Authors: K.J. Hargan
They both smiled.
"What if they are all dead?" Zik carefully asked.
"I think if Deifol Hroth has succeeded, no one on earth would be alive," Arnwylf quietly answered.
Zik patiently nodded in agreement, and waited.
"I have to believe some of my family is alive," Arnwylf said down to the waves. "I have to believe that she is safe, and I will see her again some day." Arnwylf suddenly grew very serious. "I have to believe," he said, "that I can beat him. I don't know how. I don't know how I will do it. Even if it costs me my life, I have to beat him."
"What happened to the boy who struggled with his faith in the greater powers," Zik said with a smile.
"I have to have faith in myself before I worry about anything else," Arnwylf solemnly said.
Zik looked down at the ocean without speaking.
"I wish you all the luck in the world," Zik finally said. "I don't know if there is any way I can help you, but I will try."
A large sea bird paced the ship. Moonlight brightly shone on its large, white wings. It hardly moved at all, gliding, allowing the currents of the air to push it along. Arnwylf wondered if the bird could sleep like that, effortlessly floating on the breezes of the ocean. He envied the seemingly carefree life of that sea bird.
"Hmm," Zik said. "They say such a bird off your bow is good luck." Then Zik turned to face Arnwylf.
"I will miss you, young Wealder," Zik said with uncharacteristic seriousness. "I expect you to win. And if you come back to my land dead, I will kill you." Then Zik's eyes filled with tears, and he could no longer speak. He shook his head, and then stole away to his cabin to be alone.
Arnwylf looked out at the vast dark green of the ocean, shining bands of rippled moonlight. He could not be a sea bird and simply allow life to push him where it willed. He had to make a stand and face his great enemy, for those he loved, for her. Arnwylf stared down into the water, and thought of Frea the rest of the night.
The Kyrial sailed north, ever north, through the peaceful night, its three red sails filled with a gentle, persistent wind.
The Ulokem Swogger
"He humiliated me," Ravensdred growled as he picked his way through the rocks of the steep mountain. "I don't care about Arnwylf anymore. The dark haired glaf boy with the silver, elvish weapon, I want him. I want to eat his living flesh, while he screams, in front of his loved ones."
The Snowcloak Mountains were tall, jutting, knife-edge crags of blue and grey stone, always capped with white, a hard day's march east of the coast of the Far Grasslands. The mountain chain imperiously divided the Easternlands from the Far Grasslands. The passes of the Snowcloak Mountains were dangerous with ice, treacherous with avalanches, and wild humans dwelt in the hidden valleys.
"Yes," Baalenruud said, "Ronenth, with the paricale. He was magnificent wasn't he?"
Ravensdred seethed, his massive frame shaking with anger. He wanted to kill the strange creature called an aesir, but he knew better than to try to attack him. She had power. He could never die. She was reborn again and again. And he always had two bodies, one with which to fight, and one that he used for communication.
The battle body for the aesir this time was pathetic. Baalenruud had been killed by the elf at the battle of Byland, when the land bridge to Wealdland had been destroyed by that fool Stavolebe, who had unleashed a primordial power too intense for him to control.
Baalenruud picked her way over the rocky trail with relative ease due to her being reborn as a hind, a female deer, with a long, perhaps too long, graceful neck. The hind's body was a soft tan, white under belly, and hornless. Baalenruud looked back at Ravensdred with her dark, innocent eyes that only a deer had.
Ravensdred's stomach growled with emptiness, and he wondered if an aesir tasted good.
Traveling in the high mountains was safest in the spring, when the snow was lightest, and the risk of avalanche lowest. But, the narrow, rocky path across the steep mountain trail was still difficult, and not something any garond preferred. Garonds liked nice, dry, flat land, like the plains of the Far Grasslands, on which it was easy to hunt. The subterfuge and deviousness of forests and mountains made garonds uneasy.
"The dark haired human boy bested me," was all that Ravensdred would admit. "In front of all my troops, he made me look feeble and weak."
"It was the paricale," Baalenrrud said as he looked down into the deep drop of the mountainside. "All you need is a weapon of equal power. And then you may destroy him at your leisure."
Ravensdred shivered, even for a gentle looking deer, Baalenruud had an eerie quality about him. The aesir was neither female, nor male, but both. She had two bodies, and was immortal. Everything about the creature smelled of the unnatural. Ravensdred, even with his empty stomach, felt slightly nauseous whenever he had to look at the thing.
But if it had power to give, Ravensdred thought, if this weapon is truly as powerful as she says, then it will be worth the dangerous trek into the Snowcloak Mountains.
"This body is good only for climbing and running," Baalenruud complained. "I have never had such a weak body in all my lives."
Ravensdred grunted in the pretense of attention.
"You should have seen some of my bodies," Baalenruud bleated. "Once I was a mighty wyrm, with wings and fangs. All trembled before me. And then I had that damnable vision. If only I hadn't had the vision."
"What vision?" Ravensdred asked with boredom, as a rock edge crumbled under his massive feet. He leapt sideways, and pushed his body against the cliff face to keep from tumbling into the abyss below. The blue granite yawned below with jagged rock spears thirsty for Ravensdred's blood.
"There are places on the earth," Baalenruud whispered. "Places where any can see the future. I saw that the elf girl would bring me the last death."
"You mean you would never come back?"
"Yes," Baalenruud said with a shiver of inner terror. "I won't come back, and Iounelle, the last elf of Lanis, will be the one to do it."
"So let me guess," Ravensdred sneered, "you tried to kill an elf child in the middle of the elf capital."
"It was self defense," Baalenruud said with indignation. "And I didn't go to merely slay the little one. I brought the Star Yeno to buy her life. A fair trade."
"The Star Yeno?"
"The Star Yeno fell to earth a thousand years ago," Baalenruud said as she easily picked her way along the narrow ledge, "and the black lump of metal was treasured by a race far east of here."
"I'll bet they didn't give it up easily," Ravensdred taunted.
"Let us just say," Baalenruud darkly said with a sickening laugh, "they were a delicious people."
"So you were the one to bring the Star Yeno to the elf smith Weylund," Ravensdred said shaking his head. "You brought the metal with which the elf oreauthor made the Arrows of Yenolah, the arrows foretold as the only way to stop my Master."
"It wasn't my fault!" Baalenruud said defensively. "How was I to know!? Does Deifol Hroth hold this against me?" Baalenruud whispered the Dark Lord's name as if he could hear her. The deer fearfully looked about as if the Lord of Lightning might be standing on any of the granite cliffs towering overhead.
"The Lord of All Evil Magic has more important things to do than worry about some stupid Wanderer," Ravensdred growled.
"The parents of the elf child killed me," Baalenruud said with incredulity, shaking his deer-like head. "Two little elf warriors killed my beautiful wyrm body. But they got themselves killed for their trouble," Baalenruud said with relish. And then the aesir seemed to look off into the vault of time and remember that awful night hundreds of years ago on the banks of the River Miriam.
"Elves are the most dangerous things in this world," Ravensdred said through gritted fangs.
"Once we were great friends," Baalenruud said with wide eyes, looking back at Ravensdred. "Before I was the wyrm, I was Wylkeho Darm, the Great Bear. I helped them build their towers."
"And my Lord felled those towers," Ravensdred said with a sneer as he inched along a narrower part of the path.
"Yes, and He has used all the elvish bricks to make His great citadel in the heart of Wealdland," Baalenruud said with wide-eyed wonder, like an impressed child. "His citadel is impenetrable because of the dark shadow he has cast over the bricks of Lanis Rhyl Landemiriam."
"Are we near?" Ravensdred impatiently asked. The cold and height was making the garond more irritable than usual. Ravensdred liked to kill something to calm his mind. The aesir would definitely pay if there was no 'special weapon' at the end of this precarious hike.
"It is a strange thing to be reborn," Baalenruud said ignoring Ravensdred's question. "I feel the pain and darkness of death... And then I am alive again. I find myself in a field, on a beach, or on a mountaintop... much like these mountains. I remember everything. And it always happens at dawn. I wake with the rising sun, as if my birth had been hidden by night."
"The unnatural hidden by night, how appropriate," Ravensdred muttered.
"What was that?" Baalenruud asked. Ravensdred just shook his head in denial.
"I remember my first life," Baalenruud said with inner wonder. "I was a glow of light. Just imagine, a glow of light! I was the first of the aesir. I think there was another with me, before my first life, an old friend. But how could I have an old friend if I was just being born?" Baalenruud shook his head and continued.
"There were one hundred and eleven aesir, after me. They may have been my children. I don't remember. The Fellananth were the first creation. They were there waiting for us, waiting for millennia upon millennia. The aesir were created to serve the Fellananth. They were immortal and perfect. So perfect, the Great parent took them back to serve in the highest places. Then the aesir were left alone on earth."
"What happened to the others of your kind, the aesir?" Ravensdred asked trying to not let the sheer drop occupy his thoughts. Below, the rock appeared to Ravensdred to be titanic teeth opened wide to crunch his bones. The ledge had tapered so much that Ravensdred had to push his back across the rock face, and inch along sideways.
"Half were killed by the Great Parent..."
"We rebelled when the People of Light were brought to earth," Baalenruud said with a far away look of remembrance. "We hated the elves. How dare they ruin our beautiful garden! We killed some of them. They killed some of us. This was how we first knew we would be reborn. But the Great Parent simply took half of us away and said 'Peace'. So there was peace."
"And then humans came," Ravensdred said with disgust.
"Oh no," Baalenruud said, "not for a long time. First there was the war of the aesir. A division arose between the leaders Ulanallemi and Thedamellano. This is when we discovered that when aesir kills aesir, there is no rebirth."
"How many were left after the war?" Ravensdred asked with prurient interest. The path widened and Ravensdred could once again walk normally. The blue and white granite seemed more brittle, the higher they traveled, and flaked away at the slightest touch.
"Eight," Baalenruud quietly said. "Then four went home."
"If an aesir kills herself," Baalenruud solemnly said, "then also, no rebirth."
"So you had just three friends left," Ravensdred said as he struggled over a rocky, uneven part of the path.
"The elves killed Kamacenelli, and he was never reborn," Baalenruud said, "I think she didn't want to come back, and so it was like a suicide." Baalenruud was quiet for a moment of grief, then continued. "When the humans came to earth they killed Noveveanas, who also didn't come back."
"And the last two were you and-?"
"I don't know what happened to Woceaplean," Baalenruud said with wistfulness. "She just left. He may still live. I look for her sometimes. Not very much anymore. I have traveled so far looking for him. Traveled so far..."
"If you found... your friend," Ravensdred asked, "Could you procreate? Bring more aesir into the world?"
"I do not know if aesir can have offspring," Baalenruud turned to look at Ravensdred until the garond felt completely uncomfortable.
"Some day I must try," the hind said, and then turned back to the trail. "Keep your eyes open for humans. They live in the Snowcloak Mountains."
There were many humans in this land. The garonds avoided the eastern areas at all costs. The humans who moved through the Snowcloak Mountains were wild and uncivilized, sneaky and unpredictable, and best left to themselves.
Ravensdred rubbed his great paw across his mouth. He would have to eat soon. He was beginning to feel the weakness that comes with hunger.
Ravensdred was a garond. The race that lived mainly in the Far Grasslands. His face was ape-like. Most garonds were short and squat, yet muscular and stronger than any human. Ravensdred was unique in that he was taller than most garonds by two heads and slightly taller than most humans. His body was massive. His shoulders were twice as broad as any other garond.
And, like all of his race, a fine, dark fur covered Ravensdred's body. But he was different from other garonds because of his intelligence. He could plan. He understood the appeal of the arts. And, he could speak the common language of the Weald. Whereas most ordinary garonds had trouble with their own language, depending on grunts and gestures to be understood.
It was rumored that garonds had been created by the Great Parent to be the custodians of the earth. And it was true, all garonds had a strange connection to the natural realm. They seemed to simply, instinctively understand the flow of the environment, and the patterns of the animal world. They rarely suffered from lack of game, thirst, or exposure to the elements.
But the Dark One had come, Deifol Hroth, the nine hundred year old human wizard, possessed of a strange demon. He started a new religion, turning the superstitious garonds to the worship of his evil presence, instead of the worship of the earth, the primal spirit of the animal and plant that had been their happy belief for millennia.
Ravensdred feared Deifol Hroth. His power was real and dangerous. But, other than the Dark Lord of All Evil Magic, Ravensdred trusted only in his massive fists and the violence that they could provide. His strength had given him honor and glory. Ravensdred's god was the destruction he could visit on any living thing, a real and satisfying god.
When he had been made commanding general of the garond armies, Ravensdred's first victory over humanity had been against the glafs. Driven near to extinction by wars with the Kingdom of Man to the north, the effort against Glafemen had been boring. The human warriors put up a good fight, but they were out numbered ten to one. Already badly beaten by their brother nation to the north, it was no war or campaign, merely a clean up assignment.
Then he took his forces into Wealdland against the humans of Kipleth. It was a carefully organized sneak attack, designed to eradicate every woman, child and elderly person while the armies of Kipleth were away at war supporting the Northern Kingdom of Man against their age-old enemies, Reia.
The thought of the raid into Kipleth left a sour taste in Ravensdred's mouth. It was a strategic maneuver. It was designed, by his Master, to break the nation of Kipleth, an easy target. And it had worked. But there was no glory in slaughter.