Baren's head rolled to a stop at Fred's feet, it's glassy eyes
staring at him accusingly. And something within Fred snapped. He raised
his sword and all of the rage and guilt and hate that was in him seemed to
concentrate itself into the white gripped fist that held that ancient steel
blade. But the Headless Horseman cared not of Fred's wrath; it was guided
only by the curse that demanded a never ending harvest of amputated skulls.
The Horseman sawed his reins and pulled round, the forest itself making
way for his return attack. His axe needed swing three times more ere his
savage ride be done.
The dwarves, their hearts beating a dirge of pain and loss within their breasts, stared at the Horseman with hate in their eyes. They crouched within the protective arms of the forest trees that surrounded them. But as the Horseman galloped forward, the mist rose up and the trees made way yet again. Suddenly both Dokken and Lem were exposed, standing unprotected in the clear wide open space of the bloodied glade. Fred on the other hand found his arms pulled back by strong wooden limbs, his feet entangled by thorny briars.
The knight shouted in rage, his body fighting against the force of tree and vine that snared him. In his heart and in his mind only one thought burned. Attack.
The dwarves raised their mighty battle-axes as the Horseman bore down on them. The headless terror bent low into the flying mane of his horse and stretched his arm out, his own black axe at the ready. The maddened stallion snorted, loud and thunderous. Its nostrils flared and its eyes blazed as it sped between the two stalwart dwarven warriors. The dwarves swung with all their power up at the demon that pressed down upon them, but connected only with empty air. With a rush of wind the black animal passed into the billowing mist and was gone. The dwarves whirled about in the rising fog, amazed that their necks were still intact. Their eyes locked upon the retreating horse, wary of some new trick on the Horseman's part. But unless the swirling mists did fool their searching eyes, the horse's perilous master no longer rode upon his steed. The hard, black, leather saddle was empty.
The Horseman had vanished. But to where?
As if in answer, a heavy shadow passed over their faces and they both looked up. The Horseman was caught, as if in a net, high above the ground. The fog itself had taken the demon rider into its white-grey grasp. The dwarves stepped back, startled and amazed, unsure of why and what was happening. The Horseman flailed against the tentacles of smoke and mist that held him aloft, but the fog shrugged off his struggles and did not let him go.
"KILL HIM!" a voice screamed from behind them. They turned and saw Fred, still caught within his prison of living bark. And then the fog lifted the Horseman even higher and like a mighty hand smashed him down into the body of an ancient and towering oak. The tree shivered and splintered and the demon rider flopped to the ground. The dwarves, filled with the need for vengeance, rushed upon him and brought their gleaming axes down upon the fallen phantom again and again. If it were a ghost that they struck at, then it was a ghost with substance. Flesh and bone it mattered not to the crazed dwarves, only that the meat which they butchered would no longer rise up to stand against them. Only that the death of their brother and comrade would be satisfied by the spilled blood of his killer, whatever that blood be made of.
Fred stared with triumph at the dwarves, half hidden though they were in the swirling mists. And then his vision was obscured and the living fog rose up again. But this time to embrace Lord Fred. With a cry of fear he wrenched himself from the limbs that held him and staggered out into the glade. A wall of impenetrable fog lay behind him. He ran to the side of the dwarves and commanded them to cease their bloody carving. Dokken twisted round, his axe raised, his face a mask of madness. Fred's sword moved out, ready to block any blow from the raging dwarf. But the dwarf stayed his weapon and instead stared out beyond Fred's shoulder at the fast approaching line of trees.
"Tg! Keva orka lor oron!" Dokken shouted, and Lem turned about, his brow drenched with sweat. The three warriors were trapped! On one side of the glade was a crawling mass of twisted root and limb, within whose dark recesses were a hundred unblinking blood-red eyes. While on the other side of the glade was a wall of unbroken fog, within whose cold embrace could only wait death.
A ball of eldritch flame exploded from somewhere within the forest and for a moment the sky was lit as bright as day. Fred caught sight of the hill upon which he knew they would find safety from this hellish arbor. With no hesitation he commanded the dwarves to follow him and rushed headlong into the dead grey expanse of flowing mist.
. Whether seconds had passed or an eternity, none of the three could tell. But their escape had been made and the safety of the rocky hill reached. The wind still howled about them, and their haggard breaths were torn from their lips in plumes of steaming vapor. But they lived, and the forest below could harm them no more. Fred sat hunched against a boulder, his cloak held tight around him. His eyes were drawn inward and his thoughts were troubled. The two dwarves had moved beyond a rise of stone and earth, behind which they doubtless practiced some religious observance for their dead friend. Fred cared not that they kept their practices secret from him. Dwarves were well known for their taciturn manner, and what was more private than sacred rites for the dead?
But when the two returned, Dokken strode with a fierce determination straight toward Fred. The little man stood before him, his hands balled into fists, but Fred did not take notice of him. Only when the dwarf pulled free his battle axe did the knight meet Dokken's gaze. "Will you finish what the forest began?" Fred asked in a tired voice.
"Why did you hide your magic?" Dokken demanded, his face contorted with anger.
"I have used no magic," Fred replied.
"Do you mark me as a fool?!" Dokken roared. "I have eyes to see, mag! You commanded the death of the Horseman and the mists rose up and smote him! And it was the fog which protected us from the vile creatures of that wood as we fled its unholy precincts. Why did you keep secret your dark power? Why did you let Baren DIE?!"
Fred pressed back against the face of the rock, wishing to retreat from the dwarf's bitter condemnation. "No," he said weakly, stumbling for words, "it wasn't me... it was my sword..."
"Damn your sword!" Dokken spat at him. "It was you who gave the command! Why did you wait?!" Again was the accusation cried out in the dwarf's pained voice. Dokken lifted his axe, his hand trembling. Lem rushed up to restrain him. "NO!" the dwarf half-begged his friend. And then Lem turned to Fred. "Your sword," he asked quietly, "you are surprised at its power? Is it not your own?"
Fred shook his head, "No. I was weaponless when I entered the Dragon's peak with Tarin and the rest of his men--"
"Call me not a man!" Dokken exploded. "Mag is what you are! My race was not spawned in the swamps or bred on worms and I will not have you dare raise yourself above your right!" Dokken cut short his words at the sudden tightening of Lem's grip. He stared into the other's glaring face and his eyes flashed like daggers, but Lem's reproachful gaze stilled his tongue and left him staring at the ground at his feet. Turning back to Fred, Lem asked, "You took this sword from the Dragon's hoard?" Fred nodded.
"Then by right it belongs to us!" Dokken shouted and pushed Lem aside, unable to control himself any longer. But before he could take a single step forward, he found Lem's axe barring his way. "That is a man's sword, Dokken!" Lem barked. "It would do us no good. But in the hands of this mag that sword has saved our lives. Please Dokken, loose not your fury. I grieve for Baren as well, but this is not the way to honor his memory. Let us turn our backs on this cursed wood and be done with this sorry business!"
Fred still sat with his sword sheathed, hunched against the rock, as one dwarf held back the fury of the other. He waited, at the mercy of both. And he wasn't sure if he cared. The realization of what had happened in the forest below had sunk into his bones and had made them heavy. What sorcery had given him command of the phantasmal fog? What sorcery had fastened itself about his soul?
Dokken, his eyes still rimmed with red and blazing, jerked away with a curse and slung his axe upon his belt. A breath of relief escaped Lem's lips and the tension drained from his shoulders. Slowly he padded over to Dokken's side. Fred closed his eyes, wondering if it would have been better if the dwarf had simply cut off his head right then and there. And then, with a shaking hand, he unsheathed his ancient, dragon-found blade. Runes were cut into its length, runes Fred did not understand. And how could he? The markings were in an ancient tongue, a dead tongue gone now for nearly a thousand years. But some of the words bore a vague resemblance to the alphabet of Fred's time and place. And nearest the hilt, in runes larger than the rest, were two words Fred could almost read.
Nelheth-Mord. But what did it mean?
12/15/1999 7:20:22 PM
The Never Ending Quest Home
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