Shadows of Forever
by Bryce V. Giroux
Table of Contents|
Part 4 appears
in this issue.
* * *
“And where is the sword now?” Tao clenched and unclenched his fists. His jaw tightened, and his eyes narrowed.
“That, he would not tell me,” Laotious said bitterly. “It seems it was here, yet has disappeared.”
“Disappeared, how? Do you mean with that old man?”
“No, from my understanding the sword left before the old man did. I would guess that since the Smith’s apprentice is missing, he’s in possession of it, or at least he’s aware of its whereabouts.”
Tao stroked his stubbly chin. “Do you have any idea where this Smith’s apprentice would have ventured off to?”
Adjusting the furls of his robe on his lap, Laotious said quietly, “No.”
Tao rose and paced behind the old man. “Well, this is not good. Negren Zenria was hoping for me to return with the sword. He will be sorely disappointed.”
Laotious shrank in his chair. “There is naught that I can do, Tao.”
“That, my friend, is not an appropriate answer.”
Laotious’ screams echoed across the village square. The villagers stopped what they were doing and stared at the purple and blue tent, gape-jawed. The Messatulans carried on with their business.
* * *
Mairghraed and Padraig moved as silently as they could through the undergrowth of the dark forest. Everywhere they moved they could feel the icy glares of beasts deep within the shadows.
Mairghraed kept close to Padraig, her arm locked around his elbow. “I told you it was a bad idea to come through here,” he whispered.
She hushed him. “I thought I heard something.”
Padraig’s eyes widened. “Where?”
Mairghraed stopped and pulled Padraig beside her. “There’s something following us.” Her hushed voice quivered.
Padraig grabbed the hilt of the sword. He scanned the nearby bushes. Nothing moved.
Then something moved. The smith’s apprentice threw the butcher’s daughter to the ground.
“Mairgie!” Padraig stumbled and fumbled for the sword. Finally, drawing Moradon, Padraig saw four sets of gleaming red eyes; there were no bodies; just shadows. Padraig’s heart stopped. Shadow wolves. His mother had told him stories about the wolves. Until now, he’d passed them off as a fairytale.
One of the wolves snarled, and for an instant, Padraig saw its teeth blacker than night. The wolves leapt and Padraig swung. Moradon passed right through their incorporeal bodies. The force of the swing and the unexpectedness of not hitting a target caused Padraig to fall. The sword flew far from Padraig’s hand and he gasped as it disappeared into a bush. The snarling maws barely missed him.
More gleaming eyes appeared in the darkness. In a moment, shadow wolves surrounded them. Only a narrow escape route remained.
Padraig stumbled to his feet and gathered up Mairghraed, who was still lying prone on the forest floor. He crashed through the opening with as much speed as he could make.
The wolves gave pursuit.
How vile that they should play with us like this, he thought.
Running and carrying the unconscious Mairghraed with him, he felt the baleful eyes follow them. “Go on!” Padraig’s voice rang through the trees. He was too tired to run. “Kill us!”
There was a yelp, and a set of eyes disappeared. Then another, and another. Suddenly, all the glowing eyes vanished into the shadows. Padraig sighed and slumped to the ground, holding Mairghraed close to him. “Thank you,” he said to the sky.
The only response was his echoing voice.
He looked down at Mairghraed. Crimson blood trickled from under her red tresses and down her cheek; she was bleeding badly. “Hang on, Mairgie.” Padraig wept into her chest, whispering soft prayers to Nin Colaim. He wished they were home, safe.
A twig snapped. He grabbed for the sword. The sword. An icy feeling fell over him. The sword was lost somewhere back in that cursed forest. Lost forever. He felt faint as his world crashed down around him. He had been trusted with the safety of the sacred sword and now it was lost. He could never face Master Colban again; he could never face anyone again. He would forever go down in history as the fool who lost Moradon in the wilds.
His attention turned to Mairghraed. She was still unconscious with blood streaming down her head. He cradled her close to him as he wept. He could not stand to look up. His world was lost. Then his world went black.
* * *
Captain Giric sat on a stool, twisting his long beard in his fingers. “What is to be done?” His voice was low, and barely there.
“I know not.” Léod paced frantically about the tent. “The Smith’s apprentice has taken the sword north to Drustanrægh. Perhaps the king’s army will be able to stand up to those invaders.”
“How many did you say there were?”
“At last count, about six dozen; I suspect more are on the way.”
“These ships; did you see how large they were?”
“No. They were far out at sea; too far to be certain of their size. I would suspect each would hold a hundred men. That would be a guess. It could be a thousand, for all I know.”
“I see. And the apprentice; he’s still five days from Drustanrægh, as the ashwing flies?”
“Yes.” Léod regarded the stern captain through narrowed eyes. The captain kept his eyes fixed on the floor and his hand fixed on his chin. “What are you planning?”
Giric glanced at Léod. “It’s nothing, my friend. I should advise that you remain here. I’ll leave one of my sergeants to make sure no harm comes to you.”
Léod stood and glanced at Giric. “You aren’t planning on besieging Glærn, are you? There are innocent people there.”
Giric laughed. “Don’t be worrying about the villagers, Master Léod. Our men won’t go anywhere near them.” He headed out of the tent.
“It’s not your men I’m worried about,” Léod told the walls.
* * *
Padraig awoke with his head swimming in a sea of sickness caused by the large lump on his crown. Someone had stretched and lashed Padraig’s arms and legs. Moving his head proved futile as well, as straps securely lashed him down. His dry throat squeaked out a feeble attempt at a yell.
“Ah, I see the young one has awoken.” The voice, old sounding and crackly, came from somewhere above Padraig’s head. A man’s haggard face appeared.
Padraig struggled against his bonds. “Let me up, old man,” he managed to growl out.
“Calm down, young one, calm down.” The old man loosened the straps. “Your young girlfriend just told me everything...everything.”
Padraig sat up on the bench and rubbed his wrists. “Where’s Mairgie now?” His voice was as thin as his lips.
“She’s sleeping, young one. Don’t be worrying about her none.” The old man stood behind Padraig and poked at the sore lump on the lad’s head. Padraig yelped. “I’m ever so sorry for that lump. I thought you were one of...them.”
“One of whom? Those wolves? Do we look like wolves to you?”
“No, no, no, young one. I’m talking about those invaders.”
“The invaders? Here?”
“I’ve seen them in the book.”
“Which book?” Padraig jumped off the bench and gingerly rubbed the large lump on his head. He winced in pain.
The old man stepped around in front of him and winked. “That is my little secret. Now, why don’t you come inside and have some breakfast?” The old man put his frail hand on Padraig’s elbow and led him into the hut.
The inside was just what Padraig had expected: a one-room hut with dried animal pelts serving as curtains, blankets and decorations. In one corner was an animal-pelt bed. In the other was a crude table with tree-stump stools. Animal bones and scraps of other unidentifiable food littered the floor. Cracked plates and rusty utensils piled in great heaps on the table. A matted mastiff slept at the foot of the bed — and in the bed, Mairghraed slept soundly. The hound sat up when the two entered and whined slightly.
“He’s all right, he won’t bite,” the old man said.
Padraig was unsure if the old man had directed the comment at him or the dog.
“So, you have lost the sword, have you?” The old man took a wooden bowl from the floor. After examining it for a bit, he filled the bowl with a delicious-smelling stew. He offered the bowl to Padraig, and then filled his own. The old man glanced at Padraig and smiled. “Don’t worry, lad. The Book’s already told me so.”
Padraig looked deep into the stew. Tears began to well in his eyes. “Yes, I did.” His voice was soft, barely there.
“No worries. No worries. Everything that has happened has happened for a reason. So says the Book.”
Padraig gulped town a mouthful of the sweet and spicy stew. “What’s this Book you keep talking about?”
The old man humphed. He walked to the other end of the hut and produced an impossibly large tome from an impossibly small box. The Book was ancient and had years’ worth of dust coated on the cover; the leather creaked and the pages crackled when he opened it.
The first page had a drawing of a beast-man Padraig had never seen before. It had six arms and two legs. Bat-like wings spread out from its back. Jagged teeth protruded from its open maw. It looked up toward the sky. Each arm held a different weapon: a sword, an axe, a flail, a mace, a hammer, a pick, and a spear. Under its talon feet was the body of a dragon, its tongue lolling out of its mouth and blood pooling near its nose.
“This is the Word of Inferno. It was written years from now, and sent back to the almighty Kalzrok. It tells of the rise of the Visharians, the fall of the Visharians, and the triumph of Kalzrok in the Fields of Ezdarden.”
“What are Visharians?”
“The ancient legend states that long before the Dawn of the Nins, four great Dragons ruled the lands. Ægra, the Great Fire Dragon, created a land, this land, for his people to dwell. In the South, the Earth Dragon Messala formed a land for his people, and called it Messatula. In the West, the Water Dragon Kindar created Kindara for his people. Finally in the East, the Air Dragon Vishra created Visharia for his people. The story is very vague on what these people looked like, or how they came to be in this world.”
“Where is Ezdarden?”
“The Book is a little unclear on that. I assure you that it is the most terrible war this land shall ever see.”
Padraig stared at the ancient text and his eyes widened. He reached his hand out to touch the brittle pages. The old man snapped his hand away.
“What does it say about Moradon?” Padraig asked anxiously.
“Oh, it has much to say about Moradon.” The old man gathered the book and returned it to the box. “Most important to you is that Moradon has been lost, and shall be for a long time.”
Padraig slumped in his chair. “I’ve ruined everything, haven’t I?”
“Not quite, lad. Not quite.”
* * *
Léod and the archer-scout named Morgan had parted from Giric’s company, and continued toward Éuarægh, which Léod could see in the gloomy distance. His heart skipped with joy — finally, they were within reach of safety. Bandits wouldn’t venture so close and those cursed Visharians were far behind.
Morgan looked over his shoulder. A breeze caught his long dark hair and his eyes sparkled in the sun. He was just a lad, no older than Padraig, yet his eyes held sorrow, having, Léod assumed, seen the loss of many lives and friends. It was a shame that a man so young be subject to the horrors of death. “A shadow’s fallen, hasn’t it, Master Léod?”
Léod’s gaze turned from the young man to the road beyond. “These Visharians mean to stay, I’m afraid.”
“And there’s naught we can do?”
“I suppose we could stand and fight. From what I’ve seen of them, their men are well trained and well armed. Their armor is much better than our leather jerkins and swords. Granted, we do know the land much better than they do. It would be a fierce fight. I don’t doubt the strength of our men, but I do fear their numbers.”
Morgan grasped his spear tightly and shivered. Léod turned back to him and smiled. “Don’t fear the winds of war just yet. You never know, you may just be surprised at the outcome.” Léod wrapped his arm around the scout’s shoulder and turned back to Éuarægh. “There, lad, is our salvation; the City of the Lady. We shall be safer behind her walls.”
The two stumbled wearily down the road. Within minutes, they reached the open gates. Two guards stood at rigid attention as caravans and peasants passed back and forth through the Mouth, the city’s only entrance. Stone walls rose high above their heads, yet the archer posts were unmanned. There was a time, once, that these walls protected the people from the barbarian hordes of the north. That was long ago when Léod was just a boy. Now, the guards stood on ceremony, rather than protection.
Léod shook his head. Passing through the Mouth, Morgan and Léod found themselves on the Lady’s Promenade, which led through the busy market and up the marble steps to the Palace of Éua. Léod’s jaw dropped. It was the first time he’d seen the splendor of Éuarægh. He had heard stories of it his whole life, yet words couldn’t begin to describe it. Rose bushes lined the concourse and flower gardens made a neat row up the center. They saw no a beggars nor cripples. The city was the epitome of beauty.
Morgan seemed disinterested in the beauty as he turned to Léod. “I’ll speak with the Lady’s captain. I’ll meet you at the palace fountain in an hour.”
Léod nodded dumbly as Morgan darted through the streets. The old man worked his way toward the palace, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells of the market.
“Fresh scallops! Halibut! Albatross,” a fishmonger called out from her booth. Large birds hung from the rafters. “Cleaned and feathered for your liking.” Fish lay in a neat row along the counter. Scallops spilled over the rims of a bucket. A baker pedaled his fresh bread and cakes just across from the fishmonger. Léod took a deep breath of the baked goods — mixed in with the smell of the fish, the air was both rancid and enticing.
Various vendors barked out their specials all the way down the concourse: fine cloths, sparkling gems, fresh produce. Merchants sold everything one could imagine down Merchant’s Row. Léod stumbled past the booths, tempted to buy, to eat, to drink.
He fished through his purse and produced a gold coin. He hustled to the grocer’s booth. “Give me as many apples as this will buy.” The coin shimmered in the golden light as it fell from his fingertips to the counter. He laughed.
The grocer’s grin grew and he tipped his hat to the generous old man. He placed six apples in a sack and handed it to Léod.
Léod’s mouth was already watering. He snatched the apples from the grocer and reached deep into the sack. The first bite of that shiny red apple was most delicious. Juice poured from the wounded fruit and down Léod’s chin as he left his manners behind devouring the hapless fruit. The grocer watched, smiling. Léod smiled and winked, then continued up Merchant’s Row to the palace.
An hour later, the apples were gone. Léod sat gazing into the palace fountain.
“Master Léod! Master Léod!” Léod turned around, hoping to see Padraig and Mairghraed’s faces come bounding through the crowd. Instead, Morgan pushed his way past the shoppers. Daunted, Léod smiled weakly.
Morgan broke free of the crowd and sat on the stone bench, gasping for air. “I spoke with Captain Iver. I told him what you told me. He said he would speak with Lady Éua and arrange for an audience tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Léod gasped. That was much too late. He’d planned to be back on the road to the Red Mountain by nightfall. Kalzrok couldn’t wait. He sighed. “Is there no other way to see her sooner?”
“I’m afraid not, Master Léod. We will have to wait.”
Copyright © 2006 by Bryce V. Giroux