by Anthony Simeone
Ferran, innkeeper of The Shadowed Rest, was counting coins when he noticed the man sitting alone at a table near the common room’s blazing hearth. Preoccupied by the copper pieces in his hand, Ferran had not seen him enter the inn. The innkeeper suspected that the man had come through the door with his face hidden by the hood of the plain grey cloak he wore. Shrouded in that cloak, the newcomer would have been taken for any other commoner that shuffled into Ferran’s inn. But without a hood to conceal his features, the man caught the notice of all eyes around him.
Even now, the other patrons of The Shadowed Rest were muttering to one another, casting glances at the man. They squinted at him through the haze of smoke from pipes, the hearth, and the inn’s cookfires, gesturing at him with tankards. Even the serving girls were whispering in a small circle near the bar. Ferran cleared his throat and glared at them, and they hurried back to their work. The girls resumed their dance between the round tables in the common room, gliding over the plank floor, answering calls for more ale, tending to lanterns when wicks burned low.
Indeed, the grey-cloaked man was a stranger to everyone except Ferran. The innkeeper drew two tankards of ale from a barrel and moved out from behind the bar. As he approached, the newcomer looked up from the fire, which he had been watching intently. Haunted eyes met Ferran’s own. The innkeeper set the tankards down on the table.
“You’re Thidrek of Narad,” Ferran said.
The man’s eyes widened, and he reached for a dagger in a sheath on his belt.
Ferran raised his hands in a calming gesture. “Peace, friend. I will not harm you. Nor will I call for the magistrate. And I assure you, I am not your equal with a blade.”
Thidrek’s eyes appraised Ferran. The innkeeper was of similar age and stature to the other man. Both were large of body and beyond their middle years. But where time had been kind to Thidrek, it had not been so to Ferran. Thidrek retained much of the lean muscle of youth, where the innkeeper had long ago gone to fat. Ferran’s hair had become white and had fallen out until he was almost as bald as an egg, while the other man had long, iron grey locks, which were pulled back into a ponytail.
“Who are you?” Thidrek demanded. “How do you know me?”
“May I sit?” asked Ferran.
Thidrek stared at the innkeeper for another moment, then nodded. Ferran lowered his bulk into a chair across the table from the other man, and pushed a tankard toward Thidrek.
“I was once in the legions of the old king,” Ferran said. “Just like you. I was one of many who idolized you. All of us footmen shared tales of your deeds, watched you rise in the ranks, saw you take your place at the old king’s side as his Counselor of War.”
“I did not think anyone here would know me,” Thidrek said quietly as he took a swallow of ale. Ferran thought that few who once knew the warrior would recognize him now. Thidrek’s face, once kept clean-shaven, had made women weak. Now the old warrior’s visage was covered with a ragged beard, and deep wrinkles surrounded his eyes and frowning mouth. Loose hairs had escaped Thidrek’s ponytail and hung heavy with sweat.
“None of these others would know you on sight.” Ferran waved his own tankard at the crowd in the common room. “They are simple folk, and rarely do they see someone dressed as a warrior.” The innkeeper gestured at the faded, oft-patched leather armor that covered Thidrek’s chest, arms, and legs, and at the daggers on his belt and broadsword on his hip. “High in these mountains, we are far from war and strife. That is why I came here to Ulmer. To leave warring and pain behind me.”
The innkeeper rolled up a long sleeve and laid his right arm on the table. Thidrek saw that Ferran’s hand was covered in calluses, the knuckles swollen and arthritic. Two of the innkeeper’s fingers were missing, and a network of ragged scars ran up his arm from palm to elbow. A tattoo of a hawk, distorted by the twisted flesh but still recognizable, writhed as Ferran flexed his remaining fingers.
“The mark of the Fourth Legion,” breathed Thidrek as he looked up at Ferran, and the innkeeper saw a new respect enter the warrior’s eyes.
“The scars are a legacy of the campaigns against the alfari from Mathara. I fought those long-ears just as you did, Thidrek. I know what horrors can drive a man to leave everything he knows behind.”
“What do you know of what I have seen?” Thidrek spat. “What I have done…and failed to do?” The warrior turned his gaze to the hearth fire again.
“I know that you were not only old King Abram’s war counselor, but also his friend and protector. And I know that the old king was murdered by a Matharan assassin.”
Anger twisting his face, Thidrek ripped a dagger from his belt and drove the tip of the blade deep into the wooden tabletop. Ferran recoiled from the old warrior’s rage.
“The bastard used sorcery to reach Abram’s chamber in the middle of the night!” roared Thidrek, spittle foaming his beard. “The long-ears knew sending someone into the castle was suicide, but the damned zealots don’t fear for their lives. Our wizards’ glyphs on the walls could not stop him. We slaughtered the assassin as he tried to escape, but he had already gutted the king. The wizards failed us, the great god Camran damn them!”
“And the blame fell on you,” Ferran said quietly, doing his best to ignore the dagger still wrapped in Thidrek’s white-knuckled grip. “I remember when the commanders told us. The king’s other counselors said you should have been more cautious with your selection of bodyguards, should have worked more closely with the wizards to keep the wards strengthened. There was even the suggestion that you had conspired with the Matharans.”
The rage bled from Thidrek’s eyes. The old warrior let go of the dagger’s hilt and hung his head. “I did not betray Abram. There would never have been enough men to protect him, and no spell would ever have been powerful enough. The Matharans would have found a way to reach the king eventually. But the other counselors had always coveted my relationship with Abram. My friend’s death was the excuse they had sought for so long. When Kerran, Abram’s son, ascended to the throne, the counselors convinced him that I should be executed. He was so young, the new king, and he believed the liars. So I fled like a coward, in disgrace.”
“And so you have wandered for years,” the innkeeper said. “I have heard troubadours tell tales of your supposed treachery countless times, and each time I refused to believe them. Some have even tried to sing their slanders here, under my very roof, and I have thrown such out on their arses!”
“For that, I thank you,” Thidrek muttered into his tankard as he took another pull from it.
Ferran leaned closer to the warrior. “You should know that, even here in Ulmer, Kerran’s bounty on your head would drive even the humble dwellers of this village to turn you in for gold. But know that I will do what I can to shelter you. I was always heartened to hear that you still lived, and that you made your way through the world with your sword.”
“No better than a damned mercenary,” rumbled Thidrek as he pulled his dagger from the table and sheathed it. “I’ve spilled so much blood for coins. What honor do I have left?”
“No one can ever take away your honor. It runs too deep in you.”
Thidrek snorted. “Don’t coddle me as if I were a weeping child. Keep the ale flowing and leave me in peace.”
The old warrior waved at Ferran dismissively and drained his tankard. The innkeeper watched the ale spill through the man’s beard, then stood up.
“Ulmer is as good a place as any to hide from one’s past, nestled here in the high mountains,” Ferran said. “Who would think Thidrek of Narad would cease his wanderings in such an insignificant village?”
The warrior had turned away from Ferran to watch the fire again, obviously intent on ignoring the innkeeper.
“Still,” Ferran continued, “seclusion is not the only reason one might come to this valley. There is also…the legend.”
Thidrek looked up at the innkeeper again. “What did you say?”
Ferran nodded and smiled. “There is no need to be wary, friend. I came here to seek it myself years ago. The legend tells of a portal, somewhere in the mountains above Ulmer, that leads to a place of eternal peace for those who tire of serving death. It is a pathway to a paradise created by the pagan gods of old, before the Church of Camran spread the word of the One God Above. There a man might bask in the honor he has known in his life, find release from the mire of guilt and regret. The ancient alfari that dwelled in this valley called it sainka badal. Warrior’s Reward.”
“It’s true,” Thidrek said in a choked whisper as he gaped at Ferran. The warrior gripped the innkeeper’s forearm with a trembling hand. “I seek the portal! Do you know where it lies?”
“Perhaps,” the innkeeper said as he watched Thidrek’s pleading eyes. “I searched for days beyond counting, ranging deeper and deeper into the mountains, with only the legend to guide me. I spent years as a man possessed, ever seeking, but I could not find the path. Until at last, something was discovered.”
“What was it?” urged Thidrek.
Ferran glanced over his shoulder, then pulled Thidrek to his feet. “Come. I’ll show you.”
The innkeeper guided the warrior across the common room and behind the bar. A door led to a hallway illuminated by lanterns, one of which Ferran lifted from the wall. They passed the inn’s kitchen, and Ferran led Thidrek through another door at the end of the hallway.
They entered a small, windowless room dominated by a table strewn with parchments. Several chests of various sizes lined the walls. Ferran set the lantern on the table and gestured for Thidrek to sit in one of two sturdy, high-backed chairs. The innkeeper picked up a small chest from a corner of the room before settling himself in the other chair.
Thidrek watched as the innkeeper pulled a key on a hide thong from a deep pocket in his leather apron. Ferran twisted the key in a lock embedded in the front of chest, then tilted back the lid and pulled out two items. The first was a worn roll of parchment, and the second was a statue of a spider the size of a fist that was wrought in silver. It was forged in a style that Thidrek had never seen before, and strange glyphs marked its surface.
“That is a remarkable work,” Thidrek said has he reached for the spider. Ferran slapped the warrior’s hand aside just as the statue lunged toward Thidrek’s fingers. Thidrek recoiled and fumbled for a dagger.
“Easy, friend,” Ferran said as his gripped the spider statue’s abdomen. The thing froze at his touch. “I acquired this from a trader who says it came from a mysterious continent far to the east, across the Geneth Ocean. It was created by a wizard of the strange, dark-skinned people said to live there, where they sacrifice men and women to unholy gods atop stepped temples. I use it to protect my possessions. Its venom will kill anyone fool enough to try and rob me.”
“An effective trap,” Thidrek grunted, then gestured at the scroll. “What of this?”
“I purchased this from one of the villagers last spring after he stumbled upon it in the mountains. He came to the inn one evening, got drunk as a lord, and started raving about how he had discovered it in an old stone tomb. I approached him, and when he showed me what he had found, I knew the fool had unearthed what I had sought for so long. He had more use for my coin than his newfound treasure. If he only knew how he gave away paradise for a pittance.”
Ferran unrolled the parchment and held it flat with both hands. The map was drawn with the ethereal beauty and attention to detail that only the delicate hands of the alfari could summon. The fraying edges were illuminated with intricate silver scrollwork, and along one side was drawn the likeness of an ancient alfari king. The stately figure’s thin frame was covered in flowing robes, and above slanted eyes and ears that tapered to points rested a golden circlet. One fine-boned hand was raised, palm out, in a sign that might have been both a salute and a warning.
Across the parchment, accented by flowing alfari script, sprawled a detailed drawing of the peaks and valleys of the Aros Mountains that surrounded Ulmer. The parchment did not depict the village, as the map was created long before human habitation of the realm. Ferran tapped the place where Ulmer now stood. Then the innkeeper traced a finger along the black ink paths, until his grimy nail rested on the image of a six-pointed star near the base of a tall peak.
“Here, Thidrek. The map claims to show the way. Here is where I believe one can find Warrior’s Reward.”
The old warrior gazed at the map, then looked at Ferran in awe. “You have not been there?”
“No, I dared not.”
“If you have known of this for so long,” Thidrek breathed, “why have you not traveled there to assure the map’s authenticity?”
“I brought the map to a priest of Camran skilled in the ancient alfari script, and paid dearly for a translation. There are warnings on the map that speak of a trial created by the ancient gods of both man and the alfari, meant to prevent all but the most worthy from reaching the portal. Fear of this trial has kept me from making the journey.”
Thidrek straightened, and Ferran saw the haze of despair in the warrior’s eyes burned away by rage. “Damn the heathen gods! We are men of the king’s legion, you and I. Together, we will open the way to the portal and claim it in the name of Camran!”
“But I am an old fat man, Thidrek,” said the innkeeper. “What could I do to help one such as you?”
Thidrek reached out and turned over Ferran’s arm to reveal the hawk tattoo. “You have already done the impossible, and bolstered an old soldier’s spirits. We will reach the portal at last, my friend, and the bards will sing of it for an age to come.”
A smile slowly spread across the innkeeper’s face. Ferran nodded and gripped Thidrek’s forearm. “I will face any challenge, if it is at the side of old King Abram’s champion. I am with you, blade brother!”
“One last time our swords will sing,” Thidrek rumbled. “And death to any who stand in our way.”
* * *
“Thidrek, wait!” called Ferran hoarsely.
The warrior and the innkeeper were making their way through the forest that cloaked the mountains above Ulmer. Their labored breath misted in the air. The oaks amidst the pines were showing the flaming orange and red hues of the harvest season. Thidrek was crashing through the underbrush, his steps crackling on dead leaves and twigs. The old warrior turned to regard Ferran with impatience, and waited reluctantly until the panting innkeeper was able to stumble up the slope and lean on a tree beside him.
The innkeeper had trailed behind Thidrek since they had set out for the portal hours earlier. The two had studied the map once more in Ferran’s chamber before donning traveling clothes, and then gathering food and waterskins for the journey from the inn’s store room. Ferran left The Shadowed Rest in the hands of his cook, and the two left at sunrise for the arduous trek into the mountains. The climb was too treacherous for horses, so they were forced to go on foot. Thidrek had set a grueling pace that Ferran could not match, and the innkeeper was unable to convince the other man to shorten his stride. Now the sun stood well overhead, and Ferran wondered if Thidrek might leave him behind on the mountainside, so great was the old warrior’s desire to reach the portal.
“We must press on,” growled Thidrek as the innkeeper shifted the pack slung over his shoulder to momentarily alleviate its weight. “I warned you not to bring so much.”
“We won’t be able to reach the portal before the sun sets,” gasped Ferran. “Remember, the map says the portal will not open at night. We will have to make camp, and continue in the morning. You saw this from the map, just as I did.”
Thidrek curled his gloved hands into fists. “There is much more daylight left to us! We can cover more ground before dark falls.”
“I am as eager as you are, Thidrek. But we must rest before facing the trial.”
Thidrek waved a hand dismissively. “Yes, yes, I have not forgotten. Fear not, we will find a place to rest for tonight before you collapse.”
The warrior led them at a slower pace as the day wore on, and the sun had slipped closer to dusk by the time they came upon a small clearing shaded by pines. They deemed it suitable and prepared their camp. When they had a fire burning, they shared a cold meal of dried meat, bread, and water. After they had eaten, Thidrek took out his sword and began to sharpen it absently with a whetstone. Ferran watched the old warrior for a time before breaking the silence.
“Do you always stare at the flames so intently?” asked the innkeeper.
Thidrek looked up from the fire. “It is a habit that has crept over me since my wanderings began.”
“What do you see there?”
“Many things,” said the old warrior quietly. “The fires of siegecraft, wizardry, and burning cities…and pyres. I see the faces of those I have killed, and can almost hear them curse me. They would surely say that I do not deserve peace.”
Ferran seemed to consider Thidrek’s words for a moment before he spoke. “While I believe the dead may envy the living, I also believe these tormentors in the fire are naught but the shadows of guilt that you have laid upon yourself. You fought your battles with honor. An enemy slain in combat with Thidrek of Narad is not one who would rest uneasily, my friend. I say take the burden from your shoulders. You need not carry it further.”
Thidrek looked out into the darkness, and Ferran saw the gleam of tears welling in the old warrior’s eyes, a sad smile on his lips.
“I thank you for trying to strengthen my resolve, friend,” Thidrek said at last as he wiped at his eyes roughly with the back of his hand. “Enough melancholy. Come, tell me of your days with the Fourth Legion!”
The moon rose to creep across the heavens as the two men talked of battles and heroes of old. After a time, they decided to consider the alfari map again.
“Is there not anything more to be gleaned from the writing?” Thidrek asked. “I do not like chasing vagaries.”
Ferran shook his head as he produced the map from a wooden scroll case. “As I told you, it is written here that, during the trial, a warrior must face the fallen and conquer his greatest foe. It says nothing more.”
“Trust the long-ears to be devious,” spat Thidrek. “I have faced many foes in my time, and would be hard pressed to name the one that was the greatest.”
“I have faith,” said Ferran, “that the trial will call for us to pay homage to the slain with solemn reflection on our deeds, and nothing more. In the end, I’d wager that we should not look for the shades of our enemies to return and challenge us.”
“And I’d wager the priest that translated that map for you didn’t know anything about ancient alfari script, and gave you a faerie tale for your coin!”
“You may be right,” Ferran laughed. “Well, this ‘faerie tale’ has led both of us to a night on cold ground instead of warm beds. That makes us both old fools. So, friend, who takes first watch?”
Thidrek, seeing the exhaustion of the day’s journey on his companion’s face, took the watch. After Ferran had gratefully retired to his sleeping furs, Thidrek turned his eyes again to the fire, his mind racing back over countless battlefields. Shaking his head, he began to sharpen his sword once more. The warrior lost track of time as he slipped into the steady rhythm of the rasp of stone on metal, his thoughts focused on this old ritual as the night deepened around him.
* * *
Ferran was awakened by a gentle hand shaking him. The innkeeper opened his eyes to see Thidrek kneeling next to him, and saw through the trees that the first hues of dawn touched a clear sky.
“You didn’t wake me to take my turn,” Ferran said. “You must be exhausted.”
Thidrek shook his head. “I slept. I had a feeling that no harm would come to us here.”
“Who believes in faerie tales now?” chuckled the innkeeper.
“Perhaps I do,” Thidrek answered with a smile. “Come, break your fast. Then, we’ll face this trial.”
After eating quickly, they broke camp and were off just as the sun cleared the horizon. Ferran, using the map, guided them through the forest. The trees began to thin after a time, and soon became so sparse that they could see some distance ahead. Beyond the forest, an open plain stretched before them. Across this expanse of wild grasses and stone they could see the mountains rear up against the sky.
They halted just as they passed the last of the trees, and watched the wind-swept plain in silence. Ferran pointed toward the base of the tallest peak ahead of them.
“There we will find the portal. And the trial.”
Thidrek nodded, and motioned for Ferran to lead on.
The plain was preternaturally silent. They could hear no sounds of small animals or insects, only the sighing of the wind through the grasses. The sun marched across the sky, and it was just past its zenith when Ferran stopped Thidrek with a hand on the warrior’s arm. The innkeeper produced an antique spyglass from his pack, pulled its telescoping sections open, and peered with one eye at the foothills now less than a quarter-league distant.
Ferran lowered the instrument and, his eyes still on base of the peak, passed it to Thidrek.
“There,” said the innkeeper quietly, “between the pillars.”
Thidrek looked through the spyglass, his heart hammering. Amidst a field of boulders, two rough pillars of rock stood before a mound of granite. Etched into the stone of the mound was the likeness of an alfari king similar to the one depicted on the map. The old warrior, his hands shaking, collapsed the spyglass and handed it to Ferran.
“Come,” Thidrek said, his tongue thick as he took another step toward their goal.
“Wait!” Ferran gasped, gripping the warrior’s shoulder. “Look!”
The air before them began to shimmer as if they stood on desert sands and were faced with a mirage. As they watched, the shapes of men began to materialize in the haze. The figures gradually became more distinct, and, to the growing horror of both men, Thidrek and Ferran began to recognize faces in the spectral throng.
“The great god Camran save us,” gasped Ferran. The innkeeper’s fingers dug into Thidrek’s armor. “Forgive me, my friend! I was mistaken! The fallen have come to judge us!”
Thidrek could not deny that it was indeed a legion of the dead that confronted them. The ragged host that blocked their path seemed composed of mist, and the granite mound could be glimpsed through their ghostly bodies. They appeared much as they had in life, except that their eyes were white orbs devoid of pupils and irises. Each of the specters bore the wounds that had ended their lives.
Thidrek found himself unable to move, his eyes drawn to the empty gazes of his victims. He could recognize them now. There was Oreth, Champion of Tegrida, and the ragged gash in his throat made by Thidrek’s sword. And there was the Knight of Sevar, Ernich, whose head Thidrek had split with an ax. The Knight’s white eyes stared blindly from the gore of his riven skull. There were others who were once legends, but many more were nameless men who had had the misfortune of meeting Thidrek in his countless battles. Footmen, archers, cavalrymen. Commoners and nobles. All had tasted death on the edge of his sword. And they had come to make him remember, to make him suffer.
“So many,” Thidrek whispered hoarsely. “What have I done?”
Ferran sank to his knees. “They have returned seeking vengeance, and we must face a reckoning!” The innkeeper gagged and retched. Thidrek could not see Ferran’s own specters, but what the innkeeper saw was driving him mad.
The old warrior gripped Ferran’s arms and bellowed at the innkeeper. “Stand up! Face them! You defeated them once, you can do so again!”
“No! No! Stay away!” Ferran began to scream wildly. He flailed his arms, his legs kicked in spasms.
Thidrek looked up to see the dead were indeed closing in around them. They had encircled the two men in a matter of moments. The ring of shades was tightening slowly, inexorably.
Ferran screamed again and clutched at his chest, then a croaking grasp rattled in his throat. Another tremor shook the innkeeper before he went limp in Thidrek’s grasp. Ferran’s eyes stared unseeing at the old warrior.
“Ferran!” screamed Thidrek. The dead crept closer still, almost close enough to reach out with their phantom weapons. The warrior let the innkeeper’s lifeless body slip to the earth and stretched to his full height.
“You have claimed one of us,” he spat at the dead, “but I will not relinquish life so easily.”
Thidrek drew his notched broadsword and held it before his eyes in a ritual salute, then held the blade in a ready stance as if receiving a charge.
“I have naught to fear from you! You died by my hand in honorable battle, and I will have no shame. In life, I gave you the respect a man owes to his enemies. If you mean to end my days and take my soul, I will fight you again. You may drag me to the realm of the dead, but I will not go willingly!”
The specters ceased their advance. They watched him for a long moment as he stood with sword raised defiantly. Then, one by one, they began to fade. Thidrek dared to glance back over his shoulder at Ferran.
A mist had risen from the earth to shroud the innkeeper. As the warrior watched, Ferran’s body became as insubstantial as the vapor engulfing it. The innkeeper began to dissipate before Thidrek’s eyes.
The old warrior turned back to face the specters. Only a few remained, and it was toward these he directed his outrage. “You cannot take him! You have no right!”
“His dead have the right,” spoke the ghost of Oreth. “He succumbed to his guilt and fear, and thus dishonored their spirits. As for you, Thidrek of Narad, we grant you a gift.”
The shade strode forward, the last of the spectral army to remain on the field. Thidrek shifted his stance, raising his sword in challenge. The ghost stretched forth its hand and brushed the warrior’s blade with its fingertips. At the touch, Thidrek felt a tremor run through the metal.
“We have deemed you worthy. Place your sword in the hand of the stone king, so that you may dwell forever in the warrior’s paradise.”
“But what of the trial?” Thidrek asked. “What of my greatest foe?”
“You have already defeated him.”
With those words, and a final gesture toward the mound, the specter vanished. Thidrek was alone on the plain. The warrior regarded his broadsword, puzzling over the shade’s final words. Then realization struck him.
“Ferran, my friend,” he said in wonder, “it was us all along. We are our greatest foes.”
The warrior spun once more to look for Ferran’s body. But the innkeeper was gone.
“Farewell, blade brother,” Thidrek whispered. “My eternal thanks is yours. May you find peace.”
The warrior strode across the plain until he crossed between the stone pillars to stand before the mound. The carving of the alfari king regarded him with eyes that reminded Thidrek of the dead. The old warrior looked at the figure’s hands. As on the map, the alfari held one at his side, and the other was lifted in salute. The carving was a bas-relief, its form raised no more than the width of a finger from the surrounding stone. Neither of its hands seemed ready to accept his sword.
Thidrek looked at his sword, then grasped it by the blade. He offered the hilt to the carving as if giving it in a show of fealty to a liege. The old warrior stood as still as the stone king for what seemed an eternity. Suddenly there was the sound of grinding slate, and the carving’s upraised hand pushed out from the surrounding granite. The grey fingers grasped the hilt, and an astonished Thidrek released the sword.
The alfari king raised the blade over its head, and a rumbling began to emanate from the mound. The stone king sank into the earth, taking Thidrek’s sword with it. Where the carving had been there was now a door into darkness. Thidrek peered into the entrance. The light of day seemed to stop abruptly at the threshold, unable to penetrate the blackness.
“I have no more need of my steel,” the old warrior intoned as he looked down at where the carving had disappeared. “My battles are behind me. I give the sword to you gratefully, and with gratitude I set bloodshed aside.”
With a deep breath to prepare himself, Thidrek stepped into the darkness. A moment of blindness and disorientation washed over him, and then he emerged into soft radiance. He stumbled and caught himself against a cool, smooth surface. The warrior saw that he leaned against a pillar of marble. Thidrek looked around, and gaped in awe. He was in a vaulted chamber, the ceiling almost lost in twilight. The place was lit by countless candles that rested in niches and candelabra. There were more pillars, and arches that seemed carved from solid gold. The domed ceiling was graved in patterns that called to mind constellations.
In the middle of the chamber stood a woman. Her back was to him. She wore a gown of purest white silk, and her raven-hued hair tumbled over her shoulders in rich waves. The candlelight shimmered on her pale skin as if it were glass.
Thidrek stood motionless, taking in the silence of the place, admiring the sinuous curve of the woman’s back. Finally the old warrior took a tentative step toward her.
“My lady,” he called. “What is this place? Is this sainka badal ?”
It was not what he had expected. The tales had prepared him for a rough-hewn hall where warrior’s souls feasted and fought for all time. This seemed too much like the afterworld of which Camran’s priests endlessly preached.
Yet who am I to question paradise? he thought in wonder.
When she did not turn at his call, Thidrek approached the dark-haired woman. As he drew closer to her, scents of jasmine and hyacinth enveloped him.
Perhaps I will dwell with an angel for all time, and we shall rule this small heaven together.
Thidrek stepped to within a single pace of her, then stopped, breathing deep of her perfume. He reached out to her with a trembling hand. His fingers brushed her hair.
The woman whirled on him, impossibly swift. Thidrek staggered back as delicate white hands gripped his shoulders with inhuman strength. He cried out in pain as her fingers dug through his armor and into his flesh. Then he screamed when he saw her face.
The woman’s visage was more ancient than the oldest village crone, her shriveled skin a sickly blue-white. Her eyes were like black obsidian buried in the pits of their sockets. A discordant wailing and hissing escaped her mouth, which opened so wide it seemed her jaw came unhinged. Her teeth were gone, and a long grey tongue writhed. Her breath was a nauseating miasma.
The fiend, screeching, began to draw the warrior toward her. The horrible mouth loomed closer. Thidrek pushed at her, struggled with all his might. Yet she drew him closer still. He screamed again, and the thing’s foul mouth closed over his own. To his terror, something that felt like a fist began to push itself down his throat. Breathing became impossible. The soft candlelight began to fade as Thidrek’s sight dimmed, and oblivion washed over him.
* * *
He awoke to agony, his head throbbing with his pulse, his throat raw. Thidrek opened his eyes, and saw that he was still in the enormous chamber. He lay on his back on the cold marble floor. The flickering light was different, harsher. Erratic shadows danced like demons beyond his sight. Thidrek moved his head, and fresh pain forced a moan from him. He saw that the candles were gone. Torches now hung from the walls in sconces that had not been there before. Dread weighed on him like an anvil.
Thidrek gritted his teeth, then tried to sit up. The ache in his head increased with the effort. The warrior heaved himself upright, and as he did so he heard the clank of metal. He looked down, and saw thick iron manacles clamped around his wrists and ankles. Heavy chains snaked away from his bonds, disappearing into the gloom beyond the pillars. He still wore his armor but his weapons were gone.
Thidrek shifted, trying to rise to his feet. As he did so, the chains moved as if alive and dragged him back down. He came down on his shins, so that his legs went under him and he sat on his haunches. Fresh pain assaulted his nerves.
Laughter echoed through the chamber, a deep, mocking sound. Thidrek looked up, and saw a figure swathed in black robes step from the shadow of a pillar. A hood hid his tormentor’s face. The laughter came again.
“Who are you?” croaked Thidrek. “Why am I bound?”
The voice, a man’s voice, chuckled once more before it spoke. “What you truly want to ask is why you would be bound in paradise.”
Thidrek shook his head, a denial as well as an attempt to clear his still clouded senses. “No, this cannot be sainka badal !”
“In that, you are correct,” hissed the voice. The robed figure loomed over him. “We are in my lair, deep beneath the mountains. You are not the first fool to seek the precious Warrior’s Reward. You who live by the sword are so eager to divest yourselves of your self-pity. The legend makes a fitting lure for your kind.”
“Lure?” The old warrior gasped. “But, the legend is ancient…”
“The tale of sainka badal is ancient indeed. And yet, it is merely that. A tale. The alfari who dwelled here ages ago created the legend to represent a symbolic goal, an ideal toward which their warrior’s could strive. It is only small minds such as yours that have misunderstood the nuances of the legend for so long. Pettiness and fear twisted the noble truth of sainka badal. ”
“The dead…I saw them…made my peace…”
“Mere illusions,” scoffed Thidrek’s tormentor. “It was all too easy to glean your pitiful exploits from your mind. I conjured the images of your victims to draw you in, knowing that one such as you could not resist a chance for absolution. The ‘trial,’ the portal, the map, it is all a mummer’s farce I have used to dupe so many others like you. It never ceases to amuse me.”
“The woman…” Thidrek’s throat was slowly constricting. It felt as if two hearts thudded in his chest.
“She was one of my concubines. A pity. She was such a beautiful creature, once. I fear necessity forced me to use her as a vessel.”
“Who are you?” The old warrior rasped. Each breath was becoming more painful than the last.
Another malevolent snicker issued from the hood. “Why, don’t you recognize me, my blade brother ?”
The stranger pushed back the hood. Thidrek’s eye’s widened, his gasping and choking becoming frenzied.
Ferran leered down at the chained warrior. “I assure you, this form is no illusion. A humble innkeeper draws no suspicion. This guise is one of many that I have worn over the centuries since the founders of Ulmer came here.”
“The legion…” whispered Thidrek, his head thrown back in a desperate effort to open his airway.
“Alas, I never served.” Ferran pulled back one long sleeve to reveal a forearm bare of both tattoo and scars. His hand was missing no fingers. “But I give thanks to the rigors of the warrior’s life. Your bodies last so much longer.”
The sorcerer crouched before the warrior and placed a hand on Thidrek’s chest. “Ah, almost time. It is just as well. I must return soon to The Shadowed Rest. The serving wenches can grow so worried for me.”
Ferran stood and gestured toward the chains, which came alive again to pull the warrior to his feet. Something writhed behind Thidrek’s ribcage.
“I should tell you that my concubine lived twice a normal lifespan. The stronger the host, the longer the life. You, I expect, will serve me well for decades to come.”
Nausea swept over Thidrek. The old warrior retched, and something pushed up his gullet. He opened his mouth, wider and wider. A black tentacle forced itself past his teeth. Thidrek stood paralyzed as it lashed the air before his eyes.
“As for me,” Ferran said softly, “I settle for nothing less than eternal life.” His hand reached out reverently to grip the flailing thing. The sorcerer produced a crystal flask from within his robes and brought the tip of the tentacle to the opening. A thick, red liquid leaked into the flask. Finally, the sorcerer released the tentacle, which slowly withdrew back down Thidrek’s throat. The chains went slack, and the old warrior collapsed to his knees.
“A simple process transforms the creature’s essence into an elixir of immortality. Ah, forgive me. Alchemy makes for such mundane conversation. Tell me more about your great victories, Thidrek! It will be many years before the creature has dried your body to a withered shell to be replaced. I am sure you have enough tales to pass the time until then!”
The sorcerer’s laughter rang out again as Thidrek gave voice to screams, the cacophony filling the chamber as if to echo forever.