Something Old, Something New
For a time, she is unsure of who she is, or was, or of where she now drifted. She had no sense of body, of focus, but rather seemed to be a presence, observing everything around her without consideration for direction or gravity. She only rested, unquestioning and barely aware of the passing of time, in a place of shadows. She experienced brief, intense flashes of varying shades of light around her, and a warm feeling of camaraderie, as though the light were somehow friendly and welcoming.
And then she awoke with a gasp, bolting upright in brief terror as the weight of her grief and anger came crashing back down upon her.
Looking around, Jessie was completely disoriented. It was dark, it was close in and hard to breathe, and the walls that pressed against her face seemed made out of heavy waxed cloth or burlap. Swinging around wildly, her outstretched hands touched cloth that moved, letting in a little light, and pushing against it, she found herself holding a tent flap aside and looking out upon a magnificent view of the valley of her birth, as if from a great height.
Ducking back inside the tent, the flap still askew and letting in light and a deep, bone chilling cold, Jessie saw that she had been undressed, and placed into the fanciest sleeping bag she had ever seen. It stank badly of sweat and night terrors, but it was made of a cloth soft as rich silk, and was the source of most of the warmth in the tent. Her clothes and belongings, all except for the cloak that Fergus had given her, were folded up lying upon the rocky ground next to the bag, and the axe she had briefly used was lying on top of the pile.
It still had no covering, and as it lay there she felt a shiver run down her back that was not entirely to do with the cold air coming in.
The light from the tent flap was briefly occluded as Far Dreamer stuck her head in, and said, “If you get dressed and get out here, you can have some rabbit stew before it goes cold.” With that said, she drew back out and left Jessie alone with her confusion.
Crawling around in the cramped tent, she felt fine physically, completed unharmed, and actually felt a bit rested. Whatever had happened, she didn’t seem to be in immediate danger, but she was damn hungry. Getting dressed, she grabbed the axe and started to head out, when she stopped abruptly and took stock.
She had held the sword as her weapon of choice all of her adult life, and knew it like her own arm. She’d never touched a damn war axe before the last few days, and never really felt any desire to. War axes were big, slow and clumsy compared to the fine precision and sleek beauty of a sword, and she left them for the big slow oxen of men that weren’t worthy of something that required finesse.
And yet, when she prepared to head out of the tent, she had reached for the axe naturally, and had not a thought for her own sword, tucked in towards the bottom of the pile. And hefting the axe, she felt no strain at the weight of it, and it felt right and proper in her hand. The axe suddenly frightened her, and she started to toss it away from her, but something inside her fought against leaving it unguarded, and her confusion only grew. Still undecided, she gripped the axe in both hands and went outside.
Stepping outside the tent, she looked around, and saw that she was in a small camp high upon the face of Torr Baldwin, apparently well on the way to the Hall that Far Dreamer had spoken of. There was a bit of a trail carved into the nearly sheer rock face, and they were currently camped on a flat space of the trail barely wider than Jessie was long, that swiftly narrowed to either end. Besides the tent Jessie had been in, there were two more tents closer in towards the mountain side, a mound of blankets against the wall of rock between the tents and the stone, with the tents all facing towards a small campfire circle of rocks with a pot hanging over it, with a welcome smell of hearty stew wafting above it in the wind.
Far Dreamer sat, once again clothed entirely in black cloth, the cloth this time unmarked, with her unsheathed sword by her side, and a small pile of gear and packs open next to her. Far Dreamer looked healthy and strong, with no trace of discomfort at all, stirring the delicious smelling stew with a barren stick. The skin of her face held a healthy glow before the fire, a glow of golden and bronzed skin that only served to enhance her already prodigious beauty. Her golden eyes were filled with warmth, and made Jessie feel suddenly shabby and ugly, despite herself.
As Jessie approached the fire, mindful of the fact that Far Dreamer or whoever undressed her knew she was a woman, she tried to decide whether or not to pry about the leg tattoo she had seen in the Battle of the Oak. As she sat down, however, Far Dreamer took charge of the conversation. Spooning up some stew in a light metal bowl, she handed it to Jessie, and as soon as Jessie started to eat, Far Dreamer began to speak quietly, her voice just carrying over the constant rush of the high mountain winds.
“As you can see, I decided to take you with me up what your people call Torr Baldwin. I have a duty to perform, and I couldn’t wait around for you to recover to get it done. There are a lot more families than yours at risk here. I know that you may not understand how the Hall fits in, but I could either leave you there in the clearing, or drag you along with me and look after you. I chose the latter, and I expect no thanks in making a decision for you that you had no choice in.”
Jessie had a thousand questions swirling around in her mind, all of them likely to have answers she wouldn’t want to hear.
As a simple question darted across her mind, she grasped at it eagerly, and decided to throw it out into the air, along with her desperate need for more information on where she was and just how much trouble she was in now. “I guess I owe you a debt of thanks for dragging me out of there. As for me not having a choice, well, I didn’t give you one before when you were out either…so as far as I am concerned, we can call that square. I had planned on going to Caer Doneghal and letting them know what happened to my family and the villagers at the Keep, and then continue my training at the Green Adders School, but it seems clear that you’re doin’ something that means a lot to ya. What are you going to do?”
“And I noticed something when I dressed in the tent. What became of the cloak I wore? It was a gift from my teacher Fergus, the only thing besides my skill and memories I have to remember him by, and I did not see it among my belongings. It would pain me greatly to have lost it.”
Far Dreamer seems grateful for the outburst, smiles faintly, and says, “Well, to answer the easier question first, your cloak is here, in one of these bundles next to the fire.” Her right hand moves from stroking the sword, to a bundle by her side in one of the open packs, and picking up the tightly wrapped bundle of cloth, tosses it to Jessie. Jessie reaches forward and catches the bundle, which feels much lighter than the heavy wool she remembered.
“You have been out of it for quite some time, my dear, and I have been rather bored waiting to see if you would wake up. I didn’t realize the Cloak held some personal meaning for you. I hope you will forgive me if, in my ennui, I made a few…modifications.”
Jessie snorts in her stew, irritated at any changes in her gift from Fergus, but trying hard not to show it, not to give any offense to this strange woman before her. “What kind of ‘modifications’ to my cloak would you be talking about, exactly?”
“Oh, I was just playing with it, really. I’ve never encountered anything made by that process before, and I was curious to see just how durable it would be. It’s very interesting material; apparently the fabric used helped to hold the original web of energy woven into it, contributing to its longevity. I simply strengthened it a bit, freshened the bindings that holds the power tightly to the cloth. And the thought that went into its blending and concealing properties was really very primitive. I applied far more sophisticated techniques to the renewed crafting. For a simple tool, it’s really quite handy. But the way it had been set up, it would create quite a mess, if it was subjected to rain or mud or dirt. It was set up to collect and hide such things, until the mass of debris reached a certain point, and then it would dump it all in an untidy heap, with no warning, which I would imagine would be annoying if it were to happen when in the comfort of a friends’ front hall. Now, it will absorb that mass into its own fabric, and continue to use it to repair itself, and collect any excess not used in repair in small pockets that I sewed in the bottom of the hem. You will be able to empty them out when it is convenient for you.
Of course, there is still the problem of being hunted by smell. Anything it absorbs will still be there, leaving its traces in the air. If you were pursued by smell, you might have to come up with a way to cleanse it on the run. And water or other liquids that may soak it, they will form in the pockets also, and I was very careful to make sure that they would be properly separated, one from the other. It would be possible, were you to find yourself without fresh water, to soak your cloak in a salt water sea, and the water would fill in some pockets filtered pure and fresh, and the other pockets would fill with the brine and impurities. But I think that, if, in the future you find yourself again soaked through with the blood of your enemies, you should be very careful from which pocket you choose to drink.”
As Jessie absorbed the knowledge that Far Dreamer somehow knew what happened in the clearing where she found her, Far Dreamer continued speaking. “I have been through your belongings. While dragging you, I wanted to know just what the hell you carried in your pack that weighed more than 15 pounds.”
“You couldn’t begin to imagine my surprise when I found the Orc hero Raktar’s spirit warrior medal in your pack. With that medal, and Raktar’s axe, it should be possible to gain you entry to the Hall as a spirit warrior. I am sorry to say that it will require some effort to transfer the protection from the medal to you, but with my aid we can make it work. It would be impossible if I had not already taken the power of a full Shaman upon me.” Far Dreamer grinned, a very vicious grin, “It was almost worth the years of feigning subservience to Raktar and the other Chiefs and Shamans just to be able to watch Black Face’s expression when he realized I was taking his magic from him during the first Shaman initiation ceremony. I wonder how long it will take for the rest of his Sept to learn their masterful, arrogant, commanding Black Face is powerless. Ah, I can almost see the revenge his harem will take in my mind’s eye, and I bet we could hear the screaming from here. But, I am getting ahead of myself a bit.”
“To answer your more difficult question then, what I intend to do, young warrior, is to complete the task I had set for myself here upon this mountain, and beyond that task, I have no plans at all. If you choose to delay your journey, I would greatly appreciate your assistance in what I have to do within Kelgardelac Strung.”
“By pure chance or twisted fate you have what is needed in your pack to make your way through the Wards and into the Hall, and there will be a greater chance of success if I have your support. After we are done, and my intentions towards the orcs are fulfilled, I would be glad to assist you on your journey. It could very well be that the word of an elf might aid you in getting your people organized. And, as well, I have never been to Caer Doneghal before.”
Jessie stopped eating stew long enough to comment, “By the by…you DO keep avoiding the question of what we’re up to once we are within yon mountain.”
Far Dreamer looked out again across the valley that lay so far below. “I really would rather not speak of it now, but I can see you wish to apply your mind to plans for the future, rather than dwell on the past. So be it.”
“I plan to remove the constant presence that instills fury, hatred and prejudice against humans within the minds of the orc heroes, clan chiefs and shamans who come here.”
Placing the empty stew bowl on the ground in front of her, Jessie looked at the elf with a level gaze for a moment, before addressing her. “Tell me if I understand this right. If we go into the Hall, and your plan is successful, then the Orc attacks stop?”
Far Dreamer eased back a bit on her rocky seat before answering. “No, it’s not like that. No, they will not. If I see your meaning, you ask if that which lies within the mountain is controlling the Orcs, making them act as they do. I’m afraid that’s not the case.”
“Know you that within this mountain is what my people call Kelgardelac Strung, but your people would have called before the fall of your Empire the Fastness of Mountainfall, within which is what the Orcs call the Hall of Mad Spirits. Through a passage, heavily warded by the efforts of the Orc Shamans, lies a stone chamber, once majestic and proud, now shattered and worn. Within this chamber lies a passage formed of tusks, horns and claws that rise up some ten feet high, arranged so that a person might walk down this passage, surrounded by these jutting monuments to the fury of dragons, the strength of the mammoth, and the speed of the serpent. By making ones’ way slowly down this passage, one is subjected to stresses upon the body and the soul, stresses that, if endured to the very end, opens ones’ soul to the spirits of all those elemental powers within the Hall, and a part of the strength of those spirits will become permanently entwined with the life force of the traveler, imbuing the successful recipient with power limited only by the strength of the individuals’ will, and the preparations made before entry.”
“I tell you this history to make sure you understand that the wood spirit Launa had no hand in making this artifact I speak of. It is not finished or polished properly, and from all I have been able to find, was made in haste, and perhaps out of folly or outright desperation.”
“The Fastness of Mountainfall itself in the ancient times long before the War of Darkness was once a stronghold of one of the human Loremasters of your race, a man called The Baldwin of the MacAvoy.”
“It was a stronghold that had originally been crafted to aid in the fight against the demonkind of the fractured world gate, and was long abandoned since, and then briefly resurrected in purpose for the final war against the Lord of Darkness.”
“I believe that this Hall, one of the lowest of the stronghold, was opened to allow warriors of the Army of Light who passed through this valley to rest, to strengthen themselves, and to prepare for one last desperate inhuman effort in what they all knew would be the final battle.”
“They came here to heal crippling wounds, to bathe in the accumulated lifeforce of all of the creatures of Gaia, and to become as strong as the life of Mother Earth could make them before they went forth to their last stand against the dark lord of deaths’ armies.”
“As you know only too well, after the last fall no one ever had cause to return to this place, and so the Hall has remained open for all of these long years. In fact, I believe that, if it were not for certain intentional falls of rock in the corridors leading upwards into the mountain stronghold itself, the Orcs might have captured a Loremasters’ war fortress intact. Launa must have chosen to reduce the power of the Orcs, and prolong the wars against your people. Think on that prospect for a while, my friend. That a spirit, even such a selfish one as a forest dryad, could hate so deeply as to want to prolong your people’s suffering for many years, when at any time she could have given the Orcs access to an intact Loremaster citadel and provided the means to crush your people at one blow.”
There was a pause, while Far Dreamer gathered her thoughts, and Jessie spent the time scooping more rabbit stew into her bowl.
“Well, whatever its makers’ original intent, Launa has corrupted it, and now, instead of simply bathing a body and soul in primitive lifeforce, channeled in relatively minor ways, it now adds Launa’s mad rage and hatred for humanity. The greatest heroes and leaders of the Orc Clans and Septs have come to believe that in order to be confirmed in their place of power in the Tribe, they must survive passage through the Hall, and “commune” with the spirits. Even the leaders and would-be shamans of the most far-flung Septs of the other side of the mountains make a pilgrimage to this place to undergo their sacred rituals. The new apprentice Shamans come here once a year to gain their power over the spirits of the forest and mountain. And every time one of them travels here, and enters the Hall to perform their rituals, their spirit is twisted to bear Launa’s own hatred and desires.”
“What I propose to do is to make our own preparations, perform our own ceremony to open us up to the full mystery of the passage, and once within the power structure of the passage, we will bend our will upon the lingering presence of Launa, and the darkness that she has left there, and do battle against it, and so destroy it.”
“I had intended to fight this battle myself, and take my chances, but if you were to join with me, I feel that our chances to survive would be much improved.”
She looked towards Jessie with a very firm gaze. “To have no misunderstanding between us, I want you to understand that I do not care whether the Orcs continue to gain power here. I am not personally concerned with which one of your two races holds power here or anywhere else in this land. I am solely concerned with removing this powerful, foreign hatred that twists their minds and removes from them the power of personal choice.”
She picked up a clay mug, and sipped delicately from it. “It is beyond my power to destroy the artifact. It is the work of a Loremaster, rooted directly to Gaia as only one of those fools can do, and corrupted by a spirit that serves only Gaia and herself. I can not hope to do more than redirect its revitalizing powers. Perhaps if we are truly victorious we could even remove most of the shamanistic power it can impart to future generations of Orcs. The absolute best we could hope to do would be to bring down the mountain upon it, but this is a very stable region of rock and stone, and I know of no living person near here close to being powerful enough to do such a thing, and regardless, such effort as it would take would bring much unwanted attention upon us here at the same time that we would be weakest in our own protection.”
Far Dreamer looked sadly into the fire, and once again picked up the mug at her feet, and drank from it heavily. The smell of strong, steaming mulled wine wafted across the cold mountain air.
“No, if the hatred is removed from Kelgardelac Strung, the current leaders and Shaman elders will continue as they have. It will take at least two generations, more likely three or four, before the Orcs will be free to act as they truly intend, and not as the puppet of some psychotic forest sprite. To be completely honest, I would expect the Orcs in general to continue to fight with humans forever unless something drastic happens to bring peace, or to unite both against a common foe. The Orcs are a very traditionally-minded people. They have no reading or writing and all of their history comes from spoken or sung Clan and Tribal legends. They have caused much death and suffering, and they have endured much death and suffering. They have a tradition of war with your people now. It will continue.”
“At any rate, if you do choose to aid me in my quest, I would intend to open the wards and enter the Hall as soon as you are strong enough to survive the preparations. If you are up to it in the morning, we can begin to prepare you for the ceremony to allow you entry through the wards. Once we have passed through and are on the other side of the wards and protected, we can focus on preparing for the true challenge and the essaying of the passage itself later into the week. Come, what do you think of this plan?”
Jessie thought about the answer in silence for a while, trying to decide what to do, and how far to commit herself. “I hate the gray-skinned bastards and probably take a wee bit too much pleasure in killing them, but my promise to my family was to restore our lands, not to wipe out every Orc in the Borderlands. If going with you gets me closer to that, then I’m in. You just need to tell me what to do. What is this ceremony you keep talking aboot?”
“Well, the power to pass through the wards is keyed into the golden medal you have, and bound to two separate essences; the axe in your hands, and the aura given off by the presence of Raktar’s soul. I cannot change what is locked in the gold of the medal, as it is meant to act as a keystone, upon which all the other spells are tied. So, I will have to shatter the spirit of the keystone, capture the shattered threads of binding, and then reweave them and bind their essence directly to your body, making you a new living keystone. Without the medal, and the axe that is one of it’s bound icons, this would have been impossible. And without my special knowledge of the workings of soul magic and the Orc Shamanistic pathways, we wouldn’t be able to key it to you after Raktars’ death.”
“Once we are done, you should merely have to hold the axe, which is part of the power bound into the keystone to mark you as worthy to enter the hall, and walk through the wards unharmed. Specifically, as I can see the fear bold in your eyes, I will carve… poor choice of words there, no, inscribe, yes, inscribe certain symbols and runes upon a round space as large as a handspan upon your stomach, symbols that will be subtly different then that upon the medal, and then, as I shatter the medal, I will draw the power from the golden pieces through a channel of my will directly into he symbology in your flesh. The symbols will heal as golden runic scars, runes similar in appearance to the tribal scars of the Blackmoor Clan. There will be very little lasting pain.”
Jessie sits back and digs into her second bowl of stew, thinking things over. The one thought that she holds on to above all else is the intent to show not one single moment of fear, weakness or hesitation before this impossible woman of alien beauty that can speak so calmly of cutting her up and mucking about with her soul.
Sitting forward and gesturing with the spoon, she says, “Okay, this seems like it might be a plan, but I think there are a couple more things that need talkin’ over before we go, though. We’ve both seen each other “unmasked” so to speak, and we’ve both have secrets that hide under our clothes. I just wanted to let you know that I won’t say anything about yours if you don’t say anything about mine.”
“Also, I think it’s only fair that since we have been blooded together that you know my real name, it’s Jessie MacQuarrie. Because of the idiocy of the men who run the Borderland Keeps, if I try to reclaim my lands as a woman, they’ll just try to marry me off to some likely son of a bi… baron, and with that dies my chance of restoring the MacQuarrie lands. So I travel as Lauchlin MacQuarrie, who was my twin and brother, and I’d appreciate it if you’d call me by that name. Hopefully, one day you’ll trust me with your real name.”
Far Dreamer laughs, and says, “You want my real name? Would that I had one to give you, Lauchlin. Among my people, names have no personal meaning, they are only descriptions of what one does, and how well. I chose Far Dreamer as my Orc name, because their language is primitive, and lacks poetic descriptions. In your tongue, my homeland name would translate into some three hundred words describing my appearance, skills and my past experience. Here, I’ll give it to in elven that you may say that you have heard it sung. My name is Baine hel tefhe sheol kar mor le. I suppose, if you would like to use my name in a short form, Bane would do well, and certainly sounds better than Sheol.”
Bane set down her empty mug and picked up her sword, laying it across her lap. She caressed its black leather hilt as she gazed out across the valley. “There is something you should know about yourself, something that I can not with good conscience put off any longer. You have perceived that a great deal has changed since you last were awake. This place is far from the glade of the oak, and I’m sure you can see that the moon in the sky is far advanced from what you would remember.”
“You were more than merely wounded when you used the axe in a deep strike against the oak, Lauchlin. You died then, died when your soul was ripped from your body by the axe. As the power you activated focused a small part of your soul into a spike and drove it hard into the soul of the oak, the rest of your soul was ripped free and drawn to a place far removed from the paths of the light. Your spirit was gone from the mortal world, Lauchlin.”
“By rights, you should never have awoken, but somehow I knew that in time I could lead you back to the ways of the Sun. You couldn’t have known what would happen when you triggered the axe, and most of the reason is that I’ve never been much for explaining things. I’ve always been interested in mastering the doing of a thing for myself, not for showing another.”
She looked at Jessie, and said, “I told you the command word to activate the axe and unleash its stored power on a foe. I neglected, however, to warn you that, if the axe had not fed deeply enough on the souls of the slain before you uttered the command, it would take what more it needed from you.”
She gazed back out at the valley, and continued, “The axe drew all the power it could from the only source it had. It drained you dry, focused the power in your soul, and channeled it as a weapon, and the pure force of the energy destroyed the tree. Fortunately, I not only had the knowledge to help you activate the axe and cause this tragedy, but I also knew quite a bit about what it had done to you. Your body was dead, as we reckon these things, because your soul had been flung far away, much of its inherent cohesiveness diminished, most especially that which was flung at the tree as a weapon after the axe had fed.”
“I have certain unique knowledge and skills concerning the power of the soul. We will not take the time to speak of them or where I learned them, as we do not have days to devote to such things, but I knew that no matter how much the axe had fed from the edges of your soul, the infinite core of your being would still be intact, but drifting somewhere in the Dreamtime. I had to wait until we were safe, so I brought your body up here, where the pass is difficult to achieve, and easily defended. It is here that I performed the rituals, and did what I needed to do to answer the blood debt I owed.”
“Since the axe had cast you to the same place it sends all of its victims, I used the axe as a bonded link to reach out to you again, and draw you back home. Your body welcomed the return, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make some… adjustments.”
Jessie realized that Bane was intentionally avoiding her gaze, and wanted to reach out and shake the woman, but something inside said that the elf was tormenting herself hard over what had happened, and Jessie wanted to know just how bad this was going to be.
Bane said, still continuing to gaze out at the valley, “You will probably feel very strong, very fit and very hard. You will find certain new skills come easily to you, perhaps you will even think or dream in languages you have never before heard spoken aloud. Perhaps, there will be even more.”
“You see, I sent the call for your return out into the Dreamtime, but your soul was no longer… separate and distinct. You were wounded, very deeply, and much of your vitality and energy, much of your very life had been torn from you. But where you were, drifting there in the Dreamtime, it is not an empty place. It is that peculiar place where the souls of many of the past victims of the axe dwell, those too wounded and drained, too fractured, to ever recover on their own, but too damn strong or stubborn to simply dissipate and die the ultimate death.”
“When I sent out the call through the axe, it drew the souls of all nearby that had ties to it. And that axe has a very long and terrible history. It has rarely in its existence been used to kill the weak, or the stupid. It is the slayer of heroes and champions, and has long been in the hands of the most evil and terrible monsters of this world. And now, your soul is inextricably bound with the souls of those long dead, those who number among them some of the most heroic and powerful heroes of the Light that our world has ever known. And I do not know what effect this may have on you, over time.”
Bane finally turned her head to gaze deeply into Jessies’ eyes.
“I’m not really certain what the future will bring for you, young lady. It all depends on how strong your spirit really is. Are you strong enough to hold yourself together as the other parts of your soul, parts that were never part of your life or experience or time pull you in different directions, as they try to make you follow a different set of stars?”
“Can you somehow maintain your own identity, even as you fight to integrate your mingled souls into one pure heart? I honestly don’t know. You have the advantage, since your core personality was mostly intact and new to the Dreamtime, and they should be mostly fractured remnants and shattered ghosts of spirits. But that they were still there in the Dreamtime where the Axe cast them, strong and vital, shows that they were the most powerful, and above all the most stubborn, of all of the victims that the axe has taken. Only time will tell.”