Journey to the West

                                                                                 By Bert McKenzie 

                                                                                  Copyright 2010

 

 


Chapter XVI

Dannemel was obviously frightened.  In the first place he really didn't
trust the people who had forcibly brought him back to his own land.  It
might indeed be a trap and a way to give him back to the overseers.  He
knew they would torture him unmercifully before he was put to death.  In
the second place Maggie, the human girl he cared about who had given him
shelter, friendship, and even love, had been pulled to this world with him.
And now something was wrong with her.

"Relax, she just fainted," Jennifer said as she examined the girl.  "It was
probably the shock of coming here.  I think she still believed we were from
Nicaragua."

"Can you help her?" Dannemel asked, the nervous concern plain in his voice.

"We'll take care of her," Jennifer said as she and Calendra lifted the girl
and placed her on a nearby reclining platform.  "You've got a job to do
here."  Rood and Scott grabbed the protesting boy and pulled him out of the
door.

* * *

"Back off, Jack," Sharon growled as she pulled out the silver dagger that
Akuta had given her for her own protection.  The little old dwarf's eyes
widened in anger and surprise.  "I'm not interested in you and I'm sure as
hell not going to be your mate!"

"Ye showed ye interest," Korbod said.  "Ye made eye contact with me.  Ye
even did so while ye mate was still with us, though he knew it not."

"Oh shit," Sharon mumbled to herself.  Now she understood why Akuta kept
telling her to keep her eyes down.  In this culture the eye contact between
men and women was an open invitation to a lot more.  "I don't care what you
think I did," she argued.  "I am not interested."

Korbod smiled and took a step nearer, but Sharon only raised the dagger
higher so it gleamed in his face.  The dwarf froze and slowly his smile
faded into a look of pure anger.  He moved more quickly than she ever would
have thought someone of his build and size could.  The little man reached
around, knocking the dagger from her hand and then jerking her feet out
from under her until Sharon was sprawled on the ground with him standing
over her.  "If I wanted ye, I would take ye...by force," he said as he
looked down at the doctor.  "Ye invite me as ye own, and then reject me
when I act accordingly.  It is said humans be demons in disguise.  I shall
have no more of ye.  I shall sell ye at the auction on the morrow."

"Sell me?" Sharon said, sitting up as the little man waddled away toward
the cave entrance.  "But you promised Akuta that you would protect me until
he returned."

Korbod turned back to look at her briefly.  "That tall one be dead.  No one
enters Turin Kareem to return alive."  He then pulled the curtaining
material aside and stepped out, leaving Sharon alone to ponder her fate.

* * *

"It is told in the old legends and stories that you succeeded," Akuta said.
He was sitting at a magnificent banquet table discussing immortality with
Gilgamesh, lord of the dead.  "It is told that you returned from this
island with the secret and carried it back to your own village."

"And is it told in this story how I lost that secret?" Gilgamesh asked.

"Yes," Akuta replied, looking down at the plate of fresh fruit in front of
him.  He had tasted it and was amazed that it had no flavor, like eating
something without substance.  "The stories say that a water sprite in the
guise of a serpent stole the secret from you before you could use it."

"It is true," his host told him.  Gilgamesh then leaned back in his chair
and began to tell a story.  It was remarkably similar to Akuta's own
adventure.  He had a friend who was more than a friend, a soul mate whom he
loved very deeply.  His lover, named Enkidu, was taken ill one day and died
suddenly.  Gilgamesh was inconsolable, and swore that he would journey to
the western islands to wrest the secret of immortality from Utnaphishtim,
the ruler of the dead.  He thought only to use the secret on Enkidu to
revive him.  After many adventures he finally arrived at the island only to
be rebuffed by the old ruler.  But Utnapishtim's wife took pity on
Gilgamesh and told him where to find the secret.  He took it and returned
to his own land, but just as he was nearing home, he paused to rest near a
well.  A water sprite living in the well stole the secret and returned to
the great waters of the ocean taking the secret along with it.  Gilgamesh
was left to return home empty handed.  "And Enkidu was still as dead," the
man concluded.  "Know you the rest of the tale?"

Akuta shook his head.

"I was forced to live a very long and very lonely life," the lord of the
island said.  "Only after I was old and infirm and had suffered a lingering
and painful death was I able to return to this land and rejoin my loved
one."  He reached out his arm to grasp the hand of the man who had guided
Akuta to the temple.

"Then you to are natural reversals?" Akuta asked, more as an observation
than a question.  "The old tales do not speak of this."

"We were reluctant to be separated again, even for the short span of a
physical lifetime," Enkidu said.  "Thus when Utnapishtim decided it was
time for him to return to the land of life my love took his place as lord
of this land."

"It is not the same as in your world," Gilgamesh was quick to add.  "I rule
not, so much as I welcome and pass on the new arrivals to this land.  They
come by thousands on a daily basis."

Akuta began to ask a question, but a huge lump seemed to form in his throat
choking off the words.  Enkidu shook his head sadly.  "I know what you ask,
but I think he is not here."

"He was human, was he not?" Gilgamesh responded.  "We sometimes see them.
But surely as many as there are, they must have other places to go.  I have
heard tales from Utnapishtim before he returned of a land of light above
the clouds to which humans returned at death.  He may be there.  But even
if he were here, we could not know him.  There are changes when one
arrives.  The old life is washed away and the new life begins.  With humans
it is much more dramatic than with us."

"Then I must take the secret back and restore him," Akuta said.  "It is the
only way for us ever to be together."

Gilgamesh and Enkidu rose and stepped around the table.  "Your task is
futile," Gilgamesh said as gently as possible.  "You must either return to
your world and live, or stay here and join us in death."  The tall blond
looked up at the two beautiful men from his seat and then dropped his head
in his hands and wept bitterly.  Huge sobs racked his body as he gave in to
his disappointment and despair.  Gilgamesh held back, feeling uncomfortable
with the strong emotions of this living man, but his lover reached down to
hold Akuta.  He gently embraced the sobbing fairy, whispering words of
comfort.

"Remember when you were thus?" Enkidu asked as he looked up at his lover.
"We cannot leave him in such despair."

"What would you have of me?" Gilgamesh asked softly.

"Tell him what he wishes to know.  It will ease his pain."

"No," the lord of the island protested.  "It may ease his pain now, but it
will only double when he returns to his land without the knowledge he
craves.  No matter how hard he tries, he will not be able to hold on to the
secret.  It is not meant for his world and it will find some means of
returning, if not by water sprites as happened before, then by some other
conveyance."

"There may be another way," Enkidu said softly.

"Please, let me try?" Akuta said, looking up through his tear filled eyes.

"I add my entreaty to his, Gil," Enkidu said.

The king gave a deep sigh and threw his arms up in a gesture of submission.
"Very well," he agreed.  "But when your heart breaks as did mine so many
seasons before you, perhaps you shall remember that I tried to spare you
this pain.  Having visited this land in your living form, death will not
take you until long after it normally would.  You shall outlive all your
friends and pray for the end which will be withheld as death teases and
taunts you."

He then reached down and pulled Akuta up to stand facing him.  "And one
more burden you must accept.  The one who broke our solemn laws by bringing
you here must be banished."  Gilgamesh led the fairy out of the trees and
back to the spot where the skeleton ferryman awaited.  "This transgressor
once was human.  He served as my boatman to earn admission to this island,
and very nearly won it.  Now that he has transported a living being where
none may go, he will be banished.  I charge you with the deed of returning
him to his own world.  An animated corpse he will be until one who loves
him performs the ultimate sacrifice."

"You would have me return to the land of humans with a living skeleton?"
Akuta asked in amazement.

"Is it too much to ask in payment for the secret I shall impart?  Once you
have returned him to his home world, you may allow him his freedom to
wander where he will.  Until then he must stay with you always."

Akuta bowed his head.  "I accept your conditions, my lord.  Nothing is too
great a price to pay for your assistance in my quest."

"You may not always feel so," the deep voice of Gilgamesh said.

Akuta looked up to see only Enkidu standing there.  "My loved one has
others he must greet.  Come with me."  He led Akuta and the ferryman
through the columned temple, across the stone bridge and back along the
walkway through the green forest.  They soon descended the winding stairs
back to the rock harbor.  Once there the skeleton readily climbed back into
his craft and took up his position at the oars.  Akuta hesitated, looking
confused.  This brought a light chuckle from Enkidu.  "Be not alarmed.  You
shall have what you desire.  Your companion shall take you to the lagoon of
eternity.  Once there, you must dive beneath the waves and retrieve the
blossom of the ocean's rose.  This simple flower will perform the task you
want."

"What shall I with this blossom when I have it?" Akuta asked.

"Touch the flower to the lips of your beloved.  He shall then live again.
Remember that it shall restore life to anything dead."  As Enkidu spoke
these words his body seemed to fade to the same transparency as the
gossamer robe he wore.  Akuta could easily see the stone wall behind him by
looking through him.  "Farewell, my friend," the rapidly fading man called.
"I am certain we shall meet again here many seasons hence when you return
to stay."  With that he was gone.

* * *

Robin sat on the crystal throne, a great chair that was carved from pure,
polished quartz.  He was wearing his royal finery, a white short tunic with
golden embroidery and long golden cape, the entire picture completed by the
jeweled band of metal that crowned his white blond hair.  He sat tensely
forward on the stone, the cold, glasslike surface chilling his bare thighs,
but the woolen breeches were not a part of the official uniform of his
position.  As he waited the oversized doors were opened and a small group
of four delegates from the blue tower were escorted in.  Robin noted that
Lastel was not among them, which in itself constituted a serious breach in
protocol as well as a personal insult to the throne.  The four men crossed
the throne room floor and stopped before the crystal stairway that led up
to the throne.  They bowed low, obviously trying to make up for the affront
of their missing leader.  Robin stared at them coldly for a minute,
allowing their discomfiture to grow, and then he spoke.  "Why is not the
leader of the blue tower here when he petitions an audience?"

"My lord, we were sent by Lastel, king of the blue tower, to speak with you
in his stead," one of the four said nervously.

"So now he is a king?" Robin mused partly to himself and partly to Rowana
who stood on the platform beside the throne in the position of his aide.
"We were unaware that a coronation had taken place in the blue tower.  Had
we know we would have attended," he said aloud to the delegation.  "And why
has not 'King' Lastel come to speak for himself?"

"His majesty refused to come to your tower, my lord, for he fears that what
evil has befallen your servant and his kinsman, the boy Dannemel, may
befall any others who enter your audience chamber," the spokesman replied.
He kept his head down and refused to look up while he recited his words
from memory.  "His majesty pleads that you return his kinsman and he shall
withdraw peacefully from the blue tower and this kingdom."

"His kinsman is a free Tuathan and it is not for us to keep or return him,"
the king said with a strong air of authority.

"If the boy is not presented then we must presume that he no longer lives.
If this is the case then the western alliance must avenge the poor
treatment and murder of their kinsman."

Robin slowly stood, allowing his anger to lift and fill him.  "You would
dare accuse your high king of murder?"  His voice thundered the question.
The arrogant delegation from the blue tower all fell to the floor,
prostrating themselves at the foot of the wide staircase.  "Rise and look
upon us," the king ordered using the magic of command in his voice.  The
four delegates were powerless to refuse and quickly stood, looking up at
the angry figure towering over them at the top of the stairs.  "You will
leave now and return to that fool who would be king.  Tell him and his
followers to be prepared to meet with us in the main courtyard outside of
this tower when the sun reaches its zenith.  So too shall the assembled
high council meet there as witness.  He may then make what challenges he
likes and we shall answer them.  But if he comes not, then tell him we
shall hunt him down for the vermin we believe him to be.  Now go!"

The four men fell over each other in their attempts to get out of the
throne room.  Rowana would have laughed at their exit had the situation not
been so grave.  "My lord, that was well played," she said as she stepped
close to Robin and watched the delegates hurrying off.  "The sun's zenith
is but a short time away.  What plan you?"

"I only wish I knew," Robin confessed as he breathed a deep sigh.  He then
sent the girl to convey his request to the high council that they attend
the planned meeting.  He was certain that the councilors would hear all too
soon of this challenge to Lastel.  There were enough witnesses in the
throne room to set the castle grapevine in motion, but Rowana's message
would come as an official and formal act, satisfying the local protocol.
"Gather as many of the castle guard as can be spared," Robin then told
Melcot who was temporarily subbing for Rood while the captain was away.  "I
want as strong a showing as we can make.  If I must bluff Lastel I want to
make it a good one."  Melcot nodded and dashed down the stairs after his
mate while Robin sank back on the throne to think.

* * *

The little boat pulled into the lagoon.  It was a sheltered spot of water
surrounded by high stone walls that looked as if they might have been the
inside of a volcanic cone many centuries past.  A large break in the walls
provided access to the lagoon.  Inside the air was still and the waters
calm causing only the gentlest rocking of the boat as the ocean waves
subsided once inside the confined space.  The sun was too low in the west
to do more than cast a long, narrow shaft of light which came through the
broken wall.  The limited light painted the water a dark, murky green
color.

The ferryman pulled in the oars and sat calmly, his pale skull turned
toward Akuta.  The tall blond looked into the dark water uncertainly.  "I
guess this must be the lagoon of eternity," he mumbled.  Akuta was startled
as he heard a thin, rasping in reply.  The sound came from the skeleton
sitting opposite him in the boat.  The jawbone had dropped, opening the
mouth and the sound emitted.  Akuta knew there were no lungs in the empty
chest cavity hidden by the brown robe, yet he heard the sound all the same.
As he stared at his unusual companion, it extended its thin arm bones and
one finger on the skeleton hand pointed down at the dark waters.  Akuta
understood what the ferryman was trying to convey.  He stood, being careful
not to rock the little craft, and quickly stripped off his tunic, then
doffed his pants and boots.  With a last look around, Akuta took a deep
breath and then dived over the edge and into the water.

Although the water had appeared dark and murky from the surface, once he
was under it Akuta could see perfectly.  The underwater world was as clear
and visible as if he were looking through clean air.  He could even see the
floor of the lagoon clearly in the distance beneath him.  To one side,
growing up against the stone wall of the lagoon was what looked like a
flowering rose bush.  Akuta began to swim in that direction.  As he did so
he realized that the distances in this clear water were incredibly
deceptive.  It took him quite a while to reach the flowering bush, and when
he did he realized he was nearly out of air.  Holding on for another
precious few seconds he examined the plant.  There were three or four
bright, blood red flowers growing on short, thorny stalks.  They looked
exactly like normal roses, except that the thorns were much more densely
packed on the stems, and the leaves were long and thin, like grassy
seaweed.  He noted one particularly large blossom before pushing upward and
shooting for the surface.

Akuta's head broke the water close to the lagoon wall as he gasped for air.
Had he been a human he would certainly have suffered some cramps from his
too rapid ascent, but being Tuathan, the air in his blood stream did not
act the same as a human's would.  He looked over to see his skeleton
companion begin rowing the little boat in his direction.  Akuta took
another lungful of air and dived straight down to the strange aquatic
plant.

As he reached his destination he noticed that it was growing darker, no
doubt due to the setting sun high above.  The blossoms on the undersea rose
bush appeared to be closing up with the waning light.  If he didn't act
right away he would have to wait until the next day to obtain the flower.
There was only one blossom still open and flowering.  Akuta reached for it,
and then jerked his hand back in pain.  The densely packed thorns did not
leave any space for his fingers where they would not be pricked.  He again
gently tried to pick the flower, gritting his teeth and gripping the thorny
stalk.  The fiber was tough and he was without a knife to slice through the
stem, so he had to apply all that much more pressure, forcing the painfully
sharp thorns deep into his flesh.  Akuta would have given up, but he
noticed that this last bloom was also beginning to shrink in size as it
prepared to close up in darkness.  The water surrounding it was growing
ever darker because of the blue blood staining it form the fairy's wounded
hand.  His lungs were again screaming for air and he knew he could not hold
out much longer.  Planting his bare feet on the rock wall behind the bush,
he gave one last, painful tug, and the stem snapped in his hand.  Still
clutching the thorny flower tightly, blood streaming out behind him, he
once again shot upward to the surface.

As Akuta's head broke the still water, he saw the reed boat close by.  He
swam to it and tried to pull himself in, but in the process he almost
overturned the tiny craft.  It rode extremely low in the water with him
aboard.  Now it would be impossible for him to climb in from the water
without tilting and swamping the little craft.  The skeleton extended its
arm to help him into the boat, but Akuta knew that even with the help the
craft would tip too much.  He waved the hand away and ordered, "Just row
out of here and back to the shore."

The skull turned toward him and again emitted that rasping sound.  It then
applied itself to the oars and moved the boat out toward the open sea.
Akuta clung to the stern with one hand and trailed along behind, still
clutching the limp red flower in his other hand which continued to bleed
and sting.

 

 

 

 

 

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