Under the Hill
While an unlikely pair ambled southward, Godfrey left Hareik on a northward course. He travelled along a near empty road; nothing but small villages lay scattered around the endless forests of northern Vidrevi. The only other travellers were the occasional peddlers, supplying the villages with finer fabric, spices, or bronze items in exchange for furs. Moving with his customary haste, it took only a week before Godfrey was so far north, he no longer had any roads to follow. He encountered a few more villages, where he might buy himself a meal and a dry place to sleep. After another week, this was no longer available either.
Unlike Adalrik and Heohlond, where the division between cultivated land and the Alfskog was clear, Vidrevi had no such border between the forests inhabited by Men and the woodlands left in peace. Over time, the foresters had simply learned how far they might go; beyond a certain point, they would not be allowed to return. With a sparse population, the foresters accepted this readily; their own woods had more than enough room to accommodate them all, and they did not mind leaving the northernmost reaches to its unseen guardians.
Seven days after he had departed from the last village and against their warnings, Godfrey set foot across the border that all foresters knew to beware; with a whistle and a carefree expression, he entered the Alfskog.
Judging by a glance, there was no visible change in the forest. The trees, sounds, and animals were exactly like those further south. If the foresters of Vidrevi would ever dare to venture north, they would neither see nor feel a change in their surroundings.
The same did not seem to be the case for Godfrey. As his steps took him north-east, he appeared like a snake shedding its old skin. The lines on his brow became smooth. His shoulders relaxed. His steps came with less urgency. His demeanour showed him to be at ease. As he walked, staff in one hand, he would use the other to reach out and touch the trees in passing; every so often, a smile would pass over his face. From the treetops, the birds chirped at him, sometimes making him look up and chuckle. When he bent down at the streams to drink, their cool waters would suddenly spray at him, and he laughed in response.
A week after he had left Vidrevi, a week after entering the Alfskog, Godfrey looked to be a man at peace.
Another few days occurred before Godfrey came to a sudden halt. He turned slowly. Between the trees, an Elven scout stepped out, already returning her arrow to the quiver. Words flowed like a rippling brook from her mouth.
In response, Godfrey nodded and smiled. “Thank you, I would appreciate that. It has been some years since I last came this way.”
The Elf gave a reply.
“Forgive me, but I have not spoken your tongue in a number of years that would even astound you.”
She laughed and made a throw with her head. Godfrey joined her in walking that direction, and their conversation continued, each speaking their own speech.
In the company of the scout, Godfrey travelled three days until she bid him farewell. She left him in a part of the forest where the land sloped upwards, and he followed this incline. After an hour, he reached a brook. It flowed over a precipice, creating a waterfall. Here, Godfrey sat down and waited. He dug out some provisions, sharing them with a curious squirrel.
He was not made to wait long; soon, an Elf appeared by his side. “You are back.”
“Well met, Ælfwine,” Godfrey said cheerfully.
The Elf known in ancient times as Alfmod sent him a scowl. “You smile, but your tidings never give me cause to do the same.”
“Curse of the trade,” the traveller admitted, standing up. “Is your cousin here as well? I should speak with you both.”
Alfmod shook his head. “He is on the hunt with his bond. They have been gone some days already, though. I suspect they return today or tomorrow.”
“I shall wait in that case, with your leave.”
“Of course. Come with me.”
Alfmod turned and led Godfrey towards the waterfall. They passed behind its stream to enter a cave beyond. A trained eye might observe that work had been carried out to greatly expand upon not only this cavern, but those that followed.
Soon, there was nothing to suggest that this was a natural place; instead, a village spread out before Godfrey under the hill. Hallways led in every direction, giving access to new rooms and areas. Here and there, the pair met other Elves, who always greeted them with respect. Wandering eyes would also have seen Elves at work in the various caves; bowyers, fletchers, weavers, and others tended to the simple needs of the village. As for illumination, strange gems encased in glass upon the walls glowed with an inner light, acting as lamps.
Alfmod led him to a room so small, it was little more than a niche. “I imagine you are weary,” the Elf said, gesturing towards the simple bed inside.
“I am.” Godfrey moved past him to lean his staff against the wall.
“I will find you food and water,” Alfmod promised, pulling down the skin of a deer that acted as door. Once in darkness, Godfrey lay down and fell asleep.
“Godfrey.” The voice came from the opening where the deerskin was pulled back. Opening his eyes, Godfrey saw Alfmod stare down at him. “Alfbrand has returned.”
“You have slept for more than a day.” The Elf gestured to Godfrey’s side, where a jug of water stood next to a wooden plate with dried bits of rabbit meat. “You snored. Loudly.”
“My gifts are many,” Godfrey retorted, supporting himself on his elbow. The other hand grabbed the water, and he emptied the pitcher with one draught. He swept the meat into his hand and got up. “Lead on,” he told Alfmod, already chewing.
He followed the Elf into the network of caves, going a different route than before. Eventually, they reached another way out of the village; stooping low, Godfrey passed under the roots of a great tree and found himself in the forest once more. As he left, the gap behind him seemed to narrow; if he had looked back, Godfrey would have seen nothing to indicate the caverns beyond. Instead, he looked forward.
Ahead of him, Alfbrand was at work, cleaning a pair of rabbits. As Alfmod called out, his kinsman stood up and turned to face them. Standing close, the kinship was obvious; while their relation was as cousins, it was easy to see why legend remembered them as the Brothers Swordsmen. Neither of them wore weapons in this moment, aside from Alfbrand’s knife, but even in their plain clothing, they were as different to other Elves as wolves to dogs.
Alfbrand stared at Godfrey; finally, he threw his knife into the soft ground and reached out to clasp the traveller’s arm. “My heart is heavy with concern to see you, yet even so, your presence makes me glad.”
“As am I,” replied Godfrey.
“I suspected you would come. The presence of those children you sent, my cousin’s disappearance two summers ago… I knew you could not be far behind,” Alfbrand claimed.
“That is not important right now,” Alfmod hurried to say. “Why have you come, Godfrey?”
“I believe there will be another battle at Valmark. Perhaps this time, it will reach even into the antechamber.”
Alfbrand looked at the dead rabbits he had been cleaning. “You claimed so before.”
“That was five hundred years ago,” Godfrey protested. “I’ve hardly made a habit of it.”
“What will you do?” asked Alfmod.
“What I can to prevent this. Delay if nothing else. But if it comes to it, I will make my last stand in the antechamber.”
“What will happen?” asked Alfbrand. “You never faced our enemy in the past.”
Godfrey let out a deep breath. “I don’t know. But I fear no matter what, it will not be good.”
“So why have you come?” asked Alfmod again.
“Because he wants our swords on the battlefield,” Alfbrand interjected, bending down to pick up his knife.
“Yes,” Godfrey confirmed. “I need you.”
“We cannot win this battle for you,” Alfmod declared. “Nor can we march our kindred onto the field. The Song is gone from southern lands. We can barely protect it here.”
“No,” Godfrey assented, “but the presence of the Dragonslayer and the Bladesinger might be the leaf that turns the wind.”
Alfbrand turned the knife in his hands, looking at its bloody steel. “I have not drawn my blade in a thousand years,” he stated. “I have no wish to do so now.”
“Too much is at stake,” Godfrey argued.
“We did our part,” Alfbrand retorted. “We have fought our battles.”
“One battle remains. You always knew this.”
“Cousin,” Alfmod quickly said upon seeing Alfbrand’s brooding face, placing a hand on his kinsman’s arm. “The matter is not to be decided now. Let us speak no further of this.” Alfbrand gave a slight nod, sitting down to resume his work on the rabbits.
At night, when most of the Elves were asleep, Alfbrand moved through the cavern corridors. He reached a room that held numerous bow staves and countless arrows. It also had a number of barbed spears for boar hunting, and a few magnificent armours stood on display. Cobwebs showed that the latter had not seen use in a long time. Alfbrand walked over to a great chest standing against the wall and opened it. It contained mostly fabric. Linen shirts, woollen gambesons, and a few leather jerkins. Beneath all of them, Alfbrand dug out a sword. Its pommel was blue; the hilt was carved with runes like the swords wielded by his cousin and Godfrey.
He did not draw the blade but kept it sheathed. Taking the stance of a warrior, he thrust the sword forward and pulled back. Moving slowly at first, his speed increased as he began more complex patterns of movement, hands and feet working in unison. Quicker and quicker, his display of swordsmanship continued until sweat was on his brow. He moved with a grace legendary even among the Elvenfolk, but he never let the sword leave the scabbard; Bladesinger he might be, but his blade was quiet on this night.
A voice reached him from the door. A woman stood, clad in the same simple garments that everyone in the village wore. She smiled in the dim light of the crystals mounted on the walls, speaking to him.
He ceased his movements, lowering the sword. With a weary expression, he gave a reply and stashed the sword back into the chest.
As he turned back to face her, she crossed the room and touched his cheek, still with a mournful smile. They exchanged a few more words until he slammed the chest shut, and they left the armoury.
The next day, Alfmod followed Godfrey out of the village. It was a pleasant day; the sun provided heat, and the trees provided shade. The Elf handed over water and provisions to the traveller. “You are welcome to stay longer.”
“A tempting offer,” Godfrey admitted, “which is why I must decline. Time has a way of slipping through my fingers in this forest.”
“As you prefer. I wish you a speedy journey, in that case.”
“Alfmod – will your cousin fight?”
The Elf took a deep breath. “You ask much of Alfbrand. You have never stood opposite the enemy, Godfrey, not the way we have. I do not fear death, but I fear him.”
“I am aware, but I must ask it nonetheless.”
“I think my cousin will. In his heart, he knows the same as me. Some battles never end, it seems.”
“At least we may receive a respite from time to time,” Godfrey considered with a mirthless smile.
“If nothing else, I shall be there.”
“I know,” Godfrey nodded.
“Send the signal when the time comes.”
“When the sparrow sings and the wolf howls,” Godfrey remarked, smiling wryly. They clasped hands.
“Until the next morrow.”