The Shadows of Tyranny
Prisoners of War
Nymeria jolted quickly from trance. It was the same voice every time she closed her eyes, night or day, speaking in a soft whisper. The words were impossible to grasp, and understanding them were like suddenly remembering parts of an old dream, even as she was listening to them.
The cell was the same as it had been for two weeks, with the strange looking druid sitting by the vines that kept them caged, turning his totem in his hand, and the silver haired eladrin pacing frantically back and forth. The druid was Erdan Illikan, a Gatekeer from the Earlannni, and according to him the only Gatekeeper in all of the feywild. He was tall, gaunt, and starting to show his age. The Gatekeeper was covered in soft hide, black feathers, and a stark black and white pattern of ceremonial paint which had begun to fade over their stay. The eladrin was a noble, an ambassador from the Court of Stars who couldn’t keep his nerves together, and wasn’t adjusted quite as well to the life of a prisoner as Nymeria was.
Nymeria pushed herself up off the dry soil and walked to the edge of the cell that had been shaped in long lines at the base of the mother tree by Tinith’s witches. She was careful not to touch the vines which grew to make thin, dangerous bars that would grow sharp thorns at cut at her viciously should she try to manipulate them. It had been a week, but Nymeria had only tried to wrench her way free once. The wounds hadn’t entirely healed from the attempt.
“What’s the news, Aderai?” she asked. The other eladrin stopped pacing.
“Nothing, at least I think nothing new. They’ve taken the satyrs out into the woods three times already today, bringing back more of those infernal weeds!”
“Have they started burning them yet?”
“Soon,” said the Gatekeeper, continuing to turn his totem over in his hand. Erdan had been the one to explain the mysterious crop when Fethela had arrived with a small group of old women on the third day of the occupation of the Mother Tree. He identified the old crones immediately as hags, with gnarled staffs and horridly bent and ugly frames. The hags set to work immediately cultivating the surrounding forest with Hagsbrome, an infections weed that grows dead and dry.
Nymeria could already see the hamadryads standing guard over the satyrs in the fields beyond the cell as the captives built tall piles of the horrid crop. For the past week, roughly half of her stay, they’d sent out workers to pick the weed and pile it up so that it could be burned. Afterward, the thick ash was scattered in wide pens, built like gardens around the Mother Tree.
So far, no one could discern why they insisted on doing this, but each day the prisoners were brought into the fertile wood near the mother tree to pick the cursed fronds of hagsbrome, building the piles higher and constructing larger bonfires than the days previous. The smoke had built thick clouds around the tree, and Erdan explained to them that when inhaled, the fumes caused slight hallucinations. The eladrin didn’t need this to be pointed out to them. Nymeria attributed the voices she heard while trancing to this effect, but said nothing to either of her cell mates.
It was the end of their second week, and every day more prisoners arrived. Harpies had set up many dry nests hanging from the branches of the mother tree, bedded and weaved in hagsbrome and swarming with stirges, and each afternoon they came back from their patrols with gnome sentries, elven spies, or various denizens of the wood. The most important prisoners were taken up toward the treetops and never seen again.
It was mid-afternoon, and Aderai was up to his usual complaining. Nymeria sat fiddling, her hands anxious from the absence of her sword, until there was a flapping sound by the living bars of their cage. Erdan was up on his feet quicker than they’d ever seen him, and crouched down at the entrace to the cell, where there was a small raven. It hopped into their cell curiously, and shuddered, before speaking in a remarkably clear voice.
“Erdan, if this message reaches you, I’m glad you’re safe. You must contact the enclave immediately. We have not heard from you since the siege, and are concerned that you are dead or worse. You are most needed at this ti-” the raven was cut short as five stirgest flew deftly in through the vines, snatching at the raven with barbed claws, tearing and ripping at it until it was pieces on the floor of the cell, coloring the floor for the first time with thick clumps of congealing blood. They gave a cautionary gaze at the three prisoners before disappearing once again into the open air. Aderai stumbled to the corner of the cell and was sick.
“I reckognize that voice,” said Nymeria, “It was Tolvalis. That was an animal messenger, no?” The druid was collecting a few feathers from the floor of the cell.
“Yes, it was.”
“At least the Earlanni are safe, then.” Nymeria was back against the wall once more, sitting gently, waiting for the hamadryads to collect her for work. They’d wait another hour or so, and then the few hundred prisoners would be out collecting weeds.
Just then, there was a rustlings in the pens beyond their cage. The dry soil shifted, and from there were scattered ashes, long limbs of twisted dead wood reached reached suddenly upward, pulling distended figures with them. Out in the fields, hundreds upon hundreds of hamadryads rose from the dying ground as prisoners watched in horror. Aderai ran quickly to the vines.
“They’re growing more! It must be hundreds!” he said.
“An army,” said the Gatekeeper as he tucked the raven’s feathers into the leather bands of his totem.
“We have to get out of here,” said Nymeria. She and Aderai turned to Erdan for verification; they’d need his help if they were going to have any kind of chance to escape. Erdan could feel their stares, and he stopped for a moment and said nothing for a while as his cell mates watched him.
That night, a few satyrs and a centaur had managed to cut their way out of their cell through the bars, which retreated limply at the severing touch of a blade. No one knew how they’d gotten a hold of such a thing, but as soon as they were free, they made for the guards. The centaur trampled the hamadryads, and the satyrs were on top of their jailers in seconds, tearing at them however they could. Soon, there were many more hamadryads, and harpies, and stirges to bite at them and bring them down. They fought hard, killing many times their number before they were subdued. The prisoners watched as they were dragged up toward the tree tops.
There were anxious whispers, many despaired, mostly angered, but among them was words of hope. From cell to cell, people were speaking with hushed voices and coded words, because someone was planning a revolt, and they had a plan.
Sirron, Melech, and Knoblo stood staring blankly up toward the sky, where before them a single, enormous mountain pierced the cloud and ascended for what seemed like miles into the sky. There was a fog, and it seemed the mountain was the only feature of the wide, grassy plane in endless directions. The three had no bearing on where their superiors had sent them via a one way portal, but they certainly hadn’t arrived at the academy. They stood very silently for a long time, just staring, squinting against the bright haze. Eventually, it was Knoblo who spoke.
“No, absolutely not,” said the gnome.
Melech laughed, “Looks like it.”
“This can’t be the place,” Knoblo tried again, “There must be another portal around here somewhere.” He was desperate.
“I’m afraid not,” Sirron offered. Melech started forward, and they began to follow. They were dressed in simple garb, very unusual for any of the three comrades, and each carried a pack on their back that they’d been sent with to the academy, complete bedroll, rations, and a tent. They’d wondered what kind of meager accommodations this apparently esteemed and legendary military academy might offer. Now they were starting to get the complete picture.
“I think I see something up ahead, maybe lodgings!” Knoblo said again after they’d been climbing the rocky slope that prefaced the enormous mountain. At first, Sirron and Melech were skeptical, but the gnome had superior vision, and pretty soon a small wooden hut appeared at the base of the mountain. Knoblo hurried ahead, and was soon inside the meager lodging.
When the other two arrived, they found him staring across the single room at a small halfling sitting on a stood by a cold fireplace. He was odd, and spoke a broken common in a dialect Sirron couldn’t discern. The three of them started to wonder just how far from Cormyr they’d traveled. The halfling looked up at them from a small book, and said nothing. Melech took the initiative.
“Hello! Pardon out intrusion, but we’re from a far land, and are wondering if you could dire-”
“Up the mountain,” the halfling cut him off sharply. It seemed to be the end of the discussion. The three stood stunned as the halfing returned to his reading. Knoblo was about to start again when he heard a rough beating of the wind outside the tavern. The three immediately watched the door, which after only a moment swung open, revealing two silver-scaled, well armored dragonborn. Beyond them they could see the two gryphons that had brought them to the base of the mountain. The dragonborn walked into the hut, looking at neither the Cormyrians or the halfling as they stood silently in the center of the wooden shack.
In only a moment, the floor was illuminated in bright sigils that formed an arcane circle on the floor. The symbols rotated and danced for only a moment, and the dragonborn were whisked away.
Sirron, Knoblo, and Melech were stunned, but the halfling wasn’t about to offer any sympathy. Disgruntled, the gnome cursed under his breath in elvish and made his way outside. Melech and Sirron once again followed, and the took one last breath as they stared at the gray stone wall that appeared to be an unclimbable, impenetrable fortress of a mountain.
“Well,” Melech said, “I suppose we should begin if we have any hope of reaching the summit before sundown.”
“Oh, and I suppose that’s where we’ll find the mythical war academy in the sky? What if this really is our exile?”
“No,” Sirron decided, “I’ve seen many dragonborn in my time, but nothing that resembled those two. Silver scales, well crafted armor… it’s no ruse. There’s something special about this place.”
“No time to loose then,” Melech said with a smile, giving the two a simultaneous and brotherly pat on the shoulder. They started forward once more, steady and silent, beginning their ascent.
The last day of their second week was the most horrible yet. The sun had only just barely risen when there was a rustling of the trees on the edge of the treeline. A magnificent host of harpies emerged with an equal force of hamadryads in tow, and with them were long lines of prisoners, all gnomish. For a long time, they brought the gnomes on chains. Nymeria estimated that there were over 1,300 of them. By mid-afternoon the dryads had built large domes of thorn and briar in which they kept twenty or so gnomes each. The fields were soon covered with these, and for the whole day their cries of pain could be heard as each one was branded and caged.
“The Tamtats!” Nymeria had cried when they first came.
“Yes, and I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see them,” Erdan said under his breath.
Nym knew it was true. After days of talking among the fields, gaining support for their escape attempt, planning relentlessly, timing the guards’ rounds, and keeping an eye out for weapon stores, Nymeria was beginning to be discouraged. Their numbers hadn’t been enough. As horrible as it was that the Tamtats had obviously been captured, she now saw a new opportunity for bolstering their numbers.
“If we can convince them, we have a shot at this.”
“Yes, but what about weapons? I do not need swords and axes to fight, but the captive humans do, and the gnomes will need their arcane devices, no doubt.” Erdan continued watching the gnomes carefully, counting their numbers over and over, looking for familiar faces.
“I can assist,” Aderai offered, “but I only really know a few small spells.”
“That’s all well,” Erdan said, keeping his gaze on the fields, “but Nymeria, I’m sure most of all you can appreciate the need for weaponry, considering your magical bond to the ways of the sword.”
“Yes,” she said discouraged. There was a moment. “Oh, of course!” she added, suddenly working to keep her voice in check. “I am still bonded with my sword. I’m not quite accustomed to being so far from it, but let me attempt to locate it. I need a moment,” she said, already hustling to her usual corner of the cell. Erdan watched her, suddenly curious if such a thing could be performed.
Nymeria sat, quieting her mind, searching for Scribe Song through the thick necrotic energy and stilling her mind against the haze caused by the hagsbrome fumes. After a great amount of time, she came to attention.
“Probably one hundred feet above us. Directly!” she said.
“You’re certain?” Erdan asked, but there was no need.
“If that is where your sword is, it’s likely where they are keeping the rest of the weaponry!” Aderai said, desperately excited.
“It’s likely. And if we can access the weapons with some manner of stealth, we can free the gnomes, get a hold of the other prisoners, and make for the top of the tree.”
“What?” the other two said, almost simultaneously. Aderai spoke first, “Why are we headed to the top of the tree? We need to do quite the opposite, foolish girl! We need to head for the tree-line! We need to get as far away from this place as possible.
“I can’t abandon Dydania. I need to get to Malec-Keth, and make sure the Mother Tree is safe. I won’t go otherwise.”
Aderai and the Gatekeeper were at a loss for words. They had no choice in the matter. They’d adjusted to their stubborn cellmate, and so far as they’d learned, nothing with her had ever need to be said twice.