"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"
CHAPTER ONE <=== / ===> CHAPTER THREE
Carter’s hairy fist was hovering in the air before me. It was larger than I was, more like a natural boulder than anything human. Grapes was sitting on top of it, grinning wide at me as he threw his head back, let his eyes flash – there was a literal flash -, and there were girls standing a few yards away, wearing next to nothing, who gasped and applauded him. In fact they were hovering as well for there was no ground to stand on, only indistinct light and shapes dancing in the distant background.
“Kill him, Pa! Kill the thief!” Grapes shouted. He turned graciously to the girls (they didn’t have faces, did they? Not in the fully formed way that human beings should have, anyway) and asked, “You want to see that, don’t you?”
The girls cheered again, jumping up and down in excitement.
I couldn’t move. I had to run away, I knew. But my body wouldn’t react, the legs were frozen as if they were encased in ice. I looked down, and I found that was exactly what had happened. There had to be somebody to help me! Maybe the gods?! After all, I had a pilgrim’s cloak, and I’d been walking the walk, talking the talk for a while, so I’d better know how to pray for a miraculous rescue. I tried. No words left my mouth, no matter how much I tried. The muscles didn’t react, either. I fought harder to get my jaw open, to scream.
One of the girls came closer. Grapes clapped, kicked the fist under him. “Go, Pa, go!”
I made some kind of noise – strangled, suffocating. Certainly not enough to get the gods to pay attention to my plight. Provided they actually were inclined to help me in the first place.
Then I realized that the girl approaching Carter’s fist, Grapes and me wasn’t the same as the others. For one thing, she was clearly no longer a girl but a fully grown woman, moving with the self-secure grace of beauty. For another, she wore a burgundy robe with wavy yellow stripes running up her sides and curling together on her chest into an oddly exciting image. Last but not least she did have a face – a bit too long for my taste, but the perfect elegance more than made up for that. Straight brown hair that was tied into a bun just above her shoulders – on another woman it might have seemed like the strict hairdo of a teacher, on her it just spoke of the promise when she would undo the bun -; upswept eyebrows that augmented her dark eyes, moving beyond brown close to black; a slim nose sweeping out a little further than I thought I’d liked; full lips that could make a man lose his mind staring at them – provided that they weren’t set in such a businesslike line.
“Pa! He’s a thief!” Grapes cried.
I tried to cry as well. Perhaps I did – but if anything, it was a sob not a shout.
“Pilgrim,” the woman said, stopping a few feet away from me, ignoring Grapes and the fist, “wake up. You are needed.”
“No!” Grapes yelled, hopping up and down on the fist – the movement copied immediately by the cheering girls. His face contorted in rage, somehow never losing the gentle, feminine touch. “He has to die! Now!”
I shivered. My legs were still in ice, and I stared pleadingly at the woman. “I don’t want to die, help me!”
The woman shook her head. “Wake up. That is all you have to do.” How could she be so quiet? There was a giant fist about to smash me to pieces!
A giant fist that she couldn’t see? And neither Grapes nor the girls?
Wait a minute! A giant fist? And she’d told me to wake up?
“This is a dream!” I yelled and sat up.
And felt rather humiliated when I realized I’d nearly smashed my face into that of the woman.
How, you ask? As you have surely deduced by now, I had been sleeping. The woman – actually the wizardess Valanda Hazelthin – had been leaning over me, resting her hand on my forehead. Her fingers had been dipped in some gruesomely smelling liquid. I assumed that had allowed her to reach into my dreams and manifest herself there. Of course I never asked. The gods did bring us magic, but a good pilgrim doesn’t inquire too deeply into what and how wizards used the divine gift. Or so every single pilgrim I ever talked to had blathered on about.
“S-sorry,” I muttered, jerked my head back and instinctively pulled the blanket higher. It had slipped nearly off my chest, and I have the habit of sleeping naked – whenever I may sleep in a bed. You see, there is this wonderful feeling of soft cloth touching you, and a blanket instead of my cloak. I don’t want to miss out on anything, you know? “I –“
“Get dressed, pilgrim,” Valanda said, wiping her hands on the blanket. Oh, my, the blanket would stink of that foul smell for a long time!
I wondered if I liked a woman who could be so careless. Yes, of course I was still half asleep. I didn’t even realize that I most likely would never enjoy this bed ever again.
“What… for?” I muttered, twisting under the blanket.
The wizardess shook her head and folded her arms under her breasts. She was beautiful, as she had been in my dream. And her figure was… Let’s just say I suddenly had a good reason to turn my hips around so nothing untoward would show under the blanket.
“As I said,” Valanda answered, “you are needed for the hunt. Get dressed. We are waiting next door.” She raised an eyebrow – and for the first time her lips lost their utter businesslike line, as the edges slightly curled up. Had she seen…?
I would never find out. Valanda turned around and exited the room quickly, leaving me to my ponderings.
My clothes were dirty. I hadn’t quite noticed before how much dirt I had gotten on them in my flight from the arydogs. I must have stumbled and fallen several times. It hadn’t mattered before, but now I didn’t like putting them back on. My pants were itching, and when I shook them, clumps of dirt fell out.
Maybe I could get a fresh set of clothes, with the promise that I would pray for them in Sirap?
No, you’re not thinking straight, I told myself. They wanted me to go down into the bowels of Deersrun Hill again. Obviously I would only get dirty again. Better to use these clothes.
Looking back, it’s interesting that I wasn’t afraid. I had had less than two hours of sleep, just enough to pass into the realm of dreams, but certainly not enough to refresh my mind. The idea that there were more arydogs down there – and wild dwarves – didn’t really penetrate my thoughts.
Instead I resigned to be a good helper so I could wrangle some helpful items out of Carter later on. I patted myself down, shaking loose some more pieces of dirt, then I left the bedchamber. Outside was the small room that served as a meeting room for the five bedchamber doors opening into it.
This, I vaguely remembered from Grapes’ words, was where the hired hands of the vinery operation lived, the unmarried ones at least. The others had houses of their own, bordering on Carter’s mansion. I hadn’t seen any of those. The caverns in the hill led straight into the basement under the mansion, and we had simply climbed stairs until we reached this place. Then I had fallen asleep, dreamed, and now here I was, seeing Grapes pacing up and down the room, with the wizardess Valanda standing calmly in a corner, watching the boy.
That’s the first thing I noticed, you see? How she was watching Grapes. Just the way I had guessed how women would watch him, no matter that Grapes was a mere boy who had taken up shaving a few weeks earlier.
The next thing was that I now saw Valanda for the first time in rather good light – a bowl of glowater was suspended from the ceiling. Yes, a beautiful, full-bodied woman. Yet now I could see lines around her eyes and her mouth that spoke of considerably more years than I had assumed before. For some reason I couldn’t always see the lines, no matter how strong the light was; only at some angles were they visible. Magic, you know? A glamor, I think this is called. Valanda must have been going on forty, yet her magic made her seem a twentyish woman.
Was I the only one who noticed the glamor? I think so. Oh, Carter and Red surely knew that the wizardess wasn’t as young as she appeared. The three of them must have known each other for many years. Yet Grapes… I don’t think he ever had an idea.
“There you are!” the boy now exclaimed, pointing a finger accusingly at me. “How long does it take you to get out of bed?”
Valanda smiled. “He was naked.”
“He –“ Grapes started, stopped, then stared at the wizardess. “How –“
The wizardess swept forward, moving as if her feet didn’t touch the ground. No magic there; none other than what some women possess naturally. “Pilgrim,” she said, “do you remember where you discovered the arydogs?”
“What?” I stuttered and was flooded with memories of how I had seen the beasts destroying that cave far underneath my feet. “I… I only remember running from them.”
“So you cannot take us to the place,” Valanda nodded.
That’s when it really hit me what she was planning. I was supposed to go back down and hunt for the monsters! I shivered, the image of slavering arydog jaws imprinted on my mind. But, wait! I didn’t remember, so I was of no use, right?
Grapes grumbled, “Then why did we bother with the fool in the first place? Val, Pa and Uncle are waiting, we –“
“They will wait longer,” the wizardess said and smiled at me. It wasn’t a warm smile, and my shivering intensified. “You will remember, pilgrim.” She turned away, strode to an end table on which a jar stood. Not an interesting jar, simple pottery of the kind that potters have been turning out for centuries. It wasn’t even marked, but when she took the stopper out, the same smell that had been on her fingers before wafted out.
I would remember.
What happened afterwards, I cannot quite tell you. Not from my own experience, that is. You see, the spell Valanda cast on me changed the way I perceived my surroundings.
She had made me drink a bit of the liquid (which tasted as vile as it smelled), some more she had put under my nose and on my lips. Then she had whispered something – her voice sounded sweet suddenly, her words crawling into my mind, twisting like snakes – or the way a female body can do, occasionally. Grapes was still in the room, and I saw jealousy flash in his eyes. That look was wonderful, but then he transformed into a snarling arydog, turning away from an iron lock its jaws had just smashed. Two more were behind the first, lapping up glowater.
A tiny corner of my mind knew that this was only a memory, but the better part of me was as frightened as I had been then. I turned to flee, I ran – and yet I knew that I was standing perfectly still, with Valanda still whispering at me.
You see, that’s the way it continued. I was trapped in my memories, relived every moment – not in a straight line, though. Every heartbeat was a different fragment of time, all during my flight, jumbled, messy. The part of me that understood I was under a spell was reeling, trying to put it into perspective, to keep a clear path.
That part understood that Valanda and Grapes then took me down to the mansion’s basement. Carter, Red, and a group of ten men were waiting down there, ready for the spelunking ahead of us. They wore steel armor plates on their chests, helmets, and chainmail on arms and legs. Each had a quiver of arrows and a bow on his back, a sheathed sword on the hip, and a shield on one arm.
Another set of armor was waiting for Grapes that he put on right away. Valanda did something to her dress – I wish I could tell you what it was, but I only know that afterwards her legs were showing, and the lower part of her robe clung to her thighs, so she could walk and move easily.
While Grapes and Valanda were preparing themselves to go into the bowels of the hill, I was already back down there, as badly as I was ever lost in the memories. The wine barrel crashing open, my staff breaking in twine, Carter’s fist, and far more than that – it seemed to wash over me within the same heartbeat. Sweat had broken out on my forehead, and I wouldn’t know anything else from the present until at least half an hour later when we were several floors below.
I learned a few bits and pieces about what happened during our travel. I shouldn’t bore you with the details of how I asked Carter and the others every now and then, piecing together what had happened. Instead I will tell it to you, much as if I had been aware of events.
One thing I ought to mention about the armor is that the chestplates were glowing. Carter was a rich man – I would later learn that he not only owned a third of Deersrun Hill’s wineyards and a couple other in the vicinity, he was also a merchant selling goods for other vintners, as well as a member of Guardpeak’s ruling class. As such, it explained why he decided to go after the wild dwarves on his own rather than call on anybody else. Carter was the law here.
I said he was rich. The chestplates were made of metal, but there was a pattern enameled to it, a magical pattern that steadily glowed through each of the intricate turns and twists it took across the chest. Each man sent out a bright cone of light.
That would prove necessary in the lower regions – the people of Guardpeak had never bothered to light those caverns with glowater, leaving them in perfect darkness.
Oh, yes, the reader might wonder if it was such a smart idea to make oneself so highly visible when you’re about to go into battle. For one thing, you’re a fine target at a distance; for another, the magically enhanced (or created? I never did find out) enamel can be scratched off. Not easily, though, it takes some force to damage the enamel, but it does happen.
The latter, at least, isn’t much of a problem since a few scratched out pieces don’t keep the entire pattern from glowing.
The former, though, is a different matter. You see, the bright light is blinding when you happen across it in perfect darkness. You can’t see anything, whereas Carter and his men were perfectly able to see and deal with you.
At least that was the idea.
Valanda was holding my hand as we walked through the subterranean caves and corridors. It is nearly the only memory I retain; vaguely I know that she asked me for directions whenever we came to a crossing. At that time I always saw a myriad of doorways before me, those that I had passed through – sometimes clearly, sometimes the doorways merged together to form a new image that shook itself apart heartbeats later. Sometimes she had to guide me through a doorway so I could see it the way I had in my flight; sometimes it wasn’t necessary. Sometimes, I have heard later, I pointed out the right one, and we walked through. Sometimes I started screaming when I saw the right passage, and my mind conjured up the arydogs rushing after me, how they had come through that doorway.
Red was grumbling to Carter half the way that this excursion wasn’t right. Two of the workers agreed openly with him – Theralas and Bluff. (I should mention that I rarely learned any real names around here. I know that Red’s real name was Garland, as I found out much later, and certainly not from his own mouth – so I can easily understand why he prefers going by his nickname. The others might have similar reasons, or they were simply too used to this habit. Not even Grapes complained!) The others kept their mouths shut in that discussion. Wisely so, since Carter didn’t treat the disagreeing men kindly, including his brother. “There’re wild dwarves infesting the lower regions, and that’s that,” were the kindest words he said.
It wasn’t that Red liked having the dwarves in their hill. He wanted them out, and he wanted to be part of the force pushing them out. But it seems that while rousing the workers, he had come to think about their numbers and absolutely didn’t like them. But he managed to find the exactly wrong words to say to Carter – sounding like the coward he emphatically was not.
I was surprised to learn that Grapes kept himself well away from the discussion. I would have thought he’d been first to back up his uncle. Instead he actually took Carter’s side more than once, insisting that the dwarves had to be thrown out. Why did he do that?
Well, I have my suspicions. Most of them center around the beautiful wizardess that was holding my hand at that time. Come to think of it, I might have turned into the semblance of a bloodthirsty, mighty warrior at such a time – had my hormones overruled the good common sense my father had been knocking into me from day one.
Back to what happened. If you think that it was an uneventful journey, that we reached the place where I had stumbled across the arydogs, recovered my cloak and got out of that mess – oh, well, you can imagine the rest, can’t you?
We were about three quarters of the way to the cave with my cloak when we found the first smashed glowater bowls. At first Carter thought that had happened during my flight – oh, he didn’t accuse me. First of all, because I wouldn’t have understood anything; for another because he blamed the arydogs.
But when cave after cave turned out to be dark, and the magical patterns on the men’s chestplates were the only sources of light, it became obvious this was something else. They drew their blades, pulled their shields a bit higher. Grapes took a position next to Valanda and me, guarding – obviously – the wizardess rather than the defenseless pilgrim.
Red walked ahead of the group, together with Bluff. (Bluff didn’t get his nickname from any games, but from the rough way his body was put together, much like a rock.) Carter stayed in the middle, while Grapes, Valanda and I made up the rear. I suppose that we ought to have been safe there.
We were disabused of that notion when Deersrun Hill started to shiver, and a low, menacing grumble rose from the deepest bowels of the hill. Some of the workers stopped in their tracks, quietly stared at the quivering walls, the hairline cracks appearing in the ceiling and the floor. Others were less stupefied and cried, “Earthquake!”, rushing for the supposed safety of the metal support beams in the doorways.
Red and Bluff herded three workers into the passage up ahead, cowering down and protecting their heads with their shields. Debris soon started falling on them. Carter was caught right in the middle of the cavern, with some others who had been the slowest to start moving. He spent half a minute changing their minds with loud shouting and a lot of shoving.
You see, it wasn’t a powerful earthquake. I used to think (and frankly, because I hadn’t really been conscious then, I still do) that a quake is one massive shaking of the ground. Everything is torn apart in a heartbeat, and then you’ll have to pick up the pieces. This was different. The shaking was comparatively weak – you get more in a carriage at full speed -, but it kept on happening. Carter and his group joined Red’s long before the hairline fracture in the cave’s ceiling weblined all across it. The ceiling collapsed about two minutes into the quake, surely tons of rock and dirt dropping down, tearing holes into the ground. Had I been fully conscious, I should have thanked the gods for sending us a miracle – since only the ceiling collapsed, but neither the walls, nor, more importantly, the ground beneath us, to send us tumbling down uncountable layers of caves and corridors.
On the other hand, there wasn’t much of a miracle for me.
Valanda had let go of my hand the instant the cavern started to quake. Her eyes darted about while one hand dug into the bag by her side, retrieved a flask that she quickly unstoppered and set about spraying the contents into the air over us. Given a little more time, she would have cast a spell to form an invisible shield over us. Unfortunately Grapes was too charged on his hormones – the moment he realized what a quake meant, he jumped forward to push Valanda to the ground and cover her with his body.
He smashed the flask from her hand, tore her down. She cried out – shocked both by his action and by the interruption of the spell. Grapes pinned her arms and legs down, pressed himself close to her. Valanda fought him, tried to push him off, but he was a strong boy, Grapes was. More than that, he was convinced he was protecting her. You know, I actually think he didn’t enjoy this moment like some others would. It’s just not the kind of boy he was. And no, that didn’t make me like him any better. Rather the opposite.
But I wouldn’t have had any time to think about that. In fact, I would have lost consciousness moments later anyway when the rocks started to rain down, and one fragment hit my head, slashed down my chest, and another knocked me across, sprawling me right on top of Valanda and Grapes. More debris fell, pelting me like a hailstorm of rocks.
Very few of them hit the boy and woman underneath me. Now I was unwittingly protecting both of them.
And if you think I was lucky that I didn’t note any of the pain, you’re wrong. It fought its way through the memory spell. I recall each stone hitting me. Even if I couldn’t, the lumps would stay with me for a pretty long time. Even today, when I undress, I know a couple of scars I took away from that quake.
Perhaps worse was that the frightful memories didn’t stop. They kept on battering me as much as the debris. I was in a nightmare that would not stop. I didn’t even know anymore there might be a way to stop the latter part of the nightmare. The spell also kept me from fainting at the pain. I stayed awake, even when the debris had covered us all completely, turning us into a pile of stone and human flesh.
Read on in Chapter Three!