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|My First contribution to the Invincible Project, part 1. An Invincible returns to Athalasca in a time of turmoil and need to restore the Sacred Wood.||
Strive - to seek, to find - but never to yield. These are the guidelines of all those who follow the Onóir na Casán.
In the mists of time - or in my case darkness - often the trail can be lost. One then has only to seek the beginning, and start again.
In the end, all things come back to their beginnings.
The man who walked down the street that morning was tall and lean. He wore a loosely flowing tan kimono, brown and tan hakama, and brown hooded over-robe that showed evidence of wear and heavy travel. He wore the hood up; it shielded his eyes from view. He neither wore nor carried any ornamentation, nor anything remotely out of the ordinary--with one exception.
In his right hand, he carried a straight, bone-white cane carved from ivory. It was a little over four foot in length and approximately three fingers in diameter. Both ends were free of carvings, for they terminated in rounded, domelike caps made of an indeterminable, shiny silver metal. These caps seamlessly connected to the ivory, as if the two materials were of one piece. He held this cane about a foot below the upper end as he made his was down the lane, using it in a rather unique fashion.
He was to be watched, this stranger, and talked about. Like some display in a raree show, the people of the capitol city of Athalasca, down whose streets the stranger strolled, had never seen his like. Something about the stranger forced them to watch him, though they could not know what it was. It was that subconscious part of their past--the instinctive, tribal self. It knows when it senses the threatening presence of death.
When folks saw the stranger coming down the street, they stepped lightly out of his way, turning away from him until he was past. Then, once he had gone by, they turned to watch again with renewed curiosity. Even as some of them turned away, a deathly pallor spread swiftly across their faces, and they quickly made their way elsewhere. Not a single one of those that remained noticed that others on the street were turning away also, like some sort of human wave rippling down the avenue--turning away, then back. They all had their eyes locked too closely on the stranger, compelled by that primal recess of their minds.
Afterwards, some would say their reactions where due to the strangeness of this lone man, a man who seemed to walk with some profound purpose guiding him. Others would say that the carved-ivory cane he used as he walked had caused their discomfiture; its end swept back and forth across the street, side-to-side ahead of him, and mere inches above the ground. At the culmination of its arc, the end touched the road with a sharp tap a few feet from his path; it was reminiscent of the sweeping arm of the metronome. Occasionally, as it completed its journey, it threw up a small shower of sparks against the cobbles; sparks which flashed brightly even in the mid morning sun.
Yet others still, those who were slightly more honest with themselves, would swear their disconcertion had been caused by the feeling that the stranger’s eyes were boring into their flesh. Like hundreds of prickling fire nettles deep within their skin it was, penetrating their souls and peering at their darkest sins. Yet none could explain it; no one had seen his eyes.
The stranger continued down the street until he reached the area directly in front of a burned out ruin. The acrid smell of charred rubble was still fresh to his nose. Then again, his nose told many tales that others could not. A gentle breeze it was that brought the smells to him, swirling them around him in a convolution of sent, filling his thoughts with their presence.
Everyone knew the place; it had been a rather large and well-kept inn. It had been the best in the city. To those on the street, the stranger appeared to pause for a moment, his head up like a cat testing the air. Then he turned, and lightly, silently on his straw-sandaled feet, entered the tangled and charred ruins with his cane guiding him. Almost every one who had taken note until now suddenly made it their business to appear to be doing anything except watch the stranger. Yet, unsurprisingly, not a one of them lost track of his actions.
A guard captain, who happened by shortly after with his troop, shouted to the man. He spoke in the brogue of the A’dream, those who had once been a great people and had dwelt in the northwestern highlands, right on the Athalascan border. “Whatcha be doing there good sir?” he asked as his men formed up in a rough semi-circle behind him, the dust of their passage clouding the shine of their polished breastplates and conical helmets.
The stranger paused and turned his head slightly toward the man yet upwards, as if considering the warmth of the mid-morning sun upon his upturned face. “From the sound of your speech I would say you hail from a region once known as the Daggerlands,” the stranger inquired of the captain; his accent was indistinguishable. “Do the A’dream still recall the Onóir na Casán?”¹
The captain’s face flushed deep red and filled with anger. Resting his hand casually upon the hilt of his sword and taking a few steps forward, away from his men, his voice rumbled. “What right do ye have to question me about honor? Who are ye ‘t even know of the Old Ways - of which ye should know naught?”
“I am one of those who helped your people keep to the Onóir na Casán, once upon a time. I know the Old Ways of the A’dream because I was there,” the stranger calmly replied. His hand reached into the front-left fold of his kimono and drew something out. He flicked it spinning through the air in a lazy arc, right to the captain. “Please, be at peace.”
The captain caught it mid-flight, and as he looked down at the small medallion lying in his large, calloused hand, the red anger faded slowly from his face. He looked up at the stranger consideringly, then back down at the medallion in surprise. When he began to speak again, his voice was no more than a whisper of wind in tall grass.
“How could ye have been there?” He shook his head in disbelief. “Ye could-nay even ha’ been born yet.” He was whispering in confused amazement to himself. His men, standing scant feet from him, looked at each other and wondered what he had said. They had only heard muttering.
“Believe it or not, I was born years before that incident Captian…?”
“Dubh sir,” he replied with in cough. “Captain Dubh be the name. Ye mean ye heard that?” He chuckled nervously, eyeing the stranger anew; he still stood a little less than seven yards away. “Ye do must have the ears of a mountain cat!”
“Well Captain Dubh,” the stranger went on, “my name is Ahngyel - Stevnos Ahngyel. I was indeed there to keep the shadows at bay, though I was a young man at the time. I am vastly older than I appear.” He gestured at the medallion he had tossed the captain. “Does this token of the A’dream no longer serve to satisfy?”
Captain Dubh looked rather confused, and his next statement proved it. “I do be sorry Master Ahngyel, but from all accounts--even if I do be ignoring your apparent age...” He shook his head wearily, looking down at the medallion in his hand with a sigh. “Tis said tha’ all those who helped the A’dream bore the Shakna.” He looked at Stevnos uncertainly, shaking his head, as he finished in a low undertone. “And ye do ‘nay seem to have one?”
Stevnos slipped swiftly and gracefully forward toward the captain, without stirring up the soot he stood in, or the powdery dirt he flowed across. His feet made no sound on the cobbled street. Dubh’s men stiffened instinctively in alarm at the inhuman grace he displayed, and some of their hands tightened on their pole arms or strayed to the swords on their hips. Their captain was only twelve feet away, so they were certain they could stop this stranger before anything dire happened. However, as he heard the sound of their preparations, Captain Dubh made a conciliatory gesture, ordering them to their ease. They relaxed once more as Stevnos merely grasped the captain’s arm and led him away a few yards further, out of their earshot.
Stevnos whispered coldly. “It is dangerous in these times to speak of such things from what I have learned. Do not mention that subject again, or any that touches on it, unless you are far more careful about what you do.” His voice relaxed back to a civilized tone as he went on, yet it was still an almost emotionless whisper. “Yes, I do bear Shakna, but I thought it prudent not to be seen walking brashly and arrogantly down the main street of the capital city with it tucked into the belt of my kimono! My cane is quite deceptive in its usefulness for such things, should I require that sort of assistance. Now, is your curiosity quenched at last my young friend, or does it require still more?”
Captain Dubh seemed abashed. Handing back the medallion he wiped the first three fingertips of his right hand, open palmed, across his forehead, and then placed them over his heart. Stevnos acknowledged his action with a nod, repeating the gesture. As one, they spoke the same words, “Ann Meamhair.”²
Captain Dubh nodded, and continued, clearing his throat. “Well, ah, excuse me Lord Ahngyel--if ye do nay mind--what business finds ye wandering around the burned out ruin of one o’ the finest inns this fair city ever did see?”
“Answers,” was his only reply. “Does anyone know what happened here? I had heard that one who walked the same paths as I had made her home here; I had hoped to find her well. But from the feel of the rubble and the smell I kicked up as I strolled around in there,” he added with a flick of his head toward the long-dead embers, “if this was it, it appears I am far too late.”
“Ye do be right about that m’lord! And no one do be quite sure what did happen here. However, some say there did be more ‘n one attempt on the mistress of the ‘Fire & Night’.
After a brief, contemplative pause, the captain continued. “There was somewhat of a tussle here a few years a’fore, an’ one a them fellas from the East wound up good and dead; 'nother of ‘em ran off with the mistress’s bonny lass. Not that anyone round here will be a-missin’ dead Easterners mind, but that wee lass was a fair thing. Her grey eyes did be a sparklin’ with mischief at most every turn.”
Captain Dubh held up a finger to emphasis his next point. “All that aside now, there did be rumors that a stranger did be seen hereabouts that night--the night she did burn to the ground--but twas nothin’ solid enough to be puttin’ ta’ use.”
“Well,” said Stevnos, nodding thoughtfully to himself, “that might explain quite a bit Captain. I take it you knew them well?” Stevnos held up a restraining hand. “Never mind, it does not matter. If there isn’t any more you can tell me Captain, I must take my leave of you and your men.”
Captian Dubh made a brief scan of the other inhabitants of the street, to make sure no one was too close, then leaned in and spoke in a hushed tone. “Well m’lord…I will share this with ye; but only on account o’ the things you an’ your kin did for mine. I can-nay betray my oaths to Athalasca, as ye well know, but I will help ye as I can.”
As Stevnos nodded, Captain Dubh continued. “There did be a couple incidents a while a’fore she burned. First, some guards do be found slain, in the very halls o’ the barracks themselves. It did-nay take very long to find that the killer do be there to steal; took the very Shakna of Selacon the Fierce they did! No one did see ‘em ‘cept the guards they did slay. Now do ya ever be hearing such a thing m’lord?”
Stevnos shook his head negatively; the captain took a deep breath, sighed, and went on wearily. “Then it do be discovered, a good while later, that someone do be defiling the cairn of Draxen, the Army Smasher! One o’ the greatest heroes this land ever did see--one of ye kin--an’ here someone be committing horrific deeds like that! Steeling ‘is very Shakna! I mean, that put the topper on it do! What do be happening in this world that things do go so mad?
“I do not know my friend,” was the somber reply. “But I aim to find out.”
The captain held up an admonishing finger and gave his words the sound of a gentle reprimand. “Do tha’ mean ye do be leaving this place m’lord; an’ no more poking around burned out heaps ye have no right to?” Then he smiled and chuckled gently.
“Aye good captain,” replied Stevnos with an answering smile. “Aye; in fact, I will be leaving the city after I make one more stop…or two.”
With that, the stranger clasped arms with the captain and turned to continue up the street. As he went, he waved farewell to the captain, and including his men in the sentiment, made a statement loud enough for all within earshot to hear. “Farewell, and keep the faith men! While there are good folk to fight for their freedom, there is always hope! Light always keeps the shadows at bay.”
Captain Dubh raised his fist in the warriors salute, though now to the strangers back. He and his guardsmen watched the stranger continue down the street, his cane going before him--tick-tap, tick-tap, tick-tap--on the cobblestones.
“What was that all about Cap’n?” one of the guardsmen asked as they walked forward to join him.
Still watching the stranger depart with a faraway look in his eyes, Captain Dubh answered. “Nothing ye lads needs be a-worrying about, Dare.”
“Well what was all that about ‘on-hoar-a-cussin’,” asked another. “I don’t see why hoarfrost an’ using foul language would have anything to do with…”
“Are ye daft lad,” the captain said in a gravelly voice. “Ye do-nay know what ye do be on about, Chaz. Onóir na Casán is something me kin no be talking about to outsiders. It’s part of who we are--something sacred ye hear?”
As he had spoken the words, he had turned to face them. They bore shocked expressions on their faces and seemed as if taken aback. His second, who had remained silently attentive until now, stepped forward to speak, knuckling his forehead.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Sir; but you seldom take such a friendly manner with people you know, much less strangers. Do I take it he was one of your kin?” He looked worried and confused as he spoke. “He showed you some token you recognized, but of its like I have not been made aware. You named him a Lord, yet that man I have not seen before. Is it something not of our ken--something above our rank?”
Seeing his captain’s face take on an unreadable expression, he knuckled his forehead once more, and went on. “I mean no disrespect Sir, but with the current troubles and things happening within our very walls, we all must be watchful, even of each other. An’ I haven’t seen anything of the like in any of my postings since signing on with the guard.”
Captain Dubh looked back up the street; the stranger was gone. He pulled off his conical helm and sighed. Looking back to his men, he put his helm under the crook of one arm and with the other hand raked his fingers through his unruly shock of auburn hair.
“No,” he said wearily, looking around at all of the men as he spoke, “ye do the right thing lad. Ye should be a-speakin’ up, even to your betters, when they do be actin’ out of character. These are indeed not the times to be takin’ things on faith.”
A deep breath later, he began to explain. He needed to reassure his men if they were to keep their belief in him as their captain. “Well m’lads, it do be like this; that there was a man who did fight for m’ people once upon a time. Let’s just say tha’ a long time ago, round-bout when me ma wed me pa, there do be some trouble in what was called the Daggerlands were m’ people do come from.”
“The stories do tell that m’ people did keep watch in the highland passes against the return of some unspeakable evil. There did be some door or some ’in that they did guard against its opening. Yet open it did, and the evil do pour out to cover the highlands with the blood of m’ people.”
“Though fought hard they did and did-nay yield, even against insurmountable odds, me people do eventually be pushed back by the sheer weight o’ their enemy’s numbers. A small group of men came to give us aid in our struggle, and at the edge of their blades the problem…Well, it do go away. An evil tha’ had snuffed out the life o’ many good people; these few men do put an end to. With the help o’ me people, though a small thing that did be next to the skill of these men, they pushed it back and sealed the door. ‘Cause of men like that, the A’dream were able to keep to the Onóir na Casán.”
“In honor o' the day, medallions do be crafted, medallions ensorcelled by our shaman ta’ show true only to one of our blood. Anyone not of the A’dream will see the image graven thereon as something differ’nt entirely; thus they can-nay be falsely reproduced. We are all sworn to give aid to any that bears its like, or any of their kin.”
He continued to watch the road in the direction the stranger had disappeared. “My kin have always attempted to follow a path tha’ that man walks squarely down the middle of, a path some would say he was born to. If it weren’t for him and his kin, I likely wouldn’t be a-standin’ here; all of me kin, the blood o’ the A’dream, would likely ha’ been wiped clean from this world.”
He pointed up the street in the direction the stranger had gone. “Men like that stand in the darkness against the shadows--they stand guard on the gates so that no’n may pass. It do make me feel good to know that despite the rumors, men like that still walk the land. It do give me hope tha’ that one there do be a-findin’ his way home again; we may need the help a’fore long”
He looked back at his men with stern solemnity. “I did-nay say or do anythin’ that do betray my oaths to Athalasca--in case ye do be a-wonderin’. Ye have m’ oath on that, and ye know I do-nay lie on me word. Now let’s get ta’ movin’. We still have to report to the Master o’ the Watch a’fore settlin’ to the trough.”
He jerked his head in the direction they needed to go and made ready to leave. Placing his helm back on his head and settling it with a slap, he turned to walk down the street in the direction he had indicated. He glanced over his shoulder when he did not hear them follow, and noticed his men had not moved; they stood staring at him, each wearing a decidedly confused look upon their faces.
“Beggin’ your pardon sir,” said one. “You still haven’t told us; what exactly does Onóir na Casán mean?
“The Path o’ Honor lads,” he said with a quiet smile as he turned once more to lead them away. “The Path o’ Honor.”
Stevnos had not heard music with that quality since he had left the lands of the Elfwylm, nor had he expected to find it here in the land of his birth. For all his knowledge, he was not aware that anyone in these lands had ever truly known of, or acknowledged the true Bardic Gift, much less training in its use. He had thought it was a Gift limited to those of Elfwylm lineage. The individual was either self-taught - or a threat. He would have known if there were any Elfwylm here.
It was coming from several streets away by the sound of it, and since he had completed the visits he had felt a need to make, he was free to give his curiosity reign for a while. Besides, if this turned out to be as he suspected, it could prove important to the outcome of his mission, for good or for ill.
The Gift was actively being used even now; a rhythmic pattern within the music was calling to the people walking the streets. It hinted strongly that comfort and joviality could be found at the source of the music--they had only to follow its sound. It was not a forceful projection of the musician’s will, but merely a suggestion to those already inclined to listen. Stevnos was impressed with the restraint that was being used in the summons.
There was also another pattern being woven and buried within the first; a pattern hidden within and blended into the other. This second pattern called out to a certain group of individuals, bidding them to come forward, to come to the music. Unlike the first pattern, this one was more forceful, urgently calling to its recipients. He was not one of those targeted and therefore did not know whom it was intended for, or why. Yet he had heard the like before. The Elfwylm used a similar summons to call certain groups of individuals to council or the like and--slightly altered--they used it to sound the alarm.
He traversed the streets and alleys between himself and the music with relative ease, being careful to guide himself with his cane. As he neared the place from whence the music came, he discovered that it was--in fact--an inn. The sounds and smells coming from inside were very inviting after his long journey and day’s work. In fact, he found that he had a longing for the sweet Mead that came from the Daggerlands. His conversation with the good captain earlier that day had brought back some unpleasant memories--along with some rather pleasant ones. There never was any light without darkness was there?
Stevnos reached the front of his destination, and walked through the double doors to the inn. He found himself stepping into a dimly lit, moderately crowded common room; a haze of pipe-smoke hung in the air. As he entered, he immediately began taking note of the occupants of the room, and what signs he could glean of others in the building, without even appearing to. He cast back his hood as the innkeeper began to speak revealing long, prematurely white hair, and some very unusual eyes surrounded by faint scarring.
“Fine even to you good sir, how can I…” The innkeeper trailed off upon seeing the stranger’s face revealed. He took a moment to compose himself. “Forgive my rudeness sir, I meant no disrespect. It’s just that…well…I have sure seen a lot in my time, but you are far from what I’ve come to expect. How may I be of service?”
Stevnos smiled knowingly. “My apologies for disturbing you good master; I was blinded long ago and have since lost the ability to see it for myself, but I have been told by friends that the long white hair when combined with the reflective silver of my sightless eyes make for quite an impression.” He smiled again and added, “Though I am blind, I am not dead; I understand the difficulties my appearance represents. It brings to mind things most would rather not think upon.”
“Really mister, it is no trouble at all,” he replied as he continued wiping out a tankard. “What can I do for you?”
Pulling his hood back into place, Stevnos said, “I do not wish to cause you any undue difficulties, I just wanted you to understand my situation. I will keep my hood in place so as not to disturb any of your custom.” Standing his cane upright before him, he placed both hands atop it, one on the other, and leaned against it as he continued. “As for what you can do for me; if you could tell me your name, and the name of this fine establishment, we could start with that. For my own part, my name is Stevnos Ahngyel.
Looking rather relieved, the innkeeper said, “This here is ‘The Compass Rose’, and I am its owner Drek Orlan. We normally have any sort of accommodation ye could hope to find, but I’m afraid with all the folk pouring into the city over that past few months, things been a might steady - and tight. I haven’t a single room in the whole house! Not that I’m complaining mind, but if it’s a room ye seek, ye may have to go elsewhere.”
He set the mug down and took a step or two away to take an almost-empty tankard from the bar in front of one of his patrons. He filled it from a tap in a cask behind him and returned it to the patron with a smile. Picking up the tankard he had been wiping from the counter, he reached up over his head and hooked the handle on a mug rack fashioned from an old ship’s wheel; it hung suspended from the ceiling by chains.
“We have the finest ales and wine in all Athalasca, and the grub ain’t half bad either. Hollin, our kitchen-master is one of the best in the city. As ye can no doubt hear, we also have the best harpist and singer in the city as well. The best regular anyway - all the others are just minstrels passing through, or seeking a position with higher status and pay. They all move on eventually one way or the other. Yet [i]she[/i] has not, and has turned a fair trade for me in the doing. No doubt, ye will be figuring out why for yourself before long. If there is anything else ye need, I also own a small trading company that one of my boys runs by day; I am sure we can work something out.
“Well,” said Stevnos, “that all sounds in order. However, what I crave now is a pitcher of Mead from the Daggerlands--the sweet variety not the dry--preferably from the River Glenn region, if you have it. Also, while we are on the subject of refreshment, I think I would like some of that wonderful smelling venison when it is ready.”
Drek Orlan smiled broadly. “Well actually, the Mead we do have, and the venison and whatever else I can gather together will be ready directly. Ye have a good nose Master Ahngyel, but I reckon that comes with the territory, aye? The Meade will be rather costly I’m afraid; it is only in limited production nowadays. Your pardon sir, but will you be needing help getting a table?”
“No Master Orlan,” Stevnos chuckled, “that I can manage on my own. And as for the price of the Meade, I am sure it will be fair-- and worth it!”
With that, he thanked the innkeeper, and as the other patrons of the inn looked on, he appeared to use his cane to find his way to an unoccupied corner table well out of the way. The corner he had chosen was in the back of the inn, to the left of the platform on which the young musician sat, playing and singing. As he sat down, he reached up and doused the lamp set in the wall above the table. He could “see” the stage from where he sat, but the young woman would have a hard time noticing him, even if she turned in his direction. The light of the fire she sat before would be in her eyes.
Almost as soon as he sat down, a young man whom looked surprisingly like Drek walked up to the table with one brown, and one white loaf of bread on a wooden cutting board. Also present were a wheel of cheese and a sausage of Athalascan salami.
“Good even master,” the young man said, “I am Davin, son of Drek. I have here a sourdough loaf and a claffé loaf, whichever you would prefer; also a cheddar wheel and salami if you’ll have them?”
Stevnos looked at him questioningly. “Claffé loaf,” he said, “what is a claffé loaf? I have been away for a long time so some things, it seems, are quite new to me.”
The young man smiled, and proceeded into an explanation of claffé and the bread made from it. After he had finished, he looked at Stevnos expectantly. When an answer was not forthcoming, he asked Stevnos if he required a moment to make his decision. He could go see about the Mead perhaps?
“No, this is fine lad; it seldom hurts to try new things,” said Stevnos after his brief moment of reflection. “I think I will take all you have brought, for I find myself quite famished.”
“Well then, there you go sir. Will there be anything else ye be needing?”
“No lad, that will be all for now,” replied Stevnos as he broke a bite sized hunk out of the small, dark brown loaf.
“Very good then sir; I shall return momentarily with your Mead, and your venison.”
He proved good on his word. A few minutes later, Stevnos found himself dining quite contentedly upon a savory venison stew with carrots, potatoes, onions, and seasonings that he was enjoying too much to analyze. This Hollin really did seem to know exactly what he was about. He had saved the salami, most of the claffé loaf, and the majority of the cheese for after his meal; the sourdough he devoured with his stew, sopping up the last of its delightful juices.
After his hunger was sated he leaned back in his chair, reached into his robes and removed a pipe from where it had been tucked into an inside pocket. He produced a pouch from the selfsame pocket and began to pack his pipe. As he did so, he began to give his full attention back to the music.
The song was simple enough--a local piece about a huntsman who loses his way only to end up finding, and taking to wife, a forest spirit--the usual sort. It sounded to him as if the musician was rather skilled indeed, from what he could tell; Stevnos was no musician. It was not the song itself he was interested in however. What interested him were the patterns he was detecting beneath the words, within the music--the patterns he had noticed while traversing the Athalascan streets.
Stevnos was astonished, and impressed; now that he was within the walls of the inn, he could distinctly pick out a third pattern amongst the rest. Not one of the Elfwylm possessing the Bardic Gift, that he had ever heard of, had been able to simultaneously delineate three independent patterns and keep them separate for different uses without at least some training. Yet here she was, doing just that; he could not imagine her being a threat, or having formal training. Nevertheless, he had been wrong before.
This third pattern was only targeted at the people within the Compass Rose itself, and blanketed the whole of it; the reason he had not been able to detect it before. She had created this pattern specifically to sooth and relax those who heard it, and in fact, Stevnos realized that as he sat there, the weariness from his travels were slowly being washed away.
He placed a finger over the bowl-rim of his pipe and a faint blue glow pulsed for only a moment between it and the top of the tobacco chamber. No one noticed. He sat back in his chair, head back, as if he was staring at the ceiling. He began puffing contentedly and lost himself in the music flowing around him.
¹ Onóir na Casán: Path of Honor
² Ann Meamhair: In Remembrance
|Prolog Part 3 - Old Plots, New Beginnings||Prolog Part 2 - Pursuit|
|Invincible Interludes - Undying Love||Prolog Part 1 - Shattering of Heroes|
|Invincible Resurrection - Paths Reforged|