The year 1712 of the Third Age
"I have failed you," Dagarron Atreile whispered. He pressed the rim of a pewter cup to his lips and tossed his head back, feeling brimague run down his throat with dim heat.
It had taken three days for the news to reach the small haven of Mehnine. When it had, it had spread like wildfire in dried witchgrass, as grim tidings so often do in quiet hamlets and close-knit communities. Dagarron had heard tell of it by lunchtime; murmurs that King Herdranges had been butchered, his royal counsels and guard massacred, his throne stolen by the brother of his Elfin Queen. Herdranges’s infant children, the twin heirs to his crown, had been slain and his wife, Queen Lythaniele, had thrown herself from one of the castle towers.
"I have failed you all," Dagarron said. He sat along the crowded bar of Mehnine’s solitary, cramped pub, the Fortune’s Folly. He had spent the grand majority of his day there with a cup in his hands and a grief so profound that it weighed like iron upon his heart. At the sound of a small voice crying out in startled fear behind him, he glanced over his shoulder, drawn from his sorrow.
"What are you doing here, Elf?" he heard a man say loudly, followed by a sharp, distinctive slapping sound and another frightened, tremulous cry.
Dagarron had observed a young Gaeilge boy stealing into the pub several moments earlier. No more than eleven or twelve to judge by his diminutive stature, the wide-eyed lad had exhibited a level of curiosity uncharacteristic of Elves, and boldness at entering a tavern filled with drunken menfolk that demonstrated a higher degree of innocent naivet? than good sense. Dagarron had recognized him as a Donnag?crann, a sect of Gaeilge Elves who called the dense and sprawling forests of Tirnag?crann to the south of Mehnine their home. He could have warned the boy that the tavern on that night in particular was no place for Elves. The air within the Fortune’s Folly was thick with heated and venomous conversations directed against the usurper king, at Lahnduren’s new regime, and against Elves in general.
A burly man standing nearly twice as tall as the little Elf had spied him creeping among the crowd and had seized him roughly by the hair. A large group of men, all too filled with portar and brimague to reason with coherence or clarity, had gathered about, their lips twisted into menacing and wicked sneers. Dagarron pivoted in his seat, letting his hips slide toward the edge of the stool, his boot soles drop to the floor.
"Le... le do thoil... ni dteannan sibh!" the boy whimpered, his eyes enormous with fright, shining in the glow of lanterns with sudden tears. Please do not!
"Speak the popular speech, cub," the man snapped, and again, he slapped the boy’s face. "This is Mehnine you trespass in -- a village of menfolk!"
"We do not speak your bastard Elf tongue here!" cried another, stepping forward, his fingers closing into purposeful fists. "Hold him still. Let me teach him how to speak in the company of men."
"Leave him alone," Dagarron said, walking slowly toward them, fixing his gaze on the man holding the boy’s hair. "Let the boy go."
There was not a man in Mehnine who did not know Dagarron by face and name, if not by reputation. As he passed, he heard the crowd of men whisper sharply together, scuttling away from him uncertainly.
"He is an Elf!" the man holding the boy shouted to Dagarron. "Elves murdered our king -- your blood kin, Dagarron!"
"He is a child," Dagarron said, his brows drawing together, his voice measured but stern. "Lahnduren killed Herdranges. This boy did not. Let him go."
"Le do thoil!" the boy whimpered again. Please!
"Shut your mouth, whelp!" the man yelled, raising his hand again. The boy cowered, his hands dancing helplessly toward his face in frightened anticipation of the blow.
Dagarron moved swiftly, closing his fingers against the man’s thick wrist. He rotated the man’s thumb away from his shoulder, forcing his arm to hyperextend at an abrupt and agonizing angle. The man yowled in startled pain, his fingertips slipping free of the boy’s hair as he struggled against Dagarron’s immobilizing grip. The boy scuttled against the wall, crumpling to his knees, shrinking into the corner.
The man balled his hand to punch Dagarron, and Dagarron wrenched his wrist all the further. The man cried out sharply, stumbling, falling to his knees. "Let... let go of me!" he bellowed. "Sweet Mother! Turn me loose!"
"If you touch the boy again, you will answer to me," Dagarron said. He swept the gathering of angry men with his gaze. "If any of you move to harm the Elf, you will need to pass me to do it."
He thrust the man’s wrist away from him and stepped toward the boy, his gaze sharp and wary. "Go back to your portars," Dagarron told the men. "All of you now. Go back to your portars and let this boy pass."
He turned toward the boy, and genuflected before him. The boy shied further into the corner, his green eyes enormous, his tears spilling unabated.
"Le... le do thoil," he whimpered. "Le do thoil... ni... ni gorteann tu agam!" Please do not hurt me.
"Ta se maith," Dagarron said to him gently. It is alright. "Ni eagliann tu, a?leaid. Ni gortoidh me agat. Ta tu slan anois." Do not be frightened. I will not hurt you. You are safe now.
The boy blinked at him, startled by his address in Gaeilgen, a language most menfolk in the realm did not speak with any fluency. Dagarron reached for the young Elf and he flinched, drawing his shoulder toward his cheek; his breath caught in his throat in a frightened gasp. Dagarron could see the dim shadow of bruises forming along the line of his cheek where the man had struck him, and his heart ached for the boy. The child had only been curious, meaning no harm when he had entered the pub. Dagarron wondered if menfolk would ever seem less than malicious and cruel again in his frightened and impressionable regard.
"Ta se maith," he said again. It is alright. "Ta ainm mo Dagarron. Cen t?ainm ata ort?" My name is Dagarron. What is yours?
"Kierken," the boy whispered. "Ta... ta ainm mo Kierken."
"Ta tu diot a Donnag?crann, Kierken?" Dagarron asked him gently, drawing an uncertain nod from the boy. You are of the Donnag?crann? "Carb as daoine eile? Do teaghlach? Do cairde?" Where are the others? Your family? Your friends?
"Ni... ni ta a fhios," Kierken whispered, stricken. I do not know.
"Ni eagliann tu," Dagarron said. Do not be frightened. "Ta me a?cara. Cuideoidh me feann iad." I am a friend. I will help find them.
He slipped his hand against the back of Kierken’s head and when he drew the young Elf against his shoulder, Kierken did not resist. He trembled against Dagarron, his breath ragged and fluttering as he struggled to control his tears.
"Dtagann tu anois, a?leaid," Dagarron murmured, turning his face toward the top of the boy’s head. Come now, lad. Dagarron rose to his feet, and the boy stood with him, shied closely against Dagarron’s side, his fingers clutching at his doublet.
"Kierken?" Dagarron heard someone call out over the din of the tavern. At the voice, the beckon, the boy raised his head, his eyes flown wide. Dagarron followed the sound and saw four adult Donnag?crann Elves wading through the crowd, their expressions alarmed.
"Kierken!" one exclaimed, catching sight of the boy. Kierken ducked from beneath the protective shelter of Dagarron’s arm and ran toward the older Elf.
"Athair!" he cried, rushing against the Donnag?crann, letting him enfold him in his arms. Father!
The group of Donnag?crann moved to leave, drawing the boy protectively among them. The men within the tavern still felt antagonistic and angry, and closed their ranks around the Elves, surrounding them slowly and blocking their avenue of exit from the pub.
"Stand aside and let us pass," one of the Elves said to the men. He was tall, with long, flaxen hair, nearly white in hue. His eyes were a translucent and icy shade of blue. His expression was less than amused, and the slight furrow between his brows deepened when none of the men made effort to step out of the way. "Stand aside and let us pass," he said again, coolly.
"Or what, Gaeilge?" one of the men said, smirking at him.
The Elf arched his eyebrow sharply. "Or I will move you," he replied.
"Hoah, now--" the man exclaimed, curling his fingers against his palms and stepping toward the Donnag?crann.
"Let them pass," Dagarron said, catching him by the shoulder with his hand, staying his advance. "The Donnag?crann are not our enemies. They have done their part to observe the peace. Let them take their leave."
"Alright, what in the bloody wide Bith is going on here?" yelled Ambrose, the barkeep and owner of the Fortune’s Folly. He was an enormous man, built like a plow-ox: small head, broad shoulders, barrel-chested. He waded into the throng bearing a stout wooden club and the gathering of men immediately broadened in circumference around the Elves.
"I run a respectable establishment!" Ambrose bellowed. "If you seek a fracas, then seek it outside, the rotted lot of you!"
One by one, the men turned away from Dagarron and the Elves, muttering to one another and sparing scathing glowers as they slinked off to reclaim mugs of ale and cups of brimague. Within moments, conversation resumed, rising once more in volume and from somewhere, someone began to blare out a fresh tune on a fiddle.
Ambrose turned to regard the Donnag?crann, his brows narrowed. "This is neither the night nor the place to be for Elves," he told them. He nodded his chin toward the tavern entrance. "Get hence, all of you. I do not do business with Donnag?crann."
"That is fair, as we neither seek it nor want it," the flaxen-haired Elf replied.
Ambrose clapped a heavy hand against Dagarron’s shoulder and steered him toward the bar as the Donnag?crann took their leave. "I am surprised to have found you in the middle of that ruckus, Dagarron," he remarked.
"I do not abide by those who would frighten and hurt children in the name of my cousin’s honor," Dagarron said. He sighed wearily, his expression mournful. "I doubt that boy will ever trust menfolk again, Ambrose."
Ambrose shook his head. "Poor little lamb," he remarked of the boy, Kierken. "That was right decent of you, Dagarron." He kept his arm against Dagarron’s shoulder, guiding him aside, past the bar and toward the rear exit of the pub.
"What are you doing?" Dagarron asked.
"I thought you should know there is a woman out back near the stables asking for you."
"I am in no need of a woman tonight," Dagarron said. "Only more brimague, Ambrose."
"She says it is an urgent matter," the barkeep said.
Dagarron frowned. "I do not keep urgent matters with women."
"I think you will keep this, my friend," Ambrose said in a low voice. "She says she has business with you. Says it has to do with the Queen."
Dagarron found her sitting on some hay piled just inside the doorway of the stables, a young woman in an olive-colored riding cloak that was at least two sizes too large for her diminutive frame. She held the reins of a stout pony laden with a large wicker creel strapped to its saddle.
The woman started at the rustle of Dagarron’s bootheels in gravel and hay outside the stable and hopped quickly to her feet. She jerked a small ballock knife from beneath the folds of her cloak and thrust it toward him.
Dagarron chuckled at her fierceness, which apparently did not endear him to her in the slightest. "What do you want?" she snapped, shoving the tip of the dagger at him.
"I am Dagarron Atreile. You told the barkeep you wished to speak with me."
She lowered the hood of her cloak and narrowed her brows, peering closely at him. Her frown deepened as she took into account his scruffy appearance: his unkempt beard, the dark circles beneath his eyes, the gauntness in his cheeks born of too much grief and liquor and not enough food or sleep.
"You are Dagarron?" she exclaimed at length, in disbelief.
"I am," he replied with a nod. "You must pardon my appearance, my lady. I was not expecting any callers this evening."
She stared at him and he knew she doubted his word. But then her pony gave a snuffling noise, and he heard the soft mewling of kittens from somewhere, perhaps a new litter born in the straw of the barn loft, and the tip of her dagger lowered.
"I am Wyndetta Graegan," she said as she tucked the blade back into her belt sheath. "Queen Lythaniele sent me to find you."
"Then she’s alive?" he whispered, his eyes wide, his heart seized with sudden, tremulous hope. "Tell me she lives. Tell me she escaped the palace somehow."
Wyndetta’s stern expression grew soft and saddened. "Lahnduren locked us in her tower chamber together," she whispered. "After he had murdered the King. She helped me escape, but she did not follow. I do not think she could. She begged me to find you."
Dagarron lowered his face to the ground. He had been told Lythaniele had thrown herself from the window of one of the palace towers. "If Lythaniele is dead, I do not understand," he said. "Why she send you to find me?"
The soft whimpering of kittens came again and Wyndetta moved around to the side of her pony. She unfastened the buckles of the creel and lifted the lid. He watched her reach inside and pull out a small, wrapped bundle. As she cradled it in her arms, the bundle began to wiggle and the mewing Dagarron had mistaken for the cries of newborn kittens came once more.
Wyndetta turned to him. With gentle fingers, she moved aside the folds of swaddling and he saw a baby, a small and delicate creature, with eyes as blue as a calm lake on a windless morning peeking out from the wrappings. He gasped audibly, and Wyndetta smiled. "Here," she said and before he could protest, she deposited the infant in his arms. She turned and produced a second swaddling-bound baby from inside the creel.
Dagarron stared down at the child he held stiffly against the crook of his elbow. The baby stared up at him in return, its little arms and legs wiggling beneath the swaddling clothes. A thin line of silvery drool slipped out of its mouth and trailed down its chin as the baby squealed suddenly, happily.
"That is Isgaan, Herdranges and Lythaniele’s firstborn, their son," said Wyndetta, smiling as she nodded toward the infant in his arms. "And this one is Isgaara, their daughter."
"The twins," Dagarron whispered. He looked in breathless amazement at the squirming prince in his arms.
"The rightful heirs to the throne of Tiralainn," she said. "This is why my Lady sent me to find you, Dagarron."