Shadows of Forever
by Bryce V. Giroux
Table of Contents|
Part 1 and part 2
appear in this issue.
Padraig rolled and tumbled down the roof, careless to the fast-approaching drop. Right now, tumbling away from the farmer was more important than crashing down on his head. At least then, Mairghraed could grab the sword and bring it Drustanrægh; or Éuarægh, anywhere far from here.
His world fell away and he soon after it, as his last roll brought him over the edge of the roof. All was a blur as he fell from the roof; thinking Tuck your head. Hang onto the sword. The world stopped spinning in a moment and he focused on a red-faced Fearghus leaning out the window above him. His senses returned and he became aware of the pain in his back.
“Paddie!” Mairghraed screamed and rushed to his side. She glanced up to see Fearghus ducking back inside the house.
“I’m fine,” Padraig huffed. “Help me up.” He struggled to his feet with aid of Mairghraed, took a couple of deep breaths and straightened himself out. It was painful. He was sure nothing was broken, albeit bruised.
“Come on.” Mairghraed tugged on him. “He’ll be down in a minute.”
Padraig found it difficult to talk, and only managed to nod. He stumbled after Mairghraed who was already heading down the lane.
Léod sat curled up in the corner of his hut. He had slept not a wink all night; how could he? He had spent his whole life praying to the gods, anxious for their return. His life was ruined. Nin Colaim and the rest were all dead now; struck down by that abominable force those... those Visharians called Talin.
Léod rocked back and forth, his arms wrapped around his knees and his face buried in his lap. “What to do? What to do?”
Léod, a voice called deep within his mind.
He stopped rocking and raised his head. He wiped the tears from his eyes and heaved a deep breath. He glanced around his bare hut; he was alone.
Léod, the voice called again.
“Who’s there?” Léod searched around the room.
I am your Savior, Léod.
Yes, I am. Your people and your land are in danger from the Visharians and from Talin.
“You mean to save us?”
Yes, I shall. I shall build you an army that shall come in your utmost hour of need. All those who stand before me shall fall, and I shall reward those who stand with me.
“Who are you?”
I am the Keeper of the Flame, the Master of War. You may know me as Kalzrok. I have sent for your people a proxy. Seek him in the heart of the Red Mountain; in the region he shall call the Fiery Boands.
“How will I know him?”
No answer came.
“Kalzrok, are you still with me?”
Still all was quiet.
Léod rose to his feet and took a breath. “I shall search for your proxy to the bowels of the deepest volcano.”
Kalzrok did not answer. Léod was satisfied. Even if Padraig failed in his quest (blessed be Nin Colaim), at least a god as magnificent as or perhaps even more magnificent than this Talin would rescue them and put these invaders in their place.
Léod washed his face and changed into his common kilt. He wrapped some apples in a blanket and grabbed his walking stick. It was going to be a long journey to the Red Mountain. Surely, the handful of apples would not be enough to sustain him for such a long voyage. He knew this pilgrimage would be difficult. He might not eat a decent meal again. Léod stepped to the doorway and turned back one last time. Life used to be so simple here.
When he entered the street, he saw what he feared: The Visharians were unloading machines of war. Glærn was fast becoming a fort. For the most part, the Visharians soldiers ignored the people and concentrated on the Messatulan workers. Léod could see all too well what horrors awaited his people. These Visharians were a ruthless race.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Aodh the butcher stared hard at Léod. “You aren’t thinking of leaving us now, are you?”
Léod sighed. “Aodh, my friend, I have failed you.”
Tell none of me; it shall be safer that way, the voice said.
“I just feel that it’s better that I left. I don’t deserve your fate.” Léod turned to leave. Aodh’s firm hand gripped his shoulder.
“Don’t deserve our fate? You bloody coward! Strolling off into the wilderness will be a much fairer fate than what these long-ears have in store for us.”
“Aodh, please understand me.”
“No, you listen you little man, run if you want. Remember this: Your people and your village will be suffering far worse than you ever will. Let that be your dying thought.”
Aodh released his grip. Léod spun back to face the butcher. “Aodh, please don’t.” The butcher was gone. Léod dropped his shoulders and turned back to the road. His steps were burdensome. He was sure this was the last time he would ever walk down this road. A tear came to his eye and he wiped it away. Léod heaved a deep breath. He regarded the guards at the makeshift gate. Getting past them was not going to be easy. The Visharians locked the village down from all outgoing traffic to prevent any word of the invasion from spreading. Léod had to find a way out of town and soon.
* * *
Norin Wynrich hoped that the remainder of his tour in the new land would be better than these first few days. The land was miserable and much colder than home, and the people were beginning to prove to be quite the task for the Visharian Empire.
Wynrich paced around his tent, keeping his cloak tight around his chest. These cursed humans were going to pay for living in such a cold land. How he missed Visharia. He could smell the warm salty air; feel the warm rays of the sun glistening down on his bronze skin. How he missed her, his sweet Elia, his favorite concubine. None of the others could move as she did to the rhythm of the mating drum. How she could dance. His last morning with her was etched in his mind, the way she danced for him, the way she caressed his flesh, the way she pleased him. His journey had seemed much longer after that morning; he suspected that that was what she had intended.
Six months, that was all the Negren asked of him. Six months should be long enough to establish a stable military outpost and then a two-month voyage home. By early next year he would be back home with Elia. Who would take his place here? Perhaps Tao would be honored to take the role of Acting Norin. Then again, perhaps the Negren had other plans for the Norin position, such as that wart, Tao. He had always followed Wynrich around like a shadow. Then again, perhaps replacing him with Tao would be best; a two-month sea voyage would put that toad far out of Wynrich’s hair.
Wynrich smiled to himself.
The door chime rattled outside the tent. Wynrich took his seat in the Norin’s Throne. “Enter,” he called out with as much majesty as he could muster in this cold.
The flap opened, letting in the blinding rays of sun to the dimly lit tent. Wynrich squinted to focus in the brilliance. A figure stood in the doorway; a familiar figure. “Gavin Tao,” Wynrich sneered when he recognized the face. “What in Talin’s good name are you doing here?” Moreover, why hadn’t the tent guards skewered you? he added in his thoughts.
“Negren Zenria sent me on advice of Talin. The Fair Negren wished me to give you a message. I left Visharia only a few days after you.” His voice was high-pitched and raspy, and irritated Wynrich to no end.
“What is it, Gavin?” Wynrich’s heart skipped. Perhaps the Negren had changed his mind and wanted him to return home. Perhaps the Negren wanted him to execute Tao personally. He couldn’t be so lucky.
“Negren Zenria wishes you to spend an additional four months in service to him in the land of humans.”
Wynrich recoiled. “He wants me to spend a year?” Spittle flew from the Norin’s lip. “Did he say why?”
Tao rubbed his bony fingers together. “That, my Norin, is known only to the Negren and Talin. But he left explicit instructions that you oversee the construction of a palace, so I would guess that he wishes to come here within a year.”
Norin Wynrich bowed his head. “It shall be.”
“I would like to know the situation so far, so I may begin my duties, my Norin.”
“These people are barbarians. Even more so than the Kindarin ever were. They don’t even have the knowledge of how to display the Book of Talin properly. Just imagine the book surrounded by candles, and even in direct light of the sun. It disgusts me, and I want these people taught a lesson on manners.”
“As you wish. I will do what it takes.”
Wynrich smiled. Perhaps having Tao here wouldn’t be so bad after all. “You may leave now, Gavin.”
Tao bowed deeply and departed the tent. Wynrich slumped in his throne. A palace constructed in a year? The Negren must be addled. He hoped the Gavin had brought a hundred slaves with him for the successful completion of both the fort and the palace. It would be impossible to defend palace without the fort, and Negren Zenria would be duly upset if the Norin Wynrich had not completed palace when the Negren arrived.
Another rattle came to the door. “Yes, what is it?” He was in no mood for further visitors.
A slender feminine body slipped quietly through the door. “Elia!” he gasped as he straightened himself.
The slave girl dropped to one knee. “My Norin,” she purred. “Negren Zenria sent me to keep you company until his arrival.”
The Norin sighed. Perhaps it wouldn’t be such a difficult year after all.
* * *
Padraig and Mairghraed stood on the edge of the dark forest. Padraig shivered. “I don’t want to go in there, Mairgie.”
“Ah, come on, you lout. There’s nothing to be afraid of,” Mairghraed said, snickering.
“That wood wasn’t there before. It’s just not natural.”
“There’s no such thing as a moving forest, Paddie. I’m sure it’s been here all along; I’m sure you just forgot about it.”
“Forgot about it? Mairgie, haven’t you ever heard of the Shadowood?” She shook her head. “Mama used to tell me of these dark woods; these woods here, that just couldn’t stay in place. The woods bounce all over the place, and anyone who steps in never comes out in the same place. They say the woods are haunted too, filled with wolves of shadows and wolves of mist. You do not hear them coming up behind you until they snap you up.”
Mairghraed jumped a little, watching Padraig through narrow eyes. “When my father was a boy, around my age, maybe younger, he went venturing out of town. He came upon the Woods of Shadow. Being the adventurous sort he was, he decided to poke around. When he stepped, a feeling of cold...and evil...came over him. He turned around and ran back out the way he came. Only thing was, when he stepped out, he was not anywhere near where he stepped in. It took him five days to find his way back home again.”
“Pull the other one.” Mairghraed giggled. “Likely he ran clear through the other side and couldn’t find his way back home.”
“Now you take that back.” Padraig stomped a foot in anger.
“Shan’t.” Mairghraed giggled.
“Shall,” Padraig said and pushed her.
“I shan’t.” Mairghraed pushed back.
Before long, the two were tussling on the ground. “Paddie,” Mairghraed shouted. “What do you think you’re doing?”
Padraig blushed as he stood. Dusting himself off he said, “I’m sorry, Mairgie. I forgot what I doing.” He helped Mairghraed to her feet. He could not stand to look her in the eyes.
She swept back her red hair with her small hands. “It’s all right, Paddie, you don’t need to be embarrassed. I am flattered, really I am. It’s just that-”
“What?” Padraig snapped his head back to her, his face as red as a ripened beet. “What?” He could not help but repeat himself.
She gave a quirky smile and glanced down to his region.
“It was the sword. It was the hilt,” he stammered, pretty certain about what she was thinking.
“Sure it was. At any rate, we have to go through the woods; haunted or not. It’s doubtful that the long-ears will come looking for us in there. They know the lay of the land far less than we do, and they have no idea that we don’t know this forest any better than they.”
“Mairgie, we can’t go in there.”
“Would you rather be in some spooky forest or in the hands of those long-ears?”
Padraig looked back in the direction of the village, then back to the forest. He hung his head low and held his shoulders high. “I guess anything’s better than going back.”
“Fine, then it’s settled.” Twigs snapped under Mairghraed’s feet as she breached the forest.
* * *
Léod sat with head in hands. He needed a way out of town. How was beyond him. Colban and Aodh approached, each grim-faced.
“I thought you were leaving town,” the butcher snarled.
“I’ve tried, except I can’t get past the guards.” The Elder glanced back at the gates
“Why is it so important that you leave?” Aodh looked down at Léod.
“It just is. I have urgent matters elsewhere.”
“What sort of matters?”
“I have matters that would benefit the village and all of Ægrin.”
“How is that so?”
“I cannot say — not yet, at any rate. Believe me when I say that these Visharians shall get all that’s coming to them.”
“You sincerely mean it, don’t you?”
“I certainly do.” Léod gave a long look at the gate. “Nin Colaim shall get his vengeance.” The three each pressed their thumbs to their foreheads.
“Will you see my Mairgie?”
“I’m not sure, my friend. Perhaps, if Nin Pitair smiles on me, I shall.”
“If you do, tell her that her mother and I love her dearly, and wish her the speed of Nin Brigte for her safe return.”
“I shall, my friend, I shall.”
Colban scratched his lip with his hand. “If you see Padraig, the little wart, tell him he’s welcome at my anvil anytime.” Colban’s frown grew to a shy smile.
“I’m sure he knows, Brother. So, you mean to help me then?” The Elder regarded both the Smith and the butcher.
Aodh and Colban looked at each other through narrow eyes, then back to Léod. “Aye, we shall. We will get you out of town.”
“How do you plan to do that?”
“Don’t worry about that, Master Léod. Leave it in our capable hands.” Aodh slapped Colban on the back and turned away.
Léod sat, waiting for his chance to escape.
When the butcher and the Smith reached the square, Aodh gave Colban a push. “The Visharians are the best thing to come since Nin Colaim left.”
“You fool!” Colban’s arms flailed in the air. “How dare you spit on our ancestry, bowing down to these...these long-ears?” The Smith leapt on the butcher and began pummeling him with his large fists. The butcher gripped his large hands around the Smith’s leather apron and fought him off. A crowd gathered as the giant pugilists traded blows. The brawl drew the attention of the guards as well. Before long, they had left their posts to watch the violent fight.
Léod took his cue and slipped unnoticed through the gate.
Aodh and Colban stopped fighting and all turned to watch Laotious as he hobbled to the front of the crowd. “Well, well, well, what do we have here? It seems you humans are incapable of restraining yourselves even when guests are around.”
Aodh and Colban steadied themselves on each other and stared at Laotious.
“If you wish to fight like dogs, then you shall.” Laotious produced two short swords from the folds of his robe and tossed them at the feet of the butcher and the blacksmith. Both looked down at the weapons, then back to Laotious. “Guards.”
In moments, a dozen Visharian archers broke through the crowd and knocked their arrows. “If you don’t fight to death, the guards will kill you here and now. The choice is yours, gentlemen.”
“Not us, my good butcher. We are simply trying to keep the peace in our streets, a difficult thing to do with the likes of you. Now pick up the swords and fight.”
“Never. It’s our village, not yours. We shall do as we please,” Colban snarled.
“There, you are wrong. This land is now part of the Empire of Visharia. Just be thankful that we haven’t killed the lot of you.”
“We shall never bow down to the likes of you long-ears,” Aodh spat.
“May Nin Colaim spit on your graves!” Colban howled as he charged at Laotious, his sword held high.
An arrow found its mark in the Smith’s leg, as the Visharian archers let loose a volley of arrows. Another shaft struck Colban in the abdomen. A third landed in Aodh’s temple, dropping the butcher to the ground, dead in an instant.
Colban collapsed to the ground. Tears streamed down his face while blood streamed down his leg and stomach.
Laotious clicked his teeth, and knelt to Colban’s level. “Gentle Smith, you should never raise a sword to a Visharian.” He stood and pointed to two guards. “Vresa ongla pendaran.” The guards gathered up the Smith and dragged him from the square. Laotious then turned to the villagers watching and grumbled, “Clean up your mess before Norin Wynrich arrives. And where is your Elder?”
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Bryce V. Giroux