Authors: Dennis L. McKiernan
Gwylly’s face fell. “I’d been hoping to go to Rhondor. But I suppose that it’s best we get the Realmsmen involved as soon as we can…the port of Thrako it is.”
* * *
When the five of them left Arask, Gwylly led Buster down to the ferry, and Faeril led Ironfoot, and coming after were Riatha and Aravan and Urus their horses on leads, the mules tethered behind. And even though it was dawn, the village entire turned out to see them go: the two Wee Ones
with the jewel-like eyes, the Elven Bard, the Elven Poet, and the towering Baeran Man.
It was a large ferry, and one trip sufficed, the ferrymen chanting as they used the pull rope to hale the travellers across. Aravan paid the toll—a few coppers—and then the five were on their way, riding down through Aralan along the banks of the River Venn.
Southeasterly they fared, sometimes swinging wide of the course to pass beyond the great loops of the meandering stream. Yet always the river vale was in sight, and they used it to guide their way by day, though had they travelled at night they would have been guided by the stars.
Thirty or so miles a day did they go, the land gently rolling, stopping often to rest the steeds, feeding them grain hauled by the mules. Buster and Ironfoot easily kept up the pace, even though they were but ponies, for they came of a hardy mountain stock, having been bred in the Bodorian Range there in the Land of Alban. And so thirty miles a day did they cover, ten leagues from Sun to Sun, camping at night on the Aralan plains or down by the River Venn. And as they went, the days grew warmer and the nights less chill, and the horses, mules, and ponies began shedding their winter shag, curry combs filling with hair. Slowly the world came green, flowers blossoming, trees leafing, grasses transforming from yellow to succulent green, and water ran in rivulets everywhere. Birds swept through the sky, some to travel onwards, others to take up residence in the surround, calling out their mating cries, challenging any interlopers who would dare trespass. Marmots and hares were often seen, and now and then a fox. And the lords of the air—falcons and hawks and an occasional eagle—would sweep o’er the plains or circle above and stoop in their deadly dives.
And as they rode through the awakening world, Gwylly’s and Faeril’s eyes sparkled with pleasure and their mouths flashed with grins, calling out to one another, sharing spring. And when this would happen, Riatha would smile unto herself, and her own eyes would seek out Urus, only to find him looking at her.
Seven days after leaving Arask, the comrades’ path slowly diverged from that of the River Venn, it taking a slightly more westerly course, while the five continued onward in their southwesterly line cross-country. At last there came a
time when the riverborder forest was no longer in sight, as down across the plains of Aralan fared the riders.
Another week went by, the companions making their way over the lush prairie, and spring rains came like long grey brooms sweeping west to east. And when this happened, through chill drizzles rode the five o’er the open plains, no shelter other than their own raincloaks to fend off the water—no forests, no thickets, in which to escape the rain, not even the makings for a crude lean-to. Too; there was no sign of civilization within sight—no hunter’s lodge, no trapper’s shack, no farmer’s outbuildings, no soddies, not even the tents of wanderers.
In fact, they had not seen anyone for the past nine days; their last contact with civilization had been with an isolated crofter and his family. The companions had accepted a meal and had slept in the tiny barn, a byre too small to take in all of their steeds. They had sheltered the horses only, for they were the animals most likely to need the comfort of a stall. And as Gwylly said, “Buster, he doesn’t like stalls.”
But that had been nine days past, almost a hundred leagues ago.
The day was somber when they came upon the Landover Road, an ancient east-west tradeway still in use—though no caravans or merchants’ trains could be seen along the road from horizon to horizon, no solitary wayfarers either. They were now some fifteen days and four hundred thirty miles from Arask, and as they crossed the road they swung due south, for now they fared toward the slot between the Bodorian Range and the Skarpal Mountains. Beyond the slot lay their first goal, the port town of Thrako, also some four hundred thirty miles as the raven flies, somewhat longer by the route they planned to follow, the Landover Road more or less marking the halfway point on their journey from the Lesser Mire to the Avagon Sea. Yet though they were halfway to the sea in miles, the terrain ahead was considerably rougher, and they gauged it would take some three or four weeks to reach the port. Even so, down into the land they fared, aiming for the ford across the River Hanü, three horses, two ponies, and two mules plodding stolidly under the sullen skies.
South they went across the wold, the land gradually changing from plains to rolling hills, thickets and trees beginning to appear. As they topped hills, now to the west
they could see the crests of the Skarpal Mountains—grey crags jutting up from the Garian Plains—for the comrades were near that Land.
It was now late May, and the nights were warm as well as the days. The trees had come into their fullness, and as the five rode through the green forests it was as if the woes of the world were gone, gentle breezes soughing through the leaves, songbirds casting their carols for any and all to hear, animals scurrying among undergrowth and rustling through the leaves and ground cover of the woodland, other creatures running along the limbs and branches in the arbors overhead, chattering at these interlopers below. At a freshet they came across a doe and her fawn, and none had the will to bring down the game,” even though it had been long since venison graced their palates.
At last they came to the River Hanü, arriving late in the eve. Twilight was descending upon the forest as they made camp alongside the mossy-banked river. Water rippled nearby, purling its endless song. And as the Moon rose and shed its light downward, Gwylly and Faeril sat facing one another and holding hands, singing softly to each other in Twyll.
Riatha glanced at them and over at Urus.
Never love a mortal Man
. Tears filled her silver eyes and she stood and walked into the darkness, and Urus watched her go, his heart pounding.
I am cursed
. His hands clenched into white-knuckled fists.
I am cursed
The huge Man stood and walked upriver, opposite the way Riatha had gone. Some distance along the bank he stepped down to the water’s edge, there where an eddy had formed a wide pool, his mind a turmoil, slowly spinning as spun the moonlit mere before him. Urus shed his clothes, his stomach flat, his shoulders wide, his hips narrow, his physique tall, strong, well-muscled, his body completely recovered from his glacial ordeal. With a flat dive he knifed into the water, a pearlescent string of silvery bubbles flowing ’round him, the chill bite of the river driving away all doubt, all confusion, renewing his resolve.
It can never be, for I am a Cursed One
Across the mere he swam underwater, till the pale sandy bottom rose up from below. Silently he surfaced, silvery bubbles cascading upward in the platinum light. And there
on the shore unclothed stood Riatha, alabaster and ivory and gold.
Urus was transfixed. She was so lovely he could hardly bear to look at her, yet could not look away. He could not seem to get enough to breathe, and his heart roared in his ears. He stood in the moonlight, the water waist deep, liquid running down over his body. Long-legged and slender and shapely, she walked into the crystal pool toward him, her silver eyes glistening, her voice shaking with emotion,
“Vi chier ir, Urus
. I love thee. Oh, how I love thee.”
His pulse hammering, Urus stepped forward and took Riatha in his arms, and in the moonlight kissed her long and gently and then in hunger as desire exploded outward from the pit of his stomach and burned through every fiber of his being. Riatha’s own racing heart singing, a wondrous fire running through her breasts and loins, through her very blood. Urus swept her up and carried her out of the water and to the moss-laden shore, lowering her to the soft brye, she pulling him down after, their two bodies joining, fusing, all thoughts of mortality and of cursedness banished.
* * *
Faeril and Gwylly awakened to the singing of the dawntime birds, heralding the coming of a new day, calling out to one another proclaiming their territorial rights. Gwylly lay on his back and listened to the songs, softly imitating some of them, chirruping and whistling, chirking and clicking. Faeril raised up on an elbow and silenced him with a kiss, then sat up and began to stretch, suddenly stopping, nudging the buccan to look. Gwylly raised up beside her and saw Riatha curled tightly against Urus, spoonwise, his arms wrapped ’round her, the two yet asleep. Aravan sat by the small campfire feeding it twigs and branches, a brooding look upon his features.
Faeril turned to Gwylly and whispered, “See, I told you.”
Gwylly rolled his eyes and threw up his hands. “My dammia, even someone as dense as I could see that they were in love. Why it took this long, weeks and weeks…well, I’m sure I’ll never know.”
Faeril peered into Gwylly’s eyes, amber gold gazing into emerald green. “Weeks and weeks?
Weeks and weeks?
Oh, my buccaran, she has been in love with him and he with her for more than a thousand years!”
Gwylly’s jewel-like eyes flew wide in sudden understanding,
and he fell back upon the blanket, groaning, “Oh dammia, you are right. And I must truly be as dense as a rock.”
Laughing, Faeril sprang up and reached down and took Gwylly’s hand and pulled him to his feet. Riatha stirred and opened her eyes, and started to raise up, but Urus clasped her tightly unto him. The Elfess smiled and twisted ’round in his embrace till she was face to face and kissed the Man gently, then soundly, and he opened his eyes and looked into hers.
“Let’s have some tea, Aravan,” chirped Gwylly, stepping to the fire. The Elf looked up and grinned, the dark brooding fading from his brow, though not entirely.
As Aravan set the pot to brew above the flames, Gwylly stepped down the mossy bank to join Faeril and splashed water over his face. “Aravan seems moody.”
Faeril handed Gwylly a small cloth. “Yes, and I don’t know why. It isn’t as if he’s jealous—”
“Yes, Gwylly, jealous.”
“Of Urus and Riatha?”
Faeril shook her head in disbelief at how naïve Gwylly seemed to be, not realizing that she, too, was just as ingenuous. “Yes, Gwylly. Jealous of Urus and Riatha. It could be that Aravan himself is in love with Riatha, but I think not, for I believe he thinks of her as a
, as a sister. It could be that he is upset over an Elfess and a Man loving one another, but again, I do not believe that he holds Humans to be unworthy of Elvenkind. It could be that he is disturbed because Urus changes into a Bear, that Urus is a so-called Cursed One, yet again I think that enters not into his mind.”
Gwylly looked back into the campsite. “Perhaps he is upset because they are in love and he is not.”
Faeril slowly shook her head. “No…I think had that been the case, he would have been upset by you and me.”
Gwylly smiled and kissed Faeril. “Love is all around, neh? —Oi! Mayhap that’s it: love is all around for everyone but him.”
“No, Gwylly. That is not in Aravan’s nature. I sense that it is something else altogether, but what it might be…I cannot say.”
* * *
They searched all day for the ford across the River Hanü, coming upon it as the Sun was setting. Instead of crossing in the twilight, they made camp in a glade. As with every day, they fed and watered the steeds, and curried out the knots from the animals’ hair where saddles and pack frames rode, assuring that no twists were left to gall and rub raw and ulcerate.
Darkness fell as the five took their own meal, and when they were done, Riatha and Urus walked away into the surrounding night, lovers seeking privacy, and Aravan watched them go.
Again, Gwylly noted the brooding on the Elf’s face, and he cast about for something to lighten the mood. “I say, Aravan, how did you know about this ford?”
Aravan blinked and shook his head, as if clearing it of distant images and echoes. “This ford…?” Aravan stirred the fire, collecting his memories. “The yellow-eyed Man I pursue is the one who slew Galarun and stole the Dawn Sword in the days of the Great War of the Ban. I have since wandered the world, seeking out yellow-eyed Men. Searching for one. For vengeance. To recover the sword. To redeem a sworn pledge.
“A millennium and a half agone, in 4E1461, there came rumors of a yellow-eyed Man in the west; I was at the time in the distant islands of Mayar, far to the east. But where in the west dwelled this yellow-eyed Man, none knew. Nevertheless, I journeyed westward, seeking, searching, asking.
“In Jüng, I came across a name. Ydral, it was whispered, Ydral of the yellow eyes. Whether this Ydral is the one I seek, I cannot say, yet his was the name that I followed.
“Seasons passed, and seasons more, and slowly westward I came, following whispers, following the name of Ydral.
“In Hurn, breathed some; in Alban, hissed others; in Garia, sissed others still; and westerly I came, faring wherever the rumors led.
“I crossed through the Bodorian Range in 4E1466 and found this ford, five years after hearing of a yellow-eyed Man in the west, four years after hearing the name Ydral.
“Into Garia I went, my steed and I swimming the River Venn which runs west of here, riding onward into the Skarpal Mountains, aiming for a keep said to lie deep within that chain. Through a desolate ’scape I rode, the land abandoned,
dwellings empty, as if those who had once dwelt within had fled for their lives.
“Ydral, I thought, he is the cause of their flight. And on inward I rode, searching for the keep, following a rumor.
“I found it at last, yet it was abandoned, though signs told that once Humans had dwelt within. But the signs also showed that the
had dwelt there as well. Destruction was everywhere: buildings defaced, wells polluted, and everything that could burn had been.