“My Dear Reader,
I am Nithan Hall. Though this name may mean little to you, it is those gathered around my deathbed that have requested the few remaining memories of my life be written. Old and quite battered by my odd life, I desire to purge myself of the painful residuals of my past and slip beyond sight and mind with a sense of peace with those happier memories that remain. Tatter in my afflictions, I am unable to move from this bed and frustrated with the emptiness I find as I attempt to recall the names attached to the faces that come to visit. A life forgotten by other is expected, but it is an agony for one to be unable to reflect on their own.
With the numerous wounds and curses I have been subjected to and the countless days that have made up my life, I wish to take up her suggestion of using the crystal. Magic, however one might define it, has its uses and it is such an item that I eagerly await its charms. In moments, the crystal will be drawn across my brow and pluck a memory from my mind, allowing me, so I’m told, enough time to speak of it. Such things, I have learned, have unattended and lasting effects. I am told that the memories will come in no particular order, and for that, I am sorry for you. Still, I desire little more than to see to the needs of those most precious in my life. For this, their smiles are worth the nuances of magic and its ever present cost.
Thus, I say to you, be patient in your reading should this book come be in your hands. My life was full and the telling of it certain to be jumbled. But I ask you not to judge too harshly for I am just a man who, with all the faults under the stars, attempted to live. I am not a hero as some say and far from the evil others suggest. I am simply Nithan Hall.
My friend faithfully scribbles my words in his empty book, a soft hand has gently taken mine and a beauty hovers over me holding the crystal at the ready. This is the start of the end and I am filled with hope this will succeed. Good bye, dear reader. May your life be filled with awe and wonder.
Let us begin.”
From the End
Music touches the tips of my ears in tickling fashion as I slowly open my eyes to view my surroundings. The cavernous dinner hall is alive with joyful tunes from lutes and pipes. Turning to my comrade-in-arms, I see a broad grin in his approval of all that he sees. It’s a fine thing to note joy replacing the weary frowns of previous days.
I turn back to the festivities and survey the crowd. The music and bursts of laughter fill my ears. A part of my mind considers joining the circling dances before me, but my weary body longs to seek a bed. Instead, I amuse myself with the view of my men savoring the opportunity to smother their pain of the past with female company or another frothy mug of ale. Frequent loud cheers from the celebrating crowd kept any attempt for a private conversation with my friend at bay.
The appreciation of being in from the cold and digesting the roast that once graced my plate satisfied the warrior inside me, given both comforts had been rare in the last two years in the fields of battle. We were home from the last and fiercest conflict and I am happy to be alive no matter what roof I found myself under.
“There’s a pretty one for ya,” remarked Jesan loudly.
I wordlessly followed his nod to the object in question. “You have a good eye in all sport,” I half-heartedly replied. “Go and fetch your object, I will remain here and protect your cup.”
With a jovial laugh and a heavy slap on my back, Jesan stood from the long wooden bench. “I expect to find my cup full when I return.”
“You may expect what you wish. Now, go and capture your desire.”
Jesan chuckled and began to make his way to the target through the thick crowd while I watched my friend’s movements. Even within the safety of the grand hall of the House of Dandle, I instinctively scanned for potential dangers that Jesan would inevitably find. I drew in a quick breath in when a pair of drunken soldiers, jostling playfully with each other, bumped into Jesan. I admit, a few moments passed before a smile of relief crept across my face when Jesan laughed off the situation and began to accept a wine cup from his would-be assailants.
The pain in my hand led my eyes downward to my side. Noting my grasp of the handle of my sword and the muscles in my arm flexed in expectation, I released a held breath. Though weeks had passed since my last battle, my cautious nature had scarcely eased. The hall, even the sleeping cells our host had provided, were alien to me. Creaking doors and echoing hallways of stone were far from the sounds of wind against my tent or the noise of a camp. I would need to be patient for such surroundings to become normal to my ears and mind and patience is something I have never mastered.
Beginning to doubt if I would ever grow re-acquainted with a life without peril, a serving boy dressed in the noble host’s colors interrupted my thoughts by refilling the wine cup on the table before me.
“Forgive me. milord, but would you be Sir Nithan?” the young boy asked in a high pitched voice. Had his words not been easily an octave above noise of the loud chamber, I might not have been heard them.
I nodded wordlessly as I picked up my friend’s cup and drank deeply, hoping to dull my acute nerves. Looking at the gangly boy, I felt for the lad. There were so many new faces and corresponding titles that the boy was required to memorize to do his duty well and not shame himself or his master. A page, no matter age or experience was expected to accomplish many menial tasks, all with the honor of his knight or lord first and foremost in his mind. I remembered my own miserable past experience and took pity on him.
“The abbot would like for you to meet him in the chapel,” the lad remarked timidly.
“Now?” I asked the boy in a harsher tone than I meant. I was not interested in what the flamboyant man wanted and was too comfortable to move from my place at the table. To leave both friend and feast to trek outside in the chilling spring night’s air was the furthest thing from what I wished.
The boy beside me appeared afraid to say more and I reprimanded myself for posing the question in such a manner. In that moment, I imagined what I must look like to the boy, a brutal warrior with a hard heart. The boy must have fought for courage to deliver such a commanding message to such a hard looking man. I needed to respect that. “Continue your duties, boy. I will find my own way to the abbot.”
When the lad scurried off, I looked at the scene of happy, though drunken, revelry that I would have to leave behind to attend a man who called himself servant of the people and a deity’s representative. I huffed at the titles and the worthless creature who wrapped himself in them. Still, duty would not be put off. I reluctantly pushed myself up from my seat only to feel the amount of wine I had drank. A stupid error on my part. Quickly stabilizing myself and letting the world settle, I staggered through the crowds to the door I had no desire to use.
The wind rushed across my face with a sobering chill as I passed through the doorway into the moonlit courtyard. Somewhat blinded by the darker environment, I regressed to my training and followed the mental map in my mind, aided by the clue-offering touches that flickered before each doorway. Determined to make quick work of the summoning, I eventually spotted the entrance to the stone chapel that begged to be called a cathedral and hurried across the cobblestone plaza. Staggering against wind and wine, I considered if the cold was not better than the inevitable conversation I would be forced to have with a man I did not wish to meet. Had it not been for duty and vows, I would have been thoroughly drunk next to a fire watching Jesan attempt to woo a so-called maiden. The hope of quickly appeasing the abbot and returning to such a scene quickened my steps to the chapel’s large, oak doors.
Shivering once inside, I hesitated for a moment to allow my eyes to become accustom to the blinding light from the multitude of candles. The ill combination of the wine, the chill, and the sudden change in the light only made my mood darker. Habit or a childish notion of chivalry reminded me of the proper way of entering such a building. Pulling my leather glove off my hand, I mimicked the sign of the deity across my chest and accompanied the action with a half-hearted bow toward the alter. As I pulled my glove back on, a monk entered the corners of my slowly acclimating sight.
“Sir Nithan,” the monk said in a customary hushed voice for such places. “The abbot is waiting for you in the bell tower.”
I dipped my chin thoughtfully to the old man in order to end any possibility of further conversation. I wished for nothing else than to quickly complete this summoning and was pleased to see the monk scuttle off to do whatever monks do at night. Knowing the way to the tower and as to why the abbot chose such a place for the meeting, I did not need further assistance. Walking softly, more out of the desire not to create the annoying scrapping noise of spurs on stone than out of an act of respect, I made my way through the naive to the adjoining room at the base of the tower steps.
I wished more than hoped that the monk meant that I would find the abbot at the bottom of the spiraling steps. The clergyman’s absents brought on a renewed hate for the man as I looked at the numerous steps I would have to climb for the conversation. As I plodded upward, the resentment grew. I had kept secrets for the abbot in the past, each accompanied with a bag of coin and hated myself for being of any assistance to the self-serving man. Afterwards, I was usually able to keep my conscious at bay with wine. Tonight, I imagined, I would attempt to purge it will a cask.
Midway up the spiral stair I was not certain which I hated more, the act of being summoned like a dog to a master or the fatigue I felt as I ascended the numerous steps. To my mind, there was no need to hold a conversation in the dark and in such a place unless the subject of what the man wished to convey was as dark in intent. The knight in me attempted to push the memory of my first meeting with the ‘holy abbot’ from my mind as I rose higher and higher above the ground. Whatever the man wanted, I attempted to tell myself that I was not interested, wishing only for the warmth of a bed and perhaps some solicited company. Yet it was the coin the man had given me in the past that caused a smile to grow on my lips. Yes, the shadowy services I had provided had been lucrative and the safely hidden stashes of coin around the countryside had been a dream of mine to spend. These payoffs had grown to a precious sum. Perhaps, I considered, with the troops soon to be disbanded, I would be left with an opportunity to being a new life. I wiped away the smile as I reached the last of the climb.
The sight of the ostentatious robes of a man who looked out through one of the gaping arches of the tower made my transition in attitude much easier than I had imagined.
“Could you not find it in your heart to make your way into this blessed place a bit more softly, my child?” the abbot asked over his shoulder, not attempting to make eye contact.
I had no interest in appeasing the man’s ego. The wind cooled my sweat and began to chill me to the bone. “What is it you want and why in hells did you need to meet here?”
The abbot turned and smiled, holding up a finger to his lips. “Voices can carry from heights and across water. In this case, we have both.” The robed man turned and looked out over the dark waters of the river below as if a king viewing his realm.
I lowered my voice as I knew that the man’s words were true. Though I cared little for the abbot’s preferences of secrecy, I did not want to have my name tied to him and his ways. Perhaps this was a chance to break with the past. “What is it you want?”
The abbot waved for me to join him along the iron railing to see what view could be had at such a height. “I know this is not your home, but perhaps you might wish to know it better,” the man whispered to me when I stood next to him. “The river is called Solit by the uneducated masses, but that is not its original name. Solitudos Solitudinite it was called many years ago, which is Luzien for loneliness. Befitting the lands, don’t you think? “
I looked from the robed creature beside me to the dark world below. The land was lit with a soft light from the moons, but there were shadows that pricked my memory of dangerous past events. It was in the shadows where a man’s defenses were truly tested. They held secrets; many which I never wished to know and pretended did not exist. In my own experience, they meant the possibility of death. Such a thought made me leery of this moment.
“You see, my child, ‘called men’ can become lonely as well any soldier,” the abbot explained, still gazing into the night. “And I fear such loneliness has gripped my pour soul and I have faltered once more. I thought, perhaps, you might alleviate my distress in this and provide a service to me.”
He was asking me to hide another secret. My mind flashed back to the night that the abbot needed my ‘service’ by secretly spiriting away the pregnant woman to a hut many miles away from sight and gossip. “You can’t ask that of me again.”
The robed man simply shrugged. “There is, of course, a coin purse for you, should you wish it. I am not ungenerous to those that seek to help those who are in need.”
Alarms of warning that I had honed within the heat of battle began to blare in my head. There were only three souls that knew what had happened that night. To risk such a thing again meant to add more. Despite the enticing mention of coin, I knew that there would be no end if I should be ‘in service’ to the abbot again. My mind quickened with possible outcomes and found most ended in ruin. “Perhaps another time, abbot. I have only arrived a short while ago and wish to breathe in the air of peace and wash the blood off my hands.” I held my breath with the hope that the abbot might give me a few days to consider the offer.
The robed man turned around and sighed in disappointment. “I had hoped for another answer, of course. But I am an understanding man. The task can wait a while longer for your body to mend and your heart to rejoice in your homecoming.”
I saw the abbot smile kindly at me as if he understood my wish. A strange, yet hopeful feeling of possible freedom from an old life began to ebb into my body. With a small nod, I watched the abbot began to move towards the swirling stairs to the world below. Looking back to the bleak, cold world, I was swept over by a feeling of freedom. Scene after scene of a future that might be found from crawling out from the darkness entered my thoughts.
It was at the beginning of a plan to buy a small tavern forming in my head when I felt the heavy push from behind. Frantically grasping the cold iron railing, my heart shrank when it gave way in my hands. My lungs froze as my floundering gave me full view of the black waters below. In a moment, I had a handful of the abbot’s robe. Hope was lost as I felt the man’s weight lose its anchoring effect and follow me over the edge. Falling from such a height allowed just enough time to see the terrified look in the abbot’s eyes and for me to scream in hate. Then my body slammed into the cold river. The impact, sending a shock of pain to every ounce of my being, forced any air I had from his lungs. My body became unresponsive to my will to seek the surface. Sinking quickly into the shadowy depths, my head stuck an unseen rock like an assassin that waited for his victim. My form began to float lifelessly as my mind attempted to comprehend the dark mist of death, a world I was not prepared to meet.
I remember the throbbing of my head and the shivering of my body was fierce. Uncontrollable images of a falling into darkness repeatedly played in my mind until I felt my stomach churn from pain and the ever increasing twisting of the scenes. Opening my eyes, I blinked against the harsh light from a fire’s light reflecting off of the blurred grey stone above me. Willing trembling cold hand, I touch my aching head only then to notice I was shrouded in furs. Then came the voices, small cries that seemed a world away yet touched my hearing as if closely whispered. Over and over they played in a tune of sorrow and pain. Using the little strength I had, I attempted to turn on my side to get a better view of the world but was interrupted by a shooting pain up my side.
“Lay still, young man,” a calming voice whispered. “I will get you something for the pain.”
“You’ve gone and ploughed it up, old man!” a screeching voice cried.
I left the idea of turning toward the voices quickly, feeling muscles in my neck tighten and ache. Closing my eyes once more, I felt a wooden spoon touch my lips. Putting my hopes into this unknown healer’s abilities, I sipped the bitter concoction and let it run down the back of my throat, fighting the need to vomit the liquid out.
“I can tell by your face you do not approve of the taste. Not all things that have a foul taste are wicked.”
The old man’s words made me smirk through the pain. It was true that I wanted spit out the concoction, but I could already feel a comforting affect. A small droplet of the liquid was left on my lip and I attempted to reach up to wipe it away with my left hand, but my arm would not move. “My arm,” I muttered.
“Ha!” the tenor voice exclaimed. “You see? This was all for not! You promised—”
“Be still, Gifet” the older voice stated. “You wanted a champion and I have provided one for you. Be quiet or I will have him hunt you.”
A buzzing sound itched in my ears.
“Your body has not fully bounded,” the old man stated. “I had to wrap you rather tightly in bandages as you formed, but all will be well if you lie still and let your body come into the world.”
I did as the old man asked, though I was certain that I had little choice. Reaching across my body with my right hand, I confirmed that my chest and arm had been immobilized through the use of tightly wrapped stretches of cloth.
“What is your name, young man?”
“Nithan,” I stated, feeling my throat dry and the taste of ash on my tongue. “Sargent of the Fourth Army.”
“Sargent?” the shrill voice asked. “He is bone and spit, Feral Pissmonger! He will not do!”
I turned my head to the argument. In the burly glow I saw the shadow of an old man and ever-moving wisp of a green blur. “Where am I?”
“A filthy farmer kicked in the chestnuts would have been better, grave robber,” the wisp complained.
Blinking, the image of a haggard old man in a worn grey robe began to take shape. “Who are you?” I asked.
“He will do for your purpose,” the old man stated to the blur behind him. “I will deal with what is to come afterwards.” With two fingers, he pried open my eyelid and leaned forward. “A day or two more and you will have your chance.”
The light grew painfully bright and I twisted away from the man’s examination. “Answer me. Where am I?”
“The doorstep of death, stupid human,” the blur answered. “And you had better be worth the risk or I’ll boot you back into the dark.”
The old man rose from the simple stool he had sat on. “Go and find armor. Enchant it and do it well, if you wish this man to regain your own doorstep.”
“Ploughing cow pies of filth,” the creature swore. “You’ll pay if he doesn’t get my woods back.”
“Go,” the old man stated quietly. “Tell the others they have work to do.”
The abrupt exit of the creature created a popping sound in my ears. Turning back to the old man, I waited until my eyes adjusted enough to make out his form. My mood grew darker. “I want answers,” I hissed.
“You’re mind is not ready for such. You are nearly in the living and what has been done far from your sheltered mind.”
“I have seen a man cut in two,” I countered. “A country underhandedly taken with a promise and a knife at a throat of a child. I have seen more than you can imagine.”
The old man chuckled. “I think not, brave Nithan. For what I have seen would cause your bones to wither into dust. Still, if you wish to know, then I will not be the one to hide the facts from you.” He turned and went to a table. “You have heard of shadowlings?”
“Tales for children.” I huffed, feeling numbing effects of the medicine reach the tips of my fingers.
“Then they are brighter than you,” the man chuckled. Picking up an object, he returned to his seat and placed it on my bound chest. “You are closer to the living world than shadowlings, but only just.”
I lowered my chin, much to the strain of his neck, to find the man had placed a skull on my chest. It’s cavernous eye sockets brought back horror-filled memories. “Who is that?”
“I’ve heard better tales in taverns.”
The old man shook his head. “Better? Perhaps. But closer to the truth than most.” He pulled a vial from his sleeve and removed the cork. Covering the open end with his finger, he tipped the vial as he looked over his shoulder. “Some of the best stories have twists.” With a crooked smile on his lips, he traced something on my forehead. “Rest, for tomorrow, you will begin to live your tavern tale. Perhaps, just perhaps, you will be able to save us both.”
I awoke in a near stupor.
“Take it,” the mage whispered eagerly.
I looked at the man colored by the green light from the unnatural flame before us. The mage’s eyes were wide with expectation, yet I thought him mad. The heat alone would burn my skin and muscle from the bone. “Impossible.”
“Improbable,” the green-skinned imp laughed as it buzzed about the cave. “Do it, filth!”
I turned to the infernal blaze and shielded his eyes against its overpowering light. Between the gaps of my fingers, I could just make out the long object engulfed in the furnace. “I will burn, you flying pest. No man can withstand such heat.”
The imp hovered before me with a grin that showed his sharp teeth. “Do it, ploughing coward. Do it or the deal is broken,” Gifet spat. “Nothing but shite! You are nothing but a worthless human that pricks my arse with whining.”
“Let him adjust to his form, Gifet,” the old man stated. “You will have what you asked for.”
Gifet shot to the flames and ran his stubby deformed hand through the blaze. “It is nothing. Do it!”
With a quick, determined breath, I forced my feet forward to stand before the furnace. My skin cried out in pain, yet I plunged my hand into the green flame and grasped the handle. Ripping it from the hellish heat, I stepped back quickly in amazement of what I had done.
“Into the rock!” Gifet screamed. “Quickly!”
Blinking in bewilderment, I did as I was told. With all of my strength, I drove the blade into the stone floor of the cavern and fell before it.
“He’s done it!” Gifet cried in joy. Buzzing around the echoing chamber, the imp’s battered wings hummed in his glee. “The ploughing fool did it!”
My hands began to burn. Fearing the heat, I attempted to let go of the unnatural sword but my fingers would not react to my bidding. I used my legs for leverage. I pulled with all my might, but to no avail as the pain raced up my arm and into my chest. I cried out. The others did not come to my aid. Tugging violently against the steadfast grip, I burned from within, the scorching heat coursing through bone and tissue. Abruptly, all was still. The sword handle became as cool to the touch as any normal blade I had ever carried. The furnace spat and flickered out, sending the cavern into darkness.
“You have done it!” Gifet sang in a menacing tone. “Soon, I will have it all again.”
A growing pressure beneath my ribs caught my off-guard. With each candle that the mage lit to light the room, the pressure pulsated in my chest. I frantically gasped for air, but it would not sweep in to fill my lungs. I was certain I would die and feared what awaited me. Then, quite suddenly, my heart thumped heavily. Again, the laboring heart beat. Soon, I realized that I had not felt the sensation since waking in the cave. Quickly, my hand left the sword and grabbed the chainmail armor over my chest. My heart. It was beating as if nothing had happened before.
The mage moved in front of me and offered his hand. “A new beginning, Nithan Hall. One that will become as natural as the last.”
Looking up to the mage, I took his hand and found I strong and needed no help in rising. Firmly on my feet, I stared into the man’s eyes. “But what have I become?”
“A shade, you stupid bag of bones,” Gifet answered. “One that will clear the forest and will serve us well.”
I looked into the fearful eyes of the mage. “It cannot be.”
“It is,” he answered. His eyes glanced at the sword. “You live at the whim of a curse. Do right by its call and you will continue to be as you are. Time will flee from you and will become meaningless, yet will be your cage. Still, you will exist at the behest of others.”
Though his words pained me, I saw something in his eyes far more unsettling.
“Yes,” the imp agreed. “You must follow the command or you will cease to exist. And your first command is something I have waited for.” The foul creature cackled in delight as it flew about the cavern and out through the long passage.
“I have no say in this?” I asked, half believing the words I had heard. “You have done this to me to make a servant?”
The mage looked toward the passage. “Do as the imp wishes, then turn it to your advantage. The creature is blind with hate as is with all of their kind. Accomplish the task and find a means to flee from his grasp. I cannot help you more than what I have done.”
“What you have done?” I snarled, quickly filling with hate. “You have made me into a bonded slave!”
“There are always two ways around an imagined impasse,” the mage stated. “One is usually more difficult than the other. Fell beasts desire power and will do nothing to stop short of their goal. Still, their vision is narrowed. Give the imp what he desires and choose what options you have afterward.” He turned away from the view of the dark passage and went to his hooded lantern sitting on the stone floor. “It will return with a gift as it must. A payment of some type, a ring of this or that. Usually cursed in some foul manner. Accept it. Agree to do as he asks, but never use the gift. Destroy it later when you are free as it will certainly bring pain in some manner in the end.”
I shook his head. “I want nothing to do with this creature or you. I will not do anything that creature wishes.”
“But you will have to bend to it this once. After, I cannot say.”
The mage shrugged as he moved to the black furnace. “The sword you pulled from the flame was not meant for a human hand to touch. It was created to cut down creatures of light and only a shadow may use it. Why do you imagine the imp laughed in delight when you held it?”
I looked at the sword buried in the stone floor. “It is a foul thing then.”
“A powerful dark object…in its current state.”
“What do you mean?”
The mage picked up a candle from the floor. “A sword bends to the will of its wielder. You can either use it or let it remain useless on a shelf. It exists because of intent, but it is the owner that chooses how it is to be used. The green blade is no different. It was made to snuff the life from that which shines brightly or so was the intent of its forging. What if it belonged to a different king of shade?”
I hesitantly reached down and touched its pummel. “It is useless to anyone stuck in this cave,” I admitted.
“Do not underestimate the blade. It is made from hate, shadow and smoke. Look.” The mage walked to the object and passed his hand through the sword handle. “I cannot touch that which is not in my world. The imp, also, cannot wield it. Yet, I stand before a man who can.” He smirked. “Pull it out of the floor.”
Grasping the handle, I pulled it free from the stone.
“It was meant to take life but not as an ordinary blade might. No blood is spilt by its strike, no scar left by the blade scratching the surface of skin or hide, only the tearing of a soul from its existing host. What good would such a weapon be if it left the chance for its victim to recover?”
I dropped the blade as if it were a deadly serpent in his hand.
The mage chuckled. “Leave it if you will, but you will find that the weapons of the corporal world will not suit you in your current state. Pick it up. Make the blade your own and for your purpose. Perhaps it will change. Perhaps you will change.”
“Then there is a way to be rid of this life?”
“As I said before, there are always two ways around any obstacle.”
I looked at the blade. “If I kill the imp?”
“That is one tether of three, but it will not make it easy for you.”
“And the other tethers?”
The mage sat and glanced again toward the passageway out into the world. “Those you must find for yourself. However you were brought here for a purpose. I recommend you focus on that part of your existence. Should you manage your first task, you will have time enough to contemplate the rest. Still, it will take the blade to set you on your path.”
I shook with desire to have a life of my own. “You said the blade divides the soul from the form. Imps are from the hells below.”
“Then,” the mage turned to him with a harden face, “use the sword to send the ploughing creature back into the flame.”
In the heavy fog and the dim glow of the moons, I followed the mage and the imp out across several miles of low-laying fields to the edge of a woods. Wordlessly, I watched as the imp chattered its thin needle-like teeth in its excitement and the silent mage that muttered unrecognizable words. I worried, at first, we would be seen by some farmer relieving himself off a porch or some coach that drove through the night on the road, but not a creature appeared to be aware of our passing. In truth, it had taken me until the broken edges of the forest before realizing the old mage’s words had somehow shielded our journey from the cave.
Into the woods we went, with a sense of excitement and nervousness shared between us. The ground, thick with dead branches and frost-covered leaves, made no sound of complaint as we carried onward to the destination. I wondered at the marvel for a time, then commanded my mind to focus at the task at hand. Despite my efforts, I could not reason what the night might hold or how I was to make an escape.
Nearing a crest of a wooded hill, my eyes caught a glimpse of glow given off by a carried torch. When the mage stopped and knelt, I did likewise.
“Take this,” the mage whispered. Unstopping a vial, he handed it to me and nodded for me to drink it.
Holding it up to the diffused light from the moons through the branches above, I examined it.
“Just drink the ploughing draft,” the imp hissed quietly.
“What does it do?”
The imp gritted its teeth. “It will reveal the boarder of the camp so you don’t run into it, you fool.”
I hesitated. “It will cost you.”
“Tell me. What is this place?”
The mage chuckled. “You should know, shadow. You were the one who created it.”
I shook my head “Speak plainly or I will attempt to kill the guards without the potion.”
“It’s the Abbot’s Woods, you shite for brains,” the imp hissed. “You were the one who brought the first pregnant whore here. Don’t you recognize it?”
I lifted my body slowly to my feet and looked as deeply as I could into the forest. “Abbot’s Woods? But you said there is a camp here. There was nothing but a shack, not a group of people.”
“That was some time ago, Nithan,” the mage answered. “Did you think that others would not continue in the idea after your death? There must be twenty of such women who have been banished here.”
“Fifty three,” the imp grunted. “But not after tonight, my shadow.” The imp’s teeth glistened in the light. “Now, get down before you are seen.”
In disbelief, I slowly lowered myself to my knee.
“Can you not hear the voices that you heard in the cave?” the mage asked.
“Soon they will be cries of their death songs and screams of fear,” Gifet smirked. “Pull your blade and use the shadows. Kill the guards and everyone in the camp, then I will reward you with something your people have never held in their hands in all of time.”
I hesitated for a moment as my thoughts raced for a possible alternative. “The guards are the only thing keeping these people here. Kill them and the others will flee from your woods.”
“They will come back. This woods is mine,” the imp shot back. “Drink the potion, kill the guards, then rid this ground of human life.”
Without another word, forced from within to do as the creature said, I downed the potion and rose from my position. The concoction rushed through my veins. In moments, a faint blue wispy trail of light began to appear in the woods.
“Do not touch the light. Now, hurry, you shite!” Gifet cried. “It won’t last forever!”
I was uncertain how I knew, but I moved into a shadow of a nearby tree. In a breath, I appeared out from another, further into the forest. Step by step, I made my way through the woods toward the hazy torchlight until I pulled my sword and ran my first victim through. With heart beating quickly, I left the body and raced along a path, leaping over the trail of blue light. Seeing another torch, I dashed for the nearest shadow and traveled through it with amazing speed. The guard had no hope of reacting as I raked my blade across his throat and watched him fall. Silently, like a predator of mist and air, I slaughtered the small company of guards, slowly making my deadly way around the encampment.
With a pair sitting in a tent, happily playing at dice within, I dropped to a knee. The task was too easy and the thrill of killing too comforting. I turned toward the group of hovels made of sticks below and listened. A cough from a small child came to my ears. Crying from a woman who mourned the life she might have had lofted out of the fog and touched my cold heart. This was all my doing. Though I once believed that the woman I had brought to this hollow would find a means to a happier end, I realized that I had only told myself lies to dull the moral cries within me. Coin placed in sacks and buried in secret places was what I had thought would bring me happiness. My past desire to never need the favor of the Abbot or the use my sword was shear folly. Now, in the still of the night with no one to witness, I had unnaturally circled the encampment and took the lives of others. They did not even cry out or bleed when they fell.
Looking in the direction of the awaiting imp and mage, my mind refused to do more. I pondered how I could manage to break my unnatural bond. I was quick in my state of being, but did not know what an imp could do. Would I also need to kill the mage? I was certain that I would need to attack in a fashion they would not expect. My eyes were pulled to the blue thin line of light that I somehow understood was a means to keep creatures like them away. Perhaps it could be used. My mind was instantly reminded of the foul creature that wished for death and how my pause would stand out as hesitation to do its bidding. Steeling my mind, I could think of only finishing the task and face the demise that I deserved as I would not lay a hand on those that lived in the huts.
In a few short steps, the task of ridding myself of the soldiers was complete. With a single step though the tree shadow beside me, I reappeared before the imp and mage, panting and falling to the ground.
“He did it!” the imp laughed hysterically.
The mage hurried to my side. “Something is wrong. A shade is never out of breath.”
I wearily pushed myself up onto my hands and knees, continuing the lie. “The..line.”
“Damn it all!” the mage yelled. “He has been touched by the blessed protection around the camp!” He looked up to the imp. “Do something!”
Gifet continued to laugh as he buzzed about. “Why should I care? He has served enough of his purpose.” The evil creature of the hells flew to mere inches of the old man’s face. “Now, do your part,” it spat. “Break the line and kill every pathetic woman and child in the camp.”
Gripping the sword handle, I rose quickly, sweeping my weapon upward with all my might. I felt the enchanted steel cut cleanly through the imp’s body and shook violently as the shock of pain raced down the blade into my very essence.
With a scream of vile hatred, the imp burst into flame like a dry leaf burning in the air. A sudden percussive blast lifted me off my feet, yet that was the end of the hellish creature. My body was flung into the wind as if it weighed nothing at all and came to a painful and abrupt stop as it slammed into the trunk of a thick oak. Nothing but silence remained.
I had no idea how long I remained prone on the forest floor when I awoke to smell of cinder. My head throbbed with the ringing in my ears as I opened my eyes to a world of ash and smoke. Heavily, pushing my weary body onto all fours, the scene around me made my heart fall deep into my chest. All that I saw, tree and turf, were blackened or grey with ash. Rising to my feet, I took in the aftermath of a great fire. Few trees stood taller than twenty feet as most smoldered on the ground. Ash, as deep as a late snow, lay all around.
A hoarse chuckle passed through the eerie ringing in my ears and I turned to its source.
There, leaning against a smoldering tree, sat a blacken figure of a man. Its face burned away revealing a sickening grey of the bone behind it. I moved cautiously to the remains of a burnt figure. “You live?” I whispered.
“This is…not life,” the mage coughed.
I scanned the extent of the mage’s injuries. “How?”
“A shade asks a man how he lives?” The man’s remaining lower lip curled. “Not long, I answer.”
“What has happened?” I turned toward the smoldering world around him. “The imp?”
“Hate has a way of not leaving peacefully.”
“And…those in the camp?”
The attempted smile of the dying man fell. “Passed through the Veil.”
I grew angry. “You said nothing of this!”
“It would not have mattered. You were summoned. You would not have had a choice in the end.” The man’s lidless eyes turned toward the camp. “Now you are beholden to them and not the imp as we once were.”
The mage’s words did not make sense. “I am beholden to no one. I live while all others die.”
“You are cursed, my young friend. Alone you will walk through life until one better than you sends you to where you belong. Use such time to make amends. By your hand a foul best was sent to the pits of the hells, but the deaths of many are on your head. Many horrors will be poured on you should you not atone.”
I shook his head. “I was lied to. This is on your head!”
“You were the genesis of the camp. You…you brought the pregnant woman here. You left her here to die instead of taking her to a place where she might have made a new life.” His eyes returned to me. “You now must pay for what you have done.”
I spat on the ground. “I laugh at your curse.”
“Hear my last words and think on them daily. Orphans, you have created in your wars and destitution you have left a woman in these woods. I give up my power over you to any orphan of this world. They will call your name and make the mark, then you shall come in their hour of need. Selfish and thoughtless you once lived, but no longer. Now you will bend to their will. They will call and you will have no choice but to answer.”
Rising slowly to draw my sword to end this folly, I felt a sudden burning sensation on my forehead. Touching the painful sight, my hand jerked away from the bite of fire. “No! I will do as I please!”
“Good bye, my shadowy friend,” the mage said in a week voice.
I dropped to my knees and grabbed the charred soul by the shoulders. My fingers passed through burned skin, muscle and bone as the figure crumbled before me into a pile of black ash.
All back rooms of shops make excellent places for playing an outlawed game of Diamonds. They are, of course, out of the earshot of visiting patrons and typically windowless, allowing for hushed words and coin to be spent without the intrusion of the law. In such a place I now find myself.
With candles placed on shelves and barrels, enough light is gathered to easily see both cards, coin and faces that might falter with a telling sign. With no personal affect from numerous glasses of wine while the others became less cognizant, I couldn’t be happier. The players at the makeshift table had already begun to slur their words and chuckled at sight of a hidden winning hand. It was much too easy, but I didn’t complain.
With the deepening of the late hours, it was only a matter of time before I had amassed enough wealth to travel to all of my secret stashes of coin and make a new life elsewhere. Unfortunately, I had been eager and won too quickly in other establishments, forcing me to seek new players that had not heard of my luck. I resented the possible sums that my impatience had squandered, but tonight, it appeared all was well in hand and a few more games hidden away from prying eyes would balance the set back.
“I think that maybe yourrr…going to lose that lovely stack of coin, milord.”
I forced a frown as I looked at the small piles of coin before me. “Perhaps you are right. You men are better players than I am. That is plain enough.” With the back of my hand, I pushed the stacks of coin into the center of the table. “It will be an early night, but one must take a chance every now and again.” Such was my bluff.
The men at the table laughed and added their share of the bid to the pile of coin.
“I will raise,” called out a foul smelling man beside me.
“He ain’t got more, you idiot,” chide another.
The drunken man to my side looked my hand. “He’s got that ring, don’t he?”
I lifted my hand and turned it before the others. With a false questioning look, I shook my head. “My ring? It’s my wedding band.”
“Can’t wager that, good sir. I’ll not be the reason you sleep in the barn when your wife turns you out.”
The intoxicated man who raised the bet scowled at the other. “Sures he can. Gotta chance to win coin as easy as we.”
I picked up my hand-painted cards and sighed. “Indeed, there is a chance. I might be able to buy her a table with the coin here.”
“There’s the spirit!” The drunk pat me on the shoulder as I worked the gold band from my finger. “It all about having the chestnuts to play when your loosin’. Can’t win nothin’ if you don’t try.”
I nodded humbly and placed the ring onto the stack in the center of the table. “Your words could not be truer. I owe you good men to hold nothing back for your kind invitation to this game.”
“Bet he’s got more hidden away,” an angry face snarled across the table.
“I have nothing more,” I replied softly. “I fear I have done as well at this table as most.”
The man eyed me for a moment before looking down at my feet. “Fine boots like the ones you walked in here with must have been worth more than a few silver.”
“You want his boots?” asked another.
“Still worth something, ain’t it? And that ring ain’t enough to match my new raise.” The uncouth man pushed his stack of coin into the center of the table.
I looked at the faces around the table. “I’ll lose what’s in the pot if I fold now, won’t I?”
“That be the truth of it,” the drunk next to me stated. “Play or leave.”
Slowly, I shifted in my chair as if I was uncomfortable. After a quick glace at the staring men, I began to pull of each boot and set them on the table. “The floor is chilly,” I mused aloud as if the shyest of souls.
“There,” called the drunk. He flipped his cards out for all to see. “Two Twins.”
One man dejectedly tossed his cards on the table.
“Three Pilgrims,” chuckled another as he lay out his cards.
The drunk hissed as the higher hand was placed on the table. “Damn your bluff, Hector!” He turned to the player who stared across the table. “What’s you got, Nit?”
A curling smile grew on the man’s face. Nit placed one card after another for all to see. “Three Chapels.”
The men at the table groaned.
Nit turned to me. “Show your cards, mate.”
With each card I placed on the table, I stared into Nit’s eyes. One upturned card after another, I saw the fear grow in his eyes. The last out of my hand changed the man’s demeanor to a grimace. “I think its call the King’s Chamber Pot, isn’t it?”
In a flash, Nit launched himself across the table at me. The others grabbed the man as I leapt out of my chair and backed away.
“You cheatin’ bastard!” Nit cried in anger.
“He ain’t cheatin’, Nit,” a drunk laughed. “Got you fair and square.” The man turned to me “I’d grab your coin and leave fast if I were you.”
I had no intention of doing anything other than what he suggested. I grabbed my boots as the group man-handled Nit off the table. With nimble fingers I pulled a coin purse from my jerkin and quickly gathered the coins. “I’m sorry this ended on such a note, gentlemen,” I falsely offered. “It was all luck, I assure you.”
“I’ll cut you where your wife will morn if you don’t get out of here!” yelled Nit, struggling against the restraint of the others.
I had no doubt the man meant every word. Pulling on my boots, I nodded and plucked the purse from the table. With a quick smirk, I left the backroom and stepped into the nearest shadow. Instantly, I reappeared in the muddy alley behind the shop and began to walk casually toward the street. Tossing the purse in my hand, I chuckled. It was far too easy and now, with winnings in hand, I could begin to gather my hidden trove and set out to purchase a nice tavern or inn on some lucrative crossroads. I breathed deeply as the image of all of my efforts coming to a happy end. It would take time, of course, to dig up the array of coin purses, but time I had.
“They are calling,” said a whispering voice.
I was caught off-guard with the words, forcing my feet to stop in place. Spinning on my heels, I pulled my sword to fend off the possible attacker. There was no one there. The flickering lamps of the shops on the street behind me created pale images of crates in the alley, but no figure of a person.
“Nithan,” the feminine voice whispered again. “They call.”
“Who’s there!” I demanded, turning again to search for the source of the words. There was no one.
Without warning, my forehead felt as if set aflame. Dropping the coin purse from the shear pain of it, I touched the skin above my brow as my eyes began to blur. “No!” I screamed, feeling myself torn from the world.
In that next moment, I fell hard onto a plank floor, slamming my head against the unyielding wood. Feeling as if being run over by a carriage, I gave out a grunt as the impact forced the air out of my lungs.
“It worked!” exclaimed a young voice. The sounds of scattering footsteps followed.
I clinched my hands into a fist and slammed them against the floor. “How dare you!” Pushing my beaten frame up from the dusty floor, my eyes searched for the summoner. “Which one of you brats called me?” My thoughts suddenly turned to the coin` purse that was once in my hand. Searching my body quickly, I found I wore only my old chainmail and surcoat. “Where am I?” I demanded.
“Hepstone,” a young boy in rags answered.
“Four…twenty, Orphan Blade.”
I rose to my feet and rubbed my temples. The four pathetic-looking children dressed in rags stepped back quickly. “Four twenty?” I asked, looking up at the thatched ceiling. He had warned me that such a thing would occur, but the time between that fateful day had given me hope that the curse was only a lie. “Damn you, mage!”
“I didn’t think he was supposed to be mean,” a girl whispered from the shadowy corner.
I bit the end of my lip, forcing my mind to comprehend all that traveling back in time would mean. I wasn’t even born by the date that was given to me and worse, the coin I had collected for so many years would not exist. In a rage, I stepped forward toward the only child that had not moved away from me. “Why? I had all that I wanted in reach! Why did you call me?”
“We…we need your…help,” the boy quivered.
I could almost hear the laughter from the mage. I grit my teeth and attempted to breathe passed the furry. “You needed? You needed help? Why didn’t you leave me be and do it yourselves?”
“Don’t got nobody else, Orphan Blade,” a taller boy stated as he moved behind an old barrel. “That’s why we called.”
Orphan Blade. How I hated the title. I felt a wave of fatigue and was forced to sit on the floor where I had stood. “Orphan Blade,” I repeated aloud. “I am truly cursed, then.”
“That’s what it says in the book,” a girl replied. “You were cursed and have to help us if we call.”
I fell to my back, letting my breathing slow and searched for the means to return to my life. The girl’s words suddenly resonated. I sat up quickly. “Book? What book?”
“Show him, Tip,” the girl urged the boy next to her.
With shaking hands, the boy approached. Handing me the worn leather book, he quickly stepped back when I snatched it out of his hands.
At first, I thought that I had be the butt of a joke for as I scanned quickly through the aged pages, I found no words at all. Raising it up, allowing the candlelight to reflect off the page, the hints of old ink appeared. The words, I could not read. I turned the pages, one by one, but found little resembling anything but scrolling lines and hints of shapes. “This is madness. There is nothing but scribbles and drawings.”
“No, sir,” the boy said. “There’s a whole story there.”
I looked again through the pages and found nothing other than what I first witnessed. “Lying for the mage will not help your cause.”
A girl slowly made her way to him. “Tip isn’t lying, sir. We’ve all read the story.” Timidly, she approached close enough to take the book from my hand. Looking at the page that was opened, she began to read. “’Careless of will, hopeless in faith, the Orphan Blade wandered from place to place. Coin on table, what was won was lost until he was summoned to needs of those of the house.’ You see,” she said as she turned the book toward me, “it is written here just like Tip said.”
The situation was preposterous. A book I could not read. A story within that mentioned the last moments of my known existence. To add, I now sat in a dilapidated house thirty years before I was born. “Madness,” I whispered wearily. My head continued to throb as I pondered how the mage had created a book before our meeting and how it reflected my every move. “What does the story tell after I arrive?”
“Nothing. It ends like that, good sir,” the girl said with concern.
I looked at the child and then to the three others. With a sigh escaping from my lips, I could not think of any other way to progress but to bend to the curse of this life. It was then that I notice the taste of ash in my mouth. “Wine. Bring me wine.”
“We don’t got wine,” Tip replied.
“Just rain water,” said the girl holding the book.
Of course. Why would I be so fortunate to have something as simple as wine. “It will do.” I watched as a boy left the room quickly then turned to the others. “What you have done is unnatural. I assume you know this.”
Each child nodded wordlessly.
I felt their need and their fear of who sat before them. If this was my lot in life and hoped to return to my own will, I would have to follow the path set before me. Somehow, I knew it was my only course. “You must promise to burn that book when I have completed your request.” Each nodded quickly to my words. “What is it you require?”
The girl before me looked to the others before turning back with hope in her eyes. “Mrs. Memits means to sell us to the mining camp. Children don’t live in the mines for very long.”
It was not difficult for me to comprehend their fear nor the truth of their words. “To kill your mistress would leave you without a roof over your head.”
“Oh! We don’t want to kill her!” the girl cried out.
I chuckled, as the child seemed lost as to why I existed. “What is it you imagine I do, child?”
“Helen,” the girl corrected.
“You and your companions summed a shade. Did you expect me to grant you wishes of gold, Helen?”
The girl shook her head. “We need your help to escape before they come for us.”
“A protector? And where did you plan to escape to?”
“The Abbot’s Woods,” she answered. “Like in the story.”
I shook my head and laughed. “Your storybook is mistaken. The encampment was destroyed by a great fire in my time or did your book not mention that small fact.”
Tip moved to Helen’s side. “But it’s here on the map.” He took the book from her hands and turned the pages quickly. “Here,” he said, holding the book open before me. “This is where orphans can go to be protected.”
Looking at the empty page, I attempted to reason what they saw. “The Abbot’s Woods is a cursed place…or will be. You must find another place to make your lives.”
“He’s a shade,” a boy called out from the corner. “He’s lying!”
I got to my feet. “Cursed, most certainly. The imp called it his woods. I doubt that you wish to seek out the home of that hellish creature.” I thought for a moment. “Is there no other place you can think of? Perhaps a…” My words died on my lips as a hint of danger from history pricked the edges of my mind. “What day is it?”
Tip shrugged and looked to Helen. “The eighth of Citar, I think.”
My heart leapt into my throat. I rushed to the window and looked into the darkness of night. The moons were silver coins in the sky, giving off the smallest illumination on the world. “A cart,” I said, spinning on my heels. “Get a cart or wagon or whatever you can find. We must leave now!”
The children froze in place, staring at me as if I were a madman.
“Do you not know what this night brings? The Kazamians will sweep the lands!”
Helen visible shook before me. Her eyes wide were with fright.
I hurried to the door. “You must follow me. Quickly!” Turning, I found a boy holding a pitcher of water. Without a thought, I grabbed the boy and carried him down the steps. Thoughts of how the world would sway under the blades of the attackers raced through my mind. My mind wild with fear, I rushed to the front door and threw it open to reveal the dark of night. A distant scream echoed across the lands to my sensitive ears. It was too late.
“What are we going to do?” Helen cried as she clasped my waist in fear.
I closed the door and blew out the candle next to me. Setting the boy down and prying Helen from my waist, I knelt and took the girl’s face between my hands. “Do not let fear take you. You must keep your wits. All good soldiers know to force fear from their minds.”
The girl with wide eyes nodded slowly.
“There is a wagon across the road. I will bring it to the front. Gather all that you can and meet me outside. Do you understand?” I turned to the gathering of children. “Quietly.” When each of the terrified faces acknowledged my words, I rose. “Where is this Mrs. Memits?”
“Drunk in her bed,” Tip answered.
“Go and do as I’ve told you. Gather food and something to keep warm against the weather. We do not have much time.” Without another word, I moved into the shadows and reappeared inside the simple barn across the road. The aged plow horses whinnied at the sight of me, but I did not care. With the skills taught to my by years of war, I managed the skittish animals and brought them out to attach horse to wagon. Looking up only to see the distant fires of a town being sacked by the invaders, I quickened my pace until one horse was cinched and set and the other tethered to the back of the wagon. The lead animal stamped at the ground as I took it by the bit. “I don’t have time to argue.”
With a tug I pulled the animal’s head toward the shabby house and led it to the front door. The children, I happily noted, where eagerly awaiting me. “Get in the wagon.”
“But, Mrs. Memits,” Helen stated.
I nodded to her concern. Though the woman was obviously far from perfect, they would need at least one adult to make their way in the world. With a step, I traveled into the small front room and hurried into the back where I found a woman lying in bed with a bottle cradled in her arms. I huffed at the pathetic sight. With careful arms, I picked her up as if she weighed nothing but a feather and raced to the front. Once outside, I tossed her into the straw in the back of the wagon with the others. “Cover yourselves. Tip, get in front and take the reins.”
The words barely escaped my lips when I heard the sounds of approaching horses. Watching the boy climb to the front of the wagon, I hurried to the plow horse and gathered the reins. Placing the leather straps in the boy’s shaking hands, my mind grasped from possible safe havens that might exist at the time. Finding a small coin purse on my belt, I ripped it loose and shoved it into the boy’s hand. “Do you know of the Abby of Seven Sisters?”
“In the Cambick Valley,” answered the boy with a nod.
“Go there and tell them to light a candle for me.”
Tip looked over his shoulder. “But you must come with us.”
I shook my head and patted the boy’s leg, as I knew they would not get far if I did nothing about the approaching riders. “You will not need the Orphan Blade after tonight.” I glanced back and could see carried torches making their way up the hill. “Go, now.” With a slap on the plow horse’s rear, the wagon lurched forward.
Stepping back, the wagon of children began to move away and down the small road into the dark of night. My last view of them was of Helen waving to me. A curious sense of peace flooded into my mind at the sweet acknowledgment. Such a gift was soon replaced with last remaining deed that I must fulfill. I was all that stood between the children and those riding quickly toward me. For a reason I cannot explain, the ends of my lips curled into a knowing smile as stared toward the oncoming force.
Pulling out my blade, I let the tip drag through the dirt as I slowly strolled to the center of the road. Hefting the blade high, I drove it deeply into the ground and knelt before it. Breathing deeply, I grasped the handle and dipped his head to the pummel. Though I knew of no deity that might hear my words, I asked only that the orphans make it to safety and that I might be remembered for the deed.
I rose quietly to my feet and pulled the sword from the ground, watching the hard approach of armored men. “Yes, come. Let us see what becomes of this.”
The three that approached appeared in plain view once the light of the moons struck their forms as they crested the hill. I instantly noted their reaching for weapons and readied myself for their attack. Thankfully, their poor horsemanship stood out and I was able to step aside with a cut across the leg of the outside rider. The howl he gave compared nothing to the horse he rode, as I was not prepared for the unholy blade to cut so deeply into both rider and mount. When both tumbled lifelessly on the road, I knew I had the advantage.
The turn of the other riders allowed me to set my feet firmly into the dirt and ready for their attack. I thought nothing of my fate as any fear that might have found its way into my heart was burned up in my determination for the riders’ blood. Come, they did, with sound of thunderous hooves and battle cries. I did not flinch.
With a whirling strike, I meant to cut the horses from under them, knowing now that the cursed blade I carried did not differentiate between man or animal. The animals fell in a cry and crashed into my body sending me through the air and quickly trampled over. Turning onto my stomach, flinching in pain, I saw the horses roll over their riders and the plume of dirt loft into the moonlight. I lay broken in the road. My legs would not move and had no feeling to them. Turning my head, I saw through the blood running down my face, motionless beasts and men. I coughed and taste of iron and ash filled my mouth. This was the end, or so I thought.
Closing my eyes to the dimming world, I felt myself leave my body. Through winds of fire and cold, my body was carried until I felt the chill of stone against my cheek and the smell of city filth filling my nostrils.
“Get up, Nithan,” I heard the sweet voice call.
I opened my eyes to find I was lying in a dark alley, familiar to the point of knowing it was where I had been before being pulled away to another time. Finding all my faculties were intact and my body unharmed, I pushed myself up from the dirty cobblestones and sat looking for where the calming voice came from. The alley was empty.
Ever so slowly, as I nearly missed its beginning, a soft glowing outline of a form appeared before me. I shook my head as the ghost took on the familiar figure of my sister. “Cynthia,” I whispered in my amazement.
She smiled. “Get up, Nithan. Those that you have cheated will come soon.”
I rose, unable to look away from the family member I had lost so long ago. “This cannot be. You should not be here.”
Cynthia shrugged in her familiar way. “Nor should you, Nithan.” She looked to the main street. “Come, there are still things for you to do.”
The Odd Job
The road to Yema had been a long, monotonous trip. The repetitious bobbing of my horse combined with the endless road across the plains nearly rocked me to sleep on several occasions. Had it not been my thoughts of gathering up a hidden stash of gold or the constant stares of the children in the wagon before me, I may have easily closed my eyes and passed the mind-numbing time to the valley. Equal in their annoyance, the faces that studied me was only a reminder that a dwindling sum in my purse had forced me to take up the job as protector for the family traveling to a new home. Sad faces and pitiful sums set my teeth on edge. I prayed for something to happen to quicken my heart and pull me away from the boredom. An attack on the wagon by some would-be thief or even a broken wagon wheel would have sufficed, but I was never so lucky as to have things go my way.
And so, the hours of the passing days drone on, occasionally separated by an argument between the man who hired me and his insistent wife. The trip was so tedious that I began to consider which of the pair was correct in their multiple disagreements. The man, by my account, was a mindless brute who was certain the world played him false at every turn. The wife, younger by a handful of years, found him lazy and the reason for the loss of their home and land. Poorly chosen words kindled an already tension filled relationship and on several accounts, the wagon came to a halt followed by angry threats from the man to leave the family out in the middle of nowhere. This moment would pass and onward we would travel in complete silence for hours until the next spat began.
In all of this, the children stared at me as I followed slowly behind the ox-pulled wagon. They did not speak in all the time I traveled with them. Their pale faces and appearing busies on my return from a quick scouting ride told me volumes of their lives. Had not the clues been so obvious, my childhood memories would have recognized the fear and loss of hope in their unblinking stares. Their voiceless screams were easily heard in my ears and it tore at me. Knowing them to be beaten by their father each and every time I left their side, I made the small trips ahead as fast as I could manage. Still, a new bruise on either the children or their mother would welcome me on my return.
Such was my childhood. Living on a tiny farm away from the eyes of the world, my father too would find relief from his pain by striking out at us. My mother, from the few memories I can gather, always wore a smile for my sister and I along with a split lip or worry for our welfare in her eyes. She was often the shield that protected Cynthia and I from his rage. Young as I was, I knew her to be the recipient of three quarters of the beatings I should have received. What I did not understand at the time was that for each outburst of anger or any attempt I made to keep her from being so misused, I had only given him a reason to carry out his vengeance with all the more voracity. More stubborn than had wits, I did not learn to keep quiet as the children in the wagon had. For that, I carry the pain of my loved ones’ deaths.
My attention was pulled away from these thoughts by her words.
“Nithan. It’s time,” said Cynthia.
I looked to my sister’s sorrowful face before turning to see the position of the sun. I had not taken my surveying ride for several hours and knew I had to earn my coin. By the look in the eyes of the children, they knew it as well.
“I will make my rounds, Mr. Ambit,” I called out.
The man shifted in the buckboard seat to turn around to face me. “’Bout time. Thought you just planned to sleep in the saddle and take advantage of the poor by doing nothin’.”
Oh, I had several ideas what I wished to say to the trumped up man with his pissing words, but I held my tongue and turned my horse toward the east. I would be quicker than the last time, I told myself. Hoping more than believing that I could return before any incident arose, I kicked my mount forward and raced to the nearest crest of the rolling hill that bordered the road. Though my desire was to ride as quickly as cold wind blowing from the mountains, my horse was far too old to accomplish the task. Balancing the limits of the animal against the need to return to the wagon, I made my way in a wide circle to seek any signs of those who prey on simple travelers. It was the end of my ring that I saw the appearance of two men cresting a hill and riding hard toward the unprotected family.
I dug my spurs deeply into the animal’s sides and demanded its all in my shout. Indeed, it gave its best as we sped toward the screams of children and the stationary wagon on the road. I knew I would not make it in time. The ignorant man did not whip the oxen forward in an attempt to escape, but rather pulled out an axe like a would-be hero. As I neared, I drew my sword at the very moment the fool was run through with what I assumed was a knife.
My mount, spent from its rush, skidded to a stop when we were nearly there. Tumbling off the saddle, I rebounded from the fall and leapt to my feet. With all the hate in the world, I closed the gap quickly. The woman, pulled from her seat, struggled against the efforts of a man who wished to have his way with her. His head came off his shoulders with ease as my blade blazed in its fiery vengeance. Turning quickly, I saw the other attempt to gather his frightened horse. In a few bounds, I had him by the neck and threw him to the ground. He cried out for pity. I had none for him and ran my sword through him until the guard struck his ribs. I used the heel of my boot to free the blade and turned to scan the area for other attackers.
I watched as the woman pulled her tattered clothing to cover herself and hurry to the lump that lay on the road. To my thinking, the man would be dead and the children needed my attention. I quickly made my way to the back of the wagon to find the three huddled together in fear.
“They are done for. You have nothing to fear.”
The children stared.
Knowing them to be in shock, I turned my attention back to the woman. Leaving the children secure in the wagon, I returned to body on the road. The amount of blood ebbing around the man told me all I needed to know. There is nothing one can do for the dead.
“Are you harmed?” I asked her.
Her redden eyes held mine. She said nothing. The bruising on her cheek was from a day ago and she appeared to be a soul who had nothing to offer her husband’s death having cried out a lifetime of tears many years ago.
I knelt and took her bloodied hand in mine. “We can wrap the body of your husband in a blanket and find a proper place of burial, but we must move onward.”
Her eyes left me and moved to the bodies of her assailants. “Why,” she whispered, shaking her head in disbelief.
“They are bandits, madam. They were after whatever they could manage to find.”
She looked quickly to the wagon.
“Your children are safe,” I answered her look. “But we must push on should there be more.” I carefully helped her to her feet. “I will pull the bodies off the road and leave them to rot as they deserve. If you will find a blanket, I will attend your—”
“Leave him to the crows with the others,” she replied with no emotion in her voice. “He deserves no better.”
I had not driven a wagon pulled by oxen since I was a child but managed to make our way to Yema without mishap. The woman rode in the back with her children. I cannot remember them making a sound for the rest of that day and only one short, hushed conversation between them we pulled into the small town. After taking the family to the woman’s sister, I sold the bandit’s horses to the local smithy and returned with the money. Mrs. Ambit would not take a single coin and made certain I kept the funds as payment for my efforts. I left them in the care of relatives and set my course toward one of the stashes. I had heard that the woman latter married the blacksmith in town, but I cannot be certain that is true. Still, it was what I always preferred to believe.
The Mines of Ikland
On occasion, I see moments or experience feelings previous to my arrival in their world. In the hushed room, where I was not, forgotten children sipped broth from wooden spoons as a robed priest walked among them reading from the large tome. Small, eager hands reach for bread and dip it into the hot, thin liquid. Pitiful in sight, wearing thread-barren clothing, the children ate quickly as if the meal would disappear if they hesitated and drank from clay cups in gulps.
The priest attempted to focus on the words on the page in the dim candle light, wishing the hopeful message pushed away the worry of their situation. It would not be long before this place, like the others, were found out by town guards and he would again be thrust into a cell for his crime. How the children would manage when it occurred, he could only pray another would take his place and tend to those most in need. Unbeknownst to him, other words were being softly spoken and their effect soon to be noticed.
Out of thin air, I fell from a height and landed onto the table with a crash, smashing simple bowls and scattering the children from their benches. I moaned in pain from the impact and rolled off the side of the table. Lying on the floor, I reached for my pain-stricken shoulder and blinked as my eyes grew accustom to the light. “Why can it not be that I arrive into water…or a soft bit of straw?” I said. Before I could rise, the end of a wooden pole was pressed against my throat.
“Who are you?” the robed figure demanded.
I rubbed my eyes, and attempted to focus on the man. I began to chuckle when I understood my attacker was a priest. “I would not come closer, priest. You have little idea who you have at the end of your stick.”
“One of the Barron’s guards?” the priest asked, pressing the end of the staff deeper into my neck. “Tell me who sent you!”
Brushing the staff aside, I pushed myself up to sit before the thin priest. “I was not sent, I assure you. I was called. No, ’summoned’ is the word for it.” I turned to see legs of children from under the table. “Ask one of them.”
The priest glanced at the children. “Summoned you? Like some foul imp from the hells?”
“I have had my dealings with imps before and I would ask you not to compare me to them.” I pointed to the children. “One or all of them are orphans and,” I said as I pushed myself back to lean against the wall, “I am fated to aid them. Not by choice, priest.” I removed my glove and touched my bleeding lip. “One of them has a book in his possession. I would start your inquiry with that bit of useful information.”
“You’re a deceiver. Why would I take your word above theirs?”
I got to my feet. “I bluff only in cards these days…or eons…or moments. Where am I and what year is it?”
“You are a learned man. Have you not heard the term?”
The priest stepped back. “Four fifty three.”
I nodded. At least I was not taken so far back in time. Oddly, this comforted me. “And the place?”
“What are you playing at?”
“The town? The hamlet? Anything will do.”
A child spoke from the crowd. “The Barony of Ikland, Orphan Blade.”
I turned to the girl and grinned. “You have shown your hand, girl.” I turned the bench upright and sat at the table. Grabbing water pitcher, I searched the table for an unbroken cup.
“The food is for the children,” the priest stated.
Reaching down to my belt, I pulled away my small coin purse and tossed it to the oldest boy in the crowd. “Fetch bread and other food, but do not let the vendor see the purse.”
The boy looked at the priest and left quickly when the man reluctantly nodded.
Finding a loaf of bread, I sniffed it and waved the girl forward. As she approached, I broke it in half and set it across the table. “I have no wish to stay here longer than I must,” I said to the girl I guessed to be no more than twelve. “What is your name?”
“Tabitha, Orphan Blade,” she answered quietly.
“Give me the book.” Taking the small book from her, I quickly paged through only to find empty pages. I handed the book to the priest.
“Blank pages,” the priest stated as he thumbed through the usual item.
I smiled. “To your eyes and mine, but the pages are filled with words to an orphan. Is that not true, Tabitha?”
The girl nodded. “You’re really him, aren’t you?”
I looked up and cursed the mage of my past once more. “Unfortunately. I will save you the horror of how it all came to be, but if you have read each page you know what I am to do and what I have done. Tell me why you have called. I would very much like to get back to my life, if you would not mind.”
“My brother, sir,” she whispered. “I think they have taken him to the mines.”
I felt my jaw clench. Turning to the priest, I saw his chin slowly dip in agreement to Tabitha’s words. “Is there no end to the use of children as a disposable means to wealth?”
The priest stared at me for a moment. His eyebrows began to dip. “You are on blessed ground, sir. You should not be here. Go back to where you came.”
“I cannot. Curses are odd that way.”
“Then take your curse from this holy place. Hide where you have been so that I can continue my work.”
I bit into a piece of bread and chewed while I thought. The priest was worried I was here, the girl appeared frightened yet pleased I sat across from her while I would have given my ring-finger to be back in…well, elsewhere. “Where are these mines the girl speaks of?”
“In the valley along the river,” the priest stated. “Surely you don’t mean to go alone.”
I didn’t answer him and turned to the girl. “Do you know for certain your brother is there?” I asked as I rotated the last of the pain from my shoulder.
Tabitha nodded. “They take all the children to the mines. They can dig where others can’t go.”
I had seen enough of tunnels carved into the mountains and hills to know what she meant. Holes dug so deep that air turns deadly. “Dragon’s breath”.
“And other things,” she whispered in a tone of sorrow.
I noticed a trembling in her shoulders. She was truly afraid for the life of her brother but being forced to chip away at half the speed of an adult was not what her last words hinted. Several images of foul creatures that should not exist came to my thoughts. “How deep are these mines?”
Tabitha looked up. “Very deep, Orphan Blade.”
When I arrived, I knelt behind a tree at the edges of a hill that overlooked the mining camp below. The moons were in their new phase, leaving the area so dark that the few torches held by camp guards glowed like the sun. But I did not need the light as my eyes changed as they do and a path to the lone opening into the steep rocky hill became perfectly obvious. Behind me, I heard the heavy breathing and weary footfalls of the priest. “You did not need to come.”
The man took a few more steps to join me and collapsed next to the tree. “I…I couldn’t let you do this alone,” he panted. “If what you say is true, then I must play a part in helping you.” The man rested his back to the tree. “I cannot kill anyone. It’s forbidden.”
I scanned for the shadows to use to reach each guard. “It is not my way to have aid in these events. If you wish for the children to be free, you will let me do what I was called for. Rest here until I have entered the mine then guide the children in the camp back to your safehouse.”
“You fear there is something unholy within those tunnels.”
“Then take this,” the priest said, handing me a small flask.
“Blessed water. Should your concern prove true,” the priest said, slowing his breath. “I will find a way to retrieve your body should you fail.”
I looked at the flask and chuckled. “Do not try. There will not be a body to be found.” It was then that I noticed his wrapped hand. “Were you tortured?”
The cruelty by some in the world was cheered by those in the hells beneath my feet. To brand a priest who cared for children only made me more angry. “Should I return and have the time, I will make them pay for what they have done to you.”
Fear arose in his eyes. “You must not make such a vow,” he said. “I have not followed the ways of my order and have been marked for my disobedience. The choice of my affliction was my own.”
The priest’s words confused me. How it is that a group that bends knee to a deity only to pain one of their own? It was beyond my understanding. “They should pay.”
“Leave it be. What’s done is done.” He looked to the rocky valley below. “We all must choose our paths.”
There was nothing more to say on the matter, as I could see that my offer was not to his liking. As I rose from my position, I felt him grab my arm.
“You are not alone, sir. Candles will be lit and our prayers will follow you.”
The man’s reverent words struck me. In all of my time, I could not think of an event when someone beyond the age of thirteen had ever wished me well or had been so accepting. Still, I was cursed and my methods unnatural and deadly. “Save your prayers for the children. I am unworthy of such things.”
“No one is so far that can not turn back,” the priest stated. “You will know that to be true one day.”
Though I didn’t believe in the man’s words, I offered him a nod. Turning my attention to the camp, I chose my path to each torch-carrying guard. In a breath, I stepped into the shadows.
The manner in the guards’ death was similar as that fateful night in the Abbot’s Woods. In my chosen style, I appeared behind each, reached my hand around to grab their forehead and pulled backwards as I pushed my dagger into the spine. The sound of steel piercing bone, I found sickening, but there was no better means to cause the death of a man save the cursed sword I had become to hate. When the last buckled at the knees and fell forward, I looked back to the treeline and could just make out the figure of the priest. A sense of pity washed over me as I was certain he understood all that I had done. Shame made me look away from where the priest stood to the body at my feet. Tearing the cotton sleeve from the arm of my last victim, I wrapped the cloth over my nose and mouth. As if running from the ill feelings I had in my heart, I hurried into the deep darkness of the mines and left the priest to his work.
In my unnatural state, I was able to cover large distances. The cloth covering my face was enough to keep the toxic air from entering my nostrils. Though I had been through much, I was not about to take the chance that the fumes of the caves would not affect me. I began to pace myself and take small breaks to think through the maze of tunnels cut into the hill. Taking my time, I crafted a map in my head with the chambers I had entered and those that were found to have ends. What I sought, what I knew I would eventually find, was the last shaft that had gone much too deep for any intelligent human to delve. Deeper I went. Using the increasing cold air as a guide, I finally came upon a tunnel that I feared.
The thin line of gold that had been found by miners in the past had been chipped away at along the small shaft leaving a trail easily followed. The shaft narrowed and its height smaller than that of the others. The tunnel, more than likely dug by the hands of children, was far darker and more foreboding that I had ever sensed.
“Not going ins there, are yah?” a voice asked.
I turned to find an thin, glowing outline of a man behind me. From the cold the figure emitted, I was certain that he was not alive. “What lies at the end of this tunnel?”
“Can’t say. But I wouldn’t go in there,” the man whispered. “No one comes out anymore.”
“Or dead,” the ghost replied.
I sighed. “Just once, I would like to have five or ten years to sit back and enjoy myself.”
I shook my head as I could not believe I was actually having a conversation with a dead miner. I admit to you that I had a moment of concern how natural such conversations had become. Turning back to the narrowing shaft, I pondered aloud. “Cold darkness. More of your kind?”
The ghost sucked his teeth and shook his head. “Nah. Gotta be something nasty to make that much cold.”
“You can feel it?”
“Can taste it,” the miner said, staring past me. “Smells like death to me.”
A chuckling came from behind us. I crawled backwards until I was able to sit upright and see several ghost standing around listening and watching.
“Can’t taste death,” another ghost stated. “You’re just bein’ all theatrical, Remy.”
The apparition next to him hissed at the miner. “Can to. Tastes like the soup you used to make.”
“I think it’s a dragon,” said another..
“What dragon makes cold air?” Remy countered. “I knows you ain’t ever seen one, sos shut your hole.”
I was bewildered that I sat in a chamber listening to ghosts argue. My life could not be compared to another. While others slept, I witnessed dead men bicker about fabled creatures. “Gentlemen. Perhaps we would all know what is on the other end of this passage if one of you would simply go and look.”
The men stepped back.
“What could you possibly be afraid of? You are already dead.”
“Yous are too, ain’t ya?” Remy countered.
I cursed under my breath. The damn soul had a point. Looking back at the tunnel, I attempted to muster the courage to continue. There would be no going back to my old life without fulfilling Tabatha’s request. With a shake of my head, I began to crawl forward.
“Why you going down there anyway?” Remy asked.
“I have to kill whatever is at the end of this ploughing tunnel!”
I stopped and backup until I could sit upright again. The ghosts appeared very interested. “Because, gentlemen with shite for brains, that is what I do.”
“Oh!” stated a younger-looking ghost. “That’s an odd job. How’d you get it?”
The others sat down on fallen rocks or on the floor of the mine.
“You cannot be serious. I have no intention of telling you a story when all that stands between me and a life of my own is at the end of this tunnel.”
“So it’s a boring story,” Remy said.
Their distracting chatter became tedious.“I do not believe this is happening to me.”
“Well, seems that since we are all dead here, no since whinin’ about passin’ a bit of time with a story.” Remy turned to the others. “Right fellas?”
“I will do no such thing,” I replied. “Now, are you going to help me or not?”
“Seems stupid,” the young ghost stated. “It ain’t coming after nobody. Why go lookin’ for trouble?”
Remy nodded. “That’s usin’ the old noggin, Steven.” He turned to me. “Can’t you just block this hole and call it quits?”
“I have to do what the orphan asked,” I replied.
The ghosts looked at each other before one shrugged. “This orphan asked you to go crawling around in the dark and kill something?”
“No!” I shouted in my frustration “She wants her brother.”
I was loosing all sense of patience quickly. “Listen to me closely. Her brother is one of the children forced to crawl down here and mine out gold for the Barron. Though the priest will gather up the children, it will only be a matter of time when others will summon me to repeat the task. In fact, if I do not kill what is down here, children in the future will end up like how you are. Understand?”
“Why not just go kill this Barron fellow?” Remy asked.
“Because there is gold in this mine and some other wealthy man will simply take his place,” I explained as simply as I could.
“Couldn’t you just curse the mine?”
“No. I am not a member of the occult and it is already cursed by you idiots.”
“A lot of piss and vinegar, this one, eh?” Remy said to the others. “Not too bright neither.”
Exasperated, my head fell into my open palms.
“You should flood it with water,” Remy said proudly. “Now who’s got shite in their head?”
I looked up quickly. “There’s a spring?”
“All mines gots water drippin’, lad,” said an older-looking miner. “We had to stop in the southwest tunnel because we were too close to the river bottom.”
I let the idea sink in. It made perfect sense. With the river feeding the mine, the water would never recede and no soul could dig underwater. I stood and looked at the troupe. “But the area would still be mined elsewhere.”
“Ain’t much good,” the young miner said. “This is about the only stable mine there is. That’s why it’s so deep. All the others collapse after a year’s diggin’. Everyone knows that.”
Remy nodded. “Always been bad to dig in these hills. Most stop after a hundred feet or so. Not enough timber in the world to keep this hill from collapsing on itself. How do you think we got here? Hells, we’ve seen plenty of cave-ins over the last hundred years.”
I glanced from one face to another and found each of the miners nodded. “But why are you still here?”
“Boss didn’t say we could quit,” the young man stated.
“You do realize your foreman has obviously died since the last time you saw him?”
Remy looked sheepish. “Sures we do, but we might have been the reason the southwest tunnel got a little too close to the river. Once the water started drippin’, he stamped out of this mine usin’ all sorts of words. Curses, like. Guess we kinda deserved it.”
I began to chuckle as a solution became clear. “If I can find a foreman to release you, can you and your friends cave in that part of the mine and flood all the shafts?”
Remy smiled. “About time you figured that out. Now, whose gots shite for brains?”
The miners were as good as there word about the location though I found I had to do all of the chipping away at the rock. With pick in hand, the work took the better part of a day before water from above began to pour on my head. The boulders gave way with the rush of the river crashing into the forgotten shafts. I saw and felt nothing when the ceiling collapsed, but I will not forget the fear of drowning and the sound of happy chuckles of free spirits.
Beauty in the Woods
The sun against my scarred face is a welcomed blessing as I ride along the narrow road to Alon’s Knob. Spring rain is so common that I expected to be soaked from head to toe before the turn into the woods, but the weather was unnaturally fine and I was not about to let the moment pass. With a good horse under me and a half a day’s travel between my third stash of coin, my mind was far from the troubles that had plagued my life.
No sudden calls from the past or present had pulled me away from my purpose for the last two days and I was well on my way to being reunited with the sweet smell of coin and a promising opportunity to make a new life.
“Are you going to buy an inn?”
I turned to find my sister walking alongside of me. The ease at which she spoke and strolled along the road reminded me of how often I had forgotten to enjoy the more simple aspects of life. I gently reined in my horse, and dismounted to join her in the appreciation of the moment. “I considered a tavern, at first.”
Cynthia smiled and continued her slow pace. “I’m sure Father would have liked that, but what made you change your mind?”
It was a fair question and I found it easy to speak of inner thoughts with her. “To be honest, it was precisely because Father would have liked it.” I noted her frown. “He was a cruel man, Cynthia, and was the reason you and I are the way we are.”
“I am as I choose to be, Nithan,” she replied. “Father was wrong to waste his life, but that doesn’t mean we have to be like him. You are your own man, aren’t you?”
The question was something I had never considered in all honesty. Our parent, a man who drank himself into a stupor and beat his family savagely, was someone no one would wish to mimic. I smirked. “I have done things my way, but obviously not very well.” Hearing her chuckle made me smile for a moment, but the memory of her demise brought back a deep anger from the past. “I wish I was older then. I might have helped you.”
“I wish you wouldn’t think on that, Nithan. It doesn’t help you.”
I disagreed. “Had I been older, I would have been able to protect you and Mother. I was too small.” The anger I held for his acts began to fill my mind as the memories cleared in my head. “He was the reason for your deaths and my hard life.”
“He was wrong for doing such things,” she agreed, “but you must let that go. There is nothing you can do to change the past, Nithan.”
I stopped in my tracks. “Perhaps I can!”
“Nithan! Don’t even consider it.”
“But consider if given the chance,” I said. “Should an orphan call me back at such a time, I could—”
“Do much more harm than you think,” she stated firmly. “Things in the past have happened. You can’t change a thing or there will be terrible consequences.”
“I change things with every summons. How exactly these children have a book that hasn’t been written, I can’t say. Still, if they didn’t have the words to call me, wouldn’t their lives be different?”
She bit the end of her lip. “I don’t think that’s how it works, Nithan. You are helping others, not yourself. I don’t think that is such a terrible curse.”
“You speak of curses? We were cursed the day we were born.”
“Maybe.” She continued to walk on. “You were called to a time before we were born. What if you found Father as a young man? Would you kill him?” She shook her head “We wouldn’t even exist.”
She had a point. She always had a point. I began to follow her, leading my horse behind me, and considered her words. In such a position as she implied, I could not help but feel I had little understanding of the world I lived in. “Still, if there was a way—”
“Do not do it in my name, Nithan.”
Her words were like daggers though softly spoken. I had taken the smile from her face with thought of changing the past and that sent my heart spiraling downward. “For you, if that is your wish, I will never attempt it.”
“For you, Nithan, never think on it again.”
Cynthia looked around her as we entered the woods and ever so slowly, she seemed find joy in the day. I admit, there was something calming about how the sunlight came through the trees. The road was dry, birds were abound and peace could be felt. For a time, we continued in a our lazy way, wordlessly enjoying our surroundings.
“Do you think you will marry?”
Her sudden breaking of the silence caught me quite off-guard. “No,” I replied quickly.
I did not have a clear idea of why I answered her question the way I did. Perhaps it was the fact that my life was so unnatural or that I feared that, somehow, I would be no better than my father.
“You are two different people,” she said quietly. “I have a feeling that you may not have a choice to marry.”
“You’ve become a mind reader and a fortuneteller?”
She laughed. “Just a feeling, Nithan. It’s just a feeling I have.” Cynthia looked away. “You will need someone one day.”
“I have you. That is enough for me.”
She appeared to ignored my words and continued down the road. Cynthia and I did not speak for sometime, each of us well steeped in our own thoughts. A mile or so into the woods we came to a small familiar bridge. The memory of the night in which I followed the brook that ran beneath it came back to me with ease. “We are close,” I said to her and pointed up the forested hill. “Soon, we will have enough to purchase a small place of our own.”
We turned off the road and began the gentle climb through the trees. As memory served, we soon found ourselves with a steeper landscape and needed to choose our path more carefully. With the trees now spouting bits of green from their branches and the thickness of the undergrowth growing more of a nuisance, the way became less clear to me as it was well into the night when I first found my way to a clearing. To add to this, as I have it in my head, I could not recount traveling so far before reaching the break in the woods.
“Are we nearly there?”
I stopped to speak to her and found I was rather short of breath. Scanning the woods, little appeared familiar. “I was certain that it was not so far from the bridge.”
Cynthia strolled up beside me and looked about. “Are we lost?”
“I doubt the direction is wrong.” Glancing up the hill, I began to wonder if I had not accounted for another path I may have taken that night. “Come. We will work our way up a bit further. The clearing must be near.”
We continued on but only for a short while. As we crested the dense wooded hill, we came to a road. I stopped immediately when I saw the small bridge.
“Another?” Cynthia asked. “Did we start at the wrong bridge?”
I wondered at the same thought, until the hairs on the back of my neck began to stand. “How can this be?” I gasped.
“What is it, Nithan?” she asked quietly.
“The bridge. The road. They are identical to those we left.”
She laughed. “Nithan. That’s impossible. We have been traveling up this hill for the better part of an hour.”
I turned to look from where we had come only to look back at the sloping hill behind me. “They are the same. There can be no doubt.” I walked to the edge of the bridge and noted the same deep pooling of the brook below. “Our path never descended.”
“Are you sure that this is where we left?”
“Without a doubt.” My eyes lowered to the road and noted the obvious signs. “There. Our tracks on the road.” Looking back to the bridge and up the hill, I retraced our path in my mind. “What trickery is this?”
“Maybe I should try to reach the top while you remain here,” Cynthia offered.
“I will go.”
“Nithan, you are already out of breath and I can move much faster.”
She had a point. Unaffected by the climb, my sister’s current state of being could easily cover the distance and in a much shorter of a span of time. “You have only to follow the brook as we had before.”
“And what exactly am I to be searching for?”
“An opening in the woods. Mounds of turf and large stone markers covered in ivy.”
“Nithan! Tell me you didn’t hide your coin in a burial ground.”
A hint of embarrassment pluck at my mind. I had been in such a hurry that night that I had not considered the possibility of it being an inappropriate hiding place for my wealth. “Damn, I may have made a slight error in that.”
“Slight?” Cynthia stated harshly. “Why would you even consider it?”
The place was far enough from prying eyes and inconvenient to get to, I had thought it the perfect place in my rush to find a hiding place. “It seemed a good plan at the time.”
“And now?” Cynthia begged to know. “Oh, Nithan. When will you ever learn to think through what you are doing. It’s protected now and you aren’t likely to retrieve it.”
I saw the disappointment in her eyes, a look I had to turn away from. Peering up the hill, her words clarified in my mind. “Magic protects it? Fae?”
“Faeries at the least,” she remarked. “They will turn you in every direction but the one you intend. You are out matched in this, Nithan.”
The idea of traveling two days with nothing to show for it did not sit well with me. “Come,” I said, pulling my horse to follow. “I will not be outdone.”
Three attempts, with growing frustration, it took before we found ourselves able to crest the hill and come to our destination. Walking out into the clearing, I pulled my blade and walked with determination to the hiding place. I did not get far.
The music was intoxicating. Echoing sounds of laughter and the blurring of the world around me brought me to a halt. Gazing at the colors of a rainbow swooshing past me with their trails of sparkling silver, I found myself in awe of the joy that surrounded me. I confess, the warning words of my sister faded quickly in the swirl of entertainment my ears delighted in. Then, they appeared, dancing in a circle around the mounds. Each small in statue and emitting a light that did not seem part of this world. My hand was taken and then the other. Without thought of what I might be doing, I found myself a link in the chain of dancing wonder. Fiddles and lutes played on and on. Laughter and joy poured out of my soul as if an endless waterfall of happiness.
Spinning and turning under stars and sun, I have never felt its equal. Years of pain peeled away as I skipped hand-in-hand with others to meet in the center of the circle only to turn and hurry outward again to make our grand ring of joy larger. Laughter was abound and I wished for nothing other than to fill my days with it. Remaining in time, I hopped along and pulled off my boots only to toss them into the air and feel the cool of the ground through my stockings. The spirited ones cried out in a cheer as I quickly found the need to be without the binding clothing I wore and the desire to became closer to the natural world. Around and around we continued and I had no sense of shame in my form or wish never to leave such a happy event.
The pull came suddenly. I fell to the ground and lay in tall grass staring up at the wondrous light of the stars. I laughed for no other reason than the elation of my heart. Then another light appeared. The feeling of being taken from a place of happiness to be replacement of my old life ebbed into my mind. I sat up quickly, finding myself sitting quite unclothed before a wondrous sight.
I thought it a star growing before me, until it took human shape. Bewildered by the change in worlds, I began to crawl backwards from the figure as if fearing her light. In a flowing gown of green velvet, she took a step closer. Her eyes of blue and hair of braided red painted a picture of beauty that I could not fathom. There, with no words from her lips, she simply curtsied to me and smiled. My heart moved uncontrollably and I unconsciously reached out to her, but the rest of my body would not move.
She laughed kindly and bent down to place a small leather bag at her feet. Ever her dancing, joy-filled eyes were upon me and I could not look away. When she stood, the glowing figure began to move away. Every inch of me wished to follow, but I could not. Farther and farther, she moved until the light shown no more. My heart sank. The world was cold and dull to me.
Finding my limbs now within my control, I stood and raced to where I last saw the light. It was all for not as only the darkness of the surrounding wood could be seen. A great sadness swept over me and I felt a tear run down my cheek. The image of the parcel she had left entered my mind. I turned and hurried back to the place of the a last remnant of the joy I witnessed. Coming quickly to the bag, I dropped to my knees before it. There, tethered to my familiar leather pouch full of gold, was a small note. Holding it to the light of the stars I could make out the words.
‘Thank you for the dance, milord.’ That is all that it said, yet I keep it with me still.
I should have cared enough to listen to the words spewing from his mouth, but the droning on of how his livelihood hung in the balance made me numb with weary. It was much the same with most that sought to pry me out of my hiding place, which in retrospect, the tavern was not the best of places to shelter myself from those that believed I had all the answers. But could I be blamed for wishing to be left to my ale in peace and quiet within the shabby lower level of an inn? I was lost in such a debate when the man, a farmer from several miles away, became quiet and simply stared at me. This was apparently my cue to offer some sagely advice.
“You were saying?” I asked as if he had more to tell.
The look of hope still painted the face of the man. “Can you come do somethin’ about it?”
Imps, indeed. The likelihood of a random farmer being harassed by imps was as near as the possibility of him leaving me to drink alone. “How can you be sure they are imps?” I honestly didn’t care, but that was the first thing I could think of to say.
“Saw them with my own eyes, milord. I don’t make up tales.”
I looked at my recently filled mug and wished I had never sat down at the table. “What did it look like?”
The farmer raised his hands in front of him, estimating the size. From the space between his hands, I guessed it would have been the height of my boot. “About this tall,” he said. “Scratched up my poor Bessie’s teats somethin’ fierce with those long nails it had.”
“You did not actually see it clearly.”
“Well,” he shrugged, “not exactly.”
This was going nowhere and he wasn’t likely to leave until I educated the man. “Imps leave burns on their victims, not scratches.” I pointed to my scarred cheek to offer him an example. “As I assume your sheep—”
“Cow. A milk cow, milord.”
“Milk cow, did not have this type of scaring. It was likely a barn cat that scratched your animal.”
The farmer sat back. “Don’t think I know what a scratch looks like?”
“I think you haven’t a clue what has happened and you have instantly come to the conclusion that it was something foul. Now, unless you truly saw this creature, which I doubt very much, be gone and leave me to my drink.”
Standing quickly in a huff, the man muttered an insult under his breath and pushed his way through the crowd of onlookers. I hadn’t noticed that the number of gawkers had grown since the beginning of the farmer’s inquiry, but it was clear I had an audience now. Gazing from one face to another, each looked away when our eyes met. They always did. People had simply come to see the cursed man who hunted the unusual creatures of the world so they could scurry home and add to the vast array of false tales of my deeds.
I turned to the shadowy image of my dead sister. There, with her ever present dissatisfied look, stood Cynthia shaking her head in disapproval. She, like those around me, had grown tiresome. “I’m not in the mood.”
“You are never in the proper mood, Nithan, but things must be done,” she replied. “Now, there is a young girl just behind the woman in the apron. Call her forward and send the others kindly away. And I do mean, kindly.”
Things that had to be done. I wished then, like the many times before and after the event, that I had never killed the witch in the woods, defeated the ghost in the hollow, or any other thing that brought trouble. The curses grew too painful or became a hindrance to finding peace and quiet. Not unlike those that sought my help. “You there,” I said to the thin woman gawking along with the others. “Please step aside and let the girl through.”
Thankfully, weather due to the respect given to every tale of my past or fear, the woman shifted so that I could see the small face through the crowd. “Please. Not another orphan,” I whispered to Cynthia.
“Wait. Let’s hear what she has to say.”
I waved the girl forward. “As for the rest of you—”
“Gently,” Cynthia reminded me.
“Please be so kind as to leave me to help this child,” I finished. “I am not a fortuneteller, so I can not help you with decisions. If your family member is ill, seek a healer. Troubled? Visit your priest. There is only one thing I’m capable of doing.”
“Better than the last time,” Cynthia half-heartedly commented. “Now, as to the girl.”
From what I could tell, she was approximately eight years of age and, by the look of her knotted hair, looked as if she slept in a barn with the animals. The girl probably hadn’t washed in months as she wore a tattered dress, possibly her only clothes, and had smudges of dirt on her cheeks and neck. As was my way, I attempted to account for her history by looking at her feet, as footwear and the state they were kept was always telling. Unfortunately, she wore none.
“Sit,” I said to the nervous child as she approached.
As she timidly moved forward, the girl stared at me in fear. It was either the scars on my face or the odd coloring in my eye. Everyone stared. Why should she be any different? To a young girl, I must look like a monster. “I can not help how I look.”
“She isn’t worried about how you look,” Cynthia stated.
The girl’s eyes widened. “But you asked me to—”
“I wasn’t speaking to you.” Turning to my sister, I gave a look of ‘shut up or leave’.
“Then who are you talking to?” she asked.
I sighed and shook my head. “No one of importance. Have you eaten?”
“Of course she hasn’t,” Cynthia stated.
“Shut up,” I hissed.
“Me?” the girl asked.
Can you not understand why you should never wish to speak to the dead? Not only is it forbidden for a reason but should you find yourself in such a position, you will live with an annoyance that is far from description. Had she not been my sister, I would have sought out a way to have her annoying ass sent on her way. “No. The other at the table behind you,” I lied. “Now, do you want something to eat while you tell me why you are here or do you just want to get on with it?”
“Hardly gentlemanly,” Cynthia said.
The child shook her head. “I’m not hungry.”
The thin face and sunken eyes told me otherwise and without the prodding of Cynthia, I waved to the innkeeper to come to the table. “A bowl of stew for the girl and another ale for me,” I said as he neared. Turning my attention to the child, I wondered what would have given her the will to come speak with an ugly misfit of a man such as I am. “What do you want from me?”
“Her name?” Cynthia asked.
“What is your name, girl?”
“Julie, milord,” the girl answered.
Milord. What a terrible title for someone who only appears to be of importance and who does so little for it. “You can call me, Nithan.” I saw the innkeeper coming with my request and gave him a lift of my chin to send him on way after he set the items on the table.
“Tell her to blow on it before she—”
“You might let it cool a bit,” I interjected. Annoying as she was, Cynthia was right to have me warn her. There was no sense in the child scalding herself. “What is it you want, Julia?”
“There’s something wrong at the school,” she said as she stared down at the bowl.
Not a promising start of an unwanted task. “More details, if you please.”
“Something keeps hurting the others,” Julia explained. “Something bad.”
Another ‘something’. I breathed deeply to counter the growing inpatients. Children, after all, are accepting of odd things and titles to objects mean little. “Have you seen this something?”
Julia nodded as she swirled the spoon in the bowl. “It has two heads and claws. Long arms.”
“The size of this something?”
She looked up and studied me. “Your size, just skinny and blue. Doesn’t have clothes.”
Blue skinned, thin, two-headed, long-armed, clawed and approximately my height. Now we were getting somewhere. “Could you see its ribs?”
“A gasper?” my sister asked in a horrified tone.
I nodded as I could not think of an other creature that fit the description. Ugly things. Ones that live by stealing breath from sleeping children. “Julia, do all the children have trouble sleeping?”
The girl spooned the stew into her mouth and wiped her sleeve across her lips. With her nod, I had all that I needed.
“Tonight, I want you to keep a window to the bedroom unlocked.”
“We don’t have windows,” Julia stated quickly.
“I assume there is at least a door?”
Julia nodded. “Miss Candles locks it so we are safe.”
“Safe, indeed!” Cynthia cried out. “Nithan, you must do something about this woman. You know what she’s about to—”
I rose my hand to silence my nervous sister yet kept my eyes on the girl. “If you are kept locked inside, how is it you are here?”
The child set her spoon down. “The fairy helped me.”
“A fairy? A fairy unlocked the door and helped you to escape?” This tale was slowly giving me the shivers. People over the ages have turned the tales of such creatures to their liking. I, for one, was not such a person. “When did this fairy first arrive?”
“Just today. She’s a pretty white light and flutters all about the room. She sprinkled glowing dust over us for protection.”
Cynthia appeared behind the child. Though only I could see her, my sister bent next to the child and studied her face. “Nithan, that can’t be the truth of it. There’s an odd aura around her.”
Enchanted. Glamored. Spelled. There are many names for being under the influence of magic, but the act is the same. Also, it is not as uncommon as many might think to see a person not act themselves only to be discounted as a change in moods when in fact they are under a spell. Who would truly wish to know that there are whispers in our ears from foul things we cannot see or used as objects of entertainment by creatures beyond our understanding? The truth is often ignored out of a hope that situations are simple and have natural reasons for such oddities. This is why I had missed the effects of an enchantment as I too wished the child simply had dreamed up the ideas in her head. Well, that and the fact I have no real magic of my own to notice all the affects of such things.
I briefly looked at my sister to show that I heard her words, then turned my attention back to the child eagerly eating her supper. The effect was wearing off on the girl as her natural needs were replacing the magic suggestions. The best thing that I could do was to have her stay at the inn while I looked into the troubling task ahead of me. “I want you to stay here for a few hours.”
“I can’t,” Julia stated. “I have to get back.”
“Back?” Cynthia asked. “Nithan, you can’t send her back to that place.”
As much as I knew would break my sister’s heart, it was promising that the child wanted to return. Her desire to be with the others meant that she was coming out of the enchantment. In addition, if she did not return, more trouble would follow for those left behind. With this thought in mind, I reached into my unusual pouch to search for a small bottle that I was certain would aid her. Pulling out the clear glass container, I handed it to the child. “Sprinkle it on the frame of the door when this Miss Candles locks you in the room. On the door frame, not the door itself. Do you understand the difference?”
Julia nodded as she took the bottle out of my hand and examined it. “What is it?”
“Something useful,” I answered. I was not about to utter the words as the mentioning of blessed water would catch every ear in the tavern. “Only the door frame. Now, on your way. I have work to do.”
Waiting for Cynthia, I was not unlike a man pacing in a hall awaiting his child to be born. Feeling as useless as that man, I settled into the padded chair in my rented room and considered if my original idea to use my sister was the proper thing to do. Sending Cynthia to follow the girl home was not the first time we had used such a devise. I was easily spotted and would give rise to a story I was not certain was true. Given none could see or hear Cynthia made my sister something of an invaluable spy. Still, when it came to matters of the occult, I was always on edge until she returned with news. Feeling the uneasiness and wishing more than hoping Cynthia had the common sense not to enter the place in question, I considered what I might be forced to do once all good souls were fast asleep.
Swirling the wine in my cup as I attempted to envision the best tactic to aid the child while not drawing attention, my mind quickly crossed out the idea of an obvious full frontal assault and moved on to more thief-like acts of stealing the children away in order to keep them from further harm. The gasper, if that was what truly troubled their lives, could be dealt with later.
The woman, this Miss Candles, was more than likely a would-be witch that believed all was well at hand. I had seen it many times before. One who believes themselves capable of restraining what has been conjured only to find that they were well out of their depths. There was never an easy way to deal with foul creatures or the evil that lurks in the world and to deal with someone who had learn the dark arts would only hinder my work. I imagined Ms. Candles had found a way to make herself appear as a fairy to calm the children’s nerves, but as to why she had them in captivity, I did not have all the pieces to the puzzle I needed.
Setting the glass aside, I looked to the window to allow my mind to wander. If it was Miss Candles who was the root of the issue, perhaps I could frighten her with snarls and threatening blade-waving. The simplistic tactic had worked before, though rumor spread of my bullying ways. But should she not give into theatrics, I would need an alternative plan. Perhaps Miss Candles was indeed the false fairy-like creature that the girl mentioned. If so, it may be something much more sinister I was dealing with. Lost in the search for options, I dropped my glass when three men crashed through my door.
“You!” one of them called out. “Don’t make a twitch or I’ll run you through.”
The pointy end of his drawn sword was enough to gain my attention. “How does one make a twitch?” I asked once I recovered my glass. “I would hate to be run through on a technicality.” The men did not appear to have a sense of humor.
The most notable of the three barked to the two underlings. “Clap him in irons!”
Being a gentleman, when I choose to be, I stood and held out my hands to make their task of arresting me much easier. As the two nervously approached, I stared at the man seemingly in command. “Your name, sir?”
“Sergent Knots,” the man stated firmly as he approached.
There were too many name jokes in my mind to settle on just the one and so I only grinned in my amusement. Looking to the iron bands being clasped around my wrist, I failed to come up with a truly pithy return, something I still regret to this day. “Well, Sergent,” I said to him, “perhaps you would be kind enough to tell me why it is you have brought me a gift of iron bracelets?”
“The magistrate will tell you all you deserve to hear,” Knots stated. Jerking the chain between my cuffs seemed to satisfy him that the restraints were in place.
“I do beg your pardon, but I believe the law states that before a noble may be incarcerated, he or she is to be informed of the accusation of their unlawful act.”
The man eyed me. I hate that. “You’re no noble.”
“Pity for you, I am, in fact.” I lied. “Now, what are the charges?”
He puffed out his chest and inhaled deeply as if the list of charges were the length of a great speech. “You are charged with the burning of the property of one Miss Candles.”
I swore in my head. The woman must have caught word that I took an interest in the children. “A building, I assume, that was empty at the time of the blaze?”
Sargent Knots huffed. “Damage of property was committed and several witnesses have come forward to place you at the scene.”
“How convenient there were so many.” I turned to look out the window, curious why I hadn’t heard the alarm of a fire or noticed the scent of smoke in the air. “My good Sergeant. As you are well aware, it has been raining for the better part of four days in this area.” I turned to study his face. “Do you not think it odd that a stranger, who seemingly travels with him several barrels of lantern oil on the back of his horse, would pick an orphanage that was soaked through with rain to burn down?”
“Orphanage? What orphanage?”
Had his eyes not widened with his own question, I would have thought his reaction part of some ploy to toss a stranger into a cold cell. Clearly the man had no idea that the place in question held children. “You did manage to make certain that no one was still within the building before rushing to my room to arrest me, did you not?”
The Sergeant looked to his bewildered pair of soldiers. “There weren’t any bodies, were there?”
“No, Sargent,” one answered nervously, hinting of concern that they might have missed something in their search. “Just Miss Candles standin’ outside across the street watching the blaze finish off her shop.”
This only made me angry. It was one thing to be incompetent in one’s job, but should it lead to the deaths of the unprotected, I was certainly going to take my time in punishing the idiots that stood before me. “I suggest you had better send someone to rummage through the rubble. If small charred bodies are found, you have a murderer on your hands.”
The Sergent stepped a few inches from my nose. “A confession?”
“Advice,” I hissed. “Something that a professional with any sense would look into. And might I add that you have a pair of eyes follow this Miss Candles for a day or so?”
“Throw this piece of filth in the coldest cell,” Sargent Knots ordered. “We’ll, see if this doesn’t turn into a hanging affair.”
I will admit to you that, as I lay on the flee-ridden blanket that served at my bed for the time of my stay in jail, I had a few concerns that revolved in my head. The first, was the very real possibility that Miss Candles had gotten the upper hand in this situation and had simply killed the children in order to cover her other misdeeds. Fae or common, anything with self-preserving intent that stretched to the murder of children was something not to be taken lightly. I questioned whether or not I should have taken the chance of slithering around in the dark and forcing my way into the building when I had the chance. I was, at the time of hearing of the girl’s plea, in a rather dark mood of which I am prone to find myself in, and had not taken the proper care in listening to her tale. I regretted that fully.
The second, and as emotionally taxing, was the fact was that my sister had seemed to disappear completely, an unusual and unsettling idea. She had never been away from me for such a length of time and I had to entertain the idea that she had been captured in some manner. How one knew of the means to accomplish such a thing, I could not account for, as the process was not well known.
Sitting up with my back against the stone wall of my cell, I attempted to focus on the few facts that I had available. They were painfully few. Within moments, my thoughts were interrupted by the appearance of a robed man in brown who was undoubtedly a priest. It’s rarely a good sign to see a priest when held in a cell.
“Nithan Hall?” he asked nervously.
The visit from a priest had not caught me completely off guard. As many know, one is sent to prisoners for generally three reasons. The first is for last rights or confession. The second, to offer words of peace. The last, and less well known, is to act as a spy on the behalf of a noble lord or cloister that hadn’t a clue what to do with people such as myself. I had the feeling it was this last situation as I found myself staring at a newly trained man of the cloth. I motioned to the opposite wall of my cell. “Wont you come in a have a seat?”
The priest shook his head. “I’m not permitted.” He moved out of my view for a moment and returned with a three legged stool. Sitting, a small smile grew on his face. “I suppose this will have to do.”
“What is it I can help you with today, Father?”
“Oh! I’m not the head of my order, milord. I am…”
“A acolyte?” The situation became more interesting. “Why would they send a priest-in-training to me, I wonder? Could it be that the others too busy?”
The man, perhaps of twenty years, did not seem to understand my joke. “I was given the honor to come to you in your time of need. I have heard confessions before, if that gives you comfort.”
“Comfort? Why would I be disquieted by receiving a man of few experiences who seeks his first visit to a prison in order to climb in the ranks of faith?”
“You are right. This is my first visit to a prisoner, but I promise that I will give you my full attention in the hearing of your confession and will pray dutifully for your soul on my return.”
I have never taken joy out of tormenting people. Wait a moment. That is not the whole truth, but in this particular case the priest who sat anxiously on the other side of the pathetically engineered wooden bars had a look of compassion in his eyes that told me that he meant every word that escaped from his lips. If he was such a man, then he did not deserve to be treated like a plaything.
“I believe you,” I replied.
The priest leaned forward and whispered. “Then I would be glad to hear your confession, now, if you wish to give it.”
Priests are very interested in confessions. Though I had never felt the call of their profession, it was obvious enough that he was eager in fulfilling his duty.
“I tell you this in all honesty. You will not hear my last words today.”
This seemed to bother him as the plunging of his brow reflected his concern. “And how can you be so certain?”
“The officials are afraid to hang me,” I informed him. “The Sergeant and his men must have heard rumors of my past. Their magistrate, likewise. They will wish only to scare me and send me away so that they can go on with the normal life they had before my arrival. Unfortunately, they must also act as if they have the upper hand in all of this. Hence, the prison stay. It is tedious game, but it does allow me time to ponder in quiet.”
“You must know you are accused for burning down property belonging to a local woman, do you not?”
“I do, but I also know that they haven’t a clue what they are dealing with.” I pushed myself up onto my feet and began to pace, as is my way of thinking through issues at hand. “When the men came to arrest me, I asked them of the children of the orphanage Miss Candles ran. They were completely dumbfounded at the prospect of there being any children involved or that she ran such a business. I would imagine that they have not found a single body in the ruin as I would certainly be charged with murder.” I turned to the priest-in-training. “But as you say, I have only been charged with destruction of property. What do you make of this?”
The young man sat back and appeared to ponder the question I offered him. In truth, my questioning him in such a way was to gage his true intentions of coming to visit me. I was surprised by his response.
“There are several possibilities, milord. The children you speak of were either moved before the fire occurred and their bodies cleverly hidden or they did not exist in the first place.”
His answer made me smile. Like all people of a profession, there are those who simply go through the motions of their work and those who seek diligently to master it. This young man gave me hope that he was not only true to his calling but apt to employ his mind to the fullest.
“But what is this to you? You are being held for—”
“As a means to give the soldiers time to sort it all out. To claim they have arrested someone will keep the population calm and the population’s trust intact. This is why you will not hear my last words today, my good sir.”
The man nodded. “You are very calm in your wrongful prosecution.”
“It has happened before,” I said off-handily as I began to pace once more. “However, this situation causes me discomfort as I can not connect the signs on the trail. Perhaps you could help me with that.”
“Do you know this town well?”
The man shook his head. “This is my first visit to Strongwood.”
“Another convenient situation. A stranger comes to town, a building is burnt to the ground, the stranger arrested only to have a brother-in-training, who is new to the area, sent to hear his last words.”
“You are considering this to be some conspiracy by the my superiors?”
“A possibility. I doubt they like the fact a cursed man is in their midst. But that is only one line of thought.”
Shaking his head, the man chuckled. “You do not appear cursed to me, milord.”
“That is the real tragedy of a curse, but let us not be distracted as there are other possibilities to be considered.”
I fought for a moment if I truly wished to pull the young man into a world of sinister acts and unseen worlds, but found that I grew more desperate as time continued to press on. With my sister’s ghost suddenly appearing through the outer wall of my cell, I made up my mind quickly. I would only use the novelist priest in the least harmful way possible. “You have not told me your name.”
“My name is Arden, milord.”
“Well, Brother Arden. Perhaps you might wander the town for an hour or so and find more information about this Miss Candles. If she is a business owner, then surely she is known, therefore can be found and questioned.”
“Yes,” The young man stood quickly. “Yes, of course. I will be back as quickly as I can.”
I nodded to him as he took one last glance at me and smiled. For having only met the man a few moments ago, I liked his enthusiasm. “One more thing, priest. When asking of her whereabouts, take a moment to look into the eyes of those you question.”
“What is it you expect me to see?”
I hesitated. To offer my thoughts of the possibility of those in the neighborhood being charmed would send most scurrying away or think me mad. “Just look and should you feel an uneasiness around the person, simply make an excuse to leave.”
For a moment, the young man stared at me, but whatever his thoughts were on the matter, he nodded and left down the hall. As soon as I heard the door to the cells close, I turned my attention to my sister.
“Where in all hells have you been?”
“Don’t shout at me, Nithan. I did as you wished but became lost.”
“Lost? There can not be more the four streets of significants put together in this town.”
She stepped away from me. “It was raining. Have you forgotten what rain does?”
Self-anger rushed through my head. I had forgotten how the spirit world became disoriented in storms. “Forgive me. The fault is mine.” I returned to the wall and sat. “Playing the fool by sitting in this cage has put me in a mood.”
“You are always in a mood, Nithan,” she stated with a small smile. “Just remember that you are the scenting hound of the family, not me.”
The memory of tracking animals through the forest in my youth brought memories of happier times. “Perhaps once long ago.”
“Patience, Nithan. You always find your way through to the end.”
I nodded, only to give her a sense that she could calm my inner struggles. “Tell me what you managed to find.”
“Very little,” she confessed. “I lost the girl in the crowd as soon as I left the inn. I did find the bottle you gave her in an alley but then it began to rain again.”
Rain. The very idea that my sister could have wondered about in the space between worlds made my skin crawl. “I was a fool to have you follow her. You might have drifted off and I would have lost my last family member by sending her on a fairy hunt.”
I quickly looked up to see her expression. “My apologies, Cynthia. It is only an expression.”
“No, Nithan. You might have stumbled upon the truth of all of this.”
“No. Brownies,” she offered. “And a woman who has some ties to there antics? Perhaps she is the reason for them coming here?”
I felt the smile cross my face. “Cynthia. People do not call for brownies to come into their lives.”
“Not ordinary folk,” she suggested. “But maybe this Miss Candles believes she can restrain them.”
“The idea had crossed my mind. Still, I doubt there are people who could manage it.”
She began to slowly walk from one end of the cell to the other. “Then she could be a brownie.”
“Clever idea, but brownies are only able to take on the changeling form of a child.”
“Are you so certain?”
I had to ponder that question for longer than I care to admit. Fae was fae and the likelihood that I knew all that was to be known was very thin. “If not a brownie and not a human, then what?”
“The farmer!” she exclaimed.
I laughed. “You think the farmer is brownie? We are moving further away from the truth.”
Cynthia hurried next to me. “No, brother. Remember the farmer’s story. The attack on his animal.”
Her eyes widened with her quick nod. “What if it was a brownie?” She folded her ethereal dress and knelt beside me. “If it was, then that would explain a few things, wouldn’t it?”
I questioned her thoughts for a moment. “You think there is a portal near by?”
“It’s possible. We’ve seen such things before.”
My head ached from the numerous possibilities of how a collection of brownies had caused this mystery. “Either there is a witch that has lost her wits and summoned some very foul things or I have underestimated the abilities of brownies.”
Cynthia nodded. “Thankfully, there is an easy way to find out.”
“Easy for you, perhaps. Either way, let’s be done with this.” I quickly stood and went to the door of my cell. “Sargent!” I called out. “Your prisoner has been held long enough.”
The number of people who gathered around the burnt remains of the house at the strong request of Sargent made me rather uncomfortable. To tell those in the village that they were being manipulated by fae would have sent them running, so, though I am shamed to admit it, I glamored the magistrate to gather the crowd. I needed the numbers and was willing to make myself look the fool if by chance that my intuition was to be proven false.
The young priest reported an unusual condition by all that he had met as we had made our way to the sight. Small yellow dots in the eyes, I told him at the time, could not only be attributed to an illness of the liver but also a sign that they are were under a spell. He looked at the shear number of people people gathered before looking at me in horror. I simply nodded to him to answer his unspoken question of so many undone by a person or creature with the ability and the will.
We waited for the last of those who would be in attendance. The blacksmith came with the bag of iron filling I had requested and a hush fell over the murmuring crowd. It was then that I had to offer words they would not wish to hear.
“Good people, I apologize for bringing you here and on such a dismal day, but I assure you that it is necessary. For some time changes have happened under your noses. If I were to find the last account of each of the families in this town, you would be surprised as I pointed out names of children in your household that you can not recall. This is the act of something that wishes you to forget them.”
“You truly think that this is the act of brownies?” the priest asked.
“If all the children had gone completely missing, I would have considered other evil creatures of the other world, but I have seen one of the victims.” I looked at the crowd that stared back at me in disbelief. “This Miss Candles seems to have vanished though this place was the source of her income. Would you have left your farm if the barn had burnt to the ground?”
Several farmers in the crowds looked at each other and shook their heads. One spoke for them. “That would be dim witted.”
“I agree. So it is not that Miss Candles was so distraught that she left your community, but rather hid.”
“Where?” a woman called out.
I pointed to the pile of rubble. “Where she has most likely always lived. Under the building.”
A soldier stepped closer to the burnt remains of the building. “You think she has a type of tunnel below?”
“No,” I chuckled. “Not a tunnel, a world. A fae world.”
“You are only supporting their superstition,” the young priest stated.
Without another word, I turned to the black smith and took the bag in his hand. Making a slow progression around the ruins, I began to make a small trail of iron filings. “They were here first and the village built on their doorstep. I can’t blame them for wanting a bit of revenge for the act. In fact, I would not doubt if you have some fellow villagers that have gone missing before. Still, it is my presence that have set them on edge. For that, I am sorry and will make right.” Coming full circle, I turned over the bag and emptied the last of the filings at my feet. “Be ready to catch what has been taken from you.”
Pulling my sword from its sheath, I ran my finger down the length of its blade and said the arcane words I needed. Instantly, fire formed on its edges and the crowd moved away. With a bit of theatrics, as I wished to emphasize the importance of this situation, I raised the weapon above my head and pointed to the ground where I would drive it to the guard.
To tell you that I was surprised to see the child-size brownie suddenly appear would be a lie as that was my hope.
“Do not dare to strike our doorstep with that cursed weapon!” it howled at me.
“Let the children go or I will do much worse. I did not fall for your trickery for long and I tell you truly that I am not to be toyed with!”
The brownie sprouted wings and flew to one side of the circle to another, looking for a path through the iron filings. “Spiteful words, man child, but we are the masters here.”
“Bide your time longer and I will close this doorway forever,” I spat back at the little bastard. “Let them go now or you will find you have lost more than a doorway.”
“Brave words from a fool,” the brownie countered.
“True words and ones that will plague you till the end of days. The priest has now seen you and knows of your ways. You have already lost as he will certainly bless the entire village now. Each door and window will have an iron spike driven into its frame and hearths sprinkled with shavings.”
The brownie flew in a maddening array of directions yet always stopping short of the cold iron it feared.
“Return the children, promise to wile your time elsewhere and I will leave a broken section in the circle for you to pass through.”
“You can’t be serious,” the priest objected. “You make deals with evil.”
I ignored him.
The brownie hesitated.
I rose my arm higher as if to follow through on my threat.
“So be it, man child!” it cried out.
At his words, a young child leapt from the ethereal into the arms of his parents. At the moment of their embrace, the enchanted blindness fell from their eyes. Again another appeared from the charred building’s remains and yet another. Eight in total reappeared and were welcomed with joy by those that had once claimed them as son or daughter. The satisfaction was complete as the last child, the one I had come to me in the tavern, escaped the hold of the fae world and fell at my feet. Helping her to stand, I was greeted with a smile I will never forget.
Knowing only one side of the pact was complete, I moved the child behind me. Keeping my eyes on the hate-filled brownie, I drug the heel of my boot across the line of iron. The action was met with a sinister laugh.
“Now you have truly lost,” the brownie called out in victory. “I curse you!”
As the brownie made the rune sign in the air, the priest dropped to his knees and drew the sign of the One in the dirt. The imp screamed in hate and flew with a vengeance toward the hated mark and the unprotected man. Without a thought, I brought the sword crashing down on the menacing fae’s head.
This was the last of the moment that I can remember.
“Lay still,” the words of the young priest came to me.
Blinking against the sunlight and the throbbing pain in my head, I reach out my hand to remove the bandage over my eye.
“Do not touch it,” Arden said, restraining my efforts. “I can do no more for your eye, but the town is safe.”
“Safe?” I asked as my senses grew. I attempted to sit up but found myself far weaker than I had imagined. Suffering the sharp pains brought on by my movement, I quickly surrendered and laid back on the soft bed. A breath or two later, the fuzzy vision of the ceiling began to sharpen. Carefully, I turned my head to learn of my surroundings. The windows, though the worn draperies had been pulled closed, let in enough light between them to illuminate the simple layout of my rented room. “A reprieve?”
“Sargent Knots thought it best to listen to reason. With the opening of the townspeople’s eyes, he wasn’t willing to place the hero of the day in shackles.”
A smile crossed my blistered lips. “There is hope for him after all. And the magistrate?”
“Dumbfounded for the time being, perhaps, but you should not linger or outstay your welcome.”
Turning to the man, the sound of folding cloth rang in my ear and the rubbing of the bandages against raw skin made me wince. “In a day or two,” I agreed knowing fully that praise from villagers lasts for a very short time. “Perhaps you should find your way home, as well, Abbot Arden.” The questioning look on his face was an easy facade to see through. “The sign. One that matches the brand on your palm.”
He recoiled backward in his chair. Rubbing his gloved palm, he looked over his shoulder then back at me. “Not a word of it must leave this room. I have done you a service in healing, now honor me with your silence on this matter.”
It was a humorous situation, a high priest in hiding, but the throbbing in my head tempered my amusement. “It will not be uttered again, but I find your gifts of healing far from impressive.”
“You have nearly lost an eye and the fire from the creature’s hands has damaged the left side of your face. There is a limit to what can be done.”
“By your hands, surely.” I turned away from his stare. “I have suffered worse.”
“And will suffer again another day, I have no doubt.” He rose from his seat and made the sign of the One over me. “I hope you will one day find peace.”
A blessing. I have few memories of such a thing done on my behalf, but as I watched the robed man begin to leave, I felt a glimmer of hope that his belief might someday take hold in my days of wandering.
“Arden,” I called. When he stopped at the door and looked back at me, I wondered if perhaps I would never see him again. “I hope you find peace, as well.”
“I already have,” he said with a whimsical smile. “Good travels, Orphan Blade.”
With these acknowledging words, the unusual priest slipped out of the room and left me alone once more.
For a time, I replayed what the past few days had shown me. Since the time of my original curse, I had seen things that most had not and each event needed considering. From the first few moments of entering through Strongwood’s walls, I was recognized by not only the natural world but by the unseen. The brownie, as some prefer to call them, must have felt threatened by my approach and used my history to its benefit. In truth, it used my faults.
Allowing the small girl to come ask me for aid and not realizing the spell she and the others were under was a hard lesson to learn. Yet, equally so, the ignoring of the farmer’s worry of an injured animal was the hardest to swallow, for it was in his droning words that I might have learned what plagued the town. In hindsight, had I taken the man at his word, I would have put the pieces of the puzzle together far more quickly and thought through my plan to deal with the fae creature as it should have been done. Now, laying on my back with the pains of my rash actions pricking at me like needles, I realized that I needed to approach this odd life with more care.
“Will missing an eye stop you?”
Cynthia’s voice brought a simple joy to my heart. “No,” I replied to her. “And the eye will heal eventually.”
“You will need to be more careful. We missed clues on this venture.”
I nodded as she echoed my thoughts. “The gasper was a tale told to an enchanted child. The farmer knew the truth of it. Pity the people of this town saw something that I did not care to see. Still, I would call it a success.” I smiled. “What else would I do if not wandering about looking for trouble?”
She walked between the shafts of light from the window and my bed, barely creating an image as she passed. “You can not keep this up for ever, Nithan. One day you will need to hide away and attempt to have a normal life.”
“I can not think of how I would do either, Sister.” I gently touched the bandage over my injured eye. “I imagine I will find a trouble to great for me and I will come join you on the other side.”
Though Cynthia rarely interacted with the physical world, she sat on the edge of the bed. “Perhaps, if you are very good, you will have such a chance. Until then, you need to consider how you almost lost your life today and what a waste that would have been.”
For my part, laying in bed suffering yet another wound, I could not think of my cursed days as valuable to anyone. There were those, I supposed, that had a better life because I threw my body into the fray on their behalf, but the dark world followed me and despite efforts to reclaim the chance of a normal life, I knew I would never have such a thing. “I am in a mood and need to rest,” I said as I closed my eyes.
I fell hard against the cobblestone and rolled to my back, grabbing at the pain of my broken nose. The scream of a woman in the dark pulled my eyes toward the dim end of the alleyway; a witness to my odd life. As she ran away, I knew I had one of two choices. I could gather my senses and chase after her or let life be as it must. I chose to give into the pain of bruised ribs, aching joints and faulting ego.
Pushing myself into a seated position, I pulled a handkerchief from my muddied doublet and began to wipe the blood from my nose and tears from my eyes. Peering around at my new environment a few short moments passed before I realized I was home once more. I knew I could not remain sitting in the middle of an alley before others noticed and so hefted my worn body to my feet and staggered out toward the street.
I was not far from the temple square. There would be more eyes from strolling residence might notice me. Like a rat scurry from the light of a torch, I wrapped myself in my cloak and quickly made my way from shadowy corner to stacked crates until I stood behind the three-story structure that rented rooms. This was home, for the moment, and I felt a pull to be within my own rooms and have a hot bath readied as soon as was possible.
First, I would need to enter the establishment unseen. This was accomplished, in less than impressive wonder, with the use of a ladder I had stashed behind the stables in the back of the building. Wishing I still retained the ability of shadow-stepping, as I called it, I set my stealthy plan in play by climbing the ladder to the top of the stable. The horses snorted at my odd nature, but did not give rise to the drunken servant who relieved himself in the dark. Fortunately, as my unnatural skills dwindled over the years, I had become quite a proficient at the arts of burglary. With sure feet and knowing hands, I leapt to the first windowsill in reach. Grasping tightly to the stone surround of the window, I swung a leg high enough to catch a heel and secure my place on the outside wall. My ribs objected, but I was not about to stay in place like a spider hanging from its silk only to be spotted.
With much effort, I managed to upright myself and use the protruding building stone to climb higher. When my fingers reached my windowsill, my left hand faltered, nearly losing my hold. The window to my room opened and two hands reached out of the darkness and clasped my wrists. I saw only the hood and felt the strong pull. Before I knew it, I was snaking my way into my rooms and reaching for my sword.
“There is no need for that, Nithan.”
Climbing to my feet, I saw the hooded figure move away, deeper into the darkness of the room. My eyes were accosted by the sudden light given off by a struck match. The light grew as candles in their sconces were lit one by one by the robed figure. “Priest?”
The man removed his hood to reveal the familiar face of Arden. A new scar across his right temple showed in the growing light. “Wouldn’t the stairs be a better way to enter your home?”
My grip loosened on the handle of my sword. “Why are you here?”
“I have no answers for you, Priest.” I unbuckled my sword belt and tossed the weapon onto my bed. “You must look elsewhere.”
The man wandered the room and lit the last of the candles. “There are few places to look. Besides, it’s not so terrible to sit and have a meal with an old friend. Is it?”
Friend. An odd description for two people who had only met once before. “Tell me what you want and leave me to my peace.”
Arden turned quickly on his heels. “Peace? Is this how you define your life?”
There was no ridding him so easily, that much was clear. Ringing the bell-pull to be attended by the house servants, I went to my wardrobe and fetched my bed-robe. It would not be the first time I wanted to bathe late at night, but to appear I had just entered the building would bring about talk. Sitting on my bed, pulling off boots and stockings, I wrapped myself in the robe. “I will bathe first.”
“As you wish, but wash quickly. I have ordered a dinner to be brought up.”
I had apparently stepped into a plan that I was not aware of. “Why the persistence?”
Arden smiled. “As I said, I have questions.”
The bath was made ready quickly, a task I have always appreciated and paid well for. In the course of an hour, a very late hour, I had bathed and found myself seated across my small table from the priest and an array of small plates of random food. I kept my eye on the man as he said a prayer in a soft, reverent tone then plucked grapes from a stem and set them before him.
“Out with it,” I said, sounding far more tired than I ought.
He sipped his wine and set it aside. “Why are you so hostile to priests?”
The answer came quickly. “I lived among their view of kindness as a child.” Many memories came to me, all of which were filled with pain.
“How were you made orphaned?”
The word made me look about the room in search of my sister’s ghost. As usual as of late, she could not be found. “A drunken father with the knack of ruining all that he touched. Unfortunately for my mother and sister, he found playing with fire entertaining.”
Arden nodded in such a way that it seemed my words only confirmed what he already knew. “I am sorry to hear of your loss.”
“But not surprised by the tale, I see.”
The priest smiled as he popped a grape into his mouth.
“Have you spent all this time researching my past?” I hesitated as I imagined why I was a subject worth the time. “You have been following me?” I shook my head at how obvious the situation now seemed. “On orders from on high, I suppose.”
“Of sorts,” Arden replied. He stared at the chicken on a platter between us. “It looks dry.”
“But seasoned well.” I took a small roll from wicker basket and broke it in half.
Arden shrugged and began to tear off a leg. “You should allow me to tend to your wounds before they become infected.”
“The caustic ingredients in the soup should suffice. Enough with idle words. What do you want? Tell me so I may fill my belly and go to bed.”
The priest wiped his fingers on a cloth. “Where did you go tonight?”
I hesitated, much to my chagrin. “The tavern up the street.”
“But only for an hour,” he replied as he turned his attention to meal. “You sat in the back corner. One moment you were there, then disappeared. I waited, of course, but you did not reappear. Are you some sort of magic user? Is this why you seem to know so much about the occult?”
I was not sure how to answer. His tone did not show that he was concerned what answer he might hear. I could not deny that I was curious what others saw when I was called away, so took a chance. “I was…elsewhere.”
The priest shook his head. “Not in these rooms, I assure you. I waited for the better part of two hours. Perhaps you would expound on your answer?”
“What is it you wish to hear?”
“The truth,” he stated nonchalantly. “A man does not suddenly disappear. However, if I may be so bold, a man of your situation brings many questions of how it might be done.”
“There is no need to play games with me, Nithan Hall. Though others might notice your scars and account them as wounds from an animal, I believe you will be unable to convince me that is the entire truth.” He picked up his glass once again. “Were you taken some place?”
Shocked. That was the word most fitting to describe my feelings. The man appeared to think nothing of the topic, yet the situation was far from normal conversation. “Who wants to know?”
“I do. That is why I asked.”
The need to speak openly was undeniable, but I am cautious in nature, with good cause to be so. “You are out of your depths in asking such a question.”
“I see,” said Arden. “Perhaps I should tell you what I have seen so that you might consider taking me into your confidence.” He drew breath and looked away. “Where to begin?” Setting his napkin aside, he clasped his hands together. “I know fragments of your life. More than most, I would imagine.”
“So you are a scribe hoping to impress your elders with my tales?”
“I see that you are not found of my order, but I tell you in all honesty that I feel compelled to help you where I may. I have seen first hand of your efforts against the evil of this world yet I have also noticed you have no desire to be free from it.”
I laughed. “I assure you that I have no desire to be so bound.”
The priest pointed over his shoulder to the bookcase behind him. “And yet you surround yourself with the binding.”
“A play on words?”
I looked to the numerous books that I found with the hidden calling within them. “You find empty pages entertaining to read?”
“They are not empty pages to my eyes,” he chuckled.
My smirk failed as I realized his point. “Hells! You are an orphan.”
The priest smiled. “Quite so. Now, according to the story I find repeated in each, your life is a rather troubled one.”
“Cursed, you mean.”
“As you say.”
I became uncomfortable with the prospect that he had some plan that would undo me. “Is this a sort of threat, Brother Arden? As you have undoubtedly noticed in your reading, I am not one who will leave things unchallenged.”
“You have nothing to concern yourself on my account.”
“A priest that will casually look the other way when a wraith walks about?”
Arden shook his head and took a roll from the basket. “You are not a wraith, milord. Your wounds prove as much.”
“I beg to differ.”
“Disagree all you wish, but a wraith does not bleed. The blood from that broken nose tells me that you are not some summoned creature from hell.”
“Yet I am summonsed.”
Arden spread jam across his roll. “So it would seem,” he said softly. “Will you now tell me where you called?”
“I did not lie to you. I did not leave this town.”
“Then you were summoned to a different time?”
I was astonished at his belief in the tales in the books.
“How many years ago?” the priest asked.
The words escaped from my lips without thought. “Twenty.”
He only nodded and began to eat his bread. I was sure that he would inquire more, but sat at the table as if an average invited guest to a late dinner. Uneasy moments passed without a word between us. When he had finished his meal, he looked up at me and bowed his head. “I thank you for your hospitality. I would be an uncaring guest if I kept you from the rest you need.”
“You are leaving?”
“I must. As you know, I have other duties to tend to.”
I stood as he rose from his chair. Quite taken by the remarkable calm in his demeanor. I followed him to the door as he covered his head with his hood. “What will you do?” I asked.
“Will you not go an tell your elders of what we have shared?”
The priest smiled. “What elders, milord?”
“You are defrocked?”
Arden bowed. “Perhaps you will join me tomorrow on a small journey?”
“First, we must see if it’s possible to enter.” He bowed and opened the door. “Till tomorrow, milord.”
I watched him walk down the hallway and descend the stairs. With wonder, I questioned all that I had heard that night as the man drifted away from sight.
The follow day found us in quiet company under the blue sky. Arden had been tight lipped through breakfast and spoke only once until we had passed the gates of the small town.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“To see about a man,” the priest answered.
He was being cryptic. I knew from my own experience that sharing secrets had two edges. To tell one something of a secret was to express a confidence that the other would believe you. The opposite edge, and far more dangerous, was to rely on the fact the hearer would react to your advantage. As we rode quietly, I understood that the unusual priest had his share of secrets and he was not certain I could be trusted. For not having had a comrade-in-arms for many years, I was unsure how to ease the gap between us nor if I was in a mindset to fully trust him.
The road we traveled was not overly used. The grass grew taller than a well-maintained road to a place of importance should, informing me that we were on our way to a small community at best. When the priest turned off the road, I looked up and notice we would soon be traveling through the woods. More than a few memories of what might live within came to mind. To a normal person, a group I have never included myself in, the woods meant uncertainty. True, there were those that preyed on those that used the roads that snaked from place to place, but it was far safer to use a worn path than to venture through forests. Yet, that was precisely what we did.
In the matter of an hour or so, the overgrown trail turned into a simple animal path. We followed it for some time until it led to a rock outcropping. Ferns and moss covered most of the ground and small streams where plentiful in the area leading up the crack found in the rock before us. Wondering if we had come to see a hermit, I sniffed the air for some hint of a camp fire or other trace of a human living apart from the world. I sensed nothing other than the natural odors of the woods.
Pulling back on the reins, the priest looked at me with a hint of concerned. “You must be patient with him.”
I looked at the gap in the rock. “He lives within a cave? What sort of man is he?”
“It doesn’t matter. We have come to riddle out some answers. He may be such a man that can give us clues to that end.”
Nodding, I understood his meaning. “Ask only what we must then leave.”
“Precisely. I don’t need to explain to you how this meeting would look to others. It will need to remain our secret.”
“Secrets are second nature to me.” I swung my leg over my horse’s neck and slid from the saddle. Taking the horse by the bit, I followed the priest toward the natural entrance to the cave. The hairs on my neck rose to the occasion as memories of caves and the things that found a home within them did not bring on happy thoughts. “Is this man trustworthy?”
“I haven’t a clue as I have only heard tales.” The priest stopped and let the reigns fall from his hand. “I believe we will have our answer soon enough.”He took a few steps forward before coming to a quick halt. Dropping to one knee, Arden studied the ground with a scholar’s intensity.
“What is it that you found?”
Arden looked over his shoulder at me. “Trouble.”
I dropped the reins from my hand and rested my open palm on the horse’s nose to calm fidgeting animal. “Specifics, if you please.”
“Here,” he pointed to the rocky ground. “Runes drawn in the dirt.” The priest rose and looked around him. He quickly pointed in the direction of his stare. “And there, as well.”
I followed the direction of his pointing a few paces closer to the crack in the rock. “Can you make out their meaning?”
“Protection spells, perhaps? Magical warning devices? Nithan, this man is cautious.” He began to shake his head in discontent. “I fear I have already underestimated our friend inside. We may have alerted him to our presence.”
“Then we might as well enter as if we are old friends coming for a visit.”
The priest frowned. “An unwise choice. The runes on the ground look similar to the scars on your body. We don’t know what this man is capable of. My vocation is such that I begin to wonder if I am not a liability to you in this.”
Images of the brandings on wayward priests hinted to me that perhaps the scars he carried were more than healed wounds. “You believe you will trigger occult traps.”
“There is a possibility. You, on the other hand, are the most likely to pass unharmed.”
I looked up to gap in the rock-face with a new appreciation. Whoever lived inside had taken care to be left alone but the thought of having even a few mysteries solved or clues to how they might be was too great of an opportunity to neglect. “I will go. Just make certain that no one flanks me.”
The priest made no argument. Slowly making my way around the symbols etched in the ground, I took one last look back at the priest when I reached the opening. “We have come thus far. Is there something specific you would want to know from this man?”
“Ask how it is possible for someone to travel back through time,” he answered. “Oh, and Nithan, I don’t believe that odd sword of yours would be a welcoming sight.”
I touched the pummel of my sword. “It will remain sheathed unless needed.”
“But it may also cause the unleashing of occult traps.”
I turned back to the opening and peered inside. A dark, narrow path led on. I drew in a deep breath, situated my sword to be well in reach. “I will not be defenseless.” Without another word, I entered the cave. For several slow steps, I allowed my eyes to acclimate to the best of their ability. Though it was unknown to the rest of the world, the use of shadows was not possible once away from the natural light that created them, though I longed to have use of the skill once again. It was not long before the path grew so narrow that I had to turn sideways and shuffle my feet in order to squeeze through the jagged gap. It was only then did I consider how much the man who lived within was interested in keeping would-be guests at bay and cared little for an easy exit into the world. Noting a flickering light ahead, I wondered if I was not truly making my way into a well-protected den.
A soft echo of pebbles falling from a height caught my ear just before the world around me began to shake. I heard the priest outside yell for me to hurry, the sense of alarm clearly in his voice. Sand and rock began to fall. The natural walls began to close the gap. Knowing I would not be able to escape back to the outside world in time, I pushed forward.
Jagged rocks tore at my arms and chest as I hurried forward. With the sense that I would be crushed at any moment, I forced myself toward the flickering light. I tell you truly that I would have become a permanent feature of the rock bluff had I hesitated a moment longer. With a few thrusts forward, I emptied myself into a void, tripping as the paired walls shut behind me.
The falling dirt and stone filled the air causing me to cough and lift my hand to protect my eyes. The rumbling ceased. I waved my hand against the dusty environment as if I could clear the air with such an action. It was some time before the air cleared well enough to make out hints of what lay inside the cavern. I first noted several pieces of furniture set along the walls. It was, by all reasonable descriptions, a room one might expect to see inside a small cabin. That is to say, if cabins were made of rock and had a campfire within them.
With the light of the fire, as it became of better use, I searched quickly for an exit. I did not expect to find one, nor did I expect to find a tall iron cage with a man locked inside. The gaged man’s bloodied eyes met mine. My heart sank as I recognized the priest and the folly I had committed. “Arden. Damn it! The priest outside was the mage!”
He raised tethered hands for me not to approach then pointed to the lock.
The air was clearing just enough for me to see glowing runes on the iron door. I took a timid step closer, searching both ground and cage from where I stopped. To my eyes, his cage was surrounded by runes not unlike those at the mouth of the cave.
“I will toss you my dagger so you may cut yourself free.”
Arden looked around him, as if weighing the possibility of such an action causing more harm.
I turned to the familiar voice to find my sister standing only a few feet from me. “Where have you been?” I huffed in anger.
“Don’t be that way, Nithan. I can’t control where I’ll be.”
My concern for the priest pulled my attention back to the captive. “We must help him.”
“Then think carefully so that both your lives are spared.”
I bent slowly to one knee. “The runes. I have never known how such things work.” I looked to the priest, who turned to me then to the shadows where my sister stood. “Arden, do you know of runes?”
He slowly nodded. Searching around him, he knelt and picked up a bowl. Pouring out the contents on the ground, he pushed the object through the opening at the base of the door. When I reached out toward it, the priest gave out a muffled yelp.
“Nithan!” Cynthia warned. “The runes! Don’t touch them.”
I quickly retracted my hand much to the nodding weariness of the priest. “The runes inflict pain on you?”
Arden continued to nod.
“What can I do, Cynthia? If my hand cannot pass by these dark symbols, then how are we to free him?”
My sister moved closer. “We must think this through, Nithan. Patience is our best allay now.” She came to my side and studied the markings on the ground. “An error on our part may end your friend’s life. We can’t be hasty. What do we know for certain.”
I sat back on my haunches and looked at the beaten man in the cage. I scratched my head and looked for something that might give me clues. “The bowl?”
Arden smiled through his gag.
“The bowl can pass through,” I stated.
Cynthia smiled. “That is something. The bowl must have a means that we do not.”
Arden reached under the cage door and carefully flipped the bowl over. Pointing to it, his eyes once again met mine.
I rubbed my head as I attempted to riddle-out his desire. “I cannot reach for it, Arden.”
He waved his hands to dismiss my thoughts and pointed to the bowl again.
“What makes the bowl so special?” I looked at the object again. I did not see the marking before it was turned over. On the base was a thin curling line that made a symbol. “The bowl has a rune etched into it.” I stood and looked about the room. “Perhaps there is another item, a key perhaps, that also has such a marking.”
Frantically, I searched the chest and set of drawers in the room for any object I could find. Examining everything from a spoon to a book, I looked for anything that might have the same etching. I pulled out each item but it was for not. Little by little, I lost hope that, if there was such an object, the mage had it with him.
I sat, frustrated beyond words, on the ground and saw the priest waiting patiently within the cage. “We are without hope, Cynthia. I know nothing of runes and it is unlikely the mage left us with any options. I am covered with curses and yet…” The words died in my throat as my mind grasped at the words of the mage. I jumped to my feet. “The mage did not want me to carry my sword!” I pulled the blade from it sheath and examined the blade in the light of the fire. The symbols glowed. I looked to Cynthia and turned to the priest. “Do we dare try?”
Arden looked nervous.
Without waiting for my sister’s opinion, I grasped the one idea I had and hurried toward the perimeter of the cage. The sword grew hot in my hand. I stroked the blade and said the incantation. Flame burst from its surface. Making a great arc with the tip of the sword passing through the symbols on the ground, the sword handle burned my hand with the heat of hell fire. The symbols spat and burst before my eyes as the blade cut through them. Moving quickly, I raised my sword and struck the lock on the door. As metal touched metal, both lock and sword shattered.
I dropped the remains of the weapon to the ground and pulled the door open. Arden rose to his feet and held out his hand. Reaching for my dagger, I realized I could not close my fingers around the grip. With a force I did not expect, Arden rushed me like a bull and pushed me out of the cell. In the very moment, a piercing scream arose and an blast of wind that sent us crashing to the floor.
Rolling over to his side, Arden pulled the gag from his mouth. He looked at me with wild eyes. “You, milord, are either the luckiest man in the world or the most brilliant.”
I grasped my hand in pain. “Neither, I wager.”
Arden pulled my hand away from me and studied it. “It’s as cold as a mountain stream.” He stood and hurried to a water keg. Filling a cup, he said words over it. “We must bind it.” He poured the contents over my hand. It burned and I gave out a rather unmanly yelp.
“You poured blessed water on the hand of a wraith and all you can think to say is we must bind it?”
The priest chuckled. “You are not a wraith, Sir Nithan. No more than I.” He went to the scattered clothing on the ground and ripped a sleeve from a shirt. Wrapping my hand with all the talent of a physician, he seemed pleased with his work. “That should do for a time.”
I looked back at the cage. Though made of iron, the bars glowed and dripped like melting wax.
“Your friend was anxious for you to leave this world,” Arden stated quietly. “I wonder if you had much to do with his less than eager attempt.”
“It was he that began this.” I looked for Cynthia and found her once again gone from sight. “We have an unsettling past.”
Arden nodded. “It would appear that is the case. Also, I would state that you are easily pulled into traps of his making.”
“He is a cleaver adversary. He appeared the very image of you.”
“Then I would suggest that you stop looking for him.” Arden stood and studied the room. “I knew you would come.”
I examined my hand for any additional scars. “By chance?”
“By prayer,” he rebutted as he followed the rock wall. “Chance is a figment of one’s imagination.”
Rising from my seat, I was not about to participate in a philosophical debate. What I truly wished to know was why the mage knew of Arden. “I suppose he appeared in my likeness and tricked you to come here.”
Arden laughed. “He thinks too highly of his skills. I knew it wasn’t you who came to me in my cell after evening prayers.”
“I was under the impression that priests were not to lie.”
“There was no lie in what I told you, but there was much of it in his eyes.” Arden stopped moving along the wall until he came to the remains of the iron cage. “What do you owe to this man?”
“You allowed him to capture you?”
“Of course. Now, as to my question, what is it between your past that created such a devote animosity in the man?”
“How can I know that this is not a trick? Perhaps you are the mage and the true Arden stands outside this cave?”
He shrugged. “You don’t. Though I sympathize with your situation, I can only offer you that I am the same man you met in the jail cell years ago.”
Perhaps it was the feeling of being captured or the need to speak of my sad circumstance that led me to confide in the priest. Other than Cynthia, he appeared to be the only soul to take interest in my life. I would need to take my chances and assume this was the real priest I had met.
Unfamiliar how friendships begin outside of a battlefield, I answered with simple words. “He cursed me.”
“Unlikely,” Arden stated as he knelt and looked to the last spitting pools of molten metal. “How did you meet?”
When one is faced with a foe that wishes only for your suffering, it is clear what one needs to do, kill them or allow yourself to be killed. However, to disclose thoughts with a stranger, I found relating the acts of my past far more troubling. “You would not believe me.”
“Perhaps, but I have seen many things and have a mind more open than most.”
I found myself chewing at my thumbnail. In that moment, I wished for my sister to be near and offer her opinions. “I…died.”
“Unlikely, but proceed.”
“I knew you would not understand.”
Arden looked at me for a moment. His eyebrows rose and he dipped his chin in a short nod. “Pray, continue.”
“I found myself in a cave, broken and confused. They—”
“The mage and an imp.”
Arden sat with his back to the wall and looked the ceiling of the cave. “Evil begets evil. This is hardly difficult to believe.”
“You do not flinch at the hearing of an imp nor seeing one in the village, yet you discount my account of being brought back from the dead?”
The priest shrugged. “Nithan. Necromancy is simply evil attempting to summon evil. Even those that attempt it do not understand that what truly returns to the body.” He selected a few pebbles beside him and cupped them in his hand. “When the spirit leaves the body, it is a singular event. When those who claim the power to reattach the two, what they accomplish is far more dangerous.”
“I am proof of that.”
“No, milord. You are not.” He selected a pebble and tossed across the room. “You a man with a foul past that has been tricked.”
The speaking of my past grasped my full attention. “And you believe you know me so well?”
“Nithan Hall. Warrior under many banners. One of which, beholden to a church…or should I say, a man. A man that you killed.”
“He had a black heart and was the cause—”
“I don’t doubt you, milord. But you have not taken the time to consider your life as I have.”
“I died, damn it!” I rebutted. “It was the most painful of events that I can speak of. Then to be risen by those two bastards? As if it could not lead to worse situations, I was the means of death to an entire encampment of innocents.”
“Innocents? All of them?”
I felt the reproach of a priest. “The children were. Which only makes my curse the more bitter. Killing a man is one thing.” I paused. “You would not understand.”
“I understand that the scars on your body are from both weapons and curses, but you are not a creature of death. Not in the literal sense.”
“You mock me?”
“No,” he stated solemnly. “I pity you.”
I stood at his words. “I am not one to be pitied.”
Arden rose and came to stand before me. His eyes were soft and full of care. “You are being used for a very strange purpose, Nithan. As to the reason of that purpose, I do not know, but I will help you in finding the answer.”
“I’m cursed and rightfully so.”
“You fell from the tower with the abbot, this much I know for fact. How much time elapsed before you found yourself in the so-called care of an evil spirit and this mage that causes you so much trouble?”
I stepped away from his constant stare. “I cannot say. Twenty years, perhaps?”
“Why do you think it was such a time?”
Unclear memories of the night before the destruction of the camp seeped back into my mind. “The camp was full of women and children. When I first brought the girl and her unborn child to the forest gulch, no one else knew of the location. In my years of death, it had filled with more than thirty souls.”
“Those words, I do not contest. Yet, stop and reason, milord. I have spent a great deal of time considering your life and find the report of your actions unbalanced. You took this pregnant woman to the forest before you went to war. Had you revisited the camp previous to your return with your adversary?”
I thought back, but my memory was murky at best.
“Nithan. You were three years in folds of battle. Did you not consider that the man had fathered other children with other women?”
“Three years to cause so many—”
“That is assuming that they were all due to the abbot’s lust. Can you not reason that there were others that wished to hide their shame as their leader?”
I blinked at his reasoning. His suggestion seemed plausible. “It does not discount my death.”
“If the event was a fact, I would agree. But surviving the fall and being used by manipulative people would, rings of truth.” He sighed. “Where did you go after your destruction of the camp?”
“I hid,” I answered quietly. “I found it difficult to look into the faces of others given what I had done. After the first calling, I began to drift from one town to another.”
“My curse. The mage cursed me to be at the call of orphans.”
The priest smiled. “There are many who have devoted their lives to such causes.”
“Not in way that I have been forced to live by. No matter where or when, if called, I leave this time and enter another to where the child calls.”
I bowed my head. Who would believe such a tale? Still, I let the words flow. “They speak the incantation that they find in a book. They have only to say them aloud and make the sign. I am then spirited away.”
The priest nodded as if he fully understood. “I will help you, Nithan Hall. First, let us go and find a more suitable place to talk. I find this cave and the food here tiresome.”
I chuckled. He appeared to be unaware that we were captives. “You have forgotten that we are prisoners.” I glanced at the remains of the one weapon that I came to rely on. “And we are defenseless should we ever manage to escape.”
Arden reached into his robes and produced a bottle. “I have never been captive to foul men unless I chose to be.” Walking to where the opening was once located, he uncorked the small bottle and splashed the contents against the rock. A rumbling sound from behind the wall of stone began to echo in the small room. As he stepped back, a large crack appeared at the base of the wall. It grew larger before my eyes. Like two curtains pulled apart, blinding sunlight poured into the chamber.
Amazed, I looked to the priest. “You are a magic user?”
I opened my eyes to see the open night sky between the rooftops above me. In a panic, I sat up quickly and attempted to push away the black snakes that had covered my body.
“You are safe,” I heard the priest state firmly. He grabbed my face and stared into my eyes. “You are safe, Nithan.”
Looking all around me, my heart raced as I searched for the slithering creatures of my nightmare. No, not a nightmare, a memory.
“Look at me, Nithan. I tell you the truth. We are in an alley not four blocks from your home.” He stood and examined the length of small passage between the buildings. “We must leave this place. You could be noticed.”
I scanned quickly for any hint of serpents, my heart still racing. “She burst into snakes.”
“It is in the past.”
Arden knelt and took my arm, placing it over his shoulder. With a calming strength, he lifted me to my feet. I was of little help to hold my own weight. Slowly, we made our way out of the alley and down the quiet street of the familiar town. I stumbled often, unable to will my legs to work to my benefit, but the priest’s sure grasp of my belt and arm steadied my way. Missteps over uneven cobblestones aside, the man guided me safely to the kitchen entrance of the inn with only a few drunkards to notice. In truth, I do not know how the priest managed to do it so stealthily.
“Quietly now,” he whispered.
I had no objections to any plan he had. My body, wet with blood and sweet, could be compared to a wet dish rag. My boots barely touched the tiled floor for he carried me through the empty kitchen to the back staircase and up to the hall of the rooms above. Propping me against the wall beside the door of my room, he fished out a key from his robes and unlocked the door. We entered into the dark room and I was carefully laid out onto my bed.
The closing of the door was followed by a yelp from Arden. I managed to lift my head in time to see in faint moonlight light the beautiful woman raise a finger to her lips to hush my priestly friend. I felt the warmth of my face flush as she turned to offer me her radiant smile.
“Do you know this woman?” Arden asked in a hushed voice.
My eyes would not be pulled from the sight of her face. “I know your face,” I whispered to her.
“And I know yours, Nithan Hall,” she replied with laughter in her soft words. Her eyes scanned my form. In a blink, she said beside me on the bed and held my hand. “Happier moments.”
I laid back and felt the unusual beating in my chest.
“Bitten by black adders, Nithan Hall?” She asked. “You must find a more compelling thought if you wish to live.”
“Adders?” Arden exclaimed. “I have something of an antidote in my collection.” He rushed to his small chest of vials and a ringing of thin glass clinking against one another came from afar.
I saw her lovely head turn toward the busy priest. “His body will only mend if his mind can recover from the nightmare.” She turned, stroked my brow and smiled. “Find a joyful memory, Nithan Hall. One with laughter and light to send all the darkness away.”
I could think of only one such memory. There, in the reflection in her eyes, played out the scene of the first time I had met her. In a great circle under the sun and moons, we danced hand in hand. Turning and hopping to the lively music that I could hear now quite clearly in my ears. Then another image came. One that I did not know I had. In the tall soft grass, bonding as man and wife with only the stars to witness, the image grew large in my mind.
“I am flattered, Nithan Hall,” she whispered with whimsy. “Yes. That will be your armor against your woes. I will help you with the rest.”
Floating in the memory our single moment of happiness, I closed my eyes and held firm to the dream I had found.
The first day of my treatment, I remember very little as my body was as frail as a child and the need for sleep, ever present. There was the priest busily crushing plants with mortar and pestle and the sweet smell of fresh air from the opened window. In a few of my waking moments, I witnessed a trio of birds sitting on the sill with sprigs in their beaks from which Arden quickly retrieved and set to mixing in his concoction. Once, perhaps twice, I asked for her but he did not reply.
The second day, as I recall, green moss was applied to all of the punctures in my body. Though my thoughts and words were jumbled in the asking, Arden answered that he was following the instructions given him to the letter. Each hour, he dosed fresh moss with his medicines, replacing those that had turned an oily black color. Despite his efforts, my health grew more dire.
I dreamed of many things in that time, though I cannot recall them clearly. Tall grass in the fields at sunset, the image of a bouquet of flowers, a table filled with all manner of food and drink, faces, both known and unknown, appeared and disappeared as I seemed to search for something. Deep were the dreams I had and they were innumerable. Yet of these that I can recall, none were as frequent as her face.
The odd, repetitive scraping sounds were the first lucid moments that I could grasp. As if willing myself to do so, I opened my eyes and took in the sight of a young woman at the foot of the bed. With file in hand and a look of disdain on her face, she ran the object across the end of my toe.
“Who?” I asked in a dry whisper.
She did not look to me. “A caretaker.”
My sight became clearer as I studied the woman in silence. Her hair, auburn and braided, shown brighter than it ought. Her nose, small with a hint of a lift, sat pleasingly on a face that most would find attractive. Had her eyebrows now deepened over soft brown eyes, one would certainly have called her pretty. Dressed in clothing of a merchant class, she seemed nothing like the hired nurse she claimed to be.
“Name,” I muttered.
I shook my head against fatigue. “Name.”
The woman set the file aside and brushed nail filings off onto the floor. Covering my feet with the end of the blanket, she stood with her back to me and crossed her arms. “Perhaps tomorrow.”
She was stubborn, but my need for answers grew. “Name!” The stretching of my throat made me cough.
The woman went to the table and poured a cup of water from the clay ewer. Though I thought she would bring it to me to relieve my parched mouth, she simply drank from the cup as if I were not in the room. A smile crossed her lips that did not give me hope for a sip from the cup.
“Please,” I uttered quietly in contempt.
“I’m certain you can do better.”
I bit the edge of my lip. “May I please have a cup of water?”
The smile softened as did her eyes. “Better.” She refilled the cup and brought it to me. It was then that I realized I could not raise my arm. “Don’t bother,” she whispered. “You’ll only make a mess if you try.”
Cupping her hand behind my neck, she gently lifted my head to the cup.
I drank more quickly than I ought and coughed as the cool water touched the back of my dry throat. Spewing water over the blanket, I felt helpless and frustrated. “Damn!”
“Not quite the warrior you once were, I see,” she commented. Again she raised the cup to my lips. “Perhaps you might attempt a more timid attack.”
I sipped carefully and let the liquid sit in my mouth before carefully swallowing. I was allowed only the one sip as she lowered my head back to the pillow.
Gazing from one corner of the small room to the next, I found my rented home at the inn had changed in appearance. Gone were the small dresser and smoky wall mirror. The small round table was replaced by long wooden structure that contained glass containers and strange apparatuses. Other than the bed I lay on and the small bookshelf, all had been replaced leaving a sense of unfamiliarity lingering in my mind.
She went to her work table and began to search through a box of small vials. “He had to return.”
“You didn’t think he would spend the rest of his life attending you, did you? The man has a calling, after all.” She held up a small glass bottle to the sunlight coming in through the window.
If I were a betting man, which I often am, I would have called her look, ‘disappointment’. The liquid within the bottle apparently was not up to her standards. “What is that you hold in your hand?”
“Are you speaking of the concoction or the patient?”
A simple smile appeared on her face. “The patient. It took me the better part of a month to create this. No small task, mind you. Perhaps not my best work, but it will do.”
“Apparently you do not think very highly of me. Still, I would appreciate not being poisoned by a half-hearted attempt at an elixir.”
She turned with a raised eyebrow. “I could have accomplished that task years ago.”
My eyes widened at the thought that my caregiver could in fact be my nemesis. The mage had changed form before and I was far from a position of fending him off. “Stay away from me, you bastard.”
The woman hesitated until a frustrated look crossed her face. “I am not the source of your curse, you ignorant fool. You would have died if it weren’t for me.”
“Mages can change their appearances. I won’t be fooled again.” I attempted to flee from my bed, but could only manage the moving of my right leg.
She took confident steps to my side and flipped my leg back onto the bed. “How could you have lived so long? Mighty warrior? Orphan’s Blade? Ha! You are the definition of a sad reality to yarns told by the fire.” She held up the small glass bottle. “This, you stupid little man, is to wash away the atrophy in your muscles.” The woman picked up a stone that lay beside me. “These are warding stones so you weren’t whisked away on a fool’s errand.” She sat and stared into my eyes. “What was she thinking?”
“Eslenida? A fairy you happened to lay with?”
The name rang perfectly true in my ears. “Eslenida,” I repeated in a whisper.
“Yes, that is her name and she lays surrounded by others in a hidden grove.”
Joy ran from my very soul as I thought of the scene. “She has died? How could that be? I saw her not long ago.”
The woman uncorked the bottle and swished the liquid inside in a slow circle. “Not dead, asleep. Recovering from the poison that was once in your body. Why she went to such lengths—”
“She lives then.” The happiness I felt made all other thoughts flee from my mind.
“Yes, but to no thanks to you.” The woman put the bottle to my lips. “Drink this or I will force it down your throat. I would like to return to my life, if that does not inconvenience you too much.”
Happy in the thought of Eslenida being alive somewhere in the world, I swallowed the concoction without a second consideration and did not complain as it burned the back of my throat. I managed to lift my arm to wipe my mouth with the cuff of my bedshirt. “When will I heal enough to go and see her?”
“See her? Haven’t you done enough?” She rose and made her way back to the table. “She is far better off where she is, well away from your disastrous life.”
“Who are you to keep me from—”
“Who am I?” she countered softly. “One who knew her name before a moment ago. A friend of the fairy folk and know their ways. A daughter to the one who saved your pathetically selfish life.”
“I did not…I wasn’t aware she was married and had children.”
The woman shook her head. “How can you be so thick?”
“I have only spoken to your mother a few times. I did not think that she was with another.”
She rubbed her temples. “Sir Nithan, great soldier of war and so-called defender of orphans, you are the most ignorant man I have ever met. She has but one husband and one child.” She held out her arms to her sides. “Do I not look familiar to you in very least?”
I studied her face and could see the similarities to Eslenida. “You look like your mother, that much I now see.”
She huffed. Grabbing an object off the table and marched straight to me. With an action that made me flinch at its quickness, the woman shoved a small mirror not two inches from my face. “Perhaps this is enough to give you a hint as to who is my father.”
I glanced from mirror to her face and back again. It was undeniable. “It can’t be. You are my daughter?”
“Eslenida has a daughter. You have a temporary caregiver.”
“But you must be of twenty years,” I remarked.
“Twenty three, in fact. Just how long do you think you have been asleep?” She dropped the mirror onto my chest. “You obviously need time to work that small mind of yours while I could use some fresh air.” Without another word she turned and left the small room.
I don’t believe she spoke to me for the better part of two days after that incident. Admittedly, I felt a sense of shame for having not been a part of her life for so many years and, in truth, I often countered this feeling with a claim of innocence. I had, after all, been sent into a magical sleep without being consulted. I fought each of these conflicting feelings as she carried on with her duties and I lay worn and tired in my bed. Though I could not take my eyes from her as she worked mixing this and that or reading from one of her many tomes, the moment her eyes met mine, I looked away. There was simply too much in the way of questions and assumptions that sat like a thick wall between us. To my shame, she made the first move to remove a stone from the divide between us.
It was in the evening that, having handed me a bowl of soup, she went to a chair by the small fireplace and sat down, weary of what lay on her mind.
“Have you found no clues as to why you are able to be summoned?” she asked quietly.
I understood her frustration in this topic. Though Arden had proved himself to be quite the open minded scholar, little light was shown on my situation. “I don’t have much. Orphans appear to have a book on how to summon me, though none can explain how it came to them. The mage from my past seems to be a man that will not die.” I hesitated to ask too much from her as I began to feel the appreciation of her willingness to help. I attempted a small joke to lighten the mood. “But I have been asleep for nearly half my life.”
“She’s more intelligent than I am. I could possibly have managed to keep you asleep for a week but nothing like what she is capable of.”
“Then you study magic as a student?”
“Realize is a more appropriate term.”
The subject, having been a victim to its whims, was unsettling, but it was the first real conversation we had held. A need arose in my to at least attempt to be a father who took interest in his daughter’s life. “You wish to be a…a witch?”
I saw a brief flame of anger paint her face, but to her credit, she let it subside. With a calming deep breath, she simply shook her head and turned to the fire.
“I am trying to understand,” I admitted. “I’m not schooled in such things and have only known the harsh effects of those that wield magic like a sword.”
“You weren’t always a soldier,” she commented. “You had to be trained, repeating blocks and attacks.”
“That is the truth of it.”
“The people you refer to as witches are the same. They study and train in an effort to strengthen their power.” She turned back to me. “I am not like that. I was born with Fae blood running through my veins. Their greatest feats, I realized at eight years of age. They are pathetic in their attempts but can manage harm none the less.”
She looked at me with concern.
I scratched at my beard. “That is what my mother called all users of magic.”
“Then she didn’t know the Fae world. Those that have attacked you have nothing to do with ‘faerie’. They happen to have a small understanding of what you call magic. Because of this they are easily manipulated by others. Used like dolls made of corn husks and as easily thrown away. Weak people with weak minds.”
“I beg to differ,” I said, touching the markings of curses on my face.
She smiled. “Those did not come from a witch. You should choose companions much better in the future.”
“The man would not have been capable of creating those. No, those were a special gift from something very dark and unimaginative.”
“Placing a summoning spell on another is unimaginative to you? Impress me then with your knowledge.”
She laughed. “What is so clever about a summon spell?” Casually, she looked at the items on the table and picked up a spoon. Holding it up so that I could see it, she murmured words and stroked the object. With a gentle toss, she flung the spoon into my lap. “Hold on it tightly.”
Unrecognizable words came to her lips as I grasped the item with all my strength. Between the beats of my heart, I found the spoon had disappeared from my hand. I looked to her outstretched hand to find the spoon lying across her open palm. As if the act was as ordinary as breathing, she simply set it aside and shrugged. “Living things are a bit more tricky, but hardly worth applause.”
I had no words. In what she demonstrated so casually, I could not have accomplished in my wildest dreams. From her sigh and the tone of her words, I could tell she found the demonstration beneath her and tiresome.
Despite demonstrating a skill that would have once set me on edge, I found another meaning in the moment. She was attempting to show she was not frightened of my condition or, at the very least, demonstrate a knowledge of an aspect that effected my life.
“I imagine you have looked for the children you have helped in the past,” she asked, turning back to her work table. “What was their response when you went to visit them?”
“We visited graves.”
She turned with a keen look in her eye. “All of them?” Noting my nod, she tapped her lip with her finger. “Arden was good not to mention that in his notes. Had someone come across—”
“He left notes? What did he write?”
“A few speculations,” she replied. “The most curious is that there are material objects used in your summoning. The books themselves gave him the most troubling of thoughts.”
“I would beg to differ.”
She smiled. “You would. In all that I know, you are summoned to places and typically kill the first thing that represents the child’s troubles. The priest, being a bystander in your life, noted that he felt there was much more to your situation than a simple assassination request.”
“He said nothing to me.”
“Because an intelligent person does not spew out the first thought that comes into their mind.” She rose and gathered together folded pieces of parchment. “I believe he was considering these summonings were a way to distract you for a purpose. It is an interesting concept.”
I shifted in my bed, feeling a sense that a piece of a puzzle was on the verge of being played. “For what purpose?”
She opened one of the envelopes, paying little attention to anything else. Slowly tapping the side, she emptied each into small glass vials, placed a small cork in the end and set them in a type of shelf to hold each upright. Only after finishing the task did she turn to look at me again. “To use you as bait.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Bait. You do understand the concept of luring an animal to a trap, don’t you? I believe you are used as bait to catch or lead someone or something to a place. I think his reasoning is sound.”
I sat up in my bed. “Clarify your thoughts, if you would.”
“It is said you once led men in battle. That means that you are confident in your abilities. You have also murdered a priest, leading many to believe you are without morals.”
“The abbot’s death was an accident.”
“None the less, it happened and it is well known. Then there is the matter of your resurrection or so people consider it to be. If one adds the curious nature of your tethering to orphans, the picture becomes clearer.”
I shook my head. “Clear as a deep red wine to me.”
“That is because you are thick headed. Consider yourself a beast of burden that follows the whims of an intelligent master. It pulls you in the direction it wishes and for reasons of its own. If you are to be a lamb for the slaughter, one must question if the mage is the one who is using you to draw out another or the perhaps your master wishes to find the mage.”
The possibility of what she was suggesting made me shiver. “And if this idea of yours is true?”
“Then we follow the leash that is so tightly wrapped around your throat to see who holds the other end.”
“How do you believe to manage that?”
She smiled. “I will follow you.”
As she had undoubtedly planned from the very beginning, my daughter waited until my strength returned before moving forward with her idea. It took me little more than a week of doing odd stretches she had recommended and drinking her foul tasting elixirs before I found that I was as close to being back to myself, as one can in his forties.
On the day that she entered my rooms, I saw in her face a determination I had seen on the battlefield. She had readied herself mentally for the unknown and I, in part, was intrigued by the idea that another would follow along when I was summoned. As she collected the protective rune stones from the floor of the room, I encountered my first concern for her welfare in all of this. Call it a parent’s intuition, I felt an uneasiness over the plan. There was something not quite right in the arrangement although my life had few norms to be compared. Still, she seemed very determined to follow her plan to the very end. Perhaps it was the thought of her end that made me utter the words.
“Perhaps, should this work, it would be best if you remained behind me at all times,” I heard myself break the silence.
She shook her head and set the stones in a pouch. “That was not part of the bargain.”
“There was no deal made between us. I agreed to none of this.”
“So now you understand you have little to say on the matter. I have made my mind up and will see it through. You should be pleased.”
I took up my sword belt and fastened it about my waist. “What father would be please to take a daughter into certain danger?”
“An intelligent one, if he understood the advantage.” She suddenly stopped and looked up. “Do you hear that?”
I listened carefully and heard nothing. I was about to say as much before I noticed a slight pressure in my ear. Slowly, a ringing sound appeared. A summons. “You must not follow. I forbid it.” I saw only a smirk from her lips before the vision of my world swirled before my eyes. Pulled by the usual force into a darkness, my only thought was a hope that she would find it impossible to follow me. It would not be.
From a height, I fell. My body instinctively flinched preparing for the certain collision against the hard ground. You can imagine that, after being so accosted numerous times in the same manner, I was taken completely by surprise when I landed in cold, dark water.
I felt slimy rock touch my face as I reach the bottom. The impact forced every bit of air from my lungs, causing me to gasp. Stagnate water filled my empty organs. I came out of the waist-high murkiness coughing out the filth that had invaded my body. Unbalanced by the event, I staggered backward and nearly submerged myself into the waters again.
“That was memorable,” I heard my daughter state.
Wiping water and muck from my face, I saw her calmly searching the dark bog from the banks. How she managed to be so neatly perched on high ground, I never knew.
Wading through the foul water and half-decaying reeds, I made my way to her. I reached out my hand to be helped up onto the bank. She stepped backwards.
“You picked the wrong occupation if you cannot muddy your hands to aid another,” I stated with thick sarcasm. Hearing her huff, I pulled myself up out of the water and slid myself, belly first, onto the grassy shore. I rolled onto my back and sat up. “You are a fine brother-in-arms.”
“I am neither a simple solider nor your brother. Now, get up and tell me what you usually do from this point.”
Standing up and gathering my senses, I looked at my new surroundings. Everything seemed out of the ordinary. Landing in water was a first. Arriving in the open was also new. Setting both aside, the most obvious was that we were completely alone. “Where is the child?”
“Yes. I am always summoned by an orphaned child.” I turned around to find nothing but the bog and edge of a woods. “He must be near with the book.”
My daughter turned and followed my gaze. “In the forest, perhaps.”
“Something is wrong.”
“What do you sense?”
Sense? I sensed that all that should have happened had not occurred at all. I looked at the wet ground and searched for the usual sign. “There is no markings for the summoning.”
I heard a dagger pulled from a sheath and looked up to see her holding the weapon out toward the trees. “We are being watched.”
The lack of moonlight allowed only enough light for me to see shadows among the trees. “If there was a child, perhaps he fled into them for safety.”
Fishing around in her satchel, she removed a vial. “Hold this,” she said, handing me her dagger. Pouring the contents in to one palm, she rubbed her hands together and blew the dust into the air. “Find who has called,” she said.
The dust twisted and turned in the air as it rose. Like a glowing swarm of bees, it raced through the darkness toward the forest. The light grew brighter when it settled a few feet into the woods. A cry of a young voice rang out. “There is your summoner,” she said. Ripping the dagger from my hand, she raced toward the sound.
“Wait!” I cried out, but she was racing toward the dark without a hint of hearing my words. I raced after her. She was far quicker than I and reached her goal with me panting as I came to the spot. With a wave, the buzzing dust vanished and she was comforting the young boy. “You should have waited,” I warned.
“What is your name, boy?” she asked in a soft tone.
“H..Heath, milady,” replied the nervous boy.
My daughter looked up to me with pain-filled eyes for the briefest of moments. “Do you have the book with you, Heath?”
The boy nodded quickly and produced the familiar book. “I didn’t think it would work.”
“It has,” she replied. “The man before you will set things right for you. Now, what is the reason for calling?”
Heath looked away from my daughter’s face to mine. “You’re really him?”
“Yes,” my daughter answered for me. “Tell us why you have summoned him.”
“My sister. She’s been gone for days. Taken by the witch.”
Another witch. I cannot begin to tell you how tedious it is to deal with such people. “Do you know where this witch is?” I asked quietly.
“Just up the stream, where the black bark grow.”
My daughter rose and stood beside me. Crossing her arms, she shook her head. “This will not do.”
“I’m telling the truth, milady,” Heath stated with tears. “She’ll be eaten if you don’t help.”
She held out her hand to calm him. “We will protect your family, Heath. First, take us to your home.”
“We don’t really have a home, milady. My sister and I are orphans.”
“Then where do you live?”
He turned and pointed deeper into the forest. “A hut, a mile or so from here.”
“Then that is where we will go first,” she replied. “A summoning makes the Orphan Blade tired and he will need all his strength to help you. Lead on.”
Every instinct I had was to counter her words, but it seemed to me that perhaps she wanted time to plan an attack. Having the new experience of a partner in such adventures, I followed her lead. I did not let my thoughts wander far as we made our way into the darkness. The odd shadow drew my attention away from the path though I only found it to be an animal seeking a path away from us into the sickly looking trees. I could not help but to consider how uninviting the world appeared and wondered how the orphans had survived in such surroundings.
The hut we came upon was well concealed. They had used the embankment from the hill as a back wall, leaving only three to craft. Using what appeared to be long thin branches to weave walls and plastered with mud, the pair of young children had built a home that would do well in sheltering them from the elements. I commented on my thoughts of their skill. “You are to be commended on your abilities, Master Heath. Such a structure would man many a man proud to have created.”
“I confess, Orphan Blade,” the boy began. “We found it like this.”
“You were fortunate, indeed,” replied my daughter. “Shall we go in?”
The boy hesitated, looking to each of us. “But my sister—”
“All in due time, Heath,” she stated. “A summons jumbles the mind. It would not be good for you or this man for him not be at his best. Come, I have brought some bread with me. We will rest a while and then will take on your trouble.”
Entering the small hut, or what I assumed was a simple structure, turned out to be more. Within, I saw a wood planked floor with dividing curtains in the back as the boy began to light candles.
“My sister and I sleep back there. The fireplace gets too smoky so we cook outside.”
“A lovely home, Heath,” my daughter commented. “I’m certain you have done well for your sister and yourself.” She began to walk around the small room. “You were very fortunate to find such a place. Have you lived her long?”
Heath looked to me as if to question why she cared. I shrugged.
“About a three years, milady.”
“Your sister is quite the housekeeper. Oh, but forgive me, I have forgotten the bread.” She reached into her satchel and walked toward the simple table. “I haven’t any jam, my apologies.”
The boy didn’t seem to care as he hurried toward her. I assumed he, like many in the world, did not have the means to enjoy a meal every day. I was rather proud of her for thinking of such a fact and had prepared for hungry children. That was what I had thought.
Before I could find words to compliment my daughter, I saw her spin on her heels and raise her hand. A brilliant light exploded from her hand. The small room rained with small, child-sized, grey creatures with long claws. At once, one had leapt onto my back and wrapped its skinny arm across my face. With as much force as I could, I back peddled and crushed the creature between the wall and myself. Pulling my sword, I decapitated one creature and cut into another with the same blow. The blade felt heavier in my hand and my reach shorter than normal, still I manage to cut down three more. Desperately searching for others, I spun on my heals to see my daughter hold the boy back, dagger at his throat.
“Do it!” she screamed.
“Let the lad go!”
“He is no boy, Father,” she replied with a hiss. Ever so slowly, she drew the blade across the child’s throat revealing thin droplets of blue blood.
Human or not, I found I could not run the boy through. His eyes wide in fear. His form trembling.
“No. It must not be this way.”
With a force I did not know she had, my daughter spun the boy and shoved him at me. Before I knew it, she had hold of my arm and forced my blade through the creature’s chest. I stared in horror as the form slipped down and onto the floor.
We did not speak for some time, for I could not piece together all that had happened. Together, we moved the creatures out of the hut and stacked them in a pile. I stepped back as fire leapt from her hand and the corpses began to burn.
“Come with me,” she said softly and turned enter the hut.
I followed with more questions in my head than I care to tell. Inside, I saw her stand by the fireplace. I looked in the direction of her outstretched hand. There on the mantle lay a cane.
“My third clue,” she stated. Slowly, she began to lift on her toes and down again, creating a creaking of the floorboards under her. “My fourth.” She knelt and pushed the small rug away revealing a small hatch door. With a single pull on the iron ring, the door came open followed by the reek of decay. I did not need to look to know what was rotting below.
“What of the girl?” I asked.
“I don’t think there is one,” she answered. “Well, if there was, she is long dead now.”
I turned back to the growing fire outside then looked to the rafters above us. “Did you see them?”
“I didn’t need to,” she replied. Moving to the table, she pulled a chair out and sat down heavily in the seat. “A boy and girl find their way to an abandoned hut after wandering in this foul woods? They wouldn’t have survived a day. There isn’t a thing I saw on our way here that wasn’t poisonousness if the ate it. It said they have lived here for three years, yet he did not seem confident as he led us to the hut. Did you notice how it seemed to wander on the path?”
Moving toward her, I noticed a cut on her cheek. I offered a handkerchief but she refused.
She looked into my eyes. “Why would you allow yourself to be summoned without a silver blade?”
“I usually can manage without the cost,” I answered.
“You need to remedy that point. Iron will not kill every creature in the world. You have been uncommonly lucky.” She turned to examine the room around us.
I turned again to the fire outside. “The lad was a brownie. I did not consider that he was not human.”
“I imagine you showed your hand many years ago on that point.”
“How do you mean?”
She leaned forward and ran her finger along the claw-marks on my face. I flinched at the tingling. “Sit still and let them heal.” Her hands moved the satchel into her lap and she began search its contents. “If I’m not mistaken, your decision not to kill everyone in the camp at the beginning of your odd life gave your enemy an idea.”
“It was the right thing to do though it turned out very poorly.”
“True. It also allowed your foe to see a weakness, Orphan Blade.”
The truth of it seemed to be as bright as the sun. “The orphans have been brownies.”
“I think that is certainly valid reasoning.” She pulled out a small jar and handed it to me. “Here. Smear this on your cuts as it appears my magic does not work on you.”
I did as she asked and felt a numbing of the itching wounds as soon as the ointment touched my skin. “Something tells me you had considered this beforehand.”
“I needed to test the theory,” she admitted.
“And the reason behind it?”
She took the jar from my hand and return the lid. “Bait is needed to capture something or someone. But I believe there is yet another option here that I just have considered. One that the soldier in you might appreciate.”
“And that is?”
“Perhaps you are merely aiding your foes. Unaware, of course, to what you are truly doing.” She pointed her chin to the pyre outside. “They summon you. Tell you of a danger. You rid them of a danger and are sent back from where you came. That is what we consider your life to be about. But, maybe, it is not as it appears. Perhaps the darkness calls you to their rescue, disguised and wrapped in a presentable package for you to believe.”
My heart sank. In all that I had endured, the thought of helping someone in need was the one redeeming factor. Within a short conversation, it appeared even that had been taken from me. “And the witch this creature wished me to destroy?”
She shrugged. “Come,” she said as she rose from her seat. “Time to attempt another idea I have.”
I sat without a hint of following, feeling far older than I had imagined. “I need a moment before we race into another fight.”
“Flight, not fight.”
“You think we are in danger here?”
“Always, but I mean for us to travel back.”
“Is that possible to do?” The scent of burning corpses was thick in the air. “I believe we have just killed our only hope of returning.”
“What can be pulled can be pushed,” she replied. “Give me the book.”
I pulled the book from the inside of my jerkin and handed it to her. “Have you succeeded in such an attempt before?”
She chuckled. “I have never had need to. Now, take off your glove and hold out your finger.”
“For what purpose?”
“I need a drop of your blood.”
I looked at the open book she placed open on the wood floor. “You wish to use my blood to write in that cursed book?”
“How do you think it was originally created?”
“Then use your own,” I said smugly.
“That is not how it works,” she huffed. “Stop playing the part of a feinting aristocrat and give me your damn finger.”
Where the thought came to my mind, I could only imagine had a genesis from my card playing. “You name, first.” My words seem to strike her like lightening.
“Then we will make this a home. Surely we will grow use to the smell of rotting corpses below our feet.”
She stood and defiantly put her hands on her hips. “Are you threatening me, milord Orphan Killer?”
Normally, this would have sent me in a rage, but I saw that my demand had given me the advantage. “Your mother would not object.”
“And how could you possibly know? A man who has only met my mother on two occasions?”
She was obviously flustered and I used it to my advantage. “She did not give you a name then. Very well, I shall call you Blunderarse.”
“You certainly will not!”
“As a parent, I have the right. Pity. Blunderarse Hall is not a very good name to go through life with, but I we are in a rush.”
Her face flushed. “Take it back!”
I sat back in my chair as if leisurely sitting before a warm fire. “Nithan. Why did you give your daughter such a name? Why, it’s because my dear wife had such trouble birthing her with my daughter’s large arse. I wanted to present her to others, but as she grew, so did that arse of hers. Knocking people down as she turned, pushing items off every self in a store. Though it is a fitting name, I could have been more generous and called her Wobbler or Stumblebutt.”
She slapped me. I deserved it, but I wasn’t about to give up.
“I have a name and you will abide by it,” she hissed.
“A parent has all the rights in the world to name their child. If you do not wish me to tell all that I wish to know then your name is Blunderarse. Or, perhaps you can stop acting like a child and tell me your damn name.”
Biting the edges of her lip, she seemed to contemplate if I would follow through with my threat.
“It would be permanent,” I threatened. Fortunately, I was a rather good at noting player’s tells and I understood that she was attempting to protect herself. A name of power, perhaps? I had read of such things. “Then so be it. Blunderarse will be from this day forward. I will apologize to your mother when we next meet.”
“I will give you only the shorten version. Will that suffice?”
I could feel the smile creep across my face. “It will.”
She looked to the floor as if embarrassed by what she would say. “Eleanor.”
“It is the truth!”
I shook my head. “I play cards to supplement my living. You will need to do better than that.”
“A worse lie. You should never play at cards.” To emphasize my determination, I looked at my glove. “All this fuss over a simple drop of blood.”
“Alright!” she yelled. “Iala. That is as much as you will ever know.”
I scanned her face. If she was ling, then I would be very pleased to introduce her to many profitable games of chance. I pulled off my glove and offered my finger to be poked. “I like the name very much,” I admitted, “but you will need to be known by another name in public. I will call you Cynthia after my late sister. Will that do?”
Her eyes softened. For a moment, I questioned if she would agree to it. When she handed me her dagger and nodded, I had hope that things could be set right in the world.
Found and Lost
My daughter always walked with purpose. If she was to walk to the general store or through the gates of the most formidable castle, her stride would not change. There were many times I wished I knew for what reason she felt the need to neglect strolling or even running, but such things were kept locked away in the mind of a very determined young lady.
“Don’t dally,” she commanded in her typical manner. Without a single look back, as if knowing precisely where she was going from my vague instructions, she lead her horse behind her in her march through the tall grass toward the tree-line.
“I cannot promise that we are in the same place as that night.”
Iala appeared unfazed. “If I were the character you described from your past, I would muddy your memory to the best of my ability. But, according to your tale, the wizard was short on time for such a thing.”
I quickened my pace to keep up with her endless energy, feeling every year in my aging body. “Perhaps…a more cautious pace would be more practical. There might be traps…or runes about.”
She stopped in her tracks as if struck by an unseen lightning bolt. Spinning on her heels, Iala’s stare pierced through me. “You’re patting like an old dog.”
There was no denying the fact. Though our journey took days to come to the woods where my unnatural past began, she showed no signs of weariness where as I could have happily sat in the grass and spent the better day to recover. “I bit winded, I will admit.”
Turning her fine horse, she moved closer, all the while examining my state of health. “Time is catching up to you. I considered it would have taken longer.”
“What do you mean?”
“What do you think I mean, idiot? You slept in a magical state, holding back the natural effects of time. Did you think there would be no consequence of such an event?” Her gaze turned slowly upward. “More grey hairs today. Come. We’ll rest once we are under the trees.” Iala turned and continued her march toward the Abbot’s Woods.
“Wait!” I shouted. “Tell me what you know of the effects of my sleep!”
She ignored my plea. I could only follow with my many new concerns bouncing about in my head.
We did stop, once we were well into the forest. I say stopped as if it were a leisurely afternoon stroll to a place for a picnic when in fact I was so out of breath that I collapsed at the foot of a tree. Iala, as I expected, did not appear to hear my complaints of our pace.
“This…can’t be the place,” I stammered. “Though it was nightfall, I know my directions well enough to state we are far too north of the ravine.”
She huffed and moved to her saddle bag. Pulling out a map, she simply shook her head as see scanned the unrolled parchment. “You say north, then it is south.”
I glanced toward the deeper part of the woods. “No. This is nothing like the place. I was there. I should know.”
“And you would be wrong.” Rolling up the map quickly, she left her horse unattended, moving into the forest. “The first time you told me of your tale of that night was not the first time I had heard it.”
“Your…mother told you of this?”
She stopped, still looking away. “As did the priest. Odd that the memories you shared with each were different. Perhaps not so odd considering the event.”
I wiped the sweat from my brow. “I told them the truth. There was no change…”
“That you can recall,” Iala interrupted. “There were differences in exactly where this memory of yours took place. To my mother, your thoughts showed a pleasant woods not fifteen miles from your fall from the tower. From Bother Arden’s account, it was easily fifty.”
“I would not lie to either.”
Iala turned. “A spider, once anchoring the foundation of its web between surfaces, begins to spin an ever widening circle from the center. A wandering spell has the same effect on a memory. Perhaps you once knew the location, but as time passed, your placement of this ravine has changed. A spell often put on travelers who happen on the homes of the Fae.”
Using the tree to aid me, I stood. “You still believe he has some sort of hold on my mind?”
“The ravine should be this way.” Iala walked away without the slightest hint of answering my question.
I tiredly followed. A few moments later, I stood in awe over the very sight of my past. I hesitated as she made her way down to the small creek. Unkind memories of my murky past entered my thoughts. I had foolishly expected the place to be covered in ash as it was the last I laid eyes on it, but that was over two decades ago. Life overcame the effects of the firestorm and there was now little evidence that such a thing had ever occurred.
Mustering the will to continue to unlock my past, I carefully slid down the hill to where my daughter stood. Scanning the embankments, hints of human handiwork could still be seen. What were once hovels, small structures overtaken by nature now stood.
“How many do you recall?”
Her question pained me. “Twenty, maybe thirty in all.”
Iala nodded as she slowly followed the stream. “And you killed the guards by using tree-travel?”
“Yes. It was the first time I had ever attempted such a thing.”
She stooped down and pushed brambles aside, inspecting something unseen to me. Her hand pushed against something lost in the overgrowth.
“What is it that you found? Is it bone?”
“No,” she said with a shrug. “Only the remnants of a makeshift hovel. There is no charring on the wood.”
I moved quickly to her side and inspected the finding for myself. There, clear as any mill in the middle of a wheat field, was a rotting blanket beyond the door made of tethered sticks. No scorched earth. No cinders or black scarring of fire-licked wood. It appeared simply vacated and overtaken by the forest. “This place was nothing but ash.”
Iala stood. “So you have said, yet here we are. Nothing in this place shows a great fire. Still, there were people here at one time. Where to you image they have gone off to?”
I hadn’t the faintest idea and said as much to her. In my mind, they had all perished in the fire. At that point, seeing with my own eyes the lack of proof of my memory, I could not fathom what their fate had actually been. I looked upward into the tree tops. Their height more than thirty feet and witness that the fact my mind had set its foundation in stone was a lie.
“Come,” she said softly. “I have a feeling your mysterious cave is not far away.”
Without complaint, as I was still dumbfounded by the moment, I followed her out of the depression of the stream bed and back up the hill to our horses. Mounting without a word, we rode deeper into the woods.
Time passed slowly as I attempted to account for the reality of what I had witnessed. How had it been that I was so mislead and my memory so adamant on what I had seen that fateful night? I began to tremble at the power the wizard must have to create such a deviation from fact.
Iala was the first to break the silence between us.
“We will never see Mother again,” she said softly.
The words were heartfelt and caught me off guard. “But you said she is only sleeping.”
“I did and my words were true. But her sleep will be for more years than you or I have left.”
I nudged my horse to come up alongside of hers. “Then we should at least go and be with her. Surely you know the way to her. If you can find a place that even I could not direct you to, then you must…”
“Must I?” she said with a quick pain-filled glance. “Did you not hear me say the Fae cast wandering spells? Why would you think I could even hope to point us in the right direction?”
“Why would she bewilder her own daughter? She sent you to me. Surely she would want to see you again once you have helped me.”
Iala defiantly wiped a tear from her eye. “She did not send me. I left the woods on my own.”
I searched for reasons my strong daughter would make up such a tale, but found none. Her heart had been touched as she spoke the words and attempt to hide the pain was evident. Thinking back on the image of that fair and kindly face I first saw in the woods, I could not fathom that the woman of my dreams could have such a hard heart as to keep her child away. I pressed forward with questions and alternative possibilities, but Iala would not respond to any of them and we were left to travel in silence once more.
As near as I can recall, we rode for the better part of an hour before the land gave way to a steep, rocky incline along a shallow river. We came to a halt at the water’s edge and I watched her scan the riverbank. Without a comment, she turned her horse and nudged it forward, following the river to the north.
“What do you see?” I asked, hoping she would share her thoughts.
“There are yellow lilies on the far bank and none on this side.”
I turned to note the proof of her words as I slowly followed behind. “And that means something to you?”
“The Fae world is tending them, but I see only the wildflowers on this embankment.”
She sighed. “Iron. It must have been a mine and not a cave that you were held in all those years ago.”
“Fae hate iron,” I stated from memory. “But how can it be the same place if…” My words trailed off as we turned along with the bend in the river and saw the opening in the side of the hill. It was overgrown, forgotten, but it was identical to the one I remembered. “This is the very one!”
I climbed down from my horse and began to lead it toward the mouth. She did not follow. “Aren’t you coming?”
“Iron,” she replied. “Wizard and sorceress are children from human and Fae. Talented as we may be, we share the same weakness.”
Of course, I had not forgotten her origin so nodded in my understanding that such a place would be fatal to her. I moved onward, feeling a more than a little apprehensive as I had become used to having her near. There was a sense of security being in her presence and I feared that my mind was not as it should be. Still, I timidly approached the cave of my past.
Despite the overgrowth of vines, the entrance was obvious. Finding a rusted gate of iron bars, I momentarily considered how it was possible that the mage and imp had held me in such a place. Would they not both be subject to the same effects as Iala? I knew the only way to answer such a question was to find the very place I was taken. If the forge of that unnatural blade still resided inside, would that not be proof enough?
Pulling with all my strength, the gate gave way and the chain that held it in place crumbled. I peered inside and shuddered against the darkness and the memories it held. Taking a torch from my saddlebag, I created enough light to see several paces in front of me. I freely admit retracing steps taken so many years ago was daunting. Still, I was curious, enough so that I wandered through unfamiliar passages with drips of water echoing in my ears without the fear freezing me in place.
I cannot tell you precisely how long I searched. Each passage seemed as any other until I noted a turn in the cut stone. An image of hurrying through such a tunnel filled me with hope that I had found the place of my imprisonment. Happily, though unnervingly so, the cavernous room was rediscovered.
Holding the torch high above me, I could make out features that chilled me to the bone. A broken bed. A small table. A furnace cut into the wall of the subterranean wall. Fearfully, I studied the ground with the memory of that foul blade stuck into fresh in my mind. There, as if cut by something other than human hands, was the gap from which I pulled the sword. My heart fluttered. Fear of the return of the mage and imp filled my body and I fled from the place with as much vigor as I could muster. Though each passage way, I raced toward the exit with all my strength, and exited the cave with a panic-stricken dive.
Sliding across crushed rock and sun-bleached weeds, I quickly rolled onto my back, searching for phantom pursuers. Panting heavily, I sat up and got to my feet. My mind held both fear of the past and the revisit to my old cell. I could not comprehend how some memories matched perfectly to those in my fearful heart while other were so opposed. Feeling the need to rejoin my daughter for both a sense of comfort and a need to hear her analytical explanations, I looked for my horse that I had left nearby. Unable to find it quickly, I thought the animal had wandered off, perhaps rejoining Iala. It was then that I noticed the sun was much too low in the sky for the time that had passed as I wandered in the cave.
I set out, following the river, back to where I had left her. Organizing my thoughts the best I could over the beating of my heart, I scurried along the flow of water around the bend in the river. Nothing. There, were I expected to see my daughter sitting upon her horse reading some enormous tome, was nothing. I called out her name, turning in every direction and strained to hear a reply. Nothing but the sound of water running over stone could be heard.
My old training pulled my gaze downward to the rocky soil. I searched for impressions and found the two horses had spooked then raced into the water. I followed, head down, eyes scanning for more of their trail. Into the water I went, swimming hard against the current until I waded out onto the opposite shore. Rushing down river, knowing the horses would have had to fight against the same current, I looked for their exit and found the impressions of hooves. Broken sticks and a small unnatural path led me away, deeper into the woods.
I had not gotten far before my eyes widened and my heart sank into the deepest of despair. There, bond by rope to a tree, was my daughter. Her head hung low. Her chin almost pointing to the numerous arrows that defiantly protruded out of her chest. I went to her on shaking legs and collapsed before the body. I screamed in deathly rage as I cut the binding ropes and pulled the iron-tipped arrows from her body. Holding her inanimate frame to my chest, I then wept for hours. For days. For a lifetime.
So many seasons pasted in that small forest that I had few moments in which I had any concept of the world outside the small hallow that I called home. Time, as it appeared to me in my solitary life, was little more than air passing through open fingers when attempting to catch the wind. It was a choice; a promise not to leave the last place I saw my daughter alive. In truth, I found few reasons to travel as far as the nearest village after amassing enough coin to support my solitude and was content to quietly morn her with only the trees and babbling stream to hear my weeping.
I was taken by surprise when I heard twigs snapping under foot of a horse that chilly day. Turning away from the log, I held up my axe in preparation of a fight and scanned the length of the deer path for the approaching assassin. Flecks of purple and white could be seen through the trees in their autumn rest, colors reserved for clergy. The mule’s head came into view first and my hope of who the rider might be was quickly confirmed. The priest.
Setting the axe against a nearby tree, I dusted myself off and walked toward the approaching rider. “You wore brown the last time we were together,” I called out to him. The glad feeling of seeing an old friend was as welcoming as was his familiar smile that painted the man’s face.
“The result of folly from a cluster of priests,” the aged Arden replied with a chuckle.
I could not keep the smile on my face from growing. His visit was like a waking dawn filled with promise. Watching him come to a stop, I scanned his features and found unsettling signs of time. He was much larger around the middle than I had ever imagined him to be and his crown-like hairstyle clearly showed flecks of grey. Still, it was my old friend whom I had not seen in decades. I went to his mount and held it in place as the plump man grunted in his efforts to unseat his mule.
“You have changed, Arden.”
He laughed as he adjusted his robes and patted my shoulder. “Time does its deeds on us all, my son.”
It had indeed. The once spry man I had met all those years ago now showed the passing of ages yet his mannerisms and happy demeanor had not been changed in the least. “I would say that it was only you that show the wear, but my muscles say otherwise.”
“I brought wine and cheese,” he stated with a sparkle in his eye. “Perhaps you could delay your attack on that log for a bite to eat with an old friend?”
“Only for an old friend,” I said. “My humble abode awaits.”
Taking the reins, I began to lead the mule down the path toward my small cabin. “I wonder how it was that you found me after all these years?”
“The same as the first time I was sent to go look for you. I simply followed the rumors.”
I smiled and nodded. Though years had passed, I could remember quite clearly the first visit. “This time, I am not behind bars.”
“I wonder if that is so, Nithan.”
My eyes looked upward into the swaying of branches in the wind. “I would not call this a prison.”
He walked in silence beside me, seemingly lost for words until he shrugged and changed the subject. Arden let out a small sigh. “You have made quite a home for yourself out here in the wilds. Did you accomplish all that by yourself?”
Looking up the path, my small cabin was in view. “The horse helped a bit.”
Making our way to my home, I pointed out a few of my building accomplishments, mainly the small stable and the privy. I found it strangely satisfying to show a person how I had managed it on my own. I can only assume that I had so little contact with the outside world that some deep need to talk with another had seeped out. He appeared interested and I was not without tales of how each feature came into being.
Arriving at the porch, I cinched his mule to a post and saw my friend hesitate to bless the door-post before stepping inside. “Do you do that to every door?”
He nodded. “Do not look down upon a blessing, Nithan. It has served you well enough in the past.” He stepped inside without another word.
Following, I left the door open for more light into the space and watched him evaluated the interior of the cabin. He moved to my table, set the small bag of food-stores on top and sat heavily into one of the mismatched chairs. His eyes scanned my small home with a look of conflicted emotions in what he saw.
“I’m sure you have better accommodations,” I stated.
“Not made by my own hands. It must be very satisfying to have a need and to build something to fulfill it.”
“Need is often a great motivator,” I replied out of hand. “Forgive me, old friend, but why did you wait so long to find me?”
Arden untied the bag and began to set out the food on the table. “I must apologize for that, Nithan. Since the last I saw you, my life has taken many turns and I am not as agile as you to adjust to change.”
“You were quicker to deal with what was before you than I. Do not misunderstand me. I am very happy to see you, but you must have a purpose for coming here after so much time.”
He placed two cups on the table and uncorked a bottle. “Ah. Well, there are many questions in my mind as to the time we have spent together, but I assure you that my main purpose for seeking you out is to visit an old friend.” Filling each cup, he took one and offered it to me. “Is that so hard to imagine?”
Something deep inside me wished his words to be true but I could not shake the feeling that crept across my skin. I ignored the offered wine and bought time to consider my thoughts with the act of building up the dying embers in the fireplace.
“I see there are some unresolved issues on my leaving you in Gilford.”
My mind raced back through the years to the moment he mentioned. “I was told that you were called back to your order.”
“You were in good care after your accident. The old woman assured me that you were not her first patient and asked for very little in the way of funds to see you to health.”
I looked over my shoulders as I added a small log to the fire. “Old woman?”
“Yes. Julian, I believe her name was. She did not abandon you, did she?”
“There was no…” My words died on my lips as I recounted the first meeting with my daughter. “That was no old woman, Arden. The woman you met was my daughter.”
He chuckled. “Nithan. The woman was more than thirty years older than me.”
“I think I have underestimated her once again,” I answered as I stood. “She was a sorceress. I imagine she protected her identity with some of her magic.”
His face fell. “And this daughter of yours, where is she now?”
To answer his question took a few deep breaths to muster the strength and the restraint of the accompanying pain. I had thought of her daily, yet to speak of her death to another was far more emotional than I had considered. “She…she was murdered.”
“I’m very sorry, Nithan,” he said in a low, solemn tone. “I did not come here to make your world darker.”
I watched him as he rubbed his hands together. Something ate at him. I thought maybe he found the conflict between his position in life and his friendship with such an unnatural man coming to a head. Perhaps he compared our lives and found his lacking. I had been free, in a manner of speaking, to live a life as I saw fit and had not been tied to whims of superiors since my days as a solider. I considered that the odd feeling I was experiencing was my own reaction to noting the differences in a life spent. “I have been on my own for some time now, Arden. I suspect that was the goal of my adversary; to keep me isolated and off balance.”
“You still hold that this curse of yours is true?”
“Have you not witnessed it? Surely you had seen enough to agree with my point view.” I grew impatient with his belief that my life was something easily dismissed. Tossed back and fro from attempts to enjoy the reunion and the unexplained feeling something was not quite right, I demanded of myself to choose. .
He set his hands on his covered knees. “Nithan. I am your friend and have been for a very long time.” Arden looked to me with a slow shaking of his head. “This folly of yours has taken a very great toll and I am forced to make a very difficult decision.”
“What are you babbling about, priest?”
“You are not cursed, Nithan. You have never been cursed.”
Anger. Bellowed by a painful feeling of betrayal, I lashed out at him with spiteful words. “Is that what your superiors told you to say? Did they order you to come and convince me that all the treacherous moments in my life were caused by some madness? Betrayal! You are nothing but a lackey of the church!”
“Calm yourself,” he shouted as he stood, his hand outstretched before him like a shield. “I have been your ally from the very beginning and I am not about to abandon you now.”
I shook with the fiercest ire I have ever known. The man who was my steadfast friend had turned on me, preferring to follow his desire to elevate himself or appease those that held his leash. Before I could find some reasonable action, I saw his out-stretched hand glow and an unnatural twist in his smile. I had fallen for a trick.
“You!” I screamed.
Fire leapt from the mage’s hand, bursting against the river rock fireplace. All around me it swirled and spat. The heat was so intense that I felt my frame wish to buckle under its attack. But I did not fail. The sinister flames circled around me as I covered my face with my arm, yet they did not touch a single hair on my hand. As astounding as it may seem, I began to hear tolls of bells from a place I could not assign except from the pits of hell.
The roar of flame and hate was deafening, but I had come to no harm in the heartless man’s attack. All fell away in a moment. Looking up, I saw the disguised mage grit his teeth in desperation. In that heartbeat, I realized that I had a death grip on the protective rune stone from my family in my left hand. Perhaps it was the madness of the moment that made me laugh.
“Trickery will not save you today, you fool,” he spat. Reaching in his sleeve, the mage produced a dagger of black metal.
Without thought, my right hand retracted the silver dagger from my belt. I launched at him with all the hate in the world, but my adversary was quicker than he appeared. Sidestepping my attack, his blade cut along my ribcage as I blundered forward. Recovering with a grasping of his sleeve, I spun and plunge my dagger into his exposed shoulder.
The mage cried out, half in pain, the other in unadulterated hatred. Before, I could react, a rod of steel cracked against the side of my head. My world spun and my knees buckled. The hard object slammed into my exposed back. I heard the sickening cracking of ribs. Air fled from my lungs yet it was fear of death that caused me to turn and protect myself from the next blow. In a foul rage the mage swung his weapon. The fingers of my defending hand snapped. The pain, I cannot describe.
Instinctively, I rolled into him, sending him sprawling to the floor. Through blurry eyes, the silver of my dagger gleamed in the sunlight beside us. With all that I had, I forced my broken body to the object lying on the cabin floor. The mage recovered as I grasped its handle. Climbing over my body, he pawed at my arm in his attempt to take the dagger away from me. Failing this, with a fistful of my hair in his grasp, he slammed my head against the floor.
Memories of battles flooded my mind. I was younger then, but the lessons learned had not left me. Against the agony of a wounded body, I managed to twist and catch the man in the temple with the pummel of my dagger. He reeled, falling to the floor beside me. It was my one hope. A single opportunity to live. Breathless and weak, I clamored on top of him. He grabbed my wrist, holding the dagger away. With the other, he grabbed my throat with a terrible strength.
My head contorted as his hand slipped from my throat to under my chin, cocking my head upward. I bent my wrist and cut into his arm. His flinch was just enough to point the tip of the dagger to his chest. Pulling his hand away from my face, I put my full weight against the weapon. The silver blade sank deep. I felt its edges separated the ribs and plunge into the thick muscle of his heart.
Face to face, I saw the fear in his eyes. He lashed out in his last moment before a single coughing of blood splattered across my cheek. A tremor in his body followed. Arms falling away to his side. Then, as I had seen so many times in my youth, I heard Death’s gurgling sigh.
Each beating of my pounding heart sent cruel waves of pain through my body. Attempting to remove the dagger, I found no strength at all. My vision narrowed. My body became as cold as the frost covered ground. I could manage only to roll to the floor next to my defeated enemy and await my own death as the warmth of blood pooled in my ears.
The cool of the crystal is fading. I can almost note its frustration as it seeks any memory that it may find in my wandering mind with each pass. I think that it searches for nothing as I cannot recall how I have come to be in this place and the names of the faces that thoughtfully gaze at me flee to unreachable places.
Much has been lost. I have only a sense of that. The days that had filled my past are mist with only the silhouettes of those that should mean something to me. It is a slow madness but it comes to all in such an age. But it must have been an adventurous life to have left me so impaired. My feet, legs, torso and arms seem to have memories of trouble they wish to speak of but I cannot understand their language. They must hold their secrets a while longer until I might find someone who can decipher their words.
I can sense something coming. I am worried that it is not what a man wishes to meet. It is cold and dark. My sole fights to turn away from its coming and seeks glimpses of a future life as a comforting distraction. I see the play of light through closed eyes. Feel the touch of a loving hand. I can hear warm laughter and the exhilaration of dancing in the open air. But there is something more foreboding that awaits these comforts to end.
A vision is in my head. Whether it is a memory or a dream, it is real enough for me. I see myself standing on a grassy hill, staring at the edge of a moonlit forest. I feel a sense of sadness and regret. I wish to turn away, but I feel pulled to it. The trees wish to tell me a secret, but I do not trust them. I do not like this dream.
But, wait. It is changing before me. I now see myself, young and content. I walk through a field with outstretched arms, allowing the passing heads of wheat to tickle my palms as I bask in the warm, glowing sunlight. The song of a bird, off at some distance, calls to me. No, there are two songs. They mix and waver far from my ear, yet I cannot pull myself from joyfully wandering the open field. I hope it is a memory of the past. Why should it not be? Could I not have been so young and happy? What a fine thing it would have been to be in that field.
Yes, what a fine thing, indeed.
From myself and our brothers at Fonton, blessings and prayers that you, our beloved leader, are well and are content in the light of the One.
By this time, you will have received my reports conveying the last words of the man called Nithan Hall. It is my desire now, before leaving to rejoin my brothers in Themos, to put to words the last of my findings and speculation in this report.
I confess to you, Brother, the night you spoke of this Orphan’s Blade and later to inquire after the man’s whereabouts had intrigued me more than it should as I have humbly followed your request to the letter. Having come to this end, I find that I was not up to the task of providing the answers you sought out.
The task you had graciously set before me, in truth, will surely be among the memories I will recount when my days are done. I have never heard of a life or tales in fiction so full of trouble and wonder as I have been exposed to in my attempt to fulfill your request. I had, in the beginning, forced myself to have an open mind to the extraordinary events this frail man had to offer. The stories, told in such an honest manner, began to weave a type of enchantment that I shamefully had to later dispel.
Remembering your teachings of Truth and Service, I wrote this man’s account faithfully while convicting myself to follow each tale with an investigation. I found, after long travels and diligent searching, many sites that give proof to his stories but each left me with questions. The cabin in the woods and the mine along the small river in Remit where this man lived were, in fact, places that I had found and examined after convincing the landowner how it would be in his best interest to sort fable from fact. Unfortunately, I found no obvious grave site, but the area is so covered with rocky mounds and yellow flowers that I cannot be certain that it does not exist. As for the mine, or the cave Mr. Hall once believed it to be, it was closed off due to instability. The owner of the mine allowed me entrance with the assurance that I took my fate into my own hands. I found no chamber with a forge or furnace within though I came upon small branding irons that the owner assured me that were used for marking crates sent to smelting foundries. I still question if these were not the means of which Mr. Hall received his facial scars.
The standing stones of an old pagan worshiping site were, with some effort, found in the higher forests of Eastmore. The locals were not the most helpful as I believe they feared I was a type of spy for the church. Still, the area was located though there was no evidence Mr. Hall was there. I would suggest that one of our brothers comes to this place as the local lore supersedes the faith we wish them to have.
Later, in Sellsbury, thanks to the knowledge of Brother Rickard, I was able to locate and confirm that a man was often hired as protection from merchants in several towns along the main roads. As with the mine and cabin, I came to learn that the story did not match what was told. All those spoken to about the man’s claims recalled his name to be Nathan Hail though he had, indeed, protected travels on more than twenty occasions.
As for the accounts of orphanages, each were sought out and found with help from the communities yet their accounts of what had happened often painted a more sinister view as it seems that this man was the cause of more harm than I was lead to believe by his report. The story of the priest hiding orphans from being used to dig shafts in the valley could be confirmed by no one, yet the mine itself was under water and considered a loss as Mr. Hall stated in his stories. There was one account that it was Mr. Hall that killed the owner of the mine, while another stated it was he that chased the children into the mine.
In truth, Brother, it was when I decided start at the beginning of his story with a visit the city along the Solit that I began to feel most uneasy about finding truth in this odd life. Knowing that this is where the tale began, I sought out the records of Nithan Hall with the local magistrate and was directed to the Office of Soldiers. Within a day I had found records of his achievements and those of the friend he spoke of. Seeking out his friend, Mr. Jesan, I came to find Jesan’s widow. I was shown two graves on a hill on her small farm. One, she claimed was that of her late husband and the other she stated was the resting site of his friend, Nithan Hall. Her story was that the body of Mr. Hall was found days after the accident and was buried in secret so that body would not be disturbed by the thieves. Given I was so nearby, I visited the church to pay my respects to the abbot Mr. Hall had killed. Oddly enough, I was turned away by those who looked after the tombs of the abbey. Before leaving, a note was found slipped under my door claiming the tomb I sought held the body of an unknown man in place of the abbot, who could not be found.
You have sent me on a most intriguing and sorrowful journey. To do your request justice, I am left with only a handful of facts surrounded by a dying man’s tale to make any sense of what I have been witness to. To honor our brotherly love and faithfully fulfill your request, I must tell you that I have only the one thought that may put all of this in order.
Brother, could the man I had spent time with have been the abbot, himself? Perhaps I have been too long on the road, but I must entertain the question to do justice to my part. If, having been severely hurt yet surviving the fall, could the abbot have continued in a disoriented life? I admit this idea sounds fanciful, but if his body cannot be verified, could it not have happened as I suggest? I tell you in truth, it is a possibility that I cannot shake. If for no other reason that I hold this idea to be the truth in this long adventure, it is because he mentioned your name in both tails and barely audible whispers. Do you not agree that a man who you had spent time with might hold your name in such high esteem even with a disjointed mind? Brother Arden, it is my belief that this is the case.
Be assured that the man’s body is in the care of our brothers and I will see to it that he is buried with all the respect and rites I can offer. Should you find that this was the abbot you knew, we can find the means of moving him to his rightful place.
This, in conclusion, is all that I can offer and respectfully end my investigation. I look forward to rejoining you and the others, weather permitting, on the 3rd of next month and hope that I might sit with you to hear your opinion on this curious matter.
Yours in Faith,