As they made their way through the pass Katyr insisted the three stop at the North West Postern Outpost. The small fort was located about midway between the walls of the Vale and the edge of the boulder field. The guard post was hidden amongst the house sized boulders of volcanic stone making up the field. He wanted to speak with the soldiers always stationed there, especially one who was an old friend of theirs.
As Katyr went into the small courtyard of the outpost he was surprised to see no guards on duty. When he passed through the heavy wooden gate that was the door to the post and into the mud room he could see why. Off to the kitchen area he spied four Elves in light armor sitting around a stout oaken table next to a roaring fire. They were each deeply engaged in eating their mid-day meal when he barged in banging his tall riding boots hard on the floor of the entryway to knock off the snow. Halamar and Orist were close behind doing the same and the three made quite the noise startling the four guards who arose from the table in a hurry as they looked upon the three walking in.
“By the bloody moon what in the devil is this Katyr?” said the guard who had been sitting closest to the door. The four Elves were a tad bit angry and slightly embarrassed as none of them had expected, nor felt, anyone to be outside the Vale so soon after such a fierce storm. The guard cursing at them was named Gaelin, the Captain in charge of the outpost. He had known the three young Elves ever since they were just tall enough to ride a horse.
“Well met Gaelin, old friend! I am glad to see you,” Katyr said walking up to the tall broad Elf. “I apologize to put such a surprise on you and your friends, but I have something of import tell you, and a favor to ask if I may.”
The gruff soldier looked at Katyr and then at Halamar and Orist and said, “Well met yourselves, you three, and forgive my outburst. We assumed none would be traveling this soon after such a storm. First you must tell me what your business is outside the Vale and then I just might listen to your tale and see if I can help. Let’s pull up by the fire in the common room to talk. Ishari, how about bringing four mugs of that hot spiced ale, if you please. If any of you three are hungry we got a big pot of venison stew hangin’ by the fire, that you’ll have to get yourself.”
Katyr, Halamar and Orist each pulled off their thick riding gloves and hung their heavy gossamar cloaks on pegs along the wall. Not ones to turn down a free meal they each filled wooden bowls with stew, grabbed a wooden spoon and made their way to the small common room which was through a wide open archway next to the kitchen. They took their seats in comfy leather chairs set in a half circle in front of a large stone fireplace built into the wall. Steaming mugs of ale were waiting for them on a small wooden table between them and the fire. Gaelin sat down with the three visitors as the other three soldiers went back to their meal and back to their conversation.
Katyr told Gaelin of their plans for one last hunt before winter set in and each had to go their separate ways to begin their lessons. While his friends looked about the cabin, wearing somewhat uncomfortable expressions, he spoke of the darkness he had sensed far out upon the northern plains. He said he could feel an evil intent coming from the darkness and described the sinister foulness he felt. It was different but not unlike the taint of the corrupt Black Magic he had encountered in the past. When he stopped talking Gaelin sat quietly, deep in thought, much to Katyr’s relief. He had worried the elder Elf might not take him seriously and laugh off his story much like his friends had done at times.
When Gaelin could see Katyr had finished speaking he looked towards the other two young Elves and asked, “What about you two, did you also feel this ‘presence’ out upon the plain?”
Halamar spoke up first, “Well, no Gaelin, we didn’t. It’s not always that our magic gets stronger when we’re close to Katyr. But everyone knows his strength in the White, and I for one do not doubt his feelings.”
“But still, Halamar, he wants us to forego our hunt because of this vision of his and have us ride far out into the Tundra,” Orist said quietly as he looked down into his mug of ale.
“Never did I say forego the hunt. Where I want to go is also where the last of the migrating herds should cross. I told you that Orist!” Katyr said.
“Now, now boys. I myself have sensed nothing alarming coming from the north, but I’m no Mage either. Get yourselves some more ale and just sit tight here a minute. I’ll be back.” Gaelin said. While the young Elves got up to go to the small kitchen Gaelin stood and walked over to the three soldiers who were still at the table eating. He took a seat and started talking softly to the men.
“It seems there might be something to what you sensed out on the Tundra, Katyr,” Gaelin said as he returned taking his seat. He sent a dark look over to the Elf that had gotten them their ale earlier. “Not long before you three arrived Ishari came back through the storm from the main post at Northern Boulder-edge. He neglected to inform me of some important information as he was more worried about his stomach than reporting. It seems there were some Elves of high import at the post and some kind of commotion concerning the northern Tundra. Ishari did not stay to find out what was up as the storm was moving in fast. But I would not be surprised if it did not have something to do with what you felt.”
“Did he happen to notice who the Elves were?” Halamar asked.
“Yes, General Darkath, commander of the Northern Army, and the High Mage Belador who leads the Tower Mages. It seems the post was somewhat crowded as the General also brought fifty of the High Valen Guard with him,” Gaelin said.
Orist gave a low whistle at the mention of the High Valen Guards. They were the most elite of all the fighting warriors of the Western Vale. They maintained a force of five hundred of the most deadly Elves in the land. Their exploits were talked about by all throughout the Vale, by young and old. Any Elf aspiring to be a soldier dreamed of getting into the Guard.
“Just maybe there is something to this feeling of yours Katyr, if the Guard is riding out. They must mean to go out and face it,” Orist said. “We should most definitely ride out to investigate.” He and Halamar beamed at the idea of riding with the Guard, all thoughts of the hunt forgotten.
“Yes, we should go,” Katyr said. “I need to make sure they know the darkness they face.”
“Well, I cannot keep you three if you plan to go, but I am afraid I cannot send any of my men with you. Just recently I received strict orders to cancel all leaves and increase regular patrols around the post, now I think I may know why. However, I can give you some advice before you leave,” Gaelin said.
“Watch out for General Darkath,” the Captain went on, “he is not one to be trifled with. I am not in charge of this ill-forsaken post by choice, it was he who put me here because of some ill-conceived slight, but that is a story for another time. Also beware of the Belador. He does not take kindly to any who may think they know more than him. Watch your words around the High Mage. ”
“If you are going to go you should leave now. Ride for the main post at the boulder field’s edge so you can pick up their trail if they have already left. That silly sod Ishari did not ask any questions!” Gaelin said the last part loudly for the young Elf’s benefit. “So I cannot tell you what their plans are or if they will even allow you to ride with them. But you will not know unless you go there.”
“One last thing,” Gaelin said in all seriousness. “You three look after yourselves and each other. I have known each of you far too long to see anything happen to you. I cannot tell you if the Guard is there because of your visions Katyr, but if they are it must be a threat they are not taking lightly. So have a care and by all means stay out of their way.”
Once Gaelin finished speaking all four got up and he asked to see their weapons and supplies. He had one of the Elves at the table go to their small armory and get them each a quiver of the fine army arrows to add to their hunting arrows. They were far superior with much sturdier shafts and heavy broadhead tips that could punch through armor. He yelled at Ishari to get them each a travel pack that the soldiers took when they went out on patrol upon the Tundra. The young Elves had ample supplies for their hunting trip but adding to them could never hurt. Plus the army packs each came with a good size skin of the strong golden ale the soldiers liked to drink. It was a good thing to have out on the freezing cold plains.
As they were mounting up Gaelin told them to wait for one more thing that he went and got from the armory himself. He returned carrying a sheathed longsword which was attached to a thick studded broad belt.
“This is for you Katyr and my hope is you do not have need of it,” he said as he handed it up. “I see Halamar and Orist each have theirs, being the aspiring soldiers they are, but you need to carry one too.” He looked at the two friends behind Katyr, “Make sure he wears it, and remembers how to use it!”
With that Gaelin waved them off wishing them safe travels as they went. The old soldier watched them ride away with the hopes this would not be the last time he was to ever see them again. He too was starting to feel a glimmer of the darkness far to the north. No doubt, he thought, from being around Katyr and the strong White Magic that resided within him.
Katyr, Halamar and Orist rode out on a secret path that led from the Outpost onto the main trail that led to the main guard post along the north edge of the boulder field. It was almost dark when they emerged from the snow filled path and they, as well as their horses, were happy to be away from the narrow confining high walls. The boulders that lined the main trail were much farther apart and the snow was trampled from many travelers riding to and fro. This made the ride much easier.
The Elves called the main guard post in this area the Northern Boulder-edge. It was the matched by two other guard posts around the Vale known as the Eastern and Southern Boulder-edge. The boulder-edge posts served and protected the roads that led to the main gates in the Vale’s walls. They were the largest posts and each garrisoned about three hundred Elven soldiers. From these posts the soldiers patrolled the lands around the boulder fields for any threats to the Vale. Anyone riding around the boulder field surrounding the Vale would never know the guard posts were there. Ages ago when the Elves first came to the Vale they built the posts into and under the boulders to conceal them.
Around the naturally formed walls and cliffs of the Vale were many small postern gates where riders could come and go without having to ride all the way to a main gate. Each postern gate was served by an outpost that lay hidden somewhere in the boulder field over-watching the path. The outposts had anywhere from twenty to a hundred soldiers depending on how much trail they needed to cover.
The boulder field itself stretched a mile out in all directions from the walls of the Vale. It was made up of boulders anywhere in size from several long halls combined together and down to a small cottage, and all the sizes in between. Trails snaked their way all throughout the field and each was carefully mapped and guarded by the Elves. The rock that made up the boulders was a hard and porous volcanic stone that was very rough and razor sharp. If any enemy ever attempted to attack the Vale by climbing over the boulders their travel would be so slow they would be discovered by the White Magic long before they ever reached the wall.
The three young Elves rode into the main northern outpost and were surprised by how few soldiers were about. They could see only a handful along the boulder tops, two manning the camouflage gates into the post and very few in the practice yard. The stables were also oddly vacant of any horses which was strange for this time of the evening. This was not how the young Elf, Ishari, had described the post when he was here not too long ago.
As the three dismounted a very tall and very heavily armored Elf came striding up to them flanked by two just as equally armored Elves holding torches. The tall Elf was Captain Larongar whom the three had met a few times over the turns on hunting trips into the northern plains.
“Welcome travelers,” the Captain said. As the torchlight engulfed the three the Captain went on, “Well, I know you three. Halamar, Orist and Katyr is it? It has been some time since we last met. A bit late for a hunt is it not?”
“Well met Captain Larongar!” Katyr said. “Your memory for names is remarkable. We come to meet with General Darkath and the High Mage Belador on a matter of some import. If you would be so kind as to have someone take us to them?”
“I am afraid they are not here. They left early this morning, even as the storm raged around us. Come, let us talk about it in the common room. I will have someone see to your mounts and packs,” the Captain said. Before Katyr could protest the Captain turned and walked towards one of buildings that bordered the training grounds. He led them to a door that was flanked by windows letting out bright, warm light onto the grounds. Katyr followed reluctantly, unlike Halamar and Orist, who welcomed getting out of the cold and talking with the Captain.
As they entered the common room they could see only about a dozen soldiers sitting at the long tables. They were eating their evening meal and drinking from tall mugs filled with ale. The young Elves noticed their mood to be somewhat somber as the Captain led them to an empty table near the blazing fire in the large hearth. Because the room was very warm the Captain stripped off some of his armor as they walked. The three young Elves noticed all of the soldiers wore the same heavy armor. Theirs were hanging on racks close to them so they could put it on at a moments notice. The three had never seen the post in such a state of alert before.
“Captain, we must be on our way to meet up with the General and the High Mage,” Katyr said as they took their seats on benches by the table. “I know I can be of assistance to them.”
“You will be able to follow them Katyr,” said the Captain. “But I’m afraid it will not be tonight. Something foul walks upon the Tundra as you must be aware. Something even my soldiers weakest in the White can feel. No one is to leave the post after the sun has set until we know what we are up against. The High Mage fears this darkness is more powerful at night and does not want a chance taken that it can slip through our gates. So all around the boulders edge we are on lock down and my orders are to keep the gates closed until the sun rises. Look around you Katyr, over half of my soldiers went with the General and over half of those left are on patrol in the freezing cold. In the morning you will be free to leave, if you must.”
Katyr could indeed sense the foulness out on the Tundra. The closer he traveled to the boulders edge the stronger the feeling of the dark presence became. He had started to feel more than just a darkness out on the plain. He began to sense something evil and dangerous, something that was aware of them and harbored a deadly intent. His friends could now sense the foulness, but they had no idea how dangerous it was. They only felt a dark blotch far out on the plain. Katyr was beginning to fear he was the only one that knew death walked far out upon the Tundra.
The Captain solidified his fears as he talked of what the General and the High Mage felt they were up against before they left the post. Both of the High Elves were strong in the White Magic and both had sensed the darkness out upon the plain from within the Vale, just as Katyr had. However, according to the Captain, they did not view it so much as a threat, but a curiosity. They saw it as something to be investigated, as an anomaly of the Black Magic. The soldiers they brought with them were mostly for show, neither the General nor the High Mage thought they would have much need of them.
When Katyr learned the High Elves did not perceive the darkness to the north as deadly evil, only something to keep an eye on and guard against, he became even more worried. The young Elf knew they must double their efforts to warn them of the possible danger they could be riding into.
Usually Elves could pass through the gates at boulders edge whenever they pleased. Elves from the other Vales were also welcome to pass at any time of day or night to visit the Western Vale for business or pleasure. Even Tundra Wolves were allowed to pass as they sometimes enjoyed romping in the warm lands under the dome, especially during the brutal winter months. However, during times of conflict and concern the whole of the perimeter of the Boulder field could be closed. On this the Captain would not budge as he was a stern follower of orders, especially ones given by someone as important as General Darkath. The General and the High Mage had deemed it best to keep the gates closed at night until they knew what the darkness was. Much to Katyr’s distress he and his two friends would not be able to ride out until the first light of the early morning.
The three young Elves were kept company by the Captain as they ate a fine meal of bison steaks and summer squash while drinking an excellent cloudberry wine. The Captain had not been to the Vale for over a turn and he wanted to know all the goings on while he had been gone. Halamar and Orist were very happy to be talking to a soldier such as the Captain who had seen many things out on the plains in his long turns of service. Katyr was miserable as he sat picking at his meal feeling the darkness far to the north. The Captain stayed with them until the late evening and even showed them to the barracks where they could get some sleep. Halamar and Orist deemed him a fine Elf and a good leader. They talked late into the night about making a change to their plans of becoming members of the Valen Guard. They had suddenly become much more interested in becoming soldiers for the Northern Boulder-edge Outpost with Captain Larongar as their commander.
The two young Elves drifted off to sleep while the third lay awake fearfully probing the north lands with the power of his White Magic. It was very late in the night when Katyr finally drifted off into a fitful nightmare-filled slumber.