powerful magic, but the fire beyond made Ky’irael turn north through the dense trees. He came upon more human raiders twice during his flight, but he remained undetected. He was small and quiet enough that the nearby fire and the wind masked his movements.
A large building stood clear of debris on the northernmost outskirts of the village. The flames followed the wind south, so this inn had survived. Ky’irael paused at the front door, frozen with apprehension. His closest friend and playmate, Arael, lived here with her family. It was their inn, and it was eerily still in a way he had never seen it before. Perhaps they had all escaped early. Perhaps their location on the outskirts had saved them…
Taking a deep breath to steel his nerves, the young elf approached and pushed the creaking door open. A grisly sight greeted him and he stumbled, grasping the door as a wail escaped his lungs. Arael’s parents, her brothers… Their corpses lay in pools of blood. Another body lay decapitated just to the right of Arael’s mother, but Ky’irael could not look at the golden locks and pale blue dress.
“No!” Ky’irael screamed in anguish, cut off only when his stomach twisted and he retched onto the wooden floor. He had lost everyone. They were dead – everyone. The humans had murdered even the youngest among them without mercy or hesitation. How could they be so heartless, so cruel? Was this truly what war meant? To destroy without prejudice or thought?
Forgive them, his mother had pleaded.
How could he?
Ky’irael lurched away from the entrance when he heard movement outside. Human men gathered and yelled, announcing their victory. They did not notice the only elf who had escaped their blades and they soon passed by the quiet inn as they made their way north out of the village. Ky’irael peered outside from next to a window, his eyes swollen and wet. On the windowsill lay a small, opaque stone which he recognized as a light gem. Gingerly, he lifted the bauble to study it. It had belonged to Arael. She had shown it to him after she had received it for her birthday just four months ago.
Sniffling, he pocketed the gem and hurried past the lifeless bodies toward the ransacked storerooms in the back. He needed to find what supplies he could salvage – that the humans hadn’t already pilfered – while the wind still chased the roaring fires in the opposite direction.
He had never traveled alone. No one traveled alone anymore, since the tide of the war had changed so drastically against the elves. But he had little choice. He had to get somewhere safe and avoid any and all humans he came upon in the meantime.
Only then could he stop to mourn.
Background Music: “The Warbird” from The Warbird EP by Tri-Tachyon.
Header Image by: Samuel_Manopo.