The Path of Fire – Chapter 62

Flames scoured the land, roared through the treetops and blackened the ground with char and silvered it with settling ash.  From behind the waves of fire, a cloaked and wrapped horseman rode quickly down the break ridge switchback road, his horse’s iron-shod hooves pounding the ash covered roadway.  The rider’s fist tightly gripped the reins of his mount, as the beast’s body churned underneath him.  The old road had become overgrown and choked with forest scrub and ferns and cast leaves, but now it shone like a silver pathway among the blackened poles still standing as the skeletal reminder of a forest gutted by fire.

The man wore a sash about his face, and a moistened gauze, now drying, covered his brow and thick hair.  Both the rider and the horse deftly chose patches of ground where the foliage had burned down and cooled or was laid bare to rock or gravel, alternating between the roadway and the nearby dry river bed where the path followed along its border.  The smoke was being pushed ahead by a slight wind falling down through the breaks beyond the city of Azragoth.  The rider had taken advantage of the shift in the wind and had lit out to follow his general’s command, perhaps earlier than was prudent.

Observing the damage done along the way the rider pondered what he was seeing.  The flames from the interior walls of Azragoth should not have extended this far into the forest.  He’d received thorough reports of the siege and knew what had transpired afterward.  The flames from the oil and tar wall had burned and set the Manticores afire, and it was understandable that they would flee blindly into the wood, but their passage would not have burned such wide swaths of ground in their frantic flight.  Hours had passed since the attack and the company of Surface Worlders should have already been clear of the forest of Kilrane before the first flame reached the roadway and died out.  Something or someone had accelerated the fire and carried it across the firebreaks.  Something or someone who wanted Azragoth exposed to the outside lands once more.

The rider could hear the sounds of conflict ahead but assumed that the cries were that of the forest animals fleeing before the fire.  Noises to his far left and right sounded like he was being shadowed by other horsemen, but it was too difficult to make out anything through the shifting haze of the smoldering wood and the dying crackle and pop of withering embers.

When he’d arrived from the backwoods and entered the city of Azragoth, The front forest was ablaze and black smoke billowed from the outer walls and flared through the treetops.  The general had been savagely attacked and shot with arrows.  He was understandably anxious to learn of his commanding officer’s condition and rode straight to the surgeon’s house in the low street.  Jesh, Mattox’s taller bodyguard had relayed the General’s command to seek out the elusive forester Jeremiah and bid him come back to Azragoth as soon as possible, but he knew that chance was dwindling.  Jeremiah owed the general at least that.  But with the front passage on fire, no one was coming either into or out of the city by that route.  The Keep had been locked down and was under tight guard, so the underground route was not an option.  For six hours the general had undergone surgery, and there was nothing he could do but wait.  But when the wind shifted, and the billows towering over the front wall began to thin, Captain Lorgray knew the chance to carry out what might be the general’s last order had come.  If the general wanted Jeremiah to return to Azragoth, then he was bound and determined to find the man and compel him to come back with him.

***

Dellitch was angry and terrified.

The audience before The Pan was not turning out at all how she planned.  Their plan to destroy the Dryads once and for all had been found out, her fire-setting sisters caught in the act and then the whole burning of the forest entirely blamed upon them.  The Pan’s rebuke still rang in her head.  She had been in a tree when he raged, and the branches had caught her and kept her from falling, but her bones still vibrated like a tuning fork.

‘Curse that lying Troll!’, she thought.

She doubted if even turning over the Surface Worlder she had captured would make any difference to The Pan now.  But it would distract him, and that distraction was badly needed.  The dryads would have had nothing to do with fire.  They were understandably terrified of it, which was another reason they never directly assaulted the settlements of men.  And why they shied away from taking humans who traveled through the forests by night carrying firelight or refrained from molesting those who dared to camp within the forest sleeping around a campfire.

Much as they might want to, they could never make The Pan believe the dryads had anything to do with the burnt torches affixed to the wings of her sisters.  And if The Pan were to follow that line of questioning further into how exactly those brands were attached, they would have to risk disclosing their own alliance with the Xarmnians.  A weak alliance they had made in case they were ever entirely excommunicated from the Half-Men kingdom and declared ‘kill on sight’ by any of their former allies.  The Half-men where a dwindling race, but the presence of mankind was increasing and would eventually overrun the Mid-World.

The Pan would most certainly make good on his threat.  There were dark, violent things that seemed to do his bidding, and his reach was far and wide.  Her captured prize might placate The Pan enough to where he still saw value in the harpies rather than receiving the full weight of his ire.  She had to collect the Surface Worlder and bring him back to The Pan to have any hope of salvaging a place for her kind.

There wasn’t time to find the other Surface Worlders, but even if there had been, Dellitch reasoned, any remaining would most likely be driven out of the forest by the spreading fires…unless…

A thought arose her in mind from a distant memory, a mere scrap of a conversation she had overheard about certain places in the various woods where Faeries had once been sighted…a place such as Kilrane Forest.

It was time to extract some information from her treetop prize.  She launched from the limb and swooped in and out of the smoky wood, headed swiftly to the place she’d deposited the overworlder.  She would get him to cooperate or dangle his body in flight and let the branches of the wood beat the information out of him.  If that did not work, there was always the path of fire.  Funny how tongues of fire loosened tongues of flesh.

***

Sometimes life might literally hang by a straining thread.

That thought passed through my mind thinking not only of my own predicament but that of the others in my company who had been taken by the Protectorate Guards.  A band of brutes who were cruel as an afterthought, but wicked by intention, savage as any of the Half-men creatures falling under The Pan’s rule.

The Xarmnian military used to be thuggish and slow-witted, oafish and unregimented until Xarmni enlisted the Corsines of the mountains to discipline them.  Initially hired as mercenaries and personal protection, the Corsines were given rank and Xarmnian-citizen standing in exchange for transforming their armies into brutal and efficient battle groups.  The Xarmnian foot soldiers were originally comprised of conscripts and foundlings, orphans and the children of debtors who were taken, educated and made into what they had become.  Few of these ever attained a status of higher rank, and most of the leadership came from among the Corsines in the Stone Pass.

But the Protectorate Guard patrols were mostly comprised of Corsines, their duties reserved for the hunters of the military bands.  Enforcers who were tasked with ensuring that subversives were swiftly put down or rooted out and pursued until they were found and taken back to strongholds for public sentencing before a tribunal court.  Chances were that since our company was Surface Worlders, the military would be interested in finding out what our interests and objectives were before slaughtering them, but I could not put too much weight into those chances.

My present company were in danger as well, the longer I was away, but that could not be helped.  There was a very important reason, I had to get near The Pan that I could not share with anyone.  Begglar and Maeven both would have stopped me if they knew what I had to do, but it could not be helped.  I knew I should have waited for Maeven to catch up, but there wasn’t time.  Begglar, despite what he said, had been a robust fighter in his day.  He’d had a hard life since, but I still suspected there was a considerable amount of fight and leadership qualities left within him.  If pressed I was confident he would arise to meet the need, so it made sense that he remained with the group in my stead.  There was something I had to retrieve that had been stolen so long ago, that I knew was crucial to set things right again.  Something that would take away the advantage of The Pan in hunting us down and thwarting what we were trying to do.  I was taking quite a gamble that the dangerous retinue would remain in his presence.  And that if Maeven were to catch up, the most logical place she could do so would be along the dark forest road.  Travel through the ferns and brush would be furtive and noisy and draw attention and rouse animals.  Though it may not seem so, the cleared road was the place from which my party would be able to see stalking enemies from any approach.  But I could not be gone long, and the harpy capturing me and depositing me in the trees was not something I could have predicted.

That thread holding everything was growing thinner and frayed.

Set that thread afire and, if it holds at all it becomes a fuse.

We needed to catch up to those taken captive quickly if we were to have any chance to rescue them before or after they reached Dornsdale, but I could not get to them if I could not get past this moment and safely out of the tree.

The branches overhead crackled as the drier leaves fed the hungering tongues of fire, but I could not focus on what was happening above me and hope for any success with needed to be done below.  Like that precarious balance between thread and fuse, the hold of the thread could snap if I acted too suddenly and the smoldering length of the shortening fuse pressed the fact that I was running out of time before all my options were lost in the flames.

I leaned down, straining to grasp the cleated straps as they spun and slightly swayed from side to side, the thin thread looking as fine as the filament of a spiderweb.  I rewound the excess thread around the shaft of the arrow and held each drawn length gathered in my sweating palms wrapping it to slide over a finger as I cautiously drew each loop upward and over the arrow again.  I held my breath with each pull, careful not to breathe too deeply as I knew any sudden movement would snap the line and send the harness down to the forest floor and along with it my hopes of safely getting out of the tree.

I lay braced between a slightly angled fork in the branch, my torso pivoted down, my legs and knees locked around the bough.  The arrow point was wedged between another fork and I worked the loops through the fork locked the arrow and then bent to try to reach the swaying strap that was tied to the thread.  My fingers lightly brushed the silver metal ring that joined the straps, but I could not lunge for fear of severing the line.

And then my feet slipped.

I scissored out my legs, trying to expand them far enough to keep from slipping through the forked limb and managed to hook a finger through the metal ring that dangled from the twisting thread.  My breath caught in my throat as the limbs pressed into the muscles of my thighs, but I could not risk much more movement without slipping further down.  Carefully I drew the spiked foot stirrups upward, trying not to lever too much to loosen my pincered hold.  I was able to push a stirrup and spike through the gap in the fork and let it dangle over the branch counter-weighted by the other stirrup.  Slowly, I leaned upward, knowing that I would lose my leg-hold in a few seconds because of the bend and shifting of my weight.  I reached for the bottom of one metal stirrup and my other hand caught the other as thighs ground between the fork and finally slipped out.

I fell half a foot, but stopped short, dangling from the two stirrups like a novice gymnast holding on to the chainrings for dear life while they swayed back and forth over a thirty-five-foot drop.

I told myself not to look down—to focus on getting back up to the limb above—but I could not help but feel gravity pulling my body and my gaze downward.

A screech to my left startled me, almost to lose my sweating grip, as I jerked and twisted toward it.

The harpy was returning—and she was very, very angry.

 

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The Fire Lights – Chapter 61

Glowing embers swirled through crawling blankets of smoke as the flames of Kilrane crackled and popped and roared with flared bursts as underbrush and dried limbs caught fire.  The ground was a sea of red and yellow flame.  Dark-feathered demons swooped and dove in gliding waves dipping down and then arising like fiery phoenixes, cackling and laughing cruelly as they charmed the fire’s progress onward.  So blind was their hatred and so intent on destruction that they failed to see the high borne witnesses to their savage delight, clinging and climbing above into the canopy.  Dryads, the former and recent occupants of the forest of Kilrane, were aghast and incensed at the destruction, yet fled for their lives, unable to stop the roaring tide below.  The harpies, bearing the firebrands, crisscrossed below them, their frenzied fire dance crawling higher and higher up the trees, so that all the dryads could do was flee as fast as possible towards the edge of the forest, crying, “Treachery!”  Some fell screaming as the fires spreading across the canopy above joined with the fires below, engulfing them in flames causing their branches and limbs to erupt in bright flares, as they tumbled downward disappearing into the smoky and haloed glowing sea.  The shouts and screams in the back forest and the insane laughter of the fiery harpies wove together into a nightmarish symphony of terror that rolled forward in crescendo toward the dead slough where The Pan held court with his savage satyr-courtiers, and the shrieking harpies and the gathering number of displaced and scorched dryads.

Yet amid the terror and smoke one dryad lingered high above the forest roadway waiting for the right moment to present itself—A dryad by the name of Langula.  As the harpies flew in and out of the smoke below, her vine twisted limbs encircled the long strands bearing rotting heads of dead satyrs and unfortunate men and sundry other animals that she and her fellow ‘ladies of the leaves’ had feasted on and collected as ornamental warnings for errant satyrs and men who dared broach their domain.  Quietly and silently she swayed the ends of the grisly ornaments deftly through the rising smoke forming a slight spin to their sway.  Carefully she timed the rotations of the various death vines to move and sway inward and outward in ever increasing circles.  The horrific faces, blackened by rot, twisted by shock and rictus, misshapen mouths hung slack around blood stained teeth, gaped and swallowed smoke as they swayed inward and outward.  A certain degree of fascination and savagery also shone in the golden and green eyes of the porcelain cream face ensconced in a ruffle of leaves as she watched the flame-bearing harpies fly ignorant of her presence above.

A harpy strayed off from the others, laughing and chanting, “Burn!  Burn! Burn!” as she swooped under and over the smoke headed toward the area where the grisly ornaments weaved above.  Four other harpies follow laughing and echoing the chant, their firebrand flickering yet remaining aflame.

Langula saw the back of one rise through the haze, wings extended, as she struck one of the rotting heads.  Another, pivoted and suddenly the vines pulled taught and the branches bearing the anchor points thrashed, as something beneath the smoke became entangled.  Savagely Langula jerked the dangling vine upward, eliciting a “Gawww!” sound as two vines twisted around something that fought below.  Two of the harpies emerged from below, yet a third was unaccounted for and the voice of the first harpy ceased her smoky chanting abruptly, from somewhere ahead.

Vines lifted toward the canopy, and a black feathered body, curled in vines moving like green worms emerged from the smoke, the firebrand’s flames catching fire in the feathers of the entangled harpy, two dark heads pressing their rotted faces into her gawking crone face.

“Caught you, you burning bat-bitch!” Langula hissed, as she drew her hideous trophy upward.

What was not apparent from below was now becoming clear from above.  A sharp pointed spike jutted out from the severed neck of each head whose point lay even alongside the vines that extended upward.  As the vines were rotated or struck, however, the barb jutted outward causing the grisly ornament to become a deadly hook, from which the dryads could catch or ensnare flying quarry interested in feasting on the rotting heads below.  The harpy so trapped was also spitted with the skewered barb, and, struggle though it might, Langula would ensure that this particular feathered-fiend would never fly again.

Using this method, Langula caught four other fire-setting harpies before she was through air fishing, and then set off to deliver the evidence of their arsonous villainy to her chief Madame Briar, who now stood before The Pan.

***

The Pan towered over the groveling Trolls cringing and bowing and his arms flashed out grabbing both Shelberd and Grum-blud by the neck, lifting their dangling, struggling forms aloft.

“It is to you I hold the fault of these deaths.  And this companion of yours, who properly fears me and has ever only cowered in my presence, I will grant a mercy.”

At this, The Pan flung Shelberd down into the filmy water of the slough, from which Grum-blud had crawled.  A large splash of brown and blackish water wet the muddy bank, as The Pan moved quickly forward.  His great hooves stirring clouds of water bugs and gnats as he followed his flung captive into the deepening water.  When Shelberd burst upward from the water, coughing and sputtering he felt the great weight of a suspended hoof slam into his chest, plunging him back under.  Ripples from the water and the floating mat of film, evidenced a struggle underneath, as The Pan cruelly pressed downward.  He dangled Grum-blud over the pool holding him by his short leg, forcing him to watch the demise of his former companion.  Bubbles and a cough of roiling water broke the surface and then ceased.

“The mercy, I grant him,” The Pan rumbled, “is the swiftness of his death.  Yours will not be so swift, human frog.”

And with that, he strode out of the water, towards the onocentaurs, who were even now backing away in terror, towards a sneering group of satyrs laughing wickedly.  The Pan reached out and grabbed the one called Bunt by the torso, as the man-half of creature raised his arms defensively covering his head.  “Do you wish you could fly, little donkey?” The Pan rumbled, his face pulled up in a sinister grin, his cataracted eye’s seeming to gleam with a cold monstrosity.

“P-Please, sire.  We didn’t do anything.  It was the trolls, they…” he begged.

With a mighty twist of his body, The Pan launched the onocentaur into the air, throwing his flailing body hard into the trees, where it sailed and struck branches and smacked hard into a trunk, and then tumbled lifelessly downward.

Several satyrs bounded after the flying body, chanting, “Feed!  Feed!  Make it bleed!” then laughing with delight, champing their sharpened teeth together, as they descended upon it under the cover of the brush.

The other onocentaur, called Dob, turned to flee and was pounced upon by the satyrs blocking his escape.

Shaggy arms and blackened grimy fingernails scratched and pounded his body mercilessly, as he cried, “No!  No!  No!”

“Yes! Yes! Yes!” the satyrs mocked him, as they brutally struck him, a few biting his haunches and then slapping the bites, adding insult to injury.

The Pan squatted on his massive shaggy haunches, savaging enjoying the sounds of the pleading onocentaur.

“PAN!” a voice yelled above the cacophony, “Now see the evidence of your fire bugs!”

The Pan sniffed the air smelling the scent of burned flesh and feathers, the harpies perched in the tree tops around the deaden slough shriek in outrage as did the harpies swooping high overhead.

Briar flung the bound bodies of four scorched harpies outward landing in the mud of the bank upon which he stood.  He bent down sniffing the corpses, attempting to listening to the whispered words of his designated courtier, who described the sight before his blinded eyes.

The noises of the beatings of the mobbed onocentaur prevented him hearing his chief satyr’s words, and he roared a rebuke.

“Silence, you savage fools!” he bellowed, “Leave the donkey-man be, for now.”

When the satyrs did not hear him, clearly, he lunged forward and backhanded a few closest to him, his other senses giving him a quasi-sight to do so.  His powerful fist, slammed into the side of a satyr, snapping it spine and flinging its body into the air off to his right, the brutal hand coming back across, clipping another, from the opposite direction, dislocating its shoulder, as it fell to the ground.

That got the satyrs attention and they backed away from the onocentaur’s battered, bloodied and bruised body.  The Pan then turned and moved towards the fallen harpies that he smelled clearly, his hands pawing at their smoldering bodies, feeling the firebrand branches clutched and bound to their winged claws.

“What is this?!” his sight-less eyes turned towards the scents he knew to be the smells of the dryads.

“Your harpies have burned the forest of Kilrane!  The land you claimed and made us tenants of.  Quite possibly they are responsible for the deaths of your Manticores.  Did you authorize this destruction?!” Briar asked.

“No,” he growled, increasing his throaty rumble in intensity, so that the sound of it trembled the leave around him, “Harpy Dellitch!  What do you know of this?!  Who authorized the burning of my forest?!”

At this, he dropped Grum-blud into the mud, and stood up to his full height, his angry face turned to the sky, his teeth clenched, and his eyes narrowed to glaring slits of white-hot fire.

Grum-blud grunted painfully when he struck the ground, but he quickly righted himself, seeing a sudden chance to save his own skin.

“My lord,” he gasped, “That is what I wanted to tell you.  The harpies burned the forest behind us.  We were beset with fire on every side.  Your Manticores were intent on taking Azragoth under your orders and did not escape the fires.  I and the onocentaurs, held back to oversee the destruction.  We climbed trees to witness what we knew you wanted reported only to find the forest lit behind us.  We called to the Manticores, but it was too late to turn them.  It was the harpies that are responsible for the failures you are punishing us for.  So zealous they are in their hatred for the dryads.  They did not keep their destructive zeal in check, even under your orders.  They defied you, seeking to serve their own interests and vengeance.  It is they that deserve your wrath.  Not us!  We are your loyal subjects.  We honor your command.  It is our pleasure to serve your mighty hand.  To deliver wrath to your enemies.  Yet they would see us bleed for their treachery.”

The Pan listened and pondered this, as the harpies shrieked in protest, like birds storming out of the trees under gunfire.

“Lies!  Lies!  Lies!” they shrieked.  “Kilrane was already beset with fires to the north!  The fires arose from the hidden city.  We reported to you of its rebirth.  We saw their walls catch fire!”

“Do you deny, spreading the fire?!” the Pan roared to the bird-women, “If so, why do I feel this firebrand, bound to the wings of these dead?!”

Dellitch flew in from above, “My lord, divine king, god of the lands and forest, the dryads are deceiving you.  They killed our sisters and attached the brands to them.  You are being deceived by these betrayers!  We are not to blame.”

The Pan roared in anger and frustration, his fists clenching and unclenching, his hands grabbing at rooted brush, twisting it and casting it into the air.

“Do not think, foul-bird that because I am blind, I cannot see deception!  Do not mock me!  Do not smile upon my scarred eyes.  I can hear the deception in your voice.  I can smell the feverish sweat of lies bead upon your aged skin!  I can taste beads of milk flowing from your feathered breasts.  You have taken advantage of the limited liberties I gave you with regard to this command!  Never insult me and think just because you can fly that you are ever out of my reach.  You know what other forms of creatures I have under my command.  You know what nightmares I can send against even you, though you may fly to the mountains, you will not escape the bite and claw of those I send after you!  DO NOT MOCK ME!”

The last words caused both the ground to tremble and the swampy trees to sway, and its noise echoed terribly throughout the forests and surrounding canyons.

All of the gathered, pressed their hands to their ears and howled in pain at the sharpness of the power of the voice.  For a brief time, no one could hear, as their ears painfully thrummed and throbbed.  Grum-blud huddled in the mud below, his fat fists pressed hard into his bulbous ears, the ringing in his head unbearable, causing him to gasp in short breaths and mewl in agony, his legs drawn into a fetal curl as he writhed.  The satyrs cowed, in similar agony, grimy hands pressed into the sides of their heads, grunting in pain.  The dryads shrunk down into piles of twisted wood, appearing like dried cypress trees, curled around themselves, no greenery showing.  The harpies, however, suffered the worst of the powerful roar, their wings folded as they plummet from the sky, falling bodies, formerly in flight striking the hard ground, splashing into the murky slough waters, embedding into the mud, caroming off bare branches with a hard wing-shattering crack, their hollow avian bones snapping with the impacts.

***

Jeremiah had at first thought that O’Brian was speaking from the high bough to The Pan, but then realized he wasn’t.

He was carefully ascending the back of a hill in the forest, when a thunderous noise poured over the top of the hill with an audible and physical fist with a power wave, that seemed to shake everything in sight, knocking him flat against the ground with a thud, the limp body of the weakened man on his back slamming down hard upon him.  Everything around him seemed to ring with the tine-struck note of a tuning fork, that echoed and bounced every which way he looked.  The clap of the sound felt like he’d been struck on the sides of his head with a physical slap, and his ears pulsed and throbbed, muting all other sounds of the forest around him.  When he was able to lift his head from the matted leaves, and groggily raise his body upon trembling hands, he glanced upward to see how the powerful sonic boom had affected the one he sought to rescue from the treetops above.  What he saw both shocked and amazed him.  The man was surrounded and protected by circles of glowing light.

***

I had heard of the beings that the Mid-Worlders called faeries, heard how they had been described, by those who had witnessed them from a distance but had never encountered one for myself, until that moment they descended upon me from the treetops.  It was both terrible, frightening and wonderful all at the same time.  They pulsed and throbbed with a power and energy that was beyond imagining and barely contained within this existence or any other for that matter.  Their light shone piercing and sharp yet did not cut through me as I feared it might.  I was dumbstruck before them and felt weak all over.  I trembled and hid my face, shielding my eyes from the brightness of their being.

The branch under me felt like a gossamer thread that could break at any moment, and something about their presence made me weep.  A sound emerged from them, some mystical tonal quality that I cannot describe adequately.  It was beautiful, sad and joyous, tragic and lovely, evoking emotions and feelings in me that I did not know I had.  In a language, my ears did not understand, but somehow my spirit knew instinctively, I felt words of comfort dance softly and fluidly with the sounds of the song in their voice.  What they seemed to communicate, and to the best of my ability to translate was “No fear.  Feel courage.  Embrace faith.  Believe and trust in the One that has called you.  You are known and loved.”

Only the final word, that I translated as “loved” seems so far inadequate to describe what they actually said.  The feeling of that word made me weep tears of joy and filled me will a sense of place that had nothing to do with space or time because it was somehow coupled with divine intention.

The air around me seemed thicker and softer somehow as if it caressed me with a warm breath that stabilized me.  Something external seemed to move all around us but peeled away from the presences of these living beings that seemed more alive than any other creature I had ever observed in this world or the Surface World.

“You are purposed for these moments.  You are drawn forth from the well to be living water to those given.  Return to them, for you will be made into what is purposed.  You will find delight in your purpose.”

Their words seemed to swim through the air around me, touching me with sweet fragrance, bathing me in golden light.

“Upon your mind and in your memory, you will find the timeless words.  They will meet you in your moments of doubt.  The truth will set you free to will and do that to which you are called.”

Then a melody from where I did not know seemed to rise up around us, flowing through me as if every part of my being were washed with cool water, refreshing my soul and spirit.  I wanted that feeling to last forever, but soon after it left me, and it had no feeling of the passage of time, but felt placed again into a moment that I felt purposed for, though I did not fully understand the why of it.  From down below me, I could finally hear some other voice, calling up to me trying to get my attention.  A voice I was vaguely familiar with, from a distant past.  I looked down below and saw a figure moving cautiously towards the base of the tree where I sat, some form borne upon his back as he moved from shadow to shadow, careful not to attract attention.

“Brian!” he called in a loud whisper, cautiously trying not to create too much noise but needing to gain my focus and attention.

I rubbed my eyes, and then looked down again, his face small because of the distance between us.

“O’Brian, or whatever you are called now!” he called, carefully kneeling to lay the form down upon the ground and gather his bow in his hand, which he hunched over and worked on a few minutes before turning again upward.

“Move back,” he said, raising the bow, the arrow point pointed above towards me.

Realizing what he was about to do I lurched backward as he let fly the arrow from his drawn bow.

Thwap!  The arrow drove deep into the branch upon which I sat, and I noticed a small thread attached to its fletching, fed out by a light spool handing down below.

A memory crawled towards me in realization from a past I thought I had left long ago, as I realized to whom it was I spoke.  Our last encounter had left me battered and bloodied, but I understood the fury and frustration of the man and the grief to which I had brought him.  This was Caleb’s brother, the friend I had lost to The Pan as a result of my error in judgment and failure to humbly seek more than my own counsel.  The man had sworn if he ever saw me again he might kill me.  And I wondered if perhaps he had finally come to do just that.

***

I moved and inched my way toward the arrow that had been shot into the thick meat of the branch.  It was an amazingly precise shot by any measure, and I realized that if Jeremiah had planned to kill me, he could have just as easily done it without announcing himself to me from below.  Especially since The Pan and his creature subjects were in close proximity.  To call up to me was a risk to himself as well as to me, and it did not make sense for him to bring attention our way.  When I was close enough, I reached down and pried the arrow out of the wood being careful not to lose the narrow spool that was two inches down from the end of the arrow point.  The arrow was of more modern design, something fashioned from the ingenuity of the Surface World and not subject to the innovation of the Mid-World.  The thread was fine yet strong, and the shaft tapered such that the razor point could be removed, and the grooved spool slid off the end.  Righting myself, I quickly did so, knowing that the harpy who had deposited me here, could be back at any moment to collect me from the high perch.  From the angry shouts and noises below, I knew that it was highly probable.

One end of the thread had been woven and tied securely to the arrow with just enough slack to allow the spool end to clear the shaft and slide off.  I dropped the spool, allowing it to quickly unravel down towards the waiting arms of the man I suspected was Jeremiah.

He waited quietly marking the falling path of the unraveling spool, deftly catching its end and then affixed something to it and then looked up nodding.  I wondered how such a small string would lift over forty foot of rope, but I soon saw that was not what he had in mind.  What he attached was a cotton woven pole climber’s belt.  If he’d not been intending to kill me himself, he might just accomplish it with this gear.

Having no other option, pulling hand over hand, I quickly hauled the belt up for a better look.  The belt was braided and woven with a thick support strap, and cross-over straps that gathered in the front and allowed the climber to hug the pole with his knees using a slang balance and gather and slip strap to ascend or descend a vertical pole.

I took a deep breath and looked down.  Jeremiah motioned again for me to drop the spool.

I had no idea what else he had to send up, but I was pretty sure it was not anything that would give me more confidence in what I was about to attempt.

When he caught the spool bob again he turned his back and knelt covering what he was doing so I could not see.  When he had finished affixing whatever it was to the end of the thread, he turned again and looked up at me, this time cupping his hands around his mouth, once more risking exposure by calling up to me.

“Slowly,” he rasped making hand motions indicating that I should pull the line, then cupping his hands again said, “Very slowly.  This may break the line.”

That gave me no comfort, but I nodded and slowly began gathering the line in my hands, being very careful not to jerk it, or let my sense of urgency risk me drawing it too fast.  The item was heavier than the other and from what I could tell it appeared to be a set of leather saddle stirrups.  I saw a set of buckles and short cinches, and the stirrup had a heavier metal barb at the bottom, and from this I realized he was sending me the climbing spikes, that would strap to my feet and calves and allow me to descend with the strap, rather than just relying on a fulcrum press.  Seeing these slightly spinning and twisting the stretched thread made me fearful of losing them.  I might have an even chance with these, but I would most certainly fall attempting the descent without them.  The tree bole was too big for me to get my arms around it, which was most likely why the harpy was confident that I would be here when she returned.  I took deep breaths, trying my best not to let the thread torque and weaken, but I could not prevent it from doing so.  Halfway up the metal and stirrups began to twist again, and I stilled my pulling, fighting the urgency and fear that made me desperate to jerk the gear upward.  Patience and deliberate action were not my strong suits, and I closed my eyes, struggling to find calm and peace, knowing that was needed.  I breathed deeply and slowly inch by inch began again.  A wave of heat shimmered my vision, and I felt the forest beyond growing hotter as the fires moved and licked steadily towards us.  Overhead I heard a whooshing noise, signifying that the canopy above me too was catching fire.

The Covering – Chapter 60

Sometimes in leadership, one is called to go forth alone and meet the wolf.  Others witnessing this might not understand what the lead is doing.  They will most certainly question it and ascribe motives for it, and even accuse them of cowardice.  One cannot reveal every private plan because not everything is subject to committee review.  When one is called to a mission, and he hears and seeks guidance from the One who calls him, sometimes that communication is held in the strictest confidence.  The charge I felt, moving down the road with the company of companions who were becoming more of a family to me is the sense that I must seek to follow what even may seem foolish to others if the One bids me to do it.  The Ancient Texts reads:

“11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. 12 The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. 13 The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.” [John 10:11-13 NIV]

My actions may appear to even those back on the road like that of the hireling, but it was towards the wolf, The Pan, I was moving to interdict his approach.  To stand and confront him, before he could get to my family.

The Xarmnian wolves had already taken part of my company and separated us.  The Pan, the ancient ruler of the Half-men, would find that his forward progression into the forest of Kilrane would be stopped here and now.  The satyrs would be close to him.  The dryads would not be far, and whatever else passes for his retinue would soon be gathered together in one place to vastly outnumber me if I moved against him.  But the truth is I did not stand alone.  As I moved through the gloom within the hearing of The Pan and his collected audience, I felt the quickening come upon me and flare brightly in my soul and spirit.  This was the right path.  My spirit within me confirmed it.  Foolish though it may seem, I was being led here.

The Pan was ancient and dangerous.  His command and kingdom were governed by very valid fears of his might.  His roar rumbled the ground.  And Greek legend of him records that his angry shouts inspired terror, from whence we derive the word Panic.

As I moved through the smoke, my face covered and shielded by my cloak, my eyes stinging and watering as ash particles filled the air, it was with some surprise that I found myself saddened grabbed from behind and lifted aloft into the trees.

Great gray talons, with black hooked daggers, wove around my upper arms clasping me and pulling me towards the leafy sky.  A milky substance dribbled down upon my head and body, and I debated whether I should try to twist free or wait until I at least have the change to reach a limb of some kind to make my effort.  Craning my head to the side, I looked upward and saw the lower chin and bottom feathered breasts of what appeared to be an old woman.

A harpy.  Terrible creatures who carried a degree of angst for all mankind and their semblances.  Harpies were known to carry their victims to great heights and then drop them over rocks below so that they could come back down and more easily tear and chew the soft pieces of flesh that were tenderized by falling upon stone.

If this harpy took me much farther up or beyond the canopy, I was a dead man.

But I soon learned that was not her intention.

When she placed me in the treetops, over forty feet from the forest floor, and then left me there, I knew she had something else in mind.  Some particular form of nastiness she was reserving me for.

***

Jeremiah moved quickly and quietly through the woods along the rutted shoulder of the road.  Smoke poured through the forest undergrowth, being sifting by the trees coating everything with flakes of grey and white ash.  The fires were moving swiftly towards the slough and there were enough dried wood and decaying gasses from the rot to give the fire fuel for a flare-up. Peat moss, a pre-cursor to coal formulation, once ignited, however, might smolder for years.

There was no way to track O’Brian through such conditions.  Visibility was poor and the memories of what had happened between them and what had led to Caleb’s death still plagued his mind, unbidden.

Caleb, he sighed.  The pain of the terrible and pointless way he had died, due to following a plan hatched without the guidance of the One, by O’Brian, the erstwhile Brian David, so many years ago.  His failure to seek guidance had cost Caleb his life.  Forgiving him was a hard thing that had taken him many years to come to terms with.  Especially since “O’Brian” had basically dropped off the face of the map and had not been heard from nor seen in many, many years.

The loss and the pain had been particularly hard since Caleb was his only brother.

O’Brian, then Brian David, had come to him after seeking forgiveness and contrite, but Jeremiah was too grieved to offer him either.  The exchange between them had come to blows.  Upon reflection, however, Jeremiah recalled that Brian had not fought back.  Rather he had received his strikes as a kind of penance.  Bloodied and battered, he’d stood up from the ground, taken one last look at Jeremiah and then walked away, never to show himself again.  Until today.  If Jeremiah could find him in time.  The fool had gone to face The Pan on his own.  A stupid, stupid surrender of tactical maneuvering.  A suicide mission that would only get himself killed and would serve nothing.  But perhaps that is what the man wanted all along.  To die at the hands of the very one who had killed Caleb and then fed his body to Manticores.

***

The harpy, called Dellitch, had been scalded and scarred in the top canopy fight with the dryads, but she was feeling savagely victorious.  Over forty of the dryads had either fallen under wet claws or been consumed by the spreading fires.  Recompense for the sisters she had lost over the years when they were starved out or ostracized by the other races of Half-men creatures.  The dryads had been given this new forest, while the harpies had been left to subsist under the blighted remains of the prior home they’d once shared together.

She’d been only too happy to enlist her sisters in service to The Pan when she learned he had the need to clear a forest of dryads.  What he did not know, however, was the extent to which they would go to clear that wood, or how deeply their collective rage had rooted itself within them over the years.  The dryads had renewal and rebirth, the satyrs had their debaucheries and reveling pleasures, the others had many other things to distract them from the inexorable curse that would one day claim them, but the harpies had only vengeance to cling to.

And Dellitch, knowing she would be returning to face The Pan’s rage once he had discovered what they had done, along the way to her accounting had a fortuitous finding.  A male Surface Worlder, whom she had swooped in from the fog and smoke and had captured and deposited upon a high bough for safekeeping while she announced her fortune to her sisters.  They had flown ahead to proclaim their find to The Pan, just ahead of another flock of sisters who also bore a prize of their own.

It had been too late for Dellitch to call her sisters back and delay the announcement, but these others might mitigate any leniency she had hoped to have from The Pan bearing such a prize, by offering one of their own.

How many other Surface Worlder’s might there be traveling under the smoke and haze of Kilrane?  Having one prize among another of equal value might reduce the appeal, but finding the others and delivering a group of them to The Pan might raise her offering’s value.  Meat for one surely was less impressive than a banquet of meat for all.

***

Maeven gathered and beckoned the company to come together and stand under the strange ceremonial canopy growing beneath the trees.

“This is the Faerie Fade.  We will all be safe under here.  Gather around.”

Begglar grinned and took his wife’s hand, “Remember this place, Nellus?”

Nell smiled and brushed her fingers lightly over the woven vines and ornate carvings and touched the rough and smooth bark of the tree posts that held the living ceiling above them with its large circular carve-out with wooden spokes that radiated outward.

“I do,” she smiled and turned softening, moistened eyes to Maeven, “Begglar and I were married here.  This is the place.  We have been looking for it for many years but could never find it.”

“You were married here?” Dominic asked.

“Aye, son,” Begglar patted his arm, “And your mom was a sight to behold.  I nearly cried like a baby when I saw her coming through the woods there.  A few maids bearing her gown.  Petals of white scattered upon the path up through the woods to this small him.  Our cleric ready and waiting to join us in the covenant.”

“Nearly?  You did,” Nell rejoined, “I never thought I’d see such a big bear of a man cry, but he was blubbering like a fish.”

Begglar chuckled, “Funny how tenderness had a way of touching you like nothing else does.”

“He cried when you were born to, Dom,” Nell grinned, “The old softie.”

“Excuse me guys, but I don’t see how any of this helps us,” Christopher spoke up, “This canopy doesn’t have any walls, except the back one, and that does seem strong enough to withstand a gentle breeze.  What we need is some sort of fortification.  Something that we can lock and bolt down.  Anyone with an ax can take this down in a minute.  Excuse me for saying it, but you are wasting our time having us get here.  I doubt that Jeremiah cares much about the danger we are in or O’Brian or anyone but himself, for that matter.”

Begglar spoke up, “Now hold it just a wee bit, there.  There is protection in a place like this.  Powerful protection.  Look around you, lad.  This place is a place of covenant.  You are standing in a sacred place.  The Pan and all his might and menageries can do nothing to harm us here.  Maeven was right to bring us here.  This is the safest place in the wood.”

Lindsey took it all in fingering the ornately woven latticed bridgework, admiring it earthy construction and the deft folding and weaving of branches making symbolic patterns in the back wall and overhead ceiling of moss, branch and grafted timber growing in and out of the patterns.

“Well I like it here,” she interrupted, “There is something peaceful and sad about it, but it feels lovely.  Such intricate designs.  I see the casements of four windows there in the back.  I can almost imagine colored, stained-glass panes.  Like this is a holy place.”

“It is,” Nell stepped up emphatically, pointing to the four posts holding the outer structure, “Don’t think that protection always comes in the form you expect it to.  This holy place is guarded by forces you cannot imagine.”

Matthew leaned back to Mason, “I don’t see anything.  Do you see anything?”

Tiernan joined in, “You said this place was a covenant place.  Begglar and Nell say they were married here?  What did you mean by that, Maeven?”

Maeven, teared up slightly, “I…,” she swallowed hard, “The places here in this land are unlike anything I’ve been to in my waking life on the Surface.  Right now, back in my waking life, I have lost…”  She covered her mouth with her hand choking back emotion she wasn’t ready to share with the group.

Laura and Christie both came to her side, their comforting arms gathering her in protectively.

Nell turned to the others, “In our world, as I was told once was in your world, marriage is a protective covenant.  Here is has visible power.  The One ordained it as an original ordinance for all humankind.  It is an everlasting symbol of His redemption and relationship with His redeemed.”

“I don’t see how it connects,” Christopher said, “Marriage doesn’t mean much in our world.”

“That is because it has been stripped away from its intention.  It is not treated as a covenant anymore,” James, who had been quiet up to this point, offered.

“Sometimes divorce is a good thing,” Laura muttered.

Nell moved to the front post of the enclosure, “Can I show you something of what it means here?”

[Author’s Note:  Illustrated graphic follows this section, depicting the images and symbolism to help the reader visualize what they are being shown.]

“Yes!” Lindsey spoke up, “Please do.”

“Maeven, are you okay with this?” Nell asked, “What do you say of marriage?  I know you are suffering from the loss of your spouse, but if you had it to do over again, knowing such pain, would you have wanted to make the decision to marry?”

Maeven though tearful-eyed, nodded emphatically, “No.  I cherished every precious moment, good and bad.  Tell them.  They need to hear it.”

Begglar turned to the young men, “Gentlemen, are you okay with hearing what needs to be said?  This place is full of visual symbols that represent concepts that make up the picture of the Holy One’s intention.  In this world, marriage is a position of honor, the basic unit from which society is built and it is sacred.  The Xarmnians view it only as an institution, but unnecessary.  That is why their societal structures fail.  Theirs’ is a kingdom of fear.  The wife is merely a convenience and property.  A servant that may be beaten at their master’s will, but must serve the master’s flesh primarily.  They have no standing other than their utilitarian value.  They are considered less equal than the men.  If any of you view women in such a way, you should know that you have more in common with the brutal dictators that oppress these lands than the One who calls you to this quest.  Do you understand this?”

Nell turned to her husband, “So you remember all this?”

“I do,” Begglar grinned and winked at Nellus, drawing her into his arms and kissed her on the forehead, “And I do.”

“For instance, the two front posts of this canopy: they are pillars supporting a structure.  The front and side walls of this covering are missing because this covenant is meant to be made public so that those outside may witness the miracle of covenant union.  Everything beyond the pillars is full in public view as a testimony of this divine arrangement.  The sides of the structure are also open on both the brides’ side and the groom’s side so that the family and friends of each, standing on either side of the structure may witness the covenant through their relationship with bride or groom.  These are each’s intimate public.  This is why the sides and front remain open.”

Begglar moved to the front tree trunk on the left and then place his hand upon it.  “This pillar represents society.  It can be those of the community in which this couple will live.”

He walked the expanse to the right side and placed his hand upon the other tree trunk post support the awning roof of the enclosure.  “This pillar represents societal laws and the protection of the covenant relationship as an institution valued to remain intact.  These laws protect the mutual rights of the spouse, under the institution, and ascribe certain duties of provision and responsibility within the relationship.  The laws also protect the children that arise as part of that relationship and duties held to the parents.”

From there, Begglar moved to the back wall, which was bordered and supported by four living trees, two serving as interior columns, and two serving as exterior columns supporting both the roof and the back wall.

“These outer columns framing the back wall represent the family structure that the two people are joining into.  You can see that they are joined together by the only shared wall of this structure.  They are bonded together and related.  One post to the left is the column of the family of the bride, the other to the right is the column of the family of the groom.  All four outer posts are rooted in the ground and grow out of it.  Root systems are deep and extend below the visible ground representing traditions that were in place long before the witnesses were ever born or the union proposed.”

Both Christie pointed, “What do…?” and James began, “How about…?” accidentally interrupting one another.

“I’m sorry,” James said, “You first.”

“That’s alright you go ahead.”

“No, please.  I insist.  Ladies first,” James demurred.

“Why does it have to be ladies first?  Go ahead.  Ask your question,” Christie returned.

“And that is how it begins…,” Nell grinned.

Christie whipped her head around, “What?”

“Christie, please ask your question,” Nell smiled broadly.

She glanced at James searching to see if she missed something, and then turned again to Begglar.

“I just wanted to know what these two interior columns represented supporting the inner wall.”

“On the left side of the door in the center, the post represents the bride.  Her person, her experiences, her past and her future.  The part you see visible is only the moment in time that she comes to this moment.  You will notice, that both her roots and her top are beyond view.  Her past is covered by the soil of this carved-out floor.  Her top, her future, extends above the ceiling.  We witnesses of the ceremony held under this covering do not know all that led her to this moment, nor will we know all that will arise from this moment, for we are not given to see everything.  The same is true for the other column, the tree that represents the groom, adding his own support to the back wall within the frame of family.  The bride and groom post share support of the single back wall connected to the outer posts, which represent the extended family.  The joining of heritages and ancestry for forge a new line and branch of the family tree.”

Here Begglar paused and turned to his wife, “My darling, please continue.”

Nell nodded and applauded her husband’s recitation of the history and symbolism, “Very well done, my Dearest Love.”

She approached him, as if she was walking on air, and tiptoed, to which he bowed so she might kiss him lightly on the cheek.  In so doing, she took his face in her hands, gazed into his eyes and said, “Pirate McGregor or Begglar, my Love, there is no escaping it.  You will always be a wanted man,” and with that, she lightly kissed him on the nose, and then seemed to dance away, as if twenty years of hard life had been erased, and she was a young girl again.

“See the back wall?  On either side of the doorway, on both the bride’s side and the groom’s side there are two window casement frames.  See them?” she pointed to each set, like a woman display a showcase of fabulous prizes on a game show.

“These window sets represent the parents of the bride and the groom.  The father casement is on the exterior closest to the public outer courts.  This placement is deliberate because fathers represent the barrier of protection for this family and this covenant union before the outside world.  When a man and women walk side by side, the man is responsible to take the place of protection which means if they are walking along-side a roadway, he stands between the road and the woman to protect her with his body should a horse or wagon run astray and strike her down.  It is his place to take the hit that will spare her life if need be.  He is her human guardian protecting her physically.  He is the one given the potential for greater physical strength of form.  This is his rightful and respectful place within the relationship.”

“But what if the woman is stronger than he is?” Laura asked.

“As I said, it is his place.  Not hers.  The position is not about capacity or ability.  It is about the role that gives him the respect he needs within the relationship.  If the woman takes his role, she also takes his respectful place away.  If she loves him, she won’t do this to him.  He needs her honor, every bit as much as she needs him to love and cherish her.”

“I never thought about it like that,” Laura said seeming to think this over.

“There is a lot, that is not taught anymore in your world, dear.  Don’t fault yourself for not knowing it.”

Christopher spoke up, “I still don’t get how all this symbolism helps us.”

Tiernan had listened to all of this and interjected, “Hush up, dude.  I want to hear this.  If they say this place makes us safe, they know better than we do.  They live here and there are things about this land that we are still learning.”

“But why is this called ‘The Faerie Fade’?” he shrugged, “I don’t understand what the name means any more than how understanding marriage will make us safe.  It sure didn’t help my folks.  They fought all the time.  I was glad when they busted up.  They threw things, and almost set the house on fire when they left the stove on.  My brother and I hid in the attic and they almost didn’t find us in time.”

“Dude, that’s harsh, man,” Mason said, “I’m sorry, Bro.”

“Don’t be.  I was so glad when the court gave me and Benjamin to Granna and Grampa.  My parents were nuts.  It all worked out.  Marriage is misery, man.”

Begglar put a hand on Chris’s shoulder, “And that, lad, is why this is important for you to hear.  Your parents got it wrong.  They did not model marriage the way it was intended.  Don’t judge the ordinance too harshly, without learning its good.  Be glad that your Grands were there to show you love that you needed.  I assume they had some love between them?”

Christopher considered this a moment.  “Yeah, I guess so.  But they were old people.  Young people don’t follow the old ways anymore.”

Begglar laughed in spite of the implication that he too was an “old” person.

“And it is because they do not follow the old way, that they fail in their new ways.  Would you give a mind to that?”

Chris considered and then nodded, “Okay.  So, what does all this on the ceiling represent?”

“Well, now, I am very glad you asked that because these are very important.  See the big circle there in the center, surrounded by four semi-circles or half-circles?”

“Yeah.”

“The groom and the bride stand directly under the biggest circle in the center there, and that is where they say their covenant vows in front of each other.  Not to each other.  This is where the Surface World gets it wrong.  The circle there represents completeness and it represents God Almighty and the witness of Heaven.  This is to Whom the covenant vows are made.  Not to each other.  A covenant made to a fallible human being is doomed to fail and is conditional upon the feelings and attitudes towards each other.  Most Surface World marriages are based upon this which is why they fail.  They set conditions.  There are certain conditions given by Heaven that allows for the dissolution of marriage and those are infidelity, abuse, and harm.  One of the spouses who causes such is breaking faith with the One who oversees all covenants.  By focusing on their resentments towards the other spouse, they justify harm, but they are dishonoring the One who established the covenant protection and will eventually stand before Him and give account for what they did.  God witnesses covenants.  He is present and presides over them in the same way He did of old.  The Ancient Texts says:

“6 Place the incense altar just outside the inner curtain that shields the Ark of the Covenant, in front of the Ark’s cover–the place of atonement–that covers the tablets inscribed with the terms of the covenant. I will meet with you there.” [Exodus 30:6 NLT]

…The man or woman who uses their body to break faith will stand under the judgment of Heaven, even as this betrothed couple stands under this symbolic circle under this canopy, making their vows.”

“So, if my dad cheated on my mom…”

“Yes, son.  He will account for it.  Remember his duty to physically protect the union from the outside world?  He brings dishonor to his role.  If he raises his fists and dishonors his wife in so doing, he brings violence and dishonor to his role.  The man is more severely judged for this, because to him is given that role of physical protection.”

“What if he doesn’t pay child-support?  What then?”

“Same thing.  Is a child physically harmed if they are not fed and clothed?”

“Yes.  I guess so.”

“Then his physical protection falls short and he is not honoring the role he is called to.  Under marriage, the family is an extension of the bond between the husband and wife.  He must bring honor to his role.”

Tiernan spoke up, “What if his wife cheats on him?  What then?”

Nell spoke up, “The she is subverting his role as physical protector.  If she brings the dishonor to a role that is not her own, she then owns the consequences of violating that role.  Understand?”

Christie joined in, “So is one role more important than the other?”

“No,” Nell answered, “Importance does not play into it.  Both roles are essential.  Both are pivotal.”

“So, what is the woman’s role,” Christie asked, “Have babies, cook, clean and be submissive?”

Begglar sighed, “That is Xarmnian mentality that does not value the individual or lift or cherish the relationship.  No person is merely utilitarian in the relationship.”

Nell came and stood by her husband, “No one likes to be taken for granted or just used.  There is no joy or love in that, dear.  Have you not read the Ancient Text words?”

“4 Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud 5 or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. 6 It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. 7 Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance.” [1 Corinthians 13:4-7 NLT]

“This is a covenant of love.  It is protected by it but be sure and understand what love is as defined by the One who oversees its coverage under a covenant vow made to Him.”

“So, when this couple makes their vows, what happens next?” James asked.

Begglar smiled and put his arm around Nell’s waist, “They stand together, while the cleric draws a ring around them in the ground with a cross stick hung on the doorway there.  This is called the ring of the covenant and it is drawn directly below the circle above, but not wider than Heaven’s circle above.  This is done to show that the covenant is sealed under Heaven’s covering.”

“Wow,” Lindsey remarked, “That is a beautiful thought.  So what do the four half-circles represent?”

Begglar spoke up, “They represent the boundaries of our existence.  The two closest to the back wall represent Time and Height.  Time is on the female side, Height is on the male side.  The two semi-circles toward the front of the Faerie Fade ceiling are Length and Breadth or Depth.  Length is longevity, and females, if properly cared for and cherished tend to live longer than males.  Depth is the plumb line of Wisdom and it is given on the male’s side to discern for the safety of his cherished bride.  These are the boundaries but are not the limits of love.  For the Ancient text says:

“38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” [Romans 8:38-39 NIV]”

“So what is left?” Matt asked, “The door?  Where does it lead?  I see only a wall but it doesn’t appear to have a room beyond it.  There is just forest back there.”

“We will get to the door in a moment,” Nell said.  “Do you see the benches here?”

Several nodded, but Mason said, “I just figured those were there for when the people get tired of long discussions.”

Both Matt and Christopher laughed, and the others chuckled as did Nell herself.

“That is a good reason,” she acknowledged, “But there is only room enough for two couples.  These are places of honor on earth for two sets of very important witnesses to the union of the betrothed couple.  Unfortunately, these seats cannot always be filled, as in our case.  My parents died in Azragoth before they could witness Begglar and I getting married.  Some couples have absent parents, missing parents or unknown parents.  The point is the intention that the seats are there, whether they get filled or not.  God prepares a banquet, a wedding feast, more than adequate to feed every guest invited to His table, but not everyone invited chooses to come, though ample accommodation is still made had they chosen otherwise.  Blessings await, but few of these are ever experienced if those invited do not decide to come by choice.  These places of honor and witness still remain.  The most tragic loss, however, is of empty seats, where the invited guests to the ceremony refused to come.”

Begglar stood behind Nell placing comforting hands upon her shoulders, knowing it was hard for her speaking of this, and remembering the sadness of seeing empty benches on both sides.

“The half circles in the ceiling above are not only the dimensions of existence but windows from every aspect of it.  Windows so that witnesses from all of heaven and all those who have gone before can view the love covenant of this union.  Nellus’ parents, my parents were present at our ceremony viewing us symbolically through these windows, even if they were not physically present to occupy the honor chairs.”

There was a long pause while they all reflected upon this too frequent reality with a sobering solemnity.

Maeven spoke up, “Tell them about the door.”

“Ah, the door,” Begglar said, “That is where the walking begins, where the covenant moves from promise to action.  There is a symbol here on the door, and the tool used to draw the circle is hung here.  The tool is in the form of a cross.  It is central to the door.  There are two lines on either side of it carved out.  These represent the two separate lifelines of both the bride and the groom.  In the center here, where the cross lines meet are a set of diamond-shaped engravings one within the other.  The diamonds are formed by two triangles joined together at the baseline, set with points facing away top to bottom left to right so that together they form the diamond shape.  Three points have triangles, which represent the triune aspects of a person: body, soul, and spirit.  The husband and the wife, each their own person, yet joined in togetherness along a shared baseline where two aspects of their personhood are in direct fellowship.  Body and soul.  The spirit points away showing a vigilant watch and guard of each other.  There are two of these diamond shapes, one within the other, at the section that the crosses it.  This is the intention of the relationship of oneness.  That they are joined together in harmony, physicality, and soul, each watching out for the other.  And that this union be contained and empowered by an even greater union of joining with the Oneness of God as His Bride through the Power of the Cross.  The ovoid symbol below here represents Fellowship.  It was a symbol of the Early Church.  Called an ichthus (ΙΧΘΥΣ), it is a fish symbol, representing the call to be fishers of men.  At the close of the covenant ceremony, the couple leaves together through this doorway, as will we.  This is how we will together, once Jeremiah and O’Brian return, will get safely out of Kilrane.”

“So, we go out the backdoor?” Laura asked.

“No, dear,” Nell answered patient and lovingly, “This is the front door.  A very special doorway.  It doesn’t appear like much on the outside.  A simple narrow wooden doorway, one must enter one at a time.  The husband takes his wife by the hand and leads her through it.  This is the time when it is not, as you said James, ‘Ladies first’.  It is the man’s place to lead lovingly and gently.  To face whatever danger exists on the other side first to protect her with his body as a shield.  Like a man-at-arms goes before his queen, he is to lead her to a safe and cherished place.”

“What are these symbols on either side of the doorway?” Lindsey asked, touching their carvings softly.  “They look like a flower in a circle.”

“Ah,” Begglar said, “And at last we come to it.  This is the reason why this place is called The Faerie Fade.”

Maeven, who had been quiet again up to this point, spoke up, “They’re here.  In the forest.  I saw them.  They’ve come back to Kilrane.”

“What have?” Lindsey asked, wrinkling her nose in a puzzled grin, “The flowers?”

Maeven turned towards her, very serious and very quietly said, “Those are not flowers.  What looks like the top and bottom petals of a flower to you, are not fronds or leaves.  They are a body, a humanlike form, with four wings in a circle of light.  The locals call them Faeries here.  But they are very powerful and very, very dangerous.  They are the guardians of this portal.  Anyone who enters it who is not covered under a covenant of faith will not survive it.”

“What do you mean, ‘will not survive it’?” Chris asked.

“Just what she said,” Nell added, “There are those in our traveling companions who were taken prisoner, that would not make it out of Kilrane if the Xarmnians had not already taken them.  They would not survive this portal, because it is a hallowed place that no darkness or darkened soul can enter.  Only covenant provides safe passage through.”

Tiernan cleared his throat, “So, why would the Half-men permit the Xarmnian Protectorate or whoever, to take those through without killing them all?”

Begglar addressed his question, “Because the Xarmnians are in league with the Half-men and have brokered a truce with The Pan to allow them passage through the wilds.  The Pan has given his kinds strict warning that they are not to molest the Xarmnians or meddle in their affairs and The Pan severely enforces his warnings even among his own subjects.”

The group each looked from one to the other, worriedly, taking deep breaths trying to process what was being told to them.

“What does ‘Fade’ mean?” Chris asked, ever the inquisitive one.

Begglar answered, “When we go through the doorway together, you’ll see for yourself.”

Lindsey said, “But how do you know we will all be safe through there?  How do you know?  Do we all have to get married?  Or be married?”

Nell smiled and stroked her face gently, gazing directly into her eyes.  “Because, child,” she reassured her, “I can see that you all shine, and you are all already under a yielded covenant with the One.  Marriage is a mirror of the relationship of faith in the One.  You are a bride under your faith already, even if not a betrothed one here with a spouse.  Remember there are two diamonds on the doorway.  Two forms of covenant that protects.  Ideally, both are within the faith covenant, when spouses vow together.  That is the One’s intention for the greatest good and protection of the sanctity of marriage.  Each is accountable to Him for their treatment of the other.  Each acknowledges their covenant to the One as the primary relationship, and to their spouse as secondary, contained within the primary covenant.  Understand?”

“I think I do,” Lindsey whispered, more to herself than to Nell.

“Can we open the door and sort of check it out first?” Matthew asked.

Begglar stood in front of the door as if by symbolic answer.  “There is no halfway, once the door is opened.  No hesitation on the threshold.  Once this door is opened, there is no turning back.  The called one must lead through it.  That is why it is important to have O’Brian here.  Otherwise, we will become separated and they may not find us, once we’re through.  The portal here is mysterious and unlike any other.  All others who stand under the ceiling will be drawn into it once it is opened, so even the parents and the officiating cleric must step out from under the covering before the groom opens the doorway.  Where it takes those who enter, is determined by the One, but it is always the next step on the journey.  Every choice made apart from the intention of the One leads to personal and collateral pain for others.  This is why it is important to know the intentions of the One.  Why His words revealed in the Ancient text mean so much here.  It reveals the way to the abundance of life and His greatest good for each of you.  It gives meaning to your every breath and your unique design and purpose.  It invests you with the knowledge of your own value to Him.  It tells you why you were born.  And how to ignite the torchlight of your soul.”

“So, marriage is actually a good thing,” Chris said.

“Yes, lad,” Begglar said, “A very good thing, once you understand its intention.  This is why this place means so much to Nell and I.  It reminds us of how good love is.  Just like the Ancient Text reminds us all.”

hut-2017964_1920_symbolism

“Then why is it that so many people get it wrong and screw up so many lives in the process?” Laura asked thinking of her family.

Begglar said, “There is a verse that speaks to that.  The Ancient Text says:

“14 But the people’s minds were hardened, and to this day whenever the old covenant is being read, the same veil covers their minds so they cannot understand the truth. And this veil can be removed only by believing in Christ.” [2 Corinthians 3:14 NLT]

…The outside world simply cannot understand this kind of covenant.  Only a heart that is opened by the One, has a chance.”

Laura nodded, taking this all in thoughtfully, but then she turned and addressed one of the young men in the group.

“Dominic, are you betrothed to someone?”

The group burst out laughing and Dominic blushed bright red.

***

Syloam marked well where the harpy called Mawgla finally landed with her Will in tow.  And it was with some stealth and skill that she finally made her way down the back of the tree where Will was held at its base.

The harpies Mawgla, Awlen, Grawla and Dawlen huddled together around their captive discussing how best to present their prize when they were suddenly startled to overhear the other harpies flying above announcing to The Pan that they had taken a Surface Worlder prisoner, for they had not yet announced their victim and had been savoring the chance to do so.  They felt upstaged by this announcement and resentful.

“How is it that they get to announce and take credit for our capture, Grawla?!” Awlen asked, indignant.

“Perhaps they saw us coming with him, sister,” Dawlen grumped, her wrinkled face looking even more pinched than it had before.

“I knew Dellitch and her sisters would eventually betray us,” Mawgla growled, “It is a foul day indeed, when we can no longer trust our own kind.”

Grawla fluffed her breast ruffle, drying it of the oil froth that still left a residue or foam on her black and gray feathers.

“Perhaps they have recovered another captive,” she combed the fluff with the hooked claw extending from her wing.

“Then what is to become of ours?  Shall we eat him ourselves?” Mawgla asked.

“I could just tender him up a bit,” Dawlen drooled, licking her pinched lips with a pinkish gray tongue.

“Better partial glory that no glory, I’d say,” Awlen regarded Will with gimlet eyes, “Though a bite or two might not be noticed.”

Grawla regard the young man who now lay exhausted and sore from dangled carry through the forest, his eyes dulled and surrendered to whatever fate might await.  She considered and then turned.

“Better to deliver this scrap meat to The Pan.  But go in and scout the prize these others have brought, if they have any.  Let them be diminished before The Pan when they offer.  If they have claimed our trophy, lets hide him away for ourselves and see how they fare making promises they cannot deliver upon.  Let The Pan change who leads our kind, by eliminating our competition for flock rulership.”

And with that, Mawgla, Awlen, and Dawlen took wing again to watch the spectacle happing ahead with The Pan and his retinue, leaving Grawla to watch after their prisoner.

When they had gone, tiny green tendrils began to creep along the lower ground and up quietly within the leaves of a bush, near where Grawla scraped the ground with her large claws, looking for grubs and other crawling insects along the ground.  The tendrils thickened, and green eyes and a cream colored clear complexion looked upon the unwary harpy with hatred.

It only took a second for Syloam to lunge forward and seize the harpy, her thick vines and branches clutching fiercely to her throat as the harpy lurched from the impact.

“Death for death!” Syloam hissed, through clenched teeth and suddenly felt herself being ripped from the bush and drawn upward.  The harpy, despite the stranglehold, was strong and powerful, and she was flying upward at an incredible speed.

The two bursts through the tree canopy, Syloam twisting and writhing tightening her vines ever stronger around Grawla’s throat.  There had been no time to find an anchor shoot to prevent the harpy from carrying her upward, for she was so intent on killing the harpy.  Higher and higher they flew, pirouetting into the blazing sun, a terrible pain burning upon Syloam’s legs as she realized the harpy was draining milk down upon her dangling legs.

If she was going to die, she resolved, she would not die alone.

From a distance, the aerial struggle between the land and the sky played out in slips and lateral spins and twists, but eventually the harpy stopped climbing, and the trembling vines and branches stopped flailing in the high wind.  And together they fell downward, locked upon each other in a dead grip until they plummeted through the forest and disappeared, never to rise again.

***

Jeremiah heard the shrieks and screeches as the shadowy figures ahead fought and then flew upward.  He saw the prone figure lying at the base of the tree but could not tell if it was the one he’d once known as Brian David or not.  The man looked too young, and he did not recognize him.  But he did mark that this man was a Surface Worlder, in dire need of rescue, so he reached down and grabbed him lifting in a fireman’s carry and proceeded onward, searching where O’Brian might have gone.

He carefully scanned the forest floor, trying to see through the growing smoke, but it was growing thicker by the moment.  He chanced a gaze upward and blinked.  He rubbed his watering eyes with his hand, to be sure, but thought he saw a figure of a man, high up on a tree limb about forty feet off the ground.  The tree bole was too thick for the man to have climbed up himself, and he was puzzled.  A slight corona of light outlined the figure’s body against the dark leaves.  The man’s build was larger than the boy he’d carried.  No one had mentioned this boy to him on the road, so he wondered if O’Brian might have had a better reason to go out into the woods alone.  Perhaps, he’d misjudged him.  Ahead was a murky watered stream that eventually spread out and stilled.  The slough.  The black mud was thick and foul smelling.  Hazes of bugs and flying gnats swarmed the dead pooling slimy water.  Frogs and snakes tried to survive in it and each other.  Boglins were sometimes seen about.  Half-men creatures comprised of both man and frog.  Weird creatures that lived on decay, rodents and various and sundry swamp animals.

He couldn’t be sure, but he thought the man above just might be Brian, or O’Brian as he was called now.  A lot had changed.  When the man in the treetops suddenly spoke loudly to some group gathered in the clearing below, he was certain of who it was.

‘No’, he thought to himself, ‘The man is still foolish and impulsive’.

When he heard the rumbling voice of The Pan respond, Jeremiah shook his head, “Not foolish.  Downright insane.”

***

I had very little hope of making it out of the tree except by a nasty fall.  I had no way to know what I was supposed to do next and was growing desperate and having trouble with doubts and fears that I had misinterpreted the spirits urging to go and confront The Pan.  This was a terrible development putting me in a more desperate situation.

“What am I doing?  Why am I here?  How am I even helping the situation?  Oh, Lord why did You call me to lead?  I am failing at every turn.  Help me find Your Way.”

I heard movement coming from what seemed to be some distance.  Something was coming through the treetops, making a hissing sound that frightened me.  I carefully turned in my seat upon the high perch and saw something flashing in the distance.  My mind leaped to the obvious conclusion.  The fires of Azragoth were blazing towards me.  They had ignited in the dry leaves of the canopy and were rapidly spreading across the treetops, flash burning as they came roaring forward.  I was going to die here.  Roasted alive like a featherless bird in a nest.

Surely this was not the plan of The One, but I could not claim to ever anticipate Him.

A verse rose into my mind as if spoken by a calm, reassuring voice.

“2 Darkness as black as night covers all the nations of the earth, but the glory of the LORD rises and appears over you.” [Isaiah 60:2 NLT]

I turned my head upward, careful to balance myself upon a forking limb as I leaned back, and suddenly I saw, above the dappled leaves, what looked like brilliant stars descending towards me with other shining lights waiting above the canopy.

The Faerie Fade – Chapter 59

“You lied to us!”

A partially scorched, dryad came raging out of the wood, bounding over the mired bog of murky water.  Her body unraveled into large twisted limbs, blackened and smoldering in places, yet dark green and wood-grained in others.

“You gave us this forest when the Xarmnians quitted it.  Now you send harpies in to drive us out!”

The cataracted eyes of the Pan blinked and narrowed, as a low growl rumbled from within and without.

“I permitted your occupation of it.  I did not give it away.  The land is mine, the woods are mine.  A king does not parcel out his kingdom.  You would do well to mark this and consider to whom it is you speak and accuse.”

Other dryads emerged from the backwoods, following their scorched leader, also bearing the marks of fire, and smoke.

“Why did you send the harpies among us?!” another asked, “Have we not served you?”

At this, the satyrs stood up from under the low forest brush.

“Hello, sweet Briar!” one of the taller grey and grizzly looking satyrs announced, a dark-lipped grin spreading from the coal black apples of his cheekbones, eyes shining with lecherous delight, “Did you miss us?”

The other satyrs that had hidden within the brush also popped up and laughed throatily, sounding like a chorus of baying and barking dogs.

“What are THEY doing here?!” the lead dryad, jumped at the suddenness and surprise as satyrs fanned out among them, circling them around and around, feinting in and out to stroke their legs.

The lead dryad, the one that the grey satyr had addressed as ‘Briar’ bristled at the touch, her body suddenly developing large thorns all around.

The grey satyr pulled his hand back, a small cut on his palm from the contact.

“Funny,” he croaked with laughter, “you have the same effect on me.”

The satyrs all laughed, erupting again in that strange cacophony of bawdy mirth reticent of drunken partiers laughing uproariously together at a shared dirty joke.

The Pan lowered himself into a crouch, moving steadily forward, his nostrils flaring and his large ears twitching among curls of black and grey hair.

“Don’t think I haven’t marked you, human toad,” he rumbled, “Our conversation is not over.  You have not been dismissed.”

Grum-blud had been attempting to slink away.  Both he and Shelberd were hoping the distraction with the dryads and the satyrs would prove to be more than The Pan could manage, but it wasn’t working.

“Yes, sire.”

“Dryad, I will treat with you in turn,” Pan growled, and then turned his focus back on the trolls.

“Now, I was asking you about the Manticores.  Where are they?”

Hoping to ingratiate themselves with The Pan, Bunt and Dob attempted to answer at once.

“They’ve fallen in the fires.”

The Pan stood rigidly and still.  Dangerously still.

“I asked the Troll,” the voice rumbled an octave lower and was slowly enunciated expanding every syllable.

There was an implied warning in the words, and both onocentaurs gaped and clamped their mouths shut, but trembled.

Grum-blud’s mouth felt as if it was filled with cotton, and in this very moment, he regretted the day he was ever born.

Shelberd whimpered, huddling on the ground covering his head with his hands, not daring to look up.  Grum-blud smelled the distinctive pungency of urine but wasn’t sure if it was Shelberd’s or his own.

***

Syloam, raced through the mid-canopy, crashing through branches, breaking and snapping smaller limbs as her gnarled and twisted root clusters clasped the tree poles, rocketing her body through the forest, closing fast upon the harpies flying and dangling her nest before her, like a hypnotic pendulum.  She could now see the human Surface Worlder, she had bound inside, slinging from one side of the rotting cage to the other, grappling to hang on the anything he could, even as pieces of the cage began to peel and break away.  She wondered if she’d been wise to delay her pursuit by taking time to pick up the pieces of deadwood from the forest floor, because she might have gotten ahead of them if she had not descended, but she had no choice.  The milk of the harpies was deadly, as evidenced by the deteriorating condition of her bower.  Something had given it a far greater potency.

Ahead, she heard the harpies laughing and taunting him, oblivious to the fact that they were being followed.

“Stay put, little mousey!” one squawked at him.

“Cawten, you’re dripping again!” the lead harpy reprimanded, glancing down at the deteriorating condition of the vine cage, “Quit frothing, you idiot!  These flesh bags are soft and break easily.  The Pan will get no pleasure if it dies before it gets to him.”

“Pay attention to where you’re going, Grawla!” another hissed at the lead, “You almost flew us into that tree back there. This basket is not going to hold our little mouse much longer if you keep jerking us around.  I should have flown lead.”

Just then the branch and vine cluster one of the harpies had been holding clasped in their talons, broke away from the rest of the basket, causing the corner to sag and drop down, jerking the others forward and down, spiraling into a tree, smashing through the basket with a loud crunch and snapping of other brittle branches.

Will was thrown from one end and smashed into the side of the trunk pole that ripped into the cage.  The vines that had been holding him snapped and he felt the impact, blunted a bit by the final grasp of the bindings, but at last, he was free…

And then he was falling…

***

On the road, the company of travelers gathered together around Maeven and the one she’d called Jeremiah.

The man was tall, solidly built, broad-shouldered, yet lean and rangy looking.  His hair was cropped short and thinning, and his face was reddened and tanned, his eyes deep set and knowing, with age-worn gathers at the ends.  His demeanor was reserved and measured.  He wore a dark green cloak and hood and carried a longbow, and rapier sword easily accessed from a hip scabbard, with a bell fist cage guard and a leather-wrapped hilt.

Jeremiah had used a bola weapon, a sort of cable with two weighted knuckles of metal or stone on each end, that was spun like a toss sling and hand thrown, wrapping the target and inflicting debilitating injury when the weights on the cord smashed and bludgeoned the enwrapped victim.  The satyr had been dazed by the weapon, and Jeremiah bound him to a tree using the self-same chain the creature had used to garrote the dead harpy.  He’s stuffed and gagged the creature’s mouth with a hard pine cone and left it there for the “others” to find him.  By others, he meant the dryads, whom he knew to be now lurking in the forest of Kilrane.

“Let the others deal with their own,” he’d said, once he’d securely bound the satyr and the body of the harpy together to the tree, he added, “The dead shall bury their dead.”

The group gathered around Jeremiah, eager to meet this one whom Maeven seemed to know already, yet one in the group already also knew the man and had known him well many years ago.  Maeven made the introductions, for the man had but little to say, yet when she came to Begglar she stopped short.

Jeremiah studied him, and Begglar was silent a moment, but then spoke, “It has been a long time, my friend.”

Jeremiah’s eyes widened and then narrowed, “I know this voice.  You are strangely familiar to me, yet I do not recognize you unless you are much changed.”

“I am.  The years have not been kind.  You once knew me as a man of the sea, before I left that life.”

Jeremiah moved in closer to study him under the dappled light, “Can it be?  You are not McGregor, are you?”

“The very same.”

“I was told you were dead.”

“I was.  Am.  It is complicated.  I do not go by my old name.  That life I left behind me to become something else.”

“And what did you become?”

“A baker and Innkeeper.  My name is Begglar.  This is my wife Nellus, and my son Dominic.  Xarmni’s reach has finally extended to the place we made our home, so now, after these long years, I find that my old identity calls me back from the dead once more.”

Jeremiah stared at him, his eyes searching, and then suddenly he broke out laughing.  Mirth transformed the man’s face and unlocked his guarded reserve at last.

“Ha, ha, ha!” he bellowed and embraced Begglar and then pushed back, grasping him by the shoulders, “McGregor the mighty scourge of the sea has become a baker and an InnKeeper.  Truly, sir, you are reborn.  Ha, ha, ha!  I would not have recognized you.  You were a much more corpulent fellow back in the day.”

“Times have been hard, my friend.  The travelers from the east quit coming when the Xarmnian occupiers began acquiring the territories.  The company of the prior have long been disbanded.  Few if any return here.  From the looks of you, there are many changes in you as well.  Where is the full face beard, you used to have?  The thick locks of hair?  Are you balding?”

Jeremiah ran his hand over his head, and grinned sheepishly, “Aye, captain.  Like you, I was a wanted man as well.  I became a forester here in Kilrane.  I’ve kept connections, but I’ve kept to myself as well.  Xarmni’s reach is indeed long and brutal.  Many of the old company have left the fellowship.  Many have just forgotten who they once were.  The spirit, if left unattended, eventually quiets into complacency.  Few dream anymore.  It is a sad state of affairs.”

“Gentlemen, if you’re through with your little reunion, we’ve got a crisis here and quite literally we aren’t out of the woods yet.”

Both men assented.  She was right.

“So, what are your plans for this mission?” Jeremiah asked gravely.

“I am not the one called to lead.  Mister O’Brian is.”

“Who is this Mister O’Brian?”

Begglar, interjected, “On this mission, he is called O’Brian.  That’s another story, but you and I know him as Brian David.”

A series of inscrutable expressions seemed to pass over Jeremiah’s face that none could fully read, but after a long pause, Jeremiah said, “Well, now, this seems to be a day of many resurrections.  Get these folks to the Faerie Fade and I’ll go after…O’Brian, if I can.  I cannot imagine what may have been in his mind to abandon you and try to confront The Pan alone.”

Maeven studied his eyes for a moment.  “Are you sure?”

“Yes.  If we are not back within an hour, don’t wait.  Take them in.  Get them as far away from the forest as possible.”

And with that, Jeremiah turned and headed away into the foggy smoke following the barely visible road down towards the stone bridge that spanned the forest slough.

***

Will was falling…and then he wasn’t.

He felt sudden compression in his chest and ribs and found he had been wrapped in a curling twisting vine that moved like a serpent around his body, constricting him, yet dangling him from the trees and spines of rocks jutting out of the forest floor below.  He looked up, following the extension of the branches to see Syloam dangling from a massive branch, her arms and legs a fusion and amalgam of vines, branches and moss and lichen.  She was breathing heavily from the exertion and the last second catch of his body.

“Look at what we’ve got here, Awlen.  Isn’t that sweet?” Grawla the harpy said, recovering from the strike, having found a perch on a branch from which to regroup.

The broken cage had ripped apart, brittle vines snapping and scattering across the forest floor, the withering brown husk of it misshapen and twisted on the rocks between the tree roots and trunks below.

Cawten, the erstwhile frother, had sustained an injury and tumbled down after the cage landing on top of it, her wing folded under her, broken.  Awlen, the harpy to the back right side of the cage bearers, had flipped downward, plunging with the torn enclosure, but finally freed her claws, caught air and regained her flight wings, before striking the ground.  Disoriented she gathered air under her, and climbed upward, beneath the hyperextended dryad that had caught their prize.

“Just precious,” Awlen sneered, “Where Dawlen?”

“Up here,” a scratching croak came from above, “Grawla, you cank!  You could’ve killed us!”

“Mawgla dropped her end.  Where is Mawgla, anyway?”

A distant voice answered back.

“Down here.  In the cage.  It trapped me when it fell.  Cawten milked the vines and the cage broke apart.”

“What is wrong with you, Cawten?!” Awlen crabbed.

No answer came.

After a long pause, Mawgla’s voice came back, “I think Cawten’s dead.”

A series of broken chirps came from the tightening lips of the harpies, to which Grawla added, “Remember our vow, sisters:  Each of our dead is owed a death from theirs.  Death for Death!”  The harpies overhead fluttered and shook themselves as they collectively began a slow chant picking up the refrain, “Death for death!”

A milky wetness pouring down from their fluff ruffle, pearling over their feathered breasts, dripping down their metal shanks and curling down their legs to their claws.

“What do you have to say, Wood Pick?” Grawla turned cold eyes to the dryad, “Care to dance?”

Mawgla nudged the still body of Cawten with a claw as she pulled out from under the half-crushed bulb of the broken cage.  No movement.  Vacant black eyes stared up into the canopy, the wrinkled mouth gaping at some horror from beyond.

Syloam gathered Will up towards her feminine body, her arm shrinking back into a shoulder more in line with human form than tree.

“This man belongs to me.  I found him first.  You have no right to take him from me.”

“If he belongs to you,” Awlen growled with a snarling gravel, “then you should be willing to die for him.”

With these words, both Grawla, Dawlen, and Awlen launched themselves down on her, milky claws flared.

The harpy identified as Mawgla, caught Will by the flailing arm, as she flew up intending to join the attack.

Before Syloam hit the ground below, she had devolved into what appeared to be a rotted tree, no female form remaining of her.

Now Mawgla flew onward into the forest, dangling him painfully from beneath iron gripped and powerful grey claws, hooked with black talons and the others flew after her.

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***

“Where is this Faerie Fade?” James asked.

“What even is a Faerie Fade?” Laura asked.

Maeven looked in the direction that Jeremiah had gone and then turned back to the group.

“It’s not far from here,” she told them, “As to what it is, I am not sure I even know, but it is what it does that makes it important for us to get there.  At this point, however, I cannot tell you any more than that.  We just need to get there as soon as possible.  The forest is full of the Half-men kind.  I have seen somethings in the forest that I have not seen in a long time, so we have reason to hope.  Please follow me and stay close together and keep watch.”

“You haven’t told us anything,” Christie interjected, “How do we know that O’Brian will be able to find us, or that this Jeremiah can even be trusted?”

“Jeremiah can be trusted to do the right thing,” Maeven answered without hesitation, “As I told O’Brian and you, Begglar, earlier, Jeremiah is the one to whom I was referring when I said there was one who maintains a hidden cache in this forest where we can get supplies and the tools of war we need and perhaps some means of transport.”

Lindsey spoke up, “But you said that he would not be happy to see O’Brian again.”

“I said he may not be,” Maeven corrected, “I didn’t say would not be.  It is true there is a history between them that I cannot get into now.  But the cause they both serve is the same, and at least in that they are unified.  Both are stubborn men.”

“Aye, I’ll vouch for that,” Begglar guffawed.

“Their disagreement was in method only, that is about all I know.  But as I’ve said, we need to get moving.  I believe most of the satyrs are traveling with The Pan.  They like to stay close to him, feel emboldened by him.  And there are dryads in the forest, so they will most likely be anxious and stirred up.  Those things hanging above us were meant to warn the satyrs, not us.  Satyrs are addicted to dryads and the dryads will come to The Pan, and you can be that is just where the satyrs will want to be when that happens.  Not even the scent of dogs will distract satyrs from pursuing a dryad, so, we have a good chance to avoid any significant number of satyrs for the time being.  Now let’s get going.  Follow closely.  Keep up and stay as quiet as you can.”

***

The Pan cast a dark shadow over the cowering trolls, as he glared at them through sightless eyes.  His hooves sinking deeper and deeper into the soft mud of the bank as he had moved threateningly over to Grum-blud and Shelberd.  Massive hands the size of shovel blades hung fisting and unfisting at its sides ready to throttle and pound the two creatures and tear their bodies apart.  “If what the asses say is true,” The Pan growl, rumbled, “What will you give me in trade for their loss?  They were unique among my kingdom, and there are not many left to serve me.  How do you, small toad, hope or plan to ever make up for that?”

From deeper in the forest, voices came crying out, again interrupting The Pan.

“Master, master!” a group of harpies flew over the heads of the dryads, and satyrs gathered below.

Irritation again, The Pan growled, “What is it?!”

The dryads hissed and crouched, then turned angry shouts of rage towards The Pan, “Betrayer!  You are in league with these flying hags!  You cannot deny it now.”

“ENOUGH!” The Pan roared, and the ground and trees seemed to quake with the sound as all assembled and near felt the vibrations from the noise.

In the weighted silence, finally one of the swooping harpies, spoke up, loud enough for all to hear, “Surface Worlders are in the forest!  We’ve caught one.”

***

“There it is!” Maeven said, moving faster through the forest.

They’d left the roadway, and had moved quickly and quietly through the woods, trying to follow Maeven’s shifting form through the dappled light.

Before them, at the midway point up a small rise, between large, very old towering trees, forming four wall posts, holding an ornately woven ceiling formed of living vines and trees, was a kind of cupola with a woven back wall but no fore or sidewalls, leaving these sides open to the forest.  It was a place one might associate with a wedding ceremonial canopy, like a Jewish chuppah or an arboreal worship place.  In the back wall was a single doorway, fashioned by bowed branches.  On either side were the paired casements of two windows, four total, that had partial coverings and the forest beyond appeared through the tops of these.  No further building or enclosure extended beyond the back wall.

“Get under the canopy, all of you.  Quickly.  We will be safe there.”

“What is this?” Matthew asked, “There are barely any walls.”

“The Faerie Fade.  An ancient place of weddings.  A very powerful place of protection.”

***

Artifice.

Syloam blinked, cracking apart the pieces of deadwood she’d wrapped her duplicated body in.  Being very careful not to touch the scarred sides where the harpy milk had touched, she reformed herself from twisting sinuous roots out of the hollow core husk of the fallen log.  Had she lain there any longer, the dead rot would have extended through the old bark and killed her.  The fools had almost dropped the Will creature.

It had been difficult, but she had caught the Will with dead arms, and it had fooled the harpies.  Had they but looked harder, they would have noticed that the body had very little green on it—mostly a film of lichen.  The deadfall had served her needs.  She hoped her fallen sister would not mind being used in this way.  “Truly,” she whispered with a hiss as she lifted once again from off of the forest floor, extending herself with vines reaching into the trees, “Death for death!”  Only the death would be for the one called Mawgla.  The one carrying her Will.

Conflagration – Chapter 58

The canopy shook with conflict.  Dozens of harpies, like black feathered missiles, launched out from under the treetops in a burst of scattered leaves and broken branches amid a barrage of shrieks and harsh laughter.  Large spider-like creatures, each with thorax and abdomen bearing a human-like form exploded from beneath the canopy, hissing and leaping angrily after them, tearing much larger holes in the turbulent sea of leaves.  The treetops trembled and shook from the embroiled battle above and below.  The feathered missiles opened their large wings, pumping them up and sweeping behind as they gained altitude, twisting in aerial arcs, moving higher beyond the grasping, leaping limbs of the dryads trying to tear them out of the sky.

The haze of smoke rising from the sea of trees threatened to surfeit the treetop turbulences under a billowing deluge of grey.  Fiery tongues licked hungrily at the yellowed sky.  Dryads, thus revealed in their full foliaged rage, swatted at the diving harpies, some hits landing a solid blow, causing them to careen into the canopy below, others missing, throwing the lunging dryad off balance, causing them to roll across the treetops and catch fire.

The scene was surreal.  Like dark devils dancing and raging over the rotting, undulating canvass suspended over the smoky pit of hell as in Jonathan Edward’s vision.

Harpies curled in and out among the dryads bounding after them, heckling and deriding them.  Dryads with long thorny vines swung their whip-like flagella after them, landing their barbs into feathered flesh, tangling the harpy’s wild flowing grey hair, scratching their scowling withered and twisted faces.

The harpies returned the fight, raking milky claws across the backs of the dryads as they swooped in and out, causing these to rapidly wither and crumble, breaking their branches as they became brittle and snapped.

Every dryad scarred by the talons of the harpies convulsed in spasms, had rough bark enshroud their bodies, obliterating any semblance of their human form, and they became rigid deadfalls crashing back down to break apart into the forest below.

The fight raged on until finally, the dryads realized what the harpies had been doing.

With each dive, swoop, corkscrew aerial and taunt, the harpies had been drawing the dryads further and further into the forest fires raging below and then evading them from the air, rising up on heat thermals to gain altitude out of reach.  The harpies, though sustaining losses themselves to both thorn, strike and fire were systematically wiping the dryads out.

***

At the sound of Miray’s scream, the dark birds that had been above the group leaped from their perches and descended towards the dangling heads, raking their talons across the dreadful ornaments, causing them to sway and spin.  The birds cackled at the gaping travelers as they circled further and further down to them.

Laura held Miray close to her, leaning down, taking the young girl’s face in her hands to calm her.

“Miray, look at me,” she coaxed, “Look at me.”

The young girl’s eyes were full of tears, as she tried again to look upwards at the horrible sights, not wanting to see, yet unable to turn away entirely.

“Miray,” Laura repeated, her voice was calming, as Nell stood over them, shielding the sights above with her body, and protectively gathering the two girls under her arms.

Miray held the backs of Laura’s hands, pressing them harder into her cheeks and ears, blocking the sounds, of the cackling “birds” above, if not wholly able to shut off her other senses.

“I’m afraid for you,” Miray’s lips trembled as she fought the urges not to look above and found a sense of shelter in Laura’s pleading eyes.

Shock caused Laura to blink rapidly and tear up.  Bath or not, she pressed Miray into her arms and chest and choked back her own amazed tears.

“Well, well, well,” the voices of the birds descended upon them, both bird-like in quality, yet that of rasping, old vulgar women one might associate with the brothel madams and past-prime, cigar-chomping, hard-drinking, bawdy saloon girls of the old west.  These swooped over the tops of their heads, brushing by them with downdrafts from the beating of their wings, and glided to rocks and lower limbs just to either side and ahead of them.

“Outworlders,” one observed, the old haggard face of a wrinkled, scowling woman, pushing out of a tangle of long grey hair behind a large beak-like nose that dominated her features.  Her eyes were deep-set and black–shining darkly, under a heavy forehead. Her broad brow was interwoven with both wiry grey hair and blackened feathers extending radially from the shadowy caves holding her eyes.  Another of these creatures, its face barely feminine, if at all, looked sunken behind ridges of wrinkles causing her face to droop and frown from every aspect, croaked, “Prizes for The Pan, methinks.  Master will be pleased.”  A cruel chuckle coupled with bird chirps emitted from the three bird creatures, as they leaned forward to study their lot.

From the northwest came a trilling noise, almost flute-like.  To the east, a rapid clapping sound, like two stones beat together.  Before anyone could react fully, a hunched figure sprang up behind the dark harpy who had alighted on the mossy boulder rock.

“Hello, sweetness!” the figure said, pulling the harpy’s head backward, jabbing its jagged stone knife under her jowly throat, “So glad you could come down to play.”  It leaned its wooly face over her shoulder, its yellow eyes dancing brightly from its ash-blackened face, its jagged, sharpened and broken teeth gleamed as it skinned its lips back in a disturbing grin.

“Back off, satyr!” the thick-browed, harpy jerked seeing her sister, held under threat, by the wickedly grinning creature, whose arms now pinned the harpy’s wings under a steely grip.  “These are our prisoners!”

Mason, sighted down the shaft of the arrow notched in his bow, not sure which of the enemies to aim at first.  Christie swept her sword upward, ready to hack and slash at any one of the harpies than dared to swoop near them again.  James raised his halberd into both hands, angling the hooked blade outward, ready to cleave into either the threat from ground or sky.  Begglar lowered the reaper blade from his staff downward, letting it pivot from his midshaft grip to scythe through the legs of any satyr feinting and running by.  Dominic fingered the jagged stones he’d collected, unnoticed, from the riverside.  He bore a half-pouch sling tucked into his traveling tunic that he’d kept in reserve.  The jagged stones were broken pieces of flint that he knew would serve for lethal purposes.  He and his dad’s game of “Rats in the Barn” served many purposes and with many makeshift forms of natural weaponry.  Back to back with the unarmed members, in their center, they bristled against the threats all around them.

“Beg to differ, harpy,” the satyr gouged the harpy he held in the back between the shoulders of her wings making her squawk, “Prisoners of prisoners belong to the one who has the upper hand.  We knew you couldn’t resist this bait.”

The momentary distraction, caused the other to fail to see the dark shaggy figure snaking its way up the back of the tree towards the branch on which she rested.  Before she was aware of it, the sneaking satyr had slapped a metal snap locking manacle upon the two metal shanks that covered and protected her legs against the symbolic threat of the dryads.  The satyr leapt down from the tree trunk trailing a finely linked chain in his hand, and with the weight of his fall, tugged and jerked the harpy from her perch, pitching her to the ground, her wings flailing, her body slamming the ground with a thud, whereupon the satyr pinned the creature down with his hooves and squatted over her.

“You’ve been grounded, granny!” he fingered her breast ruffle with a dirty, sooty paw.  Black nails scratching the top of her grey breast.  Then he turned his ugly bearded face toward the other satyr who held the harpy under his knife.

“Are we allowed to eat this chicken?”

***

Maeven witnessed the exchange and the developments surrounding the company.  One free harpy remained, glaring down at the two satyrs that had turned the tables and odds against their upper hand.  She saw the crew loosen their vigilance and focus on the exchange between their would-be captors, turning away from the areas of vulnerability.  Their weapons tracked on the known threats but opened them to others.  Using these distractions, however, she knew she could work them to an advantage.

Quietly as she could, she had set natural timer traps to create forest noises.  Small saplings bent carefully back under creeper vines she knew would break under the strain.  Branches intertwined to come loose and swing and swoosh.  A stone balanced precariously on an outcrop covered in scarred moss beds.  A forked bush with branches pinned and folded against a shallow rooted tree.  And to cap off the distraction, she’d collected scrapings of the fine yellow dust from the leaves left by the dryads where Will had been abducted and sealed it in a pair of small glass flasks corked shut.

Spines of stone jutted out from the forest trail as it descended away from the mountain ridge road that led up to the once shrouded city of Azragoth.  If the noises failed to distract the satyrs, the glass flasks, once shattered and spilled out upon stone, would not.

The satyrs were cunning in their own right, but even after all these years, they were still enslaved to their most primal animal instincts.

***

Syloam caught her plummeting body on a series of limbs, just before plunging into the burning brush below.  A fog of smoke obscured the forest floor yet flashes of orange and yellow flame flared through it like lightning flashes.

A sheen of sweat beaded her brow, as she tucked and curled like a trapeze artist, and oriented back upward into the high woods, rising with the smoke.  Ahead she saw harpies, flying low through the woods, embers and flaming sticks clenched in their flexor pin feathers, like lighted wing tips, as they flew and glided through the lower forest. Their flight was concerted and deliberate–touching off smaller fires as they brushed the leafy tops dragging the flaming embers through the dried brush and fallen leaves.

Above, and in the distance, she saw the place where her high bower nest had once been. Beyond, the abattoir basket bower, now torn free of its moorings, was being flown away by at least five or six of the black feathered beasts.

“Mine,” she whispered, the words exhaled through red and full lips, then drew in a deep lungful of heated air and she shuddered at how little the air helped her breathe.  Her next words, though forced and backed by outrage and feral wildness, came out raw and coughed.  “MINE!  THE MAN IS MINE!  GIVE IT BACK!  GIVE IT BACK!”

Vines and branches shot out from her, clawing her vaulted path through the trees, moving fast in pursuit.  A patina of green frothy patches pulsing and fading all over her body, her fingers and hands growing in size, branching out like gnarled arthritic claws.  She grasped, grappled and raced through the mid-level portion of the forest, high enough above the fiery floor, yet below the upper canopy, her wooden claws wrapping the trunks of trees driving her faster and faster forward after the rapidly deteriorating branch and vine-woven cage, carried in flight ahead of her.  The harpies would have to find a clear flight path through, without dropping the cage and the man they held prisoner within.  But Syloam had no such limitation.  Though they were already far ahead, she knew she would catch them.  And when she did there’d be hell to pay–the hell of a woman-dryad scorned.

tree-silhouette-1945243_1920

***

Maeven moved low and quiet, turning her feet to find the soft ground of pine needles, avoiding the dried leaves as much as she could.  And then the first of her timed noise-traps went off.  Vines snapped, and the pinned brush swooshed, shaking the leaves and clacking branches.  The tilted stone, heavily sliding down the smooth moss mud, fell from the boulder, down upon the assemblage of buried stone, cracking noisily.  The sapling tilted down, pulled up from the soft staked earth, swishing back into its upright tilt, brushing the surrounding bushes.  And Maeven palmed the glass flasks and threw them hard towards another outcropping of stone, shattering glass, spilling the powdery yellow substance across the rock and causing it to puff briefly in the air.

The satyrs followed the noises with their eyes, but when the glass broke, they whipped their heads around in the direction, their nostrils flaring, their breathing becoming more of a rapid pant.

Crack!  She threw and shattered the other bottle, against another rock, even as she launched from out of the backwoods, racing towards the group gathered and surrounded.

Taking advantage of the distraction the third harpy, took flight, climbing back upward toward the treetops, with rapid movements of her wings.  The satyrs responded excitedly and violently.  The one with the stone knife stabbed savagely into the harpy’s feathered breast, then lept away as it quivered and stilled, moving towards the enticing scent that had captured his interest.  The other, wrapped the chain around the harpy’s neck, garroting the bird-hag with a quick twist and then dragged its body after him as he launched himself towards the other strike site where the second shattered flask had landed.

Maeven slid in low, kicking the bottom tip of her bow from Mason’s hand, catching the arrow he released in surprise at seeing her suddenly emerge from the brush.  She caught the bow, spun it into her forearm grip, had the arrow notched, pulled and let it fly whizzing through the air to pierce the back of the distracted satyr who had run to the first broken flask.  The satyr buckled at the hit, misstepped and fell forward into the rocks, plunging face down into the yellow dust.

“Arrow!” Maeven shouted at Mason.

“Ain’t got all day, kid!” she shouted when Mason hesitated, amazed at how fast Maeven had turned the tables, “Arrow!”

Mason obliged, reached over his shoulder, catching feathered fletches of one, and pulled it out, tossing it to her.

She had it notched, in half a second, pointed the bow and tip upward, pulled it back deeply and let it fly.  The arrow seemed to sizzle through the air, aimed at the fleeing harpy, trying to gain the safety of the upper branches.

Thock!  The arrow point caught her mid-flight, driving deep into her feathered body, and she let out a “Gaaawwww!” noise, that quickly silenced as one of her wings folded over the driven shaft, and her horrible form tumbled downward, bouncing off of a tree pole, spinning from a branch, and then dropped down with a thud and snap as its body hit the road beyond them.  The second satyr, dragging the garroted harpy from the thin chain, smothered its bearded face in the yellow dust, it bent down licking the powder hungrily off of the rocks and bits of glass that had once contained the substance, its hands and face smeared with smudges of yellow, oblivious to its own danger.

“You are better now than you have ever been, Storm Hawk,” a deep voice spoke from somewhere close, startling the party and Maeven as well.

A crouched and shrouded figure stood up from atop the boulder, looking down at them.

“Jeremiah?” Maeven lowered her bow.

“It’s been a long time,” he said.

“Leave this one to me.  I’ve been tracking him.  He maimed my horse and I had to put it down.  Cut its ligaments.”

“Horrible,” Maeven said, matter-of-factly.

The satyr still did not look up, so consumed and obsessed it was with the dryad powder.

“You need to get these folks to The Fade,” Jeremiah said.

“I know, I know,” Maeven said, looking back to the group.

“Where’s O’Brian?”

When they told her, Maeven was suddenly more scared than she had ever been.

forest-2179318_1920

Deadfall – Chapter 57

Tiernan had been given one of the cardinals.  Of the four cardinal points of the compass, he’d been charged with watching for enemies coming from their northern flank.  Since the group was moving south down the forest road, Tiernan was given the unenviable charge to watch the backwoods from behind.  This meant he had to either walk backward or constantly turn or look over his shoulder—a bit disorienting if trying to keep up.  At best, all he could do would be to provide a warning as the others with weapons responded to it.  O’Brian had said this was important.  He wasn’t sure how much he trusted O’Brian, but he’d sounded convincing.  “The things that hunt us will most likely come at us from behind,” O’Brian had said.  “Tiernan, since you seem to be a bit taller than the others, I’m giving you the north flank to watch.  Close your eyes, adjust for the lack of light.  Then look and listen.  The satyrs are fast and cunning.  Dangerous.  You won’t hear their footfalls, only the swishes of parting brush as they move through it.  They move like deer.  Weaving and darting through the narrow gaps, faster than you can imagine.  It is pointless to try and outrun them so we will have to stand them off.  The fires are behind us, so that may deter them from coming straight down on us, but they will angle around if they can.  They are attracted to the fires, but they will not go far into them.  Hair burns easily, and these are shaggy and unkempt.  Enough of them have caught fire cavorting about to learn caution and the smoke disorients them.  They snuffle and grunt when they run, so if they are close you’ll hear it.”

When they had seen the silhouette of The Pan, O’Brian had told them to stay back and stay silent.  He’d spoken to Begglar and placed him in the lead, and then moved ahead disappearing into the haze of smoke crossing over the road.  And that was the last they had seen of O’Brian, for nearly an hour by his reckoning.

He’d searched the woods carefully, seeing moving shadows under the sighing of the trees, but nothing exactly as O’Brian had described.  He’d heard phantom sounds, from the left northwesterly direction and right northeastern edge of the Trathorn but the sounds could easily be mistaken for water noise from the continuance of the river moving southward over rocky rapids down the mountain slopes.  The smells were mixed with the pungent and sickly-sweet odors of the rotting flesh dangling overhead from the high branches of the towering trees.  He dared not think about the relative freshness of the grisly ornaments that they still were wet enough to give off such pungency.  It was threatening and disturbing, almost plunging him back into the nightmare he’d lived through back in the Surface World.  He felt naked without a weapon, but strangely calm, despite it.  He too had a sense of the uncanny power in the Ancient Texts.  When spoken aloud the words seemed to vibrate within the air of this strange place.  Timeless voices that seemed to return to him from days raised in a community of faith before the war called him away.

And then the noises came.

Something moving quickly with a pattering sound as forest plants parted in leafy slaps of the body that disturbed their hush.  Another noise to the left, accompanied by a quick splash of water and rapid muffled thumps.

A breathy “Henuh, henuh, henuh!” sound came from the northwesterly movements, and Tiernan responded.

“Guys!” his voice rose in pitch as the noises grew louder, “I think one or two are moving in behind us.”

“Got it, keep your voice down,” Christie responded, raising her ornate sword to guard position as Ezra had shone her.

Mason notched an arrow and swung his bow around, “I’ll cover you.  O’Brian said they have knives and clubs.  If I can get a clean shot, I’ll drop him.  Tiernan, where did you last see it?”

“It moved from the left from deeper back to that mossy stone outcropping,” he whispered low enough so that the ears in the forest beyond wouldn’t hear.

The light filtering from the canopy above dappled them in grey leafy shadows.  Mason closed his eyes for a moment, adjusting them to the light of the gloom beyond.  Christie was miffed a little.

“What’s wrong boys,” she muttered, “Don’t think a girl can handle this?”

“It’s not that, Lass,” Begglar spoke up, “It’s that you bear a short range weapon.  If we can keep them at a distance, we need to.  Save your strength for when they move in.  You’ll get your fill.”

“Shouldn’t we save the arrows,” Christie asked, and she inclined her head to Mason, who had opened his eyes, was staring intently at the spot Tiernan had indicated while pulling the bow back with the point of the arrow closing in on his knuckled grip.  “Suppose he misses.”

Mason’s eyes squinted, and his voice lowered an octave, piqued, “Why does everyone keep saying that?”

Matt spoke up, “Mason’s a bow hunter.  He hates tromping through the brush after a lost arrow.  Don’t worry, Miss.  He’ll wait till he gets a clean shot.”

Mason’s scowl softened a bit, hearing this from Matt.

“Back home we call him the red man,” Matt added.  Gesturing upward at the top of his red hair.

The scowl on Mason’s face returned, even as the impish grin spread across Matt’s as he winked at Christie.

Christie smiled, and reached over patting Mason’s shoulder, “You’ve got this, kiddo.”

Matt added, “Just kiddin’ you, Mace.  Put a feather in the nasty goat-man.  Wish I had those pick-axes.”

***

Maeven could see the satyr as it shifted swiftly from deep shadow to deep shadow.  She could hear its snuffling grunts as it crossed in and out of the dappled light, brushing leaves as it crossed closer towards its quarry ahead, intent on stirring up as much terror as it could.  All she had in her possession was the knife she’d used to cut Will free of his bonds that the Troll had bound him with, but nothing more.  She knew the creature would get wind of her soon enough if she wasn’t careful, but from the looks of its actions, it seemed more intent on stalking the party of Surface Worlders ahead.

It crouched low by the stone outcropping, hunkered down but peering furtively over the mossy rock, glaring with hate-filled eyes at the circle of travelers warily searching the surrounding forest from all directions.  She heard him chortle to himself as he watched them.

A voice of strange timber, hiss out from his sharpened teeth, “Pretties gather.  Cut’s them we will.  Bleed them.  Soon we feed them.”

Maeven saw the saw-toothed flint blade in the creature’s dirty hand as it leaned up against the rock, sniffing.  Its bareback was marked with dark soot and ash so that it could not be seen moving among the shadows.  A line of matted fur rose from his midriff wool up the middle of his back.  A sheen of sweat stood upon the oil of its body, smears of black with finger lines raked through it, hatched its skin, giving the illusion that its body was part of the forest background, a tactic it had used on more than one occasion to fool and surprise the dryads.

***

Just as Dellitch the Harpy had suspected, the foolish, hot-headed dryad climbed up through the canopy to confront her.

She came bearing something shrouded in her arms only too willing to thrust it upward as she emerged through the top of the canopy.  A severed claw, gnarled with age, but held proudly before her, as vines twisted around the body of the dryad lifting her above the tops of the trees to glare fiercely at the Harpy.

“How dare you interrupt our sport!” she hissed with the sound of stirring leaves.

Dellitch laughed harshly, “Sport?!  Is that what you are calling it now?”

Syloam spat back, “This wood is ours, your kind have no right to come here!  We had an agreement!”

“We are under orders, Leafy,” Dellitch chirruped back, her large owlish eyes widening then narrowing to slits at the object the dryad held in her hand warding her back like it was some sort of protective talisman.

“Under whose orders, hag-face?!” Syloam twisted upward, vines sprouting from her back and sides in a tentacular mass.

“Careful, you voluptuous collection of sticks!  You have a Surface Worlder in your lair.  That is contraband.  You know the orders of The Pan!”

“Shut up, pig bat!  You know as well as I do, The Pan does not forbid our sporting with these outworlders.  He wants a way back as much as we do!”

The harpy leaned forward, a dark milky froth seeping down its black feathered breast, dripping down upon the curl and knuckles of its claws as it adjusted its weight and balance on the barren limb.

“Not in the order you ascribe.  These are to be brought to him first, and then he gives you leave to ‘sport’ with them.  Your mind is as twisted as your branches.”

White pearlescent drops dripped from the metal shanks on the harpy’s legs and wet the dark black talons clutching and splaying outward letting the milky substance bead and moisten the sharp points, as the harpy held the dryads in a steely glare.  A half-smirk curled her age cracked lips, as he eyes bulged and narrowed almost hypnotically, anticipating the imminent attack.  Her hunger for the violence of it barely contained almost making her giddy.

What the harpy did not see were the other eyes that watched and witnessed the exchange, barely peeking upward with beautiful faces below the leafy canopy.

***

I moved through the smoke, following the silhouette that shifted under the ghostly light.  I could hear the Pan’s deep, resonant voice addressing someone ahead as it rumbled through the ground like a bass register.  He stood amid moving shapes and shadows and I knew that these would be his retinue of satyrs, eager for whatever mischief he set them to.  I heard their grunting noises as they reveled about him, vying for attention.  The smoke masked the oils and scents that would reveal me long before I came into view, yet I heard the Pan taking in deep snuffling breaths trying to measure his surroundings to offset his hampered ability to see them.  I heard splashing in the lapping water, so I knew the backwatered slough was near and it would be giving off its own brackish scents to mingle into the miasma of forest fragrances.

“Where are my manticores?” the deep voice rumbled to someone, I did not perceive to be a satyr.

Oh no, I thought, this is not going to bode well for the one being questioned.

A piggish grunt came back, distinctive of what I knew to be the sound of a creature we had already encountered in our travels.

“Your worship,” the piggish grunt, sounded chastised, and apologetic, almost groveling, “All did not go according to plan.  There were some…losses.”

A deeper growl rumbled from below, “Losses?  Well, now.  Losses are to be expected.  Counting Morgrawr, I sent you twenty-six of these mighty beasts.  How many are left?”

***

Lindsey noticed the birds first.

She hated that she had lost her weapon in the lake.  She had much rather fight, than watch the overhead canopy, especially since those horrible rotting heads dangled from above.

Christopher and Matthew got the east and the western sides to peer into, but she had to glare at those nasty vile danglers, and somehow watch for movements beyond them.  Large shadows had passed over the tops of the trees.  She had seen the silhouette of them passing and gliding overhead against the hazy yellow sky.  It was eerie.  She imagined Sulphur clouds under a waning sun.  The smell of it felt about right.  No telling what all manner of creatures roamed this world of contradictions.  In some respects, beautiful, and serene.  Unspoiled mountain vistas that bore no sign of powerlines crawling up them, or pipelines stair-stepping from pump station to pump station to keep the internal pressure high enough ensure delivery to valley communities beyond.  No cutback ski runs or switchback trails.  Pristine wilderness…inhabited by monsters.

It was difficult to see them through the dark clusters of leaves swaying and rustling so far above.  With the slightest noise, these large birds curved and swirled down in gyres, punching deftly through the canopy and gliding to dark limbs high above.  As they settled upon the limbs they appeared larger than she had expected.  But with only a slight flutter, they remained quiet in the darkness.  Unmoving.  Waiting.

“I don’t mean to alarm anyone, but there appear to be some awfully large birds high up in the branches above us,” she said loud enough for only the company to hear her.

Miray, couldn’t help herself.  She looked upward, saw the array of death above her…and screamed.

***

Will heard the voices above raised in anger, but there was nothing he could do.  The girl had left him tied in the half-cage of woven vines and branches.  Leafy walls surrounded him, keeping much of the side light out except for a few dappled rays from the sun.  He was disoriented.  Did not know how long he’d been held here.  His thoughts and memories were not clear.  His shirt was open, his chest bared.  He remembered the girl.  Such beautiful and haunting green eyes.

And dust…

Some kind of yellowish dust that coated his face and hands.  He’d wiped some of it off on his shoulder.  Weird.

He was now sweating profusely.  Every movement, every struggle against his bonds seemed to sway the cage in which he found himself.  He smelled the distinct odor of smoke and heard a distant crackling sound accompanied by a series of whooshing noises.

Man, it is getting warm in here, he thought as he struggled again against the vines.  This time they felt a bit looser than before as if some of the fibers had at last torn in all his wrenching and thrashing about.

He doubted if the girl would be back anytime soon.  But something was coming this way.  The crackling, whooshing and popping noises were getting louder.  He was so confused.  And he was so irritated by how hot it was getting.

***

“You are not welcome in our forest,” Syloam hissed her bristling green body now circling the harpy, as moving branches lifted her like a large spider walking spindly-legged over the tops of the trees.

“Upon that, you’ve made yourself clear, Wood-Rot,” Dellitch cawed threateningly, “Why don’t you go suck on a sour root and leave me to my business.  I could blight this entire forest, if I wanted to.”

The harpy’s large golden eyes followed the movements of the dryad, its black pupil narrowing against the yellowing smoke drifting up from the canopy below.

As Dellitch made ever so slight turns of her head following the path of the cagy dryad, a small vine from the canopy below quietly extended upward, circling the barren limb upon which she rested.

“It was you, Scowl Owl, who interrupted my business remember?” Syloam fluttered, “You who put your meddling claw where it does not belong.”

The tendril vine looped and twisted, snaking silently towards the grip of the harpy, fastened along the dried branch.

“You’ll find these claws not so ornamentally accommodating as you might think,” Dellitch responded, moving a half step to the left, flaring a talon and nicking the tendril vine with a tiny pricking cut.  The vine’s movement ceased and its small leaves crinkled and browned.  Its central stalk drying and hardening rapidly to become brittle.

The harpy’s neck twist and peered downward in an instant, then shot up and glared daggers at the dryad, “Clever!”

A gasp arose from below and then shrieking.  A form twisted and jerked in the canopy, thrust upward, leaves parting, showing a lithe female body, swathed in a covering of moss that was rapidly becoming mottled and black.  Bark sloughed off of the thrashing figure as she then fell backward enveloped again in the canopy but the sounds of crashing and limbs cracking accompanied her plunge below.

The harpy’s head twisted at what seemed to be an impossible angle as she screeched at Syloam, “Clever, but foolish!” and then launched herself, claws flared at the dryad.

Seven other dryads, lurking below the canopy launched upward to surround the harpy, hoping to entangle her before she could gain altitude, but two of them were stopped short as something from below latched on to them and jerked them back downward, shrieking and quivering toward the forest floor.

Syloam shrank backward, falling behind the other dryads who had risen upward through the treetops, she dove underneath the leaves heading downward, vines folding behind her, branches tucked away, rapidly shifting her hybrid visage back into that of a woman.  She had to get to her prize.  No one could take her prize possession.  He was the key through which they would get past the doorway.  The one whose seed would be sown in blood.

The sight that met her eyes, however, caused her to shriek and flail, trying to stop her downward movement.

The forest floor and the lower trees were on fire.  One of the dryad sisters lay in the midst of the smoldering flames, engulfed in smoke, her blighted branches now twisted and blackened and stilled.

***

The basket room lurched, and Will was twisted from side to side, as movements from outside struck the outer wall of the cage in which he was kept.  He heard vines snapping, and a ripping tearing noise as if the branches above had just been struck by lightning.  The cage spun, tossing his legs from side to side, then pitched downward, canted as if two or three or four thick vines holding it within the tops of the trees had snapped loose.  Large black claws pierce the ceiling above him, but he could not see outside, what manner of beasts it was that held him.  He heard a familiar laughing as the cage lurched again and parts of the edge of the basket browned and grew brittle, snapping loose a few of the curved thatch that revealed how high he was above the forest floor now black and grey with smoke and soot.  Erupting with flash fires, as the dried brush was kindled into flame.  The floor sagged and browned as well, and the heel of his foot punched through the weave.  Four pairs of large black talons pierced the half-ceiling and he was sure he saw black feathered wings push air through the porous wall in a heavy downdraft as the leafy sky beyond began to move past the opening.

***

“Murderer!” a shriek rang out, from the trees, rapidly moving towards the slough.

“Slaughterer!  Thief!  Liar!” more voices like the sound of rushing winds and waves breaking upon a rocky seashore in a storm, increase in volume as the trees in the distance shook and shuddered, accompanied by a blast of leaves swirling and exploding outward.  The haze of the smoke from the backwoods accompanied the forceful sounds forming a swirling nimbus around the angered accusers rushing towards the Slough where Grum-blud stood quivering before the towering figure of The Pan.

The satyrs scurried forward, leaving their mighty forest king, eager to meet the coming voices filled with ire for their master.

Enemies Above and Below – Chapter 56

The angular face of a crone, sharp and aquiline, with a white and gray nimbus of wild hair, and a pair black and golden eyes peered down into the bower where the young man was held, wrapped in vines.  A young woman with piercing emerald eyes, pawed at the young man, stroking his face and brow, arms and chest, whispering to him words that could not be overheard, but seemed to have an effect on him so that he blushed, and his eyes widened at what she was saying.  A net of woven branches and vines formed a mesh beneath them, yet the leafy canopy from the top was partially open to the treetops and the sky beyond.

“What you got in there, twigsy?!”

The voice was harsh and raspy as if spoken by someone who had spent their whole life filling their mouth and lungs with smoke, desiccating their vocal cords.  The young woman started and turned her head upward, searching for the source of the raspy voice.

The crone cackled, her angular and aged face disappearing from one vantage point and then reappearing from another, outside of the girl’s field of search.

A patina of leafy green passed over the girl’s face as she searched the leafy canopy encircled about her and the young man.

“He’s mine!” she spat and hissed at the seemingly disembodied voice, “I found him!”

The branches above shook rustling the thick mats of leaves covering the high bower, as whatever it was seemed to bound over the top of the canopy, shrieking and laughing harshly.

The young man looked up beyond the girl, his face previously enraptured and enchanted by the attentions of the beautiful girl, now seemed to shake the influence and glare angrily.

“Leave us alone!” he yelled, “Go away!”

He made an effort to strike out at the being but felt hindered, only now seeming to realize, with puzzlement, that his arms and legs were entangled in the vines holding him to the woven walls.

From behind him, the old crone’s face appeared through the dense leaves, “He doesn’t know what you are!” she cackled, shrieking with derisive laughter.

“Tell him what you are, woody dear!” and her head ducked away, as the nymph girl turned suddenly, seeing only the rustle of leaves as they enfolded over the retracted darting face of the ugly crone.

A raw, throaty whisper, rasped, “Tell him what you are!”

The girl lunged at the dense leaves, vines sprouting angrily from her fingertips, “Harpy!  Child-killing harpy!”

A sheath of vines and foliage shrouded the woman’s once smooth, cream-colored complexion, as her anger flared, forgetting to maintain the illusion for the young man she had beckoned and wooed, awaiting her in the cocoon bower below.  Her body rustled with unfolding leaves, and an intricate network of veins that wrapped her body like swirling, grids of tattoo work, rapidly inking her smooth luxuriant skin before his very eyes as she crawled up the sides and along the ceiling of the vine-woven cage she had brought him to for more private intimate attention.

The young man’s eyes went wide in terror, realizing what he’d thought was a sensuous young woman was actually something else entirely.  He struggled violently against the vines that held him, his heart racing his breathing becoming labored and panicked, expelling some of the pheromonal dust he’d breathed in.

“What ARE you?”

The dryad woman cursed and hissed in frustration at the old crone somewhere on the outside of the bower cocoon.

“Mood-killer!  Meddling bat-faced hag!”

Then remembering her captive, she gasped and turned to look downward at him, her skin suddenly smoothing out, the varicose vascular lines fading and descending back below her epidermal layer, the sprouted leaves covering her slender feminine figure shrinking and withering down to disappear within her dilated pores.  A patina of green flashed over her complexion as she fought to regain her blushing composure for the young man’s benefit.

She coughed at him, expelling a puff of yellow smoke from her pouted lips that rained down a cloud of fine dust upon the bound young man.  “Tell me your name again, sweet, beautiful man,” she said seductively, as she slid sinuously down from a vine in the ceiling.

A euphoric glaze seemed to pass over the young man as he again breathed in the dust, forgetting his panic, surrendering once more to the desire that had beckoned him to follow the young woman when she’d invited him to play.

“My name is Will,” he said, his mind surrendering the memory of what he’d just witnessed, to the possibility that whatever this yellow dust was that covered his face and body must be some hallucinogen and that the scare he’d just had was only a temporary drug-induced nightmare attempting to replace the pleasure of the dream he wanted to come true with this exotic and fascinating girl.

The girl responded, her voice soothing and soft as warm butter, “And my name is Syloam.  You are a very beautiful man, Will and I want you.  Am going to have you…WITHOUT INTERRUPTIONS!” she added the last loudly directed to the cone-faced creature that had harassed her and distracted her from without.

She moved down to his level, knelt and placed her hands upon his shoulders, then ran them smoothly up the sides of his neck, kneading his tense muscles as she did so, and then proceeded to cup the sides of his face, move forward and kissing his face gently with soft feather touches of her lips.

Her eyes were so beautiful, and Will could not turn away from her as she gazed directly into his own with desire he reciprocated.  Never had he felt such wanting.  She then moved in to kiss him fiercely and hungrily on the mouth, and he struggled forward to meet her but the restraints prevented him from embracing her and holding her.

When she finally withdrew from the kiss, she pulled back patting his head and tousling his hair like she might a small boy.

“Stay put, Will.  Your Syloam will be right back, shortly.  I just need to ensure we are not interrupted again.”

***

Dellitch the crone-faced Harpy, smiled as she hopped out of the canopy upon a high limb that stood like a crooked talon above the tops of the other trees and was mostly barren of leaves.  The sun’s rays bathed her bizarre body in a golden light revealing her strange features to the witness of the sky.  She made a chirrup-chirrup noise in the back of her throat, a very bird-like sound, as she shuffled and extended her large black feathered wings, and placed her large grey talons with black hooked claws upon the branch adjusting her balance in the breeze that wafted over the forest treetops, rustling and sighing through the leaves making visible its transit along the foliage sea of green.  She bore a feathered ruffle below her jowly neck, like a bola wrap, under which jutted the curved tops of two prodigious grey-skinned bosoms.  Frothy, milky wetness glistened the chest-feather plumage and clabbered in the ruffles below it, giving off the distinctive sour odor of curdled milk.  Her body stood about four feet tall from the crown of her wildly flowing grey hair to the bottoms of her fat clawed feet.  She had no arms to speak of, only large black wings that stretched from twelve to fifteen feet across from tip to tip, with a hooked barb jutting out from the wrist joint at the end of the patagium of each wing.

Harpies were hated by the dryads for many reasons, but certain reasons stood out among the others.  The dryad females found that they were unable to breastfeed their infant children with their mother’s milk.  Tree sap was all their hybrid bodies could produce but it offered no sustenance to the infants.  Cattle had not been domesticated to the point that they might offer their children milk that might nourish their half-human bodies, and the only creatures among them that seemed capable of offering a milk-like drink were the harpies.  The harpies were then not as ancient and old in visage as they were now, and the harpies agreed to share their milk with the dryad nursery on the condition of being given a portion of the forest in which the dryads occupied.  Only the milk was later found to be poisonous to the infant dryads, causing blight to wither and kill their plant nature and spread disease to the trees around them.  The effect of the poison was slow working, but irreversible, and no antidote could be found that would save the lives of the infant dryads.  Further, the disease once spread to the trees and then dispersed in the pollination, worked as a unique genetic pathogen that suppressed the production of Y chromosomes making the dryad females only capable of producing female children, and no males.  The milk of the harpies had served as a death sentence to the race of dryads, and they were forced to flee their home forests and seek virgin forests that were unspoiled by the contagion spread by the Harpies.

Dryads were not vulnerable to the Harpies unless their blood or an open wound was mixed with the lactate of the latter.  For this reason, most dryads were easily cowed by the Harpies, and avoided direct combat with them, lest they be raked with a claw and pressed into their lactating breast ruffle.

Harpies had no offspring.  They were incapable of breeding and resentful of the dryads’ propensity to remain youthful in appearance and evergreen, while they aged and became more and more embittered and ostracized by the other races of Half-men.  They were only too happy to clear out an area of forest from dryads, whenever The Pan requested it, merely by showing up.  They too reciprocally hated the dryads, but it was a matter of deep envy, and a frustrating drive to covet their libertine lifestyle.  They happily occupied the blighted forest that the dryads had vacated.  Since there would never be more of their kind, they felt entitled to it since they had been dealt such a harsh sentence of prolonged misery by the One who had forbidden them to worship any other god or aspect of creation but Him alone.  They too could be killed, and some dryads had been instrumental in bringing that about, but the Harpies felt the loss greater because they could never have more of their kind.  The resentments between the two groups had been growing but held in a delicate balance by The Pan who manipulated both to serve his purposes.

The dryads could be driven to such rages, that they turned on the Harpies and fought them, without thought to the potential consequences, and the Harpies were skilled provocateurs.  The Harpies worked up their vile milk froth, a few days before a conflict, allowing the substance to spill down their front, so that the dryads, who saw and smelled its days-old rancid smell would fear them enough to flee while self-preservation was still at the forefront of their minds.  Being part bird, they had the advantage of swift flight and could evade the dryads who could only climb after them from the tops of the trees or hope to ensnare them in a woven net and then beat them to death with rocks.  Only the dryads had figured out one other indignity that enraged the Harpies even further.  If they ever could catch one, without the risk of being cut or clawed, they would instead maim the creature by cutting off its feet.  Among the dryads, the severed claw foot of a Harpy, was a sign of warning and they bore it as a crest.

So Dellitch and her harpy sisters had been fitted and prepped with something that only the humans could forge for them, and the trolls in their dealings with The Pan delivered these to them for his distribution to the Harpies, for commitment that he would employ their threatening services to keep the dryads in line from taking Xarmnian men and boys and give them consequence if they failed to comply.

Dellitch, wore these armored fittings proudly on the shanks of her legs down to the knuckles of her clawed feet.  Iron bands that would make the severing of a claw by a dryad from a distance or even up close impossible.  Now Dellitch only had to wait for the angry little dryad to come to her.  Where she would be dealt with swiftly and severely.

***

Beneath the city of Azragoth, deep within the underground network of tunnels, a silent army of hundreds was being slowly awakened.  A twisting, curling breeze of powdered dust-billows sifted through an outside grating, swirled through a pipe chute of silt strained from the dry water run of a splinter stream, and navigated smoky corridors to the darkened parade cavern where the Dust Dragon had established its lair and began reproducing its golem totems from the clay and dust of the hidden city above.  The moldings had begun to cure as their hollow eyes received the powdered stirring, from the strange breeze, that channeled its dusty tendrils into the statuary poised to receive the mysterious breaths of the bizarre streams of curling smoke.

Line after line of clay-figured heads broke their crusted molding as their necks bend back, thrusting the statute figure’s chin upward, their terracotta lips gaping to receive more of the swirling powder.  An eerie sort of respiration noise began deep within the hollow cavity of each golem attended by the tendrils of swirling dust.  Fine powder sloughed off these figures as their fingers curled, and their arms slowly moved with a grating noise as if kiln-fired bricks had been dragged across a slate stone floor.  The eyes of each closed and then blinked open with white sclera and a jeweled iris dilated almost to blackness.  The first lines of the awakening army had already moved out from the cavern and proceeded down through the darkened tunnels making their way to the hoist chute and winding stair beneath the city leading up to The Keep towers above.  Six of the previously cured and awakened golems had ascended the winding stair.  Six who bore the uncanny resemblance to the reluctant leader of the party of Surface Worlders who had left the city, prior to its attack.  Each of these six carried sharp jagged stones intent on forcing their way into the hidden city above.

***

Captain Thrax had heard of the assault upon General Mattox, and he had heard that while the General was in bad shape, he had barely avoided being mortally wounded by imposters that had somehow infiltrated the city.  A detachment of soldiers, led by Lieutenant Morgrath had been withdrawn from the central bastille and dispatched to The Keep pavilion to investigate a possible breach point through the underground tunnels.  Three of the retinue soldiers of General Mattox had been slain by the traitorous archers before they had been captured and interrogated.  The General had dispatched two riders to seek out Captain Lorgray from the backwoods and call his company in to rally to the city, for all their defenses would be necessary to guard what was soon to come.

The man who had delivered these messages to the Captain had looked vaguely familiar to him, though he was unable to place the name with the face of the messenger.  The thought bothered him, but he did not know why it did.

***

Morgrath moved carefully up the winding stairwell, leaning closely against the inner stone balustrade.  Being left-handed gave him an advantage in the ascent that many of his troops did not have.  With the curve of the interior stair moving in a clockwise rotation upward, the arc of the interior wall gave very little room for one who fought right-handed to draw of swing their sword arm.  Any strike they made towards an attacker above them would be impeded by the need to cross their body to parry the blow of an attacker descending.  Being a left-hander, gave Morgrath the advantage of blocking and hacking the defenses of the opponent, with a reciprocal blow that the offender would have to brush away moving his arm from center to right, against the natural bend of the wrist and elbow.

Morgrath also had both ascended and descended the stairs of The Keep many times and well-knew the cadence of varying lengths and height of the steps so that he could carry feed bags up and down the stairwells without missing a step or faltering upon the uneven parts.  With the ascending towers on either side of the tall Keep, he had hand-picked his men, to include a fair number of left-handers among them, so that interior defense could be affected from the ground up to the top descending stair.  The General had given him an order, that he would normally have been loathed to follow, but he trusted the commander’s instincts and knew, that he would carry it out.  When he and his men had found the dead guard in the turret tower, he knew something was wrong and though his orders seemed extreme, he was worried that perhaps the General was right in the order he had given.

Having had no real way to tell, what was below the city, Morgrath knew that the threat posed by the Dust Dragon they’d found slain by the Surface Worlder called Mr. O’Brian, had shaken several to the vulnerability that the caves and tunnel systems posed if they were discovered by the wrong people.  The chain locked winches would be hard to move, even on the drum spindle, for the silos had been sealed for many, many, years.  Unlocking the traps would be difficult.  The counterweights designed by Nem would, in theory, cause the bulwarks to tilt and buckle, and the weight of the stored grain, would burst the floor and bury the central stair, collapsing its superstructure under tons of flowing grain.  Whatever was down there, would have to find another way, besides The Keep, to gain entrance into the city of Azragoth.

***

Mattox coughed a pinkish froth, as he drew in a shortened ragged breath.  Ezra stood at his side, supporting him with his shoulder and Mattox’s arm drape around him.

“We need to get you to the surgeon, General,” he spoke quietly but firmly.

Mattox winced as any small movement caused the arrow point to auger in the wound.

He whispered under his breath so that the bound imposters would not hear his response.

“They thrive on weakness,” he muttered, “Mustn’t show…[cough]…”

“The One is strong in our weakness,” Ezra advised, nodding to the other bodyguard to help him withdraw Mattox further from the garrison, toward the apothecary shops and surgeon’s quarters up at the end of the street.

“We will attend to these three,” he said.  The other figure, who had posed as an archer and had shot Mattox, had been felled, by a slinger, and his body had toppled over the wall, falling into the flaming oil trough, and dissolved into the flames.  The fire seemed to flare as the Banshee quitted the golem body-double of O’Brian, and fiery sparks wafted into the air, turning end over end, swirling and then moving outward toward the forest fires ahead.

A breathy sigh, almost a hiss, had attended the expulsion of the Banshee, but it was not clear if any actual harm had been done to it.

As long as these remaining three were contained within these fashioned bodies, they could get into no further mischief.  The problem was, where to keep them in the meantime.

Nem joined Ezra as he surrendered the charge of the care of General Mattox into the capable hands of his trusted bodyguards, Jesh and Kadmi.

“What shall we do with these three?” Ezra asked as the two of them looked away from the General back to the three prisoners tied up.

“These three are why Azragoth has the oubliettes,” Nem said simply.

***

Mattox had been lain upon a thatch-woven frame and was carried by both of his personal guards, Jesh, a tall angular framed warrior whose stature was slightly taller than that of General Mattox, such that, in battle assassins often confused him with the General because they share the same built, but opponents often assumed height signified prominence.  Among the proud Xarmnians, one was never allowed to outshine or stand taller on a battlefield that their commanders and they mistakenly applied their own assumptions on that of their enemies.  Knowing this, the brave man had volunteered for the position and had earned it many times over.  Kadmin was by contrast, fairly short and thick-shouldered.  Between the two of them they covered Mattox from both low and high assaults and Mattox had come to trust and rely on these two men, offering both a command of their own but they had refused and would not leave their General’s side.  Theirs was a duty of honor, and they counted it a privilege.

Mattox tried to rise as he was lifted and carried but they had admonished him to lay still and not let the arrow work any further into the wound.  Mattox sighed and lay back, but spoke urgently, though quietly.

“What is happening with The Keep?” he took in a ragged breath.

“Morgrath is carrying out your orders, sir.  General, I must insist that you…”

Mattox raised a gloved hand, a signal that there was no need.

“Call Lorgray to me as soon as he gets in.  Tell him it is time.  To seek out and find Jeremiah.  We’ve found the location of the second Honor Sword.”

***

Maeven knew there was no way she could reach Will once the dryad had pulled him up into the canopy.  She might have been able to prevent it if she had her bow, but Mason carried it on the road ahead.  There was no telling how long the dryad would let him live, but there was very little hope that it would be long enough to allow her to return with her bow.  Much as she hated to abandon him to his terrible fate, she would have to return and catch up to the company.  There was nothing more she could do but hope that Will’s death would come swiftly.

She ran as fast as she dared without creating too much noise, trying to make it back to the road and catch up with O’Brian and the others.  There was no telling what the others may be walking into and with the satyrs in the forest and now the confirmation that the harpies and dryads were present as well, it made sense that the presence of The Pan would be the reason why these contentious groups were in the vicinity.  Only the Pan unified them.

Their only hope was to reach the Faerie Fade.