"Call of the Dragon, Part I"
"Call of the Dragon, Part II"
"Ruins and Hopes"
"Shield Maiden" Cornell #3
"Warrior Eternal" Cornell #4
"Childhood of a Fighter"
"The Pledge" Cornell #5
"The Rock of Discontent"
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"A Tale of the Gods"
"The Miracle of Solstice Day" Cornell #6
"The Pilgrims' Trial and Faith"
CHAPTER THIRTEEN <=== / ===> CHAPTER FIFTEEN
It was me who had told Bluff to go after the bard. To rescue Valanda.
Guilt. I wasn’t guilty of any of the other deaths. I hadn’t been in charge. First, it had been Carter. Then Red. But Bluff… I had sent him into danger, and when he faced the dwarf, I had been staring at the heavens, feeling oh so happy. As if I were with the gods, and they smiled upon me.
Have you heard about crocodiles shedding tears when they feed? I think the gods smile when they hurt you.
Valanda had been in a daze ever since the dwarf’s spell hit her. Dreams had merged with reality, much as I had felt during her spell of memory at the beginning of our tale. Part of her had remembered where she was, part of her had understood that the bard was near her, and that she should fight him. Part of her did fight.
She started waking up more when Bluff showed up. He came in swinging that Tyrant’s blade at the bard, shouting like a madman. I suppose he was, at that point. None of us was still sane; in our own special ways, our minds had cracked a little during the descent. Bluff had turned into a berserker, holding on to a tenuous shred of reason.
His blow bounced off an invisible shield around the bard. The dwarf turned around, and his eyes gleamed in the way we had seen before – when the stone creatures rose up. The same thing happened again, right around Bluff. He wouldn’t have had a chance, had it not been for my prayer.
Oh, yes, my prayer. Such a wonderful help it was. Bluff smashed his sword on the ground wherever a stone giant tried to rise, and they crumbled away before they could ever break through the soil. The bard didn’t react. Valanda was drifting through her dazed dream-reality mélange, starting to return to the surface. She hadn’t quite gotten there, but she remembered that the dwarf’s face was absolutely still, frozen into a sort of grimace of anger and pain. The face didn’t change, stayed as it was. She wondered about that, couldn’t understand.
Bluff didn’t worry. He swung his sword again. It bounced off, and he whirled about himself to pick up more force for the next blow. That one didn’t penetrate either, but it proved strong enough to knock the dwarf over.
The bard was bowled aside like a pin you set for the throwing game. Just sprawled on the ground, head turned up, unmoving. His face remained in the same grimace.
Bluff stopped, stared for a moment – then he regained his wit and brought his sword up to stab at the prone dwarf. He didn’t have enough strength to pierce the shield. His sword slid along the shield as if it were substantial, and Bluff wound up doubled over, leaning on that very shield. He was panting, looked up, straight into Valanda’s eyes.
She was getting close to waking up then. She remembered his eyes. Blue. Sparkling. Lovable. She thought of his wife then, back home in Guardpeak, wondering what took her husband so long to return from a nightly hunt for wild dwarves. Valanda thinks she whispered his name, but she isn’t sure. The spell was wearing on her still.
Bluff shook himself. He kicked the dwarf. It was lying still, and the boot bounced off as surely as the sword had. Nothing physical could hit the bard, Valanda was sure. She wished to tell Bluff that, to say that he needed to light a fire, drop the sparks onto the bard. That would penetrate the shield, hopefully set the bard aflame.
Or a fireball? Wizards could cast that, and Valanda was a wizard, wasn’t she? She was quite certain of that, and suddenly she knew that she had to wake up.
In the meantime Bluff had grabbed her, tried to push her away from the dwarf. He must have reasoned that was one way to save her, as long as the bard didn’t do anything.
He was too much taken in by the still face. The bard didn’t have to move to act.
Wind gusted in from the side. Up on the ledge, overlooking the valley, we might have felt a moment later – had we not been busy battling the stone creatures. Just a slight breeze. It moved well beyond that in a few heartbeats. Bluff looked up, confused by the sudden gust – and then he was torn backwards by the wind, away from Valanda. He shouted, his voice lost in the howl of the wind.
The bard was still as a board.
Valanda fought out of the semi-consciousness, up, to full awareness. She was overcome by a spell! And spells could be countered. She gathered what strength she commanded at the moment, focused on the fatigue and hovering spell. It took her a long while, and she lost sight of Bluff for the moment.
Fatigue spell. Hovering spell. Overcome both. It was so difficult! But she had to! She had to!
None of us were watching Bluff at the time. I can only assume he was battered by the sudden storm, slammed this way, then the other. Valanda was also buffeted by the winds – but the bard’s magic somehow protected her. She was driven about the landscape, yet none of the ferocious force reached her body. Bluff wasn’t as lucky. Blades of grass must have been torn from the earth, propelled at incredible speed – so much that the light, flexible blades turned into true weapons, cutting his face, his hands, everything that wasn’t covered by armor. He was starting to bleed, he was hollering, he was fighting against the wind, trying to reach Valanda. Or to reach the bard and somehow kill him.
Valanda remembered what to do about the fatigue. A simple spell that was taught early at wizard’s colleges, to stay up long throughout the night – keyed up, really, not just awake, and overly focused. (Forgive the smudginess of the following comment; Valanda snatched the sheets a few moments ago and told me to add this in the margins: The students are not taught that spell, it is whispered about and exchanged secretly – handed down from the elder students to the newcomers. There are dangers inherent in the spell, apparently. It keeps sleep at bay for a while, increases the user’s thinking – but sleep will demand its due after a while, and lest the student fall asleep for days on end, he is tempted to use the spell again, and again, until it can become addictive. As nice as it seems to not need sleep anymore, the mind cannot exist without sleep and dreams. Fortunately Valanda stresses that accidents of that kind are rare or, at the least, usually caught by the teachers early enough. After all, the teachers once had been students as well. There, I have cleared that up.)
She felt fresh all of a sudden, her mind cleared. The hovering spell? Oh, that was child’s play to her! Yes, so very easy, so –
Valanda hadn’t quite realized the storm raging around her. When she fed her now revived powers into the counterspell, she suddenly found herself in the air, without any protection. And the greedy winds tore at her, swinging her upside down, downside up, flinging her about.
It was then that she noticed Bluff. Very easily, for he grabbed her out of the air. From one heartbeat to the next, his arms were around her, dragging her to the ground. He slammed her down, hard, she yelled, he threw himself on top of her. For a moment, anyway. Then the winds grabbed him, tore him off her – as if they had particular interest in doing him harm.
Valanda dared not move too much, lest the same fate affect her. Another spell, more magic. Thoughts rushed through her head, ideas for spells, quickly discarded. Wizards cannot affect that what is, they can only create something new. Hard as it is to believe for the ordinary person, a wizard cannot transmute anybody into a frog. Nor can one still a storm.
But they can create something much like winds, a counter-force, a shield keeping out the winds.
How many heartbeats did it take for Valanda to wrest that idea out of her mind? To find out that her bag of ingredients was still at her side, and that she had the proper parts ready? To put them together and add the words of the spell?
She has no idea. The shield was implemented around her, she bounded up, safe from the winds, and looked about, searching for Bluff. Our friend was doing his best to get back towards her, but now he was assaulted by thorny bushes, tearing deep gashes into him. Bluff. Strong, powerful. Fighting against the winds and the pain.
Valanda ran towards him, as fast as she could. A hundred feet separated them, less paces for her. Just when she had nearly reached him, another – particularly strong – gust of wind blasted him away.
Then Valanda realized she had been going after the wrong man. It was the bard doing this. Stop him, and the winds would stop. So simple! How could she have probably missed that?!
Oh, yes, kind reader, she actually spent moments chastising herself for that mistake rather than turning around and putting her plan in action. It was her own spell, keying her up like that, making her think faster, but it also affected priorities.
Still she realized that mistake as well, and then her hand clawed up a fireball. Easiest weapon a wizard has. Also one of the deadliest. A globe of fire formed in her hand, within the confines of her fingers, while she looked about for the bard. The dwarf was still on the ground, motionless, except for his lips, singing softly the storm into action.
Valanda hurled the fireball at him. Once it passed through her own shield, traveling at high speeds, the winds tore at it, tried to blow it out – as a gust of wind may to a candle. Fireballs aren’t candles. They are too hot. They burn away air more than the other way around.
This one was a true example of its kind. Its flames flickered but didn’t die down. It flew at the bard who suddenly regained mobility. He threw his arms about, tore himself to the right, out of the way of the fireball.
Not quite fast enough.
The fireball caught his leg, a blaze enshrouding the limb – but as fast as the fireball had been, the bard dropped his shield, let the winds eat at the flames with all their ferocity. The storm hadn’t been able to do much against the fireball itself. The fire it had set was a different matter.
A howl coursed through the valley, enough that Red up on the ledge heard it. By that time, we had bested the stone creatures and – for want of a better pun – dusted them. Red was too hurt at the moment, shortly before I would heal him, but he remembered the howl, so inhuman.
Valanda stared at the dwarf crawl forward. The winds subsided suddenly, and in her peripheral vision she noted Bluff who was doubling over instinctively, catching his breath. But it was the bard who had her full attention. He was in obvious need of another fireball. And another one after that.
She breathed deeply, clawed both her hands, called up the strength for the fireball. The globes were barely formed when she hurled them at the dwarf.
The bard’s eyes gleamed when he looked up, flailed his arms.
A concentrated burst of wind rushed for the fireballs, sent them off course. They missed the bard by inches only, as powerful as before, tore into the ground some ten yards behind the bard. The grass burst into flame.
Valanda fired another pair of fireballs. They suffered the same fate. She had to use another tactic, obviously. A weapon that couldn’t possibly be affected by winds. But were those real winds? Storms weren’t known to veer fireballs aside.
The spell’s strength was coursing through her, and she came up with dozens of ideas – most of them impractical since she lacked the ingredients in her pouch, or if she had the parts, it would have taken too long to effect the spell. So much time wasted! Actually, those were only heartbeats, barely enough time for Bluff to regain his breath – much as there was left in his battered body – and move forward.
They were time enough for the bard to come up with an attack of his own. His voice picked up volume, much more than could be accounted for by his lungs, and his words crashed out of his mouth like rocks hurled at high speeds.
Fittingly so, for small stone projectiles seemed to form out of empty air, shooting towards Valanda.
Danger! Real danger to her! The stones were fast enough to pierce her shield! That touched her keyed-up mind, more than had happened before. She had fireballs readied inside her fingers, but there were so many more projectiles heading for her. Valanda altered the words of the spell slightly, brought her hands up, and the fireballs flew away from her.
But inches after leaving her fingers, they burst apart into dozens of smaller balls, much less powerful individually, but enough. Each picked out one of the stone projectiles, crashing into it, burning it, eating it up.
“You want a battle?” Valanda hissed at the bard. “You’ll have it!”
The bard didn’t say anything, he continued chanting, conjuring up a new form of attack.
Grass fires. Have you ever seen one? I was spared the sight until that day. Once it starts burning, and the leaves are sufficiently dry – let’s say that a rainless storm has just whipped all the moisture out of them -, it keeps leaping from one blade of grass to the next. It is hot, it is fast, it is merciless.
And dwarven bards in the middle of a magical battle may be too concerned with figuring out the next spell to notice them starting right behind them.
It can get worse when out of nowhere – apparently – a six-and-a-half feet tall man tackles them, ploughs them back, right into a swathe of flames. The bard may be distracted by the sudden weight on him, by the flames licking at him – from an entirely unexpected source. Distracted so much that he forgets for a moment to call up any winds to extinguish the flames.
Especially if the man on top of him – bleeding, battered, hurt beyond pain – keeps slamming his fists down on the bard, blow after blow, blow after blow. That man continues even while the flames grab at him. The fire finds a way under his armor, sets the clothes underneath ablaze. Singeing him. Cooking him.
Yes, that can be quite a distraction for a bard. In this case, it was a lethal distraction.
Bluff? No, he didn’t die. Not then. Not quite.
Valanda contained the flames with her magic. A spell that created water, I take it. Not really rain, just a couple of buckets of water emptying themselves over the burning grass and Bluff. He went on slamming his fists down, demolishing the bard’s face. He was already bleeding, already in pain, so that it didn’t matter to him when his knuckles split. Bluff was angry, so much anger penned up from two or three days of marching down deadly caverns, surrounded by this dwarf’s singing.
Yes, the bard died. Did the fire kill him, or was it Bluff? We’ll never know, and frankly, I don’t care. He was dead. Leave the charred corpses lying out there for the predators, that should be my motto. At least in this case.
The singing stopped, obviously. So did the accompanying music, the rhythms that had been driving us mad all that time. All at the moment when the bard died.
So, is that the end of my tale? We had been hunting wild dwarves. What may have been the last of the cúchulain lay broken and dead on the slope of the valley. Nothing else left to do but find our way back home, right? Exploit the riches we have found down here – like the glowater stream, perhaps?
There are pages left in the document you’re reading, aren’t there?
“We’re done now, aren’t we, Red?” Scraps said, fists on his hips, looking down on the burned corpse of the dwarf.
Next to him Bluff was lying unconscious on the ground, looking little better off than the dead bard. Valanda was wandering up and down, looking about herself nervously, as if she needed something to do. That spell she put on herself, it was still working, but there wasn’t anything left. Lights sparkled around her hands, the beginnings of a variety of spells, none of which she dared pull through. A waste of strength, and moreover, she knew what was driving her to this.
“Red?” Scraps repeated, turned his head.
Red wasn’t in the mood to answer. He was sitting cross-legged on the ground, amidst the ruined landscape. Blades of grass, bushes, torn asunder by the storm, strewn across the slope surrounded him, but he didn’t see anything. His head had sunk forward, barely supported by the cradle of his arms. Was he sobbing?
Oh, don’t ask me. Half an hour had passed since the bard died. My friends had walked down the slope, supporting me. I hadn’t been able to walk – not so much for lack of strength but for an over-abundance. Magic was within me. I had never been trained to deal with power, and now I felt it all through me. So intoxicating! I didn’t want to let go, wanted to bathe in that power. Which is pretty much what I did. My mind was somewhere within that ocean of magic, drifting flotsam.
Scraps tried to get my attention again, when it was obvious that Red wouldn’t answer. “Pilgrim?” he said, to no effect. I was standing, my eyes closed, my mouth half open and pretty much drooling. (The spittle was on my chin. I noticed it later when I had to wipe it off.) Scraps punched me carefully, afraid a little push would keel me over backwards. “Pilgrim?!”
Remember my lizard squirrel Jitters? He was still with me, sleeping through most of the excitement. Now he looked out of his new home, after Scraps had jolted the breastplate, and commented angrily on the drummer’s behavior. Scraps couldn’t help but grin helplessly while the squirrel proceeded to climb up to my shoulder, brushing its tail over my face. It wasn’t really a bushy tail, like you know from real squirrels. Jitters’ tail was more like feathers – if you can imagine that a lizard could have feathers, as if they were related to birds!
But it was Jitters who got me out of my reverie. I looked down, into the squirrel’s little face, was rewarded by a long trill about to pierce my eardrums. “Sorry, what’s the matter?” I asked him, plucked him gently from my shoulder and stroked my fingers over his back. Jitters was very unhappy about that at first – ready to try if my thumb tasted like apples -, but then I found a particular spot on his back, right behind his head, that he probably couldn’t reach himself. Jitters trilled again, a lot more pleasantly, and relaxed in my hand. Well, his eyes were focused on Scraps, suspecting that the evil biped might disturb his sleep once again.
“Pilgrim, are you –“ Scraps started, stopped himself. He looked at me askance, holding and stroking the lizard squirrel.
A silly sight, I realized after a moment, forced a smile onto my lips – which faltered when memories returned to me. The stone creatures, my prayer to Deswellyn, and then there had been Valanda. Valanda!
Scraps shook his head involuntarily when I suddenly stalked past him, shouting the wizardess’ name – full of fear, I’m sure. It hadn’t quite impacted on my mind that Scraps was looking very calm, unlike any of us had done the past couple of hours.
I saw her about four hundred yards away, pacing quickly. She noticed me, nodded and smiled towards me, even waved, then she immediately returned to her pacing.
What the…? “Scraps, what has happened?”
He shook his head, then filled me in on the events during which I had lain on the ledge, covered by the stone creature’s dust and gazing in utter stupor at a glowater sky. I felt much as if I still were in that stupor, but somehow I understood that Bluff had been hurt, and that Scraps and Red had tried to get me to heal him when we’d made it down the slope. With no success, obviously.
Now, though, I understood. “Have to heal, yes,” I muttered, returned Jitters to his perch on my shoulder (he didn’t like it when the stroking stopped, complained loudly, then whisked himself into my breastplate to pout – loudly) and sank to my knees before Bluff. The power was in me, I knew.
But… It felt so difficult remembering how to heal. It had been such an easy task with Scraps and Red such a short while ago, yet now I didn’t know what to do. Speak the prayer! Decalleigh’s prayer! I had to tell myself. So difficult speaking the words. So difficult doing anything.
Then I comprehended. The magic inside me, I didn’t want to let go, didn’t want to share the power with Bluff. The realization pounded into my head, bounced about, driving out all the stupor. “Yes,” I said with new resolve before reciting the prayer and willing the magic into Bluff’s body.
His injuries were severe, almost enough to beckon the Messenger of Death. Bluff’s pain echoed inside me, each spot of his body that was hurting. Fortunately it was a weaker echo, or else I would have passed out as surely as he had done. (It must be same for true Decalleigh priests. How else could they deal with dozens of patients? How could they suffer the pain of a ward full of earthquake victims, for instance?)
The magic flowed from me. In a strange way it felt good to have it leave me, to share it. Why hadn’t I wanted to before? How could I have been so selfish? Easily, of course, is the proper answer. But putting the power to good use was wonderful, in a way much better. Not that the process gave me joy, not like holding the power within had, but – how can I explain it best? – this was what the magic was meant for. It felt right.
Healing Bluff took some time. I don’t know how long, but I guess it was about an hour. When his breathing grew more regularly, and unconsciousness passed into sleep, I looked up and saw that Valanda had rejoined us. I was weak – the magic gone, only my fatigue remaining -, but she seemed a divine messenger of beauty. Hope. A nervous messenger, her breath coming fast, lifting those wonderful breasts under her shredded shirt regularly.
Ahnfredas! My good manners were complaining, but they needn’t have bothered. I was so tired, I automatically pushed any dreams of that sort in the furthest regions of my mind. “Valanda, you’re… It’s so good to see you.”
“Yes.” She just said that word, her lips quivering as if she had to work to suppress a torrent of far more words. That spell on her, but I didn’t know about that yet.
I wanted to drink her sight into me, as if that could replace the magic I had fed into Bluff. But remembering that friend made me remember the others. I looked about, saw that Red and Scraps were curled up, sleeping. Still wearing their armor, not even bothering to remove the helmets. They were too tired.
So was I. But I remembered one moment such a long time ago, such an eternity ago. Two days. The basement of Carter’s house, when I had been dragged from bed to start our descent. Valanda had woken me up, Grapes had been there, and together we had walked down the stairs to that basement where Carter, Red and ten complete strangers had been standing in gleaming armor, readying their weapons and minds.
There had been fifteen of us at that time. Except for bedraggled old me, missing my trusty staff, and scared out of my wits, they had all been so – so alive. They had been eager to get going, to drive the wild dwarves from their home. And I? I wanted to get back to bed.
A memory drifted lazily into my mind. That bed had belonged to Torrindas.
I remembered him in that room, as fervent, as steady as he had been throughout our journey. A pillar of faith. Up on that ledge his remains were, open to the air, and to any animals that wanted a snack. My stomach was empty. Fortunately, or I would have thrown up.
“Torrindas, he…” I whispered, gagging on the words.
“No need,” Valanda shook her head, her lips tightening. “I sent a fireball into his… his body. Later we can… We can put up a marker, but… It’s all right, Ahnfredas.”
“No, it’s not,” I said, surprised at the harshness of my voice. It must have been the dry heaves. I forced myself to my feet, locked my gaze with hers. “What was it good for, Valanda? Were all those deaths worth it? Or could we have…” The fury evaporated. Looking into Valanda’s eyes can do that to me.
She shook her head, reached out one hand and stroked over my cheek. I shivered. Dry heaves again, I thought at first, and then… Then the tears were coming, and I sank forward into Valanda’s arms, crying and sobbing. “They were my friends! I’ve only known them for a day or two, but –“
“Yes, Ahnfredas, I know,” she whispered, her voice barely breaking through the sound of my sobs.
Somewhere during the next moments Jitters came out, gave Valanda a threatening glare to leave his home alone, then he ran down my leg and vanished across the valley’s flank. Foraging. He came back some time later, I don’t recall when, but I found that now there were several nuts and other fruits in my breastplate.
At some point she lowered me to the ground, took the helmet from my head and let me rest my head on her stomach. I was still crying, she was brushing her hands over my back gently. “Sleep,” she told me. “I will keep watch over you.”
I think I fell asleep then. I’m not sure, it may have taken me a little longer to embrace sleep’s oblivion. But then, was it a dream that I glanced over towards the mansion at the center of the valley? Was it a dream that I saw a humanoid figure standing on a balcony watching us?