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Sunday, July 01, 2007

Chapter Twenty One: Of Relief and Impending Hardship

(Note:  This is not official version and may be removed in the near future.  This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter.  I have preserved the rough form for posterity -- or something like that.  This novel has since been rewritten.)

James didn’t hesitate. He bolted forward and leapt into the surprised arms of Triska. He embraced her, squeezing her with all his might as if afraid that she would disappear if he let go. She laughed softly, warmly. She kissed him on his cheek and tears drizzled down his face.
“There there now,” she said.
“Thank God you’re alive,” he said, but the words came out muffled. Then he slipped from her grasp and back to the ground. She wiped away the tears from his face and smiled.
“How?” Darl said.
“Well that’s quite simple. I escaped.”
“Cowardice? Oh, no, not at all actually. You see, by escaping I was able to come here to help in the preparations for when Luthien comes. My purpose in this world is not yet fulfilled.”

Pea came forward, put a hand on James’ arm. The little man looked up into Triska’s eyes and James saw there were tears there, welling up and on the brink of falling.
“My dear, dear, dear woman,” Pea said, repeating the words with increased emphasis. Triska leaned down and opened her arms. Pea glanced up to James and then back at Darl, and then leapt into Triska’s arms, hugging and kissing her. “I dreaded the worst!”
“We all did,” James said.
When Pea released her, Triska stood to face Darl.
“Never before,” Darl began, “have I been happier to see your face.” Then he too hugged her. It was a small hug, but James could see the meaning behind it clearly. There was a genuine sense of joy.
“What about Gammon and his family?” James’ voice was concerned.
Triska shook her head.
“Dead, most likely,” Darl blurted out.
“No, not likely at all. Luthien took a lot of prisoners after the wall fell. It’s possible he was captured. His family too.”
“But not likely.”
“It never hurts to hope,” Pea said.
“Only when hope fails.” James was surprised at his words. He couldn’t believe they came from him.
“That was very Darl-esque of you…”
“Yes, yes it was.” He shook his head apologetically.
Darl grunted.
“Now, no more bad thoughts. Come, have some tea with me!”
James gladly followed Triska deep into the room. Drapes hung everywhere in much the same fashion as they had in Triska’s original home. Back in Arlin City, before the city was destroyed. Yet here the colors were brighter, somewhat less earthy and more crimson and glowing. Designs were woven into everything—just as elaborate as in Arlin City and just as mysterious. He examined them. Crosses, shield knots, triquetras, all manner of designs seamlessly crafted together as pieces to a massive whole took up the space in the drapes.
Beyond were large cushions, or pillows. He wasn’t sure which. They surrounded a round marble table set atop a glistening wooden base. A steaming silver pot alongside a silver tray filled the center of the table. Triska took a seat on one of the pillows, a deep red blob that bordered on imperial purple. She beckoned the rest to do the same. James took a seat on a vermilion colored pillow with dark brown embroidery. The others found seats nearby.
Triska delicately poured five cups of tea. The scent of strong flowers filled the room as she did so. James let the smell permeate his body. It seemed to sooth even before Triska handed him his cup and he could actually see the amber liquid and feel the glowing warmth. He blew on it for a moment to cool it down, then sipped and instant relief poured through him.
He took notice that Triska was not wearing a dress this time around. Instead she wore a pair of loose pants of a tan color and a faded red tunic. Her hair was tied up in a ponytail.
“Tell me, my dear sweet woman, how did you manage to escape?” Pea gently tipped his cup, which was human size and looked completely out of place in the little mans hands.
“In some ways I think I was let go.”
“How do you mean?”
“When the walls fell, Luthien’s armies came forward. I cast a few charms on the men, raised their spirits and such. It did them little good. The front lines fell in a wave of arrows. The first wave of Luthien’s men fell pretty quick after that, but more came and the second wave batted us down in less than an hour. We retreated farther into the city. It was a blood bath. Men were falling all around me. Arrows crashed into windows and walls, faces, shoulders, and backs. We were supposed to regroup, form a last ditch effort at the keep, but we never made it. Luthien was too fast. His men and flying beasts came down on us so fast that I can’t accurately remember all that happened.” She took a sip of her tea, closing her eyes as she did so. Then, softly she said, “The city was on fire. I don’t know how long it had been that way, but smoke and ashes came down from everywhere. I couldn’t see more than a few feet in front of me. I lost all sense of direction. Then I saw Gammon, or rather, he saw me. He came through the shadows. I thought he had died! Then something struck the building behind me and for a moment the sound and the debris threw me off balance. I fell. He came to me, but I couldn’t hear what he said. Then before I knew it he was pushing me into a nearby home. Someone had already destroyed the place, but I was in shock, stunned. Then I woke up.”
Tears began to form in her eyes and she sniffled. She took another sip to stifle her watery eyes. It worked.
“The entire street was on fire when I came to. Blood was smeared on my clothes. Something had struck me in the back of the head. I ran, going left, right, and everywhere. The fire seemed to be coming from every direction. Then I slipped through the smoke. Someone had let the horses from the stables go. They came galloping past me and somehow I managed to grab the reigns of one. There was a dead man in the saddle. I don’t know his name, but I knew his face. He was one of the Lord’s Guards. He’d been struck by arrows and blades, but I don’t know which killed him. He fell from the saddle and I clambered up. The horse took off through the smoke and before I knew it we were at the gates, or what was left of them. Then, we left. There were thousands of men outside the gates. I know they saw me, but they let me go.” She gulped back her tears again. “I saw the cities burning behind me as I left the valley.” Then several tears poured down her face. She wiped them away and sipped her tea. “I saw the prisoners they took, too. Hundreds. Everyone else was dead.”
“They killed civilians?” Pea said, stunned.
Triska nodded.
“How could someone do that? Those were innocent people!” James said.
“Luthien is mad.” Triska placed her cup on the table. “Completely and utterly mad. I’m surprised he took prisoners at all. There were soldiers and civilians there. I saw them as I left. But everyone else was killed. I know it in my bones. They either burned as the city fell, or were massacred by Luthien’s men.”
James took a big gulp of his tea and stared down at the table. Then he mumbled, “Such a waste of life.”
Darl looked down at him; he could see it in his peripheral vision. He stared into the brown tea, watching the ripples and little bits of tea leaves bob around. His mind raced. He thought of all those who had died. Needlessly, he thought. Luthien killed them. They were innocent. Completely. He wished it all was as unreal as the world he had come to, but he remembered the history of Earth. Hitler, Stalin, Idi Amin, Mao Tse-tung, all horrible people he had read about. He wondered if Luthien was like them, truly and utterly evil beyond reason. How can someone just destroy people without thinking twice? A short shiver went down his spine. He imagined the very building he was in being lit on fire, as if it were Arlin City all over again.
A hand came on to his shoulder, a firm and large hand. It was Darl’s. He looked up into the cold stare of the old man, yet that familiar stare was not there. For the first time he could sense a bit of…compassion. That was the only way he could describe the feeling. And in that moment all his fears seemed to slip away, not entirely, but far enough so he could see reason.
“What happens now?” He said somewhat shakily.
“We stick to the plan,” Triska said.
She giggled. “Haven’t they told you? I’m going with you. I’ve done all I can here and the Great Fathers know you’ll need my services.”
“You mean it?”
“Of course! I can’t possibly leave you in the hands of Darl for any longer. Surely he’s already affected you.”
“You have no idea,” Pea said, half under his breath.
Darl flashed a quick glance in Pea’s direction, and then said, “I would expect some respect with all I’ve done.”
“Oh, please Darl, there’s no need to get all upset. I agree that you have had a fair hand in young James’ upbringing, but there is need of a woman’s delicate touch. You, well, how should I put this,” Triska looked down at her hands, a grin forming on her face. “You have a very narrow masculine outlook on life.”
“He’s a boy. He needs it.”
“Yes, but he’s not the one being called, what was it,” she glanced at James and Pea, one after another, “the grumpy one? And I would hope he is never called that in his life.”
Darl gnarled a low retort that none of them could hear. Then he stood up from the table and started to hustle away, only to find himself tumbling over the pillows. He grumbled louder, tossing the pillows to the side in a fit of rage. Then he headed towards the door. The drapes grabbed his shoulder as if they were alive. He twisted left and right, pulling at them. They seemed to release like little vines, and he was out mumbling barely audibly about the audacity of little people to spread filthy rumors.
James gave a concerned look.
“Don’t worry about him,” Pea said. “He’ll be fine in an hour or so. Well, at least as fine as a man of his character can be.” Pea grinned.
James tried to smile, but couldn’t. “When are we leaving?”
“In an hour,” came Iliad’s voice. The archer appeared through the drapes and delicately took a seat on one of the pillows, though few had survived Darl’s angry bout. “We have to hit the edge of the Fire Rim by tomorrow. I’d prefer to spend as little time there as possible. We’ll camp for the night at the edge. I dare not start our journey in the Fire Rim in the dead of night.”
“Tea?” Triska said, motioning to the pot where one empty cup sat upside-down.
“Yes, please,” Iliad said.
She started to pour, a soft and delicate motion that James thought had to be the mark of one accustomed to such things. He recalled that she had not moved so smoothly before when pouring his cup and it occurred to him that this was a formality among people she did not consider friends. Iliad was as unfamiliar to her as he was to James. Iliad took the cup from Triska and sipped. He flinched; the tea was hot.
“So,” James said, trying to start up conversation again, “we’re going to ride to the Fire Rim, get through it, then go to the Spyder Range to pass through a big cave frequented by traders and then into Teirlin’pur to save Laura, even though we’re not sure where she is.”
“That’s the general idea,” Iliad said.
“Then we run like hell to the coast where we’re supposed to convince some crazed ships captain that he needs to take us across the Loe Strait to Ra, a city where nobody really wants to go and nobody really knows anything about.”
“Mmhmm. Is there a question or are you just clarifying?”
“Will it work?”
Iliad sipped the tea and this time didn’t flinch.
“Do you want the truth or do you want me to lie to you?”
The archer’s brown eyes peered down into his eyes. They pierced him as if searching for information, the mark of a true scout. He didn’t want to answer and in some ways he couldn’t. He knew that neither would make him happy. But he didn’t have the opportunity to speak as Iliad broke the silence before he could come to a decision of how to respond.
“Yes, it will work. It will work almost perfectly in fact and there will be nothing to worry about at all.”
“That was the lie.”
“Yes. Now, on the opposite side…”
“The truth.”
“Right, it has a good chance of working once we get through the Fire Rim. Will it work?” Iliad shrugged. “I can’t say for certain. It might very well fail. It could fail at any time. It’s like being balanced on the tip of a sword. One gust of wind could throw us off course, but another could push us back where we belong. You see?”
He nodded.
“Good. I don’t know what is going to happen. I haven’t a clue to be honest. It’s delicate, you see? Very delicate. But we will try. It is important that you and your friend be taken away to where Luthien can’t reach you. You both hold some importance to him. And so, you hold importance to us.”
“I’m not that important.”
“But you are James,” Triska said. “Can’t you see that?”
“Why am I important? Explain it to me.”
“Because,” Pea started, raising his hands to the table, “whatever Luthien wants you for can help us in the long run. If he can’t reach you, he can’t use you against us.”
“But how can he use me?” He curled his brow slowly, confused.
“I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows.” Pea shifted back on the pillow.
“Whatever it is,” Iliad leaned forward, “Luthien is mad over it. It might be nothing. Maybe he’s just insane. Still, there is something about you and your friend that makes you special.”
“Special how? Is there some prophecy about me?”
“No, nothing of that sort. You see,” Iliad leaned closer, “whatever Luthien wants you for is affording him powers that we don’t understand. But it’s limited. Tell me,” he paused, peered down, and swallowed as if trying to find the right words, “Can you explain how Luthien and his army just suddenly appeared?”
He shook his head. Nobody could, as far as he knew. Not even Dulien, at least not really.
“Nobody can. The magic it would take to transport an army of that size, an army of thousands upon thousands, is beyond anything any magic user could imagine. Yet it happened!”
“I don’t understand.”
“We don’t either. My Uncle’s magic users couldn’t quite figure it out when we first heard reports. But they think you and your friend are a part of it. It’s something inside of you two that even you don’t know about.”
“Are you talking about dormant magics?” Pea said.
Iliad nodded. “Your world has no magic of its own, correct?”
“No, nothing real.”
“Yet magic exists everywhere, so where could it have gone?”
Pea gave a single peck of a laugh. “It’s stockpiled! That’s completely unbelievable…”
“Well, how so?”
James sat still, not saying anything.
“James said that on his world magic was something of that past. Few people actually believed that magic ever really existed. Conjurers of cheap tricks and the like.”
He nodded.
“So, that would mean there could be thousands of years of magic built up. Do you have any idea how much magic that is? It could…”
“Transport an army across great distances,” he broke in.
“Yes.” Iliad grinned. “You see, there is much about you that suggests greatness.”
“But I don’t know how to access that magic.”
“You probably never well.” Pea leaned back. “Your people have lost all touch with magic that they probably haven’t an inkling how to access it. It’s lost entirely to you, but it’s still there.”
“But that’s only one theory, right?”
Iliad folded his arms. “That’s the only theory we have. But, it is only a theory. Who knows if it is true? But it gives us an explanation for the time being, no matter if it is the right one or not. Ultimately, we haven’t a clue why Luthien wants you. We just know that he can’t have you. And that’s why we’re going to Teirlin’pur. With Luthien here, he’ll be too preoccupied to deal hunt you down.”
He couldn’t quite believe it. He had always assumed that Traea was unique, that magic was unique. Science had disproven magic over and over back home. Science could explain magic tricks and all the things that people once thought were magic and unexplainable. Most of it, at least. Ghosts and the spiritual world were still a mystery, but those weren’t really magic. He had been performing real magic, undeniably real magic. He felt as if he had ‘the Force’, as if he were Luke Skywalker in a fantasy world filled with strange creatures and evil dictators. Jokingly he hoped that Luthien wouldn’t turn out to be his real father. That, he thought, would be too much to take.
Then he started to think about all the times he had seen a daytime talk show talking about psychics and people who could read the minds of animals. Were those people telling the truth? Was that magic? He remembered, though, that so many of those ‘psychics’ had been shown to be frauds, though some were still believed in. Could those people really be connected to the dormant magics of Earth?
He drank his tea slowly, savoring the flavor as he thought about what had been said. It all seemed so unbelievable. He refused to believe that he was important, even if it wasn’t some old prophecy and something that he had no control of instead.
The others must have seen him in thought, as none of them engaged him directly in conversation. They went about speaking amongst themselves, talking about the journey ahead, about the devastating war. Before long, Darl returned with an annoyed look on his face. The old man was still grumpy. Behind him was Lord Falth. Darl stood at the far side of the table while Lord Falth bowed gently.
“You should be on your way,” he said.
It’s been an hour already. James shook his head gently.
“I see,” Triska said. “Well, I would offer you some tea my lord, but I’m afraid we haven’t any more cups.” She lifted the lid from the tea pot and said, “Nor do we have any more tea I’m afraid.”
“That is quite alright. There isn’t much time for tea as it is. I’ve arranged for baths to be drawn. I imagine it will be the last time any of you see clean, hot water.”
“Thank you very kindly,” Pea said, gently inclining his head.
“I appreciate the courtesy Uncle, but I have already bathed,” Iliad said.
Lord Falth nodded and turned to James, Pea, and Darl. “Your old clothes I think deserve being changed. My tailors have provided more suitable clothing for your journey I think.”
“Thank you,” James said. He looked to Pea and Darl and smiled. He was glad to be rid of the old clothes, especially the ones that had been soaked in the blood of the undead Masters.
“Now, come along, we haven’t much time before you must be on your way.” Lord Falth turned and began to walk away. James quickly got to his feet and followed. Pea and Darl were not far behind.
* * *
James was glad to have a clean bath again. It felt like ages since he had been in the warm pools of Arnur. Though the large tubs of steaming water that Lord Falth had provided were wonderful, they paled in comparison to the waters of Arnur and the strange microbial creatures that lived there. He imagined he would never be as clean as he was that day.
The bathhouse was located near the stables behind the keep. It was a small structure large enough to hold ten people comfortably. The walls were bare, but a pure white color that suggested that this communal house was meant mostly for those of authority—Lord Falth, his family, and the higher ups of the army of Nor’sigal. James marveled in the warmth of the water. He refused to let the short amount of time offered to him spoil the feeling.
After he, Pea, and Darl had cleaned themselves up—Triska and Iliad had remained behind—they were presented with two sets of clothing, as neither of them could carry much more with them. Yet, these items were unlike the ones they had had before. For Pea, a tiny golden brown suit with a small hat was laid out, along with a pair of faded black boots and a tunic made of leather to go underneath. James wondered if it all had belonged to a young boy once. Darl was given a supertunic of a forest green color, faded and obviously aged, but made of a thick material that seemed to provide additional protection. A pair of pants and a thick set of leather armor were also given to him.
James looked down at the clothing left for him: a leather tunic, thick enough to give him some protection, a dark blue super tunic and a faded brown pair of pants. He put them on, one after another, and tested the weight on his body. It was more than he was used to, but he could handle it. Besides, he would be on horseback for most of the time.
He left the comfort of the small bathhouse and met Pea and Darl outside. He looked over them, having seen their clothes inside beforehand, and allowed them a moment to give him a once over. They both seemed to approve, though neither of them spoke.
Iliad and Triska appeared some moments later, leading behind them two horses and the three Blaersteeds—though only the horses were being led by the reigns. The two new horses were each brown with white spots on their foreheads. Mirdur’eth broke away from the group and came to James. James gently touched the steeds’ head, running his fingers along the smooth part between the eyes. Arna’tu and Bel’ahtor went to their riders.
Each of the horses and the Blaersteeds had been repacked with supplies. James slid to the side of Mirdur’eth, ran his fingers along his sword, the pannier, and the black coat of his steed. Then he took hold, slid his foot into the stirrup, and flung himself up over the saddle. He grinned as he landed solidly, proud of himself for doing it in one go this time. He watched as the others mounted their Blaersteeds or horses.
Then Iliad turned away and led them to the front of the keep. There Lord Falth waited, his arms crossed and a sternly concerned look upon his face. He lifted a single hand to halt them; each of them did and faced him.
“I pray your journey succeeds. Iliad is a fine young man. He will not falter. I have faith that he will lead you well.”
“Thank you my lord,” Iliad said with a low bow of his head.
“Thank you very much for your hospitality, however brief,” Pea said.
Lord Falth nodded in acknowledgement.
“And do take care of the draperies,” Triska said with a warm smile.
“Of course.” He bowed. “May your journey be smooth and safe.”
Then Iliad turned his horse and began to trot down the road to the main gates. The others quickly followed and Mirdur’eth came in the rear. Mirdur’eth grunted and James leaned over and rubbed his steeds’ head.
“There there,” he said. “You can’t lead all the time.”
Mirdur’eth grunted again.
“Just let them think they are leading. We all know you’re the head of the pack.” The black steed whinnied in such a manner that for a moment James thought it was a laugh. Then he smiled wide and patted his steed several times on the neck.
There are five of us now, he thought. Triska, Iliad, Darl, Pea, and me.
He looked up to the sun. It was mid-afternoon now, or looked that way. The sun still traveled the wrong way through the sky. He was thankful that the sun was moving at all, even if it was the opposite of normality.
A few moments later and they were passing through the main gates and along the flexible bridge to the stable land beyond. They wound around the giant floating city, then, as soon as they had passed, Iliad let them east through the flat terrain. Beyond, like a faint beacon, was the Nor’kal River. Trees peppered the shoreline randomly. James took in a deep breath.
So it begins. Again.

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