Shadows of Forever
by Bryce V. Giroux
Table of Contents|
Part 1 appears
in this issue.
* * *
Léod cowered before the leader. The stranger stared down at the Elder, fire flashing in his violet eyes. He spoke strange, angry words. Léod raised his hands in defense. The stranger shouted at him. Léod bowed low to the ground. A glob of spit struck his face. Léod dared not move. He kept his head low, watching the stranger’s feet stomp off. There was a cry from the crowd. Léod felt safe to look up. The three strangers shoved their way through the crowd, making their way back to the beach.
Whatever he had done had infuriated the newcomers. All was fine — tense, but fine — until he had showed them the ancient book. The rage came when Léod pointed to the sketch of Talin. What brought on the rage was beyond Léod to figure out.
Léod let out his breath. Perhaps they were leaving. Then came the horn blasts, first from the beach, then from farther off. From the sounds of the horns, there were numerous boats approaching the shore. He knew then that it was not going to be just three strange beings on their lands, but a whole army. Ægrin was under an invasion by an unknown race.
Léod scrambled to his feet and wiped the spittle from his face. The crowd looked at him for guidance. “I have failed you, my people.” The crowd was silent. “I deserve any fate that befalls me. My arrogance and shortsightedness brought the fury of the strangers upon our village — upon all of Ægrin. Padraig, fetch my sword.” Léod look around. “Oh yes.” He sighed. “That’s right. He is gone. My people, rest easy in whatever may happen to us. Know that Moradon is safe and gone far from here.”
There was a rumble in the crowd. “What have you done?” Colban the Smith shook his fist at Léod. “The sword was meant to protect us. Do you mean to say that you have sent it away with the youth? The land is doomed.”
The crowd roared in response.
Léod held out his hands and made a patting motion, trying to calm the crowd. “People of Glærn, I assure you, Moradon is safe in the hands of the Smith’s apprentice. He is a bright lad, and he will know what to do. I am certain that he has already begun the journey to Drustanrægh. Before you know it, the king’s armies will be here, beating off the invaders with Moradon held high, just as Nin Colaim would have done. Now, the armies of the Strange Ones shall be here in a few hours. We must do what we can to prepare.”
“We must flee,” someone in the crowd shouted. Others grumbled in agreement.
“We must fight,” another shouted. The crowd, again, grumbled in agreement.
“Where’s Mairghraed?” the butcher asked.
* * *
Padraig and Mairghraed marched through the grassy fields, the afternoon sun shining down on them. “Are you sure you know the way?” Padraig huffed.
“Sure as rain.” Mairghraed placed her hands on her hips. “Éuarægh is on the coast, north of Glærn. All we have to do is walk north for a while, then east to the coast. If we keep to the coast, then we will be in Éuarægh. What are you looking at?”
Padraig’s attention was on the horizon in front of them. A forest stretched out before them in the distance. “It’s nothing. It’s just that I didn’t know there was a forest this close to Glærn.”
Mairghraed shrugged. “Maybe we have just never been up this far before.”
“No.” Padraig shook his head. “Colban took me to Tannersrægh once last year. We would have seen that forest from the road then. There’s something... odd... about it.”
“It’s just a forest. It will be perfect shelter for us until we get to the road. We should be there by nightfall. I’m getting hungry, and we need to find some food.”
Mairghraed’s pace quickened and Padraig hurried after her, the sword swinging by his side.
“Over there.” He pointed to the west. “There’s a farm. Maybe they’d let us in for some supper.”
Mairghraed and Padraig turned toward the farmhouse and began almost to skip. The possibility of a meal lifted their spirits.
The sun began its descent through the sky as Padraig and Mairghraed’s shadows lengthened. The deepening clouds far above blazed a vibrant magenta. A cool breeze drifted across the field and chilled the ends of the adolescents’ noses. The summer air hinted at autumn. The crickets chirped slower in the dusk. Padraig and Mairghraed giggled and skipped to the farm.
“You knock on the door.”
“No, you knock.”
The two shoved each other up the lane. “It was your idea to come here.”
“Well, you were the one who was hungry.” Padraig shoved Mairghraed ahead a few steps.
“What do you children want?” The booming voice startled them. A farmer with wiry hair and short on teeth stood in the doorway with his hands on his hips.
Padraig straightened himself up. “I am no child. I am a Journeyman Smith.”
“Paddie, be quiet.”
“Hush. We have traveled from Glærn, and we request your hospitality.”
“You don’t look like no journeyman to me.” The farmer regarded the two through narrow eyes.
Padraig blushed. “Well, I’m not a full journeyman as of yet. That is, I’m still fifteen. I’ll be sixteen next week; then I’ll be a journeyman.”
“It’s just as I figured. What do you have to say for yourself, lass?”
“Me?” Mairghraed smiled as sweetly as she could.
“Yes, I’m talking to you. What are you doing stomping around the countryside with a journeyman Smith?”
Padraig did not care for the farmer’s tone. He narrowed his eyes at the man.
“Well, I’m a journeyman — journeywoman — butcher, and I-”
The farmer snorted. “Well, pray tell, what are a journeyman and a journeywoman doing out here? Are you going to forge an axe so she can slaughter one of my sows?”
Mairghraed squinted at the farmer, pulling her lips tight. “Now, listen, we’re on a mission of royal matters, and we request by Order of the Sacred Anvil that you let us in and feed us proper.”
“Royal matters, eh? What sort of royal matters?”
Padraig held his stomach. “Please, we are hungry, and cold. Are you going to let us in, or shall we look elsewhere?”
The farmer snorted again. “Fine, I’ll let you in. I don’t want no complaints of my food, understand?”
Padraig and Mairghræd nodded in astonishment. The farmer wrapped his lardy arms around their shoulders and led them inside.
* * *
The townspeople’s concern had shifted to the disappearance of the butcher’s daughter.
“Those bastards took her.” The butcher’s face turned a vibrant purple, and his nostrils flared with rage. “They’ve stolen her away to those ships. I know it.”
Léod waved open hands at the butcher, trying to calm him. “Now cousin, I’m sure she’s safe. Knowing your daughter, she likely left with Padraig. She’s always been free-spirited.”
This did not seem to comfort Aodh. “I should have forced her to come down to the beach. She should have been at the beach.” He growled and stormed down to the beach, waving a nasty cleaver.
Léod tried to stop the butcher. The other man’s meaty arms brushed his frail frame aside.
“Damned fool will get himself killed.” Léod huffed and started to the beach.
Before he could reach the path, the butcher returned without his cleaver and with arms held high in the air. Behind him marched a dozen of the strangers armed with long spears and swords.
Colban rushed to Léod’s side, holding a heavy lead mallet. “Easy, Colban; I don’t think they mean to harm us,” the Elder said.
“What makes you think that?”
Colban’s tone stung Léod. “If they were here to kill us, your brother would be dead by now.”
Behind the soldiers came a dozen of the tall rowers carrying a sedan. Seated on the sedan was the one who was not Nin Colaim. Behind him, riding magnificent horses, were those who were not Nin Brigte and Nin Pitair. Behind them came another dozen soldiers.
Léod swallowed deeply. Never in all his days had an army of this size, or any size for that matter, set foot on Glærn soil.
The sedan finally came to rest in the village square, just feet from where Léod stood. The stranger stood and raised his arms to the skies. His soldiers raised their spears and cheered. He spoke more strange words. The soldiers cheered. Léod felt ill.
A silence fell on the soldiers and they parted to allow a frail stranger to pass through. He looked a hundred if he was a day, and he hobbled along with the aid of a crooked staff. A white robe swayed from his crooked body.
Léod leaned close to Colban so that no one else could hear. “At least they have respect for Elders.”
“I demand silence.” The old stranger tossed his hands in the air.
Léod’s jaw dropped. “You speak Ægrinic?”
The old stranger hobbled up to him. “Do you mean the language of humans? Yes, I speak your pathetic tongue.”
“What sort of beings are you?”
“You can know us as the Visharians.” The old man turned to the crowd of villagers. “Let it be known that this land is now part of the Visharian Empire. From this day forward, your liege shall be Negren Zenria. Your taxes will now be paid to your Norin, Wynrich.” He waved his hand, indicating the man standing in the sedan.
* * *
Mairghraed and Padraig rather enjoyed their meal. Despite his modesty, Farmer Fearghus proved to be an excellent cook. Padraig helped himself to an extra portion of chicken.
Fearghus pushed back from the table and lit a pipe. “Do you smoke?” Fearghus offered the pouch to Padraig, who shook his head. “Now that you have full bellies, perhaps you could tell me why you’re so determined to get to Drustanrægh?”
“Our village — ouch.” Mairghraed threw a sharp glance at Padraig for kicking her, then cooled and turned back to Fearghus. “Let’s just say that we have been sent on an urgent matter that only the king need know about. Besides, we’re on our way to Éuarægh to speak with the Fair Lady.” She gave Padraig a smug look, who responded with a sneer between mouthfuls of chicken.
Padraig swallowed a huge chunk of meat. “What woods are those?”
A cold look fell on Fearghus’ face. “You don’t want to be entering those woods, lad.”
“Why? What’s wrong with the woods?”
“I’ll have no more spoken of it. Let it be said that you should steer clear of any forest that materializes in the middle of the night.”
Padraig swallowed. Suddenly, he did not feel hungry anymore. He looked to Mairghraed. She leaned forward on the table, head in her hands. Her wide eyes stared at Farmer Fearghus. “Tell us about it.”
Fearghus’ eyes darted about the room. “You two must be exhausted. I have an extra bed you can sleep in. In the morning, you both could have hot baths.”
Mairghraed smiled at the farmer. “You have been a most gracious host.”
“Excellent.” Fearghus slapped his knees and then began clearing the plates.
“No, no.” Mairghraed placed her hands over his.
Padraig marveled at the stark contrast between her small hands and the farmer’s large hands.
Fearghus looked up and smiled. “I’ll just go up and prepare your bed.” With that, he dashed off upstairs, whistling the whole way.
Mairghraed glanced at the door through which Fearghus had just disappeared. Certain he was gone; she leaned to Padraig. “Do you find something worrying about this place?”
Padraig had regained his appetite and was again chewing on some moist meat. “What do you mean?”
“Well, he suddenly got all friendly with us, then all serious about the woods, then all friendly again. Doesn’t that strike you as odd?”
“Not really. I mean, look around. It is lonely out here, and he probably doesn’t handle strangers well. Besides, do you not find the whole business of a mysterious forest just popping up a little strange? If you ask me, I think Fearghus has been a perfectly respectable host, and I’d rather be sleeping here tonight than out there.”
* * *
Léod walked behind Laotious, the elderly Visharian. “Tell me, how did you come to learn our language?”
Laotious smiled out of the corner of his mouth. “Long ago, a wreckage of some ship washed up on the shores near my home town. Among the debris was a man, naked and bloody. The local convent took him in and nursed him to health. He was a wonder in our village. We had never seen his species in our land before. Before he came, our people were peaceful, living in harmony with the lands. His presence changed that: No longer were we alone in this world.
“The man you call Nin Colaim taught us many things. He taught us your language, and he taught us war. His last gift tore us from our peaceful place in nature, and dragged us down to your race’s level. Our people became warriors within a decade. With our new skills, we struck out across the wilderness. We conquered many lands. Word of us reached the Messatulans before our armies. They were an easy victory; they have proved to be sturdy and faithful servants. It gladdens my heart that we did not destroy them. Once the barbaric lands were conquered, and united under the Empire of Visharia, we headed for the land of humans. Nin Colaim died knowing that his people were soon to be united under the rule of Negren Zenria.”
“You mean Nin Colaim is dead?” Léod found it hard to mouth the words.
Laotious smiled coolly. “Yes. He told me on his deathbed that when I found your people that I tell you that he and all the other of your gods have passed. On their voyage to our lands, a terrific storm struck and destroyed their boat. Nin Colaim guessed that it was a force more powerful than he and the other gods; they were correct, for the magnificence of Talin was upon them. Your gods went to war with him and he defeated them. His power forged the steel that binds the armies of the Visharian Empire.
“As he lay dying, Nin Colaim told us he had one hope: that the lessons he taught us of war would help bring down this new force. We made him understand he needed the help. We helped him pass from this world.” Laotious smiled at this last sentence, as if reminiscent.
Léod had no words. His heart was torn. The gods, to whom he devoted his entire life, were gone; wiped out by this vengeful force, Talin. He fell to his knees, tears streaming down his face.
* * *
Padraig woke just as the sun was peeking over the horizon. His hand was full of pins and needles; Mairghraed’s head was set on his arm, causing it to fall asleep. He tried to tug it free. Mairghraed did not stir. He sighed and dropped his head back down on the pillow. He was just going to have to lie there and suffer.
He could not take it anymore. “Mairgie.” She stirred. “Mairgie.” His voice rose a little louder. She still did not move. “Get off my arm,” he cried, yanking his arm from under her head.
Mairghraed woke with a start. “What’s wrong?”
Padraig clenched his fist, working the blood back into his hand. “Nothing,” he huffed. “My arm just went dead. Is your head full of sand?”
The look she responded with would have turned a man to stone. Padraig laughed.
“Hush.” Padraig contained himself. Mairghraed looked toward the door. “I think we should leave now. I just had the oddest feeling.”
“What’s the matter?”
“I don’t know. There’s just something wrong this morning.” Mairghraed slipped out of bed and grabbed her crumpled dress from the floor. “Look ‘round the other way.”
Padraig turned his back to her and began unbuttoning his own nightshirt. Once they were dressed, Padraig headed toward the door.
“No. Not out there.” Mairghraed took his hand. “Out here.” She opened the window.
They heard heavy footsteps coming up the stairs. Padraig’s heart skipped. Fearghus cooed beyond the door, “Breakfast is ready. I have a surprise for you.”
“Come on, Paddie.”
He snapped back into reality. The door handle shook. He puffed, glad that Mairghraed had thought to lock the door the night before; he could hear Fearghus cursing beyond it.
Padraig turned to the window; Mairghraed had already stepped out. He stepped onto the roof and took a breath. His stomach turned and his legs went numb when he saw Mairghraed shuffling down the lattice. Images of him plummeting down to the earth swam in his head. His world went dizzy.
Mairghraed looked back and forth between the door and the window. “Come on.”
Padraig snapped his attention back, gathered his courage and ran to the escape route. “The sword,” he gasped. “I forgot the sword.” He spun round and ran back to the window. Fearghus was just beyond the door, fumbling with his keys.
“Paddie, come on!”
It was too late. Padraig had already slipped back into the house to fetch the sword. His heart skipped when he heard the lock coming undone. With all speed, he snatched up the sword and tumbled back out the window just as Fearghus crashed through the door.
Copyright © 2006 by Bryce V. Giroux