Written for the "Do Your Shorts Have Legs?" contest. A group must save the world!
| Morrin the Dark rode down the King’s Road at a steady trot. The summons had come at a late hour but, fortunately, he had not been asleep when the King’s messenger pounded on his door. The knight shifted in his saddle and hoped that this was not a false alarm. King Gwenthyme was superstitious and inclined to send his best men out on fool’s errands. Morrin remembered all too well that last one he had been sent on - a quest for a unicorn’s horn. The King had read of its curative powers and became obsessed with the idea of owning one. Forget that unicorns were rare and that it was forbidden to kill one; the King sent men far and wide to hunt for a unicorn’s horn.
Morrin shifted in his saddle again. It had been his task to explain things to his Majesty. The King’s council members were too frightened of his displeasure to object to his wishes. Every fruitless quest had the head of the council sending to Morrin, hoping that he could end the King’s obsession.
Morrin spotted the castle gate ahead and pulled himself straight in his saddle. The sentries saw him coming and opened the gates. Everyone knew Dark Morrin, the King’s champion. Without him, some whispered, the King would spend all of his days dreaming of turning lead into gold and finding the fountain of youth.
Morrin pulled his horse up and dismounted, letting a stable boy take his reins. He gazed up at the full moon as he strode into the castle. He hoped it was a good omen.
The King’s Steward led him to the King’s private study. There Morrin saw King Gwenthyme seated by a roaring fire talking to . . . Morrin pulled up short. A sorceress! In the King’s study! She glanced up at him, her eyes dark pools of mystery in a fair and youthful face. She seemed to take him in at a glance, her eyes reading his very thoughts. Morrin restrained a shudder.
“Sir Morrin! How good to see you! Please, come closer,” said the King, beaming at the sight of his favorite knight.
Morrin knelt down by his Majesty’s chair. “How may I serve you, sire?”
“Well, now that’s a long story. Please rise and take a seat, my Lord Morrin and I shall explain to you.”
Morrin rose and took the only other chair available, the one farthest from the fire. Unfortunately, the sorceress was close by his right hand, with the King on his left. Morrin stared into the fire while he waited for his liege lord to speak.
“Yes, well, hmm. First of all, this is Lady Tymnestra, a sorceress of great renown. I have summoned her here as well.”
Morrin bent his head in the sorceress’s direction, trying not to look into her eyes. He wondered if she was as young as she looked or if she was reluctant to be here. As for himself, he could think of better ways to spend his time. Sleeping, for example. He tore his thoughts away from his bed as the King began to speak.
“Do you study the stars at all, Sir Morrin?” Morrin shook his head and the King went on. “Pity. Such a wonderful thing astronomy. Astrology, too! Anyway, those who study both kinds of lore are in agreement.” The King stopped and nodded a few times to emphasize this point. “There is a certain pattern in the sky that occurs only once every five hundred years. Do you know which one I mean?” The King looked from face to face.
Morrin simply shook his head but Tymnestra spoke up, “The Birth of the World, your Majesty?”
King Gwenthyme nodded, pleased. “Yes, The Birth of the World. Now, I have been reading a fascinating book of astrological lore...”
Here it comes, Morrin groaned mentally.
“It says that once every five hundred years, when the pattern The Birth of the World is in the sky, the gods gather in a special place to determine the fate of the world. Now, it says also that the gods may decide to destroy our world if they believe no one cares. That is to say, if they search the hearts of all beings and find that they would all rather be dead, the gods will destroy the world. Now, we cannot let that happen, can we?”
“Forgive me, your majesty,” Sir Morrin said. “But what is it that you would like me to do about it? I, for one, desire to live. Therefore, we should be in no danger.”
King Gwenthyme shook his head. “I am afraid it is not that simple, my Lord. This book says that the only way to avert destruction for certain is to send a small party to the Golden Lake and have them perform an incantation to the gods. When the gods hear it, they will know for sure that it is not time to destroy the world yet.” The King beamed at Sir Morrin. “Now, the book says that the party is to be four people: a knight warrior, a lady sorceress, a priestess healer, and an animal person. You and Lady Tymnestra shall start in the morning and seek out a priestess healer at the nearest temple.”
“What about the ‘animal person’, your Majesty?” Sir Morrin asked, trying his best not to leap out of his chair and scream that the King was mad.
“There are some living nearby who would fit that description,” Tymnestra said softly. “Were people and Kvess.”
“Were people?” Sir Morrin looked at her in astonishment. “And right now they are all running amok under the full moon as bears or wolves or some such! As for Kvess. . .”
“Sir Morrin,” said the King, coldly. “Your orders are to fulfill this quest. At the time of the next full moon, your party needs to be at the lake.”
Morrin bowed his head. He could not refuse the King’s direct order.
“Since I know well your dislike for magic and strange creatures, I am giving that part of the quest into Lady Tymnestra’s hands. In those ways, she is your superior. I have had the palace scribes copy the relevant passages from my book. The papers are waiting in your quarters. There is a copy for each of you to bar against mishaps. You are both dismissed.” The King rose and retired to his bed, leaving Sir Morrin and Lady Tymnestra staring at one another.
In the early morning light, Sir Morrin tried hard not to look disparagingly at Lady Tymnestra’s white palfrey. A dainty little lady’s horse, he wondered if it would be able to keep up on a long journey. He need have no fear about his own black warhorse. Standing so tall he could barely see over its back, it was well suited for rough travel and hard battle. He waited patiently while Lady Tymnestra settled herself into the saddle. She took so long adjusting her robes, he thought he would go mad. Finally, she was ready, and she met his irritated gaze with calm indifference.
They rode side by side away from the castle. Neither of them spoke until they were in sight of the local temple.
“My lord knight,” Tymnestra said hesitantly. “There is something you should know about our quest.”
Sir Morrin looked over at her.
“The King did not mention this. I was going to, but he gave us our orders before I had a chance.”
“What is it?” Sir Morrin asked, curiosity in his voice.
“The sky pattern, The Birth of the World, will look the same from the next full moon until the same moon next year. The book his Majesty has directs that, in order to be very certain, the party must live together from one full moon to the next, then repeat the incantation.” She looked apologetic. “I do not know if his Majesty intends for us to do this or not. I only thought that you should know.”
Sir Morrin nearly fell from his horse in shock. Surely not! Surely he would have told me if he meant for us to live together for a year! A whole year! Maybe he did not tell you because he knew you would refuse him and be damned to the rules, a voice whispered inside his head.
“Surely not . . .” Sir Morrin said, but that was all he could get out.
“I thought that we should tell our next two members,” she continued. “A year is a long time for a priestess healer to live away from her temple. And even Kvess and were people have lives of their own.”
“I am inclined to agree with you,” Sir Morrin said, after a moment of thought. “If one of them is unwilling to do this, we should find another to whom it will not matter so much. Hopefully, the King will not insist on that particular condition.”
Tymnestra murmured agreement as they rode up to the temple.
“This way, my Lord and Lady,” the acolyte said, leading them into the temple’s interior courtyard. The garden was beautiful in the summer sunshine, but Lady Tymnestra barely saw it. How had she managed to get herself into this? Sent on a quest with a magic-hating knight and two other strangers. I should never have decided to study magic, she told herself. Daddy was right. It only leads to trouble.
“Here are the lady healers, Sir and Madam, assembled by the King’s order,” the acolyte gestured at a group of people dressed in white. His duty done, the boy departed.
Lady Tymnestra looked at the group in dismay. Some thirty or so ladies stood or sat talking to one another. Not one of them looked capable of a possibly rough journey.
“There you are, Sir Morrin! And Lady Tymnestra too! Perhaps you would like to tell me what this is all about, hmm?”
Tymnestra turned to see a short round man dressed in priest’s robes of rich crimson. He smiled at them while Sir Morrin explained, but his smile turned to a frown when he heard of the possibility of losing a priestess healer for a year.
“Sir Morrin, surely you jest! My children cannot be away from their home for that long! Perhaps you could tell his Majesty . . .”
“He has given me his orders,” Morrin interrupted. From the bleak look on his face, it was obvious exactly how useless Sir Morrin considered this mission.
“Dear, dear,” murmured the priest. “Well, let us put it to the ladies, shall we?”
Tymnestra could tell that the priest was hoping all his ‘children’ would refuse to go, giving him an excuse to send a righteous complaint to the King.
“Now then, are all the priestess healers here?” The priest called, striding toward the group of women. Those who had been sitting stood up at the priest’s words.
“All but one, father,” called a voice from the back. “Sierra is still finishing her rounds.”
“Here I am, father,” said a girl, rushing past Sir Morrin and Lady Tymnestra. “I am terribly sorry, but one of the little ones in the village became sick all over me and I had to change robes!” She stopped before the priest and pulled her black hair out of her eyes.
“That’s all right, my dear,” he said, eyeing her as if she might be sick all over him. “You are just in time.”
The priest explained about the King’s orders and silence descended over the group of women. He told about the possibility of being a year away from the temple and cries of shock echoed through the air. The healers, ranging in age from fifteen to fifty-five, were united in their expressions of horror. Except . . .
Except for the one that had arrived late. Sierra, her name was, Tymnestra thought to herself. Sierra was standing, still and silent, with an odd expression on her face.
Evidently the priest noticed too, he said to her softly, “And what of you, my child?”
Again silence descended as all the healers waited for Sierra to speak.
“I will go,” she said softly. “I feel it to be important somehow.”
“What do you mean?” the priest said, startled.
“I feel it here,” she said, placing a hand over her heart. “And I cannot explain it anymore than that.”
Tymnestra looked into the girl’s eyes and shivered. She was different from the others, who stood stock still around her and voiced no protests as she walked over to stand facing Sir Morrin and herself.
Sir Morrin bowed to Sierra and Tymnestra took her hand and smiled at her. She was just a child, really. She could not be more than eighteen summers old.
So Sierra packed and joined Sir Morrin, who looked very stern, and Lady Tymnestra, who seemed kind, if aloof, at the temple’s steps. She waved farewell to her friends at the temple and her father priest, who had blessed her before she touched unhallowed soil. As if, she thought to herself, I did not run about outside everyday! Still, it was kindly meant, and no doubt traditional, so she thanked him gravely and walked down to her waiting horse. She attached her packs and mounted, noticing Sir Morrin’s look of relief. No doubt he had expected that she did not know how to ride. Fortunately for him, Sierra’s father raised horses and had taught her a great deal. She had never been a quiet child, forever riding or running around getting into trouble. Sierra leaned forward and patted her horse. He was a beautiful bay and she knew that they would get along just fine.
The trio rode away from the temple, Sir Morrin leading. “How far is it to the Golden Lake?” Sierra asked after a few moments of silence.
“About two weeks, if the good weather holds,” Sir Morrin said.
“What about the, ah, animal person?” she asked.
“I shall take care of that,” Lady Tymnestra answered.
The group rode until it was nearing sunset, then Lady Tymnestra said, “Stop!” They all reined in and Sir Morrin said, “Why?”
“I need to spend the night in that clearing over there,” she replied, pointing to the right.
“I had intended us to stop at an inn for the night,” Sir Morrin said.
“I need to summon an animal person.”
Lord and Lady stared at one another in the reddening light while Sierra shifted uncomfortably on her horse.
“Very well,” he said at last, turning his horse off the road and into the clearing.
They set up camp and Lady Tymnestra built a fire and spoke strange words over it and added powders that sent up colored sparks into the night. Sierra watched her curiously, but Sir Morrin paced, clearly uncomfortable in the presence of magic. Finally, Tymnestra sat, still and silent, her hands held outstretched and palm up in a gesture of summoning. She sat and sat, until Sierra wondered just how long she could hold that position. Then Sierra heard crackling in the bushes.
Sir Morrin whipped around, sword flying out of its sheath to stand facing the noise.
“Lady, call off your guard dog,” came a rough, rasping voice from the darkness.
Tymnestra stood, stretching and said, “It is all right, Sir Morrin. It is merely a Kvess.”
Sir Morrin put away his sword and the Kvess stepped into the firelight. Sierra regarded it with interest. She had never seen a Kvess before. They were said to be shy of humans. It was short, a full head shorter than Sierra and she was the smallest of the three. It was a brilliant orange-red, with wings and a tufted tail. And what claws! Sierra thought, fascinated. It could shred stone with claws like that!
Sir Morrin had a most peculiar expression on his face. To Sierra, it looked as though he was repressing disgust. But he spoke fairly enough, telling the creature of their quest, the King’s orders, and the possibility of living together for a year.
“Is this why you summoned me, Lady?” it asked, turning to Tymnestra.
She nodded wearily and said, “Are you willing? Well I know that Kvess have no love for humans. We will be traveling through inhabited land for the next week or so. I cannot promise that every innkeeper will rejoice at the thought of a Kvess in his rooms. Some may even insist you sleep in the stables.”
The kvess laughed, a harsh sound, and said, “Well, Lady, you have called the right Kvess, as no doubt you knew when you summoned me here. I am Nimrar and I crave adventure.” He paused, then added, “I also just love to tweak fat innkeeper’s noses. The expressions of horror on their faces when they see me come in their door will be quite delicious.” He grinned, showing a large amount of sharp, pointed teeth.
“So our party is complete,” said Tymnestra, turning to Sir Morrin.
“How will you travel?” Sir Morrin asked Nimrar. “Will a horse carry you?”
“What need have I of a horse?” Nimrar gestured to his wings. “I can keep up by flying. Indeed, I can warn you of danger from above.”
Sir Morrin nodded his acceptance. “We start at dawn.”
The party dismounted at Golden Lake, weary beyond measure and with only one day to practice the incantation. A flooded river had held them up, along with the rain that had caused the flood and the mud that went with it. They had traveled together for almost four weeks now, and knew each other quite well. Sir Morrin and Lady Tymnestra had become quite friendly on the road, and Sierra spent a lot of time talking to Nimrar about healing among the Kvess. Apparently, they had shaman instead of healers, who also spoke to them their god’s desires.
They practiced the incantation at Lady Tymnestra’s direction and memorized the words they must speak. When night fell and the full moon rose, they were ready. They stood in a small arc facing the waters of the Golden Lake. They each spoke in turn, surprisingly passionate about their world and their love of life, speaking the archaic words with all the fervor King Gwenthyme could have hoped for.
When the incantation ended, they fell silent. They stood, staring out at the moonlit waters, and wondered if they would have to repeat this next year. Maybe they were simply too early or maybe they had misspoken.
Then the rumble started. They stared at each other in wild surmise; the noise sounded like an earthquake, but the ground was not shaking. Then each of them felt a blessing descend upon them. At least, that was how they explained it later, to each other and everyone who asked. It felt as if they had been washed in golden light, and they knew how the Golden Lake had gotten its name. The gods smiled down upon them, and gifted them with the knowledge of the original meaning of the incantation.
“You see, you Majesty,” Sir Morrin explained, his eyes glowing. “It was originally intended as a thanks giving ritual to the gods. The gods are very pleased that you have revived it, and have promised that your reign will be long and successful. No war will come to these lands, only peace and prosperity.”
King Gwenthyme drew an astonished breath. “Well, that is wonderful news indeed! Yes, I am very pleased, Sir Morrin. You shall all be suitably rewarded. . .” He stopped because the four were shaking their heads.
“We have already been rewarded, your Majesty,” Tymnestra said. She turned to Sir Morrin and took his hand in hers. “Sir Morrin and I intend to marry.”
“And I am going to live with the Kvess,” Sierra spoke up. “I am going to study them and their medicine. Nimrar and I have much in common and I think that it is time we grew to know our fellow beings.” She spoke with conviction, as though daring him to object.
The King threw his hands into the air. “As you all wish! However, I will do this.” He rose and raised his voice so that it echoed around the throne room. “From this day forward, you and your kin are official friends of the kingdom! All must aid you, and whoever hinders you must face my severe displeasure!”
The courtiers all applauded and the four heroes bowed. And somewhere far away, the gods smiled.