Once Upon an Island Man
By the time Rhylor had actually arrived, the rest of the day had passed. When the sky was becoming a bluish, mildly ruddy color in the next morning’s sunrise, Ardray heard the stamping of horses’ hooves against snowy turf. She looked down from her sleeping place in a nearby tree. There was Rhylor, sitting on a large, well-muscled gray horse. Sighing with winter air-shocked relief, she shook Solnel. He was sleeping on the branch adjacent to hers.
“He’s here,” she mumbled sleepily. Solnel was startled awake, and he looked over at Garril and Vankesa.
“Wake up, you two,” he called to them. “Our horses are here.” The two Elvins awoke rather slowly, and stretched. Once they were sure everybody was awake, they leaped off of the tree.
“Bandits!” Rhylor cried, holding his hands in front of him. One of the beasts, taken by surprise, took to his feet and dashed back toward the city. Rhylor shivered, partially with fear and partially from the winter coldness. “Please,” he implored, sinking to his knees in the snow. “Don’t kill me!”
“Rhylor!” Ardray scolded, her familiar ringing voice bringing him to his senses. That, and the fierce slap she unleashed across his face.
“Oh, Ardray,” he mumbled next. “And Solnel, and Garril, and…” He looked rather speculatively at Vankesa. “Who might you be?”
“Vankesa,” the tall man replied shortly. “If you come from Van Mara, then I’m almost entirely sure that you’ve seen me around. My mother and I used to go here often.”
Rhylor’s curious blue eyes lolled skyward in a thinking manner.
“I remember,” he said, snapping. “You’re that man who ransacked the Korind shop three months ago.”
“The one and the same.” Vankesa gave him an absurd bow.
“Van Mara thanks you deeply for that,” Rhylor assured him, smiling widely. “Old man Korind was the shifty sort. Always about trying to take honest peoples’ money. But after you went in and ruined everything, he went a bit mad. He never would have thought that he’d be stolen from. Gave him quite the shock, and he’s not in business anymore.” Rhylor then looked back over his shoulder at the large beasts, patiently stroking the snow with hooves. “I guess we’d better go soon,” he said simply. He threw his leg nimbly over one horse and started a leisurely canter.
“Did he just say…” Vankesa began in an incredulous tone; “that the city thanked me?”
“Yes,” Garril said. “And rather deeply too.” He swung his leg over the horse—remembering how Tarja got on her enchanted horse all those years ago. He dug his heels sharply in the horse’s side, and the horse was off in the same canter that Rhylor’s horse had. Occasionally, he turned to look at Vankesa, whose face still had that unbelievably blindsided expression.
“They thanked me…?” he was muttering to nobody. Garril could not help but stifle a smirk.
He turned back, and noticed that Solnel, Ardray and Rhylor were off at a speedy gallop. Garril frowned, and squarely planted his heels in the horse’s flanks. The massive beast whinnied, and surged forward.
Garril nearly fell off of it, but he braced himself tightly. The new wintry breeze rushed against his face; he scarcely noticed the chill bite in his ears and nose. He ignored it, letting the horse run to its heart’s content. He did not mind—after all, he was enjoying it himself. The eager rush of wind implored him to ride ever forward, and march into Van Mara with the air of an emperor. He felt inexorably high off the ground, and he was sure that his legs would be bowed after the ride, but he did not care. Garril was convinced that a horse was the fastest creature in all the world.
And the he reached it—Van Mara. Garril reined in beside his friends—and Vankesa, once he had gotten his lazy beast to budge—and drank in the silent, protected beauty of the city. The sun, peeking tentatively from the horizon, lighted the silvery marble covering most of the buildings. Their iridescent glow was fully visible, and it made Van Mara look like some sort of divine, living being.
“It’s amazing,” Ardray said, completing Garril’s unvoiced thought. The rest of them nodded in silent, admiring agreement. Ardray looked over, and saw Rhylor wiping a steady tear from his eye.
“’Tis the most graced thing I’ve seen,” he said in a choking emotional voice; archaic words coming unchained from his lips.
“What was that?” Solnel asked him suspiciously.
“Nothing.” Rhylor had lost that odd antiquity, but he kept that dramatic emotive when he spoke. They reined in closer to the city, and it was as if a visible warmth radiated off of the very stones on which it was built. Quite suddenly, Vankesa was beside Garril, mumbling angrily to his horse. The beast gave a little indignant flick of its ear.
“What happened to one day’s riding?” Garril asked with an arched eyebrow.
“I miscalculated,” Vankesa said simply and primly, drawing himself up ramrod straight. He quite deliberately angled his heel and struck the horse with it; the lazy beast gave an agitated whinny and marched into Van Mara.
It was just as Vankesa remembered it. Like the rest of Sycracia, Van Mara was controlled almost in entirety by Gerodathia. It was not uncommon to see store signs written in the curled script of the Gerodathians; it was also ubiquitous enough to see children of both descents. They rode through the wide cobblestone street unperturbed.
“Where are we headed?” Solnel asked Garril, reining in just next to him.
“I don’t quite know,” he admitted.
“A smithy,” Ardray cut in. “We need to go to the nearest smithy.” She turned in her saddle to Rhylor. “Where would that be?” she asked him. He put a finger on his lower lip, looking for all the world like a meteor was going to fall out of the sky.
“I believe it’s just down the road,” he replied eventually. “There’s a large yellow sign that says ‘Rong-nom ca Soo’than’.”
“That is to say, ‘Soothan’s Smithy’.” His gaze sank to the meticulously placed white stones beneath him. “I’m sorry,” he said, seemingly to nobody. “I’ve been around people like me for so long, and I usually forget that there are other people about.”
“Don’t worry about—”
“I tend to forget,” he continued on; “that not everybody is a Gerodathian, or a Sycracian. I forget about the Elvins, the Dassinthi, the Khontics—everyone almost! Oh, my. I’m quite a sheltered person, aren’t I?”
The following moments saw the boys and Ardray staring blankly at him, rather dumbly drinking in his odd expression.
“No…” Solnel told him slowly. Rhylor flashed him a rather quick smile, and they soon found themselves in front of the smithy he had told them of. A terribly garish mustard-yellow half-moon banner flew in front of it, and its letters were in a black ink on the fabric. They entered the store.
The first thing there was a staircase, so they had to tether their horses to a tall post just outside the door. That staircase led into a swooping room with circular walls were the actual smithing took place. Once again, there was that unmistakable smell of cats—and the sound that accompanied it. Meowing, purring and yowling were all a part of the ambiance as well as the steady clanging of metal on red-hot metal.
Rhylor called a greeting down the flight of stairs. A deep, but friendly, voice bellowed a similar response up. Rhylor seemed to be a familiar with the voice, so he motioned for them to follow him down the stairs. Garril noted that the steps were doused with water and slightly warped; he tread carefully on them.
There was a bright, angrily glowing forge centered right in the middle. The temperature of the room became noticeably hot, almost to the point of intolerable. The immense monk’s robes that Garril, Solnel and Ardray wore were proving to become a kind of nuisance.
“You seem to be hot in those,” the smith said in a smooth accent. “You can take them off and put them over there.” They did not argue, and almost cheerily, they tore out of the heavy wool robes and tossed them to the side. Their white camisoles underneath were mostly wrinkled and smelled of sweat.
“What is it you’re here for?” the smith asked next, not looking up from the long curved blade he was hammering away at.
“I want to fix a blade onto this staff,” Ardray told him, extending the end of her wooden staff to him. With his large rough hands, he took the whole thing from her grasp—rather abruptly, she noted—and rolled it in his hand a few times. “Can you do something about it?” she asked. The smith pondered, fixing hard his gaze onto the length.
“This is much too long to be a good spear,” he murmured. “So I assume you’ll want a bladed staff?”
“Yes!” she replied with an unthinking enthusiasm. The smith gave one hard, finalizing pound onto the curve of the blade he was working on, and he dunked it in a barrel of room-temperature brine. It hissed and sputtered angrily; the heat was almost instantly smitten by the watery solution. They all took to unknowingly watching him as he carefully polished and sharpened the blade, until maybe an hour later, he had a beautiful shining blade.
“It’s amazing,” Vankesa noted, unconsciously shifting the weight of the two blades on his belt.
“Thank you,” the blacksmith replied modestly, yet holding the blade out in front of him. Ardray’s eyebrows then screwed in the middle, as was customary when she pondered something.
“That isn’t for me, is it?” she asked him.
“It isn’t,” the blacksmith said with some regret. “It’s for a man who’s planning to make his daughter into a warrior.” Ardray’s head sank a little, not in crestfallenness, but in pondering. She reached into the purse hanging on her side and drew out three large silvery-gold coins.
“I’ll pay you six hundred cintu to make me one,” she offered with a stern confidence. The smith stared at the coins in her hand, then her fiery gray eyes.
“Won’t be enough,” he replied negligently. “Eight hundred.”
“Seven,” she continued.
“Seven-fifty.” She gave him a smile that was sweet yet chillingly frigid at the same time.
“Six hundred and fifty cintu,” she said; “and I won’t tell the authorities of those hazardously warped stairs you have.” The blacksmith gaped at her; an incredulous babble seizing his lips.
“You wouldn’t!” he gasped. Ardray gave him that same smile.
“I would. And with a passion.” The blacksmith grumbled, taking the cintu from her hands and shoving it into his pocket. He reached down, taking a pot and a block of steel, and started to melt the steel over the immensely hot forge.
“I’m being robbed before my own eyes,” he muttered.
“Observant,” Vankesa remarked rather clinically.
“I’ll have your blade ready in a few hours. Come back here before the sun goes down and you’ll have a new weapon.” The blacksmith continued to observe the slowly-melting block of steel.
Ardray gave him a tight lipped smile; “I knew you’d see it my way,” she said in an airy voice. The blacksmith gave her a critical look, and then his frosty-blue eyes wandered idly to the weapons that Vankesa, Garril and Solnel had. He noted the appearance of them, as if taking into account the number of years of their use.
“Those swords,” he said, jerking a weather-worn finger toward Garril’s blade. “They’re so worn.” Garril uneasily looked at the blade in his arm. The smith was right—his sword had become increasingly dulled from lack of use. Those years at the monastery had made the thing jaded and a bleary gray color. The blacksmith motioned his hand for Garril to give him the sword. He did that; the smith examined the thing thoroughly. Almost unconsciously, Vankesa and Solnel also handed him their weapons. They glimmered dully with a ruddy shine in the light of coals.
“This will not do,” he murmured. “It will not. Tell you what. Leave this with me and you’ll have a fine piece of weaponry on your hands by sundown.” Garril gave him a wide, mildly emotional grin; the first one he’d given in years.
“Thank you!” Garril replied, not even noticing the emotive in his voice.
The blacksmith smiled faintly; “For a price,” he said dryly.
Shortly before noon the day after Tarja and Elinan had found themselves in the company of the flighty Raakel, there was a large banquet that took place in the house that was roughly a palace for the little man. Laid out on the long table, there was a large fat turkey dressed with sweet-smelling berries and a white sauce. Large pewter goblets were at every chair, as was a large plate and a number of odd-looking forks. A number of spices made Elinan’s mind dance with a strange drunkenness. She seemed to be the only one affected.
She was seated at the right-hand side of the Eliista, with Tarja to her left and her brother Artturi to her right. The three of them were dressed in the rippled Tulla tunics—they sort of resembled butterfly’s wings and were in a soft orange shade. Raakel himself was dressed in a more opulent green one, with many more…to say the least, it was just more.
“Kanalai pohjista, tulutuppan,” the bright Eliista said to the whole table. He took a quick glance at Elinan and smiled briefly. “Welcome, beloved guests,” he translated. “At este toon holka dittiri, ja moritt este juulan raviiensiisoito. It is my pleasure to announce that this day is especially important.”
A fervent round of applause rippled throughout the crowd. They cheered and looked all in Tarja’s direction. It occurred suddenly to Elinan that they, being the second-most impressively dressed, were the guests of honor Raakel was hinting at.
“Ja moritt este tuvu juulan raviiensiisoito,” Raakel began again; “kahtenan uli mas Vattiksi herootta en ja munda.”
Now, a shocked gasp befell the crowd. Their eyes were wide in a sort of entranced disbelief. Elinan noted that Artturi was smiling with a fierce half-arrogance; Tarja with a mad rose flush creeping into her face.
“What’s going on?” Elinan asked Artturi.
“It’s Tarja,” he replied. “She’s a Vattiksi, and the Vattiksi family has always been respected for the fine craft of sorcery.”
“Oh.” Elinan let her gaze travel across the table. She drank in the faces of all the people, who were gazing at the dark-haired woman in an otherworldly reverence. One young man at the far end of the table even had unashamed tears showing in his eyes. It was as if he regarded the woman with a certain perfect beauty—despite her scarred face.
“Tarja Vattiksi, welcome back to our family,” Raakel said in a voice near tears. As if seeing that crying young man on the far end had triggered something inside of him as well. He reached over and gave Tarja an openly-affectionate hug. The way his tiny frame pressed against hers wrenched Elinan’s heartstrings.
“Thank you, Eliista Raakel,” Tarja said—trying badly to conceal her emotion. She pulled slowly away from him and drew herself up rigidly in her seat.
“You may eat now,” Raakel announced in a booming voice that seemed unnatural as it came from his lips.
Everybody in their seats simultaneously reached over and attacked the roast chicken with forks and knives. Bits and pieces of the peppered beast were gone in a matter of seconds. Elinan noted that the Tulla ate rather little—they took their food in little morsels of what they could eat for the moment. However, she was famished. She had not eaten—let alone seen—food like this in years. So, without the warning nor consent, she took out at least a third of the turkey. Tarja threw a cold leer at her; Artturi intercepted that by laughing rather heartily.
“Leave her be, Tarja,” he said. “She a poor emaciated thing and one can’t be afraid to sacrifice appearances for satisfaction of hunger.” Elinan continued eating voraciously, all the while Tarja kept a stern icy look at her brother. Then she sighed and gave in; proceeding to cut rather meticulously into her well-seasoned chicken.
“So tell us again,” Raakel said after a while; “about your encounter with the former Prince Garril of our fair land.”
“Yes, Eliista,” she replied automatically. “But I’m getting awfully tired of this story, so listen well.
“Five years ago, in September, was the month of my nephew’s banishment. He would not tell me why, but I did not bother to ask."
And she continued with her story, recalling everything in those two awful years. The banquet served well into the day. Many of the guests ate rather little, but were instead watching intently as Elinan—and reasonably enough, Tarja—gorged themselves near to bursting.
“Why, sister,” Artturi said with a smirk; “if I didn’t see you put away that chicken, I’d say you’d have eaten the whole Cathreina range.” Tarja felt too full to answer with something icy or even slap him to make him be quiet.
“That was a very delicious luncheon,” Elinan said to Raakel—who, too, was watching she and Tarja in amazement.
“Don’t thank me!” Raakel chuckled. “Thank the cook. The reason you’re all stuffed is him.” Raakel gently waved his gold-crowned staff toward a nearby man who was dressed in a bright green robe and apron. The cook answered Elinan’s unvoiced manner of thanks with a polite inclination of his head. Then, he disappeared behind a large door.
“Now,” Raakel said seriously; “there’s a matter of importance that needs attending.” Tarja stared at the Eliista.
“Where?” she asked. “And why?”
“Sycracia. Van Mara to be precise.”Raakel’s brow scrunched in the middle. “The King of Gerodathia is visiting there today, and the Duke of Van Mara has asked me to come sing for him. Unfortunately, I’ve got matters in Elvinia that must attend to, and they are of an even graver importance.”
“What does that have to do with…?” Tarja’s eyes went rather wide; a flush crept slowly into her already-pale cheeks. Twice now, she blushed. Raakel nodded, with a sly smile on his face.
“Absolutely not!” the sorceress fumed. “I won’t do it!” Tarja crossed her arms and turned away from him in her seat. She had a vicious pout on her crimson face. Raakel opened his mouth to speak; there was an irritated kind of frown about him.
“Don’t be childish, Tarja,” Artturi said for the Eliista. “Raakel is busy, and I’m sure he’s wasted enough time here trying to feed us. You’re the only one he can count on.” At that moment, both Artturi and Raakel crossed their arms and gave her a hard stare. Gradually, she turned around; the childish pout still not gone from her face.
“Do I have to?” she asked in a conceding tone.
“Yes, Tarja,” Raakel said firmly—gently. “Don’t you worry yourself about it. You’re one of the strongest singers I know.” A little smile came on his face. “Well, after me of course.”
“Thanks,” she said, casting him a withering look. She sighed dejectedly—a lost sigh, save for the hint of relief noted there. “Do you really think that? That I’m a good singer?”
“I don’t think so,” Raakel told her softly. “I know so. You’re a Vattiksi, woman! And what is a Vattiksi but a master of songs? As well as a master of sorcery.”
“That, you’re right about,” Artturi remarked brightly. “All right, so when does this thing take place?” The Eliista cast a slow look toward an enormous clock decorated with colorful plaster butterflies.
“It starts in seven hours,” he replied. “I’m afraid I don’t know how long it will take for you to get to Van Mara though. You’d have to cross a forest and a large valley. There’s also all that snow. Do you think you’ll make it in seven hours?”
“We will,” Tarja said. “We should leave now, to make some time. Thanks for lunch.” Raakel inclined his head politely, and with a florid swish, he waved his staff toward the wall. A side door that was not there was suddenly there, and the three of them exited.
“Good luck, children!” Raakel called to them before the door vanished into a cloud of bright butterflies.
“That man has a strange penchant for butterflies,” Artturi noted in amused voice.
“Yes,” Elinan responded; “but after all, butterflies are pretty creatures. And Raakel sure is pretty.”
The three of them walked out toward the front of the building. The front folds of their wing-like tunics ghosted softly around their legs in an ethereal manner. Curiously enough, it was the first thing that a nearby man noticed, all the while saddling a large white horse.
“Artturi.” The man inclined his head. “And Tarja. Good aft. Raakel told me ready the horses for your departure.”
“He told you right, old boy,” Artturi replied, taking a rein of an already prepared horse. “We’re to depart for Van Mara as soon as we can.” The groom stared at him.
“Van Mara is rather far,” he mused. “You’d have to cross a forest and a large—”
“Yes,” Tarja said shortly. “We know.”
She jumped on the back of one horse with a fluid grace about her. Elinan pulled herself up on the one the groom had finished saddling. He nodded to them, and the three of them wordlessly started at a slow walk down the gritty mountain trail to the Caspedile Road and the pestilent memories that waited eagerly below.