The Perilous Realm Online, Part Twenty-One

Book One: The Endless Road

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

There was a warm green light on his eyelids, and the sound of birds singing.

Will opened his eyes. Above him he saw what looked like wide sheets of patched green cloth, held up by poles of peeled white wood. In the centre of all this was a circle of blue sky. He was in some kind of tent with an opening in the roof.

He had been running from something…. He was lost.

There had to be more, he was sure, but the memories lay beyond his reach.

Will sat up, wincing at the stiffness in his arms and legs. Near the pallet of thick woven quilts he was lying on sat a woman in a faded blue robe, tending a small fire. She had long dark hair with a few streaks of grey in it.

When he moved the woman looked up. Her eyes were bright and kind, although there was something sad in them as well, Will thought. She smiled.

“Awake at last,” she said. “Very good. Your friends will be glad.”

She poured a clear liquid from a jug on a small table, and brought it to him. He took the cup and looked into it, caught a faint bitter scent. Someone had given him a drink like this, not long ago…

What he had been trying to remember returned to him like the cold bite of a blade.

“Where is Moth?” he asked.

The woman’s gaze went past him.

“He is gone,” she said softly. “His hurt was deep and could not be healed. Drink. It will help you regain your strength.”

Will took a sip of the liquid, then his head and tried to fight back his tears. He did not know where he was, but the woman was kind, and by the sound of her voice alone he knew she was not his enemy.

Then another terrible memory came to him.

“She is well, and whole,” the woman said, as if she had read his thoughts. “And right here, near you.”

Will looked up through his tears. The woman gestured to the far side of the tent and Will saw Rowen, lying on a pallet like his own, her eyes closed.

“She is sleeping,” the woman said. Joy and relief flooded through Will. “The girl, who won’t listen to reason, is finally getting some rest. She was hurt and suffering when we found her, but still she insisted on staying awake at your side all through the night and most of this day. That is how long you have been asleep. You suffered great harm, more than you know, and you needed healing. It’s fortunate that you found us when you did.”

“Master Pendrake, Finn, and Freya,” Will said. “Where are they?”

“Not far away. Do you wish to see them?”

Will nodded eagerly. He pulled off his blankets and now noticed that his clothes were fresh and spotlessly clean. He looked up at the woman.

“Last night in the forest,” he began as he climbed from the pallet, “I thought you were …” He broke off, unable to name the horrors that seemed, in the bright morning, like a fading nightmare. Then another thought occurred to him.

“The Angel,” he said, his voice dropping to a whisper. “Is he really dead?”

“The one given that name died a long time ago,” the woman said. “But his spirit has finally left this world. You are safe from him now. Go. I will watch over your friend.”

Will walked across the rush-strewn floor of the tent to the opening, where he stopped abruptly, struck by a sudden realization. This woman seemed to know the whole story of what had happened to them. She knew who the Angel was. Had Master Pendrake told her everything? Before he could turn back to her with these new questions, he spotted Pendrake, Finn and Freya through the open flap of the tent, standing together in conversation with a tall, silver-haired man wearing a long grey cloak. Will slipped eagerly outside.

The tent, he saw now, was pitched on a wide grassy lawn, in the midst of a forest of young, slender trees with bright green leaves that glittered as the breeze stirred them. His friends turned at his call. Finn’s arm was bound in a sling, and the old man had a cut down the side of his face, but they greeted Will warmly.

“You should have been back at home by now, Will Lightfoot,” Freya said, embracing him. “And so should I.”

The tall man in grey bowed to Will, then left them and walked away through the trees.

“Welcome back, Will,” Pendrake said. “I know you hoped to be safely home by now, but if it wasn’t for you, Rowen might not be with us.”

“It was Moth who saved us both,” Will said. “And these people, whoever they are. If they hadn’t been nearby…”

Through the trees Will caught a glimpse of other tents, and other figures in grey and green moving about, tending fires or leading horses.

“We’ve all been invited to the evening meal,” Pendrake said. “There we will say a final farewell to Moth.”

“I don’t know how he found us at the bottom of the cliff,” Will said. “Or how he got out of the caves.”

“Moth joined us at the stone after you and Rowen left,” said Finn. “He told us that Lotan had come up the tunnel with the fetches and wove a spell of darkness that swept over the wisps and doused their sparks. Then he fled, taking his dead army down through another tunnel that led to the hidden vale. Moth followed, and when we had dealt with the fetches, he went on to find you.”

“I wonder how he got down the Rampart,” Freya mused.

“I suspect,” Pendrake said, stroking his beard, “that over the years he learned something of flight from his sister.”

“Is Morrigan here?” Will asked, startled. He had thought she was dead, too.

“She came close to death from the touch of the gaal blade. But she was brought back by the arts that healed you, too, Will. She is resting now, in another of the tents, with her friends and kin beside her.”

“Her kin…” Will said slowly. “You mean there are other Hidden Folk here?”

He looked around eagerly, until Pendrake’s soft laughter brought his gaze back to his friends. They were smiling at him.

Like a ray of sunlight through clouds the truth broke upon Will.

“But their tents and clothing…” he began. “They’re just like us.”

“This is why they’re called the Hidden Folk,” Pendrake said. “We see them as they wish to be seen. That is one way they remain concealed from their enemies. And from those who’ve slept too long and need to clear the cobwebs out of their heads.”

“But why are they here?” Will asked. “How did they find us?”

“Did they?” Pendrake replied. “Maybe you found them. But perhaps the Lady can enlighten us on that point at dinner.”

The Lady,Will thought. The woman that Moth had spoken about with such reverence. He was really going to meet her, at last. And with that thought came another that made his heart ache. They were all here, his friends, except for Shade.

They talked quietly about their hosts for a while, and then they heard a sound and turned. Rowen was coming out of the tent toward them. She and Will looked at one another without speaking. There was so much to say, Will thought, and he knew Rowen felt the same.

“You found me,” Rowen said at last. “You saved my life. But you didn’t get home.”

“You’re here,” Will said. “That’s what matters.”

In her face he saw something he had never seen there before, a kind of shadow, as if she was hiding some pain from him. She caught his concerned look, and grinned as if to say she was fine, but he saw the effort it took her. She was further away from him now, in some way he didn’t understand. How could he know what was happening to someone like her?  All he felt was sadness, and worry for her. She needed him, and all this time he had been trying so hard to find a way out of her world. To leave her.

Then he remembered what the Angel had said to him about Rowen, and he wondered if she knew. He would have to speak with her about it, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not yet.   

 

***

 

As the sun went down behind the treetops, two young men of the Hidden Folk came to bring the companions to the evening meal.

They were led through the trees and down a slope to the bank of a swiftly-flowing river, lined with torches on willow poles. Here many of the Hidden Folk were gathered, sitting on colourful woven cloths spread upon the grass. Will and his friends were welcomed with smiles and kind words, and sat among them.

Morrigan was there, dressed in dark green now, like the others. Her face was pale and weary-looking, but in her eyes Will caught the same quick gleam of fire he had seen in her brother’s. He wanted to tell her how much he admired Moth, how grateful he was, but the words caught in his throat. If it hadn’t been for him, Moth would still be with them. He looked away, ashamed, and then she spoke.

“Do not blame yourself, ” she said, and smiled at him. “My brother and I chose our road a long time ago.”

Food and drink was now passed around – bread and cheese and fruit on simple wooden platters, with cool water to wash it down. It was plain food, but just what they needed.

When everyone had eaten their fill, a fire sprang up as if by itself in a circle of stones at the centre of the gathering. A young woman rose to her feet and went to stand by the fire. To the soft playing of a harp and drum, she sang a slow, mournful song in the language of the Hidden Folk. Will knew somehow that she was singing of the lost city of Eleel, and he also knew when the song changed and became a lament forMoth the Nightwanderer, who had at last come home to his people. As the singer fell silent, the Hidden Folk bowed their heads and many wept. Will and his friends shed tears with them.

Master Pendrake stood then and recounted the story of how he had first met Moth, and how they had become good friends, and all that the archer had done for Will and his companions on the journey. After him others told stories about their friend. Some remembered him as a child, mischievous and full of laughter. Others remembered him at his forge in the time of war, and spoke of his bravery in the dark days that followed, before he and Morrigan took their own path.

As the tales came to an end, Will caught a movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked toward the river and there was a long white boat, low in the water like a barge, gliding to the bank, with a Shee in black robes standing at the bow and the stern. Everyone rose, and as the boat came to rest Will saw that Moth was lying in it, his arms folded on his breast. There was a silver jewel on his brow.

Morrigan turned to Will and his friends and bowed. She walked down to the river’s edge, climbed into the boat and sat beside her brother. The boat slid away from the bank and glided slowly away over the water.

“He will travel down the riverto the sea,” a voice said from somewhere near Will. “He will rest in one of our blessed places.”

Will turned, and there was the woman he had met when he awoke in the tent. In the sunset her dark hair was fringed with gold, and her blue robe, Will now saw in the firelight’s gleam, was not faded at all, but richly embroidered with tiny stars that glowed like warm embers. And now it came to him who she really was.

“I didn’t get to thank him,” Will said of Moth. “He saved my life.  I wish … I wish none of this had happened.”

“He would wish you to live your life well,” the Lady said. “With courage and joy. That is how each of us can thank him.”

Her words brought him both pain and comfort, and his eyes filled with tears.

“You are thinking of the other one who is not here,” the Lady said gently. “The Companion.”

That was the name the Stewards had given Shade long ago, Will remembered.

“He saved me, too,” Will said, blinking back tears. “I miss him.”

“You saw him fall,” the Lady said.

“I did.”

“But you did not see him die.”

Will looked up into her eyes, wondering. She returned his gaze, then looked out at the boat and the river.

“I think that you and your friend will find one another again, Will Lightfoot,” she said.

He hardly dared hope she was right, but he nodded, startled that she seemed to have guessed what he had been thinking and deciding, ever since he’d woken up.

 

***

 

Will had no idea how long they sat and talked with the Hidden Folk. It seemed hours, but when the company rose at last, the sun was no lower in the west, as far as he could tell, than when they first sat down.

“Rest here tonight in peace and safety,” the Lady said at last to Will and his friends. She stood with the tall silver-haired man Pendrake had been talking to earlier. “Those that hunted you are gone. For a short time at least the shadows will withdraw from these lands.”

She turned to Pendrake.

“Loremaster, your road home will be long and dangerous. We must part soon, but in the morning a company of our folk with go with you, and bring you safely to the borders of your own country.”

Pendrake thanked her, and then she turned to Rowen.

“You have travelled far, Rowen of Blue Hill,” she said. “But this is only the beginning of a longer and more difficult journey. It will take all that you are, but I see much strength in you, and in your eyes shines the light of the Stewards. Do not despair.”

As Rowen bowed her head, Will saw both fear and resolve in her eyes.

The Lady turned to Finn and Freya.

“The Bourne, Skald, and the Hidden Folk will have need of each other now more than ever,” she said. “Our stories will be woven closer and stronger in the days ahead, if we stand together against the One who is none other than our enemy of old. This is not the end.”

“The Errantry will stand with you and all free folk,” Finn said solemnly, and bowed.

“As will Skald,” Freya added.

“As you ready for war, my friends, do not leave behind your tales and songs,” the Lady said to them. “They will prove as valuable as shields and swords in the dark hours that are coming. We have a brief time now to breathe, and heal. But everywhere the enemy’s story is growing stronger, like a tide of forgetfulness. If we hope not to be swept under, we must remember who we are.”

She turned at last to Will. While she had been talking to the others, he had made up his mind at last.

“It has been a long, difficult road that has brought us together,” she said. “Is there anything you would ask of me, Will Lightfoot?”

“No,” he said, certain now of his choice. “I’m not going home, even if you can help me find the way. I have to stay. I have to do my part.”

He was aware of Rowen’s shocked glance, but he didn’t meet her eyes. He didn’t want her to guess that he had decided to stay only for her.

“You are doing just that,” the Lady said gently. “Your search for the gateless gate has helped your friends in ways that may be difficult for you to see, at least for now. If you would take my counsel, I would say that you should continue your search.”

“But the gate is gone now. The Angel closed it. There’s nothing to search for.”

“Lotan closed one gate, yes. There are many others. And one of them has never been far from you.”

“If it is I’ve never seen it,” Will said, and then he noticed that the Lady held a bright object in her hand. A small triangular piece of what looked like glass on a slender silver chain.

“When the city of Eleel fell,” the Lady said, “the most pure Mirror, Samatha, was shattered and its pieces taken or lost. Now some of its fragments are back in our keeping. They have been cleansed of deception, and once more reflect only what is true.”

The Lady handed Will the shard. He hesitated for a moment, remembering the tree of mirrors he had encountered when he first came to the Realm. That had been a deception, a trap, but he knew the Lady meant him no harm. He took a deep breath, and looked at his reflection.

The face he saw was his own, as he was now, but his hair was longer and wilder than it had been when he first came to the Perilous Realm. His skin was darkly tanned, his mouth set and determined. This was the face of a Will Lightfoot who had passed through dangers and beheld wonders. This was someone who had kept on the path he had chosen, a Will Lightfoot who had gone far enough to see the way back.

“Here is the gateless gate,” the Lady said. “Where it has always been.”

As Will looked, his own image faded away. He was not there in the mirror, he was gone, but after a moment this no longer frightened him. He was not lost. The mirror was showing him the trees, the river, the sky, and he knew this was the Realm, and yet it was also his own world. And with a pang of regret and longing he also knew that his father was out there in the night, the same night that surrounded them here, searching for him, desperate to see him again and know that he was safe.

“It’s what I have to do, isn’t it?” he said, and looked at the Lady. She didn’t answer, but he knew that she understood. “It’s part of this story. Going home. But it’s not the end. It’s like you said, we’ve been travelling the same road. I just didn’t see it.”

“Each one of us takes many roads in our time, but perhaps there is only one road after all, with no beginning and no end.”

“Keep the shard close to you,” said the tall man with silver hair. “The eyes of the Lady have looked into it, and it will ward you from harm, in this realm and any others you journey in.”

The Lady smiled at him, and then she took her farewell. Will and his friends watched as the Hidden Folk began to move away slowly through the trees. As their graceful forms melted into the shadows of evening, they seemed to be taking the light with them. Through the curtain of leaves Will now saw that the faded, patched tents he had glimpsed in daylight had become tall, splendid pavilions of white and green, with fluttering banners at their crests.

He watched with the others until the light of the Hidden Folk dimmed and the vision faded.

Will took a deep breath and looked away. He knew that other farewells were before him, and these would be much harder.

“It’s getting dark,” said Rowen. “You should stay with us for the night, and go in the morning.”

“I think he’s ready to go now, Rowen,” Pendrake said. “Though none of us wishes it.”

Will turned to the Loremaster.

“I didn’t trust you,” he said. “I was wrong.”

Pendrake waved a hand.

“I told you we would take this journey together, Will,” he said. “We both had to learn to trust one another, and ourselves.”

Will nodded and embraced the old man. Then he turned to Rowen. It was time to tell her what he knew.

“When the Angel captured you,” Will said to her, “he told me I wasn’t the one he was really after. It was you, Rowen. It was you all along. He was trying to find you, through me.  He said you were a new thread in the weave.”

“I know,” Rowen said, and the shadow crossed her face once more. “He didn’t say anything, but I knew. When he looked at me, I knew.”

“If I hadn’t come here, none of this would have happened. You’d still be safe at home.”

“We have never been safe,” said Pendrake “no matter how much I wanted to believe otherwise. I was even foolish enough not to see why the mirror shards were set so near Fable. By stumbling into the trap meant for Rowen, Will, you didn’t cause all of this. The truth is you prevented disaster. You showed us the danger before it was too late, and bought us precious time. Now Rowen and I have much to speak of, and new paths to walk together.”

“Look at it this way, Will,” Rowen said, smiling. “You didn’t want this to be your story, and now you know it isn’t.”

Will shook his head.

“It is,” he said. “It still is.” He thought of Shade, and what the Lady had said to him about the wolf.

To his surprise, Finn handed him the small leather-bound book he always carried. Will turned it in his hand. The Book of Errantrywas printed on the cover in gold lettering.

“You’ll find this useful,” Finn said, “no matter where you travel.”

“Thank you,” Will said, stunned. He put the book in his pocket and shook Finn’s hand.

“Will you be punished when you get back to Appleyard?” he asked. “You were supposed to be back a long time ago.”

“Finn will have my report to add to his own,” said Pendrake. “The Marshal will hear the tale of one who truly upheld the oath of a knight-errant.”

As Will turned to Rowen she threw her arms around him.

“Goodbye, Will,” she whispered. “Don’t forget us.”

“Never,” he said, his voice hoarse. “I’m coming back. I’ll find a way back.”

Will turned away, his heart aching, and walked through the trees, his path lit by what seemed the last of the firelight from the camp of the Hidden Folk. But as he left that warm, flickering glow far behind, he found there was still enough light for him to see by, although he couldn’t say for certain where the light was coming from.

Suddenly he was aware that he had crossed an invisible border, although nothing around him had changed. But he was home, that was certain, and he also knew that the motorcycle was lying not far away, although he couldn’t say how he knew. Perhaps, he thought, it’s just what’s supposed to happen now, in the story.

He came out into a clearing under an overcast sky. A soft rain was falling. In the middle of the clearing stood the cloven tree, one half bare and dead, the other half alive with leaves that looked grey in the dim light, like a cloud rising into the dark sky.

Will stopped, went still, and listened. At first there was no sound but the wind in the trees, and then he heard a voice he knew, calling his name.