Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 


Chapter VIII

Someone was following him.  He could tell.  Whoever it was, the follower
was not far behind.  The sounds were of only one horse, so it wasn't a
large party from the castle as he had expected.  Either some lone person
was coincidentally traveling in the same direction, or it might be one of
his friends coming to try to talk him out of his mission.  Akuta was not
sure what to do.  Should he hide or turn and fight.  Hiding would only be
effective if it was a coincidental traveler.  Otherwise, the lone friend
would just continue to search for him.  If he turned to fight, he would be
battling a friend and associate, maybe even his sworn liege.  But better
that than to give up his quest and return to the palace.  Better to kill a
friend with his own sword than return and watch his loved one turn to ashes
on the funeral pyre.

The road he took wound around tall rock formations and through small
canyons in the foothills of the Crystal Mountain range.  This was why Akuta
could hear but not see his pursuer.  He pulled his horse to the side of the
marked roadway and hid behind a large outcropping of stone.  Drawing his
sword, he waited in ambush.

In the early morning light Sharon had one glimpse of a rider in the
distance before the road turned north and into the rocky foothills again.
She knew the man she was following was riding ahead of her, so she urged
her mount to greater speed in hopes of overtaking him.  Unfortunately she
had to slow down as rider and horse entered the twists and turns caused by
the rocky outcrops.  They came around a sharp bend and her horse skidded to
a stop, rearing on its hind legs in surprise.  Akuta sat tall on the back
of his steed, sword drawn and prepared to strike.  An equal amount of
surprise registered on his face as he recognized his pursuer.

"God, you startled me," Sharon said as she tried to calm her mount.  She
looked up at him and noticed the sharp blade in his hand.  "Are you going
to attack me, or did you think I was one of the trolls you went hunting
for?"

"Why follow you me?" he demanded angrily.

"I asked you if I could join you," she said lamely.

"I told you I wish to be alone."

"And you told the gate men you were taking a royal message to the east
border guards.  I must say, this seems to be a roundabout way of getting
there."  Sharon stared defiantly back at the elf as he sat impassively on
his horse.

"What I tell others concerns you not," he finally said as he replaced his
sword in its sheath at his side.  "Return to the palace."

"I thought fairies didn't lie," she added, not making any move.  "And what
did you do with the tower door guards?"

Akuta's eyes widened slightly.  Obviously, this human was no fool.  "They
will be alright.  They were not severely hurt."

"Just like the girl at the worship grounds when you stole Alex's body?"

Now Akuta was really concerned.  He didn't know the watcher had been a
female, but this woman did.  She apparently knew his every move.  If she
knew where he hid the body she could return and have it destroyed, ruining
any chance for a successful conclusion to his quest.  She had been in the
white tower.  He had spoken to her in the great hall just after hiding
Alex.  She must have seen.  "Why follow you me?" he repeated a bit more
insistently, placing his hand again on the hilt of his sword.

"Where are you going?  What are you up to?  I want to know," the woman
demanded.

The fairy shrugged his shoulders and climbed down to the ground, leading
his horse along the road as he walked.  "What care you?" he asked
rhetorically.

Sharon dismounted and walked along beside him.  "I care," she said.  "We
all care."

"You have come to talk me from my mission.  If truly you cared you would
help me, not dissuade me."

"Okay," she said.  "I won't try to talk you out of anything.  But I just
want you to look at yourself.  You aren't acting rationally.  You've lied;
you've attacked men who were your friends and co-workers; you've threatened
me with a sword.  Is this really what you want to be?"

She looked over in time to catch sight of a single tear running down his
pale cheek.  "No," he said quietly.  "Cannot you see?  I have no choice.
Either I bring Alex back the gift of life or I join him in death.  I only
ask for help from my friends and I only receive the cold refusal of
enemies."

"Akuta, remember when we first met?" Sharon said softly.  "I helped you
escape from the military men in my world and we went to hide out at my
lakeside cabin.  You were the first real fairy I ever knew, and you trusted
me then."

"I remember," he replied.

"Remember how you looked in my eyes and were able to read my thoughts.  I
can't lie to you; I'm not trying to hurt you.  I only want to help."

The fairy stopped and dropped the reins of his horse.  He slowly reached
out, touching his fingers to her temples and looking deeply into her eyes.
Sharon stared back, into the two aquamarine pools surrounding dark black
islands.  She felt as if she were falling into those deep eyes; her
thoughts, her dreams, her very soul opened to him.  Then just as suddenly,
she was again standing on a rocky roadway, looking at the sad face of a
friend while their horses nibbled at some dead vegetation nearby.  Sharon
fell forward into his arms, hugging him and sobbing into his chest.  In
that brief contact she was completely overwhelmed by the intense sorrow, a
grief to the point of despair.  If this was how he felt, how did the man
bear it?  She felt that she could just lie down and die on the spot.

Even in his own pain, Akuta managed to put his arms around the girl and
comfort her, holding her gently until the shock of their joining eased a
bit and she slowly began to grow quiet.  Then he spoke.  "How empty you are
with no belief to guide you.  You feel my quest foolish because you believe
death is the end of all things.  I understand why you think I should
return, but you are wrong."  Sharon looked up at the tall man as he held
her.  "The western islands are no fable like your childhood stories.  They
exist.  Caseldra has given me an old page from a book that tells of the
way.  I know I can find them and bring him back from death.  You shall
see."

Sharon nodded slowly.  "I know how you feel now," she said.  "I know you
have no choice."

Akuta walked her to her horse.  "You must return now," he said.  "And I
must continue my journey."

The woman shook her head.  "You shouldn't be alone.  You may need help, a
friend.  I'd...I'd like to come with you."

"No," he said.  "This is no pleasure journey.  I may not return in this
life."

"I've been a doctor," she tried to explain.  "I've seen people die before.
If I could actually see this land of the dead you're looking for, that
would really be something to live for.  I want to go."

"No," Akuta said more firmly.

"Then I go back to the castle and tell them everything I know, including
the hiding place of Alex's body," she bluffed.

"Let us ride," the fairy said without a moment's hesitation.  He helped the
doctor back onto her horse, and then lightly jumped onto his own steed.
Together they rode off to the west.

* * *

At first they thought Elnar's magic had backfired again.  The needle never
seemed to move from its eastern direction no matter where they went in the
surrounding area.  But then Caseldra was the one to point out that if
Dannemel had traveled very many miles to the east they would only seem to
get that general direction.  To Scott the solution then became simple.
They needed a big map and they needed to travel a great distance to the
north and south to triangulate on the location.  Scott and Rood packed up
their magic compass and hopped a commuter plane to Chicago where they took
a reading and plotted it on their map.  Then the two flew to New Orleans
where they met Jennifer and Caseldra.  Taking another reading they drew
intersecting lines.  Soon the four of them were boarding a plane for New
York which seemed to be in the general area of the intersection.  In a few
hours Scott was checking them into a hotel just off Time Square.

"So let's get going," Jennifer said as she came into the room that Scott
and Rood were sharing.  "Where's the bowl?"  Rood handed it to her and she
stepped into the bathroom to fill it with water.  Meanwhile Scott was
digging in his suitcase for the needle and cork float.  "This is going
awfully well, don't you think?" Jennifer asked.  "We're probably sure he's
in the area.  That needle shows us where, we grab him and we go home.  It's
all so simple."

"I don't think so," Scott said as he found the needle and stood up.  "It
sounds too easy.  Just remember where we are."

"Now you sound like my mother," the girl said.  "New York City is not a den
of iniquity.  It's just a big city like any other big city."

"And we just happen to be in the company of two elves and we're looking for
a runaway fairy by using a magic needle."  Scott looked at her sourly.

She smiled sweetly back.  "So get on with it," she said holding out the
bowl.  Scott put the cork in the water and they watched while it turned to
orient itself.

"What lies in this direction?" Rood asked.

"Greenwich Village, and the Hudson River," Scott replied as he looked in a
guide book.  "But we can't just walk around the streets of New York,
looking into a bowl.  People will think we're crazy."

"Come on, Scott.  We're talking New York City here.  They probably see
people walking around looking into bowls all the time," Jennifer suggested.

"Okay, Rood, get the bowl.  You two stay here.  We'll be back as soon as we
find him," Scott said.

"But my lord, I think it would be better if..." Caseldra began.

"Stay here.  That's an order.  Got it?"  The little fairy opened her mouth
to argue, but a glance from Rood made her remain silent.

The two men grabbed their coats, their Tuathan Compass and headed down to
the street to find a cab.  In a little while they were being driven
downtown by a streetwise oriental man named Chan Loo.  Rood held the bowl
of water in his lap while the two of them watched the needle and cork bob
and bounce with the cab's movement.  Just as they stopped at a red light,
Rood poked Scott to get his attention.  The needle swung rapidly around to
point in the direction from which they had just come.  "What can it mean?"
Scott asked.

"He must be close by and moving rapidly past us," Rood answered as he
peered out of the windows.

"The subway!" Scott exclaimed.  "It runs right up this street, or at least
under it."  He leaned forward.  "Driver, we need to go back to our hotel.
We forgot something."

"We forgot nothing," Rood corrected him, loudly.

"Yes, we did, we forgot something."

"What is it we forgot?" Rood asked, then, "My lord, why did you kick my
leg?"

Scott turned to his friend and said, "Rood, shut up."

As the cab traveled back through Time Square the needle swung around again.
"We have just passed him," Rood announced.  Scott asked the driver to pull
over and they got out.  After receiving his money, the man just shook his
head at the two weirdoes and drove off into the busy street.

"Let's go," Scott said and turned in time to see a couple of teenage kids
running down the crowded sidewalk.  As they ran by, one boy deliberately
hit the bottom of the bowl, knocking it out of Rood's hands and into the
air.  The water splashed on several nearby pedestrians as the contents
spilled while the bowl flipped.  The cork with its magic needle fell to the
ground and disappeared in the crowd.  Rood and Scott both dropped to the
pavement looking for it while the passersby totally ignored them or gave
them dirty looks because they were blocking the walkway.  "There it is,"
Scott said as he spotted the small object.  He and Rood both reached for it
at the same time, and both were but a moment too late.  Someone's foot
kicked the cork as the people continued to walk around the two on the
ground.  The little object skidded across the pavement and bounced over the
edge of the curb and into a storm drain.

"Where goes this small tunnel?" Rood asked anxiously as the two peered into
the dark slot in the cement.

"The sewer system and probably the ocean," Scott said.  It looked as if
they were out of business as far as their search went.

"Can we not enter this sewer system?" Rood questioned.

"It's hopeless," Scott replied.  "We'd never find it.  There's miles of
drains and tunnels."  He felt totally frustrated at being stopped now.
"Damn!  We were so close."

"Then let us search without magic," his friend said.  "We know the last
direction pointed out."

"In a city of seven million people?  We don't have a chance."

"Not while we stand here, my lord."  The two men moved off down the street
in the direction that had previously been indicated.

* * *

Although Sharon Gates had lived among the elves for nearly three months,
she had never been totally alone with one individual for such an extended
length of time as she was now.  She and Akuta had ridden west for about a
week, and most of that time had been spent in silence.  She wasn't sure if
this was natural or if Akuta was so very quiet because of his emotional
trauma.  She tried to engage him in conversation a few times, but each
attempt met with only the briefest of responses.  So she sank into private
thoughts and gave up trying.  She knew she was a hindrance to the fairy,
but he never complained.  They lived off the land, eating a variety of
plants that they encountered along the way.  When these were scarce, Akuta
resorted to small game brought down by his bow.  He allowed Sharon to clean
and dress the rabbits he shot while he meditated or sang the song of the
dead by way of apology for taking the animals' lives.  When night fell, the
two of them halted and Akuta stood watch while Sharon slept.

Then one day, Akuta halted suddenly, his entire body a picture of alert
wariness.  "What is it? Sharon asked.  "What's wrong?"

"Be quiet," he ordered in a wind whisper.  He suddenly jumped down from his
horse and ran to the top of the little hill that followed along the right
side of the roadway.  As he approached the summit he dropped down and
crawled cautiously to peek over the top without being seen.  The fairy
watched for a time, and then quickly ran back to the horses where Sharon
waited.  "Make no sound," he told her sternly, still using the silent wind
whisper so that she alone could hear him.  He quickly mounted and led the
way down the road at a fast pace, but also a silent one.  The whole time,
Akuta kept glancing over his shoulder.  Sharon followed his gaze but saw
nothing unusual.

They had gone about thirty yards when Akuta stopped them.  Sharon turned to
look, but Akuta spoke to her again.  "Move not, nor breathe if you can
stop."  She had already turned on her steed enough to see what looked like
a large, tawny wild cat on the distant hill watching them.

"It's just a mountain lion," she said as quietly as possible.  The animal
flicked his ears up and turned them in the travelers' direction.

"It is a griffin and he has heard you," Akuta replied.  "If he is alone or
well fed we may yet have a chance if we move very slowly."  The tall elf
led the two of them on an incredibly slow walk forward, never taking his
eyes from the distant beast.

"It's too far away to do us any harm," Sharon whispered.  She'd seen plenty
of mountain lions in the rocky hills where her family used to go camping
when she was a child.

At that moment the animal raised its head and opened its mouth, emitting
and eerie cry.  The sound was not at all like the snarl of a big cat, but
more like the scream of a predatory bird.  As Sharon watched, it rose up on
its four legs and the coat of its back seemed to stretch and ripple.  She
suddenly realized the animal had wings that were folded against its back,
huge, fur covered wings which it now stretched out and moved gently up and
down.

"Our quest may well end here and now," Akuta said.  "Ride like the wind
when I tell you.  Try to reach those trees."  He pointed to the edge of a
thick forest that sprang up a few hundred yards to the south across a rocky
plain.  "Now!" he shouted and slapped the rump of her mare.  Sharon's horse
jumped from the roadway and charged toward the trees in the distance.
Sharon looked over her shoulder to see Akuta following close behind.  But
what made her blood run cold was the sight of the winged mountain cat.  As
she watched it took a few running steps and leaped into the air, soaring on
the huge, fringed wings, making a direct course for them with claws
extended.

Sharon slowed her horse as she saw the beast closing in on Akuta.  "Keep
going!" he shouted.  The griffin dived, but at the last possible moment,
the fairy ducked and leaned to the side, the cat's huge claws just missing
him.  It shrieked in anger as it sailed past, wheeling in the sky and
preparing to make another dive.  Akuta knew it would not make the same
mistake twice.  Griffins learned very quickly.  He knew death was upon him
when he suddenly saw Sharon's horse stumble on the rocky terrain.  The girl
was pitched head long onto the ground.  The unusual movement caught the
predator's attention and it changed its course, diving directly for the
fallen horse.  Akuta slowed his gallop down so that he could reach Sharon,
but she wasn't moving.  He had no choice but to pull his mount to a halt
and drop to the ground beside her.

Akuta checked the girl.  She was bruised and scraped, and appeared to be
unconscious from a large bump on the head, but at least she was alive.  He
lifted her in his arms, but before he could put her on his horse, the
animal broke into a run.  Meanwhile the griffin landed on the chestnut mare
and was in the process of making a kill.  The animal was unable to attempt
an escape because of a broken leg.  Akuta ran for the trees, carrying the
girl with him and following behind his horse.  The frightened animal had
almost reached the protecting forest when several resounding cries were
heard.  Akuta looked up to see two more of the winged creatures diving down
just over the tree tops ahead.  They managed to turn the fleeing horse
around, herding it back in the opposite direction.  One of the flying cats
pounced on the terrified beast while the other dropped straight for the
fairy and his burden.  He continued to run for the trees, ignoring the
oncoming monster.  At the last possible moment he ducked his head and
dropped to the ground, the griffin's talons grabbing at empty space as it
sailed by only inches over his head.  Akuta scrambled back to his feet and
ran as fast as possible, finally diving in amongst the underbrush as he
felt his cape being pulled up.  Another of the winged cats had hooked its
claws in the soft fabric, rending it as the animal banked sharply to avoid
the dense tree trunks.

"What happened?" Sharon asked as she opened her eyes several hours later.
"Those flying animals!  Akuta!" she screamed as memories flooded back to
her.

"We are safe," he said reassuringly as he reached out to take her hand in
the darkness.

"I can't see," she said, trying to move despite the pain along the right
side of her body.

"It is night.  Also, we are in a dense wood.  Move not.  You have many
injuries which will cause hurt."

"The horses?" she asked hesitantly.

"They are gone.  We must journey on foot now," he told her.

"Are those flying cats gone too?" Sharon questioned.  "I've never seen
anything like them.  How can an animal like that even fly?  They should be
too heavy."

"They are griffins," Akuta answered her.  "They fly not as the birds, but
only use their wings to sail and glide on the air currents.  They are
generally found in higher, rocky areas where they may have lairs in
mountain caves and long drops from which to launch themselves.  This must
be a migratory pride forced to the lower lands by hunger.  We may yet have
difficulty with them.  When you are rested and healed sufficiently we shall
attempt to move on.  We may be safe in this wood.  Griffins prefer open
space where they may use their wings.  They hunt poorly when they cannot
prey from above."

The two sat in silence for a time.  Sharon shivered from the cold night air
until Akuta moved close to her.  He gently wrapped the remainder of his
tattered traveling cape around the two of them.  "Akuta," she said at last.
"I'm sorry.  I guess it was me that attracted that thing with my talking to
you.  I nearly got us killed."

"He was attracted by our scent first," the fairy said.  "We have cheated
death but another day.  Rest now.  Tomorrow we must try to escape this wood
as well as the vigilance of the griffin pride."

Sharon leaned against him enjoying the warmth of his body as he gently
folded a protective arm around her.  She could feel herself getting drowsy
again, but she didn't want to sleep.  "What are you thinking about?" she
asked, trying to make conversation.

There was a long pause before the fairy answered.  "Alex," he said at last.

"I'm sorry," she replied instantly.  "I didn't mean to ...well...I'm
sorry."

"Of what are your thoughts?" he asked in return.

She closed her eyes and let her mind wander for a minute.  "Rood," she
finally said.  "I was wondering what he was doing right now."  She
fantasized that it was Rood's chest she was using for a pillow and his arm
that held her.  Slowly, sleep crept over her bringing soft comfortable
dreams.

 

 

 

 

 

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