“Elven…?” Robert repeated groggily. His memory was still fuzzy, and his head burned as if it had been set out to bake in the sun. Despite the pain in his body he pushed himself into a sitting position and let his eyes adjust to his surroundings. It was a modest hut. A once colorful rug covered the dirt floor with intricate patterns, the walls were the dark color of a local wood. A small fireplace was across the room, with a black kettle bubbling over the flames. It smelled pretty good, and his stomach rumbled into the quietness.
“Let me get you some food. This was my Grandmother’s recipe. So you can guess that it’s an old one.” She cackled cheerfully like the elderly tend to do. She turned and hobbled away, a gnarled wooden cane steadying her gait. Her silver hair was pulled into a bun and Robert could see that her ears were longer and drawn into a pointed tip. All at once completely alien and somehow familiar. Robert rubbed his temples, taking the edge off of his throbbing skull.
Robert James Lowman. My name. But who… am I?
“Here you are.” The old woman smiled and handed him the bowl. Her hands shook way too much, yet only a small bit spilled out. A thick brown stew steamed before him, carrots and potatoes and beef urged him to feast. Raising the first spoonful, he smiled as his mouth filled with saliva. Closing his eyes as he chewed, he gave a small moan as he turned the only-slightly tough meat between his teeth. The smell filled the air around him, and suddenly he felt emotional. He was missing someone. Someone who used to cook like this.
“Linda!” He burst out with a full mouth. He gulped down the bite and stared ahead, eyes pulled wide. He knew he was married to a beautiful woman, one he was blessed to even know at all. Robert remembered some of who he was. They lived in a manor house far from here.
Nearly the other side of the world.
His heart beat faster in his chest, and he fought to keep the blood from his face. Robert was lucky these Elves didn’t recognize him, but that’s about as far as his luck stretched. His legs felt as if millions of needles were slowly prodding into them. He must have been thrown from his horse.
Why am I so far from the border? Why did the Crown send me here?
“Linda? Who is she? A lucky woman to have such a handsome man worry for her.” The woman grinned at him with twinkling eyes, thinking of past times when Elves were forever young. When she still had her husband there to keep her warm during the long winters.
“I am the lucky one, truly.” Robert replied.
I can’t let her know I am from the Capital.
New memories were swirling into existence on the canvas of his mind, painted with an eldritch brush held by the skilled, long-fingered hands of ancient shadows. They enjoyed using this world. It was more diverse than the traditional universes they sculpted to lure their captives into false memories. So many opportunities for chaos, so many shadows that could grow and tangle and twist the minds of corporeal beings to their hateful desires.
So many variables.
“You’re a sweet man for saying that” The woman continuing to smile. “So I know your wife’s name. Who are you?”
“My name is R…Roger…” He trailed off and stuffed his face quickly with a heaping spoonful of the delicious stew to buy him time to think. His name was infamous enough that he knew to hide it from even this frail woman. And she was so pleasant! The only Elves he had ever met were on the battlefield as a younger man or in the secret laboratories under the Citadel, unknown to even the nobility of the Imperium.
“Roger Theregin.” He said after swallowing his bite. He could feel it travelling all the way down into his gut. As if the potato was wrapped in guilt. Rubbing his head with one hand, he used the other to place the bowl on the table next to him. He knew he had to get back to safety. His mission was a failure, but he gleaned some important facts that he had to get back to the Council.
“Ohhh, a name from your East! You must be a farmer?”
“…Yes. My wife and I have a small farm right on the border of the Imperium.”
“We both know the Imperiums’ borders reach much farther than the lines on the map.” She laughed softly and shook her head. “Ever since that one day all those years ago, we Elves have always lived in fear. Mortality such as humans know it truly is a burden to us like we have never borne before.” Robert nodded silently, as he slowly began to swing his pained legs over the side of the bed. He winced as the woman put her hand softly on his shoulder.
“You should rest. Forgive the ramblings of an old woman.” Robert rubbed his thighs, urging the stinging away as best as he could. He must have been here for days. Feeling weak, he pushed himself up to stand. He placed his hands on his lower back and stretched.
“I am strong enough to relieve myself from your care. I wish I had some way to pay your hospitality, you were far too gracious to a stranger you scarcely know.”
“Nonsense” She waved her hand and shook her head with a solemn smile. “You are in an Elven home. We may be poorer than we were before, but these traditions of hospitality will never die. Even if we do.” He nodded with silent respect, and stretched his hand out to take hers, she smiled and gave it freely — almost blushing as he kissed it.
“Truly, thank you” He said with real respect. “I will come back one day to thank you for this kindness. For now I must leave.” She grabbed his hand with surprising strength as he tried to release hers. He was startled, and looked into her eyes. Hazel, but darker. He felt a small fear grow within him before she smiled and spoke, reminding him of his own grandmother.
“Not before I pack you a bag of bread to keep you going!”
He laughed as he walked to the door, opening it. Looking outside as she prepared his bag. The land was lush, clouds flew along on the breaths of cool wind. People – Elves – went about their day, some carrying water to their homes. Some tending their modest shops. Mountains watched in the distance. He listened to the far Eastern birds sing their foreign songs. Unheard to him, the old woman muttered to herself inside.
“Never before have I felt such smooth hands on a farmer.” She scoffed. “Roger Theregin? More like Lord something-or-other.” Placing the last bit of bread into the bag, she tied it shut with a bit of twine. She flicked her eyes over to Robert, and seeing his back still turned she began to hold a hand over the bag. The smallest glow emanated from the tips of her fingers as she whispered words that twisted her tongue around in her mouth, and made the space within the hut darker. Even a skilled mage like her could not sense the devious pleasure of the shadows. The fire shrank and sputtered, almost going out as she resolved her incantation.
“Foolish human. To think that I would believe such a poor lie. And for him to believe my own!” Her lips pulled back in a toothy smile as she unconsciously ground her teeth. Even if this spell took time from her own life, it was worth it to help her son’s cause. The last hundred years left Elves mistrustful of humans. This ‘Roger’ was certainly an Imperial spy, sent to gather information on her family. The old woman began to shuffle toward Robert’s turned back, the smile transforming from the conniving grin to a pleasant beaming. Resisting the urge to take the large knife from her left and cleave it into his spine, she reassured herself with thoughts of her talented son. So gifted with the arts, and with many friends he had spirited away into different parts of the world. Even the Capital of the Imperium itself. Reaching to tap Robert on the shoulder, she thought to herself:
“We are everywhere.”