A young man named Dyalar living in Trasath – a very small village which doesn’t seem normal even to the inexperienced youth who has lived there all his life – is apprenticed at age 14 to his uncle, a blacksmith named Lavran whose shop is in the City of Dargon.
The lad goes to Dargon and gradually learns smith-craft from his Uncle Lavran. At age 16, after a hearty celebration of Midsummer’s day, he is lured from his bed by a falling star and dreams of what he might do with a lump of the fabled sky-iron. He finds the fallen star, as well as two religious symbols – an oak- branch shaped from amber, and a strange silver-like chalice. From that day, he seems to gain a ‘guardian angel’ which keeps him out of serious harm. Several more years pass.
And, just a few weeks before King Haralan’s 36th birthday Dyalar dreams that he takes his three treasures and forges a sword from them with the help of an unseen entity. As he dreams that he is taking the rosy-gold sword from its final cooling bath, he awakes to find that it was not a dream and that he now has a Quest to complete. Without telling anyone, he sets out upon it.
I curled myself up as small as possible in the corner of an abandoned but not ruined woodland chapel. I covered myself as best as I could with my blankets as well as branches and leaves I had brought in when I’d arrived. I was still a little cold and I knew I would be colder when the small fire went out, but the weather wasn’t yet bad enough to be dangerous. Still, as I drifted off to sleep I hoped that I would get some kind of direction on my quest soon – I had been wandering all but aimlessly for the past three days and it was getting too late in the season to be so deep in the forest alone and far from any civilization.
I dreamed the Dream that night. Confusion, fear, struggle, a ring of dancing figures, a knife, pain – and I woke, sitting up and gasping at the pain in my chest, barely noticing the cold of the chapel. It took me a few minutes to calm down, but soon I was trying to rearrange my ‘nest’, which had been scattered by my thrashing. I was confused by the intensity of the Dream – normally by this time of year, the Dream only produced a vague sense of unease and a slight twinge in my chest, and it rarely even woke me up.
Once I was ready again for sleep, it came swiftly and with a strong scent of roses. I fell immediately into dreaming again, but this time I saw only a familiar village square and no nightmare. A voice that was ghostly even for a dream seemed to say, ‘Return to Trasath – your Quest leads homeward…’ and I slipped too deeply into sleep to remember what further I may have dreamed.
Seven years after I left it, and two days after the night in the chapel, I rode back into Trasath. I hadn’t even realized that my ‘aimless’ wandering had in fact been leading me in the direction of my home village. But if I hadn’t stumbled upon a trail just where it was marked by a Fretheod obelisk that had been used as a mile-marker and sign-post to Trasath (among other villages, including Dargon itself) the morning after my dream-message in the chapel, I might have wandered in the woods for far longer than two days.
Trasath seemed so tiny to me now! After the vastness of Dargon, my home village was but a clustering of houses about a central well, with the single inn looking even smaller than my uncle’s house. As I rode into the central square, the few people out and about looked askance at me, and no one hailed me though I saw recognition in the eyes of a few. I turned my horse down one of the three short side streets the village boasted to my father’s house, feeling the suspicious stares biting into my back as I rode.
Father’s house hadn’t changed much save that it seemed a bit run down. I dismounted and tied my horse’s reins to the ring by the door and knocked. I was fairly sure he would be home as it was close to sundown, and in any case mother would be there. After a short wait during which I knocked two more times, the door opened slowly and I laid eyes on my Father.
He was almost as much changed as my perception of Trasath had been. He seemed shorter, older, thinner, and much more worry-worn. His hair had gone streaky-grey, and his face bore lines too deeply etched for one who was not ancient. He stared at me for a moment, then said shakily, “Son? Dyalar?”
He opened his arms and we embraced, hugging fiercely and slapping backs in our love and happiness at seeing each the other again. When we finally broke apart, it seemed as if much of the worry and fear that had been in his face was gone and he stood up straight and proud, looking at me up and down. “Come in, come in son. I was just sitting down to dinner – join me and tell me about Dargon and why you’re here.”
I followed him into the house, idly noting the slightly untidy look of the front room. Something didn’t seem right there – something was missing. I knew that mother would never have allowed even so slight a degree of disorder creep into her house. As we crossed to the dining room, I asked, “Father, is mother away visiting someone? It just looks like no one has cleaned in here in a while.”
He stopped stock still, and all the improvement in his bearing that seeing me had produced now vanished like a spring frost beneath the first rays of the sun. He sat down on the nearest chair and drew me down into the one next to it. “So, Lavran didn’t tell you. I thought he wouldn’t, but I forgot in the joy of seeing you again. Son, your mother has been dead these past six years. It was – a fever, caught the winter after you left. The village healer could do nothing for it. She…she didn’t suffer…”
He broke off, consumed by his remembered grief. I, too, grieved. I was shocked to hear that mother was dead, and even more so that Uncle had known but not told me. I would have thought nothing more about the manner of mother’s death had not the familiar scent of roses intruded into the grief father and I were sharing, and a sense that father was not being fully truthful with me grew in the back of my mind. The feeling didn’t indicate malice, but rather fear, and it seemed to have something to do with my quest.
We eventually comforted each other sufficiently to have dinner, and we talked about what I had been doing and what he had been doing but not in depth. After catching each other up in a general way, father said he had to get some sleep as he had work to do early in the morning, but he promised to leave work as soon as he was able and we would talk more then.
I was given my old room to stay in, though it took a while to get it cleaned up and ready to be lived in even for a night. Finally it was ready, and I sank into my old bed that was a little too short for my adult body and fell asleep.
When I began to dream, it was very much like the night I had forged the sword – everything seemed real but even though I was doing it there seemed to be something between the ‘me’ that was observing and the ‘me’ that was doing. In my dream (which I knew probably wasn’t actually a dream), I got out of bed and dressed warmly. Then, taking the sword out of its makeshift scabbard, I made my way silently out of the house and to the small paddock where I had put up my horse after dinner. I rode cautiously to the farmhouse of a man named Arndil. I dismounted a short distance from the house and walked the rest of the way silently. As I drew nearer and nearer the house, my sword began to glow faintly silver. I crept into the house and to Arndil’s room – he had never been married as far as I knew, and he seemed to be alone in the house.
As I stood beside Arndil’s bed looking down at him, I felt hate rise up in me. I saw him in a memory that was not my own, but that was as vivid as if it must be something I had seen or done. I saw Arndil dancing in a ring with seven other men, all naked, all chanting, with “myself” bound and helpless at the center. Only Arndil was sharply enough defined in my dream-memory to recognize – who the other seven were I did not know. All eight were chanting dark and evil chants, invoking someone or something named ‘Hanarl, Savior of Trasath’, and intoning that I must be sacrificed to keep the village safe.
The memory faded enough that I again saw Arndil in his bed in my dream. Hatred flooded my body, and I raised my sword high over my head, taking a two- handed grip on the barely-long-enough hilt. I knew that the hate in my body wasn’t my own, but belonged to whomever owned that memory, and that person or thing had total control of me.
The sword descended, driven by my muscles hardened by long hours at the forge swinging heavy hammers and by the will of my possessor, aimed at the totally unprotected and unsuspecting body of the sleeping Arndil – or so I thought. The blade met an obstruction in clear air about 6 inches from the sleeping body with a jar that rattled my teeth but made no noise.
I was startled by the unseen barrier but my puppeteer wasn’t. The blade hadn’t slid from the barrier like it might have from a curved metal shield; it seemed to have bit into the resistance like an ax into a log. My muscles strained and the blade sank slowly against the resistance. As it bit deeper and deeper, the sword began to glow a fierce gold unlike its previous subdued silver radiance, and I marveled to see the invisible shield-like thing protecting Arndil from the blade begin to glow reddish-white, more red near the cloven part, revealing the shape of the protection.
The thing that possessed me continued to struggle to force my blade through Arndil’s protection, the farmer/priest still sleeping, blissfully unaware of his danger. Inch by fractional inch, the golden-glowing blade neared Arndil’s flesh and finally, my body sweating with the effort, the keen edge reached its target and drew blood from Arndil’s arm.
The instant that blood was drawn, the protection collapsed and Arndil awoke, gasping in startled fear. He seemed totally unprepared for an attack, both mentally and physically, but my puppeteer didn’t give him time to gather himself together. The sword was already drawn back over my shoulder, and after my stance was adjusted slightly, it was swung again. It connected with Arndil’s outstretched arm with all the force my body could muster and sheared clean through it, coming to rest deep within Arndil’s chest and killing him cleanly. But that wasn’t enough for my possessor. It forced my body to continue to hack and chop, rendering the man into so much meat and blood, and continuing when there was no more Arndil to carve by hacking his bed into flinders as well.
Finally, the hatred within me cooled, and the strain of what had been done to me dulled even my dream perceptions so that I was just barely aware of being guided back to my horse, and then back to my Father’s house and my bed.
My exhaustion kept me asleep well into the morning. When I finally awoke, my hopes (faint, at best) that the past night’s dream had been just that were dashed when I saw the rust-brown of dried blood on my clothes (not the ones I had worn to bed, either), my sheets, and my skin. My golden sword was on the floor beside the bed, and while it wasn’t stained, the floorboards around it were.
It took me a while to drag myself out of bed. Up ’till the past night, the strangenesses in my life had been good, interesting things: being dragged out into the forest by a falling star and finding three treasures instead of one; my ‘guardian spirit’ keeping me safe for my destiny; and the ‘presence’ that had helped me forge my golden sword. But now those strangenesses had turned sinister and ugly with the carnage it seemed all but certain I had been forced to commit. I was heartsick, but I didn’t want my father to know. I hardened my resolve and began to clean myself and my room before leaving Trasath and my ‘quest’ behind.
Dried blood is not easy to get out of cloth, and even harder to get out of floorboards, but I succeeded. After packing my things, few as they were, I checked once more to be sure that no evidence of my dream-walk remained to incriminate my Father, I saddled up Sock and rode for Dargon.
The trail took me through the village again, and if I had doubted that I had really killed Arndil despite the blood on my clothes and person that morning, I was made sure that someone had killed the farmer as I rode through the central square of my former home. I only heard bits and pieces of other conversations, as no one seemed to take much notice of me, but the topic of everyone’s discussions was the mysterious and messy death of Arndil. I was sure that some of my former friends were eyeing me with suspicion even though I had bundled the golden sword in some blankets tied behind my saddle. And I could feel every pair of eyes in my back as I left Trasath, for good this time.
But, as I rode down the main trail toward Dargon, my vision began to cloud. The Dream, which had rarely come to me in the daytime, and then only on MidSummer’s Day itself, now obscured my perceptions and I noticed the resemblance between my nightmare-Dream and the memory that had preceded the carnage last night. In fact, my Dream seemed to be a distorted shadow of the memory of the person who had controlled me! The Dream intensified – the confusion, the fear, the pain…and then it was gone, and I found myself riding up to my Father’s door.
I tried to leave Trasath for the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon, but I could not. Always the Dream would come, disorienting me and removing me from control of my horse, Sock. And when the Dream faded away, I would be back at my Father’s door or, as in the last few tries, in the paddock behind Father’s house beginning to strip Sock of my equipment. Finally, I gave up in despair – I couldn’t leave Trasath of my own accord.
I wasn’t very good company for my Father that afternoon and evening. He could tell I was depressed, and maybe even that I was afraid of something. But, I couldn’t tell him what was going on. Not that I couldn’t have – nothing was keeping me from it, unlike my wish to leave Trasath – but I wasn’t sure enough of him and the situation in the village to fully trust anyone with what was happening to me. If Uncle Lavran were here, or maybe even Leriel…I could have talked to either one of them. But I just wasn’t close enough to my Father – I didn’t know him, had never known him well enough to talk about something like this.
We both decided to retire early. I went to my room, but I didn’t want to sleep. I lay on the bed and wished with all my might that I wouldn’t go out dream- walking again, or that if I was dragged from my bed that the thing controlling me would explain what was going on and why I was part of it. Somewhere in the middle of my wishing, and sometime before my exhaustion forced me where I didn’t want to go – into sleep – I made up my mind that if I did go dream-walking, and I didn’t learn why, that I would take steps to make sure that I wouldn’t be used any further.
This time my dream-walking didn’t intrude into my sleep until my body was dismounting Sock at the gate of a family named Harnolt. As soon as I realized that this wasn’t an ordinary dream, I began fighting, but it was no use. As my body was carried forward cautiously to the front door of the moderate farm house, my sword began to glow a deep, rich red which seemed to throw a shell around me. Somehow I was made aware that this glow, like the others, had a function – the deep red was to shield me from sight until I had reached my goal.
I entered the house silently and paced through the rooms surely, as if I had no doubt of my destination. I passed through the rooms of the children, then their parents, all unseen, and finally stopped in the room of Brenn Harnolt, grandfather to the children in the other room, father to the man who now ran the farm.
Once again, the Dream in its pure form rose up in me. This time, I recognized only Brenn in the circle of eight dancing men, although one of the other figures was little more than a moving blot of darkness rather than a shadowy blur and I realized that the blot must be the deceased Arndil. I wondered whether this hell was supposed to continue until all eight of the dancers were dead – but I was determined that it wouldn’t.
I tried to remain distant from the hate and rage that poured through me, called up by the pure Dream and the sight of Brenn sleeping there on the bed. My body wasn’t affected by my withdrawal – it raised the sword and brought it down with all my might, only to be stopped again by a shield like the one that had tried to protect Arndil. As before, the blade began to glow gold, and the shield began to glow red in protest as it was slowly riven by the magic forged into the alloyed sky- iron.
Soon, the shield was thoroughly pierced, and first blood was drawn. But Brenn seemed more prepared than had Arndil. When the shield went down and Brenn woke up, he recovered from his shock swiftly and drew a dagger from beneath his pillow. I guess that the death of Arndil had forewarned the rest of the dancers, but I wondered how Brenn proposed defend himself with a dagger from someone who had made mincemeat of Arndil.
I found out quickly: the dagger was magic. Brenn was an old man, with thin, withered arms and a skinny, frail body. However, when my body took a swing at him with all the strength in my back and legs, he was able to catch the blade in the vee of dagger-blade and hilt and the force of my blow was totally absorbed by his weapon – he probably didn’t even feel the power my body had put into it. And, despite age and fragility, Brenn had probably been a fighter once, and he was still agile if not fast – I was just a metalsmith with occasional dreams of being a swordsman. Brenn flicked my blade aside (another magical property of his dagger) and riposted unexpectedly into my stomach.
Fortunately, my puppeteer had good reflexes and I backed up enough to turn a possibly fatal stabbing into a shallow wounding. This only made my puppeteer madder, and it began to hack and slash, attacking mercilessly and untiringly. I had occasion to notice that my sword was again glowing red, its light encompassing the whole room, keeping the sounds of our battle from the rest of the house.
I also noticed that every time my blade struck the dagger, a spark of blue light was struck. It started out very small, unnoticeable the first few times, but it increased by larger amounts with each blow. As the spark grew larger and brighter, I noticed that Brenn seemed to feel the shock of the contact of the blades more and more. He seemed to know what this meant well before I did, because he began to get desperate, making wild moves, throwing things to distract me, calling out for help. I finally figured out that just as the blade had sheered through the shielding that had protected the man earlier, it was now somehow canceling out the magic in the dagger little by little. And eventually, when my puppeteer took one last swing which was parried frantically by Brenn, the dagger-blade broke and my blade carried through and into Brenn’s chest.
This fight had been even worse than the last one in terms of how drained I already felt. My controller managed to force my body to mutilate Brenn’s but not to the extent it had Arndil’s, and it left the rest of the room intact. I lost awareness even before I had left the house, hoping that my puppeteer could get me home in such a condition.
It was past noon when I woke, and even though that meant that I had slept for almost half a day, I was still tired and achy from the exertions I had been forced through in the night. Again, there was blood everywhere – and this time, some of it was mine. But, when I bent to examine the wound that Brenn had given me, I was shocked to find no trace of it on my body. My tunic was slashed and blood stained, but there was no mark on my stomach. I looked over to where the golden sword had been laid across a chair propped against my door and marveled at the magic thing that I had somehow created.
I cleaned my room again, removing all traces of blood and struggle. Then I ate a meal big enough to feed half of Dargon, or so it seemed, so hungry was I. All the while, I was trying to figure out a way to end the dream-walking I was being forced into. As I saddled Sock, the solution came to me – I would used the sword that I had made to kill myself, and thereby end the killing I was doing unwillingly.
Loath to end my life without need, I tried once more to leave Trasath, this time by back ways. But, I was still blocked from escaping my destiny in that manner. So when I came out of the Dream again in front of my father’s house I decided to escape in the only other way open to me. I turned Sock away from my father’s house to find a clearing in the woods around Trasath in which to end my life.
I followed our side street until it ended just past Jefirt’s house, who lived on the outskirts of the village. Choosing one of the faint trails that continued into the forest from the end of the street at random, I rode on, taking side paths and navigating forks totally without pattern. Just about the time I began to think it strange that I hadn’t found a clearing yet, I came to a very large cleared space that would be perfect for my purposes. It was about as large as Trasath’s Square, oval in shape, with several large stones placed about it. It almost seemed familiar in some way, but I was sure I had never been there before.
I dismounted Sock and looped his reins over the saddle. He would stay in the area for a while cropping the dying grass in the clearing, but if I was successful in my mission he would be free to wander off back to town. I removed the golden sword from behind the saddle and moved into the center of the clearing.
I knelt in the grass and unwrapped the sword, admiring one last time the work that had been done on it. It was a beautiful weapon, but even though my hands had fashioned it I couldn’t take credit for its creation. I wondered whether I would learn who HAD created it and why after I was dead…
I had already pondered the difficulties of self-destruction with a sword, but the basic problem was solved by the presence of the stones in the clearing. I placed the hilt of the sword in the angle of a stone and the ground, which would keep it from moving away from me. Then, I placed the point of the sword against my chest between two ribs and to the left of the breastbone. I leaned forward enough for the point to catch in my tunic, then paused for a moment. I silently said farewell to my father, Uncle Lavran and Aunt Mellide, my friends in Dargon, Leriel (who was more than a friend, though I would never get to find out how much more now)…
As I tried to remember the people I should be taking leave of, the Dream began to intrude upon my consciousness. Flashes of the circle of dancing men were interspersed among the faces of loved ones. One moment I could feel the ropes binding me as the men danced and chanted, and the next I was kneeling down with the golden sword at my chest. Somewhere in that confusion, I recognized that the clearing I was kneeling in was the same as the one where the naked men danced and chanted in my Dream. Also, somewhere in the confusion, I realized that when I concentrated on the sword, the Dream faded away. Grasping at that straw, I centered my attention on the sword until all vestiges of the confusion were gone and I was once again only kneeling in the center of the clearing. Quickly, then, before whatever was trying to stop me found another tactic, I bade a quick farewell to everyone I had not thought of before, and began to lean forward. Just as I felt the tip of the sword draw blood from my chest, there was a flash of very bright, very white light, and I heard the command, “STOP!”
And, I found myself obeying. Completely. I couldn’t even turn around to see from whence the command had come – I was immobile. Presently, I felt hands on my shoulders pulling me back gently so that my chest came away from the sword’s tip, letting it fall to the ground. The hands pulled me to my feet, turned me, and pushed me gently to the edge of the clearing and into the trees. There, just beyond the edge of the clearing was a pair of ancient oak trees, huge and spreading, shaded to a deep green by the layers of leaves between them and the sun. Nothing but the barest forest undergrowth carpeted the ground beneath them – their age and size precluded anything else taking root within their demesnes – creating a shadowed clearing about their bases. I was guided just to the edge of this dark green clearing by the hands at my shoulders, and then a voice said, “Be free again.” As volition returned to my body and I slumped back down to my knees I felt an overwhelming wave of nearly divine power emanating from that natural temple that drove me to prostrate myself without really wanting to. A shape moved briefly within the shadows, and then it faded away along with the awe inspiring sense of power.
Before I had even begun to recover, hands took hold of my shoulders again, and a voice I almost recognized said, “Get up, Dyalar. Herne doesn’t much like the reaction even the shadow of his partial avatar elicits, which is why I’m here to enlist your aid.” As I was helped back to my knees and then to my feet I reflected that that natural temple was a perfect place to meet the Protector of the Forests. Some argued that Herne was more of an elemental force than a deity of some kind, but whichever he was, he certainly had the power to bend mortals to his will. It was in his favor then that he didn’t like to use it.
Back on my feet I turned to see whose hands had aided me, to confront the impossible. I recognized the voice now, just as I recognized the face, although I hadn’t seen it in about 10 years. She hadn’t changed at all, but then she wouldn’t have – she was my sister Keryin, and she was dead.
But she didn’t look dead. Dressed in her favorite grey-green gown, black hair tied back with blue and green ribbons, eyes flashing blue, cheeks rosy-red, a budding rose the same color tucked into her hairband over her right ear – she looked exactly as I remembered her going off to the village dance two nights before she died. I said, “Keryin, is it really you? Are you…How could you be alive? Or…a-am I d-d-dead?”
She hugged me tightly, feeling very solid, and said, “It’s me, Dy. I’m not alive – not really. And you are not dead. We are both here to do the will of Herne and eliminate the evil that dwells in Trasath. From the moment of my death, I, with his help, have been working towards this day. The story is long, but you need to know it all.”
She began to speak, and her story was almost too bizarre to be believed. I probably wouldn’t have believed it were it not for two things. One was Keryin herself, who had been dead for 10 years. The other was the already fading memory of the glimpse of Herne I had been granted. At that moment, there was no way I could doubt anything said in Herne’s name.
Keryin’s tale began with the Wolf Winter, and its effects on our tiny village. Dargon was a prosperous duchy, for all that it was on the northern end of the Kingdom, and even though Trasath was somewhat isolated from most of the duchy, it had always done well for itself. But the Wolf Winter had eliminated half the population of the village, and had provided the means for an evil force to gain a foothold there. Certain powerhungry citizens had been influenced into calling forth from the Dark Places an entity known as Hanarl. Eight members of the community, under the leadership of Master Dineel, the village innkeeper, had made a pact with the spider-like being to provide it with the sacrifices it wished in return for being given power over the entire village. Considering the weakened state of Trasath at the time, and the promises made that such a disaster as the Wolf Winter would never happen again, the village had little choice but to give in to the Octacle and to Hanarl’s demands.
After that, twice yearly, at ceremonies everyone over a certain age were required to attend, a sacrifice was made to Hanarl of one of the villagers, chosen by lottery. Those two were only the mandatory sacrifices, however. At any time, the Octacle, or even anyone who knew about them, could demand that some supposed wrong could be paid for by sacrifice. Wanderers were frequently the subject of these kinds of sacrifices, but never often enough to arouse suspicions. The Octacle’s hold was maintained by blackmail – if anyone left the village knowing of Hanarl’s grip on the populace, it was communicated to them that if they told anyone, a loved one would be the next victim of sacrifice. If the person didn’t have a loved one to be held, he wasn’t allowed away from the village, and if he tried to get away, he was invariably captured and sacrificed.
Keryin had been one of those ‘extra’ sacrifices. At that dance, she had been propositioned by Dineel’s son and had turned him down. Repeatedly. In front of everyone, and not politely. Two days later, she had been taken in the middle of the square by Master Dineel and four other men, accused of blasphemy against Hanarl, and sentenced to sacrifice. No one had been able to do anything to save her, because the entire village was in the same precarious position.
Her loss had been covered up – none of the children in the village knew of Hanarl and the Octacle, and Father was even more determined that I should not know of them after Keryin was killed by them. He talked to Lavran and made the deal that got me removed from Trasath. It also got him in trouble with the Octacle, but he had thought it worth getting me out of danger’s way.
But the Octacle had retaliated against him for saving me. He had been lying to me about Mother’s death. Keryin told me that her name had been forced to come up for the Mid-Summer sacrifice lottery and that the Octacle had duly killed her on the Stones of Hanarl as they had killed countless others before and after her.
“But, now you are here, Dyalar, wielding the Sword of Herne. Ever since my wrongful death, Herne has been using both of us – you through me – to work toward an end of Hanarl. You were guided to the ruined chapel to find the Branch and Chalice, and thereafter to find the sky iron. Once these objects of Power were in your possession, I was able to reach you at times, enabling me to protect you even from the order of form Herne removed me to after my body was slain. Then, when the stars were right, we both moved you to create the Sword out of the three artifacts you had found and a portion of your own soul, for only a weapon possessed of the powers those four things would give it could possibly conquer the Octacle of Hanarl that ensnares Trasath.”
“Why didn’t you just tell me?” I asked after letting Keryin’s explanation sink in. “I would have been happy to help you – done anything to avenge your death and mother’s.”
“It would have been too dangerous, Dy. The Octacle is very powerful, and even though they have ruled supreme in Trasath for 17 years, they still fear the day that someone comes to depose them. The two that we killed still slept under the shield given them by Hanarl even this long after anyone has thought to try to kill one of the Octacle in their sleep. And they have their ways to detect surface thoughts that they use mostly on strangers – which you qualify as. If you had ridden into town with death and destruction on your mind, you wouldn’t have lasted 5 minutes, Sword or no.
“The plan was to have you – us – eliminate four of the Octacle and then challenge Master Dineel with his power severely diminished by the halving of his priests. But, we had not counted on your attention during the night raids, nor on your reaction to those raids. I’m really sorry you found what I was directing you to do so distressing. Perhaps I did get a little carried away, but then they did kill me, after all…”
“But, now that I know…” I began, but Keryin interrupted me.
“Yes, now that you know, the plan has changed. Your moral outrage at what was being done to you impresses Herne, even though it put our plan in jeopardy. Though you were an instrument of Right, you did not know it. You sought to end the carnage in the only way you could find since you knew not the purpose of the killings and only that such killings were wrong.
“That is why Herne intervened today, in violation of the rules imposed upon powers like him by pact and law. And, ironically, it was Hanarl’s breaking of the rules so long ago which tipped the Balance far enough in his favor that Herne feels justified in making the small transgressions he has – manifesting the merest fraction of himself on this Order of Form, and allowing me full access to this Order of Form (if temporarily) – as efforts to right the Balance.
“And he wouldn’t do it even then if it wasn’t so important. Hanarl has grand plans, and Trasath is only a testing ground. It works slowly, wanting to be sure of Itself, and in doing so It has amassed a great deal of power here. It must be stopped soon, for if It is not, the whole world is in jeopardy.
“You might think that Trasath is an unlikely place for such evil as Hanarl to begin his conquest of Makdiar from – it is, after all, just a small hamlet in the wilds of Dargon. However, the Balance is a delicate thing. Hanarl managed to use the forces of Nature – essentially a part of the Balance itself – to goad certain people in Trasath to helping it tip the Balance in favor of Chaos just a bit, but it was enough. Trasath is small, and Hanarl doesn’t have enough worshipers here to draw strength from homage. But he gains even more power from the sacrifices its Octacle performs. Soon it will be ready to spread its influence to more hamlets and villages. As its power grows, and the Balance skews ever farther toward Chaos, Hanarl will move faster and faster, gobbling up towns, cities, whole countries. Unless forces are brought into play on the side of Order and the Balance is restored.
“And this is what we must do. We are the forces of Order arrayed against Hanarl’s forces of Chaos. It is not as it was planned, but I believe that we can still prevail against Hanarl’s minions. You, the sword … and myself as an added element – it will be enough. It has to be.”
She stopped speaking for a moment, head tilted slightly as if she was listening to something I couldn’t hear. When her eyes refocused, she said, “If you accept our mission, we should be about it. Herne’s brief intervention here caused ripples that the Octacle has noticed. We would be foolish to wait around here for their response – we would be at a distinct disadvantage anywhere near their unholy ground. Herne’s last words to me were that if we are able to defeat Dineel, Hanarl will be forced to retreat and the other priests will become powerless. He gives us his blessings, but can do no more at all for us now.
“So, what do you say, brother?”
I put off giving Keryin a definite answer by taking steps to get us away from the Stones of Hanarl. Riding back to Trasath with Keryin mounted behind me, I tried to figure out what to do next. Keryin seemed to believe that the Octacle of Hanarl was a formidable foe, but also that I could defeat them. I wasn’t as sure. The only magic I had ever faced had been in the last two days and while it was overwhelming, it was also frightening. I didn’t know enough about my skill or the Sword to believe I could stand against a directed attack from a fully aware and prepared opponent. But, I also didn’t think I had a choice.
“What should I do?” I finally asked Keryin, hoping that she would have the answers I couldn’t find due to her ‘special’ status.
“What do you think you should do, Dy?” she responded.
“Well,” I replied, “my options are rather limited, aren’t they? I mean the only thing I can think of is to ride into the village square and cry challenge on Master Dineel, then wait for him to accept and fight.”
“You have one other option – well, two actually. You could, if you chose, simply leave Trasath. The binding Herne put on you to keep you in the village has been lifted – he didn’t want to coerce you any further to his work.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t know if I can defeat Master Dineel, but I know I must try, for yours and Mother’s sake, as well as all of the others who died at the hands of Hanarl’s minions – I can’t just run away and let more die.”
“I didn’t think you would,” Keryin said, squeezing me affectionately. “So, your other viable option is to sneak up on Master Dineel and kill him before he has a chance to kill you.”
“But that’s not honorable!” I said, indignant that she would suggest such a thing.
“Neither is Dineel or his master, Hanarl. You should know that even if you follow the forms and conventions of single combat by calling Challenge on Master Dineel, there is nothing in his makeup that would force *him* to follow them. I can guarantee that the remainder of the Octacle would be stationed around the Square waiting for the right moment to strike at you, with Dineel’s approval, and even at his orders. If your opponent will not play by the rules, why should you?”
“Because, if I didn’t, I would be as bad as he!”
“That, brother, would depend on why you were doing it. What you now have to decide is which power – whose “honor” – you wish to follow. True, within the confines of what you term honor, sneaking up on and killing Dineel with no warning is wrong. However, if you did it because it was necessary, the only way you have a chance of killing the man, and the man’s death is for the greater good, then you would be following the Honor of Herne and of the Balance.
“Herne has enlisted you to remove Hanarl from this Order of Form. He has placed on you no restrictions on the “right” way to do this, only that it be done. Do you agree that it must be done?”
“Well, yes…of course…”
“Then is it more important that it be done your way, with a challenge that Dineel will ignore and you will possibly die from, or that it be done in the surest way possible?”
“I…I don’t know, Ker. I always thought….Which is right?”
“I can’t tell you that, brother. I can only present the options.”
“But, don’t you know? Why won’t you help me?”
“No, Dy, I don’t know which is “right”. I know which I would do, but you must decide which you will do. Both Herne and I trust you – you will do the best you can to eliminate Hanarl, no matter which you chose.”
Still trying to decide, I guided Sock up to my Father’s house and dismounted. I was somewhat confused by the idea that “honor” wasn’t a constant thing – something solid and absolute to measure your life against. Then, as if in a flash, I realized that “honor” WAS a constant thing, it was the form of the honor that was fluid. The codes that I had learned during my time in Dargon were only one embodiment of the concept. But, they could be set aside if there was a higher guidance – which I had in the form of Herne’s directive. It *was* honorable to kill Dineel from ambush, as long as I was doing it for a greater cause than the filling of my purse, or the betterment of myself or my liegelord. I was serving Herne and the Balance in this. I had decided.
I secured Sock’s reins to the hitching post before Father’s house and noticed that the front door was slightly ajar. I was sure I had closed it, but then, considering the errand I had left upon, I realized that I could as easily have left it standing wide as locked it. I closed it, and turned to Keryin. “Dineel’s death is more important than adherence to a set of rules.” I said. “We’re going to the Inn to catch him unawares. Let’s go.”
I set out towards town and the back way to the inn, but I soon noticed that Keryin was not following. I turned around found her walking back towards the woods.
“Ker! Where are you going?” I called out. She stopped and looked over her shoulder. “Remember the shortcut we found racing Minia and Phin to the bakery? Come on!”
Only with her prompting did I remember the shortcut – as young children, we had all been forbidden to enter the forest around Trasath for any reason. The village was small, so it wasn’t a problem in most cases. However, at the end of the week it had been the custom for Dorinach, Trasath’s Baker, to cool her pies on the back porch of her shop. Minia and Phin, the children of our neighbors, my sister and I would often race over there in the late afternoon to take in the lovely aromas and get first pick of the castoffs of Dorinach’s baking. There usually wasn’t much in the way of castoffs, so the first one to arrive got the best bent tarts, or broken cookies. Keryin had discovered a way to shorten the run down several alleys to the bakery by skirting one edge of the village and taking a trail through the forest to the end of the alley that ran behind the village square. And, as I began to run after her swiftly moving form, I realized that the bakery was right next to the Inn.
Sneaking through the alley as silently as we were able, we approached the Inn. I saw that Keryin’s shortcut had been a very good idea – there was someone at the entrance of the cross-alley just the other side of the Inn, and at the end of this alley where it met Trainer’s Way. It seemed that Master Dineel had posted guards, but only along the most likely ways for me to get to the Inn from my father’s house.
Now moving even more silently and keeping a wary eye on the two guards who had no thoughts of anyone approaching the Inn from behind them (fortunately), we neared the rear door of Master Dineel’s home. It seemed that luck was with us – the door was open, probably to facilitate the warning that the guards expected to give Dineel of our approach.
I led the way through the pantry and kitchen of the Inn. The top half of the door between the kitchen and the front room was open so that it was easy to hear the conference going on in there. Keryin and I crouched by the door and listened.
“…s properly secured by the well, Master. We had no trouble taking him either.” I identified the voice as that of Ederavin, one of Father’s best friends and who lived next door.
“Good.” This was Dineel. “Then we have a hold over the young troublemaker. Ederavin, I want you to stand next to Himran and be ready to answer Dyalar’s challenge. Don’t worry – you’re just there to distract him for a moment. To make sure that Dyalar takes the bait, however, I want you to take this wand. It has enough power stored in it to do substantial damage to the person you touch with this metal end. I won’t ask you to try to get close enough to Dyalar to use it on him – the wand isn’t capable of discharging swiftly, and I’m not interested in putting another of the octacle at risk. However, if you use it on Himran, you will both be avenging the years of slights that man has done to us, and you will be sure to distract his son long enough for the rest of us to act.”
“As you will, Master,” was Ederavin’s reply. I thought I heard a note of regret in his voice, but such was Dineel and Hanarl’s hold on the octacle that even the prospect of torturing his best friend didn’t sway Ederavin from obeying. And it was only by concentrating on what my mission was that I kept from leaping up right then and trying (futilely, most likely) to keep them from harming my father at all.
“To continue,” said Dineel. “Feyarin,” who was Trasath’s shoemaker, “you take the remainder of the octacle and hide in various positions around the edges of the square – make sure you have a good view of the well. While you wait, concentrate upon Hanarl. I will take up a position at the edge of Tailor’s Way, out of direct sight of the well. As we wait, I will be entreating our god to supply us with the means of destroying our enemy. When Dyalar enters the square to challenge Ederavin for the life of his father, you will each be filled with the Venom of Hanarl. Release it at Dyalar, and he will be utterly destroyed. We can then rebuild the fullness of the octacle and put our plans back on schedule.”
With a chorus of “As Hanarl demands, by the Master,” the conference broke up. I heard them leave, talking softly to each other. When there had been no sound for a minute or so, I peeked cautiously over the edge of the lower part of the door and was relieved to find that the front room was empty.
Cautiously, I went through the kitchen door and crossed the small front room that also served as a tavern. The front door had been left open as well, and I peered through it. I saw Ederavin standing by the well next to the limp form of my father, who had been bound hand and foot as well as being secured to one of the spit-posts by a goodly length of rope wrapped about his chest. Ederavin looked at Father sorrowfully, then stared at the short, black, silver-capped rod he held. After a moment his face took on a look of resolve, and he reached out to touch the silver end of the rod to my father’s neck. There was a slight crackling noise, and I could see a flickering dance of sickly purple light begin to move across father’s neck. I turned away to find Keryin right behind me, watching the torture with the same expression on her face that I knew was on mine – hatred and desire for revenge.
We both moved away from the door and the chance of discovery. Keryin turned her gaze on me, questioning. When the first moans of pain came through the door, she touched my shoulder in sympathy. I was trying to wrestle with my recently-made resolve to eliminate Dineel by whatever means were necessary – with my father’s pain on the line as well as my “honor”, I was having a hard time not falling into the trap Dineel had so carefully set. But Keryin’s presence helped – she was hurting too and she was not rushing heedlessly into the square.
Finally, I said, “If we both slip back into the alley and then around to Tailor’s, we could sneak up behind Dineel…”
Keryin’s face had hardened as the moans turned to low screams. She said, “I have to stop that, Dy. You sneak around that way – as fast and as quietly as you can. I’ll try to get them to stop hurting father.”
“But, what about that ‘venom’ thing Dineel talked about?”
“Dy,” she said with a smile and a gentle touch to the side of my face, “remember, I’m already dead. Herne will protect my spirit and guide it to its final rest when my task here is done. They cannot harm me in any permanent way. Go – every second wasted is one more eternity in torment for father.”
I hugged her, wishing she could stay with me always, then ran for the alley. The guards still watched the Trainer’s Way entrance to the alley, nervously shifting a bit as the now louder screams echoed from house to house. I turned back the way Keryin and I had come. I didn’t dare run outright for fear of alerting the guards, but Tailor’s Way wasn’t very far along the alley anyway. I turned onto the narrow road in the direction of the square and immediately slipped back into the alley: Dineel’s hiding place may have been effective from the Square, but from this end of the street I had a perfect view of the leader of Hanarl’s Octacle. My hands itched for a bow (though I was barely an average shot) or a sling (with which I was better – there were more targets for a slingstone than an arrow in a city like Dargon). Since I had neither, I drew my rosy-golden sword and peered around the corner. I marked out carefully likely spots of concealment between myself and Dineel before quietly taking the first step around the corner.
As soon as I was around the corner, my sword began to glow red, calling up the shell of concealment I had seen it use before. I moved straight for Dineel, hoping that concealment by ordinary means wouldn’t be needed. It seemed that either luck or the red shield was working for me, because I was within two steps of Dineel’s back – and him all unawares – when Keryin stepped into the square from the front door of the Inn with a shouted “Stop!”
From my position I could see the entire Square. I watched five people step out of concealment, each one with their hands clasped palm to palm in front of them and a cloud of greyish-greenish light billowing around those hands. The fingers of those hands were pointed at Keryin but I could see that everyone was confused by the fact that it was a woman and not a man that had entered the square. Ederavin had jerked the wand away from my father’s neck at Keryin’s cry, ending his screams, but when he saw it wasn’t me who had come to challenge him, he started to put the wand back to my father’s neck. But then he recognized Keryin, and his eyes widened in fear and he dropped the wand. It bounced on the well-rim, then fell down inside.
Dineel stayed hidden, but I could see the same fog of foul-looking light around his hands. I took one step, then another – I was within range. I lifted my sword to strike, concentrating on Dineel’s back. Just as I was ready to end the threat of Hanarl in Trasath village, the red shield vanished, to be replaced by a golden one. At the same time, Keryin cried out “Dyalar!” and I saw a globe of greyish- greenish light impact with the golden shield and shatter, scattering a black liquid from its remains.
Dineel wheeled immediately and his face went white when he saw me there. Some of the black liquid struck him, and he winced in pain. He leaped backwards, pointed his hands at me, and the cloud of light around his hands flew at me like the globe had done moments before. This attack acted like a signal to the others, but they didn’t have even as much success as the first one to fire. Dineel’s globe shattered on the shield, splattering him with even more black liquid – what I assumed was the “Venom of Hanarl”, and which it seemed the followers of Hanarl were not immune to. Only one other globe came near me, but it actually hit Dineel, who cried out and staggered. Of the two remaining globes, one hit the Inn, staining the paint and smoking a little. The last one somehow managed to hit one of the other octacle members full in the chest – his screams as he died were deafening, if not prolonged.
Dineel, who was hardier than his followers, retreated further from me. He called out, “To me!” and the remaining members of the octacle moved with him towards the well. He glanced behind him and saw that Ederavin was just staring at me, while Keryin was busily trying to untie father. He shouted, “Ederavin! Grab the girl! We need to summon Hanarl, and she’s already been a victim – she should provide an easy entry point for our god!”
Snapped out of his shock by a direct order, Ederavin did as he was told. Keryin had no weapons, and though she fought as well as she was able without, Ederavin was able to keep her from running away until the rest of the octacle arrived and pinned her down at the lip of the well.
I began running as soon as she went down, breaking out of the paralysis I had been in watching her struggle, so much like the Dream that had haunted me for so long. Dineel wasn’t wasting time, though. With the five remaining members of the Octacle pinning Keryin, he lifted her tunic enough to bare her stomach and using a knife that was as twisted and sickly looking as everything else having to do with Hanarl so far, he cut her four times in an simple eight limbed star pattern. The cuts were not deep, but they did hurt – Keryin’s cries told that – and they did bleed. Then, holding the bloody knife aloft, Dineel screamed out Hanarl’s name over and over, a chant taken up by the other five.
Though the village square was not large, it seemed to take a terribly long time to cross to the well. As I drew closer and closer to my goal, I began to see a shape forming above the well and the six chanting people there. It was just a blob at first – a presence but formless. Then, it began to shape itself into a spider-like being. It had only five legs, though – there were three stumps where its other legs should have been, showing how much Hanarl had linked itself to its Octacle. I knew that even with the powers of the sword, and the blessing of Herne behind me, I would have no chance against this avatar of a god if it had a chance to arrive fully.
So spurred on, I finally reached the chanting Dineel. His eyes were only for the arrival of his god – only Keryin noticed my presence. I hesitated even so, not wanting to strike like this. But I looked up and saw the only slightly ghostly form of the Hanarl-avatar there, beginning to move its legs and click its mandibles, and I knew I had to act. I aimed, and thrust.
My sword entered Dineel’s chest from behind. His chanting turned to a scream that stopped when the first 6 inches of my golden sword came out his front. The Hanarl-avatar writhed soundlessly, and as Dineel’s life left his body, the head of the spider-thing exploded and the body vanished like mist blown away by a wind. The five people holding Keryin down fainted, releasing her. I knelt beside her and covered her wound with her tunic. She smiled at me and said, “You did it. I’m very proud of you, Dy. You freed Trasath!”
We hugged, then she said, “Cut father loose – those knots just didn’t want to come untied. Then, we have to get back to the grove. I don’t want father to see me – I can’t stay much longer and it would only hurt him to see me again.”
I released father from his bonds, but he was still unconscious from the wand. Keryin had already started back down the road to our house and the grove, so I followed her. When I reached home, she was already in Sock’s saddle, waiting for me. There was a faraway look in her eye that frightened me, but she wouldn’t answer any questions. She just insisted that I mount up. I did, and then we rode at a breakneck pace back to the grove.
Even before I had reined Sock to a stop, she had dismounted and was walking back to the two huge oaks. When she entered their shadow, she went to her knees. I looked away long enough to get down safely from Sock’s back, and when I looked back, she was surrounded by a faint glow.
I walked over to the oaks and stood behind Keryin, who was beginning to look a little transparent within the glow. Though she was not moving, and her head was bowed and thus she couldn’t have seen me, she began to speak in a hollow, almost echoing voice. “Herne speaks through me,” she said. “Herne thanks you for righting a great wrong. You have done what he was not permitted to do on his own. Now, say farewell to your sister. Her task is finished – her spirit will be released now.”
I knelt and hugged Keryin, surprised at how solid she still felt, considering how transparent she looked. She raised her head and turned a tearful face to me and kissed me on the cheek. In a voice that had lost its echo, she said, “I wish I didn’t have to go, Dy. I’ll miss you – these past couple of years have been fun.” The scent of roses made my eyes tear up too.
Addressing the air, I asked, “Does she have to go? If she truly doesn’t want to, that is?”
There was silence for a moment, and then Keryin’s eyes got glassy and the echo returned. She said, “Your sister may not remain embodied – that is not permitted. But, she could return to being your ‘guardian angel’, as you referred to her, if she wished. Your bond with the magics of your sword allow the two of you this kind of contact – should you lose the sword, or should it be destroyed, Keryin’s spirit will have to go. The decision is yours, Keryin. You have served me well – do you wish this to be your reward?”
She came back to herself and said, “Yes, Herne – I want to stay with Dyalar.” She smiled at me as she said this, and I smiled back.
This time, the voice came from the trees of the ‘temple’. “So be it. Come to me, Keryin. Dyalar, turn away. You will not wish to see the destruction of this body.”
I hugged Keryin one last time, and kissed her cheek. She stood and walked deeper into the shadows between the two ancient trees, and I walked back to Sock. There was a cry that wasn’t of sound, but it drove through my soul like a sword. Then, there was a change in the very air, and when I turned I was shocked to see that the towering oaks had vanished – the ‘temple’ was now just a stand of normal forest growth. Of Keryin there was no sign. I mounted Sock and turned back to the trail back to town. Yet as I rode out of sight of the stones, I caught the scent of roses on the air, and heard a familiar laugh at the back of my mind. Smiling, I rode on, but not alone.