A Cry in the Darkness
Motion in stillness. Stillness in motion.
Savaniel could smell spring in the blooms of the fruit trees she had carefully nurtured around her pavilion by the lake. It was her favorite place – a roof of wood and scalloped brick supported by columns carved to seem like the trunks of living trees above a platform covered by simple woven mats. She liked the feeling the place gave her, the water and the earth, the wood and the clay, the sun and the wind. It was peaceful in this place.
Her students had a hall in which to learn and practice, with rice paper screens for walls and a wide overhanging porch and gardens and ponds for study and growth. Sometimes Savaniel would watch them practice, rows of students from several noble Houses, the assorted commoner, and even a non-human or two. Of all the teachers, Savaniel didn’t turn anyone away who genuinely wished to learn. Sometimes she would see a student who was too focused on the healing in the moves, or the martial. Once or twice she had even seen them overwhelmed by the music. Of all the masters in the Three Kingdoms, she had the best eye for the bard-born.
For three hundred years she had been teaching them. Ever since her master, the frail human man whose grandfather had developed the form, had given her his name and a place as his daughter in the family. Great-Grandfather had been disaffected by the martial forms of his day. Power with no finesse, he had said. And the students too often injured themselves and others in daily practice.
He, and his heirs, dreamed of a form for healing and defense. A form any could learn from the oldest to the youngest. A form that was soft in practice and hard in use. A silken form, like gliding through water.
The Masters of the Form, being what they were, ridiculed Great-Grandfather even though he defeated them all, even though he taught a woman large with child skill enough to defend her son and then watched with delight as the young boy followed his mother and learned without teaching.
They mocked Grandfather when he broke with tradition and took her, an elf, a foreigner and thus an uncivilized barbarian on both accounts, as his student. By the time of her adoption there was little else to be said. They were already scandalized enough. Great-Grandfather’s form was not going to disappear and with an elf named as Master of the Form no one could claim that the students were not learning the true form.
If elves were not immortal then they were close enough for human sensibilities.
So Savaniel of the Eastern Elves, Savaniel of the House of the Cat, continued the tradition of scandalizing the other Masters until enough human generations had passed that it was no longer known that the Masters were supposed to be scandalized. By her calculations that time should come in another three hundred years. These Oriental humans had long memories.
Even in the concentration of practice the corner of her lip twitched at the thought.
She heard the wavering sigh of a flute and realized that she was no longer alone and that her guest sought to contribute to her morning rituals rather than interrupt them.
She completed the Empty Hand form and moved into the first of the Sword forms. Over the course of the day she would complete each form at least once, and some more than that, in three sessions; morning, noon, and evening. Watching the day change around her helped her understand her own place in the world. As she moved she was accompanied by the most heartbreakingly plaintive melody she had heard in a long time.
Motion in stillness. Stillness in motion.
The moves became distant in her mind, something happening far away. What was happening much closer was terrible to see and worse to feel.
She finished the routine and fell to her knees with a sob of grief and the flautist was at her side in a moment. “No, no, no.” She was still locked in what she had seen and could not break loose. She felt arms around her shoulders.
“What did you see? Please, Sava, what did you see?”
No one in her school addressed her so familiarly. The only one who did was as much a stranger in these lands as she was, and as distrusted. Though, like her, he would likely see the day that they were both considered honored as much as the Emperor.
She forced her eyes open and looked up at the human face as the man with curling brown hair met her eyes with concern and no small amount of panic. He wore the robes of a traveling musician, but all in white. In these lands, white was the color of mourning, and was generally avoided by those who were not grief-stricken for fear of courting tragedy. He was human. She was an elf. And yet he had walked these lands before she had arrived in this Oriental West and he had not aged a single day in three hundred years.
Of course she had her suspicions, but she hadn’t asked him about them. Not yet.
She took a breath. “A mountain blew smoke and the earth rumbled beneath my feet. In the shadow of the mountain there was death and blood.” Her breath turned ragged. “They were my friends, who were dead there. I fought to save them, but they died around me. I found a bundle, lifted it up, and saw the face of a dragon kit. In my arms it became a sandcat cub. What happened to me, Wind?”
His eyes went round. “You are friends with the Wyrmling dwarves?”
She frowned slightly and tilted her head. “Yes, why?”
He pulled her to her feet, suddenly hurrying, but with a purpose. “Do you still have your token?”
“Yes, but it has been at least two hundred years since I visited them. My students keep me busy. A hundred years ago they sent one of their daughters to me to study. I thought it odd at the time.”
He blinked. “The dwarves allowed you to teach one of their daughters? This may work out better than I thought. The Wyrmlings are in terrible danger. I have felt the threat and seen the omens for months, but I could not find anything more solid than that. No hint of someone behind it, just a shadow. Not even I can kill a shadow.”
He was leading her back to the main hall and her chambers there. “What is going on, Wind?”
He turned to face her, his expression dire and somehow hopeful. “I have seen nothing but total destruction. You saw a survivor. If you can get me a mastermind, then I can kill him, no matter who he may be or how protected he may think himself, but without that knowledge, I cannot do anything except mourn for those lost and grieve for the innocence which has perished.”
She held her breath. She had never asked, and he had just told her.
In the East, in the chaos following the destruction many had started calling Starfall, stories had begun circulating about a single warrior who could do what whole armies could not, a bard-born man who mourned for the lost City-by-the-Sea and honored their memory by executing justice on any who would be like the one who attacked the city. He was called the Man in Black, because in the East, the color of mourning was black.
She had suspected that Wind had sworn to follow in the steps of the Man in Black, but if he were truly as powerful as he had said, then he was not simply sworn to grieving justice, he was Grieving Justice.
She bowed her head to him in honor. “What would you have me do, Warrior of Heaven?”
He chuckled. “Don’t start that with me, now, Sava. I didn’t tell you so you could make obeisance to me. I’m not the Creator; I just serve Him.” He took a breath. “I need you to rescue that child, that innocent survivor that only you can reach. And I need you to hurry.”
She nodded quickly and then led the way into the hall. On the way they passed one of her master-students, who looked at the two of them and blinked in surprise.
“Mother of Memory? Do you require assistance?”
Savaniel nodded. “I must leave on a sudden journey. I will be gone for several months and I must leave within the hour.”
To his credit, the master-student did not question her statement. “Yes, Mother of Memory. It will be done.”
It took her longer than she would have liked, but Savaniel found the tents of the Wyrmling dwarves in the shadow of a great volcano. They wandered the sands of the desert, one of the few dwarven tribes that chose to live above the earth instead of within it, though even they were partial to caves. Something about all that stone must resonate to their souls.
It was well after dark, and it felt far too much like the vision she had seen in her pavilion by the lake. She knew something was wrong when she wasn’t greeted by sentries. Dwarves never did anything without sentries.
She heard the screams in the camp and hurried forward, drawing her jian and praying for forgiveness for baring her blade before meeting an enemy.
There were corpses everywhere.
Wyrmling dwarves, many of them Savaniel knew by face if not by name, lay scattered about and broken, and surrounding them were the corpses of goblins, hundreds, thousands of goblins. How had that many goblins gathered in one place, much less continued an attack after even a tenth of their number had fallen? Goblins did not fight to the last. Dwarves did, but goblins did not.
She reached the center and found that there were no goblins left alive. A single man, human by the look of him, though there was Shadow in his shadow, stood facing a knot of smaller corpses, the children of the tribe.
He was systematically killing each and every one of them, even though they, as their parents had done, tried to lift swords heavier than they were, to defend themselves.
Yes, dwarves did fight to the last.
She reached the man just as the last of the children fell. He turned to see her, surprised, as she brought the edge of her jian across his face. He vanished, but she could see the glint of something liquid and quickly caught the blood on a handkerchief. She had his blood. Now all she had to do was get the blood to Wind and the man would die.
The knowledge kept her from losing focus in her grief. The tents were set up around a circle, and lights were strung between them. They had been in the midst of a celebration when the attack had come. She looked around at the chaos and wondered if she had been too late.
And then she heard the thin cry.
She rushed over to the ruined remains of a platform, the place of honor in this grisly festival and saw the body of a dwarven female curled around something. She turned the body over to see the face of her old student, Ilserun, and an infant in her arms, a newborn infant dwarf.
Savaniel’s eyes filled with grieving tears as she lifted the bundle into her arms. “Oh, Ilserun, you were celebrating the birth of a daughter . . .” Dwarves did not bear often, and most often bore sons. Daughters were rare and treasured, and the cause of much rejoicing when they were born.
The child heard her voice and calmed her crying, opening her eyes to look at the woman who held her. Savaniel caught her breath as she saw the same amber colored eyes that she had seen in the vision, both in the dragon kit’s face and in the sandcat cub’s. The eyes were the same.
For a moment Savaniel wasn’t certain what to do. She had saved the child, but could she raise Ilserun’s daughter? What did she, an elf, know about being a dwarf?
She carried the infant in one arm while she gathered what she could of the treasures which had been gathered for the birth-gifting and loaded them onto her beast. No newborn deserved to go into the world without gifts.
Savaniel walked slowly past the gates into her school, her home. Some part of her heart felt like it had been a lifetime since she had known the peace of this place, even though she knew that only a few months had passed.
Wind was waiting for her on the front steps to the great hall, his face worried when he saw that she was not carrying a small child in her arms.
When she reached him she offered him a small scrap of white cloth with a brownish red stain in the center of it. “I found him completing the slaughter of even the children of the Wyrmlings. Here is his blood.”
He accepted the offered fabric with a nod. “The survivor?”
“A newborn.” Her voice broke. “It was her birth celebration. My old student had a daughter.”
Wind closed his eyes in grief. “I am sorry, my friend.”
“No more so than I. The infant lives. I found another dwarven tribe. Even differences between tribes may be set aside for the common heritage and a daughter. I gave them a token should she need me and I gave her your flute.”
That had been Wind’s offering when she had left. A bamboo flute with a runic pattern burned into the wood.
He nodded. “I would have thought you would have taken her for your own. By their traditions, you are as much her mother as the one who bore her.”
Savaniel shrugged. “What do I know of being a dwarf?”
Wind looked her in the eyes. “And what do dwarves know of having magic?”
She sighed. She knew. The Wyrmling dwarves were more different from other dwarven tribes in more than their decision to live above ground. “Any gifts she has will not flower for many years, years she might have to grow in understanding of her own nature. If she needs me then, the dwarves know where to find me.”
Wind nodded. His grip tightened on the handkerchief in it. “My thanks for the blood. More will flow.”
“Any man who would kill children with his own hand deserves to drown in his blood.”
“The child’s name?”
“I asked that she be given her mother’s name. She is Ilserun.”
There was nothing more to say. Savaniel returned to her teaching and Wind left for his hunt. The Wyrmlings would not die unavenged.