Alandrya and Barley took the same road as all the other elves, though they were an afternoon behind them. She was an easy traveling companion; she liked to talk and to laugh and even on occasion to sing and Barley found himself with little distasteful work: setting up the tent, digging the latrine, and polishing her arms and armor at the end of every march. He could not make distance as well as she could, for he was smaller and incapable of the great loping strides that carried elves across the earth like ghosts, but even so he was silent when he wished it having learned in his youth the secret to creeping through forest and glen.
She assured him that they would catch up with the other elves before long. "We move faster than them even with your little legs," she said. "An army's a slow thing on the move, even an elvish one. They're mustering on the borderlands now."
The way was fine and green, shielded from the plains by oak and maple trees. Old stone walls of long-abandoned farms were heaped up on either side. Every once and a while they would pass some great elvish manse crumbling into the earth, its white stones and painted columns slowly being reclaimed by the tall grasses. Sometimes there was a fountain or a statue that Alandrya stopped to admire before they passed on. Barley liked those places; there was a sort of melancholy about them, the same sad quality he saw in the long-lived elves.
One night, while they were sitting around the fire that Barley had built, he leaned against an old farmer's wall and asked, "What happened to this land? Why isn't it better settled? Why are there so many goblins on the frontier?"
Alandrya smiled the smile that made her look most beautiful, a knowing secretive smile. "Don't you know what lies beyond those plains, between the mountains?"
"Eldispel?" Barley asked. "It's an old ruined kingdom, my da' always said. Used to be the home of great and mighty elf-wizards."
Alandrya nodded. "Your father was a wise halfling. But Eldispel was not always its name. That means fire-dread in Solë, the Land of the Dragons. Surely you must have wondered about the dragons."
Barley nodded, sitting forward and drawing his knees up to his chest. "Yes, mistress. I mean, my da' told me there was a great battle between dragons and elves."
"More than a battle," Alandrya explained. "A war. The wyrms of Synd came rushing up from the south with their armies of slaves and mercenaries."
"Synd?" Barley asked.
"It was the last great Wyrmish empire," Alandrya said. "The Elf-Dragon War was their last great war. After that even the Syndics abandoned the thought of civilization. Dragons despise it, you know. They don't need to live in the company of other wyrms like themselves, the way we might. They don't get lonely, or ever yearn for the company of others. They like being solitary, though in the days of the War they still got along."
Barley couldn't imagine a creature that didn't yearn for a mate, for siblings, for friends. Dragons must be very strange indeed, he decided, if they do not love or grow lonesome.
"In those days, Eldispel was called Sylvasil, and was where the Silver Elves dwelt. They were first and foremost magicians and sorcerers, and they chose to be ruled by their Mage-Lord instead of the Gwydereon. But that was alright, because the Gwydereon had granted them that right, long ago." Alandrya shifted her seat, moving slightly to one side, as she painted a picture of Sylvasil with her hands, describing the tall towers and the tame woodlands. "They built towers and manses all over their land, and where the undisputed masters of their territory from the Searing Peaks to the Elfslayers. They were wizards and magisters all, foresaking artwork and farming. Those who did those tasks were considered less than nothing, and yet the crafts of Sylvasil were beautiful beyond compare.
"Most beautiful, though, was Nostorin, the Tower of Lore. From the balconies of Nostorin the Wizard-Lords ruled their land, and all about that tower there were gardens and fountains and houses upon houses of books. High up in the tower grew a magical flower, nourished by the Silver Elves and unlikely any other in the world. It was called Eistenta, and it was the most precious thing in all the kingdom of the Silver Elves.
"Then came the war. The dragons ravaged Valkaela before the Gwydereon even knew they were moving. They smashed our mannish allies in the south and came for the borders of the Greatwood. They spread out over the Wilderlund and built fortresses and staging camps, enslaving men and dwarves to do their bidding. There were two great wyrmish princes who had heard of the wealth of Sylvasil, piled up beneath the elvish towers.
"There is a ballad," Alandrya said, eyes glassing over as she tried to remember the words. Her voice came from her throat in soft song, drifting over the crackling flame and transforming each tongue of fire into a tower of Sylvasil.
"News of secret flower bright it"There's more," Alandrya said as the shadows of her voice faded into the night. "But I have forgotten it." She grinned at Barley.
spread through all the darkling night,
and 'pon that rumor others flew
of gems that glittered so like dew;
blood-red gold and silver shine,
and vineyards full of elvish wine.
"Bold and young, the serpents were,
they'd seen Noroë and not feared her.
One was red in scale and breath,
the air he breathed was fire-death.
The other from the depths had come
where eyes are blind and tongue is dumb,
and together they in council met,
planned on just how best to get
their grasping claws on elvish gold.
"To the city Halmorin
Kurtukag flew thereon
to law waste to wall, to gate, to tower,
and poison heart of Murhen-flower.
The northern girdle Zanbuz chose
as the place to meet his foes
where the guard had stood at northern wall
against incursion of menfolk all
and upon the walls of ancient stone
flames were kindled 'gainst the moon
as dragon-breath fell hot and fast
and the soldiers could not hope to last
but bells rang out in the dale:
mighty lords went wan, and pale.
"In Halmorin before the tower,
Kurtukag displayed his power:
the fountain cracked, the arches fell,
poison dripped into the well,
and the waters there were made most foul;
Yet Kurtukag let out a howl
as the guardians of elf-lord's seat
pierced his scales with with'ring heat,
for mages of that place were three.
They spake words of blasting spells,
their voices echoed in the fells,
and in the north Zanbuz grinned
as he thought his rival pinned.
"No force before the fire-drake stood,
the houses were all kindling wood.
The garrisons they fled in fear,
'gainst the night-time sky did rear
the dragon Zanbuz horrors great.
He pulled down keep, smashed its gate,
and looked he to the gleaming south
with poison-slaver in his mouth.
He longed to Nostorin to fly
and with his might, the treasure buy
with the death of elvish host.
He yearned for elvish flesh to roast,
and gold to steal and pile in horde.
"In the heavens, Kurtag ROARED!
Upon the mages turned his wrath!
Black spittle fell in curdling bath
that ate through flesh and burned through bone,
that destroyed, and so too stone.
With a single tearing shriek,
the mages' death did he wreak.
But soon there came Zanbuz, red,
Who thought his foe would soon be dead.
"But Noroë came out from her bower,
high upon the ancient tower
that was beset with fire and smoke.
From her window did she choke
back her tears, seeing lands
despoiled, raped, at dragon's hands.
And from the high-up balcony
of silver and of chalced'ny
wrought, she stood, with arms wide spread!
And in a booming voice she said,
'Get you gone from Sylvasil,
or strive you here with elvish will!
I warn thee, I am strong and wise,
my lores will shake the very skies!'"
"But the Mage-Lord, Noroë... she lost?" Barley asked.
"Yes," Alandrya said sadly. "I'm afraid she did. And those two dragons live in Eldispel still, plotting against one another and hording ancient elvish gold. Every so often they get bold enough to attack the Daleädau or the little towns of men that cluster against the sea. And that's what we're going to stop."
That night, Barley slept fitfully, dreaming of dragons.