Jessie sat and thought for a moment. She felt a numbness growing in her heart, as though what she had heard didn’t really have anything to do with her. Far Dreamer must have been talking about someone else. “I’m me, aren’t I? I’d know if I wasn’t me. Is there anyone else in here?”
Jessie waited, but heard no reply to her thoughts. She could feel the sharp edges of terror working its’ way around her heart, looking for a weakness, an opening to attack. It was important to stay focused on the task at hand, and to find out just how far the elf could be trusted.
She took yet another mouthful of stew, chewing slowly while she gathered her thoughts. “Well, I haven’t changed my mind about helping you. Anything that may possibly shut off this ‘power’ that is driving the Orcs is something that needs to be given a try.”
“I think you said that the axe is tied directly to something called Gaia. Are you about meaning that the thing itself isn’t evil, evil is just the use it’s been put to by the ones that wield it? Is that what you’re after telling me?”
Bane shook her head no, adding “You are correct, that it is bound directly to the living spirit of the world. But it is bound in the same way a tick may be stuck to the side of a deer. It’s attachment does not make it a tool of the light. Indeed, far from it. In some ways, that axe is considered in records I have studied to be one of the most evil tools still loose in the hands of mortals in this age.”
“Not for what it is, though, but for what it was created to do. It was designed with one purpose in mind; to reach out to a living soul while violating the person’s body, and fracture that soul to add the victims’ vitality and knowledge to the wielders’ own.”
“The study of tools and methods that directly affect the immortal soul is known as necromancy, and it has rarely, if ever, yielded any good to the world. No, that axe is no weapon to be used with an oath to the lords of light on your lips. With every strike, with every blow upon a living being, it’s spiritual presence rends the soul of the victim, and steals some of the victims’ lifeforce for itself. While it is true that most of the energy it steals for itself will, over time, return to Gaia and be free, if for any reason the axe manages to tear the living soul from a victim in it’s entirety, the vast bulk of that victims’ soul that is not consumed is cast into the Dreamtime, tethered to the signature of the axe, there to drift until the wielder chooses to summon those souls forth and restore them, torture them, or to finally consume them into himself.”
“The only blessing to consider is that the axe has no personality, no life or consciousness of its own. It has no draw upon you, and will not try to use you or dominate you if you choose to wield it. Its’ maker was far too wary to allow that to happen. The only danger you will have in carrying it is the lure of using its’ power. ”
Bane looked at Jessie with a sad smile, and said, “The axe has many more powers over the soul than what I chose to tell you before. And, I hope that you will forgive me, but I do not intend to reveal any more of them now. The one who forged that axe is quite infamous, in his way, in that among my people he is now known as Kaloth, the Snake, one of the gods of darkness worshipped by the tribes of Balor and Balal in the southlands across the sea.”
“He is worshipped as a god now, and yet when he forged that axe, he was still a mortal man of your race, a mortal man possessed with the idea of living forever on the stolen souls of others. Now, he is known as an ascended god.”
“No, it’s far better that the secrets of the axe lie buried in the sands of time. If you do wish, however, there is one thing that I would teach you that you might someday have the strength to do. There is a sequence of rituals that, if my memory holds true, might possibly allow you to someday free all of the scattered souls still left imprisoned in the Dreamtime. And I would dearly love to have you perform that one day, when you are confident that all is right within you.”
“But I do not know what effect, if any, trying to complete the rituals would have on you, a soul that had been cast into the Dreamtime, and then restored to a living body. Maybe nothing. Most likely, nothing at all. But I just don’t know. And that doesn’t take into account that the rituals are theory only, created by dreamers and scholars who studied the ways a tool like the axe would have to work, and tried to develop a way to undo it’s work, without ever having a certain hope of seeing it in person to try the rituals for themselves.”
“As I have told you, if we should both survive this task in front of us, than I will do as I said, and stand by you before whomever you should chose, even to traveling directly to this Caer Doneghal you speak of, and join you in your quest to restore your lands to your name. If this task with the hall be finally done, then I will be free to follow my own heart, and travel with one I would like to think of as…. a friend. Indeed, I think that we have shared enough, the two of us, that I feel that I know you now better than one of my own sisters. On the strength of it, then, I offer you my hand, that we may continue on into the future as friends.”
Jessie barely hesitated. She took Banes’ hand in a warrior’s clasp, hand to wrist in the Border way, and said, “I agree, you and I have been through more in days than most have been through in years. I’d be honored to have you as a friend.”
Bane grinned and sat back, putting her sword down beside her, and pulled a loaf of bread out from where it had been warming among the stones of the fire. She ripped a chunk off, and tossed the bigger piece to Jessie.
“Here, you’ve been down for a long time, your body will be needing something to rebuild muscle from.”
Bane munched on a few bites of bread herself, and then continued.
“And again, I do believe you said just now, ‘days’. I regret to have to tell you, but it has been more than a few days that you have lost. Indeed, from the time that you lay the fatal blow upon the great tree, until the time that I had the honor to perform the ceremony that brought you back to us, the moon has gone from just past full to new, and back again to full, whence it was strong enough to aid the call I sent out into the Dreamtime, to succeed in bringing you back. All told, I have watched over your lifeless body for nearly a full month’s reckoning as your Borderlander kin count time.”
“Did you think that, perhaps, you were merely stunned? Or that I was confused? Oh no, you were dead all right, and I will be greatly mistaken if you do not have some terrible dreams awaiting your first full night after your return. I can offer you some tea, fortified with berries and leaves, that would be sure to give you a dreamless night, if you should so desire. I would not personally recommend it, as I am of the opinion that it does no good to delay pain that you know is due. But it is certainly your choice, if you feel that you would wish to have a normal rest before facing your first dreaming night back among the living.”
Jessie stopped her movement, the bread paused in mid motion towards her open mouth. After a long pause, she visibly swallowed, and said, “Fergus once said I had it in me to be either a great hero or a right bloody villain. I’d like to think that I tend more toward the former.”
“I would like to learn the rituals or whatever it is ye spoke of, I’d like to know that, if nothing else, I released those spirits trapped within…who knows it may hold some of my own yet…”
In a distant, small voice, she added, “I think it may take me a while to get used to the idea of dying, much less coming back. I thought you were supposed to see the ones you loved, and who loved you, who have passed on before you, after you went beyond the cloak. I don’t remember anything. Nothing is there at all.”
After a little while, when Bane did not reply, she said “I wouldn’t mind the knowing, so much, if I could just remember feeling them, you know, my friends and family, from before you pulled me back.”
She looked at the axe and shivered just a bit. “I’ll carry it and use it when there is no choice, I guess. Sure and certain, if I treat it as a thing to hide and be fearful of, I’ll lose track of it and it’ll be lost for someone else to find, and use it in ways I’d not like have on my conscience. I guess only time will tell.”
With a final grimace, she sighed, and nodded in the direction of her sword in the tent. “But in the meantime, I think I’ll stick to honest steel for most things. I could but wish that my instincts didn’t cause me to grab the axe first when reaching for a weapon just now. Such confusion is mortal bad for a warrior in a pinch.”
Jessie settled back, putting the bowl and spoon down beside her legs for a final time, and nodded once in decision. “I am sure it’ll take some time before I can properly wrap my mind around the idea of bein’ dead. But I’ve never been one to step backwards from man or beast and I certainly won’t shy from facing them in my dreams, so you can just hang on to that brew ye were speakin’ of. Let the dreams come and they’ll see what stuff a MacQuarrie is made of. So, I’ll take my rest now, and on the morrow you can explain to me again about the carving ye’ll be thinkin’ o’ doin to my hide.”
“And I’ll be thankin’ ye if ye’ll start thinkin best of how to be teaching me this ritual of which you spoke. And as my friend, promise to me that if I don’t walk out of this and you do, that you will invoke it for me, and bring those souls peace.”
Jessie stood up and stretched, feeling muscle and sinew move in a warm, well oiled way that felt as good as she ever had after a workout, or after fencing her best against Fergus when her blood was up and pumping.
The feeling gave her pause, and she stopped where she was as she took stock. “Is this natural?” She thought. “Is this how I should feel if I’m just back from the dead? If I was dead for a month like she says, didn’t I rot? Did Bane watch as I rotted away, all while she waited for a full moon up here on this cliff edge?”
She darted a glance at Bane, and it was almost as if the elf could see the questions swirling around her head.
“Lauchlin, you just need to keep in mind, you are alive. Alive and quite well, and probably feeling strong enough to butt heads with a curly haired ram. That is all you need to worry about right now. There will be more than enough for you to worry about tomorrow morning.”
“Until then, a safe night to you, and may you know a night without fear or worry. All will come to us as it is meant to. We are here, together, and all the mountains tremble at the thought of our displeasure. Let that thought guide your dreams as you settle into sleep.”
Jessie reacted more to the feeling behind Banes’ words than the words themselves. As she climbed into the strange tent Bane had put up for her, and settled down, arranging her few possessions so that her sword was ready at hand, but the axe lay far out of reach, she felt strong and confident, and no longer alone.
For the first time since her family had died, since that distant day that felt like only yesterday to her, she was no longer alone in the world. She had felt that, with Fergus’ death, she was on her own through whatever her escape from the valley would bring, all alone and having to look out for herself. Having lived in this valley all her life, she knew how easy it would be for a sudden fall, or an abrubt illness, or a simple accident with a wood axe or sword in the dark could weaken her badly, and leave her vulnerable. Without help, all alone in the valley, surrounded by enemies, she knew that her chances of survival, much less success in restoring the valley to MacQuarrie control, was a long shot.
And now, suddenly, she could tell she had a friend. The warm feeling she felt was that she had found a new sister, a sister that stood beside her on equal terms. Jessie explored the new feeling like it was a sore tooth in her jaw. It seemed a strange thing to be feeling after all the pain and death that had surrounded her this last month. Still, it felt as if it were almost destined to be.
Maybe if they had met in a different way things would’ve fallen out otherwise, but her feelings towards Bane now were flavored with the memory of the pale woman dressed all in black, walking into an ambush in the forest in the dead of night, her body torn and broken, but her sword still clutched in her hands. Somehow, the memory tempered Jessies’ recollection of the flames reaching out from the elf, belching forward to caress the dryad in a beautiful shower of death. And the strength of the elven woman now, the almost golden glow of strength and warm beauty, that picture would have been far more frightening, intimidating, if she had nothing else to hold up against it.
But Jessie had been the rescuer when they first met, the strong protector of the helpless, broken elven girl, and even now that sense of responsibility wouldn’t fade. Jessie knew from the old tales that Bane was most likely much older than she looked, maybe even older than Jessies’ granther would have been had he lived, but there was a fresh quality in the womans’ eyes that reassured her, no matter how grim or determined that she might look, that made her feel in her gut that, emotionally anyway, they were very close in the way they viewed the world.
As Jessie lay down, she tried to focus on all of the things that she felt went into making her… her. She tried to remember all she could of the good times and the bad, her family, especially her brother, and their friendship.
And, of course, Fergus. As her eyes grow heavy and just before she fell asleep, she thought, “Well, Fergus, it looks like I’ve really stepped in it this time, knee-deep, as you were wont to say.” She quietly chuckled to herself, shaking her head, “and you, Jessie MacQuarrie, mocking that Orc Shaman, the Speaker, as you took his pouches and rags. Nooo, you’d NEVER let anyone cut up your skin just to get the spirits to notice you.”
“And here you are letting Bane do it to you too on the morrow, hah!”
“You were right, old warrior. I should keep my mouth closed and my ears open, or I’ll prove to the world I’m naught but another fool.”
With that gentle self recrimination, bringing with it a comforting feeling of Fergus’ presence, she closed her eyes and drifted off to sleep, ready for whatever battle might come with her dreams.