Needle Ash – Chapter 11 “The Schism” part 1

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Chapter 11: The Schism

 

Michael saw a light approaching, not from the softly luminescent trees, or a lamp, but from many sets of eyes and glowing baubles of glass, hanging from tall elven figures or fitted on staves like magic torches. The approached slowly. The men were clothed in robes or in trousers and simple shirts, the women in long dresses of many colors. Their hair was a variety of colors, Michael saw now, of dark brown and red and umber, and their eyes too were of odd shades.

“I never got your name,” one of the elves said.

“Shadathal,” Michael said, smiling. “Michael is my name. How did you find us?”

“The mirror. I followed the weaving. You may put your sword down,” he said to Sharona. “If we cared to harm you we would have already done so.”

“Can you help him?” Sharona said. “He’s been hurt badly.”

Shadathal looked impassively at Michael. “Such as we can. We will need to get him back to Elosha, where we have greater access to our healing implements.”

“I will make a litter for him,” a female said from Shadathal’s side. She held aloft a short stick with a glowing glass ball in the middle, the wood twisted around it. The tree above croaked and two branches dropped down. She put away the device and began to tie the ends of the branches together, then all the limbs. The green wood of the ash tree was supple and easily manipulated, it seems.

Two elves came forward and lifted Michael, placing him on the litter, prompting him to grunt and groan. The spend a few minutes attaching this to the stirrups of Rabble-rouser.

“What shall we do with the other body?” Shadathal said. “Was he a companion of yours, or an enemy?”

“Enemy,” Sharona said. “I… I don’t know your burial customs, but ours is usually to set the body in the earth, or else burn it in a pyre.”

“Only in the petty kingdoms do they still do that,” Michael croaked. “But it isn’t a desecration to do so, formally. Dispose of him as you will, as we cannot take him back to his family’s resting place.”

“What of his armor?” said one of the elves.

“Spoils of war,” Michael said with a grin. “It’s yours if you want it.”

“Thank you,” Shadathal said. “We are poor here in things made of steel, for our minds are not in it. Afalla, please make another litter for the other beast, and the body.”

The same female as before raised her strange stick and repeated her process, pulling green limbs and making a litter for the knight’s body. Soon they were off, the horses being led through a winding path, little more than a game trail, with a glowing roof of wood and leaves overhead.

“This place is much more beautiful once you are in it,” Sharona said, absent-mindedly as she looked around.

“The mundane world is beautiful too,” Shadathal said. “But like a painting to which many artists have contributed – chaotic and baroque.”

“How did this place come to exist?”

“We dreamt it,” Shadathal said. “And we came to one of the last remaining dwellings of the ancient prim, and it was so. Long we laboured to maintain it, as the world around crept in. Eventually, we had to seal the prim away, to keep what we had created, or to let it grow, as you see it, and the realms were separated. We pulled up the mist realm, Nifflheim, into the world that is, and so have cordoned a part off in the world where the prim flows eternal cold. There are other refuges in the world, if you know where to look.”

 

They arrived at last in a large cluster of buildings, some of stone, others of fine wood, and yet some that were carved partly out of the trunks of great trees. Everything touched with hands was finely carved into a geometric patterns or twisting tribal tendrils. Shadathal’s house was a large one, made of stone with a roof of sloping carved wood. The windows were glassless and open to the air, but the whole place was of a pleasantly cool temperature.

Michael had fallen asleep on the trek over, and woke up to find Sharona and Shadathal standing beside the still horse, discussing him.

“You must care a great deal for him,” Shadathal said quietly.

“Yes, I must,” Sharona said. “I must care for him, but… it is more. I will provide whatever you need, pay any price.”

“There are those in the many worlds that would take advantage of such an offer,” Shadathal said. “But you have already gifted me several things. Steel armor, for if the need arises, and these mirrors, which I find novel and inspiring. You must be a powerful mage, for this magic is beyond our comprehension.”

“It’s a simple thing. I could make you more, if I had more mirrors. So, will  you heal Michael.”

“I will. When he recovers, I may ask another favor. Ask,” he said. “You may refuse.”

“I won’t.”

“It is unwise to commit to the unknown.”

“Then I am unwise,” Sharona said. “I have committed the unknown course of this man… how long I dreamt of him.”

“You created him?”

“No,” Sharona said. “I don’t think so. I was given a dream… it’s hard to describe. I spent a long time in a dream that is parallel to what I live with him.”

“Interesting. A dragon dream, perhaps?”

“Yes.”

“I will get to work on him. He will be infirmed for some turns, but it takes take for a more mundane body to be healed.”

Michael laid his head back down and closed his eyes.

 

Michael woke. His vision was hazy, but he realized he was in a bed. The ceiling above him was a lattice of tiny wood slats, almost like a basket. Lamps of glowing glass globes, magically illuminated, hung from chains. Michael turned over to see Sharona slumped beside the bed in a large, comfortable looking chair, her hair tangled and partially covering her face. She was snoring softly, and it was clear to Michael she had not bothered to wash her face since the battle, for he detected among the grey streaks of her face flecks of dried blood, probably his own.

He felt along his left side with his right hand, and found a bandage covering where the wound had been. He touched it, and breathed hard through his teeth at the pain.

Sharona sat up suddenly, and saw him awake.

“You’re awake,” she said calmly, moving over to the bed. Her eyes were clear and bright. She began to fix Michael’s bed as she talked. “You’re awake, which means the fever has passed. You may be confused. You’ve been here two days, and Shadathal has been working on your wound, which was apparently from a poison bolt. I have potion I was bidden-” Sharona paused as Michael touched her face with his hand.

“Sharona.”

“What is it Michael?” she said, half choking.

“May Grim take me if I ever call another face beautiful.”

Tears began to collect in Sharona’s eyes as she gave a nervous chuckle. “I’m… I’m not pretty.” She looked around suddenly. “And I haven’t washed. I’ll be-”

“You are beautiful,” Michael said. “You are a more lovely thing than I could ever have imagined on my own. And you saved me. Why did you follow me so far and so wide?”

“Because I dreamt that I would,” she said. “I spent… a very long time dreaming. That you would need me. And because… because… because I love you, Michael. Because I have always loved you. Always.

Michael chuckled. “Johan was right. About that one thing. Sharona, I did need you. The whole way. I will still need you, undoubtedly, in the months to come.”

“And I will help you,” she said, cheerfully.

Michael pulled her close, tugging on the shoulder of her dress, and kissed her softly. When she sat back up, he said, “I have never considered love before. Forgive me my hardness.”

“I forgive you.”

Michael laughed. “The polite thing would be to profess that there is nothing to forgive.”

“But that would be a lie, Michael. There is much to forgive, and I forgive it.”

She ran her hand over his forehead, and Michael took it, noticing an odd feeling to it. He held her hand saw upon her palm in raised, pink flesh, the image of a dragon.

“What happened to your hand?” he said.

“The coin. It was so hot when I picked it up… but I couldn’t let go.”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m alright now. The elves had a salve that healed it marvelously.” She gave him her usual half-smile. “Besides, it taught me something. I understand now, perfectly, what it means to have one’s flesh burning. That was what I used on the knight that was attacking you.”

“Botoli was his name,” Michael said. “I thought him a good man, once, when he was a cavalry officer in my brother’s legion.”

“He might have been a good man, once.”

“True. Now go get a bath and stop worrying a bout me. I’ll be fine without you snoring next to my bed.”

“I don’t snore. You must have heard something else.”

Michael nodded. “I must have, yes.”

 

In the realm of the dark elves, day and night were not a foreign concept, but did not pass the way they did in the world that is. The light came not from a sun, but from the canopy of trees that roofed them in. Patches of sky between these branches showed stars, brighter and larger than what they should have been, but little else besides a slight turning to deep blue during what what considered day by the elves. For half of each “turning,” as the elves called a day, the trees would brighten and change to a golden hue, then dim to a deeper green when it was time for sleep. Time was measured fastidiously by a series of hourglasses which each household would turn each day or division of time.

Michael recovered quickly, helped by a viscous and foul-tasting potion that Shadathal produced for him each morning. He was soon able to walk without great discomfort, and within a week was able to touch the wound without doubling over in pain.

“You are an ambitious man, Michael,” Shadathal said to him early on one day, as Michael sat in bright garden, running a whetstone along his notched sword while Sharona perused the book on the dark elf language, writing frequently in the margins with a pencil.

Michael shook his head. “That, I am not. I’m a second son, and always content to be so.”

“Are you sure about that?” Sharona said.

Michael shook his head. “Maybe not content, but more than willing to have my place.”

“I do not speak of politics,” Shadathal said. “But of your recovery. You should still be lying in bed. You were gravely wounded and poisoned.”

“Well,” Michael said. “I had your potions to help me.”

“Certainly they countered the poison, but they should not have closed your wounds so quickly.”

“There are mages who can close wounds in Midgard,” Sharona said.

“I have heard,” Shadathal said. “We do not mend wounds in that way here. Each person must restore himself.”

“That’s the natural way of things,” Michael said. “The restorative properties of the body often surprise me, as a soldier.”

“Sharona said you were a prince.”

Michael looked over at her. She shrugged. “They were going to find out sooner or later.”

“Yes, I am a prince, but I was a soldier once, too. That, truthfully, is more of me than my title as prince, but I think both titles I have lost now. You see, it was my brother, the king now, I should think, that sought to slay me, and it was he who engineered by removal from my command.” He looked up at Shadathal. “What shall I be, then?”

“Can one man change the nature of another?” Shadathal said.

“It seems,” Michael said.

“And yet you sharpen a sword.”

“Just something to do,” Michael said.

“I would conjecture that what we choose to do exhibits who we are.”

Michael was silent for a moment, working on a dull part of the sword edge. “Batoli – the dead man near me – what did you do with his body?”

“We interred it according to the customs prescribed by Sharona,” Shadathal said. “He was buried in the earth, with the place of his burial marked, and a prayer said to the Dreamer, that he might return.”

“Not his god, but just as well,” Michael said. “Thank you.”

“I find it interesting that you show such concern for your enemies.”

“You honor the dead, and the dead shall honor you. He wasn’t my enemy because he was a monster, but because of who his master is. That is something about soldiery you come to understand after battle. The men you slay are never the evil, twisted things that are said to be, but other soldiers serving the wrong side of things.” Michael chuckled and stood up. “That at best, really.”

“That sounds difficult on the… on the soul, as you would say,” Shadathal said.

“It engenders a respect and admiration for the men you fight. And a soldier who does not respect his enemy will find himself surprised by the enemy’s power. That respect for life, even on the field of death, is where the edge of honor lies. How a battle can be one without killing every last man, and how, as a commander, you know that if you must surrender, you do so to another man, with his own honor.” Michael flicked out his sword tip with blinding speed, severing a flower from a hanging vine. He caught it as it fell, and handed it to Sharona. “When these things fail, that is when war is truly hard on the soul. In spite of all that is happened, I am thankful that we did not have to lay siege to Forgoroto. What would be written on the souls of my men would be horrific.”

“How far have you traveled, Michael?” Sharona asked. “How far from Artalland have you been?”

“I’ve been to five kingdoms of the twelve of the Divine Strand.”

“You are lucky, then. It is not as you say it is elsewhere.”

“It is not as I say it is at home,” Michael said. “Look to my brother.”

“He is not a soldier, not a warrior,” Sharona said. “He’s a politician.”

“That he is, or he would have managed to kill me,” Michael said, chuckling.

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a companion or sequel.

 

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