(Note: This is not official version and may be removed in the near future. This do not reflect what is read in the podcast version, nor any other version you may encounter. I have preserved the rough form for posterity — or something like that. This novel has since been rewritten.)
As soon as he had finished his meal James slipped out of the keep and searched for Darl. He found the old man swinging a battered wood sword near the eastern wall. A soldier, who should have been walking the walls on lookout, seemed fixed on the activity. James found the situation laughable, after all Darl looked no more fit to swing a sword in battle than he. In a wide circle where Darl stood were a series of evenly spaced torches laid out specifically for the lesson.
When he approached, Darl tossed another wooden sword up at him. He grabbed at it out of instinct, managed to knock the hilt clumsily with the back of his hand, and groaned as the flat end of the blade smacked him on the crown of his head. His Fearl quivered, but to his dismay did nothing more. A feeling appeared deep in his mind and he tried to decipher it. I’m on my own here, he thought.
“Expect more where that came from boy,” Darl said.
He glared and picked up the blade. It was long with enough room on the handle for two hands, and when he lifted it he found it to be far heavier than expected.
“First things first. Stances. There are five basic stances. Do as I do.”
First Darl raised his sword so it ran parallel with the ground—left arm at the end of the hilt and right arm at the front, right foot straight back and body facing towards the blade. This he called the ox and James mimicked it as best he could. Then Darl showed him the plow—the hilt near the waste and the blade pointing at an angle upwards—the fool—the blade pointed towards the ground from the waste—and then the roof—the blade pointing back at an angle away from the shoulder. The final position Darl called the near guard, holding the hilt to the side so that the blade ran back behind him towards the ground. He attempted to mimic them all.
“Pathetic, but good.”
“How could it be pathetic and good at the same time?”
“It’s pathetic because you have no concept of what you are doing, and it’s good because you’re at least attempting to do something you are completely incapable of doing properly. Now, again.”
James repeated the five stances and again Darl insulted him. As frustration built up inside of him he pushed himself harder and harder to get the stances correct. The motions seemed to get easier, only after a while the muscles in his arms began to protest. At first he ignored it. Then the pain forced him to groan and he dropped his arms from the ox stance.
“A few minutes of hard work and you fall apart. That’s wonderful.”
“Get off my back Darl!” he snapped.
Darl grinned wide. “You think that Luthien’s men will just get off of your back when you cannot defend yourself? Do you think his assassins will give you time to rest before killing you? No, my boy, there are no breaks in the real world. And to think you intend to use magic. Magic will suck you out from the inside. Imagine that. Now you feel physical pain, but what if your insides felt like they were boiling? Perhaps you enjoy the sensation of your brain cracking down the middle?” Darl jammed his blade into the earth and let it stand.
“I get it.” James lifted the sword and started again. He tried to let his mind wander, to avoid thinking about the aches in his muscles as he continued to push them beyond their limits. He hadn’t thought about what magic could do to him. Every time he had used it, there had been side effects. Mostly blurriness in his vision, but that had been on relatively simple spells. What if I have to kill someone? What pains would I feel then? Would I even survive? He came to realize the limitations of magic, above and beyond what he had learned in the book. Magic could kill me.
After what seemed like hours, Darl stopped him and let him rest. He dropped like a rock to the ground and panted heavily. His arms burned like fire and he dared not touch them for fear of making it worse. A soft sigh of relief escaped his lips. How long must I stay here before I can save Laura? How much can I possibly learn in that time? It had occurred to him that he might be in the Farthland for many months. It would take twenty days to reach Teirlin’pur, assuming he could acquire a horse and ride from dawn to dusk, and even if he could reach that far unseen, his chances of ever reaching Laura were slim at best. He had no friends in Angtholand, and the Farthland had no allies there. He would be utterly alone.
Darl came to him with a large clay bowl filled with water. He thanked Darl and drank quickly, feeling the cold liquid pour through his body as if it were rejuvenating his tired muscles. The aches remained, but he sighed deeply nonetheless. Then Darl snatched up one of his arms. He protested angrily, trying with what little energy he had to get his arm back. But Darl refused to let go, instead producing a small, round wood box. Inside was an off-white cream, which Darl dug his fingers into and began to rub over the sore muscles of James’ arms. Immediate relief came to James and he resisted no more. The salve, whatever it was, had a pungent odor, yet he ignored it as the soft sensation of relief filtered through every inch of his screaming arms. Then Darl stood.
“A good concoction to have around. I won’t tell you what’s in it. You’d probably get sick.”
James didn’t much care what was in the stuff, and even if he did, he knew from the seriousness in Darl’s voice that he likely didn’t want to know anyway.
“Alright, that’s enough resting. Up.”
James rolled to his knees and stood, half expecting his muscles to flare up in protest. The salve had completely rid his arms of the exhaustion that should have been there. In is head, however, he knew better. The salve had masked the tiredness in his arms, not relieved it like some magical potion. No matter how much he did for the rest of the day, he knew he would hurt horrendously the following day.
“Now, for a little sparring.” Darl plucked his sword effortlessly from the ground and beckoned James forward.
Despite his mental protests, James picked up his sword and came within two blade lengths of Darl.
“Defend if you can.” Then Darl lifted the blade, bounded forward, and swung. James dodged it, barely, blocked a blow to his shoulder, and managed to get a few blades of distance between he and the old man. He blocked another shot, the blades making loud thwacks as they collided. Darl came at him again. He moved out of the way of one blow, then saw an opportunity to strike as Darl swung too far and left his right side wide open. He took the shot and snapped his blade sideways from the ox position. His hopes were dashed as Darl saw his plan, slipped to the side like a cat and hit him square in the back with the middle of his blade. James heard the blow before he felt it. It sounded like a squishy thud. Then the reality of the situation hit him and he toppled over onto the ground. He desperately tried to ease the pain, rubbing his hands and fingers on what little he could in the small of his back where the blade had hit. A loud whine escaped through the bulb in his throat.
“Get up boy.”
He faced Darl, but didn’t stand.
“When you plan to take advantage of an opponent, don’t leave yourself defenseless. You should have jabbed me in the chest. That was a foolish move. Now get up!”
Another groan broke free as he tried to force himself up. Throbbing pain shot up his back with every motion. Finally he managed to stand, sword in hand. Darl didn’t waste a moment, moving fluidly to attack. James slid sideways, going this way and that, trying desperately to avoid the old man. It surprised him how well Darl could move. He hadn’t expected such powerful and smooth motions from such an aged person.
Darl succeeded in closing the gap and James finally had to raise the sword to defend. He blocked two blows to his chest, sidestepped a thrust to his gut, and somehow slid underneath Darl’s guard. The advice Darl had given him came to mind and he continued forward and extended the blade so it would hit the old man in the stomach. Just as he extended his arm, a powerful thud resonated through his head, a searing jolt of pain shot out from his neck, and he crashed like a lifeless body to the ground.
* * *
When he woke, Triska leaned over him, a soft moist cloth in her hand. She patted his forehead with it. A soft bed had been strung up in the center of the dining floor within the keep where he now lay. Then the familiar sound of Pea and Darl arguing sounded through the room and he regained all his senses—including the endless throb in his back and the new sensation of a concussion.
“I was teaching,” Darl said.
“You were showing off!” Pea said, voice raised high and mighty for a creature so small. “James has never lifted a sword in his life and you expect him to suddenly know the entirety of sword training in a matter of hours.”
“You gave him that little book. He likely read something on it already.”
“That is irrelevant! Beating him senseless doesn’t teach him anything!”
Darl snapped at Gammon next. “You went through similar training, Gammon.”
“Many years ago,” Gammon said.
“Tell me, do you think I am being overly harsh in comparison. Or should I go easy on him so he can dance like a little pixie in the evening light?”
That sarcasm again, James thought. He truly is rude.
For a short while Gammon fidgeted, as if unsure how to respond. Then he said, “I think you have been a bit harsh. Most of us that become soldiers are groomed to do so from birth. James had no such upbringing.”
“Bah!” Feet stamping, Darl stormed up the stairs. The ring of footsteps echoed through the stone walls like rhythmic drumbeats.
Triska put a wet cloth gently over the knot that had formed on James’ head. He winced and then felt a soothing sensation run through him. She rolled him gently to his side and applied another to his back and loosely tied the cloth. Relief rolled through him completely. She had used the salve, mixed in water so it could be soaked into rags. He relished in the powerful sensation that ran along every inch of his aching body. A sigh escaped his lips. Then he laid back.
Pea came over to his side and said, “I don’t think we’ll be doing much magic today. Darl overstepped his bounds and subsequently put you in this terrible situation that, unfortunately, requires time to heal.” He sprung up to speak, but Pea stopped him with a wave. “Not today. Tomorrow we’ll have your first lesson. For now, you need rest. I want you full of energy when we start your training. Swordplay is nothing compared to what you’ll be subjected to tomorrow.” Then Pea left his side and found a seat near the fire.
Triska still leaned over him. “I think it best you sleep for now.” Her beaming face filled him with motherly warmth. For a moment he forgot where he was, enjoying every moment of that emotion as if he were home.
“I think I’ll read for a little first. If I can’t have my first lesson physically, I can at least educate myself more on the subject. Would you mind getting it for me?”
“Of course.” Triska disappeared up the stairs, returned a few moments later with the book, gave it to him, and joined Pea near the fire.
He opened it and immediately recognized something new. On the first page, written in shiny black letters that gently glistened, were the words “Updated by Azimus Barthalamule on One Three Twenty Three”. The first day of the third month of the twentieth year in the third age. He recalled the short bit he had read about the calendar of the people of Traea. It, surprisingly, bore striking similarities to the calendar he was most familiar with. The only difference, he had noted, was that for the people of Traea, it was March, and the weather indicated that it was nearly summer. This meant that the seasons, while close, were just slightly off in comparison to Earth. Spring started sooner.
His little book had been updated. What that meant he couldn’t be sure. Does the publisher have a way to magically edit or add new material? He flipped to the chapters list and found little marks next to several chapters. When he went to those chapters he found that new sections had been added in bold type, which, as he read, slowly lightened until they were the same color as the rest of the text and he had finished. There were new chapters as well, but these he did not read. Instead, he went to the sections on magic, refreshed his memory on chapters he had already read, and read new chapters in the process. He’d come to understand that every magic user, whether born with the ability or enchanted with it, had limitations. Even the most powerful of users could kill themselves if they weren’t careful—the more elaborate or magically taxing a spell, the more damage it could do to the casters physical person. His Fearl was no different. Every time he had cast a spell, his vision had gone hazy. And those instances were for relatively simplistic spells.
Except in the instance of Mr. Aldridge. Nothing had happened to James when the Fearl had thrown Aldridge high into the trees. Nothing at all. He couldn’t quite explain it. Perhaps this Fearl has a reserve supply of energy for itself. Ammond said it was powerful. Maybe, he moved his arm in front of his face so he could see the Fearl, there is something else to this thing.
After what seemed like an hour of reading a slight sensation of tiredness came over him. He set the book down and closed his eyes. Magic, he realized, would be the most difficult thing he would ever learn. He thought it hard to deal with Darl’s training, but after reading how harsh magic could be to one unprepared, and how easily it could be for him to become overwhelmed and destroy himself, he had second thoughts about learning at all. Magic, if he was unable to control it, could very well build up within him and leave him little more than a vegetable. He gulped back his worries. I’ll be okay. Pea won’t let anything happen to me. He convinced himself as best he could. I can control it. I’ve already used it. I’ll be fine.
All I have to do is imagine and it will happen.
He closed his eyes and let his mind wander so he could sleep.
* * *
James opened his eyes and saw the familiar stone ceiling of the keep, but he didn’t wake, not entirely. The Fearl called from the back of his mind, beckoning him to wait. And he did, sitting there in a paralyzed state of consciousness, fully aware of where he was, but unable to move. The airy voice of the Fearl came out from the back of his mind and spoke. He’d heard it before back home, but this time it actually spoke clearly.
“James,” it said.
He didn’t respond, unsure of how to do so.
“Think the words, I will hear you.”
Wh-what are you? The words stuttered in his mind as if he were really speaking them.
“I am the voice of your Fearl, the entity that has bound so closely to you.”
I don’t understand. He had read nothing in his book and only remembered Nora mentioning such a thing before when she had failed miserably to remove the Fearl.
“Every Fearl has a…guiding voice if you will. It is a connection with the person who’s magic was placed within.”
I thought many could place their power within a Fearl.
“Yes, I am simply the dominant voice. Quick, there isn’t much time and I have much to speak. You must take heed of what Pea teaches you. It is of the utmost importance that you learn to use my magic effectively. Dark times are coming, perhaps not for you, but for many. My magic will keep you alive and you will be able to save your friend.”
“I cannot say. As your Voice I speak only on what little resides within you and from what I know. I cannot see the future, nor can I tell you how you can achieve the things you learn in my guidance. That is all I can give short of the few treasure troves of knowledge left within this consciousness.”
What is your name?
“I was once known as Dulien of Northshire. But that was long ago.”
How have you bonded to me so closely and why?
“Those who have questioned you were right to do so. There is much more to you than even I understand, and whatever that is has accounted for this bond. From the moment the Fearl touched your skin I could sense something great. You possess a gift. Just as you are ignorant to it, I am completely in the dark.”
Pea and Triska appeared in his field of vision. He saw them like moving glass sculptures, speaking to him as if he could hear them. But the only sounds that resonated through his eardrums were the deep breaths of Dulien and his own long-winded breathing.
“This is our first contact. I am afraid it will not be a long one. Such things never are. Just remember, when you desire my council, you must achieve this state after slumber. Only then can you fully hear me.”
How can I do it again?
“Just before you drop out of sleep you must push away the waking world. Call to me and I will come.”
Why did you choose me?
Before James could inquire further a high-pitched whistle rained through his head, culminating into a loud pop. He felt as if he had gained tremendous altitude too fast for his body to adjust. Then the paralysis broke. The waking world hit him like a brick, smashing into him wildly. His arms and legs moved as if they had minds of their own. The spasm went on into his chest until finally it all stopped and he could breath. His head swam in dizziness.
“James?” Pea said, concern deep in his voice. “Speak to me my boy.”
For a while James just stood there, looking into their faces. Triska no longer beamed brightly at him, rather her face looked contorted. Pea, too, looked at him, brow folded down so that long wrinkles appeared.
“Come on now. Snap out of it.” Pea shook him slightly.
Then it seemed as if everything came back into complete focus. He blinked his eyes a few times, looked from Pea to Triska and back again. “I think I’m alright,” he said.
“Thank goodness!” Triska said, breathing a sigh of relief. “What happened?”
“Well, I’m led to believe that he has just discovered what a Voice is,” Pea said.
Triska’s eyes shined with enthusiasm. “Who is it?”
“Dulien of Northshire,” he said.
“Oh, what wonder!”
“What power!” Pea and Triska clasped hands like two little children and laughed.
“Who is he?”
Pea stopped. “He’s quite a known name if you’re one of Luthien’s men. If it weren’t for him, I think the first invasions by Luthien’s army across the Fire Rim would have succeeded.”
“Such luck this little boy has…”
“How is this luck?” Anger welled up inside him. “Look at everything that has happened. Laura was taken. I’ve been marked. How can you say this is all luck? Darkness has overcome the land and you think it luck? I’m a curse here!”
But he cut Pea off. He sat up. “Pea, everything I’ve ever known is gone. I may never return home. I could be here forever. And what if we can’t save my friend? What is going to happen to her? She is the only one I have.”
“You have us.” Triska said softly.
“It’s not the same! She is all I have. All I truly have. I have no family, no mother, and no father. If I can’t save Laura, I cannot return home. I can’t go back without her. But if I can never return home it would be unbearable to live a life here without her. She is my best friend and the last bit of home I have left.” Then he dropped down into the bed, tears welling up in his eyes. All that had happened and would happen fell down on him like a mountain of cold stone. He sobbed, unable to control his emotions any longer. Nobody judged him for it, he could sense that, and that allowed him to weep freely.
Then, slowly, he calmed himself. The tears stopped. He wiped his face. “What was I thinking coming here?”
Pea came close to him and took his arm. “You did a noble thing. The only way you could save your friend was to come here. That is bravery at its best.” Triska hugged him
“James, you brave little boy. Fret not. I promise you that if there is a way to get you home, all of us will help you find it.” A tear formed in the corner of her eye. She brushed it away. “Trust in this new friendship. We are here for you.”
James mustered up a smile, sniffled. He wasn’t alone, not really. Home was as far as it could possibly be from him; yet, a great many were willing to help him in some way. That thought brightened his mind until it clouded the dismal reality set before him, as if it were a cloak laid over a light. I am not really alone in this.
“I’m sorry I yelled at you.”
Pea and Triska nodded their heads as if to say, “It’s okay.”
“I think I should go lay down in my room. Clear my head.” He ran his fingers through his hair. They all agreed and helped him up. He accepted the gesture, though no pain stung him thanks to the salve. Then he retired to his room, slid like a snake into his bed. He didn’t change his clothes; instead he pulled the hood of the cowl over his head and slept.
* * *
James woke up in agony. The salve had worn off. He groaned and dared not touch the bruise that had formed across his back and the knot that had found a home on his head. Instead, he climbed out of the bed, battling with the pain that each movement brought, and went to a mirror. Lifting his shirt, he tried to see the bruise. It stretched wide in an inch thick line across the entire expanse of the small of his back, purple and black. He couldn’t see the one on his head, but knew it had become a thick bulb that, if he touched it, would erupt in sharp pain.
With nothing but darkness outside he couldn’t be sure of the time. Nothing indicated if it were day or night. And he wasn’t sure how long he had slept. An hour, or two. Maybe more. Either way, he was up, and he didn’t feel much like sleeping anymore, mostly because the pain in his back and head left him with the desire to find more of the salve.
James walked over to the window of his room and peered down into the ward of the castle. The gates had been closed, two guards walked the walls on opposite ends, four were down near the gate talking, and four more were in each of the wall towers. A couple of burly laughs told him that there were other soldiers out of his view on the opposite end of the keep.
Something glimmered and caught his eye. He looked out beyond the keep. Nothing. Then, something. A black shape leapt and crawled its way along the roofs of several buildings, slipping in and out of view of the various torches strewn across the cityscape. Silently it bound like an animal until it disappeared below his vision. He listened, but heard nothing. Down below the guards seemed oblivious. Not even the guards on the walls seemed to see what he was seeing. He tried to find the figure again. Nothing.
Finally he called out. “There’s something coming! East of Naz’ra!” At first the guards directly below him paid no attention, then a command came from the northeastern most wall tower and the entire castle bustled with activity. One man pointed in one direction, and a moment later pointed in another. James had no way to see, but began to think there had to be more than one of the figure, whatever it was.
Suddenly all was silent. No arms pointed; no arrows were strung. James felt as if everything were moving in slow motion. Along the side of the wall appeared the black figure, only now he could see it clearer. It bore no resemblance to a man, but looked almost like a dog and cat put together. Its face was wide and scrunched up like a cat, it’s fur slicked back along its muscular canine body. Two feline ears curve back into slightly curled points along the crest of its head and rather than a proportional mouth, it bore a wide, gaping grin filled with dozens of pointed, bloodstained teeth. Each of its four feet ended in long, sharp claws. A smooth tail swung fluidly behind it.
The creature made little noise as it snuck up behind the closest guard. In one motion it bit down, taking the man’s whole head in its mouth. The guard barely yelped before the creature reduced his head into a mass of flesh and blood. Before the next guard could alert the others, he too fell, his neck ripped to pieces by a swift slash from the creatures claws. It stopped there, having cleared a path to the keep, and took three bounds until it slipped out of sight. James breathed in to send out the alert, but a third guard beat him to it. Soon six of the castles men drew up bows and arrows and launched them across the face of the keep. He closed the glass and latched it, thinking that perhaps it would stall the creature. Ear splitting screeches forced him to cringe as each of the creatures claws dug into the stone. The thin thuds of the arrows resonated along the walls. A short moment later and he could hear deep, wet breaths, followed by a sepulchral pant that gave him an impression of what the creature would sound like if it growled—a hollow, saliva filled roar akin to a lion.
James turned and ran to the door of his room. He flung it open, but before he could take a step outside it slammed shut, nearly taking his fingers with it. Pulling on it did not good; something held it shut. Magic. He searched around the room, desperately seeking something to defend himself with. Whatever it is, it’s after me. In a corner he found a broom, which he took and broke the head, turning the handle into a makeshift spear. He backed up against the far wall near the door, holding it nervously.
The clawing and scraping grew in intensity until the creature appeared in the window. It took one look at James and seemed to grin maliciously. Two quick motions and it tore the window—frame and all—off of the stone wall and flung it to the ground. A loud smash glided through the air as the glass shattered shortly after.
James’ heart leapt; his throat went dry and sweat rolled down the side of his face. He watched as the creature clawed its way through the window. A pair of blood red, cat-like eyes overwhelmed him. Fresh blood and bits of flesh fell from its mouth.
Then it broke through and landed with a thud. Its claws clicked as each one tapped on the floor. Each step it took made James flinch. He clasped the broom handle like a sword. The creature made a half-circle around him, moving back and forth, back and forth, as if it were playing a game.
“This is the boy that Luthien desires?” It spoke with an airy hiss. James shivered. The voice sounded like a cougar, in a range that made it sound intensely sinister. “Just a boy. Afraid.”
“Wh-what to you w-want?” he said. His body shook.
The creature laughed, circling. “I’ve come to bring you to Luthien. Safe and sound. Though I’d much rather taste your flesh and lap your blood from the floor.” It took a few more steps closer and circled again. “You can put that tool down. My orders are to bring you in unharmed, but I will cause you harm if I deem it necessary.”
He refused to drop the handle, still holding it forward shakily.
“Foolish.” Then it laughed and lunged forward. A huge claw swiped through the air and ripped the handle from James’ hands, and a moment later the creature lunged at him. It dug its claws into his shoulders and pushed him hard against the wall. He yelped as every inch of his body rebounded with pain. He tried to move, but couldn’t. The giant mouth of teeth sat within inches of his face, dribbling blood down the front of his clothes. The creature sniffed him, then licked the side of his cheek. It seemed to take satisfaction in the act, eyes closed, a faint purr emanating from somewhere within its muscular throat.
James tried to recall what he knew and what he had read on magic. Imagine the spell. Then cast. He thought that over and over until he had the courage. He imagined a force throwing the creature away from him. The event played in his mind. Then he placed his hands out and tried to cast. Nothing. No energy erupted from his hands.
Sudden dizziness came over him. The dizziness grew exponentially, and he sensed his consciousness slipping. A presence lingered in his mind, something other than his Fearl. Magic left his body; he could feel it, pouring out of him with his very life in tow. The creature bellowed, breathing in deep breaths. It’s sucking away my life. His senses diminished; everything became a whir. He tried desperately to cling onto the last bit of magic left.
An explosion rang through his head—sounding distant—and he saw through his blurred vision the particles of the door to his room thrown wildly in every direction, leaving behind a dark gray smoke. Something silver appeared and slashed down through the creatures’ paw. It roared in pain and leapt back, removing its remaining claw from his shoulder. He dropped to the floor, unable to stand on his own. Darl burst into the room, swinging the silver object—a sword, James guessed—and closely behind him was Pea. Then Triska and Gammon appeared, grabbed him by the shoulders, and dragged him out of the room. Just before they pulled him around the corner a piece of furniture crashed into the creature and ejected it from the room. Pea and Darl both came out of the room after him.
James couldn’t hear their voices, though he could tell from his diminishing vision that they were speaking to him. He maintained consciousness nonetheless, though completely unable to move more than a few fingers on his own. It was as if he had been given some sort of drug.
Gammon picked James up over his shoulders and carried him down the steps into the dining floor, then set him down on the bed that had been made for him earlier. Pea and Triska both began working over him. He could feel Pea and Triska using magic, trying desperately to break him from the weakness that consumed every inch of his body.
Then, with what little energy he had left, he pushed himself into paralysis.