When we left our hero, he had just survived a battle, and found a magical sword. All he wants to do is go home. But, as he is about to learn, that is far more difficult than it may first appear.
Copyright 2000 Robert B. Marks, all rights reserved
I had only just returned to the inn, in search of the caravan master to ask when we would be leaving, when the call to arms came. There was a great shout from outside the inn, and when I stormed outside to investigate, my hand on Taelrysyn’s hilt, I found a couple of guards standing on one of the crumbling walls.
“Get some fire on them!” one of the guards shouted, calling on the handful of archers nearby.
“Three adventures are headed this way from the mountains,” the guard replied. “They’re being chased by several monsters.” He turned back to look over the wall. “Drive them back, damn you! Give those men a chance to escape!”
The twang of bowstrings rang in my ears as I climbed the wall to look over. It looked as though three men were trying to make their way to the river, one of them carrying something in his hands. Behind them ran several inhuman creatures the likes of which I had never seen before. The monsters howled in rage as they bore down on the adventurers.
In that moment, my soldier’s instincts took over. I found myself taking note of the ground, noticing how there was only one bridge between the adventurers and the safety of the town. If I only had a few men, I could set up an effective shield wall at the bridge. I looked up at the sky, watching with disapproval as the sun began to set. Time was running out.
I rushed down from the wall, barging into the inn. “I need ten warriors to hold a bridge!” I called. “Men who know how to fight in a shield wall.”
“What is it?” a voice cried from the musky, dimly lit room.
“Some of your fellows are in danger. Now who is with me?”
When I saw several of the warriors getting up out of their seats, I walked out of the inn, not bothering to see who was following; there was no time. When I got to the southern gate, I finally turned to find nine warriors, most of them well-equipped, behind me. I nodded and called to the gate warden to open the gate.
As though sensing my urgency, the man complied, and my small band spilled out towards the bridge, moving at the fastest march we could. Above us I could hear the hissing of arrows flying through the air, and I prayed that we would not arrive too late.
Before we got to the bridge I could see that the three adventurers were in dire straits. The monsters were close behind them and gaining rapidly. Finally, we reached the bridge and formed into a shield wall, partly open to let the adventurers through before we held the bridge.
An arrow struck one of the monsters, forcing the creature to the ground, but it was too late for the first adventurer. With a sweep of a crude battleaxe, one of the creatures took him down, savaging the body before returning to the chase.
The second adventurer pushed the third one towards us and then turned back, his sword raised. I saw the blade flash a couple of times and one of the monsters go down before the creatures advanced again, another human body left in their wake.
Finally, the last adventurer rushed past me, into the safety of our ranks. He still bore the package that the other two had died for. We closed our ranks just as the monsters reached us.
The sight of the creatures horrified and terrified me. Up chose, it was doubtless that they were not human. Vicious fangs protruded from their hairy, inhuman faces, and their weapons seemed to be forged from the very pits of the Damned One. With a great roar, they crashed into the shield wall.
I was forced back by the recoil, ducking just in time to avoid an axe stroke that would have taken off my head. With a quick thrust, I stabbed the creature in his belly, spilling his entrails with a twist of my sword. The monster fell only to be replaced by another, whose head I took with a powerful sweep of my blade.
There was a cry beside me, and I saw one of my comrades fall to an axe blow that literally split his head. With a thrust, I took the creature in the neck. The monster recoiled back, grasping at its gashed throat.
“Close the line!” I called, fearful that the wall would be broken and all our lives would be forfeit. It was sheer instinct that made me duck, and an axe whistled past my head. With a thrust, I dispatched my opponent.
“They’re falling back!” I heard a voice cry, and as the fog of battle lifted, I saw that it spoke the truth. The few monsters that remained were running back towards the mountains, yelping in fear. Before us the bridge lay bathed in blood and gore from the bodies that sprawled on it. I gagged as the stench of death filled the air, then I turned away to take note of our losses.
We had lost two men in the fighting; it seemed that I had managed to get a group of veteran soldiers at my side. I turned to the fugitive to get a better look at what four men had died for, and then I got a shock.
The adventurer was a woman.
“She doesn’t appear to be wounded,” Tiligar said, checking her armor carefully. “We’ll have to wait for the healer to come before we’ll know.”
I nodded, stepping to look out the window. She had been senseless when we had finally turned the monsters away, and we had carried her back to the inn with the greatest care. Tiligar had immediately called for a healer and taken her up to one of the rooms.
There came a knock at the door. Tiligar answered it, and then let a short, stocky, middle-aged woman into the room. “This is Ansara, our best healer,” he said.
I nodded and shook her hand. Then I watched as she ministered to her patient. First Ansara checked her pulse, and then opened up the young woman’s eyelids. Finally, she stood up and stepped over to Tiligar and I.
“Whoever she is, she is in shock,” Ansara reported. “I do not know how long it will last. However, assuming some curse has not been laid upon her, she will awaken sometime soon. For now, though, she will need her rest.”
Ansara calmly walked over to the nightstand and lit some incense. As the musky odor began to fill the room, she ushered us both out, telling us that it would help the girl rest.
I took a chair and sat outside the room, keeping a silent vigil. In my hands I held the strange package she had been carrying. Whatever it was, it was important enough that people were willing to die for it. Yet, somehow, it didn’t seem right for me to take it from its cloth covering. All I could do was wait for her to wake up, and hope for answers.
I was stirred from dreams of death and horror by Zartran, who shook me awake with the dawn. The wizard smiled kindly and motioned to the door.
“Has she awakened yet?” he asked.
I shrugged. “I’m still unsure of if I’m awake.”
Zartran frowned. “Trust me, you are. I have been scrying all night, trying to find the secrets of this girl.”
“Whatever she was carrying, it was important.”
Wonderful. I’d worked that out during the battle at the bridge. “How important?” I finally decided to ask.
“Important enough that the Eternal One and the Damned One have both taken an interest,” Zartran replied. “I cannot tell you anything more; when the gods themselves are at war, it is not easy to tell their intentions towards those caught in the middle.”
Tiligar came upstairs, opening some windows to let the morning light in. I glanced outside to see that it was still overcast, but enough sunlight broke through to illuminate the world with a gentle light.
“Is it always cloudy here?” I asked.
“I have not seen a clear day since I was a boy,” Tiligar said. “It is always somewhere in-between, as though light and darkness themselves are at war. This truly is a battleground.”
“Why doesn’t your king bring in an army and decide it?” I queried. “Why all of the adventurers?”
“The land is in ruins,” Tiligar replied. “The king has been dead for years, and his heirs squabble amongst themselves. All that the local baron can give us is already here, and it amounts to a paltry militia. At least the adventurers are able to fight.”
I looked out the window again. “What about rain? Does it ever rain here?”
Tiligar shook his head. “Despite the clouds, we have been in a drought for years. Perhaps if the war begins to sway to the Eternal One’s side again, perhaps then we will have some rain and sun. Until then, however...”
“What a desolate situation,” I commented.
Beside me, Zartran grunted in agreement. “We of the Order of the Magi come here to give what aid we can. In the process, we also try to save some of the knowledge that has been lost. There was a time when this kingdom was a haven for the learned. Now, the war has shattered it.”
I carefully opened the door, to see the girl stirring at last. As gently as I could, I stepped into the room, followed by Zartran and Tiligar.
She looked at me with questioning green eyes. Behind them I could still see the shock of the last day.
“I am Edgewulf,” I said. “I led the party that rescued you. This is Zartran, and Tiligar.”
“I don’t recall you having checked in at my inn,” Tiligar said. “I took the liberty of putting the room on the house. If you need some food, I’ll have it prepared.”
I turned to Tiligar. “She’ll probably need some soup, and perhaps some bread. Nothing heavy or hard.”
Tiligar raised an eyebrow. “Are you a healer?”
I shook my head. “I’ve seen enough battle-wounds to know what to do.”
“Did Gareth survive?” she asked.
I turned to her. “Was he with you?”
“He was right behind me.”
I took her hand. “I’m sorry.”
Sobs wracked her body. She clung to me, crying on my shoulder, until Tiligar finally arrived, bearing a bowl of soup and some bread on a tray.
“There, there,” I cooed, hoping it was the right thing to do. Although I had helped many comrades through wounds and loss, all of them had been men. I was always rather unschooled about women. “Tiligar’s brought some food. It will help; trust me.”
She nodded, her eyes red. Tiligar put the tray beside her, and she took the bowl of soup and began to slowly sip. For a moment, the wondrous smell of the broth made me hungry, and my stomach growled. There would be plenty of time to eat later.
“Could you tell us your name?” I asked gently. “And who was Gareth, and what were you doing out there?”
She looked up at me, the sight of her bloodshot eyes making me regret having asked. However, she put the bowl back onto the tray and began to speak, her voice sorrowful.
“My name is Argela, and Gareth was my husband,” she began. “I was a shield-maiden in the east, and he was a mercenary making his way west. We fell in love, and began to travel together. About a year after we met, we were married by a priest of the Eternal One.
“We grew tired of the fighting, though. But we could never make enough money to travel west and start a farm. Every time we seemed to have made some money, something came up and we had to spend it. And for another two years all we knew was the battlefield and each other.
“And then we heard of this little town, and of treasures to be found in the catacombs to the south, and we thought this could be our chance. We would find some treasure, and then go away and follow our dreams. But the demon was too terrible, and we...”
Argela’s voice trailed off as she began to weep. I held her hand, hoping it would be a comfort. After a while, she stopped sobbing and continued her story.
“We went into the catacombs, just as the tales of this place said to do. We found some monsters, but we were able to fend them off and make our way deeper. We found this book, and we were going to take it, but then this demon appeared, and he killed Piter, and he summoned these monsters, and all we could do was run, and we...”
Once again, her voice broke off and she began weeping.
I held up the package that she had been holding when we found her. “Is this the book you’re talking about?”
She nodded, tears streaming down her cheeks.
Zartran suddenly spoke: “Would you mind if we borrowed it? It might have something important in it, if the demon thought it worth protecting.”
Argela turned away. “I don’t ever want to see that Damned-One-cursed thing again. It killed my husband.”
“We should let her rest,” Tiligar suggested. “I’ll take care of her from here on in.”
Zartran and I nodded and walked out of the room.
I opened the cloth and removed the book, placing it on the table. A couple of adventurers turned our way, but then turned back to their meals, talking of all the monsters they had killed.
“What are you waiting for?” Zartran asked.
“I never learned to read,” I admitted. I slid the codex over to him. “You should read it.”
Zartran opened the book. “I’ll try; I know many tongues and scripts.” He looked at the strange runic scratches and frowned. “Unfortunately, this is not one of them.”
I leaned back. “So we’re stuck. The book is meaningless.”
“We should take it to Ealdorman Otar,” Zartran said. “He’ll know what it is.”
“How could he?” I asked. “He isn’t a wizard.”
“He’s a sage,” Zartran stated. “In addition, it’s said that he’s walked on roads that most mortal men cannot. Sages and Wizards often seek different kinds of knowledge, and what a magician does not know, a sage often does.”
“Very well,” I said, shrugging. “We’ll find Otar.”
We finally found Otar in his office, looking over some papers dealing with town council funds. In a way, it was a relief to know that there was some work in Harodam that did not have to do with the battle between good and evil.
Zartran quickly explained our situation, and handed the book over. Otar quickly skimmed it, and put it down on his desk.
“This is very interesting,” he said. “I’m glad you came to see me.”
I scratched my beard. “You can read it?”
Otar nodded. “It’s a very old script, and not one that was ever used in this part of the world, but it is readable. It is a chronicle of the first war between the Eternal One and the Damned One. It’s probably mostly myth, but certainly worthy of study. The references to the Great Road are particularly interesting. May I keep it?”
Zartran nodded. “It wouldn’t be of use to either of us; not even I, with my great knowledge, can read the script.”
“You mentioned the Great Road before,” I said. “What is it?”
Otar leaned back. “Ours is not the only world; instead, it is one among many. They are connected by the Great Road, the Road of Legends. Those who know how can walk the Road, wandering from world to world.”
Zartran stroked his goatee. “I shall have to research this Road. Perhaps I shall wander on it someday.”
“Perhaps,” Otar said.
“So the book is not anything to be concerned about?” I asked.
Otar shook his head. “It is a book; all it offers is knowledge. To some, that would make it powerful or dangerous. But this is not a token of power, which I believe was what you were concerned about.”
“Good,” I said. This meant I wouldn’t have to do anything about it.
“What is a concern, however, is the demon that the young woman described,” Otar stated. My heart sank – I just knew he was going to ask something of me. “There has not been a demon sighted near Harodam in decades. A creature of that power is of great concern. It would be better if it was destroyed. And, if I don’t miss my guess, good Edgewulf, you have a weapon that can do just that.”
“Can’t somebody else do it?” I asked. “I have been fighting my entire life, and I would like some peace at last.”
“The sword chose you,” Otar declared. “It has its own destiny to fulfill, and you are its bearer. Right now, I think its Wyrd is to destroy this demon, and your fate is to bear it. There are no other weapons in this place that can do it.”
“I’ll come and help,” Zartran offered. “It will be an opportunity to gain some experience and power.”
I sighed, thinking of the sword sitting on my bed. Deep in my heart, I knew Otar was right. My days of battle hadn’t ended. Very well, then. There would be one more battle; then I would leave the sword in Otar’s care, and escape this madness.
“I’ll do it,” I said.
“Take a couple of other people, if you must, but only a couple,” Otar warned. “If you are to kill this demon, you will need surprise on your side, and that would be lost in a large party.”
I nodded. “We will leave at the dawn.”