Arms outstretched in ecstasy, Taberlin charged headlong through the treetop canopy of the forest at the base of the Thev Helmin Mountains. The wind whipped back his chin-length blonde hair from his face and whirled it around his elven ears. His boot-clad feet leapt from branch to branch as nimbly as a squirrel, and despite his reckless pace, nary a twig was snapped in his passing. On the ground below him, the world swept by in a wild blur, but up here in the trees — his trees — he was in his element. Exhilaration surged through his entire being, and with an additional burst of speed, he cleared a breach in the woods with a single bound, landing effortlessly on a bough on the opposite side without slacking his pace in the least. Up here, nothing could stop him, nothing could go wrong, nothing was ever amiss. If only he could go on forever and ever . . .
Finally he collapsed in a nook between two broad branches and the sturdy trunk of an oak tree in blissful contentment. Soon he would have to turn back and return to the army outpost to report the day’s findings — not that there was much to report. There was that odd little man who was smoking a pipe and making shapes with the puffs of smoke which Taberlin found very fascinating, but he doubted that Captain Durint would be much interested in that. And there was the woman at the cottage who was baking pies — blueberry and apple and strawberry rhubarb, and one other one he wasn’t quite sure of the flavor, because she had caught him sticking his fingers into her fresh pastries and chased him away with a broom before he had gotten to taste it. Taberlin felt that she had really over-reacted to the whole incident. It wasn’t as if he was going to eat the WHOLE pie. There would be plenty left for her. And the soldiers so rarely got sweets on patrol . . . he missed the chocolate and pineapples and star fruits and papaya the traders from the North brought down to the Elven capital of Hal-Tarhyaeldyin. He hadn’t tasted chocolate in so long . . . but it was too cold here in Narod Rada for cocoa or anything like that to grow. Why, it was too cold even in Hal-Tarhyaeldyin for cocoa to grow! Those kinds of things only grew in the tropical lands far to the north, beyond where even the Elves lived. He wanted to go there someday. It must be a great place, if chocolate grew on trees there . . .
Or bushes. He had never actually seen a cocoa plant, so he didn’t know what they looked like. For all he knew, it could be a kind of flower, or even a vine. But he hoped it was trees because he couldn’t climb flowers. At least, not unless somebody put a spell on him and made him really small . . . or maybe if he were washed a lot and hung up to dry, he would shrink. That happened to clothes sometimes. Once that had happened to his socks, and he had to wear his boots without them for a week until he got new ones. Then his feet had started to smell funny after a while. He didn’t mind that so much himself, but apparently other people around him found it not very nice.
He looked down at his brown suede boots as he remenscienced about that incident. A golden leaf gently wafted down from the branches above him and landed on his foot. It looked kind of like a frown, the way it landed, he decided. So he picked it up and turned it around to make a smile instead. Then he added two acorns for eyes, and sat there grinning back at the face he had created on his shoe.
A bird landed on a branch next to the elf and cocked its head curiously at him. Taberlin mimicked its action. The bird was apparently insulted by this, because it squawked angrily and flew away. Taberlin followed its flight with his eyes. Suddenly he sat upright. What was that strange thing down there in the gorge?
In an instant he was down in the gorge beside the odd shaped object. Now that he was closer, he could see that it was a human body. And not just any body. Judging by the attire, it was a messenger sent on official business from the High Council of Narod Rada. A few feet away he caught sight of the important-looking message capsule that contained the scroll the messenger was supposed to deliver. He went to retrieve it, then came back and stood beside the body. He stood there awkwardly for a few minutes, not sure of what to do. Was the messenger still alive? He didn’t want to just take the message if its intended carrier was still in the realm of the living, but it seemed kind of rude to ask a person if he was dead. Especially if he wasn’t. But the body hadn’t moved since he had found it, so he was rather suspicious that it WAS, in fact, dead. But just in case, he gingerly poked it with his foot.
“Hey, mister?” he asked nervously. “Are you alive?”
There was no response, so he turned the body over, revealing a deep gash on its forehead. The face was cold when he touched it, and didn’t flinch or move at all. He felt for the pulse.
Looking up from this angle, he could see the loose stones that had recently fallen from the mountain pass above. He could make out the place where the messenger had slipped when the path beneath him gave way and crumbled, taking him down the steep mountain side with it. There had been a fierce thunderstorm two nights ago, which had washed away large parts of the rocky mountain trail. That must have been when the messenger had fallen to his death.
Taberlin stood up, clutching the message capsule tightly in his hand. Should he open it? What message had the emissary been carrying? He had obviously been heading to Hal-Tarhyaeldyin. That was the only reason any humans ever dared to venture into the treacherous Thev Helmin. The message in his hands was meant for the Elves, for his people, whom he hadn’t seen since he left his home 5 years ago. Or was it 10 years ago? Or twenty? The time between his exodus from the Elves and the time when Councilor Templeton had found him wandering aimlessly, befriended him, and found him a job as a scout with the army of Narod Rada was all a blur which he prefered not to think about.
The message may have been meant for the Elves, but it originated from the government of Narod Rada, so since it hadn’t made it to its intended recipients, it ought to be returned to the Narod Radian government, he decided. Or at least it ought to be entrusted to the nearest representative of that government. Which in this case, was Captain Durint — who was probably wondering where the doofleschnaurtz his absent-minded elven scout was at this moment. He should be getting back, anyway. Durint would know what to do.
Without another moment’s hesitation, he shimmied up the nearest tree and took off towards the army outpost.
Captain Durint turned the message capsule over in his hands, thinking. Instead of the usual accounts of the amusing antics of the forest animals or the savory smells of some farmer’s wife’s latest baking, his elven scout had actually brought back some important news. News that he wasn’t quite sure how to respond to.
Taberlin was convinced that the message was intended for the Elves of Hal-Tarhyaeldyin. That was the most plausible and likely explanation, but if an official document fell into the wrong hands, it could be devastating. It was better to be certain of the intended recipient. Unfortunately, the knowledge of who that intended recipient was had died with the original messenger. The message itself would likely indicate who was intended to read it, but as only a captain of a troop of 50 men, he did not have the authority to open a sealed government document. The message would have to go back to the capital, to whomever had sent it in the first place, and be recommissioned. And he knew just the person for the job.
“Taberlin! Come here for a moment!” he shouted into the dusky evening. The elf came cautiously, dragging his feet, wondering if he was in trouble, and if so, what he had done wrong this time. All he had done was taste the stew. And the corn porridge. And the bread rolls. Three of them. But it wasn’t fair that he had to wait for everyone to finish washing up and assemble in line and be served their portions one at a time—that took so long! And he was hungry! And the food smelled so good . . .
Taberlin’s mind stopped racing for excuses to cover up his latest possible misdemeanors when he saw the expression on the captain’s face.
“Taberlin, I have an important mission for you,” Durint explained solemnly. For once the elf stood completely still, without even so much as his fingers twitching. “I need you to take this message back to the High Council at Algaman and explain what happened. Just tell them what you saw, and where you found this, exactly as you told me. You’re the fastest traveler among my men, and this is urgent business. The sooner this capsule is safely back in the hands of the High Council, the better. Then they can decide what further course of action to take. Hurry, now!” he urged, handing the capsule to Taberlin.
“Yes Sir!” Taberlin cried, saluting, and was off like a shot. But in 5 seconds he was back.
“Ummm, Sir?” he asked. “Is it ok if I have dinner first? I’m famished!”
“TABERLIN!!!” came a bellow across the camp. “YOU THIEVIN’ IMP, HAVE YOU BEEN STICKIN’ YOUR PRYIN’ FINGERS INTO MY STEW AGAIN??? AND WHERE’S MY BREAD ROLLS? JUST YOU WAIT UNTIL I GET MY HANDS ON YOU . . . ”
“On second thought, I guess I’m not that hungry,” Taberlin said quickly, turning to go.
“Taberlin!” Durint called after him. “Wait!” Taberlin paused and looked back, expecting to receive a scolding. But instead, the captain was chuckling. “Here!” he said, throwing a satchel at the elf. Taberlin quickly opened it to find that it contained 5 bread rolls and some cheese. “Thanks!” he grinned back at the captain. Then, stuffing a roll into his mouth, he set out once again for Algaman.
As he neared the capital city of Algaman, Taberlin whistled a tune he had composed along the journey. Occasionally he sang the words, but the lyrics were mostly about being in the trees, so they no longer seemed applicable once he left the forests near Thev Helmin and began to cross the plains and meadows surrounding the capital city.
When he finally arrived at the main gates of the tower fortress Agath Helthe, he found a crowd of people milling about and shouting. Something important seemed to be going on. He tried to listen to find out what all the fuss was about. Something about mercenaries and applications and rewards and dangerous missions, but nothing about dinner, which was what he cared about most at the moment. He had long since finished off the cheese and rolls Durint had given him, and his stomach was making its presence (and its emptiness) very clearly felt. He needed to get this mission finished quickly so he could find something to eat.
“Excuse me!” he called loudly, but nobody seemed to hear him above all the ruckus. “HELLO!”
When shouting failed to produce a result, he took out the message capsule and waved it over his head. “I HAVE A VERY IMPORTANT MESSAGE TO DELIVER TO THE HIGH COUNCIL!” he shouted. “CAN SOMEBODY TELL ME WHO I CAN GIVE THIS TO? Please?” Still nobody seemed to notice. He looked around for someone important looking, and spotted a man wearing the apparel of a Council guard. He went over to the man and tugged at his sleeve. “Excuse me?”
The man turned around. “Who are you?” he asked.
“My name’s Taberlin. But that’s not important. I have an important message to deliver to the High Council. And that IS important. Can I see them?”
“I’m sorry, the Council is very busy right now choosing mercenaries to participate in the quest to investigate the fallen star in the west. They have no time for trivial business. They can’t be bothered,” the dark-skinned man explained.
“Not even for one of their own messages?” Taberlin asked, holding up the message capsule.
“Where did you get that?!” The guard demanded, trying to grab it out of the elf’s hand.
“I found it up in a gorge near Thev Helmin. It was next to some dead guy. I think he was a messenger for the High Council, ‘cause he was wearing those funny clothes they wear. And plus he had this, of course,” Taberlin explained.
“Dead?” the guard inquired, suspiciously.
“Yeah. I mean, I’m pretty sure he was dead. He had a big ol’ gash in his forehead, and his skin was cold, and he didn’t have any pulse. And he didn’t answer me when I asked him if he was alive. So I’m pretty sure he was dead. Otherwise it would be kinda rude not to answer me, wouldn’t it?”
“And you just FOUND him like that?” the guard’s eyes narrowed and his hand went to his sword hilt.
“Yeah. I’m a scout with the army, and I was out on patrol up near Thev Helmin. So I was watching this bird that was making faces at me, and it flew away ‘cause I made faces back, and it flew right past this shiny thing down in the gorge nearby. So I went to go check it out, and it turned out to be a dead messenger guy. ‘Cept, I didn’t know he was dead right then. But he was kind of lying on his face, and he didn’t move when I poked him, so I got kind of suspicious that he WAS dead. So then I turned him over, and he sure seemed dead, what with the nasty gash and the cold skin and the no pulse. I asked him just in case, but he didn’t answer. It looked kind of like he fell down from the mountain pass going up to Thev Helmin and Hal-Tarhyaeldyin, ‘cause there were a bunch of loose rocks and stuff that had fallen down. So I think that’s how he died. So I found his message bottle capsule thingy, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I couldn’t ask the messenger ‘cause he was dead. I mean, I could have, but there wouldn’t really have been much point, since he was dead and all. So I took it back to Captain Durint at the outpost, and he told me I should bring it back here as fast as I could, and bring it to the Council and tell them what happened. So then I left to come here, but I forgot to eat dinner, so I went back, but then Cecil yelled at me because I ate some of his bread rolls — but only three, there was like 150 left, so I don’t know what he was so mad about — so then I thought maybe I’d better not stay for dinner, but Captain Durint gave me a bag of food, so it was ok. But now it’s all gone, so I’m hungry. You don’t happen to have any chocolate or anything on you, do you?”
The poor guard stood baffled by the elf’s whirlwind narration. What’s chocolate? he wondered to himself, but then he shook his head to clear it and snapped back to attention.
“Well, we’ll have to get you an audience with the High Council immediately,” he declared. “This could be very urgent business. Come with me.”
Taberlin followed the man up the numerous flights of stairs to the Conference Room, where the High Council was meeting. The guard spoke to another of his fellow officers at the door, explaining the situation to him. The other guard nodded and let them pass, looking curiously at Taberlin.
Taberlin waited in the doorway while his guard guide made his way up to one of the Council members (Taberlin could tell he was a member of the Council because of the epitoga robe he wore) and explained what had happened. The Council member looked worried at the news, and relayed the information to another Council member of higher rank. This Council member stood up and addressed the Supreme Chancellor.
“Excuse me, your honor,” he announced. “But we have just received word that there is a messenger here with news of possible great import to this Council body. I motion to suspend the examination of the quest candidates until this matter can be looked into.”
A man, who appeared to be the Supreme Chancellor, turned his head, and his piercing gaze fell upon Taberlin. The glance made the elf feel strangely self-conscious, and he looked at the ground and scuffed his boot on the floor. “Very well,” the Chancellor consented. He turned to address an odd-looking group of people, who obviously weren’t Council Members, at the far corner of the room. “My humble apologies, but if you would excuse us for a moment, we would greatly appreciate it. We will continue with the examinations as soon as possible. Please be seated while we look into this matter.”
Turning back to Taberlin, he smiled reassuringly. “And what message do you bring us, Sir Elf?”
Taberlin recounted the story again, but in a significantly more organized and concise way than he had told it to the Council Guard. The awe he felt in the presence of the Supreme Chancellor seemed to have chased his ADHD away for the moment. At the end of his tale, he handed the message capsule to the Supreme Chancellor, who took it and opened it. After quickly glancing over its contents, he looked back at Taberlin.
“You were right, Sir Elf. This message was indeed intended for the Elves of Hal-Tarhyaeldyin. It was an urgent request for aid to send us the best warriors they had to spare to help us with our quest. You have heard of this quest we propose, have you not?”
Taberlin shook his head. “No, Sir. Well, I heard a little about it on the way here, but I don’t know what it’s all about.”
Alveris sat back and folded his hands in his lap. “Not long ago, reports reached us that a star had fallen and struck the Western lands of Narod Rada. Strange events allegedly followed. We sent out a commission several weeks ago to investigate these rumors, but they have not returned, nor have we heard any news from them. Since they set out, the rumors which reach Algaman grow stranger and more gruesome. The people of the Western lands are beginning to abandon their homes and farms in fear. We are not at all sure of the nature of the danger that lurks in the Western lands and is driving the people away, for the reports are all scattered and incoherent, but it must be stopped. Therefore the Council deemed it expedient to send for the best warriors from all the various lands and tribes, to seek out and vanquish this unknown force of evil. Your coming found us in the midst of examining and debriefing some potential candidates for this mission.”
“We had hoped,” Alveris continued, “to have the benefit of Elvin aid on this venture, as they are highly respected and valuable allies of Narod Rada, but I am afraid that the quest is scheduled to depart at first light tomorrow morning. We dare not wait much longer, lest the peril in the West grow out of control. As the message has never even yet reached the Elves, we cannot expect them to send an emissary in time to join the quest. I am very sorry that this venture shall not have a representative of their noble race. But it cannot be helped. Unless,” he paused and looked intently at Taberlin. “Unless YOU would do us the honor of representing your people on this quest.”
“Oh, no, I can’t do that,” Taberlin protested. “I’m a nobody. I don’t have any Elvin skills. I can’t wield an Elvin sword up to standards. I can’t sing Elvish music or write Elvish poetry. I don’t know any healing magic. I can’t even read and write much Elvish! All I can do is run through the forest and climb trees. The other Elves wouldn’t even want to own me as one of them. They’d never pick ME as their representative!”
“Perhaps your people would not have chosen you for this position,” Alveris mused, “but it seems that fate has, as, to my knowledge, you are the only elf here in Algaman at the moment, and there is no time to send for another.”
Taberlin thought about this for a moment. “I can’t do it to represent my people,” he said slowly. “They’d take it as an insult. But if you really want me to go on this quest, I will. Don’t know why you’d want me to, ‘cause like I said, I don’t think I’ll do much good, but if that’s what you want, I’ll go. Just please somebody send a message back to Captain Durint so he knows I’m not coming back.”
Alveris nodded his half white-haired, half black-haired head. “Thank you, Mr. Elf. The Council is honored to have you on this quest.”
“Wait a moment, we hardly know anything about this fellow! He just showed up out of the blue, claiming to have found this messenger already dead — for all we know, he could have killed him himself! We haven’t even checked his qualifications. Do we have any authority who will endorse him?” protested a Council Member who gave the vibe of being rather edgy.
A small, frail-looking man, wearing glasses and the robe of a Lower Council Member, made his way to the front and raised his hand. “I’ll endorse him. I’ve known him for quite some time. He’s an old friend of mine. I vouch for him that he is honest and worthy to serve on this quest.”
“Councilor Templeton!” Taberlin exclaimed in delight.
“Does that satisfy your objections, Keldin?” Alveris asked the Council Member who had opposed Taberlin’s appointment.
The Councilor nodded reluctantly.
“Very well, then, Mr. Taberlin, if you will join the others, we will continue our examinations and debriefing.”