"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 ELEVEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER THIRTEEN
Red was next to cross over the abyss. It was now a goodly eight yards wide, and deep – my heart nearly stopped when I dared look down. So far, so ungodsly far!
Bluff and Torrindas held on tight, their legs at a sharp angle, their feet such a short distance away from the cleft’s lip. But Red made it across safely. He for one kept his eyes open all the way, dropping to the ground the instant he was across. “Come on, Torrindas!” he yelled. “You’re next! Hurry up! Hurry up!”
The head laborer hesistated, exchanging words with Bluff. “Come on!” Red shouted angrily. The two men across argued, then Bluff nodded quickly, spreading the rope out, walking to one of the few trees remaining on the small island.
At the same time another of those trees fell down in the chasm. I watched it plummet, turning over, its leaves scraped off by the walls, they themselves scraping a lot of dirt. I felt the tremor in my boots. So did Jitters, my lizard-squirrel, who poked his head out once more and let go a trilling, nervous sound. “You’re safer inside,” I said, fully aware how ridiculous I sounded as I pushed him back inside. The squirrel would escape shortly, I knew, as soon as it had finished the apples. So much for choosing a name. So ridiculous, wasn’t it?
Bluff tied the rope around a wide tree trunk, taking the time to check the knot twice.
Torrindas had taken the second thick rope, Red’s, and tied it around Cardsleeve and himself. Red quieted down when he saw that. Of course. We had to get Cardsleeve out, after all, to come up all acorns.
He’d given me a card before I had ventured across the abyss. It was underneath my breastplate. I pulled it out – getting another bite from Jitters who thought I would take one of his apples. (Now who collected them, me or you?) The card flat against my palm I watched as Torrindas pulled Cardsleeve close to him, shifted him to his back and put the gambler’s good arm around his back. Torrindas said something, probably told Cardsleeve to hold on tight, then he tightened the sling around both of them, to make sure. Can’t trust an injured man to have enough strength, now can you? Good, reliable old Torrindas.
Bluff stood by the edge of the cleft, slapped Cardsleeve, then wrapped his hands around the rope, steadying it. It would swing when Torrindas took to it, that was for sure, and Red motioned for the three of us on the safe side to do as Bluff had.
Torrindas started, making good speed. I was surprised – Red had taken longer, and he hadn’t carried an injured man on his back! Oh, yes, you could always rely on Torrindas.
But you couldn’t rely on the powers around us to leave us alone.
Torrindas was halfway across the abyss, his arms and legs pumping hard to keep moving at the pace he’d set before. I couldn’t help but cheer him on, and so did Red – although his words were harsher and sounding more like an army sergeant’s. (Although I don’t think that Torrindas minded some of the insults that were peppered into Red’s encouragements; he probably didn’t hear either of us.)
Cardsleeve was doing his best to hang on tightly to the head laborer’s back, burrowing his face in the neck armor. A strange picture they made, those two gleaming carapaces proceeding along the rope – like two spiders on top of each other. Or rather on bottom.
It was Scraps who noticed the change. “The music!” he suddenly yelled, letting involuntarily go of the rope.
“Get back to it!” Red screamed at him.
“But the music – Red, it’s changing!” Scraps yelled back. (He did grab the rope, though.)
He was right. It was nearly the same rhythm as before, but now it picked up fresh speed. And the voice returned to accompany it. The bard. He’d brought Valanda to wherever his destination had been, and now he was finishing us off. (It hadn’t been that long since he’d disappeared from our sight. Judging by the slow pace he’d shown, that destination must have been nearby. We could get to Valanda quickly.)
What was the effect of the change? Tremors. Quaking beneath us. The abyss jerking, tons of dirt suddenly plunging into the deep, along with bushes, trees, and animals caught inbetween. A fox-like reptile, or dragonkin, was yipping, holding on for a moment to a branch – then the entire tree it was attached to fell, along with the lizard-fox.
Jitters in my breastplate squeaked.
So did I, only marginally more dignified.
Torrindas stopped when the quakes started hitting, looking at the cleft around him growing. He stared back – our gazes travelling along with his -, towards Bluff whose feet had been planted on more or less solid ground a moment earlier. Now that ground was cracking, tumbling, moving, shifting.
Bluff had been holding onto the rope, stabilizing it. Now the rope was stabilizing him.
And the cracks were eating towards the tree he had chosen. The island would be gone shortly, along with the tree, which would then be a weight on the rope. The rope had been tied firmly to the tree over there, but on our side…? Only the exploratory rope swinging around it. And the three of us holding it.
“Bluff!” Red cried. “Your sword! Hack the bloody rope off!”
“I –“ the tall man shouted back, precariously perched on the shaking ground. It was the only chance. We three might be able to hold our friends – but not if the weight of that tree was added.
“Do it!” I joined in.
Bluff finally listened. A heartbeat before the earth under him crumbled away, he jumped backwards, towards the tree, drawing his blade in a swift motion. He landed, came up like a cat, but unlike my first imagination, he didn’t start hacking right away. Bluff had to take a second, orient himself, sight the rope and then –
Then my gaze switched to Torrindas. Cardsleeve on his back had yelled. Not the head laborer, no matter that the rope was shaking, vibrating heavily after Bluff had let go. No matter that Torrindas legs had slipped off the rope, and his arms were all that separated him from the abyss below. He was straining, but made no sound. Probably didn’t have breath left to spare for that.
“Demons’ flames!” Scraps yelled. Red strengthened his grip on the rope.
I am destined for more. Where did that thought come from? From myself? From the gods? Oh, me of little faith.
Wrong. At that moment, my faith was so strong I would have tried moving mountains with it. And you know what happens when one feels that way.
I moved past Red, barely thinking more than that one line, I am destined for more, I cannot die, and I found myself shinnying on the rope again. Red and Scraps screamed, shouted for me to stop, to come back.
It was rather easy, you know? Jitters was hopping up and down, surely commenting on my sanity, and were he able to speak, he would have outdone all the comments that Red and Scraps rained down on me. You know something else? He would have been right.
“Fool!” Torrindas grunted when I got close to him. “Turn back, we’ll die!”
He was as much a fool as me, wasting his breath like that. I unhooked one hand from the rope, grabbed for Torrindas’ breastplate. Hoist it up, so that his legs could get the rope again.
Hoist two men up? “Cardsleeve, push him!” I shouted.
“From what?!” my gambling friend responded. It was futile for him to help me. He was swinging with very little purchase, his good hand barely grasping the rope, adding precious little support.
“Turn the bloody flames back!” Torrindas grunted.
His arms were slipping. He couldn’t hold two men, either.
Jitters slipped from my breastplate, dancing nervously up and down. I saw him out of the corners of my eyes, a small scaled dervish darting hither and yonder – before deciding that he could rush along the rope far more easily than heavy men like me. I knew more than saw when Jitters ran off, towards safety and a tree that wouldn’t plummet into nothing all of a sudden.
Things changed then. One heartbeat the rope was horizontal, spanning the abyss clearly. Then a voice cried, “Hold on!”, and the rope slammed away, toward the safe side.
Safe side. I cringe, using that word. Yes, it was stable, but for us at that time, all the fools on that rope, it was a wall of dirt racing toward us. Bluff had cut the rope, you see, and he’d caught hold of it in the last possible instant. Now he was dangling beneath us, scrambling to get higher, to add his legs to the force of his hands and arms.
The wall crashed into me – yes, technically, it was the other way around, but that was how it felt to me. I was right above Torrindas and Cardsleeve now, and my own grip was slipping. Slipping. And losing.
I fell, for a tiny instant, my hands darting towards the rope.
I got it.
And my body slammed into that of Torrindas. That was more than his weary arms could take. He let go. For a heartbeat.
Cardsleeve’s hand brushed past my leg. He grabbed my boot. It slid down. I brought my foot up, tried to stop the slide.
Then two other arms wrapped around that leg. Torrindas. The weight of two men pulled at my leg, the force travelling through my body to my hands.
Get your arms around the rope! I yelled at myself. My arms must have heard the message before I had, doing just that. But two men hanging on the frame of a scrawny man such as I was?
Abyssal flames, it was impossible for me to keep a grip! Absolutely impossible.
I didn’t realize at the time. I didn’t have a chance.
Bluff came up below us, shinnying as fast as he could, and he was a good rope climber. Somehow he must have pushed himself under Torrindas and Cardsleeve. The gambler noticed him first, his feet slinging around Bluff’s neck. Stopping his ascent for a moment as the armor smashed into his face. Bluff didn’t let go. Bluff kept going, after that slight pause.
We were all crying, as much as our breaths allowed. Scraps and Red above us did the same.
Time slowed down. The weight pulling on me lessened. Just a bit, but enough for the moment.
Gotta get up! And how was I supposed to pull off that miracle? Hanging on was all that I could do!
Torrindas found the rope. Bluff was close enough that the head laborer’s feet could use him as guidance towards the rope, slinging them around, too. There was only my own weight left on my arms.
“Move, pilgrim!” somebody below me shouted. Was it Torrindas, was it Bluff, or was it Cardsleeve? I don’t know. I did as I was told, though. Hand over hand, push the legs up. Up. Up. Higher.
Red and Scraps were trying to haul us up, pulling on the rope. They were too weak, managing only a few inches before I reached the lip of the abyss. My mind was dazed, almost so that I wanted to go on climbing the four yards of solid ground behind the rim. Red yelled at me – I don’t remember his words, but it broke through my shell.
I rolled aside, panting heavily, forcing my legs under me, pushing myself back up. Standing. Yes, I was standing. And there was a stretch of rope waiting for me. My weight was gone from the rope, and I could add my paltry strength to pulling.
Red was closest to the lip, Scraps behind him. I took the spot right behind, grabbing the rope once more. It hurt more than it had when my life had depended on it. My hands burned, were on fire. I held on. I pulled.
The rope barely moved. We were still too weak.
From Red I later learned that our friends had stopped moving then. Torrindas wasn’t able to go on. He did his best to push further up, but he couldn’t. He was panting, grunting, like a wild beast. Only five feet separated him from the cleft’s top. Only five feet. Less than a man’s height. And he couldn’t go on.
Bluff was trapped under him. He couldn’t go past Torrindas – he would have had to clamber over both him and Cardsleeve, putting all their weight on the head laborer’s arms.
My friends were doomed. So much for that destiny. If there truly was one, it only meant me.
And maybe Jitters. The lizard-squirrel had stuck around, and now it was leaping back up my leg, heading straight for the breastplate and the apples inside. Apparently he had decided this was his nest now, albeit moving and not very tree-like.
I felt heartened by that, a little bit. Jitters hadn’t given up on us, and so I shouldn’t either. I put more strength into pulling, groaning and half-shouting with every push that I gave. So did Red and Scraps after a moment.
The rope moved. Half a foot. Grab the new spot! Now! There, you’ve got it! Now that’s the way to go, Ahnfredas!
At that moment Red shouted, “Cardsleeve, don’t! We’ve got you!”
The gambler had realized that he was the weakest link in the chain of bodies on the rope. Torrindas could barely support them both. He couldn’t move up with our comrade on his back, tied to him. So Cardsleeve had started picking at the knot holding him to Torrindas. He used both hands. The arm that the driger had nearly torn apart was healed enough.
Yes, it was healed. Magically. Divinely. The Great Healer Decalleigh had heard my prayer.
“No!” Bluff shouted beneath, seeing what Cardsleeve was doing.
Torrindas didn’t shout. He was hanging onto the rope. I doubt he knew what was happening. All he knew was that suddenly the weight on his back was gone, and his strength sufficed to push him further up.
The rest of us saw everything. “Coming up acorns!” Cardsleeve shouted, just as the knot finally gave way under his prying hands. The rope fell away. So did Cardsleeve. Bluff twitched, as if he were trying to grab our friend’s body, but he didn’t.
Remember my vision earlier? Tumbling head over feet? Cardsleeve didn’t. He just plummeted away into the dark abyss beneath us. His face kept looking at us. I have never seen another face as serene as his had been.
“Giving your life for another man to live,” a priest of Seram, the god of war, had once told me, “it is the greatest deed you can dream of. The Heavenly Abodes will sing your praises, and they will open up to you.”
They had better.
Torrindas and Bluff made it up the rope safely. Dazed, we got the rope up, stowed in our respective breastplates, and then…
We must have started moving, for when I came around to reality and looked about, the chasm was nowhere in sight. At first I just took that for granted – then the thought hit me I had no idea which way we had gone!
Were we following the trail of the dwarven bard? The trail where he’d taken Valanda?
“Gods!” I exclaimed, getting everybody’s attention. Good. That made it easier for me to ask Red about our direction.
He shook his head, looked about in a confused manner. He didn’t know, either. We milled about, trying to get our bearings – find a landmark we’d noticed before being trapped on our shrinking island. Before we did, Scraps noted that there weren’t any more tremors. No matter where my comrades stepped, the ground stayed silent. As if it didn’t matter anymore which way we walked.
Because Valanda had already been taken. And we didn’t have a chance to save her – at least as far as our opponents were concerned. (Did I think the dwarf was alone? I don’t know. I couldn’t imagine why he’d killed all his comrades up in the cave with his magic. Factional fighting, that sounded more likely. And quite frankly, I probably didn’t waste much time on that topic. We had to free Valanda, that was the only thing that counted.)
“There!” Bluff shouted. “That stalactite was to our left when Cardsleeve called us over to the body!”
Right! I remembered that I had been looking that way when the blue flash had blinded me momentarily. It had passed, I had followed my friends, and Cardsleeve… Cardsleeve…
Don’t think about that now! Think about Valanda!
I forced myself not to think about that too closely. My friends were having the same problem, I saw by the way their shoulders drooped forward. A sorry sight, with the magnificent armor we had on. But armored we were, and we had swords to fight, and –
Damn! I’d lost my sword fighting the driger, and Bluff – I checked his scabbard, it was empty -, he’d lost his blade when hacking off the rope a few moments earlier. What about the others? Scraps still had his, so did Red, and Torrindas… He didn’t even have a scabbard anymore! When had he lost his? Had he taken it off, before carrying Cardsleeve –
“Right,” I muttered and brought the matter to the attention of my friends.
They cursed, then Red silenced them. “Break off some branches from the trees. Make-shift clubs are better than nothing.”
We did that, aided by those swords we still had with us. Red’s and Scraps’ were nicked, and hacking at branches didn’t do wonders to their sharpness. But then we had some more weapons, in addition to our bows and arrows. (We’d lost some of those as well, mostly arrows. Please don’t make me enumerate how many we had left. It’s depressing to think of how ill-equipped we were at that time.)
“That way,” Red said forcefully when we shouldered our clubs and pointed in roughly the right direction. We walked off, finding the chasm within a short matter. Neither of us spared it more than a brief glance.
Before we’d gotten there, I’d worked at remembering which way the dwarf had left. Standing at the rim of the abyss, it took me a few heartbeats to work out where to head next. We set off to find and rescue Valanda.
“Dammit, I – Stop, will you?” Bluff shouted from behind. “I’ve got a stone in my boot!”
I kept on walking. Bluff could catch up with us easily – a man that big could match three strides of mine with two of his, after all. I’d measured that during our descent, in an odd moment of idleness. Valanda was somewhere ahead of us, alone with the bard. Still asleep? Or stunned? Or was she awake, was she battling the bard with her magic, and was she –
“Pilgrim! Hold it!” That was Red’s voice. I stopped, cast an angry glance back at my comrades. They were standing in a circle around Bluff, Scraps resting his arm on Torrindas’ armor. What? Was it that interesting to watch a man pull a stone from his boot?
Red was a step or two ahead of the others. “You’re walking like a man possessed, pilgrim,” he muttered. “In a minute or two you’ll keel over senseless at that pace.”
No, I wouldn’t. I was destined to continue. I knew that now. There was no other explanation. The gods had saved me, and now I would save Valanda.
Ahh, my reader, you wonder at my change of heart? You’re waiting for me to admit that all of this was the doing of the gods, and that my faith had guided me to this point and beyond? If that is the case, you’ll spend a long time waiting. It was only my younger self at that point who was filled with conviction. True or false conviction? To be frank, I do not know. Maybe I will find out one of these days.
“Sit down!” Red ordered me. “Also the rest of you. Gods damn you to the abysses, we’ve been through a demonsload of dung, and now we’re going to take a breather. Am I understood?”
“Sure thing,” Bluff said, falling to the ground and only then continuing to pry the stone from his boot.
I was of a different opinion and voiced it loudly. All I got was Red walking over to me and slamming me to the ground. “Sit down, I said! Five minutes! We aren’t good for any rescuing right now, and Val’s gonna last that long.”
Was she really? I shouted that we had to continue, that we couldn’t allow ourselves even a heartbeat of rest.
Red didn’t listen. Neither did any of my companions. Not that they complained about my eagerness. Had I acted like this a day earlier, I would have been facing a wall of complaints. Now they only looked at me wearily, taking my eagerness for a sign of the gods. They were weak mortals, and the pilgrim was filled with divine strength – that’s how they took it.
No, Red didn’t. I don’t quite know why; he knew what was happening to me, yet he knew – somehow – more than the rest of us. I needed the rest, desperately, even though it took me a heartbeat or two to realize. Once I had shut my mouth, taken another breath, the pain and weary fatigue reflected in my companions’ eyes flooded me as well. My limbs grew leaden. How would I manage to get them moving again. Just rest a little. Just a little. Maybe close your eyes. Whom will it hurt?
My eyes shot open again. I was sure I’d only closed them for the tiniest moment, yet my companions had slid down noticeably, and Red was sitting, with his eyelids drooping shut. Minutes must have passed. Minutes!
I shook my head vigorously. Clean out the fatigue, throw it out! Shake your arms, your legs. Get the blood flowing again. “Five minutes are over, aren’t they, Red?”
“What?” Red’s head jerked up, looking at me. “Bloody – yes, you’re right, pilgrim. Come along, folks, up and at them. Brightly, now!”
He was moving slowly, but his efforts to get going again were more successful than the others’. Mercifully they remembered Valanda, a thought that reinvigorated them noticeably. Red had been right. They’d needed the break.
A little later he’d be proved right in a way I didn’t like one bit.
The bard must have stopped when he’d sung us into the abyss, I reasoned a quarter hour later when we still hadn’t found the dwarf or Valanda. His voice was still around us – but it sounded as far away as it had when we’d stepped out of the tunnel into this underworld.
That didn’t help us one bit. Tracking did, though. Scraps had noted the footprints of the dwarf a bit earlier, dug well into the grassy ground. He hadn’t paid any attention to them, sure that nobody would follow him. A reasonable assumption since we might all have perished in the death trap behind us.
Scraps turned out to be a good scout. He kept finding the trail again and again, no matter how often rocky ground cut through the meadows we were on now. Jitters in my breastplate peeked out occasionally, commenting on the proceedings (and particularly my continued movement) with displeased trills. “Shut up,” I told him. “Don’t you have any apples left in there?”
Jitters turned his perfectly dark eyes at me and squeaked. Yes, but this restaurant should stay in one place, I took that squeak to mean.
I pushed his head back inside – for once not getting bitten -, and after a bit of rummaging, Jitters fell quiet. Sleeping, I suppose.
Scraps was right before me, his eyes focusing on the ground ahead of us. Now and then he was muttering, then pointing out the next set of footprints. “Anything from Valanda?” I asked after a little while. My small comrade turned his head sharply, ready for a harsh answer, then reconsidered. “Nothing yet. A couple of fallen twigs, so I suppose she’s still in that hovering spell or whatever.”
“Oh, I see.”
“Look,” Scraps shook his head irritatedly, “this is tough work, all right? The trail isn’t that easy to follow, so –“
“I’ll keep quiet,” I nodded, smiling at him.
“Thanks,” Scraps grunted before returning to his task.
I shouldn’t have bothered Scraps in the first place, I knew that. It wasn’t smart, but I was starting to get nervous. So much for my faith, right? It kept wavering in and out, like the flickering flame of a candle. Not a nice image, that. Especially when you think how easily a candle can be blown out.
A few hundred paces after that conversation, we found something new. The area before us had been covered with bushes and meadows a few days or weeks earlier. Only torn shreds of the foliage remained now, scattered wildly about the place. The winds must have swept the better part away.
They didn’t affect the sharp-edged stones lying all around the area. They seemed like a second layer, above the thin strata of earth, covering most of this area – roughly circular, some twenty yards in diameter – with a blanket of black stone, the edges sparkling strangely. Obsidian, I recognized it. Primitive tribes use it to fashion weapons, thanks to the sharpness of the edges. Knives, for instance.
It must have been like a whirlwind of knives that descended on this area, shredding the bushes, the grass – and the four men whose remains lay in the middle of the circle.