On the Road to Jwassax
Gideone looked upon the blonde-haired elf and said, "What does it matter who I am or where I’ve come from? The past has no meaning to men such as I. I’ve left my home and come in search of adventure, and you, sir, are the first person I've met who might be able to provide me with that."
It was a strange yet beautiful scene that Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan found themselves in. Above them the sky was covered with gray clouds from which fell a gentle, soaking rain. But to the east the sky was clear, and the sun shone down and cast its rays not only upon the countryside beneath it, but also across that which surrounded the three travelers. It had the effect of making the landscape wonderfully beautiful and mysterious, for it was not often the sun shone even as the rain fell.
Gideone laughed. He was soaking wet, but what did he care?
"'Tis a beautiful day!" he declared. His horse snorted and shook its head, sending water flying all about.
"It seems your horse begs to differ," observed Stavros.
"That is only because he’s not spent the last four years of his life trapped in a castle, forced to be the prince of a whole country, when he would much rather be off wandering the Realm as a commoner.
"Besides, what does it matter if my horse disagrees with me? Am I not allowed to think the day beautiful simply because a dumb beast does not?"
"The day may be beautiful, Your Highness, but I doubt it’s good for your health. I’d be far happier if we were at an inn and you were sitting warm and dry next to a crackling fire."
"But if I were sitting in an inn in front of a warm, crackling fire I would miss this beautiful day."
"Faith, Stavros, you put yourself into a such a pother over things which are entirely out of your control."
"I think it wise to at least notice the problems you face, Your Highness."
Gideone rolled his eyes, and sighing, turned to the older man. "I’m not blind. I see the rain, and I know a man who’s soaked to the bone can easily catch his death. But I also know that I must ride through the rain whether I wish to or not, so, I might as well enjoy myself.
"If a man must die upon the morrow is he not allowed to be merry the night before? Or must he spend the night in worry and despair over that which is inevitable?" He was silent for a moment, then added, "I see not why you should worry at all–especially over things which are beyond your control–considering the god you serve is reputed to be the most powerful god in the whole of Deithanara."
Stavros sighed and did not answer. He had learned long ago that whenever Gideone brought up the subject of Joretham it was only so that he could go around in circles for the next hour arguing over whether or not the god existed. The prince found some sort of amusement in that, an amusement Stavros could never understand.
When Gideone saw that Stavros would not answer, he looked around once more at the countryside and, with a laugh, said, "Well, rain or shine–or perhaps I ought to say rain and shine–'tis still a beautiful day."
They rode on in peace and relative quiet for the space of half an hour when they came upon a stranger–a woman. Her back was to them, and she sat upon a small, brown horse which was making its way slowly down the road in the same direction as Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan. Her bright garments were entirely soaked as was her brown hair, but she sang to herself as though she were the most happy, contented person in Lairannare.
At the sound of their horses, she turned. She was young–no more than twenty. She had a homely face, but her eyes, which were soft and brown, were alive with such life and joy that her lack of beauty was hardly noticeable.
"Good day, sirs," she said with a smile.
"Good day," returned Stavros with a nod of his head and a slight smile of his own.
"Aye," said Vayan with a grin, "a beautiful day."
Gideone looked guardedly at her for a moment.
"Hello," he finally said, with no trace of his former smile left upon his lips.
She laughed and, turning to Stavros, said, "My, you certainly have a suspicious friend here."
"In days such as these, suspicion is an advisable trait," answered Stavros. "In sooth, I’m surprised you yourself show less of it."
She smiled. "Perhaps I have no reason to fear. Perhaps I'm a powerful Magic. Perhaps I'm Provenna herself in disguise." She suddenly held her hand to her mouth and exclaimed, "Oh! I should never have said that; now you'll think I really am Provenna."
"Well, I don't think ye're Provenna," said Vayan.
"Nor do I," said Stavros. "However, I do wonder why it is that you, who are but a maid, are riding alone. 'Tis a dangerous thing to do at any time but especially so in days as dark as these."
"Sir, I’m a bard and storyteller. I have no family so I travel throughout Lairannare, spreading my songs and my stories as I go, and trusting in Joretham to keep me safe. Perhaps it was he who is responsible for our meeting. We’re all riding in the same direction, and were I to travel with you I’d no longer be in danger."
"You imply, of course," interrupted Gideone, "that we’re men whom you can trust and men who will allow you to ride with us–neither of which are certain."
She turned to him and gave a slight smile. "You really are a very suspicious man, sir."
"What’s your name?" asked Stavros of the maid before the prince could say more.
"Phautina" she answered.
"Ah, Phautina..." He looked intently upon her. "You have a good face."
"Stavros, Vayan," said Gideone, his commanding tone unmistakable, "come here." He turned his horse and rode a short distance away. The two men followed him.
"What do you think you’re doing?" Gideone hissed. "That woman could easily be an enemy."
"Your Highness," answered Stavros, "she could just as easily be exactly what she claims, and if we simply leave her here we’ll no doubt arouse her suspicions."
"I think we've already roused her suspicions," said Vayan as he looked back. Phautina was gazing at them across the distance.
"Your Highness," continued Stavros, "I fail to understand why you’ve taken such a disliking to this woman."
"I know not," answered the prince. "But there’s something about her that seems not right. I know not how I know, but I am certain she’s more than what she appears."
Stavros hesitated and looked back at her.
"You feel she’s an enemy, and I feel she’s a friend," said he slowly. "Methinks that in either case it would be wise to bring her with us. If she’s an enemy we can watch her, and if she’s a friend she could, perchance, give us aid."
Gideone was silent for a moment, but, finally, answered. "Very well, she may come with us, but only as far as Jwassax. Once there she’s no longer our concern."
"Very well, Your Highness."
"I suppose you ought to call me Gideone for the time being. 'Tis a common enough name. We wish her not to know who we are."
The three returned to where Phautina stood patiently waiting. She looked up expectantly at Stavros.
"We’ll reach Jwassax sometime tomorrow. You may journey with us that far," he told her, "but after that I know not what will happen."
Her face lit up. "Oh, thank you, sir. Thank all of you."
They continued on. Introductions were made and conversations begun, though Gideone, whose spirits had been so high only a few minutes before, said scarcely a word. The rain fell for a little while longer, then stopped. The clouds dispersed, allowing the warm sun to shine fully down upon the countryside, and by the time the night fell, the clothing of the four travelers was completely dry.
They stopped and made camp for the night. They built a small fire around which they sat and ate of the food given to them by the elves. When it came time to sleep, Gideone declared that he would take the first watch. Stavros would have none of it. Gideone was already weak from his wound, and Stavros wished him to rest well so he would not become ill as a result of having been drenched. But Gideone was determined to have the first watch. He and Stavros argued hotly, and it was only after Vayan and Phautina sided with Stavros that Gideone, who was exhausted, was overruled. He sullenly rolled himself up in a blanket and tried to sleep.
* * *
The moon and the stars shone eerily down upon the dark countryside, and all was still and silent. Abiel sat upon his charger and looked out over the peaceful scene before him, his features dark with anger. He was still smarting from his defeat in the forest. He promised himself that when he had destroyed Gideone, he would return and punish the elves of Raia-Torell.
He turned to his magicians, their number now reduced to thirteen. Mounted upon their black horses, they formed an uneven row behind him, sitting dark and impassive as they awaited the words of their leader.
"Go!" Abiel commanded. "And this time, make sure Gideone doesn’t escape!"
The thirteen magicians bowed their heads, then dug their spurs into their horses' sides and galloped off across the moonlit countryside.
* * *
Gideone awoke to the chirping of birds. Whether it was a beautiful morning he could not tell; nor did he care, for he was even more exhausted than when he had gone to sleep and felt worse than he could say. Every night he was haunted by dreams; they filled his mind until he could find no escape. Sometimes he found himself standing in the Ring of Fire battling Abiel; other times he found himself standing among the guests at Tnaka and Eagle's wedding, forced to watch the woman he loved be given to his enemy. But most often he found himself once again upon the walls of Zaren, the battle raging around him, watching his father be cut down by the Dark Sorcerer. He would scream in disbelief, and look up to see Orion fleeing from the battle.
Anger rose within him at the mere thought of Orion. How could he have misjudged the warrior so? He had taken him to be the bravest of men, but instead he was the greatest of cowards.
"Gideone, are you well?" Stavros' words broke into the prince's thoughts.
"Do I look well?" Gideone snapped. Before Stavros could say anything in reply he said, "Hurry up, we have to finish packing."
It did not take long to prepare everything for their departure, and soon they were once more upon their way. It was embarrassingly silent, for Stavros rarely talked unless there was a reason to, Gideone was in no mood to talk, and neither Vayan nor Phautina thought it their place to speak.
Vayan looked around him for a while and finally got up the courage to say, "Phautina, ye said ye be a storyteller. Why d' ye no' tell us a story?"
At his suggestion, her face lighted up and she turned to Stavros and Gideone. "What do you say, sirs? May I tell a story?"
"By all means," said Stavros.
"If you feel like doing so," muttered Gideone as he massaged his temples.
"Very well," said she. "I shall tell you a tale of the darkest, most wicked of creatures, a tale of the great war waged between good and evil, a tale which stretches back to the very beginning of time.
"Thousands upon thousands of years ago, when Deithanara was yet whole and all was beautiful and perfect, there was a creature. Many names and titles has he had over the centuries–L'iranon, The Keeper of the Earthly Fire, Aidan. But his oldest and truest name is Norenroth. He was the king of the whole Realm of Earth and one of the three greatest creatures in Deithanara.
"Among the creatures of the Three Realms was a race known as the Shallee. They were dark and beautiful, strong and filled with fire–poets and artists, builders, creators. They served Joretham with their whole hearts, and he loved them and raised them up on high.
"But Norenroth looked upon them and was consumed with anger and envy. Was he not greater than they? Was he not the king of Lairannare? Yet Joretham took a lowly people and made princes and rulers of them.
"With crafty intentions he went among the Shallee and whispered lies in their ears. Were they not a strong and beautiful people? Surely they deserved more than the pittance Joretham gave them. Joretham ruled over them, but who had set him up as King? When had the people of Deithanara gathered together and with one voice cried out for Joretham to lead them?
"Slowly, Norenroth turned the hearts of the Shallee against Joretham; as he did so, his lies spread throughout the rest of the Three Realms. He filled the hearts of the people with anger at the wrongs they believed Joretham had committed and with longing for the glory they believed Norenroth could bring them.
"Joretham made his home in a beautiful marble palace beside the sea. And there, as one, the people gathered and formed a great army to wage war against him. Human, elf, fairy, goblin, ghoul, Shallean–they stood there, with heads held up in pride and faces filled with hatred. Their number was so great they stretched as far as the eye could see in every direction. The steel of their armor and their weapons flashed brightly in the light of the sun. At their head stood Norenroth himself, strong and proud and filled with fury; he cried out curses against Joretham, his King, his Creator.
"Suddenly there was a blinding flash of light, and every creature in the whole of the vast army was thrown backward to the ground. In pain they slowly rose once more to their feet, but as they did, they found themselves looking up into the face of Joretham. He stood before them, bearing no sword and wearing no armor. But one look at him spoke of the power he embodied–the power that, with a word, could have destroyed every single one of them, a power that not any weapon within all of Deithanara could have weakened or stood against. But, for all his strength, his eyes were filled not with fury and hatred but only with sorrow.
"At the sight of him, every creature there could do naught save sink to their knees. Joretham looked sadly out over them. His people had turned against him, and there was a price that had to be paid for their sin. They looked up at him, sadly, silently, begging for mercy. But mercy he could not then give.
"While they had been able to freely stand together and walk throughout the Three Realms, the lies of Norenroth had spread quickly, and the people of Deithanara had been able to band together. With a word Joretham tore his beautiful world apart, dividing it into the Realm of the Heavens and the Realm of Earth and the Realm of Magic. No longer could the creatures of Deithanara pass freely among the three. They were cursed to stay in their own Realms, to never step out save at great peril, and to never love a creature of another Realm.
"Then Joretham turned and created a place that stood outside of the Three Realms. When he had finished making it, he tore from it everything found within himself: honor, nobility, peace, joy, comfort, love, life. There was left only want, degradation, torment, hatred, and death.
"He turned back to the people of Deithanara. In sorrow and anger he said, 'You wish not for me to be your Lord? Then this is your kingdom! 'Tis called Elmorran, for it’s utterly devoid of me. Gaze upon it in awe and thanksgiving, for is it not a beautiful place? Weep not, for you shall not be long in entering it. Death will take you in the night when you expect it not, and you’ll enter forever into this glorious place.'
"The people were filled with terror and cried out, 'No, Lord, spare us! We have sinned. Forgive us! Let us return to you.' But Joretham stood firm; they had broken the law which ruled Deithanara–the law which he had set up and which they knew full well–and they had to bear the consequences of their actions.
"Then he turned to the Shallee. Tears fell from his eyes as he spoke. 'I loved you most of all, yet still you turned against me.
"'You are cursed. You will have no Realm to call your home. You will have no place to rest. You are free to travel as you will throughout the Three Realms, yet you will be outcasts among all.'
"The Shallee could say nothing, for they knew they deserved their fate. They hung their heads in sorrow, for they could not bear to look upon the one who had loved them, the one whom they had betrayed.
"He looked upon them and their silent penitence for a long moment then said, 'But, though all others will hate you, I still will love you, and it is through you that the redemption of Deithanara shall come.'
"They bowed their heads in thanks.
"Joretham then turned to Norenroth and said, 'Will you admit your sin? Will you ask for mercy?'
"And Norenroth snarled, 'I submit to you?! Fool! I spit in your face. Mark well my words, I will rule Deithanara; it will never be yours again.'
"Joretham said. 'You are no longer a son of mine but a creature damned. You and your offspring are cursed to enter into Elmorran and never find redemption. And at the moment Deithanara is redeemed your fate will be sealed.'
"Joretham set up sacrifices through which the people of Deithanara could find temporary redemption–animals died in the place of the people who had sinned–but they were not enough to undo that which had been done. It would take a far greater sacrifice than any person of the Three Realms could offer.
"Joretham left Deithanara and created for himself the place called Lothiel. He took with him the few who had not rebelled–the Torelli they are called–but they were not enough to comfort him.
"The years passed and turned into centuries. Norenroth worked ever to erase the memory of what had happened, and with each new generation he succeeded a little more until there were few who remembered and even fewer who would tell. He turned the hearts of the people against the Shallee, and he waged war with them. He was determined to destroy them, for it was through them that Deithanara would be saved, and if that ever happened, Norenroth would be condemned forever to Elmorran.
"Three great wars were fought against the Shallee, wars which served only to inflame even more the hatred felt for that despised race; for the Shallee fought with passion and shed much blood in their defense. However, though they fought with all their might, they were slaughtered almost to extinction.
"But a few remained. And from these emerged the one called Jaidev. He was Joretham himself come down from Lothiel to save the people of Deithanara from Elmorran. Through his veins coursed the blood of all three Realms. He was perfect and without sin.
"He willingly allowed himself to be killed. The one who had been sinned against became the sacrifice that was great enough to buy the permanent redemption of Deithanara." Phautina began to laugh. "'Twas Norenroth himself who killed Jaidev. He knew that Jaidev was Joretham, and he thought if he could but kill his former Lord he would become the ruler of Deithanara. But by killing him he instead brought about the redemption of Deithanara and sealed his own fate as he did so.
"Jaidev did not remain dead, for he was Joretham. His nature was all which is good and righteous, but death first entered Deithanara as a result of–and can only contain–that which is evil; it had no power over him.
"He returned to Lothiel. And one day–I pray soon–he will return and completely destroy evil. But until then, by following after him, the people of Deithanara can find a path to life.
"Norenroth was filled with fury. He was beaten but not yet destroyed. He sought to become the king of all Deithanara, and in that way hoped to gain enough power to destroy Joretham–or at the least take as many people as he could with him into Elmorran.
"There was born a prince called Balor. He possessed great magic power, and Norenroth, who was at that time still the king of Lairannare, added such strength to this power that Balor was able to defeat the whole of the Realm of Earth.
"Most know the story of how Balor then freed the spirits from Elmorran so that he might conquer Keiliornare and Bellunare. And most know how he was defeated by Vallendar. But most do not know that it was Norenroth who gave Balor such knowledge and power.
"When Balor was defeated, so also was Norenroth. He was thrown down from his place as King of the Realm of Earth and his power taken from him.
"It was prophesied that it would be through one of Vallendar's descendants that Norenroth would meet his doom. So now Norenroth, weakened, overthrown–but far from destroyed–prowls throughout Lairannare, searching for the one who will bring about his destruction and seeking ever to regain his throne and the power he once held.
"And that is all I can tell you of this tale, for the ending has yet to come. What say you?"
"'Twas a very interesting' tale," said Vayan who had listened closely to every word.
"Interesting it was," said Stavros, "but it seems hardly a tale a bard would tell."
"Oh, I know many other stories," answered Phautina, "but that's the one that most times I tell first, because it's a true story, and an important story, but a story few in these days know."
"I thought it was a foolish story," said Gideone, "untrue and unimportant, and far better left alone than brought out and remembered."
Phautina turned to him. "In my experience, sir, the men who speak that way are the ones who most need to hear it."
Gideone gave a not too soft "harrumph" and said, "If Joretham truly loved the Shallee he would have protected them and not allowed them to be massacred."
Phautina opened her mouth to reply, but even as she did so, Stavros, who was looking behind them, interrupted her. "Your...Gideone, look."
Gideone turned and saw a nearly a dozen black riders galloping furiously toward them. They were yet several hundred feet away, but the distance was rapidly being closed.
"Abiel!" he exclaimed.
The four dug their heels into their horses' sides and charged off down the road.
A cry of fury arose from the lips of one of their pursuers, and the space in front of them suddenly erupted into a wall of flames. Their horses reared and plunged, and in the chaos Gideone was almost thrown to the ground.
Bringing their terrified horses under control, they turned and galloped hard to the right. The wind whipped against their faces as they thundered across the uneven countryside, with Abiel in hot pursuit.
Phautina screamed as her horse suddenly stumbled and fell, throwing her to the ground. Stavros and Vayan turned around and galloped back toward her. Even Gideone, with a growl of annoyance, charged back to her rescue.
Phautina scrambled back on all fours as Abiel and his men bore down upon her. The dark prince, his black cloak whipping in the wind, his eyes flashing with rage, stretched out his hand as if it would bring him closer to those he pursued. His mouth opened in a howl of unimaginable fury. The earth shuddered beneath the hooves of his great, black horse.
Phautina cried out a long stream of foreign words. The ground began to shake violently, and, in an instant, the earth between her and Abiel crumbled away. The horses of Abiel and his magicians reared and scrambled backward as quickly as they could, but one of the horses did not move quickly enough. It shrieked, and its rider cried out in terror as he found himself upon crumbling ground. The horse desperately tried to escape, but it was no use. In a moment it had disappeared beneath the sinking earth. For a moment, Abiel and the remaining magicians could do no more than stand and stare in shock and horror at the chasm Phautina had created.
With a cry of fury, the dark prince turned his gaze to the bard, but before he could do anything Phautina was upon her feet. She held out her hand and cried out more strange words. The ground shook once more, and Abiel and his men quickly backed up as the chasm widened. But the ground crumbled more rapidly than they could retreat, and four more magicians plunged into the darkness of the pit. With a snarl, Abiel wheeled and, followed by the remaining magicians, galloped away.
Phautina was still gazing after Abiel when Gideone, Stavros, and Vayan galloped up to her. For a moment all was silent.
"You never told us you had magic powers," Gideone accused.
She turned in surprise to him. "You never told me you were being chased by an evil magician!"
"She has a point," Stavros said.
"Truth to tell," said Phautina, calming down, "I can't use my powers all the time, and the times I can use them I can't use them to the same degree. So I didn't think it important to tell you."
Her gaze fell upon her horse and she suddenly cried out, "Oh! Merja!" She ran over to where her horse lay thrashing upon the ground. She tried to come close but could only stand at a distance for fear of being struck by one of the flailing hooves.
Stavros and Vayan jumped from their own horses. Being careful to avoid Merja‘s thrashing hooves, they slowly approached the fallen horse. She had been sorely wounded by her fall, but it was a thing easily fixed with magic. Stavros and Vayan quickly healed her, and soon Phautina was covering her with kisses.
"Much as it pains me to interrupt this touching moment," said Gideone, with a roll of his eyes, "I think I ought to remind you all that Abiel is far from defeated so we ought to make our way quickly to Jwassax before he returns."
Though far from politely spoken, the prince's words were true, and the other three quickly mounted their horses. Soon the small party was making its way once more to Jwassax, with the bright sun shining down upon them and the cool breeze blowing across their faces.