The Holy Sword (p. 2)
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When Conredd awoke, he knew that he was looking into the face of an elf. The large, slate grey eyes, delicate eyebrows, rounded nose, and high cheekbones were not exactly proof, but his overwhelming feeling told him the truth. His certainty did not diminish when the elf tucked a loose lock of wavy silver hair behind an ear that was not (as folklore would have it) pointed. She withdrew her hand from his forehead and gave a curt, tight-lipped nod.
"Thou art awake, but not yet well."
"Yeah..." replied Conredd, buying time to get his bearings. The elf's short, thick ponytail was complimented by a silver cord belt on a dress that seemed to be at once all the colors of the forest. She knelt by the pallet where he lay, which was constructed of leaves.
"The first thing I shall need to know is thy name." The elf spoke an archaic dialect of the language of men. Though she talked confidently, her pronunciations sounded little practiced.
Conredd did not reply, as he was still recovering from the shock of his surroundings. He could now see that the entire round chamber -- walls, ceiling, floor, and even the shelves -- was made of seamless unpolished wood. The room held neither candle nor lantern, but was filled with a sourceless, all-pervading light that left no shadows. He thought he could sense a latent pulse of mistrust in the walls and beyond.
The elf prompted, "I have done thee the courtesy of not reading thy mind, as I well could have done whilst thou slept, for it is my belief that humans possess some measure of integrity. Wouldst thou prove me in error?"
Not knowing how to disagree with that, Conredd said, "I am Conredd, a Carl of the city of Clinten in the land of Brendhult. Who are you?"
"I am called Oësone." She had now gone over to a wide shelf where sat numerous clay vessels. She chose several, pouring some of their contents into a small jug and mixing with a wooden wand.
"Perhaps thou wouldst like to explain how a man of Brendhult camest to the forest of Toëru."
"You mean Fegmertt?" He was suddenly aware of how uncouth his peoples' tongue sounded. "I swam the river."
She gave him a glare that made him avert his eyes. "Toyest not with me. Thou hast committed crimes enough. I should not like to regret my decision not to let Gustalf slay thee whilst thou lay helpless."
"Okay, fine. I taking the holy blade Schwernric back from the Corsaley, who stole it from my king."
"Schwernric...the holy blade of Brendhult..." murmured Oësone. "That explains much."
"Yes, doesn't it?" replied Conredd boldly. He wasn't sure what it explained, but he was determined to seize control of the conversation. "Now, I think you owe me some answers. I recall being attacked by an individual -- from behind, mind you -- as I walked through a forest that was not posted as anyone's private property."
"The eternal folk of Faerie pay little heed to the ephemeral laws of men. It should be well known that Toëru is not the domain of men."
"Schwernric is holy to the Gods. I saw what it did to that coward who jumped me ..."
Oësone's eyes hardened and her jaw tightened at the reference to the guardian of the forest. Conredd pressed on, "I could kill you with the pommel."
Inexplicably a smile touched Oësone's lips. "Yea, the things of the Gods of men are baneful to the folk of Faerie." She lifted the jug and poured a dark liquid into a small, deep bowl. "Since thou art a man, and I yet suspect that in general the race of men merits some respect, I shall show thee the courtesy of a host to her guest." She placed the bowl in his hands. "This is a medicine to hasten your recovery. The power of Faerie struck you hard when you battled Gustalf, and some yet wars with your body ." He hesitated, peering skeptically into the dark, coffelike beverage. "If I wished thee dead, I would have let Gustalf slay thee." Unable to argue with that logic, Conredd raised the bowl to his lips. The medicine had no taste, but a powdery texture. Shrugging, he began to drink.
"I am Oësone, the Sungetoë --that is, protector --of the forest Toëru, which men call Fegmertt. Here of all places in the western world have the powers of Faerie survived against the Gods. The magic of the forest was protected by Gustalf, who was once a man..."
"Once?" interrupted Conredd, "Did you magic him into something other than what the Gods intended?"
"Gustalf's fate was his own doing," snapped Oësone. "I have given thee all politeness, but I have yet to receive any. Kindly allow me to talk. Gustalf came to Toëru before I was made Sungetoë, wishing to defend the forest against his own people. As we were at war with men, the Sungetoë sent him to the lair of the Red Worm Angiën. Yet because Gustalf's purpose was true, Angiën's flame did not kill him. Instead, he was transformed into a being at once both of Faerie and of the Gods. He became the eternal defender of these woods."
"Some defender," replied Conredd, handing back the bowl. "I nearly killed him, and I'm just one man."
Oësone's eyes scowled and her mouth smiled, as if at some painful irony. Recovering, she said, "Hunters and farmsteaders do not carry holy blades." She turned abruptly and took her cloak, which was made of the same shifting-color fabric as her dress, from a hook on the wall. She draped it over her shoulders and opened the door.
Suddenly, Conredd felt immensely tired. His eyes closed without consulting his brain.
Oësone looked out over the den of Angiën. Since before the memory of any who she had spoken to, the dragon's lair had been a place of mystery. It was said that the dragon Angiën had once been free, and he stalked the world, bringing terror and havoc. His fire was made of the power of Faerie, rushing pure and unbound from his nostrils. Many an elf and Earth-giant had died in the worm's scalding breath. All persons and weapons that tried to slay him were unmade by his Faerie flames. The greatest and the wisest among the folk of Faerie gathered to discuss the problem. There it was made known that two vast stones existed in the north. They had fallen from the stars, and so were beyond the meddling of Faerie. The Earth-giants, at greatest peril to themselves, brought these stones down to Toëru, where Angiën dwelt, and cast them at the worm. The folk of Faerie thought the dragon crushed between the two rocks. Ages passed, and the stones settled into the earth, and a crevice opened between them. It was then discovered that the dragon had found refuge in a hollow in one stone. But as he was still trapped and cut off from the powers of Faerie, the inhabitants of Toëru left him alone.
The lair of Angiën squatted in the forest like a lump of dung on a carefully manicured lawn. No tree bough reached within one hundred feet of the stony hill, and not a single lichen adorned its rough grey surface. Even the soil seemed to draw back from its base. A thin crack cemented with sand and debris weathered from the hill opened into a thin black door near its base.
Oësone reluctantly approached it, feeling a great wave of sorrow. The comforting pulse of Faerie grew distant and hollow. A dark wind seemed to blow from the surface of the lair, though not a leaf stirred in the trees.
Oësone halted at the door, daring to go no further. The dragon still lived, and he could draw of his own substance to produce fire, a wave of unfettered Faerie that would rip her apart. Of all the beings on the earth, only Gustalf had ever had the unique combination of purity of heart and humanness of body to survive Angiën's fire. She knelt, and wept for the passing of one so fair and pure, her greatest friend and the defender of the realm of Faerie for long ages. Of all the beings that had ever walked the earth, Gustalf perhaps had met the saddest end.
As a recompense for their mortality, the Gods gave men a place called Heaven, where the souls of the dead could rest forever when the physical body failed. The immortal races of Faerie had little need of such a place. If an elf or an Earth-giant were slain, his spirit would break down into the magic of which it was woven, and return to the omniscient ebb and surge of Faerie. When Gustalf was transformed by Angiën's fire, his mortal structure had been replicated in the substance of Faerie His soul became alien and abhorrent to the Gods, and so it was governed by the laws of Faerie. Had he died in the wood where he fought Conredd, his soul would even now be diffusing among the trees of Toëru. But Oësone had felt no such change in the magic's ambiance. Trapped within the Faerie-blind rock of Angiën's lair, his soul had been absorbed as fuel for the Red Worm's fire.
When her tears ran dry, she rose and left the desolation around Angiën's den. The familiar pulse of Faerie wrapped around her and tried to comfort her, but it seemed strangely hollow. The problems of men had brought grief to the innocent realm of Toëru.
As she walked back to her home, she decided that the proud man sleeping there would bring ill luck if he were to stay. She resolved to send him on his way as soon as she might, so that mens' affairs would touch Toëru as little as possible. Especially now, with Gustalf gone, Toëru's greatest hope lay in seclusion and isolation.
Conredd awoke feeling refreshed and healed, yet strangely unwelcome. The realm of Faerie was no place for a man of the Gods to stay for any length of time.
Oësone was waiting for him. "Feelest thou recovered from thy ... tribulations?" she asked. Her tone was opaque.
"Yes. Altogether," replied Conredd, rising to his feet. He stood at least a head taller than the elfess. He placed his hands on his hips, wishing his knife was at his side.
"Then perhaps thou wishest to be on thy way." She rested a hand on his weathered canvas pack.
"Yes ... I shall. The business of men cannot be pursued in the realm of Faerie." He took the pack from her and slung it onto his back. "Lead on."
She gave him a piercing look, then turned and walked through the door out of her chamber.
They entered a twilit forest. A light wind blew through the austere boles, and Conredd felt even more than before that he did not belong here in Fegmertt. He paused to look b, .The door he had passed through was cut into an enormous hemlock that rose up and up, undiminished in girth as it was lost in the new leaves of the trees around it.
Conredd turned nd noticed, with a start, that Oësone had nearly passed out of sight into the wood. She was moving swiftly and silently, without sparing a glance backward to see if he was following. He hurried after, eager to return to the familiar towns of Brendhult. His steps sounded loud and out of place next to Oësone's noiseless footfalls.
They traversed several leagues of woodland, arriving at the Marcstren without uttering a single word. As they paused on the riverbank, Conredd smiled involuntarily. On the far side rose the rolling hills of Brendhult. There the Gods ruled, and the realm of Faerie was a distant legend. A breeze gusted off the fathomless dark water, stirring the locks that escaped Oësone's ponytail.
"I have brought thee safe to the border of thy country. Cross the river this night, and no more trouble the forest of Toëru with the affairs of men. The powers of Faerie are perilous to those who serve the Gods. This wood is not a fit place for men while Faerie can defend itself." Conredd noticed an emptiness to her tone, as if she only half believed her own words. Though she had not said so, he was sure that Gustalf had died of Schwernric's bite.
"Farewell, then, Oësone of the wood."
She nodded and walked back the way they had come, disappearing quickly into the trees.
Conredd stripped to his loincloth and bundled his clothes into the straps of his pack. The breeze raised gooseflesh allover his body. He hurried into the numbing pull of the Marcstren, holding the pack above the groping waves. Angling his path upstream to counteract the incessant pull of the water, he forged ahead.
The Marcstren was not deep here, so Conred needed only two complete strokes to reach the Brendhult bank. He waded low in the water, postponing exposing his wet flesh to the claws of the wind as long as possible. Then, with a grunt, he lurched up and jogged across the smooth rocks of the beach and through the high weeds of the bank. He felt relieved to be away from the alien texture of Faerie. There was joy in the mundane wind and earth.
Conredd sat down and opened his pack. All of his packets of pemmican were there, and his flint, and his gutting knife, and his bedroll, and his mess kit. Under all this he found a spare shirt, which he used to wipe the fanged cold river water from his skin. As he donned his breeks and tunic, he had the feeling that something was amiss. His brain worked quickly, searching out the source of the problem.
With a surge of panic, Conredd rifled through his pack. In his eagerness to leave the wood, he had neglected to check that the blade was in his possession. Nowhere among his possessions was there a holy sword. He looked back across the Marcstren. The trees stood calmly, opaque to his queries. He had carried Schwernric into the wood but had not carried it out. Somewhere in the darkness that filled Fegmertt, the holy sword of Brendhult lay. Conredd rose to his feet.
Then, chiding himself for his stupidity, he turned toward the heart of Brendhult. It would avail him naught to return to the forest now.
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