The heavy dust we kicked up, obscured Dete Plych as we took the road once again, urging our mounts forward. I had no intention to return to the city. Some may call it foolishness or lunacy to carry forward with this prisoner in tow. I cared not for her presence, and I could have easily turned her over to the authorities in the city, but as I looked down the road, it could barely be made out in the distance. Had I really travelled so far from the city when giving chase to this thief? It little matters now, I suppose. Going back to the city would only delay my journey further, and having no coin to call my own, I had little use for what else the city could offer. Perhaps between here and the next town I would be able to catch this thief red-handed, thus proving her guilt, or perhaps even retrieving my gold.
We pressed the road hard all day with little change in scenery until the sun began to make its slow descent in the west. The wide-open fields turned to hills as we made our way north-west until the path took a definitive turn. Facing the sun, now, we continued along the road at a slightly slower pace. The hilly terrain provided less comfort for our mounts, and I wished not to tire them too much by days end. It would be a long journey, and maintaining their health would be of greater profit than the ills they might take through greater urgency.
The sun made its final appearance on the horizon before us, adding a scarlet glow to the sapphire skies. Dotting the expanse of red and blue, purple clouds drew together, forming great violet monoliths in the sky. Nature always seemed this way: full of flavour and beauty, destruction following on the tails of its cloak. The clouds were a welcome sight to my eyes but cast foreboding shadows in the not too distant future. Fortunately for us, the hills to the south of the great Keltone mountains, which we now traversed, proved better protection against the elements than the open fields through which we had passed before the sun made its long trek west. As the hills morphed into mighty mountains in the distance, I could see the potential for outcropping rock and caves providing a warm dry place to make camp. This would make the night more bearable.
“We head for the mountains beyond.” I said, lacking all emotion, not phrased in such a way as to illicit an opinion. This fact little mattered to my thieving companion.
“That wouldn’t be wise.” Though I had not known her for long, she never seemed to lack opinion.
“I care nothing for your opinion on this matter. The rocks will provide greater protection from the advancing storm.” I aimed my mount to the right, leaving the path I’d been following faithfully since my departure from Glanderxe.
She followed, if not a bit reluctantly. “You will care for my opinion on this matter when the moon is high and wolves come out to play.”
Slowing my pace I turned to her. “What know you of wolves? I have seen many in my time. They prove no threat to me.” My fear was easily held at bay by the vail of confidence I projected.
“Oh yes,” she sneered, “wolves are a common sight inside the walls of the great city!” I did not dignify were mockery with a response, but she continued, seeming not to notice. “The dogs claim these mountains as their home. No one dares disturb such a vicious habitat.”
“I make camp where I please and no wild dogs will deprive me of the luxury of remaining dry.”
“Luxury is a human passion which does battle with nature continually. May Riul forgive you for this sin.”
Riul. I had heard that name before and held a trinket in my pack bearing such a name inscribed. Perhaps this woman would prove of use in her brief time on the road with me. “I took you for a thief. What could someone of your profession benefit from religion.”
“You judge poorly, Mert Whatley. Who better to desire forgiveness from a god than one who practises thievery. Obviously someone as highly respected as yourself would have no need for Her.” She was mocking me again.
“If ignorance be my crime, I confess it willingly. Having no knowledge of Riul but her name I cannot rightly ascertain what benefit the worship of such a deity would hold to thief and knight alike.” I in no way considered myself at the same level as this thief, and if she chose to warm her dreams with fantasies of forgiveness I had no business interfering, yet projecting my perceived higher class seemed to be of great offence to her and I wished not to give her a handhold by which to raise herself up by and throw another stone of mockery at my armour. However, my efforts proved fruitless.
“Ignorance has hold of you in more areas than religion. If your knowledge of the world is evidence of the quality of education in the great city, I am surprised by those who speak so highly of it.”
It is true that Glanderxe was well known for housing the higher educated. “And what knowledge do you have of those in the great city? Having not grown up there, I do not possess the same education as many; not that I have any desire for such. Education in Glanderxe is followed closely by arrogance, a trait that I relish not.”
“And yet you seem to have managed to acquire arrogance without the supposed prerequisite.”
“I do not know why you are so committed to showing me an arrogance which I do not possess and hold no desire for. Convince yourself if you will, but I will not be swayed by the words of thieves.”
“Inside the walls of the great city the status of knight is highly favoured, but you will find no such favour here. The dealings of the crown are always shrouded in secrecy, and often prove to be ill-informed and destructive.” She paused for a moment, and as if perceiving my reply she continued. “Before you go off defending the crown and inform me once again of your status as a noble knight of Glanderxe, tell me what this Lady Calwen of yours has ever done for you.”
Without skipping a beat I replied, “She has provided for my family in ways that I could not. Living in the great city has given myself, along with mother and sister, a place to call home.”
“And what was wrong with your previous dwelling?” She challenged. “Are you truly so much better off? Instead of working the field, providing for your family, you now run around like a puppet on a string.”
“A puppet!” I was offended. “I do nothing of the sort! Just because I have a sense of loyalty and a care for the law does not make me a puppet. I do what I will.”
“Do you? Humor me then. Why is it that you search for shelter in these mountains instead of at home with your family? What type of provision can you give them through adventure on these roads?”
“I provide for them by doing the work of Lady Calwen.”
“By being the puppet of Lady Calwen. Tell me that you have a desire of your own, outside of your orders, to be on this fool’s errand and I will quit my mockery for good.”
I searched for a reply, but could not find the words. What was I here for? To travel to the great River West with a message. Other than that, I knew not the nature of this trek. “At least I have a sense of loyalty and honour.”
“Yes.” She shook her head. “At least you have that.” We continued on in silence, having come to an impasse. The road got more difficult as the light grew dimmer. I had become accustomed to the clear and easy path of the great road, a luxury that these mountains did not provide. It was well into the night before we arrived at anything resembling shelter. Holing ourselves in a cave provided some protection from the wind that had begun to stir. The rain would soon be upon us, and there was little that mortal man could do about it.
“We best make camp here. Waiting out the storm is the only sensible course of action.”
“The sensible course of action would have been to remain on the road, and if you so insist on becoming wolf food, at least you could have had the sense to bring along some firewood so that we might see the face of our attackers before we die. I have come to expect a lack of sense in your nature, however.”
It only then became apparent to me that she had spoken truly for once. We had no fuel by which to make a fire. The dark clouds of the storm shrouded the moon, blocking the light from the heavens. I could make out the faint sound of wolves in the distance and my skin began to crawl. “At least this cave will provide us shelter from the elements.” I replied, trying to reassure myself more than her.
As the cries of wolves came closer, I found myself reaching into my pack in search of the Horn of Riul. The little man from which I had purchased it said something about being able to control nature with it. I knew not what that meant or to what extent it might prove useful, but if nature was my adversary, this horn might be my closest friend. Turning it over in my hand, I attempted to examine it in the low light that the night provided. This proved challenging, not being able to see more than a few feet in front of me. The horn seemed rather ordinary to the touch save for the inscription it held at its base, etched into the horn by some instrument of stone or iron. Tracing the letters with my fingers I could make out the word “Riul” plain enough, but not much else. It was elegantly crafted, and felt good to the touch, but I knew nothing of its proposed “magical” powers over nature. Whether out of sheer curiosity or simply a desire to distract myself from the wolves, I addressed my companion. “You mentioned Riul earlier.”
“That I did. What of Her?”
“That should be my question. I know little more than Her name.”
“Why the sudden interest? You seemed quite willing to remain in ignorance before?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps the chill of the night is getting to me, or maybe just a desire for conversation to distract me.”
Hearing a shuffle in the earth across from me I presumed that she altered her posture to one more appropriate for conversation, though I had no way of truly knowing, not being able to even spot her outline through the black curtain which surrounded me. “She is God. Creator and director of all nature, holding power over wind and tree and beast alike.”
“What of this storm that approaches? Why does she not drive it away, if it be in her power?”
“Why does anything happen in nature? It is not for you and I to say. Only She knows the nature of Her creation. She governs it as she desires. As creator of all, her word is law. Before the wolf or the raven there was Riul; before the first tree was planted in the earth there was Riul; before the wind or the rain there was Riul: creator and sustainer of all.”
I began to feel the rain on the sleeve of my cloak as the wind blew periodically into the mouth of the cave. Trying not to be phased by this I continued my queries. “So, what does worshipping this creator God do for someone like yourself?”
“Long ago, there was a race known as the Tallri. They were the first of this world, before the Pharosh or the men. Spending their days beneath nature’s canopy, they were tasked as keepers and protectors of the land. Given dominance over every beast of the field and bird of the air, they were to keep creation safe, governing it by the will of Riul. It is said in those days that there was no death, no disease, no suffering: perfection. The greater in the faith were given power over all of nature, even the elements would bend to their will as guided by Riul.
“With great power comes even greater corruption. Some chose to reject the will of Riul to serve themselves, bending the wind and the waves to their liking. Not everyone agreed with Riul and her ways. Such abuse of power resulted in much suffering and death across the land. Soon Riul saw the flaw in such power, so she took it away. No longer would all Tallri hold ultimate power over nature, but only the ‘newborn.’
“Riul was saddened by the taint her creation now held and from desire for renewal, the Pharosh were born from the sky. The Parosh were to battle the taint through their quest for knowledge and power over the mind. They were sent to the Tallri to win a battle over the mind, bringing them back to their faith in Riul. This battle was soon lost, however, as the Pharosh had no desire to fight the Tallri. The sky they were born from held the taint, thus they lacked the purity of the former Tallri. Fleeing to the west they grew in knowledge and thus in power, isolating themselves from ‘the inferior.’
“In a final effort to fight the taint, the men were born from the dust of the earth. They held no power over nature, or quest for knowledge, but were ruled by dominance. They tried to subdue the Tallri through their military strength and desire for control, but not for the will of Riul. Born from the tainted dust themselves, they lost the battle to the true enemy, forever destined to live in rivalry, seeking dominance but never able to obtain it.
“Riul thus returned to Her first people, but now only the ‘newborn’ are given power over nature. Those lost to the taint are lost forever. Despite the taint, Riul loves Her creation and desires to see it redeemed. I aim to do her will and one day be redeemed.” She sat in the dark, lost in thought, taken back to a land of perfection and peace.
Turning the horn over in my hand I was in awe. If this horn truly possessed the voice of Riul herself, what untold power might it hold. I didn’t believe everything that the thief had told me, but if even a little bit of it were true… I was brought back to reality by the cry of a wolf… closer now. “I hold no faith in Riul myself, but if you desire, pray that we might not become a meal tonight.”
I didn’t think my statement was that humorous, but she proved me wrong, laughing but a moment before responding. “I doubt that would make a difference. She seeks retribution for your sin.”
“Retribution! What have I done to deserve such punishment?” The wolf cry gave me my answer before she could reply.
“Your answer has been given. You make camp in the territory of wolves. Riul does not look kindly on such intrusions.”
“Well, I don’t look kindly on being attacked! I will meet this punishment with steel in hand!” The sound of the wolves was deafening as they gathered at the mouth of the cave.
“You will pay for your sins!” Her voice trailed off as in a dream. What kind of nightmare did I find myself in? I had nowhere to turn but to my sword.
“Come, we must fight them!” I shouted… but no answer was given. Running to the place where the thief had been, I found no one. Thieves were not known for being great fighters, but I wouldn’t have taken her to be a coward! Either way, I was now left alone to my fate. Sword in my right and the Horn of Riul in my left I met my attackers like a boy hiding from the monsters beneath my bed. From out of the darkness came a pair of white fangs embodied by a shadowy form I knew only too well to be a wolf. I matched the attacker with an attack of my own, which ended up being more of a parry, as my blade met the wolf, blunt end to the face. It forced him back with a yelp, followed by a snarl. A second dog dove for me, and this time I was not so fortunate. It landed on top of me, throwing me to the ground. I struggled to keep its teeth from penetrating my flesh, keeping it at arms’ length while more wolfs crept in closer, waiting for their opportunity to strike.
I had faced these beasts before as a child, and the scenario unfolding before me brought me back to those days long ago when my father fought alongside me. Thinking of my father brought on a new sense of courage as emotions bubbled up inside me, turning my fear to rage. Wishing to avenge his death, my courage manifested itself in a blow to the wolf’s face from the pommel of my sword. This allowed me to escape from beneath the beast and regain my feet. I could hear a crash as thunder struck and lighting shot through the night all at once. The small cave lit up from the blast, the illumination providing a brief visual of the scene I was caught in. No less than 8 wolves crowded the mouth of the cave. There was no hope of fighting them all off, and I was trapped within the cave, no way of escape in sight. Suddenly, as if the lightning illuminated more than my surroundings, it occurred to me that I still had the horn in my hand. If this attack was by the hand of Riul Herself, there was little use calling for her aid, however I wasn’t left with many options.
With a last hope for survival I put the horn to my lips and blew a long loud blast. The rocks around me roared a reply as the sound ricocheted from one wall to the other. The mountain I had holed up in began to shake, enraged by the noise. Rocks shook loose from the ceiling above me and the walls began to close in. The mouth of the cave provided little safety with the dogs stationed there, but I had little choice. Trapped between death by falling rocks or the white fangs of the night, I chose the latter. I ran at the wolves, sword in hand, like a suicidal idiot. I felt rocks hit my feet as I dove into the darkness outside the cave. As I hit the ground, all around me came to a grinding halt. Rocks filled the mouth of the cave, crushing the wolves in their rage; the wind died down and the rain subsided, leaving only the darkness and a slow drizzle falling down from the heavens.
Picking myself up from the mud I swore. So much for staying dry. I turned around to face the wall of rock I had once found shelter behind. All the wolves found a quick death, except for one, its leg pinned beneath a large boulder. Approaching the beast I felt a strange sense of pity. Its fur was caked with dirt and blood, but its eyes looked at me, defeated. A strange urge to free the beast accompanied my pity. There was no way to move the large stone from its place, and short of severing the wolf’s limb, I had no ideas. What kind of life would a three-legged wolf have? It didn’t sound like much of an improvement over its present condition. Who knows how long it would live, either dying from blood loss or ravaged by the elements. The only thing to do was to put the thing out of its misery.
I lifted my sword to bring an end to the poor animal before me, but nothing could have prepared me for the result of my action. I looked into its eyes and they seemed to be screaming at me, begging to be left alive. Soon all that was left of the beast were its eyes as the rest of it faded into the shadows. As I stared into those eyes they took on a different form as did the shadow that the rest of it had become. It remained as black as the night, taking on wings and a beak. Suddenly, it was gone, soaring into the air leaving me hopelessly alone and desperately confused.