Elflands part 1: Stone Width Inn

"Dad? Do you think Pen was right?" asked Aurani softly. "Is this really a crossroad?"
    Mavrik pulled his hand away from the ancient carved stone and looked at his daughter. "Yes, it is. The wizard was right." He had flown over this stone many times and had never considered it important. But when Aurani told him about the carvings his interest grew.
    "He is always right about these things," said Stormfront. "And you can feel the old roads if you close your eyes."
    Mavrik looked at his mate in surprise. "Oh? So you'll be a Magic user too?"
    "I hope not," said Stormfront with a sigh. "I'm having enough trouble coping with being a healer."
    Mavrik put his arms around her. "It must be hard having your magic woken so suddenly." He turned to look at Kehvarl. The young dragon was studying the stone intently, and very definitely not looking at his father. The youngster shifted his position casually to place the stone between them. A faint smile tugged the corners of Mavrik's mouth.
    Ilyrin pointed at the base of the north face. "Wizards!" he exclaimed. They crowded around to see. "Look! That's where we are." He pointed at the top of the stone where a weathered cross could be seen carved into the surface. "And here are the wizards at the bottom." Faint bas-relief figures surrounded a tall triangle.
    "You're right! The Wizard's spire!" breathed Mavrik. He examined the stone carefully. Down each side of this face ran a tangled knot of carved lines and animals, but between the cross and the spire ran a single, irregular line that seemed to turn randomly. "And that's the road. The stone is a map!"
    "A map?" echoed Stormfront. "But this stone is ancient!"
    "Yes," said Mavrik. "And this road vanished from sight many years ago, yet it is still there."
    "This side has dragons," said Kehvarl staring at the west face. "There's two of them with a round thing." He looked up. "What is it?"
    "That would be the Council Ring," said Stormfront. "If you head east from here you'll come to the Dragon Lands. There're a lot of friends there," she added distantly as she ran her fingers lightly over the carved dragons.
    Mavrik heard the longing in her voice. "We should visit them," he said.
    "Is there a city to the west?" asked Aurani, pointing to the east face. "This shows lots of people and houses, and a squiggle with fish."
    "The sea?" wondered Mavrik. "The West Coast ends at huge cliffs. There's no city there." He looked at the top of the stone. Just below the cross was another symbol like the Wizard's spire and the line of the carved road did a short zigzag. "What could that be?"
    "Pen said there used to be a tower and stairs on the cliffs near our home," said Aurani. "But the earth shook one day and they all fell into the plains below."
    "Maybe the city fell into the sea." Mavrik studied the south face. The carved road ran between the knotted lines and animals. About three-quarters of the way down it ran around a large handprint. "Giant Hand Lake," he muttered. The road ended at a tiny house beside a crossroad. The left branch ended at a symbol that could only be a castle. The right branch, east, ended at a carved crescent moon and stars. He sat back and rubbed his chin. "What was the name of the wizard who tried to kill Aurani?"
    Stormfront scowled. "Kraka," she growled.
    "An Elvish name."
    "What are you thinking, Mav?'
    Mavrik pointed at the carved moon and stars. "I think we should visit the elves, Fronnie."

The wizard pulled gently on the reigns and his horse came to a stop. He gazed up at the ridge running across their way. Around them the world was lush and green and filled with the fragrance of mid-spring, but the down before them was covered with stringy yellow grass. A notch a dozen yards wide broke the smooth outline of the hill, marking an ancient road cut for carts and wains.
    Pen patted the animal's neck. "So now you see why they call it the Yellow Downs, Montmorancy," he said. "And you, Monty, will be taking us along a road we have not traveled for many years. I trust your good sense will guide us when mine is lost." The old war horse looked back at his rider and snorted. "And on the other side are the Elf-lands where you were foaled. I wonder if you remember them." Pen patted his friend's neck again and urged him on. "We could take the dwarf canal because it's easier for you, but it branches off at the bottom of the Long Steps locks and flows around the mountains. That's a hundred leagues of extra walking. We'll take the short way and join it on the other side, of course, but for now it's a lot of up and down work." Pen shook his head. "A week on the road and already I'm talking to the horse," he muttered.
    They ascended the easy slope of the road. On either side rose high, sloping walls of yellow grass that obscured all but occasional block of cut stone, the remains of the ancient retaining walls. At the top of the slope, on either side of the road, stood a pair of standing stones. As they passed between them the wizard felt like they were passing through a gate into the wilds.
    Monty paused between the stones and sniffed the ground. Pen gazed around them while he waited for the horse. Ridge after yellow ridge mounted ever higher into the distance before fading in the morning haze. On some of the nearer peaks he could see standing stones. One hilltop was surrounded by an earthen bank, an ancient defence works. He remembered from past travels that further in were rings of stone, and it was perilous to leave the road near them. The magic in those places was wild.
    For two long hours they followed the straight road as it took them through small valleys and over ridges until it lead them to a small lake.
    Water had filled a depression and covered the road. The horse refused to move forward. Pen could see it was not too deep for Monty and the other side was a mere fifty yards away, but the water was black and as smooth as a mirror despite the breeze blowing from the North. He looked into the breeze and followed the line of the shore until it disappeared around a shoulder of the hills. To his right, a quarter of a mile away, he saw a mass of reeds and rushes that marked the end of the lake. As he turned Monty that way he heard a splash, but when he looked over his shoulder he could see no ripples in the water. The horse's ears flicked.
    "Even faster would be better," said Pen as he kicked with his heels.
    Monty picked up his pace. The ground around the end of the lake was marshy. He stepped his way carefully around the patches of razor-sharp reed mace and pushed though tall rushes. In minutes they were on the hard ground on the other side, and the horse galloped up the west slope to get away from the lake. He stood on the ridge panting and flicking his ears.
    Pen turned to look into the valley. He was not surprised to see it was now filled by a perfectly ordinary lake, complete with wind ripples. "Onward, lad. We want to reach the Inn tomorrow afternoon." He kicked his heels softly and turned Monty down the east slope of the ridge into the valley. Monty's hoof falls were muffled by a thin strip green grass that marked a small spring. They rejoined the road as it came over the ridge and turned to the left to follow the valley they were walking down. The ground beside the road became wet. Soon they were following a small creek as it wound deeper into the Yellow Downs.
    An hour later the road crossed the stream and took them over the next ridge. It ran straight over the next three ridges, each higher than the last, before turning to the North to follow another small stream in a green valley.
    And so it went for the rest of the day, over ridges covered in the long, stringy yellow grass, through valleys carpeted with soft green grass, and following tiny streams for short distances, always heading east.
    he sun was low in the West when they came to a circular valley full of trees, the first they had seen in the Downs. The open woodland was filled with bird song and small animal noises, a welcome relief after the unbroken silence of the open downs.
    Pen halted the horse at the edge of a small green glade. A babbling brook could be heard in the trees on the other side. He closed his eyes and tried to get a feeling of the place, but nothing felt wrong. "We'll camp here," he said to Monty as he dismounted. "It's safe enough, but don't wander too far. It's only safe in the valley."

Sunrise touched the mountain tops and turned the permanent snow salmon-pink. The dragons soared just above the fog enshrouding the high plateau. They had camped the previous night by the lake known as Giant's Hand, and launched into the misty air at first light. The three young ones grumbled about being woken so early, and after clinging to their parent's backs for launch they settled down to sleep. Aurani curled up between Stormfront's wings, while Ilyrin huddled behind Mavrik's left wing-shoulder and dozed.
    Kehvarl hung on as best he could and watched the white world speed below. He wondered if he would feel anything if he reached out to touch the clouds. The mountains around them brightened gradually and the fog started to thin. He looked behind and saw the flight of Mavrik and Stormfront had left deep valleys in the top of the fog. Long, thin streamers arced up and over into a lazy spiral on each side of the grooves.
    Mavrik felt the movement on his back and looked over his shoulder. "Be careful, Kev. If you get caught out of the slip-stream you'll blow off." Kehvarl settled so he could hang his head over his father's shoulder where the wing met the body, and watched the ground.
    Here and there small wooded hills were poking through the rapidly thinning mist. In places it was little more than a heavy haze. Kehvarl saw a patchwork of greens and browns as the fogs vanished from the treetops. He'd seen this area marked on one of Pen's maps as 'Endless Forest.' The wizard had said it was a silly name, but from Mavrik's back the forest really did seem endless as it passed below.
    The mountains around them grew lower. As the first light of the sun touched the dragons they flew past the last peak with a permanent snowcap. They had left the alpine regions. The dragons flew straight and level, but the ground began dropping away and soon they were a thousand feet higher.
    Kehvarl jerked awake and looked around. The rising sun showed he'd slept for at least an hour. The ground was now far below and had changed. It was no longer covered by forest and now looked to be a series of rolling treeless hills. His keen eyesight picked out a structure: a circle of stones. As he watched it pass he felt a curious tugging sensation. "Do you feel that?" he called.
    Mavrik glided and turned to look over his shoulder. "Yes," he said. "It's wild magic. Don't stare at the circles." He resumed flying.
    Ilyrin stirred and yawned. "Are we there yet?"
    "I don't think so," said Kehvarl. He looked at the ground again, straight into the centre of a massive stone ring of three concentric circles. The stones caught him and he could not look away. A feeling of being dragged closer came over him. With one almighty effort he jerked his head back, out of the slipstream. The blast of wind caught him off balance and sent him tumbling from Mavrik's back and into the open air. Ilyrin's wail faded quickly into the distance.
    Instinct took over, spread his wings and twisted his body. When he finally opened his eyes he found himself right-way up in a controlled fall, arms, legs, wings and tail held out stiffly. As the initial fright diminished he tried to remember the gliding lessons on the steep hill at home. "Fly with your wings! Fly with your wings!" he panted as he jerked his arms and legs against his body. He pushed his tail down and slowly tilted into a dive. Without warning the rough air on top of his wings vanished. He was gliding! Lift the tail slightly and pull out. He felt the rush of air around him lessen. Watch the stall. There were no warning puffs of wind on the skin of his wings so the felt this was the right speed. A shadow passed overhead.
    "Kev! Are you all right?" called Stormfront. She looked worried and frightened.
    "I'm flying!" he cried with excitement as he watched his parents circling above.
    "Yes, and in two thousand feet you'll have to land," said Mavrik. "Steer to keep the sun to your right. There's a lake ahead you can land in."
    "I don't want to get wet!"
     "You'll break something if you land at this speed!" said Stormfront.
    "Please, Kevie!"
    "Yes mum." Kehvarl relaxed and started to enjoy the glide. The sun, the feel of the wind. He experimented with turns and swoops. This was fun! All too soon the lake approached. An idea came to him. He'll land in the lake, but he'll do it perfectly as though it was the ground. He'll show them. Stormfront and Mavrik dropped and flew ahead to land on the shore, waiting for him. In his mind's eye he could see exactly how to do this. He picked his landing and went into a flat glide just above the water. Speed fell away. Perfect, he thought. Pull up and stall just above where I want to land. Any second now- He flipped over and plunged upside down into the lake.
    Mavrik was there in an instant and dragged Kehvarl to the surface. He sat and waited until the little dragon stopped choking while the lake sediment swirled around them. "Are you hurt?" Kehvarl shook his head dumbly. "Good. We'll have to work on your landing." He waded ashore and placed the shivering little dragon on a warm rocky outcrop.
    Stormfront scooped up Kehvarl and hugged him until he protested. Aurani and Ilyrin chattered with excitement.
    "We'll rest here for a while," said Mavrik. "The next one to jump from our backs will have to catch their own food tonight. I mean that," he added in the sudden silence.
    "I didn't jump," said Kehvarl softly.
    "No," said Mavrik. "But remember what I said about the slip-stream."
    Kehvarl hung his head. Stormfront reached out and rubbed his neck gently. "Be more careful next time."
    "Yes mum."

The grey world brightened. To the east the fog glowed brilliantly, marking the early morning sun still hidden by the thick mists. A thin wisp of smoke curled its way through the leaves and mingled with the surrounding blankets. Sounds were muffled, and the birds were quiet. On the ground below the trees tops a figure in greens and browns crouched over a tiny fire and watched a steaming tin. Near-by stood a horse. The animal lifted its nose in the air and snorted.
    "I agree," said Pen looking up at the light. "Another nice day when the mists lift." He pushed a stick through the wire loop, lifted the tin from the fire and threw a small handful of tea into the boiling water. "Oops. That might be a bit strong." He stared at the pot of tea for a moment before shrugging and turning to the fire and scraping away the ashes with the stick. A few seconds later he exposed a tiny cast iron pot not more than six inches across. He removed the lid with the stick. Inside the pot was a sphere of golden brown camp bread. Its smell filled the woodland. He speared the loaf with his knife and lifted it out before using the stick once more to flick the pot from the ashes, where it lay sizzling on the damp grass.
    The wizard poured the brew into a mug then stood with his back to the fire. Monty walked over and nuzzled Pen. "Tea and damper," said the wizard. "The perfect camp breakfast." He chewed the bread thoughtfully then washed it down with hot tea. "My friends in The Spire think I'm odd, you know. Gilnar thinks I'm going wild. 'Feral' was the word he used." He paused to bite off another mouthful. "We should be at the Inn before sunset. I don't want to spend tonight on the downs with the stones."
    He placed his mug on a handy stump and bent to roll up his bed, paused briefly to wash down another mouthful, then tied the bundle to Monty's saddle. Finally he emptied the remains of his tea over the fire and replaced the turves. When he was satisfied all signs of the campsite were gone, he climbed into the saddle and turned the horse's head for the East. "Forward, lad," he said to Monty, his voice muffled by the last mouthful of bread.
    It did not take long for them to crest the first ridge, just as the sun streamed through a hole in the mists. Blue sky showed through in patches. Less than an hour later the mists burned away and left them under a clear blue sky.
    The morning passed much the same as yesterday. Standing stones became more frequent as they went deeper into the Downs. At midday they halted at a pair of tall stones standing on either side of the ancient road. Less than a dozen yards beyond were another pair of stones not more than three feet high, then another pair, and another. Monty halted and snorted. Pen studied the long avenue as it traced the line of the road up the next ridge. On the skyline was a pair of massive stones standing either side of the avenue. Pen had been this way before and knew they were a warning. He urged the horse forward. They walked along the stone avenue and over the ridge. Instead of the usual slope into a valley the ridge flattened into a small plateau. The road ran straight between its stones.
    Jutting through the thin grass on either side of the road Pen could see a pair of stone circles. They were small, not more than twenty feet across, but power radiated from them.
    He thought back to his first journey through here, many years ago. Back then, he was surprised to see a set of full body armour with gold trim lying on the grass, then he was horrified to see the bones of the wearer were still inside. Some poor traveller had left the road and not made more than ten paces.
    Pen stood in the stirrups and peered into the grass outside the left hand circle. Something gold glinted in the sun. So, the armour was still there after all these years. He was not surprised. Those who travel this way know they must never move from the safety of the road. He urged the horse forward once more.
    The shape of the land changed. The ridges were now wide and flat, and the dividing valleys were little more than meandering depressions. The taller hills had earthworks around their crests and burial mounds while some of the lower slopes had tall standing stones. Here and there were stone circles, and between them all ran the road inside its avenue of stones. The air was thick with temptations of power.
    As the sun dropped lower into the west Pen feared they would be caught here at sunset. Monty broke into a fast canter. The sun touched the western horizon as they passed between the last pair of massive standing stones. They were safe. Pen sighed and hung his head, exhausted. The horse was shivering and sweaty.
    The wizard dismounted and they walked along the road that now took them into a narrow ravine. The walls around them grew higher, then spread apart as the ravine emptied into a canyon. Grey cliffs now reached three hundred feet above their heads. A fast flowing stream splashed noisily through its bed. Pen bent to wash his face and smiled as he felt the tepid water. The inn was near.
    The ground was far too rough to ride safely in the growing darkness so Pen led Monty upstream. The canyon narrowed gradually until the tops of the cliffs met overhead. Before them was an arch carved through the rock by the little stream. They splashed through the narrow gap and into the valley on the other side.
    The canyon here opened suddenly into a wide, oval shaped depression. On the right was another ravine leading due south to the mountains. On the left, under a huge rocky over-hang, stood a stone building. The sign above said "Stone Width Inn."
    The inn occupied less than half the width of the overhang. The rest of the space was a black cavern from which issued a small, steaming stream whose waters mixed with the little river flowing in from the east. The smell of wood smoke and cooking hung heavy in the twilight and lamps glowed in the windows. The weary pair plodded toward the light.
    The inn keeper was bent over a pot on the fire and looked up in surprise as Pen pushed open the door. "Goodness! More visitors!" he exclaimed.
    "No, only me," said Pen. "And my horse."
    The man straightened and studied Pen's face. "I remember you, Wizard," he said slowly. "It's been years since you passed this way last."
    Pen studied the innkeeper while tried to remember his name. He was short, barely five feet six, a bit overweight and his reddish-brown hair stuck out at all angles. It had been ten years since Pen's last visit, yet the man before him did not show the years. "Hullo Ned."
    Ned handed Pen a large wooden spoon. "The stew is done, and there's beer in that barrel. I'll see to your horse." With that he gone. The door slammed shut.
    Pen blinked at the spoon then turned to the steaming pot of food. As he dipped into the sweet smelling broth he heard a loud splash from outside. He turned and frowned at the door. There was a second splash; the noise came from behind a double door at the far end of the room. Pen walked to the door and pushed one side open. He was in the cave behind the inn. A few yards to the right he could make out a large round pool filled with steaming water that sloshed from side to side. He squatted beside the pool and dipped his hand in. The water was hot.
    The surface exploded upward. The wizard saw a reptilian head and gaping mouth and then he was in the pool. Water burned in his lungs as he choked and struggled. Long bodies swirled around him.
    Someone grabbed his cloak and hands dragged him to the surface. Seconds after falling into the pool he was on the rock floor of the cave, choking and gasping. A hand touched his back and his lungs cleared of water. After a few deep breaths he looked up to see his rescuer.
    Kehvarl and Ilyrin sat hunched against the wall with hands covering their mouths. They stared with eyes full of fear and worry.
    Pen blinked at them. "What are you doing?" he shouted.
    "I'm sorry," whispered Kehvarl. "I thought you were Illy."
    Pen squelched as he sat up. Water drained from his clothes and pooled around his behind.
    "Are you going to tell Dad?" asked Ilyrin in a quavering voice.
    The wizard scowled at the young pair, then felt his anger drain away as their eyes filled with tears. "You're not crying, are you," he said gruffly.
    Kehvarl sniffed and sat up straight. Ilyrin lifted his head and said, "No."
    "Good, because I'm not telling Mavrik."
    The youngsters leapt at their friend and hugged him. Pen wrapped his arms around their bodies and held them in a tight grip then rolled backward into the pool, dragging them with him. Their screams ended with a splash.

"I usually don't have this many people here at once," said Ned as he pulled himself a beer. "And I can go years without seeing anyone from the west."
    "The stones keep people away," said Pen. He was sitting in a chair and wore one of the inn keeper's bath robes while his clothes steamed on a rack before the fire. Around his feet sat the three young dragons. Mavrik and Stormfront lay in the cave with their heads poking through the open door.
    "I suppose they do," said Ned. "So what brings you through such a dangerous road?"
    "We're after a wizard," said Mavrik.
    Ned looked at the faces around him. "What? All of you?"
    "Yes," said Pen. "We think the Elves might know of him."
    "But wouldn't your friends in the south-"
    "They don't know him," interrupted Pen.
    "He's called 'Kraka,'" said Aurani.
    Ned shook his head. "But that's just 'crow'-"
    "In the Elvish tongue," finished Pen.
    "Just because he has an Elvish name doesn't mean he's an Elf."
    "Yes, we know," said Mavrik. "Aurani is the only one who has seen him and lived, so we know he isn't an elf."
    "The only clue we have is a name in Elvish," sighed Pen, gazing into his mug of ale. "I fear this will be a wasted journey," he added then drained the mug. "I'd better get some sleep. I have a long few days of riding ahead."
    "I could-" began Ilyrin but the wizard stopped him.
    "No you can't," said Pen quickly. "They would kill us all as soon as we appeared." Ilyrin hung his head and nodded. Pen leaned forward and rubbed the young dragon's head. "Elves don't like surprises like that. But you can bring us back because I don't fancy the long ride."
    "I'll carry you, Pen," said Stormfront.
    "That will help your reputation," laughed Ned. "They'll think you're a Dragon-rider." Mavrik and Stromfront stared at him and he flushed. "Anyway, it'll be safer for Mavrik if there's a Wizard in the group."
    Stormfront turned to look at her mate, who found something interesting in the stone floor. "Mav?"
    "Um. Do they still call me 'herd killer?'"
    "I'm afraid so," muttered the inn keeper.
    Stormfront continued to look at Mavrik. "Herd killer?"
    Mavrik ran a finger around the edge of a stone flag. "It was a long time ago." He could feel her eyes staring at him. "I was young and hungry," he added desperately as he glanced up. Stormfront was looking at him, a mix of disappointment and disapproval on her face.
    "I think we should get some rest," said Stormfront sharply. "Children, you may sleep by the fire." She looked at Marik again who winced, and vanished into the cave. Mavrik followed quickly, closing the door as he departed.
    "Mum did The Look," whispered Kehvarl.
    "Dad's in trouble," stated Ilyrin in a matter-of-fact way.
    Pen yawned as he stood and felt his clothes. "Your dad has some explaining to do. And I hope these will be dry." His fingers tingled at the familiar feeling of magic, and his clothes were dry. The three young dragons looked up at him. Kehvarl and Ilyrin looked worried while Aurani radiated innocence.
    "It wasn't me!" said Kehvarl desperately.
    Pen wagged a finger at Aurani. "Goodnight. And don't touch anything." -=End of Part One=-

copyright Den Whitton 1998
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