Part XIX – Account by Penny Kearney
I pushed myself to my feet, stretching my stiff muscles and letting the night air mingle with my thoughts. Under various trees, behind bushes, and against rocky outcroppings, Dana’s men lay sprawled out or curled up, snoozing. I kept my steps light as I wandered from my resting place.
I didn’t have a destination in mind. The forest surrounded me, and the slumbering soldiers in every shadow warded away the fear that would come from being alone in a dark place.
I wandered for several minutes before a figure rose from beneath a tree at my approach. I guessed I must have run into the perimeter of encampment and caught the attention of the night guard.
“Lady Kearney?” He ventured, notes of surprise in his tone. “You should be resting, our time here is short.”
Slowing to a stop, I regarded the darkened form. He sounded familiar. John. John MacCullen, Dana’s captain I’d met yesterday when I’d woken up. Though slight, I caught the Northerner accent in his voice. My thoughts settled to the present as I answered, “I can’t sleep at the moment.”
John nodded, returning to his place by the tree. “Do not let me disturb you, then.”
I paused a moment, watching him. “Actually… Can I talk with you a moment?”
He nodded. “If you wish, my lady. What is it you want to discuss?”
“Dana.” I moved into the shadow of the tree near his and kept my tone hushed so as not to rouse any other soldiers. “How long have you known him?”
“About five years now. When he was officially declared by his mentor, the elder knight.”
“So you’re from the North, as well?”
“Aye, my lady.” John said. “Warriors from different villages, some of us freed slaves that joined him during his trek down here.”
I nodded, folding my arms and leaning back against the tree behind me.
His head tilted in the darkness. “May I ask why you inquired, my lady?”
I shrugged. “In the year I’ve known him, he has become a good friend. But come to think of it I don’t know that much about his past; what has made him who he is today.”
He nodded. “He’s had quite a run compared to me, and he’s only half my age.”
“It seems he has.” I murmured. There were times I would look at him and wonder if I even knew him at all. Times I felt so far away, so helpless.
My army gone, my brothers prisoners, my people endangered. Right now I felt less like the ‘queen’ Set called me and more like a lonely, desperate warrior simply trying to survive one battle at a time. My heart would not let me rest, yet I longed for any comfort or encouragement to tell me I was doing the right thing.
“Would you please tell me about him?”
John regarded me through the veil of night with a steady stare. “What is it you want to know, my lady?”
“I don’t want to know anything specific.” I said. “I can’t sleep, and I’m curious. I want to understand him better, because right now…”
Pulling his cloak tighter around his broad shoulders, John nodded in understanding. “You’ll not be able to convince him, my lady. His own mentor couldn’t do that, right before he left.” He frowned in thought. “He was always helpful back home. He’d wander from village to village, a Guardian Knight; people would flock to greet him. But he’d get the most delight from helping a child find a lost toy, to give an example.”
I listened intently to each word as he continued.
“Even at sixteen, he was the best swordsman on the Northern shores. And yet, for the most part, he saved it for a last resort.” A darker note entered his tone. “That changed when Set came to us.”
The all too familiar shudder trickled down my spine at the mention of Set. John produced a pipe from under his cloak, holding it up in question.
I waved in acquiescence. “By all means.”
Lighting it, he took a long draw, the embers glowing. Smoke curled from his mouth with his exhale. “We found his native village completely destroyed. His master was distraught. People started disappearing, bands of thieves harassed us, harvest was short. That year was a hard one.
“Then he came back. He returned to us much different than when he had left. Hard, bitter, covered in scars. He looked older than I did. It wasn’t two days before he’d called all the warriors together. Told us about Set, and the threat he posed. No one gainsaid him. We all agreed… and I doubt he would’ve taken no for an answer.”
“Then all of you…” I eyed him. “You would all kill Set, given the opportunity.”
John shook his head. “He didn’t tell us that bit. Besides, the look on his face, none of us would have taken away that right to kill Set himself away from him. Not after what happened to his village. It was a matter of honor.”
I shifted my gaze. Honor….
“But that day…” John shook his head. “That wasn’t justice. It was rage, anger, uncontrolled fury. I was firsthand what a Gift could do, turned evil. Our attack was flawless. Dana foresaw any mishaps, any ambush, any weakness. He wouldn’t brook any survivors. Ordered them all destroyed. He led the advance to find Set, and wouldn’t let anyone stop him.”
I remembered the flicker in Dana’s eyes when I’d interrupted his duel with Set in the dungeon of Ross’s castle. I remained quiet, hoping John would finish in spite of the distaste I detected in his tone.
“When he found out Set had run, he was might angry. I took command then. We’d taken captives, and I wasn’t about to execute them out of spite, Gift or no Gift.” John paused, several clouds of smoke curling upwards before he spoke again. “Dana took this awful quietly, and he slipped off. I didn’t have to worry about his getting lost, for sure. He came back a few days later, a bit more composed. He apologized to me, talked with the elder guardian for a bit, then left again. I didn’t see naught of him for a few months. I think that’s when he first travelled Southwards, and found you and your brothers.”
I nodded in silent response to John’s glance.
“Then he returned to rally us all down here. He seemed more at peace with his lot then, a bit wiser and older.” He shrugged. “You’d know the same as me after that.”
All of what John had just told me wove through my mind. I remained still quiet for several minutes, considering each word, each point, of the entire narration.
“He has his moments,” John murmured. “When I think what’s happened, what he’s done, comes back to him. He’ll get quiet, won’t talk more than a few words at a time… Aside from that, he’s much like I knew him before, save a bit older.”
Something inside me kept twisting. “You’re right. I don’t think there’s a way to change his mind about Set.”
To this the Captain released his pipe from between his teeth and turned his gaze on me once more.
I suppose the defeat in my tone awakened some sense of sympathy in him. “Who knows. Perhaps you’re more stubborn than he is.”I could have laughed at the idea, but right then I couldn’t muster even a sarcastic one. Not because I disagreed with his point, but because I wasn’t sure if he really meant what he said, or if he was just giving me half hearted encouragement because he was afraid he’d upset me.
“Am I the only one who believes there has to be another way to stop Set?” I tilted my gaze to scrutinize his expression as he answered.
“Has to be?”
“Is that a yes?” I raised a brow.
MacCullen settled back against the tree with a shrug. “I’m just an old soldier, Lady Kearney. I never learned to read in all my days. I couldn’t tell you yes, or no.”
“Would you help me if I found a way?”
He frowned in thought, glancing at me through puffs of smoke.
“I’m not going to give up.” I added as his silence continued. “But I would rather not have to fight against everyone including Dana in order to try and find another way to stop Set that doesn’t require Dana to die.”
“I’d help you, Lady Kearney, if you could find a way. But I wouldn’t be of much help in finding one.”
Tension I hadn’t noticed build up in my stomach unwound at his response, and my breath came easier. “Thank you.”
From a nearby tree, another voice joined the conversation. “You’d go to the loremaster for that.”
I turned my gaze towards a young soldier who lay within the confines of a bush, leaning on his elbows. For a moment I wondered how long he’d been listening, feeling somewhat self conscious at the thought, but my curiosity got the better of such fleeting emotions.
John chuckled into his pipe. “Aye, the loremaster. That’d be an idea, wouldn’t it.”
I detected a hint of jest in his tone, frowning. “Loremaster?”
“Aye, masters of folklore where we come from. Told stories of werewolves, star dancers, and tree grabbers. You won’t find it in any book, I’ll tell you that.”
“My grandfather knew one.” Thomas added.
This time John laughed outright. “Aye, Thomas. And he was a bit on the deaf, blind side, wasn’t he?”
“This was before all that, capt’n.” Thomas insisted. “Before he was in that avalanche. He’d tell me stories about the loremasters, even told me where to find their home.”
“Aye, just as we all were.” He began half to himself. “Walk ever westward ‘til you cross the yellow sea…”
Thomas joined in. “When you have gone farther than your body can muster, and the sea is a mockery to life and memory, you will find it.”
“The tower of lore.” John smiled. “My Mum used to say the same thing.”
I folded my arms, glancing between the two soldiers. “I don’t exactly have time to cross oceans…”
John shrugged. “It’d be yellow, too. Goblin stories, no more.”
“Then a loremaster isn’t going to help me much.”
“They’re true, I’m telling you!” Rising, Thomas dug into a pouch attached to his belt. “I can prove it, too.”
This caught my attention, forestalling my disbelief for a moment. The object he produced proved to be a parchment, lined and aged beyond any number of years I could fathom, and made of a strange sort of animal hide I had never seen before. He handed it to me, and I stepped to the side a few paces to examine it under the traces of moonlight shining through the branches. Sequences of characters were scrawled in black over the surface of the parchment in odd, distinct clusters of shapes. After a moment, John rose from his place and joined me, peering down at the markings, as well.
“My grandfather gave this to me,” I could feel Thomas watching for my reaction. “Said it’d be important someday. Or at least, that’s what the loremaster told him.”
The older soldier puffed. “It’s not even in common, Thomas. You can’t read it, how do you know they’re even words?”
Suddenly I remembered. Memories of searching the library corners, dusty chests, and old desks; old books long forgotten filled with genealogies and official creeds of the Guardian Order, the inspiration for my quest to rebuild the Order once thought mere legend.“I’ve seen these before…” I said.
He glanced at me, humor fading. “What is it?”
“I saw it in some of the books in the library of the castle I grew up in.”
“You mean… it’s an actual language?”
“I think so…” The closer I looked, the more convinced I became that these symbols matched those I’d seen in the Order books I’d found almost a year ago. Little scribbles along the margins, handwritten notes in the back of the book, or symbols stitched into the leather binding as, I had thought, decoration. Looking at the sweeping designs and geometric placement, indeed this could be mistaken for abstract scribbling of a lethargic artist, but having seen these same exact markings elsewhere, the similarity and distinctness was undeniable.
This was their language; their code. I longed to know what it said, and wondered if this could possibly be a mere coincidence.
“See, Capt’n?” Thomas grinned in triumph. “I told you it was writing!”
I glanced up in time to see the sharp look Dana’s captain shot his subordinate. “Aye, so it might be. Can you read it, my lady?”
“I can’t read it.” I shook my head.
“But what is it, then?”
“I don’t know…” I handed it back to the red haired lad. “Would you keep it safe? I might be able to find someone, somehow, who can read it. You know about the Set and Dana dilemma, I assume?”
“Aye, my lady. A shame, it is.”
“Then you would be willing to help me find a way around it?”
“Of course, my lady.” Even in the darkness I detected the excitement in his expression. “Do you think this writing has anything to do with it?”
“I’m not sure, but it might. And thank you…”
He nodded. “My pleasure, my lady.”
I smiled, this time sincerely.