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A laughing couple tumbled into Vitus and he stepped back, stopping them from ending up in the bushes. The Elves laughed harder and he turned them toward the privacy of a willow bower they had been heading for. Disappointed that he could not find peace even in the newly planted gardens, he walked along the side of the formidable keep to look at the view on the other side.
It was worse here, there was a terrace outside the walls where the revelling Elves had set up fires that lit the wall and announced their presence to the sweeping valley of the Dordogne below. He tried to keep away from the main chaos of the party and peered down the sheer cliffs to the speckling of lamplights in the village. Who knew if the villagers were awake? Peasants were rarely surprised by the antics of nobles, but their lack of activity could easily be caused by the powerful magic swamping the castle.
One of the dancing figures broke off from the nearest fire and swayed sensuously in his direction: he looked for an easy exit but could see none. Drawing a deep breath he composed himself as the silhouette refined into an attractive Elf maid, her eyes half closed in pleasure, drink or both.
“A mortal man. Awake? You must have a touch of grace about you.” She purred, coming up close.
“Not as much as you my lady. That's a very graceful dance you were er... dancing. What's it called?” He tried to edge back as she pushed up to his chest, eyes twinkling. She laughed, “It's just a dance. Who cares for names? Not I, it is only the moment I'm interested in.” She fiddled with Vitus's shirt button and he coughed. “This moment in particular.”
He caught her hand and pressed it back on her gently, “I am here on a matter of business with your Queen. I should probably return inside.”
“No, no, no.” She insisted with a smile, bringing up her other hand. “There is no business tonight which does not include pleasure. Come now, I wish to taste what strength keeps you awake in our glamour.”
Vitus found he could go no further backwards as the low outer wall banged into the backs of his legs. He fought the urge to squeak at their jolt.
“Oi!” A voice caught the attention of the intoxicated maid. She look round, then down, into the face of an angry looking dwarf. “Get your hands off my man pointy!”
“Yours?” Came the disbelieving reply.
Laima pushed her way between the two of them, taking a hefty swig from a flask she was carrying.
“Yeah, mine. Get your own.” She cocked an eye up at the slim woman, full of defiance and the promise of violence.
The maid stepped back a pace or two and Vitus shut his eyes, shaking his head.
“Isn't he a bit big for you?”
“You don't know the half of it. Never matters when you're lying down though does it?”
Vitus turned back to the view, cringing. The Elf maid laughed and began to sway again.
“Kinky. I like it. He's all yours stumpy.” She began to weave her way back to the fire, adding over her shoulder, “If you need any help, come and find me.”
Laima swigged again from the flask and the friends waited until she had moved far enough away not to hear, “Thanks. I wasn't sure how to get out of that one politely. I think she bought it though.”
Laima turned round and licked her lips,
“Who says I was lying?”
Vitus began to laugh but when she smiled sweetly and wriggled her eyebrows he sighed to a stop.
“Seriously Laima, you're a good friend and everything but...”
She burst out laughing.
“Odin's conkers you're easy Vitus.” She slapped him on the belly and drank again, spilling it down her dress as she continued to chuckle.
“You've nothing to fear from me. You're just not that attractive mate.”
Vitus was not sure if he was offended or relieved, but his pride decided it needed to say something either way.
“Well she thought I was.”
“Her? She's an Elf, and she was off her head. She'll have a moral compass like a spinning top. Probably would have bonked a statue if that's what you had turned out to be.”
Vitus was about to protest and then looked at the sinuous, pulsating shadows thrown high up the castle walls. Laima was probably right.
“How much longer do we have to wait around here?”
“That's what I came to tell you, the Queen is seeing Mergen now. We should probably get the crew together.”
Vitus nodded and straightened up his tunic.
“Great. I'll be happy when we get out of this place.” He started off toward the drawbridge and Laima stomped along behind him.
“What's your problem Vitus? We're lucky these guys came out of the woods for a party, this is way better than having to go into their weird little netherealm. So, they're having a bit of a wild time, I wouldn't have thought a few cavorting Elves would upset you.”
“It's not that. I don't mind the cavorting, I love a good cavort when the time is right. It's the fact that we've still got a band of knights on our arses and this isn't the most subtle hideout to be doing a deal in. Plus it's this kind of thing.”
He stopped at the drawbridge. In two expensive chairs, the recently named Baron de Beynac and his wife slept, propped against each other with slack jaws, in their finest clothes. At their feet a sign in Elvish read “Lord and Lady Maynard welcome you to their house.”
On the man's face someone had daubed a big smile in charcoal, on the lady's cheek something ruder had been depicted. Laima laughed, but seeing her friend’s stern countenance she stopped, nodding in serious agreement.
“Oh yes, very wrong. Of course. Terrible way to treat people. But.” She sucked at the flask and wiped her mouth on a grubby sleeve. “They won't remember a thing when the spell wears off, so where's the harm really?”
“It creeps me out.”
“Oh, you mean you don't care about their dignity then?”
“This pair? Of course not. They probably worked those villagers to death to get this built up here and they'll probably show the inside of these walls a few depravities even the Elves can't think of before they're done.”
Laima swigged again and spat a bit of thick red wine onto her fingers, she began to add some details to the drawing on the woman's face with a grin on her own.
“No, it's the way they swing their magic about.” Vitus explained.”I don't like it, not only could we fall under their influence if Mergen let his guard down but I don't see how they can get away with this kind of thing much longer.”
The dwarf finished her juvenile artistry and faced her friend, “I know what you mean, but I don't think they're that stupid. Sure, maybe Hasper is, but the higher ups tend to know what they're about. Take another look when we get in the hall.”
“At that orgy? I'd rather not.”
“That's just it though, you probably didn't look twice.
Trust me, there is more than a little desperation in that lust. It feels a bit like one last great blow out. No joke intended. I reckon these guys are going back to the woods for good. If not now, then soon.”
Vitus started slowly across the drawbridge, into the yawing maw of the stone beast. It certainly made sense.
The Elves of these parts had been coming into the mortal land less and less. Religious fanatics had been burning and killing anything they did not understand for a long time now. They may have been of his own race by even Vitus had be astounded by mankind's ability to breed. He had watched them spread like a lake from a burst dam over the centuries. It felt as if soon there would be nowhere left untouched by their flood.
A few turns along halls guarded by sleeping sentries and they found themselves in the great hall. Vitus was relieved to see that most of its inhabitants were at least partially clothed this time. It had been an altogether different picture when they had arrived. Dozens of Elves danced, drank and smoked around the hall to lively music provided by a dishevelled band of musicians. He noticed that Hasper, tunic stripped to the waist, sat with the fiddlers and pipers banging a hide bound drum with expert abandon.
Less worried about what he might see after Laima's advice, he checked the other groups for Elnin. She was sat on table, one foot in the chest of a laughing Elf, pushing him back each time he made half hearted, amorous lunges for her. She caught Vitus's eye and winked. She gave her suitor a solid kick and he went head over heels into a trio behind him. Despite their drinks being sent flying, they broke out into laughter and called for more wine, propping their newest member up as he tried to suck some wind back into his lungs. Elnin got up and began to wind through the crowd, parallel to Vitus and Laima, all of them intent on the large fireplace at the far end and the court that had been constructed there.
Every piece of cloth, every cushion or bedspread, every straw mattress or piece of padded linen had been dragged from around the keep and was heaped together in what Vitus could only think of as a nest. At its centre, her bare back to an unneccasary fire, the Elven Queen sat listening to Mergen with a satisfied smile. The wizard had clambered up the hillock of haberdashery to below the naked woman and was doing his best to slum elegantly.
“He looks a bit too comfy up there.” Vitus muttered down to Laima, who nodded.
“Don't think it's his first time at this kind of thing.”
Vitus knew damn well it was not. Mergen was not the sort of man who talked about his amorous encounters, he never boasted, at most he only ever implied. His discretion had been one of the reasons Vitus had tracked him down again after half a millennia apart. He may have been smug and sElf-superior, but he never nagged and he never boasted.
Two very good traits if you have to spend a long time in somebody's company. Even being modest and factual though, Vitus knew how much company Mergen had kept with Elves and it was impossible to spend that sort duration with them and not be party to more than one party.
Elnin had reached them and was buttoning the top of her blouse when they stopped at the silky edges of the nest, still some fifteen or twenty feet from the chatting couple.
“Hello again Vitus, have any fun?” She nudged Laima conspiratorially and the two smiled.
“Piss off, El. Somebody had to watch our backs while you lot got your cavort on.”
“Touchy touchy.” She laughed. She leant down and whispered something to Laima, making her spit out the mouthful of wine she was midway through. Vitus looked at the pair.
“Nothing. Don't worry.” Laima patted his side and nodded at her Elven friend. “I doubt even twice would relax him.”
Vitus ground his teeth. His temper was rising with the stifling heat of the hall. The feverish celebration of so many bodies would have made it warm in winter, let alone mid summer, and the blaze that threatened to leap into the Queens plush throne only served to make it hellishly hot. It made even Vitus want to strip his his chest as bare as the walls, whose tapestries no doubt were in that great pile. Laima was right, this was no carefree enjoyment. It was the cloying, gasping throws of a wild creature rutting in fear of it's own death.
“Elnin, go drag your brother off stage. Once Mergen has done this deal I want us all back on the road.” He looked at her smiling face. “Assuming you don't want to stay?”
That stopped her laughing, her brow creased with annoyance.
“You're such a killjoy Roman. You know we're coming, whatever pleasures our brethren promise us. We chose your world long ago.”
She pushed past him with a hiss and Laima kicked his shin, “You tit. Was that really necessary?”
Vitus began to feel a bit guilty, even as he rubbed his leg. The twins had chosen exile years ago, even if they wanted to drift in insensible, animalistic dance all the way to the woodland realms they could not. They would not be allowed. It had been a cheap shot.
“You're right. I'll apologise later. Gods I don't know why I'm so twitchy.”
Laima shoved the flask at him. He took it, nodding.
“Yeah. You're probably right.” He glugged enough wine to make the dwarf protest and handed it back, taking a deep breath. Then he turned his attention to where the queen was unwrapping a cloth bundle offered up by Mergen. Inside it was the shard of ivory they had liberated from its religious casing. She looked genuinely delighted and stuck her naked foot out at Mergen. The old man considered it for a second, his head waving from side to side, then he quickly and uncomfortably kissed it. The Queen giggled and jumped, thumping into the cushions next to Mergen. She leaned in close to his bemused face and whispered something that clearly made him very happy.
Laima growled with smutty voyeurism. “Here we go.”
“By Vespa I hope not.” Said Vitus, not wanting to see any more of the wizard than he could right now. To his great relief Mergen started to shuffle his way back down the soft slope and the Queen gestured to one of the few sober Elves, standing guard at the edge of the hall, to come forward. Mergen half bounced, half waded off the edge of the nest to his companions.
“Excellent. The Queen is delighted with us.” He said, waving coyly up at the naked Elf who brandished the tooth back and waved like teenage girl.
“So it's pay day?” Laima asked.
“Pay? Oh right. The gold.” Mergen cupped his hands together and gold coins began to spill out. They fountained between his fingers and crashed onto the floor.
Vitus had seen the trick hundreds of times and was more interested in the approaching guard. Mergen shook a final golden flurry onto the floor where Laima was already scooping it in to a pouch, whooping with delight, and turned his attention to the guard as well.
The Elf was bearing a box he had retrieved from under the tables, which he proffered to the mage and opened. The old man licked his lips, a nervous hunger in his eyes. It was magic then, thought Vitus, nothing made the old goat look like that except magic. He peered curiously into the box and saw a stack of cards.
“Cards? You did this for cards?” He asked Mergen.
“Oh not just any cards, Vitus.” He lifted the pack reverently out and the guardsman snapped the box shut, tossed it to one side and started walking back to his post. Mergen was pawing gently through a thin deck of about a dozen richly illustrated cards. On them Vitus could see weaving patterns and animals so intricate he swore that if he watched them closely they would wind together, slithering about the face of each card until they bound in a knot as tight as the mass of bodies he had seen earlier.“Someone say cards? Now you're singing my song. Shall we say two gold per hand?”
Hasper was sauntering up hopefully with his sister in tow.
“You owe me all your money already idiot. You've got no stake.” She reminded him.
“They're not those kinds of cards.” Mergen told them, his excitement evident.
“Divination?” Vitus asked. He had seen fortune tellers use cards plenty of times. Mostly with limited success. “I didn't think you went in for that sort of claptrap Mergen.”
“And I don't, Vitus. The future is unknowable. No, these cards are for playing with distance and doors. They are called the Nexi. Only one set of them has ever existed and when complete they gift great power to any skilled in their use.” He looked up and around at the still wild Elves. “Let's get out of this debauchery and I'll tell you what they're really worth.”
Vitus raised his hands to the sky in thanks, “At last. Follow me.” He set off at a cracking pace as the band struck up with renewed vigour and Elves began stripping again.
The summer moon made languid silver of the river. Its wide, gentle flow swept ahead, curving around the black forested slopes of the valley. The air in the castle had been heavy with spices and incense, dulling wits and playing its part in seduction. Here it was rich with pine sap, fresh and alive with the season's spell. Vitus had been happy enough to stay silent for the last hour, enjoying the vitality of the natural over the stimulation of the magical. It had done its work on his nerves, that and being on the move under the cloak of night. Refreshed, he spurred his horse alongside the still smiling Mergen, “Okay then. What are the cards about?”
“The Nexi.” He corrected.
“Nexi then. What are the Nexi about?”
“When the set is complete they can be used to open doors between different kingdoms of the Elves. They allow their masters to travel wild distances in a single step.”
The detail was not lost on Vitus.
“When they're complete?”
The wizard’s smiled faded, moonlight picking out the furrows that formed on his forehead.
“Yes. There is that. It's taken several lifetimes to bring this much of the set together, but it is not yet fully reunited. The keystone around which the other cards work is not yet ours.”
“But when they are together,” Mergen brightened again.
“Oh, then Vitus. Then we are going to find a little peace for a while.”
Behind the pair Hasper snorted. The company were all interested in what was being said, but some were less interested in such a philosophical prize.
“By travelling about quicker? Granted that might help us outrun a few troubles, but it doesn't sound like peace to me.” said Vitus.
“Oh, you're thinking too small my friend. You see, I have found tales, unread by man, that speak of Elves in warm jungles on lands not known to any that you or I have trod.”
“The Chinas?” Vitus said sceptically.
“No, no. I do not just mean that we have not been there. I mean a place outside the influence of these lands. Still in our world, but so distant as to be unvisited
by the civilisations we know . Indeed, they have never even heard of them. The locals there are strong in magic and superstition, less connected than this part of the world has become. You must have felt how our world shrinks every day? How much harder it is becoming to hide ourselvesin plain sight. It would not be so hard in such a land.”
Vitus felt the sensation of exposure keenly these days, never more so than in his discomfort at the Elven celebration they had not long left. He looked up at the stars, sucking in as if he could draw their sparks down from the heavens. Mergen waited as Vitus shuffled upright in his saddle and fixed the wizard with a weary frown.
“So we prey on that and sit around in a bunch of backwaters like we did a thousand years ago? I'm not sure how I should see this as being some wondrous prospect.”
“Ah, but civilisations have risen and fallen there in isolated hills and on vast plains. Many have been helped by magical beings, including the Elves. One of these, long passed, collaborations built cities of great beauty, deliberately hidden from the eyes of man. We could live their indefinitely, in splendour and luxury, unassailable by this world. Free to study, or venture forth as we chose.”
It would have been a feeble proposition to anyone who had not walked the earth for as long as the two men had but Vitus had to admit it sounded like Elysium itsElf. Laima and the twins were clearly less impressed.
“Bollocks to that.” She spat. “Why the hell would I want to be stuck on top of a mountain or something with you two? If I was interested in a quiet life I'd have stayed underground with some real men.”
“She has a point.” Elnin tried to shout softly from the back. “None of us chose exile for isolation. I doubt even you have enough gold to tempt us on this one Mergen.”
The wizard suddenly erupted in laughter. It echoed across the soft water and around the hillsides. Vitus flapped his hand in startled fear.
“Shut up. You great braying ass. You want everyone to know where we are?”
The wizard struggled to control eye-watering mirth, and after a few gulps of air he twisted in the saddle.
Everyone had now come to a halt.
“My lovely Laima. That is just the thing. The Elves got carried away on this little interbreeding project. They summoned metals and transmuted ores with the sort of eagerness they usually reserve for more intimate habits.
In short, my diminutive friend. They built their cities out of gold.”
There was a pause, for a second the sounds of the night were five shuffling horses and water skimming insects looking for something to either mate with or eat. Then Hasper piped up, “You're shitting me?”
Mergen chuckled and rocked in his saddle.
“I am not, Hasper. Not that I am sure how I would do that exactly anyway, but no. They built their cities far from prying eyes and from as much gold as their craven little minds could call forth. I suggest to you that we go there.
Our merry little band should set up shop. I am tired of being hunted or hidden. I wish to stay somewhere for longer than a century and not have suspicious old women giving directions to my door to pitchfork wielding peasants or pious gentry. My proposal is that we take possession of one of these far off sanctuaries of Midas from which, if so inclined, we may use the Nexi to step forth into the world. If we should crave baser entertainments or excitement of any breed, it need be only a step away.”
It was clear the others were tempted by their companion's eloquent enthusiasm, but Vitus knew from harsh experience where his magical whimsy could lead. He looked at them, their eyes greedy fires in the night.
“Hold on. Let's say this is a real possibility. Just for a second. Let's say you can get us there and back at whim with the Nexi. Let's say nobody will be there trying to do the same things to us as here. Let's say all of that.”
“Yes let's,” Mergen interjected with jollity.
Vitus waved him into silence.
“Let's say it's all as you promise. You also said the set isn't complete.”
Mergen's face screwed up and the other riders nodded with a familiar air of resignation.
“Yes. The Alu. The centrepoint. It is a powerful totem in its own right. Capable of great magic in the hands of a master of the art.”
“And you know where this Alu is, right?” Laima perked up.
“I do.” Mergen replied, but he lacked his customary optimism. “Ofer has it.”
The twins reeled their mounts away cursing. Laima stared in disbelief and Vitus simply nodded.
“Figures.” The big Roman said.
“We can get it.” Mergen's words were punched with intent.
“We can get it. He's not invincible, and he doesn't even know what he has.”
Something hit Vitus as he stared at the river, “We're going east. You're going to try and find him aren't you?”
More Elvish curses floated out of the night and Mergen smiled.
“Don't need to. Know exactly where he is. Found him a few decades back.”
“Oh you bastard.” Vitus said, to gestures of agreement from Laima behind him.
“We can do it. I can't. Not alone. But we can. Come on, think about it.” The old wizard put on his most wheedling tone. “Unlimited funds, safe haven, an unstoppable escape route. It's got to be worth a try. Hasn't it?”
“Against Ofer?” Elnin shot. “I don't think a dozen cities of gold make me want to cross that shit's path again.”
“A lover spurned.” Hapser teased. Elnin reached back for her sword. “Oh, give it a rest sister. You need to get laid more than Vitus does.” He trotted back to Mergen and the Roman. The wizard saw his chance, “I know where he is Hasper. He has no idea we're coming.”
“Okay. So say we do this, we don't actually have to go up against him do we? We just lift this Alu card and poof!
Off to the land of steamy, golden goodness, right?”
“Smooth seas my friend, smooth seas.”
Vitus groaned. The future may have been unknowable but his was stretching away into darkness as surely as the lazy, silver river at his side.