The dweller in the quiet and fertile plains may hear of the|
tormented hills and the upharvested sea and long for them in
his heart. For the heart is hard though the body be soft.
"This has got to be, beyond doubt, the second stupidest thing I've ever done in my entire life," said Nightfawn to no one as she walked through the middle of nowhere. She'd been saying that quite a lot lately. She said it the first time she was caught out in the rain; she said it when she fell into the river she was crossing; she said it while she was trying to make her way through a snowbound mountain pass; and she said it particularly often when she was being chased by several large animals. There was never anyone around to hear her say it, but it was the kind of thing that she felt needed to be said -- if for no other reason than to preserve her sanity.
On each of these and many other occasions, she seriously considered just giving up this...
What was she doing out here anyway? She had originally called it a quest, but a quest was supposed to be for something. And, the more she thought about it, the more she realized that she had absolutely no idea what that something might be. A "feeling" that Dreamfinder had that there was a special place out there somewhere? Was that all? It seemed to have made perfect sense when she had first started out on this adventure, but now she wasn't so sure anymore. Or perhaps she was just no longer the same person who had left Arden those several turns ago.
In either case, to return home with nothing after having left with such high expectations would have been humiliating, and, to be perfectly honest, she was no longer entirely sure where home was. The horizon behind her was as alien as the horizon before her. Wherever she was going, she was beginning to suspect that it just might end up being a one way trip.
That was when she saw a glint of light in the distance.
Sunlight glinted off the knight's armor as he rode past Lynette without noticing her. She paused in her task and watched him for several moments before returning to the gathering of flowers for the Baron's banquet table. Since his coat-of-arms identified him as another emissary from that distant kingdom, it was very likely that he would be a special guest at that evening's dinner, so she was certain that she would be able to find out more about him when she returned to the castle -- if she were not kept too busy in the kitchens.
As he disappeared over the knoll, she once again wished that at least one of those knights would notice her as much as she always seemed to be noticing them. But she knew that this was not likely to happen, for she was no highborn lady, and, try as she might to content herself with mere wishes and dreams, she could not help but believe in her heart that she was born for something finer.
In her most private of moments, she sometimes even wished that she could be a knight so that she too could have some of the grand and glorious adventures that filled the tales that she loved to listen to when the minstrels gathered around the hearth of the great hall on the long, dark winter nights. Romance and Adventure were out there somewhere, she was certain, but life in the kitchens and back corridors gave her little hope of ever finding them.
The sparkle of light moved closer until it resolved into the figure of a man riding a horse with sunlight reflecting off his metal garment and cape billowing out behind him. He rode right up to Nightfawn and halted his mount with a grand flourish.
"What unexpected vision of loveliness is this that I encounter out in the midst of such a foreboding wilderness?" he said.
"'Vision of loveliness'?" echoed Nightfawn. The man's clothing and manner of speech were not the only strange things about him: there was something in his eyes that didn't seem quite ... normal.
"Permit me to introduce myself," he continued, noticing her confusion. "I am Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, Knight of the Bold Heart, at thy service my lady. And how may'st thou be called, if thou dost not find me unworthy of being given such knowledge?"
"Uh..., I'm Nightfawn," she said. "Nightfawn the Dreamchaser," she quickly added, suddenly feeling the need to have a more impressive name.
"A Chaser of Dreams!" said Roland, allowing the phrase to linger in the air. "Then we are certainly well met, my lady, for I, too, have embarked upon a noble Quest that has led me to sally forth into the world to right all wrongs, champion Justice, raise up the weak and downtrodden, battle wizards, slay dragons, depose tyrants, and rescue maidens."
"What's a wizard?" asked the woman.
"I know not," he said. "But should I meet one, and he be wicked, I shall battle him."
"Would I get a more meaningful answer if I asked about dragons?"
"Probably not," said Roland. "But thou concern'st thyself with mere trifles when we are speaking of a Quest."
There was that word again, thought Nightfawn.
"What kind of quest?"
"A truly noble Quest, my lady." He continued with pride. "One night, several years ago, whilst I was asleep and dreaming, I heard a voice calling to me from across the far reaches of the world, bidding me, 'Come hither.'"
Immediately, Nightfawn realized that she had already heard a variation of this story from Dreamfinder, but with less detail.
"Come where?" she asked with the first sense of purpose she had felt in a long time. "And whose voice was it?"
"Neither of these things do I know," conceded Roland. "Nor have I given the matter much thought."
"You mean you've spent all this time wandering around because of some dream call you heard, and you don't even know where you're going?"
"A knight doth not question when duty calls."
"If thou art then so wise, my lady," said Roland calmly. "What might'st thou be seeking out in yon wilderness?"
Nightfawn hesitated. She felt a slight uncertainty as to whom she was really reproaching.
"I don't think I want to tell you," she said. Roland smiled.
"The lady doth protest too much, methinks," he said. "But I sense in thee a kindred spirit. Perchance the Fates have brought us together this day that we may join fortunes and succeed where separately we might have failed." He extended his hand down to help her mount his steed. Nightfawn's eyes widened in surprise.
Roland had four fingers.
He noted her reaction and, in response, removed his helmet to reveal that he also had slightly pointed ears.
"I thought you were a human, not an elf," said Nightfawn.
"I am both," said Roland. "And neither, yet, perhaps, something more than either. I am what was, and I am what yet may come."
"But I didn't think this was possible," she said. The history of her people told of many who tried but none who succeeded. "How..."
"That, my lady, is a glorious tale of high adventure, harrowing escapes, noble sacrifices, and the transcendent power of Love."
But he was not going to be allowed an opportunity to relate his tale just yet.
The sky directly above Lynette was suddenly darkened by a cloud unlike any she had ever before seen while, everywhere else, it was still clear, blue, and bright. Thunder rumbled from the cloud as lightning crackled all around it. It continued to blacken until it looked like a hole in the sky through which she could see the stars, and, within the hole appeared an iridescent castle crowned with crystal spires.
But it was there for only a fraction of a moment before it disappeared with an explosion of thunder. As if in response, a wind rose all around her, lifting first lighter, then heavier objects up toward the rapidly closing hole until she, herself, was pulled from the ground and into its blackness.
Something in the distance caught Roland's attention.
"We must make haste!" he cried. Before Nightfawn could respond, he had pulled her onto the horse and was galloping off at full speed.
"What's happening?" she said.
"Behold'st thou there! A fellow traveler in jeopardy!"
Where the plain began to give way to a forest, she caught sight of a lone human, on foot, being pursued by over a dozen elves on horseback. They were starting to fall a considerable distance behind him, but, just as the man was getting far enough ahead to begin feeling some hope of escape, half of the elves doubled their speed to quickly overtake and circle around him, forcing him to run back the way he had come -- the direction from which the others were rapidly approaching. Then, at the last possible moment, this second group created an opening in their ranks large enough for him to dash through, and, once again, they allowed him to believe that escape was possible.
Roland drew his sword and unbuckled his shield from the saddle.
"Prepare'st thyself to enter combat."
"Combat? You mean ... like ... fighting?" she said. "But that's dangerous."
"Danger and I are old comrades," he said with anticipation.
"But someone might get hurt."
"Thou art armed, my lady," he said reassuringly, indicating the bow strapped to her back.
The elves were repeating their earlier maneuver, forcing the human to run in yet another direction.
"You mean this?" said Nightfawn, starting to babble. "It was a going-away present. The one time I tried to use it, I somehow managed to shoot myself. See?" She held up her left hand to display a freshly healed scar.
Some of the elves were now pointing in her direction and shouting to the others.
"They see us!" said the woman. "And they look mad! We don't even know what this is about."
"We know that one stands against many," said Roland. "And that is enough." He spurred his mount faster.
It was several moments before Lynette could open her eyes to see nothing more than the same blackness and swirling stars as when they were closed. The air felt different, as if the seasons had suddenly changed. The whole left side of her body throbbed from what she surmised must have been a horrific impact with the ground, and the maelstrom raging through her head drowned out all other sounds.
Her vision returned first and was met by the Cloudcastle planted awkwardly on the ground -- its luster gone, its crystal spires turned to cold, dead stone. Then voices crying out in terror pierced through her thunder.
All around her was raging a terrific battle.
No, not a battle. A slaughter.
Men, who seemed to be more beast than man, were butchering...
Elves like those that filled the stories she had always loved when she was young, elves who now lay dead on the ground -- their princely garb splattered with blood, their marvelous eyes staring sightlessly at the sky, their few comrades who yet lived fleeing into the forest.
One of the savages pulled his club from a shattered skull and looked right at her. Instinctively she tried to rise and flee as well, but her body would not respond. Only then did she realize the extent of her injuries: torn skin, broken bones. The savage strode toward her through the carnage, heeding not whether he stepped over ground or flesh.
More through a strength of will than of muscle she finally managed to stand, but it was too late; the savage was upon her. He grabbed her throat with one hand and tore her dress with the other. She pulled away and tried to strike him with her good arm, but he blocked the blow, roaring in anger and smacking her across the face hard enough to slam her back to ground. Once again the pain reasserted itself. And she lost consciousness.
"Infamy!" cried Roland as a spear pierced the human's back. "There had best be sound justification for this act of barbarism, or I swear by all the gods that their blood shall mingle with his."
"He's dead," said Nightfawn.
"Not the first to die such, I suspect."
"But why would they do that?"
"Evil lurks everywhere," said Roland.
The elf who was apparently their leader retrieved his spear and gestured for the others to follow as he spurred his mount toward the two of them. The hunters rode in perfect formation, surrounding the humans within moments, swords drawn. Nightfawn shrank back; Roland did not.
"If thou value'st thy lives, I demand that thou lay'st down thy weapons and explain'st thyselves at once!" he said, raising his sword as well. Nightfawn nudged him.
"Uh, ... Roland ...."
One of the elves extended his hand toward the knight, and Roland felt his sword being pulled away from him. It floated through the air, promptly followed by Nightfawn's weapons.
"Magic," she gasped.
"They speak like elves, Ratcliff," said the elf who had disarmed them to his captain.
"So it would seem, Creon, so it would seem," said Ratcliff, much more concerned by this fact than the others. He moved in closer and noticed Roland's features. "Just what are you, anyway?"
"I am Sir Roland de Vaux of Tryermaine, Knight of the Bold Heart," said Roland undaunted. "And this noble lady be'st Dame Nightfawn, the Dreamchaser."
"Dreamchaser...," murmured Ratcliff almost too softly to be heard.
"He didn't say who, freak," said Creon. "He said what."
"That," said Roland, "is a glorious tale of high adventure, harrowing escapes, noble sacrifices, and the transcendent power of Love."
"Silence, freak!" said Creon. He turned to Ratcliff. "Shall we kill them now?"
"No...," said Ratcliff. "I think Ravencross will want to interrogate them first."
Now it was Nightfawn's turn to be alarmed by a name.
"We've got to get out of here," she whispered to Roland.
"Before we have righted this wrong? Certainly not." He turned back to Ratcliff. "Once again, I demand that thou either justify'st thy heinous deed or submit thyselves to appropriate chastisement."
"Wherever you do come from, I am certain now that it must be a land that breeds nothing but fools," he said. "You are in a position to demand nothing." The elves raised their weapons.
"Do'st thou think that one who bear'st before him a shield of righteousness would quake in terror at the threats of one such as thou? What doth it matter that thy numbers be greater? A knight doth not shrink from battle when his cause be just no matter what the disadvantage. A knight laughs at insurmountable odds. Ha! A knight laughs in the face of Danger. Haa!! A knight laughs at imminent death. Haaa!!!"
"You're antagonizing them!" said Nightfawn.
"Nonsense," said Roland. "Now that our valor has earned their admiration, they shall be more than eager to discuss the terms of their surrender."
Lynette hesitated for a moment and then tossed the few tattered remnants of her dress into the fire. She watched in silence as the cloth darkened from the heat. The edges began to glow, and then, all too quickly, it was gone.
A part of her could not help but note the almost self-indulgent drama of this act, and, during any previous time in her life, it might even have been amused by it. She had always had a tendency to overdramatize things. But that period of her life was now gone forever -- just as the dress was. She had stubbornly clung to it even after its condition had forced her to start wearing the same animal skins that the other savages wore, but, the more frayed it became, the more it reminded her of a life that no longer was and no longer could be.
One of Gotra's other women stirred in her sleep. Lynette held her breath, hoping that she would not wake up. This time, at least, she did not, and Lynette carefully let the breath out, relieved that her private time would not be interrupted -- at least not yet. She once again thanked the Maker that most of the savages feared the darkness of night even more than they did the unseen creatures howling at the moons that hunted in it, and made a habit of going to sleep as soon after sunset as possible, giving her the pleasure -- if such a word could ever be applicable to her life in this strange place -- of not having to deal with them for a few hours each day.
Unfortunately, "most" was not "all".
Gotra did not fear the dark, and the others feared him all the more because of it. Once again he was out hunting in the night -- more for the joy of slaughter than the need of food, Lynette suspected -- for the joy of proving to every creature, beast and man, that he was the fiercest, most terrifying monster to ever haunt the darkness. He would return with some poor animal carcass slung over his back, bellowing his triumph and waking the entire tribe, only to laugh as they trembled when the sounds from the wilderness outside began to reassert themselves. Then he would turn to her, his current favorite, and his smile would deepen, and then he would....
She looked out at the darkness and shuddered.
It was almost midnight.
He would be back soon.
"Got any more bright ideas?" said Nightfawn as Creon slammed the door of the cage and walked away.
"They are obviously a very primitive people who are incapable of appreciating a masterful display of chivalry."
Nightfawn tried to shake the bars, but they were made of metal, and the elf had done something to the door that prevented it from opening. The cage, itself, was on a cart harnessed to two horses. Several other humans were also prisoners in a similar cart nearby.
"I can't believe this is really happening," she said, slumping back against the bars. "They're actually planning to kill us just for being human."
"To be absolutely precise," said Roland. "Their intention is to question us first. Our deaths are neither imminent nor certain."
"This is all some kind of game to you, isn't it?"
"Opposition to the forces of Darkness is no game, my lady."
"Great, another well-rehearsed answer. Do you get yourself into this kind of mess often?"
"As often as possible."
"If I did not," said Roland, lowering his bravado for the first time. "Who would? Someone must be willing to put his life on the line to make the world more golden."
"Well, this time you put my life on the line too," she snapped.
"But thou called thyself a chaser of dreams."
This statement started her thinking, and caused her to remember a conversation she had once had with another chaser of dreams. The cart lurched into motion.
"Look," she said after a long pause. "I'll admit that I first started out on this trip in search of some kind of adventure, but this is not what I thought it was going to be like." She paused again and looked at the ground. "Nothing that's happened to me since I left home has turned out like I thought it would. I thought it was going to be fun. I thought it was going to be grand and glorious. But it's not. It's been hard and uncomfortable and painful." She looked back at him. "Are all adventures like this?"
"No," said Roland. "Some are truly dangerous, but thou must keep in mind that this one is merely beginning. And that which doth lie in wait for us may have potential if thy earlier reaction to its mention be any indication."
She instinctively shuddered.
"You mean Ravencross."
"Thou know'st of this fiend?"
"Only by reputation," she said. "His hatred of humans was so fierce that he tried to kill his chieftess when she made friends with them. I always thought he was just a legend -- a story human parents use to get their children to behave -- you know: 'Do your chores or Ravencross will get you.' If he's real, and he's behind all this, we're in big trouble."
"Definite potential," nodded Roland.
"This is serious," said Nightfawn. "You saw what those elves can do; that was magic -- real magic. Even if we weren't outnumbered, how could we fight against that?"
"Thou must have more faith in the power of a virtuous heart," he said with a reassuring smile. Then he touched her hand, and she felt a strange tingle where his fingers met hers. " ** And we are not entirely without resources of our own. ** "
Gotra arrived as expected, and in the expected manner, but what he dragged behind him was most unexpected. The entire tribe fell silent when they saw it. Even Lynette gasped at the sight.
Gotra had managed to find and kill an elf.
Lynette looked at the body more carefully. It was dirty, and it was bruised, and it was blood-splattered.
And it was breathing.
The elf was still alive, she realized, and the others realized it too. Some backed away in fear; others held their ground but started chanting nervously as they swayed back and forth.
The shaman approached Gotra cautiously, but with anger in his voice, and Gotra responded in kind. The limited amount of the savages' language that Lynette had been able to learn during her time with them enabled her to make out only pieces of the argument. A word meaning "dark" kept coming from the shaman in reference to the elf, as well as another meaning something like "unfortunate" in reference to the tribe.
Throughout the exchange, the terrified elf scanned the faces assembled before him until his frightened eyes met hers. He seemed to be able to sense that she was different from the others in some inexplicable way, and she shrank back as she realized that his face was pleading for help.
Then she heard a word that she had heard all too often in this strange land -- a word that caused Gotra to smile with anticipation.
A word meaning "kill."
It was several hours after sunset, and the elves had made camp for the night before Nightfawn felt safe enough to talk again.
"Earlier, when you spoke, I didn't see your mouth move. It was as if I could feel what you were saying. Was that magic too?"
"A simple form, yes," said the knight.
"And you knew all along that you could use it to get us out of this mess?"
"Magic is no substitute for skill, courage, and determination, but 'tis true that it may be of some small service to us when the time be'st right for our escape."
"Wouldn't that time be around now," she said. "Being that they're planning to kill us and all?"
"Certainly not," said Roland. "A knight's purpose doth not waiver from its original goal when faced with adversity. We have not yet formulated a plan to rescue our comrades in jeopardy. Surely, thou would'st not consider merely abandoning them to this fate?"
Nightfawn looked over to the other cage. It was on the far side of the camp from their own prison and gave no indication of being any less inescapable. Then she looked at all the sleeping elves. From what she had seen earlier, each one seemed to be a skilled warrior -- formidable enough even without the wielding of powers at which she could only guess.
"They would do no less for us."
"I know a lot of people who would do much less," she said slumping back down again. Roland shook his head sadly.
"What could it be in the world that has caused a chaser of Dreams such as thou to become so cynical?"
"I wish you'd stop calling me that."
"But thou said--"
"I know what I said, and I am not cynical," she protested. "Would a cynical person even be out here in the middle of nowhere about to be killed by people she's never met when she could have stayed safe at home? I don't think so. But let's be realistic here. It's going to take a miracle for just you and me to get out of this alive, let alone -- I mean, in theory, of course you're right that we should try to -- but this is, you know, different. Besides, with only the two of us, what kind of chance do we really have? A failed rescue attempt might even end up making things worse for them as well as us. Several of them might get killed too. Am I getting through?"
"No. Hast thou convinced thyself yet?"
She looked back at the other cage and paused for a long time. There were children in it.
"No, frak it," she said. "We're really going to try this, aren't we?"
"Much more than try," said Roland.
"How? There are so many of them. They have weapons ... and magic. What do we have? And don't say the thing about the virtuous heart."
Roland almost smiled but quickly grew serious.
"We have stealth and surprise. Our foes be nothing if not overconfident. There is but one guard awake, and the remainder have committed the tactical error of sleeping so far apart."
The woman reexamined the area. Between the darkness, the brush, and the distance between them, the elves would have very little visual contact with each other for the first few moments after the alarm was sounded. In fact, if they could take out the guard before he had a chance to alert the others--
Had she really just thought so casually about killing another person? But then she recalled the sport that the elves had made out of killing that other person -- and of the joy on their faces when they did it. She shuddered as she drove all three of these thoughts out of her mind. This was all happening way too fast.
"But there's still the matter of this cage," she said. "If we can't get out, we can't do anything."
"Always thou see'st the obstacle instead of the goal," he said. Then he placed his hands on one of the bars and closed his eyes.
Sensing that he was trying to work some more of his magic, Nightfawn watched the bar very carefully. She watched. And she watched. And she watched. But there was nothing happening to it. Then, after waiting for what seemed like an eternity, she noticed that there was something happening to him. Even though she could still see the knight sitting in front of her, it was as if he were no longer really there at all, but, at the same time, it felt as if he were--
She had absolutely no frame of reference for what it felt like and even less for coming up with the words that might describe it. The only way that she could characterize it was that he seemed to be more ... "there" ... than she was or any other person ever had been. And, at the same moment that she felt this, the bar came loose from the cage, leaving an opening large enough for a person to squeeze through. Roland opened his eyes and took a deep breath. He held the bar up to her.
"A weapon for us," he said.
It had been settled. They were going to ritually execute the elf at sunrise in order to protect the tribe from the ill fortune that he supposedly brought with him.
Lynette had sat up the entire night thinking about it, unable to free herself from the expression she had seen on his face when their eyes had met.
What was he expecting from her? What did he think she could do for him -- she, who had been so unable to do anything for even herself among these savages -- she, who was barely able to walk from the way her injuries had healed? What he really needed -- what they both so desperately really needed -- was a Hero, a knight in shining armor who would sally forth on a quest to deliver them both from these blood-hungry barbarians.
Yes, that was what they needed all right: a knight like those in her beloved stories, a knight like those in that faraway kingdom so unlike this place or even the world she had known before this one, a knight like those whom she had always longed to run away with but had always equally feared to approach.
There was that word again. Fear.
She had always been told that a true knight was afraid of nothing, not even Death -- how unlike her who had always seemed to be afraid of one thing or another for as long as she could remember: her father, the Baron, his soldiers, these savages, and especially --
No, not him.
It was then that she realized for the first time that she no longer feared Gotra, that she had not for quite some time. The only thing that she felt toward him -- that she could feel toward him -- was hatred, a hatred rooted so deep in her heart that it left her no capacity to feel fear or anything else toward him. He was not like the other savages. They were too primitive, too ignorant to know the morality of their actions.
But he knew. He knew exactly what he was doing. He was the way he was because he chose to be that way. He was evil. She realized that now. Pure evil, and his influence over the others was so great that there was no doubt in her mind that they would all someday become just as he was.
She looked out at him as he stood guard over the unconscious elfin prince. Gotra, too, had been unable to sleep that night, but for different reasons. He had spent the entire night pacing back and forth, practicing thrusts with his stone knife. Only recently had he sat down to rest.
Someone had to stop him, she thought. For the sake of that elf, for these people, for their children yet unborn and unbegot, someone had to be willing to stand up against his tyranny. Someone had to be willing to put his life on the line to make the world more golden.
And so, as the first rays of morning light appeared over the eastern rim of the world, Lynette brought the largest rock she could lift down through Gotra's skull.
Nightfawn quietly made her way through the dark to where the animals were being kept. Her mission was to retrieve their horse and weapons while Roland began work on the other cage. Not much of a plan, she thought, but the knight had seemed pleased with it. When she pressed him for more details, all she could get him to say was something about "seizing inspiration from the moment." She shook her head. The idea of spending weeks hiking across an empty plain no longer seemed as unappealing as it had a few hours ago.
When the woman reached the makeshift pen, it wasn't difficult for her to spot Roland's much larger mount, but getting to it was a different matter. Many of the animals were still awake and very skittish. The nearest one reared up on its hind legs, letting out a loud whinny the moment it saw her. She froze in her tracks expecting all of the elves to immediately come running. None did, but it was still several moments before her heart was able to start beating again.
Fortunately, there were no other outbursts like that as she carefully crept along the edge of the herd, trying to do as little as possible that might further upset them, but, with each passing moment, they grew increasingly agitated anyway -- stamping their feet and snorting -- as if they had been trained to hate being near humans as much as their masters did. They were on the verge of panic when she finally reached Roland's steed, and she could not for the life of her imagine why the guard had not yet come to investigate. She wondered what else could possibly be drawing his attention away from so much noise. Then a frightening realization came over her: there could be only one thing. That was when she heard the shouting.
On the far side of the camp, Roland was completing his work on the other cage. When the knight had first approached them, none of the frightened humans had any idea who this stranger was or what they were to make of him, but they quickly decided that anyone who had also been a prisoner of the Elvin Overlords must have been a potential ally. As soon as the bar came loose, one of the humans took it so that he too might be armed. A women reassuringly pulled her child closer to her. For the first time since they had been captured, she was beginning to feel hope that something other than a lifetime of slavery might now await them. She even allowed herself for a moment to dream the forbidden dream: that all humankind might someday be delivered from the Overlords as well, that someday she and her children and their children might be able to walk the world without fear.
The woman and Roland were exchanging a silent nod when, suddenly, the knight saw her face freeze -- all the hope vanish from it. In a single motion, he spun around, grabbed his own bar, and raised it to a defensive position. An elf was standing there.
"All arm!" he shouted. "The humans are escaping!"
As quietly as possible, Lynette tried to rouse the elf, but his injuries were so severe that they kept his consciousness beyond her reach. Then she heard the shouting. One of the savages must have awakened early and was now alerting the whole tribe.
She knew that it would be only a matter of moments before the entire population was out and after them -- after her -- she, the stranger who was already hated by many and mistrusted by most, she who had just killed their leader, she who had now cast her lot with an "evil one." There was no doubt in her mind that they would now kill her as surely as they would kill the elf.
And still the elf could not be awakened. So she pulled his limp body over her shoulder and started toward the forest as fast as her bad leg would allow.
When she reached it, the trees and undergrowth provided some cover as she sometimes dragged, sometimes carried the elf through the brush. She could hear their cries behind her splitting up, as if they were separating, uncertain of which way she had gone. The sound of one group was approaching closer. She fell several times. Thorns tore at her skin. But always, she could hear her pursuers getting nearer. Then she came upon a clearing -- and froze at what she saw.
A pack of wolves was tearing at the carcass of a freshly killed stag, pulling away pieces of bleeding flesh, and devouring them. The moment they saw her, they all stopped and eyed her suspiciously.
She did not move. She did not breathe. She did nothing that they might interpret as a threat. The largest of them, possibly the leader, slowly approached her -- growling, hackles raised, eyes gleaming, mouth still dripping with blood.
Suddenly, with an angry shout, the savages burst into the clearing.
And the wolves were upon them. The first human was dead before any of them could react. Those who were not already trying to fight off one or more of the beasts ran away with several wolves in pursuit. Even the pack leader forgot all about Lynette as he joined his fellows against this far more obvious threat.
She quietly disappeared into the forest and was never heard from again.
Before the elf who had sounded the alarm had been able to do anything else, Roland had impaled him with the sharp end of his bar. By the time the lifeless body had hit the ground, the knight was already in possession of its sword. The first human passed his bar on to one of the others as he rearmed himself with Roland's.
Creon was with the initial group of elves to arrive on the scene, and a stunned silence came over them when they saw their fallen comrade. Never before in all the history of Skycia had a human even dared to disobey an elf, let alone harm one. Yet now the Blood of the High Ones was soaking the ground. Creon was the first to recover.
"Surrender now, freak, and you'll die quickly," he said, hatred blazing on his face.
"Thou shalt be the only ones to plead for mercy this night," said Roland. The other humans were out of the cage and standing behind him, but their initial bout of optimism was rapidly fading.
"You, I'll kill first," said Creon as he approached the knight with so much confidence that he didn't even bother to draw his sword. His eyes began to glow like the fires at the world's core. The humans backed away, having seen what was about to happen all too many times, but Roland held his ground and returned the gaze just as intensely. The elf raised his hands, fists together, and smiled. Feeling the energies flowing through him, he violently jerked his hands apart in a motion that would literally rip the knight in half.
But nothing happened. And then it was Roland's turn to smile as he ran the elf through. Both elves and humans gasped.
"Thy command of magic is barren before the power of one who wields it in the name of what is True and Right and Just!" he cried. "Once again, it is I who give thee the opportunity to surrender! Take it, and I shall be merciful!"
They did not. Instead they drew their swords and charged. This time the humans didn't shrink back. They were outnumbered and outarmed -- although that was quickly changing as one of them grabbed Creon's sword -- but they had just seen that the Overlords could bleed and die just like anyone else. Less than half a step behind Roland, they returned the charge.
Lynette wiped the unconscious elf's forehead with a damp cloth. His wounds were healing slowly, but he seemed to be past the crisis point. Even so, he was spending more time asleep than awake, leaving her with perhaps more time than she would have wished to contemplate her situation.
She still had no idea where she was or what had happened to her on that day the castle had appeared, although, every now and then, she thought that she saw some element in the surrounding landscape -- and she certainly had the opportunity to see a great deal of it during her explorations for food and fresh water -- that almost reminded her of someplace back home, but it was always just different enough to prevent her from being entirely certain. And, while she occasionally spied other groups of savages from a distance, she never encountered any sign of other people like herself.
This thought caused her to look at the elf again. He, at least, was from a race she had heard of in stories, but he was not really like her either. His fluidity of movement when he was awake, his eyes that seemed to pierce directly into her soul, not to mention his language that was even more difficult to decipher -- more alien in its sound -- than that of the savages attested to that. The more time she spent caring for him, the more she perceived how unlike her he actually was.
She was completely alone. She realized that now -- alone for not only the first time in her life, but perhaps for the rest of her life as well. Her mind raced back to a time before all this had happened, to a time when she used to wish that she could be alone, a time when she would even volunteer for the more solitary tasks like gathering....
She buried her face in her hands and, for the first time, allowed herself to cry.
On the other side of the camp, Nightfawn saw what Roland could not: that the remainder of the elves were rapidly approaching his position. Within moments, the tide of battle would swing hopelessly against him and the humans unless--
One of the frightened horses reared up again, almost crushing her when it came down. Dodging out of the way, she practically fell into a still-burning campfire. "Inspiration from the moment" seized her. She quickly gathered up as many of the flaming sticks as she could, determined the strategic spot, and ran to it.
"Sorry about this, guys," she said under her breath. Then she screamed for all she was worth and threw the sticks into the air. That was all it took to push the terrified animals over the edge, sending them into a panic. Before the embers had even touched down, the horses were stampeding right toward the battle. They rapidly overtook the running elves, trampling at least two in the process and bringing instant chaos to the battlefield.
"Fight on, dear friends, fight on!" cried Roland. "In peace there's nothing so becomes a man as modest stillness and humility. But when the blast of war blows in our ears, then imitate the action of the tiger, stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood, disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage, and bend up every spirit to his full height!"
As the knight's words inspired the humans to struggle even harder, Ratcliff was watching the entire tableau from a safe distance. So many elves had already fallen that the humans were beginning to gain the advantage -- a situation that he could not permit. He realized now that it was the freak, and the freak alone, who was responsible for this travesty -- that he was somehow shielding his human accomplices from a magical onslaught. All that was needed was his death for the elves to once again become Overlords of this situation.
He raised his bow and selected a shaft from his quiver. The freak's back was clearly in his sight. He smiled, pulled back the string, took careful aim...
And an arrow pierced the elf's heart.
Nightfawn lowered her bow. She dropped it to the ground. Her legs were trembling so much that she almost followed it.
All of the surviving elves felt Ratcliff's deathsend. Its impact -- combined with the demoralization already brought about by their unprecedented casualties -- was devastating. One of them abruptly leapt onto the nearest horse to escape the scene, and it wasn't long before all of them were in retreat. Roland shouted after them.
"I allow thee to flee, cowards, solely that thou may'st carry home the tale of what has transpired this day! Be sure to proclaim it, throughout thy host, that thus shall always befall all those who would dare to ally themselves with the Forces of Darkness!" He turned back to the humans. "Rejoice, my brothers, for the day is ours!"
Once again, the elf called out with his mind in an attempt to contact others of his kind. Once again, he cleared it of all thoughts, ignored all sensations, as he tried to reach that core of magic within him that had once burned brightly enough to forge a bond with the universe itself. He reached. And he reached. And he reached.
But there was nothing there: no answer to his call, no other voice calling out, no bond forming. Or, perhaps, there was just nothing remaining out there for him to bond with. Never before in his entire life had he felt so alone.
He opened his eyes to find himself breathing heavily from the attempt and had to sit doubled over for several minutes before he was able to look up again. The first sight to meet him was that of the human woman sitting beneath a tree at the edge of the forest, gazing out across the plain. Even at this distance, he could feel her sadness.
He thought back to the time when she was caring for him and about how much he missed her attention, how much he missed the way her hand would gently wipe his febrile forehead, how her lips would curve into a smile whenever he regained consciousness, the way she absently brushed back a lock of hair that always seemed to be falling in front of her eyes, and, most of all, the delicate sound of her voice. Even before either of them understood the other's words, she would talk for hours on end to help distract him from his suffering, and, once he knew enough of her language, she would regale him with glorious tales of beings called knights who did battle with creatures called dragons. On more than a few occasions, it was only that ethereal sound that could call back his soul from the final abyss it would surely otherwise have crossed.
But, as he began to complete his recovery, she began to speak less and less. She hardly ever spoke at all anymore. Now, she seemed to spend most of her days just sitting out there and staring.
What was she trying to see, he wondered. And what was going through her mind? Was she trying to contact her people too? He had not the courage to tell her that it would be many thousands of years before they could answer her -- a day that he would now see, thanks to her, but a day that would see her long since turned to dust.
As he continued to watch her, he realized that she was even more alone than he was, for he, at least, could cling to the hope that there might yet be others of his kind who survived somewhere on this nameless world, but, for her, there was no hope; there could not be. She was going to live out her life alone, and she was going to die alone. And he was going to have to live with the knowledge that it was, at least in part, his fault.
He wished that there were something that he could do for her, something that would make her smile again, something that would show her how much her courage and her kindness had meant to him.
He wished that there were some way that he could let her know how much he loved her.
Maybe there was.
Nightfawn couldn't believe what she was hearing.
"There are further wrongs that needs must be righted," said Roland. "Multitudes of other humans yet live in bondage. When morning 'gins to break, we shall accompany our new comrades on an illustrious adventure to banish forever the darkness that enshrouds their land."
"Now just a minute," she said. "After what almost happened here today, I'm not so sure that's a good idea."
The knight hesitated.
"Thou art ever free to choose thy own path," he said, lowering his voice. Nightfawn could sense his disappointment with her.
"It's not a matter of 'choosing a path,' it's a matter of--" She hated the way this made her sound. "Look, we got lucky here today, very lucky -- you even more so than me."
"Fortune follows the bol--"
"Enough! I was listening to them too. From the way they described it, there are more people at this Skycia place than I thought existed in the whole world. We won't be outnumbered by tens like we were here; it'll be by thousands."
His gaze did not meet hers. For the first time, his manner toward her grew a little more distant.
"The Skycians have no doubt made a vast array enemies. When word of this day spreads, there will be many eager to ally themselves with us. And, once the war begins, each person we liberate will swell our ranks all the more."
"Then they don't really need us, do they?"
"True, the need is not theirs."
"Not theirs?" asked Nightfawn.
"No, it is ours."
She had no idea as to what he was trying to say, and her frustration voiced itself as anger.
"As far as I can tell, the only need we have is to get on with our quest. Going to Skycia has nothing to do with it. The journey alone'll take us weeks in the wrong direction. Even if we survive -- and that's a really big 'if' -- it could delay that quest for turns."
"In the final counting, there is but one Quest. So long as we follow it, the direction we travel matters not."
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"It means what it means," he said calmly looking back at her. "Perhaps I was mistaken about thee, after all. Perhaps there are truths that thou must first discover by thyself, before thou art ready for something larger."
She didn't like where this seemed to be going.
"What are you saying?"
"I am saying," he replied with a renewed sense of resolve, "that thou art entirely correct in all that thou art saying. The time has come that we should part company."
"Wait, I didn't mean...." This was not what she had wanted. "I thought we were in this together -- you know -- 'kindred spirits' and all. Since we're both out here looking for the same thing--"
Once more, he turned away and gazed out across the plain.
"I do not think that we are," he said.
"You're being cryptic again!"
"I do not think that I am."
She moved in front of him.
"Look, I'll admit it. I need you," she said. "I've been wandering out here for High Ones know how long and have gotten absolutely nowhere--"
"Thou hast gotten here," he corrected.
"Which is nowhere!" She threw her arms wide to emphasize the point. "At least you have some sense of where we're going. I don't think I can find it without you."
He studied her face for a long time before speaking.
"Continue to follow the gleam of the sun as it sets over the margin," he said. "There shalt thou find what thou art seeking."
And then he walked away.
Seated in silence, he pleaded with the universe.
Just this once.
For her sake, just this one more time.
No thoughts. No distractions. All quiet. All calm. It was there. It had to be.
No. He stopped that line of thought. He stopped all thoughts.
It did not have to be. Nothing had to be.
That was where he had gone wrong.
Nothing had to be. It simply was. Or it was not.
Existence and nonexistence, life and death, time and eternity.
They simply were. Or they were not.
He simply was. Or he was not.
In the silence that surrounded him, all things simply were, or they were not. Existence, nonexistence, life, death, time, eternity were as much a part of each other as they were not, as much a part of him as they were not. And he was as much a part of them.
The silence grew louder.
Existence and Nonexistence.
It roared all around him in the emptiness.
Life and Death.
Until its raging chaos began to overwhelm him.
Time and Eternity.
But, just when the maelstrom threatened to carry him forever away, he remembered the touch of a hand. And a smile. And a voice.
And the Chaos revealed the Order that was as much a part of it as it was not.
Almost beyond perception at first but rapidly growing stronger, the pulse of the world rose up around him until he could feel it flowing through his veins, beating in unison with his own. And he once again knew, with more certainty than he had ever before known anything, that Thought and Reality too were as much a part of each other as they were not.
Only then did he reach out with his mind so that it might touch something very deep inside himself. From the infinite to the infinitesimal, from the assembly of stars to the arrangement of atoms, from the formation of galaxies to the division of cells, the forces of creation, variation, and transformation were as much a part of him as they were not. He reached. And he reached. And he reached.
And it was done.
"This is absolutely the right thing," said Nightfawn over and over as she paced along the edge of the plain. "Absolutely," she repeated although there was no one around to hear her say it.
What could he have been thinking? Hadn't she done enough already? In less than a day, she had been imprisoned, threatened with death, and even forced to kill someone herself -- this latter being something with which her denial mechanisms had not yet even begun to let her start dealing. It was as if she had been suddenly transported back to that savage time in her own people's past: when elves and humans would take great joy in killing each other for no good reason -- only worse because now it was happening to her and on a scale vaster than any she could have ever dreamed possible.
And Roland wanted her to march right into the middle of it, actually getting mad at her when she responded sensibly. She knew that she had no reason whatsoever to feel guilty, yet she could not help but be haunted by that look of disappointment on his face.
What was he expecting from her? She wasn't a knight like him. She didn't even know what a "knight" was. All she had wanted was to find the source of the dream call, and now he was making her feel as if she were personally responsible for the fates of thousands of people, as if she were the only person who could possibly help them. Why, there must have been hundreds of others willing and eager to fight for such a cause -- Roland had said so himself -- or dozens, at least. There had to be. Her presence wouldn't make any difference. Even without her, it would all work out for the best. She knew it would. It had to.
But, then again, maybe it didn't. She stopped pacing and looked skyward. How did she ever manage to get herself into this?
And then she realized to her horror that she knew exactly how she had managed to get herself into this. She had done it on purpose. This was precisely the kind of adventure that she had been dreaming of back in Arden: an opportunity to do "something grand and glorious that would have an impact on the world and be remembered forever."
Had she actually said that once? She couldn't believe it and shook her head in self-reproach. It seemed like such a long time ago -- and such a different person. She no longer knew what her decision might have been back then, but she knew what it had to be now.
It was a day like any other, thought Lynette as she looked out across the plain, a day like any of the thousands of days she had known since she was a little girl. The sky was a clear blue with just enough clouds to add a visual interest; the sun behind her was warm and yellow with just enough of a breeze to keep it from getting too much so; the rustling leaves on the nearby trees were mixed with the song of a distant bird. How could the world be so much the same as it always had been when everything in it was so different -- when she was so different? Was this the way life really was: to go through so much and have nothing result from it, to lose so much and have nothing to show for it, to dream so much and have no one to share it with?
She heard a soft footstep approaching behind her but did not bother to acknowledge it. Then she heard a voice, a voice that was familiar, yet somehow very different. Slowly, she stood up and turned to face its source, squinting as the afternoon sun shined in her eyes. For a moment, she was certain that the light must have been playing tricks with her, but, as her vision adjusted, it was met by the gaze of another human being.
Startled beyond words, flooded with a thousand thoughts, she could give no reaction. The man's expression was uncertain at first, but then he forced a weak smile and took her hand as he lowered to one knee. She looked down at him for a long time. She cautiously touched his face, his hair, his neck, his chest. Finally, she let out a sound that was half a sob, half a laugh, as she raised him to his feet. He put his arms around her, and she returned the embrace.
Roland and the others had been riding for only a short while when a tall woman stepped out onto the path. She looked up at him.
"I just want you to know that this has to be, beyond doubt, the second stupidest thing I've ever done in my entire life."
The knight smiled as he helped Nightfawn up onto his
horse, and, as they rode off farther and farther away
from the plain to meet the challenge that lay ahead, he
regaled them with a glorious tale of high adventure,
harrowing escapes, noble sacrifices, and the
transcendent power of Love.
Next story: There goes the Neighborhood
|Robert's Page - Home|