The Perilous Realm Online Part 12

The Perilous Realm Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER TWELVE 

They floated across the lake in the dark, and as they shared what little food they had, Will told Moth the tale of how he had found Shade at the library. Pendrake described the journey from Fable and their escape from the shard, thanks to the chance meeting with the golem, Ord.

“I believe Morrigan and I saw that creature, on our way to find you,” Moth said. “He was heading straight north, and moving at astonishing speed. We had no idea what he was or where he was going, and our concern was to find you, so we didn’t bother about him.”

“North,” Finn said quietly.

“As an arrow flies,” Moth said, turning to look at the young man.

“This is Finn Madoc, of the Errantry,” Pendrake said to Moth.

The archer bowed.

“I met your brother once,” he said. “A brave man. I hope he finds his way home.”

Finn bowed in return but said nothing.

“Did you have a destination beyond the forest?” Moth asked.

Pendrake glanced at Will.

“Shade chose our path from Fable,” he said. “We’re seeking one of the farholds, if any still exist.”

“But we’re lost now,” Will said. “I took us through the knot-path, and we ended up here.”

Pendrake shook his head.

“The fact that you found the path, Will, gives me hope that we are on the right road.”

 

By this time the raft had drifted to a part of the lake that was broken up into channels between small rocky hillocks and larger islands thick with trees and undergrowth. Moth and Finn took up the poles again to keep the raft in the midst of the current that was tugging them steadily westward. Will noticed again, as he had at the snug that first night, that the archer kept as far apart as he could from those around him.

 

Rowen gave Will some water from her flask, and sat beside him quietly, a look of tense concentration on her face, as if she were listening for the slightest sound out of the ordinary. Pendrake stood near them, withdrawn into his own thoughts, and from time to time the old man would shake his head, or mouth words to himself, as though he were reaching deep into his gathered lore for something half-remembered. His grim, weary look had not changed since they had discovered the identity of their pursuer.

 

“Grandfather,” Rowen finally said, and the old man stirred, “what you did, back on the shore, with the light…”

 

“I should not have done,” Pendrake said, finishing her sentence. “There was little choice, but it may cost us dearly.”

 

“What didyou do?” Will asked.

 

“I reached into the Weaving,” Pendrake said. “Something I have not attempted for a long time. So many stories wait there, as possibilities, as dreams of what might be. Like fire waits in dry kindling.”

 

“But you helped us escape the hollows,” Will said.

 

“And changed the weave of the Realm as a result. A dangerous thing to do. Beings like Malabron wait, like a spider in its web, for any twitch or quiver in the threads that bind all things. I didn’t just touch a thread, I gave one a good tug. And that may have made it much easier for the Angel to find us.”

 

“I didn’t know,” Rowen said, staring at her grandfather with a look of mingled awe and fear. “I didn’t know a loremaster could do these things. I thought only the Stewards had that power.”

 

“Not everything the Stewards taught was lost,” said Pendrake. He turned away to gaze out across the water. It was clear that he didn’t want to say any more.

 

In the blackness ahead of them they saw a cluster of tiny glimmering lights that seemed to be close to the surface of the water.

 

“What is that?” Rowen cried.

 

As they approached, the lights quickly went out. The raft passed the spot where the lights had been, and in the gloom Will could just make out what appeared to be a low mound of earth and twigs, like a tiny island.

 

 

“Creelings,” Moth said, as they left the mound behind. “Smallfolk. That mound is one of their cities. We’re floating on another one.”

 

Rowen sat up suddenly and touched the surface of the raft.

 

“This is a … someone’s home?”

 

“It was, once,” Moth said. “No one lives in it now. The creelings often move from place to place. They keep to themselves, so they use these floating islands as decoys, to mislead anyone who comes this far into the bog. Morrigan and I met the creelings long ago, and befriended them. They were kind enough to lend us one of their floating islands for our escape.”

 

Will peered through the gloom at the island as it slid away behind them, but saw nothing.  How empty it seemed out here in the wild, and yet how full it might be with creatures that he simply couldn’t see or wouldn’t notice because he didn’t know where to look. Or how.

 

He felt as if this strange world around him was brimming with living, breathing things he couldn’t see or hear. Was this the Weaving the toymaker had spoken of? Then the sensation passed, and the world was just the world again. Wind and water and darkness. Will was reminded once more how far he was from home.

 

After a time Morrigan returned and perched on Moth’s shoulder. Again Shade was startled, and stared intently at the raven as though he was tempted to lunge at it. Will reached out and hesitantly scratched the wolf behind the ears, more glad than ever of his company. To his relief, Shade did not flinch from the touch but seemed to welcome it. He lifted a huge paw and placed it gently on Will’s arm.

 

“How are you now, Will Lightfoot?” he asked.

 

 

“Better,” Will said. The numbing chill in his veins was lessening, but now and then he caught what seemed to be a faint echo of hervoice, like ghostly whispers in his head. He stirred, restless for some way to banish the whispering.

 

“I don’t understand about the hollows,” he finally said to Moth. “If they’re ghosts, how can arrows hurt them?”

 

“No weapon of wood or metal can harm them,” the archer said, his eyes still keenly scanning the wooded shore of the large island they were passing. “My arrowheads are engraved with runes to cut the spellstrings that holds the annaicaptive to their master’s will. Once that bond is broken, the hollow can pass on. It’s no longer bound to another’s desires.”

 

“So the ones you shot won’t come after us any more?”

 

“Some hollows linger whether a spell holds them or not, seeking living things like someone starving seeks food. But most vanish and are never seen again. Whatever they are, though, they speak only with the voice of the one who rules them.”

 

“You could hear them speaking?”

 

“Couldn’t you?” Moth asked, turning to look at Will at last, his gaze cold and piercing.

 

Will nodded, but kept silent, afraid to admit to one of the Hidden Folk that the hollows were still whispering in his thoughts. He felt safer now that Moth had joined their company, but the archer’s mood was even more grim and aloof than it had been when they first met. He was strung as tightly as his own bowstring, tensed and ready for anything, and for the first time Will glimpsed the fiery spirit brooding in the archer. He would charge into certain death, Will thought, without a second thought.

 

 

The steady lapping of the waves was soothing, and soon Will found that he had trouble keeping his eyes open. Pendrake saw him drooping and urged him to sleep while he could. Gratefully Will curled up with his head resting on Shade’s warm flank. He drifted into murky dreams in which he seemed to be walking endlessly through dark rooms, looking for someone or something that remained one step ahead of him.

 

A shriek from Morrigan brought him back. He opened his eyes to see the raven alight on Moth’s arm, squawking frantically. The archer shaded his eyes with his hand and peered into the sky.

 

“Everyone crouch down and don’t move,” he said in a low but commanding voice.

 

As they obeyed him the archer turned, scanned the water ahead of them, and pointed.

 

“Finn, we must find shelter.”

 

While the others stayed low, Moth and Finn poled the raft swiftly and noiselessly to the nearest of the islands and ran it in under the cover of some drooping willow trees.

 

“What is it?” Rowen whispered, and Moth put a finger to his lips. They waited like this for a few breathless moments, and then they heard a faint sound that swiftly grew louder, a billowing and snapping like a flag fluttering in a strong wind. As whatever it was passed overhead, Will peered up through the canopy of leaves and for an instant saw a ragged white shape, rippling and writhing in the air. In the next instant the thing had passed and the sounds faded.

 

Shortly after, Morrigan returned, once again skimming the surface of the water. Moth rose from a crouch and the others did likewise.           

 

“I can answer your question now,” he said to Rowen. “The Angel travels on foot, but now he has a watcher in the sky, like we do with Morrigan.”

 

“It looked like a white sheet,” Will said.

 

“It is his cloak,” Moth said. “It’s not merely a garment, but a living creature, called a shrowde. It bound itself to Lotan, and gives him concealment, so that he may go unseen. The cloak also shields him from the sun, whose rays burns his borrowed flesh. But if need be he will send the shrowde from him, to scout ahead. The creature can see, and hear, although like the hollows its powers are diminished in daylight.”

 

“Then we can’t stay on the lake,” Rowen said. “That thing might come back this way and spot us.”

 

“I don’t think we’re far from the western shore,” Moth said, and suddenly he turned, as if he had heard or sensed something. He leapt from the raft to the island’s stony shingle, which rose steeply from the water to the trees.

 

The others quickly followed him. On the crest of the slope above them, green sunlit trees beckoned like a vision of summer on a dark winter day.

 

“My people have been here,” Moth said, and Will stared at him, startled at the change in the archer’s voice. To his surprise, Moth unbuckled his black sword and cast it down on the pebbled shore as if it was a hated thing. With Morrigan on his shoulder he climbed the slope, gazing straight ahead like someone in a trance, and passed under the leafy shade. After a moment, Will and his friends followed.

 

In the centre of the island, in a hollow of stone ringed by trees, lay a small still pool of clear water. Moth was already there on one knee. He held his open hand over the surface.

“Élye Taina thu qantar,” he whispered. “El’il….”

 

He looked up, his eyes shining.

 

“They were here. My people rested in the shade of these trees. The Lady sat beside this pool and sang of our lost home.”

 

Will remembered that Rowen had spoken about a Lady, as someone who could help him find the wishing portals. He wanted to ask Moth about it but the archer’s look was far away. Small white flowers grew among the thick moss beside the water, and Moth passed his hand over these as well. 

 

“Can you tell how long ago they were here?” Pendrake asked. For a long time Moth did not answer. Then he rose to his feet, and Will saw that his eyes were shining.

 

“Days. Or years,” Moth said, shaking his head. “Nor could I say which way they went after they left the island. I only know the Lady was here, and where she is, my people will always be. There was a time when I could have followed them, and found them, but no more.”

 

He turned and walked away slowly through the trees.

 

Rowen had strayed further than the others and returned with the news that there were wild berries growing nearby.

 

She turned to lead the way, and Will was about to go with her when he remembered Moth’s sword. The archer had left it lying on the shingle and had apparently forgotten it. While the others followed Rowen, Will turned back and climbed down to the shore. The sword lay there, a darker presence in the shadows of dusk. Will picked it up by the scabbard, which felt ice cold to the touch, and perfectly smooth. He had been right: the scabbard was made of a lightweight black stone, or something that felt very much like stone.

 

Will meant to tuck the weapon under his arm and return it straight away to Moth, but something made him hesitate. He touched the hilt, which was as cold as the scabbard, and like it shone with a lustrous darkness blacker than night. It seemed as if hilt and scabbard were one single piece, and now Will wondered whether there really was a blade concealed inside.

 

“Are you not coming, Will Lightfoot?”

 

Startled, he looked up to see Shade at the edge of the trees, regarding him with curiosity.

 

“In a moment,” Will said with a twinge of anger. Did everyone have to watch him all the time?

 

“That is the Nightwanderer’s sword.”

 

“I know that. I’ll be right there. Don’t wait.”

 

Shade seemed about to reply, then he turned and loped back into the trees. When he was gone, Will fixed his attention on the sword. If anything, the wolf’s interruption had made him even more eager to solve the mystery of the archer’s strange blade. He hesitated a moment longer, holding his breath, and then he drew the sword from the scabbard.

 

The blade made a sharp ringing sound as it slid out, but unlike Will’s own knife, the sound did not fade quickly away. Instead it lingered in his ears, a faint metallic hum that was vaguely troubling. He held the sword before him and was disappointed to see that there was nothing unusual about it, as far as he could tell. The blade looked rough and dull-edged, not polished and reflective like his own knife, as though it was made of some raw, impure ore. Will turned the sword this way and that, trying to catch some kind of gleam on its surface. There was none, but as he peered closely at the blade he noticed that the sword’s eerie hum had become a kind of low vibration, more a warmth in the hand than a sound. He could feel it against his palm, growing to a pulsing heat, and as he continued to stare at the blade, he felt a hot, exhilarating dread grow inside him, as if in answer.

 

There was great power in this sword. With it he could do … wondrous things. He could stand with someone like Finn. Rowen would see that he wasn’t just a boy. He could be a hero, too.

 

From behind him someone spoke. Will knew before he turned around who it would be, as if the sword had summoned him.

 

Near him on the shore stood the white-haired man in red.

 

“This isn’t real,” Will said, his heart pounding. He wanted to run, but the man’s eyes, so like Moth’s, held him.

 

“It is real enough that you and I can talk to one another,” the man said, and his voice was like Moth’s as well, musical and haunting. 

 

“Who are you?” Will said.

 

“You already know,” the man said, and he smiled. His face would have been kind, Will thought, except for the coldness in his eyes. “No doubt you have been told all about me.”   

 

“You’re the …” Will began, but fear took him by the throat and choked his voice.

 

“Do you know why some call me the Angel?” Lotan asked.

 

Will gave no answer. He searched the trees, desperately hoping to see Shade or the others, even as he understood that he was no longer where they were.

 

“I am a messenger, a servant of the last of the Stewards,” Lotan said. “He wishes me to bring you to him.”

 

“No,” Will said, shaking his head. “They … my friends won’t let that happen.”

 

Lotan shook his head slowly.

 

“Your friends fear what they do not understand. They fear you, as well, Will Lightfoot. They fear what you will become. Why do you think the old man brought you out here, into the wild, as far as he could from his quiet little land? He could have found another way, surely. But instead he dragged you on this foolish journey that takes you further from home with every step.”         

 

“That’s not true,” Will shouted. “He’s trying to help me.”

 

“Is he? Well, now you see where hisplans have brought you. Perhaps you were better off before you met him. Before you met any of them.”

 

The man’s calm, almost gentle voice dulled Will’s fear, compelling him to listen. Did the loremaster really know what he was doing? If this is a dream, I should be able to end it, he told himself desperately. I should be able to wake up.

 

Something cold stung the back of his neck. Large, hoary flakes of snow were drifting slowly down from the sunless sky. And now Will saw that the lake and the island had disappeared. He was standing in a high place, far above a land of forests and hills. On the distant horizon the sun was setting in a red bank of cloud. Will craned his neck to look down, and saw, through the falling snow, a great cliff that plummeted in a sheer drop for hundreds of feet to a valley filled with black shadows.

 

He scrambled away from the terrifying drop, and once more snow swirled around him. He groped his way through it, and there was the Angel again, calmly standing before him, a hand held out beckoningly.

 

“There is nowhere else to go,” Lotan went on. “The Realm is changing. The One is weaving all things together. All stories. Soon there will be no need for running and hiding, for fearing the dark. For there will be no dark.”

 

Lotan drew closer, through the snow that was falling more thickly and faster now, but did not settle on him. There were no flakes in his hair, on his eyelashes, anywhere.

 

Will raised Moth’s sword in both hands and held it between him and Lotan. He felt its power burn through him like fire.

 

“Go away,” he shouted, his voice breaking. “Go away, or I’ll kill you.”

 

As Lotan’s gaze fell upon the sword, his eyes flickered with surprise and even fear. It happened so fast Will wasn’t even sure he had really seen it. An instant later the cold smile had returned to Lotan’s face.

 

“I will find you, Will Lightfoot, or you will find me. Our paths run together now, as they must, because I am the gate you seek. The Lord of Light waits on the other side of every door. And I am the way to him.”

 

With a cry Will lunged at the Angel, who stood his ground without moving. Will swung the sword with all his strength, and went staggering to one side as the blade passed through empty air. He lifted the sword again, and then a sudden sharp pain flared in his wrist.

 

Will found himself standing once more on the shore of the island, Moth’s sword in his hand. The Angel was nowhere to be seen. There was no snow falling. At his side stood Shade, regarding him with concern.

 

“Am I dreaming?” Will muttered groggily.

 

“I would say no,” the wolf replied.

 

Will rubbed his wrist, which still stung and throbbed. He could see two red marks in the skin.

 

“Did you … did you bite me, Shade?” Will asked.

         

“Only a little,” the wolf said. “You were talking to someone who was not there. You were frightened. I tried to speak to you, but you would not listen.”

 

Will placed a hand on the wolf’s shaggy ruff.

 

“I’m glad you’re here, Shade,” he said.

 

“So am I, Will Lightfoot. And I am sorry about the bite. I was not going to eat you.”

 

“I know that. Listen, Shade. I have to go now, by myself, before the others come back. If they stay with me, something terrible is coming. For you too. I don’t want that to happen.”

 

“Neither do I,” a voice said, and Will looked up to see Moth at the edge of the trees. “Put down the sword now.”

 

The archer’s voice was cold and commanding. Like a dry twig the power of the blade seemed to snap in two, and Will found he had no choice but to obey. Both sword and scabbard slipped from his hands and clattered on the stones.

 

“Get away from it,” Moth said, advancing down the slope.

 

“I only wanted to see,” Will muttered, stumbling backward. “I didn’t know…”

 

Moth lunged and with one swift movement he had the scabbard in his hand and the blade back within it. As he buckled the sword back onto his belt, Will saw him grimace with pain. The colour drained from his face as though that terrible blade had been thrust into him.

 

“I should never have left this here,” Moth said under this breath, and then he fixed Will with a grave look. “I have been far too careless.”

 

“I was going to bring it to you,” Will mumbled, lowering his head. He was sorry for what he had done, but also angry at Moth for taking the sword from him, and the intensity of that anger frightened him.

 

Moth placed a hand on his shoulder.

 

“Do not trouble yourself,” he said. His face looked aged, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead. “It is my fault. I should have warned you about the sword when I first saw you were curious about it.”

 

“What’s wrong with it?”

 

Moth laughed soundlessly.

 

“Only what is wrong with this world,” he said. “The blade is forged of gaal. It is deadly to my people, and dangerous to most others.”

 

 “How can you carry it around, if …” Will broke off as understanding flooded through him. “It hurts you. All the time.”

 

Moth swept the sword out of sight under his cloak.

 

“I am able to bear it,” he said, “because the hilt and scabbard are made of dragon bone. The one substance that can shield against the power of the gaal.

 

“You’ve been searching for him,” Will said. “To use the sword against him.”

 

He heard a sound and saw that the others had joined them on the shore.

 

“I saw the Angel,” Will said. “At least I think it was him.”

 

“He was here?” Rowen asked, her eyes wide with fear.

 

“I don’t know. It must have been a dream, but it was so real.”

 

“That is how the dark powers often reach us first,” said Pendrake. “In dreams and visions. Their realm is the nightside of Story. The shadow country of things that haunt one’s sleep. Half-glimpsed terrors.”

 

“When you took the sword you came closer to the Shadow Realm,” Moth said. “Lotan walks there as well as here. He can be many miles away, but all too close.”

 

He handed Will a small leather flask.

 

“Drink this,” he said. “It’s called everenth. It will restore some of your strength and help you resist, if Lotan appears to you again.”

 

Will took a tentative sip. The drink tasted slightly bitter, like unsweetened tea, but almost immediately he felt a warmth flowing into him. He took another sip and handed back the flask. Then, at Pendrake’s urging, he told them what had happened when he held the sword, and at last admitted the dreams of Lotan he’d been having since he first arrived in the Bourne.

 

As he described what he had seen it occurred to him that Lotan hadn’t been wearing the shrowde cloak.

 

“He revealed himself to you as he once was,” Moth said. “Morrigan and I knew the Angel long before he took that name. He and I will meet again, Will, but not today. Keeping you out of his clutches is what matters most for the present. But I promise you, until you are safely beyond the reach of these shadows, I will be here, no matter what. “

 

“I should have told you about my dreams before,” Will said, hanging his head. “I’m sorry. I’ve made things worse.”

 

The toymaker had listened in grim silence and now he asked Will to repeat what he had said about the high cliff.

 

“There is only one place I know of like that,” Pendrake said, when Will had finished.

 

“The Great Rampart,” Rowen said eagerly. “I’ve seen it on Grandfather’s maps. It’s on the far side of the Shining Mountains.”

 

“Facing the setting sun,” Pendrake added.

 

“What if it’s an omen,” Rowen said. “Maybe we shouldn’t go there…. or maybe it means we will. Maybe there’s a farhold there….”

 

“That’s the problem with omens,” Pendrake said. “They can be dangerous to interpret. And when you start looking for them, they turn up everywhere. I think it’s better to keep on our own path, to make for Skald, until we know more.”

 

“Lotan is afraid of the sword,” Will said suddenly, remembering. “I saw it in his eyes. That’s why you carry it.”

 

“It is made of fever iron,” the archer said, nodding.

 

“Deep, ancient innumith,” Pendrake said. “The lifeblood of the Realm, melded with fire and spellcraft into a weapon.”

 

“Sometimes the arrows and knives of the Nightbane are made with it,” Finn said. “Though why it doesn’t kill them…”

 

“It does kill them, eventually,” Moth said. “Anyone wounded or even touched by such a weapon falls into a fever of madness. This gives the Nightbane berserk strength, for a time. The fever began to touch you, Will. It’s what made you attack Lotan, which is exactly what he wished. His goal was to draw you ever closer to his master’s realm, so that he could find you in this one.”

 

“Why do you keep the sword?” Rowen asked the archer. “Why not bury it, or melt it in a forge…”

 

She broke off and her eyes widened. Will saw that she had understood. The sword was the only thing that could harm Lotan.

 

“I will be rid of it when it has served its purpose,” Moth said coldly.

 

Overhead, Morrigan gave a loud caw and swooped down from the branch she had been perched on, to settle on Moth’s shoulder. Together they moved away into the shadows of the trees.

 

A soft rain began to fall. Shade had already found shelter, and now he led them across the island to the largest tree, which leaned out at a precipitous angle over the water. There was a bowl-shaped bower among the leaves, its encircling walls formed of woven branches, like a roofed bird’s nest. Something had perhaps lived here, but the bower was deserted now. They climbed up the thick sloping trunk to reach it, and settled in to share the berries they had gathered.

 

Will huddled in one corner, cold and miserable. He noticed Pendrake looking at him with concern.

 

“You’ve felt the power of the Shadow Realm, Will,” the old man said. “That is not easy to bear. Moth and Morrigan have carried it with them for years.”

 

“Who is he?” Will asked. “The one Moth calls the Angel.”

 

“He was Lotan, a prince among Moth’s people, in the days when they lived in the shining city of Eleel by the sea. Long before they were driven from their home and became the wandering Hidden Folk. Lotan was betrothed to Seelah, Moth’s sister. He rode away to the war against Malabron, and when he returned, it was at the head of an enemy host. He had turned against his own people. Seelah was the first to discover this, and when she tried to flee, to warn the city, Lotan took her voice and bound her in the shape of a raven.”

 

“Morrigan,” Will breathed.

 

Pendrake nodded.

 

“Morrigan had learned much from his new master.”

 

The rain was coming down harder now, drumming on the roof of woven branches so that Will and his friends could hear nothing of what might be happening outside. Will peered out of the entrance, and although he could not see Moth and Morrigan, he guessed that they had gone back to the pool under the trees.

 

“Seelah escaped Lotan and fled back to Eleel,” Pendrake continued, “but no one recognized her or could make any sense of her croaks and cries. Only Ethain, her brother, understood that this was his sister. By then it was too late. As the sun rose, Lotan led the enemy through the gates that he had wrenched open with spellcraft. The city’s last day began in fear and fire. Where there had been music and light, cries of horror rose to the sky. The weave of undying that had protected their land and kept that fair folk from the decay of the years was torn asunder, and the shadow of death fell upon them for the first time. Blood stained the once-gleaming stones, and the city itself was unshaped. When it was clear that Eleel was lost, Ethain and Seelah fled with the last remnant of their people. And so they became the Shee n’ashoon, the Hidden Folk, mortal now though long-lived, and began their long wandering. When it was clear that Eleel was lost, Ethain and Seelah fled with the other survivors. And so they became the Shee n’ashoon, the Hidden Folk, and began their long wandering. But while she was bound to Lotan, and Lotan’s master, by spellcraft, Seelah could not remain with her people. She was a danger to them, and so she went into exile. And Ethain went with her.”

 

A shadow filled the entrance to the bower. Moth stood there a moment, looking back, then ducked his head and entered.

 

“It was rumoured that Lotan had perished in the final battle against Malabron, but we knew he had lived on, because the spell upon Seelah was not broken. And so we kept searching for him. Many years passed. We sought refuge and peace for a time, in the Wood. And then you came, Will.”

 

“You could return to your people,” Rowen said. “Just for a short time, I mean. If we find them, maybe Will can get home…” She faltered when she saw the look of bitterness on Moth’s face.

 

“Over the years the gaalblinded us to our own people,” he said, “as if we too have become like Lotan. We cannot pierce the veils of enchantment the Shee have woven to conceal themselves. Morrigan and I would find their dwelling place for you, Will, if we could, but we cannot even find it for ourselves.”

 

 

Speak Your Mind

*

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.