A Breath Through Silver
by Daniel Stride
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3, 4
Dnosti, myself, and five Black Huldo emerged from the Gate. The last looked at me, and I at Them. Was I any better than Young Anders? Still, it was too late to change course: I must see this through, to whatever end.
“The sky is beautiful tonight,” said Dnosti. Without yesterday’s cloud, the Moon and stars shone with fierce brilliance over the grey hills. “It has been too long since I last saw it.”
“How will we travel?” I asked. I judged it to be about ten o’clock. Was it too much to ask that we take a slow route?
Dnosti clapped his hands, and at once seven steeds appeared, each with a monstrous set of feathered wings. I rubbed my eyes. Such beasts were the domain of legend, not the waking world!
“I protest,” said a Black Huldo. “The unlings tire easily, and we need them for our attack.”
“Your people would still be maggots beneath the earth were it not for my power,” snapped Dnosti. “Do as I command.”
The Black Huldo bowed. “Yes, Dnosti.”
I approached the nearest unling. More fearsome than any horse, muscles rippled beneath its skin. It turned its head, and stared at me balefully, eyes glowing as if with inner flame.
“It will not harm you if I am present,” said Dnosti. “Climb on.”
The Black Huldo mounted the unnatural steeds, and we flew off into the night.
* * *
I shall never forget riding over Lillivert Forest on the back of an unling. The wind tore at my hair, the trees and hills spread out before me in a thousand shades of gloom: it was a song of lore come to life. Clinging to the great beast with neither saddle nor stirrup, I felt true freedom. For the unling’s part, I gave it no commands and it needed none. It followed Dnosti.
Flying is like fighting: everything slows down. When I spotted the dell, a bare patch of grey in the forest murk, I imagined I’d flown for hours. Yet, when I turned my head, I saw the Moon had barely moved. Once over the site, Dnosti’s mount circled ever downwards, followed by the Black Huldo’s, then my beast, which landed gently as a feather. I dismounted with a heavy heart. Never again would I ride the airs of the world.
“Farewell,” I told the unling. But it had already vanished.
Ringed by his five followers, Dnosti awaited me in the centre of the dell.
“Where is the Arrow, Manfred?” The tinkling bell was gone: his voice evoked pressure building behind a dam in Spring.
“It is close,” I said. “I just need to fetch it. Perhaps some magical light so I can search better?”
“Dnosti,” said a Black Huldo. “Let us hunt. We need only moonlight and starlight.”
“Silence!” snapped Dnosti. “I have a Pact with this mortal, and I care not for your mewling.” He clapped his hands, and suddenly a flaming ball hung in the sky over the dell.
“I have provided your light, Manfred. Now bring me the Arrow.”
“One moment.” I blinked — the white flame was less than daylight, but greater than moonlight. Thank the ancestors, it did not drink heat. “You promised to return my father in exchange for the Arrow. Bring him here.”
“You grow insolent, Manfred,” growled Dnosti. “You know I cannot deny you your father once I hold the Arrow.”
“Nevertheless.” I pointed at Young Anders’ bloodied corpse, which still lay sprawled against a tree. “I have seen enough of the Black Huldo to beware such promises.”
“Very well.” Dnosti produced a leather pouch. Reaching inside, he withdrew a small wooden cube. He placed it on the ground, and clapped thrice.
As I watched, the cube grew and shifted, until it became the wicker prison.
“No, Manfred!” howled my father. “He will destroy everything! Destroy the world!”
“We have heard enough, Olomo,” said Dnosti. He clapped, and my father’s cries were muted. “Now,” he said, “no more favours, Manfred. Find it.”
As I walked from the dell, I felt Their eyes on me, burning with anticipation. Justified anticipation, for I was bringing this dead Sorcerer not just vengeance, but the chance to prevent his defeat ever happening.
The cliff — now adorned with a glittering ice statue — extended some distance, so I looped around to find the familiar slope. Aided by the magical light, I navigated the trees and bushes, snapping twigs underfoot. At last I stood looking up at Kustata’s frozen back. He had died reaching for a crossbow bolt. My heart beat faster. I’ll avenge you, old man. Patience.
I recalled the pipe bouncing rightwards off the rock, so I started searching a nearby clump of tussock. I knelt, and ran my hands through the sprawling strands. The tussock had the texture of fine, damp string; on reaching further down, I felt the smoothness of a pebble, the grit of the dirt beneath, and — my heart leaped — the touch of cold metal.
I pulled forth the Arrow of Time. It glimmered in the magical light.
Drawing a deep breath, I rose, and trudged slowly up the slope. There would be no hiding, I decided. Tonight, many wrongs would be righted. I now stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the man who had sacrificed his life for mine.
“I have your Arrow,” I called.
“Bring it here.” Dnosti’s voice quivered. He sounded fit to burst. “The Pact compels you.”
I smiled. “Your Black Huldo are able teachers. The Pact compels me to turn over the Arrow, but it does not specify when. I’ll give it to you at dawn.”
With that, I put the pipe to my lips and began playing.
I swear, Dnosti’s scream curdled milk and set hounds a-barking from Lillivert to East Ponlovic. But, as with the Black Huldo he led, he could not resist the call of the silver pipe.
“No!” he screeched, dancing to a tune no mortal could hear, the music of the Arrow of Time. “The Pact, the Pact!”
The Black Huldo howled too. “You have failed us, Dnosti,” cried one. “You have brought ruin on us all!”
“No!” Dnosti insisted. But his legs twisted and his arms swung, and for all his might he could no more escape than he could quench the Sun. Or break his word.
“Perhaps I shall wreak vengeance on you, mortal!” Dnosti spat. “An eternity in the blackest pits, where the tormented mind endures even as the body rots!”
I had nothing to fear from this Sorcerer, or his threats, so long as I kept playing.
“And your kin! Perhaps I shall feed you their screams, their agony, their cursing of your name!”
He fell silent for a long while. I played on. I hadn’t lied: the Black Huldo were excellent teachers, and as hour followed hour, I tore apart Dnosti’s every word for meaning. He had yet to bind himself, so I was not surprised when he began to beg.
“Manfred,” he crooned. “Clever, brave Manfred. I apologise for my anger. I promise safety, Manfred. For you and your father. I will not harm you, or allow you to come to harm, if only you free us.”
As a promise, that was binding. He could not break his word in this form. But I played on.
“More,” said Dnosti. “The Black Huldo will swear to never hurt or kill another mortal again.”
“We swear,” sang the Black Huldo, as one.
The Pact still required me to hand over the Arrow, and I could not do that. We mortals cannot live when events do not follow each other, when the future slays the past before it is born. As I played on, I think Dnosti realised this too — but without breaking the Arrow, he was trapped, an abomination from another age who dreamed of something forever beyond his reach.
For the first time, I pitied him.
Do not misunderstand: I only had to glance at Kustata, at Snorri and Young Anders below, at my father imprisoned and silenced, to see Dnosti the monster. But he was a monster in pursuit of the one thing that gave his existence meaning. Could I have placed the Arrow in his hand, if he had promised to safeguard it and never allow its destruction? I don’t know. But I do know he could never have sworn that oath. Better to die at last, in the warm rays of the long-forgotten Sun, than condemn himself to an eternity of tortured futility.
Such were my thoughts as the night dragged on. My limbs grew stiff, and my mind filled with loathing for what I did, yet my breath kept flowing into the silver pipe, and my fingers never ceased their dance. There are more joyous ways to save mankind, of that I am certain.
“Manfred,” said Dnosti, his voice dripping with despair. “You will not let me go. I understand. But, please, release the Black Huldo. They will not attack you, but will merely return to the dark places...”
“I shall not,” said a Black Huldo.
“Nor shall I,” said another.
“Nor I,” said a third.
The remainder nodded sullenly.
“What is this?” shouted Dnosti. “I beg for your lives, and yet you refuse!”
“You gave us hope,” said the first Black Huldo. “A hope of ending the Curse, that we might regain our place in the natural order. Without you, there is nothing. Better to share your ruin, failure that you are, than to gnaw eternally on what might have been.”
They spoke no more. Tears ran down my cheeks-how could they not — but still I played on. Dnosti and the Black Huldo continued Their helpless dance even as the sky grew pale in the east, and birdsong rang in the eaves of Lillivert Forest.
The first rays of sunlight crept over the hills. Dnosti, the Sorcerer who had long cheated death; the Black Huldo, immortal creatures from another plane: Their skin and hair greyed and hardened, and thus They perished. None cried out even as They turned to stone — death was a release from the torment I had inflicted.
With dawn came the end of my tune. I paused, rubbed life back into my legs, and descended the slope. Numb and sore, tired beyond measure, I felt shorn of any sense of heroism.
On regaining the dell, I bypassed my father — still yelling silently from his wicker prison — and headed straight for the six new statues. I limped up to the one in the centre; its legs were askew, and it held one arm in the air even while the other grasped towards the cliff. The grasping hand was cupped, as if ready to receive the prize Dnosti had sought for so long.
“There,” I said, placing the silver pipe in Dnosti’s palm. “Our Pact is fulfilled.”
I half-expected the stone eyes to weep with joy.
Pulling my knife from my belt, I hacked into the wicker cage. One by one, I snapped the weaves, until I’d hewn a hole large enough for my father to crawl through. The moment he escaped the prison, he regained his voice: he chanted my name over and over, telling me that two nights in captivity had been as two months. Looking at his withered form, I believed it.
I lifted him to his feet, and we embraced.
“Manfred,” he sobbed. “You have saved us all.”
“Yes,” I said. “I suppose I have.”
“A mighty victory.”
A hollow victory. But I said nothing. A strange feeling stabbed at my heart. I have never been a cruel man. Arrogant beyond measure, yes, I admit it, but never cruel. I have slain men, but only in the heat of the attack, where pain is over in a moment. Tonight, I had watched the end of a doomed race, drawn out over many hours of darkness. I, Manfred son of Olomo, felt pity for the vanquished, for those Black Huldo who had danced on rather than live without hope. Dnosti’s pleas haunted me too. What had his last thoughts been...
“Truly you are worthy of our family sword.”
I pulled away. Looking into those grey eyes, so like mine, I shook my head. “No,” I said. I drew the sword from its sheath, and proffered the hilt. “You keep it, father.”
He frowned. “What?”
“I need time. By myself. To think.”
“What is there to think about? You have just saved the world.”
I shrugged. “Exactly.”
My father spluttered and stormed, but I did not care. My time warming Lillivert firesides was drawing to a close. There would be no comfort in going back to that. Not now. My youth, in a way, was over, yet I was not old. What was I?
I limped away through the trees, east, towards the rising sun and the world beyond.
Copyright © 2020 by Daniel Stride