Chapter 12: Shards of Reality
Shadathal led them through the mists, a shining bauble of silvery glass in his upraised hand providing light to the path below them, dirty and drifting. The trees above were not aglow, even faintly, like the rest of the realm, but were dark and contained many brown leaves that would not abandon their purchase. The black limbs writhed around and into each other, like many finger of uncountable hands. Pinholes of star and moonlight drifted through here and there, lighting motes of white dust like tiny rods of white light.
The trunks of the trees, too were of malevolent form. Often, Michael saw, or thought he saw, some face looking back at him from the bark of the tree, but each glimpse was fleeting. Always the faces looked angry or in terrible pain. It became cold, and he began to see his breath. He wore clothes that Shadathal had given him which felt suddenly inadequate for the cold. He glanced over at Sharona, who wore a blue long-sleeved riding dress of similarly thin material. He couldn’t help but watch her a moment, taking in the lines of her.
“How much further?” Sharona said, perched atop Rabble-Rouser. “I shall need a blanket, soon.”
“Not far,” Shadathal said. “We have entered the forest of malcontent. Parthil and Mondal have dwelt long in resentment of their fellows, of hatred, and here you can see their pain manifest. Here the light is truly gone, like the sunless days of yore.” His voice began to rise in pitch and tension. “The trees, memories of the first light, dead. I hate walking here!”
Michael tightened his gloves, partly against the chill and partly in anticipation of the conflict ahead.
“If he keep walking, will we exit the realm?”
“No,” Shadathal said. “The cold is the realm of Niflheim encroaching, not the world of men. Ah, here we are at last. It has grown more wicked since last I tried to counsel Parthil and Mondal.”
Michael could see below them a sort of house sitting in a patch of pale starlight, but it was unlike any house he had seen before. The front of the house, where stood a large double door, was like the houses of the other elves: beautifully carved and detailed. Beyond that, though the house looked like it was made of pieces of other human dwellings. One wall was stone, with irregular windows, bearing a turf roof that turned suddenly to shake as it reached an uneven steeple. Another wall, made of logs and plaster, had a round window and a tile roof, and in many places methods of other construction stood like patches on a quilt. The house, at its rear, appeared to terminate into the trunk of a massively wide tree, its limbs bereft of any living foliage. The stars and a dim moon filtered through, creating a pattern on the bare ground outside like a spiderweb. Many of the windows bore light.
“Take this,” Shadathal said, and handed the glowing bauble to Sharona. “It will guide you back to the village, if you need to return.”
“What if we don’t return?” Michael said.
“Then this is our farewell. My life has been enriched by knowing you.”
“And mine, whatever happens. Give my thanks to the others.”
“I will.” Shadathal stepped into the shadows and disappeared among the trees.
After a few minutes of watching the house, Michael said, “How shall we approach this?”
“It is up to you,” Sharona said. “You are the tactician.”
“I would normally say we approach stealthily and try to kill these targets before they become aware of us, but…” he trailed off and narrowed his eyes, watching a shadow in the lighted window. They heard the shouts of an argument.
“But what?” Sharona said quietly.
“But I am not trained in such, nor am I dressed for such. Are you?”
“I can make us silent if we need,” Sharona said. “It’s not a hard spell. How else do you reckon I slipped away from your brother’s soldiers on a warhorse?”
Michael nodded. “Useful.” He dismounted and crept closer. Sharona followed suit.
“Something else is on your mind.”
“It’s not the right way to do this. Remember that Shadathal considered banishment. Methinks he would prefer that, since that is their law.
“You want to give them an ultimatum.”
“It would be the honorable thing to do, but not the smart one.”
“Well, are you an honorable man, or a smart man?” She giggled softly.
“What’s so funny.”
“That I will get you to answer that, of course.”
Michael took a breath and looked at Sharona’s face, lit by the bauble. “I’m an honorable man.”
Sharona smiled at him. “Then you know what to do. I will follow your lead.”
Michael brought the horses down the muddy hill a few paces, and left them tied to a partly rotten tree trunk. They walked out into the yard in front of the house. The image of it seemed to reel slightly; it was bigger than they had thought.
“Porthil and Mondal!” Michael shouted, his hand on his sword. “Come out and face the judgment of your house.”
They heard a creaking amid the silence, and the trees above seemed to groan and grow. The door opened, and two figures stepped out, each armed with two short swords, their blades black as the night that surrounded them. They were armored in tarnished mail and wore masks over their faces, but both had bright yellow eyes like Shadathal.
“Porthil and Mondal,” Michael said. “You are to be banished from this realm.”
“Did our father put you up to this?” said the elf on the left, who was taller and leaner than the other. He spoke with a high, rasping voice that was almost serpentine. “The old miser.”
“They are human, Porthil” said the elf on the right, which Michael presumed to be Mondal. He spoke a clear, melodious voice, which sounded odd in the surroundings. “Perhaps they bring at last the remainder of our payment.”
“How could they?” Porthil said. “Our father is the only one who can find us.”
“I don’t know your father,” Michael said.
“Oh, I think you do,” said Porthil, rolling his shoulders and spinning his swords. “Shadathal is his name.”
“I see,” Michael said. “He must love you dearly, to not make this threat himself.”
“Don’t pretend to know the feelings of an elf, especially that one,” Porthil said. “His heart is as blackened as any and he will avoid anything that disrupts his comfort.”
“He is as he is, brother,” said Mondal.
Michael shared a glance with Sharona. “I give you this choice, sons of Shadathal.”
“Sons of Pathella!” Porthil said.
“You may leave the realm, or die,” Michael said.
“Some choice,” Porthil said.
“Life apart from this nightmare does not seem bad to me,” Sharona said.
“You are out of your depth, mortal,” Mondal said. “Your choice – turn back, stop being a lapdog for our father, and you may live. Or we will kill you.”
“Then I come also to enforce the laws of my own land,” Michael said. “Which demand death for assassins! Moreover, I come upon demand of my heart, revenge for my father’s blood, which was spilled by you, according the whim of a wicked woman. A betrayer of the hardest sin.”
“He speaks of Alanrae,” Mordal said. “Oh, that I could find that woman again.” He spun his swords.
“She betrayed us, too,” Porthil rasped. “Great promises she made, and none delivered.”
“If you sleep with serpents, don’t expect to greet the day without a few bites,” Sharona said.
Porthil laughed. “Spoken like a slave.”
“Regardless of what evil pact you made to slay my father,” Michael said. “I am here to deliver justice. You may choose your father’s justice, or my justice.” Michael drew his sword and fell into a guarded stance. Sharona leapt back, whispering to herself.
“Wait,” Mordal said. “I have a proposition.”
“I can’t imagine one to tempt me,” Michael said.
“I’m sure I could,” Mordal said. “My guess is that you, like us, are prisoners of this realm. Alanrae gave us a magic talisman to travel to the other side, but it’s magic was exhausted quickly. I recognize a mage in your companion.”
“If you are trying to bribe me, I could kill you and take it,” Michael said.
“Perhaps,” Mordal said. “But you risk both your deaths in the process, and we of course lose our escape as well. I propose a duel, to be fought between you, swordsman, and one of us. If you win, the survivor will provide the talisman and agree to banishment; you have served half your justice and half that of my father. If we win, your companion will leave with both of us, and we keep the talisman. Both of you need not die, and one of you will still escape.”
Michael cast a glance at Sharona.
“I would not trust them, Michael.”
Michael was silent for a moment, holding his guard. “I agree.”
Mordal nodded and looked to Porthil. “Shall we flip for it?”
“I will fight him,” Porthil said. “I am the more skilled between us, am I not?”
“You are, but it is only fair we share the risk.”
“You think of odds the wrong way, brother. Play your best and assure victory. I will cut this mortal to pieces.”
“Do you agree, mortal?” Mondal said.
“My name is Michael. You might as well know it before you die, Porthil.” He flourished his sword and set his guard again.
Porthil laughed and leapt forward.
“Be careful Michael!” Sharona said.
“Watch the other one,” Michael said.
The two combatants circled one another, eyes locked, the twisting shadows above writhing over their faces. Michael took in his opponent, who was taller and broader than him, his glowing eyes foreign and difficult to read. He detected in those eyes a mania, which a part of the back of his mind considered would be frightening to most men; to him, the mania was an opportunity. He focused on slowing his breathing, keeping his edge nerves under his control.
Porthil had two swords, black with keen, bright single edges, a basket hilt protecting each gloved hand. The elf laughed hoarsely, and rubbed his swords, as if preparing to carve a turkey. Michael’s bastard sword was longer than each of those, and he had trained himself to use it single-handedly as well as double; he had the reach advantage and, for whatever lust lived behind Porthil’s eyes, the elf guessed this.
Michael switched from a forward guard to an overhead guard, and Porthil leapt forward, slashing with both swords at once, one swinging high, the other low. Micheal leapt back, turning his sword for a quick slash at Porthil’s arms. The elf turned his body and leapt backward, and they circled again.
“This is your last chance,” Michael said.
Porthil laughed and attacked.
It played out as Michael had imagined. Porthil flourished his swords in an attempt to confuse him, then attacked with both at once, one high and one low, in a way that would be impossible to parry and then counter. Michael lifted his right foot and caught the lower sword with the heel of his boot, the old, stiff leather capturing the keen edge of the black sword like green wood as the blade bit. Michael turned his sword down from his overhead guard and blocked Porthil’s upper attack. With a quick turn of his wrist, he directed the blow over and away from his body, and with the same motion slammed the the tip of his bastard sword into Porthil’s neck.
Porthil was wearing no gorget, but had a simple mail coif around his head and neck. The links burst as the tip of the sword crushed his vertebrae. With a quick withdraw and a swift stab, Michael sent the sharp tip of his sword into Porthil’s neck, splitting the already broken mail, parting the jack, and severing his carotid artery.
Porthil grunted and his arms went limp as he fell. His eyes were shocked open, but he did not move. He stared up at Michael, surprised, and for a few moments Michael gazed back, feeling a wave of sudden sadness break over his heart, drowning his anger. Then the inner light of Porthil’s eyes went out, and he lay still.
“And so it is done,” Mondal said cooly. He walked to his brother’s body and closed the lifeless eyes, while Michael watched. Michael jumped backward as the earth began to sag beneath Porthil’s body. The wind picked up, and dead leaves fell from the tree above. The elf’s skin began to change texture, and his body became like leaves and wood. Within a few seconds, it was part of the ground, then it disappeared.
“Farewell, my brother,” Mondal said, and stood up. He pulled down the black cloth mask that covered his face. He looked strikingly like Shadathal, but stronger of feature. Tears were in his eyes and streaming down his face.
Mondal took a slow, deep breath and said, “Come, then, mortals, let us leave this place before it, too, fades.”
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.