It took weeks for Oslan and his party of companions to sail across the Ocean of Empathy to the dark forest of Evenwood, where the Cyclops, Augle, was reported to live. In the belly of the boat, so far from home, Oslan thought wistfully of the sound of their families bidding them farewell at the docks with the common wish of good tidings: “May brightness be behind you.” He hoped it would be. He always felt anxious when he was away from his kingdom, although he knew it was in the capable hands of the queen mother, and his three sisters. He donned his thick black leather glove, and took up the jesses of his falcon, Archer. Beside him, Aylan did the same for Swiftwing. This would be the first time she had taken her saker away from the kingdom, and he knew she was nervous about him getting lost. He gave her a reassuring smile, and stepped closer. With his free hand, he tenderly tucked a stray piece of hair behind her ear. “I love you,” he reminded her.
“And I you,” she replied. He let his lips briefly brush against hers and withdrew. It was his tradition to steal a kiss for luck before any contest, and this day could very well end in battle.
“Shall we?” he asked, and allowed her to climb the steps to the deck above them, while still relishing the feel of her soft kiss. Even when she dressed in a tunic for battle, he thought she was the most beautiful creature in the world.
They prepared to disembark onto the tiny rowboat that would take them to the edge of the land proper, and Oslan conceded that perhaps it was a good thing that Aylan had convinced Sasha to wear a tunic as well, instead of the ornate gowns she usually favoured. His wife had already shimmied down the rope to the awaiting craft floating on the uneven waves that would row them ashore. But now Sasha, clinging to the wet cord, seemed to be stuck as she dangled half way down to the rowboat. Every time a wave rolled, moving the ship and rope in her hands, she squealed in a decidedly unladylike manner, and hugged the knotted line tighter. They all went about encouraging her down in different ways.
“Why did we have to drop anchor here?” She wined in a decidedly un-Sasha-like tone.
“Because,” Carn informed her from his place in the rowboat, “There are no docks here, and we have to keep the ship safe. If we sailed any closer to the shore, she’d become grounded when the tide went out.”
Sasha gulped and shut her eyes to the moving boats beside and under her, still not budging an inch.
Never one to have a lot of patience, Oslan merely tried to order her down. To his dismay, it didn’t work. Carn offered to climb back up to fetch her, but as his weight made the rope move under her, her terrified yelp made him stop. Aylan tried coaxing her down with friendly words of advice, and that seemed to bring her out of her shell a little. Long enough, at least, for her to raise her head, open her eyes, and look down, at which point she began to look decidedly green. In the end, it had been the threat of fame that did it.
After waiting for what seemed like an eternity, Thorn finally called up to her. “This is how it is. I’m finding this whole thing rather amusing. How do you think the people at court will laugh at the tale when I sing them the song I am composing at this moment about a beauty stuck in the air.”
“You wouldn’t!” She admonished vehemently from where she dangled.
“The way I see it, I have till you reach the boat,” was his eager reply. He cleared his throat, and in a strong, ringing voice began to sing:
“Sasha, the maiden bright,
Held onto the rope so tight,
The waves did turn,
The sea she spurned,
And her head became quite light.”
With this, Sasha seemed to collect herself inwardly. She tentatively lowered herself another foot. Trembleton elbowed Thorn and crowed, “It’s working, keep singing!”
A broad grin spread across Thorn’s face and he continued:
“Her face started to look green,
‘Twas the funniest thing I’d seen,
She clung to the rope,
Without a hope,
Of looking where she’d been.”
Fraught with anger, Sasha seemed to forget her fear, and shakily began to climb down at a good clip. But, Thorn was merciless and continued till her slippered toes actually touched the seat of the boat.
“For the rest of us, quite a thrill,
But for her, a reason to kill,
She’s no longer stuck,
And now I must duck,
Or out ‘o the boat we’ll spill.”
The boys began to hoot and holler as Carn offered Sasha his steady arm, which she took gratefully while shooting Thorn a black look indeed. She consoled herself with taking a seat next to Aylan, where she knew she would receive some sympathy. The rest of the group joined them in the boat, and Carn began to row them ashore.
They were an impressive sight indeed, with their silvery armour brightly reflecting the sun like the waves around them. The symbol of the dragon’s head blowing fire adorned each of their chests, and the wind billowed the capes that some of them wore.
There had been a harrowing moment back in the palace as they were collecting their things, when Oslan had to call his mage to the armoury to ask her how to take down his beautiful fire-blasting shield without killing himself. She explained that it was perfectly safe to touch. It required the force of a blow from an arrow or weapon to discharge. Although she did half-jokingly warn him not to get kicked by a horse while he carried it, lest he end up with a roasted steed.
The shield sat proudly in front of him now, flower shining as brightly as his kingdom’s insignia. Archer and Swiftwing perched comfortably on the royal couple’s gloves, and seemed to enjoy the feel of the salt air ruffling their feathers. Oslan was happy to have them along, their food was becoming scarce, but if the birds did their job right, the group would be having meat with their suppers again. The king was confident that they would be, but he wondered what else they would encounter in the looming, dark forest laid out before them.
Seeing Eyes to Eye
Before long, the knight’s continuous rowing brought them to a space in the forest edge where they could disembark and pull their rowboat up onto the land to await their return trip. Oslan was surprised at the feel of the forest as they began to edge closer to the first few trees that grew there. He had expected that as they drew nearer to the shore, the forest would seem to lighten as their eyes adjusted to the evening light. He thought they would have hours yet to walk before they would need to make camp for the night. But now he stared uneasily at the thick rough bark that looked almost black. He noticed that the branches seemed to jut out at awkward angles, like they were preparing to reach for his party, making the trees seem even more sinister.
Outwardly, he showed no fear, but inwardly, his skin crawled.
“I don’t like the looks of this.” Trembleton complained matter-of-factly. Oslan silently agreed with him. Sometimes it was a chore to be brave. But brave he would be. “We will stay together, and keep an eye out in all directions. We will be fine,” he reassured his band.
Archer adjusted his weight on Oslan’s arm, reminding the king that he was still there.
“We’ll send them out to fetch our supper,” he said to Aylan while motioning to his bird. “We will feel better about this when we have full bellies.” He caught the uneasy look on her face and elected to free his falcon first, so she would be put at ease. “They won’t get lost, Aylan, Swiftwing will always find you.” He reassured her. He released Archer and nodded to his wife. With a sigh, she also sent her fowl into the sky to see what they could find.
Oslan watched in satisfaction as she lowered her arm, and her cloak closed protectively in front of her. The beautifully ornate embroidered stars stood out brightly along the trim of the navy blue cloak. The only drawback to bringing the birds was that as long as she allowed Swiftwing to perch on her arm, her cloak would remain open, leaving her vulnerable. He couldn’t have that. Now that it was covering her though, he felt a wave of anxiety lift.
He motioned for the others to form up, taking positions around the women. He and Carn led, followed by Aylan and Sasha, and then Bowregard, Thorn and Trembleton took up the rear of the expedition. As they were discussing how to cut a path through the forest, Sasha called out for them to wait. “There are things ahead, evil things that will be alerted to our presence. There is something inherently wrong with them…they wish us harm without being provoked. And there is something else…” her voice trailed off as Oslan felt goose-bumps rise on his arms at her words. She continued, “I see deformations, like the Cyclops only having one eye. They move strangely. I don’t like this at all!” she seconded Trembleton’s earlier announcement.
Oslan found the moon that was beginning to rise, and was relieved to see that it was full, giving off lots of light. However, glancing again into the forest, he observed that the moonbeams were strangely unable to penetrate the thick boughs of the trees, leaving their way almost completely dark.
“Perhaps we should wait till the light of morning,” Thorn suggested, “I don’t know about making camp here, perhaps we should row back to the ship-"
“No need for that,” Sasha interrupted, “This will be fine.” And with that she stubbornly plunked down on a fallen tree trunk and crossed her arms so as not to be argued with.
“The ship would really be the safest place to spend the night.” Bowregard said matter-of-factly, but Sasha gave him such a hard stare that he finished with: “But this looks perfectly acceptable too.”
The king sighed inwardly, and for just a split second, entertained the thought of asking Aylan to put some kind of sleep spell on Sasha so they could carry her quickly and quietly back up the rope. The earful they’d get in the morning wouldn’t be worth it though, and the spell might cloud her seeing skills. Best to just set up a watch and keep guard all night in case something came for them out of the forest.
The night passed uneventfully for the most part, except for the critters the birds managed to bring back for their meal. One was a small rodent that looked sickly, and only had three legs. On its head, where its eyes should have been, there was just fur like the stuff that covered the rest of its face. It had an oversized nose to make up for the lost sense, and it wriggled feebly in Swiftwing’s unyielding grasp. Archer fared slightly better, returning with a bird that looked normal. Perhaps, it had migrated and flown into this evil-looking place, and so wasn’t under the effect of whatever had inflicted the other animals that lived here. They chose to eat the bird, but only Trembleton was willing to sample the rat thing. He took first watch, as he ended up retching through half the night.
In the morning, the king was relieved to see that though only dimly, the branches were letting through some of the early morning light. Although strangely, the sound of birdcalls that should have flooded the forest remained uncannily absent.
They broke camp and set off at a quick pace between the trees, not wanting to spend a night still in the woods if it wasn’t strictly necessary. There was no clear-cut path, so the band had to forge one as they walked. They moved carefully, trying not to step on the scraggly vegetation whenever a clear foot fall was visible. The branches clawed at the men’s armour and created a chilling sound like long nails running across a piece of slate, which made the hair at the back of their necks stand on end.
At one point the king’s foot came down on a kind of beetle with a sickening crunch. When Oslan lifted his foot to remark what he had stepped on, his tummy lurched at the sight of what was left oozing there. He wiped his foot off on a nearby tree trunk, and he began being more cautious about where he placed his feet. Partway through the day, Carn stopped the party and quickly knelt on the path they were creating. He had found a dark string, like a pull-rope, and followed it to what looked like a small box trap. It was shoddy looking, as if it had been made by a child, although Carn had to admit that it looked like it just might work.
“Heads up lads, this could get interesting.” He announced in a low voice, “We have signs of intelligent life. This could be what we’re looking for.”
They proceeded, and each one took care to take high steps over the wire so as not to spring the trap.
Oslan heard Sasha remarking to Aylan quietly about the ease of movement the tunics afforded them, and that she should have abandoned her gowns long ago if this was the trade-off. The king shook his head, and wondered if this adventure would spawn a new trend in his kingdom. He hoped not, he rather preferred the dresses, and it had taken so much work initially to get his wife to wear one. Although, truth be told, the hose she wore with her tunics did much to flatter her long legs which would otherwise be obscured by any gown. Sighing, he continued on, and resigned himself to the knowledge that only time would unfold what was to be. Although, he supposed that if worse came to worse and Sasha did decide to take up the habit of wearing men’s clothes, he could always hire Thorn to sing her back into a gown.
It was not long after that when Sasha swooned, and told them to release the birds. She refused to say more, except that it was after noon, and they should consider a repast. Oslan couldn’t help but notice a guilty look cross her face, but he and Aylan did as she instructed, hoping fervently that Archer and Swiftwing would return with more birds from outside of the forest instead of creatures from within.
It was then that they discovered that wood from the forest wouldn’t burn. The vegetation was covered in what seemed like tiny hairs, and each hair was covered in a thin layer of mucus. Eventually, Aylan ended up simply conjuring a fire, but it wasn’t to burn long. For Archer returned then, empty handed, and without the other Falcon. Aylan was distraught, and couldn’t hold her concentration on her spell. Her energy left the fire, and the flames died. Oslan tried to console her, and questioned Sasha as to the whereabouts of the bird. She was also upset, and confided that the bird was still safe for now, but that they had to move quickly to keep it that way.
They released Archer once more, following the direction he took off in, and soon came upon a hollow in a hill. Upon closer inspection, they recognized that it was the entranceway to a cave.
Black stones were set into the hillside, sunken deep into the earth. The boulders looked almost as if the ground was trying to swallow them, and they appeared to be wet, though there was no water source to be seen.
Oslan heard the others draw their weapons, and motioned for them to continue on silently, when Archer cried out and Swiftwing’s terrified Ki-yee came as a response from within the bowels of the cave.
Lumbering footfalls that shook the forest came next, and in the following moments, a hulking figure of a man all but filled the entranceway to the cave. He was armed with a gnarled knotted club in one hand, and held Swiftwing upside down like a stewing chicken in the other.
“Swiftwing!” Aylan cried out in distress, then almost unintelligibly, she hissed “Fuer!” Fire! Oslan felt the burst of heat as a fireball popped into existence above her hand to his left.
He cursed under his breath. Feeling like he was about to lose control of the situation, he tried to rein her flare of emotion in. “Blast it Aylan, hold!” he urged too low for anyone else to hear. “You would not want to risk cooking Swiftwing like a goose, think now!”
“Do you really think my aim so bad? This is what I intend to do if he hurts my falcon,” was her pointed response. “One shot, right between the…er, in the eye?” She finished in an almost confused voice.
No one else moved, for they were all mesmerized by the sight of the giant’s wisps of sparse hair, his gnashing mouth, and his solitary angry eye.
Within her fortress walls, Aurastia’s anger flared. “I leave you alone for one week, and come home to find that mess out there on the cobblestones?”
“Come now Aurastia, I had the servants take care of that.”
“The body yes, but what about the stain? If you’re going to play at being evil Zaltreous, you must learn to properly clean up after yourself, or you will get us all caught. I am a baroness, not a captain, and I do not intend to go down with the flaming ship!”
Zaltreous had never seen the other mage lose her cool enough to curse. It was almost enough to make him stop and think about what wanted to fly from his mouth, but emotions were running high for everyone in the room.
“I am not playing at being evil,” he spat the offending word, “I only want what should rightfully be mine!”
“What should rightfully be yours?” Aurastia questioned, “And what’s that? Revenge, the king’s life, the castle? You had a crush on a girl and she turned you down. Nobody owes you anything. You are no more than a child who has lost its plaything.”
“A child… who has lost its plaything.” Zaltreous repeated the words, tasted them, let them roll of his tongue in a voice no higher than a whisper. He contemplated the room; the six guards standing at the ready, her two servants on either side of the door, Flanx unobtrusively stoking the fireplace and she in the middle of the floor. He said “Fli,” Levitate, and lifted a finger, just one. All ten people in the room rose off the floor. He bound them all with magic, leaving them helpless to move, and approached her.
“Tay ka Ey tari traek sauxlija. Vear Ey, Aurastia, kyl ka Tay jaro Ey postik joiyat pineom Tay ot pos Ey? Xa fitiyat eyt tririt ot ine Tay jaro Ey joiyat postoiyat nal Tayt kala.” You do me a great injustice. Tell me, Aurastia, why do you think I have been allowing you to rule me? It suited my purpose to let you think I was possessed by your beauty.
“Ey jaxa alayn Tay roga so talai!” I can help you take the castle! she implored.
He laughed. “Ey jar ha rogaom box se so talai. In tan, Ey rauxliya fallot jus Ey postai taritae nula Endalwynndale, est Ey gellusliya umek Tay.” I plan on taking more than the castle. In fact, I will not stop until I control all of Endalwynndale, and I will start with you. He closed in on her, and grabbed her by the hair at the back of her head.
Helpless to move, and neck muscles tensed uncomfortably in the position he held her in, she purred gently: “Tay karaux dir ot rohegah Ey, Ey jo falima tayt.” You do not need to conquer me, I am already yours.
“Ey xaro.” I know. He smiled a cold dangerous smile before he backed away from her and released her hair. Freeing the two servants by the door, he switched back to the common tongue to bark commands. “You there, you heard your mistress, there is a mess outside in need of some attention. Clean it up!”
The servants ran from the room to attend to the chore without even glancing at Aurastia for the signal to go ahead with the order. Very good, Zaltreous congratulated himself, now we’re finally getting somewhere. “We will leave on the morrow for Endalwynndale,” he informed them as he released his spells on them one by one. He left Flanx for last, purely out of spite for the old man. He waited to see if any of the guards would attack or if the other mage would argue, but each person in the room just stood there as if waiting to hear his edict. Very good indeed.
“Flanx did a good job while you were serving the king, I have been scrying the castle over the days it took you to return home. It is the perfect time to strike. Oslan and his new queen have left it in search of the circlet, so it is ours for the taking.”
“But why?” she asked in a trembling voice quite unlike her usual purr. “Why not just stay here with me? Aren’t you happy here?”
This time he threw back his head when he laughed. “Happy?” he repeated, “Happiness is power. You mocked me for being sore over a girl. That might have been the case in the beginning, but my ambitions have grown tenfold since then. Why would I settle for a palace when I could have the entire kingdom?”
“But,” she protested, “my fortress-“
Zaltreous closed his eyes and pulled forth a torrent of vitality from his core. Hitting all present with an umbrella like shield, he unleashed a blast of energy that poured through the floor. All was momentarily silent as the magic seeped through the floorboards. Then, as suddenly as his initial onslaught, the torrent travelled up the walls and into the ceiling. All of the cracks in the mortar momentarily glowed red, seeming to throb as it gained more of Zaltreous’ energy.
The air thickened, and the candles blew out as the temperature in the room swiftly rose. A bead of sweat rolled down the side of the mage’s face with his exertion. He could feel his energy draining swiftly, and knew that he would have to end the multiple spells soon, or be left helpless forever. He cast yet another spell, ensnaring the energy of those around him.
He grew stronger as Aurastia, Flanx and the guards weakened. The armour of one of the warriors clanged dully as the man crumpled to the ground, lifeless. Zaltreous didn’t care, he poured their energy into his masterpiece. The reddened cracks grew brighter and brighter, some of the stone becoming molten and beginning to drip down the walls. Then, in a final coup, every seam in the building burst apart in an explosion of dust and flying rocks.
Zaltreous was left panting with a grim look on his pale face. He elbowed the sweat from his brow and took a shaky breath, checking to see that he could still feel some energy at his core. It was deeply depleted, but enough lasted.
He allowed the shield to wink out before he strode through the rubble to retrieve the unharmed book. Locating it, he opened a hand toward the tome, catching it when it flew to his palm. He regarded the beautiful mage that stood in shock in the pile of stone that used to be her palace.
“Your palace is no longer an issue.” He informed her. “I’ve changed my mind, I leave today and I will strike under the light of the moon. Come with me, or stay here and rebuild, the choice is yours.” With that, he left her behind to find a servant to ready the carriage.
Flanx dropped the poker he had been using to stoke the fire before Zaltreous decimated the hall. He hobbled to Aurastia’s side. “He appears to have been fooling us with parlour tricks. Fear not, my lady, he may be more than he seems, but you will put him in his place.”
She nodded, a distant look in her eyes as if she only half heard him through a dream. Flanx tried again, “We should go to Endalwynndale and let him take over the palace. He just may be able to do it. Let him conquer the kingdom, then we only have to contend with him. While he’s busy taking down the guards, I’m sure we could find a spell in the book to aid our cause. Why should the world be his, when it could be yours?”
As he talked, he saw her square her shoulders. She tossed her hair in the confident way she was used to, and he saw the fire return to her eyes. As she moved to follow Zaltreous, Flanx noted that she once again held her head high.
Oslan knew he had to proceed cautiously. Despite the grotesque appearance of this being, he had to keep his eyes on the prize. They were here for the circlet, and there was no need for this encounter to come to blows and more death if they could resolve matters peacefully. With his heart pounding and blood racing in fear, he stepped forward toward the Cyclops and sheathed his sword, hoping that the beast would drop his club. No such luck.
“Augle, I presume?” He said jovially in a clear voice that carried across the clearing.
Augle grunted, but whether in agreement or in response to sound in general, Oslan didn’t know. Never having met a Cyclops before, he really wasn’t sure how intelligent they were.
“We have come to discuss with you the circlet you hold within, and well, that falcon in your hand.”
Augle slowly looked down with furrowed brow, to Swiftwing, then back to the king. When he had fixed Oslan once again in his stare, the gigantic man replied in a deep rumbling slow voice, “bird lunch.”
Oslan felt a moment of hopelessness. How would he be able to convince this creature to give them the circlet, let alone free the fowl? From the looks of the trap in the woods, it wouldn’t be very effective unless the other critters here were even duller than Augle. The Cyclops must be hungering something fierce, but Oslan was determined, he had found the perfect wedding present for his wife, and he would do everything he could to retrieve the falcon for her.
Oslan felt a momentary stab of fright when suddenly to his right he caught a flash of movement out of the corner of his eye. He looked, his hand going reflexively for his hilt, but there was nobody there save for the other members of his party. It had been only Bowregard, who seemed to randomly loose an arrow almost straight up. Seconds later, a misshapen bird fell into the clearing in front of them, Bow’s arrow protruding from its feathery chest.
He calmly picked it up, and Oslan burst with pride at his archer’s quick thinking and skill. Bowregard, with a will of steel, advanced toward Augle, holding the bird between them.
“I will trade you your bird for mine, Augle, and then we will both have what we want.”
Augle again looked down at his bird, then at the thing skewered on the arrow. “My bird pretty,” was his reply.
“Yes Augle, it is our bird. The pretty falcon belongs to the pretty lady. She would like her bird back, but you will not miss your lunch.” He motioned with the scrawny bird toward Augle, encouraging him to come get it. Augle looked toward Oslan’s left, where he knew the women were standing, and the one-eyed man spoke:
“You share pretty bird lunch?”
To the king’s surprise, it was Sasha’s voice that answered back. “My bird is not for eating, it is my companion, my friend.”
Oslan opened his mouth to correct the Cyclops, and heard his seer clear her voice. He turned his helmet laden head toward her and saw to his surprise, that Aylan was missing. Panic struck then, and it took all his willpower not to draw his sword in response and start a commotion. He tightened his grip on his shield instead and remained silent. He looked around the clearing, but it was as if his wife had disappeared into thin air.
Sasha was mouthing something to him, but he couldn’t make it out. Then, he heard a twig snap to the side of the entranceway to the cave, and he understood. When everyone’s attention had followed Bowregard’s shot, she must have eaten one of her invisibility pills. She was going for the circlet while the Cyclops was distracted. He could have kissed her then, but she had just given her position away. The Cyclops began to turn his head toward the sound, and time seemed to speed up.
Bowregard loosed another arrow, this one passing right by where the twig had snapped. Oslan felt a blanket of cold fear pass through him and his heart leapt into his throat. He knew that Bowregard was trying to cover for his mage, but he knew also that the bowman could not see where she stood. His arrow thudded into the side of a tree, pinning a dying squirrel-thing to its trunk. Bow walked to retrieve it, stepping slightly around a spot on the ground where some leaves seemed to be flattened by an invisible force. That was close! Oslan thought. But now they had two things for Augle to eat that they could trade for Swiftwing, and his wife was for the moment in the clear.
Aylan’s heart thundered in her chest as Bow’s arrow headed toward her face. She squeezed her eyes shut against the anticipated pain and waited breathlessly for the oncoming arrow’s impact. She felt her hair lift off the right side of her neck as the arrow flew past, then heard the hollow thunk as it speared the tree behind her. Bow walked toward her to retrieve his arrow, and she noticed the lines of sweat that had trickled down the sides of his face. As he walked past, she silently laid a hand on his shoulder to let him know that she was fine. She heard him release his breath, and realized that he had taken a gamble with her life. She couldn’t fault him on that though, she was about to do the same thing herself.
As the archer continued to distract the Cyclops, she made her move. She stopped just outside the entrance of the cave and swallowed hard. She didn’t know what Augle was doing behind her, or if he had yet noticed her, but she couldn’t spare the time to look. She had to have faith in Oslan and their knights. She noticed the floor seemed to change where the stone walls met the forest floor. The soft dirt ground gave way to hard damp stone, and she could see dried white bones littering the area inside. Beyond the bones, the cave darkened, making it harder to see what else may lay there in waiting.
Curious, she chose a leaf that had fallen from a nearby tree out of Augle’s line of sight. She whispered “Fli,” Levitate, so quietly that it rang like silence even to her own ears. The leaf slowly rose into the air and as she moved her hand, it followed, until it hovered a foot above the ground beside her. She sent the leaf flying into the cave. Well, she tried. Upon moving over the spot where the ground changed and the first stone walls grew upward, the leaf stopped in mid-air. Aylan felt her magical energy snap back into her as if it had been slashed with a knife. The leaf see-sawed lazily down to the ground below it as understanding dawned on her as to why she couldn’t just levitate the circlet and summon it to her that way.
She wondered if entering the cave would stop the effects of her invisibility pill. She now spared a quick glance back, not at Augle, but at Oslan, whom she feared she might never see again. If she stepped into the cave and became visible, there was no way she could make it back to her friends without Augle noticing that she had tried to trick him. She glanced uneasily at his heavy club. It was very nearly the size of a thick tree branch, and in fact, Aylan was pretty sure that it had been just that before it had become his weapon of choice.
They were all counting on her, and she would do what she could. She knew she didn’t have long before they would run out of distractions for the Cyclops. She had to move. She held her hands up and stared at the spot where her palms should be as she walked over the threshold. She felt no different, and saw that her hands remained invisible. With a feeling of relief, she pressed on. As she proceeded into the darker part of the cave, she noticed that the bones of Augle’s past meals were growing larger and larger. Her vision was beginning to fail with each step further into the darkness. Her foot bumped something large, and it scuttled away into the dark. Bile rose in her throat. Her skin crawled at the sound and she stifled a scream, not wanting to bring on the rampaging one-eyed giant. She still had a job to do, and she would try to live through it if she could.
She picked her way carefully through the darkness until eventually she noticed a new brightness ahead. She picked her way toward it. It was a pure white light, a shaft of brilliance entering a hole in the cave from above. The sun shone down like a spotlight onto the circlet that sat waiting upon a hewn off stalagmite. She rushed forward then, reaching out her hand to claim it, and stopped when she saw the bony fingers that gipped it from behind.
She wandered around to the far side of the jutting rock, where she found a skeleton dressed in a long dusty robe. The sleeve had slipped down the arm that had reached for the enchanted crown, and the fingers still remained gripping the fine metal. Its skull however, was crushed on one side. Aylan gulped and listened into the darkness for Augle’s return. She heard nothing save for a constant sound of dripping water from some unseen underground stream.
She went for the circlet again. Her hand passed into the sunlight that surrounded it, and she waited with the expectation that something might happen. Nothing did. Her fingers drew nearer to the crafted metal, and everything the imp had told them about it circled in her memory. She hesitated, her fingertips only a centimetre from the beautifully formed crown. She withdrew her hand and pulled her sleeve down over her palm. There was no point in taking chances. Once her fingertips were completely shrouded by the sleeve, she again reached for the circlet.
She wrapped her fingers slowly around it, not knowing what to expect.
Before trying to remove it, she looked at her surroundings nervously for any visible traps that might injure her when she took the crown. She saw nothing obvious that might cause her harm, but magic could be invisible. She grasped the metal and pulled, but to her surprise, it did not budge. She tugged again at the crown, this time bracing her leg against the stalagmite for leverage, and realized that the hand of the skeleton was holding it fast. With a shudder, she used her free hand to begin prying the digits frozen in their death grip, from the fine metal. If I get out of this alive, she thought, Oslan is going to owe me big-time! The crown came away with a snapping sound, the bones crumbling to dust under the force of her fingers.
With the circlet suddenly released, she fell backwards onto her rump, still holding the crown in her covered hand. She waited again for Augle to come, but the dust settled with only her shaky breathing and the drip of some hidden spring for company. She stowed the very visible circlet in her satchel, and watched it disappear as the invisible cloth shrouded it. She retreated back through the darkness of the cave, hoping she would make it out before the effects of the pill wore off. She could tell the light was growing brighter ahead, and saw Augle still standing with his back to her way out. Careful not to step on any more twigs that might snap under her weight, she emerged into the forest once more.
“Augle, have you ever seen a bird like this?” Oslan asked while motioning at the incensed Swiftwing still dangling from his meaty fist.
Augle looked at the falcon, with its perfect gimlet eyes and sleek form. “Pretty bird,” was Augle’s reply.
Oslan nodded, knowingly. “That’s right Augle, he came here with us and is not from this forest,” he explained as if to a child. “If you ate him, you would likely become very ill, as our companion did when he ate a fowl that you are used to eating from the Evenwood Forest.”
Augle lifted Swiftwing roughly to look at him, his brow furrowed over his one huge eye, a look of confusion on his gigantic face. Swiftwing flapped his wings and let out another unappreciative “Ki-yee”.
The king continued, “We will trade you these two beasts for your lunch, if you will return my lady’s pet.”
Augle’s brow furrow deepened for a split second, and then his countenance brightened. “Two more than one!” He announced proudly. “Agreed, I give you one, you give me two! He, he! Augle smarter than fancy man!” Then once more his countenance fell. “That Augle’s outside the head voice.”
“That’s alright Augle,” replied the king, “I’ll still trade you.” Augle brightened again.
“Fancy man nice,” he said, now contrite. They made the switch, and Augle crowed loudly with delight. He turned to go back to his cave, and Oslan’s heart leapt up into his throat. What if Aylan is still in there, she’ll be trapped! His mind raced frantically, trying to come up with a way to lure Augle back out into the open again. He felt the pressure of fingertips on his side where there was a space in his armour. He nearly jumped out of his skin at the unexpected pressure, and the sound of Aylan’s sweet voice shushing him. She was back then, and they could leave. They should beat a hasty retreat back to their ship; they may only have moments before Augle noticed that the circlet was gone.
A Sight for Sore Eyes
Filled with the trepidation of pursuit, Oslan, the women, and his knights hurried back to their row boat without incident. Augle must be enjoying his lunch and must not yet have noticed the circlet missing, Oslan figured. He felt more relieved once he had climbed the dangling rope and was finally able to set foot on the ship’s deck. He was glad that the Cyclops was for the moment content, he seemed like a simple and misunderstood beast.
Oslan turned and proffered his hand, ready to help one of the ladies up into the boat, when the ship, and without warning Aylan began to speak in Almatrae. With a mischievous expression on her face as she faced his seer, his wife raised her hand, causing Sasha to levitate straight up into the air. Aylan’s spell dropped the other woman onto the deck, and to her credit, Sasha almost kept her footing. She let out a brief humiliated shriek as she plopped down onto her rump after pin-wheeling arms couldn’t save her. Oslan helped her up while trying to suppress a grin. Aylan shimmied up the rope and offered the all-too-innocent explanation that she had simply tried to avoid Sasha’s problem with the rope completely.
They dropped the sails and headed post haste back to Endalwynndale. The Ocean of Empathy was eerily calm on the return trip, as if waiting for a massive storm to hit. Oslan didn’t like it, it put him on edge, and his previous feeling of unease returned. With no breeze, the ship barely moved, and he had to get Aylan to conjure some wind so they could make good time.
The sense of electricity in the air as they got closer to his kingdom was palpable. Oslan could feel all the hair on his arms lift, and felt an undeniable tingle at the base of his neck. He saw Aylan absently rubbing the vine tattoo from their wedding day, and realized that his was tingling under his skin. Upon coming into viewing distance of their home, Thorn called down in alarm from the crow’s nest: “Nobody’s moving, Highnesses. Everything is as still as the water.” His spyglass scanned the kingdom laid out before them as he talked. Something was amiss. Normally on an afternoon like this, peasants would be working in the fields, nobles would be shopping in the marketplace, and the din of the workers on the docks should be heard by them already. Instead, they were greeted with silence.
Thorn climbed down the rigging to the deck, and bade Oslan look through his telescopic lens. Oslan did, and was struck dumb by what he saw. All across his vantage point, the people of his kingdom appeared to be frozen in mid activity. People who had been shopping at stalls were paralyzed in various poses; paying for wares, reaching out to inspect goods, walking in pairs, even a boy and dog with joyous expressions on their faces frozen mid-flight through a game of chase.
“Aylan, what manner of magic is this?” Oslan questioned his mage as he handed her the spyglass. “Did you have no visions of this abomination?” He asked Sasha, who simply shook her head in awe as unmoving people began to be visible to the naked eye.
“I knew that Swiftwing would lead us to the Cyclops,” she said guiltily as Aylan shot her a look of hurt and surprise, “but I had no hint of this in my visions,” she finished confidently.
Aylan’s brow furrowed, and Oslan knew that meant she was trying to puzzle it out. “It was one big spell, nobody went walking through the town hitting people with it,” she said quietly as she thought it through. “You can tell by the expression on their faces. No one is surprised or afraid, you only see the regular emotions you would expect. This happened to them all at once.”
“Now the question is,” pondered the king aloud as their boat reached the dock, “why are we not being affected by the spell?”
“The magic must have only affected the people present at the time it was cast, although, I marvel at the size of the blast radius of the spell,” Aylan answered. “I haven’t seen anything like this before, it is as if the whole market is affected, perhaps the whole kingdom.”
“Are they even alive?” Bowregard wondered aloud, “Can they see, hear, or feel anything?”
Aylan just shook her head in bewilderment, and then answered. “I do not know, I have never heard of the likes of a spell quite like this.”
“We must get to the castle quickly to see the full extent of the harm done.” Oslan reasoned. “I need to make sure my mother and sisters are alright.”
“I would like to get us to my workroom,” Aylan added, “hopefully it remains a secret, and perhaps I can scry Lazelan and see if he has heard of anything of this magnitude before. Perhaps he has found the Almatraek Bright, and can offer a suggestion as to how to lift this so we can free our people.”
They disembarked once again, Sasha fairly kissing the dock once she set foot on dry land. They took the back way to the castle, approaching from the postern. The party travelled slowly, taking care to be stealthy as every little sound amid the magic-bound citizens seemed to boom in the silence. It was going to be all too easy to draw the unwanted eye of whoever was controlling the city just by being the only things that moved. Oslan did not want to give the enemy the added advantage of hearing them as well.
They made it undetected to the postern gates, and snuck past the knights’ barracks. All was still there too. As they passed through the garden, Oslan was surprised to see the state of the dragon tongue tree. The ground was littered with bright orange, red and yellow leaves that the tree had begun to shed. The vines that normally hung limply now constricted the tree, and its colour was fading. Something was terribly wrong.
As he passed under its leaves, a branch seemed to move, reaching out to him, the only moving thing besides them in the kingdom. The bark split, and thick green sap started to ooze out the new crack. The tree was dying. Oslan put a reassuring hand on the tree’s trunk, the side of his hand coming into contact with the slowly flowing sap, and his tattoo flared with a heat like fire. Hissing, he pulled his hand away. He would not try that again. “Your majesty, your arm!” Carn warned quietly. Oslan looked down and saw his sleeve glow under his chain mail. He hoisted the metal links and revealed the tattooed vines on his arm blazing a brilliant red. Turning to his wife, he saw that she regarded hers as well, the telltale red glow reflecting off her face. She shot him an expression of alarm. Looking around, he noted that no one else seemed to be affected. So only those bound by the tree then, he inferred. “Carry on,” he ordered grimly, “we must get to my sisters."
Moving with their backs to the side of the main building, the king bent low and they managed to peek around the corner toward the keep’s main doors. He, and saw two armed men that were dressed in strange attire, moving back and forth in front of the entryway. Troubled, the ruler surmised that whoever the culprit was, they were inside, with his family.
“We’ll have to find another way in.” Oslan instructed as he pulled back to safety. Then he was struck by an idea. “Aylan, you made Sasha float up to the ship, can you aim well enough to get us in through that window?” He asked while pointing to the window of his sister’s quarters above.
“Anything’s possible,” she replied doubtfully. “That was the first time I ever tried to lift a whole person. I had lots of space to maneuver.”
“And what would you have done if you had dropped me?” Sasha asked, indignantly.
“You can swim,” Aylan offered abashedly. Then to change the subject she asked: “Who would like to go first?”
“I will go,” Carn volunteered.
“No,“ Oslan objected, “I must see to my family.”
“Majesty,” Carn reasoned, “If your sisters and mother are under the same influence as the rest of the people of your kingdom, then you are the only link left to the throne. They may have done this to lure you to them. By dispatching you, nothing would stand in any culprit’s way of taking our land for their own. Let me go first, I beg you, I promise I will not act until I surmise that the coast is clear and you have joined me.”
Oslan struggled inwardly against the feeling that it was his duty to take care of everything himself. He came to the conclusion, that Carn was right, as king, he was the least expendable of his friends gathered, however it pained him to admit it. He grudgingly nodded in allowance to Carn, giving him permission to precede him, though he felt a pang in his chest as he did so.
Carn positioned himself under the window and bowed slightly to Aylan, saying “I trust you, Your Majesty, and if I don’t make it, know that I have enjoyed serving you.”
Unsure of whether to laugh or cry at that, Aylan regarded her friend possibly for the last time, found her inner core of magic, and began to cast her spell.