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The night sky brightened faintly in the east with the approach of dawn as the Chosen entered the Gardens of Life. Without, the Elven city of Arborlon lay sleeping, its people still wrapped in the warmth and solitude of their beds. But for the Chosen, the day had already begun. Their trailing white robes billowing slightly with a rush of summer wind, they passed between the sentries of the Black Watch, who stood rigid and aloof as such sentries had stood for centuries gone before the arched, wrought-iron gateway inlaid with silver scroll and ivory chips. They passed quickly, and only their soft voices and the crunch of their sandaled feet on the gravel pathway disturbed the silence of the new day as they slipped into the pine-shadowed dark beyond.
The Chosen were the caretakers of the Ellcrys, the strange and wondrous tree that stood at the center of the Gardens—the tree, as the legends told, that served as protector against a primordial evil that had very nearly destroyed the Elves centuries ago, an evil that had been shut away from the earth since before the dawn of the old race of Men. In all the time that had followed, there had been Chosen to care for the Ellcrys. Theirs was a tradition handed down through generations of Elves, a tradition of service that the Elves regarded as both a coveted honor and a solemn duty.
Yet there was little evidence of solemnity in the procession that passed through the Gardens this morning. Two hundred and thirty days of the year of their service had gone by, and youthful spirits could no longer be easily subdued. The first sense of awe at the responsibility given them had long since passed, and the Chosen of the Elves were now just six young men on their way to perform a task they had performed each day since the time of their choosing, a task grown old and familiar—the greeting of the tree at the first touch of sunrise.
Only Lauren, youngest of this year’s Chosen, was silent. He lagged a bit behind the others as they walked, taking no part in their idle chatter. His red head was bent in concentration, and there was a deep frown on his face. So wrapped up in his thoughts was he that he was not aware when the noise ahead ceased, nor of the steps that fell back beside him, until a hand touched his arm. Then his troubled face jerked up abruptly to find Jase regarding him.
“What’s the matter, Lauren? Are you sick?” Jase asked. Because he was a few months older than the rest, Jase was the accepted leader of the Chosen.
Lauren shook his head, but the frown did not leave his face entirely. “I’m all right.”
“Something is bothering you. You’ve been brooding all morning. Come to think of it, you were rather quiet last night, too.” Jase’s hand on his shoulder brought the younger Elf about to face him. “Come on, out with it. Nobody expects you to serve if you’re not feeling well.”
Lauren hesitated, then sighed and nodded. “All right. It’s the Ellcrys. Yesterday, at sunset, just before we left her, I thought I saw some spotting on her leaves. It looked like wilt.”
“Wilt? Are you sure? Nothing like that ever happens to the Ellcrys—at least that’s what we’ve always been told,” Jase said doubtfully.
“I could have been mistaken,” Lauren admitted. “It was getting dark. I told myself then that it was probably just the way the shadows lay on the leaves. But the more I try to remember how it looked, the more I think it really was wilt.”
There was a disconcerted muttering from the others, and one of them spoke. “This is Amberle’s fault. I said before that something bad would come from having a girl picked as a Chosen.”
“There were other girls among the Chosen, and nothing happened because of it,” Lauren protested. He had always liked Amberle. She had been easy to talk to, even if she was King Eventine Elessedil’s granddaughter.
“Not for five hundred years, Lauren,” the other said.
“All right, that’s enough,” Jase interrupted. “We agreed not to talk about Amberle. You know that.” He stood silently for a moment, pondering what Lauren had said. Then he shrugged. “It would be unfortunate if anything happened to the tree, especially while she was under our care. But after all, nothing lasts forever.”
Lauren was shocked. “But Jase, when the tree weakens, the Forbidding will end and the Demons within will be freed . . .”
“Do you really believe those old stories, Lauren?” Jase laughed.
Lauren stared at the older Elf. “How can you be a Chosen and not believe?”
“I don’t remember being asked what I believed when I was chosen, Lauren. Were you asked?”
Lauren shook his head. Candidates for the honor of being Chosen were never asked anything. They were simply brought before the tree—young Elves who had crossed over into manhood and womanhood in the prior year. At the dawn of the new year, they gathered to pass beneath her limbs, each pausing momentarily for acceptance. Those the tree touched upon the shoulders became the new Chosen, to serve until the year was done. Lauren could still remember the mix of ecstasy and pride he had felt at the moment a slender branch had bent to touch him and he’d heard her speak his name.
And he remembered, too, the astonishment of all when Amberle had been called . . .
“It’s just a tale to frighten children,” Jase was saying. “The real function of the Ellcrys is to serve as a reminder to the Elven people that they, like her, survive despite all the changes that have taken place in the history of the Four Lands. She is a symbol of our people’s strength, Lauren—nothing more.”
He motioned for them all to resume their walk into the Gardens and turned away. Lauren lapsed back into thought. The older Elf’s casual disregard for the legend of the tree disturbed him. Of course Jase was from the city, and Lauren had observed that the people of Arborlon seemed to take the old beliefs less seriously than did those of the little northern village from which he came. But the story of the Ellcrys and the Forbidding wasn’t just a story—it was the foundation of everything that was truly Elven, the most important event in the history of his people.
It had all taken place long ago, before the birth of the new world. There had been a great war between good and evil—a war that the Elves had finally won by creating the Ellcrys and a Forbidding that had banished the evil Demons into a timeless dark. And so long as the Ellcrys was kept well, so long would the evil be locked from the land.
So long as the Ellcrys was kept well . . .
He shook his head doubtfully. Maybe the wilt was but a trick of his imagination. Or a trick of the light. And if not, they would simply have to find a cure. There was always a cure.
Moments later, he stood with the others before the tree. Hesitantly, he looked up, then sighed in relief. It appeared as if the Ellcrys was unchanged. Perfectly formed, her silver-white trunk arched skyward in a symmetrically balanced network of tapered limbs clustered with broad, five-cornered leaves that were blood-red in color. At her base, strips of green moss grew in patchwork runners through the cracks and crevices of the smooth-skinned bark, like emerald streams flowing down a mountain hillside. There were no splits to mar the trunk’s even lines, no branches cracked or broken. So beautiful, he thought. He looked again, but could see no signs of the sickness he had feared.
The others went to gather the tools they would use in the feeding and grooming of the tree and in the general upkeep of the Gardens. But Jase held Lauren back. “Would you like to greet her today, Lauren?” he asked.
Lauren stammered his surprised thanks. Jase was giving up his turn for the most special of tasks, obviously in an effort to cheer him.
He stepped forward under the spreading branches to lay his hands upon the smooth-skinned trunk, the others gathering about a few paces back to recite the morning greeting. He glanced upward expectantly, searching for the first beam of sunlight that would fall upon her form.
Then abruptly he drew back. The leaves directly above him were dark with patches of wilt. His heart fell. There was spotting elsewhere as well, scattered throughout the tree. It was not a trick of light and shadow. It was real.
He motioned frantically for Jase, then pointed as the other came forward. As was their custom at this time, they did not speak, but Jase gasped as he saw the extent of the damage already done. Slowly the two walked around the tree, discovering spots everywhere, some barely visible, others already darkening the leaves so badly that their blood-red color seemed drained away.
Whatever his professed beliefs concerning the tree, Jase was badly shaken, and his face reflected his dismay as he went back to confer in whispers with the others. Lauren moved to join them, but Jase quickly shook his head, motioning to the top of the tree, where the dawn’s light had almost reached the uppermost branches.
Lauren knew his duty and he turned back again to the tree. Whatever else was to happen, the Chosen must greet the Ellcrys this day as they had greeted her each day since the beginning of their Order.
He placed his hands gently on the silver bark and the words of greeting were forming on his lips when a slender branch from the ancient tree dipped slightly to brush his shoulder.
The young Elf jumped at the sound of his name. But no one had spoken. The sound had been in his mind, the voice little more than an image of his own face.
It was the Ellcrys!
He caught his breath, twisting his head to glimpse briefly the branch that rested on his shoulder before turning quickly back again. Confusion swept through him. Only once before had she spoken to him—on the day of his choosing. She had spoken his name then; she had spoken all their names. It had been the last time. She had never spoken to any of them after that. Never—except to Amberle, of course, and Amberle was no longer one of them.
He looked hurriedly at the others. They were staring at him, curious as to why he had stopped. Then the branch that rested upon his shoulder slipped down to wrap about him loosely, and he flinched involuntarily with its touch.
—Lauren. Call the Chosen to me—
The images appeared quickly and were gone. Hesitantly, Lauren beckoned to his comrades. They came forward, questions forming on their lips as they stared upward at the silver-limbed tree. Branches lowered to clasp each, and the voice of the Ellcrys whispered softly.
—Hear me. Remember what I tell you. Do not fail me—A chill swept over them, and the Gardens of Life were shrouded in deep, hollow silence, as if in all the world only they were alive. Images filled their minds, flowing one after the other in rapid succession. There was horror contained in those images. Had they been able, the Chosen would have turned away, to flee and hide until the nightmare that possessed them had passed and been forgotten. But the tree held them fast, and the images continued to flow and the horror to mount, until they felt they could stand no more.
Then at last it was finished, and the Ellcrys was silent once more, her limbs lifting from their shoulders and stretching wide to catch the warmth of the morning sun.
Lauren stood frozen, tears streaming down his cheeks. Shattered, the six Chosen faced one another, and in each mind the truth whispered soundlessly.
The legend was not legend. The legend was life. Evil did indeed lie beyond a Forbidding that the Ellcrys maintained. Only she kept the Elven people safe.
And now she was dying.
Far to the west of Arborlon, beyond the Breakline, there was a stirring in the air. Something blacker than the darkness of the early dawn appeared, writhing and shuddering with the force of some blow that appeared to strike it. Momentarily, the veil of blackness held firm. Then it split wide, rent by the force from within it. Howls and shrieks of glee spilled forth from the impenetrable blackness beyond, as dozens of clawed limbs ripped and tore at the sudden breach, straining toward the light. Then red fire exploded all about and the hands fell away, twisted and burned.
The Dagda Mor appeared out of the dark, hissing with rage. His Staff of Power steamed hotly as he brushed aside the impatient ones and stepped boldly through the opening. An instant later, the dark forms of the Reaper and the Changeling followed him. Other bodies pushed forward in desperation, but the edges of the rent came together quickly, closing off the blackness and the things that lived within it. In moments, the opening had disappeared entirely and the strange trio stood alone.
The Dagda Mor looked about warily. They stood in the shadow of the Breakline, the dawn which had already shattered the peace of the Chosen little more than a faint light in the eastern sky beyond the monstrous wall of mountains. The great, towering peaks knifed into the sky, casting pillars of darkness far out into the desolation of the Hoare Flats. The Flats themselves stretched westward from the line of the mountains into emptiness—a hard, barren wasteland in which life spans were measured in minutes and hours. Nothing moved on its surface. No sound broke the stillness of the morning air.
The Dagda Mor smiled, his hooked teeth gleaming. His coming had gone unnoticed. After all these years, he was free. He was loose once more among those who had imprisoned him.
At a distance, he might have passed for one of them. He was basically manlike in appearance. He walked upright on two legs, and his arms were only slightly longer than those of a man. He carried himself stooped over, his movements hampered by a peculiar hunching motion—but the dark robes that cloaked him made it difficult to tell the cause. It was only when close that one could see clearly the massive hump that crooked his spine almost double at the shoulders. Or the great tufts of greenish hair that protruded from all parts of his body like patches of saw grass. Or the scales that coated his forearms and lower legs. Or the hands and feet that ended in claws. Or the vaguely catlike muzzle that was his face. Or the eyes, black and shining, deceptively placid on their surface, like twin pools of water that hid something evil and destructive.