In the Dark
By Amber E. Scott
To a beetle, the smallest stone can seem an insurmountable mountain streaked with deep crevasses hiding dark shadows. To a beetle, the softest footfall can seem an earthquake, shuddering the ground and shaking the mountains around it while the flit of the passer's shadow plunges the world into eclipsed darkness.
On this twilight evening, when the last of the sun's soft rays illuminated the undersides of leaves, and a breeze rocked the branches in graceful dances, a true earthquake shook the beetle's world. The first cracks in the dark earth swallowed up the hapless creature. It tumbled top-and-over down into the blackness below, sliding now on its sleek carapaced back, miniature legs kicking frantically in the air, then stumbling on its stomach, trying to find purchase in the earth that shifted like desert sand beneath it while pebbles rained down like falling boulders from above.
While on the surface, the beetle had been aware of the small earthquakes preceding this large one. They'd begun when the two tall ones met in the clearing. The beetle's limited perspective allowed it only to discern one of the tall ones as being taller than the other, the height of the young willow and built much the same, with skin like silver-white bark and a lean form that moved like branches in the wind. The other stood to the height of the gnarled pine, its skin knotted and brown, and it made sounds like the old badger did when a curious bird poked its beak into badger's dank, cool den.
The two tall ones moved together and broke apart like bumblebees in a dance, making sounds that even a limited beetle understood as sounds of anger and pain. Animal sounds, the sound of a wolf at the throat of a stag. And flashes of light in the old rays of the sun, the sound of lightning.
Then the earthquake, so sudden and violent it took even the two tall ones with it. When the beetle righted itself and shook the dust out of its small black head, it saw it was underground, in a small, empty place that smelled of earth. Roots dangled overhead and large rocks piled in a heap against one wall. The beetle smelled and felt these things; it saw nothing in the pitch blackness of underground.
A few feet away in the underground cavern, Feraian could not see anything either. Sharp as his elf eyes were, they could not penetrate the inky air around him. His breath sounded loud in his ears. I should not have been surprised, he thought. Nứrion has groaned for days. The stain of the orcs troubles her.
In the fear and shock of his fall, when Nứrion threw him off his feet and swallowed him up, Feraian had almost forgotten the orc. He had been scouting for the small force of elves that followed the maiden Ainaglin on her journey north. So recently, it seemed, he had stood behind the maiden as she sought to repair the rift between the Ranarim and the High Elves of Sarumvest.
She might as well have tried to close this rift in Nứrion, Feraian thought.
They had traveled for a time and Feraian had volunteered to scout ahead. His quickness to serve had pleased Ainaglin; Feraian had spent months watching his lady until her every word, sigh, every flash in her eye and every small movement, the draw of her white hand as she tucked a lock of hair behind her ear or the droop of her eyelash when the day's ride had tired her, meant something to him. The nod of her head told him she was pleased with his efforts to please her; that day, however, she had bent her face so that the veil of hair softened her features and hid her eye from him, and Feraian had feared that he had offended her, so strangely did she turn her wrist so her hand curled back towards her, as if cradling a precious object - Feraian had seen her empty palm a moment earlier, so what could she be concealing?
He had waited for her refusal, but Ainaglin had dipped her head further and said, "Seek out that which lies in the dark, Feraian."
So Feraian had taken his bow and his light, swift blade and gone forth to peer into the dark, for her. And he'd found the orc.
Of course Feraian had seen orcs before. He had skirmished against Stor-gris, seen black blood spurt under his blade. Yet it seemed he'd never viewed an uglier specimen than this: mottled-hide, straw-haired, pig-eyed, horn-clawed mockery.
The orc had clutched a wide, pitted blade. Feraian drew his own sleek sword and the two had flown together like light against darkness, ready to be destroyed in the pursuit of destroying the other.
Feraian had taken one shallow wound and dealt a great one to the orc's shoulder when Nứrion groaned and shuddered and split apart, and Feraian had fallen into blackness.
Now he pulled himself to his feet. The air pressed heavily around him, and Feraian saw nothing. It was like suddenly being struck blind. Of course he'd been in darkness before, but never this stark and stifling underground. Dust sifting through the air choked him. He waited for his eyes to adjust but they never did. Panic gripped his throat and would not let go.
And where was the orc?
His sword was gone. Feraian stretched a hand out and felt nothing. He stretched his other arm out and his fingers brushed the rough stone wall. A cavern, then. Possibly a bubble in the earth now opened by the earthquake. And closed again, judging by the absence of light. He looked up but saw no stars. His breathing sounded loud in his ears, drowning out all other sounds.
Feraian took a step forward, keeping one hand on the wall. His other outstretched hand felt only the dry, dark air. He took another step.
Warm, sticky, heaving leather under his skin. Feraian jumped back with a cry.
He tried to draw a sword that was not there. The sound of rock on rock grated in the room; after a moment, Feraian realized it was the creature chuckling.
"Scare, little elf?"
Feraian caught his breath and realized he was afraid. Not of the orc - only burning hatred existed there, an inner flame that threatened to consume him in its blaze - and not of the fall - the fright and pain of the fall had been real, but brief, and had now passed as Feraian found his footing and measured his surroundings - but of the surroundings themselves, the depth and the dark and the closeness of it all. Feraian was a child of the woods and the stars; he knew only the wide sky and the soft breeze and the friendly dark of twilight. This was a prison, a wall barring him from the outside world, an obstacle, an enemy.
He felt buried alive.
To say so, though, would be giving in to his enemy. Until he found his sword, or at least got his bearings, Feraian did not wish to engage in combat. To die now would do nothing for Ainaglin. So he drew his shoulders back and mustered his coldest, most reserved tone of voice. He knew limited Dark Speech, had learned some in battle and taught himself some to further his espionage efforts.
"I do not scare easily," Feraian said. He turned his head to face the speaker.
Another chuckle sounded, this one from his right. For a moment, Feraian panicked. Is there another orc down here? he thought. Then he realized his opponent had stepped to the side.
"You look scare," the orc said. "Little elf blind."
Feraian stepped away from the orc and put his back to the wall. He moved slowly, attempting to look calm and placid, but he felt with his feet as he stepped, hoping to find his blade nearby. Then the orc's words penetrated. "You can see in the dark."
Only a chuckle answered him, and Feraian felt his heart shrink. Blind, and weaponless, and wounded - though only a little - with his sworn enemy. Death seemed imminent.
Don't let him get the upper hand, Feraian thought. He was blind, but he had other senses. He turned his head a little, held his noisy breath, and listened.
The orc tried to move again, catch him off-guard, but Feraian was an elf. The silence between them measured the distance for him, and the orc's breathing - heavy, long exhale, sharp inhale, soft pant - told him something else.
"I may be blind," he said coolly, "but you are badly wounded."
The orc growled. "Still strong to wring elf neck." Feraian did not understand the orc's dialect, and the creature's accent garbled his words, but the meaning was plain enough.
"I do not require my eyes to kill you," Feraian retorted. "Come for me and we can end this."
The orc grunted, then wheezed a laugh. "Brave elf. Die down alone in dark." The rough syllables sent crackles of fear up Feraian's spine. To die down here, buried so deep none would ever find his bones, alone, apart from Ainaglin...
The question took Feraian by surprise. He debated internally for a moment. Postpone the battle, perhaps I can think of a plan, he thought. Aloud he said, "Feraian. And you?"
"Moth?" Feraian pictured a silver-furred slip with two luminous wings dancing around a candle flame.
Gudang Moth. The name resonated with Feraian. He'd heard tales of the killer; the Butcher of Stor-gris, some called him. So many elves had fallen under that blade. Feraian quailed to think it was the Butcher he had so boldly approached in the glade above. They said plants died in the Butcher's wake, so seeped in death was he.
"From the army of Stor-gris?" Feraian's voice shook. He took another step, hoping to bump steel.
"Look for sword, elf?" He could almost hear the orc smile. "Me see no sword. Have small blade."
"You haven't used it," Feraian said. "Moving pains you."
The labored breathing told him he'd guessed correctly. "Stor-gris?" he repeated.
"Secret," the orc said. "Small force. Me scout."
"I as well."
Feraian's pause was longer this time. Beauty, he thought. Grace. Wisdom. Purity.
"Ainaglin," he said.
"Ah," the orc - Moth - said. "Woman name. Wife?"
"No!" Feraian's shocked exclamation rang loud in the small chamber. Almost as much to explain himself as to delay the orc's attack, he said, "Leader, and speaker." He searched for the right word; the only one that came to mind had crude implications. It would have to do. "Maiden," he said reluctantly.
An explosion of chuckles from Moth. "Ugly?"
I owe this creature no explanation, Feraian thought. Yet he wondered if he could reasonably take the orc's life. With only his bare hands; certainly his opponent was wounded, but how badly? How much was an act, and if Feraian were to attack, would the orc not find the strength to defend himself?
The justifications felt slim. The darkness was so heavy, so oppressive. It boxed Feraian in and made it hard to breathe. The sound of a voice, contact in the dark, let him focus. It was chill and dry down here, yet hot sweat ran down his chest and back. "No, not ugly. Beautiful." He paused, picking his phrases carefully. "Like a star. Fair and far away. Bright enough to see by, bright enough to follow."
Moth didn't use the word maiden; his terminology was much cruder. Feraian felt his skin flush hot. "You like battle, Moth? You like to fight?" An affirmative grunt from the orc. "You serve the orcs, your brothers, your kingdom?"
Another grunt. "Ainaglin fights for her people, her brothers and sisters, her kingdom. But she fights with her words. She loves her land and her people so much that she weds herself to the cause of justice, to giving herself at all costs to what she believes is right. She allows no other love to distract her. Her heart belongs to all elvenkind, not one man." Without meaning to, Feraian's voice grew low, soft, tender. "She gives herself to no man that she may belong to everyone."
Moth made no reply to that. Feraian wondered how much had translated. He felt tired, suddenly, very tired and lost. The cavern was so small and black and there seemed no way out. He would die down here, entombed forever with Moth, and if he did manage to kill the orc all that would be left for him would be a slow, torturous death of thirst and starvation and suffocation.
"I suppose an orc wouldn't understand love," Feraian said.
A grim snort from Moth. "Elf talk too much," he said. "Work instead."
Feraian laughed at that. "Dig our way out? With our bare hands?"
"Me see big rock," Moth said. "Arm very bad, side bad. No move, but tell elf. Dig here, there. Pull down rock, find us out."
Feraian's heart doubled in speed. "You'll look at the rockfall and tell me where to dig?" he asked, just to make sure he understood.
"Yes. Me talk, elf dig. Feraian dig," he added, with a surprisingly good accent.
Of course, Feraian thought. Blind, I'm no use. I'd pull out random stones, probably bury myself in a rockslide. But with Moth to supervise, there's a chance we could make our way out.
Out to the surface, and then...
An image of Ainaglin surfaced in his mind. Her face turned away, hand curled up before her. "Seek out that which lies in the dark, Feraian," she had said. Ainaglin the wise, Ainaglin with the sight of stars, the gift of prophecy.
Had she seen this? Had Ainaglin known he would find himself in darkness?
Feraian pictured himself clambering out into the fresh air once more, exhausted from his efforts, hands cracked and bleeding from the digging. Moth behind him, Gudan Moth, the Butcher of Stor-gris, who had a sharp knife and who might be badly wounded or who might be using Feraian to escape. If Moth cut his throat on the surface, and then sought out his band of fighters, told them of the elves in the area?
If Feraian fought Moth here, in the cavern, and lost, his death would not facilitate Moth's escape. If he dug himself out, the orc might report back to his brethren. He might live to butcher another battlefield. Feraian might die and betray his companions as well.
"No," Feraian whispered.
"I won't dig us out," he said. "I won't let you escape."
A long silence from the Butcher. Feraian heard the orc's breathing deepen, grow harsh with anger. "Elf love Ainaglin."
"She would die for her people," Feraian said. "I can do no less."
The world seemed to tilt. "Die? How?"
Moth's voice sounded smug. "Ambush. Moth and orc warriors and ogre warband. Wait for maiden to pass, destroy her."
The word "destroy" held so many connotations, depths of depraved shadings only orcs could communicate. Destroy the maiden, then the woman? Feraian's insides turned liquid at the thought.
"Wait," he said. "Wait. This could be a trap."
"Yes, trap. Ambush."
"No," Feraian exclaimed. "No ambush. You're trying to get me to let you out. You're trying to make me think I have to warn Ainaglin. So that I'll dig us out."
"Much risk if wrong," Moth sneered. "No lie. Ambush in three days. Time to dig and warn, if elf love Ainaglin."
Her name sounded scarred and blistered in the orc's guttural tongue. Feraian stood in twisted anguish. If the orc spoke the truth, and Ainaglin was walking into an ambush, he had to warn her.
But if Moth lied, it meant he was using Feraian. He did have a plan to kill the elf and escape once the tunnel was dug.
Uncertainty threatened to tear him apart. "Seek that which lies in the darkness," Ainaglin said. Was this what he was supposed to seek? The truth?
Or his own inner spirit? Every instinct told Feraian to begin digging immediately, to run to Ainaglin's side, protect her as best he could. But an honest look deep inside showed him an ulterior motive.
Every minute, the darkness grew darker. Every minute, the dusty air scratched his throat and sickened his stomach. Feraian longed to see the sky again so badly he ached. To die in this underground tomb seemed too cruel to comprehend. It terrified him.
Am I making this choice because it's the right one? he asked himself. Or am I merely acting out of fright?
He knew already that he lacked the proper information to make a decision. Either he believed Moth, or he didn't. Certainly the orc might be telling the truth; an ambush staged by the Butcher and ogre mercenaries was not out of the realm of possibility. But that he should meet Moth, here, now? That he so conveniently should have a reason why Feraian should facilitate their escape? Without Moth guiding him, Feraian was certain he'd make no progress in the excavation.
If this was Moth at all.
Feraian closed his eyes. He saw Ainaglin's face again in his mind, so sweet, so serious. She had been saddened at their last parting because she knew he would face this choice in the dark. Risk the Butcher's escape, or face a lonely death below, a death filled with uncertainty as he wondered if he had made the wrong choice.
"She wasn't sure if I was strong enough," Feraian said softly.
"Strong enough to face the darkness," Feraian said. "I will not aid you. Your atrocities die here."
Moth's roar shook the cavern. Feraian heard the Butcher move. The elf threw himself backwards, skipping away from the knife blade that cut the air before his face. Moth charged forward, clumsy and loud, and Feraian danced to the side. He banged into the rock wall and bruised his head. Moth tracked him instantly, pressing after him, blade first.
Feraian twisted, caught the blade in his side, then twisted back and boxed Moth's ears. A snarl of pain tore the air around him. Feraian found Moth's neck, fastened his hands around it, squeezed.
Moth, it seemed, had hid the severity of his injury. Feraian's sword-wound from the battle in the glade combined with Nứrion's blows had weakened the orc substantially. There was flailing, kicking, struggling, but Feraian bore the Butcher to the ground. After what seemed an interminable time in the darkness, the kicking stopped.
Now truly alone, Feraian sat by Moth's cooling body. Once his breath had returned, he swam through the dark, up to the fallen rock pile. He felt for the largest boulder and began digging out packed earth and loose rocks from around it. He would not give in to despair. No time for uncertainty or second-guessing. Perhaps he could not do this without Moth's guidance; perhaps there was no hope. He would suffocate or collapse the wall upon himself before reaching the sky and clean air and Ainaglin. But Feraian knew there was nothing left for him but to try.
I sought out the darkness, Ainaglin, he thought. I faced it.
Fevered, frightful, thankful, Feraian set his will against the rocks above.
* * * * *
From A Brief Recounting of Elhil Reckoning, compiled by the Order of Historians of the Ithilmin:
10, 602 E.R. -The maiden Ainaglin is slain by an ogre war band on the way north to Alustel.