Many Motives, One Destination
By Gerry Torbert
The pungent yet flowery aroma of heather mixed in waves with the sulfurous fumes of burning peat; at times the flowers tickled the men's olfactory senses more abruptly and more pleasantly; at times the stinging of the burning sod stung their eyes. On a few occasions, they mixed perfectly and created somewhat of a tingling, almost enlightening sensation. It was known among the Creags as "neahmm a ifreann," which loosely translates to "between heaven and hell"--at times it was used recreationally, but many times it was used to clear and alter the mind. For the two old friends, it seemed to be working quite well, in both modes.
The older, grey-haired Creag leaned back in the creaky wooden chair. His favorite seat replied in kind by twisting and flexing to the predictable movements of its owner. He had repaired her dozens of times with hide glue and gentle taps of his leather hammer, but she was a good thirty years old since his father put her together out of seasoned oak he rescued from the firewood pile. He had confidence in the old piece of furniture, though, and knew the pile of sticks would move with him; he hoped that his friend would extend the same faith in what he had to say.
But he found conversation with his younger friend was difficult as of late. He knew of the cursed life he had led so far; he knew of his victories and of the legends that surrounded him; he knew of his pain and suffering as he outlived everyone he hated, everyone he met, everyone he loved. He knew of it all; but few could really do anything but imagine his pain. All they had to talk about was what was in his future.
The fire dwindled slowly, as if it felt a certain reverence to the young fighter. It felt the need to recede, to bow in acquiescence, to provide what it could to the men. The older one sensed its sorrow; standing and walking to the fire, he picked up a rather plump mound of the dried sod and a handful of moist heather stems from the pot, tossing them on with a hiss of steam. He pulled a leather pouch from his belt pack and opened it, pinching off a bit of herbs and tossing it in with the mix. "D'ya really thing we need that too, Eohacob?"
"Medicinal, my friend, medicinal. It takes the edge off, relaxes ya. Breath deeply."
The younger man leaned over to the fire, and with eyes closed, he drew a breath; he frowned as the combination of drugs took its effect, biting at his nose and eliciting a twitch of his face. He leaned back in the chair and opening his eyes, turned to Eohacob. "Jus' what is it ya dun already know, my friend? I'm cursed to Hell, ramblin' through the land, runnin' from the mantle of 'Hero' everywhere I go. I watched me wife...," he said, choking on the words, "...yeah, held 'er in me arms as she left this world, I did. Outlivin' me ma and pa, that's ta be understood; a man's not supposed ta…" He stopped, barely able to keep his train of thoughts. "...is that what the neahmm a ifreann's supposed ta do, loosen me tongue? If it is, it's workin."
The older man clasped his hands and pushed them outward in front of him, stretching his arms while giving a little yawn. He bent toward the fire again, breathed a lungful himself and returned to his chair. As always, the chair caressed his backside and snuggled around him as if it were a young lover. His tattered hide pants creased easily as he sat, giving an indication of their age and their amount of wear. "This town ya talk o'. Ya speak of it as if something horrible happened. Ya said ya feel the need ta go there, for some reason. Don't ya think we should talk aboot it?"
"Yeah, I guess we should. It's been so long since it all happened; there's unfinished business there. And now there's more trouble." He leaned in toward the fire and drew another breath; he grabbed the glazed clay mug and swirled the pungent whisky before he took another draw, then handed it to Eohacob. "Ya dun know wha' I saw, friend. A ghost from Barathus, from Hell itself, an' it took me soul, piece by piece, every time it ran through me. It took a man I befriended...Aedan McLimm, I believe his name was...took 'im like a hawk kills a pigeon, it did. The place is cursed, I tell ya. I gotta get back there. Somethin' tells me there's someone, some thing, I have ta face yet."
Eohacob took the whisky and finished it off, holding the mouthful deep in his mouth and breathing in over it, savoring the esters that volatilized from his body heat. "Ya been though a lot, Champion, no doubt. No one can deny your right ta go where ya want an' do what ya feel's necessary. Ya gotta think aboot what could 'appen to ya, though. Seems like this was the only thing that could kill ya. Ya sure ya wanna die like 'at?"
His friend fiddled a little with the regal red and black kilt that adorned him. He reached into his left hose, unsheathed his secret knife and scraped a little off one of his fingernails, as more of a nervous habit than anything. "Dun wanna die at all, my man. Never did. Even after all that's 'appened; ta go before me time's up would be a slap in the face to all my family; my wife, my children, their children, everyone who believed in me these years. No, it's a burden I gotta carry for now on."
His weathered mentor smiled knowingly and nodded. "You know, you befriended me a long time ago, lad. Ya took me in; ya fed me; ya shared a lot of stories with me; ya trusted me. "Now, yer holdin' back, holdin' back quite a lot, as far as I can see. There's somethin' else you wanna find there, friend. Maybe ya need a few more deep breaths o' the fire. I know when you're hidin' somethin'."
The seemingly younger man smiled a worn and battered smile, nodding slowly and knowingly. "Of course, Eohacob. Ya can see right through me, no doubt. Tell me, would you ever stop lookin' for the cure to a curse? Would you just give in an' live it out, dogged every day by the fact that every person ya meet will soon be gone?"
Eohacob studied the lines on his face. He knew that face, almost as well as his own. He knew that when the little furrow over the left brow deepened, his friend was looking for an answer. He knew that when he drummed his fingers, he was confused. "I guess I'd do the same thing yer thinkin' of doin', friend. You heard of the problems they've been havin' up there?"
His friend nodded and shrugged slightly. "Ya know, I've spent a few lifetimes, literally, fightin' baddies an' helpin' one downtrodden town or another. It's the way o' this world o Farland, it always will be. Nothin's gonna change the way people are. It's not what I'm lookin' for."
"Fair enough; ya done enough for yer people, no doubt. The world owes ya a lot. I guess if a bunch o' townfolk are bein' tortured by someone, they oughta count their blessin's..."
"Tyaaauugh!..." the younger man guffawed, "...don' lay 'at guilt garbage on me, old one. I'm goin', no doubt aboot it. I'd never turn me back on anyone in need." He smiled at his old friend, though, adding "Still, there should be time enough ta do it all."
"That's the spirit, laddie!" The older one reached over and slapped his back with his right hand, pouring another from the flask with his left. "Have one more before ya fall...er, well, before I fall asleep. Leavin' at dawn?"
"No, in about an hour, is all. No real reason ta stay until sunlight, there's nothin' ta see on most of the road anyway. I'll pack some food, you get some rest, old fella." He stood up and walloped his friend on the shoulder, causing a small wince.
"Ya know, you just look young, is all. You're three times my age."
"Don't keep remindin' me, Eohacob. I'm sure I'll have some stories ta tell when I get back."
"Be careful, old man." He stopped and stared at his friend's reaction to that phrase so accidentally muttered. It was a threat once, a warning from a demi-god in a man's clothing; it was now nothing more than a sincere expression of concern from one man to another. He smiled and put a slab of wood on the fire, and quickly fell asleep, even over his friend's clattering about as he packed. The last thing he picked up was a huge claymore sword. He pulled a blanket over his younger friend and took a long swig from his leather bag. He latched the door behind him as quietly as he could.
The road from Ekruup to Keller was difficult enough on a dry day; today the rain had stopped for only a few moments, and the afternoon wind was starting to pick up. Several tall oaks along the trail were beginning to feel the effects of the frontal system moving in, as some leaves were being torn from the twigs. The group of three travelers braving the storm on this road north of Zel City seemed either to have little ability to read Nature's weather warnings or too much urgency to care--they were all soaked to the bone and hurriedly looking for a cliff or sheltered cove to hide from the relentless rain.
The man leading the group by about ten feet walked briskly, punctuated by occasional glances to the other two members of the party. This area of the road wasn't known for overtly friendly encounters, but the rolling, flatter terrain hinted at the possibility of farm houses nearby. The two ladies bringing up the rear were doing their best to keep up, but a few times the man had to go back and help them along. They were a long way from safety or comfort; comfort was now out of the question, and the richness of their clothing suggested that if anyone of nefarious tendencies was to show, their safety would be in question as well.
At least, that's the way it seemed from the vantage point of thirty feet in the air, among the branches of the overhanging oaks.
The travelers walked quickly as they rounded a turn and slight hill in the path, where they stopped. The man held his hands out to the sides in the dead stop, holding the ladies from further progress. He looked as startled and concerned as they did, looking about for some form of refuge. The three roguish types in front of them were joined be three who trailed and now leaped out from some dense gorse along the trail. Safety was a moot point now; the three were surrounded and deeply in trouble.
The leaves of the tall oak barely made a rustle, and what noise they did make was curtailed to match that of the wind as the figure leapt and swung from branches of this to those of the next tree, never out of range of its sight nor sound of went on below, but silent to them .
The largest and most foreboding of the six roadmen was the first to speak, in a broken and crude Farlandish road-accent. "Ah, what we got here, some pretty types, eh?" There were a few grunts and chuckles from the other five as they looked the travelers over, savoring the possibility of the spoils of their gainful self-employment.
"Now, just - just a minute, sir...we mean no one harm...we're envoys from the King of Zeland, my name is John Garrison, and we're on an important mission. We just want safe passage, that's all." The male traveler tightly grasped his wooden staff, trying not to appear to threaten them with it. He stammered over his words, his unconvincing manner a red flag waving in front of the bull that consisted of six libidinous and desperate men.
"Ha! Ya hear that, boys? On-voyers, big shots - we're lucky to be here in front o' these re-e-ealy special people!" He walked forward to the man and looked around him at one of the women, sizing her up as if in a butcher's shop, eying prize filet. "This here on-voyer's pretty nice, doncha say, boys?" Catcalls and grunts of approval answered; the point of a dull, rusty sword held by one of the rear men patted her buttocks, eliciting a squeal as she closed in tighter to the male traveler.
"Now, sir, there's no use for that sort of thing. We have money; just let us go and you can have everything we have, we mean no harm." The man's pleading did nothing more than stoke the fire of the robbers' intents.
The leader pushed the man brusquely in the chest, knocking him backward a few feet. "You don' unnerstan' much, mister, do ya? We don' care about no money - hell, we'll take 'at anyway. Looks of it, you on-voyers got somethin'..." he reached over to the first woman and grabbed her coat, pulling it and spinning her around as it came off, "...aha!...a little nicer than money, eh, boys?"
The woman screamed and stepped back into the arms of a particularly foul-smelling, dentally-challenged roadman, who grabbed her around the neck and tried to force a kiss. Garrison turned and swung the staff at the man, but dropped it when another of the muggers grabbed his arms from behind; the second woman was secured by two men, as well. The leader stepped closer to Garrison and punched the air out of his solar plexus.
As the women screamed and their protector slumped with each punch, a shadowy figure pushed some bushes aside on the side of the trail ahead. Out stepped a lithe, elegant figure of a man, about six feet four; thin, compact and lightly muscled, he was clearly one of the race of Elhil, the elves of the Farlandish hinterlands. He pulled a light, long bow off his shoulder and quickly knocked an arrow. Two of the men turned to the elf; one warned, "Hey, you, this ain't your fight; get outa here!"
The elf half-raised his bow toward the men who were attacking Garrison, smiling slightly. He answered in accented Farlandish, "I think not, gentlemen. This is a fight for all who favor the common person. I would suggest you let the man go, or suffer the..."
The elf's attention was far too absorbed by the confrontation to sense the arrival of a ninth man behind him, who swung a heavy club hard and fast, knocking him out. The women screamed again as their abductors pulled them closer, their hands groping. Garrison took another forearm on the chin and was barely hanging on as the leaves above him rustled slightly, unnoticed.
The leader boasted openly, walking from Garrison to the two women and drawing a knife. "Well, looks like yer elf friend didn't last too long! You rich types gotta unnerstan' ya use the road, ya gotta learn the ru..."
His eyes grew wide with surprise as a spinning, whirring sound stopped with a thud, interrupting his monologue quite abruptly. As he fell forward, a metallic blade could be seen jutting from his shoulders and beyond, the rest of the muggers could see a figure standing in the rain, in the middle of the road, in full follow-through of a well-placed knife throw. The men holding Garrison dropped him in favor of their swords, and with a cold resolve in their eyes, started walking toward the black-clad figure.
The mysterious fighter in black pants, shoes, shirt, gloves and mask quickly began a full run toward them; he leaped feet-first, scissoring his legs outward, simultaneously kicking each man in the chin and landing between them as they slumped into unconsciousness. He reached into his belt at his back and pulled out a pair of sticks, watching the next pair of robbers approach him, and dropped one of them. But the other one was connected by a foot of chain, and he began whirling the sticks in a blinding circle.
As the ninth roadman closed in on the mysterious one from where he had dispatched the elf, a swing of the sticks caught him flush on the face, as if the black-clad savior had eyes in the back of his head. The next two moves took out the two who had just let one of the women go. Three more men then hurried toward him, swords drawn. But the rogue fighter pulled a short sword from the sling on his back, holding it in front and vertical in a very solid stance.
The three men stopped, staring at the short sword with only a foot and a half of steel above the hilt. Looking among themselves, but then glancing at their own three-foot weapons, smiles and catcalls erupted; they walked forward, encircling the baffling one. The attack began as one swung downward; the short sword flew like a flash of light as it blocked the sweep and swung across the man's chest in a graze with a second swipe in the same time it took for the longer sword to move once. The man in black ended with his legs twisted and crossed in a nearly impossible stance, but immediately used it to turn a full third, thrusting his sword into the bicep of the oncoming man, causing him to drop his own.
The third man then backed off and adopted a more defensive stance--he appeared to be a much better swordsman than his compatriots. The flurry of blades began with a quick slash and two answering slices by the man in black; his opponent stopped for a second and backed off as he stared at what appeared to be several feet of ponytail falling from the back of the mask; he swept back in with a slash as the man in black blocked his move and slapped the sword almost from his hand with the second move. It was obvious that the short sword was much more dangerous than the long one in this fight.
The other two swordsmen limped away, one to the side to the unconscious body of one of their companions, where he reached under him to pull out a bow and a few arrows from the quiver on his back. With a wince from the slash across his chest, he nocked an arrow and raised the bow toward the pony-tailed fighter. But the sound of clanging swords was interrupted by the thud of an elven projectile, burying itself through the arrow into the bow, pinning the split arrow to the bow. The elven traveler, now awake, stood uneasily and groggily to one side, preparing for a second shot.
The changing odds made the remaining thug stop and lower his sword; he looked at the man in black and sheathed it, saying "We'll meet again, odd one"; he turned and ran into the woods, followed by the few who were still able to move, carrying the wounded and one dead.
The strange man walked to the women and helped them up, rearranging their now-tattered clothes in a more dignified manner. The elf staggered to Garrison and pulled a flask of potion from his pack, quaffing it. It clearly helped revive him. "Strange one--there's an overhanging cliff a few yards up the trail; let's get everyone under it and start a fire." The man in black nodded and placed the women's arms over his shoulder, half-carrying them both behind the elf and Garrison. Soon, they arrived at the cove, where the elf began gathering wood and the fighter ran back to gather his weapons. The fire was soon started and Garrison began to feel the effects of the potion, so he attended to the women and walked over to the elf.
"My friend, we owe you many thanks. There will be a reward for your kindness, I'll see to it. We may well be dead had it not been for you...and your companion, no doubt!"
The elf nodded, but then shook his head. "No, sir, I do believe we're all alive due to the mysterious one in black. And until now, I had neither seen him, nor anyone like him. My name is Thanos of the House of Gloran. Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, and pardon me--I'm John Garrison, a Duke of Eire in southeast Zeland; this..." he presented the lady in a light, long tan coat "...is Lasar O'Haris, daughter-in-law of the King; and beside her is Una O'Duff, her sister. Our journey was to be a simple one, to present good tidings to a Consulate in Farland. But the guards who accompanied us were killed along the road half a day back."
The man in black returned with an armful of confiscated weapons and the other holding some large, strange leaves and several large roots that were washed, peeled and partially sliced. Dropping the weapons and placing the roots near the hottest of the coals, he then handed the elf his arrow and a flask of water to the women. Garrison turned to him and thrust his hand to shake.
"Yes, we are mightily in debt to the incredible fighting skills you displayed, Mr., uh...who should we call you?"
The man looked at Garrison's hand as if he didn't understand the gesture, then turned to face him and bowed deeply at the waist. "Sung."
Garrison withdrew his hand and clumsily attempted a bow, furrows of confusion etched on his face. "Uh, that's a mighty uncommon name you have, sir. You aren't from around here, are you?"
The man bowed and shook his head, unhappy as to either his inability to be understood or to the importance that the indigenous people place on names and race. He reached to the back of his head and untied his mask, pulling it off and shaking his head. Before Garrison stood a beautiful woman with almond-shaped eyes, high cheekbones and jet-black hair. "No, not from here. Name Sung Tao-Oh, and from Yrrkune; am Kunese. And not 'sir', Mr. Garrison."
Four lungs audibly filled with air. The elf leaped to his feet and grabbed his thin sword, almost tripping over the fire as he took a stance. "A Kuni! I thought your people were only legends! You worship the Dark Walker as well! You saved us from one evil--do you intend to deliver us to one of your own?"
Sung smiled and shook her head again. "West folk...always same...but expect more from an elf. If paint with wide brush, paint crowd, but miss people. Kuni not all worship Vornoth. When alone, some of us worship Bul To Ek, prophet of Reeanan."
The elf lowered his blade and nodded. "Yes, you did fight against evil today. I rush to judge, I'm afraid. We are all in debt to you, miss Oh."
Tao bowed, adding "Will ever fight evil. My people killed by orcs, land and food taken, made to worship evil gods, even sacrificed. But Kuni-do live in secret, always wait for time when we can push them out of Yrrkune. And Sung is family name...Tao is my name."
Una stood and turned to Tao, fascinated with her fighting skills; even more so with her gender. "Uh, Miss Tao, do all of your people travel in the trees like you do? And where did you learn to fight like that? Do all of your women fight?"
Tao smiled at the amount of questions, and probably the fact that she has had to answer them many times. "No, Miss Una, only when trouble ahead. She who is one with the trees and one with nature can never be wrong, nor be beaten. This is the way of kuni-do. We learn to fight from youth. Orcs and oluks rule our land and keep men from training. Women live in huts and tend to children, men work hard lives; we train since men cannot. Use and train with short sword, since only butchers are allowed them."
She pulled out her sword and the chained sticks, holding them up for the women to see. "Use nunchaku masked to flail wheat, but train with it. Use long staff, or 'bo', to clear vines and weeds, but train with it as well. Learn hand fighting in huts. Many times go to market, learn walking in trees, called 'echa-do' to get there. Hunt with short throw knife. Is position of honor to be kuni-do; men cannot, and suffer without honor.
But Dark Ones are too many, too strong to fight. We live for day when Dark Ones turn backs..." she hung her head with the story, showing her pain and anger. "Roots soon done--you will find tasty when cooked this way, is very good food." She bent over and stuck one with her knife.
Garrison sat back down on a stump of a tree, still in obvious pain. "That's an incredible story, Miss Tao. I'd like to meet your people, and hope that some day we can all throw their influence over us, their threats that hang over us like a sword. But even though they are still powerful, it was humans who attacked us. It seems that evil can rear its head and strike anyone, at any time, from anywhere. I don't know how we'll be able to continue our mission."
Thanos stood and walked to the fire, where the three women were already sharing a root. He picked one up on the end of his sword and sliced it in half, handing a part of it to Garrison. "How far does your mission go? Are you headed all the way to the Far City?"
The Duke took the root and bit a piece off. "Actually, we were supposed to the border of Farland, where there's a military contingent that's to meet us at the fortress of Sum. But as of right now, I think we're simply in survival mode."
Thanos nodded and chomped down on his half of the root. His brow furrowed in surprise, finding it very tasty and refreshing; he turned to Oh, perhaps to congratulate her on finding it, even more so on having the knowledge of this type of cuisine; but he thought the better of it, deciding instead to act as if he knew about such food all along. "I don't think that will be a problem, sir. I am heading in that general direction; my quest is not that critical that I cannot take a side trip; I can go with you to Sum." Turning to Oh, he suggested "How about you, Miss Sung? Can you accompany us?"
Oh turned from her discussions with Una and Lasar; looking down and thinking for a brief moment, she nodded, "Yes, think I can do so as well; but after, must go directly to town of Norville; have important mission there."
Thanos stopped in the middle of a chew of his root, looking surprised. "Norville? That is where I am going, Miss Sung! If you wouldn't mind the company, we could go there together once we leave Sum! What is your mission?"
Oh bowed her head slightly, looking to the other women, to Garrison, and slowly back to Thanos. "Some winds blow many leaves to many places; some winds blow single leaf to one place; all leaves have reason to be where they are. I will go with you."
Thanos nodded at the strange words; perhaps the Kuni speak only in metaphors and strange ideas, he thought. Being young for an elf and with limited experience with non-elves, he decided to feign understanding; perhaps he'd understand her later, and time was always on the side of an elf. "Fair enough. We should be going soon, then. We have a few hours before we should rest for the night--I am sure we can find suitable shelter further along the road."
Garrison looked puzzled. "What, good elf, is so special about Norville? I've heard of it--it's just a small town on the border of the Northern Lands, just a fishing village, as I gather."
Thanos nodded, gathering his arrows and sheathing his thin long sword. "It is more than that, sir Duke. The Dark Forces often sweep through the small towns along the border, and they often have forays into the town to torture the inhabitants. They take what they want and leave the people just enough to eke out a living. My people have always championed the poor and those are downtrodden, robbed, beaten, raped and killed. I am going there to make a difference."
Garrison nodded. "That's a very impressive mission, a tall order to fill. I wish you luck." He glanced at the path from beneath the overhang, noticing that there were no ripples in the puddles. "It looks as if the rain's stopping somewhat; shall we be gone?"