The Holy Sword (p. 4)
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The strange feeling that he was an outsider returned to Conredd as he followed Oësone into Fegmertt. He guessed that the distraction of chopping down trees had somehow shielded him from the gentle suggestion of "You are not wanted." He wondered how it must have felt to be one of the settlers who accompanied Bertegar into Faerie Brendhult.
He followed Oësone by the gleam of the moonlight on her wavy silver hair. Her clothing disappeared against the motley background of leaves and sticks. Walking thus, through an eldritch wood at night guided by the bobbing ponytail of an elf, Conredd felt terribly naked. It didn't help that he bore no weapon beyond his long knife. But in his haste to complete his quest for Schwernric, he had naively assumed that a weapon's only use would be to kill things.
By the time they reached Angiën's lair, Conredd had resigned himself to endure whatever terrors lay between him and the holy blade. It was his only option besides shame in the eyes of his king and his fellow Carls. And himself.
Though Conredd hadn't known what to expect the dragon's lair to look like, he was still surprised at the lonely stone tor that greeted him. A feeling of dread passed over him as he saw that no plant grew within a hundred yards of the rock. Oësone shivered, standing at the edge of the clearing.
"There lieth the dragon Angiën," she said, pointing across the desolation. "Ages ago, ere men and their Gods came into this world, the dragon was trapped within a pair of stones that fell from the stars. They are deaf to the power of Faerie, in a way even more dreadful than the demesne of the Gods. There Gustalf bore the holy sword Schwernric, that the walls of Angiën's lair might shield Toëru from it. I can accompany you no further. The dragon is a being of Faerie, and so I fear would be able to sense my entry. His fire is unfettered Faerie, and would destroy me instantly. It nearly killed Gustalf."
The moon suddenly crested the trees, spilling silver light over the face of the lair.
"Go quickly!" urged Oësone, pointing to a dark crack in the stone. "The moon will offer some light, as thou darest not take flame into Angiën's lair. Move silently, and do not disturb him!" Oësone gave Conredd a push forward. He complied, stepping out from under the eaves of Fegmertt. Though Oësone was but a pace behind him, he felt suddenly alone, as if she were at the farthest corner of the earth. The grim crag before him was all that existed. Taking a deep breath, Conredd hastened forward over the barren earth.
He had to duck a little to enter the tunnel. He moved down it, heart fluttering. Dim shafts of moonlight pierced the shadows under his outstretched arms and between his legs. But the passage curved to the right, and soon all light was lost. Conredd pressed onward, lightly feeling his way along the rough wall with his hands. A slow, metronomic, rasping breath reached his ears. He shuddered, but did not pause. The sword Schwernric was the very soul of Brendhult. He could never abandon it.
Suddenly, the walls gave way on either side, as he entered a room. He guessed that here was the den of Angiën. The dragon's breath echoed slightly in the closed space.
Conredd moved along the left wall, feeling the floor carefully before advancing. Without light, his only hope was to stumble upon Schwernric before he found the dragon. He crept slowly forward. The sound of his feet and fingers was smothered in the gentle breath of the sleeping dragon.
Conredd reckoned that he had moved a quarter of the way around the cavern when his right hand encountered something long and cylindrical. Feeling it, he realized that it was a leg bone. Following the lay of the bone his fingertips found the cool roughness of woven wool. His eyes grew wide in the blackness. This must be the body of Gustalf. Decay would never strip the bones so clean so quickly, so he was forced to assume that Angiën had eaten the forest's guardian. And indeed, the cloth was torn as if something had been intent at getting at the underlying flesh, but had not been dexterous enough to remove the tunic.
Just beyond Gustalf's corpse, Conredd encountered a corner. And there, in the deepest recess, his hand fell upon a cold steel blade. His heart jumped to his throat. Schwernric! He lifted the blade reverently with his left hand while his right reached for the hilt. His fingers found soft cold flesh. A hand still grasped the sword, as if the hand had been torn away and discarded along with the holy relic it held before the dragon dared to dine on Gustalf's body. The shock of discovering the severed hand loosened Conredd's grip. Schwernric clanged to the stone floor.
As Conredd recovered the sword, prying Gustalf's hand from it, light filled the room. It emanated from a pair of golden eyes. These eyes were set in a long, crocodillian head on a serpentine neck. The neck sprang from shoulders as large as a man, with legs as long as Conredd's but more brawny. The chest beyond connected to a dark crack in the wall opposite the doorway. The creature's body was wrapped in deep red scales that glittered in the eye-light. Conredd stood two paces from the place where its hips were pinned in the stone. Its body curled around to the right wall. Its head hung between the door and Conredd.
Conredd briefly entertained the notion of slaying Angiën with the holy sword, as he had done to Gustalf. But the dragon's size and might made that suggestion laughable. He would be dead ere blade met flesh, and Schwernric would be no closer to Brendhult.
With a rush of adrenalin born of desperation, Conredd charged, lifting Schwernric. But he did not strike the dragon. Instead, he hurled the sword with all his strength past Angiën's head and into the passageway. It clanged off the walls, bouncing out of sight beyond the curve of the tunnel. Perhaps now the eleven men that slept on the bank of the Marcstren would happen upon Angiën's lair, and venture inside out of curiosity. Then they would find Schwernric lying in the hall and retrieve it without disturbing the dragon.
Fire hit Conredd's body, throwing it back. He felt the flame biting at his flesh, consuming it as no ordinary fire could.
Conredd's pride told him it was better this way. His soul would go to heaven a martyr. Also, the search for him would not only find Schwernric, but also claim Fegmertt for men. Without Gustalf, the forest was ripe for the taking. He could die comforted by the fact that he had redeemed his failure as a member of the Schulddric guard.
But something in him resisted. That conclusion seemed cheap and rationalized. All at once, he realized that his failure remained. Not his failure of Brendhult, but his failure of Fegmertt. When Schwernric pierced Gustalf, Conredd had bound himself to the fate of the forest. He could not doom it to the axes of Brendhult.
His pride countered quickly. Faerie was the opposite of men and their Gods. As a man, the fate of Faerie was no concern of his. He had done his duty, opening the door for Schwernric to return to Brendhult. His soul was justified.
But that argument rang false. Suddenly, memories rushed back to him: Gustalf attacking him, fighting furiously to prevent even an innocent incursion of men upon Fegmertt. Gustalf's body, a testament to a terrible death endured to shield the forest from the Gods. Then Oësone's words when he awoke in her home: "... it is my belief that humans possess some measure of integrity ..."
Shame came upon him, that an elf could respect men but he could not respect the realm of Faerie. A great sadness and regret struck him. His desire to redeem himself was going to destroy a realm, a way of life. Was he more important than an entire side of the world?
His pride told him yes. Faerie was declining. It was only a matter of time before the Gods claimed Fegmertt, regardless of what he did. And besides, Faerie was his opposite and therefore his enemy.
Conredd shoved these thoughts down. It takes two to form enemies, and Oësone had passed up the opportunity to avert this tragedy, because she did not hate men for being non-Faerie. He refused to console himself with rationalizations. His pride broke, and he swept it away. By dying here, he was committing a failure much greater than losing Schwernric to the Corsaley. He wished with all his heart that he could go back to the night he swam the Marcstren and reverse his decision. The pettiness of his deeds for Brendhult was revealed in full. As the fire ate toward his core, he wept for the imminent death of Faerie.
Conredd suddenly noticed that the fire no longer burned, but only tingled. He knew suddenly that something fundamental had changed.
The sight that greeted his eyes left him no time to think. Angiën's head hovered above him, examining him with its golden eyes. On instinct, Conredd pushed himself up and dashed for the door. He ducked into the tunnel and ran. His shoulder glanced against the wall, reminding him to make the left turn. He felt the heat of another blast of fire, but he had rounded the bend in time to escape its wrath.
Before him, moonlight filled the tunnel. It fell upon a sword lying on the floor. He picked it up and dashed out of Angiën's lair. The sword burned his palms, and he got the feeling that it was something dangerous that he ought not to be holding. But to leave Schwernric behind would negate his ordeal in the dragon's lair. So he hung on as he crossed the horribly barren ring around the rock. Conredd reached the forest and collapsed to his knees with exhaustion. Schwernric dropped onto the humus.
"Conredd!" exclaimed Oësone. But Conredd did not respond immediately. He felt as if he were on some powerful drug. The heartbeat of the forest filled him. He wanted to sleep for a year and dance for joy.
"Conredd," repeated Oësone, placing a hand on his shoulder and sitting down next to him. "Ah, I should not have allowed this."
"No," replied Conredd. "I have schwernric. Toëru is safe." He noted the surprise in her face as he used the forest's elven name. She shook her head sadly.
"Thou ... thou art a man, but thou art also of Faerie." Her tone carried something akin to disbelief. Conredd nodded. He had known what she told him, but had not had the leisure to put it into words. His body trembled with the unfamiliar newness imposed by Angiën's fire. But in his palms, where schwernric had rested, there was something different -- a comforting dullness, as if the holiness of the sword had driven out the Faerie and somehow replaced it with his so recently lost humanity.
A thought occurred to him -- he could take up schwernric, and burn the Faerie out of him. If he did it quickly, before the eldritch power took hold, he could restore his Gods-given flesh. The gift of his life would not be for naught. Now that he had schwernric, he could take the men out of the forest. No further harm need come to Fegmertt. He could dispense his duty to Faerie and return to the schulddric Guard, no longer a failure.
He felt schwernric's power where it lay before him. As Faerie slowly reclaimed his palms, the sword seemed to scream for him to pick it up. But he was reminded of Gustalf, dying under the holy blade. He did not fear to share the guardian's fate -- Conredd had not been Faerie long enough for the shock of restoration to kill him. Instead, he knew, with a certainty stronger than the one that drove him to join the schulddric Guard, that Gustalf's fate had bound him forever to the fate of Toëru. To return to his old life now would be as great a failure as dying under Angiën's flame.
Conredd sighed and arose, taking up the sword gingerly. "Come. Show me the way back to my camp." Nodding sadly, she moved off into the woods. He followed silently.
Conredd entered the men's campsite as dawn was beginning to filter through the trees. Oësone hung back, watching nervously as he approached a tent. She could sense the humanity spreading out from his grip on Schwernric, radiating nearly to his elbows. He called out, "Frenc!"
Presently, a man in his nightshirt emerged from the green canvas shelter. He gasped.
"Conredd! It's dawn! Did you sit up all night?"
Conredd nodded. "But not without reason. Behold, Schwernric, the holy sword of your nation. That is what we came for. Take it to King Aldric in Clinten."
"Isn't that your job?" replied the man.
Conredd shook his head. "I shall not be stepping on the far bank of the Marcstren. Today you must take yourself, your companions, and your holy sword from Fegmertt. And do not allow the ease with which we felled trees here yesterday fool you or anyone else. The forest can protect itself, and it would be unwise for men of Brendhult to return to Fegmertt. Conredd clapped the man on the shoulder.
Then he turned to leave.
"But what shall I tell the men and the King if you do not return?"
As he walked, Conredd said, "Tell them I was slain by a dragon in the dead of night." Then Conredd quickened his pace, not looking back.
Oësone wasn't sure what to say when he returned. He had just renounced the country that had driven him to dare the eldritch wood Fegmertt and the lair of the Red Worm Angiën.
Conredd smiled at Oësone. "I don't suppose you know where there's an old yew tree? If I'm to take over for Gustalf, I'll need a better weapon than my long knife."
Speechless, Oësone hugged the once-man. The power of Faerie pulsed contentedly around them.
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