|"Leave us," a frail voice said, followed shortly after by quickly fading footsteps. The same voice then called to me. I recognized it long before I could see its source, and when the dim hall finally came into focus, Lord Talso sat alone on a rocky throne at its far end.
"Welcome, Vira...my child," said Talso. "I see Augus found you, after all. Down in the stables, were you?" He stood slowly and opened his arms wide as I approached him. He wore a loose brown robe and his stringy gray hair fell well past his sagging shoulders.
"You know me too well, My Lord," I replied, smiling uneasily.
In his youth, Lord Talso was a boulder with legs. Short, strong, sturdy. But like a rock, his strength had eroded over time. His back was now bowed. His shoulders dipped with each tired step. He no longer filled out his robes. It had only been a few months since I saw him last, but I noticed right away just how much older and weaker he looked. The shadows under his eyes had me wondering if he had slept at all in the last few days. Surely, something was troubling him.
We met a few steps in front of his throne. He hugged me lightly then kissed my cheek. "Please, dear, we have much to discuss," he said, "and I fear time is against us." Talso took my hand. "Forgive a tired old man if he uses a strong young woman for a bit of support."
"No apologies are necessary, my Lord," I assured him.
"Right, then--shall we walk?"
"If that's your wish." And Talso led me into a dark hallway behind his throne. I supported him more than I had expected to; he was as weak as I was strong. We walked in silence until the narrow hallway dead-ended into a wall of rock. "My Lord?" I asked.
Talso said nothing, instead pointing up. I looked to where the ceiling should have been, but saw only a circular shaft cut straight through the mountain, a distant point of light, and nothing else.
"Hang on tight," he said, winking at me.
I caught the gleam of a bright green gem set in an old gold ring as Talso, with his palms down, raised his arms. The ground began to tremble then broke free from the earth around it. The flat rock on which we were standing floated into the air, taking us along with it. Up the shaft, picking up speed as we climbed higher and higher. I craned my neck, watching as the point of light above me grew. Wider. Brighter. Suddenly, we burst into the open, the brilliant sunlight nearly blinding me. The ground stopped moving and on wobbly legs I staggered away from the lift.
We were standing on top of the Mountain on a small ledge overlooking the valley. Far below was the square, and the farms to the east, and the fort and twin bluffs beyond that. And even from that height, I could see the thin fog still covering the village. Our perch high above the ground, however, allowed me to see right through it. "Everyone looks so small," I said, watching hundreds of people bustle about the square.
"I still got it," said Talso, limping forward and joining me on the ledge.
"You can see the whole village...."
"And that village is all we have left," said Talso.
"Thanks for bringing me up here," I said. I turned to look at him and saw him already looking at me, as if he were studying me, judging me even. His sad, brown-eyed gaze only added to my nervousness.
"I wish I could say I showed you this for pleasure--" said Talso, sighing as he turned away, "but that would be a lie."
"What troubles you, my Lord?" I asked.
"Simply put," he said, "time, or lack thereof, I should say. I have so much to tell you; finding a suitable beginning is difficult." He raised a flat hand and two rock chairs sprung from the ground. Sliding into one, Talso motioned for me to take the other. "As you must know by now, you are the bravest and most able fighter in the village--"
"You speak too kindly," I said quickly. I had been hearing that sort of praise since the first time I picked up a sword, but it always took me by surprise. I wasn't sure I even believed it, after all. Feeling my face go flush, I stared at the ground and mumbled, "Thank you."
"Don't thank me yet, Vira. Hear all I have to say. If you still wish to thank me when I've finished, you may do so then. I've been on this earth for eighty years, and I've seen many things. My ancestors, the heirs of Saxum, the Earth Lord, ruled the people of Radix for over seven hundred years, but our reign is about to end. I am not long for this world, and as I have been unable to produce a child, the power to manipulate the earth shall die with me."
"Surely, we have years before we have to worry about that, Sir," I said, trying to sound hopeful.
Talso shook his head. "I'm dying as we speak. My power...it's already fading. I cannot do the things I could sixteen years ago, let alone the things I did as a young man. I cannot protect us for much longer. And because of that, a task has arisen that requires someone with extraordinary abilities. This task may very well determine our survival. We must hope it does not come to that, but I will not sit around and put our fate in the hands of hope."
"And what sort of task do you speak of?" I asked meekly, realizing that we were nearing the reason he had summoned me here. My throat twisted so bad I couldn't even swallow.
"Our people are in grave danger," said Talso. "The enemy who drove us to the mountains sixteen years ago hunts us still. This fog...this penetrating, bone-chilling mist marks not the arrival of an early, harsh winter, but the presence of our dreaded foe. The fate we escaped so many years ago bears down on us once more.
"Sixteen years ago our lands were besieged by an unknown army. They waged a terrible war on our people and destroyed many of our cities. When they took Concilia--and killed Queen Tacea--any hope of our kingdom surviving the war died with her." His head sank and his sad eyes welled with tears when he spoke of the Queen. I had heard long ago that Talso and the Queen were once dear friends. He slowly gathered himself, wiped his eyes with his sleeve, and cleared his throat.
"You were much too young to recall the panic that followed the horrible news of our capital falling. I had a decision to make and saw only two choices. Fight and die, or flee...and perhaps live. I chose to flee and brought with me all who would follow. Others chose to fight; I can only hope their end was as swift as it was courageous.
"We fled to the mountains and they have protected us since. We rebuilt our homes and we rebuilt our lives. But the enemy never stopped searching for us. We knew someday they would find us and find us they have. It is they who have set this fog you see upon us."
"This can't be," I said.
"I'm afraid it can. The closer they come to finding us, the thicker and colder the mist will become. Those who have braved it and survived say that when the Esormians are near, the fog is so thick it steals your breath. The coming of the mist can only mean they are closing in on us. They will find Imputa, and they will find it soon."
"We have to prepare," I said, rising from my seat. "How soon will they be here?"
"Soon enough to worry an old man," said Talso, smiling weakly. "You can sit down, though. We still have a few months before we they find us....We are well hidden, after all--but this time there is nowhere to run. Our backs are against a wall, or a Mountain, whichever you prefer."
Chills raced down my back and my hair nearly stood on end as a fierce battle played out in my head. "Let them come," I said, looking at Talso with fervor in my green eyes.
"I appreciate your enthusiasm," he replied, smiling, "but sadly it is difficult for me to share in it. You must know we lack the knights to meet them in open battle. They are every bit as strong as they were sixteen years ago, possibly stronger. Either way, they are certainly much stronger than we are. And they are warriors, Vira. We are not. We are farmers, miners, old men, women, children...
"If I had five thousand of you, yes--but if I had five thousand of you we would not hide in the mountains. We would take the fight to them, we would push them into the sea, and we would chase them back to whatever forsaken land they came from! Yes! They would rue the day they ever landed on the shores of Quiesco!" He thrust his fist into the air, and for a moment, looked like the Talso of old as I remembered him when I was a child.
"--But, no...we are not that fortunate," he said, shaking his head. His shoulders slumped and his true age returned to his wrinkled face. "It is not a fight we can win. We will prepare our defenses and make our stand beside our homes. They will break on our walls like waves on rocks. We will slay more savages than we can count and fight to our glorious end, but that end is as certain as the setting of the sun. They will be too strong. I do not possess the Light of Concil, only his resolve. I cannot hold back the mist. The stone that protect us will eventually crumble and we will have nowhere to go. Our sanctuary of so many years will be our bloody tomb, and the few remaining free people of our land will be reduced in number yet again."
"What would you have us do?"
"Simply, I would have us endure," he replied.
I stared silently into the distance. All too real images of the bodies of my brothers and sisters littering the grounds of Imputa assaulted my mind. Faceless pale demons clad in mail with axes held high overhead ransacked the village, slaughtering anyone who stood in their way. "I can't settle for such a fate, my Lord," I finally protested, shaking back the horrible images.
A silence fell between us as I replayed Talso's words in my head. It wasn't until the second time through that it finally hit me. "My Lord," I said, looking up excitedly.
"Yes, child?" he replied, his gaze once more searching within me.
"There are more of us...aren't there?" I asked as excitement lifted me from my chair. "You said the few remaining free people will be reduced in number--" I wagged my finger at him "--but you didn't say we would be gone completely."
"As always, Vira, you are much too perceptive," said Talso, leaning forward and patting my shoulder. "A few months ago, an unexpected visitor appeared in my hall. He came and went in the middle of the night and nobody else ever knew he was here."
"Who was he?"
"He was a man--one I knew of a long time ago. We had never before met, but I had heard a great deal about his abilities. It took him quite some time to convince me I wasn't in some deep dream, but once he did, he told me of a place--a far, far away place--across valleys, over mountains, through ancient forests. And he spoke of knights--the fiercest, most courageous knights in the land...the Knights of the Citadel. The same knights who once bravely served the heirs of Concil. He also spoke of the man who led them all, their Captain. And he told me this Captain has survived for all these years.
"It is this Captain who can save us all, Vira. Until my guest told me otherwise, I thought him dead. I'm still not sure I believe he's alive. But if he is, that alone convinces me his strength has endured, as well."
Disappointed flooded over me. I had expected so much more. "One man?" I asked.
"One man," replied Talso.
"What can one man do that the thousands here can't? If our hope rests with one man, then I do fear for us."
"It is not only one man. It is what, and whom, that one man commands! You know the tales of King Concil. I see you at the temple every week." And Talso sang:
In the beginning,
The seas were sinister.
No one dared sail 'cross them
So Concil went to the Smiths
And they crafted him an orb.
Now the oceans calm around Him.
The mountains were malicious.
No one dared pass over them
So Concil went to the Smiths
And they crafted him a ring.
Now the mountains part before Him.
The winds were wrathful.
No one dared stand before them
So Concil went to the Smiths
And they crafted him a cloak.
Now the winds transport Him.
The wilds were wicked.
No one dared walk through them
So Concil went to the Smiths
And they crafted him a staff.
Now the wilds answer to Him.
The world was evil and darkness ruled.
Sunlight dared not show its face
So Concil went to the Smiths
And they crafted him a crown.
Now the light lives within Him.
The world was made safe
When Concil was made King.
"Of course I know that song," I said. "It's just a song, though--some old tale to explain how the Five Powers came to us."
"That it is, but as you know, all stories are rooted in truth. Lord Concil really did calm the seas, and part the mountains, and corral the winds, and tame the wilds. Concil grew to be the mightiest warrior in the land, and the people followed him, but a dark power grew in the south of Lefebra Forest. The cruel Lady Malifica had enslaved the people of Dissidea and threatened to cover the entire land in darkness.
"On the southern reaches of the Campi Plains, Concil's army met Malifica's slaves and they fought a fierce battle. With the Crown of Radiance upon his head, Concil's army brought light to where darkness once ruled, and after three days of bitter fighting, the Dark Lady lay slain on the battlefield. The free people were victorious. Brusalas was renamed Concilia and became the capital of a new kingdom--Quiesco was born. Concil was crowned King for his efforts and his heirs ruled over this land until the mist demons extinguished the Queen's Light sixteen years ago--but it was not Concil who slew Malifica. Another man sought her out and ended her dark reign."
"And who was this other man?"
"The other man--the hero of the battle--was a little known warrior from Acta, and he was honored above all other commoners. His name was Demitto--Demitto the Fearless. And after the Great War, when King Concil organized the Knights of the Citadel to protect his royal house, the House of Aequitas, he named Demitto his first Knight-Captain. And over the next seven hundred years, the heirs of Demitto watched over the heirs of Concil, with each eldest child inheriting the post of Knight-Captain. This tradition continued still when the army of savages stormed the Citadel of Light.
"The Captain at the time was a young man, not much older than you are now. His name was Fortis and most considered him the finest warrior since Demitto himself. No one matched his skill with a blade. A year before his father passed, I had the great pleasure of watching him train. All by himself, he took on and defeated a small company of knights numbering no less than ten.
"As talented as he was, what truly made him stand out was his resourcefulness, which he wasted no time proving. In his first year as Captain, a riot broke out in Amnicola. Food was scarce in the north that year and people were starving. The Queen ordered him to use his knights to quell the rebellion, but he took liberties with the orders. He told his guards to wait outside Amnicola's gates and entered the city alone. In the town square, he faced the angry mob and talked down its leaders, promising the service of his knights in bringing food up the Duo River from nearby Media. He prevailed with pledges and friendship in a place where the Queen ordered him to use the blade..."
"Lord Talso," I asked, "if Captain Fortis is all these things, why did Concilia fall?"
"Unfortunately, it was beyond his control. The Queen ordered the city defended, and Fortis prepared a defense worthy of the sacred ground he commanded. Treachery, though, ruined his best-laid plan, treachery of the worst kind, and I will not recount the crimes of the Dissideans here."
"Very well," I said, knowing from experience not to push him. "Where might we find this Captain Fortis?" I eventually asked.
"Captain Fortis and the surviving Knights of the Citadel dwell deep within Lefebra Forest. They have been carrying on much as we have, managing to escape detection for all these years. The journey to seek them out will be treacherous if you are able to avoid capture--perilous if you are not. The road east runs from Concilia through Danum. Soldiers patrol it as the Mist-men force caravans of slaves to carry supplies to and from the capital. That road is the only way through the Limen Gap--a narrow, mountain pass, easily defensible against even a much larger army. All the soldiers in this village couldn't take that pass, and it is the only road to the eastern lands where Lefebra Forest and Captain Fortis await."
"Who will you send if a whole army couldn't get through?"
"This is a case in which one person might succeed where an entire army might fail," replied Talso.
"You wish for that person to be me," I breathed, barely audible. It was less of a question than a realization. My stomach suddenly felt queasy; sweat beaded on my brow; my hands began to shake.
"I do," said Talso. "I would place this task in the hands of no one else. You have prepared your entire life for this moment, Vira. You are our most able warrior, and I fear that without the help of Captain Fortis, we will not survive the winter; your ultimate task is at hand....You are ready."
"I'll do my best," I whispered. My mouth was dry; the world began to spin. "I won't--" I gulped "--I will not fail you."
"I know you won't," said Talso, putting a comforting hand on my shoulder. "I know, because you do not know how to fail--it's just not in your nature. Besides, if you don't find Captain Fortis, and find him soon, you won't have a home to return to, and there will be no one here for you to have failed." He forced a weak smile as tears welled in his twinkling eyes.
I turned away and gazed over the valley below, trying my hardest not to cry alongside him.
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