"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
Index <=== / ===> II. The Maiden
The gate was open. Dependable Haguen stood in front of it, his gaze resting as every day on the meadows beyond the Eternal City. Waves of green stretched out like the rolling surface of the sea, until they merged with distant mountains. Perfection. Beautiful and lush. Ideal.
Truly this was a land of the gods. Made by the gods, made for the gods.
Haguen breathed in deeply the rich air, scented by the flowers nearby, with a light taste of moisture from the river that gently curved through the hills, its blue waters speckled with traces of sparkling green. Mannanan was so proud of this achievement, Haguen thought with a smile. He could still go on for hours how exactly he had done this, not to mention on how he had created the soft, tranquil noise.
This was the way Haguen knew life to be. The eternal existence in the realm of gods. The peace, the serenity. His duty at the gate. He stood there every day, guarding the gate, even though there had never been any threat. Occasionally, there might be a visitor, once in a millenium of mortal years. Never unannounced of course. That would have been a breach of protocol, and personally, Haguen detested that. Duty, that was the foundation of existence, whether it was the duty to defend the Eternal City, or a simple sign of civility, the duty to your brethren.
Like every day, Haguen wore his shining cuirass, gleaming like diamond cast into supple form. His halbard rested against one valve of the gate, never more than half a foot from his hand. Naturally he knew every measure of the weapon, knew how to use it properly. Once he had gone to the mortal world, lowered his superior strength to the mortal level and slain two emperor dragons in a single fight. Granted that he had still worn his cuirass and shield, which had protected him from most of the force of the dragon’s fiery blasts and their sharp claws. Nonetheless, he had learned more about his halbard that day than in the eons before. Duty. He had taken no pleasure in delivering the dragons’ souls to the midrealm, it had been necessary.
The light was fading from the land. Dusk was setting, the time to rest. The time when Haguen allowed himself to close the gate and spend time with his fellow gods. He was looking forward to finding out what they had done today, how they had progressed with the world of the mortals.
Sighing he bent over to pick up his halbard and shoulder it. When he straightened back up again, he saw a man on the meandering path before him. Haguen froze for a moment, shocked by the impropriety of this. His halbard shook from the shoulder, he grasped it firmly in his hand and challenged the arrival, “Who are you? Which abode do you hail from?”
The man was old, wearing a coat that was bleached so much its original color was difficult to guess. His frame was still firm, his eyes a clear blue, as cold as frozen water. Weariness and fatigue suffused his face, the lines and wrinkles pronounced heavily. “I have no name,” he said calmly. “I come from a place that no longer is. It was abandoned by its children, and I am alone.”
Haguen frowned. No abode of his own? No people he had a duty to? No name? “A dreadful tale,” he said cautiously. “What do you want?”
“A place of shelter,” the man said with a sigh. “Perhaps some company.” He leaned on a walking stick, bent more from fatigue than age. Despite the weariness, his eyes were actively watching Haguen for his reaction, and the guardian felt strangely uncomfortable under the gaze. Perhaps even a bit guilty, though he had no idea why he should feel that way.
“From what,” he asked, “would you require shelter? This is not the world of the mortals, old man. And why do you wish to take this appearance? There is no need for it.”
The old man smiled. “Perhaps there is,” he shrugged. “Perhaps all our appearance is born from how we feel, mine as much as yours. Perhaps it is because of how I feel that I require shelter. Or, if that is more acceptable, a place to rest. I have been walking for a long time. Since the day my abode was abandoned.”
It must have been a long time, Haguen thought. The man was old indeed, the guardian could feel it in the emanations from the newcomer. It wasn’t just a show, and neither was the weariness. “Why have you not sought for shelter earlier?”
“Oh, my young friend,” the old man said and swept his gaze over the meadows around the Eternal City, “I have done that. Life without anyone to talk to, save the ghosts of your memories, that is not life. I have walked every inch there is in this realm. Even here, I have walked, before your city was built. Before the hills were here, before the grass, before the river. The beauty of this place does not touch me as deeply as the fact that I am speaking to you right now.”
“So,” Haguen closed his fingers tightly around his halbard, “if you have asked for shelter at other abodes, why didn’t you stay?” He was troubled by the old man’s claim to have been here before the Eternal City. Of course Haguen knew it was possible – despite the name, Haguen himself had helped build their settlement. One of the mountains on the horizons was his own, although it gave him little reason to brag about it in the manner that Mannannan was so fond of. Nonetheless, to be reminded of this fact was unsettling.
The old man sighed. “Does it truly matter? I did not find the peace I was looking for. None of those abodes offered me a resting place.” A twinkle entered his eyes. “Do you think I could pose a danger to you? I did not think that my appearance was that frightful.”
“Appearance is irrelevant.”
“Yes,” the old man nodded, “that it is. But mine does not hide a purpose but the one I have stated.”
Haguen felt odd. He had rarely experienced something like this, being at a loss for a proper answer. The old man sounded credible, his words honest. And lost. “I cannot promise that you will find any peace in our abode,” Haguen said slowly.
“I do not seek for promises. It is hope that I seek, an opportunity. Should I not meet with the acceptance of the denizens of your abode, I will leave and resume my walk once more.”
Haguen lowered his halbard a bit, squinted at the old man. “You have sixty days. At the end of that period, our lord Decirius will speak and decide on your fate. Do not misstep, the eyes of Haguen are on you.”
“By that,” the old man chuckled, “I take it that your name is Haguen. Happy to meet you, young friend.” He held out his hand, and the guardian shook it automatically – and while touching the wrinkled hand, he suddenly realized that he himself had breached protocol. Civility demanded that he should have introduced himself earlier!
The old man smiled as if he could sense the discomfort in the guardian’s mind, then he slowly put forward his walking stick and strode past Haguen through the gate of the Eternal City.
The guardian frowned after him, then he shouldered his halbard and followed after closing the gate and locking it for darktime.