Therefore, take up the full armour of God, so that you will be able to resist in the evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm. Stand firm therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the preparation of the gospel of peace; in addition to all, taking up the shield of faith with which you will be able to extinguish all the flaming arrows of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
– Ephesians 6:13-17
“Get out!” She screamed. There were definitely better greetings to come home to after a long day of work. Work. That’s where I was, or at least that’s what everyone thought. My life used to be easy, living the monotony of working toward the American Dream. There was more money in the bank than I could count and the numbers continued climbing, matching my pace up the ladder of success
The climb was hard, long and tiring, but I wasn’t afraid of heights. Each rung was even harder to hold onto as they became wet with moisture from the clouds. The puffs of white in the clear sky looked so beautiful from the ground, but there is nothing beautiful about them when you travel day and night, vision obscured, not knowing up from down, clothes drenched in sweat and moisture, barely clutching the wooden beam which keeps you from falling.
How foolish I had been, how foolish indeed. I always dreamt of Heaven above the clouds: a place of peace and relaxation. What does the head of a mighty corporation do all day but rake in the cash and sit in their chair eating candy? I didn’t know… and never would. It was like God looked down at my ladder, laughing at my pitiful attempts to reach him, before plucking my fingers from the rungs and releasing me. I watched my Tower of Babel fall, and with it my dreams.
“Take up the whole armour of God,” I heard my mother say while I lay there, crippled on the ground. She had taught me well, but I never listened. I wanted to be a warrior, conquering the world in one mighty sweep of success, but I couldn’t hold it together. I charged into battle and my armour fell off leaving me exposed: the very thing I hated. If only I had remembered the whole armour. “Stand therefore, having fastened on the belt of truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness.” I was not standing, though. I could not stand, legs broken from the fall.
The shield of faith was the first to go. I remembered the day so clearly. Dressed for work with all my armour, I arrived at the office early per usual. Why did I come so early? Was I such a hard worker, striving to succeed where all else failed? I could fool them as they watched me climb the ladder, but from below all they saw were the clouds. Only I knew what happened behind that shroud of puffy magic… well… Claire and I.
She had more power over her dad than I ever thought possible. I had heard of only children being reduced to spoilage, especially by fathers who had more money than time, but never saw it in action. Stuck at the bottom of the ladder, struggling to climb that first rung, to be noticed from within the crowd, I noticed her. She walked into the office, commanding the room with a gaze she clearly inherited from dad, who needed no words or actions to dictate his control. What he wanted was law, and no one could tell him what to do or think… except for his daughter.
Dropping that shield of faith I had held so long, I watched as she disappeared into the boss’s office. I remembered to carry that shield around, but what more did it do for me than weigh down my ascent (or lack thereof) up the ladder. If I ever hoped to reach that first rung, it might serve me better as a paperweight.
As a plan formulated in my head, I felt my belt of truth begin to slip from my waist to my knees. Quickly scanning the room, I hoped no one had noticed. Life had been so hard for the wife and I. She deserved more than this: an absent husband stuck in a dead end job. Kids, a car, a house, the white-picket fence; that was our dream and we were no closer to accomplishing it than we had been 10 years ago, so full of youth, ready to take on the world. I looked up at the first rung on the ladder from my place atop the shield, watching Claire leave the office that day. What harm would it be? Just a few lies and no one would known. They could fall behind me as I climb the ladder. I just needed a jump-start to get going, then my skill would carry me the rest of the way.
It started out slow, after all, what did I know about wooing a young lady? I hadn’t been on a “first date” in 10 years. Come to think of it, she wasn’t really that much younger than me. As I get older, age seems less of a factor. At 18, 5 years was too many to count, nevermind it being illegal. I didn’t want to go to jail for going out with a minor… but at 35? Thirty didn’t seem that young at all, and Claire didn’t think that 35 was too old… and neither did her dad.
More work was never a bad thing if it meant a promotion, a raise, one more rung up that ladder, the white-picket fence closer. I began to stay later at the office to work on the special projects my boss had me doing, not noticing how dishevelled my armour looked. At the office I ignored it, but it was my glaring fault when sitting down to a late dinner with my wife. I came in exhausted and dropped my bags, breastplate swinging uncontrollably having no belt of truth to keep it in place. Sitting at the table, she asked me how work was while kissing me, a kiss I didn’t deserve. The lies began to trickle out of my mouth like a leaky faucet, but it wasn’t long before the pipes exploded and my world was flooded with an uncontrollable torrent.
I was doing this for her, wasn’t I? I was doing this for us… at least that’s what helped me sleep at night. We had moved out of our downtown apartment and finally purchased a house. I was so happy when we unpacked our first boxes together and went out to eat at the fanciest restaurant in town that night to celebrate my promotion. Third promotion. Third rung, climbing into the clouds. Then in happened. Why now, in the middle of a nice meal with my wife? In such a big city, what were the odds that Claire would be working here. I had never thought to ask her about her personal life too much, and if I had I wasn’t really listening.
The shield of faith I had stood on for 10 years had gotten me nowhere. Still in that downtown apartment, still no kids, no house, still miserable. Putting it down was the best thing that ever happened to my family… but not to my armour. Trusting in God got us nowhere, but trusting in my own wit and deceitful schemes… that’s when I started climbing the ladder. The belt of truth quickly followed as I lied to my wife, hating every minute of it. Could she see that I had misplaced my shield and my breastplate was rattling freely as I shook in my skin like a child seeing a ghost? The breastplate was next, the belt of truth no longer holding it in place. I left righteousness behind in my pursuit of success, meeting with Claire more frequently as I climbed the ladder faster and faster.
I had felt the sting in my flesh before, the sting of burning arrows, but never this strong. When I dropped my shield for the first time the Devil saw his opportunity and shot me once, then twice, but I didn’t flinch. No pain, no gain, right? Now with no faith, truth, or righteousness, I was exposed, naked before my attacker. Exposed, the very thing I hate.
Claire came to our table, being our server that night… or at least she was supposed to be. When she spotted me with another woman, the only thing she served was a healthy dish of fiery arrows from the anger rising inside her. I was at an all-you-can-eat buffet, but I didn’t want any of the food. The plates at this restaurant looked like Heaven, but they had the bitter taste of Hell. The salad bar favourite was “Revenge: a dish best served cold.” As I continued to the main course I saw my plate of choice: adultery marinated in lies. It fed my body well, but the bitter taste left me empty inside, keeping me coming back, my hunger for success never satisfied. Now came the dessert. I knew it was coming, though I never wished it this way. After eating so much entree, how could I have room for dessert, but Claire didn’t care. She heaped anger and jealousy on my plate in giant mounds and like a slave-driver forced me to eat. I didn’t know how much she usually made from tips, but if there was a way to give negative tips, tonight would be the night. Why should I pay for this meal I don’t want, being forced to eat by a waitress who now despises me.
I had heard of second-breakfasts, but never second desserts. When taught about spelling I was always told that the difference between desert and dessert was the extra “S” because you always want more dessert. How wrong that theory was. My second dessert was one of sadness, hurt, pain. Tonight’s second dessert was served by my wife once we got home. I didn’t know what to say, and neither did she. I don’t think she even cared if I ate my dessert, she just kept heaping it onto my plate, making me stare at all the pain I had caused her. I thought the plate would break beneath the weight of all the dessert, but it never did. The only thing that broke was her heart… and mine.
The next morning I tried to put on my armour and get ready for work, but could not. My shield had been gone for some time and my belt was at work, probably in the garbage can by my desk. The breastplate or righteousness? It had been falling off in pieces ever since the affair started, but the last piece fell on the floor of the restaurant last night and I didn’t have to energy or care to pick it up. What did I have left? The helmet of salvation and shoes of readiness, the gospel of peace. On second though, I just had the helmet. Those sandals of peace had been lost last night as I struggled beneath the gaze of my wife, hurt and disappointed. I just wanted to make everything okay, but what could I do? Throwing on my helmet, not caring how lopsided it was, I headed to work.
The hot summer sun of the morning heated the asphalt of the parking lot up like a solar oven. I had never noticed before with my shoes on, but having lost those sandals of peace my feet were raw by the time I reached the door to the office building. Stepping into the elevator I stared at the buttons until my vision blurred. Up or down? I had been going up for a long time, climbing higher and higher on the ladder of success, but where would I be going now? I pushed “up” in hopeless expectation and was rewarded with the gift I deserved. Without armour I was stripped of everything, pierced by the arrows of the devil, barely able to keep that helmet on my head. I was greeted at my desk by a note from the boss to see him in his office. I had been receiving similar notes over the past could of years, while I climbed the ladder, but somehow this time I didn’t think it would lead to a promotion or special project.
The boss shot more arrows at me, and I couldn’t ward them off. Fired: I was finished, defeated, launched from the ladder I had climbed, using his daughter to reach such heights, leaving my armour at the bottom, untouched. I had climbed so high and now I fell, recalling the past couple years of my life, reliving the past as I fell one rung at a time. I remembered the loss of my sandals, breastplate, belt… where was my sword? It must have fallen off when I took off my belt that first time. Not only could I not defend myself, but I couldn’t fight back… and it hadn’t even occurred to me. Creating the illusion of work, I drove around town until quitting time before returning home.
“Get out!” She screamed. There were definitely better greetings to come home to after a long day of work. Work. That’s where I was, or at least that’s what everyone thought. Not really. Who was I fooling? Not myself. I lost all my armour, my job, and now my wife. There was no better place for me than at the bottom of that ladder I had once climbed. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” Once I took that first piece of armour off, there was no turning back. What is a warrior without his shield? What is a breastplate without the belt of truth to keep it fastened in place, and what is a sword without a belt to keep it on? What use are sandals when the rest of you is exposed, and a helmet… I took it off in despair and looked at it. Did I even deserve this helmet? Saved by grace and killed by stupidity.
I heard a voice from the Heavens call down to me. “My son, put your armour back on… and don’t take it off this time.” I struggled to my feet and redressed, not knowing what else to do. As I reached down to grab the final piece, the shield of faith, an arrow came whizzing through the air and instinctively I lifted the shield to receive it. The arrow struck hard and true, leaving me unscathed. The climb would be harder, being weighed down by all this armour, but at least I would survive this time. I took my first step, no longer hopeless and defeated, but clothed in salvation, righteousness, peace and faith, wielding the sword of the spirit to challenge all that may come against me.
There once was a woman named Amaranthe Lokdon. She loves her job as an enforcer, hunting down thieves and all manner of evil that may cross her path. One day she is called on specifically by one of the higher-ups in down to do a special project. Imagine her excitement! … And you’ll have to imagine more than that, because that’s all I’m going to tell you about this wonderfully crafted story by Lindsay Buroker. Oh, and one more thing. there is an assassin His name is Sicarius. You will have to read it to find out the rest… the question is, should you read it? Short answer: yes. Long answer: read the review, okay?
Buroker does a good job at setting up the story and putting in place elements that will play well into the story later on. The characters are pretty good, though often predictable, but I enjoyed the humour in the dialogue spurred on by different backgrounds and world views. I am quite amazed at how good the book is despite the fact that not a lot happens. There is a single plot thread that develops slowly throughout the story, but though the pacing is a little slow, I was impressed that Buroker kept the tale engaging throughout.
I was not completely convinced by the plot. Amaranthe Lokdon devises this plan off of the top of her head, and it definitely feels like an off-the-top-of-her-head plan. It didn’t convince me, and I am glad to see that, though this is what drive the story, Buroker didn’t just have the other story characters go along with it “just because that’s what the story’s about, okay!”
All in all, the plot points that were unconvincing and left me hanging, asking “Why” in the first half of the book were rectified by the second half. The biggest problem I had throughout was “Why is Sicarius even hanging out with these untalented folk and entertaining such an unconvincing plan?” I was happy to see that this was tied up nicely by the end and it didn’t not leave me in want. I will say, however, that such seemingly glaring character flaws and plot holes at the beginning of a book could turn a lot or people off, thus they would never finish it and find out that it is actually good. It kind of gave me that thriller feel where you don’t really know the whole story until the very end (and even then a lot is left for your imagination… or for the other many books in the series 😉 ).
A good fantasy read. I didn’t find anything in Buroker’s writing to make her work stand out from the crowd (other than not being awful like many self-published indies these days. 😉 :P). She didn’t do an excellent job at description, action, dialogue, plot, characters, and all things that make up a book, but rather a well rounded good job. IMHO this is better than doing excellent at one thing (i.e. description) but completely failing at another (i.e. dialogue). If you like fantasy/steam-punk this is for you.
What is a man to do when given a gift and asked to feast with cowardly barbarians? Refuse the gift? Reject his own wants and needs by turning up nose at a hot meal? Though the company had not won me over with their hospitality, they were a necessary evil to endure while enjoy meat and mead. I had been seated to the right of Brynd as his guest of honour, and though his feelings toward me were not reciprocated, my time at Glanderxe – forced to entertain the juvenile ramblings of Sir Yoyde – had taught me how to endure the company of those less honourable than myself.
As I sat there enjoying the food – not sure where they got meat underground – I felt like a spy infiltrating their ranks. A Judas. An outsider. How could such men survive beneath the Keltone mountains? It seemed from their pale skin that many years had passed since they’d seen the sun (if they ever had), their faces appearing like ghosts behind thick unshaven beards.
Though I was the guest of honour they mostly left me alone, too busy with their own partying to bother with “the outsider” from Glanderxe. I thought that perhaps I would get away with grabbing a nice warm meal before continuing on my trek, but those plans were quickly thwarted as Brynd stood up beside me. (Not that I minded, because did I really even know where I was going? These barbarians most likely know more about the rock and path beyond than I did. Could it be that they would prove useful not only for filling my belly with a nice meal, and hand with a beautiful sword, but also my head with knowledge of my surrounding, not only aiding my soul but my quest?) “Men!” The words struggled to release themselves from behind a mighty mask of hair, but once penetrating the perimeter blasted the surrounding area with strength and power. “We gather this day to celebrate!”
Arms shot into the air all around the chamber: some holding mugs, others weapons, and still others finely roasted legs of the animal they had been devouring. The raised arms were coupled with raised voices in reply to their leader.
“To celebrate the strengthening of one,” he signalled over to the axe-man of the Colosseum fight, who stood as if directed to do so, “and the birth of another!” Was his other hand gesturing toward me? What could I do but stand in response? If I was to blend into the crowd, this was not the way to do it, but refusing his gesture could be perceived as yet another defilement of their customs (of which I was still quite unaware). As I rose the cheering began once again for a time, before subsiding to allow Brynd to continue. “Cargh, step forward!” the axe-man left his place at the table and came to stand in front of Brynd. “You have won a great victory this day. Have you any words?”
Cargh bowed his head slightly to Brynd before turning to face the company which now fixed their gaze on him. Pulling his newly acquired sword from his back and turning it slowly in hand to reveal an orange glow reflected in the metal by the torches in the room, he spoke in a low, respectful tone. “He was a good man. A good man… with a good sword.” He ran his gloved fingers along the edge of the sword caressingly. “She has served us many years, and served us well. Ahbin, Tal, Dubnam, Freas…” His fingers moved along the edge like reading from a scroll. The names continued as his digits glided along the steel, stopping at the final name Fior. “It is in his memory that I stand here today: the memory of a warrior and the sword he held. She is a blade, forged within the fire of the mountain of god by those who have gone before us. Her swing is sure, this warrior. Directed by the fire within, she seeks out all that challenge to quench her flame.” His voice rose higher and higher, cascading over the crowd like a mighty torrent as he screamed those final words. “In memory of the arm she directed before mine, I name her Fioreh!”
The crowd cheered as he stretched the blade out in front of him and slashed the air a few times with great finesse and might. “The rock stands firm!” Cargh shouted as he danced around, sword in hand.
“The rock stands firm!” came the reply from the crowd as the shouting turned to joyous laughter caused by the bonding of warrior with warrior – man with blade. The undisturbed din continued for some time, weapons of every kind stretch to the rock-face above in celebration while others clanked mugs and glasses, drinking in joy. Finally Brynd lifted his hand, silencing the room once again. “Mert Whatley of Glanderxe. You have become a warrior this day, sacrificing your blade for another. Though no blood was spilt, a price was paid, a price greater than many would pay. Have you any words to say?”
What did they expect me to say? I knew nothing of their customs but what I have seen. Was I to dance around like a lunatic as Cargh did before me?
Pulling the sword from its sheath as I had seen the axe-man do, I gave the blade a thorough inspection. When first gifted it by Brynd I noticed the warn blade shone blue with the light’s reflection but paid little attention to its intricacies. Running my finger along the blade, as I had seen Cargh do, I felt every notch and inspected every scratch. I followed the edge of the steel from tip to pommel before noticing the sole name etched in the fine blade. “Brynd.”
“You hold in your hand the first blade the Protector,” Brynd spoke of himself in a hushed tone like referencing another. “I forged her myself from the ores found in the depths of the mountain.”
“The first sword of Brynd, gifted to me by the Protector himself.” I repeated his words for the whole company to hear. “Forged from the ores of the mountain of god. She is Lady Eyes, her blue eyes piercing the heart of any man who dare look into them. She rushes into battle like a mighty torrent, knocking men off their feet with her beauty.”
There was a brief pause before the gathered company began to cheer. “The rock stands firm!”
“Right, the rock stands firm.” I said with half-hearted stupidity. Luckily the cheering was so loud that no one heard my blundering words. I gave Lady Eyes a dance through the air for the amusement of the crowd, though I was not as graceful as Cargh. She was much lighter than my previous sword, and though short in comparison, what she lacked in reach she made up for in speed.
The little dance was short-lived as I felt stupid swinging my sword without an opponent to test her against. Joining Cargh in front of Brynd, I waited to see how this strange ritual would progress. The crowd died down as we made our way out of the great hall through twisted, until passageways. Surely I would not have known how to proceed through the mountain, for the route forked many times past this great hall and getting lost would have been inevitable.
Though I had many questions, including our destination, I stayed silent as the company around me. We continued to descend deeper and deeper into the rock until a light glow could be seen ahead. Approaching the chamber, the path grew brighter as if we stalked the sun itself. Soon torches were no longer needed and I could feel a great heat rising from below. A mighty sea of fire stood before me bubbling and spitting. Though I had no desire to draw any closer to this pool of liquid death, I followed Brynd and Cargh at the head of the company until they stopped at the edge of the lake. Brynd turned to the crowd and said in a low, respectful tone, “The mountain forge awaits.”
Cargh stooped down, dipping the tip of his blade into the fire. After a moment he lifted it out and I saw the heat rise half-way up the steel from the bright red hue that was eminent on the surface and surely hot to the touch. Taking the blade over to a large, flat-topped rock he placed it down and began to scrawl something into the hot, soft metal with a white gem he had taken from atop the stone. I watched him concentrate on his work, not only out of curiosity but also knowing that I would soon be mimicking his actions. A great cauldron stood at the far end of the chamber we had descended into, encased on three sides by rock, one side by fire. After finishing his work, he approached the cauldron and dipped the glowing blade into the cool water-bath. Steam rose from the sword as it touched the water, cooling quickly. Once receiving the blade from beneath the waves he inspected it and spoke, listing off all the names there inscribed for a second time. This time, however, he did not stop with the name of the blade’s previous owner Fior, but read one final name, the name he had thus inscribed into the blade, “Cargh.”
The blue-glow of Lady Eyes turned red as I dipped her beneath the fiery waves, following suit. Heat from the pool travelled up the length of the blade, through the pommel, and into my hand. I did not let go, I couldn’t. The burning of the blade matched the burning of my skin. We felt the pain together – man and blade, warrior and warrior. One fused into the other to create one being, one arm, one sword. The-red hot glow of Lady Eyes matched the burning that crawled up my arm as I drew her from the fire and set her down on the stone. With my other hand I grabbed the white stone and placed it on her skin, pressing in lightly being careful not to damage her smooth complexion.
Man was bound to sword through fire, and now bound by name. Having finished my inscription, I brought her to the cool waters within the cauldron and dipped her beneath the waves. I felt the chill crawl up the blade and into my arm, returning the feeling to my once singed nerves. Drawing her from beneath that wet salvation I lifted her for the company to see, a smile spreading across my face. Lady Eyes was mine, and I was hers. Never before had I been so proud to claim a sword as my own. “Brynd,” I began, reading the names, though they weren’t many. “Mert Whatley,” I finished, my smile growing broader if that were possible. The partying company of before now stood sombre and respectful before us, acceptance in their eyes and excitement in their hearts, but none were more excited than myself. A sword, a sword of my very own. This one held meaning, a name, an inscription. I danced around, much like Cargh had done in the chamber above but I had been afraid too. Nothing held me back now, no fear or shame, feeling like a husband with his new bride, no care in the world. Laughter erupted from the crowd around me as they watched me make a fool of myself. “The rock stands firm, indeed,” I heard from within the crowd, though I knew not from who, nor did I care.
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.
The fire was no longer lit and I was no longer asleep. I woke startled and uncomfortable to find the Thief crouched in front of me with one hand over my mouth and another to her lips signifying that I should remain silent. I felt like lashing out at her for the rude awakening she had caused me but a rustling in the distance replaced my feelings with reality. She saw my eyes soften and removed her hand from my mouth, trusting that I would not cry out. Rising slowly from my resting place, I followed Kyra as silently as my feet would allow. She was by far more skilled in the art of stealth than I, but her leading gave me an advantage that I would not have had on my own. Placing my feet where hers had been, minimally disturbing the forest floor, we took to the shadows behind a near-by tree.
There were two of them. Though they carried no torch, light from the full-moon outlined their shadowy figures. As they drew closer I could here that they were talking but not what they said. Fear rose from my stomach to my throat as they closed in on our position. I looked at the Tallri for direction, but she seemed not afraid, remaining perfectly still and silent behind the tree. With my rising fear came curiosity fed by their now discernible conversation.
“Lord Klychawk will be displeased.” The one who spoke stood slightly taller than the other, his speech sounding rusty and foreign.
“Piss on Klychawk Zyngoth, and piss on his displeasure.” The shorter man spat out the words like bitter herbs. “It has been too long since I’ve felt the blood in my veins surging to match the mess on my face from a fallen enemy! You know as good as I that the north is growing restless.”
“I do, but leave that to the politicians, not the warriors. Once steel is drawn there will be no sheathing it.”
“Piss on politics! I will draw steel and have no desire to sheath it until all those who defy my blade are left swimming in their own blood!” The short man drew his sword in a seeming rage and gave a number of heart-felt slashes to his invisible assailant before stopping his ravings, holding steel and breathing heavily.
“Put that thing away you blasted fool!” The larger man commanded his voice rising over the other man with authority. “Your wasted efforts do nothing but wake the woods.”
“They wake the man inside me who has lain dormant for far too long. You hear that Klychawk!” The man screamed in his fit of rage. “My lady is out and she longs for blood! Give me something to stick her in or she will find home in your chest!” The smaller man whirled around in a rage unable to control his blood lust, searching for something to kill.
A purple glow rose from between the taller man’s hands as he brought them together. It swirled and sparked as it grew like a ball of violet lighting waiting to strike its mark. “You will put away your sword or the only blood you will see this day will be your own!” The man barked, attempting to subdue the lust rising in his companion.
“YOUR BLOOD WILL SUFFICE!” The shorter man turned to face the other and held his large sword out, defying the man’s words. The forest lit up as lighting flashed from between the taller man’s hands, piercing the air as it rushed forward. The purple shaft met with the shorter man’s sword, sending an electric shock through the metal and deep into his bones. He dropped his sword and fell on the ground trembling and immobile from the shock he had received.
The taller man stepped forward, hands still glowing faintly as he approached the other who now lay alive yet incapacitated on the forest floor. “You forget your place, allmharach.” He spat at the man before lifting him off the ground. “I should leave you to fend against the death in these lands like your ancestors, but I like you too much for that.” An evil smile spread across his face as he continued. “I had hoped to get my fill of that perkoh from Glanderxe and his Tallri friend but…” his cruel smile widened as he opened his mouth to reveal two large fangs “your blood will suffice!” The words shot from his mouth like tiny knives before he plunged his face into the man’s neck.
The meat of the spirit deer I had eaten rose to my throat and I almost regretting the large meal I had glutinously devoured. I could not take my eyes from the man as blood began to drip down his neck and gathered in a pool on the forest floor. I knew not how long the feeding lasted, though my terror made it seem like hours before the dead man fell from the fangs of the other. “You have abandoned the gods of your ancestors. They cannot save you from this death. Serve me in death as you did in life.” He raised his hands once again and they glowed with that now familiar purple hue. He held them over the man on the ground and I watched as blood dripped from his palms onto the dead man’s body. The blood did not reach his body but formed an unnatural cocoon around him.
Once the dead man was entirely encased in blood the other man lowered his hands. I watched as the blood slowly dripped down the encasing like water on a pane of glass. Soon his form was once again revealed… but it was not as before. It glowed with that same purple hue as the spirit deer did before its death. The spirit of the dead man rose from the ground, leaving no body behind. The taller man turned and bade the other to follow. They continued through the trees the way they had been going as if nothing had changed. Soon the shorter man disappeared as I had seen the spirit deer appear, like passing from one plane to the next. The woods fell silent once again and I was caught somewhere between relief and horror as we revealed ourselves from hiding. I followed the Tallri back to the camp and sat in my place by the now lifeless fire. I once had found comfort here, in the warmth of the fire and the beauty of the trees, but after what I had seen, that comfort would not return.
My mind was swimming, lost in this fantasy world which I found myself. How did I get into this? I was stuck halfway between fear and bewilderment. So many questions swirled around my head as I looked over at the Tallri. She seemed equally disturbed as I, not that I would expect any different after what we had just encountered.
She saw me looking at her and she turned away. Was that shame I saw in her eyes? “We must leave this place at once.” She said without looking at me.
What was she ashamed? “Not until you tell me what is going on.” She was hiding something. I didn’t know what, but she had been far too quiet lately and too much was left unanswered.
“Did you not hear the man? He is hunting us. The more distance we put between us and him the better, and we best be quick about it.” Grabbing her makeshift pot she dumped water on the fire to kill any life that might remain in the logs.
“What are you talking about?” I rose to my feet and watched her while she made busy about the camp-site gathering what she could into a small pack she had fashioned from the deerskin.
“Who do you think that perkoh from Glanderxe and his Tallri friend are? I have seen no other Tallri in these parts and especially none travelling with a man from Glanderxe. You surely cannot be that dense, Mert!” I could see that she was beginning to lose control of her emotions. Something was deeply troubling her and I guessed it was more than the sight we had just been witnesses of.
“You may be Tallri and I from Glanderxe, but I am no perkoh. I am a man.” I knew not what other kinds of strange creatures roamed these northern lands and had never seen a perkoh before, but certainly I had no intention of meeting one based on the other inhabitants of this place.
The Thief stopped what she was doing and looked at me, her eyes burning with haste. “A perkoh is no strange creature. You clearly don’t know the words of the north. He was insulting you, showing his disgust of your juvenile nature, a feeling which I share.”
Usually when she chose to insult me it was in jest, but this was no game. My naivety disgusted her and she clearly had no desire to be slowed down by explaining any more than she had to. “I see that you are in a hurry to get out of here, and I have no intention of staying here any longer than necessary, but a simple explanation of what is going on would aid your cause immensely. I will not pick up and leave just because you say so! In case you have forgotten, you are my prisoner and I will have no more tricks or lies! Tell me what you know!” I felt heart begin to pump faster. Easy Mert. Don’t let this get out of control.
She threw the pack down that she had been collecting various supplies in and took a few heated steps toward me. My hand reached for the pommel of my sword, more out of habit than fear of any actual danger. “You wish to waste more time through frivolous conversation! Fine! Those two men were servants of Klychawk Zyngoth, god of the north. He holds more power through his dark sorcery than you or I could match even with 10,000 knights backing us. I don’t know what you have done to get on his bad side, but I don’t aim on sticking around to find out!” She spat the words at me while wagging her finger in heated accusation.
“I have done nothing! I don’t even know this Klychawk character! You are the criminal among us! What have you done!”
“Me? My only enemies are those of Riul herself, but I know better than to pick a fight with the god of the north!” Her chest rose and fell with animated breathing and I decided that it would be best to attempt to calm her before things got out of control. I saw what she had done to the spirit deer and had no desire to draw steel against this woman.
“Let us calm down.” I attempted to speak as soothingly as possible, though my own emotions fought against such desires. “It matters not which of us he is after or for what reasons. You are right. We must be away from here, but it is clear that we must work together. It pains me to ask for your aid as it equally wounds your pride to associate with someone as naive as myself unless necessity requires it. Based on what you have told me, and the scene I have witnessed with my own eyes, I wish no more than you to tangle with this god of the north.” I paused expecting her to give some type of response, but she merely searched my eyes for their intention. “You know more about these lands than I do, that much is plain, but I have been trained in combat by Sir Kherine himself, captain of the royal guard of Glanderxe. I have also, according to you, been gifted with some strange power over nature through this Horn of Riul. Whether we aim to battle or run from the god of the north we must start to trust each other. That much is plain.” I didn’t know what had come over me. I wanted nothing more than to deliver Lady Calwen’s message to the Pharosh and be done with this Kyra and this foolish question, but our circumstances were making me re-think my plain intentions.
“A thief I may me, but you are a fool. This quest proves to be more than a thief and a fool can handle. There is only one in all of history with a greater hatred of Klychawk Zyngoth than the Tallri. They are the only ones who have ever been able to battle Klychawk on the open field and survive. It seems that for once our intentions align, Mert Whatley. We must seek out the Pharosh across the great River West.” She finished, handing me my coin purse she had been hiding since we met so long ago in Dete Plych.
A great rumbling could be heard from within the swirling mass of energy that stood at the centre of the garden. Beams of impenetrable darkness launched from its core, shrouding all in the absence of light. Tiyhak pressed on through the darkness, his spirit drawn by the presence, guided by the will of Klychawk. The gnarled trees stood tall around him, scraping his spirit as he progressed. It no longer felt strange to leave his body behind, knowing that it was just a holding-cell for his power. Life and death are held in the spirit, the body directed by their will. It was not life that called to him, but death. The master of death. The god of the north. Klychawk Zyngoth.
The purple glow of the skeleton trees made him feel strong. Important. Few were granted access to the spirit plane, and even fewer access to the garden. The darkness that protected it in the plane of life invited him in death, guiding his spirit through the inky cloud. As Tiyhak approached the pool of death he could feel the steam in his spirit, the heat invigorated his dead essence.
My Child. God spoke from within the pool, his words piercing the darkness, sending beams of electric fire toward Tiyhak the addressed.
Father. He always addressed him as such, though the word meant nothing to him. He had no father. Never had. Never would. Who could birth his spirit but death itself? Klychawk, the master of death was the closest thing he had to a father.
I feel the fire within you. What makes you burn so? The spirit placed his hand on Tiyhak’s heart.
I burn for the blood of your people cruelly taken from your hands. He didn’t know why he tried to lie to Klychawk. A spirit cannot lie, for truth is more plain in death than in life.
You burn. Burn. Burn. Klychawk began to weep. My son! Who has caused you this pain?
One word is all it took. That one word he dreaded to say, but the love of his father overwhelmed him. Allmharach. He could hold the spirit no longer. He could not lie to his father. A shroud cleared from around him, revealing not one spirit, but two.
The pool began to bubble and spit. Shafts of lighting blasted the darkness as the trees began to weep. My son. This pains me. He continued to cry as Tiyhak remained in silence, stunned by the response of his father. His rage still burned within, but father was not angered. He felt his spirit begin to soften as Klychawk’s tears fell. This is indeed a burden, but one that you must bear. There is no grace in death.
I know, father. What could he do? The Allmharach had attacked him in the plane of life. He deserved not to remain.
I sense your spirit is weakened, as it must me, for you no longer control one spirit, but two. May death guide you as you seek out its will. The pool began to settle for Klychawk had no more tears to cry. This is the way of the north.
Tiyhak’s anger was taken from him. He felt the sadness of Klychawk surround him in the darkness of the garden. It reached for him from the branches of the trees above, comforting his spirit. His spirit almost laughed from the joy the sorrow brought. He was a burden in life. As death enslaves his spirit to me, may he no longer be a worthless follower, but an asset.
Klychawk laughed from within the pool. A fine eulogy, my son. His useless life is forfeit. I see you did him a service. I pray now he does you one as well, for he could be a burden in death as he was in life. Your first slave always drains you the most.
My spirit is strong, father. I am ready for this burden. Klychawk always made his feel confident. His love for his son overwhelmed his spirit.
Go now. Rest. The journey ahead will be long, and you must regain your strength, my son. Train this spirit well and he will bless you in death as he didn’t in life.
As we approached the trees something strange occurred that I would not have expected. Based on the surroundings that I had been in the past couple of weeks, though not comfortable, the snow had become customary. Would anyone expect any different this far north of Glanderxe? As if battling expectations the snow melted before my eyes causing a great field of mud. I would have complained, but was past the point of caring. I just wanted to get to the forest. The prospect of meat toyed with my stomach and mind, giving me the will to go on.
Soon the water began to dry, but by the time we reached the lush fields that lined the forest I was plastered to the waste with mud. Looking behind me, I could see the fields of white in the distance. Not only had the snow melted, but I also noticed a change in the air temperature. I was hot! In the middle of this frozen wasteland, it seemed that we had found an oasis of life and beauty. The purple flowers which previously dotted the snow now created a sweet blanket beneath our feet.
The landscape stretching before my eyes brought me back to the days when Miranda and I would go running in the fields on the outskirts of Coere Ghante. During spring, what time we didn’t spend working the fields was spent at play. We would run with the wind, hands and feet naked like a newborn, playing at adventure like two mighty hunters, or warriors, or any other manner of hero our juvenile minds could conjure up. Mother’s stories tickled our childish minds and we re-enacted those tales or discovered adventure of our own. I remember, in the evenings we used to lay in the grass and watch the sun make its slow trek behind the trees, exploding in glorious oranges and reds as it drew closer to its destination. Such memories almost made me want to remove my shoes and enjoy the feel of the soft greenery between my toes… but I was no fool. If Kyra saw me acting so, I would never hear the end of it. She already had enough reason to point out my naivety and youth. Why should I seek to add to her repertoire.
Soon we were among the trees, and it felt like summer again. The warm moist breeze flowed through the hair of the Tallri causing it to ripple like a lake seen by night. Her dark tresses fell to her shoulders, and for the first time, I saw the beauty she had been hiding. Perhaps it was the harsh weather or her harsh attitude that had previously blinded my eyes to her beauty. No one could match the beauty of my love, Farah, but Kyra was a pleasant sight and seemed at home in the mighty forest.
She turned to look at me, I presumed to give instruction on the hunt, and I felt heat rise to my face. Hoping that my embarrassment was not noticeable by the Tallri, I stood there like a dumb schoolboy, waiting for her to speak. She, thankfully, didn’t seem to notice, or if she had, did not comment on my juvenile musings. “We must be silent and cunning if we are to catch anything today.”
“What is it that we are hunting?” I said, still trying to clear my head of the embarrassment I had caused myself.
“The locals call them spirit dear… Riul only knows why, because there is nothing more spiritual about them than the deer of the south.” She seemed disgusted by the thought that someone would distinguish one animal as “spiritual” and another as not. All beasts were created equal in the eyes of Riul.
I let a smile spread across my lips but dared not entertain speaking my thoughts. Perhaps the heat was getting to her, but I had not yet seen anything of these “locals” and had been travelling through the same wasteland as she. It may just be my juvenile nature, but I found great humour, conceptually, in “spirit deer”. My mind went wild with images of glowing deer with wings, like a fairy/deer cross-breed. I tried not to laugh at the pictures in my mind’s eye. “And where shall we find these spirit deer.” I emphasized, keeping the humour to myself.
“They are with us now, we just have to catch them.” She stated simply, as if it was less of a hunt and more an act of encircling them in a net like a butterfly.
I decided to play along. Though I so desperately wished to mock her, this game would be a lot more fun if I kept my thoughts to myself. I followed her swiftly and silently, as she dodged behind one tree and then another. The way she moved, it truly seemed like she was stalking her prey, though I saw no evidence of the hunted. The game continued for quite some time until I was growing bored of the joke. I was almost ready to call her bluff when I saw that which we chased. The locals (whoever that might be) were correct in their assessment of the “spirit deer” which now materialized before my eyes. As if passing from one plane to the next, the stag became visible in all its wonder. Though I could see it now, its form remained like that of a spirit, glowing purple and translucent.
I followed Kyra’s lead as she darted once again to the next-nearest tree. The spirit deer approached a mighty expanse of water which now stretched before us, clear and beautiful. The Thief turned to me, indicating that I should stay put, as the deer lowered its head to take a drink from the water. She crept forward without making a sound, travelling with grace like one walking on clouds. She drew nearer to the animal than I thought someone who showed such knowledge of the hunt would dare before pulling a small knife from beneath her tunic. In one swift motion she lifted her arm above her head, and with a flick of the wrist, launched the blade toward the creature. As it found its mark, she leaped from the ground, mid-air pulling another knife from its concealed home beneath her clothing, and landed on the deer’s back just moments after the knife had found its place, raising it from it’s tranquillity.
If I were the hunter, I would have considered the first knife sufficient, but I saw that Kyra was my superior in more skills than thievery. The spirit tried to launch itself from beneath its assailant, but she remained atop holding the beast tightly between her thighs. It bucked and kicked and struggled to no avail as the Tallri grabbed the neck of the spirit deer in one hand, the other swinging from above her head and slicing its neck. Sweet red blood gushed from the wound as the deer fell on the ground, never to rise again. As the life force drained from its veins it travelled from the plane of the spirit to that of the living, yet was dead, the purple translucent skin being replaced with opaque brown fur.
Kyra pulled her first knife from the side of the beast and proceeded to clean it on the animal’s skin. I approached her from behind the tree which I had witnessed the scene… but said nothing. I knew not what to saw, but could only stand in awe of the events that had unfolded. The hunt was truly a game; I was not a party, but a mere observer of Kyra the champion and the spirit deer the loser.
The meat was warm and tender. Never had I enjoyed the juices of animal flesh running down my face as much as I did that night. My stomach welcomed the meat, but my mind cherished it more. Though curiosity toyed with me about many things, I easily ignored its ravings being soothed by the comfort of warmth and good food.
Though we both were starving, there was more meat than we couple handle. I wanted to continue eating, but my stomach denied me the luxury as it nearly burst from within me like clouds holding back a storm. Kyra showed her survivalist instincts by saving enough of the excess for one more meal, the rest being prepared and dried to prevent it from spoiling.
I reclined heavily against a nearby tree, watching the flames from our fire lick the low hanging branches, the heat curling the leaves like a snail going into hiding. As sparks leaped from the pit, I was mesmerized by the low crackle of wood and flickering lights, barely noticing Kyra get up. “Where are going, Thief?” I asked half-heartedly my eyes not leaving the flames.
“The night is clear and the water calls to me. I seek to wash off the dirt of the journey and the hunt.”
“I won’t stop you, though the water might. The chill of the night is better suited for sleep than bathing.”
“The chill!” Her laughter brought my eyes from the flames as I searched her for the meaning behind the humour. “There will be no chill here, Mert. The Pharosh make sure of that.”
I had seen no Pharosh and knew not what she spoke of. “The Pharosh are of the west, yet you speak of them when we have travelled north. It appears that I am not the only one who is challenged geographically.” I laughed to myself, though she did not share in the joke.
“The water you see before us joins with the Great River West which governs the border of the Pharosh’ homeland. They maintain its warmth to prevent unwanted trespassers crossing by foot over ice.”
I had not been cold since entering this strange forest where snow did not fall and wind did not chill. Warming myself at the flames was not necessary, but I enjoyed the comfort it brought my mental state. “I lack the mental energy for your stories or explanation. Enjoy the water. I will likely be here when you return, though I cannot promise my eyes will remain attentive.” I turned back to the fire, my eyes beginning to close from the fatigue caused by a full belly.
“You know not what your eyes are missing.” I barely heard her and only knew of the clothes she left by the wayside as she proceeded to the water from the shadows they cast in the peripheral of my drooping lids.
If I thought the tale she had told me the night previous was the spawn of imagination, the story that she told me now was even greater in the direction of fantasy. I remembered times as a child when Miranda and I would sit on the floor of our humble home in Coere Ghante, listening to tales of terror, love, and adventure. Mother used to tell the best stories, but that’s just what they were… stories: fantasy the mother and imagination the father, giving birth to such great tales of adventure. They were believably fiction, and the story I heard that day was much the same, filled with things that could not possibly be real… but they were. It was not the substance of the tale that made it different from mother’s, nor was it anything about the story itself. How did I know it was truth? Kyra of the Tallri told me the story of her life.
She talked of a forest which I was somewhat familiar with, having travelled through it myself just recently. She talked of wolves and ravens, and beast of every kind that roamed in those woods, but more importantly… of the Tallri: her people. They originated from the southern swamps of Coaniariam, but through the years had migrated elsewhere. Her tribe had settled in the Mhoarid forest just north of the walls of the great city. They was very religious by nature, all their directions given by the voice of Riul herself. She guided their every thought, desires, and actions. Those who refused to submit to the voice of Riul in all things were cast out of the forest, the Taint overtaking them. Kyra was one such Tallri.
“Does Riul look down on those who commit crimes of thievery?” I said, half in jest.
“Riul cares not for the things of men, their cities or possessions. She cares for her people and their home: nature. She does, however, look down on those who refuse her will.”
“And what is it that you refused?”
She looked at me bitterly, “That is for me alone to know. What would it benefit you, knowing my crimes?”
My curiosity desired an answer, but reason overtook it. She had a point. What business of mine was her past? I decided that it would be best to stick to the matters at hand. “Fair enough. I suppose everyone can have their secrets. One secret you cannot have is this: why do you stay with me? Was it not enough to leave me alone last night? Why return to feed my belly and dress my wounds?”
Her eyes responded before her mouth. That same look of awe remained, but was coupled with bafflement. “You direct the voice of Riul like none other has for generations. It would not be right to leave someone so blessed by Her behind…” She paused for a moment and I saw her lips curl upwards slightly, showing the pleasure she drew from her next statement. “…even if arrogance does dampen your appeal.”
Her smile was mirrored by my own. “I see that all pleasantries are set aside. I am arrogant again. Very well, if you persist with such a title then I will forever call you the Thief.” She said nothing in reply and we both remained in awkward silence for a time. Her previous awe of my ability to direct the voice of Riul was as unexpected as the pleasure I now received by her company. A thief she was, and that she would remain. I trusted her no more than I did before, but I no longer viewed her with the same hostility. I’m not sure whether it was the awe she now held for my “power over nature” or that she felt free to share her life story with me that caused this change in my demeanour, the root of these changes remaining obscured. It was, perhaps, because of such changes that I addressed her as Thief. “As it stands, Thief, we seem to have travelled further north than I had intended. Do you know anything of these mountains?” My travels had never carried me further than the northern edge of the city, and I only knew of Dete Plych because of Sir Reuben. Never had I visited it nor known anything of the road ahead.
“These mountains separate Glanderxe Coessarde from Keltone Coessarde. The frozen wastes of the north lay before us if we continue north through the mountains.”
I had no intention of travelling further north. Cold had never been favourable to me. “The great River West is my destination, not a wasteland.”
“There is more than one way to reach the Great River. The river does not run north to south, but turns to meet a frozen lake in the north. The great road might prove more favourable if climate is your only consideration. If your time be of greater value, the northern route would be best.”
I considered her words before formulating a reply of my own. Could she be trusted? She was the still same thief I had met only days ago… but I knew nothing of the world around me. Whether she spoke truth or deception was as great a mystery as the mountains themselves. If things were as she said, I could relay the queen’s message in due haste and thus end this fool’s errand I had accepted. “Very well.” I said, hoping the words sounded more convincing out loud than they did in my head. “If the route is shorter by travelling north, then north we shall go.”
She got up from the place that she had been sitting, as if to begin the journey without delay. I was no fool. “It may be best, however, to return to road, if not simply to gather supplies for the journey. The fight last night not only took the lives of many wolves, but also my pack of supplies, hidden behind a wall of fallen rocks in a location that is now a mystery to me.”
Kyra laughed a little before responding in turn. “You forget, Sir Mert, that I am Tallri. Riul has blessed us all with an attunement to nature unmatched by men. It will be nothing at all for me to find enough food, water, and firewood to last us for months in these hills.”
Months. The thought was daunting. “I pray we won’t be travelling for that long.”
“No need for prayer. The journey will be much shorter than that. May Riul bless us with the speed of the wolf and eye of the hawk as we traverse these lands.”
The nights were colder than I was used to, but the beauty of the stars made up for it. Whether in my shack at Coere Ghante, or my chambers in the castle Glanderxe, the night sky was not something I enjoyed as much as I should. In the Great City, every night was the same. I would enjoy pillows fit for royalty, finding comfort in the soft feathers against my cheeks while being cocooned in thick blankets made of fine silk. Few stars could be seen out my window, but many lights of the town shone bright as others traded the comfort of pillows for that of strong drink and companionship. Out in the wilds, every night was different. Some nights the sky was clear and the fresh crisp breeze came down from the mountain tops, sweeping over our camp like a maiden’s kiss. Other nights, great puffs of inky darkness would cover the sparkling sky diamonds and shroud the moon in blackened garments.
I imagined fire erupting from the great mountain peaks around me, mixing with the clouds to form a great obsidian canopy, speckled with more diamonds that I had ever seen, dotting the clear night sky. Their beauty sparkled true, shining bright against the molten rock which held them suspended against the will of gravity. Overhead, I saw a host of ravens, extinguishing the stars with their mighty wings. The flock grew as they circled above me, birds coming from all directions. They flew faster and faster as I watched them, circling like a mighty tornado. Soon there were too many birds to count and their locomotive speed denied my eyes from distinguishing one from another. They became like an opaque black spot in the sky before descending. The moon in the sky and the black spot aligned, making it seem like a pupil in the eye of the white moon. It came alive, blinking once, then twice, as it descended on my position. Fear paralysed me as I watched the mighty eye move closer and closer. It hung over the camp site like a drifting shadow, darkening my surroundings.
Ravens burst from the centre of the eye landing on the outskirts of the shadowed circle surrounding me. As they landed I saw them lose their wings and morph into beasts with fangs, their talons being replaced by wolves’ claws. Their voices rose in unison, calling to the eye-moon from which they had come, before commencing their prowl. The circle of wolves around me shrank as they drew closer, stalking me like prey in the night. I had nowhere to run. No hope. All I could do was wait in horror of the vicious death which would soon claim me. Reaching for my belt, I answered the wolf call with one of my own from the Horn of Riul. The wolves drew ever closer as I blew again and again, hoping for salvation. In unison, they sprang from the ground, taking on raven wings, before landing on my chest in one mighty blow. I could feel their teeth digging into my skin, legs now raw and bleeding. Looking to the sky, from beneath the wolves, I saw the eye-moon descending, changing to a mighty boulder as it drew closer, falling by gravity’s aid. The eye-moon boulder landed on the wolf pack, giving me relief from the knife-like fangs which had pierced my skin. Dust rose from the ground as the boulder hit, obscuring my vision. As it cleared, I saw what remained: one lone-wolf, leg pinned under the mighty stone…
I woke with a start, checking myself over to make sure that the dream had not spilt over into reality. Letting out a deep sigh, I was relieved, though still a bit on edge. I had not been sleeping well lately, not that this was a change from the norm. My twilight hours had been haunted by memories of the beautiful Farah Bailey, which I cherished now. Her face was comforting, though it always left me a little sick, thinking of her parting words to me that day. Despite this, I would trade the wolves which now haunted my dreams with the sight of her face in a heartbeat. A fortnight had passed since the wolf attack that first night in the cave, but the night would not let me forget. It’s memory stuck with me like an unwanted companion, desperate for my attention.
I had not shared my night terrors with Kyra of the Tallri, but it would not surprise me if she knew of them. She had noticed my lack of energy by day and wasted much of her own informing me that a loyal knight of Glanderxe should sleep at night to better prepare for vanquishing all manner of evil which may cross his path by day. I responded to this jest with one of my own, saying that the Thief must be in league with the cold, for it did not rob me of coin, but of sleep.
As a resident of Glanderxe, I was not accustomed to the harsh weather of the Keltone Coessarde. I thought the mountains to be hard on the feet and desired to be done with them as soon as possible. Once we had reached the end of the pass, however, I wished to be in the mountains once again. They provided some protection from the mighty gusts which kicked up the snow in all directions, causing a swirling mass of icy chaos to be our constant companion. Out in the frozen wasteland of the north, past the Keltone mountains, the days were long, but the nights were longer. Sometimes we were lucky and managed to find a small cluster or spruce before nightfall, but this was more the exception than the rule. I had heard it said that Glanderxe Coessarde was unlike all the others. The swamps of Coaniariam and the frozen mountains of Keltone held fewer inhabitants, and even fewer cities. Though I knew this before the journey, I expected fewer to mean some, but we had encountered nothing… no one on this frozen road.
If this was the shorter route, I hated to think of the route we had taken at first. I was more than ready to reach the River West, if not to be done with this quest, simply for the sight of civilization once again. We passed by many rock formation, seemingly man-made, yet no men around who could have fashioned them. Once I asked Kyra about them, and she responded simply by saying, “It is the way of the north.” The only hint of life that was common were the purple flowers which managed to poke their heads out from beneath the snow. Kyra always stopped to collect a handful of these before continuing. She found incredible uses for all sorts of plants and herbs which I would not have imagined.
Our staple meal in the north had become a soup which she made by melting snow in a pot she had fashioned from a hollowed out log of spruce. She kept it from burning up in the heat of the fire by rubbing it with the petals of the purple flowers. The leaves from the plants she put in the pot for flavouring and sometimes added a few pine needles, if we had happened upon a spruce grove recently. They gave the water a bitter taste, but added much nutritional value to the otherwise bland meal. When fuel for a fire was running low, we chewed on the stem of the purple flower plant instead of boiling them in a stew. It was less appetizing, but I leaned to appreciate the bitter-sweet flavour when my stomach called to me and my legs grew tired from lack of energy.
Day after day we trudged through the snow with little change in scenery and less change in food. Though my body received life from the plants, my soul did not. The constant bite of cold and never ending bitter taste from the plants left me weak and disheartened. The only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that I had been particularly chosen for this mission. Out of a great host of noble knights, I was hand-picked by Sir Kherine, captain of the guard at Glanderxe. I had not thought much of it then, but now that I found myself trudging through the snow facing all manner of mental fatigue, I held onto a sense of pride. Sir Reuben knew that the trek would be long and hard and must have advised Sir Kherine of this. I didn’t grow up in the great city, and so had the upper hand on some of my brother’s in arms when dealing with all manner of beast and climate that little effected those within the high walls of the capital.
Despite the brief joy I received from such thoughts, the tree-line which soon appeared before us was the most favourable sight I had seen in weeks. This didn’t look like a small grove of spruce, but rather a long line of greenery stretching across the horizon. Kyra had been watching my demeanour fade as the days dragged on and comforted me now with these simply words. “The Keltone forest.”
I had never been more happy in my life to hear that word: forest. Trees. Life. It may be that luck would yet again play a cruel trick, the forest being as uninhabited as the rest of this Coessarde, but I hoped otherwise. Holding onto this hope I posed a question to Kyra, the Tallri. “What do you know of this forest? Is it anything like the Mhoarid of the south?”
She laughed as if what I had said was the funniest thing she had heard in a while. I did not understand the cause for such an outburst, but I wouldn’t be surprised if anything would sound funny to her at this point. I couldn’t be the only one who had been taxed mentally over the past weeks amongst the snow. Her laughter made my hope sink a little while I waited for her response, but when it came, it was not what I was expecting. “The Mhoarid is not south, though I suppose by perspective it would seem to be. Coaniariam is south. There you will find great forests teaming with all varieties of plants and animals. The Mhoarid is a mere spot of green on the map compared to the Coaniariam of the south.”
“My apologies.” I replied, exposing my lack of sincerity more than I would have hoped. “I did not mean to insult you geographically. If I ever find myself in the teaming woods of Coaniariam, then would be the time for tales of the life therein. Now, however, I find it more profitable to discuss the forest at hand. What of the Keltone forest? I do not suppose it is as lush as the Coaniariam, or perhaps even the Mhoarid. Lack of knowledge is a great crime indeed which my intrigue seeks to pay for, if you would so indulge me.”
“Alright, no need for defensiveness. I swear you are a true knight on the outside, but also within, for you hide behind whatever shield you can conjure up in conversation as well as in combat.” After this insult, which I chose to ignore, she continued. “The Keltone forest holds more life than the great plains we have passed through, yet it takes a keen eye, and greater wit than most to recognize it. The trees provide greater protection from the elements, thus much of the north make their home under its great canopy. The common traveller would, however, find nothing more than the rustling of leafs to accompany their stay.”
I wasn’t sure whether to be hopeful that the forest held inhabitants, or whether to let luck win this battle of the mind. “A forest for hermits.” I said, almost under my breath.
“It is not the recluse, but rather the sly who make their home in the forest. Follow my lead and perhaps we will be lucky this day.”
Lucky… From what I knew of luck it was far from in our favour. “What, pray tell, would you hope luck to fortune us with.”
No words had ever sounded sweeter on the mouth of Kyra, the Thief. “I hope, Mert, to catch us some meat. We are going hunting.”
It felt like a lifetime before the sun finally showed its face. Like a lost little boy searching for his friend I zigged this way and zagged another. My clothes were soaked right through to the bone. Once I had known comfort, strength, sanity, but none of these traits remained any longer. Comfort was traded for reality, strength for fear, and sanity… What was I doing? Where was I going? I was almost afraid to ask the most ominous question of them all… what had happened. I saw the wolves, their destructive intentions clear: out-numbered eight-to-one, yet somehow it was I who walked aimlessly through the rain, not a pack of wolves, stomachs heavy with their last meal. The more perplexing question which I had been evading, circled around my mind, running a marathon that I couldn’t seem to win… those eyes… so desperate, pleading for their very life. Why should I pity the wolf? Why should I care? Yet somehow I did.
I did not look at the horn, but I could feel it cold and hard in my hand. What was this strange trinket that I had happened upon? Did it have anything to do with the strange events that I had witnessed. Did it have something to do with the remaining lone wolf… or was it a raven… If ever I had known sanity, now was not my finest hour. Things in my life had not necessarily always been good, but at least they made sense… until now. The quest I could handle, the unknown I could face… but this… this was more than the unknown, it was the illogical.
The sun pulled me from my trance-like state… The spotlight shot through the cliffs all around me, like a shaft through a cracked castle wall. I was no longer heading west, but north. The mountains rose around me, more dense than I had remembered. How long had I been travelling? Turning around I saw the same scenery, no hint of the hills which I had passed through to get here.
It hit me like a blow to the chest from a lunging wolf… the fatigue. It toppled me over, forcing me back onto a large rock. Sitting there, more of my sanity returned. My feet felt like weights of iron dangling from a bridge as I gave them a rest. Being so tired I had no desire to carry any more weight than necessary. Such thoughts led me to strip off my armour, one piece at a time until I was left in my travelling clothes adorned by nothing more than a sword belt. I pulled the cloak which had previously sat over-top of my armour from the pile of iron I had made at the base of the rock. It was all I had left to visually set me apart from the commoner, showing that I was in the employ of Lady Calwen of Glanderxe. I decided against leaving it behind, hanging it from my shoulders, over-top of my common clothes, the golden “G” of Glanderxe taking its rightful place on my chest. Now, more properly clothed for my tired state I felt that I should continue, but my attempts to rise from the rock proved fruitless. I could no more rise than discern where I was. My mind swimming in confusion and fatigue, I fell asleep.
I woke to the smell of fresh meat, cooking on an open fire. The thief who had previously been in my custody sat by a fire she had fashioned, turning a spit slowly. As I lifted my head from the stone it had found rest on, a throbbing ensued, most likely due to my extreme exhaustion and lack of proper sleeping arrangement. I let out a soft groan caused by the discomfort.
“You know, Sir Mert,” she began, without turning around. “Most people prefer to sleep when the moon is high and the light is low. If you plan on reaching the River West it might prove beneficial to adopt such a habit, as the roads are more perilous by the moonlight.”
“What do you know of peril,” I replied bitterly. “You left me to die last night! We are the farthest thing from friends, but at least you could show a little decency and care for human life!” The journey would be lonely, but I was beginning to think that bringing her along was a mistake. My aim was not to become close friends with a thief, but I at least hoped that maybe she would provide some company on the lonely road to the next town.
“Left you to die?” She reached out to turn the meat once again. “Clearly you are mistaken, for you still live. Riul has shown you her favour.”
“Has she now?” Her little story from the previous night about this god had not eased my mind, nor had it given me any desire to join the faith. “Was her favour in the wind or the rain? Or perhaps it was the wolves. Yes! That must be it! They were sent to sing me to sleep and I merely misjudged their intentions!” The only thing I perceived to be in my favour was sarcasm.
She gave no reply to me, but simply removed the meat from the fire and handed it to me. “Here. I have already eaten.”
I took the spit hesitantly. My stomach welcomed the sweet smell of the meal and waited in expectation, but my mind was not so willing. It seemed like she was being nice to me. It must be some sort of cruel trickery. My stomach won the battle over my mind, and though I still did not trust her intentions, the food was welcome, fulfilling a need I could not myself. I took a small bit of the meat, the heat warming my face as it drew near my mouth. The meat was a little tough and could use some seasoning, but I was in no position to complain.
Watching me, she bowed her head slightly. “May the meat of Riul bless you.”
“I was wondering what type of beast this was. I didn’t know that I was devouring your god!” It was my turn to poke fun at her words. She had found great pleasure it doing the same to me in the past, and I found little joy from it, but some nonetheless. My mouth curved upwards in a cruel smile as I took another bite.
“Riul was the provider, and you the hunter. What once was your predator is now your food.”
Wolf meat. It had a curious taste to it that I couldn’t quite identify. The meat of the wild Keltone beasts was not a common sight on the table in the castle. We mostly feasted on stag or bull with the odd raven thrown in for good measure. I continued my meal in silence. I didn’t have the energy for banter and she seemed to have no desire to argue with the silence. I found some joy in it, and as I ate, the pain in my head subsided a little as I began to relax. I was still unease about her strange and unfamiliar attitude towards me, but as I fought with the meat, like an ox chewing the cud, I enjoyed the silence.
She stared at me intently as I ate the meal. The peace I found in the silence was battled by the awkward stare that she gave me. There was a strange look of wonder in her eyes. I nearly finished the meat before I could no longer hold in my curiosity at her strange actions. “What is it?” I asked her simply.
Confusion was added to her look of awe, but she gave no verbal reply.
“You stare at me like I have done something extraordinary and feed me like it is your duty. I care not if you wish to treat me this way, for it is far better than your previous attitude toward me, but I know not what has caused this sudden change of heart.”
“Only the Newborn direct the voice of Riul as you do.” She replied with simplicity as if such a statement should clear up any confusion that I had. It did not. I saw her eyes drifting to the horn which I had hung on my belt before falling asleep against my will.
I pulled the horn from my belt and handed it to her. “It’s a trinket I bought from a little man I ran into on the road just north of the great forest. He called it the “Horn of Riul.”
She turned it over in her hands with that same look of wonder in her eyes. “The Horn of Riul,” she repeated slowly and softly.
It suddenly became clear to me what she was talking about. “You think because of the horn I can call on Riul?” I stopped, allowing myself to laugh a little before I continued. “If only that were the case! I bought it from a travelling merchant on the chance that it would prove useful. It turns out, however, that his tale was a falsehood. That horn has no more power than any ordinary hunting horn.”
The incredulity in her eyes was unmistakable as she looked up at me. “How can one without faith call on the voice of Riul? You are not Firstborn… you are not even Tallri.”
“You answered your own question, thief. I cannot direct the voice of Riul.” I said with finality.
“What of the wolves? If Riul had not come to your aid, you would not be enjoying a meal, but would instead be one.” She motioned to the remains of the meat that I still held in my hand.
“If I could direct the voice of Riul, there would have been no wolves, nor wind, nor rain. The only thing that saved me last night was an act of nature very much out of my control.”
“Riul is the goddess of nature.” Her simple reply said it all. She truly believed that I held some mystical power over nature!
I decided that I would play her game. “Suppose that the falling rocks was not the natural result of the noise from the horn. Let’s suppose that I have some kind of magical power, gifted from Riul through this horn. What of it? Why would this matter so much to you?”
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.
Apart from the caravan, my trip was uneventful, and since passing through the Mhoarid, the scenery was much the same. The city of Dete Plych brought me some comfort as it broke up the monotony that the day previous had brought. However, my rural sympathies did not find as much joy in the city as it did on the open road. I missed the days when life was slow and a break in the monotony was brought on by that of more importance than which tavern to visit next.
The streets of Dete Plych were bursting at the seams with people of all shapes and sizes, as any city should be. It was not my preference to be amidst such a great company, but my time in Glanderxe had softened the discomfort some.
My goal of the days previous had been reached, but I was now at a loss for how to proceed. My zeal for loyalty was greater than that for sanity. I knew nothing of what to expect, nor how to proceed. Perhaps the queen should have chosen someone more travelled and fit for the job. Such thoughts would not aid me as I swam among the people on the streets of Dete Plych.
Finding my way to the local tavern I thought it might be best to rest a while and grab a pint. Taverns were all the same from one city to the next: bearable during the day, but as the moon rises minds are filled with more froth than intelligence. Luckily for me the sun was still high above, thus increasing the likelihood of some manner of sanity in this lowly establishment. Ordering myself a drink I found a seat in the most remote corner of the room. I had never been much for small talk, and even by day the chatter in such places would be none greater. Unfortunately, as I sat there, it became apparent that my choice of seating couldn’t have been poorer. Across the way there was a maiden dressed in travellers clothes and two men, enjoying their own form of entertainment. Laughter was in the air while the volume of their conversation was greater than a cordial talk between friends. They were carrying on about the features of the young lass, clearly loud enough for her to hear and then proceeded to call out to her.
“Why such drab clothing, my lady! Be courteous to a man and show some skin!”
The other chimed in, “You’re dressed like a man! Why show such cruel offence to your features? Beauty is to be seen, not covered in cloth.”
This carried on for some time until I had quite enough. Why did all men in the city find the necessity to act like bastards? Being a man of the law, I used such status to my advantage as I walked over to them and kindly instructed them to leave the lady alone. Their reply was less courteous than I would have hoped.
“Does the queen command it?” They laughed together. “You have no jurisdiction here, noble knight of Glanderxe.” The words came off his tongue with disgust. “Go back to your ‘grand city’ and play guard there.”
I was shocked and offended that someone would talk to a knight of Glanderxe their words laced with cruelty. “I have done nothing to offend. Your show of disrespect is unnecessary and unfounded.”
“What of it? Are you going to return to your Lady Calwen and her tell of such offence, or draw steel like the man you might become someday, if the gods smile on you.” They laughed together again.
“There is no reason for violence. Apologise to this lady and you will be free to carry on with your day, excused from your offence to the crown.”
“Why how gracious of you! Now, run along and tell mommy that you have done your good deed of the day. I won’t tell if you don’t.”
“I certainly will tell! Your disgraceful attitude will not be forgotten. May the whole realm of Glanderxe Coessarde see you as the fowl swine which you are!” My anger was beginning to get the better of me. They had no right to treat this poor lady or myself with such disrespect.
“Don’t you understand. You are not in the great city any more. You words hold no power here. Keep them sheathed as you do your steel.”
The sound of steel on steel cut the air as I drew my sword to defend the honour of Lady Calwen and the women of the realm. “Match your words with the might of your arm!” Their words hang over me like a net, trapping me in my own hatred for disloyalty. My mind was clouded, and the lawful response to such offence evaded me as I stood there, sword in hand.
The two men, not willing or able to match their words, fled the scene without another. Though they never apologized for the offence, at least they were gone. My attention now rested on the lady who remained seated, seemingly completely unaware of what had just transpired. As I took a seat at the table with her, she took no notice visually but her words addressed me. “I had no need of your aid. As is plain to you now, those men were not cut out for trouble.” Her words disappeared into the cup of mead which she held to her lips.
Taken aback by her words, I didn’t know what to say. Was she ungrateful for my assistance. “My aim was to defend your honour.”
“And what knowledge have you of my honour? Suppose I be a tavern wench? What of my honour then…? You’re a piece of work.”
“I beg your pardon.” I had never met a woman who talked to me as she did.
“You wear loyalty like a coat, covering your inner boy yet clothe yourself as a knight.” Taking another drink she continued. “What do you seek by helping me? Money, companionship, or simply the warm fuzzies that one might get from helping someone.”
I let her question linger in the air for a moment. “I meant no offence, and require no reward.”
“Warm fuzzies then… figures.” Realizing that her cup was dry she stood up and prepared to leave. “I don’t suppose we will ever meet again, and I can’t say that it has been pleasant, so I will bid you farewell, for whatever that is worth.” Not waiting for a response, she proceeded out the front door of the tavern leaving me dumbfounded and altogether appalled that a lady would act the way she did. My time in this establishment had been anything but pleasant, and I left more unnerved than I had been previously. Before retiring, however, I, being a respectable man, met with the barkeep to pay for my drink. It was then that I noticed my coin purse was missing. The only one I had come close enough to for such an exchange to occur was the most unappreciative individual who had just left. An inexplicable rage returned to me once again. First she cares not for my help, and now she relieves me of my riches? She was no better than the men who I had chased off.
Quickly begging the apologies of the barmaid, I rushed out the door to see about spotting her amidst the crowded streets. Luck smiled on me as I scanned the crowd. She clearly had no knowledge of discretion as the sight before me unravelled. The shouts of the city guard rose above the noise of the crowd as she mounted a horse, clearly in another act of thievery, this one not as subtle as the first. I knew nothing of villainy, but it seemed that she lacked the tact desirous in such a career. Luckily for me she was poor at her craft, and instead of remaining in the shadows, made a show of her skill for all to see.
Without hesitation I mounted my horse and gave chase. Whatever would motivate a woman to engage in such activity was beyond my comprehension. I aimed not only to catch her for the purpose of regaining my riches, but also to question her uncomely behaviour. Catching her, however, proved challenging until we reached the edge of town. Horses were not the token animal of agility, but value was found in the might of their limbs as they carried men and women alike at greater speeds than could be matched by others. The open plains which stretched before me as I reached the city gates gave me liberty of such speed. As a young man I would often go for long rides in the fields surrounding Coere Ghante for a reprise in the stresses of the day, giving me time for myself to think and dream. Such practise came in handy now as it soon became apparent that my ability to handle a horse was far superior to that of the thief. She could very likely outwit me on foot and was clearly able in sleight of hand, but horse-driven locomotion was not her speciality.
Approaching her mount I shouted, “Cease your flight this instant!”
“Why would I stop now! I’m just starting to have fun!” She spurred on her horse, hoping to gain an edge on me. She was not so fortunate as I leapt from my mount and caught her in the air. The force at which I threw myself at her flung her off the horse and we landed in the tall grass which lined the great route heading west from the city.
I had been correct in my assessment of her agility as I struggled to gain control on the situation while she squirmed and fought my grip at every turn. Finally I caught hold of her, pinning her to the ground. The weight of my body aided in the capture of my prey as her slender figure had no chance of escape crushed underneath mine. After a brief moment to catch her breath she said, “No need to be polite with me, Mert. If it was companionship you desired in return for your services at the tavern, I would have obliged without the need of such chase.”
Her comment led me to assess the situation, at which point I realised that in my efforts to subdue her I had placed one of my hands firmly on her breast. Embarrassed, I moved my grasp to a more culturally appropriate position. “No. I just came to retrieve my money purse.”
“Ah, so it is gold that you desire! I do say, Mert, out of the three options of gold, companionship and warm fuzzies, your initial choice seemed poor and certainly now it shows that either of the other two choices were your true desire and preference.” Her mouth cracked into a smile of sly pleasure at the exchange we were having.
My voice rose, powered by adrenaline and anger at her cruel suggestions against my loyal and respectful nature. “You are a thief! This is not about payment, but retrieving what is mine!”
“I’m sorry, but love does not work that way. I’ve stolen your heart and now you want it back. Love is the true thief in this game that we play.”
“Love is nothing of the sort! It is respectable, honest and courteous, unlike yourself. Now give me back my coin purse!” Her suggestions that love was a thief caused me to despise her all the more. What could she know of love? She had probably never loved anyone so dear and true as compared to my feelings for Farah Bailey.
“I assure you that I have no coin purse. If thievery be my crime, gold is not the victim.”
“I have not the time or patience for your games. Give me the gold and I will grant you your liberty.”
“You, a mighty knight of the great city Glanderxe, keeper of the law, would release me, a thief, for an exchange of coin! Sounds like bribery to me.” She clearly enjoyed making fun of those qualities which I held in high value. I was too disgusted by her words to merit them with a response. She would simply turn them against me in some sly scheme to accuse me of being indecent and lacking honour. I began to search among her garments for where she might have hidden my coin. “Don’t enjoy yourself too much. My offer was either gold or companionship, not both.”
“I have heard quite enough from you! I am a loyal knight of Glanderxe, chosen by queen Calwen herself to be a protector of the Coessarde and its people, in service to her majesty. I know not why a lady like yourself should chose to act the way you do, dealing in criminality and disrespect, and I care not for your foul words of suggestion. I have no desire to spend any more time with you than is necessary for the retrievement of my gold so that I can carry on my way in peace, free from your vile utterings and wicked occupation.” These were no words that any respectable gentleman should be saying to a lady, but the being before me was no such lady, though her features might suggest otherwise.
“Poor little boy playing at knighthood. It has been quite a while since I have witnessed a tantrum like that, and by one so respected as yourself, Mert, it comes as quite a surprise.”
Though it had come from her lips a number of times before, the impact of that word had never been known: Mert. She knew my name? What type of cruel trickery is this? “How might it be that you come to address me as such?”
“Why it is simple really. You act like a little boy, thus calling you one is nothing but simple deduction.”
“Do you find joy in exploiting the words of others to twist them in your favour? How do you know my name: Mert?”
“Exploitation is an art mastered by few, though you provide little challenge. You seem to talk yourself into a corner with every word, Mert.”
Ignoring her accusation of my lack of eloquence I repeated my question. “How might it be that you come to know my name.”
“My apologies. Was it to be hidden like the facts of history in the great libraries to the west? Mert Whatley, if that be your desire it should not be for you to practise introduction with such frequency.”
“I never gave you the luxury of such an introduction. Never did I tell you of my name nor ask for yours in return.”
“Didn’t you? Well how, pray tell, would it come to be that I know you as Mert and not merely as the loyal knight of Glanderxe which you call yourself with even greater frequency.”
“I am not privy to such knowledge, thus being the basis for my initial question concerning your knowledge of my name.”
“I see that we are at an impasse. I know your name yet you claim to never have given it, yet I know no other manner of acquiring said name than by the courtly introduction appropriate of a loyal knight of Glanderxe.”
It mattered little to me how she had acquired the knowledge of my name. I wished no longer to remain in such frivolous discourse. “It also seems that we are at an impasse of another variety. My coin purse is gone, you being the last person I met before its disappearance, and yet you claim to know nothing of its whereabouts.”
“Indeed. What do you say to a deal of sorts. If you cease your accusations of thievery then I will, in return, stop calling you a little boy but address you properly as Mert Whatley, the loyal knight of Glanderxe.”
“I counter your offer with one of better quality. If you cease mocking me and hand over my money then I will forget we ever met, not that I have any desire to remember this encounter. If you do not, I will be forced to apprehend you as a thief and escort you to the nearest town with competent authorities and allow them to decide your fate.”
“Clap me in irons! It wouldn’t be the first time. Some men find pleasure from a companion in bondage.”
“Irons will not be needed. You already know that I am faster than you atop a horse, so any desire to run on your part should be quickly eradicated.” I finally felt like I had the upper hand in the situation. There was nothing I wanted less than to have her come along with me, but I couldn’t let her get away with thievery, and she clearly had no desire to own up to her crimes.
“I will come with you under one condition.” Her response seemed odd.
“I don’t believe that you are in a position to make demands of me, but I will entertain you.”
“Stop with the loyal knight of Glanderxe nonsense. Your attire should be plain evidence enough, and such proclamation only exposes the little boy you hide under your garments.”