Khaalindaan stood, his arms raised in the air. He knew that his time had come.
The mighty wizard was the last of his kind. Only a handful of the clan had survived, a few wounded soldiers and a few frightened women and children.
Khaalindaan stood, his arms raised in the air. He gazed at his enemies grimly. The Clan of Bre had lost the battle and the Clan of Aglanthol would now rise to greater power. But he, Khaalindaan, would not surrender without a fight. He would kill as many as possible before he was doomed to fall.
Khaalindaan focused and gathered strength. He condensed his energy and brought his vital forces together until he felt bodiless, until he felt he was a mere spot of energy in space and time. This happened in an instant, not even the blink of an eye.
The men of Aglanthol were not aware of Khaalindaan’s plan. They watched the wizard grimly. Only one man had seen Khaalindaan’s energy change. The wizard of Aglanthol stepped forward. He walked upright and slowly. His look was stern and his face showed no emotions. His hand was wrapped tightly around the hilt of a sword. The men of Aglanthol saw that Norlorn moved to the front. They stepped back instinctively in fearful anticipation, aware suddenly that this no longer was just a war between clans. The wizards would fight the final battle and it would be a duel to death.
Norlorn stopped in front of the men. He gripped the sword with both hands and held it in front of his body. Norlorn focused and gathered strength. He knew that his time had come.
Only an instant later, a ball of energy shot from Khaalindaan’s body. The ball emanated a white light that almost blinded the men. Some cried out in agony, some covered their eyes. Heat radiated from the magic ball that quickly moved in their direction. The trees and plants caught fire. The men of Aglanthol retreated, slowly first, and then more quickly. Finally, they turned and ran.
Only one man still stood motionless. Norlorn slowly raised the sword in his hand. He looked into the blinding light of the energy ball without even once closing his eyes. The heat singed his hair and his skin, but Norlorn did not give it a thought. Norlorn raised his sword. The blade grew blazingly hot as the magic ball touched it. But Norlorn did not loosen his grip. Instead, he called out to Khaalindaan or what had remained of the man.
At hearing his name, Khaalindaan’s vital energy responded. It focused on the wizard of Aglanthol, albeit for just the split of a second. It was a vital error. Khaalindaan realized it instantly. But it was too late. By responding to Norlorn’s call, Khaalindaan had followed Norlorn’s command and thus he had acknowledged Norlorn’s superior power.
First, Khaalindaan tried to escape from Norlorn’s grip, and then he tried to attack the wizard more forcefully. The heat that the energy ball emanated grew almost unbearable. Khaalindaan outspent himself. Norlorn’s sword turned red-hot from the heat. The heat scorched Norlorn’s hands. Norlorn ignored the severe pain.
Half an hour passed, or maybe more, no one was later able to tell exactly. Norlorn had stood motionless, holding the red-hot sword, thus banning Khaalindaan’s power. He had stood amidst the fires that raged around him. Finally, the blade had changed back to its normal colour. The heat subsided and the fires retreated. Norlorn drove the sword deep into the ground and thus sealed off Khaalindaan’s force of sorcery.
The wizard of the Aglanthol left the place of the fight. His hair and the skin of his face were scorched. His hands were severely burned and the wizard was almost blind. But, luckily, he recovered. Khaalindaan’s body had burned to ashes. It was later washed away by the rain. Khaalindaan’s vital energy was banned and could only be released by removing Norlorn’s sword from the ground. To prevent this, the Aglanthol made the place a holy place that only the wizards and the holy men were allowed to visit.
A thousand years passed by and the legend of Khaalindaan fell into oblivion. No one had found the secret place, although quite a few had searched for it in the beginning. The story slowly turned into a legend, a myth that was only told in distant areas of the country. No one actually believed in the legend but a few wise men who knew that the story told the full truth. Khaalindaan, or what had remained of the man, however, was waiting patiently for someone to find the place and remove Norlorn’s sword from the ground. Time and space did not actually matter to him. Khaalindaan knew that his time would come.
Qildor was roaming the country. The realm of the Aglanthol had flourished. Strong kings had increased the size of the country and had augmented the power and the Aglanthol’s influence on their neighbours. The only threat that the Aglanthol faced in recent times was coming from a northern tribe. The Clan of the Khalindash whose kingdom adjoined the country of Aglanthol had started to cross the borders and attack the villages close to the frontier. This, however, was not really considered a major threat. It was rather considered a nuisance.
Qildor, warrior of the Aglanthol and a soldier of high rank, was sent to the frontier by command of the king. Although not entirely unwilling to leave the court for a while, Qildor was not exactly pleased either. Autumn had come and with it the cold wind from the north that was accompanied by heavy rainfalls that soon would turn into violent snowfalls.
Qildor rode quickly. It was a four days ride and he had almost arrived. It was late in the afternoon. Night would fall early at this time of the year. Qildor spurred his horse. He wanted to arrive in Tanmil in time. The small village in the north was his destination. The following days he would seek out and interrogate a few men. The qualified men would be promoted Royal Guards and then would guard the frontiers and watch out for any Khalindash men bold or careless enough to violate the border.
Qildor shivered despite his warm clothes. His hands and his face were frozen. He was barely able to open his lips. Finally, the village was in sight. There were no more than four or five houses. Light came from their windows. Dusk had come and the inhabitants had lit candles. Qildor rode along the street that was barely more than a frozen path. No one was around. He looked out for the inn they had spoken of at court. A few soldiers had been to Tamil in summer and they had praised the comfort of the inn. That was why Qildor had chosen Tamil as his travel destination.
Qildor stopped the horse and looked around confused. He did not spot an inn. He was about to turn his horse and ride back the street when a man, dressed in thick clothes, approached him.
“Can I help you?” the man asked in a harsh voice and ignoring the royal emblems on Qildor’s cloak.
“I’m looking for the inn,” Qildor said in the same impolite voice.
“No inn. The host died at the end of the summer and no one wants to take up the business,” the man said.
Qildor measured him. The man glanced at him furtively.
“How far is the next village then?” Qildor asked brusquely.
The man shrugged.
“A day by foot. You’re probably faster with the horse,” he said.
“I can’t ride on tonight. Is there a place I can stay for the night? My name is Qildor. I am a royal soldier,” he said in an authoritative voice.
The man shrugged again and then gazed at the royal emblems on Qildor’s cloak. He did not utter a word, though.
Qildor grew impatient.
“Good man, you may not reject a royal command. Show me to a place where I can stay for the night,” he said arrogantly.
The man looked him straight in the eyes. His look was defiant.
“How do I know? Perhaps you have murdered the royal soldier and stolen his cloak. You might murder me also in my own house,” he said.
Qildor rolled his eyes. He was about to scold the man when a thought occurred to him. Apparently, the man was not a dumbass. He was cautious, wary, and suspicious. He had neither greeted Qildor nor bowed to him. He was bold, perhaps even courageous, and perhaps even intelligent.
Qildor looked at the man with interest.
“I could show you the royal seal. Would this convince you?” he asked.
The man still looked at Qildor defiantly.
“Not really,” he said finally. “You could have stolen that, too. But I meanwhile believe you. No man from this area would fight with words. He would rather fight with his knife and that very quickly.”
Qildor looked at the man in complete bewilderment. The man just gazed back.
‘Intelligent, too,’ Qildor thought. He straightened.
“You have spoken well, good man. May I ask your name?” he asked in what he hoped was a royal tone of voice.
“Magath,” the man said. And then he fell silent.
Qildor looked at the sky that had almost turned black. The night would be cold and starry. He looked back at Magath and cleared his throat.
“All right, Master Magath, show me to your house, please. I will stay there for the night,” he said.
Magath’s look was almost disgusted. He shrugged.
“All right,” he said. “Not that I am pleased with this. But I’m cold and I want to sit beside the fire. You can leave your horse in the stable.”
Magath turned around and walked down the street. Qildor followed him on his horse. He looked at the back of the man. He was pondering. Magath had evoked various emotions in Qildor. They ranged from annoyance and bewilderment to curiosity and a subtle amusement. Qildor’s tiredness had gone.
Magath showed Qildor to the stable. A skinny mare stood inside. Qildor removed the saddlebags, and then helped Magath attend to the horses. They didn’t exchange a word. Finally, Magath showed Qildor to his small house. He opened the door, made a gesture with his hand, and then entered the house. Qildor followed him. He looked around in the single room that was Magath’s living-room and equally his bedroom.
Magath moved to the fireplace and fanned the flames. Qildor put his saddlebags on the floor. Magath turned to him. He was dressed in a thick and roughly woven cloak, a scarf and a fur cap, and he made no move to take off his clothes. Qildor hesitated for a moment, and then he took off his cloak with the royal emblems and the thick yet elegant hat.
“You don’t look much like a soldier,” Magath said. He sounded almost rude.
Qildor looked at him.
“I travelled incognito,” he replied. “I’m going to check if everything is all right. I’m talking about the Khalindash.”
“Sure,” Magath said. “They burned down a small farmhouse a couple of days ago. Killed the man and his wife and abducted the children. Everything’s fine, sure.”
Magath finally took off his cap. Long blond hair fell down on his shoulders. Qildor watched him curiously.
“This is why I came here,” Qildor said. “I’m seeking out men who will watch out and guard the frontiers.”
Magath gave a brief laugh.
“You won’t find too many. This area is thinly populated. The few men living here cannot neglect their duties,” he said.
“The king will pay for their service,” Qildor said in a dry voice. “They will earn much more than they would if they kept to farming.”
Magath laughed aloud. He shook his head in obvious amusement.
“Who will do the farming then? Do you want us to starve? The crops are usually bad. We barely outlive the winter anyway,” he said forcefully.
He shot Qildor an angry look.
“And with the Khalindash attacking our fields and villages it won’t get any better,” he added.
“We’ll drive them out of the country,” Qildor said.
“Three or four farmers won’t complete this task,” Magath said angrily.
“Certainly not,” Qildor said in a compliant tone. The man was obviously bitter or perhaps just fond of arguing. Or maybe he was a loner who hated strangers and in particular royal messengers.
Qildor lost interest in Magath’s musings. He yawned and did not hide his yawn.
“Time to rest, I guess,” Qildor said, looking around in the room.
He spotted Magath’s bed and decided to sleep far away from it.
‘He might talk in his sleep,’ Qildor thought. ‘Better he does not disturb mine.”
Qildor took a blanket from his bag, unfolded it and placed it on the floor. Magath just stood and watched him. Finally, he took off his cloak and scarf, and then moved to a wooden backdoor.
“The pit latrine is on the back of the house,” he said, before he left the house.
Qildor looked after him, and then continued preparing his bed. When Magath returned, he stepped out as well. When he came back, Magath had already stretched on his bed. He had covered himself with his cloak. Qildor also lay down. He was tired and almost immediately drifted to sleep.
Qildor awoke at dawn. Being a soldier, he was wide awake instantly. He rose to his feet quickly. The faint morning light fell through the single window, yet hardly illuminated the room. The windowpane was thick and also dirty. Qildor peered into the darkness and listened attentively.
The backdoor opened suddenly. Magath entered the house with an oil lamp in his hands. He looked at Qildor briefly and then turned away and ignored him. Qildor left the house also. When he returned, the house was filled with choking smoke. Qildor coughed and opened the doors of the house.
“Good man, are you burning down the house?” he asked in annoyance.
“Just starting the fire,” Magath said. He stood in front of the fireplace and fanned the flames.
“The chimney draws badly,” Qildor said.
“It did not draw badly yesterday,” he replied.
Qildor took a deep breath.
“So why don’t you climb the roof and check the chimney?” he asked in an unnerved voice.
Magath shrugged. Qildor lost patience. He turned to his bed abruptly and started to pack. ‘I better leave now,’ he thought. He took his saddlebags and turned to Magath to say goodbye. Qildor almost dropped the bags at the look that Magath cast him. They gazed at each other. Their looks were grim and unkind. Finally, Magath lowered his eyes. This sign of surrender without a fight made Qildor inwardly cringe. It also touched something deep inside of him. Qildor winced. The feeling was rare and yet familiar. He hated to feel the feeling again. He hated to realize that he felt attracted to the man. Qildor looked at Magath and took in his features. ‘Why him? Why a peasant?’ he thought. He almost spoke the words aloud.
Magath raised his eyes. He looked at Qildor briefly and then turned his eyes away. He moved to the backdoor. Qildor was hesitating, but then he made a step forward.
“Wait,” he called out when Magath’s hand touched the doorknob.
Magath stopped within the movement, yet did not turn back to Qildor. Qildor crossed the room. He stood right behind Magath. Magath did not turn. But Qildor could see that Magath was tensed.
“I’m visiting a few villages today,” Qildor said.
Magath did not react.
“Seeking out men,” Qildor added.
Magath nodded slightly.
“I’m coming back tonight,” Qildor said. His voice was rough. He gazed ahead, waiting.
A few seconds passed. And then Magath nodded.
“All right. I’ll be here,” Magath said without turning to Qildor. His voice was low and brittle.
The words were lingering in the air and with them an unsaid promise.
“I’ll be back tonight,” Qildor said. His voice was pressed.
Magath gave another brief nod. Qildor nodded as well, although Magath still looked ahead and did not see him. Qildor turned abruptly and left the house.
Outside he stopped and took a deep breath before he headed to the stable. A voice in his head called him a fool and promised his infallible ruin. Qildor bit his lip. He mounted his horse and forcefully rode out of the village.
The day convinced Qildor that Magath was right. He had only found and spoken to peasants. The men were not qualified to guard the frontier.
‘We must send here trained warriors. Else the Khalindash will soon conquer the land,’ Qildor thought. He was scowling.
He rode back to Tanmil, absorbed in his thoughts. Dusk had come when he arrived. The street was empty and the village looked deserted. Qildor arrived at Magath’s house. He dismounted and led his horse into the stable. He hesitated for a moment or two, wondering if he should really enter the house. Rational thinking told him to leave instantly, his gut feeling, however, urged him to stay. Finally, Qildor opened the door of the house. Magath wasn’t around. Qildor felt disappointed. He bit his lip.
“I’m longing for a peasant. I’m a fool. This can only end up in disaster,” Qildor said to himself. ‘It has not even begun,’ a voice in his head responded.
The door opened and interrupted his thoughts. Qildor turned around abruptly. Magath stood in the doorway. He was dressed in a green cotton shirt and earth-brown pants. He held a loaf of bread in his hands.
“Just got this from Gwyn in exchange for a rabbit. Gwyn lives in the next house. She’s a widow,” Magath explained.
Qildor smiled at him. Magath looked at him for a moment before a small smile came to his lips as well.
“Excellent,” Qildor said cheerfully. A voice in his head asked where his improper jolliness came from. Qildor ignored it.
“I cooked a rabbit stew,” Magath said. “The pot is outside on a fire.”
“Excellent,” Qildor repeated, feeling foolish at his lack of words.
“I go and get the pot,” he said, and then turned and left the house.
Qildor cleared his throat and looked around. He spotted two wooden chairs and a wooden table. Qildor sat down and gazed into the room. He had never eaten a rabbit stew with a peasant.
Magath came back and placed the pot on the table. He also put a jug of water, the loaf of bread, a knife and two wooden spoons on it. Qildor watched him. Finally, Magath sat down. They exchanged a brief look and then started to eat. They did not speak for some time.
“You were right,” Qildor said finally. “I met only peasants. They are not qualified to guard the frontier.
Magath smiled. He licked his spoon before he replied.
“So what will you do now?” he asked.
“Send trained warriors here,” Qildor replied. “Else the Khalindash will conquer the land.”
“They won’t come back in winter. The snowfalls are heavy. But they’ll be back in spring. They’ll go for the cattle,” he said.
“So we must drive them out of the country in spring,” Qildor replied. “We’ll build a fortress, a base camp, whatever.”
“You can’t do this in winter,” Magath said.
“In spring then,” Qildor replied. “We’ll be here before they come and steal the cattle.”
Qildor paused, thinking.
“I don’t really believe the animals are all they want. I rather believe they want to conquer the country and bring the Aglanthol down.”
Magath gave a laugh.
“What?” Qildor asked.
“The Khalindash are warriors, yes. But they are way too few to bring down the kingdom of Aglanthol,” he said. “Yes, they steal the cattle. But this is not what they are really after.”
“What are they after then?” Qildor asked, slightly puzzled.
“Norlorn’s sword,” Magath said.
Qildor looked at him in bewilderment.
“Norlorn’s sword?” he asked.
“Yes, they want to release the spirit of Khaalindaan. This would in fact give them immeasurable power.”
“What are you talking about?” Qildor asked in confusion.
“Have you not heard of it?” Magath asked, giving Qildor a stunned look.
“Explain it to me,” Qildor said. He cut another slice of bread.
“Khaalindaan was a powerful wizard. He was banned by Norlorn, the wizard of the Aglanthol. The Clan of Aglanthol became great and powerful. The kingdom flourished. But this will all come to an end when Norlorn’s sword is removed from the ground. Then Khaalindaan’s spirit will be released and the wizard will be seeking revenge,” Magath told him.
Qildor felt fascinated. Yet he shook his head and gave a laugh.
“A folk tale, Magath, just some ancient lore,” he said.
Magath looked at Qildor seriously. Qildor fell silent.
“Norlorn drove the sword in the ground. The place was kept secret and only the wise men knew where to find it. Many have searched for it, but no one has found it,” Magath said.
“Well, the wise men knew of it, apparently,” Qildor said cheerfully.
“The wise men still know where to find the place,” Magath said. His voice was serious and his look was stern.
Qildor felt slightly uncomfortable.
“Where are those wise men then?” he asked finally.
“No one knows,” Magath said. “They are hiding.”
Qildor shifted in his chair.
“Well, the Khalindash then either must capture a wise man or stumble accidentally across the sword,” he said.
“The place is not far from here,” Magath said, lowering his voice.
Qildor gazed at him. A voice in his head warned him. Perhaps the man was a lunatic and maybe he was dangerous. Qildor cut another slice of bread in an attempt to silence his thoughts. Magath watched him.
“How do you know?” Qildor asked finally.
“One of my relatives, a great uncle, was into this secret. He never revealed it, but once he said that the holy place was not far from here,” Magath said.
“He could have made it up,” Qildor replied.
“No,” Magath said angrily. “He was not a liar.”
“Forgive me,” Qildor said compliantly. “I have never heard of this story. It sounds very weird.”
He reached out his hand and touched Magath’s wrist. Magath winced slightly, yet did not reject the touch. He looked at Qildor’s hand on his wrist. Qildor saw him swallow. Then Magath looked up. They exchanged a long look.
“Tell me more of it tomorrow,” Qildor said. “If it were true, how did the Khalindash learn from this story?”
“We’ll talk tomorrow, yes,” he said. His voice was dark and soft at the same time.
Qildor felt a shiver run down his spine. It was too late now to turn and run.
Qildor woke up. Magath’s arm was wrapped around his body. Magath was still asleep. Qildor listened to his steady breathing. For a moment he thought of getting up and leaving. The night would fade into a memory. He would forget about Magath and the memory would ultimately fade away also. Qildor brushed the thoughts aside defiantly. No, he did not want this night to sink into oblivion. Quite the opposite. He wanted more of it. He would lead a double life, if he had to.
However, Qildor left Tanmil and returned to the royal court a couple of days later. He had not left Tanmil again in order to seek out men to guard the frontier. He had spent a week, night and day, with Magath. On his departure, Qildor promised to come back very soon. Magath had just nodded. Qildor had seen from his gesture that Magath did not believe him. Qildor did not believe in his own words either, although he tried to convince himself that he was able to find a way to arrange his return.
Qildor rode on. Snow had started to fall. So far, he had not come up with a plan that would work out for sure. Every plan that he thought of was flawed. It would not convince the king.
‘Build a fortress in spring, yes, this plan will convince him,’ Qildor thought. ‘But I cannot wait for spring. I want to see Magath again and soon.’ Qildor rode on. He was scowling.
Four days later he arrived at court and reported to the king. Like he had thought, everybody was sure that the Khalindash would not attack in winter. The threat was not considered a real threat anyway. It was only considered a nuisance. Therefore, the King of Aglanthol and his counsellors did not see a need for immediate action and delayed the development of plans.
Qildor was dissatisfied. He found no excuse to leave court and travel north again. This would have raised only suspicions. Qildor grew increasingly impatient and restless as the days went by and nothing happened.
One evening, he stood by the window of his chamber and gazed out. Heavy rain was falling. It was cold outside. Winter was close. The roads would soon be impassable. The north of the country would soon be snowed under.
Qildor watched a crow. The black bird landed on a window sill. It was the window of the tower. Qildor gazed at the tower for a while. His eyes narrowed. An idea had come to his mind.
“The wise men know that the legend tells the truth,” he said aloud, musing. He crossed his arms in front of his chest and continued gazing at the tower. “How about I ask this wretch of a wizard to tell me what he knows of Khaalindaan?”
A smile appeared on Qildor’s lip. “His recount might give me a reason to immediately travel north again,” he said. “Hopefully, he’s one of those men who are into the secret.”
Qildor still thought that the story of Khaalindaan was nothing but a myth, a legend, or a folk tale, only told to frighten naughty children. However, if the wise man, that wretch of a wizard, backed Qildor’s request for immediate action…so much the better. The king then would not be able to object to Qildor’s immediate departure.
Qildor smiled again, and then he left his room and headed for the tower.
Qildor found the wizard bowed over a map on his table. Qildor stood in the doorway. The wizard gave no sign that he had noticed Qildor come in. Qildor gazed at the wizard. The old man was dressed in a gray and rather dirty woollen robe. Long gray and oily hair framed a pale and haggard face. ‘Truly a wretch,’ Qildor thought. He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other.
Finally, the wizard looked up. He gazed at Qildor suspiciously.
“I need your advice,” Qildor said. “I heard of a story. I need to know if it’s true.”
The wizard eyed him, and then he raised an eyebrow in annoyance.
“I’m busy as you can see,” he said in a grumpy voice. “I have no time for – what did you say – stories.”
“This particular story might interest you for only wise men know if it is true or not,” Qildor said in attempt to catch the wizard’s attention.
The wizard looked Qildor up and down.
“Your move is very easy to see through,” he said. He sounded bored.
Qildor was thinking. He gazed at the map on the table. The wizard quickly folded the map and put it aside. Qildor looked up in surprise.
“You are hiding it?” he asked curiously.
The wizard made a dismissive gesture.
“You could have a look at this map, but you would not understand it,” he said.
Qildor was a trained observer. Qildor saw from his body language that the wizard had become nervous. This was in fact interesting and Qildor made a mental note. The map was apparently important to the man. This was precious knowledge. Perhaps he could use it someday. Qildor straightened.
The wizard Neldor was not an untrained observer either. He was aware that Qildor had made a mental note. However, most men were ignorant and soon forgot about everything they had seen. So Neldor did not really worry.
“What kind of story?” he asked finally in order to distract the royal soldier.
“A legend. The legend of Khaalindaan,” Qildor said.
The wizard blinked. Qildor’s eyes narrowed slightly at the sight. He had hit the mark apparently. The wizard looked at him. His face was motionless.
“Just a folk tale,” Neldor said almost casually. “A tale told in the north of Aglanthol. I heard of it, yes. Why do you inquire?”
Qildor closed the door and crossed the room. He stopped near the wooden table and glanced at the map. Neldor just looked at him. The wizard remained calm.
“I happened to spend a few days in the north of the country,” Qildor said in the same casual voice. “A local told me the story.”
“What exactly did he tell you?” Neldor asked with an almost absent-minded look in his eyes.
‘He cannot deceive me,’ Qildor thought. ‘He’s curious.’
“The man told me the wizard Norlorn banned the spirit of the wizard Khaalindaan. Norlorn drove a sword in the ground. When the sword is removed, Khaalindaan’s spirit will be released and he then will take revenge on the Aglanthol,” Qildor said.
“A brief synopsis,” Neldor replied.
“So you apparently know the whole story?” Qildor asked.
They measured each other. They both stood motionless. Qildor turned his eyes away. He had made the first move, which did annoy him. Qildor scowled. The wizard’s lips showed a faint, barely visible smile.
“There’s indeed not much more to say,” Neldor said in a compliant tone of voice. “May I ask you why you are so interested in the story? Why do you think I know more about it?”
Qildor looked between the wizard and the map on the table. Although he could only see parts of the map, Qildor saw that the old parchment was covered with symbols. He looked back at the wizard.
“I was sent north to check what was going on there. A northern tribe repeatedly crossed the frontier and attacked the villages in the north. The king and his counsellors don’t consider it a real threat, a nuisance rather. But since the attacks won’t stop, it was decided to seek out men and form a guard,” Qildor said.
Neldor listened attentively while he studied Qildor’s face.
“Those peasants won’t qualify as a guard,” he said.
“I know this. I was there. I saw the men. I spoke to them. We must send trained warriors to the northern frontier,” Qildor replied.
“What exactly has this to do with the legend of Khaalindaan?” Neldor asked. His tone of voice had become casual again. Qildor looked at the wizard. He was feeling alarmed.
‘You cannot deceive me,’ he thought.
“The local told me he thinks the northern tribe wants to retrieve Norlorn’s sword,” Qildor said. “The power of the Khalindash will rise once Khaalindaan’s spirit is released. The kingdom of Aglanthol will fall.”
“I have never heard this part of the story,” Neldor said. “The local you mentioned has told it to you?”
“Like I said, that’s what he told me. He told me of the rumours that spread in the north,” Qildor said.
“If you believe in the first part of the story, you may well believe in this part, too,” the wizard said.
“I don’t want to believe. I want to know the truth,” Qildor said. He was getting impatient.
“There is no absolute truth,” Neldor said mildly. The wizard gazed at the map on the table before he turned his eyes back to Qildor.
“You have not realised the obvious,” Neldor said, his eyes resting on Qildor’s face.
“The obvious?” Qildor asked. “So tell me then.”
Neldor crossed the room. He stopped in front of a shelf and took another map from it. Neldor unfolded it and placed it on the table.
“Look,” he said. “This is the country of Aglanthol. The map was drawn only recently. It shows the exact borders.”
The wizard pointed at the frontier in the north.
“A wild country adjoins the realm of Aglanthol in the north. Only few have travelled there and less have returned. The Khalindash inhabit this place. The climate is raw and the crops are bad. It’s even worse there than in the northern lands of Aglanthol. The big river Isenbel does not touch the country of the Khalindash. This is why the kings of Aglanthol never really were interested in conquering the country. The inhabitants were few and were not a threat. Until recently, they lived for themselves, not interested in the country of Aglanthol either.”
“That’s what the local told me, more or less,” Qildor said.
“You have not realised the obvious,” he said, giving Qildor a mysterious look. Qildor shrugged. He studied the map again.
“I cannot see what you mean,” he said.
“Not the map,” Neldor said. “Listen to the names I speak aloud: Khaalindaan, Khalindash.”
Qildor’s eyes widened. “Khalin,” he said.
“There was a battle long ago. The Aglanthol and the Khalindash fought. The Aglanthol won. Only a handful of the Khalindash survived, a few wounded soldiers and a few frightened women and children. The Aglanthol had diminished the clan. The Khalindash then called themselves Clan of Bre. The name referred to a revered tribe patriarch. Khaalindaan was the most powerful wizard who ever lived amongst the Clan of Bre. He was born in the land of Bre, but he had been absent for many years. He was not welcomed first when he returned. I think they feared him more than they loved him,” Neldor said.
He looked at Qildor briefly before he pointed at the map.
“The Clan of Bre lived in this area which is now the northern part of the kingdom of Aglanthol. The Aglanthol drove the few survivors out of the area. They retreated to the land which is now called the land of Khalindash,” Neldor continued. “The survivors picked a new name for their clan. They called themselves the Clan of Khalindash which means in our language the avengers of Khaalindaan. The prefix of each word is spoken slightly different. So it’s not entirely incomprehensible that someone who is not familiar with the legend does not see the obvious.”
“If you have never heard of the legend, you cannot see the obvious, Master Neldor, because you do not know of Khaalindaan, the wizard’s name,” he said.
“In fact,” Neldor replied, twirling his beard. “But it seems the legend is still told in the north of Aglanthol. So the local inhabitants would see the obvious, I guess.”
“That’s what I said in the beginning. A local told me the story and he saw the connections. He is guessing that the Khalindash are looking for the secret place with the sword. You just told me the place is in Aglanthol now. This is why they cross the frontier.”
“I did not say this,” Neldor replied. “I said the Clan of Bre lived in this area. I did not talk of the sword.”
“You said the Aglanthol drove the Bre out of their country. The area now belongs to Aglanthol. I must assume that the wizard Khaalindaan was defeated by Norlorn in the land of Bre,” Qildor said.
“You are not wrong,” Neldor replied.
They looked at each other.
“The local told me that the place was a secret and holy place and only the wise men knew how to find it. None of them would ever reveal the secret. Why did you reveal it to me?” Qildor asked.
The wizard gave a dry laugh.
“I have nothing revealed to you that is not common knowledge. Read a scroll about Aglanthol’s history and you will find the story of the Bre. You might even find the wizard Khaalindaan mentioned. Only few know the language of the Khalindash, but those who do know the meaning of the name. I suspect that even the king is informed on this. But the avengers of Khaalindaan are rather smiled at than considered a threat,” Neldor said.
Qildor nodded pensively.
“So you do not know where to find the place with the sword?” he asked the wizard.
Neldor smiled mildly.
“I cannot say,” he said kindly. “I cannot say if I know the place or not. If I knew where to find it, then I would not be allowed to reveal the secret to you. The wise men must not reveal the secret.”
Neldor crossed his arms in front of his chest and smiled at Qildor. Qildor studied the man.
‘Definitely a wretch of a wizard,’ he thought.
“One more thing, Master Neldor,” he said. “Is the story a tall tale or not?”
“If I were you,” Neldor said in a measured voice, “I would believe every single word I heard.”
They exchanged a long look. Qildor gave a nod. Neldor just looked at him. His face showed no emotions.
“I’m busy,” Neldor said finally. He took the map with the strange symbols and started to unfold it.
The wizard gave Qildor a piercing look, when the royal soldier did not move. Qildor straightened, bowed, and then left the wizard’s room quickly. He hurried back to his room.
Qildor was determined to travel north. He made up a plan.
He joined his comrades in the grand hall where they usually assembled for the meals. He spoke to them of the danger that threatened the realm of Aglanthol. He told them of the Khalindash and how they attacked the villages in the north of the kingdom. He hesitated, however, to mention the legend of Khaalindaan. Soon he had managed to fuel the rage of the men, all trained warriors who only rarely rode out to fight. Beer and wine fuelled their anger even more.
Like he did usually, the king came to the hall later that evening. He was accompanied by his counsellors. The king and the noble men sat at a different table and usually did not join the soldiers of low rank. Qildor had the privilege to sit at the king’s table as he was a soldier of a high rank. When the king and the noble men had adjusted themselves, Qildor rose and crossed the hall. He bowed to the king and then sat down at the king’s table.
A noble man turned to Qildor. He pointed at the banquet table and asked why the men talked so loud.
“They are enraged,” Qildor said.
“Why so?” he asked.
“Have you not yet heard of the danger that came upon the kingdom of Aglanthol?” Qildor asked with surprise.
The king leaned forward.
“Danger?” he asked.
The noble men looked between the king and Qildor.
“Speak up,” the king said.
“I have just come back from the northern frontier. We have underestimated the danger. The northern tribe, the Khalindash, cross the border often and attack the villages. They kill innocent men, women, and children. They steal cattle and they abduct children. It’s getting worse,” Qildor said.
The king leaned back in his chair and made a dismissive gesture.
“This is nothing new, Qildor,” he said. “It’s just a nuisance. Don’t make a mountain out of a molehill.”
The noble men nodded.
“Did you not have order to seek out men and form a guard?” a man inquired.
“I rode from village to village, but have not encountered one single qualified man,” he said calmly. “Peasants all,” he continued. “Haggard men, barely able to outlive the winter. That’s why I need to speak to you, my king,” he said, turning to the king.
The king raised his hand faintly. He was only mildly interested in Qildor’s recount.
“The locals suspect the Khalindash will retreat to their land in winter. The snowfalls there are heavy. The climate is rough. They will, however, return in spring and resume their attack on the kingdom,” Qildor said.
A man gave a laugh and various others joined in.
“Attack on the kingdom? Good man, Qildor, they attack a village now and then. They do not threaten the kingdom of Aglanthol,” a noble man said.
“They are persistent,” Qildor replied. “And for what I have learned, they have a reason to be so.”
“What have you learned?” the king asked while investigating his plate.
“The Khalindash originate from the land of Bre which now is part of northern Aglanthol,” Qildor said. “I suspect they want to occupy their original homeland which is more destined for farming than the land in the north.”
The men exchanged looks. For the first time they seemed to be genuinely interested. A man, dressed entirely in black, leaned forward. Qildor recognized the scribe of the king.
“Indeed,” the scribe said in a serious voice. “The Khalindash originate from the land of Bre. They were driven from their homeland a thousand years ago.”
“And a thousand years later they want to return?” the king asked in a mocking voice. “How comes?”
The scribe shrugged.
“History is full of it. Tradition, recollection, some maniac who fuels the tribe’s aggression. The bad weather, the bad crops, the wealth of Aglanthol. They were driven from their homeland and now want it back. It makes sense to me,” he said.
“It does not make sense at all,” the king said angrily.
“You cannot acknowledge a frontier for a thousand years and then suddenly break the contract,” he said.
“No contract was ever signed,” the scribe said. “The Aglanthol then conquered the land of Bre, killed most of the inhabitants, and drove out the few that had survived the bloodshed. It was not a justified act.”
The king shrugged.
“The Aglanthol were powerful, and their power even rose,” he said.
One of the counsellors leaned in to the king and spoke to him under his breath. The king looked puzzled, but then nodded. He straightened in his chair.
“We perhaps underestimated the danger coming from this minor tribe,” the king said with a frown. “Like you said, a maniac perhaps fuels their rage. What can we do about it?”
“Build a fortress in spring and send there trained warriors,” Qildor said. “The peasants cannot defend themselves or even guard the frontier and protect the realm.”
The man who had spoken to the king nodded.
“A good plan,” he said. “We will be developing it.”
The king leaned back. The discussion had ended. The counsellors would resume it in private.
“One more thing,” Qildor said.
The faces of the king and his counsellor showed an impatient look.
“I want to travel north again before the heavy snow comes,” Qildor said. “The Khalindash don’t expect a royal soldier there in winter, scouting the land.”
The men at the table looked at Qildor in bewilderment. The king just gazed at Qildor. The counsellor narrowed his eyes.
“What do you hope to find there?” he asked.
“The maniac perhaps,” Qildor said. “Killing the man would safe us building the fortress.”
He crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked from one to the other grimly.
The men looked at him with surprise. The king leaned forward and his first counsellor nodded in acknowledgement.
“Indeed,” the man said. “A very good plan.”
Qildor smiled vaguely.
The king raised his hand.
“Travel north as soon as you can,” he said to Qildor. “We trust you will eliminate the man.”
The men exchanged furtive glances. So far, there was no proof that there was a maniac amongst the Khalindash. But why object to the king’s decision? And why question Qildor’s motives? The man was probably only over-ambitious and hoped for an even higher rank after he had successfully completed his mission. This, however, was probably a hope in vain. It remained to be seen if the man returned at all.
The king leaned back in his chair again. Qildor rose to his feet and bowed to the king. Then he left the hall quickly. The king and the noble men looked after him, and then turned to a conversation that was lighter and more pleasing.
Qildor hurried to his room with a smile on his lips. How easy it had been to scheme a convincing plan that was nothing but a lie. How easy it had been to sell it to the king. Qildor whistled a happy tune while he started packing. He would be back in Tanmil at the end of the week.
Qildor was on his way to the royal stables when suddenly a figure stepped in his way. Qildor recognized the wizard Neldor. The wizard looked at him suspiciously. Qildor gave him a quizzical look.
“I heard you are travelling north again,” the wizard said.
“Rumours spread quickly,” Qildor replied.
“Why are you so eager to go there again? Do you really want to fight the Khalindash or do you rather want to seek the secret place and retrieve Norlorn's sword yourself?” Neldor asked. “I warn you,” he continued. “The spirit of Khaalindaan is dangerous. Do not miscomprehend. Not the man Khaalindaan is banned by the sword. That man is long since dead. The mighty wizard of the Bre transformed his vital energy into a highly destructive force. This energy lives on pure hatred and thirsts for revenge.”
Qildor narrowed his eyes. He studied the wizard.
“Apparently you did not tell me all you know. Go on,” he said in a brusque voice.
The wizard gave him a cold look.
“Norlorn was a mighty wizard as well. But even his abilities were limited. He was able to ban the destructive energy with his sword. He drove the sword into the ground and thus sealed the ban. Once you retrieve the sword, the energy is released and will thirst for blood and revenge,” Neldor said.
Qildor gave a nod.
“Norlorn also sealed the place with the sword from sight. No one can find the place because it is invisible,” Neldor continued. “But, like I said, Norlorn’s abilities were limited. He did the best he could. And that was much. He sealed the place for a thousand years. Back then everybody thought that Khaalindaan’s spirit would be banned for all time. A thousand years sounds like eternity to mortal men.”
Norlorn and Qildor exchanged a long look. Qildor felt a shiver run down his spine. He had already understood before the wizard told him the fact.
“The thousand years are over,” Neldor said in a grave voice.
He gave Qildor another meaningful look.
“The secret place will soon be visible to the eye again. This is what I suspect, at least. The Khalindash have already crossed the frontier. But those attacks are only fake attacks. In reality, I think, they explore the country. In spring, the Khalindash will be back and attack in full force. They want the sword before anybody else can retrieve it,” Neldor said.
Qildor studied the wizard. He was thinking.
“You think they have gathered an army?” he asked.
“I doubt they have. I suspect, however, that a man, a wizard maybe, joined the Clan of Khalindash. He must know of the legend and he must know of the truth. He must know that the spell is restricted and that soon will come the time and chance for retrieving the sword. I suspect that he told the Khalindash that he acts for their benefit. I suspect that he rather uses the Khalindash for his own advantage. I could imagine that, once he has the sword, he will leave the clan and disappear,” he said.
“Wouldn’t it be better for this man to operate in secrecy?” Qildor asked. “Why involve the Khalindash? Why attract attention from the king of Aglanthol?”
“His motives are not yet clear to me. The Khalindash believe him, apparently. They strive for the land they originated from. They strive for their homeland. That’s how he got them probably,” Neldor said.
Neldor looked into the distance. He watched a crow land on a windowsill. He turned his eyes back to Qildor.
“There is one more thing. It is the most important perhaps,” he said. “Like I said, the spirit of Khaalindaan is a destructive energy that lives on hatred and thirsts for revenge. This revenge has a target, an ultimate goal. Khaalindaan did not only force his emotions into the energy. He also forced his willpower into it. He wanted to destroy Aglanthol and kill as many men before he himself would fall.”
“But Norlorn stopped him,” Qildor said calmly.
“The energy has not yet completed its mission. It will do so, however, once it is released,” he said.
“Can nobody stop it?” Qildor asked.
“Stop the man who is looking for the sword. Kill him,” Neldor said coldly. “One danger less. But it will not solve the problem. The place will be visible to the eye soon. Any peasant could retrieve the sword then.”
The wizard sounded alarmed. He looked almost fear-struck. Qildor’s face turned pale.
“Aglanthol is doomed for ruin if we do not find a way to finally stop the energy,” Qildor stated the fact.
“Any peasant could retrieve the sword. The energy would possess the man and then work on Aglanthol’s ruin. The worse if the energy possessed a man with magic skills. Kill this man,” Neldor repeated.
“What if the energy possessed a simple man? If that man was killed, would the energy then vanish?” Qildor asked.
“I am not sure,” Neldor said. “It wants to complete its mission. And I’m not sure you can just kill it off. I need to investigate,” he said in an urgent voice.
He looked at the tower, and then turned his eyes back to Qildor.
“Where can I find you? I will travel north as soon as I have found the solution,” he said.
“The village of Tanmil,” Qildor said. “Ask for Magath. I will stay with him.”
The wizard studied Qildor for a moment. Then a faint smile came to his lips.
“I can see your motives more clearly now,” he said. “The legend was just an excuse. But now you have to live with the consequences. Do never forget. It all comes back to you.”
Neldor’s eyes narrowed at his own words. He turned around abruptly and headed for the tower. Qildor looked after him, and then hurried to the royal stables.
Heavy rain was falling and the sky was covered with dark gray clouds. The air was cold and chilly. Travelling was difficult since the roads had turned into mud. Only few travellers were on the road and most of them rode south to escape the severe northern winter. Qildor arrived in Tanmil on the fifth day of his journey. Like on his first journey, he arrived late in the afternoon. The inhabitants were already in for the evening. The street was empty and the village looked drab and deserted.
Qildor led his horse to the house at the end of the street. Now he was so close and suddenly he felt frightened to see Magath again. What if Magath had already forgotten about him? Qildor dismounted and led his horse to the stable. He wondered why Magath did not come out of the house. Had he not heard him approaching? Qildor attended to his horse, and then left the stable. He crossed the place and knocked at the door. But nobody opened or asked him in. After a while, Qildor opened the door and found that the room was empty.
Qildor looked around. Nothing had changed. The room looked the same. Qildor walked to the fireplace and saw that the fire had almost burned down. He absent-mindedly fanned the flames. Magath would not have gone far with a fire burning in his house. Where had the man gone? He almost startled at a noise. But it was just the door that opened. Magath came in with four eggs in his hands. He almost dropped them at the sight of Qildor. Magath gazed at Qildor and Qildor stared back. Had he surprised the man? Had he done the wrong thing?
“Welcome back,” Magath said finally. His voice was dark and soft at the same time. A faint smile came to his lips that also showed in his eyes.
Qildor relaxed. He gave Magath a smile.
“The journey was tiring. But I luckily made it,” he said.
Magath’s smile broadened. He crossed the room and carefully placed the eggs in a wooden bowl.
“I got these in exchange for a rabbit,” he said.
“Got them from Gwyn, I suppose,” Qildor replied.
“Right. I wanted cheese, but she did not have any. So she gave me four eggs. I was wondering what to do with four eggs, but….” He stopped.
Qildor gave him another smile.
“Cook a meal for two,” he replied. “I took food along. So we can feast tonight.”
Magath gave a laugh.
“Nah, don’t waste your food. It’s hard to get any fresh food in winter. But I luckily built up stocks.”
They looked at each other again.
“How long will you stay this time?” Magath asked.
“For the winter, if you don’t mind,” Qildor replied.
Magath’s lips opened slightly. He looked at Qildor with surprise. Qildor instantly felt uneasy again. Had he gone too far? His worries probably showed in his eyes because Magath hurried to give him a smile.
“No, I do not mind. It’s just that I could not believe that you would return. It seemed like a dream to me. And when you had left, all went back to normal. The sky was covered with heavy clouds and the light was poor all day long. The nights were long and cold and the fire burned down always so quickly,” Magath said.
They looked at each other for a moment. Then Qildor crossed the room and stopped in front of Magath. Magath’s eyes rested on Qildor’s face. Qildor smiled at Magath and then he embraced him. Both of them wearing thick clothes, they did not feel each other’s bodies. But Qildor smelled the scent of Magath’s hair and he sensed the man’s cheek against his. Magath drew back from the embrace finally. But something had changed. Magath was not a stranger to Qildor any longer and something had changed about Magath, too. His face had brightened and he was less reserved. Smiling, he took off his coat.
While they shared a delicate meal, Qildor told Magath what he had learned from Neldor, the wizard. Magath nodded in agreement.
“That’s what people say, yes,” he said. “They say the Khalindash are after the sword. But, like you said, nobody knows where to find the secret place. But, like I said, my great uncle told me that it was not far from Tanmil.”
“And he gave no reason for his assumption?” Qildor asked, eating a spoonful of scrambled eggs.
“I do not remember, at least. I could talk with Gwyn. She’s old. She has heard many stories. More than I have heard probably,” he said.
“I need to gather more information about the Khalindash,” he said. “Why did they start to cross the frontier? Who inspired them to do so? I must find out if Neldor is right. I must find out if there is a powerful leader.”
“How do you plan to do this?” Magath asked, cutting a slice of bread.
“Listen, look out, scout,” Qildor replied. “First, I need to talk to the men who were attacked by the Khalindash. I want to learn what they have observed.”
“They all tell more or less the same,” Magath said. “They come at night, attack the house and scare the inhabitants to death. Their faces are covered with a cloth of some sort. Nobody has ever seen the face of a Khalindash attacker.”
“I must interrogate them, nonetheless. People often don’t mention details. Those details could be important,” Qildor said.
Magath was thinking.
“I will show you to Dran tomorrow. His house is about an hour walking distance from Tanmil. The Khalindash attacked his house and stole his food. Dran hid in the forest. He watched them leave. I remember he told me something about the Khalindash horses. But I have forgotten about it, unfortunately. It could be important perhaps,” he said.
“Good idea. I agree. Let’s go there tomorrow morning,” he replied.
“Provided the snowfalls do not start at night. The road then would be impassable,” Magath said.
Qildor nodded again.
“Hopefully not. I want to talk to the man,” he said. “And don’t forget to interrogate Gwyn.”
Magath gave a laugh.
“I won’t interrogate the old woman, like you put it. I’ll just ask her to tell me old stories and tales. She’ll be happy to do so. She’ll be happy to have some company,” he said.
He smiled at Qildor and Qildor smiled back.
“A lot of things to do,” Magath said.
“Life with me is not boring,” Qildor replied.
Magath gave another laugh.
“Hopefully, it is not,” he said impishly.
Night had fallen. They were lying under a blanket. The air was cold. But the closeness of their bodies warmed them. Qildor wrapped his arm around Magath and moved closer. He liked the feeling of skin against skin. He liked the touch, the smell, and the feel of the man. He was definitely infatuated by him.
They woke at dawn. The air was chilly. They hesitated to get up in the cold room. Finally, however, Magath rose to his feet. He dressed and then went to the fireplace and started the fire. Qildor watched him from the bed. Then he rose, cleaned up and got dressed. And then they had breakfast.
Magath opened the front door and looked out. The sky was still covered with dark gray clouds. But neither rain nor snow was falling.
“We better leave at once and head for Dran’s house,” he said. “No rain and no snow. But this could change soon. We better leave right now and return very soon.”
Qildor nodded. He put on his cloak. Magath followed his example. Both of them put on thick leather boots. They went to the stable and made ready their horses.
“I can’t travel far with this skinny mare,” Magath said. “But she will make it to Dran’s house and back.”
“We’re faster with the horses than by foot,” Qildor replied. “I think we are back at noon at the latest.”
“I’ll go over to Gwyn in the afternoon,” Magath said. “I need a loaf of bread anyway.”
Qildor nodded his agreement. And then they mounted the horses and set off for Dran’s house.
They arrived about half an hour later. Dran’s house was small and looked more like a hut, albeit it was made of stone. Dran had repaired the wall and also the roof that had been destroyed by the attack of the Khalindash.
They found Dran inside. He was fanning the fire. Magath did the introductions. Dran studied Qildor suspiciously. He opened up only slowly. Finally, however, he told his story. He had been on his way to his house. He had just come back from hunting in the forest. He had heard the trampling of horses which instantly alarmed him. Dran had run back to the forest and there he had hidden while the Khalindash had attacked his house. They had torn down one wall which had resulted in the roof tumbling down and they had stolen food from a small pantry. They had not touched the stores in a larger pantry in the back of the house, however. And that was odd. Dran mused the attack was just a fake attack. But he was not able to give a reason. It was just a feeling he had, apart from the untouched stores and apart from the Khalindash horses, of course.
“What was it about the Khalindash horses?” Qildor asked Dran.
“They were in good health and well fed,” Dran said. “When I heard them riding away, I came out of the forest. I saw their horses. No meagre mares and half-starved stallions. This explains why they did not take away the stores. They must have plenty of food for themselves and even the horses.”
“Indeed, it’s rather mysterious,” Magath said.
“I’m asking you,” Dran continued. “Where did they get the food? Our crops were bad. Theirs must have been even worse. They live farther north. The weather is worse, the rain heavier, the winds are rougher, and the winters are longer. And the river Isenbel does not touch their land.”
“They must have imported the food,” Qildor mused.
“Someone would have noticed, if they had imported food from Aglanthol,” Magath said.
“The seaport in the north,” Dran said. “They might have rebuilt the old town.”
Qildor looked at Dran curiously. Magath gave a laugh and then shook his head.
“Are you talking about the land of Murdock?” he asked. “The land of Murdock is just a myth.”
Qildor gave Magath a quizzical look. Dran coughed and then spoke up.
“Murdock was an outlaw, banned from his homeland. He settled near the sea. And one day the waves of the ocean took him away,” he said.
Qildor looked between Magath and Dran.
“I didn’t know that so many weird legends were told in the north of Aglanthol. But more oddly, I have started to believe them. Has never anybody travelled north to find out about this old town?” he asked.
Magath shrugged and Dran made a dismissive gesture with his hand.
“You know,” Dran said, “Many travelled north over the centuries, but only few came back. And those who came back must have seen horrific things for they all had gone mad.”
“I mean, has not someone travelled there in more recent times?” Qildor inquired.
“I doubt any man from northern Aglanthol travelled there,” Dran said. “Why challenge the Khalindash?”
Qildor and Magath exchanged a look.
“If they rebuilt the town, this would explain their fake attacks,” Magath said.
“They scare away strangers with random attacks,” he said slowly.
“So their attacks were not just excuses to explore our country and find the secret place?” Magath asked.
Qildor shrugged. Dran looked at Magath curiously.
“Are you talking about the place with Norlorn’s sword?” he asked.
“Yes,” Qildor said. He was feeling uncomfortable. Had they revealed too much? “The king and his counsellors do suspect that the Khalindash are looking for the place,” he lied.
Dran shook his head.
“Why look for it now? Winter will come soon and heavy snow will cover the land for many long months,” he said.
Dran walked to the door and opened it. He looked at the sky as if he feared the heavy snowfalls would start at his words. He watched the clouds with concern. “You better hurry back to Tanmil,” he said. “The weather is about to change.”
Qildor looked at the sky. He did not see a change. But Magath instantly straightened. He pointed at the horizon that had turned black.
“A storm is coming,” Magath said.
He bid goodbye to Dran. Dran just gave him a nod and Magath hurried to his mare. Qildor followed him quickly. They mounted their horses and rode back to Tanmil. A cold wind was already blowing and it grew stronger quickly. They had just arrived in Tanmil, when the storm broke loose.
Magath tried to start a fire. But the wind blew through the chimney and stifled the fire at once. Qildor and Magath wrapped themselves in thick blankets and sat down on the bed.
“What are you thinking?” Magath asked.
“The leader of the Khalindash is not a Khalindash man. He is a foreigner who rebuilt the ancient seaport. They probably import food and goods from the land where he came from,” Qildor mused.
“He knows of the legend of Khaalindaan and he promised the Khalindash their old homeland in exchange for their support,” Magath continued.
“This man, however, is rather striving for power himself. He is using the Khalindash. They are just a tool,” Qildor said.
“He must be powerful already. He managed to come here from a foreign country. He managed to convince the Khalindash. He succeeded in rebuilding an old seaport and he must have a ship,” Magath carried on.
“His homeland provides him and his followers with food and goods and probably animals and weapons,” Qildor said.
“Which country is powerful enough to send animals and things by ship?” Magath asked.
Qildor shrugged. He was thinking.
“No nation or kingdom has attacked the Aglanthol for centuries. The Khalindash in the north are considered a nuisance. The primitive tribes that live in the south of Aglanthol are not a threat either. High mountains build a natural frontier in the west. And in the east we find the sea. I have no idea where the man came from,” Qildor mused.
They looked into the room, both of them thinking. The storm meanwhile was violent and raging. The noise was awful and almost frightening. But Magath’s house withstood the storm.
“I can’t go over to Gwyn today. I’ll go to see her tomorrow,” Magath said after a while. “This all sounds very far-fetched. It sounds like a tale itself. Perhaps the wizard Neldor is right. The Khalindash want to retrieve Norlorn’s sword in order to conquer back their homeland. This explanation is simpler.”
They sat in silence. An hour or two passed. Then the storm grew less violent. Magath finally rose to his feet and opened the door. Like he had expected, the place in front of the house was covered with snow.
“We need to clear the place of the snow. We need to see to the horses,” he said.
The snowfalls continued all through the night. The following morning, Qildor and Magath again cleared the place in front of the house of the snow. Magath’s neighbours had also left their houses. They worked for several hours and they were exhausted when they had finished their work. Qildor wiped the sweat from his forehead. He looked down the street. Apart from them, only one woman was still outside. She was looking at the sky.
“Gwyn,” Magath said.
He joined the old woman who was dressed in a thick cloak. She wore a fur cap and her face was covered by a thick woollen scarf.
“Can I help you, Mistress Gwyn?” Magath asked.
The woman turned to him and shook her head.
“No, you all have helped me already so much. I would not have been able to clear the place in front of my house of the snow. I am too old. Thank you, Magath, “she said.
Qildor had meanwhile joined them. Gwyn looked at him curiously. Magath did the introductions.
“Qildor is from the capital. He is a royal soldier. He came here to investigate,” Magath said.
Gwyn studied Qildor curiously.
“I think I have seen you already a week or two ago when I was accidentally looking out of the window,” she said. “You were riding down the street.”
Qildor gave her a smile and a nod.
“You are right, Mistress Gwyn,” he said. He could have sworn the old woman looked a little embarrassed.
Gwyn returned the smile.
“You are investigating? What are you looking for?” she asked.
“The king and his counsellors are worried because of the Khalindash attacks,” he said. “They sent me here to investigate and find out more about them. This is why I will stay here for the winter. I’m living with Magath,” Qildor replied.
Gwyn looked between them curiously. A small smile played on her lips. Qildor was instantly aware of what the woman was thinking. And so was Magath who looked aside. Qildor smiled at Gwyn again. He found that the woman would have been a good scout, if she were a man and younger of age, of course.
“I was planning to see you anyway, Mistress Gwyn,” Qildor said.
Gwyn gave him a questioning look.
“Magath told me of the Khalindash. He told me the legend of Khaalindaan. He said you knew many more legends and tales. I’m interested to hear them,” Qildor said.
Gwyn looked between Qildor and Magath. Surprise showed in her eyes. It was replaced by pride. The old woman straightened. She gave Qildor a warm smile.
“I’m old. I have heard many stories, yes. Why don’t you come in and have tea with me. I will gladly tell you a few tales,” she said.
Gwyn looked at the sky again and she rubbed her hands.
“I fear it will be snowing again very soon and all our work will be in vain,” she said. Then she pointed at the door of her house.
“Come in, please,” she said and made an inviting gesture with her hand.
They entered Gwyn’s house. It was warm inside. Gwyn had started a fire. The woman took off her cloak, scarf, and hat. And then she pointed at a wooden bench.
“Sit down while I make us some tea,” she said. She hurried to the fireplace.
Qildor and Magath sat down. They looked around in the room. It was small but tidy and it was comfortable. Gwyn joined them a couple of minutes later. She placed a tea pot and mugs on the table. The aromatic scent of herbal tea filled the air. Gwyn fetched a blanket and placed it around her shoulders. She sat down on a wooden chair.
“You said that Magath told you the legend of Khaalindaan,” she started. “It is indeed an ancient tale. This all happened many centuries ago. But the tale is still told and many believe it is true.”
“We were wondering if perhaps the Khalindash attack this part of the country because they hope to find Norlorn’s sword somewhere around here,” Qildor said.
Gwyn nodded at them.
“It is said that the place is somewhere around here. But so far nobody has found it. It is said it is hidden from the eyes of men. Only the wise men know where it is located,” she said.
She wrapped the blanket more around her.
“But who knows,” she continued. “Perhaps a wise man joined the Khalindash and betrayed the secret and now they want to retrieve the sword. I had these thoughts also already. But why should they come here in winter? Snow will cover the fields for many months. They won’t be able to find the place in winter.
“It doesn’t make sense in the first place,” he said. “But perhaps they follow a plan.”
Gwyn gave Magath a questioning look. Magath looked at Qildor. Qildor spoke up.
“Magath showed me to Dran yesterday. The Khalindash attacked his house and stole food from it,” he said.
“I know this. They did not take away the food from the bigger pantry, though. And Dran said their horses were well-fed,” she said.
“Which means they are not after food and supplies,” Magath replied. “They must have enough of it which is truly surprising. Where did they get it from?”
“There’s an old town in the north,” Qildor said.
Gwyn looked slightly confused for a moment, but then she understood what Qildor was aiming at.
“You want to know if I know more about it, don’t you?” she asked.
Qildor and Magath nodded.
Gwyn turned her cup in her hands. She looked into the room for a while absent-mindedly. She was thinking. Finally, she turned her eyes back to them.
“The legend of Murdock,” she said. “The man was obsessed with finding the town. No one was able to say why he was so obsessed with it. He neglected his duties. He stole food from the clan to provide himself for his extended journeys to the north of the country. One day he killed a man who tried to stop him from stealing more food. That was when the clan banned him. They drove him out of the village. Murdock did not care. He travelled north and he never returned. It is said he found the town and he dwelled there until one day the waves of the ocean took him away. This is one version of the story. Others said he sailed off to a far away land.”
Qildor straightened and leaned forward. Magath and Gwyn exchanged a brief look.
“This is fairly interesting, Mistress Gwyn,” Qildor said. “Did he build a ship? How was he able to rebuild the town and make it a seaport? And how was he able to build a ship all by himself?”
Gwyn took another sip of her tea.
“It is just a tale. No one ever travelled north and looked for the town. Well, actually, it is said adventurers of all kind rode north over the centuries. But only few returned and none of them had found the town. And in these days no one would even dare to cross the northern frontier,” she said.
Qildor gave Magath a meaningful look. Magath nodded slowly. Gwyn turned her eyes to Magath.
“We were wondering, Gwyn, if maybe the Khalindash attack our area in order to prevent us from travelling north. They don’t want us to find out about the town in the north that they maybe have rebuilt and turned into a seaport,” he said.
Gwyn looked at them for a while in bewilderment. Then she nodded slowly.
“You mean they get their food and supplies by ships coming to the town in the north,” she said.
Gwyn placed her cup on the table.
“Only the Aglanthol have ships. Why should the Aglanthol help their enemies? Where would this ship come from then?” she asked.
“Perhaps this ship comes from somewhere afar,” Qildor said in a dismal voice. “Perhaps it comes from the land Murdock sailed to. What else do you know about this mysterious town, Mistress Gwyn?” he asked.
Gwyn looked into the room for a while. She was collecting memories.
“This town is ancient. The legend of the town was already told in the days of Murdock and Murdock lived many centuries ago. I heard of a tale when I was still a child. My aunt told me the story one evening. She never told it again and I heard nobody else ever telling it. But I do remember it because it was so strange and frightening,” Gwyn said.
She wrapped the blanket more around her shoulders before she started to recount the tale.
“My aunt was a somewhat weird woman. She told many tales that no one ever had heard of. It was said behind her back that she made these stories up by herself. But I do not think she did. She was an odd woman in fact. She roamed the lands all by herself which a decent woman was not supposed to do. I admired her. She was so independent and self-assured. Anyway, she might well have met people who have told her these tales that nobody believed in,” Gwyn said.
She cleared her throat.
“She told me of the ancient town one evening. She said that foreigners had come here and had built it. They had crossed the ocean by ship. They had planned to invade the country and settle here. The kingdom of Aglanthol was not yet founded and even the Bre did not yet exist. The country was inhabited by primitive tribes. It is said these tribes still dwell in the south of Aglanthol,” she continued.
“They actually live in the south of Aglanthol,” he confirmed.
Gwyn nodded slowly. She took her cup, poured some more tea and took a sip. She was lost in her thoughts. Finally, she turned back to Qildor and Magath.
“The foreigners were killed by the plague. This is what my aunt said. The plague stopped them from conquering the country. I don’t know what happened to their ship. Perhaps it was bound to decay or the waves took it with them,” Gwyn said.
She raised her eyes and her eyes widened slightly.
“Perhaps Murdock sailed off with it,” she said.
Qildor and Magath exchanged a look.
“It makes sense,” Magath said in a low voice.
Qildor nodded his agreement. He turned back to Gwyn.
“But how comes that no more ships arrived? Was it the only one? Were the strangers only few?” he asked.
“I do not know,” she said. “I have never heard of a similar story. Murdock must have known this tale also. That was why he looked for the town.”
They all looked into the room for a while and followed their own trail of thoughts. Suddenly, Gwyn straightened in her chair. Her face had turned pale and she looked like in shock. Magath leaned forward with concern.
“What’s wrong, Mistress Gwyn? Can I help you?” he asked.
Gwyn shook her head slowly. She gazed at them with widened eyes.
“Oh, Goodness! I have forgotten about it. I did not give it a thought in almost sixty years,” she said. Her voice was stifled.
Qildor and Magath exchanged a worried look.
“What is it, Mistress Gwyn?” Magath asked in a soft voice.
Gwyn placed her cup on the table and rose to her feet.
“You must help me, Magath. Take the poker from the fireplace, please,” she said.
Qildor and Magath exchanged another look. But then Magath rose to his feet and went to the fireplace. Gwyn had meanwhile crossed the room. She stood in the corner of the room and examined the stone wall.
“Here,” she said in a fragile voice. “Here. A storm never has taken down this wall, luckily.”
Qildor joined them. He looked at the wall. Gwyn pointed at a brick.
“Remove this brick, Magath,” she said. “Elbor had just built the house before we moved in. This brick was loose then and I hid it behind it.”
Gwyn turned around and looked at Qildor.
“Elbor was my husband. He died ten years ago. I hid my dowry from him. Not that I distrusted my husband. But you never know. The item was given from mother to daughter over the centuries. Unfortunately, my only daughter died at the age of five. I had no more children. And so I forgot about the dowry. There was no need to pass it on.”
Qildor just nodded. Gwyn looked at him for a while. But she did not really see him. The old woman looked into the past. Then, suddenly, she straightened and turned around again. She pointed at the brick once more.
“Please, Magath, remove the brick. But please be careful. I don’t want the casket to be damaged,” she said.
Magath stepped forward. He seized the poker tightly. After a minute or two he had removed the brick. He cleaned the hole from the dirt and the dust. Then he reached in and looked for the casket. He found it instantly.
Magath held the casket out to Gwyn. She took it and hurried to the table. Qildor and Magath followed her. Gwyn cleaned the casket with a cloth she had taken from the pocket of her apron. The casket was made of silver that had turned black over the years. Gwyn tried to polish it in vain. She gave up her efforts finally and placed the casket on the table. Qildor and Magath gazed at it.
“Like I said, my mother gave it to me as a dowry,” Gwyn said. “It was passed on from mother to daughter over the centuries. It is made of silver and silver is precious. I need to polish it. Look how terrible it looks. How could I forget about it?” she said in sad voice.
Qildor and Magath waited patiently. Finally, the old woman had calmed. She raised her eyes.
“One of my ancestors got this casket from a man in exchange for food. The man was half starved and close to death. He gave it away for food. My ancestor gave it to his bride. And this woman gave it to her eldest daughter. Anyway, this is not the part of the story that will interest you,” Gwyn said.
“The starving man was a Khalindash. He told my ancestor he had gotten the casket from a man living far in the north. My ancestor, however, believed that the man had stolen the casket. But all this does not matter as well,” she continued.
Gwyn leaned forward and seized the casket.
“What matters is the content of the casket,” she said.
Gwyn opened the casket with some difficulties.
“This casket contains a map. The starving man told my ancestor that this map was far more precious than the silver casket itself. My ancestor did not believe him. Nonetheless, he did not throw away the parchment. Nobody ever did. Who knows? Perhaps someday we can sell the parchment. That’s what we thought,” she said.
She placed the parchment on the table. A cold shiver ran down Qildor’s spine. The parchment was old, but not yet crumbled. The outside of the map was covered with symbols that Qildor recognized instantly. He gazed at the parchment. His thoughts were running wild. Only recently, he had seen a similar map. The wizard Neldor had tried to hide it from him.
Gwyn unfolded the map. Magath leaned forward curiously. He had never before seen a map. Qildor’s eyes wandered over the parchment. The inside of the map looked like the map Neldor had taken from the shelf. It looked like the official Aglanthol map that had only recently been drawn.
While the outline of the continent was exactly the same, mountains in the west and an ocean in the north and the east, Gwyn’s map, however, lacked the lines that indicated the frontiers. The kingdom of Aglanthol was not drawn in her map. Qildor swallowed. It was not drawn in the map because the map was far older than the realm of Aglanthol was.
Qildor’s eyes wandered to the right of the map and in almost disbelief and in almost fear he gazed at what was drawn in there. It had not been drawn in Neldor’s official map. The map showed another continent that was covered with plenty of spots. It showed a country that was huge, three or four times larger than Aglanthol was. The whole of the country was populated. The spots were towns. When Qildor had counted twenty towns, he stopped. He gazed into the room in shock.
Gwyn watched Qildor and she nodded faintly when finally Qildor’s eyes met hers. Magath was still studying the map. He looked at the ocean in the middle of the map. Symbols that looked like small snakes indicated water. Magath had meanwhile figured that out. He looked at the left of the map and then at the right of it. And then it dawned on him also. He looked up and met Qildor’s dead serious look. Magath winced and his face turned ashen.
“Why have they never come back?” Qildor asked in a stifled voice.
“I cannot say this,” she said calmly. “Something or someone must have stopped them.”
“But who or what?” Magath asked in a low voice. “Will they come back? Or have they returned already?”
Qildor straightened. His muscles were tensed. Gwyn looked between the two men.
“I don’t think the nation is a mighty nation anymore,” she said.
Qildor and Magath looked at her.
“They have not come back in centuries,” Gwyn said. “Something must have happened to them. The plague killed the intruders. Perhaps the plague killed them over there, too.”
Qildor nodded slowly.
“You are right, perhaps, Mistress Gwyn,” he said. “If they were that many, they would have probably come here with more ships. In fact, they would have conquered Aglanthol in a day or two.”
“So we were on the wrong track?” Magath asked.
“I guess so,” Qildor replied.
He looked at the map again. The parchment was covered with symbols.
“Neldor,” he said.
“What?” Gwyn and Magath asked at the same time.
“I have seen a similar parchment only recently,” Qildor explained. “The wizard Neldor hid it from me when I entered his room. The parchment was covered with exactly the same symbols that are drawn on the outside of this map.”
Gwyn and Magath kept looking at Qildor.
“Neldor told me more about the legend of Khaalindaan. He suspects the Khalindash want to conquer back their old homeland that was located in the north of Aglanthol in previous times.”
“The Bre were driven from this area when the wizard Norlorn had banned Khaalindaan and had sealed his power,” she said.
“Why did Neldor hide the ancient map from me?” Qildor pondered.
Magath nodded pensively. Gwyn leaned forward.
“Our thoughts are getting too complicated. Things are simple usually,” she said. “Perhaps we have to look for a detail that we have not yet seen. We need to connect the details in a simpler and more believable way.”
“You are right, Mistress Gwyn. It all does not really make sense,” he said.
“Sleep on it,” Gwyn said kindly. “And come over once more for tea tomorrow. I will be thinking of the tales that my aunt told me. Perhaps I can recall another bit.”
The weather had cleared up the following day. The sun was shining, but it was bitter cold.
Qildor’s sleep had been restless. Dreadful dreams had woken him several times. Magath, however, had slept well. Qildor wondered if Magath had fully realized the predicament they were in. Qildor was sitting at the wooden table. He watched Magath making tea.
“Gwyn is right,” Qildor said when Magath had joined him at the table. “I made up a conspiracy plot that doesn’t really make sense.” He wiped his eyes tiredly.
Magath ate his eggs. He looked up.
“The wizard Neldor was hiding a map from you. But we cannot say for sure that his and Gwyn’s maps are identical,” he said.
“The symbols were the same,” Qildor replied. He poured some more tea.
“You can’t say from the symbols on the back of the parchment that Neldor’s map on the front shows the two continents also,” Magath said. “And one more thing came to my mind. We cannot say that the ancient town is a seaport and the Khalindash are importing goods just from Dran saying he saw a few well-fed horses.”
Qildor nodded slowly.
“These horses could well be the only well-fed horses they have. Perhaps they just attacked the villages in order to steal more food,” he said.
“Yes,” Magath replied. “They did not necessarily explore the north of Aglanthol in autumn to have a better idea of the area. Why explore the country in autumn, wait for a long winter to pass, and then come back and look for Norlorn’s sword? It does not sound very logical to me.”
Qildor took another slice of bread.
“There’s probably not even a maniac leader who fuels their aggression,” he replied.
“How can we find out about the truth? We cannot base our assumptions on a few old legends and a few observations others have made,” he said.
“Neldor did,” Qildor replied.
“And why so?” Magath asked.
“Because of the same reasons we did, I guess,” Qildor said. “And probably because of the mysterious map he has.”
Magath shrugged. He rose to his feet and crossed the room. He opened the door and looked outside.
“I’m going over to Gwyn. I suspect we upset her. She was all in a fluster when she found out about her map,” he said.
Qildor nodded. They dressed and left the house. They walked over to Gwyn’s place. Magath knocked at the door. Yet there was no response. He knocked again, and then he tried to open the door. It was not locked. They went inside. The room was empty. The fire in the fireplace had burned down, but it was still warm in the room.
“She has left only a short time ago,” Magath said.
Qildor and Magath looked around in the room. The map was spread on the table. Magath spotted a small piece of paper that was placed on the map. He took it and read the notes on it. Magath turned to Qildor. His look was worried.
“She left me a note just in case I came in. She left for Dran’s house to talk with him. She writes that another bit of memory came to her mind, a fragment of an old tale. She hopes Dran knows more about it,” Magath said.
Qildor and Magath exchanged a look.
“Qildor, we must go and find her. I knew it was all too much for her. Gwyn is old. She won’t make it to Dran and back by foot. The weather can change without a warning,” Magath said in a worried voice.
Qildor nodded. He was feeling guilty.
“I didn’t want her to investigate,” he said. “I just hoped she could shed some light on those ancient tales.”
Magath shook his head slightly.
“She’s stubborn and curious. I should have known she was up to more when we found the map behind the brick,” he said. He made a helpless gesture with his hand. “Come, Qildor, let’s get the horses and find Gwyn. I don’t want her to freeze to death.”
They left Gwyn’s house and returned to their place. They got their horses and some stuff to take with them. Then they rode out of the village slowly. The ground was frozen.
“I suspect she walked down the road to the crossing. A path leads to Dran’s house from there. Do you remember?” Magath asked.
“I do,” Qildor said. “I cannot imagine, however, that someone has cleared the path of the snow.”
“Neither can I,” Magath said. He was feeling confused. What had Gwyn in mind? How did she want to get to Dran’s house?
“We upset her,” Magath said with concern. “Normally, she would have known that she can’t get to Dran’s house with all that snow on the path.”
“I have not yet spotted a trace,” Qildor said in a dismal voice. He halted his horse.
“Magath, I don’t think she walked down the road in this direction,” he said. “The fire in the fireplace had just burned down. The room was still warm. She must have left only a short while before we entered her house. She’s old. She does not walk very fast. We should have found her by now.”
Magath did not reply. His eyes roamed over the snow-covered fields. The snow was untouched wherever he looked. He spotted no foot prints and neither did he spot a figure walking somewhere ahead of them in the distance.
“You are right,” he said in a worried voice. “Where...Goodness!” he exclaimed.
“What?” Qildor asked in a sharp voice.
Magath cast him a grave look.
“Snow shoes,” he said. “She must have left through the backdoor and walks up the hill with snow shoes. She wants to take a shortcut. Up the hill and through the forest.”
Magath turned his skinny horse abruptly and spurred it. The mare fastened her steps. Qildor hurried to follow Magath. They rode back silently. Magath led his horse to Gwyn’s place. He dismounted and hurried to the rear of the house. Qildor fastened the horses to a pole and then followed Magath who walked up the snow-covered hill. Qildor called out to him. Magath looked back at him. He was hesitating. Finally, however, he returned to the house. He was breathing heavily.
“She took snow shoes,” he said. “I saw the tracks. She must have already reached the forest. Qildor, we must follow her instantly. She won’t make it to Dran and back.”
Magath’s look was dark and his voice was pressed. Qildor realized that Magath was frightened and also felt guilty. He would never forgive himself should anything happen to the old woman. Qildor felt numb. He felt like an intruder. He had intruded the village and he had invaded Magath’s life and moreover he had unsettled an old woman’s mind. Qildor took a deep breath.
“I do not want to endanger neither you nor her. I am a fool. I was a fool to come here,” he said in a hollow voice.
“No time for self-pity,” Magath hissed with narrowed eyes.
“What can we do?” he asked brusquely. “We need to attend to the horses first. Else they freeze to death which would help nobody.”
“Do this,” Magath said in the same brusque voice. “I’m going to get my snow shoes and a pair for you from a neighbour. And then we follow Gwyn as quickly as we can.”
“All right,” Qildor said without looking at Magath. “I’m going to get a few blankets. We might need to keep her warm.”
Magath gave Qildor a brief nod. Qildor more sensed than saw it. Magath headed for his neighbour’s house and Qildor went to the horses.
They climbed the snow-covered hill a few minutes later, following Gwyn’s traces. Neither of them said a word. They moved on grimly until they had reached the top of the hill. There they stopped. They were breathing heavily.
“I can’t imagine she made it up here,” Magath said, wiping the sweat from his forehead.
“She has, apparently,” Qildor replied.
He pointed at the traces that disappeared into the forest.
“How big is the forest?” he asked.
“Twenty minutes by foot. In summer,” Magath said. “If we hurry up, we might catch up with her soon.”
Magath took off his snow shoes. Qildor followed his example. Gwyn’s traces showed that she had also taken off her snow shoes. They moved on. The high trees were covered with snow and so was the ground. Gwyn’s traces were easy to spot. Qildor saw from her traces that the woman had slowed down.
“I can barely imagine the old woman has such energy,” Qildor said. “However, she has slowed down. We should indeed catch up with her soon.”
Magath just nodded. He walked ahead. They walked deeper into the forest. The sun was shining, but only little light reached the ground. It was dark and the air was icy. Magath stopped short suddenly. He turned to Qildor abruptly. His look was alarmed. Magath pointed ahead.
“Look,” Magath said in a worried voice. “Another pair of foot prints. Someone is following her.”
They took a close look at the traces. Someone had come from the west. Gwyn had either met the stranger and they moved on together, or the stranger was following Gwyn.
Qildor examined the traces.
“If they had met here, then they would have halted and probably would have talked to each other. The snow would be trampled down,” Qildor said. “But both of them moved on at a steady pace.”
Qildor pointed at a trace.
“Look at the size of this foot print. I’m certain a man is following Gwyn,” he said.
Qildor and Magath exchanged a look. Magath shivered and it was not only because of the cold.
“Who could that be?” Qildor asked.
“I have no idea,” Magath replied in a low voice.
“We need to find her, Magath. She can’t be far,” Qildor said in a pressed voice.
They moved on and fastened their steps. They stopped short at a cruel shout. Qildor’s heart almost stopped. He threw away the blankets that he was carrying. Qildor pulled a knife from under his cloak, and then he started to run. Within a second he had turned into a soldier and warrior. Qildor stopped thinking and acted on his instincts. Adrenaline flushed his body. He moved fast and yet without a noise. His movements were fluent and smooth. Magath, despite being used to the climate and the territory, soon dropped behind Qildor.
Qildor moved in the direction that the shout had come from. So far, he had not heard another sound or voice. The voice had been a male voice. The man had cried out a single word. But Qildor had not understood it. However, he knew from the tone of the voice that the man was wild and enraged.
Qildor stopped when he heard the crackle of twigs. He stood motionless and even stopped breathing. Qildor listened attentively. Someone was not far from him. The person was moving ahead quickly. ‘The man,’ Qildor thought. ‘Gwyn would not be able to move that quickly.’
Qildor followed the man. He carefully avoided making any noise. His long years of training and experience proved advantageous. Qildor caught up with the man slowly. He seized his knife tightly. And then he spotted the man.
The man in front of him stopped and so did Qildor. Qildor pressed his body against the trunk of a tree. He gazed into the direction of the stranger. Qildor saw a figure dressed in a dark cloak with a hood. The man moved again. He moved from left to right and back. ‘Looking for something’, Qildor thought. The man was restless. Suddenly, he let out another furious yell. ‘Crazy,’ Qildor thought. ‘And therefore dangerous.’ Where was Gwyn?
Qildor peered into the forest and listened more attentively. But he did neither spot the woman nor did he hear her voice. ‘Dead.’ The word crossed Qildor’s mind, but he quickly pushed the thought aside. Qildor focused more on his senses. The man had stopped moving meanwhile.
He let out another yell. And then something happened that Qildor had not seen coming. A ball of energy shot from the man’s body. The ball emanated a white light that almost blinded Qildor. Heat radiated from the magic ball that quickly moved in Qildor’s direction. Qildor stood petrified for a second, but then he moved aside quickly. The energy ball missed him and retreated to its sender quickly. Qildor gazed after it. The ball hit the man and the man yelled again. He turned into Qildor’s direction. Qildor saw the man’s face clearly. And although the man grimaced and looked like a maniac, Qildor recognized him at once. The man was the peasant Dran. Dran held a long sword in his hand.
Qildor felt a punch to the midriff. He grasped in an instant what had happened to Dran. The man had found Norlorn’s sword and had removed it from the ground. He had released Khaalindaan’s destructive energy. Neldor’s words flashed through Qildor’s mind. ‘This energy lives on pure hatred. Once released, the energy will thirst for blood and revenge. Any peasant could retrieve the sword. The energy would possess the man and then work on Aglanthol’s ruin. The energy wants to complete its mission.’
Qildor gazed at the furious man in front of him. Dran moved from one side to the other. He looked like a lion in a cage. Each time he stopped, Dran grimaced or let out a yell and an energy ball shot from his body. However, it moved back to Dran at once.
‘Khaalindaan’s energy has not yet fully taken him over,’ Qildor thought while watching Dran. So far, neither Dran nor the evil spirit had spotted him. From what he watched, Qildor could say that the energy ball had only moved accidentally in his direction. This, however, could change very soon. Qildor pressed his body more against the trunk of the tree. He stiffened when he heard the crackle of twigs behind him. Qildor sensed somebody next to him. He saw Magath out of the corner of his eye. The man had caught up with him.
“Quiet,” Qildor hissed.
Magath did not respond. But Qildor sensed Magath’s fear. Magath, luckily, remained silent. Qildor turned his attention back to Dran.
Dran suddenly straightened. He rolled his eyes and then stood upright gazing up at the sky. His hands held the sword tightly. Suddenly, a shiver ran through Dran’s body. He lowered his eyes and gazed at Norlorn’s sword in disbelief. And then he laughed like a maniac and flung the sword away. Dran raised his arms in the air and gazed grimly into the forest.
“Free,” Dran yelled. His voice was dark and hollow. It sounded not like Dran’s.
Qildor stood motionless. All he perceived was his heartbeat and the events in front of him.
Dran stood, his arms raised in the air. He focused and gathered strength. He condensed his energy and brought together his vital forces until he felt bodiless, until he felt he was a mere spot of energy in space and time. This happened in an instant, not even the blink of an eye. And then a ball of energy shot from his body, yet returned to Dran in an instant.
“Free,” the man yelled again. His demeanour and the expression on his face had changed. A man with a grim and cold-blooded look stood in the forest and raised his arms in the air. He stretched and straightened. A satisfied smile came to his lips as he lowered his arms slowly. However, the content look on his face disappeared suddenly and Dran, or whoever or whatever he was, cast a sharp look in Qildor’s direction.
‘His vital energy got the wind of me,’ Qildor thought. He was surprised how calm he was.
Dran gave a satisfied laugh.
“Aglanthol. Doomed to fall,” Dran shouted in a dark and hollow voice.
He pointed in Qildor and Magath’s direction. And then he raised his arms again. He focused and gathered strength once more. And then an energy ball shot from Dran. It moved in Qildor and Magath’s direction. The ball emanated a white light. Heat emanated from it. The energy ball reached Qildor and Magath in an instant. The heat singed their hair and their skin. Magath let out a frightened cry, and then the man started to run.
“Stop,” Qildor cried out.
But Magath ignored him. He ran into the forest. The energy ball followed him. Qildor looked after the ball. He felt petrified for a second, but then he followed Magath. Qildor ran as fast as he could.
Dran, or whoever or whatever the man was, still stood motionless, his arms raised in the air. But his face showed no expression and his look was empty. His vital forces had left him and were chasing Magath. Magath had stumbled and had fallen to the ground and thus the energy ball had missed him. The energy ball had moved farther ahead and only bit by bit slowed down. Khaalindaan’s vital forces had united with Dran’s and thus the energy was less target-oriented. Dran did not strive for destruction. However, Khaalindaan had forced his willpower into the energy and it would be only a matter of time until Khaalindaan’s spirit would take Dran over completely.
Qildor had reached Magath. He helped him up and dragged him along. They hid behind a rock. They ducked just in time when the energy ball returned and shot past them. Qildor rose to his feet and peered in Dran’s direction. He saw from afar that Dran’s body stood motionless. Suddenly, however, the man collapsed to the ground. Dran lay still. The energy ball returned to Dran’s body and apparently entered it. Dran had convulsions. And then the tortured body got to its feet again. Dran raised his arms in the air like a zombie. Another energy ball shot from him and moved in Qildor’s direction.
“Khaalindaan,” a voice called out suddenly.
Qildor’s heartbeat almost stopped. He recognized the voice. It was Gwyn’s. Qildor turned his head. He spotted the woman. She stood not far from them with Norlorn’s sword in her hands.
“No,” Qildor cried out.
But Gwyn ignored him. She raised the sword.
“No, Gwyn,” Magath cried out. His gaze was panic-stricken.
Gwyn stood motionless.
At hearing his name, Khaalindaan’s vital energy responded. It focused on Gwyn. The energy ball moved in her direction.
Gwyn looked into the blinding light of the energy ball without even once closing her eyes. The heat singed her hair and her skin, but Gwyn did not give it a thought. She raised Norlorn’s sword more. The blade grew blazingly hot as the energy ball touched it. But Gwyn did not loosen her grip. Instead, she called out to Khaalindaan again. The energy tried to attack Gwyn more forcefully. The heat that the energy ball emanated grew almost unbearable. Norlorn’s sword turned red-hot from the heat. The heat scorched Gwyn’s hands. But Gwyn ignored the severe pain.
Qildor and Magath stood petrified and watched the fight between Khaalindaan or what had remained of the man and the old woman who stood steadfast and with a grim look on her face. Finally, Qildor moved ahead in order to help Gwyn.
“Stop,” a masterful voice ordered.
Qildor and Magath turned abruptly. Gwyn had not even taken notice of it.
The wizard Neldor entered the place. He stood upright with a determined look on his face. Neldor was dressed in a black cloak with a hood. He held out a long sword. Qildor could not say where the wizard had suddenly come from. Neldor looked frightening and Qildor was uncertain if the wizard had come to help or rather wreak havoc himself.
Neldor made an imperious gesture with his hand.
“You two go and take care of the sender of the energy ball. He must not tumble to the ground,” Neldor commanded.
Qildor and Magath gazed at Neldor. The wizard shot them a piercing look.
“Do what I say. The man must not fall. Else the energy will return to him. This must not happen,” he said urgently.
Without paying any more attention to Qildor and Magath, Neldor moved in Gwyn’s direction.
Qildor and Magath finally ran to stabilize Dran’s body. Dran’s body was stiff and cold and his look was empty. Qildor felt as if he touched a dead body. Nonetheless, he followed Neldor’s command. And Magath, totally scared, just followed Qildor’s example. They saw Gwyn in the distance. She still held Norlorn’s sword in her hands. The blade was glowing red. Khaalindaan’s energy tried to free itself from the grip. Norlorn’s sword was still powerful. Gwyn’s power, however, was fading. The old woman started to tremble.
Neldor approached Gwyn. He threw his own sword away and then stood behind the old woman. The wizard straightened. He focused. And then he reached out his arms and placed his hands on Gwyn’s wrists. The wizard and the woman stood like in a tight embrace, four hands now holding Norlorn’s sword.
Neldor spoke to Gwyn and then he placed his hands on the hilt of the sword. Gwyn drew back her scorched hands and let her body drop to the ground. Neldor made a step back and raised Norlorn’s sword higher while he started a dark and mysterious chant.
Magath instantly ran to help Gwyn. Dran’s body almost fell to the ground. Qildor struggled to stabilize it. He embraced the man from behind.
Neldor’s chant grew louder. The blade in his hand was glowing red.
Khaalindaan’s energy tried to escape from Norlorn’s sword more forcefully. However, when it realized that it was not able to escape Neldor’s grip, Khaalindaan’s energy turned to attack the wizard. This was the moment Neldor had been waiting for. He dropped Norlorn’s sword and Khaalindaan’s energy instantly escaped the blade.
“Drop his body,” Neldor shouted.
Qildor did what the wizard commanded. Dran fell to the ground and Qildor crouched beside him.
Khaalindaan’s energy hesitated. His host had fallen. However, Khaalindaan’s spirit hesitated for only the split of a second. It sensed a skilled and far more powerful host. The white energy ball shot in Neldor’s direction.
Neldor stood still. He closed his eyes and he focused his mind on a powerful magical symbol. The wizard Neldor was ready to complete his task and accomplish the mission that the wizard Norlorn had started a thousand years ago. Neldor raised his arms.
“Khaalindaan!” he called out loud.
Khaalindaan’s energy reacted instantly and penetrated the Neldor’s body.
Magath had meanwhile carried Gwyn away from the place of the fight. He was sitting on the ground, his arms wrapped around the old woman. Gwyn had closed her eyes. Magath knew that she was close to death. He stroked Gwyn’s hair and did not pay attention to Neldor.
Dran’s body was lying on the ground. Qildor was certain that the man was dead. Suddenly, however, Dran opened his eyes. His eyelids flickered and his breathing was ragged. Qildor looked at Neldor for a second, and then he attended to Dran.
Unnoticed by the others, Neldor lowered his arms. He picked up Norlorn’s sword from the ground and then hit it against a rock forcefully until the blade broke. Neldor dropped the hilt of the destroyed sword and then walked away. He took his own sword and put it in the sheath. Then he walked up to three men and the woman.
Qildor and Neldor exchanged a look.
“I absorbed his energy,” Neldor said calmly.
Qildor opened his mouth, but Neldor interrupted him with a gesture of his hand.
“Later,” he said brusquely.
Neldor knelt down and examined Dran’s pulse and the man’s eyes. Then he moved over to Gwyn. The old woman opened her eyes slightly. Neldor touched her forehead and looked at the woman’s scorched hands. He rose to his feet.
“We must carry them down to the woman’s house,” he said. “There I will see to them.”
Qildor felt tempted to reply, but he refrained from any response. The wizard knelt down at Dran’s side once more.
“You need to carry him on your back,” he said to Qildor.
Qildor took a deep breath. Dran was not a big man. But he wondered if he was able to carry the man all the way back through the snow. However, he did not object to Neldor’s words.
Magath had just listened. He had not said a single word. He lifted Gwyn up and held the fragile woman close to his chest.
“Ready,” he said in determined voice.
Neldor gave him a nod and then helped Qildor. Qildor bit his lip at the weight of the man on his back. He nodded at Neldor.
Neldor turned around and walked through the forest, following Gwyn’s traces. Magath and Qildor walked as steadfast as they could. However, when they had reached the edge of the wood, their muscles already hurt and sweat covered their foreheads. But Neldor moved ahead without a rest. Qildor and Magath clenched their teeth and followed Neldor down the hill. Finally, they reached Gwyn’s house. Neldor opened the backdoor. Qildor and Magath carried Dran and Gwyn inside.
Neldor spotted blankets on the wooden bench. He took them and spread them on the floor. Qildor laid Dran on the blankets and Magath laid Gwyn on her bed. The old woman moaned. Magath stroked her forehead softly.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Neldor said.
He hurried outside, but soon returned with a saddlebag in his hands. Neldor took various items out of the bag. He asked for water and a bowl. Magath saw to it. Neldor mixed water and herbs and then he poured the drink down Dran’s throat. The man coughed and rolled his eyes. Dran was only semiconscious and he did not respond to Neldor’s words. After a few minutes, Dran calmed and his body relaxed. He had fallen asleep. Neldor watched Dran’s face for a while, and then he rose to his feet.
“He will sleep for at least one day. He won’t remember anything when he awakes,” he said. “No serious harm was done to him, luckily. And it is better that he forgets about what has happened to him.”
Qildor and the wizard exchanged a long look. Qildor did not dare to ask. And Neldor did not explain a thing. The wizard went to Gwyn. Magath was sitting on her bed. He stood and stepped aside when the wizard approached.
Neldor examined Gwyn. He spoke to the old woman in a calm voice. Gwyn looked at the wizard and did not turn her eyes from his face. Neldor prepared a paste from his herbs and covered the woman’s forehead, her temples, and her hands with it. He bandaged Gwyn’s hands and her head. Then he asked for a mug. Neldor poured water and herbs in it. Gwyn drank the drink readily. She soon drifted to sleep as well. Neldor rose to his feet.
The wizard looked at Qildor and Magath who stood motionless in the room and watched him.
“I will stay with her and feed her until her hands have healed,” he said.
Qildor and Magath just kept looking at him.
Neldor placed his items on the wooden table. He glanced at Gwyn’s map briefly. Then he looked at the two men again.
“The man will sleep for a day. He will not remember anything. Take him to your house tomorrow,” he said to Magath. “There he shall awake. Tell him he was on his way to the village and he had an accident in the forest. Make up something that he will believe and that will not raise his suspicions.”
“What about Gwyn?” he asked.
Neldor looked at Gwyn’s bed. The woman was sleeping.
“She absorbed too much of his energy. I took it from her. She’s not obsessed by it. But she has injuries that will heal only slowly. And I cannot make her forget the incident,” he said.
“Will she be able to live with it?” Magath asked gravely.
Neldor gave him a nod.
“She will. The woman is strong. She would have absorbed Khaalindaan’s energy by sheer force of will. I don’t think she would have given up. But this would have killed her,” he said. “Khaalindaan’s energy would have ceased to be, but the woman would have not survived the intrusion.”
Neldor gave Qildor and Magath a serious look. Then he sat down on the wooden chair and started to study the map. Qildor and Magath looked at Neldor for a second, and then they exchanged a bewildered look. Magath straightened.
“I go over to my place and get more blankets and food,” he said. Magath turned abruptly and left the house. He needed alone time.
Qildor walked over to Neldor and sat down on the wooden bench.
“Time for your story, Neldor,” he said.
Neldor looked up and their eyes met. The wizard straightened in his chair.
“I studied the ancient history records right after you had left,” Neldor started. “Nothing indicated that the thousands years were over next year in spring. I had guessed that from a date that I had read in a report on Vlamin’s coronation. Vlamin was the first crowned leader of the Aglanthol. He was made king in spring. I had guessed his coronation had taken place right after the Aglanthol had defeated the Bre. The Bre were their last serious enemies. But I found no evidence in the records that Vlamin was made king right after the battle. A fatal error of mine. You can imagine how I felt when I found out about it. I had sent you away with a bunch of false information. I felt inclined to leave the very night. But I told myself to not make another mistake. I studied the legends again.”
Qildor gave him a nod. He sat with his arms crossed in front of his chest. Neldor pointed at Gwyn’s map.
“The map,” he said. “I came here today and I was looking for you. A neighbour told me that a friend of yours had asked him for snow shoes. He said that the old woman Gwyn had disappeared and that the man was going to look for her. I instantly knew that something was wrong. I went to Gwyn’s house. It was empty. I found this map on the table.”
Neldor and Qildor looked at Gwyn’s map.
“A long story,” Qildor said. “We asked her to tell us of the legends she knew of. She suddenly remembered that she had hidden a mysterious map. An ancestor got it from a Khalindash man many centuries ago.”
“The map shows another continent. I studied the old scripts. But I found little evidence that foreigners had crossed the ocean and had intruded our country. Nothing is mentioned in the historical records. Only a few legends and folk tales allude to it,” he said.
“The legend of Murdock,” Qildor replied.
“And an older tale that says that foreigners intruded the country and built the ancient town,” he said.
“They were killed by the plague,” Qildor replied.
Neldor gave him a surprised look.
“You have heard of it?” he asked.
“Gwyn told us,” Qildor said. “She knew of the legend.”
“Legends,” Neldor replied. “Like the legend of Khaalindaan. We now know that it is true. We have found the secret place.”
“I thought the wise men knew of the place?” Qildor asked drily. He was still feeling suspicious.
“I have not found much about it in the scripts. Norlorn’s successors perhaps knew where to find the place. But this knowledge fell into oblivion. I have only found one parchment that clearly alluded to the secret place,” he said.
“The map,” Qildor said in a sober voice.
“Right. Mine is different from Gwyn’s, by the way,” Neldor replied.
“In what respect?” Qildor asked. His eyes rested on the wizard’s face.
“Mine has an additional spot,” Neldor said. “It indicates the secret place,” he said.
Qildor gazed at Neldor pensively.
“Where did you find the map?” he asked finally.
“It doesn’t matter,” Neldor said. “I knew exactly where to find Norlorn’s sword. I was mistaken with the date, however. The place became visible to the eyes a short while ago. That’s why I hurried here at once.”
“You wanted to retrieve the sword,” Qildor said in a sober voice as if stating a fact.
“Not exactly,” Neldor said drily.
They exchanged a long look.
“You said you absorbed Khaalindaan’s energy,” Qildor said finally.
“I did,” Neldor replied.
He looked into the room for a while. Qildor watched him suspiciously. Neldor turned his eyes back to him. Qildor shot him a dark look.
“It’s not what you are thinking,” Neldor said calmly. “Like I said, I had a reason for coming here in time.”
The wizard smiled mysteriously. Qildor felt appalled by it.
“Khaalindaan’s energy was aiming at Aglanthol’s destruction. The energy would have killed you and Magath. It would have killed Dran, too. The man was too weak a host for Khaalindaan’s energy. Gwyn would have absorbed the energy. But she would have paid for it with her life,” Neldor said. “I was the only one who was able to stop him.”
“And you were able to see what was coming. You hurried here in order to save our lives,” Qildor said drily. “I can barely believe you made it in time.”
He felt disgusted by the wizard’s words. The wizard was praising himself.
Neldor just looked at him.
“I hurried here, in fact. Believe it or not,” he said. “Imagine a tree struck by lightning. I channelled the energy through my body into the ground. The ground absorbed it. Now it has vanished,” Neldor said calmly.
Qildor stared at the man.
“How did you know how to do it?’ he asked.
“I studied old scripts,” he simply said.
Qildor gazed at the wizard. Neldor apparently hid the truth from him.
“What about the Khalindash?” Qildor asked in a grim voice. “Do they have a powerful leader? Do they come back in spring and attack Aglanthol more forcefully? I need to report to the king.”
“This is up to you to find out,” Neldor replied. You are a royal soldier. You were sent here to investigate.”
Qildor gave Neldor a dark look. He trusted his gut feeling. The wizard was hiding something from him. He was about to ask another question, when they were interrupted by Magath who entered the house with blankets in his hands.
Neldor rose to his feet.
“I will attend to Gwyn and the man. Come here again tomorrow and then take the sleeping man to your house,” he said to Magath.
Magath nodded. He handed the blankets to Neldor and the wizard moved to Gwyn’s bed. Magath looked after him, and then turned around and left the house again. Qildor followed him.
Qildor and Magath were sitting at the table in Magath’s house.
“Did all this really happen?” Magath asked in a dismal voice.
“I am not sure. Perhaps this is all just a dream. At least it is the stuff that dreams are made of,” Qildor replied.
“Or myths and legends,” Magath said drily. “Folk tales. Nothing but lore.”
“And yet it was all true,” Qildor said seriously.
They looked at each other. Magath nodded. A shiver ran down his spine. It was over, wasn’t it? Or was he mistaken?
Dran awoke the following day in Magath’s house. Like Neldor had said, the man did not remember anything. Magath told him that he had found him in the forest, lying on the ground and unconscious. Dran was confused. He just remembered that he had left his house. He had climbed the hill and had entered the forest. Dran scratched his head.
“I don’t really remember, Magath. I think I wanted to go and see you because of the horses,” he said.
Magath and Qildor exchanged a brief look.
“The horses?” Magath asked.
“The horses of the Khalindash,” Dran said slowly. “I told you when you came to my house a couple of days ago. I told you about the Khalindash attack and about the horses.”
“You said the horses of the Khalindash were well-fed,” Magath said.
“I thought about it again for a day or two,” he replied.
Magath and Qildor exchanged another look.
“I wanted to make myself clear,” Dran said. “That’s why I wanted to see you. After thinking it over again, I found that only two of the horses were well-fed. The other four or five were rather skinny horses. I mean, your friend is a royal soldier. He will report to the king. I mean, I don’t want the king to send more soldiers and then find out that I told you a bunch of crap. The king might get mad at me. Who knows? I thought I better make myself clear before the royal man departs. I was enraged. I did not think and see clearly.”
Dran looked between Qildor and Magath with a frown.
“Good you told us about the horses,” Magath said.
“I won’t report anything incorrect to the king,” Qildor said with a smile.
“Good to hear,” Dran said grumpily.
He looked at Magath and gave him a nod.
“Thank you, Magath. You saved my life. I know this, Magath, and I will remember it,” he said in a serious voice.
“It is all right, Dran,” Magath replied. “Fate saved you life.”
“I know damn well who saved it,” Dran said.
He rose to his feet and then stumbled. Qildor and Magath exchanged a worried look. Magath rose to his feet as well.
“Come, Dran, I’ll go with you and then we have lunch at your place. Bean stew, perhaps. And then I’ll go back home again,” he said.
Dran lowered his eyes for a second, and then he nodded.
“A stew. Sounds good. All right, let’s go,” he said brusquely.
Dran looked at Qildor and bowed slightly.
“Never met a royal soldier before. Hope I did not make a bad impression,” he said.
Qildor returned the nod.
“I got an overall good impression, Master Dran. Get well soon,” he replied.
Dran nodded and then picked up his cloak. He walked to the door and Magath followed him. Qildor sat down in a chair and looked into the room. A short time later, the wizard Neldor entered the house.
“Gwyn awoke,” Neldor said. “She wants to see you and Magath.”
“Magath just went with Dran. He takes the man back to his house. Dran does not remember anything. He bought our story,” Qildor said.
Neldor did not reply. Qildor stood and took his cloak. He followed Neldor who had already stepped out of the door. They entered Gwyn’s house. The old woman was sitting in a chair at her table. Qildor gave her a surprised look.
“You are already feeling better, Mistress Gwyn?” he asked.
The old woman nodded with a smile. She looked at Neldor briefly.
“I don’t know what he puts in my tea. It’s a magical cure. Well, he is a magician, isn’t he?” she said cheerfully. “Where is Magath?”
“He went with Dran. He takes Dran back to his house. Dran is weak. He does not remember anything,” Qildor said.
“I will never tell him then. I, for my part, I do remember every bit,” she said.
“What about your hands?” Qildor asked.
Gwyn raised her bandaged hands and then lowered them again.
“This will take a couple of days. But my hands don’t hurt. Neldor saw to them. He is a gifted healer,” she said.
Qildor gave Neldor a sceptical look. The wizard ignored him.
“Come,” Gwyn said cheerfully. “You two sit down. Neldor told me a lot already. But he has not yet told me about the map. I thought you were interested to hear about it, too,” she said.
Qildor sat down on the wooden bench.
“He told me a bit already. His map and your map are not entirely identical,” he said.
“Right,” Neldor said. He took another chair and sat down as well. “The secret place is indicated in my map. It is not indicated in yours. I think the foreigners made these maps after they had entered our land. The maps fell in the hands of the Khalindash in later times. One of them might have drawn the spot in my map.”
“The Khalindash must have found the maps many centuries later,” Gwyn said. “The legend says that the foreigners came here a long time before the Khalindash and Aglanthol had even formed their clans.”
“I suppose Murdock saw one of these maps and he drew the correct conclusions,” he said.
“He hoped to find the foreigner’s ship in the ancient seaport. He wanted to sail off to their land,” Gwyn replied.
“He was a lunatic. The ship and the ancient town had gone to ruin a long time ago. Anybody with a common sense would have known this,” he said in almost disdain.
“We all make mistakes now and then,” Gwyn said in a reproachful voice.
“Indeed, we do,” Neldor said gravely. He looked Gwyn straight in the eyes.
“We better find out about our boundaries and limitations,” Gwyn said in a sober voice.
“Indeed. We better do,” Neldor said seriously. He studied Gwyn’s face. “You would have been a powerful wizard, Mistress Gwyn. What a pity no one taught you.”
Gwyn raised an eyebrow.
“Good man,” she said in almost disbelief. “Life taught me all I need to know. Life taught me how to deal with that evil spirit. I would have been able to put a stop to Khaalindaan. When the energy touched the blade, I felt that I was able to defeat him.”
Neldor gave Gwyn a knowing look.
“You would have been able to defeat him, yes. You were willing to pay the price. But I’m happy to have you with us some time longer,” the wizard said with a vague smile.
Gwyn gave a laugh.
“All right, Master Neldor. You had the final say. How about we have some tea now?” she asked.
Gwyn recovered quickly and the wizard Neldor finally departed.
Qildor stood in the doorway. He watched Neldor leave. Something disturbed him about the man. He was still not sure if he could trust him or not. Magath joined Qildor in the doorway. They exchanged a look.
“I don’t know what it is about him,” Qildor said. “My gut feeling tells me that something is wrong.”
“I have an uneasy feeling also,” Magath said. “I have a feeling that it is not yet over.”
Qildor put his arm around Magath’s shoulders.
“I won’t be leaving before spring has come. Bad times are over for a while,” he said with a smile.
Neldor left Tanmil and rode on until he reached the edge of a wood. He dismounted and let his horse run free. The wizard thought of the incident in the forest. He had arrived in time to stop the evil spirit of Khaalindaan. Neldor hid in the forest and there he focused his mind. He concentrated on the ancient symbols that showed him the way back to where he had come from. When Neldor opened his eyes again, he found himself sitting at a desk. The high magic had worked out and according to plan. Thus Neldor had arrived in the forest in time to put an end to Khaalindaan. The wizard Neldor was keeping a secret. Neither the peasant Dran nor the old woman Gwyn, neither the villager Magath nor the royal soldier Qildor had the faintest idea of what really had been going on. Neldor was keeping a secret and he swore to himself that no one should ever learn of it.
But who knows what lies ahead in time.
Some months later.
Neldor tried to remember who had given him the key. He scratched his head as he turned it in his hands. Sixty years had passed since he had been given the key. The wizard Neldor looked at it and he pondered for a while.
Finally, he placed the key on the map that was spread on the wooden table in front of him. Neldor gazed at the key and the map. The parchment was old. One side of the map was covered with mysterious symbols. Neldor had tried to figure them out. But the symbols had remained a mystery to him. The other side of the map showed two continents and an ocean between them. This side of the map made perfect sense to Neldor.
The legend said that many centuries ago foreigners had come to the land by ship. The foreigners had all died of the plague. Their corpses had been found, but nobody had ever found the ship. As time went by, the story that the natives had told had slowly turned into a legend. Nobody really believed in it now.
Neldor, however, did. He had evidence. He had the map that the foreigners had drawn so many centuries ago. Neldor scratched his head. Why was he not able to figure out the symbols? He was sure that they were an ancient language or perhaps a code. But so far Neldor had not found the key to the secret.
The wizard gazed at the key. A strange feeling took hold of him. He tried to remember who had given it to him. The image of an old man came to his mind.
“The master of the library!” Neldor exclaimed. The wizard grew excited. He rose to his feet and paced the room. “He gave it to me back then when I visited the old castle. But then I was more interested in the books.”
Neldor sat down and took the key that he had found a couple of minutes ago behind a leather-bound book in a shelf. Neldor turned it in his hands. He nodded pensively.
“The Castle of Saelethiel holds the secret of the ancient map. I must travel there at once,” he said as he placed the key back on the table.
Neldor left early the following morning. Dawn had just come when Neldor mounted his horse. The weather was bad. Heavy rain was falling.
Neldor had neither informed the king nor the king’s counsellors nor anybody else of his departure. He doubted that anybody would even notice his absence anyway. Neldor had remained in his tower for the most time of the day. He was seventy-six years of age. He was an old man who nobody was interested in. His skills as a wizard were not acknowledged by the current king. The king was a fool in Neldor’s honest opinion. However, he did not really mind that the king did not require his service. Thus he had been able to spend his time on his research and his studies. Neldor had studied the ancient map and the symbols for many years.
Neldor left the castle without looking back. He was not sure he would ever return. Either because he would not make the long journey to the Castle of Saelethiel and back – he was old and could well die on the way – or he would be able to unveil the secret and only fate knew what he would do in this case.
Neldor’s horse moved slowly. Neldor held the reins and looked ahead. He did not pay much attention to his surroundings, however. Neldor pondered again on the map.
The ancient map had been among the legacy of his master. His master had never shown the map to Neldor. But Neldor was smart enough to figure out very quickly what was drawn on the inside of the old parchment.
Neldor knew all the legends of Aglanthol. One of the oldest said that foreigners had come to the land by ship. Neldor was sure these people had drawn the map. The symbols on the outside of the parchment, however, had remained a mystery to him.
His master had been a wise man and a great wizard. He had taught Neldor all that he knew and Neldor had never believed that the man was selfish and kept things to himself. He had doubted his master’s motives, however, when he held the ancient map in his hands. He was a young man then and he felt somehow betrayed by his master. Neldor had felt disappointed. But his attitude had changed meanwhile.
Neldor had not been able to figure the symbols out in fifty years. His master most likely had not figured them out as well. Neldor understood his master well meanwhile. The old man had not shown him the map most likely out of embarrassment. At least, his master had not destroyed the parchment. He had left it to Neldor and thus had entrusted the secret to him.
Neldor travelled north-west. The Castle of Saelethiel was high up in the Western Mountains. Neldor had visited it with his master sixty years ago. His master had taken his apprentice to the castle because it was famous for its old books. But only the wise men knew of the castle. It was hidden well in the mountains and it was hidden from the eyes of an average man. Only the wise men knew of it and they guarded the secret well.
The face of the master of the library came to Neldor’s mind again. Neldor had spent many days in the library and the old man had often talked to him. Neldor had absorbed his words and he had read as many books as he could during his stay in the castle.
His master had discussed the books with him later in their home far in the north of the country where they lived a solitary life. Neldor had learned many things from the man. He let out a sigh at the memory of his old master. The man had died when Neldor was twenty-six years of age. From that time on, Neldor had learned and researched on his own.
Neldor had never visited the Castle of Saelethiel again for he had been sure that he remembered all that was of value to him. Neldor had become a powerful wizard over time and the two previous kings had often required his service. They had trusted him. The current king, however, considered Neldor just an old man whose skills were way behind time. The king had summoned a younger magician. Neldor wrinkled his nose. He did not think high of the man. But the king was impressed by the younger man’s outgoing demeanour. Neldor had never been an outgoing and sociable man. He was a solitary man who lived a solitary life and Neldor preferred that. And for that exact reason, nobody would miss him at court.
Neldor’s thoughts turned back to the master of the library. One afternoon, the old man had shown him to a chamber that Neldor so far had not seen. The air in the room had been stifling. The shelves and books had been covered with dust. They had spent a couple of minutes in the room. The man had not let Neldor touch a book nor had he explained anything. The master of the library had then locked the door again and had given the key to Neldor.
‘I can see through you,’ the old man had said with a mysterious look and a strange smile that had almost frightened Neldor. ‘Read these books when the time has come. They are here for you,’ the man had added. Neldor had taken the key. He had seized it tightly, and then he had gazed at the old man in almost fear. The man had just chuckled and then had led Neldor to another room that was filled with fascinating books on magical techniques. Neldor had spent the remaining days of his stay in this room. He had thought of sneaking into the dark and dusty chamber again, but he had delayed the endeavour until it was too late. He and his master departed and Neldor took the key to the secret chamber with him. In the early years, he had now and then thought of travelling to the castle again. But his life had moved on and many things had changed and time had passed quickly.
Neldor was already forty years of age when the then reigning king summoned him to court. Neldor had travelled to the royal court of Aglanthol and he had moved into the tower. He had taken his belongings with him, among them plenty of books on magic, the ancient map, and the key to the secret chamber. Neldor had hidden the key behind a leather-bound book in a shelf and then he had forgotten about it.
Neldor had focused on the ancient map that his master had left to him. He had done extended research on magical symbols and ancient languages. In fact, he had spent fifty years on his research, counted from the day he had found the map among his master’s legacy. It had been a fruitless effort.
Neldor looked up at the sky and then dismounted. He needed to rest. He sat down on a rock and pulled a loaf of bread from a bag. Then he took a few sips of water from a water skin. Neldor looked up again. More clouds had gathered. The wizard let out a sigh.
“Time to move on,” he said and rose to his feet.
Neldor was a solitary man and he had an eye for solitary places. He spotted a deserted hut as he rode along the road. Neldor settled in it for the night. He moved on the following morning.
Three days passed. Night was falling when Neldor arrived at a deserted farmhouse. He watched it from the distance for a while. It seemed to be a good place for the night. Neldor hesitated, however. His sixth sense warned him. A couple of minutes passed. Then suddenly the door of the house opened and a man stepped out. He was dressed like a soldier. He had apparently searched the house. The man disappeared behind it, but after a while he came back, leading his horse into the rotten stable.
Neldor sighed. Another traveller had already chosen the deserted farmhouse as a place for the night. The man left the stable. Suddenly, he turned abruptly and gazed in Neldor’s direction. The wizard winced. Had the man seen him? Neldor did not move. He gazed at the man with a frown.
“Neldor,” the man called out.
Neldor winced. He was about to turn around and run. However, he remained where he was and let out another sigh.
“Qildor, royal soldier. What have I done to deserve this?” he said in a low voice.
The man walked in his direction. Neldor waited resignedly. Qildor stopped in front of him.
“It has been a while,” Qildor said in a measured voice and gave Neldor a bow.
Neldor shot him a frown. He made an angry gesture with his hand.
“We’re not at court and we don’t sit at dinner with the king. We’re out in the wilderness and night is falling. So don’t behave like a peacock,” he hissed.
Qildor smirked at the wizard.
“Night is falling, indeed. How about we share this place for the night? I have checked it already,” he said.
Qildor turned around and walked up to the house. Neldor followed him hesitantly. He led his horse into the stable and then entered the house. Qildor started a fire in the fireplace.
“Don’t you think this is imprudent?” Neldor asked in a grumpy voice.
“What? Start a fire?” Qildor asked without looking at the wizard. “I don’t think so. I have not met many people on the road. And the Khalindash don’t come west. So, don’t fear an attack, Master Neldor.”
Neldor did not reply. He sat down in an old chair. Qildor turned to him.
“How are you doing? Where are you going, Master Neldor?” he asked.
Neldor studied Qildor’s face.
“Why would you want to know? Where have you been and where are you going?” he asked back.
“I was roaming the country,” Qildor replied.
“Did the king order you to do so?” Neldor asked warily.
“In a sense,” Qildor said. “He sent me north to the fortress that we have built in spring. I am on my way back to the royal court.”
“You don’t take the direct route,” Neldor said.
“No,” Qildor confirmed and left it at that.
“What about you, Master Neldor?” he asked finally. “Have you heard of another secret place with a powerful sword you want to retrieve maybe?”
Qildor crossed his arms in front of his chest and studied Neldor’s face. The wizard shot him a dark look.
“You have no idea at all. You don’t have a clue. I’m on my life’s mission,” he said in a defiant voice.
Qildor gave a laugh. He smirked at the wizard.
“It has to do with the map, hasn’t it?” he asked.
Neldor winced. He studied Qildor’s face with narrowed eyes.
“So what?” he asked. “It’s none of your business.”
They frowned at each other for a while.
“Do you still believe in the legends?” Neldor asked finally.
Qildor studied Neldor’s face before he replied.
“I do,” he said. “In fact, I travelled north to find the ancient town. But I did not find it. There is no town and there is no seaport. And no powerful foreigner is leading the Khalindash into battle. They cross the border and attack the Aglanthol villages only in order to steal food. The Khalindash people hardly get through the winter. Our speculations were false.”
“So you don’t believe in the legend of the ancient town any longer?” he asked.
“I only said I found no rebuilt town. And I found no seaport. I believe, however, that there was a town many centuries ago. Gwyn’s map and yours are proof of it. But the town fell into ruins a long, long time ago,” Qildor said.
“Doubtlessly,” Neldor replied.
He paused for a moment. Qildor watched him.
“And yet I cannot let go,” Neldor said. “I have spent decades researching on the map and the symbols. I have only little time left. I am an old man, close to death. But I won’t give in. I want to unveil the secret.”
“What secret? Is there one left?” Qildor asked.
“My goal will not make sense to you. But I must complete my mission anyway,” Neldor said with a shrug.
“What mission?” Qildor asked. He leaned back in his chair and crossed his arms in front of his chest.
Neldor was hesitating. Could he trust the man? He studied Qildor’s face and thought of the day in winter when they had fought the evil spirit if Khaalindaan. Neldor straightened and then he told Qildor all. He told him of his master and the map, the symbols and the key that he had found behind a book. He told him of the Castle of Saelethiel that was the destination of his journey.
Qildor grew more and more interested. He leaned forward and his eyes twinkled. Neldor stopped at the man’s obvious excitement.
“What?” Neldor asked. “Don’t expect to find a treasure there. There are only books that a common man with a common sense is not interested in.”
“I am not a common man,” Qildor said seriously.
He reached into the pocket of his tunic and pulled something out of it. The item was wrapped in an oil cloth. Qildor unfolded the cloth and then he spread Gwyn’s map on the table. Neldor looked between Qildor and the map with narrowed eyes, yet Qildor gave no explanations. He pointed at a spot on the left side of the map.
“This spot made me think. Only two spots are drawn in the continent on the left. One in the north and one in the west. The spot in the north is the ancient town. I wondered what the spot in the west was. Another town? And how did the foreigners know of it?” he asked.
Neldor gazed at the spot on the map. He recognized it instantly. He spread his own map. The same spot was drawn in there.
“I have never given this a thought,” he said in a pressed voice. “Probably because I knew the spot indicated the Castle of Saelethiel. It was no mystery to me. How very imprudent I was.”
Qildor cast him a look, yet did not reply. He pointed at the spot on the map instead.
“The Castle of Saelethiel is high up in the Western Mountains?” he asked.
“Provided the maps were drawn by the foreigners, how did they know of the castle and what did they hope to find there?” Qildor asked. “You said the castle was built many centuries before the foreigners came to the land.”
Qildor leaned back in his chair. He studied the wizard. Neldor looked back.
“This is why you are travelling west, isn’t it?” Neldor asked with a piercing look.
“In fact,” Qildor said. “I am investigating, so to speak.”
He smiled at the wizard cheerfully. Neldor gave him a suspicious look, and then he raised a hand.
“The spot may have been drawn in the maps at later times. Cautious. No more false speculations,” he said.
Qildor gave a laugh.
“I don’t really care who drew in the spots. The foreigners are dead. Their motives do not matter anymore. But you told me of the Castle of Saelethiel. I want to find out about the truth. Don’t you think it’s a remarkable coincidence that we met tonight, Master Neldor?” he asked.
“Perhaps,” Neldor said drily. “We can’t escape our fate.”
He already regretted that he had told Qildor so many details. The man was obsessed with the old legends. He had apparently made it his life’s goal to unveil ancient secrets. Neldor stopped short at his thought. The man was much like him, he had to admit.
“Don’t be so serious and gloomy,” Qildor said, rubbing his hands in gleeful anticipation.
Neldor cast him an ambiguous look.
“How about we rest now and leave tomorrow early in the morning?” Qildor asked.
Neldor grimaced inwardly. Now he was obliged to travel with the man. Neldor took a deep breath and resigned to his fate.
They left the following morning and rode on silently. They were lingering on their thoughts. There was not much left to say anyway.
They reached the edge of the Western Mountains ten days later. They moved slowly and rode one after the other. They followed a narrow path that led up the mountains. Luckily, the ground was hard and dry as it had not rained for a couple of days. The days were warm, but the nights were cold. They spent the night in a cave they had found on the way. They wrapped themselves in several blankets, but the night was uncomfortable and they rode on as soon as the sun had risen. The path grew more and more impassable.
And then, finally, they spotted the castle. It was half built in the rocks. The path had almost disappeared meanwhile and only the trained eye of a scout could make it out. They dismounted and went by foot, leading their horses. They arrived at the castle in the afternoon and stopped in front of a small door. Qildor knocked at it. But there was no response. They looked up the walls of the building. There were only two tiny windows. Each opening was covered by a cloth. The castle looked deserted.
The Castle of Saelethiel was high up in the Western Mountains. It was built in the rocks and only a keen eye could see it from afar. The castle had been built in ancient times by the early inhabitants of the land. The first powerful magicians had initiated the construction. The castle had been the centre of knowledge and wisdom from that time on. But only the wisest of men knew of its existence.
The most gifted and talented magicians completed their education in the Castle of Saelethiel. They left the castle as immensely skilled and powerful wizards. The magicians kept the secret for many centuries. An average man was not able to find the castle. He would not have seen it even if he stood right in front of the building because the castle was not only built high up in the mountains; it was also protected by mighty wards. No unworthy man had ever entered the castle.
Inside the building were many rooms and chambers with all sorts of magical tools and equipment. There was also a large library and a few smaller rooms with plenty of books on every aspect of magic. The wizards and magicians had written down their knowledge over the centuries. The Castle of Saelethiel had become a powerful centre of magic. Many aspiring magicians had visited it over time to complete their training.
A few magicians and wise men lived in the castle constantly. They guarded the castle, the magical tools, and the books.
“Deserted,” Qildor said in a disappointed voice.
“I don’t think so,” Neldor replied. “The castle has existed for centuries. A few men always live there. It is a secret place. You can’t expect them to open the door to just anyone who knocks at it.”
Qildor gazed up the walls again. He did not reply. He was wondering what to do. He thought of breaking into the castle. He had not come here to just gaze up a wall. Neldor raised his hand. Qildor gave him a questioning look.
“Haven’t you heard?” the wizard hissed.
Neldor knocked at the door and then he listened carefully. There was a knock on the other side of the door, yet nobody opened the door. Neldor narrowed his eyes and rubbed his chin. The wizard was thinking.
“The code,” he said suddenly. “I remember now. I need to knock in a specific way.”
Qildor cast him a look. Neldor ignored him. He stood motionless and focused on the day when he had arrived at the castle in company of his master. The memories returned and finally Neldor saw the images clearly. He watched his master walk up to the door. What had he done? Neldor concentrated. And then he heard the knocks at the door. Neldor recognized the pattern. He blinked and looked at Qildor slightly confused for a moment until his mind had entirely come back from the past. Then he knocked at the door like his master had done. The door opened instantly. A very old man stood in the doorway.
“Welcome, wanderers,” he said.
“Good day,” Neldor replied. “It was not easy to come here.”
The old man smiled and made a gesture with his hand. He turned around and moved back inside. Neldor and Qildor followed him. The door was closed behind them. Qildor glanced back, but he did not see anybody. The guard, or whoever it was, was perfectly hiding in the shadows. Neldor paid no attention to it. He followed the man eagerly.
“What about the horses?” Qildor asked as they moved along the dark and mouldy corridor.
“Someone will see to them,” the old man said without looking back.
He turned around a corner. They reached a staircase and the old man ascended the steep stairs. It was even darker there than in the corridor. A torch shed a faint light from the top of the stairs. Their guide moved quickly. Neldor and Qildor hurried to follow him. They reached the end of the staircase and entered a hall. Only a torch illuminated the room. The air was stifling and they were barely able to breathe. Qildor coughed. He felt uncomfortable. Neldor, however, seemed not to care. Excitement radiated from the old wizard.
“Welcome, wanderers,” their guide said again. “What is it that brought you here?”
“A quest,” Neldor said.
Qildor remained silent. His gut feeling told him to not interfere.
“Many are on a quest,” their guide said, “but only few reach the end of it and find what they are looking for.”
“My quest started here, although I did not know this when I came here with my master so many years ago. I was a young man then, eager to learn and find out about all the secrets of the world,” Neldor said.
“And you still have not found what you are looking for?” their guide asked.
“No, I have not. And I do not regret. What would I have done with my life if I had found it all too soon,” Neldor said.
Their guide chuckled.
“I doubt you will ever find the ultimate answer. I have also studied for many decades. But each time I found one question answered, ten new questions arose,” he said.
“It is a never-ending task,” Neldor agreed cheerfully. “I have only little time left. I will die as an old man who is not much wiser than the young man was when he started his quest. And yet, I came here to find another answer.”
“You hope to find it here?” their guide asked.
“I could have found the answer back then when I visited the castle so many years ago. But, unfortunately, I did not ask the appropriate question,” Neldor replied.
There was silence for a while.
“If you had found the answer without asking for it, it would have been useless for you,” their guide said.
“In fact,” Neldor replied. “Like the key that the master of the library gave to me. I kept it in a hidden place for all these years. I found it only recently and it spoke to me.”
“The key,” their guide said thoughtfully.
And then suddenly light fell from outside into the hall. The old man had removed the cloth from the window. Light illuminated the room. Neldor and Qildor looked around. The floor and the walls of the hall were made of rock. The hall was empty. Their guide looked at them.
“Then light shall enlighten the darkness,” the old man said. He studied them.
“The master of the library, who gave you the key, died three decades ago,” he continued. “But I know of the key that he gave away to a young man. He said that once the time was right that man would return to the castle in order to find an answer. Master Odegar was a wise man. He had a trained eye. He was able to see through a man. He was able to see a man’s ultimate goal.”
Silence fell. Qildor did not dare to move. The two old men impressed him and it dawned on him that a true wizard was not an imposter but a man who explored the most hidden places and who walked the most impassable paths of life.
The two old men looked at each other.
“My name is Leandor. I will show you to the secret chamber,” Leandor said to Neldor. “But I fear your companion must stay outside.”
Neldor nodded his agreement. Qildor was not even asked his opinion.
“I will be back in a minute,” Leandor said to Qildor before he led Neldor out of the hall.
Leandor led Neldor down a corridor. He stopped in front of a wooden door and nodded at Neldor. Neldor took the key out of a pocket of his cloak. He made a step forward and pushed the key in the lock. The door opened instantly. Neldor stepped into the secret chamber.
The air in the room was stifling. Neldor coughed and tears shot into his eyes. He made a step back and coughed once more. The air in the hallway was dry also, but it was almost refreshing compared to the air in the chamber. Neldor waited for a couple of minutes before he re-entered the room. Nobody apparently had entered the chamber since the master of the library had locked the door and had handed the key to Neldor.
Leandor put a candle on the desk that stood in the room. The light was poor and barely illuminated the chamber. Leandor spoke to Neldor and then left the wizard alone. Neldor stood in the small room and looked around. He saw three shelves on the walls. Each shelf was filled with leather-bound books. Neldor looked at the shelves in awe and a shiver ran through his body as his eyes ran over the volumes. These books held the ultimate secrets of the castle. Neldor knew that only few men before him had seen these books. Neldor stepped closer to the shelves.
The books were all bound in black leather. The leather looked old. More, it looked ancient. Neldor took a deep breath. The air smelled of the ages. He coughed again. And then he reached out his hand and touched a book. He ran his finger along the rear slowly. Neldor sensed the past and the centuries that had gone by. The past, however, was not forgotten. These books told of it. The ancient secrets had been waiting for Neldor to be unveiled by him.
Neldor pulled a book from the shelf. He seized it with both hands and looked at the front. A number carved in the leather. It was the Aglanthol symbol for the number ‘four’. Neldor opened the book. It was written by hand. The scribe had used black ink. His handwriting was neat and easy to read. However, there were no illustrations on the pages. The book was not rotten despite its age. The pages were not crumbled and not even the ink had faded. Only the parchment had turned slightly yellow. The dry air in the room had perfectly preserved the books over time.
Neldor put the book back on the shelf. He randomly took a few other books. They all looked alike: parchment bound in black leather, the texts hand-written with black ink, only the handwriting differed. Various scribes had written the books over time.
A knock at the door distracted Neldor. Leandor came back and brought food and water and additional candles. He placed all on the desk and then left again. Neldor sat down in the chair in front of the desk and ate and drank. He lit another candle before he went back to the shelf and took more books from it. They were written in the ancient language of Aglanthol. The letters were written slightly different and the endings of words and the grammar varied. The texts were hard to read, but Neldor had studied ancient historical scrolls from the king’s library that had also been written in the ancient language. Neldor brushed through the pages. His mind was focused and he worked quickly. The books contained much that Neldor had learned from his master and from his teachers when he had visited the castle as a young man. There was more, however, and Neldor was eager to learn it. But he knew that his time was limited and those texts were not what the wizard was looking for in the first place.
Neldor pulled one book after the other from the shelf on the left. He placed those that sounded promising on the desk in the room. Neldor turned the pages quickly and he resisted reading more than the table of contents. When Leandor came back in the evening, Neldor had already finished investigating the left shelf. A pile of books was placed on the desk. Leandor glanced at the books, but he did not inquire. He had brought more food, water, and candles. He left again and Neldor turned to the middle shelf after having a quick meal.
Midnight had come when Leandor led Neldor to a small room in order to rest for the night. The wizard felt exhausted and tired. But he asked Leandor to wake him at sunrise. Neldor resumed his work the following morning. His heart beat faster when he opened the book that he had just pulled from the shelf. The book looked like the others, but the text looked entirely different. The book was written in a language that Neldor did not understand. However, he recognized the letters. The letters were the symbols on the outside of the ancient map.
“Finally,” Neldor said aloud.
He carried the book to the desk. His hands were trembling. Neldor sat down and pushed aside the books that he had previously piled up. He had no interest in them anymore. Neldor had found what he was looking for.
“Finally,” he said again.
He opened the book and turned the pages slowly. He studied each page carefully. The letters were doubtlessly the symbols on the map. Neldor assumed that the symbols were an artificial alphabet. He was not able to read the texts, but he had no doubt that he would find the key to the alphabet in the secret chamber. One of the remaining books would ultimately reveal the key to him. Neldor had tried to decipher the symbols for many decades. Now he would take his time. He turned the last page and gazed at the name that was written under the last sentence of the book. A smile played on Neldor’s lips as he read the name.
“Norlorn,” he said, “I should have known that you devised the scheme.”
Neldor’s smile broadened. He felt excited. The great wizard had left him a riddle. Neldor felt highly motivated. His life’s quest, he felt, was not a minor one. Neldor stood like in trance and moved back to the shelves. He took the book that stood next to Norlorn’s book. It told the story of the foreigners that had come to the land. Another smile played on Neldor’s lips at the hint.
“Master of all wizards, what have you done? I have an anticipation of it,” Neldor said in a low voice.
He smirked as he continued to take the books from the shelves. He brushed through them more rapidly now. Neldor was looking for the key that Norlorn had placed somewhere in a book. Neldor finally found it in the shelf on the right. The sixth book that he pulled from the shelf held the key. A single sheet of paper dropped to the floor when Neldor brushed through the pages. Neldor picked the paper up and gazed at it. And then the wizard grinned. He carried the piece of paper and the book to the desk and read the table of contents. Neldor nodded to himself.
“The story of the battle between Norlorn and Khaalindaan,” he said pensively.
He folded his hands and looked at the wall with a smile.
“Yes, master of all wizards, it’s really about time that you reveal it all,” he said. “There were some points I could never really explain, some inconsistencies, some minor flaws at first sight, not worth the greatest wizard of all times.”
“Time,” he said. “Oh, yes, the wizard of time. Now finally it makes sense to me. You’re definitely a wretch, old Norlorn. But now reveal your secret to me. I can see clearly now. I need to do something in time.”
Neldor snickered at his pun. He found he was having an extraordinary good time.
The piece of paper contained Norlorn’s alphabet and gave instructions on how to transcribe the letters. Neldor had deciphered Norlorn’s book at the end of the day. He had taken notes of what he found was the most essential and important to him.
Neldor rubbed his eyes.
“I’ll read through it again tomorrow morning just to make sure I understood it all correctly. And then it is about time to apply this new found knowledge,” he said.
Neldor sat quietly until Leandor knocked at the door. From the expression on Neldor’s face, Leandor knew that the wizard had found what he had been looking for. He gave Neldor a smile and a questioning look.
“I need to read more tomorrow morning. At noon, please, bring me a meal not too heavy and not too light. I must not be sleepy. But hunger must not distract me either. I will have to concentrate,” Neldor said.
Leandor nodded. Neldor rose to his feet and Leandor led Neldor to his cell.
Neldor studied Norlorn’s text again the following morning. He made some exercises and he memorized everything. At noon he felt ready to complete his mission. Leandor brought a meal. Neldor ate and drank, but he pushed a bowl of hot soup aside.
“We will see if things work out,” Neldor said, gazing at the bowl.
And then Neldor straightened in his chair. He visualized Norlorn, the great magician, and bowed to him.
“Norlorn, master of all wizards, you called me in time and I feel prepared to complete the task. I am your worthy apprentice. You taught me all your knowledge and the Castle of Saelethiel has left no mystery to me. My master, I give you my oath. There is no way back. I will follow your path,” Neldor said in a measured voice.
He bowed again to the image of Norlorn, and then Neldor closed his eyes. He concentrated and focused his mind. Norlorn’s alphabet led him step by step. Neldor visualized the symbols according to Norlorn’s instructions. Each symbol led him deeper into trance until Neldor crossed a threshold that he had never crossed before. He kept focusing on the symbols and they led him deeper until he lost his feeling of space. Neldor felt like he had left the secret chamber. He continued following the track of the symbols until he lost his sense of time. Linear time ceased to be and Neldor felt like he had lost his senses entirely. The symbols came to his mind in no particular order. Neldor followed their track like he followed the lines in a book without knowing where Norlorn’s words would take him to.
Norlorn had invented a language that so far nobody had seen. Each letter was carefully thought out. But the letters were not just meant for writing texts. Each letter was also a symbol. The letters were just a layer that hid a mystery that the less skilled would fail to see. They would decipher the language and they would not seek farther. However, the letters were just the first layer of the mystery. The second layer was harder to see and only a wise and intuitive man would grasp it. A man with a linear thinking mind, a man who was used to think step by step, would never grasp Norlorn’s concept. And that was exactly what the wizard had in mind when he invented his language. The symbols were like signs on the road. They led the traveller to his destination. They led the traveller back in time.
Norlorn had taken this road. And he had carefully noted the signs on the road that his inward eyes had seen and that his keen mind had memorized. Norlorn had experimented with the symbols until he had mastered the technique and until he was able to travel forth and back in time. Norlorn, however, used this technique only sparsely because of its far-reaching effects. Manipulating time was dangerous for the wizard himself and the world on the whole. No one knew better than Norlorn.
Norlorn was hesitant to write down the full instructions on how to master time. However, he had to. He had travelled back and had changed the course of time. But he had decided against travelling into the future as well. He would not change the future based on his past changes. He was not a god and he would not challenge the gods. This could only backfire on him. Another man would accomplish the task, if fate did not decide against it.
The only thing Norlorn could do – and he felt this was not an evil act – was to write down the symbols and let fate lead the right man to them. Norlorn trusted fate, or in other words, he trusted the universal spirit. He felt, that after all, he was just a part of it. He was a mighty wizard, but he was just a spark compared to the light of the universe. Norlorn felt humble. He did not have delusions of grandeur. And he was thankful for it.
Norlorn wrote a report on the battle. He described in detail what Khaalindaan had done and how he had reacted to Khaalindaan’s moves. He wrote down that he found a solution on how to finally defeat the evil wizard. He wrote down that he had changed the course of time. The task, however, was not yet completed. Another man would have to accomplish it.
Norlorn did not mention the technique of time travel in his report on the battle. A worthy successor would know how to figure it out. This man would ultimately come to the Castle of Saelethiel - a thousand years in the future from Norlorn’s time - and continue where Norlorn had stopped. Norlorn felt connected to that man although centuries separated them. But, after all, Norlorn knew, that all depended on perspective. For a mighty wizard like Norlorn, time was just an illusion.
When Norlorn had closed the book and had put down the quill, he had done all that fate had required of him. An era had come to an end. The time of the mighty wizards was over.
Neldor followed the track of the symbols. He was deep in a trance. Suddenly, the symbols started to whirl around him. There was no beginning and there was no end. There was a whole universe of letters and words. Images came to Norlorn’s mind. They showed different spaces and different times and Neldor could move wherever he wanted to.
Neldor watched the whirl of images until he felt the time had come. He focused on the symbol that Norlorn had written down for this particular moment. Neldor focused on a single moment in time. Instantly, the chaos of words and images retreated. Only one image remained. Neldor focused on it. It moved closer. It became clearer. It wrapped around Neldor until the wizard was a part of it. The image had turned alive and had stretched in all dimensions of space and time.
Neldor opened his eyes. He stood in front of the royal soldier Qildor.
The man was talking to him. Neldor glanced around. He saw his tower at the royal court. A crow landed on the window sill. Neldor looked up at the sky. The weather was bad. The first raindrops fell. Neldor turned back to Qildor and listened to the man. He heard the exact words that he had already heard some months ago. But apparently Qildor felt like he spoke them to the wizard for the very first time.
Qildor was about to leave the royal castle in order to travel north. The man was kind of obsessed with the legend of Khaalindaan. Neldor knew all too well why the man was driven by his obsession. Fate had summoned the man to witness Khaalindaan’s final defeat. So far, however, the man had no clue of it. And Neldor would not reveal it to him. Everything would happen exactly like it had happened some months ago. This time, however, Neldor would show up on the snow-covered hill and thus would change the outcome according to Norlorn’s plan. Neldor had missed the chance the last time. He had not arrived in Tanmil in time.
Neldor had travelled back in time. He was about to correct his mistake.
“I will travel to Tanmil as soon as I have found a solution,” he said to Qildor.
The man left and Qildor hastened to his tower in order to pack his things. He had to leave shortly after Qildor. Else he would not arrive in time. And he had to make sure that he travelled alone. He had to make sure that nobody distracted him from his goal. Neldor did not want to get lost in time.
Neldor followed Qildor and arrived at Tanmil in time. He watched Qildor and Magath climb up the snow-covered hill. He climbed up as well when the men had reached the edge of the wood. Neldor followed their tracks. He hid in the forest until Gwyn, the old woman, had taken Norlorn’s sword. Neldor moved closer. Gwyn held out the sword and Khaalindaan’s spirit seized it. Khaalindaan’s energy entered Gwyn’s body. The old woman fought bravely. She grew weaker, however, when Khaalindaan’s spirit took her over more and more. Neldor hurried up to Gwyn. He stood behind her, raised his arms, and seized her wrists. He spoke to her, and then he seized Norlorn’s sword. Gwyn let go and dropped to the ground. Neldor resumed the fight where Norlorn had had to give in. Neldor focused on Norlorn’s most powerful symbol and Khaalindaan’s energy shook with fear. Norlorn’s symbol made Khaalindaan’s spirit lose power. Neldor absorbed the energy ultimately and neutralized it.
Then everything happened exactly like it had happened the last time. Neldor stayed with Gwyn until the woman had almost healed. Then he departed. Neldor left the village and hid in a wood. There he applied Norlorn’s time travel technique again.
Neldor opened his eyes. He sat in front of the desk in the secret chamber.
Neldor gazed at the wall. Then he straightened. He raised his arms and turned his head. And then he put a finger in the bowl on his desk. The soup was hot. Neldor licked his finger. He nodded thoughtfully.
“No time has passed here. I came back in time. Everything worked out fine, I guess,” he said to himself.
Neldor placed Norlorn’s book in the middle of the desk. He folded his notes and pushed them into the pocket of his tunic. Then he waited until Leandor knocked at the door. The man gave Neldor a questioning look. Neldor nodded.
“All fixed up in time,” he said with an impish smile.
Leandor smiled also. He looked at Norlorn’s book.
“I suspect you will be writing down your discoveries. Will you send us your book when you have finished it, Master Neldor?” he asked. “The two books should be kept next to each other, I suspect.”
“I will send it to you. And yes, place them next to each other. They don’t fit in the shelves very well. The books there are arranged chronologically. The two books would not fit in,” he said.
“I will see to it, Master Neldor,” Leandor replied. “I suspect you will leave the castle now. Your things are packed. Your horse is ready. Your companion will be led to the hall.”
Qildor had spent three days and two nights in a stifling and dark room. They had brought him food and water, but nobody had spoken to him. Qildor had felt like an idiot, apparently unworthy to unveil the secret. He had grumbled over it for some time. Then he had studied Gwyn’s map again in order to distract himself. The last day, however, he had spent lying on his bed, feeling totally bored. Qildor almost jumped from the bed when the door opened and Leandor asked him to follow him. They all met in the main hall and then Leandor led them out of the castle.
“We all walk a path and we cannot go astray for fate has summoned us,” Leandor said wisely as a farewell.
“Just that some paths lead you from one point to the other whereas others lead you in circles or so,” Neldor replied.
Leandor smiled and then bid them farewell. Neldor stepped out of the door and Qildor followed him quickly. Leandor closed the door behind them. Qildor spotted their horses and hurried to them. Qildor wanted to leave. He had enough of the castle. He looked back at the wizard impatiently. Neldor joined him finally. He smiled at him.
“As soon as we have found a safe place to rest, I will tell you all. My questions are answered. I can finish my path in peace and without regret,” Neldor said.
Qildor’s first impulse was to return a rude response. However, he swallowed his words. He just gave Neldor a brief nod, and then they walked silently for many hours, leading their horses down the rocky path. They stopped when dusk was near and settled in a cave for the night. Qildor lit an oil lamp that he had taken along. And then Neldor started his recount.
“Leandor, our guide, showed me to a door and asked me to open it. I took out the old key and tried. The door opened instantly. The air in the room was stifling. I could hardly breathe. The walls of the room are filled with shelves and the shelves are filled with books, old books bound in black leather. They have not rotten because of the dry air in the room.”
Neldor paused for a moment. Qildor watched him attentively.
“I spent the days in the chamber. I picked a few books randomly first. They are written in the ancient language of Aglanthol that was used at the time of the wizard Norlorn. The books are arranged chronologically. They go far back in time. The latest book was written after Norlorn had defeated Khaalindaan. One book described the battle in detail,” Neldor carried on.
“Was it all true? Do you have evidence now?” Qildor interrupted the wizard.
“We meanwhile know it is true, don’t we?” Neldor said. “Don’t you remember the incident in the forest?”
“Well, yes, of course, I do,” Qildor said, looking at the wizard.
Neldor studied Qildor’s face.
“So you remember the incident? Good,” he said in a pleased voice.
Qildor gave him a questioning look but Neldor ignored him. The wizard carried on instead.
“The battle is recounted in detail. To sum it up, the legend speaks the truth. The wizard Khaalindaan offered final resistance. He was a powerful wizard and magician. But the Aglanthol wizard Norlorn ultimately won the fight,” he said.
Neldor cleared his throat.
“I went back in time. Unfortunately, I could not read all the books for lack of time. They cover events that took place long before the kingdom of Aglanthol was founded. But I learned that the wizards and the holy men played an important role always. The knowledge of the early wizards surpassed mine, I have to admit. So much is forgotten. I feel deep regret.”
He let out a sigh.
“From what I read I know that the ancient wizards were able to effortlessly control the elements and it was not uncommon for them to change the course of time.”
“What?” Qildor asked. He shifted his position impatiently. His curiosity almost killed him.
“Khaalindaan’s spirit was banned by Norlorn. However, Norlorn was not able to extinguish Khaalindaan’s spirit. The ban was only temporal. A thousand years later the spirit could be released if anybody retrieved the sword from the ground. Norlorn knew that this would inevitably happen in the future, some way or other. He knew he had only delayed the final battle. But Norlorn was not immortal He would long be dead when Khaalindaan’s spirit would once more be released. And he had no apprentice. Norlorn was definitely the last of his kind. He knew and Khaalindaan knew as well.”
“So Norlorn actually made a mistake?” Qildor asked. “His ban of a thousand years actually made sure that Khaalindaan’s spirit was to be released in the future when no opponent equivalent in power would then be able to defeat Khaalindaan?”
“This did not happen. I defeated Khaalindaan’s spirit,” Neldor said calmly. “Don’t you remember?”
“Luckily,” Qildor exclaimed. “You accidentally came along when you were needed most.”
Neldor gave an indignant cough.
“I would rather say that fate sent me in the right place at the right time. I did not accidentally go for a walk on a snow-covered hill in the north of Aglanthol,” he said grumpily.
They measured each other for a while. Qildor shrugged.
“All right, fate sent you there in time,” he said in a resigned voice. “But what about Norlorn? What did he do?”
“He corrected his mistake,” Neldor said calmly.
“Why...,” Qildor started. “I can’t see how? What did he do?”
“He turned back time,” Neldor said in a sober voice.
“What?” Qildor exclaimed. He gazed at the wizard in confusion.
“Yes,” Neldor replied drily.
“Explain,” Qildor said.
“Listen then,” Neldor started. “The Castle of Saelethiel has been a secret place for thousands of years. It was the secret training centre of the wizards. Only the most gifted and talented apprentices were sent there, men like Khaalindaan and Norlorn and their powerful predecessors. We know that Khaalindaan had disappeared from his clan. He was in the Castle of Saelethiel. When he came back to his clan, he was the powerful wizard that we know from the legend. He was actually more powerful than Norlorn was. Norlorn was not able to extinguish Khaalindaan. He was only able to ban his spirit for a thousand of years. However, in order to prevent Aglanthol’s future doom, Norlorn made sure that Khaalindaan’s training was flawed. It was not flawed when he met him the first time. But Norlorn changed this. He turned back time and removed all the books from the library of the Castle of Saelethiel that would help Khaalindaan to develop his overall power. Norlorn locked the books in the small chamber that I visited the previous three days. The key to the chamber was passed from the master of the library to his follower. Only few wizards over the centuries had permission to visit the room. Norlorn made sure that the name Khaalindaan was passed on from generation to generation. So when the apprentice Khaalindaan came to the Castle of Saelethiel, he had long been awaited and he was not allowed to visit the chamber. Thus Khaalindaan’s training was flawed. It lacked some magical skills on mind and energy focusing techniques. Norlorn used this for his advantage when he fought against Khaalindaan for the second time.”
“What? When?” Qildor asked in total confusion. This all sounded weird. He struggled to keep up with Neldor’s explanations.
“Yes,” Neldor said calmly. “Norlorn turned back time and arranged all this for his advantage. Khaalindaan was not able to interfere because his spirit was banned by Norlorn’s sword. Norlorn then turned time forward again to the point where he and Khaalindaan met for the final battle. He let Khaalindaan make the first move. Khaalindaan channelled his life force into one single spot of energy, charged it with his destructive emotions and gave it a target: Aglanthol’s doom and ruin. Khaalindaan then let the energy burst free and aim for its target. This act required total focusing of the mind on one single spot in time and on one single target. When Norlorn and Khaalindaan had met for the first time, Khaalindaan had been a master of this exercise. And so he seemed to be when they met the second time. Norlorn did only react to Khaalindaan’s move. However, he managed to distract Khaalindaan’s spirit for the split of a second when he called out Khaalindaan’s name. That sufficed to ban Khaalindaan’s spirit with the sword. Norlorn was a master of the sword. When they met again for the second time, all seemed to happen exactly like it had happened the first time. However, it had not. Norlorn took care for the future. He knew Khaalindaan’s spirit would be released some day. But he made sure that a minor wizard like I am one would be able to defeat Khaalindaan.”
“How...?” Qildor started. He was still struggling to grasp the wizard’s thoughts.
“You witnessed it yourself,” Neldor said. “The peasant Dran retrieved Norlorn’s sword from the ground and thus released Khaalindaan’s spirit. The energy ball shot here and there, away from Dran and back to him. It missed you and Magath. Gwyn, an old and average woman, however strong-willed and determined, was able to distract the spirit. And then I absorbed the energy with the help of a symbol that I focused on. Khaalindaan was not able to disturb my focusing of the mind.”
Qildor gazed into the darkness. Neldor’s words sank in only slowly. He gazed at the wizard.
“Norlorn arranged all this? His magic was in fact powerful,” he said slowly.
“He changed the course of time and the course of history. A powerful and dangerous skill,” Neldor said pensively. “And he killed two birds with one stone.”
“Why? What else did he do?” Qildor asked.
“Think of the legend of the ancient town,” Neldor said. “Foreigners came to our land, and then all of them died of the plague. And no more foreigners ever came here again. We were wondering about that. Do you remember?”
Qildor nodded pensively. “So what did Norlorn do?” he asked.
“Norlorn put up a mighty ward that has been guarding the coast since this time. This is why the foreigners have not returned. They are unable to pass the ward. Perhaps they turn and sail back to their homeland or perhaps their ships sink in the ocean once they come close to our continent. This I do not know,” Neldor said.
Silence fell. Qildor looked into the distance. This all was hard to grasp. Neldor watched him patiently.
“What about the symbols on the map?” Qildor asked finally.
“It’s an artificial language,” Neldor said. “Norlorn invented it. I found the code and I transcribed the text on the map. It’s an instruction. Norlorn explains the time travel technique. I am not sure if he himself wrote the text on the map or if maybe it was copied by someone else, someone who had access to Norlorn’s original script.”
Neldor yawned. “I must sleep now. I am tired,” he said.
“How can you sleep? Qildor asked. “Deciphering the symbols was what you tried for decades. It was your life’s quest. You succeeded. You don’t really sound enthusiastic about it.”
“My life’s quest, yes. I must say I am very pleased with the result. I did not accidentally come along when I was needed most. I usually don’t go for a walk on a snow-covered hill in the north of Aglanthol,” he said.
Qildor gazed at the wizard. His eyes widened as the truth dawned on him.
“You mean...?” he started.
“Yes,” Neldor said with a faint smile. “I applied Norlorn’s magic. I turned back time to the point when you left the royal court. Once you know how to do it, it’s not that difficult. I was sitting in the secret chamber and finished my meal. And then I turned back time. I followed you north. I arrived just in time and went up the snow-covered hill. I knew where to find you, Magath, Gwyn, and Khaalindaan’s spirit. The first time, I had not arrived in time. But I did not fail the second time. I then stayed with Gwyn for a while. That’s why I am very exhausted. I turned time forward again and I found myself in the secret chamber. Only one minute or so had passed. The soup was still hot. But actually I had been away for a fortnight or so. I really need to rest now.”
Qildor did not respond. This was definitely above him. He gazed into the darkness until a thought occurred to him.
“Why don’t I remember that you failed the first time?” he asked. “I must have known until noon today. And then, when you turned back time, it all escaped my mind?”
“It’s an effect of the time change,” Neldor explained.
Qildor gazed at the wizard.
“So what happened the first time? What has escaped my mind?” he asked in a toneless voice.
Qildor was afraid of Neldor’s next words. The wizard gave him a serious look.
“Like I said, I had not arrived on the hill in time. Dran retrieved Norlorn’s sword and set Khaalindaan’s spirit free. Due to Norlorn’s manipulations, Khaalindaan’s spirit had difficulties to focus. The energy ball shot here and there. It returned to Dran several times in order to recharge. It was too much for the man. He died of a heart attack. The energy then aimed at completing its mission that was the destruction of Aglanthol. It chased you and Magath, two Aglanthol men. Gwyn interfered and drew Khaalindaan’s energy towards her. She absorbed the energy with the help of Norlorn’s sword. Her own life force seized Khaalindaans’s energy and then went out like a candle in the wind. She extinguished the evil spirit by killing herself. She was a true heroine.”
Neldor fell silent. Qildor felt a lump in his throat.
“Carry on,” he said in a stifled voice.
“You came back to the royal court as a broken and disillusioned man and you were burdened with guilt. You felt you had destroyed Magath’s life. The man had lost a neighbour he had liked and he had lost a woman he had loved. The man was kind-hearted, but he had lived in his own little world. His world was destroyed. Magath left Tanmil and no one knew where he went to. When I met you at the farmhouse the day before we set off for the Castle of Saelethiel, you told me that you were roaming the land,” Neldor said, fixing his gaze on Qildor.
“I was looking for the ancient town,” Qildor said slowly.
“No, in all honesty, you were also looking for Magath. But so far, you had not found him,” Neldor said.
Qildor closed his eyes. He swallowed.
“I have not thought of him in a while,” he said in a guilty voice.
“I changed the course of time,” Neldor said. “When I saw him in Tanmil, he was in good health. And so were Gwyn and Dran.”
“I must travel to Tanmil,” Qildor said in a pressed voice.
“You certainly must,” Neldor replied seriously.
They exchanged a long look, and then Neldor stretched on his blanket. He soon fell asleep. Qildor kept gazing into the darkness. This all was beyond his grasp. Qildor thought of the day when he had come to Tanmil. What a naive man he had been. The image of Magath came to his mind. Qildor wondered what had happened to him, now that Neldor had changed the course of time.
They travelled on the following day. A few days later, they parted. While Neldor rode back to the royal court, Qildor travelled north. He did not take the direct route to Tanmil, however. Was it wise to return to the village and disturb Magath’s life again? Qildor rode north and entered Khalindash territory. He told himself that he was just investigating on the Khalindash, now that Neldor had changed the course of events. In reality, however, he delayed his return to Tanmil. He was not yet ready to face the man he had come to love and had lost in the past.
Qildor roamed the land for some weeks. Autumn turned into winter and the cold days reminded Qildor of the day when they had fought against the evil spirit of Khaalindaan. He thought of Magath. What had become of the man? And then, one day, he could not ignore his gut feeling any longer. Qildor travelled back to Tanmil.
Gwyn stood outside and looked up at the sky. Heavy gray clouds covered it and an icy wind was blowing. Gwyn wrapped her wooden cloak tighter around her shoulders. Yet her cloak, her cap and her thick scarf barely warmed her. The old woman looked down the street. It was covered with snow that had fallen the previous night. Her neighbours had come out and had started to clear the places in front of their houses of the snow.
Gwyn felt helpless. She was too old and too weak to clear the place. Gwyn kept standing in front of her house. She thought of the horrible day one year ago when she had put on snow shoes and had climbed the snow-covered hill on the back of her house. Gwyn shook her head in disbelief. She wondered how she had even been able to make it to the top of the hill. Gwyn refused to think of what had happened in the forest. Neither she nor Magath had spoken much of it. Dran, who lived on the other side of the hill, had entirely forgotten about it. Gwyn thought that the man was lucky. The wizard Neldor’s drink had cured the poor man who had accidentally stumbled across Norlorn’s sword in the forest. The man had retrieved the sword from the ground and thus had released Khaalindaan’s spirit. Gwyn shuddered at the thought of what she had witnessed in the wood. She shuddered at the thought of what she had done. And she froze even more at the thought of how it had felt when Khaalindaan’s destructive energy had entered her body and had tried to seize her very life force. Gwyn had often tried to push aside her memories, but she had not been able to. Gwyn remembered every single detail.
The old woman was distracted by a voice. Someone called out her name. Gwyn turned her head and spotted Magath. The man had cleared the place in front of his house and now walked through the snow towards her.
“Mistress Gwyn,” he called out.
Gwyn raised her hand and waved at him. She smiled warmly. Gwyn was grateful. Magath always saw to her. He came over to her house at least once a day. He often brought her a rabbit and sometimes a duck that he had caught in the woods or somewhere. Gwyn had chicken and she was a good baker. She always offered Magath eggs and loafs of bread in exchange for the game. In previous years, Gwyn had often told Magath old tales and legends. She knew many stories and Magath had been an attentive listener. The incident in the forest, however, had changed this. They only rarely exchanged old tales and stories now. They talked about current affairs instead. Gwyn felt a little regret. She had enjoyed the story-telling. But, after what had happened, they could not just go back to normal. It was simply not adequate.
“How are you doing, Mistress Gwyn?” Magath asked.
Gwyn sighed. She pointed at the snow-covered place.
“It will be snowing again today. Why clear the place of the snow?” she asked.
Magath smiled. His face was red and covered with sweat. The work had heated him.
“I must clear the place. Else your house would be entirely covered with snow within a few days,” he said.
Gwyn sighed resignedly.
“Thank you, Magath. Please, come in for tea afterwards, will you?” she asked.
“I will,” he said with a smile. “But now I need to clear the place of the snow.”
Magath started to work. Gwyn went inside. She felt grateful. What would she do without Magath’s help? Gwyn fanned the fire in the fireplace. She poured water in a pot and put the pot on the fire. Then she took a wooden box from a shelf. The box was filled with numerous small cotton bags. The bags contained the herbs that Gwyn used for making tea. Magath finally entered the house. He took off his cloak and his scarf. His face looked even more heated.
“Take off your boots as well,” Gwyn said. “Your feet must be cold and wet. Don’t catch a cold. Wrap your feet in a blanket while we are having tea.”
Magath did what she said. It was one of their winter rituals. Magath sat down on the bench in front of the wooden table. Gwyn brought mugs and poured tea. She brought slices of bread, a plate with butter, and a small pot filled with honey.
“Eat, Magath,” she said. “You must be hungry.”
Magath nodded. He took a knife and spread the butter on a slice of bread. Then he took a wooden spoon and spread honey on the bread. Magath took a bite.
“Delicious,” he said.
Gwyn gave him a warm smile. She was very grateful.
“How is Dran doing?” she asked.
“Fine,” Magath said with his mouth full. “I saw him two days ago at his place. He won’t need help. He’s surprisingly strong for his age.”
Gwyn nodded. She had seen Dran a couple of times in summer. Her thoughts shifted again to the day in the forest one year ago.
“Is anything wrong, Mistress Gwynn?” Magath asked.
Gwyn shook her head. She poured Magath more tea.
“I was thinking of the day in the forest,” she said. “The snow reminds me of the day.”
“We never talked much about it. But I have not forgotten the day. And neither have you, Mistress Gwyn, have you?” he asked.
Gwyn shook her head.
“How could I forget? I felt it in my body. I felt it seize my soul. I can deal with it, mind you. I don’t even have bad dreams. But I certainly will not forget,” Gwyn said.
“Neither will I,” Magath replied.
He looked aside for a second. He hoped Gwyn had not seen the look in his eyes. Gwyn, however, had. She had lived so long and she had seen so many things. Barely anything escaped her eyes.
“You are missing him,” she said kindly.
Magath’s cheeks blushed. He did not reply for a second or two. But then he nodded.
“I do,” he said. “But I must overcome this feeling, however. I fear Qildor will not return. He has been away far too long now. He is roaming the country. He’s restless. I cannot exactly say what he is looking for.”
Magath looked at the wall. Gwyn waited patiently until Magath turned his eyes back to her. He smiled in embarrassment. Gwyn gave Magath a nod and a warm smile.
“Khaalindaan stands between you and him like he stands between you and me. But time is a healer. So it is said. And it is, indeed, I know, Magath. I have lived so long. I know from experience. We must trust in time,” she said.
“Time is a healer,” Magath said in a low voice. “You mean just as time moves on, we will be cured from our tormenting memories and our depressing thoughts?”
“Yes, Magath, but of course we must allow ourselves to be healed. We must not sit and wait forever. There is a time for this. But then comes a time to act and undertake some efforts,” she said.
Magath gave her a questioning look.
“You must focus your energy on a new goal,” Gwyn said.
“Like Khaalindaan focused his energy?” Magath asked.
They both winced. Then Gwyn shrugged.
“In a sense, Magath. It is true. Else you get bitter. As bitter as Khaalindaan. The man wasted his energy. We must not do the same,” she said.
“So what do you suggest, Mistress Gwyn?” Magath asked.
“I for myself will resume knitting. It is a simple task. A pair of socks is a simple goal. But it will distract me from my memories. It is a useful task also. I need a pair of socks. I will knit you a pair, too. And a scarf. I saw yours is torn,” Gwyn said.
Magath looked at Gwyn for a while. Then he smiled.
“You’re right, Mistress Gwyn. We are still in a state of shock. Dran forgot. He’s lucky. But we did not. It’s really about time that we change this state of mind,” he said.
He took another slice of bread and ate with new appetite. Gwyn watched him. She felt kind of relieved.
“I’m happy, Magath, that you do not take my words as an offence. What will you do? Do you have a plan already?” she asked.
“I ought to do a lot in and outside the house. But this must wait until spring. I can’t repair the walls and the roof in winter. I’m not yet sure. I always wanted to carve something. I could start with a bowl or so,” Magath said.
“This is just wonderful, Magath,” Gwyn said. “How about we exchange gifts at the feast of Winter Solstice? A pair of socks for a bowl. Thus we won’t give up on our plans.”
Magath gave a laugh.
“All right, Mistress Gwyn. Winter Solstice is in three weeks. A bowl. I can certainly do this,” he said.
Magath was grateful. Gwyn had distracted him from his depressing thoughts. The old woman never let him down.
Winter Solstice had come and with it the longest night of the year. The people in the north of Aglanthol celebrated that night. Winter Solstice was the birthday of the sun and of the year. Within the time of greatest darkness, the light of the world was reborn. The hours of daylight would begin to grow and the hours of darkness would lessen. The holiday went back to ancient times. It was a time of rejoicing and thanksgiving and a time of hope. The beauty and the truth of the light was remembered and honoured. People usually celebrated the day with their loved ones. The celebration started with a festive meal in the evening. Candles were lit and placed in the windows. The families sat in front of the fireplace after dinner and they sang songs together and told each other old legends of the darkness that once had fallen upon the land and stories of the brave men and women who left their villages and went in search of the light. There were many variations of the story.
Gwyn had invited Magath to her house. They would celebrate together and hold up the tradition. Gwyn had cooked potato soup and she had roasted a chicken on a spot. She had baked bread and biscuits. And Magath had prepared strong hot grog.
They finished their opulent meal. Magath changed the candles in the windows and Gwyn pushed the table and the chairs closer to the fireplace. She put a plate with biscuits on the table. Magath poured them grog. And then they exchanged their gifts. Magath had carved a bowl like he had promised and Gwyn had knitted a pair of socks. They smiled at each other as they exchanged their presents. Then they looked into the fire for a while, eating a biscuit now and then and sipping their grog.
“I won’t sing a song,” Gwyn said finally. “I’m not a good singer.”
Magath gave a laugh.
“I won’t sing a song either, Mistress Gwyn. But how about you tell a story? Don’t you think it’s about time we start with it again? You’re a good storyteller.”
Gwyn laughed. She nodded at Magath.
“You are right, Magath. Winter Solstice is the best time of the year for telling stories. But, I guess, you know all the stories about Winter Solstice.”
“Never mind, Mistress Gwyn. Please, tell me your favourite story,” Magath said.
Gwyn made herself more comfortable. Magath also shifted his position. And then the old woman started her story.
“Once upon time, a splendid light shone upon the land in summer and winter. The light was bright and it filled the hearts of the people with joy. But as time went by, people got accustomed to the ever-shining light. They took it for granted and acknowledged it less and lesser. The light faded over time. But people did not realize. They were so absorbed in their daily habits and in their selfish dreams and goals that they gave the fading light no thought. Only a few watched with worry what happened. But even those did not interfere.
The centuries went by and the light shone only in summer. It faded in autumn and was almost gone in winter. Winter had become a dark and cold time. And with that change, people had changed also. Many grew sad and depressed when the light faded in autumn. Many suffered during the long and cold winter days. They blamed each other for their depression. And thus people grew angry and became mad at each other. They quarrelled and many even waged war.
At that time, an old wizard sat alone in his tower. He had lived a long life and he knew he had almost walked his path to its end. He pondered on his life and he pondered on what he had gained and on what he had lost. And he found that what he regretted most was that he had lost the light in his heart and with it his genuine love.
Love is what keeps us alive and draws us to each other. When there is no love, then there is no light, and people’s souls are dark and their hearts are cold and people’s eyes are blind.
The wizard was a wise man. He saw that what had happened to him had happened to all mankind. The light in the outside world had faded because the light and the love in the hearts of the people had faded. Once people had been innocent and their hearts had been filled with joy. They had been like very young children who see the light shine everywhere.
The wizard felt an immense grief. And he swore he would not leave this world without bringing back a bit of the light, even if it was just a spark. He thought that if he was able to light the flame in his heart again, then perhaps the light and the love would spread in the world again. He decided to look for the light.
The wizard was a mighty wizard. He was a gifted magician. He had many skills. And he had experienced a lot. He decided to travel to the source of the splendid light that once shone upon the land. And so he travelled back in time.
He was almost blinded when he opened his eyes. The splendid light that was shining in the beginning of time was so bright that the wise man was not able to see anything for a while. But his eyes slowly adjusted. And then he took in the splendour until his heart was entirely filled with glee and joy. The wise man shed tears and he wept for joy. And when he felt he could not take in anymore, he travelled back to where he had come from. The world was dark and cold. It was the longest night of the year. It was the night of Winter Solstice.
The wizard put candles in the windows of his tower. And the light shone far over the country. The people gathered in front of the tower and gazed up to the many flames in the windows. Then the wise man opened the door and stepped out. He was filled with so much love and happiness. The energy radiated from his heart and touched the souls of the people. Each of them absorbed a bit of the light from the beginning of time. They absorbed the light that the wise man had brought with him. And then the wizard told them his story. The people felt love and peace in their hearts. They hurried home to spread the light and the love and they told the wizard’s story to their families.
From that time on, Winter Solstice has been a holiday that people celebrate with their loved ones. We place candles in the windows in memory of the wise man and his selfless deed. We sit in front of the fireplace and we acknowledge the fire and the light. And we share our love and happiness with our loved ones.”
Gwyn fell silent. Magath let out a sigh.
“Beautiful, Mistress Gwyn. I love this story.”
Gwyn smiled at Magath. She filled the plate with more biscuits and Magath poured them more grog. They told each other more stories until midnight had come. The longest night of the year would soon come to an end. The hours of daylight would begin to grow and the hours of darkness would lessen. Within the time of greatest darkness, the light of the world was reborn.
Magath left and went back to his place. He went to bed and he fell asleep instantly. Dawn had already come when he awoke. Magath blinked and looked at the ceiling. He felt happy. A new day had come.
He was distracted by a knock at the door. Magath turned his head and listened. There was another knock. Magath wondered who had come to his house early in the morning. He rose to his feet and wrapped a blanket around his body, and then he opened the door. Magath did not believe his eyes. He just gazed at the man for a few seconds. His heart beat faster. Magath realized that his heart jumped with joy. A smile appeared on his face and it broadened quickly. The darkest time of his life was finally gone.
Qildor stood outside and smiled at him.
© 2012 Dolores Esteban
First published at GA Gay Authors - Gay Quality Fiction