Tamashere carefully peered around the corner of the hall, his back to the wall, his eyes straining in the dark for any sign of movement. His heart was beating wildly in his chest while he did his best to keep his breathing as steady as possible. He was sure that Shadinar could hear him no matter how quiet he tried to be.
“Damn Sherie, this was a fools quest”, Tam muttered under his breath. One more, quick glance behind him and Tam rounded the corner. Let what was to come, come. Long ago, at least it seemed long ago, he had lost track of his way in the dark corridors of Hales Keep. “Where is that she-elf”, he thought.
Silence filled the air as he slid along the damp stone wall, his fingers carefully searching the path ahead. Last thing he needed was to set off another trap as the last one nearly ended his life. If it hadn't been for the dark gnome’s foolish rush to get at him the Shade Kings frozen blast would have stopped Tam dead in his tracks. Dead being the appropriate word. But the dark gnome caught the blast full in the back as it leaped at Tam, giving him time to slide out of the room and into the darkened hall.
The shriek of the Shade King still echoed in Tam's ears as he slid out of that deadly room. Then all he wanted to do was to get out of the Keep. “No”, he thought. First he must find Sherie. He knew she would not abandon him within this vile place, he could do no less for her. Even though he felt her motives would not be exactly the same as his. He shrugged. So it was with brothers and sisters.
Soon his hands found another edge to the halls massive wall, a turn to the right. Was this the way to the Keeps main door? Only air met his grasp as he reached out in front and to his left. Hopefully this was not the Great Hall. If it was, Tams problems just got much worse. There were several corridors said to enter the Great Hall and it would take Tam hours to even find them all, let alone take the risk of going down any one of them.
Hales Keep had been the home of the Shade King since the Orc legions of G'narShep drove the dwarves of DunMar from their rocky mountain strong hold. The Orcs plundered and left the Keep in ruin. No one knew for sure when the Shade King Shadinar took possession, but it had been long since any of the races had set foot with its dark halls. Rumors now surrounded the place. Tales of strange lights coming from within the Keep, of all manner of evil creatures rooming its parapets and the surrounding mountain side.
Some time ago, Sherie had told Tam, she was traveling along the southern Hellmount Pass when she came across a young warrior there. He was a human, only a few cycles of the moon old. His armor was encrusted in blood, large dents and tears caused it to hang more like rags than armor upon his body. Near death he was, yet Sherie set camp and tried to make the man as comfortable as she could. By the light of a campfire that night he told her a tale, a tale Tam knew Sherie had only told him a part of. Only that part she knew would cause him to risk such a venture. Now he greatly regretted that risk.
Tam stopped suddenly, thinking he heard sounds from ahead. Silence and darkness had a way of playing games with one’s mind when left long alone in their midst. Shaking his head he proceeded carefully on.
It was not often that one saw humans in the Tamerack Vale, let alone in the Northlands. Tamashere had seen his only humans in the great city of Damarknoll far to the south. He did not care for those he saw, nor did he care to ever see one again. They were a loud, brash, people that drank too much ale and spouted grand tales of their adventures to any and all who would listen. Tam was sure they would not last long in the great forests and mountains of the Northland. Humans were too soft, too use to their comforts and fine cloths.
Yet there, dying, was a human warrior. In a place that had not seen any of the human race for many ages past. If ever it was long forgotten by all. Sherie had told him the warrior was named Farriman. He had traveled into the Northland in search of a nobleman's daughter who had been abducted in a raid on the southern city of Stormguard by the Orcs. Sherie knew he was not telling her true. It was several leagues between there and where he was now. It would take months for even a small troupe to venture this far, and why would orcs abduct the girl and bring her this far north. Simply from a raid? Still she listened to his tale and did not tell him of her doubts.
As the night wore on the young man began to fall in and out of a restless sleep. On and on he mumbled about the Keep and of the secret now within its walls. The man was nearing death. He was facing yet another death within his tortured dreams. Suddenly he sat up, awake yet not. “He has the orb” the warrior shouted as if to others about him. “We must not let him discover its secrets, we must recover the orb else all is lost”. Then he did not move.
Sherie moved beside the man staring into his eyes, yet he took no notice of her. “What is this orb?” she gently asked of the young warrior. As if it was another who asked he turned from her. “It is the Orb of Gallent, it is the orb that sent the Trolls of Hiermark screaming from the battlefield and smote their dragon masters from the sky.” the man whispered, his voice ragged and weak. In a move so quick Sherie had no chance to evade he turned again and grasp her arm. For a moment his eyes cleared, they focused hard upon her. “We have failed Elf!” his voice now steady and firm. “Tell the guards at Storms Gate to prepare for war.” There the human warrior died.
“This time we may have gone too far my sister.” thought Tam as he found the wall opposite where he had felt the hall turn to his right. Satisfied that he was still in one of the corridors and not it the Great Hall Tam turned right and continued forward into darkness. He had let her talk him into this adventure telling him at first that the dieing warrior had said the Shade King was no longer within the Keep. That a band of trolls and goblins had surprised the troupe as they made their way along the steep slopes to the Keeps entrance. That bit of information was quickly proved wrong when they entered the southern tower library.
Tam stopped to get his bearings, what little he could. “Trolls and goblins, right” Tam now thought. “More like dark gnomes to me”. He would have preferred to deal with trolls and goblins rather than the tricky, evil gnomes.
As with all things magical Sherie had her mother’s innate talent to detect it. This would lead them on, deep within that dark domain. Tam held a small blue crystal gem that gave off enough light for them to see as Sherie picked their way through the Keep. Night Elves needed little light to see and both knew that if there were any trolls or goblins within they would hear them long before they came upon them. Neither race was known for their silence, nor for their eyesight. Before long Sherie could sense the magic of the Orb of Gallent. Their pace quickened.
At first Tam thought it odd that they had not seen or heard anything, not even a rat scurrying along the floor. Surely, he thought, they would have at least smelled the foul stench of any trolls. But since things had gone so well he put the worry aside. Never again he reminded himself.
When they came to the door of the library Tam slipped the light giving crystal back into his shirt pocket as Sherie slid open the door. Even Tam could feel the magic of the Orb of Gallent. More than that he could see it. A soft gentle glow came from a pedestal standing in the center of the room. Just as Tam was beginning to feel they would be soon out of that dark place events would soon take a dangerous turn.
Sherie cautiously made her way into the library. The entire room was bathed in the orbs soft glow. Tam looked up at the ceiling high above, then down along the far wall to the bookshelves that lined the library. As it was throughout the Keep they appeared alone. Sherie reached out and took the orb from the pedestal. That was when they learned that the Shade King was indeed present, and apparently not very happy at their intrusion.
Shadinars scream stunned them both, but only for a brief moment. The shade perhaps thought his scream had much more of an effect for he did not launch into an attack. Instead he chuckled. A more deadly chuckle Tam had never heard. But it gave both he and Sherie time to make their move. Tam and Sherie had been in tight spots many times before. It was instinct acquired through centuries together that they moved as one. Sherie to her left, rolling, Tam to their rear and right. As she rolled Sherie covered the orb with her cloak plunging the room into darkness.
The thought occurred to Tam that the shade neither cared nor needed the light as he let fly two blades past the Shade King. Not that he hoped to harm the shade, but rather his aim was to sever two ropes holding a large tapestry to the wall. Sure and true was his aim as the blades cut the rope, down came the tapestry upon the Shade King. Every second counted in their favor as both made for the door they had come in. Tam halted briefly to check on Sherie when the blue flame blasted over his shoulder sending him tumbling to the floor. The shades spell now sealed the way between them for to touch the frost wall left by the blue flame meant a slow frozen death.
“We will meet at the other end of the tower”, Sherie shouted to Tam as she turned and made her way down the hall. Tam had no choice but to turn down the hall he was in and run. As luck would have it the Shade King was now on the hunt for Tam, but he would have it no other way. Better to know that Shadinar was after him than after his sister.
Tam began to think about what he knew of shades and the Shade King. He knew they hated the light of both the sun and the moon that they could freeze the soul with their touch and their scream would numb the mind and rob the senses. That was if you were not a Elf of the Elmorine, a Night Elf as the other races called them. At least shades were slow Tam recalled. They moved through this plane of existence as if swimming through water. If he only knew his surroundings he knew he could put some distance between himself and the Shade King, but of Hales Keep he knew only a little. Sherie knew much more, more that Tam should have learned before setting out on this little adventure.
Since leaving the library Tam had gone forward, then right, and right again. He should be sensing his sister soon. The darkness in the corridor was complete as Tam continued to let his fingers guide his way. “Too slow Tam. You are moving too slow”, Tam muttered.
“You were always too slow” Sherie whispered sending Tam jumping left, hard into the opposite wall. Again, as luck would have it, a rack of pole arms greeted Tam as he crashed into the wall. The clatter and noise that resulted echoed down the corridor surely alerting the Shade King of their location. “This way” his sister whispered as she pulled Tam from the floor. As he rose another spell blasted the pole arms to pieces and coated the floor in ice. “He is close, but we are closer to the door than he to we” Sherie spoke through the darkness.
To the left, then left again Tam wondered if his sister actually knew the way or simply guessing. After the last turn he could make out the faint lines of light along the edges of a door. It was their way out. Sherie now broke into a run and Tam did the same. Just a few yards from the door a blue flame suddenly crossed before them. Another corridor intersected the one they were running in and from that direction the Shade King sent forth frozen death. As the flame hit the wall the ancient stone began to groan as the deadly ice took hold. Tam shuddered as he jerked his sister back from her headlong run. That path was now blocked and back was the only way.
“Can he pass his own barrier?” Sherie asked in a hushed voice. “I think not.” Tam replied. “He will have to backtrack also. Do you know of another way out sister of mine?” Tam added. “Only if you can fly” his sister retorted. Sherie began to move back to their last turn when Tam halted her again. “Perhaps we cannot fly, but we can climb. Is there a window, and opening along the eastern cliff face? From there the climb should not be too difficult.”
Sherie thought for a moment longer. She was not sure and needed to take her bearings. “We need to go back to our first left turn from where we met. I think if we go left as we arrive we will come to the eastern chambers. Within that room should be a balcony facing the rising sun.”
We had better hurry then for surely Shadinar will be also headed to that point.” Tam warned as they turned right and down the hall. Since they had already passed that way their progress was quick and soon they reached their first left turn, but there too was the Shade King.
Tam and Sherie stopped and crouched low against the wall. If not for the pale light of the wand Shadinar held they would not have detected the Shade King until they had run headlong into him. This time luck was really on his side, as Shadinar had not yet detected them. Or perhaps it was his sisters’ luck and his was its usual bad luck. This made the pit of his stomach turn at the thought of an icy death.
The Shade King had stopped at the corner of the halls. He now moved back and forth as if undecided as to which way to go. As Tam watched he could see that it was not indecision between heading forward or left toward the two elves that caused the shade to stop. Something was pulling the Shade King back to the library. First it turned back, then around to face down the corridor they were in, then back and again forward down the way they needed to go. Long seconds it seemed that the Shade King hesitated, but whatever made him waver was getting stronger. Then suddenly he turned and began to make his way back the way he came. The faint glow of his wand following him until, finally, only darkness remained.
Forward and then left the two turned. A few minutes later they came to the eastern chamber as the dim eastern light fell through the edges and cracks in the door. Opening that door washed the hall in light the seemed a bright as the midday sun, yet it was only the light of the moon high overhead. Quickly their eyes became accustomed to the light as they approached the balcony. They were more than a hundred feet from the ground below, but to one side of the balcony the cliff face was only a few feet away. If they could jump, or swing, to it they could make their way over and down the other side.
All too soon they could hear the voices of dark gnomes coming from outside the room. Tam wasn't sure how many rooms were along the eastern corridor, but with his luck theirs would be the only one and they would be knee deep battling the wicked things. These creature where crafty, not easily goaded like trolls or goblins, so a fight would be long and hard. He preferred flight to fight in this situation.
Tam looked about the large room and spotted the ornate rope holding up the thick curtains on one wall. “Hope this will hold” Tam exclaimed while he pulled the rope off the wall. It seemed strong enough and long enough to reach the other side. Along the face of the cliff grew several stout cedar bushes he hoped would hold the rope. All they needed was some way to get the rope around the cedar. On the floor near the remains of a large cabinet lay a flail, its two spiked balls still connected by chain but the wooden handle long since rotted away. Tam tied the rope midway between the two spiked balls and used them to toss the rope around the nearest cedar bush stout enough looking to hold them. On the third try he finally got the rope to hold, then he tied one end to the balcony rail and tested it to see how it held.
Before he had the chance to test his full weight upon the rope Sherie was quickly walking across to the cliff side. All Tam could do was sigh and follow her. One day Tam knew her overconfidence would bring her down. He only hoped he would be present to pick her back up.
Safely across Sherie cut the rope to ensure no one followed. Somehow the thought of a shade trying to walk across that rope brought a grin to Tam's face. He'd almost pay to see it, but for now all he wanted was to put as much distance between them and Hales Keep as he could. Fast! The moon would soon be reaching the crest of the mountains and only the stars would be left to guide them on their way down. As sure footed as the elves were the loose stones and shale of these cliffs made for a slow, hard walk. The wild was never a place to find ones self-injured
“Besides” Sherie voice interrupted his thoughts. “I'd hate to have to carry you home.” He could see the smile upon her face and seeing that made him smile. It use to bother him that she could always read his mind. Yet many times it had saved both their lives so he simply accepted it as another of his sisters’ uncanny abilities. The one uncanny ability she was able to teach Tam was how to sense the world around him. When they were young she always knew when he approached, no matter how silent and careful he was. In battle she could always block the unseen blow or parry the wild blade. As if she knew in advance her opponents every move and plan.
“Watch their eyes, not their hands or body. Those will deceive, but never the eyes.” she had taught him and this he learned well. “Ignore the sounds you know and listen for the sounds you do not. That is where danger lies.” was another lesson learned quickly. The rustle of clothes, the whirl of a blade, the shuffle of a foot, all clues to the next attack. Again and again these lessons had saved his life and turned seemingly certain defeat into victory.
More than once he asked her how she knew such things, where had she learned them. She would only look at him and say “Isn't it obvious?” Mother had said she just knew things as anyone else knows how to breathe. Father would only shake his head. “You keep an eye out for her son. One day all the 'just knowing' in the world won't do her any good. Be there when it happens.”
The last beams of the moon moved across the ground as if seeking somewhere to hide from the darkness. When it moved below the mountain peaks the stars shone even brighter. All this brought some joy to Tam's heart for he loved the night. His joy was then shattered as a long, crying wail came from within the Keep. Sherie turned to look at Tam. Never before had he seen fear in her face, but now it was there. “Run” was all Tam said. “Run” was all that he could think. Bounding they came to the bottom of the cliff and made quickly to the evergreen woods just a mile or two to the south. Now would not be a good time to be caught in the open, but all around the edges of the mountain only low shrubs and cedar bushes grew. Not enough to give them cover.
Another shriek came from within the Keep, but this one was much higher. It pierced the mind driving them to run even harder. Tam did not want to look back to see what had made that terrible noise, but when the shriek came again it was much nearer than before. Tam turned and his heart nearly stopped. It was a Balrog and it was huge. Its wings seemed to fill the sky. Sherie knew its move and pulled Tam to the ground as a great claw ripped the air above their heads. “Split” she shouted at Tam. Up and running again Tam went right. He could see Sherie heading off putting distance between them. The Balrog would have to choose. It chose Sherie.
Tam watched in horror as the great beast arched making a turn to come again at his sister. He did not think, only react. Faster than he ever thought he might move Tam headed toward the Balrog. Screaming a curse upon the beast he saw its maw open and flicker of green flames began to build. Soon his sister would know the burn of that acid flame. In an instant, with an instinct Tam did not know he possessed, he let fly his last two blades. Up and twisting they soared, seeming to curve as they went, straight into that great gapping maw. Deep the blades dug into the Balrogs upper jaw as it howled in pain. More to its dismay than the sting of the blades was that it inhaled that same vile acid flame it had intended for Tams sister. Even the insides of a mighty Balrog could not take that acid flame. Up it swooped clutching its throat, up until they could no longer see but a speck overhead. Then down it came, its massive wings now limp by its side. Down it came fast, the ground being the last thing it would ever know. The land shook hard as it hit and both Tam and Sherie were knocked off their feet.
All Sherie could do was look at Tam. She had never seen him make a move like that before. It was something she might have done if she would have been in his position. “What the hell did you think you were doing?” she yelled at her brother. Neither bothered to get up. “I didn't”, was all Tam could reply. Both thought about how odd it was to see things from the others point of view. Neither bothered to get up.
“We had better reach the woods before taking a rest lest that foul Keep have more surprises in store for us.”, Tam said. Together they began a quick pace, sprinting to the edge of the woods, then silently slipped under the pine boughs, disappearing as a mist before the wind.
Wisps of white smoke rose from the remains of the campfire as the sounds of jaybird calls filled the morning air. Tam pulled his cloak up around his head wishing the morning had not yet arrived. The previous night’s adventures had left him stiff and sore. His left shoulder burned as he moved. The shades blue flame had indeed passed close. His knees were bruised, his hands cut and scrapped. All he could think about last night was some food and sleep. Sherie insisted they have at least a small fire to chase some of the chill from their bones and heat a few rocks to lie next to. Tam had gazed nervously through the woods fearing some other beasts from the Keep, but in the end he relented. He always did.
Both were so weary neither had put out the fire as burned on while they slept. Still, Tam felt much better with the morning, even if he did not want to rise just yet. “Time to rise Balrog slayer”, Sherie voice sang out to Tam. “No time for a hot breakfast just fruits and nuts for us.” she went on.
“Oh, let me sleep Sherie”, Tam grumbled from under his cloak. “Sleep!” Sherie exclaimed. “I've been up before the forest fains and I've let you sleep. Now it is time to be on our way home.”
With thoughts of home Tam pushed away the cloak to rise and stretch. “All right, I up. But first let me tend to my shoulder and hands.”
“Your shoulder?” Sherie asked with concern. Quickly she was beside her brother helping him from his vest and shirt. Blood had soaked the shirt and Tam winced as Sherie carefully rolled it up and over his head. Sherie winced herself when she saw the wound. The shades spell had come close enough to freeze the skin, some muscle and blood vessels. As they thawed the vessels burst and the skin had ruptured.
“Why didn't you tell me about this last night?” she asked, but she knew the answer. Tam knew she knew so he did not reply. “We have no water to wash the wound Tam. I'll clean it best I can.”
“It's not so bad” Tam replied. Sherie could see that it was indeed a severe wound, but said nothing. After about an hour she had his shoulder wrapped, his shirt and vest back on. She needed to get Tam to help. The wound needed to be deeply cleaned and the dead tissue removed before infection set it. Her main worry was that by foot they were more than a few weeks travel from home. This was too long. She had to find water and healing herbs to treat the wound, then a healer, soon.
After they packed up what little they carried with them, Sherie placing the orb into a small sling she wrapped around her waist, they set out. “Sherie?” Tam asked, “Why are you headed west? Home is east and south.”
“I know that!” Sherie snapped back, then she turned and smiled. “I know of someone we might get horses from to make our trip home much quicker.” “Horses?” Tam asked in surprise. “With horses we will have to follow the east west trail. I'm not so sure I like the thought of passing Deepening Vale. And since when have you taken to horses? Mean beasts I recall you last calling them.” Sherie cut him short.
“Tam! Listen! We need to get that orb home, and soon. With horses we can get home a week or more days quicker than heading straight through the North Woods on foot.” Tam just stood there and looked at his sister. “And?” he said. “And”, Sherie sighed. “We need to get your wounded tended to Tam. It's much worse than you are letting on.” Tam could see she was serious. In fact he could not recall the last time he had seen her so serious. “Ok, we head west.”, and with that Tam turned to follow his sister.
Now Sherie was sure of where she wanted to go, but she wasn't exactly sure of how to get there. She did know that southwest of Hales Keep was Tree Shade village. Her Father had talked about the place often. Every few moon cycles their father would venture west gathering herbs and rare roots. He had mentioned often of stopping in the small elf village to trade stories and a good ale. It was not far off the east-west trail so Sherie's only plan was to head west and south. Hopefully reaching the trail while still east of the village. Someone there would be able to tend to Tams wounds. As for the horses......................