Two Brothers in the Wood
Once there lived a noble knight and his beautiful wife, who lived with their two sons deep within the soundless Pine Forest away from all denizens of the kingdom. For their children possessed unique and unusual virtues that frightened the poor and superstitious peasants of the country and tempted the rich and powerful nobles of the city. Thus the brave knight built a small but spacious cottage deep within the Pine Forest, where fallen needles soaked up the childish yelps and squeals like water through dry soil.
They lived quite happily together for many years until the King called away the courageous knight for war had come to the kingdom’s western lands. A troll of great size and power waged war on the small but good kingdom, and the king required all his warriors to counter the threat. Yet the lonely wife worried for the departure of her husband.
“For who shall protect us, O husband? The children were endowed by the spirits with great gifts, yet who shall guard these silent woods until they grow into manhood? They are but still children.” As she said this, tears fell soundlessly to the earth for she loved her husband deeply.
“Do not shelter fear in your heart, My Love. This task I will accomplish and then return to your side as swiftly as the Zephyr races across the autumn sky.” And with one final kiss to his wife, he rode off without a sound through the forest and to war.
Many years passed. The good knight did not return from the war and no news reached the ears of the wife deep in the Pine Forest. Yet her children grew and she saw that they possessed great virtues indeed, blessed by the spirits of the wood.
One day the younger brother, Patricus, played among the woods talking to the trees when he spied a young tree nymph beleaguered by large dark crows. Quickly he fashioned a net from the living air – such was his gift – and caught all but one of the cruel crows, which sensing its danger flew off into the sky.
Murphey the elder brother saw Patricus at his craft and warned his younger sibling to not touch the entrapped crows. For Murphey saw that these creatures were demons in disguise and instructed his brother to drag the evil birds across a nearby brook. Patricus heeded his brother’s instruction and carried his bundle over the rushing waters. Instantly the birds transformed into pumpkin seeds and fell through the net into the rushing water.
The tree nymph, freed of her attackers, glided to the brook and scooped up the seeds into a silk pouch. “Here, she said. For your aid, I present you these seeds. If ever aid you need, take this pouch and plant the seeds deep within the soil by the light of the harvest moon. Such protection will bear fruit.”
The two boys thanked the fair creature for her gift and returned to their mother and told her all that had occurred.
The Troll King
Now it came to pass, that the one crow missed by Patricus flew straight to the dark castle of the evil troll. Some say that foul creature was actually the troll in crow form. Others suggest it was merely one of his many legions of twisted creatures, bent to his will. In either case, the troll learned of Patricus and Murphey, the good knight’s sons, and ever desirous of power sought to capture them, corrupting their abilities for the war against the small kingdom.
And so boarding his great black chariot chained to four monstrous stags bent and twisted by the foul Troll into things with thorns, stingers, and spidery legs, like a haunted thunderstorm he stole across the sky one night, landing quietly among the pine needles of the forest. Yet a firefly, friend to that beauteous and wise woman of the wood, saw the approach of their great enemy and fluttered quickly to the mother, who once warned of their grave danger hid her children.
“Do not stir from this spot,” she spoke to Murphey, deep within a hidden door, “Quiet and protect your brother at all times. If I do not return, you must learn to live on your own . . .”
“But mother,” cried Murphey, “I will indeed safeguard Patricus with all my strength, but I possess no power to fashion forms from the air. I read stories, and none have stricken down evil with words alone.”
“None as of yet, my child. Now keep still. Great evil approaches.” And she closed the door.
The troll bellowed from outside the house, standing among the pines wreathed in a cloak of blackest shadow. From his antlered helm of bone, two eyes shone like cold silver. “Woman, offer me freely your children. Sacrifice your sons to me, and great gifts of gold shall be yours.”
“Begone, demon,” the small noble lady spoke, still and silent like a white oak. “All treasure or boons from your hands carry curses and treachery. Never shall you take my sons. The moment you do, your body will shrivel and break like a tree branch under the weight of snow. Begone from here!”
“Even the sight of your beloved, husband . . .” This gave the woman pause. “You know your lover lies dying on the battlefield as we speak. I have the power to return him to you, a body whole and unbroken, if you but relinquish a single boy. Just say his name and he will come to you . . .”
The woman stood silent for doubt and grief was in her heart, yet her voice spoke with authority and strength. “In what form, creature of darkness, corrupter of hearts? How would you bring me my husband? A broken man, whole in body severed in mind? A puppet of your malice? No, even if your aims were true, I would never sacrifice my child.”
“Then I grant you immortality for your bravery,” he sneered and upon clapping his hands, turned the good woman to stone. His laughter flew over the cottage, chilling the hearts of the two children deep underground. As the moon rose, the two children arose from their hiding place and sat at the frozen feet of their mother. Silently without word they vowed revenge on the cruel troll.
“But how,” sobbed Patricus, “We will need help to face that demon and his army.”
“We will plant those magic seeds tonight,” Murphey said after some thought. “We indeed are in need of aid and protection. Perhaps in the morning the seeds will grow into an army of thousands, then like the good Count in the Prisoner of the Isle, we will seek our revenge.” Patricus agreed through his tears and planted six seeds by the light of the moon.
In the morning the two boys did not find an army of thousands sprouting from the ground, but six green pumpkins. They frowned at this for though vegetables that grow from seed to gourd overnight is indeed magical, pumpkins have never been useful against trolls. Yet before the boys could despair, the shell of the pumpkins began to crack and shatter like the eggs of some immense bird. Arising from the broken gourds stood six children arrayed in fine garments, and Murphey could see that they too possessed the same gifts as Patricus.
“I am Kevin,” said the first, “Commander of the unseen legions.” Around his waist was fitted a belt of thick leather, from which hung tools of many shapes and sizes including a great silver hammer, wrought about the handle in swirling golden vines.
“I am Riagan,” said the second, “The Unbreakable.” This child lift up his hands, and the two brothers saw that he was a child of great strength and power. None would withstand his might in a test of arms.
“Shan, am I called,” said the third young man. “Known as the Delver of Paths and Unseen Roads.” He was clad in dull greenish garb and a great brown, the color of the forest so that as when Murphey looked away from his face, Shan’s body seemed to disappear into the woodlands.
The fourth pumpkin child then announced, “Sian, I call myself. The silver tongued.” And both Patricus and Murphy could see that with his voice Sian could coax trout out of its watery depths and into a warm skillet.
The first young lady then gently spoke. “Kaydee, do they call me, the light-hearted and heavy-graced.” Clad in a garment of silken white, Kaydee smiled and seemed capable of whisking into the air at the faintest breeze like a ball of goose-down.
“Brigitta am I known” the second young lady, smallest of the group, shouted. “Tiny in body but swift-footed am I among the roots or treetops.”
Indeed this new band of warriors was more than either brother had expected for they could see that each of the pump-kin, children of the gourd, were loyal and brave. Thus, Patricus spoke to his brother: “Murphey, denied of a mother or father were we, and now possess brothers and sisters, strong and true. Revenge might we now seek on this troll, parent-thief and life-destoyer? So that never again shall the children of this realm be denied their families?”
Murphey looked at his brother and smiled. “Indeed. Dispossessed of family were we once, now we gain six new siblings. Come, brothers and sisters, let us seek out this cruel troll, spilling our vengeance over his domain like a flood.” The eight siblings rejoiced. Yet Kaydee, strong in heart though gentle in voice, spoke, “But where, oh newfound brothers and sister, do we find this creature? For go I shall, but what path shall we take?”
“Have no fear, sister,” spoke Shan. “For with skills I possess, no path will remain hidden to you. This troll has left behind such a stink that denied of mine eyes, I could yet follow his path. Come.” And he led them through the woods, where Murphey marveled at Shan, his new brother’s face pressed close to the ground like a bloodhound, fresh with a new scent. “Deer live plentiful within these woods. I hear them dancing among the glades to the north. Do not be surprised then if I depart from time to time, siblings. The path leads straight and true through these trees. Nightfall shall come and we will be in need of food.” And with he left them, disappearing among the trees like a stag himself.
The group pressed on through the dense wood until dusk. Patricus watched with delight and awe the movements of Brigitta, who had climbed one of the large pines as easily as a squirrel and now jumped and swung among the tree limbs like the legendary apes of far off realms. From high up in the branches among the dark green needles, the band heard her warning cry.
“Heed me, brothers and sister. The trees end and I spy smoke curling out in the rocky meadows. It may be band of travelers making camp or a dragon standing guard. We must proceed with care, lest it be the latter and he eat us up.”
The others thought this wise advice and crept carefully to the edge of the woodlands just as dusk approached. There on the borders of the woodlands on a rocky outcrop sat a large dragon as white as alabaster, snoring puffs of fire like an overgrown firefly. At the foot of the rocks, a troupe of goblins with large sacks sat eating mutton.
“A white dragon!” Murphey exclaimed in whisper. “Such creatures exist only in legend, beasts of unimaginable power and terror.”
“Do your stories speak of how to defeat them?” asked Sian.
“No . . . they make no such mention of any flaws or weaknesses. According to legend, they are invincible.”
“What worth are these stories then?”
Murphey had no answer for Sian, the great interlocutor, yet he felt that their band should avoid any and all confrontation. “From goblin or beast. Any goblin who can tame such a monster must be its equal. Let us reenter the forest silently . . .”
Yet before they could take one step forward, a herd of deer erupted from the dark forest followed closely by Shan, shouldering a great stag. “Brothers and sisters, I bring you food.”
The sound of Shan triumphant return reached the dragon’s ears, who like a cat woken from sleep to find a mouse nibbling at its dish pounced on the helpless siblings still quite shaken by their brother’s return. The dragon roared and shot flames high into the sky, illuminating the earth as would a flame-spurt from the earth’s core. All the siblings cowered against the trees. All but Riagan, the Invincible, stood to meet the dragon’s saber talons and magma breath. Riagan stood still as the monster bore down on him. As the creature whipped up hurricanes with its wings and felled trees with its roar. Riagan alone stood tall and proud as the great reptile reared itself up to strike, to bear down upon the poor boy with all its fury, to rend, tear, burn, and consume Riagan and then turn its appetite onto the rest of his family.
Riagan smiled. “This might prove entertaining,” he said.
Murphey watched with amazement as his newfound brother launched himself at the dragon second before the monster struck. Riagan scrabbled over the monster’s back, punching at the creature’s back with great force. Patricus could feel the pressure of air from each mighty attack and hid ever deeper into the forest trees with Brigetta, who though brave felt very tiny next to the dragon and her invincible brother. The dragon scratched and bit after Riagan who continued to leap and dive over its body so that the monster did far greater damage to itself than to the leaping sibling. After each blow, Riagan would leap to the dragon’s white legs or its deadly pearl tail thick with barbs and spines. Yet no fire touched the boy. No claw scratched him. No tooth could break him.
“He indeed possesses the might of the man-god Heracles, himself.”
In the end the dragon fell wearied from its own self-inflicted wounds and the fury of the small boy’s blows. Murphey could not believe it. Neither could the goblins lest we forget them, who broke camp to watch the fight. Yet these goblins did not tremble as the dragon fell or quaver at the might of Riagan.
“Strong you are, human,” the goblin captain said. “No doubt your other siblings possess great skills as well. Yet King Troll warned us to not underestimate the family who dwelt in the woods. We see it was wise to heed his advice.” And with a wave of his long hairy arms, the goblin pulled back his cloak revealing thick black armor, the shade of nightmares and etched with horrible drawings of all shapes. Patricus nearly got sick over Brigetta.
“This armor the Troll Lord crafted with his hands for us, his elite guard alone. It cannot be broken and cannot be removed without speaking words of power.” And then he held up a vicious sword, carved in the shape of flames and hued with dried blood.
“These swords too were crafted by our Master’s dark hands. No shield or sword will turn these blades for they cut living rock like a warm knife through butter. Each sword obeys its owners command. Try for yourself . . .” said the wicked goblin as he threw the sword onto the ground, where it smote the grass in flames.
Riagan stepped forth to wield the blade but found it unmovable. Then he approached the nearest goblin, but all of his most frenzied blows could not injure any goblin.
“That tickles,” laughed the captain as Riagan fell to his knees, exhausted. “Who among you shall test our might next for we are truly invincible and seek amusement?” Murphey looked at his siblings and by their faces he knew that none possessed the skill to face such impossible adversaries. All save Sian stepped back, and his siblings were amazed to see that Sian smiled as he address the goblin chief.
“Good evening, sirs. Are you gentle-goblins the chefs behind that wonderful aroma? Mutton smells so good on these fey nights.” The goblin captain drew himself up proudly. He quite admired his own skills in the kitchen and about the campfire. Not that he would admit it to his fellow goblins though. Indeed that very night he had found some particularly pungent roots nearby and after rubbing them thoroughly into the raw mutton thought the combination quite pleasing to the taste.
“Be off with you, filth! Who are you and what do you care?” growled the captain. The goblin hoped this remark would not scare off this strange young man with the excellent nose. He knew that if he showed any favoritism to these humans, the remainder of his troop may lose discipline, disperse about the countryside, and probably tear their former captain limb from limb for his weakness. Yet Sian that most excellent mediator continued.
“Simply a humble traveler, tired and hungry. In truth, my family and I were off to visit a lord of high personage when the delectable odors drew us from our path. The aroma tantalizes the stomach of any starving traveler; although I doubt it surpasses my own skills over the campfire.”
At this the goblin chief sneered, “Human, you jest. Do you consider yourself a chef?”
“Only one of the greatest chefs in the world, renown by kings and lords of high personage. They call me Sian of the Silver Ladle. Just a sip of my stews is akin to sampling the wares of Heaven’s table itself . . . or so I have been told,” Sian smiled graciously.
The goblin chieftan laughed for he considered Sian’s speech idle talk, the prattle of a simple country bumpkin. Had not the Troll king instructed his troop that the children lived in the deepest darkest center of the forest? How great a feast could such a small child concoct for the squirrels and mice that dwelt there? Therefore the nasty troll decided to have a bit of fun before beheading the defenseless children. He challenged Sian to a contest of culinary artistry.
“If you shall best me in skill, we will allow you to live another day. If not, you shall divulge the secrets of your own skill before we break and batter your bodies. My men fair and noble goblins alike shall judge the worth of your cooking.”
“You are indeed a fair and impartial judge,” Sian said with a bow. Murphey did not think so; regardless of how good Sian’s meal may be, the goblin troupe would never choose his stew over the concoctions of their leader. The contest was unfair! Nevertheless Sian continued to smile and compliment the goblin.
“A difficult competition this may prove to be,” spoke Sian loudly, the great Trickster. “I will require the heart of this dragon in order to create a stew of the highest quality. All dragon meat cooked for centuries by the creatures internal fires always cooks tender and sweet, but the blood at the heart of the beast is said to taste most delicious as well as imbue all who eat from the stew special properties, strength of both mind and body.”
The greedy goblin overheard this boast, and before Sian could sharpen his knife, the goblin chieftain ordered all his men to butcher the body of the dead dragon. Sian was nearly trampled in the frenzy of stampeding goblins, but the quick reach of Murphey scooped the cook from the field.
“Come!,” shouted the siblings to Sian. “Come brother, let us escape while these evil creatures are distracted with their carnage.”
“We would not run far,” Murphey spoke, “but through the woods, there lies a faint chance for some to avoid death. Come brother.”
“No,” Sian said with finality. “We shall not run. I ask patience my siblings. My blade is slow to wield, but its strike rarely misses its mark. Kevin, might I borrow your tinder box.”
Kevin produced from one of his many pouches, some flint and steel. Meanwhile, Murphey watched as the greedy evil goblins cut, tore, and ripped at the carcass of the dead dragon, the creature’s foul blood splashed about the goblin’s faces and armor and pooled about their hairy feet. Sian spoke as he struck the flint against the steel:
“Dragons of any breed naturally repel magic. Only steel – or in Riagan’s case iron fists – can deal out any damage to the creature. Their blood therefore acts as a sponge for magical spells of all types and strengths . . .”
“Then,” said Shan with hesitant excitement, “their magical armor is . . .”
“Now worthless? Yes I believe so.”
“Then can we not attack?” asked Riagan eagerly.
“No, stay brother. We need not dirty our hands,” smiled Sian. “Another useful property of dragon’s blood is extremely flammable. Just like . . .”
The sparks of the flint flew off and caught on the river of blood now flowing from the bested beast.
“ . . . Greek fire.”
The goblin’s savage pleasure soon transformed into yelps and howls of intense pain as the fire spread and engulfed the entire troop. To Murphey’s amazement, the fiery blood of the dragon consumed the flesh of the goblins, until within minutes nothing was left of the evil band but bubbling pools of green slime and their magic-less armor. The chieftain so ardent and greedy for the powers that dwelt within the dragon’s heart, boiled away within seconds of striking the exploded heart. Not even his foul monstrous armor remained in the wash.
Murphey stood amazed. “Indeed here was a Trickster worthy of the kin left by Anansi the Spider or Jack of Tales.”
Sian simply shrugged off these compliments. “Now,” he said after his kin had finished their accolades, “who here can cook us a fine meal. I am starving and in truth no nothing of camp fire or pans.”
The siblings laughed and set about for a late evening meal of cheese and bread. After such the fiery holocaust, the siblings could not stomach meat. Nor would Shan and his deer hear allow it.
The Endless Chasm
In the morning, the siblings followed Shan’s direction across vast and rocky grasslands. Now gild in the armor of their fallen foes, their bodies glinted and shown like earthbound deities in the bright morning sun. Their journey was met with little resistance, and they ate and drank their fill from the fruitful land, as they would enter the desolation before the Troll King’s castle soon, where little grew and few dared to dwell. At the border to the Troll’s lands, the siblings arrived before a great chasm, bottomless and immense as the mouth of a great earthen giant stretches its lips to yawn. A mile the chasm extended from one side to the other, and the siblings despaired that they must relinquish their journey to seek out safe passage around the dark chasm. .
“Yet our father once told me that no such bridge exists,” spoke Patricus, young master of the wind, after insisting the wind here was too wild and chaotic for his powers to safely transport his siblings across. “All save one, constructed centuries ago and over fifty leagues north of here.”
“How do the king’s soldiers fight the war against the Troll then?” asked Kevin.
“Great ballooned airships,” spoke Murphey. “The king’s engineers learned the craft from the dwarves, who harbor no friendship with the wicked Troll. Father told us long ago that the hundreds of soldiers traverse the Devil’s Gap, for such this chasm is named, and those that survive the journey fight in the king’s name against the Troll’s armies.”
“What do you mean by ‘those that survive,’ brother?” asked tiny Brigitta, who stood huddled behind Patricus.
“Father spoke of the Living Storm, a creature or entity of great power. Yet no more do I know, for when I inquired, Father feared to answer.”
“Ha,” spoke noble Riagan, “I fear no cloud, living or dead. If only we had one of these airships, then we might sail high above the cold mountains and thick clouds to the very top of the Troll’s keep.”
“Well, to the top of the Troll’s keep may be beyond my power, but if you seek a path to the other side of this chasm, I might provide a means,” said a sweet voice.
The siblings turned to gaze at Kaydee, eldest sister, who smiled at all. As a thick Eastern wind cascaded across the meadow and dived into the great chasm, the young girl seemed to waver and float, her white dress rippled, shook, and grew. Her hair unclasped and unribboned bleached in the sun to the color of downy snow. Her neck seemed to grow long white and slender, until the siblings saw that the Kaydee, Shape-taker, had transformed into a beautiful giant swan.
“A marvel,” thought Murphey. “Indeed it is to accompany such wonderful people, my family. If only my own gifts would be made known to me, like in the story of wild Tom who discovered himself son of a great lord, then I might be able to help my family too.”
“Climb on,” said the swan, “and I will transport us all across this great gap.” The siblings did as she instructed careful to not sit on her great white wings. As tiny Brigitta, last to board, jumped onto the swan’s back, the great creature jumped off the cliffs and soared and fell. Down. Down. Down, the children sank, falling fast into the midnight darkness of the great world below until the wings of the great bird caught a current of strong Eastern wind and sailed high above the cliffs of the chasm.
Slowly the swan bore the children across the broken channel. Until within eyeshot of the western cliffs, Brigitta Far-sighted, spied a dense cloud to the north.
“What could that be, brothers? Does that look like a storm cloud to you?” The brothers stared at the dense cloud, which to their seemed to float against the wind. Soon the cloud appeared to grow, larger and larger and larger still until they saw that the cloud was not a cloud at all but a thick dense flock of dark evil birds. The sun blotted as they drew closer to the Kaydee Swan-wings.
“The Living Storm,” whispered Murphey. “Legions of crows and vultures preying on all who cross the chasm. If we do not defend ourselves, the Storm will descend and rip us to pieces or send us diving into the eternal darkness below.”
“Fear not brother,” spoke Patricus. “Here now, I can be of service to us all. The air here may be too wild for a bridge, but its strength is quite effective for attack!”
Patricus then plucked at several air currents swirling high in the heavens and fashioned the wind into a bow of great size. The great eastern breeze seemed to wrap and whirl about him like a miniature tornado. He fitted East Wind across the bow like a great arrow, drew back and let the gusty arrow fly. The arrow flew straight and true, unaffected by the slightest breeze, at the heart of the dark storm.
Murphey was just about to ask his brother how the arrow, great though it was could hope to hamper so many birds of various sizes, when the arrow burst like a Chinese rocket into thousands of smaller arrows, each finding its target in the heart of a fell bird. The siblings gazed as the cloud dissolved but did not diminish. The Living Storm enraged at the attack shrieked with one cacophonous CAW! and dove at the swan like a plague of angry blood-flies set upon some sick and dying animal.
Patricus let loose arrow after arrow. All finding their mark within a fell crow or a vulture. All unable to hinder the descent of the Living Storm. The bird broke upon the swan like a wave upon some shipwrecked sailor, drowning the siblings in a flood of black feathers, beaks and claws. Kaydee strove to dive and maneuver about the dense cloud . . . but to no avail. The siblings stumbled trying to cling dearly to the body of swan, lest they be thrown to the chasm walls below. Even nimble Brigitta herself nearly fell from the back of the swan, but Murphey quickly grabbed her and pulled her back to the swan’s white tail.
“Brother!” Brigitta shouted punching a large crow, her body now covered in scraps and scratches. Her fist bleed freely where her small but strong fist had connected with the beak of the fell bird. “Brother, caves . . . ah, accursed creatures . . . caves . . . waterfall . . . in the . . . argh, cayon walls!”
Murphey shouted to Kaydee, frantically swooping and turning but to no avail. He informed her of the caves and the waterfall which Brigitta had spied. The swan now dappled in red blotches and torn feathers dived down to the canyon walls. The Living Storm followed close behind. The siblings all torn and bloody clung onto the swan’s neck and wings. Murphey could see the dense rocks of the chasm wall, dark with sharp black crags and knife-hewn spinters. Water cascaded from the plateaus above in powerful sheets of glistening crystal droplets. Yet only until they neared did Murphey see that Brigitta had spoken true: the walls were specked with tiny caves of various sizes.
“That one,” Far-Sighted Brigitta yelled, pointing at a large torrent of water, a monstrous deluge that crashed upon a pool of razor-sharp rock like the teeth of a great sea beast before fall once again into the abyss. “Behind that wall of water, a great cave opens!”
The swan nodded and increased her speed, launching themselves through the mighty falls and sailing through into the dank embrasure beyond. The Living Storm too threw themselves at the falls, but though collectively strong, the strength of the falls proved too powerful and wasted away the wicked birds into the Devil’s Gap.
Light-Winged Kaydee crashed shortly afterwards in the mouth of the great cave too weary with flight and fight to move or fly further. She changed back into her human form and lay down limp with exhaustion. Her siblings too collapsed, weary with sundry cuts and pains. Down they lay, wet and battered like dead things.
The Cave Lynx
Upon waking several hours later, the siblings took stock of their pains. Shan was blinded in one eye; Sian bled freely from his hand shredded by a great black vulture; Brigitta had bitten several crows and received a nasty cut above the eye for her pains; Patricus and Murphey both felt battered and had sprained their ankles in the crash; and Kevin received several large gashes across the leg. Kaydee though suffered the most of all the siblings, and it was some time before she would even move. Her arms appeared broken, and her legs appeared blotched with purple bruises and dried blood.
Nevertheless, her joyful disposition never faded. “S-surely,” she groaned through her smile, “I require only the s-sunshine and, ah . . . and warm breezes again. Then . . . uh, then my healing will be complete.”
Noble Kevin, master mechanic of machine and man, treated the children as his skills permitted but spoke little throughout his task. The siblings grumbled little – Shan for his part seemed quite taken with the patch Kevin cut for his eye – and anxiously sought to explore the tunnel in which they found themselves. For tunnel it was, fanged with sharp pillars of dripping stone and rising white rocks, like the layered jaws of a great worm. Colors waved and danced through the walls, while gems of great size shown in the faint rays of light, which appeared occasionally through the ceiling. At first the light encouraged the siblings, but soon they noticed that the trickling river at the mouth of the cave flowed into the tunnel, downhill from the great falling wash at the mouth. They moved deeper and deeper underground, swallowed with each step into darkness.
The tunnel path climbed and fell for what seemed to be hours, maybe days. All time was lost in those darkened passages. Brigitta cried out for help, and the band listened as the echoes bounced off the passage walls for miles, perhaps, before passing into shadow and nothing. With Kevin’s treatment, their pains gradually lessened if never fully healed and even Kaydee learned to walk with only a slight limp. She seldom complained, though whether this was due to Kevin’s skill or her own none could tell. Sian held his broken hand; none of Kevin’s skills could mend the damage. Yet he withstood all complaint. Robbed of sight, their cuts and pains were forgotten in the darkness.
Soon the siblings spied light ahead of them, and drawing near they found themselves on the shore of an enchanted pool occupying an immense sparkling chamber. At first the siblings thought the chamber held the remains of a fallen star, a million celestial pieces flickering among dull stones and rock.
“Yet they move and float,” Brigitta whispered. “Like tiny insects . . .”
Indeed the siblings soon realized that the chamber was lit from the glow of hundreds . . . no thousands of fireflies, which danced and sparkled like fairies atop the surface of the water. In the center of the pool, on a small island grew a tree thick with red blossoms of various shades, which fluttered and floated on the pool below so that entire pool appeared matted with blood. Carved into the trunk of the tree sat the image of a long-eared cat, a lynx, standing on its paws and grinning with sharp, pointed teeth. Nothing moved on the island. No living thing seemed to occupy this chamber but the glowing bulbs of the fireflies. Yet Murphey noticed that the eyes of the lynx seemed to shine, perhaps by the skill of its maker or some trick of his light-starved eyes.
Brigitta stepped forward entranced by the small statue. Before any of her siblings could caution her, a voice slick as silver hissed from the island.
Once the arbor young and weak
Blossoms color failed to peek.
Twice the season ebbed away,
‘Til blossoms hued one day.
“Wait!” Brigitta shouted, startled. “Who speaks now?” Franticly Brigitta tried to scramble from the shallow water, but either due to fear or some power within the pool her feet remained frozen. The eyes of the lynx seemed to burn through cracks in the trunk of the tree. Still nothing moved, and the voice continued:
Princess fair, full of fear
Fled and fell in pool here.
First to find, first to see
Colored petals, island tree.
Losing in this riddle game
She lost her form, the dark did tame.
Twice the wishes you possess,
If the hue might you guess.
For failing leaves but a light,
Who fails to paint her first sight.
“Wha . . what, Mr Cat sir, are you asking?” Brigid cried as the lynx ended its song.
“I-I think,” Murphey trembled. “The lynx wants us to guess the hue of the blossoms. The first hue that the first visitor to this chamber had seen. If we succeed, we gain two wishes. Yet how are we to surmise that, I cannot fathom.”
The siblings stopped and stared at Brigitta, small and nimble sister dear, victim of this sinister riddle game. She wriggled and fell into the water, but if even a finger touched the dark liquid, it remained trapped beneath, immovable.
“An answer, child,” the voice boomed.
“Indeed I do not know!” she shouted back. “Pink!” As soon as she spoke, Brigitta no longer struggled in the water. Truly her siblings saw that their sister no longer stood crouched in the pool. Nor anywhere else in the chamber. Instead another firefly flew from surface and joined the throng circling the pool.
“Incorrect,” the voice of the lynx spoke. The rest of the siblings were horrified. Murphey had lost sight of the sister-turned-firefly among the thousands swarming about the pool.
“Give us back our sister,” Riagan screamed. Before Murphy could issue warning, Riagan and Sian dived into the pool, but although they twisted and pulled none, not even Riagan dragon-slayer or Sian goblin-killer, could move their feet.
“An answer, children,” the voice boomed. “Answer my riddle.”
“Red!” shouted Riagan. A bright firefly bloomed from the spot where Riagan stood.
“Rose!” shouted Sian. A small silver firefly flashed before Sian even closed his mouth.
The remaining siblings stood on the shore and watched in horror as their brothers transformed into floating balls of light. Kevin despaired.
“How shall we return our siblings? How will we return them to us as they were?”
Murphey alone did not shed tears, but stared at the lynx carved into the tree. The fireflies drifted about the branches, occasionally drifting down to sit upon a petal in the dark cool pool. Their reflections resembled the twinkle of stars in the night sky, which now seemed very far away.
“Indeed,” spoke Murphey, “He has built himself a fine collection.” And with that he stepped into the pool, much to the shock of the others. The first player in this riddle game, Murphey realized, would have stumbled into a cave without fireflies. She would have been the first to be transformed and in the darkness of the cave would have seen . . .
“An answer child,” the voice spoke. Murphey felt the excitement build. He would finally be able to help his family. To defeat the Troll. To save Mother . . .
“Black,” Murphey shouted. “Black as this chamber, dark as a night with no moon or stars or . . . fireflies.”
The eyes of the carved cat shown bright red like liquid rubies. The fireflies swirled about the body of the small boy like a golden halo. Murphey had guessed truly.
“Correct. What is your first desire?” Murphey paused for a moment. His wishes could easily defeat the Troll here and now, but he remained unsure, cautious. What would an easy victory cost him? Finally after much thought, he answered:
“Please return all the fireflies to their families and to their normal form, their first form.” The room went dark. All the fireflies had vanished, transformed back into humans and hopefully set back home with their families. Sian and Riagan landed loudly on the shore. Tiny Brigitta fell from the air with a smack atop Patricus, who yelped and groaned. Brigitta uttered no sound. She, Sian, and Riagan lay still, unconscious.
“Why do they not wake?” asked Shan.
“After effects of the transformation,” the lynx hissed. “Humans cannot suffer magic without . . . strain. Second wish . . ?”
“Secondly,” Murph shouted in the darkness, “please provide us with a guide who will provide us a speedy exit from these tunnels.”
“Murphey!” Kaydee shouted in the darkness. “You had three wishes. You could have asked for a cure to Mother’s condition. The troll’s defeat. Anything! Why . . . ?”
“No,” Murphey said, “If Mother was cured, the Troll would only inflict greater punishment next time. If we ask for the Troll’s head, Mother’s cure is still lost to us, and we would still remain lost as insects or amid the maze of tunnels. Regretfully I thought for the safe return of our mother and the defeat of the evil Troll, but in my haste I would have sacrificed our siblings and our own safety. Wishes can become dangerous tools. I once read a story about a monkey paw; the individual in that tale too . . .”
Murphey’s words were swallowed by a great roar from the tunnel behind them. Something large skittered and cracked the walls somewhere in the darkness of the tunnel behind them.
“What is that?” Kevin asked. “Where is our exit?”
“A guide follows close behind,” the lynx hissed as if it were laughing. “It will speed you along to the surface, if you can escape its jaws.”
“That is not what I desired!” shouted Murphey.
“Be careful what you wish for,” the lynx hissed. Shan quickly lit a small torch, binding several small branches on shore, and together they picked up the sleeping bodies of Brigitta, Sian, and Riagan, setting off through the tunnels away from the sound of many legs cracking the walls behind them.
The Tunnel Guardian
Murphey grunted under the load of Riagan’s heavy frame. The other siblings snaked through the tunnel just ahead. Kaydee led the group, limping around a great pillar of twisted rock, which guarded a nearby spring, the colors of the column shimmered like glass in the light of her torch. The others followed as quickly as possible, under their individual burdens: Patricus with Brigitta and Shan carrying Sian. The cracks and twitching creaks of the giant creature signaled that it still pursued the siblings. The tunnel rumbled and shook as its large body smashed against the rocky walls. Rocks and boulders of gold fell from high above and smashed their path as if the creature sought to bury them underground
Kaydee relied upon her gift of flight to quickly escape the barrage, while Patricus, strengthened by a faint current of air, deflected much of the rocks from the heads of the fleeing siblings. Murphey kept close to Patricus and tried desperately to avoid the sharp points of falling stalactites, yet the eldest sibling constantly fell behind at times dragging strong unconscious Riagan.
Despite the constant threat of entombment, the siblings found navigating the tunnels much easier. Forked paths had succumbed to cave-ins, guiding them forward and – Murphey noted – uphill.
“If that creature does not find us,” spoke noble Shan wiping a cloud of fallen dust from his eyes and the face of Sian, “we shall escape. Though my arm tires with my brother’s burden.”
Murphey and Patricus agreed, and though they wondered if they could afford rest, the roars of the creature spurred them forward. The creature was closing in.
Soon Kaydee led the group into a high-domed cave, pierced with multicolored columns of light reflected off crystals from high above. The cavern floor was cracked and uneven; gaping fissures and holes extended from the walls, where water streamed down in deep pools. Geysers occasionally shot from these wide crevices spraying the very air thick with mist. Only a narrow winding path wet with slick spray led from one end to the other, where a sloping path wound up to the ceiling.
“A path out!” Kaydee shouted. “Finally, an egress from the darkness.”
“Yes,” spoke Shan, “but we must tread carefully lest we slip into the surrounding chasm.”
They walked carefully out to the path. The water from the geysers splashed and matted their bodies and the stones with cold wet water. When they had walked halfway along the winding pathway, suddenly Brigitta awoke, flinging and swinging her arms about wildly. Her sudden movement startled Patricus, who slipped and would have fallen into a watery grave far below had not Murphey, cautious and quick, grabbed Patricus’ arm. Brigitta still dizzy caught at Patricus’ leggings. Slowly he attempted to pull them up, when suddenly a roar from the cave beyond shook the ceiling of the vast cavern.
“Go!” screamed Murphey, when Shan and Kaydee sought to aid their brother. “Take Riagan and go! I will manage here, but see that the unconscious ones are safe and brought to no harm.”
They obeyed and gathering Riagan in their arms, found safe passage to the foot of the cave’s upward winding exit. Another roar shook the cavern, and Murphey watched in horror as the ceiling began to crack, break, and fall. Down it fell, breaking the path, separating Murphey, Patricus and clinging Brigitta from their siblings. Nonetheless he did not ignore the task at hand. Murphey pulled and pulled, dragging his brother and small sister to safety, just as the creature broke into the cavern.
Large it was, as high as the cavern ceiling it stretched with the head of a serpent and the body of great spider, thick with legs and barbed hairs. At its tail the creature wielded a club, like a mace which it used to beat and batter the walls of the great cavern. Dust and rocks rained down on Murphey, Patricus, and Brigitta stranded on a rocky island between the creature and the exit.
A flutter of wings told Murphey that Kaydee had flown in swan-form to their aid, yet no escape did she promise.
“My wings remain still sore, and now wet. I cannot carry all to safety. One must remain until I can return,” she said.
“Take Patricus and Brigitta,” Murphey said. “They perhaps might help your escape. I will attempt to distract this beast lest it strike at you while you depart.”
Kaydee, sister-swan, battered and water-soaked flew off from the path carrying Brigitta and Patricus on her white back. The monster’s reptilian eyes watched her departure hungrily, striking at the swan like lightning, and only narrowly missing. Patricus managed to manipulate the slight currents of the cavern, steering Kaydee away just in time from gaping serpent’s mouth, while Brigitta wantonly flung curses and rude gestures at the creature.
Murphey watched in horror as the creature assaulted the siblings. Then picking a rock, he flung it as hard as he could at the serpent’s eyes, hoping to distract it from its current prey and allow Kaydee, Patricus, and Brigitta to escape.
Now his brave action set off three important events: one fortunate and two not so fortunate. Murphey never truly possessing a great throwing arm, the rock failed to hit its target whatsoever, cruising far over the creature’s head. Instead the rock collided with a large stalactite overhead, already cracked and weakened from the roars and rumblings of the creature’s tail. The large rock spear fell to earth, driving its sharp limestone tip into the creature’s head, which now hunched over the rocky island hissing and spitting at Murphey. The impact killed the creature, and yet the force of the blow – as great as it was – bludgeoned the great snake head, sending it crashing down upon the small rocky island where Murphey stood. The force shook the entire pathway. Suddenly, the island gave way, cracking and breaking into fragment and dust. Murphey and the creature tumbled off the pathway and into the watery ravine.
Down, down, down . . . Murphey fell, knowing his family too far away and too weak to save him. Down he fell, towards the cold dark water beneath. Death would have been his doom, yet the pool below rumbled and bubbled like a pot set to boil. Up from the deep pool, a large geyser caught Murphey even as he fell and sent him heavenward towards one of many large holes in the cavern ceiling, where light drained away from the surface.
Up, up, and up he flew through a tunnel of water-carved rock, until he passed through a grass-crowned well. Still even further the water carried him, high above the branches, and now the tops of the trees, until finally exhausted the geyser stopped. Murphey hovered for only a moment, taking in a view of deep trees, warm sunlight, and high towers, before he fell down into the earth again, towards the green tree tops and hard earth. Passing from blues skies into golden boughs, he lost consciousness and knew no more.
The Girl Who Walks Through Walls
Slowly Murphey opened his eyes and found himself on stone floors, in great pain, and not alone.
“Oh thank the Ageless Oak, you have awoken. The sparrow hath told me that you suffered from concussion. The stones thought that you were dead, but indeed I cannot trust them. They think everything is dead.”
Murphey opened his eyes and saw that he lay upon the stone floor of a small cell, high above the earth. Through the bars, he could spy far off trees, a glimmering river, and spires of black mountains, TrollMaw, cursed home of the Troll King. Yet so strange were his surroundings that Murphey did not recognize the dark peaks of the evil monster’s mountain fortress, for as he peered through to the distant landscape his prison bars wriggled and smoked with circlets of writhing flames. The door of his cell too flamed and glowed with the same strange fire. For despite the heat the door remained whole and was not consumed.
“By the spirits, where am I?” he moaned.
“My home. At least that is what the stones tell me. They remember, even if I cannot.” A girl’s voice emanated from the stone walls of the cell. Her explantion, like much of what the voice said, seemed to confuse and bewilder Murphey more than clarify his current situation.
“So, Miss, you . . . um, are you certain that you know where you are? Surely, this prison is not your home?”
“Sir, you do not believe me do you?”
“Um, well . . . Miss, I am afraid that I simply do not understand.”
“That is okay. When this keep was but part of a mighty castle, my family did not understand me either then. Now they seem to be all gone and I am left alone as old as the stones, which in its way is quite sad.” Something about the way the girl talked of her family made Murphey think of his own and whether they too had perished far below the Earth.
“I did not mean to be rude or unkind,” said Murphey. “I too have just recently lost my family, all of whom extraordinary people. Yet though I am but ordinary myself, I miss them dearly and worry of their safety. Your voice comforts me, if you perhaps have a story to tell I would very much love to hear it, for I enjoy tales more than any thing and they say stories can often elicit wisdom and understanding where fact cannot.”
“What may I call you? ‘Confused-voice-behind-the-wall’ will not suffice. I for one am called Murph . . . AH!”
The cell shook and trembled. A hole opened in the middle of the cell floor as if the floor-stones themselves suddenly decided to inhale, sucking in their granite bellies for one great breath. Out from the hole flew a girl of about Murphey’s age in a green traveling cloak with hair the color of forest soil, flecked with dust and green leaves. Her eyes were gray and she seemed to suggest age vast beyond her years, an image of wisdom and grace that was instantly destroyed when she began whining about her sore back and cursing herself and the ground.
“Foolish stones,” she moaned. “And I am a foolish girl for trusting the tunnels again. By Elm that will be the last time, I do so.” Yet her pained face brightened when she spied Murphey sitting propped against the cell wall. She smiled and scurried over to look at him with eyes the color of storm clouds.
“Good morrow, Murph-ah,” said the girl pressing her hand to her brow. “My name is Cliona and I . . . my but you are a strange one.” The girl pressed her hand to Murphey’s ears and face. “How much has changed . . . I wonder?”
“A p-pleasure,” Murph muttered feeling his face redden, “How may I ask did you arrive in this cell where there was no tunnel here before . . .” As he spoke, Murphey watched as the floor opened once again to sniff out a long walking stick which Cliona ran to catch in her arms, before plopping down before Murphey once more.
“I simply asked the stones to let me pass, and after some prodding they conceded. They . . .” At this she cupped her hand over her mouth as if revealing some secret. “The stone can be quite stubborn at times so I had to promise to sing them a song later to ease them back to sleep.”
“The stones like song?” Murphey asked.
“Only lullabies,” Cliona said sadly shaking her head. “And I know only so many. I wish they would ask for something livelier at times, but the earth is content to its sleep and seldom requests much else.
“Of course . . .” she said cupping her hand again. “They have very poor taste in music.” Then she smiled and winked at Murphey, provoking him to stutter in agreement and blush profusely.
“So Murph-ah . . .”
“That is your name, is it not? Murph-AHHHH” she said repeating Murphey’s surprised shouts when the hole appeared.
“Oh no, no ‘ah’ you see, miss . . .”
“Cliona,” she corrected.
“ Um . . . Cliona, you see I was surprised . . .”
“Oh, of course, how silly of me. Just Murph then. Well, Murph would you like to hear my story?” The storm-eyed girl asked suddenly smiling with such warmth that Murphey forgot to correct her and instead simply nodded his head foolishly. She began, and despite his embarrassment, Murphey sensed that Cliona rarely talked to anyone other than her rocks and stones, which did not appear to be much of an audience. She seemed to relish his company.
“Well, I was born eighteenth child to King Louis Strong-Arm and Queen Melinda the Wise in the year 23 after the final outbreaks of the Great Plague.”
“The Great Plague?” Murphey interjected, “but those days have passed thousands of years ago!”
“Indeed? Ah well, that explains much,” she said and momentarily shocked into silence before shaking her head. “Well, I had set my heart on never returning and suppose the Spirits granted my wish. Be careful what you wish for, right? I suppose some lessons must be learned the hard way.” She smiled sadly, before continuing in the same high spirits in which she had began.
“Nevertheless, those days – nearly yesterday to me – indeed were good. Ah if only you could see them, Murph. Our home sat at the tallest tree in the very center of the world, an old oak beautiful and strong. A forest of elm and pine radiated out from the center of our home, where the rest of our people dwelt. Summer nights I would climb out on the branches and just gaze at the fireflies as they danced among the leaves and trunks to the song of the forest. My parents would often sing aloud the trees’ nightly symphonies; although, they assured me the actual melody was far more beautiful.”
“You could not hear the song?” Murphey asked. The girl blushed a bit, and sighed.
“I am not like others . . .” she muttered.
“Oh, well,” Murphey stammered anxiously. “I did not wish to upset you.”
“No, no, no. You have come and talked to me when none would,” Cliona said twirling her cloak through her fingers. “Stone-speakers among my family’s people were often ostracized and sent off from the colony. Song comprises much of my people’s culture, and those unfamiliar with the rites and music are forgotten. My parents thus hid my condition from the populace, but not from my siblings who though not unkind ignored my existence.”
“I am sorry,” Murphey said, meaning it. The girl seemed so very friendly, kind, and extremely beautiful in an odd way. It was a shame to hear of such willful ignorance and neglect present in the world.
“Yes,” said Cliona Storm-Eyes excitedly. “I thus decided to run away, nonetheless. Departing one night with nothing but my walking stick, I made my way down the sacred oak and passed into the tunnels deep below the Earth. My siblings by that time numbered in the dozens so I doubted that my parents would miss one stray child.” She clenched her fists and edged even closer to Murphey as her tale unwound. His interest seemed to boost her confidence, and the last few sentences, she spoke with great animation.
“That must have taken great bravery,” Murphey said, his head spinning.
“Well,” spoke the small girl, waving her hands “maybe it was. Maybe not, for I harbored no fear. The retribution of my family nor the shadows of the earth beneath gave me pause. The stones guided me faithfully, until I fell and let loose a few hasty curses. The earth grew angry after that, and subsequently led me into a great round chamber with a small pond and a tree. All was dark there, yet when I stopped to drink a voice echoed from the tree.” Murph realized at once that Cliona’s story matched his own and quickly admitted that he was familiar with the cavern.
“Really?!” Cliona cried clapping her hands together. “Then you must be quite brave as well as wise, for I grew so enchanted by the voice of the tree that I failed to heed the creature’s evil game. As soon as I spoke an answer to the cat’s riddle, I shrank and began to glow. From then on, I knew no more. A week ago I found myself here in this cell, and discovered from the stones that many years had passed.”
“Yes,” Murphey wondered aloud, “and it seems many years to me since I started on my own journey.”
“You too are on a quest?” the young girl asked with shock and admiration. “For what?! Treasure? That was the order of business for most adventurers in my day. Kingship? Fame? Exile?”
“None of those,” said Murphey. “I seek revenge and possibly my own death in the process.” And with that he told the time-sapped girl all of his adventures from the transformation of his mother, the ploys of the Evil Troll, and the brave deeds of his siblings. So entranced was Cliona with his tale, that she pleaded to hear it multiple times each with a yelp of joy and gasp of amazement. By the time he had finished, the sun had long set and he had repeated the tale in entirety no less than ten times.
“You and your siblings have preformed wonders indeed,” exclaimed Cliona.
“Perhaps,” said Murphey, “though the true credit should go to my siblings, who I fear now are lost. Have you given any thought to escape . . .”
Suddenly their conversation halted as the living holocaust ensorcelled about the bars and door glowed with such intensity that Murphey thought he would be incinerated. Then the whole cell echoed with the rumbling of laugher so cold that Murphey’s heart felt chill in the surrounding heat.
“What by the Spirits was that?”
“The . . . current keeper of this estate,” Cliona said with a trace hint of venom, which sounded quite strange in the voice of this usually joyful girl. “A wicked man from what the stones have told me.”
“Then we must escape . . .” shouted Murphey. “But . . . how?” The walls seemed thick and impenetrable. The fire snaking about the door would admit no passage without pain of death.
“Well, a tunnel would only admit me to travel, yet I could ask,” muttered Cliona, “though that may require another lullaby later on. Could you help me?” Murphey assured her that his singing voice would not put anyone or thing to sleep.
“No,” she laughed, “Here Murph, press your hands to the floor then lean forward.” Murphey did so and then watched nervously as Cliona did the same and leaned close to him until their foreheads touched. Murphey felt the combined sensation of joy and awkward nervousness and watched as Cliona muttered a rhyme or incantation of some kind.
Suddenly the floor shook for the third time that day. The walls shuddered and Murphy saw the cell wall crack and break slowly like the stones were squeezing together and popping one of the number out from the wall one by one. Soon a small passageway into the outer chamber brought forth torchlight and the view of other doorways.
Cliona fell to the floor. With an effort, Murphey scrambled over to her, surprised at how weak he felt, and helped the girl to sit up.
“Oh my,” she said. “That required more energy than I thought. The stones were willing, but such permanent feats require so much of my own energy . . .”
“That truly was amazing,” assured Murphey. Cliona smiled, but only after several minutes of rest did they slowly gather their meager gear and crawled through the wall.
The Tower of Fire
Murph and Cliona walked with great care through the old cobblestone corridors of the ancient castle. Many of the doors they passed writhed with living flames like the cells they had just left, and Murphey wondered at their secrets. Cliona responded at his questioning glance, “You do not wish to know.”
Other rooms proved less inaccessible. Cracked and broken the castle appeared like a great melon rind rotten and eaten from the inside out, a haven to rats, great black storks, and creeping vines. No other residents or guard did they spy as they moved down each level, deeper into the heart of the keep. Murphey thanked the Spirits for this. Though a welcome companion, Cliona did not prove to be a very agile one, falling or tripping over cobblestones frequently with a cursing yelp. Though concerned, Murphey could not help smiling with amusement.
“A plague on these stones!” she shouted, rising from another sudden haphazard fall. “I swear to you Murph, I am not normally this clumsy. These age-worn stones strive to upset, whoa . . .”
Again she tripped and tumbled into Murphey, who standing near an open doorway fell flat on his face amid a carpet of thick musty books.
“Oh drat, I did it again. Murph, I deeply apologize. The stones, you see, appear quite angry now, agitated even. Perhaps I should stand a good distance away . . .” she said standing to gaze about her. Murphey coughed as he breathed in the thick coat of dust from the book jackets.
“That would only cause greater harm. Just stay close, we shall support each other from this moment onward, Cliona. Uh, Cliona?” The girl stood transfixed with a grimace of intense horror. Murphey looked about him. They sat in a round room, which at one time must have glowed white but now appeared dirty and moss ridden. Eyes of orange flame still gazed from beneath the brown layers of moldy lichen. Books lay scattered before a great metal door, carved with intricate flames and thick black smoke. Murphey thought the door engraving strange, detailed but serving little purpose. The images of kings and queens he could understand, but smoke and flame did not seem worthy of emulation. The eyes scattered about the room bothered him like malicious watchmen. Stranger still, he had the impression that the artist intended to hide something behind the writhing smoke of the door’s carving. Nothing else appeared on the door, but nonetheless Murphey felt something waited, lurking behind the metal frame.
“Cliona, what . . .” Yet upon turning to question her, Murphey found the girl had vanished, leaving only a shrinking hole in the stone floor.
Murphey panicked somewhat then. He raced out of the room and scanned the hallway. Not finding her outside the now horrifying temple, he considered shouting, but upon consideration thought better of it. Though the castle appeared empty, altering the entire tower to his presence seemed unwise. Instead he frantically ran down the corridor, passing more fire-walled doors, faded portraits, and ruined walls until hastily turning a corner, he tripped awkwardly down a flight of steps.
His head collided with an ancient display case, now quite rotted and fragile so much so that the once beautifully carved case collapsed on his head. Glass shattered, shelves crack, a large metal shield fell from the highest perch and crumpled atop Murphey’s pained and bruised body. At that time, he might have passed out, coerced by the pain and stress to simply drift into unconscious sleep had not voices through the loose stone aroused his attention.
It was Cliona, and she was arguing angrily with someone . . . someone with power. The second voice seemed to echo and bounce off the walls themselves, vibrating and amplifying the words like the commands of some earthbound deity.
“Please, you know not what you attempt. The seals in the Room of Watching have been broken, true, yet the Shepherd will not yield to you.”
“You do not believe me, child? Then another demonstration of my power is necessary!” The voice seemed amused and arrogant, which Murphey took to signify the voice belonged to a conjurer or sorcerer of some kind. In stories, they always enjoyed proving how powerful and cunning they were. The loud impressive voice to Murphey simply asserted how over-confident the man truly was.
“A weakling at heart,” he said rising from the rubble. “And an advantage, if necessary.” He prayed to the Spirits it would not prove necessary.
Suddenly the floor shuddered and bubbled nearby like molten tar. Tendrils of flames sprouted like newborn saplings reaching their limbs skyward to char and immolate the very heavens. The licked the ceiling above Murphey’s head and subsided below, leaving a wide hole in the stone floor, fringed with glowing molten rock like gold inlaid on leather storybooks. Murphey scurried forward, hesitant lest the floor still retained heat and peeked through. Down below, he spotted a balding figure draped in red wrinkled silk, which instead of kingship and dominion seemed to emanate the same aura as a melted candle.
“Such theatrics do not impress me,” Cliona shouted unimpressed. “You would sacrifice your own life . . . nigh and the whole life of the land itself for your own glory? The Shepherd protects these woods, caretaker to Nature herself. He would enslave or kill us all if unleashed, as country peasant would against a marauding wolf. No command would he take. No authority does he heed but his own.”
“Foolish words from a foolish girl. I know not who you are or how you know such things. But tonight’s I shall call myself Lord of Earth itself. Save your breath from such worthless rebukes. Now is the time to pray to your ancestors! You shall see them soon!”
And with that the sorcerer began chanting in a loud voice from a large book set before him. Strange words reverberated from every stone in the castle. A ball of light formed at his feet, its hue forest green, the color of midnight amid evergreen giants, growing larger and larger at each majestic syllable of the sorcerer’s voice.
Murphey felt a chill dash down his spine. Much of the conversation troubled and confounded him. He knew little about magic or spells of sacrifice or this Hunter, although he believed that it was associated – rightly so – with the circular room upstairs. Indeed he knew little about what was going on, yet he knew that Cliona was in danger and in direct fire of that giant fireball the sorcerer had conjured.
Of course Murphey knew little about summoning spells or he would have realized that Cliona was in no immediate danger. The sorcerer had summoned a demon of vast power and strength, which required much preparation and bloodletting – not his own. The Hunter’s Moon had rose high in the sky, and the great ball of green light Murphey mistook for a missile actually represented the platform where the creature would appear and as Cliona predicted consume them all.
Again Murphey understood little in the ways of magic, and so believing the fair princess in danger deftly jumped down the hole before him and landed atop the softest area in the room below: the sorcerer’s head.
“. . . agitus monstrusus cede malus . . .”
Murphey knocked the cunning man of magic to the floor just prior to finishing the incantation. A horned figure with a human head and hooves loomed now amid the whirling ball of green fire and gas. As the sorcerer spoke the creature had remained still and attentive, but as the restraining voice of the conjurer ceased the creature buckled and rammed sphere seeking release and blood.
“By the Heavens, what is that?!” Murphey shouted.
The answer of course would not be forthcoming as he found himself confronted with another, more immediate foe. His dive through the brick and mortar had not knocked out the sorcerer but merely knocked him aside, breaking his concentration. In stories, Murphy noted that a quick crash to the head would normally immobilize even the mightiest of men, yet in truth his weight and force merely dazed and jostled the powerful – and now angry – man. The figure of the magician now rose from the floor, his red satin robe aflame like a fire mount awash with the boiling vomit of the earth. Before Murphey could even consider whether his legs capable of flight. Fire flew forth from sorcerer’s hands, sparks of pure rage angled at the supine figure of Murphey.
Yet immolation was not the chosen fate of Murphey that day. A rapid aria cut through the room, a song both rapid and angry. Before the fire reached Murphey’s outstretched hands, the floor shifted and broke as a giant hand rose from the floor, absorbing the magician’s searing projectiles. Then with ample crushing force and weight, the hand flicked the magician to the far wall like an irritating fly that would sting no more.
“Murph!” Cliona finished her song and shuffled over, winded, weak, and smiling. She had saved him and movement seemed to pain her. Murphey felt the bile churn in his throat as she climbed to the dais, but he lay still. His legs felt badly damaged, perhaps broken.
“Murph, indeed your plan proved perfect!” the girl shouted as she fell hugging Murphey, who was confused by her compliments. Plan? What plan?
“Indeed only a few minutes more and the Shepherd may have been under his control. Now you must read from the sacred texts before we die horrible deaths.” She said this last part so matter-of-factly that Murph indeed ignored his prior confusion and focused on this new conundrum.
“But m’lady, you told the sorcerer that . . . that if the creature was released all would perish? Why should . . ?”
“Oh that . . .” she said, brushing some debris from her clothes. “Well, the summoning spell requires great skill and power to contain the creature. If the sorcerer could not complete the summoning, the Shepherd would break free from its cage and kill us all . . . oh look, it has almost broken through now.”
Cracks steamed and frothed about the luminous cage. The Creature continued to ram and beat at the cage. They possessed only a few seconds to finish the summons.
“We should hurry then as I have many lullabies to sing if we live through the night.”
Murphey rose – painfully as his leg was broken – and limped over to the book. Cliona shuffled closer to the green light and placed her hands upon the surface. Murphey gazed at the book, frantically searching for the right word. Mystically shards broke and evaporated into the air.
“Malus . . . malus . . . malus . . . where is malus? Ah!”
A clawed hand broke through the prison. A growl trickled through the hole. Inexplicably the castle walls suddenly grew thick with vines and biting plants.
“. . . malus, sed proclivatum horta a-atodor-rot . . .”
A piercing roar split the castle walls. Wherever the sound echoed, the walls shook like sand as living things took root. Trees broke through foundations, vines dug through mortar, branches pierced stone ceilings.
“. . . adatum erat!”
A grove of trees erupted from the stone platform, where the creature just seconds before had raged. Now gone, tall grass threaded up from far end of the floor, weaving through small porous holes in the rock, slowly breaking large stones into sandy particles. The floor crumbled as they stood watching.
“M-murph,” Cliona wheezed. “I-I would hate to . . . share the f-f-fate of these ignorant . . . st-stones.”
“I could not agree more,” shouted Murphey. He limped toward Cliona and together they helped one another to the open door.
Suddenly a crimson figure rose from the shadow of the broken door. The sorcerer stood bleeding, swollen, and probably dying but for the moment still alive. His fingers burned with warm malice. Murphey silently wished this man would just die. Flames the size of small boulders fizzled and spit in his hands, which the sorcerer rose above his head, laughing as he did.
“good . . . bye” he squeaked, and Murphey reflexively clutched Cliona closer, turning to take the brunt of the holocaust that would regardless of his bravery consume them both. Two inevitable heaps of ash shuddered amid the stone forest. Suddenly the sorcerer stopped and dropped his hands. Murphey again opened his eyes expecting death at any moment, but none came. Instead he gasped, staring at large clawed fist that appeared in middle of the sorcerer’s body, which retracting allowing the silk robed figure to fall without majesty to the crumbling floor.
The creature, half-man half-stag, stood before them and before a shocked Murph bowed.
MASTER, it spoke, its voice sounding deep within Murphey’s head. WHAT DO YOU COMMAND OF ME?
Murph temporarily ignored his shock and fear, shouting: “Help us flee from this castle.”
The creature bowed again and Murphey set Cliona upon the creature’s shaggy back before flinging himself unceremoniously next to the weak girl. The man-stag jumped into the air. Years later Murphey could never remember how they left the walls. He may have fallen into unconsciousness, yet one moment he watched the floor cave into a pit of grass, roots, and bark, and the next he soared high above the treetops, watching the stone castle crumble and break with living roots and trees, until the creature’s roar had run its course leaving no remains of habitation behind.
Murph and Cliona tumbled to the ground amid a clearing. Soft unthreatening grass tickled their noses. Smoke wafted their senses. Voices too, human voices caused Murphey to stir, to panic. Several young people looking quite wet and very miserable sat around a campfire, warming themselves. One spoke and through his tear-blinded eyes choked back a silent thanks to the Spirits that govern the land.
“Take your time,” Sian said, extending his hand. “The fire is almost ready, though you should know that it’s your turn to cook.”
“So you escaped from the tunnels safely?” Cliona asked from the fireside.
Murphey scooped out another bowl of thick soup from the pot as he listened to Sian’s story. Originally finding the rest of his family safe and together had brought great joy to Murphey. His adventures in sorcerer’s tower and the presence of Cliona eased some anxiety. Confidence welled within him for they had fought a foe of deadly strength and survived. Yet he still felt troubled, though his siblings appeared in high spirits. Their aches and maladies of the long days underground appeared refreshed and healed. Even their more serious pains appeared whole and unscathed by the taint of the evil Troll. Sian’s hand, crippled by the Living Storm, bore no traces of injury. Indeed as he removed his gloves Murphey could see no wound, no scar.
Kevin attributed Sian recovery to a pair of new gloves, which apparently heal their wearer of all injury. The gloves granted other powers as well, allowing Sian to quickly spark a fire beneath the cook pot at the slightest touch. He demonstrated this skill to Cliona, commanding blue flames to curl and spread across his hands and then extinguishing them with no damage to himself. Murphey, recently escaping from a Fire Mage, felt no love for the skill or the treasures that bestowed such great power with such ease. In all the stories he has read, power always comes at a price.
“How brother did you come by such a treasure?” Murphey asked, after a happy and joyous reunion. Cliona too seemed quite at home among such a large family, and fell into talking with Kaydee and Riagan. Murphey gathered herbs and skinned a pair of coneys, which Shan had caught earlier. Brigitta had challenged Kevin to a wood-gathering contest, which he quietly accepted. The young girl darted quickly into the shadows, while Kevin lumbered slowly behind her.
“See that no harm comes to her,” Murphey whispered as Kevin passed. “I do not yet trust our location or our watchman.”
Before sitting down to cook, Murphey had given orders to the Shepherd to guard their camp. The spirit only nodded in response, before fading into the shrubbery. Murphey could not say whether he felt safer or more frightened at the prospect of the creature so close, but at Cliona’s insistence he decided to trust the Shepherd.
“No evil can blossom with such a master as you Murph. Trust and relax. For my part, I am eager to talk with your sister about life inside a pumpkin,” Cliona said. “Perhaps she can commune with oak trees as well, or marigolds . . . or legumes.” Murphey watched as she bounded away, and chuckled as he realized she had once again left him quite confused. Yet despite her confidence, he would ask this Shepherd some questions . . . and maybe a request or two before dark.
“Shan and Brigitta saw you lifted into the air, spit from the cavern by that jet of water,” Sian said with some theatrics typical of his style of storytelling. “When you failed to return, we trusted that you had found a quicker method out of the caverns. We thus chose to follow the path upwards towards the surface. The sunlight nearly blinded me, but we had avoided falling up the slick trek uphill and so the warmth was welcoming. Nearly all of us collapsed in the grass, allowing the sun to dry our sodden skin and the cool smell of woods and fields to tempt our senses.”
“Kevin noticed that the mouth of the cave from whence we retreated resembled the visage of a gaping lion,” Kaydee added from her corner, her back to the setting sun, which illuminated her regal robes like a fallen star in the dusklight. “It had so startled me that I flew up into the treetops.”
“Yes, yes . . .” Sian said, dismissing Kaydee’s fear with a wave. “Though weatherworn, I too saw the growling cat in the carved rock. The path must have been a great road once long ago, maybe the entrance to a mine. We saw plenty of jewels freckled against the walls there . . .”
“Or perhaps a warning to travelers against the tunnel guardian and the lynx . . .” Made by Cliona’s people, no doubt, Murphey thought.
“Perhaps,” Sian continued. “An hour we sat there before the lion’s mouth. Longer still would you have found me if Brigitta and Kaydee did not insist on searching for you.”
“Some of us,” Kaydee spoke sternly, “felt Murphey quite immortal, safe from damage from rocks, water, and tunnel monsters. I was not as confident in your invulnerability.”
“Yet here he sits as whole and unbreakable as the Colossus of Thebes. No offense, dear brother” Sian whispered with a wink, dismissing Kaydee’s honest concerns. “Yet my exhaustion allowed me to care little for anyone at that time, much less capable of movement itself. The body longs for the familiar. We were born beneath the sun and woodlands, and so too much water and darkness nearly killed me, like a neglected house plant.”
Sian stretched himself out before the golden hues of the setting sun. He and the rest of the siblings looked well-rested and healthy. Murphey wondered then at his siblings’ bodies. The pump-kin were grown like gourds in the garden. Their health may be far different from that of Patricus and himself.
“We walked through the woods then,” Sian said, pausing to take a sip of Murphey’s soup. “Hey not bad. It’s not dragon soup, but will suffice in a pinch . . .”
“He’s becoming distracted again. He cannot eat and talk at the same time. Can’t blame the poor boy. He spends so much time talking he doesn’t know what to do with himself when he eats” muttered Rigan loudly to Cliona, whose ensuing giggles set Murphey heart to dance.
“As I was saying,” Sian continued, “long we searched for you or the path you took to the surface, finding only an old well. Dusk had set when we heard shouting through the trees ahead. Shan scouted ahead lest another troop of goblins greet us. At his signal we moved forward, as quietly as mice, or overgrown children pretending to be mice at any rate . . .”
Shan rose to grab the soup Murphey offered him and sat down next to Sian. Murphey for one moment watched the two brothers as they sat on the ground, the stark contrast between the two. Sian in a well-kept jerkin, iridescent like fish-scales, his face bruised and worn but handsome, the fire gauntlet on his hand emanating raw power, and Shan hair rustled and dappled with bracken like a eagle’s nest, his cloak wrapped around him like bark about a storm-blasted tree.
“We are far from the Soundless forest,” Shan interjected. “A band of siblings crash through the brush like scared deer. Luckily though the clearing did have a hint of magic to it – once perhaps a meeting place for elves and other Good Folk – the strange occupants posed little threat.”
“Nonetheless, I suggested that we spread ourselves out among the trees just to be safe. If attack came, we could emerge into the clearing from all sides. And thus, we passed through into the clearing like living shadows at dusk, and found a pair of brothers in argument over a large burlap bag. Though surprised they soon overcame their fear and explained the source of their argument.”
“The eldest apparently,” Shan spoke up, allowing the verbose Sian to eat his soup, “together with his father had been given the care of the burlap bag and whatever treasure it contained. They would not elaborate at first, fearing us thieves.” Sian laughed in his soup as the mention of “thieves,” which Shan stressed with a curious look at his brother. Murphey had a good idea that what the bag contained not fit on Sian hand.
“Yet the youngest had paid their father a handsome price for the contents. The bag was enchanted. None could open it except the rightful owner. Both claimed the contents, and the argument was soon to be decided in blood.”
“It was so shameful to see family argue over such a trifle,” Sian said, wiping his mouth with the back of his repaired hand, which now fizzled and produced sparks. “Oops . . . cooperation will succeed, whereas derision brings with it only pain. They thus charged us with deciding the matter for them, being a neutral party. I took it under myself to judge their case, once I secured their solemn word that they would not argue my decision.”
“You decided that since neither could agree, none should have it,” Murphey said. “You asked them to give up their prize to you.”
“Such is how you deal with petulant children,” said Sian.
“Still they must not have relished your decision.”
“The clearing had magic to it, you see,” Shan added. “It secured their oaths. When they drew their swords, the bag flew open and the gloves secured themselves upon Sian hands.”
“It was still a dirty trick,” said Brigitta, returning with a bundle of sticks from behind Sian. “To use others’ indecision for your own gain.”
“I did them a favor,” Sian countered. “They would have killed themselves if we had not stepped into that clearing. Shared hatreds have a way of securing steady friendships.”
“Where is Kevin?”
“Right here,” said the boy walking from the forest. Brigitta noticed his empty arms, and smiled.
“Could you not find any firewood brother?” she jeered.
“No, the pile is just there.” Murphey spied a pile of sticks, bracken, and logs as tall as the lower branches of the great trees around them. Brigitta was silenced, and Kevin sat down, evidently satisfied with his sister’s astonishment.
“How, dear brother . . . did . . .?”
“One day, little one I will show you,” Kevin said sitting against a large oak. No further urging or entreaties could convince him to say anymore.
“Enough talk about each other,” Riagan said, pulling up a large boulder, which he tossed to the ground like a rag, then jumped upon it with a crash.
“Let us hear of your adventures, Murphey, or . . .” Riagan said with a wink and a laugh. “. . . is it now Murph?”
“Yes,” Cliona shouted from across the campfire. “That will be his new name. Short yet noble, is it not?”
Quickly Murphey – blushing all the while – told his siblings of his adventures in the sorcerer’s tower of finding Cliona in his jail cell, of the summoned demon, and of their harrowing escape. Cliona herself interrupted now and then to add a few necessary details.
“. . . when I fell through that hole I thought we were burnt pork. I nearly killed us with my antics. If I had known what the sorcerer was doing . . .”
“He saved me,” Cliona interrupted, “He saved us all.”
“Cliona did the real saving. She stopped the summoning long enough to . . .”
“Oh no, I . . . wait what was that?”
Suddenly as the last daylight dipped beneath the hillside, a great lilting sigh came from beneath the trees, uneven and solitary at first, but the culminating into a great song. The song drifted onto the evening breeze, carrying with it the odor of damp wood. The weight of many years flowed through the melody, fraught still with alternating tones, once cold and slow and then warm and allegretto. Murphey imagined himself taking root, growing high into the sky, arms stretched out to the dome of the sky itself joining heaven to earth . . .
“What is it?” Riagan asked.
“A song,” Patricus answered. “I feel old and . . . very alive like I had just grown roots.”
“Yes,” Murphey said, “I asked our friend the demon for a favor. It seems that this was well within his power.”
“It’s the music of the trees,” Cliona whispered. Murphey looked at her, smiling as tears bubbled in her eyes.
“Hmph . . . well you saved me first,” Cliona pouted.
The sun had gone down long ago. Murphey awaked by the trees’ song – indeed he could not fall asleep – opted to stay with Cliona, who had volunteered for the first watch. The song had made Murphey feel a bit queer as if he had been given a glimpse into something alien. Still the humming sound managed to mute even Riagan’s loud snores.
“That doesn’t count!” Murphey shouted back. “I had no idea what I had done. Besides you helped me escape through the stone wall, which was much more impressive.”
“And irritating, those granite pieces grumbled and complained throughout the whole process. Besides you helped too. No, I will not accept that as heroism.”
“As if I could have done that alone, m’lady.”
“With your wisdom and cunning, no cell would hold you.”
“Ha, with my wisdom and cunning, I would be lost now. No matter. You stopped that fireball assault. A pile of ash and burnt bones would be scattered here . . . no, over there.” Murphey pointed off to the crumbled remains of the keep. “If not for your knowledge and truly magnificent skills . . .”
“Only after you saved me from that immense green fireball.”
“That was a summoning circle, a transport vessel for a forest demon.”
“You did not know that!” Cliona frowned. “Your ignorance is proof of your heroism. Besides, your tumble through that hole atop Randle’s shoulders made me laugh.”
“His name was Randle?”
“Uh huh, Randle Stormtree. The granite told me his name just after we fell into that circular chamber.”
“Which I remind you, was quite an exit. Ordering the stones to suck you through several floors . . .”
“Not as impressive as riding a primordial demon bareback.”
“Well . . .”
“And then,” Cliona reminded with comic seriousness, stretching out the last word so that it sounded like ‘theeeen.’ “You gave me this nightly concert, songs denied me since youth, hundreds of years ago. Oh, how I wish my brothers, sisters, mum, and daa were here. If my family were . . . well, I-I would have loved to sing with them.”
Silence. Murphey turned away, allowing Cliona to tear quietly.
“So,” he said after some time. “Is this some kind of contest? To see who can save the other more often? In a more dramatic fashion?”
“Yes,” she said with a laugh, after drying her cheek. “Yes that sounds right. As I do not take compliments well.”
“Nor do I,” said Murphey with a wink. “Surrounding myself with such excellent and talented individuals, I pale, like a lit candle among the glory of many suns.”
“You should not speak such, sir,” Cliona said suddenly stern. Murphey, surprised, stared at her eyes, deep wells flecked with fire. Her usual whimsy momentarily masked with authority. “Your glory is your own. Your siblings respect and care for you. That in itself bespeaks your worth. Your skills, invisible though they may be, will shine through before the end.”
“Regard and love indeed are precious, yet against the Troll I . . .”
“I speak not only of your family . . . f-for you have my eternal regard too sir. Is that not worthwhile?”
“Y-yes . . .” Murphey stammered. “More so than anything. Anything.”
The words came like a thunderbolt as he realized how truthfully he spoke. Indeed he cared more for this small, ancient . . . bizarre creature next to him than possessing all the strength, flight, power, or even enchanted gloves in the land. Yet his feelings amazed and frightened him. How had such sentiments accumulated in such a short time?
“St-still, none of that now, lest you might lose our game,” he babbled, speaking through a strange mixture of excitement, apprehension, joy, fear, and love. “Fear not, I suppose that I’ll just have to find a way into your debt again. During our next goblin encounter, you could save me. Perhaps if I accidentally walked into a fairie mound . . . or a chimera – no Riagan has already reserved the battle rights to all magical creatures. Maybe if I . . .”
The touch of her lips on his surprised him so much that Murphey simply found no satisfactory conclusion to his thought – not that one existed. Instead he chose to stare for several long minutes into the surrounding forest at nothing in particular.
Cliona laid her head down on his shoulder and then recalling her parents as they together in the moonlight long long ago, she picked her companion’s limp arm and draped it around her like a scarf. That after all was how these things were done. Murphey slowly relaxed some but for several minutes sat muttering a susurrus of nonsense.
“Ha, you win,” whispered the small voice at his shoulder.
“Cheater,” was all his voice managed to utter.
The Bone Army
Murphey rose early the next morning to talk to his demon, the Shepherd. He passed deep into the surrounding woods that encircled their camp before summoning the creature to him. Demons in stories were renowned for their trickery and mischief, misinterpreting even their masters’ noblest requests into evil. The Shepherd, a more primordial forest demon, seemed concerned with trees and forests than mischief, yet Murph decided to take no chances. The siblings may mock him for his caution, but he never felt comfortable with magic.
The Shepherd appeared at Murphey’s summons, through the bark of a large willow, drooping near the bank of a shallow stream. Its great shaggy back, green with moss and lichen, seemed much fuller and healthy now. The creature’s head too stood proud and erect, towering high above the boy, an ancient lord of the forest it seemed not a lowly slave trotting to its master’s beckons.
Murphey suddenly felt unsure of himself, doubting his ability to control the creature as it looked down on him, red eyes glaring through a black mesh of tree limbs. To speak would be folly, Murphey thought, and yet speak he did, for at the last moment, he recalled words spoken the night before, words of strength, faith, and love. Mastering himself, he addressed the demon:
“Good morning Shepherd of the Wild. I wish to discuss your freedom . . .”
The siblings left the camp early in the morning. Emerging from the forest, the siblings spied a hilly expanse, the foothills to the Troll’s mountain. Little rest could they expect throughout the remainder of their journey, and a few of the siblings looked back at the shelter of the trees with longing. To Cliona, their journey meant much more, the success of her escape over a thousand years ago. Murphey considered her.
“Do you regret leaving?”
“No,” she said. “Not really, its not really my home anymore. So much has changed. Little exists that I remember, that remembers me. Home retains those memories, and I can recall nothing there.”
“I see . . .”
“For one thing, everything in the forest about the tower is so small. In my youth, the trees rose high above the highest tower of the citadel. Homes and markets dwelt not on the ground like rodent nests, but high in the bowels like owls.
“Perhaps one day, the land may match your memories . . .”
“Perhaps but such magic is . . . wait, Murph, where be the demon, the Shepherd. Did it abandon us?”
The siblings paused, stopped in their tracks at her words. All before the campfire last night stood aghast at the horned figure which had bore their brother back to their company. A creature of vast powers it seemed to them, a worthy tool in their war against the Troll.
“No, the Shepherd no longer bows to my will. I . . . um, well I set it free.” Murphey expected surprise, yet their shock nonetheless made him feel queasy.
“Why by all that is holy did you that?” Sian asked. “Such power wasted, tossed away like bilge.”
“Yes,” said Riagan. “A demon must possess enormous strength, more so than any Troll at least.”
“Demons are treacherous, even one devoted to forests,” Murphey said, struggling to maintain his voice and his doubt. “I doubt not that the Shepherd could aid us in our struggle, yet no doubt his power might be swayed to serve the Troll as well, betraying us just as the sorcerer who summoned him was betrayed.”
“A coincidence that allowed us to best achieve our aims,” cried Sian, flexing his gloves. “Fate chose us to wield the demon’s power, to have him serve us. Our gifts are great, but the Troll possesses sorcery that even our gifts cannot withstand. Did you gain nothing from your adventure then?”
Murphey looked at Cliona, who continued to smile staring at the clouds. “Perhaps, yet just as fate offered us gifts, so did it offer us choices. The Shepherd did not leave us empty-handed. In exchange for his freedom, he has agreed to build us a fortress, a woodland garden to protect and tend for us and our families, should we fail.”
“Should we fail, we die,” said Shan. “To try and run away is no option.”
“Agreed, still a defensive outpost may one day afford us well.”
“Yes, to run and hide like ants,” said Sian, turning to walk away. “Yet worry not, we will see to saving the kingdom, for that is the responsibility of those with power.” The others followed, turning their backs on their brother. Murphey, they left behind, disappearing behind a tree-topped hill.
“No offense, brother,” Patricus said passing beside him, “but the power of the Shepherd would have been useful in our struggle. Strength we need to conquer our foe, not a garden.”
“Patricus,” Murphey said, “we all have gifts and skills born to us. Power-hunger is not mine. A creature such as the Shepherd could be swayed by evil into betraying our commands. I would not seek to command this creature only to release a greater evil upon the land. In tales, no good ever came from enslaving another, or thirsting for power. No, I will use the powers that I have within me. That or fail.”
“Fail and you die, Murphey. Are your beliefs and fears as important as your own life? As our lives? Can your stories ensure our victory? After all, they are just words, right?” With that, Patricus flew ahead, forming a large kite from the winds and sailing high into the sky.
Murphey felt his insides twist and churn. In the forest, the Shepherd’s power at his disposal; he felt overwhelmed, like a drowned kitten against the flood. The demon’s power immersed his imagination: he thought himself as king, ruler, conqueror, an agent of peace and suppression. No child should suffer as he had without father and mother. He would ensure it – with force if need be. Cliona would be safe and happy forever, dwelling in forests, the world’s kingdoms worshiping them in supplication.
Yet just as these visions tantalized his desires, his mind turned to stories he had read years earlier. Tales of men betrayed by their own desires; power corrupting the souls of good men; peace achieved through domination and cruelty begetting far greater evil. He felt ashamed, and dismissed his present dreams of power, his foolishness. Yet Patricus’ words stung him. Had he been wrong? As usual, had he allowed his worries and fears to overwhelm common sense and present needs? Would all their pursuits, lofty and noble though they may be, fail in the final hour?
Murphey felt his shoulders slouch, all his energy and enthusiasm from the night before drain. His siblings’ words had shamed him. Already weak, denied powerful gifts, he still managed to doom their ultimate goal, diminishing hopes of any victory.
Cliona walked through the long grass beside him, picking out furry dandelions and blowing on them, scattering their seeds into the wind. She had remained silent throughout, while the siblings chided Murphey. Upon hearing about the Shepherd’s garden, her face blossomed into a dreamy smile, joyfully oblivious to the sentiments in the company. She talked to Murphey long about trees, flowers, grass, reeds, and herbs she had learned from the castle gardeners.
“Due to my stone-speak, none of my siblings would play with me. Of course I could not participate in the ceremonies or tree-caring, not hearing the trees – that is until last night” she said with a giggle. “Thus, I spent time learning to plant and care for the forest from the royal gardeners and herbists.”
Murphey half-heartedly listened consumed with worry, yet somehow Cliona voice and story drew his attention away from his own troubles. He had forgotten that her own siblings had never acknowledged her existence, much less argued over the possession of primordial demons.
“Once, Master RipeVine, the castle’s oldest landscaper and ripe jolly soul who . . .” she said in a confidential tone, “. . . smelled of pipe-powder and wine, but a good-natured soul, showering me as much kindness as was lacking from my family. I learned to play the tambourine from him, as well as several colorful sea shanties and the secret art of smoke rings . . .”
Murphey started. “Wait, a lady of your lineage . . . you can blow smoke rings?”
“Yes, quite well,” she said proudly, “Not as skilled as RipeVine though. That man could shape tapestries with a single breath.”
Murphey eyed his siblings far ahead, their heads bobbing above the high grass like rubber balls in an orange sea. “Could you teach me? I’ve always wanted to learn craft.”
Cliona smiled mischievously. “Remind me when we camp,” she said with a wink. “RipeVine taught me many lessons. One day he found me crying beneath one of the trees in the courtyard. Earlier Tristan, eldest of my brothers, had seen me climbing and ordered me to cease for the trees were considered sacred, worthy only to those of royal blood . . . without stone-speak. His words startled me; I fell from the upper branches and damaged my arm. Tristan proceeded to lecture me, while I cried, reciting ancient laws with words like ‘obligation,’ ‘impractical,’ and ‘defame.’
“ Indeed I understood little of what he said,” Cliona laughed, sadly. “He left me soon after allowing me to deal with my bruises on my own. There RipeVine found me eyes wet, nose dripping, yet he mentioned not my pathetic appearance, instead fished through his basket. There he showed me this herb, Sun’s Heart, which glowed blood-red beneath the dawn-light and dulled to black at dusk. I found it amazing, but Master RipeVine told me differently. He said that touching the herb would leave a moist rash on the skin, yet to ingest the herb would accelerate healing, closing wounds and mend bones from the inside. Another plant, the Lion’s Breath, bloomed large and beautiful flowers, all various shades and fragrances both delicious and amiable, yet to ingest it would bring on instant death.
“‘Often,’ he said, ‘that which hurts on the outside may help heal us inside. Likewise many beautiful and attractive plants are not actually very helpful, and best seen from afar.’ You see?”
“I do not fault you for wanting to improve yourself, nor for refusing power without need,” Cliona said. “Indeed I will miss the trees singing every evening, but their melodies have a way of . . . remaining with you. All one needs is to reach back into their memories and retrace the song.”
“Well, you need not depend entirely on memory,” Murphey said, finding his smile. “Before granting the demon’s freedom, I asked one further boon: the power to talk and attend to the trees in their own tongue or rather speech. The Shepherd told me I can allow others to hear as well, at will. Thus indeed, you have lost nothing.”
Cliona’s eyes widened. “That gift is more than you may realize, Murph. Your siblings may think twice about your decision had they known this. Tree speech is more than listening to forest symphonies. The trees speak not to your ears but to the life that flows in you. That pathway can be reversed as well, and your feelings can affect all life growing around you. Those that hone their skills are said to control the flow of life itself.”
Murphey considered this, wondering momentarily what he had done, when Shan cried from up ahead, “Soldiers! The king’s soldiers! We have reached the base of the Troll’s mountain keep!”
Murphey and Cliona ran ahead to join the rest of the family, who stood on a barren outcrop gazing down upon a wide valley. Together they saw there in the valley a great host of men, fitted with ornate helmets, sheets of thick metal, and vests of iron rings, shining in the sunlight like silver pools reflected in the dawn. The men marched fearlessly across a shallow river, caked black with tar and molten rock; the soldiers sang songs of victory across the open fields into the shadow of the mountain.
“Where are the Troll’s forces?” asked Riagan. “Is he so indomitable that he leaves his fortress guarded by mere shadows?”
“Yes, indeed, brother,” says Shan, “for see, the shadows stir!”
Murphey watched in horror, for what seemed but darkness and ashen rock now revealed itself as an army of nightmares: black goblins, smoking dragons, and worse, living shadows, demons under the Troll’s command.
The living darkness crashed into the men like a storm-angered deluge over a campfire, extinguishing the luster of their armor and the beat of their hearts. The swarm then descended on the bodies, and the siblings held their ears, as the sound of the feasting monsters cracking and tearing brought despair and nausea. The dark host then retreated back into the shadows, trailing cleaned bones and tarnished armor in its wake.
Murphey felt sick. The decimation of the king’s forces provoked similar disgust among the rest of the siblings. All color drained from Patricus’ face, while revulsion played on Shan’s usually calm demeanor. Sian, and even strong Riagan seemed aghast, horror-struck by speed of the attack. Kaydee sobbed quietly, comforting a horrified Brigitta enfolded in Kaydee’s white train.
“What evil is this?” Cliona shuddered next to Murphey. The grim smiles of the dead bones terrified her, and turning away from the valley she spied the fresh shoots wriggling at Murphey’s feet.
“The army of the Troll King,” said Murphey. “And through that force, must we march if we are to vanquish that monster. Though how to conquer such a force, I do not know. No tales tell of anyone, even one with the strength of Hercules, the cunning of Anasasi, or the power to conquer arrows from the wind, who has challenged the might of the Troll’s armies and succeeded.”
“No worries, siblings,” Kevin said. They turned from the grisly scene to stare at Kevin, who only appeared untroubled by the sight before them. “Demons and dragons may consume flesh, and shadows may consume souls; thus we need an army without either.”
And in saying so, he removed from his many pockets a tiny grain, no larger than a speck and dropped it to the ground. Kevin drew from his flask a drop of clear liquid – “Water” he said – and sprinkled the grain. Suddenly the siblings felt the ground shake and tremble. The earth broke and a dark hand rose like a dead thing from beneath; yet no living or undead creature climbed out of that chasm, but a living doll of bone and gears.
“Behold siblings, my secret force against the Troll army, golems grown from powdered bat fangs. They know no pain or fear, and . . .” with a sly wink at Brigitta, he added, “. . . in a pinch, they are marvelous at gathering firewood.”
Leaving Kevin behind to tend his crop of bone soldiers, the remaining siblings journeyed down to the king’s camps. The plan as Sian explained it – taking it upon himself to organize and lead the small family – was to gather information and strategy from the captains and generals in camp. Kevin’s soldiers may be able to stave off the Troll’s forces, but in order to defeat the Troll once and forever, they would need entrance into his keep. The others agreed that more information was needed, and followed him down the hillside.
“Most importantly, if we intercede many lives might we save,” Kaydee said.
Murphey said nothing. The soldiers march into the Troll’s army had disturbed him greatly, for he considered the strategy a total waste of human life. Why had the captains and generals, possessing years of experience against the Troll’s forces, willingly sacrificed so many able troops? What had they gained from such a gambit?
While he considered these quandaries, Patricus came up beside him. “Do you think he will be here?” he asked.
“Father. Do you think that he is still . . . you know, alive?”
Murphey considered the question. He had not seen his father for many years, too many years. Mother and Patricus for so long had been his only family, and yet with mother gone, it would be nice to have someone else to rely upon, to take the burden of responsibility away . . . even for just for a while.
“It would be nice to see him again,” Patricus continued. “Even once, with Mom and you and me, you know. I was too young to remember him, but I remember his stories. I would like to show him how much I have grown, you know?” As he said this, he formed a bow of summer breezes and shot a whirling arrow into the West Wind.
“I do not . . .”
Suddenly a bright burst of flame exploded from the hillside, enveloping the siblings in smoke. Long tongues of flame, like great fiery worms, flew down the hillside. Murphey coughed in the smoke, gazing at scorching trails of burnt grass left in their wakes. The flames sizzled and spun down into the valley, until colliding with a fiery holocaust into one of the larger tents.
Murphey stared at the trails of scorched earth, and retraced them back up the hill to where Sian lay panting on the floor. His glove writhed with flames, yet he himself apart from the shock seemed little harmed.
“Sian, what did you . . ?” Riagan shouted. “What did you do?”
“Brigitta had asked me how my arm had healed. I-I attempted to remove the glove, but he refused and . . . and as I tugged . . . I am so sorry everyone . . .”
“No need to apologize to us,” Shan said. “But you best ready your silver tongue, brother, because a company of cavalry has just left camp. And they make all haste to us . . .with swords drawn!”
The Night Company
“Patricus!” Murphey shouted. “Can you construct a barrier? Or a wall or something?”
“The air here possesses little strength, yet I might yet muster a stockade,” he said, his arms dancing through the air, weaving solid bars from invisible threads. The horsemen paused in their pursuit.
“Let them come,” roared Riagan. “I fear not man or beast. Such knights cannot match a white dragon.”
“Perhaps,” Kaydee said, bending over to examine the prostrate Sian. “But friends should not fight amongst themselves. The Troll is their enemy too.”
“Indeed,” Murphey said. “We should not be so quick to toss aside our allies.”
Brigitta and Kaydee examined their shocked brother. Sian lay crouched on the ground, clutching at the glove which now writhed with flames.
“I don’t know how to turn it off!” he cried. “Stand back! Wait . . . I think maybe I might control it with . . . ” Another flare burst into the air, nearly scorching Brigitta’s hair. Kaydee was not so fortunate; the blast sent her flying wingless into Riagan’s arms.
“I cannot hold them much longer,” Patricus yelled. “What do we do?”
“We must talk to them!” Murphey shouted. “Calm everyone down before the entire kingdom – the very one we are trying to save – makes war on us. In the meantime, Cliona can you ask the stone and rocks here to smother Sian’s hand before . . .”
The crackle of cannon fire squelched Murphey’s words. Someone had fired upon the children but not from the camp. Contrails of smoke drifted from the shadows of the mountain. Black balls whistled through the air over their heads, landing deep in the ground several yards from where Sian had fallen.
“Ha,” he laughed nervously. “My luck endures. Those fools just missed us.”
“Luck?” Brigitta shouted, helping Kaydee to her feet. “Your accursed glove nearly killed us!”
“Everything’s fine now,” Sian said, watching orange flames dance upon his glove. “It doesn’t hurt me. Indeed this gauntlet will prove a powerful weapon if my good fortune should ever fail us.”
“Don’t be so sure, brother,” Riagan muttered. “There’s something strange about those missiles.”
“Move! Everyone run!” Cliona shouted. “That is not cannon fire!”
Inside the dark craters, something began to bubble. Large oily shadows rose from the pits like smoldered flames. The fumes took shape as living shadows, distorted and misshapen like wax statues taken apart and combined by someone unfamiliar with human anatomy. Hands appeared legs should be. Clawed fingers and hands wiggled from faces which seemed to growl from abdomens.
Part of Murphey stood as one frozen, trying to piece together the monstrous silhouettes, while another deeper and far healthier part of himself just screamed. The other siblings faired no better. Shan tossed blade after blade into the shadowy bodies, which only seemed to absorb the blows; Brigitta looked frantically for a tree to climb. Panicking Sian pointed his gloved hand at the creatures, but no flames issued forth now. He cursed, shouting commands at his glove. Cliona called to the earth, pulling the pits deeper into the core, yet the shadows continued to rise from the deepest depths. Patricus refocused his skills in containing this new threat, yet the shadow creatures simply slide beneath his walls like light under a doorway into a darkened room. The knights, now freed, continued their ascent up the hill.
Tendrils of shadow, like immense black arms, burst from the bodies of the wraiths and wrapped themselves around the bodies of Riagan, Shan and Murphey. The siblings shuddered. Although his senses perceived nothing, the shadows’ touch disturbed him; something deep inside him was growing colder and colder, like a flame flickering in a maelstrom. Murphey attempted to wrench free, pulling at the nightmarish arms; the shadow form mimicked his actions, like a reflection in a mirror. Only once it latched on, it did not let go.
Riagan and Shan fell to the ground, their faces black with shadows; for when they struck the creature, their fists passed right through as if a mirage. Yet creatures’ in turn – as if mocking their own strength – pounded the siblings’ face, leaving shadowy contrails like black cobwebs pulling the brothers closer to the shadow-wraiths. The more they struggled; the more tendrils latched onto their bodies, slowly engulfing the brothers like oily quicksand. Murphey stared at the face of his own shadow; its face drooped in despair as Murphey screamed. The monster’s eyes though shown with triumph, the sole irregularity in this nightmarish pantomime.
The creature sucked the brothers further and further. Murphey felt the creature’s cold dead breath and retched. When the creature mimicked him, Murphey suddenly felt a wave of repulsion flush through his blood.
“Riagan!” he shouted. “Punch me!”
“W-what. . . mmmph?” Riagan mumbled, his face half submerged in the creature.
“Just do it!”
Rigan stumbled over, striking Murphey’s chin just before falling to the ground. Riagan’s shadow struck the dark figure latched onto Murphey, dispersing the creature into vapor. Shan spying the sense of Murphey’s gambit, strode over and kicked his own prostrate brother, who at the same moment swept his feet beneath Shan’s. The two shadows momentarily struggled with one another, evaporated into the air.
“My luck saved us again,” Sian muttered striding over to examine Riagan.
“You call that luck, brother? Our skills are no match for these foes.”
“Indeed,” Sian said grinning. “Yet so far I have escaped attack altogether.”
“Oh my . . .” Shan moaned. “We have not escaped the snare yet . . .”
The remaining shadows advanced upon the siblings. Murphey’s strength had failed him. He fell to the ground. Patricus and Sian dragged their fallen siblings away, but the shadows crawled after them slowly but determined. Murphey rubbed his arms, trying to return warmth to his life-drained body.
The knights galloped to the edge of the fray. His head still reeling, Murphey stared absently at the group of soldiers. They did not resemble any knights he had seen before in stories or from his own father’s descriptions. Save their right arms, these men wore no armor, bare-chested like wildmen, donning animal skins of all kinds. The interlocking plates on their arms and hands though made them look more like mechanical dolls than barbarians.
The creatures poised for another attack when one of the knights dismounted and walked out to the bubbling mass of shadows. About his shoulders draped the skin of a bear; about his waist a sheathed sword hung, its halbard white as bone. He did not draw his sword, but began punching the amorphous forms with his armored hand before Murphey could cry out in warning. The creatures fled before the knight’s attacks, melting into the ground or dispersing into the air like late morning fog.
Then the knight strode over to the craters and lifting a hip flask from his belt, he poured a single drop into each hole.
“Essence of sunlight,” he spoke gruffly. “Drives the darkness and all its bairn away.”
“Is that what you coat on your arm?” Cliona asked.
“No,” the knight said tersely before striding back to his mount. “We are the Night Brigade. Follow us.”
Slowly and with some trepidation the siblings followed the troop. Murphey still felt queasy from the shadow’s leeching assault, but determined to walk upright proudly before these men . . . and Cliona. It would not do to appear too weak before such stern knights, lest they send them home or fight, which would not do anyone any good. The others followed as well. Despite his almost fatal absorption, Riagan strode quickly and caught up to Sian who held his gauntlet hesitantly.
“Brother,” Riagan asked. “How is your hand?”
“It has gone out, I think . . .,” Sian responded. “I-I do not know happened. My hand just began to burn and then flames began flaming out from my hand. The glove is indeed magical but who knows what other secrets it keeps.”
“We may need to find some means to remove it,” Shan said from nearby
“Indeed we must be wary,” Sian said. “But do not be too hasty yet.”
“What do you mean?” Riagan asked, absently flexing his muscles.
“The glove does more than heal. If controlled, it may yet be used in battle. As a weapon.”
“But what . . .” Shan started, his eyes stern. “What if we cannot control it? Or worse, what if this gaunlet be a thing of evil?”
“Then and only then should we destroy it . . .” Sian said. “. . . hopefully without harming the rest of me in the process.”
Murphey overheard this conversation and said nothing, his thoughts churning like fresh butter. Many of his stories spoke of magical artifacts, posessions that granted great power and abilities. Not all of them were good, or ended well for the user. He recalled the gift given to him by the Guardian. He wondered – not for the last time – whether Cliona’s warnings would return to haunt him.
Brigitta strode near the flank of the closest horseman, a great beast of a man draped in lion’s skin. Murphey noted that he – like many of his fellows – kept his armored hand covered as would a wounded man in a sling. None the men held the reins with their right hands, which seemed rather odd to Murphey. He considered some the histories of far off lands, where those who favored the use of the left hand were considered evil or untrustworthy. A touch on his arm broke him from his wanderings. Cliona had fallen in beside him and motioned to fall back.
“What’s wrong?” Murphey asked when they had walked just out of earshot. “Are you injured?”
“Nay,” Cliona replied. “Merely concerned. This place alarms me. The earth speaks of fell deeds and deep despair.” She pointed out to the center of the valley where great black rocks pierce the growing mist.
“Nothing about this place warms me,” Murphey replied, rubbing his arms. “Those shadow fiends . . . I nearly felt my life draining away from me, like vampires in legends.”
“Yes, how did the world become so dark in these last centuries . . ? I sense that same darkness from these men. Be careful. I do not trust them.”
Murphey stared at her. For the first time since he had known her Cliona’s eyes burned with distrust and fear. Apprehension was natural for someone trapped underground for several centuries, yet still something was different about these men. Riagan’s strength could not assault the shadows. How could these knights defeat the fell creatures with such ease? Cliona was not the only one curious about these strange men.
“Knight,” Brigitta called. “Are you wounded? Your arm is bandaged. All of your band is wrapped as such in cloth or armor. Are you scarred? For you need not fear for our sensibility, we have seen scar tissue before.”
The knight did not respond to her, but instead looked upon her with some sadness.
“Because we have a great healer among us, my brother Kevin. He may cheat at games but he can cure most ailments unaffected by the Troll’s evil magic.”
“Then your brother’s hands would be of no avail to me, child,” the knight responded. “For we are the Night Brigade, doomed men who in order to fight scourge of the evil Troll took on a great curse.” With that he removed his gauntlet and to the siblings shock saw that in place of fingers, palm and flesh a shadowy form writhed.
“You have the hand of one of those creatures!” Kaydee shouted.
“Aye,” said the knight refitting his glove. “We each gave a piece of ourselves to the shadows in return for the means to fight these beasts.”
“Does it hurt?” Brigitta asked.
“Nay, in fact I feel nothing. Nothing at all.” the knight sighed. “In time the shadows will, well . . . ” He smiled. “It’s best for you not to know.”
Murphey understood. The shadows fed on life, like ticks. In time the shadows would consume him as would a cancer.
The siblings walked down the slope to the base of the camp which over looked the Valley of Fear, the desolation before the Troll’s Keep, governed by shadows and the great black volcanic spires rising like the rotted teeth of some great dead thing. Horrible and beautiful too, for the rocks there shown and glimmered like painted glass, reflecting the sunlight and distorting as would a stained window in some unholy church. Long ago, it was said that that valley was peaceful and prosperous, yet the land beneath had grown angry. The earth shook and exploded in waves of fume and fire. Great rocks of pure obsidian burst from the ground and landed like missles into the trees and gardens of the former denizens, now swollen and consumed by the shadows. It is said that all who look into those great black spires go mad or are consumed by the Nothing that dwells within each rock, leaving only their shadows behind.
The siblings shivered and looked away.
The knights’ camp was a busy place, full of soldiers moving between brightly patched tents carrying stores of weapons, gear, and food. Murphey noticed that almost all were bandaged or wounded in some manner. Many stared at the children as the knights ushered them through.
“So much suffering . . .” Cliona sighed.
“Is there nought that we might do?” Kaydee asked.
“Not unless you can produce medicine and from the air,” the head of the knights said, he who had vanquished the shadows on the hillside. He gazed at Patricus when he said this, who shook his head as if in reply to some question. “No matter. You have gifts indeed but none can help these men.”
“You know of us?” Murphey said.
“You are expected . . .” the knight responded. “Our leader has known of you for some time.”
“Your leader?” Shan asked, but the knight said no more.
He led them into the largest tent on the slope and issued them inside. About a table sat two men: one hooded and wrapped in thick robes. Like a mummified corpse, Murphey thought, from my adventure stories. He shivered.
Yet the chill emanated not from the other, a white faced man dressed in fine attire. His face reminded the siblings of a corpse, dead and without any trace of imperfection.
“Allow me to introduce myself,” the man spoke with a short cold bow. “I am Master Quinibus, ambassador for the Lord Troll King. We were just discussing how you might end this war. Isn’t that right, Commander Michaelmas?”
“Who?” asked Sian.
“Our father,” muttered Murphey.
(to be continued)