(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.)
“Listen closely,” Belrin said. “There is no room for error.”
James leaned over and peered into the map of Traea. His gaze became fixed on Teirlin’pur. This is where we are going, he thought. What will it be like? Will it be a frightening place just like its ruler? Will we be able to get in without being caught? He pushed the thoughts away and looked back into the now serious eyes of Belrin. Darl leaned in too, grumbling something incomprehensible. James could barely see the old man’s lips move under the scraggly white beard.
“You must go north of the city. There you will find a path through the Forest of Gall. It will not be an easy path, but I believe you can pass through relatively unhindered.” Belrin waved his hand over the forest. “This area will not be pleasant, but safer than trying to go east and slip by Luthien’s army. Not much is known of the forest other than it lives. In some manner of speaking.”
“In some manner of speaking?” Darl said, his voice coming out in mocking groans.
“Much more than mere animals dwell within the far reaches. We hear the sounds of beings neither human nor animal. Beings sentient, screeching a language that we cannot understand and will never understand. No one has seen them, whatever they are.”
“Are they dangerous?”
“Only to travelers who do not leave when warned.”
“But you said you can’t understand what they say,” James said.
“They block paths, drive away horses, even Blaersteeds, and put out fires. Mischievous little creatures the whole lot.”
James wondered what could possibly live in the forest that could be such a nuisance. He thought of the native peoples in the Amazon and how easy it was for them to hide from explorers, at least those that had no great buildings or statues to boast with. He wondered if such peoples had warned the first explorers, or if they had become violent when their warnings were unheeded.
“Now, when you reach the eastern side of the forest you need to travel north along the Nor’duíl River until you reach the Summering Rocks. The water should be low enough for you to cross without a raft. The current should pose no problems. Nor’sigal is immediately east and should take you no more than half a day once across.”
“What if we’re followed or Luthien has scouts along the river?” Pea said.
Belrin looked down at Pea, and softly said, “Then you ride hard through the Black Tundra to the Black Sands until the Blaersteeds buck you or you pass out.” He looked away and continued, “Lord Falth is expecting you at Nor’sigal, or should be if our falcon reached him. He’ll be able to tell you what to expect in the Fire Rim.” His finger glided over a long flame colored line on the map.
James listened intently. He made a mental note to remember every detail. From Nor’sigal they were to travel north over the Nor’kal River, across the plains beyond and into the Fire Rim. There would be their hardest terrain—fire, marshlands, bogs, and clouded skies. The fires had raged there for centuries. He had read about it in the etiquette book. Ashes filled the atmosphere like water in a cup, falling in flurries of gray, brown, and black—a Christmas of dark colors. Nothing survived there. The trees that had once made a home there had long since died and become fuel for the fires. Powerful magic had been used to force the burning remnants to drive straight up into the sky to protect the lands beyond. No magic could stop the fires. They burned with such unnatural intensity that those who had tried to put them out failed miserably.
He worried if they could make it through such terrain. It seemed so utterly impossible even for the Blaersteeds. Making camp there would only hinder them further. He knew they could not stand the polluted air for long without becoming ill—or without dying. There was little he could do to protect his lungs against such a terrible onslaught.
From the Fire Rim they were to take a slight northeast path above the Spyder Range to the Pahn’drys Valley that sat north of Teirlin’pur, split by the center of the mountains there.
“There is a path there,” Belrin said. “It sits along the mountains. It leads under the earth to a spot just north of Teirlin’pur. Be as common as you can. You don’t want to draw attention to yourself. Luthien and his people do not know who you are. It’s not a heavily traveled path, but neither is it entirely bare or forgotten. Try to seem like simple travelers and you should have no problems passing through and gaining entry to the city. Luthien is evil, but he still runs an empire that needs to support itself. Teirlin’pur will not so easily turn away potential customers.”
James drew an imaginary line on the map to help him remember the path that Belrin had set out for them. The journey didn’t look remotely easy. He hoped they wouldn’t run into any scouts; he prayed that they would make it to Teirlin’pur in one piece.
“We think that your friend may be kept in the northern towers. Let your Blaersteeds rest at this point. When you find your friend you must ride nonstop to Sempur. A ship will be there that can take you off the mainland.”
“Where do you propose we go?” Darl said angrily. “Gallivanting across the ocean hoping that any stop we make won’t lead us to capture?” His arms were crossed.
“The Wunder Isles.”
Pea choked. “Are you mad?”
“Quite possibly. But no more mad than the sea captain who will agree to take you across the waters to Ra.”
Darl spat on the ground. “The worst part of this is it all makes sense. Slip in undetected, steal the boy’s friend, and then flee to a place where not even Luthien is crazy enough to follow.”
“Better than maneuvering through the Black Sands on rumors that there is a great city somewhere beyond.”
Darl agreed with a single nod of his head. “What is the name of the ship?”
Darl seemed to contemplate this name. James thought maybe the old man had heard of it.
“Who runs it?”
“And he is expecting us?”
“No. But he won’t be difficult to convince. Captain Norp is somewhat of a renegade and a thrill seeker in Angtholand. He holds no real allegiance to anyone, except for those that can present him the appropriate challenge.”
“We leave in the morning?”
“Yes. First hour of sunrise.”
“So be it.”
Belrin stood. “I’ll leave this map here. Forgive me, but I must attend to the city. Defenses must be put in place.” Then Belrin left the room.
James spoke first, breaking the silence. “What’s the plan?”
Darl leaned back his head and sighed. “We follow the path given to us.”
“You can’t be serious!” Pea said.
“You and I both know he’s nothing but serious. I agree with him.”
The little man dropped his jaw. “You’re both insane. There are no paths through the Fire Rim in the north. You know that Darl. We could be wandering there for days.”
“Any other paths would lead us to Luthien,” James said. He shivered at the thought of running into lines and lines of soldiers, and shivered even more as the thought of a hundred lyphons marching across wide expanses of grasslands forced its way into his mind.
“Darl…” Pea pleaded with his eyes.
“We take the way presented to us.”
Pea stormed out of the room and could be heard mumbling and muttering outside. James leaned his head onto his hands and looked down at the map. There’s little cover for us if we go south. No huge forests. Nothing like that at all. We’d almost be out in the open for miles. He too saw that what Belrin had suggested seemed logical. Luthien’s empire would be open with much of its army fighting so far away. Luthien needs money and resources. He needs to keep his people happy. They would have overthrown him by now if he couldn’t do that.
He thought about Laura being trapped in some strange place—the towers in Teirlin’pur. A quick flip through his etiquette book showed that there were eight northern towers, all of which were dwarfed by the two that once stood in Arlin City. One of those eight was the cage that held Laura, or so Belrin had said. The fact of the matter was that Laura could have been anywhere in the city, or not there at all. But he refused to believe that she was dead. He’d known her far too long to think of such things.
Darl studied the map for a long while; James did too to some extent, but he found that he could only study the landscape so long before his eyes began to droop with boredom. He eventually left Darl behind and went outside. He found Pea near the Blaersteeds stroking the nose of the same chocolate colored one from earlier.
“Beautiful creatures. Magnificent in all their beauty,” Pea said. “Look at them. They are descendants of an age long lost. Regal beyond measure.”
James looked up at the two other Blaersteeds. The black one looked back at him and a chill ran up his spine. Something about the darkness of its coat made him uneasy. He slid alongside Pea to the second chocolate Blaersteed and gently raised his hand. It looked at him as if trying to size him up, then abruptly turned around to expose her behind to his face.
“Apparently she dislikes you.” A faint sound of something gurgling forced James to take a few steps back. Then the Blaersteed defecated. He looked to Pea, who grinned. “Very rude, but nobody ever said that Blaersteeds had manners.” The grin grew wider.
He turned his gaze to the black Blaersteed. Its eyes were pools of water bathed in nothing but the darkness of night. Its mane glistened eerily. Again he shivered. It took him a moment to gain the courage, but he managed to force his legs to guide him to the last Blaersteed. He raised his hand. The black animal sniffed him. For a moment he thought it would explode in fury. Then, to his surprise, it lowered its nose under his hand and rubbed against him. He stroked it gently at first as if afraid this gesture of good faith was a trap. Looking into the deep pools of its eyes he suddenly felt calm. Waves of relief came over him and he couldn’t quite explain it.
“I think she likes me,” he said as he stopped stroking the black steed to look over at Pea with a smile. The Blaersteed grunted and bumped him in the back with its nose. He toppled over.
“Yes, I can see that!” Pea guffawed. “That’s a he by the way. Unlike normal horses, Blaersteeds don’t go on a rampage when females are present.”
James stood back up and glared at the Blaersteed, which in turn seemed to curl away in childlike innocence. He started to stroke its nose again; the steed nestled against him and the two eyes closed.
“Have you ever ridden before?”
“A few times,” he said. “I’m not an expert though.”
“Neither am I. I have shorter legs.”
Food was brought on a round silver tray—fruit, bread, and dehydrated fidget fowl meat. James left the Blaersteed and ate, along with Pea and Darl. Nobody spoke through most of the meal. Each took their share, chewed, swallowed, and drank without as much as a word. James understood how dangerous this journey would be, yet he knew now that he was willing to die trying to save Laura. Pea had already pledged loyalty to him. But he did not care for the idea of bringing anyone else on a mission that had a high likelihood to fail. But I won’t fail. I can’t fail.
Finally he broke the silence and said, “Are you familiar with the people of this city Darl?”
Darl stopped examining the map that was still on the table. “Why?”
“You’ve been, well, nice to the people here.”
“I once commanded Lord Alrith. We fought together over the city of Passing.”
“What happened?” He saw the sadness in Darl’s eyes.
“A rogue force from the Muértland had set its sights on Passing, killing everything they saw along the way. I commanded an army of five hundred men and we went to meet the enemy there and to build up the cities’ defenses. I misjudged the enemies’ numbers, and their intelligence. In the end the city was taken. Many of Lord Alrith’s friends were killed, and one of Triska’s sons. I’ve been paying for it for decades now.”
“It was my mistake. Not yours. This is why I am unwilling to disrespect Lord Alrith nor any of the men that I once commanded that now live in this city.”
“I see.” He didn’t press the matter.
It seemed to James as though the day was running in fast forward. He practiced magic with Pea, further learning how valuable his powers really were and how strong he could make himself when he applied it with his sword fighting. A third lesson with Darl proved to be worse than the first two. He came out of it feeling as though his arms were jelly. Darl had waited to stop the lesson until James could no longer defend himself. James never laid a single blow on Darl. At one point he thought he had come close, but in actuality Darl had purposefully made it seem that way just so he would make a horrible mistake and overcorrect his swing. The result was a nice sideways tap on the back of his neck. He hit the ground hard and that was the end of the lesson.
Night approached and James once again returned to the black Blaersteed, petting it on the nose, running his hands through the soft mane and enjoying the company of the beast he would have to ride for the next long while. He gazed at the city and all its changes. Lines of pikes had been raised up along the outside of the walls to provide additional protection against any ladders that might be used. Ti’nagal had the fortune of being a city built around a walled city, making it difficult for the walls to be torn to the ground. James remembered the giant rams of black smoke. Ti’nagal would not be an easy target for such weaponry. The main gate had been fortified ten fold and traps built throughout the outer city. There will be a lot of bloodshed here.
James slept near the black Blaersteed, propping his body against the hay on the ground. When he awoke his first instinct was to speak with Dulien, but just as had happened before he decided against it. He still had nothing to say to his Fearl. The light that had once shined so brightly now seemed to disappear, but he could feel that none of his magic was lost. As his abilities grew, the mark dimmed when he pulled on the magic. He guessed that this meant he was relying less on Dulien’s ambient energies now than he had before.
He had awoken with the dark of night still heavy in the sky. Morning was not far away. Darl and Pea were awake as well and at some point in his sleep someone had packed all their things onto the Blaersteeds and brought them to stand in the road. Both swords were sheathed—his alongside the black steed. In the dark he could just make out a figure.
“This is Bel’ahtor,” Belrin said, coming just far enough out of the shadows to show himself. He released the reins from one of the chocolate colored Blaersteeds. The steed gently clack-clacked over to Pea. The horse leaned down and Pea gently rubbed its head. Then Pea climbed up the side of the horse by the reins, only able to do so because of his light weight. In a matter of seconds the little man was firmly fixed on the saddle. James marveled at how tiny Pea actually was. The people of Ti’nagal had fixed Bel’ahtor with a modified saddle that fit between the little man’s legs, somewhat, but on the giant Blaersteed Pea looked like a tiny child in a pair of slightly ragged, yet halfway regal looking clothes.
“This is Arna’tu.” The second chocolate horse was let go. This time Darl did not remain still, instead he stepped forward, took the Blaersteeds’ reins and inspected the animal. At first the steed protested. Darl spoke soft words and the animal quieted. Then Darl, too, mounted his horse.
“This steed is the last male in the Farthland. His name is Mirdur’eth.”
The black steed pulled away before Belrin could release the reins. It strode up in strong motions and lowered its head to eye level. James smiled and Mirdur’eth pushed against his chest as if playfully trying to push him over. Then he took the reins, put his foot into the stirrup and lifted himself up. He failed miserably, only managing to get his leg halfway over the saddle. He tried again. Failure abounded. After two more tries he resorted to clambering up the side like someone rock climbing a steep cliff face. This time he placed his butt firmly in the saddle and took the reins. He leaned over next to the two flittering ears and said softly, “Sorry. I’m not too good at this.” Mirdur’eth rocked his head up and down, bearing his big horse teeth. “No need to make fun.” James patted his newfound animal friend on the back.
“I’m sorry that our time has been so short lived,” Belrin said. “You know the direction you must go?”
“To Nor’sigal,” James said,
Belrin inclined his head. “Lord Falth will guide you further. He’ll have more time to spare than we do here.”
“We’ll do our part. Find your friend and get her to safety. Now go.”
James didn’t have to motion for movement; Mirdur’eth instantly turned and headed down the road towards the gates. Bel’ahtor and Arna’tu followed. They stayed exactly five feet behind as if Mirdur’eth was their leader.
Darl yelled backwards at Belrin. “Kill them by the thousands!” His voice was powerful and respectful—the voice of a friend.
“That we will,” was Belrin’s response. Then the three of them were out of site.
“What are we going to do about the Lean?” James said as the gate came into view. “He can’t come with us.”
“No,” Darl said.
“Why not send him elsewhere? He has the luxury of being adept at moving in and out of places we cannot,” Pea said in such a way that seemed to goad James and Darl into inquiring further.
“You sound like you already have a plan.” James looked back.
Pea only grinned.
“Would you mind telling those of us who cannot read your mind?” Darl turned grumpily.
“Since James and I seem to be the only ones left out of the loop in regards to rumors, why not have him glide his way through the Black Sands. He can confirm if there really is a city there, or anything there at all. He doesn’t require food or resources, he can just go on and on and on until the sun comes and goes, and goes and comes.”
“Not a bad idea.” James grinned back at Pea.
“Well, we Erdluitles are…”
“…full of good ideas. Yes, we get it.” Darl gently tapped on the sides of Arna’tu; she trotted forward a few paces.
“Well that was quite rude and uncalled for…”
They trotted up to the gates, which had been opened wide for them to pass through. Once through they halted where the shadowy figure of the Lean floated. The Lean looked up with those two pinpoints of light.
“I cannot ride by horseback,” the Lean said.
“You won’t have to,” James said.
“Then how will I follow?”
“You won’t. We need to ask you a favor. Can you go across the Black Sands?”
“What purpose would that serve?”
“I’ve heard rumors of a city,” Darl said. “A great city. If you can confirm that, it could be an ally against Luthien.”
“We need all the help we can get.” James waited patiently for the Lean’s response. The Lean shifted with the wind.
“Then I will go. Where will you ride?”
“Then may you be safe in your journey.”
Then the Lean disappeared. Some distance away at the edge of the outer city James thought he saw the shadowy figure reappear and begin to glide.
Mirdur’eth led the group. James refused to take any control. It seemed as thought the Blaersteed knew exactly what was going on, and where to go. They passed through the outer reaches of the city. There were no people here, all of which had been brought within the city walls. James likened it to a ghost town, though he had never been to one. There was an eerie quiet to the place now. He gathered that a lot of that eeriness had to do with the coming of dawn. The western horizon was dark, but a faint glimmer of light, dark blue as the depths of the ocean, steadily grew. The colors were distorted as if thick mist filled the air—waving and shifting.
Once outside of the city the Blaersteeds took off at a slow trot. James bobbed and bumped. He hadn’t ridden enough in his life and he had a horrible feeling that he might be hurting Mirdur’eth, or at least causing the black steed unnecessary discomfort. He focused on the pattern of the movement. Rhythms ran through his mind and slowly, though not in any expert fashion, he managed to minimize his bumping, causing himself more discomfort than his steed.
They reached the edge of the Forest of Gall in a matter of minutes, though James thought it was longer. As Belrin had said there was a path, worn and beaten by nature, but still visible. They halted at the edge to take one final look back. Lights had been strung up within Ti’nagal. There were crews working early to make the final changes to the cities’ defenses. James bowed his head in sorrow. He was thankful he had not become too acquainted with any of the inhabitants there, much like he had in Arlin City. He knew that his heart could not take the hurt that the death of a close relationship would give him.
There was silence, complete and unhindered. No sounds came from the forest, not even of birds. The forest slept like the living ecosystem that it was. Nocturnal creatures, wherever they were, remained silent in their wanderings for food.
Then a loud crack sounded. The Blaersteeds shifted uneasily; a single vibration passed through Mirdur’eth to James’ body. Another crack came, this time so loud that James thought that the inside of his head were making the noise. Stronger vibrations came and he could actually see the movement of the earth.
He turned to Darl, but before he could speak a tremendous boom tore through the air. He could hear the individual waves pulsing as the sound crashed into his ears. A flash of red light lit the grasslands and Ti’nagal. When he finally turned he saw that the peaks of the two mountains, where nestled the path they had taken only a day before, had exploded, shooting flames, black billowing smoke, and molten rock high into the sky. Great chunks of the mountains were pushed out by the force of the explosion, crashing down to the earth with immense force. Torrents of fire-red lava spewed outward and rolled down, creating fast flowing rivers of blistering heat. It all happened so fast, a matter of a minute. He watched the lava roll down towards Ti’nagal, and then at the last minute it split as if by an invisible rock barrier. The rivers rolled around the city and outside of the farmlands, and then merged together once again in a straight arrow track towards the Far’anon River.
The two mountains, now volcanoes, continued to pour their black fumes and molten rock into the air. Another explosion shook the earth and flaming rock shot high into the cloud cover. The force pushed the rocks in an arch, sending them far across the landscape. Then rocks began to fall in their direction. His eyes went wide and he turned Mirdur’eth as fast as he could and tapped his heels against the black sides. Strong horse muscles pulled him onto the path and through brush and branches. Behind he could hear the galloping of the other Blaersteeds; he didn’t glance back. Huge boulders tore down through the forest canopy, splintering like glass into a thousand pieces. Flames erupted as the rocks were torn apart by the sudden change in temperature.
Branches slapped James in the face, but he did not falter. He let Mirdur’eth push on and on. He had forgotten how to move fluidly with his steed, and didn’t care any longer. Exploding missiles rained down in every direction until, finally, it all stopped. He could still hear the rumbling of the mountains in the background, the rumble of the earth as it emptied its core onto the landscape. The forest had become alive too, birds and animals crying out in surprise. A few birds fluttered away above. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm his heart. There were scratches on his face; he could feel them. His arms ached from being pounded by branches. But he let go of all the stress and opened his eyes. Then he turned his torso to look at Pea and Darl. Both looked overburdened with adrenaline.
“That’s a first,” Pea said. “Not seen anything like that in, well, ever.” The little man breathed heavy, gulped.
“At least the city wasn’t destroyed,” James said.
“No. Damaged, but they’ve skirted death thus far.”
“Luthien will have a harder time taking the city with that river of fire there,” Darl said. “The corruption of Nara’karesh is complete. And it has failed its master completely.”
“Our last laugh. Not its.” James faced front, leaned over and gently rubbed Mirdur’eth’s neck. “Good work.” The black head swung up and down twice—a nod of agreement.
Then they were moving again, slowly this time, but still pressing forward into the Forest of Gall. Behind the earth, like a burping child, let out the remainder of its internal pressure, letting the last rumbles fall away with the coming dawn.