The Road of the Cursed Tree was an ancient thoroughfare that ran from the outskirts of Dawnshire to the gates of Luxis. Once it had been a fine, cobbled road that carried merchants and travellers by the thousand. Now, it was old and overgrown. A newer passage had been cut through mountains of Midgard, and the Road of the Cursed Tree had been left largely to the weeds. The tree it was named for sat at the top of a hill about halfway along the road’s length. Barren and leafless, it stood in the spot where a thousand years earlier the Dark Lord’s warlocks had blasted the hill with their curses, laying waste to the armies of Luxis and scorching the earth for miles around. The Cursed Tree was petrified by the warlocks’ spells; a permanent reminder of an ancient war.
Lenora’s news had been useful, but Isolde had no idea where on the road Hakan would be found, so travelling by portal was pointless. If they overshot the Elder Elf along the way, they might never find him. Instead, she commandeered three grey ponies from the Order’s stables, and set out on horseback from the Dawnshire end of the road.
Isolde was not the most graceful of riders - there had been little call for horses in the thickly wooded lands around her hometown - but she had learned the basics as a child, and found that she remembered them well enough. Soon she was trotting along the road, if not comfortably, then at least competently. Park and Roline, on the other hand, seemed to have been born in the saddle. They raced ahead of her, galloping side by side and sparring with their swords as they rode.
“Slow down,” Isolde called, a little embarrassed by their superior skill in the saddle, “What if we run into an ambush?”
“We’ve not gone far enough to catch the elf yet,” Park called back over his shoulder, “Come on, Isolde, have you forgotten what spurs are for?”
Isolde sighed, smiling to herself. The siblings’ sense of fun was infectious. She dug in her heels and spurred her pony into a gallop. She swayed back in the saddle but soon found her balance again, dropping her head into the wind as she sped over the rough ground to join her companions.
“Now you’re getting it,” said Park, grinning, as Isolde pulled up alongside him.
“Where did you two learn to ride anyway?” Isolde asked, “You ride like cavalrymen!”
“Our family were horse breeders,” said Roline.
“On our mother’s side,” added Park, “We spent summers at our grandfather’s livery, breaking in young stallions for the knights he sold them to.”
“I’m sure you’re much better at climbing trees than we are,” said Roline, with a sly smile that made Isolde burst out laughing.
“Ha! Come on then, you pair of braggarts,” she said, grasping the reins of her pony tightly, and spurring him off again, “Let’s see what you’re made of!”
They rode side by side, jostling and laughing, until their thighs were sore and the ponies were wet with sweat. Then they dismounted in the shade of a spreading oak tree and sat down to share a small meal of cheese and apples.
“You kept up pretty well,” said Park through a mouthful of food.
“Aye well, if you ever want that tree climbing contest, I’ll show you who’s boss,” smiled Isolde.
“How about now?” said Roline.
“Are you kidding?” said Isolde, “After that ride-”
“No. Look,” said Roline, pointing at the trees ahead of them. A wisp of white smoke rose above the treetops. “Might be worth checking out.”
“Aye, it might well,” said Isolde. She jumped to her feet and scanned the roadside for a suitable tree to climb. Her eyes settled on a tall beech tree, with well-spaced limbs. She stood under its lowest branch and jumped up to grab it, then heaved herself up and over the branch. From there it was easy climbing for a while. Isolde scampered up the tree like a monkey until she neared the top. Carefully, she picked her way to the very top of the tree, where it swayed slightly under her weight.
“There’s a clearing,” she called back down to Park and Roline, “About half a mile from the road. Five guardsmen in elven armor and one elf in a fancy cloak. That has to be Hakan.”
“Do they have horses?” called Park.
“None that I can see,” Isolde called back, “To be so far into the woods, they must be staying off the road completely.”
“Good,” called up Roline, “If they’re away from the road they won’t hear our approach. Find us a landmark to locate them by.”
Isolde scanned the scene before her. The road snaked through the woods like a river of broken stones. In the distance, she could see the hill of the Cursed Tree, and the tiny silhouette of the petrified tree itself. She found the clearing where Hakan and his men were resting and followed a line to the east, back towards the road, until her eyes fell on a tree with bright red leaves. It was the only tree of that colour that she could see anywhere. The perfect landmark. She clambered quickly down through the branches and dropped onto the leafy soil at foot of the tree. Park and Roline were already mounted again, and waiting with Isolde’s pony in hand. She leapt into the saddle and they set off down the road again at speed.
When the red tree came into view, they slowed to a walk, then slid from their saddles and tethered the ponies just out of sight of the road, to continue through the woods on foot. Isolde led the way, recalling the lay of the land from her treetop reconnaissance. They picked their way carefully through the trees until they could hear the sound of low voices and smell woodsmoke and roasting rabbit. Isolde dropped to a crouch and Park and Roline joined her, huddling together to share her plan.
“Five guards and Hakan,” Isolde reminded them, “We’re outnumbered, but they won’t be expecting a fight.”
“It’s almost too easy,” said Park.
“I won’t slaughter them from the trees,” Isolde said firmly, “Hakan will have the chance to surrender.”
“You are too merciful,” said Roline, “Hakan has chosen his side.”
“No one is beyond redemption,” Isolde replied, “We’ll take him without bloodshed if we can. You two, encircle the clearing. I’ll approach directly and make myself known.”
“A foolish move,” Roline asserted.
“Well, you’ll just have to make sure you’ve got my back, won’t you?” said Isolde.
Park and Roline set off in opposite directions to find positions on the far side of the elves’ clearing. Isolde waited for a short while, until she was confident they were in position, then took a deep breath and stepped confidently through undergrowth to the edge of the clearing. The elves were eating by their small fire, with Hakan seated on a fallen log, flanked by his armored guardsmen. Nobody had heard Isolde approach. She stepped into the clearing, with her bow drawn, and coughed politely to alert them to her presence. The guards leapt to their feet, dropping their food in the dirt and fumbling for their swords. Hakan nearly fell off his log with shock.
“Stand down,” said Isolde, calmly, “Or the first of you to move will get an arrow in his neck.”
The guards twitched, their hands on their hilts, glancing from Isolde to their master nervously.
“There are six of us,” said Hakan, smoothly, recovering his poise, “How many times can you knock your arrows in the ten paces it would take to overcome you, girl?”
“As far as you’re concerned,” said Isolde, swinging her bow slowly to the right until it pointed directly at the Elder Elf’s chest, “One shot will suffice. The first.”
Hakan laughed bitterly.
“I know you, girl,” he hissed, “You wear Gelderrin’s ring, do you not? Isolde Hart, if I am not mistaken. I’ve heard talk of you from a mutual acquaintance of ours. Sir Hagan. Poor fellow. He’s not himself these days. He’s half the man he was.”
Isolde’s bow creaked as she pulled the string taut.
“You are not worthy to speak his name,” she barked at Hakan, “Treacherous elf. You murdered your own daughter! For what? Power? Riches?”
“For survival,” said Hakan, “The elves are an older race than yours, child. Midgard was ours for a thousand years before the rise of man. We will stand long after you have been crushed into the earth by the Dark Lord.”
“Your survival is a matter for the Angeli,” said Isolde, “They will decide the price you owe for your crimes, Hakan.”
“Oh no, I don’t think so, my dear,” said Hakan, “I’m growing bored. Kill her.”
As one, the guards advanced, drawing their swords. Isolde didn’t hesitate; she let loose her arrow. It bounced off the Hakan’s cloak, ripping the velvet to reveal a golden breastplate beneath. Hakan rolled out of the way behind his guards, who charged at Isolde as she hurried to reload. The first two were only a sword’s length from her when they fell to the ground with a pair of crossbow bolts sticking out of their skulls. The remaining guards spun round instinctively to see where the attack was coming from and Isolde shot an arrow into the spine of the middle guard, who fell like a puppet with cut strings. To the left and right, the last two dropped to their knees, briefly clutching at the bolts in their chests. Their mouths opened and blood leaked from the corners as they fell forward onto their faces. Only Hakan was left, cowering beneath his cloak. Park and Roline stepped out of the trees behind him, leaving. Isolde stepped forwards towards him. All three had their weapons trained on the trembling elf.
“You’re coming with us,” said Isolde, “Dead or alive.”
“I choose death” said Hakan. With surprising speed, he threw back his cloak and raised his arm, a slender silver dagger in his hand. He pulled back to throw the knife and Isolde dodged to the right swiftly, but the elf dropped his dagger where he stood. He staggered slightly, then fell, with Park and Roline’s bolts buried in his back.
“So much for the avoiding violence,” said Park, walking over to Hakan’s body and rolling him over with the tip of his boot. The Elder Elf stared up with blank, dead eyes. A shard of something blue slipped from the folds of his cloak. “Well I’ll be!” said Park, “Hey, Isolde. You’re going to like this. Hakan’s got something for you to add to your collection!”
Isolde knelt by the elf’s body and picked up the shining sliver of crystal. It was a fragment of the Signet of Nature! No doubt Hakan had been en route to deliver it to the Dark Lord, to fuel his foul magic. Now it would be delivered to the Silvans of the Elf Resistance instead. A fine reward for Hakan’s death.
“I’ve enjoyed this little outing,” said Roline, drily, as they left the corpse-strewn clearing behind them and mounted their ponies for the ride back to Dawnshire, “We should go riding more often.”
A few days later, Isolde decided it was time she met with Lenora’s brother, the Elf Resistance leader, in person. She sent message to the handmaiden, who arrived shortly after at the Healer’s House and escorted Isolde through the streets of Dawnshire to a private house, set back from the street, and covered with lush, green ivy. It was as if the lush foliage of the elves’ homeland had travelled with them and pitched camp on the walls of the old mansion. Isolde was shown inside to a sunny room where a young elf with fine, noble features and a pale green cloak was relaying orders a team of elven officers. He looked up from his duties as Isolde arrived and smiled at her warmly before dismissing the others present and crossing the floor to shake her by the hand.
“Isolde Hart,” he said, “I am Leones of the Silvans, leader of the Resistance against Hakan and the Fey. My people owe you a debt of gratitude.”
“What I did, I did for my friend’s honour” said Isolde, “And for our common good. The Dark Lord is a threat to all - man and elf - and Hakan’s alliance strengthened our enemy further.”
“Whatever your motives,” Leones replied, “The debt remains. Word of Hakan’s death has spread throughout the Fey. They are in disarray. Many noble elf families were slow to see the evil in Hakan’s actions, but the light is beginning to dawn. As the truth becomes known, the pisions among my people will be healed.”
“I hope you’re right, Leones,” said Isolde, “We will need the elves to be united if we are to push back the Dark Lord’s advance.”
“I swear, chosen one, that I will unite my people behind one flag and pledge them to your cause.”
Isolde eyed the handsome young elf carefully. He had the same honest, open manner as his sister.
“I do not doubt it,” she answered, nodding. There was something about Leones that engendered trust. “And if I can aid your mission in pursuit of my own, I shall.”
She reached into a leather pouch slung over her shoulder and retrieved the fragments of the Signet of Nature that she had collected on her adventures.
“I trust these will be helpful,” she said, passing them to Leones. His eyes widened and his mouth became a broad, beaming smile as he accepted Isolde’s gift.
“More than you know,” said Leones, “Thank you, Isolde Hart, from all the Silvans. Any knowledge we can pass to you we shall. Any time you need our support in battle, you need only send word.”
Isolde shook hands again with Leones and departed, leaving him alone with his sister. It felt good to build an alliance with the Silvans. Leones was a very different kind of elf to the selfish and corrupt Hakan.
At the door to her lodgings, a familiar face was waiting.
“Beltheron!” Called Isolde as she approached the Angeli Seer.
“Isolde, you must excuse me for not warning you of my arrival. The Council of the Angeli is meeting in Luxis. I would have you join me.”
“If you think helpful, of course!” said Isolde.
The Seer waved his arm and a swirling blue portal appeared before them.
“Then let us leave,” said Beltheron, “The meeting is already underway.”
They stepped through the portal and emerged at the back of a marble hall, where the Angeli elders were seated in a wide circle around a statue of Gelderrrin.
“The city’s magical defenses grow weaker by the day,” said one of the Elders, rising to his feet to speak, “The Great Dragon has awoken and already his power has made our enemy bold.”
“Nidhogg has not yet flown,” said another, “How do you know that the dragon is the source of our current woes?”
“Be in no doubt,” the first replied, “The Great Dragon’s magic is behind the Dark Lord’s attacks. By the time the beast takes to the skies, it may be too late to oppose him. That is why I have called all of the chosen to Luxis, to man the frontline against our attackers.”
“But there is no horde at the gates,” said a third elder, “Why now, when the chosen are needed on many fronts?”
“You are right,” came the reply, “The Dark Lord’s armies are not yet knocking at our door. But that day approaches. Sooner than many of you would like to think. In the meantime, Luxis is bombarded by curses and plagues. Can you not see that we are being softened up for invasion? The siege of our city has already begun. Only by bringing the chosen together and uniting Gelderrin’s power can we stand against our mighty foe.”
At the back of the room, Isolde nudged Beltheron and whispered to him.
“Is it true, Beltheron?” she asked, “Is Luxis under attack?”
“Aye, Isolde, it’s true,” Beltheron nodded, “Your own destiny draws near. Your brother’s too.”
“Will?” said Isolde, “What of my brother? Is he alright? Has something happened in Lambley?”
“Your brother isn’t the lad you left behind, Isolde Hart. He grows into a man.”
Isolde thought about her childhood playing in the woods with Will. In her imagination, she could only picture him as a mop-haired child.
“Come with me,” said Beltheron.
He took Isolde gently by the arm and led her from the council room into an adjacent hall. Warriors, archers, mages and priests by the hundred filled the wide room, each of them wearing a ring identical to the one Isolde bore.
“The chosen,” she gasped, feeling a strange pull inside as the power in her ring sent pulse waves of fizzing energy through her body. “All of us.”
“Aye,” said Beltheron, “All of you, including your brother.”
The Seer stretched out one long arm and pointed to a spot in the middle of the room, where a young man stood in warrior’s armor, laughing merrily with his companions. The young man - no more than a boy, really, like so many in the room - turned as he laughed and caught sight of Isolde standing by Beltheron’s side. He waved enthusiastically and began pushing his way through the crowd. Isolde ran to meet him, her arms outstretched. Here was her own little brother, wearing Gelderrin’s ring! She threw herself against the hard metal of his armor and hugged him hard enough to make him gasp.
“Will!” Isolde grinned, “What are you doing here? How-”
“Runs in the family, doesn’t it?” Will interrupted, “You didn’t think I’d let you have all the fun, did you?”
“Can’t wait to see you,” said Will, “He’s in the West Tower on the city wall. Come on. Let’s go and find him.”