Darkness of Spirit
The hour of midnight drew near. Scarcely a sound could be heard within the dark forest save that of the wind and the steady, rhythmic noise of the ground crunching beneath the hooves of the horses. Stavros pulled his cloak tighter around his shoulders and looked back into the trees and the darkness behind him. He pressed his hand tightly to his chest as a feeling of sickness welled up within him; Vayan's cry of fury and anguish still rang in his ears, and the sight of Phautina's dead body covered with blood was burned forever into his mind. He could not bring himself to look at Gideone; his revulsion was too great.
Anxiety welled up within Stavros at the thought of Vayan, alone in the dark forest, perhaps crossing paths with Abiel or one of his magicians. Disgust filled him, too, as he felt Gideone's scornful gaze upon him. It was as though the prince could read his mind and was silently mocking him. Neither man said a word.
As they rode on, the trees of the forest began to thin out, and the light of the moon shone in growing brightness on the ground. Abruptly, the trees ended altogether, and Stavros drew his horse up in alarm. Many a tale had he been told of the Demesne of Elishauno, but nothing had prepared him for the sight that lay spread out before him. He looked across the broken, blasted land, and revulsion crept over him as he gazed upon hundreds of thousands of bones all bathed in the cold, pale light of the moon.
Slowly he started forward again, following after Gideone who had not stopped. Piles upon piles of bones lay in silent testimony of the great battle which had once been fought there. It was said that thousands of years ago, even before the time of Vallendar, the great and evil king Elishauno reigned. He commanded dragons and hideous beasts the like of which had not been seen in the Realm of Earth since the days of the wars with the Shallee. He conversed with the dead and foretold the future, and he was so powerful and terrifying that even the Powers trembled beneath him. Some claimed he was the son of Nyght, the dark, dragon queen of Bellunare. Others claimed he was her lover, and some claimed both. He ruled over a vast domain, and his darkness spread throughout it and beyond.
The people lived in terror until the warrior Lemuel and his wife Niahm turned their terror to courage. Together they raised an army and stood against the evil king; the two sides met in the forest of Emaryl. For ten days and ten nights the battle raged, and, when the sun rose on the eleventh, it fell upon the victorious Elishauno. He took the heads of hundreds of his enemies and set them up on spikes that all might look and tremble. The other bodies he left unburied upon the ground. It was said he laid a curse upon the corpses that their bones would never turn to dust but would remain until the end of Deithanara as a symbol of his greatness. The trees amongst which the battle had been fought withered and died, but the bones remained, and Lairannare never forgot the name of Elishauno.
For hours Gideone and Stavros rode through the dead and wasted land until, when the night seemed its coldest and most still, they reached the greatest pile of bones they had yet seen. Hundreds upon hundreds of bones, painted sharply white and black by shadows and the moon's light, were piled up to form a huge cairn that rose high above the two men.
Stavros could no longer contain his horror.
"This is a wicked place filled with evil magic," he said softly. His words seemed to fall to the ground the moment they left his lips. "Only barbarians treat their enemies so."
"I think it’s magnificent.” Gideone replied, his voice subdued. “To think, a shrine which has lasted more than a thousand years and which will serve forever as a testimony of his power. That’s true greatness."
"Great it may be but evil nonetheless."
As Stavros looked up at the imposing tower, he could feel Gideone's gaze upon him. It was proud and contemptuous, and, as he felt it, anger welled up in his heart. He wanted to turn and scream at Gideone that he had murdered Phautina, and it was because of him that Vayan, alone and in despair, wandered throughout the forest. Gideone had once been a prince devoted to nobility and chivalry. Now what did he honor? A pile of bones.
But Stavros did not turn, and he did not accuse the prince whom he had sworn to serve. He tapped his heels against the sides of his horse and rode forward.
It was midday when they finally reached the end of the Demesne of Elishauno. The cool, fresh wind blew against their faces, and the sun shone brightly down upon the countryside. Scarcely a tree could be seen in any direction. Before them lay gently rolling hills covered with the pale, yellow grass of the summer before mingled with the fresh, green grass of the new spring. Beyond the hills rose the tall Plateaus of Scalavori, and beyond those, rising tall and majestic into the clouds, lay the Mountains of Scalavori themselves.
The sparkling river Nymun cut a winding path through the hills until it neared the plateaus. There it was joined by the River of the Melted Snow which flowed down from the mountains and across the plateaus until it fell down in an impressive waterfall to the river Nymun below. Together they formed one great river which ran parallel to the cliffs of the plateaus and disappeared into the horizon.
Stavros took a deep breath. 'Twas good to be in the land of the living where it was wide and open and a man could feel the cool wind upon his face. The stench of death and the feel of evil had been far too strong in the place whence they had come.
He cast a look at Gideone, and his relief suddenly turned to concern, for the prince’s face was ashen, and he looked as if he was about to fall off his horse. Stavros, in alarm, reached out his hand to steady the prince, but, even as he did so, Gideone slapped it away.
"Leave me alone. I’m not hurt," he growled with as much strength as he could muster.
"Pride is not seemly in times such as this," Stavros answered sternly. “Get off your horse and accept the help which I‘m offering you. You don’t deserve it, and I might not offer it again."
"'Twas but a passing lightheaded feeling and is already gone. Moreover, Abiel no doubt presses close upon us."
Gideone's face began to regain its color, but his jaw was tightly clenched in pain. He started forward, but before his horse had taken five steps he clutched at his chest. Slumping forward, he slid with a groan from his horse.
Stavros jumped to the ground and was at Gideone's side in a moment. Already the prince's face was covered with a thin film of sweat. Stavros turned Gideone's face to one side and swore, for the black web of lines had made their way above the collar of his tunic.
Stavros rose and ran the few paces back to his horse and began searching through the saddlebags for Wild Rose's healing salve. Gideone groaned and tried to sit up. Stavros finally found what he sought. As he turned back to Gideone he saw the prince's eyes leave him and focus on something behind him in the Demesne of Elishauno.
Stavros turned, and his heart skipped a beat. Five black-cloaked riders galloped through the Demesne toward them.
Weakness seemed to leave Gideone. With a cry, he scrambled to his feet and clambered back onto his horse, turning to face the dark prince.
Stavros jumped forward and grabbed hold of Gideone's reins.
“Don’t forget your promise!" he cried. "Run!"
For one brief moment, Gideone hesitated. He looked down at Stavros then back up at Abiel. With a growl, he wheeled his horse around and set out across the hills toward the plateaus. Stavros jumped on his horse and galloped after him.
From within the Demesne of Elishauno, Abiel could see his prey escaping.
"Coward!" he screamed, but Gideone rode on. Abiel gave an unintelligible cry of fury and dug his heels deep into his horse's sides. The horse, its nostrils flaring and its body covered with sweat, strained with all its might to catch up with the fleeing men.
The only place to ford the Nymun was just before it joined the Melted Snow, and toward this spot Gideone and Stavros rode hard even as Abiel desperately sought to cut them off. The sun beat down upon them as the horses traced a wide, sweeping arc across the grassy hills, and slowly, Abiel's horse began to draw closer to Gideone and Stavros.
Gideone turned often to look back at his pursuers. There was no fear in his dark eyes, and it seemed almost as if he urged his pursuer on. Suddenly Abiel's horse stumbled. Gideone winced and seemed to hold his horse back slightly so that Abiel could regain the ground he had lost.
Finally, Gideone and Stavros drew near to the River Nymun and halted. It was swollen with melted snow, and it rushed past with tremendous speed and fury.
"Go!" Stavros cried, his voice barely rising over the roar of the raging river.
Gideone hesitated and cast another look back at Abiel. The dark prince was perhaps fifty yards behind them, and the gap was rapidly closing. Gideone looked at Stavros then plunged into the water. Stavros followed him.
Gideone howled as the full force of the bitterly cold river struck him. The water was up to his chest. His horse's nostril flared and its ears were turned back flat against its head as it struggled to keep its head above the swirling white waters.
Abiel reached the bank of the river and, without stopping, plunged in after Gideone.
He cried out with all his might, in a voice that could barely be heard above the roar of the river. "Sirrah! Cur! Woman! Come and fight!"
It was all Stavros could do to keep from being swept off his horse. He could not watch Gideone as well. He had just reached the opposite bank when, above the roaring waters, he heard furious cries. He turned and saw Gideone and Abiel in the middle of the river, their hands locked around each other‘s throats, and their faces filled with the most primal looks of rage and hatred. The river swirled about them, and their horses screamed in terror.
Stavros plunged back into the river. As he struggled to reach Gideone, the four magicians raised their bows and took aim. First one fired, then another, but with the mist and the wind and the churning of the water, it was difficult to shoot well. The arrows sliced through the air and struck the water near Stavros, but did not pierce him. Before they could shoot again, he drew close to the battling men and was blocked from view.
Gideone whipped his long, soaking wet, black hair out of his eyes and forced Abiel's head beneath the water, but he had not the strength to hold the dark prince there. Abiel escaped his grasp, and now it was Gideone who was pushed and held beneath the water. He grabbed Abiel's hands and tried to pry them from his neck, but he was not strong enough. His head was pounding, and all he could see was the white water raging all around him.
Stavros shouted as he saw what Abiel was doing, but there was no way for him to stop it; he was yet too far away.
Gideone's lungs screamed for air, but he could not free himself. In desperation, he pushed himself off of his horse. His horse shrieked as it lost its balance and disappeared beneath the water.
Stavros reached out to grab Gideone, but he could only feel the prince's tunic slip from beneath his hand. As Gideone was swept away by the current, Abiel was pulled off his horse by Gideone, and both he and his horse were also swept away.
* * *
Orion gave a strangled cry of pain. His throat was so raw from screaming that his voice sounded more like that of a wild beast than of a human. He was chained with his back to the wall, and as he struggled against his bonds the iron dug deep into his wrists.
Aeneas pulled his knife away from Orion.
"I told you not to cry out!" he snarled as he struck Orion hard across the face. "What sort of a man are you?"
Orion gave a low growl. Long strands of auburn hair hung down in front of his face as he looked up with wild, spectral, hate-filled eyes. With a cry, he lashed out at the young prince, but his cry of fury was abruptly cut off as his chains held him back.
Aeneas laughed. "You really are quite pathetic." Then, more to himself, he continued, "Now, if only I could think of some new, inventive ways to torture you. That imbecile of a torturer had nothing decent to suggest, and my mother has made it so difficult, what with her instructions to do you no permanent harm. She fails to understand I’m an artist who needs the freedom to express myself."
He was pacing back and forth as he talked when suddenly his gaze fell upon the pitcher of water and the hard crust of bread that lay upon the floor. He smiled at Orion, picked up a whip, and said, "Why do we not play a game? I know you’re thirsty, and I am quite willing to let you drink if only you remain silent and do not cry out."
Orion sank forward and began to shake in anguish, fear, and exhaustion.
Aeneas drew back the whip.
"Mystia!" Orion cried with a hoarse voice as the whip bit into his skin.
Aeneas gave him a dark look as he continued to lash him.
"Mystia!" he sobbed. "Mystia!"
"Would you stop saying that woman's name?" Aeneas thundered. "What sort of a man are you to break into tears and cry out to a woman? Stop it!"
"Mystia," Orion moaned.
With a snarl Aeneas drew back his whip and struck his brother as hard as he could with it, but again Orion cried out to Mystia. Aeneas continued to whip him, but still he screamed her name. Over and over he cried out to his black-eyed princess, until Aeneas stuck him with all his might. Orion opened his mouth to scream again but managed to choke back the cry. Again Aeneas struck him, and again Orion kept from crying, but still Aeneas would not stop.
The warrior looked wildly about him, and his voice rose into an unintelligible shriek of pain and rage. With all his might he strained against his bonds, even as Aeneas continued to beat him. His muscles bulged, and the sweat and the blood poured down his body. The chains began to creak beneath the strain, but Aeneas did not hear them, as he sent blow after blow down upon his brother.
The young prince suddenly jumped back in surprise and fear as Orion's chains began to break–the right arm, the left, the right leg. The blue-eyed warrior started forward and reached out toward Aeneas but was pulled to the ground by the remaining chain.
Aeneas turned and ran to the door. Even as he did so, Orion roared and tore the remaining leg free. Before Aeneas could open the door, his brother rushed at him and threw him to the ground. Aeneas cried out in terror and tried to struggle to his feet, but he was no match for the dragon warrior. Orion straddled Aeneas' chest and grasped the young prince by the throat, and Aeneas' eyes opened wide in terror as he felt his brother’s strong hands slowly tightening around his neck. He could hear footsteps and shouts in the passage outside the cell, and he fought desperately to stay alive until they could rescue him. His chest grew tight as he struggled to breathe, and he looked up in terror into Orion's inhuman eyes.
Orion gave a low growl. Then, without warning, he let go of Aeneas, jumped to his feet, and ran to the door. For a moment, Aeneas lay there gasping for breath, and then sank into unconsciousness.
Orion ran out of the cell and barreled into the first man who stood in his way. The two went tumbling to the ground, and Orion, with a snarling cry, drew back his fist and sent it slamming into the man's face. Orion jumped to his feet and turned toward the five other men who stood against him. He howled and ran at them, using the chains still hanging from his wrists as weapons. Two ran away in terror the moment he attacked. Orion slammed his fist into the side of one soldiers face, and there was a sickening snap as his neck broke.
Of the two that remained only one had a weapon. Orion jumped out of the way as the armed soldier sent his sword arcing through the air toward him. The swordsman cried and ran toward Orion, but Orion grabbed the weapon-less soldier and threw him at the swordsman. Both went tumbling to the ground, and Orion fell upon them, breaking both their necks.
He grabbed the sword from where it lay on the cold, black floor and ran from the dungeon.
* * *
Eagle stood at one of the windows of her chambers and looked out upon the garden below. She pressed her hand against the glass and bit her lower lip as she tried not to cry. But she could not hold back her tears. Her fingers curled into a fist, and she bowed her head as her shoulders began to shake with sobs. She could still hear Orion's cries of agony echoing in her mind, and she could still see the sorrow and the hopelessness in his blue eyes. She wanted to free him, but she had not the strength to stand alone against her husband or against Provenna.
She heard loud shouting coming from somewhere beyond her doorway. When the cries did not immediately die away, she ran out of her chambers into the corridor beyond. She ran down the hall and turned a corner where she stopped short in surprise and fear. The corridor was filled with guards, servants, and slaves–some running, some fighting, but all crying aloud–and in the midst of them stood Orion, eyes wide, his mouth open in a cry of rage. Blood and sweat were pouring from his body, and chains hung from his wrists and ankles. He grasped a sword tightly, which he held up threateningly. He was hopelessly outnumbered, but he fought like a raging beast. With snarling cries, he rushed at his attackers. And though they ran before him, they never stopped fighting.
As his attackers rushed back in upon him, Eagle looked on in horror. She sank to the ground and watched as Orion ran at some of his enemies only to be attacked from behind by others. With a furious roar he spun and turned upon those behind him even as those he had previously been attacking fell upon him. With a cry of rage and frustration he spun around again. There was blood everywhere and dead bodies all over the floor, but his attackers had no end.
Eagle gasped and reached a hand out as Orion stumbled and went tumbling to the floor. His attackers fell upon him, and, though he fought with all his strength, he had not the power to overcome them.
They held him tightly by the arms and began to drag him away, but still he struggled. The elven queen held her breath as he managed to break free from his attackers.
Her eyes widened as he stumbled and fell once more to the floor. His attackers grabbed him again, and this time one of them struck him hard across the head.
Eagle jumped to her feet. "No!"
Orion's body went limp.
She could stand it no longer. She turned to run away, but, as she did, she almost ran into Tnaka. He took a startled step back when he saw the look in her eyes.
"Are you simply going to let them take him back to the dungeon?" she demanded.
"Eagle..." he began, but she was far too hysterical to hear him.
"No man deserves that kind of torture!"
"Eagle, please..." Tnaka began again as he stepped forward and held out his hands to her, but those were not the words she wanted to hear.
"Monster!" she cried and slapped him hard across the face. Sobbing, she ran off down the corridor. The elven king held his hand to his face and stared in concern after her.
* * *
The Plateaus of Scalavori stood tall and ominous, bathed in the silver moonlight and black shadows of the night. The countryside was utterly still and silent. There was no stirring of a breeze nor the movement of an animal, but, as the hours of night grew long, a man could be seen slowly ascending the face of the plateaus. It seemed an impossible feat, yet hand over hand, foot over foot, slowly but surely, he was accomplishing it.
Before the first rays of dawn he finally reached the top. When he did, he stood against the dark sky and lifted up his voice in a cry of fury and maniacal joy. The night rang with his cry.
"Here stand I, Gideone!" he cried. "Where lie you? Let the waters carry you, but I live!"
His laughter, the laughter of an insane man, spread out across the vast plateaus and the rolling hills below. Abiel's men, in their camp, and Stavros, in his, looked up as its dreadful sound filled their ears.
Softly, to himself alone, Stavros spoke. "Abiel lives, but what of Gideone?"