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  • Andrew M. Trauger

BK 3: Chapter Seven: The Mission Begins


Fog hovered near the ground, a light and wispy blanket of white that drifted on a cool breeze across Moffe’s feet.  Surrounded by the circle of tall granite stones, he stood alone in the gathering mist, his hands clasped behind him.  Elric’s body lay bundled at his feet.  The Mystics would return any minute.

He’d been telling himself that for hours.  Nocturnal sounds had stilled in the moments of pre-dawn, that mystical half-hour when neither the beasts of night nor the creatures of day were awake.  The sun would soon rise; speckles of light gray broke through the overhead foliage.  They had better not make me wait much longer.

Like giant sentries, the tapered stones enclosed him, leaning inward and looming over him.  Millennia of erosion had rounded and etched the rune-covered granite, but they remained unharmed, unmoved, and unfazed.  Menhir they were called, and they marked the perimeter of the Sacred Circle, the place of meeting for the Mystic Assembly.  Twice per year, during the vernal and autumnal equinoxes, the Assembly of twelve mystics convened here for solemn ceremonies that no outsider had ever witnessed.

Moffe recalled the first time he had stood amongst these stones, nearly a decade ago.  Rumors of a Roark invasion had echoed through the trees, as Tortured Ones surfaced from their Subterrain lairs and raided small villages in the western region.  Cerion warriors had fought them and drove the dragon-bloods back into hiding.  But not all the warriors had returned; some had been captured and dragged into the Subterrain.

Weeks had passed as the Mystic Assembly convened without end on this sacred mound, imploring Nature to reveal the entrance to the enemy’s lair.  But the forest was silent.  So well concealed was the den that even the trees did not know its location.  Two years had passed before anyone discovered a means to that foul place.

Once it had been found, warriors amassed to bring a quick revenge on the Roark and a quicker salvation to their captives.  Moffe had numbered himself among those ready to invade the Roark lair, and he stood among these menhirs to receive the mystics’ blessing.

Ordin Austmil-Clay was one of the few still alive to be rescued.  Moffe sighed.  Now he’s dead…and here I stand again.

Footsteps on the damp ground announced company, and Moffe dispensed with his reminiscing.  Eidelain, Grand Mystic of the Cerion, and Kothalliel, Hierophant Master, stepped through the wisps, both garbed in gray hooded cloaks.  A shudder rippled up Moffe’s spine, but not from the chill morning air.  He was in the presence of power.  Not limitless power, but close enough that he felt obliged to kneel.

“It’s an honor—” Moffe began.

The hierophant held up a single hand.

As if on cue, ten other mystics appeared through the vapors, each taking his place before one of the menhirs, leaving vacant the two stones in the middle of the ring.

A palpable surge of power rippled across the air between the circle of stones as the mystics recited preparatory incantations.  Leaves rustled where there was no wind, and the ground vibrated under Moffe’s knees.  Whispers of sound passed through his ears as if the menhir possessed voices—breaths of warning, hints of danger, echoes of cautionary portent.  Branches crackled around him as the surrounding trees pressed in closer.  Despite the chill air, Moffe began to sweat.

A breeze floated by, and the swell of power ceased.

“We are of one accord in our decision,” Eidelain began, “but I sense you carry a heavy burden.”

Moffe looked up, searching beneath the hooded cloaks to see whether there was any hope.

Eidelain lifted a hand.  “Rise.  What do you seek?”

Moffe stood and pointed to the wrapped body at his feet.  “The day of Odhasaim is coming.  I speak on behalf of the Company of Dragonslayers to request that this Assembly raise Elric Reichtoven from the dead on that day.”  The very notion was hideous; his tongue felt tainted with the words.

A chorus of gasps swept through the menhirs.  Moffe could not be sure whether the mystics or the stones themselves had recoiled from his words.

Eidelain remained stolid.  “One’s death is as much a part of life as one’s birth.  What gives you the right to countermand what the Maker has decreed?  Indeed, what cause do you have for asking this?”

Moffe drew in a measured breath.  “It is to honor the heroes of Alikon.  This man was a valiant warrior and critical to the duke’s salvation.”

Kothalliel began a slow amble around Moffe and Elric, hands clasped behind his back.  “Valiance does not provide invincibility.  Indeed, to Death the truly valiant is ripest when the flower has freshly bloomed.  But if he has been cut and pressed, if his soul now decorates the halls of the damned, what are we to do?  This man died wearing the skin of our eternal enemy.  Is this a hero of Alikon?  Do you seek to honor that?”

All vestiges of heat fled Moffe’s body as the reply sliced through him like shards of ice.  “I would strip that abominable armor from his body and beat him for wearing it.  No, I seek his salvation.  Because he died in such a state, he may be condemned to the Nine Hells.  I would rescue him from that.  His body has not yet seen decay.  Perhaps there is still a chance.”

A swell of murmurs circled the perimeter of the menhirs.  Kothalliel held up his hand.

Eidelain stepped forward and lifted Moffe’s chin.  He peered into the warden’s eyes, and Moffe felt his entire life was on display.  “Why?”  The Grand Mystic paused to probe more deeply.  “What is Elric Reichtoven to you?”

Moffe hesitated.  Beneath the Grand Mystic’s stare, his soul was laid bare.  He had no need to say anything, but anything less than complete honesty would forfeit all hope.  He gathered his wits and his words.  “Elric is nothing to me.  I barely know him, and what I’ve seen is unexceptional.  The Dragonslayers are little more than a motley assortment of outcasts.  But they took in the man you cast out.  Now, you have sent me on a quest, away from my home, to lead these same misfits back to Ordin’s grave.”  Moffe swallowed through an encroaching dryness in his throat.  “You believe Ordin fulfills a prophecy.  I believe the Dragonslayers are linked to him, and because you have linked me to them, I speak on their behalf.  They need Elric.”

The Grand Mystic turned away as murmurs spread around the circle of mystics.  “We will return with our decision.”  He stepped through the thicket, with the Hierophant and the other ten mystics closely following.

Moffe sagged back to his knees as his strength left him.

Half an hour later, as the skies lightened to the blue-gray of blanketing clouds, the Assembly returned.

“Arise,” Eidelain said.

Moffe struggled to comply.

“We have conferred.  As water flows downhill, your words ring true.  Indeed, Ordin has a purpose that cannot be fulfilled through his death, and so we would have him returned.  But as for Elric, Nature requires balance.  A life must be given for a life restored.”

Moffe’s breath stopped in his throat.  What?

“We will affect Elric’s return that he may be the willing sacrifice for Ordin.”

The warden’s breath returned with a torrent of anger.  “What!  You can’t do that!”  Fists balled at his side.

Kothalliel raised his arms.  “He is tainted by the Great Dragon’s progeny, made vile by Karashakon’s spawn.  He embraced the vestiges of the en—”

“That’s ridiculous!” Moffe vented.

“Watch yourself,” Eidelain warned.

“He wore a rinkin suit of armor, that’s all.  He’s no more tainted than the smith who made it.”

“Elric’s body is burned with infernal fire.”

“Ordin’s a pile of dry bones!”  Moffe tossed his arms and paced within the circle.  “What is happening here?  I asked you to raise Elric for Cora, and you’re telling me you’re going to raise him…to kill him?  Leave him dead then…what the cripe!”

“Mind your tongue, Moffet.”  Kothalliel loomed larger.  “You are in the Sacred Circle.”

“Cripe isn’t a vulgar term, but let me tell you what is vulgar—sending me to fetch your little pet project at the cost of—”

“Silence!”

The Circle boomed with the Hierophant Master’s voice.  Trees around the perimeter rattled and quaked, and several threw down their branches.  Kothalliel hovered above the ground, where the grass had withered in a radius around his footprints.  Moffe released the pommel of his sword and wondered when he had been so foolish as to grasp it.  “Forgive me,” he rasped, then fell prostrate.

Eidelain’s voice tempered to a fatherly tone.  “The Maker gave you two ears and one mouth.  And a mind capable of knowing the point of such a relationship.”

With his nose in the midst of dead grass, Moffe pleaded.  “Spare this fool.  I will do as you require.”

“You will retrieve Ordin’s body,” Eidelain said.  “We will attempt to raise Elric, who will be made the sacrifice for Ordin’s return.  However, we cannot know whether Elric is corrupted by the infernal fire that slew him.  If he returns corrupted, we will kill him to prevent defiling this Sacred Circle.  And Dehrian will take his place.”

Moffe blanched.  “No!  Not him; me!  I will take his place.”

Eidelain shook his head.  “A noble gesture, but you are quested.”

“Please…”  Moffe felt wrung out.  “Please take me.  Dehrian doesn’t deserve—”

“We have decided.”

Moffe fell flat into the ground, his sanguinity drained.  “As you wish.”  There was nothing more to say, nothing more to think.  Elric was going to be raised, as Cora had asked, but he was a dead man.  There was no way he could tell her that.  He hoped for Dehrian’s sake Elric was untainted.  “What about Odhasaim?  Doesn’t that help?”

Kothalliel returned to the ground, and as his bare feet touched the earth, the withered grass greened and blossomed with small yellow flowers.  “The spirit world cloaking our own like a warm garment is your friend’s best chance to return purified.  But it is yet a week away.  Until then, we will repair and preserve the body for its purpose.  But you must not delay your departure.”

Eidelain placed a hand on Moffe’s head.  “Receive Nature’s rest.”

A soothing calm spread through Moffe’s scalp and down his back like warm syrup, filling him with serenity and peace.  His skin prickled as vibrant energy flowed through him like a cold mountain stream, refreshing him as if he had slept all night.

 

                 

 

Elric crept along the bank of the River Eldstadt, hiding alone among the reeds as fiery balls of pitch sailed overhead.  “Berinar is an idiot,” he muttered to himself.  “An’ I know idiots.”

Across the field and out of reach of the flaming balls, he spotted the target of his plan: Colonel Latham’s magnificent white steed.  But he had to reach him without becoming yet another casualty.  The hillside was littered with the grisly scene of charred men.  He pitied them, then shook his head.  They’ll jis wake up inna mornin’.

He sheathed his sword, shouldered his shield, and picked up a crossbow and bolt case from one of the many slain.  Drawing in a breath of courage, he jogged away from his shelter.  A searing hot pitch-ball plunged into the ground behind him, showering him with dirt.  Jog turned into full run.  With sword slapping his left leg and shield crashing onto his back, Elric cut through a field of fresh craters and burning bodies, ducking, dodging, and defying death more times than he could count.

Finally, near the edge of the target area, he emerged covered in sweat and sooty dirt and flung himself into a patch of lush green grass unspoiled by war.  I made it!  I rinkin made it.

Sometime later, the sound of hooves nearby caught Elric’s breath, and he sat up enough to see without giving away his position.

Colonel Latham approached, sitting tall and proud in his saddle.  His eyes cast a faraway gaze at the battle raging safely in the distance.  He ain’t leadin’ these men at all!  He’s jis sittin’ it out.  Izzat what he does each day?  Well, let’s see how he likes this.

Elric pulled the string on the crossbow and dropped a bolt into position.  The white stallion trotted past with the colonel focused on the conflict.  Elric lifted the stock to his shoulder and stared down the sights.  The colonel raised and dipped in the saddle with perfect horsemanship, and Elric locked onto his back as he rode away.  With a gentle squeeze of the trigger, the string pierced the air with a twang, and the bolt lodged fletching-deep between two of Latham’s ribs.

Elric beamed as Colonel Latham stiffened with a yelp and toppled from his saddle.

 

                 

 

Cora awoke with a start and sat upright.  Someone had tapped her on the head, but as she scanned the clearing, she sat alone.  Kiyla turned a coney over a fire, and Cuauhtérroc chewed on one freshly cooked.  Both appeared well and unconcerned.

Another tap, and a trickle of water dribbled down her forehead.  Cora sat up and wiped her face.

“Startin’ to rain again,” Kiyla remarked, her brown eyes cast to the trees.

Moffe entered the clearing through the thicket.  He stopped short and exhaled a great breath.

“Good morning, Moffe,” Cora said.

“Yes, it’s morning,” Moffe replied.  The remnant of a scowl etched his face.  “Whether it’s good or not remains to be seen.”

“I take it things didn’t go so well?”

Moffe shrugged.

“What did you find out?”

“They will attempt to revive Elric.”

Cora squealed in delight, but the warden held up his hands.

“Not so fast.  I said they will attempt to, which means it’s not a guarantee.  In fact, they could fail entirely, or it could go horribly wrong.  They’re going to wait for Odhasaim, which gives them the greatest chance of success.  But it means he’s another week dead.”

Cora placed a hand to her mouth to hide her trembling jaw.  Like the cold morning rain quenching the campfire, Moffe’s words doused her flames of hope.  The chance was there, but he made it sound impossibly slim.  He’s gone.  She feared the fire would soon sputter its last.

The warden sat by the campfire in miserable silence.  Cora studied him, searching for unspoken details.  But he was unreadable, a solid rock.  And she was no mystic who could speak to rocks.  Her only option was to ask.  She knelt beside him at the struggling fire.  “You haven’t told me everything.  Something else is bothering you.”

Moffe paused, his gaze fixed on the dying embers.  “And I’m not going to tell you everything.  Much of what the Assembly discusses is held closely.  All you need to know is that we leave directly after breakfast.”

 

                 

 

For a moment, Elric’s stomach soured over shooting the colonel in the back.  It was a cowardly, ignoble act, and he knew it.  Worse, his sole motive was to steal the man’s horse and run away.  Murder, theft, and desertion—a perfect triad of cravenness.  He felt dirty, sullied by his reprehensible actions.

For three weeks and two days, Elric had been a part of the Battle of River Eldstadt.  In that time, he learned this battle had been raging unchanged for hundreds of years, with neither side gaining an inch of ground.  No one stopped to ask why.  Strategies had been replaced with endless charades, and no one thought to change things.  No one cared to achieve a real victory.  And so, as he shot the wounded colonel a second time, taking the officer’s life, Elric pushed through the shudders of his atrocities.  Ain’t like it’s really murder.  He’ll jis wake up tomorrow.

Like holding an inflated pig’s bladder underwater, Elric forced down feelings of treachery heaping upon him as he picked through the colonel’s belongings.  With a final swallow of his guilt, he buckled the officer’s prized longsword around his own waist and whistled for his horse.

The white stallion turned around and trotted up.  Elric patted the horse’s neck.  “It’s aw’ight.  I’ll take good care of ya.  We’re gonna ride outta this dung heap an’ see the country.  Mebbe see if we can find ol’ Vivian…or everwhat that chubby guy’s name was.  An’ speakin’ o’ names, I wonder what yers is…”

“Isaac,” the horse said.

Elric jumped, drew his new longsword, and pointed the tip at the lifeless body of Colonel Latham.  What the cripe?

“Don’t be a fool, Short One.  The colonel would not have answered and endangered himself to just the fate you intend to give him.  It was I who spoke to you, and if you’ll join me, we might have a decent conversation as we ride along.”

Elric slowly turned about to face a sight he had never imagined and wasn’t certain he wanted to see.  “I’ll be jiggered.”  His mother had often told him not to leave his mouth hanging open, but right now he didn’t care.  “You’re a talkin’ horse?”

“Not exactly,” said the horse.

Elric threw his arms into the air.  “This is the bestest thang ever!  I done got me a talkin’ warhorse!”

“You don’t quite ‘have’ me,” Isaac interjected.

“It’s like I died an’ went to Paradise.”

“You have died, else you would not be here.  And this is the First of the Seven Realms of Paradise, the place where courage is tested and purified.  So, it’s not like you died and went to Paradise; you actually did.”

Elric lowered his arms; his smile turned to grimace.  “Naw, it’s like I done got saddled wid another Cora.”

“Ironically, I’m the one bearing the saddle.”

“Oh, shut up, horse.”

“Not one minute ago, you were elated that I could talk.”

“Seriously…stop talkin’.”  Elric sighed as he climbed into the saddle.  Why does Paradise gotta be full of stupid people an’ smart-aleck horses?  With the natural ease of an accomplished rider, Elric flicked the reins, and the pair headed along a narrow trail down river, turning their backs to the endless, senseless battle.

“So, yer name is Isaac?” Elric asked when they entered the tree line.

“Yes, unfortunately.  It’s not a suitable name, I think.  I should have been named Quicksilver or Ashendown or Thunderhoof—something regal and representative of my kind, not a simple human’s name.”

“Ya got a last name?”

Isaac snorted and shook his head.  “Now you’re making fun at my expense.  I hope this is not the sort of thing I can expect as we travel.  I’m not accustomed to being the subject of jokes.”

The din of battle faded, replaced by the tranquil ambiance of a gentle breeze through the tree limbs.  The constant gurgling of River Eldstadt played in the background, flowing along their right and guiding their journey southward.

Elric ducked beneath a low branch.  “Did Latham know you could talk?”

“Yes, he did.”

“Wha’d y’all talk about?”

“We didn’t.”

“Huh…” Elric said after a moment of reflection.  “Ain’t that a shame.  So, what happens tomorrow mornin’?”

“I would hope to eat breakfast,” Isaac replied.

“Naw, I mean do I jis reappear back in the camp?  Do you jis pop up under Latham’s butt again?”

Isaac looked over his shoulder, briefly but long enough to chastise Elric with the glance.  Elric had seen that flash in Cora’s eyes aplenty, but it was far more threatening coming from a horse.

“You ride very well, Short One,” Isaac said after some time had passed.

Elric snapped the reins against Isaac’s neck.  “Aw’ight, I know I’m short.  Ya ain’t gotta act like it’s my name.”

“Pardon me, but you have not yet told me your name.”

“Oh…I’m Elric Reichtoven.”

“A good name it is,” Isaac said with a nod.  “It means Bringer of Storms, if you use the loose interpretation.  But I don’t think that describes you.  Perhaps you aren’t living up to your destiny?”

“I dunno.  Ordin had a destiny, but he died ‘fore he knew what it was.  I don’ cotton to that sort of thang, anyway.”

“Regardless, you ride very well.”

“Thanks.  I’s born to ride, ya know.”

“Perhaps that is your destiny.”

“I jis said I don’—oh…well, mebbe I cotton to a little bit.”

Another mile passed as Elric recalled his time with Ordin.  They were both dead, now, and that meant the mystic was somewhere in these realms.  Could he meet him?  Would they recognize each other?  Did he have a wolf at his side?  Did the wolf talk?

“Hey Isaac…”

“Yes?”

“Was ya always a horse?”

Isaac looked back at Elric with a puzzled gaze, then he tossed his head.  “I suspect my chances for meaningful conversation are dwindling.”

“I mean, was ya a horse before ya died and came here?”

“I have always lived here.”

“What?”

“Paradise is my home.  I was born five years ago outside a small town, perhaps a hundred miles or so from here.”

“Well, ain’t that sumpin!  I never reckoned on folks bein’ born here.  So, how is it you can talk?”

“Many denizens of the Maker’s Realms are gifted with intelligence and the ability to speak.  We may look like common animals to you, but we are not.  I suppose you could say we are perfected.  I don’t expect you to understand that.  Suffice it to say, I am from the Coleridge line of gerrazaldi, and we are generally considered among the finest breeds.”

“I jis cain’t wrap my head around it.  There ain’t no talkin’ horses where I’m from—ain’t no talkin’ animals of any kind.  Well, ‘at dragon we seen could talk, an’ hodekin an’ nisser got some kinda words ‘at don’ make no sense to me.  But they ain’t really animals, they’re dragon-bloods.  So, we jis call the Maker’s animals ‘dumb animals’ to differ ‘tween ‘em.  But you ain’t one o’ the dum’ns, an’ I jis cain’t latch onto that.”

Isaac nodded.  “Your world is limited in many respects when compared to mine.  You will find here many things you don’t expect.  For instance, some of the rivers of this Realm contain eddies that heal the drinker, something else you’ll not find in your world.”

They rode on for a while as Elric tried to absorb what he was hearing.  That it came from a horse was a constant distraction.  “How do ya know about my world?”

“I’ve been there.”

Elric’s eyes went wide, and he dropped the reins.  “Ya died an’ went to my world?”

Isaac shook his head.  “No, I have visited your world.  I was called there by a devoted paladin of Faith.”

“No kiddin’.”

“I served as his mount for three years before he was slain in a mighty battle against hordes of evil.  His death dismissed my charge, and I returned home to await the calling of another worthy paladin.”

After a time of quiet reflection, Elric leaned forward to pat the horse’s neck.  “I’m really glad to know ya, Isaac.”

Isaac tossed his head.  “Perhaps a friendship will form between us.  Whether it does or not, though, I must insist that you refrain from hugging my neck, kissing my nose, whispering endearing terms to me, or showing any other forms of affection normally foisted upon ‘dumb animals,’ as you call them.  I am not like them, and these public displays of affection are humiliating, especially since we are both male.  Your continuance might result in a well-placed hoof across your brow.”

Elric removed his hand as if Isaac’s neck was searing hot.  “Got it.”  He dropped the reins.  “Ya know this place better’n I do.  Take us everwhich way ya want.”

“Thank you, Elric.”

“An’ Isaac?”

“Yes?”

“Please don’ kick me if I fergit sometimes an’ pat ya on the neck.”

Isaac whinnied.  “I’ll try to refrain.”

 

                 

 

By mid-afternoon, the Company of Dragonslayers had followed Moffe to the edge of the forest where the trees thinned and the diffused sunshine seemed much brighter.  Grasses tall and pale, long overdue for the sickle, waved in a chill breeze.

Cuauhtérroc shivered and adjusted his panther pelt around his shoulders.  “Dees air is cold.”

Kiyla sparred with the air as she walked.  “It’s early for winter.”

“We need to buy some coats in the next town.”  Cora wrapped her arms around herself.  “How far away is the nearest settlement?”

Moffe plodded forward with grim determination, his head down and his feet steady.  “We’ll reach Edgewood by nightfall.”

“I hope we’re done with this journey by mid-winter.  I’d like to be home with my family for the festivities.”

“That depends on where we’re going.”  The warden stopped abruptly and turned around.  “You know where he’s buried, right?”

Cora paused and stared vacantly ahead.  Panic welled up in her as she studied the overcast sky for answers.  “West of here?”  She turned to Cuauhtérroc for help.

The savage shrugged.

Summoning all the knowledge she could manage, Cora provided her best answer.  “South of Westmeade by an underground lake.”  It wasn’t much, but maybe it was enough.

Moffe looked skeptical.  “You mean…in a cave?”

“No,” Cuauhtérroc said, “he is outside on dees ground.  We put dees rocks on top of heem.”

“So he’s buried aboveground?”

“Yes.”

“By the underground lake,” Cora added.

Moffe folded his arms and raised an eyebrow.  “He’s buried aboveground…in the underground?”

Cora frowned.  “No, he’s under the rocks beside the lake.”

“Which is underground.”

“Well…yes.”

“So he’s in a cave.”

“No…” Cuauhtérroc said again, “he die in dees cave by dees lake, but we get in dees boat and go on dees lake to take heem out of dees cave.”

Moffe nodded but not with understanding.

“It’s near a stupid place called Heavener,” Cora said.  That was the last detail she could remember.

“Oh…”  Moffe resumed his steady pace.  “You mean Black Lake.”

“Sorry.  I didn’t know it had a name.”

As Moffe predicted, they reached Edgewood shortly after the sun had slipped out of sight, plunging the world into a quickening darkness.  The clouds had rolled along, permitting the final vestiges of heat to escape.  A cozy inn ahead invited Cora’s warmest thoughts, and a warm mead and a thick blanket induced a deep sleep.

They left Edgewood better prepared for the oncoming winter, with canvas tents, extra blankets, and woolen coats lined with rabbit fur.  The extra gear slowed their journey, but with sparse settlements for days in any direction, there were no horses for sale and little reason to expect warm beds each night.

Fresh blankets of clouds rolled in like waves on the sea, ripples of blue-gray that erased the warmth of sunshine.  Conversation inevitably turned to the grim task ahead of them or the daunting task soon to take place behind them, the two topics no one felt like discussing.  The landscape—hill country devoid of man or beast—mirrored the emptiness in Cora’s heart.  Images of Elric consumed in a raging inferno haunted her memory.  It would forever torment her if he could not be raised.  She would quit freeblading and pay her deepest respects to the Reichtovens.  And she’d never forgive herself.

A lone tear trickled down her cheek, cold and solitary.

 

                 

 

After a long day of riding, Elric dismounted beside an eddy of the River Eldstadt, where he and Isaac took a refreshing drink.  The rush of healing waters flooded through him, invigorating him with energy.  “Woo-hoo!” he yelled, and his voice echoed across the river valley.

Isaac shook his mane.  “I struggle with the point of that.”

“That’s ‘cause yer too starchy.  Ya gotta loosen up—say!  Ya wanna go swimmin’?” Elric dropped his shield and unbuckled his armor.

“That is beneath my dignity.”

“See, that’s what I’m talkin’ ‘bout.”  Elric laughed as he pulled his shirt off.  “I ain’t never heard of a horse ‘at didn’t swim.”

“As I told you, I’m not a simple horse; I am gerrazaldi.  We do not romp in rivers like the beavers and bears.”

“Well, whatcha do fer a bath, then?”

Isaac snorted and resumed his drink.

“Ya do take baths, don’cha?”

Isaac looked up and across the river.  “Yes, of course I bathe.  But the details are not a subject of discussion.”

Elric unfastened his trousers, then paused.  “Turn around.”

“Why?”

“I’m ‘bout to drop my draw’rs.”

Isaac turned away with another snort, and Elric shouted with joy as he ran down the bank and plunged headlong into the river.  His eyes shot open wide, and only by pure strength of will did he avoid gasping for air.  The water near the bank had been warmed by the sun, but further out where he could swim it was breath-stealing cold.  As his head emerged, he screeched and thrashed about to counteract becoming a ball of frozen muscle.  “Cripe, that’s freezin’!”

Isaac whinnied in mirth, stamping his foot and tossing his head.  “That would be another reason I prefer not to swim in the River Eldstadt.”

Elric scrambled up the bank as fast as he could, nakedness and all, caring not who was watching.  He scowled at Isaac as he grabbed his clothes.  “Quit yer laughin’.  It ain’t funny.”

“Actually, presumption foiled is the pinnacle of humor.”

A portly blonde-haired man dressed in armor similar to Elric’s approached from further down the trail.  “What’s all the commotion about?  I heard high-pitched screams and a large splash in the water.  Is everything all right?  Oh…I’m sorry.  You’re…you’re Elric, aren’t you?”

Elric quickly pulled up his trousers and spun around to face the man.  “Biddie!” he exclaimed as he recognized the traveler.  “I was…uh… jis takin’ a dip.”

“My name is Vidimir.  Isn’t the water a bit cold for that?”

“Yeah…yeah it is,” Elric answered with a quick glare over his shoulder.

“Because,” Isaac said, “this river is fed by continual snowmelt.”

Vidimir gasped.  “The horse talks!  By Skrattafell, it’s the colonel’s horse!”  His eyes lighted on the glimmering longsword in its decorated sheath.  “And you have the colonel’s sword.  Oh, Elric, what have you done?”  He trembled and backed away.  “This is not good.”

Elric held out his hands.  “Look, it ain’t like he’s permanent dead.”

“You killed him?”

“Well, I weren’t exactly sure which side—”

Vidimir staggered.  “You switched sides?”

“Hey…no one else was leadin’—”

“I can’t believe it.  The unadulterated perfidy!”

“What?”

Vidimir sat on a log with a dejected plop, his face in his hands.  “I can’t believe I followed you…”

Elric turned around to Isaac, his eyes pleading for help.

The warhorse snorted softly.  “You did slay your superior officer in cold blood.”

“That ain’t helpin’, Isaac.  I switched sides jis then, so I kilt the enemy.  An’ now I ain’t on nobody’s side.”  He turned to the miserable man.  “Look, Vid, I jis had to get outta there.  I cain’t do the same thang over an’ over ever single day.  Makes no sense.  I’m gonna find Skrattafell the ol’ fashion way—jis walk there.”

Vidimir stared through vacant eyes.

Elric held out a hand.  “Ya wanna come wid me?”

The portly man bit his lip.  “How do I know you won’t kill me for my sword?”

Elric started to give a defense, but he clamped his mouth shut.  Vidimir had a point.  There wasn’t much he could say that would ease the man’s justifiable fear.  “I reckon that’s fair.  I promise I ain’t like ‘at.  If ya don’t wanna come, I understand.  But if ya do, me an’ Isaac’s headin’ south along the river, an’ you’re welcome.”

Vidimir shook his head.  “I don’t think I can.  Everything I’ve known since arriving here has changed.  I actually slept through the past two nights instead of reconstituting, and I realize that battle is not the only thing to be done here.  But now, I find that my last trusted friend is a murderer.  No, I think it is better if we part ways and, hopefully, never see each other again.  Besides, you’re not going to last long around here.”

“Whatcha mean by that?”

With a grunt, Vidimir stood and dusted off the seat of his pants.  He gave Elric a saddened look of disdain, then brushed past him as he ventured further along the trail.

It was some time before Elric moved, and not until Isaac nudged him in his back.  “I think we had best be going.”

Elric released a long sigh.  “Ya reckon I done wrong, Isaac?”

“Yes.  You murdered the colonel, and that is as wrong in the Maker’s Kingdom as it is in your home world.  Moreso, actually.”

“But I switched sides…”

“No, you didn’t.”

Elric turned around to argue with the stallion, but Isaac’s piercing stare forced him to contend with his guilt.  The gerrazaldi’s regal face waxed stern as his nostrils flared in a quick sniff.

“You might as well go on an’ leave me, too, then.”

Isaac nudged him again, the ferocity in his eyes replaced with kindness.  “I won’t do that.”

Elric’s voice cracked.  “How can ya let me ride ya, seein’ as I’m a murderer…an’ you bein’ all good an’ noble?”

“Because I know that’s not who you are.  You desire to amend your ways, so I have forgiven your brash and foolish deed.”

Elric sniffed.  “How can ya fergive me?”

“I am gerrazaldi, a servant of the Maker.  I smell emotion as flowers in bloom upon your forehead.  You reek of remorse, an odious scent resembling the nepenthe, and just as consuming.  Now, let us speak of it no more.”

Elric nodded and slowly climbed into Isaac’s saddle.  Together they ambled down the trail with the flow of the River Eldstadt.  “Isaac,” Elric whispered, “I’m really sorry.”

“And I said speak of it no more.”

“So…where do we go from here?”

Isaac paused and searched their surroundings.  “There’s a place near here I would like you to see.  Come.”

“Well, I kinda have to if I’m sittin’ on yer back.”

Isaac lowered and shook his head, but he picked up his pace along the trail.  After several miles, the river on their right increased in speed and intensity, and a tumultuous roar slowly faded into Elric’s hearing.  The riverbed narrowed and deepened, cascading over boulders with a ferocity not seen before, then swelled and lifted over a sharp precipice before plunging over a pinnacle.  Here, where trees clung precariously to the banks with gnarled roots exposed by eons of erosion, Isaac stopped and lifted his head to the horizon.

With the din of a waterfall crashing on rocks hundreds of feet below, Elric dismounted and walked with all quiet reverence to the bluff’s edge.  Eagles soared at eye level in the distance, far above the tops of towering pines that covered both sides of the river valley.  Beyond it all, like a canvas backdrop, the sky shimmered with a layered blaze of vibrant colors—indigoes overhead that transformed to reds, then oranges, and finally to deep yellows where sky met ground a thousand miles away.

Elric exhaled sharply in a sudden sense of his own smallness.  Without a word, he sat on the ground and gazed across the scape.  Never before had he simply stopped, and never solely to observe.

An hour of quiet reflection passed, as the sunless sky darkened to a violet-blue.  “It’s beautiful,” Elric whispered at last.

Isaac nodded.  “I never tire of coming here when I can.”

“Isaac, I’m awfully sorry fer—”

“Elric.”  The gerrazaldi stamped his hoof.

“Sorry…”

Five days of travel passed without meeting another person, which left Elric wondering about both the vastness of the First Realm and the seeming lack of settlements.  Isaac assured him there were millions of inhabitants.  Skrattafell was a transitory realm for most people on their way to the Seventh Realm, so few stayed long enough to establish anything.  There was the grand city of Skrattafell, of course, for which the realm was named, but that was a long, long ways off.

On the evening of the fifth day, the River Eldstadt sparkled with brilliant orange flashes of light across the eddies and swirls, and the wildflowers became ablaze with fiery hues.  Wispy clouds overhead transformed from pink to orange, scarlet, and lavender as the light slipped below the horizon and out of view.

Elric spotted a cottage a half-mile ahead—the first building he had seen since leaving the battle—and Elric sat up with joy at the prospect of speaking to another person.

A man chopped wood into kindling under the light of a pair of oil lanterns.  He stopped as he noticed the approaching horse and rider, leaving the axe head buried in the foundation stump, and propped an arm on the upright handle to wait.

Elric leaned forward to Isaac’s ears.  “What do I tell ‘im?  I cain’t say we run off from a battle, or that I kilt the colonel and stole his horse!”

Isaac snorted.  “You’re not going to leave it alone, are you?”

“Well, you shore cain’t start into talkin’ noways!”

“I’m no fool.”

“So, what’s our story?”

“You wear armor and shield.  You carry an officer’s sword and ride a warhorse.  There’s no need to say which battle we’re from, so I recommend you simply say you have been separated from your company and are lost.  That much is true.”

“Thanks.”  Elric patted Isaac’s neck, and the gerrazaldi tensed beneath the touch.  “Sorry…again.  I know ya don’ like huggin’ an’ like such as.  But it prolly looked ‘bout right to him.”

“I suppose it did.”

Elric waved to the man.  “Evenin’ sir!”

“A good evening to you!” the man called back.  “What brings you to these parts?”

Elric straightened in the saddle and rode into the man’s yard, his head filled with a churning mixture of confidence and dread.  The man appeared grandfatherly, wizened but strong, as if he had worked hard all his life and learned much.  It seemed life had been good to him rather than breaking him down.  His hair was thick but grayed; his blue eyes, bordered by lines of laughter, sparkled even in the fading light.

“My name’s Elric,” he said as he dismounted and tossed Isaac’s reins over a tree branch.  He stepped into the lamplight beside the older man.  “I’m a local warrior in these here parts, but me an’ my horse got separated from the cavalry an’ now we’re lost.”

The man observed him for a moment, then glanced over Elric’s shoulder at Isaac, who stood not much like a dumb animal at all, his eyes clear and perceptive even while grazing on a tuft of grass near the tree.  “My name is Argyle,” he said with a smile.  “Whether you are a warrior and that is your horse is questionable, but I am certain you are not ‘local.’  Your accent is unlike any I have heard in all my life.  But these particulars are of no concern.  Surely you are tired and in need of a good meal.  After all, you won’t last long here.”

Elric started.  Why did he jis say that?  Why is ever’body sayin’ that?  Am I fixin’ to be banished?  Am I gonna die fer real?

“Here,” Argyle said, “gather the firewood onto that rack by the house, and I’ll stable your horse.  You are welcome to stay the night as well if you seek lodging.”

“Thank you,” Elric said with a sigh of relief.  The mention of a meal and lodging made his stomach growl and his joints ache.  Grateful for the hospitality, he stacked the firewood with haste.

When the job was complete, he entered the house by the front door.  A small fire crackled in the fireplace, filling the cottage with ample warmth for the cooling night.  It was simply furnished, but each item was hand-crafted and solid.  Cushions adorned a wooden rocking chair and high-backed stool that flanked either side of an oval braided rug in front of the hearth.  A pair of gleaming longswords hung crisscrossed over the mantle, which was draped with a hand-stitched runner.

The back door opened as Argyle entered the kitchen.  “Put the water on the fire if you don’t mind,” he hollered to Elric.  “I’ll wash and peel the potatoes.”

Elric spotted the cast iron pot hanging from a sturdy hook that swiveled out over the hearth.  It was already filled with water, so he nudged the hook to position the pot over the fire.

While Argyle worked in the kitchen, Elric strolled about the front room, looking at what made this house a home.  A bookcase against the opposite wall held dusty tomes and a handful of scrolls, and in one corner stood a lute on a hand-crafted wooden stand.  Cora would love this place.  Near the door leading to the kitchen hung a small decorative shelf on the wall.  It held a few small trinkets: a scrap of black fur, a tattered leather glove, a lock of amber hair bound in green ribbon, and a small brass emblem of a nine-pointed sunburst made from three triangles.  Wait jis a minute…  Curiosity turned into suspicion.

“Do you like onions, Elric?” Argyle asked as he stepped through the doorway.

Elric jumped, glancing at him, then back at the items on the shelf.  “Yeah, onions are good.”  He pointed to the shelf.  “Say, what are these things?”

Argyle smiled.  “Those things remind me of my late wife.”  He walked back into the kitchen.  “What about turnips?  Not everyone likes them.”

“I like ‘em.”  Elric studied the small shelf again.  His late wife?  Mebbe so, but that’s Cuauhtie’s panther, Kiyla’s glove, and a lock o’ Cora’s hair…or I’m a monkey’s uncle.  But the sun; I don’ know who that’s for.

“You like carrots, too, right?” Argyle called out.

“Yeah, an’ if you put green pepper in ‘ere it’ll be jis like my ma’s homema—”

“I know.”

A chill stood the hairs on Elric’s neck.  How’d he know that?  The blood drained from his face as he crept into the kitchen.  Argyle stood at a sturdy wooden table littered with the sliced ingredients for Eloise Reichtoven’s heartwarming stew.  In lieu of an apron covering rugged coveralls and dingy shirt—his clothing only seconds ago—Argyle now wore clean, white linens, edged and tasseled in red.

“It’s time, Elric,” Argyle announced.

Elric’s throat went completely dry.  “Time fer what?”

“It’s time for you to go home…if that’s what you want to do.  You’re being called home by a cabal of mystics.  If you prefer, you can stay here, have a warm bowl of your favorite stew, spend the night, and carry on toward Skrattafell in the morning.  It’s your choice.”

The weight of Argyle’s disclosure buckled Elric’s knees.  He grasped the table for bracing.  “I don’t rightly know.  I mean, I been here purt near a month, but it don’t seem like I done nothin’.  An’ I jis met ya…and what about Isaac?”

“We talked.  He’s waiting for the calling of a paladin.”

“What?”  Elric hung his head.  “Cripe, I told him not to say nothin’.”

“Elric Reichtoven of Westmeade.”  Argyle’s voice boomed.

Elric’s heart began to pound.  He lifted his head, his eyes wide in wonder.  Argyle no longer resembled a kind grandfather; he had transformed into a gleaming white being of energy limned in red radiance.  Every detail of the cottage came into crisp focus as if all shadows had been driven from the room, as if every secret was revealed.  Blood pulsed through his chest, a drumming that signaled fear in reasonable people.  Yet he was not afraid.

Argyle’s voice resonated again.  “I am the avatar of Light, a messenger for the Maker, the Father of Light.  You need not fear, and you need not worry about Isaac.  You need only make the choice.”

“Are…” Elric choked, “are ya still Argyle?”

The avatar frowned.  “Yes, of course I am.  You have a serious choice to make—perhaps several.  The first one is this: do you want to go home or not?”

With the clarity of a crystal bell, Elric understood, and all thoughts vanished save one.  The brass sunburst on the shelf is ME!  I’m s’pose to represent the Light.  I’s born to ride and carry the Light of the Maker.  I done rode a paladin’s horse…  Cripe, I’m s’pose t’be a paladin!  He stood as tall as his short frame would allow.  Resolve filled his soul, driving away doubt and uncertainty.  Everything made sense—his restlessness, his discontent, his uncanny skill in the saddle—all of it now resonated with abundant clarity.

Elric snatched a carrot slice from the table and tossed it in his mouth.  “Send me home.  I’m gonna be a paladin!”

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