"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 FIVE <=== / ===> CHAPTER SEVEN
The thought came so easily I was surprised it took that long before one of us voiced it. I was less baffled by the fact that it was Wharfrat who said it while the rest of us were still busy shining our armor lights at the bodies of the dwarves.
“Thank the gods!” he cried, then broke out in sudden laughter. We looked at him as if he were a madman – and he acted much like it, hopping about in what I suppose is a seaman’s jig, sung words piercing his laughter occasionally. Then he wrapped his arms around a stunned Bluff, shouting, “We’re off the hook! The fish got their food already!”
Before Bluff could do anything, Wharfrat jumped to his next poor victim – Rymondas who barely escaped the small man’s arms.
“What in all the abysses is this?!” Carter yelled, stepped up to Wharfrat and shook him heavily.
The laughter abated a bit – not much, mind you -, and Wharfrat cheerfully told his employer, “We can go home now, Cap’n! The dwarves’re dead, and we’re alive!”
“Numbskull!” was Carter’s response, along with a push that drove Wharfrat against a stalagmite. “What killed the bloody dwarves? Did you think about that for a heartbeat?” The vintner turned around, faced us with his infamous eyes. “Any of you care to second the idiot’s opinion? You, Cardsleeve? You want to go back to your bed and your wonderful dream?”
The laborer didn’t respond, except by glancing involuntarily over to Red. The latter didn’t spare him any attention, he had resumed inspecting the corpse whose steed had thrust him again a column. (Morbidity, perhaps, that he picked this one. Or he thought it would yield the most information, being the most violent death.)
“Open your ears!” Carter continued, striding past each of us, firing his index finger at us. “That sound’s still there. So some dwarves died. There’s still something else down there, and by all the demons in the abysses, I will not share my home with that thing! Pilgrim!”
“Me?!” I croaked, helplessly pointing at myself.
“Any other devout people around here?” Carter shot back, rounding upon me. “Your prayer bit did something. I don’t care what, but I want you to get back to it. Tell the gods that I’ll sacrifice half my wines of this year – no, forget that, half of all my wines to them if we get out of here. Go on! On your knees, pilgrim!”
His fists descended upon my shoulders, slamming me down without my having to do much of anything. I hadn’t much else to do, so I folded my hands, lowered my head – and discovered that there was a dead arydog’s skull straight before me, its glassy eyes pointing at my throat. For an instant I had the strange idea it would revive, to snap its jaws shut around my throat and finishing the job its comrades had started in the beginning of the night.
Which set me to thinking about what time it was now. We had been journeying for a long time, and I for one had lost all sense of when it was. It might have still been morning, but just as well noon or even later. I was fatigued, tired, none of which helped things any.
How did we go on? Well, of course we had taken breaks, dozing here and there, yet none of those breaks lasted more than a few minutes.
Maybe you can deduce from my words that I didn’t pray to the gods then. I couldn’t find the courage to face the divine powers again – so many images assaulted me, most of them that dream priestess with the goddess Alyssa’s face, challenging my faith.
I closed my eyes, mumbled something that would sound like prayer. (In fact, now that I think about it, I may have prayed, after all. At least those may have been the words, subconsciously coming to my tongue and lips. Maybe… No, I have no firm answer, and too many speculations would ruin this.)
While I was on my knees I paid attention to what was going on around me – it wasn’t as if I were doing anything else. I heard Grapes call out, “Pa, don’t trust that stupid thief! Let Valanda smite the fornicating dwarves, she –“
For a moment I wondered what had made Grapes stop. Then a resounding slap echoed through the cave, cutting through any words that were mumbled in the back. A groan followed, along with sobbing, and then Carter’s voice. “Shut up! Where did you learn that language? I’ll have words with your mother, you stupid piece… You haven’t got an ounce of sense in you, Grapes! Stop whining! Stand up straight! Be a man! That’s what you claim to be!”
The sobbing continued, and so would have Carter’s shouting. The vintner was terrified, I understood. Why else would he have berated his son like this? He hadn’t done any of it before, and how would Grapes have developed his attitude otherwise? I guess most of the times Carter kept his anger bottled up, only letting it out now and then – not directly, but through valves like Slim Tim.
I will not criticize his way of raising a child, since I have never been put into that position. Nor will I ever, since… Besides, Valanda came to Grapes’ rescue. First I heard another slap, and a gasp of astonishment run through the crowd around me. I dared open my eyes for a moment – just a slit -, and there the wizardess was, her hand still raised where she had hit the vintner.
And Carter, his head was turned sideways, frozen after the slap.
“Let the boy be what he is,” she said – didn’t shout, didn’t raise her voice at all. “You brought the child here, Carter. You could have told him to stay at home. Yes, you could have.” Her voice softened during the last words, growing gentle, almost like a lover’s words in the dark of night. “He does listen to you. He loves you, Carter. The gods alone know why, but he does. He wants to prove he’s a man, to you. So allow him to be a frightened child. Do that.”
I realized that my eyes were fully open by that time, my head raised all the way as I was waiting for Carter to rebuke her, shove her back. Do any of the things that I would have expected the vintner to do.
Although, after Valanda’s words, a part of me knew he wouldn’t. That part was right.
Carter rubbed his cheek, nodded slowly. He turned away from her, towards Grapes. The boy’s eyes were red, the tears streaked his face, and he was mumbling something. “I’m not a boy, I’m not a child!” Like a mantra, he kept repeating it, both to his father and to Valanda. More to Valanda, perhaps.
The wizardess stood there, looking at father and son. For the first and only time I could see the family resemblance; it stood out more strongly than that between Grapes and his uncle.
“Valanda, I’m –“ Grapes managed to squeeze out more intelligibly. “I am a man, you’ll see, I’m…”
“No,” she answered, with a smile. She walked over to him, grasped his chin with her slender fingers, made him look at her face. And she dropped her glamor. For a mere instant. I don’t know if anybody else saw it – after all, they didn’t know what to look for, and they weren’t looking at her that closely. But I saw the wrinkles appear in her face, the signs of age and years and years.
So did Grapes. His eyes widened, red, teary. “You’re –“
She stopped him from saying any more. Her glamor returned to hide the wrinkles. Gently, her fingers slid around his head, to the back and crooked it forward so that she could kiss the boy’s forehead. “Go, boy,” she whispered. “There are other wizardesses in the world.”
She stepped back. Grapes reached up to his forehead, fingers tracing the outlines of her lips. She wore lipstick, the red had embedded itself on the boy’s skin, amidst the grime of our journey.
“Carter,” Valanda said, then walked over to me. I hurried to close my eyes again, take up the mumble of prayer which didn’t fool her one bit. How to relate what followed? She spoke to me, yet at the same time there was Carter and his reaction – of which I learned later.
One after the other, then.
Carter waved to Bluff and Theralas. “Take my boy back home,” he said tiredly.
Theralas nodded, doing his best to hide a happy smile. Bluff on the other hand shook his head. “No, boss, I’m not going. You’re right, I don’t want to share my home with that rumbling thing down there. And I don’t want my wife and children doing that, either.”
“You want them to live without a father?” Carter replied – that made Grapes stop. He had been about to complain about being sent home, and now suddenly he was faced with a reality he hadn’t expected. His tearducts dried that instant, and he stared emptily at his father, mouthing “Pa?”.
Bluff didn’t move. “I want them to live, boss. I’m staying.”
“Hey, boss!” Wharfrat shot forward. “Let me go! I’ll take your brat upstairs, and happily so!”
Out of nowhere Red appeared to smack his fist against the tiny man’s neck. “You’d leave my nephew alone first chance you get, you weasel! No,” he grabbed Wharfrat’s shoulders, twisted him around, “you’re staying, and you’re fighting! You’ve got that.” It wasn’t a question. He would have made his superiors in the Cayaborean army proud, as ferocious an authority as he was at that point.
“Then you go, Red,” Carter said. “Take my –“
“Forget it,” his brother said, looking over Wharfrat’s shoulder – or more likely his head. “I’ve got a wife, too. And your own nephew or niece is on the way.” Carter stared, and Red smiled lopsidedly. “Didn’t get around to telling you, I know. Marla’s been pregnant for three months. It doesn’t matter. Weathervane’s your best choice if Bluff is staying. He knows his way around both his bow and his sword, and he’s got a sense of danger. Agreed?”
Carter looked at Weathervane. The former militiaman shrugged. He wasn’t happy about this, I gather, but he had a sense of duty – probably more from his own soul than anything that militia could have instilled.
Let’s cut things short now. Weathervane took the lead of the small group, guiding Theralas and Grapes back up home, to Guardpeak. Grapes had protested weakly, had tried to properly say good-bye, but by that time Carter had resumed his customary gruffness. He sent the boy off, and that was that.
I wonder if they made it. As far as I know today there weren’t any wild dwarves or arydogs left above us – none that were alive anyway. But there’s the danger below us, and I’ve already told you how the tunnels and caves keep swerving you off your path. You think you’re going up, and really you’re heading further down. None of them knew this part of Deersrun Hill well, so…
I keep wondering. And hoping. Yes, I hate that boy – still do, always will. But who knows? Maybe he grew up to be a good man. Maybe he found himself his own wizardess. I hope so.
Valanda knelt next to me. “Any luck?” she whispered, in a mischievous tone. She knew I hadn’t been praying!
“No,” I mumbled, the words fitting perfectly into my semblance of a prayer. “The gods… They haven’t…”
“I know,” her voice came to my ears as if far away. After a moment I realized that it was because her mind was miles away, on top of Guardpeak – or heading there, I suppose. Why did she have to like Grapes so much? Why did she have to be like all the other women I’ve ever known.
Yes, even the ones I’ve bedded. Lucky me, I was always second-best. Do you want to hear me count all the times a girl screamed another man’s name when I was just feeling so great?
No, I didn’t suppose so. It’s not that I’m ugly, you know. Just that I’ve never been special to anybody, not even the baker’s daughter who went out with me for seven months straight. Irvanya. She dropped me when that piper boy came to town, three years older than me, pretty much a vagrant, but oh so grown up in her eyes. And –
I should stop with that. Valanda was thinking about Grapes, I gathered. And about Carter, and about all the rest of us who were still heading on downwards. There was a magical force beneath us, but she wasn’t sure anymore whether it was a dwarven bard, or something else that had her completely baffled.
Add to that the fact that my pleas to the gods didn’t get us any divine assistance. Maybe there was –
“Is there a ritual I should be following?” I whispered as easily as I could, tensing my muscles for her answer, that she should discover I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. After all, pilgrims usually ask priests for assistance, for guidance in their journey, and they might have gotten some information that dumb old me had never been smart enough to ask about.
Valanda took her sweet time answering. I had almost given up on her when she finally said, “No, Ahnfredas, there isn’t. Trust in your faith. That is all there is to it. I’m –“ She broke off. I dared glance at her face. The glamor was still in place, yet again I somehow saw around it, to the aged face she hid. No, that sounds wrong. A matured face, I should rather say. She was still young enough not to have passed into matronship, and maybe – I actually wasted a minute or so, or more wondering about it – she never would. There were old women I had met, indisputably ancient, yet there was something in their bearing, in the cut of their faces that you could tell they had been heartbreakers in their youth. Not like others whose attractiveness was turned off without the faintest memory of what they had once been. Sometimes you see a painting of the old, ugly hag when she had been young, and you’re stupefied that a person this beautiful could degenerate into that.
“I’m sorry,” she went on after a moment. “My own faith cannot supplement yours. It’s… tainted.”
Ask me what moved me to speak those words I spoke. I have no answer. “Mylady,” I said slowly, “love isn’t a taint. Even for… that boy.” (Yes, it took me some effort not to use an expletive when talking about Grapes. I wish him well and all that, yet… Oh, I already said how I feel about him.)
She laughed lightly – quite a different reaction than I had expected. “Love, Ahnfredas? I don’t love Grapes. Nor have I loved Carter, nor Red.” She stopped, and I heard her gasp. She had told me more than she had been planning on. Truth be told, more than I had wanted to hear. Implications kept rolling about in my head, roiling, boiling, churning like a storm – and I forced them down to listen to her next words. “It is not that I’m a bad person. At least, I don’t think so. Yet I’ve never… felt for a man. Not in the way that the poets sing about. It’s… difficult, and I don’t –“ She stopped, and I knew she was looking at me. For a short while I kept my eyes closed, tried to think about the gods, every single one of them with the exception of the love goddess Alyssa. It was only a short while before my eyes opened, and our glances locked. Sweet Alyssa, sweet Lady, she was beautiful. Her eyes were oceans I would have gladly drowned in. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” she continued softly. “I don’t confide in priests, and much less –“ a small chuckle, then, “Much less in simple pilgrims. But you…”
Her fingers moved, reached out to me. My own hand reacted quite without my ordering it anything, closing around her fingers, reveling in the softness and warmth.
“You are not a simple pilgrim, Ahnfredas,” she said.
Were her words the kind of romantic sound that you hear about from the bards? That you read in poems, and that romance novels like the ones by Hrolfwald the Keroullian Dove?
No, definitely not. She was making a statement, and it chilled me to the bones, despite the fact that I held her fingers clasped within my own – the latter very much in line with the romances.
Her free hand reached out to touch my cheek. A gentle touch, lightly sweeping over my skin – electrifying to me, but what had it been to her? “You are…” she began, her voice tapering off. Then something happened in her eyes – I cannot describe it, like a torch being lit in the distance -, and she said firmly, “I will stay with you.”
Valanda gave me a brief moment to stomach that statement – and a statement it was, somewhat without feeling, as if she had seen the future. (I know that wizards are commonly unable to do that. That is in the province of clerics, yet she understood something better than I did – and ever will.) “Now reach out with your mind, Ahnfredas. Below us. Close your eyes, and imagine that your sight is traveling through the rock.”
What in the abysses did she mean by that? I know I was staring at her – and her wistful mien broke up into the toughness I’d grown accustomed to. “Focus your mind!” she said forcefully. “Close your eyes!” Only when I did so, she continued, sounding a tad more gentle, “There is rock beneath us. You can feel it. Hard, unyielding, natural, in place for millenia of millenia. You see it in your mind. Now see within.”
“Within?!” I whispered. I tried to, and there was an image in my head – one of darkness, like you would imagine.
“Yes,” Valanda confirmed. “Within. Drift deeper, deeper into the rock. Is there a light?”
There was one in my vision, the moment she said it. “Uhm, yes. Mauve-colored, and spinning, and – no, wait, there’s another one, it’s within the first, and the first is falling apart, while –“
“All right,” she grumbled, withdrew her fingers from my hand and slapped me lightly on the forearm. “That’s just your eyes. You don’t see anything at all, aside from the inside of your lids.”
“I think so,” I had to agree. “I was hoping I –“
“So was I,” Valanda muttered. She grasped my forearm. “Time to get back up, pilgrim. This won’t do us any good.”
I didn’t know what to make of our conversation. Well, I did grasp that I was useless. Nothing that I hadn’t known before. You know, throwing around the gods’ names is one thing, true faith is another. The Alyssian temple was back before my eyes, and how I stomped out, only to find myself faced with the gods in my own bucolic vision. (Think it was a real vision, don’t you? For a while there I was tempted to believe the same thing. It’s easy, isn’t it? Well, that’s one thing the gods aren’t – easy to grasp. Maybe that was a deity sending me a vision, but more likely it was my own fear of what would happen to me in the afterlife. I didn’t relish what the Messenger of Death would tell me when I asked it about what would happen to me. I was afraid that I would find myself somewhere in the abysses rather than the realm of the gods.)
I swallowed all my self-doubts. (Nearly choked on them, if you care to know.) Our party was moving on, and I’d better pay some attention.
Valanda stayed next to me now. Carter and Red threw us some odd glances, as if I had been in a position I didn’t deserve. Truth be told, I agreed with them wholeheartedly. The wizardess didn’t speak to me again as she had when we had both been kneeling. Her hands kept well away from mine, even – or especially – when mine strayed close to hers. A complicated person, I suppose. A woman, some in my hoped for audience surely will say.
Whatever, for once I won’t deviate too far from the course of my tale.
We left the cave of the dead dwarves – not a fixed term, I have to say, but closest to the various crudities my comrades used to describe the place. Following it was another tunnel sloping downwards, leading into a series of caverns of varying sizes and varying floor directions. I think we actually rose a couple of feet rather than descended for a while there. The best guess I have is the volume of the stony music and the voice.
No, it never stopped singing. For hours and hours it had gone on already, and there wasn’t a sign it would ever give. Could that be a mortal person singing? Wouldn’t that one have to take a break now and then – to have a drink, to moisten that throat before going on?
Whoever – or whatever – it was beneath us didn’t need a drink now and then. That was grating on us pretty badly. Scraps was thinking along the same line, I overheard some of his conversation with Slim Tim about the topic. Unfortunately I couldn’t just fall back to their place in our formation – not without stepping back from Valanda.
Would she have followed me? Would she have made true on that promise to stay with me?
And what did that mean, anyway? (Yes, that occurred to me when a heartbeat earlier I had been straining to hear the conversation between Scraps and Slim Tim.) Stay with me. Like a lover? Like a sister? Or – a grueling thought if there ever was one – like a mother? I realized during one of those pondering moments that Valanda might very well have been my mother. She was old enough, even though just barely.
Sobering, that thought is. It was a minor relief to know that my real mother was by far Valanda’s elder. In fact I could have made a similar claim about my mommy having mothered Valanda!
A minor relief, as I said.
The music stayed with us. I stayed with Valanda. I didn’t want to risk losing whatever tenuous bond we had forged during our kneeling together.
A fool? Yes. I am that, and much worse.
But I didn’t understand Valanda back then. Nor can I claim any understanding now. She is a complicated person. Maybe my kind audience is right, and all women are complicated. Forgive me for my own sampling of the female kind is rather limited.
The cavern looked like any of the others. There weren’t any dead dwarves about – quite a relief for me who had been half expecting another massacre at each corner we turned -, nor was there anything else of note. Nobody had ever bothered to put a glowater light in here. We were too far for even the most irregular of Guardpeak spelunkers to reach.
Some of my comrades were surprised that the webbing of caves reached this far down. By their best guesses we were now truly below ground – below the foots of Deersrun Hill. Slim Tim had commented on that when he passed me, on his way to take the lead from Torrindas, on Carter’s order.
Why had Slim Tim spoken to me in the first place, I would wonder for a long time. He was simply commenting, much as he would to anybody else in the troop. Some dour words – mixed with the excitement to be further down than his forefathers had ever dared -, that was all there was to it.
But he’d spoken to me, even addressed me as “Pilgrim”, which meant that he didn’t confuse me momentarily with one of the laborers. All my comrades in this journey knew that I had been useless, and they resented my wearing Longstick’s armor. Or did they? Had I been along with them for so long that none of that mattered anymore? That I was just another damned soul heading to slaughter?
I wish I could have asked Slim Tim about that. For a moment I was elated, and I smiled at Valanda, trying to share my happiness. The wizardess noticed rather late, but then – well, it was another happy moment for me since she returned my smile. Even without the glamor, her smiling face could make any man fear that his lower regions would overly prove his excitement. (If you are wondering, the answer is yes. I was hoping, though, that the chainmail would be so heavy that Valanda couldn’t possibly notice. And if your thoughts are still following the gutter route – she did notice. That was part of the reason her smile stayed on me that long. I will never comprehend how she could look at my eyes and still notice… that.)
Slim Tim. I liked him, from what little I knew about him. He was a good fellow. He didn’t deserve what happened to him only a cave or two after he’d taken point.
You see, the point man was ahead of us by some one hundred yards. The breastplate light was dancing ahead of us in the darkness, occasionally fudged by our own lights, but most often an eerie will-o’-the-wisp guiding our way.
Then, suddenly, the ignis fatuus disappeared.
Slim Tim screamed – for just a moment, then a loud, disturbing crunching sound cut off his agony.
The crunch came again, and again, and again, sounding ever more wet and moist. And exulting.
We started running for Slim Tim.
Read on in Chapter Seven!