The men and women jumped around the blazing fire like wind sprites dancing near the spray of some great ship. They leapt and trotted to the song of the flute and the beat of the drum. The stars glistened brightly down upon the little party as the shadows of men and elves shimmered across the tree line. The flickering silhouettes, like shades of some elseworld, foreboding in their contrast to the happy party they reflected. Laughter and drunken talk echoed throughout the modest forest village and the smell of roasted meats and assorted foods wafted upon the air. The children, glad for a night without curfew, burst through legs and past dancers, running and teasing as they played and chased one another.
Page looked around at the gathering and could find none without a smile, almost none. The young wizard was perched on a large log carved into a bench meant for a man of smaller stature, but he barely noticed. He sat around the fire laughing at some retelling of a story they had heard a dozen times before. Others gathered around him watched the dancers or chatted lightly about happier times. The darkness of what was to come seemed forgotten to all, except for one.
To his left sat Carmithius looking uncharacteristically melancholy. The only one to take no notice of any of the merrier tidings. “Carm?” Page nudged his friend jovially, “Cheer up. You should be having a greater time than all of us. You’re home.”
The touch seemed to startle the elf away from his thoughts. “Oh, I am happy to be home, do not misunderstand that,” he started.
“But Carm has always had a tendency to be too serious,” finished the round and sandy-haired human sitting to elf’s left. He took a draw from his flagon.
“Yeah, ol’ Carm could depress an imp, he’s so gloomy,” laughed a second, noticeably quick witted elf, sitting nearby on a large flat rock. His human nearly spit out his drink to join in on the laughter.
“Justin, Flaksus, that is enough. Why don’t you two go check on my wife and the other cooks? See how the feast is coming,” said an older looking elf from the ground. He sat near Carm, long dark hair framing a content smile.
“Yeah I’m starving,” said John. The thief was idly fingering one of his daggers, a habit he performed only when nervous or drunk. From a look at him, Page guessed that it was the latter instead of the former.
“Yes, Master Taphitus.” Both youths stood and walked toward the cooking area.
“What troubles you my former apprentice?” said the old master once the other two had left the circle of light.
“I am not unsettled, master,” replied Carm.
“Carmithius Huntsman, I helped raise you. You are always unsettled.”
The old elf known as Taph let his gaze wander the revelry that surrounded them before bringing his eyes back to the forlorn Carmithius. “Tomorrow will come, and it may bring the darkness we fear or only another sunrise. Worry does nothing to stop fear or sunrises. Tonight is for celebration.”
“I do not fear the sunrise,” said Carm an uncharacteristic touch of offense in his voice. “My companions and I are prepared to face what is to come. That is not the source of my mood.”
“Then it is worse than I feared.” Taphitus Huntsman nodded and sighed. “I know you miss her, but your sadness will do nothing to change what has come to pass.”
“She was my mother and the last time I was home was the last time I saw her alive. I watched her die, murdered before me,” Carm clenched his hands at the last words, “right here in this very village. How can I not think of that moment as I sit here among all this happiness?”
“If it is foolishness to worry over the coming sunrise, than it is utter madness to lament the passing sunset.”
Carmithius took out a silver token that hung from his neck by a leather thong. It caught the light of the fire and flickered like a diamond in the night. “This is all that remains of her.”
“Untrue,” said the master huntsman. “You have your memories. Take it from an old man, who watched both you and your mother within your birth cribs, she is among us. Everything you do, everything you are, I see your mother’s hand in it. Her presence is now within you, and me, and everyone who was lucky enough to have known her.”
“Thank you, master.” Carm tucked the pendant back into his shirt.
“She is proud of you. I am certain of that. You have done great good in the land, and you have true friends by your side. Now you are home, but for a brief time, surrounded by friends both old and new. She would not have you worry. She would want you to feast and dance and enjoy the time that is left to you, because that is what she always did.”
“I will endeavor to be happier,” said the younger golden haired elf.
“Ye damn well better,” growled the dwarf that sat across the fire. “Ye know how much blasted trouble tha’ damn wizard went through to set this up.”
“Thank you, Bowen,” said Page surprised by the other’s words.
“Shut up, ye damned wizard.” He finished off his tankard and tossed it away with a satisfied yell. “More ale.”
“I wish you had not arranged this,” said Carm ignoring the dwarf’s outburst.
“You’re welcome,” said Page with a small smile. He had his own fears, which he dared not show. Their enemy was growing and there were very few places left in Allion to hide. Even at that moment he could feel the dark power as it searched for them, but its search would be in vain, at least for that night. Carm’s village was a sanctuary protected by old magic. Their enemy would not find them. At least, that was his hope. Outwardly, he just kept smiling.
Taph laughed, a twinkle of mischief in the old man’s eyes, “It is not everyday that a group of heroes comes to…”
Thak burst into the fire light, stumbling as he moved. He was panting heavily, his silvery hair drenched with sweat. The half-elf collapsed as if all his bones had suddenly given way. He landed on the ground between Taph and Bowin, almost spilling the dwarf’s drink.”
“Watch where ya going, ye silvery haired half-wit. Ye nearly spilt me ale.” Grumbled the dwarf with no hint of anger. In a moment it was forgotten and Bowen resumed his happy drinking as he watched the nearby dancers cavort around the flame to the sound of flute and drum.
“You have to go and dance,” panted Thak. “Its bags of fun.”
“Yes, I think you should go and dance,” said Taph with a knowing smile. “There is a certain maiden who has not taken her pretty young eyes from you all night.”
Page looked over to a group of young ladies, both human and elven. An attractive mousey-haired elf maiden batted her eyes toward Carm before she noticed the wizard’s gaze. The maid turned away, and suddenly the huddled group of ladies erupted in high-pitched giggling.
“Aria?” Carm said. “How has she been?”
“She has grown, and ever since you left on your grand adventures you have become her favorite topic of conversation.”
“We used to play together, when we were kids.”
“Aye, I remember,” said the old elf. “She has blossomed, and I am sure she would not refuse a dance with the great hero.”
“C’mon, Carm,” chided John, “It’ll be fun. You remember fun? Even Bowen is having fun, and that only happens when there’s a chance we’re going to die.”
“Keep up that kind of talk, thief, and there’ll be a good chance that one of us might die tonight,” growled Bowin with a smile.
“Fine.” said Carm, but it was already too late.
“Carmithius Huntsman,” said Arai as she approached the group. “You have been home since before sunset and you still have yet to say a word to me. Do I mean so little to you?” Aria was standing behind them, her gaggle of friends only a few paces off, just outside the circle of light. They whispered together like darkhawks perched on a branch together, making secret plans.
“Of course not,” stammered Carm as he rose to meet her. “I do apologize. So many people have wanted to talk to me since I got home, I am sorry that I did not come and see you sooner.”
“Sooner?” she said.
“First,” he corrected. “I apologize that I did not see you first.”
“Dance with me and all is forgiven.” There was no chance to refuse. Suddenly Aria had his hand and they were gone. Carm disappeared from the warmth of their circle with very little protest.
Page and the rest of the men laughed as Carm was dragged away, but then the hawks descended on them like helpless field mice. The girls appeared, a war party emerging from the darkness. Before they could move Page, John, Thak, and even Bowen found themselves being dragged after Carm and Aria.
“I am not really a good dancer,” protested Page to the pretty red-haired human girl that held his arm in her abnormally strong grip.
“It’s alright,” she said, “Just follow me.” She took him in her surprisingly firm grip and he found himself spinning around the fire with all the others. The world was a blur of colors, blues, blacks, oranges, and the wild red of his dancing partner’s hair.
“Let go of me ye daft banshee,” Bowin yelled as he went spinning by. The dwarf was at the mercy of a tall dark haired human girl who had the usually fierce warrior trapped in a mad twirl.
They danced into the night pausing only to feast upon all sorts of meats, vegetables, fruits, and pastries. Taphitus was right, the sun would rise and their trials and tragedies would be waiting for them. This night was a night for mirth and friends. By the end night even Carm was smiling, and for a moment the darkness was forgotten.