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BRINGER of BALANCE - Book II of THE LAND series

By smatusky All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

Chapter 5 - Solitary Relic

As my gathering alliance began its travels into , I realized that I had given little thought to visiting this part of my family’s past. I guess I did not want to remember the evil that ran through my father’s lineage. My visions offered no helpful clues about my trip into father’s childhood realm, so we had to endure without my gift of foresight. I also discovered that my skills with people were more valuable than my magical powers. The respect wrought from my status as Queen helped solidify the alliance, but there was some friction between George, Sae’ka, and Gullane. It had been obvious to our entire party from the onset of our journey that George was infatuated with Sae’ka. Unfortunate for George, she was more interested in the formidable Gullane than in a teenage boy who could not ride a horse.

Late one afternoon I noticed George had left the group carrying his flute. Although he did not go far, I was concerned, so I wandered until I found his flute lying on the ground. I picked it up and walked until I discovered George sitting on a log with his head hung low, his brown hair covered his charming features. I saw his jaw clench while angry emotions consumed him – his flute had suffered the brunt of his frustration.

I could hardly see George’s big, brown eyes and beautiful smile. He sat there tearing bark from the decaying log and did not seem to notice me. It did not take magical powers to realize that George was distressed. His usual loving and happy personality had been transformed into one of grief and despair. He glanced up when I sat next to him with his flute in my hands.

“Did you lose something?” I asked. He ignored me. I continued to wait for a response but he said nothing so I decided to leave. There was no sense talking with someone who wanted to be left alone. When I stood to walk away, he spoke.

“I don’t understand why I’m even here,” I could hear the strain in his voice and turned to him. “Everyone else has fighting skills, powers, or senses like Wolfe’s. All I do is play that silly piece of wood. I can’t ride a horse and even my horse doesn’t like me.” George looked down, even more discouraged.

“Want to know a secret?” I said. George tilted his head and shrugged while his eyes gazed at the bark between his fingers. “I requested that you join us. Devin had other young men in mind, but he told me about you. I wanted you here for this very skill you possess,” I handed his flute back to him, “Among other things.”

George finally looked at me with a curious stare. “What other things?”

“Your humor. Devin told me that you were always telling jokes and acting rather uncouth for a guard. I told him that I wanted you to take part in our travels.”

“But I don’t understand. Why is my flute playing needed on our journey? It’s just a useless instrument.” George had the urge to throw his flute again, but I placed my hand over his.

“This useless instrument is identical to the one my mother and brother used to play. My mother mostly played the puladan though.” George was confused, so I sat down again and explained.

“A puladan is an ancient instrument that has many long cords on it. To play it, you pluck the cords and the sound vibrates within its deep, wooden base. When my mother played the puladan the sound was smooth and every time I heard the vibrations I would fall fast asleep. Of course, I was very young.”

“But what about the flute? You said your brother and mother played a flute?”

“Yes. My mother taught my older brother how to play a flute just like yours. Christian, my brother, was four years old when he first held an instrument like this, but by the time he was twelve he was almost as good as you are now.” George smiled.

“Every time I hear you play I feel better. You may think my magical powers are great, but they can’t compare to the magic that comes from the instrument in your hands. I wanted to hear you play on our journey so that I could remember the joy I felt before I lost my mother and brother, when they played sweet, soft music together. It’s a comfort that comes from something truly magical, and you have that magic. I knew you would be an asset on this journey with all your skills. I especially appreciate your flute playing.”

“I wish everyone wanted me here,” George said, clearly dejected. I knew he was talking about Sae’ka. At times Sae’ka was bothered by George when he tried to make small talk and at the same time she was trying to spark a conversation with Gullane. I was sad for George and hoped the situation would work itself out.

“Don’t try so hard! The George I know is funny, witty, and more talented than most of men on this continent, but I don’t see him anymore. If Sae’ka likes you it will be for who you are and not because you’re a fighter or a knight. I really like Gullane, so don’t misinterpret what I’m about to say as being disrespectful, but there is more substance in your short stature than in Gullane’s size. Look at your King. There’s more to Riley than meets the eye, isn’t there?” George blushed and nodded vigorously. I don’t believe he was used to receiving compliments.

“Give her a chance to see the real you and stop battling with your feelings. You’re very special. If Sae’ka cannot see what is in front of her than that will be her loss.”

George spread his fingers across his flute, covering its tiny holes, and then grinned. He examined the instrument as though he had never played it before and I sensed his passion to play returning. When I stood to leave, he thanked me.

“Hey!” he called out as I walked away. I turned. “Why did the knight get lost on his way to the tavern?”

“I don’t know. Why did he get lost?”

“Because his horse’s tail kept getting in his way.”

I laughed. George loved to poke fun at a knight’s intelligence, but I told him not to tell his joke to Cal or Theo.

“By the way,” I added before leaving him. “Your horse thinks you’re funny, especially when you fall off him. He wants to be called George, just like you. He doesn’t like the name you’ve given him.”

“Oh, but I didn’t…I guess ‘Blubber butt’ was rather harsh, but I never knew. Would you please tell him, my horse…George, that I’m sorry?” I nodded and told him to join us before darkness settled in. As I walked back to camp, a merry tune filled the air.

The next day we crossed into my great-grandfather Sabastian Elderbee’s territory. I had studied some maps in Christopher Farmoore’s books to help me understand what had transpired in the for over a century. As it turned out, my other great-grandfather, the ruler of Farmoore, had experienced visions about his connections with the ruler of . He recorded everything he could about situations in the West and gathered as much information as humanly possible about the area. I was now afraid to enter this place, but we were already into the southern tip of the West Woods and close to crossing into .

I went into my pack to find a map. To my surprise I discovered a book that I had not seen before. It was deep red with gold trim and somewhat plain on the outside. When I opened it I could not believe my eyes. The book, a type of journal, was filled with blank pages. I looked more closely and discovered detailed drawings that I had passed. I rubbed the surface of a drawing and a black substance stuck to my fingers.

Whose was this? I thought while examining a sketch of the tower we had stayed in. A second image was of one of the fountains from the courtyard at Then I saw a figure sitting in the corner of a room. The area around the person was dark, the same as the dungeon I was locked in. It was me.

“You found my book?” Riley said, walking up to me.

“This is yours? You drew these pictures?”

He smiled, took the book from my hands, and thumbed through the drawings.

“Do you like my recordings?”

“You mean the drawings in your book?” he nodded. “I didn’t know you could draw. How did you learn…?”

“Trixie showed me when I lived at the castle.” Riley interrupted, grinning, and placed his journal back into the bag. “I used to watch her record images of the castle and the people living there like Ashelle. Trixie is very good and I asked her to show me how to make images, so she told me to record what I saw, not what I thought I saw. I didn’t understand her until I began making my own recordings.”

I had forgotten about the girls at the castle and wondered how they were doing without their King and Queen. I had not thought much about my home because the demands of our journey distracted me. Now that my mind focused on the duties I left behind, I began to worry. We were so far away and I could not protect them.

Riley took my hand and assured me that Ashelle and Trixie were smart girls who could take care of themselves. His gentle touch dissolved my fears and we relaxed under a tree.

“Tell me about your journal. I never noticed it before.”

“I found the book the night we walked the streets of , you were listening to George play his music, but Devin and I wandered among the shops. That’s when I bought my ‘journal,’ as you call it. There was a man recording images of the ocean, the same as Trixie at the castle, and I bought some drawing sticks from him.”

“But why record pictures, like the image of me?”

“I have been many animals, but no other being carries as much wonderful vision as humankind. I do not believe you understand what humans have in their sight because you have never seen any other way. Birds and reptiles see differently, quick flashes of images on either side of them. Some animals only see certain colors while others see no color at all. Some animals are almost blind and rely on other senses to ‘see’ their world, but a human’s view of the world is most grand. I want to capture what I see as Riley, King Riley, because I can. The world you see is far different compared to other creatures.”

Many times when Riley spoke I saw an ancient being captured within a young man and it would always take me back to what I was, a little girl seeing the world for the first time. I felt indescribable pride being married to a soul that was as wise as Riley.

Before I could reply, Devin came running to our camp with Sae’ka in his arms. She had been attacked by an animal that jumped out of the trees, her arms and legs were bleeding. There were deep gashes in various spots and George was the first to come to their aid. Sir Edward had shown his allegiance by slaying the animal but received little praise for his deeds.

Luckily, the animal that attacked Sae’ka had nothing to do with the protectors. Devin and Sae’ka always hunted in unfamiliar territory when we were on the road, so danger was ever-present. I was great at magic, though I could not make food appear before us. Besides the hunters, our new member Rhaida was a skilled gatherer and always contributed to our meals. Rhaida often went with Wolfe and Devin to search for food, although the men did not know what she was looking for. During our trip she picked leaves and berries, and dug up roots. We found her actions curious. She was also a terrific cook, frequently spicing our food with herbs she collected. She had an understanding of the land that no one in our party possessed, not even Riley. That night she cooked soup that was unlike anything I had ever eaten. The meal actually made me feel vivacious and insightful; perhaps something in one of the roots was meant to heal the soul. Little did we know that Rhaida was a healer in ways other than magic.

I healed Sae’ka’s severe wounds, but a lingering rash blistered her skin and for some reason, my magic could not cure that. Rhaida came to our injured member and revealed her talent. She applied a mixture of wet, crushed leaves to her skin. Within an hour the rash disappeared.

From magic, to artistic expression, to living off the land, we seemed to have all the skills we needed. Still, our experiences did not always play out smoothly and there were problems with keeping our varied personalities from clashing. We were diversified, which helped us as a group, but it also caused problems as well.

Rhaida was never comfortable with Sir Edward for obvious reasons and in turn that led to a conflict between Devin and our free-roamer representative. Sir Edward was quiet and his actions seemed quite suspicious, but I sensed nobility hidden behind his façade.

I was worried for this leader of thieves because his world was gone. Since he joined our group he had alienated himself from everyone in our party. He did not try to fit in and even his small attempts at recognition went unnoticed – except by me. In my visions, I saw that Sir Edward would be known as a true member of our alliance in the final days of our journey.

George and Sae’ka’s relationship began to improve. Sae’ka had become intrigued by George’s new confidence and missed his constant demand for attention, although she would never admit her feelings to anyone.

I had my own problems. Entering remote areas of we passed through small towns in ruin. With no social order people roamed the streets, most were ill and had crude prosthetics replacing missing limbs. Our party soon became the target of dozens of beggars. One such instance reminded me of Riley’s true nature as a protector; he had not fully abandoned the beliefs from his immortal life.

A filthy, old woman with missing teeth and lesions on her skin came running up to Sesha. I knew the woman was sick. She startled me and I noticed that Riley drew his sword, prepared to repel her. I stopped him before he could hurt her. She ran off into a field terrified that we would kill her. If I had not stopped him, I believe Riley would have slain the old woman.

“What are you doing?” I yelled.

“Why did you stop me?” he asked. “She was diseased and needed to be taken.”

“Taken? What do you mean ‘taken’?”

“When a creature is tainted it must be taken so as to not infect the others. It was for your protection, .” Riley genuinely believed that his action had been necessary.

“Riley, you cannot kill a person when she is ill. We’re not animals. We are human and we do not kill sick or injured people. Remember what you are now. Try to learn human rules before you decide to ‘take’ someone again.”

“But, , if you don’t get rid of the diseased then you may get sick also. Doesn’t that scare you?” Riley was certain his reaction to the old woman had been proper, and this belief would be a thorn in my side during much of our trip.

“Of course it scares me, but the fate of another is not ours to decide. It’s not up to any being on this planet to decide the fate of another. That includes protectors and humans alike.”

Riley kept arguing for his “balance of nature” wherein the strongest should survive. I must admit he sounded logical and rational, but I reminded him that he was once ill himself. If I had not healed him and shown mercy, then he would not be with us now. This statement frustrated Riley and he dropped his bombardment of reason. I had hoped that one day he would learn that nature must follow its own course. From my point of view, his past life was something truly unnatural.

The number of towns thinned the farther north we traveled. We saw no one along our path for two days, and then we entered a merciless marshland covered with tall grass. Bugs bit us until we bled, and the flies were so tiny they flew into our eyes and noses. We passed through swampy areas rooted with odd vegetation and snakes by the hundreds, something that scared our entire party, considering our encounter with the snake at We never knew when we would run across an actual snake or a protector disguised as a snake. Only I could sense the difference.

Five days later we could barely endure the harsh marshes and wished for a night of freedom from the restlessness. We were sick of eating disgusting creatures living in the swamps; nothing tasted like food from home and making a fire was nearly impossible since wood was scarce and always wet.

We came across a lone castle in the middle of the marshland. The building rose from its surroundings like a solitary relic, not as dilapidated as my grandfather’s castle, but old enough for us to know it had a history to share with strangers. We were desperate for shelter and approached the castle with caution. I could not imagine anyone living in this environment and wondered if the castle was abandoned.

Devin rapped on the huge wooden door. It was moments before dusk and the bugs were once again out in force. We stood like children at a neighbor’s front door, pathetic and needing to be let in. Then a voice came from behind the door.

“Who’s there?” muttered the old voice.

“We’re travelers from across Noore Continent and we are seeking shelter for the night. We can pay you.” Devin responded with a hint of desperation in his tone. We heard only silence, and Devin spoke again. “Please, Sir, we just need one night of rest away from these blasted flies!”

Devin’s tone became louder while speaking and he smacked the side of his neck, flicking a dead bug off his skin. The voice behind the door began a low chuckle and gradually the door opened.

“It takes an honorable man to admit he has been defeated by bugs,” came forth a reply from the dark interior. An old man with gray hair beckoned and turned before we could see his face. His clothes were torn and stained.

“Follow me…here, this way, and be sure to lock that door behind you. Don’t want any of those foul critters wandering in.” The man waved us along, but it was so dark I could barely make out the floor in front of us. He had no torches, so our only guide was to listen for the man’s shuffling footsteps. We were tripping over the person in front of us every few feet.

“Sir, I was wondering if you have a torch,” asked. “Some light to guide our path?”

“Oh yes, yes,” replied the old man. “I almost forgot.” The man left us a moment and walked farther into the darkness. He returned with something in his hand. How he could figure this out in the darkness I did not know.

“Here, I hope you have some way of lighting this. I don’t.”

handed the torch to me and I lit it with my magic. The old man was already walking away and we quickly followed. Handing the torch to Devin, I noticed that it had hardly been used.

We followed the man into a larger room and saw more torches on the walls. Devin lit them and the room brightened. The old man settled into a worn chair in the middle of the room, sitting at a round table. When he turned to us we noticed that our host had black holes sunken in his head, his eyeballs were missing and his right arm was severed just above the elbow. Rafts of cobwebs filled the room, indicating that the hall had not been lit for ages.

“So what brings visitors to my home and to the lovely marshes of ill-fortune?” His laughter echoed through the dim stone room, the sound bouncing off the walls. It sounded like many men were laughing at our ill-fortune.

“We’re traveling in the hopes of uniting the rulers of this continent so that we may combat a plague spreading across the land.” Riley spoke gently, his voice warm.

“Rulers?” The man paused. “No rulers in the , if that’s what you’re looking for. One man ruled these parts long ago, but he’s dead like everything else here. Just maggots roaming these lands, not even free-roamers travel here, nothing but years of bad blood spilled for no purpose.”

“What is your name, Sir?” I asked, out of courtesy.

“Not Sir. Name is Philip, just Philip. Not Sir Philip either. Could just call me stinky old man if you’d like.” Once again his laugher echoed through the room. Instantly, he stopped and spoke to someone.

“Don’t want to go in there young’un. My serpent, Ralph, is very large and he’s probably hungry right now.” After Philip’s statement we noticed Wolfe tiptoeing close to a dark entrance, peering in to see what he smelled. I read the thoughts of everyone in the room. We were shocked that this blind man had sensed Wolfe’s actions when no one in our party even noticed.

“Not very good accommodations for you. You can stay in here. There’s what, twelve of you?” We looked around at each other and Devin began counting; we never thought about how many of us were in the group.

“Yes, twelve Sir, I mean Philip.” Devin replied. He glanced at Riley and me, amazed by the man’s accuracy.

“Should count the big one twice.” Philip stood up from his chair and walked over to Gullane. He placed his fingertip to Gullane’s chest and pushed a little. “If I didn’t know better I would think he were part of the wall. Oh, and little lady,” he turned to Sae’ka. “Be sure to keep your feathered friend away from Ralph. He likes to eat pretty things. That includes you and your bird. I’ll go get us something to eat, so rest here and I’ll see what’s in storage, in a manner of speaking, that is.” He laughed and left the room.

Philip shuffled off into the darkness of his castle and we had a moment to talk with one another about our newest encounter.

“How can he do those things?” asked Wolfe.

“Does he have powers like you?” George asked quietly. I told them that I sensed no magic. But I also could not explain his abilities.

“I’m sure he’ll have much to tell us.” said Devin. “Hopefully, he’ll have information that will aid our journey. He seems certain that there is no ruler of . Knights, what is your knowledge of the West?”

“We know that Elderbee was the ruler of the West,” Theo answered first. “Though we don’t know what happened after his death. His grandson would have taken over the Central City, but he’s dead also.”

I glanced at Devin after hearing Theo speak about a part of my past that I wanted to forget. Devin asked Gabrial what he knew while I grabbed Riley by the arm and asked him to sit on the floor with me. I wanted Riley to hold me; somehow hoping his comfort would help drown the memories of what I had done to my father. Gabrial answered.

“There’s still some magic that holds the Central City of the West at bay. I’ve been told that this city, the inner city, is cold, cold like death. I assume the sorcerer brought forth a curse, so no one from would attempt to take the city. Besides, it is said that only rubble and ruin lay before seekers who come across the land to the West. It’s possible that no one was left in charge, although I can never be sure. Many travelers from the West died before reaching ”

Gullane left with Sir Edward to check on the animals outside the castle, but the rest of us stayed within the castle’s main room. Hours passed before we saw our host again. Finally, he walked in with food. He offered us smoked fish and soup from a huge, black kettle. We found chairs in other rooms then sat around the round table to eat. It was a tight fit, we knocked elbows while eating, but the food was better than what we had been feasting on.

Devin thanked the man for his hospitality and again offered our host money for his troubles.

Philip shook his head. “No place to spend money round here. No need. Now, if you have some clothes, or perhaps just some good company. That’s all that’s needed.”

“We’ll see what we have,” Riley said.

“Well, tell me. What are you doing here? Why would you be so bold as to tackle the marsh? Most travelers come into the city from the North.”

We looked at Riley wondering why he had taken us through the marsh since there had been another passage into . He shrugged, confused at how to respond. Riley whispered in my ear that he normally flew over the landscape, and in all his travels had not noticed the marsh or its uninviting environment.

“Our path took us along a southern route. We were unaware of a better passage,” Devin responded for Riley.

“I did not say it would be better,” said Philip. “Longer, much longer, but more comfortable. Even so, those that travel the marsh may cut several days off their journey. That is the reason I’m here, for I knew this information long ago when I came back from Central City.”

“You’ve been there? You know what it’s like?” was enthusiastic that our host had been to our destination and wanted to ask more questions. Luckily, he allowed the old man to elaborate on his story, one that kept us completely on edge.

“Yes, young man, I know all too well the Central City. In fact, that was the last time I ever saw with my eyes.”

Gabrial was interested now and asked if Philip had battled in the War of the West, the war with

Philip told us that if we were really interested in an old man’s story of pain and suffering then he would be happy to indulge his guests, but he believed us to be “very dull imbeciles” for listening. Those were his exact words. I thought this was another joke although some in our group were insulted by his lack of respect. I really enjoyed him and so did George, our resident comedian.

“I was a boy, barely a teenage boy,” said Philip. He pulled out a stone from his pocket. It was flat and he rubbed it rather compulsively while he spoke. “Puppets of War, that’s what the young are. We do what we are told and are forgotten after all has come to ruin. I did what I thought I should do, join a regiment from the South and become a hero in the ‘War of the West.’ Years after that I trained and fought, but then I decided to become a messenger. I learned the quickest routes to travel and somehow reasoned that by being a messenger I would be important. I figured that if I had information that could somehow end the war with the West, the killing I had done in my youth would be vindicated.

“What a boy I was. I saw nothing when I had eyes. Then once I lost them everything became clear. I traveled through these marshes to the Central City to see ‘The Ruler of the West.’ That was his title, what he wanted to be called. A meeting was scheduled for the Ruler of the West to visit with delegates from the South. I made it to the city and did my duty as a soldier, but what I found in the city I wished I had never looked upon.”

“What, what was it?” asked George.

“A woman. A woman of unspeakable beauty,” said the old man. “You see, I happened to be in the wrong place, at the right time.

“Once I delivered the message about the meeting and its location, I roamed the streets just outside the ruler’s estate. Guards followed behind me. We were waiting for the scheduled meeting and I would lead them, or so I thought. That night I found out that I had been a pawn, a puppet fighting a bigger man’s war.

“I was happy I had done something noble by being the individual who connected the opposing parties. I thought that war would finally be a part of my past and then I saw her through a window. I was young, innocent, and saw a beautiful woman undressing in front of her window. She was bare-breasted and I stared, not believing what I saw. I heard a child’s voice at my side and a little boy told me to stop looking at his mother. Then the guards rushed up to me. I was confused and did not know what was happening, but in a matter of moments I was standing in front of the ruler, accused of lascivious acts by spying on his daughter. I did not even know the ruler had a daughter, but that would not save me. My fate had already been sealed.

“The delegates were already on their way to the City of the West, and The Ruler of the West had planned an ambush. I always thought people wanted peace, wanted an end to the suffering, yet I learned that some people rely on suffering. They will never be at peace unless they feed off of conflict. It took the loss of my eyes and my arm to make me realize that I meant nothing to anyone in this war. What I believed to be noble was just my own folly. No matter how much I would try to make things better, I would get hurt in the process.

“The guards were ordered to gouge out my eyes so that I could never spy upon the ruler’s daughter again. Then they chopped off my right arm, my fighting hand, so I could never again fight the West. In my pain, I heard the guards laughing. Then they thanked me for the information I brought.

“The guards set me free, blind and bleeding, and assumed I would die. I came pretty close, and I struggled for days trying to backtrack in darkness. I wanted to warn the delegates about the ambush, so I headed through the marsh, back from the City that had left me crippled.

“That brings you to why I’m here. I literally bumped into the castle. I knew it was in the marsh because I had seen it on my journey north. I was grateful that the elderly man residing here took me in. He knew much about the area and when I told him about my situation he tended to my injuries then rushed off to warn the guards from about the ambush.

“I never left the man who saved me, and when he died I stayed here at the castle. This is my home now, and I’ve learned more from being blind and crippled than I ever learned when I was young with hopes and ambition. To find peace means sacrifice for those who would have the courage to search for it, but war hurts everyone.”

The others asked Philip more questions, but I did not want to listen. I pulled Riley down next to me so we could get some sleep, but my thoughts dwelled on the evil part of me. I knew that the woman Philip spoke about was my grandmother Rose and the little boy was my father. This was just one of the endless stories spawned from my evil great-grandfather Elderbee’s deeds. My heart grew weary after hearing the old story and I was frightened by what I would find in the City of the West. Riley tried to comfort me, although he soon fell asleep. I stayed awake, watching the torches slowly burn out.

Philip eventually got up from his chair and shuffled out of the room. He believed that we were headed along a dangerous path and his thoughts were clear. No one ever comes to the marsh. They’ll find only pain. Then he became sad from hearing his own voice tell his past misfortune.

The next day we could hardly tell it was morning until we opened the door to the castle and the sun shone through the massive doorway. Riley gave Philip whatever we could spare of clothes and other small necessities, then handed him one of the pictures from his journal.

“I know you can’t see this, but it’s an image from ” Riley placed it on top of Philip’s clothes. “Maybe when you hold this you’ll think of happier times from your past. This is all we can spare.”

“You are much older in thought than I was when I was your age.” Philip gently touched Riley’s face.

“You, Philip, are quite wise,” said Riley. “Some beings never age and yet have much to learn while others grow old and become the best teachers one could hope for. We wish you well, noble Philip.”

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