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Saturday, 25 August 2012

The Lady's Quest Part 2

                  Welcome!
spring blossom
In the driest state of the driest inhabited continent on earth, we can never take rain for granted. Only two years ago we were in drought that meant we weren't allowed to water our gardens beyond a short session of drips once a week. Once the rains returned, many large trees died, some of which had been planted by a previous generation.

That said, and in spite of gratitude for the abundant rain we are having this month, I am really looking forward to spring and some warmer, drier weather. There is hope - the almonds and cherry plums, mostly growing wild, are in bloom.

Now for the second and final part of the story I posted last week


The Lady's Quest Part 2
Bells! In a matter of minutes the party was searching out a route on the western side of the mountain, away from capture by whoever had alerted the valley to their presence. Anvik silently rebuked himself for failing to recognise the latent danger. In the glory of the morning, their goal revived, he had failed to recognise that a valley as green and lush as this was likely to be in the grip of sorcery. All around, the landscape was barren and unable to sustain more than the most primitive life forms; it took a powerful magic to make plants grow in these parts. He would have to learn caution if they were to survive this quest. He hoped he would get the chance.
            They scrambled and slid all the way down the side of the mountain, listening beyond the sound of their haste for the approach of hostile forest men.
Deep in a canyon, some hours later, the group stopped for a brief rest and consultation.
            'So where are we now?' demanded Fiangor. 'Things are indeed grim when we cannot see our way forward nor go back to where we last had our bearings,' he said, glaring at the others.
            Hesna glared at him. ‘Would you rather go back to the cave where we were within a breath of losing our very souls? At least we are alive, we know what we have to do, and it appears we have lost the sorcerers of the forest. That is enough for one day.’ She turned away and stared down the canyon towards the north.
            'Shall we sleep here today until we see the stars?' suggested Olwin Orfus, who was ever ready for a nap. In the months of hardship his rotundity had dwindled to less than half its former fortunes, but his humour and his love of leisure had returned overnight.      
            Hollow-eyed from sleeplessness, Hesna commented over her shoulder, 'We haven't seen stars for weeks.' She spoke with authority, for if her chronic insomnia was a heavy price for sleeping rough, it nevertheless made her the ideal nightwatcher.
            Anvik took no part in the conversation. He was listening for other words, which seeped into his mind seemingly from nowhere. 'Halls beneath the fells.' It was a phrase of his grandfather's, another senile muttering the family would say. Yet beneath the inane and apparently meaningless phrases he had repeated nauseatingly often, Anvik had lately discovered a few useful tips. He was beginning to wonder whether the old man had really been a mere cloth merchant after all. The phrase that had come to mind now joined with another memory, the rumour of an underground corridor that was somewhere in these parts. It was said to be made visible by moonlight. If in fact such a corridor existed, it might be well to use it and avoid travelling on the surface of the Wild Fells, a region renowned in all history for the strange and terrifying beasts that inhabited it. A region beyond the mountains to the north, the way they must go if they were to follow the dream.
            'For once, Olwin Orfus, we will follow your advice,' Anvik declared to the weary scorn of his companions after spelling out his idea.
            'Ancient lore notwithstanding, if the cloud comes over tonight as it has every other night, there won't be any moonlight,' Hesna muttered. 'Neither king nor commoner can command the clouds.'
            'And we're supposed to recognise this doorway to the deep,' complained Fiangor. 'Elvish folk might be able to find this mythical opening to the underground halls, but I have my doubts that we will, even if the moon obliges.'
            'Lord and Lady may guide us, I'm thinking,' Sitran said, stroking his thin grey beard. 'There is many a tale of their doings in aid of those who seek the good of the land.'
            There had been many times Anvik had wondered that his call should have come in the person of the Lady, albeit in a dream. There was a chance, given her earlier favour, that she might come to their aid this night, but he had to admit it was a slim hope. However, even the faint prospect of seeing the Fair One again lifted his heart. Anvik settled himself for the wait.
            Golden afternoon light touched the rocks high on the canyon walls, but never reached the ground where they sat whiling away the remaining daylight hours with desultory talk and long-forgotten children's games. They took turns at keeping watch further down the canyon. Otherwise, it was the sort of day when there seemed nothing better to do than eat (and sleep, in the case of Olwin Orfus), but this was clearly not possible, for no matter how they had tried to hoard it, the food was running out.
            'Lizards make a good feed,' Meniar declared, pointing to some which sought the sun-warmth on this unusually warm winter's day. Shaped and coloured to blend with the golden rock of the gully, these lizards were not easy to spy let alone to snare.
            'I can catch more than you,' she challenged, hands on her narrow hips in a manner so like her childhood self that her grandfather, Sitran, burst out laughing.
            Scowling, the young woman pointed at Hesna, Fiangor and Anvik. 'You said we need food, and here it is, waiting for us. Surely you won't let the youngest member of the party take the glory?' She sprang towards the nearest sunbathing lizard and caught a leg before anyone, including the reptile, could blink.
            'Disrespectful brat,' muttered Fiangor as he roused himself to the chase, and all but Olwin Orfus, who was, of course, fast asleep on the rough floor of the rocky gorge, joined in Meniar's game.
            But Meniar alone persevered, signalling her victory with a silent hand signal so as not to disturb her prey. At the end of the day she proudly presented a capful of them to the listless party. Wrought into a strange stew by Fiangor, who was not known for his culinary skills, the lizard meat did not add much pleasure to their meal, but Meniar's hunt had given the day a pretence of purpose.
            And then night fell.
            Light from the fire danced on the canyon walls as the party heard the calls of the creatures of the dark. They felt the soberness of the moment, perhaps only realising now how dependent they were on a sign for which they had little faith. Caught between the enclosing walls of the canyon and the pitch black sky above, they felt as if they were already underground. To let the fire die out seemed to invite an unnamed trouble, yet they knew that they must or the moonlight, if it came, would not work its magic.
            'Hide an ember under this rock,' Sitran suggested, pointing to a niche behind a boulder. In minutes a large glowing ember was hidden and the fire smothered. Gems emerged on the velvet of the night sky stars to whisper the hope of the coming moon. On this promise their expectation grew and they marvelled at the beauty of the heavenly panorama as they waited for moonrise.
            'Hilt of sword there,' Hesna said, pointing it out to Olwin Orfus, 'and tip of sheath there.'
            'I never knew such wonders,' murmured Olwin Orfus, mesmerised.
            Fiangor snorted. 'It's a wonder you know anything, the way you sleep all the time.'
            Hesna smoothed Olwin Orfus' momentary hurt with more observations of the constellations.
            On through the night they kept the watch together, until the constellations had moved through the Sword and Shield to the tail of the Dragon. Silver light began to pour like a stream into the canyon as the moon rose above them. Necklaces of light seemed to shimmer on the rocks around them, stars, it seemed, in the canyon itself. They turned their heads to gaze in every direction, awestruck, feeling themselves to be dreaming, yet dreaming together.
            And then, strung like a necklace of pearls in a perfect arch just a stone's throw from their camp, the lights shaped a doorway in the sheer rock face. The pearls shimmered, and there stood the Lord Lothiel on one side of the door and the Lady Landira on the other, both smiling a welcome and a command that the party enter.
            They moved as in a trance, bowing and curtseying to the beings of Light though none had taught them, and walked through the rockface feeling no barrier. Anvik found himself at the head of the line, and wondered for a moment if he should wait for guidance. He saw a glimmer in the rock floor just ahead of him, and knew that it was his to follow, leading the group.
            Always as Anvik walked towards the glimmer, which stayed three footlengths ahead, his feet would fall on firm, flat ground. And yet he had the distinct sense that their path was taking them first low and then higher through the earth. At first he held his hands out to feel for walls, ready to guard his head should the roof lower. His arms tired, and letting them drop to his sides, he realised that he had no sense of cave-like closeness, of being shut in. The darkness, relieved only by the floor's glimmer, felt like a vast space, as if the heavens had been trapped beneath the earth's crust. Anvik was tempted to stretch out his arms, to try to find something solid, for the feeling of traversing a limitless space reminded him of the time he had almost drowned in the river. But the knowledge that the Lady was leading them held his arms down. This was a journey of faith, and to test it might bring her displeasure. They were wholly at her mercy now.
            Though they did not utter a word, Anvik found the sounds of his companions following a comfort. He was not alone. There were grunts and sighs, a yawn, even the occasional squeak of pleasure, all in the warm, human breath of his friends, along with their steady footfalls. The very ordinariness of these sounds contrasted with Anvik's awe of the Lady and the unearthiness of this path in the midst of the earth itself. It made his mind spin but his heart warm. He was, perhaps for the first time, conscious of being proud of his dwarvishness, who had longed vehemently for his elvish inheritance. Strange, he mused, that it was by coming close to the source of his longing that he should discover the wealth he'd always had.
            The time for deep thoughts ended abruptly as light, almost blinding after their hours in darkness, showed as a widening slit a long way ahead.
            'Our journey with you ends shortly,' Lord Lothiel intoned. 'It has been our pleasure to aid those who seek the healing of the land, who have not forgotten their ancestors of Light. May you continue in true fellowship, holding to your hope, so that your journey's end may prove successful.'
            The dwarves murmured their acceptance of the blessing.
            The Lady spoke. 'You have been blessed with a gift of Light, but take care, for even such a gift may be turned to dark purposes. Though the horizon appears not to change, take heart, for if you keep your eyes on it, you will reach your journey's end and your heart's desire.'
            As her final words faded, the party walked out into an overcast morning, which nevertheless made them squint and shade their eyes with their hands. All around them were knolls with steep sides covered with spike-leaved plants and low woody shrubs. Visibility was only as far as the next hillock.
            Having walked for hours without counting the time, they suddenly found they were bone-weary, and sought the cover of some low-lying shrubs to rest. Even Hesna slept.
Anvik stood gazing in the direction only his inner vision could now see. Far away beyond the horizon, he knew, was the end of his journey. All his hope was fixed on that thin line between the heavens and the earth. It might take weeks or years, but there was no room to doubt any more that they were, indeed, on a quest called forth by the Lady herself, and nothing short of death would stop Anvik now.

Until next week
Claire Belberg