James stumbled to his feet. He was still dizzy from expending so much magic, yet now, unlike in previous times, he could at least see and stand. Dust filled every inch of the pass between the mountains. Darkness covered everything. He could barely see a few inches in front of him. He covered his mouth with his sleeve in an attempt to keep the dust out of his lungs. Still, it found its way into his mouth; he could taste it. He coughed, blinked quickly.
It took him a moment to get sturdy on his feet, though he could not see exactly where his feet were. The rocks beneath him weren’t sturdy, as they never had been since he and the others had walked the pass. Then he took a few hesitant steps.
Something brushed against his foot and clattered. He reached down and yanked back as something sharp pricked his finger. He brought it beneath his eyes, saw a single drop of blood welling up at the end. The drop fell and he knelt down, waving his hands in the air. The dust swirled around his arm and cleared away for a brief moment. There on the ground was his sword. He remembered losing it when Nara’karesh had attacked. He shook away the thoughts. It’s dead now, he thought. Dead and gone forever.
James quickly took hold of the hilt and picked the sword up. Dust enveloped the blade as he lifted it from the ground, spiraling wildly like the hands of ghosts. He took a few more steps in the dark, nearly tripped.
“Pea? Darl?” he said.
“Here,” Pea’s voice passed like a wavering echo through the dust somewhere nearby. James headed that direction. Rocks slid away under his feet, but he managed to find the tiny man sitting on a large stone that had rolled out of the landslide.
“Are you okay?”
“As good as I can be given the circumstances. And you?”
“Aren’t we all?”
“About time for some good news.”
“What do you mean?”
“Nara’karesh is dead and the Masters of Arnur have been avenged. Strangely corny, but true.”
Slowly the dust began to settle; James could now see ten feet in front of him. There the silhouette of the Lean hovered and some distance behind Darl sat on a tall stone. James motioned to Pea and then walked forward cautiously.
As soon as he came into clear sight of Darl the old man cursed.
“I’m starting to come to an understanding of why magic users are so incredibly dangerous no matter what side they are on,” Darl said.
James and Pea snickered.
Then James looked back to the landslide as visibility increased. They had pulled from the mountain far more than he had anticipated. The large outcropping had turned into a massive landslide that had narrowly missed him. He remembered now where he once stood, utterly helpless to the corrupted blackness of Nara’karesh. Now the entire width of the pass was filled with rock and dirt a hundred feet high. And somewhere in that mess was the lifeless body of the lyphon.
James sighed with relief at having lost this one burden. Now I only have one thing to worry about, he thought. Luthien and his army. He knew that he could very well be walking into Luthien’s hands if Ti’nagal had been taken, and ultimately to his destruction. Something told him that Luthien had no desire to take him alive.
“Shall we continue?” Darl said, standing and tossing the packs to their prospective owners.
“To Ti’nagal,” James said.
“Yes. To Ti’nagal.” Darl turned and led the group along the pass.
The Lean slipped into view next to James. James glanced to the side, nodded slightly, and returned his gaze to the shifting rocks beneath his feet.
“Again,” the Lean said, “I say that you are mighty.”
“I’m not,” he said, a hint of distaste in his voice.
“As you said before. Yet you tear apart mountains.”
“With help. And again, that doesn’t make me mighty. Power never does.”
“If not power, then what?”
“Integrity and honor…” Darl’s voice was assertive. “Power is left to those who have neither.”
“Do Kings not have integrity and honor because they have power?”
“That depends on how a King uses his power.” James slipped, caught his balance.
“A King who leads and commits no evil act does not consider himself to have power, but rather to be a servant to his people.”
“Yet he commands his people to do his bidding.”
“Yes, but if he gives those com…” he slipped again. “…commands for the good of his people he isn’t using his power for a bad reason.”
The Lean’s form shifted as if its arms had passed through it and returned to their original places. “I see.” Then the Lean blinked away.
“Like teaching a child,” Pea said.
“I mean, a very ill-behaved child unlike our fine young lad.”
“You know, you’re not very good at lying.”
“We Erdluitle’s don’t lie. We fib.” Pea stopped, turned and put his hands on his hips.
“Fib?” James gave a questioning look.
“To fib is to lie without intending to get away with it.”
“So, you lie and get caught?” Darl said scruffily.
Pea whirled around, said, “Well I don’t expect someone of your stature to understand the complexities of Erdluitle culture” and stormed off along the pass.
James and Darl continued. Then Darl turned and said, “I think I’ve insulted him.”
“Very likely,” James said, laughing.
Then the two wound their way through the mire of rocks and settling dust.
A few hours passed before they managed to slip out of the pass. Dawn had long since approached providing just a little more light despite the pass being ridden by the shadows of the mountain. Some distance below, sitting like a gleaming gem in a vast green field, was Ti’nagal. It was not nearly as massive as
, but James got the impression that it could just as easily defend itself. Tall stone walls surrounded the bulk of the city with a single blank wooden door facing east—away from where Luthien’s army would come. Surrounding this wall, haphazardly placed, were many homes. Farmland filled the eastern side of the wall. Arlin City
James noted there were no massive towers, only a single wooden one that stood just high enough in the center to provide clear sight of everything in the city and beyond as far as the Far’anor River, the same river that wound it’s way through the valleys to
. Here too, the Arlin City was closer, presenting a great green and rust red mass of trunks, limbs, and leaves that ran all the way to the edge of the river. From the mountains, the bustling masses of soldiers, civilians, and the like looked like tiny ants of various colors—silver, black, red, tan. Ti’nagal was preparing for battle. Forest of Gall
Another hour went by as they continued down the last stretches of the mountains. The Lean had long since caught up with them and aimlessly glided behind. Before long they had slipped into the dirt streets of the outer city, winding their way to the main gates. There they found the gates to be closed tight and a series of guards atop the walls carrying bows and arrows.
Darl halted at the gate and said, “May we gain entrance?”
One of the guards peered down questioningly and said, “Not so long as you have that dark spirit behind you.”
“He’s no dark spirit. He is a Lean.”
“He was a spiritual guardian of Arnur,” Pea said.
“The sacred temple?”
“Yes. Before it was corrupted by a beast of Loe called Nara’karesh.”
“We’ve heard that name uttered along the lower farmlands, just near the edge of the forest. The spirits there are restless. Something has stirred them.”
“Much is stirring. We come from Arlin, just before the city fell in ruins.”
He’s being awfully polite, James thought.
“Are you the one they call Darl?”
“We’ve gained word of your coming here. You bring the Off-worlder with you?”
“Yes, this boy,” Darl indicated James, who started to raise his hand to wave, then remembered what he had read in the etiquette book. It was rude to wave like a child at the gates to any city. “May we gain entry?”
The guard seemed to contemplate the situation deeply. He didn’t speak for several moments, and then said, “You may enter. That spirit remains outside these gates at all times. Is that clear?”
The Lean shifted and then slipped back, understanding the situation.
“Lord Alrith will be glad to see you’ve come.”
The gates shifted with a wooden creak and then opened slowly, pulled by a series of other guards. They entered through the gates and were met by the guard from the wall, who bowed his head gently to Darl and then to James. James returned the bow. Then the guard nodded to Pea even more respectfully than he had to Darl and James. James thought it a curious motion.
“Lord Alrith waits. I am Belrin. Come.”
Belrin was a tall, burly man, clad in a gray and yellow tunic baring the symbol pf St. Brendan’s Cross on his chest, under which were his two layers of chain mail. He looked much like what Santa Claus would have looked like in youthful days—rosy cheeks, warm eyes, and a constant look about him that suggested good will. He took to the main road that wound ever so slightly uphill to the wooden tower. Two story homes were on either side of the road, and amongst these soldiers stood or sat, slept or lay awake, as if in wait for a battle that would not come for days. Their faces were not smiling, nor were they alight with interest or fear. Their faces were sunken, saddened, and even blank.
Once up the hill Belrin took them into a grand hall. Dozens of stained glass windows depicting Kings sitting upon their thrones ran along the walls. Inside, scurrying about were blacksmiths, arrow-smiths, armorers, and coopers, all working spryly in their various crafts. Piles of swords, spears, and arrows were strewn across one side of the hall. Giving orders in the rear was a man that could not have been more than thirty yet had a stark white beard running to the breastplate of his armor. His face and eyes looked to be that of a man who had barely seen adulthood—fresh and new, no wrinkles, and no scars.
“Lord Alrith, they’ve arrive,” Belrin said.
The ageless man turned and said briskly, “Thank the Fathers.”
“I am Darl.” Darl bowed lower to the Lord.
Lord Alrith paused, then bowed gently. “Forgive me. I had expected a much younger man than yourself. Such is my faulty judgment.”
“I am old, yes, but still young as long as I can lift my sword.”
“Agreed. There is much to discuss. Come, we will eat. Your journey has been long. I must know more of what to expect from Luthien.”
Lord Alrith led them to a dining hall where a single massive table stretched the entire length. At least fifty people could sit at this table and still have the room to dance. Orders were made and food was brought—bread, salted pork, and a handful of apples.
After a few minutes where every one of the four had already stuffed their faces full, Lord Alrith began by saying, “What news have you of
? The last falcon that reached here only told us that you might come here. I expect similar messages were sent to Nor’sigal and Tík.” Arlin City
“It has fallen,” Pea said. “Too easily I might add. They were ill-prepared for the might of Luthien.”
“His armies came out of nowhere,” James said. “Almost like they weren’t there, and then they were.”
“Some impossible magic is my guess.”
“And Luthien’s armies?”
Now Darl spoke. “Daemonkind, Shiftkind, Littlekind, Avionkind. You name it and he probably has it in his army. He even commanded a lyphon.”
“A lyphon?! Impossible!”
“So it has been said, yet we have fought it twice, and upon the second time James and Pea sent it to its death under the earth.”
“Seems you’ve grasped your newfound magic well,” Lord Alrith said to James.
He agreed with a nod of his head. “I have a long way to go. Pea has been teaching me. And Darl too. I’ve learned a lot on using a sword.”
Lord Alrith smiled warmly, presenting an off-white set of teeth. Then Darl spoke about Arnur and the corrupted Masters, about how the Lean had come with them, and, most importantly, about the other power that Nara’karesh had mentioned serving. The list of dark things in the
grew and James began to sense that little good was left. Even Ti’nagal, in its rustic, yet homely appearance, would not stand long against Luthien. He knew now that the few things he had seen that might have once brought him joy or peaked his interest were soon becoming extinct. Here in Ti’nagal, he could already tell by the hurriedness of the soldiers, and the solemn looks on their faces as he passed, that they were preparing for their deaths. Ti’nagal would fall just like land of Traea had and just like the other villages and cities in the valleys had. Arlin City
A long cold tingle ran all the way from the bottom of his back to his face. His teeth gently chattered and he closed his eyes. Then he pushed all the thoughts away. He knew he had to. I’m only twelve. I’m not supposed to deal with all this. I’m supposed to be playing video games and running around in the park. Not this.
“You look troubled James,” Lord Alrith said.
He shook his head and woke up from his thoughts. “I’m alright.”
The man didn’t believe him, he could tell. The look in the man’s eyes suggested that he saw more than most realized.
“So Luthien has launched everything in his arsenal? Man and monster alike.”
All three of the travelers motioned with their heads to agree. James, especially, nodded fervently, the image of the lyphon still fresh in his mind. The jaws seemed to come at him through the dark recesses of his consciousness, only to be knocked away by the memory of the landslide. Then a chilling thought came to James.
“Do you think it’s possible that Luthien could bring more lyphon’s?”
Pea seemed to stall more than the others.
“Is it?” This time he directed his question to Pea. Pea didn’t answer, not with words, but with his eyes. They seemed to say ‘yes’.
“I think,” Lord Alrith said, “that at this point, just about anything is within the realm of possibility. Don’t you?”
“Yes. I suppose so.”
Lord Alrith simpered, and then stood from the table. “Well, Luthien will not be here for another two to four days. I think it best we prepare for your departure on the morrow. Horses will be provided to you. And provisions. Belrin is a trusted guard here and I think his plan for you in a solid one. Speak with him. For now, I must attend to my city.”
“You intend to fight?” Darl said.
“Luthien started this war and I intend to cause him as much grief as possible.
“You could flee. You could take your people, ride to Nor’sigal now before Luthien marches upon this city. Get them to safety.”
“And then what? Wait again for Luthien to come? Our list of allies runs dangerously thin. The Muértland is beyond corrupt and no man has passed through there in a hundred years. Surgard hasn’t the power to defeat Luthien. Not now. Not ever. And where would we find safe harbor in Angtholand? Luthien will not have us. His path now is the destruction of all that move against him.”
“Go through the Black Sands. I’ve heard rumors…”
Lord Alrith scoffed. “Rumors? You would have me drive my people through the Black Sands on a rumor? No. We cannot rely now on rumors and hopes. We must rely on what we can see. The people here can see that our dooms have been sealed.”
“It will not be long now before we all ride into the great sky and beyond to the Halls of the Great Fathers and there be given eternal glory. And in the end we will know that we have fought Luthien with every last breath. Trust me. His armies will tremble. The earth will not be free of the blood of his soldiers. We will rend them dead by the thousands before they take this city and destroy what is left of the Farthland!”
Lord Alrith said no more. He stormed out of the room, his armor clanging as he went. Darl rubbed his forehead. Belrin came into the room a moment later, a strong look of surprise on his face after having seen his Lord storming from the room in anger.
“Be still Belrin. He is not angry at me for anger’s sake.” Darl looked up. James saw in the old man’s eyes the look of despair. “Fret not.”
Darl’s eyes met James’, dug into his. James felt every emotion now, as if Darl were sharing them. He could sense the fear and sadness for the people of Ti’nagal. They were doomed to their deaths, there was no refuting that. Luthien’s armies, and his magic, his ever destructive and dark magic, would tear the city to pieces. Arlin city was far better prepared, even on such short notice, to fight the armies of Luthien. And even it fell so easily it seemed. He remembered the towers crashing to the top of the hill, remembered feeling the sadness as he came to grips with how much all of it was his fault. And yet, he had learned now that nothing was his fault. The war would have come with or without his presence.
Belrin motioned for them to follow him, and they did, taking their leave from the dining hall, out of the grand hall, and back into the city streets. From there he took them down a long dirt path to a stable guarded by seven men, each armor-clad and stiff as stones as they patrolled the perimeter. Three horses were strung up there, one black as the night, and two the color of melted chocolate, and each saddled and munching on bails of grain.
“These are Blaersteeds,” Belrin said.
“Truly?” Pea said astonished, coming close to one of the chocolate ones. The horse lowered its head and Pea gently rubbed its nose.
“Yes, true descendants of the first horses to be brought to this land in the forgotten times. True pure blooded Blaersteeds.”
“Your Lord hands these so freely to us?” Darl said.
“They would be destroyed, cut down by Luthien if they were to be left here. And none of my men will ride as cowards. We do not fear death, only the pain. But we will fight and these creatures, as fair and wondrous as they are, cannot stay here to be cut down by Luthien’s men, nor taken by the enemy to be driven down to death in servitude.”
“Then we will take them thankfully.” Darl bowed his head.
Why is he being so polite here? He never treated anyone like this in
. Arlin City
Then Belrin took them to the back of the stable where there was attached a room. Bedding had been laid out, as well as several panniers stuffed full for the horses. In the center of the room, surrounded by four stools, was a wood table, upon which lay a map of Traea drawn on animal skin. Belrin took a seat and knelt over the map.
“Where are you sending us on these horses?” Darl said.
Belrin looked up, a glimmer of humor in his eye. “To the only place where it is safe for you.”
“There are no places safe now from Luthien.”
Belrin grinned wide and laughed. “There is one place. Pay careful attention. You all ride to Teirlin’pur tomorrow morning.”
“Teirlin’pur!” James spat.
“What better place to be than where your enemy is not?”
James thought about this, and, as it dawned on him, he gave the widest grin ever in all his time in Traea.
“To Teirlin’pur,” he said.
Belrin grinned too. “To Teirlin’pur!”
Then the two of them laughed loud. Darl looked un-amused.