"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"
From here on, downloads will only be listed at the Downloads page!
"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER FOURTEEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER SIXTEEN
I woke up first, while my friends were still sleeping. Including Valanda who looked like she had collapsed from one moment to the other, once her spell had faded and the full force of fatigue dragged her down.
Was it the figure I had seen – or thought I’d seen – at the mansion? An ominous boding, or perhaps a helpful sign from the gods?
Not really. Unless you count Jitters as a veritable divine envoy, and his house-cleaning a godly affair. As far as I’m concerned, he was an annoying, trilling shrill mess, and so was the stuff that he shoved out from under my breastplate – remains of his meals, which had included more than the apples that I had put there; while making room for a load of various kinds of nuts as well as several leaves and twigs so he’d have a comfortable place to rest.
I didn’t sit up at first, just craned my head up to watch the lizard squirrel busy himself. “Jitters, you are aware that I’m going to be leaving soon, are you?”
He froze in mid-step when I spoke, turned his large eyes towards me and gave me a hard stare. Don’t you dare! This is my home now! Once he was sure that I had gotten his message and was sufficiently cowed by the mighty (eight inches long, plus the tail) squirrel, he dug back under my breastplate, rummaged around to shove all his newly acquired treasures into the right place.
“We really have to talk about that, boy,” I grunted, then gently got up. Jitters complained with trills, stuck out his head at one point and tried his stare on me again. It had as little effect as before, he was sorry to see. After some more trills, and my taking a couple of steps to shake the clammy cold from my body and loosen the muscles, Jitters made do with his mobile home once more. After diving out for a moment to relieve himself – aiming well away from myself. Smart little animal, didn’t want to soil its home. So I wouldn’t have to worry about that part of keeping a pet, would I?
Oh, my, I had truly acquired a pet, hadn’t I? (Yes, yes, yes, it was probably the other way around, but either way, Jitters seemed willing to stick with me. Or at least my armor.) What was I going to do about that? Would Jitters be happy to accompany me on my travels, to wrest hard-earned coppers (and perhaps silver coins) from fools believing that I was actually going towards Faithold?
Perhaps. As long as I kept that breastplate, and –
Wait a minute! Why would I be allowed to keep this breastplate? It had belonged to Longstick – or had it always been Carter’s property that he had distributed to his men?
I brushed over the metal of my breastplate, noting that my arms were armored as well. The metal was scratched, hadn’t suffered the journey too well. The magical light of my breastplate had diminished as well. Parts of the branded design had been scruffed out, others were clearly broken. What had once been complete, gleaming brightly, was now a dim mess.
Far from worthless, of course. Would Red ask me to part with it again? It was his due, yes. But… Gods, I didn’t want to give this up. I didn’t even want to slip out of the armor, even though it was chafing much as if I were lying in an anthill. The armor and me, we had been through so much, it had become a part of me.
I had to laugh. Softly, so I didn’t wake my friends. This really was the attire to resume my travels as a fake pilgrim. Yes, nothing like armor and a Jengchan split blade to make people trust you. “Please, good friend, pay for my journey. I am a poor pilgrim who really, really isn’t about to carve you up and take your money anyway.” Right. That would work beautifully. I’d do better hiring myself out as a guard in these clothes. I might have to work up an entirely new plan how to make money, and how to –
“No,” I told myself. “That isn’t right.”
It truly wasn’t. I didn’t want to be a fake anymore. Fake pilgrim, fake believer, fake priest. Oh, yes, kind reader, part of me still felt that I wasn’t a priest. Sure, I had worked blessings and curses as only a cleric can, yet I was never consecrated at a temple and that felt wrong to me. I couldn’t be a priest serving all the gods equally. If that were possible, there should be hordes of people like that in the world. As you know, there aren’t.
It was wrong. I was wrong.
What was I to do? I couldn’t pick up the life I had led before coming to Guardpeak. I was… a different person now. The gods were with me, even though I wasn’t comfortable with that. But that didn’t matter.
Maybe the question should be whether I wanted to be a true pilgrim, travel to Faithold after all? The direct route, as fast as I could, without any detours. Honestly going to Faithold, to ask for an audience with the Divine Speaker, to bask in the shine of the gods on that city.
No. I didn’t want to do that, either. It felt… Well, not meaningless, not really. It would be an intriguing experience. I had heard much about Faithold, and the Divine Speaker was said to be an impressive man. Yet…
I had been wandering up the valley’s flank during my ponderings, and now I found myself at the ledge where we had fought the stone creatures. Their dust was still scattered over the ground, barely whisked away by the slight breeze. One spot was gratuitously burned by a fireball, and I knew this was where Torrindas had fallen. Nothing of him remained, except for the occasional glint of molten metal. One fireball, Valanda had said. This looked more as if she had fired volley after volley down.
Death. A friend had died here. Fighting for his life, for those of us – his comrades -, and those of the people on the top of Deersrun Hill.
I spoke the Leaves and Wreaths then, the ancient funeral prayer. Torrindas deserved it.
Was that who I had become? A companion of the Messenger of Death? A priest of Decirius?
I didn’t want to be that, either. I didn’t want to be near death, I wanted to be near life, wanted to give life. “Grant that my hands may relinquish pain and give succor,” I whispered, repeating the healing prayer of Decalleigh.
I had done that, too, hadn’t I? Bluff would have died without me. So would have Scraps, and Red – oh, well, he wouldn’t be sleeping so peacefully without my healing him.
But that only reminded me of Cardsleeve. I had healed him, and then… Then he had let himself fall to his death, so that Torrindas and Bluff could climb out of the abyss to safety.
Could I ever shake its bony grip around me? Or was it supposed to follow me?
I hadn’t spoken the Leaves and Wreaths for Cardsleeve. For a moment I tried to avoid it, wished that I could avoid thinking about his death – about death in general. But Cardsleeve had been a friend. And somewhere on me had to be the card he had given me minutes before dying. I had stowed it away, hadn’t I? Or had Jitters perhaps thrown it out? (Dear reader, to put your mind at ease. The card was still under my breastplate. Jitters seems to consider it a rather pleasant part of his nest. He snarls every time I try to pull it out, and I don’t like to get bitten.)
I could not get away. The Leaves and Wreaths, I spoke them again, listened to the words roll away on the slight whisp of wind, the moisture from the glowater gently dropping down every now and then. Maybe the wind would carry the words to the place where Cardsleeve’s body lay. It didn’t matter. The words would reach Decirius, judging the destination of Cardsleeve’s soul.
The Taker. The Just God. He Who Decides. Decirius.
Seems I had made my choice after all.
Red woke up a while later. He blinked, patted at his armor, then sat up with the look of a man who has no idea where he is. His eyes focused on me, standing guard over them, my hand on the hilt of the Jengchan blade. “Pilgrim?” he said, rubbing the sleep from his eyes (noting with concern that he still wore his helmet).
“No, not anymore,” I said with a weak smile.
He didn’t understand. It was in his eyes, and some part of me could see further than his eyes. I had become a priest of Decirius now. It is His part as Ruler of the Afterlife that commanded me – no matter how much I despised that -, but I had also acquired the aspects of the Eternal Judge. I cannot claim that I could see into Red’s mind or heart, but I had an inkling of what went on inside him. The same would be true of all other people I should – and shall – meet. Maybe there is a blessing that would allow me deeper insight, but I have never been to a temple of He Who Decides. And I never will.
I reached out my hand to help him up. Uncertainly he took my hand, stood, then shook his head. He didn’t seem like a tough Cayaborean sergeant anymore, only a man who had seen his brother and several of his friends die. He had kept on going on determination alone, but now… Now Red was starting to realize that a part of him had died as well.
Yes, I saw that. It wasn’t difficult, I probably could have done as well before I had become a priest. (And don’t believe I could have said so easily at that time!)
“My name is Ahnfredas,” I said softly. “My pilgrimage is over.”
“Yes,” he said slowly, then shook his head again, stared for a few moments at our sleeeping comrades. “So is mine. I want to go home.”
He said it much like a child whose father has taken him on a long journey, to some dull place that was anything but exciting, anything but that which his father had promised him. Except that the child was so fatigued and empty, he couldn’t even whine anymore.
I didn’t know what to say, honestly. The man before me bore Red’s face, had his voice, yet he was a stranger to me. He wanted me to guide him home. Me! It should have been the other way around, that was what nature had intended, right?
Only that wasn’t the situation.
“Yes, so do I.” Those were the wrong words, empty of the comfort he needed. I realized as soon as I had spoken, and I tried again, “Red, do you have any idea which way we should go? The passage we came down through won’t take us back outside, and –“
I stopped myself. Wrong again. His face hardened, locked down. I wouldn’t give him any reprieve, couldn’t just tell him which way to go, wanted him to act, to decide. Something that Red – this Red – couldn’t do anymore, not at this time.
Meaning that somebody else would have to find the answeres. Preferably somebody who was awake at the moment. Yes, you did the arithmetics, right? It was up to me.
Me who had no idea of Deersrun Hill or this underground world. All right, the same was true of Red as well. He had never been here before, either. Was there any other way up? Except for the one we had taken? It was blocked, I knew.
No, that was silly. Well, maybe not all the way, but it seemed to me that as vast as this realm under the surface was, there ought to be plenty of passages back to the top. Maybe not close to Guardpeak, but – well, on the surface we could find our way easily enough. Find a village, an inn with some good beds to sleep in. My friends – Red in particular, I guessed – were likely to carry money, and if they weren’t… Well, my skills at sweet-talking people into a free bed weren’t quite that rusty, and if push came to shove we could offer some services. Valanda was a wizardess, and I was a priest of Decirius. Which meant that I could serve as a judge, right?
My thoughts were drifting away, dealing more with my potential future than with the current problem. (Although I must admit that my ponderings held some fascinating possibilites. Imagine me, Ahnfredas Bluekeg, serving as a judge! Oh, my father would love that! And my siblings would die of envy!)
How to find a way out of this place? We needed a map. A guide was rather unlikely to be found here. But…
I looked over at the mansion. I didn’t like it any better than I had at my first cursory view of it (and let’s not forget the one where I thought I had seen a person there). But it must have been built by people who had a way to pass from the surface to here and back. They surely hadn’t just stumbled upon this place, were stuck here and then suddenly discovered they had not only the manpower but also the skills to build a mansion like this! Whoever had done this, they must have gone back up to get the proper people. Perhaps the materials had been taken from a quarry in this underworld, but the rest…
“Let’s take a look at the mansion,” I told Red. “We might find maps there.”
“That sounds… good,” he said slowly, unwilling to commit himself or his hopes.
“We’ll only find out once we get there,” I added, with a bright cheer on my face. I didn’t feel cheerful, but I couldn’t bear the look on Red’s face. Gods, it ought to be him making the decisions! We weren’t home yet, were we? He ought to take charge, ought to…
Red did none of that. He just waited for me to tell him to start walking.
“You –“ I started to say angrily, but the feeling didn’t last long. I couldn’t possibly shout at this man. He seemed so fragile, so… unlike himself. “Let’s wait for the others to wake up. They need their sleep,” I resolved to say and squatted down on the ground next to Valanda.
Red shrugged, sat down and gazed emptily at the sky. Up towards his home, separated from him by miles of rock.
Scraps was whistling a jaunty tune while we hiked the half mile towards the mansion. Every couple of steps he skipped sideway, clapping his hands loudly on his thighs. A man with not a worry on his mind, you’d think. Practicing the sets for next night’s session at the drums.
I was beginning to feel grateful for the gift of Decirius, understanding that Scraps was distracting himself from his memories. And doing it for Red’s sake as well, sticking close to our erstwhile leader. As did Bluff. The large man was walking with a slight limp – I hadn’t quite suceeded in healing him, even though I had powered so much magic into him. A Decirius priest isn’t terribly good at healing, I remembered. (I wanted to feel regret for that, but I couldn’t. The choice had been made, and it had been the right one.)
The laborers were crowding their employer. (At least the man who was most likely to take over from Carter, until Grapes came of age.) Would they have done that before, or had this friendship formed during the descent?
“Who built that place?” Valanda wondered, barely raising her voice. She was on my left, on the far side of Red and the others. The wizardess was uncomfortable. Most of her clothes were gone, the clammy air was assaulting her. Bluff had taken off his shirt, under his armor, and given it to her. The sweat-stained, dark shirt hung over her shapely body like a sack, barely reaching her thighs. She was tugging at it every now and then, scratching herself under the shirt. That was a bit gratifying to me – Bluff’s donation wasn’t all that pleasant. Oh, such a silly thought. Bluff wasn’t Grapes, after all. And I wasn’t the fool I had been before.
I shook my head, focused on her question. “I don’t know,” I shrugged. “It looks like any old mansion to me.”
“One that is located in a subterranean world,” she sighed. “Could it have been Tyrant’s Men who did this?”
I noted the sudden attention of Scraps and Bluff shifting towards me. When had I become the all-knowing around here? “I don’t know,” I repeated myself. “The Jengchan followers are… Look, I don’t know all that much about them. They don’t sound much like the type who build anything, they like destroying, don’t they?” Too loud, too frustrated. My friends jerked back, even Valanda, from me, and I quickly shook my head, forced my mind to think faster, come up with something – anything – more informative. “That place reminds me of houses in Coopershire, towards Cayaboré. Old houses, about a century ago.”
“Cayaboré?” Red said, lifting his head a little. Was there a sparkle in his eyes? A memory of good days – even though he had deserted from that army? Whatever it was, he focused his glance on the mansion for a while, then shrugged, and his head sank back down.
Scraps had noticed the change, pointed at the roof and the balconies set in regular intervals around the top floor. “There are reliefs inset there. Can anybody of you recognize them? Maybe there’s some Cayaborean insignia there, the dragon or something?”
We were still too far away to make out any details. But Red was walking a bit faster, a bit more interested in our surroundings.
More time passed, Scraps resumed his whistling – soldierly marching songs, like Red might have known in the Cayaborean army. The storm hadn’t ravaged the ground here, so well contained had it been by the dwarven bard’s magic. What damage there was had been done by animals, by the steady breeze, by the rot in timber. A pen for animals – horses? cattle? – had once stood near the house, and behind it, there had been a garden. A year ago, none of us could have easily told what that patch of darkened dirt had been, but somebody must have worked at it recently. Slim, green stalks rose from places here and there. Wheat? Could be.
Whoever had worked at the garden, he hadn’t been a very orderly fellow. The seeds had been scattered wildly across the area, not that many weeds had been removed when the garden had been turned up. But that fellow must have had some idea how to treat the plants. A wild dwarf?
I chuckled at the idea – reaping curious looks from my comrades, so I had to repeat my thoughts. Scraps and Valanda joined me in mirth, while Bluff scratched his chin and the beginning beard there. “Wish Slim Tim were still here,” he muttered. “He’d probably have read something about that, but you know what? That looks like the gardener had seen other people at work, and now he was trying to repeat what he’d seen. Pull the weeds, plant the seeds. Dump dirt and water on them, that kind of thing. Sounds easy, looks easy, but you keep messing things up if you don’t have somebody to guide you.”
There was an undertone in his voice, one that told me that he had made similar mistakes in his youth (not that long ago) when he had started at Carter’s winery. Somebody must have spent a good time shouting at and teaching him about the proper way to treat the grapes.
A thought occurred to me. Why were we speaking about that gardener in the past tense? I remembered the humanoid figure I had seen/dreamed earlier. Could there be some dwarves left? More than the corpses in the cavern above, and the bard we’d killed?
My hand slipped to the hilt of my sword, felt reassured by the touch of the wood within my fingers. Then I shook my head. Cúchulain weren’t known for patience. They would have attacked us while sleeping, slaughtered us, and I would have woken up to find the Messenger of Death reaching out to me with his pasty-white hand.
But the bard had been bringing Valanda to that mansion. If anybody was there, moving about freely, he would have to be in league with the bard. Right?
I held up my hand, bade the others to stop and squinted at the mansion. A prayer to Nash’Geo would be good now, call up that blue light of warning again. Unfortunately I remembered that I had chosen Decirius as my lord – making it doubtful that Nash’Geo would heed my plea. “Hello?!” I shouted at the mansion, now only some two hundred yards away.
Nothing happened. Valanda said, “There isn’t anybody there, Ahnfredas.”
“Or he doesn’t answer,” Scraps growled. I shot him a glance of gratitude, but he was busy drawing his sword. “There was movement at one window. Could be drapes moving, or something. Red,” he turned his head, “we should be careful. There might be danger.”
“Danger?” Red shook his head, looked emptily at the blade in Scraps’ hand. Then a light flickered on in his eyes, and he nodded, once, twice, with growing resolution. “Yes, there could be,” he finally said firmly, drawing his sword as well. “Bluff, stay with Val and the pil-, with Ahnfredas. Scraps, you and I take the lead. Ten paces. Be careful for any movement you see up there. All right? Let’s get going.”
He moved forward, the ten paces he had announced. Scraps followed, but not without turning around and winking at me with a grin. Red was back as our fearless leader, for the time being at least. Scraps thought that had been the idea behind my caution, and he’d played right into it. There hadn’t been any movement he’d seen.
Strange how I felt elated and downcast at the same time. On the one hand it was so good to see Red like that – and also to know that Scraps thought me smarter than I was -, on the other hand they didn’t believe that I might have been serious.
A stairway of seven round steps led up to the main entrance of the mansion. The stout oak door had weathered the decades well, with a few scratches at the bottom – small animals that had tried to enter. The iron hinges hadn’t suffered the time, and the constant moisture in the air half as well. When Red tried to open the door, the hinges creaked once, let go a menacing hiss, a cre-ack, and then the entire door valve plunged backwards. It landed with a resounding noise on the ground, and both Red and Scraps jumped back involuntarily. Scraps needed to take some extra steps to steady himself, having dropped down one stair.
We came up to the others while the cloud of dust was settling on the oak door. “I don’t think anybody’s used this door in a long time,” Valanda said.
“Side entrances,” Bluff commented.
He was probably right. A house as big as the mansion surely had several doorways – the common service entrances. Didn’t the garden border on an outcropping of stone that might conceal another door from our view?
Red shrugged. “Whatever.” He peered inside.
I could only see a dark foyer, covered with dust and shadows that might be pieces of furniture. There were windows all around the building, and it was constantly light. Why wasn’t the foyer bright? I took a step back, scanned the glazed windows. Some of the glass panes were broken, but all on the ground floor seemed painted a dull, near yellowish white. When I concentrated, I realized I had been wrong. The glass was clear, but behind them were drapes that had once been clean and bright. Decades ago.
Somehow I realized the sense behind that. Human beings were used to the change from day to night; it was a part of our lives we couldn’t do without. For someone like me who’d always had a problem sleeping in the daytime (and marveled at some people who regularly took a nap after lunch), it seemed that living in this eternal day down here would drive me mad sooner or later. So the people who built this mansion probably pulled the drapes shut regularly, creating their own night-time.
(And, yes, I just had spent several hours sleeping soundly in this brightness. Utter fatigue had made me forget about it. Believe me, the regular tiredness of an ordinary day won’t do.)
That also meant that they had left the mansion during their own night, forgetting to open the drapes. Why had they left, anyway? Had they accomplished whatever task they’d set themselves? Or had they spent themselves, finally died here?
Besides, whyever did I assume the builders must have been humans? Couldn’t they have been, say, elves?
Remember the reliefs that Scraps had pointed out? From our current vantage point we had a better view of them. Most were meaningless designs, decorative flowers, other items. Perhaps they hadn’t been devoid of meaning to the architect and sculpturer, I’ll admit that. Now and then human figures were carved into the stone – quite clearly human, with the comparatively squat bodies and the rounded ears of our kind. I felt a bit relieved that the bloodthirsty elves weren’t connected to this mansion. Not that my fellow humans cannot be cruel and merciless. The idea of the Tyrant’s followers involved here was not one to bring cheer to my heart.
Red stepped into the mansion. The light from his breastplate suddenly intensified, as soon as it was encased in darkness, and the familiar powerful beam cut through the darkness. (Which explained why the breastplates had seemed so dim in the past hours. Apparently the magic could sense the ambient light and adjust its own brightness to fit.)
Scraps followed, then I, and Valanda behind me. Bluff stayed outside for a few heartbeats longer, scanning the valley around us.
All our breastplates switched back on – with the obvious exception of Valanda who hadn’t put on any armor. (Later on I learned that there was a very good reason for it. None of them fit her, not even as haphazardly as mine did. Otherwise, she had had ample opportunity to acquire one.) The beams of light cut through the darkness, reflected by dim surfaces, a few mirrors, some glazed pieces in closets, some glassware jugs.
The foyer was a large and airy space, putting me in mind of several temples I’d seen, not least of all the Decirius Hall of Judgment at Mercurham. The size did it, the setting of the windows – albeit covered with the drapes –, and perhaps some of the measurements followed the sacred formulae, but the furniture was more that of a luxurious private home rather than the austere setting of a courtroom.
I was still reminded of that Hall of Judgment, and I marveled that from now on, if I ever returned, I would have a very different view of the place if I so chose. I could very well sit at the head of the room, on the judge’s chair.
We were all taken up with looking at the foyer, the paintings and gobelins on the wall – colors bleached, but not so much that the scenes depicted could not be made out -, the chairs and tables under their coating of dust. Incongruously enough, there were several sets of weapons mounted on the walls, some even close enough to be reached. Swords, lances, crossbows; an old soldier’s set of remembrances from his wars. It took us a while before one thought to direct his beam of light and the ground.
Footprints were clearly visible in the dust, without an extra coating of their own. Somebody had been here recently. Several people, some with boots, and some without. The naked footprints were so small they would have to belong to a child. Or a wild dwarf.
The latter was obvious. But who had been the ones with human-sized boots?
We exchanged glances, wondered in whispers about it. Then there was a scuffling noise from the top of a flight of stairs at the opposite end of the foyer – wide, carpeted stairs, with an elegant wooden railing to either side. We looked up, and there was a diminutive figure on the gallery to which the stairs led, crouched over, hiding behind the railings up there.
Too tall for a dwarf, and besides, the figure wore a scratched set of metal armor. With an intricate, gleaming sign of magic branded into the breastplate. Strange how the first thing I wondered about was why his breastplate wasn’t cutting a beam of light through the darkness.
Only the second thought – while the diminutive figure yelped, shot up from his crouch and darted off into the darkness behind the gallery – was that this person should never have been here. My third thought was that I should race up the stairs and follow him with my blade drawn.
Red was thinking faster. He hadn’t bothered with much thinking, rather he shouted a name full of fury and murder while he started running.