The Holy Sword (p. 1)
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There are places yet in the world where powers older than the Gods or men hold sway, powers ignorantly dismissed as faerie. Once, the powers of Faerie ruled -- the earth. Long ago, elves danced under the stars in the meadows of Corsaley, and Earth-giants roamed the pristine hills of Brendhult. Then the Gods came and placed men upon the earth. The powers of the Gods and of Faerie were opposite, and so they clashed. Faerie held out for long ages, but it is not a power of aggression. Gradually, men cleared ancient trees to make room for farm and hold, and they filled the rivers with ships. Horses were brought to Corsaley, and Bertegar the Great slew the Earth-giants. In the end there remained but one place in the western world where the powers of Faerie ran untainted: the forest known to men as Fegmertt, between Corsaley and Brendhult. So men came to the forest, and with fire and axe began to claim it for their own. Faerie tried to fight back, but could do little against such numbers as the men brought to bear. Yet there was at this time a man named Gustalf, who saw the beauty of unspoiled Faerie. He entered Fegmertt unarmed, desiring to join the cause against his brethren. The Sungetoë sent him to the lair of the dragon Angiën. Little is known of his ordeal in the dragon's lair, but when he emerged, he was transformed into a being in the form of a man, but of the stuff of Faerie. He struck back at the men of Brendhult and Corsaley, saving the forest. As generations passed, men forgot Gustalf, and Fegmertt became a place of mystery and dread. Though no one knew for sure what the powers of Faerie were, few dared enter.
Oësone's slate grey eyes roved from the brown leaves below to the green ones above, noting what had changed since her last circuit of this part of the forest. She rested a hand against each tree she passed, feeling the life pulse interwoven with the invigorating power of the earth. She reflected on the life of each one. Many a towering tree had been a slender sapling when she had first become Sungetoë, not long after the final defense against the encroachment of men. Some of the older trees along the forest's edge still remembered the pain of that conflict, and looked out over the tamed lands of Brendhult and Corsaley with smoldering resentment. Oësone's feet fell silently on the thick pad of fallen leaves, making less rustle than a stalking wildcat. Through bare soles she felt the rhythm of the bacteria, slowly breaking down the humus into rich black soil. All was well with the forest men called Fegmertt, as it had been for ages.
Suddenly, Oësone gasped. Her left hand pressed hard against the bole of an ancient oak, while her right rose into a fist. She could feel a disturbance in the familiar symphony of Faerie. To her left, along the river Marcstren, it seemed that there was a rent in the fabric of Faerie and the unfamiliar alien power of the Gods was leaking in off the plains of Corsaley. It was a sensation she had felt precious few times in her tenure as Sungetoë --the feeling of a man in the Faerie realm.
Conredd emerged from the Marcstren shivering uncontrollably. The light spring breeze blew right through his skin thanks to the chill waters of a river swollen wi th snowmel t in the mountains. The long afternoon shadows of Fegmertt's trees didn't help, either.
Conredd smiled despite the cold flaying his bare chest. He had successfully put the wide Marcstren between himself and the dogs of Corsaley. Provided he was out of sight within the mysterious green halls of Fegmertt when the huntsmen reached the river, he would be safe. No one in his right mind entered the forest.
Having caught his breath, Conredd pushed through a thicket of mountain laurel and climbed the gentle slope away from the Marcstren. Once out of sight of the river, he paused to don the dry clothes that he had held above his head while he swam. He decided to move deeper into the woods before pitching camp. His dip in the river convinced him that a campfire was a necessary risk tonight. During the pursuit across the rolling meadows of Corsaley, he had not dared to light a fire, for fear it would draw his pursuers. Now, sheltered by the crowded branches of Fegmertt, he could put flint to steel without fearing the Corsaley dogs or arrows.
As he walked through the sporadic undergrowth toward the heart of the forest, Conredd gently unwrapped the most precious part of his burden. Though he had carried it for nigh on a fortnight since reclaiming it from the Corsaley, Conredd's breath still paused when he looked upon the sacred blade Schwernric. He reverently ran his fingertips over its unadorned hilt and long, straight blade, ascertaining that the murky brown waters of the swollen Marcstren had not touched it.
This was the sword with which King Aldric of Brendhult had knighted Conredd, raising him to the rank of Carl and accepting him into the Schulddric Guard -- the King's personal protectors. Conredd's mouth clenched bitterly. The week after he was knighted, Aldric returned to battle with the Corsaley, accompanied by the Schulddric Guard. When Conredd misjudged a Corsaleyman's feint, and was unhorsed for his folly, Aldric had killed the Corsaleyman. While the King was distracted by slaying Conredd's attacker, another Corsaleyman had been able to wrest Schwernric from the monarch's grip. Horseless, Conredd had been unable to aid his king, and the holy sword was lost. For this failure of duty, Conredd had begged to be released from the Schulddric Guard, in order to join the expedition the reclaim Schwernric.
As Conredd examined the holy sword, a feeling of inexplicable discomfort touched his heart. Even as he looked around for its source, his feet slowed, as if reluctant to go deeper into the mysterious wood. Conredd shook his head. The witch hazel, the birch, the swallows, and unfortunately the gnats were all the same as the ones that could be found in Brendhult. As he rewrapped the sacred blade, the feelings of discomfort lessened, but did not depart. He forced his feet onward. He knew that all things holy to the Gods were a bane to the powers of Faerie. Indeed, Schwernric was so holy because it was the weapon that Bertegar the Great had used to drive the Earth-giants from Brendhult. If there was a remnant of Faerie within Fegmertt in defiance of the Gods, Conredd trusted that the holiness of Schwernric would see him safely through. Even so, he loosened his long knife in its sheath. Untamed wilderness held other dangers than those of Faerie.
Perhaps it was luck that caused Conredd to turn to swat the flies when he did, or perhaps it was fate. Regardless, turn he did, and saw a silent figure lunge at him out of a thicket of witch hazel. Conredd didn't have time to see much more than the man's long slender sword, which was directed at Conredd's midsection. Reacting on instinct, he fell to the earth, grabbing for his knife. The other man's blade passed over, but turned with inhuman grace and speed to train on Conredd's recumbent form. Left without time to regain his feet, he lifted his knife to parry.
His brain registered a few of the attacker's features. He was tall, with thick golden hair. He bore neither the moustaches of the Corsaley, nor the full beards of the men of Brendhult. His cloak was on the edge of visibility , being at once all the colors of the forest, and shifting constantly to trick the eye. Conredd felt a sudden urge to throw the sword Schwernric from him. As he was currently engaged in a battle with a denizen of Fegmertt, he decided to do just the opposite. He pulled the sword from its place in his pack and struck with the still-sheathed blade at the golden-haired man's knees.
For the first time, the stranger made a sound. He shrieked in pain, recoiling from the holy blade as from red hot iron. Seizing the advantage, Conredd fended off a stroke from the stranger and scrambled to his feet. The golden haired man fell back, breathing quickly and shallowly, as Conredd pulled Schwernric from its scabbard. Conredd lunged, using the holy blade as a weapon for the first time since King Aldric of Brendhult lost it in battle with the Corsaley. The golden haired man knocked Schwernric down frantically. Conredd cut at him with the knife, scoring a hit along the man's exposed forearm. Yet strangely, the flesh knit together before a single drop of blood could fall. Before he had time to ponder this, Conredd struck with Schwernric. It grazed the stranger's cheek, raising a red welt and eliciting another scream. The stranger clapped his free hand to the mark. Conredd struck again, cutting through the man's brown tunic. At that moment, something like a great dull weight struck the back of his head. He fell forward, aiming Schwernric at the midsection of the golden haired stranger, who was now backed up against a tree. Conredd's world went blank before he could see if his thrust scored.
Oësone recognized the screams as belonging to Gustalf, the half-faerie guardian of Fegmertt. Her steps quickened as she realized the import of the cries. Being both man and Faerie, Gustalf was impervious to most attack. Whatever had disturbed the forest was certainly powerful. Oësone sent out her mind to touch Gustalf's. She received an image of a muscular man with a Brendhultish beard, wielding a horrible sword. The weapon almost glowed with holiness. The thought of such an artifact in her forest nearly made Oësone sick. Her feet flew over the ground.
Oësone came upon the battle quite suddenly. Quickly, her slate eyes took stock of the situation. A human had Gustalf backed up against a stately ash and was threatening him with a holy blade. Oësone gathered the pulse of Faerie into a tremendous beat, which she used like a hammer to knock the stranger down. The process, though it took less than a second, left her with an unpleasant sticky tingling sensation. The power of Faerie was never meant to be used as a weapon, which is why the guardian of the forest was half human.
Oësone rushed to Gustalf's side. The horrible sword was stuck through his stomach. She smoothed the golden hair from his face, while gingerly probing the area around the sword. It throbbed with the alien power of the Gods.
"Get his knife," breathed Gustalf, "So I can finish him off."
"No," replied Oësone. "I must know why he entered the forest, why he had this..." she gestured to the sword.
Gustalf nodded, knowing the futility of arguing with Oësone. "At least give me a hand up, then. I shall not make it through the night. I must at least bear this sword from the forest." As Oësone helped him stand, he made as if to walk toward the Marcstren.
"No," replied Oësone, "Take it to Angiën's lair. Such weapons should not be at large within the world." She watched him gravely as he turned and walked weakly into the forest.
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