The water was warm and comforting, its soft waves caressing my bare chest. The new morning sun shone bright and clear, glistening on the surface of the water like a sea of diamonds. Travelling by night deprived me of a well-needed rest. Closing my eyes, the water surrounded me like a woman’s embrace, her warm breath tickling my neck with passionate whispers – the wind. A leaf glided from above brushing my cheek like wisps of beautiful hair. Such pleasure almost made me forget where I was, taking me back to a place and time without care, worry, or fear.
Oh how I missed Farah. Why had I left her like I did? Come for me now, or not at all. Those words. So pure. So true. How could such pain come from those sweet lips of hers? Those tears. Such sorrow. Such pain. What a noble knight I turned out to be. I could not leave my family for Miss Farah Bailey, but for Lady Calwen… What a child I was to refuse love in favour of loyalty and honour. A knot formed in my stomach. My soul tortured – I forced myself back into reality, opening my eyes. My breath was quick and heavy as I let out a groan, clutching my stomach with both hands.
Attempting to clear my mind, I dove under the water. Cleansing one’s body was simple when water was plentiful… but the mind… she was a different beast altogether. I tried to trick her, ignore her, leave her in the dust of the road… but I could not. She stalked me at night and taunted me from the shadows by day. My sword-arm was trained and ready to fight the beast, but what use was steel against the mind?
My head rose from beneath the waves, but the beast followed me. I had but one defence against her: one defence practised and refined. I ran. Ran from the water. Ran for my clothes. Ran for the trees. Ran for Kyra of the Tallri.
“Are they upon us?” She stood up in a flash, dagger unsheathed and ready.
I looked at her for a moment, catching my breath before realizing what a I fool must seem. “No. Nothing like that. No need to worry, Thief.”
She hesitated before putting her weapon away. “Why do you run?”
There was no logical answer I could give to that question. Two choices stood before me and neither were very favourable: tell the truth, what a fool I would be for it, or lie unconvincingly. I chose the latter. “Oh, no reason…” I stammered out, the lie still forming in my mouth. I could say I was simply enjoying the forest, but was I to seem like a deer prancing among the trees?
“No reason?” Her brow arched upward in well-deserved bewilderment. “Men do not run for no reason.”
“I saw the quick work you made of that spirit deer. I may be faster than you on a horse, but you clearly best me on foot. If I have any hope of catching you, should you run, I must practise the craft til my speed matches or bests your own.” That would be believable… wouldn’t it?
She laughed, signifying that I had succeeded in making my lie believable enough for her. “You are such a boy, Mert. Such wild dreams you have! If you spent all day practising your craft with the other boys, chasing each other in the streets of the great city, you would still have no chance of besting me.”
I decided to let her insults pass me by. At least I was out of that situation. Not wishing to return to any discussion of such things I quickly changed the subject. “The water is warm this morning. You should bathe before we continue on our journey.”
“We journey along the banks of the River West. The water will always be with us, and it remains warm year-round. There is no need for urgency.”
I had heard her mention the perpetual warmth of the water before but was uninterested at the time. I was no more interested now than before, but for the sake of conversation and to take my mind off of Farah, I posed the question. “How does it remain warm through the passing of the seasons?”
“If you believe the locals, beneath the river there is a lake of liquid fire.” She said with a bitter tone, though I knew not why.
“And do you believe the locals?”
“I believe all that is revealed to me by Riul and nothing more. If there is such a lake beneath the river, I cannot say. I can say that the perpetual warmth is not an act of Riul but the Pharosh who tamper with her creation.” Her eyes filled with fire as she spoke. I had never seen her angry before, as she seemed to favour mockery and guile. “Men build cities where trees should be, but the Pharosh engage in greater evils than this. They tamper with the very fabric of creation, bending and twisting it to their will.” She spat on the ground in disgust. “The River West will never freeze, nor can in be forded, for further out the current is great. There is but one way to cross the river, this not by the design of Riul, but the will of the Pharosh.”
I remained silent for a moment not wanting to add to her anger. We continued in silence until I saw her countenance soften. “The only way to cross the great River West is by the main road to the south.”
Now it was my turn to become agitated. “The main road! We have travelled north from the main road, and now you say that we must return south? You said the northern route was shorter.”
“Aye. To reach the river it is shorter. I said nothing about crossing it.” She smiled at me through her deception, her natural countenance returning.
“What purpose would reaching the river prove if it cannot be crossed?”
“You revealed your destination to be the River West. I got you to the River West. If there is fault in the direction it doesn’t lie with my ability to lead us, but your ability to communicate.” I wanted to slap that sly grin off her face.
“Oh, so now that you desire to see the Pharosh you take us in the correct direction. What was your intention before? To get us lost in the wilds of the north?”
“I am Tallri. We don’t get lost, however, if you wish to, you can find your own way to the Pharosh.”
My mind raced with words. So many words. Unkind. Unbeneficial. Untrue. Eventually, after my head had cooled some, I spoke. “You are right. We must travel together and any dissension between us will not work in our favour. I merely misunderstand the need to travel north.”
“It was your decision to take the northern route, and I did not lie. We did indeed reach the River West.”
“Let’s just go.” I said in disgust. It was plain that she would not be moved from her position. The only thing that more ranting and raving would accomplish would be more insults directed at me for being like a child throwing a tantrum. “The sooner we get moving, the sooner we will get back to the main road. You must swear to me that you will be truthful henceforth.”
“I will remain truthful as I have been. I am hunted the same as you. It would prove unprofitable to lead you anywhere but to the Pharosh.”
I could not speak to her any further. Her countenance annoyed me. How could she be so deceptive and yet claim that it’s my fault? She was right with one thing, however. Nothing was keeping me with her any longer. She had returned my money to me and I really just wanted to be rid of her. She had dragged us past the mountains, past any semblance of civilization, to a place where animals appeared as spirits, companions turned on one another in cold blood, and water was unnaturally warm. No such things were heard of in Glanderxe Coessarde and I longed to return to familiarity, comfort, and family. My loyalty battled with my sanity, pushing me forward. I followed the Thief simply for lack of another sane alternative. She had led me here, and only she knew where our destination lay… or so she said. I did not trust her, but grudgingly followed her lead.
I remembered on the journey north that the way had been perilous and unpleasant. The way south was from a different world completely. As we walked among the trees, beauty all around, my emotions were calmed a little. At least the journey would be pleasant in contrast to my companion. Her external beauty hid the beast she was beneath, and I hoped that the forest would not hide a similar deception.
The climate was unchanged as we progressed. Whether day or night, it remained the same. No longer did we suffer by day and shiver by night. Firewood was of plenty and water was easier to find than sunshine on a clear day. The dried meat of the spirit deer served us well, causing me to almost forget the bland staple of the frozen wasteland.
As the sun rose above the mountains before us I silently praised the goddess of nature though I worshipped her not in practise. Covered in snow they look ominous and unpleasant, but with the greenery of life their appearance was inviting. Drawing closer I saw water cascading down the rock, dipping its toes into the mighty River West. How could such beauty exist in these desolate lands? This forest deserved to be populated by beasts of every kind. In my mind’s eyes I saw children chasing one another beneath this mighty canopy, bird’s nesting on the clefts above, deer grazing in the fields beyond, woman washing garments by the shoreline. This place of beauty deserved so much more than a handful of spirit deer.
The Tallri led me beneath the mighty clefts, rock rising high to my left and water from above cascaded to my right. We travelled into the mountains, surrounded by rock and water, through this tunnel of nature for but a moment before a stone wall stood before us. “The mountain pass lies to the east through the snow and wind. There is but one other way to reach Glanderxe Coessarde beyond – beneath the mountains.”
Below there would be no trees, no light, no beauty. I peered through the wall of water to my right watching the sunlight glisten trying to capture a final taste of the beauty. “What lies beneath these mountains?” I was almost afraid to ask. It was foolish of me to expect the beauty of the forest to last forever, but I was not ready to leave. It had captured my heart and I longed to remain.
“That I cannot say. No Tallri has ever journey beneath the Keltone. It is said that the locals created caves and tunnels beneath the surface to escape the harsh conditions which surround these hills.”
“Harsh conditions…” I mumbled under my breath. The forest was far from harsh though the land beyond was. I saw no sense in leaving, but loyalty pushed me from the dream of making a house among the trees away from all worry and care. “Lead the way, Thief.” I said while I looked back at the forest.
“Stay close, boy. I don’t have to go looking for you.” I turned around to watch her disappear behind the blanket of water that cascaded down from above. I followed her through the liquid wall not knowing what lay on the other side. To my surprise, a small outcropping of land dipped into the River West and atop the earth stood a monument of rock much the same as those I had seen on our journey north.
Kyra stepped within the circle of rock and I watched as she gathered a stone from the monument. It sparkled with all the colours of the rainbow as the sun caught it on every side – the biggest diamond I had ever seen. She held it in the palm of her hand at the centre of the stone structure. I saw the light bounce from her hand to the tops of the five pillars surrounding her, where smaller replicas of the stone in her hand stood. The light travelled around the circle of stone, completing a circle of light before launching a beam at the wall of water we had passed through. As the light touched the rock-face beyond, the earth began to shake and I heard the sound of falling rock.
The Thief quickly replaced the stone in her hand and led me back through the wall of water whereupon we were greeted by an opening in the rock-face which had previously stood obstructing our path. In haste we entered through the opening as rocks began to fall all around. We had no sooner made it through that the rock closed in behind us thus sealing our fate to the road ahead.
Dark. The fallen rocks behind me fused together like liquid steel in a melting pot; no cracks between the stones, no light seeping through. Damp. The waterfall above crawled through the rocks, perspiring with the effort. Damp stone above. Damp ground below. Musty. Such clear water above brought life and hope, joy and desire. This same water below fell from the roof forming pools of immobile muddy stench. Light. Not natural, but from a torch. Radiating from the stick in Kyra’s hand, it travelled into the distance before us fighting against low-hanging rocks from the ceiling above. The steady glow moved with us. One step. Two steps. Three. Following our lead… or was it I who followed this luminescent guide?
What once had been a torrent from above was diminished to a steady drip, a slow trickle. Drip. Drip. Drip. We travelled deeper, and the ceiling lifted, or did the ground descend? Drip. Drip. The path broader, the ceiling higher, the ground dryer. Drip. The angle sharper, the light dimmer, the beauty… gone. One. Final. Drip. The forest, the waterfall, life – all gone. Why had we entered this stone coffin? This would be my death. No one would hear my final gasps for air, final cries of pain, finally going insane. The rocks would ricochet my death from one end to the other, sharing joy in my pain. The gossip would increase until my last breath, then subside with no more to say, nowhere for my cries to go.
The sound. Was I going insane already? How long had we been travelling within this death-hole. How deep had we gone? It couldn’t be… but the sound, steel on steel – unmistakable. The rocks passed the gossip to my ears, sharing sounds of a battle below. First the steel, and then the cries: not shouts or sorrow or fear, war-cries, voices of a mighty host. Voices from the deep. Voices from the dark. The smell of sweat and blood combined. The smell of adrenaline. The smell of battle.
Around the corner there was a glow, a glow of life, a glow of hope, or maybe a glow of danger. The Thief put out our torch, cautious of what lay ahead. I crept behind her, stealth being our tool of choice. The sounds grew louder, the smells stronger, the light brighter. The shadows were now our friends, not knowing the nature of the company before us… until we rounded the corner. A great company was gathered in a circle, two men the entertainment. There was yelling, cheering, battle cries in this Colosseum beneath the rock. I watched as axe hit shield and sword his flesh, the blow not fatal but crippling. A pool of blood joined the fray from the leg of the one with the axe.
“Come on!” yelled a heavy voice. “It’s just a scratch!” The two men separated, regaining their strength. Sword held high, the one reached the crowd with a gesture of triumph eliciting cheers of joy and encouragement. Others booed and threw rocks at the dirt beneath his feet, waiting for the wounded to rise to the challenge.
His leg was wounded, but his pride was not. “THE ROCK STANDS FIRM!” He yelled above the crowd, raising axe above his head and slashing the air with ferocity.
“The rock stand firm!” The crowd gathered around the two combatants cried in delighted response as the axe-man rushed for the one with the sword, his mighty weapon swinging above his head. Sword met axe and sparks flew. The shield was launched forward toward the axe-man’s chest, but he dodged backward with the grace of a cat and charged again. The sword stuck high, and the axe-man ducked low, sliding beneath on his knees. Without rising from the ground he flung his axe behind him striking the sword-man in the side. He rose from his knees as the sword-man fell. The crowd began to cheer even louder, almost deafening from the distance I sat.
The axe-man reached for the fallen man’s cast aside sword and turned him from belly to back. “How can a man fight without his sword?” It did not come out as a question or taunt. His words were bold and believable as the crowd fell silent.
It seemed like hours passed, but it was mere seconds. The sword-man spoke from his fallen position, his words now audible above the silence. “The sword is the man and the man the sword. This man cannot fight.” The axe-man reached down to the sword-man’s ankle and removed a brass anklet. Raising it in his fist he shouted, “The rock stands firm!”
“The rock stands firm!” came the hearty reply from the crowd as they began to cheer and gather around the victor. The partying in the camber lasted but a moment before the crowd made their way from the rock Colosseum through a high tunnel, presumably to a chamber beyond to carry on the festivities, leaving the defeated man lying in a pool of his own blood on the ground.
My heart beat heavy in my ears, adrenaline rushing to every joint and sinew. It was this coupled with my heart for the fallen that guided my next action. Despite the shock, and perhaps horror that I could see on the face of the Tallri, I stepped out from the shadowy blanket which held us in safety and charged toward the man who lay alone in the chamber beyond. I presume that she would have called after me, if not for her will to remain concealed. Paying no heed to her nor anything else around, I entered the chamber and knelt beside the dying man. “You’re hurt, man.” I told him, as if such information was not already plain to him. It was less for his sake than mine. It served me well as an awkward introduction, but better than I could have fashioned without adrenaline rushing through me.
“The rock calls for me.” His eyes glazed over like in a dream. “I see it reaching… reaching… reaching… opening its mighty maw to receive my blood.”
“Come man, we must find you some help.” Feeling sorry for the poor lad I reached down to help him from the cold stone on which he lay, but he pushed me back in a fit of rage. “You do not cheat the rock! Let me do my part in feeding its lusts!”
Too much blood. Too much blood spilt on the ground. His spirit would be lost soon, his mind already gone. What could be done for this man. I was no doctor or healer. My mind was lost, swimming in a sea of hopelessness as I searched for some piece of decency within this wreck to latch onto, some source of life to keep my mind afloat. One of these men had died already. I was reminded of the scene in the forest where a poor man’s life was taken from him as that beast spat on him, wrapping him in his own blood – hopeless and fearful then, hopeless and fearless now. This man had died like any good knight would, with honour. Though I knew nothing of him, I could do nothing but respect his swordsmanship and willingness to die.
His final breath was heard, that final breath as silent as the night sky. I almost felt like I could catch it as it passed slowly from his breast mingling with the musty atmosphere in this casket of stone. He would not cheat death, though he was dealt a cruel final chapter. I heard the words of Sir Kherine, captain of the guard, in my ears. “A knight always dies with honour, loyal to the end, sword in hand until his final breath.” No worse boon could be given than was to this man in his death: relieved of his sword, stripped of his honour, left to die like a fleeing coward. I had seen it all. This man was robbed of his final dignities, was no coward but left as one, naked without his weapon – honour and life pried from his frigid grasp.
The man within me wanted to weep, the knight within wanted the scream, to avenge this poor man’s death. Hearing the voices in the room beyond, sounds of mirth and laughter, the knight won over the man. Drawing my sword, I let out a shrill cry, not of sorrow but of rage, and rushed from the Colosseum.
The chamber beyond was filled with men and mead before my voice was added to the scene. I came rushing in like a senseless lunatic, swinging my sword above my head in a fit of rage. The mighty cry passed from my lips and travelled to the far corners of the room, silencing all it passed over like waves in a mighty pool of water. My chest rose and fell, heavy with breath, fuelled by the fire within. “Cowards!” I screamed. “Children! Leaving a man to die without his sword!”
At first I thought no one was going to answer my cry, then I saw him. A short but mighty man stood from his place at the head of the table. Clad in more iron than I thought possible for such a small man, every joint creaked with the sound of iron against iron. His voice came out low and commanding. “Who enters the rock and defiles our customs?”
“Mert Whatley, loyal knight of Glanderxe.” Such a title should command respect, not that I expected much from these little men based on their show of honour I had just witnessed.
“Knight. You are not in Glanderxe any longer. Your words from the south hold no meaning, and your sword no power. I am Brynd, leader of the allmharach, protector of the rock, and this is Keltone, the mountains of god.”
“This man’s blood cries from the rock and I answer. You will not treat him as the cowards you yourselves are.”
“Cowards!” the little man laughed. “There can be but one victor. When the lust for blood calls, it must be answered.”
The axe-man from the brawl stood to his feet. “That man…” he pointed a defying finger at the Colosseum beyond, “is no warrior.” He pulled the blade he had stolen from the dying man’s possession from his belt and held it high. “A warrior needs a sword.”
“And I aim to claim it for him, if you don’t mind.” I took a step toward the man I had come for, now revealed from within the crowd. A reply came, but not in words. The room was filled with standing warrior, weapons drawn and ready. “My quarrel is with this man!” I pointed to the one with the stolen sword. “Step aside, all of you, and no harm will come.”
The room was filled with laughter and the first man who had spoken replied. “A boy, playing at knight! Come, boy, join your comrade in his death. Even a knight knows when he is bested.”
My adrenaline fell a little. I knew that though the little man insulted me, he spoke truth. I replied, more sheepishly than before. “I come for the sword, that is all. Let me honour this man in his death.”
“Come boy! Get on your knees!” the axe-man sneered at me while the room filled with laughter. “You wish to dishonour me by stealing my claims of battle.”
Brynd roared, “Silence!” commanding the room. “Go back to Glanderxe, boy. Keltone is no place for you.”
Such words, swirling through the air. Such emotions, rising in my heart. I had no desire to turn away from these cowards, leaving them to their mead and pleasure, but was powerless to do otherwise. The only honour I could give this man would be my own blood spilt on this same rock. My steel, though trained, was unpractised.
The room stood still, my mind racing against my heart. Death or life? Honour or shame? Was this stranger’s honour worth the blood flowing within me? How could I call myself a knight, or even a man, and let this man die the way he did, yet what would honour profit if loyalty was denied? Brynd and this band of barbarians were a mere roadblock, not my destination. Such a fitting tombstone that would make: Mert Whatley, loyal knight of Glanderxe, killed by a speed bump.
For once on this journey sanity won. Honour denied. Knighthood shambled. Sword sheathed. Back turned. Amidst the laughter of my adversaries, I walked back to the Colosseum, not proud of the choice I had made. Dragging my feet to the place where the sword-man was, I joined the fallen on my knees. The world around me fell silent as I knelt before my comrade in arms I had never known. Those words of Sir Kherine returned to me, and I recited, “A knight always dies with honour, loyal to the end,” pulling my sword from its place at my belt, “sword in hand until his final breath.” Those cold fingers wrapped around the hilt of my steel as I clutched his hand in mine. “You died with honour.” Tears. “You are a greater knight that I.” More tears. I kissed his hand long before releasing it, letting his sword-arm slice through the air once again before it fell to the ground, still holding the gift of honour.
Men do not cry… but I was no man. A coward. Ashamed… A boy. Tears continued to fall and soaked the man’s corpse, bathing him in my sorrow. Who could tell how long I knelt there? Who could claim such power over time itself, dictating its whims and directing its actions. I would have died there, everything I held dear as a man and a knight taken from me, but was jolted by the sound of two hands coming together in a slow, methodical gesture. A lone pair of hands, clapping in lethargy, before a lone pair of lips spoke. “Beautiful.” That single word from the man Brynd caused me to rise to my feet, regaining slight composure. Were his gestures and words in mockery or respect? The question he spoke next did not reveal his intent, though it sounded sincere. “Why does this man deserve your sword when he lost his own?”
No longer was I fuelled by adrenaline, my words laced with rage. No longer did I care about Brynd, or axe-man, or company, but responded with simplicity, stripped of all I held dear. “He is a greater warrior than I. He lifted his sword in defence of his life and died with the honour I have shown him. I deserve no sword if I will not fight for honour.” My eyes fell to the floor, but I didn’t care. If Brynd chose to kill me now, defenceless, I would die knowing my last act as a man was done in respect of one greater than I.
Brynd held his sword out to me as he approached. I expected no more from this honourless coward, leader of the barbarians. If it was not beneath them to deprive a dying man of his sword, it would not be beneath them to slaughter me in cold blood, like the defenceless child I felt I was. The world around Brynd faded, his sword shining blue in the perceived darkness, his expression hiding behind a giant mask of hair. The sword pointed at me, accusing me of cowardice, stripping me of all pride, leaving me naked but not afraid. Honour was a shield at my back, gifted to me by the dead sword-man at my feet.
Brynd flung the sword high, but I did not raise my shield. The accurate accusations of cowardice would be my death, and no shield of honour could save me. Dropping to my knees, I awaited the death that approached from the air like a host of ravens, moonlight shimmering blue off their mighty span. As it reached its gnarly talons for my awaiting skull I waiting in silent expectation… but death did not come – no piercing of blade, or scratching claws – my life held more than a feast for vultures.
Looking up I saw the sword now reached toward me, pummel forward, not a menacing attack but a honourable gift. Brynd waited for me to rise and grab the sword stretched toward me before speaking. “Perhaps I pegged you wrong, boy. I have seen no greater show of selfless sacrifice than that of your own. Only a true warrior would sacrifice his blade, respect, and life for another.” He let go of the sharp end of the sword, letting me raise in on high, examining the metal. It was used, but I could tell it had been finely crafted by one who loves his work. “Such a fine blade deserves a fine name. She is yours to call on.”
Naming a sword? It seemed so trivial to me, so silly. The mass-produced steel of the great city deserved no names – this blue masterpiece was different. She held character and grace of her own. Her blue eyes could cut deep into a man’s heart, calling his lusts to attention. Like a mighty wave rising over one’s head with grace and power, I saw her cascading down upon mighty armies, crushing them with the power of her gaze. “Lady Eye.” The words had come out of my mouth before I realized how ridiculous they sounded. The crowd which had now gathered around me concurred with my late conclusion.