"I wonder if the goddess is watching us, right at this moment," Melann said, looking around.
Whitlock's gaze followed hers, and he saw the thick, dark trees surrounding the dusty path on which he and his sister rode. Their horses' hoofbeats metered out the minutes and hours that comprised the otherwise silent days of their travels. Light from the setting sun streaked through the branches around them like streamers on a festival day, and the trees were alive with birds and small animals moving about as late afternoon fell on the Dalelands. As he rode past, Whitlock saw the swirl of leaves overhead as a cascade of water endlessly moving across a sea of green-or at least, what he imagined the sea might look like, as he'd never actually seen the sea.
"Does Chauntea, the Great Mother, watch us every day of our journey or only at certain points?" Melann continued. "Surely a goddess has better things to do in all the Dalelands-all the world-than to continually watch one simple, minor follower like me. Yet how can a mortal begin to put limitations on a goddess?"
Whitlock had heard this from his sister before. While her training taught her that Chauntea was concerned with every aspect of her priests' lives, Melann seemed to find it difficult not to question her own worth in her goddess's eyes. His sister's faith in the greatness and glory of Chauntea, mother of all growing things and the people who tended them, never faltered. Her own importance and self-worth were in question. She voiced these concerns often and aloud. Whitlock's only response was to simply shrug.
"Praise Our Mother," Melann whispered out of habit.
At the sound of his sister's voice, Whitlock turned. A smile came unbidden to his mouth, but his normal, stalwart countenance altered it into a grimace. He wished he could be more like her. The faith that she held in her god, in the completion of their quest, and seemingly in him strengthened Whitlock, even if he was unable to really express such things in words. He saw her as everything that was good in the world, which needed protection by people like him. It was his duty, and he would not shirk it. Duty, steadfastness, and obligation were his gods.
Whitlock wiped sweat from his brow, and readjusted himself in the saddle. He scanned around, always looking for danger.
When they began the trip from Archendale three days earlier, Whitlock had convinced Melann to don a leather jerkin for a modicum of protection. A brown traveling cloak covered most of the armor, but not a wooden amulet bearing Chauntea's symbol-a flower surrounded by a sunburst-displayed prominently at her chest. Melann's faith was her strength, and indeed it allowed her to perform great feats when she called on the power of her patron. That faith, however, also led her to believe that Chauntea would provide her with everything she needed. Whitlock knew that most of the time you had to take care of yourself.
The sound of his glistening chain mail lightly jingling with each step of his mount constantly reminded him of the dangers all around him and the need for protection. He noted each tree, each bend in the road, with careful consideration. Their father had taught him that the spot that appeared safest was actually the best spot for an ambush.
The people of the Dales," his father used to say, didn't survive so near dangers like the Zhentarim and Myth Drannor by being trusting. We go through life with our eyes open."
Now, riding into these mysterious elven woods, his sister's safety was his responsibility. Their quest weighed heavily on Whitlock's shoulders.
Melann's long dark hair, tied away from her face in a practical manner, pulled free of the bond a few strands at a time with each rhythmic bounce of the horse. They both had been told that there was a strong familial resemblance between the two of them, but of course Whitlock's hair was much shorter, and for the last few years he'd worn a short-cropped beard. Whitlock had never let himself think much of women and feminine beauty, but he imagined that other men might find his sister attractive. Usually Melann's hands and clothes were covered in fresh dirt, as she spent most of her time helping fanners with their crops or in her own garden. Perhaps if she didn't concern herself with things like that so much, Whitlock thought, she would be married.
Now only the dust of the road covered Melann's hands and clothes. The journey they had been forced into did not allow for the luxury of tending to plants, nor did it take them near too many tilled fields. Only the dust of the road soiled either of them. The two rode in silence, as they had for much of the journey.
Both held their mouths in tight expressions, and their eyes hung heavy and low. Still, Whitlock took Melann's praise to her goddess as a sign of unswerving faith and optimism.
The narrow path cut through the ancient trees in a wilderness neither really fully comprehended. Now, as darkness slowly overcame the light of day, Whitlock grew even more wary. The seriousness of the mission that drove them on made him reluctant to speak, but his silence fostered the cloud of gloom that hung over them as surely as the ancient curse they struggled against hung over their family.
The town of Essembra supposedly lay on this road, and he'd planned on their reaching it by nightfall.
"Did you hear that?" Melann asked softly.
"No," he replied. Her voice broke through Whitlock's silent reverie. He'd heard nothing. Still, caution was always prudent.
"I thought I heard a voice," Melann said, her voice still low. "As though someone called out from far away."
At that moment a deep, resonant voice came from among the trees. Both heard it this time. The man, if it was a man, spoke from what seemed a good distance off to their left. The words were clear but meaningless.
"I think that's Elvish," Melann stated, halting her horse and looking off in the direction from which the voice had come. Whitlock pulled the reins on his own mount and looked back at her.
"Come along, Melann. We've got to get to town before nightfall."
"But-" she began. She was interrupted by another deep voice calling through the trees, this time from the right side of the road. She could find no meaning in the words. Despite the distance from which they seemed to come, the voices were more like whispers than shouts.
"Melann, come along. We have no business in this wood after dark."
"But what if he's in need? His voice seems so mournful-so sad."
Whitlock sighed heavily, even forcefully. "Melann, they call this the Vale of Lost Voices for a reason. People say these woods are filled with ghosts-elven ghosts."
Instinctively, Melann spoke the Chauntean prayer of the dead, looking around the whole time. When she finished the two pressed their heels into the sides of their mounts, urging them onward to the north as the woods around them grew darker and darker with the fading sun.
Neither of them actually noticed just how much they sped their horses until they suddenly had to bring them to a stop. A single figure stood in the road. He fearlessly held his ground even in the face of the galloping horses. Neither his stance nor his expression changed as the two of them struggled to stop their mounts. Once their horses were under control, Melann and Whitlock gazed at the man before them.
Most certainly elven, his lithe form betrayed a deep-seated power. Finely crafted armor seemed to glide over his body and accentuate his features, each line in the armor playing off a similar line in his angular face and body. A sword and bow remained at his back. His eyes were as black as the night that was approaching far too quickly.
Whitlock reached for the hilt of his weapon, but the almost whispering voice of the elf stopped him cold.
Neither sibling could understand his speech, but they watched closely as he raised a graceful, muscular arm and pointed to the west, then again to the northwest. Whitlock followed the elf’s long, pointing finger and looked off into the woods but saw nothing. When Whitlock looked back at the elven warrior, he was gone.
"Did you see that?" Melann whispered as though she had no breath within her at all.
"No," Whitlock lied to her and himself, grabbing the bridle of her horse and spurring it and his own to a gallop.
They hardly got more than a hundred yards down the road when a shadowy figured loomed ahead of them. Again they pulled on the reins of their mounts, bringing them to a halt in front of an elven warrior.
"What in the name of…" Whitlock didn't finish. Instead, wide-eyed, he stared at the figure.
It was the same warrior they had seen before.
"Wait," the figure whispered, this time in a strangely accented but understandable version of Common. He held forth a stern hand.
"Melann, get back," Whitlock warned.
She didn't heed her brother. "Who are you?" she asked.
The elf did not respond.
"My name is Melann Brandish, and this is my brother, Whitlock," she answered, motioning to her brother.
Whitlock looked at her incredulously. This was no time to hold a conversation, particularly with a ghost!
The features of the elven warrior were more clearly defined now-though Whitlock couldn't reason why. The elf carried a sword and a bow, but he kept the blade sheathed and the bow unstrung. His armor was silver, unlike any Whitlock had ever seen. The apparition's eyes were black like bottomless pits, drawing in light around him.
"Hear me," the warrior said. When he spoke, Whitlock heard voices like his coming from all around them in the woods. "We have buried our dead in these woods for a time longer than you can understand. Warriors fallen from centuries of conflict now lie here. We do not always rest quietly."
Melann shook her head slightly, her mouth agape. Whitlock reached for the reins of her mount, to pull her back. Instead, much to his surprise, she bade her horse ahead a few steps.
"Why are you here?" she asked softly.
Whitlock was stunned by her courage, or carelessness,
"An evil known to us is once again stirring.''
Melann recoiled. "What evil? What do you mean?"
Whitlock reached down to where his shield hung on his saddlebag and slowly strapped it to his arm. never taking his eyes off the elven spirit.
"I cannot speak of it."
The warrior shifted his stance. Whitlock wondered if the elf was preparing for something. Perhaps, however, he was just particularly uncomfortable with what he was saying. It was difficult to tell.
"Does it have anything to do with us?" Melann asked the warrior.
"More than you know."
"Melann, we can't trust him," Whitlock whispered quickly. "We should go."
"There is arcane magic born of this wood," the warrior said to Whitlock. "The spirits of elves, ancient when humans first came to the Dales, walk here still. Dragons, elven magic, monstrous creatures, restless dead-the woods are mysterious and deadly."
Was that supposed to be a threat?
Melann ignored Whitlock, her eyes never leaving the stranger.
"We are on a quest," she told him. "Our family has an ancient curse on it, and we think we know how to lift it."
"Melann!" Whitlock spat. Her naivete might spell disaster for them. She was too damned trusting.
The warrior looked at Melann, as if expecting more. The black pits of his eyes widened, but he said nothing. The light breeze stilled, and the forest grew silent.
"The curse strikes down members of my family with no apparent pattern." Only now did Melann's gaze leave the elf, for now it dropped to the ground, and she closed her eyes. "Our…" her voice faltered, "… our mother and father lay dying in Archenbridge with a horrid disease. It's the only way we can help them."
"What is the only way?" the warrior asked with an ancient, resonant voice.
"That's no business of yours," Whitlock said, reaching slowly for his sword hilt.
"A wizard," Melann explained, "who's now long dead, cursed our family. We've learned that perhaps if we can find his magical staff, we can rid ourselves of the curse."
The warrior paused for a moment, then pointed to the west and said, "Kirthol Erdel”
"What?" Whitlock asked, his hand grasping the hilt of his weapon tightly. His eyes narrowed, and he leaned forward.
Melann answered, but she did not look back at her brother. "That's an ancient elven name for the Thunder Peaks."
The horses shifted nervously, stamping on the ground. Melann and Whitlock pulled back on their reins to keep control. The warrior didn't react.
"Signs and omens show nothing but dark portents for the days ahead," the elf said. "Disturbances in the flow of magic have brought me back here to the corporeal world. Since my return, I have learned of ill tidings from Kirthol Erdel speaking of large and frequent bands of creatures you call gnolls gathering and attacking whatever they come on."
Melann seemed to drink all this information in, but Whitlock was disturbed. "Why are the gnolls gathering?" he asked, reluctant as he was to converse with a ghost.
"I do not know," came the response, "but they seem to be directed by someone."
Again the warrior seemed to shift his position. Whitlock saw his hands twitch and readied himself, but the elf didn't reach for his weapons, so Whitlock still didn't draw his own sword.
"Can't you tell us more than that?" Melann asked, her hands waving toward the warrior. "Does this have anything to do with what we're trying to do?'"
The warrior pointed again, toward the east. "Chare'en."
Melann gasped. Whitlock looked at her, to see what she would say next. He hoped it would be nothing-but a part of him was now intrigued at what this long-dead elf had to say.
When Melann said nothing, he whispered again, "We should go."
She paused and drew a breath, still not looking into her brother's disapproving eyes. He did nothing to stop her, though.
"No, Whitlock," Melann said, "we won't learn anything if we don't tell anything." With a quickening pace she continued. "Perhaps Chauntea brought us here-to you-for a reason. Perhaps not. In any case, we do know of someone called Chare'en."
The warrior stared at her in silence. "Chare'en was the ancient sorcerer who put the curse on our family."
Again, the warrior's hands seemed to twitch. "He died long ago and was buried in a crypt hidden by an avalanche," Melann said, though it seemed as if she was talking to herself now. "At least, that’s what some old family records show. The crypt holds something that can lift the curse. The curse… drains their strength until they haven't even the strength to… their hearts just stop beating." A tear ran down Melann's face, her lips quivered, but she continued. "We need to find this hidden crypt. We don't know how much longer our parents have left.
"Or how much longer we have left," she added.
The warrior stood silently watching her.
"So, are you saying," Whitlock asked, "that this old sorcerer's crypt is in the Thunder Peaks?"
The elf did not reply.
Melann turned toward Whitlock, wiping away the tear. "I think that's what he's saying. I think Chauntea sent him here to help guide us."
"Tilverton's at the northern edge of the Thunder Peaks," Whitlock told her. "We could make for there from here by staying on the main roads Rauthauvyr's Road meets up with the Moonsea Ride north of here, then heads west."
"That doesn't seem to be very direct," Melann replied. "I'd like to get there as quickly as we can."
"I'd rather stick to the main roads-particularly while we're here in these damned – "he looked at the elven warrior-"I mean, in these woods."
Whitlock began formulating further plans but was away into the darkness that surrounded them. The ground where he stood showed no sign of him ever being there at all.
"Vheod?" Whitlock repeated and furrowed his brow. He looked to his sister. "What does that mean?"
Melann shook her head. "That doesn't sound like Elvish at all."