Shadows of Forever
by Bryce V. Giroux
Table of Contents|
Part 3 appeared
in issue 198.
* * *
Laotious stood at the door of the Smith’s hut, a grim smile on his lips. “Colban, is it?” He regarded the ailing man in the bed. “You should consider yourself lucky. Our marksmen are usually much more accurate than that.” Laotious snickered. “Well, just look at your friend. I trust that our doctors treated you well?”
Colban remained silent and regarded Laotious with eyes of steel.
“Oh, don’t look so angry, friend. Your wife, your friend, they were never long for this world. It is better that they died as they did, with dignity, and with all their faculties about them. I only wish that I too could die that way.”
“That can be arranged, old man.” The Smith glowered at Laotious.
“Oh, tsk, tsk, Smithy. Is that the way your filthy kind repays our generous hospitality?”
“You are a scourge to our people.”
Laotious chortled. “Scourge, indeed. We have come to teach civility to you barbarians. You place valor above knowledge, strength above wisdom. We have come to take your civilization — as it may be — from the crib and teach you to walk for yourselves.”
“Is that what you told the Messatulans?”
“The Messatulans, yes. They are a weak race with no drive, no ambitions. You Ægrinians have all the drive and ambition we once had. We were like you, long ago: barbarians living off our wits and the land. Talin taught us the beauty of culture. Your gods simply honed our desire to strike out and teach the world.
“There is much more to this world than the land of Ægrin, Smithy. There are wonders that would astound you. People whose beauty would make you weep. Would you deny this for the ‘purity’ of Ægrin?”
Colban remained silent.
“I thought as much. You will learn to love us; you all will learn to love us. None can stand before the might and glory of the Visharians. Your people shall learn that, just as the others did. What you do with the knowledge, will make a difference in your lives. Will your race perish like your beloved wife and friend? Will they flourish with us, under our banner? In time, your precious king shall learn of our incursion in his lands. We suspect that your Elder, Léod, has scampered off to warn him. When the king arrives, a magnificent fortress armed to capacity shall greet him. We will offer him a choice: to side with us against our now common enemies or lay down arms and accept our dominance.”
“Oh, Smith, we Visharians don’t give away all our secrets. What’s to stop you from running to them and forging a futile alliance? Consider it an honor, Colban, that we didn’t outright obliterate your pitiful civilization and that we chose you to fight with us in what will be the most glorious battle in all of Ignata.”
“Yes; the world. Do your people know nothing about That Which Was Given to Us? In the Days of Creation, Talin named this land Ignata. It is a word, which roughly translates ‘all’, yet is much more encompassing. I can see you have much to learn. Tell me, the Smiths among your people are considered holy, are they not?”
Colban nodded slightly.
“Yes.” Laotious beamed. “You and I share something in common. Among the Visharians, I too am a holy man. We devote our lives to the study of the Word of Talin. Unlike you, we do not perform menial labor.”
“Smith work is not menial,” Colban said with as much emphasis as he could muster. “Nin Colaim taught our people long ago that iron is sacred. We perform rituals over the crude metal before we smelt it. Our gift of iron-craft is god sent. Each piece we create is sacred.”
“I understand your passion, Colban, I really do.” Laotious sat on a stool beside Colban’s bed. He gently stroked his fingers through the Smith’s hair. “Our people hold Smiths in high regard, as well. Some of them even attain citizenship. If not for Smiths, we would not have our tools or our weapons. Knowledge is true power. Without knowledge, well, there would be no civilization. That, my friend, is why our people prefer their priests to study the Word of Talin and preach it to the people. Now do you understand? No? Well, let me explain further.
“The Word of Talin is based upon four principles. It is through Faith and Love that one achieves Passion, and through Justice and Order that one achieves Unity. War is comprised of the Passion of winning a victory, and the Unity of troops. The tides shift to the side whose Passion and Unity are the strongest.
“Passion and Unity also make up all aspects of life. A Baker’s Passion for preparing foods and his Unity with his bakery allow him to create wonderful meals. Surely, as a Smith, you too experience Passion in the metal you forged, and held Unity with the hammer as you crashed down on the iron.
“Talin taught us that if we possess Faith in him, and Love him, we may fully understand his Passion. Also, if we exude Order in our lives, and ensure Justice be brought to all things, we may attain Unity with his divinity. By being so close to Talin, he will provide us with his divine might, and bring us closer to our eternal victory.”
“The Nins would not stand for this.”
“The time of your Nins has passed, Master Smith. Their power had left this land long before their bodies had. Talin simply helped them pass from this world, and he charged us with spreading his word to the people.”
* * *
Padraig’s heart pounded heavily in his chest. Though he saw nothing, he could feel the icy glares of the shadow wolves peering at them through the bushes. His fingers played at the hilt of the sword. He struggled to keep himself from drawing Moradon.
“D-did you hear something?” Mairghraed whispered. She wrapped her arm around his.
“No... Did you hear something?”
“I thought I did.”
The two made their way arm-in-arm deeper into the dark woods. There was no sound save their heavy breathing and the creaking of old wood. There were no birds, no squirrels, no foxes. On the surface, the forest was dead. Still, Mairghraed and Padraig could feel the ever-watchful eyes of the shadows.
“What’s that?” Mairghraed asked, pointing.
Padraig noticed a spot of white, and a glint of silver among the black bushes and the brown leaves. He placed a finger to his lips and looked at Mairghraed with wide eyes. He took her hand that gripped his arm and motioned her to stay put. Grabbing a thick branch, he made his way to the object. When he got a sufficient distance from the bush, he reached the stick out and poked. The object shifted, and fell out of the bush with a thud. Mairghraed’s shriek echoed through the woods. Padraig leapt back and gazed down at the skeleton that he had dislodged from the bush.
He knelt down to get a better look at the corpse. “It’s all right, Mairgie; he’s already dead.”
Without warning, the skeleton sat up. Padraig shrieked and fell backward. It was alive! At least, it was moving. Mairghraed froze in place. Padraig scrambled to his feet and swung his stick wildly at the living skeleton. A blow landed on the skull. The skeleton’s head snapped back and its jaw flung off, but to Padraig’s horror, it remained standing.
The living skeleton shambled forward. Padraig stepped back. He took another swing. The monster grabbed the stick and yanked it free of Padraig’s hand. It swiped at him. He managed to duck in time. The club struck a tree with a terrific force that caused bark to splinter and explode, sending bits soaring past Padraig’s head. Padraig’s heart stopped shortly, and the blood left his limbs.
“The sword,” he heard Mairghraed call. “Use the sword.”
Padraig gripped the cold hilt. No, he could not. He should not. The skeleton swung again. This time, the wind screeched past his ear as the club crashed into another tree. The force caused the club to explode into a shower of splinters, but it still held in its bony hands enough of the stick to strike the young man down.
Padraig took another step back. Tripping over a root, he crashed to the earthen floor and sprawled on his back. He stared back at the empty face of the living skeleton and the splintered club raised high above its head.
Padraig had no other choice. He forced Moradon from its scabbard and swung wildly. The silver blade cut through the air with a whistle and reached its target. The moment the edge cut into the femur of the skeleton, a brilliant light issued forth. A wail, possibly from the spirits within the skeleton, pierced through the dark forest. The living skeleton collapsed at Padraig’s feet in a heap of dry bones.
Both Mairghraed and Padraig were silent. Padraig rose to his feet and stared gape-jawed at the weapon he held. He and Mairghraed were the only people, other than Master Colban, to look upon Moradon. They were definitely the only ones to see its powers. The blade shimmered and hummed in the gloom of the forest. It truly was a beautiful blade. Before long, the light from the weapon dimmed, the hum quieted, and the blade returned to normal. Still, it was far more beautiful than Padraig had imagined. The edges were polished and flawless, and looked as though they could easily cleave through metal armor. A fiery script carved in the ancient tongue on its face proclaimed this sword to be Moradon — Sword of Life.
Padraig sheathed the sword and turned to Mairghraed. Tears streamed down her face as she stood motionless and trembling. Padraig wrapped his arms around her and whispered, “It’s fine. It’s all right.” Mairghraed sobbed uncontrollably.
* * *
Norin Wynrich straightened his toga and looked back at Elia sleeping peacefully on the bed. After the missing Elder and the brawl on the street, his day was improving.
He left the tent into the blinding mid-afternoon sun. When his eyes adjusted to the light, he surveyed the progress. The moat around the perimeter of the village was taking shape, and the outer fence was looking to withstand a minor assault. The Messatulans were indeed efficient workers. Tomorrow, the Messatulans should have finished the moat and they would begin laying the foundation of the palace. He was going to have to sacrifice some of the defense structures to speed the construction. The extra troops that Tao had brought with him should make up for it.
A young captain from Tao’s ship trudged his way through the muddy streets up to the Norin. He pressed his hand to his chest and bowed his head. “Norin Wynrich,” he said. “My name is Tarn Frogfoot of the Sixth Battalion.”
“Well met, Captain Tarn Frogfoot. That is such an odd name. Where is your home?”
“I beg your pardon, Norin?” Captain Tarn looked at the Norin with wide eyes. “I am from Endrova, Norin. Why do you ask?”
“I am just curious. Come, follow me and tell me the news of... Endrova, is it?”
Wynrich led Tarn through the village streets, trying carefully to avoid the puddles of mud the clumsy water-bearers made carrying the water from the ocean to the moat. The Ægrinian villagers, for the most part, had resumed their normal lives, but not their opinion of the Visharians; many of them crossed the road when Wynrich and Tarn approached.
The two passed the noisy market where the merchants and farmers hocked their wares. The scent of Ægrinian food was somehow alluring to Wynrich: the sweet aroma of bread rose from one wagon in particular. Behind the counter, a large, unpleasant-looking woman called out to the crowds in her primitive tongue. Wynrich was glad he had taken the time to learn some of the language before leaving Visharia. Her eyes met Wynrich’s and went narrow; her face tightened as if she had eaten a lemon.
Wynrich stopped and smiled a toothy smile. The baker recoiled. “How much for a sweet loaf?” he purred.
“Two copper bits,” she said quietly.
Wynrich grabbed two sweet loaves and handed one to Captain Tarn. “I’ll take it out of your taxes, my good lady,” he said with a wink.
Tarn looked at his sweet loaf, then back at the baker. She scowled back at him. He shyly offered her the loaf back. She waved her hands at him. “Keep it,” she growled, and then grumbled to herself as she turned away.
“Don’t worry about these Ægrinians,” Wynrich said, putting his arm around the young warrior’s shoulders. “They will soon learn to love and revere us, like the others.” He took a bite of the sweet loaf. The flavors of sweet honey and flower petals filled his mouth. The humans were fantastic cooks.
“You mean like the Messatulans?” the captain asked softly, tearing a small piece of bread off and nibbling at it.
Wynrich chuckled and slapped Tarn on the back. “No, no, no, my good lad. The Messatulans are a pimple on this world. The only reason why we tolerate them as we do is their physical labor. These Ægrinians, well, they are special, like the Endrovans.” The Norin looked at the captain sidelong, and then smiled. “They deserve our gift of civilization. But tell me, my good captain, how goes the war in Visharia?”
* * *
The day stretched on as Léod walked down the High Road. He glanced behind him every now and then. No one followed. This worried him. Surely, the Visharians were aware he had fled town. Poor Aodh and Colban. The Visharians did not look to be the type to treat rabble-rousers lightly. He wished they had not gone through all that trouble to help him escape. He wished he could return home.
Returning was not an option now. If he went back now, the Visharians would surely punish him. He began to wonder if it was really worth it. What if there really was no Kalzrok? What if that voice he heard in his head was just his panicked mind looking for a way out? There was no turning back now; delusion or not, he was bound for the Red Mountain — what was it that entity called it where the mountain is — the Fiery Boands? Destiny decided his path now. His selfishness condemned him to walk the Last Walk. It was the only way he could regain the favor of-
He stopped and looked up at the crisp blue sky. Yes, that is right. Nin Colaim was dead. Léod did not have anyone to favor anymore, other than Kalzrok.
He dropped his chin to his chest, and continued up the road to Tannersrægh. At the rate he was walking, he guessed he would be in town by nightfall. He would rest at the inn there, the Wayfarer he believed, and then catch a coach to Éuarægh. From there, it was another long journey by coach to Drustanrægh. Then the painful three-day foot voyage north to the Red Mountain. Léod sighed. It was going to be such a long journey.
Rounding the corner, the Elder saw an encampment on the road ahead. The flapping standard indicated if his heraldry was correct, that this was the Fifth Regimental Army. What were they doing here? Léod continued up the road.
A private, judging by the epaulettes, approached Léod on the road. He was a tall man with braided hair, wearing the standard leather armor and blue-and-white kilt in the pattern of the regimental tartan. Obviously, an archer-scout, a short sword hung from the private’s side, and a longbow slung across his back. The private held up his left hand and called out, “Hold. State your name and business on this road.”
Léod bowed slightly at the hips. “I am Master Léod, Elder of Glærn.”
The private bowed his head. “Well met, Master Léod. I do recommend that you return to Glærn for your own safety.”
“What is wrong?”
“Bandits are about. They waylaid a caravan on its way to Glærn. We are hunting for their den now. The road is not safe until they have been apprehended.”
Léod took a deep breath and looked back in his town’s direction. He could not go back to those Visharians. “Private, I’m sorry. I do have pressing matters in Drustanrægh. Perhaps I could get an escort?”
At that moment, a large man approached. Léod recognized him immediately: Captain Giric, a man known across the King’s Province for his heroism and valor. He had been born and raised in Glærn, and Léod had practically raised him. Legends told that Giric had the arm of Nin Colaim, and it was no surprise that when he grew up, he joined the army.
Giric looked down at the private with a frown. “What seems to be the problem, Private?”
“This man,” the private said, nodding to Léod, “says he has important business in Tannersrægh.”
Captain Giric regarded Léod, his stern eyes softened, and his frown broke into a smile. “Master Léod. What brings you up this way? Has Colban sent you on one of his errands?”
Léod’s face saddened. “No,” he said distantly. “To tell the truth, I have important news for only King Drustan.”
“What sort of news, old man?” Giric still smiled back at the old man, oblivious to Léod’s mood change.
Léod remained silent and looked at the private, who stood rigidly at attention in Captain Giric’s presence.
“Oh, Private, you are dismissed.” Giric waved his hand at the private.
The private saluted with a closed fist with thumb extended, pressed to the side of his head. He wheeled about and double-timed back to the camp.
When the private was gone, the captain placed a large arm around the frail Elder. “Tell me, old man, what’s troubling you?”
Léod wept in the comfort of Giric’s protective arms. “Oh Giric. What have I done?” he lamented.
Copyright © 2006 by Bryce V. Giroux