"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 SEVEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER NINE
The scream was blood-curdling.
It shot through my mind – bursting me from the darkness of sleep into the momentarily blinding glare of the breastplate lights stabbing through the cavern. My hands instinctively rushed for my staff, fumbling about to my right where I usually put the staff.
They came up empty, of course. (Perhaps fortunately, for I discovered that Valanda had rolled closer to me during sleep. Had she not jumped up immediately, my hands might have found something rather unexpected.)
Shouts followed the first scream, anger boiling over. I saw Red kneeling, drawing his bow. What is the matter? I thought, strangely detached from the scene before me. In a way I was more concerned with the absence of my staff, not realizing that it had broken on the head of an arydog – yet I was fully aware of the people around me, who they were, and what they meant.
An arrow sped through the air. It clunked off a rock, and from beyond, distorted by the winding caverns, came a cackle. “Bugger yourselves, sharkfeeders!” a voice shouted.
Fury brought me fully into reality, and my right hand finally remembered that I had a sword instead of a staff now. It didn’t do me any good, rising, drawing my blade and looking about for the godscursed bastard son of a fish. Maybe I looked like one of the great warriors, in that magnificent armor, a gleaming blade ready for action, hatred on my face. More likely, I looked like a great fool.
If I did, the same can be said for my comrades. Scraps was blinking, his hair a mess, and his helmet in one hand. (A helmet? Oh, dammit! I’d forgotten I had one as well. So much for the heroic look – it was by my feet now.)
Torrindas and Bluff ran through our midst, both with their bows at the ready. They ran towards the end of the cave where Carter stood guard. I clearly remember wondering why they had shot an arrow at the vintner, and why Wharfrat had laughed about that.
“Stop, you two!” Red’s voice blared – husky yet authoritative. “Let him run.”
Neither of the two stopped, and Red suddenly fired an arrow past them – missing both their heads by a scant foot. “Stop! Do as you’re told, bloody fools!”
“But –“ Bluff shouted, and was immediately interrupted by Red. “Shut up! Pilgrim!”
Me? I had only time for that tiny thought when Red waved at me to come forward, urgently. “Can you heal, pilgrim?” he yelled, desperate hope tinging his voice.
“Heal?” I muttered confusedly. “I’m not a cleric, I –“
“Demons and abysses! You’re a pilgrim, aren’t you? Ask the gods for healing! Ask them!”
I had never seen Red as desperate as this. He looked like a demon himself, consumed by hope and hatred at the same time – all merging into a forlorn appearance. His hands were still waving, toward the place where Carter had been.
Finally I followed the hands, and I understood.
It had been Carter screaming, when Wharfrat had sidled up to him, silently, and cut his throat. Sloppily enough that the vintner had been able to yell and alert the rest of us.
He was still alive. Valanda had been much faster than anybody else, kneeling by his side, pressing cloth against Carter’s neck. A shred torn from her dress, but it was already drenched with the red life force of the vintner. His eyes were wide open, still taking in the situation, filled with pain and desperation. Yes, he and Red were brothers. How could it be that it was so obvious at this terrible time and none of the others?
“Ask them!” Red shouted again, and now he reinforced his words by shoving me brutally towards Carter and Valanda.
Valanda’s legs were bare all the way. Most of her upper dress was gone, as well, revealing the scanty underclothing she wore and the wonderful swell of her breasts. Believe me, if you will, that I wasn’t even aware of that. Carter’s head was on a bloody heap of the shreds that his lifeforce had already drenched, and the latest was shortly before joining its cousins. Both of us were pressing with all our strength against the wound, hoping that it might be enough to staunch the blood. It seemed as if gallons had spurted out already.
“Pray!” Red yelled, only inches from my ears.
My head spun around, facing him, and I screamed at him, “… grant us the boon of healing! Gods in the skies, in the heavenly abode, protect us from mortal fears! Grant that my hands may relinquish pain and give succor!”
Red jerked back, hearing the words of prayer – and I almost let go of the shred on Carter’s throat. I had been praying – the words of a Decalleigh cleric, invoking the god’s magic. How did I know these words? How did I know when they were properly spoken?
Had the gods finally come to aid me?
No, dear reader, let not your thoughts drift that way. I am a pilgrim – not one with the true intent of ever reaching his destination, not one with true faith. Yet I had spent years conversing with priests, with the faithful in their flock. During that time I picked up so much knowledge, storing it in my subconscious memory. So many prayers, so much information is there, and I hadn’t realized it. How much better my façade as a pilgrim would have been if I had used it in my days on the surface! How much more money could I have conned out of fools? How far away from Deersrun Hill and my ill destiny could I have been?
Carter. You want to know whether Carter died.
Yes. He did.
I think he had met the Messenger of Death before Red yelled at me. Blood was still pumped out by his heart, but the soul had left for the abodes beyond.
I didn’t know at the time, so I turned back and continued my vain attempts to staunch the flow of blood. At some point afterwards, I stripped my leg armor off, so I could reach my dirty robe beneath, adding the shreds of that cloth when there was so little left of Valanda’s.
Red was quiet. As I discovered later, after hearing my angry words of prayer, he had knelt down and joined his voice to my words. So did many of the others, gathered around us. Torrindas stayed on his feet, bow at the ready. Ever the vigilant, ever the pragmatic Torrindas. We weren’t attacked, Wharfrat didn’t come back, and his arrow stayed nocked.
After a long time Valanda shook her head. “He’s dead,” she whispered.
“I know,” Red said flatly.
“No,” I said, as eagerly as I could, “the gods can still –“
The wizardess pushed my hands back, my fingers clawing the black, wet cloth. “The gods might,” she said softly, “but neither of us can, Ahnfredas.”
Scraps raised his head, said, “People can be resurrected, if the gods want. A priest can –“
“I am not a priest!” I shouted, surprised to find tears pooling in my eyes. I hadn’t even liked Carter! Why did his death hurt so much? Why did I want him to rise from the dead, to continue leading us into the doom waiting for us beneath?
Because he had given us faith, as a good leader will do. I can explain it now, and I can also say that he hadn’t been a good leader in other respects – yet he had kept us going far longer than we would have otherwise. And now a part of myself wondered whether we would have even the courage to retread our steps back up to Guardpeak.
stand over my brother’s grave,
I have strewn on the fresh ground,
I have placed, to keep remembrance bright,
him who shared with me his all,
him who stood tall and bowed low,
him who laughed loud and cried silent.
I stand, over leaves and wreaths,
ask that his soul shall journey to peace,
the place intended when his life’s bowl was full,
the place achieved when his life’s bowl had grown dry.
just Lord, grant my plea,
over leaves and wreaths.”
My voice was somber when I spoke the traditional prayer of a Decirius priest, the Leaves and Wreaths, over the rocks under which Carter was buried. We hadn’t slept a wink. Silently we had gathered stones and piled them up on the vintner’s body. Then we had gathered in a circle around him, somehow leaving me to stand at the head of the pile of rocks, and Red had nodded to me.
I am a pilgrim. I am not a priest. Yet at that point I knew what the others expected of me. We hadn’t been able to do anything for Slim Tim, for Rymondas, or for Longstick. Well, Longstick had been buried, but… Back then I hadn’t known I remembered the proper words, nor did any of the others want me to say them. Maybe Carter had tried his best to recollect the Leaves and Wreaths.
Whatever had been the case then, for that brief moment I was their shepherd, guiding our small community through the good-bye of the man who had brought us here.
“Grant my plea,” I repeated after a moment, looking up at the rocky ceiling, “and let our brother be the last visited by your messenger on this day.”
“So be it,” Valanda said as somberly as I sounded. The others repeated her words, one after another. Red was the last to say, “So be it.” His voice was the darkest of all of us. He had whispered the Leaves and Wreaths along with me, and I had heard his voice break when I had spoken of Carter as a “brother”.
I turned to him, put my hand on his shoulder. “Your brother is with He Who Decides now. No matter how unfair his death seems now, the Just God will bring balance. Trust in Him.”
Red’s lips were pressed tightly together. He was breathing hard, his eyes were drilling into mine.
“Trust in Decirius,” I repeated.
“Trust,” Red repeated harshly – then shook his head, nodded right afterwards. “Yes, you’re right. Thank you, pilgrim. Balance will be brought.” He pushed my hand off his shoulder, his head jerked around towards the other men. “Go back to sleep! You’re no good to anybody as this tired mess! Torrindas, you and I will stand guard. The rest – sleep!”
A ridiculous idea, if you get right down to it. Our juices were boiling after Carter’s murder and funeral. How could anyone sleep? That close to the grave? But you couldn’t resist Red at that time, not when he sounded so much like his brother. And when he made that much sense, if you thought about it.
“Pilgrim,” he nodded to me respectfully as he made his way to the spot where Carter had been standing earlier, while Torrindas took the place that Bluff had held before.
There were only seven of us left. Scraps, Cardsleeve and Bluff slid down to the ground – slowly, doubt and fear obvious in their faces. I blinked, unsure of myself. Then I walked back to the place where I had slept before – clearly marked by the helmet I still hadn’t put on. I sat down, took up the helm and turned it over in my hands, staring at the metal reflecting the light of my breastplate.
Valanda sat down next to me. “You should pay attention to your own words, Ahnfredas,” she said in a voice so low that not even Bluff nearest to us could understand her.
“What?” I answered, unconsciously putting the helmet on.
The wizardess smiled, reached out one hand and removed it from my head. “Trust, Ahnfredas. Trust in the gods. They spoke through you.”
Had it been anybody else, I would have laughed. Instead I shook my head. “No, they didn’t. I felt nothing, Madam. No sign of the gods or anything of the kind.”
“My name is Valanda,” she commented while she brushed my hair straight. It must have been as messy as Scraps’, after sleeping on the ground, and getting dust in the filthy strands. She took her time brushing my hair, avoiding my eyes. “You spoke the right words, Ahnfredas. You were a priest a moment ago, whatever you felt. The gods have more ways than the ones you think of.”
“Do they?” I muttered. If they did, they hadn’t been too kind to me all my life. Oh, so gruff were my thoughts, I ought to thank sweet Maidoyú for softening my tongue. Still, my words then were far from the right ones when I said, “Didn’t you mention that your own faith is wanting?”
Her hand on my head paused for a moment, tightening on a clump of hair – then she continued as gently as before. “Yes, I said that, didn’t I?” She laughed lightly. “Oh, Ahnfredas, you have no idea what I have done. Who I am. Carter knew.” Another pause, another laugh. “Good Carter. Can you imagine that this brute used to be the most romantic fellow in the world? A light dancer, a dream to be in his arms? He used to write poems. Soft and sweet poems. When he recited them, the girls swooned.”
She added her other hand to the business of straightening my hair. “He was much like Grapes. Not as pretty, of course, but as effective.” (I must admit that my heart skipped a beat when she called Grapes “pretty”. Not “handsome”, as a real man ought to be described by a woman.) “Oh, yes, he was. And I, I was a young wizardess, fresh from the college, looking to make my mark. At the college, they’d told me that a good wizard always travels, always learns. If you don’t, they said, you’ll be a dusty speck in a library, but not one as one with magic. I came here, as arrogant as you please, sure that everyone would bend their knees to me, to have my magical services.
“Carter didn’t. Oh, no. He wrote poems for me, yes, but as beautiful as they were, to him they were only practice for the real love of his life.” She paused for a brief sigh. “I knew that when I lay in his arms, Ahnfredas. I knew that I was no more than a diversion, a stop on the way from him. That hurt me, in more ways than I can imagine. For so long I wondered how his wife – Driyaliva, her name was – could be better than me. She’d been around ever since his childhood, yet he hadn’t really noticed her, not until he had become my lover. Maybe being with me made him hunger for someone else, someone who was more suited to him. I don’t know, and I never will.”
She laughed and sighed at the same time. Such a strange occasion, I cannot fully explain it. Nor can I explain how empty I felt at the time, and how much I clung to her words.
“He started dancing with Driyaliva, every time that I wanted a break. He was smooth, I’ll grant the old lug that much.” Another laugh, one that should have been bitter yet was full of sad mirth. “He still wrote poems to me. But they weren’t really about me, you know. They were about Driyaliva. Oh, well, you know how it turned out. I was cast aside, and she became his wife, the mother of Grapes. She died when the boy was five. The Shaking Fever took her. Carter never took another lover. He never looked at me as he had in the old days.”
She shook her head, and her hands finally sank from my head. I looked up, into her eyes. They weren’t as sad as I expected them to be. They seemed happy. I didn’t understand, and the confusion must have been obvious. “Leaves and Wreaths, Ahnfredas,” she said with a small nod. “He is with the Just God, and his soul shall journey to peace, as your plea will be granted. I loved that man. I tried to make up his loss with Red… Oh, yes, I did. What would the Lady Alyssa say to that?” She giggled – so unfitting a noise, yet she made it sound charming. “I suppose,” she smiled at me, “that the Lady would call me a good follower of her creed.”
Her mirth waned suddenly. “You wondered about my faith. It left me that day, when Carter married Driyaliva. And if anything had remained, it was shattered when Grapes was born. Such a beautiful babe. Every bit as beautiful as he grew up to be. Don’t judge me too harshly, Ahnfredas. I am not a good woman, I know that. Once I dreamed of being great at my craft, yet I have spent all my life at Guardpeak, and I am no more than a hedgewizard, good for a small spell or two, but nothing that would excite another wizard. Nobody would want to read my spellbooks, as dry and empty as they are. There is no greatness there, nothing new, only the same tried and true, the old and weary.
“That is who I am, Ahnfredas. An old woman who has buried her dreams a long time ago. My life’s bowl may still show a lot of water, yet it ran out a long time ago in my mind.”
She dropped her glamor. All her wrinkles showed true to me, as they had to Grapes only a few hours earlier. (What had happened to the boy? To his companions, Weathervane and Theralas? Were they resting now, as tired as we were?) Her eyes were dark, as if she expected me to recoil from her age.
Instead I smiled, reached out my hand – quite involuntarily, believe me, I beg you – and brushed over her cheek, toward the wrinkles around her eyes. “I have seen these before, Madam – no, Valanda. You are a beautiful woman, and the Lady Alyssa is glad to count you among her followers.”
Her eyes tightened suddenly – along with mine as I realized what I had just said. Had my dream – the one where her face had been superimposed over that of the goddess – intruded on reality, had I mixed up dream with truth? Had I –
“You, pilgrim, have a way with words. If you so choose.” She smiled. “Do so more often.”
Then she sank away from me, rolled herself up on the floor and fell asleep. She snored. Yes, I know, quite a counterpoint to the preceding scene, but she did snore. (And, yes, I know that I need to keep Valanda from reading these lines, or she will insist on my striking out those words about her snoring. Mind you, she is a woman, and like all of her kind, she is given to being vain. Perhaps more so than some others, but… Alas, I can get rather talkative.)
I sat there for a little while longer, looking at her asleep. It dawned on me that she was nearly naked, and as alluring as her figure was, I knew it was wrong. I took off my armor, stripped off my robe – what remained of my filthy pilgrim’s clothes, that is – and draped it over her. Then I put the armor back on, feeling strangely satisfied. Come the next day, or what would pass for the same in this subterranean realm, Valanda would wear my robe, while I would wear only Longstick’s armor. Yes, I did remember the man who had previously owned these sheets of metal over me.
I felt different when I lay down to sleep myself. As if something important had happened – something aside from the deaths surrounding us. As if something inside me had changed, but I could not put my finger on what it had been.
I whispered a prayer, and then I returned to sleep once more. No dreams haunted my sleep for a change.
“Blessed morning,” I murmured, still curled in my sleeping position, one hand on my blade, the other on my helmet – I can learn lessons, you know? -, “given to us by bright Atawn, shed on us the light of knowledge of Darawk who is thine entrusted husband, shed on us the peace ensured by Seram who is thine cousin, judged by Decirius who is thine uncle. Let us bathe in joy and beauty, as granted us by thine daughter Grenage, let us begin a day in thine shine, wonderful Atawn.”
Do you find it strange that one such as I should say a prayer at waking up? One as deep and heartfelt as this seems to be?
Or perhaps you believe that I had found my way to the gods and to the belief that a true pilgrim should have? If so, I fear I have to disappoint your fervent thoughts and pleas for the safety of my soul. It was nowhere near the benign shelter of divine protection. I had gotten into the habit of speaking a prayer automatically, much in the way of a soldier who awakens with his sword raised, ready to strike at a potential foe.
Oh, yes, I have to admit that recent events made my words seem more righteous than before. I thought back to Valanda’s confession about her past, and how her face had merged with the Lady Alyssa’s in my memory. Perhaps I had indeed been channeling the gods for a moment there, or perhaps I was just a fool.
Honestly? I am not even sure as I write these words. Every now and then I lift the quill, gnaw on its end – fortunately the one clean of ink, the feathers tickling my teeth -, as I ponder my words and how to explain my feelings at that time. In a way I have always been a devout person, yet I have kept on throwing my own faith down the gutter for a moment of well-being, a night at an inn with a succession of well filled steins, with nary a thought for the gods.
Was I just faking it then, as I had always done? Or did I believe that the gods would in fact listen to me?
When I heard Cardsleeve, Scraps and Torrindas say, “So be it”, I was startled, that much I recall. Their words were true, filled to the brim with belief in the gods – and that after hearing my would-be prayer! Was that the change I had seemed to feel before falling asleep? That the others had begun treating me as a cleric? Or at least a pilgrim in the grace of the gods?
If you were here now, you would marvel at the grim smile on my lips. The grace of the gods. Would that I could still dream of attaining that! But, alas, that is still in the future for you who read these lines. And I should not sound too depressed about this. My fate is not as evil as it may seem to some others, yet… Let us just say here that I am what I had not dreamed of being, and this will become clear to you in later pages.
Back when I rose, doing my best to hide my discomfort at the respect with which my comrades regarded me, Red was sitting crosslegged before the cairn under which Carter was buried. His face was drawn, deep shadows under his eyes. I turned to Scraps and whispered, “Has he slept?”
The wiry little man shrugged. “I don’t know. I took third watch, and he was sitting there. I reckon he might have fallen asleep like that. People do that, you know? I did once at the drums, and the lords know how –“ He cut himself short, blinked and stared at me uncomfortably. “I’m sorry, pilgrim, I shouldn’t mention the gods in vain, and –“
“The gods understand us better than we do them,” I answered – rather more interested in having my comrade speak easily than maintaining the façade of a godsfearing man. Of course, as you can imagine, my words had rather the opposite effect. Scraps looked cowed by my display of faith and humility, and he slunk away, towards Bluff to speak with him.
Had I achieved respect from my comrades only to be as remote from them as before? Now that was a dismal thought.
Valanda saved me from these ponderings. “Red,” she said loudly, “what now? Are we continuing, or are we returning?”
It was only then, I would say, that the rest of us realized that there was a choice now that Carter was dead. A hard realization, and one that hurt. But it was there. I saw the thought hit the others, as unexpected as it impacted on my mind. We could go back up, to the safety of Guardpeak, away from the pounding of the alien noise below. And from the doom that seemed to wait for us.
Instead of Red, Bluff cleared his throat. “I don’t know about you folks, but I don’t see what has changed. There’s still danger down there, and I for one am going to find out what it is.”
“Really?” Cardsleeve muttered. “I’m not too keen on dying, let me tell you. Why don’t we just go back up, gather some more people, and some real power? I’d rather put my faith in a good hand of cards, rather than this mess of oak leaves we got here.”
He looked about to Scraps and Torrindas for agreement, but the latter looked as calm and unperturbed as always – and Scraps, he was still mulling things over. Bluff, though, shook his head. “Weathervane is heading back up. He’ll tell people what’s going on down here. If we don’t come back, they’ll know to send more down here. But we can take care of things now.”
“And what if we can’t?” Cardsleeve countered. “I don’t see any acorns around. All we have are a few swords, our wizardess and the pilgrim. Whatever –“
“Whatever,” Red joined the discussion, slowly unfolding his legs and rising from the cairn. “We have a duty to our families. Cardsleeve, you don’t have a wife, but you’ve been eyeing the tanner’s daughter on Heralds’ Street, haven’t you? If I know rightly, you’ve bought her a pair of ear rings last week. Do you want her to suffer from that?” He pointed straight to the floor, and to the noise.
Cardsleeve grimaced. “No, of course I don’t, but –“
This time it wasn’t one of us who interrupted him. Instead, it was the music that did when it changed, grew more menacing for a moment. And the ground around us shook again – more softly than when the earthquake hit us earlier, but still similar enough to send every one of us looking for a safer position.
A good idea, since a portion of the floor fell away, crumbling like a loaf of bread. We stared as stairs were revealed, the debris dancing under the tremors, hopping down ever further until the stairs were as clean and pristine as you please. Granted that they were made of rough stone, fashioned by magic rather than mortal hands.
My comrades whispered prayers, sought for divine protection. I didn’t. I looked back, towards where the exit leading back up was. Somehow I knew before what I would see. The ceiling there had collapsed, in a small area, just enough to pile up enough stone that we could not hope to pass. Up ahead, where the cave had continued before, the same thing happened – ever so gently stones were falling, like snow flakes in winter. Like they probably did that very instant far above us.
I was put in mind of a cat playing with a mouse. In a morbid way I had always enjoyed watching that spectacle, and I have never rooted for the mouse to escape. Things look rather differently when you take the mouse’s place, you know?
“Trust,” I said, louder than I had expected. “Trust in He Who Decides to bring balance.”
Red’s head whirled about, stared at me with a hard glance that would have made Carter proud of his brother. “Balance? Yes,” he nodded, waved my comrades towards the stairs, “we will bring balance to our sheets. Draw your weapons, men. Valanda, think about the proper spells. Pilgrim – Master Ahnfredas, I rely on your faith to guide us.”
My faith? Oh, what doom we were certain to head into!
I didn’t say these words out loud. Instead I bowed my head and hoped that Red didn’t see my hand snaking nervously towards my blade. As little experience as I had with a sword, I put rather more faith in the cold metal than my own belief.
“Let’s go!” Red said, every bit the Cayaborean drill sergeant he’d never been.
We marched on, stepped on the stairs. They didn’t turn into tentacled monsters destroying us right then and there. Instead they remained stairs, winding down into the darkness.
On we went, accompanied by the drone of the music and the never-ending voice singing in the distance.
Read on in Chapter Nine!